BIND
 
4
 
 

     Each of the four women was making her own decision about how to best adapt her life to the king's ruling, and besides developments in Victoria's case, Diego had no clue as to how the other three were faring.  Had any men taken the padre's earnest pleas from the pulpit seriously enough to offer marriage?  All of the women would bring a dowry into a match, though two--Josefina and Constancia--were probably too old to bear children, they would make a widower a good second wife.  Ana had the least advantageous position; the four additional dependents would give any man pause before volunteering to be her husband.  Only Victoria would truly be able to pick and choose.  Her age, her beauty, and her prosperous financial situation gave her a few more options than the others.
     While Diego was musing over the sad dilemma one late afternoon, a chestnut mare cantered to the front of the hacienda.  Juan ran from the stables to take the reins of the lady's horse and helped her to dismount.
     "Gracias, Juan," Josefina Ruiz thanked him.  "Is Don Diego at home?"
     "Indeed I am," said the de la Vega son, opening the door in welcome.  "It's good to see you!  Won't you come in?"
     "Yes.  How fortunate to find you in!" she remarked as he led her to the parlor.  The browned rancher left on her flat brimmed hat and accepted a cool glass of water to drink.  After quenching her thirst she came directly to the point in her usual forthright manner.
     "Now, Don Diego, I'd like to talk to you about Rancho Verde.  You mentioned deeding it to a relative; would the new owner have to be a relation?"
     "No," he replied, "I suppose not.  Most people would rather sign over property to a family member, though.  Did you have someone in mind?"
     "Yes.  Do you remember Nicolas Santellano, the boy who helped me on the ranch until three years ago?"
     "Of course.  He turned out to be an excellent aid, didn't he?"
     "Who would have thought it, when he came to Los Angeles to be a soldier!  Yes, he was a great help to me and a comfort after my father's death.  I'd like to transfer the title of the ranch to him with the stipulations you mentioned--that I continue to live there for the remainder of my life, and I keep all the profits.  In a sense, I want to name him my heir."
     "I see," said Diego thoughtfully.  "And is Santellano agreeable to this plan?"
     "He is.  His own place near Santa Barbara is small, and he and his bride are making ends meet, but that is all.  I rode up there and discussed the matter with him.  At first he refused; you remember how proud he can be!  He didn't want a handout.  But when I explained the whole picture to him, he was willing to become the official owner.  We then sat down and hammered out the details to be included in the written agreement."  She withdrew a folded paper from her jacket pocket.  "Do you think you could put all of this into a legally binding document for us?"
     De la Vega took the paper from her hand and perused it in silence a few moments.  "It shouldn't be too difficult, and I can check with the alcalde to make certain before the deadline that it completely fulfills the law's requirements.  Then you and Santellano can sign it together in his presence."
     The lady rancher was expressing her thanks as Alejandro entered the house.  The older de la Vega was at his most gracious with his feminine peer and invited her to dine with them.  To Diego's gratification she accepted, and she and his father spent several congenial hours talking about the drought, market fluctuations, and conditions of their herds.
     "If only we had unrestricted trade," the lady lamented.  "Even with the creek low, I could run twice as many head in my pasture.  But when our buyers are selected for us, prices are artificially controlled."
     "More cattle available would drive the price down," her host observed.  "We don't want it any lower than it is right now."
     "No, but if we could legally sell to England, Russia, the United States, perhaps even the Orient, our market would expand and so would our profits."
     "We won't see the king loosening his grip on the colonies voluntarily," contributed Diego.  "The government was broke after the war with France, and I doubt much has flowed into the royal coffers since then.  The king and the court need the raw goods from the New World to replenish the country."
     The señorita's dark eyes twinkled.  "Ever hear the expression, 'Don't bite the hand that feeds you'?"
     Alejandro chuckled, "And just who is the biter in your proverb, dear lady?"
     She smiled over the rim of her wine glass.  "I think you know."
     The rancher wagged his finger at her.  "That sounds suspiciously like the sentiments of a rebel!"
     "The sentiments of a businesswoman, I promise!"
     He leaned back in his chair, laughing.  "Señorita, I can't think when I've last had such good conversation with a dinner guest!  This is truly delightful!"
     "Then on that happy note, I'll say good-night, gentlemen!"  Señorita Ruiz rose from the table, and the men stood as well.  "Thank you for the delicious dinner and your excellent company.  Don Diego, I'll contact you when Nicolas arrives, and we can finalize the agreement then."
     When the lady had gone from the hacienda, Diego commented, "What a wonderful personality Josefina has!  I have always admired her."
     "So have I."
     "Have you ever considered marrying her?"
     Alejandro was aghast.  "Are you saying that she and I--that we--"
     "Why not?  You have a great deal in common.  Surely the idea has crossed your mind at some time."
     "You misunderstand the relationship between us.  Josefina and I are friends."
     "I proposed to my friend," Diego reminded.
     The silver-haired rancher sat down on the sofa with a sigh.  "That's the difference between us, Diego.  I loved your mother.  Since I know what true love is, I don't think I could settle for anything less.  If you had experienced that kind of joy yourself, you would know how I can tell that Josefina and I will never be more than friends."
     The younger man watched his father's face with its shadow of sadness.  "I'm truly sorry.  I would like to see you happy again."
     "Ah, I'm content enough."  Alejandro pushed himself off the sofa and laid a hand on his son's shoulder.  "It's been a long day; I think I'll turn in.  Shall I put out the lights, or are you going to stay up?"
     "I have a letter to write; I'll be up a while longer."
     His father yawned.  "Buenas noches, then."  He left Diego alone in the salon.
     The tall caballero opened the rosewood secretary desk and sat down.  He found a clean sheet of paper, dipped the quill into the ink well, and meditated on the wording of this critical missive.  At last the pen began to scratch across the grain of the paper, slowly at first, then more quickly as the body of the letter took shape.  He signed it with a single letter.  When the ink was dry, he folded it into his pocket and strode to the fireplace.

     The tavern was opened later than usual that night; the soldiers had gotten paid and were leading chorus after chorus of military songs.  They also ordered several bottles of wine which improved neither their singing nor their manners.  Two badgered Victoria with sodden proposals--presumably with marriage in mind--and she was forced to rebuff them quite sternly.
     The looming threat of the king's deadline was fraying her temper and her sunny spirits with each passing day.  She had heard nothing from Ramón or Zorro, and the latter concerned her more than the former.  Zorro must be aware of the law and subsequent danger to her; why hadn't he done anything?  Even a brief word of sympathy would have gone far to reassure her.  They loved each other with an indissoluble bond, and she needed his help now more than ever before!
     But the evening dragged on, and Victoria and Rosa were occupied until one in the morning serving meals and refilling glasses.  All three spare rooms in the tavern were rented for the night by travelers.  The busyness of daily life the tavern owner did not know whether to welcome or abhor.  Had there been time to think she would surely be twice as worried, yet think she must!  Events were rushing upon her, and time to plan a wise strategy was essential.  All her hopes were pinned on Zorro or the timely advent of her brother, yet on the slim chance they should fail her--
     When she bolted the tavern's front door behind the last straggling customer, she wearily climbed the stairs to her private chamber.  It was not until after she had bathed her face with cold water from the basin and changed into her nightgown that she noticed the folded paper with her name scrawled on the outside.  It was propped against the mirror where she would be certain to see it no later than the next morning when brushing her hair.  With eager fingers she opened it and read.

                     Victoria,
                          I have seen the king's law and have thought through the problem from every angle.
                        This time Zorro cannot help you.  It appears that our pleasant idyll has come to an end.
                        My concern is now that you will be cared for in the future by a good man.  Among your
                        many suitors I recommend young de la Vega; he has your bests interests at heart.
                          The memories of your smile, your kindness, and the special moments we shared will
                        always live in my heart.
                                                                                             Adios,
                                                                                                 Z

      Dazed, she read the letter again.  There must be something else.  But no more was written on the back of the page; nothing had been enclosed.  Could he mean it?  Was he really saying good-bye?  Impossible!  Not after all they'd meant to each other!  "Pleasant idyll"?  Surely their relationship had meant more to him than that!  He loved her!  He did!  Tears of horror and frustration welled up in her eyes before overflowing down her cheeks.  Why hadn't he told her in person instead of in a cold little note?  Did he dread her making a scene?  Arguing with him?  She would have, too!  How could he give up when she had such faith in him?  No, this was a bad dream!  It couldn't be real!  And if it was, Zorro would reconsider.  He had never failed her when she needed him, and she needed him now.
     Victoria tumbled in bed to cry into her pillow, hopeful only that the next day would bring counsel for a course of action.  But though she closed her eyes, sleep never came.

     After an indifferent night of sleep himself, Diego rode to town earlier than usual.  Anxiety over how his note had been received prompted him to seek lunch at the tavern.  His lady was there, coming in and out of the kitchen as silent and cheerless as a wraith.  She had gotten the note; more importantly, she understood what he had labored to say:  Zorro was calling it quits.
     At his summons, she came to his side.  "Lunch, please," he requested.  "Whatever you have is fine.  And a glass of water."
     A few minutes later she set a hot meal and a full glass before him.  "Victoria?" he inquired.
     She turned a stony face toward him.
     "Are you all right?"
     Her mouth opened to speak; she apparently changed her mind about what to say.  "I didn't sleep well last night."
     He searched her white face compassionately.  "I'm so sorry."
     The tavern owner made a pathetic little gesture of indifference and returned to the kitchen.  De la Vega's attention was diverted by a well-dressed man who entered the taproom.  The dark-haired young man, shorter than Diego but stockier of build, stripped off his leather gloves and pushed his hat back to hang around his neck by the cord.  His gaze flowed over the inhabitants of the room one by one and came to rest on the caballero eating a solitary lunch.  The stranger approached Diego's table.
     "Excuse me, Señor, but we are acquainted, I think."
     "I was thinking that you look familiar also, but I can't place you."  Diego rose.  "Diego de la Vega."
     "Of course!" smiled the stranger.  "From school!  You were in the class behind me.  Antonio Costilla.  We both took fencing from Maestro Kendall.  Have you ever forgiven me for beating you for the senior trophy?"
     "Oh, ancient history!  Besides, you were the senior!"
     "No doubt you took it the next year, eh?"  He clapped Diego's back.  "Ever fence anymore?"
     De la Vega was anxious to turn the subject before someone--like Victoria--overheard his schoolmate's comments about swordsmanship.  "Hardly ever.  Too many other things to do.  Will you join me, please?  Tell me what brings you to Los Angeles."
     "My father left Spain shortly after I graduated, and we began a new life in the colonies.  What fun, eh?  I miss Madrid--the music, the dancing, the women.  All the elegancies of life."
     "Yes, it's quite different on the frontier.  Where did you settle?"
     "In Monterey.  The king gave my father a large tract of land there on San Francisco Bay, and my father has been developing it.  Here is my father now."  Costilla called to an older gentleman clothed in the same formal style as himself.  The broad-shouldered man sported a handsome gray goatee and bristling gray eyebrows.
     "Father, I'd like you to meet Diego de la Vega.  He and I both went to the university, though not in the same class.  Diego, my father--Armando Costilla."
     The two men shook hands; Diego was surprised at the strength of the older man's grip.
     "Welcome to Los Angeles.  Are you here for business or pleasure?"
     "Business, Señor.  I heard that there might be some investment opportunities for a shrewd man, and I'm here to investigate."
     "Now you have me quite curious, sir.  Other than limited farming and cattle, our pueblo has no other investment opportunities of which I'm aware."
     "I'm looking to the future, Señor.  California won't always be agrarian.  Have you lived here all of your life?"
     "No, I was born in Madrid when my father was serving in the army, but my grandfather settled here shortly after the original pioneers."
     "Practically a native!  Alas, I have discovered the blessings of California late in life.  It's not too late for my sons to learn of the advantages here.  I believe if this territory had the opportunity, it could be an independent country."
     "You're not alone in that belief.  Some people have expressed views that we are so far removed from Spain that independence is a desirable goal.  However, the population of California is too small to be self-sufficient."
     "That could change," responded Costilla cryptically.
     "My father would enjoy exchanging views with you.  Would you like to join us for dinner?  Our hacienda is only two miles from the pueblo."
     "That would be a very great pleasure, but I must decline.  We're the guests of Don Bernardo la Cruz, and he's expecting us for dinner this evening.  Some other time, perhaps?"
     Diego gladly agreed, enjoying the companionship of an old school acquaintance and his father.  Travelers passed news and views along their routes, and these were eagerly sought by residents of small villages.  After lunch, the two visitors parted company with the young caballero, who returned home.  Only then after reflecting on the encounter did Diego recall how elusive Señor Costilla had been about the exact nature of his investments.

     "There's nothing surprising about that," laughed his father at the dinner table that evening.  "If a man knows a business opportunity that will make him rich, he's not likely to share that information with many people."
     "I suppose not," conceded his son.  "Curiosity is consuming me, though.  What does he see that I don't?  He talked about the future, hinted that more people may come here, mentioned independence, and then said that California would not always be agrarian.  He has to be looking at industry, but what kind?"
      "Hm.  Mining?  Except that we don't have the mineral resources that Mexico does."
     "We can't be sure of that; we've explored very little of the territory.  There probably are many valuable metals if we knew where to look."
     "It wouldn't matter if we did; most of the land is inhabited by Indians, some of whom are fiercely protective of their territory."
     "I can understand that.  Imagine how you would feel if a stronger group of people began encroaching on the ranch."
     "That statement assumes that we're stronger than the Indians, but a few tribes have put up a good fight."
     "Yes, but the end result is inevitable.  We have firearms, and they don't.  Eventually ambitious, greedy men will force the Indians out."
     "I would like to meet Señor Costilla.  I wonder how long he and his son will be staying with Bernardo."
     "Just don't invest any money with him," warned his son, wiping his mouth with a napkin before rising from the table.  "I've heard of hucksters who come into an area, talk a lot about a great money-making venture, and then disappear with people's hard-earned cash after enticing them to invest."
     "As if I need financial advice from you!" scoffed his father.
     It turned out that Alejandro had the opportunity to meet Armando Costilla the very next evening.  Don Bernardo la Cruz sent an invitation to him and Diego to join him for dinner.  At nine o'clock the de la Vega carriage pulled up to the long, low house on the southern ranch.  Their host, a jovial man in his forties with an assortment of children, greeted them.  They soon discovered that they were not the only dinner guests.  Also enjoying the gentleman's hospitality were Don Esteban and his wife, Pedro Lopez and his brother Marcos, Lola de Farral--a widow, and Constancia Heceta's brother Guillermo and his wife Mercedes.  The pueblo residents were all acquainted with each other, and Diego gravitated toward Guillermo after greeting the guests of honor.
     "Thank you for your interest in my sister's dilemma, Don Diego," the older man said.  "She particularly appreciated your visit and editorial."
     "May I inquire as to her decision?"
     A shadow crossed Guillermo's face.  "She's going to transfer ownership of the house to me.  It certainly isn't what I want, nor what our father wanted.  But the house has no land but that upon which it sits--not enough of a dowry to tempt a man to matrimony."
     "That's a pity; Constancia is such a gentle, gracious lady."
     "Sweet-tempered too, and wonderful with children," put in Mercedes Heceta.
     "Of course she'll lack for nothing as long as she lives, but I wish that she could have maintained that small degree of independence.  You were right when you said in your article that total dependence on a man is demeaning to a woman.  Constancia feels it, but I can do nothing to change the law."
     "Yes, I know how frustrating that is.  I wish I could help them all."
     Mercedes asked him, "Do you know what the other three women have decided?"
     "Josefina Ruiz has asked my help in drawing up a legal contract to transfer ownership of the ranch to Nicolas Santellano, the young man who worked for her several years ago.  The agreement is that Josefina will live on the ranch, run it, and keep all the profits until her death."
     "In a sense then, she's named him as her heir."
     "Yes, and I think that it pleases her to do so.  Nicolas was like a son to her."
     "And the other señoritas?"
     "Señorita Alvarado has not had any offers of marriage, either."
     "That's hardly surprising," inserted Marcos Lopez into the conversation.  "Who would want to assume the responsibility of all those girls?  The land is poor, too."
     "Come now, Marcos; the farm just needs a man," encouraged Diego.  "Think of your civic duty."
     "Civic duty!" exclaimed the young man in horror.  "The padre can preach until he's blue in the face, but I'll never propose to Ana Alvarado!  Victoria Escalante is another matter, but she won't have me," he observed glumly.
     "Victoria is a very independent woman," Diego concurred.
     "What do you think she will do?" asked Mercedes.
     "At this point I don't know," the caballero answered honestly.  "I believe she's still hoping her brother will come in time, and she can transfer the title of her property as Constancia has."
     "Are you discussing the old maid law?" asked Antonio Costilla.  "Must be more of them down here."
     "Four women are being affected," answered Diego.  "How many in Monterey?"
     "One.  But she was engaged anyway, so they just moved up the wedding date."
     The conversation opened to the whole group.  "And how do Los Angelenos feel about the king's law concerning women and property?" queried Armando Costilla.
     "It wasn't fair to my sister-in-law," stated Mercedes.
     "Women don't have the full rights of citizenship; they should be under a man's protection.  It's the natural order of things."  Pedro Lopez looked around pugnaciously to see if anyone would contradict him.
     "The king has the right to do as he pleases," contributed Don Esteban.  "It's our duty to obey."
     "But where does the king get his authority?" asked Alejandro.  "Is it not from God?  And is he not only accountable to heaven for his actions but also to the people whom he rules?  He has the responsibility to investigate every piece of legislation carefully without bias to determine if it will affect his subjects negatively."
     "And certainly this law has negative repercussions," Diego pointed out.
     "So what should the king's subjects do when they are treated unjustly?" wondered Doña Raquel.
     Marcos shrugged, "Submit or face the consequences.  Or appeal to the king."
     "Rather difficult when separated by a continent and an ocean," reminded the elder Costilla dryly.
     "Perhaps there is more than that separating the New World from the Old," pondered Guillermo.  "Maybe we've grown up differently here in the colonies."
     "Are you advocating independence?" Alejandro quizzed.  "Careful.  I'm a royalist."
     "Of course you are," Heceta quickly recovered.  "We're all proud of our Spanish heritage."
     "You are merely suggesting that times have changed.  Our needs in the Americas have changed as well.  I congratulate you, Señor," Costilla commended Guillermo.  "You are a progressive thinker.  How delightful that you can express such an opinion here freely."
     Diego said thoughtfully, "I wish I could confirm that we have freedom of speech in our pueblo, but that is often not the case.  Since rumblings of independence first headed north from Mexico City, Californians have been edgy on the subject."
     "Yet, Diego," twinkled Doña Raquel, "no one is in doubt of your views of the new law since the editorial in The Guardian two weeks ago."
     The de la Vega son smiled depreciatingly.  "The pueblo may know my views, but they were very carefully expressed.  Sometimes to say things as plainly as I wish would prompt the alcalde to shut down the paper.  So I compromise for the sake of getting the news out, and try to write editorials that will force people to think about events more deeply."
     "Very clever," simpered Lola de Farral.  "What a devious schemer you are, Don Diego!"
     "And so must we all be if we're to survive the times," observed Armando Costilla.  "Your pardon, Bernardo--your maid has been trying these last five minutes to summon us to dinner."

     A hard-used cart creaked through the pueblo gates Friday morning when local vendors had set up their market stalls.  Ana Alvarado tied the sorry-looking donkey to a tree behind the church and accompanied her younger sisters to the plaza.  The unwed woman examined produce carefully, then asked each merchant if he had any bruised or damaged fruit for sale at a lower price.  Victoria Escalante spotted Ana and overheard her embarrassed inquiries.
     "Buenos dias, Señorita," she greeted.  "How are you and your sisters?  Hola, Benita!  How you've grown!" she remarked to the youngest girl.
     "Buenos dias, Señorita Escalante," Ana replied.  "We are just buying a few supplies before we go up to our uncle's house.  He's agreed to take us in."
     "Oh," sighed Victoria in concern.  "Did you have to sign the property over to him?"
     "No, another man bought the farm."
     "Who?"
     "A stranger--I don't know.  Not one of our local boys."
     "A farmer?  Married or not?"
     The eldest Alvarado shook her head.  "I doubt he's a farmer.  Didn't have the look of one.  That's all I know.  Lupe!  Put that down!  So sorry, Señor," she apologized to the vendor after catching one of her sisters handling the oranges.  She held out a few meager coins.
     The orange vendor reluctantly accepted the money.  He knew he was letting the fruit go for too little, but the Alvarados had always been charity cases.  He hoped that his small act of kindness would weigh in his favor with the heavenly courts.
     "Adios," the browned girl bid Victoria.  "I hope things work out well for you."
     Señorita Escalante waved as the tired donkey pulled the rickety cart of young girls out the pueblo gate.  The law which affected both her future and Ana's tied them together in an odd way, and the sight of one of the edict's victims leaving in defeat could not but move the tavern owner.  Ramón would, must come in time to help his sister!  If not, what other options did she have?  Zorro might mean it when he said he would not help, and she had turned down every proposal of marriage except Diego's.  Dear Diego!  Under normal circumstances a proposal from the easy-going scholar would have been ludicrous, but as she recalled the tenderness of his manner and the concern in his voice, Victoria did not feel inclined to laugh.  Well, hopefully things would not get so bad that she would have to seriously consider his offer!  Not entirely able to shake the gloom that threatened her, Victoria walked to the church for some solitary prayer.

     Monday evening the stagecoach from San Diego arrived.  The weekly event was a routine part of life at the tavern, but on this occasion the lovely owner herself was on hand to meet it.  Her anxious eyes watched the muddy vehicle rumble through the pueblo gates and pull up in front of her place of business.
     "Hola, Señorita!" greeted the coachman, Paco.
     She returned his salutation with less than her usual cheerfulness and opened the coach door.  The first passenger, an elderly man, filled the doorway as he stepped down and assisted his wife.  She was followed immediately by a merchant, a young man in novitiate's robes, a farmer with his son, and a well-dressed gentleman.  Victoria scrambled up the step to peer inside.  The coach was empty of passengers.
     "Was this all?" she demanded of Paco.  "Wasn't there someone else--a young man with dark hair from Mexico City?"
     Paco rubbed his stubbly chin.  "No, Señorita.  I only had seven passengers this trip.  Were you expecting someone?"
     "Yes," she said, crestfallen.  "My brother."
     "Sorry, Señorita," the coachman said as she turned, desolate, to tend to the new arrivals.
     From the corner of the building Diego de la Vega watched her.  Her hopes were dwindling rapidly--a circumstance for which he was grateful even while his heart was twisted with sympathetic pain.  The deadline was three days away.  The next morning he would speak with her again and use every persuasive tool that he had--save one.

     The gentleman who had disembarked the coach last was met inside the tavern by his father and brother and joined them at a table.  He removed his flat brimmed hat after brief greetings and requested a bottle of wine from Rosa, who waited their table.
     "Well?" demanded Armando Costilla.  "Did you get it?"
     The younger man's eyes gleamed, and he revealed from his jacket's inner pocket the corner of a brown leather packet.  "At eight hundred less than your opening offer."
     "Well done!" his father breathed.
     Antonio saluted his younger brother with a raised glass.  "The runt has your talent, Papá."
     "Our time has not been wasted either, Carlos," Costilla told the new arrival.  "There are opportunities here which are coming to fruition, and soon our contact will be in place.  The next few days should tell the story.  Do you see that attractive young woman behind the bar?"
     Carlos raised his gray eyes.  "The choice morsel who greeted the stage?  One would have to be blind to miss her."
     "Excellent!" his father chuckled.  "Then you will not object to using your talent in that direction.  Listen, and I'll fill you in."

     Zorro had failed her.  Ramón had not come and was unlikely to do so before the deadline.  What to do?  Victoria Escalante rubbed her aching temples.  She had pleaded before the church altar for heavenly aid every day the past four weeks, but God seemed silent too.  She sighed and looked bleakly at the empty taproom.  Even the void of people seemed to emphasize her sense of being abandoned.
     Strong habits of self-discipline asserted themselves as she gathered up remaining dirty mugs from the night before.  The tables also needed to be wiped before food hardened further; she had been too tired and discouraged to tackle the task before going to bed.
     "Excuse me, Señorita."
     The front door had opened, though ten-thirty was too early for her lunch customers.  One of the coach passengers from the previous day stood there smiling in a friendly way--the young well-dressed gentleman.
     "Buenos dias, Señor," she answered.  "May I help you?"
     "I certainly hope so.  I have a business proposition which might interest you.  Do you have time?"
     "Not much," Victoria replied with strong irony.  "But sit down if you like and tell me about your business."
     He sat at the table she had just cleaned and waited until she sat also.  "Time is the critical factor, isn't it?  I understand that the king's new law is threatening your business."
     "That is true, Señor.  I had hoped my brother would come to help me, but he was not on the stage."
     "And your other prospects?"
     She hunched a slender shoulder, unwilling to let a stranger know exactly how few options were left to her.
     "Have you had offers from interested buyers?"
     "No," Victoria responded stiffly.  "I did not put up the tavern for sale."
     "Why not?  With cash in your hand you could go to live with your brother.  A woman with money is welcome everywhere, and a sought-after marital prize."
     Start a new life with Ramón in Mexico City?  Certainly the stranger was correct; her brother would provide a home for her.  An added advantage would be that she would be far away from Zorro and people who knew of her love for the masked outlaw.  But did she really want to leave the territory where he was?  Undoubtedly it would be better if she did.
     "Where is your brother?" he asked.
     "Mexico City."
     "Ah!  Mexico City!  How marvelous!  The plazas, the cafes, the theater and arts!  What a perfectly gracious, elegant city!  There is not a finer place in the New World; it's very like Madrid.  And you, dressed in silk, would enchant all the bachelors with your loveliness and charm.  You could look as high as you like for a husband."
     Victoria was conscious of the pull of his flattering words, but her heart was too bruised to respond.  "A pretty picture, Señor."
     "And one that could be yours if you will sell.  I'm prepared to offer you a thousand pesos in cash right now."
     "A thousand?" she laughed.  "That's ludicrous!  Why, the tavern is worth five times that much!"
     The stranger was not deterred.  "What it is worth and what you can get for it are two different things.  Consider carefully--time is running out, and so are your options.  The day after tomorrow you will have only the clothes on your back.  One thousand is a small fortune."
     "Small indeed," she retorted tartly.  "I could never part with the tavern for such a paltry amount!"
     "Fifteen hundred, then--and that is my final offer.  Don't think you can dicker with me."
     "Indeed I won't," Victoria declared coldly, standing up.  "It would be a waste of my time and yours.  The tavern is not for sale."
     He stood also, chagrined.  "Then you are a fool and deserve to lose what you have!" he spat.  "No one will marry you unless he wants to get his hands on your property.  You're tainted goods, Vixen!"
     Two red spots of fury colored her cheeks.  "Get out!" she ordered.
     With a leering smirk, the stranger replaced his hat unhurriedly and sauntered out the front door.
 

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