GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL:
Aches. Pains. Sore muscles. It started as a minor irritation, a tense muscle in the upper arm, an ache which felt so good when the arm was stretched and relaxed that it seemed only natural to flex the other arm. Machita worked the soreness out of her biceps by reaching for the westering Sun, getting a double benefit from the radiant warmth and the loosening of tension in her aching limbs.
Then she placed a hand on each hip and rotated her body around until she could hear the satisfying creak as her spinal column popped. She spread her arms wide and breathed deeply, then hesitated.
It was then that she had the sensation of being watched - the fidget of the ground squirrel peering from his burrow, the sharp alertness of the antelope before bursting into flight - the thin trickle of ice down her back. A puzzled frown played across her face.
"I've seen less talent at the social dances," said Red Cloud, who had a bundle of garments in her arms and was watching from behind.
Machita looked around to see boys casting fugitive glances in her direction, while several women stared openly without expression.
"What is their problem?" she wondered.
"They could be jealous of your dance," grinned Red Cloud, "Or not. I must do some chores at the stream. Try to stay our of trouble while I am gone."
"Oh, sure," growled Machita, "I was just going up the hill, anyway. You watch out for the sergeant. He could show up at any time."
"He will not come into the camp."
"Do not be too confident. He will get Lucha if we let him. If I were not stuck in this form...."
"...You would protect her?"
"Yeah, I would. What's the matter? Don't you think I could?"
"I know you would do everything in your power," Red Cloud's voice was not as sharp as it had been, "I am glad that you are so sure of yourself."
"Uhh...I have to go," Machita said, suddenly unsure of what to say next. She shrugged and headed for the ridge trail.
DON'T LOOK BACK:
The wolf pup stretched with all its might to reach the top of the depending basket. It had been pitched to hold water and strung from a low limb, barely within reach for a lap and a gulp for a thirsty wolfling. Yet it was not for the drink that Wolf Walker reached - he wanted to splash the water on him.
There seemed to be an inordinately large number of people around the spring, the stream, and the pool this afternoon. With girls and boys milling around, women making frequent trips to the water to fill baskets, and horses being led in for their drink, Wolf Walker had despaired of getting close to the clothing Red Cloud had promised him. Now he strained to tip over a water- basket containing the only water he had found nearby.
As he lapped again at the small opening he could manage to reach, he felt the presence of another. Red Cloud! She was walking toward the trail to the spring. He would have to hurry to meet her.
A sudden shrill blast of sound hurt his ears and made him jump against the basket with enough force to start the wicker container rocking. He felt a searing pain as teeth nipped his flank and he reacted as any small wolf would do when faced with an overbearing enemy. Another lunge at the basket and he could have splashed out enough water to wallow himself back to human. If he had stayed.
He realized, even as he fled, that the noise he heard was the barking of camp dogs in full pursuit. This knowledge, while informative, did not appear to have any effect on his tail - which seemed to remain glued to his belly - or to his legs, which bore him away from the water basket and Red Cloud at near ultimate speed. When he at last gasped to a halt he was again high and dry in the hills above the camp.
As he rested and flagged his memory for another source of water, he began to feel an icy feather caressing his spine. The hairs along his back stood upright, and he raised his snout to anxiously test the wind. His sharp ears caught the faintest suggestion of murmur and grumble, and the wind teased him with the rank spoor of creatures so driven that they neglected their own hygiene.
Something was on the trail behind him.
PASSING AN AFTERNOON:
"It's a scorcher," commented Will Larribee, as he shoved his way to the well casing at the end of the cantina's cool porch. He splashed what water remained in the bucket out into the dusty street and sent the bail down into the cool echoing depths of the well to pull out a fresh bucket of water.
"You ain't never gonna believe what I saw on the way into town," he said.
"Your Daddy's looking for you," warned one of the ranch hands,
"I saw a big Injun buck running full tilt toward town," said Will as he placed one hand on top of his hat. He tilted his head back to drain the cool well-water from the dipper.
The Swede stirred uneasily. "Maybe so I should get my gun ready," he said.
"No lone Injun is gonna attack a full-armed town," laughed Will, "Besides, the way he was runnin', he'll be winded for a week. Can't nobody run that fast and that far without hurtin'."
Several others stood and walked away, leaving Will alone in the cool shadows of the porch.
"Hey, fellas?" he called after them, "How's about a game?"
"Later," one responded irritably, "After we check this out."
ANGIE SEES SANDY:
Angie tossed the reins over the rail and halfheartedly tried to tie a loose knot. She gave it up and turned to the mare. "You kinda liked him, didn't you?" she said softly. The mare nuzzled the palm of her hand, looking for a treat.
"Well, what the heck. He ain't worth it, anyway," she said, waving at a young man walking toward her. "Hi!" she called, "Ummm... You're named Sandy, right?"
"Yes'm. Because of my hair."
"Well, okay, I can see that..." Angie smiled tentatively at him, and asked in puzzlement, "What did I do to deserve a big grin like that?"
"Oh, it ain't you, Ma'am. Not mostly, anyway. I was thinking about Lonesome."
"I don't want to think about Lonesome," she growled, "If I never see him again, it will be too.... What I wanted to tell you was that while we were at the Indian camp, a girl asked about you."
"Was it Red Cloud?" he asked, "Have you found them?"
"She didn't give her name, said you would remember her from the jailbreak. You must have a shady past, partner."
"It could be...."
"And she said something about how she wanted to see a bolt of lightning. 'Rayo de Lampego', I think she called it."
Though it seemed impossible, Sandy's grin became even broader. "I know what he means," he said, "Seems funny to send a message that way, though."
"Who is she with?" asked Angie, misinterpreting Sandy's slip of the tongue.
"She is...with Ramon," said Sandy, "I've got to go out there! Can you take me back there tonight?"
"Whoa! This little cowgal is tired. I'll show you the way, but not until tomorrow. They aren't going anywhere soon, not the way they were wolfing down that cow meat."
Sandy nodded apologetically, "That would be fine, Ma'am. I just wanted to ask, where's Lonesome?"
"I don't know, and I don't care!" Angie muttered as she stalked away.
"Wait!" cried Sandy after her, "Did something happen to him?"
She whirled around and stalked back to the blond cowboy, saying in a flat, angry voice, "Did something happen to him? I'll tell you what happened to him! He went and got himself engaged to some Indian girl, that's what happened to him!"
"Well, I'll be doggoned," Sandy said with a crooked grin, "Just shows you never know when you'll get the notion."
"It wasn't his idea!" cried Angie, "They pulled it on him! But he could have SAID something! He didn't have to go along with it! He just stood there, looking like a jackass, looking like... Would you quit grinning like that? This is serious!"
"Sorry, Ma'am," Sandy pulled his face into a unconvincing grimace.
"Oooh, who cares? I'll see you in the morning. Good night!"
"Yes'm, good night!" agreed Sandy as he headed for the stable, and to himself he said, "I'll find my own way."
He was interrupted before he reached the cantina hitching rail.
"Senor Sandy! Senor Sandy!"
Sandy stopped by the cantina door to wait as the blonde rancherita ran up to him.
"Yes'm?" he said when she was near.
"I will go with you!" she puffed, "You cannot leave me alone in this strange town!"
"Ahh...." Sandy hesitated, "I don't think you'd be very safe out there, Ma'am," he said.
"I am afraid to be here, without you!" she blurted, then said in a more restrained voice added, "I would prefer to meet the Indian face to face, instead of fearing him coming after me as I sleep."
"Well, I...." Sandy's refusal was interrupted as Will Larribee slouched out of the cantina and started toward them. Sandy bristled at the trader's son and demanded, "You! You have a nerve, showing your face! What are you doing here?"
"I'm just a peaceable citizen here," Will stopped and leaned on the hitching rack. He sneered, "You can't touch me."
"I reckon I will!" Sandy said as he stepped toward him.
Will took a step into the street, then jeered, "What's the matter? Afraid of a few little dogs?"
"You ain't got no sense!" said Sandy, "I oughta -" He stopped short of Will, unclenched his fists, and said, "Oh, the heck with it!" He reached across the space between them, placed his palms on Will's chest, and shoved.
Will stumbled backward and landed on his bottom. He arose from the dust in a fury. "Nobody makes me look bad in front of...." he hollered, coming at Sandy in a flurry of wild swings. One of his fists caromed off Sandy's forehead before the blond cowboy could get his arm up to block it.
Sandy fell back, got his guard up, and popped Will twice below the left eye before Will caught on that he was taking hits. Will backed off again and appraised the situation, then dove in low to tackle Sandy.
They were rolling in the billowing dust, slugging at each other indiscriminately, when a large, stocky man in a fringed buckskin coat waded into the middle of the fracas and pulled them apart. He pushed Sandy aside and lifted Will by the collar.
"What are you doing in town?" he bellowed, "I sent you to find those dogs!"
"They're too far gone!" protested Will, "I can't find them all by myself!"
"Ahh, you're a blasted sugar baby!" Trader Larribee dropped his son to the dust, ignoring Sandy who wisely decided to remain out of reach. "Your momma has let you get soft, Boy! It is plain to me you ain't spent enough time earning your keep. You've got to get out and do some MAN's work, like tracking down those dogs you let loose." His shaggy face contorted for a moment in thought, then he said, "C'mon, boy! We got some dogs to catch! You can play fun and games later!"
Will looked at his father, then at Sandy's determined face, then back at his father. "O...okay, Pop!" he said. As he followed his father toward the corral, he smirked once more at Sandy and said to Estrellita, "Maybe we will meet later, Senorita!"
At the corral, Trader Larribee slammed the gate so hard it flew off the hinges. He reached for a strap and reached for Will, but the boy scuttled hastily away. Will was pale as he stayed just out of reach, prepared to bolt and run.
"Boy, you're gonna help get them dogs!" Trader roared, "I don't care if it takes us a week! You go out the ranch and gather the tracker hounds, and alert the hands. You're gonna bring them hounds back or it's your hide!"
"Yessir!" Will said as he tucked and ran for his pony.
His father's words rang after him as he rode away, "I don't want to see your face unless it's behind a brace of hounds!"
Sandy reached to pick up his hat and encountered worried green eyes. "Senor Sandy!" cried Estrellita, "Are you all right? Your lip is bleeding!"
"I am fine," Sandy said as he dusted the alkali off his shirt and pants, glaring after Will. Then he turned back toward the stable.
"It ain't safe out there, Senorita. Wait. I'll be back."
She slumped dejectedly and watched him go.
FLIGHTS OF FANCY:
Here, at the precipice, time seemed to pause. The sun still spoke hotly of summer, yet the gusting breeze whispered rumors of cold to come in wintertime. Feeling the warm rays on Machita's face, the wind tugging at her hair, it was easier to let thoughts roam free and to count blessings.
There were good friends, companions to ride the trail with. There were new sights and exciting places to visit. There was acceptance, after a fashion. There was a mother, waiting at home for the swift return of her children. There was a sister never known, found at last.
Forget the shape, forget the expectations of others. This was Ramon. He had found his sister, and he would take her home to a mother who thought she had lost her child forever.
A frown upon the brow, made deeper by the intensity of the sunlight. The sister was in danger, a danger which lurked about the camp even now. He had to protect his sister.
Then a playful gust of wind caught a beaded hem and billowed a skirt, so that she had to place a hand on it to tuck it back into place. A girl's hand.
*She* had to protect *her* sister.
Not exactly the same. Oh, the goal was the same - to protect Lucha, but the means at her disposal to reach that goal were...different.
"Caramba!" she growled.
Machita took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled in a long sigh. The sky was clear, except for a few fleecy clouds, and the surrounding mountains loomed crystal clear.
"I suppose it could be worse," she mused, "I know that sooner or later the bear grease will wear off and I can get back to being a boy. It's not like I am truly stuck in a girl body for the rest of my life...if only I could change back soon! I have to be ready when that sergeant comes back."
She examined the boulder for scorpions before collapsing upon it. Then she drew her feet beneath her so she was sitting on them - a position which she would have found uncomfortable after only a few moments as Ramon.
"I wonder if many people saw me crying, earlier," she said.
The boulder lay high on the ridge, out of sight of the camp below, awash in the silence of the heights. She had felt the need to get away...away from infatuated young warriors, away from homicidal girls, away from....
"Aha! So, there you are!"
...away from crazy old women...
"How are you feeling?" Cornsilk wondered.
"I ache, I am sore, and I want to be alone!"
"When I am about to show you something wonderful?" Cornsilk knuckle-rapped Machita's skull and added, "Show a little gratitude!"
"I will be grateful when you leave me alone!" Machita said as she rubbed her scalp.
The old woman plopped down beside her. "You bother me, Boy," Cornsilk declared, ignoring her dandelion hair as the wind blew it into her face.
"Sorry," growled Machita.
"Sorry does not excuse you!" she said, getting down into Machita's face, "If you are going to pretend to be a girl, you must *be* a girl!"
"I don't want to *be* a girl!"
"Humphh," Cornsilk said, drawing back again as she watched her closely, "So, what's your problem with it?"
"Everything!" declared Machita. After a moment she added in a calmer voice, "I don't like being smaller and weaker...and slower. What really hurts is not being able to run. Once I could beat everyone. As a boy, I still can. I was the fastest person on the rancho, or even the village. I could beat all of Red Cloud's friends. Now? Turn into a girl and phhfffftt!"
"Oiyeh...I have watched you run. You do well enough when you have a reason. As long as you don't remember," said Cornsilk, "Your problem is obvious. You are trying to run like a girl."
"Someone else tells me I try to run like a boy, you tell me I run like a girl! I don't know who to believe!"
"I didn't say you run like a girl. You run like you think a girl would run. You have to learn to listen to your body."
"That is exactly the kind of thing I am trying to avoid!"
"Listen to me! All I'm saying is you have to stop telling your body how to run. Let it do what it knows best to do. If it is that important to you, you would not mind suffering a little embarrassment. Look out there."
The Mexican girl tucked her chin stubbornly, and Cornsilk flexed her knuckles.
"Ow! Whadd'd you do THAT for?"
For answer, the old woman pointed out across the valley, at several eagles circling the crest of a nearby mountain.
Machita glared at her, then at the floating wings.
"Oh, great," she grumbled, "Why is it I have to sit around all day watching birds?"
"Ow! Stop doing that!"
Holding a hand over her head to shield it from the bony knuckles, she muttered to herself, "I still don't see what old people find so fascinating about sitting and staring at the sky."
The eagles soared and glided, rising and sinking, until Machita was almost asleep. A bronze-winged pair drifted closer, searching for rising air currents.
Machita had lowered her hand, leaving her head unpadded, and Cornsilk had immediately scored a knuckle against her skull.
"I wish she would *quit* that!" growled Machita, accepting the sitting torment as inevitable. No, not inevitable...she could leave. It wasn't as if this `conversation' was serving any useful purpose. She had shifted her position, ready to escape, when something caught the corner of her eye and she turned to look. One of the pair of eagles was floating past, so close she felt she could reach out and grasp it....
She was floating, sculling toward a tower of rising warm air just ahead, watching below at the same time for some animal to show itself and announce its intention to become a meal. Laconically, she realized that she was peering out of the eagle's eyes, though she could not say how. All she could see was the sky and the immense earth spreading below, overwhelming in its crystal clarity.
It was this question of reality which kept her from knotting into a ball and forsaking everything as insanity. As it was, she stiffened enough to lose altitude and veer slightly. She could feel her arms stretching for the thermal even as she banked away from the rising column of warm air. She wanted to comply, but panic locked her muscles.
The trees and rocks stood in piercing sharpness, growing closer. She could see blades of grass and insects crawling on them, and individual twigs of branches covering the wickiups as the Apache camp came into sight.
A screaming shaft of feathered wood broke her paralysis as it narrowly missed a wingtip. Someone was shooting at her/the eagle! Reflexively, she attempted to get away from danger and this triggered a snarl of confused motions. As a result of this effort, she found herself tumbling headfirst for the rocks below. Struggling with conflicting urges only made her spin helplessly.
It was then that a sound began to rise above the whipping of the wind, a voice which spoke in tones both measured and calm.
[This is the lesson! Let go, you idiot! Release her wings! She can't fly with you holding her back! Let her go, or you will both die!]
Well, perhaps not so serene. However, Cornsilk's voice was measurably calmer than Machita as she responded, [I can't! I'm not holding onto anything! There's nothing to hold onto!]
[Release!] demanded the voice, [When all you have done fails, step back. Allow her to protect herself!]
Machita did not know from whence the wisdom came, but...nothing else seemed to be working. Letting go was harder than she had thought possible. Struggling against herself, she let her arms go limp and quit fighting the shriek of the passing air.
The eagle's wings caught the rushing wind and the rocks began to move from front to back instead of toward her. A sudden bank and swoop puzzled her until she saw a long, thin shadow arc past the shadow of an eagle on the passing rocks - another arrow. Swiftly, the shadow of the eagle became less distinct and the panorama again spread out below her.
Eventually, she found that she could control the eagle - not by working the wings, but by looking at a place and wanting to go there. She was starting to enjoy the high freedom when the eagle decided to take back control of her life. The eagle headed for a crag and was swooping in toward a nest when -
Suddenly, Machita swayed and slapped both hands down on the hard stone beside her.
"How are you feeling?" Cornsilk asked.
"I was flying with the eagle as it landed on the nest," said Machita in wonder, "And when it stopped, I was here!"
"That's enough for now," said Cornsilk. The old woman watched the Mexican girl walk dazedly away.
"No, he does not move differently," she mumbled in a peeved tone, "You are too impatient. I thought ghosts were good at waiting."
After observing the departing girl she returned her attention to the floating eagles, and added, "He went up, and he flew. And then he snapped back. Oh, well. It was a start."
THOSE WHO ARE NUMBER TWO, TRY HARDER:
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The slim, dark-haired fellow in the uniform of a Mexican sergeant eyed his companion as guilelessly as a weasel being forced to share his burrow with a viper. Massive wooden doors grumbled to a close as patches of luminescence sprang into being to provide light.
His companion, in like manner, made no pretensions about his dislike for Espuma. With slitted eyes he withdrew behind a facade of impeccable calm.
"You called for me, not I for you," said the sorcerer, Toc. "What do you want?"
"You are supposed to provide me with something to frighten the Apache."
Toc sneered. "Nothing frightens the Apache," he said.
"I know better," said Espuma, "for I have seen them cower in fear of simple spirits."
"Bah! What do you know of fear?" the sorcerer demanded, "I can show you things to make you quake in your boots!"
"Words, words," jeered Espuma, "Show me! I have seen monsters from the night! I have seen thousands slaughtered on a whim! I have seen things to turn even your belly into slime!"
Toc drew up in disdain. "We'll just see about that!" he said. "Something to frighten the Apaches? I have just the thing! Here is a small sample!" From the depths of a back room he withdrew a clay vial and removed the waxen seal. He moved over to a cage and from the vial poured an oily green substance onto the floor of the cage.
The puddle began to foam and boil, expanding into a waist-high lizard-like creature. The creature showed serrated teeth and leaped at the bars of the cage in a vain effort to slash them.
"I am not impressed," said Espuma, although he backed away, "What *is* this?"
"A small version of some of the most ferocious creatures to ever roam the earth. For your needs, a larger...."
"It looks like a lizard!" snorted Espuma, "And it moves like a chicken! A bald, featherless chicken!"
Toc drew erect and stared up his nose at Espuma. "And exactly what would you prefer?" he asked.
"I don't know...something they will recognize and fear! Bigger than this!"
"See the teeth? See the claws? Or would you rather I opened the cage to give you a closer look?"
"That will not be necessary," gulped Espuma hastily, "All I want is something to distract the others while I grab the girl. Once I get the girl and the pendant, then I will make the Apaches suffer!"
Toc faltered, then said, "But of course! You don't want to harm this girl! She would be your bride. Yes, my friend?"
Espuma worked at regaining his composure. "Yes, yes, of course," he improvised, "Just trying to get a bride."
"But may I ask - why don't you simply wait until she leaves the camp and then grab her? That is the traditional method."
"My plan has more...entertainment value."
"Well, then, let's see what I can do for you," Toc practically bubbled, "You want several creatures to frighten them - that they can recognize - I think I have just the thing!" He dug through a mound of vials dumped beside the entrance to a room. "Recent acquisition," he explained, "Haven't gotten around to cataloging it yet. Ahhh, here we go! From the last Ice Age - big, fierce, and frightening! We'll have that girl and her gold pendant out of there in no time!"
"Turquoise," Espuma corrected him, and only later wondered if he might have said too much.
Toc watched him leave, maintaining a blank expression until the cavernous doors rumbled shut. Then he grinned mightily.
"Ah, Kaliche! So, you let it slip out of your control, did you?" he laughed, "And why did you send this cretin, instead of reaching out and plucking it yourself? What could possibly be binding you, my friend?"
MACHACK'S TESTING BEGINS:
Sandy hastily threw the blanket and saddle on his gelding and was leading the horse from the stall when he found his way blocked by a tall, muscular, darkly tanned man. He recognized the warrior he had seen earlier, at the river bed.
"Excuse me, Mister," said Sandy, "I'm in a hurry. You mind stepping aside?"
The stranger remained, standing in the center of the doorway, his dark eyes set to stare into Sandy's blue eyes. Eventually, he spoke.
"I do not have much time, so I must act hastily," he apologized in a deep, soft voice, "Your blond hair and blue eyes intrigue me. You are the first yellow-hair I have seen for many, many years. Not even the Espanoles had such features. Are you from Normandy, or the Northern Coast?"
"I come from just west of the Mississippi," said Sandy, "I need to go, now. If you would just step aside?"
"Are you a warrior?" demanded the tall man, still standing.
"No, I ain't no warrior!"
"But you will fight."
"I will if you don't move! Come on, now!"
"Ah, good! You may even have a trace of the berserker. I can feel it! All you need is a reason to let it loose," the man said, for the first time moving away from the doorway and into the open. "Come, then. Fight or die!"
"I ain't got no quarrel with you, Mister! There's just someplace that I gotta be, and pronto!"
"You go nowhere," said the man, and his eyes glinted an obsidian black, "Fight now, or die. I will allow you to strike the first blow." He dropped his arms to his side but moved to again bar exit from the stable.
"Well, if I gotta, I gotta," sighed Sandy, "But I have a feeling I'm about to get my butt kicked." He let the reins fall and the gelding sidled away to rummage in a feed trough.
Sandy was tall and thin, without much weight to throw into the punch, so he was not surprised when his fist rebounded from the other man's belly without effect. Still, the other man stood and waited, so Sandy doubled his hand into a fist again and put everything he had into it. He started his swing at waist level, looping up to connect with the stranger's jaw with a meaty thump. The young cowboy shook his stinging hand and surveyed the results. His opponent stood unfazed.
"Uh-oh," Sandy said.
The muscular man gestured idly with one arm and Sandy felt as though he had been hit with the stable door. He was slammed back against the stable wall, scattering harnesses and tack about the straw covered floor. Leather traces and bridles fell about, tangling him as he climbed to his feet. Still, the other stood and waited.
"I don't get it," Sandy said as he staggered upright, "What'd I do to you? Why are you so set on pounding me?"
"Just curious," the man said, but there was death in those obsidian eyes. He swung again, slowly, with the speed and certainty of a falling tree trunk.
Sandy ducked beneath the blow and danced away, stepping over a singletree which had been knocked to the ground. He lifted the wooden crossbar and swung, finding himself thrown against the wall of the stable again for his efforts. He had allowed himself to be lulled into thinking that the big man was slow, but he was not. He was simply playing with him. Testing him.
The blond cowboy staggered painfully to his feet again, not as quickly. He had to get out of there, before the warrior ground him into pulp. As Sandy stood, the man drifted toward him and drew back.
Sandy tensed and shifted, preparing to duck, but the blow never came. The warrior had frozen in place as though contemplating his swing, but he was not looking at the young cowboy.
A childish babble sounded at the entrance to the stable, as the towheaded boy Ma Brown had been watching wandered into the cool shade. Sandy ducked away from his opponent, grabbed the child and darted for the doorway, to get him away from danger. When he looked back, the warrior was nowhere to be seen.
"Vanished!" growled Sandy, "What the heck did he *want*, anyway?"
OUTSIDE THE CAMP:
Machita seemed distracted as she bore the warm clay pot, watching the skies for distant wings. She knew that the need for change was unpredictable, so she was not overly concerned when Red Cloud came to her with the hot water and asked for her help.
The Azuma maiden took the container to a secluded spot behind the rocks, and called back, "Now, you know you must not watch this, don't you?"
"The way you tear about right after you change? No chance! I'll come back and get your clothes, later!"
Red Cloud watched as Machita/Ramon turned and walked away, then she turned the container upside down, spilling its contents over her head. The water was painfully hot when it hit her bare skin, and for an instant she almost cried out.
Then the moment passed and her senses crashed in on her. The far noise of the encampment was a muted thunder while insects and birds roared noisily overhead. An armadillo had rooted nearby, leaving a rank choking odor that clamped her nostrils tight until she sneezed.
Leaves and grass shoots glowed a luminescent green, and she could hear Machita padding away, true to her word. A part of the jaguar almost wished Ramon had stayed around and pried, but this part submerged swiftly into an awareness of the land around her.
Then she was away, finding openings in the undergrowth to slide through, into the greater hills beyond the camp. An obligation tugged. Where was Wolf Walker (memory of wet wolf fur)? Casting about, she found a faint trail leading away from camp, and she followed it.
She was over the ridge before she recognized the ledge below. There the wolfcub had spoiled the trap laid by the javelinas, and back the other direction was the path she had taken carrying the tiny wolf. Now she found the spot she had set him down, and where he had disappeared after she had told him where to find his clothes. The clothes were still there. Expelling her breath in a gust, she set out to follow the last trail.
It was not long before she caught the spoor of javelina, and the scent started her to panting. Annoyed at the saliva forming in her mouth, she licked her thin lips and went on. Back to the camp, as the young wolf attempted to find water, and away again she followed, going higher and farther from camp.
The javelina spoor grew stronger, overlaying that of the wolf, and her annoyance faded into concern. The javelinas were after Wolf Walker, and they were bold enough to let him see them.
The jaguar left the trail for a moment and went for altitude, a set of boulders high enough for her to survey her surroundings. Through the sand, rocks, brush she could still see the trail. The javelinas were not hiding their track.
From far away, another scent came, borne by the wind. She sensed it and voiced an angry snarl before she could control herself, venting a hatred she did not know existed.
They were coming, aware in a way only dedicated trackers could know, looking for their prey: wolves, javelinas, jaguar. They did not care. They were coming.
CHAPTER VEINTINUEVE: END