Return with Honor
"You may begin at anytime, gentlemen," Carlos said quietly. The fiesta goers had gathered around in a loosely formed circle. In the back there was the murmuring sound of wagers being placed. Diego saw a slight glimmering of fear in his mother’s eyes, but in the eyes of both of his parents, he saw pride and confidence in his abilities. His heart swelled as he saw the love they had for him.
Manuel threw himself at Diego, pushing him heavily to the ground, wrapping his arms tightly around the smaller boy’s chest. As the bigger boy squeezed, Diego felt his ribs creaking. He berated his inattentiveness and struggled to free himself. His arms and hands were tight against his body and useless, his legs were in a position where he could not use them either.
"I have you beaten already, you worthless she-pup," Manuel taunted.
"Not yet, not while I yet breathe," Diego gasped out.
"I can take care of that," Manuel hissed, squeezing his arms tighter around Diego’s body. The larger boy’s arms felt like the shrinking leather bands the cooper put around his barrels. Diego’s breath came in gasps. Think, think!
He didn’t have the use of his hands, nor of his legs or arms. That only left one thing, Diego thought. Trying to relax and let his body go limber surprised Manuel and caused him to raise up a bit. Diego took advantage of the extra bit of room and made his move, slamming his forehead into Manuel’s nose. The warm wetness of blood spread across Diego’s cheek and the release of pressure around his chest reassured him of his good choice. Manuel jerked back in surprise, swiping his sleeve across his bloody nose.
Diego pulled his feet under him and jumped up and away from his opponent. "I have used my head, Manuel," he said with a chuckle.
Manuel’s eyes burned with rage and with a roar the boy charged at Diego, who simply jumped to one side, and reaching out with one foot, and tripping his opponent. Manuel landed on his face in the soft dust. With a growl, he got to his feet and rushed Diego, and stopping short of actual contact, flung his hands toward Diego. The dust in each hand blinded him in an instant and Diego felt panic along with the pain of Manuel’s fists in his stomach. His breath whoosed out of his lungs and he fell to his knees.
"You should have left me alone, la niña. Now everyone gets to see what a weakling you are," Manuel’s voice sounded close. The taunting burned in his ears, his gasping breath rattled in his throat, his heart constricted with humiliation. It didn’t matter what he did, Manuel still beat him.
"Use your eyes and your mind, Diego," he heard Carlos say softly from nearby.
How could he use his eyes, he thought in despair. He suddenly felt the toe of Manuel’s boot against his side and a sharp cry of pain escaped before he could prevent it. Think! He heard the shuffling of the bigger boy’s feet as he prepared for another kick. Reaching toward the sound, Diego was gratified to feel Manuel’s ankle. Grasping it with fingers suddenly made steel, Diego jerked the other boy’s foot toward him. With a grunt Manuel toppled and fell heavily in the dust.
Diego rubbed his eyes fiercely, feeling the tears and grit mingle and burn his smarting eyes. Rubbing some more gave him some semblance of sight and he jumped quickly out of Manuel’s way as the boy charged him.
"Puerco! Pig! Despite all of your fancy tricks, you cannot beat me!" Manuel screamed swinging his fist and catching Diego on the side of his head. Hitting the ground heavily, he watched the bigger boy’s foot coming toward his head and he rolled away from the blow.
He heard Manuel’s growl of rage and the heavy steps that told him of another rushing charge. In a move that surprised even him, Diego rolled back the other way, catching Manuel off guard and tripping him. As the boy fell heavily to the ground, Diego pounced on him, reaching under his chin with his arm, making a vice to bring Manuel into submission. With Manuel’s neck cradled in the crook of his arm, Diego squeezed. Manuel bucked and jerked around, trying to loose the tormentor off his back, but the smaller boy just clamped his knees along his opponent’s side and hung on, continuing the unrelenting pressure on Manuel’s neck.
"Give up, Manuel. I have won," Diego whispered in the bully’s ear. Manuel tried to buck harder, but his breath was wheezing now. The sweat dripped down Diego’s cheeks, mingling with the dust. He squeezed some more.
"All right, I give up!" Manuel finally gasped. Releasing him, Diego stood up, smiling from the sheer joy that the victory afforded. Manuel looked sullenly at him as he massaged his throat. "I will win the horse race, de la Vega. You were just lucky this time," Manuel spat out. Diego simply shrugged.
“After our contestants have had a chance to rest up, the race will begin. The course of the race will be to the edge of the pond and back.” Diego was pleased at Carlos’ announcement. That was a half-mile. That distance was something that La Vienta was able to handle quite easily. She was an excellent sprinter. He was confident that she could win this race.
Walking over to a bucket of water, Diego was embarrassed to see Rosarita walking near his side, his hat still in her hands. "That was wonderful, Diego," she crowed.
"Gracias, but this is not over yet," he answered, splashing the water on his face. He glanced up and saw across the clearing a Gavilan vaquero talking with Manuel. Diego pushed his suspicious thoughts from his mind. There were too many people, what could the bully do now?
Splashing more water on his face and head, he wiped the rest of the dust from his eyes and finally sauntered over to La Vienta untying her from the hitching ring and leading her to the designated starting line. She pranced nervously. He understood how she felt, he was nervous, too.
"Riders, are you ready?" a vaquero called out.
"Yes," both boys answered in unison.
"Then mount and ride."
Both boys grabbed their saddle horns and flung themselves on their horses. La Vienta jerked, reared and began bucking. As he fell through the air, Diego heard the mocking laughter of Manuel as the other boy’s horse thundered toward the nearby pond. In chagrin, Diego wondered what had happened. His mare continued prancing and snorting, reaching around and biting at the cinch strap. Suddenly suspicious, Diego undid the cinch and let the saddle fall to the ground. A large burr fell to the ground along with the saddle.
His indignation kindled, Diego jerked the saddle blanket off and grabbing a handful of the horse’s mane, swung back on to his horse’s back. "Go, my beauty, go," he called into her ear, quickly gathering up the reins. She sprang off in a leap that almost unseated him. Diego clamped his knees onto her torso, leaning down until his face was being whipped by her dark, silky mane. He bent down even more until his nose was almost touching her neck. Her hooves thundered a rhythm of power and stamina.
"Go, La Vienta." He was almost halfway to the pond, but noticed with chagrin that Manuel had almost reached it. "You can do it," he called out feeling the wind whistling through his dark hair and caressing his sweaty body. La Vienta responded with a lengthened stride. One hand tightly locked itself into the silky mane, while the other held the reins loosely. Diego continued to call out encouragement and the mare lengthened her stride, eating up the distance to the pond.
Manuel laughed as he rushed by. The bully had reached the pond and was coming back to the hacienda. La Vienta soon reached the pond, and rearing, turned sharply and leaped into a gallop for the return. Diego was disheartened at the distance they must cover to catch up with Manuel, but he would not give up. "Go, La Vienta," he repeated, over and over. He reached down and felt only the barest film of lather gathering on the horse’s neck. Diego was elated. He really believed his horse could ride miles before breaking out in a full sweat. She sped up even more, her legs a blur, the wind of her passing making his eyes water. Her muscles under his legs were of steel, bunching, gathering and bursting with energy, generating the strength to her legs that made the ground rush by faster and faster.
Looking up briefly, Diego saw Manuel and his horse closer than he dared dream possible. The crowds at the finish were shouting and calling out encouragement. "La Vienta, you can do it. You can do it!" he encouraged her. More power, more speed. Her nose was even with the back of Manuel’s horse. The bully was moving his whip up and down in a frenzy, trying to get more speed from his lathered horse. The horse leaped forward, but it was from fear, not the joy of running.
La Vienta saw victory, even with such a short distance left, and she leaped forward, her legs making a rhythm of joy and exultation. Her nose came up to the other horse’s nose. Manuel reached over to lay his whip on La Vienta’s withers, but Diego anticipated the move and jerked the whip from the bully’s hands, tossing it to the ground as La Vienta edged just ahead of Manuel’s horse and between the lines of people screaming frenziedly.
Diego let the horse slow down gradually, almost halfway to the pond again before she had slowed to a walk. He allowed her to walk at a leisurely pace back to the crowd before jumping off her back. His calzoneros were damp with sweat, but to his amazement, La Vienta had only the slightest amounts of sweat gathered on her neck and chest. She nuzzled him on the chest as he took off her bridle, ignoring the cheers and good wishes of the people crowding around him. Putting his head close to hers, he murmured, "Gracias, my friend, gracias."
Snorting, La Vienta trotted out to the pasture with the other horses.
"Diego de la Vega, you have won the challenge. You have won it with honor," the alcalde cried out.
Rosarita handed him his hat, pride and happiness radiating from her face. He looked up and saw his mother and father, both beaming at his victory and the way he had won it.
"I remembered the badger, Mother. And this was the right time, Father," he told them as they enveloped him in a loving hug….
….Diego brought his attention back to the present, slowly pulling out of his father’s embrace, his father, whose once dark hair was now steel gray. His father who despite the coming years of loneliness was sending his son away to learn, to mature, to bring the best of Spain back to his home in California.
"Return with honor, my son," his father repeated.
"I will, Father," Diego assured him and pulling away walked up the gangplank to the ship that would start him on his journey to Spain.