Full dusk was upon them, an early dark because the clouds had returned. Thunder grumbled over the mountains and the dishes rattled from a small earth tremor as they finished their meal at the wayside inn.
The innkeeper had gathered his children about him, shaking from their encounter with the bear. “Whatever we have is yours. I regret we have only one room for your group,” The innkeeper apologized, “We are repairing the damage from a bandit gang who came here for the fiesta last week.”
Alboro thanked him for the shelter. Wolf Walker balked at the doorway. “I do not sleep inside like the donkey,” he protested, “But I must protect Red Cloud.”
The innkeeper's wife said, “The young maidens shall sleep in the room of my daughter, Rosita. They will be safe.”
Wolf Walker accepted this. “Then I shall stay outside,” he said.
“Safe from what?” wondered Estrellita.
The Señora pointed at Estrellita and said, “You are bold, Hacendita, but in this village you will be careful. There are bandits around.”
“Should I be afraid of bandits?”
“We keep a strong sheriff and many deputies, and yet sometimes the soldiers must come and help - because of the bandits. These men you will not ignore, Señorita,” the older woman said darkly, “They have no love for the Spanish. They have lost everything because of them.”
“But the revolution is *over*,” cried Estrellita.
“And we won,” said the innkeeper's wife, “But as with everything valuable, there was a cost. You take everything from hard men and they will try to take everything back... from someone... anyone. Take care to never go out alone, Señorita. In this village, with your fine clothes and blond hair, you could not avoid being seen.”
Rosita, the innkeeper's daughter, was the same age as Estrellita and very interested in hearing of the other side of the mountains. “I hear there are fine ranchos, there,” she bubbled, “And there are many handsome caballeros who are dashing and bold.”
Estrellita rolled her eyes. “You have been listening to too many canciones,” she said. She was wearing a worn nightgown borrowed from the innkeeper's wife. Red Cloud had spread a blanket on the floor, refusing to share the bed with the other girls.
“There must be something there,” said Rosita, “There is nothing here. Everything must come by mule train over the mountains, and the bandits take all the good stuff. We must buy everything twice, once from the merchants and once from the bandits.”
“Are any of the banditos... handsome?”
“Pooey! They are all old, and ugly. I don't want to talk about them!”
“I just thought... never mind. Have you no market, no fiestas? How do you meet people?”
“We have a market... it is dull!” Rosita propped her chin up on her elbow, glumly, “The old men and women sit around and talk about dull things. There is never any excitement. Except when the hunters capture animals and bring them in for sport. They caught a bear last year and put him in the pen with a bull... Aiyee! What a fight!”
“I am sure,” yawned Red Cloud.
“And last week they brought in a jaguar. It is caged down at the cantina. The men spit at it and poke it with sticks. And the children!” she sniffed disdainfully, unaware that she now had the undivided attention of the Indian girl, “The children throw stones at it. I think they put out one of its eyes, and it is now very ferocious. I would not go near it if I had to!”
Estrellita awoke early the next morning, disturbed by the strangeness of the room. She listened to Rosita snoring softly beneath two wool blankets, then slipped out of bed. Red Cloud was not to be seen, nor was the Azuma girl's blanket on the floor where she had slept. Estrellita hurriedly donned her riding skirt and blouse and sneaked out the door.
Luiz invited them to breakfast the next morning, as the sun rose in a powder blue sky. The air was clear and crisp, cleansed by the rains the day before. Ramón had determined to make an early start before the cool had evaporated into the midday heat and he suggested that they leave as soon as they finished eating.
“So you plan to try to go north, through the Chollo badlands, heh?” The innkeeper shoveled another spoonful of sausage into his mush and took a large bite.
“That is the direction we wish to go, yes,” said Alboro. He sat at the head of the table, its glistening veneer chipped and worn by many years of use but nevertheless polished to a high gloss.
“Then you will wish to make your peace before you depart,” the innkeeper said, “If you do not lose your mind to the wind and the sand, the Apache will take your body.”
“As a matter of fact, that is...” Ramón began, but was interrupted by the eldest Caballo.
“Ahem... We are fearful of the Indians in the badlands,” said Alboro, “We would appreciate any information you might give to help us make it through alive.”
“Well, yes,” the innkeeper warmed to the task, “I happen to know a few tricks to staying alive in that place. First, you must be careful of the vegetation. Everything in the badlands will either stick you, cut you, or poison you. Take the jumping cholla, for instance.”
“The plants move?” Ramón butted in, gaining thereby a discouraging frown from both older men. Sandy kept quiet, and Wolf Walker, true to his word, was dining on a corn cake outside.
The innkeeper chuckled. “Of course the trees do not move. But you would swear they did, when you find burrs and thorns sticking you, when you have not gone close to the Cholla. Give them plenty of distance, for the thorns have barbs that hold. Some have to be torn out, and they take skin and flesh with them when they are withdrawn.”
“Ouch,” said Sandy, drawing his shoulders together.
“You are hurt?” the innkeeper looked at him with concern.
“No, I was thinking what it would feel like to pull out a thorn,” admitted Sandy.
“Do not worry, Señor Yanquis. You will know soon enough, if you truly want to go where they must go.” The innkeeper paused pensively, then added, “Of course, there are also the snakes, and the tarantulas, and the scorpions. And you must beware of the javelina. That is a wild pig, small but fierce. They travel in packs and will attack anything.”
“How long will this trip across the badlands take?” asked Alboro.
Ramón edged closer to him and said, “You act as if you already know the answer.”
“Of course,” smiled Alboro, “But I must ask, for your sake.”
The innkeeper with a flair drew himself to his full height. “It will depend upon your strength, your skill, and your bravery,” he said, “Ordinarily, a good field tracker can make it across the wastes in less than a week. Your poor children here will require at least two.”
“I am not a...” Ramón began but Alboro, reaching for a tortilla, turned awkwardly, bumped into him and elbowed him in the belly. While Ramón choked and gasped for breath, Alboro said placidly, “I suppose you might know what supplies this foolish party would need to make the trip?”
“I will make the arrangements,” the innkeeper said, and hurried off.
“What'd you do that for?” demanded Ramón when he could gasp out the words.
“You were about to interfere with a business transaction,” said Alboro, “Before we leave for the open spaces, we must have the right equipment.”
“We already have supplies, and we can live off the desert if we need to,” Ramón argued.
“How far could we get if we had to fight our way across the badlands?”
“We cannot fly. I am thinking we may have to stay away from some bad people.”
BAD NEWS TRAVELS FAST:
“Good morning, Señorita!”
Estrellita smiled down at the man greeting her. He was tall and well groomed, dressed in a handsome blue suit with white piping and lace at the neck and wrists.
“It is a fine morning,” she replied.
“It is indeed. I was just admiring the beautiful horse you are riding. It makes a fitting mount for a beautiful young lady.” The man reached to gently stroke the mare's nose. He kept his hand on the reins as he continued, “In fact, we have this last evening received a message about such a horse, and such a rider as yourself.”
“Who are you?” asked Estrellita. She pulled on the reins, but he would not release them.
“I am the sheriff of this district,” he smiled, “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Juan Ballistrado. And you are Señorita Estrella de Muerte.”
“Papá! Papá!” cried Luiz as he slammed open the hostel door.
“Luiz, you should go through the door quietly,” said the innkeeper, “How many times must I tell you?”
“But Papá!” cried the boy, “The sheriff! He has taken our guest, the Señorita Estrellita! He says Señor Caballo and the Yanqui have kidnapped her, and now he is going to arrest them too!”
“Oh boy,” groaned Ramón.
The door was already open, so they did not hear the two deputies when they walked in. “Come along with us, and there will be no trouble,” they said.
There were two cells in the jailhouse. Estrellita was sitting in one, with the cell door open. “Ramón! Sandy!” she cried, “You have to get me out of here!”
“These two are going nowhere,” snarled the tallest of the deputies. He yanked Ramón around and shoved him into the unused cell. Sandy pulled away from the other deputy. “I ain’t goin’ in no hoosegow!” he cried. The deputy pulled his pistol and applied it roughly to the side of Sandy’s head. The cowboy was pulled limply into the cell.
The jailer objected. “The sheriff will not have these two ruffians in the same building with such a refined lady,” he said, “Lock them in the magazine.” The boys were dragged out of the cell and into the street.
After the bright sun, the inside of the shed was as black as a tomb. Ramón stumbled against something which felt like a wool blanket wadded on the floor, and sat down disconsolately.
“You will like your accommodations,” said the deputy, “This is where the army used to store the gunpowder during the last Indian uprising. It is very safe.”
“At least, it has not blown up, yet!” laughed his assistant as he locked the door.
“Oww! Quit that! Your tongue is rough!”
Sandy awakened to Ramón's voice and gently felt the bruises on his head. Dim light filtered through the rough planks in the side of a shed. “Is the rest of my skull around here, someplace?” he wondered, “And what is that smell?”
“Bad breath,” said Ramón, “Listen, I don't want you to be alarmed, but your head is resting on ...”
Sandy's pillow breathed and coughed.
The low, guttural sound brought the young cowboy alert with a start. In the dim light, one tawny eye and one bloodshot eye gazed into his blue eyes and a tongue with a surface like a wood rasp dragged across his cheek.
“I think...” he started to say, “I know... I'm gonna faint!”
“It's okay,” said Ramón, “She's usually in control, except when she first changes. But I didn't know her breath smelled so bad.”
“It's gonna chew me up,” predicted Sandy.
“No, she won't. I might as well tell you. This is Red Cloud.”
“She has a curse, just like me,” Ramón pushed a large paw away from his arm and added, “I wish we had some water here.”
Sandy backed away, as far as the small shed would allow him. The door was latched from the outside and creaked in protest as he pushed it.
“Somehow, I think yours might be easier to live with,” shivered Sandy.
“It's no big deal. She knows what she is doing.” Ramón pushed the paw away from him again, “She is just a little playful, right now.”
There was the sound of wood sliding over wood as the latch moved. The door swung open on leather hinges.
“Get outside,” said a voice, “But move very slowly.”
Ramón twisted about abruptly to see the shadow in the doorway, as the jaguar dropped a heavy paw upon his shoulder. He felt the blood drain from his face. He gently lifted the paw and set it on the bench. The big cat was tasting the fabric of his blouse as he prepared to run for his life.
“Sure, Red Cloud,” said Sandy, “But you know, Ramón was just telling me the darndest thing...”
Red Cloud held the plank door. “I ought to leave you in there,” she said, in mock severity, “You thought that was me. This is the cat the villagers had locked in the cage. I set it free, but it was too weak to go very far. I went to get medicine for her eye.” Her stern expression melted quickly, however, as she beheld Ramón's plight. The jaguar was rubbing her head against his chest. He did not dare to breathe as he looked down at it.
“Here,” she said as she stepped between Ramón and the cat, “Perhaps you should get out now.” She stroked the short stiff fur on the jaguar's head and ears, and the big cat purred a deep thunder.
Ramón got out.
“I guess she does have a way with cats,” admitted Sandy, from outside.
“I think... I know... I'm gonna faint, now,” gasped Ramón.
CLEANING UP HIS IMAGE:
“Buenas Dias!” bubbled Rosita, “You are the Indian, are you not?”
“I am Wolf Walker. My people are the Azuma.”
Rosita smiled, then lowered her gaze shyly. “Why are you standing in the middle of the garden?” she asked.
Wolf Walker nudged the dry stalks with a toe. “I am searching for water,” he replied. The ground trembled as he stood and he frowned at the disturbance.
“There is no water in the garden,” she looked up at him for a moment, then away again, thinking, [He is so tall!]
“I can feel water,” said the Azuma lad, “when there is water to be found. This land is very dry.”
“We must draw our water from a well,” she said, “What do you need - a drink? a bath?”
Wolf Walker frowned, “Just water,” he said.
“There is water, there in the horse's trough,” she pointed at a wooden box against the stable, “I am drawing water right now, so it will be fresh.”
His upper lip curled, but he said, “It will have to do.” She followed him to the watering trough and watched as he removed his shirt. “What a terrible scar!” she exclaimed as she saw his back, “Did you get it in a fight?”
“It is a war wound,” Wolf Walker replied flatly, “I took the blow meant for another. It is a small thing.” He did not add that he had gotten the scar saving the life of an Apache. Such information would not earn him any honor in this land.
“Aiiyyyee!” breathed Rosita, stepping up timidly and touching the scar.
Wolf Walker waited patiently. “I wish to wash myself,” he said.
“Oh?” Rosita came around to his front, dabbled her hand in the water. It was pleasantly warm. Her heart was beating insanely fast, for some reason. He was so tall!
“Alone,” he added.
“Oh,” Her tentative smile began to sag. “Always they tell me, 'go away, little girl. you are too small’!” she complained, “My sisters, they sit on me like the setting hen, until they are all grown up and gone away and I am alone! I am older than they were! Take your bath alone, then!” she spun about, slapping the water with the flat of her hand as she started off.
Wolf Walker was bent over the water trough, preparing to wet his hands, when the spray hit him. He continued to bend, falling... falling... the water closed over him and he struggled to get a paw up over the wet plank of the side.
[What has happened?] he thought in panic, [The water was fresh from the well... but it was warm!]
“But don't think that I am too young to...” Rosita looked about in confusion. The tall Indian was nowhere to be seen. She heard and saw something struggling in the water trough and squealed.
“Oh, poor baby! How did you get in there? You are all wet!”
THE THINGS WE DO FOR MONEY:
They found Alboro and the innkeeper still sitting at the breakfast table.
“You were a lot of help!” cried Ramón, “We were thrown in jail and all you do is sit here?”
“I was negotiating supplies,” sniffed Alboro, “Besides, I had a feeling you would be back soon. Where is the rancherita?”
“Still in jail,” grumped Ramón.
“Then we must get her out,” said the old man.
“One thing at a time. I need to conclude my business. Where does your sweetheart keep her money?”
“She's not my... well, I guess she thinks she is,” Ramón said, soberly, “Is it right to take her money?”
“We must have everything in readiness to depart as soon as you break her out,” said Alboro.
“Wait a minute! Who said we were going to break her out? And why do we need the money before we try?”
“Señor Caballo,” said the innkeeper, “I am only a poor person. I can get your horses and supplies, but to do that I must use your money. My sources here in Aguas Callientes do not extend credit.”
Luiz arrived, slamming the door, panting from a hard run. “The sheriff said the two of you had escaped,” he puffed, “Now he has told the deputies to kill you on sight! You must be muy desperado to have made him so angry!”
“Oh, boy,” groaned Ramón. He looked up to see Alboro gazing at him appraisingly. “What!?” he asked.
“They will be searching for a boy,” said the old man.
“Not again!” Ramón flared, “I won't do it!”
“Que es?” asked the innkeeper.
“You don't want to know,” said Sandy.
Later, in the small hostel room, Alboro pulled a garment from a pack. “Your mother sent this,” he said.
Ramón glowered as he caught the cotton skirt, “I can't believe this. You are helping her, too! You are all against me!”
“Not all,” Alboro's eyes twinkled as he handed over the more intimate garments and placed a pitcher of warm water within reach. He left the room and stood outside the door to insure privacy.
“What good is this going to do, anyway?” asked Machita as she pulled on the clothes. “They will ignore a female.”
Alboro examined her after she had finished, exhaled a small sigh, and said, “Muchacho, that is the best reason in the world. If you can get close enough to the jail to talk to the rancherita, you can get her to cooperate. We need her money.”
“She doesn't carry money,” said Machita, “She lets others carry the money for her.”
“She has money,” said Alboro, “But it is not in her saddlebags which she left in her room, it is not in her pack, and it is not in her travel bag. She must have it on her person.”
“Is it safe?” Sandy stuck his head in the door from the patio.
“You must disguise yourself,” said Alboro to Sandy, “Perhaps we can borrow some clothing from the innkeeper. Then you must find Red Cloud.”
“She was tending the jaguar,” said Sandy.
“We are getting too scattered,” complained the old man, “We will never get anywhere like this. Where is Wolf Walker?”
Sandy and Machita exchanged glances. “*I* don't know,” they chorused.
The innkeeper's wife appeared, calling out into the yard, “Rosita! Come in and help with the housework! What are you doing out there?”
“Yes, Mama,” sulked Rosita.
“And put down that dog! You are too old to be playing with puppies!” The older woman gasped, then cried, “That is a baby wolf! Where did you get it?”
“I found it at the stables,” said Rosita, “It is so sweet! Can I not keep it? It is very tame!”
Alboro hurried out into the yard, took one glance at the streak across the wolf cub's back, and faced up at the sun. “Sunboy,” he cried, “We have got to talk. Why am I being saddled with a menagerie?”
Rosita set the small animal down. The wolf cub sat as though frozen as he watched the others gather around.
“Great!” growled Machita, “First bears, now wolves. What is next?”
CHAPTER DIEZ Y NUEVE: END