There is a quality of power: The closer you get to the true source, the more difficult it is to say whether it will turn out for good or bad. Small twigs can divert a stream, a river takes many trees.
Around the turn of the last millennium, a people appeared on the northern continent of America. No one is certain where the Aztecs originally came from. History first finds them somewhere northwest of Mexico City, perhaps near Arizona and New Mexico. They claimed to have come from a land called Aztlan - a place of white herons, lost in antiquity.
They had been wandering southward for many generations and possibly centuries before. They were strong warriors, a tough, stubborn, determined folk with a spiritual will that could drive them to the heights of glory or to the depths of human degradation.
The Aztecs wandered southward, poverty-stricken, despised as outcasts. They were reduced by circumstance to eating their own dogs, and scorned by wealthier tribes who later hired them as mercenaries to fight their interminable battles. Eventually, the Aztecs took on the culture of these people, their land, and their name, Mexica.
Somewhere along the way the Aztec had come to the tree of decision. They chose their path and they learned the power of sacrifice and commitment.
The Apache came along several centuries later. No one is certain where the Apache originated, other than they wandered down from the Central Plains of North America. The Apache spoke Athepaskan, which is of the same root language as the Inuit of the Alaskan Eskimo, so they may have spent some time in that land on their journey. Some of the Apache settled in the Central Plains, some went to what is now Texas, and some went to a place northwest of Mexico City, near Arizona and New Mexico.
Footloose, wandering, the Apache had been drifting southward for generations. They were strong warriors, a tough, stubborn, determined folk, with a spiritual will that could drive them to the heights of glory or to the depths of human degradation.
Somewhere along their travels they came to the tree of decision. They chose their path and they learned to become one with a demanding yet beautiful land.
Had the pale-eyes never arrived, the Apache would have probably continued to drift southward. What might have been their fate is a matter of conjecture. What would the Apache have found, when at last their journey took them into a Central America dominated by the Aztec, if indeed the Aztec empire still existed?
No one asked this question in a certain cantina in northern Mexico. The occupants of a dim room within the cantina were concerned with more mundane matters - in a word, dogs.
It is reported that other tribes disdainfully called the early Aztecs "dog-eaters," perhaps for their practice of eating dogs. Certainly this lent a new meaning to the term "man's best friend," a canine who was friendly, loyal, edible.
Whatever their appetites, nothing prepared the Mexica for the larger, fiercer beasts that accompanied the Spaniards. When the Europeans dashed from their landing boats to stand in rows, legs unsteady after months at sea, they brought dogs with them. These Europeans, having adapted to a harsher climate with large predators, had developed dogs to match - capable of fighting bears and wolves.
The Apache around Rio Peligroso had a few dogs, but these were of the sort to stay around camp. They did not hunt. When your favorite method of hunting is to don a disguise and move close enough to a deer to touch it, you don't want a dog interfering with the stalk. What dogs they had were probably no match for wolves and bears. Thus, the Apache were not prepared for a dog bred and raised to defeat both.
At least, that is what Trader Larribee thought. He had brought from Europe, at great expense, a round dozen of the biggest, fastest, and most vicious wolf hunters produced by Europe's finest dog breeders. It would have done no good to tell him the truth, that the mixed breeds he had bought were deserving of no pedigree. He would have been quite as proud of curs as he was of the purebred wolfhounds he thought he had. Either way, the animals were dangerous to anyone in their path.
DOG DAY AFTERNOON, THE DAY BEFORE:
In the town of Rio Peligroso all commerce had slowed to a stop, while the residents enjoyed a slight breeze breaking across the river. It was on the afternoon of Ramon's emotional meeting with his sister, but the two cowboys who sat back and listened were unaware of their friend's good fortune. They were waiting for riders who had promised to send word if anyone had seen four strangers, perhaps hurt and lost. As they waited, they heard the far ranging discussions held by the leading townspeople and local citizens, sipping drinks in the cool of the cantina.
The cantina had been busy when Lonesome pushed through the battered door, earlier. He recognized Comstock seated at a table, and as Comstock introduced his companions Lonesome looked them over. Trader Larribee owned a small spread beyond the river, Gustav Oberson bossed a mining operation, Jedediah Frazier ran another mine, and the Alcalde of the town was Senor Roberto Mansino.
"I thought you were a cat-hunter, Trader," said Jed, "Are you branching out into wolves, now?"
"Nope. Painters are in my blood. Ain't nothing I love better than to be on the trail of a calf-stealer, listening to the cry of the hounds as I ride along after them," said Trader. He tamped his pipe with his thumb, then continued, "Ain't no sweeter sound than them hounds baying up and down the gullies and washes after a cat. But boys, I'll tell you a sound that'll set your hair on end and grab you by the throat. That's the scream a painter makes. And when they got it backed up against a tree, holding them off with its claws, I tell you, the squawl it makes puts ice down your back."
"Trader's wife runs their ranch," Gustav supplied, "That vay, Trader can runs his dogs."
Trader said, huskily, "The scream of a treed cat will send a shiver down your spine like nothing else in this world. And to me, the thrill is in drawing a bead with my rifle and bringing that cat down, and seeing my hounds tearing into the wounded beast. Even then, it's gonna keep fighting until they ain't nothing left but blood and fur. I've lost many a fine dog to a painter that was dead and didn't know it yet."
"I can't keep a dog," complained Jed, "They's always something kills them off fast as I can raise them."
"You didn't raise them mean enough," Trader Larribee boasted, "My place has lost enough stock to wolves, Injuns, or whatever. I been training my own dogs, and no one dast come close at night when these brutes roam the courtyards."
"Yeah, not even the hired help," snickered Will.
"Well, then," said Jed, "sell me one of them!"
"Sell you a hound?" Trader's voice conveyed an emotion beyond contempt, "I'd sooner sell you my first-born!"
At that moment, his first-born was trying to gain the attention of the bar-maid, who was three times his age. She eluded his grasp with practiced ease and left him to fumble his glass.
"I've told him not to drink," complained Trader, "he's too young. SHE lets him get away with it. Spoils him rotten. Won't listen to a word I say. "
"We lost one fellow who came in drunk one night," said Will, as he examined the amber contents of his glass, "We still don't know where he run off to!"
The elder Larribee rose from his chair. "Will!" he called.
Ignoring him, Will added, "That pore buckaroo is probably still running...."
Trader's face turned a shade darker as he spoke again.
"I told you not to drink! I think you've had enough," said Trader Larribee, "You got chores to do at home."
Will started to shift his glass to his left hand but Trader grabbed it, suspicious. He sniffed the liquid in the tumbler and snorted in contempt. "Sarsaparilla! You ain't drunk! GET HOME!"
This time, Will paled, and hastily backed away from the older Larribee.
"I'm gone, Pop!" he said, and hurried out the doors.
Sandy watched through the open doorway as Will slumped to a saunter once out of sight of his father and stopped to chat with some vaqueros.
There was a cornfield beside the street between the cantina and Ma Brown's boardinghouse, and the wilting stalks were being plundered by noisy crows. Estrellita took her time skirting the patch. She did not want to appear to be following her companions, but she also did not wish to remain alone in her room, so she thought about the news Sandy and Lonesome might have heard. She missed Ramon.
Ma Brown had cautioned her about the cantina - it was not a place for young girls, the widow had said. Even if she tried to go in, the owner would not allow it. "Then I will wait at the dry-goods store and watch for them," she had replied. But to get to the dry-goods store, she had to pass the cantina, and what harm could there be, to peek in as she walked past?
As she neared the cantina, she could hear two men talking.
"Paco, you have had too much to drink," said one, with a glance toward the rancherita, "I think it would be better if I take you back to the ranch."
Paco said something in a slurred voice, then lurched into the street, coming toward Estrellita. "She's here, ain't she?" he continued, "I told you. I ain't gonna pash..." The words were interrupted by a mighty shudder which racked him about until he faced the empty street. He corrected his orientation and lurched closer, saying, "...pash up a chansh like thish!"
When Sandy and Lonesome left the cantina later as they headed back to the boardinghouse, they saw the vaqueros once again. The vaquero named Paco had cornered Estrellita, put his arms around her, and attempted to kiss her. She was squirming out of his hold just as Sandy stormed up.
"Hey!" Sandy cried, "Get your hands off her!"
"What is thish, do they let babiesh ride horses and carry guns?"
"I mean it, Mister! You let her alone!"
"Well, ain't you the little banty rooshter! How did a little kid like you get a biii..(ic)..iig gun like that?"
"Cause I know how to use it, that's why!"
"Hey, Chiquito, I don't think you undershtood the queshtion!"
"Mister, I don't think you understood my answer!"
Lonesome ambled up and leaned against the railing.
"Hey, you!" the drunk snapped at him.
"Yeah, you! What'sh your part in thish?"
Paco staggered, then regained his equilibrium, saying, "You ain't gonna back him up?"
"Oh, he don't need my help. Kid can take care of himself," Lonesome made a show of paring his nails with the huge blade of his knife and added, "But you might tell us where we can find your kinfolk."
The nature of his remark slowly seeped through the alcohol induced fog. "Why would you want to know that?" Paco wondered.
"So we'll know where to send your effects. You see, he's real quick and he usually hits what he aims at," Lonesome indicated Sandy, who remained poised to draw his pistol, "He's done killed one man."
"Aww, man!" cried Sandy, "Why'd you have to go blab that?" He glared at Lonesome, shook his head, and returned his attention to the drunk.
The drunk, in turn, looked at him with renewed interest. "Son," he said, "Ish there any chance that pop-gun ish loaded?"
Sandy gritted his teeth and replied, "Capped and primed, Sir!"
The vaquero looked from the newcomer back to his friend, who had remained in his saddle. His friend said, "I told you, Paco! She did not want to talk to Senor Will, and she will not want to talk to you!"
Paco shook his head and backed off. "I shtink I better apologishe, then, Senorita!" he said, "I have been mishinformed!"
"Do you mean Will Larribee?" Estrellita asked, joining the conversation.
"Si, Senorita," replied the companion, "He was saying that you were feeling `amoroso' and you wanted company. We are very sorry for the misunderstanding."
"I will KILL him!" cried the rancherita, stiff with rage.
Sandy turned on his heel and walked away.
"Wait a minute, kid!" Lonesome called after Sandy, who was heading for the stable, "Don't do anything we'll be sorry for!"
Sandy kept going.
WITH A DOGGED WILL:
Sandy had not planned on taking the bay horse at all. When he went to the stable to saddle his own horse, the bay sought him out. The big red-brown horse appeared lonely, as though missing his own rider. Remembering the dumping he had taken trying to ride him before, Sandy was reluctant to take a chance, but Rayo was so insistent that he relented and saddled up the bay to ride out to the Larribee ranch.
Sandy rode the bay along the trail with his jaw clenched tightly, rehearsing in his mind the words he would speak when he met Will or Mr. Larribee. Occasionally, the bay would slow and cast about as if looking for something. Finding no track at the crossroads they passed, the horse would lower his head and continue along the way to the Larribee Ranch.
There was a boy with grey eyes, standing at the corral, one boot poised on the bottom rail. "What'cha want?" he asked.
"Would you be Will Larribee?" Sandy asked. He recognized Will by Estrellita's description but since the other had not bothered to add `light a spell and rest,' or `hop down and have some water,' Sandy decided that the rancher's son was not much of one for long conversations.
"What business is it of yours?" Will responded with a sneer, "I don't recall inviting you onto our property."
[Then again], Sandy reflected, [maybe this joker was just plain ornery.]
"I wanted to see what this Will fellow looked like," Sandy said, remaining in the saddle, "Folks say he thinks a lot of himself."
"That's so," admitted Will, "You got something to say to me?" The door of a nearby stable swayed and he raised a hand toward it.
"When you were in town this morning you tried to get familiar with a friend of mine. Then some ranch hand came around saying you told them some lies about her."
"I ain't lied yet. Must have been someone else. There's some new lowlifes in town. One of them looks a lot like you."
"You're the one," Sandy leaned forward in the saddle and the bay shifted uneasily under the unfamiliar weight, "I don't like it when someone starts spreading filth about my friends."
"That gal should have took me up on that drink," sneered Will, "She needs to learn to keep her big mouth shut."
"I mean to see to it that she don't have to take your kind of sass!" said Sandy. He grabbed the saddle horn and was levering his right leg over the rear of the saddle when Will lowered his hand. The door to the stable burst open and six sleek black and gray dogs burst out.
"See if you can handle these hounds!" cried Will. He climbed the fence to get out of the way.
The bay did not wait for instructions. He whirled suddenly to his left, throwing Sandy back into the saddle and bringing them into line with the rutted trail. With his rider clinging to his mane, the bay leaped before the hounds. One of the hounds bayed close behind.
The wind slapped Sandy's hat from his forehead and pulled the string taut against his throat as they flew along. It whipped tears from the boy's eyes as the horse's hooves drummed ahead of the dogs.
When the ranch gate rushed past, the dogs seemed to lose interest. They lagged behind and finally slowed. Sandy brought the bay to a halt and looked back from a safe distance. The hounds milled about, then started out across the prairie, heading toward the riverbed or the mountains beyond.
"Danged if he weren't the most inhospitable person I've met," said Sandy, "We better head on in to town. No telling when those hounds're coming back."
On the way back to Rio Peligroso, the bay kept shying away from shadows.
"Easy, boy, I don't want no trouble with you," said Sandy, "Besides, those dogs were heading the other way. I think."
In the growing gloom of approaching evening, he did not see the figure which shadowed him, a hulking shape which moved with the ease of long practice, as silently as the wind.
BIG TALK AT THE CANTINA:
"Yes, we have had trouble with the Apache," the mine owner said before tasting the salt and his tequila, "They started hanging around all the time, watching us. Once my men could stay at the shaft and sleep close to their work. Lately, I have had to call in my workers every night."
"We've had enough trouble with the redskins!" cried Jedediah Frazier, "One of these days, I'm going to hire a man to take care of them!"
"Oh, sure, Jed," laughed the saloon owner, "You've been trying to find someone to do your dirty work for years. One man is going to clean all the Indians out of this neighborhood? Sounds like you'd be throwing your money away."
"Old Yed is afraid he might haf started an Inyun war," said Gustav, "Last veek one of his workers took a shot at some Apache hangink around at his mine."
"He had no business, there!" declared Jed, "They upset the men, lurking and watching!"
"The Apache don't understand mining," said Comstock, "Their religion won't let them dig for gold. They think you're going to cause an earthquake with all them holes you're making."
"That's a lot of rubbish!" snapped Jed, "Why, there ain't been a quake around here since...." he broke off to grab at the edge of his table as it quivered and vibrated beneath his elbow. The clink and jingle of dishes was offset by howling and barks from outside.
"Way to go, Jed," said his compatriot, "You just had to open your yap, didn't you?"
"It wasn't my fault!" cried Jed, "Besides, that's a lot of superstitious nonsense!"
"Well," said Trader, "If shootin' at them don't make them mad, maybe they'll blame you for that tremor."
The table had stopped dancing, but Jed remained agitated. "I ain't done nothing to stir up them Injuns," he stated, "Only thing I did was defend my property."
"I could loan you a couple of dogs for protection," suggested Trader, "Seeing as how you need to 'defend your property'."
"At your rates?" snorted Jed, "I'd sooner hire an army. It'd cost less!"
"You ought to make that an even half dozen," said Comstock, Them Injuns might have a good appetite for roast dog."
"Why can't you leave well enough alone?" asked Angie, "After all, this was their land first."
"Sister, you ain't been out here very long," scoffed Jed, "Ain't you lost cattle to them thieving redskins?"
"I've been here most of my life," she said, "Sure, we've lost cattle to Indians... and to wolves, pumas, bear, coyotes... it's part of ranching."
"Well, I ain't losing no more," stated Larribee, "My hounds can take on any critter."
"Would they be black and gray brutes, more teeth than sense?" Sandy said as he pushed through the listeners.
"Purebred wolf killers," Larribee said with satisfaction, "But I trained them so mean they'll eat anything."
"I just saw a half dozen of them take out for the mountains to the south," Sandy told him.
Larribee jerked upright. "Who turned them loose?" he demanded.
"Your boy, Will. He sicced them on me. If I hadn't been on a fast horse I'd be dog meat right now!"
"I'm going to blister that boy's hide!" roared Trader, then turned to Sandy and asked, "You say they was heading south? Alone? No one with them?"
"Straighter'n a ruler."
"Well, it's a good thing they ain't no white folk in that direction. Them dogs'll tear up anything... wolves, livestock, deer... anything that moves!"
Comstock pulled Lonesome aside. "You say your friends were Indian?" he asked.
"Yeah," Lonesome, "Least two of them are. There is a Mex boy looking for his sister."
"He isn't going to find her," promised Comstock, "But they got other troubles. Those dogs are killers - I have seen them in action. That pack of them just might nail your friends if they catch them before you do."
"My friends were looking for Apache," said Lonesome, "Odds are they will find them. That Mex kid has gumption."
"Then you might just ease out to their main rancheria and let them know they got trouble. If the Apache have found your friends, and if they haven't staked them out over an anthill..."
Lonesome eyed him, "North or South?" he wondered.
"South. I'll take you there, myself. After I make sure my livestock is safe." Comstock and his daughter moved to leave.
Lonesome thanked him. [This don't look good,] he said to himself as he and Sandy made their way back to the boarding house.
OBLIGATIONS IN RIO PELIGROSO:
On the morning after Ramon had met his sister, the day began in the town of Rio Peligroso with a whisper of breeze and the sound of scattered roosters crowing.
Ma Brown came upon Estrellita as the rancherita gazed at the young cowboy sleeping on the porch bench. Saying nothing, she gestured for the blonde rancherita to accompany her into the kitchen where she was preparing breakfast.
"You're kinda sweet on the boy, aren't you?" said Ma Brown.
"Him? Oh, he is gentle, and so bashful. But I cannot say that I like him so much."
"Coulda fooled me. He's been watching out for you all night."
"He has?" Estrellita looked back toward the front of the kitchen, as though Sandy might come walking in any second. She said softly, "Anyway, I am promised to another."
Ma Brown poured hot bacon grease into a huge bowl of flour. She began kneading a half dozen eggs into a mass of dough in a depression in the center of the flour, and she said, "You must mean that little Mexican boy your friend has been looking for?"
Estrellita nodded. "Ramon has always been there for me. Since I was a little girl I knew that someday I would marry him. Even when my mother..."
Her hesitation did not escape the boardinghouse matron's attention. "Go on," she said.
"When my mother took me to Mexico City, to be with her during my `education', I swore I would remain faithful to him. None of the boys there were even half as handsome, or as gallant, as my Ramon."
Ma Brown began to pinch off biscuits, which she arranged in a cast iron pan. "Sounds like you had a real crush on him, all right," she said, "How does he feel about it?"
"He.... Always I have been the one to tell him how things are to be," said Estrellita, "He has always been so kind, so confident, so...." she hesitated again, "...so restrained."
"Sounds like he has a level head," Ma Brown shoved the pan into the oven with a clang, "And it sounds like you are more grateful than in love. Makes a difference in the way you talk about him. What did he ever do for you?"
"He...he was there for me, when my parents went off to the capitol. They had to go, to help the country. It was necessary. It was...." she sighed, "It was lonely."
"So he came along and acted the big brother," Ma Brown said, how's your mother feel about this?"
"At first I thought she did not care, when I told her. She said how nice it was that I have the friend to keep me company. She said I should try to find more friends. But how could I? They all say my parents are Spanish sympathizers! They won't have anything to do with me!"
"But your friend, Ramon?"
"We grew up together. Yes, to me, he was the big brother. So strong, so handsome. So..." she stopped to suppress a giggle and added, "...so manly."
Ma Brown handed her an apron and said, "I could use a hand setting the table. Do y'mind, Honey?"
"Not at all," said Estrellita as she lifted plates down from the rack, "So you see, I could never look at another without dishonoring my love for Ramon."
"Sounds like you have a problem," agreed Ma Brown. She went to wake her other guests for breakfast.
As Sandy and Lonesome straggled in, Ma Brown greeted them with a clean, though frayed, towel. "Washpan's on the back porch," she announced, "You boy's look like you could stand to scrub the sleep out of your eyes. Ya'll sleep good?"
"Yes'm," yawned Sandy.
Over biscuits and gravy and salt pork, they discussed the coming day.
"I'm heading out to an Indian camp," announced Lonesome, "Mister Comstock says he'll show me the way. Maybe they'll have some news."
Sandy grinned slyly, and said, "That ranch girl going with you?"
Lonesome nodded and frowned to let the younger cowboy know that he was treading on dangerous ground. "Gonna make something of it?" he asked.
"Nope," Sandy continued to grin.
"I suppose you want to come along. Your friend might be there."
"I've thought about that," said Sandy, "But there's a chance he could have lit down towards the west, though. I'm going to ride out to that big rancho in that direction."
Lonesome said, somberly, "You might give some thought to what we would do if we can't find him."
"What would you do?" Sandy asked, looking directly at him, "Would you quit?"
There was a stretch of silence before Lonesome answered, "Can't say I would. Least not 'til I knew for sure."
"We'll just cover all the possibilities," Sandy said as he dug into the gravy with a biscuit crust.
VISIT TO A SMALL VILLAGE:
"I tied that dang mare back at the livery, and she got loose again!" cried Lonesome, "Now here she is trying to go with us!"
"Don't drive her away!" cried Angie, "I think she is sweet, she is so affectionate!"
"She is about to drive me crazy," snorted Lonesome, "I pulled a few thorns out of her mouth and you would think I raised her to be a bottle-fed calf. She won't leave me alone!"
"Oh, I love that! That is just like that story of Androcales who pulled the thorn from the lion's paw!"
"Yeah, I heard of that one," said Lonesome, "We had a school teacher who loved to tell it. She ain't never met any lions like that around here!"
"Then let me ride her," begged Angie, "That will keep her occupied."
Lonesome considered, "Okay. Least she won't be gettin' into any mischief that way."
They set out in the ochre sunrise toward the southern hills. Comstock told the history of the pass they were approaching, how Apache had held it against Yaqui raiding parties in the last century.
"See that pass? That there's where the Apache stood off a whole herd of Yaquis, one time years ago. They gathered a couple'a hundred Apache up in them rocks and refused to budge. Cut them Yaquis to dogmeat.
"Matter of fact, close by here's where I first met old Tom Goose, the chief of this group we are going to see. I was out riding around, fat, dumb and happy, even had Angie along. She was about six or seven, cuter'n a button, and always wanted to go riding with me. And since I didn't have anyone to leave her with, that day, she was slung behind me on the saddle. I was a little younger, then, and had more spunk than horse sense.
"Anyways, here we was coming along this ridge, and I look over on one side and I see this family of Apache coming along, just like me, fat, dumb and happy. They see me, but they aren't out looking for trouble. If they was, rest assured I'd have never seen them.
"Over on the other side, I see something out of the corner of my eye. I stop and look. Don't see nothing, at first, until the wind shifted and blew the grass the other way for a second. Then I made them out, a bunch of Indians all hunkered down waiting for something.
"Just luck that I saw this other bunch. Right away, I suspect they're up to no good, and I decide I have to do something about it. Forgot I had a kid with me, did the dangdest foolhardy thing I could have done. Stood up in the stirrups and whistled at them Apache, waved and motioned toward the other bunch. You can guess what happened - that bunch of Indians setting in ambush took out after me, and I lit outta there fast as I could. Swung little Angie around in front, so's she wouldn't get hit."
"It's a good thing he did, too," said Angie, "They peppered him pretty badly. Three hits in his back and they shot the horse, too."
"Well, we barely made it down the slope before the horse folded and we went tumbling. Them Apache - it was Tom Goose's group - pulled us out from under the carcass and we commenced to have it out with the Payutes - that's who was trying to ambush them - and before long we run them off.
"They patched me up, but the horse was a goner. Old Tom, he strips my saddle off the horse, butchers it and we have a meal. He gives me another pony to ride back home. I thought that was mighty generous of him, 'til I looked out the next day and the pony was gone.
"Every once in a while, they'll come wandering back by here, and nothing will do but that I have to find me a cull steer or two that I won't miss too badly, take it out to them, and they get to eat real good. Them Apache appreciate a good feed."
"What would happen if you didn't feed them?"
"Don't like to think about it. Anyways, me and Tom get along pretty good, and I don't want to jinx it. They's others around who'd just as soon shoot them as spit. I don't dare ride into any other group's camp like I do with Tom."
Lonesome said, after considering, "You know if any other ranchers lose beef?"
"Hell, even I lose beef, and it ain't wolves. But I know it ain't old Tom's bunch doing it."
The morning slid quietly on, and they talked of families.
"Ma died on the way out here," said Angie, "The Mexican government wanted people to come in and live, so we settled here. What about your folks?"
"Mostly passed on or dead."
"Don't you have anybody to call kin?"
Angie made a face. "Talking to you is like pulling teeth!" she said, "What started all this?"
"Oh, back about a century or two ago, somewhere back in the Old Country, somebody killed somebody and it carried on."
"Way I heard it, there was two families used to be real close. Then one day some man in one family spat on a girl's dress and her brother killed him. Then his brother killed the brother, and it kept on going."
"He spat on her dress?"
"Not worth killing anybody over... no, wait!" Angie said, "I understand! You mean he soiled her reputation!"
Lonesome regarded her with widened eyes. "How do you get that?" he asked.
"Like if he got her in a family way and refused to marry her! Women understand these things," explained Angie, while Lonesome shook his head in disbelief, "But why would you say it like that, 'he spat on her dress'?"
Lonesome set his jaw grimly. "That was the way it was told to me," he said.
Angie debated with herself until her curiosity got the better of her and she asked, "What happened to your folks?"
"They were in Kentucky, trying to start a new life, get away from the old fighting and feuding. One day they had a big meeting with the other family and tried to talk it out. One of my hothead uncles said some things he shouldn't have said, and that started the killing. So I can't blame the others for fighting back... except one. He enjoyed it," Lonesome turned away from her so she could not see his face, "I was twelve years old, at the time. I hid in the smithy until it was all over. Then I lit out for somewhere's west."
"I'm sorry," said Angie. It was the longest speech he had made since they had met.
"That's all right. I need to remember, once in a while."
They came to the Apache rancheria, greeted by sentries who waved at Comstock before resuming their watchful vigil. Children darted about, always running. Comstock unboarded his mare with a groan at the margin of the camp and handed the reins of his horse to an eager young lad. The lad, accompanied by several other children, took the other horses in tow toward the outskirts of the camp.
"They must some kind of powwow going on - you don't see this many kids around, normally," said Comstock, "They got more people watching than usual, too. You keep your head up and your eyes bright, cause we might have to light out of here in a hurry." He looked at the encampment, from the shelter of the bluff to the corn fields drying on the flat. He wondered, "Wonder what they are worried about?"
"A gathering means there will be contests," said Angie, "They will want us to stay and eat. Have you ever had mescal?"
They were several steps toward the main camp when Lonesome felt a familiar nudge against his back.
"Dang it, hoss!" he complained, "Can't you stay anywhere?" he gathered the reins and headed for the rear of the camp.
"I'll be along in a minute," he promised Angie, "I'm gonna tie this footloose critter down with a boulder."
"We'll be over at the chief's house," said Comstock, "Just look for the biggest wickiup here."
While Comstock went to greet Tom Goose, Lonesome went to find the corral where the other horses were tied. The mare tagged along with him until he tied her reins to a stake with some other ponies.
"Now, dang it, hoss, can't you leave me alone?" He said. While he went to find Angie and Comstock he could hear a rising chorus of shouts, encouragement and betting as the contests began.
DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE:
Sandy was dejectedly skipping stones across the shallow water of the river pool. Though he had asked at several places, there had been no sign of Ramon and his friends anywhere west of the town.
"Can't find him NO place!" he complained, "If Lonesome don't have any luck, we'll have to give up!"
He kicked the gravel, causing many small splashes across the pool, and stopped to glower at the spreading ripples. "I ain't gonna give up!" he declared.
There was a noise behind him, a deliberate sound like someone clearing their throat, and he turned to see who it was.
A man. A tall, husky heavily tanned man, bare above the waist except for tattoos, was standing there watching him.
For a moment Sandy stared back, held by the unmistakable air of menace he could feel radiating from the stranger. He had left his long gun and pistol back at the boardinghouse when he returned from his ride and he had gone to the river alone to vent his frustration.
The other man said nothing more. He seemed content to watch Sandy appraisingly, his dark eyes giving no hint of his thoughts. Then he spread his arms in a welcoming gesture and beckoned with his fingertips, a predatory smile forming on his face.
Sandy eyed the stranger appraisingly. [Does he want me to fight him?] he wondered, [He's twice as big as me!] Setting his feet in the gravel, he glanced around for a stone or a tree limb he could use as a weapon.
The stranger waited. Then he shifted his attention to a spot beyond the blond cowboy. Sandy involuntarily glanced to his side but saw nothing but brush. When he looked back the man was gone, vanished as silently as a shadow.
The crunch of footsteps on gravel and a high child's voice came from behind him, then Estrellita called, "Hello, stranger!" She was carrying the small boy and was followed by the girl who was staying at the boardinghouse.
Sandy nodded at her, watching the undergrowth about them until his hands quit shaking. There was no sign of the stranger.
"Sorry," he said, "There was this hombre..." His breath caught for a second as he saw Estrellita, holding the little boy, and for a flicker of an eye blink he imagined her in blue gingham beneath a spreading oak tree. He shook his head to dispel the vision and thought to himself, [I'm too young for this....]
"I do not see anyone," she said, peering about, "There is no place for anyone to hide."
"I saw him," said Sandy, "and I think he was the man you told Ramon about, back when the Apache first captured you in Mexico."
This news unsettled her, and they lost no time escorting the children back to the boardinghouse. Sandy felt the hairs on the back of his neck stir, but try as he might he could not see who was watching him.
CHAPTER VEINTICINCO: END