The Steam-Shovel Man/Chapter 5

 

CHAPTER V
TRAPPED IN OLD PANAMA


While Walter Goodwin was watching and waiting on the wharf the checker at the gangway suddenly became wary. He stormed among the laborers and abused them for blundering, turning them back with their truck-loads of commissary stores and otherwise imitating a man honestly doing his duty. Walter was uncertain whether the checker had spied him and taken alarm, or whether some one in authority had moved inconveniently near.

The little Panama steamer into which the stolen merchandise had been conveyed was making ready to cast loose and haul out into the stream. Walter feared she was about to sail and carry with her all his hopes of distinguishing himself as an investigator. He was elated, therefore, when a man of whom he had caught a glimpse on the vessel's bridge came on the wharf and halted to speak to the checker. The twain were together for several minutes. Walter had time to study the new-comer.

He was no longer young, bearing marks of hard living, but of an alert, resolute mien and rugged frame. He was a German, perhaps, certainly not a Spanish-American. He resembled not so much a seafarer as one of those broken soldiers of fortune, grown gray in adventures, to be found in ports of the uneasy republics near the equator, ripe for bold and unscrupulous enterprises and ready to serve any master.

These two were birds of a feather, thought Walter, and he must somehow find out why they flocked together. Guesses were not proof. He could follow the checker after the day's work was done and try to discover where he went and whom he met.

Presently the older man returned to the steamer. Then Walter's train of thought was derailed by a cordial voice and outstretched hand which belonged to his shipmate of the Saragossa, Senor Fernandez Garcia Alfaro.

"I have been to the hospital to see you, my dear friend," cried the Colombian diplomat. "I read it in a newspaper that you had a fight with a landslide. Ah, you are as strong as a brick house to be out so soon. The arm? Alas, is it serious?"

"It will cripple me for base-ball for a while."

"Ah, you plucky Yankees! You are always thinking of your grand sport of base-ball."

"I thought you had sailed for home," said Walter.

"My steamer had a break-down of her engines. She has not yet arrived from the south. My father has arranged by cable to have the Chilean ship touch at my port on her voyage to Valparaiso. She sails in three days more. I have come to Balboa to see the captain. Will you go on board with me?"

They climbed to the upper deck and while Alfaro did his errand, Walter leaned overside and gazed down at the small Panamanian steamer, whose name he discovered to be Juan Lopez. She was a dirty, disorderly vessel, and the crew, of all shades from black to white, looked as if some of them might be hanged before they were drowned.

No cargo was strewn about. Everything fetched from the wharf had been instantly hidden under the hatches. The man who had conferred with the checker came out of the cabin, glanced up, halted, and stared hard at Walter. When Alfaro returned, he asked him excitedly:

"Do you know anything about this Juan Lopez steamer alongside? And have you ever seen that man with the gray mustache before?"

"Yes, I have heard of the Juan Lopez. She made trouble on the coast of Colombia one time. It was a filibustering expedition, but they were not able to make a landing. That man? It is Captain Brincker. I was in Guayaquil when he got into some kind of a row with the government. Why do you ask with so much interest, Goodwin?"

"Oh, I was just curious," said Walter, unwilling to confide in the talkative, impulsive Colombian. "I suppose the Juan Lopez has reformed, or she would not be loading freight at Balboa."

"She is maybe trading on the Panama coast and up the rivers. Will you come back to Ancon with me and dine at the Tivoli Hotel to-night?"

"Thank you, but I can't promise for sure," said Walter. "I have some business on the wharf. Will it be all right if I telephone you by seven o'clock?"

"Certainly," exclaimed Alfaro. Curious in his turn, he asked: "Is your office on the wharf?"

"It is under my hat at present," smiled Walter. "Does this Captain Brincker live in Panama?"

"I will ask my friends in the city and tell you all about him at dinner. I think he is a hard customer."

"I have reasons for keeping an eye on him, so I'll be grateful for any information," said Walter.

The Colombian was in haste to keep an engagement, and he left Walter impatiently awaiting the next turn of events. The Juan Lopez moved away from the side of the Chilean steamer and anchored far out in the bay. Shortly thereafter a small boat was sent ashore. It landed near the wharf and Captain Brincker disembarked. He walked in the direction of the railroad station.

A few minutes later, the checker left the gangway and also headed for the station. Walter followed them into a train for Ancon, but they did not sit together, and paid no attention to each other. This was unexpected. When they left the train, the slouchy, ill-favored young man climbed into a cab, while the grizzled soldier of fortune sturdily set out on foot into Panama city.

Walter had fought shy of invading Panamanian territory because of General Quesada and the native police, but he could not bear to quit the chase. He straightway chartered a cab and made the Spanish-speaking cochero understand that he was to follow the chariot aforesaid. The weary, overworked little horses jogged slowly through the picturesque streets of balconied stone houses and mouldering churches and ramparts recalling the storied age of the Conquistadores. Old Panama and the Canal Zone, side by side, vividly contrasted the romantic past and the practical, hustling present.

The cab of the checker passed the plaza with its palms and flowers, and made toward the city water-front. The narrow streets framed bright glimpses of the blue Bay of Panama. At length Walter bade his cochero halt. The slouchy young man whom he was pursuing had dismissed his vehicle and was entering a large weather-worn house of stucco, one of a solid block in a little thoroughfare close to the crumbling sea-wall.

"It is my business to find out who lives there," reflected Walter. "I'm sure that Americans from the Canal Zone are unlikely to have honest errands in this corner of Panama."

He forsook his cab and walked slowly along the street. The row of houses resembled an extended wall of stone pierced by windows and doors. It was puzzling to make certain into which of them the suspected young man had gone. Walter counted the doors from the corner to verify his observation and paused to scan the entrance, hoping to find a street number or name-plate.

He might ask questions of a policeman, but this was impracticable for three reasons: first, he could not speak Spanish; second, he had no fondness for Panama policemen; third, there was no policeman to be found. Feeling rather foolish, he waylaid a barefooted boy and fished for information with earnest gestures, but the youngster shook his head and fled into the nearest alley.

"I should have brought Alfaro with me," sighed Walter. "I am as helpless as a stranded fish. These people ought to be compelled to learn English."

Still standing in front of the house and wearing an absent-minded, worried manner, Walter had forgotten for the moment that he was playing a game which required wit and vigilance. From around the nearest corner, no more than a few yards away, appeared the robust figure of Captain Brincker. At sight of the youth with the bandaged arm, he stopped in his tracks, muttered something, and gazed with open unfriendliness.

Intuition told Walter that this formidable man had better be avoided. He felt like taking to his heels, but he was boyishly reluctant to show the white feather. Undecided, he failed to retreat until it was too late.

Captain Brincker advanced swiftly, confronted him, and asked in a heavy voice:

"Were you looking for somebody?"

"Yes, but I don't need him just now," stammered Walter, trying to brazen it out. "Another time will do just as well, thank you. I must be going."

"Wait a minute," growled the soldier of fortune, and he grasped Walter's left arm with a grip of iron. "I have seen you at Balboa this afternoon, on the wharf, on the Chilean steamer, on the train. Are you not old enough to mind your own business?"

Not yet recovered from the battering effects of the landslide, Walter lacked his normal strength and agility, and his disabled arm made him as helpless as a child. He dared not try to wrench himself free lest it be injured afresh in the tussle.

"You can't scare me with your bluffs," he angrily retorted. "What right have you to ask my business?"

"We will discuss that. And if you are not willing to talk, I may have to hold you by the right arm."

Walter winced at this and looked up and down the street. Brown, naked children were playing in the gutters. Fighting-cocks were tethered to the iron railing in front of a near-by dwelling. A black-haired young man with a chocolate-drop complexion, lounging on a balcony, lazily thrummed a guitar. Strolling pedlers cried their wares with rude snatches of song. The voices of fishermen came from the beach by the sea-wall. The place was wholly foreign, unfrequented by Americans. The Canal Zone and its protecting power might have been a thousand miles away. The passers-by would be pleased to see Walter worsted in a scuffle. His affairs concerned them not in the least. It was futile to call for help. He had been rash and stupid.

"What do you want to say to me?" he demanded, trying to keep his voice under control.

"It is not hospitable to make you stand in the street," and Captain Brincker smiled grimly. "Come inside with me."

As he spoke he twisted Walter violently about and shoved him into the vestibule of the house, which was only a step from the street. Jerking himself free in blind rage, Walter struck at his captor, who dodged and slammed shut the heavy outer door behind them. It was like being in a prison. Walter moved aside, trying to guard the injured arm.

"You are excited. I do not wish to be brutal," said Captain Brincker. "You are very easy to handle. You will be foolish if you object."

He showed the way with a courteous gesture. A long hallway led to the patio or open court in the centre of the house. It was like a tropical garden roofed by the sky. Gorgeous flowers bloomed, and a fountain tinkled pleasantly. Walter followed in glum silence. He had been caught like a rabbit. Frightened as he was, the fact that he belonged to the race dominant on the Isthmus helped to steady him. He felt that he must play the game to the finish without flinching. He held himself erect, his chin up. Captain Brincker offered a wicker chair and seated himself in another. Then he scrutinized his unwilling guest with grave deliberation. His face was rather questioning than hostile. The suspense made Walter's heart flutter. The masterful personality of the soldier of fortune held him silent. At length Captain Brincker said:

"You were watching the young man at the gangway. You wanted to know all about me and the Juan Lopez. You were overheard talking to Señor Alfaro. You followed the young man to this house. I want to know who is employing you to do all this."

The quiet demeanor of the speaker helped Walter to regain his self-confidence. If he could keep his head he might be able to extricate himself.

"Nobody employed me. I had nothing better to do," he truthfully replied. "Aren't you taking a lot for granted? I am just out of the hospital and looking for a job. I don't look like a very dangerous person, do I?"

"That depends," slowly spoke Captain Brincker. "You may be merely meddlesome. Do you want to go home to the States? The passage can be arranged, and some extra money for your pocket. There is a condition——"

"That I keep my mouth shut," hotly retorted Walter. He turned very red. His temper got the better of him. He was not old enough and wise enough to fence with such a situation as this. With reckless, headlong candor, he burst out:

"You are offering me hush money. It's a crooked, dirty proposition. And I won't stand for it. I know you were in the scheme to steal commissary stores from the wharf——"

Walter checked himself, aghast that he should have said so much and thereby delivered himself into the enemy's hands. The effect of this speech upon Captain Brincker was extraordinary. He pulled at the ends of his gray mustache as if greatly perplexed, winked rapidly, and stared with an air of blank amazement:

"Steal the commissary stores?" he echoed. "I have been called many hard names, young man, but I plead not guilty this time. Now that you have begun, will you be so good as to let the cat all the way out of the bag?"

It was Walter's turn to feel bewildered. Captain Brincker 's denial carried conviction. It impressed Walter as genuine. Perhaps his conjecture had been wrong. At any rate, the checker was guilty, and why had the two of them come straight to this house from Balboa?

"I suppose I'm in serious trouble now," stubbornly answered Walter, "but I won't take back what I said. The Juan Lopez has a lot of freight on board that doesn't belong there, and I intend to find out all about it."

Captain Brincker leaned forward in his chair, his strong, brown hands resting upon his knees, his keen eyes almost mirthful.

"You are frank with me," said he. "We are at cross-purposes, you and I. I give you my word of honor as a soldier that I know nothing whatever about this stolen freight. It is safe to tell you the truth, because I cannot let you go free until after the Juan Lopez sails. I am not her captain. I am in charge of the expedition. There may be a change of government in San Salvador very soon. Perhaps I shall assist. The plans are in the hands of my employer, in whose house you have the honor to be."

"Then it is a filibustering expedition," cried Walter, all interest and animation. "And you are going to mix up in another revolution? Whew, but I wish you would take me with you."

"With your arm in a sling? Besides, my employer detests Americans. Do you believe I am telling the truth?"

"It sounds that way," confessed Walter. "But what about that checker? He must be in the house right now."

With a shrug, Captain Brincker explained:

"He comes to see my employer. It is not my affair. I have had no words with the young man except this afternoon at the wharf. I was instructed to see that certain supplies were taken on board. I asked him about them. I did not look at the stuff. It was his business to check it up."

It was quite obvious that Captain Brincker was anxious to clear himself in the eyes of this honest, ingenuous accuser. He may have committed many a greater crime against the law, but he disliked being thought a commonplace thief.

Tempted by the amicable drift of the interview, Walter ventured a dangerous question:

"Your employer—who is he?"

Captain Brincker scowled. This was treading on forbidden ground. He may have been inwardly disgusted that the man he served should have stooped so low as to pilfer supplies for the expedition, but the matter was not for him to meddle with. He had an odd code of loyalty, a sadly twisted sense of honor, but such as they were he was stanch to them. He would not break with the man who had bought his sword and his services.

"My employer?" said he. "That is not for me to tell you. I shall have to lock you up for the present. It would be most unfortunate to have the expedition of the Juan Lopez spoiled by the tongue of a meddlesome boy. The American government would seize the ship and arrest all hands if the news leaked out. You know too much to be at liberty."

Oddly enough, Walter made no protest, nor was he any longer angry. He perceived that he had blundered into one affair while he was on the trail of another. Captain Brincker had been honest with him, discussing the situation as man to man, and he was justified in guarding the secrecy of his adventurous enterprise against discovery by the authorities. The alarming possibility was that he might think it his duty to inform his employer of Walter's knowledge concerning the stolen merchandise.

"Are you going to report what I found out—that the commissary stores were smuggled on board the Juan Lopez?" asked Walter.

Before Captain Brincker could answer, there came from behind the palms at the other side of the patio the screeching voice of a parrot:

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

Walter jumped from his chair. His cheek was quite pale. He had heard this parrot before. It belonged to General Quesada, who must be the mysterious employer. Standing in a door-way opening from another part of the house was the gross, shapeless figure of General Quesada himself, the parrot cage in his hand. With him was the slouchy young man from Balboa wharf. Before crossing the patio they had halted in time to hear Walter's unfortunate question.

The checker repeated it in Spanish, and General Quesada comprehended that the young seaman of the Saragossa who hammered him with a broom-stick had now discovered the plot to rob the American government of supplies for the filibustering expedition.

The Panamanian glared wickedly at Walter and bellowed in Spanish a volley of questions aimed at Captain Brincker. The latter answered reluctantly. The scene was evidently distasteful to him. It was in his mind to temper the storm of wrath and hatred. But General Quesada knew that he had been found out. The checker, snarling and vindictive, was rapidly explaining that Walter had been spying at the wharf and on the train, and had followed him into Panama. Captain Brincker turned to the hapless Walter and said with a shrug:

"It is a worse fix for you than I thought. General Quesada has a terrible hatred for you because you struck him and disgraced him on the ship from New York. I had not heard of it until now. And he knows that you know too much about the business at the wharf."

"Why don't you help me get out of the house?" implored Walter. "You don't seem like a coward. He looks as if he wanted to murder me. I can't put up a fight. I am crippled."

The soldier of fortune looked confused and
 
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"Viva Panama! Pobre colombia! Ha! Ha! Ha!

 
ashamed. He had never earned his wages more unpleasantly, but he made no aggressive movement. Remembering his errand, General Quesada waddled across the patio into the hallway and dismissed the checker. The street door slammed shut with a rattle of bolts.

"What did he say he was going to do with me?" Walter besought Captain Brincker.

"He seems very much pleased to get hold of you. I will try to cool his anger."

General Quesada returned, grunting and swearing to himself. After hanging the precious parrot cage in a tree, he dropped heavily into a wicker chair and sat staring at Walter with the most malicious satisfaction. Occasionally he chuckled as if here was a jest very much to his liking. Walter yearned for his broom-handle. He looked about for something which might serve as a weapon. Regardless of consequences, he would put his mark on the fat, ugly countenance once more.

General Quesada read his purpose and gave an order to Captain Brincker. The two captors roughly hustled Walter into a large, empty room overlooking the bay, and so close to the water that the flooding tide could be heard lapping against the foundation walls.

"You just wait until my government hears of this performance," cried Walter. "General Quesada will be chucked in jail, where he belongs."

Captain Brincker replied in kindly tones:

"Take my advice and do what you are told. It is the best policy."

Left alone, Walter tried to persuade himself that no serious danger could menace him. The Isthmus was almost a part of the United States, and he was no more than a few minutes' drive from the Canal Zone, and the protection of his own people. General Quesada wished to frighten him into silence.

Walter went to one of the long windows, which was barred against harbor thieves by ornamental iron grillwork. Misty and golden in the effulgence of sunset lay the fishing-boats, the wide bay, the scattered islands, and the steamers anchored off the quarantine station. The brief tropical twilight fled, and the night came down.

After a long while a boat scraped against the sea-wall. He could discern it as a slow-moving shadow. Voices murmured in Spanish, an order was sharply uttered, and an oar rattled against the masonry. It did not occur to Walter that the coming of the boat had anything to do with him. He supposed that a crew of fishermen was making a belated landing.