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Las Aventuras De Macho Caballo

MACHO CABALLO PART 2: CHAPTER TRIENTA Y TRES RELIEF AND REVELATIONS


The night was old and gray with age.  The quiet before the
sunrise faded, that time before thin fingers of light would
reach over the yellow hills to the east, extinquishing the
lights in the sky.

It was an ordinary summer dawn in southern Arizona.  High
clouds to the west were becoming marginally grayer, reflecting
a growing light over an ordinary Apache camp.  In this camp
were ordinary people, stirring for another days work gathering
and preparing food, getting ready to move soon to another
campsite.  In this ordinary camp were some visitors:  three
cowboys, two Azumas from the south (one of whom had been
declared missing), a Spanish girl and a not-so-ordinary Mexican
girl.

On the outskirts of the camp, where others were not likely to
wander, two of the early risers were about to have a
confrontation.  One of the participants was Yucca, who was
already in a foul mood because she had spent the night watching
for the hated Espuma.  She merely hated Espuma, who had
callously placed upon her a compulsion to obey, while the
person she was about to meet would make her shudder in disgust
and horror.

That person sneezed as she waited, swatting at something which
whined about her ear.

"Go away," she growled.  "I am busy!"

The Apache woman, Cornsilk, was not as old as she appeared.
This fact would have abraded her pride, if pride she had left
after months of listening to the voices.  The voices, silken
and gloating, wheedling and complaining, lying....

The voices took her to places she would rather not, and taught
her things...things that aged her, things that she did not want
to know, things that drove her repeatedly from her people...
things which turned her hair white.  But she did not care, for
she had no vanity left, either.

The voices called at her now, until she spoke sharply, "Leave
me alone!  Leave me alone or suffer!"

Cornsilk noted the resulting silence and returned to her guest,
who wished to discuss the unseasonal shortage of rodents on the
north slope.




COUNTERING A SPELL:

Yucca navigated the dusty paths of the encampment with
practiced ease, alert, prepared, searching, although she was
confident that the evil Espuma was not around.  Soon she must
return to her abode and convince others that she had merely
been out for an early morning stroll.  They must not know of
her fear.

She was ready for anything - but when she came around the
dwelling and found two huge eyes staring at her, she froze.

"Ow...ow...owl?" she stuttered, and cursed herself for showing
weakness.  The owl's face filled her vision.  Tales of horror
announced by owl-sightings crowding into her mind as she
watched the large gray bird spread his wings and lift into the
sky.  The muffled 'whff-whff-whff' of his passage chilled her
to the bone.

"Oyeh," announced another chilling voice.  "It's about time you
got here!"

Though she had no pride left, Cornsilk did have love.  She
loved her daughter, and for this reason she was prepared to
ensnare, subdue, and defeat Yucca.  The struggle was short and
sharp, and did not truly begin until Cornsilk reached for her
leather pouch and Yucca caught the bitter aroma of the jimson
weed.


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


"We two are very much alike, you and I," Cornsilk puffed as she
cleared a patch of sand with a tree limb.  In the gravel of an
open area she drew a circle, using ochre sand from the red
mountains to the south.  She then indicated the four
directions, each with their own colors - yellow, black, white,
and red.

"It is my fault, I suppose.  You were always such a quiet
child, content to play with the dolls and games you would make
from sticks and grass," she continued.  With surprising
strength for her appearance, she lifted her squirming captive
and placed her upright within the circle without disturbing the
lines drawn in the sand.

"I never thought....  But I should have known," Cornsilk
addressed Yucca, who was struggling with her bonds. "My brother
was the shaman.  I was content to be the chief's wife.  But all
along I had the gift.  And it appears that you are marked as
well."

Sadly, the older woman reached for the knotted fabric which
kept Yucca from speaking.  "I should have known, when you had
trouble with the other children, but I was too busy.  I had a
family group to administer.  Hah!"  Tears started down her
cheeks, but she wiped them angrily away.  "What has happened to
my group, now?  I have brought them sickness and death!"

She removed the gag.

Yucca drew a breath and spoke in a deep voice.  "You will
release me, at once!" she commanded, "Untie me!"

"Don't try your voice on me, Child!"  Cornsilk raised a finger
in warning.  "I suppose this is what comes of letting your
father apprentice you to that Hopi runesinger.  Why couldn't
you stay at home and learn to be a good wife, instead?"

"Release me or you will regret it!"

"I am your mother!" snapped Cornsilk, "I already regret it!
Now, keep quiet!  The more noise you make, the more this will
hurt." She brought her hands together with a muffled clap,
forcing a spray of fine bitter powder into Yucca's face.  Yucca
slumped, and Cornsilk caught her and laid her back in the
gravel.

On the girl's breast, Cornsilk positioned a bundle of herbs,
then cast yellow pollen to the four directions.  As she
chanted, the tiny buds and leaves in the bundle shriveled and
settled into shreds.

Yucca's mind was like a wickiup, which Cornsilk entered as she
would have once gone into a neighbor's abode - casually,
unannounced, and sure in her welcome.  Once there, she spent a
breath daunted by the untidiness around her before grabbing a
whisk and brushing away the debris and trash accumulated
through months, perhaps years, of neglect.

A musty, grey odor assailed her in the depths of the single
room and there she found a flitting, scuttling thing that fled
even as she approached it.

Cornsilk caught the creature by watching for it out of the
corner of her eye, held it with charmed twigs as it lashed at
her with scorpion tail, and chanted the words to banish it.
She muttered these words beneath her breath, words of quiet
power which were barely discernable an arm's length away but
were like ear-splitting howls within the confines of the
wickiup.  The scorpion-thing shriveled into a husk that
powdered and blew away on the wind.

As it went, Cornsilk caught a glimpse of a larger, darker thing
in the shadows, but it, too, faded in the light which bloomed
anew in the shelter.

As Cornsilk blinked at the dawning sun and became aware again
of the outside world, Yucca stirred and stared about her in
dismay. She was free of the malignant influence, but now she
relived the months since she had met the strange man on the
path back from her sojourn.  So stark was the pain in her eyes
that Cornsilk withdrew after removing her bonds, fearful of
interrupting the flood of memories.

   Yuuca remembered - lived again - the months since her
   ill-fated meeting with the strange being called 'Espuma',
   who had placed upon her the compulsion to hurt her friends.
   To her shame, her face showed her feelings.  She felt as if
   she were being stripped naked.

   Yucca hid her face, unable to endure the naked feeling
   thrust upon her by her memories.  She had fled into the
   wilderness in a vain attempt to seek a cure for her mother
   and brother, and had returned to find them both well.  In
   fact, her sacrifice went unnoticed.

   She had returned to an uncaring village, the people slowly
   recovering from their illnesses, while her own brother - for
   whom she had make her harrowing quest - was arrogantly
   boasting about how his own strength had cured him.

   "I...I acted badly," she said softly.  "I said some
   words...My friends, what few I had...Lucha must hate me!"

Yucca twisted, found the ropes gone, and leaped up from the
ground with almost hysterical abandon - that is to say, she sat
up, opened her eyes and looked about carefully.

"I am free!" she cried, "I can see clearly!  What a fool I have
been!"  Then at last, she raised her gaze and held out her
arms, speaking in a quavering voice, "Mother?"

"I am here," Cornsilk replied.  She gathered her daughter in
her arms and clung, patting her on the back and alternating
tears with laughter.

Yucca was wary of noises and jerked at the familiar sound of
coyotes serenading the dawn.  She took the tin cup Cornsilk
offered and began to sip the dour mixture obediently.

"I must make amends," she said drowsily.  "I have offended many
people, including my brother."

Cornsilk laughed sharply.  "You cannot offend your brother's
dignity.  He is a good warrior, but he is a bit thickheaded."

"It is good that my brother is strong again," Yucca murmured as
she finished the cup.  The brew was already having its effect,
as she added, "He should marry Lucha!"

"That is for Lucha to decide," Cornsilk told her.  "What else
do you remember?"

"I remember...Ramon...how silly!  I thought I wanted to marry
him!"

"I am glad you have recovered from *that* notion!  He has other
obligations!  He would not fit into our society!"  Cornsilk
returned to her potions, leaving the nodding girl wrapped in
the blanket.

[Oh, but I still want him,] Yucca thought as she drifted off to
sleep.  [But why should I marry a slave?  And if that Machita
thinks she can keep him from me...Ohohohohoho!  She has very
much to learn!]




FITS, FEVERS, STAGGERS, AND DELUSION:

Cornsilk squatted and watched her daughter, hungry for this
moment when Yucca was not attacking or fleeing.

"Who did this?" she asked.  "Who would dare?"

Her thoughts were interrupted by the stiffening of the hair at
the nape of her neck, the peculiar prickle of ants crawling.
The dust about her became agitated as though stirred by a
multitude of insects, and the whining voice became audible
again.

"White-haired Mistress! Heed us!"

"What?  How dare you intrude upon my privacy?" Cornsilk cried
in smoky wrath, "You have caused me enough sorrow!  Prepare to
pay!" As she started a singsong chant, leaves on nearby bushes
began to char into frosty tatters.

"Wait!" cried the voice, "White-haired Mistress!  Wait!  Do not
punish us for doing our duty!"

"Your DUTY?!?  What duty nearly costs me my daughter?  What
duty makes you sicken my people and cause me to be banished?
Who are you?"

Hesitation.

Then tentatively four different voices recited, "We are Fits,
Fevers, Staggers and Delusion."

Cornsilk blinked.  The voices had spoken to her before, but
they had never given their names.

"Let me rephrase that," she snapped. "WHAT are you?"

"We are Imperial Servants, White-haired Mistress.  We are the
finest guardians in all of Babylon."

"What?  You claim to be servants of the King of Spain?"

"No, not Spain, glorious benefactor!" said one.

"Where is Spain?" asked a different voice, higher pitched.

"Somewhere to the west coast.  Toward Atlantis," responded yet
another.

"I had forgotten!  Oh, woe is us!  Our homeland has gone
forever!" said the second.

"A moment of respect," sniffed the first.  "Alas, Babylon is no
more...."

"You are ghosts or demons, and I am going to get rid of you,
once and for all!" Cornsilk thrust her gnarled hand into her
shoulderbag and withdrew a tiny clay pot, about the size and
shape of a thimble, which seened to be leaking a strange green
vapor.

"No!  No, White-haired Mistress!  We have bonded to you in
order to remain in this realm!  We cannot be released until our
service has been completed!  If you banish us, we will have to
find another host, and we have seen that you do not wish harm
to come to any of your people!"

Cornsilk lowered her hand as she snarled, "Stay with me if you
will!  But if I cannot be rid of you, then I shall make you
suffer!"

"Please, Mistress!  We have to warn you!  There is a danger
approaching!"

Suspicion darkened crafty eyes as she tried to glimpse the
transparent shapes flitting about in the shadows.

"Danger?  Why should you care?"

"A terrible danger, Mistress!  A horrible creature seeks to
invade your temple during a ceremony!  This creature will
destroy your idols and trample upon your sacred relics!"

"You have no idea about what we consider holy!" growled
Cornsilk, "What is the matter, did you meet someone you could
not frighten with your gibbering and mewling?"

A pause.

"This is a most vicious creature, Mistress!"

"Humphhh.  You cannot touch him, then!"

She heard a collective sigh.

"Yes, Mistress.  We can stop his master, because his magic
gives us power, but this monster uses guile."

Cornsilk smiled one of her less pleasant smiles.

"Tell me more about this creature, and why you fear him," she
said.

"His master summoned us to protect a treasure," the one she was
learning to call Fits spoke.

"You could not protect a bowl of stew," said Cornsilk.

"You would not think so, would you?  You would err.  We draw
our strength from the power of our enemies!  The more powerful
the magician, the more perfect is our defense!"

"This magician is powerful, hmm?"

"He is despicable, a robber of tombs.  We spit upon his
memory!" said the first.

The second added slyly, "So, we did not warn him when he forgot
to exempt himself from our protection!"

"So, now he cannot retrieve it," gloated the one she guessed to
be Staggers.

"But he has sent his servant to fetch it," mourned one of the
two remaining voices. "We can protect against a powerful
magician, we reflect his magic back upon him, but this vile
creature knows no such force."

"Though he be created with magic, all he can do is use tools,"
explained Fits.

"But that is enough to make him dangerous," said the fourth
one. Cornsilk decided that he was Delusion.

Cornsilk dismissed them with a wave.  "You have given me much
to think about," she said.  "Now, leave me!  I wish to be alone
with my daughter!"




WISPY GRAY OF DAWN:

In Willow Woman's shelter, Ramon shrugged and stretched into a
yawn, scrubbed his nose, and wondered whether to open his eyes.
With his hands he explored his night garment and found it to be
loose cotton, little more than a sack - a night gown.  Further
brief examination confirmed that he was...still... decidedly
female.

"It was only a dream.  Bother!" breathed Machita, which
translated, roughly, into, 'Caramba!'

"How much longer?" she  wondered.

She looked around the shelter.  Red Cloud's bedding had been
cleared away, but Lucha and Willow Woman were both fast asleep
and Estrellita snored softly on the far side of the wickiup.

Yet, among the stillness, something had awakened her.
Something she now felt on the top of her head.

-tap-

Machita shifted quietly around in the dim light, folding away
her bedding until the spot was neat and clean.  Then she lifted
down a basket, within which she found several combs,
unidentifiable bone tools, assorted ribbons, and a hairbow
fashioned of leather and wood.  She held the hairbow up to the
faint light from the doorway, admiring the beadwork.

"This is nice.  Too bad my hair is so short," she mused.  "I
would look really cute wearing this...."  The bemused smile on
her face turned to shock.  "What am I saying?"  She fought down
a sudden desire to clean and comb the tangles out of her hair,
to try and look more attractive.

[Oh, yes, of course,] she thought with a sour smile, [THAT was
what she was trying to remember.]  Someone was putting a spell
on her.   There were very few people in the camp who could do
such a thing.  One particular person came to mind - a
cantankerous old woman.  Machita stomped out of the wickiup,
heading into camp. Occupied with her thoughts, she almost trod
on the small gray shape tied by the doorway.

Wolfwalker stirred, smelled a familiar scent, and roused enough
to see a figure hurrying away.  [Ramon?] he thought, [No, that
was a girl.]  He dropped back into contemplation of his fate,
the connection between scent and reality almost - but not quite
- complete.




WHO IS FOOLING WHOM?:

Sandy listened to the rustling in his boot, before he upended
it and shook out an assortment of six-legged and eight-legged
creatures.  As he roused from sleep and watched the slow pace
of the waking camp, Sandy managed to almost forgive Machita for
the embarrassment of the night before.

Almost.

He remembered the troubles Ramon had endured and sympathized
with his friend's plight, though he wondered why his friend
remained in a female state of body.  Was Ramon getting used to
it?  Sandy shivered at the thought.

When the first gray fingers of dawn were enough to show Sandy
the brush and gravel about him, he tied up his bedroll and
wandered into the main camp in search of food.  He found
Lonesome seated near a spread of knives and iron tools.

Lonesome was unsurprised by the younger cowboy's appearance.
He merely grunted and bundled his wares when Sandy said 'good
morning'.

"Well, kid," Lonesome said, "I figured you'd show up out here.
Grab some grub from them squaws and let's figure how we're
gonna get out of this place."

"I'm for gettin' out of here," agreed Sandy morosely.

"You okay, Kid?"

"Yeah.  I'm fine.  But they got Will Larribee trussed up,
claiming he stole a pony.  They are going to kill him!"

"If they were going to kill him, he'd be dead right now,"
Lonesome shrugged, "I'll put in a word with the chief.  He's
supposed to be Comstock's friend."

"You're sure confident," noted Sandy, "You gettin' in thick
with these people?"

"What do you mean by *that*?" Lonesome demanded.

"Nothin'," Sandy shrugged, and they continued to lean back and
watch the camp come to life.

It was a lazy morning, with no one in a hurry - except for the
woman who handed Sandy a bowl full of food.  She became
impatient and thrust it at him again when he did not take it
immediately.

Sandy looked in the bowl doubtfully.  "What IS this stuff?" he
wondered aloud.

"Nuts, berries, squash, corn, and mescal," said Lonesome as he
squatted beside Sandy.  "And a little groundhog and rabbit."

Sandy picked out a lump of grayish brown and asked, "You ever
eat mescal?"

"Yup," Lonesome worked his jaws in memory.  "Bought a wad of it
off a squaw woman last year.  Took me six months to chew it
enough to swallow it."

"Aww, you're pulling my leg," Sandy said.  He picked at the
other food, watching the camp activity while he ate.

"It's gospel how chewy it is.  Puts me in mind of cornshucks
soaked in blackstrap."

"Then I think I'll pass on that till I'm a bit hungrier," Sandy
said.  He sat and chewed as he watched the women cooking at the
fire, and soon he had emptied the bowl.  It was not long before
his solemn expression eased.

His frown faded into a knowing grin, and he added slyly, "Heard
you had a girl-friend."

Lonesome slapped the ground.  "Dang it!  I knew you were going
to bring that up!  Is that why you came out here?"

"Angie told me about it, yesterday.  But I rode on out because
she said she had word from Ramon."

"Yeah?  Did you find him?"

The mouthful of berries suddenly lost their savor.  Sandy's
resentment rekindled and he spat out the mouthful.

"I found him," he said, wiping his sleeve across his mouth.

Lonesome frowned at the masticated berries.  "Shouldn't waste
good food," he admonished his junior partner.

"Unh huh.  Right.  So you're going to marry her?"

"Not if I can get out of here before tomorrow morning!"
Lonesome had taken out a sharpening stone and was whetting a
blade upon it.  Sandy did not know where the knife had appeared
from.

Lonesome growled, "This Apache shaman told me I didn't have to
do it, but then he told me something that made my skin crawl.
You remember that hombre that Ramon's grandpap was warning us
about? I think he's here, hanging around this camp, just
waiting to make trouble. Bet he followed your friend, Ramon."

Sandy made a sour face.  "I think you're right," he said,
flexing a sore shoulder.  "I think I just met both of them, in
fact."

"That shaman put on the dangdest show, last night.  Had me
convinced he was talking to a spirit," said Lonesome, not
grasping what Sandy had said.  He tied the last knot and faced
Sandy. "I tell you, that's TWO things I ain't never seen
before, and I don't hardly want to see again!  That duststorm
dumped us a hundred miles from where we were, and that ain't
natural!  Now this shaman conjures up some spook bear and I
durn near swallow my tongue!"

"Only two things?" Sandy said with a mirthless grin, "Why, you
ain't even got started, yet!"

"Listen!" Lonesome spoke earnestly in a low voice, "We can't
hang around here!  We need to find your friend and his sister,
so's we can go back to Mexico."

"Ramon's here.  So's Red Cloud and Wolfwalker, so I hear.  I
saw Ramon and Red Cloud last night."

"Yeah, that's right.  There was a bunch of commotion last night
before you rode in," said Lonesome.  "I'm not sure what was
happening, but someone said there was somebody else planning on
getting hitched."

"It wasn't my idea!" blurted Sandy, before he could stop
himself. He clamped both hands over his mouth, but it was too
late.

"What wasn't your idea?" Lonesome asked, "All I said was...you
mean it's you?"  One look at his companion's tormented face
answered his question.  Lonesome tried to keep his face
straight, but his mouth worked and his chin quivered until he
had to laugh aloud.  He managed to gasp, "Do you mean that
little rancherita finally popped the question?"

"Ahh...not exactly," Sandy's face was distorted with misery.

"Then what?  Don't tell me you met another girl!"

"Well - sort of - ," Sandy squirmed.

"Son, you manage to get around.  Is it anyone I know?"

Sandy pointed across the grounds to Machita, who stormed past
without seeing them.  "She told everyone we were engaged," he
said.

"Hey!  I've seen her before!" Lonesome stared at the vanishing
girl, "But I can't recall...wait a minute!  Wasn't she the one
in jail with your little rancherita?"

Sandy nodded, then made another grimace as he realized that he
was acknowledging a relationship.

"And she followed you here?  Kid, she must be hot for...."

Sandy was shaking his head miserably.  No, nononono.

"Well, don't you beat all," said Lonesome, a broad grin spread
across his face.  "You mosey into camp and claim a pretty girl
before the trail dust settles.  Of course, my wedding ain't for
real, but I don't know about yours."

"Wedding?" Sandy whimpered, then squeaked in alarm, "What
wedding?"

"Thought you said this gal told everyone you were engaged."

"Yeah, but.... That didn't mean that we...omygosh!  They want
to do it NOW?"

"Well, I heard they're fixing up a double shindig."

Sandy looked about in near panic. "I gotta get out of here!
Can we run for it?"

"I plan on it...." Lonesome started.

Their conversation ceased as a warrior trotted into the area
for a drink.  Black Elk fixed the two cowboys with a frown.
The frown eased as he glanced down at Sandy's shiny leather
boots. Then he lifted his eyes to the lookouts posted on the
surrounding hilltops, smiled, and turned back to the water
basket.

"...but it might be a chore getting out of here," Lonesome
finished, and Sandy agreed.

"Suppose you have to go through with it?" Sandy wondered.

"This shaman said there weren't nothing to it.  He would say a
few words and they make us spend the night together in a tipi."
Lonesome saw Sandy's stare and added hotly, "Not that I
intended to take advantage of it, you understand.  He just
wanted this gal out of camp."

"I think you have a problem," said Sandy.  "You can fool all
these people, but how are you going to make this gal believe
you are married if you really ain't?"

"Well, I was going to...." Lonesome stopped, going over in his
mind the events which could occur if he went through with the
wedding.  If the girl agreed to the marriage, and she thought
it was binding, and the shaman did not explain it to her....

"I really haven't thought about that," he admitted. "This
medicine man may be sneaky enough to pull a fast one on me.
You should have seen the way he suckered me with that fake
spirit trick."

Lonesome let his mind wander back over the prospect of a bride
not privy to the shaman's plan.  "That gal was not that bad
looking...wait a minute!  They ain't gonna trick me that way!
Anyway, that shaman seemed to think there wouldn't be any
problem.  Surely he has talked to her about it."

"No problem for him, maybe.  What about you?  How about *me*???
At least you're marrying a real girl!  I gotta marry a...a...I
can't stand it!  This is crazy!"  Sandy stopped walking in
circles and announced, "They can't do this!  They can't make me
do it!"

"Let's find this shaman and talk some sense into him.  Let him
know we ain't going along with his scheme."

"I'm all for that," said Sandy, "But what if he won't change
his mind?"

Lonesome looked over at him and quirked his mouth upward,
saying, "Should'a thought of that before you got engaged."

Sandy clasped his hands to his head.  "I'm gonna kill him!" he
muttered, "I'm gonna *kill* him!"



GRUDGE MATCH:

"Have you seen the crazy old woman?" Machita demanded.

"Over there, beyond the edge of the camp," replied a girl, one
Machita recognised as Lucha's friend, Little Mouse.  Little
Mouse was sitting around the fire with some other women,
getting in some last minute gossip before her family had to
leave.

The other women who were preparing the morning meal about the
fire ignored her.  One woman holding an infant in a carrier
glanced at her, expressed irritation with an unmoving face, and
indicated the same direction with her chin.  Only the child's
face was visible, watching Machita with interest.

Machita followed the trail through the gloom.  The faint trace
led away from other campfires, into an area of dismal solitude,
where a familiar shape knelt by a tiny fire.  Cornsilk was
pouring a thin brown liquid into a gourd cup as Machita stormed
up.  Not until the last drop fell did the old woman lift
questioning eyes to the irate girl.

"What do you mean, putting a spell on me?" cried Machita.

Cornsilk asked in mock shock,  "Did I do that?"  Her eyes, half
hidden in wrinkles, glowed in innocence.

"Yes!  I know it was you! I recognized the taps!"

Cornsilk regarded the angry girl standing before her.  "Not
ready to fight at all - your stance is too open, your eyes are
on me and nothing else, you are vulnerable to any attack, magic
or physical.  You are not even aware of danger."

Ignoring Machita's challenge, the withered old woman mused,
[What is it that my daughter sees in this lad?  There has to be
something.  Yucca has shied away from many other boys even when
they made so bold as to approach her in friendship.  They were
much more capable and better suited.  This one has to have an
attraction that I cannot see.]

[Still...] she continued her musing as Machita jittered with
impatience , [...the Azuma girl requested that he be made ready
to confront some challenge.  The Sisterhood must know him very
well, or they have some knowledge which is not apparent.]

"Look, Old Woman!" Machita finally cried, "Are you gonna answer
me or not?"

"Foolhardy, thoughtless, impulsive...." Cornsilk tried to see
him a positive light and failed, until she thought of observing
him with the second sight.

"Mmmpphhh," she grunted. "A little potential.  Very little.
Still, if my daughter likes him...."

"Why have you done this?" Machita repeated.

Cornsilk sipped the brew, leaned back to peer at the girl.

"It does not seem to have harmed you," she replied.

"You made me feel things I should not have felt!  I do not want
to feel warm and soft and gooey, and be hurt by harsh cloth,
and fly through the air - well, the flying part was okay, but
you should have let me know about that - and I do not want to
be sensitive, like...like...like a girl!!"

The gnarled old woman tasted the liquid again before answering,
"Exactly what is wrong with being sensitive?"

"It is simply wrong!  I am not supposed to be soft and warm and
gooey and...."

"Who commands this?"

"...What?"   Machita was taken aback by the question.

"Why should you not be gentle, and warm, and caring?"

"That is not what I am saying!"

"Sounds to me like that is exactly what you are worried about!"

Machita glowered.  "I am not worried!  I am angry!"

"Afraid you will get just a little...shall we say...womanly?"

"Yes!"

"Oyeh."  Cornsilk wiped her hand across her eyes.

"What does THAT mean?"

Cornsilk sighed.  "Look at yourself, boy.  What do you see?"

"Well...I have seen myself!  I am...I am a girl!  I don't like
it, and I will fight it.  I am not going to give in and be
a...a...."

A faint tired smile played across the wrinkled old face.
"Before you can go forward, you must go backward," she said.

Machita folded her arms with a stern glare at the old woman.
"Just don't do it again, okay?" she growled.

Cornsilk tossed off the remainder of the cup, gasped a
lung-full of air, and asked, "Do what again?"

"Don't make me feel...." Machita moved her jaws, but the only
sound she could produce was a whisper.  She tried again, but
again only succeeded in becoming red-faced.  She resorted to
the only means of communication left to indicate her emotions
by balling her fists at the old crone.

She was giving all her attention to Cornsilk and failed to see
another person approaching.  Yucca slammed into her, flailing
with both arms, and bore Machita to the ground.

The Apache girl's reddened eyes and tangled hair gave her a
frightening appearance and she used the surprise of her attack
to advantage, pummeling Machita before she could rise and
defend herself.

Machita found herself warding off blows, ducking and dodging as
Yucca hit her again and again.  Machita did not return the
attack, but backed away trying only to keep the Apache girl's
blows from striking home.

"I can't hit you!  You're a girl!" cried Machita.

"Demon!  Leave my family alone!" cried Yucca.  She drew a flint
knife and followed Machita until they were away from Cornsilk's
campfire.

Machita escaped with her dress tattered and ripped, fleeing
without caution across an area where horses were tied.  Two
events occurred, one unexpected and the other inevitable - a
horse snapped at her when she got too near, and Rayo shoved
between them, diverting her flight.  Machita sat down suddenly.
As she arose, a peculiar aroma came to her attention and she
realized that her landing had not been without consequence,
being too soft and squishy.

"Awww, man!" she groaned, "What next?"




GIRL TALK:

Lucha was next to rise.  She was lying quietly for a moment,
drinking in the cool air, preparing to rise, when she heard the
Spanish girl talking in her sleep.  Estrellita cried, "No,
Ramon! Don't hate me!"

Lucha frowned mightily.  [What kind of beast is this brother of
mine?] she wondered.

She opened the door-flap and found the wolf cub tied outside,
cowering away from her.

"You poor creature!" she said as she knelt to free him, "Who
would have bound you here, when you must run free?"  The cub
stood after she had freed it, staring up at her in rapt awe,
until she nudged it with her foot and it bounded away.

Red Cloud was approaching from the main camp as the wolf cub
fled.  "At least he had a place to sleep," she said.  As she
entered the wickiup and gathered bowls for breakfast,
Estrellita saw the ointment on Red Cloud's arms.

"Oh!  Those scratches look terrible!" Estrellita screwed her
eyes tight in sympathy, "You must have fallen into the briars!"

"It is not too bad," Red Cloud admitted.  "I was very lucky.
It could have been much worse."

Lucha also could not take her eyes off Red Cloud's arms.

"Yes, you were very fortunate," she said, then drew a deep
breath. "My sister has told me of your power.  Does she speak
rightly?"

As Red Cloud nodded solemnly, Lucha gathered her thoughts and,
with a visible effort, put them away for later study.  She
turned to Estrellita to ask, "You know my family.  What can you
tell me about my sister and my brother?"

"Who?" Estrellita frowned at the question.

"You would call her Machita..." Lucha began, then frowned.  She
took the four wooden bowls from Red Cloud as she added, "...and
Ramon."

"Oh...oh!" the rancherita said as she understood.  "Yes, of
course!  I know them both!  And you have met Machita, but you
have not met... met...." Estrellita could not continue for
snorting giggles.

Lucha's frown became yet darker and she set the bowls down with
a thump.  "Is there something about my brother that I should
know?" she asked.

"Only that...only.... (giggle) Oh, I just can't tell you!"

"Ramon looks a lot more like you," Red Cloud said, helpfully.

"I am not sure that is a good thing to hear." Lucha lifted a
water basket and said, "I must get more water.  You are welcome
to stay here in our wickiup.  There is room."




FULL DISCLOSURE:

There was this about the spring near the camp.  Its waters fell
across the boulders and meandered along for a short while,
crossing through what appeared to be an impenetrable thicket,
before coming to rest in a sheltered pool beyond.  Within that
cluster of bushes and stunted trees was another hidden pool,
where the older folks rarely went and the children played in
the heat of the day.

This early in the morning, the hidden pool was deserted except
for a lone girl, muddy and disheveled, complaining about her
lot in life.

"Idiot!  Dummy!" Machita growled, "I didn't even see that mess
lying there!"  She picked her way through the shadowy brush
toward the hidden pool and the clearing.  Once there she
twisted about to look at the smear on the beaded leather and
cried, "Oooohh!  This dress is ruined!"

Machita stopped abruptly, her eyes wide.  She gasped in alarm,
"What am I saying?  I sound like a girl!  Oh, man!  I am going
to be scarred forever!"

As she had hoped, the pool was empty, though she found a pair
of leggings heaped on a ledge.  Drawing the mantle off, she
slid the spoiled skirt onto the ground.  "Ahh!" she said in
anticipation, "Cool water!"

Something in the shadows moved, a low gray shape creeping
toward the mounded clothing.  "Lucha's pet wolf?" said Machita,
"I thought so.  Why do you stare?  Bashful?"  She dropped the
skirt and stepped toward him.

The wolf cub froze, with his large, panic-stricken eyes on her.

"Shoo!" Machita said, trying to wave the animal away, before
returning her attention to the pool.  She moved to pick up the
leggings, and the wolf raced to reach them first.

The result was a collision and a tangle, with both of them
falling into the pool.

It was Ramon, instead of Machita, who rose from the chill
waters.

"Ha-hey!  I'm me again!"  Ramon slapped his thighs and chest
and laughed, "I am back to normal!  I can...."

He was interrupted by a splash and a rattle of pebbles.  A
jubilant voice rang from behind him.

"Aha!  I knew it!  I knew there was a reason you were so weak
and feminine!"

"Wolfwalker!" cried Ramon, "Oh, no...I am discovered!"

Wolfwalker had grabbed the leggings from the pile of clothing
and was hastily pulling them on, the leather clinging and
sticking to his wet skin.

"You have a sacred form!" chortled the Azuma lad, "You become a
*girl*!  A weak, clumsy *woman*!"

"I did not want this!" cried Ramon, "It was not my idea!  It
was forced on me when I...."

He stopped and looked around the clearing, at the dry stones
and boulders and the one pathway.

"How did you get in here?" he wondered, "There was no one in
here but a tame wolf cub!"

"I came down the path, while you were squealing about how fine
it was to be male!" gloated Wolfwalker, "As if you would know!"

"No, no.  You could not have stolen in here, taken off your
clothes, and jumped into the pool behind me, unless...." Ramon
sputtered with laughter.  "You are the baby wolf!"

Wolfwalker drew himself up with an indignant glare.

"Lies!" he said.

"Oh, yes!  I am right!  But why were you so intent on
protecting your pants?"

"Because I needed them," Wolfwalker said, and he indicated the
brushy path.  Someone was moving toward them, investigating the
noise they had heard.

Ramon barely had time to grab the discarded buckskin skirt and
hold it before his nakedness before a familiar face appeared.

"Hello, Lucha," Ramon said.

"Who are you?" she demanded, "And how do you know my name?"

Ramon shrugged and gulped and looked about, but there was no
escape.

"Uhh - I'm Ramon Caballo," he said. "Sorry about this."

Wolfwalker remained silent, gazing at Lucha.

"I did not believe our sister when she told me of you!" said
Lucha, "Now I see it is true!  You have stolen her dress!  How
sick are you?"  She drew her knife and advanced on him.
"Better you die, now, before others learn of your sickness!"

"What?" yelped Ramon, "What do you mean?"

"She thinks you are a pervert," supplied Wolfwalker, with great
satisfaction in his voice.

Lucha stopped in her tracks, dismayed.  She recognized the tall
wrestler whom she had admired the day before, but he was in the
company of a man who danced naked with a woman's dress.  She
drew a shaky breath and flared, "You are with him!  You are
both perverts!"

Wolfwalker watched her storm off through the bushes and heaved
a tremulous sigh.  "She is so beautiful!" he exclaimed, "And
yet, I feel as if I have known her all my life...."

An awful realization struck him.  He faced Ramon directly.

"Did she just say 'our' sister?"

Ramon nodded.

"As in hers and yours?"

Ramon nodded, waiting for an explanation.

"Oh, no!" Wolfwalker said in agony, "No...no...."

"What *is* your problem?" wondered Ramon.

"I have finally found the girl of my dreams...and she is *your*
sister?  What have I done to deserve this?"

"I do not have all morning to tell you.  Will you quit
complaining and go get me some clothes?  Por favor?"

"Get them yourself!"  Wolfwalker retorted, "Why don't you hold
those garments before you?"

"No," Ramon set his jaw in determination.  "You will have to
get my clothes.  If you think I am going to dash half-naked
through camp wearing my dress as a loincloth, you are crazy!
And besides...Lucha thinks you are also a pervert!"

"That cannot be true!  I am a man!"

"She saw me hiding behind a dress, and you pulling on your
clothes.  What is she to think?"

"She must not believe this!" Wolfwalker gasped in horror, "She
will never respect me!"

"If you will get me my clothes, maybe I can help."

"In your cursed form, no doubt!" Wolfwalker snarled, "She will
not let you near her in your true shape!"

"True," sighed Ramon, "If I go near the wickiup to get my
clothes, she may not hesitate to use her knife.  That is why
you must go there and get them.  At least she will not kill
you."

The Azuma lad hesitated and muttered, "I will think about
this."

Ramon tried again.  "Let us discuss this.  She does not know of
my curse.  Should she know of yours?"

"You wouldn't tell her!" Wolfwalker gasped.

"Try me, Lobito!  I really need my clothes!"

Wolfwalker sagged in defeat.  "I will get them, then," he
growled as he padded away.  "You are truly a lowlife!"

Ramon glanced about to be absolutely certain that no one else
was around to see him, then knelt to clean the smear from the
beaded leather skirt.




CHAPTER TRIENTA Y TRES:   END