Juan played nervously with the string on his bathing suit, his eyes on Kat. She stood above the pond, one-third of the way up the cliff, gripping the rope swing with determination. Juan's gaze followed the frayed rope up to the giant oak branch, a knot in the pit of his stomach. He wondered if there was any danger of the rope breaking; help was far away.
The pond was two-thirds enclosed by circular cliffs the height of a three-story building. The grotto had been carved by some ancient turbid river. A thin waterfall streamed from the top of the rocks, keeping the pond continuously supplied with cool, fresh spring water. Hundreds of cliff swallows flew to and from their clusters of gourd-like mud dwellings underneath the rock overhang, busily feeding their young, all the while singing at their chores.
Juan watched as Kat gripped the rope higher, keeping her feet above the jagged rocks beneath her launch point. "Don't let go too late, Kat," Juan said. "You'll end up in the deep end where all'em snappers are!"
Five enormous snapping turtles hovered underneath the glass-like pond surface. Two large catfish swam among them, their whiskers clearly visible. Juan looked warily at the water as Kat yelled out to him, "I am not afraid of them!They're afraid of me! That's why they're over there and not where I'm jumping!" Kat's lower lip stuck out in defiance.
Juan said slowly, "Kat don't. Remember when Lucas swam there and a snapper tried to take off his leg? He was an eighth grader and we're only in fifth grade."
"He still has his legs," Kat replied, rolling her eyes. "Besides, I should be in sixth grade if I hadn't got left back," she added, more proud of her one year advantage over Juan than her school performance.
"I saw him come out of the pond crying. His foot was covered with blood," Juan insisted.
"He only stepped on a sharp rock. Lucas is a cry baby anyway," Kat said, and resumed her fixed stare at the snapping turtles, clenching her fists on the rope. The caw of a crow echoed across the cliffs. It seemed to be cautioning her.
Before Juan could say another word, Kat lunged off her stoop. Juan watched as the rope took Kat across the pond like a giant pendulum, creaking with tension as it swung. At the point where the rope was about to swing back, she dropped directly over the turtles with a great splash. Juan could see some turtles dart off in different directions. But Kat didn't swim straight back to the beach. Juan could see her underwater, where the turtles had previously been swimming. She is struggling, Juan thought. "Kat!" he yelled desperately, his echo from the surrounding cliffs mocking him.
Kat emerged at the far side of the pond with a loud splash and yelled back, "Here I am! I tried to catch one, but it got away. My daddy could have caught him, I bet."
"Come back now.Please!" Juan said, trying to spot turtles near Kat.
Juan watched as Kat took her time swimming back, no more turtles in sight. The danger had passed. The hot sun and green vegetation, alive with insect sounds, made him feel happy once again. When Kat got near shore, he swam out to meet her. Kat greeted Juan with a splash, which developed into splash wars that continued until they were both exhausted.
Tired, they lay on the beach, basking under the sun and making up Indian stories. Both avoided mentioning anything remotely related to school, which started in only two days. They cherished the Texas Hill Country in the summer--its lush valleys, cool springs, spruce and oak covered limestone mountains, Comanche legends and missionary past.
They continued entertaining themselves this way until their energy was drained. The hypnotic sound of the waterfall and the steady song of the cliff birds soon caused them to fall asleep.
* * *
Juan awoke to the faint ringing of a Texas dinner bell. It was getting dark and, as he often did, Kat's father was signaling Kat to come in for the night. Juan shook Kat. "Kat it's late. We've got to go back."
Jumping to her feet, Kat seemed to answer without even thinking, "I know a short cut. We just follow the river."
"But what about La Llorona?"
"The La what?"
"You know, La Llorona. The lady in white who haunts the rivers of the Hill Country at night, searching for her drowned children. She drowns anyone who sees her!"
"Not her again. How many times do I have to tell you?That old Spanish legend can't be true. How does anyone know about her if no one lives who sees her?"
Juan thought about this, but just became more frightened contemplating the legend. He sobered up quickly when Kat grabbed his hand and said firmly, "Come on!"
Kat helped Juan onto her pony, Sage, who had been patiently grazing near the water hole. She gripped the reins near Sage's chin and walked with him shoulder to shoulder. It was almost a quarter mile walk downstream to get home. Although there was still some sunlight, the path home was dark, shrouded by the thick forest growing in the spring-fed canyon.
Juan held tightly to Sage's mane. He felt safe on this large, friendly beast. He thought Kat was brave to walk in the chilly darkness. "How come you are not riding Sage too?" Juan said with a slight shiver in his voice.
"He might not be able to see his way and he'll stumble on a rock. If he breaks his ankle, my dad would shoot him."
"But why? Your father isn't mean."
"Because it would never heal right. Ponies are almost always on their feet. They even sleep on their feet."
Juan didn't really listen to her answer, as he was concerned that it was too dark to see the path."How can you see the path?" he said, trying to conceal his fear.
"Easy. I look up."
"No, really, how do you know your way back?"
"My dad taught me to walk on a forest path at night by following the path up in the trees."
Juan looked up and saw the slash in the cypress forest canopy exposing the starlit sky. They were following the sky path perfectly. Kat knew so much.
As Juan was looking at the stars, Sage came to a halt, throwing Juan temporarily off balance and scaring him considerably. Juan noticed a gray image, only twenty feet in front of them. A pair of red eyes shined at him hauntingly. His heart began to race. "La Ll-or-on-a!" he whispered, barely able to speak. Juan saw Kat doing something near Sage's hooves. Then came a loud clack, Juan's heart skipped a beat. Something rustled through the forest. Juan felt his veins freeze. But the sound clearly moved away from them.
"It was that deer again," Kat said, "I threw a rock near him and he ran. Give up that legend, Juan."
Juan took a deep breath.
"You mean the old gray deer with the broken antler that we saw at the Heinz farm last week?"
"And on Cross Mountain the week before. Yes, the same one," replied Kat. "He is the toughest animal in these woods. He survived everything. He has the instinct for survival ― like the Comanches had. I'll bet he has been around for one hundred years and knows all the mysteries of the forest. I'll be the one to hunt him down one day."
Kat tugged the rein to move forward. Sage protested a little but began walking again.
Finally, a clearing emerged, the meadow between their homes. On the right, Kat's bright white ranch house still overpowered the approaching darkness. Her father was sitting on the porch swing, gazing out over the meadow, smoking his pipe. On the left, a dim porch light flickered from Juan's modest home. Juan jumped off Sage and made a dash towards his home, hoping La Llorana would not capture him before he reached safety.