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Las Aventuras De Macho Caballo

MACHO CABALLO PART II: CHAPTER 34 A JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND MILES BEGINS WITH A SINGLE STEP





THE ORIGIN OF GHOSTS:

On the outskirts of the camp, away from the others who were
cleaning up from two days of feasting, two siblings wrestled.
They seemed to play like children, roughly, although both had
seen more than fifty summers.  The Apache shaman Nomiro could get
around in a lively manner, considering his very recent blindness.
Even so, Cornsilk had no trouble convincing him to talk to her.

"Ouch!  Oof! (thud)"

Cornsilk helped Nomiro to his feet, holding him in an iron grip
as she informed him of her intent, "Now, listen to me, Little
Brother!  I have something to say and you are going to hear it!"

"Not with those foul creatures around!" Nomiro said sourly as he
brushed the thorns and twigs from his robe, "Send them away, or I
will not speak with you!"

"It is about these spirits that we must talk!" Cornsilk declared,
"Hear my words!  These are not ghosts, but dwellers from a
foreign land called Bah-Bah-Loon."

"They harass us, they act like ghosts, and yet you say they are
not?"

"No.  They claim to be demons."

"That is just as bad, if not worse!" Nomiro snapped.

"Not quite!  These are relatively weak, and tamed."

"Tamed?" Nomiro knew that his sister would never relent.  He
sighed and accepted the inevitable, "I will listen, then, if you
insist.  How did you come by these domesticated demons?"

"Many moons ago, Willow Woman came to me," Cornsilk's voice
softened as she remembered the night she had first heard the
voices.  This is what she told Nomiro:

    Willow Woman had asked for help in locating her daughter,
    Lucha, who had been seen wandering away from the camp -
    apparently in a daze, for she did not answer when she was
    called.  Cornsilk had set out to search along the dusty
    riverbank.

    It was along a narrow gorge, higher in the hills, that
    Cornsilk saw the flash of light.  More brilliant than
    lightning, the blue-green light reflected from the face of
    the cliff and showed the entrance to a cavern.  The flash was
    accompanied by a loud sputter and crackle, the sound of
    sparks given off when a buffalo robe was rubbed in the dry
    dead of winter.  Immediately afterward, she heard a hoarse
    man's voice, cursing in some strange language.  The man was
    answered by a whining buzz that hurt her ears.

    Curiosity overcame caution and she ventured closer.  She
    found Lucha huddled in an alcove within the cave, staring at
    the pattern of stones on the far wall.  Stealthily, Cornsilk
    pulled the dazed girl toward the entrance, only to feel her
    limbs become rigid and unmoving.  She heard the whining
    screech again, felt a sharp pain within her skull, and found
    that she could understand the voices.

    The man's voice shook with rage as he said, "Ingrates!
    Betrayers! I have fulfilled my part!  Now, give me the
    vessel!"

    "A thousand pardons, Beneficent One!" came a wheedling buzz,
    "We are honorable beings.  However, our contract has specific
    wording which we cannot contradict."

    "Enough of this!  I called you into being, and I can send you
    back!"

    "Ah-ah-ah!  Not so, Great and Powerful Lord!  The terms have
    not yet been fulfilled!  Until then, we must remain here."

    "But you were supposed to protect the stone from others...not
    me!"

    "Your pardon, Oh Master, while I recall the past.  Delusion!
    Will you do the honors?"  

    A muffled duplicate of the man's voice echoed in the cavern.
    "By the glory of ((incomprehensible)) and the powers of
    ((inconceivable)), I summon you to guard this stone from all
    manner of magical intrusion!  Let no one of magic attempt to
    steal it!"

    "Those were your words, I take it, Oh Glorious Benefactor?
    We, whom you have summoned, can turn magic back upon anyone -
    including you."

    "I am not stealing what is already mine!"

    "A thousands pardons, Oh Vision of Just Wrathfulness!  When
    the spell was cast, you did not state who owned the stone.
    Since you specifically gave it to us for safekeeping, your
    servants proudly took ownership and we will not allow any
    magical thief to claim it!"

    "You would twist my words against me?  I will regain my
    possession!  I will have vengeance!"

    "Not against us, Oh Most Powerful Vindicator.  Not with
    magic, which we will turn against you.  You should have
    thought of that before you summoned us."

    "Then prepare!  I will be back!" 

    "We await with trembling, Oh Most Fearful of Persecutors!"
    announced the whining screech, "In the meantime, we shall
    entertain ourselves with the local populace.  Do not hasten
    on our behalf!"

    There was a sudden sensation of emptiness as a gust of wind
    tugged Cornsilk toward the center of the cavern.

    Cornsilk rarely admitted to terror, but she felt a deep,
    nameless fear as the skitterings and whining came to a focus
    around her head.  One voice was audible above the rest, "We
    will require a host to anchor us in this reality.  You will
    perform that service, Female!"

    And thus, the voices had begun.  Before Cornsilk could find a
    way to control them, they had brought misery and illness to
    the entire camp and subjected her to fearful dreams.  While
    she lay helpless and subject to the awful visions, Yucca set
    out into the wilderness in a vain effort to find a cure.

"Now I find that a foul creature accosted her before she could
return.  I will find that heartless demon who attacked my
daughter!" Cornsilk growled, "I will find him and he will wish he
had never existed!"

"His name is 'Espuma', and I have met him," Nomiro said, lifting
his chin as though gazing at the empty sky.  "If there is
anything left after I get through with him, you are welcome to
it!"

Cornsilk followed his glance toward the sky.  Seeing nothing, 
she said, "He seeks our Lucha, but she must remain untouched 
or he will suffer.  I have a plan."

Nomiro nodded and uttered softly, "Untouched.  You want to use
the wedding to ensnare him."

Cornsilk's eyes widened.  "You are wise, true brother," she said,
"But how is it that you knew the way of my heart?"

Nomiro considered the moment when he had allowed a stray thought,
a mere whim, to move him to require Lucha to obey the folklore
custom of marrying the man whose horse she had fed.  How faint an
urge, how close he had come to losing the opportunity!  "I am a
shaman," he announced, "I am supposed to know these things.  
Tell me more of these voices you hear."

"Listen carefully to these 'demons'," Cornsilk told him, "You can
hear them clearly enough, but beware.  Do not believe everything
they say."

The whining whisper in Nomiro's ears became words, and he swatted
at the air in a reflexive motion, as though swatting mosquitoes.

"Alas, we are far from home, and starving!  We are mere shadows
of our former selves!" cried Fits, "We are normally very supple
and strong.  There are wonderful things we could do for you, if
you would let us regain our strength!"

"They are pathetic, wheedling spirits," Nomiro snorted.  "Do you
say they are responsible for our loss of Lucha's father?"

"They have told me that they only gain their power from magic.
But," Cornsilk said grimly, "they lie!  They thrive on human
suffering.  They caused our sickness and injuries so they could
feed on our misery!"

"All the more reason to destroy them!" Nomiro declared.  He bent
an ear to listen to the thin, whistling voices.

"We are bonded to the White Haired Mistress!" hissed Fevers,
stubbornly, "We must remain so until our duties are carried out!"

"Or until she dies," Staggers supplied.

Silence descended.

Silence continued, as Cornsilk clamped shut her jaw and narrowed
her eyes, with one eyebrow raised in a question.

"No!" cried Fits, "No!  White Haired Mistress, we would not be
thinking such a thing!"

"But you said...." Staggers hissed.

"Our word!  Our word, Oh Voluptuous Virgin of the Nile!  Please!
Not the green stinky stuff!"

"I keep it ready!" Cornsilk warned them, "One false move...."

Over the clamor of sobbing agreement, Nomiro raised his voice in
wonder, "Do they fear a bad smell?"

"They love foul smells.  They would bathe in them.  However,"
Cornsilk smiled grimly, "there are some strong herbs that even
they can not tolerate.  Why do you think I spent so much time
with Mud Wallow?  They won't come near him!"

"Come," said Nomiro, heading toward the wickiup of Tom Goose. "We
must make haste if we are to set the trap before this Espuma
tries something else."




TRADING GUILT:

It was gone.  Red Cloud frowned after searching her pouch one
last time.  She returned the pouch to the stack inside Lucha's
wickiup and sighed.

"Can I help?" Estrellita looked anxiously at her and made an
exaggerated smiley face.

"I can't find my comb," said Red Cloud, and she sighed again.

"Let's use mine," the blond rancherita picked an ivory comb out
of her belongings, which were already spread out on a blanket.
She added, "I do want to help.  You seemed so sad."

Red Cloud took the ivory comb, noticing that several teeth had
fallen out.  [Is this the way we grow into adulthood?] she
pondered, [We lose part of ourselves trying to make the rest of
the world orderly.]  To get away from this thought, she applied
herself to restoring some order to the pile of blond hair on
Estrellita's head.

"Thank you for helping me with my hair," Estrellita said as Red
Cloud braided the thick, yellow mass.  "I have had enough of the
'windblown' look."

"It is no bother," Red Cloud assured her, "It gives me something
to do."

"Red Cloud?" Estrellita ventured with unaccustomed timidity, "Do
you...like...Ramon?"

The Azuma girl fumbled a layover.  Recovering the wayward strand,
she countered, "Why do you ask?"

"I have been thinking...." Estrellita twisted about to look at
her, then faced forward again, "I have grown up with the idea
that I was going to marry Ramon, no matter what anyone else said.
Lately, I have been wondering if I might be tying him down.  What
if he wanted to see someone else?"

Red Cloud forced a smile, "Do you mean someone like Sandy?"

"Oh, that!"  The rancherita giggled.  "Not really.  He is much
too macho to go through with anything like that!  But what if
Ramon wanted some other girl, and he was afraid that I would not
let him go?  He is so kind and considerate.  He would never allow
me to suffer even if he wanted someone else."

"Do you call Ramon kind and considerate?  I thought he was
'dense'."

"Well...mostly he is sweet, and kind, and gentle, and
wonderful...he has been like a brother to me, and I just don't
want to hurt him!  I have given him my word that I am to be his
forever!"

"Mmmmm," said Red Cloud, with a mouthful of tie-cord.  She used
the cord to bind one braid and then started on the other side,
thinking.  Estrellita had never said anything about Ramon being
'like a brother.'  She had always spoken of him as 'her future
husband'.

Estrellita allowed the still of the wickiup to settle, while,
outside, younger children played and older children helped their
mothers prepare for travel.  When she spoke, it was in subdued,
thoughtful tones on a different subject, "What do you think
Little Mouse will ask for that shellbead dress?"

Red Cloud finished wrapping the end of the second braid and picked
up a needle.  She shook her head at the rancherita's sadness.
"Little Mouse would gladly give you the dress for only the comb
and gloves," she said. "But you must also talk to her mother, and
her mother does not like the Spanish."

"Oh, this is dumb!" cried Estrellita, "I don't really want a new
dress!  I don't care about dressing up.  But I want to look good
for...Do you think Ramon would like to see me in a beaded dress?
I am only doing this for him.  Him and...."  She did not
continue.

"It would not matter to Ramon.  Why should you try so hard to
look pretty?"

Estrellita said nothing as she twisted and tugged her braids,
burying her fingers in the thick strands while she stared at her
hands.

Red Cloud watched her for a moment, then realization dawned.
"Oh," she said.  "Do you like Sandy?"

"No!  I mean yes, a little...I mean...." the rancherita came back
to herself and wiped her nose in an unladylike manner.  "I am
promised to Ramon!  I love Ramon!  He is the man I have always
dreamed about.  Don't you like him, too?"

"Yes," Red Cloud paused to consider the consequences and
shivered.  She shook her head and continued, "Yes, he is a good
man."

"If he liked you, I would not feel as if I were betraying him. If
only...if only you and he...."

Red Cloud coughed to clear an obstruction in her throat, and
turned away so Estrellita could not see her fight back the sudden
tears.  She thought, [I, too, have betrayed him, and he may die
from my betrayal!]

"I do not think this could happen," she added in a thicker voice.
A shadow fell across the doorway and Red Cloud said a quiet
prayer of gratitude for the distraction.

Wolfwalker was hesitating stiffly at the entrance, announcing
himself in the manner of the Azuma.  A look of distaste contorted
his face as he appeared to ponder his fate.

"Come on in," Red Cloud smiled as she threw open the flap.
Returning to the shirt she was mending, she added, "The Apache do
not expect their *men* to wait for an invitation."

Wolfwalker did not retort.  He entered meekly and squatted before
Red Cloud, not looking directly at her.

"I must say this...." he began.

"It is good to see you, Brother," Red Cloud said in the Azuma
tongue.  She inclined her head toward Estrellita, who was digging
through her packs in search of valuables.

Wolfwalker continued to examine the ceiling of boughs and leaves.
"My heart is warmed, also, to know you are well, Little Sister,"
he admitted, also in Azuma.  "But, I must say this...."

Red Cloud glanced up placidly from her mending.

Wolfwalker cleared his throat twice, then blurted,
"Iwanttothankyouforsavingme!"

"Oh?  You know I love to hunt.  I would have hunted javelina,
anyway."

He switched his gaze to the blanket beneath him.

"That, and one other thing," he said.  "You have kept my secret."

"Why should I tell anyone of that?" Red Cloud dimpled, then while
Wolfwalker struggled to think of an answer, she added, "Besides,
I think you look cute as a puppy."

"This is demeaning!" cried Wolfwalker.  "Now, I must endure your
taunts as well!  It is not enough that I must fetch and tote like
some callow youth...."  He glanced aside at Estrellita, who
seemed oblivious of them, and hissed, "You could have told me!"

"About Ramon?" Red Cloud shot her lower lip to one side and shook
her head.  "I am afraid not.  Then I would have had to tell him
about you.  That would only be fair."

"It does not matter, now!  He knows of my shame.  Where are his
clothes?  I have to take them to him."

"Does he need them?  The bear-grease must have worn off," Red
Cloud lifted the pantalones and blouse from a nearby basket.
"Here, I am done mending them.  It is very good of you to help
him this way."  She smiled calmly at his dark scowl.

"If I did not, he threatened to shout my secret all over the
camp!" he cried, "It was bad enough that he had to shame me by
parading in front of me as a naked female!  Now, I must run his
errands!  I am not accustomed to such humiliation!"

Snatching the pantalones and shirt into a bundle, Wolfwalker
paused at the doorway.  "Bear-grease?" he asked with a puzzled
frown.

"Part of a spell.  Baby wolves do not need to know this."  She
turned at a thought, smiled impishly and added, "Lucha shall miss
her pet."

Wolfwalker turned pale and cried, "You will not tell her! I have
had enough shame!  And, now you will be able to torment both of
us with your teasing!"

"I will not tell a soul," Red Cloud promised.  "Not a word.
Nothing gets past these lips."

As the doorflap slapped back into place, Estrellita emerged from
her packs. "What was he so upset about?" she wondered.

"Oh, he has learned about Ramon and Machita."

"Oh, well.  Ramon can hardly expect to keep it a secret from
everyone, forever."

"Also...I am thinking that Wolfwalker likes Lucha."

"That's wonderful!"  Estrellita laughed, her eyes twinkling
merrily as she said, "I can just see Ramon bringing Lucha home to
his mother...their mother.  There would be Lucha, and Ramon, and
Wolfwalker."  Another thought clouded her merriment.  "Uh-oh.
Wolfwalker does not like Ramon, does he?"

Red Cloud shrugged.  "I think he does not respect Ramon.  He has
said that Ramon is not good enough to walk among the Azuma."

"It is more than that.  They are always fighting.  Wolfwalker
hates him, doesn't he?"

Red Cloud cocked her head to one side, the better to think. "A
little," she agreed, and grinned.

"Oh.  Will there be trouble?"

"Of course there will be!  It is said that Lucha is to be married."

"I wish you hadn't mentioned marriage," Estrellita pouted, not at
all excited about hearing the news.  She settled beside Red Cloud
and busied herself with the few belongings in her lap.  Sorting
through them, she picked out a few pieces of jewelry.

"I ran away in such a hurry!  I don't have anything valuable to
trade!" she said.  "I have tried asking Little Mouse.  She just
talks about other stuff.  She admires my hair and my eyes.  Then
she says something in Apache.  She won't tell me what she wants,
and they may leave at any minute."

"I am thinking...she does not want your eyes."

Estrellita opened those hazel eyes wide in a tentative, puzzled
frown as she wound her fingers through her yellow braids.




RAVIEN PAVO RETURNS:

Tom Goose swallowed another draught of the medicinal tea
Sweetcorn had prepared for his upset stomach.  All at once, there
was too much going on.  Cornsilk's return had caused his heart to
sink as well as soar, for she remained dangerous even though he
still loved her.  Sweetcorn had not been happy to learn that
Cornsilk had been hanging around camp again, but she kept her
peace on the matter.  Broken Cloud, who now called himself Nomiro
Nada, was speaking in puzzles about the Mexicans helping the
Apache.

Tom's watchers had informed him that the pale-eyes at Rio
Peligroso were sending for Mexican soldiers because of the
horse-thief Will Larribee.  Perhaps it was time to move camp,
before the younger warriors did something to end the peace of the
last few years.  Whatever they did, he would have to decide the
fate of the upstart son of Trader Larribee.  Tom Goose shook his
head and took a last sip of the bitter tea.

"What *is* this?" came a bellow from the main camp, "I leave for
a week to visit my mother's relatives and you let Mexicans sleep
in my shelter?"

With a sigh, Tom Goose set the empty battered cup aside and
hurried over to greet the returned warrior.

"Calm down," he said, trying to sooth Ravien Pavo.  "We have
given your wickiup a thorough spiritual cleansing!"

"These are nancin!" bellowed Pavo, "I am going to kill them all!
I will peel their hides and leave them to dry in the sun!  I
will...."

"They are under my protection," Tom Goose informed him. "If you
wish, I will have my brother cleanse your wickiup again."

"Never mind!  I'll do it myself!" Pavo grabbed a blazing stick
from the fire and thrust it into the brush roof of the wickiup.
The dry wood caught instantly and the flames mounted to the sky.
Quickly, there was nothing but a pile of ashes which his wife
avoided as she began bending boughs for another wickiup.

Tom Goose watched the smoke rise into the bluing sky and asked,
"Are you feeling better?"

Pavo flipped his hair behind his shoulder and shrugged.

"Very well.  I have need of your skill.  The shaman has found a
young man whom he considers in need of training."

"I will see him, then, after I have eaten."

"Ahh...Pavo?" Tom Goose's use of his name did not escape the
warrior.  Pavo waited for elaboration.

"There is something I want you to do for me."

"Done!" said Pavo.

"It will not be that easy.  In fact, your being our finest
warrior will make it even more difficult."

"What is it?" demanded Pavo, "Just name it.  It shall be done."

"This young man...do not kill him."

"If the shaman recommends him, then he should be able to take any
training I give him."

"That is just the problem.  Broken Cloud did not ask me to have
him taught *all* our ways," Tom Goose said, choosing his words
carefully.  If Ravien Pavo learned that Broken Cloud had been
influenced by Cornsilk, the champion warrior would have stalked
away and refused to hear anything more.  Tom Goose added,
"However, he did say that we need him, and he needs us."

A suspicion entered the champion warrior's mind.  Darkling clouds
loomed on his brow, and lightning began to flicker in the depths
of his black eyes as he flexed steel-hard sinews.

"How is it that I should worry about killing this boy?" he
demanded.

"He is one of the Mexicans," said Tom Goose.

"You want me to help a nancin?" Pavo sputtered with fury, "Do you
take me for a fool?"  He spoke with such force that Tom Goose had
to take a step backward.

"No, I do not," Tom replied evenly, "When we tread the war path,
you are the one we follow.  You can look at a man and tell
whether he has the heart to be brave, or if he is a coward who
will break and run when arrows fly.  This is all I ask of you. We
must know if he is worth it."

The lightning still trembled in Pavo's eyes, but the darkness
eased from his brow.

"Then that is all that I will tell you," he said.  "Send him to
me.  If he returns, then he will be worthy.  If not...."  He
closed his fists until the knuckles crackled.

The tension drained from Tom Goose's shoulders.  "That is all I
can ask," he said.

"I respect your brother.  He tries to be a good medicine man,"
said Pavo.  "But why does he protect the boy - a Mexican?"

"First, I must tell you," Tom debated silently whether to relate
the entire tale he had been given by Nomiro and Cornsilk.  He
settled for saying, "He wants to be called 'Nomiro Nada' because
he did not see a danger coming from the Mexicans.  He thinks the
boy can help stop the sicknesses."

Tom had been given a condensed version of Cornsilk's testimony.
He had heard, from Nomiro, that Cornsilk now controlled her
'demons', but he was not going to wager any amount on how long
that control would last.  He had enough troubles without taking
any chances on Mexicans learning to fight sorcerers.

"Humphh!" snorted Pavo.  He turned from Tom to watch the open
vistas of the nearby mountains and said, "Give someone a little
medicine and they have to change their name.  Superstitious!"
This was dangerous talk, scorning the spiritual beliefs of their
shaman, but Pavo had his own source of power, and he was not
afraid to state his mind.

The two men, a champion warrior and the nominal chief, sat in
silence as they watched the morning chill melt into sunshine.

Silence.

Hawks drifted overhead, sculling for air currents.

More silence.

Pavo finally broke the quiet, "They have to change their names.
Hiding behind words.  Weaklings!  If you must change your name,
you should make it a good, strong one!"

Tom raised an eyebrow and asked, "What about your name?"

"What about it!?"

"Raging Turkey?"

"It is a ruse," smirked Pavo.  "It is supposed to cause
confusion."

Tom shrugged.  "It is working," he admitted.




SOCIAL OBLIGATIONS:

Sandy returned from another trip to the cooking area, his gourd
dish piled high.  He wore a puzzled expression.

"What's up, podner?" Lonesome greeted him.

"That lady over there said she was the chief's wife and she
wanted to know why we weren't doing the right thing."

"First, let me give you a bit of advice.  You don't call their
women 'ladies', like they was white people.  They are called
squaws.  What did she mean, 'the right thing?'"

"I dunno," Sandy wrinkled his nose as he considered going against
a lifetime of training, "The lady didn't say."

As the cowboys stood conferring, they were approached by two
women - a stout but not unattractive woman and a slim, short
woman with shorn hair, wearing a widow's cape over her blouse of
Mexican cotton.

The slim woman came up to Lonesome and eyed him appraisingly,
glanced at Sandy, and said in halting English, "This not our
custom.  But...she choose you.  I accept."

"What's this?" Lonesome wondered as the widow left.

"I am called Sweetcorn. I am Tom Goose's wife," said the stout
woman, using fluent Spanish. "Although you are pale-eyes, we have
been asked to treat you with respect.  I shall explain, since you
are ignorant of our ways.  When you get married, you must get the
consent of the girl's family. You should then present gifts, to
show that you are sincere."

She turned to Sandy and added, "Since She-Goes-Ahead does not
have her parents with her, I have asked Willow Woman to stand in
for her mother."

"Gifts?" Lonesome gaped, "What kind of gifts?  That shaman didn't
say I'd have to spend a bunch of money on *gifts*!"

"How many horses can you afford?" Sweetcorn asked, eyeing his
clothing and gear appraisingly.

Sandy was too thunderstruck to breathe until well after she left.
When he was able to exhale again, he declared, "Ain't gonna!  No
how!  No way!"




ON YOUR MARK, GET SET, READY:

He was male again.  Life was good.  Ramon savored the fresh
morning air, swinging along the trail toward camp, in his own
clothes.  In his own shape.  He laughed, and sprinted until he
could feel his blood race.

It was wonderful, to be able to run free and fast.  "The first
thing I am going to do, I am going to challenge someone to a foot
race.  And I'll beat them," he declared.  "These guys can't stand
to see a Mexican win!  I'll show them!  I can outrun them all! I
can...."

It was about this time that he happened upon Lonesome and Sandy,
who saw him before he could turn and dash for the woods.

Lonesome put aside his sharpening stone and re-sheathed his
knife. "Hey, Ramon!" he called, "Sandy said you were here!"

"Hola!" Ramon said cautiously, avoiding Sandy's eyes, "You seem
to be in good spirits!"

"Aw, I'm fine," Lonesome said, "Just a little mix-up with a local
gal.  She's kind of cute, but...have you heard the news?  Sandy's
getting married!"

There was an awkward pause, as Sandy's scowl assumed blast
furnace proportions - a ferocious glare which could have melted
brick.  He was making a rumbling noise deep in his throat.

Ramon stood on first one foot and then the other.  "Yeah, I have
heard," he gulped, "See you later.  Gotta go!"

"Wait!" said Sandy, with hot stone in his voice, "I want to talk
with you.  We have something to settle!"

Once they were away from Lonesome, he turned on Ramon and
growled, in English, "Do you realize what you have done to me?"

"I am sorry!" Ramon said as he squirmed out of the stranglehold.

"They think we are engaged!" Sandy's voice was strained as he
shifted his grip to twist Ramon's arm behind him.

"I couldn't help it!  I had to get away from that guy!" Ramon
twisted about and hit the ground on his back.

"They want to hold a wedding!  Right now!  Between you and me! I
am supposed to buy you!  I'm gonna kill you!"  Sandy yelled as he
tried for another chokehold.  He danced over Ramon's spinning
legs and they tumbled back and forth.

Ramon spat out a mouthful of dust and said, "There has to be
something I can do to clear this up!"

"Look, it's simple!  All you gotta do is stay a guy.  Then they
can't make you do anything!" Sandy gasped, trying to lever up
with all of Ramon's weight on his back.  

At last he quit struggling and gasped, "Okay, I give!  I quit!"

"Yeah," Ramon scratched the dust out of his hair and staggered
back.  "That's true.  I've had enough play-acting.  I am done
running away!  From now on, I'm going to stay me!  As long as I
can, that is...."

Sandy raised himself rumpfirst, then pushed himself to his feet
with Ramon giving him a hand.  Breathing heavily, they dusted off
the sand and grass still clinging to their shirts.

"Well, I'm still sore at you," Sandy said, rotating his shoulder
to ease the stiffness.

"Hey, are you all right?  I didn't beat you up that bad!"

"I ran into your Grandpap's 'mystery man', yesterday, before I
came out here and went pig-hunting," Sandy said with a rueful
grimace.  "He sort of whupped up on me.  By the way, where is he?
Your Grandpap, I mean."

"I have not seen him.  Not since the duststorm."

"Kinda miss the old coot," Sandy said as they sat and rested. He
heard Ramon's stomach gurgle and he added, "How about some
breakfast?  Ain't exactly ham and eggs, but I managed to choke
down a couple'a two-three bowls."

"Sure!  But I am not certain how I would be welcomed.  Since I
have been here, events have conspired to keep me 'disguised'."

Sandy took his bowl back to the fire, where Sweetcorn refilled
it.  She seemed pleased at his appetite.  As he returned to
Ramon, Sandy said, "Just remember. You gotta stay a man.  That
way, they can't force you to do anything.  They may be wild and
crazy, but they ain't stupid."

Carrying the bowl, Ramon found a bare spot near the cooking fires
and sat.  He said, "Well, if what Abuelo says is true, then even
that won't help.  Sooner or later, if I don't change, then any
water at all will make me turn into a girl.  And later, he said
there might be even worse things happen.  The effects could get
reversed, and *cold* water could make me change."

"Aw, man!" Sandy shuddered, "That would be terrible! You'd change
even when it rained!"  He was not without compassion, although it
might be noted that he had good reason to fear anything that
increased Ramon's tendency to become a marriageable maiden.

Sandy glanced at the woman who had called herself Sweetcorn to
see if she was listening.  She had been watching the column of
smoke rising from Ravien Pavo's burning wickiup as she dipped hot
water into Tom Goose's medicinal potion.

"If I gotta be cursed, I'd prefer it to be this way.  At least, I
can be careful.  I am not getting near any hot water!"  Ramon
said as he opened his mouth and shoved in the first bite of stew.

It was hot.  Very hot.

He jerked away and rose to his feet, never thinking that the dry,
hot food might affect his condition.  Indeed, it would not have
triggered the change.  But then again, backing into a woman
carrying hot water might.

"Oops!" said Sweetcorn.

She had been turning to speak to the cowboys when she was bumped.
Tom Goose's tin medicine cup sailed up, emptied its contents into
the sky, then clattered to the ground.  Said contents, being hot
water, splashed over her shoulder in a perfect arc, descended
upon the young lad who bumped her, and Sweetcorn turned to find
She-Goes-Ahead standing where Ramon had stood a moment before.

Well, not exactly standing, perhaps...more like performing an
uncoordinated war dance, holding her hand over her mouth.

"Ah murned my dung!" cried Machita.

Sweetcorn was almost certain that the Mexican boy should have
been beside her, but she was not one to allow appearances to
deceive her.  After all, children could move more swiftly than
you would expect, and She-Goes-Ahead was definitely there.

"Child!" Sweetcorn admonished her, "You really should not be
socializing with your intended this soon before the wedding!
What if you lessen his desire?"

"Sister of My Beloved!" Another voice broke the air.  

Sweetcorn harrumphed.  "Cornsilk's boy, on another of his quests."

Machita broke off inspecting the tip of her tongue to groan,
"How muzz he fimb me?"

"Sister of My Beloved!  How can you continue with your foolish
decision?  Come to me, and let me protect you from the wiles of
this crafty, fiendish outsider!"

"Let's get oubba here," Machita growled.  "And bon't fobbow us!"
she ordered Buffalo Wattle, who nevertheless glared at Sandy
until they were out of sight.

"You know, he talks funny for an Apache," said Sandy.

"He ain't fummy when he's dalking about me!" Machita said as she
finally got her tongue back into working order.  Then she turned
at the sound of approaching male voices.

"Sister of Our Sister!" the chorus of male voices cried.

Machita blinked.  "Now, who is that?" she wondered.

"Come, let us protect you from the folly of your ways!"  White
Dog, Black Elk, and several other youths marched up to them, and
declared, "One of us will gladly make the sacrifice and join with
your family in order to save you from this pale-eye!"

"I have to go find some water," Machita mumbled as she tried to
edge away.  She did not get far before yet another disturbing
voice rang out, a voice of determined femininity.

"Demoness!"

"But I don't think I'll go that direction...."

"Wait, foul creature of deception! (Yawn) I will remove your blot
upon this campsite!"

"What did I do to you?" Machita cried as she dodged the stabbing
flint blade.

Sweetcorn appeared and gently took Yucca aside.  "You are tired,
Child," she said.  "Come, I will get you some breakfast."

"I want to find my slave!  He was promised to me when my brother
captured him!" protested Yucca, but she allowed herself to be led
away.

Sandy arrived with his canteen and poured water onto Machita's
head.  "Can't you keep out of trouble?" he asked.

After about a cupful had fallen, Ramon replied, "I will overcome
this.  There must be a way to return to normal!"

"Seems to me that sometimes the only thing you can do is duck and
run for cover.  Lonesome is right.  We gotta get out of here
before we get stuck, or Espuma and that giant he's running around
with get ahold of us."

"Wait. This other man...what did he look like?"

"Big.  Husky.  Strong as a mule.  But he had a scary look in his
eye when he was whomping on me.  He looked like a kid pulling
wings off a fly.  A *big* kid."

"You are right, we gotta get out of here.  But if Lucha does not
agree...."

"Ramon!  My Ramon!"

Ramon jumped as if he had been grabbed.  A moment later he was
indeed grabbed, as a bleary eyed Yucca pelted down the pathway
and glomped onto him.

"My Ramon!  You have returned!  I knew you would not leave me!"

"Wait a minute!" cried Ramon, trying to untangle himself from her
arms.

Sandy remained mirthfully unhelpful.  His compassion did not
extend to unentangling friends who were being clutched by girls.

"You have saved me!" Yucca continued, gripping him in a bear-hug
as Ramon gasped for air.  "I have waited for you, all night, I
was so worried that you...that you...."  She collapsed atop him
and knocked him to the ground.  She bore down upon him, a
pressing weight made light by her slender size and the fact that
she was not really trying to harm him.  She was...asleep, her
cheek to his, her arms about him.

Ramon listened to her steady breathing for a moment, then
grumbled, "Aww, man...!"  He rolled her over onto her side and
regained his feet.

"What am we going to do?" Sandy wondered, "We can't leave her out
on the trail.  Somebody is going to come along, and then you'll
be in more trouble."

Sweetcorn approached again and solved that problem.  "Lucha has
said that she does not approve of you, but you seem a normal male
to me - for a Mexican," Sweetcorn announced to Ramon.  She bent
over Yucca's face and sniffed.  "I see.  She has taken a sleeping
potion -  I recognize my sister's work.  Carry her to my
wickiup...and remember, I am watching you."

Lifting Yucca's limp body proved to be more of a chore than Ramon
expected, as there were very few handholds - and some of those he
*could* find triggered warning alarms in his mind, with Sweetcorn
looking over his shoulder.  When at last, with Sweetcorn's help,
he held Yucca aloft, she had her arms about his neck and she was
snoring gently into his right ear.  He carried her to Tom Goose's
wickiup, where Sweetcorn put her to bed.

"This day is getting weirder and weirder," Ramon said.  "What
next?"

"Aha!  I have found you!  You will not escape me this time,
crafty villain!"

"....  I had to ask...oof!" Ramon managed to say before he was
hit.

Buffalo Wattle slammed into him chest-high, wrapping his longer
arms about Ramon as he drove forward.  His momentum carried them
both across the clearing, up against the biggest wickiup where
flailing arms and legs brushed against drying racks and set them
to swaying.  The combatants tumbled across the dry grass and
knocked dust into the air, the larger lad grabbing at Ramon and
Ramon slipping away, only to get caught again.

Abruptly, Sweetcorn ended the wrestling match by emptying a  bowl
of water over them.  "You are kicking up too much dust!" she
complained, "Now you have forced me to waste this water! Go
somewhere else or I will have you fetch me another basketful!"

"Gaaah!" cried Ramon.  Brushing his hands over his chest, he
added, "Cold water...I'm safe...it's only cold water!"

"Quiet, you weakling!" Buffalo Wattle swatted at him with a
knotted fist, missing closely, "Do you want us to have to fetch
water, like women?"

"Let's finish this somewhere else!" Ramon danced about Buffalo
Wattle.

"I think you better try something besides wrestling," suggested
Sandy.  "He's kinda bigger than you."

"Silence, Pale-eye!" snapped Buffalo Wattle, "If the shaman
Broken Cloud had not spoken for you, you would be feeding the
ants in the desert!"

"You just name it!  I can beat him!" Ramon insisted, but his
anger and his voice had faded to the point that he could think 
more clearly.  "Let us race!  That would be fair, wouldn't it?"

"No Mexican can outrun an Apache warrior!" snarled Buffalo
Wattle.

Ramon snapped, "This one can!"

"Very well.  See that twisted fir tree on yonder hill?  First one
there and back!" Buffalo Wattle's statement was delivered in a
rapidly diminishing volume.

"You got it!  Someone start us off!"

"Don't look at me," Sandy shrugged.  "He's already gone!"

"I'll beat him!" Ramon yelped and leaped away.

Lonesome strolled up and asked, "Where's Ramon going?"

"He's racing that big guy - the chief's son, I think."

"Well, he's gonna miss the excitement.  Come on, they're going to
decide what to do with Will Larribee!"




glossary:
nancin - Apache word for Mexicans.  I am not sure what the exact
translation would have been in 1830, but I think it means
'resources'. ^_^

(Details: Unless otherwise noted, speech is assumed to be in
Spanish. Yes, many Apaches of the day spoke very good Spanish.)