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Sister didn’t know she had horse magic, but her older brother Morning Star did. That was why he brought her to the fiesta in the Mexican town of Janos, even though his friends didn’t approve. Broken Foot was forty and lame besides. He didn’t care much about appearances anymore, but Cousin and He Who Yawns were twenty-four. They cared a great deal. They ignored Sister, but they had the look of men who had stepped in something smelly and couldn’t get it off their moccasins.
The hems of their best breechclouts reached their knees in front and the middle of the calves behind. The big silver disks called conchos decorated their wide leather belts. Their high moccasins were thickly beaded, and the upturned strip of leather on each toe was painted red. Their black hair hung loose, swaying against the backs of their thighs as they walked. Turquoise earrings dangled from the holes in their lobes. They had intended to impress everyone in Janos today, but here they were with a girl-child trailing them.
The boys resented Sister, too. When she left them guarding the horses on the outskirts of town, they had pelted her with acorns. Morning Star was sure they would pay for it later. They always did.
Probably the women who stayed in the camp upriver were yammering about her. Among the Dineh, thirteen-year-old girls did not associate with boys and men. Where his little sister was concerned, Morning Star never cared what people said. That was just as well, because she had been giving them something to talk about since she took her first tottering steps out of the cradleboard. She showed no signs of changing.
This was the first time she had seen a Mexican fiesta. As she strode through the plaza she seemed unperturbed by the noise and unimpressed by the goods laid out around her. She wore a fringed doeskin tunic over the leather skirt whose uneven hem reached below the tops of her high moccasins. She had slung her bow and fox-skin quiver across her back. A few strings of glass beads and a small bag of hodenten, the sacred cattail pollen, hung around her neck.
She had a child’s mouth, with a full upper lip that curved like a double-arced bow, but someone much older looked out from her dark eyes. She had skin the deep reddish brown of the rocky bones of the mountains where her people lived. This morning she had fidgeted while Morning Star’s young wife, She Moves Like Water, had combed her knee-length hair with a bundle of stiff grass. She had twisted it into a shiny black coil and secured it at the nape of Sister’s neck with the curved piece of rawhide that marked her as an unmarried maiden. She Moves Like Water had tried to give Sister advice on proper behavior, but Morning Star knew she was wasting her time.
"Hola, amigos.” A trio of mounted Mexicans cantered toward the four Dineh men. One of them handed Morning Star a gourd filled with pulque, but Morning Star passed it to Cousin.
Morning Star and half the men would stay sober today so they could look out for the drunk ones, but he would have refused the pulque, anyway. He did not drink when Mexicans were around. As he walked through Janos, Morning Star watched the crowds of Mexicans and Dineh men mingling to drink and to gamble. He scanned the flat roofs of the low adobe buildings, looking for the barrel of a musket. When a string of firecrackers exploded, he put a hand on the haft of his knife and looked around for Sister.
The villagers of Janos had invited the Dineh to hold council and to receive presents, even though they believed their Apache guests quite capable of murdering them. And even when they themselves would have murdered their guests if it seemed advantageous. The Mexicans and the Dineh had warred for so long that the stories passed down about it did not have a beginning. No one believed they would have an end, either.
The Dineh maintained an uneasy peace with the people of Janos in order to trade dried meat, hides, and the horses, mules, and cattle they stole from the neighboring state of Sonora. In exchange the Mexicans gave them knives, beads, blankets, and corn. The sorcery of alcohol, though, could change friendship to emnity with the flight of an insult or the flash of a knife blade.
Morning Star was relieved when they passed the last thatched hut on the outskirts of the village. On the open stretch of desert beyond, the horses milled in the corral of mesquite branches woven between uprights.
"Cimarrones,” Sister murmured. Wild ones.
The mustangs were wild, all right, and the Mexicans and the Dineh flapped blankets at them and poked them with poles to make them wilder. Morning Star saw no fear in his sister’s eyes, and he didn’t expect to. Oblivious of the noise around her, she stood at the fence and assessed the horses.
"That one.” She pointed her nose at a chunky pony the color of dried blood. He had a long neck, a large head, and crafty eyes. His delicate ears pricked forward, as though he were analyzing the situation. His wide nostrils indicated good wind.
Morning Star went to talk to the jefe, the Mexican in charge, a short man wearing straw sandals and a clean white cotton shirt and trousers. He carried a stout oak club and a coil of rope into the corral.
He shook out a loop in his rope as he stood in the eye of that storm of hooves, teeth, and tempers. With a flick of his wrist he threw the loop over the ears of Sister’s selection and pulled it tight. Men ran to help him haul the horse out of the corral. They looked like a stew at a full boil, surging this way and that while the pony bucked and thrashed. Finally they secured his legs, slipped a rope over his lower jaw, and buckled a wide strap, a surcingle, around his middle. They snubbed him, trembling and wild eyed, to one of the posts set in a line and went back for another horse.
Sister held out some sugar in the palm of her hand and murmured to him. He eyed her with suspicion.
"Is that the one you’re going to ride?” Cousin asked Morning Star.
Dineh usually waited for others to explain themselves if and when they wanted to, but this was different. This involved wagering.
"Which one are you going to ride?” inquired He Who Yawns.
"None of them.”
Broken Foot didn’t ask any questions. He watched the horse stretch out his neck and snatch the sugar from Sister’s palm. He watched her take pollen from the bag around her neck and make a cross with it on his forehead. He saw her blow into the pony’s nostrils; then he limped off to place a wager on him.
"Your sister will ride for you?” Cousin obviously thought Morning Star had turned foolish.
"Yes.” Morning Star went off to place his own bet.
The heaps of wagered objects grew higher. The Dineh shed their necklaces, their silver armbands, and their concho belts. They threw down saddles, bridles, and blankets and everything else of any value. They weren’t only betting on the winning horse. They were wagering on which riders would still be clinging to their mounts’ backs at the end of the race and who would be dead, alive, or badly hurt.
Roping the other ten horses took most of the afternoon and a week’s worth of sweat and swearing. By the time all the animals stood tethered in a line, the jefe’s pants and shirt were no longer white and Sister was running her hands along the rust-colored horse, murmuring to soothe him. She draped her arms over his back and stood on a rock so she could lie across him. He sidestepped and looked back at her with bulging eyes, but he didn’t try to bolt.
"Listos, muchachos,” shouted the mustache. "A caballo.”
The men holding the mustangs took a firmer grip while the riders did their best to climb aboard. Sister hiked her skirt up under her belt. She took a running start and jumped. She scrambled into a sitting position, picked up the rope that would serve as a rein, clamped her legs against his sides, and waited. A shudder passed along his spine. Sister understood why. She must have felt like a young cougar landing on his back. He roached his back, gathered his feet like the stems in a handful of wildflowers, and awaited developments.
The trumpet blasted. There was a moment of stillness while the mustangs devised their strategies. The horse next to Sister promptly laid down and rolled over. The rest took off bucking and twisting, scattering onlookers or running over them.
Sister’s pony and two others ran for the tall pole at the finish as though a pack of wolves snapped at their heels. Sister pulled ahead and was about to stand up on his back to show off when a shot rang out. The pony stumbled. His nose hit the ground, and his momentum carried his hindquarters up and over his head and Sister’s. Sister somersaulted, landed on her feet, and ran a few steps to regain her balance.
The pony’s hooves jerked, and his eyeballs rolled up. Sister squatted and ran her fingers over his chest until she found the bullet hole. None of the Dineh here possessed one of the fire sticks that spat balls of black metal. A Mexican had done this.
"Someone must have bet on one of the other two horses,” Morning Star said.
Sister was outraged. "I would have won.”
"Don’t let them see that they’ve angered you. That gives them power over you. You can’t change what’s past, but you can learn from it. What have you learned today?”
"That I cannot trust Mexicans.”
"You can never trust Mexicans.”
Sister glared at Na’tanh, Corn Flower, sprawled on his stom-ach in a curdled puddle of half-digested beans and bad booze. If she put the chile powder into his breechclout now, he probably wouldn’t even notice it. He looked dead, but he snored like a bear. He had made himself stupid with pulque, a brew that smelled worse than old moccasins.
She kicked the sole of his very old moccasin with the pointed toe of her own, but he only grunted. She bounced a stone off his bare buttock, taut as a drumhead. That made her feel better, but he seemed none the worse for it.
Whooping and weaving in their saddles, the drunken ones had left Janos the night before surrounded by those who had stayed sober. Morning Star had pulled her up to ride in front of him, and she had slept with her cheek resting on his war pony’s mane and her arms around the horse’s neck.
When they arrived in camp, most of the drinkers had slid from their horses and staggered off to fall asleep. Some of them had brought pulque home and shared it with their wives. Many of the sober ones decided to make up for lost time. The party had lasted until dawn.
Like Corn Flower, some of them hadn’t made the effort to return to Janos for the second day of talks and trading. Sister’s father had been one of those. When she passed his brush shelter, she heard him snoring.
He had never stopped mourning his wife, killed and scalped by Mexican bounty hunters when Sister was an infant. Morning Star had given horses, blankets, and saddles to this shaman and that one in the hope that they would cure his father’s grief. Sister prayed every day, asking the all powerful spirit, Life Giver, to cure him.
Whenever women brewed a batch of tiswin from the sap of the mescal plant and announced a party, her father was the first to arrive and the last to leave. Sister would wait while he danced with the other revelers. Women whom she’d always known to be chaste would stagger off into the bushes with him. Sister’s cheeks would burn as she listened to the laughter and the rustling from the darkness. In the pale light of many dawns she had helped her father home.
Sister couldn’t stay sad this morning, though. The sky arched intensely blue. Butterflies floated in the palo verde trees crowding the dry streambed of the arroyo. Doves wooed in the mesquite trees. Women called softly from one family’s cluster of brush-thatched shelters to another as they ground corn and mended moccasins.
When Sister reached a stand of mesquite trees, she laid out the rawhide loop of the tumpline. She began gathering limbs and placing them in one end of it. As she wandered farther away in search of firewood, she saw a barrel cactus on the sunny wall of the arroyo. Last fall’s shiny yellow fruit grew in a whorl around its top.
She slid down the slope at the shallow mouth of the gully and walked downhill. The arroyo narrowed; the walls closed in overhead and sliced the bright strip of sunshine thinner. The overhanging rim threw a deep shade that cooled the air.
She reached up and picked one of the fruits. She squatted at the bottom of the cleft and rested her arms on her knees while she savored the tart juice and the crunch of the tiny black seeds packed inside.
A puff of cold wind startled her. It didn’t belong here in the middle of the summer. It stirred the wisps of hair around her face. Its chill started a prickling at the nape of her neck. A roar filled her skull, a babble of voices. She stood up and raised her chin, her mouth partly open, her eyes closed.
She raised her arms to shoulder height, her palms cupped upward, as she had seen di-yin, holy men, do. She held them there and waited for the Wind Spirit to speak to her. When it did, the voice-that-wasn’t-a-voice resonated in the bones of her face like the flutter of leaves in the cottonwood. She turned slowly until dread stopped her as surely as a stone cliff. She faced into the approaching evil and imagined Ghost Owl swooping toward her, come to steal her soul. Chills chased along her spine; her heart raced.
When the rumbling started she thought it was the Wind Spirit again, but then the ground began to tremble. Dirt fell from the arroyo’s rim onto her shoulders and outstretched arms. The rumble fragmented into the beat of hooves. She opened her eyes as the first horse reached the edge of the gorge and leaped it. More followed. She saw the tensed muscles of their foam-flecked legs and the wide cinches under their taut bellies as they passed overhead. Drops of their sweat fell on her. She saw the clumsy wooden stirrups, each containing a dusty black boot.
Mexican soldiers. Lancers probably. She counted fifty or sixty at least. Not many warriors had remained in camp, and they were as sick as her father and Corn Flower.
When the last soldier had leaped the gully and the thunder of hooves receded, Sister tried to scramble up the steep side, impelled by the need to warn her brother’s wife, her father, and the others. The soles of her moccasins slipped on the gravelly slope, and she slid to the bottom, sand driven to the quick under her fingernails.
She sat with her knees drawn up to make herself as small as possible. She twined her fingers together to keep them from shaking. Already the soldiers were shooting. They laughed and shouted. Sister heard the clatter of an iron lancehead striking rock and bouncing. She heard the screams of the women and children.
She fought back the fear rising in her throat. Fear was a distraction, and she had to be able to think and act. Her brother had told her that as soon as she was old enough to understand the words.
She could tell by the scattering of hooves and the rustle of bushes that they were chasing their prey through the undergrowth. She heard a horse approaching the arroyo, searching the thick brush for survivors. Sister crawled backward on her belly among the cactus and creosote bushes, the thorns catching at her skin and clothes and hair. The rocks scraped her elbows and knees, but she didn’t feel it. When she could go no farther in the narrow cleft, she found a coyote den dug into the wall. She breathed a quick prayer of thanks to Life Giver, though she would rather have been beholden to any creature but a coyote. Coyotes were troublealways had been, always would be.
She poked a yucca stem into the hole to dislodge any rattlesnakes that might be there; then she wriggled in feetfirst. When her toes hit the back of the den, her head and shoulders were still exposed. She grabbed a broken piece of dried ocatillo stem shaped like half a cylinder and perforated where the thorns had been seated. She lay her left cheek on the warm ground, cupped the ocatillo stem around her nose and mouth and scooped the sand over her head. Then she buried her arms and hands in it.
As the sound of the hooves grew louder, she wondered if she had covered enough of her black hair. The horse stopped just above her. Sand cascaded down the slope and onto her head. She could feel the soldier’s eyes searching the bushes and the shadows under the arroyo’s walls. She waited for a lead ball from his musket to drill through her skull. She wondered if she would feel the solid heat of it. She wondered if, when she died, she would see her mother in the Happy Land.
She heard the soldier ride away, but she stayed motionless. She breathed through the holes in the cactus stem while the silence from the camp lengthened and the sun climbed up the slope of the sky, hovered at the peak, and started down the other side. She lay there until the light in the arroyo dimmed. She didn’t flinch when a rattlesnake slithered over her arm.
She murmured to him as Morning Star and her grandmother had taught her. "Ostin, Old Man, I have troubles enough. Don’t bother me or give me snake sickness.”
When he moved on, she wriggled out of the hole, shook sand from her hair, and brushed it out of her ears and eyes. Her throat ached, and her lips stuck together when she tried to moisten them.
Sister peered over the rim of the arroyo. The sky had turned pink, but it pooled bloodred at the western rim of the world. Shadows crawled farther out from the rocks and trees and bushes as though ambushing the day. A wind moaned sorrowfully. Smoke still rose from the remains of the shelters.
Sister knew the route to the site where her people had hidden food supplies, water jugs, weapons, and utensils. All the children over the age of five knew they should make their way there in case of an attack. She also knew she should leave immediately. Even if the soldiers didn’t come back, the souls of those they had killed would be restless. Sister imagined them flapping like wounded birds around the campsite, confused by their sudden change in form and frightened about the long journey ahead of them.
Supernatural creatures scuttled around at night, eager to bewitch the unwary. And Ghost Owl soared about in search of souls to steal. No one traveled after dark unless necessity gave them no choice.
Sister wriggled through the bushes on her stomach, as silent as the shadows lengthening along the stony ground. She lay motionless under a bush, ear to the ground, listening for the faint vibration of boots or hooves before moving to the next bit of cover.
With a prayer to the helpful spirits, she took ashes from the campfire and rubbed them on her face and hands to ward off ghosts. The ashes were still warm. An old woman and a young one had thrown themselves across three small girls in an attempt to shield them, but the soldiers had shot them all and taken their scalps. In the last of the day’s light Sister recognized the mother, wife, and daughters of He Who Yawns.
Those were the first bodies she used for cover, and soon she had more of them than she needed. Most of the dead had been scalped, with bloody holes where their right ears had been. To collect on the government’s bounty, the Mexican lancers had condemned the Dineh’s spirits to wander eternity mutilated. That was as bad as the killing itself.
Sister crawled on her stomach until she reached the charred ruins of her father’s shelter. He lay on his back in front of it. He still clutched his bow with an arrow nocked, but a Mexican dragoon had driven a lance through his chest and pinned him to the ground. His head was turned toward her, his face on a level with hers. His eyes were open, and she thought he might open his mouth and demand that she pull the lance out of him so he could get up.
Her father’s blankets would be useful in the cold mountain nights to come, but Sister did not touch them. She did not untie the knife sheath from his belt or pry the bow and arrow from his fingers. To take anything that belonged to a dead person might lure the spirit back and cause it to cling to her.
She entered a dry gulley and followed it to the camp of her grandmother and She Moves Like Water. She did not find either of them there. They might be lying dead in the bushes, hidden by the night shadows, or the Mexicans might have captured them to sell as slaves.
Sister retrieved her blanket from the ashes of her shelter. Fire had charred the edges of it, but it was usable. Still lying on her stomach and with a wary eye on everything around her, she rolled it tightly. She took spare moccasin laces out of one of the pouches hanging from her belt and knotted them together. She tied each end of the roll with the long cord. She put the cord over her head and adjusted the blanket roll so it rode in a diagonal across her back.
Panic swept through her. Was everyone dead? Had the Mexicans of Janos ambushed her brother and the other men? Was she alone, many long days’ journey from the valley to the north, the one her people called home?
She slid to the bottom of the gully where she felt safe enough to move at a crouch. Feeling her way, she found the small spring that had supplied water to the camp. She drank enough to wet her throat and ease the thirst. Keeping her head below the gulley’s rim she followed it down the mountainside, moving like a wisp of smoke through the darkness.
By the time she reached the bottom of the mountain, the night air had cooled considerably. Ahead of her stretched the valley leading to the Janos River and the thicket of vines, cactus, and willows where those who had survived would meet. She could run there in a short time, but she couldn’t risk that. Soldiers might be waiting in the darkness for her to blunder into them.
She slid on her stomach over the edge of the gully and started out, pulling herself forward with her arms and pushing with her legs. In camp, Creep and Freeze was a game all the children played. Now she knew why.
Copyright © 2002 by Lucia St. Clair Robson