Zone Policeman 88
By Harry A. Franck
There were four of us that Sunday. “Bish” and I always went for an afternoon swim unless police or mess duties forbade. Then there was Bridgley, who had also once displayed his svelte form in a Z. P. uniform to admiring tourists, but was now a pursuer of “soldiering” Hindus on Naos Island. I wish I could describe Bridgley for you. But if you never knew him ten pages would give you no clearer idea, and if you ever did, the mere mention of the name Bridgley will be full and ample description. Still, if you must have some sort of a lay figure to hang your imaginings on, think of a man who always reminds you of a slender, delicate porcelain vase of great antiquity that you know a strong wind would smash to fragments,—yet when you accidentally swat it off the mantelpiece to the floor it bobs up without a crack. Then you grow bolder and more curious and jump on it with both feet in your hob-nailed boots, and to your astonishment it not only does not break but—
Well, Bridgley was one of us that Sunday afternoon; and then there was “the Admiral,” well-dressed as always, who turned up at the last moment; for which we were glad, as any one would be to have “the Admiral” along. So we descended into Panama by the train-guard short-cut and across the bridge that humps its back over the P. R. R. like a cat in unsocial mood, and on through Caledonia out along the beach sands past the old iron hulls about which Panamanian laborers are always tinkering under the impression that they are working. This time we walked. I don’t recall now whether it was quarter-cracks, or the Lieutenant hadn’t slept well—no, it couldn’t have been that, for the Lieutenant never let his personal mishaps trample on his good nature—or whether “Bish” had decided to try to reduce weight. At any rate we were afoot, and thereby hangs the tale—or as much of a tale as there is to tell.
We tramped resolutely on along the hard curving beach past the disheveled bath-houses before which ladies from the Zone gather in some force of a Sunday afternoon. For this time we were really out for a swim rather than to display our figures. On past the light-brown bathers, and the chocolate-colored bathers, and the jet black bathers who seemed to consider that color covering enough, till we came to the big silent saw-mill at the edge of the cocoanut grove that we had been invited long since to make a Z. P. dressing-room.
Before us spread the reposing, powerful, sun-shimmering Pacific. Across the bay, clear as an etching, lay Panama backed by Ancon hill. In regular cadence the ocean swept in with a hoarse, resistless roll on the sands.
We dived in, keeping an eye out for the sharks we knew never come so far in and probably wouldn’t bite if they did. The sun blazed down white hot from a cloudless sky. This time the Lieutenant and Sergeant Jack had not been able to come, but we arranged the races and jumps on the sand for all that, and went into them with a will and—
A rain-drop fell. Nor was it long lonesome. Before we had finished the hundred-yard dash we were in the midst of —— it was undeniably raining. Half a moment later “bucketsful” would have been a weak simile. All the pent up four months of an extra long rainy season seemed to have been loosed without warning. The blanket of water blotted out Panama and Ancon hill across the bay, blotted out the distant American bathers, then the light-brown ones, then the chocolate-tinted, then even the jet black ones close at hand.
We remained under water for a time to keep dry. But the rain whipped our faces as with thousands of stinging lashes. We crawled out and dashed blindly up the bank toward the saw-mill, the rain beating on our all but bare skins, feeling as it might to stand naked in Miraflores locks and let the sand pour down upon us from sixty feet above. When at last we stumbled under cover and up the stairs to where our clothing hung, it was as if a weight of many tons had been lifted from our shoulders.
The saw-mill was without side-walls; consisted only of a sheet-iron roof and floors, on the former of which the storm pounded with a roar that made only the sign language feasible. It was now as if we were surrounded on all sides by solid walls of water and forever shut off from the outer world—if indeed that had survived. Sheets of water slashed in further and further across the floor. We took to huddling behind beams and under saw-benches—the militant storm hunted us out and wetted us bit by bit. “The Admiral” and I tucked ourselves away on the 45-degree eye-beams up under the roaring roof. The angry water gathered together in columns and swept in and up to soak us.
At the end of an hour the downpour had increased some hundred per cent. It was as if an express train going at full speed had gradually doubled its rapidity. That was the day when little harmless streams tore themselves apart into great gorges and left their pathetic little bridges alone and deserted out in the middle of the gulf. That was the famous May twelfth, 1912, when Ancon recorded the greatest rainfall in her history,—7.23 inches, virtually all within three hours. Three of us were ready to surrender and swim home through it. But there was “the Admiral” to consider. He was dressed clear to his scarf-pin—and Panama tailors tear horrible holes in a police salary. So we waited and dodged and squirmed into closer holes for another hour; and grew steadily wetter.
Then at length dusk began to fall, and instead of slacking with the day the fury of the storm increased. It was then that “the Admiral” capitulated, seeing fate plainly in league with his tailor; and wigwagging the decision to us beside him, he led the way down the stairs and dived into the world awash.
Wet? We had not taken the third step before we were streaming like fire hose. There was nearly an hour of it, splashing knee-deep through what had been when we came out little dry sandy hollows; steering by guess, for the eye could make out nothing fifty yards ahead, even before the cheese-thick darkness fell; bowed like nonogenarians under the burden of water; staggering back and forth as the storm caught us crosswise or the earth gave way under us. “The Admiral’s” patent-leather shoes—but why go into painful details? Those who were in Panama on that memorable afternoon can picture it all for themselves, and the others will never know. The wall of water was as thick as ever when we fought our bowed and weary way up over the railroad bridge and, summoning up the last strength, splurged tottering into “Angelini’s.”
When our streaming had so far subsided that they recognised us for solvent human beings, encouraging concoctions were set before us. Bridgley, fearing the after effects, acquired a further quart bottle of protection, and when we had gathered force for the last dash we plunged out once more toward our several goals. As the door of 111 slammed behind me, the downpour suddenly slackened. As I paused before my room to drain, it stopped raining.
I supped on bread, beer, and cheese from over the frontier—we had arrived thirty seconds too late for Ancon police mess. Then when I had saved what was salvable from the wreckage and reclad in such wardrobe as had luckily remained at home, I strolled over toward the police station to put in a serene and quiet evening.
But it has long since been established that troubles flock together. As I crunched up the gravel walk between the hedge-rows, wild riot broke on my ear. Ancon police station was in eruption. From the Lieutenant to the newest uniformless “rookie” every member of the force was swarming in and out of the building. The Zone and Panama telephones were ringing in their two opposing dialects, the deskman was shouting his own peculiar brand of Spanish into one receiver and bawling English at the other, all hands were diving into old clothes, the most apathetic of the force were girding up their loins with the adventurous fire of the old Moro-hunting days in their eyes, and all, some ahorse, more afoot, were dashing one by one out into the night and the jungle.
It was several minutes before I could catch the news. At last it was shouted at me over a telephone. Murder! A white Greek—who ever heard of a colored Greek?—with a white shirt on had shot a man at Pedro Miguel at 6:35. Every road and bypath of escape to Panama was already blocked, armed men would meet the assassin whatever way he might take. I went down to meet the evening train, resolved after that to strike out into the night in the random hope of having my share in the chase. It had begun to rain again, but only moderately, as if it realized it could never again equal the afternoon record.
Then suddenly the excitement exploded. It was only a near-murder. Two Colombians had been shot, but would in all probability recover. The news reached me as I stood at the second-class gate scanning the faces of the great multicolored river of passengers that poured out into the city. For two hours, one by one with crestfallen mien, the manhunters leaked back into Ancon station and, the case having dwindled to one of regular daily routine, by eleven we were all abed.
In the morning the “Greek chase” fell to me. More detailed description of the culprit had come in during the night, including the bit of information that he was a bad man from the Isle of Crete. The belt-straining No. 38 oiled and loaded, I set off on an assignment that was at least a relief after pursuing stolen necklaces for negro women, or crowbars lost by the I. C. C.
By nine I was climbing to Pedro Miguel police station on its knoll with the young Greek who had exchanged hats with the assassin after the crime. That afternoon a volunteer joined me. He was a friend of the wounded men, a Peruvian black as jade, but without a suggestion of the negro in anything but his outward appearance. He was of the size and build of a Sampson in his prime, spoke a Spanish so clear-cut it seemed to belie his African blood, and had the restless vigor acquired in a youth of tramping over the Andine ranges.
I piled him into a cab and we rolled away to East Balboa, to climb upon an empty dirt-train and drop off as it raced through Miraflores, the sturdy legs of the Peruvian saving him where his practice would not have. Up in the bush between Pedro Miguel and Paraiso we found a hut where the Greek had stopped for water and gone on up a gully. We set out to follow, mounting partly on hands and knees, partly dragging ourselves by grass and bushes up what had been and would soon be again a torrential mountain stream. For hours we tore through the jungle, up hills steeper than the path of righteousness, following now a few faint foot-prints or trampled bushes, now a hint from some native bush dweller. The rain outside vied with the sweat within as to which would first soak us through. To make things merrier I had not only to wear an arsenal but a coat atop to conceal it from the general public.
To mention the holes I crawled into and the clues I followed during the next few days would be more tiresome than a Puritan prayer. By day I was dashing back and forth through all Ancon district, by night prowling about the grimier sections of Panama city. Almost daily I got near enough to sniff the prey. Now it was a Greek confectioner on Avenida Central who admitted that the fugitive had called on him during the night, now a Panamanian pesquisa whose stool-pigeon had seen him out in the bush, then the information that he had stopped to shave and otherwise alter his appearance in some shack half-way across the Zone and afterward struck off for Panama by an unused route. The clues were pendulum-like. They took me a half-dozen times at least out the winding highway to Corozal, on to Miraflores and even further. The rainy season and the reign of umbrellas had come. It had been formally opened on that memorable Sunday afternoon. There was still sunshine at times, but always a wet season heaviness to the atmosphere; and the rains were already giving the rolling jungle hills a tinge of new green. There was nothing to be gained by hurrying. The fugitive was as likely to crawl forth from one place as another along the rambling road. Here I paused to kill a lizard or to watch the clumsy march of one of the huge purple and many-colored land-crabs, there to gaze away across a jungled valley soft and fuzzy in the humid air like some Corot painting.
I even sailed for San Francisco in the quest. For of course each outgoing ship must be searched. One day I had word that a “windjammer” was about to sail; and racing out to Balboa I was soon set aboard the fore and aft schooner Meteor far out in the bay. When I plunged down into the cabin the peeled-headed German captain was seated at a table before a heap of “Spig” dollars, paying off his black shore hands. He solemnly asserted he had no Greek aboard, and still more solemnly swore that if he found one stowed away he would turn him over to the police in San Francisco—which was kind of him but would not have helped matters. There are several men running gaily about San Francisco streets who would be very welcome in certain quarters on the Zone and sure of lodging and food for a long time to come.
By this time the tug Bolivar had us in tow, the captain went racing over his ship like any of his crew, tugging at the ropes, and we were gliding out across Panama bay, past the little greening islands, the curving panorama of the city and Ancon hill growing smaller and smaller behind—bound for ‘Frisco. What ho! the merry “windjammer” with her stowed sails and smell of tar awakened within me old memories, hungry and grimy for the most part. But this was no independent, self-respecting member of the Wind-wafted sisterhood. Far out in the offing lay a steamer of the same line that was to TOW the Meteor to the Golden Gate! How is the breed of sailors fallen! The few laborers aboard would take an occasional wheel, pick oakum, and yarn their unadventurous yarns. As we drew near, a boat was lowered to set me aboard the steamer, to the rail-crowding surprise of her passengers, who fancied they had hours since seen the last of Zone and “Zoners.” The captain asserted he had nothing aboard grown nearer Greece than three Irishmen, any one of whom—facetiousness seemed to be one of the captain’s characteristics—I might have and welcome. A few moments later I was back aboard the tug waving farewell to steamer and “windjammer” as they pushed away into the twilight sea, and the Bolivar turned shoreward.
I received a “straight tip” one evening that the fugitive Greek was hiding in a hovel on the Cruces trail. What part of the Cruces trail, the informant did not hint; but he described the hut in some detail. So next morning as the thick gray dawn of this tropical land was melting into day, I descended at Bas Obispo, through the canal to Gamboa and struck off into the dense dripping jungle. The rainy season had greened things up and gone—temporarily, of course, for in a day or two it would be on us again in all tropical fury. In the few days since the first rain the landscape had changed like a theater decoration, a green not even to be imagined in the temperate zone.
It turned out that the ancient village of Cruces was a mere two-mile stroll from the canal, a thatch-roofed native town of some thirty dwellings on the rocky shore of an inner curve of the Chagres, where travelers from Balboa to the last “Forty-niner” disembarked from their thirty-six mile ride up the river and struck on along the ten-mile road through the jungle to Panama—the famous Cruces trail. Except for its associations the village was without interest—except some personal Greek interest. Sour looks were chiefly my portion, for the villagers have never taken kindly to Americans.
I soon sought out the trail, here a mere path undulating through rank, wet-hot, locust singing jungle. Here in the tangled somber mystery of the wilderness grew every tropical thing; countless giant ferns, draping tangles of vines, the mango tree with its rounded dome of leaves like the mosque of Omar done in greenery, the humble pineapple with its unproportionate fruit, everywhere the banana, king of vegetables, clothed in its own immense leaves, the frondy zapote, now and then in a hollow a clump of yellowish-green bamboo, though not numerous or nearly so large as in many another tropical land, above all else the symmetrical Gothic fronds of the palm nodding in a breeze the more humble vegetation could not know. The constant music of insect life sounded in my ears; everywhere were flowers of brilliant hue, masses of bush blossoms not unlike the lilac in appearance, but like all down on the Isthmus, odorless—or rather with a pungent scent, like strong catsup.
Four months earlier I should have been chary of diving back into the Panamanian “bush” alone, above all on a criminal hunt. But it needs only a little time on the Zone to make one laugh at the absurd stories of danger from the bush native that are even yet appearing in many U. S. papers. They are not over friendly to whites, it is true. But they were all of that familiar languid Central American type, blinking at me apathetically out of the shade of their huts, crowding to one edge of the trail as I passed, eying me silently, a bit morosely, somewhat frightened because their experience of Americans is of a discourteous creature who shouts at them in a strange tongue and swears at them because they do not understand it. The moment they heard their own customary greetings they changed to children delighted to do anything to oblige—even to the extent of dragging their indolent forms erect to lead the way a quarter-mile through the bush to some isolated shack. Far from contemplating any injury, all these wayward children of the jungle ask is to be let alone to drift through life in their own way. Still more absurd is the notion of danger from wild beasts—other than the tiny wild beast that burrows its painful way under the skin.
So I pushed on, halting at many huts to make covert inquiries. It was a joyous, brilliant day overhead. Down in the dense, rampant, singing jungle I sweated profusely—and enjoyed it. Choking for a drink in a hutless section, I took one of the crooked, tunnel-like trails to the left in the direction of the Chagres. But it squirmed off through thick jungle, through banana groves and untended pineapple gardens to come out at last at an astonished hut on a knoll, from which was not to be seen a sign of the river. I crawled through another struggling side-trail further on and this time reached the stream, but at a bank too sheer and bush-matted to descend. The third attempt brought me to where the river made a graceful bend at my feet and I descended an abrupt jungle bank to drink and st