Memories in the Dust

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Three

 

Diego’s heels kept jabbing the horse’s sides, trying to get as much speed from the animal as he could.  By the time he rode up the hill just west of the tanning shed, the animal’s sides were heaving from the efforts of this fast, unremitting run, something to which the carriage horse was unused.  Sweat from the gelding’s back seeped through Diego’s calzoneros and foam dripped from the horse’s muzzle.  While mindful of the carriage horse’s condition, Diego was more mindful of his wife’s.  His anxiety was an ache, no, a pain, that threatened to engulf him. 

How could I have been so stupid to have not seen that this was so much worse than I had thought? he berated himself.  Estupido!   I brought her here and I cannot even keep her safe!  “Madre de Dios,” he murmured.  “Please keep her safe.  Please let her be all right.” Recrimination was a cudgel with which he continued to beat himself as he traveled the dark road of his despair. 

He stopped the horse long enough to peer into the moonlit valley just before him.  He would have to be careful.  There were too many to just bull his way in and rescue Minta.  The slight breezes were capricious and sound came and went, but one sound chilled the very marrow of his bones.  It was a woman’s screams, full of agony.  Dios mio!   Gone was any consideration to the condition of the horse. Gone was any thought of careful planning and stealthy approach.  He kicked the horse into a fast gallop, praying that he would get there soon enough.  

Two forms appeared almost spectrally in front of him, causing the horse to shy and almost unseat Diego.  So intent had he been on the adobe building, that he had not been aware of the figures lending their shadows to that of the trees and brush.  He recognized them as servants from neighboring haciendas.  Even though he was sure of the answer, he asked his question anyway, wanting confirmation of his fears.  “Where is she?” he asked, leaning down to make sure they knew to whom they were talking. 

One pointed over his shoulder to the building behind him.  Again kicking the horse into a gallop, Diego brushed by the man and woman.  As he approached the tanning shed, he heard a girl screaming angrily inside and recognized Maria Louisa’s voice.  While Diego was not surprised that the eighteen-year-old was the instigator of all of this, or at least the catalyst, he felt an agonizing guilt that he had underestimated the girl’s hatred and jealously as well as her power to incite others to the same heights of passionate fervor that she enjoyed. 

Moonlight could not penetrate inside the shed, and in the dimness Diego pictured a hell of man’s making.  Grabbing an arm-sized stick that had been dropped outside the tannery, he burst into the candle-lit interior.  The slight breeze coming through the one open side of the building made the candle flames jerk around in a grotesque St. Vida’s-like dance.  Shadows gleamed on faces lit by malicious fervor.  Horror further enveloped him as Diego saw Minta sagging against the center post of the building.  The only thing holding her up was the rope with which she was tied.  The back of her blouse was tattered and he saw the shining reflection of blood.  Rage filled Diego’s heart and mind, his free hand balling into a clenched fist so tight it brought pain.  Anguish filled the tiny places left from the rage and he gave a great cry before raising his stick against those who had hurt and possibly killed his wife.  Remotely, he counted at least twenty people and a tiny voice of reason spoke to him from deep within his brain.  Focus on your purpose.’  What was his purpose?  Diego wanted to punish, to hurt these animals, but no, his real purpose was to rescue Minta.  Focus on accomplishing that purpose with the least amount of energy and emotion,’ he heard a familiar voice echoing in his mind.   The latter, Diego realized, would be extremely difficult.  He kept looking over at Minta, seeing her still form sagging against the ropes.  Act clearly and without emotion.’  It was as though Wis was next to him, whispering in his ear.  It was what he had more or less done during his almost two years as Zorro. 

Diego took a deep breath, forcing himself to look away from his severely injured wife.  During his few seconds of distraction, several of the men had come close to him, brandishing sticks like the one he held.  There were others behind with whips and riding crops. 

Maria Louisa was staring at him, her anger-filled eyes changing to fear.  “Don Diego, I am only doing this to save you from the demon witch,” she cried.  “Please do not fight.  Please do not force us to hurt you.”

Diego ignored her for the moment and concentrated on the men who were rushing him.  The first man swung, but it was not a forceful blow and Diego stopped it with his stick, grabbing the attacker’s wrist with his left hand.  He shifted his weight to his left foot and aimed a short chopping kick to a point just below his ribs.  His assailant’s breath escaped in a forceful whoosh.  Still holding onto the man, Diego swung him into the second assailant, who had been trying to sneak up on him.  Both collapsed to the hard earth, the one gasping for air and the other unconscious.

A third man, one whom Diego recognized as a vaquero from the Torres ranch, rushed him with a knife.  They are all like bulls, Diego thought, charging without any planning.  Again he shifted his weight to his left foot as Wis had taught him, and aimed a kick high enough to catch his attacker under the chin.  This one also fell to the ground, gasping and choking.  Diego almost caught the falling knife, but scooped it up from the ground, throwing the now unneeded stick away and brandishing his new weapon at the rest of the men facing him.

“Leave, Don Diego, let us finish purging Lucifer from this one.  You are bewitched and you do not know what you are doing,” a voice called out from somewhere in the dimly lit room.  No one else tried to rush him for the moment.

His eyes coldly regarding Minta’s torturers, he said, “If by bewitched you mean that I love and want to marry a woman without guile or hatred, then I am bewitched.”  Looking at Maria Louisa, he asked loud enough for the rest to hear him, “Did she curse you as you beat her?  Or was she confused, frightened and wondering why you did this to her?”  He glanced over his shoulder and was alarmed to see that Minta had still not moved.  Santa Maria, he thought. Please let her be alive!  His chest tightened, his heart seemed to enlarge enough to burst through his ribs. His mind recalled her smile the first time he awoke on Rantir, her gentle touch and her musical laugh, even as he calculated his chances against these tormentors who were left. 

“It is you who need to leave. Go to your homes.  Go!” he ordered.  “And pray that this woman does not die.”  If she has not already, he thought, anguish taking ascendancy over most of the anger.  A few slunk out of the building; the rest stood staring.

“What are you doing?” Maria Louisa screamed.  “She is a witch!”

Diego again ignored her, and taking a chance, moved close to Minta, all the while keeping an eye on those still remaining in the tanning shed.  Feeling her neck, he found a heartbeat, although it seemed faint.  Dios!” he murmured, as he glanced at her bloodied back.  

He turned back to the remaining attackers just in time to catch Maria Louisa’s arm as she was swinging a knife in his direction.  The girl had in her other hand a whip, one that looked wet, and one that Diego suspected had been used on Minta’s back.  Maria Louisa screamed, spittle running from the corner of her mouth. “I will not let her have you!”  Her face was a grimacing mask of loathing and contempt as he kept his steel hard grip on her wrist.  “What about your precious witch now, Don Diego?” she screamed, struggling against him like a wild unbroken colt against a confining rope. 

His anger was like a fire threatening to blaze through the paper-thin hold that he had been keeping on his emotions.  He wanted to put his hands around Maria Louisa’s neck, wanted to take the bloodied whip and beat her with it until her blood flowed unchecked. His hand tightened on her wrist until she screamed in pain.  No! he shouted mentally, still keeping a hold of her wrist, but releasing some of the pressure. You cannot do this. You cannot become an animal, he rebuked himself. 

Maria Louisa began to beat him with the whip. Diego stuck his knife into his banda and jerked it out of her grasp.  He threw it from him as though it was a red-hot fireplace poker, searing his hand as the sight of the blood coating it seared his soul.  Despite her resistance, he easily disarmed her, and then he took tight rein on his emotions, breathing deeply to rid himself of the desire to return some of the hate that she had inflicted on Minta.  He forced himself to calm down.  “Get out of my sight!  And never set foot on the de la Vega hacienda again!”  While still holding her wrist tightly, his eyes blazing intently at the others in the room, he added, “All of you; get out of here!!”  Slowly the rabble complied, whether to his words or to his position, Diego did not care, and he released Maria Louisa, who followed them, her eyes glittering in deepest hate.  When the room was empty, Diego used his knife to cut the ropes, gently lowering Minta to the hard packed ground.  Still holding her gently, he peeled off his chaqueta and laid it on the ground next to his wife, then carefully laid her down so that her injured back was protected from the dried residue of the slaughter of steers. 

“Minta,” he whispered, brushing the sweat and blood-dampened hair from her face.  One eye appeared to be swollen, her lips were cracked and bleeding and she was covered with cuts and lacerations.  Examining her arms, it appeared that one was broken.  Her legs and torso seemed to have fared better.  The whipping, though, had taken the worst toll.  As he had laid her down on his chaqueta, he had felt blood soaking his sleeve. 

Oh, Dios, what do I do now?  How can I help her?  Surely You did not bring her here to die this way.  It is too cruel!   His thoughts flew like frightened birds as he listened to her soft, almost inaudible breathing.  The mission!  His father would be coming from there.  They could get Minta to the mission quicker than to the hacienda.  With that decided, Diego ran to the opening and looked out.  The valley appeared empty.  Somehow, he had been hoping that Bernardo would have found his father by now and he would be hearing the sound of a carriage or horses, but to his despair the only thing that he heard were the natural sounds of the night. 

Carefully, Diego picked Minta up, letting her head rest against his chest.  She moaned and slowly opened one eye.  It was as he had thought; one her eyes was indeed swollen shut.  Her sigh was one of relief.  “Oh, Diego,” she whispered.  “I prayed you would be all right and come for me.”  She laid her cheek against his ruffled shirt.  “I knew if you could, you would.”

“Minta, querida, I am going to get you to the mission where you can be cared for.  You will be all right, I promise.”

“Yes,” she sighed and slipped into unconsciousness again.  As he carried her out the door, he gazed at the carriage horse.  It would be impossible, with her injuries, to get her on the horse.  He would have to walk and hope that he met with his father on the road, or came across a camp of vaqueros.  Suddenly a dark figure on horseback approached from the shadow of the building.  Diego stood, watching, anxious, wondering what this one was going to do.  Peering at the man’s face, he recognized him as another of Nacho Torres’ vaqueros.

“Ramon.  What do you want?” he demanded, wary.

“Patrón, I want to help.” 

“In what way, Ramon?  It seems that you and your companions have helped a great deal already,” he retorted. 

“It appears that you are heading for the mission. Let me ride to Padre Felipe and get help.  A cart or carriage to take your fiancé there, Don Diego,” Ramon said.

“Yes, that would be good, Ramon,” Diego conceded, hearing genuine concern in the man’s voice. 

With one easy motion, Ramon swung his horse around, but as though forgetting something he turned back.  “I am sorry, señor,” he said softly.  And then he was gone into the shadows of the partially moonlit night; only the hoof beats betraying his presence. 

Diego gazed up at the sky, looking at the brightest constellations that the moon allowed him to see.  There were also clouds scudding across the sky, sometimes obscuring what he was looking for.  Then he peered toward the slope in front of him.  Holding Minta close to his body, he resolutely began walking in the direction of the mission, all the while hoping that Ramon would keep his word and that rescue would come soon.  After crossing several valleys and hills, the last one rock strewn and filled with the shadows of brush and boulders, his arms felt leaden and his feet felt like wood.  The landscape in front of him darkened and Diego looked up only to see clouds totally covering the moon.  With a sigh, he looked ahead and found the trail almost completely covered in shadow.  Cursing softly under his breath, he slowed down.  His greatest fear was that he would stumble and drop his precious load. 

And so Diego continued, carefully watching the placement of his feet, praying for rescue, praying for his wife to stay alive.  He felt isolated drops of rain and with them a rise in the despair that he had kept tightly reined in.   He continued, one foot in front of the other, conscious only of gaining his destination.  His head began to throb again, keeping time with the beating of his heart.  As the soft splattering of rain began to fall against his face, he heard the clatter of a wagon and the pounding hooves of several horses. 

Diego continued slogging up the slope, hoping and praying the noise he was hearing was the rescue he had been hoping for.  Then he saw several horsemen and a carriage crest the hill.  “Here!” he cried.  He called again when it appeared that they had not heard him.  The lead horseman stopped, noticed him and rode toward him, dismounting even as he was pulling the horse to a stop.  It was his father. 

“Dios mio!” he cried, carefully taking the girl from Diego’s leaden arms and carrying her to the carriage. 

Father Felipe moaned slightly in his distress as he quickly examined the woman’s injuries in the dimness of the rainy night.  “We must get her to the mission quickly!” he declared.  Looking toward Diego, he added, “You get in with her, mijo.  You look as though you need attention as well.”

Diego looked at the priest, puzzled.  “No, Padre, I am fine.  It is Minta.”  But he nevertheless was grateful to take the seat across from where his wife lay, a blanket carefully wrapped around her, her head resting on another folded blanket.  Reaching across, he gently ran his finger down her bruised cheek.  Another rider approached the carriage and Diego recognized Bernardo in the dimness.  The mozo signed, but Diego was unable to make out what was being said.  He shook his head and returned his attention back to Minta. 

“My son, I will try to guide the carriage on the smoothest parts of the trail, but still it will be rough.  You must watch your fiancé and make sure that she does not get jostled too much,” Father Felipe told him.

“Sí, Padre, I will do that,” Diego answered as the carriage jerked gently and began its journey to Minta’s succor.  The rain began to fall harder, finding its way into the carriage and Diego huddled over Minta trying to keep it off her body.

Soon they were at the mission where Minta was taken to a brightly lit infirmary.  Father Felipe and a fellow priest carefully checked her over, washing her wounds and replacing the blood soaked and dirty clothes with a soft linen robe.  During the entirety of the ministrations, Minta barely moved, only softly moaning a time or two.  Diego watched in anguish, occasionally helping when the priests asked.  

“We have set her broken arm and dressed her wounds, Diego,” Father Felipe said.  “She lost some blood during the whipping.   I do not think it was a dangerous amount, but I cannot tell right now.  I think she also has some cracked or broken ribs.  She is in the hands of the santos and God right now.  Fever is what we have to fear the most.”  He paused and scrutinized the younger man.  “Now to take care of you,” Father Felipe said. 

“Me?” Diego asked, bewildered at this second reference to his needs. 

“My son, your appearance would most certainly frighten even the most brave among us,” the priest said, touching the side of Diego’s face, just above the hairline.  Reaching up, the young man felt something entirely coating one side of his face.  Looking at his fingers he saw that it was rain-diluted blood.   Diego took a clean towel and wet it in the basin of water that stood in a washstand near him.   Father Felipe took it from him.  “Let me, my son,” he said gently. 

Diego acquiesced, feeling a kind of torpor settle over him.  By the time the priest had finished, Diego was having a hard time keeping his eyes open.  He wanted to keep vigil beside his wife, but was unable to stay awake.  Even with the pounding in his head, he felt so very sleepy.  So tired.  

“My son, Bernardo will watch over her for you.  You lay down in the next room and sleep for awhile.” 

“No, I will sleep over there,” he said pointing to a bed nearby.  “But you must promise that you will wake me up if there is any change.  Anything,” he said as he stumbled toward the cot.  As he felt himself drift off into sleep, his thoughts were on the woman whose love for him had caused her so much hurt.  Far off thunder seemed to match the mood that had descended upon him.  

 

 

Chapter Thirty-four
Memories Prologue
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