Empire, U.S. Canal Zone, November 1906

"So, did you see him?"

Roberson shot his roommate an ugly look and tossed the soggy hat onto its rack without a glance. "Stood out in that pouring rain since five this morning—" he stooped inside the door to haul off his shoes, "two whole hours! Never saw him."

Andrew Tully finished buttoning up his collar and assessed the red tie's complement to his dark-chocolate features. "Don't tell me they canceled the extravaganza!" he said, gazing approvingly at himself in the mirror. "Big Smoke had us jumping like fleas getting things shipshape for weeks."

 "Oh, the show went off all right. You know nothing was gonna stop that lunatic Shanton—‌his lily-white honor-guard rode in first, then came a troop of our West Indian boys followed by some Panamanians dressed like cowpokes. They pranced their horses around doing their fancy moves like they didn't feel the rain. Meanwhile we're all standing in the open getting drenched. I'm fed up and about to leave when there's this great big cheer and I see this huge black carriage come thundering up, making a bee-line for the hotel entrance. The band starts up quick-time, trumpets blaring—‌the color guard stiff-steps up to form an aisle and as they swing the carriage doors open, bam! —‌we all stand there like lightning strike us. Nobody was inside!"


 "The carriage was empty."

"Teddy wasn't inside?"

"Unless he turned invisible."

The American slapped his thigh with a raucous howl. "Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit! —‌if that ain't just like T.R. So where'd he go?"

"Nobody seems to know!"

Tully threw back his big curly head, roaring with laughter. "They done lost the goddam President! Big-Smoke Stevens must have swallowed his cigar!"

"How do you lose a blinking president?" Roberson wondered, wagging his head. "Crazy Stanton looked ready to punch out his horse."

"That's my Teddy! The man's a card!" Tully turned from the mirror and flipped his brown suspenders over his shoulders. "Ain't been here a day and already he's got the trucklers in a tizzy. He shows up here ahead of time turning the whole country upside down, then he lets Big-Smoke Stevens and the rest of the Commission big shots get gussied up bright and early, all ready to bow and scrape, and he stiffs them again! I told you the man was great."

"Your president sure is something else."

"Big Teddy's got no use for fakers—" Tully pulled a dark suit jacket from the bulky armoire, "no siree, Mr. Washington! I remember when some of our pious jackals got to harping about how colored folks' loose morals were wrecking the country he shut them up quick—‌said his mama's maid told him the ones you hear bawling loudest about other folks scruples were the first ones slipping in the back door for some o' that poontang!"


"What men live for, boy—" Tully slipped on his jacket with a lecherous grin, "the ambrosia nestled inside a woman's sweet butter-brown thighs."

Roberson collapsed onto his bed and hid his eyes. He hated feeling so self-conscious when Tully started that kind of talk, especially since it only egged him on. He was grateful for their friendship, but there was a coarseness in his roommate's humor that didn't square with the man he had come to respect as they worked together these past few months. He suspected most of the time Tully got under his skin just to loosen him up, but spouting lewd jokes struck him as unbecoming for a gold-rate engineer, especially a first-rate colored one.

"What I admire about your president," he retorted, sitting up and sounding purposely pompous,"is that he values high character. His inviting Mr. Washington to dinner pulled every Negro on earth up a level."

Tully stopped fussing with the shape of his breast-pocket handkerchief and gave his young friend a pitying look. "T. R.'s a great man, but he ain't Moses! Booker T. was a good respectful nigger till he broke bread with a white man in the White House."

 "Man, you make everything ugly," Roberson complained, sounding disgusted. "You mean you can't feel proud that a black man sat down to eat with your President?"

"Don't get me wrong, I love Big Teddy, he's fearless. But his inviting Booker T. Washington to dinner didn't do the black folks I know any favors. The only niggers that got pulled up a level are the ones those crackers he stirred up left hanging from a tree."

Roberson shed his damp trousers without another word and fell backwards onto his pillow. Tully's wrath seemed set to boil at the slightest pressure. Luckily, they were both sensitive enough to its heat that they'd been able to avoid an argument they might come to regret. Like an old engine's hotbox, the railroad man's temper had cooled as quickly as it flamed, but the harsh residue still showed on Tully's face as he checked his tie one last time then carefully slanted his hat.

"So, you coming to watch the parade?"

"You go on ahead—‌I'll catch up later. I'm still chilled from this morning and my shoes need to dry."

Tully started to leave then lingered penitently at the open door. "Where you gonna be afterwards if we don't meet up?"

"I'll probably head to the shop."

"You know Big Smoke gave us the whole day off with pay."

"I know, but I have an idea for a lube feed I want to work on."

"Alrighty, then. I'll see you later—‌after I track down my President!"

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