Read CHAPTER XVIII - DICK GETS A WARNING of Brandon of the Engineers , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on

On the evening of one pay-day, Dick took a short cut through the half-breed quarter of Santa Brigida.  As not infrequently happens in old Spanish cities, this unsavory neighborhood surrounded the cathedral and corresponded in character with the localities known in western America as “across the track.”  Indeed, a Castilian proverb bluntly plays upon the juxtaposition of vice and bells.

Ancient houses rose above the dark and narrow street.  Flakes of plaster had fallen from their blank walls, the archways that pierced them were foul and strewn with refuse, and a sour smell of decay and garbage tainted the stagnant air.  Here and there a grossly fat, slatternly woman leaned upon the rails of an outside balcony; negroes, Chinamen, and half-breeds passed along the broken pavements; and the dirty, open-fronted wine-shops, where swarms of flies hovered about the tables, were filled with loungers of different shades of color.

By and by Dick noticed a man in clean white duck on the opposite side of the street.  He was a short distance in front, but his carriage and the fit of his clothes indicated that he was a white man and probably an American, and Dick slackened his pace.  He imagined that the other would sooner not be found in that neighborhood if he happened to be an acquaintance.  The fellow, however, presently crossed the street, and when he stopped and looked about, Dick, meeting him face to face, saw with some surprise that it was Kemp, the fireman, who had shown him an opportunity of escaping from the steamer that took them South.

Kemp had turned out a steady, sober man, and Dick, who had got him promoted, wondered what he was doing there, though he reflected that his own presence in the disreputable locality was liable to be misunderstood.  Kemp, however, looked at him with a twinkle.

“I guess you’re making for the harbor, Mr. Brandon?”

Dick said he was, and Kemp studied the surrounding houses.

“Well,” he resumed, “I’m certainly up against it now.  I don’t know much Spanish, and these fool dagos can’t talk American, while they’re packed so tight in their blamed tenements that it’s curious they don’t fall out of the windows.  It’s a tough proposition to locate a man here.”

“Then you’re looking for somebody?”

“Yes.  I’ve tracked Payne to this calle, but I guess there’s some trailing down to be done yet.”

“Ah!” said Dick; for Payne was the dismissed storekeeper.  “Why do you want him?”

“I met him a while back and he’d struck bad luck, hurt his arm, for one thing.  He’d been working among the breeds on the mole and living in their tenements, and couldn’t strike another job.  I reckoned he might want a few dollars, and I don’t spend all my pay.”

Dick nodded, because he understood the unfortunate position of the white man who loses caste in a tropical country.  An Englishman or American may engage in manual labor where skill is required and the pay is high, but he must live up to the standards of his countrymen.  If forced to work with natives and adopt their mode of life, he risks being distrusted and avoided by men of his color.  Remembering that Payne had interfered when he was stabbed, Dick had made some inquiries about him, but getting no information decided that he had left the town.

“Then he’s lodging in this street,” he said.

“That’s what they told me at the wine-shop.  He had to quit the last place because he couldn’t pay.”

“Wasn’t he with Oliva?” Dick inquired.

“He was, but Oliva turned him down.  I allow it was all right to fire him, but he’s surely up against it now.”

Dick put his hand in his pocket.  “If you find him, you might let me know.  In the meantime, here’s five dollars ­”

“Hold on!” said Kemp.  “Don’t take out your wallet here.  I’ll fix the thing, and ask for the money when I get back.”

Dick left him, and when he had transacted his business returned to the dam.  An hour or two later Kemp arrived and stated that he had not succeeded in finding Payne.  The man had left the squalid room he occupied and nobody knew where he had gone.

During the next week Dick had again occasion to visit the harbor, and while he waited on the mole for a boat watched a gang of péons unloading some fertilizer from a barge.  It was hard and unpleasant work, for the stuff, which had a rank smell, escaped from the bags and covered the perspiring men.  The dust stuck to their hot faces, almost hiding their color; but one, though equally dirty, looked different from the rest, and Dick, noting that he only used his left arm, drew nearer.  As he did so, the man walked up the steep plank from the lighter with a bag upon his back and staggering across the mole dropped it with a gasp.  His heaving chest and set face showed what the effort had cost, and the smell of the fertilizer hung about his ragged clothes.  Dick saw that it was Payne and that the fellow knew him.

“You have got a rough job,” he remarked.  “Can’t you find something better?”

“Nope,” said the man grimly.  “Do you reckon I’d pack dirt with a crowd like this if I could help it?”

Dick, who glanced at the lighter, where half-naked negroes and mulattos were at work amid a cloud of nauseating dust, understood the social degradation the other felt.

“What’s the matter with your arm?” he asked.

Payne pulled up his torn sleeve and showed an inflamed and half-healed wound.

“That!  Got it nipped in a crane-wheel and it doesn’t get much better.  Guess this dirt is poisonous.  Anyway, it keeps me here.  I’ve been trying to make enough to buy a ticket to Jamaica, but can’t work steady.  As soon as I’ve put up two or three dollars, I have to quit.”

Dick could understand this.  The man looked gaunt and ill and must have been heavily handicapped by his injured arm.  He did not seem anxious to excite Dick’s pity, though the latter did not think he cherished much resentment.

“I tried to find you when I got better after being stabbed,” he said.  “I don’t quite see why you came to my help.”

Payne grinned sourly.  “You certainly hadn’t much of a claim; but you were a white man and that dago meant to kill.  Now if I’d held my job with Fuller and you hadn’t dropped on to Oliva’s game, I’d have made my little pile; but I allow you had to fire us when something put you wise.”

“I see,” said Dick, with a smile at the fellow’s candor.  “Well, I couldn’t trust you with the cement again, but we’re short of a man to superintend a peon gang and I’ll talk to Mr. Stuyvesant about it if you’ll tell me your address.”

Payne gave him a fixed, eager look.  “You get me the job and take me out of this and you won’t be sorry.  I’ll make it good to you ­and I reckon I can.”

Dick, who thought the other’s anxiety to escape from his degrading occupation had prompted his last statement, turned away, saying he would see what could be done, and in the evening visited Stuyvesant.  Bethune was already with him, and Dick told them how he had found Payne.

“You felt you had to promise the fellow a job because he butted in when the dagos got after you?” Stuyvesant suggested.

“No,” said Dick with some embarrassment, “it wasn’t altogether that.  He certainly did help me, but I can’t pass my obligations on to my employer.  If you think he can’t be trusted, I’ll pay his passage to another port.”

“Well, I don’t know that if I had the option I’d take the fellow out of jail, so long as he was shut up decently out of sight; but this is worse, in a way.  What do you think, Bethune?”

Bethune smiled.  “You ought to know.  I’m a bit of a philosopher, but when you stir my racial feelings I’m an American first.  The mean white’s a troublesome proposition at home, but we can’t afford to exhibit him to the dagos here.”  He turned to Dick.  “That’s our attitude, Brandon, and though you were not long in our country, you seem to sympathize with it.  I don’t claim it’s quite logical, but there it is!  We’re white and different.”

“Do you want me to hire the man?” Stuyvesant asked with an impatient gesture.

“Yes,” said Dick.

“Then put him on.  If he steals anything, I’ll hold you responsible and ship him out on the next cement boat, whether he wants to go or not.”

Next morning Dick sent word to Payne, who arrived at the dam soon afterwards and did his work satisfactorily.  On the evening of the first pay-day he went to Santa Brigida, but Dick, who watched him in the morning, noted somewhat to his surprise, that he showed no signs of dissipation.  When work stopped at noon he heard a few pistol shots, but was told on inquiring that it was only one or two of the men shooting at a mark.  A few days afterwards he found it necessary to visit Santa Brigida.  Since Bethune confined his talents to constructional problems and languidly protested that he had no aptitude for commerce, much of the company’s minor business gradually fell into Dick’s hands.  As a rule, he went to the town in the evening, after he had finished at the dam.  While a hand-car was being got ready to take him down the line, Payne came up to the veranda, where Dick sat with Jake.

“You’re going down town, Mr. Brandon,” he said.  “Have you got a gun?”

“I have not,” said Dick.

Payne pulled out an automatic pistol.  “Then you’d better take mine.  I bought her, second-hand, with my first pay, but she’s pretty good.  I reckon you can shoot?”

“A little,” said Dick, who had practised with the British army revolver.  “Still I don’t carry a pistol.”

“You ought,” Payne answered meaningly, and walking to the other end of the veranda stuck a scrap of white paper on a post.  “Say, suppose you try her?  I want to see you put a pill through that.”

Dick was surprised by the fellow’s persistence, but there is a fascination in shooting at a target, and when Jake urged him he took the pistol.  Steadying it with stiffened wrist and forearm, he fired but hit the post a foot below the paper.

“You haven’t allowed for the pull-off, and you’re slow,” Payne remarked.  “You want to sight high, with a squeeze on the trigger, and then catch her on the drop.”

He took the pistol and fixed his eyes on the paper before he moved.  Then his arm went up suddenly and the glistening barrel pointed above the mark.  There was a flash as his wrist dropped and a black spot appeared near the middle of the paper.

“Use her like that!  You’d want a mighty steady hand to hold her dead on the mark while you pull off.”

“Sit down and tell us why you think Mr. Brandon ought to have the pistol,” Jake remarked.  “I go to Santa Brigida now and then, but you haven’t offered to lend it me.”

Payne sat down on the steps and looked at him with a smile.  “You’re all right, Mr. Fuller.  They’re not after you.”

“Then you reckon it wasn’t me they wanted the night my partner was stabbed?  I had the money.”

“Nope,” said Payne firmly.  “I allow they’d have corralled the dollars if they could, but it was Mr. Brandon they meant to knock out.”  He paused and added in a significant tone:  “They’re after him yet.”

“Hadn’t you better tell us whom you mean by ’they’?” Dick asked.

“Oliva’s gang.  There are toughs in the city who’d kill you for fifty cents.”

“Does that account for your buying the pistol when you came here?”

“It does,” Payne admitted dryly.  “I didn’t mean to take any chances when it looked as if I was going back on my dago partner.”

“He turned you down first, and I don’t see how you could harm him by working for us.”

Payne did not answer, and Dick, who thought he was pondering something, resumed:  “These half-breeds are a revengeful lot, but after all, Oliva wouldn’t run a serious risk without a stronger motive than he seems to have.”

“Well,” said Payne, “if I talked Spanish, I could tell you more; but I was taking my siesta one day in a dark wine-shop when two or three hard-looking péons came in.  They mayn’t have seen me, because there were some casks in the way, and anyhow, they’d reckon I couldn’t understand them.  I didn’t very well, but I heard your name and caught a word or two.  Their patron had given them some orders and one called him Don Ramon.  You were to be watched, because mirar came in; but I didn’t get the rest and they went out soon.  I lay as if I was asleep, but I’d know the crowd again.”  Payne got up as he concluded:  “Anyway, you take my gun, and keep in the main calles, where the lights are.”

When he had gone Jake remarked:  “I guess his advice is good and I’m coming along.”

“No,” said Dick, smiling as he put the pistol in his pocket.  “The trouble is that if I took you down there I mightn’t get you back.  Besides, there are some calculations I want you to make.”

Lighting his pipe, he took his seat on the hand-car and knitted his brows as two colored laborers drove him down the hill.  Below, the lights of Santa Brigida gleamed in a cluster against the dusky sea, and he knew something of the intrigues that went on in the town.  Commercial and political jealousies were very keen, and citizens of all ranks fought and schemed against their neighbors.  The place was rank with plots, but it was hard to see how he could be involved.  Yet it certainly began to look as if he had been stabbed by Oliva’s order, and Oliva was now employed at the Adexe coaling wharf.

This seemed to throw a light upon the matter.  Something mysterious was going on at Adexe, and perhaps he had been incautious and had shown his suspicions; the Spaniards were subtle.  The manager might have imagined he knew more than he did; but if it was worth defending by the means Payne had hinted at, the secret must be very important, and the plotters would hesitate about betraying themselves by another attempt upon his life so long as there was any possibility of failure.  Besides, it was dangerous to attack a foreigner, since if he were killed, the representative of his country would demand an exhaustive inquiry.

While Dick pondered the matter the hand-car stopped and he alighted and walked briskly to Santa Brigida, keeping in the middle of the road.  When he reached the town, he chose the wide, well-lighted streets but saw nothing suspicious.  After transacting his business he ventured, by way of experiment, across a small dark square and returned to the main street by a narrow lane, but although he kept a keen watch nothing indicated that he was followed.  Reaching the hand-car without being molested, he determined to be cautious in future, though it was possible that Payne had been deceived.