Two hours later, they came to an area where the character of the river began to change. The larger trees receded from the banks, replaced by a rocky shoreline of great smooth-sided boulders, the first they had seen in hundreds of miles. It was as if they’d suddenly been transported to a different place and, geologically speaking, they had, for the heavy granite they saw was rare in the Amazon, except in the far north near the Guyana Shield, the well-worn remnants of an ancient mountain range. Farther on they began to hear a sound that was as foreign to their ears as the stones were to their eyes: the tumbling chorus of white water, where a smaller stream joined up with the Negro.
“The rapids,” Danielle noted. Blackjack Martin’s notes described these rapids, as did the logger who’d sold her the stone. This was the marker. If the information was correct, they would come to a small tributary in just over a mile, where they would exit the main river and travel due north.
Danielle turned to the captain. “Take the next stream on the starboard side.”
As Hawker joined her at the bow she said, “The water’s low here.” She looked around, thinking about the wide sandy beaches they’d camped on downriver. “Low everywhere right now.”
“The rainy season’s late,” Hawker said.
Danielle nodded. Even out over the western Amazon where they were headed, there had been less precipitation in the supposedly wet month of January than in the months of the drier season. Everywhere the beaches were wide, the sand bars high and the water low.
The captain agreed. “El Niño,” he explained. “Few clouds but nothing more. In Matto Grasso there is no rain at all. El Niño.”
For South America, El Niño meant the dry winds of the Patagonian plateau, high desert air that swept down across the Amazon and stole the moisture away, reeking havoc with the normal weather pattern of daily and weekly rains. It meant dying fish in lakes and ponds and failing crops on the plains. For a month, forecasters had been suggesting an El Niño was forming, but as yet no official announcement had been made. Looking around, Danielle realized she wouldn’t need one.
“Can you get us through?”
The captain nodded. “Slowly.”
Slowly meant three or four knots, with Hawker at the bow watching for trouble. Fortunately the wide-bottomed Ocana only drew a foot or two of water and progress was adequate. Twenty miles upriver lay the spot that the logger claimed to have seen the stone. They would make that in just over five hours. With a little luck, they would find the Wall soon after.
As it turned out, a little luck had not been forthcoming, and the NRI group searched the banks of the river for a week after passing the rapids.
McCarter knew the problem. “The jungle swallows things,” he said. “A hundred years ago cities like Palenque, Copán and Tikal were so covered in vegetation that the monuments looked like rugged green hills. Dirt piles up and the weeds and trees grow out of it. Eventually the place is covered from head to toe. Left alone, the jungle creeps in and simply takes the land back.”
He explained how they should proceed. “One thing you have to avoid looking for is the finished product, a monument or a temple of some kind. You won’t find that out here. It’ll be something subtle—a small hill that doesn’t flow with the land the way it should, or a bit of rock sticking out where it shouldn’t.”
These had been McCarter’s instructions five days before. Since then, they’d split into teams, scouring different sections of the river’s bank on foot, hiking and slashing their way through the tangled foliage, moving slowly upriver in a systematic search. It was all to no avail, until Polaski discovered a squared-off stone at the edge of the river. McCarter and Susan stared at it with approval.
“Beginner’s luck,” she said, smiling. “And thank God for it.”
McCarter looked around. “Luck” was the word. A month earlier the stone would have been submerged in ten feet of water.
“Not bad for a systems nerd,” Polaski proclaimed.
“No,” McCarter said. “Not bad at all.” He looked skyward. Dusk was approaching fast. He considered calling the others but they were spread out along the river’s edge, and in the fifteen minutes it would take them to gather he would lose the remaining light.
McCarter gazed up the sloping bank. It was quite steep. “It probably tumbled down in a deluge at some point.” He looked at Susan and Polaski. “We have to go up,” he said. “Straight up.”
Susan went first. Younger, lighter and more athletic, she outclimbed both McCarter and Polaski as they struggled to scale the steep, tangled embankment. She paused on a flattish section, pointing to something.
As McCarter reached her he was gasping but energized, especially as Susan directed his attention to another jumble of stones. A few feet away they found a second pile, uneven and dislodged, but it seemed as if they might have once been a flight of stairs. With his hands on his hips, McCarter took a deep breath and then began to climb again. “Up,” he said.
This time he led the assault, pushing forward, tripping and stumbling on the steep ascent, almost causing a minor avalanche at one point. Near the top, he arrived at a tangled spread of vines that hung over the bluff like falling water. With the light fading around them, McCarter swung his machete and the vines fell. In their place, two empty eye sockets stared back at him from the mottled brown countenance of an ancient human skull. He stepped back.
“Well, this is something,” Polaski said, wide-eyed.
“Isn’t it?” Susan said. “Can you believe we found it?”
McCarter looked at her. He had begun to think it was all just a waste of time. “And to think, you could have been in Paris instead.”
“Listening to my mother go on about clothes,” she said. “No thanks. Much better here.”
McCarter turned back to the vines and hacked through another section. Next to the first skull, they saw another, this one with a broken cheekbone and a missing jaw, and beside that another. The skulls were set into a wall of stone—placed into sections that had been left open, cemented and braced into position somehow.
Susan and Polaski stepped back as McCarter swung the machete again and again, hacking at the brush and revealing more skulls or the remnants of them with each slash. He stopped as his shoulder began to hurt, wondering when he’d gotten so out of shape.
Breathing hard, he said, “Now that we’ve staked our claim,” he said, “someone call the others.”