I COULD USE A LITTLE REASSURANCE:
Alboro slurped the coffee loudly and began, "When I was a young warrior, not so very long ago..." He looked about the circle of faces reflecting firelight to see if anyone appreciated his little joke. No one was smiling.
"Hmmphhh..." he continued, "When I was a young warrior, I roamed through these lands like the wind. I went everywhere. I knew these hills like the back of my hand."
"Old man," said Ramon, "We don't need your chatter - we need a way out of here!"
The old man yawned, "You say they are camped behind us?"
Red Cloud nodded. She glanced worriedly at Ramon who was poking at the fire dispiritedly.
"I see. How do you think they got ahead of us, too?"
Ramon looked up and snapped, "Did you ever think they might know these hills better than you?"
"Guess I can't do anything, right now," sighed Alboro, "I think I'm gonna take a nap." He lay back and pulled his serape over him. He was instantly asleep.
Estrellita crowded against Ramon, as though seeking shelter in his company.
Ramon touched her shoulder, "I am sorry you had to get caught out here in this," he said, "Maybe we should have left you at the village."
Her chin came up in defiance, "Well, I'm not!" she said, "I belong with you guys!" She touched his fingers, withdrew her hand and added, "I wanted to ask, though... Are you all right? Is everything okay?"
"Well, I'm fine," Ramon went back to spreading the coals, "I could use a little reassurance from old Abuelo, there. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, nothing," Noticing Sandy pacing outside the rim of firelight, she went to talk to him.
Ramon covered himself with a blanket, feeling the chill of the air. He intended to get up shortly and relieve Sandy at guard. He did not intend to go to sleep.
Cinders leapt up the column of heated air rising from the campfire. They had not bothered to use a small blaze. They did not care if anyone saw.
"You leave a trail like a wounded cow," growled the husky warrior, "Did you WANT me to find you?"
Espuma smiled vaguely, "You know where I am," he said smoothly,
"As I can always find you. We are both parts of the same magical
Machack shuddered. He lifted a gnarled tree trunk and shredded it. The exercise seemed to calm him. "I prefer to think we are the upper and lower halves," he growled, "Perhaps it is time to see if one can live without the other."
Espuma shifted uneasily and said, "That should not be necessary. I was sent to help you. You have Kaliche's word."
"I did not ask for your assistance, vile one," Machack's words spilled out like gravel from a mine chute, "Why did you precede me? To get your dishonorable hands on Kaliche's appointed offering?"
"Do I detect a bit of jealousy, Blood Brother? What will you do with the others, once you have the girl in your hands? I have seen how you 'test' anyone you consider promising. Do you hope to find one, someday, who can best you?" Espuma said with a sly smile, "Or do you hope to mate with a female survivor?"
Machack's brow knotted like a thundercloud. "Some day I will test you," he promised, "You had best be ready."
A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE IS A DANGEROUS THING:
Ramon understood that he was dreaming. Still, he felt earthbound. The fragment of a moon gave enormous light as he walked the corridors of boulders, stepping over gravel that crunched beneath his sandals.
The sky was a bold, deep blue, brimming with stars. A cool breeze fluttered at thick pulpy stalks of maguey. For a moment someone walked beside him, and when he looked up at him he thought he recognized Mud Wallow, the dirty old man who had helped cure Do¤a Mercedes.
"So you are going to learn the ways of power?" the healer chuckled, "This is good. Very good."
"I'm not trying to learn anything! And even if I was, I wouldn't be a priest," objected Ramon, "I can't do dumb stuff like sit around and pray all day."
"There are more powerful methods than prayer," was the dry response, "But it is a good method."
"So what's better?"
"Prayer is asking. It is a step. If someone is bigger and stronger than you, it only makes sense to ask, first," Mud Wallow gestured with his hand to include the whole desert floor. They were suddenly higher in the hills, looking out over the landscape. "Do you see all that?" he asked, "Would you like to own it?"
"No way!" Ramon said, trying to remember something from words he had heard in the mission schools. Something about someone who would take you up on a mountain and promise you things. From up here he thought to look for his own campfire and was surprised to see three fires - his own, one back toward the desert, and one farther on into the confusing maze of boulders and paths.
"Good," said the old man, "Because you couldn't have it, anyway. It belongs to the spirits, and to the animals who must live there. But you can go there and not be harmed. You can go to the spirits and ask for food... and for water, and you will probably get it."
"What has this got to do with power?"
"Ahh!" Mud Wallow face loomed closer, "So you ARE interested in power?"
"Well, just enough to keep from getting beat..."
"You can never have enough for that," sighed the old healer, "You use power, you will draw others who want power. Then if you do not know how to handle it, they take it from you."
"So what do I do, just ask them to go away?"
That evinced another dry chuckle from Mud Wallow. "There is another power," he said, "You know they will go away. Then they will not come in the first place."
"I don't get it."
Another chuckle as the decrepit healer faded, "You do not know, yet," he said.
Still he walked on. The dream was not over yet. He clambered down to level ground, going closer to the fires that he had seen. At the desert fire there were five men sleeping around the fire, their horses picketed nearby. A sixth stood guard, sitting just outside the rim of firelight.
The guard glanced in his direction and Ramon stood still, then remembered that he was in a dream. "If he can see me then either this is not a dream or he's in the dream, too. That's too confusing to think about." As a test, he moved into the light of the campfire, prepared to duck if the sentry should start. There was no reaction, even when he waved his hand in front of the man's eyes. Then the sentry rose to his feet and Ramon jumped back, but the man was only going over to check the horses.
[This is a peculiar dream,] Ramon admitted as he found the trail they had followed earlier, [everything is too clear.]
Then he was coming upon the campfire where he had left the others when an odd thought occurred to him. He knew he had gone to the sheriff's campfire and looked around, and then he had started back, but he could not remember actually - moving- either way. He had just *wanted* to be there and he had gone.
He smiled indulgently at his own silliness. [Of course,] he said to himself, [It's a dream, after all.]
The aroma of tobacco smoke caught his attention. A white blur ahead resolved itself into Alboro's hunched form, sitting and smoking his pipe.
"About time you came back," grumbled his abuelo, "You can't sit still for a minute. No patience. You will never learn!"
"Just walking around," said Ramon defensively, "Everything seems so strange. Like a dream. I saw the sheriff's camp and I'm going over to look at that other fire."
"No!" Alboro said sharply, "That is enough! Go back to bed!"
Ramon came nearer to the camp and realized that he had walked past Wolf Walker without being noticed, yet the Azuma warrior was alert, watching the night around him. Closer to camp, he came upon another puzzle. Alboro was standing behind him, almost at Wolf Walker's side. There was a shape under the blanket where Alboro had been earlier. Curious, Ramon lifted Alboro's serape and peered at the person snoring beneath.
He beheld - Alboro.
Whipping around as though to catch someone playing a prank, Ramon stared at the Alboro standing solemnly before him. The standing Alboro spoke, "Bring the others all together!"
Then his shoulder shook and the figure faded away. Again he shook and felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Wake up!" cried Sandy, "We got trouble! Somebody's coming!"
Wolf Walker was stamping out the fire. "Something woke up the posse," he said, "They're heading this way." Lonesome was hurrying back from his post.
Into the last light cast by the embers of the campfire strolled the mare. Behind her there was the nearing glow of torchlight and the sound of more horses.
"Oh, no!" cried Lonesome, "I knew I should have shot that animal! She's leading them right to us!"
Ramon had stumbled to his feet. It took him a moment to get his balance, but he was soon strapping his saddle on the bay. He looked around and saw that everyone was together, but through the muffled grunts and noises of assembly he noticed that one figure was missing.
"Where the heck is my abuelo?" he wondered.
That was when the wind howled and the pebbles danced, rocks knocking against each other in an incessant rumble. Dust and blowing sand mingled with uprooted bushes and flying grass to throw a curtain between them and the desert.
"Earthquake!" cried Sandy.
In the confusion that followed, blowing sand and dust obscured all vision. Horses nickered and reared, forcing them to divide their attention between holding on and keeping the grit out of their faces.
Through the folds of his bandanna, Ramon saw Red Cloud's horse lose its footing and sprawl among the flat boulders. After he had dismounted from the bay he careened through the gale to Red Cloud's side and found Wolf Walker already there, protecting her from flying debris. Ramon joined him to shelter her. Before they vanished into the murk, he saw the cowboys moving to help Estrellita.
The very earth creaked and the rocks underfoot trembled as large monstrous shapes seemed to materialize and vanish before them. Ramon saw a shape like Alboro's jackass gallop wildly past with someone who looked like Alboro in the saddle, waving and taunting the monstrous shapes into chasing him. Then the jackass vanished as though it had never been, followed by the gargantuan phantasms who were howling in anger, roaring and howling to shake the world.
Then there was stillness. From the bushes not far away a mockingbird called, and a thin line of light announced the rising of the sun over unfamiliar hills.
Ramon staggered to his feet. He reached down and helped Red Cloud as she rose, also. Wolf Walker was already up and pacing about the bare area of sand on which they stood. They were surrounded by low trees and shrub, their horses were nowhere to be seen, and their companions had vanished.
"Where are we?" Ramon wondered.
"Use your eyes," growled Wolf Walker, "We are not where we were."
"I know that!" snapped Ramon, "But where are we?"
"Beyond the hills," supplied Red Cloud, "We have taken a giant's step."
IN THE KITCHEN:
Dolores had coffee waiting in the kitchen as Manuel pulled on his clothes and dried his hair. "I have always considered Seņor Sinestro to be a hard man," he said, "But he has exceeded even my worst expectations."
Francisco, his stool propped against the table, held out a cup for a refill. "Our Alcalde is a man of many talents," he said, "The Azuma say he is a man of hunger."
Manuel sipped his own cup, "He is hungry for something that is on the de Muerte property," he said, "To get it, he is prepared to turn Don Pedro's son against him by claiming that he is endangering his own granddaughter."
"Surely, as reckless as Estrellita is, Estabon would not believe such a charge."
"Estabon and Carmen may be overly generous with their daughter, but they are not indifferent. When they find that Estrellita has followed our son into a dangerous land, they will become very concerned."
"But Doņa Mercedes has already told them about Estrellita!" cried Dolores, "I helped write the messages myself!"
"You forget that all messages go through the Alcalde's office," frowned Manuel, "He has delayed them and plans to claim that they were never sent. He guards the roads in case someone tries to take a message by hand. A hard man, and cruel."
"I had a chance to shoot him, once," said Dolores soberly, "Now I wish I had done so."
"Someday we will talk about those times," Manuel said to her, gently, "But not now. I am angry that anyone would so coldly threaten my patron in his own home. It was all I could do to keep from revealing my presence."
"Don Pedro knew you were there, listening?" Francisco raised an eyebrow.
"He was aware. I must confer with him when the snake leaves."
"I think we should all go and talk to him," said Dolores, "Bertran spoke to me of a hidden treasure, the Aztec hoard."
"That is a legend! I cannot believe he is chasing after an old tale that prospectors tell other on cold nights."
"He believes it is real. He almost killed our son, and my daughter, because of his greed for gold. I must warn Don Pedro."
"We will all go," agreed Manuel.
A CHANGE OF PLAN:
"This watchdog is proving to be interesting," Machack scowled at the ridge, where sand and bits of rubbish were falling from a clear sky.
Espuma was not so unperturbed, "They have cheated!" he cried, "Now I must leave tonight!"
"Unless I read my signs wrongly, they are going to travel very far, very fast," the warrior said, "What profit is there in hurrying?"
"The master has entrusted me with a few small articles, including an apparatus to go very fast," gloated the smaller man, "I know where they are going, and I can get there almost as soon as they do."
"I was wondering about your reason for being here," growled Machack. He laid his hand on his knife, "Now I will know. Or else."
Espuma sidled away from him. "I am to make them welcome," he said, "I could take you, as well. Otherwise, you will be days catching up."
"I am to collect the girl," the warrior's voice was a deep rumble of warning, "The girl will be unharmed. You *can* die, you realize. I know how."
"There will not be one hair on her head out of order," promised Espuma, "As for the people around her, I will make no such promise."
"You know how important this mission is, and you want to play your games? I do not need you!" thundered Machack, advancing on him.
"Can you find her?" countered his companion as he stepped backward, "I can. I have been there."
The husky warrior ground to a stop, his fist inches away from Espuma's face. Espuma smiled, but it was a wan smile.
"How are you going to do this?" asked Machack.
"Since we know the boy is going to the Apache, we will make the Apache come to us."
"That tells me nothing!"
"Just come with me, and I will show you," the ex-sergeant pulled a spindly mechanism from his packs and began to assemble it.
"I will not place myself at your mercy. Go, fly. I will be there. You said yourself that I can always find you," Machack shrugged, "I say I can follow your stench. But hear this... harm the girl, or let her escape, and only one of us will return to apologize to the master."
Espuma turned his back to the warrior, attaching a sling to the device with stout rope. Machack saw with some satisfaction that the ex-sergeant's hands were shaking.
PREPARING THE WELCOME MAT:
The whole world was beginning to taste bitter. First, there were the ponies - three of them. Considering the relative poverty of the tribal group, this was a lot. Three young men were announcing that they wished to be considered as suitors for her hand. Three out of so few. Her family had no wealth, her foster father was dead, and she could not cook or sew to please her foster mother. She did not encourage them, so why did they think she would choose one of them? Oh, yes. Tradition. Already their families were preparing the customary gifts in hopes that she would pick their son.
But she was not ready. When she had been much younger, she had wished that her real family would come to get her, a father who was bold and strong, a mother who was soft and warm. Perhaps even a strong brother who could ease the feeling of `differentness' which haunted her. Finally, she had resigned herself to being content to live alone, and now even that was being denied her. Life was bitter, like the tea she was drinking. It made her feel slightly ill.
Lucha smiled a bitter smile as she lifted the pendant down from the wall hook and put it around her neck. She had social obligations; someone had a wickiup with a leaky roof and several maidens were going together to help mend it under the close supervision of an elder.
Outside her door, she saw the ponies and shuddered. They had been there since dawn. If they were not cared for, they would shortly become thirsty and hungry. She could not ease their discomfort; any favor she showed would be interpreted as favor toward the pony's owner. The finest pony, a black and white mare with a beaded halter, belonged to Buffalo Wattle. She knew who the other two ponies belonged to, but they did not matter; within a day they would come and claim their horse because they would have 'reconsidered' after getting a talk from Buffalo Wattle.
"It is good that you are an accomplished huntress," smiled Yucca Blossom as they walked toward the wickiup, "But there is more to being a good wife than merely hunting."
"I do it to get out of the village," sighed Lucha. She had to watch where she placed her feet. The dizziness had returned, "I do not have that many friends here... only you."
Yucca hid an embarrassed grin, "They would like you if you would stay and talk with them."
"I would not want to gossip, it is boring. Sewing, preparing hides, cooking... it is boring. I want to travel."
"That is why some say you are not acting like a woman. I say they are wrong," Yucca frowned as she avoided two puppies growling and tearing at each other in playful abandon, "Still, you should be prepared to tend to your husband, so he can provide for you and your family."
Lucha brushed her sleeve across her face as though to move a stray tendril of hair that had gotten into her eye, or she could have been brushing back a tear. "My mother is the only family I have," she sniffed, "I can take care of her."
"Aiyyeee," said Yucca, "and what of yourself? Do you not dream of a handsome man once in a while? Who will look after you?"
"I need no one," Lucha stopped as she saw the group of young men standing outside Yucca's wickiup. Buffalo Wattle was among them, standing in front. Yucca walked up to him and handed him a leather bag crusted with beads and feathers. Buffalo Wattle sent a guarded look at Lucha before he led the group across the compound and toward the south.
THE PARTY OF THE SECOND PART:
The -fcrack- of a musket interrupted the distant lowing of cattle, and echoed across the sparse rolling grass of a small pasture. Sandy walked woodenly back to the others, his chin set and his lower lip quivering. Estrellita lifted her hand to touch his shoulder, hesitated, and withdrew it as he passed her.
"Lucky we didn't lose more," Lonesome said, facing away from the others.
Sandy finished wiping down the barrel and slid the musket into its saddle holster. "Reckon we could spread the packs among the other horses," he said, "Ramon and them will be needing their horses when we find them."
Estrellita limped up to Lonesome. "We could put the packs on your pet horse," she suggested.
"Is that nag still here?" cried Lonesome, "How do I get rid of her?"
The mare came when Estrellita called, and seemed eager to take on the burden stripped from the dead packhorse. Lonesome took the pack from her before she dropped it. "You took a spill back there, didn't you?" he asked.
"I've fallen off taller horses than this one!" snapped the rancherita, but as she walked past Sandy she stumbled and he caught her before she fell.
"We'd better find the rest and get going," said Lonesome.
While Sandy mounted his steed and scouted about for the remainder of the group, Lonesome tied the bay and the other two horses into a string with the mare bringing up the rear. Estrellita seemed more secure once in the saddle.
"Nothin'," Sandy reported after his sweep, "They could be any direction... no telling where that wind blew them."
"I'll just be doggoned if I can figger," said Lonesome as he puzzled over the unfamiliar landmarks.
"Now you're startin' to sound like Mister Calpern," Sandy chuckled.
"Old man has a head on his shoulders, you got to grant."
"Yeah," agreed Sandy, "Don't know nobody I'd rather have guarding my back in a fight... `Ceptin' maybe you."
"That's mighty big of you, Kid, seeing's how you ain't never seen me in a fight."
"How about back at Aguas Calientes, at the jailer's house?"
"That weren't no fight, Boy. That was just clearin' up a misunderstanding. Come a real fight, maybe somebody don't walk away."
"All the same..." Sandy shrugged.
Lonesome frowned. "I got no *idea* how we got here, but I know where we are. Came through here a couple years ago. There's a town just up that road, and they got good grub."
"I want to go!" Estrellita roused enough to say, "I'm dying for a decent cooked meal!"
THE OLD GUARD:
Chief Tom Goose watched the band of boys - young men, actually - as they left the girls and ran past on their way into the land south of the rancheria. He said nothing, but an alert person would have noted pride reflecting from his eyes when they came to the young man leading the group.
"They follow Buffalo Wattle as though they were on a raid," commented his companion and brother-in-law, the shaman. His name was Broken Cloud, for the way the clouds had split the sky when he was on a trek in the desert, searching for his calling.
Tom Goose merely nodded in acknowledgment. "His mother would have been content," he said, "He is headstrong, but he is a good leader... if only..."
"And Yucca Blossom is becoming a fine young woman," continued the medicine man as though the chief had not faltered, "Already the boys are noticing her. You can see them follow her with their eyes as she walks past." He laughed, "They pretend to be examining the ground. Ahh, youth!"
The chief nodded again. The hills to the west had lost their rosy glow and were subsiding into lumps of stone ready to receive the warmth of the sun.
"Brother, I must ask of deeper matters," said Tom Goose, "I have felt the shadows again."
"Aiyuh," muttered Broken Cloud, "Others are disturbed, as well. No one enjoys crouching in his home while things walk about that he cannot fight," the medicine man watched his face as he asked, "It is the dream, is it not?"
"As it has been for years. Since before Yucca Blossom was born and her mother..." He paused again. No one liked to talk of ghosts, "I thought it was over. We once were a large group," he continued, "Now, families leave and no one joins. Look at us. A handful of families stay. Now Deer Finder has gone. Tell me, my brother... are we truly cursed?"
Broken Cloud took his time answering, "Not by spirits. I have asked, and they tell me this. The bear spirit says we have taken in something which can harm us, but then he says we had to do it. He says we must come together with our fellow clans to talk about it." The shaman blinked and looked at the shimmering hills, "And then he says something I do not understand, about my eyes."
Tom Goose remained troubled. "Whom could we have offended?" he wondered, "What could we have done?"
"I cannot say. It is for this reason I have laid aside my quarrel with the medicine man of the Loose Foot group and we have agreed to meet and discuss the problem during the clan gathering. While you and your fellow chiefs discuss Chief Red Sleeves and his pacifist teachings, we will talk about this village."
"That is one less thing for me to worry about," said Tom Goose.
"Let us talk of more pleasant things," smiled the medicine man, "I would rather be remembering the days when I was chasing off across the country, like those boys."
Rio Peligroso stood at the base of a cliff, a gaggle of adobe huts clustered around an old mission. A single main street angled out from the river with several stores on either side, making it a fair-sized town for the area. The river, from which the place name derived its name, trickled between the town and the cliff, perilous only in the spring when runoff from melted snows in the hills brought the trickle to a raging torrent.
Lonesome and his companions crossed the fearsome river a half-dozen times, in water ankle deep at the most, on their way to the town.
"We've got no doctor here, but I've patched a few cuts. What seems to be her problem?" the stout woman named 'Ma Brown' who ran the boardinghouse told them. She wiped her hands on her apron and put it away before looking at the girl in Lonesome's arms. Sandy stepped out of her way, but remained close.
"She fell off her horse a few miles back," offered Lonesome. The stout woman lifted Estrellita out of his arms and started up the stairs.
Estrellita stirred and mumbled, "Let me alone. I want to sleep."
"Don't see no broke bones," the lady said over her shoulder, "Could be she's just tuckered out. I'll put her to bed. You don't mind if she spends the night, do you? Cost you fifty cents."
"Fine," said Lonesome, "She can stay here. I have to go look for someone. They might show up here."
"I'll stay with her," volunteered Sandy.
"I'll let you look in on her," promised Mrs. Brown, "But you don't roost in there by yourself. This ain't that kind of place."
"I'll be on the porch," promised Sandy as he tried and failed to keep the embarrassment off his face.
(1) Apache customs described in this story are not intended to be absolutely
accurate, and may be modified to a) enhance the storyline, b) combine a feature
from several different groups, c) protect the innocent.