Diego's mind raced frantically. What was going on in that hovel and how was he going to get down there? It was so dark that he couldn't see how steep the cliff below him was. But he had no idea how far he would have to travel to find a passage to the lower-lying ground the shanty stood upon.
The shrieks erupted again, hastening Diego's decision. He quickly dismounted Toronado, pulled a length of rope from his saddle bag, and then patted the horse on the neck. He didn't waste any time by looking for a tree or stump to tie the rope.
"Toronado, old boy," he said in a voice that was more calm than he felt, "I need you to hold this for me."
The stallion bobbed his head as if he understood. It took longer than he had to spare to tie a loop on one end of the rope with his cold, wet fingers, but he finally did it. He placed the loop in the Andalusian's mouth. The other end of it he flung down the embankment. Giving the rope a test tug, he then began to lower himself down the side of the cliff, holding the fading light of the lantern in his teeth.
Diego was about halfway down the embankment when a flash of lightening caused Toronado to rear, pulling Diego back up the side of the bluff. He removed the lantern from his mouth, leaving only one hand clinging to the rope.
"Whoa, take it easy, old boy," shouted Diego as he tried to calm down the jittery stallion. Toronado jumped again when thunder rumbled across the sky. "Hold the line, boy."
After a minute or so, the Andalusian finally regained his composure and stood steady. Diego began to once again descend the rope.
Five meters further down the line, he lowered his foot and found nothing but air as the cliff had eroded away in that spot. He nearly lost his grip on the rope and his lantern as well as he gasped. It took several seconds of scrambling, but he finally found a good foothold.
Diego could hear the screams again as he touch the ground at the bottom of the bluff after what seemed like hours but in reality was only about fifteen minutes. He ran swiftly toward the hut. There were no windows or doors on the first two sides of the house he encountered but on the third he saw glowing light emanating from a long rectangle that had to be its entrance.
He burst through the doorway, tearing down the blanket that hung there as he did. Then Diego stopped abruptly. Three faces turned up to look at him. Three smiling faces.
Those happy expressions disappeared promptly however. "Papa!" exclaimed Alfonso. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you, hijo, and Digo," his father replied. "You boys were supposed to have been home over three hours ago."
Alfonso and Digo looked at each other with guilty expressions. Three hours! They had not realized they had been gone so long, the time had passed so quickly. The young muchachos knew they were in serious trouble. Probably more than they had ever been in before in their short lives.
Neither noticed the reaction of their friend, Señor Maldonado. The old man visibly paled and was shaking as he got to his feet. "I'm sorry, Señor de la Vega," he began in a wavering voice. "The storm, it was so bad, I thought the boys should stay here until it passed, but then it got so dark. . ." He trailed off and gulped when he looked up and saw Diego's countenance.
Diego had been taking in the scene before him as the other man was speaking. The boys were seated on either side of their older companion and judging by the crudely made checker set on the table, had been engaged in playing a lively game of it. The cries he heard must have been peals of laughter, distorted by the howling of the wind outside.
The boys ran to him and Diego knelt down on one knee to gather them into his arms. He heaved a big sigh of relief.
They had never been in danger at all. They were safe and sound and had displayed common sense by staying put during the storm instead of trying to make their way back home. Still they had disobeyed him and they would have to be punished. But for now, he was just happy they were alright.
"Alfonso, Digo, time to go home," announced Diego, standing up again. He then eyed the older man as a thought crossed his mind. "How do you know who I am, Señor?" he asked. "Do I know you?"
"No, Señor," replied Maldonado. "I'm just an old peon, why would you know me? Everyone knows the de la Vegas. They are the wealthiest caballeros around these parts."
Diego detected a note of bitterness in the man's voice and wondered at it. "Well, gracias, Señor, for looking after my son and grandson. I hope they weren't too much trouble."
"Oh, no, no," the old man said with a weak smile. "I enjoy their company. They remind me of my sons when they were the same age."
Diego nodded and began to lead Alfonso and Digo out of the shabby hovel. He threw a glance over his shoulder at Señor Maldonado. Had he encountered the man before somewhere? He seemed vaguely familiar. Diego shrugged. It would come to him sooner or later.
Looking down at the two boys, he sighed. For now, he had other things to worry about that were much more important. He lifted both lads onto Toronado's back and they started their way back to the hacienda.
None of them turned around to see Maldonado
standing in the door of his hut, an inscrutable expression on his wizened
Z Z Z
It took nearly an hour for the trio to arrive back at the de la Vega hacienda. About halfway there, the lantern had gone out, finally running out of oil. By then, however, it didn't matter anymore as the storm clouds had passed and left behind a sky filled with twinkling stars and a large crescent of the moon.
"Diego!" shouted Victoria as she saw him walking through the front door. "Did you find. . ." She didn't finish her sentence as she could see the two muchachos following behind her husband. She ran despite her large belly to the doorway and hugged both boys tightly.
Ana Maria rushed over and Digo moved over into his mother's arms. "Oh, Digo," she cried as she enveloped him in her own embrace.
Diego looked at his father who was watching with a huge grin on his face. "Where is Felipe?" he asked.
"Oh, he returned about half an hour ago," replied Don Alejandro. "He's changing into dry clothes." He eyed his son's drenched state. "I suggest you do the same."
"Si," Diego agreed. He started to leave as Felipe walked into the room. The relief he saw on his eldest son's face was all the thanks he needed.
"Where did you find them?" queried Felipe. "I never found a trace of them anywhere I searched." He went to go join his wife in embracing their eldest son.
"Down by the river," replied Diego. He turned to his father. "Do we have an old line shack about three miles from here?"
"I don't think so," the old don answered. "Why?"
"That's where I found the boys," declared Diego, "with an old man who is living there."
"An old man?" inquired the elder de la Vega. He rubbed his chin as he mulled over this bit of information. "I wonder. . ."
He was interrupted by Victoria flying into Diego's arms. She wrapped her arms tightly around her husband.
"Gracias, Diego," she murmured before she kissed him. He knew in that moment that all was forgiven.
Diego returned her kiss before putting a little distance between them. "Querida, you're getting all wet," he said teasingly, noting the damp patches on the front of her gown. "I think the boys and I need to change."
"Of course," his wife agreed. "Come along, Alfonso, time to get ready for bed then Maria will bring you and Digo a nice bowl of hot soup."
Alfonso looked up at his mother and saw the traces of worry on her face he had caused. "I'm sorry, Mama," he said contritely. "You, too, Papa. We didn't mean to scare everyone."
"But you did," replied Diego sternly. "Your disobedience could have cost you and Digo your lives, hijo. You were lucky this time." He knelt down to look the young boy in the eye. "You will be punished, Alfonso," he said sternly. He then added in a lighter tone, "But we'll worry about that in the morning."
The youngster smiled, knowing he wasn't going to get disciplined tonight. He skipped ahead of his cousin and Ana Maria who were on their way to the bedroom wing of the hacienda. Victoria trailed slowly behind them. Diego noticed that she paused for a moment about halfway down the corridor.
He went after her. "Victoria," he said in a concerned voice.
"In here, Diego," she called from one of the bedrooms. He came up to the doorway and saw the two women removing the wet garments from the two shivering boys.
"Are you alright?" he asked solicitously.
"I'm fine," she retorted. She grimaced as she slipped Alfonso's nightshirt over his head. "Diego, go get out of those wet clothes. You're going to catch a terrible cold."
"Very well," he said reluctantly. He continued on to the bedroom he and Victoria shared.
Diego hurried stripped off his own soggy clothing. Moments later, dressed in a dry shirt and trousers, he went back to the boys' room. Alfonso and Digo were tucked up in their bed with their mothers still hovering over them.
He had to move aside to let Maria and the young kitchen girl, Paloma, who brought trays bearing steaming bowls of vegetable and chicken soup to pass through the doorway..
"Be careful, it's hot" cautioned Victoria as the boys plunged their spoons eagerly into the bowls.
"Si, Mama," said Alfonso before blowing on the hot soup in his spoon
"You must be starving," Victoria said to Diego. "Maria saved your supper."
"Have you eaten yet?" he asked his wife.
"A little," she answered, averting her eyes. "Go on, you need to eat."
Knowing he would get no peace until he complied, Diego made his way to the dining room where his father and Felipe were already seated at the table, eating their warmed over dinners. He drew up a chair and moments later, Maria set a plate of food in front of him.
Diego began to eat the now limp roast beef and the overcooked green beans. The men ate in silence, not realizing until they were given food just how hungry they had been.
Victoria waddled her way into the sala, followed by Ana Maria, as Diego scraped the last bit of his dinner from his plate. "The boys are asleep," she announced.
"Gracias a Dios," said Don Alejandro. "Those imps had us all worried."
"Si," agreed Diego. "When I was out there, Father, I ran across some quicksand near the river. We'll have to make sure to keep the cattle away from the area.
The elder de la Vega nodded. "Well, I'm off to bed," he announced. "Buenas noches."
The others bid Don Alejandro goodnight as the old don left the room. As Felipe rose from the table, he let out a sneeze.
"Oh, no," said Ana Maria. "You're getting a cold."
"I'll have Maria made up a batch of my special tea," suggested Diego. "I think we could all use a cup of it."
"I'll go ask her," declared Victoria. "There's something else I need to speak to her about anyway."
Diego took a good look at his wife then. She was very pale and the dark circles under her eyes were even more pronounced..
"Querida, are you sure you're alright?" he inquired. He got up from his chair and went over to her side.
"Diego, I'm. . ." She never finished her sentence as she clenched her teeth together and grasped her stomach. Although she didn't cry out, it was obvious that she was in tremendous pain.
Diego scooped Victoria off her feet. He carried her out of the room and into the bedroom they shared. Placing her on the bed, he had to hold her down gently as she tried to sit up.
"Victoria, I want you to tell me what's wrong," demanded Diego tenderly.
"I think the baby's coming," she whispered
Z Z Z
"THE DEATH OF INNOCENCE" CHAPTER SEVEN"