After laboring on the headline story and starting
over three times, Diego at last had the article print-ready for the next
morning. The editorial was more difficult; the royal edict had to
be challenged but in such a way that would not be outright treasonous.
His essay took a slightly different turn than he intended, but it would
accomplish his purpose. Using Victoria's views on the capability
of women to successfully manage their own affairs without male assistance,
Diego expounded on the unpopular theme that women should be able to pursue
any male profession for which they were so inclined. He reaffirmed
the worth of marriage and children as a desirable choice, but urged his
readers to credit women's abilities to do other things well. Some
dust will be raised over this, he reflected, putting aside his work
for the day, but perhaps that's good. Someone needed to speak
out in defense of the four ladies; the stigma of being unwed past age twenty
deepened every year. He wondered briefly how much Victoria had felt
it; perhaps not much, since she had received several offers of marriage
and was known to be Zorro's love interest.
Felipe came to town with him the following morning to set the type on the printing press--a labor of several hours before the letters could be inked and the first page printed. The back of the paper containing Diego's editorial was printed after lunch; the pair worked to set the type during siesta and stamped out the remainder of the week's news. As the town woke up from its nap, they sold copies of the paper to people in the plaza for twenty-five centavos. Those that could read bought one and congregated in the tavern to discuss the news. Newspaper day always brought Victoria an increase in business, and Diego was glad to send some her way.
He hoped Victoria would seek him out to give him her reaction, but her customers kept her occupied. The following morning he left for Santa Barbara without seeing her again.
The Guardian did add heat to the discussions
around the wooden tables of the tavern. Voices were louder, fists
pounded tables for emphasis, and Victoria and her assistant Rosa worked
the taproom together, balancing platters of food and wine bottles.
The tavern owner's nerves were frayed from the emotional strain by the
time Ignacio DeSoto entered at ten o'clock. She set a glass and bottle
down hard on his table.
"What are you trying to pull now, Alcalde, with this new law?" she accused.
He uncorked the bottle and filled his glass. "Señorita," he said in a ironic tone, "as flattering as your assumption is, I had nothing to do with the new law. It is merely my job to enforce it."
"Don't you have enough to do without harassing innocent women?"
"I certainly do. Pursuing the criminal element of the pueblo seems much more pertinent. Speaking of which, I'll be curious to see how Zorro rides to the rescue on this one."
"I don't need Zorro's help," she asserted proudly. "I have a better idea; I'll transfer the title deed to my brother Ramón's name."
"Very creative," he noted. "However, your brother will have to be here to sign the deed."
"The new owner has to be willing to assume responsibility for the property because he will be liable for the property taxes."
"I'll pay the taxes; I always have," she protested.
He shook his head. "Personally I don't care which Escalante pays the tax, but the new owner has to sign the deed himself. Property deeds aren't completed transactions until the old owner and the new owner sign." At her frustrated outcry, he added, "It's always been that way! That is the established legal procedure. Can your brother arrive here before the deadline?"
"I don't know!" she wailed, anxiety shortening her temper. "He lives in Mexico City!"
"You'd better write him tonight, then. The mail stage heads south tomorrow."
The ride to Santa Barbara was accomplished
in a few hours. Diego arrived at the presidio, tethered his mare,
and knocked on the door of the unpretentious office.
"Come in!" called a congenial voice.
De la Vega entered and greeted the man behind the desk.
"Don Diego! Welcome!" The officer stood and extended his hand. He shook the hand of his visitor heartily. "Sit, sit! Is your father with you?"
"Not this time, Colonel Estrada, but he sends his best."
"Ah, it would be good to see Alejandro. It's been what?--maybe three years since I saw him. So what brings you up this way? Cigar?"
"No, thank you. I've come to ask you about the new royal law. You have been notified, I assume."
"Yes, it's posted outside. Strange law, though. I can't help wondering why the king wants to legislate those unfortunate women. They aren't bothering anybody."
"How many women is the law affecting here?"
"Here? None. An unattached female is a rare item in our pueblo, but a single woman with property would have more suitors than a dog has fleas. How about Los Angeles?"
"Four women are being affected. Do have any reason to believe that the law is not genuine?"
The captain stared dubiously. "No. Do you?"
"No. I'm only hoping. One of the women involved is a close friend of mine."
"Marry her," grinned Estrada.
Diego, caught off-guard, smiled back. "That's not exactly the solution I had in mind."
"Why not? It's past time you were setting up your nursery, and I can tell you that a wife and children are a great blessing to a man."
"I--don't think she'd have me."
"Then persuade her! You're an eloquent man, so I hear, and I've seen a copy of your newspaper. Your words have power, Diego! You could win her. Or is she ill-favored?"
"Not at all. She's the fairest flower in California."
"See there? The poetry! Women love that!" He laughed. "All right, I won't badger you anymore. What were we talking about? Oh, yes--the law. As far as I know, it's genuine. It was delivered by two of the king's own regiment of guards, and I must say that this is a different assignment than their usual ceremonial duties."
"How long did they stay, and where were they going next?"
"They stayed the night and left for Santa Barbara the day before yesterday. Their plan was to continue until they reached San Francisco and then sail back to Spain." He consulted his pocket watch. "Time for lunch. Will you join me? My wife would enjoy seeing you again."
De la Vega readily agreed and spent a pleasant afternoon with the family of his father's long-time army friend. When they pressed him to remain overnight and return home the next morning, he accepted. Brow furrowed as he rode toward home, Diego had to admit that the new regulation was authentic; too many sources confirmed it. With the slender hope gone of proving the law a hoax, he now had to deal with the reality of the April first deadline. Zorro could not ride against the royal law; it could not be attacked at its source like so many of the alcalde's arbitrary or self-serving edicts. He felt impotent to protect the four women against the unjust statute, but what little could be done was better accomplished as Diego rather than his masked persona.
More to the point, how could he best help Victoria? Colonel Estrada's unexpected advice returned to his mind. Marry Victoria? Of course he wanted to--had wanted to marry her for years. But Zorro had told her that they could not have a future together until he was a free man. Diego blew out a heavy sigh. Several years had quietly slipped by, and Zorro was no closer to a pardon than he had been at the beginning. In fact, it was looking increasingly likely that the fight he had waged for justice would go unrecognized during his lifetime. Maybe--just maybe--he and the spirited beauty he loved were being handed the opportunity to begin that future before the first of April. If he told Victoria the truth about his secret life, she would fall into his arms and wed him in a heartbeat! Diego's mouth twisted in self-mocking humor. His little masquerade had been too clever, for Victoria believed that he was no more than what he pretended to be: a scholar, an artist, a philosopher. She admired Zorro, the man of action. The dichotomy between his heroic creation and himself was too great. If she was told the truth, would she be disappointed? The fear that chewed his insides said yes.
He could not be Zorro all the time for her; he had to live the rest of his life as himself. Perhaps if the man in black was removed from the equation, Diego would have a chance to win her love. He thought of the sweet shyness of her kisses and the softness of her skin, and desire to have her as his own overpowered every other ambition in his life. A strategy for marrying her began to form--a plan based on the desperate hope that once wed, even if Victoria was disappointed in Zorro's true identity, he could through demonstrating his own love for her gradually draw her heart to himself. The task would be far more challenging and more crucial than any the Fox had ever undertaken.
A week passed in which Diego received pointed
objections to his newspaper's editorial from several men as well as words
of appreciation, self-consciously expressed, from a few women of the pueblo.
Victoria merely noted in passing that the editorial had certainly made
for a noisy environment in the taproom the day it was published, and thought
he was wise for absenting himself. He had made a special effort to
return to the tavern shortly after arriving home from Santa Barbara to
tell her the results of his investigation. Her eyebrows had drawn
together slightly, but the lovely innkeeper only commented that she was
glad she had written her brother Ramón to come to her aid.
"Good," he had said in a hearty voice. "I hope that will work out for you." If Ramón did arrive, Diego would not be obliged to marry her. He could carry on his clandestine romance with Victoria with virtually no change. Somehow that prospect had lost its luster when paired with the thought that she could possibly be his wife within three weeks. Yet perhaps she had chosen the option she truly preferred: to wait for Zorro's freedom before wedding. He wondered whether he had the right to ask her without first telling her the truth. If he did take her into his confidence, he ran the risk of her inadvertently betraying his secret. His lady was so straightforward that he questioned her ability to dissemble. If she could not successfully hide the secret with him, both their necks were in the noose! No, if at all possible, he must try to persuade her to marry him without telling her. Afterwards, if a wife began to love the husband of her expedient marriage, who would think that peculiar?
Ramón's arrival could kill his plan at birth. If so, perhaps that was the way things were meant to be for the time being. Diego's litmus test would be the arrival of Victoria's younger brother; if Ramón failed to answer his sister's call for help, Diego planned to press his suit. First, though, the initial seed needed to be planted, and he schemed how to set up a perfectly innocuous proposal.
Three days later his opportunity came. He had suggested to his father that they have lunch at the tavern after Alejandro's banking errands had been satisfactorily completed. Sergeant Mendoza was sitting with two of his men who left as the de la Vegas approached.
"I hope we didn't offend your men, Sergeant," smiled Alejandro. "May we join you?"
Mendoza disclaimed, "Yes, yes, of course! Alonzo and Chama have been on patrol since dawn, and want a siesta. Have you eaten?"
"No," said Diego. "Victoria," he called to the tavern's mistress, "two lunches, por favor."
"Well, what has the garrison been up to lately?" asked Alejandro.
"Amigos, we have never worked so hard," the soldier confided. "We patrol and do maneuvers all day, and then lie in wait for Zorro all night. Sometimes I think I'm getting too old for this."
The senior de la Vega chuckled at the sergeant's doleful face and offered consolation. Through the tavern's door strode Ignacio DeSoto.
"Alcalde, won't you join us?" invited Diego, ignoring the puzzled frown from his father. "We have just ordered lunch."
The officer was almost as astonished as Alejandro but hid his emotions better. An invitation from the town's leading citizens was rare and could be useful. He executed a tiny bow. "I'd be delighted." After pulling up a stool, he too called for Señorita Escalante to bring a plate.
The conversation turned general over the meal, with Diego making interested inquiries into the garrison's efforts to apprehend Zorro and the alcalde skillfully altering the truth to make a plausible story. Once Mendoza made the error of questioning the interpretation that the de la Vegas were hearing only to have his comprehension severely snubbed.
"Any further news on the royal law?" asked Diego.
"Only a lot of unnecessary criticism after your paper came out," DeSoto grumbled. "I can't believe you wrote that women could be as good as a man in almost every occupation! What about the army?"
"I certainly wouldn't advocate that women serve their country in the military," explained The Guardian's editor. "Of course men can outperform women in tasks that require physical strength. But I believe that if women had the chance to develop their minds as we do that we would find them not only our equals, but in some cases our superiors. Victoria Escalante is a case in point. Can you imagine anyone else operating the tavern as excellently as she?"
"She's the best cook in the territory," vouched Mendoza, "and the tavern is always clean."
"A woman's skills--not a man's," DeSoto pointed out.
"But successfully running a business as this requires management and money skills," Alejandro defended. "She has a knack for it. Her parents barely scraped by, but Victoria has made the tavern profitable."
"Maybe not much longer," reminded the alcalde.
"Has she made a decision about what to do?" Alejandro asked the others at the table.
"I hear she has had several offers of marriage," answered the officer. "I can only hope she'll accept one of them."
"She's already turned down several of the men," contributed Sergeant Mendoza.
"You included?" sneered DeSoto.
The sergeant shrugged in acknowledgment. Don Alejandro and his son smiled.
"I don't think she wants to be eaten out of her profits," stated the officer brutally. "Besides, she can do better than a private or even a sergeant."
"Time is running out," Alejandro noted. "She'll have to make a decision soon."
"Ramón might still arrive; then she could transfer the ownership to him," Diego pointed out.
"Suppose he doesn't," countered his father. "She'd better have a back-up plan. She needs a groom standing by just in case."
Diego's eyes opened wide as if he'd had a brilliant insight. "Father, why don't you marry her?"
DeSoto gave a loud crack of derisive laughter.
"Me?" Alejandro was aghast. "I'm old enough to be her father!"
"Most older men like the idea of marrying a pretty, young woman. And you want to protect her. Why, Victoria would make any man an excellent wife!"
"That's debatable," muttered the alcalde. "Too strong-willed for my liking."
"Diego, be sensible! She's younger than you are, and you're suggesting that I make her your stepmother? If anyone ought to propose, it's you!"
This suggestion was greeted by both military men with loud guffaws. DeSoto slapped the table in delight with the jest.
"She'd take you, de la Vega, before she'd take your son!"
Alejandro sat up in affront. "And what, sir, is wrong with my son?"
"Nothing personal, of course," stated the officer smoothly, "but she prefers strong men."
Diego sat quietly, seemingly contemplating his father's suggestion. "That's a good idea, Father. Why not me? I think I'll ask her," he announced, rising from his seat.
"What?" His father's ire faded, and he grasped the younger man's arm. "Diego, you just can't propose at the drop of a hat. Marriage is serious business; you're talking about a commitment for the rest of your life."
"Don't worry, Don Alejandro," consoled the alcalde. "There's not a snowball's chance in Hades that she'll take him."
"Diego, please," begged his father. "Sit down." He released a deep breath while his son did so, then dispensed the best parental advice he could manage on short notice. "You want to help Victoria; that's a noble goal. But consider carefully the consequences of what you're suggesting. Would you and Victoria suit each other? You have very different personalities."
"That's true," agreed his son thoughtfully. "On the other hand, we've been friends for years. Many marriages are contracted with far less in their favor. The matter seems perfectly straightforward to me. Victoria needs a husband; I need a wife, so you have told me from time to time if those subtle allusions to grandchildren are to be taken seriously. Have you any objection to her as a daughter-in-law?"
Exasperated, his father cried, "Yes! No! I mean, of course I have no objection to Victoria personally! She's a wonderful woman; I just don't think she's the woman for you."
"She's in love with Zorro," Mendoza reminded helpfully.
"She'll make a cuckold of any man who marries her," said DeSoto. "How would you like Zorro crawling in your windows at night to sleep with your wife?"
With extreme difficulty, Diego swallowed his rage. Must play the game! "You mistake the lady, sir. Victoria is a woman of honor and would never do such a thing."
"Neither would Zorro," added Alejandro in a steely voice.
The officer gave an incredulous laugh. "For a moment, Diego, I thought you were going to challenge me!" Under the fixed gaze of the younger de la Vega, he grumbled, "But it would be murder for me to fight you! Very well, I take back the comment."
"Good," stated Diego, the look of warning still in his eyes. "Then I'll ask her."
"Wait, Son." His father detained him a second time. "What are you going to say to her?"
"I'll put the matter to her clearly. I'm sure she'll see the logic of the case for marriage."
Even Sergeant Mendoza found something comical in this analytical approach. DeSoto rolled his eyes in disbelief.
"Son, let me tell you something about women," prefaced his father. Diego leaned forward and gave his father his rapt attention. "Women don't always respond well to rational arguments. They're romantic creatures; they want to hear proposals in a romantic way."
"How, for instance?"
"Tell her that she's beautiful, that you'll treasure her until the day you die, and that you'll spend your life striving to make her happy."
"All of that? Do you really think that's necessary?"
"Yes," insisted his father. "And tell her that you love her."
His son sat back skeptically. "She wouldn't believe it. No, I think the best way is just to lay the facts before her and appeal to her sense of reason." He stood, took a deep breath, and walked resolutely through the kitchen curtain.
DeSoto chuckled contemptuously. "No wonder your son is still unmarried! Ten pesos says that she sends him away with a flea in his ear."
Privately de la Vega agreed with the alcalde but was honor-bound to bet on his son's success. "Done," he replied heavily.
Diego carefully closed the kitchen's colorful,
thick curtain behind him. This was one meeting, no matter how cleverly
he had manipulated the conversation in the taproom, that he did not care
to have observed. Victoria was chopping onions for the savory stew
simmering in the pot. She looked up with watery eyes when he entered.
"Yes, Diego," she sniffed. "What do you need?"
He smiled and removed a handkerchief from his jacket pocket. "To dry your tears." She allowed him to dab the moisture from her eyes. "I can't bear to see you cry."
She laughed at that. "Gracias. It's these onions, you know. They're very strong. Whew!" She finished preparing the pungent vegetables and used the knife to rake them into the bubbling meal. Afterwards water and soap removed most of the offensive odor from her hands. "May I use your handkerchief again?" When handed the article, she wiped her eyes once more and blew her nose gustily. "I'll wash this for you. Now truly, Diego, what did you want?"
"A few minutes of your time," he replied. "What are your thoughts on the king's decree?"
The tavern owner's delicate brows drew together. "I don't know what to do. I hope and pray that Ramón will get here in time! I can't sell; I'd have no place to live, no place to go."
"And you've turned down several offers of marriage."
"Huh. Offers of marriage--the offers were by men anxious to be the landlord of my property."
"Not all. I hear you also turned down Pedro Montanto and Miguel Acaba. Those men are comfortably off with nice homes, and they're from good families."
"Yes," she confirmed sadly. "But I don't love them."
"Victoria, let me talk to you seriously about your relationship with Zorro. Your feelings for him are common knowledge, and so are your hopes for marriage in that direction. But that's impossible now."
"Nothing's impossible," she countered in a low voice. "Zorro will think of something."
"Perhaps he already has thought, and has realized that there's no way he can help you this time."
"What do you mean?" she asked, alarm creeping into her tone.
"There are two basic options on how to solve this problem. One is to travel to Madrid, confront the king face-to-face, and persuade him to change a bad law. This is not a feasible option right now; there isn't time to go to Spain and back before the law takes effect. Your only choice is to comply with the law. Let's examine the possible ways to do that. You could sell, but what good would the money be if you can't buy property with it here or anywhere in the Spanish empire?"
"And I wouldn't be able to get what the tavern is worth. Everybody knows I'd have to sell."
"Exactly. So you could transfer ownership to a relative."
"Ramón. If he gets here in time. Francisco's with the army in Peru, and I have no other close relatives."
"If Ramón comes, you can have the tavern's title transferred to his name. That would also mean that he'd be the legal owner, not you. You'd only have as much control over the business as your brother would allow you to have."
"I'm sure he'd treat me fairly; we'd work out an equitable arrangement. Only," she mused, "sometimes men can be so pig-headed about a woman running a business. It's possible that Ramón could come here and think he knows more about running the tavern than his big sister!"
"Do you see the consequences there? In essence, you'd still lose the tavern."
Quietly thoughtful, she stirred the stew. "What other options do you see?"
"Only one. Marriage."
"I can't," she said tragically. "I promised Zorro that I'd wait for him."
"Zorro can't travel to Spain in time either, and he certainly can't come forward and marry you. If he wasn't arrested on the spot, you would be as a conspirator in his crimes."
"Zorro has never committed a crime!" she shouted hotly. "Never!"
"I understand that, and so do you," he soothed. "But in the eyes of the government, the same authority that backs this decree, he's an outlaw. This is not a matter of simply forcing the alcalde to rescind one of his tax laws. Zorro's hands are tied, Victoria."
"He will think of something; you'll see," she defended staunchly.
"In the event he is unable," Diego prefaced carefully, "may I suggest an alternative? You and I have been friends for many years. I think the familiarity and affection between us would be a good start for marriage."
Incredulous, she stammered, "Are--are asking me to marry you?"
"Yes." He took her unresisting hand. "Will you do me the very great honor of accepting my hand in marriage? I promise you'll never want for anything. It will be my utmost pleasure to make you happy."
"Uh, I, um, I--" Victoria felt unaccustomed tears perilously close, and she could not explain why. She swallowed them tremulously and moved forward to embrace him. His long arms enfolded her, and her face rested against the lapel of his blue jacket. "Dear Diego! You are a true friend. Such a sacrifice!"
"No sacrifice at all," he reassured. "And of course you could keep the tavern as your own property--do with it whatever you wish. I wouldn't interfere."
He was waiting for an answer, and she did not know what to tell him. Certainly the offer had better aspects than previous proposals she had refused.
"I can't give you an answer now; please understand. I have to wait and see."
"Of course. Just consider this an open option for you as you make your decision." He released her and smiled. A small smile echoed back. Diego paid for his lunch and his father's and left the kitchen, leaving Victoria less troubled than she had been before.
In the taproom, Alejandro and the two military men were awaiting Diego's return. The hacendado had endured DeSoto's pithy comments on the young don's ability to win any woman, much less the beauty of the pueblo who refused suitors more regularly than the most protective of fathers. Alejandro privately wondered what could have come over his son that he should suddenly be inspired to propose, and to the lovely woman whom he treated with casual brotherly kindness! He himself was not a supporter of the tradition of arranged marriages, having been fortunate enough to win the heart of his beloved Elena. He believed that love was essential to a happy marriage; the unions lacking it settled after a while into a good-natured tolerance, or worse, contempt.
"Well? What did she say?" demanded the alcalde with a smirk.
Diego replied, "She said she'd think about it."
"Ha! She threw you out!"
"No," responded his adversary mildly. "I believe she'll consider it."
"Son," said his father, "you're not serious? Victoria didn't say no?"
"But she didn't say yes, either," DeSoto pointed out. "You don't win the bet."
"You bet on Victoria's answer?" asked Diego, stunned. "Father! How could you?"
"The family honor was at stake," protested the older man.
"And it's still at stake," announced the alcalde. "A hundred pesos says she'll choose any other option rather than marry Diego!"
"Son, what do you think your chances are?"
"I'm not a betting man; don't ask me. I've paid our shot; we can go."
Alejandro understood the cue to leave. He declined DeSoto's further bet, which fit into Diego's plan perfectly.
Having successfully navigated the initial hazard
to his scheme, Diego took Felipe into his confidence. The tall scholar's
companion since he had found the orphan boy, Felipe was believed to be
deaf as well as mute by everyone except the young caballero. It was
an added advantage for Zorro to have an extra pair of eyes and ears assisting
him. He found the teenager grooming the black stallion in the confines
of the secret cave.
"Felipe," he greeted, "thank you; that looks fine."
The mute boy gestured a comment which Diego understood to mean that Toronado appreciated the grooming also.
"Yes," the older man smiled. "But our situation here may change soon. Remember the royal law about women owning property? I've been thinking about Victoria's situation; if her brother doesn't arrive in time, I'm going to persuade her to marry me."
Felipe looked doubtful; he knew that Señorita Escalante loved his mentor's heroic personality, but occasionally treated Diego with a lack of respect.
"There are difficulties ahead," agreed de la Vega, "but I have a plan. Step one has been accomplished today; I proposed."
The boy was astounded; he also was not sure he liked the direction of Diego's thoughts. He enjoyed the privileged position of being the only one in Zorro's confidence. A woman in the house would change the special bond between the two of them; Diego would not have as much time to ride as Zorro, would not have as much time to spend with his servant boy. A third person would be admitted to their secret, and Felipe did not like the thought of a woman down in the cave at all--not even the sweet señorita upon whom Diego's heart was fixed. Some of his disapproval showed as he framed his next query, but the caballero ignored it.
"Why did I propose? It seemed a timely solution to two problems: one, how to help Victoria keep the tavern, and two, how she and I can have a future together."
Felipe was not satisfied. He gestured another question, this time concerning Zorro.
His mentor responded heavily, "I have realized that Zorro is extremely unlikely to win a pardon, and I promised Victoria years ago that we'd have a future together. Time has slipped away so fast; I hardly know where it's gone. But lately I've been tired of this game we've played. I want Victoria beside me, and I don't see any other way than to marry her as myself."
Felipe indicated some skepticism.
"I know that the odds are against her accepting me, but I can even those odds. It won't be pretty, though."
Felipe's final question pointed at Diego, then sketched a Z in the air.
"Yes, I'll tell her the truth about Zorro, but not until after the wedding. If she looks too happy about the prospect of marrying me, people could put two and two together. Much better to have the town think that she accepted me as a last resort."
He did not confide to the teen his fears that Victoria might not want him at all if she knew that Zorro was only himself. Pushing those frightening thoughts down deep within, he focused instead on the task still before him.