Bluenose was alternately elated and dismayed. Once, when he was much younger, he had had the temerity to express his boredom during his morning prayer. Life, at that time, had been stultifying and predictable, while he was full of himself in youthful zeal and wanted a challenge. In the years following, he had grown milder - but someone, somewhere had remembered those unwise words and had sent him a break from monotony.
He smiled ruefully as he recalled the last time he had gone on a raid to Mexico and had encountered the evidence of a malevolent demon beyond anything in his existence - it was like expecting a rabbit and meeting a bear. Too much of a good thing. Now, these people whom he considered friends had come from Mexico and they had about them a whisper of that demon. The wind suggested to him that they were harbingers of more trouble.
When faced with forbidding changes, even the greatest minds tend to find some comfortable habit to soothe them until they can regain an ordered existence. Thus, a troubled Bluenose decided to clear his mind and cleanse his body with a familiar ritual. Before he could relax, however, he felt he had to clear up his obligations.
"Walk with me," he said to the one he knew as She Goes Ahead, who might have been mistaken for a handsome Mexican boy, "We will find a place for your people to spend the night. Once everyone becomes accustomed to seeing you, you may walk around freely."
They soon located an unused wickiup. There was a family who had gone to visit the father's parents for a few days, and they had simply left their wickiup standing instead of tearing it down. A cousin was located who gave them permission to sleep in it, after Bluenose had guaranteed that he would cleanse the hut before the owners returned.
After he had seen to the needs of his guests, curiosity overcame the medicine man and he said politely to She Goes Ahead, "My son shall be happy to see you, when he gets here with the group he goes about with. Did you come to visit him?"
"Not exactly," said She Goes Ahead, "I, too, will be glad to see him, but I have also come to find my sister. We think she might be in some Apache camp."
The corners of the medicine man's eyes wrinkled with amusement, and he asked, "Did you think the Apache would tell a Mexican boy where your sister might be?"
"I do not know," admitted She Goes Ahead, "They might, if I tell them why it is very important that I find her."
They watched the windswept bluffs to the west, where huge brown rocks baking in the sun fell into shadow as the sun slid toward evening.
"It is good that sisters should be together," said Bluenose, oblivious to She Goes Ahead's facial tic, "I will help you. How will you know her when you see her?"
"Her name is Lucha..." said She Goes Ahead, pausing as Bluenose nodded, "...and she may still have a turquoise pendant which our mother gave to her many years ago." She thought for a moment before she added, "That bald guy was after the pendant, too."
Bluenose stood awhile in thought, weighing his choices. He would have to go against tradition to help this girl. Still, she had shown spirit and bravery by venturing into a hostile land, leading her mates on a quest which could be futile.
While in Mexico, he had seen that something had been trying to get at her. He was certain that the evil force he had felt building in that Mexican valley would soon spill over into the surrounding lands and eventually endanger even the Apache. Some bad spirits were that way.
His choices resolved into only two: he could wait until the entity sent forth its armies in overwhelming numbers, or he could attempt to intercept it before it became too powerful. No choice at all, really. He was Apache.
When he had returned from his last raid, he had sought help in countering the menace. There were few leaders who would listen to him. He was known for his sense of humor, and he had played too many jokes on his fellows.
Now, he was feuding with all the most powerful medicine men who could have helped him. Headsplitter had objected to his innovative methods in dealing with malevolent spirits, claiming that there were traditions that had to be maintained even in hunting demons. Antelope Eyes had fallen prey to a simple practical joke involving a noxious mixture and a rain spell.
And Broken Cloud...
Yet here was assistance, in a form he would never have envisioned. "Come with me, to the sweat bath," he said, "I know some men who can find your sister for you." His conscience prodded him, but he could endure the discomfort. There was an enemy to defeat. Sacrifices must be made.
"It is in the evening that we prepare ourselves for the coming ceremony," said the shaman, "It will be good for you to undergo the sweat bath with these spiritual leaders of the groups." He led the way beyond the tramped ground of the compound, to a hut almost hidden by willows.
Ramon recalled that the willows usually grew nearby a stream. "What kind of sweat bath are you talking about?" he wondered. He had heard of sweatbaths before, but they usually involved hot water... which he wanted to avoid.
"It is where we sit in a house while this old man who runs the sweat lodge puts in very hot rocks. Then we sweat out the ills of our bodies, we burn the boughs of the juniper and the pinon - sacred plants - and chant the songs which will clear our heads for the ceremony, the dancing, and the singing. You will like to see this ceremony with the masked dancers. Sometimes it is very amusing."
"If it is only hot rocks, that sounds safe enough," said Ramon with a dubious glance, "But it sounds an awful lot like something my abuelo would have me doing on a mountain top." He wondered where Alboro was, now. Was he alive, bedeviling some other poor soul with his nonsense?
There were three men standing around the hut, while another old man was stoking a fire nearby. Ramon began to feel uneasy when he saw the others strip to their loincloths before entering the wickiup. They sat about the perimeter of the hut, getting as comfortable as they could in the heat.
In the center was a pit containing stones radiating heat, with more fireheated stones being brought in on forked oak boughs. The odor of the scorched oak permeated the air. It felt hotter than the middle of the desert.
At first he could not locate the source of his concern. A couple of the old men were conversing jovially in their own tongue, occasionally using their hands to illustrate an expression. Another prayed softly, nodding his head as he sang his paean. The heat parched Ramon's skin and perspiration started rolling out. His nose began to feel painfully tender.
Bluenose greeted the others - Headsplitter, from the Pine Valley group, Antelope Eyes, from the Far Prairie group, and Broken Cloud from the Bee Ridge group which was hosting the gathering. They sat for a while in thoughtful silence.
Ramon had decided that his nose was about to burn off when Antelope Eyes finally spoke in an incomprehensible tongue. Unable to understand, Ramon listened for a moment, then closed his eyes and sat as the sweat trickled down his sides.
"This meeting was ill-planned," the shaman of the Far Prairie group was saying, "We have crops to gather and affairs to attend. It is no inconvenience to your group," he indicated Broken Cloud, "But it is to us."
"You know me," said Bluenose in the Apache tongue, "You know what I do. You must listen to what I say. This is `She Goes Ahead', who is being sought by the spirit I have described."
"That is a terrible name to give the boy," snorted Headsplitter, "Someone should be ashamed of themselves."
"Why do you bring this Mexican boy here, anyway?" asked Antelope Eyes, "You know how I hate the Mexicans."
"Who are you talking about?" inquired Broken Cloud.
"I have been recently to the land of Mexico," said Bluenose, "While I was there I felt a sinister presence. There is a force building there which may destroy them entirely."
"Good! So why bother us?" asked Antelope Eyes, "The Mexicans have done us no favors. All they have done is send their armies and their scalp hunters to kill our women and children."
"Not all Mexicans are alike," said Bluenose. "This one is special, for the person who controls that sinister force is after her. I am thinking that this evil spirit wants to extend his control into our hearts as well. We must work together to defeat him."
"Why do you keep saying `her'?" asked Headsplitter, "It is obvious that this is a boy."
"Oh, that..." smiled Bluenose, and he motioned to the steam bath lodge keeper to continue his duties, "...that is what I must show you. I am about to do a very immoral thing. I must ask you to forgive me. This may shock you."
Broken Cloud continued to search about, troubled. "Who are you talking about?" he asked.
"I have told them you wish to sit by the doorway," said Bluenose to his guest, and there was a conspiratorial twinkle in his eyes, "I explained that you are not accustomed to the sweat bath."
He introduced Ramon to the four old men in the hut. Each nodded a greeting, except for the one who peered about curiously. One made a comment to Bluenose and snorted derisively at the response. Somewhere there was a rhythmic tempo being struck - it was not a drum, perhaps someone grinding corn.
"It will be uncomfortable for awhile," said Bluenose, "When we want to cool off we usually run outside to the stream and splash each other. This feels very good after all this heat. However, since it has been so dry..."
"Ohmygosh!" Ramon bolted to his feet. The old man was bringing in a container, and it was full of water. Ramon's mind raced to an inevitable conclusion: Hot stones plus cold water equaled -
The cloud of steam and splattered hot water hit him in the face as he stood, and he felt the now familiar sensations which told him that he was not going to fit into the present social situation - primarily because his loin cloth was hanging differently.
"You knew about this when you asked me here!" accused Machita, "You wanted this to happen to me!"
Bluenose kept his eyes covered with his hand. He lowered his chin to his chest and managed to grin while appearing thoroughly ashamed. "I would not do this immoral thing without good reason," he promised, still not looking, "We have some kind of trouble brewing, and yet we bicker. I had to get these men to work together, to help each other in the hard times ahead."
"I'm outta here!" cried Machita and she pushed her way out between the astonished Apache medicine men. They seemed transfixed by her attire - which consisted of a loincloth and nothing else. The old man who ran the sweat lodge sputtered in anger and demanded to know who had slipped a woman into his facility.
"The cold water is back here!" called Bluenose.
"No thanks! I want to be alone!" It was bad enough to be exposed to their captors as a female, she was not going to give them the satisfaction of seeing her change back to a boy. She did not want to endure the pitying looks they would give him when they knew the truth.
It was an act of desperation. She would dash across the open area and dive into the water of the stream, hoping that no one would notice the transformation. As plans go, it was as good as one could hope to come up with on the spur of the moment. The man tending the fire had gone inside, nobody was hanging around outside, the area was quiet, and the stream was fairly secluded.
Unfortunately, the streambed was also dry gravel. Looking back over the sandy bank, she could see the tub of water sitting outside the wickiup where the bathers could splash and cool off. The flap of the doorway was lifting as the old men came streaming out to stare at her. She ran, the turquoise pendant bouncing about her throat.
"It's not as if I was asking for the Moon. Just a little water! Really, what do they expect me to do?" complained Machita, "Man, nobody deserves this! It's like my worst nightmare - running naked through an Indian village, only I'm a girl!"
She huddled beside a wickiup on the outskirts of the rancheria, unseen by the few women and children walking about.
"That meddling Bluenose..." she fumed as she cowered, "He KNEW there was going to be hot steam in that hut! He knew that hot water activated the curse. Caramba! I had been so careful, too!
"Well, at least he talked them into letting me keep the loincloth... a lot of good that does when I have these..." she crossed her arms before her, but it didn't make her feel any less naked.
"Maybe I can make it back to that hut where they stashed our packs..." she pulled back further when she saw movement beyond the barricade.
"Madre Mia! There are some guys heading this way..." she said as her worst fears were realized, "Oh, great! That clown Buffalo Wattle is with them! No way I am lettin' HIM see me like this!"
She had to get out of sight. Maybe the hut she was hiding behind was not occupied. If she could grab a robe or something and cover up with it, Machita reasoned, she would be all right. She threw the flap aside and crossed her arms over her breasts before she bolted into the cool darkened interior of the wickiup. She looked quickly about to see if there were any men inside. There were none. There was, however, one woman.
The woman was barely older than Machita but seemed slumped under some invisible burden. Unlike the other Apache women, who gloried in their waist-length shining hair, she wore her hair only to the shoulder with a bow holding some of it behind her neck. Taken by surprise by the intrusion, she stumbled to her feet, holding her knife ready.
"What are you doing in here?" cried the woman, "Who are you?" She got a good look at her unannounced visitor and stared wide-eyed. Without waiting for an answer, she grabbed a blanket and threw it around Machita.
"You have to be a member of some other tribe who came to the gathering," said the woman, "No morals. No *dignity*! Running about naked to tease the boys! What kind of a tramp are you?"
"I... I..." Machita clutched the blanket to her, feeling more exposed than ever. She was trying to come up with a lucid explanation when a bright glitter caught her eye. She sputtered, "That is... I was gonna..."
"Now I understand! You are Mexican! You must have come in with that group of... of... of bandits who've been trying to trick our medicine men! I saw your people today when our men dragged you into the camp... we should have thrown you out then!"
Machita gulped and held back her protests. She was looking beyond the woman, at a glittering ornament swinging from a mount on a wickiup pole. It was a pendant with a sky-blue stone and exquisite silver filigree.
"Lucha?" Machita asked in a shaky voice.
"Yes? What of it?"
"We have been looking for you. I think... I think you are my sister!"
The woman slowed her tirade long enough to stare at the girl in the blanket. Her eyes widened and her eyebrows scaled up her forehead. She remembered the speech she had long ago promised to give to her family when they finally came to find her. She thought about how she had planned to tell them of her gratitude, her longing, and how she would go with them wherever they might take her.
She thought about these things. Then she mentally tore the resolutions to shreds, burned them, and threw the ashes to the winds.
"Out!" she cried, "Out! Get out of my home! I don't want a tramp for a sister!"
At the entranceway there was the sound of the flap being drawn away, and a face appeared. Buffalo Wattle smiled sternly. "My pony will be needing water, soon," he said, "It is not seemly to starve the pony of a chief's son."
"You too! Out!" cried Lucha, waving the knife she still held in her hand, "I have had enough imposition for the day!"
"That is no way to address your future husband!" the warrior said gruffly, as he looked at her through lowered eyelids. Then he noticed Machita cowering behind Lucha. His petulant scowl vanished and was replaced by a beaming smile.
"Who is your pretty visitor?" he asked.
"She is nobody! Get out!"
"I will want to talk to her. She must have a chance to meet the best warrior in the camp," he said. He gave Machita what he obviously considered to be a friendly wink as he withdrew.
"HE is your boyfriend?" Machita asked hesitantly.
Lucha looked at the knife she held as if she would consider using it on herself. "He is an oaf," she said, "I have told him to leave me alone, but he insists... and lately I have been so confused!"
"I hope you aren't THAT confused!"
Lucha dropped the knife flat upon the skin she had been working. "He will... not... leave... me... ALONE!" She turned at another sound from the entranceway, but there was no intrusion. Someone was standing politely outside, waiting for her to notice.
"Now, who is there?" she wondered.
Machita raised the flap, wrapped the blanket tightly about her, and went out.
THE WELCOME WAGON:
Yucca Blossom found the wickiup housing the new arrivals.
"Where is the good-looking Mexican boy?" she demanded, "I want to meet him!"
White Dog came uncertainly out of the hut. He knew better than to cross Yucca, but he was charged with guarding the captives who had suddenly become important guests. "His name is Ramon," he said, "What do you want with him, anyway?"
"He is my choice for a slave," said Yucca pompously, "I want to get him before anyone else does. My brother would give him to me anyway, but I want to look at him now."
"They are not exactly prisoners, any more," White Dog said nervously, "Bluenose came by and said to turn them loose. I have to stay with them to help them."
"You let him loose?" Yucca had taken a stance that promised pain to someone, "You let my beautiful Ramon out so ANYONE could get at him?"
"What is all the yelling about?" asked the girl who had been with the captives.
Yucca examined her closely and decided that there was more than one reason that White Dog was hanging around the guest's wickiup. "Why aren't you tied up?" demanded Yucca, imperiously, "You were captured!"
"Bluenose is an old friend. He ordered our release," Red Cloud said, repeating White Dog's explanation, and she asked carefully, "What do you want with Ramon?"
"None of your business!" snapped the young medicine woman.
"Anything to do with Ramon is very much my business," said Red Cloud stiffly. Her voice was not exactly a snarl, but the effect was the same. The two girls glared at each other for a long, tense moment, then Yucca turned and stormed away.
Bluenose was waiting outside the doorway, holding Ramon's clothes out in an offering. "You will need these," he said, "The others were very impressed, although Broken Cloud insisted that he had seen nothing."
Lucha poked her head out. "You are the medicine man from the Loose Foot group," she announced, "Is this person known to you?"
Machita made the introductions. "This is my sister," she told Bluenose, "She thinks I am a..." Machita could not repeat her older sister's words.
"It is good that you have met this person," said Bluenose to Lucha, "She is a very important being. All of the shamans agree that she must be treated with respect."
"But she was running around with no clothes on!" cried Lucha.
"All part of a ceremony," smiled Bluenose, again with a little conspiratorial gleam to his eye, "It was a very powerful ceremony, very upsetting. One man went blind. This person..." he turned to Machita, "May I use your name?"
"Which one?" whispered Machita, a cautious look in her eyes.
"The secret one. Do you say this is your sister?"
The Mexican girl agreed, reluctantly.
"Then she must be convinced," Bluenose turned to Lucha and said, "This is `She goes Ahead'. It is given to her to do a very strong magic. While she was performing a ceremony for the assembled medicine men, a powerful wind came and blew her clothes away from her. You can ask any of the medicine men who were there... except Broken Cloud, and he insists that he did not see anything."
Lucha remained silent throughout this recitation, switching her attention from the blanket-clad girl to the man who had to cover his mouth with his hand to hide his mirth.
"Come inside," she said, "You can put on your dress in there."
While Machita was changing, Lucha remained at the entranceway and asked Bluenose, "Uncle, where did you meet this girl?"
"I was in Mexico when I first saw her power," said the shaman/warrior, "She has as a companion another girl who has an even stranger power."
"Can it be true? Is she my sister?"
"This I do not know," he admitted, "But I have seen her when she looked very much like you. This was not very long ago. It would not be such a bad thing, to have this one for a sister."
Lucha shook her head. "I would like for it to be true," she admitted, "but why does this happen now, when I must care for my mother?"
Machita emerged. Lucha took one look at her and demanded, "What kind of dress is this? These are men's clothes!"
"This is all I have!" cried Machita, "My grandfather has the rest of my clothes, and he disappeared in a storm."
Lucha sighed, "Then I will find someone who can loan you a decent dress. You cannot go about like this! And where is your nah-leen?"
"Nah-leen?" Machita gulped.
"Your hair bow! Your virginity lapel! If you do not wear it, everyone will think you are a..."
"Don't say it!" cried Machita, "Where can I get one?"
Lucha touched Machita's short hair, "You cannot wear one, anyway. The hair must be pulled up and looped back and forth. This hair is too short. What kind of a place did you grow up in, anyway?"
"No one said anything about it back home," grumbled Machita.
"They don't have to face a village of gossips," Lucha retorted.
Bluenose signaled for attention. "You could cover your head with a shawl," he suggested, "Or you could tell them you are in mourning."
"I'll take a shawl," sighed Machita.
"I will give you one of mine," said Lucha. She led the way back inside the wickiup. Again, Machita was spellbound by the dangling pendant.
"Do you like it?" Lucha indicated the jewelry.
"It looks pretty," said Machita.
"`Pretty'. That is something a boy would say," said Lucha, "Well, you are my sister. Here. I will give it to you."
"Thank you," Machita backed away from the pendant, "but I am not sure I should take it."
"Nonsense. I have given it away several times and it always comes back," Lucha said as she lifted down the turquoise pendant and placed it over Machita's head.
She noticed a string on her sister's neck and pulled Estrellita's pendant around in front. She said, "You already have one! The stone has more green, but it is very... 'pretty'."
"Then I will give it to you," Machita blurted, handing it to her, "I want you to have it."
Bluenose inspected the shawl. "Your sister is correct," he said, "You will need different clothes if you do not want to appear improperly dressed."
"I know someone who is your size," said Lucha, and she led Machita off to Yucca Blossom's wickiup.
Bluenose watched them go and shook his head with a smile.
Then he returned to the sweat lodge to discuss this phenomenon with his fellow medicine men. Perhaps they would not be so stubborn, now - their reputations could be in jeopardy if anyone heard what had happened in the sweat lodge. The man who ran the sweat lodge was already denying that it had happened at all.
"She played the part of the boy so well!" he said to himself, "If I did not know better, even I would be confused!"
THE ENEMY FROM THE SOUTH:
Yucca Blossom was frustrated because she could not find the boy called Ramon. She was returning from the lodge where the Mexicans were staying when she met Lucha. Yucca's smile suddenly evaporated when she saw Lucha's companion, a pretty girl with very short hair, wearing a white blouse and trousers.
[She is Mexican!] Yucca thought, [Why is she here?]
"This is my... my sister," stammered Lucha, still having trouble with the concept.
Yucca's heart sank. This was trouble. This girl was with the Mexicans.... Wait. Where had she been, earlier today when the Mexicans had been captured? Something was wrong. Yes, there was something odd about her. This suspicion was blotted out by another realization. Yucca's thoughts raced like the antelope, [There were *two* girls with the Mexicans! She was with Ramon! Does she have some claim on him? I cannot allow this!]
Yucca controlled her uneasiness with an effort. "It is good to meet you," she managed with a strained smile, "Do you know the boy, Ramon?"
The girl seemed startled, but blurted out, "Yes.... That is... he is a real close friend, but..."
A close friend. This was bad news. Somehow, she must get closer to Ramon than this girl. Yucca started to make plans as they dug through baskets in the wickiup for the makings of a dress.
[I'll have to get to know her better, before I can use the power on her,] thought Yucca. She made sure to invite the girl, Machita, to help with the feast preparations the following day.
Machita waited outside the wickiup, holding the bundled blouse and pantalones before her like a shield. She edged behind the wickiup, near the wall, to listen.
"We are going to have a social dance, and a huge bonfire," White Dog was saying, "And the shaman, Bluenose, especially wants the three of you to be there."
"I am waiting for Ramon, but Wolf Walker can go with you," Red Cloud's voice floated out through the brush walls.
There was a mumbled conversation, difficult to understand, and Machita moved closer to the doorway to hear what was being said. Suddenly, Wolf Walker emerged from the entranceway and started toward the meeting grounds. Machita had only time enough to partially hide her face with the bundle of clothing as he brushed past. Then she hurried inside where she hoped Red Cloud was waiting with cold water.
White Dog stood back abruptly, a guilty look on his face. "Who are you?" he demanded.
Machita remembered the boy from the capture, but she was not going to admit that. "I am Machita. I should be asking who *you* are!" she cried, "And what are you doing here with Red Cloud?"
"Do you know her?" White Dog asked Red Cloud. Red Cloud nodded with a grin.
"She looks angry. I should leave, shouldn't I?" he asked, and Red Cloud nodded again. White Dog hurried out the entranceway while glancing back at Machita.
Machita dumped the clothing into a heap. "I am in trouble," she said, "I have met my sister."
"That is wonderful!"
"But she thinks I am a girl! How do I tell her the truth?"
"You will simply have to wait until she is ready," Red Cloud said, "Who else has seen you?"
"Just about the entire village: Lucha; Buffalo Wattle, the clown who captured us; Some girl with a Hopi hairdo, I think she was Buffalo Wattle's sister, and now White Dog. Somebody has to notice that I was male when we were brought in here! I gotta tell Lucha that I am a man! But how?"
Red Cloud mused, "Perhaps it would be better if Lucha only saw you as Machita, until she knows you better. Then you can pick the time and place."
"Okay," Machita reluctantly agreed, "By the way, what was that guy up to?"
"Oh, White Dog? He was just talking."
"Was he bothering you?" Machita demanded.
"He was very polite. He wanted to tell me how nice he thought I was, even though I blacked one of his eyes," said Red Cloud. She lifted a wooden dipper full of cold water from a suspended basket and added, "And I think he had eyes for you, too."
"Oh, boy," groaned Ramon.
STORIES FROM THE DAWN:
After speeches of greeting, Bluenose indicated the circle of friends sitting about the fire. He said to the visitors, "When differing people meet, it is customary for each to tell their origin story and something about their gods."
While the stars clustered the dark of the skybowl overhead and sparks from the burning branches drifted up to meet them, Headsplitter told of the Apache creation, and how Child of the Waters had killed or driven off all the monsters of the dark and how the people, the N'de, had come to be.
Then the guests listened as Red Cloud related the story of the Azuma, how once upon a time there was only one Azuma maid and no Azuma man.
The Trickster, Coyote, had secured her within a cave in the ground and would not let her out because he wanted her to bake cornbread for him. He loved cornbread. She would grind the corn and bake it in a little oven in the side of the cave, and he would open the door and come in and eat it. He treated her well, but she could never leave.
So one day she decided to get away. She took some clay and softened it with water so she could bake some little figures. When the figures were ready, she baked them at the same time she was baking the bread for Coyote. Then she called to him that the bread was ready. When he tried to eat one of the figures, he said, "This bread is too hard," and he spat on it to soften it up. Because he was magic, the figure turned into a man and wrestled with Coyote, so the maiden could escape.
She ran out of the cave with the other men and women who had been the clay figures, and they trapped Coyote inside. He was a long time getting out. After that, he respected the people and helped them. That was the start of the Azuma tribe.
After a time, it became apparent to Ramon that he was expected to contribute. "I can tell of the Spanish missionaries and what we have learned from them," he said.
"We have heard that one," said Headsplitter, "Tell us how you came to be as you are. Bluenose says to us you have a very interesting story." He was peering closely at Ramon, as though to penetrate his disguise.
"Interesting?" said Ramon. His resentment toward Bluenose had faded to a mild paranoia, but now his voice betrayed him by rising to a squeak.
"It would impress them if you were to show your true self," suggested Bluenose.
"I'll bet it would!" said Ramon, mournfully. He looked at Headsplitter and Antelope Eyes, who knew of his 'true self.' Oddly, they were reluctant to meet his gaze and were not pressing him to change. He hesitated. This was his opportunity. He could stand up and tell them all that he was Lucha's brother.
And then again... maybe not. He had seen Lucha earlier. She was in the audience, somewhere behind the fire. She was expecting to see her sister. [What do I tell her? That she can only see her sister while I am not around?] Ramon considered, [What would she think when her sister turned out to be a... a... freak...?]
"It would be very poor manners to refuse," said Wolf Walker in his ear, "I for one would like to be able to walk away from here."
"You don't know what you are asking!" said Ramon.
"Tell them this story!" growled Wolf Walker, "What is so difficult about that?"
"It is not that simple!" said Ramon, "I do not want my sister to hate me!"
"Then I will tell of what I do know about you, about how you are a coward and a weakling," sneered the Azuma lad, "You are as weak as a woman! She will *really* hate you, then!"
"Bonehead!" hissed Ramon.
"Weakling!" replied Wolf Walker.
Bluenose interrupted, "I would like to hear of your capture, how you came and fought so fiercely that our men thought you were some terrible enemy," he said, indicating by his air that he believed every word, "Buffalo Wattle has told us that you put up quite a fight."
"I would not have surrendered," spoke Wolf Walker, "but he..." and here he indicated Buffalo Wattle "...would have used his war ax on my sister. I am sworn to protect her, I would give up my life if I had to."
There was a murmur of general approval of the sentiment by the people around the fire. Bluenose leaned toward Ramon and asked softly, "You?"
"Red Cloud," whispered Ramon.
The medicine man/warrior nodded with a thoughtful smile, "The jaguar lady," he said, "He may have made a mistake, threatening that one."
"Do you say I would hide behind a woman to fight you?" Buffalo Wattle came to his feet in a rage.
"Ask your fellows," Wolf Walker growled, "Ask the ones who tied me up."
"I don't need anyone to help me defeat you! I am the strongest wrestler in the country!" cried Buffalo Wattle.
"Let us settle it here, then!"
"Enough!" shouted the speaker, "You can settle this tomorrow! Tonight we want to hear more Coyote stories!"
Around the fire, heads turned as the members of the audience murmured amongst themselves. A grudge wrestling match was good entertainment. Several of the more serious thinkers were already evaluating the contestants for their abilities, planning bets.
"Why do you call Red Cloud your sister, all of a sudden?" asked Ramon of Wolf Walker.
"You do not understand?" The Azuma lad peered down at him from his tallest stance, and he sneered, "You are pathetic!"
In the end, Ramon told a part of the story of the battle of the puebla, when Wolf Walker gained his scar by helping an Apache. This only increased Wolf Walker's status and gained more stony stares from Buffalo Wattle.
"Tomorrow!" promised the chief's son.
MATTERS OF THE HEART:
Beyond the circle of the fires, above the hill of the pines, through the washes of the high places, Broken Cloud walked. Soon enough he came to a fire, and there were people sitting around the fire. They had their backs to him. He recognized three of them, from earlier dreams - Corn Planter, Sewing Woman, and Spider.
He sat at the fire and waited. Eventually, Spider stood and faced him. "Do you want to fight?" he asked, and they came together in a rush.
Once upon a time he had feared Spider, and had run away from him. Now he was glad to wrestle the forbidding multilegged creature, for he knew Spider was a friend who would help him if was willing to work for what he wanted. It was a good fight. When he had bested Spider, he came and sat once more at the fire beside him and they smoked the clay pipe.
"My heart is dull," he said, "A thing has happened today, at the sweat lodge."
Spider nodded, "We have heard," he said, offering the pipe. "We must speak of more trouble."
"I am going blind," said Broken Cloud.
"No, you are not," said Corn Planter, "You will not see. That is worse."
"Do not think of this," ordered Spider, "There is a danger coming to your village. You must warn them." Spider was always warning him, trying to distract him from his true goal.
"It is your heart that is making you blind," said Sewing Woman with a sad smile, "You must take out what is in your heart and destroy it before you can see."
So he walked on, pushing constantly against Spider, who would not let him past without a struggle. He won all the fights, but the effort was beginning to tell. Finally, he came to a red clay urn covered by a flat stone which he lifted aside.
Within the urn he found more stones, each one with a symbol representing his most precious things. There was Tom Goose, which he expected, along with Tom's wife and Broken Cloud's sister, Ticklish - a stone that was almost faded away. There were stones for Tom's children - Buffalo Wattle and Yucca Blossom and, surprisingly, a stone for Deer Finder's adopted daughter, Lucha.
Which one was blinding him? He lifted each, weighing them and looking for some difference. Each stone seemed to be unique, beloved and valuable for its own reason.
Which one? The sad, knowing smile on Sewing Woman's face haunted him, telling him that it was the one he could least bear to lose, the person most dear to him.
At last he selected a stone. He knew it was the one, for his heart wrenched within him when he withdrew it, and a great sadness flooded over him. With a cry of pain, he lifted Yucca's stone above his head and dashed it to the ground, shattering it. A glittering, poisonous scorpion scuttled away from the powdered remains and he could see again.
With each memory of his sweet almost-daughter's commanding voice, Broken Cloud felt a stabbing pain and saw the scorpion that had crawled from the stone wave its hooked tail at him. She had not done terrible things, such as telling him to hurt someone else, but she had interfered with his ability to help others, and that he could not bear.
"Why?" he asked of no one, "She is a strong spirited girl, but she has never been spiteful."
Spider stood before him, barring the trail to the dark of the beyond-desert. "You must go back now," he commanded, "Or I will have to kill you."
"I want to see what else is out there," said Broken Cloud, but Spider became agitated and frantically pushed him... until ...he... woke up.
It was time to welcome the Sun, feel the chuckle of the breeze fluttering against his face as he staggered out the doorway into the wan light, and begin his morning prayer. Broken Cloud stretched, rubbed aching eyes.
There was an ache in his heart that he knew he could not easily overcome, and a tension across his back which he could not explain. Spider had been afraid of something. Despite his weariness, he would have to return to the dream and find out what else was wrong, but for now the grief was enough to bear.
Yucca Blossom, whom he had loved as dearly as if she had been his own daughter, was betraying her own spirit by manipulating others.
He had felt such pride in her achievements - how she had taken on herself the onerous challenge of the vision quest, going into the wilderness alone to fast and pray for guidance in setting her path in life. She had been so joyous and peaceful, that day she had returned with the power of herbs and medicine. There had been a glow about her that others could see, not he alone.
From his own vision quest, many summers before, he had gained his true sight. At first it had been only when he wore the splinter hat, but he had learned to see true shapes without it. He had given up nothing when the hat was destroyed, but the knowledge that Yucca had casually taken it from its protective basket, given it to her brother, and then ordered him to ignore the loss because it was convenient to her, was bitter in his throat.
Equally parching was the realization that his sight had been hooded by her careless words.
She had become disorderly and inconsiderate, a dangerous combination in a person with spiritual power.
He reviewed what he would have to say to her, and his heart hurt as though it, too, was being crushed.
MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM:
"I have to go home!"
The voice, muffled by a serape, was barely audible above the snores and exhalations in the 'guest' wickiup.
"I have to go back to Mexico!" More mumblings followed, then, "Mama needs me! She wants me to come back... hmmm..." The dreamer drifted into deeper sleep.
Ramon opened his eyes, startled, seeing at first only the opulent surroundings of a regal enclosure - elegant screens worked with brilliant flowers and gold trim, a velvety soft couch on which he seemed to have been sleeping, and a brazier across the room where a breakfast meal was cooking.
The room seemed devoid of other people until a figure stood from behind one of the screens and shuffled over to tend the breakfast. It was an impossibly old crone, her face smeared with makeup so thick it fissured each time she worked her jaws. She wore a kilt and mantle of some murky blue.
"Ah hah!" croaked the old woman, "This is a good morning! The calendar says today will bring good crops and victory over our enemies!"
"Err... yeah," said Ramon, "Where am I?"
"Yes, a good day!" ignoring his question, the crone ladled soup and tortillas into a bowl and sat it before him. "Eat up!" she commanded, "Today you will carry our prayers to the gods! You are so very fortunate! If only I were in your place!"
"I'm going to do *what*?"
"It is almost dawn," continued the crone, "Soon they will come to lead you to the altar. Oh, the glory! You will be so perfect! The gods will be pleased, I know they will!"
Then others came in and wrapped him in a garment with embroidered signs and symbols. They applied a lotion to his face and coifed his hair, which seemed to be long and luxuriant. He was overwhelmed by their numbers and confused by their commands, until he stood silent and suddenly deserted at the entrance to the room.
There was a knock, and the fabric at the doorway parted. A novice priest entered, bearing a covered golden bowl filled with holes which emitted the odor of burning incense. He was followed by the high priest, a man with his hair and eyebrows plucked. Ramon attempted the impossible feat of pulling back out of his own skin, trying to get his immobile arms and legs to bear him away from the priest. Kaliche smiled grotesquely and reached to grasp Ramon's hand.
"Ayyyy!" Ramon cried as he awoke. He threw the serape off his face.
He was in the wickiup, silent except for the sounds of the other sleepers. Wolf Walker muttered something about weaklings having nightmares as he rolled over and went back to sleep.
Dawn was a long time coming.
CHAPTER VEINTIQUATRO: END