Return with Honor
Diego was frustrated. For over a week he had tried to find ways to spy on Manuel, but he couldn’t. Every time he rode near the Gavilan hacienda, Manuel was inside, or out riding in the hills, or in the pueblo, or he simply stood staring at him with an infuriating smirk on his face. When Diego went to the pueblo, Manuel was at home, or in the hills riding, or, sometimes he would just glare at him haughtily from the back of his horse.
Today, as he rode with his father into the Pueblo de Los Angeles, Diego pondered his situation. The plaza was full of people, children younger than he dashed around the well in games of chase or mock battles, their happy shouts bringing a smile to his own lips. Until recently, he himself might be found among a group like that. The forces of the King of Spain were never defeated in the games of his imagination. Suddenly his eyes lit up with sudden insight. It was so simple.
"Father, may I take some time to talk with my friends?"
"Sí, Diego, but I want you at the auction in an hour. We need to buy new breeding stock," Alejandro stated.
"Sí, Father. I will be there," he said happily as he reined his horse toward the far end of the plaza. As he approached one group of the children, the stopped their play, and glanced up at him, wary of intrusion at first, but beaming in pleasure when they saw who it was.
"Diego!" Pedro Simeon cried out. He was a dark-haired boy of about seven and a half years, whose gray eyes sparkled with mischief. He brushed his dust-covered pants off with equally dirty hands, a smile of anticipation on his lips. Don Diego could always be counted on for the most wonderful games of imagination. "Are you here to join in our fun?" he asked.
"Not really, I am attending the auction with my father, but I do have the most marvelous idea for a game, if you are interested," he said. All eyes were instantly on him.
"What is it, Don Diego," Pedro asked, his excitement causing his voice to quiver slightly in his excitement.
Dismounting, Diego was soon in the middle of the huddle of smaller boys, all of them listening with rapt attention. "Do you all want to be spies for the King?" he asked.
"Spies for the King," several repeated. "Oh, yes," came a quick chorus. "What do we have to do?" Ignacio asked eagerly. "Yes, Don Diego, how do we play that game?" others chimed in.
Diego smiled softly. "The King of Spain wants you to spy on his mortal enemy, Francis Drake. He is a sly one, very tricky and hard to follow. That is why he has to have many spies. The King wants the enemy watched at all times. He is cleverly disguised as one of us, so you must be very careful." Several of the listeners looked up from the huddle and glanced around the plaza, to make sure they weren’t being heard.
"Who is he disguised as?" Pedro asked, getting into the spirit of the game.
"Manuel Gavilan. That is why this is such a difficult assignment. Do you think you can do this?"
"Sí!" came the instant chorus.
"Now, I am the captain of the King’s special guard. You must report to me. You must not allow yourselves to be caught. You can recruit others to be spies, but they must not be caught either. And above all, if you are caught, you must not give up any of the King’s secrets," Diego admonished conspiratorially. All of the boys nodded seriously, they knew the temper of Manuel Gavilan.
"How do we report to you, Capitan?" one of the other boys asked.
"Whenever you see me, whether here, or at a hacienda or on the road, it does not matter," Diego told the conspirators. They were mostly vaqueros’ sons, with the addition of a few hacendados’ sons and peons’ children. It was a wonderfully amalgamous group and Diego sometimes missed playing with them so much that it caused an ache inside. This would be almost as good. "Ah, my friends, the King of Spain sends you his greetings and thanks," he said with a smile and a salute, mounting and riding to the place of auction.
The reports kept coming in, sometimes when a vaquero would bring stock to the de la Vega hacienda, sometimes in the pueblo, sometimes when Diego and his father were out visiting other haciendas.
"Manuel lays the whip on his horse too heavily," one spy said.
"Manuel had a crop laid across his back for talking disrespectfully to his father yesterday," another reported. Diego found that to be interesting.
"Manuel ate fifteen whole chili peppers in only a minute," came another report. Ai, that might explain his disposition, Diego thought to himself.
"Manuel tried to ride his father’s new stallion," one spy told him.
"And what happened?" Diego prompted.
"He ate dust," his spy answered. Both boys laughed. Diego kept that piece of news for future reference.
"He is afraid of water. His younger brothers were swimming in the pond on their rancho and he refused to join them. They called him a frightened girl. That made him mad. It was very hard to keep from being caught. I was trying hard not to laugh and in his fierce anger he was beating all the bushes with his riding crop," Pedro Simeon told him. "He finally became so angry that he jumped on his horse and rode away. The poor animal cried out in pain because of the whip. Perhaps the King of Spain will capture and punish his enemy for such treatment to a horse?" Pedro asked slyly, a bright glint in his eye.
Diego looked carefully at his friend. "That is up to the King to decide," Diego finally said, not wanting to reveal any plans. Of course, he didn’t have any yet.
The reports from his ‘spies’ kept filtering in and Diego filed them all away in his mind. In the meantime, he visited Carlos, the head vaquero each evening. "Don Diego, when you fight, your eyes and your mind must keep working at knowing your enemy. If you do that, you will always be able to see when your enemy makes a mistake. Let your hands and feet take over the duties of combat. Come, let us spar a bit, so you can see what I mean," Carlos told him.
Diego wasn’t sure what he meant, but he watched Carlos intently. After several nights, he said in exasperation, "Carlos, when are you going to show me something new, something that I don’t already know?"
"Don Diego, you already know all the skills you need to defend yourself. You always have. You just haven’t used them the right way. You let yourself get angry, impassioned, then your eyes and mind cannot do their job and keep you from getting the bruises and cuts that I have seen you wear so proudly in the past." Carlos looked carefully at his employer’s son and saw a growth, a maturity beyond the irritated glance that Diego shot him.
Diego sighed. "Father told me the same thing."
"Your father is right, Diego. Listen to him," Carlos admonished.
Diego rode the range with his father and the vaqueros, read and studied with his mother, learned from Carlos and continued to get reports from his spies, although after several weeks, they tired of the game, seeing nothing new and seeing no results from their efforts. Several times Diego had confrontations with Manuel, who seemed to delight in tormenting the smaller boy. At first Diego forgot his resolve to be patient and hold his temper and came home sporting a bloody nose and bruised cheeks. From then on, the boy quelled his fiery thoughts, finally taking taunts that stung to the core without comment, without action. But it hurt Diego to walk away from Manuel’s disparaging remarks, his hurtful insults; he wanted nothing more than to shove his fist into the bigger boy’s mouth and all the way down his throat. Instead, Diego continued to watch, listen and wait for the right time that his father told him would come.
The day of the great fiesta that Don Sebatian Gavilan was holding in honor of his oldest daughter’s wedding dawned bright and clear. The dew on the grass sparkled brightly, glimmering off the spider’s webs, giving them the sheen of a summer rainbow. A slight breeze blew from the ocean, tempering the heat that had been afflicting the area all during the spring. Diego could get just a hint of salt in the breeze; it was refreshing to him. He rode the dark mare that his father had bought at auction and had given him to train. She was sleek, with long legs, strong withers and hindquarters, and a long, narrow muzzle. The Moorish influence could be seen in her lines and could be felt in her stamina as she ran across the hills. Riding on La Vienta was like riding the wind, thus the name he had given her. Only green broke when he received her, she had quickly turned into a fine riding animal under his gentle and patient handling.
"What is a niña doing on a fine animal like that?" Manuel taunted. Diego’s eyes flashed, but he quickly reined in his anger. He would continue to practice what his mother, father had admonished him to do. "You should be riding my baby brother’s pony."
"Father gave La Vienta to my care. I have been training her," Diego answered evenly, keeping his voice calm.
"A pity. Such a fine animal should belong to someone strong and brave."
"Point me in the direction of such a person and I might let them borrow her for the big race," Diego said with a smile, knowing full well that Manuel had been referring to himself.
Manuel colored slightly. "Such a fine horse is wasted on a mother’s boy like you. She is better suited to me," he hissed.
"She does not care for those who beat their animals, Manuel. She would throw you in the dust as your father’s stallion did," Diego responded with a slight laugh. Manuel’s references to his mother continued to cause a burning fire in his heart, but again he practiced patience, knowing that he would have his chance to prove he was no weakling, to shove Manuel’s insults of his mother down his throat. Diego took in a breath and let it out slowly and evenly, continuing the exercise of control over his emotions and his tongue.
Manuel’s eyes widened in shock at Diego’s references. He rode closer. "You will regret those words, de la Vega," he spat.
Diego turned La Vienta’s head and returning to the festivities, ignoring the bully.
Later in the afternoon, the vaqueros readied themselves for the races and feats of prowess. One of the vaquero’s sons dug a hole and loosely buried a chicken up to its neck. Its squawking protests could be heard over the bet taking and laughter. Vaqueros lined up with their horses and took turns racing toward the unlucky bird. The first two missed the chicken, which elicited boos from the watching crowd of hacendados’ families, peons, and other vaqueros. The third, Carlos, bent way over his horse’s shoulder, hanging on to the saddle horn with only two fingers. Down, down he leaned. His hands brushed the dirt as his horse’s hooves thundered inexorably toward the unfortunate bird. Quickly the chicken was plucked out of the ground, and held triumphantly aloft for all to see. It continued to protest loudly and flap its wings. Excited shouting and clapping accompanied his release of the befuddled animal, which ran in several directions before racing back to the pen where it presumed it would be safe.
Diego clapped and shouted at Carlos’ display of riding skill along with anyone else. He must have the vaquero teach him that trick. In an enclosure, Don Sebastian was holding cockfights, and several hacendados had brought dogs to fight as well.
A commotion behind him caused Diego to turn. Near a pen where a small, but strongly muscled dog sat whimpering, Diego heard Manuel screaming in anger at a peon sitting near the dog. With each stroke of the short whip in his hands, both the peon and the dog cowered and cried louder in fear and pain. Suddenly a girl was at his side, grabbing Manuel’s hand and trying to take the whip away. Diego recognized Rosarita and wondered at her willingness to incur the wrath of Manuel. The boy, in his anger, slapped the girl away from him and turned back to the pair in the pen.
In an instant, Diego was at his side, reaching up and grabbing the whip. "Manuel, you have acted without honor. I challenge you to a contest."
With fury in his eyes, Manuel stepped toward Diego, his fists cocked, his teeth clenched. Diego stood resolute, even though fear caused his heart to hammer. Remotely, he wondered that Manuel and all those near him couldn’t hear it. His stomach felt as though that chicken was down inside trying to beat its way out.
"Diego de la Vega has challenged Manuel Gavilan to a contest," Carlos cried for all to hear. "What kind of contest, Don Diego?"
Diego wondered about that himself. What kind of contest? "I will choose one contest and Manuel will choose another. If there is a tie then we will let the alcalde decide on a tie-breaking contest," he announced.
"What will be your contest, Diego? A reading competition?" Manuel taunted, trying very hard to gain control of the situation.
Diego frowned, irritation growing, a fierce retort ready and sitting on the tip of his tongue. But he waited a moment and took a breath. He would not let anger overcome him. He would not! "If I chose such a contest, I would be taking unfair advantage of you, Manuel, since you have decided not to learn to read," was all he finally said. It was tempting to challenge the bigger boy to a swimming contest, but he realized that he would be dishonorable in that, too, since his opponent could not swim. It was tempting though.
"I had thoughts that on such a warm day a swimming contest would be nice, but since you seem to think so little of my riding skills, I will challenge you to a horse race," Diego said, getting a small satisfaction at the Manuel’s reaction to his reference about swimming.
"My contest is a fist fight," Manuel told him quickly. "And since you challenged, my contest is first," he added quickly. Diego just nodded and unbuttoned his shirt at the sleeves, rolling them up to a comfortable position. He handed his hat to Rosarita and stood calmly and quietly, waiting for the beginning of this fight that he had been anticipating and dreading, his fear warring with his eagerness.