Starlight Dreams

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Yet Another Rescue

 

 

“Hurry!  Run to the carriage!” Minta shouted.  She snatched a knife from a basket and held it close to her chest as she alternated between running, watching the girls rushing toward the carriage and the horsemen galloping toward her.   The raiders carried pistols, clubs, swords and whips.  Cringing, seeing visions of the past flooding into her mind, Minta, was nevertheless determined to make a better defense than she had so many years before.  She had to; there were two children whose lives probably depended on her abilities right now.  Uppermost in her mind was helping the girls escape. 

All three of them reached the carriage at the same time.  “Mari, hurry, get in!  Get Minta away from here.  Go back to the hacienda!  Get help!”  A quick glance showed her Mari’s anguished face.  “Go, Mari!”

Mari jumped in the carriage with little Minta and she snatched up the reins. 

“Get them!” a voice screeched over the tumult.  A vaquero jumped off his horse and leaped for Minta.  Her knife flashed and he fell away, screaming, holding his arm.  Two more came toward her, but she held them at bay until a rope settled around her shoulders, tightened and dragged her to the ground. 

As she struggled, Minta saw the girls pulled from the carriage and she groaned in despair.  It didn’t stop her from kicking out at one of her captors with a well-placed blow to the shin.  The man danced away howling, but before she could do anything else, she was dragged to her feet, her arms pulled painfully behind her back and her wrists tied together. 

“Tie her feet together, too.  Gag her so she cannot bewitch anyone and blindfold her so she cannot know where she is going.  We do not want her to be able to tell any of her fellow demons,” the lone woman ordered.  The woman started laughing and many of the men began laughing with her.  Minta felt rough cloth cover her eyes and her world narrowed itself to the hard contours of the carriage against her arms and back, and the sounds of their capture.  

“What about Don Diego’s little girl?” a male voice asked. 

“Bring her.  We will use her to keep Don Diego at bay if by some chance he is able to find us before we finish dealing with the bruja,” the woman’s voice answered.  This one was clearly the leader, Minta thought. But who is she? Minta thought.  There is something familiar about her, especially the voice. Then her mind again remembered a night of terror and pain.  Maria Louisa!  It is Maria Louisa, thirteen years older, hardened, bitter and almost unrecognizable. 

The woman had been plotting and this time seemed to have planned for everything.  Minta could only assume that she had arranged for the slaughter of the cattle as well.  They had been too complacent, but how could she and Diego know that the woman was still in the area.  When Minta had asked about Maria Louisa, Diego had simply stated that she had been banished from the hacienda.  He had further stated that he had heard rumors that the servant had gone to Santa Barbara to live. 

A hard slap came from nowhere, bringing tears to her eyes, thankfully unseen because of the blindfold.  “This time, witch, there will be no one to save you.  Too bad your other spawn is not here, and the male demon that accompanied you.  We would be able to send all of you back to Hell,” Maria Louisa said, still laughing.  “But all in good time.”  The laughing rose in pitch until it became a maniacal sound, and Minta knew that Maria Louisa was mad, insane from thirteen years of festering anger and resentment. 

 

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Bushes and trees seemed to fly past, but not fast enough to suit him.  Diego chafed, wanting to urge the horse to run faster, but knowing that he could not.  The palomino was running as fast as he could.  As he rode over a hill, the caballero saw two forms lying unmoving on the ground. 

Diego jerked the horse to a halt just in front of the still forms; dust billowing up and obscuring them.  As he jumped from his gelding, he felt healing muscles protesting their rough treatment, but he pushed his discomfort aside.  When the dust had swirled away in the light breeze, Diego recognized Pepito and Marco.  Carefully, he examined the younger man and was gratified to see his eyes open.  Moaning, Pepito reached up and grabbed Diego’s arm. 

Señor, they have taken the patróna and your daughters.  I heard one say they were taking them south.  Must get help,” Pepito gasped, holding his ribs. 

Diego saw no other evidence of a serious wound except for half-dried blood on one side of his face.  “How badly did they hurt you, Pepito?”

“Broken ribs, patrón.  And my head hurts, but nothing else,” the vaquero answered.  “You must get help.”

“Help is coming, Pepito.  You lay here quietly until someone comes,” he said as he checked Marco.  The servant had also been hit over the head, but his heartbeat seemed normal.  He chafed to get back on the trail of the kidnappers. 

“I will wait, Don Diego.  But be careful.  There were at least a dozen, maybe more,” Pepito warned. 

“I will, Pepito,” Diego told him as he grabbed the palomino’s reins and remounted.  He immediately spurred the horse into a gallop, following tracks that headed southwest, toward the more rugged foothills of the Sierras. 

He swept past the lake with only a cursory glance.  The carriage was gone.  They must be using it to carry Minta and the girls.  Bueno, he thought.  That will slow them down.  Just before the crest of each hill, he slowed slightly, reconnoitering the next valley.  Puffs of dust over one hill slowed him even more and he dismounted before reaching the crest.  Muscles protested again as he lay on his stomach on the rough ground.  Remotely, he thanked Jerintas for the medicine that had not only saved his life, but had sped his recovery considerably. 

He saw more than the amount of men that Pepito had reported, there were about a dozen and a half men and one woman.  Woman? he asked himself.   Why would a woman be part of a kidnapping party?  What would they want with Minta?  There were no cries of witchcraft this time.  There was nothing to indicate problems as there had been before.  Could it be the wealth that Minta had brought? Diego wondered as he studied the group below him.  He concluded that to be the reason.  There was no other. 

Minta was bound and laying at the bottom of the carriage.  He could only assume that she was still alive.  She has to be! he thought, squelching the despair that had begun to creep into his heart.  Maria Isabella was bound next to her mother, while little Minta was sitting in a seat, her hands securely tied in front of her.  Anger flowed though his veins and swelled in his chest, almost cutting off his breath and replacing the despair.

Slowly he took control of his emotions, forcing his anger into a small pocket of his soul.  So far, it appeared that Minta was safe, as were the girls.  Of course, if it were a kidnapping for money, they would keep Minta and the girls alive, even if for a short time.  He watched for a little while longer as they made their way through the valley.  Diego saw the lone female kidnapper sitting in the carriage reach over and grab Minta by the hair, shouting at her, then slapping her.  His anger threatened to seethe to the surface once more, but he forced himself to watch.  What was it about that woman that seemed so very familiar?   Her voice floated up to him and then it became clear.  On a dark, stormy and horrendous night, he had heard that voice.  Maria Louisa!  This wasn’t a kidnapping for money!  This was a kidnapping to finish what had begun almost thirteen years ago!  

Minta and the girls were being taken to a place to be tortured and possibly sacrificed on the altar of Maria Louisa’s hatred!  Calming himself, Diego thought furiously of possibilities to save them.  He looked around the perimeter of the valley.  There was a chance that he could sneak around the group and work out some kind of escape or at the least, something to hinder the kidnapers.  Taking another moment, Diego realized that he would also have to try and get Minta and the girls away from the zealots before the rescue party showed up.  He could only imagine what these . . . followers of Maria Louisa’s would do if they felt cornered. 

But he had nothing, no gun, no sword, nothing.  Again, Diego gazed at the far hills, and possibilities began to present themselves.   Making his way back to his lathered horse, he mounted and turned the animal’s head toward the arroyo to his left.  In places he was able to ease the horse into a trot.  He visualized the progression of the troop of kidnapers.  With a carriage they would have to follow the wider trail and would eventually cross a more easily traveled offshoot of the El Camino Real.  Diego wanted to be able to rescue the girls and Minta before that happened. 

The gelding stumbled on a loose stone, jerking Diego forward and bringing him to the realization that he would also have to get a new horse soon.  Dismounting, Diego climbed the hill and peered into the next valley.  The troop was slowly making its way toward him.  Slipping from boulder to boulder, and keeping behind bushes, Diego stayed hidden from the view of the approaching horsemen as he slipped down the hillside to the valley floor.  Soon the first riders passed him.  One was a lancer, he noticed in surprise, Pablo, a corporal.  He had spoken cordially to him many times.  The rest were vaqueros, with a few peons and some other soldiers mingled in the group.  The carriage drove by, creating large clouds of dust that further hid Diego.  He held the end of his banda against his mouth and nose and waited. 

Finally the last of the kidnapers passed by and Diego jumped out of hiding, and grabbing the saddle horn of the last horse, he pulled himself up behind the rider.   In almost the same instant, he hit the man in front of him just behind the ear with his closed fist.  The vaquero slid out of the saddle and hit the ground with a dull thud.  Diego pushed aside the quick stabbing pain in his gut and relegated it to a distant corner of his mind.

Glancing ahead to see if the ambush had been detected, Diego saw another vaquero galloping toward him through the dust.  Jerking a rifle out of is holder behind his right leg; the caballero swung it to the side just in time to catch his assailant under the chin.  With a sickening crunch, the man’s head snapped back and he fell backward off the saddle.  His foot caught and he was dragged for a few feet before disentangling and falling to the ground in a lifeless heap. 

At almost the same time, Diego was out of the saddle, holding the reins in one hand and dragging the first vaquero behind a boulder to be joined by the dead one.  This time his ribs joined the protest that his muscles had begun when he had attacked the first kidnaper.  He pushed his discomfort away once again. There was no time for it and too much was at stake.  Ground tying the horse, Diego pulled off his chaqueta and vest, simply letting the items drop onto the ground.  Better for the men following, Diego thought.  Jerking off the vaquero’s jacket, he drew it on, thankful for the fact that the other man was about his size.  Dust smeared on his calzoneros added to the effect of being on the trail for a while. 

He quickly remounted and followed the troop of kidnapers, jerking off his own good hat and drawing on the sweat-stained one that had belonged to his victim, pulling it down low over his forehead.  Quickly, he caught up with the last kidnaper and drew along side.  A quick glance showed no one looking back. 

“Where is Hernan?” the peon beside him asked.  Diego recognized him as one of the servants from the Esperon hacienda. 

“Checking our back trail,” Diego said gruffly, coughing to further disguise his voice. 

“Good idea, although I doubt anyone will notice the disappearance of the demon women before we get to Morales Pass,” the peon answered.

Diego quickly thought.  That was about ten miles from the de la Vega rancho.  Several of those miles had already been traversed. “,” he said, lashing out with his fist and catching the other man under the chin.  The peon fell out of his saddle with almost no sound.  Before the riderless horse could run away, Diego grabbed the reins.  Reaching over, he pulled the pistol from its saddle holster and stuck it in his belt wincing at the increasing soreness in his abdomen. 

As he followed behind the troop, Diego calculated how long he would be able to continue culling these snakes out and realized that they would reach their destination before he could dispatch enough of them this way.  There had to be another solution, something that would skew the battle in his favor.

Through the light haze of dust, Diego noted that the most heavily armed men rode right near the wagon.  Coming along side the next man in the line, he rode easily and relaxed, his hat down low over his eyes.  The civilian clad soldier glanced at him for a moment and then gazed ahead. 

At that moment, Diego’s arm shot out and grabbed the other man’s shirt.  Simultaneously his left hand swung around, a pistol clutched tightly by the barrel.  The soldier gasped as the handle of the pistol struck him between the eyes.  Pulling his horse around to stand over the fallen man, Diego dismounted.  Another pistol was added to his arsenal, but it was the large decorated silver conchas on the man’s vest that caught Diego’s eye.  They sparkled in the hot afternoon sun.  Jerking the vest off, he added that to his growing pile of possibly useful items that also included a knife and a rope.   Digging in the soldier’s saddlebag, Diego shuddered, seeing evil prospects in the array of items inside.  A short branding iron was tossed to the side, as was a ferrier’s cutting tool. 

For some reason, Diego didn’t think that the rider had these tools with him to shoe horses and it wasn’t the time of year for branding.  White-hot anger flared inside his heart once again.  Will it never end? he asked himself.

Glancing back at the discard pile, Diego reconsidered, gathering the cutting tool.  His choices were quickly thrown into the saddlebag of his stolen horse.  He felt fatigue beginning to weigh his limbs.  Muttering a short curse, Diego mounted and ran the soldier’s horse back the way it had come. 

The last of the troop had disappeared behind a curve in the road some time earlier.  Diego turned his horse’s head toward a small path heading up a tiny arroyo and urged him onto it.  When he came to another trail running roughly parallel to the kidnaper’s route he guided the horse to that one and increased his speed.  Reconnoitering periodically, Diego soon found himself a quarter of a mile ahead of the evil troop.   Looking at the sun, Diego calculated that he had, at most, only a few hours before sunset, about the time when they would reach Morales Pass.   He would have to do something, and it would have to be soon or Maria Louisa would accomplish what she had set out to do thirteen years ago. 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-eight
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