The Steam-Shovel Man/Chapter 2



The steamer Saragossa was sliding across a tropic sea where the trade-wind blew cool and steady to temper the blazing sun, the flying-fish skittered from the lazy swells like flights of silver arrows, and the stars by night seemed very bright and near. On the shady side of the promenade deck a boyish-looking member of the crew was scrubbing rust spots from the planking with a certain gusto which distinguished him from the so-called seamen, who were a sorry lot. The rough company and bullying usages of the forecastle had not dismayed Walter Goodwin, who forgot discomfort in the thought that, day by day, he was nearing the magical Isthmus. His parents' consent had been won and this was his great chance.

By far the most interesting passenger was the soldierly gentleman with the close-cropped white hair, the quiet voice, and pleasant smile who walked the deck with the vigor of youth. This was actually Colonel Gunther himself, chief engineer of the Canal, chairman of the Isthmian Commission, master of forty thousand workers, the man who had made a success of the gigantic task after others had failed.

"We folks think he is the biggest man in the world," a quarter-master's clerk told Walter. "He just holds the whole job together. You can feel him from one end of the Zone to the other. Whenever he goes to the States, it seems as if the organization began to wobble a mite."

"But he is as courteous and kind to everybody on board as if he didn't amount to shucks," was Walter's comment. "Why, he even says 'Good-morning' to me!"

It happened on this day that Colonel Gunther halted near the industrious Walter and his scrubbing-brush. Several children tagged after him, and he was telling them a most fascinating story about a giant so enormous that he could dig a Panama Canal with a poke of his finger and then drink it dry at one gulp. Presently the audience scampered off to view a distant ship, and Colonel Gunther conversed with one of his staff. They discussed problems of their work, and Walter was guilty of dawdling, but, alas, what he overheard came as a shock that filled him with uneasy forebodings.

"The organization has been at last recruited to its full working strength," said the Colonel. "It begins to look as if the hardest part of the job had been accomplished—to get enough good men and keep them."

"I presume the news will be published in the States," observed the other. "It would be a pity to have any more Americans coming down on the chance of finding places."

"Yes, notification was to be sent out from Washington this week. There are plenty of tropical tramps and beach-combers in Colon and Panama without adding to the number."

With a most melancholy demeanor, Walter Goodwin, ordinary seaman, went forward as eight bells struck the dinner-hour. His excellent appetite had vanished. The opportunity for a "husky young fellow" seemed to have been knocked into a cocked hat. Because he was such a very young man, his emotions were apt to veer from one extreme to the other. He was ready to believe the worst, nor did he dream of accosting Colonel Gunther and pleading his own special case. A fellow couldn't help standing in awe of one whom the whole Isthmus regarded as "the biggest man in the world." The enchanted land of Panama had suddenly become unfriendly and forbidding. He feared that he was about to become that dismal derelict, a "tropical tramp."

"This is the toughest kind of luck," he said to himself. "They are actually warning Americans away from the place."

Captain Bradshaw, strolling through the ship on a tour of inspection, noticed the gloomy young seaman and kindly inquired:

"Lost anything? You can't be sea-sick in weather like this."

"I have lost my job," mournfully answered Walter.

"Lost it before you found it, eh? What kind of a riddle is that?"

Walter briefly and bitterly explained, at which Captain Bradshaw was moved to suggest:

"If I could shove Colonel Gunther overboard, accidentally on purpose, and you hopped after him and saved him from a watery grave, what? He would simply have to offer you a good position."

"But I can't swim well enough. You will have to think of something else."

"Well, you can stay in the ship, and I will try to make an able seaman of you."

With a flash of his former determination Walter flung back: "Thank you, sir, but if I don't go ashore and try my luck, I shall feel like a yellow pup, whipped before I start."

At the boyish bravado of this speech Captain Bradshaw replied, with an air of fatherly pride:

"I should think less of you if you decided to stick in the ship, my lad. But if you find yourself flying distress signals, you are welcome to work your passage home with me."

Walter nodded and swallowed hard. He saw that if he whimpered or hung back he would lose the respect of this indomitable old sea-dog. Homesickness afflicted him for the first time, and now and then he regretted having met the persuasive Jack Devlin.

Perhaps because he was unhappy himself Walter felt sympathy for the young man from the republic of Colombia whose name was on the passenger list as Señor Fernandez Garcia Alfaro. He had often lingered near the forecastle, as if disliking the company of his fellow-voyagers, and seemed to enjoy chatting with Walter, who found him rather puzzling. The South-American temperament was new to the sturdy young Anglo-Saxon from Wolverton, who had been trained to hide his feelings.

Señor Fernandez Garcia Alfaro wore his emotions on his sleeve. He was easily excited and his outbursts of temper seemed childish, although he had been to school and college in the United States and was now in the diplomatic service of Colombia, attached to the legation at Washington. To Walter he seemed much younger than his years. He had found much to annoy him during the voyage of the Saragossa, but Walter refused to take his troubles seriously until matters suddenly came to a head.

It was early in the morning, and Walter had finished his share of washing down decks under the critical eye of the Norwegian boatswain. Alfaro came out of his state-room and paced the wide promenade. His demeanor was cheerful and he appeared to have forgotten his irritation.

As he halted to greet Walter, there came from an open window near by the harsh, screaming accents of a parrot which cried jeeringly:

"Viva Roosevelt! Viva Panama! Poire Colombia! Pobre Colombia! Ha! Ha! Ha!"

Fernandez Garcia Alfaro spun round to glare at the disreputable bunch of green feathers which, from its gilded cage, continued to cackle its sentiments concerning "Poor Colombia" with diabolical energy. The young man's black eyes flashed astonishing wrath and hatred, and Walter Goodwin, watching the tableau with a perplexed air, said laughingly:

"Anything personal in the parrot's remarks?"

Alfaro shook both fists at the offending bird and passionately answered in his fluent English:

"It is an insult to me and my country. It is meant to be the worst kind of an insult. I will kill the cursed parrot before I leave this ship. I am a Colombian, as you know. My father is a minister of the government. Panama was stolen from my country to be made into a republic. It was a revolution? Bah! cheerful! The soldiers of Colombia could have stopped that little revolution, quick. It was your Teddy Roosevelt, it was your Uncle Sam with the Big Stick that prevented us. Colombia weeps, she is disgraced, when she thinks of Panama."

"But you ought not to be sore on the silly parrot," sagely replied Walter, trying to fathom what appeared to him as an absurd situation. "I never happened to read much about Colombia's side of the story, but the Panama Canal had to be built, you know, and I guess your country was like the grasshopper that sat on the railroad track."

"Grasshopper!" and Alfaro was in more violent eruption than ever as he strode hastily aft to get away from the parrot. "You do not understand, Goodwin. You Yankees can never, never understand. That parrot belongs to a Panamanian—to General Quesada, the big, yellow, fat man whom you have seen on deck. He made himself prominent in the revolution against Colombia, but he is no good. He is a tin soldier. He had taught his parrot to insult my country, to have fun with my honor. He has laughed at me all the voyage. He had made the others laugh at me. It is dangerous to make me so mad."

Walter began to comprehend. He had heartily disliked General Quesada on sight, and he had heard something of the coarse teasing to which Alfaro had been subjected.

"I suppose that is why you have flocked by yourself," he replied. "But you ought not to be so touchy."

At this moment General Quesada himself came waddling on deck, parrot-cage in hand, evidently intending to give his accomplished pet an early morning airing. He was a gross, ungainly man, heavy of countenance. At sight of the indignant Alfaro he shook with laughter and prodded the bird with his finger, which prompted it to screech:

"Viva Panama! Pobre Colombia! Ha! Ha! Ha!"

The young man whom he had enjoyed taunting as a diversion of the voyage retorted with fiery Spanish abuse, which made the Panamanian scowl as if he had been stung by something sharp enough to penetrate his thick hide. He uttered a volley of guttural maledictions in his turn, and was echoed by the blackguardly parrot. For Fernandez Garcia Alfaro this was the last straw. His inflammable temper was ablaze. He rushed at the corpulent general and let his fists fly against the full moon of a countenance.

Before Walter Goodwin could interfere, the Panamanian had found room to jerk a small automatic revolver from a pocket of his trousers. Alfaro caught a glimpse of the weapon and tried to grip the arm that flourished it. The decks were otherwise deserted at this early hour and duty called Walter to attempt the rôle of peace-maker. This was a difficult undertaking, for Alfaro, active as an angry jaguar, persisted in fighting at close range with hands and feet, while the bulky Panamanian twisted and wrenched him this way and that, and vainly tried to use his weapon.

There was no pulling them apart, and the swaying revolver was a menace which made Walter dive for a deck-broom left against the rail. The heavy handle was of hickory. Swinging it with all his might, Walter brought it down with a terrific thump across the knuckles of General Quesada, who instantly dropped the revolver. Walter's blood was up and he intended to deal thoroughly with this would-be murderer. Whacking him with the broom-handle, he drove him, bellowing, toward the nearest saloon entrance, while Alfaro danced behind them, shouting approval.

By now the first mate came charging down from the bridge. Captain Bradshaw arrived a moment later, clad in sky-blue pajamas, his bare feet pattering along the deck. He picked up the revolver, eyed Walter and the broom-handle with a comical air of surprise, and inquired:

"Who started this circus? Is it a revolution? I shall have to put a few of you fire-eaters in irons."

The parrot had rolled into the scuppers, cage and all, and its nerves were so shaken that it twisted its favorite oration wrong end to, and dolefully and quite appropriately chanted at intervals:

"Viva Colombia! Pobre Panama!"

Captain Bradshaw aimed an accusing finger at the bird and exclaimed:

"Shut up! You talk too much."

"That was the whole trouble, sir," said Walter, wondering whether he was to be punished or commended. "General Quesada brought this this broom-handle on himself. He was trying to shoot Señor Alfaro."

"I need no diagrams to tell me that Señor Alfaro sailed into him first," said the captain. "This had been brewing for some time. I shall have to investigate after breakfast."

A little later Walter discovered Fernandez Garcia Alfaro seated upon a hatch-cover forward. At sight of his Anglo-Saxon ally the impulsive Colombian sprang to his feet and cried, with outstretched hands:

"You have saved my life! I shall never forget it, mi amigo. I have hated the North Americans, but my heart is full of affection for you."

Rather taken aback by this tribute, Walter said in a matter-of-fact manner:

"You surely piled into that fat general like a West India hurricane. I'm glad I spoiled his programme."

Alfaro's expressive face was vindictive as he exclaimed: "I have not finished with him and his infernal parrot!"

"Pooh, forget him," carelessly advised Walter, to whom this threat of vengeance sounded theatrical. "Better steer clear of this Quesada person. He looks to me like an ugly customer."

Alfaro smiled rather sheepishly as he remarked:

"It was not very diplomatic? You must think I am a funny diplomat, Goodwin."

"Well, I never happened to meet one before," confessed Walter, returning the smile, "and I had an idea that diplomats were not quite so violent and sudden in their methods."

"It was that beastly parrot," began Alfaro in a quick gust of anger; but he checked himself with a shrug and asked a question which led Walter to reply:

"Oh, no, I am not a real sailor. I am going to the Isthmus to work in the Canal Zone."

Boyish pride made him reluctant to confess how dubious he was of finding work. Alfaro was so full of affectionate admiration that he was ready to believe great things of Walter, and he exclaimed:

"I am sure you will have a fine position. I knew you were not a common sailor. You are working your passage as a lark? I have been wishing landslides and yellow-fever and all kinds of bad luck to the Yankees so they could never finish the canal. But now, for your sake, my feelings are different."

Walter had begun to be fond of the fiery Colombian who was so quick to express his likes and dislikes.

"Thank you," he replied. "I hope we shall run across each other on shore."

"I must wait a week for my steamer from Panama down the west coast," said Alfaro. "I am going home on leave of absence from the legation to see my father and mother. I will say nothing about the row with General Quesada. My father would not think it diplomatic. I will find you at your office in the Zone?"

"I certainly hope so," gravely answered Walter, but for reasons known to himself he failed to mention his address.

The interview was cut short by a summons from Captain Bradshaw, who wished to see Goodwin at once. He climbed to the bridge-deck and entered the captain's room, cap in hand.

"Don't look so scared, young man. I'm not going to eat you alive," was the good-humored reassurance. "General Quesada came boiling up here just now and demanded that I lock you up and turn you over to the Panamanian police when we dock at Colon. Of course I told him that the deck of this ship is American territory and he was talking foolishness."

"But he is the man who ought to be locked up," protested Walter. "What about his trying to shoot Señor Alfaro?"

"I said as much, but he didn't listen. He swore he pulled the revolver merely to frighten the Colombian. And then he says you whanged daylight out of him with a club. I had to talk Spanish with him and I missed some of his red-hot language."

"Yes, sir, I whanged him good and plenty," declared Walter, "and he yelled and ran for all he was worth."

"The ship's doctor had to bandage his knuckles," resumed Captain Bradshaw with a chuckle, "and there is a welt on his jaw, and he is marked in various other places. What hurts him worst is that a common sailor, and a boy at that, chased him from the deck with a broomstick and battered him all up. This Quesada poses as a military hero in Panama, you understand, and plays a strong hand in the politics of that funny little republic."

"Perhaps I ought not to have hit him so hard," and Walter looked solemn.

"You were a bit overzealous, but he deserved a drubbing. I just want to give you a bit of friendly advice. Don't let this General Quesada catch you up a dark alley. His vanity is mortally wounded, and he carries a deck-load of it. A Spanish-American might as well be dead as ridiculous. And it makes Quesada squirm to think how he will be laughed at if this story gets afloat in Panama. He doesn't love you, Goodwin."

"But the Canal Zone is part of the United States. He can't do anything to me," said Walter.

"Not in the Zone, but it is the easiest thing in the world to drift across the line into Colon or Panama before you know it. And the Spiggoty police, as they call 'em, like nothing better than an excuse to put a Yankee in jail."

Elated that Captain Bradshaw's attitude should be so friendly, and flattering himself that with so humble a weapon as a broomstick he had vanquished a real live general, Walter was inclined to make light of the warning. In fact, he forgot all about the humiliated warrior a day or so later when far ahead of the Saragossa a broken line of hills lifted blue and misty. Yonder was the Isthmus which Balboa had crossed to gaze upon the unknown Pacific, where Drake and Morgan had raided and plundered the Spanish treasure towns, and where in a later century thousands of brave Frenchmen had perished in their futile tragedy of an attempt to dig a canal between the two oceans.

Soon the low-roofed city of Colon was revealed behind the flashing surf, the white ribbon of beach, and the clusters of tall palms. From the opposite shore of the bay stretched the immensely long arm of the new breakwater, on top of which crawled toy-like engines and work-trains. What looked like a spacious, sluggish river extended straight inland toward the distant ramparts of the hills. On its surface were noisy dredges, deep-laden steamers, and tow-boats dragging seaward strings of barges heaped high with rock and dirt. This was part of the Panama Canal itself, the finished section leading from the Atlantic, and where the hills began to rise a great cloud of smoke indicated the activities of steam-shovels, locomotives, and construction plants.

Walter Goodwin, no longer brooding over his fear of becoming a "tropical tramp," was impatient to see the wonderful spectacle at close range. After the steamer had been moored at one end of the government docks of Cristobal, he was assigned to duty at the gangway while the passengers filed ashore. Conspicuous among them was General Quesada, his right hand bandaged, his surly face partly eclipsed by strips of plaster, his gait that of one who was stiff and sore.

He balked at sight of the steep runway from the deck to the wharf, and Walter offered him a helping hand. The general angrily waved him aside and muttered something in Spanish which sounded venomously hostile. Fernandez Garcia Alfaro, who was within ear-shot, explained to Walter:

"He says he will find you again, and he swears it in very bad language."

"Pooh! I'm not afraid of the fat rascal," carelessly returned Walter. "I guess Uncle Sam is strong enough to look after me."

Before noon he found himself in the modern American settlement of Cristobal, among clean, paved streets whose palm-shaded houses, with wide, screened porches, were of uniform color and design. Boys and girls were coming home from school, as happy and noisy as Walter was used to meeting them in Wolverton. As he wisely observed to himself, this agreeable place was where the Americans lived, not where they worked, and a fellow had to find work before he could live anywhere. He was among his own countrymen, but where was there any place for him? He felt friendless and forlorn.

Strolling at random, he was unaware that he had crossed the boundary line into the Panamanian city of Colon until the streets became a wonderfully picturesque jumble of Spanish-speaking natives clad in white duck and linen, chattering West India negroes, idling Americans in khaki, and sailors from every clime.

Passing the city market, he thriftily bought his supper—bananas, mangoes, and peppery tamales—at cost of a few cents, and pursued his entertaining tour of sight-seeing. It was all strange and fascinating and romantic to his untutored eyes. His wanderings were cut short at sight of General Quesada, who was seated at a table in front of a café with several friends. Two of these were in uniform adorned with gold lace and buttons.

Walter wasted no time in wondering whether these were officers of the army or the police. The battered general was pointing him out to them with a gesture of his bandaged hand. The officers stared as if to be sure they would know him again. Hastily deciding that the climate of Cristobal might be healthier, Walter retreated toward the Canal Zone and the shelter of the stars and stripes. As he glanced over his shoulder, the three men at the café table appeared to be discussing him with a lively interest which made him feel uneasier than ever. Perhaps the warning of Captain Bradshaw had not been all moonshine. It looked as if General Quesada were still thinking about that terrible broom-handle which had bruised his pompous pride as severely as his knuckles.