"THE BEST OF FRIENDS"

CHAPTER FOUR

     Diego and Felipe rode into the pueblo a little while later.  It was near siesta time and with most of the men out searching for the rustlers, the dusty plaza was deserted.  The two men dismounted in front of the tavern, tying their horses to the railing.

     Inside the tavern, it was nearly uninhabited as well.  Just a few of the older gentlemen were there, drinking and talking.  Felipe spied Ana Maria walking up the stairs.  He gave a quick look at Diego then rushed over to intercept her.

     Diego had to smile.  His adopted son was wasting little time in his pursuit of the fair Ana Maria, he thought.  If only his love life was as uncomplicated.

     "Diego," said his main complication.  Victoria had emerged from the kitchen.  "How goes the search?"

    "Not well," he replied.  One thing about Victoria, she learned of everything sooner or later.  "Felipe and I. . .  Well, we got lost and decided to find our way back to the pueblo."

     Victoria shook her black curls knowingly and laughed.  "I do not know why your father keeps insisting you join him on these ventures.  He ought to realize by now that you are no tracker."

     "That is true," Diego responded, hiding a wry smile.  "Do you have any lemonade?  Successful or not, tracking is thirsty work."

     "I just made a fresh pitcher," she stated.  She ducked back into the kitchen through the curtained doorway.  Diego wandered over and sat down at an empty table.  Felipe, with Ana Maria by his side, came up to him.  The young man signaled for a few moments, then looked expectantly at his father.  Diego smiled.

     "Si, you may take Ana Maria for a walk," he acquiesced, bringing grins to both their young faces.  "But do not be gone too long.  We should probably return home before my father gets back."

     Felipe nodded and he led Ana Maria out of the tavern.  Diego watched them leave in brooding silence.  He jumped when Victoria placed a glass before him.  She set another one on the table, then poured lemonade into both of them.  Diego looked at her questioningly when she put the pitcher down on the table and sat down on the bench opposite himself.

    "Diego, I need to talk to you," she said, her distress creeping into her tone.

     Intrigued, Diego leaned forward, taking a sip of his drink.  Victoria, not knowing where to begin, fidgeted with her hands nervously.

    "It is Teresa," she finally said, her words spilling out quickly.  "Oh, Diego, she is involved in some terrible scheme to marry you then somehow get her hands on your and your father's money.  She means to trap you.  You must believe me."

     Diego had a skeptical expression on his face.  He took another drink before speaking.

     "Are you certain, Victoria?" he inquired.  "Teresa was quite charming to me last night.  She made no threats or demands."  He sipped his lemonade again.  "I thought you two were the best of friends.  I remember that was the case when you both were younger."

     "We were," Victoria conceded.  "But that was a long time ago and people change. I have. Teresa definitely has.  Even you have changed a little since then, you must admit."

   "Things are always so much simpler when we are children,"remarked Diego.  "Of course, a person grows, matures..."

    "Yes," Victoria interrupted him.  "Although you were always such a serious boy.  I recall one day when you had brought your mother to the Mission and while you were waiting for her, you would not play with us."

      A wry smile came to his face as he remembered the event of which Victoria spoke.

    They both began thinking of the day almost twenty years earlier.  Diego had been twelve years old, tall for his age and very lonely.  There had been no other boys or girls near his own age in the pueblo.  Which would not have made a difference since Diego was tutored at home and did not attend the Mission school like the other pueblo children did.

     How I had wished for a friend or a sibling, thought Diego sadly.  And all that time he had a twin brother.  His anger toward Señora Risendo began to rise again.  Shaking it out of his head, he turned to his musings.

     He had driven his mother into Los Angeles that afternoon.  Don Alejandro had been out of town, buying cattle in San Diego.  His mother had not been well, but she had insisted on going to the church so she could see the padre.

     "You can wait here, Diego," she said as she went inside.  Diego sat forlornly on the steps.

     Just then, the children from the Mission school were let out for the day.  Their happy voices, laughing and shouting, filled the plaza.  Unhappily, Diego watched as they ran and played, glad to be free from the restraints of their lessons.

    Two small girls appeared from behind the church.  One girl was pleasantly plump, her companion was smaller and more delicate.  Both had their dark hair braided into two plaits which hung down their backs.  They were whispering to each other, oblivious to everyone else.

    "Niñas, niñas," came the chant from behind them.  Two of the older boys danced up and yanked hard on the girls' braids.

    The girls both squealed as their hair was pulled.  The bigger girl managed to stay on her feet, but the smaller one fell backward, landing on her seat in the dust.  She also dropped the slate she was carrying and it broke into pieces as it hit the ground.

    "Oh, Jorge Ortiz, you are such a bully," declared Teresa Alvarez, who was the plump little girl.  She emphasized her point by sticking out her tongue at Juan Ortiz' older brother.

    Victoria, the girl who had been knocked down, struggled to get to her feet.  Tears welled up in her eyes as she saw the slate.  The boys, spurred on by the tongue and the tears, pranced around, continuing to torment them.  Jorge pulled both of Teresa's braids.  And the other boy, Pedro Gonzalez (Los Angeles' future bank manager), stepped on Victoria's slate, grinding it into even smaller pieces.

    "Leave them alone."  They all turned to see Diego standing there.  He stood tall, his arms crossed against his already broad chest.

     Jorge and Pedro had stopped in their tracks and looked at Diego.  He was at least half a foot taller than they were, and stronger too.  Besides, he was a de la Vega, the most important family in the territory.  They decided to take his advice and took off running.

     Diego watched them go, then knelt down to pick up the shards of Victoria's slate.  She joined him, wiping the tears from her face.  Teresa just stared at Diego in admiration.

     "Gracias, Diego," Victoria said, accepting a handful of the broken grey tile from him.

     "De nada," he replied.  He started to head back to finish waiting for his mother.  He spun around when Victoria spoke again.

    "Can you play with us?"she asked shyly.  "We want to play house and we need someone to be the papa."

     "Won't one of your brothers do?" questioned Diego.

    "No, Francisco and Ramon call us niñas," Victoria replied, shaking her head.  "They like to play soldiers anyway.  Can you play?"

     Diego looked at their pleading little faces. The girls were so cute, he very much wanted to agree.  Especially when the little Escalante girl smiled up at him. But then he remembered his mother.  He glanced over his shoulder at the mission.

    "No, I cannot," he answered.  "I am sorry," he added, seeing their crestfallen expressions.  "Perhaps another time."

    He walked back over to the church.  Victoria and Teresa sadly watched him go.

   "Teresa thought you were so heroic," Victoria said to Diego, breaking their reveries.  "That is when she said she was in love with you.  She spoke of nothing else for weeks."

   Diego smiled mischievously.  "And what about you, Victoria?" he could not help but ask.  "What did you think?"

    "I thought you were a snob," replied Victoria truthfully.  "Oh, do not get me wrong.  I was very grateful that you came to our aid.  But I wanted you to play with us.  I did not know about your mother until much later."

    "Neither did I."  Diego's mother had been carrying another child after many years of hoping and praying.  Unfortunately, Diego's little sister had died at birth followed by Felicidad de la Vega several days later of the difficult birth's complications.

     Diego scattered those unpleasant memories from his mind.  He returned their conversation to Teresa and her scheme.  "Are you positive about Teresa?" he asked.

   "I overheard her plotting last night with a stranger." Victoria admitted her eavesdropping.  "But he was no stranger to her.  He is going to make her get you into a compromising situation.  Diego, please be careful."

     She wrung her hands again.  Diego could not help himself and placed his hands on hers reassuringly.  Victoria was surprised at his bold gesture but did not move her hands away.

     "I promise I will be on my guard," he told her. Then giving her hands a quick squeeze, he released them.

     Victoria regarded him strangely.  This was quite unlike Diego.  She was about to comment on that when the Alcalde strode into the tavern.

      "Señorita Escalante," he said when he saw her.  He was perplexed by the sight of her and de la Vega sitting together so chummily.  Shaking his head, he continued.  "Is your friend, Señorita Alvarez, here by any chance?"

    Victoria shook her head.  "No.  She and Señora Gomez went out to visit her old family farm.  I am not sure when they will return.  Why?" she added suspiciously.

     "Oh, it is just that I was going over the old pueblo records and turned up several interesting facts about the Alvarez family," replied the Alcalde in a deceptively casual manner.  "Would you know the reason they left Los Angeles so suddenly twelve years ago?"

     "Teresa's grandmother was very ill," recalled Victoria.  "They sold their land here and stayed in San Diego after she died."

      "That is probably what they wanted everyone to believe," the Alcalde asserted.  "No, I think  it was something else that cause their abrupt departure."

     Victoria glanced at Diego, who shrugged his shoulders.  He had no idea what the Alcalde was trying to prove.  But the mystery did intrigue him.  Perhaps Zorro could find out something.  He brought his glass up to his lips to finish the refreshing lemonade when de Soto clasped him on one shoulder.  Diego nearly spilled the liquid in his lap but recovered just in time.

    "How come you are not scouring the countryside for the cattle rustlers, de la Vega?" the Alcalde inquired.

    "Well, I. . ." Diego started to explain.  "I got lost, so I ended up here."

     The Alcalde and Victoria both rolled their eyes.  Diego's lack of tracking skills were as legendary as Zorro's expertise.  Victoria collected their empty glasses, intending to take them to the kitchen.  However, de Soto stopped her before she could take her step.

    "Getting back to your friend," he said.  "Do you have anything else that may be useful to my investigation?"

    "Both of her parents drank," Victoria volunteered reluctantly. Diego looked at her in surprise, which she noticed.

    "Everyone knew about Señor Alvarez," she confirmed.  "But her mother hid her problem.  I only knew because Teresa and I were so close."

     The Alcalde nodded grimly.  "That could be helpful," he stroked his beard absently.  "Very helpful indeed. Gracias, Señorita."  He turned to leave, mulling over that tidbit of information.  He nodded abstractedly to Felipe and Ana Maria as they returned from their afternoon stroll.

     Diego stood up.  "I think we should head for home."  He signaled that message to Felipe, adding for him to say his goodbyes to Ana Maria.

    Felipe did, then he and Diego departed the tavern.  Victoria watched them go, a puzzled expression marring her beautiful face.  What a strange afternoon, she thought.  She carried the empty glasses into the kitchen, shaking her head.
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    Diego de la Vega, standing in the secret cave, was completing his transformation from the studious son of a wealthy landowner into the heroic outlaw, Zorro.  Carefully placing the black silk mask that concealed his identity over his dark hair, he tied it at the back of his neck.

    Felipe was also in the cave, saddling Toronado.  When he had finished, he walked over to lean against the lab table to watch his father.  Diego pulled on the last item of his disguise, black leather gloves.  It was Zorro who turned to face the young man.

     "I am not sure what it is that I am looking for," he said to Felipe. "And I am not sure when I will be back."  He pointed a gloved finger at the reclining youth.  "I want you to have a go at your law books while I am gone."

    Felipe grimaced at the suggestion.  Zorro chuckled.  "Remember, it was your idea to become a lawyer.  Have you changed your mind?"

     Shaking his head, Felipe gestured that it was still his wish.  Zorro swung into Toronado's saddle as Felipe signed further.

     "You want Ana Maria to be proud of you?" interpreted Zorro.  "Then hit the books, hijo. Adios."

     Felipe waved, looking resigned.  Man and horse left the cave via its narrow tunnel.
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"THE BEST OF FRIENDS"-CHAPTER FIVE