Only a few lanterns shown in the port's streets.
No ships' riggings stood out against the velvet sky; the harbor was relatively
quiet without visiting sailors.
The grimy seaport saloon was operated by Señor Gomez and his wife. His regular customers, other businessmen of the area whose livelihoods were tied to shipping, were sprinkled liberally about the dimly lit interior when Diego approached the bar.
"Buenas noches," he greeted Gomez cheerfully.
The beefy middle-aged man glanced from the customer being favored with his opinion on wines to the tall caballero. His eyes widened, and immediately he wiped his greasy fingers on his apron.
"Buenas noches, er, Señor de la Vega," Gomez replied, bobbing a bow. "It is a long time since you have been here, no?"
"Since the autumn's cattle drive," Diego replied, thinking that a few months was not long enough between visits to Gomez's tavern. He barely repressed a shudder as the barkeep spit in a glass, polished it dry, and set it in front of him.
"This one's on the house," grandly announced Gomez, pouring a fruity Madeira into the glass. "Word came this morning that you was in the padre's mousetrap. Figured a man can use a little consolation at such a time."
"Gracias," thanked the caballero, knowing that the barkeep's generosity was promising for Diego's purpose, and decided to promote good feeling even more. "In honor of my wedding, I'd like to buy a drink for everyone!" he announced to the room at large.
An excited buzz and chairs scraping the floor indicated that his offer was appreciated by the taproom's other inhabitants. Men lined up at the bar with empty mugs which Gomez filled according to his customers' requests. Diego endured with a smile and courteous words the congratulations that were offered by the men, most of whom he had only a nodding acquaintance with. After the bawdy jokes and advice receded and the other customers had returned to their own tables, Diego spilled twenty pesos on the bar.
"Gracias, Señor! Gracias!" breathed the saloon owner, raking the coins into his pocket. "I do not know why you are drinking here instead of in your own wife's tavern, but I appreciate the business!"
"Ah, my wife is not working today." Diego hurried on; Gomez's jaw dropped as he realized his successful competitor was not planning to retire. "And sometimes a man needs a drink." Diego forced himself to take a sip of the Madeira. "Who better to supply it than honest Señor Gomez!"
The barkeep blinked twice at being described as honest but concurred willingly with the sentiment.
"You are the very man who can help me now, Gomez," murmured the caballero conspiratorially across the bar. "The word is that nothing goes on in San Pedro that you don't know."
The appeal to the barkeep's pride succeeded. "That is true, Señor," he said smugly. "All the secrets in town eventually come right here to me. The things I could tell! They would make your hair stand on end!"
"And the Los Angeles soldiers come here every night for a month and find out nothing about the gang that's threatened Pablo Silva!"
Gomez spat on the floor in contempt. "Soldiers! Idiots in uniform! They even came in here asking questions. Had we seen any strangers? Had we seen Zorro? Bah!"
"Well, they won't trouble you anymore. The alcalde has ordered them back to the garrison."
The barkeep paused a moment. "Good riddance. Zorro can take care of the old man."
"Maybe. Maybe the soldiers have scared away Zorro, too. Why should he come here and risk his neck?"
"He'd better," said Gomez slowly. "With the soldiers gone, the gang will be back."
"What makes you think so?" Diego asked with interest. Would the tavern owner volunteer what he knew?
Not readily. His eyes shifted away from the caballero's. "I just know. The soldiers scared them away for a while, but they will be back."
"They're not from around here, are they? Pablo didn't know them. Have they ever been in your tavern?"
Gomez shrugged. "I get a lot of strangers in here, Señor--every time a ship docks. Sailors come in and drink up whatever I have."
"Are these men sailors?"
"I wouldn't know, Señor; I doubt they've ever been in here. I serve only honest men!"
Diego smiled. "Of course you do. Where do you think the ruffians come from?"
The barkeep waited, eyebrows raised in question. Diego slid five more pesos across the dirty counter. Gomez pocketed those in an instant and leaned across the bar to whisper.
"I think they come from the schooner."
"The little schooner that comes into port for a day or two, then slips out again at night without a sound!"
"Whose schooner is it? What flag does she fly?"
"Spain's, Señor, but more than that I can't say. The crew is small; they come in here but don't say much."
"Do they trade? Load or unload goods?"
"Not that I see."
"What do you think they want with Pablo?"
"Old enemies." He wagged his chin wisely. "That's my guess. Pablo is as close as a clam about it, though."
"How often does the schooner put in?"
"Once every week or two. I go to bed, and the harbor is empty. In the morning, wheet! There she is, like a stray kitten!"
"When was the schooner last in port?"
The barkeep scratched his unshaven chin. "She was here this morning. If she is still out there now I'll be surprised. The tide was nigh on an hour ago."
Diego had not seen any ships in port, but he had been looking for ships of the line. He might not have noticed a smaller, sleeker boat. "Perhaps I'd better check on old Pablo since the garrison isn't keeping watch anymore," he said. He took another sip of the wine so as not to offend his source of information.
"Sí, that's a good notion," Gomez agreed. "He usually comes in for a drink at the day's end, and I haven't seen him."
Leaving the tavern, Diego searched the harbor again. No, there was no mysterious schooner holding at anchor. The water was empty of all larger craft; only personal boats were tied to the pier. A short walk down the wharf brought Diego to the fisherman's hut. Silva's rowboat bobbed lightly next to a pylon; the fisherman was home from the day's work.
"Who is it?" called a feeble voice in response to Diego's knock.
"Diego de la Vega."
The caballero needed no second plea. He put his shoulder to the door and splintered the latch on the first attempt. The gray-haired angler was huddled on his crude cot, clutching his stomach. He turned a swollen, bleeding face to his visitor.
"Pablo!" In horror Diego poured water from a jug onto a towel and carefully swabbed the fisherman's face. "Who did this to you?"
Silva winced as his split lip was tended. "Same rogues as before. The soldiers weren't here tonight."
"The alcalde has abandoned the effort," Diego said grimly. "What incredible timing."
"But where was Zorro?" fretted the older man. "He promised he'd be here."
"Zorro probably just learned that the soldiers had quit their protection," Diego said in defense of his other identity but castigating himself privately for not arriving earlier. Married one day, and already he was having trouble being both Zorro and a husband! And how dearly Pablo had paid for the error! "Maybe he expected the gang to come later at night."
"They came as soon as it was dark. Busted in the back door. Beat me up and stole my nets. Can't fish without nets. No money to buy more." He coughed hard, and the pain did not ease from his face until Diego laid the cool cloth on his forehead.
"Did they come on the schooner?"
"The one in the harbor? Maybe--I don't know."
"She's not in the harbor anymore; she took the tide. What do you know about that boat?"
"Nothin'. Nobody does. I've seen the captain on the deck a couple of times, but he don't give a 'buenos dias' to nobody."
"What is their business?"
"Trade. They're tradin' sumthin'."
"Gomez says he never sees them loading or unloading cargo."
"Gomez is a fat, stupid landlubber!" The emotion drew up Pablo's legs in response to a sharp ache. Gradually the fisherman relaxed and then spoke again. "When she slips in late at night, she rides low in the water. The next mornin', she's ridin' high."
"Freebooters. Contraband of some kind."
"Sí, but I ain't a busybody. I don't bother them none; why should they hurt me?"
Why indeed? The question haunted the caballero every mile of the dark journey home.
Diego was a light sleeper, and when Victoria
crept quietly from the bed early the next morning, he startled her by murmuring
a greeting. He napped a while longer and then rode to the home of
Doctor Hernandez. The white-haired physician agreed to visit Pablo
Silva that day, and Diego paid him for Pablo's care. That only partly
relieved his guilt for failing to protect the old man. He planned
to don black that night and return to the port. He owed Pablo an
apology at least, and he had a better idea what he was searching for now.
Before entering San Pedro, Zorro would ride south along the coast for a
few miles and look for the schooner. It could be either holding a
position off shore or hiding at some small inlet along the coast.
His sojourn that evening, however, accomplished little of value in his war against the thugs who so persistently plagued Pablo. Zorro had scanned the western horizon with his spyglass, but no white sails hovered near the bay. At least it was unlikely that Pablo would be troubled again so soon after the previous day's attack.
Visiting the old fisherman was a lesson for the outlaw hero in humility. Pablo uttered no word of blame; he merely said, "They were a little too much for me alone." No apology could atone for the beating that the old man had borne, and Zorro was filled with deep remorse as he listened to Silva repeat the doctor's instructions to him.
"And so I'll have to stay in bed a few days, the doc says, until these two ribs start to heal. Don't feel much like working anyway."
"And you still have no idea what these men want?"
Pablo shook his head. "I thought they were going to kill me last night. I don't know why they didn't."
The masked man promised to return with food and resume his vigil the following night--a promise that he hoped reassured the battered man lying in agony in the crude hut. But Pablo had already learned that his protector was fallible, and therefore not wholly to be trusted. With a heavy heart, Zorro turned his stallion toward home.
The first few days of Diego and Victoria's
marriage shaped new routines for both. The doña ate breakfast
with her father-in-law while her husband slept more, then went out the
front door where Pepe was waiting on a pony and holding the reins of Cielo.
She mounted the small gelding and cantered toward town with the boy chirping
happily beside her. There was no doubt that Pepe enjoyed his change
of station; instead of being the youngest stable hand, the señora
had personally requested his escort every morning. After many admonitions
from his father about the responsibility of taking care of Master Diego's
pretty bride, the boy was convinced that he was an indispensable commodity
In a way he was right. Only with an escort would Don Diego and Don Alejandro allow her to go to the tavern each day to work. It was a tedious restriction for the independent woman, but the boy's cheerful company made it less irksome. And since his father's command included helping the señora as much as she required, Pepe could often stay until noon when the first lunch customers meandered into the cool taproom. Then he could observe townspeople and travelers with whom he would rarely or never have contact. The activity of town fascinated him: the market vendors, the soldiers riding out the garrison gates, the creaking stagecoach as it rumbled into town from San Diego or Santa Barbara. Best of all, Doña Victoria paid him directly from her profits each day. Only one thing puzzled him.
"I thought there would be more boys in town," he voiced to his patroness as he swept the kitchen floor.
"Oh, there are," she answered, plucking a chicken to roast. "But they are in school during the morning. The padre teaches them."
"How to read and write and do sums?"
"That's right. Other things too--like the history of Spain and a little Latin to the older ones."
Pepe did not comment immediately, but she noticed him deep in thought. "How much does the school cost?"
"Nothing, though usually the parents put something extra in the offering bag for the padre. He believes that all boys and girls should know how to read and write, so he teaches them without charge."
"Did you go to school?" he asked with a patent amount of skepticism.
"Indeed I did. My father and mother believed that I needed to read and do sums to help run the tavern. Of course in those days they didn't imagine I'd be running it by myself."
His young mind was mulling over the concept of education. Victoria let the conversation rest there, glad for the opportunity to plant a seed.
Diego arrived each evening, sometimes later than others, to escort her home. Three afternoons a week he was in town to work on the newspaper, and on those evenings he ate supper at the tavern. The first time he did so following their marriage he sat at a table with Señores Garcia, Tamidor, and Ramos and discomfited his bride when she approached the table and found her husband. He requested a plate of whatever she was serving for supper and a glass of lemonade just as if he were not married to the owner of the tavern--in fact, exactly like he used to do before they stood in front of the padre in church! His nonchalance baffled her and amused his companions, who asked if he now ate for free after marrying arguably the best cook in town. He always did pay for his meal after everyone was gone and the front door had been locked, and at first Victoria had refused to accept the money from him.
"This is not our home; this is your business," he emphasized. "Besides, if you don't take it, I'll put it in the cash box anyway. I know where the key is."
"How could you know--" She stopped short. Rosa knew the location of the key; possibly Zorro did also. But Diego? Victoria must have slipped sometime and opened the box when he was nearby. At any rate her husband won that confrontation, and from then on she accepted the money without comment when he held it out.
The difficulties of sharing a bedroom remained. When she arose early and eased out of bed, he always heard her and opened his eyes. He would greet her and turn away considerately to allow her to dress. Fearful lest he turn again suddenly to watch her, Victoria scrambled into her clothes hastily. At night he noticed that she circumvented the problem altogether. When they arrived home from the tavern she vanished to the back of the house while he talked to his father or Felipe. On occasion her disappearing act was a useful trait; he slipped through the fireplace panel to check on Toronado or to ride the dark hills as the Fox. But regardless how soon he followed her to their bedroom, he was never fast enough to catch her half dressed. Invariably she was tucked modestly between the sheets with her eyes closed and the lamp turned down low. On the few occasions he had attempted conversation with her she murmured something drowsily and then ignored him, leaving Diego with little choice but to dress quietly and join her in bed. She was close enough to pull into his arms and cover with kisses. Would she respond if she knew the truth about his secret life? Could she forgive him? These dismal thoughts usually accompanied him as he drifted into a restless sleep.
Diego had been married exactly six days when he met his wife one late evening at the tavern. He escorted her to the newspaper's office and unlocked the door.
"I want to show you something," he said to her, lifting a pile of papers from his desk. "These are letters addressed to 'Doña Corazon.' Would you like to answer some of them for this week's edition?"
"No," she said disconsolately. "I couldn't solve my own romantic problems; I certainly can't help anyone else."
"Victoria, your column is one of the best-loved features of the paper, and you haven't submitted anything for several weeks. Your advice is well-written and humorous. Our readers miss it."
"Get someone else to write it," she said in low tones. "I just don't want to anymore."
His bait to draw her out of her self-absorbed mood had failed, and he would have to think of something else. "As you wish," he answered heavily. "Shall we go?"
Zorro's troubles gnawed at Diego's mind during
the day, and coupled with his marital woes, formed a formidable weight
on the caballero. Victoria was not happy with her change in situation,
yet would not express her thoughts to her husband. Each day she seemed
a little more despondent when he met her at the tavern. She was working
harder than ever at making her business excellent, but the joy and pride
in her efforts were not enough to restore her sense of well being.
"Have I offended you?" he asked abruptly on the drive home one night.
"What makes you say that?" she responded.
"You haven't said a handful of words to me the last three days. I know you are still angry about the king's edict, but has some of that anger spilled over to me?"
Diego had targeted the matter with astonishing accuracy, but the truth put her emotions in a petty light. Rather than concur with his observations, she brushed off the question.
"Don't be absurd. I'm tired, that's all."
No doubt she was, judging from the obsessive scrubbing the tavern had received in the last few days, but that was not responsible for her withdrawal. "I just want to know if we are still friends," he said humbly.
She gave him a side-long glance. "'Friends' hardly describes our relationship anymore."
"Then how would you describe us?"
An apathetic shrug. "I don't know."
"I do. 'Husband and wife.' But I don't think the latter necessarily precludes the former."
Victoria did not answer, and he left matters there. Confidences could not be forced, he reminded himself. Time and patience would win her. Meanwhile he had another late vigil in San Pedro. After saying good-night to his wife, he crossed the dark library and slipped through the fireplace's secret door. He received a frown from Felipe, who was scattering fresh straw in Toronado's stall, and correctly guessed he was under the teen's censure for again leaving his wife late at night. He had neither the time nor the inclination to explain his decision; Diego changed into his black garments and rode out the cave's hidden exit with another satchel of food for the fisherman.
The moon had not yet risen, but Zorro could make out no skeletal masts in the harbor. Pablo's home was dark within when the masked man tapped quietly on the door. Only silence, ominous and empty, answered him. He pushed gently on the wooden planks, and the door creaked open.
"Pablo," called Zorro in a whisper. "Are you here?"
Though the room was too dark to distinguish details, he knew with a certainty the room was vacant except for himself. He felt for the flint and lamp on the table to aid him in his search, but his hand swept the entire surface of the table and found nothing. The outlaw groped for the cot and discovered that the blanket and pillow were missing. Pablo was gone.
Alarmed that the fisherman might have met with more violence, he stepped outside again. The sharp crack from a musket blasted a fresh hole in the door, and splinters showered his face. Zorro ducked back inside and pulled the door to the frame; the latch he had broken several nights before prevented his assailant from being locked out. Was the back door also guarded? He opened it a few inches and shook the folds of his cape outside. Another musket ball whizzed by, tearing through the black satin. Both doors were guarded! Someone had been waiting for his return, but who? The soldiers? The gang? And how many foes was he facing? Pablo's lone window was latched, shielding him from being ambushed easily, and also casting the hut into complete darkness. If both exits were guarded, he'd make another!
He groped again for the table and placed it in the center of the room. His generous height made standing on it impossible, but the outlaw crouched on the tabletop and reached up to the vigas supporting the roof. The crossbeams, laid neatly side by side and stretching from the center beam to the walls, were topped with baked clay tiles. Estimating that he would have to remove four vigas to open a hole wide enough for his body, Zorro pushed up on the first. It popped from the center beam, and all down its length the tiles clattered. Yes, the work must be done quickly, for the noise would attract his foes to his plan! Meanwhile, he would give them plenty of debris to fight!
The second viga followed the first, only more tiles shattered inside the hut than outside. Nevertheless, the beam tottered over the edge of the wall, closely followed by the third and fourth vigas. The masked man stood through the hole and sprang to the roof while below him, cries of consternation from several hunters alerted him to his enemies' location and numbers.
Another shot missed its mark as Zorro sprang to the neighboring roof. The hounds were close on him now! He curled his lips and called Toronado. Seconds later the stallion answered his master's summons and cantered lightly to the position below. Two men made the mistake of trying to capture the powerful black, but Toronado reared and threatened to trample them. A second later, the masked man jumped down into the saddle and turned the stallion. A scruffy man tried once more to pull down the rider, but was painfully greeted between the eyes by a black gloved fist. His companion was forcefully met by the sole of an ebony boot.
"Señores, if you want to catch a fox, you must make a trap without holes!" he advised, and Toronado showed their assailants his heels.
The thick adobe walls of the church all but
shut out the noise of the bustling market setting up in the plaza.
Padre Benitez vested himself in the sacristy; when people came to town
only once a week, his confessional booth remained occupied the bulk of
the day. But at dawn there was yet no one seeking absolution, so
the kindly Franciscan began the daily process of lighting the sanctuary's
multitude of candles. He bowed before the altar and the wooden crucifix
behind it and murmured another few thoughts in an on-going conversation
with the Savior. The church doors opened behind him; the first visitor
of the day had arrived for succor.
He turned to greet the slender woman whose head was properly covered by a shawl. He watched her dip her fingers into the bowl by the door and cross herself as she genuflected towards the altar where he stood.
"Doña Victoria! Welcome to the Lord's house this day!"
"Gracias, Padre," she smiled, though without her former sweetness. "I've come to light a candle." So saying, she passed through the rows of pews to the side of the sanctuary where a smaller table was set with rows of candles.
The priest heard her coin drop into the collection box and watched as she picked up a long taper. When flame had ignited the end, the señora used it to light one of the squatty candles on the table. She knelt reverently before the burning wax, head bowed over the chain of beads in her fingers. He approached her quietly and knelt beside her.
"Every day for years I have seen you light a candle. Is it still for Zorro that you pray?" His probing tone was kindly.
She shook her head decisively. "I do not pray for him any longer."
"Who then receives your intercession? I hope it is your husband."
Victoria licked her lips. She could not lie to her spiritual counselor! "No, Padre," she whispered. "I pray for myself."
"I need help more than anyone I know. I am the most miserable of creatures!"
"Indeed." Benitez's tone was matter-of-fact. He picked up the burning taper and touched it to the wick of another candle. "Then I shall pray for you. And also Don Diego and Zorro, since you will not." Two more candles caught the flame and glowed comfortingly in that corner of God's house. She watched as he brought a fourth candle in front of all the rest. That too was lit, and the priest bowed his grizzled head in prayer.
"Who is that one for?" she asked at last.
He lifted his eyes to study the flame as it melted its waxy base. "That is the most important of all. That one is for California."
The holy man had perceived a larger scope for prayer than her small problems, and she felt the gentle rebuke. Rumors of unrest had journeyed far to Los Angeles, and the very fabric of the future was uncertain. She wondered why, being a royalist as all Franciscans were, that the good padre had not lit the candle for the king, or for Spain. But no, he had lit it for California--the future of the soil on which they now lived and which would cradle their bones when they had shed their mortal clay! Here, where their life's work was! Here--the backdrop against which their lives would be enacted!
The doña slipped a second coin into the slotted box and ignited the taper from the padre's California candle. She touched the flame to the dry wick of another candle and bowed her head again.
The night's adventure had been an entertaining
escape, the kind that adrenalized Diego's blood, yet in the light of the
next morning Zorro's efforts appeared fruitless. In disguise he could
learn nothing more about the fate of Pablo Silva. Another trip to
San Pedro as himself was called for, but The Guardian's weekly issue
needed to be printed that morning, and Felipe came into town to help him
work the press. At five o'clock the pueblo knew the paper would be
for sale, and its citizens flocked to the newsstand to buy a copy.
Diego participated in the selling of the paper only for the first hour,
then he visited his bride in the tavern.
"I need to ride to San Pedro this evening," he explained. "If I'm not back by ten, Felipe knows to escort you home."
She waved him on indifferently; supper hour was approaching, and her taproom was filling up. When this business with the fisherman was resolved, Diego determined to mount a concentrated effort on winning his wife's affections. Until then, to San Pedro!
Gomez was regaling his customers with a story of the previous night's encounter with Zorro as Diego quietly entered. Unfortunately his entrance was quickly noted by the grimy barkeep, and the flow of information caught eagerly by the caballero dried abruptly.
"Señor!" Gomez bobbed a fawning bow. "Again you need a drink! What will it be? Madeira? Port? Sangria? Beer?"
"Madeira," Diego decided. One must buy a drink if one wanted the barkeep to talk. He tossed a coin on the counter. "Forgive my interruption; what was that heroic struggle you were describing just now as I came in?"
The owner filled a glass of deep amber wine and set it in front of the gentleman. "Zorro returned last night, Señor! Yes, and we almost had him, too! I myself caught him by the cape as he came out of Pablo's house! I pulled him down on the ground, and we wrestled. But he bent back my thumb and made me let go. Then he ran back inside the house. We had him fairly pinned down, but what does he do?" He waited for the caballero to guess. Diego shrugged. "He tears a hole in the roof, that's what! And then escapes! He's as slippery as--"
"Yes! Yes, that's it exactly!" Gomez growled in frustration.
"I had no idea that you were interested in capturing Zorro."
"With six thousand pesos on his head? Let me tell you, Señor, with that kind of money I wouldn't have to wait until--" He caught himself and amended, "I mean, I wouldn't have a care about the future!"
"So you and your friends tried to trap this outlaw?"
"Yes, but he got away." The barkeep sighed dolefully.
"I suppose he came to see Pablo Silva."
"I was counting on it," confided Gomez. "But Pablo isn't in town anymore."
Diego frowned, puzzled. "Then where is he?"
"That I don't know, Señor. He just gathered up his things and disappeared. He told no one where he was going. I personally think that he's hiding some money somewhere, and these rogues know about it. Maybe he cheated them out of their share!"
With half an ear, the caballero listened to the rest of Gomez's speculations. Zorro and Diego had failed to help someone in need. Try as he might, he could not dismiss the burden of the old fisherman from his conscience. But what more could he do now, not knowing where Pablo had gone? Nothing, he acknowledged, hating defeat even more when it was thrust down his throat like a foul-tasting medicine!
"What do you do," he asked his wife that night as they returned home from the tavern together, "when you try to help someone, but nothing you do is enough?"
Victoria interpreted the question as a personal criticism. "You can't help someone who doesn't want help," she stated finally.
"But this person did want help," he persisted. "I did all I knew how to do, and in the end I failed. He was overcome by his problems."
His wife caught the masculine pronoun; Diego was not referring to their marriage. "Well," she spoke with reserve, "if you have done all you can and it wasn't enough, you must let it go. No one can do more than his best."
No doubt Victoria was right, but his hope for sympathy or understanding was denied. "I guess I'm not a very good loser," he confessed--a comment that raised his wife's eyebrows. To be either a loser or a winner implied that one engaged in combat, and rarely had she seen any evidence that Diego had an aggressive spirit.
The third week in April, issues of The Guardian
sold on Friday afternoon, and the tavern owner found as usual that Diego's
work was the subject of discussion around the taproom. A faint sense
of pride colored her attitude momentarily; now that she was associated
with the de la Vegas by marriage, some of the aura of Diego's achievements
reflected on her. Reluctantly she had read the edition which sold
two days after her wedding. Her husband had written the headline
story of their marriage--a cheeky piece, she had thought, though objectively
and impassively told. Other stories had included how the remaining
women had answered their duty to the king. But this week Victoria
made no effort to read The Guardian. Not much was holding
her interest these days; what did anything matter when her dreams were
in the dust? And Zorro, whose promises had seemed as sure as the
rising sun, had vanished from her life like a phantom. The tavern
was the same, but the new life in which she found herself was oddly alien.
"Listen to this!" one of her customers guffawed to his companion. "'Dear Doña Corazon: The parents of the girl I love refuse their consent to our marriage. What should I do?' Signed, 'Desperate.' Here's the answer: 'Dear Desperate: Come now! Every man knows a way to get her parents to consent, and with great haste! Good luck!'"
His amazed compadre demanded to see the paper and read the scandalous reply himself. "How about this one? 'Doña Corazon: What's the secret to attracting a man's eye?' Doña Corazon says, 'If you have something worth seeing, let him catch a glimpse. Watch out, though--you will soon have all the men you can handle!' Ha, ha! I'd like to meet this filly!"
"Just watch for a woman showing some leg or bosom or shoulder!" The customer rotated his shoulder flirtatiously to the hoots of the men at the table.
A column from Doña Corazon? But Victoria had told her husband that she would not write! "May I see the paper a moment?" she asked the man at the table.
Her customer obliged, and the señora read for herself the requests for love advice and the shocking replies. How could Diego print such trash? Had he written it himself simply to fill the space? Or had he found a new Doña Corazon? Either way, a seed of outrage began to grow at an alarming rate. Tight-lipped, she thrust the paper back to its owner. Just wouldn't she just give Diego a piece of her mind when she saw him! A respectable caballero spreading such unwholesome thoughts around the pueblo! If such behavior sanctioned by his own newspaper was acceptable to him, she had greatly misjudged his character! Furiously she stirred the dough for more tortillas, dusting herself with cornmeal. Tonight, she snarled, there was going to be a confrontation, and she was going to enjoy it! Her pent-up fury, long suppressed under the weight of her defeat and loss, spiraled through her blood with savage vigor.
The expression of her rage, however, was delayed. In the plaza that evening as the newspaper was being offered for sale, one of the pueblo's children was knocked to the ground by a skittish horse, and Diego was the first adult on the scene.
"Get his mother," he ordered one of the gawking children. He pinched closed the gash above the unconscious boy's eye. When the mother came running up, wringing her hands, he said, "Señora, the boy needs the doctor to stitch this cut and determine if there is further injury."
"I cannot take him to the doctor, Señor!" she wailed. "I have no horse!"
"I'll take him, then," replied the caballero. "My carriage is in front of the news office. Hold the wound closed while I drive." He signaled Felipe to escort his wife home if he had not returned to town by closing time.
His good deed confined him at the home of Doctor Hernandez several hours longer than he had anticipated. The gash was stitched, but the boy was slow to recover consciousness. When to the relief of his anxious audience the boy moaned and opened his eyes, the doctor declared that in the case of a head injury, the victim needed to be observed carefully for a day or two. The mother's indecision about staying by her son was eased by the doctor's assurance that he would sit up with the boy through the night. Diego offered to take the mother back to her remaining children in town, and she accepted. The tavern was dark when he had arrived; Victoria must have closed early. After delivering his preoccupied passenger to her doorstep, he turned the horse toward home.
"Maria!" he called, entering the hacienda. The housekeeper appeared from the kitchen. "Please warm up some dinner for me. Is my wife home?"
"Sí, Master Diego. And the patrón has gone to bed."
He was not surprised that Victoria had failed to greet him; he expected to find her curled up on her side of the bed in their dimly-lit chamber with her eyes tightly shut. But he had not fully anticipated the impact the weekly edition of The Guardian would have on his wife. Halfway through his beef enchiladas she stormed into the dining room and threw the paper onto his plate. Eyebrows raised, he looked inquiringly at her.
"Well? What do you have to say for yourself?" she demanded.
Diego slowly laid his fork on the table. Her eyes shot bolts through him, and for an instant he wondered if he had overstepped the bounds of good sense. Victoria was magnificent in a rage, though. Her delicate, slender body seemed to swell with her anger; she looked taller and stronger than she actually was. Her arms were crossed over her chest--a sure sign that she had assumed her tavern-bouncer role. He had never been on the receiving end of that stern, authoritative look, and it made him mildly uncomfortable. He marshaled his defenses. Diego removed the sauce-spattered newsprint from his dinner.
"I'm delighted you had time to read the paper, my dear. I hope you enjoyed it."
"Who wrote this article?" she demanded, jabbing her finger onto the advice column. "Who is Doña Corazon?"
"What does it matter?" he returned coolly. "You didn't want to write it; I found someone willing to do it."
"I never wrote trashy stuff! These answers are suggestive! They're not proper for a good newspaper!"
"Some people may like it better than your style." A low blow aimed right at her pride.
She gave no indication that his shaft had struck a nerve. "That doesn't excuse sleazy journalism! I never resorted to such cheap antics to sell a few papers!"
"But you aren't running the paper; I am," he said mildly. "What Doña Corazon wants to write--"
"Who is she?" Victoria's voice was a high-pitched scream. His wife was practically foaming at the mouth, and as Diego watched in amazement, he realized that she had not shown so much passion about anything since the king's law had been published. He did not know whether to laugh or applaud. Wisely, he did neither.
"If you must know, I approached Lola de Farral about writing the column, and she agreed."
"Lola de Farral?" His announcement did nothing to calm her hysterical fury. She looked like she would gladly claw out his throat.
"She's a widow, living alone with too much time on her hands. And she certainly has experience in the area of romance."
Victoria could not trust herself to speak. Her husband was forcibly reminded of the time when he had capped a test tube of vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. The resultant explosion had splattered his work bench with white suds.
"Cool down, Victoria; it doesn't concern you anymore. I had a vacancy in the writing staff to fill, and I filled it."
"It does concern me, Señor Editor, when you replace me with a dirty-minded old hag! Notice I don't say 'lady,' because I doubt very much she is one!" She was shouting and did not care who overheard. "And you, my fine caballero, lowering your standards to consort with that trash! For two centavos I'd slap your face!"
He calmly reached into his sash and laid a peso on the edge of the table. She hesitated only an instant before lashing out in her white fury. Her arm was halted abruptly by a large fist closing swiftly about her forearm. Caught on one side, her left hand flew toward her husband's face. That too was imprisoned neatly before ever drawing close to its target. Diego stood up, looming over her from his full height, still holding her arms captive.
"Don't ever raise a hand against me again," he warned in a deceptively mild voice. "I will tolerate a great many things from you, but disrespect is not among them. And as entertaining as the servants no doubt find your tantrums, I am not amused."
Her anger evaporated; Victoria saw the steely glint in his eye and barely repressed a shudder. She resorted to a woman's desperate last line of defense.
"I want my own room!" she stormed.
"Very well," he agreed levelly. "We can have the adjacent quarters made into a sitting room for you."
"I don't mean a sitting room! I mean I want my own bedroom!"
He released her arms. "You may decorate the room anyway you like; I think it's important to have private space. At night, though, you will continue to share my bed."
"Other couples in grand houses have separate chambers for the master and mistress!" she protested. "Why can't we? Are you afraid of what people will say?"
"Not in the least," he replied. "I am only concerned with improving our marriage." He stroked her inflamed cheek with a long finger. "In strength of will, I'm every bit your equal."
He almost laughed at the ludicrous expression of shock on his wife's face. To keep his countenance Diego strolled from the room. Victoria's opinion of his malleability was in sad need of an overhaul, and this little encounter would help his cause. Had she but known, she had just attacked into the fastest parry in the New World--a feat many men had attempted with a meter of sharp steel but no more success. Yes, on every point he had been the winner of the confrontation. Satisfied, he took Toronado for a moonlight gallop before retiring for the night.