The Nocturnals

23 Aug

As the articulated groundtrain trundled through the Yellow Desert, Zanta Arbuscle sensed the hot loneliness of the noonday surface.

Her new husband, whom she had never met in person, was awaiting her at Caddo Station. What would he be like in the flesh? Would either of them be disappointed in the consummation of their long-distance union?

Like many another cactus farmer, Owen Quoin had no time to travel in search of a wife. His nightly labors did not permit any absence whatsoever. He might as well be chained to his cactus spread. Common sense made the middle-aged bachelor, like so many others, turn to his videon discus as the instrument of search for a mate. A descriptive ad went out over the optic mesh. Its first transmission caught the attention and interest of Zanta. Results were achieved at once.

A business secretary in her late twenties, she had long been on the lookout for a suitable candidate among the desert farmers. Many pictures flashed by on her discus before Owen captured her curiosity. She responded with her own face and biography. They conversed a number of times. Each of them fascinated the other.

The farmer informed her of what he did on his small plantation of night-blooming selenicereus, commonly called saguaro. The objective of his efforts was the harvesting of dye-producing cochinilla insects that reproduced and thrived on the nocturnal cacti. He grew rhapsodic in describing this primary export from the desert, showing her on the videon the process of killing the small insects in tubs of hot water and then grinding them up into a carmine dip.

Zanta accepted his marriage proposal and legal documents were immediately exchanged. She found a city clergyman who specialized in weddings over the etherwaves. The ceremony was carried out in private at both ends. Now she was traveling over the Yellow Desert to meet the stranger she had wed in absentia.

Owen finished his agave toddy, paid for it, then hurried out of the station cantina. The grounder was due in Caddo shortly and he had to be ready to greet the woman whose husband he now had become. Would she take to him in person, on the spot? His deepest fear was that of physical rejection by the woman. For he was by no means handsome or good-looking. Short and spare, with graying black hair, there was nothing to attract any normal feminine eye. Why had Zanta accepted him? Did she take him to be a wealthy cactus cultivator? There were few such men on the Yellow Desert. The surface here was hard and stingy. A playa of dry clay lacked any sand. Life for cactus farmers was a difficult, merciless struggle against nature. He had failed to tell his bride about the strange rot destroying most of the cactus plants in this section of the desert. That had to wait or later, when conditions were right for her to hear that bad news from him.

Owen ambled over to where his calesa was parked, the equine hitched to a post.

Soon you will take Zanta back to your decaying farm, where cacti and cochinillas are dying off, he silently told told his nag as he patted her behind one ear.

Owen loosened his black calamanco cabo of stifling wool and his crimson neckerchief. Would she like the way he looked and dressed?

A shrill whistle suddenly split the sultry desert air.

“The new mistress will soon be here,” he told his animal, then hurried toward the loading area where the groundtrain was to make its stop.

The farmer dared not embrace the tall, thin woman in beige dress and sunbonnet. Auburn locks ringed her narrow, even face. She held herself and moved with a demure dignity.

Zanta offered her hand for him to shake.

“My calesa is over there. I’ll get your baggage and then we can start for the farm.”

She waited under the station’s awning while he brought her trunks and valises from the baggage room.

Once her personal possessions were loaded on the vehicle, Owen helped her climb aboard. He then took the driver’s position. A flick of the reins and they were on their way to the cactus farm.

The farther they rode from Caddo, the faster the equine trotted. From behind, came the sound of the groundtrain departing the area. Owen, a smile on his thin mouth, gazed at her out of the corner of his eye.

“I hope you find the house comfortable, my dear,” he said in a soft, warm tone. “My life has been nothing but work all night long, so that the place is very plain, simple, and humble. It will be up to you to furnish and improve our home, Zanta, for there are a multitude of heavy tasks and problems with the plants and the insects. It will not be easy for either one of us.”

The new wife made no reply to this, but looked to the right. Yellow, red, and purple flowers gave a luxuriantly lush cast to a field of agave, amaryllis, belladonna lilies, prickly pear, and century plants.

“That is the entrance to the Cachucha estancia. A lot of xeric experimentation goes on there,” explained Owen. “It is part of the gigantic holdings of Mr. Piute Cachucha. He is rich enough to afford a staff of xerophytic technicians. They all have university degrees in arid land agriculture and secoculture, as well as desert insect biology. Piute believes he can create new strains of desert plants through planned and controlled pollination. His aim is to develop stronger, richer nocturnal cacti. But he keeps his results secret from ordinary farmers like me.”

A chill shadow fell over his face and eyes as he snapped the reins. The equine and the calesa sped past the great plantation in a flash.

Owen Quoin lived in a small adobe cabana that he himself had built. The squalid mud brick structure made Zanta twist her mouth in disgust. Why had he not transmitted a picture of it to her? That first afternoon she began to rearrange and decorate what she found. Several hours of cleaning had immediate results. Her housekeeping skills overwhelmed her husband. His new mate was clearly an adept homemaker.

Zanta fried some cactus flour stackcakes for a twilight supper.

The pair carried a table outside to the covered porch facing westward to the quickly setting daystar.

“Everything tells me that you are a good cook,” exclaimed the new husband, spreading calipash jelly on his seventh stackcake. “As I informed you on the videon, my work extends all night long. While you sleep, my task will be trimming and pruning the plants, as well as collecting cochinilla in bags. This will last till dawn tomorrow morning.” He paused, staring at her.

Owen suddenly looked away, toward the straight line of the horizon. The purplish green sky was darker than the yellowish clay ground.

After a moment of concentrated thought, he swiveled his head back to Zanta.

“I did not tell you the entire story,” he sheepishly confessed to her.

“My best cacti have suffered serious damage from the rot. I now have many stunted dwarves. No insects can survive on them. My losses could turn out to be ruinous.” He halted, gazing at her as if pleading for mercy. “I also failed to say anything about the mortgage, my dear.”

Zanta felt a jolt inside. “Mortgage?” she inquired incredulously.

Her husband nodded yes, then proceeded to explain.

“All the independent farmers like me borrow funds in order to purchase seedlings and equipment that we need. It is customary to pay back those loans once the dye is sold and delivered to middlemen agents. I myself have followed that common pattern since starting here twenty years ago. But never has there been anything like the present cactus rot. No one has any idea what causes it or why its spreads so quickly in all directions. But the results are devastating for the plants and the cochinella that live off of them.

“And I am not the only smallholder suffering so much. All my neighbors have similar loss and damage. Only Piute Cachucha seems to be weathering the rot and its effects.”

Zanta appeared disturbed by all she had heard.

“Who holds your mortgage?” was her immediate question to him.

“The Carbonado Bank. It has an office in Caddo.”

“I can contribute my own life savings,” offered the new wife. “They are still in a bank back home, but I could have them transferred to that local institution.”

For a moment, Owen was at a loss for words, his mouth gaping open.

“It may not come to that,” he managed to mutter. But in the back of his mind, he feared that it would.

In a little while, Owen was ready to start night work on his cacti. Zanta presented him an unexpected surprise. “I want to go out with you and see how the selenicereuses bloom. By watching, I can learn how to assist you out in the field.”

He looked at her with wonder in his eyes.

Zanta spoke once more. “I will let you help out at home, if you will allow me to become your assistant out there on the desert. What do you think of such an exchange?”

They both began to laugh in unison.

“I have no objection,” he decided. “But it is extremely hard work, my pet. I will carry out the heavy lifting. You can help with the cutting and trimming. Then, you can watch me brush the cacti and bag the insects. In time, some of that work can fall to you.”

In a short while, they left the cabana with pruning tools, a ladder, and cochinilla-capturing equipment.

The bright golden aurora of dawn filled the eastern horizon as the bone-tired pair made their way homeward. All at once, both of them heard the sound of hooves pounding the ground. More than a single equine, Zanta realized at once. What could it be, though?

Seeing her mate scanning the field, she did the same.

Both of them saw a party of mounted men in the distance, riding past the Quoin cabana. The strange intruders wore leather chaparajos to protect their legs.

“Are they some sort of herders?” asked Zanta with burning curiosity.

“No, dear. There is little animal husbandry out here on the Yellow Desert. It is much too dry for that. Those men riding by are xeric workers in the employ of Cachucha’s facienda.”

“Facienda?”

He stared at her. “That’s the pollination facility on the big plantation that you saw yesterday.”

As the squad of riders thundered closer, the one in the lead raised his right arm outward. The whole group swerved in that direction, riding away from the two who were watching them. They had evidently spotted the pair and intended to avoid them.

Owen only spoke after the equines disappeared and their noise was gone.

“They cross our farm whenever one of their experiments takes them this way. In legal terms, they have no right to trespass onto our territory. But who is so bold as to challenge these incursions? Every independent farmer has to suffer their insults and indignities.”

“What were they up to tonight, Owen?” she asked with sudden emotion.

He gazed down at the ground. “Who can say? It has to be some kind of pollination experiment that Piute Cachucha wishes carried out.”

The two proceeded back to their cabana for needed sleep.

Zanta received word over the videon that her bank had forwarded all her funds to the Carbonado Bank in Caddo.

“I want to go there with you tomorrow,” she told her spouse. “It will be interesting to see how the bank officials react to your payment for all this year.”

“But all of it is your contribution, my dear,” smiled Owen.

The pair exchanged tender glances.

“My intention is to find out whether it is possible to negotiate better terms. At least we can learn where we stand,” said Zanta.

Early in the morning, they rode in the calesa to the village, each of them dressed in their best. The bank building was located on the main campo, at the crossroads of Caddo.

From the first, Zanta sensed something falsely fraudulent about the place. There was an atmosphere of phony respectability about the bank.

A man named Victor Aloe, short and rotund with darting watery eyes, greeted them. His sleek white suit of artificial silk seemed a covering for evil and treachery in her estimation. She refused to return the banker’s easy grin.

When the newly-weds were seated across from him, Mr. Aloe inquired what he could do for them.

“My wife and I wish to pay on my mortgage for a year ahead,” announced Owen, his head raised high, his voice strong with pride.

The banker nearly choked in shock and surprise. “I do not quite understand,” he mumbled, his face flushed red. “How can you afford to prepay with so much cactus rot this year?”

“The money comes from me,” declared the wife. “Your bank has received a mesh transfer from an account I closed elsewhere.”

“I see,” sputtered Aloe, confused and flabbergasted. “Of course, we shall have to verify everything. That will take several days, but there should not be any difficulty, none at all.”

Suddenly, the little man rose from his metallic chair.

“But tell me this: how do you propose to make future payments? The production of cochinilla dye is growing worse, not better. Rot is killing the nocturnal cactus. Prospective projections for your type of old-fashioned xeroculture are most discouraging. How will you maintain your farm under such conditions, Mr. Quoin?”

He gave the latter a look of merciless disdain.

Before Owen could say anything, Zanta answered the banker.

“We are determined to succeed, sir,” she asserted in a forceful voice. “It is best not to reveal specifics at this time, but you and everyone else will see our land prospering one day. I assure you of that.”

Owen eyed her with awe and admiration, the banker with barely concealed outrage and hatred.

Zanta sprang to her feet, followed by her husband.

As the couple turned to leave, Victor Aloe whispered to them from deep in his throat. “I advise you to sell your land now, before final ruin hits this region. Otherwise, there will be nothing left in your hands. All will be lost.”

Owen and Zanta stared at the man who was threatening then. They rushed out of the Carbonado Bank in steaming anger.

Victor Aloe drove his galvanocar up to the front entrance of the sprawling, flat-roofed villa and climbed out. He had felt it necessary to go to the estancia at once to confer with the district cacique.

The housekeeper, opening the heavy quercine door and seeing who it was, led him at once to the private study of her employer, engaged with business correspondence at a videon discus.

Pedro Cachucha was a dark-haired, dark-complected brute of towering size. He turned his rough, craggy face to see who was in his office.

“What is it?” barked the landholder without greeting or introductory words. He shut off the audio of the videon set.

It took only half a minute for the banker to narrate what had happened at the bank. Pedro listened attentively, not asking the visitor to sit down.

When Aloe was finished, the desert magnate pondered for a moment.

“How big is the woman’s account?”

“Considerable, sir. It can cover the mortgage payments for a long time.”

Cachucha raised his hand to rub his jutting jaw.

“I shall give top priority to this problem.” The cacique pursed his thick, fleshy lips. “There must soon be a complete pollen attack on the cacti of this Quoin. It must be done immediately. There is no time to lose.”

The eyes of Aloe grew large. His hands trembled. “You mean to ruin these people at once?” he said with awe.

The reply was a silent nod.

A sardonic grin crossed the banker’s face.

“I foresee that even the feisty wife will become eager to sell,” he noted with evil glee.

Owen and Zanta worked hard all night along the northern end of their holding. The old, multi-colored celandine plants were in decline and decay.

“Whose land is that on the other side of the boundary clearing?” inquired Zanta when the two took a short rest.

A sad expression seized hold of his face in the starlit darkness.

“It once belonged to a good friend of mine. But he was forced by conditions and circumstances to sell out and move away. The holding changed hands two or three times, but that was only on paper. Behind it all was Pedro Cachucha. He now controls the farm through a dummy trust of some kind.”

“Too bad,” moaned his wife. “It doesn’t look like it is being used at all.”

“The cacti have been allowed to go to waste. It is a shame.”

The two returned to their labors, cleaning out the rot the best they could. Strings of stars illuminated their efforts. Working feverishly, they eventually completed the task.

“We are finished, for now,” announced Owen with relief, breathing heavily. Zanta jumped down off the ladder on which she had been perched, landing squarely on her feet. As her husband gathered up the pruning tools, she surveyed the area beyond the emptiness of the land border. In the distance, hulking shapes of abandoned cacti, dark and stationary, towered. How much taller those plants than ours! she marveled.

As the admiring thought flashed in her mind, Zanta caught sight of a small, moving light across the boundary. In an instant, it disappeared in the darkness.

She strained her eyes and her mind. What might it have been out there? Some illuminated flying insect of the desert? But she knew that the Yellow Desert contained no fireflies whatever.

“What are you looking at, Zanta?”

She turned aside. Her husband had moved without the slightest noise.

“I have the impression of some light over among the cacti beyond the clearing,” she said in a hushed voice. “It seemed to move, then was gone.”

Owen peered across the open space. All of a sudden, he saw what it was his wife was talking about. For several seconds, a bright white light moved in a horizontal direction, then completely vanished.

“Was that it?” he asked her.

“Exactly.”

Owen turned to her. “I must go across and find out who is there at this hour, on the periphery of our spread.”

“I’ll go along,” declared Zanta, taking a step forward.

Owen followed, surprised at her speed and boldness.

The cactus field to the north was closer than either of them had supposed. Zanta stopped and swiveled about to face him as soon as they reached the first cactus beyond the invisible property line.

“Let’s stand here and wait a moment,” she softly whispered to him.

He reached out for her right hand with his left, taking and holding it in a tight, secure grip.

For a short time, they stood scanning the thicket of selenicereus cacti. Their sight grew keener as they peered at the ground shadows.

Another flash of light came, smaller and dimmer than the first.

“It is now farther away,” she murmured. “Someone must be leaving the grove. Let’s go on and see whether anything is left at the first location, where we spotted the light that was so strong.”

Before Owen could reply, she had started forward, compelling him to follow her again. She zigzagged between the tall plants, carefully avoiding their spikes. The two approached the spot where the second light seemed to have originated.

All at once, Zanta stumbled on something in her path. Owen caught hold of her in time, preventing a fall in the darkness. She quickly regained balance, turning at once to her husband.

“What is it?”

Owen had already bent down to examine the obstacle that had almost grounded her. It turned out to be a thermoplastic tubular.

“This is a hose,” he said. “Let’s find out where it runs.”

Gingerly, they followed the narrow tubing a way, to something unexpected.

A large circular tank, the type used to hold gases, stood in a small clearing.

“What can it be?” asked a perplexed Zanta.

Owen examined the tank in silence. He did not touch anything, but knelled to look at switches and tabs on the side of the strange container.

He straightened up, then approached his wife.

“It has to be a pollinator. I have heard of such advanced instruments. Perhaps the technicians of Piute Cachucha were carrying out some study with it. This is far beyond my knowledge or experience.”

“A pollinator?” wondered Zanta. “You mean that it broadcasts pollen through the air? Is that its purpose?”

“That has to be what the expensive tubing is for, my dear.”

Owen bent forward toward the tank, putting an ear against the metallic side.

“I can hear a motor humming inside, Zanta. The apparatus is now in operation. We must trace the hose to find out what is coming in or out at the far end somewhere.”

Locating the thermoplastic tube again, he began to follow it southward. His wife was only a step behind him. The hose looped around tall cacti, heading toward the edge of the grove. Here they discovered the end of the snaking carrier, a wide-mouthed nozzle. Owen kneeled and put a hand against it, then raised himself upright again.

“A very fine powder is being sprayed into the air,” he informed her, raising his dust-covered hand so that Zanta could examine it in the starlight.

She bit her lower lip hard. “What is all this for?” she plaintively asked.

“To vex, ruin, and drive us out, my love,” he bitterly replied.

Once back at their cabana, Owen went on his videon to summon his neighbors to a meeting the following morning. What was it for? he knew that many would in time ask him. He was not going to be too specific. A development that involved the trouble with cactus rot, he told them in a general way. The matter could not wait, it had to be dealt with as soon as possible. He hinted at pressing urgency. The small independents had to meet and hear what he had to tell them.

By dawn, farmers who had been at work in the fields all night long began to gather in the front room of the cabana.

Owen introduced his wife to the eight small-growers assembled there.

“I have something important to announce to you,” began the host in a serious tone. “The rot afflicting our nocturnal plants does not arise from any natural disease of the Yellow Desert. It comes about from intentional human intervention.”

Eyes stared, mouths gaped. as he proceeded to tell them what he and his mate had discovered on land belonging to Cachucha. Growing excitement seized hold of the listeners in plaincloth calamanco.

“What can we do?” asked one farmer when Owen had finished.

“How can our cacti be protected from noxious pollen?” demanded another. “If these microspores are nearly invisible, how can we fight back?”

Owen glanced at Zanta standing beside him, then gave his colleagues a thoughtful reply.

“I will tell you what we did to the nozzle and tubing aimed at our farm. It was quite easy to turn it all about so that the spray does not travel the way intended, but in the opposite direction. The cacti of the man who ordered this demonic pollution will suffer, not ours.”

“But what will happen when Cachucha learns what we are doing?” said an old, grizzled veteran of the clay desert. “His people have only to turn the equipment back the way it was intended for the situation to be his again.”

The room fell silent as Owen Quoin formulated his thoughts with logic.

“We have to act together in concert,” he asserted with feeling. “In small squads and platoons, we can search the outlying areas of his estancia for additional pollination devices. I propose that we organize all our neighbors to begin scouring Piute Cachuchas’s portion of the desert tomorrow night. Does anyone object?”

No one said anything against the plan. The farmers discussed how to invade the territory of their wealthy enemy, the cacique.

Zanta did not like the assignment Owen gave her the following evening.

“But I was planning to go with you into the estancia,” she argued. “What good will it be if I stay here in the cabana, coordinating communications over the videon for the squads of farmers?”

They looked wordlessly at each other for a couple of seconds.

“It is a necessary task that someone has to carry out,” he insisted. “Your contribution will be an important, substantial one, believe me.”

She accepted the mission, submitting to what he had decided.

Owen shortly left the cabana, taking the equine.

His wife went about her house chores, checking the videon for messages every several minutes.

Where are Owen and the farmers? she continually wondered. Have more pollination machines been found?

Zanta was busy cleaning the kitchen and did not hear an intruder enter.

She gave a start when the banker she had met came in from the front room.

“Mr. Aloe!” she screeched. “What are you doing here?”

The little man wore a peppermint pink suit tonight. He stepped into the kitchen before stating why he was there.

“I came to see your husband as well as you, about a problem that has arisen concerning the mortgage on this farm of yours.”

“Owen is out in the field working tonight,” she lied. “I do not expect him home until dawn. Why don’t you return in the morning?”

Victor Aloe made a sarcastic sneer on his face.

“I might as well tell you, Mrs. Quoin, and you can relate the news of the bundling to him when he returns.”

“Bundling?” said Zanta, a puzzled expression on her face.

The banker puckered his lips before explaining the term to her.

“All the mortgages in the district have been combined into a single bundle for conveyance to a single owner who holds them. You will no longer deal with my bank, but directly with the bundler who owns all the debt paper in this area.”

“And who is that?” she demanded, anticipating the fatal answer.

“Mr. Piute Cachucha, holder of the great estancia to your north.” His aqueous eyes glowed with insidious glee. “He has appointed me his agent to handle mortgages in arrears, such as yours.”

Zanta sensed a rush of blood to her brain.

“But that is not so!” she objected, raising her voice. “I have had my accounts transferred to your bank, for making the mortgage payments. In fact, I have arranged for prepayment, ahead of time. There can be nothing that is in arrears.”

“You have a serious problem, Mrs. Quoin,” he grumbled. “Nothing has yet been received in your name at the bank. As far as we can tell, there has been no transfer at all. I have made several inquiries, but there is no record anywhere of such sending of funds to us. As a result, your mortgage is in deep trouble. Now, Mr. Cachucha has empowered me to purchase this land and avert court foreclosure on it.”

By now, Zanta’s face was beet red.

“Get out of here!” she shouted, startling the visitor. “Out of here at once!”

Aloe turned around and ran away as rapidly as his small legs could move.

Owen and two companions were reversing pollination apparati along the western border of the estancia when they heard the tramping of several equines.

From the opposite direction there appeared two groups of armed riders.

“What are they going to do?” whispered a terrorized farmer. “They have weapons, but we do not!”

Each approaching rider held an automatic carabino and appeared ready to use it on trespassers.

The trio of farmers huddled, holding their heads down as an attack commenced.

Using the butts of their long guns, the estancia guards pummeled the heads and torsos of the three unprotected small farmers who were intruders here.

Owen stood above the other two, fearless defiance on his face.

The enraged horsemen concentrated their blows on this one stubborn opponent. As they finished their assault, the recalcitrant cactus-grower fell to the ground.

The attackers were already riding off when his two comrades looked into the unconscious bloodied face of Owen Quoin.

“We had better get him home at once,” mumbled one of the farmers.

Zanta felt a primal fury demanding that she take action.

It was useless for her to resist the overwhelming power of the impulse for revenge.

Hitching the old equine to the calesa, she started to drive toward Caddo. But why go there? The shady banker Victor Aloe was only a tool and a puppet. It would do no good to confront him again. But there was a master lurking behind the fat little man. Arms shaking with anger, she pulled on the reins as the calesa came to the entrance of the grand estancia. The equine turned into the trail leading to the central courtyard and the huge villa of the land magnate.

There was no one about, Zanta realized with nervous excitement.

Even as a child, her character had been forthright and direct. The adolescent Zanta had been headstrong, determined, and fearless. She had never had close friends. Women resented the unbending metal in her. No male had ever envisioned her as a love object until Owen. She had boldly decided to find herself a husband in the Yellow Desert in an unconventional manner.

Zanta had chosen Owen Quoin before he decided to accept her.

And now the formidable woman intended to win a fight over the cacti.

Spying a line of hitching posts, she brought the calesa to a stop, jumped down, and tied the equine to one of them.

It took only a moment to scan the main building where the cacique lived. He had to be inside. That was why she had been drawn to come here.

Gritting her teeth, Zanta marched briskly to the front door of the villa.

What was she going to say inside, directly facing the owner?

You will know when the moment comes, whispered an inner voice.

Dawn rays lit the orange tiles of the roof. A brilliant desert day was near.

Zanta stood before the quercine door, ready to knock.

Before she did so, the portal itself opened an inch.

“Yes? Who are you? What is your business here?” demanded the creaky voice of the aged housekeeper.

“I wish to talk with your master,” blurted the tall woman in work clothes. “My business concerns his land and cacti, as well as my own.”

The quercine door opened wide. “Come in, please. I will ask him to see you,” said the old servant.

Zanta quickly entered the large hallway of the villa.

The housekeeper disappeared. When she returned, a dark giant followed behind her. This must be the malicious cacique, the visitor realized.

Bottomless black eyes, shining with evil, studied her.

“I know who you are,” laughed Piute Cachucha. “Your face came over the videon during your courtship, Mrs. Quoin. I found it amusing, even hilarious.”

Zanta felt a shiver of pain. “You sent Mr. Aloe with troubling news for us. I happened to be the only one home at the time to speak with him. Has he told you that the fraud and subterfuge that you concocted will not be accepted?”

He moved a step closer to her. “What are you talking about?” he growled harshly.

“I intend to sue the Carbonado Bank for misappropriation of the funds sent to them in my name. I plan to win vindication in court for the payments already made by me, as well as recovery of what you and your agent have stolen. Your trickery will be defeated and reversed. Mr. Aloe and you can expect to be in prison cells in the near future.”

She glared at the swarthy face. The cacique seemed to be gasping for breath. But all at once, he grinned with vile cunning.

“Do not place your hopes in judges or courts,” he warned in a threatening voice. “This is not the city. In this district of the Yellow Desert, I am the only one with authority. No one dares make any legal pronouncement counter to my wishes. In other words, the law belongs to me. Everyone you meet is beholden to the cacique.”

He peered at her with anger and scorn. “Go home and prepare to sell that farm to me,” he commanded. “Tell your husband there is no alternative.”

For a time, Zanta glared back at him. Then, she spun about and stalked out of the great villa.

The ride home was fast, made in a whirlpool of emotion.

She found two farmers in dark coats standing tn the front room.

“Something terrible happened to Owen,” one of them told her. She could see splotches of dried blood on his clothing. The sight horrified her.

The farmer narrated the incident to the startled, disoriented wife. As he described how the pair had carried their unconscious comrade home, Zanta broke away from them and hurried to the bedroom where Owen lay.

She leaned over him, placing an ear to his uncovered chest. A moment of listening told her he was breathing slowly, with enormous difficulty.

Zanta lifted her hand and examined his head and face. A hideous blue wound showed where a carabino butt had struck his temple. Congealed gobs of blood revealed where other blows had been directed.

Bending down, she kissed his puffy lips as lightly as possible.

What can I do now? she asked herself. Her eyes focused on the ugly head injury that the guards had given Owen.

I shall never forget or forgive this, vowed Zanta.

Her mind seemed to race ahead with stellar velocity.

What was needed became fully clear. There could be no doubt or questioning now. Zanta left her sleeping spouse and returned to the two farmers who had brought him home.

She had important matters to discuss with them.

Piute Cachucha had his private chamber on the right wing of the villa, opposite the kitchen and the servant’s room. For a while he watched an heroic epic adventure on the videon in his bedroom. Feeling drowsy, he fell into a doze on a soft sofa chair.

A sudden dream came into his mind from somewhere. He saw a woman’s face. She who had come here to confront him, the wife of Owen Quoin.

What was she doing inside his dreaming, disturbing his morning rest?

The body of the cacique jostled from side to side. Only the face remained. What was her given name? He had forgotten it.

Why had she come to him thus, into his sleep?

Cachucha sensed heavy breathing, but did not awaken.

Though he had no way of knowing, a sudden sweat broke on his brow. For even if he had wanted to, the powerful magnate could not have come to. Not now.

Through the shades of the one open window, a fine yellow mist flowed from a thermoplastic tube, filling the inside air with the cactus rot compound that the cacique’s crews had used on the plants of the independent farmers.

Piute Cachucha coughed once. A choking pain struck his throat, constricting the air flow to his lungs.

It was now too late to wake up and flee.

In less than a minute, all hope of recovery was gone for him.

Zanta, standing in the shadows behind the cabana, thanked the two farmers who had assisted her in the pollen attack she had conceived on her own.

“The apparatus will be returned tonight to where we found it,” one of them assured her. “No one will ever find out how the trickster met his doom.”

“The dust is impossible to see unless one carefully looks,” said the other. “It will appear to be a natural death, nothing more than that.”

When the farmers were gone, Zanta made for the bedroom. An oil lamp on a table beside the bed lit up the sleeping body of her mate.

Zanta sat down on a xyloid chair and waited, her eyes on the face of Owen.

When will he awaken? she asked herself. I must be present when it happens. Gradually, her eyes tired, then closed.

Was it wrong to asphyxiate someone like Cachucha? she asked in her sleep.

Near dawn, the eyes of Owen opened. His wife was already awake and moved to his side. She reached for his hand and held it tightly.

Owen gaped at her, his eyes full of questions.

“I have been to see Piute Cachucha and taken care of our problems with him. He shall not be bothering any small farmer again.”

The man in the bed suddenly gave his wife a smile.

“A while ago I had a strange dream, Zanta. In it, the cacique suffocated from cactus rot pollen in his throat and lungs. It was appropriate retribution, I think.”

Zanta felt her pulse quicken.

“Such dreams reflect plausible possibilities, I have been told,” he added.

His wife placed her right hand on his brow and stroked it tenderly.

Your dream has come true, my darling, she meditated.

She leaned over and kissed his temple, vowing to tell him what she had done only when his health was fully restored.

There would be plenty of opportunity for explanation in the days to come, Zanta told herself.

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