The drive of nearly one hundred miles was accomplished
in two days. The first night Diego and his wife stopped at the San
Luis Rey de Francia mission, which had rooms for travelers. An Indian
proselyte escorted them to adjacent quarters--tiny cells with a single
bed, night stand, and lamp each. The bell rang to call the brothers
and Indians to dine; and Victoria noticed her husband slipping a donation
to the presiding padre before seating her at the communal table.
Later that evening as the bell signaled the hour of compline, Diego escorted
her to her quarters, commenting that he would miss her that night.
"The beds are not built for comfort," he grimaced, and earned a laugh.
"Then it's fortunate that you haven't taken a vow of poverty," she rallied.
He bit back an answering quip that neither had he taken a vow of chastity. Instead he took her teasing with a good-natured smile and wished her pleasant dreams.
They resumed their journey the following morning. Victoria resolved to probe deeper into her husband's opinion on the issue of independence, but after discussing the matter with him for two hours she still was unsure exactly where he stood. Instead he had explained the republic government that the United States was using and the various difficulties plaguing the Spanish Crown. His knowledge of politics so impressed his wife that she forgot Ramón's instructions and listened instead with great interest.
In the late afternoon they approached a long, two-story hacienda in a well-favored setting. Flanking the house on one side were groves of orange trees and on the other was a green meadow graced with cavorting horses. As Diego guided the wagon up the main drive, a boy ran ahead to the house with the news that the expected visitors had arrived. A slim older gentleman with a gray mustache came out the front door when the de la Vega team had been pulled up. Following him was a rosy-cheeked matron, shorter and wider than her husband, but decked in a pink gown adorned with rows of black lace.
"Don José! Doña Catalina! Diego jumped down from the driver's seat and embraced his host. For his hostess he offered a kiss on her hand and a compliment on her youthful appearance.
"Let me introduce you to my wife." He assisted Victoria in climbing down from the cart. "This is Victoria. Don José San Martín and his wife, Catalina." Victoria curtseyed, allowed her host to kiss her hand and her hostess to brush her cheek in a token embrace.
"I'm so glad you decided to bring her along, Don Diego!" chirped Doña Catalina. "We had no idea you'd married until we received your letter. When was the wedding?"
"A few weeks ago," the young caballero returned vaguely. "Time flies in my wife's company."
"One can see why," Don José observed, appreciatively smiling at Victoria. "Well, come in and have something cool to drink! Miguel will bring in your luggage."
"I'll have another bedroom prepared immediately," added Catalina, following them in the house.
With an impudent grin, Diego replied, "One is all we require. We haven't been married very long!"
His host laughed and slapped him on the back. "Lucky dog! I remember what that was like! Then take this room; it's been made ready." He opened the door to a pleasant, clean bedroom on the second floor landing. "We'll give you a chance to rest and refresh yourselves before dinner at nine. Call out if you need anything."
After their hosts had gone, Victoria chided her husband, "One bedroom! Really, Diego, that was so embarrassing!"
"They would think it stranger if newlyweds wanted separate bedrooms. I certainly don't. You don't take up much room, and you don't snore. You help keep the bed warm in the early morning when the temperature drops. Sharing a bed is a good thing; don't you think?"
She thought of the difficulties of trying to sleep without touching her husband. On the other hand, she was not alone. She did not need to fear strange noises in the night with a large man beside her. And he was right; two people warmed the bed better than one. "It has some advantages," she conceded.
The San Martíns served a formal Spanish style dinner with New World courses. Conversation was leisurely, polite, and mostly contained the exchange of news. Diego asked extensive and detailed questions about Don José's ranch, and in return José asked about Don Alejandro and the de la Vega spread. Doña Catalina offered chatty remarks following her husband's statements; Victoria spoke only when someone addressed her. Her reticence gave her hosts the impression that Diego had married a quiet, meek girl--just the sort that would make the scholarly de la Vega son a good wife. He was again indefinite concerning the date and circumstances of his marriage, an oddity Victoria noticed and regarded with mixed feelings. The details were not something which she remembered with pride, yet neither did she want her husband to be ashamed of their union. She wondered if he regretted marrying the owner of the tavern; it was a social step down for his family. Only when he claimed that he had courted her for several years did Victoria in surprise contradict her husband.
"But I was courting you," he protested. "You just didn't know it until recently." The remark silenced his wife, who pondered during the remainder of the meal if there could be some truth to his claim and she had just been too absorbed with Zorro to notice.
They shared the large bed in the San Martín guest room that night, and the open windows on opposites sides of the room allowed a cooling sea breeze to blow through. The next morning after breakfast Diego borrowed Don José's carriage to take his wife into the busy pueblo. On her first visit to the port town, she readily assented when he mentioned the shopping opportunities. His initial stop, however, was an unpretentious adobe building with a name painted over the door.
"And what does 'Llandro' sell?" she asked, alighting from the wagon seat.
"Come and see. Llandro is a craftsman, and I've commissioned him to make some things for us."
A small balding man with a carpenter's work apron came from the back room when they entered. "Buenos dias, Señor y Señora. What can I do for you today?"
"I'm Diego de la Vega, and this is my wife, Doña Victoria. You said six weeks, so I came to see if the pieces I ordered are ready."
The man's expression changed immediately to one of fawning respect. "Of course, Señor de la Vega!" He bobbed a bow. "The pieces are almost finished. Come; I will show you. They are in my back workroom." He led the way, then held aside the curtain separating his store from his workshop to let the couple pass through first.
"Here, Señor, is the little dresser you wanted." The artisan stroked the burled walnut with a loving hand. "I added an extra drawer over the kneehole. Ladies usually like that. And here is the wardrobe. One more coat of varnish, and it will be finished." He opened the doors to show them the interior drawers. "And the secretary is ready; it's over here. Look--inside there is a secret compartment for private correspondence." He removed a drawer and tilted out a false backing with a narrow slot.
"Do the pieces please you, Victoria? If not, Llandro can alter them or make something to your own specifications."
His wife suspected that the furniture had been ordered for her and was delighted with the delicate craftsmanship. "Oh, no, they're lovely! Are they really for me?"
"Your very own. They can go in your sitting room if you wish."
"Is this why we brought the wagon?"
"Yes. In another two days Llandro will have everything finished, and we can take the furniture home." He smiled, watching Victoria run her hands over the serpentine curve in the dresser's front and down a cabriole leg. He had guessed well; she liked the style and was satisfied to know that something in the de la Vega house would be her own.
"Are the pieces very expensive?" she asked when they had left the shop.
"Llandro is the best craftsman in California, maybe all of New Spain. His work is much in demand."
"Then he's expensive," she concluded. "I shouldn't have complained about not having anything of my own. I didn't want you to spend a lot of money; you married me, after all, when I needed help."
"Your complaints were justified; there should be some things in the house to call your own. I just hadn't anticipated that need when we decided to marry. But when you pointed out on our first day of marriage that you had nowhere to put your clothes, I wrote Llandro immediately to commission a few things." Genuinely pleased, Victoria murmured her thanks, and he tucked her hand in his arm. "I want you to feel at home in our house."
"And what use, pray tell, have I for a secret drawer? I have nothing to hide."
He cleared his throat delicately. "I thought maybe your personal momentoes?"
"I burned those," was the short reply.
"You did?" Diego was nonplused. "Why? I thought I told you to save them."
"Was that a command?"
His brows creased. "No. It was only my wish. Er, why did you burn them?"
Victoria thought a moment. "Because they were painful. Could we go in the general store while we're here? I'd like to do some shopping."
She had turned the subject pointedly, and Diego accepted the change. "Yes, I was going to suggest that. Sometimes the store has a stock of clothing made in Spain."
"Surely you don't need more shirts! You have a whole wardrobe full of clothes! I can't imagine where you'd put more."
"Not for me. For you," he informed her.
"I have plenty of clothes, thank you," she replied tartly. "If I want more, I'll make them myself."
"But wouldn't it be nice to have some more elegant dresses? Some of the ladies in Madrid wear a different dress every day."
"Hmph!" she sniffed in disdain. "I'm thankful I'm not a lady in Madrid! What absurd extravagance!" Another thought occurred to her from his remarks, and with some heat she rounded on him, "Are my clothes not good enough for the wife of a de la Vega? They suit me very well, I'll have you know! And they're exactly what I have needed to work in the tavern--something I can wash in a bucket of water, not some prissy dress for a prissy lady!"
"Whoa!" he cautioned. "Stop taking offense where none is meant. Can't a man buy pretty things for his wife without accusations of being critical?"
"I just wonder what your real motive is for offering."
"Very well." Victoria gave a small squeak when he seized her by the waist and assumed a theatrical voice. "You have discovered my nefarious plan. I will shower you with all the worldly treasures my fortune can buy, and when you are wholly bedazzled, your heart will be mine!" He concluded his outrageous statement by wiggling his eyebrows at her.
She laughed, "Oh, Diego, you are ridiculous!"
He released her and smiled. "So are you if you don't allow me to buy you something nice. Let's go and see what they have for sale."
"I have money of my own," she refuted proudly. "I can buy what I need myself."
"Stubborn woman," he grinned and allowed her to enter the shop first.
The store was a large adobe dwelling; its owners made their income by reselling Spanish articles from the ships that docked in San Diego harbor. Since the town was further south, many fine goods were unloaded there before San Pedro and other ports of call to the north had the opportunity of seeing such items. The interior was cooler than the morning heat; a woman was arranging small articles on a shelf, and two other customers were browsing.
"Look over there," Diego nudged his wife. "A whole rack of ready-made clothes." Victoria followed him, curious to see such oddities for herself. He pulled out a puffed sleeve dress of burgundy silk. "This one would look very pretty on you."
She scoffed, "What an absurd style! If I wore such a dress the whole pueblo would laugh."
The woman proprietor overheard her and came near to assist. "Oh no, Señora. This dress is the French and English fashion--very becoming."
"Try it on," Diego urged.
"I don't think it will fit."
"Yes," he replied with a thoughtful look at the dress. "It looks a little small for you."
"Small?" she exclaimed, affronted. "If anything it's much too large! Why, it would float on me like an Indian teepee!"
"It's the cut, Señora," explained the woman. "The dress fits closely in the bodice while the skirt is much fuller. I think the size is about right for you. Try it on in my storeroom."
It was difficult to refuse the proprietess who was pushing the dress into Victoria's hands. And trying on a foreign-style dress which a seamstress had made on the other side of the world had an intriguing appeal.
"All right," she consented at last, "if only to prove I'm not the big fat cow that my husband thinks." She shot a glance at Diego only to find his blue eyes twinkling with mischief.
"While you're going," he recommended, "take this one, and this one, and, hm, this one too." He piled into her arms an ivory dress trimmed with lace at the neck, a turquoise blue gown, and a velvet jacket.
"It will take all morning!" she cried in protest but followed the woman to the storeroom.
The burgundy dress fit well in the bodice; Victoria was unused to the fullness around her waist. She wished she could examine her reflection in a mirror.
"The style adds elegance and height," explained the proprietess.
"It would have to add a foot before I'd be tall enough for Diego," was the grumbled reply. "Let me try the blue one."
"Aren't you going to show your husband?"
"No, he'd probably try to buy it for me."
"A generous man, Señora, and so handsome. You are very fortunate."
Victoria could find no comment to make; she had no intention of informing a stranger of the bizarre circumstances of her marriage. But the reminder gave her thoughts another direction.
"Did the king's command about single women owning property affect many women here?"
The woman's expression changed to one of intense interest in a savory piece of gossip. "A few, Señora. One old spinster waited until the last moment to see if a suitor would come. In the end she had to sell and go to La Paz to live with her nephew."
"How sad," Victoria said sincerely. At least she had had plenty of suitors!
"And in your home town?" The woman knew her affluent customers were from another part of the Spanish empire, and would love to be the first with a juicy story to spread.
"Los Angeles. Yes, some women had to do the same." Victoria was reluctant to speak of the details surrounding her own hasty marriage.
"What of the girl innkeeper who loved Zorro?" The woman's inquisitive eyes watched her eagerly.
The question rattled Victoria's composure. "You know of her?"
"Who in California does not know of Zorro and his tavern wench? Did she run away with him?"
So they even knew of her love for Zorro in San Diego! "No," she replied, pretending a great interest in the construction of the velvet jacket. "She got several offers and married one of the men."
"Then it worked out. I guess these things always do, even when they cause a stir for a little while," the proprietess observed, disappointed that Victoria did not elaborate.
"It was unjust to the women," refuted the señora firmly.
"Shh, Señora! You must not say so here," the saleswoman whispered, glancing nervously over her shoulder.
"Is my opinion really that dangerous?" sniffed Victoria, incredulous.
"The alcalde is having trouble with the colonel. With the rebellion gaining momentum, Colonel Fuergun is arresting people for any remarks against the king or Crown!"
So it was coming. The suppression of its citizens was one of the signals that the present regime was in for a shake-up. What would happen in the future? Surely conditions would deteriorate before people could look for any kind of improvement. What would become of the pueblo, her new family? What of the babies she hoped to bring into the world? What kind of life could she give them? Victoria could not repress a small shudder.
"Yes, we live in frightening times," confirmed the woman. "Best for ordinary people to keep their opinions to themselves, and let bigger forces shape the future. Did you want the blue dress, Señora?"
The doña asked the price and, disappointed that the cost would deplete her slender purse, declined regretfully. But she reckoned without the determination of her husband. Diego quizzed the proprietess about her judgment of the dresses on Victoria, and over his wife's protests, chose both the burgundy and the turquoise gowns.
"How about some perfume from Paris?" Diego offered her next.
"No! It's much too expensive, and only loose women wear scent!" she hissed to him aside.
"Not true--many ladies also. Smell this one." He removed the glass stopper from an elegant bottle filled with golden liquid.
"Phew!" she recoiled. "The bees would follow me everywhere!"
He laughed, but the resourceful saleswoman tried another tack. "Would you like some soothing lotion for your hands and face, Señora? This one is made with chamomile, and my customers tell me that it softens skin better than lard."
The woman hit on Victoria's sensitive nerve. The tavern owner was self-conscious of the rough appearance of her hard-working hands and short, often broken nails. She sniffed the bottle skeptically, but the fragrance was mild and pleasing. After another assurance that Victoria would be able to tell a difference in two weeks, she allowed herself to be persuaded. The cost was an indulgence, but an affordable one.
"Now," prefaced Diego to the attentive owner, "what do you have in the way of ladies' nightgowns?"
Cheeks scarlet, Victoria gasped, "Di-e-go! It's not proper for you to inquire about a woman's private clothing!" A glance at the store's few other patrons confirmed that they found her husband' question as amusing as she found it mortifying. "My nightdress is perfectly fine!" she whispered, tugging on his sleeve to make an end to their visit to that establishment.
He bent down to her ear and murmured significantly, "It's--thin."
The blood in her cheeks drained suddenly as she understood the meaning of his words. Stunned speechless, she gazed upon the cotton creations which the proprietess was arranging on the counter for her--or Diego's--inspection.
"This one," she garbled, folding up hastily the nightgown nearest her fingers.
"Wait, Victoria," her husband commented with an innocence belied by the sparkle in his eyes, "you've hardly looked at them. Wouldn't you rather have this one with the pink ribbons and lace? I like it better." He held up the article of personal clothing for the store's customers as well as her own view.
The other patrons were chuckling openly at her discomfiture, and she wished the floor would swallow her. "Whatever you want!" she cried frantically and hurried out the door, leaving her husband to pay for the purchases alone.
He joined her at the carriage ten minutes later carrying a brown wrapped parcel. Without comment to his wife he tossed the package in the back boot and climbed up beside her. After he slapped the reins, the horses took off at a sedate trot.
"That was horridly mean of you, Diego," she rebuked.
"Yes, it was," he admitted, not in the least contrite. "I had good motives, though. First, to see you shaken out of your contrary humor, second, to admire your face when a blush colors it, and lastly, to sleep better."
"What does sleeping better have to do with embarrassing me?" she demanded.
"Your nightgown is thin enough that when you face the light or the light is directly behind you--"
His statement was abruptly cut off when she clamped her hand over his mouth. "Say no more; I understand!"
When she removed her hand he shrugged and said, "At any rate, the sight disturbs my slumber."
Courtesy required that she thank him for the gifts. She forced herself to say, "Thank you for the dresses. You're very generous."
He slanted a glance at her. "A man has a duty to supply clothes for his wife." On this prosaic observation the subject dropped, and they returned to their host's house in silence.
After a siesta, Diego left his wife in the
company of Doña Catalina and returned to the pueblo. The military
presidio in San Diego was one of four along the California coast
that was heavily fortified. The garrison's high walls were well-guarded;
he could see no less than three sentries standing alertly at their posts
as the angle of the sunlight narrowed toward the horizon. The caballero
passed by under the eyes of the soldiers, unease prickling his senses.
Did the commandant always station his men thus, or was there another reason?
His efforts at finding Jesu Rodriguez bore no fruit. The taverner, even though softened by de la Vega's ordering of a bottle of wine and some food, claimed not to know the rebel lieutenant. Diego got the same line from the saucy girl serving his table, the blacksmith, and manager of the general store. He thought if anyone would be willing to talk to a stranger, the woman who had waited on him and Victoria that morning would likely be the most forthcoming. However, she claimed to know no more than the rest.
The local businesses denied knowledge of Rodriguez, but perhaps the harbor master remembered the man who paid the freight for the rifles. Diego found the official in a small building on the wharf.
"Sí, Señor," the black-whiskered man told him. "I remember the rifles."
"Then they were recorded in your log? May I see?"
"Certainly you may look, but you won't find a record of the shipment. It was arranged--privately." The man eyed Diego with a hard look.
"Do you remember the man who arranged for the freight? A youngish man, perhaps thirty, with short dark hair and no beard?"
"And what would you want with this man?"
"I just want to talk to him."
"Does he owe you money? Did he steal your wife or rob your business?"
"No. Really, all I want is to talk with him for a little while."
The harbor master turned away. "I don't know where he is." His tone was clearly meant to be a dismissal.
Diego suspected the man knew more than he would say, so the caballero reached for his purse. Placing ten pesos on the pages of the open log book, he said, "Should you happen to see him again, tell him that Diego de la Vega would like to speak with him. I am staying at the San Martín hacienda for two more days."
The official's expression did not change as the money was counted out, nor did he comment on Diego's request. Having explored the direct method of finding Rodriguez, de la Vega left the small building by the harbor and strolled down the wharf. If Jesu was in town, perhaps someone would alert him that Diego wanted see him. In that case, the caballero was reasonably certain that Jesu would seek him out.
"Señor de la Vega!" called a craggy voice strangely familiar.
Diego turned his head to locate the speaker, and his eyes widened with astonishment. "Pablo Silva! But what are you doing here?" He grasped the hand the old fisherman extended toward him. "What happened? Why did you leave San Pedro?"
The brown, wizened face of the little man looked genuinely delighted to see him. "Got an offer from a gentleman right after that last attack to buy my place. I thought it only right to explain my situation to him in case he should be troubled by those ruffians. He said he didn't care about them, but he would give me the coach fare to San Diego and a little extra to buy a boat and a net."
"Remarkable! How generous! I hope you're finding your new home to your liking."
Pablo cocked a cloudy brown eye at him. "Anything is better than living in fear that someone is going to kick in the door and then kick me. Aye, it suits me well enough here. There's m' new boat." He pointed to a grayed wooden rowboat bobbing gently in the water that lapped the pier.
"I'm so relieved to find you safe. When you disappeared from San Pedro, everyone thought you had been kidnapped or killed."
"Naw, not me. Seemed the best thing to do was to sell quietly and sneak out of town so those fellers couldn't find me again. Say, you thirsty? Conchita at the tavern serves some good wine."
"Allow me to buy you a drink and something to eat. I'm sure Conchita will be happy to see me again so soon. So who was your benefactor?"
"Bene--what? You mean the feller that was so nice to me?" He scratched his bristly chin. "Durned if I can remember his name. Never met him before."
De la Vega made a mental note to discover the identity of the Good Samaritan who had aided the poor man in his time of need. Perhaps the buyer was a true humanitarian; someone who was willing to help the oppressed could be an ally for Zorro. Seated in the cooler interior of the tavern the caballero poured a refreshment for his companion. Pedro took a mouthful, rolled the wine from cheek to cheek, and then swallowed.
"Ah, that's mighty good." He grinned mischievously at Diego. "I haven't had a drink in two days."
The angler shrugged. "Fishing's fair. I don't have a place to live yet, so I'm savin' money. I sleep in my boat or at the livery. Old Ben Rodriguez lets me make a bed in the straw."
The name quickened Diego's interest. "Rodriguez? Does he have a son?"
"Couldn't say. Don't know him that well."
The rest of the visit with Silva passed tediously for the caballero, who was eager to make a visit to the livery. When Pablo finally asked what had brought him to San Diego, he replied that he was picking up a load of furniture for his bride. This explanation seemed to satisfy, and hid the deeper purpose of his investigation. When at last the fisherman declared that really, he couldn't hold another bite, de la Vega shook hands and noted that it must be time for him to return to the San Martíns' home. He watched as Pablo ambled toward his boat on the pier. Thankful that the weathered seaman was not headed toward the livery stables, Diego turned his own steps that direction.
The stables had eight stalls for horses along each side of the spacious building, and most were occupied by large-boned work horses. The walls were twelve feet high to provide plenty of head room for the carriages, wagons, and traps that were driven inside, and the floor was liberally strewn with hay. In the far corner an older man in the bleached loose pants and tunic that proclaimed him a member of the peasant class was securing a headstall on a bay gelding.
The man favored him with an indifferent glance. "What can I do for you, Señor?"
Diego strode up to him. "I'm looking for a young man named Jesu Rodriguez. Do you know his whereabouts?"
"And what might your business with him be?"
Too late the caballero heard the scuff behind him. His left arm was pinned to his back, and the cold edge of a knife pressed against his throat.