Little Minta clapped her hands and squealed with
delight. “A picnic by the
lake?” she asked. “I
love picnics!” She danced
happily across the sala. “Will
Papá be coming?”
“Sí, little one, and Mari and Jandro, too,” Minta answered, feeling the little girl’s euphoric happiness rubbing off on her. It was four days before the final bans were to be read and she was feeling pretty euphoric herself. Truly, if I were any happier, I would die of happiness, Minta thought. She chuckled at the exuberant girl. “We timed this so your papá would feel well enough to come with us. We will make some of the preparations today and tomorrow morning we will get up early and finish.”
“You cannot be serious?” Jerintas cried out,
his eyes wide with astonishment. “It
has only been a bit over two weeks since you were . . . since your
accident.” A servant was
passing through the sala.
“Short rides, Jerintas, and you seem to forget
that some of us here in California were born on the back of a horse,”
Diego teased, a smile lighting his face.
“But . . . all the jostling, the
bouncing….” For once,
Jerintas was at a loss for words.
“You jostle in the saddle, and you
bounce. I do not.
I sit in my saddle,” Diego returned, chuckling.
“And a carriage jostles as much as the hardest gaited horse.
I would rather ride on the back of a horse.
I am tired of going in carriages.”
With a sigh and a shrug of his shoulders,
Jerintas motioned toward the guest room where Diego had been staying
since his return home two days earlier.
“Let me examine you, Diego, before I decide whether to protest
more or just give in to your outrageous demands.”
When they were alone, Jerintas motioned Diego to
pull off his shirt and chaqueta.
The director then pulled out his little diagnostic tool and
checked his patient over. With
careful deliberation, he perused the site of the wound, prodding with
his fingers and raising his eyes at Diego’s soft grunt.
“Cold hands,” Diego said quickly.
“Designated One, you cannot fool me.
I have taken care of your children’s bruises, bumps and scrapes
for twelve years. I have
heard all the excuses,” Jerintas chided.
Then he sighed. “If you are very careful, then you can ride short
distances. Even though you
have healed remarkably well, you could still easily reinjure the damaged
tissues and ribs.” He
looked at Diego’s jubilant grin and frowned.
“Tomorrow, to the picnic.
And remember, anything reckless that you do could delay your
Laughing, Diego answered, “Ai, you worry too much, Jerintas. But very well. Tomorrow. And please stop calling me Designated One.”
The next day dawned bright with not the
slightest hint of anything that might spoil the day.
It would be warm by the time they reached the lake, but there was
a slight breeze that would cool and refresh.
The air smelled of juniper, with just a slight hint of the
distant ocean. Minta had
enjoyed the early morning ride from the mission and for just a moment,
she stood just outside the kitchen door, letting the morning sun warm
her cheeks. Finally with a
happy sigh, she turned inside, where the cook, Helena, was packing
another basket. Manuel was
loading the carriage with baskets that had already been filled.
“Do you have the blankets?” Minta asked.
“Is there enough to drink?”
“Sí, Señora,” Helena said, with a
smile. “I have packed
enough for three meals for everyone who is going.”
Diego walked into the kitchen and took in all
the preparations at a glance. “Minta,
beloved, we are only going for a picnic and not even very far away,
either,” Diego said with a laugh.
He took the last basket from Helena.
“I just want everything to be perfect, mi
amor,” she replied. “And
is that too heavy for you?”
“It will be perfect, querida,”
he said, kissing her gently on the cheek.
“And stop fussing over me.
You are as bad as Jerintas, who, incidentally, examined me
“I will be riding to the picnic today . . . on
horseback,” he told her.
well, if Jerintas feels it is all right,” she murmured, somewhat
“It is all right,” Diego said, kissing her
“I just wish that he and your father and
Bernardo could come, too,” Minta mused.
“As do I, but Father and Bernardo said they
would rather save their strength for the wedding.
And Jerintas said he had to take care of some pre-nuptial plans
with Father,” Diego explained. “But
between you and I, I really think that Jerintas just does not like
The children came from the patio, ready and
eager for the picnic. Jandro
walked over to where a gelding had been saddled for him.
Then a vaquero rode into the stable yard, bringing his
horse to a halt so quickly that it almost sat down on its haunches. It was one of the new men.
“Don Diego! Twenty
head of cattle were found slaughtered in the south range,” he said
“Slaughtered?” Diego asked.
“Sí, Don Diego,” the vaquero
Diego turned to Minta.
“Go ahead and take the children to the picnic site.
Pepito will accompany you and I will catch up as soon as I finish
checking on this.”
“Oh, Diego,” she said, disappointment vying
with concern at this news.
“Querida,” he murmured, kissing her
again. “I will not be long.”
“And you will be careful?” she asked.
“Of course, beloved.”
His answer was punctuated with another kiss.
“Father, I want to go with you,” Jandro
said, his voice hopeful.
“Oh, no…” Minta began.
“That might be a good idea. Jandro will need to learn everything if he is to take
over the running of this hacienda someday,” Diego said, gazing
meaningfully at his fiancé.
With a look of resignation, Minta nodded.
“We will be waiting, dear.”
With a reassuring smile, Diego mounted and rode
out of the stable yard beside his son.
Minta finished supervising the loading of the
carriage and set out shortly thereafter, with Pepito following on
horseback. Minta felt the
warm sun on her face as the carriage rolled along the narrow road.
It didn’t take long to get to the pond and soon the little
group was sitting near the edge of the pond on blankets.
After a short while Mari and little Minta walked down to the
“Look, Minta!” Mari exclaimed. “What are those creatures?”
They had long, powerful looking back legs and short front legs.
Their large heads joined their bodies without the benefit of
necks and their skins were of a mottled kind of grayish-green.
The eyes were bulbous and the mouths appeared to be long slits.
Their chins pulsed in and out in time with the croaking noise
that Mari heard.
“Oh, those are frogs,” Minta shouted as she
dashed toward the water’s edge. The
creatures began leaping toward the water and Mari saw why their legs
were so powerful. Most of
the frogs made it to the safety of the pond, but Minta was fast and she
caught one of the creatures. She
held it in front of her older sister, who peered at it closely, curious.
Mari had never seen an animal quite like it.
“Does it hold it’s breath or can it breathe underwater?”
she asked, studying the frog carefully.
“I think it holds its breath,” Minta
answered, holding the squirming animal in a tight grip, but not tight
enough to hurt it. “We’ll
ask Papá when he comes.” She studied the frog some more.
It opened its mouth and closed it again.
“It has a mouth that is more like ours than a fish’s,” she
said. “And there are no gills.”
Minta paused and thought a moment before looking up at Mari
again. “It must hold its
breath,” she finally declared.
“I think you are right,” Mari said.
“You would make a good scientist.”
“Yes, someone who examines things and tries to
learn more about them,” Mari explained.
“They write the information down for others to learn from their
“They just examine things like frogs and fish?
Study and write?” Minta asked.
She said nothing for a several minutes.
Then she opened her hands and let the frog go.
“I think I would rather be a vaquero,” she finally
“That is not all they do, Minta,” Mari said
with a laugh. “That is
just what their job is. Like
a vaquero’s job is taking care of horses and cattle, but they
don’t do it all day long.”
Little Minta laughed with her. Mari gazed toward her mother, who was surveying the area
around the lake. Suddenly
it seemed much too quiet to the girl.
She, too, looked around and felt the hair on the back of her neck
Where is Pepito? she thought.
She watched her mother get up and walk to the
carriage. Turning back to
little Minta, Mari said, “Let’s go back to Mother.”
The little girl smiled.
“Yes, I am hungry anyway.
Maybe Papá will be coming soon.”
Her mother called out to the servant who had
driven the carriage, “Marco, do you know where Pepito went?”
“No, patroña,” he said, “But I
will go and look for him. He
is probably just riding around the lake.”
“Be careful,” Minta said.
She watched the servant walk to the top of the small hill and
then he was out of sight. Like
her daughter, she felt something not quite right.
She felt Mari and Minta beside her and tried to quell her runaway
fears. “Let us get the
picnic set up. Your father
will undoubtedly be here soon.”
They busied themselves setting out the picnic
for the next few minutes, but Minta kept looking up to see if the two
men had returned. She
looked up again when she heard the beat of horse’s hooves.
Ah, Diego she thought, then wondered that it sounded like
more than just the hoof beats of a few horses.
“Marco, Pepito!” she called out.
The hoof beats continued, getting louder, but no one called to
“Mother, what is wrong?” Mari asked, looking
at her mother in alarm. Little
Minta gazed at both of them, puzzled.
“I do not . . .” Minta began. Then the horsemen came over the hill, more than a dozen of them, shouting as they saw the three alone in the valley below. A horror swept over Minta and she spun toward the girls. “To the carriage, quickly!” she shouted.
Diego and Jandro rode side by side in an easy
canter to the site of the slaughter.
After describing the area to them, the vaquero had ridden
on ahead. Diego was
experiencing an almost euphoric delight at the freedom that riding
afforded him. Only a slight tenderness inside reminded him of his injury
and that did not intrude on his pleasure.
The only thing that precluded complete satisfaction was the
circumstances surrounding the ride.
That someone would simply feel the desire to slaughter almost two
dozen head of cattle was very disturbing.
Another vaquero rode over the hill from the south.
With his hand upraised, Diego stopped him.
“Have you come from the site of the slaughter?” he asked.
“Slaughter?” the vaquero, Romero,
asked, a puzzled look on his face.
“What slaughter, Don Diego?”
“One of the vaqueros, Jorge, I believe,
came to the casa grande and told me that about twenty head of
cattle had been slaughtered on the south range,” Diego explained,
fingers of dread working up and down his spine.
“I have been riding the south lands today, Don
Diego, and I have seen no evidence of a slaughter.
I have not seen Jorge either, patrón.”
Diego gasped at the implications of Romero’s
last statement. Something
was very wrong, something that he felt had to do with Minta and the
girls. “Romero, gather
all the vaqueros you can find in the next half hour and ride to
the pond in the western range . . . the one that is used for picnics.
And do it quickly!” Diego ordered.
He turned toward Jandro. “Go
back home and gather all there who can ride and then go to the lake.”
Jandro saw that Romero was well out of earshot.
“What about Zorro, Father?” he asked.
“No time,” Diego answered. “Just do as I have told you,” he added, spurring his horse into a gallop. Memories from his past flew through his mind and he saw Minta beaten and bleeding. Terror for his fiancé began filling his heart and soul.