Imala leaned forward, so C.J., riding in front, could see where she pointed. “Go in there.”
C.J. reined his skewbald mare to a stop and studied the vertical crack in the dull copper cliff. If Imala hadn’t pointed it out, he wouldn’t have noticed the fissure. A small gravel wash camouflaged by oak brush and juniper trees ran from the crevice.
“Are you sure? There’s barely enough room for Skewy to turn around.”
“Yes. Go in.”
C.J. clamped his teeth. Imala wasn’t being more overbearing than she had been before they shared a very personal camp. The problem that made his stomach sour was that she hadn’t swooned over him afterward. She should’ve been doe-eyed and admiring, that’s the way dime novels said love happened.
If anyone had gone all mushy, it was C.J., and he didn’t like it. He wanted to hug the wondrous Apache maiden and call her “Honey,” and have her respond in kind.
But she hadn’t.
Imala treated their encounter the same way a cowboy ropes and brands a steer. The steer is captured and is seared with a lifelong mark. The cowboy, having controlled the situation from start to finish, rides away.
But, Still Tied …
Imala’s chin was above C.J.’s shoulder, her breath warm against his neck. “Go.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing.” C.J. tried to make his voice gruff enough to show that he wouldn’t ride into a wall if Imala asked. He would, though, if she’d be impressed.
The path was wide enough for two horses to walk side-by-side. Vertical cliffs rose two hundred feet on either side. A furlong in, the way forward disappeared in a curve, and C.J. felt the squeeze in his chest.
He was ready to get out of this elbow-pressing chute.
Around the bend, the canyon widened into a glen of ponderosa pines, junipers, and hackberries. C.J. relaxed and breathed normally.
He caught a sparkle of standing water farther along the field. Green buffalo grass highlighted the pond’s location.
Imala straightened behind the saddle. “Stop.” She slid off the horse.
C.J. glanced around. Did Imala see a threat? The only thing he could sense was the breeze in the pines. “What’s going on? Don’t you want to get in the shade—water the horse?”
“You can go no more. This is a holy place where I will prepare. Take off your clothes.”
“What?” C.J. felt heat rise to his face. He’d never get used to Imala’s casual acceptance of lack of cover. “Look, Imala—”
“You are a white man.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed, but that doesn’t—”
You Must Change
“I told you, I go to Cibecue to help Taklishim return the People to the Right Path.”
“What’s that got to do with me being dressed?”
Imala sighed and patted Skewy’s neck. “I need this Spirit Horse. The horse likes you, so you must go with me. I can’t ride with a white man to tell the People to leave the white man’s ways.” She looked up at C.J., still in the saddle. “So, you must become one of the People.”
C.J. dismounted and stood close to Imala. “Well then, do we connect again to make me one of the People?”
“You’re loco,” Imala said. “You can go no farther into the holy place as white. Taklishim will have Apache clothing for you. I’ll fetch what you need. Meanwhile, don’t bring evil here by wearing—this.” Imala pointed her finger up and down indicating C.J.’s garments. “Wait in nature until I return. Unsaddle your horse and let her go where she will. This is the only way in and out.”
“I think I’ll just wait until you return with something else to wear before I strip,” C.J. said.
A slight grin at the corner of Imala’s lips didn’t soften her fixed stare. “If I don’t carry all your clothes out of here, you will never see me again.”
Will C.J. follow Imala’s wishes? Leave your thoughts now.
When a purification ceremony is needed, here’s one way.
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