KISS ME, KILL ME:
"It ought to be simple," explained Alboro, "All you have to do is talk to the guard. You know, smile at him and flirt. Ask him if you can go in and talk to Estrellita. He will tell you anything you want to know."
"Where do you get your ideas?" cried Machita, "I'm not flirting with anyone! I can not think of anything more disgusting! Besides, I don't know how!"
"It is simple," sighed the old man, "You get close to him, smile, and then you... you flirt! Roll your eyes! Giggle! Don't you know how to do anything? Can't you do anything right?"
"I can't flirt!" growled the girl, "I WON'T flirt! I'd rather DIE first!"
Alboro grabbed her by the elbow. "Listen, Machito," he said, "These deputies are hard men. They have guns, which they will use on anyone that they consider dangerous. If we make a mistake, they will use them on us."
"Is that supposed to make me want to get close to them?" gulped Machita, "I'm outta here!"
Alboro dragged her back. "All I am saying is that we have to make them forget using the guns. Despite the fact that you are clumsy and slow, you are a pretty girl and they will talk to you. Now go over there and *flirt*!"
Gathering her courage, Machita stomped toward the jail door. "I hate this," she growled to herself, "Suppose he thinks I am trying to kiss him? Ewww..."
"Buenas tardes, Senorita!" exclaimed the deputy, jumping to his feet and grinning wolfishly. Machita stopped, legs locked in mid-step, as she fought down the urge to flee.
[Flirt. Yeah, right,] she thought. After a few strangled noises as she tried to clear her throat, she managed to say, "I... I was wanting... I would like to..." Her voice gave out suddenly, and the words faded away before she could ask to see Estrellita.
"Certainly, my beautiful princess!" The deputy continued to grin, "We could go inside for a moment, and no one would even see us!"
[NO!] Machita's mind spasmed. This was NOT what she had intended to imply! She shook her head and backed away from the door, then turned and ran. The deputy laughed as he watched her go. [I don't believe this. I don't believe this! Did he think I was offering that?]
"What did you learn?" asked Alboro.
"I don't wanta go there!" snapped Machita, her voice back to normal. She saw someone coming, a thin person in white cotton and serape. Alboro and Machita were on the stone sidewalk near the jail when Sandy found them. Sandy was wearing a white blouse and trousers and a sombrero which covered his fair hair.
"I have found Red Cloud!" he cried. Too late, he saw the deputies outside the sheriff's office. The two of them started over to investigate.
"Uh-oh," whispered Alboro, "They are onto us. They will come too close to us... if they see through Sandy's disguise, they will shoot him. We have to do something to distract them."
"We're outta here," said Machita.
"Too late!" said the old man, "There is only one thing to do. You must grab him and kiss him."
"WHAT??? No way!"
"Do it or they will kill him! Here they come!!"
Sandy was looking at the deputies. He turned to hide his face from them. "What are you two talking about..." he said and, "Urmmph!!" as Machita grabbed him.
As she hugged him, with their faces inches apart, Sandy stiffened. He hissed, "If you kiss me, I'll kill you!"
"Don't worry! I'd kill myself!" said Machita, "Shut up and act stupid!"
Cheek to cheek, they clenched and waited. The two deputies strolled by the couple on the sidewalk and laughed to themselves. One rolled his eyes and mouthed a silent whistle. Alboro smiled weakly and lifted his hand from his waist in a miniature wave. The couple remained in a rigid clench until the deputies passed from sight, then they recoiled from each other.
"I'm gonna be sick," moaned Sandy.
"Me, too!" spat the girl.
"Come on!" snapped the old man, "You can cry about it later!"
"I'm gonna spit for a week," declared Machita, rubbing her cheek with the tail of Alboro's blouse.
"It kept him alive, didn't it?" asked Alboro.
"I'd rather get shot," said Sandy.
"You can shoot yourself later," said Alboro, "But now we need to find everyone."
Sandy left to look for Wolf Walker.
ALONG CAME LONESOME:
There were several things which drew the young cowboy to the tiny hostel nestled along the road to the village. For one, he had been riding for two days and was ready for a rest and a hot meal. The second thing was the sight of a pretty young maiden chasing an animal across the yard and into the stable. Lonesome blinked. A wolf? And of course, the fact that his horse had turned from the road and was heading with a will of its own for the feed troughs at the stable was a factor as well.
"Buenas Dias!" cried the girl, struggling to hold the wolf pup to her breast. The cub seemed about to panic. "May we be of service? We have a very fine room for rent, and the food is delicious."
"I might stay the night," said Lonesome. He had lost the trail earlier when they reached the heavily traveled road. "Perhaps you could tell me if you have seen any strangers come through here, lately. I am looking for a boy and a girl. Thought I'd try one more place before I went back to try to catch their trail."
"I haven't seen just two people in a while," said Rosita, who now had both arms about the wolf, "Only a group of people - an old man, two men and a woman... and a couple of Indians. They said they are leaving today. When they do, there will be a place for you to spend the night." She dimpled at him. The wolf cub suddenly wriggled free and headed through an empty stall and then behind the building.
"My Papa is inside," Rosita called as she hurried after the errant pup. There was a vigorous squealing and she cried, "Oh, you foolish pup! Look what you have done!"
The cowboy made his way around to the front of the hostel where he dealt with the innkeeper. Again he asked about a boy and a girl traveling together, and he received the same answer. "I'll talk to the other travelers," he said, "Maybe they will have seen something."
Rosita carefully pulled the wolf cub out of the mud. "Now you stink," she scolded, "you should not have gone through the pig pen." She carried him back to the watering trough and dabbled a finger in the water. "Not too cold," she said, dropping the struggling animal into the water at the same time that the garments on the ground caught her eye. She bent to pick up the trousers. They were leather, well decorated with dyed fringe and needlework, and seemed to be meant for a large man. A tall man. She wrinkled her nose in puzzlement, not hearing the sounds of splashing in the water behind her.
A large arm reached over her shoulder and grabbed the trousers. "I'll take those," said a large voice.
Rosita whirled around and looked up as the huge naked man took the pants from her stiff fingers. There was the man who wore those pants, except he was not wearing them now... he was trying to draw them on as hastily as he could. Her eyes grew round and huge, and her heart beat so rapidly that it fluttered like a bird in a cage. Dimly, she was aware that she knew this man, had conversed with him only hours before. Then he had been clothed, but now... A naked savage. A primitive, uncivilized being out of a nightmare, here in her village. Here at her side.
In the fleeting moments before she lost consciousness, she considered her situation: She was at his mercy. (He was so tall, so handsome! Why was he frantically trying to get his clothes on? He should be forcing his attentions on her!) He could do what he wished with her, and she could do nothing!
"Aiiiyyyeee!" she said, arranged her skirts demurely, and fainted. After a few moments she awoke and found the Azuma lad squatting at the entrance to the stable, watching her.
"You are well," he said. It was not a question.
Rosita scrambled to her feet and backed away from the Indian. She stared at him, remembering him towering over her. Somehow she could not recall all of the details, but what she could remember caused her face to attain the hue of the nearby ironstone buttes.
"It is good that you can walk," said Wolf Walker, "I do not wish to have to carry you to your father. He might not understand it."
"I... I..." Rosita stuttered. She saw him rise to his feet and move toward the pens, "You are not going away? Please, stay for awhile! I will not tell them what happened!"
Wolf Walker paused. "What happened?" he asked.
Rosita blushed again and backed against the wall. "I... I am not sure," she admitted.
"Good," said Wolf Walker, and he left.
"Please?" said Rosita softly as she watched him go.
OUT OF THE FRYING PAN:
Machita and Alboro tried to appear casual as they strolled by the jailhouse. The front door was standing open. The deputies had walked on down the street and were not in sight, but Machita felt as if they were standing there watching as she pushed the heavy door wider and slipped inside. Alboro watched the street.
"It is dark in here," she said. The jailhouse also stank from years of accumulated sweat and neglect, a fact she had been too busy to notice when she had been there earlier. At Estrellita's cell, she listened. Here, too, the door was standing open. A solitary figure was bundled in a blanket, asleep on the cot.
"Wake up, Estrellita, wake up!" called Machita. The snoring stopped, but otherwise there was no response.
"She's gotta sleep like a log," she complained, "Come on, Estrellita! We gotta go!"
The person on the cot chuckled deeply, and she realized her mistake. There had been a third deputy, sleeping in the cell where Estrellita had been. He rolled out from under the blanket and grabbed her before she could escape.
"So you want to see the senorita, do you?" he laughed, "I think we can arrange that!"
Machita struggled but the deputies grip was too strong. She was taken from the jailhouse and behind the building to a door in a great adobe wall. At the door the deputy knocked and waited. Presently, an older woman with a worn face opened the door.
"This muchacha was asking for the senorita," explained the deputy.
"Good! This must be the one she has been demanding!" cried the woman, "I have been about to go insane! No one should have to put up with the abuse that girl can dish out!"
Machita looked about worriedly as she was conducted further into the house. This rescue was not going as planned.
The woman unlocked a door and pushed Machita inside. "Here is your servant!" she cried, "Now leave me alone!"
"Servant?" asked Machita, "What!!!!?!"
"Machita!" cried Estrellita, "You naughty, naughty girl! Where have you been?" She winked at Machita.
"I have been... ahh... looking for you," Machita looked around for the implements of torture she had imagined being used on her friend. The rancherita did not seem to be in any distress. Indeed, she was in a large room with a comfortable bed, several chairs and a small table furnished with delicacies.
"It is about time you found me," Estrellita affected a haughty posture and pointed toward the bed, "Fetch me my jacket."
"Fetch... you... your..." Machita breathed, hardly able to restrain her anger.
"Do it!" Estrellita whispered out of the corner of her mouth, "Do it or we'll never get out of here!"
Machita found the brocade jacket draped across the iron bedstead. She lifted it carefully and made a show of brushing out the wrinkles before handing it to the blond rancherita.
"And where do you think you are going?" hissed the woman.
"Out," said Estrellita.
"Not while I am here," the woman said.
"Because you are here in my custody. I don't believe for a minute that you were kidnapped. I think you ran off, and I think you will run off again, the first chance you get."
"Senora, I would not do that! Why, I'll even give you my word that I will remain here in town."
The woman allowed a thin smile. "Of course you will," she said, "But you will either remain in my house or in my husband's jail. With your servant, who will take care of you hand and foot, the way I have had to do."
She closed the door. There was the soft click of a well-oiled lock. Estrellita stuck her tongue out at the door and collapsed with a moan into one of the chairs.
"What am I going to do, Ramon?" she said, "I've tried everything I know to get away. I even said 'Please'!"
Sandy was heading out of the village toward the hostel when he found Wolf Walker, who was stalking the other way. "What's the hurry?" the blond cowboy wondered.
"I am attempting to restore my dignity," said Wolf Walker. He stepped to the side of the road and said, "Your friend, the one you called 'Lonesome', is at the hostel. "I will wait for you. I will not go into the hostel again."
"Something happen?" Sandy asked.
Wolf Walker regarded the distant mountains with his jaw clenched shut.
"Guess I'll find out later," said Sandy.
At the hostel, Lonesome looked up from his supper and said, "I oughta take you out behind the woodshed and teach you some sense, kid. Why did you run off with that gal?"
"It was more like she ran off with me," grumbled Sandy, "She wanted to follow Ramon. He's looking for his sister."
"Why don't he look somewhere safer? In case you haven't noticed, you are heading into wild Injun country."
"`Cause his sister is with the Apache."
"What? Now I know I'm takin' you all back! You're gonna get yourself and that rancherita killed and worse."
"Well, there is just one little problem with that," said Sandy, "The local sheriff has Estrellita in jail. We're trying to figure out how to get her out. That's where... where Ramon is, right now. I come back to get Wolf Walker to help."
"Who's Wolf Walker?"
"He's a guy from the Azuma village. He came along to take care of Red Cloud."
"Okay, who's Red Cloud?"
"She's a friend of Ramon. She came along to protect Ramon. And then there's Alboro."
"That's just great!" cried Lonesome, "You have a whole troupe of innocents here, wandering off into scalp-hunter territory like sheep to the slaughter!"
"It's not my fault! I just come to make sure Estrellita didn't get hurt!"
"Well, kid," said Lonesome as he collected his hat, "It looks like I'm gonna have to bail you out again."
They surprised the deputy lazing outside the jailer's door. The man pushed his sombrero back on his head and smiled at them. "What do you wish, Yanquis?" he asked.
"Let the senorita out," said Lonesome in a cold voice.
"Now, why should I do that, Senor?" the deputy smiled more broadly, "Is there anything you have to persuade me to do this?"
Lonesome removed a huge knife from his belt, held it loosely. "Arkansas Toothpick," he announced, "It persuades some folks."
"Then I will have to refuse," said the deputy as he whipped out his pistol, "You have made a very grave mistake, Senor, bringing a knife to a gunfight. Drop it."
The blade made a -chink- sound as it stuck into the ground.
"Now, you are not so frightening without the knife, are you?" laughed the deputy as he replaced his pistol in the holster, "You look like a gambling man, Senor. Two pesos says you cannot pick up that knife before I draw and fire."
"Hated to drop a good knife in the dirt," said
Lonesome. "But that's all right. I have another." He twitched his
wrist and a second knife hammered the deputy's sombrero to the wall behind him.
With the cold of winter in his voice, Lonesome added, "You look like a
gambling man, Senor. Two bucks says I can put another knife six inches below
that one before you can draw and pull the trigger."
Slowly and carefully, the deputy used his off hand to reach up and feel the scalp on the top of his head. Then he felt the hilt of the knife holding his sombrero to the wall and measured six inches below that. It was about the center of his forehead. "I think I will step aside," he said, handing over his pistol.
Meanwhile, Sandy pounded on the door until the deputy inside the house thrust his rifle out and peered after it. He found the muzzle of Sandy's pistol in his face and gave no argument when the two cowboys entered. The jailer's wife backed against the wall, eyes wide with fright.
"Boy, you girls are helpless!" laughed Sandy.
"I was NOT helpless!" flared Machita.
"They had GUNS," explained Estrellita as she started out. Suddenly, she threw her arms around Sandy and pulled him close, ignoring the strangling noises he made.
Lonesome just shrugged and tied up the deputies. "I smell trouble brewing," he said, but he smiled.
While the others were readying their mounts, Machita slipped back into their room at the hostel. Disgusted at having been caught girl-handed, she splashed back to male form and went looking for Red Cloud. He found her coming out of a house on the outskirts of the village.
"There are deputies over there," she said, indicating the far street, "Let us get out of sight in this crib for a moment."
"Why were you in that house?" Ramon asked.
"I was talking with a friend of the family," she said, "An old woman who once traveled to our village to help heal the sick."
"You could have told us," complained Ramon.
"I had to help her, this time," said Red Cloud, "We talked of many things."
"We have got to go," said Ramon, "Sandy and Lonesome just busted Estrellita out of jail."
"Yes, I know."
"You knew? How?"
"I told you. We talked of many things. I had to meet her, because of something I promised my people."
"And you helped her?"
"It is why we came this way. It is part of my path - and yours."
"I don't understand it, but alright. We gotta go. Is that *everyone* you have to help?" demanded Ramon, "Did your 'friend' get away?"
"She is resting in the shed," replied Red Cloud, "I propped the shed door open, so she can sneak away during the night."
"Well, we'll keep back until everyone settles down," Ramon said, pulling back into the shade. The shelter was close, and he became aware of her warmth as Red Cloud complied. "Then again, maybe we should go, now," he suggested.
A shout arose as a deputy came into the street. "Everyone out of your homes!" he cried, "Assemble in the village plaza! Our men are searching for desperadoes house-by-house and we want no one hurt!"
"Uh oh," said Red Cloud, "They will search the shed and find the jaguar."
"There is nothing we can do," said Ramon, "Hey, where are you going?"
"I have to do *something*", said Red Cloud.
"Wait!" cried Ramon, and he started after her.
"There he is!" shouted someone, "Get him! He is chasing that girl!"
"Be careful of the girl!" cried another, "Don't let him get her!"
Pursuers to the left. Deputies to the right. Ramon and Red Cloud ducked into a dwelling and slammed the door. There was no one home. The original occupants of the hut had left so suddenly that they had spilled greasy meat on the floor and had not cleaned it up. The remainder of their meal was still on the rude table. The soup was still steaming in a bowl, and pieces of a broken dish lay on the floor.
Several men gathered outside, shouting for another to run for reinforcements.
"I guess they've got me," sighed Ramon, "We are surrounded. There is someone on every side."
"I will distract them," said Red Cloud as she unbarred the door, "You can run the other way".
"No!" cried Ramon. He did what he had never done before, grabbed her to pull her away from the door. In so doing, he slipped in the grease, lost his balance and fell against the table.
The soup fountained up and splattered over the interior of the one-room shack. Suddenly there was a large spotted cat which made a swift circuit of the room, barely pausing to sniff at the cracks in the wall. The cat flung Red Cloud's clothes about while it frantically sought an escape from the confining walls of the hut.
Ramon dove under the rough boards of the table to get out of the jaguar's path. He did not want to suffer from Red Cloud's momentary loss of control when she changed into cat form.
Presently the big cat settled down and came back to Ramon, gently nosing the scattered clothing toward him, indicating that she wanted him to gather them up. Ramon realized that she did not want the men to find her clothes. He crept out from the shelter of the table, noticing that once again his own clothes did not fit properly.
"Bother!" growled Machita. While the jaguar looked the other way, she discarded her clothes and pulled on Red Cloud's skirt and blouse. With the bundled white cotton trousers and blouse tucked under her arm, she unbarred the door and peered out.
Seeing that the men standing around outside had relaxed their vigilance, she threw the door open and shouted, "Run for it!".
Through the open doorway the jaguar leaped, into the midst of the men. There was fear and panic as men fled in all directions, then the cat bounded to the top of a wall and vanished.
One of the pursuers was searching timidly about the place. "I saw him go into the house with the girl," he said to another, "And then there was a cry - of surprise, or fear, perhaps - and then the jaguar jumped out and ran away. I tell you, there is something strange about this."
"I saw it too. And now he is gone and there is no one left in the building!" cried the second man. He turned to the girl who had emerged from the shack and said, "Senorita! Is this Caballo some kind of a magician? What sort of man is he?"
"You don't want to know," said Machita, with a very sour look on her face.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN:
"I had hoped to spend a night on a real bed," said Lonesome, "Instead, I'm on the run with a band of pilgrims who can't stay out of trouble."
"We must head that way," said Alboro, pointing to the north and west.
Lonesome faced the flat, open spaces. The white clouds only served to make the scene brighter in the moonlight. "Nope," he said, "These folks are heading back to the rancho. I'm here to see to that."
The old man looked back the way they had come. "You have helped us when we were in trouble," he said.
"Yeah? Well, that's over. Now we head home."
Alboro pointed toward the campfires on the slopes south of them. "Don't think they will let us," he said, "We broke out of their jail." He added, "You helped."
"Reckon we will have to take another road," Lonesome admitted.
"That's the only other way out," Alboro pointed north.
"Great," grumbled Lonesome, "Just great!" He settled into munching his tortilla until something else crossed his mind. "What happened to that girl who was in the sheriff's house with you?" he asked of Estrellita.
"*I* don't know," lied Estrellita.
"*I* don't know," lied Ramon.
"What girl?" asked Wolf Walker suspiciously.
"Where is Gordito when we need him?" said Sandy to himself, "He'd believe anything!"
CHAPTER VIENTE: END