The Steam-Shovel Man/Chapter 8

 

CHAPTER VIII
WALTER SQUARES AN ACCOUNT


Locked in a room of General Quesada's house, Walter Goodwin felt acutely sorry that he had not minded his own business. He ought to have reported his suspicions to the American officials of the Canal Zone. In his rash eagerness to play a man's part he had undertaken a task too big for him. He was badly frightened, and yet he could not bring himself to realize that serious danger threatened him.

Waiting in the darkened room, he heard the boat's crew make a landing at the sea-wall near by. Instead of passing into the street, they turned and began to climb the stone staircase, in the rear of the house. Their talk had ceased. One of them laughed and another hushed him with a low command. There was something sinister in this approach. Walter surmised that their errand might concern him. Into his mind came the tales he had read of wild, cruel deeds done in this Bay of Panama in days gone by.

The men from the boat halted on the staircase, and presently Walter heard the rumbling undertones of General Quesada. A door was opened, and the swarthy sailors from the Juan Lopez filed into the room. They closed around Walter as if intending to take him with them. He wanted to motion them away, to show them that he was an American, that he could take his medicine like a man, but, alas! the brave, boyish impulse came to naught. He could only stare stupidly at one and the other, as if beseeching them to reveal their purpose. The mate in charge of the party, a sprightly, shock-headed fellow with gold rings in his ears, liked the lad because he made no foolish outcry, and tried to cheer him with a friendly grin.

They escorted him to the sea-wall and thrust him into the boat. If he shouted for help, only the Panamanian sentries posted along the ancient fortification would hear him. It was no business of theirs if a sailor was being carried off to his ship. In the stern loomed the broad, shapeless figure of General Quesada. The oars made bright flashes in the phosphorescent waters of the bay, and the boat moved out into the silent night.

Walter comprehended that he was being carried on board the Juan Lopez, because General Quesada was afraid to leave him behind as a witness of his misdeeds. It was a most alarming situation, but Walter was comforted by the hope that Captain Brincker would befriend him during the filibustering voyage. The soldier of fortune was the most masterful man of the rascally company and was likely to hold the upper hand.

At length the low hull of the laden steamer was discernible in the star-lit darkness. A gangway had been lowered, and after General Quesada had clumsily clambered to the deck, Walter followed with the help of the good-natured mate. He was promptly shoved into a small deck-house and left to wonder miserably what would happen next. There was much commotion in the steamer. From the loud talk, Walter gathered that she was ready to sail as soon as Captain Brincker should come on board. The forlorn lad anxiously listened for the strong voice of the soldier of fortune.

A sailor entered the deck-house on some hasty errand and left the door unfastened. Walter ventured outside and was unnoticed in the confusion. Leaning over the rail, he gazed at the lights of Ancon and thought of his stanch friends Jack Devlin and Alfaro. They would not know what had become of him. They were powerless to aid him.

A gasolene launch was coming toward the steamer from the direction of Panama. The filibustering crew was more noisily excited than ever. Captain Brincker was expected to come off from shore in a row-boat. This sputtering launch was instantly suspected. The Juan Lopez was a steamer with an uneasy conscience, quick to take alarm. Her hull began to vibrate to the clangorous beat of her engines as she prepared to take flight.

The launch swung in a wide arc to pass close alongside. General Quesada was hailed in Spanish and told to wait for an important interview. He was not inclined to parley. All he could think of was that the American authorities wished to overhaul and search the steamer, and he frantically ordered her to make for the open sea at top speed.

The voice from the launch had sounded familiar to Walter Goodwin. Hope leaped in his heart. His friends were trying to rescue him. Before he could call out, Fernandez Garcia Alfaro was shouting to him in English:

"Ho, there, Goodwin! We are wide awake. Keep your courage. We will not give you up!"

Walter tried to yell a glad response, but a hand was clapped over his mouth, and he was roughly dragged back into the deck-house. For the moment disappointment overwhelmed him, but he found consolation in the fact that his friends had traced and followed him. Otherwise he would have felt quite hopeless, for the Juan Lopez had sailed without Captain Brincker and there was no one to stand between him and the ruffianly vengeance of General Quesada.

The general was too busy during the night to pay heed to his prisoner. He sorely needed the seasoned soldier of fortune to handle the lawless crew. The encounter with the launch had made him fear pursuit, and his martial spirit was considerably harassed. He blamed Walter Goodwin as the source of his woes, and yearned to knock the meddlesome young passenger on the head and toss him overboard. This was not feasible, however, because although the ship's company was ripe for revolution, rebellion, or piracy on the high seas, they would draw the line at cold-blooded murder. It seemed an easier solution of the problem to take Goodwin ashore with the expedition and conveniently lose him in the jungle of San Salvador.

"He looks at me like the cat that swallowed the canary," sighed Walter next morning. "Oh, if my right arm was only well and sound, I might fight my way out of this fix somehow. But I just can't believe that things won't come my way."

There were several English-speaking adventurers on board, recruited from the ranks of the "tropical tramps" of Colon and Panama, and General Quesada was unwilling to have Walter make their acquaintance. His story might enlist their sympathy. He was therefore removed from the deck-house and put in a small state-room below. A sentry was posted outside the door, and a boy from the galley brought the rough rations served out to the crew.

It was a tedious imprisonment, with nothing to do but lie in the bunk, or walk to and fro three steps each way, or gaze through the round port-hole at the shining, monotonous expanse of ocean. Now and then the deck above his head resounded to the measured tramp of many feet and the cadenced rattle of breech-blocks and bayonets. Rifles had been broken out of the cargo, and the landing party was being drilled.

The boldly romantic character of the voyage made Walter's blood tingle. To be afloat with these modern buccaneers who were bound out to raid the Spanish Main was like a dream come true. But he had no part in it. He was something to be got rid of. Youth is not easily dismayed, however, and the whole experience was too fantastic, too incredible, for Walter to regard his plight as gravely as the facts warranted.

On the second day at sea, he was staring through the open port, sadly thinking about the fond household in Wolverton. There was a sudden shouting on deck. The engines of the Juan Lopez clanked and groaned as if they were being driven beyond the limit of safety, and every beam and plate and rivet of the rusty hull protested loudly. Some one ran through the cabin shouting:

"They are after us, all right. This blighted old hooker can't get away."

Walter cheered and jubilantly pounded the door with his undamaged fist. A faster steamer was chasing the Juan Lopez. It must have been sent out from the Canal Zone. Poking his head through the port, he squirmed as far as his shoulders would let him. Far astern he caught a glimpse of a black, sea-going tug of large tonnage, whose tall prow was flinging aside the foam in snowy clouds.

Soon the Juan Lopez sharply altered her course and began to edge in toward the coast. From this new angle Walter was able to watch the tug draw nearer and nearer until he could make out the khaki uniforms of the marines massed forward.

"Here is where General Quesada gets what is coming to him," he cried exultantly.

He wiped his eyes and blubbered for joy. He was proud of his country. There was no taking liberties with Uncle Sam on the high seas! A little later he became alarmed at discovering that the Juan Lopez was heading straight for the beach. He comprehended the purpose of General Quesada. The steamer was to be rammed ashore and the crew would escape into the jungle. They might take Walter with them, beyond all reach of rescue.

Now the bullets from the tug began to rattle against the fleeing steamer or to buzz overhead. Walter dodged away from the port-hole and tried to kick the state-room door from its hinges. He could hear the crew working in wild haste to cast loose and lower the boats. From the hold came a tremendous roar of steam. The Juan Lopez was in danger of blowing up before she stranded.

Then there came a rending shock as she struck the beach. Walter was thrown from his feet and dazed, but he managed to scramble to the port-hole, where he could see the crew diving overboard and fleeing through the surf. Others were tumbling pell-mell into the boats. In any other circumstances the flight of these bold revolutionists would have been vastly amusing.

Walter began to hope that he had been forgotten in the panic. As soon as the ship was deserted he would smash the flimsy door and gain the deck, where he could signal the other vessel and let his friends know that he was alive and well.

Before he could break his way out, the door was hastily unlocked, and there stood General Quesada, perspiring freely and greatly excited. He had delayed to get his precious prisoner who knew too much. Carelessly assuming that in his disabled condition Walter could make no resistance, he proposed to take him from the ship single-handed. In expecting meek obedience he was guilty of a serious error of judgment. With rescue so near, the robust youth was in no mood to obey the beckoning gesture.

He objected to being led into the jungle, and his objection was sudden and violent. His wits were working as nimbly as if he were pitching a championship game of base-ball. This was his first chance to meet the enemy on anything like even terms. And he had a large-sized score to settle with General Quesada. Walter would have preferred a hickory broom-handle and plenty of room to swing it, but without weapons of any kind and only one good arm he must choose new tactics.

General Quesada stood in the doorway and growled impatiently at him. Stepping back to gain momentum, Walter lowered his head and lunged forward like a human battering-ram. He smote the corpulent general in the region of his belt. The impact was terrific. The amazed warrior doubled up and sat down with a thump and a grunt, clasping his fat hands to his stomach. His appearance was that of a man who had collided with a pile-driver.

Walter climbed over his mountainous bulk and the general was too breathless to utter his emotions. His face expressed the most painful bewilderment. He had ceased to take interest in his very urgent affairs. Walter had no time to pity him. He had resolved to assist the stern course of justice to the best of his ability.

Using his left arm and shoulder, he sturdily shoved at the collapsed general until he had moved him inside the state-room. It was like trying to shift a bale of cotton. The door opened outward into the main cabin, so that Walter was able to close and lock it. Then he pushed and dragged a table, a bench, and several chairs to build a barricade against the door as an extra precaution. This accomplished, the weary and panting youth said to himself:

"I think that will hold him for a while. It was about time the worm turned. Now I'm willing to call it quits. And his crew isn't going to bother to look for him."

This was a sound conclusion. It was a case of every man for himself. They were entirely too busy trying to outrun the bullets of the marines to concern themselves about the fate of General Quesada. He could not even yell to them to wait for him, because the collision with Walter's hard head made it necessary for him to remain seated on the floor, still pensively clasping his belt and wondering what had happened to him.

Walter was for taking no chances with his prize. Perching himself upon the barricade, he waited for the boarding-party from the tug to find him. The ship became silent except for the shriek of the steam from the safety-valves. Walter was left in sole command to enjoy the situation. Presently General Quesada showed symptoms of reviving. He lifted his voice in a quavering appeal to his comrades in arms, but they had disappeared beyond the green curtain of the jungle. Walter listened to the plaintive wail and gloated. He was not vindictive by nature, but there was such a thing as righteous retribution. When General Quesada became more vigorous and began to kick the door, Walter addressed him soothingly and advised him to be calm.

When the party of marines reached the steamer, Jack Devlin was one of the first to scramble on deck. The voice of this faithful friend came down the companion-way to Walter.

"He is not in the ship, you can take my word for it. He would have surely shown himself by now."

"Oh, don't look so sad-eyed and hopeless until we make a search," replied the captain of marines. "I can't believe that he was put out of the way during the voyage. And we didn't see him taken ashore."

Walter kept silent. This was the most delightful moment of his life. Presently Devlin came downstairs into the cabin. The place was gloomy after the dazzling sunshine above, and he halted to get his bearings. Then moving forward, he almost stumbled into the barricade of furniture. Walter leaned over, grasped him by the shoulder, and exclaimed:

"I'm glad to see you aboard. Did you have a pleasant trip?"

The steam-shovel man jumped back, and emitted a yell which could have been no louder if he had been clutched by a ghost.

"Are you honestly alive?" he gasped. "You blessed young rascal, you! You scared me out of a year's growth."

"Of course I am alive, and doing very nicely, thank you. How in the world did you happen to get on my trail? And what about the tug and the rest of the outfit?"

Walter tried to make his voice sound as if this were a commonplace meeting, but his eyes twinkled with mischief as he thought of the second surprise in store for the steam-shovel man.

"I'll tell you all about it when you are safe aboard the Dauntless yonder," said Devlin. "And what are you doing roosting on that heap of furniture like a crazy hen? Oh my, but I'm sorry General Quesada got away from you. We surely did pine to lug him back to Panama with us."

The hapless general in the state-room had become silent, for he was reluctant to draw the attention of the American party. Walter chuckled as he replied:

"I have a present for you. It is a big one. If you really want General Quesada, you can have him with my compliments."

"You're joking, boy. He is boring a large hole in the jungle by this time."

"He wishes he was. Open this door behind me and see what you find."

Devlin tossed the furniture aside and entered the state-room. General Quesada was sitting on the edge of the bunk and appeared very low-spirited. Just then the captain of the marines came below with a dozen privates at his heels. The steam-shovel man loudly summoned them, adding with tremendous gusto:

"Didn't I tell you that Goodwin was the finest lad that ever happened? All he needed was a chance to get into action."

They cheered for Goodwin, and cordially invited General Quesada to surrender and end the war.

"You would steal Uncle Sam's groceries and go skylarking off to start trouble in the cute little republic of San Salvador, would you?" playfully remarked a sergeant of marines. "I never had a chance to talk plain to a real live general. Step lively, now. No impudence."

The general was permitted to get his personal baggage, after which the marines escorted him to the Dauntless, where his fallen fortunes met with little sympathy. He was a sullen, despondent figure and not a trace of his pompous bearing was left.

The sea was so smooth and the weather indications so favorable that it was decided to salvage the cargo of the Juan Lopez. Her arms and munitions and supplies were valuable and would be confiscated by the American government after due process of the law. The transfer had to be made in small boats, and was a task requiring two or three days. The Juan Lopez was hopelessly stranded. She would soon go to pieces, a melancholy memorial of a Spanish-American revolution that was nipped in the bud.

Walter Goodwin was in danger of being spoiled by the marines who petted and pampered him, and were never tired of hearing him spin the yarn of his adventures which began with the episode of the parrot and the broom-stick. Their surgeon attended to the injured arm, and found that it was little the worse for the rough usage of the voyage. His verdict was so encouraging that Walter could hope to play base-ball before the Isthmian League finished its winter season.

This aroused violent argument on board the Dauntless. A war of words raged over Walter's services as a pitcher. Jack Devlin set up a claim in behalf of Culebra, because he had engineered the rescue.

"All obligations to Naughton and those other Cristobal robbers are wiped out," cried he. "If I hadn't set out to find you and stuck to it like a terrier at a rat-hole, where would you be now?"

"Camp Elliot has a pretty fast nine," chimed in the captain of marines, "and Goodwin fairly belongs to us. Didn't we have a lot to do with getting him back?"

"I really belong to Cristobal—" Walter tried to explain, but Devlin cut the discussion short by declaring:

"We'll put it up to Colonel Gunther for a decision."

After one of these good-natured altercations, Walter called the steam-shovel man aside and anxiously told him:

"It is all very fine to be called a hero and to be in such demand as a pitcher, but it doesn't make me very happy. I came to the Isthmus to look for a job on the gold roll and I seem to be getting farther away from it all the time. I am broke and my folks at home don't know where I am, and I don't seem to be giving them a lift very fast."

Devlin was instantly attentive and serious. It seemed to strike him for the first time that being rescued was not a part of Walter's real programme.

"Of course, I thought you ought to be pretty well satisfied with yourself," said he. "You have kicked up a most amazing rumpus for a lad of your tender years. Now, about a job——"

"Don't think me ungrateful," broke in Walter. "I don't deserve all this wonderful friendship and kindness. I am just worried about things, that's all, and I want your advice."

"You are perfectly right, my boy. You are keeping your eye on the ball. In the first place, the colonel himself is interested in you. He ought to be. You made trouble enough for him. And Major Glendinning will forgive you for trying to stop that landslide in the cut. You have recovered a good many dollars' worth of commissary supplies for him, and that thief of a checker has been gotten rid of. You can take it from me that he hasn't been seen since. Your stock ought to be way above par by now."

"Do you really think there will be something for me to do?" asked Walter.

"If there isn't, I'll recommend you to the colonel for the job of suppressing Spanish-American revolutions with neatness and despatch. The Panama republic and San Salvador between them ought to reward you handsomely for putting the lid on General Quesada."

"Maybe my luck has turned," was Walter's hopeful comment.

"If it hasn't, my son, you can set me down as a mighty poor guesser."