"Don't move, Señor, or I'll give you
an extra mouth!" The voice was a younger man's. "What do you
want with Jesu?"
"I just want to talk with him," Diego explained calmly. "He knows me from Los Angeles."
"You've been snooping all over town asking questions. You're a spy for the king!"
The accusation was dangerous. The caballero was disinclined to continue the discussion on the wrong side of the knife. His right hand shot up to push away from his throat the arm holding the knife; the grip on his left arm loosened slightly. Diego rolled his wrist and broke free; a sharp jab back with his elbow contacted the attacker's rib cage. The man let out a "whoof!" In the moment he was incapacitated, de la Vega wrenched the hand with the knife hard over. The attacker came with it, and off balance, sat down hard. He was not ready to acknowledge defeat; he lunged at Diego's legs and caught one. Another turn on his wrist brought an oath and an exclamation of pain, and the knife dropped into the hay. Diego fell off balance, but with the knife no longer a threat, was not worried about his landing. His hip hit the ground, and he used his momentum to pull his attacker over on his face. The caballero's size carried a corresponding amount of muscular weight; when that weight was focused on a knee in the middle of the attacker's back, the fight ceased abruptly.
"Now," he panted, "where's Jesu?"
The ostler, who had during the scuffle remained wary, seized the knife and advanced toward the caballero.
"Don't bother," Diego warned him. "There's no need. I'm not an enemy, and I don't work for the government. I would like to speak with Jesu, that's all. I have no interest in getting you or anyone else in trouble with the law."
The stableman looked uncertain; at last the point of the knife was withdrawn from the caballero's direction and tucked into the peon's sash. Diego eased off his opponent and allowed the man, gasping for breath, to rise.
"No hard feelings, I hope. I have a dislike for being threatened with a knife."
The attacker, also wearing humble clothes, gave him a suspicious glance but was unwilling to start another round. "You are pretty good in a fight, Señor. If I had a sword it would be a different story."
De la Vega swallowed a smile and responded gravely, "I'm sure you're right. Will you take me to Jesu?"
"How do we know you are telling the truth, Señor?" Ben Rodriguez.
"I guess you don't, unless you wish to ask him first if he knows me. If he is willing to see me, you can contact me at the hacienda of Don José San Martín."
"And you just want to talk? About what?"
"Our paths have crossed again in a rather surprising way. I've discovered he is doing business in Los Angeles with my brother-in-law."
"Why would this interest Jesu?"
Diego dusted off his hands. "Being a relative, I'm involved now."
"Everyone is involved now, whether or not they know it. No one can sit idly by while great forces are at work!" the younger man exclaimed.
"Then by your own admission, I have a stake in the outcome. That's why I want to talk with Jesu."
The stableman exchanged a glance with the peon who had attacked the caballero. "We will pass on your message. If Jesu wants to see you, you will be contacted. If not," Ben shrugged, "it would be better for you not to come here again, Señor."
De la Vega gave a nod; he was being dismissed. The thought had already crossed his mind that either man would not be difficult to follow to Jesu's hiding place. He turned to leave the stables.
"And don't try to follow us," warned the younger man, as if anticipating Diego's thoughts. "I usually carry a pistol."
Over dinner his host asked more specifically
about the business that had brought the young caballero so far south.
"If the story is about the government, why would Los Angelenos be
interested in San Diego politics?"
De la Vega sensed rather than saw his wife's interest in his answer. "If I've led you to believe that I'm doing a story on the government, I apologize. I'm investigating the disturbing undercurrents of the independence movement which have filtered through our pueblo at every level. My concern is not as patriotic as it is personal. I want to find out what is planned, so my family can prepare for the future."
Don José studied him hard for a moment, then dropped his gaze to his plate, evidently ill-at-ease. "There is tension here, too. The colonel is a strong royalist and thinks that all Californios should share his passion for Spain."
"And does the rest of your pueblo share it?"
San Martín blinked several times and did not meet his guest's eyes. "There are many people loyal to Spain here, but few with the zeal of Colonel Fuergun. He doesn't understand that most of us would just rather be left alone to take care of our own homes and families. This estate is a large enough scope for one man without having a surfeit of politics brought into the mix."
"Do you know a man named Jesu Rodriguez?"
"I know of him; I have no dealings with him. He is the nephew of the ostler who works in the pueblo's livery stables." Don José weighed his next words carefully. "Young Rodriguez is--not a safe acquaintance."
"We both already know Jesu," informed Victoria. "He came to Los Angeles a few months ago."
"I would not mention to anyone that you are acquainted with him. Frankly, it could be dangerous for you."
"I appreciate your warning," responded Diego soberly. "Are there others, friends of yours, who would share their views privately on the independence movement?"
"Tomorrow night we are having a dinner party. You will be able to meet the leading men of the pueblo then, and whatever you are able to glean from them is yours to keep. We are not such a dull household that we cannot honor you with a little entertainment while you are here!"
San Martín smiled graciously at Victoria, and she responded prettily to the function planned for their visit. Doña Catalina chirped about the details of the party and her friends to whom she could introduce Victoria. Diego noticed his wife looked genuinely happy about the prospect of the planned entertainment. No one in San Diego knew her or the remnants of an unsavory reputation which lingered in Los Angeles. Victoria was free to relax and be herself; she evidently liked her hostess and had gotten to know her better during his afternoon absence.
Miguel padded softly into the room. "Señor," he addressed Diego, "there's a visitor at the door for you."
De la Vega wiped his mouth and laid his napkin on the table. "Will you excuse me, please?" He followed the servant to the front door. In the shadows of the evening stood a man dressed in the clothes of a vaquero, holding his hat in his hands.
"Are you Diego de la Vega?"
"Yes." His visitor glanced at the San Martín servant who stood nearby, curious. "Gracias, Miguel," Diego said as a dismissal. He waited until the butler withdrew, and he stepped outside. "Do you have a message for me?"
"Sí, Señor. Jesu Rodriguez sent me. He would like to see you. Can you come now?"
"One moment while I excuse myself from Don José, and then I'm at your service."
The caballero returned to the dining room as the meal was concluding and offered his apologies to the San Martíns and Victoria. "I have a lead on my investigation, and it appears I must follow it up immediately or lose the opportunity."
"Is it--?" Victoria let the question hang in the air.
"I believe so. I should be back before too late." He smiled reassuringly and patted her shoulder in farewell. After executing a polished bow to his hostess with renewed regrets concerning his abrupt departure from the table, he joined the messenger outdoors.
"No one else is to come except you," cautioned the man. "If we are followed, I am to escort you back here, and you will not see Jesu."
"I understand. I merely said good-bye to my wife and host. I didn't mention Jesu or where I was going."
The messenger seemed satisfied, and led Diego to a pair of saddled horses. "One is for you. Follow me."
He mounted with the ease of a man who spent most of his time on horseback and led the way from the hacienda in a smooth canter. De la Vega, on a bay gelding, rode behind. They traveled several miles across country, skirting the pueblo through small hills and valleys, around trees, and over creeks. At last the vaquero pulled up and cupping his mouth with his hands, gave the cry of a spotted owl. In the darkness another hoot answered. Satisfied, the rider urged his mare forward at a walk. Diego ducked under the same willow branches that brushed the shoulders of his guide, and presently they arrived at a camp by the rocky bed of a stream. A fire was burning low. Several men had gathered there; all held rifles in their crossed arms and stood as the two horsemen approached.
"Señor de la Vega!" exclaimed one, lowering his weapon and coming forward to greet the stranger to the campfire.
Diego dismounted and shook the hand of Jesu Rodriguez. The rebel leader was not as tall as his guest, but his dark good looks were vibrant with a suppressed energy.
"I have heard from half the town that you want to see me, and something about a relative that I didn't understand. But it is good to see you! Our departure from Los Angeles didn't allow me to express my appreciation for your help to Joaquin. Come, sit by the fire. Coffee?"
"Gracias." He accepted the tin tankard filled for him by Rodriguez. "Are you no longer in the circus business?"
"Ah, no. That cover fell through in Los Angeles when your garrison discovered Joaquin among us. So now we hide in the woods. Not ideal, but more freedom to come and go than Colonel Fuergun's jail."
"So the colonel has identified you as a rebel?"
"He suspects me," Jesu corrected. "He would jail me on the suspicion, but he can't prove anything. That's why you don't see my handsome face on the aviso wall."
"Is Joaquin here as well?"
Rodriguez gave Diego a shrewd look. "If you're asking the whereabouts of Safíra, she's not here. Joaquin was eaten up with jealousy after hearing his wife confess that she still loved you. As soon as he had recovered sufficiently from that gunshot wound, he returned to Mexico City with Safíra and left me here to run the Alta California operation."
"That may explain how my brother-in-law got recruited," mused the caballero. "Joaquin must have found him."
"Who is your brother-in-law? I didn't think you were married."
"I married a few weeks ago. Do you remember the young lady who came to my house to warn you that the soldiers were coming? Then she led your company to safety."
"Yes! The tavern lady! What was her name? Victoria! You married her? You're a lucky man!"
"Thank you. She is Ramón Escalante's sister, hence my interest in your business."
"Ah, I see. How did you find out about Escalante's involvement? It was supposed to be something of an undercover assignment."
"My companion, Felipe, was in the harbor the day Ramón picked up the rifle shipment, and the lid of one crate was opened accidentally. It was not difficult to guess what my energetic brother-in-law was up to, especially given his family's leanings toward independence."
Jesu's eyes sharpened their focus. "Ah, now we come to the heart of the matter. Where exactly do you stand, Diego? Are you for us or against us?" The men holding the rifles took an ominous step closer to hear the guest's reply.
"I don't know," answered the tall man honestly. "I want what is best for California and my family. If I were sure either side could provide that, I would join it whole-heartedly."
"You would fight for the king? Even after helping us escape from the soldiers?"
"Possibly. As for helping you and Joaquin, I know you want to make things better for the peons and working class; that's a cause I respect."
"Yet you don't actively join us."
A smile tried to curve Diego's mouth. "Oh, I fight injustice in my own way."
"The newspaper," Rodriguez scoffed. "What good are words when so many can't even read? There are times when men must take up arms and fight!"
"I agree. Yet I don't see how the thing can be done without innocent people dying. Civilians are always caught in the crossfire when two armies meet, and I won't have the death of anyone on my conscience."
The rebel leader's face hardened. "But you're quite willing to let thousands suffer every day of their lives. Your wealth has made you soft, caballero. I think life is very comfortable for you. You can be sure that we will remember those who don't help us; your large ranch could be distributed to others when we have our freedom."
"You won't do that," stated de la Vega, grim. "You know as well as I that the revolution doesn't have a chance of succeeding unless the criollos and hacendados are with you. One breath of redistributing their property, and you'll lose their support."
Jesu's eyes met the challenge in the caballero's, then shifted away. "Is that what you wanted to tell me?"
"No. I'm most interested in finding out your plans for California. When and where do you plan to strike?"
Rodriguez laughed incredulously, and several of his men chuckled. "You tell me plainly that you won't join us, and then you ask me our plans? Shall I write them down for you? Sign my name so you have proof of my involvement to give Colonel Fuergun?"
"I wouldn't ask you for proof of treason," said the caballero with a half-smile. "I may not be able to actively help you, but I'll tell you frankly that I think the independence movement will succeed."
"Why?" asked the rebel, suspicious yet eager for encouragement.
"Because the time is ripe; the colonies are dissatisfied with Spain's heavy-handed and often self-centered management. Surely your sources tell you that the king can't even rule his own household! A friend of mine, a captain assigned to Cádiz, says that the Spanish army has been in open revolt for several months, and the king is unable to regain control. You have nothing to fear from the peninsular army."
"Yes, I have heard this," mused Rodriguez, "but it is good to hear it from another source. Our concern is the standing colonial army. If New Spain revolts, will the armies in Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru come north to challenge us?"
"I think not. The unrest in those colonies is too great at the present time; their armies don't dare risk leaving. Once you have successfully overthrown the Spanish government, you will not be challenged. The other colonies will follow your example."
Pleased by his guest's assessment, Jesu softened his belligerent attitude. "And this does not encourage you to join us?"
"I wish you all success if your goal is to improve justice for everyone. Let the law be applied equally to all men and women, whether rich or poor, and then I shall say the change of governments is a change for the better. Too often the wealthy or titled or military use their position to abuse those less fortunate."
"You surprise me, Señor. These are not the sentiments I expected from a caballero."
"I can feel for the oppressed just as much as you do. Caring is not confined to peons."
"Yet you do nothing to help them throw off the yoke of tyranny."
"I do what I can, not what I can't. And I can't in good conscience actively take part in a rebellion in which I may be required to kill someone. No," Diego said, cutting off the rebel's reply. "No more rhetoric, please. Just tell me when. It's soon, isn't it?"
Jesu Rodriguez measured him. "It's soon."
"Within the next month?"
"No more, Señor. I don't owe you that much for Joaquin's safety."
"Then I shall make a guess. Your job is to secure the presidio here, and Ramón is to take the cuartel at Los Angeles. You have groups of men in every town up the coast, and on the same day you will all attack."
The rebel leader's face betrayed that de la Vega's guess was shrewdly close to the truth, but he only said, "Ask your brother-in-law the rest of your questions."
He ordered the caballero's escort to bring forward the horses again. The interview was over, and Jesu shook hands solemnly with Diego. The young don mounted and lifted a hand in farewell, and was relieved that Rodriguez returned the friendly salute. That Correna's lieutenant might consider disposing of anyone whom he considered a threat was a very real possibility. But de la Vega judged that Jesu did not have the same ruthless fanaticism that characterized Joaquin, and so felt only mildly uncomfortable having failed to reach an accord with the object of his journey. A short ride from the rebel base, Diego disconcerted his escort by requesting that they take the direct route back to the San Martín hacienda rather than the convoluted path they had taken to the camp in the effort to disguise its location.
"I have been absent long enough from my host and my wife, and I would like to return as quickly as possible," he explained. "So if we cut across this meadow, the hacienda should be just on the other side of that ridge."
The caballero was firmly determined to go the direction he pointed out in the moonlight, and the vaquero had no choice but to follow; the tall gentleman was riding one of Rodriguez's few horses. They arrived back at the San Martín home shortly before eleven o'clock. The escort took the reins of Diego's mount and cantered away easily, leaving de la Vega on the doorstep.
Don José and Doña Catalina were pleased that his mysterious meeting had not lasted the entire evening, and suggested a round of canasta between the two couples. Victoria gave him a quizzical look from the opposite side of the card table; her curiosity concerning his meeting with Rodriguez would have to be postponed until she could talk with her husband alone. The cards were dealt, and the newlyweds soon discovered that the San Martíns were avid and experienced players. Cards generally did not hold the interest of de la Vega, who preferred the pure intellectual stimulation of chess to games where luck was involved as heavily as skill. It was evident, though, that his bride felt otherwise. Victoria focused on the cards intently and began collecting melds for their team. It would not do for her to find him lacking as a partner in any field of endeavor, so the young caballero began to play with more determination. The San Martíns barely beat their guests in the two games they played.
"You play well together for a young couple," complimented Doña Catalina as the cards were gathered up. "It took several years for José and me to become good partners for each other."
"Gracias," replied Diego. "This is the first time we have played cards on the same team."
"I would not have guessed," commented the hacendado. "You were both wise not to criticize each other's mistakes in public. Nothing can start a quarrel faster, and an offended wife is certainly not in the mood for--romance."
"José!" his wife rebuked with a smile. "I'm sure Don Diego knows what you mean."
De la Vega's quick glance at his wife noted her downcast eyes and fluttering lashes. Victoria had understood the comment, too, and the allusion to intimate relations had embarrassed her.
"I cannot find fault with Victoria's play; I merely tried to keep from disappointing her," he responded graciously and earned a pleased look from his lady.
The couples agreed that the hour was late and decided to retire. Alone in their bedchamber, the young doña asked her husband, "What happened tonight? Did you see Jesu?"
"You have been dying to ask me, haven't you?" grinned Diego as he pulled off his tie. "I'm surprised you could concentrate so well on the cards."
"Don't try to change the subject. Jesu!"
"Yes, my dear, the messenger came from Jesu. After a long ride back and forth across the hills we came to his camp. The men there were armed--"
"I told you they could be dangerous!"
"Yes, but I doubt that Jesu would have me harmed; he doesn't see me as enough of a threat."
"What did you talk about?"
"He tried his best to recruit me for the rebellion. I said no," he stated flatly while meeting his wife's eyes. "He wasn't pleased, but I think he understands my position now. At any rate, he allowed me to leave his camp with a whole skin."
"Oh, Diego!" she groaned. "And you went there without even a pistol!"
He chuckled, "A pistol wouldn't have been much use against nine men with rifles. Going unarmed was a show of good faith."
"Well, what else happened?" She turned away and poured water in the basin as her husband reached for his sash.
"I asked him when the rebellion planned its assault. He would only tell me that it's coming soon. Ramón will be in the thick of things in Los Angeles when that time comes; you know that, don't you?"
"Of course," she said, splashing cold water on her face. "But that's his choice. He's a grown man now, and certainly has his share of Escalante stubbornness." She heard Diego pull back the bedcovers. He was dressed for bed, and it was safe to turn around. She dried her face. "So your investigation is done?"
"Not by a long shot. Jesu won't tell me anything else, but I have a couple of other leads. For instance, I'll use the dinner party tomorrow night to find out what I can."
"Colonel Fuergun is supposed to come. From what I've heard, he's more fanatical about Spain than Ignacio DeSoto." She shivered.
"Afraid, my dear? We have faced bad circumstances before."
She sat down on the bed. "The last time I faced really bad circumstances, I lost my family. I have a new family now, and I don't want to lose any of you."
Encouraged by her admission, he clasped her hand. "I'm here to see that you don't. Trust me; I will keep us safe."
Victoria's eyes danced with sudden amusement. "And who will take care of you, my fine caballero?"
The following evening the San Martíns
opened their home to the prominent citizens of the pueblo. Señora
de la Vega had vetoed Diego's request to wear one of her new gowns, declaring
that she would not be seen in public wearing a dress which everyone knew
came from the general store. He shrugged good-naturedly as she pressed
the wrinkles from a lavender church dress. The dress was simple;
the only thing to recommend it was a décolleté neckline which
emphasized her flawless throat and her firm, high bust.
"You do not need any additional adornment," he murmured, coming up behind her as she checked her reflection critically in the mirror, "but there will be many fine feathers here tonight. I want you to feel the equal of every other woman." He fastened a necklace behind her. An amethyst the size of a pigeon's egg rested its cool weight on her chest. "This belonged to my mother. It's yours now, as is all her jewelry. Here--see if this will fit your finger." A matching ring with its large stone set in filigreed gold was slid over her knuckle.
"Gracias," she breathed and touched the amethyst at her throat. She studied herself in the glass once more. "Do I look like a wealthy woman now? I don't really know how to be rich."
He brushed her cheek with an affectionate finger. "And you won't let me spoil you, either. Shall we?" He offered his arm to escort her downstairs.
The event was held on a more lavish and glittering scale than any private party in Los Angeles within recent memory, including the de la Vega wedding. Don José had hired not only guitarists, but a small orchestra to play during the meal, and the culinary creations offered as the formal dinner progressed were unlike anything Victoria had ever tasted. Seated across the table her husband caught her eye and winked. He was enjoying his wife's amazement with the luxuries that were unfolding.
Victoria was glad Diego had provided the jewels to wear; even with them she was among the more plainly-attired ladies present. A surreptitious glance from under her lashes noted the silks, brocades, jewelry, mantillas, and--heavens!--cosmetics that the other doñas displayed so casually. And not even the de la Vegas set a table like this! Fine porcelain plates, heavy silver flatware, ornate candelabra ablaze with wax tapers all proclaimed the elegance of the San Martín home. As the guest of honor she was seated between her host and a don from the neighboring rancho. The man beside her engaged her in polite conversation, and she managed to keep the talk centered on him rather than field questions about herself.
After dinner Doña Catalina gathered the ladies to the drawing room and left the men to enjoy their after-dinner wines and cigars. With eight other women present, a comfortable gossip circle quickly formed between the hostess and her friends. Victoria sat quietly for the most part; the other women had known each other for years and were not restrained in their conversation by the presence of a stranger. A doña named Ana Maria confided to the gathering that she was expecting her fourth child, and as the other ladies exclaimed, Catalina asked her young guest if she had any similar news.
"No," Señora de la Vega confessed. "Soon, I hope."
"Of course, my dear." The hostess patted her hand. "For some women it takes several months. There's no need to worry."
"As long as you're having relations three or four times a week," added another woman whose name Victoria had forgotten, "which is what husbands want anyway. I had no trouble conceiving my five. Four sons, too!"
The doña from Los Angeles suddenly felt several questions on the tip of her tongue and bit them back firmly. Her curiosity about this unknown area of marriage was growing, but she was ashamed to betray that she and her husband had not been intimate. Even as comforting as Doña Catalina's motherly presence was, Victoria still hesitated to confide in the chatty woman. Instead she listened to the conversation, determined to learn all she could about marriage to a wealthy don.
When the topic was exhausted, the young doña inserted a question formed by her curiosity. "Is it true that the colonel here arrests people for talking about the independence movement?"
A stunned silence answered her. Finally another señora spoke cautiously.
"He is very zealous for the Crown."
"Shh," warned an older lady, Doña Paola. "It isn't proper for us to discuss such things."
"Why not?" wondered Victoria aloud. "Surely a revolution brewing in the territory concerns us all. You have homes and husbands and children to think about."
"And that is exactly why no more should be said," stated Ana Maria.
Doña Catalina looked uncomfortable. "Please take no offense at Señora de la Vega's remarks. She is a visitor here, remember, and doesn't quite understand how things are in San Diego. Perhaps in Los Angeles they speak more freely about such things."
"I beg your pardon," the young doña murmured to the circle of women. She had embarrassed her hostess with such forthright remarks and had forced her to intercede on her guest's behalf. But Catalina was incorrect. Los Angelenos had little freedom to discuss the relevant issue, either. It was only with Ramón and Diego that Victoria could share thoughts about such an explosive topic fearlessly.
Meanwhile, Diego was engaging in conversation the commandant of the presidio. Colonel Fuergun was six feet tall, lean and fit, and had a black goatee to match his wavy hair.
"De la Vega? I have heard of your family. Your father was a colonel in His Majesty's army. Highly decorated for distinguished service, too."
"That is correct, sir."
"A staunch royalist, then. Excellent! There are so few left in Alta California. People have forgotten what they owe to the mother country."
"Perhaps," interrupted Don José mildly, "it's because they feel that the mother country has forgotten them."
The officer shot a hard look at his host and said in a tightly-controlled voice, "A selfish viewpoint, I would say. Spain has had a great many troubles lately: enemies at home and abroad. She needs her colonies to be more understanding and helpful."
"No doubt it is hard for us to understand," inserted a Don Arturo. "Our lives on the frontier are quite different from the Old World. When Spain doesn't send the supplies she promised, we make do or do without."
"Which is a frequent occurrence," observed another gentleman.
"Spain's ships are fewer, and her coffers are low. You know that much. She has not abandoned her colonies, and she can't afford to have you abandoning her!" asserted the colonel.
"No doubt she can't," scoffed a barrel-chested middle-aged don. "Her industry has failed, and without New World raw materials she has nothing to trade! It seems to me that Spain is like a leech, never satisfied, always taking!"
Fuergun took a belligerent step forward. "I have arrested men on charges of treason for far less, Señor Aranzo!"
"Please, Colonel," begged San Martín, "I'm sure Don Emilio didn't mean that he is disloyal to Spain."
"Men are not blind, irrational creatures," Diego stated calmly. "Naturally Californios are going to notice if Spain doesn't keep her bargains with us, and we feel slighted. Being on the frontier has made us a bit more self-sufficient than other colonies, and that leads to the follow-on thought."
"And what exactly is that, Señor?" The commandant jutted out his chin.
He chuckled easily to take offense from his words. "Why, that we could be entirely self-sufficient. Men look at the resources of California, most of which we haven't begun to tap, and they realize that all by itself California would make a prosperous country!"
Several low gasps sounded at his temerity; the colonel's eyes started from his head. "De la Vega--" he ground out, but was interrupted.
"I didn't state that such views are my own, merely that they are logical from our circumstances. I don't know how long you have been in San Diego, sir, but apparently not long enough to get to know your people's point of view and represent them and their complaints accurately to the king. I myself would be delighted to continue as a Spanish subject, but I would also like to see some improvements." Murmurs of agreement came from the men gathered in that circle. "As our liaisons to the king, our commandants have the duty to let His Majesty know our needs and feelings."
Fuergun's eyes narrowed. "You're a clever man, Don Diego. You can walk a fine line between treason and loyalty. You would make a good politician--too slippery by half!"
The caballero gave him an innocuous smile. "Gracias, Colonel. The thought has crossed my mind on occasion."
"Please, Diego. The colonel is under a great deal of pressure--isn't that right, Colonel?--to root out independence sympathizers," his host placated. "Perhaps politics is too volatile a subject for this evening. Shall we speak of something else?"
"The subject suits me perfectly well," gritted Fuergun. "And the word, Don José, is not 'independence' but 'rebellion'. I have a list, Señores, of everyone in this territory who is suspected of being in sympathy with the rebels. Evidence to back up that suspicion will result in a firing squad!"
"Are you always this much fun at parties, Colonel?" quizzed de la Vega in a light-hearted tone. "What a shame the ladies can't enjoy this conversation as well!"
San Martín grew pale in horror and made a helpless gesture of appeal for the caballero to stop baiting the officer. But Diego, reveling in his audacity, knew just how far to push. The commandant finally looked discomfited.
"I apologize for my lack of manners," he snapped with a curt bow to his host. "Your servant, sir. I must return to the cuartel." He strode to the front door as the gentlemen watched. A collective sigh of relief sounded as he left the hacienda.
The ladies rejoined the men, and later the musicians played some dancing music. De la Vega was preoccupied, though, while taking turns dancing with the other doñas present. The colonel had mentioned a list of sympathizers, not just for San Diego, but for the entire territory! Did he indeed know the names of the rebels in Los Angeles? If so, the list would be worth seeing! That Ramón was the leader he no longer doubted, but who was helping him? Who was financing him? The list could answer those questions. He recalled the heavily-guarded presidio. Breaking in surreptitiously would be difficult; finding the list more so.
Long after the dinner party had ended, he paced the floor of his guest room, leaned out the second story window and scanned the dark landscape, then turned around the room again, brow furrowed. He would have to try. Sometimes his spirited wife was an obstacle; certainly he could not go as Zorro even if he had brought his black clothes. And black would be a preferable color for sneaking around at night in unfamiliar places! The investigation he would have to do as himself; should he get caught, he would make up some tale to satisfy and hope for the best. He would have to go on foot, too; the risk of disturbing a stable hand was too great to saddle a horse.
"Diego? Is something wrong?" His adorable wife was tucked under the covers in her thin nightdress, looking concerned. He was unaware how much he resembled a caged restless cougar to her apprehensive eyes.
"Maybe. Something one of the men said tonight--" Diego broke off with an exasperated gesture. "I need to go out for a while and check on something. Will you be all right?"
"Yes, I suppose so, but where are you going?"
"Never mind where. If anyone should ask for me and you have to open the door, just say I went for a stroll in the moonlight to clear my head from the wine." He opened the window casement wider and swung a leg over the sill.
"Wait!" she cried. "What do you mean? Is there some danger?"
"Only if I get caught!"
He astounded her by dropping out of the high window. She heard a thud and ran to the window to see if he had hurt himself, but she could not even spot his departing shadow. Alarmed, she crept back into bed but turned the lamp low. What on earth could her mild-mannered husband be about that would lead him to sneak out of a second-story window late at night? Worry chased away her fatigue, and she watched the rectangle of moonlight as it slid across the wooden floorboards.