TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
“THIS is a new kind of scientific expedition,” Bud Barclay remarked with a grin, “bringing pygmies out of the Yucatan jungle!”
“A bit different from our space cruises,” Tom Swift agreed with a chuckle. “Bud, these small men are not pygmies; just the shortest of their particular tribe of Mayan Indians. Doctors hope to learn a lot by studying them. For one thing, their pulse rate is twenty points lower than ours.”
“And speaking as one of those doctors,” added Doc Simpson, “we overpriced medical types are also interested in finding out how they manage to live to be over a hundred, on the average. After all, if the secret gets around, people might not need us any more. I might have to go back to school!”
The famous blond-haired inventor was piloting his equally famous Flying Lab high above the rugged Mexican highlands, accompanied by a small crew of friends from Swift Enterprises in Shopton, New York. Bud, his best pal and copilot, sat beside him. The two youths gazed out the big, downsloping viewpane with eagerness as the eastern mountains that hedged the great central plateau of Mexico gave way to the coastal plain. The skyship had left Mexico City only minutes before, streaking almost due east at supersonic speed.
A fourth man stood behind Tom and Bud next to young Doc Simpson, who was the chief physician at Enterprises as well as a researcher in the field of medicine. Chow Winkler, big in all directions and well-seasoned by the Texas sun, suddenly said, “Bet my last grain o’ cayenne pepper those pygmies won’t come!” A born skeptic, he nudged his ten-gallon hat forward toward the bridge of his nose. The chunky, bald-headed man served as chef for the Swifts’ various expeditions.
Chow squinted out the plane window and shook his head worriedly. “We’ll prob’ly end up with arrows in our backs!” he prophesied.
“You’re prob’ly right,” Doc nodded; “especially if you keep calling them pygmies!”
“The rest of us needn’t worry about filling their dinner pots.” Bud winked at Tom. “One look at a nice plump specimen like you, Chow, and they’ll toss us back on the shelf!”
“Y-y-you mean th-these Injuns we’re lookin’ for are cannibals?” The grizzled cook turned pale deep in the creases of his prairie tan. “Brand my sagebrush stew, I should’ve stayed on home grounds back at Enterprises.” Chow made his headquarters at the Swifts’ huge, ultramodern experimental station. It was here that Tom and his father developed their revolutionary inventions.
“Relax, pardner.” Tom soothed the Texan with a smile. “Flyboy here is pulling your leg again. The Mayas are really a very fine and peaceful people.”
“They ain’t savages?” Chow gulped.
“Far from it. They’re full-blooded descendants of the ancient peoples who ruled here before Columbus and built great temples.”
“And practiced human sacrifice,” Bud added with an ominous chuckle.
“Not any more, of course,” Tom said.
“So they’s contented, happy people nowadays, hmm?” asked Chow with a baleful look at Bud.
“Well,” Tom replied, “I guess it depends whom you ask. But we can rule out ritual sacrifice.”
Bud continued his affectionate teasing. “The Mayas may be peaceful now, but there are still plenty of jaguars around in the Yucatan jungle. Those big spotted cats can really be mean when they’re cornered.”
Chow grinned feebly. “Wa-aal, I’ll stay in my corner if those cats’ll stay in theirs! Say, how long you figure on bein’ in that jungle, Tom?”
“Not longer than a few days, Chow. Doc expects to identify his subject-group quickly. As for me, I just plan to make some field tests of the new camera, then head back to Enterprises. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try out the retroscope on some real ruins that have been weathered by centuries of exposure.” Tom had been developing a television-type electronic camera which he hoped to use in restoring, photographically, ancient writing and carving for study by archaeologists.
After winging across the blue waters of the Bahia de Campeche, the three-decker super-jet Sky Queen flew on across the lush green Yucatan Peninsula. Tom now consulted a video-display map to find the tiny Mayan village where they were to pick up the five natives. In keeping with Doc Simpson’s grant from Grandyke University, he was to locate his subjects among the ever-shrinking population of Maya descendents who had largely retained their traditional ways and culture. An ethnographer from the University of Mexico, Professor Castillez, had directed him to the tribal village he had been studying, named Huratlcuyon. He was to meet the Shopton team there.
“Where can we land, anyway?” Bud asked, worried. The terrain below was a dense green mass of tropical rain forest, with the shore of the Caribbean Sea visible off to the southeast. There appeared to be no spot to set down.
“Strange,” muttered Tom. “We’re approaching the coordinates where the work crew from Polyuc was supposed to clear a landing spot for us.” Polyuc was the only sizable town near their destination; even so, it was a good fifty miles distant, with only winding unpaved roads threading together the various small settlements that dotted the jungle.
Simpson frowned with concern. “Our contacts in Mexico City confirmed that the field had been cleared and finished as of last Wednesday.”
Tom looked up and combined his shrug with a grin of reassurance. “Don’t worry, Doc. Even if we can’t land the Queen right off, we’ll work something out.”
“Looks as if you’ll have to use your new plane,” Bud told Tom.
“Say, boss, that’s right!” enthused Chow. “A few of us can use that there blimp t’get down on the ground, jest like ole Columbus used his little dinghy-boats t’go ashore from his big ships.”
He was referring to another of Tom’s amazing new inventions, which he had brought along in the Sky Queen’s hangar-hold. This tiny plane was part jet and part dirigible. After the dirigible’s bag was filled with helium, so the plane could float without power, the bag could then be slowly deflated to bring the ship gently to earth. As Tom hoped to perfect the inflatable balloon-bag apparatus to a point where it could become standard equipment for small aircraft, making disastrous, fatal air crashes a thing of the past, Bud Barclay had nicknamed the craft a “parachute plane,” instantly shortened to paraplane by Tom and his crew. It was his first test model that was now in the hold, previously stowed in the Sky Queen in preparation for testing upon the return to Shopton.
“You’re right, Bud, Chow.” Tom turned back and spoke over the cabin microphone to Slim Davis. “Report to the flight compartment!” He then changed frequencies and called Professor Castillez on the ground.
“We can see you, Tom,” radioed the ethnologist. “You’re about two miles west of north.”
“I’m amazed we can’t see you, Professor.”
“Ah, blame the jungle for that!” was the wry response. “And of course Huratlcuyon is very small, and blends in very well with the landscape. But we will see each other shortly, at any rate.”
Despite the difficulty it took only a minute more to sight the village far below—a cluster of about fifteen oblong huts, green and brown in color. Cutting the main engines, Tom fed power to the jet lifters to hold the ship steady in its present position, hovering at 3100 feet. Slim, a veteran Enterprises pilot and a good friend of Tom and Bud, entered the compartment a moment later.
“What’s up, Skipper? We almost there?”
“The village is right below, but we’ll have to use the paraplane for a landing,” Tom explained. “Bud and I will get it ready. Take over.”
“An’ I’m comin’ along,” Chow declared.
As Slim eased into the pilot’s seat, Tom discussed with him the plan for here on out. He was to pilot the big craft a dozen miles back along their route, to a broad low plateau they had spotted, barren of underbrush and large enough to accommodate the Flying Lab. “A road passed nearby, and we’ve caught glimpses of it now and then as we’ve approached Huratlcuyon. Once you’re down we can use Professor Castillez’s truck to ferry the equipment over—may take two trips, though.”
Tom, Bud, Doc, and Chow hurried out through the passageway and down the metal stairs to the cargo hold, a true flying hangar that filled half the Sky Queen’s bottom deck. The sleek little paraplane, its wings folded neatly back parallel to the fuselage, awaited them in its launch-cradle. Other auxiliary craft customarily brought along in the hangar had been left at Swift Enterprises for regular inspection and repair, giving the paraplane plenty of room.
“Mighty cute. But now that I see ’er—jest how we goin’ to float down in this contraption?” Chow eyed the strange-looking craft uneasily. “I thought it was s’posed to have some kind o’ balloon ’r gas bag ’r somethin’. But I sure-t’-hey cain’t see how you’d go about fitting somethin’ like that inside sech a dinky li’l ole thing.” The fuselage of the domed, wedge-nosed jetcraft was scarcely bigger than a compact car!
“Don’t let her modest size fool you,” Tom replied with a smile. He reached over and patted a long rounded bulge on top of the fuselage that ran its length like a backbone. “The dirigible bag is deflated now and stowed inside this pod. We’ll blow it up with helium as soon as we’re airborne. It inflates almost instantly, like the safety airbags in cars.”
“Okay, if’n you say so. But don’t wait too long, Tom!”
As several crewmen stood by in the hold compartment, watching with interest, Tom and Bud checked over the paraplane and readied it for launch, and Doc Simpson and Chow climbed into the cabin of the paraplane, Doc clutching a canvas bag of medical equipment. The interior of the craft was set up like the passenger compartment of a car, one pair of seats side-by-side in front, a second row just behind. Tom took his place at the controls and adjusted his headset as Bud climbed in next to him.
“All ready, Skipper?” Slim’s voice came over the earphones.
“Thumbs up!” Tom exclaimed excitedly. “Lower away!” Then Slim pressed a button on the main control board. As an alarm sounded, all the crewmen who had come down to watch hustled out of the compartment. The metal deck began to descend like an elevator platform, lowered by piston-muscled struts. Twenty-two feet below the Flying Lab’s fuselage, a gentle bump announced that the deck had reached position.
A light blinked on, signaling all clear. Tom warmed up the engine, his heart pounding. Although he had test-flown the paraplane back home in Shopton, this would be its first real tryout under different atmospheric flight conditions.
Chow gripped the sides of his bucket seat, pop-eyed with excitement. Bud Barclay flashed the young inventor a tense grin. “Here goes, pal!”
“You said it!” Tight-lipped, Tom flicked a switch to release the spring-chocks and open the throttle.
With a mighty swo-o-oosh of jet power, the paraplane shot out from the Queen’s suspended hangar platform! An instant later, before they had even cleared the skyship’s tail, the wings of the craft swung outward from the fuselage, snapping into position so quickly they looked like the blades of a fan.
As the wings bit into the airstream, Tom expected them to provide a smooth lifting effect. Instead, the ship gave a lurch that almost jarred the three occupants from their seats. Chow’s foghorn bellow whooped a nervous “R-r-ride ’em, cowboy!” White-faced, he tried to force a grin as the small craft rocked and rolled alarmingly.
Tom fought the controls and managed to steady the ship. Then he steered it in a tight swooping circle to an altitude several hundred feet below the hovering Sky Queen.
“Now to try out the gas bag.” Tom’s fingers flew over the control panel. With a muffled sound the pod split open along its length and the big balloon-bag shot out and upward, stretching to its full extension in the space of two seconds as Tom’s boggling passengers craned their necks to get the view above them.
“Now I’d call that fast!” marveled Doc Simpson. “I suppose it’s the helium you pump in that makes the bag go rigid, eh?”
“Nope!” Happy with the smooth operation of his invention, Tom shook his head nonchalantly. “The material of the liftbag is transifoil, interwoven in long, airtight strips. That’s why it has a metallic sheen to it.”
“Transifoil,” Bud repeated. “That’s the stuff you invented for your space solartron’s atom-snatchers.”
“Oh yeah,” said Chow. “The stuff that unfolds itself, then folds itself back up, no muss no fuss!”
“That’s it,” said Tom. “Tough, durable, lightweight, and ultra thin—just a few angstroms thick, much thinner than a human hair.”
“Even thinner than your hair, Chow!” gibed Bud.
“That there’s mighty thin, all right!”
“Anyway,” Tom continued as the paraplane drifted to a gentle stop and hung suspended, “I fed the transifoil a trickle of current, and it unfolded and became rigid on its own.” He added that it was the expansion of the liftbag as it was made rigid that sucked the helium up into it at supersonic speed, rather than the reverse. “The transifoil’s strength helps resist the pressure of the surrounding air, so we can get by with helium at very low pressure and weight. That allows us to keep the bag fairly small, too.”
The liftbag had taken over completely the function of supporting the plane, and Tom cut his jet power. They were floating almost motionless above the jungle.
“Shucks, I knowed all the time it was goin’ to work jest fine,” Chow told his young boss.
“Wait till he starts letting the gas out of the bag,” Bud teased. “We still have to get down, you know.” Chow swallowed hard but said nothing.
“I know you use pumps to release and recompress the helium,” Simpson commented. “Where do you store it?”
“We store it in liquid form,” explained the young inventor. The helium tanks, supercold and well-insulated, were mounted in a small compartment at the rear of the cabin. As it was now time to descend, Tom switched on an electric pump and compressor apparatus to suck the helium back into the main tank. A humming noise filled the cabin. “We take it much slower during the recompression phase,” Tom said, “so we won’t drop too quickly.”
“Boss, fer that I thank you kindly!” said Chow.
“You know,” Tom continued, “the basic idea for the paraplane came from Great-Grandfather Tom, who worked a lot with dirigible inventions. In the early 50’s, after he’d retired, he tried to get Swift Construction interested in it, but no go.”
“What’d he call it?” Bud inquired.
Tom grinned. “The Flexible Flyer!”
As the bag deflated, the paraplane descended, very gently, toward the lush treetops.
“Looks like we’re drifting away from the village,” murmured Doc.
“The wind.” Tom touched the controls. “This special jet engine can throttle-up almost instantly from zero, and it can idle, like a car in a driveway. That should be enough to nudge us where we want to go.”
“I’ve got to hand it to you, genius boy.” Bud slapped his chum on the back. “This new invention of yours may save a lot of lives some day.”
“I hope so,” Tom replied modestly. “In the meantime, let’s also hope we don’t get hung up in one of those trees down there.”
Although Tom made no mention of it to Bud or Chow, a new worry came to mind. Despite all preparations, how would the natives greet these strangers from the sky who wanted to take away some of their citizens for scientific study? The medical college of Grandyke University, located near Shopton, had made careful arrangements through the University of Mexico and the aduana—the combination immigration and customs department of the Mexican government—for five healthy young Mayan men to be flown back to the States. But what if the strange aerial arrival panicked them into hostile action!
Still keeping his thoughts to himself, Tom steered the ship gently downward by means of the rudder and elevators, then finally retracted the wings. He aimed for a tiny open space in the forest about one hundred yards beyond the perimeter of the village. Presently a crowd of bronze-skinned native Indians came into view through the densely clustering green foliage.
“A reception committee!” Bud exclaimed.
“Reckon they look friendly enough,” Chow added, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down nervously.
Tom smiled in cautious relief as he saw the natives waving at them. He waved back and urged his three companions to do likewise. The crowd gave way good-naturedly as the paraplane puttered closer to the open space.
Suddenly, as the craft was about to clear the last of the tall trees, the paraplane gave a shudder. Her crew lurched sideways against their safety restraints.
“Good grief!” Tom gasped. “We’re losing pressure in the liftbag—fast! Hold on!”
For a few frantic moments the paraplane dropped like a stone, crashing through the boughs of the trees. Then its flight ended with a violent thud as it smacked down hard against the jungle floor!
TOM SWIFT swiveled frantically in his seat, springing his safety straps with a single quick sweep of his hand. “Everyone all right? Anybody hurt?”
“I’m okay, Tom,” Bud replied.
“Me too,” said Doc Simpson. “I think our public image may have suffered, though.”
“As fer me, I got a few aches an’ pains,” Chow grumbled. “Then again, I’ve had ’em fer years, so I reckon it don’t matter. Think my new tooth may’ve got a little rattled, though.” He felt with his tongue. “Naw. Guess it’s all right.”
When the four airmen emerged, unsteadily, they were greeted by shouts of welcome. The Mayas surged forward in friendly yet dignified fashion to inspect their visitors. Some offered large bouquets of gorgeous-colored flowers.
Tom whispered to Doc, “I don’t think they realize our hard landing wasn’t exactly as planned.” The medic chuckled in response.
“Sure are happy little critters!” Chow observed, grinning the whole distance from ear to ear in relief.
The natives were handsome and brown-skinned, with fine figures. But none were over five feet tall, and many of them were considerably shorter. The men were clad only in shorts of some rough fabric, while the women wore simple, straight white dresses, with low square necklines embroidered in gay colors and a matching trim on the skirts.
A swarm of naked little children hugged the legs of their parents and peeped out bashfully at the strangers from the sky. Many of the natives chattered to one another in a strange tongue.
“What kind o’ lingo is that?” Chow asked.
“Old Mayan,” came a voice in cultured English, touched with accent. “But many of these people also speak Spanish.” A tall, distinguished looking man in glasses had entered the clearing from the underbrush. His skin, burnt dark by the sun, contrasted vividly with his snowy-white hair.
“Professor Castillez?” asked Tom, extending his hand.
The man nodded, offering a firm handshake. “I am glad to meet you, Tom. I thought you would be landing within the village, so I waited behind.”
“I didn’t want to risk bumping any of the houses,” Tom said. “The paraplane is a new invention, and, as a matter of fact, we had a bit of trouble during the descent.” He glanced back and noted that the liftbag, all but devoid of helium, was now leaning far over on its side and resting against the trees, its shape still held rigid by its transifoil strips.
“Tell me, Professor—do you know what became of the team of workers that were to construct a landing field for our big jet?” Doc inquired as he shook hands.
“I had assumed it had been completed,” was the reply. “Then again, the workers had not planned to stay here in Huratlcuyon. I merely assumed they had done their job somewhere out of sight in the jungle. One can hardly see more than twenty feet ahead, you know.” Castillez turned back to Tom. “This delegation of our most eminent citizens has come to welcome you, my young friend.”
Before Tom could essay a speech of reply to this friendly welcome, a stalwart old Maya raised his hand. Castillez whispered that he was chief of the village. At the chief’s signal, the crowd parted and a group of men dancers came forward. All were adorned with tall headdresses of parrot feathers. While several other Indians beat oddly fashioned drums and blew on conch shells, the group began to perform a ceremonial dance.
“Brand my turkey giblets,” Chow gasped, “they’re actin’ like birds!”
“I think that’s what they’re supposed to be imitating,” Tom replied softly.
The dancers gracefully hopped about, flapped their arms, and made pecking motions at each other.
Finally the performers finished and the three Americans applauded loudly, to which the dancers responded without smiles but with sober dignity. As they withdrew, the chief stepped forward again.
Tom clasped his hand and spoke a few words to him in Spanish, which the chief appeared to understand. The young inventor then handed over several papers from the Mexican authorities, identifying the American visitors and stamped with an official seal. The man responded in halting Spanish.
Embarrassed, Tom confessed that he had not caught what the chief had said.
“Ah! He says he’s the ahau, or king, no less, of these people!” explained the Professor. “And that his Spanish name is José,” he added. “But we’re to call him by his Mayan name—Hu-Quetzal.”
“Quetzal?” Chow shoved back his ten-gallon hat and scratched his bald dome. “Ain’t that a bird too?”
Tom nodded. “It’s rare now, but the quetzal is a beautiful bird with brilliant long green plumage. It was sacred to the ancient Mayas.”
“They seem to be very fond of their feathered friends,” Bud chuckled.
When Quetzal finished looking over the documents, he handed them back to Tom very gravely and ceremoniously. Then he beckoned forward five of the young Mayan men. All were very short in stature. “These are the favored ones, the best of our village,” the chief said to Tom.
“Oh, you speak English, sir?” Tom responded in surprise as Quetzal introduced them by name to the Americans.
“I do now. Now, we have been introduced as two chiefs, by these papers. But I say, I only speak it a little bit, like a small pebble. Now then, muy bien, my tribe and I desire that you stay at our village for the night,” Quetzal went on. “We will have more entertainment for you.”
“Thank you for your kindness,” replied Tom with a slight bow. “If you will permit us, we would like to stay with you several days.” The ahau nodded his approval.
Chow scowled suspiciously and murmured into Tom’s ear, “You figure that’s safe?”
Tom grinned. “Still worried about those stewpots, Chow? I’m sure that we can trust these people.”
“We are a safe people. Hospitality is a sacred duty to us,” stated the chief.
Chow reddened but said, “Well, sure—jest like in Texas, Mr. Quetzal.”
Turning back to Hu-Quetzal, Tom added that they must first notify the other Americans, who by now had landed in the Sky Queen, that they had arrived.
The chief nodded. “You come to the village when you are ready. My people and I will return there and make preparations. I must tell you, Tom-Swift, that few of our children have ever seen a man with gold hair like yours. They may…” He paused and murmured something to Castillez.
“They may stare at you,” the Professor translated; “but no discourtesy is intended.”
Then Hu-Quetzal turned and led his people away down a narrow, all-but-invisible jungle path.
The four visitors reentered their plane and Tom reported by radio to Slim Davis.
“The Queen’s down and safe,” Davis replied. “Same as you boys, sounds like.”
Tom snorted. “Well, we’re down. Batten down the hatches for the night,” he said. “I’ll call you tomorrow morning when we’re ready to leave in the truck.”
“Roger!” Slim acknowledged. “We’ll have the camera equipment packed up and ready.”
Chow was still grumbling about staying overnight in this strange place as he climbed out of the paraplane with Tom and Bud. Suddenly the well-weathered Texan broke off with a gasp of fear and grabbed Tom by the arm.
“What’s wrong now?” the young inventor asked.
“L-l-look!” Chow gulped, pointing with a trembling finger.
Tom heard a bloodcurdling snarl. Then, on the lowest branch of a nearby tree, he saw a ferocious-looking jaguar, its mouth open and its teeth bared.
The next moment the crack of a rifle rang out!
As the sound of the shot died away, the jaguar leapt up the trunk of the tree and disappeared among the upper foliage.
“Quick! Into the paraplane!” Tom ordered. “That big cat might come back!”
“Who fired that shot?” Bud demanded. The muscular, dark-haired young flier was pale and shaken by their narrow escape—and their unexplained rescue.
“Just what I want to know,” Tom said, peering out the window. “And was it meant for us, or for the jaguar?”
Bud straightened up with a fresh shock. “Hey! Are you implying that we have human enemies in this jungle? I thought this time we were going to get a vacation!”
Tom shrugged thoughtfully. “That rifleshot was fired at close range, yet it missed the jaguar completely.”
Bud exchanged worried glances with Chow and Doc Simpson. Dangerous adventures were nothing new to Tom Swift, as they all knew from perilous experience. Soon after perfecting the Flying Lab, his first major invention, 18-year-old Tom had been forced to match wits with deadly rival factions in South America. Other adventures had followed, not only undersea and at the South Pole, but even in outer space. In his latest exploit with his space solartron, the young inventor had rescued his father from mysterious space agents in his revolutionary spaceship, the Challenger.
Tom decided to test the unknown rifleman’s intentions. Plucking a white handkerchief from his pocket, he opened the cockpit door and fluttered it outside the plane.
The signal was greeted by a shrill laugh. A moment later a white man strode into view, carrying a high-powered rifle in his hands and a knapsack over one shoulder. He wore braided khaki breeches and an embroidered shirt, and a pith helmet. He gave them a friendly nod.
“Brand my iguana stew, who’s this critter?” Chow demanded in low tones. He stared at the newcomer in frank surprise.
“Let’s find out,” Tom replied.
“And don’t mention iguana stew!” added Bud.
The four Americans clambered from the plane to meet the stranger face to face. He was of medium height, slightly pudgy, and conveyed an air of careless elegance, his eyebrows slightly raised in what might have been a smirk. Before speaking, he took out a silk handkerchief and dabbed his face delicately.
“You came along just in time.” Tom smiled and held out his hand.
“De nada. Buenos dias.” The stranger shook Tom’s hand with the tips of his fingers. His grin seemed slightly mocking.
“Are you Mexican?” Bud asked. He was puzzled by the stranger’s manner. Also, his brownish-blond hair and light complexion seemed unusual for a Latino American.
“Mmm, well, I was born in Boston,” the man replied in a languid voice. “Actually, I consider myself neither an American nor a Mexican.”
“Meaning what?” Bud asked bluntly.
“Meaning no offense. Let’s say I prefer to call myself an internationalist.” As Tom and Bud flashed each other quizzical glances, he went on suavely, “I’m down here studying archaeology and philology at the University of Mexico. My name is Wilson Hutchcraft.”
Tom introduced himself and his three companions. Chow added suspiciously, “What’re them two things you said you ’as studyin’?”
Hutchcraft smiled patronizingly at Chow’s question. “Archaeology and philology. The first is the study of the material remains of ancient cultures.”
“Oh. I knew that one a’ready. You’re one o’ them fellers who dig up old stones an’ mummies an’ sechlike, hey?”
“You might put it that way. Philology, on the other hand, is the study of languages. I speak several, and just now I’m doing field work, learning various Indian dialects.”
“Including Mayan?” Tom asked.
“Naturally,” Hutchcraft replied. “Mayan, Chichimoc, Old Nahua. That’s why I’m here in this godforsaken jungle. No doubt you know that there are four branches of the Mayan tongue—Main, Aguacateca, Chuje, and Jacalteca. But I’m very much interested in the local tribe because they use certain words and phrases which differ from any of those dialects.”
Chow fanned himself with his ten-gallon hat and shook his head. “Sure sounds like gobbledygook to me.”
“I’d advise you to refrain from expressing that sentiment to your hosts here,” said Hutchcraft. “They believe in revenge-killings and are crafty and determined hunters.”
“Anyhow,” Tom said with a laugh, “it’s lucky you happened along with a gun just now.”
“If you’re wise, you’ll carry guns yourselves,” Hutchcraft warned. “This jungle country can be dangerous.”
Tom made no reply to this suggestion. In the spirit of the famous Swift family of scientist-inventors, he felt that scientists should work for the peaceful advancement of mankind. In line with this belief, weapons were used only as a necessity on Swift expeditions.
Changing the subject, Tom explained the purpose of his flight to Yucatan. He invited Hutchcraft to join him and his friends in their visit to Hu-Quetzal’s village.
“Delighted,” the Bostonian replied. “As a matter of fact, I was on my way there just now. The road, if you’ll pardon the exaggeration, is just over that rise, to your left. I was let off by one of my colleagues, who will return for me a week from Thursday. But tell me, what sort of airplane is that?”
“An experimental one,” was the brief answer. “And that reminds me, I need to fold and stow the liftbag before we leave—and before doing that, I want to see if I can determine what caused it to spring a leak on us.”
Hutchcraft did not comment. He pulled out a bottled softdrink, a Mexican brand, and took a long gulp.
Tom again entered the paraplane’s cockpit and manipulated the controls, reducing the current to the transifoil. The liftbag began to bend and fold-in on itself, in the process forcing out whatever gas was left inside.
“You’re not recompressing it?” asked Bud through the open door.
“No point in that,” Tom grimly replied. “By now it’s almost all air. Fortunately there’s a full helium reserve tank in back, which we can use once the rip is fixed—we’ll bring the mending equipment from the Flying Lab tomorrow.”
When the bag was partially folded and within a hand’s-reach of the ground, Tom increased the electric current slightly to halt the refolding process. Then he climbed out and began to inspect the bag with his keen eyes, circling it. After a minute he called out, “Well, there’s the puncture!” He pointed.
“What’s that sticking out of it?” asked Doc. “A branch?”
“Let’s see.” Tom climbed up on the fuselage and grasped the rodlike object, pulling it out.
“Wa-aal, brand me fer a popeyed armadiller!” exclaimed Chow. “It’s a arrow!”
“A mighty big one,” Tom agreed. He scrutinized it, turning it over in his hands. “Funny. It’s made of some kind of hard, light, polished wood. And look at the arrowhead.” The arrowhead, fluted along its length, had sides that curved smoothly inward to a point that looked fierce and unforgiving. “I’ve never seen an arrowhead like this—have you, pard?”
“Nope,” Chow replied, puzzled. “And I’ve seen my share.”
“If you don’t recognize that,” said Hutchcraft in smug tones, “you’re hardly prepared to do serious archaeology here in Maya-land. It’s a t’cunda.”
“Oh—right.” Bud had become irritated at Hutchcraft’s insulting manner. “Used for shooting down blimps!”
The archaeologist smiled blandly. “It’s a type of arrow—almost a javelin, actually—made by expert artisans for the Great Ahauxpa, the Priest-Emperor of all the Maya. It was a sign of status, and only the sacred warriors of the ahauxpa were allowed to carry them. For anyone else to even touch one constituted a capital offense. But,” he added, “that was more than a thousand years ago, of course.”
Tom leapt down and held out the arrow for Hutchcraft to see close-up. “This hardly looks ancient to me.”
“No,” Hutchcraft admitted; “obviously made rather recently. I suppose the technique has been passed down the generations.”
“Well, it’s a mighty high-tech gadget if it can rip a hole through the material of the liftbag,” Tom declared. “Even a high-powered rifle like yours would have some difficulty.” Suddenly something seemed to catch his interest. He drew the point of the t’cunda closer to his eyes, turning it in the sunlight. “What’s this fastened to the tip? It reflects light like a sliver of crystal.”
Doc Simpson asked if the traditional arrows had been finished in such a manner. Hutchcraft shook his head. “No. Never heard of such a thing. What sort of crystal is it?”
Tom was silent for a moment. Then he extended his hand, gesturing for Hutchcraft to hand him his soda bottle.
“A bit of brain stimulant, hmm?” was the man’s comment as he handed it over.
But Tom did not take a sip. Grasping the arrow firmly near its head, he scraped its point down the side of the glass container. All the watchers could see the fine white scratch it left behind.
Tom looked up at them. “To answer your question, Mr. Hutchcraft, the crystal is diamond—the hardest common substance known to man!”
THE ONLOOKERS from Shopton gaped in amazement at Tom’s quiet pronouncement, and a twitch of interest even seemed to ripple across Wilson Hutchcraft’s smug countenance. “Diamonds!” repeated Chow. “You mean that there arrow’s worth a bundle o’ money?”
“It’d be worth a bundle to me to find out where it came from,” responded Tom dryly.
“This is quite unprecedented,” Hutchcraft said. “Diamonds are not found in Yucatan.”
Tom nodded. “I know that, at least. The whole peninsula is a limestone shelf underneath, not mining country.”
“Well, Skipper, I’d say somebody went to a lot of expense and trouble to bring down your paraplane,” observed Doc Simpson soberly.
Bud had a look on his face that Tom recognized immediately—suspicion tinged with anger at the threat to his friends. “Right. Another one of those ‘somebodies’ who picks Tom Swift as a target and then runs off and hides. And say— ” Bud suddenly turned to Hutchcraft. “You were traipsing through the jungle around that time, weren’t you, Hutch?”
The archaeologist frowned. “I don’t care for your insinuation, young man. From what has been said, I was a good half-mile down the road when your plane was attacked. And I really don’t care whether you believe me or not.”
Tom tried to smooth over the awkward moment. “No one’s accusing anyone. Look, it’s getting late. Let’s take the chief up on his offer and head toward the village. Come along with us, Mr. Hutchcraft. I’m sure Hu-Quetzal will allow you to share the accommodations offered us.”
The man smiled his irritating smile. “They do have a reputation for hospitality.”
“Yeah,” Chow muttered under his breath, “when they ain’t huntin’ you down!”
The paraplane was secured and locked up. Then, with Tom in the lead, the five started down the thread-narrow jungle trail toward Huratlcuyon. Twilight was falling over the steamy green rain forest, and the chattering birds began to hush. But the fading sunlight brought no cooling breeze to relieve the damp, oppressive heat of the Yucatan lowland. All five travelers were soon perspiring heavily as they tramped over the matted jungle path, and Hutchcraft’s big handkerchief was in constant flutter.
“The village is right ahead, guys,” Tom announced presently. “I can see it between the trees.”
Hu-Quetzal’s domain was little more than a huddle of palm-thatched huts. Cooking fires blazed in front of every dwelling. The women, crouched over open stone fireplaces, were patting tortilla cakes out of corn meal for the evening repast, while men chatted in squatting groups and children played nearby. Seeing Tom and his companions, the children fell silent, looking at them with wide eyes.
Professor Castillez emerged from a small tent to meet the troop. After Wilson Hutchcraft had introduced himself, Tom showed Castillez the arrow, which he had carried along with him in his hand. “Milagro a Dios!” gasped the man. “A diamond! But who would use such a thing to attack peaceful visitors?”
Hutchcraft snorted. “As I understand it, whole areas of southern Mexico are in a state of resistance to the central government. And I’m not speaking of quiet picketing.”
Castillez nodded slowly. “Si si, es verdad—the Chiapas problem. Perhaps… but who can tell by one arrow, eh?”
As Ahau Quetzal came forward to greet the visitors, Tom showed him the strange arrow, then said, “This is a new friend of ours, also a North American,” and introduced Hutchcraft.
As expected, Quetzal invited the newcomer to stay, then took the visitors to a central fireplace, which Tom assumed served for village ceremonies and celebrations. “I hope you will accept gifts of food from my people and that you will enjoy them,” the chief said.
The gifts turned out to include a roasted wild turkey, a heaping supply of papaya fruit, guavas, bananas, and avocado pears, as well as several gourds full of coconut milk.
“Brand my lil ole cookstove, we got enough grub here for a reg’lar feast!” Chow gloated. “Afore we get gone, I’m gonna try fer a few recipes t’take back.”
The Americans ate with hungry zest. Even Hutchcraft, who had made several sneering comments under his breath about the primitive cooking conditions, admitted that the meal was very good, if exotic in its mix of flavors.
By the time they finished, darkness had fallen. The sky over the jungle was brilliant with stars. “Sure is purty up there,” Chow remarked, staring heavenward. “But it’s even better back home in Texas,” he added quickly, doing his patriotic duty to the Lone Star Republic.
Quetzal, who ate in a separated area, announced the arrangements for the night. “You will all sleep in my own house—the house of the ahau,” he told them proudly.
Like the other dwellings in the village, the hut was made of saplings covered with mud. It was rectangular in shape, about twenty-five feet long, with walls ten feet high and a steep, palm-thatched roof. Although it had no windows, there was a doorway in the middle of each long side.
Hammocks woven of henequen fiber were slung side by side in a row between the two open doorways. Thick rough-hewn wooden posts, planted deep into the ground, held up each end. This arrangement, the chief explained, was to enable sleepers to catch the trade winds which occasionally wafted through the jungle. He also provided a modern innovation, mosquito-netting covers for each hammock.
“I think I’d prefer sleeping out in the fresh air,” Hutchcraft announced, sniffing the atmosphere of the hut disdainfully. Not asking permission, he proceeded to unsling one of the hammocks.
“Reckon I’ll do the same,” Chow said. “No offense, Mr. Quetzal, sir—jest think I might need t’stretch out a little.”
But Hutchcraft’s next remarks made Chow change his mind. “After all, I have a rifle and you don’t,” the Bostonian reminded him. “That jaguar might still be prowling around.”
Chow gulped. “Mebbe I’ll wait with th’ stretchin’ until tomorrow morning.”
Soon the village was wrapped in silence. The four Americans in the hut quickly fell asleep. But suddenly Tom was awakened by a thunderous crash, nearby enough to jar the mat-covered floor!
“Huh? Wh-what’s going on?” Bud muttered thickly, trying to sit up in his hammock.
“Don’t know yet,” Tom replied tersely, fumbling in the darkness for his flashlight. Was it another attack by the mystery bowman? In a moment he extracted the flash from one pocket of his trekking breeches, which he had hung on the wall nearby. As he switched on the beam, Bud came wide awake and gave a roar of laughter.
Chow, still half asleep, was sprawled on the floor of the hut, hopelessly tangled in his mosquito netting. He blinked and snorted in the dazzling yellow glow of the flashlight.
“What in thunderation happened?” the ex-range cook grunted.
“Guess you fell out of your hammock,” Tom replied, stifling his own laughter so as not to embarrass his friend. “Come on. I’ll help you up.”
Chow was hardly back in his swaying billet when loud snores announced that he was fast asleep again.
Tom chuckled. To Bud he whispered, “The fall didn’t hurt him.”
“Bet it hurt the floor, though,” was the mischievous response.
The next morning, after a breakfast of melons, Tom was eager to be off to the Sky Queen in Professor Castillez’s truck. But again Ahau Quetzal delayed him.
“First we must have the ceremony of the second day,” he told Tom politely but firmly. “You have spent the night with us, eaten our food with us; now we must give you the traditional blessings, for good fortune and protection.”
“Primitive nonsense,” muttered Hutchcraft.
But Tom accepted the chief’s request gracefully. “We may need a little extra luck,” he told his companions with a chuckle.
The entire tribe gathered around the stone fireplace in the center of the village. All bowed their heads as a priest of the native race, passing through from a church in another small village some miles distant, blessed the five small men and offered prayers in Spanish.
“The imported faith of the new society,” commented Castillez softly. “For these people, all that has happened in Mexico since the time of Hernan Cortés is recent! Now you will see a remaining trace of the old religion, which the Europeans were never able to extinguish.”
A Maya, taller than the others, stepped forward. He wore arm bands of worked metal, shell necklaces, a skirt made of jaguar skin, and a parrot-feather headdress.
“Now the real show begins,” Hutchcraft whispered contemptuously to the other Americans as he stood a ways back. “This fellow is a shaman, a medicine man. He and his sort cling stubbornly to the pagan practices of their ancestors. The Church tolerates it. Not that they have much choice.”
Several native bearers brought a large flat stone for the medicine man to stand on, He mounted it and began to utter an incantation in what Castillez explained was the old Mayan tongue, much corrupted with time.
Suddenly Tom’s eyes bulged in surprise. The stone bore a number of odd carved symbols, which the young inventor had at first assumed were purely decorative. But as he looked more closely they began to appear strangely familiar. Good night! he thought excitedly. Space symbols! I’m sure of it!
Groupings of similar symbols, mathematical concepts expressed through geometrical figures, had been found on a missile from outer space which had landed on the grounds of Swift Enterprises under the exacting direction of unknown extraterrestrials. Tom and his father had managed to decode the message and to reply by means of a powerful radio transmitter. Later, signals had been picked up with a special receiving antenna, using an oscilloscope-type imaging screen. Assisted by a slowly-growing “space dictionary” in computer form, they had become increasingly proficient at interpreting the halting, strangely oblique messages from space.
Almost without realizing it, Tom stepped forward to get a better look at the stone. The carvings on it were faint, almost weathered away.
A muscular native grabbed his arm and jerked him back. “Do not interrupt the sacred ceremony!” the man hissed in broken Spanish.
Tom waited tensely for the ceremony to end. He could hardly contain his curiosity as questions surged into his mind.
Was he mistaken about the carved symbols on the stone? Or were they really the same as those used in messages from his space friends? If so, how had they happened to appear in this remote jungle village?
Bud inched close and nudged his pal. “Am I seeing things?” he whispered. “Those carvings— ”
“We’ve got to find out!” Tom murmured with fierce intensity. “We may have stumbled on a fantastic discovery!”
“WHAT’s wrong, boss?” Chow Winkler asked, approaching and noting Tom’s puzzled frown.
“Take a look,” Tom whispered, pointing to the stone on which the medicine man was standing. “Do those carvings strike you as familiar?”
Chow gasped in amazement. Doc Simpson was also dumfounded as his eyes followed Chow’s pop-eyed stare. Both recognized the symbols immediately.
“Brand my buckboard!” Chow muttered under his breath. “They look jest like the stuff that comes through on the space TV—them squiggly pictures!”
Tom nodded. “I certainly want to get a closer look.”
As soon as the Mayan medicine man finished his incantation, the bearers lifted the stone to take it away. Tom touched Hu-Quetzal’s arm.
“May I see the carvings on that stone? I find them very interesting.”
The ahau’s eyes narrowed. He pondered a moment, then said, “Muy bien.” He signaled the bearers to bring the stone over to Tom, adding, “But remember, mi amigo, you are gazing on our most sacred possession.”
Sacred! This made the find even more important, Tom thought.
He bent low and scrutinized the carvings. Some of the symbols were so weathered and faded that they could hardly be seen. But calling upon his memory, Tom was able to decipher at least part of the inscription. His heart beat with a thrill of discovery!
Looking up at Ahau Quetzal, Tom pointed to one cluster of interlocked symbols. “‘Fifty of us came here without mishap’.”
The effect on the chief was amazing! His month dropped open and an expression of awe and fear came into his eyes. Grabbing Tom by the arm, Quetzal drew him aside from the crowd of natives. “You are right!” he gasped. “But how did your eyes know of this, Tom-Swift? Can you read this writing carved by our ancestors many great-suns ago?”
“Some, but not all of it,” Tom replied. “You see, I have received messages in such writing myself—from people somewhere in the sky.”
“In the sky?” The man looked at Tom blankly. “Do you mean, perhaps, some planet in space?”
Tom grinned at his own assumptions. Using simple terms, Tom summarized the history of the communications received from the friendly space scientists, which both he and his father were certain came from other-worldly beings possibly stationed on the planet Mars.
Chief Quetzal’s eyes grew wider and wider as he listened, even though it was clear that he failed to understand all of what Tom was saying.
“Do you say that some of our ancestors came from the far-place on the other side of the sky? A planet? But it must be so!” Quetzal exclaimed proudly. “This stone has always belonged to my people. Unfortunately,” he added sadly, “we have lost the voice of the old ones. The meaning of only one other part of the stone-words has come to us from the ancients.”
Pointing to another group of symbols on the stone, Quetzal translated: “‘Now we will hunt for the rest of the ixtchacpul.’ Do you understand that word from our old language? It is—it is like— ” Frustrated, he curtly waved for Professor Castillez to join them and supply the translation.
“Ixtchacpul?” repeated Castillez. “Oh yes—many long boats with armed men, moving together down a river.—ah! Armada!”
“An armada of spaceships from another planet!” Tom burst out excitedly. A fleet manned by space beings must have landed in the jungle centuries ago! Was it possible that these space people were so similar to humans that they had intermarried with people who had lived here originally, and were the ancestors of this particular tribe? He dismissed the thought as an impossibility. Yet it crept back upon him.
Tom asked the ahau if he could tell him any legends about his ancestors coming to Yucatan, or where the sacred stone came from. But Hu-Quetzal shook his head.
“I can not do it. There are so many old stories, mixed-up, with parts missing as from a jaguar’s bite. One thing I do not understand,” he went on. “Why did my people long ago write with these signs, to tell those coming after of these things that happened? They are not like the picture writing the rest of the old firstfathers used.”
“It was the space people themselves who left this message,” Tom answered. “They may have wished that, if others of their kind came here, they would know what became of the first ones. The space people know that mathematics is the only exact ‘language’—a language which never changes, not even over thousands of years. I believe they wrote in these symbols so that people from any planet at any time could read and translate the message, even though the visitors could not speak or write any earth language.”
The chief sighed and looked at Tom with great respect. “You are no doubt right, young one.” It was plain that he was very much impressed by the young inventor’s knowledge. “It is said that once we Maya knew much of numbers and such things, and could tell the risings of the moon and the paths of the stars. So much has been lost, uuhma.”
Tom’s brain was seething with excitement. What had happened to the space voyagers? Had part of the armada been wrecked during the jungle landing? Perhaps traces of their spacecraft could still be found!
Aloud, he said to Ahau Quetzal, “Perhaps your ancestors left other carved stones or relics. May we search the forest?”
The chief shrugged. “The government of Mexico has laws about such things. You must get their permission to do any digging.”
“I am empowered to grant the necessary permission,” stated Castillez, who had listened with growing astonishment. “I hereby do so.”
“We will act with great care and respect!” Tom promised.
Meanwhile, Hutchcraft had been watching the muted conversation from a distance with great curiosity. As the ceremonial rock-slab was carried off to its sacred repository, he plied Bud, Chow, and Doc with questions, trying to find out the reasons for Tom’s interest in the sacred stone. But they politely, or less-than-politely, dodged his queries, thinking it wiser not to reveal any information of importance without Tom’s permission.
“Guess it’s time we started for the Queen,” Tom said when he finally rejoined them. “The Professor says he is happy to lend his truck to us. It’s parked just off the road. Do you care to come along, Mr. Hutchcraft?”
“Thank you, but no—I might as well begin my work here,” replied the linguist. “Watch out for our friend the jaguar!”
“If you don’t need my help, Tom, I’d prefer to stay behind too,” Doc stated. “I have in my bag all I need to start off— ” There was a sudden interruption. Led by Chief Quetzal, an odd delegation was approaching them.
“Jetz and super-jetz!” Bud exclaimed involuntarily, the only circumstance under which such an exclamation could ever be uttered.
The delegation consisted of five little Maya men, the same that had been introduced to the visitors before. But in place of their usual rough-cotton shorts, the small natives were now wearing ill-fitting city business suits!
One of the suits was bright blue serge, one was brown tweed, and the other three loud checkered patterns. All the clothes were so large for their wearers that the sleeves and trouser cuffs had been rolled back. Each man wore a felt hat pulled down over his ears.
Tom and his friends almost broke into laughter at the sight, but managed to stifle their mirth. Not so Wilson Hutchcraft, who giggled shrilly until Tom silenced him with a warning glance. The five little Mayas were obviously bursting with pride at their citified apparel.
“They look very impressive, ahau,” said Doc Simpson cautiously. “But what is the occasion?”
“Have no fear,” the ahau replied. “They are merely preparing for the journey.”
“Of course, to your far-north, to New York. These are the five of Huratlcuyon who are to accompany you in your great airplane.”
“Ohh boy,” murmured Simpson in dismay. “Chief—Hu-Quetzal—there’s been a—you see— ”
The ahau raised a hand. “I see. Of course. The long ride, in the back of the auto-truck will hurt-like-monkeys the garments they wear. But I will have them take them off and hold them in their laps. That will be well.”
Doc shot a helpless look at Tom, and the young inventor stepped forward with a polite smile. “Chief Quetzal, we must apologize to you and to these good men. We did not explain well what we planned to do. My friend Dr. Simpson must first conduct some tests on many of your people. Then we ask you to allow him to make a selection himself—that is what he agreed to do, with Grandyke University.”
Hu-Quetzal frowned but gave a single nod, slowly. “It is for you to say.” He turned to the men and spoke to them in the village dialect. They appeared disappointed but immediately began to strip off their suits where they stood.
“We will save them carefully until they are needed,” stated Quetzal.
Thanking him, Tom complimented the Indians on their fine appearance, and asked the chief where the clothes had come from. “We sent a runner to the city of Mérida to arrange for them,” Hu-Quetzal explained. “We have many, many cousins who choose to live like the huaxixtlen, in cities. They help us.”
Professor Castillez explained that the huaxixtlen were the Mexicans of European descent. “From haciendero, it is supposed. I fear the word is not always used as a compliment,” he added wryly.
Tom glanced at his elaborate wristwatch. “We’d better grab our gear and get going.”
Castillez’s old pickup truck proved to be battered, spattered, rusted—and big. As it rattled along the narrow, winding dirt road, so narrow that it sometimes seemed to merge with the lush jungle on either side, Tom, Bud, and Chow had plenty of room in the cab.
Yet comfort was lacking. “Brand my steam iron!” Chow grumbled. “I sure do wish we had a air-conditioner in this rattletrap.”
“We do,” replied Bud, pointing. “But it doesn’t work.”
“Then that gives me another somethin’ t’ wish fer!”
It took the remainder of the morning to finally reach the Sky Queen, and by that time the travelers were thoroughly bedraggled and wet with perspiration. Chow’s wrist ached from fanning himself with his ten-gallon hat.
“Hey, strangers!” greeted Slim Davis, calling down from the belly hatch. “What’d you do, swim all the way?”
“Feels like it!” snorted Tom.
They climbed the ladder and immediately began to enjoy the comfort of the climate-controlled Flying Lab. The three took time for a cool shower and a cold lunch, then began to ferry the retroscope equipment into the truck bed, cushioning it with blankets and carefully tying down each component.
“What’s this thing run off of, Tom?” asked one of the crewmen assisting them, Bill Bennings. “Got a generator?”
“No,” was the response. “The camera doesn’t take much more electricity than a TV set. One solar battery is more than enough for it.”
After loading aboard the special tools and patching materials needed for repairing the grounded paraplane, Tom took a moment to make a quick radio call to his father at Swift Enterprises.
“Sounds like you’ve had a few adventures, as usual, son,” Damon Swift chuckled. “But this business of the carved symbols—astonishing! Are you quite certain of what you saw? Such faint, weathered carvings can be subject to wishful thinking.”
“Oh, I know that,” Tom replied. “That’s what the retroscope is here to handle. But remember, Chief Quetzal’s translation matched my own.”
“Do you anticipate any difficulties in setting up the camera?”
“Not at all, Dad. But I have to admit, I’d feel a lot more confident if Hank or Arv were down here with us.” Expert engineers and technicians, Hank Sterling and Arvid Hanson had remained behind at Enterprises to assist Mr. Swift preparing for an upcoming government-backed operation that demanded considerable time and technical planning. This vast and complicated project would involve work in a distant deep-sea environment.
Mr. Swift expressed regret that so much of the plant’s scientific and technical staff were tied up attending to these details. He also assured Tom that he would be on hand to greet the Mayan men when they arrived in Shopton and would escort them personally to Grandyke University.
Giving his love to family and friends, Tom signed off and returned to the truck. “I was hoping you’d dilly-dally a little longer, Skipper,” Bud pronounced, leaning on his elbow in the tattered front seat. “I wouldn’t mind a bit if we didn’t get moving until after sundown.”
Tom laughed. “Maybe you wouldn’t, flyboy. But Chow would, wouldn’t you, pard?”
Chow looked puzzled. “Huh? Why’s that, boss?”
“Well, jungle bats that fly at night, for one thing. And then there’s that jaguar, creeping around in darkness. And— ”
“Let’s get goin’!” the westerner gulped.
By the time Tom had signed off, the afternoon sky had darkened considerably. He had emerged from the Sky Queen to find a stiff wind blowing in from the southeast.
“What’s wrong, Skipper?” Slim Davis asked, leaning on the truck windowsill as Tom gunned the engine. “You look worried.”
“From the look of that sky, I think we’re in for a storm,” Tom replied. “We can probably beat it, but it’ll be close.”
The old truck rumbled off on its way back to Huratlcuyon. As the minutes dragged by, the wind rose and the palm fronds above began to writhe like snakes. Tom stopped briefly to pull a protective tarp of waterproof Tomasite plastic across the truck bed.
An hour later the storm had broken. A blanket of torrential rain swept down on the jungle, making visibility almost zero. The wind increased to gale force. Nervously watching through the cab windows, the boys and Chow saw the nearby trees bend under the smashing impact of the wind.
“Guess the wind just got its second wind!” gibed Bud. But his eyes were wide with tension as lightning slashed the darkened sky.
“Good night!” muttered Tom at the steering wheel, eyes squinting in the effort to make out the road. “We’re slipping and sliding on the mud. Better slow down.”
Suddenly the truck began to shudder and move sideways, swerving into a fishtail.
“We’re bein’ pushed off th’ road by the wind!” Chow cried. “Tom, we’re gonna crash into the trees!”
INSTANTLY Tom’s right hand flew to the parking-brake lever, while his left hand smoothly twisted the wheel, steering into the skid so as not to worsen it. His skillful maneuver kept the truck from nosing into a tree trunk, but he couldn’t prevent its thudding sideways against a mass of fallen branches.
“Mebbe we oughta abandon ship—’er somethin’!” rumbled Chow in fear.
“Too dangerous in this storm,’ Tom replied tersely. “But maybe I can hold us off from crashing any further into the forest.” As the groaning wind whipped about the truck, Tom inched it forward onto a mat of thick leaves and intertwined branches. He knew this would provide them a bit of wheel-traction and a fair fight against the wind.
“Whew!” Bud mopped his forehead. “That’s what I call too close for comfort! I had visions of us plowing into that big trunk and the whole tree keeling over on us!”
The roar of the hurricane winds outside and the clattering impact of the rain against the plane’s fuselage made it almost impossible for Tom and his companions to hear each other’s voices.
They slowly became used to the lightning that seemed to flash unnervingly close. Then they flinched back as an even more dazzling light blinded them!
“We been hit!” Chow bellowed.
To his astonishment, Tom broke out laughing. “Calm down, cowpoke! Look!—it’s just the sun breaking through.”
A crack of burning yellow-white had appeared in the charcoal sky, near the western horizon. The squall seemed to be breaking apart as fast as it had appeared.
“Wa-aal, lookit them clouds,” exclaimed Chow in calmer tones. “Scurryin’ along like a sky stampede!”
In minutes the storm was entirely over, the drenched, dripping jungle twinkling in the late-afternoon light.
“Guess we can stow the water-wings,” Bud declared. “Can we get under way again?”
“Maybe,” responded the young inventor. “These tires are pretty big and broad, and the axles are fairly high off the ground. Let’s scope out the road.” Gunning the engine, he eased them forward in the direction of the roadway, expecting to find it running like a river.
But when the truck emerged through the brush, they found that the jungle had unveiled another surprise. The road was muddy and puddled, but almost completely visible!
“Now howd’ya figure that?” Bud asked, scratching his head. “Where’d all the water go?”
Tom thought the matter over for a moment, glancing at the map of the area. “It’s interesting, isn’t it? This little road isn’t just gouged into the ground by occasional traffic. It seems to be very slightly elevated. The water just runs right off.”
“Guess someone really thought her through,” ventured Chow. “Good news fer us.”
“I know what you’re thinking, genius boy,” Bud said. “You’re wondering if somebody actually constructed the road—the old Mayas, maybe.”
Tom nodded. “That’s right. It’s disguised by several centuries worth of mud, rotting leaves, pebbles—all sorts of random junk; but go down far enough and I’ll be you’d find some kind of stonework.”
“In other words, a paved highway!”
“That’s what I’m thinking.”
Chow raised an objection. “That’s all right nice, but yew sure don’t go t’ the trouble to make a highway out in the middle o’ nowhere, less’n it goes someplace. That little ole village don’t strike me as worth it.”
“I agree,” said Tom. “I doubt the village itself, the actual huts, is even a hundred years old. But it may have been the latest in a long line of settlements at, or near, the same spot. Look at the map.” He spread it across their laps. “This broken line is our poor little road. Go on past where the Queen is and eventually it merges with the big road that leads to Polyuc. We don’t know what happened to that end of the road, of course, but there are plenty of ancient ceremonial centers and ruins in the Polyuc area.”
“Okay,” Bud conceded. “What about the other end?”
Tom moved his pointing finger along the line of the road. “It runs along fairly straight—then here, a few miles ahead, it curves off toward Huratlcuyon all of a sudden. After it passes the village, it runs on for just a couple thousand feet, looks like, and just stops.”
“Like I said,” remarked Chow, “—middle o’ nowhere!”
“Sure, that’s what it looks like now, Chow,” Tom agreed. “But what might’ve been there a thousand years ago?”
Bud’s eyes gleamed. “Maybe a wrecked super-spaceship or two?”
Tom chuckled. “I’d settle for just one! What I really have in mind is something like a carved monument or a temple, something commemorating the strangers from the sky. We’ll see!”
The tired truck finally pulled in to Huratlcuyon at dusk. Professor Castillez came out to greet them, shaking Tom’s hand in relief. “When the storm hit, we were very worried; especially when we contacted your man in the airplane and were told you had left hours before. The medico, Simpson, wanted to go the length of the road on foot to search for you, but Hutchcraft and I convinced him it would be too dangerous.”
Doc now came trotting up and gave each of the travelers a bear hug. “And while you boys were out wallowing around, I was able to make some real progress identifying our Grandyke prospects. I’ve narrowed it down to eleven men.”
“I have some news too,” Tom said. He briefly related his theory concerning the old roadway, repeating it again as Chief Quetzal arrived.
“The great-path is very old,” commented the ahau. “More than that, I do not know.”
“Have you any stories of stone monuments once standing in this area, or ruined buildings?” Tom asked. “Sometimes such knowledge is passed along, father to son.”
“I say again, Tom-Swift, I do not know.” Hu-Quetzal suddenly turned and strode away.
Chow, a good judge of character, had an opinion. “That feller’s hidin’ something, boss. He knows a peck more’n he’s sayin’—which ain’t so hard, since he ain’t sayin’ nothin’ no-how!”
Tom nodded, frowning, but decided to say nothing himself.
The young inventor felt it best to stow the retroscope equipment and patching materials in Chief Quetzal’s hut for the night, where they would be protected, safe under the watchful eyes of the Americans. This they did piece by piece with great care, finishing in the glow of the village cookfires.
“Well! What have we here?”
Tom turned and found Wilson Hutchcraft languidly regarding him from one of the doorways. “How are you, Mr. Hutchcraft?”
The philologist-archaeologist ignored the question and stepped into the hut, glancing over the assemblage of electronics equipment with a vaguely critical air. “No doubt this is your televised time machine, hmm?” Tom confirmed the guess, and Hutchcraft continued, “Quite a tangle of electrical spaghetti, but I suppose that’s the kind of thing you technician-sorts like. I find hands-on investigation so much more rewarding.”
Tom tried to conceal his growing irritation. “I’m sure it is, in its way. But my invention doesn’t replace that kind of work. It makes it easier and more productive.”
“If it should happen to work, hmm?” Hutchcraft sank down on Doc Simpson’s vacant hammock and wiped his forehead. “And just how does it work? How do you take pictures of the past? As the poet said, The past, passed, dead, ever fled, beyond recall.”
“I’m not sure I’d expect a poet to understand it,” Tom said with a smile. “But I’ll be glad to explain the general idea.”
The retroscope camera was based on two earlier achievements of the Swifts. One was Tom’s discovery of a hitherto unknown radiation, the spectron rays or “space-waves,” that selectively interacted with the nuclear configurations at the core of all matter. This had led to the invention of the Swift Spectroscope and the force-ray repelatron used in Tom’s latest spaceship.
The new camera also made use of certain scanning features originally developed by Tom’s celebrated great-grandfather for his so-called television detector, further elaborated for use in Tom’s Eye-Spy camera, as Bud had nicknamed it. This remarkable device could take video-type pictures through a wall or other solid object.
“I call my invention a retroscope,” Tom went on, “because ‘retro’ means ‘back’ or ‘backward’—as in retro-rocket—and the camera is suppose to allow us to ‘see back’ how a carved object looked originally, hundreds or even thousands of years in the past.”
“A very sensible name, at any rate,” Hutchcraft remarked dryly. “But how is this miracle to be accomplished?”
Tom began to gesture as if drawing diagrams in the air, a habit that seemed to help him think. “Think of a carved stone or other such surface. As I’m sure you know, any rock may undergo radioactive aging as its natural elements break down and become other elements. That happens all through the rock, and can be used for dating the materials. But the layers nearer the surface are more exposed to cosmic radiation from the outside, which is always streaming down from space.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Hutchcraft. “A carved surface means that different layers of rock are exposed at one time.”
“Exactly,” said Tom. “For instance, if you carve a gouge in the rock, the cosmic radiation would penetrate deeper at that point than it would at an uncarved part of the rock. Therefore, as the cosmic rays penetrate a slight ways into the solid material, a sort of pattern is created inside the rock that follows the in-and-out depth pattern of the carvings on its surface.”
“Wait a minute!” Hutchcraft snapped his fingers in unimpressed sarcasm. “I think I get it. By measuring the pattern of penetration all through the rock, you can put together a picture of what the carving looked like before it was worn away.”
“That’s right, Mr. Hutchcraft,” Tom said mildly. “Of course, the original cosmic rays are long gone, either absorbed or reflected back.”
“Then what remains to be measured?”
“I’m getting to that. My device makes use of the natural magnetism in the rock to— ”
The archaeologist held up an imperious hand. “Magnetism? You expect to find these inscriptions carved into magnetic rock?”
“Not at all. Like most people, you may be under the impression that natural magnetism is only to be found in certain kinds of rock—lodestones, as they’re called. That’s true enough if you’re trying to produce a useful magnet, but it isn’t the whole story. All atoms, of any kind of material, possess magnetic properties; it’s a consequence of their internal configuration of electrical charges. They can be diamagnetic, weakly repelled by a magnetic field; paramagnetic, weakly attracted; or ferromagnetic, which produces the strong response we associate with standard magnets.”
“I understand,” said Hutchcraft impatiently.
“Ordinary rock, however pure, normally has traces of differing substances showing the whole range of magnetic properties. Most of these particles lie every which way, randomly, but a percentage magnetically arrange themselves with parallel or non-parallel orientations, which can be ‘flipped’ by a nanosecond’s exposure to a cosmic ray.”
“Then to anticipate you,” the archaeologist interrupted, “I would suppose you to have a devilishly ingenious method that allows you to ‘read’ the general layout of these flipped particles. And from that you can derive the corresponding pattern of cosmic-ray penetration. And there’s your picture. That it?”
Tom grinned. “Simple, isn’t it? Now, my camera here has two detectors. One scans the whole surface of the rock to probe out areas—called domains—of shared magnetic-dipole orientation; this gives us a baseline for comparison. The other uses a spectronic scanning beam to map out the quantized— ”
Hutchcraft suddenly slid onto his feet and stretched. “All very interesting, and now my curiosity is satisfied—in fact, saturated. I believe I’ll have a bite to eat.” He turned his back on the young inventor and ambled out of the hut, leaving Tom with a disbelieving grin at the older man’s self-centered abruptness.
Early the next day, before the humidity became too steamy, Tom trudged over to the grounded paraplane carrying the patching kit, Bud and Chow following. Wilson Hutchcraft, invited to watch as a courtesy, remained behind, saying he saw no reason to waste his energy unnecessarily.
“Wa-aal, I’ll be a horned toad!” Chow grumbled under his breath.
Arriving at the paraplane, Chow cast a critical eye on the rip in the liftbag. “Don’t look all that long t’ me, boss.”
Tom gave a wry smile. “It’s enough. Unfortunately the arrow struck right along one of the transifoil strips, and the bag tore a ways along the seam. Seems I didn’t ‘weld’ the pieces together as durably as I thought.”
“Which reminds me, genius boy,” Bud remarked, “we still have no clue as to who shot that millionaire-arrow.”
“Got me an inkling,” muttered Chow, eyes narrowed.
Tom knew what he was thinking. “So far, Hutchcraft hasn’t been murderous,” he pointed out; “just obnoxious.” But Tom’s silent thoughts continued further: As an archaeologist, he sure was in a good position to come up with that sort of old-style Mayan arrowhead!
The rip was easily repaired to Tom’s satisfaction, and he tested the seal with a small hand-held instrument.
“Looks okay,” pronounced the youth. “Let’s take ’er up—I told Slim I’d make a run over the Sky Queen and dip my wings. I’ll land the plane as close to the village as possible.” The three climbed aboard.
Tom took his place at the controls, gave them a cursory check, and opened the release valve for the reserve helium tank. Tom waited for the liftbag to expand and become rigid as the transifoil strips responded automatically to the rising pressure of the helium gas within. But nothing happened! The liftbag remained limp and folded.
“What’s wrong?” Bud asked.
“Don’t know,” Tom replied in a puzzled voice. “Maybe a loose connection in the transifoil power feed.” When the instruments had eliminated this possibility, Tom said: “I’d better check the tank.”
A moment later, after inspecting the secondary pressure gauge built into the reserve tank itself, he turned a grave face to his companions.
“The tank’s empty!” Tom reported.
BUD sprang out of his seat and scrambled aft to join the young inventor. “You mean the liquid helium leaked out?” he asked in alarm.
“It leaked out all right,” Tom replied grimly. “Look here, flyboy. The loading cock is wide open.”
“Good grief! How did that happen?”
Tom gave a worried shrug. “Maybe I got careless and popped it accidentally from the control board—maybe. But frankly, I don’t remember even touching the lever before we left the ship. How about you two?”
Both Bud and Chow denied knowing anything about it. Chow, who was dripping with sweat and fanning himself with a sombrero given him by Professor Castillez, added, “Mebbe it’s this broilin’ hot weather. Must’ve made the helium swell up an’ bust out—like th’ vapor-lock on a car.”
Tom shook his head. “The tank insulation protects it from the heat. And besides, the helium wouldn’t expand enough to force the loading cock!” He wondered uneasily if someone might have tampered with the plane during their absence, and said so.
Bud looked dangerous. “Easy bet as to who we’re all thinking about!”
“We’d better check out the whole ship to make sure nothing else is wrong,” Tom decided.
With Bud’s help, Tom hastily checked over the jet engines, landing gear, instruments, and other parts. But the paraplane showed no other sign of sabotage.
“Okey-doke then. Now what?” Chow asked.
Tom shrugged. “Looks as if we’ll have to drive back to the Sky Queen and pick up another full tank.”
Chow looked pained at this announcement. “No offense, boss, but mebbe I’ll jest stay behind this time. Still got those recipes t’ collect.”
“What about the plane?” demanded Bud. “You’re not going to abandon it here, are you?”
Tom hesitated, turning the matter over rapidly in his mind. “Look,” he said to Bud and Chow, “now that I know the way, I’ll drive back to the Queen alone this afternoon, and spend the night. I’ll use the rest of the morning to rig up an alarm system for the paraplane, the same sort of thing we have around the house in Shopton, but with a remote beeper. Would you two mind keeping an ear on it until I get back?”
Both agreed readily.
Climbing back aboard the paraplane, Tom made radio contact with the Sky Queen.
“So how come you’re not upstairs, as you planned?” Slim Davis asked. “Anything wrong?”
Tom reported the mysterious loss of helium from the plane’s tanks. “We’ll have to leave the paraplane here for the time being,” he concluded. “I’ll see you guys by sundown.”
“Fine place you picked to run out of gas!” Slim gibed.
“Tell me about it! But don’t sell us short—I’ll get ’er fixed. I mean, the future of the airship is at stake!” Tom joked.
The drive back to the Flying Lab was long, hot, and uneventful. Arriving at twilight, Tom had a satisfying supper aboard, then contacted Huratlcuyon, transmitting to Professor Castillez’s short-wave radio.
“All is quiet here, Tom,” reported Castillez. “I have been half-listening for the buzz of your alarm-monitor, but there is nothing so far.”
“Good,” commented Tom. “Maybe we’ll all manage a good night’s sleep tonight.”
First, however, the young inventor felt moved to work on a technical challenge that had occupied his mind during the long drive from the village. He headed for his electronics work-module, one of the small compartments on deck two. A crewman, Dick Folsom, stopped him on his way for a moment of conversation.
“Cooking up something new in your mini-lab, chief?”
“Not exactly new, but definitely smaller,” was the reply. “At present the baseline-detector apparatus sits as a separate unit—another big box to lug around, along with the camera console itself and the other parts. I have a notion I can miniaturize that phase of the process and bolt the equipment right on to the main camera body.”
“Boy, you’ve got a job on your hands, Skipper.” Dick frowned as he examined with a professional eye a sketch Tom had made in his notebook. “Neat concept. But my guess is that redesigning your camera ‘eyes’ will take at least a week’s work back at the plant.”
“Can’t wait that long—I need the retroscope now, while we’re here in Yucatan. I’m a pretty impatient guy!” Tom ran his fingers through his ragged blond crewcut. “Maybe I’m taking a long shot, but I’m going to try turning out a new rig right here in the Flying Lab.”
“Tall order, Tom!” Dick whistled. “But you can do it if anyone can. I’d better clear out, so you can work undisturbed.”
Dick Folsom had hardly walked away when Tom plunged into his problem full-throttle. He whipped out a sophisticated calculator and began applying its results to a circuit diagram taking shape on his design flatscreen.
“One thing’s certain,” Tom murmured to himself. “To get fine detail in the picture and still keep the rig down to portable size, I’ll have to miniaturize the whole scanning apparatus. Maybe I can cut a few corners by a parallel-processing gimmick…”
Hours went by. Tom’s desk-workbench became littered with scribbled equations, exclamation-marked notes, and sketches of parts layouts. Finally he broke off long enough to buzz the galley over the intercom and ask for food. Slim Davis responded. “You still hard at it, Tom?” he asked in amused surprise. “I just dropped by for an after-midnight snack.”
“After midnight?” Tom laughed out loud at himself. “And I was planning a solid night’s sleep!”
But he was hot on the trail and couldn’t bear to stop. By two o’clock Tom had begun to rig up the new miniaturized detector component for testing, even though he was still not certain he had licked the problems completely. Some time later he glanced at his wristwatch.
“Ten after four!” The young inventor gave a whistle. “What a skullcracker this turned out to be! Dick sure wasn’t kidding when he guessed it would take a week’s work.”
Yawning wide and leaning back on his work stool, Tom stretched his cramped limbs. Sure wish Bud and Chow were here, he thought wistfully. Bud’s breezy quips and Chow’s many puzzled questions not only gave Tom a lift, but often played a part in giving him a new insight into whatever problem he was tackling.
Soon he was back at work assembling a spiderweb-like mass of tiny micro-components—transistors, diodes, triodes, anodes, magnetodes, and other solid-state odes to modern genius. But presently Tom’s head slumped toward the workbench and he drowsed off from sheer exhaustion, dreaming of numbers.
Meanwhile, Bud Barclay and Chow were turning and tossing in their hammocks back in the Mayan village. A horde of tiny insects buzzed maddeningly outside their mosquito netting.
Presently Bud whispered, “Hey, Chow! You awake?”
“I sure am,” the cook grunted softly, careful not to disturb Doc Simpson. He managed to lean over close to Bud’s ear, wrapped in his netting. “These pesky flyin’ buzzsaws are drivin’ me plumb loco, let alone all them jungle noises out there. I’m purt near sure I heard that jaguar!”
“You suppose the paraplane’s safe?”
Chow raised up on one shoulder. The moonlight shining in through the door of the hut showed a worried look on his weather-beaten face. He whispered in reply, “It better be if we’re ever aimin’ to get out o’ this jungle. Why? You figger it ain’t?”
“I don’t know what to figure,” Bud replied restlessly. Throwing off the netting, he got onto his feet and padded softly to the open hut door. Suddenly, as if alarmed, he beckoned for Chow to join him.
“Whatsamatter, buddy boy?” demanded the Texan as they both stepped out into the open. “Didn’t hear that alarm-beeper go off.”
“It didn’t,” Bud hissed, “but look over there!”
“Don’t see nothin’.”
“That’s the point, Chow. Where’s Hutchcraft?”
The Bostonian’s sleeping bag was zippered and empty!
“Aw nuts!” Chow groaned. “That big-brained sidewinder’s prob’ly off messin’ with somethin’ else on Tom’s balloon-plane.”
“Absolutely!” Bud grated. “With Tom gone, he must figure it’s a great night to come back and pull another trick!”
The cook exclaimed in muted alarm. “Brand my britches, now you got me worried! Come on, buddy boy. You an’ me better hop out there an’ take a look-see—jest to make sure!”
As if to emphasize the point, the monitor clipped to Bud’s elastic waistband suddenly gave forth a chirp of warning. Someone had tripped the plane’s alarm system!
Pulling on some clothes to keep the darting night insects at bay, the pair tiptoed out of the hut and made their way through the sleeping village and along the half-hidden jungle path to the paraplane site. As they passed the outer fringe of brush, stepping into the deeply-shadowed clearing, Bud suddenly grabbed Chow’s arm. Chow gave a hoarse croak and froze in his tracks. “B-B-Bud!” he gasped. “D’you see what I see?”
“I sure do!”
The two could hardly believe their eyes. A huge hulking figure, which looked at least eight feet tall, was moving furtively near the nose of the paraplane! Suddenly the silhouette froze, as if listening, then darted off with surprising nimbleness into the leafy underbrush.
“What in tarnation was it?” Chow gulped. “A g’rilla?”
“Not around here.” Gathering his wits, Bud spurted forward. “Come on! Let’s see where it went, whatever it is! I want a closer look!”
Together, they reached the plane and plunged into the underbrush on the far side where the giant form had disappeared.
“Leapin’ rattlesnakes!” Chow quavered, as they groped about among the tangled creepers and head-high jungle growth. “It’s so dark in here I can’t tell which is you an’ which is me!”
His nervous wisecrack seemed hardly an exaggeration. Scarcely a ray of starlight pierced the darkness, now that they had left the beaten trail. The leafy canopy above them was too densely overgrown.
“Guess you’re right,” Bud agreed. “We don’t stand much chance of finding him—or it—now.”
Giving up the search, they backtracked to the paraplane and Bud, an expert pilot, made a quick check of it. Everything seemed to be in order.
“What do we do now, pardner?” Chow asked.
Bud shrugged helplessly. “Not much we can do, I guess. Whatever that was we saw, I have a hunch it won’t risk a return visit—not tonight, anyhow.”
“An’ I got m’self a hunch o’ my own,” declared Chow. “What-so-ever that spooky giant turns out to be, my hunch connects it up to a Hutch—meanin’ that there Mr. Fancy-Pants hisself, Hutchcraft!”
AS THE sun mounted high the next morning, Bud made a call to the Flying Lab, anxious to tell Tom about the night’s hulking phantom. The skyship’s flight engineer, Jack Murray, answered the signal. “Our ol’ junior genius is fast asleep, sleeping in,” he reported with a half-chuckle. “Had one of his late-night inventing sprees. Shall I wake him?”
“No, that’s okay,” Bud replied. “It’ll keep till he gets here this afternoon.”
At breakfast, which Hutchcraft condescended to join, Bud asked the Bostonian about his mysterious absence during the night.
“I went to get some insect repellent out of my gear,” Hutchcraft replied calmly. “I have my knapsack stowed in one of the huts. For that matter,” he added, “what were you two doing up wandering around?”
Bud told of their visit to the plane and the looming figure they had sighted. Hutchcraft could throw no light on the mystery. “Sounds to me as if you both were having a nightmare,” he remarked with a needling chuckle.
Chow snorted angrily, but said nothing.
Shortly after two, Bud, helping Doc with his examinations, heard the distinctive sound of Castillez’s truck pulling to a stop out on the dirt roadway. He trotted over to help Tom unload and the two chums exchanged greetings.
“Wait’ll you hear this one, Skipper! You won’t believe it!” exclaimed Bud. As the youths walked back to the village carrying the replacement helium tank between them, he proceeded to describe the strange encounter next to the paraplane, concluding with: “When we got back to the village, Hutchcraft was already snug in his bag and pretending to snore. Naturally, this morning he made an excuse. He claims not to know anything about the giant.”
Tom was staring at Bud wide-eyed as they lowered the tank to the ground. “A giant!” he gasped, then broke into a wry chuckle to show he was only ribbing his pal. “Are you sure you two weren’t seeing things?”
“I said you wouldn’t believe me,” Bud retorted. “But it’s no joke.”
Professor Castillez had ambled up during the discussion, and Tom noticed that Chief Quetzal, standing in silent dignity not far off with several of the village men, had also heard the story.
One of the men cautiously approached them. “You Swifts, what you see, I see.” He spoke very haltingly and obviously knew little English.
Tom asked him what he had seen. “What I see— ” But the man seemed unable to find the words. After a few attempts, he said a few phrases in his own language, with some Spanish mixed in.
“This man’s name is Xuy,” stated Castillez. “He is the head of the food and provisions department, one might say. He has seen the what he calls the Big Moon Shadow twice now.” The Professor asked Xuy some questions in Mayan-Spanish. “He says others in the village have seen him. They call him the cave man—the giant who can crush a jaguar with his bare hands!”
The man stared fearfully at the two Americans and gave a vigorous nod.
Bud and Tom looked at each other in astonishment. A giant in the Yucatan jungle? A cave man powerful enough to kill jaguars with his bare hands? It sounded weird! Yet there was certainly some kind of giant lurking out in the brush—Bud had seen him with his own eyes, and despite his joking skepticism Tom believed his friend without question.
The young inventor now approached Hu-Quetzal, who gazed at him impassively. “Ahau, have you seen the giant yourself?” Tom asked Quetzal.
“Tell us more, please,” Bud urged the chief. “Who is this giant? Where did he come from?”
Quetzal looked at the two white men as if he failed to understand. When Bud repeated his questions, the chief shrugged and mumbled something in the Mayan tongue and pointedly stepped away from them.
Tom and Bud rejoined Professor Castillez. “Alas, I fear this is an occasion when he does not want to understand you,” the ethnologist said with a slight shrug. “These people regard such things as intimate matters—private and sensitive. Despite the rules of hospitality, one does not discuss them readily with strangers.”
“It seems you’re right,” Tom agreed. “I’d better change the subject.” The ahau was now standing next to his hut some distance away. The chief’s unblinking stare made both Americans feel somewhat uncomfortable. However, when they approached again with respectful nods he seemed as friendly as ever. When Tom spoke of his plan to dig for relics near the end of the ancient road, Quetzal said approvingly:
“You are a very wise young man. Perhaps you will find another stone carved by my people’s ancestors—or the others.”
As the chief walked away and Tom returned to Bud and Castillez, Bud wore a puzzled frown. “What do you make of it?”
Tom shrugged. “He may be embarrassed because his whole village is afraid of the giant.”
“I mean, what do you make of that stuff the other guy told us—the cave man business, and crushing jaguars?”
“It beats me,” the scientist-inventor replied with a chuckle. “Another thing. If that’s the guy who sabotaged our helium tank, what’s his game?”
Castillez made a suggestion, thoughtfully. “It is possible he is only curious about the plane. If perhaps he’s lived his life here, in the jungle, he may never have seen an airplane except distantly in the sky.”
After stowing the helium tank in the safety of Chief Quetzal’s hut, Tom hunted up Doc Simpson, finding him behind a hut at the further side of the village. Chow, who had taken Bud’s place, was helping him examine a half-dozen of the men. After greeting Tom, Doc discussed the progress he had made. “I will definitely be taking five of these six men back to the States. They’re really amazing subjects, Tom.”
He told Tom that their basal metabolism—the rate at which their bodies used energy—was five to eight percent higher than that of the average North American. “Here’s another interesting feature,” he added, as he held an instrument up to one man’s eyes to allow Tom to see. “Notice this trace of a fold of flesh at the inner corner of each eye, called the epicanthic fold. When large, it’s what gives Asians their characteristic facial appearance. In fact, all these people in this village show unusually strong chromosomal indicators connecting them to Asian ancestors many generations back.”
“That seems to bear out the theory that Indian tribes crossed over to this continent from Asia back when Alaska was joined to Siberia by a land bridge,” Tom commented.
“Yes, or perhaps traveled across the Pacific by boat.”
As Doc proceeded to give the Mayas a more detailed examination, Tom left him and returned to the parked truck. He was anxious to finish assembling the retroscope and to try out the new-version scanner he had brought back from the Sky Queen.
With Bud’s help, the improved camera soon stood completed in the afternoon sunlight in front of Chief Quetzal’s hut. Most of the village seemed to have quietly gathered around, respectfully standing back and giving Tom a space in which to work. Even the stolid chief himself seemed fascinated and somewhat awed.
“It looks complicated, ahau, but the basic principle is fairly simple,” Tom said to him with a smile.
The main chassis of the retroscope was flat, shallow, and rectangular, like an oversized shirt box. It was clamped inside an X-shaped frame of support struts, which were in turn connected to a low wheeled platform on the ground. A metal cylinder extended from the front of the camera, widening at the end to a disk that was slightly concave on the side that would face the carved surfaces. Fastened to the top of the console was a big, transparent dome, looking like an embedded half-bubble.
The entire camera apparatus was connected to two other units. A flexible hose ran from the back of the camera chassis to a collection of pumps and compressors with a small, compact tank—like a thermos bottle—at its center. This unit had a valve wheel on top. In addition several long, thick wire leads ran back and forth from the camera to a fairly bulky box-shaped console that stood separately a few feet away.
He walked about the apparatus, touching its various parts as he spoke. “This cylinder is the main scanning mechanism, by which we detect the underlying patterns. The disk up front is the emitter-receiver for the scanning beam itself. These long tubes along the length of the camera chassis are new sensor units that I just designed; they’ll establish the initial baseline reading for whatever we’re scanning.” He moved over to the box-shaped unit. “In here is the battery power source, as well as the primary processing computer. It has to be rather large, as it does most of the work.”
“What about that there, boss?” asked Chow, who had joined the crowd along with Doc Simpson and Wilson Hutchcraft. “Looks like a propane tank fer one o’ them barbecues.”
“It’s liquid helium, Chow.”
“Hunh? You gonna make this here camera float in th’ air like your pair-o-plane?”
Tom laughed pleasantly. “It’d sure make it easier to move around! But seriously, liquid helium is so cold it diminishes the ‘noise’ of molecular motion in our ultra-sensitive detector circuits.”
Now Bud spoke. “Genius boy, what’s with the dome on top? It’s new, isn’t it?”
Tom nodded. “Another part of my miniaturization craze. It contains stroboscopic mini-lasers which allow me to eyeball, directly, some crucial aspects of helium flow turbulence. Doing it this way allows me to get rid of a bunch of gauges and meters, and, surprisingly, it’s just as accurate.”
“And where do you see the picture, Tom-Swift?” asked Ahau Quetzal. “I thought perhaps a television or cinema film.”
The young inventor opened up a small rectangular panel on the side of the camera case which swung open on a hinge. Beneath it was a small screen, slightly recessed into the chassis; and there was another screen on the inner surface of the panel itself. “These are our viewing screens,” he explained. “The one on the cover-panel shows the outer view of the rock or carving, as visible to the eye, while the other one shows the image constructed by the computer from the scanning data.”
“It’s fantastic,” murmured Doc. Even Hutchcraft seemed momentarily impressed.
Hu-Quetzal asked when Tom would begin using the retroscope on actual stones.
“Right now, if we can find any old Mayan stone carvings around here. I’d like to work out all the bugs before using it on your sacred ceremonial stone.”
“That is best,” the chief said with grave approval.
Tom, Bud, and the other visitors to Huratlcuyon now fanned out to search for marked stones. “Better not stray too far from the clearing,” Tom warned. He had the lurking giant in mind.
Minutes later, Doc yelled, “Think I’ve found one!” and the others hurried to join him. He pointed to a round, weather-beaten stone lying almost hidden in the tall grass to the south of the huts. It seemed to bear faint carvings.
“Let’s see if we can lift it,” Tom said, bending down to pry the stone loose.
The next instant he recoiled with a startled gasp. A green iguana, almost six feet long from tip to tail, had suddenly raised its ugly head from the undergrowth! Rearing up on its hind legs with jaws open, the reptile lunged as if to rake Tom’s face with its claws.
“Good grief!” Tom gulped, jumping back hastily in the nick of time,
“You really scared that poor lizard, Tom,” Doc Simpson teased. “That’s why she went for you. Iguanas really aren’t as fierce as they look.”
“Just the same, I won’t try taking this one for a pet,” Tom said with a rueful chuckle.
“I made a pet of one once,” Hutchcraft remarked. “Died on me, though.”
It took the efforts of four men, none of them Hutchcraft, to dislodge the mostly buried stone and lug it back to the retroscope setup.
Tom quickly aimed his camera, flicked a power switch, and began tuning several dials. “These markings look fairly recent—not more than a thousand years old,” he remarked jokingly, “but it’s good enough for a test.”
The others watched the screen over Tom’s shoulder as he carefully manipulated the control knobs, and a faint image leapt into view.
“Brand my spurs!” gulped Chow. “It’s workin’, boss!”
But Tom’s forehead bore a deep furrow of disappointment. The picture produced by the retroscope was a mere blur! No distinct figures could be detected amidst the visual fog.
Tom made numerous adjustments without success. His face filled with dismay.
Was his new invention a failure?
“ANY idea what’s wrong?” Professor Castillez asked in a sympathetic tone.
“Not yet. I feel like giving it a kick, like an old TV set.” The young inventor unscrewed the rear panel of the camera’s main unit. “Have to check a few of these circuits first.”
Bud and the others watched as he probed deftly among the maze of microelectronic parts. Using an oscilloscope and several other testing devices, Tom made a quick check of the reproducer component, then the “brain,” and finally each part of the scanning apparatus.
“What’s the verdict, trouble shooter?” Bud asked, as the young scientist-inventor finished examining the setup.
“Everything checks out,” Tom said gloomily, “so the fault must be in my design. I have a hunch it’s the scanner. Apparently it doesn’t ‘see’ the stone in enough detail for the reproducer to form a clear picture.”
Bud was almost as dismayed as Tom, but tried to cheer his pal. “You’ll work it out, Skipper—probably in the middle of the night!”
Tom gave a wry smile of thanks. “At any rate, at least one part of the retroscope is working just fine—the master time dial.”
“What’s that?” inquired Doc.
“A separate function of the camera which uses various kinds of magnetization and radioactive-decomposition data to calculate when a carved surface was first exposed. Turns out in this case that it’s four baktuns old.”
Bud’s brow puckered into a frown. “Four which?”
“Ya picked my brain, buddy boy!” Chow said.
“Four baktuns.” Tom chuckled. “Dad sent some books on Mayan culture with me, and I’ve been reading up on their calendar and system of numbers. A baktun is four hundred years. The actual date, if it were carved on the stone, would be—let me see, 188.8.131.52.0 7 Ahau 3 Xul, which would be September first, A.D. 317, by our calendar.”
“Wow! Over sixteen hundred years old!” Bud gave a whistle.
“Our course, your estimation ignores the intercalary ‘bad-luck’ days, as they were regarded,” was Hutchcraft's supercilious comment. “But close enough, I suppose.”
Bud gave the man a look of irritation. “That’s plenty ancient for me! But what if the inscribed date turns out to be different from what your time dial reads?”
“Then I’ll assume the retroscope is at fault,” Tom responded. “The old Mayas just didn’t make mistakes when it came to dates. By means of astronomy they were able to figure out the length of a solar year right on the button. And they were wizards with numbers.”
Tom went on to explain how the Mayas had developed two kinds of numerical notations. One, using a system of bars and dots, was simpler and easier to figure out than Roman numerals. The other, using pictures of human heads to represent the numbers from one to thirteen and also zero, was much like our present-day Arabic numerals.
“What’s even more amazing,” Tom told Bud as the others listened, “the old Mayas were first to develop an accurate calendar and to reckon time from a fixed date. They were able to figure out the length of a year so closely that their calendar was actually more accurate than the one Americans were using at the time George Washington was born.”
“Must’ve been a bunch o’ smart cookies,” Chow said, impressed.
“It’s strange how such a great civilization as theirs could decline,” mused Doc Simpson. “I’ve read that many of their cities and ceremonial sites were abandoned abruptly, almost overnight.”
“Yes, it is true,” nodded Hu-Quetzal.
“As to that,” began Hutchcraft in a lecturing tone, “several theorists have suggested— ”
Tom pretended not to notice. “You must read this book, Doc. Right now I’d better stop talking and pack down the retroscope for the night. Then—next order of business—installing the new helium tank in the paraplane.”
Tom and Bud efficiently completed the stowing of the retroscope. Leaving the village, the two set off down the jungle path again carrying the helium tank, Chow following closely with many a nervous glance at the shadowed underbrush. When they reached the paraplane, Bud made another quick check of the craft, both inside and out. “Doesn’t look like anybody’s fooled around with it, Tom,” he declared.
Tom nodded, wiping the perspiration from his brow. “That’s good news, at any— ”
“Pssst!” Chow interrupted with a hiss of alarm. As the youths looked up at their friend, startled, the westerner whispered. “We’re bein’ watched! I seen eyes back in those shadows over there—an’ I mean big ones, an’ high up, too!”
Tom tried to undertake a subtle glance, but it was too late to hold back Bud. The dark-haired pilot impulsively plunged among the trees but had gone only a short distance when he stopped short with a startled cry.
“The giant!” Bud gulped, as a huge, hairy, half-naked white man loomed out of the tangled shrubbery, blocking the boy’s path. He was clad only in a loincloth, with sandals made of palm fibers. His long flowing hair hung down to his shoulders.
Seeing Bud’s horrified look, the man threw back his head and gave a deep booming laugh. As Bud stepped back, seeking to dodge out of his way, the giant reached out and grabbed up the husky young flier as if he were a baby. Grabbing his collar and supporting him on the palm of one huge hand, the eight-footer spun Bud’s athletic six feet around him with no difficulty at all.
“Now you are the slave of the King of the Jungle!” the man roared in English.
“Cut it out! Let me down!” Bud yelled. He squirmed frantically in an effort to free himself, but the giant clutched him in a viselike grip!
“Okay man, you asked for it!” Bud gritted. Twining both hands in the giant’s flowing locks, Bud yanked the man’s hair until he yelped with pain. He promptly loosened his hold and Bud jumped to the ground.
To Bud’s surprise, the giant seemed to bear him no ill will over the hair-pulling. Instead, he gave another of his bellowing laughs. “Nice going, young fellow!” the giant said, patting Bud on the shoulder with a ham-sized hand. “I respect anyone as brave as you! Weren’t frightened a bit, were you?”
At that moment Tom and Chow came running up, having concealed themselves in the jungle during the struggle. As he drew near Chow stopped short and regarded the looming form with amazement. “G-Great jumpin’ jehoshaphat!” Chow stuttered, his jaw sagging open.
“Don’t worry,” Bud assured him. “The guy’s friendly—I think!”
Before Tom could venture a comment, there was a further interruption. Several Mayan men came trotting into view, evidently drawn by the shouts and bellows. One look at the giant sent them melting away into the jungle like shadows.
“Ho, ho, ho!” the huge man guffawed. “Look at ’em run! I terrify ’em!”
“Just who are you?” he asked the giant.
“Maximilian Jones, that’s me!” he answered, thumping himself on the chest. “Former heavyweight wrestler from California, U. S. of A!”
“Why shor as shootin’!” exclaimed Chow. “Now I reconnize you! Used t’ watch you on TV.”
“So you’re from California?” Bud grinned. “Say, that’s where I come from!”
“But I’m never going back,” the giant added. “Not Max. No sirree!”
“Why not?” Tom asked.
“Because this jungle is the finest garden of health to be found on earth. You take it from me—I know. It made a new man out of me!”
“You mean you weren’t always this big?” Bud asked.
“Sure, I was big,” the ex-wrestler replied. “But y’see, boys, I had some bad chromosomes, they said, and I didn’t stop growin’ like normal folk do. It’s not good for a fellow to grow that way—strains the whole system. So I had to give up my wrestlin’ career and had myself a long siege of illness. Sick in bed half the time, all sickly and pale and weak. Doctors couldn’t do a thing for me. Then I came down here.”
“Sounds like one of those ‘Before and After’ health ads,” Tom chuckled.
“Now don’t you laugh!—this is on the level,” Max boomed. “I came here t’ die, but first I thought I’d consult a Mayan medicine man. He gave me some real potent stuff—herbs that he brewed himself. Had me back on my feet in no time! Of course the outdoor life helped too—that and the wonderful native food. The sun gives me energy, the rain gives me purity, and between them all, boys, they’ve turned me into a glowing picture of health!”
To emphasize his words, the ex-wrestler threw out his chest and flexed his mighty biceps. Tom barely managed to suppress a grin. He glanced quickly at his two companions. Bud responded with a wink, while Chow whispered out of the corner of his mouth:
“Punchy as a loco steer!”
Unfortunately, his words carried to Max. With a bellow of rage, the giant leaped at Chow!
TOM AND BUD hastily yanked Chow out of the way, a two-man task, and stepped in front of the enraged giant.
“Hold on!” Tom commanded. “That’s no way to treat a fellow American, is it?”
“Well, that ain’t no way to talk about a fellow American, either,” Max complained. “I heard what he said about me.” The giant suddenly sounded like a sulky little boy. An injured look covered the expanse of his pug face.
“I’m sure Chow didn’t mean any harm,” Tom said soothingly, and the wide-eyed chef nodded emphatically and at great length. “Besides, we’d like to hear more about these health foods you’ve been eating down here.”
Max brightened immediately and began to talk about the fruits, nuts, and roots that he lived on. From his enthusiasm, the three realized that the ex-wrestler was not only crackbrained on the subject of health, but a food faddist of the most rabid kind.
Chow, who had been keeping a respectful and wary distance from Max, now became interested. The cook was always eager to try out exotic new concoctions. In the past he had served such unusual dishes as armadillo soup and whaleburgers, and those who had sampled them had lived to tell about it. Perhaps some of the items Max the Magnificent mentioned might be worth trying, he thought.
Chow began questioning the giant and this seemed to please him immensely. Soon Max forgot his anger and became very friendly. “You fellows ought to come around and visit my cave some time,” he boomed cheerfully.
“Do you really live in a cave?” Tom asked.
“Sure! Got it fixed up nice and homelike,” Max boasted. “I even have a pet parrot and a lot of old relics.”
Tom’s eyes flashed with interest at mention of the relics. If they were of ancient Mayan workmanship, it might be that some bore space symbols like the sacred stone of Quetzal’s tribe!
Meanwhile, Bud decided that he would risk a blunt question while the giant was in a good humor. “What were you doing skulking around our plane last night, Max?” he asked boldly.
Max looked surprised. “Now, how’d you know that?” he exclaimed. “I’ll bet someone snitched on me! That skinny little guy, eh? Well, it so happens I was chasing him!”
Tom and Bud looked at each other, mystified. “What skinny little guy?” Bud asked. “Someone from the village, you mean? One of the little Mayans?”
“Naw. I know what them pipsqueaks look like.” The wrestler shrugged. “It was dark and I got only a glimpse this time—shadow, mostly.”
Tom frowned intently. Now they were getting some place! “‘This time’—you’ve seen him before?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “More’n once, always at night. The guy irritates the heck out o’ me, lurkin’ around in my jungle! So I chased after him. But I gotta tell ya, one thing I can’t do so well, is run.” Max looked embarrassed. “Big guys are no good at it, you know; and the doc said my old bones are a little soft in places. He got away, but I hung around—I just wanted to get a look at your plane, that’s all. Guess that’s what he wants too, from the way he acts.”
“What do you mean, exactly?” Tom inquired.
“Aw, nothing much. Just that I spotted him near that plane a couple other nights lately, that’s all. Say, man, what kind of a plane is it, anyway?”
As Tom provided a brief explanation, his mind was racing. If Max were being truthful, it seemed likely the “skinny phantom” was the saboteur of the helium tank. And now that I think of it, he said to himself, he might’ve been our mystery arrow-shooter, too! He glanced at Bud and could read the same thoughts on the face of his friend.
“Where’d this guy seem to be heading when he ran off?” Bud asked. “Toward the Mayan village?”
“Nope. Now you mention it, he headed in a different direction—over that way.” The giant pointed north. “O’ course he could’ve just gone the long way around.”
Tom and Bud mulled over this information thoughtfully. Chow was still staring at the barechested strong man with keen interest.
“So you live out here in the jungle! Ain’t you skeered o’ jaguars?” the cook asked.
“Jaguars?” Max laughed scornfully. “Naw! I just kill ’em with my bare hands!” He went through the motions of crushing a jaguar. When he caught that Tom and Bud were a bit skeptical, he stooped down and picked up two small rocks. He slammed them together like cymbals with a mighty Crack! and they exploded in a flurry of dust and pebbles!
Chow clucked in amazement. “Brand my coyote cutlets! You kin count me a believer, Max!”
The conversation seemed at last to rouse the wrestler’s curiosity about Tom’s group. “What’re you Americanos doing here in the jungle, anyway?” he asked. “You and your fancy blimp-jet an’ all!”
“We’re interested in studying the old Mayan stone carvings,” Tom said cautiously. “I’d like to see some of those old relics you’ve collected if we get a chance. Maybe we’ll take you up on that invitation to visit your cave.
“Sure, you do that!” the giant boomed. “Come on over for dinner some time. Just give me a little warning, willya—so I can wear my best loincloth!” He bellowed out a hearty laugh. “My cave’s over that way, in the hill, far side.” He jerked his thumb toward the east, then gave each of them a resounding slap on the shoulder. Bud and Tom winced, while Chow’s knees almost buckled.
“Well, so long, fellows! See you later!” With a parting wave, the giant sailed off into the bush and quickly disappeared from sight.
“Whatever he’s been eating, it’s given him some build, I’ll say that for him,” Tom commented.
“Some, and then some!” said Bud admiringly. He flexed his own muscles and regarded them critically. “What I need is less adventure and more gym time.”
Chow glanced about cautiously, then said in a low voice: “He may have some dang good recipes, but I still say—loco as a loon!”
Bud grinned and cupped his hands as if making a 1oudspeaker announcement at a wrestling match. “Beware all jaguars! Here comes Magnificent Max! This man is dangerous!”
Tom laughed. “Better hope he didn’t hear that, pal. I’d say your fellow Californian doesn’t like having people make fun of him! But anyway,” he went on, “we’ve lugged this helium tank out here. Let’s install it in the ship right now.”
“Roger!” Bud agreed eagerly.
“Whatcha want me t’ do, boys?” asked Chow.
“You hold down the ground, cowpoke!” Bud joked.
Tom opened up the paraplane’s machinery bay. Then, with the aid of a parbuckle sling, the two youths hoisted the tank of liquified helium aboard, jettisoning the empty one. Then Tom went to work.
“So far, so good.” Tom laid aside the wrench he had used to connect the helium feed line and dethermal-compressor unit, and wiped the sweat off his forehead. “Let’s try the engine.”
Bud nodded. The young inventor warmed up the jet engine, checked various instrument readings, and gunned the throttle enough to make sure that everything was functioning properly. “No problems!” he called out to Chow.
“Gonna try ’er out up in th’ air, boss?” asked the cook.
“Tomorrow,” was the reply. “I’m anxious to get back to the hut and do some work on fixing the retroscope before sundown.”
After resetting and activating the magnetic alarm system, the three headed back to the Mayan village along the meandering jungle path.
Even before reentering the clearing of the huts, they could hear a hubbub of excited voices. A large crowd had gathered at the center of the village. Hutchcraft, Castillo, and Doc were a part of the circle, literally head and shoulders above the rest.
“What’s cooking?” Tom asked as he approached.
“Ah, Tom, you must come greet our new visitors,” responded the Professor, beckoning him over.
The new visitors surprised Tom. A pudgy, round-faced Asian man in thick glasses stood talking politely to Castillo. On his far side, eclipsed, was a twiglike Asian woman, small and delicate in appearance. Both appeared somewhat advanced in years, though healthy looking. The man was very animated; the woman stood in demure silence, her head slightly lowered.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Swift,” the man said, extending his hand. “I am Dr. Stephanus Liu; and may I present my beloved wife, Jiang.” The woman bobbed her head slightly. “Now, now, my dear, you really must try, you know.”
“Yes, I try. Good day to you,” she murmured shyly, her accent very thick. “I am pleased.”
Tom smiled and nodded. “I am pleased as well, ma’am.” He introduced Bud and Chow, then asked Dr. Liu how he came to be passing through Huratlcuyon.
The man smiled broadly. “To take your question literally, we are here because we walked here overland from the town of Tiasardes, where we have rented a small house—where, it seems, we are rarely at home! But as to our larger purpose, it’s a bit of a story indeed.
“I am a Hawaiian of Chinese descent,” he continued; “Jiang-Ma was born in China and is only now learning English. Sometimes I think my breezy American ways shock her!
“I am associated with the Honolulu Institute of Ethnographic Linguistics. Ah, I see those familiar looks of puzzlement! We study the migrations of the human species, as it were, from place to place, using language as our tool—that is, the development of certain word-forms and colloquial expressions over great lengths of time. Do you see?”
Tom nodded respectfully. “I believe so. Then you’re here to study this Mayan dialect, I take it?”
Liu bobbled his head negatively. “No, no. What I am doing, with my wife as my assistant, is quite different. Indeed, one might say it verges upon the interesting.” His eyes twinkled.
He spoke to his wife softly, a few words that Tom assumed was Chinese. In response she withdrew a small box from her pack and handed it to her husband. As Tom and the others leaned forward with interest, Dr. Liu took out a small object and held it in the sunlight. “This little implement was once used for grinding corn, about one thousand years ago.”
Wilson Hutchcraft shoved his face close to the tool and scrutinized it. “Tarascan, I’d say, from the Pacific coastal region.”
“I am glad to have you confirm my own conclusions, Mr. Hutchcraft. Now then, I ask you all to consider these four small markings upon the part used as a handle.”
“Yes, typical decorative features,” stated Hutchcraft in his usual smug tone. “Entirely common.”
“Indeed so,” said the Chinese. “Tell me, do any of you here read Chinese writing? That is, the ideogram characters? No one? Well, let me suggest a little something to your minds.” He pointed at one of the inscribed figures. “What does this look like to you?”
Chow squinted at it. “Some kind o’ animal head. A horse maybe?”
Hutchcraft snorted. “Horses were unknown here before the advent of the Europeans. It is their conventional stylization of the head of a jaguar.”
Liu nodded. “So we are told. And next to it, a snake; and here, the sun rising upon water. Yes? –But now, I turn the tool over, and the figures are upside down.”
“Upside down they don’t really look like much of anything,” remarked Doc Simpson.
“But to my eyes, to the eyes of my wife—they do. You see, gentlemen, I have come to believe that certain decorative motifs like this did not originally represent animals and so forth. They are, in truth, rather degraded and much-altered Chinese characters in the formal high court calligraphy of the great T’ang Dynasty.” Dr. Liu paused dramatically. “Do you understand? I am saying that the Chinese came to the shores of Mexico more than twelve hundred years ago!”
“WHAT an amazing theory!” exclaimed Professor Castillez.
“And not an utterly novel one, I might say,” sniffed Wilson Hutchcraft disdainfully. “These legends of ‘strangers from the west’ arriving in ‘great floating palaces’ are no longer taken seriously.”
“Not by the mainstream of archaeology, I will admit,” Dr. Liu said very soberly. “But Jiang and I take the possibility quite seriously indeed.”
Bud asked what the Chinese characters said.
Liu pointed to the inscriptions one by one and provided a translation. “‘Given for the celestial and eternal honor of the Son of Heaven Hsuan Tsung.’ That is my interpretation, anyway, with which my wife is pleased to concur. Hsuan Tsung was an Emperor of the T’ang Dynasty.”
Tom asked if he had made translations of other ancient inscriptions, and Dr. Liu nodded vigorously. “Very many; for such decorative motifs were most common in the native cultures of that time and place. They are all short phrases, rather disjoint, having to do with matters of trade and commerce, as well as a few stamps of ownership. I believe the local peoples did not conceive of these marks as writing, but merely decoration, perhaps with some ceremonial significance; and so they copied them. My guess at the larger picture is that the T’angs sent a trading fleet eastward from southern China, perhaps in vessels provided by Arabs or the Malays—as I fear my ancestors were themselves deficient in the art of shipbuilding. Some sort of trading post or small settlement may have been established on the Pacific coast, enduring for a short time, probably in the Eighth Century. No doubt it was finally overrun and destroyed by warlike peoples migrating from the north.”
“I’ll give you high marks for creativity,” commented Hutchcraft. “But as we are nowhere near the Pacific, why have you come to Huratlcuyon?”
“I have reason to think that an important trade route passed through this region during that era, connecting the Pacific tribes with the Maya of Chiapas, Yucatan, and Guatemala,” replied the scientist. “This may be a fruitful place to discover the sort of relics we are interested in.”
“Then you may be interested in the paved roadway we think we’ve discovered,” Tom declared. “It may have something to do with your trade route.”
“Or it may not be a paved road at all,” added Hutchcraft snidely.
Doc Simpson spoke up. “My medical research is relevant to all this. I see many signs of Asian ancestry in these village people. If your theory is correct, Dr. Liu, the inhabitants of the Chinese settlement may have fled overland and eventually intermarried with the Mayan people already settled here.”
“It is possible, surely. How thrilling it would be to confirm such a thing.”
After further conversation, Dr. Liu politely indicated that he would leave now to set up his tent at the outskirts of the village clearing. Immediately Chief Quetzal held up a forbidding hand. “No you will not,” he commanded in a voice of decree. “In this village, strangers are treated well. We will provide a hut for you.”
As Liu thanked the ahau, Bud whispered to Tom: “At this rate old Quetzal’s going to run out of huts!”
Chow overheard Bud’s joking remark. With a glance up at the sun, still high in the sky, the cook unobtrusively went off to speak to Hu-Quetzal.
Tom and Bud hurried to the hut the chief had provided them and set up the main components of the retroscope for Tom to experiment with.
“Any ideas on how to make your gizmo ‘see back’ with 20/20 vision?” asked Bud as they worked.
“Have to identify the source of the problem first,” Tom replied. “I have a few good guesses, though.” He explained that he thought background radiation—cosmic rays from the sky above—was throwing off the baseline-establishing detector system. “It’s not a matter of shielding the sensors. The problem is the constant interaction between the rays and the surface of the rock. It’s creating—well, it’s like the layer of sizzling grease in a pan when you’re frying bacon.”
“So is there a way to drain it off?”
“No,” responded the young inventor; “but I may be able to teach the camera to ignore it.”
In the meantime Chow was busy on a project of his own. With Ahau Quetzal’s permission the grizzled Texan had organized a crew of Quetzal’s subjects to build a special hut for Tom Swift’s group and the other outsiders, so that the chief could return to his own quarters.
“You are thoughtful!” the chief said when Chow had asked his approval. “In this you are like the Maya.”
First the tribesmen scattered into the forest with axes and machetes to cut and trim the necessary timber. Quetzal himself chose each piece with the skilled, loving eye of a craftsman.
After he had marked out a site at one end of the village, a series of stakes were driven into the ground. These were of young sapodilla wood and formed the walls of the hut. The stakes were tied together with palm fibers and daubed with a thick coating of mud.
“Don’t you folks ever use hammer an’ nails?” Chow asked, puzzled.
Quetzal broke into one of his rare smiles. “I have seen such tools when I lived in Mérida,” he replied. “Stucco, steel beams, glass windows, concrete foundations. But we Maya have no need of them. Here, we have chosen the ways of our ancestors.”
Meanwhile, other native workmen were laying floor planks of mahogany and Spanish cedar. A framework was then raised to support the ridge-pole and thatching of the roof.
“Brand my ole Mayan fryin’ pan,” Chow reflected, “when it comes to slappin’ a house together fast, these little folks really know their business!”
Standing nearby, Professor Castillez chuckled. “Let us call it ‘instant housing’!”
Tom was busily at work with Bud assembling various transistors and other parts in the priming detector eye when Doc Simpson stuck his head into the hut. “Lots going on out here,” he remarked. “How goes it with you two?”
“Almost finished with my long-pass solution and ready for the test,” Tom replied. “I just have the hookup to do and a little adjusting. Now if my camera still works, we’re in business!”
Tom had just finished checking out the whole setup when Chow came clumping into the hut, beaming mysteriously, followed by Hu-Quetzal.
“Got somethin’ to show you, boss!” the seasoned ranch cook announced. “Come along an’ see!”
Tom and Bud trooped after him, curious to find out what was up. They stared in amazement when Chow showed them the spanking new hut, almost, not quite, larger than any other in the village.
“You mean it’s ours?” Tom gasped.
“Ours,” corrected Wilson Hutchcraft pointedly; “and Dr. and Mrs. Liu, of course; and Castillez if he likes. I suppose I wouldn’t mind sleeping indoors for a time.”
“What a wonderful gift!” exclaimed Stephanus Liu.
“Yes, wonderful,” repeated Mrs. Liu timidly.
“The labor of many,” the chief responded. “A present from my people to our friends from Los Estados Unidos!”
Touched, Tom made a short speech of thanks and said he would move the retroscope there later, after supper.
This was Chow’s cue. “Now that that’s over—come an’ get it!” he bawled.
He stepped from the crowd, banging a native gong. Then the cook turned to Wilson Hutchcraft. “You’re invited too, pardner.”
“I assumed so,” replied the man suavely.
In the center of the clearing the women had spread large ferns for a “table.” At each place was a crude mat woven from the leaves of the guano palm. The “dishes” were fashioned from hollowed-out pieces of a banana-tree trunk. As the men and children scrambled for places, the women served the delicious native food, a traditional Mayan feast prepared while the men labored on the new hut.
First course for the Norte-Americanos was mamee—a sweet, red-treated fruit. Next, Chow, acting as their server, brought around a steaming platter of stewed chicken, covered with a rich dark-brown sauce.
“Mm!” Bud, a young man of large appetite, closed his eyes and inhaled the strange-scented aroma. Then he added, pointing to the sauce, “But what’s this stuff?”
“It’s called mole,” Chow exclaimed proudly. “Somethin’ special—made out o’ real chocolate from the bean plant, an’ spices. You kin get it in a lot o’ Mexican restaurants, but this here’s the gen-yoo-ine article. The womenfolk showed me how to whip it up. You jest taste it!”
The Americans were a bit dubious about the idea of combining chocolate sauce with chicken. But after sampling a few bites of the dish, they fell to avidly.
“Sounds crazy,” Doc remarked between bites, “but it tastes wonderful!”
The chicken was accompanied by side dishes of tortillas, baked native squash called chayote, and a sort of raw turnip, jicama. For dessert, the feast was topped off with avocados and oranges.
“Chow, old boy, you’ve done us proud!” Bud said as he sat back and loosened his woven belt.
“One of the best meals I ever ate,” Tom agreed, and Chow grinned. Tom turned and nodded deeply to the women and girls. “We thank you.”
“And now there is more, to celebrate this new hut in xeuyta Huratlcuyon,” declared the Chief. When the remains of the feast had been cleared away, he clapped his hands to call for music. A dozen of the Mayan men brought out drums, gourd rattles, wooden flutes, and other instruments. Then a group of native dancers came forward, balancing bottles, crocks, and jugs on top of their flat, broad heads.
“What in tarnation is all the crockery for?” Chow wondered. The other visitors were equally mystified.
The answer soon became evident. As the musicians played a gay Spanish tune, the dancers whirled and stepped without disturbing the articles on their heads. Evidently it was a mark of skill to keep the objects balanced.
“Hey, they’re good!” Bud exclaimed, clapping his hands in time to the music. Even Wilson Hutchcraft seemed to be twitching his foot rhythmically, perhaps without realizing it.
By now, it was deep twilight and the blazing fire that had been built to celebrate the feast made the scene even more colorful. Chow watched in grinning admiration. Finally some of the women dancers beckoned him to join in as the little children giggled with glee.
“Go on, Chow! Show ’em a Texas reel!” Bud urged. And don’t forget your headpiece!” Seizing a large clay water jug, he placed it atop the cook’s wide bald head.
Chow, full of enthusiasm, needed little urging. He waddled out among the dancers, balancing the jug precariously to everyone’s surprise. Soon the chef was dancing a lively jig.
“What a man!” Bud roared, as he and the rest of Tom’s group shook with laughter.
Puffing and panting, red in the face, Chow edged closer to his friends to show off his skill. But the jug was wobbling more and more wildly. Suddenly, as Chow reached up to steady it, the jug arced from his head.
“Look out!” Tom cried. He made a wild grab for the heavy jug but missed. It struck Hutchcraft squarely in the forehead!
With a groan, Hutchcraft reeled under the impact, then slumped to the ground, unconscious!
THE MUSIC came to an abrupt stop and the crowd gasped as they stared at Hutchcraft’s motionless form.
Chow wrung his hands. “Brand my stupid old hide, this is terrible!”
“Wasn’t your fault—just a freakish accident,” Tom tried to calm him. “I’m sure that Hutch isn’t seriously hurt.” As the Mayas clustered around to lend sympathy, he added in Spanish, “Give him air, please!”
Doc Simpson was already examining the unconscious man. In a moment he looked up and gave the OK sign as Hutchcraft’s eyelids fluttered open and closed.
With Bud’s help, Tom lifted the victim to a more comfortable spot. Chow bustled off to bring some cloths soaked in cool water, which had just been brought from the village well.
An ugly bruise and swelling were appearing on Hutchcraft’s temple. After several applications of cold compresses, however, the Bostonian revived. He sat up with a groan, then scowled as he caught sight of Chow.
“You satisfied now, Winkler?” Hutchcraft exclaimed. “Of all the dirty tricks!”
“D-dirty tricks!” The softhearted Westerner was horrified. “You ain’t thinkin’ I beaned you with that jug on purpose, are you?”
“Don’t pretend to be innocent,” Hutchcraft retorted. “If you don’t like me, say so! But you don’t have to try fracturing my skull!”
“Maybe it could still be arranged,” Bud muttered, bristling with anger. Both he and Tom were indignant at Hutchcraft’s attitude toward their friend.
“You’ll get through this, Mr. Hutchcraft,” said Doc coolly. “No bleeding or concussion, just a bit of a bump.”
The archaeologist harrumphed skeptically. Tom nudged Bud for silence before the copilot’s quick temper made matters worse. “You can see from Chow’s face how bad he feels about the accident,” Tom told Hutchcraft evenly. “We’re all sorry it happened, and there’s no reason to make unfair accusations.”
Meanwhile, the ahmen, the village’s medicine man, was doing his bit for the injured man. Having seen Hutchcraft lying unconscious, he had hurried to don his parrot-feather headdress and other regalia. Now he glided back and forth with slow, dancing steps, all the while waving a small greenish stone ball over the archaeologist’s head. This was accompanied by a singsong chant.
Hutchcraft glared up at him in annoyance. “Confounded native mumbo-jumbo!” he fumed. “Go on—clear out! Leave me alone!” Waving his arms threateningly, he drove the shaman away.
A shocked murmur arose from the villagers. The Americans, embarrassed by Hutchcraft’s show of bad temper, coldly walked away from him.
Tom was too interested in the ahmen’s medicine ball to waste further words on Hutchcraft. The curious-looking green stone had caught the young scientist-inventor’s eye. Asking Castillez to accompany him, he hurried after the shaman and asked if he might see it, the Professor translating his request.
The tribesman hesitated and spoke gravely in answer. “It is a sastun, used for making strong magic,” Castillez explained. But finally he allowed Tom to examine the ball. It was a perfect sphere, about two inches in diameter, made of polished jade. “What beautiful workmanship!” Tom exclaimed admiringly. The surface of the ball was inscribed with delicate carvings.
Tom took out his pocket magnifying glass and tried to make out some of the pictographs. But they were too worn and faint from being bandied.
Must be centuries old! Tom thought excitedly. Through Professor Castillez he asked the medicine man if he might test the jade ball to determine its age.
“Even I cannot tell you when it was made,” the village elder replied in translation. “This sastun has been passed down by my father’s father and by many generations before him. Who can know its age? Only its spirit-dweller.”
“The special machine I brought here may help us find out how old it is,” Tom replied. He pointed to the camera equipment “Would you let me try?”
Impressed by Tom’s respectful, reassuring demeanor, the medicine man agreed. But suddenly he held up his hand. “Wait!” After sniffing the air, he announced, “I smell rain. A bad storm is coming. I must warn the villagers!”
The medicine man’s forecast seemed unbelievable. The stars were out and the sky almost cloudless. But maybe the man had a sixth sense, Tom thought. Rather than take a chance exposing the retroscope to bad weather and a leaky roof, Tom asked for help in transferring his equipment to the new hut.
The heavy gear had hardly been moved into the visitor’s hut when thunder echoed and rain came down in lashing torrents!
“It seems the old gods are looking after us!” marveled Dr. Liu, his arm about his wife.
“Yes,” agreed Professor Castillez, “and at the last possible moment. How glad I am, to have moved indoors from my little tent.”
Hutchcraft, nursing his wounds and resentments, kept to himself in one dark corner of the large dwelling. Tom and the others talked for a while, then climbed into their hammocks, glad of their snug quarters. The rain, beating on the hut’s thatched roof, soon lulled them to sleep.
The next morning after breakfast Tom set to work checking and repairing his retroscope. To his delight, he found that neither the electronic brain nor the reproducing unit had suffered from his tinkering.
“Now to test it out on that magic medicine ball!” Tom told Bud excitedly.
But new complexities presented themselves. When he went to speak to the shaman, whose name was Juxtlanpoc, the medicine man was nowhere to be found! Tom next spoke to Chief Quetzal, but received only curt, uninforming answers to his queries.
“What’s going on, Professor?” he asked Castillez. “Have I broken a village rule?”
“Let me speak to Hu-Quetzal,” advised the ethnologist. He went off and returned to Tom minutes later. “Our ahau said the shaman is in the jungle performing an important ceremony at Quetzal’s request. But you see, Tom, one must read between the lines. It develops that Mr. Hutchcraft sought out Juxtlanpoc early this morning and rather poisoned the well for you.”
“How did he do that?” Tom demanded. “What did he say?”
“I gather he convinced the shaman that your scanning process could damage the sastun, despite what you said last evening.”
“What! But that’s— ”
“Yes, absurd. But Hu-Quetzal is a canny leader and wished to placate Juxtlanpoc in a manner that would not obviously violate the rules of hospitality,” the professor explained.
Fuming, Tom immediately stalked-out Hutchcraft and demanded an explanation. The archaeologist returned a bland smile. “I suppose you’ll hold this against me—hardly a surprise! The truth is, I merely spoke to the man this morning in an effort to apologize for my rudeness last night. Perhaps he read too much into my remarks concerning proper treatment of his people’s valuable artifacts. But that’s hardly my fault.”
Tom did not bother discussing the matter further with the man. He sought out Bud and blew off steam.
For once it was Bud who had a calming effect. “Look, Skipper, we both know Hutchcraft is a pompous jerk—and probably working with that skinny phantom, too. But this won’t set back your project. All you have to do is demonstrate your camera a few times in front of that witch doctor fellow—right?”
Tom sighed and managed a rueful smile. “Right, flyboy. Matter of fact, it’ll show everyone Hutchcraft is not to be trusted.”
“There’s the ol’ Swift spirit!” Bud cheered. “And you know, Tom, those old Mayan spirits must be favoring our expedition here.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Well, look at it this way. We’ve been here for days, and nobody’s been kidnapped, nothing’s blown up—we haven’t even been knocked out! Am I right?”
The young inventor had to laugh, his spirit restored. “You’re right! What’s a little diamond-tipped arrow or two among friends?”
Stymied in pursuing his retroscope investigations, Tom and Bud spent the next few hours testing out the newly-repaired parachute plane. At last it worked like a dream. The boys were able to mischievously buzz the Sky Queen, dipping their wings as they flew off again. “About time you got that gas buggy working, Tom!” radioed Slim Davis. He promised to inform Tom’s father in Shopton.
Before leaving Tom had spent some time widening a small clear space at the edge of Huratlcuyon. He intended to land the paraplane there, where it could be easily watched.
Cutting the jets and reinflating the liftbag, Tom and Bud finally reached the Mayan village, drifting along gently and silently and finally touching down exactly as planned. News of their approach had spread, and Ahau Quetzal and his whole tribe had assembled to stare in renewed awe as the sky travelers climbed out of their shining silver cloud.
“You see into the past-times with the eyes of Tulchaxcul the goddess of the hunt, and now once again you drop from the sky without a sound in your strange airship,” Hu-Quetzal told Tom. “I know of modern things. Still I say: you are indeed possessed of great magic, Tom-Swift!”
Tom smiled and shook his head. “Not magic, ahau. Like your great Mayan ancestors who ruled here in Yucatan, I study science—meaning the laws of nature. My father taught me that those laws must be used only for the good of mankind.”
“Then he too must be a wise man,” said Quetzal, nodding approvingly.
Presently Tom noticed that Juxtlanpoc the shaman had returned and was watching Tom cautiously from the shadows of his hut. Instead of confronting him, the youth decided to follow Bud’s advice and demonstrate his electronic retroscope. He and Bud set up the camera in the bright sunlight as a growing crowd watched.
Switching on the power, Tom nodded at the chief. “I have improved my device. I’d like to try it once again on that carved stone we found, with your permission.”
The ahau nodded. Using a small wheel mounted on the side of the chassis, Tom made a series of very minute aiming adjustments until the scanner-detectors were pointed precisely at the middle of the rock surface. He glanced into the luminous dome-chamber that monitored the helium flow, and slowly closed off the valve on the segmented feed tube from the compressor setup.
“Here goes somethin’!” he muttered nervously to Chow, who stood nearby like the world’s most massive mother hen. The Texan gulped hard.
Tom gently nudged the control dials, noting aloud that the age register showed precisely what it had indicated on the previous attempt. He then turned to the small video screen that showed the front of the stone as it looked to the naked eye. The weathered carvings, if carvings they were, still appeared as only the faintest of suggestions.
Finally Tom activated the reproducer unit. As many eyes looked over Tom’s shoulder, an image began to form on the tiny glowing screen!
“I see it!” breathed Dr. Liu, and a soft gasp rose from his wife.
A pattern of carved symbols could be clearly seen, superimposed upon the image of the stone’s ancient surface!
“I never doubted the Swift genius,” murmured Professor Castillez; “yet I must say, it seems like something from a dream!”
Tom modestly acknowledged the rush of congratulations and a low cheer from Bud. Then he proceeded to bring the picture into sharper focus.
“These are not your space symbols, Tom,” noted Castillez.
“Pre-classic Mayan pictographs,” declared Wilson Hutchcraft. “Not a difficult translation. ‘Here upon this stone the firstborn of the great chief Xchi-Botiakulnun was presented to His Godship Puratkl-Mochtyoc’. The poor boy was probably sacrificed.” He half-turned to Stephanus Liu. “Do you agree with my interpretation, Liu?”
The man hesitated. “I have no objection.”
Chow removed his sombrero and scratched his head. “Them old Maya names sure were a mouthful!”
“To some, ‘Chow Winkler’ would twist the tongue,” noted Hu-Quetzal with raised eyebrows.
“True enough, chief.”
Tom performed further experiments on the old stone, noticing with a hidden smile that the medicine man had drawn close, inconspicuously. Bud caught Tom’s eye and gave him a sly wink. The plan was working!
Meanwhile Hutchcraft had wandered away. Now he came walking up again holding a rather muddy rock, which he held out to Tom. “Looks as if this has some markings on it,” the Bostonian said. “See what your time machine can make out.”
Tom was doubtful that the rock had ever borne any carvings. But rather than offend the prickly Hutchcraft, he placed it in front of the camera and switched on the power again. He carefully focused the beam-emitters.
But this time no picture formed on the screen. Instead, the rock suddenly exploded, showering the onlookers with shrapnel-like pieces of debris!
CRIES and groans went up from the natives. Many had been hit by flying bits of rock. Bud was bleeding from cut on the cheek, and Doc Simpson had been grazed on the forehead. Professor Castillez was feeling about in the tall grass—his glasses had been blown right off his nose!
“Brand my flyin’ flapjacks, what was in that stone?” Chow gasped in bewilderment. “A charge o’ blastin’ powder?”
“I sure wouldn’t be surprised!” Bud snapped, dabbing his cheek with a handkerchief. “Maybe our helpful friend here can tell us!” He clenched his fists angrily and started toward Hutchcraft.
“Take it easy, pal!” Tom said, stopping him. “We have enough trouble already.”
“Thanks to Hutchcraft!” Bud stormed. “If you ask me, he knew this would happen!”
The Bostonian looked pale and somewhat frightened by the havoc he had caused. But before he could answer Bud’s charges, Tom intervened.
“We’ll talk about that later,” the young scientist-inventor said quietly. He turned to Hu-Quetzal. “Have any of your people been hurt, ahau?”
The chief shook his head. “No. They were not as close. Perhaps a few are cut. No more.”
“Yes. But they are afraid now.” The Mayan edged closer, his expression grave. He spoke slowly, reaching for the words in English. “Tom-Swift, you are a good man. I know this was not your fault. Your camera is a wonderful thing indeed. But the sastun of Juxtlanpoc, the carved stone upon which we stand in ceremony—these are sacred to Huratlcuyon. As ahau, I cannot allow them to be put in danger, not even for a good cause. You will find other carvings here in Yucatan. Perhaps when your machine has been made perfect— ”
Tom tried to keep the disappointment from his face and the bitterness from his voice. “I understand, Chief Quetzal. Naturally, the decision is yours.”
Doc and Chow hastened to bring first-aid kits from the packs in the hut. Meanwhile, Tom and Ahau Quetzal did their best to calm the excited Mayas.
Fortunately, the only injuries were minor cuts and bruises. As Tom applied antiseptic and bandages, the superstitious victims began to calm down.
When the situation was finally under control, Tom strode determinedly to Hutchcraft, sitting in the shadow of a hut. “Where did that stone come from?” he demanded of the archaeologist, as Bud Barclay approached menacingly from his other side.
The man stood, and for once he seemed to have misplaced his bravado. “It wasn’t really a carved stone,” Hutchcraft admitted sheepishly. “I found it in back of Castillez’s truck, and thought I’d play a trick on you.”
“Mighty fine trick!” Bud growled. Hutchcraft eyed the youth’s broad shoulders and muscular arms, and gulped. “I suppose if someone had lost an eye, you’d be laughing your head off!”
“I didn’t know the thing would explode!” Hutchcraft said sulkily. “I only wanted to get even for Chow’s nasty attack on me last night. I thought I could fool you fellows into believing your machine wouldn’t work. Just a harmless prank, that’s all.”
Bud received his lame excuses with a snort of disgust.
Tom picked up what was left of the stone. He examined it, together with several of the exploded fragments. “You say you found this in the truck bed?” he asked Hutchcraft.
The Bostonian nodded. “It looked like an ordinary stone. I assumed it was something you’d used to prop up your equipment.”
“It’s a form of mica, hydrous silicate,” Tom said. “Must have been dumped into the truck on a hauling job some time or other. I guess that explains its blowing up.”
“How come?” Bud asked, still suspicious.
Tom sighed at his bad luck. “This stuff breaks down under radiation,” he explained. “It must have absorbed too much output from the camera’s scanning beam and exploded. The pieces that hit us are now vermiculite.”
“There! You see?” exclaimed Hutchcraft. “Just a freak accident.”
Bud and the others listening were not mollified. They turned their backs on the philologist-archaeologist and stalked away in disgust.
Tom resumed his retroscope tests, rolling the camera to the edge of the village clearing so as not to worry the villagers or offend Hu-Quetzal. Several other stones were “photographed.” But in every case what had first appeared to be carvings turned out to be natural features.
Tom worked listlessly, and the others from Shopton knew he was reacting to the chief’s edict.
Chow tried to cheer his boss up. “Now listen here, son, you mean that contraption o’ yours kin take a picture o’ what somethin’ looked like a long time ago? Wa-aal then,” Chow asked with a grin, “could it make a picture o’ me back when I was a handsome young feller with a full head o’ hair, you s’pose?”
Everyone burst out laughing, including Tom.
“I’ll be satisfied if it does the trick on the Mayan stones,” Tom replied. “Assuming we can find a few with something worth looking at.”
“Were you not going to begin investigating the place where the ancient highway came to an end?” asked Castillez encouragingly. “Perhaps you will discover something more there—even, perhaps, a trace of the space visitors.”
Dr. Liu, standing nearby with his wife, also spoke up. “And I wish to remind you that you may be in a position to assist our project. Should you find anything with even a suggestion of the decorative motif I showed you, I would be very gratified if you would allow me to place it under the lens of this wizard camera of yours.”
“I would be honored, sir,” Tom replied. “And thanks for trusting me.” A thought suddenly struck him. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you—since you arrived in the area, have either of you seen anything of a small, skinny man in the jungle, someone not of this village?” He briefly summarized Max’s story.
Liu and his wife exchanged glances. To Tom’s surprise, it was Jiang Liu who answered. “We have seen no one like that.” Her husband confirmed the statement.
“Well, he’s out there, sure as shootin’!” Chow declared.
“Now wait,” objected Doc Simpson, “can you really be so sure this ‘giant’ character of yours is on the up-and-up? Maybe he’s a lot smarter than he looks.”
Chow snorted. “He’d jest about have t’ be!” But then his eyes darted about nervously.
Tom could only shrug.
The day wore on slowly and hotly. Tom made many tests of the retroscope before and after lunch, and then finally rolled the mechanism, with its bulky accoutrements, back to the hut, where it was safely locked down.
While Chow assisted Doc in what he promised were his final series of examinations, Tom and Bud decided to visit the jungle clearing where the paraplane had first landed, hoping to scout-up some clues in the underbrush. As they ambled along the little trail, the towering trees of the tropical rain forest shut out much of the afternoon sunlight, and the dark, steamy atmosphere was noisy with the buzz of insects and the raucous screams of jungle birds. “This is sure no place for a picnic!” Tom said wryly to Bud.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Bud joked. “Maybe with a few repelatrons tuned to ‘mosquito’ and some of those electric rifles of yours…”
Suddenly a scream of terror reached their ears! Tom slammed on the brakes, his face turning pale at the agonized sound. “Good grief! What was that?”
“Sounded like a woman screaming!” Bud cried.
The harsh, shrill sound came again. “That’s a human voice all right!” Tom burst out. “But where’s it coming from?”
Anxious to help, the boys decided to separate, crashing off into the underbrush in opposite directions, nervously alive to the possibility of danger.
Tom’s direction turned out to be the right one. The terrified shrieks grew louder as he fought his way through the tangled ferns and underbrush—then suddenly ceased. A moment later, at a spot hemmed in by dense growth and rocks, Tom burst upon a frightening scene. A man lay face-down and unconscious on the ground, barely visible in the greenish gloom and lush plantlife. Over him reared a huge jaguar, its claws ready for the kill! The man had evidently cornered the jaguar and infuriated it.
Good night, that must be the same baby who cornered us before! Tom thought in a controlled panic. The young inventor’s heart was hammering, but he kept cool. He had to somehow distract the fierce cat from its helpless prey. In desperation, he yanked a sturdy, pointed branch off a nearby tree. It parted from the trunk with a sharp Crack!.
The jaguar was primed to protect itself. At the sound it leapt into the air and came down whirling to face its new enemy. The jaguar was snarling with fury—still full of fight!
It charged straight at Tom!
Flinging himself backwards against a thick trunk and dropping on one knee, he aimed his stick like a rifle, jamming its butt-end against the trunk to brace it. The sharp point gouged into the beast’s snout as it pounced. It was a clean hit—first blood! But the enraged animal refused to go down. Instead, convulsively writhing off to the side and backing away a dozen yards, the jaguar seemed to gain strength from its added fury at being wounded. Regrouping, the beast charged again with a throaty roar!
His mind blank with terror, Tom awaited the maddened jaguar. Its first charge had almost grazed his leg with a lightning sweep of one paw. Tom shuddered—this time those terrible claws and teeth would rip his flesh to the bone!
Yet the jungle brought forth a new surprise. Something small suddenly flashed across the clearing, almost nicking the jaguar’s head as it passed. The big cat again put on the brakes and turned aside, screeching a warning at its attacker.
And then a second missile—like the first one, a fist-sized rock—came streaking across the clearing. This time it hit the jaguar right between the eyes with a loud thunk!
With a strangled cry, the beast dropped in its tracks.
Bud appeared at Tom’s shoulder, a third rock at the ready. “Ohhh man, I’ve never been so glad to see a pass connect in my life!” gasped the ex-footballer. He woozily fell back against the same tree trunk Tom was leaning on.
The boys looked at one another, white-faced and trembling—and broke out laughing!
“C’mon, catnip kid, let’s get out of here!” Bud chortled, grabbing his pal’s arm. They beat a frantic retreat into the underbrush—then, not far along, Tom suddenly called a halt.
“Bud, there’s a man lying back there. We can’t just leave him! I’m sure the jaguar is only momentarily out of it.”
“You’re right,” the other replied. “If the poor guy’s still alive, we’ll have to drag him along.”
With thudding hearts they returned to the edge of the clearing. The jaguar lay just as he had fallen, the man a ways beyond him. As the two worked their way around through the brush, they kept fearful eyes on the downed cat. Yet it didn’t twitch a muscle.
“Bud,” said Tom abruptly. “The jaguar’s not breathing! It’s dead!”
Bud was relieved, yet puzzled. “Skipper, I’ve got a good arm, but not that good! I’m pretty sure I had that rock set on ‘stun’.”
Ignoring Bud’s warning hiss of dismay, Tom cautiously edged into the clearing and half-circled the fallen jaguar. There was no doubt but that the beast, frightful yet beautiful, was dead. To Bud’s surprise, Tom stepped up close to the jaguar’s carcass and bent down.
When he stood again, Tom was holding in his hand a blood-drenched arrow! “This is what killed it,” Tom pronounced. “Bet it had the arrow sticking in its belly even before I showed up. And get a load of this, flyboy.”
Even from yards away, Bud could make out that the arrow was tipped with a sliver of diamond crystal!
“Just like the other one,” he breathed.
Tom nodded. “Yep. What our pal Hutchcraft called a t’cunda.”
“Then that man lying there must be the one who shot it off—our enemy!”
Tom paused, then slowly shook his head. “Then where’s his bow? I think it’d have to be pretty big.”
The two youths approached the prone figure, lying face down. A groan startled them, and the man suddenly turned over.
“Good grief!” Tom exclaimed as he hurried toward the semiconscious man on the ground. “It’s Magnificent Max!” Shaking his head, the long-haired giant lay sprawled in a clumsy heap. As Tom and Bud reached his side, the ex-wrestler stirred and moaned, then sat up and looked at his rescuers.
“Where am I?” Max mumbled. As his brain cleared, his eyes fell on the dead jaguar. “Oh, yeah… I remember now, boys. I was having a fight with that man-killer!”
Heaving himself to his feet, with Tom’s help, the giant threw out his bare chest proudly. “Man alive, what a terrific struggle!” he gasped. “That jaguar went straight for my throat! I grabbed his fur in clumps, threw him right, threw him left! He was down on his back—up he jumped again! Boy oh boy! But I finally killed him, with nothing but my bare hands!”
“Now just a minute, Max,” Tom said quietly. “Don’t you think this cave-man bit has gone far enough? That jaguar was killed by a fancy arrow. You were out cold.”
“Naw! Can’t be, kid! Can it?” Max’s face fell sheepishly. “Oh-kay, so I like to talk big,” he muttered. “Guess I’m just trying to build myself up, as much in the ego department as in my muscles. You’ve got to admit, though, that man-killer never hurt me a bit!”
Tom gave no quarter. “You were just lucky,” he replied.
Bud added, “All that high-pitched screaming you did must have unnerved him. Then, when he finally closed in on you, you fainted.”
“Okay, you’re right. I’m pretty much a vegetarian; meat-eaters scare me, I’ll admit it. Well, anyhow”—Max thrust out a huge hand and shook Tom’s in a bone-crushing grip—“I’m glad you came along. Guess I won’t try to corner a jaguar again!—not that I was tryin’ this time. Thanks for saving my life, though!”
“The phantom archer gets the credit for that, Max. Did you happen to see anybody around?—the skinny guy, for instance?”
Max shook his head. “No, but then—the fact is, without m’ glasses on, I don’t see all that well.”
Bud stifled a laugh at the image. “You wear glasses, jungle king?”
The giant nodded. “Yeah. And listen—you won’t let any o’ this get around, willya, guys? I gotta keep up my rep with those Mayas.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “They kinda make me nervous. Kids too, sometimes, y’know?”
“Forget it,” Tom responded with a smile. “After all, me and my stick didn’t accomplish much. I’m sure you’ll keep that under your hat, won’t you?”
“‘Loincloth’!” Bud prompted.
“You bet your boots I will!” the giant boomed. “Say, how about dropping over to my cave for that visit we were talking about? It’s not far from here.”
Tom hesitated. Seeing this, Max added, “Aw, c’mon, you two. I got a nice place. And besides, I got somethin’ hidden there that I haven’t shown anybody, ever! You’ve earned the right to see it. But when you do, you may not want t’ believe your eyes!”
TOM and Bud exchanged veiled glances, which they fervently hoped Max didn’t catch. Although the jungle strong man seemed genuinely grateful and friendly, the two still did not trust him completely. To keep from appearing rude, the young inventor explained that right now he was in a hurry to return to his experimental plane to perform some checks on it. “You see, Max, tomorrow I plan to use it to fly the medical subjects we’ve identified over to where my big jet is parked. We’re sort’ve on a schedule.” He refrained from mentioning his plan to look around at the plane’s former site for clues to the identity of the archer.
Disappointment showed on the giant’s face, but he said amiably. “Yeah, I gotcha. Guess I sorta put you two out of your way.”
“Suppose I stop in tomorrow, after I’ve let off the villagers?” Tom suggested. Mentally he decided it might be wiser not to go to the cave alone with Max, or even with just Bud along. “By the way,” he added, “about that skinny guy—have you seen him again, anywhere? Even if he’s the one who shot this arrow at the jaguar, that doesn’t prove he’s a good guy.”
Max shook his head and looked a bit embarrassed. “Haven’t seen him since the night I chased him. If he shot off that arrow, I, er—guess I might not’ve been conscious at the time.”
“Well, if you do happen to be conscious next time he comes lurking around,” Bud requested, “see if you can find out what he’s up to.”
“Don’t you worry. I’ll shake the truth out of him!” The man gave another of his deep, bellowing laughs. “Well, see you later, boys!” He slapped Bud on the back, gave Tom another powerful handshake, and walked over to the dead jaguar. With a grunt, he slung the heavy carcass over one shoulder.
“Don’t forget now. Come and see me,” Max urged. He pointed out the cave’s direction.
“I’ll do that,” Tom promised. He and Bud watched the giant stride off through the underbrush until he disappeared from view.
“What a man!” Bud said quietly, chuckling. “But Skipper, were you serious about taking the Mayans to the Flying Lab in your paraplane?”
“Why not?” was the answer. “I’d sure rather take the sky route than drive over that road another time!”
The two youths trekked onward to the site of the paraplane’s emergency landing and looked around, but the shadows were deepening and they found nothing of interest.
“At least we have another arrow for our diamond collection,” remarked Bud. “You think those arrowheads are worth much?”
His chum shook his head. “No. I don’t know a lot about gems, but I’m pretty sure this stuff is artificial diamond—industrial grade, probably.”
Returning to the village, Tom and Bud performed a precautionary check of the paraplane, then sought out Doc Simpson for an update on the medical project. “I’ve selected my subjects and informed them all,” he reported happily. “They’ll be ready to leave whenever we want, with their big city suits slung over their backs!”
With Professor Castillez standing by to translate as required, Tom proceeded to ask Chief Quetzal’s permission to use the paraplane to fly the five subjects to the Sky Queen. Tom had worried that the ahau might resist his idea, but the man seemed quite accommodating. “They will be flying a much longer distance, all the way to America. It would be well to begin with a small step.” He promised to speak to the five and calm any fears.
The next morning, breakfast over, Tom herded the five villagers to the spot where the parachute plane was berthed. He was accompanied by his fellow Shoptonians, and by the chief, Castillez, and Mr. and Mrs. Liu, who had asked to see the paraplane in flight.
“No sign of Hutchcraft,” Bud whispered.
“Jest as well!” muttered Chow.
Tom could see no indication that the ship had been tampered with by marauders during the night. Better try the engine, anyhow, before I take off, he thought cautiously as he deactivated the magnetic-field alarm.
As the crowd stood near the young inventor eased into the pilot’s seat and gunned the jet engine into life. But after a loud, blasting sputter, it died. Tom tried again but got no response.
“Now what’s wrong?” he wondered in annoyance. Giving the others an eloquent shrug, he climbed out of the plane and made a quick check of the engine. Then he inspected the main fuel tank. Nothing wrong there. Tom proceeded to swing open the access panel to one of the small electronics bays. To his disgust and dismay, a torrent of water immediately poured out and splashed to the ground!
“Oh, great!” Tom fumed aloud. “This plane seems to be jinxed!”
“That jinx could have a name,” Bud observed grimly. “Or do you think that last downpour got into the fuselage somehow?”
“The ship’s well sealed,” was Tom’s reply. “I don’t see how any rain could get in by accident.” He pulled a drawerlike metal frame, crammed with microelectronic components, out into the morning sunlight through the access port. Then, pausing, he held up his hand and rubbed thumb and index finger together.
“Have you found something?” inquired Dr. Liu.
Tom nodded. “We can rule out Mother Nature as the culprit. This isn’t just rainwater, but water with some sort of oil floating around in it. It’s clinging and shorting out the circuitry.”
“Brand my bowie knife, I’d like t’ take that archaeo-philosopist and cram him all th’ way up into his soupbowl helmet!” exclaimed Chow fiercely.
“Tom, my crusty workhorse of a truck, Ignacio Viejo, is at your disposal!” Professor Castillez stated.
The youth thanked him warmly but said, “It won’t be necessary. We’ve outsmarted the enemy this time!”
“How’s that, Tom?” asked Doc in surprise.
In response the Shoptonian unlocked and opened the paraplane’s storage bay. In a moment he had a duplicate electronics tray in his hand. “These deals plug in as a unit, and we’ve stowed a reserve one. I’ll just switch ’em out—and we’re on our way!”
When Tom had finished his work, he invited Doc and the five Mayas to board the plane. It was a tight squeeze, but the tiny passengers all managed to fit.
Bud commented, “Watch out for arrows up there, Skipper!”
Tom chuckled but replied seriously, “Now that we’re taking off from the village, I don’t expect any problems. We’ll stay at a high altitude over the jungle. And by the way, guys, I wouldn’t just assume that Hutchcraft is behind all this.”
“Meanin’ what?” Chow demanded.
“Meaning that skinny guy Max told us about,” Tom replied. “He may have been the one who dumped water into the works—although he may be working with Hutch as an accomplice, of course. I think we should do some jungle detective work and try to get a line on that skinny joker—or at least find out if Magnificent Max just dreamed up the whole thing.”
A high, frail voice suddenly spoke up. “There is something I would like to say,” piped Jiang Liu hesitantly.
“Please go ahead,” Tom encouraged her.
“If someone has done harm to your airplane, could it have happened last night?” she asked.
“Then I believe I have seen something. Last night, as I readied for sleeping, I found that my locket was missing, and so I walked over to the spot where we had sat eating dinner. I found my locket, but when I looked up, I saw a person behind the airplane. I am sure of this.”
“Could you make him out clearly?” Tom asked.
“He stood back in the shadows, but I am sure he was, what you say, skinny. That is, very slight of build.” She concluded by saying that the figure had immediately withdrawn into the underbrush.
“You’ve been a wonderful help, ma’am,” Tom said, taking her hand. She smiled demurely in response. Then Tom said to the assembled group, “We’ll talk about it when I get back.” With a goodbye nod Tom clambered through the hatchway and made everything secure aboard the paraplane. The five little village men were strapped in, two to a strap. They carried their “city suits” on their laps, and sat wide-eyed but perfectly still.
“Please don’t worry,” Tom said to them in Spanish.
The liftbag popped up and filled, and the parachute plane rose gently into the sunny sky. It took only a moment to clear the trees, and the young inventor gunned the jet engine. Finally, at a safe height, Tom furled the bag and simultaneously upthrottled. The wings swung out, and the little paraplane headed off at jet speed.
The brief trip was more like a great athletic broadjump than a flight. In less than a minute, Tom was arcing down for a soft balloon-borne landing next to the Sky Queen.
Tom waited aboard until the others had exited. As he stepped down, one of the Mayans approached and said in murky English, “Sir, for this running upon the cloud-path, we thank you.”
“And we thank you, all of you,” Tom replied, “and wish you a good trip to the United States.”
After greeting Slim and the other crewmen, Tom hurried to the communications console and called Enterprises. Soon he was talking with his father. They chatted a few moments about the big project at the plant, then Mr. Swift asked, “How’s everything at your end, son?”
“Pretty well under control, Dad.” Tom described the results obtained so far with his electronic retroscope and the on-the-spot improvements he had made to his invention. Then he continued, “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you—have we ever found out what happened to those workmen who were hired to clear the landing spot for the Queen?”
“We have indeed; though to tell you the truth, I don’t quite know what to make of it. According to our contractor, the workmen—all of them natives of the area—eventually returned to town, collected their pay, and went their separate ways. He has been unable to contact them directly since he found out that the job had not been done, but one man’s brother repeated an odd story that he had been told.”
“When his brother returned, he told him that they had barely started work in the jungle when someone in the garb of a village shaman approached them. The man said their construction project was an offense to the jungle spirit-gods, and they would all be cursed and punished if they continued!”
As Mr. Swift paused, Tom expressed his amazement. “There’s more,” Damon Swift went on. “That night, the camp was attacked by a number of men in black clothing, whose heads were completely covered! The men hooted and hollered like banshees, using clubs to damage some of the equipment, then melted away into the jungle. Needless to say, that was the end of the operation!”
“What do the local authorities say?”
“That there are bandits and criminal gangs hiding-out in the jungles,” was the sober reply. “But they have no idea who these particular perpetrators might have been.”
The young inventor gave a wry chuckle and shook his head. “To think we thought this would be a quick and easy trip!”
“Not quick and not easy,” declared his father. “But as usual—full of danger! Please be careful, Tom. Whatever may be going on down there in Yucatan, it could cost all of you your lives!”
AFTER bidding a final goodbye to the Mayans and Doc Simpson, Tom took to the air again in the paraplane. In minutes he was back in Huratlcuyon, talking to Bud, who had greeted him at the landing site.
“Well, that’s one down,” Bud remarked.
“Yep, the Mayans are on their way. Now—I’ve gotten curious about what Max has hidden in his cave. I’ll keep my promise and pay him a visit.”
“You think you can trust that overgrown herb eater?” Bud asked in concern
“Don’t worry. I’m not taking any chances.” Tom smiled broadly. “I’m bringing along a couple experienced bodyguards—Barclay and Winkler!”
Bud laughed. “If the big man of Yucatan decides to get frisky, I’ll pull his hair again. And Chow can stomp on his toes!”
Chow, wary but interested in Max’s cuisine, was more than willing. Ten minutes later the three started out down the winding path, then veered off into the jungle. When they reached the area where Tom had faced the jaguar, they turned toward the hill Max had indicated and struck off on foot into the tangled wilderness.
They found the cave’s narrow entrance without difficulty, and were greeted by loud squawks and screeches from Max’s pet parrot perched in a nearby tree. Hearing the noise, Max came out.
“Oh, it’s you, Junior!” the giant boomed, giving Tom one of his bone-crushing handshakes and nodding at the others. “My pals from back home!”
“Hi, Max. I’d like to see some of those relics you were telling us about,” Tom said. “We’re all ready to ‘not believe our eyes’!”
“Sure, sure! Come on in,” Max replied, leading the way.
Beyond the cave entrance was a narrow, twisting passageway lined with rocks. The boys had no difficulty, but the giant had to turn sideways, and Chow found himself scraping both walls at once. We’d sure never get the retroscope in through here, Tom thought. Finally the passage opened out broadly. “Here we are,” proclaimed Max.
The cave, which seemed to be very deep, was partly lighted by a guttering candle stuck into a porcelain bottle. Max’s home contained a well-reinforced hammock, a low cookstove, a rough table and bench hewn out of logs, and a jaguar rug.
Much of the living space was heaped with Mayan relics. Tom gasped at the sight of the treasure trove! There were assorted items of pottery, carved stone figures and animal representations which looked as if they had once adorned the outside of a temple or palace, and a number of metal ornaments such as bracelets, arm bands, and necklaces.
“Good night! Where did you get all this?” Tom asked.
The giant shrugged. “Oh, I found ’em in the jungle or dug ’em up here and there. Some day I may give ’em to a museum.”
Tom wondered if his host was aware of the Mexican government’s regulations about the finding of relics and art treasures. All such objects were supposed to be handed over to the civil authorities, who, in turn, would pay the finder. Tom decided not to mention this now, but Max himself raised the subject. “Now listen, boys, you’re not gonna tell on me, are ya? Way I see it, I’m protectin’ these things by bringin’ ’em in out of the rain and such.”
“That’s a good point,” said Tom. The young inventor examined a number of the relics, one by one. Suddenly his eye fell on a queerly shaped bowl. Tom picked it up and brought it closer to the light. The bowl was covered with faint carvings.
This is important! Tom thought, as he studied the carvings under his pocket magnifying glass. Though badly worn, they looked to Tom’s trained eye like the mathematical symbols used by the Swifts’ space friends—the same as those which had been carved on the sacred stone of Ahau Quetzal’s tribe!
“Where did you find this bowl?” Tom asked.
Max looked at him a bit suspiciously before answering. “You really want to know? Lemme see, now. Oh yeah—over on the other side of the hill, tangled up in some roots.”
Tom responded, “I’d appreciate it very much if you could show me the place!”
“Okay. I’ll do that. But if you liked that one, wait’ll you see my special treasure!” Max picked up the candle and headed into the inky darkness of the cave’s interior. “Follow me!” he commanded.
Tom hesitated. Could the ex-wrestler be trusted? Or was Max planning to play some kind of trick on them after he had lured his visitors away from their only route of escape?
Tom and his companions shared the same thought. Bud flashed a questioning look as if waiting for orders, and Chow took a couple nervous steps backward. Before the young inventor could decide, Max’s parrot gave a loud screech. An instant later a familiar smarmy voice came echoing down the corridor. “Hello in there! Anybody home?”
Tom gave a really involuntary grin of relief as he saw Wilson Hutchcraft come gliding into the candle’s glow. For once, and it was a novel feeling, he was pleased to see the archaeologist-philologist. Max might be able to take on three visitors, but surely not four.
“Well!” said Hutchcraft smoothly. “The last people I’d expect to find wandering around in the dark. But look at these old artifacts.”
Max, who had turned to see the cause of the uproar, scowled at the new arrival. He seemed none too pleased at this latest invasion of his cave. “This one of your crew, Tom?”
Tom introduced Max to Hutchcraft. They shook hands, and the archaeologist boggled as he looked up. “So this is your giant! My, my!”
“Max th’ Magnificent here was about t’ show us somethin’,” Chow explained. “If he hasn’t changed his mind!”
The cave-dweller shrugged. “Doesn’t make any difference, I s’pose. Come on, all of you. Don’t got all day t’ run a tour—got things to do.”
“Really?” Bud asked innocently.
If the muscular young pilot noticed the giant’s unfriendly look, be gave no sign.
“It sounds very interesting,” remarked Hutchcraft. “Glad I saw the entrance.”
“Okay, okay,” Max grumbled. “But watch your step in there—it’s rough going. Only got th’ one candle.”
As the giant turned to lead the way, Tom took out his powerful pocket flash and followed with the others. Max made no comment.
When they had gone about fifty yards into the rocky interior, the wrestler’s cave suddenly narrowed into a mere passageway again, slanting downwards. Here the atmosphere became dank and almost chilly. The visitors plodded after Max in single file. Then, as they rounded a corner in the tunnel, it widened out again into another cavernous space.
A second later Chow gave voice to the gasp of astonishment that all the visitors were feeling. The yellow light from Max’s candle and Tom’s flash-beam had suddenly lit up a section of the cave wall, revealing a huge carved figure!
“G-great jumpin’ mud frogs!” Chow gulped in a trembling voice. “Who’s that?”
The figure was so lifelike and terrifying that it almost seemed to leap out of the wall at them. Chiseled out of limestone, the statue still showed traces of the gaudy colors with which it had once been painted.
The strange, sinuous figure had an S-curve like a striking cobra, with its tapering tail in a curlicue. Along its spine was a peculiar ridge of clustered feathers, some drooping, some erect. Its fierce face was turned in profile, so that one huge eye glared out at the intruders above a fanged snake-mouth that yawned wide. The carving was about fifteen feet high from top to bottom, dwarfing even Max.
“Tom,” Bud breathed. “Those animal specimens your alien friends sent us in the Space Ark—!”
Tom finished the thought. “I know, Bud. Some of them had both reptilian and bird-like characteristics.”
“Bah, what nonsense!” exclaimed Hutchcraft scornfully. “This is quite obviously the Mayan serpent god Kukulcan—Quetzalcoatl to other tribes. Note the ceremonial headdress.” He pointed to a rounded figure with protruding “spikes” that partially enclosed the snake’s head.
“I been seein’ Indian head-feathers all my life,” Chow declared, “and this one looks mighty funny to me. Me, I’d say it’s one o’ them dang space helmets!”
Hutchcraft began a retort, but Tom interrupted. “Whatever the carving is supposed to represent, I know enough about Mayan art styles to say that it’s not much older than the European colonization. If this is supposed to be one of the extraterrestrials, it must be at least a thousand years too late to be ‘taken from life’.”
“Sure,” said Bud. “But maybe the whole idea of this ‘Kukulcan’ guy came from old accounts of the space expeditioners.”
As the excited debate continued, Max brought his candle closer and stared at the carving with the jealous, greedy look of a miser. “This is why I stay here,” he said in a strange, tense voice. “I discovered him and all the rest of the things. They’re mine. Nobody can take them away from me!”
Tom exchanged a warning glance with Bud and Chow. Bud winked back and nodded slightly, indicating that he and Chow would keep an eye on the jungle strong man in case he grew belligerent.
Reassured, Tom took the opportunity to study the wall relief more closely. “Even if we don’t have the exact year, these carvings date from sometime after the Old and New Mayan Empires,” he told the others. “Some of the ornamentation has a Méxica look, which probably means the carvings were made after the Toltec invasion from the north.”
Commented Hutchcraft, “In that, I agree.”
Meanwhile, Max had begun to claw away some loose stone slabs and packed-together branches from the wall of the cave, to the left of the carved figure. “You ain’t seen nothing yet, folks!” he muttered.
The others watched with interest. Presently Max’s digging exposed a gaping hole in the wall. Inside lay a heaping store of Mayan artifacts—bowls, jewelry, statuettes, and amulets.
Chow’s jaw dropped as the flickering rays of Max’s candle lit up the priceless objects. “Brand my buffalo chops, it’s a reg’lar treasure room!” he declared.
Tom probed the darkened hollow with the beam of his flashlight. “You’re right, Chow,” he said. “That’s just what this is—a treasure chamber. It’s been hewn out of solid rock!”
Max watched with a wary eye as Tom made a hasty survey of the hoard. None of the objects bore any mathematical space symbols. But one small carved figure of a turtle showed the date of A.D. 821 in Mayan numerals.
“This place may be older than I thought,” Tom announced. “Of course many of these objects could have been made before the period of the wall carving and brought here.”
“It’s amazing—absolutely amazing,” Hutch declared, almost speechless for a change. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
“I found this nook by accident,” said Magnificent Max. “Most of this stuff was already inside, laid out all neat and reg’lar. But I found some more things just like ’em on the other side of the hill, like I told ya. I put all my valuables in here, like it was a hotel safe.”
When Tom had finished his examination, Max carefully heaped up the dirt again so as to cover his secret trove. Then the group started back through the narrow passageway leading to the outer room of the cave. “Man oh man alive, that there snake feller on th’ wall is enough to scare a law-abidin’ hombre out of a year’s growth!” Chow muttered in awe.
Chow was interrupted by a sudden, startling screech from the parrot. Max looked up, instantly alert, as his colorful pet came fluttering down the passageway from the outside. “Now what put him into such a tizzy?” remarked Hutchcraft.
As the bird continued to squawk and flit about, his master said, “I don’t let him in here normal, and he knows that. Something’s goin’ on! I’ll bet an iguana there’s some lousy snooper out there!” The giant growled angrily at the thought. He made a dash toward the cave entrance.
Tom followed at his heels, with the others close behind. They emerged from the cave just in time to glimpse a black-clad slender figure scrambling away among the ferns and foliage.
“That’s him!” Max shouted. “That’s the skinny guy I was telling you about!”
“Come on! After him!” Tom cried, starting off in pursuit.
“WE’D BETTER spread out!” Tom said in a hoarse whisper, as he and Bud plunged in among the trees after the mysterious intruder. “He may try to zigzag and throw us off!”
“Right! But watch out for an ambush, Skipper!” Bud called back. Tom knew Bud was also thinking: jaguars, too!
The thick jungle growth made the search maddeningly difficult. Without machetes to cut their way through the tangled foliage, it was impossible to progress rapidly. Half a dozen times, Tom and Bud tripped over creepers or gnarled tree roots and nearly went sprawling.
The steamy gloom and stinging insects added to their misery. Both pursuers were soon dripping with perspiration.
“This is hopeless!” Tom realized, after beating the bush for twenty minutes. “Hey, Bud! Where are you?” he called, cupping his hands. The pilot finally rejoined him, and the two made their way back to the cave, where the others, minus Max the giant, were waiting somewhat anxiously.
“Find anybody?” Chow asked.
“Not a trace, aside from that first quick glimpse,” Tom replied, and added softly, “But at least we know now that Max’s story was true—definitely.”
From his fleeting glimpse of the mysterious man, Tom felt sure he was somehow in league with the men who had attacked the camp of the construction crew. He also had been wearing some sort of black garment, with a sort of black stocking-cap pulled down completely over his face like a ski-mask.
“Who do you suppose the guy was?” Bud queried. “Some rival tomb-hound?”
“My profession does have a name, you know,” sniffed Wilson Hutchcraft.
Tom replied to Bud with a shrug. “It’s a good enough guess—for a guess. But if he is an archaeologist or explorer, he’s behaving oddly, stalking us like that and running away.”
“Some low-down jungle bushwhacker, that’s who he is!” Chow declared firmly. “If I ever catch him snoopin’ around, I’ll rope an’ hog-tie his skinny-bones hide!”
Tom reminded his companions that the jungle phantom was probably the same person who had twice fouled the paraplane, and might be connected to those who had terrorized the workmen. “He may be our bow-and-arrow boy, and if he can take down a jaguar, he could take down one of us just as easily.”
Hutchcraft suddenly made a peculiar choking sound, looking upward into the nearby trees with eyes wide. “Hutch, what is— ” began Tom. Then, following the line of the archaeologist’s gaze, he cut himself off and stared in amazement.
From the thick treelimb where Max’s parrot usually perched, a long, thick arrow protruded!
“A t’cunda!” gulped Hutchcraft.
Tom said slowly, “I think I see what must’ve happened. The guy was trying to sneak up on the cave without being detected. When the parrot started squawking an alarm, he let loose with an arrow to kill it—and just missed. That’s why the bird flew into the cave.”
“But looka that, boss!” marveled Chow. “That there arrow went all the way through that big thick branch. She didn’t stop till she hit the trunk!”
Wilson Hutchcraft broadcast a superior—if nervous—look all around. “As I believe I’ve pointed out before, the sacred arrow is an extremely deadly weapon, even without a diamond tip.”
“The old Maya version of a penetrator bullet!” added Bud with a gulp.
When Max finally returned from his futile pursuit, Tom asked Max if he would bring the carved bowl to the village, perhaps the following morning. “I’d like to photograph it with my special camera to see how old it is. Maybe we can make those markings more visible, too. You could have it right back.”
“Oh, you just take it along,” the giant said. “It’s like I told you, those little men scare me, just like kids do, the spidery little squawkers! That’s why I try t’ keep up my cave-man rep—makes ’em stay clear of me.”
The huge ex-wrestler’s frank admission seemed so incongruous that it was all Tom and his friends could do to refrain from laughing at him. Apparently Magnificent Max’s boastfulness was even more of a cover-up than they had suspected!
The young inventor smiled and said politely, “Thanks a lot, Max. I’ll see that the bowl is returned to you safely by the end of the day tomorrow.”
The three Shoptonians waved goodbye and began to trudge back to the trail to the village. Wilson Hutchcraft managed a cool nod toward Max, then hastened after them.
The young inventor carried the carved bowl in both hands, respecting the tremendous value of the ancient object. But his intent concentration on the relic proved his undoing as the toe of his jungle boot suddenly struck an unseen obstacle. The jolt threw Tom into a wild stumble and the precious bowl flew from his grip! “Oh!” he exclaimed, making a desperate lunge but barely touching the bowl’s rim. Bud’s football skills proved equal to the task, luckily. With a dive he grabbed the bowl in mid-air only a moment before it would have crashed to the ground!
“Nice catch, pal!” gasped Tom, his face white.
At the village, supper completed, Tom decided to place the bowl under the gaze of his electronic retroscope. The chief and several other natives watched with great curiosity as Tom trained the camera on the Mayan relic in the light of sunset and the cookfires. An air of tense excitement filled the air. What sort of carvings would be revealed on the bowl?
“This is the first test on something of real age. Keep your fingers crossed, everybody,” Tom muttered. He reset the computer so as to cancel out the distorting background radiation, then switched on the scanners and detectors and made a number of precise dial adjustments. The equipment hummed faintly as the detectors began feeding a steady flow of electrical impulses to the camera’s “brain.”
“Hey, it’s working like a charm!” Bud cried out. “And those are space symbols showing up!” A clear set was appearing on the screen of the reproducer unit, accompanied by the usual elaborate Mayan art designs.
Tom’s eyes fixed on the master time dial. “This bowl is very old. It reads A.D. 249!”
Professor Castillez heartily congratulated the young inventor. “Esplendido! Nice going, young man!”
Tom smiled with quiet satisfaction, but said nothing until he had pulled the series of digital-print reproductions from the computer unit and studied them closely.
“It’s the same message we read from your sacred stone,” he told Chief Hu-Quetzal. “Now let’s try the camera on the stone-of-standing.”
Tom repeated the process. At last he could read the complete set of ancient inscriptions! “There’s more of the message here,” Tom declared. “But it will take me some time to figure out the meaning.”
The chief stared at the pictures with a look of awe. “Some day, perhaps, we will learn more about my people’s ancestors from the sky,” he said hopefully.
Tom used his retroscope on a few more carvings on stones which the natives had brought to him. But he found no further mathematical space symbols, and nothing else of great antiquity. Finally, as darkness closed in, he broke off his experiments for the day.
“I’m sure ready to start digging,” he told Bud. “I have the feeling there are plenty of signs of the space armada out there somewhere.”
Overhearing, Dr. Liu approached and asked quietly if Tom had identified a site.
The young scientist-inventor gave a nod. “Yes. Mighty Max talked about an area not far from his cave, where he found a few pieces of his treasure-trove. When I thought it over I realized that that side of the hill is right where that ancient roadway seems to end!”
After a thoughtful pause Chow raised another subject. “You know, boss, I jest got t’ wondrin’ how them five little men are feelin’ about America right now.”
Tom chuckled and glanced at his watch. “They would’ve arrived hours ago. I’m sure Dad and Grandyke University put on some kind of big spread to welcome them—they may not even be in their residences yet.” He said he would radio his father sometime the next day, using Castillez’s short-wave set.
The next morning dawned bright, yellow, and oppressively hot. It seemed the breeze, always lazy and indifferent, had given up completely!
“Son,” said Chow over breakfast, “I got a great idee fer your next invention—a gosh-darn full-fledged air conditioner that you kin carry around inside yer hat!” Sweat dribbled down from his generous forehead despite the shade of his sombrero.
Tom gave a wry smile and replied, “Pard, I’d get to work on it right now if I could.”
The products of a restless night, Tom had several ideas for improvements to his retroscope that he wished to work on before photographing any more carvings. He had hardly seated himself on a portable camp-chair next to the camera when Bud burst in excitedly.
“There’s a helicopter circling overhead, Skipper,” the youth reported. “I think it’s going to land!”
Tom rushed out to see for himself, noticing the throb of the chopper’s blades for the first time. The compact transport was slowly descending toward the clearing where Tom had first brought down his paraplane.
“That’s no private whirlybird,” Tom remarked, squinting his eyes against the sun.
“It’s an official Mexican government craft,” Professor Castillez replied after studying its markings closely through binoculars. “This type of helicopter is used by the national department of, how shall I put it?—matters concerning the native populations. They have their own regional police units and travel from place to place to make inspections and so forth. My own office at the University reports to the same department.”
Accompanied by the visitors to Huratlcuyon, ahau Quetzal led the way down the path to the clearing, where they all stood and waited. In a few moments the helicopter touched down. Three men climbed out, wearing khaki police uniforms. All three carried holstered carbines. One of them, tall and swarthy, was evidently the lead officer. He came forward and saluted briskly.
“May I ask who is in charge here, señors?” he inquired in English, directing himself to Hutchcraft as if drawn by the man’s perpetual air of authority.
“I am,” Tom replied before Hutch could speak. “My name is Tom Swift and these men are members of my expedition, for the most part. We’re from the United States. But if you mean the person in charge of the village, it is this man, Chief Quetzal.”
The official glanced at the ahau but only shrugged dismissively. “I myself am Jéfe Luis Rodriguez of the Policía Especialidad for this region of Yucatan,” the police chief said in a coldly official tone, rolling his r’s. “Your papers, please.”
“They are in our hut in the village, with our other things.”
“Then you will take me there, if you please.”
The young inventor bristled but remained outwardly calm. He turned to Hu-Quetzal. “With your permission, ahau.” The old chief smiled and gave a dignified nod.
At the village Tom handed over the documents. The Jéfe scrutinized these for a moment, then said, “Native gossip has it that some Americans are disturbing the valuable Mayan ruins in these parts. Are you the ones?”
“I’ve examined some relics, if that’s what you mean,” Tom conceded. “You see, I’ve invented a new type of camera which reveals the original carvings on stone and also the age of any inscription. However, we haven’t begun digging yet, although we intend to.”
“By whose permission?” Rodriguez snapped in an unfriendly manner, black eyebrows raised high.
Tom, who was accustomed to pleasant, courteous treatment from the Mexican authorities, was amazed. “Our trip was arranged through the University of Mexico and your aduana, as you can see from our identification papers,” Tom explained.
“These papers state merely that you are to fly several Maya back to your country for a medical research project,” Rodriguez said. “They do not mention any archaeological work.”
“I’m sorry. I should have made that clear,” Tom said politely. “The Mayas have already been flown to the United States. Permission to excavate the local ruins was arranged separately in Mexico City. We were told at the Universidad—that is, by señor Marco Barancos of the Institute of Anthropology and History in Yucatan—that these papers were sufficient for our brief visit.”
The swarthy police chief frowned and exchanged several remarks in Spanish with the other two policemen, whom he addressed as Pedro and Miguel. Then he turned back to Tom.
“I am sorry to say, Mr. Swift, that without proof, your story is unconvincing,” he said bluntly. “Where is this señor Barancos you speak of?”
Tom shrugged. “In Mexico City. He never intended to accompany us, but I’m sure you could— ”
“Si, very strange, is it not?” interrupted Rodriguez sarcastically. “We have only your word that this man Barancos even exists.”
The young inventor flushed angrily at the police chief’s tone. He struggled to keep his temper. At that moment Professor Castillez stepped forward, introduced himself in Spanish, and added in English, “As you will see from my own documents, Señor Jéfe, I am fully accredited by your own department, albeit perhaps at a higher level, eh?—and am enabled to grant all permissions required.”
Rodriguez mulled this over somewhat suspiciously. “Si. Very well. Of course we know the name of Tom Swift, for who does not? Yet to speak frankly, there are those who are uneasy with expeditioners who come down to us from El Norte, to ‘study’ and perhaps take away our native relics.”
Now Pedro and Miguel, who seemed to have followed the conversation in English, spoke to him in an undertone. The Jéfe turned suddenly to Dr. Stephanus Liu and his wife, who stood nearby. “And what of you, sir? Do you come with this Swift group, from the United States?”
Liu’s eyes twinkled. “My wife and I come from China, if one wishes to go back a generation or two. But no, we are independent researchers, and possess all necessary papers, I assure you.”
“And so do I!” declared Wilson Hutchcraft. “And, sir, I do not appreciate the contrary inference.”
“Hmm!” After a whispered conference, Rodriguez said, “Very well, señors, we will take no action for the moment. It is my job to inquire. However, we wish to inspect this new camera you spoke of, young man.”
Tom explained that his camera equipment was inside the hut provided by Ahau Quetzal’s village. “I’ll be happy to demonstrate it to you. It’s a very harmless process.”
“Now, that is,” muttered Hutchcraft under his breath, drawing a glare from Chow and a clenched fist from Bud.
Tom connected-up the retroscope and demonstrated it on some of the accumulated carvings. Rodriguez watched in silence, but by the end seemed mollified. “Rather impressive. Perhaps it will be of some future use to the policía.” Tom asked if Rodriguez had any further questions. “Perhaps one more. What is this vehicle I see at the perimeter—it has no wheels? A helicopter of sorts?”
“It’s a new experimental aircraft, my own design. I call it a paraplane.”
“Ah. And you came from the United States in this?”
“No, sir,” was the reply. “My group came by way of a large private aircraft, which has taken the medical subjects back with it. The paraplane was carried aboard.”
“Would you like a ride in it, perhaps?” inquired Castillez suavely, giving Tom a slight wink. “You and your men?”
Jéfe Rodriguez frowned. “We do not wish to impose.”
“I’m sure you’d find it interesting,” Tom said with a smile. “It should clear up any, er—doubts you might have about our activities here. You’ll see that there’s really no room inside for smuggling artifacts.”
The three officers stared in half-hidden astonishment at the strange-looking craft. “But what sort of an airplane is it, señor Swift?” the police chief demanded. “Do you not require an airstrip?”
“When the wings are extended, it flies as a conventional jet,” Tom explained. “There’s also an inflatable dirigible bag enclosed in the bay on top of the fuselage, which can be used for take-off or landing in tight spots. I’ve already used it several times.”
The three members of the policía scowled and scratched their jaws uneasily. It was evident that they were none too eager to board such a weird-looking aircraft. But realizing that their collective manhood was on the line, Pedro and Miguel looked at their chief and shrugged helplessly.
“We accept your offer—gracias,” Rodriguez announced at last. “A short flight, if you please—once around the hill, then back.”
Tom warmed up the paraplane and gave the three officers a hand as they climbed aboard. Then he flicked the control switch to spread the transifoil struts and fill the bag with helium. The ship rose gently from the clearing.
“Caramba!” the police chief muttered as they floated above the treetops. “Most remarkable!”
Tom extended the wings and opened the throttle very slightly. The ship floated gracefully toward the hill that held Max’s cave. Cutting back the throttle, the young inventor let the paraplane glide along silently beneath its liftbag.
Presently, making a casual downward glance, Tom stiffened in surprise, trying not to give himself away. Good night, look at that! he thought excitedly. Having crossed the summit he was now looking down at the far side of the hill. Below was a broad, relatively open space of low grasses and scrub-brush, but no large trees—nothing with big, deep roots. The space bore a clear rectangular shape, with an offshoot that suggested the buried remains of an ancient roadway. “That must be where Max found the bowl!” he murmured. “Something big’s buried there!”
“Excuse me?” said Rodriguez.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to speak aloud. We’ll turn back now.” The plane had passed beyond the clearing and was now over the dense jungle. Tom began to manipulate the controls. But suddenly he realized that the rudder and elevators were not responding properly.
Alarmed, he worked the stick and control pedals. Again, only a feeble response! With a sinking feeling Tom knew that he and his passengers were scudding helplessly over an unbroken expanse of forest, with no possible spot for an emergency landing and no way to turn around!
TOM stole a quick glance at Jéfe Rodriguez. The police chief was staring down at the jungle scenery, while Pedro and Miguel talked volubly in Spanish. None of them realized yet that the paraplane was crippled. Tom hoped to keep it that way. Maybe I can figure out some plan of action was his hopeful thought.
Sweating under the tension, the young inventor cut throttle completely and sized up the situation. His indicator dial showed that the wind direction had changed sharply. It was now blowing inland from the distant sea—carrying them away from both the village and the clearing next to the hill.
Rodriguez threw Tom a puzzled glance. “We are turning back, sí?” Tom nodded curtly, hoping to avoid further explanation. But the police chief scowled suspiciously, and said, “Something is wrong. We are not turning about.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m having a problem with the main controls.”
Rodriguez burst out angrily, “What is this, señor—a trick of some kind? On behalf of the policía I demand an explanation at once!”
Tom ignored the demand and focused on the problem. Suddenly an idea occurred to him. A skillful sailor, Tom had often tacked a sailboat upwind on Lake Carlopa. “Perhaps,” he said half to himself, “by inflating and deflating the dirigible bag, I can tack vertically against the wind in the paraplane and force her to turn! It’s worth a try.” Luis Rodriguez only glared at him.
Tom fed more current to the transifoil strips and switched on the helium pump full power. As the liftbag swelled to its greatest size, the plane bobbed upward. Then Tom deflated the bag slightly and used his increased altitude to coast downward into the wind, his airspeed allowing him to curve the plane’s path. The windward impact made them buck—but the nose was swerving aside under its pressure! After several attempts, the paraplane had been brought about and Tom was able to use the jet to propel the ship considerably closer to Huratlcuyon. Realizing that he would have to cut the forward thrust completely for a vertical landing, Tom throttled-off and again ballooned the ship upward, repeating the same tactic to maneuver closer to the village landing site. Finally Tom brought the ship down with a bump and all four heaved a sigh of relief.
Bud came rushing up. “What’s with the fancy flying up there?”
“The controls are dead,” Tom said tersely as he and his passengers climbed out. “I think something has been done to the hydraulic system.”
“What do you mean, has been done?” demanded Rodriguez. “Do you intend to implicate someone else, young man?”
The young scientist-inventor briefly explained the problems they had had with sabotage, omitting to mention the diamond-tipped arrows. “Anyway,” he concluded, “we’re lucky we didn’t crack up.”
Unscrewing the cowl panels, he made a quick check of the paraplane’s hydraulic system as a crowd from the village formed around them. “There’s the answer.” He pointed to a hose from the main pump. The hose had a pinpoint leak through which the hydraulic fluid had oozed out, causing a loss of operating pressure.
“Well, I’ll be doggoned!” Bud scratched his head. “For a new ship, that hose sure didn’t last long!”
“Perhaps the rubber rotted in this jungle atmosphere,” conjectured Dr. Liu. “It happens frequently.”
“That hose isn’t made of rubber,” Tom pointed out. “It’s a synthetic plastic called Tomasite that’s impervious to heat or humidity. I’m sure someone punctured this deliberately, probably last night.” His mind silently added: with a diamond-tipped tool!
“But what about your magnetic-field alarm?” objected Bud.
Tom sighed. “I’m afraid technological progress has made our poor old alarm system too easy to defeat.”
Realizing that the youth was in earnest, Chief Rodriguez said, “If there is a criminal at large, why did you not tell me, señor? Surely it is a matter for the law.”
“I had no definite evidence,” Tom replied. “In fact, I still haven’t.”
“Only suspicions,” Bud added darkly. “I wonder if Hutchcraft can account for his whereabouts last night!”
“If we had crashed, it would have been murder!” Rodriguez declared angrily. He repeated it in Spanish, and his companions nodded emphatically.
With Bud’s help Tom replaced the leaky hose and repressurized the hydraulic system. He also insisted on once again checking every inch of the paraplane. Police Chief Rodriguez and his two constables watched keenly, unsure what to believe. “Checks out OK,” Tom murmured.
The group ambled back toward the retroscope. Suddenly there was a loud commotion and the sound of angry cries. To Tom’s amazement, he saw Magnificent Max, looking wild-eyed and upset, pushing his way among the alarmed Maya villagers as the women grabbed their children and scurried away to safety.
The jaws of the policemen dropped in astonishment. “And who is this?” demanded the Jéfe in a strained voice, staring in awe as the enraged jungle giant thudded straight toward the little group.
“A friend of ours—at least he was yesterday,” Tom whispered. He faced the ex-wrestler calmly, hoping to quiet him. “You’re just in time to join us, Max,” he said pleasantly. “We have some visitors who flew down from Mexico City. This is Chief Rodriguez of the regional Policía, and this— ”
“The cops, eh?” Max glared down at the Jéfe and thrust out his lower jaw belligerently. “Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, Chief, but I’m fighting mad! This guy Tom Swift’s nothing but a low-down thief—and I’ve got proof!”
“My boss a thief!” burst out Chow Winkler indignantly, having been swept up in Max’s wake. “You crazy ole TV faker, you must be out o’ your ape-man mind!”
Max looked like a volcano about to explode and Chow gulped—but held his ground. Tom said evenly, “I’m sure there’s some mistake, but we’ll straighten it out.”
Before he could continue, Rodriguez interposed, his fingers lightly resting upon his holstered gun. “That is a most serious charge you make,” he told Max in a firm but reasonable voice. “Suppose you tell us what has happened.”
“What happened? Robbery is what happened! This kid and his cronies sneaked into my cave and swiped some of my Mayan relics—that’s what happened!” Max stormed.
Tom said icily, “You said you had proof. What proof? Lay it out for us now!”
“Well, who else coulda done it?” the giant insisted furiously. “You and your pals are the only ones who knew about ’em—and what’s more you were mighty interested in ’em!” Glaring at Tom, Max shook his hamhock fist in the youth’s face. “Go on—admit it!” he bellowed. “You snuckered into my cave this morning while I was out picking nuts and guavas for my healthy high-energy gift-of-nature breakfast!”
“I haven’t been out of this village all morning,” Tom said coldly, “except up in the sky. If you’ll just sit down and stop shouting, we can talk this over sensibly.”
“Don’t gimme that soft soap!” Max threatened. “I know you snitched those treasures! Either hand ’em over or I’ll by gosh tear you limb from limb!”
Professor Castillez, Dr. and Mrs. Liu, and the watching villagers—and perhaps Pedro and Miguel as well—were thoroughly frightened by now, and Tom had long since placed a hand on Bud’s forearm to prevent his roaring to the defense of his best friend. But Tom continued to speak softly. “The same way you killed that jaguar with your bare bands?” Tom asked the giant, with a twinkle in his blue eyes.
The question seemed to deflate Magnificent Max’s blustering ego. “Okay, okay, so you saved my life,” the long-haired giant admitted sulkily with a nervous glance at the little Mayans. “But don’t think that changes anything.”
“I believe I can convince you,” Tom said gently. “Come with me.”
He led the giant to the visitors’ hut and showed him the Mayan bowl, which had been carefully stored in a box lined with soft jungle grasses. “As you can see, the only thing of yours here is this bowl you lent us. Search the place yourself if you don’t believe me.”
Max poked about halfheartedly, then turned back to Tom. “How do I know you don’t have the stuff hidden somewhere else?” he grumbled.
Tom shrugged and handed him the bowl. “Since you don’t trust me, take the bowl along, although with the thief still at large it may be safer here right now. That goes for your other treasures, too.”
Max blushed and fingered the bowl awkwardly, as if uncertain what to do with it. “Okay, maybe I was shootin’ off my month out of turn,” he admitted. “I guess I do that now and then. Too much energy. You keep the bowl for a few days.”
He handed the bowl to Tom and the two returned to the open, Max bending low to duck through the hut’s doorway. Bud and the others noted with relief that the giant’s belligerence was gone; he actually looked shamefaced.
“Just forget what I said about this guy, eh pal?” Max told Jéfe Rodriguez. He added with a puzzled look on his broad pug face, “But I still can’t figure out what happened to the stuff. Heck’s neck, if none of you guys took it, who did?”
“Mebbe that skinny hombre is the thief,” Chow piped up. “Ever think o’ him?”
Max’s jaw dropped open in a look of surprised consternation. “Hey! Maybe you got something there, old-timer! I better get back and hide the rest of my treasures before that skinny sneak pulls another fast one!”
“It might be a good idea,” Tom agreed.
The giant lumbered off, pausing only long enough to call back over his shoulder, “Or maybe I’ll bring ’em here for you to keep for me, Junior!”
As Max disappeared, Pedro and Miguel shook forth a pair of wide-eyed shudders. Rodriguez stared at Tom and said mildly, “I believe our visit of investigation is concluded, Mr. Swift. There are those in my position who might press further—considering that the giant man seems to be suggesting that he possesses relics that belong by rights to my government. But perhaps he was only raving; fighting mad, as he said.” Rodriguez flashed Tom a conspiratorial wink, and Tom smiled back in gratitude.
Minutes later the three officers had boarded their helicopter and taken to the air.
“And now it seems you have another mystery to solve,” remarked Professor Castillez. “I suppose this phantom bandit of yours completed the task that had brought him to the cave yesterday.”
“Or he may have been planning to stake it out until Muscle Man stepped out,” Bud suggested.
“We won’t let it stop us,” said Tom.
“Won’t let what stop you?”
The group spun about. Hutchcraft was approaching from the fringe of trees.
Tom explained the encounter with Max and the policía, trying to gauge the archaeologist’s reaction. The man responding with only a mild interest. “During all this melodrama I’ve been over picking around among the stone slabs next to the cenote.”
Chow gave him a suspicious glare. “Ya have, huh. An’ what’s that?”
“The round pool just beyond the edge of the village, on the other side,” was the reply. “Perhaps you thought it was the ole swimmin’ hole, hmm?”
Tom quickly stepped in. “Hutch, why don’t you show us the area? I don’t believe we’ve looked for any carvings on that side.” Hutchcraft shrugged but turned to lead them.
“While you inspect the cenote, Tom, I’ll contact your father over my short-wave,” said Castillez. “I know you wished to speak to him.”
Tom, Bud, and Dr. and Mrs. Liu followed Hutchcraft across the village, Chow bringing up the rear. “I have had no success thusfar in my own investigations,” remarked Dr. Liu. “Whatever might remain of ancient Chinese ideograms is filtered through generations of tribal dialect and ceremonial decoration.”
Hutchcraft assumed his usual smile of superiority. “The Mayan tongue is a fascinating problem.”
“A problem?” Tom raised his eyebrows. “How so?”
“Well, no doubt in school you learned how Latin gradually died out in Europe and changed into other languages, such as Italian, French, and Spanish. It’s the same way with ancient Mayan. Today it survives in the form of various dialects, but we don’t really know what the old language was like.”
“Don’t tell me it’s got even you baffled!” Bud needled.
“Oh, we linguists have deduced certain facts,” Hutchcraft, unruffled, replied smoothly. “For instance, we believe that the language spoken down in the Guatemalan highlands and up in the northern part of Yucatan belongs to the same branch—called Yucatec.”
“Didn’t the language change a lot when the Mayas were invaded by warlike tribes, especially the Toltecs?” Tom put in.
Hutchcraft nodded. “Ah, I see you’ve been doing your reading. Yes, the invaders spoke a language called nahuatl. They added many words to the Mayan tongue, although the form and grammar of the old language probably remained pretty much the same.”
Tom noticed that Dr. Liu was listening intently but making no comment to his fellow researcher.
By this time, the strollers had reached the outskirts of the village. A little way beyond was a big, deep-sided pool with white limestone walls. The visitors had seen it many times but had never bothered to examine it closely.
“Okay, so there it is,” Chow declared. “An’ it’s not a ding-danged swimmin’ pool—so tell us what it is!”
“It’s called a cenote, as I said,” Hutchcraft responded. “You see, Yucatan is really a parched country, in spite of all this tropical vegetation. There are no lakes or rivers. The only water is the rain which soaks below the surface and is held in the limestone rock. Wells like this occur at points where the limestone crust has caved in. The Maya usually build their villages close to a cenote so as to have a water supply.”
As the rest of the group strolled closer to peer into the well, Bud muttered to Tom, “Listen to that guy spout off—he knows it all! I’ll bet he just boned up on this stuff to impress Dr. Liu!”
Tom grinned but said nothing, lest Hutchcraft overhear them.
The well was as large as a good-sized pond. Its water, cool, sparkling, and deep, lay about ten feet below ground surface, encircled by steep mossy walls of much-eroded stone blocks. A large hollowed-out gourd, used as a bucket, waited nearby next to a long rope. Hutchcraft, who obviously enjoyed showing off his knowledge, continued his lecture.
“At the ancient Mayan capital of Chichen Itza, there are two cenotes,” he said. “One was used for human sacrifice. But this was due to the influence of the Toltecs, a barbarous people.”
Chow was horrified, “You mean they drowned people in these things?” he exclaimed.
Hutchcraft nodded. “As a gesture to their rain god, beautiful maidens who were going to be married were shoved in. It’s thought they considered it an honor. They were so weighted with heavy jewelry that they invariably sank at once. Sometimes the grooms-to-be jumped in too.” Noticing that Bud, standing next to him, was wiping his brow and giving a glance to the blazing sun, Hutch added, “What say we re-enact the custom and get cooled off? You first, Barclay—I hear you’re quite the athlete.”
“No thanks,” said Bud curtly. He was in no mood to banter with the man he believed was in league with Tom’s enemies.
“Oh come now, let’s see some of that devil-may-care bravery of yours.” Hutchcraft advanced on him jokingly, as if to carry out his playful suggestion. Frowning, Bud hastily backed away. But as he dodged the older man’s outstretched hand, he lost his balance, gave a yelp of alarm, and toppled into the well!
Tom was furious. “You dope!” he cried out at Hutchcraft. “Maybe you’d like to get dunked yourself!”
The Bostonian gulped and turned pale as he saw that the young inventor meant business. “No, no! I can’t swim!” he pleaded. Ducking away from Bud’s outraged friends, Hutchcraft fled toward the village in panic.
“He has not come up,” murmured Jiang Liu to her husband.
“Somethin’s wrong!” Chow cried in alarm. “Buddy boy musta hit his head!”
Tom poised to dive in. He did not wait even to remove his heavy hiking boots. But before he could jump the others gave sighs of relief as Bud’s head popped into view. He swam to the edge and clambered up the steep side with help from Tom, Chow, Dr. Liu, and the bucket rope.
“You scared us silly, flyboy,” Tom remonstrated as his soaked, moss-streaked chum reached the top. “What happened?”
Bud laughed. “I thought as long as I was playing sacrificial maiden, I’d see if I could pick up some ancient jewelry in the well.” He made a wry face and snorted. “Nothing on the bottom but mud!”
The blazing tropical sun, almost directly overhead, soon dried the accidental swimmer’s clothing. When the five finally returned to the hut in the village, they found that Hutchcraft had “gone for a walk.”
“Smart move!” Tom commented with a grim chuckle. “He didn’t like that fighting gleam in your eye, Bud!”
Hu-Quetzal seemed amused. “Now, my friends, you know a bit more of our old Maya customs!”
At that moment Professor Castillez approached. Tom noticed at once that his face was troubled. “Tom, something is wrong,” said the academic.
Tom paled. “Wrong? Back at Enterprises?”
“No indeed—here!” was the reply. “Someone has ruined my short-wave set! I cannot contact anyone at all!”
“WHAT did they do to it?” Tom asked.
Castillez shrugged. “I have no idea. I am receiving signals without difficulty, but it seems nothing of my transmissions is getting through. I’ve checked the external connections, and tried several times.”
Tom proceeded to examine the short-wave set, eventually opening it up and using detector instruments to check the basic circuitry. “Whatever’s wrong is at the level of the micro-components,” he pronounced at last. “Maybe someone inserted a dummy part. At any rate, I don’t see any obvious way to fix it.”
“Hutch strikes again!” fumed Bud. “Must’ve done it while he was supposedly digging around by the well.”
“Hutch—or maybe the skinny prowler,” Tom agreed.
“And as a result, you are cut off from contacting your father,” Castillez said in sympathy.
But Tom shook his head with a slight smile. “Not at all. The saboteur forgot—or didn’t realize—that the paraplane’s radio is completely adequate. I’ll just use one of the Enterprises videophone satellites to relay the signal.”
The young inventor quickly made contact with his father, reporting on their many mysteries and inquiring, “How about our five Mayan friends up there, Dad?”
“Doing fine at last report. They have one floor of a dorm at Grandyke University.” Damon Swift chuckled as he described the natives’ reaction to North American civilization. “They’ve gone clothes crazy, especially about sport clothes. One of them goes around in a freshman cap and a bright purple polo shirt!”
Tom laughed. “We’ll have to get Chow to give them a few fashion tips!” Chow Winkler’s taste for gaudy shirts had become a local legend at Enterprises. “But I’m glad they’re enjoying themselves.”
After signing off, Tom rounded up Bud and Professor Castillez and headed off to the open area beside the hill. The Professor appeared intrigued. “There may indeed be some sort of ancient structure buried here—perhaps a courtyard or paved plaza. If, as you suspect, it is the end of the overgrown roadway, it must have been quite important to the old Maya people.”
“We can survey the area now, and start digging tomorrow,” Tom declared. “That is, if you’re ready to authorize us, Professor.”
“More than ready. Just remember, you must do your digging with small trowels, and use the wire brushes to clean off the packed dirt. We cannot risk damaging whatever lies buried here.” After a moment, he added: “I regret that I cannot provide all the help you need, as I am not an archaeologist. I know you do not trust Mr. Hutchcraft—perhaps Dr. Liu and his wife would be willing to come by to assist you. They seem to possess a good deal of historical and archaeological knowledge.”
“That’s a great idea,” Tom replied.
“And who knows, maybe we’re standing on top of a Chinese pagoda or something!” Bud speculated with a grin.
That evening, the long hot day behind them, Tom and Bud relaxed in the village as they watched supper being prepared. The adult women of the village had gathered at their outdoor “kitchen” to prepare the traditional meal. They were seated on woven mats, patting the zacan, or ground corn, into round flat cakes on tiny three-legged wooden tables.
“Uah,” one woman said, pointing to the cakes.
Tom responded to her with a smile, which she returned. “Must be the Mayan word for tortilla,” he remarked to Bud.
“I’ll make a note of it,” quipped the dark-haired flyer.
As they watched Chow stir a pan of dark-brown sauce, bubbling over a woodfire stove, Hu-Quetzal approached the two and said, Castillez assisting, “For our ancestors, the firstfathers, zacan was as great an invention as any of yours, Tom-Swift. They say it gave them a new way to live. They no longer wandered, but stayed with their corn-crops. And how long ago that was, who can say?” He came closer and squatted down next to the scientist-inventor, his back ramrod-straight. “I have something to speak to you about, Tom-Swift.”
Tom looked up expectantly. “Of course, ahau.”
“Perhaps you have noticed that the ahmen of Huratlcuyon, Juxtlanpoc, has not been seen here for some time now. I am certain, now, that he has deserted us completely. He was angry that I permitted you to continue using your camera on the stone fragments. His attitude, his thinking, is—what do you say?—like an old man’s. I do not think this way, Tom-Swift.”
Tom nodded in understanding.
“And so I have decided something. I will permit you to use your camera on our sacred objects as you requested—on the stone-of-standing, and on the ahmen’s medicine ball, the sastun. You have earned our trust.”
Tom was thrilled! As he volubly expressed his gratitude, Bud whooped under his breath.
“Ahau, I will make my first pictures, of the jade ball, after supper, while there is still some light in the sky.” Hu-Quetzal gave his consent.
The evening feast done, the chief brought Tom the sacred object and set it carefully upon one of the wooden tables. He then made a short speech in the village dialect to his subjects, explaining his decision, as Tom rolled the retroscope equipment into the open. As the equipment warmed up and the helium was released into the glowing dome, Tom tuned various dials and trained the scanner eyes on the jade ball. Presently a magnified picture of the old Mayan pictographs began to form on the reproducer screen.
Gasps of delight rose from the natives, who crowded closer for a better look. Their awe increased, a moment later, when Tom flicked a lever and pulled a detailed paper print from the console showing the same design pattern.
The difference between the visible original and the machine’s restoration was astounding! Though the picture was far from clear, Tom was able to make out a set of Mayan numerals, giving the date when the sastun was made. He read this off to Quetzal: 184.108.40.206.0 13 A/tan 18 Yax.
“What’s that in our calendar?” Bud asked.
“October 18, A.D. 514,” translated Wilson Hutchcraft, who had returned to the village but was keeping a wary distance from Tom and Bud. Turning to Quetzal, he added, “More than three baktuns ago.”
The dark eyes of the ahau widened. “Truly, my people have lived here a long time!”
“We can’t be sure the sastun was carved here in your village,” Tom pointed out. “Even your sacred stone may have been brought here by people other than your ancestors. It is something yet to be determined.”
Dr. Liu now stepped in and explained to Quetzal that it would be necessary to dig up more local stone carvings to resolve the question. These would then have to be deciphered, time-checked, and compared with the sastun and sacred stone for various features.
“Then let us hope that you will uncover what you need next to the hill, Txulnaptoc,” commented the chief.
“Now that’s rather interesting,” muttered Hutchcraft in stretched Bostonian tones. Tom gave him a glance of curiosity, but continued to bring the carved inscriptions into focus so they could be read more easily.
“As I thought, this one section is in the symbol-language of the space people,” Tom declared. “Part of it is the same message as before. Let me see if I can make out the rest of it.” He pulled out his pocket notebook and worked away at it for several minutes. Finally he looked up in triumph and said, “The other part reads: We have lost many. Nothing will protect us from—I can’t translate the remaining symbols.”
“Do you suppose these visitors actually carved this jade ball themselves?” asked Professor Castillez.
“No,” was Tom’s reply. “My guess is that this is a copy of a copy of the original inscription, many generations removed.”
“Mebbe you’re gonna uncover the first one underneath Max’s hill,” Chow speculated. “That’d sure be somethin’, wouldnit, boss!”
“And it may be more likely than any of us have suspected,” Hutchcraft said loudly. All eyes turned his way. “The name of that hill, Txulnaptoc—I believe it comes from some words in a very ancient dialect of the people who lived in Central America even before the Maya. We call them the Proto-Olmecs, for lack of a better term. Only a few fragments of their spoken language have survived into the present day.”
“What was the original meaning, Hutch?” Tom inquired.
“My conjecture? I think it means: Here, the torch-bearer fell down from the starry sky!”
THERE was a moment of stunned silence as the listeners reacted to Hutchcraft’s conjecture. “Tom,” breathed Bud, “a torch from the sky! Couldn’t that mean—?”
“Right, pal—a spacecraft of some kind.” In basic terms, Tom described to Hutchcraft, Castillez, Hu-Quetzal and the others how the friendly extraterrestrials who had contacted the Swifts had sent a transport capsule to Earth bearing samples of plantlife from their distant world. “The vehicle was surrounded by a sort of halo of light, and there was something like a searchlight beam extending ahead of it, which we think had something to do with its propulsion system. It moved through the atmosphere at unbelievable speed!”
“And so, as you describe it, it is very plausible to imagine that the ancient people who lived here would call it a ‘falling torch’,” commented Professor Castillez in wonder.
“A falling torch bearer,” corrected Wilson Hutchcraft. “It could just as easily be a reference to the archaic god of storm and lighting, who in some myths in said to have tumbled from the sky after some idiotic dispute with his relatives.”
“Mr. Hutchcraft has an excellent point,” agreed Dr. Liu. “In several of the ancient dialects, lightning is called the ‘falling’ or ‘dropped’ torch.”
“But still,” Hutchcraft said, “the space-visitor notion is worth further investigation. I wouldn’t wish to discourage you fellows.”
Bud gave him one of his ironclad smiles. “Oh, you won’t—Hutch!”
“Perhaps tomorrow will tell the tale,” pronounced Ahau Quetzal soberly, half in Spanish. “We of Huratlcuyon have always thought of the hill, and the area around it, as a sacred spirit-place. It was taught to us from our fathers, and their fathers, back even to the firstfathers.”
“If I may ask you, ahau,” inquired Tom respectfully, “are there some spots that are particularly important to the traditions of your people? If would be a big help if we could narrow down the places where we are to dig.”
“The Narrow-Mouthed Cave, as we call it—where the Killer of Jaguars lives—is said to be one such place,” was Quetzal’s thoughtful reply. “That is one reason that my people here came to fear this man Max before we knew his name. The ahmen, the keeper of histories, has deserted us, but some of these stories and sayings have been written down in Spanish from the time of the old friars. I will read some of this tonight, Tom-Swift. I am sure I can show you places to dig!” he promised.
“Fine!” Tom said. “We’re very grateful, ahau.”
After a hurried breakfast next morning, Tom and Quetzal led a caravan through the jungle to the open space next to the hill. The chief had ordered a dozen strong villagers to carry the retroscope and its two connected units through the dense underbrush, with Bud and Dr. and Mrs. Liu trailing behind. Chow brought up the rear, secretly regretting his offer to carry the various digging implements.
As for Wilson Hutchcraft, he elected to sleep late in the cool of the morning, and Professor Castillez planned to spend time preparing a report required by his employers at the University of Mexico.
As they trudged along Hu-Quetzal pointed out several spots in the forest mentioned in village folklore as the sites of buried relics. At each location Tom had the group pause for rest while he made a test probe beneath the surface, using the detector circuits of a portable device he had invented called a penetradar scanner. But the ground-probing instrument disclosed nothing of interest. “You will have better luck beside Txulnaptoc,” promised Ahau Quetzal in his halting English. “My bones tell me it is so, Tom-Swift.”
Finally reaching the open area, the village men carefully set down the electronic equipment. All the Mayans but the chief then left to return to the village. Tom began to scan the ground in a systematic way. The most promising site proved to be a broad, low mound, overgrown with scrubby jungle vegetation. Here, the penetradar showed underground stone deposits of a size and shape suggesting Mayan ruins.
“This rising-place is named Two-Hands of the Moon,” declared Hu-Quetzal. “You have chosen well; the old tales call it a sacred spot.”
“What do you think’s under there, genius boy?” asked Bud excitedly. “A buried temple?”
Stephanus Liu responded before Tom could. “A pyramid-temple or tomb of the Maya kind would surely make much more than this little mound. But I am thinking of its name, Two-Hands.”
“Does it have a special meaning?” asked Tom.
“Perhaps, perhaps,” mused the academic. “There was an expression like that among the Proto-Olmecs by which they referred to a particular variety of ceremonial structure which was sunk into the ground but not actually buried. It was a sort of courtyard divided by crossing walls, like a maze—the ‘fingers’ of the ‘hands’—with a large atrium at the center. The floor of the atrium was dug much lower than that of the surrounding structure. The walls consisted of stone slabs, usually elaborately decorated with carvings.”
“I know nothing of this,” murmured the ahau. “But you say these were other tribes, before the Maya.”
“Many centuries before,” confirmed Liu. Bud asked the purpose of the structure, and Liu continued: “We can not be sure. Only a very few ruins have been discovered; Tulo Y’quenque, in Guatemala, is the only one substantially well-preserved. For you see, the structure had no roof. It was open to the sky and the stars.”
Chow snorted. “Wa-aal, that’d be mighty nice, but this here one’s sure covered up.”
Dr. Liu nodded and Mrs. Liu said slowly, “When the Toltecs came, they lay trunks of trees across the open top, and filled in the cracks with mud and small rocks. They thought the restless dead of the ancients were buried inside, and—how shall I say?—the eyes of the dead must not see the sun, or they will awaken.”
Chow gulped at the eerie thought, and Tom said, “If the inner walls were exposed to the weathering process for centuries before they were buried, the retroscope should have a lot to tell us. Let’s get to it!”
“We’ve got to dig all this up with hand trowels?” Bud asked, gazing in discouragement at the mound.
“Yup, flyboy, until we find what lies below,” confirmed Tom with a sympathetic grin. “Then, perhaps, it’ll be safe to use shovels in exploring further, if Professor Castillez gives the okay.”
Chief Quetzal set off for the village, Dr. and Mrs. Liu accompanying him. A small, promising area was marked out for test-digging near the flattened top of the mound, and Tom and Bud set to work. Soon their safari shirts were dark with perspiration and their faces were beet-red.
Meanwhile, Chow had become restless as he watched over the equipment. “Shucks, they’ll never get nowhere with them teeny li’l garden trowels,” he muttered as he watched Tom and Bud laboring on top of the mound. “I reckon an ole range hand like me kin show ’em how to swing a pick!”
At that moment Tom gave a shout. “I think I’ve found something!”
Bud and Chow rushed up to see. Tom had uncovered some small, flat stone slabs, badly broken and lying at various angles, as if the earth had shifted beneath them. “What do you suppose they are?” Bud asked.
“Might be what’s left of a stone platform for religious ceremonies,” replied the scientist-inventor as he wiped his forehead. “It may be that after the Toltecs were overthrown, the Mayas set down some sacred stones here, along the lines of that stone-for-standing with the space symbols on it. You know, guys, the old Mayan architects never learned to construct an arch with a keystone but used a flat capstone. That’s why most of their stone buildings were flat-roofed. That must have been true of their predecessors as well.”
“I’ll help you set up the camera,” Bud offered. “Maybe these slabs have space carvings like the other one.”
“If the underlying structure has crumbled, the whole thing may be somewhat shaky,” Tom cautioned. “We’ll have to proceed carefully.”
The retroscope equipment was set up on top of the mound, its scanner-detector tube aimed downward at an angle into the shallow excavation Tom had made. The machine was activated, and in moments the three were crowded together gazing at the tiny reproducer screen. “Not all that much to see,” Bud murmured in disappointment.
“Not so far,” agreed Tom. “But look at that rounded cut at the bottom of the slab on the left. It might be the top of a symbol. Let’s scoop out some more dirt.”
Ambling back to the edge of the mound to watch, Chow was frustrated at the snail’s pace of the digging. “Now this right here looks like a corner o’ one o’ them slabs pokin’ up,” he said to himself with a Texas twang. “Brand my tombstones, bet I kin pry somethin’ up outta the ground afore th’ boys do!”
The youths were so intent on their delicate digging that they didn’t notice the Texan retrieve a large pick from the tool pile. With a grin of anticipation on his broad face, Chow positioned himself and gathered his strength. Suddenly he gave a mighty heave with his pick. It struck deep, so deep that the cook almost lost his balance. Bewildered, Chow watched as the bit of stone he had been aiming at seemed to fall right through the ground! “Hunh! What in tarnation—?”
There was a strange rumbling noise underground, followed by yells of alarm from Tom and Bud. With a shattering clatter of stone and debris, the center of the mound caved in!
“Great snakes!” Chow gulped, aghast at the havoc he had caused.
Both boys had disappeared from view!
The whitefaced cook scrambled up to the edge of the cave-in and peered down into the gaping hole, only a few feet broad but without a bottom. But it was too deeply shadowed to make out what had happened to the boys.
“Hey, fellers!” Chow called down in a quavering voice. “Y-You okay?”
Even as he spoke he saw movement deep within the opening and leaned over further. Some ten feet down a sharp-slanted, rocky embankment, the separated units of the retroscope—the computer-brain and the helium compressor—were wedged tightly together like a cork in a bottle. Chow jolted back in alarm as they suddenly slipped further down the sinkhole.
“Chow!” came a muffled voice from below. “Can you hear me?”
The westerner heaved a gusty sigh of relief at the sound of Tom’s voice. “Sure can, boss, but what— ”
“Listen, pard, we’re both hanging on to the camera cables—we don’t know what’s underneath us—our feet aren’t touching anything—and the stuff above feels like it’s going to come loose! Go get h— ”
The two consoles slipped again, and the young inventor’s words ended in a shout of alarm!
“I’m goin’, I’m goin’!” yelped Chow. “You boys jest hang on! Don’t go away!”
But in the darkness below, hanging on threatened to become useless. Tom and Bud each held on to one of the taut cables extending upward from the retroscope chassis, which was dangling somewhere below them out of sight.
“Tom,” Bud gasped, “all that heavy stuff above is gonna give way and fall on our heads!”
“All we can do is let go—you first, flyboy. And when your feet touch the ground, jump aside as far as you can—try to protect your head!”
“Roger!” Bud counted down from three. Then Tom felt the shift of equilibrium as Bud released his grip. A moment later came a clattering thud and a grunt from the hollow blackness. “Come on!” Bud called.
Tom’s fall was longer than he had expected, and he let his body go limp. The shock of landing was jolting, but he managed to roll sideways and struggle away a few steps. Nothing blocked his path. He seemed to be standing on a flat, solid surface.
Pebbles and dirt rained down as the units shifted again with a harsh scraping sound. “Where are you, pal?” Tom called out.
“Now how’m I supposed to know that, genius boy?” came back a characteristic gibe that made Tom grin. “How’re you doing?”
“I’m okay—just shaken up. But I don’t have my flashlight; it’s up topside with my pack. I think we’re in some kind of a room— maybe a temple.”
“Uh-huh,” replied Bud. “Or a tomb! But let’s get out of the way of the—mnph!”
“What is it?”
“Stumbled into something. Feels like it’s made of rock. Move carefully.”
Tom cautiously made his way through the pitch darkness for a few yards. Then came a crashing sound from high above, and a dim shaft of light slanted down. Two bulky boxlike objects were silhouetted against it, casting moving shadows.
“Here they come!” Tom warned.
With a clatter of rocks and debris, the two consoles crashed down only a few feet from Tom and Bud, who could now make out one another in the faint sunlight, hazy with floating dust.
“Aw man!” moaned Tom’s pal. “That’s the end of the retroscope!”
Tom approached the tangled heap and examined it. “Bud, it’s not so bad after all. The consoles landed on top of the coiled-up cables and the helium feed-tube, which cushioned them a little. And the camera itself must’ve come down slowly as the cables payed out. The console units came out of the hole at an angle, luckily, and didn’t land on the retroscope.”
“Hunh! Doesn’t even look like the dome is cracked,” Bud remarked.
Tom chuckled. “Thank goodness for Tomasite!”
“Right. But… what is this place?”
They both turned themselves around slowly, trying to penetrate the surrounding gloom. The shaft of light made a dim circle around the retroscope, but beyond that only a few vague shapes were visible.
“The floor’s pretty level,” commented Tom. “Bet it was paved at one time. But look—old dried mud and rotted wood. Dr. Liu must be right; this must be one of those ceremonial structures that the Toltecs finally covered up.”
Bud nodded. “Must be. And it’s deep, too. If I hadn’t known how to take a hard landing, I’d have broken a few bones.” Bud took a few wary steps into the darkness, then suddenly snapped his fingers. “Hey, I know how we can shed a little light on the situation!” He reached deep into a zippered pocket and brought out a flat wallet-sized toiletries kit. Popping it open, he proudly held it up for his chum to see. The inside of the hinged cover was a high-polished metal mirror!
Standing within the circle of light, the young pilot used the mirror to reflect a beam into the darkness. He began to pan it sideways—and both youths yelped in startled fright!
The nearby wall was lined with human skeletons!
“It’s a tomb!” Bud exclaimed.
The skeletons, perhaps a dozen of them, were propped side-by-side in a sitting position on a long ledge of carved stone. None seemed over four feet tall. Necklaces of jade beads hung around their necks.
Tom took a few steps closer. “Look at these metal bands—manacles! Bud, these guys were probably captured enemies who were chained down here by the Toltecs as a sacrifice to the gods when the structure was covered over.”
Even in the dim light, Tom could tell that his friend had gone pale. “B-Better them than us, genius boy! I’ve never cared a lot for skeletons.”
Impulsively Bud edged away from the ghoulish occupants of the tomb, leaving his kit propped on the floor in the light to maintain its reflection. Tom continued to speak in fascinated tones as he examined the wall closely. “Just think,” Tom said. “These poor captives have been waiting down here century after century for the sight of a little daylight.”
“I could use a little more of it myself,” Bud muttered as he groped through the darkness on the opposite side of the floor. Hands extended, he hoped to find some indication of a route of escape from the tomb. But to find it, he knew he would first have to make contact with the other wall. What if more of the ancient remains were hidden in the darkness?
Suddenly the buried chamber resounded with a startled cry of fear!
TOM was too stunned to call out. There was a crash, as of bones clattering to the floor.
“Good grief—I’ve done it!” Bud piped from the darkness. “Ran right into a skeleton!”
“Does it seem to be seated on a ledge, like the ones over here?”
“Y-Yeah, I guess so, Skipper. But I’m afraid I didn’t do old Mr. Bones any good,” quavered Bud. “In fact, it feels like I’ve got my foot stuck in his— ”
“Hello down there!” interrupted a familiar voice from above. “Having a problem?”
“Hutchcraft!” Bud hissed. Then he yelled, “What’s next on the program, Hutch? Gonna lob a grenade at us?”
“No, Barclay, not at the moment. I’m fresh out, actually.” Tom and Bud could practically feel the man’s smirk. “Ran into your g-dropping friend as he was flailing about in the jungle. He said something about your falling into a hole, so I thought I’d drop by for a look. How are you, anyway?”
“Do you have any kind of rope with you?” called Tom.
“Oh, I suppose you could call it a sort of rope.” There was a long pause. Then the two made out a narrow, sinuous shape easing its way down from the opening high above. “Go ahead. I’ve anchored it to a tree trunk,” Hutchcraft yelled.
Approaching, Tom and Bud found that the archaeologist had lowered an ingenious sort of rope ladder, a long chain of interlaced fabric rings, each just wide enough for a single shoe to fit in. Using the ladder for handholds as well as footholds, the boys struggled up to the top, one foot above the other.
As they emerged into the midday sunlight, Hutchcraft said, “Aha, casting shadows! If this were Groundhog Day, I’d predict a delayed spring.”
“Very funny,” grumbled Bud. “But thanks for the rescue.”
Tom added his thanks. Hutchcraft asked if the young inventor planned to raise the camera equipment out of the pit right away. “I don’t think so,” he replied. “We’d just have to lower it again, and I think the chamber is pretty inaccessible. Maybe Hu-Quetzal won’t mind lending us one of his men to keep watch overnight.”
After pulling up the rope ladder, the three headed back toward Huratlcuyon, Wilson Hutchcraft taking the lead. As the archaeologist-philologist pulled further ahead of them, Bud turned to Tom. “What do you make of that guy?” he whispered. “Why do you suppose he helped us?”
Tom murmured, “Beats me. But remember, flyboy, the collapse of that mound wasn’t his doing. If he’s plotting against us, it may not be the right moment for him to make his final move.”
As they neared the village, they encountered an excited band of rope-bearing rescuers led by Chow and Professor Castillez. The westerner verbally branded a few things in relief and gave his young friends a warm bearhug, both at once. “Boys, I shor am sorry fer bein’ so plumb careless!” he apologized.
“Don’t be too sorry, cowpoke!” Bud laughed. “We can call it a scientific breakthrough!”
Tom narrated the story of their unexpected plunge and amazing discovery. “Tomorrow I’ll set up a worklight and get the camera repaired. I’m betting we’ll find some carvings in that tomb that will answer a lot of our questions.” He proceed to ask Chief Quetzal if he would be willing to assign a couple trusted village men to keep watch on the area for the rest of the day and throughout the night.
The ahau surprised Tom by declaring that he himself would be one of the guards. “For the good of my people and the honor of the firstfathers, I will guard this tomb with my life!”
After contacting his father from the paraplane and giving an account of the discovery, Tom spent the rest of the day reading further about the early Mayas and the invading Toltecs in the books he had brought with him in his pack. Inasmuch as the resident expert, Hutchcraft, had left the village to continue his jungle investigations, Tom was able to discuss his questions and observations with Dr. Liu. “There is almost no use in discussing a vague history that you yourself may be rewriting, Tom,” said the Chinese-Hawaiian. “I only hope—it is selfish of me—that some of your findings in that tomb will have bearing upon my own theories.”
Tom asked if Dr. and Mrs. Liu had yet derived anything from their studies of the Huratlcuyon dialect. “Alas, nothing definitive,” was the rueful answer. “Soon I think we shall be moving along to the next settlement.”
Tom smiled in sympathy. “Don’t give up, Dr. Liu.”
Bud Barclay spent the afternoon learning a traditional game of the Yucatan cultures from the village’s young people. It involved two small oblong balls that could bounce and roll every whichway, four goalposts arranged as the points of the compass, and a great deal of strenuous running about in the dull late-day heat. He was happier than he’d been in weeks.
Finally an amber twilight arrived, and the native cookfires were again glowing in the dusk. Chow had prepared an appetizing meal as a treat for the entire village, which everyone ate with a hearty appetite and a good deal of praise.
“You say, señor, that this way of eating in El Norte is called babbak-yuqeen?” asked one of the women in Spanish, which Chow understood.
“Shor is, Imyal—barbecuin’!” the cook confirmed. “Right pop’lar, an’ it’s a specialty of mine.”
After supper, as Tom and Bud stood up to stretch, Bud nudged his pal and gave a nod of his head. Mrs. Liu was approaching them, somewhat stealthily. “There is something I must tell you,” she said to Tom in a near whisper. “My husband does not encourage me to do this. He says what I saw may be innocent. But on this occasion, I do not agree with him.”
“I’ll keep in mind that it’s uncertain,” Tom promised. “What did you see, ma’am?”
Jiang Liu explained that the matter involved Wilson Hutchcraft. “I saw him not far from where I was working this afternoon. My husband was then far away. Looking between the trees I saw this man take something from beneath his shirt, like a bundle of black cloth. Then he knelt down and lifted up a flat rock. From under it he took a thing like a pouch, an envelope, and put the cloth into the envelope. Then he set it down and put the rock over it again.” She described the location of the rock, then continued, “Because the man I saw by your airplane wore black, I thought I should tell you of this.”
“Thank you very much, Mrs. Liu,” Tom said, while giving Bud a look that said: Don’t spout off until she’s gone!
As Mrs. Liu walked away, Bud pounded a fist into the palm of his hand. “Now we know what that snake’s been doing when he goes off to ‘dig’! He’s been working with the skinny guy and those other bandits all along!”
Tom mulled this over. Should he confront the man at once, or merely watch and wait for further developments? Bud was all for an immediate, forceful showdown with the Bostonian.
Tom shook his head. “We should go see what’s in that envelope first,” he said. “Mrs. Liu might be jumping to conclusions. Though of course, we have no right to pry into Hutch’s personal property, Bud.”
“Well, at least let’s go look at the outside of the envelope,” Bud begged. “If he had anything to do with sabotaging the paraplane, we have a right to protect ourselves, don’t we?”
“True. Okay, we’ll do some sleuthing.”
Night had fallen, and Hutchcraft, who had returned for supper, was lounging on a mat in the hut. The two youths, carrying flashlights, headed into the forest without telling anyone where they were going. The jungle lay shrouded in drowsy silence, broken occasionally by the eerie calls of night birds in the faint glow of moonlight.
They halted about a hundred yards from the site of Magnificent Max’s cave. “This is it, Skipper,” Bud pronounced, focusing the beam of his flashlight on a crumbled slab of flat stone barely visible in the jungle grasses.
As Bud lifted the stone a few inches, Tom pulled out a flat, watertight plastic pouch, carefully sealed against the elements. He held it close to the light.
“There’s nothing written on it,” Bud muttered. “Let’s go ahead and open ’er up!”
His friend sighed. “All right,” he said reluctantly.
The next moment he was holding a jet-black head-cowl in the flashlight beam. The light glowed eerily through a pair of slitted eye-holes.
“Just like the bandit gang wore when they attacked the workers’ camp,” Tom muttered. “Of course, Hutchcraft will deny that this pouch is his. But maybe we can get around that.”
Tom hastily outlined a plan. After stuffing the cowl back into the envelope and replacing it under the stone, the two hurried back to the village. Slowing to a casual walk, they found Hutchcraft sitting on his bedroll in the open air.
“You seem all worked up, fellows.” He grinned at them mockingly. “And on such a pretty night. Don’t tell me you’ve found another buried temple!”
“No, but we do have something to show you,” Tom replied. “It’s a secret. I’d like you to come and have a look before we tell Castillez about it—you may be able to tell us exactly what it is.”
Hutchcraft became intensely curious despite himself. His eyes gleamed with sudden interest. “What sort of thing is it? A carving?”
“We’re not quite sure what it is,” Bud put in. “You’re the archaeologist, Hutch. Come and see for yourself!”
The Bostonian needed no urging. Obviously intrigued by Tom and Bud’s mysterious manner, Hutchcraft accompanied the Shopton youths eagerly. They led him across the forest and stopped beside the flat stone. Bud pointed to it. “Any idea what’s under here, Hutchcraft?”
In the glow of the flashlights, the man’s face suddenly showed suspicion. “Under the rock? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said nervously. “What’re you boys up to? A prank?”
“I guess it is a kind of prank, Hutch, old bean—in a way.” Bud grinned at the man as he tilted up the rock. Tom reached under the stone and yanked out the plastic envelope.
“Suppose you explain this!” Tom demanded angrily.
“That?” Hutchcraft made an effort to pull himself together. “I tell you I know nothing about it!” he snarled. “Now I get it. You fellows are just trying to trap me into a phony confession or something. You’d like to blame your problems on me, is that it? Well, I don’t intend to stand here and listen to any trumped-up charges.”
He tried to dart away, but Bud grabbed the linguist and swung him around angrily. “You’ve had this coming for a long time!” the copilot growled. His fist shot out and caught Hutchcraft squarely on the jaw.
The man crumpled under the blow. With a moan he struggled back to his feet as Bud stood over him with clenched fists.
“Don’t hit me!” Hutchcraft blubbered in fear. “I paid a thousand dollars for this lower plate of mine! I’ll tell you anything I can—just don’t hit me again!”
“We don’t plan to hurt you,” said Tom quietly. “But it’s time you told us about your relationship with the skinny guy who’s been shooting those diamond-tipped arrows at us. This is what he wears over his head, isn’t it?”
“Or is this one yours?” Bud spat out.
Wilson Hutchcraft looked frantically from face to face. “Now listen—just listen to me—please.”
“I’m listening, Hutch,” Tom said.
“Please believe me, I don’t know anything about this mask, not a thing. I’ve never seen it before!”
Bud snorted. “No? You were seen putting it under the rock this afternoon, when you claimed to be out archaeologizing around in the jungle.”
“No!” insisted the man. “I was nowhere near here. And tell me this—why would I hide just this one article of clothing here, anyway? What good would it do me? Where’s the rest of the disguise?”
Bud groaned in disgust but Tom put a restraining hand on his pal’s arm. “You know, Hutchcraft, my retroscope camera can take this fabric and read-off the image of whoever wore it or handled it.”
Hutchcraft was slowly calming down. “No, Tom, you’re just bluffing. As of now you have no proof of anything. You can report your absurd suspicions to the police if you want, but you have no right to take the law into your own hands. I’m going to go back to the village now. I can’t move on until my ride returns for me—but I’d just as soon sleep somewhere else.” Tom and Bud did not interfere as he stood. Before stalking off into the jungle, the man said bitterly, “To think I saved your lives twice—the jaguar by your plane, and just this afternoon. You’re pathetic!”
The youths stood still until the sound of Hutchcraft crashing away through the underbrush had faded. Then Bud faced Tom furiously and growled: “He wiggled out of it. He may be sharp as a tack, genius boy, but he’s a bald-faced Bostonian liar!”
“I know, Bud,” said Tom Swift. “And I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of him—or his skinny friend.”
The next day Tom tried hard to put the previous night behind him and focus his attention on investigating the hidden tomb. He, Bud, and Chow arrived at the mound-opening early and greeted Ahau Quetzal and his fellow villager.
“The night was quiet,” reported Hu-Quetzal. “We heard nothing, not even the yawn of Lord Jaguar.”
Tom thanked the men, and they returned to Huratlcuyon. Tom then secured a strong rope ladder from the expedition’s supplies that he had carried with him, and a second rope to lower a floodlight, which would be plugged directly into the retroscope’s battery power supply. “I’ll watch my end up here, boss, jest like you said,” promised Chow. “Ain’t nobody getting’ by old Chow, not even one o’ them big cats!”
The boys clapped him on his broad back. “Thanks pardner!” said Tom, and Bud added: “If you see any animal that looks like Hutchcraft, chase him off!”
They descended to the floor of the structure, and Chow carefully lowered the floodlight to them.
“Got it—thanks!” Tom shouted up.
A moment later the yellow electric glow illumined the underground chamber. Tom and Bud shouted in astonishment at the sight that leapt out of the darkness at them from every side!
The high-sided chamber, perhaps one hundred feet square, was lined with rectangular stone slabs, cracked, moss-covered, and in various states of disrepair. They were covered with elaborate carvings of animals, birds, human faces, and what seemed to be purely decorative motifs in a style that Tom recognized as classical Mayan. If the slabs had once been carefully placed in position, they were no longer so, leaning inward at ominous angles as if about to topple in on the youths.
Along the bottom of the walls, to the right and left, were carved insets creating benchlike ledges of solid stone. Dozens of the skeletons of the tiny Mayans sat along these ledges, manacled hand and foot and about the chin. Some of the skeletons had fallen to pieces and many of the skulls were strewn about the mud-covered floor, but most of the ghastly remains were still intact. With their gaping jaws and black, empty eye-sockets, the ancient captives seemed to be staring at the two invaders in horrified surprise.
But these sights were not what drew Tom and Bud’s eyes. The tomb-chamber was dominated by a fantastic bas-relief carving of a man, turned sideways, his face in profile.
“Good night, Tom!” choked Bud. “That’s got to be fifty feet tall!”
The gigantic figure was dressed in a swirling cloak, and his head was adorned with a strange feathered helmet, part of which incorporated a representation of the serpent-head of Kukulcan. In one hand the man held up something round.
“What’s he holding?” Bud asked. “A shield?”
“From what I’ve read, it’s a sort of combination calendar and history book,” replied Tom. “The significant events of particular eras of time, determined by the positions of the stars and planets, were represented by picture-symbols.”
The youths walked closer, their shadows elongated in the worklight beam. Tom touched the rock with his fingers. “Pal, the stone of this slab looks to be much, much older than the others. Look at how pitted and weathered the surface is! It must have already been exposed to the elements for a thousand years before those Proto-Olmecs moved it into their structure.” Tom suddenly looked at his friend with eyes that gleamed with excitement. “Matter of fact, the whole structure could have been built around it, for ceremonies honoring something sacred from the distant past, perhaps something no one could understand!”
“What a find!” Bud muttered, awestruck.
Suddenly Tom gave a fresh cry of excitement.
The copilot turned. Tom was pointing to a series of dim markings carved into the slab next to the huge figure. “More space symbols!” exclaimed the scientist-inventor.
“Can you translate them, Tom?” Bud asked eagerly, staring at the wall markings.
“No… not yet,” was the answer. “Most of them are too faint and worn. We’ve got to get the retroscope working!”
For more than an hour Tom and Bud labored to restore the tangled and scratched, but largely unharmed, electronic camera. They periodically shouted up to Chow, who reported that he had seen no sign of trouble so far on his watch.
Finally the work was completed. Tom activated the battery unit and focused the emitter-detector tube on the giant carving. “The time dial reads A.D. 396—that’s when the image itself was carved.”
Bud looked at the reproducer screen over Tom’s hunched shoulders. “Looks like you’re getting a lot of new detail,” he pronounced. “But let’s take a gander at the space symbols!”
Tom shifted the focus slightly, using a minutely graduated adjustment wheel. Turning to the screen, he sucked in his breath.
The retroscope revealed that the entire wall was covered with space symbols!
“Now it’s starting to make sense,” breathed the young inventor as his eyes passed back and forth across the tiny screen. “It’s going to be a fantastic story, Bud. And more incredible, the inscriptions were carved long before the figure.” He looked up. “The time dial reads about 1000 B.C.!”
Bud started to say something, but he was interrupted by a sound from above. Some small rocks and pebbles had come rolling down the hole-tunnel and fallen to the floor.
“Hey Chow!” Bud called out. “You okay up topside?”
There was no response, and the two looked at one another in alarm. After a few more shouts, Tom said, “Let’s climb up and take a look.”
Tom had no sooner placed one foot on the rope ladder than Bud suddenly jerked him away as the entire ladder came clattering down, falling in a heap in front of the youths. “What’s going on?” Tom demanded.
A faint high voice came drifting down from above. “Can you hear me? You below, do you hear?”
“Mrs. Liu!” Bud shouted. “We hear you!”
Tom shouted next. “Our rope ladder has come loose! Do you see Chow Winkler anywhere up there?”
“Oh yes, yes I do,” came the voice, now sounding a bit stronger. “He is lying on the ground!”
Tom was startled. “Is he all right?”
“No, I would not suppose so,” was the reply. “He is unconscious. A little blood on the side of his head.”
“Yes,” called Mrs. Liu. “I may have hit him a bit too hard with my little rock. My arms are very thin, but sometimes I do not know my own strength.”
Thunderstruck, Tom and Bud stood dead silent as Dr. Liu’s wife continued. “Oh my goodness, please don’t worry, boys. I’m sure your friend will be all right. He was watching for enemies, wasn’t he? As I came close, he couldn’t guess that I was one.”
“I think we’ve found the skinny phantom!” Tom pronounced in disgust.
“I heard you,” called down Jiang Liu. “I am skinny indeed, but strong and light of foot. Stephanus and I, we work very well together as a team, don’t you think? That is why we were both given this assignment in the field as a couple, together. Usually, my dear one stays home, pursuing his foolish hobby—his silly theory about the Chinese. I have had to push him a bit now and then. But he is loyal and lovable.”
Tom called, “Which one of you is the archer?”
“Why I am, of course. I have won many competitions as a girl in China. Of course, using these peculiar arrows is not so easy, but it pleased me to master the ancient customs of the Maya—though we had to violate tradition with those diamond tips.”
“You don’t know how much I hate to say this,” grumbled Bud to Tom, “but I think we owe Hutch an apology.”
A tinkling laugh came down from Mrs. Liu. “No, no, my dear boy, it is I who should apologize to the poor man. But I really felt the need to throw you off for just a bit longer. Surely you soon would have guessed that Stephanus and I had caused you your many problems—shooting our arrows, doing things to your plane mechanisms, ruining the Professor’s radio set. At the same time, should I not be thanked, at least by the cave-man? I couldn’t bear to see him fall prey to that jaguar. He is really a sweet, simple soul.”
“What were you two after, the relics in Max’s cave?”
“Oh no, not at first,” she answered. “I was merely following you boys the other day when you almost caught me. But when you returned with his bowl and described his treasures, it occurred to us that even a few of those relics might fetch a good price in support of our cause. Do you have the tiniest idea what our cause is? Surely not. They call us bandits, our little group. But we fight to liberate the ancient peoples of Yucatan and Chiapas from centuries of European oppression. People like you come down from our all-mighty United States to plunder these people’s sacred objects and destroy their way of life. Sometimes, that is all they have left. Our group grows slowly, but we will do all we must to prevent these things. Do you see? But no matter. Oh dear. Goodbye, goodbye.”
Bud broke the silence that followed. “I don’t like the sound of that ‘goodbye’, genius boy.”
Three loud blasts rattled down through the tunnel above! Daylight was cut off as rocks, dirt, and smoke came pouring down. Tom and Bud frantically jumped back, away from the avalanche.
“She’s collapsed the hole!” cried Tom.
AS THE debris showered down with a thudding rumble, the worklight suddenly went dark, shattered and buried. Inky blackness filled the tomb chamber.
Finally quiet returned. “What a scare!” Bud gulped.
“But we’re alive, pal—we’re alive!” Tom drew a deep breath of relief.
“Now all we have to do is get out of here,” Bud remarked dryly. “Unless we plan to wait for daylight with our bony friends.”
“Looks as if we’ll either have to wait for someone to show up with some great big shovels, or find our own way out.” Tom did not say it aloud, but he had another worry. What if these first blasts were only the beginning of an attempt to bring down the chamber on their heads and bury them completely?
“I vote we find the exit,” Bud said, adding gloomily: “That’ll be fun.” The underground chamber was in darkness. Even the retroscope screen had gone black, its power cable jerked out of its socket by the falling rock that buried it.
“Liu said these structures were built like a maze,” mused Tom. “I don’t think that was a lie, at least. If we feel along the walls, we may find steps or a corridor leading up to the surrounding hallways near the surface.” Tom concentrated, trying to visualize the layout as he had briefly seen it.
His concentration was suddenly broken as the darkness was filled with a weird quavering scream!
“Good gosh!” Bud exclaimed in a panic of dread. “It’s the—the skeletons!—they’re coming back to life!”
“No, pal, not the skeletons,” declared his friend. “That’s Max’s parrot! We’ve got to follow the sound!”
Stumbling through the darkness in the direction of the sounds as fast as they dared, their outstretched fingers touched the lefthand wall. Taking the lead, Bud felt his way along, inch by inch, as the screeching continued. Moments later, the slabbed wall was interrupted by a narrow gap.
“Some kind of doorway, Tom,” Bud proclaimed excitedly. “And the screeches sound like they’re coming out of it!” Leading on at Tom’s urging, they found themselves at what felt like the foot of a stone stairway.
The steps were so narrow and steep they had to plant their feet sideways on them as they worked their way upwards, slipping frequently on the loose detritus of centuries. At the top the steps ended in a rough-sided, winding corridor, rendered almost impassable by debris.
“I h-hate to think what I might be stepping on!” Bud muttered.
“Just keep thinking about our friend the parrot,” was the reply from behind him. “Sounds like we’re getting close.”
After following the cramped tunnel for several minutes, Bud discovered his progress blocked by what seemed to be an accumulation of small, loose objects around his feet. Plunging ahead, he rammed up against a tall, broad obstruction with a slight give to it. Bud shoved, and a chink of very faint orange-yellow light appeared. Instantly the voice of the parrot redoubled in volume!
“Think I’ve found it, Tom!” he called out.
“Look!” Tom called back. “We’re inside Max’s treasure vault! The corridor goes right through the hill—Max’s cave must be what’s left of the original tomb entrance!”
The young inventor pushed his way forward. After knocking his shin against a stone statue and almost falling on his face when he stumbled against the wall, Tom finally reached his friend’s side.
“It’s going to take some muscle to break this barrier down,” Bud warned.
“Let’s give it the old heave-ho!” Tom said. On signal, they crashed their shoulders against the stone and interwoven branches of the crude, makeshift door. On their fourth attempt, the obstruction finally burst open amid a shower of loose dirt and rock. They had emerged into Magnificent Max’s “back room.”
By the faint glow rebounding along the walls from Max’s distant candle, they made their way to the main room. “Guess the big guy’s out,” Tom remarked. “But he left the lights on.” They hurried along, and in moments stood in front of the cave in the deep shadows of the early morning sun.
“Oh man, does that air feel good!” Bud gulped. He looked up at Max’s pet parrot, still screeching away on its perch in the tree. “Hey, thanks for the help, featherweight!”
Turning to Tom, the young flyer asked if they should go back immediately to rescue Chow. “I’d like to, but the Lius could be waiting for us there with rifles, for all we know. Let’s run for the village and get help from Castillez and the Mayans—maybe even from Hutchcraft.”
Panting from the heat they crashed recklessly through the brush. Their friend’s life was at stake! But as the village came in sight, Tom abruptly dug in his heels and yanked Bud back. A number of black-clad figures were roaming between the huts—figures with fearsome automatic weapons in their hands!
“The Lius must have given them a signal,” Tom whispered. “They’ve taken over!”
Bud gestured grimly toward the doorways of the huts in view. The frightened faces of the men, women, and children of Huratlcuyon peered out into the sunlight, helpless captives of the armed men.
Bud looked at Tom quizzically—what now? The young inventor thought for a moment. And then he smiled.
The cadre member assigned to guard the strange airplane of the Americános did not realize that it was a four-door model. Once, a slight noise drew his gaze behind him, to the wall of jungle just beyond the craft. But he saw nothing.
Tom and Bud did not bother re-closing the passenger-side door behind them as they crept low across the bucket seats. They managed to keep below the guard’s line of sight, and were thankful for the shadows. The man knew nothing until another sound—a sort of whooshing and a loud fluttery Pop!—caused him to whirl about, weapon at ready. His eyes grew wide and he fell back. The plane had grown a dirigible bag on its topside and was rising smoothly into the air!
The guard’s burst of automatic fire made Tom and Bud nervous, but had no effect on the tough skin of the paraplane and its liftbag. “He’d have better luck with traditional methods—diamond-tipped arrows!” gibed Bud.
At one-thousand feet, Tom prepared to cut in the jet and hop over the hill, to size up the situation from above. But Bud yanked his arm. “Look below!”
While the jungle bandits had concentrated their attention and their fire upward, Chief Quetzal and his subjects had suddenly come surging from the huts in force, a human tidal wave wildly swinging any loose object they could get their hands on! The boys cheered as the jungle gang fell back; the villagers seemed to have the upper hand.
Suddenly Tom’s face turned ashen. From his elevated vantage point he could see reinforcements in black entering the fray from the jungle, behind the people of Huratlcuyon. A sneak attack!
The young inventor’s hands leapt at the paraplane controls. Squeezing the liftbag, he forced the craft into a hair-raising drop, easing into a hover at 100 feet. Then he reached down, twisted a hand-grip, and yanked a lever next to his feet.
Craning his neck, Bud whistled. Plumes of pure white arced downward from the paraplane, spreading in all directions like spider legs. Reaching the ground, they seemed to throw the struggling crowd into chaos. As they scattered wildly, the youths could see that the insurgents from the brush were being driven back—and seemed to be catching the wave of panic like a contagion!
Bud barked out a laugh of triumph. “You’ve done ’em in, Skipper! Guess they don’t take to smog.”
Tom joined in the laughter but shook his head impishly. “It isn’t smog, flyboy. I unloaded a dollop of excess liquid helium from our tank. It’s so super-cold it reacted instantly with the moisture in this humid air.”
“Instant fog, huh?”
“Nope. We’ve just given Huratlcuyon its very first snowstorm!”
The youths’ high spirits concealed their worry at what would happen next, when the guerilla-gang regrouped. But rescue suddenly came charging into the village from the direction of the roadway—men in tan policía uniforms, firing guns into the air. “Good night!—it’s Jéfe Rodriguez!” marveled Tom.
Outnumbered and disoriented, the bandits surrendered with little resistance, and the Jéfe waved Tom down to a safe landing.
“Very good to see you again!” Bud exclaimed as he jumped from the paraplane.
“The circumstances are a bit more pleasant, eh?” The special officer smiled as he shook their hands.
“You knew what you’d find here, obviously,” Tom said. “But how?”
“Ah. We knew something was very askew even as we left in our helicopter the other day,” the Jéfe explained. “You see, we were already on the hunt for a pair of bandítos fantómes that were thought to be husband and wife. We had a general description, from an informant, you see. And so when I met your Dr. Liu and his wife—let us say I was most suspicious. So we landed at a policía outpost some miles distant, near Iturbe. There, I contacted my superiors for permission, and put together this force of men. Our vehicles are parked one mile up the road. Soon they will be filled with these criminals, on their way to imprisonment.”
“You have the gratitude of all our hearts, Jéfe Rodriguez,” said Ahau Hu-Quetzal in Spanish, translated for the Americans by a beaming Professor Castillez.
“Another should have his share in it,” declared Rodriguez. “We did not know the village had already been overrun. We would have walked into a trap but for your friend, Hutchcraft, who called to us from his hiding place next to the road and told us what had happened.”
“Nuts,” Bud groaned. “An obnoxious good guy! Go figure.”
One of Rodriguez’s lieutenants now came rushing up to report that there was no sign of the Lius among the prisoners. Tom quickly described the attack on Chow next to the hill. “Dr. Liu may have gone to join his wife there, or they may have fled together. They might have carried Chow along with them as a hostage!”
“Carried him? Not likely,” Bud muttered.
“Do not worry, señors,” the police chief said. “I assure you these two will not get far. My men and I will now take over!” Then he raised his eyebrows and turned to Hu-Quetzal. “That is, with your permission, ahau.”
With Quetzal’s help, Rodriguez hastily organized three search parties of native Mayan trackers. He, Pedro, and Miguel would each head a group. Before the search parties could take off, however, there was an outburst of excitement from the chattering Mayas.
“It’s Magnificent Max!” Bud cried. “And Chow!”
Grinning broadly, arms full, the ex-wrestler came up into the middle of the village, with Chow walking behind, a livid bruise on the side of his head but beaming in happy relief. “Ran inta Max on the way back,” Chow explained.
In one huge hand Max was holding Stephanus Liu, clad in black, cradling him in a way that kept him as helpless as a baby. His other arm similarly held Jiang-Ma Liu. Their faces were pale but impassive.
“Here’s your skinny guy and her pal!” Max boomed like the victor in a wrestling match. “I knew I’d catch the sneaks sometime!” Tom and the others cheered, with Max guffawing loudly, “Saw the two of ’em hightailin’ it through the trees while I was out looking for my new digs. Cause ya see, this neighborhood has started to make me nervous. I’m thinking maybe I ought to be moving on to another cave!”
“Well done, Max!” Tom acclaimed him. “These folks are worse than a barrel of jaguars!”
The giant now set down a burlap sack he had been carrying across his back. “And in here’s the stuff they stole from me!” Max went on, shaking the sack gently. He went on, “But listen, you folks just keep ’em, huh? And that goes for all the other old stuff in my cave. Give ’em to a museum or something.”
“How come?” Tom asked.
“Aw, it’s just plain too much to worry about, that’s how come,” replied the ex-wrestler with a rueful expression. “It’s got so I can’t sleep any more at night. All I do is stew and worry about someone swiping my treasures. And, boys, that’s not healthy livin’!”
“Your decision is a wise one,” pronounced Rodriguez.
Max left and the new prisoners were led away. Chow began to tell of his experience, but ahau Quetzal silenced the discussion with a gesture and remarked in English, “Now we can learn what the symbols say, the old ones in the tomb. It is important to my people.”
“We can go back right now, ahau,” responded Tom. “We’ll leave the policía to their work.”
It was not long before a small knot of awed visitors stood in the cavernous tomb, gazing at the great carving in the light of a pair of battery-powered electric lanterns. They had entered by means of the cave—Tom, Bud, Chow, Professor Castillez, Wilson Hutchcraft, and Chief Hu-Quetzal.
Uncovering the cables with the shovels they had brought, the power was quickly restored to the waiting retroscope, and the wizardrous camera again trained its electronic eyes on the wall of symbols.
“Part of the message is the same as the inscriptions on the sacred stone and the other ancient items,” Tom told Hu-Quetzal as the Mayan gazed with the young inventor at the reproducer screen.
“Si. But now there is much more,” said Quetzal.
Tom nodded and read off, “‘Fifty of us came here without mishap. Now we will hunt for the rest of the armada. We have lost many. Nothing will protect us from—’ Then that untranslatable symbol.”
Haltingly, Tom managed to decode a further portion of the message. It said:
“‘We hope to survive here but will have to—something like transform—the strange edible substances available. The supply we brought is nearly gone. We can not return. The—blank—has failed us.’”
Tom paused, and Chow observed, “Wa-aal brand my moonbeams, that sure don’t tell us much. Is there any more, boss?”
“A little,” he replied. “But I’m not sure I’m translating it right—it’s strange. ‘The preparers do not answer. The end-purpose has not been fulfilled.’
“And then the final inscription. I can barely make it out: ‘I am the last. I have come to the end. Tell the—’ And that’s all.”
“No doubt the ancient natives copied these symbols from something else, and carved them on a monument stone without being able to read them,” said Hutchcraft. “Rather poignant, isn’t it?”
“We were always told this was a sacred place,” murmured Hu-Quetzal. “And now thanks to you, Tom-Swift, we know the firstfathers spoke in truth to us.”
“Any more digging before we leave?” Bud asked Tom.
“We’ll leave digging here to the archaeologists, Bud,” Tom replied with a grin. “Right now, I’m eager to get back to Shopton and contact our space friends. I want to learn what their ‘history books’ have to say about a space armada that flew to the earth three thousand years ago!”
After much animated speculation, Chow finally changed the subject. “Brand my cat whiskers, I think the main point o’ this whole thing is that Tom’s retroscoper is a bang-up success!”
Everyone cheered this statement, then Bud said, “So, genius boy, what’s next? Another invention, or a mystery?”
Tom chuckled. “I have to choose?” Both were to come to the boys in the adventure of the bold project already underway at Swift Enterprises, in which Tom’s Spectromarine Selector would play a vital role.
As the group left the cave, Hu-Quetzal walked next to Tom and said, “Now, I have my own duties as ahau. It seems Juxtlanpoc had good reason to run away. He worked with the jungle men. I am certain he was the ahmen who approached the workmen to frighten them away. But it is well. He was not a good ahmen. When he told us the weather to come, he was right only half the time. We can do as well with the television news.”
Tom laughed and said, catching Bud’s eye, “With respect, ahau, I have a suggestion. I happen to know someone who predicted an explosion, a kidnapping, and a blow to the head. Well, it all happened. That rock blew up, being trapped in the tomb was a sort of kidnapping, and Chow got knocked unconscious. So if you need a new shaman, I recommend Bud Barclay!”