HOSPITALITY: (or ANGIE PAYS A VISIT) "It's just not fair! How did _she_ get her hooks in him?" The growing heat of the day had not melted the ice in Angie Comstock's eyes as she rode her mare along the ridge. Far away she saw a speck atop a craggy hill which might have been an Apache lookout, but she slowed not a whit in her drive to rescue Lonesome. "I can see him going along with the joke, even being with a strange woman, for he's a man and men have to sow their wild oats, as contemptible as that thought is, but sooner or later he'd come away with stupid grin on his face and he'd be satisfied never to go that way again because - I know - deep down he is a decent human being who has simply come into hard times and he has to try to get along by using whatever means he can, because I guess they did sort of drumhead him into the wedding, but dammit! He didn't have to act as if he were enjoying it! He would get tired of living in a brush hut after a time and he'd want to come back to civilization, and I know he'd remember me because he had that look in his eye when he watched me when he didn't know that I saw him, but if he's in that camp when the army strikes, he'll do something dumb and heroic and get hurt, I know he would, because down deep inside he is a decent man who would not let anyone hurt a woman he was even remotely interested in...I'm going to kill her!...but first, I have to get him away from there before the fighting starts and in order to do that, I have to break her hold on him any way I can...." The more she talked, the more her mare picked up speed, urged on by the tempo of Angie's voice, until they were fairly flying along the trail toward the Apache camp. SERVICE: (or EVERYONE GATHERS FOOD FOR THE WEDDING:) "But why don't you want to marry the girl, Machita?" Andalejo asked as he circumnavigated a bed of grass spurs. "She is comely, and talented, and she is a demon with the atlatl. In addition to that, she is Lucha's sister, and in my lodge that would make her very desirable indeed. In fact...." "I ain't gonna marry a guy!" snapped Sandy. He shifted his towsack from one shoulder to the other, wiped the perspiration from beneath his hatband, and scowled. His blue eyes reflected the severe azure of the blazing skies. "In fact, I ain't gonna marry anybody!" "But...you would not be marrying the man, Ramon! That would be improper! Does not the image of the girl remain in your mind, in the cold lonely nights of the desert?" "You just don't get it, do you? He is not she! She is he!" Sandy's scowl was contagious. Andalejo caught it and modified it to indicate his own outlook. "I know what I have seen," Andalejo said plaintively as he practiced using the scowl on the mesquite and laurel trees scattered about the rising clay bluffs ahead. "I have seen the girl turn into the man. I do not know how this is so, and I do not know if it is right, or decent, but she is favorable to look upon, even if she does have a few bad habits." Sandy stopped, closed his eyes tightly in an even fiercer expression, and stated, "I ain't gonna talk about it!" "Very well," sighed Andalejo, "Let us find some wood rats. There are brushpiles here where they build their wickiups. Wood rats are very tasty with their tails tied together and boiled in a pot." They were in a clearing over a bluff when trouble arose from the encroaching thorny bushes. "Look out!" Sandy yelped, pulling the young Apache lad to one side to avoid the huge hand which had appeared behind him. "Never fear, young Viking," said a menacing voice, even as the face of the man who had assaulted him before showed itself. "I would not harm the child. You, on the other hand...." "What did I ever do to you?" Sandy asked as he circled around Machack. "Why, nothing," chuckled the ancient warrior. "It is what you are going to do for me that interests me. You see, I am a scholar of warfare, and I study soldiers. You would make an excellent fighter, I suspect. Let me try you." "I won't fight!" "Every one fights for something," mused Machack. "Would you fight to save your little friend?" he watched the young cowboy's face expectantly. "You do not frighten me! I am prepared to die for my friend!" shrilled Andalejo. Machack shifted his attention to the young Apache and shrugged. "You are not yet prepared to be tested," he said. "I do not choose to pick on the feeble and immature. Unless you insist." Sandy motioned Andalejo away from the clearing. "Go to the camp and find someone!" Sandy urged, "Get Lonesome! He'll know what to do!" Andalejo bounced from foot to foot, agitated. "I cannot leave you, my friend!" he cried. "Go!" demanded Sandy, "Get help!" "Yes, go!" Machack echoed, watched until the young Apache disappeared into the brush, then turned to Sandy. "That was a brave thing to do," the warrior said, cracking his knuckles as he moved closer. "You know he will return too late to help you." Sandy used his thumb to flick a bead of perspiration from his face, only to realize that to his opponent it might appear that he was thumbing his nose. "Let's do something," he muttered. "If you're gonna kill me, get it over with. It's too hot to stand around yapping." After this he saw the ground coming up to meet him. "Didn't even see him swing," he complained through a mouthful of dust. Massive arms lifted him and tossed him across the clearing, until he felt himself sliding over the edge of the bluff. He reached for a hold and managed to grab the roots of a dead tree. With his legs dangling and scrabbling for a foothold, Sandy clung to the roots. He chanced a look down and saw a narrow pool of water below. "Give me your hand," said Machack. "No!" Sandy responded, trying for a more solid grip. "Give me your hand, and I will help you up. Then we can resume your testing." "I don't think so," Sandy gasped. He felt the roots give as they began to come apart deep within the sandy soil. "Give me your hand, Viking. I will let you live. What are you going to do, kill yourself to prove yourself worthy?" "Go to hell...." Sandy released his grip and the roots tore from his fingers. For a moment the warm air whipped at his back as he fell, then he smacked into the water. He touched bottom almost immediately, awkwardly slipping on the mossy stones, but there had been enough water to break his fall. "Sunnova...." he groaned, rolling over in the shallow water and staggering to his feet. Waves sloshed back from the other side of the narrow pool, shoving him back and forth as he stood. He reached toward a stone ledge to climb out. Suddenly the waves crashed again and there was someone beside him in the pool. Sandy backed away from the hulking figure, casting about for a stone large enough to use as a weapon, but the other person ignored him, peering intently downstream. Machack crouched in the gravel, scowling as he watched. "I will finish with you later," he growled. "Now go, or you will be something's meal." Sandy wasted no time scrambling away from him. He did not worry about dignity or appearance. Something was bothering the big warrior, and he did not want to meet anything that would make that person nervous. When at last he could see the thin columns of smoke from the camp, he quit running and started to look about for Andalejo. Meanwhile, Machack vanished into the dust and brush, peering from cover as a living mountain of pebbly flesh moved past him. The huge creature paused to inhale buckets of stream water, then dunked its head into the pool as if trying to rinse away the dust. It radiated heat like a council fire and emitted a hissing roar before retracing its steps back toward the south. As it moved off, Machack followed, drifting from brush to shadow. "Who brought this dragon?" he said softly, "Another sorcerer?" So intent was he on following the strange creature that he failed to notice another shadow slipping along after him. Andalejo had not been happy, forced to retreat from the huge warrior. Instead of running away and seeking the doubtful help of another cowboy, he had decided to gather stones and attack Machack from ambush, thereby rescuing his friend and defeating a common enemy. A stone was in the sling, prepared for launch, when Sandy fell into the pool and Machack followed. Then Sandy escaped, Machack hid, and something huge came up the waterway. The sight of the dinosaur paralyzed him. When he could breath again, Andalejo had forgotten his vengeance upon Machack. Confident that Sandy could find his way back to camp, he pocketed his sling and the stones he had gathered and began the stalk. EDUCATION: (or THE DOOR INTO FOREVER:) The scorching sun, blinding in its heat over the alkali flats and the gray-green forest of cactus, was gone. In its stead, the latest doorway had introduced Ramon to a steep mountainside, stinging sleet, and a chilling wind that numbed his face and made his fingers ache. Ramon collapsed on the stony ledge with a gasp, his muscles shaking from the strain as icy gusts tugged him toward the gaping void. This could not be real, he told himself. It is a dream, from which I can awake, if I try. Whirls of stinging crystals blew beyond the ledge while he clung with numbed fingers to the side of the cliff. "I have had enough!" he called to the air about him, "What good is this thing I am doing?" "Do you mean you don't know?" the bear-man's voice held an echo of amusement. He had appeared almost without a sound, the biting moan of the wind covering the creak of gritty snow as he stood upon a finger's width of the icy ledge. He didn't want to waste his strength remembering, but the memories came flooding back anyway. Ramon had been staring at the opening before him, with an expression of mild disgust, when he heard the growl. It began as a bass thrum, causing his chest to vibrate, then quickly ran up the spectrum of growliness until it became a shrill warble, terminating somewhere in the vicinity of his navel. He was hungry. He knew where the trouble had started. He had been inside the strange tree. And in the tree, there was only one thing that was constant: Another doorway. There had been other doors. Doors that could not have existed in hallways that should not have been there, in the bowels of a huge tree that could not have existed, in the midst of the semi-arid mountains. There were other doors, nonetheless. Ramon had explored many of them. One had opened into a vast hallway with a low ledge on each end, and on one ledge sat a bowl with a dozen small, round stones. The stones were worn smooth by millions of years of water flowing over them. "Take one pebble at a time and place it in the bowl at the far end of the hallway," spake the bear-man, who would appear and vanish again for no reason. "When you have emptied this bowl, you may go on." It seemed a simple task - move the pebbles from one bowl to another. Before long, however, Ramon found that the bowl at the other end of the hallway was getting farther away. When half the stones were shifted he had to run with all his might to reach the other bowl. One pebble at a time. He could not pick up more than one, although he tried. The bear-man spoke at his elbow. "Call it to you," he suggested. At Ramon's questioning gaze, he elaborated. "Call the bowl. Tell it to come closer." Ramon fussed. He fretted. He fumed, and in the end he called the bowl, in a low voice and feeling very much like a fool, "Here, bowlie, bowlie. Come here. Come closer." The fact that he succeeded in shortening the distance that he had to run did not make him feel less foolish, but he did finish transferring the pebbles quickly. And then...there were the doors that dumped him into the realm of the big, black bird in the elegant dress uniform. This creature would grab him and force him to repeat greetings and polite phrases until his voice would fade. Throughout his journey, Ramon had found either the bear-man or the bird-man by his side. He preferred the bear-man, because the ursine presence was more pleasant and much quieter. The bird-man was always chattering in his strange dialect, and when Ramon made a mistake while reciting, the bird-man would buffet him with a wing. The bird-man reminded him of the friars in school. It seemed like years since he had fled the school Don Pedro had arranged for him, fled the taunts and sneers of his classmates. When he thought about it, if at all, the jeers were all he could remember of the school and the friars who taught there. Ramon had begun recalling those teachers with fondness. The bird-man taught with such ferocity and strictness that the friars seemed like coaxing and wheedling nursemaids in comparison. The hours would drag on until he would bolt for the door just to get beyond it again. Yet another doorway had stood before him, but at least this one did not have flames around it, or snakes writhing, or lions clawing from each corner as he tried to wriggle through. This was a simple opening in the living wood of the tree. He was hungry, thirsty, and tired. His stomach growling, Ramon had sighed as he leaned against the wall. His face was sunburned and his throat raw from trekking across endless deserts. Blisters lined the palms of his hands, and the soles of his zapatoes were cut from climbing hills of razor-edged rocks. Dried blood stained his cotton clothing, where thorns had ripped at him as he struggled through dense brush, trying to find the last doorway - the one out of the tree. "It is only a door," the bear-man had said, once more startling him. "Only a door?" Ramon barked a laugh, "How many doors? I must have gone through a thousand! Why am I doing this?" "To defend yourself and your people, you must learn. You must learn to choose. Here you have been given the tools of that learning, and now you will use them." "What next? Do I fight bears, or coyotes, or badgers?" A kindly humor crinkled the bear-man's face. "Know the powers of each. The bear has strength, but can be distracted by a simple honeybee. The coyote is clever. He is much admired, yet he can wantonly slaughter a clutch of rabbits or a flock of geese even when he is not hungry, simply for sport." "What about the badger? I learned a lot from a badger, even if I did not know it at the time." "The badger can be a powerful foe, or ally. Do not overlook his qualities. He fights by placing his back to the wall and welcoming death, which can make him hard to beat." "Oh," Ramon chewed over this information. "I sorta thought he was a little irresponsible and not always truthful." "Then you have more to learn," said the bear-man, bringing him up short. "You have one more door to pass." He pointed. "I am beginning to hate doors," Ramon sighed. He had gone through the door, through another desert, and then onto the ledge where he now found his teeth chattering and his fingers growing numb against the frozen granite. "Do you not know why you have come to this?" the bear-man asked again. The wind caught his reply and forced it back upon him. Ramon tried again to speak, his voice quivering with the cold, "Everyone says I must fight the old bald guy - the sorcerer. You were supposed to help me find a way to defeat him, and all you do is lead me around through all these crazy rooms! I know I have no chance of beating him without some weapon. It would have to be a very powerful weapon. Where is it? What is it?" The bear-man shook his head sadly, saying, "You must be made ready, which is all we can do to help. We have no weapon for you." "That's what I thought! Yet, you lead me around through these corridors and doorways, run me though swamps and deserts, mountains and wells, and I'm not getting anywhere! I haven't learned any...anything!" His outburst almost sounded like a whine, and he snapped his mouth shut in self-disgust. The bear-man looked down at him, compassionate but aloof. "Nothing comes easily worth having," he said. "I don't care! I...I'm wasting time here! If I am going to die when I fight him, why bother with this game you are playing?" "Do you ask why?" "What good does it do? Yes, why?" The bear-man pointed toward yet another doorway, which opened in the solid granite above the ledge. Ramon huddled against the face of the cliff and shivered. "I'm not going," he said. "If I am going to die, anyway, I might as well do it here." "One door," the bear-man promised, continuing to point until Ramon raised his eyes. Ramon shook his head and withdrew again, taking deep shuddering breaths. He felt a warm gentle hand shake him by the shoulder. "Are you giving up?" the bear-man asked, "Have you quit, when people are counting on you?" Ramon shook his head. Wiping the blinding snowflakes from his vision, he pushed himself to his feet. His zapatoes slipped on the frozen ledge and he fell to the ice, one leg dangling over the precipice. Carefully, he regained his footing and moved toward the opening. Before he entered it, he turned and said to the bear-man above the taunting wind, "Remember, you promised only one more door!" There was no one on the ledge to hear him. Ramon leaned forward into the doorway, shaking from the intense cold. "This had better be the last one," he muttered, "I can't take much more of this!" COMPASSION: (or AZTEC MORN:) Ramon pushed through the hanging fabric, brushing aside the curtains to emerge on a brief ledge. At first he could not place his finger on it, the indefinable quality which made this room different from all the others. Even when he shivered beneath the harsh winds of the mountain he had felt that they were unreal, as though he could suddenly waken and find he had been dreaming. Stars hung large in the black sky, slowly fading as false dawn approached. A moth fluttered across his field of vision, ignoring him as it sought the light of a fire blazing atop a nearby, steep hill. The air was cool, full of contrasting odors: the smell of the earth and planted fields, cool stone, distant flowers, hot baked bread, stew, melons, the dry nose-tickling whisper of bird feathers, and an underlying aroma, metallic tainted but disturbingly familiar. He took a step along the ledge and noted that there were no bushes nearby. In fact, the stone of the ledge was strangely flat and smooth, with markings spaced regularly along its length. As he waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark, he heard a multitude of people murmuring beyond the sharp hill directly before him. A thin gray line slipped across the eastern horizon and the murmuring of the crowd grew louder; a husharra that felt almost recognizable - it was not Apache, or Mexican, or the tongue of any Indian tribe he had ever heard. A tightness started to build in the back of his throat, and he took a deep breath, trying to ease the tension. As he opened his mouth to drink in the cool air, a drum sounded - a throbbing pulse so deep and penetrating that it seemed to enter his lungs with the air and shake his insides, down into the pit of his stomach where it made his backbone ache. The beat came again, and again, until it matched his racing heart. Ramon spun in a circle, trying to find the source of that sound. It was coming from above him, on another level of the hill on which he stood. In the growing light a bright spark remained in the eastern sky, as the morning star sparkled in the new dawn. The light also showed him that what he had taken to be a steep hill was indeed a pyramid, as was the hill he stood upon. The drum beat shook him until he could not think, and he ceased his turning to face the blank wall, toward the place where the doorway had been and was no more. As he descended the pyramid steps and headed toward a roadway, he became aware of his clothing - a loincloth of rough white material and a white cloak of the same stuff tied at the shoulder, with embroidered lizards gamboling about the border. An unbidden memory came to him, that his mother had spent many hours making that cloak. With the memory came a picture, of a familiar woman whom he did not recognize, smiling with pride as she presented the cloak to him, on the occasion of his departure to the big city. He was to become an apprentice to a cousin. There was a tinge of regret accompanying the image. He had not fulfilled his duty. He had, instead, done something against his mother's wishes, something which might prove very dangerous. Suddenly the early dawn did not seem so peaceful. Ramon became aware of soldiers, guards who watched the street where it entered a causeway, stopping traffic and occasionally searching pedestrians. For some reason, a thrill of fear tingled the muscles of his back as he approached the guardpost. He was not stopped, however. An argument between porters distracted the guards and he was able to slip through without mischance. Beyond the causeway and feeling safe within the streets leading to a huge outdoor marketplace, he stopped. His cloak felt uncomfortably heavy and stiff. An exploration of the cloak revealed a pocket sewn into the lining, and this pocket disgorged a golden platter. He was so surprised that the platter almost slipped from his grasp, necessitating an impromptu juggling act before he caught it securely. He examined it, unaware of a shadow looming behind him. "Oh, man! You got it!" Ramon jumped in alarm, which turned into irritation. "Is that it? Let me see!" The speaker, a boy about Ramon's age, flicked the platter from his grasp and held it to the light from a street torch. "This is your old man's, all right! You did it! Man, do you have guts! If the soldiers caught you, they'd peel your hide while you're still alive!" "Shut up! They'll hear you!" Ramon heard his voice say. He was disturbed because he had spoken without thinking. His voice was disturbed because the other boy was attracting attention from other people on the street. He peered closely at the other boy. "Gordo?" "Who you calling fat, Mountain-King?" Again Ramon's voice spoke without his foreknowledge. "Shut up, I told you! Every one who hears you can turn us in! They take rebellion seriously here in the capital! Don't use that nickname here, not ever!" "Aw, what you scared of, anyhow, Ten Lizard? After what you did? The singers back home are going to make a song about you! The Mountain-King gets his family treasure back from the temple!" The Gordito look-alike raised his voice as he said, "Man! I can't wait to tell them!" "Tell them what, son?" "Ooops...." Both boys tensed, seeing the gleam of sharp weapons and the dull bulk of body armor as soldiers stomped into the street from an adjoining alleyway. Their leader approached. "Split up!" Ramon cried, and they ran in opposite directions, each with a pair of soldiers after them. Ramon was in his own element, leading his pursuers on a merry chase, until he could lose them in the winding streets near the causeway guardpost. Let them think he was heading back toward the temples. They had not gotten a good look at Ramon, so they did not know who they were chasing. Meanwhile, he slipped back down the narrow streets and into an anonymous courtyard, through a curtain of tiny metal beads that sang of his passage. "You are up! Good!" Ramon whirled to meet a man wrapped in a modestly elegant cloak, who gestured him toward a dwelling. "Breakfast is ready," the man said. "You almost missed it. Where have you been?" "Shopping," Ramon heard his voice say. Inside the building, a table was laid with melons, tortillas, boiled rice and berries. At the table was the lad who seemed so much like Gordo, already stuffing his mouth with food. He gestured for Ramon to join him, and as soon as he swallowed his mouthful, he said to the man, "He is being modest! Do you know what the Mountain-King did?" The man jerked in alarm and looked around. "A word of caution, my cousins," he said. "Your humorous nicknames can get you in trouble, here in the capital. This is not your home village. Inciting rebellion can get you killed." "What did I tell you?" Ramon heard himself say. "But this is great stuff! He did it! He got back the vessel they stole, last year!" "He WHAT?" the cousin blanched, gripping the edge of his bench for support as he stared at them. Gordo looked about uncertainly. "He stole the vessel back. You remember how those thieves broke into our village temple and took our communal blessings? He got it back!" He wilted under the glare, finishing with, "I thought it was great." "Let me see it," the cousin said, coldly. When the platter was in his hands, he sighed in despair. "This was tribute," he said. "This was meant for the rulers, as part of our gesture of faith. Do you realize you have offended the very gods?" "I found it in the priest's living quarters," said Ramon's voice, with a thick coating of malice. "It had fruit in it. The priest was using it to serve refreshments to his guests! This belongs in our temple!" What blood there had been in his cousin's face departed, leaving a translucent blue tinge. "You went into the priest's quarters?" he whimpered. "Hey, I told you he's the Mountain King," Gordo said, defensively, "He's brave. He ain't afraid of nothing!" The cousin bowed over the remaining vegetables, his shoulders quaking. "You have slaughtered my family," he moaned. Gordo looked at him uneasily. "Hey, it ain't that bad," he tried to smile. "They don't know nothin'. They'll never find out who did it." "Yes, they will," the cousin looked up with anguished eyes. "Why do you think there is no thievery within the capital? Because the punishment for theft is very severe. Steal a cantaloupe and you will be put to death. Steal a garment and they will kill you." He shuddered. "Shelter a thief and you will be put to death. What do you think they will do if you steal from the priests?" "Ulp," said Gordo. The cousin went on, "They will take your entire family and gut them. If your children are handsome and intelligent, there is a chance, a very slight one, that they can become slaves...or sent to feed Huitzilopochtli, instead of being merely murdered." "Every one?" Ramon's mouth was dry as he spoke. "Down to the last child. Everyone in this compound. All my children." "The soldiers, they cannot find out!" The cousin shook his head. "If the authorities do not know now, they will as soon as our neighbors come back from the ceremony. I told you, there are spies everywhere. It is safer to tell than to risk being found suitable to feed the gods." "It is an honor to give oneself to the deities," Ramon found himself saying. "Are you so ready to go?" spat the cousin. "I am not. I do not wish to give my children to placate their hunger! I have spent my entire life, sold myself into slavery in order to become one of the foremost feather craftsmen in the world! I had a reputation for crafting the finest robes and wall hangings, and my children were going to become wealthy, important citizens! And now you have destroyed everything I have worked for!" "Hey, I'm sorry!" Ramon said. "Look, we gotta go," Gordo said, grabbing his arm. "They can't blame him if we aren't here. I'll get our stuff! You watch for soldiers!" Thus it was that Ten Lizard/Ramon was at the doorway to the compound when the girl arrived. She was hurrying furtively along the street, watching carefully at the corners before crossing. She was wearing a deep red tunic-top with images picked into it with red and blue quetzal feathers, over a wrap-around skirt of deep blue. Her hair flowed freely from beneath a jade headband, and around her neck was a turquoise pendant that looked very familiar. She saw the doorway and came toward him. Ramon had the eerie sensation of looking at himself. Herself. [Wait a moment!] His mind raced at fever pitch, yammering, [I'm me! I am male! Who is this?] The girl - the face he had seen in the mirror so many times, pale now with fear - drew away for a moment. "A sorcerer...the soldiers are after me! You know of my tribe! You must help me!" she stated, "Help me escape! Let me hide in your house!" "I cannot...." Ramon started to say, before his mind caught up. [Cannot do what? Help myself? But this is not me!] "Then do not betray me!" she continued, grabbing Ramon's arm. At the touch of her hands Ramon backed away, unsure of himself. Her grip was warm, yet strong; she was real and she was not Ramon. Panic battered him, a gale of fears and concerns that were foreign to his mind. Could he not let her slip into the compound, where she could hide until any pursuit had passed? Yet, though he wanted to help, to step aside and admit her into shelter, he found that his limbs would not move. She would bring the police into the house, and in their search for her they would discover his father's ceremonial plate he had stolen back from the priests. A reasoning voice within his mind told him that there would be a trial, and his cousin would be able to mount a defense to prove that he had no part in stealing the plate. The same voice admitted that the defense would be fruitless. The judge could not be merciful, not when the priests were involved. The police would slaughter every living being within the walls of the compound, to the last innocent baby, because of his crime. "Go away," Ramon's voice was weak. He could hardly believe he was turning the girl - himself - away. [Did I ever look that upset?] He wondered. [Maybe once. When I stumbled out of the cavern of the springs.] Anger flared in her eyes, but only briefly. She had known what she was asking. Anger faded, hope remained, and she did not leave yet. "I cannot help you," Ramon said, almost a whisper, staring at the ground. He watched her feet as she pleaded, then despaired of succor. He saw her dragging footsteps as she moved away, heard her gasp and start to run as the measured tread of soldiers came from down the connecting street. "Wait!" Ramon cried, "Come back!" but his voice had dwindled into an inaudible whisper and she was too far gone to hear. He heard the cry of discovery as the police spotted her, the noise of the chase, then the inevitable sounds of capture. One soldier approached as he stood transfixed in the compound doorway, too bound in his own internal struggle to flee. "Did she try to get in here?" the soldier demanded. When Ramon nodded, the soldier went on, "You did well by not helping her. You have been a good citizen." Ramon nodded again, then settled miserably onto the stoop, unable to stand against the waves of guilt which threatened to engulf him. "Why?" he asked himself, "Why couldn't I help?" Pulled by a force he could not explain, he staggered to his feet and leaned against the cool clay wall. The wall parted at his touch and he fell through to wooden floors and eerie dim lighting. "Where was that?" he demanded of the bear-man, who was still leaning against the curved wooden wall. "Rather to ask, _when_ was that," the bear-man responded, slowly pushing himself erect before leading the way on down the hallway. "It is in a tomorrow, which must come before the child who cried for help is allowed to reclaim her peace." He stopped, paused to reflect, then turned about and retraced his steps back the way he had come, adding, over his shoulder, "It is in a yesterday, which must come to pass for the same reason." When he stopped again, it was at the same opening Ramon had gone through. "This is your way out," he said. "This the only door that exists." "I told you! I have been through a thousand doors," said Ramon. "I am not going out through that one again!" "But there is only one doorway!" the bear-man protested with a frown. "You are wrong!" said Ramon, "I have seen them! I have been through them!" "Do you say that I have made a mistake?" "Yes!" "Very well," the bear-man shrugged. "There is no door." He vanished. Ramon stood blinking in the rays of the morning sun, in the dust and grass beneath the oak. ANGIE PAYS A VISIT (CONT.): "Hoof beats! Are we are being attacked?" cried Hits Standing, his club at the ready as he rushed up to Tall Horse. "It is only Little Comstock," Tall Horse reassured his near- sighted friend. He watched as the woman's mare thudded past them on the trail and added, "I do not think she is here to talk to Tom Goose, though. She had a look of great purpose upon her face." He frowned for a second, then his expression eased and he slapped Hits Standing on the shoulder. "Come on," Tall Horse said and started off, chuckling, "I think we are going to see some fun!" ---------- At a campfire near the edge of the dwelling area, Wolf Walker lifted the oaken staff and sighted along it toward his challenger. With a grunt, he lowered the wooden shaft and ran a thumb along the surface, searching for imperfections. "Your spear is going to be too heavy!" Wolf Walker looked up before returning to the lance, gliding his keen carving knife down a rough side, peeling another thin, curly mane from the surface. The attacker scowled through strands of loose hair, grasping his small bow and straw arrows as though expecting to be challenged. "The best spears are made of bamboo," he added, with a certainty born from spending a substantial portion of his life in learning these things. "A spear is for throwing," Wolf Walker said. "It must fly far and true. A lance may be heavier, since it is not thrown." The critic came up to where Wolf Walker was sitting and, standing upright, looked the older lad in the eye. "Apache lances are better than Azuma lances," the small warrior-to-be declared. "That may very well be so," the maker of the Azuma lance said as he gazed back gravely. "However, since I am only a lowly Azuma, I don't know how to use an Apache lance. I must make my own." "I still say your weapon is too heavy," the very young Apache repeated. "My weapon is strong." "Are you going to hunt bear?" "Perhaps. A warrior must be ready for all kinds of prey." "Huh. You are trying to sound like my father." "Thank you. Your father must be very wise." The boy paused. "Yes, he is pretty smart," he admitted. "But I'm not saying you are, too, just because you talk like him." Wolf Walker placed the end of the lance in the fire to char it into a sharp point, feeling the air stir as the children who had been watching him moved silently away. He smiled as he faced his new guest. "Red Cloud. It is good to greet you, my sister." "And you," Red Cloud said. She twisted about, eying each child in turn. In a moment they had vanished entirely. "I was enjoying talking to my company," said Wolf Walker. "They were teaching me how to make weapons." He realized that she was not amused and added, "How may your protector help you?" He left unsaid the relationship they shared mere nights before - when she had protected him in his weakness. "I am thinking Ramon is in danger," Red Cloud answered. "Ramon is always in danger. If he had become a member of the tribe and received his animal guardian, he would not be always in need of our help." She wrinkled her nose at him. "Is this _your_ guardian spirit talking, brother?" "At least we _have_ guardian spirits! You have the jaguar. I have the wolf. He has nothing!" "Then to whom does he speak?" Red Cloud asked with a half-smile, "But hear this. I must look for him, and you may not follow." Wolf Walker started. "Your safety is my purpose for being here! You cannot deny me!" "Harken to me, Little Wolf!" Red Cloud hissed in the Azuma tongue, "You came along unasked. Now the elders have called to me, and they have given me your charge. You must not hinder me, nor attempt to protect me or Ramon in any way. If you must serve someone, it must be the woman Lucha, Ramon's sister! These are their words!" Abashed by the sharpness of her outburst, Wolf Walker sputtered, "L...L...Lucha?" "Yes! Her! Can you protect her without falling on your face?" "Listen, you! You are talking to a warrior! I will protect anyone I want to protect!" Red Cloud half-lidded one eye and frowned, "If you can guard someone when you are so love-sick that you can't see straight, then you may attend her." "Very well!" Wolf Walker rose, gathering his oaken stakes, his knife, and his adze. "I don't need you telling me what to do!" "Just don't follow me," sighed Red Cloud. "I'm going out where Ramon was last seen. The chief's son has returned, saying that Ramon quit a footrace." "Quit?" Wolf Walker blinked. "So he says. He is calling Ramon a coward and worse." "Ramon...quit? A footrace?" Red Cloud hissed, "I am going. Do not follow me!" "I happen to know Ramon is a lily-livered coward, with the brains of a crowing rooster, but...he would not quit." "I am going." "I, too!" "Did you not hear a word I said? Do not follow me!" "And I said..." He stopped, distracted by the noise. A raucous hubbub was swelling to near-riot* intensity in the center of the wickiups, where danced the mare which Lucha had fed and started the whole crazy wedding thing. "What is this?" (*) In the Apache community, this could mean you could almost hear them talking. Wolf Walker left off his argument and hurried to join the crowd, with Red Cloud following. DIVERSION: (or, THE BALLAD OF ANGIE'S MAN) It was late in the morning when she rode into the camp, every hair on her head was abristle with contempt. (chorus:) Ang-ie Comstock, is fightin' for her man She's gonna save him, if anybody can. Why does she do it, can't nobody tell, 'Cause if he lives through it, she's gonna give him hell! (refrain:) Yes, even if he lives through it, she's gonna give him hell! She dropped the reins and loosed her horse, stepping toward her foe, ignoring women and children as they scattered to and fro. Men froze as they reached for weapons, feeling powerful strange, while she called in a voice suited for driving cattle on the range, "Lonesome!" "Uh-oh," said our man Lonesome, for he had heard that tone before, out of girls from here to Texas, as they chased him out the door. It did not help that he was very close to an Apache maid that day, though it was all in innocence, which he never had time to say. Her hair was short, a mourner's cut, but t'was long enough to twig on the button of his shirtsleeve as he was shaking out his rig. But when he went to loose it, it brought her very near, and he'd stopped to gaze upon her when the dread voice he did hear, "LONESOME!!!" --------- "I recognize her, now," said Hits Standing. "That is indeed Little Comstock. But what is she doing here?" "She wants the big cowboy," said Tall Horse. "She is here to challenge Lucha." "Can she do that?" White Dog asked. Tall Horse smiled contentedly as he leaned back against the jerky drying rack. He prepared to take bets while others speculated on which maiden would triumph. A battle between bitter rivals. Entertainment. Profit. What more could a warrior ask? There were daggers in her eyes, in the looks she threw that day, though whether for her or maybe for him it ain't fer me to say. "Lonesome! Come on, we have to go back to town!" Lonesome held out his arm, showing the button still caught in Lucha's hair. "I'm sorta tangled up, here," he said, sheepishly. "Well, _untangle_ yourself, then!" Angie demanded, grabbing his arm and yanking him along with her. Lucha gasped as the button pulled strands of her hair along with it. "Enough!" she cried. "I do not want him, but you will not take him without fighting me, first!" "Fight?" Angie looked about, suddenly aware of her situation: One of her, many of the Apaches. "You have me outnumbered," she cried, "but that does not matter! I have to take him out of this camp!" "Why?" Lucha said, rubbing her scalp. "Is this your man?" "Yes! No!" Angie faltered for a moment, forced to face yet another decision. Did she really want to claim this inconsistent Lonesome? "Anyway, he does not belong here!" she cried. Not when the soldiers are about to attack, she told herself, but she kept that thought unspoken. Lucha repeated, almost hopefully, "Is he your man?" "Well, he certainly is not yours!" Angie cried. She advanced upon Lucha, swinging from the shoulder as men would, trying to use her fists as weapons. There was a general hubbub from the men who were watching and she looked back at them, thinking that they were going to interfere and stop her. They weren't. The noise was coming from men arriving at the last minute, vying for Tall Horse's attention as they tried to get their bets in before the office closed. Now, Lucha had never seen fisticuffs, as used by the pale-skinned maid, And Lonesome could tell, as sure as hell, she was goin' for her Spanish blade. Lonesome grabbed Lucha about the waist, trying to pinion her arms by her side and entrap the knife before she could draw it. He kept her from the knife but she pulled her arms free. "Stop it!" he cried to Angie, "Someone's going to get hurt!" For the moment Lucha's heels and fists were finding only one target - him - and he could not turn her loose. Angie's jaw set and her eyes narrowed. "Why are you holding her?" she demanded. "Oof!" replied Lonesome as Lucha's elbow caught him in the ribs. Angie wound up for a mighty swing, Lucha ducked, and the blow caught Lonesome in the eye. "Why'd you hit me?" he said, holding his head, "I'm trying to save your life!" He was holding on to the maid with the Spanish blade to keep her from using the knife. "Oh! I'm sorry!" Angie gasped before reclaiming her anger, "But it's your fault! You got in the way!" Lonesome fell on the seat of his pants and dropped Lucha, who pulled her knife anyway and was about to re-enter the fight when Sweetcorn grabbed her from behind and wrenched the blade from her hand. Sweetcorn folded the knife into a leather pouch and winked at Tall Horse. "Fair fight," she said. "Maybe she will be more content after she has fought for her husband. Besides, the bride ought to try to avoid killing anyone on her wedding day. That would mean fewer wedding gifts." Tall Horse observed Lonesome as the tall cowboy regained his feet and headed for the girls, who were maneuvering for position on the rocky path. "Only a pale-eye," he sighed, and upped the odds against Little Comstock. Angie swung again at Lucha, lost her balance, then fell backward as Lucha crashed into her, waist high. Lucha bore her to the ground and was pummeling her with her fists when Lonesome again entered the fray. Lucha caught on to the 'fist hitting' quick, Weren't no moss growin' on that child. She bulldogged Angie and had her pinned, with her fists agoin' wild. Lonesome grabbed Lucha and lifted her off, only to find himself again the recipient of her heels, elbows, and fists. To add to his discomfort, Angie hit him from the side, trying to get at Lucha. Again, Lonesome dropped Lucha and, holding a hand to his throbbing jaw, turned on her to demand an explanation. "You were in the way, again!" Angie shouted at him. "I got her off of you! I was trying to help!" Two female fists wound up and two female fists made contact with his face at the same time, resulting in a dazed Lonesome, sitting on the sidelines and wondering what was happening. Angie and Lucha were facing each other, each trying for a wrestler's hold as they circled and sparred, prepared to rake fingernails across undefended flesh. Dust flew and spectators shoved out of the way as they grappled. "Only a pale-eye cowboy would attempt to separate two women who were trying to kill each other," Tall Horse said. He blinked as Wolf Walker crashed from between two wickiups and headed toward the battling maidens. He amended his statement, "Or, maybe, everyone is crazy today." "Lucha!" cried Wolf Walker, "I will protect you!" The Azuma warrior lifted Angie from atop Lucha, where she had been holding the Apache girl down, attempting to punch past a flailing blockade of arms and fists. Once he had lifted the cowgirl's face to the level of his own, he found himself in basically the same position as Lonesome - being hit, punched, swatted, elbowed and kicked as he struggled to hold on, a situation which reminded him of the time he had foolishly roped a wildcat. In addition, once Lucha had regained her feet she shoved him bodily away, causing him to drop Angie and backpedal to keep from falling. "Stay out of this!" cried Lucha, "This is MY fight!" She turned her attention to Angie, who tossed her auburn tresses out of her eyes and boiled in for another onslaught. She did not watch Wolf Walker, who stumbled into 1) a mound of furs, 2) yet another kettle of water, heated for cooking, and 3) the doorflap of a nearby wickiup. As her ears were being battered by a pale-skinned fist, she did not hear the shrill puppy yip of vexation which arose from within the wickiup. Red Cloud sighed, retrieved a gourd dipper of cold water, lifted aside the flap of the wickiup and tossed the contents of the dipper into the wickiup. There was a shocked exclamation caused by the frigid water, the sounds of someone struggling with stubborn leggings, then Wolf Walker reappeared from within the wickiup. He started toward the combatants, thought better of it, then went to sit and watch helplessly beside Lonesome. "What are the odds?" Wolf Walker asked Tall Horse. When Tall Horse told him, Wolf Walker tugged a couple of copper coins from a pouch tangled about his waist and said, "On Lucha." Lonesome also plunked down a silver coin. "Angie," he said. "Who?" "Angie. The loud one. The spitfire? The hellion?" "Huh?" "Angie Comstock?" "Ah! Little Comstock!" Tall Horse smiled as he raked in the coins and set about totaling up the bets. Behind them, the doorflap of the wickiup twitched, then pulled aside as Yucca staggered out with eyes open very wide. She shook her head groggily and went back into the wickiup to sleep off the effects of Cornsilk's potion. There was dust aflyin' but no one was dyin' It was all good, clean fun, 'Till some squaw called the hull dern thing a draw an' they never _did_ get to see who won! "That's enough!" declared Sweetcorn, causing a mass groan of frustration to arise from the spectators. "We have the dresses ready. We need her for the fitting...and where is that Mexican girl?" WELCOME: (or RETURN OF THE HERO) Across the clearing, Cornsilk stared at Ramon in surprise. Mud Wallow was washing down a last mouthful of corncake with the contents of a gourd cup. "Why are you back already?" complained Cornsilk, "Could they not teach you anything? Have you given up without trying?" "For one thing, I am hungry!" cried Ramon, "I've wandered about underground for days, been through a thousand doors, run for miles back and forth through a corridor, fought spiders and birds and lizards, and now I'm back and I am hungry!" Cornsilk looked at him with a puzzled frown. "When did you have time to do this?" she demanded, "You have been gone long enough to walk around that tree only once!" "No longer than that?" Ramon looked at his palms. They were unblistered, while his clothes were again clean and unstained. His hunger, nevertheless, was substantial. His belly muttered. "Not enough time for the dust to settle!" "Then how did he manage to eat up all the food?" Ramon pointed at Mud Wallow, who was searching through the packs for another container of liquid. "Oh," Cornsilk glanced at the old man and shrugged. "He eats fast." Mud Wallow noticed their attention and stood, raising his chin proudly as he emitted a soul-stirring belch. "Great!" grumbled Ramon, "Which way is the camp?" Suddenly he could see an exit, a trail leading south and west, where none had been before. Ramon hurried into the opening before it could vanish. He found the path easily. Above, hawks circled in the stark blue, calling in their piercing voices. Ravens drifted in flocks from field to arroyo, searching for ripened cactus fruit. On either side of the faint trail were insects droning from flower to late flower, leaving tiny golden specks of windborne pollen glowing in the sunlight after their passage. Ramon drank in a heaping lungful of openness. Life was good. "When I started my race with Buffalo Wattle, we were west of the camp," he said out loud as he paused to get his bearings. "This is east of the camp - where the javelinas were." Ramon set out with the sun behind his left shoulder. As he walked, he recalled his time within the great oak and remembered the girl. Things were adding up, but what did they mean? "So, according to the bear-man...if he may be trusted...Red Cloud was not the one who called for help in the cavern. This means that only one person could have called, and that person was me..." he patted the front of his shirt reflexively and amended, "...part of the time." As the sun warmed his back and his shadow toiled along the trail ahead of him, Ramon stretched and yawned. There would be food in the camp. Yes, life was good. DIPLOMACY: Tom Goose, ever the consummate politician, managed to talk Maricopa, Pavo's wife, out of her ambition to kill the invading pale-eye woman. His argument was bolstered by Nomiro's presence. Maricopa did not want to upset a shaman. Sweetcorn was likewise intent on defeating anything that might threaten the upcoming ceremony. "Nothing is going to stop this wedding!" she declared. "Nothing! Not storm, not night, not animals, not enemies! This wedding goes on as planned, or someone will suffer!" She stopped to glare about the camp, as if daring anyone to essay a rebuttal. "She is usually so good-natured," one warrior whispered to another. "We all know Comstock, and his daughter, Little Comstock," Nomiro spoke to the assembled spectators. "If we rub out his daughter, even for a just reason like trying to kill one of our daughters, Comstock will be unhappy." He warmed to the subject and reminded them, "Why, we would have to go out of our way, next time we come through here, to keep from running into him or his men." "No problem," growled Maricopa. "Not to mention the fact that we would have to give up a lot of food. Why, every time we come through, he gives us a bunch of cows for a feast." Tom cleared his throat to get Nomiro's attention. "One cow," he said softly, glancing over at Angie, who was in turn glaring at Lucha. "What?" "One cow. Only one cow. Maybe two." "Oh, yes. Every time we come through, he gives us a nice, fat steer for a feast." COMMERCE: "Where's your ponies?" Will demanded, "I want to buy a pony." The warrior he had accosted considered the young cowboy briefly, granting him the attention he would normally expend upon a buzzing fly. He then returned to watching the confrontation in the center of the camp. Will got up in his face. "Pony! You know, horse?" he repeated, "Understand? I.Want.to.Buy.a.Pony. I know you have horses. You took mine. The least you can do is sell me another!" A brief wave of irritation flashed across the warrior's brow as Will blocked his view, but he finally begrudged the cowboy his attention. With the warrior's eyes finally on him, Will pursued his trading. "I got money. You know, wampum? C'mon! You can't be _that_ dumb!" The irritation on the warrior's face evaporated, replaced with a stony satisfaction, a decision made. He nodded, turned away and paced toward the horse pens. "That's better! Dang, you people are hard to talk to. Figgered you'd listen to money, though!" Will made a fumbled attempt to remove his wallet before deciding that it might be better for him if he did not appear too wealthy. His captors had not even taken the bills out of his pocket, having little faith in someone thousands of miles away who promised to 'pay upon receipt', but he had confidence he could talk them into taking them in exchange for barter at a later date. They stopped at a disreputable pair of brown ponies. Will was horseman enough to recognize that the ponies, while gaunt, were whip-leather tough and good for hard riding. He prepared to start trading by showing no interest in the first offering. His father had taught him that the first step in trading was to pretend that he did not need to buy. "Ain't you got nothing better than these? I saw some over there...." Pavo had removed his club from his shoulder and he swung it in a lazy half circle, at the midpoint of which the leather-wrapped stone brushed Will's skull and the young cowboy dropped like a clipped marionette. After glancing around to be certain he had not been seen, the champion warrior slung the downed cowboy over a pony's back and moved off into the brush.