TROUBLE IN MAYAPAN
A Norreys Jewel Adventure
By Andre Norton
8: It is a Jungle of Tourmaline.
There was a wind faintly redolent of fish and fishy concerns beating in from the sea. In the half light of pre-dawn the men moving about the landing stage were awkward shapes who bumped into each other and spat unpalatable personal comments. And yet, Peter, keeping carefully out of the main artery, could see that there was a system in the loading and that Norgate and Kane were both old hands at the business.
He ran a finger around the inner circle of his button collar. The thick stuff of the dull greenish shirt seemed more suited to the arctic than the jungle and yet Kane had made forcible suggestions as to the desirability of keeping shirts buttoned up and the long sleeves rolled down once they hit the back country. More than half the menace of the back lands was both minute and winged and cloth might just baffle them in their hunt for fresh blood.
Though one beak-full of what was coursing through his veins right now ought to put any mosquito or black fly right on its back. His arm was still sore from the series of shots Kane had insisted on and there was a dull yellowish taste about his back teeth every time he remembered them. Strictly poison-- that was Peter Lord right how.
“OK” Norgate’s soft voice carried across the water from the amphibian's anchorage. “That's the last. Come aboard!”
Peter left his post of refuge and joined Kane in the light skiff which brought them to the side of the plane. It was a midget besides the giant clippers of the airlines but Peter saw when he clambered aboard that it was the tool of an expert and lovingly kept as such.
Most of the cabin was stocked with lashed tonnage and the two passengers were expected to stow themselves away in the crevices of this in whatever manner seemed most comfortable. Peter wedged into a hollow and gripped the taunt rope lashings grimly as the ship took off.
With such a heavy load the take-off was slow and it was a period of breath holding for all of them until they were air-borne. Norgate circled once above the city and Peter pulled himself to one of the small windows to catch a half glimpse of the spatter of gray-white which were the ancient buildings of the old port.
The sky was alight and broke through the dusk so that Kane became more than a tallish outline. He was at the other window peering out at the land below as if he had never seen the view from a plane before. Then he settled back and flipped open a map, running his finger along a crooked path on its surface. Peter's teeth met in the wad of gum he had cashes on a back tooth. At least none of the million and one accidents which might have happened on the take-off had materialized. They were on their way!
Sugar fields hacked from the bush and a winding path or two connecting them made a ragged sort of pattern. But the fingers of un-cleared land became wider and wider. They passed over the brown sluggish water of a river. Peter tried to remember the map-- That must be the lower reaches of the San Filipe. A fleet of four long canoes glided with the stream, and were gone as the plane droned steadily inland. Covering in minutes what might take hours for the voyagers below.
Now the green sweep of trees was a fuzzy carpet almost without a break, only now and then a forest giant which had outgrown its fellows thrusting up at them. Norgate was flying low, using river landmarks for a guide.
White streaks broke through the oily sheen of the muddy water. Rapids were so marked by the churning water. But Peter's attention was pulled from these when Kane pulled at his shoulder impatiently. He swung his head around to see the older man jabbing at the window with a thumb.
There were clouds far out over the jungle, clouds which were thick like an ugly wool springing from the green flooring. Even as Peter watched they puffed and grew, thicker, darker. Kane abandoned his seat and made for the small compartment where Norgate nursed the controls. That band of dirty wool was advancing on them. And for the first time Peter realized what it might mean. They were already flying at a low altitude, they could not fly by instruments, and without the visual guide of the river below they would certainly be lost. Now they were sandwiched between lowering clouds and the jungle-- if the clouds should seal them in-----
There was always the hope that this was only local, that any minute would bring them out of the sudden storm into daylight and free air again. Instead the lash of rain snapped across the window before him. The constant drum of a torrential downpour could be heard even above the steady drone of the engine. But Norgate did not appear to be bothered by the lessened visibility of the rain torn sky.
Only there was another result from that soaking downpour. Peter crouched fascinated, unable to look away from that sight. As the cold water from the sky struck into the steamy heat of the vegetation below a dense fog began to curl up towards them. It came out of openings in the bush, thicker than steam from the compressing nose of a kettle. They might have been flying over a forest of chimneys above some great factory. The mist arose and spread until they were flying over a billowing carpet of white, a carpet which covered the green, clinging to the wide crowned trees.
And the plane, fearing to lose the guide of the river, dipped down into that mist. They could not have been flying high above the surface of the water now, and that fortunately was not steaming as densely as did the jungle itself. Only with mist and driving rain cutting visibility close to zero Norgate had all he could do to gage the closeness and height of the trees on either bank.
There was another menace too, one which Peter had not known of until its first thrust was barely avoided. Hereabouts the San Filipe was broken with a spatter of small islands and on some of these grew trees which rivaled the giants of the back jungle. Norgate banked in and out between such obstructions with a skill which left Peter breathless, more with panic than an admiration which he did not know until much later should have been awarded such a feat.
The plane was making swift upshots and dives as Norgate fought to avoid the island tree tops. Peter crouched by the window---the driving rain making a barrier between the cabin and the dank foliage on the banks. Twice his insides heaved and he swallowed desperately, licking sweat salted lips.
In and out, up and down, the wild pattern Norgate was weaving along the river reaches had saved them so far. But the pull of the meters meant that the amphibian was approaching its maximum speed---if it had not already found it. And how long could they continue to play hit and miss?
He lurched forward as a hand fell heavily on his shoulder. Above the roar and hiss of the storm Kane's shouting was only a dull jumble with a few understandable words.
Down into this? Peter remembered only too vividly the white lace of rapid foam. And with all this rain the river would he running high---down---into this? Norgate must have cracked----
But even to his ears the rain was slackening, the barbed thongs of storm water tearing less at the battling plane. He blinked at the tree crowns which broke through the cotton-wool of fog. There appeared to be more of them.
Twenty minutes later the fog was a sullen white wall behind them, moisture ran down the fuselage and windows of the cabin but they no longer were breasting a flood in the air. Kane beckoned him forward towards the cockpit and he edged up to the pilots inner sanctum.
Norgate's slim body hollowed out the cushions of the one seat. His long dark hands were on the controls, but when the boy appeared in the doorway he glanced back with a half smile which cut the lines about his lips.
“Licked the jinx that time, didn't we?” has rich voice was a little flat, tired. “This buzz buggy's a great old girl----”
Kane’s laugh was a sharp bark. “She’s going great guy, nursing her along. I don't mind telling you I was seeing a tomb stone behind every tree along those misbegotten islands!”
Norgate shrugged. “It is plain our numbers have not yet been rolled. But I don't mind admitting that that was the worst situation I have ever known down here. No wonder the back country is a graveyard of missing ships. Well, what do you think of the jungle, Lord? Now that we are flying over unexplored territory---”
Lord stared down. As far as he could see the wooly carpet of tree tops was no different from that which had been under them ever since they had left the cleared lands of the coast. Norgate pointed north-west.
“Rio Jaguar country. If we leave the San Filipe and strike west we should sight it soon.”
“So we're beyond civilization?” questioned Kane.
“Not quite. There's a little rat hole-- diamond diggings at Columbo. Some crazy fool made a strike up here about three months ago and there'll be those who followed him back in. But strictly speaking we're out of the bonds of law and order, all right. It's where the D'oro flows into the main stream. Want a look-see?”
The plane dipped, side slipping to the left and down toward the glassy surface of the water. Then suddenly swept across a second stream, the waters of which were golden yellow and wild, racing with strips of foam across them.
“That's the D'oro. River of Gold-- it spells its name with that color. Tons of silt in that all right. And maybe a few good pounds of gold dust and some diamonds rolled along with it. If the gravel along her banks is ever going to pay off it’ll be after she's on a rampage like this one. All right, shall we take the plunge into the great unknown now?”
He was fully relaxed now, his hands light on the controls, all the taunt strain out of his smile. Kane looked from the ever present map through the window to the green below.
“Okay. Take her----”
“Up and over?” Norgate finished.
The nose of the amphibian swung up and over, following his words. They left the river junction and headed out over the raw green of the tight woven jungle foliage. Norgate was humming only half aloud, a wired minor series of notes which were far from a civilized tune.
“D' you know what this stuff looks like?” he demanded of the other two a moment later, flexing one hand towards the ground. “Brazilian emerald-- that's what. Piast had some for sale a year ago. And they came up from somewhere here too---”
“Emerald---”Peter took a deep breath but before he could ask his question Kane had answered it for him.
“Yeh, green at one end and black-brown at the other. And that's this jungle, green on top and black muck under foot. A stinking trap for anyone fool enough to set foot in it.”
“Tourmalines---” Kane repeated the word slowly. “Electric stones-- Yeah?” Norgate looked enquiring.
“If they are rubbed or heat applied to then they'll attract small pieces of paper. Early Dutch voyages used to use them for drawing tobacco ash out of their pipes.”
Norgate widened his eyes in mock surprise. “Well, what’dya know! Learn something new every day.”
“But they do look like emeralds---”persisted Peter.
“To the novice maybe. Back in the middle-ages gem dealers made that mistake-- and a mighty good profit out of it. Nowadays any expert could tell the difference,” Kane answered. “Don't worry, kid. We're on the trail of the real stuff-- not tourmalines.”
Peter flushed. Something of just that sort of thought had been in his mind. Only he should have had better since. As if Norreys would gamble on tourmalines’.
“And here is your land of mystery,” Norgate broke the short silence.
Through the wool of matted trees and vines was a broad slash of black, sullen, oily water, running like a foul ribbon before them. Here were no islands to break the scum of the water, only the too -quiet liquid and the unmoving green. Peter pulled absent mindedly at his belt. There was something about that dark stuff-- it did not look like healthy water at all, but more like the ichor which might flow from the wound of a reptile---nasty, a stench through the jungle.
The plane coasted about it, circling down close to the water. Norgate sat forward a little, his attention all for the water and the bush which hemmed it in. Kane folded away the map and thrust it into his skirt pocket, never taking his eyes from the oiled slick of the Rio Jaguar.
He turned to the pilot at last with a single question. “We’re definitely off the map?”
“Off the map-- brother, we're out of the world now. Shall we keep on going?”
There was a trace of frown between Kane’s level brows.
“Any chance of sighting a prospector's pitch along here?”
“Not unless he’d made a strike and they'd set up a regular diamond shop with a clearing and all. Otherwise-- from the air---” He made a round zero with thumb and forefinger.
“Suppose we go down for a glance over the land-- pick a good place----”
“And will I do just that?”Norgate returned with a force which showed through the humor. “To crack up now would mean a nice long walk home and one I wouldn’t care for.”
So it was Norgate who picked the sight of their first camp in the forbidden territory. A jog in the river bank manufactured a sort of half cove which seems to promise shelter of a sort for the plane. Peter and Kane went back to their places in the compartment and Norgate brought the ship down. They taxied up the stream, the brown water thrown in a spray and came to stop.
Peter crunched his jungle boots on the scrap of gravely beach where he had stepped across, purely for the pleasure of having land---of a sort---under them before. He swung the mattock Kane had handed him experimentally. The red haired American had made him practice that same swing bank in Maya City, when it had seemed rather silly to assail the thin air or the defenseless bushes at the edge of town. But now was the time for his hours of practice to pay off. He started towards the matted inland.
“Off we go-- into the wild green yonder,” Norgate came up behind him, balancing a second bush knife as if it were a rifle.
Peter sniffed the sweet, fetid breath of the mass before him. The jungle, he was discovering fast, when viewed from the ground, was not the jungle of the sky world. Here was a tight-walled prison world. A man swallowed deep in its maw could not guess what lay a foot or two beyond his struggling body. This was a trap---not a dull green carpet of velvet pile.
Underfoot were sunken logs, deposited by the overflow of ragging water, slimy roots, foot entangling vines, and higher hanging strands of bush rope and air living plants made a net of confusion.
Nor was this no-man-lands a silent one. A machine hum filled the dank air---rising and falling in regular rhythm---a hum which cut into the brain and nerves. Kane identified it for Peter.
“Giant cicadas-- sounding off and that---”
Peter had shifted his feet at a deep throated boom. Norgate laughed.
“And that, my friends,” he ended Kane's lesson in natural history. “Is a howler monkey telling the world what he thinks of it. He should be glad we are not Indios-- Bushmen would have him in the pot for supper.”
But Kane was beyond interest in howler monkeys. He was pulling at a tangle of dried branches caught in the upturned roots of a fallen tree, branches which bore a gruesome likeness of gray bones. Having partly freed this treasure trove he looked around him, bringing to light two more such untidy nest-like caches. From these he turned back to the river, eyeing the dark water reassuringly.
Norgate put it all into words. “Yes, we're below flood level---”
“Expecting any floods?” Peter dared to ask.
Kane only raised an eyebrow but the pilot shrugged. “That shower bath this morning is not just a local show. One like that in the head waters of the Rio Jaguar and it'd be high water here for sure. If the river is mountain born we can expect anything---”
“So we don't sleep ashore,” Kane prodded the flood flotsam with the toe of his boot. “However, one does not disdain the gifts of the gods. He set about gathering a respectable pile of the sun dried brush from the margin of the stream. “How about a hot dinner?”
“K rations yet,” but Norgate started his own wood hunt. And Peter was not slow to follow.
Knowing enough not to allow himself to be swallowed by the brush and lost in the new of the vegetation he moved by knife strokes up the stream side. Here and there narrow tongues of gravely white sand thrust out into the water. If a porkknocker had worked the Rio Jaguar, it was along these that he had prospected for the riches washed down by the flood waters. But on all of them Peter's foot might have been the first ever set by man.
He was lost in the fun of exploration and after a while gave up all pretense of adding to the bundle of driftwood he had gathered. All sorts of queer noises came out of the hot voidance at his side and things scuttled furiously away from his tread, unseen but not unheard. Once there was a fearsome screech and brilliant wings set out a path across the still air just above the flowing water, to disappear in the wall on the other side of the stream. And the howlers were all in good voice on both sides. It was with an odd sort of reluctance that he answered Kane's hail and headed back toward the anchorage of the plane.
But once within scent of the fire his pace became a trot and he realized just how hungry he really was. Norgate looked up from the small kettle he had swung over the flames.
“It's hot and it's food,” he announced without much enthusiasm. “Come and get it, or I'll feed the tiger fish---”
Peter looked over his shoulder at the brown ripple-less river.
“Any of them here?” He thought of all the horror stories told of the voracious needle toothed terrors which could strip the living flesh from the bones of anything living unfortunate enough to invade their home territory.
“Who knows? This is bogy country, remember, everything and anything may be waiting to grab up-- from djiggas to man-jaguars.”
“Djiggas, yes,” Kane conceded. “and nasty beggars they are too. Then there're the cabouri flies. But man-jaguars----? Those, my friend, I will have to see.”
“The old timers did, or at least so they say,” Norgate lit a cigarette. “Man by day, jaguar by night, and hunt your enemies when your claws were long and sharp. The good-- or bad old vampire-- werewolf legend you run into the world around-- wolf-men in Europe, Fox-women in Uhina and Japan and Jaguar folk down here. Now a puma-man might be a help---”
“Why?” asked Peter bluntly.
“Puma's are good-- jaguars evil. Incidentally they are enemies. But why I don't know. Just another bit of folk-lore for the collector to worry over. And this is jaguar territory-- so be warned.”
Kane grunted and poured another cup of coffee from the pot on the coals.
“You’ve done your duty” he blew inelegantly over the fiery stuff before he drank.
Digitized and edited by Jay Watts ~ aka: Lotsawatts ~ February, 2016
Never before seen novel by Andre Norton
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
Online Rights - Andre-Norton-Books.com
Donated by – Victor Horadam
Duplication of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.