A Norreys Jewel Adventure

By Andre Norton


7: “A Gem of Steel, Señor.”

     The night air was soft against their faces. Peter tossed his hat on the seat and let it ruffle through his hair. Along the coast the roads of Mayapan were well surfaced and Norgate did not drive too fast, slowing down when once they rounded a curve and road along the lip of a highland by the sea across which the moon slashed a sliver sword.

     “It gets you,” the flyer took one hand from the wheel of the jeep and waved it seawards. “Back country is all green teeth and rock claws, here it's tamed and smooth. Two countries in one, that's Mayapan!”

     “I think that even here it would he well to walk softly,” Kane's sharper voice out through the night. “Maybe your two lands aren't so well divided as you think, Norgate.”

     “But that would make it all the more interesting. I am a great devotee of thrillers, Mr. Kane. Do you expect Mr. X. or the Saint to join you soon?”

     Kane laughed. “We might put in an indit for either. Listen, is, the wind coming up?”

     They had come almost to a stop and Peter heard it too, a rustling in the trees along the road.

     “The sea wind, yes. Which means that the clock is against us and I’d better step on her---”

     “Downes have much of a place?”

     “Very much of a place-- as you shall see when we round the next curve. He never married but he's taken in the kids of several of his own officers and buddies. The main villa is rather like a hotel but Downes has his own quarters. There, that's his lights you can see now!”

     The jeep made a sharp turn off the main road unto a drive paved with the gleaming white of crushed coral. Not far ahead a wide bulk of building was gray-white among the tree shadows. But Norgate parked the jeep before he approached it and led them to a small cottage half hidden in vines and-bushes. Their feet came down loudly on the flooring of the wide veranda.

     “Night owls!” The voice which spat at them from within the doorway was hardly more than a horse whisper. “Well, come in, come in! And don't bring half the insect life of this misbegotten wilderness with you!”

     Peter was the last in and he pulled the very homey screen door shut behind him in a hurry. There were pools of light around darkly shaded lamps, big chairs with worn leather seats dimpled in permanent hollows and books-- spilling from shelves, pilled on tables and laid open and face down in convenient and inconvenient places.

     A very modern typewriter on a streamlined stand was under one lamp and hunched over it-- not bothering to rise to greet them-- was the master of literary chaos.

     He was neither short nor tall, his face was a seamed and weathered brown, his hair nondescript gray. On the bridge of his very ordinary nose a pair of plastic rimmed glasses balanced and he nursed a pipe in one hand.

     “So it's you, Norgate,” that whisper rasped thickly across his lips. “These your present sucker list?” His glance flicked beyond the Negro flyer to Kane and Peter. “What kind of bill of goods is he selling you?”

     “We're doing the selling,” Kane smiled a little at the abrupt demand. “I’s Lawrence Kane---”

     “Of Norreys. Yes, even an old crock like myself keeps up with the daily news. Tell me, how much did Adbul Hakroun really clip you over those pearling rights? Did he get all your back teeth?”

     “Just an even percentage of them. Am I right in thinking you know the gentleman in question?”

     “We had shooting acquaintance about forty years ago. I was a young sprout a size too big for my boots. He cut me down to fit. Those were the days when one could have a nice private war without half the world poking their noses into it to ask embarrassing questions.” Curly Downs put his pipe on the pile of untidy manuscript beside the typewriter. “Radio and airplanes sure spoiled things.” His attention flitted from Kane to Peter.

     “You're Lord,” it was a statement not a question. “Hmm,” the gray eyes behind the owl glasses remained rather dull, but Peter straightened his shoulder and lifted his chin a fraction of an inch. He had an idea he was under a very keen scrutiny. “Well, you're young-- and if you have one tenth of the stuff your brother had-- you’ll do. Now suppose we get down to brass-tacks. You didn't come out here at this hour to be polite-- what in the name of the Great Serpent, did you come for?”

     “To ask questions about the Rio Jaguar country” Kane returned calmly.

     “Why? Planning a little expedition that way?” Downes permitted himself a wry quirk of the lips which might or might not have been a smile. “There are a great many fools in this world-- why do most of them end up on my doorstep?”

     “Only fools would be interested in the Rio Jaguar?” prodded Kane.

     “Fools or-- Sit, down, sit down, I’ll get a crick in my neck trying to look you over. Fools, or pretty smart men.”

     Peter slipped back on the wide seat of the nearest chair. Both Kane and Norgate were at ease, the flyer grinning happily and watching Kane.

     “Suppose we're the latter?”

     “You can claim to be the president but that doesn't put you in the White House! Just what's so interesting up that way? Hunting a lost nation of Atlantean refugees the way Piast is?”

     “Emeralds!” To his own surprise it was Peter which dropped that one word as answer. It seemed to echo through the long room and all of their faces had swung towards him.

     “Emeralds,” Downes whispered the word lingeringly, almost as if he savored it. “Emeralds, then Carter did have something good---”

     “What did he tell you?” Peter lost all his difference and demanded boldly.

     “Some fairy story or other that that harebrained greenhorn Romanes had sold him---”

     “Romanes!” Peter interrupted. “Did you know Romanes?”

     “Did I know Romanes?” the whisper became a harsh growl. “Seeing as how he came out here every day for a solid week and pestered me-- how can I forget him? Crazy as a bush loon-- or Piast with his hidden cities and lost nations. He'd persuaded your brother to stake him to a jungle trip. He went into the Rio Jaguar country and that was the last of him-- until about two months later when Carter got a message from up country and went around licking his jowls like a cat who'd been in the cream jar. So that was it-- emeralds!”

     “Not impossible then---?” Kane's cool question caught him up.

     “Impossible? Lord, nothing's impossible in this benighted country. And who has ever come back from the Rio Jaguar?”

     “No one apparently?” Peter answered ruefully. “In fact, I can't find evidence that Romanes ever went.” Swiftly he outlined his attempts to find traces of the missing porkknocker at the consulate and the bureau of mines.

     Curly Downes thumbed tobacco into the bowl of his pipe and lit up.

     “Romanes was here,” he answered flatly. “he was here and he went up country. I can swear to that. He was out here the night before he left---”

     “What would be the position of the government if rich mining territory were discovered back country?” asked Kane.

     Downes watched the thin column of smoke curling up from the bowl of his pipe for a long minute before he answered.

     “Diamonds and gold are found in the gravel beds of streams here. I don't think that the question of a mine has arisen before. The government is anti-fascist and pro-United States just now. Falangists are in the minority. Of course, foreigners are usually dissuaded from going up country simply because the government refuses to be responsible for jungle explorers No, your hitch isn't official, I think.”

     He gave a little push to the table holding the typewriter and sent it rolling away from him.

     “This is no country for to poke around in if you are experienced. Oh, I know,” he turned to Kane, “you know something about the rain forests on the other side of the globe-- but Borneo and the Indies aren't the Rio Jaguar And the wild Indios are a different breed from your island headhunters. They hunt heads too-- enthusiastically. But whom I am to throw water on the flames of your enthusiasm? And if you go by air you may have a slim chance of coming back-- if you follow the rules.”

     “First of all-- play square with the Indios-- don't cheat. Find out the fare rates of bargaining and stick to them. On the other hand-- bargain shrewdly. You'll get nothing but the contempt of every chief if you pay more than the customary rate. Hold fast to your `face’-- it's almost important here as it is in the orient.”

     “You know where Romanes made his strike?”

     Peter shook his head. Downes made an irritated sound with puckered lips.

     “That is, of course, a big help. If his stuff was free, it might be found in the gravel of any stream flowing into the river.”

     “Just a needle in a haystack,” commented Kane. “If you were an emerald, where would you lie waiting to be found, eh?”

     Downes gave his owl hoot of laughter. “Well, maybe we can do a little better than that for you.” With one hand on the arm of his chair he pulled himself to his feet and went at a curious rocking pace across the room to snap on a light above a wall map. With the stem of his pipe he traced red and black lines muttering to himself before he turned to face the three who had crowded up behind him.

     “I have friends back in the bush-- though I can't go visiting there anymore. But if your man had located down here, or in this curve here, the news would be common property backcountry and I would have heard by now.”

     “He sent-out those animal images to Lord. They're new Stuff-- I'd never seen anything like them before. And Indies are quick enough to trade such finds as soon as they know we want them-- Piast buys tons of the stuff. So these were from new territory-- which means upstream.”

     “Best way would be to establish a base near a good landing place and fly your supplies in,” began Kane musingly. “What about the natives up there-- hostile?”

     Downes shrugged. “Nobody knows. Their reputations are bad enough. And there must be something in there-- or it was there once-- pretty hard to face. The first Spaniards along the coast here found the country deserted. Their slave raids into the jungle fared badly-- most of them didn't return at all. And after a time it was accepted that one did not go poking around there. Piast's theory is that there was once a strong nation in the bush who had over run the whole territory before their rule collapsed-- fighters who left a grim tradition of fear behind them. And nobody has proven him wrong.”

     “"The Indios of the jungles are the usual head-hunting fighters which you find from here to the Matte Grasso. But this I do know-- they do not enter the Rio Jaguar either-- It is full of `kensina’-- evil luck. And what is powerful enough to set a taboo which had lasted for generations?”

     “There's one thing---” Downes limped back to a long table piled high with drifts of papers and books. From somewhere in the middle he pulled out a tin metal box and snapped up the lid to withdraw a package wrapped in tough native cotton.

     “This came down river sixty years ago, grasped in the hand of a priest, Father Justinian, who was dying of an infected arrow wound. He never told where he had found it--. But he had been along the edge of the Rio Jaguar. What so you think of this?”

     `This’ was a round disc about two inches in diameter, curved of the green stone Piast had identified as jade. When Kane passed it to Peter the boy saw that the head of a snarling jaguar had been deeply incised on the stone, bordered by an intricate geometrical pattern. There was a hoop on the upper rim and it had been intended to be worn as an ornament.

     “It's my guess,” Downes went on “that that was an insignia of some sort, perhaps the badge of a high priest. Father Justinian was interested in antiquities and in the country, and he had jungle experience. Perhaps he got into that closed land just a little too far. No,” he shook his head as Peter tried to hand back the disc. “you keep it and take it with you. It might just be a passport in a way. There are such things. I remember once in Ecuador an old stone knife got me safely through a very tough time. You see, this is old country, very old.”

     “You all have a smattering of knowledge about the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Incans. Cortez and Pizzaro's stories are taught in our schools. But what so few of us realize is that the Aztecs were late comers, the Incas built on civilizations far past and the Mayans were already a dying race. There were others before them-- perhaps greater. Lord, now you have me stammering out the same sort of stuff Piast spouts. The trouble is that the jungle gets under your skin and you can believe anything when you're in its grip. I wish that I was about five years younger and not so much of a crock and I'd trot along with you. But my exploring days are over-- all I'm fit for is to sit soft and write my memoirs!”

     The glance with which he favored the pile of manuscript was somewhat sour.

     It was very late when they pulled away from Curly Downes’ refuge and Peter tumbled into his bed at the Casa Negro half asleep, fully so before he had quite settled his head on the flat pillow. So it was equally late when he roused to shave and dress the next morning. Pinned to the bathroom door was a short note from Kane saying that the latter was out on `Business’. So Peter made a solitary breakfast and decided to try the consulate first. Perhaps Mr. Masterson would he back by now.

     There was quite a bustle in the office which had been so deserted before and Peter had to wait a moment or two before he caught the attention of the girl who seemed to manage the inner sanctum. But she was more affable that her predecessor had been and he found himself at very long last in the Consul's own office.

     “Yes, sir, and what can we do for you?” Masterson was younger than Peter had expected and both his greeting smile and voice were pleasant.

     “I'm Peter Lord, brother of Carter Lord,” he began.

     Masterson's smile was gone, the lines beside nose and lips were deeper in an instant. “That was a bad business,” he said frankly. “We can ill afford losing a man like your brother. He was the kind of American who is a good advertisement for all of us he fitted into this country and made friends for himself and us. It was a tragedy---”

     Peter‘s attention shifted to the pictures across the white washed wall without seeing the subject matter of any of them. But when he spoke his voice came out evenly enough.

     “I want to thank you---”

     Masterson’s hand flew out in an impatient gesture of refusal.

     “Not at all. Just my duty. Am glad to help all that I can.” he bit off his words sharply.

     Peter came to business at once. “I'm down here trying to see what I can do about Carter's affairs. Do you have his files stored somewhere?”

     Masterson ran his fingers through his thick hair. “Lord didn't appear to keep many records. What there were we stored in the old Cambree warehouse until the fire two weeks ago.”


     “Yes, it was a bad thing. The watchman and one of the firefighters caught under a wall. Nasty mess-- everything cleaned out. I am sorry.”

     “What have you on Aubrey Romanes?” Peter blurted out his other question.

     “Not one blasted thing!” Masterson exploded. “Who is this Romanes anyway. In the past three months we've had about six inquiries about him. He isn't listed in our records and we can't find out what happened to him after he took his discharge down here. Must have shipped out right after that on one of the coast boats for Guiana or Venezuela.”

     “He was my brother's partner and I was told he went prospecting into the Rio Jaguar district---”

     “Impossible!” the word was shot like a bullet from Masterson's somewhat thick lips, “That country's closed by the government. No exploring allowed up there. You are mistaken about that.”

     “Maybe I am,” Peter conceded. “Thanks for giving me this time, sir. I won't take up any more of it.”

     But Masterson insisted on escorting him to the doorway and seeing him off with an extra vigorous shake of the hand.

     Peter drifted across the street. He could go back and harass the bureau of mines, he could look up Norgate, he could-- but somehow right now he wanted to forget Aubrey Romanes the invisible and just wander about Maya City for an hour or two, without having to ask questions like a district attorney.

     And then he discovered the market and was lost indeed.

     The delights of owning a monkey or a brilliant parrot were very apparent and only a strong New England common sense kept his money in his pocket as he lingered before the crowded space of beaten earth which was the animal dealers shop. In the air the rank scents of the animals and birds vied with the odors of cooking where a charcoal brazier down the cooked lane was the only furniture of a restaurant. Beans sizzled in a pan and stone hard cakes of candy from the sugar boiled at the primitive mills, were stacked on the none-too-clean board which served as a lunch counter.

     Hand-woven blankets were draped and piled next to the backset and lines of pottery which bore the makers thumb print in designs. Then Peter came to a strange display which caught his full attention. The two saddles were rich in silver inlay and intricate carving. But Peter was more interested in the smaller pieces which were arranged symmetrically on a native blanket before the squatting salesmen. Knives, sheaths, belts, sandals, a fan of these were spread out to catch the eye. Peter reached for the handkerchief wrapped object he had stuck into his belt beneath his coat that morning in hopes of finding just such a merchant.

     “Do you have s sheath, Señor, a sheath to be worn on the forearm, suitable to hold this?” before the man's blank black eyes he dangled the blade bought from Piast.

     Without any signs of interest the leather merchant took the blade, bent the supple point on his brown thumb and let it fly back. The fine steel gave out a faint musical note. He handed the knife back to its owner.

     “A gem of steel that, Señor,” he commented but he might have been discussing the weather.

     From the litter before him he made three quick choices and held them out fanwise for Peter's inspection. One was not quite long enough, second seemed too wide, but into the third the blade slipped easily, fitting as if it had been designed for that very knife.

     The leather of his choice was dark and worn glass-smooth. It was manifestly of different workmanship that the other pieces, fine as they were, made in a different age. The two straps to hold it in place on the arm were worn at the holes. And, except for a sprinkling of silver nail heads set in a vague pattern, it was plain.

     Peter stripped back his sleeve. The old leather was cool and fitted against his skin as the dealer deftly adjusted it to fit. It was plain that the former wearer had possessed a thicker forearm and wrist and the new holes had to be bored in the straps. When the last buckle was fastened Peter swung his arm experimentally. But the new purchase fitted snuggly and he hardly noticed the added weight.

     Without taking it off he began to bargain with the hopes that he was not doing too badly in the duel. Though he did not doubt as he counted the coins into the other’s palm that a native of Mayapan might have been able to obtain it for far less.

Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
Online Rights -
Donated by – Victor Horadam

Edited by Jay P. Watts aka: “Lotsawatts” ~ February, 2016

Duplication (in whole or parts) of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.


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