(Chapter 17, pages 174–175)
“How long you say you have been in Panama?”
The belabored question was plainly designed to rankle. The stick-limbed Jamaican had already ruined Thomas’ smugness at having guessed from the man’s starched khaki shirt and the hitch in his step that he was a straw-boss for one of the crews digging down in the canyon, but he still insisted on being a pisser.
“Look, we’ve been over this three times—” Thomas griped in frustration. “I tell you I’ve been with the company going on three years. We both know the Cut needs diggers, so what are we standing out in the hot sun quibbling over? Point me to a shovel and I’ll get started!”
The straw-boss looked incredulous. “Dressed like that?”
Thomas suddenly remembered he was wearing his red satin vest and pin-striped trousers. “I know a bunch of these men,” he lied smoothly. “I’m sure one of them won’t mind lending me his extra dungarees.”
The foreman’s face, scored with pits from a bout of smallpox, scrunched with a look that said he was struggling to decide if Thomas was a pampered scamp or some poor loon put off his head by sickness. He took one more craving glance up to the little camp store where he’d been heading then dug inside his back pocket and pulled out a small slip of paper. Stopping to lick the tip of his thumb, he unfolded it carefully and pointed to the bottom. “Write your full name here,” he commanded. “If the French boss says it’s a go you can start tomorrow. Just make sure you’re back here by six o’clock, sharp.”
“Um … I was hoping I might spend the night in camp …” Thomas cajoled, stepping in again to block the foreman’s path.
The middle-aged Jamaican looked towards the heavens to silently ask why he was being punished with this crazy impediment intent on keeping him from that pack of snuff. He turned back to Thomas with a caustic snarl. “You need a signed contract before I can let you sleep in camp.”
“No need to act so touchy! … I’ll sign one now.”
The foreman drooped and again gazed skyward before peering at his pest with a smirk. “You say you been working here almost three years – then you should know that before you can get a contract you need to have a physical exam. Then if you pass – you gotta swear you’ll stay here and dig for no less than two years.”
“Look, I’m offering you an extra back for a week or maybe two – I’m not out for a whole career!”
Thomas watched in dismay as the straw-boss swore under his breath and folded up the paper. The problems with his unconsidered impulse were popping up faster than he could bat them down, but the challenge kept egging him on. His only chance now was to try and bluff.
“All right,” he admitted. “I see I’ll just have to be square with you – I work for the Eastern Division’s top engineer. He’s been complaining about progress down at the Cut being awful slow…” Thomas stopped and fixed a bold look on the baffled Jamaican. “I’d like to be able to report that my hardworking compatriots are doing a smashing job under trying circumstances.”
The foreman studied him coldly. His eyes looked small and mean. “I don’t know what game this is you’re playing but if they catch you out don’t bodda pretend you got my say so – ’cause I’ll deny it—” He shoved the crumpled paysheet against Thomas’ chest and handed him a pencil from inside his sleeve.
As he stooped to scribble his name, Thomas could feel the foreman’s unblinking glare warming him from his head to his toes.
The straw-boss grabbed back his paper and barked over his shoulder as he headed up the ridge to the little camp store with his haughty hitch-stepped gait. “Make sure when you show up tomorrow you have on proper poor man’s clothes.”
(Chapter 18, pages 186–188)
Bawling a command in Spanish, the platoon-leader had the troops form in line and with a wave of his bladed gun had them steer the two Jamaicans back past the Freight House and down to the railroad s terminal yard. They prodded them across the long snaking bands of iron tracks and into an open space where a detachment of United States Marines were loitering in back by a refitted flat car armored with skin of half-inch steel and mounted with two murderous-looking Gatling guns. The Marines all shared a contemptuous careless pose that conflicted with their smart blue jackets and shiny helmets. Their faces, burnt pink from the tropical sun, held a sheen of boredom that faded instantly seeing the platoon parading in their mismatched prisoners, one a giant, the other almost tiny.
Longers, who had been putting up a fuss the entire way, sent his voice booming across the main yard, antagonizing his Colombian guards who simply wanted him to shut up and wait. Longers was still loudly attempting to explain that he worked at the nearby shipyard when an officer with mutton-chop whiskers and a chestful of ribbons came ambling into the yard on a small red pony. The animal was straining piteously beneath his heft and one of the Marines yelled out to ask if he couldn’t find a horse his own size to cripple.
The cheeky challenge drew gales of Yankee laughter which the officer haughtily ignored. His solid back poised, he slipped lightly out of his stirrups, which were close to scraping the ground. He continued to pretend not to hear the raucous gringos and after strolling past Longers with an icy glance, stopped a foot from Byron’s nose and stared him up and down with intense fascination. He snapped out a question in Spanish and Byron froze in a deaf and dumb panic, his brain distracted by the whiff of stale beer and strong tobacco.
“¿No habia español?” the lieutenant mocked, winking back towards his men who bared several rows of crumbling teeth stained black from a diet of coffee and gnawed cigars.
“Hey, boy!” the cheeky Marine shouted over to Byron. “Tell the spick he needs to learn to speakee-de-English!”
There were more waves of Yankee laughter and the lieutenant stood rigidly still, preserving his majestic self-possession. Then all at once he wheeled back at Byron, who quailed to see that his grin was a mask of pure malice.
“¡Mire, la manguerita negra se está retirando delfuego! Look—his little black hose is helping put out the fire!” the lieutenant exclaimed, pointing to the dark patch spreading at Byron’s crotch.
His captors doubled over, gasping with laughter. In his fright, Byron had experienced a strangely pleasurable release and now a second warm stream, this time of urine, was leaking down inside his thigh. ‘
“A little late though, eh, muchacho? The nasty fires you changos started have all been extinguished!” the officer taunted in impeccable English. “Aha! And what have we here?” He exclaimed, pointing to Johnnys fiddle-case with sham surprise. “Look, amigos! Un instrumento! So—you are a violinista!—or did you steal it?”
Before Byron could respond the officer snatched the fiddle from his hand. Longers jumped to intercede but was checked by the alert platoon-leader who stuck the point of his bayonet in the sailors rib. Longers sagged, as if seriously wounded. When he stayed on his knees the soldiers lowered their rifles and bent towards him curiously. Longers was back on his feet in a flash and with a smooth swivel-hipped pivot, kicked the long gun from the platoon-leader’s grip, sending it spinning through the air.
The Marines broke into full-throated cheers, applauding the fluency and power of the move. With the Colombians briefly stunned, Longers crouched close to the ground and, pulling the flintlock from his back, took dead aim at the haughty lieutenant.
The officer coolly held up his hand, disdaining the slightest show of fear. “What are you going to do—?” he sneered, halting his men when they rushed to take aim with their rifles, “shoot an officer of the Colombian federal guard in front of twenty witnesses?”
“I’m not out to shoot anybody,” Longers answered truthfully. “I just want you people to stop and listen to—”
Before ‘reason’ was out of his mouth, the eight man platoon had him surrounded.
“Why are you assaulting us ?” Longers cried as he easily brushed off his first few attackers. “We’ve done nothing wrong! You have no right!”
A sudden gunshot paused the scuffle and the sergeant quickly wrested away the old flintlock. The lieutenant stalked up to Longers and pressed the barrel of his smoking gun to the middle of his forehead. “I have no right?— have you forgotten this is my country? Be glad I must show our Yankee friends we are more civilized—we honor our laws … but please—” he warned in a whisper, “don’t test me!—¡Sargento!” he thundered abruptly. “¡Cuerda para atar sus manos! Get some rope to tie his hands—then bind it around his black neck!”
“Si, Teniente Rivueltas—¡si, señor!” replied the troop-leader, scurrying off to one of the railcars nearby with a bright salute.
The rest of the platoon trained their rifles on Longers and the lieutenant tucked away his pistol then flipped open the black-cedar case. He lifted out the fiddle and admired it with a critical eye then ran two of his fingers gingerly across the catgut. “You need new strings,” he said flatly. Reaching for the bow, he shoved it and the violin into Byron’s chest. “Play us a tune. If you’re any good, your higueputa goes free,” he promised, tipping his head back over at the giant squatting on the ground inside a circle of bayonets.
“Spit in his eye!” Longers yelled, then gave a gasp as a soldier’s boot slammed his ribs.
Byron stared at the magic fiddle and felt ill. He set the bow on a string and every muscle in his body locked tight. He stood there helplessly, too ashamed to glance back at Longers. His shoulders drooped and he let the fiddle slide down, slowly, from under his chin.