The Steam-Shovel Man/Chapter 6



Señor Fernandez Garcia Alfaro waited in the lobby of the Tivoli Hotel at Ancon until considerably after seven o'clock and no telephone message had come from his friend Walter Goodwin. Disappointed at having to dine alone, the Colombian diplomat wandered to the desk and again asked a clerk to make sure that no tidings had been sent him. He was possessed of an uneasy feeling that something might be wrong. He had not found time to make inquiries concerning Captain Brincker, but he wished Walter had not been so interested in keeping track of that hardened adventurer. Intrigue and mystery are native to the air of Spanish-American countries. One suspects whatever he does not understand.

Finally Alfaro drifted into the dining-room of this excellent hotel, conducted by the paternal government of the Zone, where people meet from all corners of the world. Soon there entered a dapper, black-eyed young dandy in evening clothes of white serge, whom Alfaro recognized as a partner of a shipping-firm in Panama, and an old acquaintance of his. Beckoning him to his own table, the Colombian warmly exclaimed:

"It is a great pleasure, Antonio. Where have you been? I have suffered a thousand disappointments not to find you."

"Business took me to Costa Rica for two weeks," replied the other. "Are you now going home or are you returning?"

"I go to see my father and mother, Antonio. I have been waiting for an American friend to dine with me. He has not arrived. I am anxious. You know everything that goes on in Panama. Tell me, what is Captain Brincker doing here? You are aware of him, of course."

"Who is not? He is a famous character. Before I went to Costa Rica the story was going around that his fortunes had picked up. He has been down at the heel for some time, you know, loafing in Panama."

"There is to be a revolution somewhere?"

"Politics are very much upset in San Salvador. Who knows? By the way, my firm has just sold the old Juan Lopez. We were glad to get her off our hands, I tell you, before she sunk at her moorings. A wretched tin pot of a steamer! You are interested, because she one time figured in Colombian affairs."

"Who purchased the Juan Lopez?" asked Alfaro. "I saw her loading at Balboa to-day, and Captain Brincker was on board."

"The new owner is General Quesada. I wish the fat rascal no good luck with her."

"The owner is General Quesada?" loudly exclaimed Alfaro. "I am startled. And what does Captain Brincker do on board?"

"He is in the service of General Quesada, so I am told. You may put two and two together, if you like. I have learned to mind my own affairs in the shipping business of Panama. Perhaps General Quesada imagines himself to be the next president of San Salvador. He does not buy a steamer and hire a man like Captain Brincker for a pleasure excursion. Is it not so?"

Alfaro had lost his appetite. The process of putting two and two together filled him with alarm. His young friend Goodwin was entangling himself unawares in the concerns of General Quesada, who bore him a violent grudge. Alas, that he could not have been warned to steer clear of Captain Brincker and the Juan Lopez! Alfaro was a poor dinner companion for the dapper Antonio. He asked other questions and the answers were not reassuring. Quesada was said to have been gambling heavily in the disreputable resorts of Panama. Where had he found funds to finance a Central American revolution? He had stolen his provisions and the Juan Lopez had been sold him for a song. But guns and munitions cost a pot of money, and there were wages to pay. Probably some shady concession hunter had backed the enterprise.

All this Alfaro moodily considered until he could no longer curb his impatience.

"You will be so good as to excuse me, Antonio," said he. "I have something to attend to. The address of General Quesada's house in Panama? I wish to write it down. And you say that Captain Brincker has been living with him?"

"Something diplomatic in the wind?" smiled the shipping merchant. "You fear the Juan Lopez may again annoy the politics of your fair country of Colombia?"

"No, Antonio. It has to do with a friend. He saved my life. It is better to be too anxious for such a one than too little."

"You have my approval. Command me if I can aid you. Adios"

Hastening from the hotel, Alfaro took the shortest road to the Ancon hospital, for Goodwin had told him that he was staying there for the present as a guest. After considerable trouble, he found the young surgeon of the accident ward, who was off duty in his quarters.

"Yes," said he, "the base-ball pitcher with a game wing is supposed to be bunking with me, but he flew the coop this afternoon and I haven't seen him since. He said he was going to Balboa to sniff the breezes. You look worried. Anything wrong?"

"I am a little afraid for him," answered Alfaro. "He was to dine with me. I think he may have gone into Panama and got himself into trouble. He has mixed himself up with some people who would be very glad to do him harm."

The surgeon looked perturbed in his turn.

"I am fond of the youngster," said he. "He is not in fit condition to take care of himself. If you have reason to fret about him, suppose we try to look him up. Shall I telephone the Zone police department? Have you any clews?"

A solid foot-fall sounded on the screened porch, and the big frame of Jack Devlin, the steam-shovel man, loomed at the door. His pugnacious, redly tanned face beamed good-naturedly as he said in greeting:

"Howdy, Doc! I dropped in to see my young pal Goodwin, but he's not in the ward. What have you done with him? Is he all mended?"

"We have sort of mislaid him. This is his friend, Señor Alfaro. He can explain the circumstances."

Devlin gripped the slim fingers of the Colombian in his calloused paw and exclaimed:

"Glad to meet you. Goodwin told me how you played a star part in the one-act piece of the parrot and the broomstick. What's on your mind?"

"Goodwin has not come back, and we think General Quesada may have caught him in Panama."

"Quesada, eh?" and Devlin scowled ferociously. "I wouldn't mind taking a crack at that fat crook myself. What's the evidence? Put me next."

Alfaro explained in his vehement, impassioned manner, and at the mention of Captain Brincker the steam-shovel man raised a hand and interrupted:

"Stop a minute. You say you saw this gray-headed beach-comber in Guayaquil one time? So did I, my son. I know him. He is bad medicine for young Goodwin to interfere with, but he has a decent streak in him. Quesada sounds a good deal worse to me. He's a yellow pup all the way through. Come along, Señor Alfaro. Grab your hat and follow me. I need you to sling the Spanish language."

"You are going to consult with the police?" queried the Colombian.

"Not on your life. I'll round up this Quesada-Brincker outfit all by myself. I am kind of responsible for Goodwin. I feel like a godfather by brevet to him. It will do no harm to look into this thing. I am just naturally suspicious of Panamanians in general and of Quesada in particular. Good-by, Doc. I'll keep you posted."

They were lucky enough to find a cab in the hospital grounds and, as the cochero plied the whip, Alfaro added the details of his meeting with Goodwin on the wharf. Devlin listened grimly. He had become taciturn. He was no longer the jovial, swaggering steam-shovel man bragging of the prowess of "old Twenty-six" but a two-fisted American of the frontier breed, schooled to think and to act in tight places.

"I intend to get into General Quesada's house and look his game over," said he.

"But he has a revolver. He tried to kill me with it," cried Alfaro.

"Pshaw, I never found one of you Spanish-Americans that could shoot straight," was the impolite comment.

They left the cab at the nearest corner. Devlin strode ahead, Alfaro peering warily about for unfriendly policemen of the Panama force. In front of the house Devlin halted and said:

"You are a professional diplomat. Better stay outside and jolly the Spiggoty police if a row breaks loose inside. They will try to help Quesada. If I need you I'll sing out good and loud."

"But I am not a coward," earnestly protested the Colombian. "I am not afraid to go in with you. Goodwin saved my life. I will do anything for him."

"You do as you're told, young man, or I may get peevish with you," was the decisive reply.

Devlin rang the bell. When the door was opened by some one dimly visible in the unlighted vestibule, he demanded in very bad Spanish:

"I wish to see General Quesada. It is important."

A strong voice answered in excellent English:

"The general will not be home to-night. What is your business?"

Devlin shoved the other man aside and advanced into the hallway, at the further end of which an electric bulb was aglow.

The other man quickly followed and locked the door behind him.

"Pretty exclusive, aren't you?" said Devlin. "Why, hello, Captain Brincker. I'm looking for a young friend of mine named Goodwin. What have you done with him?"

Gazing hard at the bold intruder, the soldier of fortune answered:

"There is no young man in the house. You are Jack Devlin."

"Sure I am, and my belief is that you are a liar. Do you recall the night when you broke jail ahead of the government troops that were going to shoot you next morning, and swam aboard my dredge in Guayaquil harbor?"

"That revolution in Ecuador was unlucky for me," returned Captain Brincker, in a matter-of-fact way, as if this meeting were not at all extraordinary. "I was on the losing side. You hid me on your dredge and kept me there until I could slip away in a German tramp steamer. I have not forgotten it."

Devlin stood alertly poised, his mind intent on the main issue. If there was to be a truce it must be on his own terms. There was contempt in his eyes as he said:

"You have fallen pretty low since then, Captain Brincker, to play jackal to this cheap bully of a General Quesada. I'm sorry I hauled you aboard my dredge. I have called you a liar. Are you man enough to resent it?"

As if his degradation had been brought home to him, Captain Brincker's deeply lined cheek turned a dull red. He had his own misguided sense of duty, however, and he was thinking of his employer's interests as he rejoined:

"That is a personal matter. You and I will settle it later. I cannot let you come into this house, do you understand?"

"Yes, I understand," growled Devlin. " You're bound to earn your dirty wages. Now, what about young Goodwin? He's a friend of mine, and you know what that means."

"I can tell you nothing——"

"I'm sick of all this conversation. I can see it in your eye that you're guilty," was Devlin's quick retort. His fist shot out and collided with the jaw of Captain Brincker, who staggered back as Devlin clinched with him. Their feet scuffled furiously upon the stone floor. The struggle was waged in silence. The steam-shovel man was the younger and more active, and he was a seasoned rough-and-tumble fighter. A hip-lock, a tremendous heave and twist, and Captain Brincker went down like a falling tree.

Devlin sat upon his chest and searched his clothing for weapons. Finding a loaded revolver, he cocked it and allowed the vanquished soldier of fortune to rise to his feet. The victor's nose was bleeding, but he looked pleased as he gustily observed:

"Too speedy for you, eh? I hope I jolted some decency into you. I'm the boss and you'll tell me what I want to know."

Without a word, Captain Brincker walked to the patio and sat down with his head in his hands. The violent fall had dazed him. Devlin looked at him and said with a pitying laugh:

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You used to be a good deal of a man. A bit too old for the strenuous life! Getting the best of you was like taking candy from a child. Now, I mean business. Tell me the truth, or I'll bend this gun over your head."

Like a good strategist, Devlin had taken his stand where he could command a view of all the entrances into the patio. If surprised by numbers, he intended to shoot his way out of the house.

Captain Brincker hated himself beyond words. He had wavered when he might have protected Walter Goodwin against the wrath of General Quesada. And now Devlin had made him feel utterly unmanly and despicable. It had not been a part of his trade to protect a thief and betray an honest, courageous American lad. He was in a mood to try to make amends. He was ready to haul down his colors.

"I owe you a favor, Devlin," said he, speaking with an effort. "You did me a good turn in Guayaquil harbor. And you have the upper hand. I cannot stomach this Goodwin affair. Yes, the boy came here. I meant him no harm. I was afraid he knew too much about the Juan Lopez expedition. I wanted to keep him quiet for a little while. But he had caught General Quesada at something worse. There was a scheme between him and an American at Balboa, a young man who had been knocking about the west coast and found a job on the wharf. He had gambled with Quesada and lost. The general put the screws on him."

"I heard about that to-night," impatiently broke in Devlin. "Then Quesada took Goodwin out of your hands. What has he done with him?"

"Carried him aboard the Juan Lopez. She is ready to sail. They are only waiting for me to come on board."

"How long will Quesada wait for you? The steamer is anchored in the bay, I suppose."

"He will not wait too long. He is afraid and suspicious. He will think the expedition has been discovered and I am in trouble. He will expect me to get away in a sail-boat and meet him at a rendezvous on the coast."

"I believe you are honest with me," said Devlin. "I can't go aboard and take Goodwin off single-handed. And neither can I trust you to see that no harm comes to him on the voyage."

"You are not fair to me," protested Captain Brincker. "I am very sorry that General Quesada got hold of him."

Devlin laughed incredulously and made an emphatic gesture with the revolver.

"You are a desperate, broken man," he cried. "You are playing for a stake against big odds. Quesada is your boss. Once you get to sea with a ship-load of guns and cut-throat recruits and you will not let the boy stand between you and your business. You are too old a dog to learn new tricks. You mean well, but you are hard as nails. And I cannot trust you to stand up against Quesada and the rest of them to save the lad."

Captain Brincker chewed his gray mustache in silence. At length he grumbled:

"What are you going to do about it?"

Devlin was perplexed, and he cogitated at some length before declaring:

"I have the bright idea. I will hold you as a hostage. When I think of that poor crippled lad out yonder, with Quesada cooking it up in his wicked heart how he can easiest make way with him, it's a wonder I'm not mad enough to blow the head off you, Captain Brincker. You may be thankful that I'm not a violent man."

Devlin glanced into the hallway. He dared not leave his prisoner, so he gruffly ordered him to march in front of him. Halting inside the front door, he sang out in a tremendous voice:

"Oh, you Alfaro! Get a jump on yourself."

The faithful Colombian heard the summons and dashed in as the door was unbolted.

"Are you killed?" he gasped.

"Not by a considerable majority, my son. Captain Brincker and I had an argument. I win. Here, don't step between him and the gun in my fist. Do you know where to find a launch in a hurry and a man to run it?"

"Yes. My friend Antonio Varilla, who dined with me to-night, has a fast gasolene boat."

"Can you find him to-night?"

"He was going from the hotel to the University Club of Panama to play a match at billiards. He will be there now. Tell me, where is Goodwin?"

"I'm going to send you to find him, Alfaro. My Spanish is very rocky or I'd do the trick myself and leave you on sentry duty with the prisoner. You get that launch and you look for the Juan Lopez, understand? She is in the bay, between here and Balboa. And you put it up to General Quesada that his right-hand man, Captain Brincker, is too busy looking into the muzzle of a gun to join the expedition. If Goodwin comes back with you, Captain Brincker goes free. Otherwise I'll march this gray-headed reprobate to the Ancon jail as a filibuster caught in the act. And he'll get about five years. Uncle Sam is mighty hostile to anybody who tries to touch off a revolution in these little Central American republics."

Alfaro nodded with eager approval. Here was a crafty, resourceful stratagem after his own heart. Devlin was a most admirable leader.

"I will find the launch in a hurry," said he, "and I will enjoy making a speech to General Quesada. Trust me to do my share. Shall I come back to this house?"

"Yes. I will not deprive Captain Brincker of my society. And you may tell General Quesada that I intend to camp on his trail till I get his scalp, too."

Alfaro vanished at top speed and Devlin prodded his captive back to the patio. Under the circumstances, the soldier of fortune was not the most entertaining company. They sat facing each other in the wicker chairs while the hours dragged their slow length along. The house was otherwise deserted. The servants had been dismissed earlier in the day. The thick stone walls shut out the street sounds, but the open windows overlooking the bay admitted the murmuring noise of the waves on the beach.

At length Devlin heard the staccato explosions of a launch's engine, diminishing in the distance. He hoped that Alfaro was on his way. The tense excitement of the situation had slackened. Devlin was feeling the nervous strain, and with a yawn he suggested:

"What about making some black coffee, Captain Brincker? You and I are in for a late session to-night. Shall I convoy you into the kitchen? I will poke the gun at you no more than I can help."

The prisoner complied rather grumpily. His sense of humor was in eclipse. For a compulsory cook, he brewed a most excellent pot of coffee which Devlin complimented in friendly terms. As an experienced judge of men and their motives, he observed, after reflection:

"I do not think so harshly of you as I did. War is a cruel game, and you are too old a dog to learn new tricks, I suppose. You ought to have been caught young and tamed. I believe you had a notion of befriending the Goodwin lad."

"Thank you, Devlin. It has been a good many years since any man said as decent a thing as that about me." The fallen soldier of fortune looked his gratitude, and his face was more eloquent than his words.

A long silence fell between them. Each man was busy with his own thoughts. It was broken by Devlin.

"Quesada will not dare to knock Goodwin on the head and throw him into the bay, will he? He thinks he has kidnapped the lad without anybody's knowledge. And he has reason enough for getting rid of him."

"No. You need have no fear of that. He may plan nothing worse than to maroon him in the jungle of San Salvador."

"It would be as bad as death for the boy, and his right arm is useless."

Through the seaward windows they heard the distant throb of a steamer's engines, fluttering, irregular. The sound carried far across the quiet water. The two men gazed at each other.

"She makes a clatter like a mowing-machine. You could hear her for miles," said Devlin. He leaped to his feet and menaced his prisoner with the revolver. "’Tis an old, worn-out boat that makes a noise like that."

"It is the Juan Lopez," exclaimed Captain Brincker, and he did not flinch. "I know those engines of hers. She is outward bound. She has sailed without me."

"Who cares about you?" roared Devlin. "Alfaro failed to turn the trick. Quesada has carried young Goodwin to sea, and precious little show the lad will have for his life."