JUST HOLD ON:
Dona Mercedes stood at the windows to the den, not seeing the rosy light of dawn breaking beyond the hills. She nodded at Marie, who had placed doilies and cups on the table before them. The other occupant of the room, an elderly lady in black, sat at the table clasping her hands together tightly.
"I am most grateful for the services provided by the House Rodriguez, my cousin," said the Dona, "You have been a most efficient and effective instructor. I have noted marked improvement in my granddaughter's demeanor in the short time that you have been here."
Her guest swallowed and looked away.
"However," said the Dona, "I do expect you to treat her civilly. I expect a modicum of respect from you, even when she does not deserve it. And above all, I expect you to trust her. She is a de Muerte."
"Senora, I have taken all precautions. I have done everything possible to assure her safety..."
Mercedes turned upon her. "Then why..." she demanded, "... Why is she missing? Why has she gone?"
"I swear, no one has taken her," cried the dueña, "We will find her! She could not have gone far!"
"Where she has gone does not concern me as much as does the fact that this morning her bedroom door was locked. Last night, I heard that you had demanded that she relinquish her keys."
"It is necessary, sometimes, when the child is in the throes of passion, that we... 'protect' her. From herself as well as from others. Yesterday, she broke away from us and went riding unsupervised. I felt that she was about to do something... scandalous."
"This is not the heart of the city, my cousin. This is the frontier, where we must think and act for ourselves. That is the first thing I must say. The second is this: You do NOT imprison a member of my family!!! Do you understand?"
The dueña turned even paler. "Yes, Hacendada," she whispered, then offered, "She managed to free one of the cast iron bars from a window, and slipped out that way. The Senorita is very resourceful."
"She is a de Muerte. She will not be shut away. Remember that," As the dueña shook in acknowledgement, Dona Mercedes turned to their present problem. "Now, where would she have gone?"
EARLIER THAT MORN:
Ramon got down the saddlebags and began to fill them with supplies. From the door, Mama watched until she could be quiet no longer.
"Machito, are you upset because I sent you to the doll-maker?"
Ramon sighed, "No, Mama." He surveyed his meager pile of clothing. "Mama," he said, "Why would the doll-maker refuse to talk to me as a boy?"
"She does not know about your curse?"
"No. I don't think so, anyway."
"Then it is because she does not respect our ancestry."
"I could believe that. But why would she talk to a girl?"
"It is not because you are a girl that she accepts you. You look like your father. When you are... Machita... you look different. Like Aztec."
"That is what she said. I thought the Aztecs were dead."
"What a foolish thought! Where did you learn this?"
"Oh, here and there. From the other boys at the school, I suppose."
"Then I will tell you this. My mother, bless her sainted soul - your grandmother on my side - was Aztec. And a little Spanish."
"From ten generations back. She tried to tell me he was a conquistador."
"Why do you tell me this? Why now? Why do you wait until now?"
"Machito, I thought it would not matter..."
"Perhaps it does not. Perhaps it is very important. Because of what you have told me, I have no choice. I must go immediately and find my sister."
"I had hoped you would not go, Bebito."
"Do not call me that, Mamacita. It does not make me feel warm and protected like it once did. I cannot turn to you for help, anymore."
"But you would be out where I could not do anything at all! What if something happens and you... Cannot a mother feel some worry for a daughter?"
"I cannot stay and be your daughter," he sighed and handed her the unfinished embroidery sampler, "I meant to give this back to you."
"Oh, it is beautiful!" she said, clutching at the fabric.
"Lucita could have done it better," said Ramon, then added, "Well, almost as well."
Mama clung to him and wept, then held him at arm's length as though expecting a change. "Would a mother's tears not be enough?" she asked.
"No, Mama," Ramon smiled regretfully, "They would not."
She released him and stood for a time, watching as he gathered his gear and started for the corral. Then she fled to the kitchen.
Papa stood by the gate, holding the reins to the bay. As Ramon fitted the saddle bags and tied them down, Papa cleared his throat.
"I should go with you," he said.
"You cannot, Papa. Your arm is still not well, and Mama needs you."
"You have been very fortunate with the Indians you have met," spoke the senior Caballo, "Not all strangers are going to be peaceful."
"I know this," admitted Ramon.
"I do not have a gun for you to carry," Papa continued.
"That is all right."
"For your mother's sake, I must tell you that you should not go, and that there is one thing you must always remember."
Papa clasped him in a one-armed bear hug then pushed him away.
"Return, Machito," he said, then he faded into the dark toward the house.
Ramon glanced at the eastern horizon, where faint light made the hills seem dark and bleak. He swung into the saddle.
"I will, Papa," he said softly.
AND STILL EARLIER:
Sandy stepped away from the empty stall. "How long ago?" he asked.
Francisco's son, Rico, a slight boy with a love for horses, climbed the rough boards of the stall door to face the blond cowboy. "About midnight," he offered.
"Thanks, compadre," said Sandy.
"De nada, senor," smiled Rico, "I know it was Macho, because the horse did not make a sound. If he was tiptoeing, he could not have walked quieter. For anyone else, that would have been a very noisy horse."
"Uh, oh," said Sandy.
"Que? What is it?"
"I just spotted the rancherita. I'll go talk to her. You put another horse in that stall. Don't let her know the bay is gone."
"Sure thing! She would chase him, maybe?"
"Maybe." The blond cowboy pushed down the stable at a slow amble until he caught Estrellita's eye. The rancherita was carrying a bundle wrapped in a shawl and would not look directly at him. Her eyes were red with tears.
"Can I help you, Ma'am?" he drawled.
"I'm just getting my pony. I'm going for a ride."
"Sorta early for a ride. Must be two hours 'til dawn."
"It doesn't matter. They won't care, anyway."
"That's not true. Somebody cares. What happened?"
She raised reddened hazel eyes to meet his concerned blue eyes, and held her gaze until he looked away. "They locked me in my room!" she cried, "Like an animal! What was I supposed to do?"
"Well, do you want to talk about it? I could..." Sandy gulped as he saw her looking at him again, "... I could maybe ... "
"It's just the last straw," said Estrellita. Unnoticed, Rico had brought out her pony, saddled and ready. She took the reins but remained standing, staring up at Sandy. Sandy had turned a warm pink and was beginning to look for exits to the stable.
"There is only one thing to do," she said, "I'm going away for a while." At Sandy's crestfallen expression, she relaxed her frown and tried to smile. "I won't be gone long. It doesn't take me a lot of time to get over my anger, but I have to get away from here before I do something really stupid."
"You can't go out in the middle of the night!"
"Can't?" She glared at him.
"Well, maybe you shouldn't, all alone. It's not safe."
"Then come with me."
"What?" Sandy gulped again, "All alone?"
"I won't be alone. You would be there."
"Better make up your mind," Estrellita said as she swung into the saddle, "I won't wait."
Rico handed Sandy the reins to his own horse, stepped back out of the way, and grinned as their horses made their way out into the yard. Sandy swung back, and whispered to Rico, "Tell your papa where we went."
"Sure," said Rico. After a moment's thought, he added, "But where is that?" Sandy was already out of hearing.
Down the trail, Estrellita rode closer. "We'll go to the Azuma village," she said, "I used to hide out there all the time, when they let me ride with Ramon."
GETTING READY TO FOLLOW:
"Dadgum snottynose kid..." Lonesome dabbed at his nose with his bandanna, while tears streamed down his cheeks, "Running off with some rich girl without telling me a thing. I'm supposed to be looking after him, for crying out loud! Uh... Do you have any more of them little green ones?"
"You really should be careful," said Pablo, "Those green peppers are hotter than the red ones."
"Yeah," sniffed Lonesome, "Took me long enough to find that out." He rolled a tortilla and scooped more green sauce over his eggs before taking a large bite. Tears started afresh as he chewed, until he finally had to grab a cup of scalding coffee and quench the fire.
"Rico says they left about two hours before the sunrise," Pablo said. He rolled his own tortilla and took a more careful bite from a safer bowl.
"I'll find them in a couple of hours," promised Lonesome, "And when I do, I'll give that brat a talkin' to." He drained the coffee cup and set it down, flexing his shoulder to work out the stiffness. "Still ain't as strong as I'd like," he complained, "Just have to take it easy for a couple of days."
There was a large stone on the East side of the village, where Wolf Walker sometimes sat when he wanted to think. Wrapped in a robe to keep out the chill air, he sat and watched the horses approach. When the dogs began to yip and howl, he went to quiet them.
"I see the granddaughter of the hacendado," he said, "and you are the friend of the horse-trader's son."
"Howdy," said Sandy. He remained in his saddle as Estrellita slid off her pony and started toward Red Cloud's lodge. She hesitated, then returned to her mount.
"We are very early. I don't want to waken her," she said, "Red Cloud, I mean."
"That person is awake," said Wolf Walker, "She has walked back and forth across the village many times tonight. I am thinking she has concern for the Mexican boy."
As though in response to a summons, Red Cloud stuck her head out of the doorway of her parent's lodge. Seeing the dim shadows of visitors, she came on out to greet them.
"Why are you worrying about Ramon?" asked Estrellita.
"Someone has to," answered Red Cloud, "Why are you here?"
"It is a long story," admitted the rancherita, "Could we get to a fire and warm up?"
"Guess I'll head back to the rancho," said Sandy, "They'll be wanting to know you are all right."
"Wait!" cried Estrellita, "Don't go yet, I need some more time before they come looking!"
Sandy pulled back on his reins, stopping his horse. "I really gotta go," he said.
Estrellita came to his horse, grasped the bit by the reins and stroked the horse's nose to sooth it. "You've been nervous since we left the stable," she said, "And I don't think you were that scared of me. There is something you aren't telling me, isn't there?"
The guilty look on the cowboy's face told her she was correct.
"He is going to talk to Ramon," guessed Red Cloud. She approached Sandy from the opposite side, moving close to press against his leg in the stirrup. Sandy gulped and looked from one girl to the other, as Estrellita likewise moved up to his other leg. Sandy's eyes were bulging.
"Tell us about Ramon," suggested Estrellita.
"He... he's... his horse was gone..." gasped Sandy, "From the stables..."
Suddenly the pressure on his right leg was gone, and Red Cloud had vanished into her lodge. Just as quickly, Estrellita was back aboard her pony and holding it steady as it fought the reins.
"You know what that means, don't you?" cried Estrellita, "Yes, of course you do. That was why you wanted me out of the stables. You *knew* he was going to leave, this morning!"
"I wasn't sure," admitted Sandy, "I had an idea. But I thought you would try to go with him."
"Of course I am going with him!" snapped Estrellita, "Why do you think I brought my gear? Only I expected him to tell me before he left!"
Red Cloud had reappeared, carrying a pack and weapons. "Let's go," she said.
"Not alone," came another voice, and Wolf Walker strode up, "I am charged with your safety."
"And I must protect Ramon," said Red Cloud, "He must not be harmed."
"Are you two loco?" asked Estrellita.
"I am not," said Red Cloud, then indicated Wolf Walker with her chin, "I don't know about him."
YOU DON'T SPIT INTO THE WIND:
Ramon left the road shortly before the village to avoid any soldiers who might have risen early. The buildings were already beginning to glow in the rosy light of dawn as he rode across the sandy flat. The wind was gentle. He listened to the chirp of songbirds and the rattle of gravel as rabbits bounded out of his path. As he crested the rise to the North of Villarica, he stopped the bay and looked back. Then he inhaled deeply, released his breath and turned North again.
He came upon a campfire in the dense undergrowth of a gully soon after. At the fire sat an old man tending a small pot of mush and a kettle of liquid. "Sit down, have some breakfast!" said Alboro.
Ramon took the tiny bowl of mush and a tortilla. "Abuelo," he said, "It won't do you any good. You can't talk me out of going after my sister."
"Wouldn't think of it," Alboro offered him a gourd cup of noxious liquid, "Have some coffee?"
Alboro withdrew the offered cup and slurped down the coffee himself. "I have to continue your education," he said, "Might as well do it here as anywhere else."
"Look, I'm going to be traveling, okay? There won't be time for any training!"
"Maybe so, maybe not..." Alboro turned at a rustle from the undergrowth.
"Oh, it is only you, old man," said Wolf Walker, moving into the open.
"I did not expect to see this one," said Alboro, "You can go home, now. We don't need you."
"As you say, maybe so, maybe not." Wolf Walker took the gourd cup and tasted the coffee. He made a wry face but swallowed the sip and tried another. Alboro lifted his eyebrows in appreciation of his fortitude.
There was another sound from the trail, and Red Cloud appeared. She went straight to the campfire and lifted the mush pot. "I'll make some more," she said.
"Why are you here?" asked Ramon, "Not that I mind, but..."
"You were going away," said Red Cloud, "I am going with you. You need protection."
"I can protect myself!" Ramon declared hotly.
"You'd starve," predicted Red Cloud.
"Within a week," agreed Wolf Walker. His lips were beginning to unpucker from the coffee.
Ramon turned to him, "What do you care?" he demanded.
"For you?" sneered the older Azuma lad, "Nothing. I am protecting her." He indicated Red Cloud who was stirring the mush.
"Who else is out here?" Ramon asked. He looked at Alboro, who lifted his shoulders in a shrug.
They heard horses.
"Oh, no," he groaned.
"Hello the camp!" called Estrellita cheerily. Sandy waved hesitantly.
"That does it!" cried Ramon, "Now I've got to take you back!"
"`Fraid not, compadre," said Sandy, "Something's got the soldiers in town swarming like ants. You go back and they'll spot you."
"I told you the Alcalde has spies everywhere," said Estrellita, "I'll bet they found out I ran away."
"You have to go back home," declared Ramon.
"No," Estrellita said, looking him squarely in the eye.
"What if they think I kidnapped you?"
Estrellita simpered, "You should have thought of that before you ran off."
"I didn't know you'd come after me!" Ramon's voice was fading.
"Well, you should have. We are going with you. Or do you want to take me back through town right now?"
Ramon was finding it hard to speak. "What do you mean, WE?" he whispered.
Estrellita indicated Sandy, who nodded sheepishly.
Red Cloud had taken extra bowls from her pack and was handing out mush. Alboro took a second helping.
After a hasty meal, they were on their way again, this time in a group.
"Remember to practice what you have been taught!" called Alboro after them.
"You haven't taught me anything, yet, you old faker!" cried Ramon.
"Then don't camp in gullies! You never know when a flash flood will come along and wipe you out!"
"What kind of a teacher is he?" Sandy wondered.
"The worst kind," said Ramon, sourly, "A grandfather."
The wind was rising.