Zone Policeman 88
By Harry A. Franck
I scribbled myself a ticket and was soon rolling northward, greeting acquaintances at every station. The Zone is like Egypt; whoever moves must travel by the same route. At Pedro Miguel and Cascadas armies of locomotives—the “mules” of the man from Arkansas—stood steaming and panting in the twilight after their day’s labor and the wild race homeward under hungry engineers. As far as Bas Obispo this busy, teeming Isthmus seemed a native land; beyond, was like entering into foreign exile. It is a common Zone experience that only the locality one lives in during his first weeks ever feels like “home.”
The route, too, was a new one. From Gorgona the train returned crab-wise through Matachin and across the sand dyke that still holds the Chagres out of the “cut,” and halted at Gamboa cabin. Day was dying as we rumbled on across the iron bridge above the river and away into the fresh jungle night along the rock-ballasted “relocation.” The stillness of this less inhabited half of the Zone settled down inside the car and out, the evening air of summer caressing almost roughly through the open windows. The train continued its steady way almost uninterruptedly, for though new villages were springing up to take the place of the old sinking into desuetude and the flood along with the abandoned line, there were but two where once were eight. We paused at the new Frijoles and the box-car town of Monte Lirio and, skirting on a higher level with a wide detour on the flanks of thick jungled and forested hills what is some day to be Gatun Lake, drew up at 7:30 at Gatun.
I wandered and inquired for some time in a black night—for the moon was on the graveyard shift that week—before I found Gatun police station on the nose of a breezy knoll. But for “Davie,” the desk-man, who it turned out was also to be my room-mate, and a few wistful-eyed negroes in the steel-barred room in the center of the building, the station was deserted. “Circus,” said the desk-man briefly. When I mentioned the matter of weapons he merely repeated the word with the further information that only the station commander could issue them.
There was nothing to do therefore but to ramble out armed with a lead pencil into a virtually unknown town riotous with liquor and negroes and the combination of Saturday night, circus time, and the aftermath of pay-day, and to strut back and forth in a way to suggest that I was a perambulating arsenal. But though I wandered a long two hours into every hole and corner where trouble might have its breeding-place, nothing but noise took place in my sight and hearing. I turned disgustedly away toward the tents pitched in a grassy valley between the two Gatuns. At least there was a faint hope that the equestrienne might assault the ring-master.
I approached the tent flap with a slightly quickening pulse. World-wide and centuries old as is the experience, personally I was about to “spring my badge” for the first time. Suppose the doortender should refuse to honor it and force me to impress upon him the importance of the Z. P.—without a gun? Outwardly nonchalant I strolled in between the two ropes. Proprietor Shipp looked up from counting his winnings and opened his mouth to shout “ticket!” I flung back my coat, and with a nod and a half-wink of wisdom he fell back again to computing his lawful gains.
By the way, are not you who read curious to know, even as I for long years wondered, where a detective wears his badge? Know then that long and profound investigation among the Z. P. seems to prove conclusively that as a general and all but invariable rule he wears it pinned to the lining of his coat, or under his lapel, or on the band of his trousers, or on the breast of his shirt, or in his hip pocket, or up his sleeve, or at home on the piano, or riding around at the end of a string in the baby’s nursery; though as in the case of all rules this one too has its exceptions.
Entertainments come rarely to Gatun. The one-ringed circus was packed with every grade of society from gaping Spanish laborers to haughty wives of dirt-train conductors, among whom it was not hard to distinguish in a far corner the uniformed sergeant in command of Gatun and the long lean corporal tied in a bow-line knot at the alleged wit of the versatile but solitary clown who changed his tongue every other moment from English to Spanish. But the end was already near; excitement was rising to the finale of the performance, a wrestling match between a circus man and “Andy” of Pedro Miguel locks. By the time I had found a leaning-place it was on—and the circus man of course was conquered, amid the gleeful howling of “rough-necks,” who collected considerable sums of money and went off shouting into the black night, in quest of a place where it might be spent quickly. It would be strange indeed if among all the thousands of men in the prime of life who are digging the canal at least one could not be found who could subjugate any champion a wandering circus could carry among its properties. I took up again the random tramping in the dark unknown night; till it was two o’clock of a Sunday morning when at last I dropped my report-card in the train-guard box and climbed upstairs to the cot opposite “Davie,” sleeping the silent, untroubled sleep of a babe.
I was barely settled in Gatun when the train-guard handed me one of those frequent typewritten orders calling for the arrest of some straggler or deserter from the marine camp of the Tenth Infantry. That very morning I had seen “the boss” of census days off on his vacation to the States—from which he might not return—and here I was coldly and peremptorily called upon to go forth and arrest and deliver to Camp Elliott on its hill “Mac,” the pride of the census, with a promise of $25 reward for the trouble. “Mac” desert? It was to laugh. But naturally after six weeks of unceasing repetition of that pink set of questions “Mac’s” throat was a bit dry and he could scarcely be expected to return at once to the humdrum life of camp without spending a bit of that $5 a day in slaking a tropical thirst. Indeed I question whether any but the prudish will loudly blame “Mac” even because he spent it a bit too freely and brought up in Empire dispensary. Word of his presence there soon drifted down to the wily plain-clothes man of Empire district. But it was a hot noonday, the dispensary lies somewhat up hill, and the uniformless officer of the Zone metropolis is rather thickly built. Wherefore, stowing away this private bit of information under his hat, he told himself with a yawn, “Oh, I’ll drag him in later in the day,” and drifted down to a wide-open door on Railroad Avenue to spend a bit of the $25 reward in off-setting the heat. Meanwhile “Mac,” feeling somewhat recovered from his financial extravagance, came sauntering out of the dispensary and, seeing his curly-headed friend strolling a beat not far away, naturally cried out, “Hello, Eck!” And what could Eck say, being a reputable Zone policeman, but:
“Why, hello, Mac! How they framin’ up? Consider yourself pinched.”
Which was lucky for “Mac.” For Eck had once worn a marine hat over his own right eye and, he knew from melancholy experience that the $25 was no government generosity, but “Mac’s” own involuntary contribution to his finding and delivery; so managed to slip most of it back into “Mac’s” hands.
Long, long after, more than six weeks after in fact, I chanced to be in Bas Obispo with a half-hour to spare, and climbed to the flowered and many-roaded camp on its far-viewing hilltop that falls sheer away on the east into the canal. In one of the airy barracks I found Renson, cards in hand, clear-skinned and “fit” now, thanks to the regular life of this adult nursery, though his lost youth was gone for good. And “Mac”? Yes, I saw “Mac” too—or at least the back of his head and shoulders through the screen of the guard-house where Renson pointed him out to me as he was being locked up again after a day of shoveling sand.
The first days in Gatun called for little else than patrol duty, without fixed hours, interspersed with an occasional loaf on the second-story veranda of the police-station overlooking the giant locks; close at hand was the entrance to the canal, up which came slowly barges loaded with crushed stone from Porto Bello quarry twenty miles east along the coast or sand from Nombre de Dios, twice as distant, while further still, spread Limon Bay from which swept a never-ending breeze one could wipe dry on as on a towel. So long as he has in his pocket no typewritten report with the Inspector’s scrawl across it, “For investigation and report,” the plain-clothes man is virtually his own commander, with few duties beside trying to be in as many parts of his district at once as possible and the ubiquitous duty of “keeping in touch with headquarters.” So I wandered and mingled with all the life of the vicinity, exactly as I should have done had I not been paid a salary to do so. By day one could watch the growth of the great locks, the gradual drowning of little green, new-made islands beneath the muddy still waters of Gatun Lake, tramp out along jungle-flanked country roads, through the Mindi hills, or down below the old railroad to where the cayucas that floated down the Chagres laden with fruit came to land on the ever advancing edge of the waters. With night things grew more compact. From twilight till after midnight I prowled in and out through New Gatun, spilled far and wide over its several hills, watching the antics of negroes, pausing to listen to their guitars and their boisterous merriment, with an eye and ear ever open for the unlawful. When I drifted into a saloon to see who might be spending the evening out, the bar-tender proved he had the advantage of me in acquaintance by crying: “Hello, Franck! What ye having?” and showing great solicitude that I get it. After which I took up the starlit tramp again, to run perhaps into some such perilous scene as on that third evening. A riot of contending voices rose from a building back in the center of a block, with now and then the sickening thump of a falling body. I approached noiselessly, likewise weaponless, peeped in and found—four negro bakers stripped to the waist industriously kneading to-morrow’s bread and discussing in profoundest earnest the object of the Lord in creating mosquitoes. Beyond the native town, as an escape from all this, there was the back country road that wound for a mile through the fresh night and the droning jungle, yet instead of leading off into the wilderness of the interior swung around to American Gatun on its close-cropped hills.
I awoke one morning to find my name bulletined among those ordered to report for target test. A fine piece of luck was this for a man who had scarcely fired a shot since, aged ten, he brought down with an air-gun an occasional sparrow at three cents a head. We took the afternoon train to Mt. Hope on the edge of Colon and trooped away to a little plain behind “Monkey Hill,” the last resting-place of many a “Zoner.” The Cristobal Lieutenant, father of Z. P., was in charge, and here again was that same Z. P. absence of false dignity and the genuine good-fellowship that makes the success of your neighbor as pleasing as your own.
“Shall I borrow a gun, Lieutenant?” I asked when I found myself “on deck.”
“Well, you’ll have to use your own judgment as to that,” replied the Lieutenant, busy pasting stickers over holes in the target.
The test was really very simple. All you had to do was to cling to one end of a No. 38 horse-pistol, point it at the bull’s-eye of a target, hold it in that position until you had put five bullets into said bull’s-eye, repeat that twice at growing distances, mortally wound ten times the image of a Martinique negro running back and forth across the field, and you had a perfect score. Only, simple as it was, none did it, not even old soldiers with two or three “hitches” in the army. So I had to be content with creeping in on the second page of a seven-page list of all the tested force from “the Chief” to the latest negro recruit.
The next evening I drifted into the police station to find a group of laborers from the adjoining camps awaiting me on the veranda bench, because the desk-man “didn’t sabe their lingo.” They proved upon examination to be two Italians and a Turk, and their story short, sad, but by no means unusual. Upon returning from work one of the Italians had found the lock hinges of his ponderously padlocked tin trunk hanging limp and screwless, and his pay-day roll of some $30 missing from the crown of a hat stuffed with a shirt securely packed away in the deepest corner thereof. The Turk was similarly unable to account for the absence of his $33 savings safely locked the night before inside a pasteboard suitcase; unless the fact that, thanks to some sort of surgical operation, one entire side of the grip now swung open like a barn-door might prove to have something to do with the case. The $33 had been, for further safety’s sake, in Panamanian silver, suggesting a burglar with a wheelbarrow.
The mysterious detective work began at once. Without so much as putting on a false beard I repaired to the scene of the nefarious crime. It was the usual Zone type of laborers’ barracks. A screened building of one huge room, it contained two double rows of three-tier “standee” canvas bunks on gas-pipes. Around the entire room, close under the sheet-iron roof, ran a wooden platform or shelf reached by a ladder and stacked high with the tin trunks, misshapen bundles, and pressed-paper suitcases containing the worldly possessions of the fifty or more workmen around the rough table below.
Theoretically not even an inmate thereof may enter a Zone labor-camp during working hours. Practically the West Indian janitors to whom is left the enforcement of this rule are nothing if not fallible. In the course of the second day I unearthed a second Turk who, having chanced the morning before to climb to the baggage shelf for his razor and soap preparatory to welcoming a fellow countryman to the Isthmus, had been mildly startled to step on the shoulder-blade of a negro of given length and proportions lying prone behind the stacked-up impedimenta. The latter explained both his presence in a white labor-camp and his unconventional posture by asserting that he was the “mosquito man,” and shortly thereafter went away from there without leaving either card or address.
By all my library training in detective work the next move obviously was to find what color of cigarette ashes the Turk smoked. Instead I blundered upon the absurdly simple notion of trying to locate the negro of given length and proportions. The real “mosquito man”—one of that dark band that spends its Zone years with a wire hook and a screened bucket gathering evidence against the defenseless mosquito for the sanitary department to gloat over—was found not to fit the model even in hue. Moreover, “mosquito men” are not accustomed to carry their devotion to duty to the point of crawling under trunks in their quest.
For a few days following, the hunt led me through all Gatun and vicinity. Now I found myself racing across the narrow plank bridges above the yawning gulf of the locks, with far below tiny men and toy trains, now in and out among the cathedral-like flying buttresses, under the giant arches past staring signs of “DANGER!” on every hand—as if one could not plainly hear its presence without the posting. I descended to the very floor of the locks, far below the earth, and tramped the long half-mile of the three flights between soaring concrete walls. Above me rose the great steel gates, standing ajar and giving one the impression of an opening in the Great Wall of China or of a sky-scraper about to be swung lightly aside. On them resounded the roar of the compressed-air riveters and all the way up the sheer faces, growing smaller and smaller as they neared the sky, were McClintic-Marshall men driving into place red-hot rivets, thrown at them viciously by negroes at the forges and glaring like comets’ tails against the twilight void.
The chase sent me more than once stumbling away across rock-tumbled Gatun dam that squats its vast bulk where for long centuries, eighty-five feet below, was the village of Old Gatun with its proud church and its checkered history, where Morgan and Peruvian viceroys and “Forty-niners” were wont to pause from their arduous journeyings. They call it a dam. It is rather a range of hills, a part and portion of the highlands that, east and west, enclose the valley of the Chagres, its summit resembling the terminal yards of some great city. There was one day when I sought a negro brakeman attached to a given locomotive. I climbed to a yard-master’s tower above the Spillway and the yard-master, taking up his powerful field-glasses, swept the horizon, or rather the dam, and discovered the engine for me as a mariner discovers an island at sea.
“Er—would you be kind enough to tell us where we can find this Gatun dam we’ve heard so much about?” asked a party of four tourists, half and half as to sex, who had been wandering about on it for an hour or so with puzzled expressions of countenance. They addressed themselves to a busy civil engineer in leather leggings and rolled up shirt sleeves.
“I’m sorry I haven’t time to use the instrument,” replied the engineer over his shoulder, while he wig-wagged his orders to his negro helpers scattered over the landscape, “but as nearly as I can tell with the naked eye, you are now standing in the exact center of it.”
The result of all this sweating and sight-seeing was that some days later there was gathered in a young Barbadian who had been living for months in and about Gatun without any visible source of income whatever—not even a wife. The Turk and the camp janitor identified him as the culprit. But the primer lesson the police recruit learns is that it is one thing to believe a man guilty and quite another to convince a judge—the most skeptical being known to zoology—of that perfectly apparent fact. With the suspect behind bars, therefore, I continued my underground activities, with the result that when at length I took the train at New Gatun one morning for the court-room in Cristobal I loaded into a second-class coach six witnesses aggregating five nationalities, ready to testify among other things to the interesting little point that the defendant had a long prison record in Barbados.
When the echo of the black policeman’s “Oye! Oye!” had died away and the little white-haired judge had taken his “bench,” I made the discovery that I was present not in one, but in four capacities,—as arresting officer, complainant, interpreter, and to a large extent prosecuting attorney. To swear a Turk who spoke only Turkish through another Turk, who mangled a little Spanish, for a judge who would not recognize a non-American word from the voice of a steam-shovel, with a solemn “So Help Me God!” to clinch and strengthen it when the witness was a follower of the prophet of Medina—or nobody—was not without its possibilities of humor. The trial proceeded; the witnesses witnessed in their various tongues, the perspiring arresting officer reduced their statements to the common denominator of the judge’s single tongue, and the smirking bullet-headed defendant was hopelessly buried under the evidence. Wherefore, when the shining black face of his lawyer, retained during the two minutes between the “Oye!” and the opening of the case, rose above the scene to purr:
“Your Honor, the prosecution has shown no case. I move the charge against my client be quashed.”
I choked myself just in time to keep from gasping aloud, “Well, of all the nerve!” Never will I learn that the lawyer’s profession admits lying on the same footing with truth in the defense of a culprit.
“Cause shown,” mumbled the Judge without looking up from his writing, “defendant bound over for trial in the circuit court.”
A week later, therefore, there was a similar scene a story higher in the same building. Here on Thursdays sits one of the three members of the Zone Supreme Court. Jury trial is rare on the Isthmus—which makes possibly for surer justice. This time there was all the machinery of court and I appeared only in my legal capacity. The judge, a man still young, with an astonishingly mobile face that changed at least once a minute from a furrowy scowl with great pouting lips to a smile so broad it startled, sat in state in the middle of three judicial arm-chairs, and the case proceeded. Within an hour the defendant was standing up, the cheery grin still on his black countenance, to be sentenced to two years and eight months in the Zone penitentiary at Culebra. A deaf man would have fancied he was being awarded some prize. One of the never-ending surprises on the Zone is the apparent indifference of negro prisoners whether they get years or go free. Even if they testify in their own behalf it is in a listless, detached way, as if the matter were of no importance anyway. But the glance they throw the innocent arresting officer as they pass out on their way to the barb-wire enclosure on the outskirts of the Zone capital tells another story. There are members of the Z. P. who sleep with a gun under their pillow because of that look or a muttered word. But even were I nervous I should have been little disturbed at the glare in this case, for it will probably be a long walk from Culebra penitentiary to where I am thirty-two months from that morning.
A holiday air brooded over all Gatun and the country-side. Workmen in freshly washed clothing lolled in the shade of labor-camps, black Britishers were gathering in flat meadows fitted for the national game of cricket, far and wide sounded the care-free laughter and chattering of negroes, while even within Gatun police station leisure and peace seemed almost in full possession.
The morning “touch” with headquarters over, therefore, I scrambled away across the silent yawning locks and the trainless and workless dam to the Spillway, over which already some overflow from the lake was escaping to the Caribbean. My friends “Dusty” and H—— had carried their canoe to the Chagres below, and before nine we were off down the river. It was a day that all the world north of the Tropic of Cancer could not equal; just the weather for a perfect “day off.” A plain-clothes man, it is true, is not supposed to have days off. Some one might run away with the Administration Building on the edge of the Pacific and the telephone wires be buzzing for me—with the sad result that a few days later there would be posted in Zone police stations where all who turned the leaves might read:
Special Order No. ….
Having been found Guilty of charges of
Neglect of Duty
preferred against him by his commanding officer
First-class Policeman No. 88
is hereby fined $2.
Chief of Division.
But shades of John Aspinwall! Should even a detective work on such a Sunday? Surely no criminal would—least of all a black one. Moreover these forest-walled banks were also part of my beat.
The sun was hot, yet the air of that ozone-rich quality for which Panama is famous. For headgear we had caps; and did not wear those, though barely a few puffy, snow-white clouds ventured out into the vast chartless sky all the brilliant day through. Then the river; who could describe this lower reach of the Chagres as it curves its seven deep and placid miles from where Uncle Sam releases it from custody, to the ocean. Its jungled banks were without a break, for the one or two clusters of thatch and reed huts along the way are but a part of the living vegetation. Now and then we had glimpses across the tree-tops of brilliant green jungle hills further inland, everywhere were huge splendid trees, the stack-shaped mango, the soldier-erect palm heavy, yet unburdened, with cocoanuts. Some fish resembling the porpoise rose here and there, back and forth above the shadows winged snow-white cranes so slender one wondered the sea breeze did not wreck them. Above all the quiet and peace and contentment of a perfect tropical day enfolded the landscape in a silence only occasionally disturbed by the cry of a passing bird. Once a gasoline launch deep-laden with Sunday-starched Americans, snorted by, bound likewise to Fort Lorenzo at the river’s mouth; and we lay back in our soft, rumpled khaki and drowsily smiled our sympathy after them. When they had drawn on out of earshot life began to return to the banks and nature again took possession of the scene. Alligators abounded once on this lower Chagres, but they have grown scarce now, or shy, and though we sat with H——’s automatic rifle across our knees in turns we saw no more than a carcass or a skeleton on the bank at the foot of the sheer wall of impenetrable verdure.
Till at length the sea opened on our sight through the alley-way of jungle, and a broad inviting cocoanut grove nodded and beckoned on our left. Instead we paddled out across the sandbar to play with the surf of the Atlantic, but found it safer to return and glide across the little bay to the drowsy straw and tin village. Here—for the mouth of the Chagres like its source lies in a foreign land—a solitary Panamanian policeman in the familiar Arctic uniform enticed us toward the little thatched office, and house, and swinging hammock of the alcalde to register our names, and our business had we had any. So deep-rooted was the serenity of the place that even when “Dusty,” in all Zone innocence, addressed the white-haired little mulatto as “hombre” he lost neither his dignity nor his temper.
The policeman and a brown boy of merry breed went with us up the grassy rise to the old fort. In its musty vaulted dungeons were still the massive, rust-corroded irons for feet, waist and neck of prisoners of the old brutal days; blind owls stared upon us; once the boy brought down with his honda, or slung-shot, one of the bats that circled uncannily above our heads. In dank corners were mounds of worthless powder; the bakery that once fed the miserable dungeon dwellers had crumbled in upon itself. Outside great trees straddled and split the massive stone walls that once commanded the entrance to the Chagres, jungle waved in undisputed possession in its earth-filled moat, even the old cannon and heaped up cannon-balls lay rust-eaten and dejected, like decrepit old men who have long since given up the struggle.
We came out on the nose of the fort bluff and had before and below us and underfoot all the old famous scene, for centuries the beginning of all trans-Isthmian travel,—the scalloped surf-washed shore with its dwindling palm groves curving away into the west, the Chagres pushing off into the jungled land. We descended to the beach of the outer bay and swam in the salt sea, and the policeman, scorning the launch party, squatted a long hour in the shade of a tree above in tropical patience. Then with “sour” oranges for thirst and nothing for hunger—for Lorenzo has no restaurant—we turned to paddle our way homeward up the Chagres, that bears the salt taste of the sea clear to the Spillway. Whence one verse only of a stanza by the late bard of the Isthmus struck a false note on our ears;
Then go away if you have to,
Then go away if you will!
To again return you will always yearn
While the lamp is burning still.
You’ve drunk the Chagres water
And the mango eaten free,
And, strange though it seems,
It will haunt your dreams
This Land of the Cocoanut Tree.
No catastrophe had befallen during my absence. The same peaceful sunny Sunday reigned in Gatun; new-laundered laborers were still lolling in the shade of the camps, West Indians were still batting at interminable balls with their elongated paddles in the faint hope of deciding the national game before darkness settled down. Then twilight fell and I set off through the rambling town already boisterous with church services. Before the little sub-station a swarm of negroes was pounding tamborines and bawling lustily:
Oh, yo mus’ be a lover of de Lard
Or yo cahn’t go t’ Heaven when yo di-ie.
Further on a lady who would have made ebony seem light-gray bowed over an organ, while a burly Jamaican blacker than the night outside stood in the vestments of the Church of England, telling his version of the case in a voice that echoed back from the town across the gully, as if he would drown out all rival sects and arguments by volume of sound. The meeting-house on the next corner was thronged with a singing multitude, tamborines scattered among them and all clapping hands to keep time, even to the pastor, who let the momentum carry on and on into verse after verse as if he had not the self-sacrifice to stop it, while outside in the warm night another crowd was gathered at the edge of the shadows gazing as at a vaudeville performance. How well-fitted are the various brands of Christianity to the particular likings of their “flocks.” The strongest outward manifestation of the religion of the West Indian black is this boisterous singing. All over town were dusky throngs exercising their strong untrained voices “in de Lard’s sarvice”; though the West Indian is not noted as being musical. Here a preacher wanting suddenly to emphasize a point or clinch an argument swung an arm like a college cheer leader and the entire congregation roared forth with him some well-known hymn that settled the question for all time.
I strolled on into darker High street. Suddenly on a veranda above there broke out a wild unearthly screaming. Two negroes were engaged in savage, sanguinary combat. Around them in the dim light thrown by a cheap tenement lamp I could make out their murderous weapons—machetes or great bars of iron—slashing wildly, while above the din rose screams and curses:
Yo —— Badgyan, ah kill yo!
I sped stealthily yet swiftly up the long steps, drawing my No. 38 (for at last I had been issued one) as I ran and dashed into the heart of the turmoil swallowing my tendency to shout “Unhand him, villain!” and crying instead:
“Here, what the devil is going on here?”
Whereupon two negroes let fall at once two pine sticks and turned upon me their broad childish grins with:
“We only playin’, sar. Playin’ single-sticks which we larn to de army in Bahbaydos, sahgeant.”
Thus I wandered on, in and out, till the night lost its youth and the last train from Colon had dumped its merry crowd at the station, then wound away along the still and deserted back road through the night-chirping jungle between the two surviving Gatuns. There was a spot behind the Division Engineer’s hill that I rarely succeeded in passing without pausing to drink in the scene, a scallop in the hills where several trees stood out singly and alone against the myriad starlit sky, below and beyond the indistinct valleys and ravines from which came up out of the night the chorus of the jungle. Further on, in American Gatun there was a seat on the steps before a bungalow that offered more than a good view in both directions. A broad, U. S.-tamed ravine sank away in front, across which the Atlantic breeze wafted the distance-softened thrum of guitar, the tones of fifes and happy negro voices, while overhead feathery gray clouds as concealing as a dancer’s gossamer hurried leisurely by across the brilliant face of the moon; to the right in a free space the Southern Cross, tilted a bit awry, gleamed as it has these untold centuries while ephemeral humans come and pass their brief way.
It was somewhere near here that Gatun’s dry-season mosquito had his hiding-place. Rumor whispers of some such letter as the following received by the Colonel—not the blue-eyed czar at Culebra this time; for you must know there is another Colonel on the Zone every whit as indispensable in his sphere:
GATUN, … 26, 1912.
I am writing to call your attention to a gross violation of Sanitary Ordinance No. 3621, to an apparent loop-hole in your otherwise excellent department. The circumstances are as follows;
On the evening of … 24, as I was sitting at the roadside between Gatun and New Gatun (some 63 paces beyond house No. 226) there appeared a MOSQUITO, which buzzed openly and for some time about my ears. It was probably merely a male of the species, as it showed no tendency to bite; but a mosquito nevertheless. I trust you will take fitting measures to punish so bold and insolent a violation of the rules of your department.
I am, sir, very truly yours,
(Mrs.) HENRY PECK.
P. S. The mosquito may be easily recognized by a peculiarly triumphant, defiant note in his song,
I cannot personally vouch for the above, but if it was received any “Zoner” will assure you that prompt action was taken. It is well so. The French failed to dig the canal because they could not down the mosquito. Of course there was the champagne and the other things that come with it—later in the night. But after all it was the little songful mosquito that drove them in disgrace back across the Atlantic.
Still further on toward the hotel and a midnight lunch there was one house that was usually worth lingering before, though good music is rare on the Zone. Then there was the naughty poker game in bachelor quarters number—well, never mind that detail—to keep an ear on in case the pot grew large enough to make a worth-while violation of the law that would warrant the summoning of the mounted patrolman.
Meanwhile “cases” stacked up about me. Now one took me out the hard U. S. highway that, once out of sight of the last negro shanty, rambles erratically off like the reminiscences of an old man through the half-cleared, mostly uninhabited wilderness, rampant green with rooted life and almost noisy with the songs of birds. Eventually within a couple of hours it crossed Fox River with its little settlement and descended to Mt. Hope police station, where there is a ‘phone with which to “get in touch” again and then a Mission rocker on the screened veranda where the breezes of the near-by Atlantic will have you well cooled off before you can catch the shuttle-train back to Gatun.
Or another led out across the lake by the old abandoned line that was the main line when first I saw Gatun. It drops down beyond the station and charges across the lake by a causeway that steam-shovels were already devouring, toward forsaken Bohio. Picking its way across the rotting spiles of culverts, it pushed on through the unpeopled jungle, all the old railroad gone, rails, ties, the very spikes torn up and carried away, while already the parrots screamed again in derision as if it were they who had driven out the hated civilization and taken possession again of their own. A few short months and the devouring jungle will have swallowed up even the place where it has been.
If it was only the little typewritten slip reporting the disappearance of a half-dozen jacks from the dam, every case called for full investigation. For days to come I might fight my way through the encircling wilderness by tunnels of vegetation to every native hut for miles around to see if by any chance the lost property could have rolled thither. More than once such a hunt brought me out on the water-tank knoll at the far end of the dam, overlooking miles of impenetrable jungle behind and above chanting with invisible life, to the right the filling lake stretching across to low blue ranges dimly outlined against the horizon and crowned by fantastic trees, and all Gatun and its immense works and workers below and before me.
Times were when duty called me into the squalid red-lighted district of Colon and kept me there till the last train was gone. Then there was nothing left but to pick my way through the night out along the P.R.R. tracks to shout in at the yard-master’s window, “How soon y’ got anything goin’ up the line?” and, according to the answer, return to read an hour or two in Cristobal Y.M.C.A. or push on at once into the forest of box-cars to hunt out the lighted caboose. Night freights do not stop at Gatun, nor anywhere merely to let off a “gum-shoe.” But just beyond New Gatun station is a grade that sets the negro fireman to sweating even at midnight and the big Mogul to straining every nerve and sinew, and I did not meet the engineer that could drag his long load by so swiftly but that one could easily swing off on the road that leads to the police station.
Even on the rare days when “cases” gave out there was generally something to while away the monotony. As, one morning an American widely known in Gatun was arrested on a warrant and, chatting merrily with his friend, Policeman ——, strolled over to the station. There his friend Corporal Macey subdued his broad Irish smile and ordered the deskman to “book him up.” The latter was reaching for the keys to a cell when the American broke off his pleasant flow of conversation to remark;
“All right, Corporal, I’m going over to the house to get a few things and write a few letters. I’ll be back inside of an hour.”
Whereupon Corporal Macey, being a man of iron self-control, refrained from turning a double back sommersault and mildly called the prisoner’s attention to a little point of Zone police rules he had overlooked.
If every other known form of amusement absolutely failed it was still the dry, or tourist season, and poured down from the States hordes of unconscious comedians, or investigators who rushed two whole days about the Isthmus, taking care not to get into any dirty places, and rushed home again to tell an eager public all about it. Sometimes the sight-seers came from the opposite end of the earth, a little band of South Americans in tongueless awe at the undreamed monster of work about them, yet struggling to keep their fancied despite of the “yanqui,” to which the “yanqui” is so serenely indifferent. Priests from this southland were especially numerous. The week never passed that a group of them might not be seen peering over the dizzy precipice of Gatun locks and crossing themselves ostentatiously as they turned away.
One does not, at least in a few months, feel the “sameness” of climate at Panama and “long again to see spring grow out of winter.” Yet there is something, perhaps, in the popular belief that even northern energy evaporates in this tropical land. It is not exactly that; but certainly many a “Zoner” wakes up day by day with ambitious plans, and just drifts the day through with the fine weather. He fancies himself as strong and energetic as in the north, yet when the time comes for doing he is apt to say, “Oh, I guess I’ll loaf here in the shade half an hour longer,” and before he knows it another whole day is charged up against his meager credit column with Father Time.
There came the day early in April when the Inspector must go north on his forty-two days’ vacation. I bade him bon voyage on board the 8:41 between the two Gatuns and soon afterward was throwing together my belongings and leaving “Davie” to enjoy his room alone. For Corporal Castillo was to be head of the subterranean department ad interim, and how could the digging of the canal continue with no detective in all the wilderness of morals between the Pacific and Culebra? Thus it was that the afternoon train bore me away to the southward. It was a tourist train. A New York steamer had docked that morning, and the first-class cars were packed with venturesome travelers in their stout campaign outfits in which to rough it—in the Tivoli and the sight-seeing motors—in their roof-like cork helmets and green veils for the terrible Panama heat—which is sometimes as bad as in northern New York.
The P.R.R. is one of the few railroads whose passengers may drop off for a stroll, let the train go on without them, and still take it to their destination. They have only to descend, as I did, at Gamboa cabin and wander down into the “cut,” climb leisurely out to Bas Obispo, and chat with their acquaintances among the Marines lolling about the station until the trains puffs in from its shuttle-back excursion to Gorgona. The Zone landscape had lost much of its charm. For days past jungle fires had been sweeping over it, doing the larger growths small harm but leaving little of the greenness and rank clinging life of other seasons. Everywhere were fires along the way, even in the towns. For quartermasters—to the rage of Zone house-wives were sending up in clouds of smoke the grass and bushes that quickly turn to breeding-places of mosquitoes and disease with the first rains. Night closed down as we emerged from Miraflores tunnel; soon we swung around toward the houses, row upon row and all alight, climbed the lower slope of Ancon hill, and at seven I descended in familiar, cab-crowded, bawling Panama.