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Las Aventuras De Macho Caballo


                        MACHO CABALLO

                PART 2:  CHAPTER VEINTICINCO

                     DOG DAZE AFTERNOON




WANDERING INTRO:

There is a quality of power:  The closer you get to the true
source, the more difficult it is to say whether it will turn
out for good or bad.  Small twigs can divert a stream, a
river takes many trees.

Around the turn of the last millennium, a people appeared on
the northern continent of America.  No one is certain where
the Aztecs originally came from.  History first finds them
somewhere northwest of Mexico City, perhaps near Arizona and
New Mexico.  They claimed to have come from a land called
Aztlan - a place of white herons, lost in antiquity.

They had been wandering southward for many generations and
possibly centuries before.  They were strong warriors, a
tough, stubborn, determined folk with a spiritual will that
could drive them to the heights of glory or to the depths of
human degradation.

The Aztecs wandered southward, poverty-stricken, despised as
outcasts.  They were reduced by circumstance to eating their
own dogs, and scorned by wealthier tribes who later hired
them as mercenaries to fight their interminable battles.
Eventually, the Aztecs took on the culture of these people,
their land, and their name, Mexica.

Somewhere along the way the Aztec had come to the tree of
decision.  They chose their path and they learned the power
of sacrifice and commitment.


The Apache came along several centuries later.  No one is
certain where the Apache originated, other than they
wandered down from the Central Plains of North America.  The
Apache spoke Athepaskan, which is of the same root language
as the Inuit of the Alaskan Eskimo, so they may have spent
some time in that land on their journey.  Some of the Apache
settled in the Central Plains, some went to what is now
Texas, and some went to a place northwest of Mexico City,
near Arizona and New Mexico.

Footloose, wandering, the Apache had been drifting southward
for generations.  They were strong warriors, a tough,
stubborn, determined folk, with a spiritual will that could
drive them to the heights of glory or to the depths of human
degradation.

Somewhere along their travels they came to the tree of
decision.  They chose their path and they learned to become
one with a demanding yet beautiful land.

Had the pale-eyes never arrived, the Apache would have
probably continued to drift southward.  What might have been
their fate is a matter of conjecture.  What would the Apache
have found, when at last their journey took them into a
Central America dominated by the Aztec, if indeed the Aztec
empire still existed?

No one asked this question in a certain cantina in northern
Mexico.  The occupants of a dim room within the cantina were
concerned with more mundane matters - in a word, dogs.

It is reported that other tribes disdainfully called the
early Aztecs "dog-eaters," perhaps for their practice of
eating dogs.  Certainly this lent a new meaning to the term
"man's best friend," a canine who was friendly, loyal,
edible.

Whatever their appetites, nothing prepared the Mexica for
the larger, fiercer beasts that accompanied the Spaniards.
When the Europeans dashed from their landing boats to stand
in rows, legs unsteady after months at sea, they brought
dogs with them.  These Europeans, having adapted to a
harsher climate with large predators, had developed dogs to
match - capable of fighting bears and wolves.

The Apache around Rio Pelegroso had a few dogs, but these
were of the sort to stay around camp.  They did not hunt.
When your favorite method of hunting is to don a disguise
and move close enough to a deer to touch it, you don't want
a dog interfering with the stalk.  What dogs they had were
probably no match for wolves and bears.  Thus, the Apache
were not prepared for a dog bred and raised to defeat both.

At least, that is what Trader Larribee thought.  He had
brought from Europe, at great expense, a round dozen of the
biggest, fastest, and most vicious wolf hunters produced by
Europe's finest dog breeders.  It would have done no good to
tell him the truth, that the mixed breeds he had bought were
deserving of no pedigree.  He would have been quite as proud
of curs as he was of the purebred wolfhounds he thought he
had.  Either way, the animals were dangerous to anyone in
their path.




DOG DAY AFTERNOON, THE DAY BEFORE:

In the town of Rio Pelegroso all commerce had slowed to a
stop, while the residents enjoyed a slight breeze breaking
across the river.  It was on the afternoon of Ramon's
emotional meeting with his sister, but the two cowboys who
sat back and listened were unaware of their friend's good
fortune.  They were waiting for riders who had promised to
send word if anyone had seen four strangers, perhaps hurt
and lost.  As they waited, they heard the far ranging
discussions held by the leading townspeople and local
citizens, sipping drinks in the cool of the cantina.

The cantina had been busy when Lonesome pushed through the
battered door, earlier.  He recognized Comstock seated at a
table, and as Comstock introduced his companions Lonesome
looked them over.  Trader Larribee owned a small spread
beyond the river, Gustav Oberson bossed a mining operation,
Jedediah Frazier ran another mine, and the Alcalde of the
town was Senor Roberto Mansino.

"I thought you were a cat-hunter, Trader," said Jed, "Are
you branching out into wolves, now?"

"Nope.  Painters are in my blood.  Ain't nothing I love
better than to be on the trail of a calf-stealer, listening
to the cry of the hounds as I ride along after them," said
Trader.  He tamped his pipe with his thumb, then continued,
"Ain't no sweeter sound than them hounds baying up and down
the gullies and washes after a cat.  But boys, I'll tell you
a sound that'll set your hair on end and grab you by the
throat.  That's the scream a painter makes.  And when they
got it backed up against a tree, holding them off with its
claws, I tell you, the squawl it makes puts ice down your
back."

"Trader's wife runs their ranch," Gustav supplied, "That
vay, Trader can runs his dogs."

Trader said, huskily, "The scream of a treed cat will send a
shiver down your spine like nothing else in this world.  And
to me, the thrill is in drawing a bead with my rifle and
bringing that cat down, and seeing my hounds tearing into
the wounded beast.  Even then, it's gonna keep fighting
until they ain't nothing left but blood and fur.  I've lost
many a fine dog to a painter that was dead and didn't know
it yet."

"I can't keep a dog," complained Jed, "They's always
something kills them off fast as I can raise them."

"You didn't raise them mean enough," Trader Larribee
boasted, "My place has lost enough stock to wolves, Injuns,
or whatever.  I been training my own dogs, and no one dast
come close at night when these brutes roam the courtyards."

"Yeah, not even the hired help," snickered Will.

"Well, then," said Jed, "sell me one of them!"

"Sell you a hound?" Trader's voice conveyed an emotion
beyond contempt, "I'd sooner sell you my first-born!"

At that moment, his first-born was trying to gain the
attention of the bar-maid, who was three times his age.  She
eluded his grasp with practiced ease and left him to fumble
his glass.

"I've told him not to drink," complained Trader, "he's too
young.  SHE lets him get away with it. Spoils him rotten.
Won't listen to a word I say. "

"We lost one fellow who came in drunk one night," said Will,
as he examined the amber contents of his glass, "We still
don't know where he run off to!"

The elder Larribee rose from his chair. "Will!" he called.

Ignoring him, Will added, "That pore buckaroo is probably
still running...."

Trader's face turned a shade darker as he spoke again.

"WILL!"

Will froze.

"I told you not to drink!  I think you've had enough," said
Trader Larribee, "You got chores to do at home."

Will started to shift his glass to his left hand but Trader
grabbed it, suspicious.  He sniffed the liquid in the
tumbler and snorted in contempt.  "Sarsaparilla!  You ain't
drunk!  GET HOME!"

This time, Will paled, and hastily backed away from the
older Larribee.

"I'm gone, Pop!" he said, and hurried out the doors.

Sandy watched through the open doorway as Will slumped to a
saunter once out of sight of his father and stopped to chat
with some vaqueros.





FEELING `AMOROSO':

There was a cornfield beside the street between the cantina
and Ma Brown's boardinghouse, and the wilting stalks were
being plundered by noisy crows.  Estrellita took her time
skirting the patch.  She did not want to appear to be
following her companions, but she also did not wish to
remain alone in her room, so she thought about the news
Sandy and Lonesome might have heard.  She missed Ramon.

Ma Brown had cautioned her about the cantina - it was not a
place for young girls, the widow had said.  Even if she
tried to go in, the owner would not allow it.  "Then I will
wait at the dry-goods store and watch for them," she had
replied.  But to get to the dry-goods store, she had to pass
the cantina, and what harm could there be, to peek in as she
walked past?

As she neared the cantina, she could hear two men talking.

"Paco, you have had too much to drink," said one, with a
glance toward the rancherita, "I think it would be better if
I take you back to the ranch."

Paco said something in a slurred voice, then lurched into
the street, coming toward Estrellita.  "She's here, ain't
she?" he continued, "I told you.  I ain't gonna pash..." The
words were interrupted by a mighty shudder which racked him
about until he faced the empty street.  He corrected his
orientation and lurched closer, saying, "...pash up a chansh
like thish!"


When Sandy and Lonesome left the cantina later as they
headed back to the boardinghouse, they saw the vaqueros once
again.  The vaquero named Paco had cornered Estrellita, put
his arms around her, and attempted to kiss her.  She was
squirming out of his hold just as Sandy stormed up.

"Hey!" Sandy cried, "Get your hands off her!"

"What is thish, do they let babiesh ride horses and carry
guns?"

"I mean it, Mister!  You let her alone!"

"Well, ain't you the little banty rooshter!  How did a
little kid like you get a biii..(ic)..iig gun like that?"

"Cause I know how to use it, that's why!"

"Hey, Chiquito, I don't think you undershtood the
queshtion!"

"Mister, I don't think you understood my answer!"

Lonesome ambled up and leaned against the railing.

"Hey, you!" the drunk snapped at him.

"Me?"

"Yeah, you!  What'sh your part in thish?"

"Just watchin'."

Paco staggered, then regained his equilibrium, saying, "You
ain't gonna back him up?"

"Oh, he don't need my help.  Kid can take care of himself,"
Lonesome made a show of paring his nails with the huge blade
of his knife and added, "But you might tell us where we can
find your kinfolk."

The nature of his remark slowly seeped through the alcohol
induced fog.  "Why would you want to know that?" Paco
wondered.

"So we'll know where to send your effects.  You see, he's
real quick and he usually hits what he aims at," Lonesome
indicated Sandy, who remained poised to draw his pistol,
"He's done killed one man."

"Aww, man!" cried Sandy, "Why'd you have to go blab that?"
He glared at Lonesome, shook his head, and returned his
attention to the drunk.

The drunk, in turn, looked at him with renewed interest.
"Son," he said, "Ish there any chance that pop-gun ish
loaded?"

Sandy gritted his teeth and replied, "Capped and primed,
Sir!"

The vaquero looked from the newcomer back to his friend, who
had remained in his saddle.  His friend said, "I told you,
Paco!  She did not want to talk to Senor Will, and she will
not want to talk to you!"

Paco shook his head and backed off.  "I shtink I better
apologishe, then, Senorita!" he said, "I have been
mishinformed!"

"Do you mean Will Larribee?" Estrellita asked, joining the
conversation.

"Si, Senorita," replied the companion, "He was saying that
you were feeling `amoroso' and you wanted company.  We are
very sorry for the misunderstanding."

"I will KILL him!" cried the rancherita, stiff with rage.

Sandy turned on his heel and walked away.

"Wait a minute, kid!" Lonesome called after Sandy, who was
heading for the stable, "Don't do anything we'll be sorry
for!"

Sandy kept going.





WITH A DOGGED WILL:

Sandy had not planned on taking the bay horse at all.  When
he went to the stable to saddle his own horse, the bay
sought him out.  The big red-brown horse appeared lonely, as
though missing his own rider.  Remembering the dumping he
had taken trying to ride him before, Sandy was reluctant to
take a chance, but Rayo was so insistent that he relented
and saddled up the bay to ride out to the Larribee ranch.

Sandy rode the bay along the trail with his jaw clenched
tightly, rehearsing in his mind the words he would speak
when he met Will or Mr. Larribee.  Occasionally, the bay
would slow and cast about as if looking for something.
Finding no track at the crossroads they passed, the horse
would lower his head and continue along the way to the
Larribee Ranch.

There was a boy with grey eyes, standing at the corral, one
boot poised on the bottom rail.  "What'cha want?" he asked.

"Would you be Will Larribee?" Sandy asked.  He recognized
Will by Estrellita's description but since the other had not
bothered to add `light a spell and rest,' or `hop down and
have some water,' Sandy decided that the rancher's son was
not much of one for long conversations.

"What business is it of yours?" Will responded with a sneer,
"I don't recall inviting you onto our property."

[Then again], Sandy reflected, [maybe this joker was just
plain ornery.]

"I wanted to see what this Will fellow looked like," Sandy
said, remaining in the saddle, "Folks say he thinks a lot of
himself."

"That's so," admitted Will, "You got something to say to
me?"  The door of a nearby stable swayed and he raised a
hand toward it.

"When you were in town this morning you tried to get
familiar with a friend of mine.  Then some ranchhand came
around saying you told them some lies about her."

"I ain't lied yet.  Must have been someone else.  There's
some new lowlifes in town.  One of them looks a lot like
you."

"You're the one," Sandy leaned forward in the saddle and the
bay shifted uneasily under the unfamiliar weight, "I don't
like it when someone starts spreading filth about my
friends."

"That gal should have took me up on that drink," sneered
Will, "She needs to learn to keep her big mouth shut."

"I mean to see to it that she don't have to take your kind
of sass!" said Sandy.  He grabbed the saddle horn and was
levering his right leg over the rear of the saddle when Will
lowered his hand.  The door to the stable burst open and six
sleek black and gray dogs burst out.

"See if you can handle these hounds!" cried Will.  He
climbed the fence to get out of the way.

The bay did not wait for instructions.  He whirled suddenly
to his left, throwing Sandy back into the saddle and
bringing them into line with the rutted trail.  With his
rider clinging to his mane, the bay leaped before the
hounds.  One of the hounds bayed close behind.

The wind slapped Sandy's hat from his forehead and pulled
the string taut against his throat as they flew along.  It
whipped tears from the boy's eyes as the horse's hooves
drummed ahead of the dogs.

When the ranch gate rushed past, the dogs seemed to lose
interest.  They lagged behind and finally slowed.  Sandy
brought the bay to a halt and looked back from a safe
distance.  The hounds milled about, then started out across
the prairie, heading toward the riverbed or the mountains
beyond.

"Danged if he weren't the most inhospitable person I've
met," said Sandy, "We better head on in to town.  No telling
when those hounds're coming back."

On the way back to Rio Peligroso, the bay kept shying away
from shadows.

"Easy, boy, I don't want no trouble with you," said Sandy,
"Besides, those dogs were heading the other way.  I think."

In the growing gloom of approaching evening, he did not see
the figure which shadowed him, a hulking shape which moved
with the ease of long practice, as silently as the wind.




BIG TALK AT THE CANTINA:

"Yes, we have had trouble with the Apache,"  the mine owner
said before tasting the salt and his tequila, "They started
hanging around all the time, watching us.  Once my men could
stay at the shaft and sleep close to their work.  Lately, I
have had to call in my workers every night."

"We've had enough trouble with the redskins!" cried Jedediah
Frazier, "One of these days, I'm going to hire a man to take
care of them!"

"Oh, sure, Jed," laughed the saloon owner, "You've been
trying to find someone to do your dirty work for years.  One
man is going to clean all the Indians out of this
neighborhood?  Sounds like you'd be throwing your money
away."

"Old Yed is afraid he might haf started an Inyun war," said
Gustav, "Last veek one of his workers took a shot at some
Apache hangink around at his mine."

"He had no business, there!" declared Jed, "They upset the
men, lurking and watching!"

"The Apache don't understand mining," said Comstock, "Their
religion won't let them dig for gold.  They think you're
going to cause an earthquake with all them holes you're
making."

"That's a lot of rubbish!" snapped Jed, "Why, there ain't
been a quake around here since...."  he broke off to grab at
the edge of his table as it quivered and vibrated beneath
his elbow.  The clink and jingle of dishes was offset by
howling and barks from outside.

"Way to go, Jed," said his compatriot, "You just had to open
your yap, didn't you?"

"It wasn't my fault!" cried Jed, "Besides, that's a lot of
superstitious nonsense!"

"Well," said Trader, "If shootin' at them don't make them
mad, maybe they'll blame you for that tremor."

The table had stopped dancing, but Jed remained agitated.
"I ain't done nothing to stir up them Injuns," he stated,
"Only thing I did was defend my property."

"I could loan you a couple of dogs for protection,"
suggested Trader, "Seeing as how you need to 'defend your
property'."

"At your rates?" snorted Jed, "I'd sooner hire an army.
It'd cost less!"

"You ought to make that an even half dozen," said Comstock,
Them Injuns might have a good appetite for roast dog."

"Why can't you leave well enough alone?" asked Angie, "After
all, this was their land first."

"Sister, you ain't been out here very long," scoffed Jed,
"Ain't you lost cattle to them thieving redskins?"

"I've been here most of my life," she said, "Sure, we've
lost cattle to Indians... and to wolves, pumas, bear,
coyotes... it's part of ranching."

"Well, I ain't losing no more," stated Larribee, "My hounds
can take on any critter."

"Would they be black and gray brutes, more teeth than
sense?"  Sandy said as he pushed through the listeners.

"Purebred wolfkillers," Larribee said with satisfaction,
"But I trained them so mean they'll eat anything."

"I just saw a half dozen of them take out for the mountains
to the south," Sandy told him.

Larribee jerked upright.  "Who turned them loose?" he
demanded.

"Your boy, Will.  He sicced them on me.  If I hadn't been on
a fast horse I'd be dogmeat right now!"

"I'm going to blister that boy's hide!" roared Trader, then
turned to Sandy and asked, "You say they was heading south?
Alone?  No one with them?"

"Straighter'n a ruler."

"Well, it's a good thing they ain't no white folk in that
direction.  Them dogs'll tear up anything... wolves,
livestock, deer... anything that moves!"

Comstock pulled Lonesome aside.  "You say your friends were
Indian?" he asked.

"Yeah," Lonesome, "Least two of them are.  There is a Mex
boy looking for his sister."

"He isn't going to find her," promised Comstock, "But they
got other troubles.  Those dogs are killers - I have seen
them in action.  That pack of them just might nail your
friends if they catch them before you do."

"My friends were looking for Apache," said Lonesome, "Odds
are they will find them.  That Mex kid has gumption."

"Then you might just ease out to their main rancheria and
let them know they got trouble.  If the Apache have found
your friends, and if they haven't staked them out over an
anthill..."

Lonesome eyed him, "North or South?" he wondered.

"South.  I'll take you there, myself.  After I make sure my
livestock is safe."  Comstock and his daughter moved to
leave.

Lonesome thanked him.  [This don't look good,] he said to
himself as he and Sandy made their way back to the boarding
house.





OBLIGATIONS IN RIO PELIGROSO:

On the morning after Ramon had met his sister, the day began
in the town of Rio Peligroso with a whisper of breeze and
the sound of scattered roosters crowing.

Ma Brown came upon Estrellita as the rancherita gazed at the
young cowboy sleeping on the porch bench.  Saying nothing,
she gestured for the blonde rancherita to accompany her into
the kitchen where she was preparing breakfast.

"You're kinda sweet on the boy, aren't you?" said Ma Brown.

"Him?  Oh, he is gentle, and so bashful.  But I cannot say
that I like him so much."

"Coulda fooled me.  He's been watching out for you all
night."

"He has?" Estrellita looked back toward the front of the
kitchen, as though Sandy might come walking in any second.
She said softly, "Anyway, I am promised to another."

Ma Brown poured hot bacon grease into a huge bowl of flour.
She began kneading a half dozen eggs into a mass of dough in
a depression in the center of the flour, and she said, "You
must mean that little Mexican boy your friend has been
looking for?"

Estrellita nodded.  "Ramon has always been there for me.
Since I was a little girl I knew that someday I would marry
him.  Even when my mother..."

Her hesitation did not escape the boardinghouse matron's
attention.  "Go on," she said.

"When my mother took me to Mexico City, to be with her
during my `education', I swore I would remain faithful to
him.  None of the boys there were even half as handsome, or
as gallant, as my Ramon."

Ma Brown began to pinch off biscuits, which she arranged in
a cast iron pan.  "Sounds like you had a real crush on him,
all right," she said, "How does he feel about it?"

"He.... Always I have been the one to tell him how things
are to be," said Estrellita, "He has always been so kind, so
confident, so...." she hesitated again, "...so restrained."

"Sounds like he has a level head," Ma Brown shoved the pan
into the oven with a clang, "And it sounds like you are more
grateful than in love.  Makes a difference in the way you
talk about him.  What did he ever do for you?"

"He...he was there for me, when my parents went off to the
capitol.  They had to go, to help the country.  It was
necessary.  It was...." she sighed, "It was lonely."

"So he came along and acted the big brother," Ma Brown said,
how's your mother feel about this?"

"At first I thought she did not care, when I told her.  She
said how nice it was that I have the friend to keep me
company.  She said I should try to find more friends.  But
how could I?  They all say my parents are Spanish
sympathizers!  They won't have anything to do with me!"

"But your friend, Ramon?"

"We grew up together.  Yes, to me, he was the big brother.
So strong, so handsome.  So..." she stopped to suppress a
giggle and added, "...so manly."

Ma Brown handed her an apron and said, "I could use a hand
setting the table.  Do y'mind, Honey?"

"Not at all," said Estrellita as she lifted plates down from
the rack, "So you see, I could never look at another without
dishonoring my love for Ramon."

"Sounds like you have a problem," agreed Ma Brown.  She went
to wake her other guests for breakfast.

As Sandy and Lonesome straggled in, Ma Brown greeted them
with a clean, though frayed, towel.  "Washpan's on the back
porch," she announced, "You boy's look like you could stand
to scrub the sleep out of your eyes.  Ya'll sleep good?"

"Yes'm," yawned Sandy.

Over biscuits and gravy and salt pork, they discussed the
coming day.

"I'm heading out to an Indian camp," announced Lonesome,
"Mister Comstock says he'll show me the way.  Maybe they'll
have some news."

Sandy grinned slyly, and said, "That ranch girl going with
you?"

Lonesome nodded and frowned to let the younger cowboy know
that he was treading on dangerous ground.  "Gonna make
something of it?" he asked.

"Nope," Sandy continued to grin.

"I suppose you want to come along.  Your friend might be
there."

"I've thought about that," said Sandy, "But there's a chance
he could have lit down towards the west, though.  I'm going
to ride out to that big rancho in that direction."

Lonesome said, somberly, "You might give some thought to
what we would do if we can't find him."

"What would you do?" Sandy asked, looking directly at him,
"Would you quit?"

There was a stretch of silence before Lonesome answered,
"Can't say I would.  Least not 'til I knew for sure."

"We'll just cover all the possibilities," Sandy said as he
dug into the gravy with a biscuit crust.





VISIT TO A SMALL VILLAGE:

"I tied that dang mare back at the livery, and she got loose
again!" cried Lonesome, "Now here she is trying to go with
us!"

"Don't drive her away!" cried Angie, "I think she is sweet,
she is so affectionate!"

"She is about to drive me crazy," snorted Lonesome, "I
pulled a few thorns out of her mouth and you would think I
raised her to be a bottle-fed calf.  She won't leave me
alone!"

"Oh, I love that!  That is just like that story of
Androcales who pulled the thorn from the lion's paw!"

"Yeah, I heard of that one," said Lonesome, "We had a school
teacher who loved to tell it.  She ain't never met any lions
like that around here!"

"Then let me ride her," begged Angie, "That will keep her
occupied."

Lonesome considered, "Okay.  Least she won't be gettin' into
any mischief that way."

They set out in the ochre sunrise toward the southern hills.
Comstock told the history of the pass they were approaching,
how Apache had held it against Yaqui raiding parties in the
last century.

"See that pass?  That there's where the Apache stood off a
whole herd of Yaquis, one time years ago.  They gathered a
couple'a hundred Apache up in them rocks and refused to
budge.  Cut them Yaquis to dogmeat.

"Matter of fact, close by here's where I first met old Tom
Goose, the chief of this group we are going to see.  I was
out riding around, fat, dumb and happy, even had Angie
along.  She was about six or seven, cuter'n a button, and
always wanted to go riding with me.  And since I didn't have
anyone to leave her with, that day, she was slung behind me
on the saddle.  I was a little younger, then, and had more
spunk than horse sense.

"Anyways, here we was coming along this ridge, and I look
over on one side and I see this family of Apache coming
along, just like me, fat, dumb and happy.  They see me, but
they aren't out looking for trouble.  If they was, rest
assured I'd have never seen them.

"Over on the other side, I see something out of the corner
of my eye.  I stop and look.  Don't see nothing, at first,
until the wind shifted and blew the grass the other way for
a second.  Then I made them out, a bunch of Indians all
hunkered down waiting for something.

"Just luck that I saw this other bunch.  Right away, I
suspect they're up to no good, and I decide I have to do
something about it.  Forgot I had a kid with me, did the
dangdest foolhardy thing I could have done.  Stood up in the
stirrups and whistled at them Apache, waved and motioned
toward the other bunch.  You can guess what happened - that
bunch of Indians setting in ambush took out after me, and I
lit outta there fast as I could.  Swung little Angie around
in front, so's she wouldn't get hit."

"It's a good thing he did, too," said Angie, "They peppered
him pretty badly.  Three hits in his back and they shot the
horse, too."

"Well, we barely made it down the slope before the horse
folded and we went tumbling.  Them Apache - it was Tom
Goose's group - pulled us out from under the carcass and we
commenced to have it out with the Payutes - that's who was
trying to ambush them - and before long we run them off.

"They patched me up, but the horse was a goner.  Old Tom, he
strips my saddle off the horse, butchers it and we have a
meal.  He gives me another pony to ride back home.  I
thought that was mighty generous of him, 'til I looked out
the next day and the pony was gone.

"Every once in a while, they'll come wandering back by here,
and nothing will do but that I have to find me a cull steer
or two that I won't miss too badly, take it out to them, and
they get to eat real good.  Them Apache appreciate a good
feed."

"What would happen if you didn't feed them?"

"Don't like to think about it.  Anyways, me and Tom get
along pretty good, and I don't want to jinx it.  They's
others around who'd just as soon shoot them as spit.  I
don't dare ride into any other group's camp like I do with
Tom."

Lonesome said, after considering, "You know if any other
ranchers lose beef?"

"Hell, even I lose beef, and it ain't wolves.  But I know it
ain't old Tom's bunch doing it."

The morning slid quietly on, and they talked of families.

"Ma died on the way out here," said Angie, "The Mexican
government wanted people to come in and live, so we settled
here.  What about your folks?"

"Mostly passed on or dead."

"Don't you have anybody to call kin?"

"Nope."

"What happened?"

"Feud."

Angie made a face.  "Talking to you is like pulling teeth!"
she said, "What started all this?"

"Oh, back about a century or two ago, somewhere back in the
Old Country, somebody killed somebody and it carried on."

"Go on."

"Way I heard it, there was two families used to be real
close.  Then one day some man in one family spat on a girl's
dress and her brother killed him.  Then his brother killed
the brother, and it kept on going."

"He spat on her dress?"

"Yep."

"Not worth killing anybody over... no, wait!" Angie said, "I
understand!  You mean he soiled her reputation!"

Lonesome regarded her with widened eyes.  "How do you get
that?" he asked.

"Like if he got her in a family way and refused to marry
her!  Women understand these things," explained Angie, while
Lonesome shook his head in disbelief, "But why would you say
it like that, 'he spat on her dress'?"

Lonesome set his jaw grimly.  "That was the way it was told
to me," he said.

Angie debated with herself until her curiosity got the
better of her and she asked, "What happened to your folks?"

"They were in Kentucky, trying to start a new life, get away
from the old fighting and feuding.  One day they had a big
meeting with the other family and tried to talk it out.  One
of my hothead uncles said some things he shouldn't have
said, and that started the killing.  So I can't blame the
others for fighting back... except one.  He enjoyed it,"
Lonesome turned away from her so she could not see his face,
"I was twelve years old, at the time.  I hid in the smithy
until it was all over.  Then I lit out for somewhere's
west."

"I'm sorry," said Angie.  It was the longest speech he had
made since they had met.

"That's all right.  I need to remember, once in a while."

They came to the Apache rancheria, greeted by sentries who
waved at Comstock before resuming their watchful vigil.
Children darted about, always running.  Comstock unboarded
his mare with a groan at the margin of the camp and handed
the reins of his horse to an eager young lad.  The lad,
accompanied by several other children, took the other horses
in tow toward the outskirts of the camp.

"They must some kind of powwow going on - you don't see this
many kids around, normally," said Comstock, "They got more
people watching than usual, too.  You keep your head up and
your eyes bright, cause we might have to light out of here
in a hurry."  He looked at the encampment, from the shelter
of the bluff to the corn fields drying on the flat.  He
wondered, "Wonder what they are worried about?"

"A gathering means there will be contests," said Angie,
"They will want us to stay and eat.  Have you ever had
mescal?"

They were several steps toward the main camp when Lonesome
felt a familiar nudge against his back.

"Dang it, hoss!" he complained, "Can't you stay anywhere?"
he gathered the reins and headed for the rear of the camp.

"I'll be along in a minute," he promised Angie, "I'm gonna
tie this footloose critter down with a boulder."

"We'll be over at the chief's house," said Comstock, "Just
look for the biggest wickiup here."

While Comstock went to greet Tom Goose, Lonesome went to
find the corral where the other horses were tied.  The mare
tagged along with him until he tied her reins to a stake
with some other ponies.

"Now, dang it, hoss, can't you leave me alone?"  He said.
While he went to find Angie and Comstock he could hear a
rising chorus of shouts, encouragement and betting as the
contests began.





DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE:

Sandy was dejectedly skipping stones across the shallow
water of the river pool.  Though he had asked at several
places, there had been no sign of Ramon and his friends
anywhere west of the town.

"Can't find him NO place!" he complained, "If Lonesome don't
have any luck, we'll have to give up!"

He kicked the gravel, causing many small splashes across the
pool, and stopped to glower at the spreading ripples.  "I
ain't gonna give up!" he declared.

There was a noise behind him, a deliberate sound like
someone clearing their throat, and he turned to see who it
was.

A man.  A tall, husky heavily tanned man, bare above the
waist except for tattoos, was standing there watching him.

For a moment Sandy stared back, held by the unmistakable air
of menace he could feel radiating from the stranger.  He had
left his long gun and pistol back at the boardinghouse when
he returned from his ride and he had gone to the river alone
to vent his frustration.

The other man said nothing more.  He seemed content to watch
Sandy appraisingly, his dark eyes giving no hint of his
thoughts.  Then he spread his arms in a welcoming gesture
and beckoned with his fingertips, a predatory smile forming
on his face.

Sandy eyed the stranger appraisingly.  [Does he want me to
fight him?] he wondered, [He's twice as big as me!]  Setting
his feet in the gravel, he glanced around for a stone or a
tree limb he could use as a weapon.

The stranger waited.  Then he shifted his attention to a
spot beyond the blond cowboy.  Sandy involuntarily glanced
to his side but saw nothing but brush.  When he looked back
the man was gone, vanished as silently as a shadow.

The crunch of footsteps on gravel and a high child's voice
came from behind him, then Estrellita called, "Hello,
stranger!"  She was carrying the small boy and was followed
by the girl who was staying at the boardinghouse.

Sandy nodded at her, watching the undergrowth about them
until his hands quit shaking.  There was no sign of the
stranger.

"Sorry," he said, "There was this hombre..."  His breath
caught for a second as he saw Estrellita, holding the little
boy, and for a flicker of an eyeblink he imagined her in
blue gingham beneath a spreading oak tree.  He shook his
head to dispel the vision and thought to himself, [I'm too
young for this....]

"I do not see anyone," she said, peering about, "There is no
place for anyone to hide."

"I saw him," said Sandy, "and I think he was the man you
told Ramon about, back when the Apache first captured you in
Mexico."

This news unsettled her, and they lost no time escorting the
children back to the boardinghouse.  Sandy felt the hairs on
the back of his neck stir, but try as he might he could not
see who was watching him.





CHAPTER VEINTICINCO:   END