Thomas Judah

Its temper more lamb than lion, the volatile Chagres had been mercifully sleepy, allowing Henri Duvay the time to judge how best to rob the mighty river of its power. His team had traced the dormant channel south to where it cascaded three hundred feet to the buttresses of the railroad's latest bridge at Barbacoas. The hulking six-hundred-foot span, girded in stone and belted with wrought-iron, would be lucky to survive the next great flood when a million gallons of roaring water could rush downstream inside a heartbeat. To spare the canal such predictable destruction, Duvay's solution was to divert the Chagres' feeding tributaries to a manmade lake which ships entering from the Atlantic would then access by a flight of locks.

Thomas had seen the mission to its end, but every day more bitter loathing and a pining for revenge had been sharpening like a stalactite dripping guilty night tears for his dead discarded friend. When he had managed to sleep, he'd been beset by nightmares: a giant stalking cat with eyes of fire pouncing on a wandering child, the boy's frail limbs jerking helplessly as they snapped inside its monstrous crunching jaws; dark bleeding men with snake-like bodies begging for water while they thrashed in the mud which churned red and viscid the more they squirmed. More than once, he had thought of packing it in and sailing for home, then realized that for him to turn tail and leave now would only confirm his repulsive cowardice. If he was to retain a shred of self-respect he had to stay on and face Diego's mother. So when Duvay turned querulous and ordered him about, he had curbed his tongue, content to wait while he devised a way to get even.

Although he could scarcely remember having ever been content, he had never felt lonely. Yet here he was, feeling strangely abandoned inside his mentor's commodious residence. Exhilarated by his findings, Henri had left for Panama City immediately after their return and Monique was still off enjoying her first vacation. As Thomas reclined in the soft wicker bed, the touch of the morning breeze wafting through the French windows added to his melancholy. "Admit it, Mister Crusoe," he muttered, pushing aside the gauzy white netting that had granted his first night free of biting insects in many weeks, "you're a fraud."

That he was lying here in ease while Diego lay dead disgraced him to his core. Telling himself he'd come back to Christophe-Colomb because of Genevieve only inflamed similar feelings. The cold truth was he had already failed his promise to live like other hardworking men. He'd gone soft. Worse yet, he had traded on his father's reputation.

 He had been battling deep self-doubt ever since Diego had shared his ugly rumor. The fact that he had frozen when he was called to act bravely had all but killed his swashbuckling image. It still pained him in the extreme that Diego had let stand, even for a laughing moment, the nasty lie that he was Henri's little invert. He kept reflecting upon the times he and Duvay had shared an evening out together and wondered who could have conceived such a scurrilous notion. He racked his memory, searching for some impure or effeminate gesture he'd seen from his mentor. The only spark for the slander he could think of was that Henri was in his forties and still unmarried, yet showed no taste for Colón's 'American' ladies.

Certainly, Thomas mused in his mentor's defense, that doesn't prove anything. A man in Henri's position would not care to frequent some Bottle Alley trollop. In fact, his most remarkable memory of Henri's behavior towards a woman seemed to disprove the rumor. The company had insisted they attend a champagne reception for the railroad's new Yankee superintendent and whether to annoy the director he referred to as de Lesseps' toy poodle, or for his own amusement, Henri had gone about charming the honoree's wife. Duvay had captivated that beautiful young woman so completely that her poor husband had spent the entire afternoon dragging her back from the Frenchman's side. He smiled, recalling how Henri had the superintendent's wife hanging on his every word as he described a night at Paris' Les Folies Trévise in lurid detail, knowing full well the American penchant for deriding French morals. Yet Thomas realized now, more than anything, he hated to think he'd ever been foolish enough to trust his mentor's affections.

Exhausted from his grief-filled labors, he could not drum up the will to climb from the bed and get dressed just to spend the day indoors poring over Duvay's insipid numbers. Sulking, he lay back and closed his eyes, deciding that if anyone asked he would say he'd taken ill. He pictured being back with Genevieve hoping to slip into a comforting dream. He imagined her on his lap softly nuzzling his neck until her lips became fangs and in her place the squirming bushmaster had latched to his throat. A voice bawled '¡mijo! — ¡mijo!' and he saw a dark-haired woman clutch her chest and collapse into sobs. He pressed it from his mind but the vision returned each time he started drifting to sleep. He began to wonder if he'd gone mad. Finally he threw off the covers and raced downstairs for some water. As he leaned on the kitchen table and downed a second glass he was hot and shivering. He panicked, thinking it was a relapse of fever. But as the cool water soothed his throat his pulse quickly slowed and he no longer felt flushed.

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