12.  THE WIDOW'S MIGHT


     A horse-drawn wagon drove through the pueblo gates and pulled up at the tavern.  Its driver climbed down and helped her small passenger to alight also.  Together they entered the inn, the slender woman's serene eyes surveying the interior.  They came to rest on Señorita Escalante behind the bar, occupied with polishing clean glasses.  The room was otherwise almost deserted since it was late afternoon, and the supper customers had not yet arrived.  The woman approached the bar, holding the hand of a young child.
     "Buenos dias.  I'd like to rent a room for several days."
     Victoria greeted her with a smile.  "Certainly, Señora.  Have you just arrived in Los Angeles?"
     "Yes, and I'm hoping to stay.  Perhaps you can advise me on permanent lodgings."  She held out her hand.  "I'm Señora Carmen Amistad, and this is my daughter, Ana."  The six-year-old girl smiled shyly at the pretty innkeeper.
     "Victoria Escalante, mucho gusto," she replied, shaking hands with both.  "And I think I can help you."

     A week later, Sergeant Mendoza dropped himself onto a seat at the table shared by the three de la Vegas.  He exhaled deeply and painfully, like a slow leak from a punctured balloon.
     "What is it, Sergeant?" asked Alejandro.  "Has the alcalde ordered more marching practice?"
     "Oh, if it were only that, Amigos," groaned Mendoza.  "Two more lancers came down with the flu during the night.  That makes four altogether.  Now their duties must be done by someone else, and besides that, someone must take care of them around the clock.  That reduces the garrison strength by almost half."
     Diego gave him a sympathetic look.  "Several people have become ill on the outlying farms as well.  Doctor Hernandez is with the Flojas family.  The mother is sick and all the children."
     Señora Amistad quietly entered the tavern and sought out Victoria.
     "Who is that?" asked the sergeant, noticing the dark-haired lady.
     "I don't know, but it might be the pueblo's newest resident," Alejandro guessed.  "Let's see if we can get an introduction.  Victoria," he called.  The two women turned at his voice.  "May we meet the señora?"
     "Of course," smiled the innkeeper, and approached the table with her guest.  The men rose to their feet.  "Carmen, these are four of my dearest friends.  May I present Don Alejandro de la Vega, one of our leading citizens, and his sons, Don Diego, who is the editor of the newspaper, and Don Felipe, who is studying to become a lawyer.  And this is Sergeant Jaime Mendoza, of our garrison.  Gentlemen, this is Señora Amistad."
     The señora took the hand of each one and gave them a friendly smile.  "I'm delighted to meet you, señores.  I've rented two rooms in the building next to the tavern.  One of the rooms will be my shop; I'm a seamstress.  Now if you'll excuse me, I left my daughter at home.  I'll see you later, Victoria."  With that, she departed.
     "What a nice lady," observed the sergeant.
     "You are absolutely right," agreed the innkeeper.  "She's very nice, and her little girl is so sweet."
     "What brought her here to live?" wondered Diego.
     "She's a widow.  Her husband was a soldier who was killed in Mexico in one of the battles for independence.  She didn't want to stay in Vera Cruz--too many sad memories, and she heard California was nice.  All she has to live on is her husband's pension--not much.  So I hope she can make a living on her sewing."
     Alejandro nodded.  "If we have the opportunity, we'll send some business her way."

     That Friday, Diego saw the señora shopping with her daughter at the open market.
     "Buenos dias, Señora and Señorita Amistad.  I hope you are enjoying our pueblo."
     "Yes indeed, Señor de la Vega.  The people are wonderful.  I've met with a very kind reception, though I have to admit it's a more expensive place to live than I thought."
     "What do you mean?"
     "The taxes.  I can hardly believe the alcalde has found so many different things to tax.  I've been taxed on my room rental, storing my wagon, stabling my horse, every centavo I've earned sewing, and worst of all, upon my husband's pension.  I'd have thought that at least would be exempt."
     "Sadly, the alcalde doesn't consider any money exempt.  I'm sorry you have seen the worst of our town already.  We've been trying to persuade him to return to Spain with the rest of the royal military, but he refuses to budge."
     "You supported the revolution, then?"
     "I support reform, one way or another.  Unfortunately, Los Angeles has yet to see any change for the better."
     Sergeant Mendoza crossed the plaza and greeted them.  "Buenos Dias.  Hola, Ana--look what I have for you."  He pulled from his pocket a piece of candy and offered it to the child.  Her piquant face lit up as she shyly accepted the treat.  "Señora Amistad, may I carry that basket for you?  It looks very heavy for a lady."
     "Gracias, Sergeant.  You're not here to collect any more taxes, are you?" she teased.
     "No, Señora.  My duties are often unpleasant, but you would not hold that against me, would you?"
     She smiled warmly at him and replied, "Of course not.  I was married to a soldier, so I know all about duty.  How are your men doing today?"
     "Not much better.  When one starts to recover, someone else gets sick.  It's more than we can handle, and the doctor is very busy with other patients."
     "May I help?  I'd be glad to do whatever I can to make the men more comfortable, if you don't think they would object to a female in the barracks."
     The sergeant's face eased with relief.  "Muchas gracias, Señora.  A woman's touch is just what we need."

     The following morning, the heavy overcast of the past few days fulfilled its threat, and the dreary days of November rain began.  Diego rode into town and found Victoria and the widow again in the tavern, talking earnestly together.  He greeted both as he brushed the water from his coat and asked if he was intruding.
     "Not at all, Diego.  We were discussing this influenza epidemic.  It's taken a serious turn for the worse.  One of the Capellos' little children died from the high fever, and another is not expected to live."
     "Oh, no.  That poor family."  He frowned and shook his head sadly. "Has anyone on your rancho become ill?" asked the innkeeper.
     "Yes--Pablo, one of our vaqueros.  We're trying to keep him isolated from the others to prevent the spread of the disease.  In the meantime, it would be a good idea to wash our hands more often."  At the incredulous look from the ladies, he explained, "To kill the germs.  Many scientists now believe that germs, tiny living things which we cannot see with our eyes, are the source of sicknesses.  The germs can be passed to others through our hands."
     His listeners received his words skeptically, but Victoria conceded, "Don Diego knows a lot about such things, Carmen.  Perhaps we should follow his advice.  It wouldn't hurt."
     Mendoza ran into the tavern.  "Señora, can you come and help us at the barracks again?  The sick men are calling for you."
     The woman's expression changed to one of concern.  "Yes, Sergeant.  I'll gather up some supplies and come immediately.  Victoria, if I'm not back in time, will you pick up Ana from school?  Gracias.  Excuse me please, Señor de la Vega."  She followed the soldier out.
     "Our favorite sergeant seems quite taken with the señora," Diego observed.
     "Yes, he does."  She caught sight of his amused expression and laughed.  "No, I'm not playing matchmaker.  I'm selfish enough to want her to stay single a while longer."
     "Why?"
     "Because she and I have already become good friends.  I hadn't realized how much I missed having a woman friend.  All my girlfriends from school married years ago; they have children half-grown.  My life here at the tavern is so different that I have nothing in common with them anymore.  Now my best friends are all men," she smiled.  "You, for instance."
     "I'm honored.  But do you think you'll lose the señora's friendship if she marries?"
     She replied wistfully, "It usually works out that way.  Is there anything you want before I close up?  I'm going to take a basket of food to the Capello family."

     At the de la Vega hacienda, Don Alejandro was glad to see his older son returning from town in the rain.
     "Diego, two more of our vaqueros are coming down with symptoms just since this morning.  Felipe and I have been caring for the sick men, so there's no need for you to expose yourself to the flu.  If he and I become ill, you'll need to take care of us.  But there's something you can do for me.  Since we're short-handed, will you direct the moving of the cattle to the north pasture?  I'm sorry about this storm, but we have to get them away from the arroyo."
     "Of course.  I just wish I knew some way to cure this disease and stop the epidemic."
     Alejandro clapped his tall son on the back.  "Always the scientist.  Well, perhaps this will give you something worthwhile to study.  A person who could discover such a cure would benefit all mankind."

     The downpour continued the rest of the day and the next two.  Dr. Hernandez's clothes had not even dried as he finished his rounds in the barracks.  He closed his medical bag and consoled the private he had been examining.
     "You'll be feeling better in a few days.  The serum I gave you should bring down your fever.  In the meantime, the señora will help make you comfortable."  He turned and addressed the garrison's commandant.  "Alcalde, this strain of influenza is very dangerous.  Two children have already died from it."  He glanced at Señora Amistad.  "You are fortunate to have this lady's assistance.  Your ill men need complete rest and a lot of water to drink."
     DeSoto could barely conceal his horror.  He had a strong aversion to any illness, and to have half his troops sick and the other half doing the bare minimum of duties made him extremely uncomfortable.  He thanked the doctor, who informed him, "Now, I must cross the San Fernando creek before the rain makes it impassable; Tonio Bahia has sent a message for help."
     The rest of the afternoon, the alcalde busied himself with administrative work in his office, to no one's surprise.  The señora and the sergeant went from one bed to another, changing linen, sponging down feverish arms and necks, and offering cool glasses of water to the seven ill men lying on bunks in the barracks.
     "Gracias, Señora Carmen; I really appreciate your help, and so do the men," Mendoza expressed.
     He looks very tired, thought the petite lady.  "Perhaps you should sit down and rest for a while."  She helped him sink into a chair.  "You must not wear yourself out.  Where would this garrison be without you?"  She touched his hand and realized with a shock that it was hot and dry.  She looked intently into his face, but his eyes were not focusing on her.  "Sergeant?  Sergeant!"  He tumbled out of the chair and collapsed at her feet on the floor.
     The alcalde was eating dinner at the tavern when the widow ran in, soaked from the driving rain.
     "Alcalde, Sergeant Mendoza has the influenza.  His fever is very high.  Please send one of your men after the doctor to bring back that serum."
     "In this storm?"  At a scornful glance from Señorita Escalante, he threw down his napkin.  "All right.  Private Sanchez is well enough to ride; he's one of the only ones."  He stomped out.
     Victoria saw her friend's distress and told her, "I'll come back with you.  Perhaps together we can help Mendoza."
     They returned to the barracks, but the sergeant had fallen into a fitful sleep.  They sat by his bed, waiting anxiously for the return of the doctor.
     "You care for Mendoza, don't you?" Victoria asked her friend curiously.  The lady met her eyes and nodded briefly.  "But he's so--well, he's not a very romantic figure."
     Carmen's wise reply gave the young businesswoman food for thought.  "Not all men can be a dashing hero like your Zorro.  There's a lot to be said for mutual respect.  Jaime is a good man with the kindest heart.  He's brave and honest and loyal.  That's a great deal, Victoria.  Romance is a wonderfully sweet thing, but it must be anchored in the bedrock of friendship to survive."  The sound of steps outside brought their heads around.  But when the door opened, it was Private Sanchez, not the doctor.
     "I'm sorry, ladies; the creek is flooded and very dangerous.  My horse refused to cross it.  I'll try again tomorrow."  His announcement stunned the women.
     "Tomorrow may be too late!  What can we do?" cried the señora.
     Victoria thought quickly.  "I know something we can try.  I'll ride to the de la Vegas.  They have some of the best horses in the territory.  Maybe they can make it across." She wrapped her damp shawl around her head and shoulders.  "Adios," she called, as she ran out into the wet night.

     Felipe answered the door at her insistent pounding.  He brought the señorita inside without a word.  Don Alejandro and Diego stood when she entered the room, drenched and chilled.
     "Victoria!  What is it?" asked Alejandro.
     "Mendoza.  He has the flu," she forced out through chattering teeth.  "The doctor's at the Bahias' farm on the other side of the San Fernando creek, but the garrison horses won't go across.  Mendoza must have that serum to bring his fever down."
     "If conditions are that bad, I doubt if I can make it across either. But for Mendoza, I'll try."  Alejandro left the room to get his heavy coat.
     "Felipe, get some blankets for Victoria.  Here, come close to the fire and get warm."  The tall caballero led her into the library, and she held out stiff fingers to the blaze.  When his younger brother came back, Diego took a blanket and wrapped it around her.  "I don't want you to go back out there tonight; I'll have the guest quarters prepared for you."  She nodded, shivering.
     An hour later, Don Alejandro returned.  "The creek is swollen, and Dulcinea refused to cross.  It's pretty nasty.  I'm sorry, Victoria."
     "Thank you for trying," she sighed.  "I wish I could tell Zorro about this.  If there's one horse who could get across tonight, it's Toronado."

     In the cave, Zorro put on a coat under his cape.  "It's a bad night, Felipe.  I'm not looking forward to this ride.  We'll be home as soon as we can."
     "Be careful," his brother urged, and followed the rider's exit with worried eyes.
     Without the benefit of the moon, the night was very dark, and the rain was still coming down hard.  The big stallion was not happy with his master's choice of riding conditions, but he obeyed the persistent demand of those knees.  The masked man would not allow the horse to run at a hard gallop, so Toronado had to be content with a slower pace.  The creek was only four miles away, and they reached its overflowing banks quickly enough.  It was a full thirty yards to the other side, and the black water was swirling by them angrily at an incredible speed.  Toronado whinnied and tossed his head.
     "Come on, Boy.  Come on!"  He forced the frightened horse into the water and turned his head downstream.  The current carried them along, and soon Zorro felt his stallion's feet leave the creek floor.  More than a mile from where they had entered, the horse and rider emerged on the far bank.  Now for the Bahias' farm, thought the man in black, and they resumed their careful gallop.
     The small house still had a light showing through the window when Zorro pulled up in the yard.  He knocked on the door, which was opened by the weary farmer.
     "Is the doctor still here, Amigo?" the hero addressed the man.
     "Sí.  He could not get home so he's spending the night.  I'll get him."  A moment later Dr. Hernandez stepped into the main room.
     "Zorro!  Is something wrong?"
     "Sergeant Mendoza has become ill.  I understand you have a serum which can bring down a high fever."
     "Yes, indeed."  The doctor reached in his medical bag and brought out a small bottle.  "This is made from willow bark, but it has some chemical in it that has been very successful in reducing fevers, aches, and pains.  Take it.  You will have to return to the garrison without me.  I know my horse will not go across that raging torrent.  One spoonful, no more," he warned.  "Vaya con Dios."
     The dark hero tucked the bottle inside his shirt.  With a nod, he vanished into the darkness.
     The return trip through the flooded creek was more harrowing.  As the stallion was scrambling to regain his footing on the far side, he stumbled, and his master was thrown from the saddle and immersed in the cold water.  Zorro's tight grip on the reins saved him from being swept away.  He surfaced with a mouthful of water, coughing and fighting for breath.
     "Go, Toronado, pull!" he sputtered above the din of the churning stream.  The large horse determinedly pushed toward the shore and dragged himself and the masked man from the water.  They stood together, gasping and trembling, but safe.        "Good Boy, thank you."  Zorro rested his head against the stallion's neck, then forced himself into the saddle again.
     The first gray of approaching dawn was lightening the sky in the east when the Fox galloped through the pueblo gates and climbed the garrison's roof to drop into the barracks, numb with cold and soaked to the skin.
     "Pardon my intrusion, Señora, gentlemen," he greeted the surprised occupants of the room.  "This is the medicine from the doctor, Señora, for Mendoza.  Give him one spoonful."
     The woman took the bottle from him.  "You must be Zorro.  I've heard of you."
     "Señora, I am at your service."  He bowed stiffly.
     The door from the alcalde's quarters was thrown open, and DeSoto burst in, dressed in his nightclothes and dragging a sabre.
     "Zorro!  You're under arrest," he panted.
     "You can't be serious, Alcalde; you want to fight here?"  He withdrew his own sabre and saluted.  The commandant lunged, but the hero disarmed him with one chopping stroke.  The officer leaned against the wall and slowly sagged to the floor before the astonished eyes of his opponent.  "You are an idiot's delight, Alcalde," he said, helping the ill man to his feet.  "Here's another patient, Señora."

     Two days later, Diego was with Victoria when she visited the sergeant in the barracks.  Mendoza was resting comfortably with the señora at his side.
     "Amigos, I owe my recovery to this lady," he said, looking at her with adoring eyes.
     "And to Zorro," she added, squeezing the sergeant's hand.  "I wonder how he knew you needed help."
     "You'll soon see, Carmen, that it's impossible to keep anything important from Zorro.  Somehow he finds out," her friend informed her.
     "The alcalde is so grateful for Señora Carmen's nursing that he's promised to return all her tax money.  Can you believe it?" Mendoza asked his visitors.
     Diego shook his head and brought out his handkerchief just in time to meet a violent sneeze.  "Please forgive me," he said, wiping his nose.  "I've caught a bad cold."
     Victoria turned to study his face.  "You're not getting the flu, are you?"
     Diego replied thickly, "I don't think so, but we'd better not stay."
     Outside they crossed the muddy plaza together.  "The affection between those two is definitely growing," Victoria observed.  "I may lose my new friend sooner than I thought."
     "You still have me," he reminded her, taking her arm as she leaped over a puddle.
     "Very true."  She flashed him a radiant smile.  "Isn't Carmen a good addition to our pueblo?  Imagine--the alcalde actually learned to value her as a person instead of a source of revenue.  He isn't beyond hope, after all."

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