The Steam-Shovel Man/Chapter 7

 

CHAPTER VII
A FAT RASCAL COMES TO GRIEF


When Jack Devlin learned that the Juan Lopez had gone to sea, he forgot his threat of putting the soldier of fortune in a Canal Zone jail. His one concern was to rescue Walter Goodwin. The steam-shovel man had that rugged, indomitable temperament which refuses to quit as long as there is a fighting chance. Fiercely turning upon the disconsolate Captain Brincker, he shouted:

"I have no time to bother with you. You could have saved the lad, and you stood by and let Quesada carry him away. Many a man has stretched hemp for a deed less cruel. I will wait here for Alfaro. Get out of my sight. The house is not big enough for the two of us."

Without a word Captain Brincker, sorry, ashamed, and perhaps repentant, went into the street. Devlin paced the hallway like a caged lion, hoping against hope that Alfaro might be bringing Walter Goodwin ashore in the launch. It was after midnight when the Colombian came running into the house with only breath enough to gasp:

"The launch was a big one—General Quesada was frightened when he saw it—he thought it was from the American government, sent to catch him. They would not listen to me. The Juan Lopez slipped her cable and ran to sea as hard as she could."

Grasping him by the shoulders, Devlin hoarsely demanded:

"Could you tell if Goodwin was on board?"

"I called to him in English. I told him his friends would find him. I thought I heard him try to holler something, but there was much noise, the engines, and the men giving orders. They yelled to me to keep away or they would shoot."

"I guess we had better get busy and plan our campaign," said Devlin.

"What will you do? Wake up the American minister in Panama? It is now a diplomatic matter. It is an international outrage. It is a Panama steamer that has stolen Goodwin, and General Quesada belongs to the republic."

"Oh, shucks!" drawled the steam-shovel man. "Do you know what that means? Cabling to Washington and enough red tape in the State Department to choke a cow. And delay to drive you crazy. And what becomes of Goodwin in the meantime?"

Rather chagrined to hear diplomacy dismissed so scornfully, Alfaro timidly ventured:

"The civil administration of the Canal Zone?"

Devlin hauled the young man into the street and hustled him in the direction of Ancon, as he confidently declared:

"Your theories are too complicated, my son. Diplomacy has killed your speed. There is only one boss on the Isthmus, one man who can do things right on the jump without consulting anybody in the world. I'm going to put this up to the colonel."

"To Colonel Gunther?" Alfaro was dumfounded. "Will he let you talk to him? Will he bother himself with this affair of ours?"

"You bet he will. And let me tell you, a steam-shovel man with the high record for excavating in the Cut can go straight to the colonel on business a whole lot less important than this."

"Can we see him to-night?"

"No. There is no train to Culebra. But, lucky for us, to-morrow is Sunday, and he holds open court in his office, early in the morning. It is then that any man on the job with a kick, growl, or grievance can talk it over with the colonel. I will go to your hotel with you, Alfaro, and we will hop aboard the first train out. It will be only a few hours lost and that condemned old junk-heap of a Juan Lopez will not be many miles on her way to San Salvador."

Greatly comforted, the Colombian exclaimed with much feeling: "Next to the colonel, I think you are the biggest man on the Isthmus, Señor Devlin."

"I can handle a steam-shovel with any of them, and I aim to stand by my friends," was the self-satisfied reply.

Before eight o'clock next morning they were waiting in a large, plainly furnished room of a barn-like office building perched on the hillside of Culebra. The walls were covered with maps and blue prints. At a desk heaped with papers sat the soldierly, white-haired ruler of forty thousand men, the supreme director of a four-hundred-million-dollar undertaking. His cheek was ruddy, his smile boyish, and he appeared to be at peace with all the world.

He had come to listen to complaints, no matter how trivial, to pass judgment, to give advice, like a modern Caliph of Bagdad. It was a cog in the machinery of his wonderful organization. Dissatisfaction had been checked as soon as the colonel set apart the one forenoon of the week in which his men were not at work in order that they might "talk it over with him." As Jack Devlin entered the office he was humming under his breath the refrain of a popular song composed by an Isthmian bard:


"Don't hesitate to state your case,
The boss will hear you through,
It's true he's sometimes busy
And has other things to do;
But come on Sunday morning
And line up with the rest,
You'll maybe feel some better
With that grievance off your chest."

 

The colonel was listening gravely to a difference of opinion between a black Jamaican laborer and his buxom wife, touching the ownership of seventeen dollars which she had earned by washing and ironing. The wise judge ruled that the money belonged to her and ordered the husband to return it. He muttered:

"I'se a British subjeck, sah, an' mah property rights is protected by de British laws, sah."

"All right," and the colonel's blue eyes snapped. "If you like, I'll deport you. You can get all the English law you want in Jamaica."

A perplexed young man informed the colonel that he was the secretary of the Halcyon Social and Literary Club of Gorgona, which desired to give a dance in the ballroom of the Tivoli Hotel. The request had been denied because of a clash of dates with another organization. Would the colonel help straighten it out? Certainly he would, and he sent the young man away satisfied, after investigating the difficulty with as scrupulous attention as if the fate of the Gatun dam had been involved.

A brawny blacksmith's helper had been discharged by his foreman. He thought himself unfairly treated. The colonel pressed a button, and inside three minutes the man's record, neatly documented, was on the desk.

"You deserved what you got," crisply declared the colonel. "You were drunk and insolent, and I am surprised that the foreman did not tap you over the head with a crow-bar."

Jack Devlin restlessly awaited his turn, while Alfaro looked on with comical wonderment that so great a man should busy himself with matters so trifling. At length the colonel swung his chair around and affably observed:

"Hello, Devlin. Have you dug Twenty-six out of the slide? And when will she make another high record?"

"She is some bunged up, colonel, but still in the ring. The old girl will be going strong in another week."

"What can I do for you?"

"It's not myself that has any kick, colonel. I want your help for a friend of mine. He's not on the job, but I hope it will make no difference with you. He worked for Mr. Naughton on the dynamite ship, and then Major Glendinning half-way promised him a place on the gold roll because he can pitch ball like a streak of greased lightning."

Devlin halted and grinned at his own frankness. The colonel smiled back at him.

"Base-ball is irrelevant, Devlin, but I am sure Major Glendinning would make your young man earn his salary. So he wanted him to pitch for Cristobal? But you are the catcher of the Culebra nine. You show an unselfish interest, I'm sure."

"I'm a fierce rooter on the ball field, colonel, but I can't let it come between friends. This young chap, Walter Goodwin, got General Quesada down on him. He whaled the fat scoundrel with a broomstick on board the Saragossa. Quesada was trying to perforate Señor Alfaro here with a gun."

The colonel appeared keenly interested and interrupted to say: "Why, I was on the ship and I remember the youngster quite well. He was a seaman. The skipper told me about the row. I liked Goodwin's pluck. Between us, Devlin, the Panamanian gentleman had provoked a drubbing."

"Yes, sir. Goodwin was working his passage to the Isthmus to look for a job and——"

"Why didn't he let me know it on shipboard?" queried the colonel. "I was interested in him."

"He didn't have the nerve. You looked too big to him. To cut it short, he was tipped over by the same landslide that left me and poor old Twenty-six all spraddled out. He came out of Ancon hospital yesterday with no job and his arm tied up. And he wandered down to Balboa and caught General Quesada's steamer, the Juan Lopez, stealing commissary stores from the wharf to outfit a filibustering expedition. Quesada got hold of him and lugged him off to sea last night. It's surely a bad fix for Goodwin."

The colonel no longer smiled. His resolute mouth tightened beneath the short, white mustache. The blue eyes flashed. He listened to Alfaro's detailed confirmation of the story. With winning courtesy the colonel said to him:

"Your father, the Colombian minister of foreign affairs, has no love for the United States, I am told. Will you tell him, with my compliments, that I greatly admire the behavior of his son?"

Turning to Devlin he added, crisply, decisively:

"I have no reason to doubt your story. You have a fine record. I shall act first and investigate later. Goodwin was kidnapped from the Zone, from American soil, as I understand it. He was living with one of the surgeons at Ancon?"

"Yes, colonel. You can find out by telephone easy enough."

"How many men were there on the Juan Lopez? And how fast is she?"

Alfaro answered:

"There were fifty or sixty men on board when I saw her at Balboa yesterday. Perhaps more were taken on in the bay last night. I know something about filibustering expeditions. She would carry not less than a hundred men. And of course there are plenty of guns in her. Her speed is slow. She will go eight or nine knots, I think."

"Will General Quesada fight?" The colonel asked the question with distinctly cheerful intonation, as if for the moment he was more soldier than engineer.

"He may fight for his neck," said Devlin, "and if he has a chance to get away. He knows that he is caught with the goods. But without Captain Brincker, he is a lame duck."

"And you are sure that young Goodwin is in serious danger?"

"Why not?" and Devlin pounded the desk with his hard fist. "Quesada has motives enough for losing him somewhere."

"I agree with you. And, besides, I should like to recover those commissary stores."

The colonel gazed at the opposite wall, composed and thoughtful. Devlin eyed him wistfully, afraid that he might consider the case as beyond his jurisdiction. Then with a quick glow of heat, the anger of a strong man righteously provoked, the colonel said sharply:

"It is a rotten, abominable performance, clear through. We are wasting time."

Summoning a clerk, he told him:

"Get Captain Brett, the superintendent at Balboa, on the telephone. Tell him that I wish the biggest, fastest tug of the fleet, the Dauntless, if possible, to be coaled and ready for sea in two hours. Please ask him to call me up and report."

The colonel hesitated as if a question of authority perplexed him, but when the clerk returned he was ready with another command.

"I want to talk with Major Frazier of the marine battalion at Camp Elliot personally. Please connect his house with my desk."

Devlin nudged Alfaro. The face of the steam-shovel man lighted with the joy of battle. The colonel was a man with his two feet under him. They heard him say to the commander of the force of United States marines:

"It is an emergency detail, Major. I will forward the formal request and explanation to you in writing, but the documents can wait. An officer and a half company of men will be enough. Yes, equipped for active service. Thank you, very much. I will have a special train at your station in an hour from now, ready to take them to Balboa. It is a bit of sea duty. Your men will enjoy it."

Other orders issued rapidly from the colonel's desk. The Panama Railroad was notified to despatch a special train and give it a clear track through to the Pacific. The Department of Justice of the Canal Zone was requested to prepare the papers in due form for the arrest of General Quesada, and the seizure of his vessel. The splendidly organized system of administration moved as swiftly and smoothly in behalf of that humble, forlorn young wanderer, Walter Goodwin, as if he had been a person of the greatest consequence. As a final detail, the colonel made out passes permitting Devlin to go in the special train and on board of the government tug.

"You will want to see the fun, I suppose," said he, and his blue eyes twinkled again. "I should enjoy it myself."

"Indeed you would, sir," frankly replied Devlin.

"I think the capture of the Juan Lopez is in capable hands, with you and the marines as the fighting force. Report to me as soon as you come back. And bring Goodwin with you. I want to congratulate him on the kind of friends he has made on the Isthmus."

 
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"Report to me as soon as you come back. And bring Goodwin with you"

 
They stepped aside and made way for a committee from the machinists' union with a grievance concerning pay for over-time. The colonel settled back in his chair to give the problem his judicial attention. As Devlin left the office he said to Alfaro:

"What did I tell you, my son? When you want quick action there is no boss like a benevolent despot. That man will finish the Panama Canal two years ahead of time because the people at home have sense enough to let him alone."

"If he had ambitions like General Quesada he would rule all of South America," was the tribute of Fernandez Garcia Alfaro.

A little after ten o'clock of this same morning the sea-going tug Dauntless, of the dredging flotilla, swung away from the coaling wharf at Balboa. Beneath her awnings lounged thirty marines in khaki who welcomed Jack Devlin as a friendly foe. Several of them had played on the Camp Elliot nine of the Isthmian League, and the stalwart Culebra catcher had more than once routed them by hammering out a home-run or a three-bagger at a critical moment.

"It's comical that we should be chasing after a pitcher that will try to trim both of us, Jack," said a clean-built sergeant.

"Maybe he will ease up and let us hit the ball occasionally," replied Devlin. "He is a good-hearted lad and he will be grateful for a small favor like this."

The Dauntless was faster than the Juan Lopez by two or three knots an hour. General Quesada had about ten hours' start in his flight up the coast. The pursuers could not hope to overtake him until the morning of the second day at sea. The excitement of the chase kept all hands alert and in high spirits. From the captain of marines in command of the detachment to the stokers in the torrid fire-room ran the fervent hope that General Quesada, outlawed and desperate, would make a fight of it. The marines regretted that cutlasses had not been included hi their equipment. The proper climax of such an adventure was an old-fashioned boarding-party.

The long, hot day and the sweet, star-lit night passed by and the powerful tug steadily tore through the uneasy swells of the Pacific, holding her course within sight of the Central American coast lest the quarry might double and slip into bay or river.

The whole ship's company crowded forward when the master of the Dauntless shouted from the wheel-house that he could make out a smudge of smoke to the northward.

Slowly the tell-tale smoke increased until it became a dense black streamer wind-blown along the blue horizon. Whatever the steamer might be, she was lavishly burning coal as if in urgent haste.

The captain of marines sternly addressed his hilarious men, threatening all sorts of punishment if they so much as cocked a rifle before the order was given. Shading their eyes with their hands, they stood and watched the funnel of the distant steamer lift above the rolling waste of ocean. Slowly her hull climbed into view, and the skipper of the tug recognized that rusty, dissolute vagabond of the high seas, the Juan Lopez.

Shortly after this, the fleeing filibuster must have recognized the Dauntless as hailing from the Canal Zone. The funnel of the Juan Lopez belched heavier clouds of smoke from her funnel and an extra revolution or two was coaxed from her decrepit engines. The Dauntless gained on her more slowly. Now the cheerful marines dived below to handle shovels instead of rifles, and they mightily reinforced the sweating stokers.

"I can juggle coal pretty fast myself," said Jack Devlin, as he stripped off his shirt and followed the other volunteers.

This frenzied exertion was needless. An hour or two and the Dauntless must certainly overtake the laboring Juan Lopez. Sympathy for Walter Goodwin, anxiety to know what had become of him, made them wild with impatience. He was an American, one of their own breed, and he was in trouble.

The vessels were perhaps three miles apart when the Juan Lopez veered from her course and swept at a long slant toward the green and hilly coast.

"There is no harbor hereabouts," shouted the skipper of the Dauntless. "They are going to beach her and take to the woods."

The alarm on deck reached the ears of Jack Devlin, who popped out of the stoke-hole and viewed the maœuvre with blank dismay.

"I don't blame Quesada for beating it to the tall timber," he muttered disgustedly. "But what about Goodwin?"

The Dauntless turned to follow, but her master was unfamiliar with the shoals and reefs lying close to the land. He reluctantly slackened speed to feel his way inshore. The Juan Lopez, handled by one who knew where he was going, made straight for a small bight of the coast where the jungle crept, tall and dense, to the beach.

The marines opened fire when the converging courses of the two vessels brought them within extreme rifle-range of each other. The Juan Lopez showed no intention of heaving to. Her crew could be seen running to and fro, working furiously at the tackle of the boats, making ready to drop them overside. The volleys from the Dauntless seemed only to quicken their industry.

"Oh, for a Maxim or a Colt's automatic!" sighed the captain of marines. "I'd make that wicked old tub look like a porous plaster. Who ever dreamed the beggars would do anything but surrender?"

General Quesada had obviously concluded that it was better to try to find another ship and more guns and rascals than to cool his heels in an American jail. The flight of the Juan Lopez ceased abruptly and at full-tilt. She grounded close to the beach, and the shock was so great that her ancient funnel was jerked overside as if it had been plucked out by the roots.

Many of her crew tarried not for the boats, but jumped overboard, bobbed up like so many corks, and scrambled through the surf to scuttle headlong into the jungle.

The disappointed marines were within effective shooting distance, and they merrily peppered the vanishing rogues. The Dauntless swung her boats out and a landing-party was swiftly organized. The boats of the fugitive filibusters were more or less screened from view by the intervening hull of the Juan Lopez. A sharp lookout was kept for the bulky figure of General Quesada himself. Somehow he escaped observation. Before the marines had set out for the shore, the last runaway from the Juan Lopez had fled across the beach and buried himself in the jungle. The stranded ship had emptied herself as by magic. It was concluded that General Quesada had been among the crowd which filled the boats and floundered pell-mell through the surf.

"The boss pirate got away from us," disgustedly exclaimed Jack Devlin.

"There is no use chasing them through the jungle," said the captain of marines. "They will scatter like a bunch of fire-crackers, and we should be tangled up and lost in no time."

"I did not see Goodwin anywhere," replied Devlin, looking very anxious.

"The hull of the Juan Lopez was between us and the boats, so that we couldn't see all of them go ashore. Goodwin may have been taken into the jungle. If he had been left behind on the ship, he would be making signals to us by now."

"He would if he were alive," dolefully muttered the steam-shovel man.