Macho Caballo Page

PART II: Chapter Trienta Y Ocho

A Single Twig Might Block a Stream

 

   They's places in the desert that ain't nothing but sand,
      and stones and pebbles and such.
   The only things sharp are the thorns that prick
      and warn you not to touch.
                           (from 'Tales of Prospector Pete')


AND THE SUN KEPT BURNING DOWN:

Someone was dying.

He could not see who it was, but the sounds were unmistakable.
Somewhere close.  If he listened harder, perhaps he could make it
out.  He wanted to understand why he was so confused and
disoriented, and why he could not open his eyes.

"Congratulations, Ramon!"

"I am hearing things," Ramon muttered as he shook his head at the
booming voice.  It sounded like Broken Cloud.  That was
impossible.  This oven in which he lay was far from the Apache
camp.

"You are to be married!" the voice continued.

"I am too young to marry!" Ramon heard himself cry,  "Surely
there is some mistake!"

Broken Cloud's voice continued, "Here are three girls.  Pick any
one of them and she shall be your bride!:

   "Your childhood sweetheart, Estrellita!
   "The wild, passionate, Earth-child, Yucca Blossom!
   "The lovely, shy, demure Red Cloud!

"How can I choose?  I can't see anything!" complained Ramon.
Tugging aside the mass of spider's web which obscured his vision,
he found himself surrounded by tall men dressed in black, wearing
capes of brilliant red and blue.

"You can't?  Then here is something better!"

"I still can't see anything!" Ramon cried, and the tenor of his
voice made him clap his hand over his mouth.  Suddenly he could
see, and it was all wrong.  He was wearing a gown of white, with
a long train being lifted by a frowning Lucita.  He was, in
short, Machita.  A thrill of terror made him twist away from his
escort.

"No!" he cried, struggling away from the tall man beside him, "I
can not go through with this!  I am not going to marry Sandy!"

The man turned toward him, and in his eyes Ramon saw....

....pain.

Will Larribee was dying.

Ramon could hear the whimpering gasps, feel the pain in the voice
while the boy he knew as Sandy's friend sobbed for mercy.  A red
haze flooded Ramon's world.  He tried to open his eyes but again
found he could not - they were gummed shut by dried tears.  More
tears welled up until the lids parted enough for him to see stark
blue sky.

Pain lanced through his forehead when he turned his head to see
from where the cries were coming.  Shutting his eyes tightly, he
gingerly lowered his head.  He was on his back, his face to the
open, burning sky, unable to feel his hands, though he supposed
they were beneath him.  Sharp rocks ground into his shoulders as
he tried to roll over. His skull ached.  The sun pressed upon his
head like a white-hot stone, so bright it dazzled through his
closed eyelids.

With a tongue that felt like saddle leather, he located his lips.
By swallowing repeatedly, he managed to work up enough moisture
to dampen his mouth, enduring the stabbing prickles of pain.

When he rolled over onto his side, he could feel his hands and
the feeling was of more pain.  First, an intense cold sensation
spread from his palms and a blanket of needles settled over his
hands.  He clenched his jaw at the throbbing pain of blood
circulating again though his veins.  It was then that he realized
that he still could not move his hands.  He was bound, hand and
foot.  Memories returned, of Pavo dropping him on the rocks in
the desert sun, to lie helpless as someone nearby was dying.

Ramon quit struggling and lay quietly, trying the bonds, working
his hands free.  He had to free himself before his mind wandered
again.  His stomach complained noisily.




OUT OF THE FRYING PAN:

Andalejo told his older brothers at the Loosefoot group about the
soldiers that he had seen.  "They are skillful at cover," he
said.  "I almost walked into them.  We must warn the rest of our
people!"

"I am thinking the old men of the camp are very busy preparing
for this foolish wedding," said Buffalo Waddle, who had been
listening.  He added, with growing heat, "We cannot wait for Pavo
to return.  We shall take care of this party of fools.  We shall
prove we are capable!"  His fellows, younger braves also, agreed
quickly and they began to gather weapons.

"I must go and speak to my father, nevertheless," said Andalejo.
"There is a tremendous lizard in the open country toward the
desert!"

He then told them this tale about his adventure with the lizard:

*****

*   `I worked my way closer to the top of the rise, trying to
   weave with the wind as if I were part of the brush through
   which I peered at the monster.

*   "That is certainly a strange looking lizard, if indeed a
   lizard it is," my voice was barely above a whisper.  I wished
   to speak none too loudly, but speak I must.  It is that which
   I am.

*   I was trying to follow the lessons given to me by my father,
   in skulking and trailing without being seen.  While I was
   modestly competent at hiding while on the move, I would be the
   first to admit that I had difficulty moving silently.
   Primarily because my voice tended to give me away.

*   "I am sure I overheard my father say something to the great
   shaman, Broken Cloud, about the days when Child of the Waters
   and First Child got together and killed off all of the
   monsters there were in their day," I said to myself.  "My
   father said something about 'maybe they did not get them all.'
   Perhaps this is one of the monsters that they missed, and it
   has escaped and come back to attack our people for ignoring it
   all these years."

*   The air had become absolutely still around me and I looked
   sharply about.  I said to myself, "When I think about it, I
   have never seen such a terribly large creature...also, I am
   not seeing the strange man who was following the lizard...."

*   "Young one," a man's voice spoke.  It was close.  Too close.

*   I instantly stilled, my heart hammering because I was aware
   that my silence was too late.

*   On down the draw the lizard's huge tracks continued, leading
   toward a shady cliff.  Over the mesquite and sage the lizard
   raised a large head with many teeth, seeking the man's voice,
   for he had also heard it.  I peered about as well, but I could
   not find the large man.  Whoever he was, that person was very
   good at concealment.  "A master, and he has allowed me to make
   a grave error," I conceded in a faint whisper.

*   "Young one, you have good tracking instincts," the voice came
   again, teasing my ears with its directionless quality.  "You
   will be a good scout, should you survive.  Unfortunately, you
   are too young for me to test, so I must leave you to another."

*   Beyond the row of trees, the lizard had fixed its gaze more
   or less toward me.  The creature's teeth were as large as our
   spear-heads as it opened its mouth to send great gusts of
   breath into the air.  Its head wavered from side to side, so I
   was certain that it did not see me.  I remained motionless
   beneath my bush, breathing without appearing to breath, moving
   only my eyes as I scanned in vain for the large stranger.  As
   the stranger was very skilled in tracking, so was he skilled
   in hiding.   He would not be seen until he wished to reveal
   himself.

*   Or until he spoke.  The stranger raised his voice sharply to
   say, "Let us see how you deal with this!"  He drew a deep
   breath and whistled, a piercing blast.  My scalp prickled, for
   I knew the huge lizard could hear and would come looking.

*   I burst from my shelter and raced for the nearest pile of
   brush, desperately seeking a deep hole, a crack between two
   boulders, an overhanging stand of trees - anywhere I might
   have a chance to get away from the beast coming toward me.  I
   was not aware that I had crashed through some creosote bushes
   until my eyes started watering.

*   The ground was barren for many paces around the rocks where I
   finally found a crevasse.  Making myself as small as I could,
   I tried to wedge farther back into the crevasse.  One foot
   remained exposed, despite my intense desire to pull it into
   shelter, and I was alarmed by the thought of the great beast
   plucking it from me.  I was thinking, `even if I escaped, even
   if I would have a tale to tell that would make me the
   celebrity of the entire Apache nation, I would be hobbling
   from one camp to another on only one leg.  No one would want a
   one-legged man around.'

*   Lying almost on my back I could see the great head, blotting
   out the sky as it quested back and forth.  The lizard-thing
   inhaled quantities of air, testing the wind, using its sense
   of smell.  I knew in an instant that it would find me, by the
   certain manner in which it worked the air about it.  First to
   one side, then the other, bending down to follow my footprints
   unerringly across the flat boulder which should have left no
   trace, around the cactus, and through the bushes.

*   It was when it thrust its snout into the bushes that a
   surprising thing happened.  The beast jerked backward, lifted
   its head and shook it as if trying to rid itself of a pesky
   insect, and sneezed.  It sneezed again, and after raking the
   ridiculously small forearms across its snout, it started once
   again after him. Now, however, it was relying on its eyes
   only, and I knew I was saved.  I could remain silent and still
   for long enough, given the incentive.

*   I had thought the beast large, a lizard grown to monster
   proportions.  Seeing it draw closer, I revised that estimate.
   It was tremendous.  When it stepped, the earth groaned.  The
   rocks beside my hiding spot settled and cried aloud, cracking
   and popping as the beast walked over them, pressing against my
   ribs until I feared that I might have to move to escape being
   crushed. Then the beast moved on, its progress told by the
   crunch of gravel, until I could not hear it any more.  Long
   after it had gone I kept quiet, fearful yet that it would
   return.

*   Instead, it shook its head and moved slowly back toward its
   lair beneath the cliff, occasionally pawing at its nostrils.
   Although I remained wary, I finally concluded that I had made
   good my escape.

*   Because my senses were heightened with excitement, I easily
   heard the pale-eyes long before I saw them.  They were
   assembling in a ravine in an approach to the camp, having
   somehow evaded our alert watchers on nearby prominences.

*   "These are dangerous soldiers," said I.  "I must hurry, and
   warn the camp!"  I ran with the wind, and here I am!'

*****

"That was a fascinating tale," said Black Elk, politely.  He was
the only one still listening - the rest had wandered off.
"Perhaps we should ask you to stand during the next council and
describe this creature to the others.  It is the best story I
have heard for months!"

"Never mind," Andalejo said, grumpily.  "My father shall listen!"




THE ROAD TO PERDITION IS PAVOED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS:

He was soaring.  Thermals tugged gently at him, inviting him into
their rising columns to climb over cactus and sage, canyons and
plain, into the very heavens above.  Alone.  He heard a noise, a
moan of pain, which brought him abruptly back to earth.  He was
not alone.

Ramon returned to himself.  How long he had been daydreaming he
could only guess, for the sun had not moved - it still burned
down.  His thirst was immense, his hunger a constant irritation
in the belly.  Still, it seemed that in the time it had taken him
to work free of the braided yucca rope binding his wrists,
something had changed.

He despised daydreaming.  Papa said it was a waste of time.  A
real man did not sit around with his heads in the clouds when
there was work to be done.  Where had he been thinking about?  No
matter.  There was work to be done. Forget about the burning blue
sky above.  Forget about the faint clouds forming beyond the
peaks to the northeast. Forget about that hawk, circling high
overhead.

What if he could talk to the hawk?

"Hi, Hawk."

The hawk would answer, if it could, **ola, human.**

"Do you know where I am, today?"

**in the desert, obviously,** the hawk would answer, since hawks
were very precise about these things.  **you are out of your
element, human.  why are you slowly roasting in the sand?**

"An Apache warrior has left us here."

**your fellow human is almost ready to leave. i hear him calling
my brother, the vulture.**

"He has a constricting band around his head.  Unless I can do
something, he will die soon, I think."

The hawk circled, as if it were really speaking to him, and
asked, **will you join him?**

"I must remain alive to protect my sister. can you tell me which
direction the camp lies?"

**which camp?** the hawk asked, after much thought.

"Which camp?"

**there are many camps. which one do you desire?**

"I cannot say.  I had forgotten there are other groups.  This one
is near a bluff, where there are eagles.  I visited with one
recently."

**oh, yes. that one flew near me, yesterday. she spoke of you.**
the hawk chuckled, **and here i thought you were female.**

"That wasn't my idea!  I couldn't help it!"

**no matter. look to the northeast, beneath those clouds over
those hills.**

"But that is far away, and I am on foot!"  Ramon looked about, at
the miles and miles of heated desert.  His surroundings hammered
at him with the force of a blast furnace.

Take the entire output of the closest star to the earth, the sun,
on a clear day.  Concentrate that burst of heat into a single
shelf of fiery basalt, located somewhere in a land that would
someday be Arizona.

The heat and harsh conditions of this desert region bred a hardy
type of creature, one well prepared to endure deprivation, pain,
and suffering.  Lizards went for weeks without water.  Rabbits,
mice, and small antelope chewed cactus to survive. Snakes
burrowed to find both food and water, sometimes in the same small
animals they hunted down.

Humans dwelt there, also - groups known by themselves or others
by various names: Navajo, Pima, Arapaho, Ute, Apache, Hopi. These
were hardy peoples, brave, strong, and enduring.  They set the
example which early settlers had to equal, or better, if they
hoped to build a civilization in this harsh wilderness.

Now, on that griddle of sun-baked stone place two young men.

One had removed leathern bonds loosened by his struggles; the
other remained unbound but had around his head a helmet of green
leather, which was uncured rawhide.  The uncured leather was
shrinking and consequently, the second young man was stoically
suffering in silence.

"Ow!  Hey!  Ouch!  Sunnovabuck!"

For Will Larribee, this was stoic silence.

"Oooohhh!  This sapsucker hurts!  Get this thing offa me!  Come
on!  DO something, willya?" Will Larribee's voice, muffled by the
leather mask strapped about his head, disturbed the still hot air
in the ravine.  "No!  Ma!  No!  You can't mean it!  I'll be good!
Ma!  Please!"  Will flailed his arms about, fountaining dust and
sand. "I ain't no sissy!  Don't make me do that!  Ma.a..a.aaaa!"

Abruptly Will stopped, realizing that his pain had made him
hallucinate.  He stiffened and rolled abruptly away from his
companion.  "It's a good thing my Ma can't see me like this!  She
can't stand to see me helpless.  Pap says 'That's the way wimmin
is supposed to be.' He says men can't afford to feel sorry for
things the way wimmen can.  Men can't be weak!"

Ramon merely grunted, engrossed in the knotted tangle of leather
braids binding the helmet to the cowboy's head.

"'Course, if'n I had to pick the toughest one, Ma is sun-dried
bone and whit-leather compared to Pa.  When Ma says somethin',
she means it.  Ain't you done yet?"

"I cannot untie this," said Ramon as he shoved back onto his
heels and dusted his hands.

"Then cut it off!  Jeez, do I have to tell you everything?"

"That Apache warrior took our knives."

"I got one in my boot!  He didn't get that."

"Yes, he did."

"Dang!  This thing's gettin' tighter!  If I don't get it off, my
head's going to pop like a grape!  Where do you think you're
going?"

"If I can find a thorntree branch I can saw through the leather.
Don't worry.  We'll get you out."

"Well, you'd better!  Ma's little boy's gotta come home in one
piece!"

Left to himself, Will gathered his knees in with his elbows and
tried to rest his head, but the apparatus bound to his head
restricted him.

His voice softened.  "Now I can't never prove how good a man I
am.  Least now, Ma can't make me do that awful thing!"  After a
moment's boredom, he offered an opinion.  "Wimmin are good fer
one thing and one thing only!"

"What is that?" Ramon asked as the thorn snapped while he was
scraping.  He wanted to keep the cowboy talking.  Anything to
take his mind off the slowly shrinking leather.

"Why, lovin', of course!" Will tried to laugh, but he could not
draw a deep breath.  "It's gettin' tighter!" he gasped, "Do
something!"

"Keep calm!  You are making it worse!"

"Okay - okay.  I'm slowin' down.  I got iron control.  My Pap
said so.  He said I could do anything!  Or was that Ma?  Ma said
I could do anything.  She ain't never wrong.  Ma!  Ma!  I'm your
man, ain't I?  I ain't done nothing cowardly!  I ain't cryin'!
Honest, Ma!  Don't make me...don't make me do that, Ma!  I swear!
I ain't no sissy girl!"

"Quiet!" 

"Yeah, but Ma...You don't know what she's gonna make me do if she
thinks I'm a sissy!  You ain't never!  And Pap, too!  I'll do
anything, Ma!  Don't make me do that!"

"Try shutting up!"

"I'll try," Will sobbed.  "Where are you going?  Don't leave me!"

"I have to find a sharp stone," Ramon replied.  "I cannot cut the
leather with wooden sticks.  Do not fear.  I will find
something!"

---------------

Away from the ailing cowboy, Ramon squatted, put his face in his
hands, and shuddered in anguish.  "But I can find nothing!  What
am I to do?  This desert will not kill me, but it is killing
Sandy's friend.  How can I face Mama, knowing that I let a man
die?  Oh, Mama!  I am sorry!  I have failed!"




GUARDIANS:

Angie endured bewilderment, looking for a way to escape, while
her captors busied themselves about her in some sort of
preparation.

She wondered at first why they had not tied her up.  Then she
wondered why they had accepted her lies when she promised that
she would not do any harm, and that she would leave Lucha alone.
Last of all, she wondered what she was doing in the shelter of
the pine pavilion, surrounded by small shapes, and what
Sweetcorn, the headmistress of the Apache camp, had meant when
she had prodded Angie under that shelter, saying, "Here!  You
cannot cook.  You cannot mend.  Make yourself useful!"

As she sat, elbows on knees, face buried in hands, something
sharp prodded her shoulder.  She shrugged away from it, looking
up at the person who had jabbed her.

His posture was alert as he scowled at her through a fringe of
black hair, though his lower lip did protrude just a little.
"I guard," he announced, having gotten her attention with the
cane spear.

[They have set a child to guard me,] she thought.  [All right.
I am so fearsome and dangerous a prisoner that I have to be
guarded by a mere child.]

Motion caught her eye and she followed it to a blanket arranged
in the shade, where a little girl in a simple pullover shift was
playing.  The dress had been lovingly stitched, with many tiny
beads and quills, and the child looked to be only recently out of
the carrier.  She was trying to free one end of a beaded
necklace, frowning as she tugged at the complex tangle of beads
and string.  Noticing Angie, she beamed a quick, shy smile.
Angie smiled back.  Around the shelter, six other children also
gave her their own smiles, the ultimate testament of faith.
guard1.jpg (35472 bytes)
"I hope somebody tries to attack," the mighty warrior spoke. "I will stop them and kill them. Then I will dance the victory dance in front of everyone. My father will be proud." Clutching his tiny bow and straw arrows, he was five trying to be twenty, and Angie smiled again, a quirky smile, for the sight of the brave boy had started her to thinking. [I am an old maid, almost. If I ever get married, I would like to have a child like this one. So young to be so bold. Wanting to be grown up, and he is only a child.] The final piece of the puzzle fell into place, her heart froze and horror filled her eyes. They were only children. They were children, and the soldiers were coming to make slaves of them, and kill their fathers and...their mothers. She had not been tied, because she was expected to contribute something to the camp. They had believed her because they trusted her father, and she was her father's child. The women of the camp had not sought to humiliate her. They had trusted her with their most valuable possessions. The children were not guarding her. She was supposed to be guarding them. And the soldiers were coming. The ache in her breast was that of cactus needles encircling her heart. Angie drew a breath and the pain endured. Only the thought of betraying Noah kept her from speaking aloud, warning the camp of the soldiers. Then, she remembered Noah's placid acceptance of her decision. Actually, she remembered that Noah had been rather vehement about it. He knew. He knew what she would find and what she would decide. "Sweetcorn!" she cried aloud, [Forgive me, Noah. I hope you meant it when you said you'd be ready for me to break. I can't go through with this!] "Listen to me! There are soldiers coming! They are going to attack!" "Silence!" She was answered almost immediately, but not by Sweetcorn. The cold voice could only belong to Maricopa, wife of the most militant warrior in the camp. Maricopa had never been far away, watching Angie watch the children, suspicious of her intentions, malevolent in her cry, "Do not try to mislead us with your lies!" "But it is true! I heard them this morning! They are planning to make slaves out of your children!" "Be quiet!" Maricopa rasped. "You have caused enough trouble. Nothing is going to disturb this wedding!" Her cries ignored, her betrayal of her friend ignored, Angie huddled with the youngest girl and untangled the cord of the necklace. Now as she looked for a way to escape, she sought a way to take the children with her, and there was none. SECOND THOUGHTS: In a sheltered ravine, not far from the Apache encampment, a cluster of men made ready for war. Sandoval rode up from the north and dismounted smartly. After tying his pony to the brush, he stepped up the bank to the place where Noah was sitting his own pony and said, "The Apache camp must be close by, Senor Amberly. You will lead us to it." Noah studied Sandoval's groomed mustache intently before arcing a brown stream of expectorant to one side. "Nope." he said, "More I think about it, the less I like it. This is as far as I go." "Your jefe, Larribee, instructed you to assist us in rescuing his son and disciplining the savages! Your support is vital to our mission!" "I know Will, an' I know Tom Goose," said Noah. "Whatever Tom does, he won't chance trouble. Now, I don't want to seem ungrateful, Corpril, but could I see your orders? You got here awful quick, considerin' we only sent for help a day or so ago." "We need no orders! I am on an independent commission, Senor. I have leeway to carry out my directives as I see fit. We are to rescue the boy and take as many prisoners as possible." "Oh," Noah said flatly. "The bounty." Sandoval frowned. "This is war, Senor." "Sounds like business as usual, t'me." "Very well, I will tell you. We have also heard of a young girl taken hostage by these savages. We intend to free her. Our alcalde has expressed his personal concern that this child be returned to Villarica, preferably unharmed, along with as many of her captors as possible, to provide labor for the mines." Sandoval drew himself upright with dignity. "It is true that the authorities here have promised compensation, but the gratitude of the townsfolk will be reward enough for us." "Wa'al, Corpril (spit), them's right fair motives, saving that gal and all. I been out to Tom Goose's wickiup, 'n I've shared a meal or two with him, 'n I've seen that gal, so I know she's there. But, you know..." Noah paused to pick a strand of tobacco off his chin, "...don't it seem a long time to wait? After all, that gal was taken better'n fifteen years ago. She probly don't even want to go back, now." Sandoval said, "Time does not matter, when there is an injustice to be corrected, Senor Amberly," "'Er a penny to be made, I s'pose," Noah regarded him with one eye. "Wa'al, Corpril, there's been a wrinkle added. Miss Comstock lit outta town just before we did, to get her feller outta that Redskin camp before you boys hit it. I figger two to one she's gonna let slip about your plans." He voiced a concern, "Senor, I counted yore men, and you only have eleven - including yourself." The corporal nodded and replied, "So?" "Still don't hardly seem like enough." "Senor Amberly, I have tamed these savage people from here to the equator, and I have confidence in my men." Sandoval indicated his men, who went about their business of preparing for a fight, honing their knives and checking the charges in their firearms. Noah eyed them and opined, "They's a fine bunch of sojers. Pity they's about to get their butt whupped." "Do you doubt the ability of the Mexican Army to get the job done? We have served in the Revolution!" "Shooting at Spanish is one thing. But you's about to fit the Apache," Noah spat again. "Thet's a whole nother story." Sandoval brought himself erect. "Senor Amberly, you need have no concern for us. If the savages know we are coming, so much the better. They will be desperate with apprehension. We will let fear do our work for us." Noah chewed the inside of his lip speculatively before he spoke, "Are we talkin' 'bout the same set of savages, Corpril?" "I have been dealing with the indigenous tribes of the new world for many years, Senor. My men have worked very efficiently on the west coast and even South America. They are very effective. Brutal, but effective." Sandoval watched as Antonio, his second-in-command dressed in Hussar grenadier green, drew his sword and approached a saguaro cactus. With three savage strokes, Antonio reduced the limbs and trunk of the cactus into a stack of pale-green rubble. "Senor Amberly," Sandoval said, "we are dealing with uncivilized barbarians. You know what is at stake. You know your duty." Noah shook his head, "Don't include makin' slaves outta women and kids, and it don't include suicide. They's savage, all right. You would be, too, if'n you lived in their place. An' I already told you they probly know we're comin'." Sandoval's eye twitched. "I do not ask that you betray your morality!" he said, "If you wish, you can remove yourself from the expedition. We will do the rest while you remain with the horses. We are hardened soldiers, Senor Amberly. Show us where these Apaches are hiding and we will attack them." Noah spat another stream of tobacco juice into the bushes and squinted into the sun. "Won't be hard to find Apach, Corpril. Just walk out fifty paces in any direction and you'll probably step on one. They're there, but you ain't gonna see them until they want you to." "Then our job shall be simple," the corporal smiled. "Antonio! Assemble the men, now!" KINFOLK: His eyes were so blue, so very blue. Willow Woman could not resist. She reached up and pinched the sunburned cheeks below those blue eyes, and giggled when the pale-eye cowboy flinched and backed away. He was shy, this one was. Wonder how her new-found daughter could have managed to corner him into a commitment? Willow Woman looked up at the cowboy and sighed. Once, not long ago, she had lost a husband. Now, she had gained a daughter, and very soon she would have two son-in-laws. They were foreign. Even more unsettling to her conservative heart, they were pale-eyes, and pale-eyes were the most unreliable sort of persons to have in the family. However, her daughters had chosen them, and the great shaman, Broken Cloud, had proclaimed that they were to be wed. It was for the good of the family group, for the tribe, for the whole land hereabouts. It was for the good of the world. Even better, it was for her daughters. She shivered, happy in the unexpected luxury of having two daughters. The new daughter, Mexican as she might be, was a joy to her heart. Two strong young men, to take their place in the family council. Life could not get any better. ------------- "But she pinched me!" "Better let her do it," advised Lonesome, as Sandy flinched away from Lucha's small Apache mother. "You don't want the women mad at you." Sandy rubbed his cheek. "Why not? She ain't no warrior." He watched Willow Woman as she went back into her own wickiup. "Thought you knew," Lonesome said as he stretched and twisted the tension out of his neck. "It's the women who are the mean ones. The men will either accept you or kill you." "So if the women don't like you, what do they do?" Lonesome grinned as he pantomimed a finger across the throat. "Oh, don't worry though," he added as a consolation. "After the wedding, you're supposed to stay away from your maw-in-law all the time. It's customary." "I already told you there ain't going to be a wedding!" Sandy grumbled. "Have you seen Andalejo?" "That little blabbermouth?" "He's a good kid, go easy on him," Sandy said. "I left him out in the brush and he ain't come back. I'm going after him." "Well, stay where you can be seen and don't do anything stupid," Lonesome warned. "Here comes Tall Horse. I'd better see what he has on his mind." MODESTY: It was later, not very far away, that Lonesome said, "You know, I don't think I've ever seen a near-sighted Apache. I almost feel sorry for him." Tall Horse's reply was a sharp bark of laughter. "Do not waste your pity on him," he said. "He is one of our fiercest fighters. Even Pavo would think twice before going against him." The dark-haired cowboy noticed that the object of their conversation, Hits Standing, had raised his head to peer dimly in their direction. "Don't look that dangerous," he opined. "He has bad eyes. But he has the ears of the fox and he is very quick. He can hear an arrow. He can dodge that arrow and maybe even catch it. Then he might throw it back at you. Or save it for later, when you are at his mercy. " "I'll keep that in mind, if'n I ever go up against him." "When we go on the path to battle, that warrior is not seen. When the enemy comes looking for us, he is not seen. It is when they see him that they run away, for he has a reputation. Other persons respect him and continue to live." Lonesome whistled softly. "Man! You make him sound like a killing machine!" Tall Horse nodded slightly. "When he makes his medicine to do battle, we do not like to be close. But only because it hurts our eyes. He can tell if you are friend or enemy without seeing you. You will not be able to see him." Hits Standing stood abruptly and marched off. He stumbled over a bush. "Heck, I didn't mean to insult him," Lonesome said. "He is modest," Tall Horse said, rising to face Buffalo Wattle's approach. "Great fighters rarely are." THE POWER OF SOFT HANDS: "Ow! Ow! That hurts! Can't you find something better than that? Sonovabisquit! That hurts! Stop it!" Ramon shook his head. He could still see the pain in Will's eyes, though the cowboy's face was covered by the helmet. Hunger, thirst, and the heat were conspiring to make him imagine things. "I have to get this harness off! It will only get tighter." "Well, dammit, find another way!" "I cannot go away to search. If the leather dries, it will kill you that much sooner." "Keep it wet, then! Do I have to do all the thinking around here?" Ramon paused to brush his hair out of his eyes, searching the surrounding cactus. He rose to his feet, saying, "Very well. I will keep it wet." The wind stirred dried grass. A little way away, some small creature caused a pebble to rattle against another. "You're going to keep it wet?" "Yes." Somewhere a lizard scuttled through grass, making an uneven hissing noise. Will heard a rattle of brush as Ramon broke loose a twisted tree branch. "We ain't got no canteen?" Will asked with only the slightest concern in his voice. "No." "And you ain't found no spring?" "No." A hawk kree'd, high in the desert sky. Another answered. Closer by, there was a thumping sound as a woodpecker explored for insects in a cactus barrel. "You're gonna keep it wet." "Yes." "Like hell you are! Get this thing offa me! Where's your dang knife?" "I told you! The warrior who left us here took it from me. Quit struggling. I have to leave you for a moment. I must break off some cactus to keep the leather wet." "Whew! That's a relief! Never mind the cactus! Hurry up! Get a stick! Get something! I want this thing off of me!" "I am trying! There is only gravel and no sharp rocks." "What do you want a dang rock for?" "I have told you! To scrape the leather. If I can scrape it long enough, it will wear through." "I ain't going to live that long! Do something else!" "I have tried a stick, and it is useless." Ramon sat beside him in the thin shade of a bush, helplessly flexing his fingers. The realization that soon the leather would shrink enough to kill Sandy's friend ate at him until he could not be still. "At least here in the desert, I do not have to worry about having my curse exposed," Ramon thought. "But I would prefer even that to seeing him die before my eyes. What am I going to tell my mother, that I was not strong enough to save him? I wish something - anything - would happen!" The immensity of the desert weighed upon him. They were alone; in all the vastness of sunburned sand and brush there was no one to help. "What are you doing?" called Will. "I am praying." "You ain't gonna pray to no heathen god for my sake!" Will protested, his voice muffled by the enclosure. "You do not know what you are saying!" On the night before he and his companions had been swept up in a sandstorm and transported to Apache land, Ramon had dreamed about a wizened old man, who had advised, "If you need help, all you have to do is pray." The puzzle taxed his mind. What was prayer, anyway? Ramon thought of his earliest memories of Mama', kneeling in a chapel, praying to an invisible God amongst statues of men, a kindly woman, and a tortured man impaled on wood. He thought of other people who prayed. Somehow, Abuelo's conversations with Sun Boy did not seem appropriate. When Broken Cloud had prayed, he had been in the habit of wandering off by himself to talk to his 'advisors'. Ramon closed his eyes and wondered, "Who do I pray to?" When he opened his eyes, the sky was blue, the sun was hot, and Will was still gasping for breath under the deadly leather helmet. A flash of light caught Ramon's eye, glinting midway up a low clay bluff. It might be metal. It might be a knife blade, dropped by a passing hunter. Whatever it was, it could not be one of the rounded pebbles which surrounded him. Surely nothing natural could reflect sunlight as brightly. He set out to retrieve it. As he reached for the brightly flashing object on the cliffside, hoping that it might be metal, Ramon was reminded of a wish he had made, earlier. His hand brushed the shiny surface, knocking loose a sun-blighted glass bottle. The bottle fell against a rock and shattered, the sun-heated contents showered over him, and even as he twisted in a vain attempt to avoid the warm shower, he felt himself changing. "Not this!" he cried, "Not now! I cannot be weak now!" --------- The misadventure was not a total loss. Only one sliver of glass remained from the broken bottle, but it was large enough to grasp and had a keen edge, ideal for slicing leather. He soon discovered, however, that in his female form he could not simply start cutting. Will screamed in pain as soon as the glass shard touched his leather-encased head. His flailing arms knocked Ramon backward where he sat down abruptly onto a pile of the rounded stones. "I am not heavy enough! I cannot simply sit on him while I work on the leather!" Ramon complained as he picked himself up from the sandy ground. "If only this had not happened to me!" "I'm going crazy! I'm hearing a girl!" cried Will, holding his head as he staggered in circles, "Lalalala! I'm not listening! Lalalalala!" [I am giving myself away with my voice!] Ramon thought, [He must never find out who I am!] Finding his riata, he flipped a loop around Will, pinning the cowboy's arms to his side. This way, he could get close enough to scrape the hardening leather with the glass blade. "Ramon? You're hurting me, Ramon, ol' buddy!" Will whimpered, twisting inside the riata, drawing Ramon in closer. "Dang it! I said you're hurtin' me, you sunnava buck!" Will managed to get his arms up between himself and Ramon, to push away his tormentor. His fingers met soft flesh instead of the hard muscles he had been expecting, and he closed his hands reflexively. "Aiii!" yipped Ramon, slamming repeatedly with hands and fists across Will's leather-encased head until the cowboy let him go to fall back onto the gravel pile. "That hurt, you jackass!" Ramon cried, instantly choking off his shrill outburst for fear Will would realize how badly everything had gone amiss. Will seemed oblivious. He stood, tried to breath rapidly through the choking mask, staggered and fainted. Huffing in anger and disgust, Ramon scrabbled about for the broken glass fragment, only to find that the shard had fallen into the rocks and had shattered forever into tiny slivers. --------- As Will lay silent, Ramon felt the end drawing near. It seemed as though he had been staring at the deadly helmet for hours, and desperation set in. Somehow, the tough leather of the headband reminded him of the silver webs he had encountered in the cave, when he had tried to part the stubborn strands in order to pass through a doorway. If only I could tear this leather as I did the spider's web, Ramon thought. He clapped his hands over his ears, trying to shut out Will's harsh whimper. The bear-man had said that all I had to do was to still my mind, think of some calm time, and be at peace with the world. In the cave it had worked, when some memory had flickered across my mind and the webs had parted. What was that memory? He had been sitting quietly, doing something ordinary. Something to keep Mama happy. Mama was never happy anymore, it seemed. That was why he had come to this harsh land. He had hoped to ease that sorrow by returning Lucha to her. Now, though, the chances of even seeing his sister again were growing fainter. And how could he look his mother in the eye, after Sandy's friend had died horribly in his arms while he watched, unable to help? What WAS the memory? It had been the day Estrellita had visited, telling about the duena her grandmother had assigned. They had sat and talked, Estrellita complaining while he had been.... Ramon shuddered. He...no...'she' had been embroidering a sampler of letters and pictures. To practice her sewing skills, Mama had said, although there was an ulterior motive to the exercise which Mama' had never thought to mention. Ramon shuddered again, remembering that he had actually been enjoying the rhythm of the needle and thread. Then he had tried to hide what he was doing, because it was too awful. Estrellita would have laughed. She would have said it was because they shared a problem, but she was always looking for some reason they could be together. "But the duena was trying to get her ready for marriage. That was HER problem! Not mine! I should never have been forced to do something so...so...shameful!" "Whuzzat? Oooohhh!" Will wailed, then subsided into a whimper. "Be still! I am thinking!" Ramon snapped. He pressed his fists into his forehead, pushing back his hair which always seemed lusher while he was in his cursed form, and tried to focus his thoughts. To do this thing, he would have to remember the way he had felt, holding the embroidery hoop with one hand and the needle in the other, pushing the needle through the fabric with the porcelain thimble, feeling the tug of the colored thread as it rubbed against the other thread, over and over again, building one color on another. He must push aside his resentment over his shape, forget the insults he imagined, and remember.... With his eyes unfocused, he reached for the rawhide headband and tried to slide his slender fingers underneath. Will screamed in agony. Ramon yanked his hand away and stared at his fingers, slippery with blood. Drawing a deep breath, he imagined silver webs. Thick and strong, but they could be torn, if he could grasp them correctly...he pulled at the stiffening leather again. The sticky bonds grudgingly melted apart. Ramon lifted the bloody leather in front of Will's face, trying to convince himself. "I did it!" he gasped. "It worked!" He could hardly believe his senses. The leather death-helmet was free! It hung in ragged tatters from his slim fingers, the leather curling as it dried rapidly in the scorching sun. "How'd you do *that*?" Will gasped, stooped and moaning, taking great gulps of air. He scrubbed blood into his brown hair, unmindful of the gouges where Ramon's fingernails had scratched. "Well, all I did was...." Ramon started to say. Then he saw the scratches and halted, clamping his lips together to cut off a muttered expletive. This was intolerable. To get the headband off, he had relived a moment when he had been embroidering a sampler. To show off his talents as a prospective bride. He had used his fingernails to scratch the rawhide. As if he were a girl. "It was nothing," he mumbled. "Forget about it!" "Oh, man! You did it! You saved me! You're my hero! I'll never forget this!" cried Will, "Man, I don't care if you ARE a Mexican! You saved my life! I'm gonna tell everyone how you...." He lifted his eyes and saw Machita. Ramon cringed, waiting for the inevitable questions. Will breathed faster and faster, his eyes widening until they were great and round. "A...a...a angel!" he gasped and fell back, hitting his head on a rounded stone. Hesitantly, Ramon edged closer. The cowboy sat suddenly upright, looking deeply into Ramon's eyes. "I love you," said Will Larribee, and he fell back again. Ramon leaped to his feet and ran for the brush, determined to get out of Will's sight before the cowboy woke again. As he ran, he swore to the best of his ability. Simple words, not really profanity, but with the intention of the most profound of cuss words. "Every time I think I am safe from this curse it strikes again!" he said, "Now I cannot go near him until I find some water to turn back!" DESERTED: In the horse pen south of the Apache camp a low whicker and snort erupted, followed immediately by the sound of a body hitting the ground. Sandy spat dust from his mouth and spoke, "Dang it!" He rolled to his feet and got up out of the sand, reaching for Rayo's reins. The bay, saddled and ready, backed away from him. Sandy hissed, "You let me ride you before, when we were looking for Ramon! Well, this is just as important! I'll be goin' after Ramon, too, you know! Don't you want to find him?" He kept his voice down, although the Apache guard who seemed to be forever looking over his shoulder had vanished, apparently drawn away by some excitement on the other side of the camp. He was reaching again for the reins when he heard a hollow thump behind him. Sandy turned to see what had caused it. Rayo used his lapse of attention, to dance out of reach and bolt toward the gate to the thorn corral. The bay flowed easily over the fallen top rail and straightened out into a flat gallop toward open range. "Well, dang it again, anyway!" Sandy slapped at his dusty bottom. "Who the heck let that rail down?" "Greetings, young Viking," came a steady, almost pleasant voice. The ancient, muscular warrior squatted at the edge of the clearing, a stout club dwarfed by his hands. Nearby, the boy who had been guarding the horses lay bound and gagged. "Not again!" groaned Sandy, "Don't you ever give up?" "This is the final examination. It is time we found if you have the true blood of your ancestors running in your veins," said Machack, flexing his fists so the knuckles creaked. "You have been an interesting specimen. It is really too bad the test is fatal."

CHAPTER TRIENTA Y OCHO:  END