ALL THE GOOD NEWS YOU CAN BEAR:
Clouds had formed later that morning, and the wind now had a bite to it.
Alboro came ambling along the road as the travelers rested in the shelter of an outcropping of stone.
“Old man, go home,” said Wolf Walker, “You will only slow us down.”
“I haven't yet,” smiled Alboro, “You should go on and make the pass before the rains come.”
“There are guards at the pass,” explained Ramon.
“They have the pass blocked,” said Wolf Walker, “We must go around. There is a ravine back down the hill which will take us to their rear.”
For a while there was a trail which followed the streambed. Eventually the banks became so steep that they led their horses out of the water worn causeway to struggle alongside it, fearing a possible flashflood from the gathering rain clouds upslope. When a bluff blocked their way, Sandy found a low bank and led the horses back across the dry streambed. Alboro rested on a boulder while Ramon paused a moment to look back down the trail.
“What are you looking for?” Red Cloud asked, “You are just staring at the sky.”
“I do not know,” admitted Ramon, “Maybe eagles. I thought I saw movement back down the hill.”
“Have you thought about what your sister will be like?” she wondered.
Red Cloud wrinkled her nose. "Are you not concerned about what your sister will think when she finds she has a half-brother?"
"Well, I..." began Ramon, then a cloud drifted across his face, "Are you teasing me again?" he demanded.
"When I am, I will tell you," promised Red Cloud with a grin. She climbed down the bank.
Ramon followed her, then turned back to his grandfather.
“Come on, Abuelo,” said Ramon, “We need to go on. I'll help you down the bank.” As he waited for the old man to climb down from his seat, a feeling of uneasiness came upon him. He edged higher on the bank and listened carefully. The gravel of the bank shivered, and the earth beneath him seemed to shudder.
Ramon scrambled back up the bank as tons of water came cascading down the streambed.
“Good thing you weren't out in the middle of that!” cried Alboro, over the roar of the cascading water.
Through the spray and the mist of the thundering flood, Ramon could see his compatriots waving to him. He waved back and indicated that he would wait for the water to recede.
“We have to find a way on up,” Alboro told him, “There is a squad of soldiers following our trail.”
“I thought I saw movement down there, earlier,” said Ramon, “We must hurry before they get here.” He motioned to Sandy that he would meet them up the stream where the water might not be so deep.
There were handholds in the rock, so they climbed. Higher, the cliff face leveled onto a rugged table broken by chasms. Clambering over tree trunks washed down by the stream in previous floods, they found their way blocked by a depression too wide to jump, with the roaring stream on one side and a vertical wall on the other.
There was a bear, once upon a time, which strayed too close to an edge. This single act of carelessness caused her to slide, bawling and clawing, into a hole near the stream. Fortunately for her, the hole was quite dry. She could be comfortable here, for the stone floor was cool in the shade away from the punishing sun for most of the day. She could also starve in here, for there was no way out. There were cracks on the sides of the hole, wide enough for a man to slip through but alas, too constrictive for a bear. As a result she was moderately upset. The scarred walls of the hole bore mute testimony to the way she felt, for she had tried to climb them many times. They were too steep and she could find no purchase to pull herself from her prison.
It was the third day. She was thirsty, hungry, and worried. About this time she heard a noise, and over the edge of the hole appeared a couple of strange creatures.
“We'll have to find a way out the other side,” said Ramon, as he prepared to help Alboro down into the hole. The walls of the depression were very steep but there appeared to be a narrow exit on the far side.
“I am too old for this climbing,” complained Alboro.
“You insisted on coming along,” said Ramon, “Now you will have to keep up with us.”
“I have a twinge,” said Alboro.
“Will you quit complaining and get down there? We are falling behind, and those soldiers will be here any minute.”
“There is a... Yow!” cried Alboro. There was a thump and a rasp of claws as a large bear's paw scraped past the ledge where Alboro had been kneeling. Alboro bolted to his feet and looked around from behind Ramon.
“You moved fast enough,” said Ramon, “What's the matter?” He bent over the edge and saw the large shaggy bear trying to scramble out of the pit. “Ayyy, caramba!” he breathed as he moved back away from the edge, tripping over Alboro in the process.
“What are you going to do about this?” wondered Alboro.
“When did it become *my* problem?” asked Ramon.
“Well, *I* can't handle her,” said the old man, showing his empty hands.
“You could talk him to death,” suggested Ramon.
“We had better do something, we can't stay here!” snapped Alboro, “Those soldiers are not far behind.”
Ramon looked back down the trail. Sure enough, there were men coming far below.
“If I could get his attention for a moment, you could jump down there and get him with your knife,” suggested Alboro.
“I don't think so,” growled Ramon. He sat at the edge of the pit and stared at the bear. It reared on it hind legs, looking up at him with wide eyes. There was froth streaming from its lips as the bear tried again to scramble up the sheer side of the pit. For a moment, the bear paused and met his gaze, then it attempted to scale the wall again.
Ramon sat and puzzled. He had less than a half-hour before the soldiers arrived. He sat and stared at the bear and tried to figure out what the bear would do if he climbed down into the hole. The answer to that was simple. The bear was frantic and angry. It would kill him without a moment's hesitation. He could not kill the bear with only a knife. So he sat and stared at the beast, and the bear watched him.
The bear kept her gaze on the food walking about above her, pacing back and forth across the stone floor of the pit. She could almost reach the creature. One swipe and she could feast. If only it would quit looking at her and come closer...
Alboro lent his voice of encouragement. “Kill the bear,” he suggested, “Then you can go through the hole in the other side of the pit that the bear cannot get through.”
“There is no way I can kill a bear!” cried Ramon.
“The soldiers are getting close. Stupid boy!” declared the old man, “Are you trying to get caught?”
“Only one thing to do,” said Ramon. He went back to the pile of driftwood and lifted the heaviest tree trunk he could hoist. The wood was gnarled and bent, but he managed to lift on his shoulders.
“Good thinking!” cried Alboro, “That would make an excellent club! Use the timber to hit the bear! Now, that is bright!”
Ramon glanced at him in annoyance, then dropped the tree trunk into the pit. He went back and got another log and did the same, then went for another.
“You are wasting your time,” complained the old man.
“Listen. I have a plan. If I can get the bear up out of the pit, we can...”
Suddenly, the bear swarmed up the timbers and and rolled onto the ledge, almost on top of them. Eager for prey and weak from thirst, the bear lunged clumsily and missed Alboro, getting tangled in the underbrush. This was the chance they needed. There was frantic confusion as Ramon almost threw Alboro down ahead of him and scrambled down the timbers which the bear had just climbed. Disregarding the improvised ladder, the bear dove off the side of the pit and stunned itself against the floor. While she staggered dazedly, they ran for the other side of the pit and dove through the hole with inches to spare, onto a shallow ledge which led upward.
“Why did you do something like that?” demanded Alboro, who had moved very spryly for a tired old man, “That was stupid! She could have killed you!”
“Perhaps,” gasped Ramon, “But by letting him out of the hole, I got what I wanted, which was to get us past him. He got what he wanted, which was to escape from the hole.”
“Hmmmph!” snorted Alboro, “So you think everybody got what they wanted, eh?”
“Oh, no, not really,” smiled Ramon, as sounds of surprise and alarm came from beyond the wall of the pit, back down the way they had come, “Those soldiers didn't get what they wanted, I don't think!”
“It was a she-bear,” said Alboro, “Pay more attention.”
THE LONG VIEW:
From the heights two figures watched the small group progress through the drifting mist and clouds.
“I say the centuries have addled your brain,” said the stouter man, a husky bronzed warrior with his hair tied with eagle feathers, “That and the sun, because of that ridiculous habit of plucking your hair which you picked up from that western tribe.”
Kaliche snapped his fingers and the rain ceased for yards around them “I do nothing without reason,” he said, “And the least action which I take is as delicately considered as the greatest. I don't make mistakes.”
“I see. That is why you enlisted those untrained brawlers, gave them weapons and armor meant for worthier men, and let them get brushed aside like back alley sweepings?”
The bald man nodded. “Just so,” he said, “It is part of a greater plan.”
“A greater plan. And that is what you said when we hopped a ride on those flimsy canoes out of Phonecea. This 'plan' includes the girl, I suppose?”
“The plan includes *a* girl. A maiden of a particular lineage. Except that she was supposed to be carrying a totem, a talisman. The boy we had at the puebla surprised me. He had the presence of...” he paused, “I am not certain who he represents. No one would be foolish enough to oppose me.”
“You need no one to oppose you. Not when you are a force against yourself and anyone who is with you. Why you even attacked ME!”
Kaliche squinted and the corners of his lips rose a tiny bit. “You were about to kill the boy,” he said.
“Ah, yes. The boy. What matter is *he*, if he does not have the talisman? He was in the way.”
“I have forgiven you that, my friend. No, that was not the girl I seek. But he was of the *lineage*. I could read it in his actions - he thought himself an only child, but down deep he was aware of another. So, I wait. I do nothing without reason.”
“That is very magnanimous of you, forgiving me. It was *you* who turned his lightning on me,” the husky man shifted his weapons as he moved closer to the precipice. When the drizzle started again outside the fringe of Kaliche's spell, the warrior fixed him with a glare and motioned him closer with a jerk of his head.
“We need this other girl,” said Kaliche as he strolled over, “The future of the world depends on her. If we fail - everything ends.”
A NECESSARY THING:
They tarried for the night in the shelter of a small bluff overlooking the trail they would be taking in the morning. After tending to the horses, they bedded down and watched the embers of the fire pop and hiss. Eventually, Alboro carried his pot of coffee water off into the shadows, returning with his hands empty. Ramon saw Red Cloud drift away moments later. Her disappearance was punctuated by the sound of the iron pot clanging onto the stones and the whickering of horses as they pulled at their restraints in unease.
“Something's spooking the horses,” said Sandy, as he went to uncover his musket. Estrellita was sleeping soundly beyond the campfire.
“It is nothing,” said Alboro, “Don't worry about it.”
“It is all right,” Ramon assured Sandy, “Just some scavengers nosing about.”
“I thought I heard... Sunnovagun!” blurted Sandy as a piercing yowl tore across the night.
“Jaguar, heading the other way,” said Alboro, “Won't bother us.”
After Sandy had settled back, using his saddle for a pillow, Ramon followed Alboro as he went out and refilled the pot, this time with cold water.
“All right, what is going on?” demanded Ramon.
“I will tell you a thing about your sacred form,” said Alboro as he set the pot precariously near the edge of the huge rock.
“I don't want to hear it!” growled Ramon. He glared stonily at the darkened mesas, until curiosity got the better of caution. “What were you going to tell me?” he asked.
“Once in a while, you must take the sacred form. It is required.”
“No way!” declared Ramon, “I am free of that stuff out here! There is almost no water at all, certainly less hot water. I don't have to change unless I want to, and I don't want to!”
“You don't have a choice, really,” the old man mused, “It is a part of receiving a sacred form.”
“Getting cursed, you mean.”
“Whatever. Anyway, now and then you must assume the sacred form.”
“Or you will assume the sacred form, anyway. Whether you want to or not.”
“How did you get the sacred...”
“Will you quit calling it that? It is not an honor for me to have to become a weak female!”
Alboro made a long face and continued, “You got the 'curse' because you smarted off to the spirits at the spring, didn't you?”
Ramon looked away and nodded.
“You have almost no control over when you change; when you are splashed with hot water, you will change. The longer you wait, the less control you will have. Until now, it took hot water to activate the 'curse'. Soon, the water will not have to be so hot. Eventually, rain drops will do the trick.”
“Oh, no,” groaned Ramon.
“Of course, once you change over, you must remain in the sacred form for a while, before you change back.”
“How do you know so much about it? I've seen you spill hot coffee on yourself, so you aren't cursed!”
Alboro gave him a sidelong glance. “Are you so sure?” he asked.
Ramon watched him for a moment. “Forget it,” he finally growled.
“I will if you will,” promised the old man.
Wolf Walker showed up later. “Where is Red Cloud?” he demanded.
“You mean you do not know?” asked Ramon.
“She went for a walk,” smiled Alboro.
“A walk? I heard a jaguar out there. You let her go out when... there... was... oh,” he paused for a moment as the facts seeped into focus, “Why did she do that?” he wondered.
“It was something she felt she had to do,” said Ramon.
THE LEGEND BEGINS:
They were through the mountains and descending into the rugged arid plain when evening came upon them. The rains had let up earlier and they were hot, tired, and dusty.
“Oh, I can't wait until I can get some hot water,” yawned Estrellita.
Sandy was immediately alert. “What happens when you get hot water?” he wondered.
“Why, I take a bath, of course!” Estrellita grinned mischievously, “I didn't know you were interested in that!”
Sandy's face burned crimson. “I'm not!” he stammered, “It is just that.. that... you know...”
“And you thought *I* would change into something else?” she leaned closer to watch him squirm. “What should I turn into?” she wondered, and stretched her appraising gaze into a mock stare of shock. “Oh!” she said, looking into Sandy's face, “Wow...” She opened her eyes very wide and breathed, “Woooooooh!”
“Aa.a.a.a.a!!” cried Sandy as he drove his horse ahead and out of sight.
“I wish you wouldn't tease him,” Ramon admonished her, “He is very bashful.”
“But he blushes so easily!” grinned the rancherita, “I love it!”
Their horses pulled a little faster when they neared a town. They scented feed and water, and shelter for the night. It was easier for the horses. Almost everyone respected horses.
They came to a hostel, a prosperous appearing establishment which catered to the traffic on the road running east and west through the mountains. Alboro accompanied Ramon into the building to talk to the innkeeper.
"We were hoping to spend the night indoors," said Ramon, "We have been traveling two days, and we have a long way to go."
The innkeeper was sitting at a table, papers and bills spread before him. "Sit down, please," he said. "I do not have a room for even one of you, much less for an entire party. We are making repairs."
"We would sleep outside," said Ramon, "We just want to take a bath and get cleaned up."
"Perhaps we could find a place for the senorita," said the innkeeper with a shrug, "A pity you did not come alone, just you and your abuelo and the senorita. If we could, we would find a room for your Yanquis, for they usually pay well. But your other companions are Indian. We never have room for Indians." He looked away from them as an excited child slammed through the door. "Luiz! What is the matter?"
Earlier that day, the bear had crawled out of the pit and approached the soldiers as they ascended the trail. Although several man-creatures vanished back down the trail without waiting for her to get close, one stood still and played with a long stick. Curious, the bear paced closer until the man-creature began to back away, waving the stick in alarm. He stumbled over a chunk of driftwood and there was a thunderous bang which hurt her ears. The startled bear bawled in alarm and fled.
Since then she had fed on grubs and a hapless rabbit. Fortune brought her the spoor of the man-creatures from the pit, and curiosity made her follow it. Now she had come upon the village where children played.
She became uncertain about the noise they made when they saw her and was about to spin around and depart when she smelled a familiar odor from the inn. So she decided to sit down and look about for a while, not realizing that there were children trapped against the stable building. One of the man-children had run toward the house while the rest hid in fear.
"Papa! Come quick! A bear is about to eat us!" Luiz cried.
Ramon’s chair clattered across the floor as he jumped to his feet and pushed the boy out of the way. He was out of the door before he thought. The innkeeper hastily pulled an ancient blunderbuss from the wall and tried unsuccessfully to load it. He scattered gunpowder over the floor as his hands shook in fear.
"Give me your lance!" Ramon called to Wolf Walker, "I think that bear has followed us!"
The bear reared back upon his haunches, watching Ramon's approach.
Wolf Walker tossed his lance to Ramon. "You should not face a bear empty-handed," he said. He readied his bow and a quiver of red-fletched arrows and stood to one side.
Ramon caught the lance. "I don't think he looks dangerous, but you must be ready," he said, "If I cannot scare him away, I am going to need help."
Ramon came as close as he dared, getting between the bear and the villagers.
“Go away!” he shouted at the bear, “Leave us alone!”
The bear regarded him, the creature she considered to be potential food. The food was making alarm noises, but the sounds were noises of anger and annoyance instead of panic. It was not very frightened, merely excited.
“I helped you and you helped me!” continued Ramon, as he waved the lance, “We are even! Go away!”
“You are trying to reason with a bear?” asked Wolf Walker.
The bear gazed about as if in contemplation. The man-creature was acting confidently, although she could sense a modicum of fear from him. There were too many of the man-creatures around, with more coming. She remembered meeting the man-creature who made loud, painful noises with the stick. That one had stood up to her and had not run away.
She came to a decision. She had fed earlier. She was not hungry enough to take a chance. With a -whuff- the bear lowered onto all fours and turned away.
Ramon was conscious of many eyes watching him as he rejoined the others.
“We will have a room made ready immediately. And how would you like your meals?” the innkeeper practically bowed.
“Senorita, who is this man?” Luiz, the boy who had run for help asked of Estrellita.
“Why that is *Macho* Caballo,” smiled Estrellita impishly, with the tiniest trace of irritation in her voice.
“Don't tell them that!” Ramon said, “I have had enough trouble with that name back home!”
“I would like for you to be a little less brave and a little more smart,” she snapped, “At this rate you won't live long enough to find your sister!”
Willow Woman stood back a pace to get a better look and smiled, pleased with her handiwork. “You could win the heart of any young man,” she said, “You should be proud that the chief's son has found you worthy.”
Lucha tugged the hair bow into a more comfortable position. Her suitor had mussed it earlier, and she was still angry at him. “He takes too many liberties,” she said, “This morning he was bragging about how he would remove my maiden's bow and burn it.”
“He would not do that,” said her foster mother, “That would be very unwise.”
“Who said he was wise? Mother, I am not happy about you trying to arrange a marriage. I do not like this person.”
“You have always been outspoken,” Willow Woman sighed, “We have already discussed this. It is best for us all. The tribe needs your strength, and he is both strong and brave.”
Lucha said, “I have not yet announced my willingness to seek a husband, and if... when I do, there may be others who apply.”
Willow Woman applied her attention to her weaving and said, “There will be only one for you to consider.”
Lucha ducked to enter the lodge and brushed against the pendant as it dangled near the doorway. The motion of the necklace sent cold chills down her spine and made her stomach uneasy, so she put away her comb and hurried outside again.
Ramon stretched hugely. “Oh, man, I am beat! I can’t wait to take a bath!”
He noticed Sandy looking at him with one eyebrow cocked.
“With *cold* water!” Ramon snapped.
Sandy covered his ears. “I don’t wanta hear it,” he said.