The Steam-Shovel Man/Chapter 1

 

THE STEAM-SHOVEL MAN

 

CHAPTER I
WALTER GOODWIN'S QUEST


A stout, elderly man stepped from a street-car on the water-front of New York and hastened toward the nearest wharf at a lumbering trot. He held in one hand a large suit-case which must have been insecurely fastened, for, as he dodged to avoid collision with other wayfarers, the lid flew open and all sorts of things began to spill out.

The weather-beaten gentleman was in such a violent hurry and his mind was so preoccupied that he failed to notice the disaster, and was leaving in his wake a trail of slippers, shirts, hair-brushes, underwear, collars, and what not, that suggested a game of hare-and-hounds. In fact, the treacherous suit-case had almost emptied itself before he paid heed to the shouts of uproarious laughter from the delighted teamsters, roustabouts, and idlers. With a snort, he fetched up to glare behind him, and his expression conveyed wrath and dismay.

This kind of misfortune, like the case of the man who sits down on his own hat, excites boundless mirth but no sympathy whatever. The victim stood stock-still and continued to glare and sputter as if here was a situation totally beyond him.

A tall lad, passing that way, jumped to the rescue and began to gather up the scattered wreckage. He was laughing as heartily as the rest of them—for the life of him he couldn't help it—but the instincts of a gentleman prompted him to undertake the work of salvage. As fast as an armful was collected, the owner savagely rammed it into the suit-case, and when this young friend in need, Walter Goodwin by name, came running up with the last consignment he growled, after fumbling in his pockets:

"Not a blessed cent of change left! Come aboard my ship and I'll square it with you. If I had time, I'd punch the heads of a few of those loafing swabs who stood and laughed at me."

"But I don't want to be paid for doing a little favor like that," said Goodwin. "And I am afraid I laughed, too. It did look funny, honestly."

"You come along and do as I tell you," rumbled the heated mariner, who had paid not the least attention to these remarks. "Do you mind shouldering this confounded bag? I am getting short-winded, and it may fly open again. Had two nights ashore with my family in Baltimore—train held up by a wreck last night—must have had a poor navigator—made me six hours late—ought to have been aboard ship this morning—I sail at five this afternoon."

He appeared to be talking to himself rather than to Walter Goodwin, who could not refuse further aid. His burly captor was heading in the direction of a black-hulled ocean-steamer which flew the bluepeter at her mast-head. Even the wit of a landsman could not go wrong in surmising that this domineering person was her commander. And for all his blustering manner, Captain Martin Bradshaw had a trick of pulling down one corner of his mouth in a half smile as if he had a genial heart and, given time to cool off and reflect, could perceive the humor of a situation.

He charged full-tilt along the wharf, and Walter Goodwin meekly followed with the sensation of being yanked at the end of a tow-rope. At the gangway a uniformed officer sang out for a steward, who touched his cap and took charge of the troublesome piece of luggage. Walter hesitated, but as the skipper pounded along the deck toward the bridge he called back:

"Make yourself at home and look about the ship, my lad. I'll see you as soon as I overhaul my papers."

The tall youth had no intention of waiting to be paid for his services, but he lived in an inland town and the deck of a ship was a strange and fascinating place. The Saragossa was almost ready to sail, bound out to the Spanish Main. Many passengers were on board. Among them were several tanned, robust men who looked as if they were used to hard work out-of-doors. As Goodwin lingered to watch the pleasant stir and bustle, one of these rugged voyagers was saying to a friend who had come to bid him good-by:

"It's sure the great place for a husky young fellow with the right stuff in him. There are five thousand of us Americans on the job, and you bet we're making the dirt fly. I was glad to get back to God's country for my six weeks' leave, but I won't be a bit sorry to see the Big Ditch again."

The other man replied with a shrug and a careless laugh:

"The United States is plenty good enough for me, Jack. I don't yearn to work in any pest-hole of a tropical climate with yellow-fever and all that. It's no place for a white man."

"Oh, you make me tired," good-naturedly retorted the sunburnt giant of a fellow. "You are just plain ignorant. Do I look like a fever-stricken wreck? High wages? Well, I guess. We are picked men. I am a steam-shovel man, as you know, and Uncle Sam pays me two hundred gold a month and gives me living quarters."

"You are welcome to it, Jack. It may look good to you, but you will have to dig the Panama Canal without me."

Walter Goodwin had pricked up his ears. The Panama Canal had seemed so remote that it might have belonged in another world, but here were men who were actually helping to dig it. And this steam-shovel man looked so self-reliant and capable and proud of his task that he made one feel proud of his breed of Americans in exile. And that was a most alluring phrase of his, "a great place for a husky young fellow."

After some hesitation the lad timidly accosted him:

"I overheard enough to make me very much interested in what you are doing. Do you think I would stand any show of getting a job on the Panama Canal?"

The stranger's eyes twinkled as he scanned Goodwin and amiably answered:

"As a rule, they don't catch 'em quite as young as you are, my son. What makes you think of taking such a long jump from home?"

"I need the money," firmly announced the youth. "And when it comes to size and strength I'm not exactly a light-weight."

"I'll not dispute it," cheerily returned the steam-shovel man. "I am a man of peace except when I'm hunting trouble. But they don't hire Americans on the Isthmus for their muscle. The Colonel—he's the big boss—has thirty thousand West Indian negroes and Spaniards on the pay-rolls to sweat with the picks and shovels. Are you really looking for a job, my boy? Tell me about it."

Walter blushed and felt reluctant to tell his troubles to a stranger. All he could bring himself to say was:

"Well, you see, I simply must pitch in and give my father a lift somehow."

"And you're not old enough to vote!" heartily exclaimed the other. "There's many a grown man that thinks himself lucky if he can buy his own meal-ticket, much less give his father a lift."

"I don't mean to talk big—" began Walter.

"It does you credit, my son. I like to see a lad carry a full head of steam. You look good to me. I size you up as our kind of folks. Yes, there are various jobs down there you might get away with. And the lowest wages paid an American employee is seventy-five dollars a month. But remember, it's a long, wet walk back from the Isthmus for a man that goes broke."

"Oh, I don't even know how I could get there. I am just dreaming about it," smiled Goodwin.

"If you do ever drift down that way, be sure to look me up, understand—Jack Devlin, engineer of steam-shovel 'Twenty-six' in Culebra Cut, and she broke all records for excavating last month."

He crossed the deck with a jaunty swagger, as if there was no finer thing in the world than to command a monster of a steam-shovel eating its way into the slope of Culebra Cut. Walter Goodwin concluded that he had been forgotten by the busy captain of the Saragossa, but just then the steward came with a summons to the breezy quarters abaft the wheel-house and chart-room. That august personage, Captain Martin Bradshaw, had removed his coat and collar, and a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles adorned his ruddy beak of a nose. Running his hands through his mop of iron-gray hair, he swung round in his chair and said, with the twist of the mouth that was like an unfinished smile:

"I think I owe you an apology. I failed to take a square look at you until we came aboard. You are not the kind of a youngster who expects a tip for doing a man a good turn. I was so flustered and stood on my beam-ends that I made a mistake."

That this seasoned old mariner could have been in such a helpless state of mind over a mishap so trifling as the emptied suit-case made Walter grin in spite of himself. At this Captain Bradshaw beamed through his spectacles and explained:

"I am afraid of my life every minute I'm ashore—what with the infernal fleets of automobiles and trolley-cars and wagons, and the crowds of people in the fairway. A ship at sea is the only safe place for a man, after all. Have a cup of tea or a bottle of ginger-ale?"

"No, thank you, sir. All I want is some information," boldly declared Walter Goodwin, turning very red, but determined to strike while the iron was hot. "Is there any way, if a fellow can't afford to pay his passage, for him to get to the Isthmus of Panama?"

"And for what?" was the surprised query. "You look as if you had a good home and a mother to sew on your buttons. Have you been reading sea-stories, or are you a young muck-raker in disguise, with orders to show the American people that the Canal is being dug all wrong?"

"No, I am thinking of trying to find a good job down there," Walter gravely declared. "I can't eat my folks out of house and home any longer. The Isthmus is a great place for a husky young fellow with the right stuff in him. I got it straight from a man who knows."

Captain Martin Bradshaw, who was a shrewd judge of manhood, replied in singularly gentle tones, as if he were thinking aloud:

"I did pretty much the same thing when I was in my teens. And I had the same reasons. I suppose if you broke the news to the folks they wouldn't be exactly enthusiastic."

"I am afraid it would take a lot of argument to convince them that I am sane and sensible," dubiously agreed Walter. "My father isn't used to taking chances, and—well, you know what mothers are, sir. Does it sound crazy to you?"

"No; just a trifle rash," and the wise skipper shook his head. "How old are you?"

"Seventeen and big for my age."

"I thought you were a year or two older. Well, you are as bold and foolish as a strapping lad of seventeen ought to be, if he has red blood in him. I'll not encourage you to run away from home. Maybe you can find a paying berth on the Isthmus, and maybe not. But it will do you no harm to try. Talk it over at home. If the bee is still in your bonnet a month from now, come to the ship and I'll give you a chance to work your passage to Colon on my next voyage."

Walter stammered his thanks, but the captain turned to rummage among the papers on his desk, as if he could give no more time to the interview. As the youth walked away from the ship, his thoughts were buzzing and his pulse beat faster than usual. The unexpected visit aboard the Saragossa had thrilled him like the song of bugles. It awakened a spirit of adventurous enterprise which had hitherto been dormant. It was calling him away to the world's frontier. Jack Devlin, the steam-shovel man, and the captain of the Saragossa had whirled him out of his accustomed orbit with a velocity that made him dizzy. They were men of action, trained in a rough school, and if Walter wished to follow the same road they were ready to lend him a hand.

He had spent three days in New York, seeking a situation at living wages. His father had given him letters to several business acquaintances, besides which he had investigated such advertisements in the newspapers as sounded promising. He discovered that boys in their teens, no matter how tall and manly they might be, were expected to sell their brains and muscle for so few dollars a week that his boyish hopes of supporting himself were clouded. The city was overcrowded, underpaid.

From the ship he went to the house in which he had lodged, and then straightway to the railroad station to return to his home town of Wolverton. His high-hearted pilgrimage to New York had been a failure in one way, but he was braced and comforted by the bright dream of winning his fortune on the far-away Isthmus. It all sounded too good to be true.

Mr. Horatio Goodwin, the father of this young knight-errant, was a book-keeper who had toiled at the same desk for twenty years in the offices of the Wolverton Mills. When a trust gained control of the plant it was promptly closed and dismantled in order to keep up prices by cutting down production. This modern instance of knocking competition on the head was satisfactory to the stockholders, but it brought desolation to the small city of Wolverton, of which the vast mills had been the industrial blood and sinews. The operatives drifted elsewhere, hopeful of finding work, but a middle-aged book-keeper, grown gray and round-shouldered before his time, is likely to find himself stranded in a business age which demands hustling young men of the brand known as "live-wires."

The Goodwins' cottage was pleasantly situated on a slope overlooking the town, but, alas, the streets no longer swarmed with tired, noisy people during the leisure hour after supper; many of the stores were untenanted behind their shuttered fronts; and the myriad windows of the mills stared blank and dead instead of twinkling like rows of jewels to greet the industrious army of the night shift. Discouragement was in the very aspect of the stagnant town, and it had begun to grip the heart of anxious Mr. Goodwin. For the present, or until he might find something better, he had taken a small position with a coal-dealer in Wolverton.

He had great possessions, however, which were not to be measured in terms of hard cash—to wit, a wife who thought him the finest, bravest gentleman in the world, and a son and daughter who held the same opinion and were desperately in earnest about trying to mend the family fortunes. Walter was half-way through his senior year in high-school and was chiefly notable for a rugged physique, a brilliant record as a base-ball pitcher, and an alarming appetite which threatened to sweep the cupboard bare. His sister Eleanor, three years younger, was inclined to be absent-minded and wrote reams of what she called poetry, a form of industry which could hardly be considered useful in a tight financial pinch.

It was in the evening of a winter's day when Walter came homing back from New York. The other Goodwins were holding a family conference, and it was like Eleanor to kiss her father's bald head and pat his cheek with such a protecting, comforting air that her mother found a glimmer of fond amusement in the midst of her worry. The affectionate lass dwelt in a world of romance and her father was a true knight daily faring forth on a quest in which she was serenely confident that he would conquer all the dragons of misfortune.

Walter had wisely concluded that the rash scheme of working his way to the Isthmus should be explained to the family with a good deal of care and tact. To break it to them suddenly would be too much like an explosion. When he tramped into the sitting-room, the welcome was as ardent as if he had been absent for months instead of days. Eleanor and her mother fluttered about him. Supper had been kept warm for him. Was he quite sure the melting snow had not wet his feet?

His father asked, when the excitement had subsided: "Well, what luck, my son?"

Assuming his best bass voice, as man to man, Walter answered: "New York is chuck-full of strong and willing lads anxious to run their legs off for four or five dollars a week. Without throwing any bouquets at myself, I think I ought to be worth more than that to somebody. You see, I couldn't pay for my board and washing, much less give the family income a boost."

"Did my letters help you?"

"Yes, I had an offer of four per from the hardware man. I told him I should have to think it over. Wolverton is as dead as a door-nail, but I can do better than that as a day laborer."

"I hate to think of your quitting school," sighed his father; "but perhaps you can graduate next year." He tried to hide his anxiety by adding quite briskly: "We have a great deal to be thankful for, and this—er—this period of business depression is only temporary, I am sure."

"I seem to be so perfectly useless," pensively murmured Eleanor. "Poetry doesn't pay at all well, even if you are a genius, and then you are supposed to starve to death in a garret."

Walter grinned and pulled her flaxen braid as a token of his high esteem.

"You are mother's little bunch of sunshine," said he, "and as first assistant house-keeper you play an errorless game."

With what was meant to be a careless manner, Walter turned to his father and exclaimed:

"Oh, by the way, I heard of something that sounded pretty good. It isn't in New York——"

"I certainly hope it is no farther away," broke in Mrs. Goodwin. "I can't bear to think of your leaving home at all."

Walter coughed rather nervously and assured her:

"Oh, I should take good care of myself and brush my teeth twice a day and say my prayers ditto, so you wouldn't have the slightest reason to worry about me. And I'd write home every week, sure."

"But couldn't you come home every week?" asked Eleanor.

"Well, hardly, sis. I have heard of the greatest place in the world for a husky young fellow with the right stuff in him. Seventy-five dollars a month, and there are various jobs I am capable of filling——"

"Is this a fairy story?" and Mr. Goodwin gazed over his glasses with a perplexed expression.

"No, sir, and the climate is healthy nowadays, and the men on the job look as fit as can be, and they are just the bulliest-looking lot you ever saw and——"

"Oh, Walter, tell us the answer. What is it all about?" implored Eleanor.

"I'll send you a monkey and a string of pearls, Sis. Say, father, we Americans ought to be proud of the Panama Canal, don't you think?"

"The Panama Canal!" and Mr. Horatio Goodwin fairly jumped from his chair. "Is this what you have been leading up to?"

"Yes, I want to go there."

"Dear me, why did we let him make the trip to New York alone?" lamented Mrs. Goodwin. "He wants to go to the Panama Canal! Why, it is thousands of miles from home!"

Her agitation might have led one to suppose that Walter had announced his intention of taking up his residence in the moon. But Mr. Goodwin was regarding the ruddy, eager face of his son with a certain wistfulness. Walter was undismayed, unscarred by the rough world. Ah, youth might win where plodding middle age had failed. The opportunities were for those who were not old enough to be afraid.

"Tell me about it, Walt," said he, and his voice was kindly and interested.

With bright eyes and animated gestures Walter told them of his acquaintance with Jack Devlin and the master of the Saragossa, and how the Panama Canal had been made to seem so near and real. Eleanor promptly soared on rosy wings of fancy and breathlessly interrupted:

"It is of such stuff that heroes are made! I shall never call life humdrum again. Gracious, to think of my big brother actually sailing away to help build the Panama Canal! I have a great deal of confidence in you, Walt, and I'm sure you will succeed, though you are inclined to be careless and you never would keep your bureau drawers in order. I suppose I shall have to write a poem, 'Lines to a Wandering Brother.' It must not be mournful, must it? I will cling to the lofty idea that you have gone to serve your country in peace instead of war."

"That will do for you," was Walter's laughing comment. "Please let mother and father have the floor."

"It sounds fantastic, but——" doubtfully began Mr. Goodwin.

"But it is utterly out of the question," his wife emphatically concluded. "Why, this working his way in a ship sounds dreadfully rough and dangerous. The captain may intend to kidnap him. What is it they do to sailors, Horatio? Something horrid and Chinese—shanghai or hong-kong them, or whatever it is."

Not in the least perturbed by this harrowing suggestion, Eleanor excitedly announced:

"I have seven dollars of my own saved up, Walt. I was planning to take a correspondence course in the art of writing perfectly good poetry, but I'd rather invest it in you. We women must arm our heroes for the fray."

"I am afraid I could not give you the funds you would need," soberly observed Mr. Goodwin. "You must not find yourself adrift in a strange land."

Walter walked across the room, a fine, athletic figure, almost a six-footer. He felt sure that he could fight his way on the wonderful Isthmus, where there were quick promotion and high wages and a square deal for every man.

"If I can work my passage down there, I can work it home again," he cried. "But I'm not worrying about that."

"Wolverton is no place for you," declared his father. "Mother and I will talk it over, Walter, and I shall find out what I can. You have made us feel rather dizzy. We can't realize that you are no longer a little boy."

"My Salem great-grandfather went to sea when he was fourteen and was mate of an East-Indiaman at my age, and captain of her at twenty-one," stoutly quoth Walter.

"And be sure to write just how the Southern Cross looks to you," earnestly put in Eleanor.