The polar sun of Ixtlan Colony swung slowly around the horizon, traversing an afternoon as endless--but no brighter than--the morning. It was, however, hotter.
Elongated shadows moved with excruciating slowness, dark against the amber-tinted stone of the little amphitheater. Rocks rose in tiers, now shading, now cleft to expose what lay there to the mercy of the sun.
It had been twelve hours or more since the white star that was Ixtlan's sun first crested the low northern hills to begin its twenty-three hour circuit. And for much of that time, the infant's cries--angry and shrill at first, but now weaker--had broken the silence. Now, for long moments at a time, the silence remained unbroken.
On the eastern side, up among the rocks, the peyote growers watched. From his own perch on the west side, Snakestail caught glimpses of them now and again, a matter of dark hair and bright plumes of crimson, parrot green, or burnished gold. Once in a while, someone stood up to reveal bare skin, shining with oil, draped with strips of shells and beads.
Of himself, Snakestail revealed nothing. He had chosen this place with care, climbing the ridge behind during the brief twilight when neither of the two moons, Leonora and Devlin, showed more than a sliver of light, and the sun was, for three hours or so, below the horizon. He had a little shade now--more than the child--and the rocks hid him from the watchers.
He was thirsty. More than once his eyes turned to the water bottle beside him, but he did not drink. The water would do just as well later, he told himself. And it seemed to him too, that if he did not drink, if he endured the heat and thirst, then it might be that he could impart his strength to the child. For there were many hours yet until twilight, and even then Snakestail might have waited in vain. It had happened before.
Across the little valley, someone began beating on a drum, the sound echoing flatly off the rocks like blood pounding in the ears of a fevered man. Snakestail pressed on his temples with one hand as though to forestall the coming headache. In his other hand was a rosary.
"Ave Maria, gratia plena," he murmured nearly inaudibly. "Dominus tecum--"
He had been praying for most of the day--all except for an hour or so when he had dozed off, leaning against a rock that was now too hot to touch.
This was a long shot, he knew. But from the moment the first rumor had reached him up in the brush hills on the colony side, he had known that he would come.
Oh, he had been warned often enough. He knew the river was the boundary between colony land and the peyote growers' territory. He was a game warden, after all. More than once he had sent hunters from the other side back across the river with a warning to stay on their own land.
And, for that matter, he had come to this side more than once to retrieve colonists who poached on the peyote growers' land. Or the remains of poachers anyway. He wore his uniform when he came on business--brown cords and flannel shirt, one arm banded with the blue insignia of the colony rangers.
Whatever the peyote growers gave him back of those who crossed the river illegally, he always received in silence. They knew the law and what happened to people who broke it.
The water bottle in its cloth jacket shimmered before his eyes as he looked away from the rosary beads. The quality of the light hadn't changed, but now his entire body was in shade. Behind him, the rocks had lost their sheen and the sleeping heart snakes and valley crabs were beginning to stir.
Snakestail inched forward to peer down at the sacrificial victim. Yes, the child was still moving. It was a strong one, then.
"A few more hours, little one," he murmured, "and the watchers will be gone. A few more hours--what is that when you have endured this long?"
Across the valley, the drummer had ceased. But Snakestail was not fooled. The peyote growers would not leave until sunset. They never did.
Wearily the game warden let his mind rove backward a week or more to his meeting with Fitzsimmons and Menendez. He had been in uniform then, though now, for this errand, he was not.
He knew them for small time poachers and they knew that he knew. He'd ticketed Menendez a couple of times in the colony preserve. There was a rumor that they rustled cattle as well, though, so far, that had not happened in his district.
The game warden had been cooking supper up in the hills west of the river fork, not far from the preserve, when the pair walked into his camp. It was like their cheek to count on brushland courtesy for a free meal, but he didn't grudge it to them.
"Tinned beans," he'd told them, reaching for another can. "And tortillas, of course."
Fitzsimmons looked down at the flat rock he was using as a griddle. "Bit gritty, don't you think?"
"Less dishes to wash."
Behind Fitzsimmons, Menendez smiled his slow smile and hunkered down on the other side of the fire. "They keepin' you busy, Snakestail?"
The game warden set himself to brewing tea in his battered pot. "They?"
At this, even Fitzsimmons had to laugh. Not for the first time, Snakestail wondered at the fact that he liked these two. Useful citizens they were not and never would be, but he always found them good company.
They knew he'd arrest them in a moment if he ever caught them with a lab deer or any of the native herbivores. Nor was he over-quick to turn his back on them. His friendship with them wasn't of that sort.
"You been to town lately?" Menendez asked, glancing at Snakestail's pack which lay on the ground. The game warden seldom used a horse --he got around in a battered aircar when he wasn't on foot, and likely the thing was parked somewhere up the slope.
"Couple days ago," Snakestail said, flipping a tortilla. "Had to testify at a border hearing."
"What now?" Fitzsimmons growled. "They scalp somebody?"
"The river," Snakestail said. "There's talk about a dam down below--maybe a reservoir."
"What good would a dam be? Everything freezes up solid in winter."
Snakestail shrugged. "It's only talk. Net Central can't keep their hands off Colony affairs. You know what they're like."
"What did you have to testify about?" Fitzsimmons asked curiously.
"Local wildlife. And the peyote growers, of course."
"One of these days," Fitzsimmons said, "they'll be over the river like it never was there. You think they understand all that cultural diversity stuff Net Central puts out?"
Snakestail chuckled. "They understand it about as well as we do."
Fitzsimmons didn't like this. The game warden could tell.
"Here," Snakestail said, pouring tea for them in two cups and an empty tin. "So where did you get your news?" he asked mildly. "Nobody lives along the river on this side--do they?"
Fitzsimmons grunted. "So I been over the river," he said. "You plan to arrest me for that?"
Snakestail shook his head. "I'm only the game warden," he said. "You want to get yourself killed, it's your business."
"I know what I'm doing. Bring in a little offworld stuff and they'll trade--"
Snakestail breathed in the fragrant steam. Hot weather or cold, he always made tea. It was a habit he'd acquired from the Star Brothers.
"Some of them will trade," he conceded. "Renegades--"
"So anyway," Fitzsimmons said impatiently, "you want to hear my story or not?"
"Of course I do," Snakestail told him. "I wasn't sure you had one."
"Well I do. There's to be another powwow. Lusak's on his last legs and they're getting ready to ordain his son--"
Snakestail winced. "Not ordain," he said.
"Same thing. He'll be the new witch doctor."
Snakestail didn't answer but Menendez gave Fitzsimmons a dark look. "Show some respect," he said. "You'd call in the Star Brothers quick enough if you were about to die."
"Sure, sure," Fitzsimmons said with a crooked grin. "I forgot Snakestail almost became a seminarian."
The game warden did not rise to this. After all, it was true. The Star Brothers were the only family he knew and he had gravely disappointed Father Saer when he decided not to join them.
Fitzsimmons went on with his story. "The guy we trade with said we'll have to lay off for a while. And he said--" Here the other man leaned closer to Snakestail. "There's to be another sacrifice."
Snakestail didn't say anything but his hand clenched on the cup. Not again!
"Hey--the beans are cooking over!" Fitzsimmons reached to pull the pot off the fire.
"He said that, did he?" the game warden repeated at length. He set down his tea and looked at the other man earnestly.
"Yep. First time in about five years, I guess."
Five years. Snakestail nodded thoughtfully. Yes, it had been that long.
Oh, there was a treaty. Even the Star Brothers had to honor the treaty--Net Central made sure of that. Cultural autonomy for the peyote growers--not because Net Central went in for cultural autonomy, of course, but because it kept the colony divided.
Ixtlan colonies, the north and south poles of an otherwise uninhabitable planet, had been settled under the old Confederation, Net Central's predecessor. Two major populations had been relocated, New Eire at the north pole and Ixtlan at the south. And the peyote growers, of course.
"We cannot go to them," Father Saer had told Snakestail once. "Though of course some of us do anyway."
The Star Brother nodded. "Unknown martyrs. If Net Central knew about them, we'd be thrown off the planet."
"Some day," Snakestail murmured, "we shall be independent."
The Star Brother shrugged. "Net Central owns this world. Your ancestors made an agreement when they came here."
"You are a native of this colony, Clement, even though you are a foundling. Surely you must know that."
"Net Central property," Snakestail had said then, bitterly. But he was thinking of the Star Brothers then, as he thought of them now. Because they had taken him in as a child, he did not always see himself as a colonist--but neither was he one of them. He had fallen between.
"And did you ever cross the river, Father?" he had asked. The old priest made a tent of his fingers and stared out the window.
"Once or twice. When I was younger."
"But nothing happened?"
"Very little can happen if we're not allowed to build a mission. Net Central wants these people to remain as they are."
"So no one can interfere--even when they put a baby out in the sun to die?" Snakestail had asked.
"No," the priest told him soberly. "Not even then."
Remembering, Snakestail felt the Rosary beads slip between his fingers. The sun had moved almost into the northwest when he dared look down again. The child was not moving. The game warden's own thirst was a burning, raging thing. How must it be for the little one!
Resolutely he turned away from the water bottle. He would drink when the child drank. It would not be so very long now.
His meeting with Menendez and Fitzsimmons had been the beginning. When he had confirmed what they told him, he knew that he would come. That other time five years ago had been very bad because the jackals arrived before sunset and he could only watch helplessly. He still had nightmares about that.
But there it was. He already had known he would break colony law and Net Central law as he had done before--and the devil take them both! He would risk nightmares if he failed, but his dreams would be worse if he did not try.
His thoughts drifted back to that evening with Fitzsimmons and Menendez. They had eaten the beans and tortillas and Menendez even washed the pot. But they had left soon after. Two days later, there was a new outbreak of rustling over in the ranch district. And Snakestail found a lab deer with a bullet in its flank not far from the river.
The poachers hadn't come back, which was just as well. Snakestail arrested a couple of tourists and one of the peyote growers who had been sampling his own wares and forgot which side of the river was home.
Two of the rare native spider leopards were killed and another lab deer. Snakestail brought these in too. And he had a few words with the peyote growers about poaching. It was an excuse to visit their hills and see that all was as it had been five years before.
His own plan was simple and quickly made. He would cross the river, hide himself above the stone pavement and wait. The water was low in summer--otherwise the tribesman he had arrested would have drowned. All Snakestail would have to do, once he had secured the child, was to recross to where he had concealed his aircar.
It had been hours since the drummers ceased. The white star's hue was dwindling to an angry purplish color. The evening sky, never very blue, had deepened to a clear, poisonous green while, far to the east, a rising nebula was just wavering into visibility. Leonora had set beyond the hills and the peyote growers were leaving.
With painstaking care, Snakestail unkinked his muscles and slipped the rosary into his pocket. He had not dared bring a rifle but he had a stunner at his belt along with a dagger and a coil of rope. His belt radio he had left in the aircar--for he was not the game warden today and no one would answer him if he called for help.
He strapped the water bottle to one hip and peered downward.
Twilight, as it came, brought no coolness. With less than three hours to dawn, the night would be little more than a brief respite from the day. Snakestail wasted no time.
Carefully he inched himself over the lip of his hideaway and set one foot on the scree. A slip here would set off a miniature landslide. He felt about for long, agonizing minutes until his foot located solid stone.
The climb was a short one but he made of it a long labor, forcing himself to concentrate on every handhold, every placement of his booted toes. He was a patient man and now his patience served him well. He reached the pavement without incident.
He knelt quickly beside the swaddled infant, felt for a heartbeat. Yes, the child lived! Tensing his back in anticipation of a silent dart, he forced himself to take up the bottle and wet the baby's mouth.
It was beyond crying, but it took the water greedily, choking a little as it drank. After a moment, Snakestail pulled the bottle away, drank some himself and recapped it.
The baby snatched at it weakly, emitting a small, low sound as he fashioned a sort of harness from the rope. "Now little son, you have braved the day," he murmured. "Be silent and you will live to be a man."
A small hand grasped at his nose as he set the baby in the harness and tightened the ropes before shifting it onto his back. A moment later, he was reclimbing the broken stone.
No sounds reached him from the other side except the calling of the night drifters, their high screeching cry barely audible to the human ear. He regained his hiding place, paused to adjust the rope once more and turned to the ridge.
Here he would be a silhouette against the sky. But only the moon Devlin hung there, a small, red slice, little more than a paring.
It was then he heard, somewhere to the side of him, the faint crunch of gravel. He froze, dropping to all fours. It may have been a jackal--or only a valley crab hunting in the moonlight.
After a moment, he went on, the child a wriggling warmth, clamped to his sweating back. Over the ridge and down. Below, all was darkness, but he could hear the river chuckling softly in its bed.
And something else. Was it an animal? He considered.
At last, he decided there was nothing to do but go down and trust to the shadows to hide him. He made the descent, hunching himself sideways to protect the child. He must not let it be a target if anyone was there.
The stony hillside was behind him now, the river ferns and the thorny figberries clutching at his legs. Above, on the slope, something called out--a low, hooting sound, sudden and deadly in the night.
It was answered from below.
Snakestail changed his course, angling away from the sound. He was running now, his small burden jouncing on his back. He reached for the stunner at his hip and drew it, wishing he had his rifle instead.
A shot rang out and he increased his speed. He was running on sand, sand and shingle, crunching it all beneath his feet.
Another shot spanged onto the beach, kicking up chips and sand against his feet. "Ho! Devil man! You shall not cheat the sun!"
They were calling to him in the patois of the river district.
"Die devil man! Go back to the stars!"
Anyone not of their own kind was an alien to the peyote growers. Colonists, Net Central negotiators and Star Brothers, all alike were cursed. And their fate would be the same if the peyote growers caught them--
Without slacking his speed, Snakestail plunged into the water, feeling the sluggish current as it surged to his knees. Breath tearing in his chest, he forced himself to push the water aside, pumping his legs as it rose nearly to his waist.
The river grew shallow again and he staggered out. Would they cross? Did they dare?
Another shot sounded. He felt a tearing, burning pain in his hip. The leg gave way and he stumbled to his knees, feeling the coarse grit between his fingers as he caught himself to keep from falling on his face.
"Die devil man!"
He eased himself forward and down so that his legs were stretched out behind him in the water. For a moment, pain threatened to pin him where he was, but it subsided presently to a dull, throbbing ache. He realized the peyote growers couldn't see him.
Silently he inched forward, clutching at the river bank. On his back, the child was still. Did it know?
"Your life," he breathed. "Silence is life --"
"Where are you, devil man? Does your blood flow yet?"
Now he was out of the water, his good leg straining as he dragged at the dead weight of the other one. His hands met brush, figberries taller than the ones on the other side. Another wriggle and he felt the stems around him.
Bullets hit the water, a volley of shots. Under cover of the sound, he pulled himself deeper in among the vines and lay panting.
Silence dragged on and on. Had the peyote growers gone away? Or would they come for him--drag him back across the river and kill him in some horrible way? He lay where he was, trembling like a frightened lab deer, feeling the blood seep into his trousers.
He must do something about the bleeding. A tourniquet--yes. He found a bit of rope hanging from the harness and cut it loose. He could not sit up, but he managed to squirm sideways enough to slip the rope around his leg.
After that, he could only wait. An hour passed and the drifters' pale cries gave way to the honking and shrilling of the river birds. Another long summer's day was about to begin.
As the light broadened, Snakestail realized that he was now completely hidden from the peyote growers' side. Above him the figberries made a small jungle. He wondered if he might keep on inching forward invisibly.
But when he tried to move, he found that his leg had stiffened and a strange weakness had set in in all his limbs. He could not even reach up to remove the baby from his back.
The baby! Did it live still? He had not felt it move this hour past.
He flexed himself, felt an answering shift of weight as the child stiffened and relaxed in its sleep. He could not give it a drink now--could do nothing for it when it woke. But it lived!
The sun rose. Day began.
Snakestail felt himself growing feverish as he lay on his stomach listening to the river. Far away, the peyote growers were drumming their disappointment. Nearer, a jackal howled.
A low growl woke him and he opened his crusted eyes to stare into the spotted face of a river jackal. Named for a dog-like animal of old Earth, Ixtlan's jackal was an intermediate creature, snub nosed and sleek, with the curving back of a weasel.
He shouted at it, trying to reach the stunner. There was the holster, but the weapon was gone! He must have lost it when he fell.
The animal backed away, hackles up. Snakestail saw that it was not alone. Another of the creatures moved off to the left of him.
With one desperate lurch, an exertion that left him sweating and shaking, he managed to extract the knife from his belt. He swung wildly as one of the creatures sprang, and felt the blade meet flesh.
A wild howling ensued, claws scraped against his hand--and the baby woke. The shrill and healthy sound of its hunger told him that he had not come so far in vain. He thrilled to that lusty squalling and turned around to snarl in turn at the wounded jackal. "You shall not have him!" he hissed.
The jackal sat some distance away, barely visible in the gloom of the thicket. The others--there were two more--hovered, watching him warily.
Snakestail tried again to drag himself further up the hillside, away from the river. He winced as a sudden movement tore open his wound. The jackals were moving in again.
Two of them took him this time, one on either side. Snakestail swung and twisted, crying out at the flaring pain in his hip. He slashed the face of one jackal, at the same time writhing away to keep the other from reaching what was on his back.
Snapping teeth sank instead, into his side. He turned, stabbing desperately until the jackal let go to slash at his arm. A twist of the knife--ignoring his own pain, he felt the blade sink home.
He pulled it free of the dying beast and turned, but the others had backed off, watching as he glared back at them. On his back, the little one's cries were almost a challenge, a warcry of life.
He had bruised the child, he knew. Even now the trailing thorns of the figberries must be lacerating its face and hands. But this one was a strong one! They always chose the best, the peyote growers, so that death would not come too quickly.
Death. There was death, out in the brush. Snakestail was no fool. He had made his gamble and lost, but he wasted no time on regrets. He would fight until he died, and his prayers would go ahead of him, he vowed, that somehow the child might live.
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae: Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
Without taking his eyes from the jackals, he felt the slight bulge in his pocket where he had stowed the rosary.
So be it. And so it would be. For now, two more jackals had come, drawn by the sound of battle and the smell of blood.
"I am sorry, little son," he murmured, "that you must die without baptism."
He sat up, wishing there were something behind him where he might crouch at bay. A tree or a bit of rock would be enough. But there was nothing.
Hesitantly, the beasts closed in, shafts of morning sunlight stippling their dusty coats with gold. Our last day on earth, little son--
Somewhere a gun went off. With a startled flurry, the jackals fled. Snakestail rolled sideways, knife in hand, but the sound had come from the upper slope on the colony side.
He could not stand up. A wave of nausea passed over him and the child's weight became a burden he could scarcely hold up. He sagged to the ground.
"What the hell! Snakestail! Warden, is that you?"
He knew that voice.
There came a crackle of brush and a moment later, the other man squatted beside him.
"Jesu! Look at you, man! Are you ever a sight!" Then Menendez caught sight of the baby. "Oh Snakestail! What have you done?"
The game warden regarded Menendez through a wavering haze. "What," he asked hoarsely, "are you doing here?"
Before the other man could answer, another voice called from up the slope. "Cisco! What's that racket? Did you find the warden?"
"Oh Snakestail," Menendez told him, "now we are in for it!"
"Cisco!" Another crashing until with a last, stumbling slide, Fitzsimmons broke through the figberries. He took in the scene with one glance: Snakestail, the yelling baby, the dead jackal.
Leaning back on his rifle, he burst out laughing. Only when he had to pause and wipe tears from his eyes, did he come to a spluttering stop. Then as he toed the jackal, he started laughing again.
Even Menendez could not keep back a chuckle. "Warden Snakestail," he said, "now you have shown us your feet of clay!"
"He's right," Fitzsimmons said. "Your job won't be worth much after this."
Snakestail tried to bring the man's face into focus. "Get this--baby--off my back," he whispered.
Fitzsimmons laughed again. "Messed itself, I bet. The little savage."
"He needs water--food--"
Menendez reached for the harness.
"Just a minute," Fitzsimmons told him. "Have you forgotten who this is?"
The other man hesitated. "Warden," he said, "you will not remember that you saw us here?"
The game warden fingered the dagger in his hand.
"Well Snakestail?" Fitzsimmons demanded. "We're saving your life looks like. That's worth a few cattle and lab deer, isn't it?"
Slowly, Snakestail shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "You know I cannot do that."
"We could leave you here."
Fitzsimmons stopped smiling. "What about the baby, Snakestail? You got chewed up pretty bad to save that kid."
"You will not let him die," the game warden said. "You are not like that, Fitzsimmons."
"The hell you say! All we have to do is give it back to its own people."
"Daniel--" Menendez hesitated, staring from one man to the other.
"Don't be a fool," Fitzsimmons snapped. "You want to go to prison?"
"I am not a murderer, Daniel."
"Who's talking about murder?" Fitzsimmons demanded. "We can just leave if you like. Forget we saw anything."
"You know we can't do that."
The rifle, which had been pointed at the ground, came up fractionally. "I say what we can do, Cisco. It's my skin too."
Menendez stared at the gun.
"Snakestail's spent too much time with the Star Brothers," Fitzsimmons growled. "He wants to be a martyr."
Menendez glanced at the baby which had indeed messed itself and was still voicing its displeasure, though not so loudly as before.
"That is not such a bad thing," he said softly.
Fitzsimmons heard him. "Well then let him have his wish," he said and turned away.
In one fluid motion, Menendez came to his feet. "I have wishes too," he said. "I told you I am not a murderer, Daniel."
The rifle swung back, but Menendez was faster. His fist cracked against the other man's jaw and Fitzsimmons dropped the gun.
"Damn you, Cisco!"
Snakestail tried to hold back the darkness. He felt the child struggling against him, smelled the rich reek of what it had done. But it was so heavy--so heavy--
Above him Menendez and Fitzsimmons strained together, their feet drumming against the clay until it seemed to Snakestail he heard again the drums of the peyote growers. He could almost see them, watching over their little valley, waiting for the victim to die.
Fever heat washed over him. It was so hot--already the day was hot. His leg throbbed, the child cried, and the drums were deafening.
He had made a fine mess of things, he thought. A fine mess.
When Snakestail woke, the first thing he did was to reach for the child--but it was gone. Then he realized he was no longer lying on the ground.
"Quite an adventure, Clement," a dry voice said. "I hope you consider it worthwhile."
"This is a bit more serious than the time you took a day off from school to chase valley crabs."
"Father, uh, Father Saer, I don't expect you to understand--" He did not dare look at the Star Brother who sat at his bedside.
"You don't expect me to understand?" the voice repeated. "Ah."
"How is he?" Snakestail asked, turning his head slightly so that the priest's dark form swam into his vision.
"Fine. Strong boy. We put him in a foster home for now."
Snakestail relaxed. His leg still hurt him but his other injuries were not so bad. "Then it was worth it, Father," he said and this time he did look up. There was no reading the expression on the Star Brother's face, however.
"You lost your job."
Snakestail shrugged. "What could I expect?"
"The two who brought you in--they friends of yours?"
Snakestail stared at him. "Two?"
"Francisco Menendez and Daniel Fitzsimmons. They've been arrested for stealing cattle."
Snakestail tried to rise, felt the priest's powerful hands push him back. "I--I need to see them. To tell the authorities that they gave up their freedom to save my life!"
"Maybe," the Star Brother said with a wry smile, "they did it for your new son."
"My--yes." Snakestail lay back, a new light coming into his dark eyes. "Of course, Father. And will this be a factor in--in their trial?"
"It will be. We Star Brothers have some clout, I think. Though at the rate we're going, our own trial may soon follow. And then we can all be deported together."
"I--caused some trouble for you, didn't I?"
The priest gave him a keen look. "It's been smoothed over, Clement. With Net Central, I mean. They can't very well make us give the baby back. Human sacrifice is technically illegal. But--"
"But we've had to make concessions too. You, for instance, are no longer a colony employee." Again that sharp glance.
"But it was right, what I did? How could I have done otherwise?"
"I'll leave that last question to your imagination," the Star Brother said. "But, yes, Clement, it was right. And it will be rewarded as right actions usually are--in this life, anyway."
Snakestail looked up at him. "I am not afraid," he said, realizing that he spoke the truth. After the peyote growers and the jackals--and Fitzsimmons and Menendez--there was not much left to fear.
"Good," the priest said. "And I hope you may still say that when I tell you that you have been banished from the colony. You are to leave Ixtlan."
Snakestail stared at him in shock. "To--to leave?"
"At least for now. Probably for several years at least."
There was a long silence, broken by the Star Brother. "You obviously don't have a vocation to the priesthood," he went on. "We've been through that before. But that does not mean we can't send you to one of the universities--on Earth, for instance, or some other colony."
"You would do this?"
The older man shrugged. "You are our ward, Clement. Or you were until you reached your majority. We'll stretch things a bit."
Snakestail tried to nod. He would make the best of this, he vowed. When he felt better, that is. But Ixtlan was home. And the Star Brothers were the only family he had ever known.
"Father," he asked then, remembering the sight of the helpless infant lying on the pavement. "You will care for the child? Until I return?"
There was no more to say. Snakestail stared at his hands. One of them was bandaged where a jackal had bitten him. "Father," he ventured at last, "were you ever there when--when they were going to kill someone? When you knew about it, I mean."
Snakestail did not say anything.
"Aren't you going to ask me what I did?" the Star Brother enquired.
"What did you do, Father?"
"I climbed the rocks and watched--and prayed, of course. And my prayer was answered."
Snakestail looked up at him in surprise.
"It was St. Clements Day, stellar calendar," the priest added. "And the baby was clutching a dried snake's tail in one fist when I picked him up."
"Oh," Snakestail said. "I see."
"Someone took a shot at me," the priest added as an afterthought. "But by God's grace, they missed."