"THE BEST OF FRIENDS"

CHAPTER THREE

      The hooting of an owl ended the deafening silence that followed Teresa's unexpected announcement.  Diego had been stunned beyond words.  For the past seven years, he had worshiped Victoria from afar and no one had the slightest clue of his feelings.  Felipe knew, of course.  But not even Victoria herself had any idea of his passion for her.  Teresa Alvarez was back for two days after being gone twelve years and she picked up on his secret right away.

    "I do not. . .  I have no idea what you are. . .are talking about," Diego stammered when he finally found his power of speech.  "Victoria and I are not. . ."  He gave a little laugh as he shook his head.  "You are sadly mistaken, Señorita."

    "Oh, no, I am not," Teresa contradicted firmly.  "I have flirted shamelessly with you all evening and all you have done is stare at Victoria like a love sick puppy."  She held up her hand to check his denial.  "Do not bother to deny it, Diego.  I am right, am I not?"

     She sat smiling smugly as Diego squirmed uncomfortably on the cool metal bench.  He stared off in the distance, not really seeing a thing.  Sighing, he turned to face Teresa.

    "Si, it is true.  I do love her," he confessed grudgingly.  "But por favor, do not say anything to her, Teresa.  No one else knows how I feel and I would like to keep it that way."

     Teresa nodded understandingly.  "It is because she is in love with that bandit Zorro, isn't it?" she questioned.  Diego nodded as she added, "Personally, I do not know what she could possibly see in him.  Oh, sure, he is gallant and heroic.  But he would make a terrible husband, I think.  He is a criminal with a price on his head.  And who knows what he looks like under that mask.  He is probably quite ugly, for heaven's sake."

     Diego smiled wryly as she patted his hand.  "Your secret is safe with me, Don Diego.  Although I had hoped you and I could make a match of it, but..."  She shrugged her shoulders and stood up.  "Let's go back inside and join the others.  It is getting quite chilly."

    "Of course," Diego agreed with a sigh of relief.  The two of them strolled through the garden back into the hacienda.

    The women left shortly after that.  Teresa feigned tiredness as so not to offend Don Alejandro.  The ladies traveled back to the tavern in silence, riding in a carriage that the elder de la Vega had kindly lent them for the evening.  When they arrived in the pueblo and the driver had pulled up in front of the tavern, Victoria practically jumped out of the conveyance.  She strode into her establishment without a word to her companions.

    The driver helped Teresa and Ada alight from the vehicle.  When Teresa made to follow after her friend, Señora Gomez laid a restraining hand on her arm.  She waited until the carriage was driving off before she spoke.

    "How did it go with the young de la Vega?" Ada asked.  "Is the plan going as we hope?"

     Teresa shook her head in defeated.  "No," she admitted, "it is not.  It would seem Don Diego is devoted to another."

    "That has not stopped you before," the señora pointed out with a frown.

    "I know," Teresa said wearily, "but these people were. . .are my friends.  This is harder than I thought it would be."

    The two women had entered the tavern as they conversed.  Victoria was behind the bar, speaking with a man who was leaning against it.

    "Si, Señor, I have one room left," she was saying to him.  "You are in luck."  She reached  for the remaining key hanging on the key rack.  "Will that be for just one night?"

    She looked up at him questioningly.  He was a handsome enough man, of average height and build with brown hair and eyes.  Victoria thought his eyes had a cruel, dissipated look about them.

    Teresa had given a start of surprise when she saw the man which Victoria did not detect.  Teresa swept passed them on her way up to her lodgings, Señora Gomez in her wake.  The stranger smiled and nodded at the women, but they both ignored him.  Victoria did notice that, thinking it quite odd that her friend had not stopped to flirt with the man.  She does with everything else in trousers, Victoria thought viciously.

    The traveler watched Teresa walk up the staircase, clearly interested in her friend, then returned his attention back to the curious innkeeper.

    "No, Señorita," he finally answered her question.  "I am not quite sure how long my business here in Los Angeles will take."

    "Very well," Victoria said.  She stepped out from behind the bar.  "This way, Señor."

     She lead the man upstairs and showed him to his room.  As Victoria started to go back downstairs, Teresa opened her door.  "Victoria, wait," she called out as the other woman kept walking.   "I want to apologize for my behavior tonight.  There is no excuse for it and I am sorry."

    "Whatever do you mean?" asked Victoria evasively.  She did not wish for Teresa to discover her jealousy, which she could not understand or explain herself.

    "You know perfectly well, Victoria Escalante," said Teresa with mock indignation.  "You seemed so upset when Diego and I went out to the garden after dinner.  I thought there is nothing between the two of you."

   "There isn't," stated Victoria a little too vehemently.  Taking a deep breath, she explained, "The de la Vegas have been good friends to me.  I just do not want to see them well. . ."

     "Used?" Teresa finished for her.  "Do not worry, Victoria.  I have no intention of hurting anyone, least of all you.  You are my best friend."

    Victoria searched her friend's face, which seemed to be sincere.  "You have changed, Teresa.  And more than just your appearance," she remarked with a sad smile.  "I have a few things to do before I retire for the night.  Buenos noches, mi amiga."

     "Buenos noches, Victoria," the other woman replied.

     Victoria continued on her way down the stairs.  Teresa watched as her friend reached the bottom step, then headed for the kitchen.  She had a wickedly smug grin on her beautiful face as she closed the door to her room.
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     The tavern was deserted an hour later.  Victoria sat at her vanity table in her bedroom, brushing her lustrous black hair.  She had donned her nightgown, a white cotton, high necked, long sleeved affair.  As she went over the evening in her mind, she realized suddenly she had forgotten to do something very important.

     Drat, she though, laying down the hairbrush.  She had not locked the front door of the tavern.  She rose from the table, wrapped her rebozo around her shoulders, picked up a candle then left her room to do just that.

     Victoria crossed the now empty establishment.  The room, which just a few hours earlier had been filled with people, seemed strange and eerie to her.  The candle made flickering shadows on the walls as she walked across the floor.  Victoria reached the unlocked door and quietly slid the latch tight.  Having accomplished that, she turned and stood there by the entrance way, surveying with satisfaction her place of business.

    She started to head back to her bedroom when the sound of arguing drifted down from upstairs stopped her in her tracks.

     It sounded like a man and a woman who were fighting.  Which was odd because she had not let any of her rooms to a married couple, Victoria mused silently.  The Ortegas occupied two rooms, Teresa and her companion had two others.  Then there was the lone male traveler.

    "Teresa!" the man's voice shouted, startling Victoria out of her thoughts.

    "What is going on?" she whispered.  She crept up the stairs as quietly as she could as the altercation above grew a bit less hostile.

     Victoria paused in front of Teresa's door and leaned her ear against it.  Nothing.  She took several cautious steps, halting by the strange man's room.  The door had been left open a small crack so Victoria could peek inside, shamelessly eavesdropping.  She could see Teresa and the man her friend had pointedly ignored earlier standing at the foot of the bed.  Teresa was dressed in only her nightgown.  The stranger still wore his pants and boots, but his shirt was unbuttoned and untucked, exposing his bare chest.  He was grasping Teresa's arms tightly.

     "Antonio," Teresa called the man by his name, "this is not going to work.  I can see now that it is a bad idea.  Don Diego is in love with someone else. . ."

    "So what?" Antonio interrupted.  "So are you."  He took Teresa into his arms and kissed her quite familiarly.

    Victoria moved away from the doorway, sagging against the wall, in a state of shock.  She could not believe what she had just seen and heard.  She wondered just what her friend and the man who was obviously her lover were plotting.  Victoria also was curious to know if Diego was still in love with the same woman he was several years ago.  She edged toward the door again as the couple started speaking once more.

     "It does not matter who de la Vega ‘loves'," Antonio spat out the last word.  "You need to marry him."  He moved away from her and paced across the room.

    "I know how to make it work," he said, snapping his fingers as the idea came to him.  "Get him in a compromising situation.  With a lot of witnesses so he will be forced to do the ‘honorable' thing and marry you.  It will work, my darling.  It will have to work."

     Teresa shook her head.  "I don't know, Antonio," she said.  "He is. . ."

    "You have to do this, querida," Antonio cut short her protest.  "I did a little checking up on the de la Vegas.  They are even wealthier than you remembered.  They are worth twice what your previous husbands were put together."

    He gathered her in his arms once more and kissed her soundly.  When they broke apart, Teresa sighed languidly.

     "Oh, Antonio, you know I can deny you nothing," she said, laying her head on his shoulder.  "I just wish we could marry instead."

    "Maybe we will," he lied smoothly, "if all goes well with this plan with de la Vega, you and I someday. . ."  He left the promise unspoken, but it brought a smile to Teresa's face.  They began kissing again, more fervently now as Victoria turned away, sick at heart.

     I must warn Diego, was her first thought once she could think clearly again.  She tiptoed silently down to her quarters.  Victoria climbed under the blankets of her brass bed and tried to go to sleep.  She could not though, the scene she had just witnessed kept replaying in her mind, over and over again.

     She could not believe her old girlhood friend had turned into such a liar and schemer.  They had such fun when they were younger, playing simple children's games and sharing secrets.  And this plot concerning Diego, just what did it entail, she wondered.  Theft, adultery and perhaps even murder?  Victoria shuddered under the warm bedcovers.

    She had to warn Diego.  Lying there in her bed, she thought of him.  He was handsome, intelligent, a good father to Felipe and to be honest, quite wealthy.  She speculated, as she often did, why he remained unmarried.  He was really quite a catch.  Why, she might have been interested in him herself if it had not been for Zorro.

    Victoria sat upright, her blankets falling into her lap.  Where had that thought come from?  She covered her face with her hands.  Diego was only a friend, she told herself firmly.  She could not understand why she felt so confused and jealous by Teresa's flattering attention to him.

    "I love Zorro," she said aloud, mainly to convince herself.

    She laid her head back down on her soft pillow.  She would tell Diego of the deception against him in the morning.  Then they all would see what developed from there.  Finally she fell into a restless slumber.
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    The next morning dawned bright and sunny.  Diego and Felipe were eating their breakfast at the hacienda.  They lifted their eyes from their plates of huevas rancheros when Don Alejandro strode in angrily through the front door.

    "Well, it happened again," he announced upon seeing the two young men seated at the table.

    "What did, Father?" asked Diego innocently between bites.

     Don Alejandro shook his head in disgust. Sometimes his son, his own flesh and blood, was very dense.  He walked into the room and stood behind a chair, grabbing the back of it.

   "The cattle rustlers struck again last night, Diego," his father spoke as if to a small child.  "Nearly seventy-five head from the Valverdes rancho.  Jose Rivas rode over just now to tell me."

   "How dreadful," Diego feigned disinterest.  "How does Jose like being foreman for Señora Valverdes?"

    "He is doing quite well," Don Alejandro replied through clenched teeth.  "Although he is worried sick about the cattle.  But that is not important.  We are putting together a posse to go after these thieves.  Every man who can be spared.  Come on, let's get going."

     Diego looked over at Felipe, who was grinning from ear to ear.  They both stuffed one last fork full of eggs into their mouths, washing it down with freshly squeezed orange juice.

     Maybe it would not be so bad, Diego thought, following his father and Felipe out to the stables.  Spending the day searching for the bandits would keep him out of Teresa's way and Victoria's as well.  Besides, he considered, although Zorro would have a better chance of tracking these culprits, he could be at risk of capture with so many men out scouring the countryside.

     The de la Vega men joined the posse that had been formed at the Valverdes ranch.  Diego and Felipe maneuvered to be in a different group than Don Alejandro.  Most of the men had brought their muskets.  Diego glanced over the tense faces around him.

    "I hope these rustlers are brought to justice soon," he whispered to Felipe, who nodded.  "Angry men with weapons are a dangerous combination."

     The small bands rode out then, each heading in a different direction.  The area nearest to the pueblo is where Diego's party had been assigned.  They spent several fruitless hours looking for any sign of the banditos.  Diego and Felipe soon became separated from the rest of their group.

    "I do not think we are going to find anything today, Felipe," Diego said unnecessarily to his son.

    The younger man nodded his concurrence.  They followed a trail that led into a dry riverbed.  Diego dismounted his horse, Esparanza, and glanced down at the ground.

     "Nothing," he said in disgust.  He turned to face Felipe still astride his pony.

     "Zorro has been following these rustlers for four days," Diego said.  "And there has been no trace of them."

      Felipe sat dejectedly on his horse.  Diego felt as hot and thirsty as the younger man looked.  He remounted his animal, gathering up the reins.

     "Let's say you and I get ‘lost'," suggested Diego.  "And find our way to the tavern for a refreshing glass of Victoria's lemonade?"  He smiled as Felipe eagerly nodded his agreement.  They both spurred their mounts in the direction of the pueblo.
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"THE BEST OF FRIENDS"-CHAPTER FOUR