Macho Caballo Page

PART II: Chapter Trienta Y Nueve

The Mighty Oak Could Stop a Creek

 

Although paleontologists in later years would remain divided on the question of the diet of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, they were in agreement on one factor - the dinosaur did eat, and when he ate, he ate a lot.

The creature trying to hide from the murderous rays of the blazing sun, in the scant shade of a clay bluff, was reflecting upon this facet of information - eating. He had been about to eat when he was zapped into a tiny earthenware bottle by a small sorcerer from another time.

Emitting a windy sigh which billowed dust around his snout, the creature stretched out to its full length in the narrow cool shade. He hated the thin, hot, dry air. The dust got in his yellow eyes, tingeing them with red. He wanted to go home to his mommy.

His stomach rumbled as he retraced the events from earlier in the day. One minute he was roaming the lush veldt of the Pan-American continent in search of a light meal, the next minute he was being addressed by a shrunken dwarf not large enough to make a passing snack. The minuscule magician had made some arrogant remarks, in the short time that the creature could comprehend his language.

The memory of that humiliation caused the Tyrannosaurus Rex to sniff loudly, fixing the odor of the sorcerer and his last direction of travel firmly in his mind for later perusal.

 

MISGIVINGS:

Broken Cloud pulled his blankets closer about him, against the chilling draft that sliced through the walls of his tipi. Other members of the Loose Foot Group accepted his choice of shelter, although they preferred the wickiups constructed of readily available brush and limbs. As shaman of the group, Broken Cloud was expected to be eccentric. The cured hides that covered the tipi were usually protection enough for the cold of winter, but today was different. Today the air still reeked of heated pinon as it stirred the feathers on Broken Cloud's ceremonial staff, leaning by the door portal. Today, distant peaks danced in waves as scorched thermals rose from the open flatlands below, and still the old shaman shivered, clutching his coverings about his ears.

Sewing woman showed him the fabric on which she toiled.

"Such clutter! You are too careless," she complained. "These weavings were dropped in the grass and now I have to remove the twigs before I can finish." She sighed noisily. "There's never enough time. Never enough time."

She stuck her hand into the pile of scraps before her and lifted out a handful of clutter. When she threw it onto the ground, two stick figures got up and tottered out the door of the tipi, two figures that somehow resembled the two cowboys. When Spider would have swatted the sticks aside, Sewing Woman motioned him away.

"What am I to do with this mess?" she asked Broken Cloud.

"I did what I thought had to be done," the shaman moved sullenly closer to the fire, holding his hands out to the blue smoke.

Spider's voice sounded from the other side of the tipi, from where he had burrowed underneath the stowed bedding, "As usual, you have overlooked something!" The guide seemed to take particular glee in pointing out Broken Cloud's shortcomings. "What happens when the master is displeased with his servant?"

Broken Cloud shook his head. If Spider really thought he was wrong, he would offer to fight, making the shaman wrestle to prove his faith in his own beliefs. This day, Spider was only taunting him, "Fire and blood are coming. Look!"

"The young men can handle the soldiers." When Broken Cloud received a cackling laugh in return he tried to get a better look at his friend, to see where he was pointing. Sunlight pierced the tipi, blossomed, truly blinded him, crowding in from overhead and around the doorway, hiding all in shadows.

"Oh, I forgot," Spider's voice floated in air by his ear, mocking. "You don't want to see. Does that mean you don't want your people to live, as well? What price do you place on your pride?"

"I have seen this craven beast! I intend to handle him, myself! He will come because his master demands it, he will come because he cannot help it, and we shall grab him!"

"'He will come because his master demands it,'" Spider taunted. "What if his master changes his mind?"

The shaman shrugged. "Then we have a wedding."

This time Sewing Woman rasped a chilling laugh, indicating the departing stick figures, which had somehow been changed into brightly colored smoked glass. "There go your grooms! Can you capture them without breaking them?"

"I am too tired to chase them. Let the young folk will keep them around."

From her piles of thread and yarn, Sewing Woman lifted two bolts of fabric to join together - one side holding the colors of the summer about them: green, gold, blue and brown, while the other bolt was gray as ash, rough with blackened limbs and dry powdered snow: the colors of a cold, harsh winter.

"The one you seek is nearby," she said as she fingered the cloth to her right. "After him comes another, with terrible clamor and fanged death. You are not prepared. Someone will die."

Broken Cloud's shivers became more violent. The blue sky he could see through the smokehole above darkened as the wind rose howling, until the tipi's walls were wrenched from their foundation poles and figures could be seen standing outside. They were all facing toward the southwest, anticipating something. With a piercing cry they turned to run, and they fell with beasts swarming over their backs. The ghastly creatures came upon the denuded skeleton of the tipi and ....

Drenched in sweat, Nomiro gasped in the profound heat of an enclosed tipi, darkened with both the skyhole and the doorway closed. His voice keening in horror of what he had seen, he asked, "But what am I supposed to do?"

"You could roll up the sides of your tipi, you old fool!" Cornsilk's muffled voice sounded from outside.

Mopping off the worst of his perspiration, Nomiro Nada responded with all the arrogance he could muster, "You had no business interrupting me! This was important!"

"We have a problem," Cornsilk informed him. "Lucha has tired of the preparation and has gone hunting."

 

ESTRELLITA:

She twirled, spinning her mantilla and skirt out wide, heavy with bright beads, sparkling with precious stones. Maybe the stones were not so precious. Who cared? They were pretty, and they were such bright colors. If she looked far away as she twirled, watching the same distant butte, snapping her head around as she spun, always coming back to the same place, the beads and stones made traces across her eyes like brightly flowing water.

She felt free, light-headed.

Of course I feel free, thought Estrellita. I've had long hair since I was seven years old. I even remember the day I decided to let it grow. It was on my birthday, and Papacito had come home and we had a party. A silly, brief party, because all the older people kept looking at the highway running across the other end of the valley. They worried that someone might come along and cause trouble, but Papacito was there and nothing could go wrong - he wouldn't let anyone interfere with her joy.

It was like the answer to a prayer, seeing him come riding up on his fine steed, and when he showed her that he was holding the reins to a fat little pony heaving and puffing from stumping along behind him, why, her life was complete. Papacito was home.

Abuelito and Abuelita were there, beaming with reflections of her joy, at Papacito's present. The pony was fat and slow, and Estrellita later came to understand that she was very old and tired, but Estrellita loved her. She named her Molasses because she ran slowly and she was sweet and she loved sweets. Papacito had brought sweets, also, from La Capitol where he stayed and worked all the time. They must have had a lot of good things there, for there was certainly very little to make him want to stay home in Villarica.

When Papacito picked her up and sat her on Molasses, the pony had simply stood there, seeming as wide as a hay wagon, so wide that Estrellita's legs went out to her sides instead of down and around the massive old belly. Though Estrellita had yanked and pulled on the reins, Molasses would not budge, indifferent to her show of temper.

Then a boy her own age stepped up and talked into the pony's ear, smiling and easy, urging the old beast into a slow rolling gait about the meadow as he ran alongside. This was how she first met Ramon, and this was the first time she had fallen in love. He was so kind and gentle that she made a promise to herself - she would become a beautiful senorita and he would fall in love with her and they would live happily ever after.

It happened that way, almost. She became a senorita and she had been told that she was very attractive, almost stunningly beautiful (though a little headstrong, the braver boys would add). Many boys had smiled at her and several had pursued her - inasmuch as the constraints of social protocol and distance would allow - but Ramon remained impassive. She knew one day they would wed, but he seemed indifferent. He insisted on taking care of her like a big brother. He simply did not understand his fate.

Estrellita sighed. Her skirts and beads hung limply as she awoke from her reverie, gazing at the distant butte. She was with Ramon, here in this frontier camp. Now, Ramon was risking his life (and she was risking hers, but that was a different story) to find his sister. It was so romantic. He was so brave. He was the sun in her sky.

Pero, pero....

But, but....

The first time she had seen the Yanqui cowboy she had laughed. He looked so silly. Blue eyes, wheat blond hair. An impossible collection of attributes. Odd. Strange. Yet... oddly attractive. She had done the unthinkable. She had allowed her thoughts to stray.

A shadow flicked across the ground before her, a hawk soaring far above the camp. The sky was unusually bright, today. Could there be more than one sun? How could she have been unfaithful to her own true love? Would Ramon ever forgive her? How could he?

She would have to find Sandy and confront him. Tell him she could never see him again. Admit her unfaithfulness and tell him goodbye.

Estrellita bit back a sob and set out to find Sandy, as he was not in the camp. As her wanderings took her farther down the trail, her thoughts wandered as well.

He will see me across the clearing. Slowly he will lay his work aside, the rope he will be mending. His eyes move slowly, slowly, up, from my beaded moccasins to the fringes of my skirt, luxuriating in the folds of the fine leather, up the front of my dress, my mantilla, up, up, until he is gazing at my face with those blue eyes. Of course, his handsome blue eyes are not as handsome as Ramon's, but.... ohhh, Lizard spit!

Estrellita brought her thoughts under control, gathering them as would a prairie grouse shepherding her chicks to safety. She was not betraying Ramon. She was being kind to Ramon's friend, Sandy. It would be Sandy who was betraying Ramon....

No! Ramon was her true, first love. He would always be her first love. Senor Sandy was a good friend. A very good friend. Senor Sandy is noble. He does not even know that I exist!

She hesitated, then amended the thought.

Well, Sandy does know that I exist. He blushes so easily. It is as if I know what he is thinking, each time he says something charming and then turns scarlet. He is thinking such of something gallant and noble to say, things which would be flattering and insincere, but so sweet, so innocent....

Estrellita again tagged her wandering thoughts and directed them toward her plans.

I will appear across the corral from him, wearing my new dress. He has never seen me in it. I know he will be pleased. I will smile shyly and play with my braids... no, I do not have the braids any longer, do I? What will I do? When he sees that I have cut my hair, he will hate me! My hair, my crowning glory, was the only thing he liked about me! Without it I am ugly! I am deformed! What have I done?

"Why are you wearing my sister's dress?"

Estrellita spun about to find that one of the large, strong Apache warriors had slipped up behind her.

"I... I... She traded for it!" she sputtered, "It's my dress, now!"

"I do not believe you! What would you have that my sister would want? And why have you cut your hair? Are you in mourning?"

"My hair! Yes, my hair! That's what I traded! I was going to show the dress to my friend, and you came up behind me and startled me, and...."

The young warrior's lip curled. "Showing off for that Yanqui! You have such poor judgment. Perhaps if you were to present yourself to me in a pleasant manner, I might look upon you with favor, even if you are a Mexican!"

"Humph!" Estrellita stuck her nose in the air and stated, "You have nothing I want! I was going to show it to Sandy, but the man I love is Ramon, and he is better than ten of you!"

"And you are a fool, playing with dolls!"

"I am a grown woman, and I don't want anything to do with you!"

"If... when...." the warrior seemed to catch himself and said, with a wry grimace, "...your man returns from the desert, we will see if you still think he is worthy!"

"What do you mean? Where is he? Where is Ramon?"

The warrior slyly looked away and said, "Perhaps I saw him heading for the horse-corral," he said. "Perhaps I saw him heading toward the town. But I think I saw him going out into the desert with the horse-thief Yanqui. If you go looking for him you should be careful of the snakes."

"Then I'm going to the horse-corral, too!" Estrellita felt his mocking eyes burning into the back of her head, through her short blond hair which suddenly felt very thin and useless.

She found the trail that led down the hill, to a rail fence with one rail hanging to the ground. Inside the fence she came upon a huge warrior swinging his fist at a small, blond cowboy and she choked back a scream. Instead of retreating and running back to the camp for help, she obeyed her first impulse and flew at the warrior's back, her fingernails raking in fury.

 

DREAMS OF DOLLS:

"He was frightened."

A girl's voice drifted across the parched sand, attracting the brief attention of a horned lizard. The lizard quickly forgot about the distraction and went about its career of shagging flies.

Beneath the anvil blow of the noonday sun, a figure in boy's pantalones and shirt peeked from behind the cover of a brier bush at a cowboy. The cowboy had collapsed beneath the wispy foliage of a mesquite tree for its thin respite from the heat, and was not looking around.

"That is understandable," the voice continued. "The shrinking leather was killing him and he struggled for his life."

Curve of thigh and dip of waist indicated that the lurking figure was the girl who had spoken. A girl who had no wish to be seen by the cowboy. A girl with definite reservations about being a girl at the time.

She shuddered and said, in a bitter voice, "But he could have been more careful where he put his hands!"

Machita held her own hands before her face, measuring the spread of her fingers. Her slender, graceful fingers, that seemed so much more skilled at delicate work than they had been when... when he had been male. She buried her face in those hands and groaned, "Why now? Why now, of all times?"

She backed out from her hiding place into a clearing, collecting her wits. Sandy's friend was out of the greatest danger, huddled beneath the relative comfort of the scraggly mesquite. He would be safe there. Now, Machita could attend to her own problems - namely, finding some cool water to change back.

Simple enough, with Ramon's experience in dry travels - find a barrel cactus, break it open and catch the sap.

Simple.

Correctamente.

She laughed bitterly, a soft high chuckle. Where were the cactus plants, now that she wanted to find them? There were none in sight. Nothing but stunted tree and briar.

Scouting about, she found a tree tall and stout enough. She climbed it, grumbling because she was missing those few important inches in height that made it necessary in the first place.

"Ah!"

With her head above the level of most of the thorny brush, she could see cactus plants shimmering in the haze, their upright stalks clustered about a mighty mound, a single huge boulder. Bushes flourished around the stone, their leaves a gray-green and olive hue, sure signs of a water hole in the midst of desert flats and gullies. She dropped from the fork of the stunted tree and made her way toward it.

Appearances proved to be deceiving. The bushes were green, but the water was hidden or buried so deeply that she could not find it. Cactus stalks were plentiful and tall, yet so rubbery tough that she could not break them.

Finally, she sat at their base, trying to huddle in their shade, suffering from the dry heat. She tossed pebbles at meandering gila monsters, wondering if it was time to start thinking about dying.

"I am about to get thirsty," she admitted.

She was not even alarmed when the doll of crystal azure and red dress appeared before her, clambered upon a discolored mossy rock and waved to get her attention.

"I can help!" the doll said.

"I remember you," Machita said, her tongue feeling dry and parched. Indeed, the doll resembled the sorcerer in the cave under the puebla, the cliff village. "I thought you were dead when the cave fell in on you."

"I am much more powerful than that!" squeaked the Kalichi doll. "Why, it would take much more than a mere mountain to kill me!"

"How can you help?" Machita wanted to know. "Can you get me some of the water beneath this sand?"

"Is that all you want?" Hands on hips, the doll stood and laughed at her. "Can you think of nothing better?"

Machita looked at him dully. "If I were a man again, I could survive better."

"Well, there you are!"

"You mean you could...." Machita let her words drop, not daring to hope.

"Why, yes. Yes!" The tiny Kalichi doll spread its tiny arms expansively. "I can return your manhood to you!"

As quickly as hope had brightened her, doubt brought shadows of suspicion. Machita regarded the doll with hooded eyelids.

"What's the catch?" she wondered aloud.

"Oh, there are no catches, no provisos, no hidden agendas! All you must do is bring the turquoise pendant to me, you know the one!"

"Hmm. I could do that," Machita supposed.

"Oh, and let me take a few drops of your sister's blood for the ceremony. Only a few. She won't even notice!"

An image loomed before Machita, a lightning flicker of remembered dream, of a stepped hill where figures struggled on its very peak, one figure held down while another reached into his chest and brought forth -

"No!" she yipped, drawing back.

The Kalichi doll beamed happily. "But it will cost you nothing and you'll be a man again, forever!"

"I said NO!"

Machita leapt to her feet and backed away from the doll. The doll, in turn, faded into the rocks until there was nothing but a pale patch of moss to show where it had stood. Too late to call him back, too late to reconsider.

A furnace wind soughed through briers and she thought she heard chanting. She looked up at what seemed to be an echo. Above the whisper of the breeze through cactus spines the sound waxed louder.

A hum, a soft chant. A voice, singing.

She cast about, becoming more certain, tracing the sound to the top of the boulder. When she clambered up onto the pile she found an opening.

From the opening came a familiar voice, chanting a familiar song to Sunboy.

"Abuelo?" called Machita in a hushed voice, "Is that you?"

In the shadows at the bottom of the opening, an old man in faded cotton pantalones and shirt stirred.

"Ramon!" cried the old man, "I am happy to see you! Can you get me out?"

"You are in another oubliette," Machita said, studying the opening, a hole in the stone with only one way out - up.

"How do you get into these things?" she asked, "You are not a bear."

"It is a long story," said Alboro, standing on tiptoe to grasp Machita's outstretched hand. Once he had clambered out, he led the way down the slope of the great rock and straightway found a depression where water, cold and clear, burbled out of the rock.

As Machita splashed herself with the icy cold water before taking a drink, the old man explained.

"I was nabbed by the rock people," Alboro stated with a straight face. "They are very distant cousins of the gods of the stone and the earth. After they caught me helping you to escape the posse, they stuck me in a hole in the ground and made me service their daughters. I am exhausted. You would not believe how lusty those women are."

"I am glad to see you, Abuelito, and you don't have to spin any yarns," said Ramon as he wiped his face with his sleeve and admired his now male hands, "I don't care what kind of tall tale you tell!"

"If I am lying, may Sunboy strike me dead on this spot!" said Alboro. He waited tensely for a moment, then glanced at the clear blue sky. "Guess not," he said. Shading his eyes from the sun he looked about, peering at the horizons.

"Now, where are we?" He looked at Ramon. "Why were you a girl?"

"I was at the Apache camp," said Ramon, "But I was carried off away from it. Right now, I have lost my direction. I don't know where to go."

**Head for the pass to the north,** suggested a thin, high voice, **But you must hurry. Many men are coming there.**

"Thanks," said Ramon without looking around. He was busy helping himself to another drink of cold water from the spring.

Alboro pierced him with a glance, instantly alert as he searched the surrounding rocks. A red-tailed hawk gazed calmly at him before it bent powerful wings and rose into the aching blue coolness of the sky.

"We had better get you into some shade," muttered Alboro, watching the hawk vanish into the distance. "You are beginning to hear things."

 

VOICES:

"Let's ssssssseeeeee. The bearer or the bauble?"

Machack stiffened and looked about the brush corral, scanning the scant trees and low shrub which allowed visibility for miles in any direction excepting toward the Apache camp. He could see no one who could have spoken.

Shaking his head, he returned to his experiment he had begun minutes earlier.

"Come to me, young berserker," Machack had said as he gestured, "You must feel pain before you can become a true warrior. I will help you. If you are worthy, you will survive."

Sandy backed away from him, saying, "I don't know what you're talking about, Mister! I don't aim on being no warrior!"

"Oh, but you have no choice! Face me or flee like a yellow-livered flea bitten mongrel!"

"I ain't no mongrel, but I ain't stupid, either!"

"Face me, then! Live like a man, if only for a moment!"

"Gaah!" Sandy back-pedaled away from him, but the larger warrior was close after him.

Machack reached with a slow fist and clubbed the cowboy beside the head, not enough to damage him but with enough force to send him sprawling. While Sandy regained his feet, Machack bided his time.

"You are not trying," he accused.

"I'm trying to stay alive!" Sandy bit off the words as he brushed blood from his cheek.

Machack sighed in frustration. The young Viking had shown promise, earlier, but now was not responding to any of the conventional methods of encouragement: demands, threats or praise. Though he regretted the need, he would have to resort to beating the boy until he fought back or died.

And then -

The girl had appeared and assaulted his back, trying with her feeble fingernails to break the surface of his tough hide.

"Aha! What have we here?" Machack's face spread into a gentle smile. "Perhaps I've been testing the wrong subject?"

Oddly enough, shoving the girl aside proved the impetus the boy had needed. Sandy practically exploded in anger, hitting Machack hard enough to make the mighty warrior lose his balance and step back from the attack.

If anything, Machack's smile became even broader. Now, this was more like it! Who would have thought? All he had to do was threaten the girl!

Then the boy was at him again, striking with his balled fists. Machack buffeted him away only to find that the girl was hammering at his back with her tiny fists.

It was when Machack was laughing aloud, fending the boy off with one hand and holding the girl away with the other, that he heard the voice. Though he looked, he could see no one. Then another sibilant whisper grated upon his keen hearing.

"Bearer," suggested the second hissing voice.

Machack batted the boy across the corral and twitched his head around again, searching for the speaker. There was nothing but the girl, and she was struggling in his massive grip.

"Look here!" a third voice hissed like flowing sand. Again, Machack glanced about - again, his incredibly sharp eyes caught nothing moving but the hot breeze in the brush and weeds. The voice continued, "It says, very plainly, in clause 33, sub conjunctive addendum AA4-2, that our first duty is to the treasure. Besides, this is not the original bearer."

"That isssss tttrrrrruuue, however, the bauble was freely given to this one."

Machack tossed the girl against the brush fence and straightened.

"Who IS this?" he demanded.

"Your worst nightmare!" The second voice hissed, near his left ear.

"Oh, please! That is ssssssoooo cliche'!" moaned the first voice.

"Well, he asked!"

"Besides, he has such a commanding voice," added the third, with the slightest trace of admiration.

"Oh, that's right! The master didn't tell you about us!" said the first. "And you with all those magical enhancements!"

"Don't take it badly," said the second. "There are a lot of things he never told you."

"He's a wicked, wicked man," added the third.

Machack knocked the dust off his leggings and spat. "I think you are the wind in my pants," he declared, clearing his mind for the task ahead.

The girl scrambled to her feet and he moved to keep her from escaping.

The girl, however, was not fleeing.

"You hurt Sandy!" she wailed, her green eyes bright with fury. She picked up a thin club, a thin branch from the tree she had struck when he threw her down, and she brandished it like a deadly weapon.

Machack exhaled a brief, unbelieving, "Harumph!" No, she was not fleeing. She was attacking. With a slender stick of wood.

"I was definitely testing the wrong one!" he chuckled. With a bemused smile, he extended a brawny arm to push her away.

He failed to note the brief flicker of heat lightning within the pendant's blue stone, as she swung the thin stick vainly at him. It was a blow which might have barely lifted the dust on his skin when it struck, but as the blow descended, blue sparks flew from the pendant to the woody stick.

Machack roared in pain. Jerking aright, he stared at the switch as it rose again and descended with a burning slash across his broad shoulder. White-hot needles pierced his flesh, searing flames boiled across his back. Never before, never in his long life, had he felt such pain.

Estrellita wielded the puny weapon with a rage beyond despair, seeing only her Sandy lying injured and beaten by this... this brute! Again she struck, and again the huge warrior flinched and shrank away, until he finally withdrew, barreling through the thorns and cactus.

She chased him until he was out of reach. Exhausted, she went back to the corral where Sandy had staggered to his feet, shaking his head in a daze.

"Did I get him?" Sandy asked. He sat down again.

Estrellita merely held his head in her lap and tousled his pale hair. "Oh, Ramon," she wept silently, venting her tears upon the thirsty sand. "Oh, Ramon, forgive me."

END: CHAPTER TRIENTA Y NUEVE