DISTANCE
 
12
 
 

     Could anything be further apart than the distance between a man and his wife in bed when they were having a quarrel?  Diego rolled on his side away from Victoria and pondered the problem without arriving at any clear solutions.  He had meant to smooth things over at supper; instead his heavy-handed order had set up her back.  How could she sleep?  He certainly could not.
     Bleary-eyed, Diego left for the news office early the next morning.  His motivation was purely defensive; he did not wish to be around his wife until they both got their emotions under control.
     His task of setting the type was interrupted by Ramón Escalante.  "Hard night at home?" he quizzed after a glance at the editor's face.
     De la Vega was not in the mood for sympathy.  "As might be expected after yesterday's scene in the plaza.  Were there any after effects from your jail visit?"
     Ramón shrugged nonchalantly.  "Only that our income from the last three weeks was wiped out by Zorro."
     "The fine?  You had that coming.  Watch your step, though.  I would hate to see the alcalde prove that you are actively promoting sedition."
     "I?  You give me far too much credit!  Why, my sympathies might lie that way, but I wouldn't know how to contact anyone or build a network of support!"
     Escalante made his denial with such a sincere voice that Diego observed dryly, "I wish your sister could lie as well as you."
     His brother-in-law flashed a cheeky grin that was as much confession as amusement.  "Victoria never could dissemble, and there are times when one must--blur the truth a little, don't you agree?  Sometimes there are greater issues at stake, and those deserve a certain amount of protection."
     Diego had come to identical conclusions himself years before.  Why did they sound so self-serving coming from someone else?  "An interesting philosophy.  I have begun to wonder if your return to California had less to do with Victoria and more to do with political aspirations."
     The tavern manager neither confirmed nor denied the suggestion.  "I can't figure out why Zorro isn't aiding the independence movement.  From all I've heard, the cause should be near and dear to his heart."
     "You misunderstand him.  Zorro is not partisan to any particular form of government; he only fights for justice.  And I imagine that he, like I, doesn't believe that any form can guarantee that."
     "But surely improvements can be made to what we have now.  A regional government could address our particular concerns in a more timely and effective manner than the king and a bunch of old men in the Cortes!  We could elect our own officials and vote for someone else if they failed to please us!  The United States does it; why can't we?"
     "I can, unfortunately, think of one excellent reason.  The United States was settled by the English and the Dutch. The colonists could own their own land and become wealthy through nothing more than their own hard work. They had the motivation to make something of themselves in the New World.  They were more independent-minded and self-reliant to begin with.
     "Now consider the Spanish colonies.  They have been settled in a far different fashion.  What we see is that land belongs to a few wealthy men whose ancestors served their king.  The vast majority of the rest of the people are beholden to those same landowners:  they work on the plantations, in the fields, in the orchards, in the pastures, in the haciendas.  In other words, most of the people in the New World are not independent, but servants of some kind to the wealthy!  The independent mind-set of the United States is lacking here; people only know the patrón system."
     Ramón sat down on the edge of the oak desk and let one leg swing lazily.  "No offense, but you mean the system that you and your father use?"
     "Exactly.  And don't be lumping us with all the greedy oppressors!  You know we treat our people well.  But we cannot run the rancho without a lot of workers.  I didn't invent the patrón system; I'm simply stating that it exists, its cultural roots are deep, and it's widespread."
     Escalante's expression was thoughtful.  "I have to believe," he said finally, "that every human heart yearns for freedom, longs to stand alone and say, 'This patch of ground, this house, this business is mine!'  What a marvelous thing that is!"
     Diego smiled at last.  "You should know, amigo.  The tavern is in your hands now."
     "All except the paperwork.  It wouldn't have been possible if Victoria hadn't given us a leg up.  Others could make their own way with a little help or incentive, too."
     The caballero looked doubtful.  "I don't know.  The government has been begging for years to get people to come here and settle Alta California, and few have, even with the promise of starter herds.  It's a hard life on the frontier.  With supply ships coming to port so infrequently, we have to be perhaps more self-reliant than others in New Spain.  I wish I could affirm that most men want to be self-sufficient, but what I see is most people dependent and content to stay that way."
     "Perhaps they just need someone to wake them up!  You could be that person, Diego, and the newspaper the method.  Write something that will rouse that desire for freedom!"
     He shook his head.  "Many of the people you want to reach can't even read.  If independence came, how would things be different?  The only jobs would still be on large plantations.  No, Ramón, my feelings on this issue are ambivalent; I cannot write anything.  However, if you want to write an editorial, I'll be happy to publish it.  Just temper your words a little," he advised.
     "Afraid of the backlash?"
     "Not for myself.  For you.  If you are too blatant, the alcalde will have the evidence he needs to accuse you of treason.  You'll have to be subtle; provoke people to think, and they'll come to their own conclusions."
     Ramón left the office, pondering the arguments he planned to use in his column.  After printing the paper and leaving Felipe to sell copies, Diego rode home.  Somehow he had to fix things with Victoria, but he had no very clear idea of the best approach.  Certainly the situation was intolerable as it stood, and he doubted that the problem would simply disappear in time by itself.  Direct confrontation had proven highly explosive and solved nothing.  His own advice to Ramón might be the best method for dealing with his wife:  be subtle, get her to talk.  Don't be adversarial, but a sympathetic friend with a listening ear.
     He stabled Esperanza and after a brief search found the young doña polishing silverware with Maria in the kitchen.  He hid his surprise; the two women seemed to be getting along congenially.
     "Buenas tardes, ladies.  Victoria, would you like to take a walk with me to the orchard?"
     She answered reluctantly, "I'm helping Maria now.  Some other time, perhaps."
     "Please."  He touched her arm gently, persuasively.
     "Go with Master Diego," urged the housekeeper.  "There is little left to do here, and perhaps you can pick some blossoms for the table."
     Having no more justification for a polite refusal, the señora acquiesced.  "I'll get my hat."  She met her husband by the front door wearing a wide brimmed straw bonnet.
     "I don't think I've ever seen you wear a hat before, my dear.  You look charming."
     She made no response to the compliment, but said, "Maria says your mother always wore one.  A lady isn't supposed to get browned by the sun."
     "I have no objection to a little sun.  By that definition, Josefina Ruiz would not be considered a lady, and she most certainly is."
     "While I might agree with you, Señorita Ruiz is not accepted by the other doñas.  I regret to have to say it because I admire her, but the fact remains."
     They passed through the gate and headed for the grove of fruit trees.  "I am sorry that the conventions of our society are a burden for you.  I wish we had fewer of them."
     "But we don't.  And I already know the penalty for stepping too far beyond what is considered respectable for a woman."
     "What do you mean?"
     She shrugged off the question and looked across the field.  They passed the next hundred yards in silence.
     "Victoria, I'm sure we can deal together better than this."
     "I don't know how."
     "Talk to me; share with me one thing that's in your heart."
     His wife was quiet until they reached the orchard, but he waited in patience.  He sensed she was struggling to say something difficult.  Would she at last confide her feelings for Zorro?  If she did, he could finally tell her the truth.  When she spoke, it was in a voice so low he barely caught the words.
     "You have never asked me about my past."
     "It's hardly been a secret.  We live in a small town," he reminded with a smile.
     "That's not what I mean," she said, eyes downcast.  "You didn't ask me--if I was pure."
     His lack of curiosity on such an important point was perhaps an error, although he could not think of a way that a gentleman could ever ask such a question of a lady.  But Victoria would have given herself to Zorro if anybody, and he knew that had not happened.
     "I'm sure you are."
     She gave a mirthless chuckle.  "Then you're one of the only people in the pueblo who believes that.  You've heard what they call me?"
     "I don't think so.  What?"
     "The Vixen."  Anger pinched her face, and scalding tears glistened in her eyes.  "I hate that name!"
     Vixen--a fox's mate!  An immoral woman!  Remorse scourged his heart as he put a comforting arm around her shoulders.  Victoria had paid a price for loving him--paid by enduring malicious gossip and backbiting whispers!  Hadn't even the alcalde implied that she and Zorro were having an illicit affair?  Rarely had anyone else dared to slight Victoria in his presence; people had instinctively known that it would be unwise to criticize his family's close friend.  His father surely did not believe the cruel slanders either.  Perhaps that was another reason, unknown to Diego, that weighed in his favor when she chose a husband.
     "If anyone calls you that in my presence, I'll knock his teeth down his throat!" he declared fiercely.
     She glanced at him with a tremulous smile.  "Oh, Diego!"
     Correctly interpreting her remark to mean that she liked having a staunch defender even if she was skeptical of his ability to be one, he raised her hand to his lips.
     "I do want to forget the past, and I'm trying so hard."
     He believed her, but blurted out, "Even though you still love--him?"
     Victoria could not meet his eyes.  "Maybe it's not love.  Maybe it's just an old habit that will eventually fade in importance, and someday I'll wonder what all the interest was."
     He smiled rather sadly.  "Maybe.  Shall we pick some apple blossoms before we return?"
     They gathered several fragrant sprigs hanging low enough for Diego to reach, and the couple walked back to the hacienda carrying the flowers in Victoria's hat.  A fragile accord had been reached, and Diego was relieved to find himself again on friendly terms with the graceful beauty beside him.  That she had hidden such cruel slanders from him and Zorro with never a word of condemnation for the latter spoke volumes of her loyalty and selflessness.  He must shield her from any more unkindnesses.
     Over dessert that night, Diego announced to his wife and father, "I have business that will take me to San Diego.  I'll leave on Monday and be gone about a week."
     "Business?  What kind?" frowned Alejandro.
     "I'm investigating a government story, and I think I could get more details if I follow up my lead.  I put in today's edition a notice that says no newspaper will be published next week."
     "You must be on an impressive story," commented his father dryly.  "Well, write to José San Martín.  I'm sure he and Doña Catalina will put you up."
     "I wrote to him this morning.  Don José may have the contacts that I need."
     "Why not take Victoria with you?  After all, you didn't take a wedding trip.  Victoria might enjoy seeing San Diego, wouldn't you, my dear?"
     Diego glanced at his wife, who was just as taken aback as her husband.  "The trip would be long and tiring for such a short stay, and I will be busy."  He felt compelled to add, "But if you'd like to come along, of course you are welcome, Victoria."
     "If you don't want me to come, just say so!"  Her voice had a petulant edge.
     "I apologize for my lack of manners.  The truth is that I planned to bring home a surprise for you, but I suppose you can see it at its source."
     "A surprise?" she asked suspiciously.  "What kind of surprise?"
     A dimple peeped momentarily on the left side of Diego's mouth, then was suppressed.  "You can come with me to see or wait until I return--your choice.  How curious are you?"
     She ignored his baiting and pushed her beans into a neat pile.  "I've never been further away from Los Angeles than Santa Barbara.  I went there once with my father.  I guess my lack of travel seems pretty rustic to you; you've been to all sorts of exciting places."
     Alejandro chewed slowly, his gaze flicking back and forth between the two.  His simple suggestion had bubbled to the surface as yet another area of conflict in the marriage.  He knew what needed to be said; did Diego?
     "I didn't know you wanted to travel; you never said so."
     She shrugged a slender shoulder.  "You never asked."
     His lips pressed together a moment.  "Would you like to come with me to San Diego?"
     "Do you want me to come?"
     "Yes!  Yes, I want you to come!  Is that plain enough for you?"
     "If you wanted me to come, I don't see why you didn't ask me in the first place."
     "Have done, Victoria!  We will leave at seven Monday morning!"
     Alejandro dropped his head and chuckled quietly into his napkin, which prompted his exasperated son to ask, "Was Mother ever like that?"
     "No, of course not--your mother was perfect!" snapped Victoria before the rancher could answer.
     "Children, please!"  Alejandro looked sternly from his harassed son to his sulky daughter-in-law.  "Victoria, I loved my wife very dearly, but I assure you she was no paragon."
     "But she was a lady--a lady perfectly suited to be a de la Vega wife," observed the doña with sadness.  "You should have married someone like your mother, Diego."
     "He did, my dear.  You are very much like Elena."  When she looked up at Alejandro with disbelieving eyes, he continued, "She had spirit, too, and set me straight on things whenever I erred.  And like you, she had a great deal of compassion, a great deal of tenderness."
     She focused her eyes on her plate and said in a small voice, "I don't think she would have wanted me to marry her son."
     "It doesn't matter whether she would have or not," Diego corrected.  "You are my choice."
     The declaration effectively silenced his wife, and Don Alejandro adroitly changed the subject.

     Don Andrés Gaona had bid his wife good-night and was reading quietly in his study when a sound from the window put his senses on alert.  He closed his book and rose from his chair noiselessly.  The drapes were drawn, but a slight breeze from the open window billowed out their folds.  The caballero leaped at the curtains and crushed only air between the layers of fabric.  He thrust his head through the casement, but nothing could be heard except the song of some distant crickets.  He smiled at himself; circumstances had made him jumpy of late.  Don Andrés closed the shutters and latched them.  Turning back to his book, he gasped in sudden fright.  A masked man, shrouded in black, lounged in his chair and grinned impudently at him.
     "Zorro!" the don's voice squeaked.
     The outlaw stood.  "Forgive the intrusion, but the front door was locked."
     Don Andrés wide eyes touched on the rapier mounted on the wall.
     "Don't even think it," warned the visitor.  "I respect your years, Señor, but know that I have a--wary disposition."
     The gentleman swallowed.  "You have a reputation for helping those in need, Señor.  What business could you have with me?  I don't need assistance, and I haven't harmed anyone."
     "I'm relieved to hear it.  Please--have a seat."  He gestured to the chair.
     The spare, elderly gentlemen uneasily obeyed the order.  "If it's money you want, I have very little in the house."
     "I'm sure that's true after buying a crate of rifles from Ramón Escalante."
     Chagrin tightened the caballero's features.  "That Mexican!  A little pressure from the alcalde, and he squeals like a scalded hog!"
     "You do him an injustice, Señor.  Escalante admitted nothing to the alcalde.  I know you bought the rifles because I watched your man receive them, and I followed him here.  You came out of the house and told him where to store the rifles."
     "Portales said he wasn't followed," muttered the don.  "Well?  I bought some rifles!  What of it?"
     "Escalante is an agent of the rebellion; his supplier, I suspect, is one of the chief organizers.  What motivation is there for a prosperous landowner like yourself to commit treason?"
     "Strong words!  My men have had trouble with rabbits lately.  I ordered the rifles to aid in the extermination of the pests.  I can't afford to lose any more cattle to their confounded burrows!"
     "Hard times?" questioned the masked man softly.
     "It's all I can do to stay solvent," gritted Don Andrés.  "It costs me almost as much to raise a steer as I can sell it for, and I have many people to take care of!"
     The caballero had expressed some of the same sentiments at Diego's wedding reception, so Zorro was not surprised by the admission.  "My sympathies.  I'll not intrude on your hospitality any longer."  He strode to the window and opened the shutters, but the don stopped him with a question before his second leg swung over the sill.
     "Was that all?  You came here just to ask about the rifles?"
     The corners of the outlaw's mouth turned up in amusement.  "I'm a curious fellow.  Buenas noches."  He disappeared into the night, and Don Andrés hurried to lock the shutters again.
     "Curiosity can kill more than cats, Señor," he muttered.

     The next morning Alejandro was making his rounds through the various pastures to oversee the condition of his stock.  It was an activity in which his son rarely participated, so the rancher was mildly surprised and pleased to see Diego cantering easily across the range toward him.
     "Hola!  What brings you out here?"
     The caballero pulled up Esperanza to a walk and circled around his father's white Andalusian mare.  "The ranch, actually.  How is the ranch doing?"
     "Fine--why?  What's the sudden interest?"
     "Are we really fine?  Some of the rancheros are having financial difficulties."
     "Yes, I know.  We are in a more fortunate position than most.  We have ample water for the stock, and our acres can hold a lot of cattle."
     "But the drop in price?  Doesn't that affect us negatively?"
     "Of course.  But ranching is a long haul proposition.  You can never consider a single year and say that you are doing well, or doing badly.  Prices fluctuate, so do rainfall and other conditions.  We can weather this low spot for a while."
     "Then we're not close to insolvency?  You're not considering selling off a large part of the stock, or selling some acres?"
     "No.  There's no need to resort to drastic measures;  since the price is low, we'll sell fewer cattle and breed or eat the others in that age range."
     "Don Andrés is not so lucky, I hear."
     "Andrés has fewer acres, fewer cattle, and more people dependent on him.  That he would feel the squeeze from the price drop doesn't surprise me.  I suspect Don León and several others are in the same situation."
     Diego did not confide to his father his suspicions that many of the caballero community were actively or passively siding with the independence movement.  "Do we still have the cash to pay for Victoria's surprise that I told you about?"
     "That?"  De la Vega brushed off the faithless question with flick of his hand.  "Certainly!  Get the money from the bank today.  And while you're in San Diego, buy her something else--a bauble, a trinket--something a little more personal.  Your surprise is necessary, but it won't let her know that you see her as a woman.  That's what you need to communicate if you're going to court her.  That is what you're doing, isn't it?"  The rancher cocked a shrewd eye at his son.
     Victoria was all woman all the time in his eyes, but Diego merely nodded.  "It seems the expedient thing to do.  Thank you for the advice.  I shall certainly follow it."

     Monday morning Juan hitched the wagon to a team of horses and waited for the young master and his bride to emerge from the house.  The couple brought their luggage for the week and said farewells to Don Alejandro and Felipe.
     "Why are we taking a wagon instead of the carriage?" questioned Victoria.
     "You'll see," was the only reply her husband would give.  He lifted her to the seat and climbed up beside her.  With a slap of the reins the team trotted slowly toward the main road.
     Diego was in unusually good spirits.  He whistled for a mile, then burst into the refrain from a popular folk song.  His voice was deep and pleasing, and he carried the tune well enough.
     "You're in a happy mood," commented the señora with a smile.
     "Why shouldn't I be?  The day is fair, I have my lovely wife beside me, and interesting work before me."
     She laughed; his mood was infectious.  "And what is this interesting work?  You have been rather vague about it."
     "Ah.  I'm investigating a lead on the government," he replied after a small pause.
     "Still vague.  Government corruption?  Why go to San Diego for this story?"
     "Because I believe that there is a man--maybe several men--that can give me the information that I need.  Right now I have questions but only speculation for answers, and the man I seek may feel that he owes me a favor."
     "Do I know him?"
     "You might remember him," Diego hesitated.  "Jesu Rodriguez."
     Her brows knit together in thought.  "Wasn't that the name of one of Joaquin Correna's men?"
     "That's right."
     "But surely he's not in San Diego unless--"
     "Unless he has been assigned to oversee the rebellion's work in Alta California.  Yes.  That puts one of the key figures rather close to our peaceful pueblo, doesn't it?"
     She smiled wryly.  "I can hardly remember the last time I would have described Los Angeles that way.  Why couldn't I have been born in San Francisco or San José?  Someplace quiet where I could live a normal life."
     "We both say we want peace and quiet.  I wonder if we really do.  If troubles didn't find us, we'd go out and look for them."
     Victoria eyed him askance.  "I hope that doesn't describe me, and it certainly doesn't describe you."
     An amused grin flashed across his face.  "Whatever you say, my dear."
     "What will you do if you find Jesu Rodriguez?"
     "Ask him some questions.  I'll hope he'll not take offense at my investigation, seeing as I helped his group once."
     "He's not likely to tell a newspaper editor anything of importance.  You might publish a story that would destroy the independence movement in this territory!  And he certainly won't put his neck in the noose for you."
     "That would be a bit much to ask."
     "Diego, be careful!  Some of those men are fanatics, and they will do anything to protect themselves!"
     "Thank you for your concern, but I have to find them first."
     "And if you do, and Jesu answers your questions, what will you do with the information?  Do you intend to expose them?"
     "No."
     "Then why are you doing a story on something you don't intend to write?"  An edge of annoyance crept into her voice.
     "I'm not doing a story for the paper; I'm doing an investigation.  If the rebellion is making a move soon, I want to know when and where."  He glanced at her.  "I have my family to think about."
     Victoria evaded his look.  "Are you against independence, Diego?"
     "No.  Sometimes it can be a healthy thing for both the mother country and the colony.  I just don't know if that's the case with New Spain, and whether the change would benefit California.  I am concerned about your brother, though.  He's working for the rebellion, you know."
     "I know.  He indicated as much when he first arrived in town."
     "Did you know that he's selling rifles on the side to independence sympathizers?"
     "I--I didn't know until he was arrested."
     "The alcalde is on to him.  Ramón will have to be very careful, or he'll be arrested for treason.  DeSoto would hang him in a heartbeat if he could prove anything."
     "Yes."  She clasped her hands.  "I'm worried about him."
     "I think you can safely trust Ramón to Zorro."
     She stilled at the sound of the outlaw's name.  "Zorro can't be safely trusted for anything," she muttered.
     Diego felt pierced to the quick.  "Surely you are mistaken.  People try hard, but they do fail sometimes.  I hope you will be able to forgive him for disappointing you."
     His expression sounded much like the padre's, but Victoria was not in the frame of mind to consider mercy.  "Perhaps someday, but I'll not make the mistake of trusting him again."
     Diego's jaw tightened as he stared beyond the horses' heads.  She hated Zorro; that much was clear.  Whatever remnant of love remaining had been extinguished by his cold reaction in the plaza.  Now was not the time to confess his secret life!  Victoria would likely jump down from the wagon and stalk back to the pueblo just to get away from him!
     "Trust me, then.  I'm already committed to your welfare."  He glanced at her lovely face and was encouraged when she gave him a small smile.  When he broke into another popular chorus, her voice rose to join his.
 

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