Temple of the Jaguar God
Copyright 2016 Zach Neal and Long Cool One Books
Design: J. Thornton
Original cover image by [+ z-m-k+],
The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person living or deceased, or to any places or events, is purely coincidental. Names, places, settings, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. The author’s moral rights to the proceeds of this work have been asserted.
Table of Contents
Temple of the Jaguar God
They were in the sixth form at Rugby. The end of term was coming up fast.
Richard Hamble, a year older, threw the letter down. He stared off into space.
“What an extraordinary fellow.”
They’d been having a bit of a nosh-up in the privacy of Jeremy’s room. The two of them had pooled all kinds of hoarded private tucker when Hamble, always with his nose into everything, scooped up what was another fellow’s private and personal mail. He was a big, hulking fellow with a heart of gold. Jeremy was grateful for his odd friendship—and a bit of protection.
“Floreat Rugbeia. Yes, he really did say that.” Hamble shook his head in disgust at the fancy, monogrammed letterhead. “Fellow of the Royal Society, member of the Explorer’s Club.”
Throwing his feet up on the coffee table, he stuck his hands into his waistcoat pockets in a characteristic pose.
Hamble was from a family of genteel county aristocracy, at least to hear him tell it, up Shropshire way. He could be, or beat on a ruffian whenever he wanted to, which was as often as he thought no one was looking and he could get away with it. Not so much evil, as amusing, thought Jeremy. And why not. Other than school, this part of the world—Rugby School in Warwickshire, was as boring as any other place he’d ever been.
Uncle Harry, Doctor Harold C. Fawcett, Ph.D., was an alumni of their good old alma mater. Not that Jeremy Crowe was so fond of it. Not hardly, always with the low grades, and not a snow-ball’s chance of shining at either the letters or the games. If it wasn’t for Uncle Harry, Jeremy wouldn’t even be there. The financial support was more than welcome. Otherwise he would have had to go out and muck and toil for his livelihood, something Jeremey wasn’t all that enthused about. He was still young enough to dream of better things.
Harry was his mother’s younger brother and had made his name quite young, with a fortunate dig in Mesopotamia.
To be good at games was everything, but sweat and strain as he might, run like hell after the ball, bigger fellows, not all of them older men, made him look decidedly sick.
“And he’s a doctor?”
“Yes. Of a sort.”
“Are you going?”
Jeremy raised his eyebrows.
“Egads. I hadn’t really thought all that much about it—” There was that family connection, and some sense of obligation.
Which was something he’d always hated.
“Well, you’d better make up your mind. Pretty damned quick, old cock.”
“Yes! I suppose I should.” Jeremy raised the tea cup and drained it.
Hungry as always, no matter how much he ate, it never seemed to translate onto his lanky five-foot, eight-inch frame.
Flipping longish blond hair out of his right eye, Jeremy picked up the letter and read that last part again.
“Wire me soonest. Will provide money and tickets. We leave from Southampton on the ninth. You have to do something for the summer holidays and this is the opportunity for a little adventure. Yours, your Weird Uncle Harry.”
He sighed, deeply. The thoughts of another long and lonely summer at home in Norfolk drained all resistance. Stuffy country society versus the Spanish Main—or so it seemed. Yet at one time he might have looked forward to it, but most of his friends had moved on as well. That was one side of the coin.
There was another—
His mother fussing around, all things great and small, and his father’s evil eye upon him.
Disapproval, questions, what is your big plan in life young man—
Harry was at least fun.
The bugger always had been.
“Huh. I suppose there’s nothing else for it.”
Venezuela—some sort of mad archaeological expedition.
The Temple of the Jaguar God.
And why not?
Why not indeed.
Harry always had been his favourite uncle.
Last Christmas, the last time he’d been around the manor, Jeremy’s facetious name for his father’s rectory, he’d been spouting Lewis Carroll.
[“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”]
[He took his vorpal sword in hand:
_ Long time the manxome foe he sought -- _
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.]
[And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!]
[One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.”]
One thing he knew for sure—his father would always be poor.
If he wasn’t careful, so would Jeremy.
Whereas Uncle Harry seemed to have the knack of doing whatever he wanted.
“Venezuela, you say. Hmn.”
After the cooling breezes and azure seas of the crossing, and they had been lucky to have good weather for that, the jungle clad hills and olive waters of the Orinoco were a stark contrast. So was the heat. As the old steamer chugged along, painfully wheezing its way upstream, there was little to do but to try and stay cool and get to know the other members of the party.
The stout and sweaty Señor Hernandez owned the boat they were on, skippered by a bald-headed, fiercely mustachioed captain constantly chewing on an unlit cigar. He was a small, slender man with a wide round head. For some reason no one could quite catch the name, no matter how many times they asked. The captain’s nephew, a boy about a year younger than he, Paolo, was the only other hand apparently required for what was almost a small ship.
There was his uncle, of course, looking raffish in a newly-sprouted beard and a bush jacket with an incongruous straw hat of local manufacture. Khaki shorts with a hundred pockets, Argyll socks and desert boots. A monocle on the right eye and a watch-chain hanging. That was his uncle, all right.
William Syrmes, about thirty-five years old, was his uncle’s secretary and trained in archaeological documentation. He would be doing drawings and cataloguing of artifacts as well as being in charge of the digging. If in fact they found anything. He was still young enough to be boyish still, in spite of his height.
It struck Jeremy that he was there to dig. All expenses paid, of course.
Syrmes had broad shoulders, a bull neck and looked like a handy lad in a pinch.
This was even more so regarding Kevin Smith although he was shorter. Uncle Harry had introduced him as a former soldier. He’d been at the Somme. This one had a couple of scars on his upper lip. Long and rangy, there was slouch in the walk that belied the steel-grey eyes.
His role was guide and adventurer. He was being paid very well for his time, which was sort of unique among them.
Apparently he’d been up the river before on unspecified errands. In Jeremy’s opinion it had to be either gold or gems…something to do with poaching perhaps. Selling guns and whiskey to the natives, although he might have been thinking of a different frontier.
This was all his own imagination, but.
This one could look after himself.
Gerald Day, impeccably dressed, always the perfect gentleman, was paying his own way as he put it. There was a bit of family money there. With an interest in antiquities and primitive South American peoples in particular, he was an occasional journalist.
With no real need to work, he had described it as a kind of vanity. Jeremy hadn’t actually seen any of his work, but that meant nothing.
He and Uncle Harry had some sort of gentlemen’s agreement on an exclusive, whether or not they ever found anything. Venezuela, and especially the hinterland, was like the other side of the moon to the average reader. According to Mister Day, a certain kind of person ate up a certain kind of sensationalized adventure.
Jeremy had nothing better to do than listen.
Most interesting of all, were Mister and Mrs. O’Dell. An American millionaire, thickening up in the middle according to him, easily late fifties or early sixties, Peter was a collector. He was looking forward to the thrill of discovering evidence and proving the existence of an unknown people and culture. This was rumoured to exist in the high hills a hundred miles inland. It would make his name as he put it. His wife, Melody, quite a bit younger, was the most perfectly decorative woman Jeremy had seen in quite some time. Yet there was the spark of a deeper intelligence in behind those quiet eyes, and it was interesting to note the sick thrill when he caught her examining him in some kind of assessment, possibly even amusement.
Hopefully he didn’t appear too callow in her eyes, although he knew he was young, very young.
Especially when she looked at him like that—
That didn’t necessarily make him a fool.
So far, nothing much had happened, other than being sleepless from hot steamy nights, queasy from sleeping on a boat, always in motion, bitten by bugs, afraid to drink the water, and almost afraid of going ashore at all. Not after seeing the biggest snake in the world poke its head up and then swim along, outpacing the boat on her port side and then disappearing into the low, overhanging branches and into the dappled green shadows where land presumably met water at some mysterious and unknown point.
Once he’d seen a half a dozen crocodiles, sunning themselves on a sandbar, and heard one or two stories of unknown creatures taking people in the night, he’d been pretty much convinced. He’d seen some very large spiders, and those were in a hotel room in Caracas. They were all over the boat as well.
The jungle was a place of disease, blood-sucking bats, foot-fungus, dysentery and uncivilized tribes, some of whom had not yet been discovered.
Jeremy had to marvel. London to Southampton to New York, New York to Caracas. Local steamer east again, then down to Guyana City, after threading the maze that was the Orinoco Delta. Days at sea, days on a coastal steamer. Days aboard the Paloma, her shallow draft designed for river travel, and now he stood on the red, gravel soil of the riverbank.
It was a completely different world and he knew nothing of it.
Unfamiliar birds and possibly monkeys screeched unseen in the trees overhead. Insects buzzed and hummed. Sweat trickled down.
It never seemed to stop and after a while one stopped worrying about it. Your socks and your underwear were never completely dry.
The village of Buena Vista, population maybe fifteen hundred, wasn’t much to look at. Now, they were going up the Rio Cuao, by motor-canoe, and after that, overland to the area where the temple of the Jaguar god was said to exist, at least in those legends that the doctor had heard and so had Mister Smith.
And it really was another world, where you could hire native bearers and boatmen for what seemed like pennies for a day’s work. It was brutally hard work, from dawn until dusk. They seemed cheerful enough for all of that.
Mister Smith was now satisfied with the loading and that they hadn’t missed anything. There was nothing where they were going—nothing. They would have to make do with what they had, which seemed pretty extensive in Jeremy’s observation. All of the dockside piles were aboard.
The labour had been paid, but they seemed in no hurry to leave.
They were all standing there watching.
“All right, lady and gentlemen—all aboard who’s coming along.”
With that, Smith stepped off the primitive wooden dock and carefully made his way to a place by the motor and the chief or whatever, the man in charge of this boat and their small native party.
They jibber-jabbered back and forth as Mister Smith pulled out his pipe and idly began filling it.
Someone pulled hard on a rope and the motor sputtered into life.
With his uncle in the second boat, for whatever reason Jeremy preferred to ride in the first boat, right up front in the prow. There was a brief estuary and then they wound their way upriver. It was fascinating to watch Mister Smith, totally confident in his abilities and in those of the natives, to whom he seemed like an uncle or something. He was that good, putting an arm around the shoulders of someone he was talking to, and handling the language like a native himself.
Other than Paolo, he was the only one of the party that could speak it. The natives didn’t seem to know what personal space was, and Smith was pretty good with hugs, and pats on the shoulder, even holding hands with the more affectionate. There was something charming in the innocence of the local tribesmen. They were like very dangerous children, according to Smith.
Whatever it took to get the job done. He was the only one other than Paolo to speak the native language, derived from Carib presumably. It was impressive, to see how dark, narrow and overgrown the Cuao was compared to the Orinoco. The Orinoco was a great river in every sense of the word, miles wide in some places. This little creek closed in rapidly, in a most oppressive fashion, yet there was said to be eighty or a hundred miles of this.
It was hard to believe they could keep going. Going by their rather skimpy maps, showing little more than a couple of prominent elevations and the winding blue line of the river itself, it appeared to go east, and then turn north again, with a line of big hills eventually appearing on the right. Everything else was a sea of green, on the map and in present reality both. This is where it would get really challenging, according to Smith. They had to find the correct fork.
After that, it was all over land, all uphill, and all unknown tribes and perhaps other hazards as well. The jungle was anything but friendly, according to him, something Jeremy had already figured out for himself. Within the first five miles, they had to stop twice to cut dead trees blocking the channel. The river only got narrower. What looked simple on a map was not going to be easy.
Knowing there were piranhas in there, it was a bit of a revelation to see the native men leap out with axe and saw and begin cutting. They were always laughing and chewing on something mysterious. With enough hands and strong, willing backs, the boats were dragged over every obstacle.
You only needed to see one big set of cat-tracks. Or see one big croc, going up to twenty-two feet. It was no joke. You wouldn’t sleep in a tent very well for a long, long time after.
Another complication was the need to take the left fork at exactly the right place. With sluggish sloughs and dark tunnels of water coming in regularly on each side, and a few small islands in the channel, this would be a bit of a headache. It was difficult to get good navigational fixes with the sun, the stars and the moon pretty much obscured at all times by triple-canopy rain forest growing hundreds of feet straight up on banks that were but a few yards away.
A small patch of blue sky was a rarity and the light was going anyways.
Sooner or later they would have to stop for the night.
His guts churned at the thought. Sleeping, their first night in the jungle…
There was nowhere else to be.
He was committed.
They had all agreed, those who had an opinion. They had hit their fork and this was the correct branch of the river.
At times, the boat scraped the sides.
The air was very hot and very still.
They could go no further, the river was just too small.
Thirty or forty yards inland, they found a nice level spot and the natives began the process of unloading.
This would be their first base camp.
If the ocean crossing had been boring, if the trip upriver had been hot and interminable, if the Rio Cuao had been one big knot of tension in the gut for a full three days, then hacking their way overland was going to be something out of Dante’s Inferno.
According to Uncle Harry, one had to start somewhere.
It was morning.
It was already insufferably hot. It wasn’t even seven a.m. The buzz of insects never left them.
Things were always biting.
There was a rustle as tent-flaps were undone.
“Ah. Good morning, Uncle.”
With hot water brought in and a private tent, Uncle Harry was freshly shaved and scrubbed.
Jeremy bit his lip in amusement. Mrs. O’Dell, wearing about the smallest bathing suit that could legally be sold outside of a Hollywood glamour catalogue, was sensually draped across a thick blanket laid out in the only patch of sun that managed to make it in down from above.
With face reddening, blinking rapidly and trying not to stare, Uncle Harry turned for the breakfast table. This was set up in a shady corner where their native friends had hacked and cut and taken out some big roots to level the ground.
According to all calculations, they were within five or ten miles of their supposed temple. If so, this was about as good a camp as they were likely to find. There was good water coming down in a foaming white cataract from the highlands above them to the northeast.
So far, it was all speculation.
“Good morning, sir.” Mister Day was already at it, stuffing tinned steak-and-kidney pie into a maw that was looking particularly voracious this morning.
It would be fairer to say that hacking away at virgin growth with machete and axe was hard work and it certainly built an appetite.
Kevin was there and Mister Syrmes. Mister O’Dell had gone off for a walk, as he put it, after giving his oblivious wife a rather dark look and some cryptically-snippy remarks. He might be gone for a while, but they never seemed to get moving much before nine-thirty or ten anyways.
He might have just been tired of sitting in a boat.
If they were fighting, they must have been doing it in low tones. The thin walls of a tent didn’t hold too many secrets. Jeremy and the other bachelors were in the tent right next to them.
Jeremy eased himself out of his own wood and canvas deck chair, where he had been enjoying the view of Mrs. O’Dell. There was no harm in looking after all, and he took his place at the table, looking very crisp and fresh in its white linen.
Paolo had turned out to be an excellent cook, unfamiliar as he had initially been with the portable stove hauled along aboard the boat and ultimately, on people’s backs. Up the hill and down the dale, over the hills and through the woods—losing blood every step of the way.
Their native party had their own tents and cooking fire, built on the ground in the more usual fashion. They seemed to cook in two ways, one was a big iron pot hung on a tripod. The other way was either in or under the coals. It was very quiet from over there. They were prone to siestas in the hottest part of the day and a good expedition leader took that into account. Also, there wasn’t very much for them to do. The tents had been pitched, the shelters had been built and the latrines had been dug. They were probably just sleeping-in. Jeremy was learning a lot, how much good it might do him in the long run was another question.
It was all right, he supposed, and yet he had to admit that the sort of scientific curiosity exhibited by his Uncle and one or two of the others—Mister Day and Mister O’Dell for example, was somehow lacking.
Mister Smith didn’t seem to care one way or another, and neither did Mrs. O’Dell. Mr. Syrmes was positively delighted to collect specimens and photographs on the side, as he said.
It had nothing to do with the expedition, but he didn’t seem to be able to quit.
Half the species they’d seen so far, plant, animal, fungus, were completely unknown. Jeremy supposed that was remarkable. No one could say they weren’t educated and they had all the books and catalogues. Mister Syrmes’ drawings were beautiful, and yet still scientifically meticulous. There was real talent there, in Jeremy’s opinion.
The insect life, bird-eating spiders, giant butterflies, big walking sticks and such, was fascinating, the monkeys and the birds were all right—insofar as that went. Jeremy had been putting some thought into his future. In that sense, perhaps something had been sparked into life within him.
It really was that kind of a world—a lost world, full of secrets waiting to be unraveled and exciting mysteries yet to be revealed.
His own ignorance had been revealed to him.
And now he wanted to know more—
Perhaps that was it.
It was just a weird kind of feeling he’d had.
They were doing compass marches, watching time, keeping notes, making drawings when applicable and just trying to map their way around what had to be a pretty small patch of jungle. Working in pairs, Jeremy had been teamed up with Mister O’Dell. The gentleman knew what he was doing, at least to hear him tell it. There were two other parties of two men each. Theoretically, they were separated by about two hundred metres, running on parallel tracks. How long that might have lasted, was anybody’s guess. They hadn’t heard a thing from the other parties all day.
While they all knew what they were supposed to do, the maps were useless this far upriver.
After a while, the arms ached from chopping brush…every so often the jungle thinned out and it was pure, heavenly relief that never lasted quite long enough.
Jeremy and Mister O’Dell had gone a hundred yards south of camp and then turned east. Smith and Paolo had done the opposite. Two hundred yards north, and then turn east. They were due north, and his Uncle and Mister Day were supposed to be two hundred yards further north…theoretically.
Setting off shortly after breakfast, that was hours ago now. They’d sat down on a log about noon and had their sandwiches, bully beef and mustard. A pickle, a piece of cheese and one bottle of beer each.
It was like if you ate it, you didn’t have to carry it.
The real problem was when they became separated. It was hard to say just how that had happened. O’Dell had been right there only a moment before. Jeremy had stepped into the bushes to relieve his bowels, something hard to get used to and always a vulnerable feeling. He couldn’t have gotten too far, and yet the man didn’t answer when Jeremey called. He was shouting at the top of his lungs and straining his voice in the ever-deepening gloom.
It seemed like he’d been thrashing around in the underbrush for hours, yet it was probably no more than half an hour.
Night was falling and he was hungry and it was time to go home, hence his rapidly-increasing impatience.
There may have been some element of panic in there as well. When he cast his mind back, they had followed a more-or-less straight course, crossing several clear, shallow streams and what they thought was the Cuao again, deep, black and winding through the gloomy dark trees.
They had climbed one or two precipitous little hills along the way, volcanic plugs isolated by swamps, and then come back down to the level again.
The other thing that was that Mister O’Dell had the compass. Mister O’Dell also had a long-barreled revolver hanging on his hip and a few loose rounds in his pocket.
Jeremy had a half a pint of water, a few biscuits, some raisins and a flashlight, and thank God for that. The bug juice, which wasn’t all that good to begin with, had pretty much worn off. He was tired, hungry, thirsty, stinky and had just about had enough of floundering around in jungles.
Every so often, he would stop to check for leeches. As often as not, he would find another one, and he was running low on matches.
“Mister O’Dell!” He bellowed one last time into the unresponsive forest, vast, magnificent, and ultimately indifferent.
Craning his ears, heart thudding in his chest, there was nothing.
Damn that man.
Checking his watch, and trying desperately to remember just how to tell direction with it, (he’d read an article in The Boy’s Own Paper, yet it also involved the northern hemisphere, which somehow complicated matters), he noted it was terribly early to be getting so dark. If he was lucky enough to get out of this, he’d read it again.
An unfamiliar cold breeze touched his cheek.
Right about then, the treetops began thrashing, the wind whistled, it got darker still and the whole heavens opened up. Torrents of rain slashed at his skin as he plunged into the heavy trees, desperately seeking some form of shelter. No other place was any better…there was no place to go.
It got darker and darker. Thorn-laden branches whipped at his face. He was already soaked. It was madness to run. There was no-place to go, nowhere to get to. He ran hard into a wall of wood, a big old mahogany of a thousand years, for all he knew.
Stepping over the flying buttresses that were the base of the trunk, something big crashed to the ground off to his left. The ground, where it could be seen when the lightning flashed, was littered with deadfall. Only now did its significance become clear. It was all coming down at once. On the far side there was shelter of a kind. The wind was hard from the northwest. Turning on the light, he looked about, finding not much but a few slabs of bark…there. Leaves, and a small, immature hardwood tree that he might be able to uproot. It was a plan. Thunder cracked and the place lit up and he could do nothing but flinch in reflex.
He might have said a few bad words…
One could only pray that the storm would be over soon, and that the light would come back again.
With the rattle of hail all around him, the air was deucedly chilly and it was all he could do not to scream, to shout, and stamp his feet like a child.
This was definitely serious.
Damn you, Uncle Harry!
Finally, the storm abated and it was merely rain.
At some point, he thought he would go mad.
At some point, about nine-thirty p.m., the wind dropped off, the sky cleared, and there were even stars visible in the thin gaps in the branches above. A dim blue glow indicated that the moon must be up.
It appeared that he hadn’t been paying enough attention. But the moon had definitely been up the night before.
It was terribly cold and he shivered in the wet clothes.
When he had the light on, the forest floor was a creeping, crawling barrage of insect life. There was a constant background whirr, and things snapped and whisped and thudded, all around him. At some point he determined that it was just nuts, or seeds, some kind of fruit dropping from above. To turn the light off and conserve batteries was worse, so much worse, as every little rolling ball of cold sweat turned itself into an army ant, marching on their stomachs and consuming all before.
Every little itch, every little tickle, turned itself into the first touch of an anaconda about to swallow his next lunch. Every little noise translated itself into his imminent demise.
It was true—your hair really could stand up on end.
To lay down was unthinkable, although he perched awkwardly from time to time on the lower bit of exposed root or trunk.
The only thing that saved him was the light and his watch. After a while the bulb seemed dimmer, and so he kept it off for longer and longer periods.
After a time, he concluded that all he had to do was make it through until morning. Surely they would come looking. He’d been awake all night once or twice, and he’d made it through the day.
Surely he could find his way back—if only he could see what he was doing. If he got close enough, surely he would hear them, or smell the wood-smoke.
At some point, something nipped him on the lower calf muscle.
At that point, Jeremy really did scream, to no avail of course, but it was just some damned jungle cat. He had no choice but to use the yellowing light.
The animal was as cute as a button and showing a strange sort of affection in the only way it knew how: by chewing on things, just as it would on a recent kill, its mother or its siblings.
“Bugger. What in the hell are you doing here.”
This would pretty much have to be an ocelot, going by description alone. He’d never actually seen one. Considering the circumstances, he was damned grateful for the company. The creature had to be a good twenty pounds and very fit.
“Who’s a good boy?”
What a crazy little bugger.
Tears welled up and he let them flow in a kind of objectivity.
The stream of leaf-cutting ants across this little patch of litter seemed to have abated. They probably weren’t interesting in him, but having them crawl all over him wasn’t too good either…
Gratefully lowering himself to the ground, he batted the persistent creature as it nuzzled in close and then took another experimental nip at an exposed flank.
“Hey! Hey, you little bastard. Lay off with the teeth, already.”
Rolling over on its back, the light snapped on again for further examination, the animal rumbled and purred.
It seemed Jeremy had made a friend.
He rubbed its belly, tried to avoid those sharp teeth and even sharper claws, and prayed for all he was worth.
Somehow he must have slept. The way he knew that was simple enough, his knees were screaming under bending and compression. He’d been standing again, then having leaned up against the tree and fallen asleep.
He had gradually buckled and slid down, lower and lower. The other thing was the dreams.
Dreams indicated sleep, and yet Jeremy ached. There was a hint of light now. Locating east would be damned difficult. The light was filtered and vague, with mist and steam still hanging in the understory.
At this latitude, there was little seasonal variation in the length of the day. The sun went north in so-called winter and south in so-called summer. In the equatorial regions, it went just as many degrees, but it didn’t seem to make much difference in the heat of the day. Theoretically, the sun went so many degrees right and left, up and down.
The ocelot was gone, thankfully. Its only way of expressing affection or anything really, was to kill it, eat it, chew on it, (or spray it, maybe), and Jeremy had already been nipped too many times by the thing. Those claws were very sharp, but then they had to be. Sad as it was to see it leave, it was better for all concerned. He wished it all the luck in the world.
With the heavy rains of the night, there wasn’t much hope of finding his back-trail.
He had run about fifty yards, from somewhere over there.
A hundred yards beyond that, should be the most recent creek that they had crossed. O’Dell had definitely been with him then.
Ergo, he must have disappeared somewhere between here and there. With water all around there, it couldn’t be a very big piece of land at all.
Assuming he’d fully circled the tree, the other side of it must be west. Bird life was waking up, with calls, screeches and squawks coming from all around. The mosquitoes never seemed to let up, and he itched all over from their attentions. Monkeys were getting ready to chuck things down at him, judging by their excited calls.
Slapping one more mosquito, finding a good gob of blood on his fingers, he took one last look around and then went for it.
“Mister O’Dell! Mister O’Dell.” Jeremy picked his way through the underbrush, sensing that they really couldn’t be all that far apart.
O’Dell had to be around there somewhere and his entire body just ached.
His clothes were slowly drying but the underbrush was still wet and this was going to take awhile.
He’d been standing right about here, wondering where O’Dell went, when the storm came up.
He hadn’t been being very observant, but the configuration of a clump of hanging vines did seem rather familiar. The trouble was they all looked familiar. Everything looked the same in the jungle.
They’d been following along a ridge line, with the occasional outcrop of stone and moss the only relief from underbrush, dense, thick and full of every sort of plant, insect, reptile, and fungus inimical to man or beast. There were man-eating trees, or so he had been told…Lord.
“Mister O’Dell!” Nothing, but the sound of a cataract rising in the background off to his right spurred him forward.
There was a waterfall near camp, but they were right close to the fall-line, as Mister Smith had called it. There was an escarpment, and then higher ground. What with wind, and birds, he hadn’t noticed it the day before. Maybe he really was lost.
It was a horrible thought. The place did look familiar.
Just on the verge of the real foothills, the valley bottom was riven by hundreds of creeks, sloughs and bayous, mostly parallel in spite of winding back and forth in lazy curlicues. The jungle just oozed water. That was the thing. It made its own weather.
There was an actual clearing on the bank. It was so unique, they’d remarked upon it at the time. There were some faint and ambiguous scuff-marks in the dirt. This had to be their clearing.
He was hoping for tracks, of which they’d seen a few, possibly deer, (they were indistinct and hard to identify), peccary, small mammals, birds and squirrels and the like.
Predictably, the ground was beaten flat and pockmarked by the rain. It was still damp and steaming in the erratic beams of sunlight coming in from above, or rather, behind. The great forest gently swayed in what sounded like a light breeze up above and glistening drops fell from the wet treetops. He couldn’t say for sure if anyone had ever been there or not. It was best to try and be objective. The water before him was black. They’d followed the bank on the other side and crossed on a dead tree that must have been a couple of feet thick and sturdy. Crossing on a tree was always chancy. The tree had fallen for a reason and some of them were pretty rotten. They could break under your weight and the further you fell, the worse it was going to be. He’d already skinned his shins more than once and the pain was a good reminder. Your shoes were always going to be wet.
It should be off to his left, less than thirty yards…the wall of green on the side of his little clearing was uninviting. He couldn’t stay there all day, either. His stomach alone would see to that, and he only had a couple of swallows of water left. Parting the first fronds of tall grass and weeds, he was rewarded with the sight of a depression in the soft turf.
He almost remembered making that step—
Jeremy opened his mouth to call again, when there came the sound of a distant gunshot, half a mile or more to the west.
Twenty-five or thirty yards. It had to be there, but it wasn’t. Stomach rumbling, tired, exhausted, thirsty and ready to scream, Jeremy backtracked to his little clear spot on the bank.
There had to be a log across the stream right about there, and there wasn’t. He could see quite a ways down the creek, and there was no log there.
“Uncle Harry!” Nothing.
He could have sworn this was the right place. It was the same little clearing. On impulse, he followed the bank northeast, rather than southwest as it curved along. Fifteen, twenty yards…the jungle was marginally clearer, with the semblance of a path even. It was the first such sign he’d seen in days, over a week since leaving the Orinoco.
There was another large clear spot, just red dirt stamped flat either by rain, judging by the close-packed dimples, or human feet…before the rain.
His jaw dropped.
Hearing voices just on the edge of earshot, he threw his head back, filled his lungs and shouted for all he was worth.
Once they had cleared some of the brush and vines away, the eerie face, the one that had practically scared Jeremy to death, was properly revealed. The thing had stopped him right in his tracks.
A crouching jaguar—with flashing, exaggerated eyes and big stone teeth. It was big. The thing had to weigh thirty tons, sinking further into the soft ground with every passing year. The feet were well underground at this point. The dirt was halfway up the shins.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” His Uncle Harry stood there, biting his lip and marveling. “It proves the culture is related. There is such a thing as an individual style. People dispute that, but it’s true in my opinion. I have to admit, this is a new one on me. So. I hope your thirst for adventure has been sated, young man—”
“That’s very funny, Uncle.”
“Er, yes.” Uncle Harry grinned, happy enough to see him again.
Impulsively, he gave Jeremy an awkward hug.
Explaining to his mother would have been difficult and there were certain human feelings.
But there was more.
The temple might be real, then—and if so, it couldn’t be all that far away. This was a major sculpture, sitting out in the middle of nowhere otherwise.
“Yes, wonderful, but where’s Mister O’Dell?”
Mister Syrmes had a point. All Jeremy could do was to shake his head.
In a few short yards, he’d gotten all off track, and disoriented. He was just plain lucky that they had set out to find him with the previous day’s plan still firm in their heads.
The fact was that someone had just gotten very lucky indeed.
“Shit.” Jeremy pointed. “That’s his walking stick.”
Syrmes’ chin came up as Jeremy stepped over and fetched it from under the low bushes and tall weeds.
“There’s no need for profanity, Jeremy.”
“Ah, yes, sir. I mean, no, sir.”
“Yes. It is, isn’t it?” Syrmes’ dull grey-blue eyes came up and there was something in them—something unspoken. “Well, well. I wonder where he’s gotten off to—”
There was just something about the way the stone cat lurked, stained and dirty and still steaming from the rain, those deadly, unseeing eyes staring off into nowhere, another time perhaps, another place.
Harry mopped his forehead as Syrmes took the stick and rooted around in the underbrush.
“Damn. Here’s his water-bottle. And his glasses.”
This did not look good, thought Jeremy with sinking heart.
He gave his own bottle a shake. Empty.
“Is there anything in it?”
Syrmes handed it over speculatively. It was quite full, perhaps a third gone.
Jeremy nodded. Unscrewing the cap, he drank.
No sense in wasting it, hot water as it was by now, and he took another drink. After this, he would never complain about anything again.
Hot water never tasted so good.
“Huh. Mine was half full when I realized he was gone and then the storm came.” They had been consciously trying to conserve water, especially once they’d been out there a while. “Theoretically, he hasn’t had any water since. Not unless he’s taking a chance on river water.”
Which they had all been repeatedly told not to do.
“All right, spread out and we’ll look for signs.”
“I don’t know—Uncle?”
“The camp is thataway, Jeremy. Fourteen hundred yards, maybe fifteen. West-by-southwest.”
“Er—of course. Would you by any chance have a sandwich in that bag of yours, Uncle Harry?”
“Possibly. Possibly, young Jeremy—it might even be bully beef with a slathering of mustard.”
Juices squirted in his mouth as his uncle unslung the bag and handed it over.
With a sigh, Jeremy thought it better to stick to his uncle, and Syrmes, who had a rifle, like the proverbial glue.
Especially with that damned stone cat crouching there like it was ready to pounce and nothing more than a thousand-year stare to show for all of its waiting.
Smoke from the native cook-fire hung in the trees like a soggy wet blanket, with dead monkey-meat stinking of being over-cooked and over-dried. Positively blackened monkey meat, and yet it would still be raw inside. The natives would eat so much and then hang the rest over the fire again.
Jeremy, after sagging into a wood and canvas deck chair, (thank God I don’t have to carry it), was unbelievably tired. They’d been going all day, with nary a sign of Mister O’Dell.
There was a kind of nausea—first the fear for O’Dell’s fate, and the sick realization that he was probably dead, and then there was the hunger and water deprivation of the last eight or ten hours.
Kevin handed him a warm (very warm) stout.
“There, lad, I reckon you’ve earned it.” He snickered quietly for a moment. “A night alone in the jungle. I am impressed, Jeremy.”
“Oh, God.” Jeremy’s eyes slid over to Melody, seemingly not very concerned with her husband Peter’s fate.
She knew him best, of course, and it was entirely possible that he had simply gone off on his own! Without so much as a jacket. Maybe that was her attitude, but if so it was a damned strange one. Meeting Mister Smith’s eyes for a second, he exhaled in gratitude.
Jeremy wasn’t much for drink, but he had to admit it wasn’t bad. The tang of the stuff went straight to something deep inside and the head was all creamy and soft on the palate. Other than that, it didn’t seem to taste very good. He’d had wine before, of course.
“Thank you, Mister Smith.”
“Oh, poor boy. You must have been terrified. I know I would be.”
“Yes, I have to admit I was concerned, ah, Mrs. O’Dell.” Such formality might seem strange to a woman who appeared to be barely dressed in what looked like pajama-bottoms or some sort of sleepwear under her thin housecoat—imagine the native boys lugging that uphill all the way, and smelling of her all that time.
It was his only defense.
One had to wonder what sort of thoughts they might have had—
“I might have even panicked for a minute there. I must admit, the thoughts were not good…standing under that big old tree the whole bloody night…”
She sat up, eyeing Paolo like some kind of a bug, as he sweated and strained over their dinner less than forty feet away. Grease flared up and he cursed, (presumably), in Spanish.
It was almost inhuman, the way she just didn’t seem to care about Peter’s disappearance, although Jeremy wasn’t too familiar with people in shock.
“I think you were very brave.” Her face fell, and maybe she was worried about her husband after all.
“Peter will turn up…er, Melody.”
She gave him a startled look.
“Oh—thank you.” Her fingers plucked at each other and she seemed very cold, distant and far away at that exact moment in time.
Fear. Perhaps she was trying not to show it.
As for Jeremy, he itched all over, although he’d had time for a cool shower in their canvas stall before changing into something a little more suitable for dinner. The clothes from the day before were soaking in a bucket and that was about the best that could be said for them.
If nothing else, he had survived a night in the jungle—a jungle which had swallowed up an older and much more experienced man.
He caught Kevin’s eye again and the fellow lifted an eyebrow, having a swig at his own hot brew.
His uncle came out of the big tent, the attentive Mister Day in tow, as the pair conferred in low tones.
“I’d never really thought about luck before.”
“Hmn. Yeah—” That one got a curt nod as Mister Smith dragged himself upright to go and see if there was anything he could do about getting dinner moving any faster.
Jeremy’s eyelids were hanging heavy and he couldn’t recall the last time he’d been so whipped.
It was right about then that Melody reached over and patted him on his scratched, bruised and sunburnt right knee.
“Thank you. What’s for dinner, anyways?”
“Roast peccary, I believe.” She had an interesting tone, almost one of amusement.
He didn’t waste too much time on that one.
They were holding court over the dessert dishes.
Even Melody was participating, more animated now with a bit of grub and a half a bottle of calvados in her.
“But where could he have gone?” Her voice, increasing in pitch and intensity, bewailed her own fate as much as her husband’s.
The problem was that she just didn’t seem to get it.
“Well. My dear. You really must admit that there’s nowhere else for him to go. I mean, really. No, I fear we must reconcile ourselves to the possibility.”
She was hardly stupid.
“But—but what do you mean?”
Mister Syrmes stepped in, using a gentle tone and placating gestures.
“We really must consider the possibility, well—that’s he’s gone, Melody.”
There was no shyness in using her first name with Syrmes. He was pure business all the way, one of his less attractive qualities. Like all such men, he was completely unaware of it. Jeremy had wondered once or twice why Uncle Harry had hired him to begin with, let alone put up with him in the bush. His qualifications were impressive enough and he’d come with good references.
References weren’t everything, and Jeremy was very tired.
“Gone? What do you mean, gone?”
Uncle Harry sighed, patting the lady on the back of the hand from his place at the head of the table.
“What he means, my dear, is that there are possibilities. And it doesn’t make much sense for him to go walking off on his own, no matter how absent-minded or scatter-brained a person may be. I must say, your husband didn’t impress me as that type. No, we must consider the facts. He may have fallen or hit his head on something. There are crocodiles, electric eels, and caribes, ah, piranha. He may have cut himself and fallen into the water—”
Her hand was over her mouth as she stared at him.
“You mean, like dead?”
“Ah, yes, my dear. However, if so, we certainly didn’t find any signs of it. There is always hope. At least until we know better.”
Other than the walking stick and the water bottle, thought Jeremy. The eye-glasses—that really said something.
“He might have had a heart attack, Melody.” The matter seemed settled to Mister Syrmes.
She stared, and slowly the hand came down. She turned and stared in interrogative fashion at him of all people.
All Jeremy could do was to shrug and nod helplessly.
At that, tears welled up in her eyes and then she sort of collapsed into a short paroxysm of grief. They sat there in poignant silence and she seemed to get a hold of herself again…
At that point, the damned ocelot came roaring down the trail. It stopped dead upon seeing a group.
Uncle Harry’s eyebrows were climbing and Jeremy launched into the rest of his story.
The ocelot, jumping into his lap and nuzzling contentedly at his hand, was a nice touch.
“We know it has to be around here somewhere.” Mister Day seemed pretty adamant.
“Oh, I don’t know. All we really have, Gerald, is the statue. Which, admittedly, would appear to be about the right age. The style is unknown, completely unheralded by any similar discoveries in this or any other area. It’s completely barbarous. Unique, really.” Harry took another walk around it, now that they had scrubbed it free of dirt, mildew and what Jeremy thought were black lichens, although at first impression they looked like runes.
They were sticking together, although the cat had wandered off on its own. Jeremy figured it would be able to hear them for miles. The creature would probably turn up again. Why he should worry about it or feel sorry for it was a good question. The cat was much better suited to survive in the jungle than any of them.
With a brief survey, they had determined that the land sloped down to the southwest, ending in a finger of land with deep creeks or side branches of the river on both sides. The land gently sloped up to the northeast, and that seemed the next logical direction of travel. For the time being, camp would have to stay put. They would take care to blaze a proper trail, both sides of the tree, one that could be followed easily. Jeremy had the axe, a fitting irony, but he was more than happy to make sure—especially after the other night.
“Right. Gentlemen.” Standing there with his compass in hand, Uncle Harry pointed at the green wall of brush. “Here, I think.”
Mister Smith spoke in that curious mixture of the native tongue and then Spanish when he ran into a word he didn’t know. Two husky workmen stepped forwards and started whacking at a thin spot with their machetes, stained and sticky with dried sap from previous days. They babbled excitedly in their own language. Kevin Smith, armed with a slung Army-surplus Lee-Enfield .303 rifle, turned away and stood calmly watching the water’s edge as he’d just seen something cut the surface in his peripheral vision.
“What is it, Mister Smith?”
Smith pointed, waving the tip of the weapon around to indicate an area of surface, green leaves floating upon it, but black as the Ace of Spades in the shadows.
Something moved, and Jeremy had the impression of dark, scaled body with the thin line of a long, low fin along the back and tail.
Thankfully, not a snake as one of that diameter would have been a big one indeed.
“What is it?”
“Electric eel.” His eyes twinkled under sandy eyebrows. “Which actually might explain Mister O’Dell’s disappearance. Assuming he slipped and fell in when trying to cross on a log for example. If one of those buggers was right there, it could have stopped his heart. They say a croc tries to take one once in a while, and it’s not an easy death.” Not for either one of them—the croc would break the eel’s neck with a good bite, and then die trying to let go as its victim shocked and shocked trying to defend itself even in death.
Harry and Mister Day were listening, but also following closer now that the men had advanced a few yards into the jungle. While the trail would quickly overgrow, for a few days at least, the white ends of cut branches and saplings would make navigation easy.
“Go on, Mister Smith.”
His uncle’s thoughts were on other things. But this was interesting—
“That’s about it, actually. It could have been anything, but that would account for why Jeremy didn’t hear him. An electric shock like that, it completely paralyzes the victim. He wouldn’t even have time to cry out.”
“That’s true—I’ve had a good shock once or twice. Even one and a half volts, one amp, can kill. The shock went right up my arm—it’s like a hammer beating inside of you, it really is.” Jeremy and a friend had been fascinated by magnets, electricity and taking things apart rather than building anything practical.
The trouble was, they didn’t really know what they were doing.
Smith grinned at this explanation.
Jeremy stepped in close, making sure his area was clear of people. Swinging, he knocked a good couple of chips out of the bark, making it big, white and about as high as he could comfortably get. This first one would be visible from the stone jaguar.
He and Kevin were bringing up the rear.
“Now around to the other side.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice.”
A good hour had passed. Uncle Harry thought the effort worth it. They had advanced perhaps a half a mile and then the ground turned abruptly upward.
With all the noise, predators being shy creatures, Kevin had the rifle on his back, casually smoking his pipe and chatting with the sweating Jeremy, who was also coming along well in the cursing department.
Oh, if only Beak could see me now—better yet, Old Baldy, or even better, Mister Christmas, the music teacher.
He laughed, throwing another swing into his latest anonymous tree…
“Jeremy! Mister Smith!” It was Uncle Harry, fifty or a hundred yards up ahead. “Get up here! You have to see this.”
“You go ahead. I’m going to mark another two or three trees between here and there.”
I’m not rushing for anybody…
Not in this place.
Not now, not anymore.
From now on, I think before I act.
“Come along, nephew, come along.”
Mister Day had his camera set up on the tripod, he’d set the timer and he was trying to pose everybody just so.
“What’s going on, Uncle?”
There were delighted chuckles.
“Take a look, boy.”
The natives were clustered, where they had cut and hacked and pulled away more brush, more vines, more pickers and thorns and dead and dying litter.
There were stones…square stones fitted tightly together.
His jaw dropped.
Harry’s chin lifted, and Jeremy looked up, following the rise of the green wall before him…
Whatever it was, it was big.
Very, very big.
Harry was beaming.
“You know what I think? This might just be one part of a larger complex—” Harry was telling anyone who would listen. “This is a major temple.”
Most of them weren’t listening.
Mister Day was all over him, drops of sweat hanging on the end of his nose and staining his bush shirt under the armpits.
“Here. Bring the axe, wonderful, wonderful…”
Apparently he was to stand on the end, cap tipped back, axe over the right shoulder, foot up on a boulder, and looking like the proper woodsman.
For some reason, the last thing Mister O’Dell had said to him rattled around in his mind.
“What a lovely bunch of coconuts.”
“Doctor. Doctor.” Mister Syrmes’ excited voice came down from above. “Up here.”
Upon Jeremy and a native being sent back to the camp for more workers and more tools, Syrmes and even Melody O’Dell, grief-stricken as she now appeared to be, had tagged along on the return. For her, it was probably better than being left alone with the camp virtually deserted.
Jeremy hadn’t seen too many women in trousers, and she was decidedly cute in boots and a bush jacket and wide-brimmed hat.
Syrmes was all over the place.
“What have you got?” Squinting against the hard light of midday, Uncle Harry bellowed through cupped hands.
“It’s an opening. I’m sure of it. Bring up some machetes.”
They had eight or ten workmen on the site, most of them converging on the area of excitement.
For the natives, it was a welcome break from the back-breaking labour of clearing brush and some pretty gnarly old trees, hundreds of years old, growing from cracks and crevices in the stones. The workmen also knew they were searching for a temple, and must have had a smidgeon of curiosity.
Each stone was a good three feet tall, and six or seven feet wide. Getting up there took a bit of clambering, which was almost easier when a person had roots and branches to grab onto.
Jeremy beat his uncle to the spot, being fifteen years younger.
Puffing and gasping, his uncle made it up to the level just below where Mister Syrmes stood.
Looking down, Jeremy could see Mister Smith patrolling around the edge of what was becoming a clearing, with Mrs. O’Dell shading her eyes and looking up to where they were.
Turning back, Mister Syrmes beckoned impatiently. There was just enough room to squeeze in, but it wasn’t his dig and it wasn’t his expedition—
“Here, get this out of the way, boy.” This was what Jeremy thought was genuine ironwood—all too familiar from his axe-work, but clearly the machetes weren’t going to be up to it.
It was either than or a related species. Fifteen feet tall and stunted by growing out of the rock like that.
“Right.” Clambering up one more notch, he took his stance and began taking the thing down.
There was a pleasant pain in each shoulder, every muscle really, but he still had this much in him—
The axe merely bounced off it the first shot, leaving a thin green line in the smooth grey bark.
This would take a while.
There were appreciative chuckles.
(…take a deep breath and focus.)
This was going to take a while.
Sure enough, there was more darkness and an empty space in behind it, once he’d taken a few of the smaller branches out of the way.
His uncle turned.
“Take a couple of the natives. Go back to camp and bring back every torch that you can find.”
“Right.” With a nod and one last look at their entrance, he was carefully lowering himself down again.
Axe bit wood and Jeremy kept going.
Ten or twenty minutes had passed.
“Are we ready?”
Uncle Harry and one other, Mister Day, would go in first. While some ancient temples had special killing-traps to dissuade grave robbers, this was relatively unknown in the Americas.
With an unsealed entrance like that, it did not appear to be a burial chamber. Aztecs buried their dead beside the temple, disposed of their ashes out in the country or even on a mountaintop. The Mayans of the classic period did build tombs and burial complexes, but they looked nothing like this.
What they had was still something of a mystery according to Harry. The sweat was beginning to dry, and for that Jeremy was grateful.
Snapping on their biggest light, his uncle carefully examined the way and then gingerly stepped down. He flashed a grin as Mister Day took yet another picture with the small (and very expensive) camera hanging around his neck.
“Right. In we go.”
Their voices could clearly be heard as they descended what looked like some roughly-cut stairs.
There was complete silence. It struck Jeremy that for all the hundreds of bird and animal calls in the jungle, you hardly ever saw them—
Then his uncle was calling out for Mister Smith and more lights.
“What’s going on?” The voice was plaintive, tinged with sadness, but perhaps also a bit of boredom.
Jeremy looked down to Melody, tragic in her beauty and aloneness from his vantage point.
“I don’t know.”
They were all down there now, except for the natives. Some of them had gone back to a desultory job of clearing more vegetation from the front elevation from what was beginning to look like a terraced, pyramidal structure. It was incredibly steep, which set it apart from the relatively gentle slopes around it. It could easily have been mistaken for another volcanic plug, he supposed.
She was alone down there, although there were a couple of native boys nearby, and she was probably nervous of snakes, or big cats or whatever.
He couldn’t really blame her for that. They’d heard the gruff bark of what Smith said was a jaguar, not too far away and keeping them up half the night with its growls. The smaller creatures were just as bad in terms of alien noises.
He decided to have a look for himself, although archaeology had never really interested him. It occurred to him that it wasn’t always digging in the dirt in some sort of grid pattern with trowels, brushes, and knives, all blackened bits of pottery and burnt bones.
Coming to the bottom of a short flight of steps, the room was relatively well-lit by the flashlights.
He stopped dead upon seeing it.
“Ah. Jeremy. Nephew. I’m not sure if you should be seeing this—”
Jeremy almost lost his breakfast, the sight bad enough but the smell so much worse in the confined space.
It was…it was…
The altar, for surely that’s what it was, was a big flat slab. The rest was carved in the body of a jaguar, its head sticking up incongruously from the left side, turned to face the entrance. The legs had been carefully cut and polished at the bottom end into feet, holes drilled all over it representing the animal’s spots. At one time it might have been painted and some faint vestiges of colour still remained…
Reality sank in and one had to acknowledge it.
There was a dead man up on the altar, flat on his back, chest torn open, exposing blackened flesh and blood. His head was missing, and it was God-awful.
Blood had spilled and fallen on the floor, littered with dead leaves and a layer of silt from the rains pooling up inside before leaking away through the cracks. One corner still held a dank pool, possibly an inch deep of black muck with a little water on top.
The ceiling was low and plain.
The walls were covered with more barbaric carvings, all garish, the sun, stars and heavenly objects, animals, spirits and demons. They were carved in high relief in the native stone which must have been quarried in the highlands above.
Jeremy couldn’t look away. As much as he wanted to—
The head definitely appeared to be missing, although those were surely Mister O’Dell’s rather bronzed and hairy knees, his shorts, his socks and shoes—what was left of the shirt.
Gerald Day cleared his throat.
“Mister O’Dell, one must presume.”
So much for electric eels, then.
“Gentlemen? Doctor Fawcett? What’s happening?” It was still bright, and hot, and sunny out there.
It was a different world out there.
They heard her voice, looking at each other in silent consternation. It sounded like she was climbing up towards the entrance, calling out for some help or reassurance.
His uncle’s face was pale, eyes black and staring in the dim light.
“Jeremy—please, don’t let her see this.”
“Oh, my God. No—no, Uncle Harry.” Tearing his eyes from the horrible sight, Jeremy turned and nipped back up the stairs to head her off before she got there.
He was just stepping out of the door when a whoop went up from below that practically made him jump out of his skin.
The effect that it had on men, himself included, and even the lady, was amazing.
They stared, fixated, Mister Syrmes having dragged a dirty, mildewed knapsack out from under a pile of leaves and dead branches in the far corner. He opened it and dumped it on the ground.
Their faces were dumbfounded—there were bracelets, hoop earrings, necklaces, upper arm bands, chains, loose gems of emerald and ruby, sapphire and nameless others. The most stunning work was a death mask. Parts of it were missing but it was crafted out of gold, brass or copper wire, and dozens of small pieces of jade. The wide, staring eyes and other stylistic features indicated the Jaguar god again.
Unnoticed by the others, and it had proven impossible to keep Melody out of the chamber—her eyes still drawn to her husband as all else ignored her, Mister Syrmes had drawn back. With Kevin Smith leaning in, eyes agleam at all of the loot—no one was really thinking yet, he drew a revolver from inside the rear of his jacket.
He coughed, politely at first, then louder upon being totally ignored.
They turned upon his insistent tone.
“Mister Syrmes. What is the meaning of this?” His uncle’s face was pale, with two red splotches of anger high on his cheekbones.
Smith, staring, found himself confronted with a pistol two inches from the tip of his nose.
“Give me the rifle—very, very slowly, Mister Smith.”
Face bleak, Kevin unslung it and handed it over, held horizontally, muzzle pointing well away from anyone else. An accidental discharge would ricochet any number of times in a stone chamber.
“Yeah. Sure. No problem—what’s up, Mister Syrmes.”
Syrmes lowered the pistol and fired two shots into Kevin Smith’s chest. He fell back, hitting his head hard on the leg of the altar. He lay there, twitching, staring at Syrmes with shock and incomprehension before losing blood pressure and any sort of body control and slumping into immobility.
Syrmes quickly put the rifle over his shoulder before anyone thought to move. He waved the pistol.
“Put the stuff back in the bag—you.” Mrs. O’Dell’s hands were shaking, and she was afraid to turn her back on him.
Syrmes jerked the pistol.
“You. Over in the far corner.”
The men hastened to comply, splashing into the black muck. Outside, native voices chattered but Syrmes appeared unconcerned.
“It’s pretty simple, Doctor. You’ve been had.” Her voice was strong and bitter. “We—we have been had.”
Jeremy tore his eyes from Kevin who had finally stopped moving. There really was such a thing as a death rattle.
“In the corner, boy. I don’t have to leave you alive—” He smiled. “It’s just that I only have so many bullets.”
With the exception of one or two gemstones that might have fallen off the altar and rolled into corners, Melody was done.
Wordlessly, Syrmes beckoned.
At arm’s length she offered the knapsack, but he shook his head.
“No. You carry it.”
“Damn you. I’m not going with you.”
“Yes, you are. Otherwise I will shoot you.”
Not bothering to sling it on her back, heavy as it was with all of that gold, Melody O’Dell stepped disdainfully past Mister Syrmes and began climbing the steep stairs. The heavy bag scraped on the stairs. It was almost more than she could manage.
“Gentlemen. I wish I could tell you what a pleasure it has been.”
“You’ll hang for this, Mister Syrmes.”
Those cold, dead eyes locked on Jeremy’s.
“Actually—I rather doubt that, young man. If you gentlemen come after us, I will kill Mrs. O’Dell without hesitation.” He smiled that death’s head smile. “Put that in your little pipe and smoke it. Boy.”
Backing up the stairs, the light from above dimmed and then brightened. Their voices were right there, and then fading away.
They were gone.
Uncle Harry put a hand on his shoulder.
“Steady, lad. We’ll wait here for a bit—although I’m thinking this might somehow account for what happened to Mister O’Dell.”
Gerald and Jeremy and the Doctor stood there, listening, thinking, trying not to look at the bodies of Mister O’Dell and Mister Smith.
One of them, at least, was still warm.
“What—what do you mean?”
“Syrmes was alone in camp. Mrs. O’Dell was sleeping. We were out in the bush. Syrmes just…took a walk. I suppose we all did at one point or another .It would have been easy enough to catch O’Dell—knock him on the head with a rock. This beheading, is easy enough to fake, if one wasn’t squeamish…he might have killed you as well.” There was a catch in his uncle’s voice.
The heart and the head could have been tossed in the creek, where the flesh would have been quickly stripped off by scavengers. It was all for shock value, according to Uncle Harry.
One big distraction at the psychological moment.
“What are you saying, Doctor Fawcett?” Mister Day was pale, still in shock but in control of his emotions.
Finally, Uncle Harry let out a big breath and looked on the faces of the dead, shaking his head and uttering one or two quiet curses.
“It’s just like the lady said. I’m afraid we’ve been had, er, gentlemen.”
“What—what’s he going to do, Uncle Harry?”
“Hmn. I reckon he’ll grab the cash box. That’s the key to controlling the work party. He’ll strike camp, and head back down the river. With Paolo interpreting, he’ll be able to take as many of the natives as will go along with him, one would think—”
For no particular reason, the ocelot chose that moment to come into the temple. Spotting Jeremy straight away, it headed for him with happy eyes and mouth open.
“Hey, little friend.”
“Oh, Jesus. What, are you back again?” Technically, Mister Day had other things to think about.
“I don’t know, but it’s a nice animal.”
Kneeling, Jeremy buried his face in the thing’s neck as it purred and swiped at his eyes and tried to bite him any which way it could.
“Are we going to get out of this?”
The older men exchanged a long look.
Mister Day spoke first.
“Of course we are, Jeremy.” He snorted. “You’re bloody well right, we are.”
Uncle Harry just nodded, thinking furiously.
They were still a quarter mile from camp when there came the sounds of gunfire.
“Damn. That didn’t take him too long.”
Day shook his head.
“He can’t be shooting them all.”
“We have no idea of what’s happening.”
“Uncle Harry. Maybe we should get off the trail.”
Standing there in thought, Harry sort of sunk into himself. Whatever it was, they had no way of stopping it.
There was nothing to do but wait.
The sound of a boat motor starting up came, the throttle roared after a time and it would seem that they were away.
“Right. Cautiously, lads. Let’s not just go running in there.” No coward, Uncle Harry was just being sensible.
It took a few minutes of walking, hot and sweaty and with the heart pounding. Breath seemed a bit ragged in the throat to Jeremy.
Mrs. O’Dell was standing there waiting for them at the end of the trail.
She waved when she saw them.
“Don’t worry. He’s gone.”
They had struck a couple of the tents.
Some of the food was missing and a good number of their jerry-cans of fresh water.
“Check around and see if he’s left us any weapons—is there anyone else here, Melody?”
“No. He took all the natives with him. And the boy—Paolo.”
“What was the shooting?”
“The boat.” She pointed to the edge of the jungle with the creek and the landing area beyond.
“Of course! The boat. Come along, Jeremy.”
Syrmes had been unable to sink the second boat, although he’d holed it a good dozen times.
There was a foot and a half of water in the back end, less in the front end, tied up and grounded on shore as she was.
“More serious, I think, is the motor—” Syrmes had put a couple of bullets through it, with engine oil leaking down into the water.
His uncle looked up.
“Right. We need some plugs. Make them about two or three inches long. A quarter-inch at the small end. Make them tapered. We’ll stick the small end in the hole, pound it in and then bail her out.”
“Right, Uncle Harry.”
“The motor’s useless, we’re better to take it off.”
Apparently, they weren’t dead yet, although there were only one or two paddles in evidence.
With the axe and a machete, they might be able to do something about that as well.
Gerald Day appeared.
“No guns, a couple of machetes.” He threw them down on the ground. “You were right. The cash box and all the natives are gone.”
“That’s all right. I have a pistol in my tent. It’s under the pillow.”
With a brief grin, Gerald pulled a small automatic pistol out of his own pocket.
“Me, too—I never made a big thing out of it, but the thoughts of being eaten alive don’t exactly agree with me.” He put it away. “Mind you, it’s not much for hunting.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll be out of here in three days.” They had some food, and only four mouths to feed.
They had a boat and a river and probably some hooks and line.
There were roots and shoots, fruits and berries if one knew where to look—
In spite of recent events, Uncle Harry seemed oddly happy as their eyes met.
Weird Uncle Harry—
He gave Jeremy a firm nod.
“Let us hope it is enough.”
It was a big, heavy boat for four people.
Mrs. O’Dell sat in the back, the motor removed and a lashed-up, home-made oar for steering.
Using rope, they had improvised a pair of oar locks up front, with Gerald and Jeremy taking the first shift.
Uncle Harry had decreed that they would all rotate through the positions, and that way no one would have to do more than an hour of rowing in a shift. He managed this by rotating on the half hour, at which time Jeremy took over the rudder and Mrs. O’Dell rested in the prow, with the secondary job of looking for submerged rocks and logs that would hang them up if they rode up on top of them.
The current in the Cuao was sluggish, but it was there, and they seemed to be making fairly good time. The trouble was that the river went on forever…hot and silent once they were out of the actual brush.
They hadn’t heard anything from the other boat. No motor, no gunshots, no voices.
There was a certain logic in taking their time and not accidentally running into Syrmes and his party.
Other than that, Jeremy tried to keep the boat straight up the middle of the channel and follow whatever directions he was given.
He’d gotten Melody to come back to the rear of the boat, and she was bailing out a few buckets of water that had accumulated in the rear of the boat, riding low in the water as compared to the bow. The Evinrude motor, evidence of a kind according to his uncle, was coming along for the ride but lashed down amidships roughly speaking.
“I’m terribly sorry about your husband.”
She chucked a bucket over the side. The plugs would swell after a while, but in the meantime, there was still water coming in.
“Yes. Well.” She looked up and sighed.
She thought about something, coming to a decision.
“I have a gun too, you know. Mister Syrmes might have guessed that, but he didn’t. If we catch him—which we probably won’t…”
“Hmn. All these guns. Honestly. It’s not worth it, Melody. Besides, I’m sort of hoping that we don’t catch him. I hope never to see him again. Kevin was a good bloke. And I’m sure you feel the same way about Mister O’Dell—Peter.” He’d disappeared on Jeremy’s watch, so to speak.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Her face fell.
Oh, I don’t know—this was some kind of a revelation.
She sat on the bench across from him, her mind far away.
“Anyhow, if I get the chance…if I get the chance, I’m going to kill him.”
Her eyes defiantly met his.
It was enough to shrug and keep steering.
Her hair hung down bedraggled. She was as wet and dirty as the rest of them.
They must have come five or six miles by this point. The sun was directly overhead, and sooner or later they had to do something about lunch, or dinner or breakfast or whatever it was.
The air was dense with the humidity, and having slowed down, the biting insects descended in clouds.
They were all at it.
“Well, well, well.”
“I must say, Doctor Fawcett. That man is always thinking—” Mister Day was right.
Syrmes had obviously planned this all out—and he wasn’t taking too many chances.
They hadn’t heard anything. There was this breathless feeling that if not careful, they might stumble onto the other party—in the event of motor troubles, or something like that. Even then, Syrmes had a lot more people to fetch and paddle, so that might have just been nervousness.
They’d also seen what he could do.
A huge tree had been felled, at a point just before the Cuao widened out into a broader stream.
The trunk had to be five feet thick. On the right bank, there was a bit of space underneath, but not enough to get their boat through. On the left side, a large number of hefty limbs poked up from glassy black water, still green with leaves.
By Uncle Harry’s estimation, halfway through the third day, they were less than fourteen miles from Buena Vista. It was possible that Syrmes had been doing some thinking about the second boat. Even if he’d chopped a bigger hole in it, surely he must have foreseen the possibility of repair.
He was just being thorough.
It wouldn’t take too long before his victims would either start paddling, or start walking.
“The thing is, he’s got a lot more people than us. I doubt if it took two, maybe three hours for them.” Up on the right bank, the white top of the stump and the scattered chips told their own story.
As their resident axe expert, Jeremy spoke up.
“There’s just no way to cut the trunk, not with half of it underwater like that. That’s like pounding sand. As for the other end, God. I think that might take a day or two, even with all of us taking turns.” For much of the work, they’d be standing on the boat.
Clambering around on the branches was fraught with peril. Sooner or later, you were going to fall off in the middle of a good swing. If nothing else, they’d lose their only axe.
With just the four of them, there was no way they could ever drag and lift the boat over it. The thoughts of sinking the boat and trying to work it under in five feet of water weren’t very appealing. They were all agreed on that. The trunk was a good six feet thick at the base…they’d picked the perfect tree and the perfect place to do it.
The right bank was steep, albeit only about three or four feet high. The bank on the other side was lost in mangroves and other swamp trees and the right side looked like a better bet.
“What do we do now, Professor?” Melody sat patiently in the back of the boat, although the rudder was useless at this point.
Drifting still, oars shipped, the bow hit the log with a soft thump. Mister Day began fending her off, holding onto the bark, taking the nose of the boat over to the right so that they could get out and have a better look.
Fourteen miles—fourteen long miles, overland, on an equatorial flood-plain and with thunderstorms hovering all along the western horizon. Assuming their map was relatively accurate. Assuming his guesses were accurate.
Uncle Harry was in the bow as it pushed low branches out the way, finally hanging up a few feet from shore.
“Right. How in the hell am I going to get up there.”
“Hold on, Uncle.” Going to the back of the boat, Jeremy found a spare piece of rope.
Mrs. O’Dell and Mister Day clutched at the bark with their fingers.
“Okay, hang on.”
Carefully climbing up and onto the dead tree, Jeremy walked up the gentle slope, grateful for the rough bark and the sheer size of the thing. He dropped lightly down to the ground when he came to land.
He swung the end of the rope out to Uncle Harry and then fed out some more.
They had a good grip.
“Right. Heave, ho, Mister Day.”
They were extremely fortunate to find the trace of an old trail, and within a hundred yards there were signs of habitation, overgrown clearings, rotting shacks and bits of modern trash including empty tins and bottles scattered around old and cold fire rings.
The trail got better as they went along.
Half a mile after that, they came to the first encampment.
There was an old man, a middle-aged couple, a couple of younger adults and a gaggle of children wearing shirts, boys and girls alike, but nothing else. Only the males had shorts, and the old woman, old before her time perhaps, a proper if rather shapeless dress. They were all barefoot and utterly fascinated by their visitors.
Unfortunately, none of them spoke the language although Uncle Harry knew a handful of words, having picked it up by sheer osmosis. The most important word was boat, and the second most important word was money—good pay for a short paddle to Buena Vista, a name they obviously recognized. The trouble was that they didn’t have much money on them, but there was a bank in town—a very small one, but a bank nevertheless.
Every coin that they had was given up, with Mrs. O’Dell digging around in the bottom her purse.
Right about then the ocelot came racing up out of the bushes. There was quite the free-for-all, with half a dozen people trying to help Jeremy catch the beast, one or two young men running to get their spears and one or two of the women screaming.
With some urging from the old man, who was remaining behind, the people eventually dragged their biggest canoe, a hollowed-out log, down into the water. A few minutes later, they were moving down the river again.
Uncle Harry had his concerns.
“I wonder how far ahead of us he is.”
There was only one way to find out.
The cat was all over the place, and that was just one more complication.
When they got to the docks at Buena Vista, Senior Hernandez, Paolo and Paloma were gone.
Luckily, Uncle Harry’s Spanish was better than his native language skills. With their new native friends trooping along, he headed up the main street from the dock. The bank was just up the road, and hopefully he could convince them to take a cheque. The other three waited on benches just outside the door and under the wide veranda. Directly across the street was a cantina, and the smell of home-cooked food was enough to drive one mad.
Jeremy struggled to keep control of the animal.
What in the blazes was he supposed to do with the poor thing? The cat was totally smitten.
Uncle Harry came out and began distributing silver coins to the natives. When they seemed satisfied, he stopped. They turned away, chattering, heading to the river and the market square where they would no doubt pick up a few things and then go home.
“What’s next? The police station?” Jeremy stood, eyeing his uncle and wondering how to bring up the subject of lunch. “For crying out loud, Ozzie.”
Another scratch, more blood. One had to wonder just how much was left in him—
“I’m afraid there’s not much point in that.”
Gerald Day had been sitting with his head hanging, wrung right out by the last couple of days.
His head came up.
“And why is that, Doctor?”
“Because I have it on pretty good authority, that Mister Syrmes is dead.”
“What?” They all spoke at once.
Uncle Harry nodded towards the place across the street.
“Let’s have some lunch. Oh, the cashbox is gone—and our native friends have melted back into the bush.”
They wouldn’t come out again until they were ready, and the truth was, they all looked the same anyways.
According to Uncle Harry, with Señor Hernandez not knowing just how long they would be gone, he had seized the opportunity to make a quick cargo run a little further upriver. Syrmes would have missed the boat anyways. In which case he would have probably just stolen another small boat and run for it.
That had always been the weakness of Syrmes’ plan, he said. Once you get the gold, how in the hell would you ever get away with it…it was a quiet and subdued little group listening to that sort of news.
Damn that cat.
“The other odd thing. I don’t know where all that treasure came from, but it wasn’t from our temple.” That was a mystery only Syrmes could have solved, according to Harry, and he wasn’t around to answer questions. “I would love to see where he got that from. It must have been an extraordinary discovery.”
Jeremy wasn’t all that familiar with the food, but after letting Uncle Harry order for him it turned out to be good old grilled steak, with a genuine baked potato and some over-boiled mixed vegetables, probably from a tin but at this point he didn’t much care. Up until now, Jeremy had never really thought of learning Spanish.
Hot rolls and real butter…God.
The first bite was heavenly…they had all been sort of reconciling themselves to the smell. It took a very short time back in civilization. Their hostess, perhaps knowing something about them in such a small town, hadn’t said anything, but they were going to need a bath as soon as they could get it. The pong was mostly wood smoke, mixed in with stagnant water, filthy organic muck and human sweat.
Lots and lots of sweat.
Mister Day looked up from his first cold pint in many days.
“So. What happened? What have you heard.”
For surely Uncle Harry was just bursting with the news.
“Did they cash your cheque, Uncle Harry?”
“Ah, no. They didn’t, Jeremy. But Mister Cezar, in light of the circumstances, was kind enough to advance me some money. We’ve done business before, and he will wire an inquiry to the bank in Caracas. As you may recall, I went even further up the big river, ah, four years ago. In the meantime, we’re not going anywhere. No steamers due for another couple of days.” It was late in the day, telegraph and telephone lines were always uncertain, and such inquiries often took a while.
“What do we do in the meantime?”
“Eat your steak, Jeremy. It’s getting cold. Hmn. In the meantime, we could sleep in the tents—”
“Professor. What happened to Mister Syrmes?”
She’d been silent so far, face low over the plate and seemingly unengaged after their lucky escape from the jungle.
“Ah, yes. About that. Well. Let’s wait for our coffee and then I shall tell you.”
They were running out of patience as Harry stirred his coffee maddeningly, and at length. Lighting up the one cigar he allowed himself on any given day, he puffed at the blue smoke contentedly.
“So. Here’s how it went. They were having trouble with the motor. According to Mister Cezar, who seems to know everything in this place, it was a simple fuel leak. Rather than stop and try and fix it, Mister Syrmes was out of control, yelling and shouting. The natives were just trying to please him, which is their way. No skin off their noses, right? They kept pouring fuel into it, and kept going as fast as they could. Bear in mind, Syrmes was alone, with a good eighty pounds of some of the finest and most valuable artifacts, certainly, that I’ve ever seen. He must have gone slightly mad. He was probably afraid of them to some extent, although I’ve never had a lick of trouble. Foaming at the mouth, actually, which is no way to deal with the local people. He told Paolo to get the boat downstream any way he could, leaving the pay-box and showing them that he wasn’t just deserting them.”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute—”
“I’m getting to it. He was holding a gun on them by this point. Just mad. Insane, really. He made them run the boat up on the beach—just the odd, narrow little strand, which we did see along that stretch.”
It must have been right close to town, or he never should have attempted it.
“And then?” Jeremy prodded further.
“And then, according to the natives, the biggest snake they’d seen in some time, came up out of the water and grabbed him before he even saw it. They say they were all yelling and screaming and trying to warn him, but of course he was too wrought up to even listen. According to them, he’s dead. Just dead.”
“And—and the gold?” Mister Day was aghast. “The artifacts?”
“Swallowed. He was wearing the backpack. The snake had wrapped itself around him. His arms were pinned. There was nothing anyone could do—” Syrmes had tried to break free, but it was all to no avail.
Once he’d blacked out due to constriction, it was game over.
Uncle Harry was staring at Melody O’Dell, silent so far and with her head down.
“And so he’s gone. However, we have made a major discovery. As I believe I said earlier, our temple may very well be part of a larger complex. There may be tombs, other buildings and game-courts. There may be official and ceremonial buildings of all sorts, although the homes of the common people have probably left little trace.” He studied the tip of his cigar. “Anyways, that’s just the way it is—”
In Harry’s words, Mister Syrmes had gotten exactly what he deserved, a bag of gold and then eaten by his own kind. As for himself, this was the dream, and the opportunity, of a lifetime.
They were still alive, and still together.
There were always going to be setbacks. A bit of sensational publicity couldn’t hurt the book sales, either.
His fellow members, the boys at the Explorer’s Club were just going to eat this right up.
They were lucky enough not to have to sleep in the tents, on the riverbank, scrounging for meals and begging for scraps.
With Uncle’s credit quickly established, a stroke of luck there, (in his words), they had installed themselves on the second floor of a relatively clean little place a couple of blocks back from the water. The cat came and went by night, leaping from the balcony into unknown peregrinations. There were plenty of low rooftops and shade trees right across the alley.
After sleeping in the jungle, always waking up before dawn, Jeremy was enjoying a nice lie-in, in that dreamy fog-state that comes just before true consciousness.
…that cat really grew on you…he couldn’t really deny that…snork.
A pounding at the door had his heart racing, and he sat bolt upright in bed as excited voices called out for Doctor Harry.
“Doctor Harry! Doctor Harry!”
Throwing aside the mosquito netting, wearing nothing but his boxer-shorts, he opened the door to see a dozen natives of all shapes, sizes and ages.
“Doctor Harry! Doctor Harry!”
“Just down the hall—”
Of course they didn’t understand.
His uncle’s door was already open and the man himself came striding out, tying the belt on his dressing gown, bare feet incongruously pale compared to the sunburned face and neck, and all veined in blue.
All of them were talking at once.
“Serpiente serpiente,” and gesticulating wildly.
Luckily, at least one of them spoke a little more Spanish than just that. They also knew he had money—
His uncle turned to Jeremy, as Mister Day and Melody O’Dell came out of their rooms in various states of sleeping attire.
“Get dressed. We’re going to see a snake. A really, really big one.”
“Whoa.” What else could you say, really.
The sun wasn’t even up yet.
A small procession, natives, Europeans, and a local white man who was said to know the local native language pretty well, went down to the river and boarded a trio of long, out-rigged canoes. They proceeded to paddle up the river, each of them with their own thoughts and their own hopes and fears.
A mile or two upriver, on the left bank, appeared one of the ubiquitous encampments. More naked and half-dressed children clustered on the riverbank. The headman appeared, along with a half a dozen young men, a couple of them armed with rusting old shotguns, and most of them with machetes. A couple of the younger boys had skinny little spears, bent as usual. The spears were meant for poking rather than throwing, was the basic conclusion.
The headman smiled a gap-toothed smile, looking distinctly odd in a set of steel-rimmed glasses. He waved happily, sensing reward possibly, or just some good old-fashioned entertainment. The boats rammed ashore and willing hands steadied them, young men coming into the shallows to assist the lady and the doctor. Uncle Harry strode up the bank, with the interpreter in tow.
“Right. Now, where’s this bloody snake?”
“This way, Señor.”
The younger ones were running and the sounds of a crowd came from up ahead.
Bloated with its recent meal, the snake was huge—with a telltale bulge right in the midsection. It was difficult to tell how big it was.
It was a jaw-dropping sight. Someone had had some foresight. They’d grabbed a rope and somehow gotten a loop over its head, tied tightly to the nearest big tree. That must have taken some real guts. Confused, choking, eventually exhausted and unable to escape, the animal had curled up in a mass of angry toils at the base of the tree.
“Oh, that poor thing.” Melody had her hands up over her mouth as Mister Day strode forward, gun-hand extended.
She screamed when he began firing and the rest of the people were going mad. Why they hadn’t already killed it was a good question—
Day fired seven times, how many times he might have hit it was an unknown as the thing began to twist, and thrash, and all of a sudden it was coming at him and he backed up quickly.
Mister Day stood there gaping.
The snake came to the end of its rope and his uncle fired, a careful shot that hit under the chin and spurted blood from the top of the skull but the thing was not easily killed. The children were hustled back by parents and older siblings, away from the thrashing tail, sweeping through great arcs in its rage and its agony.
Jeremy had no doubt that animals could feel pain, and yet he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the unforgettable sight.
This was truly sickening. Surely the snake hadn’t done anything wrong—
“All right. Stand back.” The snake was quieter now, with blood bubbling from its mouth and nostrils.
His uncle fired again, aiming apparently for the point where the head met the first vertebra in the neck.
The dying animal jerked, and quivered and gasped loudly in the stillness of the midday heat.
Harry fired again, and again, and again…click, click.
It was over, finally. There were no more bullets.
“Right. I’m going to need a really big knife.”
Jeremy hardly recognized Uncle Harry in that moment.
He’d been spattered by a fine spray of hot wet blood, but was seemingly oblivious to it. Mister Day as well. For all they knew, that big lump in the animal’s belly might just as well be some anonymous deer, another big snake or a wild pig.
There was only one way to find out.
“Here, let me do it. I owe you that much, anyways.” Mister Day extended a hand, and after a look, Uncle Harry gave him the big hunting knife their interpreter had whistled up from the proud papa of a dozen children between zero and twelve years of age…all lined up in a row, watching with eyes wide, half of them sucking their thumbs too.
Not afraid of a little blood, willing hands pulled and tugged, and the dead snake was stretched out straight upon the ground.
“Roll it over.”
The gentleman translated and the people argued amongst themselves and finally agreed on right to left. Someone cut the rope. They rolled it over on its back. The spinal bones would otherwise be in the way, and all he had was one small blade.
Dropping to his knees, his upper legs almost too short to reach the ground while astride the belly of the monster, Mister Day took a deep breath and decided exactly where to put the knife in. The snake had to be thirty feet long, and a good two feet in diameter at the bulge.
Fresh rivers of blood spurted. The snake was clearly dead as there was no reaction to the first cut. People steadied it, as he pulled again.
Sliding back, trying to gauge the thickest section of snake, Mister Day kept pulling. He got about five feet, and then took a little rest. He wiped his forehead with the back of his left hand.
Taking the handle in both hands again, he kept going.
There was nothing more they could do to hurt Mister Syrmes now, and recovering his body if possible was, arguably, the right thing to do no matter what sort of condition he was in.
The butt of the rifle stuck out on the one end. That was something…
Looking like nothing more than a big hairball, whatever it was, it had been successfully removed from the belly of the serpent. The natives, delighted with their conquest, for surely they must hate and fear the great animals, were dragging it away. According to the translator they would skin it and then cook it up. People for miles around would be eating snake meat tonight.
Mister Day was looking a bit green. His crotch and legs were dark with blood. His Uncle looked around, finally settling on Jeremy.
“Where’s Mrs. O’Dell?”
“About halfway back to Buena Vista, by this time. She’ll be all right. She’s got a gun in her purse.”
Harry gave a little snort.
“We need a good stick or two.” The snake had had a day or two to digest, and there were other things in there too—what was clearly turning into a slimy brown lump below Mister Syrmes, assuming it were really him, and what must have been a big bird, perhaps a heron or pelican, a stork or something above Syrmes.
The snake must have gotten a little peckish—as Day had put it. While they might go a long time between meals, they were opportunistic feeders. They poked around and finally exposed a face, one eyeball staring accusingly out at them. The hydrochloric acid had been at it, and it was a sight.
It was Syrmes, all right.
There was also the hint of a khaki strap under a mess of half-dissolved feathers and hair and one or two other nameless things besides.
Hooking a stout stick under the strap, stomach heaving but mostly under control, Jeremy put his boot down on the soggy mass and began pulling and twisting and working it back and forth.
It was all there. It was heavy too. The knapsack appeared to be intact, for the most part, and still sealed with its leather straps and brass buckles.
The smell caught at the back of Jeremy’s throat and he had to turn away.
“Is she really gone, then?” Uncle Harry seemed quite put out.
He’d wanted her to see this—
“Here, lad. Take a break.” Mister Day took over the better stick, poking the knife in and pushing and pulling assorted bits, bone, flesh and hair, out of the way.
He dry-retched a couple of times, very contagious that was, too, and then went on.
“Not a very nice way to go, it is?” Mister Mateo had a bit of morbid curiosity in him, that and the fact that he would like to be paid at some point.
This was all terribly fascinating of course, and now he would have a real story to tell.
“No. It isn’t.”
Day cleared his throat.
“He would have quickly lost consciousness. One would hope.” He grunted. “Bastard that he was…”
Mister Day had the knapsack free, for the most part clear of other…things.
“We’ll bury him right here—perhaps we could ask the natives for a shovel.” Uncle Harry proffered coins. “Oh, yes. And a bucket or two of water.”
Señor Mateo spoked in excited tones and a bunch of them ran off.
It didn’t take very long before they were back, some of them with shovels and some of them with nothing more than primitive digging sticks. They opened a hole in the soft ground in pretty short order, and then Jeremy and Mister Day, using borrowed shovels, tipped and rolled what was left of Mister Syrmes into the hole.
Rifle and all.
Some sort of words would seem to be in order, and so they all turned to Uncle Harry.
He took off his hat, the horrible-smelling knapsack at his feet.
“Most of us, good or evil, don’t really get what we deserve in this life. However, in this particular case, one William Syrmes, formerly of Shrewsbury, and now a permanent resident of Venezuela, would appear to be an exception. Ah. Er. Argh. God damn your soul to everlasting hellfire, Mister Syrmes.” He raised his head and nodded at their cheerful helpers, fascinated by everything they did. “May you rot in hell, sir.”
Mateo laughed, delighted, translating to an eager crowd.
They shoveled in dirt and Uncle Harry began distributing small coins to anyone that would take them, although one or two still seemed pretty shy.
One could hardly blame them for that.
Mrs. O’Dell had somehow persuaded someone to paddle her home, but then a few coins and a white face went a long way in this country.
When they arrived back at Buena Vista, the first place they went was the bank. This time Mister Day and Jeremy went in rather than waiting out front. The manager, Señor Cezar, looked askance at the smelly knapsack, but when ushered into his private office, after a quick look at one or two of the smaller, more accessible pieces, he was utterly convinced.
“Yes, well. For one thing, it needs to be thoroughly cleaned, and properly documented. But for temporary safekeeping, we would like to rent your largest safety-deposit box. I’m assuming you have such a thing?” There was just no way they could ever sleep at the hotel, not with this along.
Their find might be worth a hundred thousand pounds, maybe even more.
Cezar paled when he heard that.
“I can let you have as many smaller boxes as you need. I don’t think we have one that big.”
…Mister Day had his camera hanging around his neck.
“The other thing, sir. Ah. Do you have a staff room? We’d like to separate some of this out and give it a quick rinse.”
“Si. I mean yes. Absolutely.”
Wrinkling his nose in disgust, Señor Cezar, who seemed a pretty easy-going chap, got up and led them down a back hall.
“Ah, and what about Mister O’Dell, Mister Smith…and all that sort of thing, gentlemen?”
“That, I think, is a job for the police. Seriously, there was just no way. We were never going to carry two bodies, not with poor Mrs. O’Dell aboard and a fairly small boat.”
Cezar nodded his comprehension.
“But of course. Anyways, you are welcome to our facilities—and, ah, please, let me know so that we can clean up when you are done.”
Their next stop was the hotel.
As soon as she heard them clomping down the hall on their floor, the door to her room popped open.
“Yes, Mrs. O’Dell?”
“There’s something we need to talk about…all of us. You too, Mister Day.”
Day didn’t look too pleased at that.
“Are you sure this is necessary, Mrs. O’Dell?”
“Yes, it is, Gerald.”
“I’m just going to check on Ozzie. I’ll be right along, Uncle.”
The cat was sleeping on his bed, which was a nice warm feeling, although he had no idea of what the cleaning staff thought of it. Probably not much, he decided.
Hers was a big, comfortable room. Jeremy had brought in a couple of more chairs from his own and the doctor’s rooms.
“So, Melody. What’s this all about.”
“Doctor, do you remember your lecture to the Explorer’s Club meeting last November?”
“Ah, yes, I do.” It was an open meeting, with several notable speakers and the general public in attendance.
“Mister Syrmes was there that night. There was no way you would ever recognize him, because he was heavily bearded. He had different glasses back then and long hair. He saw the potential straight away, of course. Luckily, he had references and you took him on.”
“Melody, please don’t do this—” Day bit off any further comment.
He’d already gone too far, and yet there was nowhere to run.
Uncle Harry was very calm.
He gave a discomfited Gerald Day a long look.
“What are you trying to tell us, Melody.”
“Shut up, Mister Day. This is all going to come out, Mister Day. Gerald.” She glared at him. “Think about it, you fool—all that press coverage. Doctor Fawcett is going to be the man of the day. His description of the treasure will no doubt ring many bells. That was before you recovered it, even. Now there will be pictures in the newspapers. Lots and lots of pictures, Gerald. And anyone around him will be subject to great scrutiny.”
“I swear to God, I have no idea of what she’s talking about—” Face flaming, he was getting up to leave.
“Shut up and sit down, Mister Day.”
From out of nowhere, Melody had a gun on him.
Not quite knowing what was going on, Jeremy also stood. He went to get between Gerald Day and the door.
Day slowly sank back into his seat.
“It was all a set-up, Doctor.”
Day sighed deeply.
“Is this true, Gerald?”
He shrugged, unable to meet the doctor’s eyes. His pistol was empty, there was nowhere to run—
“Oh, to hell with it, Gerald. He would have figured it out soon enough. Did you really think you could stick with the doctor now? All that gold—it’s stuck in your mind and you can’t get it out of there, can you?”
Finally he looked up.
“I’m sorry, Doctor Fawcett. We had no idea of what Mister Syrmes was like. Or what he intended to do.”
Melody ground onwards.
“Let’s just say he double-crossed us—all of us. I suppose you could say some of us deserved it. Some of us maybe should have seen it coming. But it would have inevitably come out, Gerald. Doctor Fawcett. There never was a Peter O’Dell, millionaire, from Newport, Rhode Island. There never was a Melody O’Dell, there never was a William Syrmes—or a Gerald Day. It’s easy enough to see—now, at last, that we were never going to get away with it.”
Jeremy stood, transfixed. His uncle’s face was a study. That was one thing for sure.
There was a long silence, and then Uncle Harry said it again.
Jeremy cleared his throat.
“And—and you were all in it?”
“Mister Smith was genuine. He was also extremely thorough. A very tough young man. That’s probably why Mister Syrmes shot him. I don’t even know the bastard’s real name, he came to us and put the proposal to us. We were, er, working certain clients in London at the time, but this one sounded special. He had to have the…the right kind of people.” Her voice broke, realizing perhaps just what kind of people that meant. “He told us that he needed to get as many people as possible in the party, the sort of people that he could count on…”
Criminals—real, proper criminals, just like the kind you read about in the paper, thought Jeremy. Her and O’Dell were con artists, is what he thought she was saying—or trying to say it, anyways. They had pooled their resources, and invested heavily into an operation that had gone badly wrong.
He and his uncle were lucky to be alive, on sober reflection. She didn’t actually say that—
“Is there more?”
There was nothing but silence, punctuated by the sound of the birds on the other side of those billowing curtains…
“Were you planning to kill us?”
She shook her head, the tears finally flowing.
Mister Day cleared his throat.
“No, sir. We were going to grab the gems, tie you up, and steal the boat—everything Mister Syrmes did, basically. You would have eventually gotten out.” His face was bleak. “And she’s right. We were going to get caught.”
He shook his head at his own stupidity.
They’d been thoroughly used.
Uncle Harry sought out Jeremy.
Heaving a deep sigh, Uncle Harry asked one final, perhaps rhetorical question.
“What, in the hell, are we going to do now?”
“Beats me, Uncle Harry.”
“Where did the artifacts come from?”
Day, perhaps realizing cooperation was his only hope, answered for the two of them even as Melody put the gun down on the table.
“Syrmes had stolen them years before. He worked at a big museum in Caracas. He’s very convincing, and he weaseled his way in somehow. Think of all the English-speaking tourists they get. Anyways. He grabbed as much as he could carry, and booked out. He was on the run, and he had no choice but to find safe keeping for them. Those artifacts are pretty well-known. Someone will recognize them. I don’t know what the real crime was, originally, back in England. Probably murder, knowing him. His whole life was like that. But then, he was fortunate to get back home with a new name and a new face. And after all that time, four years later, he runs into you and your little talk at the Explorer’s Club. You can imagine how it hit him—now is my chance to go back. Now is my chance to recover the jewels. Now is my chance to be rich…” He’d been dreaming about it forever, but he didn’t have the resources.
He sighed deeply.
“And that, Doctor Fawcett, is basically the whole story.”
The big question, and it was odd to hear Mister Day say it, but what were they going to do with us two, as he put it.
And as Uncle Harry said, that was one very good question.
“What an extraordinary tale.” They were back in school.
The nights were getting longer, dull, drab routine was settling in, and his good friend and colleague Richard Hamble was astounded.
Possibly even unbelieving. Jeremy had been sort of holding him off, and at the same time savouring his knowledge, perhaps even his new powers. They’d finally gotten together in Hamble’s digs, his room-mate temporarily off in the study hall.
“Yes. The funny thing is, that it’s already sort of fading into history.”
“Would you ever go back?”
“I go back next summer. By then, they should have quite the camp set up, with shacks for the workmen, a proper cookhouse, maybe even a bathhouse, everything they need to properly survey and excavate a major archaeological discovery.”
Mister O’Dell’s and Mister Smith’s bodies had been recovered, receiving a far more Christian burial than that provided for Mister Syrmes. With no known next of kin, they would get small, plain white headstones in the local cemetery and that was about it. The whole thing had cost about twenty pounds, at least according to Uncle Harry.
Hamble had cut their obituaries out of the Times and proudly presented them to Jeremy.
“I find it hard to believe that your uncle would be fool enough to hire Mister Day.”
Jeremy shrugged, reaching for a macaroon, mug of cold milk all ready for the dipping.
“Yes. Well, he wasn’t such a bad chap. He really is qualified, and he was on the spot. There are not too many educated Englishmen around, and it’s possible that they understand each other a little better now. Gerald…seemed pretty grateful and he knows he’s sort of on probation. He’s learned one hell of a lesson, when you think about it.” As Jeremy had as well, many lessons, some of which would never be forgotten.
Some of which might take a while to sink in, as he put it…
“I refuse to believe that your uncle has taken up with this O’Dell woman. And what are they going to put in this alleged book that he’s writing?”
Jeremy grinned, and then sighed.
“Melody is a very beautiful woman. She’s smart, she’s tough, and she’s also very independent minded.”
“Yes. But how can he ever trust her?”
“I don’t know, Hamble. Maybe he’ll have her watching Gerald. And he’ll have Gerald watching her. The gold’s been returned to the museum, and he got a pretty big reward. He was smart enough to get them to sign an agreement before ever leaving London. Harry ain’t exactly stupid, when you get right down to it. That money’s sitting in the bank, so they have to play pretty straight with him. But there is such a thing as love, and I have this insane idea that they might actually make a pretty good marriage out of it.”
“Marriage?” Hamble shook his head. “Unbelievable.”
“Yes. Incidentally, if you’re looking for something to do next summer, you might just want to consider coming out. It’s only a couple of months, really. A chance to travel. You can shoot and everything, right, you’re a big strong boy, and there’s going to have to be guards. Otherwise all kinds of poachers and grave robbers will be in there…” There was some safety in sheer numbers. “You might have to do a little work, of course.”
Lots and lots of guns.
“And what about the bloody cat—Ozzie, or whatever?”
“Ah, yes. Mister Day has promised to look after her—it’s a girl, actually. The thing comes and goes, that’s for sure. But there’s no way I could ever bring it home.” It was probably the wrong thing to do and he couldn’t see how it could ever work out.
Certainly, back home in Norfolk, there was no real place for it.
It was a sad admission, but probably true.
Hamble sat there, mouth open, eyes unfocused.
Then he came around, rather quickly, intelligent brown eyes noting again, his tanned and rather daunting friend. Jeremy had filled out, over the summer, and he’d grown an inch or two as well. His voice was deeper and he had this impressive way of thinking a second before he spoke.
He had an air of manly confidence. The boy he’d once been was now someone else, someone truly different. Hamble had always been the lead hand with their little crew and now suddenly something had changed…interesting.
Excavating the Temple of the Jaguar God?
For money, and everything.
“Right. Right!” Hamble grinned fiendishly, sitting up straighter. “Yes—that might do rather nicely. Do you really mean that? Is that what…er, is that what your Uncle Harry is really saying?”
Jeremy nodded firmly.
“Yup. You know how he loves the Rugby spirit…the right sort of man. A gentleman can do anything, all that sort of thing.”
Hamble choked at little on what was either a laugh or a question.
Jeremy tipped his head to one side, taking a minute and having a thought.
Why not indeed.
Hamble was a bloody good fellow.
The best friend he’d ever had, and just when he’d needed a friend the most—
Hamble had stood up for him, which was something unusual in Jeremy’s experience…
“I am, in fact, authorized to offer one or two positions to the right sort of person. And I reckon we’re always looking for talent, Hamble.”
That one sort of straightened the bugger up, didn’t it?
About Zach Neal
Zach Neal has been writing ever since he can remember. A forestry management professional, he prefers the outdoors to the office. He lives in the Halton Hills overlooking the Greater Toronto Area. He studied at the University of Toronto. Zach’s a single father of two healthy and energetic children. Zach’s boys, Aaron and Jason, mean everything to him.