TROUBLE IN MAYAPAN
A Norreys Jewel Adventure
By Andre Norton
11: Blood Like Garnets on the Rock.
Peter sauntered back and forth on the bluff above the lake. Down the expanse of water the amphibian was taking off, morning sun flicked from its wings. When the plane was safely airborne both the watchers gave a half-sigh of relief. Then it was gone and Peter could hear Kane crashing back from his lakeside vantage point. For four---maybe five days---they were left to the jungle alone.
“Suppose,” Kane came out into the ragged clearing they had hacked before their temporary home, “we get this into some sort of order and swing hammocks-- by the feel of my backbone we should have done that last night. And, fella, how about the atabrine this morning?”
Peter made a hideous face and obediently rummaged in the small pouch on his gun belt for the pill. He surveyed his hands after he gulped down the precautionary pill, “How long before I start turning yellow?”
“Soon enough. And don‘t forget that stuff again. Fever---” Kane broke off abruptly. “Come and give me a hand with this box.”
But housekeeping , no matter how elaborate, can only take so much time. And once their quarters were snug Peter dared to suggest the plan which had been at the back of his mind all morning.
“What's the chances of our going up to the end of the lake and trying to find that river from the mountains-----?”
“Hmmm,” Kane was unpacking one of the boxes, laying out carefully on the rock about him a selection of gaudy trade goods, strips of cotton cloth, a handful or two of brightly colored glass beads, two knives, a small hatchet. “Just in case we have visitors----”He muttered. “Let's put them here.”
With a sweep of his arm he cleaned off the top of one of the fallen blocks of dressed stone and spread out the array in what he appeared to think a tempting array.
“But just in case they try to pry into other realms----”
He turned to frown at the doorway.
“Couldn't we push some of those stones across it and wall it up? Then-- then---” Peter jerked the cord holding the demon face in jade from about this neck, “Hang this on the barrier. That might make it taboo----”
“I'd forgotten you had that little trinket. Well, Downes knows more about this country than the rest of us and he seemed to think it of some use. Yes, we might try that---”
They walled up the room in the rumble, at the expense of sever bruised fingers, hung the pendant in place so that it showed prominently, and hung themselves about with canteens, rifles, and other supplies----
“What the well dressed explorer will wear,” commented Peter. “I feel like a bulldozer, just push me at the jungle and the thing will give way in utter defeat and discouragement---”.
“If you can think of anything we can get along without---” laughed Kane, “you'll win a free trip to Maya City, all expenses paid. A week end by the beautiful mysterious southern waters-------”
“I’m right by some mysterious waters now-- and I'll probably be heartily tired of them-- before I see the last of them!”
Jungle travel was snail-wise business as Peter discovered. Once they left the comparative open spaces around the ruins of the old fort or city they were reduced to hacking a path, tramping in the heart of this was, Peter thought, a little like walking the bottom of the sea, green and dank and silent with all life high over one's head near the crowns of the towering Mora trees or lapped around the massive reaches of the occasional greenheart. Rope tree, the verdant murderers of the tropics, twisted and bound their vegetable captives and were themselves laced and tagged with orchids, mosses and air living ferns. And underfoot was a squishy, mired footing of humus and mud through which they slipped and slid until their clothing was plastered to their panting heaving bodies. It was too lush, too alive. Peter leaned against a root to recover his breath after being tripped by some unseen trap in that moveable flooring. Man was never intended to fight all this rash and alien life.
“Creek---” Kane's call, curiously deadened by the tree walls, floated back, brought Peter to his feet again and sent him on.
So they came out through the brush they slashed to give him foothold, to the edge of a stream of brilliant water which plunged furiously over rocks and curled over pools floored in bluish sand.
“Look!” Kane pointed to the ground a foot or so beyond their stand.
A column of large red-brown ants was moving with mechanical precision toward the water. They were the largest ants Peter had ever seen, maybe three-quarters of an inch long, and they didn’t look friendly.
Some distance down the stream a fallen tree had spanned the water making a log bridge which both of them eyed warily. Green and slippery moss grew healthily along its surface, and there was a shine to its decaying bark which did not argue for security of footing. But Peter, with Kane behind him, pushed towards it.
“Oh, no,” Peter twitched back from the upended roots which marked the end of the log on this shore. “I'm not proud-- or in a hurry-- let's let them have it all to their little selves-- considering the size of the jaws most of them have----”
For the other travelers had found that convenience before them, marching readily across the pulpy rotten wood were the front ranks of the ant army which seemed to reach back and back as far as eye or imagination could reach.
“Then we'll wait the rest of the day probably. We were never meant to do this the easy way,” commented Kane. “I think a little hopping from stone to stone seems to be indicated. As you say, who are we to interrupt the necessary travel of our little insect friends?”
Gingerly they got down to the edge of the water and measured with their eyes the stones which might or might not be used to ford. All of them had a wet and sort of soapy look, Peter decided, a nasty soapy look.
“Look out for snakes,” Peter drew back a half extended foot at that warning from his companion. With all the draping of vines and such how did one recognize a snake before it bit one?
Kane was shifting his equipment around his body, testing each fastening. Then he jumped to the first of the water washed rocks he had selected. For a two-long second he teetered, and then he caught his balance and was upright. Peter swallowed.
Either the second stone Kane landed upon was more secure or he had mastered the art of hopping for he made it with rock stability. And it wasn't until he made the last leap toward the opposite shore that he almost came to grief. The slippery bank gave under his boots and with a wild yell he caught frantically at the bushes, shedding leaves off the twigs. But that saved him from falling back into the stream. Peter watched him pull himself panting up the bank.
“All right, but watch that first stone, it moves!” Kane shouted.
“Oh it does, does it?” muttered Peter, eyeing the stone in question warily. “And what if it dumps me right into the drink?”
He gathered his feet under him and jumped, hoping for the best. The stone moved alright, the darn thing must have been swung on a pivot. One leg went thigh deep into water a great deal cooler than the air and Peter frantically scrabble forward to the bank feeling the investigating nose of a water snake or a razor toothed pariah in every ripple that touched his flesh. He clawed his way up the mud slide which was the bank on the far-side, to the merry laughter of the first voyager.
“Such grace, such utter dignity of movement,” Kane managed to get out between laughs. “If I'd only had a movie camera----”
“You'd made your fortune, I suppose,” snapped Peter shaking first one dripping leg and then the other.
“Sure-- introduce a rival for that idol of the silver screen Donald Duck-- only you didn't quake loud enough when you went under the first time. All right, relax-- we're in no particular hurry.” Kane was consulting a small compass and seemingly checking its points with various trees about them. He pocketed the guide with a shrug of relief.
“We’re still heading southwest okay. Ready to go again?”
Peter pulled at the dank clothing which clung with the tenacity of iron glue to his itching skin. Something like a small darkish sausage was fastened to his wrist. He shuddered and tried to flip it loose without touching its slimy length but the feeding leech was well anchored. Kane moved to his rescue, putting the flaming end of the cigarette he has just lit to the end of the repulsive body. It curled, twisted and fell off. Peter dabbed at the spot of blood on his skin.
“You've got to expect those, and black flies, and diaggas-- they’re all in a day's work,” Kane pointed out. “Only watch out for infection-- that’s what puts a man out of business.”
Peter was hurriedly inspecting all the parts of him which he could conviently or inconviently see. His visitors might have had kinfolk also hungry. But to his relief the leech must have been a solitary bachelor.
The struggle with the jungle on this side of the stream was bad as it had been on the other. Peter wondered at the men who had courage not only to invade this fastness but also to attempt to build stone cities in its very heart. Fighting vegetation and the enervating heat of this green core was hard enough without trying to do heavy labor he mentioned this aloud and Kane agreed.
“They either went in for slave labor on a big scale or else the climate was different then. Climate does change over a period of centuries. Look at our own up north-- we don't have those winters our grandparents talk about-- heavy snowfalls are more of a rarity than the accepted thing. Maybe this part of the world was much less dank when our fort holders did their building hereabouts. I only wish that it had been the custom to build a few roads in this general direction-- we could do with one-- or even the remains of one.”
“Maybe they did all their traveling by water,” suggested Peter--- “if you have to swim-- it's easier to do it in liquid.” He hated the squishy feeling in his boots, the ooze between his toes when he set down a foot firmly.
“Well, if Norgate brings back the goods, we can try it by boat too. Wait----” Kane froze and Peter put out a hand to keep from bumping into him. There was movement in a tree top just ahead, shaking of the branches which had no bearing on wind movements. Peter wondered how long it would take a python to go into action and whether the jaguar of the ruins was as far from its former home as they had hoped.
The crack of Kane's rifle was magnified and echoed in the vine walled tunnel. Leaves shook and tore, fluttering earthward a something thrashed convulsively overhead. Then it bumped down, plopping with an unpleasant sound on the black earth at their feet.
“Red howler,” Kane particularized. “Supper.”
Peter's mouth twisted. The long legged and armed body even with its coat of reddish hair looked at little too human for his taste. In spite of himself he could not pick it up as casually as Kane was doing. And at the sight of the limp black hands he hurriedly looked straight ahead.
“Yeah,” Kane had caught his grimace, “it doesn't look like food. But it's about the best the jungle can give us and we'll have to go easy on the supplies until we see Norgate again----”
Peter guessed what his companion meant. Should the pilot run into trouble on the trip they might be marooned here. And jungle travel was a gamble in which death held most of the aces already. He forced himself to accept Kane's idea of provisions as calmly as he could.
“Another hour maybe,” the other was saying. “And then back we go, I don't want to be caught away from our base tonight. It is a poor thing but our own----”
However it was less than an hour before they came to the natural barrier which ended for the time their efforts at exploration. As if some giant had swung a machete with as much force as all three of them had done the day before, the land was suddenly cut away almost under their feet and they found themselves standing on the edge of an almost perpendicular wall looking down into a mottled brownish green cup from which the rising air brought the stench of rotting vegetation and stagnate water.
“Swamp?” ventured Peter. Kane nodded.
“Death trap---” he amplified. “That's one place we won’t stick our noses into today. Looks like a back drop for the coal age. Maybe this is Norgate's `Lost World’-- all it needs is a dinosaur down front.”
As far as Peter could see there was no way through this the bog. And yet it was a comparatively narrow ribbon since they could sight from where they stood another cliff beyond which must mark the rising of land again. It was as if they stood on the banks of a river which split the jungle in to.
“It isn't very wide,” he pointed out.
“Uh-- huh,” Kane answered absently. He was using the binoculars, trying them first to the east and then to the west. “not wide, but bet its plenty deep. So-- that's the way it is!” He focused on some point to their right and then passed the glasses to the eager Peter. “Take a look see and you can guess pretty well what happens here----”
There was a distant flash of blue, Peter turned the glasses towards it and made out the shore of open water---the lake. But they were farther from it than he had thought---their journey had carried them at an angle away from the water. We could see only a bit of that, and he couldn't guess what Kane meant. Passing the glasses back, he said as much.
“This is the overflow,” the other pointed out patiently. “storms in the mountains during the rainy seasons, melting snow-- anything starts a big flood coming down into the lake-- too big a flood to crowd out through the mouth of the river to the south. So what happens? The lake rises until the excess water is high enough to lap in here, a natural low strip of country. Once it gets in here there is no outlet for it, it stays-- and stinks-- until it can work into the mud. So we have a swamp. By the looks of it, the water hasn't come in for some time now. Ugh, good place to keep away from.”
Another puff of air had brought the full breath of the pollution below up to their wrinkling nostrils. Peter was glad to follow as Kane turned back to retrace their path.
“We can only get around that by taking to the lake---” he suggested.
“You think so. There is probably and end farther in but he don't want to get out into the jungle too far. If Norgate gets back on time we can take to the water easily. He's to bring up a couple of life rafts-- the collapsible ones-- war surplus.”
Trailing themselves by the broken and slashed foliage they had left on their outward trip they headed back towards the ruined fort and the return trip seemed twice as long as the first one. To Peter's amusement the ant army was still very much in possession of the tree bridge and Kan explained that such a trek might go on for hours.
“Ants are really the lords of this jungle country,” he commented. “Even a jaguar will avoid an ant army on the march and they can clear a strip of country of every living thing in an hour or two-- if they really get down to business. They’re dangerous. If you have ever noticed-- man may feel momentary fear of some of the warm blooded animals-- when they endanger his own existence but he does not have any horror of them or feel any repugnance towards them. “
“We hate snakes and crawling things,” Peter pointed out.
“Yes, because they are alien to us. We can imagine animals having about the same thoughts and reactions as we do because they are our kin. But we cannot put ourselves into a snakes skin or think a lizards thoughts. And the same is true of insects. Man has an odd feeling of uneasiness when he seriously watches wasps, or ants, or any other of the bugs that seem to live according to intelligent plan. We instinctly know deep in our minds that should it come to an out-and-out contest between our races-- the victor might not be to the human one. Efficient and cold-blooded organization-- such as they show to a high degree is both devilish and dangerous to a race whose power rests in the individual rather than in the race as a whole.”
“The Empire of the Ants,” quoted Peter, “that did give me the cold chills when I read it.”
“Because it might so easily be true. If they only never develop to the place where they realized their power----”
“You make me want to go back and plant a grenade under that tree trunk.” commented Peter.
Kane laughed. “No, it's not that bad yet--but give them a million years or so----”
“Well, I won’t be around to worry about it then.”
“That's one way of looking at the problem,” agreed Kane. “Here’s home, sweet, home, welcome mat out and all.”
They came out of the matt of the inner jungle to the broken spaces where the ruins still fought the green advance. Peter thought longing of the crisp cool of lake water and of plunging below its surface to wash from his sweat soaked body the touch of the muggy wilderness: But before he could put that wish into words they clambered up the rise to the base they had guarded and Kane stopped, a single breath hissing between his teeth. Peter edged past his shoulder until he too saw that greeting-- or was it a warning?
The flat stone where they had left the trade offerings was not bare but it was not the lengths of cotton which made a pool of raw color on its surface. Blood congealed into sticky blobs and clots drawing the offensive attention of feasting insects, were dark garnet settings on the gray stone. And in the midst of the red-black stuff were the dabbled feathers of a bird, the ripped remnants of which were set out as a sacrifice.
Kane moved forward to hand examine more closely the beastly sight. Peter noticed that he did not touch even a single feather but looked from the stone to the surrounding ground, getting down on hands and knees to pull aside the plants which hid part of the base of the block.
“What is it?”
“Trade goods are gone,” Kane pointed out. “No marks around either-- unless it needs a better trailer than I to pick them out. We've had visitors the two-legged class.”
“But why the fresh meat?” queried Peter, pointing to the exceeding dead offering. “If they meant it in payment wouldn’t they have left it in better condition?”
Kane sat back on his heels. “One would think so. This looks more to me like a sacrifice than a barter.”
“Do you suppose it's the old white god gag which has been going around since Cortez landed?” Peter shed most of his jungle equipment and sank down on a convenient niche in the ruins.
“If that is so, it means we've been under observation for awhile, maybe from the first,” Kane blew a smoke ring and watched it dissolve slowly. “Which thought leaves me slightly uneasy---”
Peter turned his head to survey as much of the jungle's edge as he could without rising. The thought left him more than slightly uneasy. He didn’t care for it at all.
“Did they do any raiding?” To change the subject Peter pulled himself to his aching feet and made for the barrier they had erected to close in their chosen quarters. But even as he raised his hand to try the solidity of that stone wall he saw it.
The jade plaque which had swung almost forgotten about his neck still hung there. But its perfect cool green was dabbed over with black slickness and below it on the ruble, wherever a smooth surface offered itself, were oddly shaped marks drawn in the same disgusting ink.
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.