Memories in the Dust

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

In the darkness following the setting of the crescent moon, two riders, who almost seemed to have materialized from thin air, rode along a narrow path toward the southwest.   It had been two days since the beginning of Minta’s riding lessons, and Diego and Alejandro had deemed her capable enough to make the journey to San Pedro.  The only illumination was from the stars overhead and Diego eased his horse along the path with slow deliberation.  Although he was pretty sure of his memory with respect to the way to San Pedro, he didn’t want to take a chance of injuring either themselves or the horses because he was in a hurry. 

“It’s so dark, Diego,” Minta said, her eyes peering into the blackness of the late evening.

“Yes, but the horses are sure-footed and we are going slowly.  Just stay close behind me,” Diego said.  As he concentrated on the path ahead of them, he refrained from saying any more.  Minta, taking a cue from his silence, said nothing.  After a while, she noticed that the steep hillsides had fallen away.  Minta wasn’t sure which was less comforting, the narrow path lined with spectral fingered bushes and trees, and strewn with rocks and boulders that seemed to be hiding myriads of animals, or the open darkness where she could see almost nothing.  She looked up at the heavens, awed at the twinkling, sparkling blanket above her.  There was nothing quite so magnificent back on Rantir.  She looked toward Diego and saw his dim outline in front of her.

“Minta, come on up beside me.  The road is wide enough for us to ride abreast,” Diego instructed. 

Carefully, Minta tapped the gelding with her heels.  When nothing happened, she tapped harder, and then realized she had been pulling back on the reins.  Chagrined, Minta relaxed, remembered everything she was supposed to do and was pleased when she felt the gelding respond.  As she rode along side Diego, she recalled a conversation she had had with Diego on Rantir.  “Do you remember when you offered to drive a commuter so I could sleep?” she asked.

“Yes, you said it was very complicated,” he answered. 

“I think riding a horse is every bit as complicated,” she said wryly. 

“It will be easier in time,” Diego assured her, his laugh warm and infectious.  “You will begin to feel the horse beneath you and understand what they are thinking and how they act under different circumstances,” Diego continued.  “The reins will become an extension of your hands.”

“At least a commuter does not think,” she quipped.  “Well, not much, anyway.”  Diego chuckled.  “How can you tell where the trail is?” Minta asked, leaning forward and straining to see the trail in the darkness ahead.

“There is light, mi amor,” Diego told her.  “Not much, but enough.  And the horse’s senses are acute as well.”

“Hmm, I suppose your night vision has sharpened with your….”

“Yes, and the stars are bright tonight,” he quickly said, anticipating the rest of her statement.  “It does not happen often, but sometimes there are others traveling at night,” he added, his voice much softer.  “I have to be very careful in public places about references to my other activities, enamorada.” 

“Oh, I’m sorry, Diego.”  Her chagrin was plain to hear. 

“Por nada,” he assured her.  “We must both be careful.”

They rode in silence for a while longer, Diego quickening their pace to a trot.  As they skirted Los Angeles, they saw several dwellings, large and small, most dark, some with burning candles sending soft inviting light their way.  However, they stayed well away from these.   “We will travel quietly from here on out, querida,” Diego whispered, leaning close.  Before pulling away, he kissed her quickly.  “It will not take us too much longer to get to San Pedro.”

Within an hour they had reached the little port town and the inn near the harbor.  When they walked in the door, they found the room empty except for the innkeeper who was wiping tables.  The wizened little man looked up in surprise.  “We are closed, señor,” he said. 

“We do not seek refreshment, only rooms; one for myself and one for my fiancé,” Diego said. 

The old man stared at Minta, his eyes showing a mixture of bewilderment and curiosity.  “We have only one room available, señor.

Diego shrugged; there had been no sleep before they had ridden out.  The preparations had taken all of the day and into the evening and he was tired enough that it didn’t matter where he slept as long as Minta had a comfortable place.   He noticed the innkeeper’s rapt gaze at his wife.   Her clothing was well suited for travel but still showing her status as one of the upper class members of society.  Her hair had been pulled back, braided and was hidden under her hat.   He frowned and stated, “Then the señorita will sleep in your empty room.” 

“But Diego…” Minta protested.

“It is fine, querida.  I will be near and tomorrow we will finish the journey.” 

“But where will you sleep?” she asked.

“Probably with the horses,” he replied.  Diego turned to the innkeeper.  “You do have a stable, yes?”

“Sí, but señor…”

“Unless you have another room, I see no alternative,” Diego said, all the while thinking of the perfect alternative.  He sighed, remembering his promise.

The innkeeper nodded and went to the bar where he pulled out a book.  “Put the young lady’s name, please.”  Diego took the book and wrote the information.  “Minta…Morlif-Brocnor,” the innkeeper said with a slight hesitation, looking up at them.  “Do you have any belongings to be carried to your room?” he asked. 

“No, señor.  We had…problems on our journey,” Diego said vaguely. 

“Robbed?” the innkeeper asked.   Diego just shrugged.  The old man glanced at the entry again and then looked up, puzzled.  “Where is this Rantir?” he asked. 

“It is a very distant country,” Diego answered truthfully. 

“Very distant indeed,” the man replied, gazing at Minta yet again. 

She looked somewhat uncomfortable under his scrutiny, but Diego could see her chin rise with determination to put on a good front.  Her eyes never wavered from the old man’s.  He would have to talk to her about womanly demure behavior, at least until people were more used to her.  Staring them down would not make his acquaintances more comfortable in her presence. 

“Come with me.”  The innkeeper led the way up the stairs.  Diego took Minta’s hand, squeezing it lightly to reassure her, and they followed the old man up to an open door, and into a pitch-dark room.  With a sure step borne of practice and familiarity, he lit a candle next to the bed.  “Señorita, if there is anything you need, please ask,” the innkeeper said.

“Everything is fine, thank you,” Minta said, her voice low as she gazed around the room. 

The old man hesitated.  Diego waved his hand in dismissal.  “Leave the door open,” he said.   When the innkeeper left, Diego took Minta in his arms and held her close.  “You will be safe here, my darling.  I will be close by. I promise. In fact, I will be your knight and sleep outside your door.  You sleep well.”  He kissed her and then left, pulling the door closed behind him. 

Near the top of the stairs was a chair.  He glanced at it and then walked lightly down the stairs where the innkeeper stood waiting.  “Señor, do you have a helper who could stable mine and the señorita’s horses?”  When the man nodded, he continued, pulling out a coin and handing it him.  “Then have him do so.  I will sleep in the chair at the top of the stairs.  This is the señorita’s first trip away from her home, and I do not wish to be far away if she becomes frightened.”

“Sí, señor, if you wish.”

The next day after an early breakfast, where the couple seemed to be the main attraction, they left the inn, riding quickly along the well-traveled roads to Los Angeles.  This time there was none of the furtiveness of the night before.  As far as everyone knew, Don Diego was returning from San Diego.  No livestock had been purchased, but Don Alejandro’s announcement to the servants on the de la Vega rancho the day before, that Don Diego was returning with a señorita whom he was planning to marry, had quickly spread all over the pueblo.  That bit of news created a stir almost as great as the rumors that Zorro had been taken by demons or killed.

As the couple entered the pueblo, tongues wagged like dogs’ tails.  ‘Ah, the announcement was true.’  ‘Don Diego was truly engaged and the girl he was engaged to—ai!’  ‘Where did this unusual woman come from?  ‘What family did she represent,’ the whisperers asked?  ‘Was she from Africa?’  ‘Did some Africans have hair so light or eyes like amethysts?’  Where ever she was from and whoever she was, she had certainly bewitched Don Diego de la Vega.  He could not take his eyes off of her.  His smile was much brighter, his laugh so much happier in her presence. 

Crescencia Lopez, one of the de la Vega’s housekeepers, watched the young man she had helped to raise.  She could not immediately decide whether she was pleased or concerned for him.  Don Diego was so very happy, so much happier than he had been the past two years, that it made her feel happy, too, but when she saw the object of his affections, she paused in her musings, shocked.  Where could such a one have come from? she thought.  This girl was the blackest la negra she had ever seen.  And her hair—soft and almost white, cascading down her back to a point just below her shoulder blades.  Her eyes held Don Diego’s, and Crescencia could see adoration, deep and abiding, in them.

“Ai!  What could Don Alejandro’s son be thinking, bringing a girl such as that into the pueblo!” Maria Louisa said disdainfully, hating the strange woman immediately.  The daughter of the de la Vega cook made a quick sign against evil before hiding her hands from the older woman, who frowned at her sudden and vehement outburst.  

“Why do you say that?” Cresencia asked evenly, getting rid of her frown, and hiding her irritation at this girl’s quickly formed assessment.   She, herself, wondered about this love of Don Diego’s, but she was willing to learn more about her before passing judgment.  The world was a very large place, and even though this part of it was very seldom visited, it would stand to reason that there could be people like this strange woman residing in it somewhere. 

“She is probably a bruha, a priestess of the devil from Cuba or Africa.  They tame snakes, I hear, and make them do their bidding.  And they are dark, black as night, these African witches.”

“That is enough!” Cresencia hissed.  “Do you think that Don Diego is so stupid as to fall in love with a witch?  Shame on you, Maria Louisa!  There are many of the Negro blood in California as well as many mulattos.”

“But white hair and violet eyes?  She is a witch and she has cursed Don Diego,” Maria Louisa said, impenitent. 

“You will keep quiet, or I will talk to Don Alejandro about letting you work with the stable hands, mucking out the stalls.  Do you understand me?”

“Sí, I understand,” the young woman said sullenly.

“We will at least get to know her before we make our judgments.  And besides, Don Alejandro will have the last word in the matter.”   Maria Louisa just shrugged.  “I am serious,” Crescencia added.  “You will start no rumors. If I hear of any…”

“I hear you, I said.”

“Good.”  Crescencia turned, hoping that in all of the noise and bustle of the plaza their conversation had truly been private.  She was relieved that no one seemed to be very close to them. 

From across the plaza Diego saw her and reined his horse over to where she was standing.  The strange señorita followed him.  “Crescencia, you are a sight for sore eyes!” he declared, his smile warm as sunshine.  

Crescencia blushed and smiled back.  She had always loved this boy and it really did do her heart good to see him so happy.  “Don Diego, it would seem flattery indeed considering the señorita by your side,” she said with a smile. 

Don Diego laughed merrily.  “Crescencia, this is Minta Morlif-Brocnor, the future Señora de la Vega.”  Turning to Minta, he added, “And this is Crescencia Lopez, who took care of me from the time I was a little boy.”

“What a pretty name, señorita,” Cresencia said, giving a slight bow. 

“Gracias, Crescencia,” Minta said, smiling warmly.  “And what a wonderful job you did!”  Diego looked a bit discomfited at the praise, as did Crescencia. 

 “Don Diego, do you not think that you need to talk to your father about that kind of future?” Crescencia asked teasingly, but wondering deep inside what Don Alejandro’s feelings would be upon meeting this señorita.  She wondered, also, about this woman’s status in life, not that such should be the primary concern.  Crescencia just knew that status was of some concern to Don Alejandro.  Ai!  I must follow my own words and trust Don Diego.

“Of course I should, Crescencia, and we are going to the hacienda right now.”  He gave a slight hand salute and motioning to the señorita, turned his horse.  They trotted out of the plaza side by side. 

Two basket weavers listening in the shadows of their stalls crossed themselves as the two riders passed.  They shook their heads and wondered at how easily some of the caballeros could be swayed by the spells of a bruha. 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-eight
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