The Steam-Shovel Man/Chapter 3

 

CHAPTER III
WITH THE DYNAMITE GANG


What he had heard Colonel Gunther say on shipboard made Walter think it useless to apply for one of those wonderful positions at seventy-five dollars a month on the "gold roll," which the steam-shovel man, Jack Devlin, had painted in such glowing colors. He must try to get a foothold somewhere, no matter how humble it might be, and hope to win promotion. It was really a case of jumping at the first chance to earn a dollar. Without employment what money he had would soon be spent, and then he must slink home in the Saragossa.

He picked his way through a net-work of tracks, switches, and sidings among the busy wharves and warehouses of Cristobal. This was the nearest scene of activity, although it seemed to have very little to do with digging the Panama Canal. There were railroad yards at home, reflected Walter, and he had seen miles of warehouses and wharves along the water-front of New York. He walked rather aimlessly beyond the crowded part of Cristobal, hoping to find steam-shovels and construction gangs.

At length his progress was blocked by the wreckage of several freight-cars which were strewn across the tracks in shattered fragments. Negro laborers were clearing away this amazing disorder, which could have been caused by no ordinary collision. In answer to Walter's questions one of them said:

"Dynamite, boss. A car got afire down by de ship, sah, an' de mens tuk all de dynamite out 'cept two boxes. An' when dey was runnin' de car up here in de yard to fotch it away from de wharf, she done 'splode herself to glory."

"Anybody killed?"

"Two mens, sah, an' some more is in de hospitubble."

"Too bad, but there is something doing here," said Walter to himself. "This is a hurry-up job, and perhaps they can use another man."

Climbing over the débris, he accosted a lean, brick-red American with a fighting jaw who was driving the wrecking-crews at top speed.

"I am not the superintendent," was the impatient reply, "but I'll save you the trouble of looking him up. He is taking no more men on the gold roll. The railroad has been laying people off."

"But I am not looking for a job on the gold roll," stubbornly returned Walter. "I am ready to pitch in with your laborers. Can't you take me on to help clear this mess?"

"For twenty cents an hour? You're joking," snapped the foreman. "White men don't do this kind of work down here."

Walter was for continuing the argument, but the other jumped to adjust the chains of a wrecking-crane. Just then there appeared a man of such a calm, unhurried manner that he seemed oddly out of place in this noisy, perspiring throng. As Walter brushed past him the placid stranger drawled:

"These tracks will be cleared by night. The job won't last long enough for you to make a start at it. Are you really looking for hard work at silver wages?"

"Please lead me to it," gratefully cried Walter. "I guess I can live on twenty cents an hour until something better turns up."

"Good for you," said the unruffled gentleman. "I am Mr. Naughton, in charge of the dynamite. We use eight hundred thousand pounds a month on the canal. I have a ship to unload, and the negroes have been panicky since the explosion this morning. Several of them quit me, and I guess they are running yet."

Walter shied like a frightened colt, and stammered with sudden loss of enthusiasm:

"A whole s-ship-load of d-dynamite? You w-want me to help handle it?" Then he grinned as his sense of humor overtook his fright. He had just fled from Colon at sight of General Quesada and his friends. This was hopping from the frying-pan into the fire with a vengeance.

"What if I drop a box of it?" he asked.

"I am not hiring you to drop it," was the pensive answer of Mr. Naughton, as he flicked a bit of soot from his white serge coat and caressed his neatly trimmed brown beard. "I wish I had something better to offer you. I like your pluck."

"I am not showing any pluck so far," confessed Walter. "You have scared me out of a year's growth. But I'm willing to take a chance if you are."

"Then come along with me to the Mount Hope wharf, and I'll put you on my pay-roll."

The weather was wiltingly hot for one fresh from a northern winter, but as Walter followed his imperturbable employer he felt the chills run up and down his spine. The sight of the havoc wrought by two boxes of dynamite was not in the least reassuring.

"Here is where I get scattered all over the tropical landscape," he said to himself. "A greenhorn like me is sure to do something foolish, and if I stub my toe just once, I vanish with a large bang."

He might have taken to his heels but for the soothing companionship of Mr. Naughton, who was humming the air of a popular song and seemed to have not a care in the world. Ahead of them lay a rusty tramp steamer flying a red powder-flag in her rigging. A few laborers and sailors were loafing in the shade of the warehouse. At a word from Mr. Naughton they filed on board, some to climb down into the hold, others to range themselves between an open hatch and the empty freight-cars on the wharf.

Walter pulled off his shirt, gingerly tightened his belt, and took the station assigned him on deck. Presently the men below began to pass up the heavy wooden boxes from one to another until the dangerous packages came to Walter, who was instructed to help carry them to the ship's side.

He eyed the first of them dubiously for a moment, took a long breath, and clasped the box to his breast, squeezing it so tightly that he was red in the face. Lifting his feet very high and setting them down with the greatest caution, he advanced with the knee action of a blue-ribbon winner in a horse-show. Quaking lest he trip or stumble, he delivered the box to the man at the gangway. The seasoned handlers chuckled, and Mr. Naughton said to the American who was checking the cargo:

"I took no risks in picking up that youngster, even if he is a new hand with the powder. His nerves haven't been spoiled by rum or cigarettes. Nice, clean-built chap, isn't he? What do you think of him?"

"He is no stranded loafer or he would sponge on the Americans in Colon sooner than work on the silver roll."

"I shall ask him a few questions when we knock off," returned Naughton.

After Walter had safely handled a score of boxes, he gained confidence and worried less about "'splodin' himself to glory," as he toiled to keep pace with the other men. The humid heat was exhausting, but as the afternoon wore on his efficiency steadily increased. When the quitting hour came, Mr. Naughton told him:

"I'll be glad to keep you on until the cargo is out. Where are you living?"

"Nowhere at present. I can't afford to go to a hotel, and even if I had the price I am afraid Colon might disagree with me."

"Oh, it is a healthy town nowadays. Our people have cleaned it up like a new parlor."

"I mean the police—" began Walter, but this sounded so suspicious that he blushed,
 
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Lifting his feet very high and setting them down with the greatest caution

 
thought it hardly worth while explaining, and concluded, "I guess I can find a bed somewhere."

Mr. Naughton whistled, cocked a scrutinizing eye, and observed:

"So you got into trouble with the Spiggoty police? Anything serious? I won't give you away."

"Nothing against my morals," smiled Walter. "My manners were disliked."

"I'll take your word for it. One of my minor ambitions has been to punch the head of a Panamanian policeman. The chesty little beggars!" drawled Mr. Naughton. "You don't belong with the laborers, Goodwin, and you wouldn't like their quarters. I can find you a place to sleep at our bachelor hotel, and you can get commissary meals at thirty cents each. Uncle Sam is a pretty good landlord."

Cordially thanking him, Walter exclaimed as he straightened his aching back:

"I haven't been as lame and tired since I pitched a twelve-inning game for the high-school championship of the State. Phew! I must have moved enough dynamite already to blow Colon off the map. But I'll be glad to report in the morning, sir."

This casual reference to base-ball had a most surprising effect upon the placid Mr. Naughton, who had seemed proof against excitement. He jumped as if he had been shot at, grasped Walter by the arm, and shouted eagerly:

"Say that again. Can you pitch? Are you a real ball-player? Man alive, tell me all about it!"

Walter stared at the "powder man" as if suspecting him of mild insanity.

"We have a crack nine in Wolverton for a high-school," he replied. "It is a mill town, you see, and most of the fellows begin playing ball on the open lots as soon as they can walk. We were good enough last season to beat two or three of the smaller college teams."

"And you were the regular pitcher?" breathlessly demanded Mr. Naughton, as he backed away and surveyed the broad-shouldered youth from head to foot.

"Yes, I pitched in all the games."

"Well, you handle yourself like a ball-player, and I believe you are one. You come along to supper with me."

"But what in the world—" began the bewildered Walter.

"Leave it to me. Your destiny is in my hands," was the mysterious utterance of Mr. Naughton.

In the cool of the evening they sat and ate at their leisure on the breezy piazza of the "gold employees'" hotel. From other small tables near by several men called out greetings to Naughton, who beckoned them over to be presented to his protégé. No sooner had they learned that the tall lad was a base-ball pitcher of proven prowess than they became effusively, admiringly cordial. In fact, Walter held a sort of court.

"Goodwin is one of my unloading gang on the dynamite steamer," explained Naughton.

At this there arose a fiercely protesting chorus. One might have thought they were about to mob the "powder man."

"How careless, Naughton! It makes no difference about you, but we can't afford to risk having a ball-player blown up."

"A real pitcher is worth his weight in gold just now."

"It won't do, Naughton, old man. If you permit this valuable person to be destroyed, the Cristobal Baseball Association will hold you responsible."

"Don't you dare let him go near your confounded dynamite ship again."

Thanks to the magic of base-ball, although he could not understand the why and wherefore of it, Walter found himself no longer a friendless waif of fortune, but regarded as something too rare and precious to be risked with a dynamite gang. It seemed rather absurd that these transplanted Americans should have any surplus energy for athletics after the day's work in the steaming climate of the Isthmus. But his new friends proceeded to enlighten him, led by Naughton, who exclaimed with much gusto:

"My son, we eat base-ball. The Isthmian League is beginning its third season, and you have alighted among the choicest collection of fans, cranks, and rooters that ever adorned the bleachers. Mr. Harrison here is captain of the Cristobal nine. Our best pitcher went back to the States last week."

"But I'm afraid I shall have no time to play," said Walter. "I didn't come down here for base-ball."

"Oh, we all work for a living. Don't get a wrong impression of us," put in Harrison, a young man of chunky, bow-legged type of architecture whom nature had obviously designed for a short-stop. "I am a civil engineer, Atlantic Division. I used to play at Cornell. We can't practise much, but if you want to see some snappy games——"

"I would rather handle the dynamite than umpire when you play Culebra or Ancon," broke in Naughton, who showed signs of renewed excitement as he went on to say to Harrison:

"If I bring Goodwin to the field at five o'clock to-morrow afternoon, will you furnish a catcher and give him a chance to limber up? Better lay off and take it easy for the day, hadn't you?" he added, turning to Walter.

"No, the hard work will take the kinks out of my muscles, and I can't afford to lose any time on my first job."

"Oh, hang his tuppenny job!" spoke up one of the company. "He doesn't understand how important he is. Enlighten him, Harrison."

"This frenzied person on my right means to convey that a young man with a first-class pitching arm will have the inside track with the powers that be," explained the Cristobal captain. "There is Major Glendinning, for instance——"

"He is head of the Department of Commissary and Subsistence," chimed in Naughton. "He feeds and clothes the whole Canal Zone. When Cristobal makes a three-bagger he jumps up and down and yells himself hoarse."

"But I heard Colonel Gunther himself say that no more Americans were needed down here," said Walter.

"That doesn't mean there is to be no more weeding out of undesirables," Naughton explained. "There is still room on our happy little Isthmus for a man who can deliver the goods. I don't want you to infer that the government is hiring ball-players. But as an introduction, Goodwin, you couldn't beat it if you brought letters from eleven United States senators."

"Now let's talk base-ball," impatiently interjected a lathy individual in riding breeches and puttees, who had come in from a construction camp somewhere off in the jungle.

"We ought to tuck our prize package in bed very early," objected Naughton. "He is as sleepy as a tree full of owls."

"Juggling dynamite is no picnic!" and Walter struggled with a yawn. His friends good-naturedly escorted him to the bachelor quarters, where he speedily rolled into his cot and dreamed of fighting a duel with General Quesada, the weapons being base-ball bats.

When he reported on board the dynamite ship next morning, Naughton greeted him with a slightly worried air and declared:

"I have been thinking it over and perhaps those chaps were right. We have very few accidents with the stuff, but we ought not to run the slightest risk of losing the league championship to Culebra or Ancon."

Walter laughed and replied:

"This is the best kind of practice for me. If I can keep my nerve and make no errors, I am not likely to be rattled when the bases are full."

This argument had weight, although Naughton was still anxious as he strolled to his office. By noon the stiffness had been sweated out of Walter's back and shoulders, and the supple vigor was returning to his good right arm. Shortly before five o'clock the inconsistent Naughton, who lived in daily peril of his life with all the composure in the world, was fairly fidgeting to be off to the base-ball field. A battered victoria and a rat of a Panama pony hurried them thither, and they found Harrison and several other players busy at practice against a background of cocoanut palms and bread-fruit trees.

The Cristobal catcher trotted up looking immensely pleased:

"Hello, Goodwin, you don't know me," said he, "but my kid brother was on that Elmsford freshman team that you trounced so unmercifully last season. I saw the game. Brewster is my name. When Harrison told me he had been lucky enough to discover you, I chortled for joy."

This was a cheering indorsement for the others to hear and it gave Walter the confidence of which he stood in need. A great deal appeared to depend on his pitching ability, and this test was more trying to the nerves than handling dynamite or dodging General Quesada.

The catcher tossed him a ball and they moved to one side of the field. At first Walter pitched with caution, but as he warmed to his work the ball sped into Brewster's glove with a wicked thud.

"Send 'em along easy to-day. Better not overdo it," the catcher warned him. Walter smiled and swung his arm with a trifle more steam in the delivery. He felt that he must show these friendly critics what he had in him, wherefore the solid Brewster withstood a bombardment that made him grunt and perspire. The other players looked and whispered among themselves with evident approval.

"What did I tell you?" proudly exclaimed Naughton. "Am I a good scout? I unearthed this boy phenomenon."

The battery had paused to cool off when a big-boned American saddle-horse came across the field at an easy canter. The rider sat as erect as a cavalryman, although he was old enough to be Walter's grandfather. Halting beside the group, he said:

"I rode out this way on the chance of seeing a bit of practice. Do you expect to whip those hard-hitting rascals from Culebra?"

"Good afternoon, Major Glendinning," replied Naughton, with a wink at the others. "Harrison has been feeling very gloomy over the prospects. We lost our only first-class pitcher, you know."

"What an outrageous shame it was!" earnestly ejaculated the head of the Department of Commissary and Subsistence.

Harrison nudged Naughton. Major Glendinning had come upon the scene at precisely the right moment. Here was the employer who, above all others, must be made to take an interest in Goodwin's welfare if these amiable conspirators could bring it about. Noting that Walter was beyond ear-shot, Harrison spoke up.

"Sorry you couldn't arrive a little sooner, Major. We are inclined to think we have found a better pitcher, though I'm not at all sure that we can keep him at Cristobal."

The elderly gentleman leaned forward in the saddle and eagerly inquired:

"Bless me, is that true? I swear you don't look at all gloomy, Harrison. Who is he? Where is he? And you think he can pitch winning ball for Cristobal?"

"Yes, sir. Brewster has seen him play at home. He is one of your born pitchers. He is a wonder."

"What do you mean by saying we can't keep him?" demanded the major.

"He is working for me—on the silver roll," vouchsafed Naughton, with a hopeless kind of sigh. "He hasn't been able to find anything better to do. But I can't hold him, of course. He is a first-class man in every way. He is likely to quit almost any day and drift over to Culebra or Ancon, where he will be sure to land a position on the gold roll, as foreman, clerk, or time-keeper. And then he will be pitching for our hated rivals."

"Um-m, he will, will he?" and Major Glendinning fairly bristled. "I am not letting any good men get away from my department. Show him to me."

Naughton nodded in the direction of Walter, who was deep in a discussion of signals with his catcher. Then the "powder man," with Harrison as fluent ally, paid tribute to the manly qualities of the young pitcher, nor were their motives wholly selfish. The major listened attentively, chewing his gray mustache, and now and then glancing at Walter with keen appraisement. At length he exclaimed:

"You chaps know how to get on my blind side. I have had my eye on a cheerful young loafer in the Cristobal commissary who is not earning his salary. If he should—er—resign, there might be a vacancy. I like Goodwin's looks. Fetch him over here, if you please."

Naughton and Harrison grinned at each other as they marched to the side of the field and escorted Walter with great pomp of manner. The abashed pitcher wiped his dripping face and heard Major Glendinning say to him:

"You had better not think of leaving Cristobal just now. It is the best place in the Zone. When you are through with Naughton and his infernal cargo, come and see me in my office, if he doesn't blow you sky-high in the meantime. And don't forget that I expect you to win that next game against Culebra."

He wheeled his horse sharply and trotted from the field, leaving Walter to gaze after him with a dazed, foolish smile. Harrison thumped him on the back and jubilantly shouted:

"Wasn't that easy? What did we tell you?"

"But do you honestly think he has any intention of giving me a job on the gold roll?" tremulously implored Walter, whose emotions were in a state of tumult.

"Sure thing," said Naughton. "He can always find a place for a young fellow with the right stuff in him."

"'A husky young fellow with the right stuff in him,'" echoed Walter. The familiar words had come home to roost.

"He will start you in at seventy-five per month"—this was from Harrison—"and you will have to earn it. Base-ball cuts no figure with the major in business hours."

"Your conscience can rest easy on that score," added Naughton. "No danger of your cheating Uncle Sam."

"An honest pull is the noblest work of man," declaimed Harrison, and this seemed to sum up the whole matter.

When Walter returned to his quarters, his first impulse was to write a letter home. This proved more difficult than might seem. To report to his anxious parents and his adoring sister that he was employed on board a dynamite ship would not tend to ease their minds. He could imagine this bit of news landing in the cottage at Wolverton with the effect of a full-sized explosion. Eleanor would probably take her pen in hand to compose a metrical companion piece of "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck."

"I must be tactful," frowningly reflected Walter. "I don't want to make them nervous. Perhaps I had better not go into details. I will simply say that I have a fairly lucrative position. Twenty cents an hour isn't much down here, but it sounds big alongside that four-dollar-a-week job hi the hardware store."

Then he discovered that to discuss the better position which he had not yet secured was to raise hopes that sounded fantastic. Those rival ball-players from Culebra might knock him out of the box in the first inning. This would mean good-by to Major Glendinning's favor. Base-ball cranks were fickle and uncertain persons. Walter therefore merely informed the family that the climate agreed with him and he was sure his judgment had been sound in coming to the Isthmus.

"Between unloading dynamite and worrying about this base-ball proposition," he soliloquized, "not to mention the fact that General Quesada is camping on my trail, I expect to be gray-headed in about one more week."