The third Sunday night after the king's deadline, the de la Vega family was eating a rare supper together since the tavern was closed on that day of the week.  A cattle discussion was in progress between Alejandro and his son when a hard knock on the front door interrupted.  Maria answered it, and a low inquiry from the visitor sat Victoria bolt upright in her chair.  As two guests were ushered into the house, she exclaimed, "Ramón!"
     The handsome raven-haired man, only a few inches taller than his sister, flashed the appealing Escalante smile at his sibling, who ran into his arms.  "We inquired in town for you since you weren't at the tavern and were informed of your change of circumstances.  So here we are, better late than never."
     "Ramón, how good to see you!" Don Alejandro greeted warmly.  "Have you been traveling all day?"
     "Most of it," he replied, shaking the older man's hand, then Don Diego's.  "But I must present you to my wife, Perdita."
     He drew forward a shy brunette dressed in a skirt and blouse much the same style as Victoria preferred.  Around her shoulders was an unflattering crocheted shawl.  Ramón married to this sweet-faced young girl?  Victoria stared in astonishment even as Alejandro exclaimed over her and kissed her hand.
     "And this is my sister Victoria," Escalante said, bringing her and his wife face to face.
     Victoria took the younger woman's fingers in a semblance of a clasp and searched frantically for an appropriate thing to say to this anxious-looking girl.  "Welcome," she finally garbled.  "Ramón, this is so sudden.  I didn't even know you were thinking of marriage."
     "Didn't you get my letter a couple of months ago?  I told you all about it and invited you for the wedding."
     "I never got it."
     "Royal postal system!" he exclaimed in disgust.  "Well, that explains why you didn't come to the wedding.  I must say I was disappointed in your lack of interest until I got your letter."
     "Why didn't you come sooner?" she demanded.
     "Your letter arrived two days before our wedding, and we left two days after!  It takes a long time to get from Mexico City to Los Angeles by any route you choose, and a wagon is certainly not the most reliable!" he responded with some asperity.
     "Why didn't you take the stage?"
     "It's expensive," he reminded his sister, "especially with the amount of baggage we have."
     "Have you eaten?" asked Alejandro, and on finding that the new arrivals had not, he ordered Maria to scrounge some supper for them.  When all five were seated at the table, Diego invited the other pair of newlyweds to stay in the guest room.
     "Your hospitality is appreciated; thank you," said Ramón.  "We'll go to the tavern tomorrow and settle in."
     "Settle in?"
     "All our worldly goods are in three trunks in the wagon."
     Victoria fell silent while Don Alejandro continued the conversation with his guest, adroitly bringing in the young Perdita.  Ramón had come to move into the tavern, and why not, for that's exactly what his sister had begged him to do in her letter.  The only snag was that now it was too late to benefit her original plan.  She had been forced to find another solution which was not working out well.  If only he had arrived three weeks ago!  Things couldn't be changed--or could they?  A new idea bubbled in her brain.  She must talk to Ramón privately!
     The possibilities of a one-on-one chat faded as the evening progressed.  Her brother, enamored by his bride and tickled with his sister's exalted change in circumstances, showed no inclination to be alone with Victoria.  The connection between the two families by marriage led Alejandro to treat his daughter-in-law's relatives with genuine friendliness and courtesy, and Diego, though somewhat quieter, made efforts to draw out Ramón's shy bride.  His senses were alert; Victoria did not seem truly glad about her brother's sudden appearance.  Did she disapprove of his marriage, or was she worried how the tavern would accommodate two more?
     Plans were made for Victoria to accompany her brother and his wife to the tavern in the morning, and on that note the guests retired for the night.  Alejandro ushered them to the guest quarters which had been dusted in preparation by Maria.
     "Are you all right?" Diego murmured to his wife when they were left alone in the salon.
     "Of course."  She smiled brightly.  "How wonderful to see Ramón again!  And with a wife!"
     "You'll have some help in the tavern now.  That must be a big relief."
     "Ye-es."  That was not exactly the direction her thoughts had been taking.  "I'm rather tired; I think I'll turn in, too."
     He waited five minutes before joining her in the ornate Spanish bedroom.  As usual she was curled up on one side facing away from the mattress's center line.  Diego changed into his nightshirt with a quiet sigh and got under the covers on the opposite side.
     "Mm?" came the sleepy response.
     "Is there anything you'd like to talk about?  Remember I said that you could talk to me about anything."
     She was still a long minute.  "No, that's not true," she said at last.  "Good night, Diego."

     Neither slept well that night, but during periods of wakefulness neither spoke.  Diego was agonizing over his wife's unhappiness and reluctance to confide in him; Victoria's head was busy spinning schemes to enlist Ramón's help in her plan.  The new day dawned, and both felt burdened with their private cares as well as fatigue.  Victoria got up though, and washed her face, brushed her ebony curls vigorously before confining them in a bun, and since Diego's eyes were still watching, she pulled on her clothes over her nightgown.
     "Are you still upset about the advice column?" he asked unexpectedly.
     "Why should I be?" she responded.  "As you pointed out, it's none of my business."
     "I was wrong.  Everything I do is your business, and you were right about the column.  It was not in good taste."  It was an apology of sorts, an effort to bridge the gap between them, but Victoria seemed unmoved.  "I didn't listen very well when you presented your views, and I do want you to feel that you can talk to me about things."
     She did not answer right away, but looked longingly toward the door as if she could not wait to leave the room.  "You need not be burdened with confidences of mine since my brother has returned.  If you'll excuse me, I'm sure Ramón is waiting."
     "I'll see you this evening," he told her sadly as the door closed behind her.
     Her brother and sister-in-law were awake and having breakfast with Don Alejandro.  She joined them, knowing that Maria would never neglect her young mistress while the patrón was at the table, and was soon served eggs and ham.
     "Ramón has been telling me about the uproar in Mexico City about the king's law for single women," said Alejandro.
     "Yes," mumbled her brother with a mouthful of eggs.  "You think it was bad here with only four women concerned!  In Mexico City there must be two hundred or more!  Every day there was more talk about it:  was the law fair?  Does the king have the right?  Shouldn't women be married anyway?  A woman can't be expected to manage money as well as a man!  And on and on."
     "Yes, I've been through all that," she responded dully.  "What did the women there do?"
     "A few gave away their property; some sold.  Most did what you did--got married."
     "I hope you're as happy as we are, Señora," said Perdita timidly.
     "That would be difficult."  Victoria summoned a kind smile.  "I can see that you and Ramón really love each other."
     "It's grand, Vic, really grand," said her brother with an adoring look at his bride.
     "Don Diego is a very nice man," complimented Perdita to her sister-in-law.
     "Yes," confirmed the young doña.  "We were friends many years before marrying."
     "I'm still astounded by the whole thing," laughed Alejandro.  "Opposites attract, so I'm told, but I don't think anyone in town guessed you and Diego would make a match of it.  Too different."  He sipped his coffee.
     It wasn't that so much, reflected Victoria to herself, as the lack of love between them.  She had loved Zorro so long and so hard.  Maybe she still did beneath the hurt.   Maybe she always would.
     "We should celebrate Ramón's homecoming and give the pueblo the chance to meet Perdita.  How about a party here this Saturday night?" de la Vega suggested.
     "No!" recoiled Victoria.  Her outburst garnered stares of surprise, but the idea of another fiesta at the house so soon after the nightmare of her wedding reception revolted every feeling.  "You've just hosted a big party here," she faltered.  "Besides, people need to meet them at the tavern, because that's where they'll be living.  I'd like to give the party there."
     Her father-in-law protested some, wishful to bear the expense instead of Victoria, but gave way under her unyielding insistence.  The date and time were agreed upon, and the Escalante family members rose from the table.
     Pepe brought Victoria's horse as usual, but she dismissed him for the day since her brother would accompany her.  The boy, crestfallen, returned to the stables with his saddled pony while Juan hitched Ramón's two work horses to the wagon.  With Perdita on the seat beside him, Ramón slapped the reins, and the horses took off at a sedate trot. Victoria rode next to the wagon on Cielo.
     "Well, Victoria, you have landed in a honey-pot!" exclaimed her brother when they were out of earshot of the big house.  "And you were so worried!  I'm glad we came, though; I'm sure Don Alejandro and Diego don't want a de la Vega's wife to be running the tavern!  Has it been closed up for three weeks, or have you had someone else opening for business?"
     "I have been running the tavern," she announced firmly.
     He shot a sideways glance at her.  "That doesn't mesh well with your new position.  Hasn't Diego minded?"
     "Diego has no choice in the matter.  We married under the terms that the tavern would be mine to do with as I please, and it pleases me to run it."
     "Aren't the de la Vegas as rich as they seem?"
     "I have no idea of their exact financial status, and it's not my place to ask."
     "All right!  Just don't get all starchy on me!  But why you want to keep working when you can live in luxury is more than I can understand!"
     Victoria clamped her lips tightly together.  This was obviously not the time to discuss her plan, and she did not want a full-fledged argument in front of Perdita.  After tethering Ramón's nags and a tour of the tavern for the benefit of her sister-in-law, Victoria suggested that they choose a bedroom to be their own quarters.
     "What about your old room, Vic?"
     "My room?" she echoed, aghast.
     "You're not using it anymore," Ramón pointed out, "and it has some of Mamá and Papá's old furniture in it.  It's a good size--not too big, not too small."
     "But we'll need a bigger bed," blushed Perdita.
     "It still has some of my personal things in it," she said slowly, unable to think of a valid reason why she should not give the room to her brother.  "I'll need a few minutes to gather them."
     "Fine.  While you do that, I'll bring up one of the trunks."  He bounded down the stairs two at a time, leaving his sister with his wife.
     "May I help you?" Perdita asked.
     "Will you fetch me a dusting rag from the shelf in the kitchen cupboard?"
     As soon as the girl left the room, Victoria pulled the second drawer all the way out from the dresser.  Hidden on the back in a thin pocket made of muslin were her momentoes of Zorro:  several notes in his own handwriting including that last painful paper, a black silk mask, a dried red rose.  No time to be sentimental--Perdita was coming up the stairs.  Victoria rolled up her cache of treasures in her spare change of clothes.
     "There now, the wardrobe and dresser are empty for you," she told the younger woman.  "We'll just swish them out with the dust cloth."  She had finished by the time Ramón hoisted the first of the trunks up the tavern's staircase.  "Why don't you start unpacking," she said to Perdita, "and I'll help Ramón."
     Perdita agreed, happily absorbed in the task of settling into her new home.  This was Victoria's chance for a private talk with her brother!  She followed him quickly down the stairs.
     "Ramón!  I must speak with you alone!"
     Compelled by her sense of urgency he allowed her to pull him into the kitchen.  "What is it?"
     "I realized last night that I can still sign over the tavern to you, and you and I and Perdita could live here!"
     "Don't you think your husband might object?" he noted dryly.
     "That's the key!  I think I could get the marriage annulled!"
     "Annulled!  Do you even know what that means?"
     "Of course," she responded, affronted.  "It's like a divorce, but it's declaring that the marriage never existed because the two people didn't consummate it."
     He rubbed his brow.  "Wait a minute.  Are you telling me that you and Diego have not consummated your marriage?"
     "That's right."
     "Why not?"
     She shrugged.  "I haven't wanted to, and I don't think he's in any hurry."
     Ramón stared, then gave his head a slight shake to dispel the fantastic notion.  "Doesn't he have any red blood in his veins?  What kind of man wouldn't want to sleep with his wife?  This is your fault, Victoria," he scolded.  "You've put him off, and heaven knows why he's tolerated your antics.  I wouldn't be surprised if he's regretting marrying you, too."
     "Then it should be easy to get an annulment."
     "Stop talking like a dunce!  You have made the catch of the territory--the only son of a nobleman, rich I'm sure, a match Mamá and Papá would have fallen on their faces to thank God for, and you want to throw it away?"  He stopped to catch his breath, and his eyes narrowed.  "He hasn't mistreated you, has he?"
     "No-o, but we don't love each other."
     "Then learn to love him and be happy.  Love is a choice, Victoria--not an emotional fling."
     Her fine eyebrows raised.  "Are you telling me that you didn't fall in love with Perdita?"
     "That's exactly what I'm saying.  We began as friends, then discovered we had more in common.  I loved her gradually over time.  It can happen that way for you with Diego if you will just try.  I always wondered why you wasted so much time waiting for Zorro when the pueblo was full of men who wanted to marry you. It amused him to flirt with you, but you should never have taken him seriously.  Men like that are loners.  They never stay in one place long enough to make a woman happy."
     She made no comment, so he added, "Your plan wouldn't work anyway.  If an annulment declared that your marriage never took place, then you were unmarried on the king's deadline.  The alcalde would have the right to confiscate the tavern."
     "He would, too," she scowled.
     "And you and I and Perdita would have nothing.  Our inheritance would vanish like smoke.  So you see, you have done the only thing you could to save the tavern.  Speaking of which, now that you no longer need a pseudo-owner, what position would you like me to fill?"
     Perdita came down the stairs and discovered them in the kitchen.  She stood by her husband's side to await Victoria's answer.
     Señora de la Vega drew a deep breath.  "Work with me every day.  Watch me do things.  Learn the customers' names and preferences.  I'll teach you how to cook the food, wash the dishes, order supplies, and balance the books.  When you think you can run the tavern by yourselves, I'll sign it over to you."
     She spent the day instructing continually on the operation of the tavern.  When customers arrived for lunch, Victoria introduced them to her brother and sister-in-law.  Some of these Ramón knew already from his boyhood and renewed his acquaintance, but the town had grown considerably in the eleven years since he had gone.  Perdita had some cooking skills of her own; she simply needed to be taught how to prepare meals in quantity.  Victoria found herself writing down recipes that she had cooked for years by feel, making shopping lists for the market, jotting down a cleaning and maintenance schedule, and designing weekly menus.
     "In the morning before I open I count the money from the last night and record it in the ledger book," Victoria explained.  "Then I subtract whatever expenses I had.  I try not to keep more than fifty pesos in the cash box at any time; the risk of robbery is too great.  Skim off the extra and put it in the bank."
     "And has the tavern been profitable?" asked Ramón.  "The place looks great."
     "Yes, the tavern has been doing very well.  After expenses last year I made a five hundred peso profit!  Everything is up-to-date," responded his sister proudly.  "Nothing needs to be replaced at the moment, though I plan to buy new bedding in the fall.  The tavern can support you both, and later your family," she smiled.  "There is even room to expand in the back."
     Diego entered by the kitchen door.  "Hola.  Have you had a good day together?"
     "Whew!  There's a lot to learn," declared Ramón.  "Vic has been a busy woman."
     "But she's a good teacher," Perdita smiled at her sister-in-law.  "Thank you for giving us this chance."
     "Since there are only a few customers left, I'll let you handle them, Ramón," Victoria said.  "Just collect from them and bolt the front and back door.  It's up to you how late you're willing to stay open.  If you get too tired, tell them you're closing.  All right, Diego, I'm ready to go.  No, wait; I forgot something."  She quickly skipped up the stairs to her former bedroom and picked up the small bundle containing her private keepsakes.
     On the way home Diego asked, "How have you decided to let your brother help out?"
     "I'm training him and Perdita to run the business.  I think in a week or so they'll be doing fine without me."
     "Will that be hard--letting someone else run the tavern?"
     "Yes," she replied sadly.  "But at least the tavern will stay in the family."
     A silence passed.  "Are you doing this because you feel pressured by me or my father?  I told you plainly to do with the tavern exactly as you like.  Nobody could run it better than you have."
     She did not respond to the compliment but said briskly, "Ramón and Perdita will do just fine when they have some experience.  And giving up the tavern seems the inevitable result of my decision to marry you."
     "I'm sorry."
     There was nothing more to say for the remainder of the ride home.  Victoria had withdrawn in low spirits, mulling over the vacuum in her life that faced her once she would release the tavern completely.  Her husband was vaguely aware of the causes of her quietness, but she had chosen not to confide further in him.  He wondered if he should press her with questions until she shared something of her feelings, and on this hope he followed her swiftly to their bedroom.
     His sudden entrance surprised her, and she gave a guilty start.  He caught her with a small note in her hand which she quickly hid behind her back.  A bundle lay open on the bed, and she hastened to cover that as well.
     "What do you have there?" he inquired, coming forward quickly.
     "N-Nothing," she stammered.  "Just old momentoes."
     "May I see?"
     "I'd rather you not!" she exclaimed in alarm as he reached for the bundle.  "They're personal!"
     His long fingers flicked aside the flap of skirt.  Diego stood there, silently perusing the contents concealed in her extra change of clothes.  Slowly he picked up the mask, confirmed what it was, and let it drop.  The notes he recognized and therefore did not touch.
     "What do you intend to do with these things?"
     Victoria had intended to hide them somewhere in the room in a place that Diego and the servants would be unlikely to find.  But now that her husband was aware of the existence of the keepsakes, saving them was out of the question.
     "I'll get rid of them, I guess," she shrugged with an assumed air of indifference.  "They're just old relics from the past."
     "I don't want you to get rid of them," responded her husband unexpectedly.  "They've been important to you, and I don't think you should expunge everything meaningful from your past.  Find a safe place for them, and keep them."
     Puzzled, she took the bundle he placed in her hands.  "If you say so."
     An impulse seized Diego, and he reached to touch her face.  "Victoria," he murmured, "is Zorro still a closed subject?"
     Her dark eyes, unable to meet his squarely since his discovery of her guilty treasures, fluttered downward as she pressed her lips together.  She was not ready to open those feelings of love and betrayal to her husband.  "Yes," she whispered.
     He drew a deep breath and released it--almost a sigh it seemed to her--and said, "I'll say good night now; I'm going to stay up a while longer."  He left quietly, leaving her to her solitude.

     Zorro took Toronado for a night gallop.  Dissatisfaction, like multiple mosquito bites, plagued him as the masked outlaw took stock of his life.  He wondered if it was time to hang up the mask and sword and let Zorro drift into legend.  His last effort at making a positive difference to the territory had ended dismally; he had never discovered the whereabouts of Pablo Silva nor the motive behind the attacks.  It left him with the eerie feeling of fencing in darkness:  no knowledge of his opponent, no idea what the fight was about.  Added to that was the total lack of anything else in the area for Zorro to correct:  no petty thefts, no new taxes from the alcalde, no injustice anywhere of any kind.  His nightly and occasional afternoon patrols turned up nothing.  No one even rewarded him with a good chase.
     And either his fencing was getting sloppy or Felipe was improving by leaps and bounds.  The teen had tagged him twice the day before--twice!--in their sabre practice.  Zorro was glad that he had been wearing a padded teaching vest at the time, or he would be explaining to his father and wife why his shoulder and chest were bandaged.  There just were no swordsmen in the area to push him to improve his own skill, so he had to make up games to challenge himself as he fought:  disarm his opponent in ten seconds, counter with a passata sotto, slice his signature with a banderol across the chest!
     He also knew that the criticism he had received for the romance column was justified, and that he was due for more.  His appeal to the sophisticated widow to take over the role of Doña Corazon had been met with a wide, sugary smile and calculating eyes.  He had not known exactly what to make of her acquiescence at the time, but after receiving her first column he suspected that she was on a crusade to liven up the paper and the pueblo with her own jaded views on male-female relationships.  He had his doubts about printing her column without changes, but in the face of the moral responsibility he carried for the paper, he would have to ask Lola to be a little more circumspect.
     Apart from the rest of these thorny problems was Victoria.  The wedded bliss he envisioned was as far from him as ever.  He was caught in a sticky web of his own spinning.  Why had he imagined that everything would be so much easier when married to the woman he loved?  Where was the serenity?  The private communion of sharing bodies and souls?  He had thought she was angry and bitter toward Zorro, but she had saved his keepsakes.  Now he was confused; did she still have some feelings for Zorro?  If that was true, she had not even taken the first step toward loving Diego.  But if she had not forgiven Zorro for the hurt he dealt her and had no feelings yet for Diego, to tell her Zorro's secret now would lose him any chance of her love.  Once, long ago, it had been enough for him that she at least loved his dark identity.  Now that thought no longer satisfied.  He wanted to know--had to know--that he was loved for himself alone.  As Diego.  Maybe if she came to love Diego, she could forgive Zorro.
     His chin hardened in a way Felipe would have recognized as his characteristic implacable determination.  If it took the rest of his life, he would win Victoria's heart.  And until he was sure that she loved who he really was, he would keep Zorro's secret.

     Pepe's face was pensive when the señora greeted him the next morning.  He suspected that the arrival of the señora's brother would severely curtail his opportunities to go to town.  With two grown-ups already at the tavern in the morning, the señora had no need for Pepe to stay.  She thanked him with her pretty smile and told him he could return to the ranch.  This he did grudgingly and passed the mission school with a wistful glance.  Through the windows another boy looked out at him curiously before returning to his slate.  Pepe urged his pony forward.  How odd to spend the best hours of a beautiful day indoors learning sums and letters!  A stableman wouldn't do such things!  But it had not escaped Pepe's attention that town boys regarded ranch boys with an air of disdain, and he suspected that it was the padre's teaching which gave the town boys an advantage.
     If only the señora's brother had not come!  Then she would continue to ride to the tavern every day and need her staunch little escort.  And if the señora did not have much for him to do--  Vague thoughts of slipping into the back of the padre's classroom for a few minutes each day flitted through his imagination.  The boy was perceptive, however.  He understood that the arrival of Señor Escalante and his wife would gradually reduce Señora de la Vega's need to travel to town.  A huge sigh from the small rider made the pony's ears twitch.

     "Hola, Señor Editor!"
     Diego looked up from his writing toward the sultry, feminine voice at the doorway to the newspaper's office.  Lola de Farral stood there, watching him from under a heavy sweep of eyelashes.  She wore a silk French gown, too low-cut in his opinion for a matron of her age, but the amused smile curving her full lips made him suddenly wary.  Victoria had expressed some hostile feelings toward the widow, which he had attributed to catty female jealousy.  Now he wondered if his wife's intuition was more perceptive than his own.
     "Señora!"  He rose to greet her with a smile.  "Do come in!  Will you have a seat?  I apologize that the office isn't better suited for a lady such as yourself.  Have you the column for this week's edition?"
     "Indeed I do.  I never disappoint," she said, lightly touching his sleeve.
     The innuendo was not lost on the caballero, but he feigned naiveté as he received the paper written in her fine copperplate.  "You certainly don't; you have brought your column on time each week."  He scanned through the three letters to which she had replied and cleared his throat.  "Er, Señora, you will need to tone down this particular reply.  It's too suggestive."
     "Suggestive of what?"  Her green eyes danced, belying the innocence of her tone.
     "Of--of marital relations.  This young girl is obviously unmarried, and to refer to such things is beyond the scope of her question."
     "But not beyond the scope of what she needs to know."
     "That may be, but until she's ready to go to the altar, she doesn't need this information.  It will give her a skewed viewpoint, which would be a sad thing.  Let her enjoy the romance of her courtship; the time will come soon enough for more complex relations."
     Lola took the paper from his hand, sensing the uncompromising mood of the editor.  "Very well.  I suppose I can rewrite it.  And you?  How are your 'more complex relations' with your cute little wife?  Are you completely satisfied?"
     A pitfall yawned before him, and he sensed Lola would be quick to seize any ground he left undefended.  "My wife is a very--warm woman."  True enough--for Victoria generated heat while she slept that often prompted him to throw back the covers--yet the widow blinked in disappointment.
     "Mm.  How fortunate for you to find a bride with such capacity."
     "I'm fortunate indeed to find a bride with beauty, intelligence, and warmth."  He smiled happily--a smile that deliberately deceived the romance column writer.  He had just descended several notches in her esteem and slowly exhaled a breath of relief, hoping that Lola de Farral would turn her acquisitive eyes elsewhere in the future.

     Victoria continued training her brother and sister-in-law throughout the day.  Ramón seemed to have some grasp of the management skills required, and at least Perdita could cook.  In time, they could manage quite well without her.  What that would mean to her life she could scarcely conceive.  It did not bear thinking on, though, with so much to do to prepare for the party.
     Perdita retired to her room--Victoria's bedroom until the day before--to lie down for siesta.  Her husband lingered downstairs to watch his sister wash the last of the dishes.
     "Get the towel and dry," she commanded.
     He obliged without comment, unable to hide a grin.
     "What?  Am I too bossy?"  Her tone was unapologetic.
     "No, not that.  It just seems funny--you here up to your elbows in soapy water after joining with one of the best families in the territory.  It doesn't fit."
     "Like it or not, that's the way things are now, thanks to King Ferdinand!"
     "You don't like the king much."
     "No reason I should."
     He shook his head in amazement.  "Yet you married into a royalist family!"
     "We've been over this ground before!  I had no choice!" she growled.
     "But the irony of it!  No need to ask where the old lion stands on independence--with the king.  But what about that husband of yours?"
     "Diego?  I--don't know.  I've never asked him."
     "Then ask.  As the editor of the newspaper, he could help our cause a lot."
     "'Our cause'?"
     "Independence, ninny!  Really, Vic, you Californios have had your heads in the sand!  In Mexico City hardly anything else is thought about!  Listen--this is more than just talk.  General de Iturbide, head of the Spanish army, has joined forces with Vincente Guerrero, the leader of the Free Mexico army.  Together they are fighting against the remainder of the king's troops!"
     She looked skeptical.  "Really?"
     "Sí.  It happened just before Perdita and I left Mexico City.  The news hasn't reached here by official channels.  We and the local freedom fighters are the only ones who know.   Most of the criollos and mestizos favor independence.  When the time is right, we'll strike in every part of New Spain, and then, Vic, freedom!"
     "You talk like a fanatic, Ramón."  She was not in the mood for political raptures.  "You strike, and the soldiers will gun you down."
     "Some will die," he agreed solemnly.  "We understand that reality.  Freedom from Spain's tyranny will not come without a price in lives.  Mamá and Papá both gave their lives to win that freedom for us," he said softly.
     "Do you think I need you to remind me?" she lashed back.  "You and Francisco ran off to play guerrillas and left me here all alone to run the tavern!  Seventeen years old!"
     "I was only sixteen myself!" he defended.  "Francisco should have taken care of both of us, but he was army-mad.  And don't think for a moment he's defected to the other side.  We have men in the king's army ready to help us at the right time.  The point is that it's the Escalante way to fight for freedom!  Papá, Mamá, Francisco, I, and now you, Victoria."
     "I've opposed the tyranny of governmental oppression here in the pueblo for years.  I've gone to jail several times.  That's all I can do.  I'm married now into another family, and I can't openly clash with Don Alejandro about political differences.  It wouldn't be right."
     "You can influence," he said persuasively.  "That's where a woman's real power lies.  Join us, Victoria, and we'll free California from the king!"
     "Pity you couldn't have freed us several months ago," she returned.  "That's when I could have appreciated the rebellion more."
     "And what happened to you was unfair, wasn't it?  How many more injustices will others like you suffer before the people rise up to overthrow the king's minions?  Will your own children still be subject to Spain?  Join us, Victoria; you're well-known and perfectly poised as a de la Vega's wife to help the cause!"
     His appeal was powerful.  Ramón had skillfully woven in the elements most likely to persuade his sister:  their parents' deaths, the 'old maid law', her family heritage, the future of her children.  Maybe some good could come from marrying Diego if she could use her new social position to promote independence.  How much her brother was involved and in what capacity she did not want to know; sometimes ignorance was a preferred state.
     "What do you want me to do?" she said, her voice controlled and low.

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