There are times when two people will meet despite all precautions. Broken Cloud had avoided Bluenose for years. He had only asked him, indirectly, to the gathering because of concern for Tom Goose.
The last time Broken Cloud had spoken to the shaman of the Loose Foot band, he had uttered one word. The word itself was of no consequence, since he was angry and wanted Bluenose to get out of his sight. Broken Cloud had even endured the embarrassment in the steam bath without directly speaking to Bluenose. Though they had seen each other several times since the incident that had sparked their antipathy, they had never renewed their conversation. Until now.
Broken Cloud was seeking Yucca Blossom when he came upon Bluenose, who was standing beside the path, waiting.
"Talk with me," Bluenose said as he matched pace with the older man.
Broken Cloud shrugged. "We have nothing to say," he grated, "You are an immature fool who meddles where he has no business. You have caused me heartache," and he repeated the last word he had said, several years before, "Begone!"
Bluenose watched him go, his face a blank mask devoid of expression.
Yucca searched the trail near the spring, feeling an inexplicable sense of need. [She came this way, I am certain,] she thought. [I must talk to her and convince her to give up Ramon.]
[Ramon is mine,] her thoughts continued, [I spoke for him, and he was meant to be mine! I have to find a way to show him that I return his love!]
Her breath trembled with the memory of the hot glances he had shared with her, last night at the story-telling. He covered his actions, pretending to be nervous and pre-occupied, but occasionally he would look at the faces around the fire. Oh, he pretended to be looking for someone else, but each time his burning gaze would sweep past her, his eyes would meet hers. His glance would spear her heart.
For a single, fleeting instant, delicious with promise and hot desire, they would share a searing intimacy before he had to look elsewhere. He could not let the others know that it was Yucca that he desired. Especially, he could not let that jealous tart Machita know.
Oh, she knew Machita's kind. They always ignored a boy until Yucca showed an interest, then grabbed him and poisoned his mind against her before she even had a chance to get close to him. The first time Yucca had met her, Machita had attempted to assert her claim on Ramon. She had lied, saying how close she was to him. Obviously she had designs on him, and she must be removed from the picture.
She found her goal in cool shadows. Yucca smiled as she came upon the Mexican girl sitting on the boulders below the spring. It was a cold smile.
Still wearing the white pantalones and blouse, Machita sat cross-legged on a boulder, watching a rivulet of cold spring water flowing over the lip of the rock. Occasionally, she slapped at the water and sent a spray of cold droplets all about her. The sound of a hawk caught her attention and she looked up and watched it for a while, then returned to brooding. She hardly noticed when Yucca came up beside her.
"I have made some dandelion tea for you," said Yucca, "It will make you feel better. You look like you could use some cheering up."
Above, the hawk settled to the upper limb of a juniper tree, intent upon a small hole beneath a bush, where a tufted tail twitched.
"It does not matter," growled Machita, "Nothing matters. It is all over."
"But I hate to see you so unhappy," crooned Yucca, "Is there anything I can do?"
Machita looked up at her with reddened eyes. "No," she whispered, "No one can help. It is all over."
Yucca sat beside Machita, smoothing her buckskin skirt.
[This is going to be easy,] she thought, [Gain her confidence, lull her suspicions, and look for an opening to use the voice of power.]
"Tell me about it," she said aloud, "I want to help."
"No one else does. They won't even look at me. Or they look too much. Why are you so interested?"
"Because I am going to be a great medicine woman. I have to be able to listen."
"You would not understand."
The hawk, still watchful, cocked its head and appeared to be asleep.
"Is it because of your sister?" Yucca finally asked.
Machita gave her a half-nod, then shook her head. Tiny drops of water showered from her short hair. "You have talked more than anyone else I have met here," she said.
"Very well. I will be quiet."
"Never mind. I do not feel like being polite. Everything is ruined."
The hawk again shifted position, muscles bunching for a leap into space.
Yucca put all her training into modulating her voice, trembling with the power as she said, "Then you won't mind if I tell you that you will stand up and walk back to the spring."
"I will not mind," Machita said as she started to clamber to her feet, then collapsed back onto the flat rock, "I do not mind at all. I just don't feel like doing anything."
Yucca came upright in surprise. "You don't?" she almost shouted.
Machita again slapped the water. "Cold," she said, "Cold water. But it does not matter, anymore."
[She did not respond to the voice?] Yucca fretted, [Only Lucha has been able to withstand the influence. What is it with these sisters?]
But all was not lost. If she could somehow bring Machita under her influence, she could force her to drink the tea.... In desperation, Yucca lifted her walking stick. It would have to do. A well placed blow to the head, just enough to stun her....
Springing into the air, the hawk plummeted earthward toward the unwary mouse. The hawk beat its wings mightily, rising with a tiny bundle of fur jerking in its talons.
Machita glimpsed the movement of the hawk as it stooped, and as she turned her head to watch she heard the whistle of the descending club as it missed her by a hair's breadth. She turned to see the determination on Yucca's face as the Apache girl raised the club for another blow.
Machita voiced her surprise, fright, and shock in a roar of anger. Unfortunately for her lowered self-esteem, this blast of fury came out as a very feminine squeak.
"What are you doing?" squealed Machita.
"You must give up Ramon!" Yucca cried.
"Are you crazy? I cannot do that!"
"Then I must make you leave him! You cannot get between us! He loves me, not you!"
"I do not!" Machita dodged as Yucca swung the walking stick at her again and again.
The Apache girl wept as she hammered at the Mexican girl, tearing up the bushes and sending up clouds of dust when she missed. "You can't have him! He is mine!" Yucca shouted. She swung again, but struck only a glancing blow.
"But I don't want him! Ooohhh, what is the use?"
Machita darted in close to Yucca and grabbed her by the arms, pinning her arms by her side. Face to face, she cried, "Look, I can't get between you and Ramon! I don't want him! But you can't have him!"
They were so close that she could feel the heat from the other's face. Yucca sobbed, "Then who claims him? He must be free to choose me!"
"Listen, he..." Machita paused. She could not say that Ramon loved another, because then Yucca would attack that person as well. If this spitfire caught Estrellita by surprise, the rancherita would not stand a chance. Red Cloud could handle herself, but.... Shock registered on Machita's face and she loosened her hold enough for the Apache girl to squirm free.
[Why did I think that?] Machita wondered.
Yucca, freed from her grip, raised the club again. "I can't kill you here," she said, "That would be bad luck - no one would be able to use this trail to get to the spring." She was interrupted by a groan from a pile of blankets near the trail ahead.
Yucca suddenly stiffened and glared. "You!" she hissed, and bolted away.
Machita stood alone, wondering what had happened.
Beside the trail, the blankets spilled to the side and a gnarled old woman crawled out from beneath.
"Oiyeh!" cried the old woman, "My head is splitting. My guts are tied in knots. My muscles refuse to work." She bowed her head between her knees for a moment, then added, "Oiyeh! That was a good batch!"
"Are you drunk?" asked Machita hesitantly.
"Of course not!" she stated vehemently, "Last night I was drunk. Today I am sober. Ooohh."
"I'd better leave you alone," Machita made as though to rise but the old woman clamped a hand on her wrist and bore her back to the path.
"No, no!" she insisted, "Stay here for a while. Talk to me. I am lonely, and no one will talk to me."
Looking about apprehensively, Machita squatted by her side.
"Why will no one talk with you?" Machita asked, then fanned away an exhalation of noxious fumes. "Besides your breath, I mean," she added.
The old woman eyed her. "Has no one told you?" she asked, then said, "Of course not. If they told you, you would run screaming in fright. Instead, you stand here with your tongue hanging out like a dog waiting to be patted. Good boy!" She patted Machita's hair with a bony hand.
The Mexican girl drew back from her, upper lip curled.
The woman released a sigh which mingled with a subterranean belch. "Ahh. A good batch. Too bad I drank most of it myself. No one wants to share when there are ghosts around."
"Good company, most of them. Except for that Pima warrior who got lost and wandered in the other day."
"Did you say ghosts?"
"But there has to be a reason why I am here, and you are here, and the rest of the camp is there." She pointed around in a circle and ended up indicating the top of a nearby pinon tree.
"Pardon me... but you did say ghosts?"
"Of course I said ghosts, boy! What do you think I said?"
"I thought you said... Why did you call me 'boy'?"
"Why do you call me 'crazy old woman'?"
"I did not call you a crazy old woman!"
"Well, you thought it. Same thing. You are rude and obnoxious. It is obvious you are a boy. You make a terrible girl."
"At least we agree on something!" Machita snapped, then suddenly became very somber. "I was a boy. But now it is too late. It is all over."
"Will you cease your blubbering? It makes my skin itch. The last time I saw you, you were a boy. Nothing has changed."
"Where did you see me.... Wait! You are the crazy old woman who follows Mud Wallow!"
"See? See? You just called me a crazy old woman!"
"That's not fair! That is what they called you back at the rancho! I was just repeating what they said!"
The old woman stared at Machita with eyes that could peel bark. She asked in a cotton-soft voice, "Is there any reason why you are yelling?"
"You started it!"
"I didn't make you weep and moan, like a beaten dog. You did that yourself."
"What do you know? I have lost everything!"
The old woman grasped the smaller of her blankets by the corners and twirled it over until it rolled into a thick rope. She flicked one end forward like a whip and it popped loudly.
"What do *I* know about losing something? I will *tell* you what I know, you ungrateful little whelp!" The corner of the blanket snaked around behind Machita and cracked against her buttocks.
"Ow!" cried Machita, trying to get away from the punishing whip, "That hurt!"
"I have lost my family," said the old woman as she rolled the blanket again, "I have to sneak around and watch my children grow up, because they fear me. They run away from me, screaming. And you ask me what I know about losing everything?"
The blanket popped loudly again, and Machita took to her heels to escape. She scrambled down the trail, running with all her might as she tried to avoid the stinging blows.
The old woman stayed close behind her, applying the makeshift weapon with gusto until the Mexican girl stopped and refused to run anymore.
"I do not want to hurt you!" Machita cried shakily as she faced her tormentor, "but if you do not stop that, I will take that blanket away from you and use it on you!"
"Go away," said the old woman, barely winded, "Leave me to rot in peace. If you cannot be civil, I will not speak with you."
Machita bit back a tearful retort and limped away.
Almost out of earshot, the woman grumbled and pulled the blankets back about her in the warmth of the sun.
A PANEL OF PEERS DISCUSS LUCHA'S CHOICE:
"I would be thrilled!" exclaimed Little Mouse, "Just think, two men claiming you for a wife! And how many ponies did you have outside your doorway?"
"You know, you shocked everyone when you announced you were ready to marry," said Swift, Lucha's other girl friend, "We all figured you would never find anyone who suited you!"
"I think she should take Buffalo Wattle. He is a very strong warrior. He would provide for her," Little Mouse said.
"I did not want Buffalo Wattle," Lucha said in a calm voice. She did not want to encourage their conjecture.
"Oh! I see!" crowed Little Mouse, "Then you *do* like the cowboy!"
"No, no! It is not like that! Oh, I want to start over! It was all a mistake! I am not ready to choose a husband!"
"It is too late to back out, now!" Swift said, "You have to choose one! Isn't there any man you would like to be with?"
"Yes, come on! Don't keep us waiting! We know you have someone in mind!" Little Mouse propped her chin on her elbows and waited.
"I don't have anyone in mind!" Lucha said, and tried to turn the course of the conversation, "What about you? Why haven't you made up with White Dog?"
"I won't have anything more to do with White Dog," sniffed Little Mouse, "He is too fickle. He falls in love with every girl he sees."
Swift agreed, "Someone said they saw him trying to talk to that Navajo girl over at the trading post."
"He'd better not let the elders see him flirting with a Navajo!" said Lucha.
"What do you think about that tall guy from Mexico?" Swift sighed dreamily, "Now, he could wrestle! And he was good-looking, too!"
Lucha thought back over the events of the day, turning her head to keep the others from reading the thoughts on her face.
"Say, what happened to him?" Little Mouse wondered.
Swift shook her head. "I don't know," she said, "He just vanished."
"I'll bet he was secretly in love with Lucha! And he was so disappointed when she chose someone else that he went away forever!"
"For the last time, I did not choose the cowboy! That is a misunderstanding!"
"Broken Cloud thought it was serious. He said you have to do it."
"Broken Cloud is not my lord and master!"
"All the same, I liked the tall guy," Swift said, "I wonder where he went?"
THE SUN SHINES ON FUR A WHILE:
Overlooking the camp, peering from beneath a bush, a small, forlorn wolf cub licked his scratches.
From his point of view, close to the ground, the world was closed in by bushes, tall grass, and trees. Added to the sense of claustrophobia which had overwhelmed him in the Apache camp, the visual impediment was enough to bring the cub to his belly in misery.
After being scalded from the overturned cooking pot, Wolf Walker had fled from the cluster of wickiups and shelters. He had been chased by the occasional dog and child while dodging stones the children threw. He had gone to ground in the brush overlooking the camp. Hiding beneath the bush, he whined his sorrow, shuddered once with dread, then began to take stock of his situation.
It was not easy being a small animal in the wild. Almost all other animals were larger, and all larger animals were a threat. Even the seemingly helpless deer and antelope would turn a sharp hoof or horn to him when he blundered too close.
It seemed the only good thing he could find was the sharpness of his senses... his huge ears detected faint sounds he could have never heard as a human, and the aroma of the earth beneath him spoke softly of those who had passed before, like a chorus of voices.
He swung his head about and looked at himself. Fur, legs - no hands, a tail which betrayed his every emotion by whipping between his legs without warning, and a snout. His milk teeth had fallen out and his secondary teeth had formed, and he was in that chubby stage of growth just after weaning and before becoming long and lean from running.
He heaved a gusty puppy-sized sigh. Not a very formidable body.
His thoughts strayed to the vision he had seen at the sporting grounds. He had never known that anyone could be so beautiful! She seemed so familiar, as though she had been around all his life, yet he had seen her only today. Now he had another reason to regret his affliction.
The wolf raised his snout and sent a single, lonely yip toward the heavens, then rose to his feet and headed back for the path that lead to the camp.
When Red Cloud returned, she found Machita staring at the brush walls of the wickiup, her dress pulled on over her white pantalones. The Azuma lass sat down before her and bowed her head contritely.
"I am sorry," she said.
"For what?" sighed Machita. Her eyes were red and puffy, and a tiny teardrop leaked off the end of her nose. She dabbed at the moisture with the white cotton sleeve of her discarded blouse.
"I did not tell you about the potion," said Red Cloud, "and I used it without your permission."
"Oh, that is o...okay," said Machita, "Besides, it doesn't matter anyway. I am stuck as a girl, forever!" She had trouble drawing a breath around the huge lump in her throat.
"But you are not! Only until the bear-grease potion wears off!"
Machita's eyes widened in surprise and sudden hope. "It wears off?" she cried, "I am not cured in the wrong shape?"
"This is something the elders have prepared. Sometimes we must keep our sacred form for long times, such as when we are scouting. We cannot be changing back every time we cross a stream."
Red Cloud looked at her apprehensively, "I did not explain when I rubbed it on you. Are you not terribly angry with me?" she asked.
Machita grabbed her and hugged her tight, "Angry? Maybe tomorrow! Right now I am so happy I could dance! I may not be cured, but I can get back to being me again!"
After only a moment she realized what she was doing and jerked away from Red Cloud. "I'm sorry," she said, "I got excited."
"Oh, I am not angry," grinned Red Cloud, "Maybe tomorrow. Right now, you are happy! I could dance!"
Yucca had recovered her composure when she met Lucha. The Apache girl explained that Tom Goose's second wife, Sweet Corn, had decided that she needed supplies from a storage cache to help feed the hungry guests.
"You can take your sister and her friend," said Yucca, "It would be a good time to get to know them."
"I will accompany you!" declared Buffalo Wattle, who had overheard the assignment, "You must be protected from this pale-eye cowboy!"
Lucha shook her head at his arrogance, but said, "I will go. The camp is too noisy. There is too much going on."
She found Machita and Red Cloud moving their gear into Willow Woman's shelter. "Come with us," Lucha invited, "We are going to a storage cave to get supplies. It is not going to rain, so you do not need to worry."
"I am not worried," Machita said smugly, "Cold water doesn't bother me at all, now."
Buffalo Wattle appeared, wearing a fresh breechclout and carrying a war club. He paused a moment over a pot of water to admire his reflection before presenting himself to the girls.
"I am ready to protect you," he stated. His majestic demeanor melted when he saw the other girls. "You have your pretty friend with you! And another girl! The day is smiling upon me!"
Lucha sighed, made a 'see what I put up with' expression to Machita, and gathered her burden baskets. She distributed one to each of the other girls.
Buffalo Wattle seemed impervious to her expression. He frowned as he was joined by Andalejo and White Dog. Andalejo seemed mesmerized by Lucha, and White Dog also hung back well away from the others.
Lucha sighed again and said, "My sister and her friend will be going with me."
"Your sister?" Buffalo Wattle exclaimed in joy, eyeing Machita, "This beautiful creature is your sister? Now my happiness is complete! This is perfect!"
Machita waited until they were well away from Lucha before she accosted Buffalo Wattle. "What is the matter with you?" she asked him, "Why are you so happy to know I am Lucha's sister?"
"Because now I can have two beautiful wives, with only one mother-in-law to avoid!" Buffalo Wattle said, beaming.
"Oh, boy," groaned Machita, "How can it get any worse?" She noticed a furtive movement out of the corner of her eye, and saw White Dog duck back out of sight. He seemed unaccountably bashful. He was acting like... She looked at Andalejo, who was gazing at Lucha, and back at White Dog, who was gazing at... Machita.
"Oh, no," she groaned again, "It just got worse!"
"Listen!" cried Machita to Buffalo Wattle and White Dog, while they were away from the rest of the group, "You don't understand! I cannot love you! I am a man!"
"Such an ugly lie to taint such lovely lips," said Buffalo Wattle, "Surely someone has placed you under a curse!"
"Yes, yes! That is it, a curse! This is not me, this is not my body! I am someone else!"
"Your heart belongs to another?" White Dog said, crushed.
"Well, sort of...."
"Tell us who this person is!" cried Buffalo Wattle, "Who holds you in bondage?"
"It is not bondage, you big jerk!" replied Machita.
"But does your heart belong to him?" asked White Dog.
"...Then does your body belong to him?" asked Buffalo Wattle.
"No, no! I am...."
"...Does he possess your spirit?" asked White Dog.
"Listen! It is not like that at all! My body, my spirit.... I am Ramon!"
White Dog sighed, and whispered in a forlorn voice, "She loves him so completely! If only I could inspire such passion in her heart for me!"
Buffalo Wattle's face was dark with fury. He cried, "Ramon? That man is a witch, a sorcerer! I have exposed his perfidy! Now I must destroy him!"
A RECEPTION IS ARRANGED:
She struggled to escape, fighting the invisible bonds which held her. To teach her a lesson, Espuma eased the tension until she could almost feel freedom, then tightened the controls that forced her back to his side. Even so, she glared at him with no defeat in her eyes.
"You will not harm Ramon!" she hissed.
"Did I say I was going to hurt your boy-friend? You have done so well, getting Lucha to agree to leave the main camp alone. How can I repay such good service by harming anyone?"
"And Lucha will not be alone! There are men going with them!"
"So much the better! You just leave that detail to my little friends. I am sure they can work something out."
"And you will not harm the girl!"
"Ahhh... Machita? That is *so* sweet! Are you bargaining for her safety, also?"
"She is mine to challenge! Leave her alone!"
"As you wish, so shall it be," Espuma said with a saccharine smile. He released her after moving out of her reach. No point in discovering how effectively she had learned her lessons.
Yucca stumbled back toward the camp, only to find herself facing Broken Cloud.
FIND SOMETHING THEY LOVE:
Broken Cloud addressed his niece directly, "My treasured one, you must stop using your power for witchcraft."
"But Uncle!" she replied, genuinely shocked, "Who says I have been doing this terrible thing?"
"With my own eyes, I have seen it," Broken Cloud's face showed the weight of his years, "You have even used your powers on me. I did not want to admit this to myself, until you told me to ignore the Mexican boy. This is very dangerous stuff you do, making people do what you want. You must stop."
"I have only done what is helpful to people. I would not do anything to harm them."
"With my own eyes," grieved the medicine man, "I have seen you give your tea to the girl called Lucha. You tell her to do things she would not have otherwise done."
"I only suggest that she listen to my brother, when he comes to court her!" protested Yucca, "She would be better off to marry him, and you know it! Her father is gone, her mother is living in poverty, and my brother would make a wonderful husband for her!"
"You have not asked anyone to speak to Lucha's mother. That is the proper way. Would you risk her reputation?"
"My brother would not do anything wrong!" Yucca insisted.
"All the same," sighed Broken Cloud, "You have given her tea to make her mind spin, and you have given her commands. If anyone else saw this, they would call it witchcraft. I, too, love your brother, but he must fight for what he wants. He must earn it, you cannot give it to him as a present. This is doubly so because you will be harming Lucha."
"He is my brother, and I say he deserves her!"
Broken Cloud took a deep breath, feeling the pain of his own words as they cut his heart to ribbons. He uttered the words, "Unless you give up this meddling, I myself will accuse you of witchcraft."
This caught her attention. Wide-eyed with fear, she said, "But Uncle! You would not..."
"Hear me, person who would listen. This person has used words of power upon me, which I cannot countenance. This person has used her own power to meddle in the lives of others, which they do not deserve. I cannot claim this person as my niece, anymore."
"Uncle! Please! I... I won't do this anymore!" Yucca promised, unaware that she was promising the unlikely.
"This person can only hear that person if she speaks politely."
Yucca swallowed painfully, "I... This person... Uncle, you can't mean it!"
Broken Cloud turned his back, so she could not see the tears in his eyes as he addressed the far mountains. "What that person has earned, she must accept," he said when he could trust his voice to remain steady.
"Nooo!" gasped Yucca.
"Then tell me - What has brought about this terrible change in you?"
"I don't know!" wailed Yucca, and she seemed to shrivel inside herself, "I do not want to do this!"
Broken Cloud steeled himself, quelled the desire to comfort her, "What would you do?" he asked.
"First, find what they love," said Yucca. Her voice was rasping and deeper than before, almost like a man's speech.
"What?" Broken Cloud said as he felt, rather than heard, another voice. It seemed to echo along with Yucca's words, as though from the depths of a great cavern.
Yucca stared at him blankly. Now her words were sibilant, husky, as she said, "Find what they love, and you can bind them to you. You have drunk the tea, and that is the second step. My knowledge of the plants is put to good use..."
"Yucca Blossom, my niece," he said, invoking her full name, "Let me help you." She drew back from him, searching wildly about.
A WITCH INDEED:
Chilled with the realization that someone was nearby, Broken Cloud called upon his power of clear seeing. He chanted his seeing spell and the grass became a more brilliant green, the stone shone with luminous legends of ages past, and a dim shadow floated into view, reclining on one of the stones. Broken Cloud lifted his staff, held it with both hands as he would a club.
"Who are you?" he challenged. The shadow flickered into clarity, a wiry man wearing dark trousers and shirt, with his black hair cut short in a Spanish style. A leather belt with strange glyphs and buttons on it went like a sash from left shoulder to right hip.
The sight of the uniform brought rage to the old shaman's heart. A Mexican soldier, here in the heart of the camp? But how...? He recalled what Spider had said, that another was interfering, an outsider threatening the village.
Broken Cloud expected no reply to his challenge, for no witch wants his true name known. With practiced ease, the shaman used grabbed a handful of sacred pollen. He flung a cloud of the golden powder at the interloper. If he was a witch, the pollen would blind or confuse him...if he were not too powerful a witch.
The magical powder sparkled into smoke, which the stranger waved away.
"My name is Espuma, and you can't harm me, you feeble old cripple!" Espuma laughed as the smoke dissipated. He made an adjustment to a button on the sash belt, then stood before the shaman. "Strike me, if you would!" he cried, "You cannot touch me!"
Broken Cloud stepped back. The stranger was bold, extremely sure of his powers. The shaman studied the stranger, looking for clues about the source of his power. If the witch was using the power of the horse, he would be susceptible to the rattlesnake. If he was using eagle power, he could be brought down only by another eagle. If he was using bear power... the shaman shied away from that thought. Bear power was strong, but he was accustomed to the feeling of a person using it.
This witch was using a different type of power, something he had never seen or felt before. What could it be?
Almost absently, he noticed that the noises of the camp continued unabated, as though no one was aware of the duel going on in their midst.
A possibility sprang to mind - Was this person using Coyote Power?
And the answer - No.
Coyote was sneaky enough to pull of a stunt like this, but someone with Coyote power, rascal that he was, would never have the black shadow of an aura that this person wore. This person was evil, but he drew from no known source of power.
"It is clear to me that you are going to be troublesome," hissed Espuma, "Yucca, my dear girl. Please go play with your friends while I talk to this old man."
"Stay!" commanded Broken Cloud.
"Oh, she must go," said Espuma, "You see, I want her to be pliable, and eager - which she will not be if she sees what I intend to do to you. I know how to control her. You obviously do not. Or you are reluctant to use your control, which makes you the bigger fool. Go, my dear."
"I will go where I want to!" snapped Yucca. "I am going to the woods!"
"Have it your way," said Espuma. Watching her leave, he said, "Lovely child. She has this...this *vicious* streak in her. I could almost admire it. Now, about our little problem, here...."
"Depart from this place!" Broken Cloud ordered. He put the full force of his power behind the command, but Espuma only shook his head wearily.
"You really must stop wasting your breath," he said, patting the buttons on his sash, "You see, I can nullify anything you do." Pensively, he paced about the small clearing, adding, "As I said, you are becoming troublesome. I shall have to punish you."
Broken Cloud drew a tremendous breath. He could see dark bands of power swirling about the witch, an unfamiliar black flame with a repugnant stench to his sensitive nostrils. When Espuma fingered the leather sash, the darkness varied. So. This witch had a device from which he drew his power.
As quickly as a rattle snake, Broken Cloud stepped closer to the stranger and thrust his staff at the sash, trying to strike it loose. The staff stopped in midair and rebounded, twisting in his hands and striking him in the face. He found himself sitting on the ground, holding his head in astonishment.
Espuma did not even appear to notice. "What we have here," he said, "is a very stubborn old man. Would it help to demonstrate how helpless he is?" He snapped his fingers and a ball of baleful fire appeared at his fingertips. He sent it hurtling at Broken Cloud's head.
Broken Cloud swung his staff at the ball, knocking it aside, but gobbets of the flame remained stuck to the staff. The fire ate away at it until he could rub it out in the dirt. Stiffly, he regained his feet and faced the intruder. "I can see that you are evil!" he cried, "You must go away! I will kill you if I can!"
"Oh, that is it!" chortled Espuma, "You *can* see, can't you? How very perfect!"
The old shaman watched him warily, his mind racing to find an opening, some way he could breach the seemingly impenetrable barrier around the intruder. He saw the other reach for a button on his sash, and then point....
The world went black.
"Now, let's hear you brag about seeing, old man!" came Espuma's voice, "I can do anything I want, and you can't stop me! I think I will take that staff..." Broken Cloud felt the gnarled wood yanked from his hands, and an instant later he felt it slam against his face, knocking him to the ground. "How many blows does it take to kill an old man?" mused Espuma, "How many before you learn?"
"I have learned a few things through the years," gasped Broken Cloud. He could not see, but he could sense the witch looming near, preparing to strike again. Drawing another deep breath, he marked the exact spot where the witch was standing.
When he had gained his clear sight, he had heard the words which could draw power from the sky. The words had split a tree asunder, creating the splinter mask. For years, he had lived with that knowledge, unwilling to unleash such a horrendous death upon anyone.
He now spoke those words.
The sky had been clearing after the morning rains, blue with only a pale wisp of cloud drifting by. Suddenly, black clouds appeared overhead and split, unleashing a brilliant flare which he saw even in his blindness, a flash of lightning which was answered immediately with deafening thunder.
Broken Cloud was thrown from his feet by the violence of the blast, and stung with splinters from the tree near the witch. Dazed and almost deafened, the first thing he heard upon regaining his feet was the taunting voice of the witch, standing unhurt.
The witch plucked a few scraps of tree bark from his sleeve and tossed them into his face, laughing at him. "Was that the worst you can do?" he asked. "Clearly, you have nothing to worry me. I am wasting my time with you. If you will excuse me, I have an appointment."
Broken Cloud needed no sight to tell him the clearing was empty, as suddenly as a gust of wind.
In the silence that followed, he got to his feet with the use of his walking staff and hobbled painfully out into the open. He waited to answer questions from the concerned people from the camp. Lightning had struck out of a clear sky and they would be wanting an explanation. He would tell them about facing the witch, and for them to be wary. But what could he do then?
He still could not see, but he had been blinded before. He could get around. What concerned him was the empty, hollow feeling that came from defeat - from knowing that he had failed to stop the evil witch. He was no longer Broken Cloud, a man of honor and pride. His lightning had been swallowed as though it were a drop of moonlight. He was broken, blinded...but not beaten. He would defeat the witch.
Out away from the camp, but where his people could still see him, he built a small fire by touch and sat to ponder his dilemma. The realization that he had failed brought the taste of bile to his mouth.
There was another detail which needed attention. In his dream, when he had found the stone which showed him Yucca's betrayal, he had also found a stone for Lucha. The daughter of his old friend was somehow important to him, and the witch was after her.
Anger seethed in the old shaman's breast. This witch had disdainfully entered his camp and attacked him, had suborned his niece into his nefarious plans, and had laughed off Broken Cloud's most powerful attack.
The man without a name wanted to deny the witch any victory. The witch, this Espuma, would not get Lucha.
First, however, it was more necessary than ever to get her to safety. Then, if he could, he must find a way to attack the witch. Though he did not want to do so, he would have to ask for help. He would start with the cowboy, Lonesome.
WHEN TROUBLE FOLLOWS AFTER:
The crack of thunder sounded harsh and unreal, echoing through the canyons and sparse woods. The members of the small party looked about, wondering where the storm was, but they could see no cause for alarm. Buffalo Wattle halted, his arm barring the forward trail. As he listened, his brow descended minutely and a puzzled expression shadowed his face. Then he returned his attention to the grunts and rustling sounds around him.
"Javelinas?" White Dog hazarded a guess.
"Hmm," Buffalo Wattle agreed. He balanced his club over his shoulder.
"They walk ahead of us? Unusual," said White Dog as he hefted his spear and sought a glimpse of the furtive pigs.
The young men appeared to have forgotten Machita, so she kept her mouth shut...until the words popped out, almost of their own accord. "We heard pigs earlier when we went to get honey," she said. Instantly, she shut up, but she had gained their attention again.
"You would not have heard these Javelinas," said Buffalo Wattle, "Your ears are too beautiful to hear them. Such ears are meant for words of love, not the sounds of pigs."
"We all heard them," Lucha interjected before Machita could retort, "They were louder then, more careless."
Buffalo Wattle half turned to see if Lucha was correcting him, but she too was watching the bushes. "Remain alert," he cautioned the rest of the group, "It could be an enemy trick."
Suddenly realizing that she had no weapon, excepting the sling, Machita bent to find stones. She yearned to be able to splash water on herself and revert to male form, despite the dangers. If she were Ramon, he would be guarding the girls. Instead, she was being guarded. The thought itched at the back of her mind and burned like an infected bee-sting.
"So, who is your enemy?" she asked as she straightened, having chosen several large round pebbles.
"Everyone!" replied Buffalo Wattle.
"Not all, but many," White Dog moved his head enough to indicate that he disagreed, "It is good to have enemies. A good enemy will keep you alert and make you strong. I have heard this."
"These Javelinas do not make good enemies," said Andalejo, "They do not show themselves. Instead, they lurk and mutter."
"Are they good to eat?" asked Machita.
"Some do not eat the stinkpig," claimed Andalejo, "They don't eat anything that eats snakes."
"Curious," said Buffalo Wattle, "they do not avoid us, yet they do not attack."
"Where are they?" Machita said as she peered about, "I do not see them."
"Just ahead," said Buffalo Wattle as they came out into the open. To Lucha he said, "Woman, you will remain here while I chase these pests away."
Buffalo Wattle left his club on the ground and drew his knife, a battered steel blade with Spanish markings. Moving so quietly that he appeared to float, he slipped toward the noises. White Dog followed, then Andalejo. Machita started after them, but Lucha raised her hand and shook her head. Reluctantly, Machita stayed.
There was silence, then a grunt of surprise from several animals. Two male javelina trotted into the clearing, glancing behind them in annoyance. A female javelina sped in from another direction and positioned herself cautiously beside the males. The group cast about nervously as Lucha and the girls stood frozen, watching them. The javelinas were joined by two more animals, and shortly afterward the Apache men followed.
Buffalo Wattle grinned as he eased up within a few feet of the animals. They watched him but did not move away until he reached down and slapped one on the rump. That boar bounded into the air and turned to catch Buffalo Wattle but the Apache was too agile for him. As White Dog slipped into the clearing, the other javelinas faced Buffalo Wattle and tried to back away from him. White Dog also sneaked up behind them and swatted one.
The angry boar narrowly missed the Apache lad's arm, but White Dog withdrew too quickly for him.
Machita watched their antics with wonder. They were having a grand time, baiting the javelinas. The javelinas, in turn, were becoming irritated and were no longer trying to escape. They charged at Buffalo Wattle, but he jumped over them with a laugh, then reached down to pull a tail before darting out of their reach. Andalejo joined the group by racing into the clearing and jumping over the entire herd of animals at once.
When the javelinas became so enraged that they attacked anything that moved, the Apache lads climbed into trees and laughed.
They were having an immense amount of fun, which bothered Machita.
Andalejo dropped to the ground. He dashed back and forth with such speed that the pigs quit trying to catch him and retired to a central spot in order to keep an eye on all of them.
Buffalo Wattle called from his perch in the stunted tree. "We will hold them here!" he shouted, "You girls go ahead and get the food!" Two pigs circling the tree snapped at him as he dangled a leg before them, pulling it back an instant before their tusks could slash him.
"We were going to do all the work, anyway," sniffed Lucha. She started back to the trail, along with Red Cloud.
Machita set her burden basket on the ground and started back toward the milling pigs.
Lucha called back to her, "You can stay here with 'Dances With Pigs' if you wish. We are going on to the cache."
"Then I am going with you," Machita said after hesitating, returning to Lucha with a wistful glance backward.
"I saw the way you were looking at them," said Lucha in a softer voice, "Do you wish to stay because of him?"
"Huh? No! No!" cried Machita hotly, "Whatever gave you that idea? They were chasing the pigs, and I wanted to join them! I have been womanly long enough! I want to have some fun!"
Red Cloud chimed in. "I have a friend who spoke those very same words," she said, "She said she wanted to have some fun."
"So what?" Machita demanded.
"She got married last month," grinned Red Cloud.
Machita stalked back to her burden basket and picked it up. "That does it!" she declared, "There is no way I am going to stay here, now!" However, she turned for one last look as the trail led them into the brush. "I wanted to chase the pigs, too," she sighed.
Lucha frowned. "One tomboy in the family is enough," she said. "And I like to think I have grown out of foolish games. It is time you did, too."
As they followed the faint trail, Lucha went on to speak of a childhood spent moving from one campsite to another. She told of one escapade when she met a skunk while exploring the rocks and crevasses of a new campsite.
Machita countered with a tale of the time Ramon had gone searching for Estrellita, when the rancherita had deliberately lost herself.
Then Red Cloud told of her own childhood, and the three were laughing merrily as they came out of the brush. Down the slope, they found the entrance to the storage cave.
Baskets, shattered pottery, broken poles and scattered ripped clothing littered the ground. The cave had been ransacked and the food spoiled, with mounds of sweet-grass and twigs used for packing strewn about. Ruined food lay in the dust - baskets of nuts strewn about, half-eaten jerked meat torn to shreds, and grain dumped and trod upon.
"The javelinas did this!" growled Lucha.
They saw enough of the spoilage to learn that there was not enough food left to gather. They started unhappily back to the camp.
The noise arose before they could go very far, a rustling grumble which sounded like the rocks themselves were murmuring. It came from the hill they had recently descended, from what looked at first glance to be mounds of dead bushes.
"The grass is moving!" Red Cloud hissed.
Gray and black bushes stirred and shifted, seeming to bristle, rolling in waves from an unseen wind. Fountains of dust spurted into the air. A deeper rustling sound arose, and from the gray mass came a querulous grumble. Hundreds of small red eyes blinked open and stared at them as javelinas swarmed down the hill.
"Caramba!" said Machita, "I think we have stepped in something!"
CHAPTER VEINTISIETE: END