It was weeks after the assault on the puebla - life had gone back to normal for most folks in the valley, as normal as they could be, considering the situation. For Ramón, this meant both pleasure and torment, for while his mother was grateful for his heroism, she was irritated that he had been so reckless. She seemed to be especially concerned that he had become a girl for part of the rescue - not that he had any control over these things - and insisted that he refrain from such antics in the future... at least while he was female. This placed the boy in a particular bind, for while he had no desire to change he also did not wish to become a 'sissy' just because of a little alteration in body structure. He wanted to remain bold and 'macho'.
IN PURSUIT OF A DREAM:
Ramón leaped the low brick wall and fled through the alleyway, and the soldier pursued closely. Perhaps it had been only chance that the young trooper had spotted him this morning, perhaps Ramón had wanted to be seen. Either way, he was feeling happy.
He could run. He could fly down the alleys and through the squares, around the buttresses at the mission, through the shops. The soldier, as close as Ramón allowed him to get, could not match his speed. Eventually, pursuit slowed to a stop and Ramón went back to see what had happened. The soldier was leaning against an adobe column, coughing for breath.
“Muchacho!” gasped the soldier, “Why do you run away?”
“That is simple,” said Ramón, “I do not wish to be caught.”
“But I have heard...” the soldier said, “I have heard the charge against you... No one can blame you for leaving the school to help your family...”
“There is more to the story than that, Señor,” laughed Ramón, “The Alcalde has a grudge against me.”
“But you are just a boy,” objected the soldier, gathering his strength for another dash, “At worst he would send you back to the school.”
“He would put me in the jail. I have heard of your jail,” taunted Ramón, “The rats are so big they take the food away from the prisoners.”
The soldier made a grab for him. Ramón laughed and ran, and the chase was on again.
Dashing over the baked clay, rounding a corner, he almost collided with another soldier. Ramón backpedaled desperately, but the sergeant simply turned and ran instead of grabbing him.
“That looked like...” Ramón said, but then he backed into a wall and brushed against a clay jug in the sun. The jug teetered, wobbled and was about to fall as Ramón snatched at it. He missed. The jug shattered, spraying its warm contents all over.
The pursuing soldier rounded the corner and nearly tripped over a girl sitting on a sill, chin in palm, frowning fiercely.
“Perdone, Señorita,” blurted the soldier and hurried on.
“Está bien,” scowled Machita.
“This is a small village,” scolded Mamá, “I hear of all sorts of things. When I heard that you have been *daring* the soldiers to chase you, my heart almost stopped.”
“They could not catch me,” said Ramón as he sampled the menudo.
“That does not matter,” said Mamá, “I want you to promise me you will not do this thing again. I do not want to lose you.”
“Promise me, Bebito.”
“Very well, Mamá,” Ramón sighed.
“Good. And now it is time for lessons.”
“Again? I think Papá needs me with the horses.”
“He is in the hills with your abuelo, doing Heaven knows what. I need you more than he does, at the moment.”
Machita was sewing and sighing when she saw a shadow pass by the small kitchen window. Curious, she went to the door and waited. Sure enough, there was soon a sound - a pecking on the wood that sounded like slender knuckles. The door cracked to reveal Estrellita in a split skirt and jacket.
“Ramón?” she whispered loudly, and before Machita could answer, she added, “You've got to let me in! But first, are you a girl?”
“Yes, I am a girl,” sighed Machita, letting the blond rancherita into the kitchen.
“I had to get away from home for a while,” said Estrellita, “They are driving me crazy! Abuelita is polishing me up like a horse at an auction! She says I cannot see you alone unless you promise to remain a girl all the time I am here. I can't stand it! They have an escort outside, right now!”
“I am glad to see you,” said Machita, “But aren't you still mad at me because your abuela was hurt?”
“What are you talking about? Honestly, Ramón, sometimes you don't make any sense.”
“I thought you were not to see Ramón,” said Machita.
“Oh, yes, you are right. But it all seems so stupid! Why can't grandparents make any sense?”
Machita sighed again, “No one makes any sense, anymore.”
“Yeah,” agreed Estrellita as she lifted the lid on the stove pot and sniffed the aroma of squash and beans, “Do you know they even had me embroidering my alphabets on a sampler? Abuelita says it will show off my skills to a prospective husband!”
Machita looked down at the embroidery needle in her hand as if to say, 'What have I been doing?' and dropped the needle as though it were white hot.
“What have you been doing?” Estrellita wondered.
“Oh, just sitting here,” said Machita as she shoved the sampler beneath another cloth.
COOKING UP PLANS:
It was a relief being a boy again, when Sandy rode by to visit. Sandy had been there when Calpern and the cowboys: Frank, John, and Jasper, had stopped on their way back up North. Lonesome had remained until his wound could heal.
Jasper had made a small package which he presented to Sandy, and Sandy asked Mamá to keep it cool for him. Ramón asked about this package, later that day.
There was a small hill above the fields where it was possible to see beyond the trickle of a river, to the hills and pass where sometimes elk fleetingly appeared. Two youths observed the view idly.
“Jasper does most of the cookin’,” said the lanky wheat- haired cowboy, “He left me some sourdough starter.”
“What would you do with sourdough?” asked Ramón.
“Makes good bread,” admitted Sandy reluctantly.
“I thought only women made bread.”
“Well, Jasper does our cookin' on the trail. Which reminds me. I was wonderin',” drawled Sandy, “What do ya'll cook in those pots? Seems like there is always one by the stove”
“Oh, these?” asked Ramón lazily, “Only the corn we soak in lye to prepare them to make the tortilla dough.”
“Yeah? That's sort of the way my Ma makes hominy.”
“Perhaps. Then the masa is rinsed and ground some more into flour. When you are ready to make tortillas, you must blend in enough water to make it moist, but not enough to make it watery. It takes much skill and practice to know when it is ready.”
“How'd you know so much about making tortillas?”
“Uhhh.. Never mind. Sometimes, I must help with the cooking. This is not a manly thing to do,” Ramón said, hesitantly.
“Sometime, I'll show you how to cook cornbread and stew, if we get the chance.”
“Well, how'd you learn so much about cooking cornbread?”
“One winter, my Ma took sick and we decided that someone else had to cook. I learned how to make meals for six kids. There just ain't no pleasing some young'uns, but they ate what I fried. On the trail, Jasper does all the cooking, so I don't get much chance to show off what I know.”
“With my father after me to help with the horses while my mother wants me to help cook, I am getting no rest at all!”
“Yeah? How about some time we get together and make up a meal? That would surprise your Mamá!”
“It cannot be easy on him,” said Pablo as he cut a hide into thin strips to braid into a riata, “He must be torn between the need to be a man and the frightening insecurity of being a woman. Truly, it is a conflict which must bear heavily upon his soul.”
“Truly,” agreed Francisco.
“We must be prepared for the day when his mind breaks, God forbid,” Pablo mourned, “One day he may lose the distinction between which is which, and he will not know what he is.”
The two boys returned from the field, and they were talking animatedly as they passed Francisco and Pablo. Pablo laughed, “What do you two talk about that's so interesting?”
“Oh, we were only comparing recipes,” said Ramón, “... and then you bring it to a boil, but you don't stir...”
Pablo watched the two until they were out of sight. “Both of them!” he declared, “What am I going to do, now?”
SHOPPING FOR MAMA:
His education was on hold until they could figure out a way to get around the curse while he was at school. The padre at the mission came by to visit once, to Mamá's dismay, and pleaded with her to let Ramón return to the big school. The Alcalde maintained that he had to pay for his truancy, and had his soldiers keep vigil in the village. Ramón could not even go to the market as a boy. Consequently, it was as a girl that he met Alita again.
Machita was shopping for Mamá, who wanted some herbs and seasonings for a chicken dinner.
“Machita!” cried Estrellita. She was wearing a split skirt of soft leather, a white brocade blouse and the flat wide hat favored by the southern vaqueros. “Have you seen the new booth? There's a merchant in from the West Coast, and he has some great stuff!”
“I wouldn't care,” shrugged Machita, “I don't have any use for jewelry or combs.”
Estrellita urged Machita along with her. “Go with me, anyway,” she said, “That's the only way my dueña will take her eyes off me. I feel like a cow up for sale, they watch me so closely.”
“I have felt free as an eagle all morning,” said Machita, “The only time I have been out of the house is when I go to the market. Mamá's afraid someone will see me when I'm Ramón.”
“I wish we could trade,” simpered Estrellita.
Machita favored her with a hard look. “No, you don't,” she said.
“Well, anything would be better than this treatment! I would not be surprised if they locked me in at night!”
“Don't you check your door?” Machita laughed.
“Every night,” admitted Estrellita, “But one of these days they are going to lock it. And then I will have to get out or go crazy.”
“They wouldn't do that. The Doña is too kind.”
“I always thought so. But lately, they don't trust me. They think I'll do something foolish.” She lifted her chin. “I never do anything foolish... without a reason.”
“Never?” Machita grinned.
“You just shut up!”
They passed the vegetable vendors and neared the more substantial booths of the hardware merchants. A soldier was standing nearby the jewelry vendor, casually braced against his pike.
“Oooh, Señor Poscadero does have some new stuff!” cried Estrellita in delight.
“Come on, I thought you didn't care for gaudy trinkets,” Machita teased her.
“I can have them if I want them. That's the advantage of being a girl. I can live the rough life and still enjoy the finer things,” Estrellita paused, “At least I could, once. Abuelita is trying to make me into a dainty rose blossom, too delicate to touch.”
“At least you're a girl,” grumped Machita, “I'm not supposed to have to do that sort of thing. It ain't right.”
“I'll worry about that later. Isn't this a lovely silver bracelet?”
“Come on. This would look great on you!” Estrellita picked up a bracelet from the blanket and held up to Machita, ignoring the alarmed look the merchant gave her. “This turquoise goes perfectly with your eyes.”
Machita caught the bracelet and handed it back after a cursory examination. On impulse, she asked, “Do you have any turquoise pendants?”
The merchant rifled through a small wooden chest and produced a slender teardrop of blue stone in a silver setting. “Is this what the Señorita wishes?”
Machita hesitated. “Uh, I just wanted to see what one looked like,” she admitted.
“It's beautiful!” exclaimed Estrellita, “Here, let me buy it for you!”
“I don't want it!” protested Machita, “I can't wear jewelry!”
“Oh, but I insist,” pouted Estrellita, “I've always wanted to get you something that would look good on you, and this would be perfect!”
“It's much too gaudy,” came a new voice from behind them, “You don't want to cast your pearls before swine, do you?”
Both girls turned. “Buenas Dias, Alita,” growled Estrellita. Machita started to say something, but remained silent.
“I'll take that pendant,” said Alita, “It would fit in my collection. I have emeralds and rubies from all over the world. I need something local to balance it out.”
“Do you want it or not?” Estrellita asked of Machita.
Machita was about to shake her head, but seeing the malice in Alita's face, she nodded instead. “But...” The words came out as a whisper. “But I don't want you to spend money on me.”
“It's not *my* money,” laughed Estrellita, motioning to an old woman who had been tagging along after them. The dueña came over to the booth in a stately manner, taking the time to stop and examine the blouse worn by Alita's young male escort. The old woman's expression said that the escort's attire had barely passed inspection.
“Yes, Hacendita?” she asked.
“I want to buy this bauble,” sniffed Estrellita.
“Certainly,” said the dueña haughtily, picking up on Estrellita's intent, “Is this little thing *all* you want?”
“For now,” Estrellita drifted away to another booth, while Alita watched darkly after, like thunder muttering on the horizon.
“You should not have done that,” said Machita, speaking more easily.
“Why not? What made you ask to see a pendant?”
“I was curious. Something someone said about a pendant. It doesn't matter, now.”
“You can tell me. I can keep a secret.”
“It is no secret, only... That sorcerer said something about a pendant. It doesn't matter, 'cause he's dead now. The cave-in killed him.”
“Hmmm. I don't even want to think about him!” said Estrellita, “What did he want?”
“You don't want to know. He thought I had a particular pendant, and he got real upset when he found I did not have it.”
Alboro grunted up the steep path, finally cresting above the highest boulder of the cluster on the cliff over the valley.
“Here you will sit,” he said.
“What am I supposed to do?” asked Ramón.
“The rock is hard. It is hot.”
The old man looked out into the clear air, at the blue haze on the far side of the valley.
“Sit,” he said.
“I'm sitting,” said Ramón, “What now?”
There was silence. The old man's face was impassive, though a tic had started in his left cheek. Finally, he elaborated.
“Sit,” he said.
“What am I supposed to do?” Ramón repeated, then answered his own question, “Sit. I know.”
Minutes passed in peaceful contemplation for the old man. His jaw muscles had begun to soften when -
“I'm bored, Abuelo.”
Alboro said nothing as he climbed laboriously to his feet and started down the trail.
“Wait for me!” cried Ramón. Alboro spun about and pointed his walking stick at Ramón's face.
“Sit!” he said.
Grumbling, Ramón did so. “How long must I do this?” he wondered aloud. To himself, for Alboro was no longer there.
He sat and watched the eagles lofting and soaring above the far butte. This was better than being bored. After a while he quit wondering what he was supposed to be doing and merely let the day slip away, idly gazing at the valley floor below.
The dry summer had choked the river down to a trickle. He thought he caught a flicker of movement. An antelope, or deer, was venturing down to the water for a drink. Nearby, another movement as something stalked the first animal. Strain as he might, he could not tell what kind of creature each was. There was a flurry of motion and both disappeared.
Again, he watched the eagles, beginning to feel the heat of the sun as it rose higher. He looked for his hat, and it was not to be found. His canteen was missing also.
“How am I supposed to stay here if I don't have water or shade?” he asked, “I'm tired of this! I am outta here!”
But something held him to his position. Despite his nickname, 'Macho', or perhaps because of it, he had to prove himself. Abuelo was scornful of his stamina. The old man kept saying, “You could have been something useful... a horse, at least. If you were a female horse, you could go to a herd and draw the stallion out. But here you are, useless. A woman.”
“I am *not* useless!” Ramón repeated to himself, “I can do something simple like sitting still for an hour or two.”
The day wore on, and the heat grew until the sun was a white hot anvil pressing him down. He could no longer watch the eagles, the river was impossible to see. The heat pushed him back until he crouched beneath his tented blouse and waited in a stupor for Alboro to return and tell him he had succeeded.
The ants at his feet attracted his attention and he watched them as they marched in and out of his shadow. A horned toad crept out, gazed up at him and winked, then scurried away. There were sparse blades of grass beside the rock and upon them climbed a locust, nibbling the tender leaves. At last the sun had crept past its zenith.
“Why am I here?” Ramón asked himself. A distant eagle's cry was his only answer. He looked at the eagle, and thought he saw the eagle looking back. At the river below, the puma which had ambushed the antelope looked up at him for a moment and went back to its feast.
Ramón stumbled to his feet and staggered down the trail. Somewhere below, in the shade of a juniper, sat the old man with canteen and hat ready. “Did you finally decide to come out of the sun?” asked Alboro, “It is about time. Only a fool would stay out in the sun on a hot day like today.”
“Why did you do this to me?” asked Ramón, after he had slaked his thirst and cooled his face with the water.
“You must be ready.”
“Oh, yeah? Ready for what? What is so important that I have to have training?”
“The sorcerer will try again.”
“He can't. I saw him die in the cave-in.”
“Perhaps so, if you say it is true,” Alboro used a branch of the juniper to pull himself to his feet, and started down the trail.
Ramón followed. “What happened to that Sergeant Espuma?” he asked.
“His body was never found.”
“I don't like this. You never told me!”
“What was there to tell? The man fell off the puebla roof. Down a cliff... boom! He's dead. Maybe someone carried him off.”
“There was no one left,” Ramón puzzled about this for a while as he picked his way down the trail. “Wait!” he called, “Are you saying Kaliche is still alive?”
“Can't be,” Alboro called back, “You saw him die, remember?”
Ramón hurried to catch up with him. “Well, I didn't actually *see* him get killed,” he admitted, “But he was there, throwing lightning bolts or something, and suddenly the roof fell in. It *must* have killed him.”
Still, Alboro said nothing as he picked his way down the steep trail.
“If he is still alive, then that means...” Ramón shuddered to a halt. “Dios mio,” he breathed, “The pendant! He will be after the pendant!”
SUBSTITUTIONS IN A DREAM:
It was the same priest who had come to her village when she was much younger, a man with his hair and eyebrows plucked bald. Then, he had approached her mother and given her the pendant, with a tale of the good fortune it must bestow upon the wearer.
Now he came to her rooms as she was being prepared for the ceremony, leaving another girl in her place, taking her by the hand and leading her away. Through dark corridors they went, occasionally coming into the weak morning sunlight as their path took them between buildings. Once, she could see the pyramid. It was a clear morning, the sun was rising higher, and she could see with perfect clarity the priest and his helpers as they secured someone to the altar. There was the ritual brandishing of the obsidian knife to the sun, then the blade flashed. She thought she heard a piggish grunt of pain, then the priest held aloft something red and dripping...
Lucha sat upright in fear and loathing. Why was she having these dreams? “They killed the other girl,” she said to herself, “they took her instead of me... I can't believe it! I was actually *jealous*!” Her head spun, and she said, “Whose memories are these?”