Memories in the Dust

 


Chapter Thirty-Two

 

“Father, tomorrow you must begin the preparations for the wedding,” Diego declared with a grin as he helped Minta into the carriage that Bernardo had driven to the front of the mission.

“Sí, Diego, I will,” Alejandro said, sighing.  These young people, he thought.  “But, please, do not pester me to move any faster than I am willing to go.  It would be unseemly.”

“All I ask is that you not insist on a month or two of preparation,” Diego answered, chuckling at his father’s answer.  He was still feeling a sense of euphoric release at Father Felipe’s belief of his adventures of the past six months and in the priest’s willingness to help him.

“Ai, my son. Four weeks!  The marriage will be in four weeks.  Do not ask for less!  The bans must be said and the padrinos de bodas must be selected, ” Alejandro said in mock exasperation, then his face creased into a smile. 

“I wish for less, Don Alejandro, but I will not ask for it,” Minta said, giggling, and Bernardo, sitting in the front seat, reins sitting loosely on his lap, smiled. 

Alejandro sighed again.  “I will do this much for you, Diego.  It is not too late in the evening, so I will talk to Padre Felipe now about the date.  You three go on.  You can send Benito with my horse.  I know you probably have much to discuss.” 

“Gracias, Father,” Diego said, motioning to Bernardo to drive home. 

As the carriage traveled in the soft darkness of the early evening, Minta laid her head on Diego’s shoulder and sighed.  Diego softly stroked her cheek and then ran his fingers through her hair, moving it aside to kiss her.  The soft hooting of the owls and the creaking of insects made a symphony that harmonized with the beating of their hearts.  Distantly, he heard the yap of a coyote and above them the soft rustling of bats.  The horse’s hooves added to the natural chorus.  He felt and heard Minta’s soft breathing change to that of one who was sleeping.  Her anxiety during his extended time with Father Felipe had finally caught up with her.  Gently he put one arm around her shoulder, drew her closer to him and then leaned back against the seat of the carriage.  A cool breeze caressed his face, bringing with it the scent of pines and sage.  The motion of the carriage began to lull him into drowsiness and he moved his head so that his cheek lay against the top of Minta’s head. 

He had not realized how much the talk of witches and demons had really affected him until his discussion with Father Felipe.  He felt a great weight leave his shoulders as he watched the priest baptize his beloved.  With the Church’s sanction, the doubters and overly superstitious had to see that there was no harm in this sweet and gentle lady that lay in his arms.

The horses continued along the dark, but well defined road, their hooves slightly muted on the rain-soft dirt.  As they rounded a curved section of the road, though, the team stopped suddenly, their path blocked by brush and saplings.  The sudden stop in momentum threw Diego and Minta forward, waking them instantly.  The horses neighed in fear as they sensed the presence of unknown things in the shadows.

Bernardo tried to back up the frightened horses, but hands reached out of the darkness and grabbed inside the carriage, pulling them out.  Minta’s hands grasped and tried to hold onto Diego’s arm, but more hands jerked her loose and threw her to the ground.  She screamed, a high, frightened sound that was cut off by a hard slap to the face. 

With a cry of rage, Diego shoved his own attackers out of the way and leaped toward Minta, who was fighting a man trying to tie her up.  Grabbing the attacker by the shirt, Diego spun him around and punched him in the stomach.  When the man doubled over, Diego caught him under the chin with his fist.  The man dropped like a stone. 

“Do not harm Don Diego, just get the witch!” a woman’s voice, high with triumph called out.   Desperately he tried to spot Minta in the darkness, horrified that there were so many ready to do her harm.  It was not just two or three; there was a mob! His heart pounded with fear for his wife.  

Diego couldn’t see Bernardo, but scuffling noises near him indicated that the mute had his hands full.  With a strength borne of rage and fear, Diego slammed one assailant to the ground and another into the side of the carriage.  The clouds, hiding a swollen moon parted, revealing with much sharper clarity, several men jerking Minta up from the ground and dragging her toward a stand of brush. She had been tied and gagged, but was still struggling. Her eyes were full of fear and Diego leaped over a fallen attacker to reach her.  One of the men turned toward him, a club in his hand.  So fast did Diego move that the club was jerked out of the assailant’s hand and laid across its former owner’s head before he could even begin to swing his weapon.  Minta’s second attacker met the same fate. The third brandished a knife.  A swing of the club and the knife was sailing through the air and the man screaming in agony, clutching a broken and bloody hand. 

Kneeling by Minta’s side, Diego loosened the knots binding her hands and pulled off the gag.  “Minta, are you all right?” he asked, his voice tight with anxiety.  His heart was still pounding; he had to get her away.  “Let me get the ropes at your ankles.” 

As he turned to finish untying her, she screamed, “Diego!  Look out!”

Something hard and painful connected against the side of his head and Diego sank as if lifeless onto the damp ground. 

 

Minta cried out again, calling her beloved’s name, afraid that she had witnessed a mortal blow.   Tears streamed down her face, uncontrolled.  Then she remembered the screaming woman instructing that Diego not be harmed.  He couldn’t be dead!  She prayed he was no more than stunned. 

Why do they hate me so? she agonized.  Fear welled up in almost uncontrolled waves, making her gasp.  What are they going to do to me?  When one of the men grabbed her arm and jerked her to her feet, she was unable to stifle a moan. 

“Moan and scream and call on your evil master all you wish, bruja.  It will do you no good.  In the end we will send you to live with your master, the devil, and Don Diego and the rest of us will be rid of your bewitchment forever!”

Do they mean to kill me?  Oh, Madre de Dios, intercede for me, please.  I have given myself to your faith and to Diego.  Help me!!  As they dragged her to a waiting horse, she tried to hold back, to get out of his awful grasp, but another man shoved her forward, causing her to fall to her knees, where the gravel bit painfully.  The first man who had been holding her arm jerked her up again, causing her shoulder to creak at the strain.  She cried out in pain.

“Please, why are you doing this to me?  I am not a witch!” she cried out.  “I am just from another country.  Please, do not kill me.  I haven’t done anything to any of you…”  A hard slap across her face stopped her pleas and brought tears to her eyes.  She tasted the metallic taint of fresh blood in her mouth and continued to feel the sting of the other’s hand on her cheek. 

“Your lies are falling on deaf ears, demonia.  We will not listen to them,” a woman told her.  Minta peered closely and saw that it was Maria Louisa.  In the now bright moonlight, the girl’s face looked demonic to her, with the shadows causing Maria Louisa’s smirking grimace to become even more pronounced and sharp. 

Minta remembered Diego’s explanation of Maria Louisa’s behavior.  “Why do you hate me so much, Maria Louisa.  It is more than a belief in witches and demons, is it not?” Minta asked.  “Do you love Diego more than I do?  Are you so jealous of me that you cannot stand for him to be happy?” she continued, speaking loud enough for others to hear, hoping that they would think about what could be the other motive for the girl’s hate.

Maria Louisa hissed and screamed a curse.  At the same time, her closed fist hit Minta on the jaw, causing the Rantiri to stumble backward.  More pain and more tears.  An involuntary cry escaped her.  The cook’s daughter stepped up to her and spit in her face.  Minta blinked, and tried to reach up to wipe her face, but her hands were held tightly to her side by the same man who had hit Diego over the head.  Diego!  She looked over her shoulder to where her husband lay, but saw no more than a heap on the ground.  He had not moved. Worry ate at her, consumed her.  Despite the words of the vicious woman in front of her, Diego could be laying there dead.   Oh, Diego, what have I done by coming to your world?  Have I truly killed you?

“Diego…did you kill him?  Please tell me he is alive, please,” she pleaded. 

“He is alive,” Maria Louisa said, but there was a quality of doubt in her voice.  She turned to one of the men.  “Luis, check Don Diego.  Make sure that blow was not too hard.   And, Manuel, get her on the horse.  Get her out of here!”

“To the tanning shed?”

“Sí.”

Minta began trembling as the burly vaquero dragged her to the horse and threw her over the saddle.  She tried to grab the reins, and get a better seat in the saddle to effect an escape, but Manuel was too fast for her.  He was almost on the horse before she had begun to move from her position.  “No, demon witch, we have a great deal planned for you.  So you will not be riding anywhere except with me.”  His large hand pressed down on her back as she lay stretched across the front of the saddle like a sack of grain.  The saddle horn dug into her ribs, causing sharp throbbing pain as the horse broke into a trot.  She was forced to gasp for air as the saddle horn continued to press relentlessly into her diaphragm and ribs.  Minta heard the sound of other horses and guessed that the rest of this band was following.  What were they going to do?  Did these people do something even more horrible to those they believed to be witches or demons?  She could only assume they did, and fear and the saddle horn conspired against her.  Bile rose in her throat, along with the contents of the evening’s dinner and she threw it all up.  As particles of food hit his boot, Manuel grabbed her by the back of her blouse and shook her, throwing her back down in front of him.  “Vile witch!  Stop that!”

Minta felt ribs crack and she screamed in pain. Before they got to the tanning shed, she felt her consciousness drift in and out, but the pain was constant.  What seemed an eternity of time later, she became aware of a cessation of the bumping, rocking, jolting motion of the horse and she was grabbed and pulled from the saddle.  Her blouse caught on the saddle horn and Minta felt the buttons popping off as the material gave way.  Dizziness caused her to fall to the ground, but as before, she was jerked to her feet and dragged inside a three walled adobe building that reeked with a sharp pungent odor that Minta could not recognize, but seemed, in her mind, to be that of death.   Candles were the only light in the room, casting weird shadows on the ceiling and walls. 

She was thrown against a thick tree trunk post, its knobby protrusions digging into her chest, and her gloves were ripped from her hands.  Then she was tied tightly against the post, the ropes taut enough to begin cutting off the circulation almost immediately.  Her feet were mostly numb after the ride, and she sagged against the ropes.  Then as the tingling in her feet became sharp pain, she bit her lip.  Several of her tormenters laughed at her discomfort.  These people seemed to thrive on her expressions of fear, pain and anxiety.  Minta decided that she would not give them any more pleasure. 

The next thing that happened she would never forget. A girl, not Maria Louisa, pulled off Minta’s riding boots, and stockings and counted her toes.  That, in itself would have been ludicrously funny, if Minta hadn’t known that it would most certainly lead to something else.  She had the same number of toes as she had fingers and thumbs on her hands.  From the looks in her adversaries’ eyes, as they silently counted along, Minta thought that these people were determined to send her to Hell.

And they did…with sticks they beat on her body, from her feet to her head.  Some used the burning ends of their cigarettes to see how loudly she could scream.  Her lip was raw from biting it, but the screams they were expecting remained moans and most of her moaning she kept in her throat.  Minta could not quell the nausea and she threw up several more times before the only thing her stomach could do was retch without disgorging anything.   The heaving caused an aching in her sides, exaggerated by the intense throbbing of her broken ribs. 

Everything began to flow together, the hitting, the cursing and the spitting.  She closed her eyes and wished she could close her ears.  There was a cessation in the torture and she wondered if they had finished with her.  But, no, it was too much to be hoped for.  Her outer blouse was ripped off and then she began feeling the sharp, stinging, burning agony of a whip against her back.  Finally the pain of the whip reached the involuntary centers of her brain and throat and she screamed, once for each tearing, searing stroke.  When she had no more voice, Minta pressed her cheek against the post, closed her eyes once more and tried to retreat into the shell of her love for Diego.  They could not take that from her.  They might kill her, but they could not beat her feelings for Diego out of her. 

The whipping stopped and someone grabbed her hair, jerked her face around and slapped her.  She looked at them through tear-filled eyes.  “Witch, are you glad you came now to work your darkness and evil?  Do you wish you stayed with your master, Lucifer?  Confess your alliance with the devil!  Confess it!” 

Through bruised and swollen lips, Minta whispered, and then spoke, her words loud enough for most of the unholy rabble to hear.  “I came because I love Diego de la Vega.  I love his goodness and his gentle heart.  I came for no other reason.  I left my home forever to live in your land; a land graced by one as kind as my beloved.  It is you who have evil in your hearts.  Why can’t you have goodness inside like Padre Felipe or Diego?  Why?  Why do I have to look just like you to live here?  Tell me, please.”  She laid her cheek against the post again and silently began sobbing, unable to stop despite the intense pain she felt in her chest.  Why did I come?  I came for Diego!  What did I do to deserve this?  I am different.   Why do these people have so much hate in their hearts when others, like Diego and Father Felipe, Crescencia, Pepito, the seamstress, and Don Alejandro are so good and gentle and just? 

Minta didn’t hear several of the mob slip away, quietly, guiltily.  She didn’t hear the murmur of some whose consciences had been pricked by her words.  She didn’t hear Maria Louisa scream at the others to ignore her.  Oh, Diego, I am so sorry, Minta cried out in her mind as she slipped into the welcome darkness, the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness.  So very sorry…. 

 

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Someone was shaking his shoulder causing the throbbing in his head to increase until Diego felt as though his skull would split.  “Go away…”  More shaking.  He forced his eyes open and saw Bernardo in the moonlit night.  The world seemed to be tilting, moving up and down and sideways.  Grabbing onto the mute’s arm, he tried to concentrate on what Bernardo was signing.  He tried to remember.  Throb, throb, throb.  It was so hard to think.  He and Minta were going home from Mass…her baptism.  What happened, he wondered?  An ambush!  They had been attacked.  He was freeing Minta when someone hit him over the head.  Minta!  “MINTA!” he shouted, causing a stabbing of pain to shoot through his head.  Bernardo’s features came into sharper focus along with the rest of the world.  He was still dizzy, but he had to find Minta.  “Dios mio!  Where did they take her?” he asked, trying to control the fear that threatened to swallow him up.  He knew exactly what the mob had wanted and what they would most likely do. 

Bernardo began signing, sitting close to Diego to make sure he could see his movements.  He signed a cow being killed and then skinned.  Then he indicated a building on the outskirts of the de la Vega lands. 

Diego shook his head for a moment, but stopped quickly, letting the dizziness pass before he spoke.  “Bernardo, slow down.   I can’t understand you.  Do you know where Minta is?” 

Bernardo nodded and went through the motions again, more slowly this time.

“A steer?  Killing a steer?  Taking the hide off and tanning it,” Diego deduced.  Bernardo nodded vigorously.  Diego noted that the mute had been struck over the head just as he had, there was a small trickle of blood along the side of his head.  “The tannery?”

Bernardo shook his head and pointed in the direction of the tanning shed. 

Diego stared at him for a moment and the mute began to go through the motions once again.  “The tanning shed!” he shouted, indicating the building where some of the initial slaughter and skinning of steers was accomplished.  Bernardo nodded making a motion for him to hurry.  “Yes, I need to hurry.  Unhitch the carriage horses.  I will take one and you go and find Father with the other.”  The slight dizziness he felt as he stood up quickly disappeared.  He helped Bernardo unbuckle the harness straps and they let them fall to the ground.  Grabbing the horse’s long reins and mane in his hands, he swung up. 

Bernardo was motioning again, making the sign of the Z. 

“Zorro?  No, there is no time.  I will do this,” Diego said grimly as he turned the horse’s head toward the tanning shed.  “Pray that I am not too late, Bernardo,” he added as he kicked the horse into a gallop. 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-three
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