It was a lovely day—crisp and clean, with stunningly blue skies. It even started getting warm, which worried me. I was, after all, transporting a boy for burial. As much as I might love the warmth of the sun on my skin, I needed the cold weather to hold. I was reassured, though, by the amount of snow piled up along the sides of the road. I could always pack poor Ishkin in snow if I had to.
But why was the road so clear? It could only mean someone was using it, and my worries from a few days before returned. There wasn’t much I could do now, though. I wasn’t going back to Catalunia, and there were no other roads leading off from this one. I had to keep going forward.
Toward late afternoon, I found the shelter I had been seeking. It was an old rancho with a mansion designed to mimic a Spanish hacienda. When I was a kid in Valle Redondo, I had heard stories of the place from people who used this road as a shortcut to the town of Jonasville. They said the hacienda was haunted, but after Catalunia, I wasn’t scared. As much as I loved being outdoors, a night inside four walls was always welcome in winter. I would take my chances with the hacienda and its ghosts.
As I was taking my gear inside and trying to decide what I wanted to do about the wagon and animals, I saw a band of riders approaching. This had the potential to be a lot scarier than any haunting could be. They appeared to be heading for this very hacienda, and since there was no time to escape with my clumsy wagon, I armed myself and waited on the front steps.
Slowly the little group grew larger, and I could now count five riders—all men, and all dressed in Indian gear. Nativist Apaches. I tried to steady my breathing. That they were Nativists was bad enough. Worse was that there wasn’t a woman among them. I had resolved long ago that I would shoot myself before I would be raped again, but I really didn’t want to die today.
A rider broke away from the others and approached. I let him get within shouting range and then called to him in the dialect of the Apaches who Will and I sheltered with so many years ago. “Hela yushde!”
The rider jerked on the reins and looked at me. Although he answered me in English, I could tell he had understood. “You have no business here. This is our house.”
“Shi kugee ilchi gonteego,” I went on. “Would you send a guest away, who has come in peace?”
He walked his horse toward me, squinting to get a better look. “Why do you know our language, inna?”
“I lived with the Dlilgoh for several years.”
The man frowned and kicked his horse forward again. His face had been in shadow before, but now I saw him clearly. He recognized me at the same time I did him. “Is that you, Nagontlag-nagoa?”
I could have fainted in relief. “Yes, Tsinastsoge, it’s me. Little Troublemaker.”
He said nothing for a moment and I worried that maybe the fact he remembered me would do me no good. Then he turned to his friends and they began speaking rapidly, in a slightly different dialect that I couldn’t follow. They were obviously a mixed group from several different clans, but that was to be expected. The Dlilgoh clan was small and the Nativists prided themselves on putting such petty distinctions behind them.
“What are you doing here, Nagontlag-nagoa?” Tsinastsoge asked. “A little isdzan like you shouldn’t be traveling alone. Niteke-yusha?”
“I have no friends with me,” I said. “Only one who is dead.” I indicated the wagon. “I’m taking him to Valle Redondo for burial.”
As I had hoped, Tsinastsoge looked a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Then you’ll let me stay the night in peace and go on my way in the morning?”
He looked at his friends and they exchanged a few more words. This time I picked up on a few phrases. Some of the men seemed to be questioning my honesty.
“Why so many guns, for a peaceful errand?” one of them asked me.
“Because as Tsinastsoge says, I’m just one little isdzan, alone in the mountains.”
“No,” he said, “You’re a silaad.”
That was a new word for me, but I could guess at its meaning from the way he gestured toward my horse, my clothes and my weaponry. “I used to be,” I said. “But I don’t fight any more. I only want to bury this boy and go north, away from here.”
“Who did you fight for?” Tsinastsoge asked, resting a hand on his gun.
“Please,” I said, beginning to wonder if I was going to talk my way out of this, after all. “I never fought your people. I was with Unitas.”
“Unitas? The idealists?” The men chuckled to themselves, as if I had made a joke. “Free and fair elections,” one of them mimicked.
“What’s wrong with elections?” I asked. “How else are we to know what the people want?”
Tsinastsoge got off his horse and walked toward me, smiling. “Put your weapons away, Nagontlag-nagoa. You’ll get no trouble from us.” He shook his head slightly. “Elections."
I didn’t care at this point if they thought the whole civil war was a joke. It appeared I was safe, and that was all that mattered.
The Apaches showed me where they kept their animals when they used this rancho and then we made supper on a lovely patio overlooking the mesas, which rose black against the glow of the sunset. I shared some of my food and we had a nice little feast together, talking about neutral things like horses and carefully avoiding any mention of war or ethnic heritage.
Tonight I’m sleeping in a room of my own. It’s on the first floor, since the second floor can't be reached because the staircase is too dangerous. I don’t think I’ve slept in a room of my own since leaving Auntie’s mountain. It’s kind of nice.
I should’ve known better. That bastard Tsinastsoge came in here while I was sleeping and—oh, it’s a good thing I keep a knife under my pillow. He didn’t expect me to be so quick to defend myself, but I think I did more than scare him. I embarrassed him, too, telling him that sneaking up on a woman was no way for a du nchogo ateeda ndeen to behave. I guess he wasn’t used to a white girl calling him on his honor, or maybe he was intimidated by my knife at his throat, but he left in a hurry.
I’ve got an old bureau up against the door now. Let’s just see anyone else try sneaking in here. Bastards.
I never thought I would say this, but getting to Valle Redondo will be a relief!
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