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Las Aventuras De Macho Caballo

                        MACHO CABALLO

                 PART II: CHAPTER VEINTIUNO

                         HORSE TAILS



SMALL SACRIFICES:

They were moving by daybreak, before the still air was
heated to roasting by the midday sun.  Wolfwalker was the
only one who remained on foot, coursing ahead of the group
as the terrain slowly became flatter and more inhospitable.
Red Cloud rode ahead of the others while Sandy brought up
the rear.  Estrellita remained at the center, discussing
transportation with Alboro.

"What do you mean, you sold my horse?" cried Estrellita, "I
loved that horse!  She was my favorite!"

"And the saddle," added Alboro, "Although we got more for
the saddle than for the horse.  Lots of silver on it. Enough
to buy horses for every one of us.  Supplies, too."

"But I loved her!  I have had her for fourteen years!"

"When we come back... if we come back this way, we can buy
her back," promised the old man, "But she was getting old.
The desert would have killed her.  Did you not think of this
when you left your home?"

"No, I did not think of that," pouted the rancherita,
"...But you should have asked me!"

"We could not get to you," said Ramon, "We needed money, and
you had all of your money with you."

"Ahhh... I don't have any money," Estrellita corrected him.

"No money?  How were you planning on getting around?"

"I thought you guys would have money.  I never carry any."

"Well, it was a good thing you brought that saddle," said
Alboro.

"I'm gonna be in trouble," sighed Estrellita, "It belongs to
my father.  He had it made in Veracruz."

Ramon listened to her complaints with a bemused smile.  He
had set out alone to seek his sister, because he was
thinking that the sorcerer and the sergeant were planning to
go after her.  Now there were six people with him, all here
because of their own reasons.  He stretched down to release
a branch of tumbleweed which had caught in his stirrup and
was dragging the rest of the bush along.

[That's how I feel,] he thought, [I am dragging the whole
bunch along like this tumbleweed.]

"And now I must ride this scruffy brute of a pony!"
continued Estrellita, "Why, this saddle so hard it is giving
me blisters!"

Alboro looked up at her from his position on a jackass.
"Consider it penance," he suggested.

"*What did you say*?" cried the rancherita before she was
distracted by a pain in her leg.  "Help!" she squealed,
"Something's got me!"

"You have a bunch of cholla leaves stuck to your skirt. Stop
a minute and let me get it," said Ramon, "You brushed
against a cholla tree awhile back."

"Why I never..." Estrellita choked back her denial and
wondered, "Is that what they call 'jumping cholla'?"




A LOCK OF HAIR TO BIND MY LOVE:

   When she stepped from her doorway that morning to smell
   the morning sun, she heard smothered laughter and saw the
   other girls of the rancheria watching her from the
   corners of their eyes.  An older woman struggled by with
   a load of firewood, smiling to herself.  Lucha looked
   about, but saw nothing humorous.  When she turned back to
   her lodge, however, she saw the lock of hair tied to the
   doorway.  Her hair.
   
   She swayed in confusion.  Had she been walking in her
   sleep, again?  Were the dreams making her do things she
   would not have ordinarily done?  If not, then someone had
   deliberately cut a lock of her hair and pinned it outside
   her lodge as a sign that she was ready to entertain
   candidates for her husband.
   
   Lucha completed her morning walk, as casually as if
   nothing had happened.  When she was once more inside the
   lodge, however, she collapsed into a heap just inside the
   doorway, all strength gone.  She shook uncontrollably for
   a moment, then grabbed the pendant and clutched it to
   her.  Only while she held it did the spasms ease and she
   could feel secure.
   
   Soon, the young hopefuls of the rancheria would present
   their proposals.  Several men had openly admired her;
   each would tie a pony outside the lodge and wait.
   According to tradition, she should select one pony to
   feed and water - that pony's owner would be the suitor
   she had selected.  Lucha's head spun in indecision.  She
   was not ready to marry anyone, and she certainly did not
   want to select the chief's son, Buffalo Wattle.  But she
   could not leave the ponies outside the lodge forever, she
   was not that cruel.  No one else would water or feed them
   while she waited to decide which one to take.
   
   She combed her hair in a distracted mood, found the place
   from which the hair had been cut.  No.  She had not done
   this.  Someone was betraying her.
   



LOOK WHAT FOLLOWED ME HOME:

As the day wore on, Ramon and Lonesome had been discussing
the breaking of horses. "I met this hombre over toward
Nogales, one time, and he told me how he broke his horses,"
said Lonesome, "First, he'd starve a horse until it couldn't
stand up, and he wouldn't give it no water, so's it would
break quicker.  I can't do an animal that way."

"It is true that some horse traders do this," admitted
Ramon, "But as for me and my Papa, we have never found it
necessary."

"Yeah, if you're good enough, I suppose you could charm them
into wearing a saddle.  How'd you get that bay to gentle so
quickly?"

"I would not call him gentle," laughed Ramon, "Every time he
gets a chance, he runs me into a tree or a fence.  He is the
one who decided that he wanted me to ride him."

"Yeah, that hoss was as tricky as any I've ever seen when we
caught him.  Only other person who rode him..." Lonesome
suddenly stopped thoughtfully, "Do you know, that gal in
Aguas Calientes looked an awful lot like... ehh?"

Wolfwalker had stopped and was waiting for them, watching
the trees ahead.  From the cover of a thicket the sound came
again, the soft moan of an animal in pain.  Lonesome went to
investigate.

"Awww, no," They heard Lonesome say.  He returned to the
trail with tears in his eyes and called to Sandy.  "Get your
musket, kid!" he said, "This ain't a pretty sight."

Sandy had pulled his weapon from the saddle ties at first
alarm.  He approached the thicket carefully and worked his
way through the spikes and thorns to the center.  There was
a horse, a mare, gaunt and covered with burrs, standing with
her head down.  Her mouth bristled with cholla spines.

"Might as well put her down," said Lonesome, "She's gone
through enough hell, so starved she'd try to eat cholla
leaves.  No point in drawing it out and making' her suffer."

Sandy gulped and hesitated.  "Your find," he said, "Sure you
don't want to do it?"

Lonesome shook his head, looked the other way.  "Don't like
guns," he said.  Wolfwalker refused to notice the
conversation, watching the horizon to their rear.

Sandy shuddered as he rolled the hammer back, aimed, and
pulled the trigger.  There was a loud clack.  "Lost the
cap," said Sandy with relief, "I'll go get another."

Lonesome was standing with his back to the horse when he
felt a gentle nudge.  The mare was pushing her tormented
nostrils against his hand.  Tears left a muddy trail down
her cheeks.

"Awww, what the hell," sighed Lonesome.  He stopped Sandy at
the trail as he was returning with the musket.

"Put it away, kid," he said, "I never shoulda' looked."

From his saddlebags he extracted a pair of pliers. "Worked
at a smithy for a couple of years," he explained to Ramon,
"When I moved on, the guy I worked with gave me these."

The mare stood and let him pull out the cholla spines, one
by one.  When he was done, the horse wanted to rub her ears
against his chest, almost bowling him over.

"I would say you have tamed this one," said Ramon.




THE FIRST NIGHT:

Red Cloud had gathered cholla blossoms and fruit to dice and
feed to the mare, along with a guarded portion of their
precious water.  Ramon had picked the campsite under
Alboro's approving gaze, and they watched the sun set, red
and bronze in the western sky.

Lonesome came up beside Sandy as they gathered stones to
surround the campfire.

"Just what is it between you and Ramon?" asked Lonesome.

Sandy jerked so abruptly that he lost his grip and had to
yank his foot back before it was crushed by the falling
stone.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"You two are good friends, right?"

Sandy nodded and Lonesome continued, "Thought so.  You two
are always palling around together, you work well alongside
each other, but sometimes you act like you hate him."

"I don't hate him," Sandy protruded his lower lip in pensive
reflection as he rolled the stone into place, "He's got
problems, is all."

"He seems cheerful enough."

"Oh, yeah, he's cheerful.  Most of the time.  Sometimes, he
is so bouncy..." Sandy bit off the remainder of his
statement.

"Nothing' wrong with that," Lonesome said, "Least he ain't
talking your ear off all the time.  Fact is, he's so quiet I
forget he's there, sometimes.  That ain't 'bouncy.'  He
don't jump around a lot."



"You ain't seen him bounce," said Sandy.  "Not the *parts*
that bounce anyways," he added under his breath.


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

"What do you have there?" Sandy asked Ramon as they unrolled
their sleeping gear and prepared for the night. Lonesome had
taken the first watch.  Their fire was small and shielded to
avoid being seen from very far away.

"Just a cornshuck doll," said Ramon, "I promised to hold on
to it."

Wolfwalker overheard the conversation and said, "Where did
you get this?  This type of doll is sacred!"

"Is *everything* sacred to you people?" demanded Ramon.

"Pretty much so," said Red Cloud.

"This is a warrior doll," said Wolfwalker, "It is given only
to members of a tribe when they have shown great promise.
You have never done anything to deserve it."

"The doll-maker gave it to me," insisted Ramon.  Instantly,
he regretted the admission.

Wolfwalker glared at him. "That is a lie!" he shouted,
grabbing for the doll, "She would never give this to anyone
outside the tribe!".

The doll, knocked from Ramon's fingers, fell into the fire
and blazed.  Flames consumed the corn shucks and beads
before he could rescue it, and for a moment the fire leaped
high over their heads with astonishing heat.  Ramon beat a
hasty retreat, slapping at his arms and the front of his
shirt.

"What's going on?" called Lonesome from his sentry point,
"Are you trying to tell everyone where we are?"

"Wow," said Estrellita, "That was some fireworks!"

The blaze left only wisps of charred fiber from the doll for
Ramon to drag from the campfire.  He could not touch the
fragments without them falling apart.

"You did not deserve that doll," insisted Wolfwalker,
"Better to destroy it."

"It was *mine*!" cried Ramon.  He tackled Wolfwalker about
the waist and they rolled over the gravel, each grappling
for a hold.  While the older Azuma lad had the advantage in
height and weight, Ramon was tough and his anger gave him
strength.

Lonesome came down from the rise, relieved by Sandy.  He
watched the struggle with some interest.  "The kid actually
got upset `cause someone took his doll away from him?" he
said in wonder.

Alboro yawned and stretched.  "This excitement makes me
tired," he said, and was shortly sound asleep under his
blanket.

Wolfwalker used his longer arms to pin Ramon to the ground,
but lost his footing when the younger boy swept his legs
from under him.  Ramon caught one of ankles, came to his
feet with one foot in the small of the Azuma lad's back, and
began to twist until Wolfwalker beat the ground with his
fists.

"That's enough!" said Estrellita, "You could hurt him that
way."  Ramon let him go and the two combatants glared at
each other for long moments until by mutual consent they
turned away.

"Well, that's over," said Lonesome, "Any coffee left?"

"You actually want coffee?" Ramon stopped in his tracks to
ask.

"Sure.  Made it myself," said Lonesome.

"Oh," said Ramon and he went back to his blanket.




TO MAKE RABBIT STEW:

Machack the warrior lowered his spyglass, wondering.  There
had been some sort of explosion at the campfire - more
unusual, it had been a release of non-earthly energy.  The
boy appeared to have thrown something into the fire in order
to trigger an event.  Kaliche had not mentioned this
possibility, that these barbarians could play around with
such power.

This made his mission much more interesting.  Perhaps one of
the group might actually be able to put up a fight.  It was
worth testing.  The spyglass focused the dim light from the
campfire into his obsidian eyes as he watched them bed down
for the night.  When all was quiet, he slipped from his
vantage point on the bluff and made his way across the
desert floor. He left the metal tube of the spyglass along
with most of his weapons, taking only his favorite knife
with the Toledo steel blade.  Small animals fled his
approach and larger animals slunk away rather than confront
him.  He passed over snakes both poisonous and lethal
without being noticed.

To get to the campfire he followed a gully, welcoming the
fine haze which seemed to have emerged with the dew in this
arid wasteland.  The haze would help conceal him as he drew
closer to the camp.  At the place he estimated to be closest
to the campsite, he emerged from the gully and searched for
a fire.

There was nothing there.  Machack cast about, seeking some
clue as to where the travelers had gone.  There was no
evidence that there had ever been a campfire, the ground was
cold and there were no tracks from horse or man, even to his
eyes.  Puzzled, he climbed a nearby thorn tree, easily
avoiding the numerous spines, and looked around.  Back in
the direction he had come from was a campfire.  He had
overshot, trying to sneak up on them in the gully.

"That is easy enough to remedy," he said, and headed
straight for the boulders reflecting light from the fire.
After a number of steps he paused.  He could seem to get no
closer.

Again the haze arose and he marched forward twenty paces.
Now, when he stepped up on a rise of rock to look, the
campfire was behind him.

Muttering to himself, he retraced his steps until the haze
arose.  The campfire was back in the original direction.
Eventually he gave up in disgust and stayed in one spot
until dawn.

He never found the campfire that night, where one person
slept with a quiet smile.

When the pewter gray of dawn brought the landscape back to
reality, the burly warrior retraced the steps he had taken
during the night.  They were many and varied, and appeared
to wander around aimlessly.  Nearby he found the campsite,
with warm coals covered by sand and many footprints.  As he
went back to the bluff to recover his weapons, the warrior
was humming a simple tune he recalled from ancient Thebes.

"So, the sheep have a watchdog, do they?" he said.

From the bluff he could see the trail leading from the
village of Aguas Calientes and the plume of dust being
raised by horses in pursuit.

"Ah," said Machack, "My shepherds approach, to drive the
sheep.  How convenient.  Now all I have to do is wait."  He
slung his pack and melted into the underbrush.


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

Wolfwalker had also seen the dust plume.  "They push harder
than we do," he said, "They can burn up their horses to
catch us before we get away.  We must take care of our
horses so they can carry us across the desert."

"What can we do?" asked Estrellita.

"We go fast to the hills or we go slow through the cholla,"
Wolfwalker cast toward Ramon with his chin and said, "Ask
him."

"Me?  Who made *me* boss?" demanded Ramon.

"It was your idea," said Sandy, "We just came along for the
ride.  Whatever you say."

"I don't want to be a wet blanket," said Lonesome, "But
somebody better do something, and someday soon!  If you
don't want to lead, get out of the way!"

Ramon surveyed their faces, from the unquestioning approval
in Estrellita's eyes to the grudging acceptance in
Lonesome's face and Wolfwalker's non-committal scowl.

"All right!" he said, "Let's get going North to the hills!"

As they moved out single file through the brush, Ramon
stopped alongside the older cowboy.  "Thanks for the push,"
he said.

"Gotta watch out for the young'un," said Lonesome,
indicating Sandy, "And he's gonna stick with you `til you
find your sister.  He's stubborn, that way.  Best I can do
is try to keep up."

They set out on the narrow trail, trying to match
Wolfwalker's pace.




YOU KNEW I WAS A SNAKE WHEN YOU PICKED ME UP:

"I was surprised to see the Senora Elizabeta here in your
employ," smiled Sinestro as he savored the Brazilian coffee
from the fine porcelain cup, "I was under the impression
that I was paying her husband well enough for her to stay
home.  She has a marvelous daughter, don't you think?"

"She does not work for me," said the Dona, "Elizabeta is a
guest."  To Dolores she said, "We can work on the books
later.  Perhaps you have something else you would prefer to
attend to?"

Swiftly Dolores gathered her papers, glanced at Sinestro
with slitted eyes, and departed.

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

"Hola, Manuel!" called Francisco as he entered the stable
area, "Why are you not out wandering?"

"Tomorrow, perhaps," smiled the elder Caballo, "Today, this
bird still has a sore wing."

"Ahh, yes," said Francisco, "That was quite a night, was it
not?  I still jump when I hear a noise in the darkness."

"I, too.  We came so close to losing everything."

"And has your wife recovered?"

"Completely.  She is back to running the house and helping
the Dona.  It is my boy who has me worried."

"What do you think?" Francisco wondered, "Does he have the
sister?  Will he find her?"

"Compadre, if the sister is there, he will try very hard to
find her.  I had to let him try.  But if he does not come
back soon, I shall have to go and help him look."

"I see your wife, coming from the big house.  She looks very
upset.  What could you have done this time?"

Dolores greeted Francisco then pulled her husband aside.
"Sinestro is talking with Don Diego," she whispered, "I must
know what they are saying."

"Here?" Manuel looked about, but there was only Francisco
nearby, "Now?  How can that help?"

"You must get close and listen.  Bertran can only mean
trouble.  You do not know the man as I do."

"Mi Dulce, I will do anything for you.  But you have always
disliked it when I do these things... and here, when there
is so much chance of discovery?  Do you hate this man so
much?"

Dolores nodded in acknowledgment, "I fear him, my husband."




CROSSING THE DESERT:

For a time they had moved quickly through the brush in
single file, following Wolfwalker's lead.  At a clearing
Ramon let the other's go past until he was bringing up the
rear.  The only sounds were the creak of leather and the
muffled thud of hoofbeats in the dust.

As the dust rose Ramon pulled a bandanna up over his face.
He could see another dust cloud far behind as the sheriff
and his band followed.  On a rise which gave him a view of
the land behind, he stopped to look back.  He could almost
make out the figures of horses and riders.  They were
getting closer.  When the trail broadened as they crossed
a dry riverbed Ramon made his way to the lead once more.

The pack mule hurried after him and even the bay seemed to
sense the urgency of their pace.  At any rate he was not
trying to scrape Ramon's leg up against the cactus thorns.
Estrellita's horse was not so careful.  In a wash halfway
across the flat the group stopped to catch their breath and
slake their thirst.

Sandy was the first to see the rancherita's trembling lip
and the tears in her eyes.  He went to help her get down
from her pony.  "Ow!" cried Estrellita, "Be careful!  And
where do you think you are putting your hand?"

Sandy stopped in panic.  He had been trying to clear away
the cactus leaves and spines clustered to her skirts.  "Just
getting the thorns off," he squinted against the sun to see
her face.

"I don't let just anyone touch my knees," she informed him.
Sandy's face turned beet-red and he yanked away from her.

"Oh, come on back and finish!" she pleaded, but he would not
return.  "Oh, please!" she cried, "I can't get down from my
horse without getting stabbed... it hurts so much!"  The
blond cowboy reluctantly came back to remove the remainder
of the cactus spines, but he remained at arm's length for
the chore.

Lonesome shook his head and looked away so they would not
see his face.  When Ramon glanced toward him he said, "I see
it comin'."

"What?" asked Ramon.

Lonesome busied himself with his tack, "Yep," he said, "It's
already too late."  He watched as Estrellita finished
tending to her pony. "We'll need to get going pretty quick,"
he said to no one in particular.

"Better to keep going," Wolfwalker nodded in agreement.  He
glanced about the surrounding foliage as though searching
for something.  Lonesome caught the gaze and made a noise,
almost a grunt with a questioning rise at the end.

"Someone watches," explained Wolfwalker.

"I've been meaning to ask one of ya'll about that," said
Lonesome, "I thought I saw a fellow on the trail you left
coming over the mountain.  Couldn't make out any details, he
moved like a shadow.  You know of anyone who would be
interested in your group?"

"He knows," Wolfwalker indicated Alboro, who was trying to
argue Estrellita into wearing pants with chaps instead of
her skirts.

"But I didn't bring any trousers!" objected the rancherita.
The old man dug in his saddlebags and produced a pair of
sturdy breeches, threw them to her.

"Here," he said, "You paid for them.  Wear them.  Catch up
when you have them on."  Alboro motioned to Ramon and went
to mount his mule.  They left the two girls to handle the
clothing change and set out down the trail, moving slowly
until the rancherita rejoined them wearing chaps and a
chagrined expression.

Wolfwalker loped on ahead, looking for a clear trail.

"Old man?" Lonesome spoke to Alboro, "Who's following us?"

"A sheriff and about six deputies," offered Ramon
flippantly, but he too looked at Alboro for an explanation.

Alboro directed his answer to Ramon.  "Who do you think?" he
asked.

"Espuma, most likely," said Ramon.  Lonesome had not heard
of the name before and divided his attention between the boy
and his grandfather.

"He has already been through here," said the old man, "This
fellow is much meaner.  Not as sneaky, but tough.  Very
tough."

"Excuse me," said Lonesome, "but is there something going on
here that I don't know about?  First I hear you are looking
for a girl taken by Indians, then this rancherita gets
thrown in jail, now there's two people following you?"

"Well, the sheriff jailed Estrellita because Sinestro put
out an alarm," said Ramon, "He was just following orders. If
we can get away from him we won't have to worry about him
any more."

"Espuma is a different matter," Sandy said.  He had pulled
his horse as close as he could in the single file group in
order to join the discussion, "I hear he is a real malo
hombre.  He tried to kill Ramon's mother."

"You were back at the ford when this happened," said Ramon,
"Espuma fell off the roof of the pueblo, off a cliff.  He
should have died, yet he was seen later, talking about going
on a trip.  I should have known he would be coming this way.
He is after my sister as well."

"So who else is following us?"  Lonesome asked Alboro.

Alboro jounced along in silence as he considered his answer.
"Better I tell you the bad news," he said.

They listened to the silence as he studied the path before
them, a silence broken only by saddle-creak and jingle.  The
pack horse blew wind from its nostrils.  A scant late
afternoon breeze lifted the dust from their passing and
spread it across the desert floor to the side.

"Well?" prodded Ramon.

"Muy malo," said Alboro.

"What?" asked Lonesome, "Muy malo?  That's all?"

"Where is he?" wondered Sandy.

"Can't tell you," said the old man.

"Is this another one of your dumb lessons?" demanded Ramon.

"I tell you, you look at him, he kills you," said Alboro,
"Simple as that.  You don't look around.  Do not look
around!"

Sandy raised in his stirrups to scan the surrounding
foliage, much as Wolfwalker had done earlier.  He held his
gaze on the dust plume to their rear.  "I think they are
getting closer," he said.

Alboro shook his head in exasperation.  "Nobody listens," he
complained.

"They haven't stopped to rest or water their horses," said
Lonesome, "If we can keep ahead of them long enough, they
will have to stop."

Alboro shook his head again.  "They have spare horses," he
said, "Our only chance is to get to those hills ahead."

"We'll get there before nightfall," said Ramon, "If they
make camp like they did last night we'll have a chance...
If they don't keep coming."

"Who is the other man?" Lonesome returned to the discussion.

"Yeah, Abuelo," said Ramon, "And don't change the subject."

Alboro twisted about in the saddle to frown at him.  "I do
not know his name," he said, "A very bad man.  Strong.  A
warrior.  He could take out us and that posse without
blinking an eye."

"Why don't he?" asked Sandy.

Alboro again watched the path.  "I think he wants us to find
the girl," he said, and he raised his face to the sky with
determination in his eyes, "She would be my granddaughter."


CHAPTER VEINTIUNO:  END