I was at the appointed rendezvous promptly at seven, a pocket filled with commissary cigars. Strict truthfulness demands the admission that it was really eight, however, when B—– came wandering down the muddy steps behind the railroad station, followed by a black prisoner with a ten-gallon can of gasoline on his head. When that had been poured into the tank, we were off across the ever-rising waters of Gatun Lake. For Gatun police launch is one of those peculiar motor-boats that starts the same day you had planned to.
It was such a day as could not have been bettered had it been made to order, with a week to think out the details,—a dry-season day even to the Atlantic breeze that goes with it, a sort of Indian summer of the rainy season; though the heavy battalions of gray clouds that hung all around the horizon as if awaiting the order to charge warned the Zone to make merry while it might, for to-morrow it would surely rain—in deluges. The lake, much higher now than in my former Gatun days, was licking at the 27-foot level that morning. Under the brilliant blue sky it looked like some vast unruffled mirror—which is no figure of speech, but plain fact.
“Through a Forest in a Motor-boat” we might have dubbed the trip. We had soon crossed the unbroken expanse of the lake and were moving through a submerged forest. Splendid royal palms stood up to their necks in the water, corpulent, century-old giants of the jungle stood on tip-toe with their jagged noses just above the surface, gasping their last. Great mango-trees laden with fruit were descending into the flood. The lake was so mirror-like we could see the heads of drowning palm-trees and the blue sky with its wisps of snow-white feathery clouds as plainly below as above, so mirror-like the protruding stump of a palm looked like a piece of just double that length and exactly equal ends floating upright like a water thermometer, so reflective that the broken end of a branch showing above the surface appeared to be an acute angle of wood floating exactly at the angle in impossible equilibrium.
Our prisoner and crew were from “Bahbaydos”—only you can’t pronounce it as he did, nor make the “a” broad enough, nor show the inside of your red throat clear back to the soft palate to contrast with the glistening black skin of your carefree, grinning face. Theoretically he was being punished for assault and battery. But if this is punishment to be sentenced to cruise around on Gatun Lake I wonder crime on the Zone is so rare and unusual. This much I am sure, if I were in that particular “Badgyan’s” shoes— no, he had none; but his tracks, say—the day my time ran out I should pick a quarrel with a Jamaican and leave his countenance in such a condition that the judge could find no grounds for a reasonable doubt in the matter.