The de la Vega carriage swept down the dusty road that intersected with the capitol road about five miles from the family’s home. Maria and Señora de la Vega rode with the blinds pulled down. Two small lanterns lit the interior. Four well-matched horses pulled the carriage, which bounced rapidly down the rough road. Two armed footmen rode on top. From the sound of the battle, they were passing safely behind the fighting, but everyone strained to monitor the noise.
The horses were nervous. They could hear the crack of the muskets and the deeper thud of the field pieces. More disturbing was the occasional scream of a wounded or dying horse. The coachman strained to control the rattled beasts.
As the coach rounded a turn, three cavalry officers led a a small company of Morales’ soldiers who were fleeing the battle. One of the men was pressing his hand against his abdomen. Thick blood was oozing through his fingers. He was swaying in his saddle and it was was difficult to understand how he was staying in the saddle. One of the men led the wounded man’s horse. The other riders galloped ahead of the carriage and turned into its path. They yelled to the driver to stop.
The coachman yelled something to the footmen and then drove the horses on. The footmen raised their muskets and took aim on the riders in the road. The two cavalry men raised their carbines. The driver slowed the carriage and calculated their chances of outrunning the cavalry and musketeers. A thump on the roof brought him to an automatic halt. Señora de la Vega had signaled to stop.
When the carriage rolled to stop, Señora de la Vega opened her window and called to the cavalry officers. The two men rode to the carriage door. The Lieutenant barked, “Open that door and climb now. We are taking the carriage.”
Señora de la Vega leaned out of the window so that the Lieutenant could see her clearly. “Now listen to me, Martin Villens,” she said severely. “I once bathed you when you were still in diapers. I held your mother when she was only hours old. I was in your grandmother’s wedding. I do not have time to explain what I need, so you will just have to do exactly what I say.”
The Lieutenant looked confused, but the Señora did not wait for him to catch up. “You two take off your shirts. Tear one in strips for bandages. Tear the other to make white arm bands to wear. Give the footmen your weapons. You will help the injured man, is that Arturo Villa?, into the carriage and then you and the other officer will follow us. Send the others home. Do not send them back to the barracks. If they are not from here, send them to my house. They will be cared for. I will send a note. Now hurry, we must go.”
While the officers followed the orders, the Señora spoke with Maria. “Can you help the wounded man. I believe he is Arturo Villa. His family are good people. They have a ranch about twenty miles north.”
“I’ll do what I can, Señora,” said Maria. “If he’s shot in the stomach there’s not much I can do. I’m not a doctor, you know. But let’s get him to my father’s house as quickly as possible.”
The officers carefully placed their injured comrade on the bench at the rear of the carriage. “We need them to ride inside, to prevent him from falling,” said Maria gesturing to the injured man. When the cavalrymen saw Maria, they drew back and stiffened. One reached for a sword that was now stashed in a trunk lashed to rear of the carriage.
“Why is she here?,” asked the Lieutenant. “There are O’Brien’s and Bryant’s killing us back there. Where are you taking us?”
“She is here as my guest, which is all you need know,” said Señora de la Vega. “We are going to her house, because that is where she has set up a small hospital. It is the best hope for your friend.”
The officer looked unhappy, but he could not stand up to the Señora’s stare . He turned away and noticed that Maria was kneeling by his comrade, inspecting his wound. “I need you to hold him still,” said Maria, without turning around. “I need the other man to hold a lantern on the wound so I can see it better.”
“Do as she says,” said Señora to the officers. She called to the footmen and told them to follow the carriage on the officers’ horses. The other soldiers had already spread out, heading to their homes. “Señora de la Vega,” said the Lieutenant, “There are four men who have no homes to go to. I have sent them to your home as you so graciously indicated. A sergeant whom I trust is with them. I told them to see that no harm comes to your house or your people and that they are to enter no buildings until you return and give your permission. I also told them that I personally would kill any of them who does not follow orders.”
“That is more than I asked for, Martin, but it is what I required. I thank you. I will be sure to visit your mother and grandmother and tell them what a fine man you have become.” Martin blushed in spite of the tremendous amount of willpower being expended on not blushing. His fellow officer stared straight ahead.
As the carriage bounced down the road, Maria attempted to examine the wound. When the officer brought the lantern, Maria could see that the bullet had struck the man below the stomach and to the left. If the bleeding could be stopped and if he avoided infection, he might pull through. But Maria didn’t share these thoughts with anyone. She was keenly aware of her lack of training and didn’t want to predict any outcome.
Señora de la Vega decided that having three sweaty and bloody cavalry officers in the carriage required the widows be opened. Dust blew in, but Maria covered the wounds with the bandages made from the torn shirt. They were sweaty and dirty, but they would have to do until she could get home. With the windows down, Maria could hear the battle sounds much clearer. She leaned out of the window to see how they close they were to the river. The river was her main concern. If she could not get across on the ferry, they would have to ride toward the battle to find a ford. The flood was receding, but the river was still high. Up ahead were the standing rocks across the road from the ferry. Big James had pointed out that from these rocks, a small number of men could control the river crossing. If Morales had posted men there, Maria would not be able to get past.
The driver slowed the carriage to negotiate the tight turn around the rocks and to halt the carriage on the road by the ferry landing. Maria searched for soldiers, but she didn’t see any. The horses slowed to a walk. Maria realized that she hadn’t heard a cannon in a while and the musketry had slowed. The regular volleys had diminished to intermittent firing. The rocks were coming into view. Something was wrong, but Maria could not make out what it was. Then she realized that the usually gray, unmottled stone was splashed with blood. The carriage rolled on and she saw three soldiers sprawled on the ground at the base of the rocks. Their weapons were missing. Their throats were cut. The cavalry men saw them, and their jaws tightened. The Lieutenant fingered the white armband around his bicep.
The carriage climbed onto the road and halted by the ferry landing. The ferry was tied up on the opposite bank. No one was in sight. Maria reached for the door to jump out, but Señora de la Vega stopped her by gently placing her hand on Maria’s arm. Maria paused and turned toward her.
“When this is over, please come see me,” Señora said. “I will make Cupido stop all his nonsense. I promise he will. But please come see me. You are an interesting young lady and I would like to know you better.”
“I will,” Maria said. “And thank you for getting me here.” Maria could not help wondering how she would have handled the cavalry on her own.
“Now go,” said the Señora. “And God bless. Martin,” she called.
Arturo was standing on the road by his wounded comrade. “Yes, ma’am,” he answered.
“You take care of your friend and Senorita Valenzula,” she said. “Do you understand.”
He nodded and replied, “Of course, Señora. Are you not coming with us?”
“No. This is not the time to drop in. Besides I must see to your men who are guarding my house. In a few days, when things calm down, please come to my home and recover your weapons and horses.”
“I shall, but will you be safe going home?,” he asked.
“If I managed against such a fierce soldier as yourself, I imagine I can handle whatever may await,” she answered and she thumped for the carriage to head home before he could reply.
While they were talking, Maria had leapt out and raced across the road. She ran down to the ferry landing and called out for help. She saw the boat tied up on the opposite bank, and fought down the fear that Morales’ soldiers had crossed the river and attacked the house. Maria forced the fear out of her mind. If Morales had attacked on the other side, her side, of the river, Maria thought, her family would have fought and there would bodies all along the river.
Maria checked her pistols. They were both loaded and primed. She thought about firing a shot, but decided that another yell was safer. A shot might bring a return shot. Maria called out and this time an answering call followed. Two figures appeared, running toward the ferry. Maria could make out Finn and Ronan running full speed and waving their arms.
“Miss! Miss! You’re safe!,” called Ronan. “There’s hurt men at the house.” Finn, his younger brother, arrived a little behind his brother, and waved shyly to Maria. Then they saw the soldiers and slammed to a stop. They quickly loaded their muskets and raised them to their shoulders. The cavalrymen nervously looked to Maria. She ran over two the calvary men waving her arms and yelling to the boys. “No, no, don’t shoot!,” she shouted as she placed herself between the men. “They’re unarmed and they need help. Just send the boat.”
Ronan and Finn didn’t shoot, but they didn’t lower their muskets either. Maria could see that Ronan had blood smeared his shirt. There must have been fighting here earlier and the boys were wary. Maria knew how to cut through the fear and anger surging through the boys. “Put down the damn guns!,” she bellowed, pronouncing each word loudly and clearing. “And get the boat over her right now.”
Ronan and Finn shook their heads as if they’d been smacked and laid down their guns. They nearly tripped over each other racing to the ferry boat. “Grab the end,” ordered Ronan, tossing the end of the rope to Finn and scrambling up the bank. The two boys pulled the rope and sent the empty ferry across the river. Maria and the calvary men boarded the small, flat ferry and waited as patiently as they could as the boys reversed the pulley to pull the ferry back. Maria wanted to pepper them with questions, but she didn’t want to slow down their work. The boys finally rethreaded the pulley and started pulling again. The boat jerked away from the opposite bank and slowly made its way across the river. Soon she felt the rocky bottom of the river scrape against the hull and the ferry climbed halfway up the bank. Maria scrambled to the bow and leapt out. She helped pull the boat up the bank. When the boat was firmly lodged on the bank, the boys collapsed, gasping lungfuls of air. It was much later that Maria learned the ferry was designed for two grown men to operate, not a fourteen-year-old and an eighteen-year-old.
Maria helped the men lift their wounded comrade from the boat. She had removed her jacket when she was helping to beach the boat, and Martin helped her on with it. Maria then led the way to the house. They could still hear the sound of guns, but they were to the south of the battle now. She hadn’t seen any other soldiers. The only people she should have seen on this side were the men at the ferry. Where the “hurt men” Ronan had mentioned? Perhaps they’d been taken to the makeshift hospital she set up in her study. She hoped that she would not have to help anyone else who was badly injured.
Pau, Fergus, and Victor were positioned on the south side of the ambush. They were ordered to protect the field gun that was angled down toward the road. They were equipped with Baker rifles and were the best shots of the O’Briens. The rifles were slow to load, and even slower without much practice, but they were accurate to eight hundred yards, a great improvement over muskets. The three men were accompanying twenty musketeers, who were laying down the continuous fire that was tearing Morales’ troops apart. The O’Briens were told to watch for flanking attacks, individual soldiers trying to sneak up the hill, or officers. “Kill the officers,” was a old sergeant’s advice to Pau. When Pau asked why, the sergeant said, “General principles.”
So the three O’Brien men had watched the ambush from the safety of rock outcroppings fifty feet or more above the road. They had diligently followed orders until Fergus saw six of Morales’ horsemen veer away from the slaughter. The horsemen were riding mounts covered with silver ornamentation. They rode full tilt for a small opening in the cliff wall. Fergus knew that the opening was a narrow, winding path that would lead to the river just north of Don Hernando’s house. He also knew that he and Pau had told Lt. Rojas about this escape from the trap and that he had promised to block it or defend it. Fergus listened and heard nothing. No gunfire from the opening, not sound of road blocks being dismantled. He started to run down the hill, yelling over his shoulder to Victor and Pau, “Follow me, and grab a horse.”
When he reached the road, Fergus ran up to nearest horseman, ducked under his saber thrust, and clubbed him from the saddle with the stock of his rifle. He slipped his rifle onto his back and mounted the horse. Without looking to see if Pau and Victor were following him, Fergus plunged into the narrow defile. By the time Pau and Victor reached the road, the battle was nearly over. They were both able to find horses that were wandering about riderless. They mounted and followed Fergus.
The O’Brien men knew the passageway very well, they had been using it since they were boys, but the General’s men had a long head start. Fergus drove the horse mercilessly, but the horse was worn from the ambush and did not like the rock walls so close. Several times it tried to scrape Fergus off, but he jerked on the reins and stayed in the saddle. After a series of narrow turns, Fergus entered a relatively open area in the passage. It was circular and walled by sheer rock faces. It was about a hundred feet across and when they where boys they’d named the space “The Bullring.” Two riders had stopped in the opposite opening. They must have heard him and and stopped to act as a rear guard. When they saw only one rider, Pau and Victor not having caught up yet, one rider turned to rejoin the escape. The other drew his saber and charged Fergus.
Fergus knew that he could never match sabers on horseback with a trained cavalryman. His only hope was to have time to get off a shot before the horseman ran him down. He was about twenty feet from the narrow opening that led into the Bullring. Fergus yanked the horse’s head around and turned his back to the oncoming attacker. He drove the horse toward the opening and stayed in the saddle as long as he dared. About five feet from the opening, he pulled the horses head up and slid off the side, keeping the horse between himself and the attacker. As he slid to the ground, Fergus felt the saber slide over his leg and slice his calf. He hit the ground hard and rolled toward the opening. His horse was thrown off balance and slammed into the attacker’s horse. By the time the horses untangled themselves and the rider had located Fergus, Fergus was kneeling and taken aim. He had mounted his twenty-four inch sword bayonet. He would have one shot and then his bayonet would be his only weapon. The rider paused, uncertain whether to attack or escape. Fergus ended his need to decide by putting a bullet through his head.
Pau and Victor heard the shot and spurred their mounts forward. They quickly came upon the dead cavalryman and Fergus sitting against the rock wall. He was wrapping a piece of silk around his calf. His pant leg was torn and bloodied. “Go,” said Fergus, pointing to the opening on the far side of the Bullring, “Five more silk stockings. I think Cupido’s leading them. They must be heading for the Don’s house.”
“Your leg,” said Victor.
“Go, it’s nothing. Go now,” said Fergus.
Pau started off and Victor followed. Fergus tied the bandage and stood up. He tested his strength and decided he could walk. Both his horse and his attacker’s had fled, so he must walk out or wait for help. He walked over to the dead cavalryman and picked up his sword. Then Fergus followed Pau and Victor, slowly walking and stopping to rest from time to time. The white silk stocking tied tightly around his calf was soon stained red.
Lemuel was in his room in the attic when he heard shots fired near the bridge. He had not been included in the carefully developed defense plans because he was thought too weak to help. He couldn’t see the ferry crossing, but he knew that if the crossing was taken, it was likely that the house would be next target. The house needed to be secured so that the injured and the defenders could retreat to the house, if necessary. He thought that he and Don Hernando were the only ones in the house, possibly Ethna as well, so he started for the stairs to help the old man.
Lemuel’s leg had regained most of its strength so he was able to reach the entryway of the house fairly quickly. The house was strangely quiet without the children, who, Lemuel hoped, were all tucked away in the safe house in the grass. The house was built on the site of his hut and he felt a pleasing connection to the children’s safety.
Don Hernando was standing in the open doorway listening to the shooting from the ambush and the river. Lemuel called to him. “Don Hernando, come inside. We must barricade the door and see what we can do to block the windows.”
Don Hernando nodded and the two men struggled to move a heavy sideboard and cabinets against the closed door. “I will check the old wing,” said Lemuel, “But first, do you have any pistols? I was once a good shot.”
“I will get you my dueling pistols. They are excellent weapons,” said Don Hernando.
“Thank you, Don Hernando. I would be honored.”
In the old wing dated from a time when a house was fort so the windows had heavy shutters with internal bolts. Lemuel ran from window to window bolting the shutters. He was in a old drawing room when Don Hernando found him and gave him the pistols. “I have loaded them for you,” he said and then he went to check on the library. Lemuel continued his work on the old wing. His leg was beginning to ache and slow him down.
Ethna was in Maria’s study. She was trying to help the two men, cousin’s of Miguel, who had been shot at the ferry. The were not badly hurt, but Ethna wished that Maria would return to take over. She was happy to help, as she’d helped Maria many times, but she doubted these men wanted to be skinned and have their bones cleaned for classification.
When she heard the shots at the bridge, Ethna loaded Maria’s fowling piece. She was an excellent shot and brought down many specimens for Maria. She could bring down most birds on the wing, but she didn’t kid herself. She knew that shooting a person would be different and she hoped she wouldn’t have do so. Ethna was also aware that a fowling piece loaded with birdshot was not the weapon of choice for bringing down large, angry mammals, but it was what Ethna had, so it was what she would use.
Don Hernando entered the study and saw Ethna with the fowling piece. He knew that she was familiar with the weapon, but it still bothered him to see her with it. She was such a young woman, not more than a girl, and he thought that he should be protecting her, not the other way around. “How are the men,” he asked.
“They seem alright,” Ethna said, “The bleeding has stopped. They are not in great pain. There is no fever. I don’t know what else to do.”
“Maria will be home soon,” said Don Hernando. “You’re doing an excellent job.” He bowed slightly and smiled at her. Etha’s closeness to Maria had made Don Hernando look on her as a second daughter.
“Thank you,” said Ethna, smiling.
“I must go and check on the library,” said Don Hernando. “You seem to have things well in hand here.”
Don Hernando entered the library and heard banging on the front door. He could hear many booted footsteps on the porch. He swiftly walked to the fireplace and removed his father’s sword. It was a heavy cavalry sword, unadorned save for an elaborate steel basket on the hilt. It was an heavy chopping weapon, meant for fighting, not for display. He felt the fine balance, whispered a short prayer and walked toward the noises.
Lemuel was at the far end of the old wing when the horsemen began banging on the door. He swept up the pistols and ran as best he could toward the entryway.
Maria had intended to enter the house through her study entrance, where she had set up a hospital. If some injured men had been brought to the house, they would be there. When she heard a disturbance around the front of the house though, she ran to investigate. Arturo followed, while the other officer stayed behind with the wounded man. As she turned the corner, Maria saw six cavalry men battering on the door. When they turned toward her, she recognized Cupido. Maria pulled back around the house. The men saw her and headed toward the corner of the house where she disappeared.
Don Hernando entered the library and saw the men through the window. Cupido saw Hernando and raised his carbine. His shot shattered the window and Hernando collapsed among the shattered glass. The bullet had missed him, but he was badly cut by the flying glass. Cupido and the others ran to the window. They drew their sabers and smashed at the glass and hacked at the mullions to make an entrance. The sound of Cupido’s shot and the smashing glass brought Maria running. Victor and Pau heard the shot while they were fording the river and they drove their knees into their mounts to urge then on. In Maria’s study, Ethna had also heard the shot and crashing glass.
Ethna was the closest to the library. As Cupido carefully climbed through the broken window, Ethna stepped out of the study with the fowling piece at her shoulder. She saw Don Hernando on the floor. She looked up and saw Cupido climbing through the window. Ethna was less than twenty feet away when she fired the long gun. Pellets hit Cupido in the shoulder and the side of his face. His sword arm fell limply to his side and he lost his grip on his sword. He spun around and collapsed. The bulk of the pellets hit the man who had climbed through behind Cupido in his head and neck, tearing away his jugular. He fell backwards into the window, grabbing at his neck, and spraying blood on Cupido as he fell. A third man pulled a carbine and began to climb over the dying man. Lemuel charged through the library door and put a bullet in his lung. The soldier stumbled over the dying man and tumbled through the window. Lemuel dropped the spent pistol and flinched as a bullet slammed into the wall beside his head. He passed the loaded pistol to his right hand and fired. Another attacker fell, this time on the porch outside the shattered library window.
Two more shots flew past Lemuel and thudded into the wall behind him. He dropped his useless pistol and staggered over to Don Hernando. His leg nearly buckled, but he caught himself on the sofa and continued on. He reached down and wrenched Don Hernando’s sword from the old man’s fierce grip. Lemuel was about than forty feet from the men who were reloading outside the window. He charged them, but he knew he’d never make it before they reloaded.
When Maria heard the shooting, she rounded the corner of the corner of the house and sprinted toward the shooters. She saw the men kneeling to fire in to the library. Lemuel was climbing through the window with a sword in his hand. “Stop,” she screamed. “Put down your weapons.” She reached for her pistols, but her pockets were empty. The cavalry men saw that Lemuel was still too far away to be a threat. They could see four of their fellows dead in the library or on the porch. They swung their carbines toward Maria who was still shouting and running toward them.
Martin stepped away from the house so that Maria was out of his line of fire. The cavalry men were surprised to see one of their officers approaching them. They had turned their carbines on him, but they hesitated. Martin did not. He had one of Maria’s pistols in each hands. When he had picked up her jacket at the bridge, he had relieved her of the pistols. He was sure that he knew how to use them in battle. Martin calmly raised a pistol and shot one of the men in the head. He dropped the pistol and kept walking toward the other man. The man fired his carbine, but he was rattled by Martin’s inexorable approach and blank stare. The carbine bullet flew wide and Martin shot the man dead.
Maria ran past the bodies of the attackers to find her father. Ethna also hurried over to Don Hernando. She and Maria swept the shards of glass off of him and tried to determine how badly he was hurt. The couldn’t see any bullet wounds, only cuts from the flying glass. They were pulling glass from his wounds, when they heard a guttural noise behind them. Cupido had risen to his feet and drawn his saber. He was trying to speak, but he was bleeding from the mouth and neck. His right arm hung loose. He raised his saber with his left hand. Cupido staggered, then regained his balance. He took a faltering step toward Maria and two shots rang out. Cupido slammed into the wall. He fell in a crumpled heap. Pau and Victor sprang through the shattered window and ran over to him. Pau was holding his sword bayonet, but Cupido was unconscious.
Three hours later, Maria, Ethna, and Don Hernando were in the study. Lemuel had gone back to his room. He wanted quiet and needed to be alone. Victor and Pau had removed the bodies and were returning to get Fergus. Cupido was alive, but only just. They had done what they could to treat his wounds. Maria knew that they needed a real doctor, possibly a surgeon. Cupido’s right arm might have to be amputated, but she did not feel qualified to make that decision or perform that operation. The three of them watched Cupido and tried to think. They still had the blood on their clothes from the attack. Most of the blood belonged to the attackers.
Don Hernando broke the silence. “I shall go and get Señora de la Vega,” he announced. “She should be here with her son.”
“But Father,” said Maria. “You’re hurt. You can’t go. I shall go.”
“I didn’t not ask if I should go,” he said, an unusual note of command in his voice. “I am telling you that I shall go. You are not my doctor. If you were, I would be using much coarser language. You are my daughter and you do not tell me what to do.” He stood up and went to the stables. After Don Hernando left, Maria checked Cupido once more. He was unconscious, but unchanged. “Let’s see if your mother will sit with him while we get the library cleaned up.” Ethna and Maria went to the kitchen to look for Rose.
The river had finally returned to its banks and Don Hernando’s groom was able to ford the river. The small carriage made its way to the de la Vega hacienda as dusk was closing in. Silence had settled on the battlefield. Shadowy figures, human and animal, flitted around the scene searching through the detritus of battle. Occasional shots rang out as pickets fired on the looters. Don Hernando wondered if he should have cleaned himself up, then thought, “No. This is my blood Cupido spilled and Cupido’s blood my family spilled. These are the stains we will not be able to hide.”
The carriage crunched down the gravel drive and stopped by the front steps. Don Hernando stepped out and strode to the door. His father’s sword slapped at his thigh. The door opened and the butler stepped out. He pulled the door closed and stepped in front of Don Hernado.
“Señora de la Vega is not seeing visitors,” he said, not waiting for Don Hernando to speak.
“That is too bad,” said Don Hernando sliding the sword from its scabbard. “It is too bad you did not tell me that yesterday. Yesterday I was friendly, mild-mannered Don Hernando, and I would have obeyed. But, you see, today is different. Today I am covered with blood and am holding a sword. Today I am Don Hernando Tomas Esteban Valenzuela y Montoya. You will open that door and get out of my way.”
The butler paused just long enough to maintain his self-respect, then he opened the door and fled. Don Hernando sheathed his sword and went to look for Señora de la Vega.