Silence drifted through the Azuma village, disturbed only occasionally by the murmur of an infant or the shushuru of sand in a gourd as a lone voice sang the evening song. Through the nearly-dry streambed burst a playful group of young dogs, pets of the children who were not outside to join them. The pups seemed to sense the solemnity of the moment and became silent as they slipped through the cluster of lodges and into their homes.
The doll-maker raised the ceremonial clay pipe and took a puff before passing it on. In this tribe, the women took their place in the council when decisions were made. There were two more women in the fire-lit lodge. Alboro took the pipe, next. Although he was considered a loner, a person who stood outside the village, Alboro was nevertheless acknowledged as a person of experience. If the puff he drew from the pipe was a little longer than others took, no one said anything. He, too, passed the pipe along. When all had smoked, the doll-maker put the pipe away and began.
"When we agreed to respect and honor this land, we took upon ourselves the responsibility to protect the people on it." There was a chorus of approvals. "Now, a dark force has returned to claim the land and the people. We cannot stand idly by and allow this to happen."
Again, several agreed. One, however, spoke, "But what can we do, against such power? This person has allied himself with the cruel spirits."
"The cruel spirits have their place," said another, "It is a part of the greater balance of things."
"He uses their power to add to his own," objected the first, "This is not a good balance. Everything will suffer, later, when the wheel swings back. This person has no regard."
She pointed to a child's toy, a caricature of a bird, which tottered on the top of a stake. With two long wooden wings which drooped below the pivot point, the bird was always balanced - push one wing down and the weight of the other wing would pull the toy back into an upright position. "This person has too much power. I say again, what can we do against such power?"
The setting sun reflected into the lodge entrance from the nearby butte, a ruddy light rapidly growing dimmer. They watched the toy bird as it danced to keep its balance, teetering to the edge of the platform and away again. Somewhere outside, an insect droned in lazy circles as it searched for food.
Alboro was the first to break the silence. He yawned, stretched, and scratched under his armpit until he noticed the others staring at his gaping mouth. With a sheepish grin, he made himself more comfortable. "I have a thought," he said, "We cannot oppose this person directly. But even the strongest animal has a weak point. The most powerful bear will stand on his two back feet to reach up in a tree. The most agile puma must have his tail to leap."
"And you, old fool, must have your tongue," snapped the doll- maker. "What are you saying?"
"We must find someone who can defeat this person," said the first speaker. "We need a champion."
"I agree," said the doll-maker.
"I agree," said Alboro.
"I agree. We need a champion. We must train someone who can get close to this person and snuff him out."
"I never thought I would live to see the day you would agree with me," snapped the weathered old woman, "What sort of trickery do you plan?"
"I plan no trickery. But we have a champion, already. He can be taught the ways of power. He can get close enough to our enemy to kill him."
The doll-maker regarded him suspiciously before comprehension dawned. "You would put forth your miserable grand-son to save this valley? That *failure*?"
"My grandson has gone to see the spirits of the spring," Alboro smacked with satisfaction.
"And we have your word that he did not disgrace himself and us," said another.
"Now, my great grand-daughter tells me she had to reveal her sacred form in order to save his worthless hide," the doll-maker snapped, "I have seen him dashing about the village like a irresponsible infant when he comes to visit. Of what possible use could such a... a... *mixed blood* be? I have seen no proof of his acceptance by the spring spirits."
Alboro smiled mysteriously and said, "Nevertheless. I am training him. He has potential."
"So has a wolf pup!" snapped the doll-maker, "And about as much chance of stopping our enemy!" She called a close to the conference. They would meet again to greet the sun.
As the elders straggled to their own lodges, she muttered to herself, "If you can get a champion, then so can I! I, too, know of a brave warrior who can defeat this sorcerer!"
In the valley of the cave, in the cavern of the springs, a brave person was answering a question. The question, posed by voices which sounded like the lap of water or the whisper of the wind, echoed from the walls like pebbles bouncing about a gourd, "Who are you, and what do you want, young seeker?"
He should have remembered the warning given him by the doll-maker, `Ask for nothing. Give your name and wait. Say nothing more - do NOT boast. Above all, do nothing to offend them.'
He did not remember.
He said, "I am Wolf Walker. I am the strongest of my tribe. I deserve to be given this opportunity! I want to be the one to bring down the sorcerer Ka..."
"Silence!" Wolf Walker staggered back, the command ringing in his ears. Unlike the other voices, this one had no echo. "Young fool, do you wish to bring him here? Do you think we care for your worldly troubles?"
"He does not think," concluded the wind.
"Pity," the stream gurgled, "The lad is so handsome."
"All is not lost," it answered itself, "We must remember his courage."
"Child!" the whisper commanded again, "What do *you* wish?"
Wolf Walker searched the dim reaches of the cavern as he mulled his answer. "I want to be the one who..."
"Enough!" the wind said harshly, "That would impress others. What would *you* have?"
"I want nothing! I have had enough of this!" cried the Azuma youth, "I will not be frightened by a bunch of whispering women!"
"He is just like the other," gurgled the stream, while another voice, like rocks grinding together added, "We could do better. Do they not teach these youngsters *anything*?"
"But he is all we have," said the stream, with a sigh that might have been despair. "He is Rabbit, as the name given him by his father at birth. He is Fleet, as the name given him by the medicine man Toes-on-Fire."
"There is the girl, She Goes Ahead," suggested the rocks.
"In the end, when shadows flow and the light flees, one such as that may serve. We need another. This one must do. He is Wolf Walker, as the name given him by his companions for his bravery in stalking wolves," the whisper took up the chant. "Let it be so."
The still of the night was shattered by the yip and growl of the village dogs as they converged on an intruder. The doll-maker started at the sound, then returned to the doll she had suddenly gotten the urge to make. It was a corn-shuck doll, with the dress and manner of a young man, but the weapons she attempted to fashion would not remain attached to the doll's hands. The shield would slip off, and the tiny knife refused to remain belted about its waist. She held the figure and wondered, until a noise at the entranceway drew her attention.
A creature stood there for a moment, then slunk into the opening and stood before her, beseeching with its eyes. There was a streak of white diagonally across its back.
The doll-maker smacked her cheek with a palm. "You did it," she muttered, "You did it anyway. I warned you, and you made them angry anyway."
The wolf cub whined and hung its head, avoiding her glare.
It had been a wonderful morning. Sandy had appeared at daybreak ready for hunting and they had gone across the river for rabbits. There had been dew on the grass and a fine haze which quickly burned off, leaving the air dry and clear. Returning with their bounty, they stopped at the now-diminished river to let the horses drink.
"I have not seen Gordo, lately," said Sandy.
"His father let him ride along with an ore-wagon going to the coast," said Ramon, "You know Gordo. He jumped at the chance to get out of here. He does not like the valley."
"Well, I'm having a great time," said Sandy, "If I had gone with Calpern I would be workin' my tail off chasing mustangs."
Ramon stood in his stirrups to peer down the parched river-bed. "There is Estrellita," he announced, "Hey, Estrellita! Aquí!"
"I was hoping to see one of you," Estrellita called with a wide smile, "You would not believe how difficult it is to get away from that old woman."
"That is a very disrespectful way to speak of your grand-mother," said Ramon.
"Who said I was talking about Dona Mercedes? I mean that old crone who is my dueña. She came up from down South. I swear she was born old, and has studied under a master of the Inquisition. I cannot keep a secret from her."
"How did you get away?"
"Told them I was going to exercise my horse in the corral, then made a break for it. She only travels by carriage, so she'll never catch me. I get so tired of her 'lessons'. She is trying to turn me into a 'proper lady'."
"My mother is trying to..." Ramon noticed that Sandy was listening, shrugged and continued, "... trying to turn me into a 'proper lady' as well. I am ready to leave."
"Sure, you are," jeered Estrellita, "Where would you go?"
"I am thinking of going to find my sister."
"How sweet!" caroled Estrellita.
Ramon scowled at her. "It is a serious matter," he said. "That old bald man tried to make me say I had a pendant. He said it was cursed so it would remain with a certain family, and would call the owner back to him when he wanted. He thought the person who had it was named Lucha."
"I know!" cried Estrellita, "Dona Mercedes called you Lucha at the party. I bet he heard about it there."
"I think the pendant actually does belong to a girl named Lucha," said Ramon, "Mama had a daughter who was older than me, and her name was Lucha. She admitted this after I told her about what Andalejo said."
"That was your sister he was talking about?"
Ramon nodded. "I am certain of it."
"Count me in," Sandy spoke up, "I want to go, too"
"I would be going alone. I don't want anyone to get in trouble because of me."
Sandy balled his fist and smacked it into the palm of his other hand. "You are going to need help," he said, "You can't go it alone."
"I do not even know if I will go, compadre," said Ramon, "But I thank you."
"Ooooh, there they are!" cried Estrellita, as she saw riders approaching from the riverbed, "I gotta go, Ramon. See you sometime, Sandy," she winked at the blond cowboy and grinned as he blushed.
Sandy watched her join Pablo and Joachim before they headed back to the rancho. "Will she get in trouble?" he wondered.
"I hope not," said Ramon. "Let's take these rabbits back for Mama to clean. I'm getting hungry."
Lucita burst from the doorway as they rode up. "Machita!" she cried. Seeing Ramon and Sandy on the horses, she suddenly became very shy.
"Ramon, I must speak to you," Mama said as she came from the kitchen, drying her hands. She led him away from the house, to the watering troughs at the corral behind the shed.
"We have had a good hunt," said Ramon, holding up the rabbits.
"That must wait," said Mama, "I will skin them in a minute. For now, you must do something for me."
"What?" asked Ramon, but he was getting a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"Lucita has told her mother all about the new 'sister' she has found. I want her to meet you."
"But, Mama, I cannot..." Ramon's objections ground to a halt, "You want me to be a girl," he accused.
"This means so much to Lucita," said Mama, "Is it too much to ask? Does it hurt?"
"What about what it means to me?"
"Does it hurt, Bebita?"
Ramon closed his eyes, as though in pain. "No, no, it does not," he said.
Mama hurried back to the house and shortly brought a jug of warm water. Sandy looked away, and wandered out toward the outer fence while the water was poured. Mama seemed not to notice the hurt look in her daughter's eyes while Lucita romped about her older sister. When Lucita begged for a trip to the Azuma village, Mama quieted her by promising that Machita would go and bring back a doll from the doll-maker.
Machita hesitated at the entranceway. Within the lodge, a querulous voice rapped out, "Well, come on in! I can't sit here all day listening to you clear your throat!" In the dim interior, the doll-maker was working on yet another corn-shuck doll, a wedding-dress figure.
"I... Uhmmm... I would like to have a doll for a friend," said Machita.
"Oh. So. *Now* you want a doll, do you? You are Red Cloud's friend, aren't you?"
"Yes... ah... grandmother."
"About time someone drummed some manners into your head," grumbled the old woman. "What kind of doll would you like? No, don't tell me. Let me make one and see." She laid aside the wedding dress doll and began to assemble another with no attention to her fingers as they flew about the bundles of leaves, feathers and tufts of hair.
When she finished, she started to hand the doll to Machita and then snatched it back again to stare at it. "Aztec warrior," she mumbled, "That's not what I..." She peered more closely at Machita.
"Why do I make the same doll every time?" she asked no one in particular, "The doll should indicate something about the person for whom it is made, but they are usually different in some small way every time."
"Actually, I wanted the doll for someone else," said Machita, "A child. A friend of mine."
"I will make her another," said the doll-maker, "But this one is yours. You must take it. If you refuse, I must destroy it. I begin to think that it has spiritual properties."
"Okay," Machita gulped, and took the doll. It was no taller than her hand, corn shucks tightly wrapped into a human figure and decorated with beads and feathers. She could see nothing special about it. After the doll-maker finished a bear-dancer doll for Lucita and gathered the materials to put them away, Machita eased out the doorway and hurried back to Red Cloud's lodge.
"Red Cloud was called to speak with the elders," said Red Cloud's mother, so Machita wrapped the dolls carefully and mounted the bay to look for Sandy. The cowboy was practicing catch-the-ball with some other boys, tossing a ball tethered to a stick into the air and trying to catch it in a small cup on the end of the stick.
"I'm heading for the nearest water hole," said Machita, "I have had enough of pretending for the day."