The Big Ditch

     Darkness had fallen before we dropped anchor in the harbor of Panama.  It was such a night as only the tropics can produce, the stars burning close and brilliant, the full moon rising out of a silent sea.  In front of us the lights of the city came twinkling out.  Behind them lay the mystery of conquest.
     No spot in all the western hemisphere held so much of romance as this.  Drake and Pizarro had tarried here in their blustering careers, Morgan had captured and burned the city.
     Many times in the past centuries the Isthmus had been won and lost, but never had such a victory been gained as that our country men had secured in the past half dozen years.
     They had overcome yellow fever and proved that the tropics might be made a safe place for the Anglo-Saxon to live.  They had driven a sword through the backbone of the continent and had built a canal through which great liners could climb up and down stairs from one ocean to another.
     The dream of the centuries had become a reality through the skill and resolution with which the sons of Uncle Sam had tackled the big ditch.
     It may be guessed how anxious all of us were to get ashore.   there was little sleep aboard the Argos that night.  It was long past midnight before nay of us left the deck.
     The truth is that the yacht had become a prison to us just as it had to Bothwell.  The thought of a few days on land, where we need not watch every moment to keep our throats from being slit, was an enormous relief.
     But Blythe was taking no chances with the vessel.  It had been decided among us that either he, Yeager, or I should remain in charge of the Argos every minute of our stay.
     I had volunteered for the first day and Yeager was to relieve me on the second.
     All three of use were firmly resolved, though we had not yet broached the subject to Evelyn, that the ladies should remain in the canal zone while we continued down the coast to life the treasure.
     Before Bothwell was taken ashore he had the effrontery to ask for a talk with his cousin.  Blythe did not even submit his request to her.   Fleming and he were removed from the vessel while the ladies were eating breakfast with Yeager, so that they did not even know until afterward that the men had been turned over to the authorities.
     None of the reconstructed mutineers asked for shore leave.   Each of them knew that if he left the ship he would be liable to arrest for a capital offense and preferred to take his chance of any punishment the captain might inflict.
     The day was an endless one, but it wore away at last.   The cattleman was to relieve me at breakfast time.  I was up with the summer sun and had bathed, shaved, and eaten long before the city showed any sign of activity around the harbor.
     "You'll like Panama," Yeager assured me after he had clambered aboard.  "It's a city of madmen, plumb daffy about the big ditch.   The men can't talk anything but cuts, dams, cubic feet, steam plows, and earth slides.  But, by Moses, when I see what they've done it makes me glad I'm an American.  Everything is the biggest in the world—the dam, the locks, the cuts, the lake, the machinery, the whole blessed works.  They've set a new mark for the rest of the earth."
     "What is Sam doing about getting a crew in place of our precious mutineers?"  I asked.
     "He's picked up several fellows already.  A Yankee named Stubbs is chief engineer.  Sam is shipping Jamaica niggers for firemen."
     No schoolboy out for a holiday could have been half so keen to be free as I was.  At the wharf I picked up a coche and was driven to the Tivoli, the hotel in the American quarter where our party was staying.
     The mud and the mosquitoes of former years were gone, though the natives were as indolent as ever.  It is a town of color, due largely to the assorted population.  I was told by a young engineer from Gatun that forty languages are spoken on the Isthmus at present, a condition due to the number of Caribbean islanders employed by our government.
     I found that the program for the day included a trip to Colon on the Isthmus railroad.  Miss Berry preferred to rest quietly at the hotel, so her niece, Sam, and I set out to see the great canal.
     As I look back on it now Panama means to me a series of panoramic pictures.  To give more than a cursory description of our impressions is impossible.  the fact is that one obliterated another so swiftly as to leave a sense only of confusion.
     Take Culebra Cut, for instance, where the monsters of man's invention are biting into the mountain sides, ripping down with giant jaws loose dirt, and hauling it away on a maze of tracks.

     Great hoses, under tremendous pressure, are tearing at hills and washing them down.  All the time there is a deafening noise, the crash of the continent's spine being rent by dynamite, the roar of trains, the shrieks of dirt shovels blowing off steam, the stab and hammer of drills.
     Man is making war on nature with amazing energy on a titanic scale.  The disorder seemed hopeless, but one realized that these little figures moving about it in the man-made caņon were achieving the seemingly impossible none the less.
     "Isn't it wonderful?" Evelyn asked for the tenth time, as we looked down on a machine which had just seized a section of track and hoisted it up, rails and ties complete, to swing it over to another place.
     I quoted to her Damon Runyon's verses:

We are ants upon a mountain, but we're leavin' of our
An' our teeth-marks bitin' scenery they will show the way
   we went;
We're a liftin' half-creation, and we're changin' it around,
Just to suit our playful purpose when we're diggin' in the

     "You Americans take the cake," Blythe admitted.  "You never tire of doing big things."
     His eyes had come back to a group of young engineers who had just entered the car.  the grimy sweat had dried on their sooty faces and their hands were black and greasy.  they wore no coats and their shirts, wet from the perspiration drawn by the hot Panama sun, stuck to the muscular shoulders.

     They looked like tramps from their attire, but Olympians could not have carried in their manner a blither confidence.  These boys—I'll swear the oldest could have been no more than twenty-five—had undertaken to cut asunder what God has joined.
     It did not matter to them in the least that they looked like coal miners.  The only thing of importance was the work, the big ditch.  Yet I knew that these were just such splendid fellows as our technical schools are turning out by thousands.
     A few years before their thoughts had been full of cotillions and girls and the junior prom.  the Isthmus had laid hold of them and hardened their muscles and bronzed their faces and given them a toughness of fiber that would last a lifetime.
     They had taken on responsibility as if they had been born to it.  A glow of pride in them flushed me.  I was proud of the country that could fling out by hundreds of thousands such young fellows as these.
     Empire, Gorgona, Gatun.  From one to another we were hurried, passing through jungles such as we of the North never dream exist.  In that humid climate vegetation is prodigal beyond belief, gorgeous with spattered greens and yellows and crimsons bizarre enough to take the breath.
     We ate luncheon at Colon and were back across the Isthmus at Panama a few hours later.  After dinner we strolled around the city and saw the Parque de la Catedral, the Plaza Santa Ana, and the old sea wall.
     It did my heart good to see broad-shouldered, alert young Americans walking with wholesome girls from home and making love to them in the same fashion their friends were doing up in "God's country."
     Bothwell and his bunch of pirates began to lose themselves in the background of my mind.  There was a dance at the hotel that evening.   Before I had waltzed with Evelyn her buccaneer cousin had dissolved into a myth.
     When Yeager came ashore next morning he brought a piece of news.  Henry Fleming had taken a boat during the night and escaped.
     "If I run across him I'll curl his hair for him," Tom promised with a look that made me think he would keep his word.
     But I was not sorry Fleming had taken French leave.   Neidlinger could be trusted now, and neither Higgins nor Gallagher would go far astray without a leader.
     But both the engineers had known of Bothwell's plans from the first.  If I could have foreseen what effect the desertion of our second engineer was to have upon the expedition I would not have taken his disappearance so easily.
     Our stay on the canal zone was a delightful one, though we were busy every minute of the time enjoying ourselves or making preparations for departure.  With some difficulty Blythe picked two engineers and a couple of firemen from Barbados and Jamaica, the latter of whom were natives.  Philips was to stay in Panama until our return.
     I had my share of duty aboard the Argos to do, but every minute that was my own I spent the old city or on the works.
     Evelyn surprised us by making no objection to our decree that she should remain at Panama while we took the Argos down to San Miguel Bay to lift the doubloons.  In spite of her courage she was a woman.  She confessed to me that she had seen bloodshed enough on the way down from California to last her a lifetime.  the thought of returning so soon to the yacht had been a dreadful one to her.
     On the afternoon of our last day at Panama Evelyn and I went out to the old sea wall for an hour together.  The tide was in and from the parapet we watched the waves beat against the foot of the wall.
     Away to our right was Balboa, above which rested a smoke pall from tugs, dredges, and tramp west coasters.  Taboga we could just make out, and closer in a group of smaller islands the names of which I have forgotten.  Beyond them all stretched the endless Pacific.
     Evelyn was quieter than usual, but I had never seen her look so lovely.  The poise of my dear girl's burnished head, the untutored grace of her delicate youth, the gleam of years behind the tremulous smile, all made mighty appeal to me.
     "I'm afraid for you, Jack.  That's the truth of it.   We've just found each other—after all these years.  I don't want to run the risk of losing you again."  Ever so slightly her voice broke.

     "You'll not lose me.  Do you think anything could keep me away—with the sweetest girl in the world waiting for me here?"
     "I know," she smiled, a little drearily.   "It sounds foolish, but I think of that dreadful man."
     We had been following the cement promenade on top of the wall.  I led her across it to the landward side, from which we could look down into the yard of a prison.  Under the eyes of an armed guard some prisoners were crossing to their cells.  Two of them were in stripes, the third was not.
     "Look," I told her.  "Bothwell is down there, locked up and guarded.  He can't escape."
     The little group below came closer.  I had noticed that the prisoner not in uniform was a white man and not a native.  He carried himself with a distinction one could not miss.  Even before he looked up both of us knew the man was Boris Bothwell.
     He stopped in his tracks, white-lipped, a devil of hatred and rage burning out of his deep-set eyes.  A dullard could not have missed his thoughts.  He was a prisoner in this vile hole, while I had brought the woman he loved to mock at him.  The girl and the treasure would both be mine.  Before him lay no hope.
     I felt a sense of shame at being an unexpected witness of his degradation.  As I started to draw Evelyn back a guard prodded the Slav with his bayonet point.  Bothwell whirled like a tiger and sprang for the throat of the fellow.   They went down together.  Other guards rushed to the rescue of their companion.
    We waited to see no more.
    It must have been a minute before either of us spoke.
     "Bad as he is, I can't help being sorry for him.  It's as if a splendid lion were being worried to death by a pack of coyotes," Evelyn said with a shudder."     "Yes, there's something big even in his villainy.

     But you may take one bit of comfort: He can't get free to interfere with us—and he deserves all he'll get."
     "I know.  My reason tells me that all will be well now, but I have a feeling as if the worst were not yet over."
     I tried to joke her out of it.
     "It hasn't begun.  You're not married to Jack Sedgwick yet."
     "No; but, dear, I can't get away from the thought that you are going into danger again," she went on seriously.
     "'Tis dangerous to take a cold, to sleep, to drink," I quoted lightly.
     "I dare say I'm a goose," she admitted.
     "You are.  My opinion is that you're in as much danger as we shall be."
     "Is that why you are leaving me here?"   she flashed back.
     I laughed.  In truth I did not quite believe what I had said.  For I could see no danger at all that lay in wait for her.   But the events proved that I had erred only in not putting the case strongly enough.  Before we returned to civilization she was to be in deadly peril.