Memories in the Dust

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-One

 

“You are sure she is one of the demons?” one speaker asked.  Others standing nearby nodded their heads, wanting confirmation of the same thing. 

“I could feel it the moment she rode into the plaza.  And I saw her hands. Long and slender, they were, and five fingers with her thumbs.  They were just like what Juliano described when Zorro was captured, like spider’s legs,” Maria Louisa replied.  Eyes widened with fear and loathing at her pronouncement, many crossed themselves.

The group, which met in a large tanning shed some way from the de la Vega hacienda consisted of servants, a few from the de la Vega rancho, others from nearby haciendas, along with vaqueros, also from various local ranchos.  The stench of fear vied with the old, pungent smell of blood and death.  The attendees kept looking over their shoulders, expecting something, or someone evil to suddenly appear.

“Yes, mi hermana said she heard Sergeant Garcia tell Don Diego that his fiancé looked just like the demons that took El Zorro.  Don Diego was angry, telling the sergeant not to speak of it again,” a servant named Manuel stated.

“How could Don Diego be so stupid?” a vaquero named Fernando asked. 

“He is bewitched.  Did you not see him at the lake with that witch several days ago?” another vaquero, one named Luis, asked.  “She enticed him in the water.  You know how much power Satan has in the water.   She took him there and they played in the water together.” 

“And there was no chaperone?  Truly the whole de la Vega house is bewitched!” a servant from the Torres household said.  She genuflected quickly and was imitated by most of the others. 

“The deaf-mute was there, but I made sure he did not see us.  We were up on a hill behind some brush, but we could still see the demon and Don Diego,” Luis replied. 

“What about the priest?  Padre Felipe?  Would he help us and get rid of the demon?  Are more demons coming?”

“My mother told me it was not up to us to judge why the demonia had extra fingers, it was up to the priest.”  Maria Louisa paused.  “So this morning I went and told Padre Felipe.”  She paused again, enjoying her moment basking in the camaraderie and admiration of all of these people.  Her eyes glittered with excitement.  “And if Padre Felipe takes care of this one, then the others will be discouraged and leave us alone.”

“What if she tells lies and Padre Felipe believes her?” Fernando asked.  His eyes continued to scan the room nervously, flitting here and there like bats, wide with terror of those things that could drag one’s soul down to Hell.  His fingers kept moving round and round the rim of his straw hat he held in his hands, as though it was a set of rosary beads.

“A priest being deceived?  It is unlikely, but if it happens then we will take care of the witch ourselves.  My wife is big with child, and I do not want this demon to curse my first child before he is born,” Luis stated vehemently, spitting on the ground for emphasis.  Others murmured and made signs to ward off evil. “We will see what happens with the priest.  Surely he will see what we do.  Someone can wait near the mission,” he added.  “I heard that she is to be baptized Friday.”

“I cannot understand why Crescencia and the others feel she is good and kind.  It is obvious that she hides demon lusts in her heart,” Maria Louisa said vehemently.  The rest nodded, including those who had not been totally sure before.

 

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Father Felipe paced to and fro inside the confines of his private quarters.  He thought of the conversation with the de la Vega servant this morning after the mass, just the day after he had told Minta that she had learned all of the catechism correctly and that she was ready for baptism.  A demon?  Was this possible?  Could I have been so blind to not see a minion of Satan?  Why would God not let me know? he agonized in his mind.  He had felt that the couple had been hiding something from him, but he had not felt that there was any evil in either the girl or in Diego.  He stopped by his straw mattress bed and knelt yet again.  He could not have told anyone just how many times he had already prayed since Maria Louisa’s announcement to him.  He prayed again, asking for guidance, to understand the foreign girl’s heart, to know if she was hiding anything evil. 

He kept coming back to what he had felt for over three weeks now…that this girl was genuinely good; that she had an almost innocent outlook on almost everything around her and that she loved Diego de la Vega with a deep and abiding love.  She was devoted to him.  However, now he had to know what it was that the couple was keeping from him.  There could be no secrets.  God knew their hearts, but as one of God’s servants, he was entitled to know their hearts as well, especially as he would be performing the ordinances that would further entwine them into the one faith. 

The vespers that evening was well attended, he noted.  He wondered if the larger influx of servants and vaqueros was due to the little bit of information that the cook’s daughter had brought him.  Were they there to make sure he had not forgotten?  As though I could, Father Felipe thought wryly.  After he had finished the benediction, he motioned to Diego and Minta to come into the vestry with him.  Alejandro followed.  Their faces told him that they fully expected an immediate baptism.  He hoped there would be a baptism, but doubted it would be immediate. 

He sat across from the couple and looked through his steepled fingers, wondering how to approach this subject.  Diego de la Vega had been the voice of intellectual reason since his return from Spain.  He had been the first on the scene after Ignaccio Torres had asked for sanctuary and Diego had also been instrumental in keeping the beleaguered man out of Monastario’s hands.  Zorro had been a major actor in the whole affair, but Diego had always been there.  He had coaxed Torres to have patience, he had helped keep the comandante at bay, and he had even helped pick the oranges when his children, the Indians, had been rounded up for work details.  Diego had related the story, he had been told later, that had so badly frightened the soldiers that all it took was a mysterious appearance by Zorro to rout them. 

How Diego had figured out all these things, he was not quite sure.  That he was in league with the outlaw, he had no doubt, and that he had a noble heart, was obvious.  It had been Diego who had informed him of the plight of the Torres women when they had been jailed.  He had plied the good sergeant for information in a way that astonished the priest.  The caballero would have made a good priest in that respect…or a good actor.  Sometimes that is the impression he came away with when talking with Diego, that every word was calculated.  Father Felipe had assumed that was a result of the three years of university.  

So what was it about Minta that had made him so tight-lipped and secretive?  There had been no confession since he had returned from San Diego four weeks ago, not that young de la Vega made frequent visits to the confessional before, but…

“Padre Felipe, is there something bothering you?” Diego asked, concern easy to read in his eyes.

Instead of looking at the younger de la Vega, he turned to Minta.  “My dear, would you please take off your gloves?”  She looked stricken and turned to look at Diego.  He simply nodded, his face showing resignation.

Slowly, her own face showing disappointment and fear, she pulled off the riding gloves.  The last finger of each glove was slower to come off, as two of her fingers had been squeezed inside, but when she had pulled them off, the priest saw five long graceful fingers and one thumb on each finger. 

“Padre…” Alejandro began. 

“No, my son.  Let me handle this.”  He turned to Minta and gazed into her large violet eyes.  The girl’s emotions were close to the surface.  Reaching out, he took her hands in his and stared at them closely.  Except for the presence of the extra finger, they could be the hands of anyone.  He looked up into her eyes again.  Madre de Dios, give me discernment.

They gazed at one another for several minutes.  She had the look of a frightened doe, and like a frightened doe there was no evil in her heart, only fear and trepidation.  “My child, do you understand what I have taught you?”

“Yes, Padre, I do…at least most of it,” she said, her voice trembling slightly. 

“Are you willing to give your heart to this faith if I choose to baptize you?” 

She nodded before answering.  Her voice was almost a whisper that grew stronger as she spoke.  “Yes, Padre.  I came here because I love Diego.  I left everything behind because I could not bear to be away from him.  I knew that I would have to make changes, and that I would have to learn new things.  I have enjoyed the catechism.  What you believe is so very close to what I believe.  It is all one belief now.”

Father Felipe laid one hand on her head and continued to look into her eyes.  “My child, despite what I have been told, God has shown me your heart and it is one of the purest hearts I have encountered in my years as a priest.  I will baptize you…tonight, if you wish.”

“Oh, yes, Padre, yes.”  A smile lit her countenance.  “Then can Diego and I get married?” 

Laughing, Father Felipe nodded.  “But in good time, my child.  Certainly not tonight!” 

Next he turned his attention to Diego, whose face showed great relief.  “Diego, may I talk with you privately?" 

“Sí, Padre,” Diego said, his face changing to show bewilderment.  They went into the priest’s bedroom, where Father Felipe motioned for the young man to sit on his bed as he shut the door and pulled up a stool. 

 “Diego, you came back from San Diego with a wonderful, sweet and good natured young lady.  I see no guile in her.  I have detected no evil intents in her interest in you,” Father Felipe said.

“Then what is the problem, Padre?”

“It is you that I am concerned about.  There are things that a priest is able to figure out, even if the person with whom he is dealing has no wish for those things to be brought to light,” Father Felipe said.  He watched Diego carefully, and though the young man pretty much kept a passive countenance, there were clues that told him that he was on the right track.  With a sigh, the priest decided that there was no reason not to just be blunt.

“You have told me you want to be married as soon as possible.   Just what is your relationship with Minta?”

Again, the young man’s face registered resignation.  “We are married.”   It was a statement of fact, simple and direct, but it was not what the priest had been expecting to hear.  Father Felipe almost fell off the stool. 

“My son, if you are married…but Minta is not baptized.”  Sudden enlightenment came into his mind.  “You were married by her customs?”

“Sí, Padre, we were.”  Diego sighed.

“But there are no other churches in California.  And even if there were, you are aware that the Church does not sanction such a marriage.”  He looked curiously at the young man and was shocked to see the carefully cultivated passivity turn to anxiety and confusion.   It amazed him that this young man, who so easily flustered Monastario with his words, who could so easily bend Sergeant Garcia to his will, who was so eloquent, enlightened and quick witted could look so very vulnerable.  He almost appeared lost. 

“Diego, tell me about your meeting with Minta.  I know that your love for her is genuine as is hers for you.  We will treat this as though it was in the confessional, my son.”

Besides bewilderment, there was now anguish and even fear.  “Father, I am only telling you this because I am afraid for Minta.  She does not deserve the treatment that she has received since she came here.  Oh, yes, there are those who have been more than kind, but most treat her with suspicion or worse.  I have tried to hide as much as I can from her, keep her near me and away from them.  I reassure her that it will ease up and finally go away, but I am afraid that it will go further than spitting, signs and evil looks.  I need an ally so that we can stop this hatred and fear.”

“Tell me, Diego.  Tell me the whole story.” 

“Padre, I never went to San Diego.  I was abducted about the same time as Zorro was and by the same people.  He escaped before they left.  I did not and was taken away to the kidnappers' home.  I finally returned a little over four weeks ago,” Diego began. 

“But my son, Zorro was abducted almost six months ago.  You have been here in that time,” Father Felipe said, puzzled.

“That was someone who looked exactly like me.  I do not know how my kidnappers did it, but they did,” Diego said quickly.  Diego then went into the story, a story that was so astonishing as to be almost unbelievable.  Somehow the priest still felt that there were things left out, but there was so much to assimilate that he didn’t mind that oversight for now.

He listened in rapt attention, occasionally uttering a murmured exclamation.  Finally he noticed that the caballero sounded a bit hoarse.  Looking at the watch in his pocket, he was astonished that more than an hour had passed.

Father Felipe blinked and sighed.  “My son, you are thirsty.  I apologize for not giving you anything to drink before.”  He poured wine in a small mug and handed it to Diego, who took it gratefully.  “So you say you were not in Hell.  However, it certainly sounds to me like you have been in Hell, my son.” 

Diego’s look of relief was very evident.  “But I found Minta.  I could not have found someone like that in Hell, Padre,” Diego pointed out. 

Father Felipe nodded and poured some wine for himself.   He sat sipping it as he pondered what Diego had said.  That there were other places, more of God’s creations out in the heavens, peopled by intelligent beings, astonished him, but seemed logical in a strange sort of way.  Diego was abducted the same time as Zorro, but Zorro managed to get away.  How could the one escape without the other, and why did Zorro not say something about Diego being abducted.  Perhaps it was because the outlaw saw futility in trying to save someone who was taken from off this world.   But why did he not try to do something about the twin?  His thoughts were like squirrels in the trees vying with the magpies that screamed on the upper branches.  Why did they want Diego and Zorro?  How could a race of beings that so revered service and the well being of others do such a thing to Diego?  He thought about Diego, the Rantiri, Minta, and Zorro for several minutes. 

“Diego, may I ask you some questions to clarify things I do not understand?” Father Felipe asked.  Diego nodded.  “Why did they need you?  What was their purpose in abducting you and Zorro?”

Diego sighed.  “Please believe me when I say that it was not for evil intent.  I really do not understand it all myself, so how can I tell you and make it sound logical?  Please trust me in this, Padre.”

How could he not trust this man who had gone through so much.  He had come home from Spain changed and been censured by his father.  He had been abducted and fallen in love with his teacher, an otherworldly woman, who could be in great danger of physical harm because of her differences.  Father Felipe sighed and pondered.  “I do trust you, my son,” he said and pondered some more.  The past marched relentlessly alongside of these newest revelations.   He kept coming back to the idea that Zorro knew that Diego had been abducted, but didn’t do anything about his substitute.  Why?  Then it dawned on him.  The reason for all of his questions about Diego’s behavior…everything made perfect sense. Diego was Zorro!  Only one person had been abducted.  He tried to keep his face as passive as Diego had so often done in the past.  Yes, he trusted this man and would go into Hell itself to protect him and the woman he loved.  Whatever it was Diego chose not to tell him, he would accept for now.  Yes, it was imperative that he baptize this woman tonight.  That would go a long way in stopping the wagging tongues of fear and hate. 

Again he experienced that conviction that all would be well and he conveyed his feelings to the young man before him. 

 The happy trio followed Father Felipe back through the chapel, past the fourteen Stations of the Cross, to the small room near the entrance where the baptisms were preformed. One woman who had been praying in the back of the church left before the ordinance was performed, slipping out unobtrusively and almost unnoticed.  The copper baptismal font constructed by early neophytes gleamed with the promise of new hope for the Rantiri woman.  She genuflected, and then followed Father Felipe’s instructions as he preformed the ceremony.  When the priest had finished, Minta threw herself into Diego’s arms and kissed him soundly.  Diego grinned, happy for her, happy for their future.

 

 

Chapter Thirty-two
Memories Prologue
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