AT THE FIGHT SCENE: So. She knew of his shame. So, she knew, and she came anyway. Wolf Walker's heart soared as he backed away, his tiny but sharp puppy teeth bared and bloodied. The massed peccaries followed as he and the jaguar were slowly forced back against the embankment. The sun-hardened clay formed a cliff too wide to skirt, too steep to climb. [Little sister. You could have been more, but your heart was claimed by the simple Mexican. I do not know whether my spirit will accept him or hate him, as I depart. For your sake, I pray it will go and leave you in peace.] She knew of the multitude of small, fierce javelinas ranging close behind the swarm that pressed in upon them. The nearer javelinas milled about as they crowded forward, each trying to get close enough to slash the and the cat. Their very numbers prevented them from operating effectively, but there was no escaping these numbers. With her strength, she could leap free before they could harm her, and yet she stayed. She placed herself between Wolf Walker and the horde, screaming defiance, knowing that in the end there would be only her, and then she would have to go. She would have to save herself. Deny the enemy her blood. She had to understand this. The wolf pup retreated up a step and called for her to follow. There was barely enough room on the shelf, so she kept the snouts and tusks at bay while he struggled up another level. Then she remained on the lower shelf, and Wolf Walker could not rejoin her without getting in the way. Wolf Walker skittered about the tiny shelf, unable to affect the battle below. At last, he stood still and gathered his resolve. Red Cloud must escape before she grew weary and fell to the incessant onslaught. Uttering his own tiny snarl of defiance, he prepared to leap to his death. Red Cloud glanced back and she saw the determination in his eyes. She felt iron fingers clutch her heart and she turned to protest. The wolf cub spoke with his eyes, of trying and failing, of regret, of a wish to release her from danger. She replied with the harsh authoritative snarl of a jaguar, commanding him to remain where he stood until she could win a space free for their escape. She would escape. They would escape. The sheer volume of her roar sent him flat against the sun-dried clay. He remained still for a heartbeat as she raked mayhem across the snouts of javelinas pressing ever closer. Blood from many scratches stained the fur upon her forelimbs, but she struck again and again as she was forced into an ever smaller patch of reddened sand. He rose to try again, steeling himself against his fear, when the raspy whine grated upon his inner ear. It came from above. Red Cloud was praying. She had never discussed religion with the Apaches - the subject was not one which came up naturally. They had their God and she had hers. She spoke now in the manner of a beast, a grumbling plea as she scrambled backward against the clay. [Please, spirits of the desert land, help us! Protect my friend, who would give his life to free me!] But it was not a spirit which answered her, to cause the javelinas to fade away and leave the pair gasping for lungfuls of the dusty air. It was not a spirit which drifted overhead with a grating whistle to settle near a far rise.
As Rayo picked his way through the destroyed undergrowth, carefully avoiding briars and cactus, Machita blinked back tears brought on by the sharp wind and blowing dust. She watched the thickets for movement, holding on to the saddle horn as she looked around. The hard leather felt solid and reassuring. She had not realized how much she had missed Rayo. Behind her, Lucha wriggled uncomfortably, then slid to the ground. She knelt to sniff a clump of uprooted grass. "Many javelinas," she said. "I am growing weary of these creatures." Sandy stood in one stirrup and was swinging his leg over the saddlebags when he saw the scowl Lucha sent his way. Canceling his plans to disembark, he settled uneasily back into the saddle. "Who is this person?" Lucha demanded, eyeing Sandy. "This is my friend, Sandy," said Machita. "Sandy, meet my sister, Lucha." Sandy rested both hands on the pommel of his saddle and smiled broadly. "Howdy, Ma'am," he said. "Sorry if I don't bow or nothin'. We best keep an eye out for them critters I heard." To Machita he said, "She sure is pretty! She looks just like you!" Seeing Machita frown at the remark, Sandy thought about his statement for a moment. He added, "Not that I think you are pretty, or anything, but..." It occurred to him that he was speaking to a rather cute girl and his frontier bred manners intervened. This was not the first time his upbringing had caused him grief, and habit conspired to heap embers on the pyre. "Ahhh....I mean to say that you are pretty, too, but..." He stopped, red-faced, realizing that he had just called his macho amigo 'pretty'. "Give me a break, will you?" Sandy cried. "You are my pal! I don't want to tell you that you are cute, but you are!" "Do not worry about it." Machita sighed in resignation, "I have a lot on my mind. There have been some people bothering me, but I should not dwell on it." "Oh." Sandy said, "Is there anything I can do to help? Not that you need help, but...." "Why did you not mention this person before?" Lucha chuckled as she held her bow ready, "He is very shy, but I think he likes you!" "Not that way!" yipped Machita. "That's what I was saying," growled Sandy. Lucha turned from him to the wall of thorns and stone around them. To one side stood a stone chimney which she regarded suspiciously. She raised her bow and held it ready. "Wait!" cried Machita. "Be careful! Red Cloud is out here!" She hurried on, seeing the expression on her sister's face, "She came out here because...because it was something she had to do!" Dividing her attention between her sister and the shadows at the base of the stone column, Lucha paused to wait for an explanation. Machita lifted the canteen. "If she's here, I need to use this water and...Ai, Caramba!...she will kill me for this! I did not bring the clothing!" Aware of Lucha's growing unease, she hurried on, "Red Cloud has a power. Yes, that is it. She has a power. You can ask Bluenose." Lucha shrugged, holding the bow tighter. "Bluenose is not here," she noted. "Yeah, right...She has this power. She can...." Machita weighed the complications of yet another person knowing of Red Cloud's 'gift' against the tragic results of an arrow shot in mistake. She decided that she preferred Red Cloud alive and angry. "She can change into a jaguar. It is a power she has earned." "I do not believe you," Lucha said, but she eased the pressure on her bowstring. "I can prove it. Look there," said Machita. In the shadows she had seen a familiar movement, the flow of mottled pelt beneath the bushes. Lucha followed the direction of her finger and became instantly alert. She yanked the bow to readiness again, restrained from firing only by Machita's gasp of dismay. The shape of the big cat slowly became more distinct as she eased forward. It was the second shadow that caught Lucha's attention. She moved forward in a flash and retreated, holding a wriggling gray bundle of fur in one hand. The wolf cub whined briefly, then realized that it was being pressed against Lucha's breast as she sought to keep the jaguar at bay. It stopped struggling and froze in panic. Machita stepped down from the saddle, clutching the canteen. "I am sorry, Red Cloud," she said. "The men are coming and they will kill you. You must get away from here." The big cat raised her head to peer at the surrounding brush, and uttered a disdainful cough. The explosion of her voice was echoed immediately from the brush by squeals of alarm from hundreds of unseen animals. Machita's eyes grew large as she realized why Red Cloud would not leave and would not allow herself to change back to human form. Slowly she recapped the canteen. "Red Cloud cannot get away," she said as she turned to Lucha. "We are surrounded, and the javelinas might attack at any time." The jaguar growled an agreement and slipped away, keeping a safe distance as she passed by a wary Lucha. Lucha sat the wolf cub on the ground and nudged it with her toe when it refused to move. "I did not think it was injured," she said. Through the dimming light, Machita saw the gray stripe across the wolf's back. "Is this your pet wolf? He helped us, earlier," she said to Lucha. "We have tales about human beings who could change into animals," shrugged Lucha. "Just as you have a tale about your friend changing into a jaguar." "She did change!" objected Machita, "That was her. You saw how she acted." Lucha smiled, grimly, "I think you also have a pet. You are full of surprises, Little Sister." "If we weren't in this mess, I could change her back just to show you. Right now, we are better off with her as a jaguar..." Machita glanced apprehensively at the shadows in the undergrowth, "...at least until the warriors show up. Then I will have to be ready to change her back fast or they will kill her." Sandy at last descended from his saddle, although he maintained a healthy distance from Lucha. "I keep hearing pigs," he said. "They are all around," said Machita. "They are not pigs, but javelinas." She called Rayo to her. "Go get Senor Lonesome!" she cried, and the horse raced away. "Does he understand my sister?" Lucha asked. "Don't know," Sandy said as he recovered his powder and bullets from his saddlebags. "But that horse would go through hell if he...she asked. Darndest thing I ever saw. Heyyahh!" He swatted the pinto with his hat. The pinto danced away from him, unsure. "Go on!" cried Sandy, "You get out of here! If them pigs come back, they'll bite your legs off!" "They are javelinas," Machita said. "They sound like pigs to me," Sandy responded. Without thinking, he had moved to place himself between the jaguar and Lucha's bow. "They seem peaceable enough, now. What do you reckon they wanted?" "I can answer that," came a voice which seemed to float from midair. Machita jerked about. "Espuma!" she cried. The ensuing silence was broken by a nasty laugh as Espuma showed himself, though he seemed to take care to avoid coming close enough to be in range of missiles. He stood upright in the frail harness, peering back across the brush-land toward the encampment. "Something has scattered the ponies," he said with a trace of disappointment. He stepped back down, putting away the lenses. "But, the warriors are on their way. They will be here soon enough, as soon as I let them. Not soon enough to help you, of course." The jaguar yowled angrily and glided forward. Lucha had become accustomed to having the jaguar at her side and the noise startled her. She stepped nimbly away in alarm as the big cat glided past her into the open. Red Cloud leaped at the floating man, raking empty space with her claws and then falling away beneath her target. "Wup, not this time!" said Espuma, "This time, I am ready for you! I have protection! Go ahead! Throw your puny rocks!" He did not flinch as Machita drew her spear back and threw it, watching as the spear slowed suddenly and fell inert to the ground. However, Espuma swallowed nervously as Sandy drew a pistol, then he relaxed, confident in his shielding. "You have evaded that poor, sentimental incompetent, Machack," he said, "but you will not escape this! This time you are going to die!" Sandy clenched his teeth. "Mister, I believe you're threatening us!" "Threaten? I don't threaten! You are going to die! You, and these puny girls you run with! That, my young friend, is a promise! You can watch them get eaten alive!" All hesitation gone, Sandy aimed at Espuma's heart and fired, filling the air between them with flame and white smoke. At the -crack- of the pistol, Espuma jerked and then relaxed again. The lump of lead had flattened itself against an unseen surface, inches from Espuma's face, and the sergeant smiled benignly as the bullet dropped into the sand below. "Be thankful I did not return it to you," he said, "But, then, I would be harming you. I really don't want to do that. Not personally." He gazed at the faces below him, his smile widening. Machita dashed away from the others, recovering the spear. With her spear firmly in hand, she demanded, "What do you *want?*" "I want *you* to die quickly and painfully," said Espuma. "I want your sister, alive, which will take a little persuasion, but my little partners are very agreeable...as long as I feed them well. And...oh, yes...your friends will be what I feed them with. THAT is what I WANT, you feebling!" "We will not cooperate!" declared Lucha as she nocked an arrow. "Hmmm...There is one way you might get me to change my mind," said Espuma. "How is that?" she stopped before him, suspicious. "Give me your pendant." Lucha swung to look wonderingly at Machita, then yanked the leather thong from her neck. "Done!" she said, throwing it at Espuma. An instant later, she followed the necklace with an arrow. The flint tip knocked audibly against an unseen surface and fell to the ground, while the leather and turquoise looped into Espuma's grasp. "Clever! However, my shield lets me differentiate between deadly and harmless objects," laughed Espuma, dangling the leather thong and the pendant at arms length. He said regretfully, "You persist in being inhospitable. I wish I wasn't required to deliver you alive...because I would dearly love to *strangle* you slowly!" "I did give you the pendant," Lucha growled. "And then you tried to kill me!" Espuma tsk-tsked as he stashed the jewelry in a pouch on his sash. "You learn fast, Princess. Do not *ever* trust me...not that any of you will ever have another chance!" He raised his head to scan the far slopes. "When the Apaches get here, the cat and the wolf die," he said. "That is, if they live through the javelinas and the dogs...odd, there are *two* sets of dogs? I thought...never mind. They must have split up." Espuma returned his attention to the group below him. "The last time I abducted someone, they were of royal birth. That was a nice ceremony. They really put their hearts into it." He smiled, "Oh, well, Princess, you might as well come with me. My partners will try not to harm you, but if you have to stay and help your friends they might not be able to stop themselves." "I remain here," said Lucha, glowering at him. "Suit yourself." Espuma twiddled the controls of his sash device and vanished. The crackling of the undergrowth became louder, and black shadows slipped closer in the growing gloom. As Sandy raised his newly charged pistol and Lucha raised her weapon, Machita clutched her own spear and wondered, "Why is he after that wolf cub?" The javelinas surged forward in a black wave. Red Cloud also worried about saving the little wolf. Her roar filled the surrounding hills and echoed back from nearby bluffs. "Spirits of my ancestors!" In the voice of the jaguar she cried, "Are we to die? Give us a fair fight! Anything but being overrun by javelinas!" The din quieted as everything seemed to slow down. A calm settled about her, and in her mind an amused voice purred, "Look about you, daughter. Do you sense your death?" Through the billowing dust javelinas mired blindly forward, bleating in anguish. A spear flashed overhead and the scent of blood that was not her own filled her nostrils. "I do not smell my own death," she admitted. "Then do not wish yourself an early ending. We have other uses for you." The voice faded. Like a wagon that had reached the crest of a rise and began to pick up speed down the other side, the action about her slowly resumed. She swatted a boar away from Lucha and shoved Wolf Walker back again.
GUILTY BYSTANDERS: Espuma sat on the frail supports of his flying device, hidden from view, content to enjoy his handiwork. His mood was spoiled by the sound of someone clearing their throat. A large someone. Nearby. "What are you doing here?" demanded Espuma. "Oh, yes, I should have remembered. You were following the blond cowboy." He continued under his breath, "Like the simple minded fool that you are!" "I see you have found the girl." Machack spoke in a soft but distinct voice. "I have the pendant, too!" Espuma gloated. "But you intend to kill the girl." "Not me! I won't raise a finger to harm her!" Espuma touched a tender spot on his jaw, "Little spitfire! Throw rocks at me, will she?" "Call them off." Machack's voice was a gentle rumble. Espuma crossed his legs before him and leaned back into the straps, and his response was a sneer. "Don't want to." Machack reached a huge arm through the supposed protective shield and yanked a diadem from Espuma's sash. Without the ensorcelled gem to power his craft, Espuma plummeted to rocky soil, abruptly and painfully. He hit the gravel with the seat of his pants and lay groaning. "You forget, I am not affected by your toys." Machack reminded him in a granite voice, "Now, call them off!" Holding his back with one hand, Espuma used his other hand to produce the copper-wire wound device and slid the controls shut. Covertly, he made adjustments to another device. Across the clearing, the javelinas again faded from sight, leaving the group at the base of the cliff staring at the dark, bewildered and cautious. "Very well." Espuma groaned, "I was tired of playing with them, anyway." "You agree too quickly!" Machack peered at him, "What else have you got up your sleeve, madman? More pigs?" "They are javelinas!" Espuma spat, "But I would not expect a person of your low intellect to recognize the difference! I have called them off! That is all I can do! Whatever happens now is out of my control!" "You did not kill the girl." Machack sounded disappointed, as though deprived of a chance to mete out punishment. "Oh, she is in no more danger, unless she gets in the way." Espuma grinned maliciously, "There are dogs coming. And there are Apaches, as well. Which will get here first? Either way, I rid myself of the cat and the wolf! Want to watch?" "Let us get the girl and go." "And miss all the fun? What kind of a spoilsport are you?" "A practical one. We take the girl and leave. Give me one reason why we should not!" "I'll give you six!" Espuma said gleefully, "We can always take the girl. How often do we get a chance to watch a fight like this?" Through the brush slipped large shapes, almost man-sized but low to the ground, running on four legs and breathing in harsh, gasping growls. They were well spread, converging on the group at the cliff. "Very well," said Machack, his eyes narrowing with interest as he measured the opponents. "But only this once. Next time we get the girl before you start playing."
Machita blinked. Silence stretched across the clearing, although she thought she could hear someone talking in the distance. One of her moccasins was full of sand, and the coarse grains were rubbing a blister on one toe. She grounded the butt of her spear and scratched, saying, "They have gone, again." "Don't count on it," Sandy rammed leather wadding down the barrel of his pistol, working by feel while he watched the brush. He brushed sweat away from his face and squinted into the gloom. Lucha remained silent, venturing out into the open to retrieve an arrow. She was followed by the wolfling, head lifted as he sniffed for danger. Eyeing the jaguar, she turned back to them and motioned for them to observe. Only a rim of yellow showed about her huge pupils. Red Cloud swung her head back and forth, watching also. She could feel something out there, moving toward them at a run. Wolf Walker's senses were the sharpest. He heard and smelled danger before the others, as a fitful wind delivered a warning to him. Imitating Red Cloud's movements, he swung his head back and forth, then whined and immediately shut up, embarrassed. For the first time, he showed caution by moving behind the others, where he rattled his chest with a low growl. "The brave wolf is afraid?" Lucha said with wonder. "Truly, something evil comes this way." Red Cloud coughed loudly in warning, then backed against the clay cliff. Lucha ran to stand beside her with bow ready, wondering that she should trust the ferocious creature so completely. Sandy lifted his rifle and sighted down the barrel at the shadows in the brush, while Machita made ready her spear. The hounds appeared noisily, crashing through the thorns and brush toward them. Sandy's rifle boomed and the young cowboy uttered what was perhaps his strongest curse word. "Dang! I missed!" Then no one could hear anything as the air was filled with the roar of a jaguar pitted against the baying and growling of six huge hounds. The dogs were coming in from the front and the sides, preparing to strike all standing, when they realized the presence of the great cat. After that, they ignored the humans and concentrated on getting at the jaguar. Sandy drew his pistol and fired again, down the throat of the nearest dog. The weight of the dying hound bore him to the ground and he lost the pistol. Another hound ran up on Machita's spear, at the same time Lucha's arrow found its heart. The impact forced Machita back against the cliff. A third hound leaped at the opportunity to rip the jaguar's flank, only to find that he had entered a trap. The trap was sprung when Red Cloud snapped and flung his limp body away. The remaining hounds became cautious. Though they continued to bay and yell deafeningly, they withdrew and darted forward in flashing attacks. Lucha tried to hit them but only wasted arrows. While Sandy dug around for the powder to reload, Machita pulled her spear out of the carcass and prepared for another attack. They could not see where the dogs were until two of them came in from the sides again. Before they could react, the hounds were too close for Lucha to use her arrows. Machita struck with the spear, but it had lost its sharp edge and she only pushed the animal away. It came at her again, and she found herself knocked down. The hound started toward her but was distracted by a wolf chewing on his tail. It suddenly realized that a jaguar was raising a mighty forepaw to deal a deadly blow. Before the blow could fall, the hound fled out of range and stood growling. Lucha yanked Machita to her feet and then sent a reed shaft after the dog, but it did not connect. Two more dogs appeared, raising a clarion of yelps in a different tone as they rushed to meet the first hounds. Sandy looked up, unable to find the powderhorn. He saw a great shape rise from the top of the clay cliff and prepare to leap out onto Machita. "Look out!" he cried, but it was too late. The dog jumped. Halfway down, the dog jerked limp to the accompaniment of the echoing -crack- of a rifle. It fell in a heap. Will Larribee rode up on his pony. He did not see the jaguar, which faded into the shadows and headed away. The two remaining wolfhounds saw, however, and sounded their bellows as they followed, while Will whistled back the late-coming dogs. Shortly after, both pursuing hounds yelped and fell silent. "Well, looky here!" chortled Will. "Danged if I ain't saved your worthless hide!" "Thanks," Sandy said sourly as he picked up the vagrant powder horn. On a nearby rise, Espuma fumed. "I'm calling my javelinas back!" he said angrily, "And you can't stop me!" Instead of attacking, however, the javelinas milled about. Two dozen or less produced a halfhearted formation and started toward the clay cliff. The remainder began to wander off. "I am losing them!" cried Espuma. He turned on Machack, and demanded, "What have you done? You have stolen the power from my controller! Give it back!" Machack held the diadem up, admiring its transparency in the last red rays of sunset. He quirked an eyebrow, looking down at his companion, and said, "Don't want to." Twiddling the slides and knobs had no effect, as more javelinas shook their heads and melted into the dark. "I have lost them!" moaned Espuma, "All my plans! Ruined!" "You will think of something." Machack predicted, "Your mind is like a gutter. It is never empty."
By the time Trader, Olaf, Roberto, and Noah arrived, there were still several javelinas remaining. The townspeople proceeded to slaughter them until there were none. "Yeeahh!" cried Trader, as he rammed lead after powder and prepared for another shot, "This is as good as it gets!" "We missed the cat!" called Mansino as he looked for survivors, "Where did he go?" "Slipped away in the uproar!" answered Trader. "Guess we'll just have to settle for bacon!" It was only later that Trader examined the carcasses of his beloved dogs and discovered bullet wounds in them. "Who shot my dogs?" Trader came upright and roared. Will stepped forward with trepidation. "I did." he said, his jaw trembling. "I'm going to wear your hide out, boy!" declared Trader, preparing to beat Will with a leather strap. "Hey! I shot a couple, myself!" shouted Sandy, but his cries went unnoticed. "But I was trying to save those squaws!" cried Will, pointing toward Machita and Lucha. "Boy, you better keep your tallywhacker in your pants!" said Trader, making another grab at his son, "Don't you know how much trouble you can get into with Injun females?" "I think we are already in trouble," said Noah, looking at the shadows around them. The Apaches had appeared with the silence of ghosts. Saying nothing, they investigated the carcasses. Tall Horse approached Trader's party. "What are you doing here?" asked Tall Horse. "We was hunting our dogs. They ran away," explained Trader in a manner markedly milder than a moment before, "We're leaving right away. Didn't mean to disturb you, but we wanted to get them back before they caused trouble." "You came all the way out here to kill your own dogs?" Tall Horse asked incredulously. "Yes, we had to," said Trader, "They looked like they might hurt somebody. Might have even gone after your people." "Ask them if they want the dogs to eat," piped Will. Tall Horse turned from him, his lip curled. "You eat dogmeat, you cook them." Black Elk spoke up, "Is that not White Dog's pony?" he said, indicating Will's mount. "It is!" Tall Horse swung to Will and demanded, "Where did you steal this horse?" "I found him!" stumbled Will, suddenly aware that half the weapons in the Apache group were pointed at him, while the remainder were pointed at his companions. "Where is White Dog?" asked Tall Horse, "He was here a moment ago." "He has already returned to the camp," said another. "It was his pony. We must take this white man to him and let him choose the punishment," said Black Elk. "I say we kill him right now!" declared Eagle Claw. "Tom Goose says he does not want trouble with these white-eyes," Tall Horse reminded him, "If we killed this one, we would have to kill the rest of his friends." Eagle Claw ran a callused thumb along the striking edge of his war club. "So?" he said. "Where's the problem?"
WHERE THERE IS A WILL: "You ain't taking my boy!" growled Trader, placing his hands on his matched brace of pistols, ignoring the wall of Apache warriors between him and his son. "Let me handle this," said Roberto, "After all, I am the Alcalde of Rio Peligroso, and they will not do anything to me or any of my party. I have always been friends with Tom Goose." To the Apache, he said, "You know me. I am the leader of the (white-eyes). You must not harm any of my friends." "Oh, great! There had to be a politician along," grumbled Eagle Claw. "We should have gone ahead and killed him while we had the chance." "We will let Tom Goose decide this," said Tall Horse after hesitating for a moment. "Until then, we will not harm your man. However, if he is guilty of stealing the pony he must suffer Apache law." Trader did not like this, but Roberto said to him, "My friend, you have been lusting after a chance to sell to the Apache. When they find your son is innocent - Why, they will be glad to trade with you! Your son was, indeed, trying to protect their womenfolk." "You always think I am a coward!" cried Will hotly, "I'll show you who's yellow! Let them torture me! I don't care! It won't be any more than you have done!" He thrust out his chest and tried to appear brave, though his face shone as pale as the sand about while he thought over his decision. Trader stopped as abruptly as if he had been struck with a falling tree. "I will take this white-eye back to the camp," said Buffalo Wattle, pushing to the forefront, "The others must see how no criminal escapes Buffalo Wattle." No more was said, although several warriors rolled their eyes in long-suffering patience. They took Will from his father, and Will managed to keep his head high even while his upper lip trembled. It took all three white men to pull Trader back, and he watched in bitter helplessness as the Apache took his son from him. "I will send for the soldiers," Mansino assured him. "They will be here before they harm him." --------------- "Are they going to hurt him?" Sandy asked of Machita, "He's a louse, but he doesn't deserve to get killed for it." "Tall Horse is pretty level-headed," Machita assured him, "After Tom Goose hears what happened, he'll let him go." She paused thoughtfully and added, "That is, as long as he really didn't steal the horse." "I ain't never seen a man tortured by the Apache," shivered Sandy, "I hear they have some ways that'll keep you alive for days, screaming and begging for death." "Nothing will happen," said Machita, although she felt a sense of foreboding, "They will straighten it all out, right, Lucha?" Lucha did not answer. Machita tried to get a closer look at the wolf in Lucha's arms, annoyed by the feeling that there was something familiar about the small animal. Lucha, however, was guarding it protectively as she started back toward camp. The cub was no longer fighting her embrace. "Let's get back to camp," suggested Machita, "I have to see if Red Cloud got back okay." AT THE CAMP: (reprise) Machita hurried to the sheltered rocks and heaved a sigh of relief when she saw that Red Cloud's clothes were missing and the water basket had been spilled. She found Red Cloud talking to Estrellita back at the main camp, and went to join them. Red Cloud wore her buckskin dress, her arms stained with medicine. She hurried to Machita and clasped her tightly, dropping the aura of competence she had been presenting to the rest of the camp. She drew a ragged breath, smiled bravely, and hugged Machita once more before moving away to allow Estrellita near. The rancherita hit her at a dead run. "Ramon!" cried Estrellita joyfully, throwing her arms around Machita and hugging her tightly, "Why did you not let us know you were here?" "Ackkk...." gasped Machita, when she could break free, "What do you mean? You found me! I did not know where you were!" "Well, you could have *tried*!" the blond rancherita pouted. "Oh, Ramon! I have missed you so much!" She stopped while Sandy passed them as he carried his saddle to a shelter. Then she added rapidly in a softer voice, "I am keeping myself pure for you. I know you will want me someday. But lately it has been so difficult...." Machita was not listening, for she had seen the scratches on Red Cloud's arms. "I am happy that you are safe," Machita said to Red Cloud, "I was so worried...." "Hello?" Estrellita snapped, "I am here! We have come to take you back with us! She has been here with you - you could have talked to her any time!" "You don't understand!" said Machita, "Red Cloud was out...." Red Cloud shook her head emphatically, 'No'. "She might have been...." started Machita, and again, Red Cloud frowned, crossing her arms over her breast and brushing downward - the sign for 'Quit, stop'. "...I guess you are right," sighed Machita, "I am sorry. I should be paying more attention to you." "That's better," simpered Estrellita, "Now, how long will it take to get ready to go? I really have to talk to you - later." "I can't go, yet. I have to find out if Lucha will come to Mexico with us." "Lucha?" Estrellita quavered, her confession forgotten, "*Your* Lucha? Your real sister Lucha? You FOUND her!" "Ahhh...yes," Machita admitted, "Or rather, she found me. There's something we need to talk about." "Oh, Dios Mio! Yes! Tell me about her! Is she pretty? Does she have any boyfriends?" Estrellita had gone all sparkly eyed. "She must have been thrilled to know you were here!" Another thought passed across her face, fleetingly. "What does she think about you...you know...changing?" Machita hung her head. "She doesn't know," she said, "And please, do not tell her." "Why not? I think it's wonderful!" "She hasn't met Ramon, yet. She thinks he is a pervert," Red Cloud supplied with a grin. Estrellita boggled. "She...she thinks Ramon...." she fought the urge to snicker and lost, holding a hand over her mouth as she laughed, "mmmphh...She thinks he is a *pervert*?" Machita simmered. "It's not *that* funny," she growled. Once she had controlled her tendency to giggle, Estrellita asked a more practical question, "If you aren't coming back, then can we stay out here? I want to find an Apache dress. I am crazy about those beads and fringes!" Red Cloud found Lucha and asked her about finding a place for two more people, though Estrellita showed a tendency to giggle during the introduction, and the wolf cub tried desperately to escape. As they started out to find Willow Woman, Black Elk arrived. "Machita!" he called, "We need you at the central fire. We are deciding what to do with the horse thief." As they hurried to the fire, Machita had to explain to Red Cloud and Estrellita about Will's capture. Sandy met them, concern clouding his face. "Don't worry about it, though," Machita said in a voice which she did not wholly believe, herself, "Tom Goose will let him go as soon as he hears about it." "I have talked to White Dog," said Black Elk, "I told him, 'When Tom Goose turns him over to us, we shall devise a suitable punishment. Have you thought about a fitting torture?' White Dog said, 'The women always have the best forms of torture. He claims that he was protecting the beautiful sister of our sister, Lucha. Let Machita decide.'" Machita was dumfounded. "I am not going to help them torture him!" she said. "You had better think of something, before they do," whispered Sandy, "They'll probably want to cut him to pieces right away. Tell them to torture him slowly, a little bit at a time. At least that will keep him alive, until we can cut him loose, later." "Errr.... Something non-fatal...." Machita gulped, then continued in a louder voice, "Blindfold him, put him in the middle of an open area, and let him stumble around in the cactus." "That is stupid!" growled Eagle Claw, "That is what you get for letting a woman decide on a torture!" "No! Wait!" cried Buffalo Wattle in elation, "I see what she means! We shall blindfold him with wet, uncured leather, so it will shrink in the burning Sun until his head is crushed! While he is in torment, we turn him loose in the desert flat with the scorpions and the sidewinders!" Buffalo Wattle was beside himself with excitement. "You will make an excellent bride!" he exclaimed to Machita, "You have the heart of an Apache! You have conceived a torture so painful and debilitating that it would frighten even a warrior...of course, it does not faze me...." Machita could only stare wide-eyed at him. "My future bride!" continued Buffalo Wattle, "I cannot wait! We must be wed immediately! How I have longed for the day I would meet a woman worthy of my warrior's place, and now I have found two! Two women that are more beautiful than any dawn! Plus," he added thoughtfully, "since they are sisters, they will be able to make a harmonious home for me and our many children!" "Gak!" Estrellita gasped, then hissed, "Did I hear him correctly? He wants to marry you?" "Yes," Machita returned the whisper mournfully, "Why must I endure this? I am a man!" "What about my claim?" said White Dog, "I saw her first, when she was at Pavo's shelter!" "I saw her in Willow Woman's wickiup, that first day!" growled Buffalo Wattle, "My claim is foremost! I have first right to court her!" "Gak!" said Estrellita. She watched with amazement as the young men stood for a moment, nose to nose. "How long has this been going on?" Sandy wondered aloud. Lucha knelt to release her burden and moved closer to hear. "It's not like I tried to get involved!" cried Machita, pushing away from the others. She tripped over a gray shape with a stripe across its back and stumbled into Sandy, who caught her as she fell. The wolf cub yipped and disappeared into the night. It was this picture which Buffalo Wattle saw as he turned from a shaken Will Larribee - Sandy, blushing, with his arms around Machita, helping her to her feet. "Who is this man?" demanded Buffalo Wattle, "How dare he lay hands upon my future bride?" "I have had enough of this!" Machita fumed. An idea occurred, the way bad ideas some times do, as a blinding glimpse of the obvious. It was simple, really, the perfect way to remove herself from availability. She really should not do it, and yet the compulsion to escape beckoned.... She pulled Sandy aside and said, in a whispery-hoarse voice, "Listen! I have got to get away from these guys! Will you help me?" "Uh, yeah, sure! He's kind of a bully, ain't he?" Sandy said, "But what do you want me to do?" "Just play along!" she said. As Buffalo Wattle drew near, Machita stood boldly forth and announced in a loud voice, "I cannot marry you. I am already engaged. This is my fiancÚ!" She pointed at Sandy. "What?" bellowed Buffalo Wattle. "What?" cried Red Cloud. Lucha merely smiled a knowing smile. "Gak!" said Estrellita. "Que?" Sandy was staring aghast, the color in his face alternating between pale white and the purple of rage. As soon as he could, he got Machita alone and demanded, "What the heck are you trying to do?" "Look, they will not hound me to marry that jerk if they think I am promised to someone else." Machita said in an effort to sooth him. She added, "I have got to get away from him! He is driving me crazy!" "You are crazy, all right! Just stay away from me, okay? Don't get near me!" "Do not worry about it! This will work," promised Machita. "Play along with it. Nothing can go wrong!"
CHAPTER TRIENTA Y UNO: END