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.”
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.