TROUBLE IN MAYAPAN
A Norreys Jewel Adventure
By Andre Norton
9: In the Night a Beast with Topaz Eyes.
It was after their first wilderness meal that Norgate demonstrated the fine art of washing for diamonds. Not that the thin gravel of the river shore contained any treasure to reward his efforts---not even a flake of gold to color the sand. The pilot shrugged at this negative beginning and actually laughed.
“What's so funny about this?” demanded Peter. Tall tales of diamond finds had colored all his thoughts about this river land. And now there wasn't even a trace of anything except broken bits of stone which he might have picked up along any creek back home.
“This is flood country,” Norgate pointed out the obvious. “To get diamonds you have to have a basin of gravel where they can get caught among the stones and held while the water goes through---”
Kane nodded. “It works like a sieve. But here the water sweeps through and rolls the stuff along-- there're no catch basins unless they're out in midstream where we're not equipped to hunt for them.”
“But where do they wash from-- the diamonds?”
“There,” Norgate answered Peter, “you have one of the prime mysteries of the backcountry. The stones the porkknockers `make’ and bring into the diamond shops are free stuff, loose in the gravel beds of streams. Somewhere back there, may be in those missing mountains of ours, storms tear them loose from their native clay and carrying them along towards the sea. Who can tell how long it takes a stone to come within the reach of civilization? A rock picked up last week might have started on its way before Richard the Lion Heart ruled England. And so far nobody's stumbled on the source or the stuff.”
“Well,” Kane had been examining the gravel for himself while Norgate spoke--- “here's a little item I would like to know the source of---”
He was holding out a curious shaped piece of rusty metal.
“I’ll be---!” Norgate snatched at the find. “Forceps---! But what in the name of Itzmauri are these doing here?”
“Any doctors missing?” Kane hunched forward, turning his find over with delicate touches of his finger tips---having refused to yield it to the pilot.
“None I ever heard of-- In fact the only doctors to go back country are the mission head at Chan Chal and the government man on tour. Wait!” He settled back on his heels and frowned out at the innocent amphibian. “There was some sort of a time scientist brought in by the Import people last year, He went up river to their experimental rubber station and didn’t come down again. But I don't think he was a doctor-- he-- Yes, he was the one Piast said was crazy about bugs-- went around babbling about giant ants-- sounded like something out of H. G. Wells brighter opuses, I thought.”
“Ants,” Kane attempted to move the rusted clamps. Red dust smeared his fingers. “why ants?”
“Well, they're supposed to grow them large down here-- two or three inches long and poisonous to. One of the favorite tall tales of the porkknockers is of the `four-sting ant‘. Let him bite you four times and your six feet under the next day.”
“Anybody ever seen them?” asked Peter.
“Not that I know of, they may have regular colonies and we wouldn't know. Makes you think of that old story about the ant army in Brazil, you know the one where they started on the march to take over the country and did pretty well at it. Now if some guy could train a battalion of four-stingers and set them going---”
“Yeah,” Kane was rolling the forceps carefully in a handkerchief. “Well, let's hope that that clever thought remains only in the pages of some of their fantasy stuff Peter laps up. Intelligent ants might be a little hard to cope with right now-- along with other little problems of the world. I don’t know how you feel about it but I would suggest we withdraw to the plane, this insect life is a little hungry---”
Gnats and midges were ruling the air now to a degree Peter had not thought possible. He spat disgustedly and tried to keep from inhaling a few of the twilight wanderers. Already the faint hooting of owls had broken the chorus of the cicadas. Jungle life of the day had gone into its night-time hiding but the rulers of the dark world had not yet sauntered. Only bats swooped low into the free food supply of insects.
Peter followed the others into the pilot's compartment of the plane and watched the night take over the jungle. The plane swayed lazily at its shore anchored moorings as a round of white silver arose high above the wall of trees and set a pallid trail across the river.
“It gets you,” Norgate spoke softly, as if he were afraid of sound of his own voice. “I'm supposed to have a heritage of jungle blood. I'm not at home here-- not ever. It-- this---” he waved his hand vaguely towards the nearest shore--- “is not for us. Even the lndios do not go everywhere there. They have their taboos. Parts of this country were not meant for man-- unless the old ones were able to tame it in ways we have forgotten. They knew things-- those old ones---” his words trailed away.
Kane lit a cigarette, the tiny red coal making a point of living fire in the dusk of the cabin.
“Who'll take the first watch?” he asked casually enough.
Peter glanced at the fringe of the moon struck shore line. “Watch against what? Norgate’s ants?” His chuckle broke through his effort to muffle it.
“For that-- this wise guy,” Norgate rounded on him, “And it's no joke, fella. If those mooring lines break we'll find ourselves in a nice jam. Also these Indios back there-- wild ones-- who might like to do a little investigating. For all we know they may have been watching us ever since arrived-- one doesn’t see the forest Indies unless they wish it.”
Kane switched on one of the small battery lights and pulled into view the automatic rifle which had been his particular charge since they had left Maya City.
“Freeze on to this, Kid. And keep your eyes on the shore and those lines. This is no country for a crack up.” His words showed no more emotion than if he had been urging Peter to watch the traffic lights in distant New York, but the boy had lost all desire to laugh at guard duty. The very matter-of-course way with which Kane accepted the necessity for the chore was convincing of the need for it.
So as the other two rolled up and were snoring gently some moments later back in the packed belly of the plane, Peter sat in the pilot’s seat, the rifle heavy across his knees and looked out upon the river night. Black shadows that were bats flipped out across the path of the moon after vague fluttering things which might have been moths, but moths larger than he had ever seen before. And there were sounds out of the night, more scarifying to the nerves than the hoot of the owls---shrieks and screams of terror and agony. The jungle hunters were abroad.
But the newness wore away and he found himself blinking, fighting off drowsiness. But the illuminated dial of his watch he still had an hour to go before he could crawl back and arouse Norgate to take his place. He wondered suddenly if ants worked at night. Norgate's vague tales of monster insects were intriguing---ants setting out to conquer the world. Why, they could take over a whole jungle such as this one before anyone in civilization would guess the menace. Trained ants---
His hands lying loosely on the rifle suddenly gripped fast and hard. Something had stirred that bush on the edge of the gravel strip. If he had not been staring at it so closely he would never have seen. But now---yes, there was a long shadow, black against the gravel, and it moved towards the water. It might be an animal on four feet, or a man creeping----
With a tight rein on his nerves he raised the rifle, inch by inch. The shadow had not moved, it was a fixed part of the dark, fastened to the scrap of beach as if it grew there rightfully. Only it didn't. Peter cradled the rifle across his arm and reached out with his right hand for something which Kane had left on the other seat. His fingers closed about the smooth cool metal of the flashlight and he swung it around pressing the button as he did so.
A beam of blinding white light out into the wild pattern of leaves and something dark and shiny which flashed back into the maw of the jungle, but not to flee utterly away for as Peter's finger slipped from the button he saw the gleam of two great topaz eyes turning toward him, without fear, menacingly. Then they were gone and the gravel was bare of the mysterious intruder.
A black jaguar---common enough---Peter found himself repeating that thought aloud in a whisper. Only he has seen one of the giant perfect cats and the fluid glance of its movements had enchanted him to the point of standing entranced before its narrow cage. And this thing with all its swiftness of flight had lacked something---something the jungle beast has had. Nonsense, he had frightened off a jaguar, something harmless enough when faced by an armed man. He'd let Norgate's wonder tales ride his imagination until he had really begun seeing things---.
The thing did not return to the gravel spit by the hour when he thankfully aroused his relief and he did not mention it to Norgate---. He had no intention of showing his greenness to an old jungle hand like the pilot. But the unwinking topaz eyes followed him through his sleep and he dosed and slept in short snatches only, being aware of Kane going to take Norgates place on guard and sitting up thankfully when the first gray of true dawn cut through the cabin.
Kane stuck a tosseled red head around the end of the cockpit door and whistled through twisted lips.
“Rise and shine you lubbers!” he half snarled.
Peter writhed out of his blanket and rubbed his eyes with his hands, Norgate's movements were much more leisurely.
“You can bring me a cup of coffee,” announced the pilot languidly. “And not more than two lumps of sugar---”
Kane spat noisily into the river outside, and began rummaging through his duffle bag.
“Keep right on dreaming,” he urged, “who are we to break rudely into your plans for the morning? Only what a guy eats on this trip he does a little work for-- remember?”
Peter ran his tongue over his lips and ventured a question of his own.
“Everybody have a quiet night?”
Kane had been massaging a bristly chin with the flat of his hand. Over his fingers his green eyes suddenly focused on the younger man.
“How about it?” he repeated to Norgate, “you have any fun and games, chum?”
The pilot shook his head. “Nothing at all. And you, my friend?”
“All quiet on the Potomac. And you, Lord? Repel any invasions in force?”
Peter forced a little ashamed laugh. “I repelled a jaguar-- with my little flashlight, I did it---”
“Jaguars, is it?” Norgate commented after Peter had told his adventure. “They are bold-- when hungry. Let's hope our furred friend got his stomach filled elsewhere and isn't hanging around waiting for a handout.”
But when Kane stepped on to the beach scrap he stopped short and stood staring at the ground before him. As Peter splashed in to join him he asked “This where your visitor crawled about last night?”
“I think so-- why?”
“He left his calling card, all right. And his signature is a little off the beam.”
There was a print in the moist soil just within the pocket sized clearing they had hacked out the previous day. But in spite of being deep the print was oddly blurred.
“Do you think our four-footed friend was wearing moccasins?” Kane was measuring the print with a forefinger being careful not to touch it.
“Looks that way, doesn't it,” agreed Norgate. “At any rate he didn't leave a good honest jaguar print. Unless he had a crippled forepaw-- Let's see if we can find any more of his tracks---”
But there were no more, unless some very vague smears across a fallen log might have been left by their visitor. Kane began stacking the driftwood for a fire.
“I'm no Indian tracker and am not going to crawl around on my stomach in that mud pancake hunting for something which may never have been there in the first place. How about a cup of coffee?”
Norgate turned away from the fringe of the jungle. “I'll buy that. But I will also suggest that we wing out of here. If our friend was not four-footed, but a biped we may have more like him back again. So it's best to do a little traveling.”
“Which way?” Peter passed around the tin cups. “I mean-- where do we go from here?”
“Up river, I'd say,” Kane’s voice was muffled by food. “What about the gas, Norgate?”
“I can give you about three hours flying time, inland. Then Back to Maya City if I don't want to do some tramping---”
“Hmm. Then suppose we follow the river up. If your mountains are back there the river may have its head waters in them. And high ground is mining ground---”
“Look,” Norgate was pointing to the water. The dark flood was showing streams of light across its rippless surface.
“Flooding---” Kane interrupted what they saw. “Then up-stream---”
“Up stream maybe we can’t land,” Norgate answered. “I can give you three hours air borne and then we are at the margin of safety.”
“Fair enough, I have a hunch about this affair.” Kane shrugged and kicked gravel over their smoldering fire.
The water was rising. Peter could see that it had inched up over the bar and the plane was moving in its grip. They threw off the mooring and Norgate brought them into midstream taking off almost sluggishly into the morning. Again the thick green was a puff below them as they followed a zig-zag course using the river as a guide south-west.
For the first time Peter realized just what they were up against. If Romanes had staked out a temporary camp, or even a mining claim somewhere along the stream below there was very little chance of sighting it from the air. Only a village clearing would be printed large enough across that living map for them to sight from above. It was worse than shifting a hay stack straw by straw to locate a missing needle.
Kane had his map out and was marking a pencil line across its clean surface to put in the twists of the lost river.
“I don't see how we're ever going to find anything!” Peter burst out.
“There's just one chance,” Kane said slowly. “Those animal images your brother sold to Piast, they came from an unknown source. And that source might have been Romanes. I'm gambling that his strike was somewhere near ruins, ruins where such things could be grubbed out. And ruins can be sighted from a plane. There're a lot of ifs and ands in that, but it’s the only clue we have now and we’ve got to play it. From now on we keep a look out for ruins. There were plenty of cities in Yucatan which were first located from the air---”
“Navy below---” Norgate’s call brought them both to him. He jerked a thumb earthwards and they caught a glimpse of what he had seen just before the plane was out of range.
A handful of brown wooden splinters rode the rising waters of the Rio Jaguar---splinters which bore, each one of them, a full complement of small doll figures.
“Downstream---” Norgate commented slowly.
“Yeah,” Kane bit off the word. “Reception party-for travelers, eh!”
“Might be, brother, might be. Good thing these Johnnies haven't taken to the air yet----”
“Listen,” Kane squinted at the sunlit world below. “Suppose we try a swing to the south? Out of the river land for awhile. This river has been flooding for a good many years and if the up-country men ever did any building it wasn't along a stream which could tear their towns apart once a year of so.”
Norgate consulted the instruments on the panel before him.
“One quarter hour, fella, fifteen minutes---”
“Okay. Take her in-- south----”
They made a slow swing to the right. Peter wanted to ask what ruins should look like-- when viewed from above. But Kane and Norgate were so intent upon the scene below that he hesitated. It was Kane who spoke first.
“There,” his voice was flat and a little thin, “are your mountains, Norgate.”
Against the green of the jungle lay a bluish band, a band which faded out into the sky above. Only a blue band with no rocky slopes or snow frosted peaks showing-----
Norgate's breath hissed noisily through his teeth. “So that tale was true! But look at the mists! No place for the airborne there----
“How big are they?” Peter ventured to ask.
“Anything up to a spur of the Andes can be hiding back there,” Kane did not take his eyes from the strip of blue. “Can't take her in, then?” he asked the pilot.
“Not while I'm in my right mind! I don’t want to be a condor luncheon yet awhile. Air currents and mist-- whew-- nastiest combination there is.”
But the nose of the amphibian kept pointed toward the purple shadow of the unknown range. Then rain tapped again at the silver sides of the plane. Norgate grinned ruefully.
“That tears it boys-- right down the middle. This is no country to be fog bound in. We'll have to turn tail to the river and ride her in.”
But Kane was staring away through the beat of the falling water.
“Listen, try one circle to the right-- just one! I caught a glimpse of something---”
Norgate hesitated. The sharp line of strain was marked above his nose again. He looked at the dials before him and then glanced up at the drumming rain. Reluctantly his hands moved. The plane slipped---right and down.
Curls of the jungle fog were beginning to show, but more slowly than they had along the San Filipe. They might have a minute or two to sight whatever Kane had noted.
“What did you see?” Peter-demanded.
There was nothing but masses of green with the white fog boiling up out of it---nothing in the way of stone buildings---ruins of the jungle---nothing.
“So----” Norgate's voice went up the scale of pure excitement.
The Amphibian spiraled downward and then Peter caught sight of what the others had seen---a break in that eternal green. They flashed out over water---not the dusky brown water of the river reaches but clear water, cupped by rocky walls---the water of a lake!
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.