INVITATIONS AND OBLIGATIONS:
It was the next morning, at the Apache camp, the third day of what Lucha called the 'siege of the ponies'. Only three ponies remained, pulling restlessly at the leather restraining ropes and watching Lucha expectantly as she passed, on her way to get water for the morning meal.
Across the camp, the black of night slowly became shades of gray, with darker lines and traces leading back and forth across the branches and leaves of the wickiup roof. Ramon could not remember how long he had lain, gazing up at the poles supporting the roof and walls of the wickiup. Somehow the dream from the night before, about the regal chamber and the bald priest, had blurred into indistinct shadows. Those shadows in turn were banished by the glow of a single beam of sunlight through the opened doorway. The appetizing aroma of some kind of stew drifted in on a vagrant breeze.
Before the sun rose, Wolf Walker had rolled his sleeping mat and stowed it away, disappearing out the door. Red Cloud had folded her blanket and was sitting quietly, watching the dawn.
Ramon rubbed sleep from his eyes and yawned. He snapped his mouth shut as a shadow from the rear of the wickiup came to its feet and shuffled out the doorway.
"What was that?" he asked.
"That was Sweet Corn, the chief's second wife," replied Red Cloud as the light fell soft upon her face, "She spent the night here, while you were telling tall tales at the council fire. I think she went outside to cook."
"I did not know she was here," said Ramon, "I must have been very tired."
The Azuma girl shifted uneasily and added, "I have been thinking that it would not be a good idea to show these people that you can change. They feel very strongly about witchcraft."
"I cannot stop, now. Besides, those old men saw me, yesterday. They did not do anything." Ramon rolled up his bedding, then yawned again and stretched. Today would be a good day. He could run foot races with the other boys. There were sure to be contests.
"Bluenose has some influence with the medicine men," said Red Cloud, "Perhaps they are accustomed to seeing strange things. Perhaps you trust Bluenose too much."
"Whatever," he shrugged, "I am going to tell Lucha. I cannot endure it! She thinks I am a girl!"
There was a polite noise at the doorway, which darkened for a moment as someone paused outside.
A slight woman entered, smiling, the beads and fringes on her buckskin dress glowing from the sunlight behind her, her quick eyes taking in the occupants of the dwelling. "Forgive my intrusion," she said, "I am looking for my daughter's sister."
"She's not here!" blurted Ramon. He stood hastily, bending to keep his head from hitting the roof poles.
"She went to the spring," Red Cloud elaborated.
"I so wanted to meet her," said the woman, "My daughter has told me about her sister, but she has not met the rest of you. Are you part of her family?"
Ramon glanced uncertainly at Red Cloud, who shrugged.
"I am her brother," said Ramon, "I only found out about her a little while ago."
Lucha's foster mother was so slight that she was able to stand in the wickiup without stooping. She came near Ramon and looked up at him. "Yes, I can see the resemblance. You are definitely related," she said, then asked bluntly, "Are you going to take Lucha away from me?"
Ramon shook his head. "I do not know," he admitted, "It is for her to decide, whether to go with us or to stay. But... her mother needs to see her. She really wants to meet her daughter. For years she has thought her daughter - my sister - was dead."
Lucha's mother gathered her shawl about her and shuddered. "It is good of you to say this," she said, "You are a good brother and son."
Ramon kept silent as the birdlike woman retreated through the doorway.
"I will tell my daughter that I have met you," she promised.
"Wait!" called Ramon, "Do not tell her, please. I will tell her myself, when we meet."
"Such a *nice* young man!" she said to herself, then abruptly turned back to them.
"The people who own this wickiup will be back, soon," she said, "You will need a place to stay. It would be good if you could stay with us in our wickiup. I will go and prepare it." Before he could reply, she was gone.
"Oh, boy," groaned Ramon, "Now I've got to tell her! I will go right now!"
"Uhm," Red Cloud nodded, "What is keeping you?"
"Well... I need some hot water."
She arose from her meditations and paused at the doorway to gaze at him as she asked, "Do you think she will take it better if you approach her as Machita?"
"It has to be this way. She does not know me as Ramon."
Red Cloud shook her head and went to get the water.
FEEDING ON THE SLY:
"You know, Daughter, you really are very good," Sweet Corn, who had spent the night with the Mexican 'guests', said as they walked back from the spring.
"Why, thank you, Mother."
"Don't play coy with me, child," Sweet Corn scolded, "You secretly care for the ponies because you have a soft heart. You think you can hold out for four days and get out of making a decision. Do you not realize that turning down all your suitors will make them look bad? If you tease them this way, it will come back and hurt you when you really want to get married and settle down."
Lucha looked away, saying, "What makes you think I have been doing anything?"
"These ponies are restless, for they have been tied up and unable to run. But they are not complaining as they should be after two days without food and water. Someone has tended them, someone who can hide their tracks very well. You can move like the breeze when you wish, Daughter. I know this."
"I did not start this. Someone else placed my hair on the post."
"It does not matter. You had your chance to stop it, and you did not. You stumbled around like some love-besotted fool and let everybody think what they wanted to think. Tell, me, are you ill? Has someone put a curse on you?"
"Of course not - " Lucha suddenly remembered the tea Yucca had been practically forcing on her, lately. Where was Yucca this morning? She was late. Why did the thought of more tea bring an uneasiness to her throat? The last cup she had sipped had tasted so bad that she had thrown it out.
Lucha adjusted the pendant. The stone did not fit her hand and she remembered that she had swapped necklaces with Machita and she no longer wore her old pendant. Yet somehow, the thought of holding it seemed to make breathing easier.
"But here I have forgotten the reason I wanted to talk to you! I have met your brothers and your sister. You can be proud of them, they are very polite and well-mannered."
"Oh, no, I have no brother," Lucha laughed, "But I am glad you approve of my sister. Here she comes, now."
Sweet Corn, seeing Machita, started to say something to Lucha but refrained. She gave Machita a very puzzled look as she walked up.
Yucca Blossom gathered the burden basket up and left the camp for a hill nearby where she could find herbs and roots. Espuma was waiting for her there, silently whittling a blowgun out of a shaft of arrowwood.
Espuma had always been the sort to plan ahead. He had been the one who noticed the calendar, that the time most propitious for the ceremony was drawing near.
Not having the same faith in Kaliche's powers that Kaliche had in himself, Espuma had begun searching for the sacrificial subject on his own. He did not find her with her family. Instead, he found a boy.
Puzzled, he let the subject drop for the while and went back to cultivating the Alcalde in his search for gold. Kaliche wanted gold for his plans almost as badly as he wanted the pendant. Sinestro wanted gold because... because he wanted gold. Circular logic. Splendid!
The Alcalde talked freely, given a modest push in the right direction, and he dumped his entire sordid history into Espuma's waiting ears - betrayal, murder, theft - fascinating listening. In one of their conversations, Sinestro let something slip - about the family where the pendant and the sacrificial subject were supposed to remain. The Alcalde mentioned a daughter, captured by Comanche whom he in turn betrayed, for a modest profit.
Espuma's search had begun in earnest, and the results...
"Do you remember when I first found you?"
Yucca bared her teeth in anger, seeking a way to escape from him.
"Ah ah ah! You must not struggle, so! Why, just the thought of your poor, sick brother, dying of the same disease that drove your mother mad...."
It was as though a string had snapped inside the Apache girl's body. She stopped struggling so suddenly that she almost fell. Her gaze became fixed on the rocks ahead as she stood.
"That is better, now. When I taught you how to use herbs to facilitate implanting a series of commands... Oh, what's the use. You were so worried about your dear brother that you were practically screaming it. You gave me the trigger."
He walked around her while she ignored him. "You have filled out a little," he said, "But you are so pathetically eager to please. It would be no challenge to take you. Anyway, I need you for something else." She blinked when he waved his hand before her face.
"Do you remember when I found you? You were so filled with that disgusting `love of life' that you thought everything was good, that nothing would hurt you. I had to set you straight, correct your way of thinking. I gave you a weapon to defend yourself with, taught you how to use your `voice of power'. Have you been using it?"
Yucca blinked once again. "Yes," she whispered.
His face contorted into a knowing leer, Espuma asked, "Have you used it to get a boy?"
"There is a boy..." she began, then finished, "No."
"And have you been giving Lucha your `calming tea'?"
She nodded. "She resists," Yucca said as she stared ahead, seeing nothing, not even the man who slouched across the rocks beside her.
"No, wait," said Espuma, "This boy you like - he is the Mexican, is he not?"
"Yes," Yucca stirred her memory enough to recall, "Yes, he is."
"And you like him, don't you?"
"He is... handsome. Yes, I like him. Very much."
"Very well, then, you can have him. Never let it be said that I was not generous with other people's lives," Espuma made a show of studying the clouds, then added, "And the girl, Machita. You do not like her."
For the first time she became animated, "No! I hate her! She would take Ramon from me!"
"Excellent!" he clasped his hands with glee. "Then I will require of you that you use your power to dominate this Machita. Humble her. Make her your slave. If you do this, then I will give you Ramon, the Mexican boy. Better yet - I want you to protect the boy, at all costs, and at the same time I want you to hurt, humiliate, and shame the girl. And then, you can kill her. No one will care."
Yucca stared at the ground, watching a scene which only she could see. "No one will care," she murmured, and shuddered.
"Oh, this is exquisite!" chortled Espuma, "You will try your best to follow both commands, and they will tear you apart! I wish I could watch this!"
He stopped suddenly, all seriousness again, and whispered, "Machack, where are you? Are you still on the road? It is just as well, you would not appreciate this. This is beyond your dull senses. You would march straight into the camp, slaying all who resisted, and try to take the girl by force. What a feast of pain you would miss, by taking the direct route!"
When the presence of the girl intruded into his awareness, he gave her instructions: get Lucha away from the rest of the camp. If possible, include the two Mexican girls. After that, he dismissed her to her mundane chores.
"Well, I, too can take the direct route, in my own way. I will storm the camp, defying them to strike at me! I will go straight to the girl and take her, and they will not be able to stop me!" He considered a moment and added, "They will beg me to take her! I will humiliate them, these proud creatures!"
YOU CAN'T STOP NOW:
"I've had enough of this! I'm going to clear it up, once and for all!" grumbled Machita as she made her way with a gourdful of cold water to Lucha's wickiup. Lucha was talking to the woman who had spent the night with them in the `guest' wickiup.
The old woman saw Machita and a puzzled look came over her. "You will want to talk, Daughter," said the old woman, "I must be going along."
"Yes, Mother. I know where there is a beetree. I will get someone to help as soon as I see Uncle."
Machita waited until the older woman was out of hearing. Facing her sister at the doorway, she said, "Lucha, I want you to see this."
Lucha moved out of the way of two boys racing for the other side of the camp. She shaded her eyes against the sun's glare and said, "Why do you wear the men's clothes, again?"
"I have to show you something," said Machita, as she lifted the gourd. There was a shout of warning and suddenly someone crashed into her. The gourd went tumbling, spraying its contents over the dry grass.
Machita found herself sprawled on the ground. "Caramba!" she cried, "I did not get a drop on me!"
Her assailant picked himself up and said, "I am sorry, Sister! I did not mean to run into you! But I was in a hurry, trying to catch the others, before they could get to the other side of the camp. I know we are not supposed to be running in camp, but we were playing `hoop the pony' and I had the hoop, and...and... are you She Goes Ahead?"
"Good morning, Andalejo," Machita said dryly.
"This is wonderful! I did not know that I would find you here, at this camp, when the last time I saw you was back at the rancho in Mexico where we... " the lad stopped for a moment as though puzzled, and said, "But you are a girl! Why are you not...." he stopped talking and stared beyond Machita's face.
Machita turned to see what had stricken him silent.
"L...Lucha...." Andalejo stuttered, his face flushed. He released the hoop and it rolled away a few feet before it wobbled to a halt and fell over.
The older girl frowned uncertainly. "Has he been in the sun too long?" she asked.
"I think he likes you," said Machita.
"Oh," Lucha rolled her eyes, but gave the boy a smile as she entered the doorway. Andalejo sighed and returned to his hoop. He had a grin stretching the length and width of his face.
"Come on, Senor Puppylove," said Machita, "We have got to talk." She led him away to explain why she did not want him to give away her secret.
[But I was all set to tell her!] she thought, [Now I will have to gather the courage again!]
THINGS SEEN DIMLY:
"What is this all about?" Andalejo asked, "Should you be the girl when you want your sister to know you are a boy? Why are you rushing me away from her? I did not know that SHE was your sister!!! If I had known that... If I had known that... I could have asked you to..." He finally stumbled to a stop, unable to speak.
It was a rare moment, which Machita exploited. "I want to be the one to tell her!" she said, "She deserves to hear it from my lips. I have no reason to keep on deceiving her."
At the `guest' wickiup, Machita splashed back to Ramon. Andalejo, shy about the process when it went in the reverse, watched with interest as Ramon shot up several inches and changed in face and build.
The shaman Bluenose met them as they left the wickiup. "I have someone I want you to meet," he said, "He has been asking about you."
"May I go, too?" Andalejo asked eagerly.
"I do not know," said Bluenose, "This will an important meeting, and I do not want it spoiled by your chatter."
"But I can be as quiet as the chipmunk!" declared Andalejo, "I will be silent and not make a sound! If you want, I will stay at the farthest end of the shelter and never..."
"My son," sighed Bluenose. "Andalejo."
The boy clamped his mouth shut and gulped. When his father called him by name, it meant one thing. He was in trouble - or he soon would be very busy.
"I am thinking that I would like a smoke..."
"Father! You left your pipe and tobacco back at our campsite! Please don't make me go back and get it! I will miss what you say!"
Bluenose sighed again. "Can you really keep quiet?" he asked.
His son nodded vigorously, eyes wide.
The shaman from the Loose Foot group looked upward beseechingly, then stepped off without a word. At a shelter different from the brush wickiups he paused. It was a tipi, covered with skins painted with many symbols: figures of men and animals, mountains, trees, clouds, and the zigzag of lightning.
Here, he turned to Ramon and said, "This person is an old and dear friend of mine. We never speak directly any more, because of a terrible thing that happened to his sister. I cannot go into his tipi. Perhaps it is best that my son accompany you."
Andalejo broke into a giant grin.
There was a soft chanting arising from within the tipi when Andalejo pushed aside the door skin and led Ramon inside. Beyond a small fire huddled an old man, spreading corn kernels about on a blanket.
"He is talking to Corn Planter," whispered Andalejo, "We must sit over here and be very quiet."
Ramon sat where he was told, amused by the restraint the younger boy was showing, although Andalejo seemed about to burst at the seams.
Broken Cloud pushed the kernels back into a pouch and looked up. "Aiyuh," he murmured, "My seeing was true. And now I can look upon you again."
"You were at the sweat bath!" said Ramon, "You were the one who said he did not see anything!"
The old man nodded, watching the air around Ramon, rather than looking at him directly. "Aiyuh. This is a strange thing you have done. I do not understand why you would want this particular power. Why would you become a girl?"
"It was not my fault!" cried Ramon, "It is a stupid curse because... because..."
"You mean to say you are not happy with it?"
"I did not ask for this! No, I am not happy with it!"
"A power is not to be taken lightly, even a simple one which does not seem very useful. This is a very strong magic, and must be treated accordingly."
"Not so strong! I get weak, and slow, and... womanly!"
Broken Cloud rubbed his chin. "Then something must be wrong," he said, "Or else you did not understand when the power was given to you. Sometimes the spirits give a power for a reason. Find that reason and the power may go away."
"What? Does that mean there is a chance I can be cured?"
"That is what I said. But why would you want to be `cured' of a power? Are you not grateful?"
The old man turned to Andalejo and commanded, "Fetch some hot water," and watched Andalejo's reluctant withdrawal.
"I know what you are going to do! I just got changed back to normal. Do I have to go back to being a girl?"
"For only a moment. I did not see you change in the sweat bath, or I would not need to see it, now. I can feel the possibility of change in the air around you, but I must see it."
"Can you help me?" Ramon asked, afraid to hope.
"Probably not. But I would like to understand what happens. And do not despair. As I have said, sometimes these powers just go away. But sometimes, if you do not treat them with respect, you can get hurt."
Andalejo returned with a gourd full of hot water, then turned his back as Ramon was splashed.
"I do not want to watch this part," he explained, then added over his shoulder, "Someone is coming!"
Lucha pushed through the doorway.
"I need some cold water," said Machita, but the shaman shook his head, indicating with his chin Machita's sister. Lucha stood uneasily, shuffling a small bundle from hand to hand.
"That must wait," said Broken Cloud. He went to Lucha and accepted the gifts, placing them to the side as he peered closely at her face. "You are having trouble with your balance," he announced.
"Since a few weeks ago," admitted Lucha. She did not seem surprised to see Machita, and barely noticed the slack-jawed Andalejo who was trying to disappear behind a pile of skins.
"Something you are eating does not agree with you," said the old shaman, "You should try a short fast."
"I have fasted. It did not help."
"You ate nothing?"
"Nothing, just water and some tea Yucca has been bringing me. She says it is supposed to help, but it doesn't make any difference."
Machita moved closer, and the dangling pendant reflected a stray gleam of light from the doorway.
Broken Cloud had felt a powerful premonition come upon him as he saw the two girls together. He staggered now as from a blow, sat down hard on the floorskin. The youths rushed to steady him.
"Something about the pendant," he said, "There is something strange about it. Let me see your necklace!" he demanded.
Both girls handed him their jewelry, the familiar pendant he knew to be Lucha's but now being worn by Machita, and another being worn by Lucha. As he weighed them in his hands he felt an itchy, irritating sensation in the hand with Lucha's pendant. "Keep this safe," he demanded, "It can be a very powerful charm."
He reluctantly handed the silver and turquoise ornaments back.
"Go," he said, indicating the doorway. "Do not drink any more tea." To Machita, he said, "See that nothing upsets her for awhile." Machita, big-eyed, nodded understanding. Andalejo shadowed them out the doorway.
Broken Cloud returned to his seat before the blanket and gathered the corn kernels. What he had felt, a sensation of doom and disaster, was somehow tied up with that pendant... something about the pendant, but not caused by it. He must ask Spider. He had felt danger. Danger to everyone, but especially to Lucha. He had been given a glimpse of someone, something stalking the camp. Someone powerful, after Lucha. A witch.
And Yucca was not helping matters by feeding her that tea. He could guess what the ingredients were, but not why. What could she gain by controlling Lucha? They were friends. He was puzzled, but more concerned with the witch. From the depths of his most guarded storage basket he drew out a small pouch of brown dust. Yes, he would have to talk to Spider.
THE RITE STUFF:
"Who was that old woman who spent the night in our wickiup?" Machita asked of Lucha, "Why did you call her `Mother'?"
"She was a friend, and her name is Sweet Corn. She was concerned that you and the Azuma girl were in a house with a man, alone, and she wanted to see that your reputations did not suffer."
"Oh. Yeah," Machita hesitated, wondering again how long it would take the gossip in the small camp to get around. Sweet Corn was already wondering. Lucha would hear strange tales about her sister very soon. Machita decided to let Lucha know the truth, even though Broken Cloud had said not to upset her. She said, "I just wanted to tell you..."
Lucha was absently watching the racing boys. She interrupted, saying, "During my puberty rites, that woman was my attendant. We became very close, she calls me her daughter and I call her my mother. So, I suppose you could say that I now have three mothers."
"Ahhh...Puberty rites?" Machita remember overhearing chance remarks about puberty. Puberty... puberty... something about girls... that was when... her eyes suddenly became very wide, and she swallowed with an effort.
[I do *not* think I want to talk about this,] she thought.
"When I came of age. The celebration lasted four days," explained Lucha, "I suppose Mexicans do not have puberty rites. Did you not celebrate when you became a woman?"
"Ahhh... yes, no... they do, sort of...." Machita stuttered, "Of course, Mama seemed pleased." She recalled Mama's reaction when she had discovered Ramon's curse, and thought [At least, *I* did not celebrate!]
Lucha was still watching the race and did not notice that Machita's cheeks were flaming red. "Come with me," she said, "They are preparing a big feast and you can help me. I am supposed to find some honey. And get some decent clothes on, will you? I am supposed to be the tomboy in my family!"
GOING TO THE BEETREE:
Three girls set out to find the honey tree which Lucha knew about. Machita and Red Cloud walked in silence, carrying their burden baskets, while Lucha looked for words to say.
"I am wondering," she began, "Where is our brother? I would like to meet him."
"Who?" Machita stumbled and stuttered, "You mean where is... I am, that is..."
The older girl seemed not to notice her fumble. She continued, "My mother told me that he was here, and that he looks just like me! But where is he?"
"Maybe he is at the spring," Machita said, recalling the excuse Red Cloud had used earlier.
"Right now? Are you sure?" Lucha arched an eyebrow, "Why would he go there?"
Red Cloud drew Machita away.
"Did I say something wrong?" Machita asked.
"The only people at the springs at this hour are girls taking a bath," grinned Red Cloud.
"Oh, no!" groaned Machita, "Now she thinks I am some kind of pervert!"
They caught up with Lucha and walked for a time in silence. The silence was broken when Lucha said, in a subdued voice, "Tell me about your... our family."
Machita kicked her skirts out of the way as she scrubbed her moccasins through the grass along the trail.
"Mama is a warm, understanding woman," she began, "Although she sometimes gets an idea in her head and won't let go. Papa... Well, he is not your Papa, he is mine... Papa is a horse trader. Sometimes he traveled a great deal in his younger days. That is how he met Mama, when he bought her from the Comanche. She did not tell him about you, at the time."
"I have dreamed about my family coming for me. When I was a child, I would lie awake, watching the stars, and wonder what they were like..." Lucha corrected herself, "...What you were like. Tell me about *my* father."
"I can't," Machita replied, soberly, "Mama would not admit to me that she had lost a daughter, until recently. All I know is that she was in some fighting, your father was killed, and then the Comanche found her... and you. Somehow you were separated, and then Papa bought her."
"And the N'de found me. My moth... Willow Woman says that all the Comanche were dead, already."
"It might be nice to have two mothers," mused Red Cloud as she walked behind them, "Especially when you know both love you."
"If she loved me so much, why did she not tell someone?"
"She let Papa know," said Machita, "He searched for years, and sometimes I went along. Then one day someone told him that you were dead, and he quit looking."
"I am alive!"
"My Papa does some dumb things, but he would never have given up if he had known. We went to a Comanche camp where they took him and showed him a girl about your age. She was dying. I think Papa and Mama both lost heart at that time."
Red Cloud said, "His father came from our tribe. He is honorable."
Lucha looked closely at Machita, eyeing her features. "That would make you part Azuma, wouldn't it?" she asked.
"Sorta," admitted Machita, "But we stay with Mama. She does not like for him to do Azuma things."
"What did you do when you were at the camp of the Comanche?"
"Oh. That. I... umh... wrestled a girl." Machita tensed at a rustling noise in a nearby thicket.
"That sounds fair. At least they did not have you embarrass some boy by wrestling him. Who won?" Lucha asked.
"I did," Machita sighed, "I cheated. I used my fists."
"But you won."
"Yeah. What difference does that make?"
Lucha remained silent as they negotiated a narrow path between boulders and she pondered the question. "It matters," she said, finally.
They heard squeals and grunts from down the ridge. "What is that animal I am hearing?" asked Machita.
"That sounds like javalinas," said Lucha, "They will not bother us if we leave them alone. But beware if you see their young. They will attack you then." She pointed up the slope at an immense oak tree with bees clouding around a gray mass in the limbs and said, "There it is."
While Lucha readied a burden basket and started a small, smoky blaze in a depression, Machita and Red Cloud studied how to get the hive down from the tree. "We'll use a sling," suggested Red Cloud.
"Okay," Machita readied four braided ropes with a diamond shaped buckskin pouch appended and found a suitable stone. Red Cloud brought out her own sling and used it to bounce a stone off the hive, which resulted in the cloud of bees becoming thicker and several bees coming down to buzz around at ground level.
Machita's stone flew dead center. While this marksmanship did the job and knocked the hive free of the tree, it also brought the hive's guards closer to their attackers. Lucha, safe behind a screen of smoke, laughed at their frantic attempts at evasion as the bees chased them about the clearing. When they finally made it to the partial security of the smokey fire, they sat about counting stings and pulling out the stingers.
"Yucca has some balm for that, but it will have to wait until we get back to the camp," said Lucha, "Now we will have to smoke out the bees."
Machita collected their ropes, tied them into a long riata and used it to snag the hive. Pulling the hive closer to the smoke she warned the others, "Better be ready to run!" The bees were reluctant to enter the smoke-filled depression, however, and soon after they had a load of honey for their burden baskets.
LUCHA HATES BOYS:
"Javelinas are very fierce," said Lucha, "I have known them to follow a man for miles, waiting for the chance to attack him. But they are not very smart. If they show themselves, we will move away from them."
"What else could be making those noises?"
"I have seen boys tease girls by pretending to be animals, making fierce noises. Sometimes a boy from an unfriendly tribe might come here, trying to do something brave. Sometimes a boy will go to another camp to explore. If he is not a friend, he may try to steal something."
"Or spy on the girls?"
Lucha laughed, "Of course, some Elder will criticize us for going out without an escort, anyway. There will be an older person coming with us when we go to the storage cave, later."
"Don't they trust the boys?" Machita wondered.
"Most Apache boys are painfully shy," said Lucha with a grimace, "...with one exception that I can name," said Lucha, "But there are men from other tribes around."
"I'll bet there are boys you don't know about," said Red Cloud. Machita wrinkled her nose at her.
"If a man tried to attack us, then I would first make him not a man," Lucha said savagely. She drew her knife, showing off for her little sister, "Then, I would slit his nose, to let others know what he has done."
"Uh-oh," Machita gulped, staring at the knife and the gleam of certainty in her sister's eyes. Overhead, the skies darkened and a warning rumble of thunder came from across the mountain.
"It looks like rain," said Red Cloud.
Machita was near panic. "We better hurry!" she cried, and ran as fast as her burden would allow.
COLD WATERS RUN DEEP:
"It is not much farther," puffed Lucha, "We'll have to cross a stream and go up that hill. Beyond the crest we can get back to the main trail."
Machita slowed. "Stream?" she said in a voice that quavered slightly, "Cold water?"
"You can walk across," Lucha assured her, "Only your feet will get wet."
"He... she has a problem with cold water," said Red Cloud, "An old illness. It could flare up again at any time."
"I could get *really* sick," Machita promised her, remembering the gleam in her sister's eye as she waved her knife. What would Lucha think if a boy suddenly appeared beside her? How quickly would she strike before Ramon could explain? Machita swallowed again. Was it even possible for him to explain?
"Very well," sighed Lucha, "There are stepping stones up this way. I don't want you to get sick."
Machita gauged the distance between stones carefully before taking a step. The first stone was flat and dry. The next stone was damp and mossy, but comfortably close. When she stepped on it, however, it wobbled.
Poised on tiptoe, feeling her foot slide gently down the mossy surface toward the cold water, Machita bent at the waist and flailed her arms. As she tipped forward, she felt the burden basket shift to one side. She felt her balance teetering from the perpendicular to the potentially very wet.
The next stone beckoned, another mossback slab with a rounded top, a long distance away. Her foot slid faster.
She flexed her knees and jumped for the next stone. The moss was slippery here, too, and she danced desperately as she tried to keep her balance. Not waiting to see if she would slide off, she stepped on another flat mossy slab, and then she was on dry earth.
Lucha was watching with a trace of exasperation. "Do you always have that much trouble crossing streams?" she asked.
"I didn't, before I got like this," Machita muttered.
"You need some lessons in self-confidence," said Red Cloud, "You should have gotten used to it by now."
"That's what you always say," grumbled Machita, "I don't think more lessons is the answer."
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU ASK FOR:
The rain clouds delivered only a brief shower, and soon the skies were clear. In one wickiup within the Apache camp, however, one person remained shaken.
"That was too close!" cried Machita.
"I thought you wanted to tell her," Red Cloud said.
"Did you see the way she waved that knife? She wanted to use it! What would she have done if I had fallen into the water?"
"I suppose she would have decided that you were a witch."
"Worse than that! Brrrr! I do not want to think about it!" Machita said as she brushed her hair back with her fingers, "I can't stand it! I can't last a day without getting splashed or rained on!" Realizing that she had been grooming herself, she sat on her hands.
"Maybe I can help. Your hair is too dry. Let me rub some lotion into it," Red Cloud said as she carefully lifted a tiny clay pot from her pack. It was wax-sealed and intricately carved, with tiny creatures parading about its sides.
"What is that?" Machita asked, squinting to see it better in the dim light.
"This is a part of my medicine," explained Red Cloud, "It is a kind of lotion, made of clarified fat from a bear who..."
"You want to rub me with bear-grease?" said Machita, screwing up her face, "What good will that do?"
Red Cloud's eyes narrowed. "If nothing else, it will make your skin smoother," she said, "Besides, the person who donated this..."
Again Machita interrupted, saying, "I don't care about smooth skin. All I want is to get out of this mess! Take that junk away!"
"You were the one who wanted to find his sister," Red Cloud reminded her, "Besides, you ought to care a little about the person who made this unguent for us. When he grew old and knew he was about to die..."
"Oh, rub it on!" snorted Machita, "It's not like it is going to do any good, anyway!"
Red Cloud sat for a moment before opening the clay pot, as though she would say something else. The moment passed. With a sigh, she began to rub the ointment onto Machita's hair, arms and back.
After a moment the sensation was so calming that Machita began to loll her head back and forth in rhythm. Suddenly she snapped upright.
"I wasn't falling asleep!" she protested. Her hair felt a little sticky but was quickly drying.
"Now, you must rub some on your legs and the rest of your body," said Red Cloud.
"All I needed was a little in my hair."
"Your hands and your skin are much too rough," said Red Cloud, "They will wonder what kind of person your sister has for a family."
"Do I have to? I am tired, and I want to rest."
"You are feeling sorry for yourself. I will leave you here. Remember, rub it all over you. Every part." Red Cloud left while Machita complied with a grumble.
There were games of hoop and pole in the field, while close by a stout lad and a slim youth had begun the wrestling. Taking a break from helping prepare the food, Lucha found a hummock to relax on. Willow Woman sat beside Lucha with a sigh.
"I remember the day he brought you to me," said Willow Woman, "You were so tiny, and so fierce. You were about two summers old, and you were so sure of yourself. You already knew your name. You would not answer to any other. My husband said, `I would have brought you a boy, but we found this one among some dead Comanche, and I could not leave her.' He wanted to capture a boy. He never told me who killed the Comanche, but I do not think it was him."
Her eyes misted over as she said, "The thing I loved about him was the care he took of such a little one, all the way home from Mexico."
Lucha fidgeted uncomfortably. "Mother," she said, "You have seen the ponies?"
Her foster mother nodded, but she was sober and restrained, not delirious with excitement as Lucha had feared.
"I could hardly miss them, tied outside the doorway," Willow Woman said, "What are you going to do about it?"
"I don't want to marry anyone," said Lucha, "I am not even certain that I did this thing, telling everyone I was ready to chose. My head feels full of wool, but I would remember cutting my hair to hang on the doorway. And when I try to tell everyone that there has been a mistake, I begin to get dizzy."
"I gave you the gifts for Broken Cloud to pay for his services. Have you not spoken to him about this?"
"Mother, I know you had to borrow those things we gave to him. Since Father died, you have had no one to take care of you. If I do not marry, you will have to beg."
"Hush," said Willow Woman, "No one begs in this camp. Anyone who kills a deer must give part to widows and cripples. And you are a huntress, also. The other day you brought in a good deer," She turned aside from the sport to face Lucha, "But I saw you do a curious thing. Why did you turn aside from Buffalo Wattle? Was he asking for a share?"
"Him? He would die of shame, first. He wanted to carry the deer into camp so he could have the honor of giving away the best parts," Lucha dropped her gaze, "I was prideful. I would not let him do it."
"I have always thought Buffalo Wattle to be a good boy, and now a fine man," said Willow Woman pensively, "But if you do not want him, it is for you to say."
"I do not know what I want," admitted Lucha. The bout ended with the stout lad yielding and she arose with Willow Woman to return to the feast preparations.
YOU CAN'T STOP NOW:
Outside the wickiup, Machita paused, tight with apprehension, as Lucha appeared. Her older sister seemed refreshed and almost happy. Machita braced herself for the inevitable explosion, the bitter tirade Lucha would launch when she saw that Machita was actually a boy. What would she call him? Would she use the knife?
"Hey, listen! Lucha!"
"What is it? When you call my name I think you want something important!"
"Well, it is important, really," Machita said, then added, "What should I call you?"
"I think you came looking for your sister. How about `I Have Found My Sister'?"
Machita made a face and said, "That is too cumbersome. How about just plain `Sister'?"
Lucha nodded, with a faint smile to show that she was not displeased. "That would do. Now, what is so important? And why do you wear the man's clothing again? Are you going somewhere?"
"Look at this," Machita said, and she poured the cold water over her head.
"You really ought to put your dress back on," said Lucha, "You are going to look silly wearing pants."
"But this is..." Machita gasped and examined herself closely.
"And, if I am to tell others that you are my sister, then you must stop acting so strange. People will say you are crazy if you go about feeling of yourself all the time."
"I didn't change!" gasped Machita, "The curse didn't work! Maybe it wore off! That means..." The full import of the revelation hit her with a the force of a bull elk. "But... but... That means I am stuck as a GIRL!"
MANO A MANO:
Wolf Walker had stretched and worked his muscles until they sang in the cool morning air. The bedding in the wickiup had been too small and too narrow, and his shoulders had complained until he finished his morning sprint.
Now, as the day wore on, he was waiting for the wrestling matches to begin. He saw Buffalo Wattle stride imperiously past with his retinue of young warriors. Wolf Walker followed them to the open area where the contests were to be held.
Buffalo Wattle saw him and called back to him with a sneer, "Ho, Azuma child. Do you wish to give up now, before you get hurt?"
Wolf Walker smiled grimly, "No, Skirttail-hider," he said, "I shall be there waiting for you."
"Take all the time you want," growled Buffalo Wattle, "I shall beat you just as solidly whenever we meet." He turned aside from his friends and went to greet a girl who had walked up from the main part of the camp.
His return taunt dying in his throat, Wolf Walker gazed at the girl. There was something about her, something familiar, that he could not clearly identify. Something else about her called to him, and he started abruptly when he realized that he had been staring at her.
"She is... beautiful!" he whispered. He did not see the younger girl with Lucha, who had ducked back out of sight upon spying him.
"She is MINE!" Buffalo Wattle whispered back harshly.
"Who IS that?" demanded Wolf Walker.
"My wife-to-be!" snapped Buffalo Wattle, "So you can keep your eyes off her. She is mine!"
"I am thinking she did not seem very happy to see you," noted the Azuma lad.
They faced off and Tall Horse dropped his hand, signaling the commencement of hostilities. Buffalo Wattle surged in close immediately and attempted to yank Wolf Walker from his feet by grabbing his leggings and jerking upward. Wolf Walker regained his footing and got an arm around Buffalo Wattle's thick neck, and they settled into grappling for leverage.
The second entry into the beyond land was rougher than the first. Broken Cloud was weary from his first dream. The bitter brew clawed at the back of his throat and threatened to re-emerge violently as his stomach protested. He held it down as long as he could.
Spider was waiting for him, trying to choke him and strangle him before he could get his bearings. Defeating Spider exhausted him, but the many-legged creature managed to talk to him for a short time before he had to fight again.
There was a witch. And the witch would bring monsters, creatures of evil intent, coming to strike the village. He must warn the people, tell them how to fight the demonic beasts. While Spider gave instructions he began to awaken, losing words even as he heard them, though he clung with all his might to the dream.
A SPECTATOR SPORT:
Lucha sat on the hummock, fighting the urge to scream. She did not want to endure this. Two young warriors, both eyeing her as they battled. Both thought to impress her with their skills and strength. Boring. Around her, other girls were calling for their favorite to win, some for Buffalo Wattle, some for the stranger. Her sister had gone running off, for some reason.
The battle strayed from the open area into the main camp, and still they strove... separating long enough to catch a breath, coming together with a grunt of exertion, vying for a hold, pushing apart again. Self-proclaimed referees cleared spectators away to make room for the combatants.
Still, the stranger seemed to be holding his own. Behind her mask of boredom, she watched him as he fought.
"We made some sunflower seed cakes for the children. Would you like one?" Little Mouse handed her a snack which Lucha guarded against the dust knocked into the air by the combatants. "Who do you favor?" Little Mouse wanted to know.
Lucha made a noncommittal response, which her friend chose to interpret as being favorable to Buffalo Wattle. Beaming, Little Mouse added, "The children are as hungry as mountain lions. They have been begging for pinon nuts. As soon as your favorite wins, Yucca wants us to go to the far storage cave and get a few bags for the feast."
Lucha took a small bite of the cake and shrugged.
The tall stranger looked up at her and saw her staring at him, so she turned her face away.
When she turned back, she was looking into a horse's face. With a loud snuffle, the horse wrapped a long pink tongue about the sunflower seed cake Lucha had been munching and pulled it out of her hand. Surprised, Lucha pulled away from the beast, jostling Little Mouse, who was seated beside her. Little Mouse jumped to her feet and said excitedly, "Lucha has fed a pony!"
"What? No, I did not!" flared Lucha.
"Yes!" laughed Little Mouse, "Look! Lucha has selected a pony!"
"Does that mean she has selected a suitor?" Someone else asked, "Whose pony is it?" Then others started laughing when they realized that the mare belonged to the Yankee cowboy.
"Are you going to marry him?" they teased.
"No! Of course not!" cried Lucha, but everyone was laughing so hard that they could not hear her.
Wolf Walker had his elbow around Buffalo Wattle's bull neck and was improving his grip when he heard the commotion, but resolved to not let it affect him. Blocking Buffalo Wattle's weakening struggle, he was concentrating so hard on the hold that when Buffalo Wattle cried out and uncoiled toward Lucha he was taken by surprise. They were dangerously near a cooking fire and Wolf Walker lost his balance, bounced off a pot of scalding water.
Buffalo Wattle, hurrying to his self-proclaimed wife-to-be, heard a yip of pain and glanced back at his adversary. He saw no one except a small gray shape with a white diagonal line across its back as it streaked out of camp.
It was too late to stop the story of the muffin munching mare - it was soon all over the camp. Lucha, indignant about the whole thing, gathered her blanket and headed for her wickiup, when she ran head-on into Lonesome who had come to get the mare.
Irritated, she stared at him stonily while he glared at her. About this time the crowd caught up with them, carousing and laughing about the irony of it all. For a moment she stood, face to face with the Yanqui cowboy, until she fled to her wickiup.
Buffalo Wattle protested, ranting about how the incident meant nothing since she did not INTEND to feed the animal.
At the overturned pot, Red Cloud picked up the soaked leggings and pondered them. She started back to the wickiup where she had last seen Machita.
There were a group of Apache men clustered about Lonesome. They did not appear to be menacing him, so Angie was not worried until he broke out of the group and stomped toward her.
"I'm ready to leave," he announced. Several of the men were laughing uproariously, and the object of their humor appeared to be Lonesome.
"Daddy left long ago," she said, "What's the joke?"
"They think its funny," snarled Lonesome, "That dang mare ate this gal's food, and now they say I have to marry her."
Angie had to cover her mouth with her hand. She did not want to laugh at Lonesome's embarrassed expression.
"You have to tie your horse in front of her wickiup in order to qualify," she said. Seeing his expression become slightly grimmer, she asked, "You didn't...."
Lonesome nodded. "I thought that was their hitching area," he said, "Anyhow, the dang mare pulled loose."
Angie could not help herself. She held her mouth shut but a snicker leaked out her nose, which tickled her even more. Then she laughed until the tears rolled down her cheeks.
"I guess we'll have to get you unengaged," she was finally able to say, "Fortunately, the chief is a friend of ours. He'll set things straight."
Tom Goose studied the problem for long minutes, then regretfully declined to commit himself. "I am only their chief when we have to deal with other tribes," he said, "I do not get involved with engagements. You will have to ask someone else." He waited a while longer, then smiled as a thought occurred to him. He said, "Ask Broken Cloud. He is an old friend. He likes to give advice."
Broken Cloud stopped his singsong murmur when he felt their presence at the doorskin. He looked at the couple and he could see their true forms, shining about them like the mist of the waterfall. "Aiyuh, Little Comstock," he said, "What troubles you?"
"Forgive us, Uncle," began Angie, pausing long enough to swallow a giggle, "We have a problem for you to clear up."
His eyes were bleary from want of sleep, and he had much to do before the day was over. The others had to be warned, told how to fight the demons. But not now. Something whispered that this, too, was important.
As the white woman explained the situation, he shrugged. Yes. This was an answer to one of his prayers.
"So, you see," finished Angie, "We need you to tell everyone it is a joke. Okay?"
Broken Cloud sat upright and faced her. "It is not a joke," he intoned, "She must marry him and go with him."
Angie's jaw dropped. "What!?!?" she cried.
CHAPTER VEINTISEIS: END