They were moving by daybreak, before the still air was heated to roasting by the midday sun. Wolf Walker was the only one who remained on foot, coursing ahead of the group as the terrain slowly became flatter and more inhospitable. Red Cloud rode ahead of the others while Sandy brought up the rear. Estrellita remained at the center, discussing transportation with Alboro.
"What do you mean, you sold my horse?" cried Estrellita, "I loved that horse! She was my favorite!"
"And the saddle," added Alboro, "Although we got more for the saddle than for the horse. Lots of silver on it. Enough to buy horses for every one of us. Supplies, too."
"But I loved her! I have had her for fourteen years!"
"When we come back... if we come back this way, we can buy her back," promised the old man, "But she was getting old. The desert would have killed her. Did you not think of this when you left your home?"
"No, I did not think of that," pouted the rancherita, "...But you should have asked me!"
"We could not get to you," said Ramon, "We needed money, and you had all of your money with you."
"Ahhh... I don't have any money," Estrellita corrected him.
"No money? How were you planning on getting around?"
"I thought you guys would have money. I never carry any."
"Well, it was a good thing you brought that saddle," said Alboro.
"I'm gonna be in trouble," sighed Estrellita, "It belongs to my father. He had it made in Veracruz."
Ramon listened to her complaints with a bemused smile. He had set out alone to seek his sister, because he was thinking that the sorcerer and the sergeant were planning to go after her. Now there were six people with him, all here because of their own reasons. He stretched down to release a branch of tumbleweed which had caught in his stirrup and was dragging the rest of the bush along.
[That's how I feel,] he thought, [I am dragging the whole bunch along like this tumbleweed.]
"And now I must ride this scruffy brute of a pony!" continued Estrellita, "Why, this saddle so hard it is giving me blisters!"
Alboro looked up at her from his position on a jackass. "Consider it penance," he suggested.
"*What did you say*?" cried the rancherita before she was distracted by a pain in her leg. "Help!" she squealed, "Something's got me!"
"You have a bunch of cholla leaves stuck to your skirt. Stop a minute and let me get it," said Ramon, "You brushed against a cholla tree awhile back."
"Why I never..." Estrellita choked back her denial and wondered, "Is that what they call 'jumping cholla'?"
A LOCK OF HAIR TO BIND MY LOVE:
When she stepped from her doorway that morning to smell the morning sun, she heard smothered laughter and saw the other girls of the rancheria watching her from the corners of their eyes. An older woman struggled by with a load of firewood, smiling to herself. Lucha looked about, but saw nothing humorous. When she turned back to her lodge, however, she saw the lock of hair tied to the doorway. Her hair.
She swayed in confusion. Had she been walking in her sleep, again? Were the dreams making her do things she would not have ordinarily done? If not, then someone had deliberately cut a lock of her hair and pinned it outside her lodge as a sign that she was ready to entertain candidates for her husband.
Lucha completed her morning walk, as casually as if nothing had happened. When she was once more inside the lodge, however, she collapsed into a heap just inside the doorway, all strength gone. She shook uncontrollably for a moment, then grabbed the pendant and clutched it to her. Only while she held it did the spasms ease and she could feel secure.
Soon, the young hopefuls of the rancheria would present their proposals. Several men had openly admired her; each would tie a pony outside the lodge and wait. According to tradition, she should select one pony to feed and water - that pony's owner would be the suitor she had selected. Lucha's head spun in indecision. She was not ready to marry anyone, and she certainly did not want to select the chief's son, Buffalo Wattle. But she could not leave the ponies outside the lodge forever, she was not that cruel. No one else would water or feed them while she waited to decide which one to take.
She combed her hair in a distracted mood, found the place from which the hair had been cut. No. She had not done this. Someone was betraying her.
LOOK WHAT FOLLOWED ME HOME:
As the day wore on, Ramon and Lonesome had been discussing the breaking of horses. "I met this hombre over toward Nogales, one time, and he told me how he broke his horses," said Lonesome, "First, he'd starve a horse until it couldn't stand up, and he wouldn't give it no water, so's it would break quicker. I can't do an animal that way."
"It is true that some horse traders do this," admitted Ramon, "But as for me and my Papa, we have never found it necessary."
"Yeah, if you're good enough, I suppose you could charm them into wearing a saddle. How'd you get that bay to gentle so quickly?"
"I would not call him gentle," laughed Ramon, "Every time he gets a chance, he runs me into a tree or a fence. He is the one who decided that he wanted me to ride him."
"Yeah, that hoss was as tricky as any I've ever seen when we caught him. Only other person who rode him..." Lonesome suddenly stopped thoughtfully, "Do you know, that gal in Aguas Calientes looked an awful lot like... ehh?"
Wolf Walker had stopped and was waiting for them, watching the trees ahead. From the cover of a thicket the sound came again, the soft moan of an animal in pain. Lonesome went to investigate.
"Awww, no," They heard Lonesome say. He returned to the trail with tears in his eyes and called to Sandy. "Get your musket, kid!" he said, "This ain't a pretty sight."
Sandy had pulled his weapon from the saddle ties at first alarm. He approached the thicket carefully and worked his way through the spikes and thorns to the center. There was a horse, a mare, gaunt and covered with burrs, standing with her head down. Her mouth bristled with cholla spines.
"Might as well put her down," said Lonesome, "She's gone through enough hell, so starved she'd try to eat cholla leaves. No point in drawing it out and making' her suffer."
Sandy gulped and hesitated. "Your find," he said, "Sure you don't want to do it?"
Lonesome shook his head, looked the other way. "Don't like guns," he said. Wolf Walker refused to notice the conversation, watching the horizon to their rear.
Sandy shuddered as he rolled the hammer back, aimed, and pulled the trigger. There was a loud clack. "Lost the cap," said Sandy with relief, "I'll go get another."
Lonesome was standing with his back to the horse when he felt a gentle nudge. The mare was pushing her tormented nostrils against his hand. Tears left a muddy trail down her cheeks.
"Awww, what the hell," sighed Lonesome. He stopped Sandy at the trail as he was returning with the musket.
"Put it away, kid," he said, "I never shoulda' looked."
From his saddlebags he extracted a pair of pliers. "Worked at a smithy for a couple of years," he explained to Ramon, "When I moved on, the guy I worked with gave me these."
The mare stood and let him pull out the cholla spines, one by one. When he was done, the horse wanted to rub her ears against his chest, almost bowling him over.
"I would say you have tamed this one," said Ramon.
THE FIRST NIGHT:
Red Cloud had gathered cholla blossoms and fruit to dice and feed to the mare, along with a guarded portion of their precious water. Ramon had picked the campsite under Alboro's approving gaze, and they watched the sun set, red and bronze in the western sky.
Lonesome came up beside Sandy as they gathered stones to surround the campfire.
"Just what is it between you and Ramon?" asked Lonesome.
Sandy jerked so abruptly that he lost his grip and had to yank his foot back before it was crushed by the falling stone.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"You two are good friends, right?"
Sandy nodded and Lonesome continued, "Thought so. You two are always palling around together, you work well alongside each other, but sometimes you act like you hate him."
"I don't hate him," Sandy protruded his lower lip in pensive reflection as he rolled the stone into place, "He's got problems, is all."
"He seems cheerful enough."
"Oh, yeah, he's cheerful. Most of the time. Sometimes, he is so bouncy..." Sandy bit off the remainder of his statement.
"Nothing' wrong with that," Lonesome said, "Least he ain't talking your ear off all the time. Fact is, he's so quiet I forget he's there, sometimes. That ain't 'bouncy.' He don't jump around a lot."
"You ain't seen him bounce," said Sandy. "Not the *parts* that bounce anyways," he added under his breath.
"What do you have there?" Sandy asked Ramon as they unrolled their sleeping gear and prepared for the night. Lonesome had taken the first watch. Their fire was small and shielded to avoid being seen from very far away.
"Just a corn shuck doll," said Ramon, "I promised to hold on to it."
Wolf Walker overheard the conversation and said, "Where did you get this? This type of doll is sacred!"
"Is *everything* sacred to you people?" demanded Ramon.
"Pretty much so," said Red Cloud.
"This is a warrior doll," said Wolf Walker, "It is given only to members of a tribe when they have shown great promise. You have never done anything to deserve it."
"The doll-maker gave it to me," insisted Ramon. Instantly, he regretted the admission.
Wolf Walker glared at him. "That is a lie!" he shouted, grabbing for the doll, "She would never give this to anyone outside the tribe!".
The doll, knocked from Ramon's fingers, fell into the fire and blazed. Flames consumed the corn shucks and beads before he could rescue it, and for a moment the fire leaped high over their heads with astonishing heat. Ramon beat a hasty retreat, slapping at his arms and the front of his shirt.
"What's going on?" called Lonesome from his sentry point, "Are you trying to tell everyone where we are?"
"Wow," said Estrellita, "That was some fireworks!"
The blaze left only wisps of charred fiber from the doll for Ramon to drag from the campfire. He could not touch the fragments without them falling apart.
"You did not deserve that doll," insisted Wolf Walker, "Better to destroy it."
"It was *mine*!" cried Ramon. He tackled Wolf Walker about the waist and they rolled over the gravel, each grappling for a hold. While the older Azuma lad had the advantage in height and weight, Ramon was tough and his anger gave him strength.
Lonesome came down from the rise, relieved by Sandy. He watched the struggle with some interest. "The kid actually got upset `cause someone took his doll away from him?" he said in wonder.
Alboro yawned and stretched. "This excitement makes me tired," he said, and was shortly sound asleep under his blanket.
Wolf Walker used his longer arms to pin Ramon to the ground, but lost his footing when the younger boy swept his legs from under him. Ramon caught one of ankles, came to his feet with one foot in the small of the Azuma lad's back, and began to twist until Wolf Walker beat the ground with his fists.
"That's enough!" said Estrellita, "You could hurt him that way." Ramon let him go and the two combatants glared at each other for long moments until by mutual consent they turned away.
"Well, that's over," said Lonesome, "Any coffee left?"
"You actually want coffee?" Ramon stopped in his tracks to ask.
"Sure. Made it myself," said Lonesome.
"Oh," said Ramon and he went back to his blanket.
TO MAKE RABBIT STEW:
Machack the warrior lowered his spyglass, wondering. There had been some sort of explosion at the campfire - more unusual, it had been a release of non-earthly energy. The boy appeared to have thrown something into the fire in order to trigger an event. Kaliche had not mentioned this possibility, that these barbarians could play around with such power.
This made his mission much more interesting. Perhaps one of the group might actually be able to put up a fight. It was worth testing. The spyglass focused the dim light from the campfire into his obsidian eyes as he watched them bed down for the night. When all was quiet, he slipped from his vantage point on the bluff and made his way across the desert floor. He left the metal tube of the spyglass along with most of his weapons, taking only his favorite knife with the Toledo steel blade. Small animals fled his approach and larger animals slunk away rather than confront him. He passed over snakes both poisonous and lethal without being noticed.
To get to the campfire he followed a gully, welcoming the fine haze which seemed to have emerged with the dew in this arid wasteland. The haze would help conceal him as he drew closer to the camp. At the place he estimated to be closest to the campsite, he emerged from the gully and searched for a fire.
There was nothing there. Machack cast about, seeking some clue as to where the travelers had gone. There was no evidence that there had ever been a campfire, the ground was cold and there were no tracks from horse or man, even to his eyes. Puzzled, he climbed a nearby thorn tree, easily avoiding the numerous spines, and looked around. Back in the direction he had come from was a campfire. He had overshot, trying to sneak up on them in the gully.
"That is easy enough to remedy," he said, and headed straight for the boulders reflecting light from the fire. After a number of steps he paused. He could seem to get no closer.
Again the haze arose and he marched forward twenty paces. Now, when he stepped up on a rise of rock to look, the campfire was behind him.
Muttering to himself, he retraced his steps until the haze arose. The campfire was back in the original direction. Eventually he gave up in disgust and stayed in one spot until dawn.
He never found the campfire that night, where one person slept with a quiet smile.
When the pewter gray of dawn brought the landscape back to reality, the burly warrior retraced the steps he had taken during the night. They were many and varied, and appeared to wander around aimlessly. Nearby he found the campsite, with warm coals covered by sand and many footprints. As he went back to the bluff to recover his weapons, the warrior was humming a simple tune he recalled from ancient Thebes.
"So, the sheep have a watchdog, do they?" he said.
From the bluff he could see the trail leading from the village of Aguas Calientes and the plume of dust being raised by horses in pursuit.
"Ah," said Machack, "My shepherds approach, to drive the sheep. How convenient. Now all I have to do is wait." He slung his pack and melted into the underbrush.
Wolf Walker had also seen the dust plume. "They push harder than we do," he said, "They can burn up their horses to catch us before we get away. We must take care of our horses so they can carry us across the desert."
"What can we do?" asked Estrellita.
"We go fast to the hills or we go slow through the cholla," Wolf Walker cast toward Ramon with his chin and said, "Ask him."
"Me? Who made *me* boss?" demanded Ramon.
"It was your idea," said Sandy, "We just came along for the ride. Whatever you say."
"I don't want to be a wet blanket," said Lonesome, "But somebody better do something, and someday soon! If you don't want to lead, get out of the way!"
Ramon surveyed their faces, from the unquestioning approval in Estrellita's eyes to the grudging acceptance in Lonesome's face and Wolf Walker's non-committal scowl.
"All right!" he said, "Let's get going North to the hills!"
As they moved out single file through the brush, Ramon stopped alongside the older cowboy. "Thanks for the push," he said.
"Gotta watch out for the young'un," said Lonesome, indicating Sandy, "And he's gonna stick with you `til you find your sister. He's stubborn, that way. Best I can do is try to keep up."
They set out on the narrow trail, trying to match Wolf Walker's pace.
YOU KNEW I WAS A SNAKE WHEN YOU PICKED ME UP:
"I was surprised to see the Senora Elizabeta here in your employ," smiled Sinestro as he savored the Brazilian coffee from the fine porcelain cup, "I was under the impression that I was paying her husband well enough for her to stay home. She has a marvelous daughter, don't you think?"
"She does not work for me," said the Dona, "Elizabeta is a guest." To Dolores she said, "We can work on the books later. Perhaps you have something else you would prefer to attend to?"
Swiftly Dolores gathered her papers, glanced at Sinestro with slitted eyes, and departed.
"Hola, Manuel!" called Francisco as he entered the stable area, "Why are you not out wandering?"
"Tomorrow, perhaps," smiled the elder Caballo, "Today, this bird still has a sore wing."
"Ahh, yes," said Francisco, "That was quite a night, was it not? I still jump when I hear a noise in the darkness."
"I, too. We came so close to losing everything."
"And has your wife recovered?"
"Completely. She is back to running the house and helping the Dona. It is my boy who has me worried."
"What do you think?" Francisco wondered, "Does he have the sister? Will he find her?"
"Compadre, if the sister is there, he will try very hard to find her. I had to let him try. But if he does not come back soon, I shall have to go and help him look."
"I see your wife, coming from the big house. She looks very upset. What could you have done this time?"
Dolores greeted Francisco then pulled her husband aside. "Sinestro is talking with Don Diego," she whispered, "I must know what they are saying."
"Here?" Manuel looked about, but there was only Francisco nearby, "Now? How can that help?"
"You must get close and listen. Bertran can only mean trouble. You do not know the man as I do."
"Mi Dulce, I will do anything for you. But you have always disliked it when I do these things... and here, when there is so much chance of discovery? Do you hate this man so much?"
Dolores nodded in acknowledgment, "I fear him, my husband."
CROSSING THE DESERT:
For a time they had moved quickly through the brush in single file, following Wolf Walker's lead. At a clearing Ramon let the other's go past until he was bringing up the rear. The only sounds were the creak of leather and the muffled thud of hoof beats in the dust.
As the dust rose Ramon pulled a bandanna up over his face. He could see another dust cloud far behind as the sheriff and his band followed. On a rise which gave him a view of the land behind, he stopped to look back. He could almost make out the figures of horses and riders. They were getting closer. When the trail broadened as they crossed a dry riverbed Ramon made his way to the lead once more.
The pack mule hurried after him and even the bay seemed to sense the urgency of their pace. At any rate he was not trying to scrape Ramon's leg up against the cactus thorns. Estrellita's horse was not so careful. In a wash halfway across the flat the group stopped to catch their breath and slake their thirst.
Sandy was the first to see the rancherita's trembling lip and the tears in her eyes. He went to help her get down from her pony. "Ow!" cried Estrellita, "Be careful! And where do you think you are putting your hand?"
Sandy stopped in panic. He had been trying to clear away the cactus leaves and spines clustered to her skirts. "Just getting the thorns off," he squinted against the sun to see her face.
"I don't let just anyone touch my knees," she informed him. Sandy's face turned beet-red and he yanked away from her.
"Oh, come on back and finish!" she pleaded, but he would not return. "Oh, please!" she cried, "I can't get down from my horse without getting stabbed... it hurts so much!" The blond cowboy reluctantly came back to remove the remainder of the cactus spines, but he remained at arm's length for the chore.
Lonesome shook his head and looked away so they would not see his face. When Ramon glanced toward him he said, "I see it comin'."
"What?" asked Ramon.
Lonesome busied himself with his tack, "Yep," he said, "It's already too late." He watched as Estrellita finished tending to her pony. "We'll need to get going pretty quick," he said to no one in particular.
"Better to keep going," Wolf Walker nodded in agreement. He glanced about the surrounding foliage as though searching for something. Lonesome caught the gaze and made a noise, almost a grunt with a questioning rise at the end.
"Someone watches," explained Wolf Walker.
"I've been meaning to ask one of ya'll about that," said Lonesome, "I thought I saw a fellow on the trail you left coming over the mountain. Couldn't make out any details, he moved like a shadow. You know of anyone who would be interested in your group?"
"He knows," Wolf Walker indicated Alboro, who was trying to argue Estrellita into wearing pants with chaps instead of her skirts.
"But I didn't bring any trousers!" objected the rancherita. The old man dug in his saddlebags and produced a pair of sturdy breeches, threw them to her.
"Here," he said, "You paid for them. Wear them. Catch up when you have them on." Alboro motioned to Ramon and went to mount his mule. They left the two girls to handle the clothing change and set out down the trail, moving slowly until the rancherita rejoined them wearing chaps and a chagrined expression.
Wolf Walker loped on ahead, looking for a clear trail.
"Old man?" Lonesome spoke to Alboro, "Who's following us?"
"A sheriff and about six deputies," offered Ramon flippantly, but he too looked at Alboro for an explanation.
Alboro directed his answer to Ramon. "Who do you think?" he asked.
"Espuma, most likely," said Ramon. Lonesome had not heard of the name before and divided his attention between the boy and his grandfather.
"He has already been through here," said the old man, "This fellow is much meaner. Not as sneaky, but tough. Very tough."
"Excuse me," said Lonesome, "but is there something going on here that I don't know about? First I hear you are looking for a girl taken by Indians, then this rancherita gets thrown in jail, now there's two people following you?"
"Well, the sheriff jailed Estrellita because Sinestro put out an alarm," said Ramon, "He was just following orders. If we can get away from him we won't have to worry about him any more."
"Espuma is a different matter," Sandy said. He had pulled his horse as close as he could in the single file group in order to join the discussion, "I hear he is a real malo hombre. He tried to kill Ramon's mother."
"You were back at the ford when this happened," said Ramon, "Espuma fell off the roof of the pueblo, off a cliff. He should have died, yet he was seen later, talking about going on a trip. I should have known he would be coming this way. He is after my sister as well."
"So who else is following us?" Lonesome asked Alboro.
Alboro jounced along in silence as he considered his answer. "Better I tell you the bad news," he said.
They listened to the silence as he studied the path before them, a silence broken only by saddle-creak and jingle. The pack horse blew wind from its nostrils. A scant late afternoon breeze lifted the dust from their passing and spread it across the desert floor to the side.
"Well?" prodded Ramon.
"Muy malo," said Alboro.
"What?" asked Lonesome, "Muy malo? That's all?"
"Where is he?" wondered Sandy.
"Can't tell you," said the old man.
"Is this another one of your dumb lessons?" demanded Ramon.
"I tell you, you look at him, he kills you," said Alboro, "Simple as that. You don't look around. Do not look around!"
Sandy raised in his stirrups to scan the surrounding foliage, much as Wolf Walker had done earlier. He held his gaze on the dust plume to their rear. "I think they are getting closer," he said.
Alboro shook his head in exasperation. "Nobody listens," he complained.
"They haven't stopped to rest or water their horses," said Lonesome, "If we can keep ahead of them long enough, they will have to stop."
Alboro shook his head again. "They have spare horses," he said, "Our only chance is to get to those hills ahead."
"We'll get there before nightfall," said Ramon, "If they make camp like they did last night we'll have a chance... If they don't keep coming."
"Who is the other man?" Lonesome returned to the discussion.
"Yeah, Abuelo," said Ramon, "And don't change the subject."
Alboro twisted about in the saddle to frown at him. "I do not know his name," he said, "A very bad man. Strong. A warrior. He could take out us and that posse without blinking an eye."
"Why don't he?" asked Sandy.
Alboro again watched the path. "I think he wants us to find the girl," he said, and he raised his face to the sky with determination in his eyes, "She would be my granddaughter."