EVASION
 
7
 
 
 

     The sun had risen before the last guest on his feet, Señor Santana, took his unsteady leave.
     "Most gracious, Don Alejandro, most generous."  He pumped his host's hand, bleary-eyed.  "And you, too, Don Diego.  You're a lucky man; you won the prize of the pueblo.  Where did she go, anyway?"  He peered around the courtyard as if expecting to spot Victoria in her bridal veil.
     "My wife retired several hours ago, but I'll give her your kind wishes," explained Diego.
     "Several hours ago!  Ain't it time you joined her?"  Señor Santana gave the groom a ribald wink and mounted the horse held by Juan.  "Well, I'm off.  Can't say I don't see a party through to the end."  He kicked the mare, who cantered away from the hacienda in an erratic clip.
     "I thought he would never leave," muttered Alejandro to his son as he waved farewell.  "You didn't have to stay up this long, Diego.  You should be with Victoria so you two can try to make some sense of this maelstrom into which you've jumped with both feet."
     "Do you think I've made a bad decision?"
     "I don't know," sighed his father.  "Time will tell."
     They returned indoors together, Diego noting with disinterest the neighbors who had decided to sleep off the effects of the long celebration by staying at the large ranch house.  Don Mateo was slumped in the brocaded armchair in the library, a red handkerchief covering his face.  His wife Anita was stretched out on the sofa next to him with a thin arm dangling over the floor.  More guests occupied the salon.  Señor Castata dozed on the settee while his wife slept with her head on his lap.  She in turn held their four year old son.  Pedro and Marcos Lopez were snoring softly in the remaining chairs.  On every table and in every nook were dishes whose remnants of food were hardening in the warming air.  A few flies buzzed greedily from the plates to the glasses and back.  The de la Vega housekeeping staff would have the mammoth task of restoring the home to its normal state, and Diego did not envy them the task.  Under other circumstances he would gladly have assisted Maria, but more important matters claimed his attention.
     His private chamber was quiet when he opened the door, hoping that the creak would not disturb Victoria.  No, she too was still asleep on one side of the bed, facing away from the door.  She was curled under the heavy bed coverings, warding off the chill of early morning.  He stepped around the bed silently to see her face.  The tiredness and strain from the last few weeks were magically erased during slumber, and her sleeping expression was childlike and peaceful.  She had left the lamp burning low for him, though its meager flame was hardly discernible with the light of a spring morning streaming through the window.  He turned off the lamp and drew the burgundy velvet curtains.
     Diego eased off his boots and shed the remainder of his clothes.  His bath had been hours ago, or was it days?  He wished he could have another after the perspiration and grime of his wedding day, a regret that did not trouble him overmuch in light of the fatigue engulfing him.  After dressing quickly in a clean nightshirt, he carefully lifted the covers on the vacant side of the bed.  Sharing a bed--with his and hers sides, no less!--was going to be a new experience.  The mattress depressed under his weight; still Victoria did not move.  The way she was huddled there, defensive yet defenseless, touched the man within.  He longed to pull her into his arms and assure her of his love and protection, but this was not the time.  Later, he consoled himself, content to touch the silky black strands which--wonder of wonders!--were at last spread on the pillow next to his.  He closed his eyes.

     Victoria awoke with a vague feeling of some burden hanging over her.  As her eyes focused on the unfamiliar room setting, sudden remembrance of the previous day's events came flooding back to her.  She was married.  She pulled her hand from beneath the bedclothes to look at the diamond and pearl ring which encircled the fourth finger.
     "Yes, it really happened," murmured a deep voice beside her.  "Hard to believe, isn't it?"
     She rolled on her back to glance at him.  Diego's eyes were rimmed with dark circles, testifying to the additional sleep he had lost.  A brown lock fell over his forehead, making him seem more familiar and less formal.
     "I didn't hear you come to bed."
     "I tried to be very quiet.  You were sleeping so deeply you never stirred.  Did you get enough rest?"
     "I guess so.  What time is it?"
     "Probably early afternoon."
     "My goodness!"  She threw back the coverings and set her feet on the floor.  "I've never stayed in bed this late!"
     His hand grasped the white cotton gown she wore, preventing her from standing.  "You've never been married, either!"  He smiled at her anxious expression when she turned back to him.  "Stay a little longer."
     The padre had said that the wife was to obey her husband, and she did so want to be a good wife.  Victoria reluctantly put her feet under the covers again.
     "Diego, maybe you assume that I know--certain things because of my years at the tavern, but I don't.  Most brides get advice from their mothers; I can't do that.  I have no sisters, no close woman friends."
     "There wasn't a lot of time, was there?"  He was still smiling kindly.  "Don't fret over intimate relations.  It seems to me that we have a great deal to learn about each other before sharing our bodies."
     She blinked, bemused.  "You mean you're willing to wait?"
     "Until you are ready."
     A reprieve!  She hoped her face did not betray the sudden rush of relief she felt.  Her protest was tentative.  "But . . . but shouldn't we--"
     "Let's leave 'shoulds' and 'ought tos' out of our marriage.  When two people come together as we have, they don't need more difficulties added by a misplaced sense of guilt.  I think that if we treat each other respectfully and learn to appreciate each other, we will find a lot of happiness in this necessary marriage."
     Her eyes lowered.  "I hope so."  How different would her first morning of marriage be if she had married Zorro!  Was he thinking of her now just as she was thinking of him?  He probably thought she had already given herself to her husband. And it would have been exactly what he told me to do, she thought grumpily.  Why, oh, why couldn't he have found some way to help her?  He had never failed her in the past, but at this most critical time in her life he did not help her.  It must be faced; he did not love her as much as she had thought.  Maybe he just wasn't the marrying kind; some men did have difficulty settling down, and Zorro--she had to admit--had given every indication of being one of those men.  If only she could have talked to him--
     "Hey, where did you go?" teased Diego gently.
     "Sorry.  I was just thinking about--things," she finished lamely.
     "Anything you want to talk about?"
     "Uh, no.  No thank you."
     "You can talk to me, you know.  You can talk to me about anything on your mind.  Confiding in each other is something that will draw us closer together."
     "I know."  But she did not want to draw closer to Diego!  "Was there anything else?"
     "Yes, if you please.  We need to talk about Zorro."
     Victoria gave a guilty start.  Had he been reading her mind?
     "I don't want to," she said bluntly.  "As a matter of fact, I don't want to see him again, or even hear his name mentioned!"  Her voice, strident with anger and hurt, stopped Diego's confession before it left his lips.
     "Do you hate him?" he asked reluctantly.
     A long moment passed.  "Maybe," she tightly replied.  "But I think it's better on all sides if we forget about him and live our own lives.  Now I'd like to get up, please, and help with the dishes."
     So the subject was closed for now, and he did not know whether he felt relieved or sorry.  He would have to tell her the truth sooner or later, though; this just wasn't the right time.  Maybe, if she really wanted to forget Zorro, she could gradually come to love him as himself.  He certainly would have every opportunity available to a man over the next few weeks and months.  Yes, he could woo her again, this time in his own name.  Diego forced his mind back to the conversation; Victoria was waiting.
     "You don't have to do that.  You're mistress of the house now.  You can do whatever you want."
 Mistress of the house!  Mistress of the de la Vega hacienda!  The very pinnacle of social prominence!  She frowned.  She neither coveted such a position nor felt comfortable elevated to that sphere.
     "I want to.  It's something I know how to do."  This time when she put her feet on the floor, Diego did not detain her.  He was watching her sleepily, though, and she was reluctant to undress in front of him.  An easy solution presented itself; she simply pulled her blouse and skirt over her night shift.
     She picked up her silk dress from the day before.  "Where shall I put my clothes?"
     "Hm.  That does present a problem," her husband observed.  "There's a small amount of space in my wardrobe which you may use.  But I guess we need another piece of furniture."
     "You are not very well prepared for a wife, Diego," she chided.
     He grinned, unoffended.  "It seemed rather premature to be investing in furniture when I thought the chance that you'd actually go through with it was quite remote."
     "I almost didn't go through with it," she replied with unexpected candor.  "I'm not even sure why I did."
     Because you were driven in a corner, and your own resources failed you.  You felt you had no choice--that I was better than the alternatives.  He merely said, "This is going to work out for both of us; you'll see."
     "I hope so," she said doubtfully, brushing her hair with vigor.  She bound the dusky curls into a severe bun and pinned it in place.  The results, displayed in Diego's mirror, displeased her.  No doubt it was the first of many things to which she would have to resign herself.  "Are you going to sleep some more?"
     "Yes, if you don't mind," yawned her husband and closed his eyes again.
     The wedding guests who had overnighted at the hacienda had awoken and been fed breakfast by the exhausted housekeeper.  Their horses and carriages had been brought to the gate by the stable hands, and the various guests had ambled sleepily back to their own domiciles.  Outside Diego's ornate bedroom, the new bride found only Maria about the business of restoring the house to its pre-nuptial state of cleanliness.  The housekeeper was on her hands and knees blotting a wine stain from the Karistan carpet.
     "Is it coming out?"
     Maria sat back on her heels.  "Buenas tardes, Doña Victoria.  I hope you slept well?"
     "Probably not enough," replied Victoria with a wan smile.  The innocent admission was interpreted differently than she intended.
     "That's to be expected with a new husband, Señora," the housekeeper responded, pleased.  "I'm surprised the young master let you up so soon."
     "Oh, he's still resting.  I don't even remember when he came to bed."
     "Not until eight-thirty this morning.  That's when Señor Santana finally left, and Don Alejandro, Don Diego, and I could go to bed."
     "Oh, dear!  You've hardly had any sleep at all!  And after working all night!  Go back to bed, Maria, and let me finish up here."
     "No, Señora.  Don Alejandro will be up soon and demanding his breakfast."
     Victoria smiled conspiratorially.  "Like all men in the morning.  The first thing they think of is filling their bellies.  I'll make Don Alejandro his breakfast.  Go and take a siesta."
     The congenial accord between the two women vanished abruptly.  "I've been cooking for Don Alejandro's family for thirty years, Doña Victoria," the older woman said stiffly.  "Do you intend to take over that responsibility?"
     Aware that her offer had given deep offense, Victoria garbled, "No, I wouldn't dream of replacing you!  I was just trying to help."
     "We've been managing very well without help these twenty years since Doña Elena died--God rest her soul," interjected Maria, crossing herself.  "If you plan to make any changes, you'd better ask Don Alejandro first.  He likes things just so."
     "I have no plans to make changes--no plans at all," refuted the younger woman, her protests sounding to her own ears like defensive statements from a weaker position.  "Well, since you're managing just fine by yourself, I'll take a walk outside."
     The housekeeper, in her preoccupation with the carpet and Don Alejandro's breakfast, had not even offered her new mistress something to eat!  And Victoria was suddenly aware that she was hungry.  She hesitated at the front door, wondering whether or not to swallow her pride and request of the housekeeper a few scraps from the kitchen.  Deciding against disturbing Maria again, she opened the door and stepped into the bright afternoon sun.
     The courtyard was quiet and deserted.  Most of the debris from the reception had been cleared away, though some of the damage was not as easily repaired.  Alejandro's rose bushes had been picked clean of fragrant blooms, and one climbing rose had several canes broken when the trellis had been smashed by revelers.  While surveying the damage, Victoria heard a voice from the direction of the stables.  A short walk brought her to the de la Vega mews.  The only person on the premises was Juan, vigorously grooming Dulcinea, Don Alejandro's favored Andalusian mare.
     "Buenas tardes," Victoria greeted.
     Her salutation startled the man, who had not heard her approach.  "Oh, buenas tardes, Señora," he replied, nodding his head in a token bow.  "Er, is there something I can do for you?"
     "Yes," she said, brightening at a new idea.  "I'd like to go into town.  Will you saddle me a horse?"
     He hesitated.  "Certainly, Señora, I'll wake one of the boys to take you."
     "Oh, that's not necessary.  Just saddle a horse, preferably a gentle one.  I'm not the accomplished rider that your patrón is."
     "The patrón wouldn't want you to go without an escort.  He never allowed Doña Elena to do so.  I'd be glad to accompany you myself, but the master will soon be up, and after breakfast he always calls for his Sweet Lady."  Juan stroked the mare's nose affectionately.
     "Will you hitch up a cart, then?  I'm perfectly capable of driving myself into town."
     "Sí, Señora, I'm sure you are," the stable master replied, "but you still need an escort.  If you'll just wait a while--"  He broke off at seeing the mulish expression on Victoria's face.  "I'll wake one of the stable boys, Señora."
     "No, don't do that," she ground out, frustrated.  She was sure the boys had lost as much sleep as she had the night before, perhaps more.  "I'll just walk."  She turned about and strode determinedly toward the pueblo, ignoring the protests behind her.
     Well!  Being a de la Vega's wife was certainly a more irksome position than she would have guessed.  Who would have thought that the wealthy had any restrictions placed on them?  Yet here she was, walking to town because she could not ride a horse or drive a cart by herself!  Neither could she pick up dishes nor cook a meal in her new home!  Anger seethed up inside, and tears of self-pity tried to force their way out.  No, she would not cry; she hardly ever cried anymore.  Instead she vented her wrath by telling certain people exactly what she thought of them.  First were Juan and Maria--the unhelpful servants, then as her rage spread, Don Alejandro and Don Diego were castigated as well.  Finally, Zorro, Ramón, and Alcalde DeSoto were condemned because they had not tried hard enough to prevent the personal catastrophe which had overtaken her.  Last of all, King Ferdinand received her treasonous accusations for being a pompous moron who thought single women unfit to own property.  Ha!  Maybe in the Old World, but on the frontier women were quite capable of managing without a man, thank you very much!
     "Señora!" called a childish voice behind her.
     Victoria turned and saw a horse and cart approaching rapidly behind her.  On the driver's seat was a young boy.  He pulled up beside her and bobbed a bow.
     "If you please, Señora, Juan says that I am to take you to town."
     In spite of herself, Victoria smiled.  The boy was only about eight or nine years old, and Juan had sent this child to be her escort!
     "I don't know who's going to be taking care of whom," she replied, climbing up on the seat beside him and taking the reins.  "What's your name?"
     "Pepe, Señora," he replied.
     "Well, Pepe, are you hungry?"
     The boy nodded vigorously.
     "Me, too.  Suppose I fix us some breakfast at the tavern?"  Her suggestion met with complete approval, and Victoria clucked to the horse and slapped the reins.

     Having left the house without the key she had given to Diego the night before, Victoria resolved to use the spare key hidden in a jar within the two-stall stable behind the tavern.  Opening the kitchen door, however, gave her an unpleasant surprise.
     At her exclamation, Pepe asked, "What is it, Señora?"
     "Someone has been in here," she announced, "and made a mess!"  The cupboard doors were flung open and the wine rack moved from the wall.  The taproom was much the same way.  The tables and chairs which she had left in pristine order the previous afternoon were turned awry and scattered haphazardly about the room.  The contents under the bar had been rummaged through by the intruder, and the cash box forced open.  To her surprise, the coins she had left there before her wedding seemed to be untouched, though admittedly the amount had been paltry.  The locked door to her small wine room in the back had been forced, and a glance told her that her unknown visitor had been busy there, too.  The crates stacked against the wall were pulled away, and the single bed was overturned.  An investigation of the second floor proved that her unwelcome guest had been there as well.  Drawers and wardrobe doors had been left open in all the rooms, including her own.
     "You have been robbed, Señora!"  Pepe's eyes were snapping with the thrill.  "Should we tell the soldiers?"
     "I don't know," she answered slowly.  "I can't think of anything that's missing.  Felipe had the key--" she mused, but could not imagine why Diego's deaf-mute servant would have turned the tavern upside down, unless Felipe had had a fit of jealousy.  The teenager idolized his master, Victoria knew, and might disapprove of Diego's taking a wife.  The idea seemed rather far-fetched, given that her marriage had been one of convenience and having long been acquainted with Felipe's kind nature.  "Well, let's have some breakfast," she said at last.  "There's more work to do here than I thought."
     Having partaken of a full meal of eggs, tortillas, and cheese, the new bride and her young companion got to the business of setting the tavern in order.  Pepe closed the doors and drawers while she strained to push the furniture back against the wall.  The boy was energetic and anxious to please, and under Victoria's kind attention told her eagerly about life as a stable boy on the de la Vega ranch.  She listened with interest to his descriptions.  Pepe's father was Roberto, one of the hands that worked the cattle.  The boy's mother had died in a smallpox epidemic, and his older sister was a housemaid who took her orders from Maria.
     "Have you ever thought about going to the mission school, Pepe?"
     He looked blank.  "Why?  A stableman doesn't need to know how to read and write."
     "Everyone should know how to read and write.  The better educated you are, the better you can serve your patrón.  For instance, don't you need to count in your job?"
     "'Course.  But I can count up to a hundred."
     She smiled.  "Don Alejandro has many more cows than a hundred.  I'm sure your father and the other hands know how to add and subtract as well."
     "My father thinks schooling is a waste of time.  He says, 'A man has to work for his bread.'  That's why he 'prenticed me to Juan."
     "Work is an admirable ethic," she returned mildly.  "Speaking of which, we're almost done with the work on this floor.  If you'll straighten those last two tables, we'll go upstairs.  I have some packing to do."
     On her bed Victoria spread a single sheet.  Since she had no more pieces of luggage than the old portmanteau which had carried her few belongings to the de la Vegas' the day before, she intended to make a bundle of her remaining clothes, saving aside an outfit to leave at the tavern.
     "Pepe, will you put the clothes from those drawers on the bed?" she asked, indicating her dresser.  As the boy did so, she removed her skirts and best Sunday dress from the wardrobe.
     "Victoria!  What are you doing?"
     The deep, stern voice made her jump, and she spun about to see Diego standing at the doorway, looking none too pleased.
     "I--I'm gathering some of my clothes to take back to the house," she stammered.  "Have you any objection?"
     His jaw tightened.  "Pepe, wait for us in the wagon."  The boy scurried out of the room and thumped down the stairs.  With him gone, Diego turned his attention back to his bride.
     "I certainly have no objection to your packing some clothes, but don't you think it would have been courteous to let someone know where you were going?"
     "I did!" she cried indignantly.  "I told Juan!"
     "Perhaps you did, but Juan isn't at the stable this afternoon; he's with the remuda in the north pasture.  There was no one in the house who knew where you were, and after looking for you for two hours I finally checked the stables and discovered the cart was gone.  On the hope that I might find you here, I rode into town."
     "Can't I even come to town?" she flared.  "Let me tell you, Diego, that I don't take kindly to being ordered about and told what I can and can't do!  I've been my own master these eleven years, and I'm used to running things my way!  When I'm hungry I eat, when I want to go somewhere I go.  At your house it's all 'Don Alejandro wouldn't allow that.  Doña Elena never did that,'" she mimicked angrily.
     "The servants are trying to protect you; it's nothing personal.  Why didn't you get something to eat at the house?"
     "I didn't want to trouble Maria," she tossed back.  "She was too busy cleaning and waiting for your father to wake up to offer me anything."
     "I apologize; it won't happen again.  I'll speak to her."
     "No," she ground out.  "I don't want to get her in trouble.  Just let it go."
     "I thought you were going to help her with the cleanup."
     "She made it quite clear that she could manage without my assistance," Victoria stated, brutally tying the sheet corners in a knot.  "It seems that your staff is just as poorly prepared for a new woman in the house as you are.  Maria has run the house since your mother died, and she doesn't like my intrusion."  She grunted as she lifted the heavy bundle.
     Diego took it from her hands.  "Please be patient with her; there's bound to be a period of adjustment for everyone."
     "And I'm the one who will be doing most of the adjusting," she grumbled morosely.  "Why do I have to have a groom when I ride or take the cart?  Juan thought I shouldn't even walk to the pueblo by myself!  As if I haven't walked between my home and yours a hundred times!  He even pulled Pepe out of bed and sent him after me!"
     "I'm glad he did.  I too would prefer that you always have an escort.  If none is available, please wait.  Yes, I know you're a strong woman and used to handling your own business," he said, overriding the protests that came to her lips, "but you're my wife now, and I'm responsible for your safety.  Is there anything else you want to bring?"
     Chagrined, she shook her head.  Her momentoes of Zorro would stay in the secret place behind the back of a dresser drawer; she did not dare take them to the hacienda.  Besides, they belonged here where she and Zorro had shared many clandestine moments together.  That, too, was over, and she still could not believe he had abandoned her.
     "Then let's see if the alcalde will change the name on the title deed of the tavern for us."  He gestured her to the doorway and waited for her to pass through.  "How did you get in the tavern without this?"  In his open palm he held the key she had given him.
     She snatched it from him.  "Do you really think I have only one key?  And by the way, I want you to question Felipe about the state of the tavern last night.  It was a wreck this morning, and I don't appreciate it."
     "What do you mean?"
      "Somebody was making mischief here last night!  Tables and chairs overturned, furniture moved from the walls, drawers flung open!"
     "Was anything stolen?"
     "Not that I can determine," she answered stiffly.
     "And you think Felipe did this?"
     "He had the key."
     "A person doesn't need a key to break in," he refuted, "and Felipe would never harm your property.  I will ask him about it, though.  He could at least tell us if the damage happened before or after he came."
     Outside, he lifted the bundle of Victoria's clothes into the bed of the cart and told Pepe to stay with the horse.  The door to the alcalde's office was open to let the breeze through--an indication that he was at his desk.  Diego rapped respectfully on the door.
     "Alcalde, we're here to have the name on the tavern's title deed changed."
     DeSoto glanced up, looking mildly resentful of the intrusion.  "Ah, yes, the happy couple," he sneered.  "I've been expecting you."  He stood and opened a file drawer, rummaged through the paperwork, and removed a yellowed piece of parchment.  Sitting at his desk again, the official dipped a quill in the inkwell and began writing in an elegant hand on a fresh piece of paper.  For several minutes the only sound in the room was the scratching of the quill against the surface of the new document.
     "So the de la Vegas acquire yet another piece of valuable property," he commented with a sour attempt at levity.  "Isn't your ranch big enough?"
     The caballero ignored the ill-tempered comment; Victoria glanced from him to the alcalde, frowning.
     "Sign here, Diego."  DeSoto turned the paper and handed the younger man the quill.
     De la Vega scanned the contents with a careful eye.  "The owner is supposed to sign.  That would be Victoria," he observed, handing the pen to his wife.
     "As if it matters," grumbled the alcalde.  "Community property--what's hers is yours and vice-versa."
     "Perhaps," returned Diego, "but we'll make the distinction anyway.  Sign 'Victoria Escalante de la Vega,'" he instructed her.
     She did more; she included her middle name, Isabel, as she wrote her signature--perhaps in a spirit of defiance.  The alcalde signed as a witness, lightly dusted the document with sand, and told the couple that the transaction was completed.
     "I hope you find that your choice was worth the price you paid," he added.  "The other single owners resorted to less drastic steps.  Señorita Ruiz deeded her ranch to young Santillano, Señorita Heceta transferred her house to her brother--which is how the property should have been left in the first place, and Señorita Alvarado sold her farm and took her sisters to Santa Barbara to live with her uncle."
     Contrary to Diego's expectations, his wife did not respond with a withering retort but said nothing at all.  The alcalde was not visibly moved by her stony silence.  He waved them out of his office.
     "That's all.  Congratulations, Señora.  You made the deadline."
     As they left the building, cheerful whistling began in the office behind them.  Victoria's lips were pressed tightly together--a sure sign that she was angry.  Diego wished she would vent it again as she had to him in the tavern.  He was much more comfortable knowing what was on her mind than having her bottle up her feelings.  He handed her up to the driver's seat of the cart and climbed up beside her.
     "Not the most pleasant encounter, but over with."  When she failed to respond to his invitation, he asked, "Why didn't you tell him about the break in?"
     "That could be rather awkward since you haven't spoken with Felipe yet."
     "Felipe didn't do it," he said sternly.
     "I hope not," she confirmed, her voice cool, "but I have no other theories.  He has had you all to himself; he might not like the idea of sharing you with a wife.  Perhaps you should make it clear to him that this is just a marriage of convenience and that neither of us plans to change our lives significantly."
     Her observation shook him; had she pin-pointed a problem with his young companion that he had overlooked?  Surely Felipe had known for years of his hope to marry Victoria and his joy at its realization!  The teen wouldn't behave so unreasonably!
     "Felipe is smart enough to know that what started as a marriage of convenience is not likely to remain so.  But he would never harm your property.  You said your money wasn't stolen.  Do you think the motive was robbery?"
     "I don't know," answered Victoria crossly.  "It looked more like a silly prank to me."
     "Maybe the soldiers were mad because we didn't invite them.  With the alcalde and Sergeant Mendoza at the hacienda, the lancers could have had a party of their own."
     "Diego, if you had ever cleaned up after a bunch of soldiers, you wouldn't offer such a ridiculous idea.  Empty bottles of wine would have been lying everywhere, along with other mess!"
     "Hm, certainly a puzzle.  I don't like it that someone can come and go at will."
     "It happened because I was not there last night, and neither were most of the townspeople.  I need to be there as much as possible during the day so that it won't happen again.  Speaking of which, tomorrow morning when I go to the tavern for the day, will a groom have to ride with me?"
     "I'd prefer it."
     "Does that mean 'yes'?"
     A dimple quivered by his otherwise solemn mouth.  "That means 'yes.'"
     To his surprise she did not argue his decision.  "Then may I have Pepe?"
     Before Diego could answer, the boy chimed in, "Please, Patrón, may I go with the señora?"
     De la Vega smiled.  Pepe reminded him of Felipe many years ago, his large brown eyes sparkling with excitement.  Accompanying Victoria each morning would give him prestige above the other stable boys, and such an important responsibility would help him mature.
     "I had in mind someone older who could help you and protect you if need be--one of the men."
     "I don't want a man; I want a boy!" Victoria declared.  "A nice boy like Pepe."
     "The decision is not up to me, but I'll speak with his father.  However, the time you close the tavern is a little late for Pepe to escort you home, and that's when I'm most concerned about your riding alone.  I'll come myself or send Felipe if I can't come.  Will that suit?"
     "Yes.  Would you like to ride with me to the tavern every morning, Pepe, and take the horses back to the hacienda?"
     "Sí, Señora!  I can protect you," he boasted with the bravado of youth.  "Ask my papá, Patrón!"

     Don Alejandro joined his small family in the dining room when Maria announced dinner.  Diego seated Victoria on the long side of the table while he and his father faced each other from opposite ends.
     "This is delightful," observed Alejandro with a smile.  "It is so pleasant to have a lady at the table again."
     "For the most part Victoria will be joining us for breakfast only," informed his son.  "Tomorrow the tavern opens again."
     Dismayed, the older man inquired, "Do you mean that you are still going to work, my dear?"
     "Yes, sir.  It is what Diego and I agreed upon before the wedding."
     He was dumbfounded a moment before glancing to his son for confirmation.  Diego nodded.
     "But this is just temporary--until you find a manager?"
     "I have no plans to look for a manager at this time."
     "Victoria," began the senior de la Vega, groping for tactful words, "you do understand that Diego and I--this estate--can support you in comfort, even some degree of luxury?  There's no need for you to work to support yourself."
     "Perhaps not, but there are other reasons to work.  I like it.  I need something to do.  And the tavern is all I have left of my family--my parents, my brothers, my childhood.  I don't want to give it up."
     "That should be obvious, Father, considering the extreme Victoria was willing to go to save the tavern."  Diego's tone was matter-of-fact.  "Would you pass the tortillas?  Victoria is going to need a horse to ride into town every day.  Which one would you suggest?"
     "Chico can drive her in the carriage."
     "No, please--I'd rather ride.  Surely you have a horse that's not too big or spirited or expensive that you can spare.  And I'd like Pepe to escort me.  He can take the horses back home afterwards."
     "Pepe?  Roberto's boy?  He's knee-high to a sparrow!"
     "But I like him," Victoria stated firmly.  "He's a willing helper, and he manages the horses well."
     "The responsibility would be good for the boy," affirmed Diego.  "If you've no objection, I'll talk with his father and Juan tonight and get the new routine set for tomorrow morning."
     "Hm!  It sounds like you've already decided.  Shall I send Chico for you in the evening?  You are planning to sleep here?"  The question was pointed.
     "Yes, though sometimes it may be more convenient to stay at the tavern if I have overnight guests.  The Wednesday stage leaves at eight o'clock in the morning."
     "I'll be escorting Victoria home every night," put in Diego, and said to his wife, "If you think you need to stay over when you have guests, I'll stay with you."
     "I guess that settles everything," said Alejandro, disappointed, "except for the matter of a suitable mount.  Cielo would do.  A gelding with a docile temper but well-trained."
     "One more thing, Don Alejandro.  Pepe tells me he doesn't go to school."
     "I offer all of the children on the estate the opportunity to attend the padre's school, but many parents don't see the need to have their children educated."
     "Pepe is one of those," she observed sadly.  "He doesn't want to go to school, and his father doesn't want him to, either."
     "Then it's out of my hands.  I leave that decision to the parents.  But you know," he observed thoughtfully, "you may be able to influence Pepe differently.  You have certainly seen the value of education to your business.  Perhaps Pepe will see it too--if you take him under your wing a little."
     "I'll try."
     "His older sister, Teresa, is a good girl.  Would you like her as your personal maid?"
     "No!" exclaimed the new bride in horror.  "I mean, I'm sure she is a good girl, but I have no desire for a maid.  I really wouldn't know what to do with one."
     His wife was ever strong-minded, opinionated, unpretentious, and kind, Diego reflected with a smile.  If he could just win her trust--  With that in mind he set off for one of the ranch's cabins after supper.  After a profitable talk with Roberto, it was agreed that Pepe would accompany the new patroness each weekday morning.  Juan was similarly informed of the change in routine, and he promised to have Cielo ready for the young mistress to ride the following day, fully approving of the patrón's choice of mounts.
     Diego returned to the house and told his wife that the riding arrangements had been made.  "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll talk to Felipe about the tavern, and then I have an errand to do.  Please don't wait up; I may be quite late."
    She replied indifferently to being left alone on the second night after her wedding, so Diego, suspecting that she was probably relieved, sought out Felipe.  The boy had no knowledge of the tavern's disarray that Victoria had described, and indicated that everything was in order when he had gotten there about eleven o'clock.  And yes, of course he had locked the front door securely!  Felipe looked indignant at the query.
     "Then it's a mystery.  Someone else broke in.  Victoria is sure that it wasn't the soldiers, and almost everyone else was at our house last night.  I wonder if she thinks it was Zorro," he frowned.
     The teen turned a bewildered face to him and pointed to his master.
     "No, I didn't tell her about Zorro.  Never mind why, but for now we'll keep the secret as we always have.  It will be a little more difficult when she's around; my father turns in fairly early, but Victoria is used to late nights.  Well, I'm going to San Pedro tonight--no, not on Toronado.  I'll go as myself and see what I can learn."
 

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