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by Edgar Young

Author of "The No-Good Guy," "The Streak of Lean," etc.

TOM FLOOD was the windiest man in Gatun. He hadn't hit town but a few days when some one allowed that he "sure was 'big medicine' to hear him tell it." "Alabam" Goodloe, who hailed from Kentucky and talked like a coon, bet a five-dollar gold piece on Flood's "come-out" that night in a crap game down in House 68 on the New Gatun road.

Flood threw the double six, the double ace and the ace deuce the first three shots, which, in the natural consequence of things, cost Alabam thirty-five dollars, for he was doubling his bet each time. He then bet forty and Flood threw the double deuce, little Joe, for a point. The crowd laughed at this mess of "slow craps," for there are more sevens on a pair of bones than there are fours, O my brothers.

Goodloe passed the dice back to Flood with anything but hope written in his face, and, as Flood shook them and pounded them against his head for luck, Alabam, in that pleading tone peculiar to a "nachel bohn" crap-shooter, had called on him as follows:

"Looky hyeah, Big Medicine, you bettah had make that ah-uh joah! Shake, rattle and roll 'em way out!" Sundry other remarks followed in crap-shooter jargon.

The faders shouted with laughter. Some looked quickly for signs of anger in Flood's face at the nickname Goodloe had called him, for men sometimes do not take kindly to construction-camp appellations, which are usually epithetic in character and have to do with outstanding personal and physical traits. At that time, we had in Gatun a "Step-and-a-half," a "Three Fingers," big and little "Baldy," "Gimpy," "Slim," "Shorty," and many a "Tex" and "Red," with a descriptive adjective preceding, and a "Cowboy Lawyer" from Tucson.

Flood, however, caught the joke and laughed louder than the others, and in a few days every man in camp knew him as Big Medicine. Many people on the Zone never knew what his real name was.

If a name ever fitted a man this name fitted Flood. He was big in every way —six foot three inches of awkwarkness, big hands, big feet, and the double joints on his knees and wrists stuck out like knobs. His face was a brick red and his thin hair and eyebrows were white as cotton, not from old age but from being born that way, for he was nearer thirty-five than forty. His mouth was wide and filled with short, heavy teeth. His eyes were a china blue and stared as frankly as those of a doll's in a "Kentucky Derby" flimflam stand at Coney Island.

He looked outlandish in commissary khakis. Zone fashions for men ran to stiff brimmed Stetsons of the same type worn by the Zone police, and pigskin puttees. Flood retained his big, round-topped, west Texas hat with flopping brim, and a pair of Mexican leggings that snapped on the side with a steel spring and fastened underneath the instep with a buckle and strap; they extended above his knees in the shape of a semicircle. When he carried his jacket on his arm his heavy suspenders caught and held the eye, for men wore belts on the Zone.

And talk? This was the biggest part about him. His voice was loud and his, laugh a guffaw. His words boomed up and down the streets and through the flimsy bachelor quarters, which were unceiled buildings with partitions running part way and lattice-work the rest of the way between the rooms. When he was in one of these buildings his laugh could be heard in all the others in that area.

On the four days following the monthly tour of the pay-wagon with its yellow money for white men and white money for yellow and black men, the coin of two realms itched like cooties in men's clothes. Those of the "gold roll" whose inclinations were toward games of chance listened for Big Medicine's laugh and drifted in for a game of poker or to shout incantations to the ivory cubes. And when we were broke, on the other twenty-six days of the month, we looked for a crowd on a porch of one of the quarters and went there to hear Big Medicine shoot the bull.

He had been everywhere. He was born in a covered wagon somewhere out in the Panhandle, and as far back as he could remember his "old man" and "old lady" had been among the first to put out in the direction of any rumored gold strike, land boom, or other frontier rainbow's end. When finally they had settled on the rockiest and sandiest patch of land in the Mormon Valley of Idaho, he, with his natural heritage of gipsy blood, had set forth to appease his wanderlust in many lands. He had broken horses and roped steers from Alberta to Chihuahua, been a railroad "shack," miner, stage-coach driver, lumberjack, harvest hand, trapper, hunter, Swiss guide, Quaker medicine man, sailor before the mast, tropical prospector and tramp, and explorer in both arctic and antarctic expeditions.

He made his advent on the Zone by walking through from Acaponeta, Mexico, "stepping out," as he expressed it, "after a fashion fast and furious." Those of us who had made the same walk listened with more than casual interest and quizzed him on the landmarks. He knew the little turn, the big banyan tree, the deserted fisherman's hut, the broken adze, the grass village; he could not have bluffed. Other men made shrewd inquiries at the psychological moment, for the Panama Canal Zone was a good place to get caught "out on a limb." Men who worked there had been in every nook and corner of the globe. It was something like the Snug Harbor Home for sailors on Staten Island, where old men between seventy and ninety can tell you the exact telegraph pole and windowpane in that little obscure port you spoke about.

Many of us knew that Flood's yarns were consistent. He embellished the truth, he handled it carelessly, he stretched it out almost to the breaking point, he tossed it up and caught it precariously with one hand behind his back, but he was never trapped in a bare-faced he. He was a master at enlarging an incident until men held their sides and roared with him, or stood with gaping mouths as he related just when, where and how he had been mixed up in some dramatic occurrence. He laughed heartily at his funny sallies and was the big hero in most of the others.

BIG MEDICINE was some sort of a general foreman down on the rock storage dump back of New Gatun— a settlement of saloons, negro tenements, "silver roll" men with families who did not care to live in the Government labor barracks, and camp followers who did not work for the I. C. C. He had several native straw bosses with gangs of Spaniards and West Indian blacks working for him and three American locomotive crane-runners. The rock trains dumped the stone at the top and the large chunks either rolled down at once or were pried loose and started down by the gangs. At the bottom they were picked up and reloaded into skips, placed on cars and taken to the locks and dumped in with the concrete. Orange-peel buckets or chains were used by the craneman.

Each day's work and the trip down and back through New Gatun supplied Flood with material for hours of yam spinning on the piazza in the cool of the evening—or at least when the evening should have been cool but usually wasn't. He had heard a negro wench talking to a sanitary inspector in patois English; seen two naked kids fighting; one of the crane-runners had refused a bottle of beer from the water cooler in Flood's office, and he had phoned for the ambulance; a Bajan had delivered a sermon to a group of others behind the tool house; he had sent three Castilians for a box of dynamite and had had to go after them; a Gallego had made a funny remark in ungrammatical Spanish—anything. It was all grist for his story-telling proclivity.

He had little education, reading and writing with difficulty, but he had a flow of picturesque language that was at once gripping and startling. He brought to the Zone expressions that remained for months after he had gone, such as: "Shoot where he's standing without giving him time to jump up;" "claw him from his forehead to his umbilicus;" "tear him up as if the hogs had chawed him;" "pull his eyeball out a foot and flop it back into place and scare him;" "re-Jake and back at you again with my stack of yallers," "just barely," and the like.

And these, dead as they look in cold print, were replete with meaning in the mouth of this big, red faced, white eyebrowed man. He could mimic a Swede, any type of lime-juicer from a remittance man to a Liverpool Gorblimme-Bill, a Western judge, any type of Spaniard, and almost any other kind of man he had laid eyes on. North "Caroleenians" he dubbed "down-homers," explaining that they all went to Virginia and spent the rest of their lives talking about "down home." East Texans were "boll-weevils" and "rawzumbellies" and they raised "lean do-gie" cattle, whatever kind of cattle that is.

Life was one big joke shot through with dramatic incidents, down on the porch of House 68. No man went inside and went to bed until Flood did—it wasn't any use. That's how windy he was. Men sometimes passed the wink when he was spinning his fighting yarns, and a good one hundred per cent, said to each other behind his back that they did not think he would harm a fly; that he just liked to talk, and no one had ever seen him sore for so much as a second. It was out of reason that a man as good-natured as he was should ever have had trouble with any man.

And then a man moved into House 68 who did not seem to take kindly to him. He also had drifted in over the trail from somewhere or other, he didn't say just where, and had been running a stiff-leg derrick down at Mindi and had been transferred to one of the cranes on Flood's rock storage dump. He and Flood had showed up walking together the first evening he appeared at House 68 and that night he had' been one of the circle gathered around Big Medicine. After that they did not show up together, and when the group gathered, this newcomer sat far at the other end by himself. We took it for granted that Flood had given him a call on the job and that he was peeved about it.

He was as big a man as Flood, but of a different type. He was tall and rangy, swarthy of complexion, with a small, waxy, black mustache, quiet as a grave, dangerous as a machine-gun, boasting of his prowess as a fighter by his silence more than Flood did by his words. He passed no wink but he often turned and listened gravely with a half sneer on his lips when Flood made some particularly bald assertion in regard to some fight or other, and it seemed that fighting had become the theme of the majority of Big Medicine's tales with himself the fighting son of a gun from way back.

Those who saw he doubted Flood's stories had little use for him. They, themselves, looked on them as things to be taken with a sprinkling of bichloride of sodium in spots; but he was a good entertainer. He was a sort of vaudeville performer, and no one expected the exact truth to the letter. No man ever went to a picture show in the Y. M. C. A. while Flood lived in House 68.

Flood wasn't afraid of this newcomer's opinion, or didn't appear to be. He would tell some outlandish story of fighting and gun-play where he was the big It and then he would rear back in his chair and peer through the bunch to see how the craneman took it. He told us in a loud aside that the stranger was "Nig" Barberly, an ex-tinhorn from Salina Cruz, and that he was "pizen and meaner'n a kyotie."

Further, he said little in answer to whispered queries other than that they had never been good friends and had had words on the job over the work, and that some day he reckoned he would empty a gun into Nig's carcass so fast it would "cut him right off at the top of the pockets."

Barberly heard this and walked into his room, soon to return with a bristling cartridge-belt buckled around him. Every man in the crowd noticed this, but Flood was in the midst of a yarn that required all his attention when Barberly reappeared.

From this time on we noticed that the ill feeling seemed to grow more pronounced on both sides, Flood raising his voice many times for Barberly's particular benefit, Barberly growing more silent and sneering in his solitary chair at the other end of the porch.

These porches, by the way, were four rooms long and were heavily screened with bronze mosquito-wire. The screen door was just opposite the door to the house in the center—information little required by men who know Gatun and the road that wound around the top of the hill to New Gatun. As a rule Flood's end of the piazza was crowded with men who either lived in House 68, or neighboring quarters, or paused on their pilgrimage to New Gatun and remained to get an ear-full.

ONE evening after supper we foregathered as usual. It was during the dry season and the red sun hung poised a few feet over the Caribbean down beyond Colon, for the sun sets in the Atlantic from the C. Z. It was hot and some men lolled in pajamas and some in gaudy silk kimonos they had won in Chinese raffles. Flood had pulled his leggings and shoes off and sat in his shirt sleeves with his heavy braces thrown down from his shoulders.

Hotter than the setting sun were his yarns of battles on blackbirders down in the South Seas when he was the bosom pal of old Cap. Durfee. Blood flowed, snarling lipped men sprang upon each other and beat and mauled and slashed to a fare-yewell. Desert sands glowed white under the boiling sun, and along trails dotted with human skulls daring men ventured, with Flood usually in the lead; bands of swashbuckling revolutionists attacked and smashed the enemy, fighting valiantly and sapping their way through intervening buildings.

Through mad stampedes in the far North we surged, flogging the lagging huskies with the singing whips. Sheath knives gleamed greasily in the murky light cast by swinging forecastle, lamps as with a table leg we met the onrush of pockmarked Portuguese sailors. We shivered and munched gum drops and ate dried pemmican at the two poles of the earth. The ice groaned and upheaved beneath us, and outside our igloos of snow the wolf dogs howled mournfully.

Flood painted with a lavish brush. But colder than the arctic or antarctic wastes sat Nig Barberly at the other end of the porch, swarthy faced, silent and sneering.

At the conclusion of one of Flood's narratives he took his feet down from the railing, cleared his throat, spat through the screening and turned his chair half around in our direction. He expelled the air from his lungs in a contemptuous grunt.

Flood reared up and looked across at him for a few seconds like an angry lion. Then he began telling about beating up a certain individual in Safina Cruz. He took great pains on the personal description of this individual, painting him as a tall, lanky man, black-mustached, silent to surliness, underhanded, mean, low-down, and very dangerous in the cunning way of a snake in dog days. His description fitted Barberly so well that most of us were dividing our attention between the story and watching how Nig would take it.

Flood elaborated. He had just ended a sentence about said party in question being so "honery" that he would "beat up his own granny" and "take up sprouted corn" when we noticed Barberly's face contort into lines of horrible ferocity. His white teeth gleamed through his snarling lips. A volley of oaths roared from his lungs as he cursed Flood for every liar and so-and-so imaginable.

Big Medicine sprang three feet in the air and went for him all spraddled out, whooping like an Indian. Barberly whipped out two .45 Colts and began shooting from both hips.

Alabam Goodloe always denied being the first to jump through the screen, for it was torn off the entire end of the porch by the swarming crowd. Some ran up the road toward the eating-house and some ran down the road toward New Gatun and some ran around and watched- proceedings, their morbid curiosity to see bloodshed and slaughter getting the better of their judgment.

I was one of these latter and when I got out in the road Flood was writhing on the floor in horrible fashion and groaning like a stricken bull. He struggled to his knees and from the recesses of his shirt and pants drew forth a sawed-off shotgun with the stock whittled into a pistol handle—the most ghastly shooting-iron that any man ever laid eyes on. When both barrels went off it sounded like the premature blast in Culebra Cut the time Teddy was down.

I was nearing the hospital on the hill between there and New Gatun when F heard five feeble little shots like a pop-gun from back in that direction, but I didn't turn to look back. I was on my way for the ambulance and in my heartfelt desire to get help as soon as possible had forgotten that there was a phone in the hook and ladder house a few doors above House 68. Had I remembered, it is doubtful whether I would have tried to use the phone, for the girls were very popular and connections hard to get after the men had left off work on the job.

A FEW evenings later, when Flood narrated the incident to an unusually large bunch on the porch, he gave what I hadn't seen as follows:

"Me and Nig both fell sprawlin' and the few that hadn't yet joined the bird gang showed signs of speed and tore up the ground getting away. Them big poky dot suits bellied out behind and them red shimmies stuck back like table tops. I hyeard women screaming as they passed them four-family houses above the eatin' house. I peers down the road and they's a motley crew of them hittin' the high spots in that direction with Sandy working in the lead in a suit of B. V. D.'s turning sideways to keep from flyin'. I look straight down, below and see Slim and "Banjer-Pickin" Charley tearin' through the swag for the Z. P. station, buckjumpin' the high weeds and ditches.

"This has all took place in a second and a quarter and we're yet holdin' our mouths with our hands to keep from squallin' and laughin'; and we're faunching and wringing and twisting all over the floor and makin' funny noises in our throats at the joke we've sprung when Nig and I both glances up and sees something that puts that supper we've ate right against our epiglotis.

"They's an arm poked out the winder, weavin' back and forth, and death, hell, and the grave pintin' in our general direction in the shape of a New York bull-dog pistol with the barrel an inch and a sixteenth long and the caliber of Ped'Migel tunnel. Whoever he is ain't lookin' out but squattin' on his hunkers on the inside and aimin' to shoot be-guess and be-god. I reckon he knows his weapon, for them bulldogs spit and shave lead and kick and are dangerous at all points of the compass when they go off.

"As the hammer begins to raise, me and Nig puts for the screen door on our all fours, like a couple of bears before a Kansas cyclone. Nig swears he straddled me and rode me out the door. I remember distinctly that I thought he was that little Six-Bits I rode for Lew Warren in Prickly Pear Valley out near East Helena and I skinned both heels spurring Nig's cartridge-belt. He buck jumped from the door to the ground and I reached for leather but there warn't none and he throwed me. First time I was ever throwed by man or beast, and I've forked Catalo in my time and rode steers in town fairs. We dove under the house side by side.

"That old bull-pup says bowie up above and they's a chunk of lead as big and flat as a dollar digs a gopher hole between our heads, and they's an aftermath of shavings and sawdust pours down on us. Nig rolls one way and me t'other and we hear three more shoots shot and the balls a-tearin' out through the ceiling and the tin roof, and we know the old short nose is performing true to form.

"At the fourth shot, whoever had the gun has throwed it from him, and it bounces out the door into the road. Nig claims he seen the hammer strike a rock, but from where I lay the gun appeared to twirl around and take due and deliberate aim at the upper left-hand comer of my shirt pocket. I seen the hammer raise, heard her click, and see her go off. She jumped three feet and a quarter in the air, and a Trinidad nigger in my gang says it knocked the bean pot square out of his female's hand, just this side of the reservoir.

"By the time we gets seated on the steps and I've taken out a deck of kyards, and begin dealin' us a friendly hand of seven up, all of Gatun, New Gatun, half of Hindi, and a quarter of Mount Hope is foggin' in our direction. I reckon it's a good thing that, although I'm a man of few words, I can hand out a good single-handed line of talk when I'm forced to.

"I staved off the ambulance men who was for takin' us to the hospital, the Z. P. who wanted to jug us, the sanitary inspector who wanted to lick us for tearin' the screenin', the colonel and the major who wanted to fire us, and our fellow house-mates who wanted to kill us. It took seven quarts of Sunnybrook before we declared peace among ourselves and with the world in general at midnight."

Although I heard Big Medicine tell the yarn a dozen times, adding various new lights to it on each repetition, I never heard him mention how we found "Sinbad the Sailor," a little hunchbacked New York Jew named Sindeband, at a late hour wedged in behind a clothes closet shivering and crying with fright, thinking he'd shot Nig Barberly in defending Flood from him. Sinbad thought the world of Big Medicine and many's the tale Flood afterward spun for his particular benefit.

Finally Big Medicine sprung the big surprize when Jumbo, the blacksmith, got on a rampage and climbed his frame down in front of the eating-house. Men who saw it claimed there never was such another fight south of the Rio Grande River, for they fought for an hour. Flood licked big Jumbo to a standstill, and the two of them went down into New Gatun to have a drink together. There's exceptions to all rules and we had to acknowledge that Big Medicine was one of them.