ENVELOPMENT
 
17
 
 
 
 
 

     Victoria was curled up asleep when he finally returned to his bedroom.  His lips pressed together in frustration as his marital woes came to the forefront again.  She was so unpredictable!  No matter what he did, it seemed like the wrong thing!  How could love be so difficult?  Had it really been less than twelve hours since he had held her in his arms?  Since she had returned his kisses with such abandon?  Did a man ever truly know whether his bride would be a passionate lover after the marriage vows?  As Zorro, he had not known but hoped so, based on her deep devotion to him.  How could it be that she trembled at her husband's touch, when she acknowledged nothing more than liking for him?  And then she seemed to recover her former reserve and withdraw again from him, just as her sleeping posture indicated.  Diego lay beside her in the darkness, afraid to touch her, afraid she would shrink away.
     By nature the younger de la Vega was a problem-solver, and he racked his brain thinking of possible solutions.  He was tempted to ask his father's advice, but wondered how to explain the situation without confessing that he and his wife had only just consummated their marriage.  But wait--his father had already given him some advice at supper.  What had he said?  Ask her what was wrong!  His brows lowered.  If he asked, might he hear her say what he most dreaded--that she never wanted to have relations with him again?  Or perhaps that she could never love him!  Or that she regretted marrying him!  Diego could not decide which of the trio would wound him the most deeply.  A night's sleep might clarify his course of action, and he prayed that Victoria would treat him normally in the morning.
     His prayer was not answered to his satisfaction.  If anything, his wife seemed even more skittish upon leaving the bed and dressing than she had their first day of marriage.  She refused his offer of a music lesson after breakfast and rode into town with Pepe's escort.
     Kind Perdita welcomed the ranch boy and offered him a snack.  When the two disappeared behind the serape doorway, Ramón asked his sister about her progress with the assignment he had given her.
     She shrugged.  "The women don't care, or they're royalists.  But mostly they just have no interest in political matters.  Don Esteban's wife looks down her nose at me, Don León's wife wants to gossip, Doña Anita wants to talk about fashion."
     "Don León is with us, but Don Esteban and Don Mateo are still die-hard royalists."  He frowned, displeased.
     "Obviously I can't influence anybody, and I don't think I should try anymore.  Diego and Don Alejandro are standing with Spain, and I have said that I would stand with them."
     "You can't be serious!" he scoffed.  "What about Mamá and Papá?  Will you side with their murderers?"
     "Oh, stop it, Ramón!"  She pressed her fingers to her aching temples.  "That's over and done with, and I won't live on revenge!  I do want independence, but I can't help you anymore!  I can't betray my new family!"
     His expression was remote.  "Then we're on opposite sides."
     "Not in my heart.  Never in my heart.  You know that.  This decision has nothing to do with my political values.  But I love Don Alejandro like a father, and I owe something to my husband.  For me, it's simply a matter of doing what is right in my circumstances."
     He exhaled a long breath.  "At least say that you won't work against us."
     She laid a hand on his arm and kissed his cheek.  "That I do promise.  I'll be a royalist in name, but my participation on either side is done."
     Escalante's demeanor softened, and his arms went around her.  "All right, Vic--have it your way."  He hugged her tightly for a minute more.  "Independence is coming for New Spain and Los Angeles.  Very soon.  When the time comes, I'll send you word.  Stay away from town until it's safe again."
     She nodded and raised her dark eyes to his, so like her own.  Where hers mirrored a woman's anxiety for a loved one, his shone with a hardened resolve.  He had a man's work ahead, and how it would end neither knew.
     Diego followed his wife to town about an hour later.  As he was tying off his reins in front of the news office, Alcalde DeSoto saw his approach.
     "De la Vega!"
     The caballero turned at the rare jovial tone in the officer's voice and saw himself approached as a long-lost friend.  "Buenos dias, Alcalde."
     The white-haired major smiled broadly and pumped his hand.  "I was about to pay you and your father a visit.  Something has come up, and I think that you can help me.  Will you step into my office a moment?"
     Never entirely comfortable entering the enemy's stronghold, Diego's quick mind sorted through possible explanations for the commandant's sudden desire for his company, and he hoped it had nothing to do with Zorro.  DeSoto offered him a chair and sat down himself on the other side of the desk.
     "Madeira?  Well, then, a cigar?  You don't mind if I do, I hope."  The alcalde lit a cigar and blew a narrow stream of smoke toward the ceiling.  "Diego, I know I can talk to you about this because you have lived in Madrid; you have seen the marvels of Spain.  So many Californios have never been out of the territory.  No wonder they feel no love or loyalty for the mother country.  But you--and your father, who fought for Spain as an officer in His Majesty's army--you know what a crisis is brewing.  If royalists don't stand together, the rabble, led by a few zealots, will destroy everything the Crown has built in this new land."
     He lifted a parchment from his desk and handed it to the caballero to read.  "That is from the viceroy himself.  He is begging all loyal Spaniards to take an oath of allegiance to the King.  Will the de la Vegas take the oath?"
     The alcalde was trying to force the noble family to take sides, but DeSoto did not know that they had already made such a decision.  Diego read through the wording of the oath.  It included statements for the subscribers of the oath to give the king's officers whatever aid was necessary to support the colonial army, including enlistment into the military themselves.  Taking sides was going to have a tremendous impact upon his family; alienating themselves from their neighbors and friends was among the consequences the caballero could foresee.  He returned the document solemnly.
     "Yes, we'll take the oath."
     As troublesome to his administration as the de la Vegas had been on occasion, the commandant was pleasantly surprised by the positive decision.  "Well, then, that's fine, Diego.  You can be the first in the pueblo to sign the oath.  The king will be grateful for your support."  He dipped the quill into the ink and handed it to the newspaper's editor.
     The younger de la Vega signed his name with a definitive scrawl.  "I'm sure my father will take the oath of allegiance.  Why don't you come for dinner tonight and discuss it with him?"
     The alcalde's smile grew, and he inclined his head in a polite bow.  "I would be honored.  Er--I hope the oath won't cause marital difficulties for you.  If you'll forgive me, the señora is not known for being a staunch supporter of the Crown."  The officer fixed a speculative gaze on his guest's face.
     "My wife will support the king because I do," Diego declared calmly, hoping that he spoke the truth.  After the previous day, who knew how she would react?
     An incredulous chuckle escaped DeSoto.  "If that is so, marriage has had a remarkable effect on her.  What is your secret?  Other men will want to know."
     The question was rhetorical, and the caballero laughed it off.  After leaving the office, he went to the tavern.  The lunch crowd was filling the room, and he sat down at a small table in the corner.
     "Ramón, when you have a minute I need to speak with you," he told the inn's manager after his order had been taken.
     Escalante nodded and commented that Victoria was helping with the meal preparation.  "Seems like old times," he grinned.  "She just has to have her finger in the pie."  He apparently told the doña that her husband was in the taproom for lunch, for a few minutes later she emerged from the kitchen and approached Diego's table.
     "I'm helping Perdita just for fun," she explained.  "Do you mind?"  Her expression looked like a guilty child.
     He smiled kindly at her, which was meant to be a reassurance.  "Of course not, my dear.  Stay all afternoon if you like, but we are having a dinner guest this evening--the alcalde."
     She frowned quizzically but left his table without comment.  When Ramón returned with his meal, he sat down beside his caballero relative.  "What's up?"
     "I thought you might like to know," prefaced his customer, peeling back the corn husk from a steamed tamale, "that the alcalde is soliciting oaths of allegiance to the Crown of every man in the territory.  Those who don't subscribe will be--suspect."
     "I'm already suspect.  What's the difference?"
     "Now the caballeros will be directly approached by the alcalde to take the oath.  When face to face with the man who could execute them for treason, many of your supporters may quietly join the king," he murmured.  "Your power base could erode away."
     Ramón muttered an expletive.  "And the padre's preaching every week about loyalty to Spain; that scares some people off.  I hear you're not neutral anymore, either."
     "I'm afraid that's right.  In fact, I was the first to take the oath of allegiance."
     "Then you're the enemy."  The innkeeper shrank back in horror at the realization.
     De la Vega shook his head.  "Not your enemy, Brother.  I--need to support my father in this.  A revolution is a terrible kind of war; it divides homes and families.  Bitter hatred can result in wounds that never heal."  His tone became lighter and more conversational.  "You'll never guess what I discovered in the office of Colonel Fuergun, the head of the San Diego presidio--a list of suspected rebel organizers throughout California.  Your name and Perdita's were on it.  So was Victoria's."
     "You intend to betray us?  Your own family?"
     "If that were my intent, you would have been under arrest long ago.  But it's obvious that the alcalde has already been informed of the list's contents.  That's why you were caught with the rifles; you were being watched."
     "How did you find out about such a list?"
     "The colonel himself mentioned it, and I took it upon myself to--er--purloin the list."
     "You were spying for Ignacio DeSoto?  What do you want, Diego?  Why are you doing this?  I thought you cared about the peons!"
     "Calm down!" the caballero urged, for the louder tone turned some heads in their direction.  "Of course I care about the peons and everyone else who's oppressed!  I wanted to know who the colonial government had identified as rebels here for reasons of my own.  What I didn't expect was to find my wife's name on the list.  Can you explain that?"
     He shrugged.  "Victoria volunteered to help.  I let her do some work for me."
     Blue eyes blazed into brown, and Diego said through clenched teeth, "You tell her you don't need her help now, and destroy any evidence that she was ever remotely connected to the rebellion.  Comprendes?  I want nothing anywhere that would incriminate my wife!"  He got up from the table.
     "What about the list?" Escalante called to his departing form.
     "I gave it to your friend Jesu!" came the reply over the tall man's shoulder.
     The rebel leader stared after him in bewilderment.

     If Don Alejandro was surprised at his son's choice of dinner guests, he hid it under a screen of affability.  Ignacio DeSoto was warmly welcomed into the large hacienda and shared with the family the spiced roast beef which Maria had prepared.  The alcalde lavishly praised the meal, the elegant home, and the hospitality he received.  Over dinner he broached the subject of the king's oath and congratulated his host on Diego's sense of loyalty to the Crown.
     "Loyalty is a subject that everyone seems to be re-evaluating these days," concurred the hacendado.  "We tend to take such things as patriotism for granted until other ideas force us to examine where we stand on such critical issues as independence."
     "But for a man who has served His Majesty as faithfully as you, Don Alejandro, such an examination can lead to only one conclusion."
     "It is true that I stand with Spain, but this was not an easy decision.  I am a criollo, born in Guadalajara.  I have spent most of my life in the New World.  You, being a Madrilèno, may not see the conflict."
     "I confess I don't.  The land on which the pueblo is built is as Spanish as the ground beneath the king's palace."
     "Legally true.  Emotionally, the New World is regarded somewhat differently by many people, especially those with Indian blood whose heritage pre-dates the conquistadors."
     "Half-breed rabble!  Most of them can't read, and certainly can't vote.  Yet they clamor for independence!  What would they do with it?"
     "Perhaps they would like to read, to vote, and to share in the privileges of landowners," observed Diego mildly.  "All men are not regarded as equal in Spain or its territories; only the wealthy and noble families are considered as first-class citizens.  Other men are something less."
     "As it should be.  There are obvious differences between social classes, and the controlling power belongs with the educated men."
     "Spain must believe that educating the lower class will produce useful citizens.  A case in point is the tremendous efforts invested in converting the Indians.  The Crown recognizes them as having souls, so they must be men.  The padres teach them our language, a trade, and in some places the defense of the mission.  That's a lot of time to invest in someone who is not allowed to have a say in the laws governing him."
     "Diego, you have been reading too much of that rhetoric from the United States," chided the alcalde indulgently.  "With your liberal views, I'm surprised you so readily signed the king's oath."
     "I hope that the king will see that the present unrest in the colonies as an indication that he needs to consider some improvements in the lives of his subjects.  Spain is good; she could be better."
     "An interesting opinion.  And what do you think, Señora?  The officer turned to the beautiful doña seated across the table from him.
     Victoria looked every inch a lady to his appreciative gaze.  Her hair was styled with a jeweled comb; a gold cross lay on her chest.  She wore a turquoise gown which did an admirable job of suggesting the charms of her dainty figure.  But most impressively, the bride of his schoolmate comported herself with becoming meekness.  Not once had she interrupted the men's conversation to insert her views--quite a change from the little spitfire he had known at the tavern!
     She met his eyes levelly.  "I too would like to see some improvements."
     DeSoto inclined his head in acknowledgment.  "And what improvements would you most like?"
     She glanced at her husband to see if she should continue.  But Diego was not frowning; he looked politely interested in her answer.
     "All men should be able to vote.  And they should be able to elect from among themselves an alcalde."
     "Touché!" the commandant chuckled.  "But why limit the vote to men?  I thought you would be advocating the vote for women as well!"
     The doña laughed self-consciously.  "Perhaps someday.  Now it would be enough for the peons and mestizos and Indians to vote."
     "You are as broad-minded as your husband," he noted.  If the alcalde suspected anything deeper lay behind her views, he dared not inquire.  Don Alejandro had promised to take the oath, and with the wealth of the de la Vegas at the officer's command he would be unwise to offend the noble family.  So he changed the subject by complimenting the newspaper's recent edition.  "Doña Corazon's column seems to have calmed down in the last few weeks.  My men are disappointed; that is their favorite part of the paper!"
     The editor cleared his throat sheepishly.  "Yes, well, the new romance advisor needed to be reined in a bit.  I was called to account by everyone from my wife to Padre Benitez."
     "Ah, then the señora is no longer writing the column.  I suspected as much.  Who is the new Doña Corazon?"
     "I'm afraid that's confidential," the caballero replied, intrigued by the officer's interest, "but she's a widow with, er, a colorful past.  I doubt her identity would be difficult to discover."
     He watched DeSoto's eyes narrow in a calculating way.  What fun it would be to throw together Lola de Farral and the alcalde!  Perhaps involved in a romance, the officer would be too preoccupied to vigorously pursue the oath of allegiance!  Ramón and the others involved in the revolution might have time to act.  Odd--Diego had declared himself loyal to the Crown, but he was hoping the other side would prosper!
     Later in the evening, the de la Vegas waved farewell as their guest's white horse carried him into the darkness.  Alejandro commented, "I don't know whether I like him better nice or nasty."
     "Or which way I like him less," his daughter-in-law grimaced.
     Alejandro wished the young couple good night and returned indoors; the doña watched the fading figure of the commandant speculatively.
     "Have you thought about what this oath means, Diego?"
     "A little--not much.  I predict we'll be at odds with some of the neighbors."
     "You have given the alcalde the power to bankrupt you!"
     "I don't think it will go that far.  He can't possibly expend our entire estate in the defense of Los Angeles."
     "But he could claim that the king needs more money!  And then more money!  And he could draft both you and your father into military service!  You would hate that, and Don Alejandro should be exempt because of his age!"
     "My father would be offended if he knew you considered him unfit to bear arms for the king.  He is a tough fighter.  As for me, the military is not what I would prefer, but I'll turn soldier if I must."
     "But--but you are a pacifist.  You hate killing.  And for the king!  Diego, how many times have you opposed the tyranny of the leadership in town just to join sides with the alcalde now?  It doesn't make any sense!"
     He sighed, "My dear, you have no idea how deep the irony is of the alcalde and me on the same side.  Have you ever heard the expression 'Politics makes strange bedfellows'?  I'm not for or against independence any more than I ever was; I'm simply following my father's lead.  Aren't you doing the same thing?  I know where your sympathies lie, and what a difficult task it is for you to claim loyalty where you feel none.  In fact, you have every reason to hate the king:  your mother's death, your father's imprisonment, the old maid law."
     "I think I do hate him.  Ah, now I must confess that!" she moaned.  "And the padre will know it is I!"
     "Poor Padre Benitez!  I'm sure he hears worse than your confessions!"  Diego grasped his wife's hand.  "But come--walk with me into the garden," he urged.
     The night was deep and the shadows in the enclosed courtyard intimate.  The rose blossoms perfumed the air as the vines climbed the trellis.  He broke off one crimson cluster and held it out to her.  When Victoria accepted it, he murmured, "Why were you cold to me last night?"
     She looked down at the fragrant blooms and finally answered in a soft voice, "You rejoiced in the conquest; I grieved over the defeat."
     "It wasn't a battle.  It's not about winning or losing.  It's about sharing ourselves."
     "It seemed like sharing at the time, but afterwards--"  Victoria's shoulders lifted in a tiny shrug.  "--I knew I had lost something valuable that I could never recover."
     He put a warm hand on the back of her neck and began to rub gently, soothingly.  "If you are thinking that you surrendered your honor yesterday, you are wrong.  When a woman keeps herself pure until she gives herself to her husband, she does not lose her honor.  She keeps it.  You came to our marriage chaste.  I knew you were, and yesterday we both had the proof.  You have been diligently guarding a great treasure for a long time; now you have shared it with your husband.  That is exactly right and good and honorable."
     "Then why do I feel so low?"  One by one the dark petals drifted to her feet, plucked by her distracted fingers.
     "Perhaps it's your innocence that you're mourning."  He turned her chin so she faced him, and his eyes twinkled though his expression was grave.  "You didn't want to be an innocent all your life, did you?"
     "No-o," she hesitated.  "It's just a big change, that's all."
     "One for which you and I are ready."  He planted a tender kiss by the corner of her mouth.  "In time the change will seem more natural.  Shall we go in?  I find an evening spent in the alcalde's presence rather wearing."

     Diego paused the next morning as he sat at the editor's desk in town, an unfinished article still before him.  He had survived another crisis in his courtship of his own wife.  Slowly but surely he was gaining ground, advancing his forces, maneuvering around or eliminating all obstacles in this chess match for two.  Soon the queen would have to surrender that which he wanted above all else--her heart.  Our lovemaking may not be a battle, but believe me, Victoria, you are in a war!  He smiled to himself, feeling confident of his ultimate victory.  And what a sweet victory it would be--a lifetime of love, blessed by her smiles and kisses and warm, willing body!
     Zorro seemed to be fading from the picture, at least as far as his wife's affections were concerned.  But Felipe had news that brought the masked man abruptly to the forefront again.  The teen interrupted the editor's pleasant musings by bursting into the office and pointing outside.
     "What?" asked the caballero.  "Who's out there?"  He stepped through the doorway and scanned the plaza.
     Diego's companion drew his attention to a young man dressed in simple clothes.  The peon was waiting on the tavern's verandah for the noon stage to Santa Barbara.  By his sandaled feet rested a large, soft bundle.
     Curiosity aroused, the editor strolled over.  "Señor Cuernavaca!  Buenos dias!  What brings you to town?"
     The man snatched off his sombrero and bobbed a bow.  "Buenos dias, Señor de la Vega.  "I'm taking the stage to Santa Barbara.  My brother has a place there, and I can find work."
     An alarm bell sounded in the caballero's mind.  "You're leaving San Pedro?  What about your mercantile store?"
     The man made a face of despair.  "I cannot make a living there, Señor.  Since Spain is fighting the colonies, hardly any ships put into port.  A few foreign ships come in, but they buy from the rancheros; they don't bring goods to sell."  He shrugged helplessly.  "I got an offer for my store.  It wasn't much, but it beats starving slowly.  I can at least start again in Santa Barbara."
     "If I may ask, who bought your property?"
     "A young gentleman from Monterey acted as his father's agent."
     "Costilla?"
     "Sí, that is the name.  I don't know why he wants the store; I told him plainly that it was not profitable for me.  But he seemed to know that, which is why he offered such a low price."
     "Did he tell you why he wanted your property?"
     The humble man pushed back the forelock which had fallen over his brow.  "No, Señor.  It makes no sense to me--unless he is a rico loco."
     Rich maybe, but certainly not crazy. But the caballero smiled at the joke and wished his acquaintance from the port the best of good fortune.  "Have you eaten lunch?"
     When Cuernavaca replied negatively, de la Vega asked him to accept a meal from the tavern as a farewell gift.  Hunger overcame pride; the salesman gratefully took the satchel of Perdita's cooking that Diego was able to buy on short notice.  The stage came and loaded its passengers; the caballero waved good-bye.
     So Costilla had ignored Zorro's warning!  The tall man's lips tightened grimly.  No one bought apparently worthless property without expecting to turn a profit on it, and judging from the businessman's acquisitive activities, the profit involved had to be enormous.  Well, it was time for a certain masked man to lighten the rich man's purse!  When Costilla confessed on the point of a Toledo sabre just what he expected as a return on his investments, Zorro would know how much to compensate the various underpaid victims:  Marco Peña, Señor Cuernavaca, Ana Alvarado, Pedro Silva.  The Fox would ride when darkness fell!
     Diego rode home; a siesta would refresh him for the night's work.  He opened the door to his bedroom and was greeted by a horrified gasp.  Victoria shrank down into the bath water in the old tin tub and concealed her body with her arms.  He halted in his tracks, uncertain whether to politely excuse himself from the room as a gentleman surely should, or to give into the alluring temptation before him.
     "Pardon me; I didn't know you were taking a bath," he said in explanation.  Would she invite him to stay?
     "Now that you see I am, would you please leave?"  She wiggled even further into the soapy water until only her head and knees were protruding.  "And close the door!"
     Diego closed the door.  "I'm sorry to be so disobliging, but I need a rest.  Or I did," he confessed, advancing upon her, "before I saw you in the tub.  Suddenly I'm wide awake.  A man lucky enough to find his beautiful wife taking a bath is not going to be easily persuaded to leave the scene."
     "I'll--I'll throw this washcloth at you if you don't leave this instant!"
     "Throw it," he challenged.
     So he thought she was bluffing!  He'd find out differently!  She hurled the saturated cloth at his immaculate jacket, but his long-fingered hand fielded the soggy missile before impact.  Only a few stray drops splattered his clothing.  He dropped his catch into the porcelain wash basin.
     "Now you're without weapons," he observed with a disquieting gleam in his eyes, and advanced on her again.
     "That's what you think!"  In retaliation she splashed soapy water on him.  Several satisfying shots sprayed his trouser legs, but did not stop his approach.  Nimbly feinting around her attempts to ward him off, he grasped her wrist.
     "I think I'd rather fish than nap!"
     "Unfair!" she cried, unable to hold back a laugh to join his.  "I'm at a disadvantage!  You're dressed, and I'm not!"
     "I have a solution to that," he grinned.
     "So do I!  Step out of the room a minute!"
     "I like my idea better."  Diego released his wife and removed his jacket.  After peeling off his shirt, he lowered his trousers.  "I wish there was room in that tub for both of us."
     "Di-e-go!"
     His eyes twinkled.  "I like the way you say my name when you're shocked."  His chiseled physique fully uncovered, he advanced and, plunging a hand into the tub, pulled out one shapely ankle.  "Since I can't come in, you'll have to come out!"
     "Then hand me the towel!"
     "Huh-uh.  No towel.  Come as you are, my lovely water sprite!"
     "I'm soaking wet!  I even washed my hair!" she protested.
     "I'm warm and dry; let's trade."  Diego managed to grasp her upper arm and lifted her bodily from the tub, slippery and squirming in his arms.  "No, don't cover yourself," he said as she again threw her hands protectively across her chest.  "I've waited a long time to see you."
     He bent his head to her rosy lips and found them shyly ready to receive his kiss.  A cool, wet arm crept around his neck, and he lowered her feet to the floor where she stood on tiptoe to reach his mouth.
     "Are you healed inside?" he murmured.
     "I don't know," she whispered honestly, "but if you want to try--"
     "I do," he breathed in a voice vibrant with passion.  "I've thought of little else since our picnic."
     Diego pulled back the covers from their bed to offer her a nest between clean sheets.  After she climbed in, he joined her.
     "But I'm using your pillow," she announced.  "I don't want mine all wet tonight!"
     He chuckled.  "Anything you want!  Just make love to me!"
     Diego was awed that his touch could so easily ignite her desires again as it had the first time.  More remarkable was her effect on him; she was a siren naively unconscious of her powers of enchantment.  Words stilled; they communicated through touch.  The sweet union of souls he had long desired--surely this melding was not coming from him alone!  Her dark hair clung to his face and neck, entwining him as surely as his heart was ensnared.  But his shy mermaid did not seek his destruction; she was giving him the most precious gift a man could receive from a woman.
     "Diego," she murmured tentatively in the circle of his arms afterwards, "am I enough woman to hold on to?"
     His drowsy eyelids flicked open, and the blue orbs searched her face.  "What makes you ask such a question?"
     "Carmen Vermuda said I was too skinny--that you would probably want me to put on some weight."
     He snorted.  "I'll refrain from commenting on the señora's jealous remarks.  I thought I just expressed--very eloquently!--my satisfaction with your appearance.  If you should later put on weight, I won't care for you any less.  You'll still be my wife, and worthy of all my respect and honor."
     Marriage to Diego had given her a much better picture of the young caballero whom Providence or Fortune dictate she wed.  He was morally conscientious; he was funny and fun to be with.  By turns he was clever, thoughtful, creative, and kind.  "You have so much to offer a wife, Diego," she said impulsively.
     Brows lifted, he glanced down at his own anatomy and then up at her face, trying unsuccessfully to hide a naughty grin.
     "I didn't mean that!" she protested, slapping his arm playfully.
     "Now I'm crushed!"
     "Behave!" she reprimanded.  "I meant that--"
     "With the family money and noble lineage, I could have gotten any wife I wanted?"
     "Don't interrupt.  And I had no idea you were so conceited!"
     "Did those things weigh with you?" he asked easily, but she sensed behind his relaxed manner that her answer was important.
     "Perhaps they did," she answered slowly, "but not in the way you may think.  I didn't marry you for your money; I simply didn't want to be married for mine.  The tavern is the most prosperous business in town, and I knew that several of the men who proposed to me were interested in cashing in on my hard work so they could live lives of ease!  With you, at least I knew that you weren't interested in acquiring the tavern--that my money didn't matter to you."
     "I see.  And the social position?"
     She sighed.  "I must be too plebeian at heart to enjoy the life of a snob."
     "What?  Do you think my father and I are snobs?"
     "Oh, no, of course not.  I meant some of the other dons and doñas.  I mingled with all classes of people at the tavern; I was a lot less sheltered than some of the ladies in the neighborhood who have never cooked a meal, scrubbed a floor, cleaned a gunshot wound, or spent a night in jail."
     "Perhaps it's those very things that make you such an exceptional woman.  The other ladies probably wish they lived such an exciting life."
     She shook her head skeptically.  "No, some of the things I've done detract from a woman's femininity."
     He kissed her at that.  "Impossible in your case."
     She smiled and snuggled in his arms.  He was so sweet!  When he dozed off still holding her, she closed her own eyes and drifted into a peaceful world where no cares disturbed her rest.

     When the clock struck eleven that evening Diego excused himself from his family, saying simply that he needed to find Felipe.  As Victoria and his father both still occupied the main rooms, the young caballero was forced to enter his secret laboratory by the outside door.  His mute companion was there already, and Toronado had been saddled for a ride.
     "I shouldn't be long tonight," said the outlaw, tying behind his neck the scarf that concealed his face and covered his hair.  "Thanks to your alertness, I know that Costilla has continued to extract land from the poor.  Tonight I plan to recover some of his potential profits."
     He gestured farewell as he turned the big stallion toward the cave door.  Toronado stepped on the foot spring; the pulleys opened on silent hinges the concealed door in the hillside.  The dark rider and his mount entered the night.  The stallion knew the way well; the first part of their route was down the creek bed behind the hacienda for several hundred yards.  He like that part; the cool water splashed up his forelegs and would necessitate extra brushing when they returned.  Then depending on his master's destination or preference, they would cut away from the stream across one of the de la Vega meadows or climb the ridge and choose a way down. This night Zorro directed him toward the meadow.  It would be the pueblo or the Camino Real!
     But when they reached the road, his beloved master urged him past the town gate.  Ah!  They were returning to the la Cruz hacienda, where they had been two nights before.  The masked rider exercised more caution this time, though; he dismounted just inside the perimeter of the fence and patted the big horse's neck--a signal to stay there.  A few minutes showed the wisdom of his wary approach; the masked man caught sight of an armed man standing guard.  It was to be expected.  Don Bernardo had not appreciated the invasion of his house by a notorious outlaw who threatened his guests. The guard was probably one of several stationed around the buildings.  He was not difficult for the hero to see though, since he wore a light-colored shirt.  The man in black crouched low and passed the la Cruz worker soundlessly.
     The house had fewer lights showing from the windows than it had had on the Fox's previous visit.  A single lamp burned in the sala; a careful peek around the casement showed that the don was reading alone in the room.
     Only the sound of a black boot touching the floor alerted the don that once again he had an unwelcome visitor.  He started in horror, and the book fell to the floor from his nerveless fingers.
     "Z-Zorro!" he stammered, but his voice was not strong enough to alert his men.
     "Shh!" the masked man warned.  "My business is not with you, but with your guest.  Where is Armando Costilla?"
     "Not here!"
     The outlaw advanced, and the caballero cowered in his chair.  "Then where is he?" asked the Fox softly.
     How could a gentle, well-modulated tone like that carry such a threat of menace?  La Cruz did not know.  "He left this afternoon.  He is returning on tonight's tide to Buena Ventura!  He's gone!"
     The frown that hardened the mouth of the dark apparition did nothing to ease the fear possessing the ranchero.  "He sailed?  On what ship?"
     "He has his own.  He comes and goes as he pleases!"
     "He--has--his--own.  A schooner?"
     The harsh staccato reduced Don Bernardo to speechlessness.  He could only nod.  But the man in black turned abruptly, his satin cape swirling around his form as he strode to the window.  Only after the outlaw had completely disappeared did the caballero realize that he had been holding his breath.
     So Armando Costilla was the rich man who owned the schooner!  Perhaps the very source of the bullies who had plagued Pablo Silva!  If that was so, then the businessman had orchestrated the beating of the fisherman to coerce him into selling, and then appeared in the guise of savior to buy the property and help him relocate!  By all that was holy, Zorro would shake that smiling scoundrel until his teeth rattled loose!
     Toronado understood that his master was furious; the knees pressed into his sides said as much and more.  They galloped toward the harbor with the masked man bent over the horse's mane.  Had the tide come and gone?  Zorro tried to remember the tide chart; he thought the tide had been about an hour before.  A slim chance remained--perhaps something had delayed the sailing until the morning tide.  On that hope, the dark rider guided his mount to the bluff overlooking the coast and harbor.  A ship was docked in the bay--what nationality the masked man could not tell in the starlight.  But it was too large to be a personal ship; it appeared to be a merchant marine from either Britain or the United States.
     His shadowed eyes squinted as he searched the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean before him.  Even in the low light white sails unfurled would make a faint visible patch.  Far to the north he spotted a small glimmer on the horizon.  He growled in frustration.  The schooner had made good use of the tide and land breeze, and Zorro's quarry had eluded him.
 

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