The Promise

by

 

Gail Manfre

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

 

DIEGO’S SACRIFICE

 

 

Diego could not believe his eyes and ears. Blessed Virgin...help me to be strong ... I can not let those poor men suffer such terrible pain. I cannot! He returned to his bride and whispered to Selena. “This is something that I must do, querida mia.”

She began to protest but she saw the indomitable will in his bearing and kissed him deeply. “A man must do what a man has to do,” Selena heard herself saying as if from a great distance. “I shall not leave your side, Diego!” Blessed Mother of God, help him! she fervently prayed.

“Whatever did I do to deserve such an amazing woman?” he said as he bent down to kiss her forehead. Diego then stepped away from her embrace and faced the Commandante.

“Your Excellency, Visconde de Estrada,” Diego stood ramrod straight as he formally addressed the commandante, “I cannot in good conscience permit you to torture and possibly kill these men, especially when there are viable solutions to this problem that you have failed to consider.”

Something intangible in the caballero’s voice caught de Estrada’s attention. He stopped popping his whip in mid-stroke. “What do you propose, Don Diego?”

“Simply this. Either accept my payment of the Tiñteros’ taxes or allow me to take their places at the whipping post.”

De Estrada looked around the nearly deserted plaza. Thanks to that tailor’s shouting regarding José’s decision to return Señores Ballarias and Guiterrez’s money to them, the Visconde was not only going to have a chance to feed his bloodlust but also have a much coveted audience while he did so. And now de la Vega, one of my most bitter enemies, offers himself to me? Surely, Dios has greatly favored me this day.

Like Selena and Diego, Don Alfredo Alvarez had also remained in town to make certain that none of his tenants would be imprisoned or brutalized by this madman. When he spied Don Alejandro’s son rushing back towards the plaza, he knew trouble was afoot. And now, his worst fears were confirmed. He also could see the blood lust in the Commandante’s eyes. But had Diego lost his mind? Don Alfredo cringed visibly as he heard Diego’s foolish proposal. No slight against your honor, my boy, but you would not be able to withstand that torture either. Don Alfredo worriedly thought. He made his

way to where Señora de la Vega was standing and stood next to help her maintain her composure should Diego continue to foolishly confront Glorioso.

“Surely Diego realizes that de Estrada is a cruel and evil man, Señora? is this action necessary?” Don Alfredo asked her.

“To Diego it is very important, Don Alfredo.” She firmly replied.

De Estrada waved his free hand at Garcia. “Sergeant Garcia, release José Tiñtero. Don Diego, you are positive you are willing to submit to my authority?” Glorioso could not believe that de la Vega was so stupid to suffer public humiliation on behalf of péons!

Si, I will.” Selena’s husband responded loudly and clearly for everyone in the suddenly repopulated plaza to hear. He paused to look again at his wife and was rewarded with a look full of nothing but love and encouragement in her eyes.

“Dieu vous bénissez, Diego!” [God bless you!] he heard her say. Diego turned around to face de Estrada. “I am ready for you, Visconde.”

“Very well, Sergeant Garcia relieve Don Diego of his chaqueta and shirt.”

Diego held up his hands. “That will not be necessary, sergeant.” The caballero slowly removed his clothes and handed them to Selena. “Visconde, I am your prisoner.”

“B-but Commandante, he is a caballero! You can not be serious!”

“Bind him to the whipping post!” de Estrada angrily ordered. “Do as I say!”

Don Alfredo grasped Selena’s hand. To his amazement, the new Señora de la Vega was quite calm and kept her gaze firmly on her husband.

Señor Ballarias once again became de Estrada’s most vocal gadfly, angrily shouting to everyone within earshot that de Estrada was about to horsewhip a caballero, and not just any caballero, but Don Diego de la Vega.

“No! We must stop the Visconde!” Ballarias yelled. “Señores, are you with me?”

The crowd’s mood grew uglier as it increased in size. Many male voices in the plaza hurled insults at de Estrada. Some debris was thrown in his direction, but did not strike him. Both Diego and Selena feared that the Visconde would order the lancers to open fire on the people.

Suddenly Glorioso whirled around to warn them. “Señores and Señoras! Hear

me well! Don Diego has agreed to receive the Tiñteros brothers’ full sentence of twenty lashes,” Glorioso paused to look meaningfully at Selena de la Vega, “and should anyone in the plaza utter one word of protest I shall add another lash to the sentence for each spoken word? Claro?” No one spoke.

“Excellente. Sergeant you will keep count for me,” Glorioso said in a pleased tone.

“Si.” Garcia walked up to his dear friend and apologized. “Por favor, forgive me, my friend,” Garcia said as he watched two lancers bind him to the whipping post. “‘Here, Don Diego bite down on this. Please!” The sergeant pleaded.

Diego nodded and replied before opening his mouth to grasp the bit of leather, “there is nothing to forgive sergeant.”

“Step away Sergeant so I can execute the sentence.” Glorioso flicked the bullwhip against Diego’s feet to see if he would flinch, but the caballero remained silent. Oh, my fine young hidalgo, you will be screaming for mercy by the fifth lash!

The Visconde reared his arm and twisted his wrist at the last second so that it would land --hard -- across Diego’s entire bare back.

“Whack! Whack! Whack!” Glorioso landed three strokes in rapid succession. Diego remained standing perfectly still with his head held high against the post.

“I am impressed; Señor de la Vega,” Glorioso taunted. “You are very stoic!” He twirled the long metal studded lash before lying on the whip until beads of sweat appeared on his upper lip.

“WHACK, WHACK, WHACK and WHACK!”

Oh, by my faith! He felt his back muscles spasm. Diego bit as hard as he could into the leather. DIOS! THE PAIN! No, I will not give that animal the satisfaction of shuddering or crying out. I WILL NOT! BY SAINT TERESA OF AVILA I SHAN’T! I SHAN’T”

His tormentor waited. Glorioso was now curious why the “weakling” de la Vega failed to so much as even moan during his flogging. Thirteen more strokes to go. Anger and frustration dominated Glorioso now. He redoubled his efforts to force Diego to reveal that he was in agony as Sergeant Garcia counted another three strokes.

Diego closed his eyes. Never had he experienced pain such as this! The whip seemed to brand itself deeper and deeper into his lacerated back. Blood oozed from a spidery network of cuts, becoming trails of white-hot fire as it coursed towards his waist. He focused on the pain to help him remain conscious. St. Teresa help me endure this suffering. I could not allow the Tiñtero brothers to experience this! Diego continued praying fervently as the whip etched more bloody marks into his now throbbing upper torso.

Several of the peons in the crowd fainted at the sickening sound and cruel sight of a whip ripping into bare flesh. Selena, like Diego, constantly invoked Heaven to keep them both strong.

“Eight, nine, ten, eleven!” Garcia dutifully called the count in a strangled voice. Finally, Garcia stepped in front of Diego. “Por favor! Don Diego is a caballero! He has had enough!“

De Estrada walked up to Diego and asked sarcastically, “Well, de la Vega? Had enough?”

Diego managed to look the Commandante directly in his face. His steely gaze engaged the Visconde’s own hostile look. Diego then shook his head. No.

“Very well. Peldar. Hand me the cat-o-nine tails! Now!” Glorioso yelled. “Quickly, lancer, quickly!”

Diego felt his resolve slipping, despite his fervent praying. De Estrada is baiting you, Diego... concentrate, man. Think of Our Savior’s suffering while he was being flogged. O Dios and Blessed Virgin, not a cat-o-nine tails whip! The caballero knew from witnessing disciplinary scourgings aboard the vessel returning him home to California what terrible tissue damage a ‘cat’ could do to a bare back.

As the first lash sliced into his flesh, his trapezeius muscles visibly spasmed. He bit down even harder on the leather scrap Sergeant Garcia had given him. Gracias a Dios for small favors and for friends such as Garcia, Diego sighed inwardly. Dear St. Teresa of Avila, I solemnly ... promise to make a novena to you... he wrestled with the white hot tongues of fire that he felt as the cat o nine tails burn more gashes into his shoulders... please, O Patron Saint of Spain, intercede on my behalf before ... the throne of the Creator ... so I may not faint.

Doña de la Vega persisted in staring directly at Diego’s mutilated back, forcing herself not to flinch as each horrible stroke struck him. She knew Diego was struggling not to lose consciousness, so she prayed quietly, Our Lady of Prompt Succor, please sustain Diego in his hour of suffering. Selena de la Vega was very thankful to God that at least some of her prayers were answered, for an eerie silence fell over the people witnessing Diego’s torment. So intense was her concentration that Selena was completely unaware of anything else, she only saw her beloved husband nobly suffering a public scourging. Doña Selena began perspiring, and the moisture would have cascaded down her lovely face had not Don Alfredo been there to wipe her brow.

A small movement to his right distracted Don Alfredo. A péon next to him knelt down, removed his sombrero, bowed his head and wordlessly moved his lips in prayer. Curious, he scanned the remainder of the plaza, and to his surprise, péons and merchants followed suit. Several of the hidalgos, Cornelius Esperón, Alfredo’s nephew Stefano, and Sebastián del Oro bowed their heads, refusing to watch the Visconde’s gory spectacle. Even the dour Don Carlos crossed himself and Don Alfredo heard him quietly begin mumbling words of encouragement to Diego.

Señor Tomás Ballarias made a concerted effort as he walked through the plaza to prevent the crowd from shouting anything in order not to provoke de Estrada further. His dark eyes searched the crowd and everywhere he looked, he saw people bore anguished looks on their faces. DIOS! At least, no one is saying a word. That is one small way we can thank Don Diego for his sacrifice. The tailor mused as he also fell to his knees. He fervently resolved to topple Visconde de Estrada, Juan Ramon Glorioso. Ballarias then determined to enlist the aid of the rest of vendors who participated in the Fiesta the Day of the Dead. Together they would work to remove de Estrada from power, the sooner the better!

Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen!” Garcia’s gravelly basso voice echoed throughout the plaza.

The pain now became excruciating as Diego realized that de Estrada was deliberately angling his blows so that the new stripes fell directly on the older wounds. De Estrada was doing his best to scar his back deeply. Think of how those two sick old men would have suffered had the Commandante whipped them, he reminded himself. Focus, man, keep focused on the pain and you will walk away from this punishment under your own power. If possible, Glorioso laid on the cat even harder than the bullwhip. Diego groaned to himself as he mentally counting the last four strokes.

“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty!“ Sergeant Garcia shouted and then again stood between the Visconde and his poor friend languishing at the whipping post. “The sentence has been carried out, Your Excellency!”

Glorioso tossed aside the ‘cat’ in utter disgust. “Very well, Sergeant Garcia. Disperse the crowd and then you may release the prisoner!” Who would have thought de la Vega, of all men, could remain conscious? I flogged him as hard as I could! Bah!

Don Alfredo nearly wept at his best friend Don Alejandro’s only son’s display of courage. I myself shall describe Diego’s stoic bravery to his father. He pledged silently. Alejandro, Doña Bethia can rest in peace, for your son is certainly no coward. Don Alfredo was also quite astonished by Selena de la Vega’s fortitude. Not once did she recoil as the lash cruelly cut into her husband’s back, nor did she faint when she saw his blood discolor the fabric of his calzoneros. Only after Garcia announced the final stroke did Selena permit herself to shudder.

Don Alfredo subdued his personal loathing of Glorioso as he walked with his arm around Selena’s waist. He forced himself to calmly speak to the Visconde despite the fact that he was ready to murder the man.

“Your Excellency, my men and I shall take care of Don Diego, he said in a voice that brooked no opposition.

The Visconde waved his assent with revulsion. “Garcia! Remove him from my sight immediamente!”

But the sergeant had already released Diego and gently wrapped a blanket around him. Tears formed in Garcia’s eyes for his valiant friend who remained silent while he was being whipped. Garcia had always had the greatest respect for Diego and now the good sergeant would forever praise the name of Diego de la Vega to everyone in the Pueblo!

Señores Ballarias and Guiterrez were openly weeping, as were many in the plaza, at the horrible sight of torn skin and bloody gashes that crisscrossed Don Diego’s back. Tomás Ballarias spoke to Selena first.

“Doña de la Vega,” he muttered into Selena’s ear, “we shall avenge your husband’s suffering this very day!” Ballarias then raised his voice so no one could misunderstand his message.

“Señores, hear me, por favor,” Ballarias shouted, as he began his rant against Glorioso, “it is time for the people to act!”

 

END OF CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

 

 

 

 

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