Chapter 6 - Raspadero Revealed
Tom, glancing up from time to time as he loped along the river-bed, could see Sally just ahead of him, swooping up and down to dodge the branches of the trees where they stretched out over the river. He was determined to get to the dam as quickly as possible, otherwise he might have given more attention to the extraordinary feeling of being a jaguar. He could see, smell, and hear things that he had never been able to distinguish before; best of all was the wonderful flowing power in his legs and the way he could keep his balance at the end of every leap and turn simply by twitching the tip of his tail a few degrees to right or left.
Sally, for her part, had to work hard to stay on course. As a human, she was right-handed, and it seemed that she had carried over a certain amount of right-handedness to being an owl; her right wing-beat was ever so slightly stronger than her left, and would push her a little sideways if she was not careful. But she, too, had a tail, and as she flew on, she began to use her tail-feathers more effectively for steering. Then there was the challenge of ducking or soaring at just the right moment to avoid flying into a tree-branch or getting snarled up in a cluster of hanging vines. It was like an obstacle course, and it was not long before she decided to leave the problem behind by climbing above the height of the trees altogther. She was anxious not to lose sight of Tom, but he was little more than a dark blur anyway, and they were both heading in the same direction with the river as their guide, so in the end she tilted her wings and rose steeply through the forest canopy to the open air. The moon and stars were shining above the trees and she could see the river clearly for a mile or two ahead, bright as a silvery ribbon.
“I’ll never forget this,” Sally thought.
At some point during the night they felt the cool, refreshing touch of rain, but as soon as the rain stopped, Sally realised how thirsty she was. They had been travelling for several hours and the sky was beginning to grow pink. Sally dropped down through the trees and glided alongside Tom. His mouth was flecked with foam and his eyes were bright yellow. “Stop for a drink,” Sally screeched. “And a rest. And – I have to tell you something.”
Tom slowed to a walk, then stopped, lowered his head, and took a deep long drink of water. It was then that Sally realised she could not bend over to bring her own mouth close to the river. Remembering how she had held a capful of water up to Rita on board the Hand of Friendship, she quickly scanned the nearby branches for a hole or crack that might have filled with rain. There was one a few feet away at a convenient height. She flew over, dipped her beak and drank.
“Well?” Tom growled. “You said you had to tell me something.”
Sally raised her wing to point. “I think I’ve seen it.”
“The dam. Or Raspadero’s camp, at least. There’s a big gap in the trees, and I saw smoke, and people moving around.”
“Could I see it? If I climbed up a tree?”
“Maybe…you’d have to climb pretty high.”
Tom made a quick tour of the nearest trees and chose the tallest, most solid-looking one he could find. He crouched, then leapt up as far as he could along the trunk, scrambling for a hold. “Claws come in handy,” he grunted. Sally flew from branch to branch, higher and higher, as her brother climbed to a point where he could see some distance ahead. There was definitely a gap in the trees, and he could see grey smoke curling into the sky, but not much more. Just then the breeze shifted and he smelled men – a great crowd – and burning wood, and porridge, and weak tea mixed with honey.
“You’re right,” he growled. “It must be Raspadero’s camp, or factory, or whatever. They’re having breakfast. I can smell cooking-fires. But the smoke you see – that must be from the furnace.”
“What do we do?”
Tom began backing carefully down. “Once we get there, we’ll see if we can spot Raspadero. Then – I don’t know. We’ll think of something.”
Sally flew off. She was a night owl, and already she had absorbed enough of her night-owl personality for daytime flying to feel strange. She no longer wanted to be above the forest, but made short flights from tree to tree, keeping to the shadows and the half-light of dawn. Tom, too, moved more slowly and paused more often to sample the air with his nose. The river had become wider and faster, though it was still very shallow. Suddenly Tom froze, then skulked away behind a tree. Sally flew noiselessly across the water to join him.
“Look,” Tom purred.
They had come to a large clearing. All around the edge, men with axes were working in pairs to chop down trees. As soon as a tree fell, other men came forward with hatchets to lop off the branches, which they piled up in great heaps. Then a team of draymen with ropes of twisted vine appeared, to haul the trunks and branches away.
“Fuel for the furnace,” Sally hooted softly.
The men worked slowly and, it seemed, reluctantly; even so it did not take many minutes to fell a tree and take it away.
“At this rate,” Tom growled, “they’ll chop down the whole forest before long.”
Just then they heard shouts and the choppers picked up speed, swinging their axes with more vigour. At the opposite end of the clearing, a group of men appeared, carrying a sort of platform on their shoulders. On the platform was a chair, and on the chair, in the shade of a parasol made from the wide leaves of a fern, sat another man. He was waving a fist and shouting.
“That must be him!” Tom growled. “Raspadero!”
The platform drew closer and Tom, his muscles tense, seemed to be gathering himself to pounce on the seated man. “Wait,” Sally whispered. “I want to hear what he’s saying.” By now it was clear that he had come to harangue the men to work harder and faster. It was also clear that the men did not understand what he was saying, although the tone was clear enough. He was making a complete circuit of the clearing. “There’s something about him…” Sally said.
“I want to see chopping!” the man shouted. “I want to see firewood! You lazy dogs! No more idling away the days, fishing for gold with your little bits of wax! Chop! Work!” He got to his feet, pushing the fern-leaf parasol aside. The men carrying the platform lurched and stumbled and just managed to keep it level, but Raspadero – for it could have been no-one else – hardly noticed as he continued his rant: “Trees mean wood! Wood means fire! Fire means the furnace!...And the furnace, my people? The furnace means gold! Gold!” “I don’t believe it,” Sally said.
Now that Raspadero was on his feet, without the shadow of the parasol on him, they had a clear look at his face. He was wearing a light-blue shirt and dark-blue shorts and socks and sturdy walking shoes, the summer uniform of a postman…
It was Mr Leggs.
“How on earth…”
“He caught a glimpse through the Door one day…”
“He must have come back when we weren’t around…”
“He must have sneaked into the house and stumbled through Forest Door…”
The children had forgotten themselves, so stunned were they by the appearance of the postman of Compass Drive. In his agitation, Tom had begun to prowl back and forth, while Sally flew in circles above him. Their growls and hoots made a bizarre noise, and one of the goldfishers who had been chopping nearby suddenly dropped his axe and yelled in terror:
“Panther! Man-eater! Run for your life!”
Panic! The men carrying Raspadero, or Leggs, tipped their burden to the ground and fled. The others threw down their tools and either ran for the far side of the clearing or jumped into the trees. But Leggs himself, or Raspadero, was too angry to be frightened. Picking himself up from the wreck of his chair, he snatched a hatchet from the ground and came running straight at Tom, yelling: “Clear off, you mangy cat! I wasn’t scared of the dog at number 20, and I’m not scared of you!”
He was twirling the hatchet as if intending to throw it at Tom’s head. “Leave him alone!” Sally screeched, and launched herself at the postman, beating her wings in his face.
“Get away!” Raspadero-Leggs shouted, waving his arms.
It was all over in a few seconds. At the touch of a human, Sally felt herself changing, and landed with a thump. Mr Leggs was sprawled next to her.
“You!” he gasped.
With a snarl Tom bounded up to them. He was raising a paw to strike when Sally threw her arms around his neck. An instant later and he too was back in human form.
“And you!” gasped Mr Leggs.
“You leave the forest right now,” Tom said grimly, “and stop all this chopping down and building dams and taking all the gold – or I’ll – I’ll – ”
Mr Leggs sat up. He was laughing. “The famous Atlas children,” he said. “I should have known you would turn up some day. My, my! What excellent disguises! You had my men well and truly fooled, Panther-boy! And you, Miss Feathers!”
By now the men had returned to the clearing and were forming a circle around Mr Leggs, Tom and Sally.
“Take these children away,” Mr Leggs commanded. “Away! Lock them up! And get back to work! Work, I said!”
“Don’t listen to him,” Sally said sharply. “He’s a bad man, and he’s not in charge of you.”
“Ah, child,” said one of the men sadly. “What else can we do? We work for him now. He gives us our food and our clothes…”
“And one day, he’ll make us rich – he promised,” another spoke up.
“He was lying,” Tom said hotly. “Can’t you see? He’s a slave-driver!”
“Wait a minute,” Mr Leggs scowled. “What’s this? You talk their language?” – for Sally had been speaking Marcopolon, which Mr Leggs had never heard before.
“Not exactly,” she said. “It’s more of a – ”
“None of your business,” Tom cut in. “If you really belonged here, you’d know about it too. But you don’t. Now let’s go. We’re taking you back to Four Corner House and turning you over to the police.”
“The police?” Mr Leggs burst into laughter. “And what will you tell them? The secret of your magic house? How I tricked the prospectors into becoming my slaves? How I’m taking all the gold out of the river? What a fantastic story! Do you really think they’ll believe you?”
“He has a point,” Sally muttered.
“Besides,” Mr Leggs went on, “do you think there is any jail in the country that could hold me, now that I know about your magic portal? I’d find a way to escape, believe me. And then I’d come straight back to Number 4, Compass Drive, and straight back here!”
“Why did you choose Forest Door?” Sally asked. “Our parents told us it was the oasis – ”
“Eh? What’s that? What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” Tom cut in again. And to Sally, in Marcopolon, he added quickly: “Careful. He might not know about the other Doors.”
Two of the goldfishers had come forward to help Sally to her feet; but once they had taken her by the arm and lifted her up, it was obvious that they were not going to let go. Meanwhile two others had positioned themselves next to Tom.
“You see? They obey my orders,” Mr Leggs said. “Take them away!” he shouted. “Lock them up!” And with a gentle nudge, and numerous apologetic murmurs, the goldfishers herded Tom and Sally away.
They crossed the clearing and walked along a wide avenue of stumps and torn-up earth, overtaking several crews of draymen who were hauling trees. The land rose slightly, and then, as they came over the crest of the hill, they had their first view of the dam that Raspadero had built.
It was a mighty barrier of wooden pillars ranged in a line across the breadth of the river. The logs had been lashed together with vine-ropes and caulked with rubber from the forest’s gum trees. Behind the dam, the river swelled and spread into a deep, wide lake that might have taken an hour to cross by canoe. To keep this reservoir from overflowing, two sluice-gates allowed a small quantity of water to pour through. The dam was also leaking in several places; these leaks joined the sluice-water to feed what was left of the river below the dam.
The children stared in amazement.
“Look,” said one of their guards. “They’re bringing up the gold.”
He pointed towards a pier with a tall crane jutting out from it. A rope ran over a pulley at the top of the crane and disappeared into the water below. On shore, men were hauling at the other end of the rope. Gradually the surface of the water began to shake, and then they saw the top of a giant golden globe break through. It shone so bright in the morning sun that they had to shield their eyes. Water poured off it, and as the rest of the globe emerged, glistening like the biggest Christmas-tree bauble in the world, the men turned the crane to bring it to shore, where it came to rest on a cradle of logs. As soon as the golden sphere was in position, dozens of men came rushing over with ladders. Quickly they scaled the sides and began peeling off the flakes of gold that had stuck to the wax when it was submerged, dropping the gold into little pouches made of folded leaves that they wore around their necks.
“And when they have filled their pouches,” said Mr Leggs, who had come up behind them, “they bring all that lovely gold flake to the melting-room, over there.” It was not really a room but a giant outdoor oven. A bonfire heated a brick chamber from which two bamboo pipes emerged. The men flung their leaf pouches into the oven, the pouches were immediately incinerated, and the gold flake melted like snow. One pipe carried away the residue of wax, the other brought the melted gold to another hut, where it was poured into rectangular moulds. Finally the gold bars were stacked in yet another hut, with a strong wooden door and a padlock. “And that’s where you two will be staying,” Mr Leggs said. “The strongroom is also the prison-house, you see. March!”
Rudely he pushed the children along until they had reached the strongroom. Even in the full sunshine they could feel the extra heat from the bonfire, which crackled and roared like a caged lion. The men went about their work without much talk, cowed by Mr Leggs’ scowling face. Sally and Tom knew the goldfishers were peaceful people, not used to violence or angry words; perhaps it was not surprising that Mr Leggs had been able to bully them into building the dam and working for him.
“In you go!” Mr Leggs said.
The door of the strongroom slammed shut and they heard the scrape and snap of the padlock.
Although the hut had no windows, plenty of light seeped in through the cracks in the walls, which had been made from rough logs and planks. Moreover, each thin beam of sunlight was doubled and redoubled by its reflection off the many gold bars that were piled neatly on the floor. Mr Leggs had amassed a fortune.
“Step one,” said Tom, pacing back and forth, “break out of this place.” He was examining the walls carefully for signs of weakness. Dried mud had been used to cement the planks together. “Shouldn’t be too difficult,” Tom said. “I can use my claws to scratch away this mud, and then rip open a hole…”
“Your claws?” Sally said. “Tom, you’re not a jaguar anymore.”
“No,” said Tom, “but I can be again.” He took his water-bottle from his backpack. “Before I drank Oruba’s potion, I poured some of it into my bottle. I thought we might need it.”
“That was pretty clever,” Sally admitted. “But Tom – before you go ripping apart the walls – think for a second. What’s step two? What do we do after we escape?”
“All right,” Tom said. “Let’s make a plan. Let’s see.”
They sat down on the gold bars and tried to concentrate. There seemed to be so much to do: they had to pull down the dam and free the river, but they also had to find a way of preventing Mr Leggs from simply starting all over again. Sally was sure she could persuade the goldfishers to help, if they could get Mr Leggs out of the way first; but how?
“Could we lure him in here?” Sally said. “And lock him up?”
Tom shook his head. “He’d find a way out,” he said, “just like we would eventually, jaguar or no jaguar. These walls just aren’t strong enough. Besides, the goldfishers would come in to give him food and water, and he’d trick them again.”
“Then it’s true,” Sally said. “There’s no jail that could hold him.”
“Not quite,” Tom replied. In the golden light his eyes were gleaming brightly. “There is one place we know about,” he continued slowly, “one prison that nobody ever escapes from. If we could lure Mr Leggs back there, he’d never bother anybody again.”
“The Empty Quarter,” Tom said grimly.
Sally felt a chill. Tom was right: the Empty Quarter was the most desolate, scorching, blasted and inhospitable place in the world. It was said that only one creature lived there, the Wild Man of the Desert, who despised people so much that he would rather live in the Quarter than be among them. In Marcopolon, the Empty Quarter was known as the Labyrinth Without Walls, for you could wander for days without getting anywhere, until you dropped from the blinding heat, sandstorms, and thirst – or until the Wild Man caught you.
“But…in the Empty Quarter…he would die,” Sally whispered.
Tom was looking away, but Sally could hear the frown in his voice. “He broke the rules. You have to leave things as they are. He changed things.”
“It’s true,” Sally said. She drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, feeling suddenly cold and small. “But how?” she asked.
Tom swung round and dropped to his haunches next to her. They bent their heads together. “We have to get Leggs to go back to Four Corner House,” Tom said, “and get him to go through Desert Door. If we’re lucky, there won’t be anyone at the oasis, and he’ll strike off through the desert and get lost…We’ll tell him there’s a treasure or something…We’ll have to go with him,” he said decisively, “we’ll have to make sure he heads in the right direction. That’s it. That’s the plan.”
“It could work,” Sally said. “But what about here? We came to help the river dolphins, remember? We can’t leave again without pulling down the dam.”
Tom thought for a moment. “You’re right,” he said. “We’ll have to split up. I’ll go back to Four Corner House. You stay here and fix things with the dam.”
“Okay,” Sally said slowly. “Then we meet up again at home…”
There was a noise outside the door and Sally and Tom jumped apart. In the crack beneath the door they could see a shadow moving. “It’s Leggs,” Tom whispered. “He’s come to spy on us. Now’s our chance.” Sally nodded. Tom said, in a loud voice, “Well, at least he didn’t find the map room. That would have been a disaster.”
Sally took the cue. “For sure! Imagine if he got his hands on the treasure map! I mean, sure, the river has some gold, but just think what he’d do if he found the map of where the desert gold is hidden.”
“Oh no,” Tom said, pretending to be anxious. “What if he did find the map? What if he’s just mopping up the river gold first, and then going to the desert?”
The shuffling outside the door of the strongroom had grown more agitated.
“We better get home fast,” Sally said, “and make sure all the maps are still there.”
“And close off Desert Door once and for all,” Tom added.
Just then they heard the lock snap and the strongroom door swung open, flooding the hut with light. In burst Mr Leggs with a huge grin on his face.
“Foolish children!” he crowed. “I knew you’d give something away! Ha ha! Desert Door, is it? I knew it was true! I saw it, all those years ago! Treasure, eh? More gold? Rubies? Silk? Ha ha! I’ll live like a king!”
“No, no!” Sally cried. “It’s not true – we were playing a trick on you – ”
“Nonsense!” Mr Leggs shouted in a mixture of anger and glee. “You didn’t even know I was there! Ha ha! I’ll leave today! Thank you, Panther-boy! Not so wise after all, eh, Miss Feathers! Foolish children! Goodbye!” And he ran from the hut, without even bothering to lock them in again.
“We need to eat something,” Tom said. “We’ll give him a little head start, then I’ll go after him. If I go as a jaguar, I’ll overtake him easily and get back to Four Corner House before he does.”
Sally narrowed her eyes. “I’ve got a funny feeling you just want to be a jaguar again.”
Tom bristled. “So what? It’s the quickest way to travel through the forest.”
“I guess so,” Sally said. “All right. What have we got to eat?” Quickly they made a meal of the sandwiches and cake they had brought from home. The day was getting hotter and hotter and they washed their food down with long drinks of cold water. Gradually the goldfishers had begun to realise that, with Mr Leggs gone, there was nobody forcing them to scrape gold from the globe of wax, or tend the bonfire, or chop and haul wood from the forest; they put down their tools, gathered round the children, and broke out their own rations of food. It was the strangest picnic Sally had ever been on.
“I’m ready,” said Tom. “I’ll go behind the hut so I don’t frighten anyone.”
Sally felt a lump in her throat. “Goodbye,” she said. “Good luck, Tom.”
“You too,” Tom said gruffly. They hugged each other quickly, then Tom slipped behind the strongroom. A moment later Sally saw a black form ripple away and disappear into the trees.
“Well, there he goes,” she thought. She stood up, brushed the sandwich crumbs from her clothes, and faced the crowd of goldfishers.
“And now for that dam…”
Next week: Tom races home to spring the trap on Raspadero – but will he stay a jaguar forever…?