15.  CHRISTMAS GIFT
 
 

     Christmas Eve day dawned late, cold, and damp.  But such hindrances did not keep Señorita Escalante in her bed any later than usual.  That evening at the tavern she would host her annual Christmas party.  The guest list was longer than usual, and there was a great deal of food still to be prepared.  While rebuilding the kitchen fire, she mentally ran through her checklist of cooking, cleaning, and decorating.  A soft knock on the back door distracted her from the task.  She unlocked the door and carefully peeked out.
     "Zorro!"  Her stunned whisper brought a smile to the masked man's face.  Looking in both directions to see if the alley was clear, Victoria invited him inside.  "What a wonderful surprise!"
     "Feliz Navidad, Querida."  He lifted her hand to his lips for a kiss, then continued to hold it tenderly.  "I have a special request to make of you; I want to spend some of Christmas Day alone together.  Is there any time tomorrow that you can meet me?"
     Her face fell.  "I'd love to, but I don't think I can.  In the morning Don Diego and I are taking a wagon-load of gifts to the orphanage.  After that, I've promised to spend the rest of the day at the de la Vegas' hacienda.  Oh, wait," she brightened.  "Maybe if I leave by eight or nine o'clock tomorrow evening, we could meet here about ten o'clock.  I could make a late supper for us."
     "I'll be counting the moments until then.  Adios."  He brought her hand to his lips again, turned it over, and pressed a warm kiss into her palm.  Then he was gone.

     Christmas Day began cool but clear, and following first mass, Diego separated from his family and walked to the tavern with Victoria.  As they loaded her wagon with gifts of clothing, food, and toys which she had gathered from the townspeople, the caballero commented, "You're up earlier than I thought, after last night's party."
     "I wouldn't miss this for the world," she smiled as he gave her a hand up to the seat.  "It's the best part of my Christmas.  I have so much; the orphans have so little.  Sharing with them makes me happy, too."
     He climbed up beside her, slapped the reins, and the work horse trotted toward the pueblo gates.  It was about eight miles to the caballeros' orphanage, which Sergeant Mendoza had donated to the children several years before.
     "You're kind-hearted as well as generous, Victoria."
     The unexpected compliment brought a tinge of color to her cheeks.  "I think it's just that I know some of what they feel.  When my mother was killed and my father and brothers left, I was just seventeen.  You were away at school then, but I assure you, it was a very hard and lonely time for me.  I had to learn to run the tavern all by myself.  I knew how to cook, but managing the money, buying supplies, keeping up with maintenance, and handling rough customers was all new.  I missed my mother so much.  She was so wise, and beautiful, and good.  I wanted to be just like her."  She paused.  "Do you ever miss your mother?"
     "Sometimes.  At first, the house seemed so empty without her.  I was twelve when she died--too young for a boy to be without a mother.  My father and I grieved a long time, but through it we became closer."
     "Have you ever thought how different life would be if she were still alive?"
     He had not, but different it certainly would be.  Would he have had the drive to excel in his studies, music, and art with her gracious presence still at the hacienda?  Could he have become Zorro, knowing that his capture could have implicated her, too?  He did not think so.  The gentle spirit of his mother had softened all the hard and disagreeable edges of life.
     "When I was a girl, I had a rosy picture of the future.  I imagined that I'd grow up, safe and happy under my parents' protection.  They would continue to run the tavern, and it would prosper under their guidance.  Then when I was about eighteen, I'd fall in love with a poor but honest farmer.  We'd marry, have lots of children, and see them grow up to be brave and strong.  And with hard work, our farm would produce more each year, feeding us and the community as well."  The beautiful woman laughed aloud at her own expense.
     "And suppose Zorro doesn't turn out to be a poor farmer.  Will you be disappointed?"
     "No, of course not.  It would only emphasize the point I'm making, that life rarely turns out to be what we expect."
     He agreed with her and privately thought how in his wildest boyhood dreams, he would never have imagined the course his life had taken:  a masked hero with a bounty on his head, fighting in behalf of the oppressed and defenseless, facing capture or death every time he rode out, and living by his skill and knowledge.  It was a far cry from the scientist, doctor, or rancher he had expected to be.
     The couple who ran the orphanage, the Benignos, greeted the wagon's arrival with joy, as did the sixteen children of all ages that crowded around, chattering excitedly while petting the horse and peering over the side rails to get a glimpse of the presents.  The caballero and Señorita Escalante employed the children's help to get the gifts and food inside, while Señora Benigno picked up the piñata.  The de la Vega cook had roasted a large turkey during the night, the townspeople sent fruits and vegetables, and Victoria had made a special treat--caramel candy.  It would be the finest meal the children would have all year.
     After distributing the clothing, the two guests sat down to watch the children act out the Bethlehem story.  The adults applauded enthusiastically at the conclusion, then Diego hung up the piñata.  This was the highlight of Christmas for the orphans.  While Victoria held a fussy baby, each child had a turn to swing at the painted bull stuffed with gifts and candy after being blindfolded and spun around by the young don.
     How good he is with children, the tavern owner thought, while rocking the now-sleepy baby in her arms.  The piñata finally broke, scattering its treasure all over the floor.  A mad scramble ensued with much laughter.  Then it was time for the visitors to leave.  Victoria laid the infant in his crib, and they said good-byes all around, receiving loving hugs from the grateful orphans.
     Señorita Escalante sat quietly beside her companion on the way home until Diego broke the silence.  "It was remarkable how you got that baby to sleep.  You certainly have a way with little ones; they adore you."
     She smiled modestly and returned the compliment, "I noticed the same things about you.  You are so patient and kind with children.  Not many men are."  She paused.  "May I ask you a personal question?"
     "Certainly you may ask, but I don't promise an answer," he returned with a grin.
     "Why have you never married?  You would be a wonderful husband and father."
     "Thank you."  He was pleased by her assessment and pondered how to answer her question.  A reply was unnecessary as it turned out, because a lone bandit on horseback stepped in front of them as the wagon rounded a bend.
     "Your valuables, Señor y Señora.  Now!" he demanded.  He pointed a pistol at Diego.
     "You would rob us on Christmas?  Have you no fear of God?" Victoria asked in horrified tones.  The thief ignored her and reached out his hand to receive Diego's watch and a few pesos.
     "The earrings, Señora!"  He swung the pistol toward her.
     She hesitated, looking at her escort for direction.  De la Vega nodded grimly, and she removed the silver bangles from her ears.  As she held them out, Diego saw his moment of opportunity.  He lunged toward the bandit in the instant his attention wavered toward the señorita.  But the man on horseback reacted quickly.  The pistol went off with a deafening report, Victoria screamed, and the thief turned and galloped away.  Diego collapsed on the ground.

     The wagon pulled up in front of the hacienda, and the driver hardly waited for the wheels to stop before she jumped off and ran into the house.
     "Don Alejandro!  Felipe!  Come quickly; Diego's been shot!"  Her voice was both a shriek and a sob.  The two men ran out of the house with her.  They found Diego in the back of the wagon, barely conscious.  The ball had struck below his left collarbone, and his jacket had a spreading stain near the shoulder.
     "Get under his arm, Felipe.  Let's get him to bed," directed the rancher.  "What happened, Victoria?"  She quickly told the story of the robbery as they helped the wounded man inside.
     "Tried to stop him.  Misjudged his quickness," Diego muttered thickly as they lowered him on his bed.
     "Hush, Son; save your strength.  I'll get the doctor.  Felipe, Victoria,  get bandages ready and make him as comfortable as you can."  Alejandro ran from the room.
     The señorita ordered, "Felipe, get some scissors.  We'll cut off his jacket and shirt."
     When the young man returned, his older brother spoke again weakly.  "Let Felipe cut my clothes, Victoria.  Ask Maria to boil some water and get you the towels and bandages."  As soon as she had left the room, the wounded man gripped the wrist of his brother.
     "Listen.  Zorro was to meet Victoria in the tavern at ten tonight for supper.  You must write a letter in his name, saying that you've been unavoidably detained.  Tell her you'll come as soon as you can.  Leave the letter on the kitchen table at the tavern.  Understand?"
     The young man nodded, and continued cutting through Diego's sleeve.  Victoria hurried back in the room with a stack of towels and bandages.  She also brought a glass of cool water, and putting her arm under his shoulders, helped him rise up to drink while Felipe pulled from beneath him the remnants of his shirt and jacket.  The caballero lay back with a groan, his face pale with pain.  The uncovered wound was angry red, still bubbling up a small amount of fresh blood.  Grabbing a bandage, the woman carefully pressed it against his chest.  He winced and drew in his breath through clenched teeth.
     "I'm sorry; I'm sorry."  Her expression was as agonized as his own.  "Here, Felipe--you do this."  She dampened a cloth and gently bathed Diego's face and neck, murmuring words of comfort.
     "Gracias," he whispered, then found her hand and held it tightly with his own.  "Victoria," he pleaded with anguished eyes, "stay with me."
     The young woman found her own eyes stinging with tears.  She gave him a tremulous smile before answering, "I will.  I promise you I'll stay right here."

     Three people waited anxiously in the parlor for Doctor Hernandez to emerge from Diego's room.  Don Alejandro pretended to be reading, Felipe paced the carpet, and Victoria was seated at the desk, scrawling a hasty letter.  Maria announced a Christmas dinner ready to serve, which she knew no one would eat.  The cook cleared away the holiday preparations and put out simpler fare on a snack tray. The gloomy atmosphere brought by disaster hung over the house and its occupants like a thick fog.  The hacendado tried to reconcile the shooting of his son with the most joyous day of the year but could not.  The two things were totally incongruous.
     The doctor finally rejoined them.  The pistol ball had been removed and had not struck any vital organs.
     "He was very lucky.  Still, it's a serious injury.  Infection will probably set in, and that's the true danger.  But Diego has his strong constitution in his favor.  Keep him still and quiet for the next few days.  Give him plenty of fluids, especially if he's feverish.  For pain and to help him sleep, I'll leave some laudanum with you.  Just use a drop or two.  He's sleeping now.  I'll return tomorrow to see how he's doing."
     "Thank you, Doctor."  Alejandro saw his friend to the door, then hurried see his son.
     The lovely innkeeper laid a restraining hand on Felipe's arm and gave him a sealed letter with "Zorro" written on the outside.  "Felipe," she said urgently, "I had promised to meet Zorro tonight, but I'm going to stay with Diego instead.  When you get a chance, will you ride to the tavern and put this on the kitchen table for me?"
     The young man took the letter slowly.  "Of course.  When I can."
     Alejandro was appalled at his large son's appearance.  The figure in the bed looked so gaunt and helpless.  The older man brushed aside the dark locks that had tumbled across the white brow and laid his hand on Diego's head.  As the others came in the room, they joined him in kneeling by the bed as he uttered an earnest prayer in his older son's behalf.
     The hours dragged by on the bleakest Navidad any of them could remember.  Diego roused for a few minutes and saw his father watching him apprehensively.
     "The doctor got out the ball, Son.  How do you feel?"
     "I've felt better," he mumbled.  "Where is Victoria?  And Felipe?"
     "Felipe went out on an errand but promised to be back shortly.  Victoria's right there, on the other side of the bed."  The wounded man forced his head around to confirm his father's words, then lapsed into sleep.

     When the lone bandit, a young man, shot the caballero in the wagon Christmas morning, he had panicked and ridden several miles into the hills before reining in.  The shooting incident would have the lancers after him shortly and if he had killed the man--he shuddered to think.  For the few baubles he had gotten from the couple it had hardly been worth it.  He resolved to break camp and leave the territory when a cracking bull whip coiled around his ankles like bands of iron, tripping him in the dust.
     "Zorro!"  As the grim figure of the masked man approached, the terrified bandit stammered, "The shooting was an accident; I swear!"
    The hero did not seem to hear or care.  Fury was evident in every motion as he jerked the hapless man to his feet and smashed a gloved fist into the robber's face.

     Diego's fever raged for two days before breaking, and the woman he secretly loved never left his side, something even his father noticed and privately wondered at.  The wounded man was lucid but drained when Victoria came in with a bowl of broth, helped him sit up, and began to feed him.
     "You'll be glad to know that Zorro found the man who shot you, and has turned him over to Sergeant Mendoza.  He even recovered our valuables.  See?  Your watch is on the dresser."
     "Zorro captured him?  Are you sure?" puzzled the man in bed.
     "Oh, yes.  He sent the man into town slung over a horse with a note attached to the man's shirt and a 'Z' on the bandit's pants."
     "Really.  Then I owe him my thanks."
     "Now I have something to say to you, Diego.  What you did was very brave, but your watch and my earrings are not worth your life."
     "So you think it was rash."  He sighed.  "There's an irony there, I suppose.  I seem destined to appear foolish to you.  Victoria, he was considering killing us."
     She was astounded.  "Surely not!"
     "He was young and scared and realized we might possibly identify him.  There was a moment of indecision in his eyes, and I knew what he was thinking.  I've seen that look many times before, when a man is weighing the outcome of pulling the trigger.  I couldn't risk that.  So when the muzzle drifted off you, I tried to take him."
     "You mean you might have saved my life?"
     Diego shrugged.  "We'll never know, will we?  At any rate, I'd do it again."  He swallowed another spoonful.  "It's been very good of you to stay here and help."
     "You did as much for me when I was shot.  I'll never forget that."
     "Is that why you stayed?"
     She concentrated on scooping up the broth.  "No.  I stayed because you asked me, and there's nowhere I'd rather be."
     "Not even with a certain masked hero?" he asked lightly.
     Victoria searched her heart and truthfully answered, "No, not even with Zorro."  She rose to take the empty bowl away, but he called her back.  Taking her hand in his, Diego bade her come closer, and she knelt beside the bed.
     He said slowly, "I've been thinking.  You should have a husband."
     Her startled glance met the intense gaze of his blue eyes.  She looked away, fighting back tears.
     "Someone else once told me that," Victoria whispered sadly.
     "I wish you had heeded him."
     Two tears escaped her control and rolled down her face.  "You know why I have not."
     "Victoria, there's something I must tell you; something I want you to know."  He gripped her hand tighter.  Compelled by the urgency of his tone, she looked into his lean face and was surprised by the ardent tenderness there.
     "No!" she said hastily, putting her fingers across his lips.  "Please don't say anything now, dearest D--  I don't think I could bear--"  Her voice strangled on a sob, and she missed the shadow of disappointment that crossed his face.
     "All right, not now," Diego soothed, encircling her shoulders with his sound arm.  With heaving, tortured gasps, she buried her face in the sheets and wept.
     One minute later the door opened, and Felipe walked in, prompting Victoria to jump to her feet.  She left the room quickly, closing the door on her way out.
     "Felipe.  Your timing could be better, but you're just the person I want to see."  Diego's amused smile disconcerted the young man.  "If you could spare me a few moments, I'd like a word with you."

     The new year was six days old when Zorro again visited the tavern kitchen.  Victoria had already closed up for the night, and as always, his sudden appearance delighted her.
     "You got my note?" he asked.  "Please forgive the delay."
     "Yes, and you got mine?  I can't thank you enough for capturing the bandit who shot Don Diego."
     The masked man made no reply but brought a wrapped gift from behind his back.  "For Epiphany.  I saw it in a San Pedro shop the last time I was there, and thought of you.  Open it," he urged.
     She took the box from his hand and carefully removed the wrapping paper.  Inside was a white silk shawl daintily embroidered with colorful flowers.
     "Oh, it's so beautiful!  I've never owned anything so fine!"
     Zorro removed it from her fingers and draped the shawl gently over her shoulders.  As she turned around with a smile, he took her in his arms.
     "I have another gift for you--a promise.  This year we will be married; life is too short to go on this way.  We'll make it happen, somehow, very soon."  He bent his head and found her lips, pulling her tightly to himself.  He felt a responsive tremor run through her as she slid her arms up around his neck, and he deepened his kiss.  For a few glorious moments the world dropped away, and there was nothing else except Victoria.
     "I'm so sorry; I don't have a gift for you," she whispered, nestling into his shirt.
     "You already gave me one--the best gift I could ask for," he replied softly, stroking her hair.
     "What?  What did I give you?" murmured Victoria, raising her dark eyes to see his face.
     "Hope."
 

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