1.  ROOT OF BITTERNESS
 

(This story picks up immediately where the New World Zorro series left off.  The last four episodes of the series concerned a malignant young Spanish officer who comes to Los Angeles ostensibly to collect a war tax from the pueblo, but in reality wishes to revenge himself and his "mother" on the de la Vega family.  After several clashes with Zorro and the de la Vegas, Ynéz Risendo reveals that her "son" Gilberto is actually the elder of twin sons born to Alejandro and his wife, and therefore heir to the de la Vega estate.  Gilberto is shot to death by Alcalde DeSoto as he is about to announce that Diego is in fact Zorro, the masked outlaw for justice.)
 

     Don Alejandro de la Vega asked his son, "Do you remember when Risendo was about to shoot you, and he said that he would not only kill you but also kill . . . and then he never finished.  What do you suppose he was going to say, Diego?"
     His son swallowed hard.  The desire to tell his father the truth was overwhelmingly strong.  Together they had come through a crisis and had never been closer.  Diego could leave Zorro buried forever beneath a pile of rocks in Diablo Canyon; there was a sense of things having drawn to a conclusion.  Almost, but not quite.  A nagging sense of doubt persuaded him.  Maybe Zorro's work was not done, not yet.  But something needed to change in his relationship with his father.  He resolved to lessen the dichotomy between himself and his heroic creation, starting now.
     "I think Risendo was about to tell you that he was going to kill one of the better swordsmen he had ever fought.  I--made more progress under Sir Edmund's instruction than I've led you to believe."
     "Yes, you were fighting brilliantly against him; I've never seen anything like it.  But why have you kept your ability a secret?" countered Alejandro.
     "Well," the tall caballero replied slowly, "I never wanted fighting to become the focus of my life.  I'd rather concentrate on my scientific studies, my music, serving the community through the newspaper, or just being available to help you on the rancho.  I don't have the time to instruct every aspiring swordsman in the territory, so I'd appreciate it if you would forgo a father's bragging rights and not mention my skill outside the family."  He hoped he had made it all sound plausible enough.  Would his father be satisfied with his answer?  Apparently so, for Alejandro just shook his head slightly.  The older man was still trying to comprehend all that had happened with Risendo, and the day had given him more surprising revelations than he could absorb.
     "Perhaps some refreshment at the tavern will do us all good," suggested Diego.  "Felipe, Victoria, let's go inside."
     The interior of the tavern was cool and dim--a welcome contrast to the late afternoon sun of June.  The three men chose a table in the corner while Victoria brought a tray with a pitcher of lemonade, glasses, and some fresh bread.  She poured a drink for each man and joined them quietly on the fourth stool.
     Alejandro voiced his troubling uncertainty.  "Do you think Ynéz Risendo was telling the truth? That he really was my son?"
     "It's hard to tell, Father.  It's true I have a similar birthmark, but that alone would not constitute legal evidence in court.  She would have had only her word to back up her claim.  Yet as nasty as the woman is, my impression is that she was telling the truth--that Gilberto was my brother.  But how could you have had a son that you never knew about?  How could Mother not have known?"
     "At the time of your birth, I was a major assigned to a command in  Cádiz.  I wasn't able to come home for several days after receiving the news.  As for your mother, perhaps she had been given a sedative, supposedly for the pain but actually strong enough to put her to sleep.  At any rate, Señora Risendo's story could be true; there's plenty of room for the possibility."
     "But then she must have stolen your son," Victoria interjected.  "How could she have explained to him about his de la Vega heritage without also confessing what she had done?"
     "Lied to him, I suppose.  Perhaps she told him that we'd rejected him for some reason and that she was the only one who loved him.  She certainly convinced him; he seemed absolutely devoted to her."
     "What I don't understand is why.  Why would anyone steal a baby and plot this elaborate scheme?  Just because she couldn't have children doesn't adequately explain her actions.  It seems to have been a premeditated kidnapping.  And why single you out?  She was trying to usurp all you owned, even kill you, and she had been plotting this for thirty-three years."  Diego frowned, puzzled.
     "Could she have been a spurned love from your youth, Don Alejandro?" ventured the innkeeper.
     "No, I don't think so, Victoria.  I don't recall ever meeting her before we hired her as a midwife.  I don't know why she did it, unless of course she's deranged, and after meeting Gilberto, that's certainly possible."
     "Here's a practical matter we need to decide, Father.  What do you want to do about the funeral arrangements?  Do you want him buried beside Mother on the rancho or in the mission's cemetery?  And do you want our last name on the tombstone?"
     Alejandro breathed out a long sigh. "I don't know, Diego.  People will be critical regardless which I choose.  I guess the question is if I'm willing to publicly acknowledge him as my son."
     Everyone around the table was quiet for a moment, then Diego spoke gently.  "Perhaps you can think of it this way.  Gilberto may have indeed been a child of your body, but not of your heart.  We know that because of his upbringing there was nothing at all admirable in the man--nothing of your values.  From the moment of his birth he was her son, not yours.  He lived and died a Risendo."
     His father did not answer immediately but then slowly nodded.  "Yes, that's what we'll do.  I'll speak to Padre Benitez about a burial on the  mission's property."  He rose to leave.  "Are you coming?"
     Victoria cut in, "No, he's not.  I'm going to fix a clean bandage for his arm.  Into the kitchen please, Diego."
     Felipe sat up in alarm.
     "Thank you for the offer, but there's no need for you to bother, Victoria," he protested as she pushed him toward the curtains.  "I can get it wrapped at home.  It's not a sight for a lady."
     "Nonsense--not another word.  Sit down here."  She gestured toward a kitchen chair.  Diego yielded.  This too could be a positive step.  He had worked hard at gaining her friendship and trust in past years but needed to go farther.  She needed to see his heart more accurately, not Zorro's.  Besides, it would be pleasantly soothing to be fussed over by Victoria.  It would also be interesting to see what she made of his wound.  Felipe had followed them into the kitchen and was watching Diego with dark, troubled eyes.
     Diego grinned ruefully, "It seems Señorita Escalante is determined to have her way, Felipe.  Why don't you catch up with my father and meet me back here later?"
     The young man raised his eyebrows but disappeared through the doorway.  Victoria knelt beside the chair and began to roll up the blood-stained sleeve.  When the wound was uncovered, she stared in dismay. The flesh of Diego's upper arm had been gouged roughly and was inflamed.  It had scabbed over, but now was sluggishly oozing blood and pus.  When she glanced at his face for an explanation, his enigmatic expression gave away nothing.
     She stammered,  "I--I thought this was a sabre wound."
     "Let's agree that it is."
     She stared at him and opened her mouth to speak, but the warning look in his eyes effectively silenced her.  She dropped her gaze and nodded, rose up to get the kettle from the fire, and poured hot water into the bowl on the table.  She felt oddly shaken.  It was a bullet wound, she was sure, and not fresh.  Diego had not wanted her to know he had been shot and expected her to keep quiet about it.  Victoria brought out two clean rags, folded one and soaked it in the bowl, then squeezed out the excess water.
     "It's infected.  Here, hold this on it while I prepare a bandage."  She began tearing the other cloth into wide strips.
     Diego watched the emotions reflected on her face.  She certainly was not squeamish.  In fact, she seemed more distressed for his sake.
     "Gracias.  This is very kind of you, Victoria."
     Up on the top shelf of the cupboard was a small vial which she brought down.  "I have some bacillium powder to put on it.  The powder may help fight the infection.  Now, let me see."  She removed the wet cloth from his hand and examined the wound closely, daubing gently to make sure the bleeding had stopped.
     "There.  That looks better."  She sprinkled on the powder liberally, made a pad from the strips, and began to wrap his arm carefully.  "Am I hurting you?"
     "Not in the least."
     "What a liar you are today."  She tied off the last strip.
     "I'm serious.  Your touch is very gentle--much more so than Felipe's."  He smiled at her but did not coax an answering smile in return.  "That will do nicely.  Adios."
     Grasping his good arm as he stood to leave, she whispered fiercely, "Did Risendo do this to you?"
     He paused, then nodded.  "Indirectly.  My father doesn't know;  I don't want him burdened with anything more right now."  He patted her hand reassuringly and slipped through the curtain.

     The funeral was the following afternoon.  As Don Alejandro predicted, rumors and speculation were rife, and there was a large turnout at the graveside.  Certainly it was not for love or respect for the dead man.  His violent end had caused unrestrained relief throughout the pueblo, and many a mug had been raised irreverently in celebration the previous night.  Besides the townspeople, the alcalde and Sergeant Mendoza were there representing the royal colonial military, along with most of the lancers.
     And none of us would be here either, if military protocol didn't demand it, Mendoza thought.  He looked around at the crowd.  Probably the only ones who cared about the dead emissary were his mother, standing on one side of the grave, and the de la Vegas on the other side.  How on earth the padre could find something comforting to say as well as tactfully tell the truth about Risendo was beyond him.  The sergeant shook his head slightly.  A more disagreeable duty than attending this funeral would be hard to imagine.  At least it was almost over.
     "And may the Lord Jesus Christ tenderly enfold him in His infinite grace and mercy.  Amen."  Padre Benitez bowed his head, and the mourners obediently echoed "Amen."  DeSoto called his men to attention, and on command they fired a volley into the air.
     Don Alejandro had tears in his eyes threatening to spill over.  This had been especially hard on him, realized Diego.  He put his arm around his father's shoulders, and together they laid flowers on the grave.  As they stood up, he looked across at Ynéz Risendo.  She had stood stoically throughout the service, but now she shot them a look of pure venom.
     If looks could kill, Diego mused.  We may not be finished with you after all.

     Don Alejandro retired early that night, which suited Diego's purpose very well.  He met with his loyal assistant in the cave.
     "I don't trust that woman, Felipe.  Anyone with that much hatred will not let a matter drop.  Did you see her face at the funeral?"  The younger man nodded, shuddering.  "In addition to her original reasons, she now seems to hold us responsible for her son's death.  Since my father is not pressing charges against her, I'll not rest easy until she's left the territory.  She's due to leave on tomorrow's coach, but until then Zorro will keep a wary eye on her.  So if you please, saddle Toronado."  He stripped off his shirt.  "Go upstairs after I leave and be on your guard.  Watch over my father."

     The night was warm, and Alejandro drifted in and out of sleep, one nightmare following another.  It was all bits and pieces, but somehow the overall effect filled him with a vague sense of terror.  Gilberto and his mother seemed to be pursuing him, then he saw himself dueling for his life against his unknown son.
     "Don Alejandro!"
     The loud cry startled him to full consciousness just in time to see a shadowy figure lunge at him.  He rolled quickly to the far side of the bed, but had seen the flash of a dagger on a downward stroke.  Alejandro sprang to his feet and braced himself for his assailant's next attack.  The window darkened for an instant followed by a scuffling noise and a woman's hoarse cry.
     "I've got her, Señor!  Light the lamp," called a man's voice.
     The don's fingers fumbled as he struck the flint and adjusted the flame.  "Zorro!" he exclaimed in astonishment as the room was illuminated.  The masked hero had a firm grip upon the arms of Ynéz Risendo and was  forcing the knife from her fingers.
     "It seems your nemesis still thinks she has a score to settle with you, Señor.  I suspected as much and followed her here from town."  Zorro twisted the arms of the angry, writhing woman up behind her back.  "Now, the truth, Señora.  What is this all about?"
     She spat her reply to the older man, "Enrique Espinosa!  My brother!"
     The effect on Alejandro was striking.  He froze in shock, eyes widening.  "Enrique Espinosa," he whispered.  "Now it makes sense."
     Zorro would like to have heard more, but Felipe burst into the room with a brace of pistols.  "Excellent timing.  I suggest you both keep a pistol trained on this woman until the alcalde's men arrive.  You need not scruple to shoot her if she moves; she has a killer's heart.  Señor," he turned to the hacendado, "I understand your desire for delicacy in this matter, but you can no longer afford not to press charges."  He released the señora and slipped out the window.
     Less than a minute passed before a sleepy-eyed Diego, dressed only in a nightshirt, entered the room with a lit candle.  "I heard a noise."  He glanced around the room.  "Father, are you all right?"
     "Ynéz Risendo tried to kill me."  Alejandro's voice shook.  "Ride to the garrison and have the soldiers come and take her away."

     The next morning, the de la Vegas and Felipe met with the alcalde and Sergeant Mendoza in DeSoto's office.  It had been a short night for all of them, but the paperwork still had to be filled out.
     "Just one more form, Don Alejandro, and your written testimony will be ready to forward with the prisoner to the territorial magistrate.  Kidnapping, conspiracy, attempted murder--she will get at least 15 years.  I for one will be delighted to see the last of the Risendos.  A more malignant pair I have yet to know."  DeSoto leaned back in his chair.
     "The alcalde has given orders for her to be taken to Monterey today," Mendoza added.
     "Bueno.  That's the best place for her," said Alejandro wearily.
     "Father, will you tell us now what this was all about?"
     "Yes, Diego, but it's an ugly story, and I'm not proud of my part in it."  He paused.  "About two years before my marriage, there was another young officer in my battalion--Enrique Espinosa.  For courage and cleverness you couldn't find a better man.  He loved army life and even defied his father's wishes to be commissioned.  He was very likable too.  But he had one character flaw that proved to be his undoing--he had no self-control.  I'd often seen him be irresponsible and careless in his duties, and I covered for him more than once.  Looking back on it, I didn't do him any favor that way."
     "Hmph," the alcalde grunted.  "It never pays to shield a shirker."
     The older man shrugged.  "Well, it certainly didn't in this case.  Espinosa was the only son of a rather well-to-do gentleman.  When his father died suddenly, he inherited everything, along with the care of his mother and younger sisters.  But Enrique had no notion of money management.  I think he viewed his sudden riches as a bottomless well from which he could draw. And draw he did.  His extravagant spending became the talk of Madrid.  He bought a large house in town, expensive carriages, and the finest horseflesh money could buy.  He denied himself nothing.  He joined the clubs and gambled for high stakes every night.  Usually he lost, but it meant nothing to him."
     "Did anyone try to get him to slow down, to be a little more conservative?" asked Diego.
     "Oh yes, several of us tried, but Espinosa just laughed it off in his good-natured way.  But a few months later, rumors began to circulate that Enrique was broke and in the hands of money-lenders.  I was playing cards with two other officers at a club when he came up and asked to join our table.  The play continued for several hours, and the stakes began to run rather high.  Espinosa had an unusual streak of luck and soon had a large pile of money in front of him.  That's when it first crossed my mind that he might not be playing honestly.  I determined to watch him very closely.  He seemed to know the contents of everyone's hand, and soon I was sure.  I was infuriated that he would do such a thing.  The next time he played a marked card, I jumped up from the table and shouted, 'You cheat!  You despicable cheat!'  Everyone in the room stopped what he was doing and turned around.  Espinosa's face went chalk-white.  He rose up with a horrified look and ran from the room."
     Felipe shook his head and held out his hands.
     Diego explained, "You see, Felipe, to cheat is against the code of honor both for a gentleman and a soldier.  A man caught cheating faced social ostracism.  He would have been thrown out of his clubs, stripped of his rank, and worst of all, his creditors would know he was broke.  They would have swooped down to repossess everything he owned and if he couldn't pay, he'd have gone to prison.  Is that what happened, Father?"
     "No.  He was found dead the next morning.  He had put a bullet through his head."
     "He brought it on himself," the alcalde sneered.  "He doesn't deserve any sympathy."
     "But what happened to his mother and sisters?" Mendoza queried.
     "I don't really know, but I can guess what happened to Ynéz.  From being a privileged young lady who could have made a good society match, she had to take the first offer she could get; she was penniless, and her family was in disgrace.  Apparently she married a humble man named Risendo, who left her a widow, and she had to learn a trade:  midwifery.  All quite a blow to a proud young woman."
     "But she held you responsible for her brother's ruin and death.  And she made sure she was hired when you needed a midwife.  Then she put into motion her whole scheme--a very complex revenge in which you would suffer in the same way her brother did; broke, disgraced, or dead."  Diego shook his head.
     "If it hadn't been for Zorro, she would have succeeded," Alejandro reflected.
     "Zorro!  That troublemaker!  If we could get rid of him, all this pueblo's problems would be over," DeSoto muttered under his breath.
     "Speaking of Zorro, Alcalde," Diego remarked, "as an eye witness of the death of Lieutenant Hidalgo, Felipe would like the record set straight about who shot him.  I believe the good sergeant here is also a witness."
     The alcalde glared at Diego, who smiled blandly.  "All right!  I shot Hidalgo while aiming at Zorro.  It was an unfortunate accident."
     "What is going to happen to the ten thousand pesos collected for the war tax?"
     "Since there is no one here with whom I can entrust the money, it will be returned to the people until the king can send another representative.  I think that's only fair under the circumstances.  I will write a letter to Madrid explaining about the deaths of the emissary and lieutenant, also."  The commandant's decision pleasantly surprised Diego, who nodded approvingly.
     The de la Vegas rode toward home in silence until Don Alejandro spoke.
     "You know, Diego, Señora Risendo is partially right.  I did much to drive her brother to his death.  I do bear some of the responsibility.  If only I hadn't denounced him in public.  It would have been wiser to confront him privately.  The matter has weighed heavily on my conscience all these years.  It certainly says something for thinking before we speak or act.  Sometimes we have to live with the consequences of our poor choices for a long time."
     "It's always easier to be wise in retrospect.  I think most men would have reacted just as you did."  Diego paused.  "Do you remember what the Scriptures say about letting a root of bitterness spring up which can defile many?  I think we've seen a living example in the señora."  His father nodded.  "Now my concern is for you.  The other day in the plaza you told her that you'd never forgive her for what she had done.  But if you don't forgive, you'll become bitter just as she was."  Diego laid his hand on his father's arm.  "Father, let it go.  Forgive."
     Alejandro's eyes softened.  "You're right, Son.  I will."
 

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