Zone Policeman 88
By Harry A. Franck
Police headquarters presented an unusual air of preoccupation next morning. In the corner office the telephone rang often and imperatively, several times erect figures in khaki and broad “Texas” hats flashed by the doorway, the drone of earnest conference sounded a few minutes, and the figures flashed as suddenly out again into the world. In the inner office I glanced once more in review through the “Rules and Regulations.” The Zone, too, was now familiar ground, and as for the third requirement for a policeman—to know the Zone residents by sight—a strange face brought me a start of surprise, unless it beamed above the garb that shouted “tourist.” Now all I needed was a few hours of conference and explanation on the duties, rights, and privileges of policemen; and that of course would come as soon as leisure again settled down over headquarters.
Musing which I was suddenly startled to my feet by “the Captain” appearing in the doorway.
“Catch the next train to Balboa;” he said. “You’ve got four minutes. You’ll find Lieutenant Long on board. Here are the people to look out for.”
He thrust into my hands a slip of paper, from another direction there was tossed at me a new brass-check and “First-Class Private” police badge No. 88, and I was racing down through Ancon. In the meadow below the Tivoli I risked time to glance at the slip of paper. On it were the names of an ex-president and two ministers of a frowsy little South American republic during whose rule a former president and his henchmen had been brutally murdered by a popular uprising in the very capital itself.
In the first-class coach I found Lieutenant Long, towering so far above all his surroundings as to have been easily recognized even had he not been in uniform. Beside him sat Corporal Castillo of the “plain-clothes” squad, a young man of forty, with a high forehead, a stubby black mustache, and a chin that was decisive without being aggressive.
“Now here’s the Captain’s idea,” explained the Lieutenant, as the train swung away around Ancon hill, “We’ll have to take turns mounting guard over them, of course. I’ll have to talk Spanish, and nobody’d have to look at Castillo more than once to know he was born up in some crack in the Andes.”—Which was one of the Lieutenant’s jokes, for the Corporal, though a Colombian, was as white, sharp-witted, and energetic as any American on the Zone.—”But no one to look at him would suspect that Fr—French, is it?”
“Oh, yes, that Franck could speak Spanish. We ‘ll do our best to inflate that impression, and when it comes your turn at guard-mount you can probably let several little things of interest drift in at your ears.”
“I left headquarters before the Captain had time to explain,” I suggested.
“Oh!” said the Lieutenant. “Well, here it is in a spectacle-case, as our friend Kipling would put it. We’re on our way to Culebra Island. There are now in quarantine there three men who arrived yesterday from South America. They are members of the party of the murdered president. To-day there will arrive and also be put in hock the three gents whose names you have there. Now we have a private inside hunch that the three already here have come up particularly and specifically to prepare for the funeral of the three who are arriving. Which is no hair off our brows, except it’s up to us to see they don’t pull off any little stunts of that kind on Zone territory.”
At least this police business was starting well; if this was a sample it would be a real job.
The train had stopped and we were climbing the steps of Balboa police station; for without the co-operation of the “Admiral of the Pacific Fleet” we could not reach Culebra Island.
“By the way, I suppose you’re well armed?” asked the Lieutenant in his high querulous voice, as we drank a last round of ice-water preparatory to setting out again.
“Em—I’ve got a fountain pen,” I replied. “I haven’t been a policeman twenty minutes yet, and I was appointed in a hurry.”
“Fine!” cried “the Admiral” sarcastically, snatching open the door of a closet beside the desk. “With a warm job like this on hand! You know what these South Americans are—” with a wink at the Lieutenant that was meant also for Castillo, who stood with his felt hat on the back of his head and a far-away look in his eyes.
“Yah, mighty dangerous—around meal time,” said the Corporal; though at the same time he drew from a hip pocket a worn leather holster containing a revolver, and examined it intently.
Meanwhile “the Admiral” had handed me a massive No. 88 “Colt” with holster, a box of cartridges, and a belt that might easily have served as a horse’s saddle-girth. When I had buckled it on under my coat the armament felt like a small boy clinging about my waist.
We trooped on down a sort of railroad junction with a score of abandoned wooden houses. It was here I had first landed on the Zone one blazing Sunday nearly two months before and tramped away for some miles on a rusty sandy track along a canal already filled with water till a short jungle path led me into my first Zone town. Already that seemed ancient history.
The police launch, manned by negro prisoners, with “the Admiral” in a cushioned arm-chair at the wheel, was soon scudding away across the sunlit harbor, the breakwater building of the spoil of Culebra “cut” on our left, ahead the cluster of small islands being torn to pieces for Uncle Sam’s fortifications. The steamer being not yet sighted, we put in at Naos Island, where the bulky policeman in charge led us to dinner at the I. C. C. hotel, during which the noonday blasting on the Zone came dully across to us. Soon after we were landing at the cement sidewalk of the island—where I had been a prisoner for a day in January as my welcome to U. S. territory—and were being greeted by the pocket edition doctor and the bay-windowed German who had been my wardens on that occasion.
We found the conspirators at a table in a corridor of the first-class quarantine station. In the words of Lieutenant Long “they fully looked the part,” being of distinctly merciless cut of jib. They were roughly dressed and without collars, convincing proof of some nefarious design, for when the Latin-American entitled to wear them leaves off his white collar and his cane he must be desperate indeed.
We “braced” them at once, marching down upon them as they were murmuring with heads together over a mass of typewritten sheets. The Corporal was delegated to inform them in his most urbane and hidalguezco Castilian that we were well acquainted with their errand and that we were come to frustrate by any legitimate means in our power the consummation of any such project on American territory. When the first paralyzed stare of astonishment that plans they had fancied locked in their own breasts were known to others had somewhat subsided, one of them assumed the spokesmanship. In just as courtly and superabundant language he replied that they were only too well aware of the inadvisability of carrying out any act against its sovereignty on U. S. soil; that so long as they were on American territory they would conduct themselves in a most circumspect and caballeroso manner—”but,” he concluded, “in the most public street of Panama city the first time we meet those three dogs—we shall spit in their faces—that’s all, nada mas,” and the blazing eyes announced all too plainly what he meant by that figure of speech.
That was all very well, was our smiling and urbane reply, but to be on the safe side and merely as a matter of custom we were under the unfortunate necessity of requesting them to submit to the annoyance of having their baggage and persons examined with a view to discovering what weapons—
“Como no senores? All the examination you desire.” Which was exceedingly kind of them. Whereupon, when the Lieutenant had interpreted to me their permission, we fell upon them and amid countless expressions of mutual esteem gave them and their baggage such a “frisking” as befalls a Kaffir leaving a South African diamond mine, and found them armed with—a receipt from the quarantine doctor for “one pearl-handled Smill and Wilson No. 32.” Either they really intended to postpone their little affair until they reached Panama, or they had succeeded in concealing their weapons elsewhere.
The doctor and his assistant were already being rowed out to the steamer that was to bring the victims. They were to be lodged in a room across the corridor from the conspirators, which corridor it would be our simple duty to patrol with a view to intercepting any exchange of stray lead. We fell to planning such division of the twenty-four hours as should give me the most talkative period. The Lieutenant took the trouble further to convince the trio of my total ignorance of Spanish by a distinct and elaborate explanation, in English, of the difference between the words “muchacho” and “muchacha.” Then we wandered down past the grimy steerage station to the shore end of the little wharf to await the doctor and our proteges.
The ocean breeze swept unhampered across the island; on its rocky shore sounded the dull rumble of waves, for the sea was rolling a bit now. The swelling tide covered inch by inch a sandy ridge that connected us with another island, gradually drowning beneath its waters several rusty old hulls. A little rocky wooded isle to the left cut off the future entrance to the canal. Some miles away across the bay on the lower slope of a long hill drowsed the city of Panama in brilliant sunshine; and beyond, the hazy mountainous country stretched southwestward to be lost in the molten horizon. On a distant hill some Indian was burning off a patch of jungle to plant his corn.
Meanwhile the Lieutenant and the Corporal had settled some Lombroso proposition and fallen to reciting poetry. The former, who was evidently a lover of melancholy, mouth-filling verse, was declaiming “The Raven” to the open sea. I listened in wonder. Was this then police talk? I had expected rough, untaught fellows whose conversation at best would be pornographic rather than poetic. My astonishment swelled to the bursting point when the Colombian not only caught up the poem where the Lieutenant left off but topped it off with that peerless translation by Bonalde the Venezuelan, beginning:
Una fosca media noche, cuando en tristes reflexiones
Sobre mas de un raro infolio de olvidados cronicones—
And just then the quarantine launch swung around the neighboring island. I tightened my horse belt and dragged the “Colt” around within easy reach; and a moment later the doctor and his bulking understudy stepped ashore—alone.
“They didn’t come,” said the former; “they were not allowed to leave their own country.”
“Hell and damnation,” said the Lieutenant at length in a calm, conversational tone of voice, with the air of a small boy who has been wantonly robbed of a long-promised holiday but who is determined not to make a scene over it. The Corporal seemed indifferent, and stood with the far-away look in his eyes as if he were already busy with some other plans or worries. But then, the Corporal was married. As for myself, I had somehow felt from the first that it was too good to be true. Adventure has steadily dodged me all my days.
A half-hour later we were pitching across the bay toward Ancon hill, scaled bare on one end by the work of fortification like a Hindu hair-cut. The water came spitting inboard now and then, and dejected silence reigned within the craft. But spirits gradually revived and before we could make out the details of the wharf the Corporal’s hearty genuine laughter and the Lieutenant’s rousing carcajada were again drifting across the water. At Balboa I unburdened myself of my shooting hardware and, catching the labor-train, was soon mounting the graveled walk to Ancon police station. In the second-story squad-room of the bungalow were eight beds. But there were more than enough policemen to go round, and the legal occupant of the bunk I fell asleep in returned from duty at midnight and I transferred to the still warm nest of a man on the “grave-yard” shift.
“It’s customary to put a man in uniform for a while first before assigning him to plain-clothes duty,” the Inspector was saying next morning when I finished the oath of office that had been omitted in the haste of my appointment, “but we have waived that in your case because of the knowledge of the Zone the census must have given you.”
Thus casually was I robbed of the opportunity to display my manly form in uniform to tourists of trains and the Tivoli—tourists, I say, because the “Zoners” would never have noticed it. But we must all accept the decrees of fate.
That was the full extent of the Inspector’s remarks; no mention whatever of the sundry little points the recruit is anxious to be enlightened upon. In government jobs one learns those details by experience. For the time being there was nothing for me to do but to descend to the “gum-shoe” desk in Ancon station and sit in the swivel-chair opposite Lieutenant Long “waiting for orders.”
Toward noon a thought struck me. I swung the telephone around and “got” the Inspector.
“All my junk is up in Empire yet,” I remarked.
“All right, tell the desk-man down there to make you out a pass. Or—hold the wire! As long as you’re going out, there’s a prisoner over in Panama that belongs up in Empire. Go over and tell the Chief you want Tal Fulano.”
I wormed my way through the fawning, neck-craning, many-shaded mob of political henchmen and obsequious petitioners into the sacred hushed precincts of Panama police headquarters. A paunched “Spigoty” with a shifty eye behind large bowed glasses, vainly striving to exude dignity and wisdom, received me with the oily smirk of the Panamanian office-holder who feels the painful necessity of keeping on outwardly good terms with all Americans. I flashed my badge and mentioned a name. A few moments later there was presented to me a sturdy, if somewhat flabby, young Spaniard carefully dressed and perfumed. We bowed like life-long acquaintances and, stepping down to the street, entered a cab. The prisoner, which he was now only in name, was a muscular fellow with whom I should have fared badly in personal combat. I was wholly unarmed, and in a foreign land. All those sundry little unexplained points of a policeman’s duty were bubbling up within me. When the prisoner turned to remark it was a warm day should I warn him that anything he said would be used against him? When he ordered the driver to halt before the “Panazone” that he might speak to some friends should I fiercely countermand the order? What was my duty when the friends handed him some money and a package of cigars? Suppose he should start to follow his friends inside to have a drink—but he didn’t. We drove languidly on down the avenue and up into Ancon, where I heaved a genuine sigh of relief as we crossed the unmarked street that made my badge good again. The prisoner was soon behind padlocks and the money and cigars in the station safe. These and him and the transfer card I took again with me into the foreign Republic in time for the evening train. But he seemed even more anxious than I to attract no attention, and once in Empire requested that we take the shortest and most inconspicuous route to the police station; and my responsibility was soon over.
Many were the Z.P. facts I picked up during the next few days in the swivel-chair. The Zone Police force of 1912 consisted of a Chief of Police, an Assistant Chief, two Inspectors, four Lieutenants, eight sergeants, twenty corporals, one hundred and seventeen “first-class policemen,” and one hundred and sixteen “policemen” (West Indian negroes without exception, though none but an American citizen could aspire to any white position); not to mention five clerks at headquarters, who are quite worth the mentioning. “Policemen” wore the same uniform as “first-class” officers, with khaki-covered helmet instead of “Texas” hat and canvas instead of leather leggings, drew one-half the pay of a white private, were not eligible for advancement, and with some few notable exceptions were noted for what they did know and the facility with which they could not learn. One Inspector was in charge of detective work and the other an overseer of the uniformed force. Each of the Lieutenants was in charge of one-fourth of the Zone with headquarters respectively at Ancon, Empire, Gorgona, and Cristobal, and the sub-stations within these districts in charge of sergeants, corporals, or experienced privates, according to importance.
Years ago when things were yet in primeval chaos and the memorable sixth of February of 1904 was still well above the western horizon there was gathered together for the protection of the newly-born Canal Strip a band of “bad men” from our ferocious Southwest, warranted to feed on criminals each breakfast time, and in command of a man-eating rough-rider. But somehow the bad men seemed unable to transplant to this new and richer soil the banefulness that had thrived so successfully in the land of sage-brush and cactus. The gourmandizing promised to be chiefly at the criminal tables; and before long it was noted that the noxious gentlemen were gradually drifting back to their native sand dunes, and the rough-riding gave way to a more orderly style of horsemanship. Then bit by bit some men—just men without any qualifying adjective whatever—began to get mixed up in the matter; one after another army lieutenants were detailed to help the thing along, until by and by they got the right army lieutenant and the right men and the Z. P. grew to what it is to-day,—not the love, perhaps, but the pride of every “Zoner” whose name cannot be found on some old “blotter.”
There are a number of ways of getting on the force. There is the broad and general high-way of being appointed in Washington and shipped down like a nice fresh vegetable in the original package and delivered just as it left the garden without the pollution of alien hands. Then there’s the big, impressive, broad-shouldered fellow with some life and military service behind him, and the papers to prove it, who turns up on the Zone and can’t help getting on if he takes the trouble to climb to headquarters. Or there are the special cases, like Marley for instance. Marley blew in one summer day from some uncharted point of the compass with nothing but his hat and a winning smile on his brassy features, and naturally soon drifted up the “Thousand Stairs.” But Marley wasn’t exactly of that manly build that takes “the Chief” and “the Captain” by storm; and there were suggestions on his young-old face that he had seen perhaps a trifle too much of life. So he wiped the sweat from his brow several times at the third-story landing only to find as often that the expected vacancy was not yet. Meanwhile the tropical days slipped idly by and Marley’s “standin” with the owners of I. C. C. hotel-books began to strain and threaten to break away, and everything sort of gave up the ghost and died. Everything, that is, except the winning smile. ‘Til one afternoon with only that asset left Marley met the department head on the grass-bordered path in front of the Episcopal chapel, just where the long descent ends and a man begins to regain his tractable mood, and said Marley:
“Say, looka here, Chief. It’s a question of eats with me. We can’t put this thing off much longer or—”
Which is why that evening’s train carried Marley, with a police badge and the little flat volume bound in imitation leather in his pocket, out to some substation commander along the line for the corporal in charge to break in and hammer down into that finished product, a Zone Policeman.
Incidentally Marley also illustrated some months later one of the special ways of getting off the force. It was still simpler. Going “on pass” to Colon to spend a little evening, Marley neglected to leave his No. 38 behind in the squad-room, according to Z. P. rules. Which was careless of him. For when his spirits reached that stage where he recognized what sport it would be to see the “Spigoty” policemen of Bottle Alley dance a western cancan he bethought him of the No. 38. Which accounts for the fact that the name of Marley can no longer be found on the rolls of the Z. P. But all this is sadly anticipating.
Obviously, you will say, a force recruited from such dissimilar sources must be a thing of wide and sundry experience. And obviously you are right. Could a man catch up the Z. P. by the slack of the khaki riding breeches and shake out their stories as a giant in need of carfare might shake out their loose change, then might he retire to some sunny hillside of his own and build him a sound-proof house with a swimming pool and a revolving bookcase and a stable of riding horses, and cause to be erected on the front lawn a kneeling-place where publishers might come and bow down and beat their foreheads on the pavement.
There are men in the Z. P. who in former years have played horse with the startled markets of great American cities; men whose voices will boom forth in the pulpit and whisper sage councils in the professional in years to come; men whom doting parents have sent to Harvard—on whom it failed to take, except on their clothes—men who have gone down into the Valley of the Shadow of Death and crawled on hands and knees through the brackish red brook that runs at the bottom and come out again smiling on the brink above. Careers more varied than Mexican sombreros one might hear in any Z. P. squad-room—were not the Z. P. so much more given to action than to autobiography.
They bore little resemblance to what I had expected. My mental picture of an American policeman was that conglomerate average one unconsciously imbibes from a distant view of our city forces, and by comparison with foreign,—a heavy-footed, discourteous, half-fanatical, half-irreligious clubber whose wits are as slow as his judgment is honest. Instead of which I found the Z. P. composed almost without exception of good-hearted, well set up young Americans almost all of military training. I had anticipated, from other experiences, a constant bickering and a general striving to make life unendurable for a new-comer. Instead I was constantly surprised at the good fellowship that existed throughout the force. There were of course some healthy rivalries; there were no angels among them—or I should have fled the Isthmus much earlier; but for the most part the Z. P. resembled nothing so much as a big happy family. Above all I had expected early to make the acquaintance of “graft,” that shifty-eyed monster which we who have lived in large American cities think of as sitting down to dinner with the force in every mess-hall. Graft? Why a Zone Policeman could not ride on a P. R. R. train in full uniform when off duty without paying his fare, though he was expected to make arrests if necessary and stop behind with his prisoner. Compared indeed with almost any other spot on the broad earth’s surface “graft” eats slim meals on the Canal Zone.
The average Zone Policeman would arrest his own brother—which is after all about the supreme test of good policehood. He is not a man who likes to keep “blotters,” make out accident reports and such things, that can be of interest only to those with clerks’ and bookkeepers’ souls.
He would far rather be battling with sun, man, and vegetation in the jungle. He is of those who genuinely and frankly have no desire to become rich, and “successful,” a lack of ambition that formal society cannot understand and fancies a weakness.
I had still another police surprise during these swivel-chair days. I discovered there was on the Zone a yellow tailor who made Beau Brummel uniforms at $7.50, compared with which the $5 ready-made ones were mere clothes. All my life long I had been laboring under the delusion that a uniform is merely a uniform. But one lives and learns.
There are few left, I suppose, who have not heard that gray-bearded story of the American in the Philippines who called his native servant and commanded:
“Juan, va fetch the caballo from the prado and—and—oh, saddle and bridle him. Damn such a language anyway! I’m sorry I ever learned it.”
This is capped on the Zone by another that is not only true but strikingly typical. An American boss who had been much annoyed by unforeseen absences of his workmen pounced upon one of his Spaniards one morning crying:
“When you know por la noche that you’re not going to trabaja por la manana why in—don’t you habla?”
“Si, senor,” replied the Spaniard.
By which it may be gathered that linguistic ability on the Zone is on a par with that in other U. S. possessions. Of the seven of us assigned to plain-clothes duty on this strip of seventy-two nationalities there was a Colombian, a gentleman of Swedish birth, a Chinaman from Martinique, and a Greek, all of whom spoke English, Spanish, and at least one other language. Of the three native Americans two spoke only their mother tongue. In the entire white uniformed force I met only Lieutenant Long and the Corporal in charge of Miraflores who could seriously be said to speak Spanish, though I am informed there were one or two others.
This was not for a moment any fault of the Z. P. It comes back to our government and beyond that to the American people. With all our expanding over the surface of the earth in the past fourteen years there still hangs over us that old provincial back-woods bogie, “English is good enough for me.” We have only to recall what England does for those of her colonial servants who want seriously to study the language of some portion of her subjects to have something very like the blush of shame creep up the back of our necks. Child’s task as is the learning of a foreign language, provincial old Uncle Sam just flat-foots along in the same old way, expecting to govern and judge and lead along the path of civilization his foreign colonies by bellowing at them in his own nasal drawl and treating their tongue as if it were some purely animal sound. He is well personified by Corporal ——, late of the Z. P. The Corporal had served three years in the Philippines and five on the Zone, and could not ask for bread in the Spanish tongue. “Why don’t you learn it?” some one asked one day.
“Awe,” drawled the Corporal, “what’s the use o’ goin’ t’ all that trouble? If you have t’ have any interpretin’ done all you got t’ do is t’ call in a nigger.”
Uncle Sam not merely lends his servants no assistance to learn the tongues of his colonies, but should one of his subjects appear bearing that extraordinary accomplishment he gives him no preference whatever, no better position, not a copper cent more salary; and if things get to a pass where a linguist must be hired he gives the job to the first citizen that comes along who can make a noise that is evidently not English, or more likely still to some foreigner who talks English like a mouthful of Hungarian goulash. It is not the least of the reasons why foreign nations do not take us as seriously as they ought, why our colonials do not love us and, what is of far greater importance, do not advance under our rule as they should.
Meanwhile there had gradually been reaching me “through the proper channels,” as everything does on the Zone even to our ice-water, the various coupon-books and the like indispensable to Zone life and the proper pursuit of plain-clothes duty. Distressing as are statistics the full comprehension of what might follow requires the enumeration of the odds and ends I was soon carrying about with me.
A brass-check; police badge; I. C. C. hotel coupon-book; Commissary coupon-book; “120-Trip Ticket” (a booklet containing blank passes between any stations on the P. R. R., to be filled out by holder) Mileage book (purchased by employees at half rates of 2 1/2 cents a mile for use when traveling on personal business) “24-Trip Ticket” (a free courtesy pass to all “gold” employees allowing one monthly round trip excursion over any portion of the line) Freight-train pass for the P. R. R.; Dirt-train and locomotive pass for the Pacific division; ditto for the Central division; likewise for the Atlantic division; (in short about everything on wheels was free to the “gum-shoe” except the “yellow car”) Passes admitting to docks and steamers at either end of the Zone; note-book; pencil or pen; report cards and envelopes (one of which the plain-clothes man must fill out and forward to headquarters “via train-guard” wherever night may overtake him—”the gum-shoe’s day’s work,” as the idle uniformed man facetiously dubs it).
Furthermore the man out of uniform is popularly supposed never to venture forth among the populace without:
Belt, holster, cartridges, and the No. 38 “Colt” that reminds you of a drowning man trying to drag you down; handcuffs; police whistle; blackjack (officially he never carries this; theoretically there is not one on the Isthmus. But the “gum-shoe” naturally cannot twirl a police club, and it is not always policy to shoot every refractory prisoner). Then if he chances to be addicted to the weed there is the cigarette-case and matches; a watch is frequently convenient; and incidentally a few articles of clothing are more or less indispensable even in the dry season. Now and again, too, a bit of money does not come amiss. For though the Canal Zone is a Utopia where man lives by work-coupons alone, the detective can never know at what moment his all-embracing duties may carry him away into the foreign land of Panama; and even were that possibility not always staring him in the face, in the words of “Gorgona Red,” “You’ve got t’ have money fer yer booze, ain’t ye?”
Which seems also to be Uncle Sam’s view of the matter. Far and away more important than any of the plain-clothes equipment thus far mentioned is the “expense account.” It is unlike the others in that it is not visible and tangible but a mere condition, a pleasant sensation like the consciousness of a good appetite or a youthful fullness of life. The only reality is a form signed by the czar of the Zone himself tucked away among I. C. C. financial archives. That authorizes the man assigned to special duty in plain clothes to be reimbursed money expended in the pursuance of duty up to the sum of $60 per month; though it is said that the interpretation of this privilege to the full limit is not unlikely to cause flames of light, thunderous rumblings, and other natural phenomena in the vicinity of Empire and Culebra. But please note further; these expenditures may be only “for cab or boat hire, meals away from home, and LIQUOR and CIGARS!” Plainly the “gum-shoe” should be a bachelor.
Fortunately, however, the proprietor of the expense account is not required personally to consume it each month. It is designed rather to win the esteem of bar-tenders, loosen the tongues of suspects, libate the thirsty stool-pigeon, and prime other accepted sources of information. But beware! Exceeding care in filling out the account of such expenditures at the month’s end. Carelessness leads a hunted life on the Canal Zone. Take, for instance, the slight error of my friend—who, having made such expenditure in Colon, by a slip of the pen, or to be nice, of the typewriter, sent in among three score and ten items the following:
Feb. 4/ 2 bots beer; Cristobal……..50c
and in the course of time found said voucher again on his desk with a marginal note of mild-eyed wonder and more than idle curiosity, in the handwriting of a man very high up indeed;
WHERE can you buy beer in Cristobal?
All this and more I learned in the swivel-chair waiting for orders, reading the latest novel that had found its way to Ancon station, and receiving frequent assurances that I should be quite busy enough once I got started. Opposite sat Lieutenant Long pouring choice bits of sub-station orders into the ‘phone:
“Don’t you believe it. That was no accident. He didn’t lose everything he had in every pocket rolling around drunk in the street. He’s been systematically frisked. Sabe frisked? Get on the job and look into it.”
For the Lieutenant was one of those scarce and enviable beings who can live with his subordinates as man to man, yet never find an ounce of his authority missing when authority is needed.
Now and then a Z. P. story whiled away the time. There was the sad case of Corporal —— in charge of —— station. Early one Sunday afternoon the Corporal saw a Spaniard leading a goat along the railroad. Naturally the day was hot. The Corporal sent a policeman to arrest the inhuman wretch for cruelty to animals. When he had left the culprit weeping behind padlocks he went to inspect the goat, tied in the shade under the police station.
“Poor little beast,” said the sympathetic Corporal, as he set before it a generous pan of ice-water fresh from the police station tank. The goat took one long, eager, grateful draught, turned over on its back, curled up like the sensitive-plants of Panama jungles when a finger touches them, and departed this vale of tears. But Corporal —— was an artist of the first rank. Not only did he “get away with it” under the very frowning battlements of the judge, but sent the Spaniard up for ten days on the charge against him. Z. P.’s who tell the story assert that the Spaniard did not so much mind the sentence as the fact that the Corporal got his goat.
Then there was “the Mystery of the Knocked-out Niggers.” Day after day there came reports from a spot out along the line that some negro laborer strolling along in a perfectly reasonable manner suddenly lay down, threw a fit, and went into a comatose state from which he recovered only after a day or two in Ancon or Colon hospitals. The doctors gave it up in despair. As a last resort the case was turned over to a Z. P. sleuth. He chose him a hiding-place as near as possible to the locality of the strange manifestation. For half the morning he sweltered and swore without having seen or heard the slightest thing of interest to an old “Zoner.” A dirt-train rumbled by now and then. He strove to amuse himself by watching the innocent games of two little Spanish switch-boys not far away. They were enjoying themselves, as guileless childhood will, between their duties of letting a train in and out of the switch. Well on in the second half of the morning another diminutive Iberian, a water-boy, brought his compatriots a pail of water and carried off the empty bucket. The boys hung over the edge of the pail a sort of wire hook, the handle of their home-made drinking-can, no doubt, and went on playing.
By and by a burly black Jamaican in shirt-sleeves loomed up in the distance. Now and then as he advanced he sang a snatch of West Indian ballad. As he espied the “switcheros” a smile broke out on his features and he hastened forward his eyes fixed on the water-pail. In a working species of Spanish he made some request of the boys, the while wiping his ebony brow with his sleeve. The boys protested. Evidently they had lived on the Zone so long they had developed a color line. The negro pleaded. The boys, sitting in the shade of their wigwam, still shook their heads. One of them was idly tapping the ground with a broom-handle that had lain beside him. The negro glanced up and down the track, snatched up the boys’ drinking vessel, of which the wire hooked over the pail was not after all the handle, and stooped to dip up a can of water. The little fellow with the broom-stick, ceasing a useless protest, reached a bit forward and tapped dreamily the rail in front of him. The Jamaican suddenly sent the can of water some rods down the track, danced an artistic buck-and-wing shuffle on the thin air above his head, sat down on the back of his neck, and after trying a moment in vain to kick the railroad out by the roots, lay still.
By this time the sleuth was examining the broom-handle. From its split end protruded an inch of telegraph wire, which chanced also to be the same wire that hung over the edge of the galvanized bucket. Close in front of the innocent little fellows ran a “third rail!”
Then suddenly this life of anecdote and leisure ended. There was thrust into my hands a typewritten-sheet and I caught the next thing on wheels out to Corozal for my first investigation. It was one of the most commonplace cases on the Zone. Two residents of my first dwelling-place on the Isthmus had reported the loss of $150 in U. S. gold.
Easier burglary than this the world does not offer. Every bachelor quarters on the Isthmus, completely screened in, is entered by two or three screen-doors, none of which is or can be locked. In the building are from twelve to twenty-four wide-open rooms of two or three occupants each, no three of whom know one another’s full names or anything else, except that they are white Americans and ipso facto (so runs Zone philosophy) above dishonesty. The quarters are virtually abandoned during the day. Two negro janitors dawdle about the building, but they, too, leave it for two hours at mid-day. Moreover each of the forty-eight or more occupants probably has several friends or acquaintances or enemies who may drift in looking for him at any hour of the day or night. No negro janitor would venture to question a white American’s errand in a house; Panama is below the Mason and Dixon line. In practice any white American is welcome in any bachelor quarters and even to a bed, if there is one unoccupied, though he be a total stranger to all the community. Add to this that the negro tailor’s runner often has permission to come while the owner is away for suits in need of pressing, that John Chinaman must come and claw the week’s washing out from under the bed where the “rough-neck” kicked it on Saturday night, that there are a dozen other legitimate errands that bring persons of varying shades into the building, and above all that the bachelors themselves, after the open-hearted old American fashion, have the all but universal habit of tossing gold and silver, railroad watches and real-estate bonds, or anything else of whatever value, indifferently on the first clear corner that presents itself. Precaution is troublesome and un-American. It seems a fling at the character of your fellow bachelors—and in the vast majority of Zone cases it would be. But it is in no sense surprising that among the many thousands that swarm upon the Isthmus there should be some not averse to increasing their income by taking advantage of these guileless habits and bucolic conditions. There are suggestions that a few—not necessarily whites—make a profession of it. No wonder “our chief trouble is burglary” and has been ever since the Z. P. can remember. Summed up, the pay-day gold that has thus faded away is perhaps no small amount; compared with what it might have been under prevailing conditions it is little.
As for detecting such felonies, police officers the world around know that theft of coin of the realm in not too great quantities is virtually as safe a profession as the ministry. The Z. P. plain-clothes man, like his fellows elsewhere, must usually be content in such cases with impressing on the victim his Sherlockian astuteness, gathering the available facts of the case, and return to typewrite his report thereof to be carefully filed away among headquarters archives. Which is exactly what I had to do in the case in question, diving out the door, notebook in hand, to catch the evening train to Panama.
I was growing accustomed to Ancon and even to Ancon police-mess when I strolled into headquarters on Saturday, the sixteenth, and the Inspector flung a casual remark over his shoulder:
“Better get your stuff together. You’re transferred to Gatun.”
I was already stepping into a cab en route for the evening train when the Inspector chanced down the hill.
“New Gatun is pretty bad on Saturday nights,” he remarked. (All too well I remembered it.) “The first time a nigger starts anything run him in, and take all the witnesses in sight along.”
“That reminds me; I haven’t been issued a gun or handcuffs yet,” I hinted.
“Hell’s fire, no?” queried the Inspector. “Tell the station commander at Gatun to fix you up.”