THE ORIGIN OF GHOSTS: On the outskirts of the camp, away from the others who were cleaning up from two days of feasting, two siblings wrestled. They seemed to play like children, roughly, although both had seen more than fifty summers. The Apache shaman Nomiro could get around in a lively manner, considering his very recent blindness. Even so, Cornsilk had no trouble convincing him to talk to her. "Ouch! Oof! (thud)" Cornsilk helped Nomiro to his feet, holding him in an iron grip as she informed him of her intent, "Now, listen to me, Little Brother! I have something to say and you are going to hear it!" "Not with those foul creatures around!" Nomiro said sourly as he brushed the thorns and twigs from his robe, "Send them away, or I will not speak with you!" "It is about these spirits that we must talk!" Cornsilk declared, "Hear my words! These are not ghosts, but dwellers from a foreign land called Bah-Bah-Loon." "They harass us, they act like ghosts, and yet you say they are not?" "No. They claim to be demons." "That is just as bad, if not worse!" Nomiro snapped. "Not quite! These are relatively weak, and tamed." "Tamed?" Nomiro knew that his sister would never relent. He sighed and accepted the inevitable, "I will listen, then, if you insist. How did you come by these domesticated demons?" "Many moons ago, Willow Woman came to me," Cornsilk's voice softened as she remembered the night she had first heard the voices. This is what she told Nomiro: Willow Woman had asked for help in locating her daughter, Lucha, who had been seen wandering away from the camp - apparently in a daze, for she did not answer when she was called. Cornsilk had set out to search along the dusty riverbank. It was along a narrow gorge, higher in the hills, that Cornsilk saw the flash of light. More brilliant than lightning, the blue-green light reflected from the face of the cliff and showed the entrance to a cavern. The flash was accompanied by a loud sputter and crackle, the sound of sparks given off when a buffalo robe was rubbed in the dry dead of winter. Immediately afterward, she heard a hoarse man's voice, cursing in some strange language. The man was answered by a whining buzz that hurt her ears. Curiosity overcame caution and she ventured closer. She found Lucha huddled in an alcove within the cave, staring at the pattern of stones on the far wall. Stealthily, Cornsilk pulled the dazed girl toward the entrance, only to feel her limbs become rigid and unmoving. She heard the whining screech again, felt a sharp pain within her skull, and found that she could understand the voices. The man's voice shook with rage as he said, "Ingrates! Betrayers! I have fulfilled my part! Now, give me the vessel!" "A thousand pardons, Beneficent One!" came a wheedling buzz, "We are honorable beings. However, our contract has specific wording which we cannot contradict." "Enough of this! I called you into being, and I can send you back!" "Ah-ah-ah! Not so, Great and Powerful Lord! The terms have not yet been fulfilled! Until then, we must remain here." "But you were supposed to protect the stone from others...not me!" "Your pardon, Oh Master, while I recall the past. Delusion! Will you do the honors?" A muffled duplicate of the man's voice echoed in the cavern. "By the glory of ((incomprehensible)) and the powers of ((inconceivable)), I summon you to guard this stone from all manner of magical intrusion! Let no one of magic attempt to steal it!" "Those were your words, I take it, Oh Glorious Benefactor? We, whom you have summoned, can turn magic back upon anyone - including you." "I am not stealing what is already mine!" "A thousands pardons, Oh Vision of Just Wrathfulness! When the spell was cast, you did not state who owned the stone. Since you specifically gave it to us for safekeeping, your servants proudly took ownership and we will not allow any magical thief to claim it!" "You would twist my words against me? I will regain my possession! I will have vengeance!" "Not against us, Oh Most Powerful Vindicator. Not with magic, which we will turn against you. You should have thought of that before you summoned us." "Then prepare! I will be back!" "We await with trembling, Oh Most Fearful of Persecutors!" announced the whining screech, "In the meantime, we shall entertain ourselves with the local populace. Do not hasten on our behalf!" There was a sudden sensation of emptiness as a gust of wind tugged Cornsilk toward the center of the cavern. Cornsilk rarely admitted to terror, but she felt a deep, nameless fear as the skitterings and whining came to a focus around her head. One voice was audible above the rest, "We will require a host to anchor us in this reality. You will perform that service, Female!" And thus, the voices had begun. Before Cornsilk could find a way to control them, they had brought misery and illness to the entire camp and subjected her to fearful dreams. While she lay helpless and subject to the awful visions, Yucca set out into the wilderness in a vain effort to find a cure. "Now I find that a foul creature accosted her before she could return. I will find that heartless demon who attacked my daughter!" Cornsilk growled, "I will find him and he will wish he had never existed!" "His name is 'Espuma', and I have met him," Nomiro said, lifting his chin as though gazing at the empty sky. "If there is anything left after I get through with him, you are welcome to it!" Cornsilk followed his glance toward the sky. Seeing nothing, she said, "He seeks our Lucha, but she must remain untouched or he will suffer. I have a plan." Nomiro nodded and uttered softly, "Untouched. You want to use the wedding to ensnare him." Cornsilk's eyes widened. "You are wise, true brother," she said, "But how is it that you knew the way of my heart?" Nomiro considered the moment when he had allowed a stray thought, a mere whim, to move him to require Lucha to obey the folklore custom of marrying the man whose horse she had fed. How faint an urge, how close he had come to losing the opportunity! "I am a shaman," he announced, "I am supposed to know these things. Tell me more of these voices you hear." "Listen carefully to these 'demons'," Cornsilk told him, "You can hear them clearly enough, but beware. Do not believe everything they say." The whining whisper in Nomiro's ears became words, and he swatted at the air in a reflexive motion, as though swatting mosquitoes. "Alas, we are far from home, and starving! We are mere shadows of our former selves!" cried Fits, "We are normally very supple and strong. There are wonderful things we could do for you, if you would let us regain our strength!" "They are pathetic, wheedling spirits," Nomiro snorted. "Do you say they are responsible for our loss of Lucha's father?" "They have told me that they only gain their power from magic. But," Cornsilk said grimly, "they lie! They thrive on human suffering. They caused our sickness and injuries so they could feed on our misery!" "All the more reason to destroy them!" Nomiro declared. He bent an ear to listen to the thin, whistling voices. "We are bonded to the White Haired Mistress!" hissed Fevers, stubbornly, "We must remain so until our duties are carried out!" "Or until she dies," Staggers supplied. Silence descended. Silence continued, as Cornsilk clamped shut her jaw and narrowed her eyes, with one eyebrow raised in a question. "No!" cried Fits, "No! White Haired Mistress, we would not be thinking such a thing!" "But you said...." Staggers hissed. "Our word! Our word, Oh Voluptuous Virgin of the Nile! Please! Not the green stinky stuff!" "I keep it ready!" Cornsilk warned them, "One false move...." Over the clamor of sobbing agreement, Nomiro raised his voice in wonder, "Do they fear a bad smell?" "They love foul smells. They would bathe in them. However," Cornsilk smiled grimly, "there are some strong herbs that even they can not tolerate. Why do you think I spent so much time with Mud Wallow? They won't come near him!" "Come," said Nomiro, heading toward the wickiup of Tom Goose. "We must make haste if we are to set the trap before this Espuma tries something else."
TRADING GUILT: It was gone. Red Cloud frowned after searching her pouch one last time. She returned the pouch to the stack inside Lucha's wickiup and sighed. "Can I help?" Estrellita looked anxiously at her and made an exaggerated smiley face. "I can't find my comb," said Red Cloud, and she sighed again. "Let's use mine," the blond rancherita picked an ivory comb out of her belongings, which were already spread out on a blanket. She added, "I do want to help. You seemed so sad." Red Cloud took the ivory comb, noticing that several teeth had fallen out. [Is this the way we grow into adulthood?] she pondered, [We lose part of ourselves trying to make the rest of the world orderly.] To get away from this thought, she applied herself to restoring some order to the pile of blond hair on Estrellita's head. "Thank you for helping me with my hair," Estrellita said as Red Cloud braided the thick, yellow mass. "I have had enough of the 'windblown' look." "It is no bother," Red Cloud assured her, "It gives me something to do." "Red Cloud?" Estrellita ventured with unaccustomed timidity, "Do you...like...Ramon?" The Azuma girl fumbled a layover. Recovering the wayward strand, she countered, "Why do you ask?" "I have been thinking...." Estrellita twisted about to look at her, then faced forward again, "I have grown up with the idea that I was going to marry Ramon, no matter what anyone else said. Lately, I have been wondering if I might be tying him down. What if he wanted to see someone else?" Red Cloud forced a smile, "Do you mean someone like Sandy?" "Oh, that!" The rancherita giggled. "Not really. He is much too macho to go through with anything like that! But what if Ramon wanted some other girl, and he was afraid that I would not let him go? He is so kind and considerate. He would never allow me to suffer even if he wanted someone else." "Do you call Ramon kind and considerate? I thought he was 'dense'." "Well...mostly he is sweet, and kind, and gentle, and wonderful...he has been like a brother to me, and I just don't want to hurt him! I have given him my word that I am to be his forever!" "Mmmmm," said Red Cloud, with a mouthful of tie-cord. She used the cord to bind one braid and then started on the other side, thinking. Estrellita had never said anything about Ramon being 'like a brother.' She had always spoken of him as 'her future husband'. Estrellita allowed the still of the wickiup to settle, while, outside, younger children played and older children helped their mothers prepare for travel. When she spoke, it was in subdued, thoughtful tones on a different subject, "What do you think Little Mouse will ask for that shellbead dress?" Red Cloud finished wrapping the end of the second braid and picked up a needle. She shook her head at the rancherita's sadness. "Little Mouse would gladly give you the dress for only the comb and gloves," she said. "But you must also talk to her mother, and her mother does not like the Spanish." "Oh, this is dumb!" cried Estrellita, "I don't really want a new dress! I don't care about dressing up. But I want to look good for...Do you think Ramon would like to see me in a beaded dress? I am only doing this for him. Him and...." She did not continue. "It would not matter to Ramon. Why should you try so hard to look pretty?" Estrellita said nothing as she twisted and tugged her braids, burying her fingers in the thick strands while she stared at her hands. Red Cloud watched her for a moment, then realization dawned. "Oh," she said. "Do you like Sandy?" "No! I mean yes, a little...I mean...." the rancherita came back to herself and wiped her nose in an unladylike manner. "I am promised to Ramon! I love Ramon! He is the man I have always dreamed about. Don't you like him, too?" "Yes," Red Cloud paused to consider the consequences and shivered. She shook her head and continued, "Yes, he is a good man." "If he liked you, I would not feel as if I were betraying him. If only...if only you and he...." Red Cloud coughed to clear an obstruction in her throat, and turned away so Estrellita could not see her fight back the sudden tears. She thought, [I, too, have betrayed him, and he may die from my betrayal!] "I do not think this could happen," she added in a thicker voice. A shadow fell across the doorway and Red Cloud said a quiet prayer of gratitude for the distraction. Wolf Walker was hesitating stiffly at the entrance, announcing himself in the manner of the Azuma. A look of distaste contorted his face as he appeared to ponder his fate. "Come on in," Red Cloud smiled as she threw open the flap. Returning to the shirt she was mending, she added, "The Apache do not expect their *men* to wait for an invitation." Wolf Walker did not retort. He entered meekly and squatted before Red Cloud, not looking directly at her. "I must say this...." he began. "It is good to see you, Brother," Red Cloud said in the Azuma tongue. She inclined her head toward Estrellita, who was digging through her packs in search of valuables. Wolf Walker continued to examine the ceiling of boughs and leaves. "My heart is warmed, also, to know you are well, Little Sister," he admitted, also in Azuma. "But, I must say this...." Red Cloud glanced up placidly from her mending. Wolf Walker cleared his throat twice, then blurted, "Iwanttothankyouforsavingme!" "Oh? You know I love to hunt. I would have hunted javelina, anyway." He switched his gaze to the blanket beneath him. "That, and one other thing," he said. "You have kept my secret." "Why should I tell anyone of that?" Red Cloud dimpled, then while Wolf Walker struggled to think of an answer, she added, "Besides, I think you look cute as a puppy." "This is demeaning!" cried Wolf Walker. "Now, I must endure your taunts as well! It is not enough that I must fetch and tote like some callow youth...." He glanced aside at Estrellita, who seemed oblivious of them, and hissed, "You could have told me!" "About Ramon?" Red Cloud shot her lower lip to one side and shook her head. "I am afraid not. Then I would have had to tell him about you. That would only be fair." "It does not matter, now! He knows of my shame. Where are his clothes? I have to take them to him." "Does he need them? The bear-grease must have worn off," Red Cloud lifted the pantalones and blouse from a nearby basket. "Here, I am done mending them. It is very good of you to help him this way." She smiled calmly at his dark scowl. "If I did not, he threatened to shout my secret all over the camp!" he cried, "It was bad enough that he had to shame me by parading in front of me as a naked female! Now, I must run his errands! I am not accustomed to such humiliation!" Snatching the pantalones and shirt into a bundle, Wolf Walker paused at the doorway. "Bear-grease?" he asked with a puzzled frown. "Part of a spell. Baby wolves do not need to know this." She turned at a thought, smiled impishly and added, "Lucha shall miss her pet." Wolf Walker turned pale and cried, "You will not tell her! I have had enough shame! And, now you will be able to torment both of us with your teasing!" "I will not tell a soul," Red Cloud promised. "Not a word. Nothing gets past these lips." As the doorflap slapped back into place, Estrellita emerged from her packs. "What was he so upset about?" she wondered. "Oh, he has learned about Ramon and Machita." "Oh, well. Ramon can hardly expect to keep it a secret from everyone, forever." "Also...I am thinking that Wolf Walker likes Lucha." "That's wonderful!" Estrellita laughed, her eyes twinkling merrily as she said, "I can just see Ramon bringing Lucha home to his mother...their mother. There would be Lucha, and Ramon, and Wolf Walker." Another thought clouded her merriment. "Uh-oh. Wolf Walker does not like Ramon, does he?" Red Cloud shrugged. "I think he does not respect Ramon. He has said that Ramon is not good enough to walk among the Azuma." "It is more than that. They are always fighting. Wolf Walker hates him, doesn't he?" Red Cloud cocked her head to one side, the better to think. "A little," she agreed, and grinned. "Oh. Will there be trouble?" "Of course there will be! It is said that Lucha is to be married." "I wish you hadn't mentioned marriage," Estrellita pouted, not at all excited about hearing the news. She settled beside Red Cloud and busied herself with the few belongings in her lap. Sorting through them, she picked out a few pieces of jewelry. "I ran away in such a hurry! I don't have anything valuable to trade!" she said. "I have tried asking Little Mouse. She just talks about other stuff. She admires my hair and my eyes. Then she says something in Apache. She won't tell me what she wants, and they may leave at any minute." "I am thinking...she does not want your eyes." Estrellita opened those hazel eyes wide in a tentative, puzzled frown as she wound her fingers through her yellow braids.
RAVIEN PAVO RETURNS: Tom Goose swallowed another draught of the medicinal tea Sweetcorn had prepared for his upset stomach. All at once, there was too much going on. Cornsilk's return had caused his heart to sink as well as soar, for she remained dangerous even though he still loved her. Sweetcorn had not been happy to learn that Cornsilk had been hanging around camp again, but she kept her peace on the matter. Broken Cloud, who now called himself Nomiro Nada, was speaking in puzzles about the Mexicans helping the Apache. Tom's watchers had informed him that the pale-eyes at Rio Peligroso were sending for Mexican soldiers because of the horse-thief Will Larribee. Perhaps it was time to move camp, before the younger warriors did something to end the peace of the last few years. Whatever they did, he would have to decide the fate of the upstart son of Trader Larribee. Tom Goose shook his head and took a last sip of the bitter tea. "What *is* this?" came a bellow from the main camp, "I leave for a week to visit my mother's relatives and you let Mexicans sleep in my shelter?" With a sigh, Tom Goose set the empty battered cup aside and hurried over to greet the returned warrior. "Calm down," he said, trying to sooth Ravien Pavo. "We have given your wickiup a thorough spiritual cleansing!" "These are nancin!" bellowed Pavo, "I am going to kill them all! I will peel their hides and leave them to dry in the sun! I will...." "They are under my protection," Tom Goose informed him. "If you wish, I will have my brother cleanse your wickiup again." "Never mind! I'll do it myself!" Pavo grabbed a blazing stick from the fire and thrust it into the brush roof of the wickiup. The dry wood caught instantly and the flames mounted to the sky. Quickly, there was nothing but a pile of ashes which his wife avoided as she began bending boughs for another wickiup. Tom Goose watched the smoke rise into the bluing sky and asked, "Are you feeling better?" Pavo flipped his hair behind his shoulder and shrugged. "Very well. I have need of your skill. The shaman has found a young man whom he considers in need of training." "I will see him, then, after I have eaten." "Ahh...Pavo?" Tom Goose's use of his name did not escape the warrior. Pavo waited for elaboration. "There is something I want you to do for me." "Done!" said Pavo. "It will not be that easy. In fact, your being our finest warrior will make it even more difficult." "What is it?" demanded Pavo, "Just name it. It shall be done." "This young man...do not kill him." "If the shaman recommends him, then he should be able to take any training I give him." "That is just the problem. Broken Cloud did not ask me to have him taught *all* our ways," Tom Goose said, choosing his words carefully. If Ravien Pavo learned that Broken Cloud had been influenced by Cornsilk, the champion warrior would have stalked away and refused to hear anything more. Tom Goose added, "However, he did say that we need him, and he needs us." A suspicion entered the champion warrior's mind. Darkling clouds loomed on his brow, and lightning began to flicker in the depths of his black eyes as he flexed steel-hard sinews. "How is it that I should worry about killing this boy?" he demanded. "He is one of the Mexicans," said Tom Goose. "You want me to help a nancin?" Pavo sputtered with fury, "Do you take me for a fool?" He spoke with such force that Tom Goose had to take a step backward. "No, I do not," Tom replied evenly, "When we tread the war path, you are the one we follow. You can look at a man and tell whether he has the heart to be brave, or if he is a coward who will break and run when arrows fly. This is all I ask of you. We must know if he is worth it." The lightning still trembled in Pavo's eyes, but the darkness eased from his brow. "Then that is all that I will tell you," he said. "Send him to me. If he returns, then he will be worthy. If not...." He closed his fists until the knuckles crackled. The tension drained from Tom Goose's shoulders. "That is all I can ask," he said. "I respect your brother. He tries to be a good medicine man," said Pavo. "But why does he protect the boy - a Mexican?" "First, I must tell you," Tom debated silently whether to relate the entire tale he had been given by Nomiro and Cornsilk. He settled for saying, "He wants to be called 'Nomiro Nada' because he did not see a danger coming from the Mexicans. He thinks the boy can help stop the sicknesses." Tom had been given a condensed version of Cornsilk's testimony. He had heard, from Nomiro, that Cornsilk now controlled her 'demons', but he was not going to wager any amount on how long that control would last. He had enough troubles without taking any chances on Mexicans learning to fight sorcerers. "Humphh!" snorted Pavo. He turned from Tom to watch the open vistas of the nearby mountains and said, "Give someone a little medicine and they have to change their name. Superstitious!" This was dangerous talk, scorning the spiritual beliefs of their shaman, but Pavo had his own source of power, and he was not afraid to state his mind. The two men, a champion warrior and the nominal chief, sat in silence as they watched the morning chill melt into sunshine. Silence. Hawks drifted overhead, sculling for air currents. More silence. Pavo finally broke the quiet, "They have to change their names. Hiding behind words. Weaklings! If you must change your name, you should make it a good, strong one!" Tom raised an eyebrow and asked, "What about your name?" "What about it!?" "Raging Turkey?" "It is a ruse," smirked Pavo. "It is supposed to cause confusion." Tom shrugged. "It is working," he admitted.
SOCIAL OBLIGATIONS: Sandy returned from another trip to the cooking area, his gourd dish piled high. He wore a puzzled expression. "What's up, podner?" Lonesome greeted him. "That lady over there said she was the chief's wife and she wanted to know why we weren't doing the right thing." "First, let me give you a bit of advice. You don't call their women 'ladies', like they was white people. They are called squaws. What did she mean, 'the right thing?'" "I dunno," Sandy wrinkled his nose as he considered going against a lifetime of training, "The lady didn't say." As the cowboys stood conferring, they were approached by two women - a stout but not unattractive woman and a slim, short woman with shorn hair, wearing a widow's cape over her blouse of Mexican cotton. The slim woman came up to Lonesome and eyed him appraisingly, glanced at Sandy, and said in halting English, "This not our custom. But...she choose you. I accept." "What's this?" Lonesome wondered as the widow left. "I am called Sweetcorn. I am Tom Goose's wife," said the stout woman, using fluent Spanish. "Although you are pale-eyes, we have been asked to treat you with respect. I shall explain, since you are ignorant of our ways. When you get married, you must get the consent of the girl's family. You should then present gifts, to show that you are sincere." She turned to Sandy and added, "Since She-Goes-Ahead does not have her parents with her, I have asked Willow Woman to stand in for her mother." "Gifts?" Lonesome gaped, "What kind of gifts? That shaman didn't say I'd have to spend a bunch of money on *gifts*!" "How many horses can you afford?" Sweetcorn asked, eyeing his clothing and gear appraisingly. Sandy was too thunderstruck to breathe until well after she left. When he was able to exhale again, he declared, "Ain't gonna! No how! No way!"
ON YOUR MARK, GET SET, READY: He was male again. Life was good. Ramon savored the fresh morning air, swinging along the trail toward camp, in his own clothes. In his own shape. He laughed, and sprinted until he could feel his blood race. It was wonderful, to be able to run free and fast. "The first thing I am going to do, I am going to challenge someone to a foot race. And I'll beat them," he declared. "These guys can't stand to see a Mexican win! I'll show them! I can outrun them all! I can...." It was about this time that he happened upon Lonesome and Sandy, who saw him before he could turn and dash for the woods. Lonesome put aside his sharpening stone and re-sheathed his knife. "Hey, Ramon!" he called, "Sandy said you were here!" "Hola!" Ramon said cautiously, avoiding Sandy's eyes, "You seem to be in good spirits!" "Aw, I'm fine," Lonesome said, "Just a little mix-up with a local gal. She's kind of cute, but...have you heard the news? Sandy's getting married!" There was an awkward pause, as Sandy's scowl assumed blast furnace proportions - a ferocious glare which could have melted brick. He was making a rumbling noise deep in his throat. Ramon stood on first one foot and then the other. "Yeah, I have heard," he gulped, "See you later. Gotta go!" "Wait!" said Sandy, with hot stone in his voice, "I want to talk with you. We have something to settle!" Once they were away from Lonesome, he turned on Ramon and growled, in English, "Do you realize what you have done to me?" "I am sorry!" Ramon said as he squirmed out of the stranglehold. "They think we are engaged!" Sandy's voice was strained as he shifted his grip to twist Ramon's arm behind him. "I couldn't help it! I had to get away from that guy!" Ramon twisted about and hit the ground on his back. "They want to hold a wedding! Right now! Between you and me! I am supposed to buy you! I'm gonna kill you!" Sandy yelled as he tried for another chokehold. He danced over Ramon's spinning legs and they tumbled back and forth. Ramon spat out a mouthful of dust and said, "There has to be something I can do to clear this up!" "Look, it's simple! All you gotta do is stay a guy. Then they can't make you do anything!" Sandy gasped, trying to lever up with all of Ramon's weight on his back. At last he quit struggling and gasped, "Okay, I give! I quit!" "Yeah," Ramon scratched the dust out of his hair and staggered back. "That's true. I've had enough play-acting. I am done running away! From now on, I'm going to stay me! As long as I can, that is...." Sandy raised himself rumpfirst, then pushed himself to his feet with Ramon giving him a hand. Breathing heavily, they dusted off the sand and grass still clinging to their shirts. "Well, I'm still sore at you," Sandy said, rotating his shoulder to ease the stiffness. "Hey, are you all right? I didn't beat you up that bad!" "I ran into your Grandpap's 'mystery man', yesterday, before I came out here and went pig-hunting," Sandy said with a rueful grimace. "He sort of whupped up on me. By the way, where is he? Your Grandpap, I mean." "I have not seen him. Not since the duststorm." "Kinda miss the old coot," Sandy said as they sat and rested. He heard Ramon's stomach gurgle and he added, "How about some breakfast? Ain't exactly ham and eggs, but I managed to choke down a couple'a two-three bowls." "Sure! But I am not certain how I would be welcomed. Since I have been here, events have conspired to keep me 'disguised'." Sandy took his bowl back to the fire, where Sweetcorn refilled it. She seemed pleased at his appetite. As he returned to Ramon, Sandy said, "Just remember. You gotta stay a man. That way, they can't force you to do anything. They may be wild and crazy, but they ain't stupid." Carrying the bowl, Ramon found a bare spot near the cooking fires and sat. He said, "Well, if what Abuelo says is true, then even that won't help. Sooner or later, if I don't change, then any water at all will make me turn into a girl. And later, he said there might be even worse things happen. The effects could get reversed, and *cold* water could make me change." "Aw, man!" Sandy shuddered, "That would be terrible! You'd change even when it rained!" He was not without compassion, although it might be noted that he had good reason to fear anything that increased Ramon's tendency to become a marriageable maiden. Sandy glanced at the woman who had called herself Sweetcorn to see if she was listening. She had been watching the column of smoke rising from Ravien Pavo's burning wickiup as she dipped hot water into Tom Goose's medicinal potion. "If I gotta be cursed, I'd prefer it to be this way. At least, I can be careful. I am not getting near any hot water!" Ramon said as he opened his mouth and shoved in the first bite of stew. It was hot. Very hot. He jerked away and rose to his feet, never thinking that the dry, hot food might affect his condition. Indeed, it would not have triggered the change. But then again, backing into a woman carrying hot water might. "Oops!" said Sweetcorn. She had been turning to speak to the cowboys when she was bumped. Tom Goose's tin medicine cup sailed up, emptied its contents into the sky, then clattered to the ground. Said contents, being hot water, splashed over her shoulder in a perfect arc, descended upon the young lad who bumped her, and Sweetcorn turned to find She-Goes-Ahead standing where Ramon had stood a moment before. Well, not exactly standing, perhaps...more like performing an uncoordinated war dance, holding her hand over her mouth. "Ah murned my dung!" cried Machita. Sweetcorn was almost certain that the Mexican boy should have been beside her, but she was not one to allow appearances to deceive her. After all, children could move more swiftly than you would expect, and She-Goes-Ahead was definitely there. "Child!" Sweetcorn admonished her, "You really should not be socializing with your intended this soon before the wedding! What if you lessen his desire?" "Sister of My Beloved!" Another voice broke the air. Sweetcorn harrumphed. "Cornsilk's boy, on another of his quests." Machita broke off inspecting the tip of her tongue to groan, "How muzz he fimb me?" "Sister of My Beloved! How can you continue with your foolish decision? Come to me, and let me protect you from the wiles of this crafty, fiendish outsider!" "Let's get oubba here," Machita growled. "And bon't fobbow us!" she ordered Buffalo Wattle, who nevertheless glared at Sandy until they were out of sight. "You know, he talks funny for an Apache," said Sandy. "He ain't fummy when he's dalking about me!" Machita said as she finally got her tongue back into working order. Then she turned at the sound of approaching male voices. "Sister of Our Sister!" the chorus of male voices cried. Machita blinked. "Now, who is that?" she wondered. "Come, let us protect you from the folly of your ways!" White Dog, Black Elk, and several other youths marched up to them, and declared, "One of us will gladly make the sacrifice and join with your family in order to save you from this pale-eye!" "I have to go find some water," Machita mumbled as she tried to edge away. She did not get far before yet another disturbing voice rang out, a voice of determined femininity. "Demoness!" "But I don't think I'll go that direction...." "Wait, foul creature of deception! (Yawn) I will remove your blot upon this campsite!" "What did I do to you?" Machita cried as she dodged Yucca's stabbing flint blade. Sweetcorn appeared and gently took Yucca aside. "You are tired, Child," she said. "Come, I will get you some breakfast." "I want to find my slave! He was promised to me when my brother captured him!" protested Yucca, but she allowed herself to be led away. Sandy arrived with his canteen and poured water onto Machita's head. "Can't you keep out of trouble?" he asked. After about a cupful had fallen, Ramon replied, "I will overcome this. There must be a way to return to normal!" "Seems to me that sometimes the only thing you can do is duck and run for cover. Lonesome is right. We gotta get out of here before we get stuck, or Espuma and that giant he's running around with get ahold of us." "Wait. This other man...what did he look like?" "Big. Husky. Strong as a mule. But he had a scary look in his eye when he was whomping on me. He looked like a kid pulling wings off a fly. A *big* kid." "You are right, we gotta get out of here. But if Lucha does not agree...." "Ramon! My Ramon!" Ramon jumped as if he had been grabbed. A moment later he was indeed grabbed, as a bleary eyed Yucca pelted down the pathway and glomped onto him. "My Ramon! You have returned! I knew you would not leave me!" "Wait a minute!" cried Ramon, trying to untangle himself from her arms. Sandy remained mirthfully unhelpful. His compassion did not extend to un-entangling friends who were being clutched by girls. "You have saved me!" Yucca continued, gripping him in a bear-hug as Ramon gasped for air. "I have waited for you, all night, I was so worried that you...that you...." She collapsed atop him and knocked him to the ground. She bore down upon him, a pressing weight made light by her slender size and the fact that she was not really trying to harm him. She was...asleep, her cheek to his, her arms about him. Ramon listened to her steady breathing for a moment, then grumbled, "Aww, man...!" He rolled her over onto her side and regained his feet. "What am we going to do?" Sandy wondered, "We can't leave her out on the trail. Somebody is going to come along, and then you'll be in more trouble." Sweetcorn approached again and solved that problem. "Lucha has said that she does not approve of you, but you seem a normal male to me - for a Mexican," Sweetcorn announced to Ramon. She bent over Yucca's face and sniffed. "I see. She has taken a sleeping potion - I recognize my sister's work. Carry her to my wickiup...and remember, I am watching you." Lifting Yucca's limp body proved to be more of a chore than Ramon expected, as there were very few handholds - and some of those he *could* find triggered warning alarms in his mind, with Sweetcorn looking over his shoulder. When at last, with Sweetcorn's help, he held Yucca aloft, she had her arms about his neck and she was snoring gently into his right ear. He carried her to Tom Goose's wickiup, where Sweetcorn put her to bed. "This day is getting weirder and weirder," Ramon said. "What next?" "Aha! I have found you! You will not escape me this time, crafty villain!" ".... I had to ask...oof!" Ramon managed to say before he was hit. Buffalo Wattle slammed into him chest-high, wrapping his longer arms about Ramon as he drove forward. His momentum carried them both across the clearing, up against the biggest wickiup where flailing arms and legs brushed against drying racks and set them to swaying. The combatants tumbled across the dry grass and knocked dust into the air, the larger lad grabbing at Ramon and Ramon slipping away, only to get caught again. Abruptly, Sweetcorn ended the wrestling match by emptying a bowl of water over them. "You are kicking up too much dust!" she complained, "Now you have forced me to waste this water! Go somewhere else or I will have you fetch me another basketful!" "Gaaah!" cried Ramon. Brushing his hands over his chest, he added, "Cold water...I'm safe...it's only cold water!" "Quiet, you weakling!" Buffalo Wattle swatted at him with a knotted fist, missing closely, "Do you want us to have to fetch water, like women?" "Let's finish this somewhere else!" Ramon danced about Buffalo Wattle. "I think you better try something besides wrestling," suggested Sandy. "He's kinda bigger than you." "Silence, Pale-eye!" snapped Buffalo Wattle, "If the shaman Broken Cloud had not spoken for you, you would be feeding the ants in the desert!" "You just name it! I can beat him!" Ramon insisted, but his anger and his voice had faded to the point that he could think more clearly. "Let us race! That would be fair, wouldn't it?" "No Mexican can outrun an Apache warrior!" snarled Buffalo Wattle. Ramon snapped, "This one can!" "Very well. See that twisted fir tree on yonder hill? First one there and back!" Buffalo Wattle's statement was delivered in a rapidly diminishing volume. "You got it! Someone start us off!" "Don't look at me," Sandy shrugged. "He's already gone!" "I'll beat him!" Ramon yelped and leaped away. Lonesome strolled up and asked, "Where's Ramon going?" "He's racing that big guy - the chief's son, I think." "Well, he's gonna miss the excitement. Come on, they're going to decide what to do with Will Larribee!" glossary: nancin - Apache word for Mexicans. I am not sure what the exact translation would have been in 1830, but I think it means 'resources'. ^_^ (Details: Unless otherwise noted, speech is assumed to be in Spanish. Yes, many Apaches of the day spoke very good Spanish.)