"THE BEST OF FRIENDS"

CHAPTER FIVE

    Zorro rode across the dark countryside.  He reined Toronado to a stop when they crested a small hill.  Below them laid the old Alvarez homestead.  Victoria had mentioned that Teresa had visited it earlier that day.  He wondered why.  He wished he could send someone to San Diego to investigate Teresa's activities there but that was out of the question.

     The old house was not in very good condition.  The family who had purchased the farm, the Bautistas, had not used the house.  They had just let it go to rack and ruin. Swinging down off Toronado's back, Zorro immediately began to search for any clue, any sign that could be of use.  He only saw two sets of fresh prints, obviously made by two pairs of small, dainty feet.

   Teresa and her companion, he surmised accurately.  Walking quietly a little further, he saw another footprint, a much larger boot print.  It must belong to the stranger that Victoria had seen with her friend last night.  And where did he figure into all of this,  Zorro wondered to himself.  He curiously followed their trail as it led away from the house.

     It took him to a small knoll about a hundred yards behind the dilapidated old barn.  There was a small mound which to Zorro, looked suspiciously like an old grave.  Especially since there was a bouquet of fresh flowers laid upon it.

     Teresa must have placed them there, he guessed.  But why?  Who was buried there?  He walked back toward the old buildings.  He did not find anything out of the ordinary after a thorough search of the abandoned structures.  Shrugging his broad shoulders, he remounted his stallion and headed for Los Angeles.

   At that moment in the pueblo, trouble was definitely brewing.  Teresa and Señora Gomez had returned to the tavern late that afternoon.  Victoria was in the kitchen in the midst of dinner preparations when they arrived, so it was Pilar who brought them some refreshments.  Teresa took a small sip from her glass, ignoring the brooding Antonio, who sat at a table in the corner.  He sent her an angry glance before turning his attention back to his wine.

     Señora Gomez leaned across the table so she could not be overheard.  "I think we need to put our plan into motion soon.  Especially since Antonio is already here."  She darted a look his way.  "Just why is he here so soon?"

     "He wants to make sure everything is going smoothly," whispered Teresa nervously.

    "I do hope he does nothing to spoil everything," the señora complained.  "We are all depending on this marriage to de la Vega.  I have no wish to end up in prison."

    "Hush, Ada," Teresa scolded quietly.  "Do not talk like that.  Nothing will go wrong, I promise you.

     "Well, one of us had to be sensible," the older woman said in a huff.  She picked up her glass of wine to take a drink.  ‘Heaven knows I cannot rely on you or Antonio to be practical.  You both are too hot blooded."

     Teresa sipped again from her glass.  She tossed a glance in her lover's direction.  A serving girl was bringing him another carafe of wine.  He was getting drunk, a prospect that Teresa did not relish.  He was mean and extremely unpredictable when he was intoxicated.

     Victoria came out of the kitchen, carrying a pitcher of fresh lemonade.  She saw her friend and her companion were back from their excursion.  She also noticed the man who Teresa had been with the night before was well on his way to becoming very inebriated.  She did not like such behavior in her establishment and decided to warn the stranger of that fact.

     "Señor," Victoria spoke when she reached his table.  He looked up groggily at her.  "Dinner will be served in a few minutes.  Perhaps you would like to place your order now.  Tonight we are having arroz con pollo and. . ."

     "No dinner."  Antonio slurred his refusal.  He clumsily lifted his full glass of wine so that it sloshed out onto the table.  "This is all I want."

     "I am sorry, Señor," Victoria said not at all contritely.  "I am afraid you cannot have any more alcohol unless you eat something."

     Antonio slammed his glass down hard onto the wooden tabletop, spilling even more of his drink.  He glared angrily at Victoria.  "What gives you the right to tell me how much I can drink?" he demanded.

    "I own this tavern, Señor," she said, giving him her special stare reserved for drunks and troublemakers.  "And I say you have had enough."

     She tried to snatch the wine carafe from the table but Antonio grabbed her wrist.  Victoria struggled to pull out of his grasp.

    "Let go, Señor," she commanded in a sharp but calm voice.

     "That would be an excellent idea," a masculine voice came from behind Victoria.  The Alcalde stood there, his hand on the hilt of his sword.  Antonio noticed the man's military uniform and released his tight grip from Victoria's wrist.

    "Forgive me, por favor," he apologized sullenly and picked up his half full wine glass.

     Victoria, still holding the carafe, rounded to face de Soto.  "Gracias, Alcalde," she said, then walked over to the bar to put away the wine.

    The commandante followed her and leaned against the long counter.  "Victoria, I want to ask you a few more questions about Señorita Alvarez."

     Victoria glanced over at Teresa.  "Why don't you ask her yourself?" she queried somewhat bitterly.  She took out a rag and began wiping the bar top.

    "I would," he explained, "if I knew exactly what I am looking for.  It would not be polite."

     "Well, I know nothing more, Alcalde."  Victoria was tired of all the attention her old friend was attracting, plus she was just plain tired.  "I am sorry, you will have to figure it out on your own."

    She turned and left him standing there, going into the kitchen.  The Alcalde, stinging a little from her rudeness, decided to take her suggestion anyway.  He made his way over to Teresa's table.

   "Señorita Alvarez, Señora," he greeted the ladies who looked at each other in alarm.

    "Señor Alcalde," Teresa finally replied with a calmness she did not feel.  "Please, excuse me, sir.  I have the most horrible headache."

    "Forgive me, Señorita," said DeSoto, bowing as the women rose from their seats.  He watched as they walked up the stairs.  He intended to leave when he caught of glimpse of Victoria standing in the kitchen doorway.  The Alcalde arched a puzzled eyebrow in her direction but she ignored his question.

    Victoria regarded his departure, then darted a glance upstairs.  Why was Teresa avoiding the Alcalde?  Well, she was going to find out.  She marched across her tavern and up the staircase to her friend's room, knocking impatiently on the door.

     "Who is it?" came Teresa's wary reply.

     "It's Victoria."  She leaned closer to the door.  "Teresa, I need to speak with you, por favor."

     "Just a minute," Teresa unlatched the lock.  She opened the door slowly, peeking out.  When she saw that Victoria was alone, she let her in.

     "What is wrong?" asked Teresa, violently twisting a silk scarf with her hands.

      Victoria noticed the edge in her friend's voice.  "Why are you afraid of the Alcalde? Granted, he is not my favorite person, but you went out of your way to avoid him."

   "I do not know what you mean," fibbed Teresa.  "He is quite charming.  Why would I be afraid of him?  It is just your imagination.  Remember when we were children. . ."

   "Do not lie to me," Victoria cut the reminiscence short.  "Teresa, I want you to tell me the truth.  Not just about the Alcalde, but with Diego too.  Why do you have to marry him?"

    "Oh, Victoria, you need to mind your own business," said a defeated Teresa.  "You do not understand."

   "I know about Antonio, amiga," stated Victoria, causing her friend to gasp.  "I saw the two of you in his room last night."

    "You. . .  You were spying. . .  Spying on me?" stammered Teresa.  She turned away, wringing the cloth harder than before.

  "No, I heard you two fighting and went to investigate," explained Victoria.  "Please, Teresa, tell me what is going on."

   The other woman sat down on her bed, slumping her shoulders.  Victoria sat down next her and reached over, holding one of her hands.

    "I met Antonio when I was sixteen," Teresa began, "but Mama and Papa did not approve of him.  ‘No prospects', Mama said.  They wanted me to marry our wealthy neighbor.  Oh, Victoria, he seemed so old and ugly.  I was forced to become his wife.  But a year later, he. . .he died."  She took a deep breath before continuing.

    Victoria looked suspiciously at her friend.  The story sounded true enough so far, but something was not quite right.

     "Well, I thought Antonio and I could wed then, since I was a wealthy widow.  But Antonio said it would not be enough money to impress my parents.  So he found another husband for me.  One with even more money and prestige than my first husband.  Antonio promised he would marry me if I did as he asked."  Teresa tried to look remorseful but Victoria did not buy it.

    "Then my second husband. . .  He died too.  I hoped that Antonio would keep his word then.  But I found out he had gambled and drank up all the wealth I had inherited.  So he wanted me to find one more rich man to marry.  Preferably one with a large estate so we would be set for life.  That is when I thought of Diego de la Vega.  His family is the richest I knew.   Plus," she confessed, "I hoped when Antonio saw that the man I intended to marry was young and handsome, he would be jealous.  But it has not turned out as I thought."

     "It certainly will not if you spill the beans to everyone."  An intoxicated Antonio leaned up against the doorframe.  Both women had not been aware of his presence until he had spoken.  Teresa jumped up off the bed.

     "Antonio, no, I. . . I. . ." she stuttered with fright.

     "Shut up, you fool," he snarled at her.  I suppose you told her how innocent you are in all of this.  If I am going to hang for this, por Dios, so are you.  Or did you forget you were the one who put the poison in your husbands' food?"

   "Only because you forced me to," exclaimed Teresa, backing away as he stepped forward menacingly.

    Victoria still sat on the bed, in a state of shock.  She watched as Antonio roughly grabbed Teresa's wrists, causing her to cry out in pain.  Realizing she was in danger, Victoria rose slowly and started for the door.  But Antonio saw her and letting go of one of Teresa's arms, grabbed Victoria by the shoulder.  He pushed both women so they fell back onto the bed.  Then he pulled a dagger from his waistband.

    "No one is going anywhere," Antonio threatened them, "except perhaps the cemetery."  He pointed the blade at Victoria.  "She knows too much." he said to Teresa, then directed his weapon at his lover.  "And it would seem I cannot trust you any more."

     "Please, Antonio, do not do this," pleaded Teresa.  "I am sorry.  Please, I love you. . ."

     "Love, ha," he spat out viciously.  "I only love money and what it can give me.  Save your pathetic platitudes for someone who cares."

     He brought the dagger once again toward Victoria, placing its tip on her cheek.  Both women shook in terror, not knowing what the angry man was going to do next.  No one noticed the tall, masked man standing just outside of the room.

     Antonio instead felt his presence when a saber was jabbed unceremoniously into his spine.  Not hard enough to break the skin, but enough to get his undivided attention.

    "I care very much about what happens to these women.  Lower your weapon, Señor."

     Antonio considered the request for a moment.  The blade point dug a little harder into the soft flesh of his back hastened his decision.  He lowered the dagger away from Victoria's face.

     "Wise move," Zorro said as he removed the weapon from Antonio's hand then handed it to a now smiling Victoria.  He held out his hand to Teresa.

     "The scarf, por favor."  She unknotted it from her hands and gave it to Zorro.  He spun Antonio around and used the cloth to tie his hands behind his back.  Then, with mischievous grin on his face, he slashed a ‘Z' on the other man's jacket.  Zorro then shoved Antonio face down on the bed.

     Zorro turned to Victoria.  "Are you all right? He did not harm you?"

     She smiled up at him.  "I am fine," she reassured him.

     "Señorita Alvarez, may I ask you a question?" he inquired politely.

     Teresa shrugged her shoulders, indicating that she did not care.

     "There is a grave at your old homestead.  Who is. . .?"  He did not finish.

      Tears began to stream down Teresa's beautiful face.  "It is my little brother," she sobbed, the seriousness of her situation finally sinking in.

     Victoria stared in shock at her old friend.  "Julio?  He is dead?  I thought he moved to San Diego with the rest of you."

     "That is what everyone thought," replied Teresa.  "Mama and Papa had a terrible fight one night.  They had both been drinking heavily all day.  Julio got in the way and Papa accidentally pushed him.  He hit his head on the hearth.  It...it...killed him.  That is why we left so suddenly.  My abuela was not ill like we told everyone.  Papa thought he would be accused of murder if anyone found out what had happened."

     Zorro glanced over at Victoria.  He saw the pain in her lovely brown eyes.  Victoria gave her friend a sympathetic hug.

     "I am so sorry, Teresa, I did not know," she said.  Then she moved an arm's length away.  "But that does not mean you are not a lying, scheming. . ."

      "Victoria."  Zorro placed a gloved hand on her shoulder, calming her anger.  "I think Teresa knows exactly what she is."

     Teresa hung her head guiltily.  Zorro tilted his slightly as he heard loud footsteps coming up the staircase.

     "Up here, men," called out Sergeant Mendoza.

     "I must be going," Zorro said to Victoria.  "I trust you will fill in the good sergeant about these two?"

     She nodded.  He quickly touched his lips to hers.  Before she could recover, he had disappeared through a window.  Which was quite fortunate, because at that exact moment, the portly Mendoza puffed his way into the room, followed by two other lancers.
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     Several days later, Antonio and Teresa, along with Señora Gomez, were being led out of the jail.  Soldiers from San Diego had responded to the Alcalde's dispatch to claim the prisoners.  It seemed there was a warrant for the trio on charges of murder for both of Teresa's husbands.

     Quite a few of the townspeople put a halt to their daily routines to watch the small procession.  Their number included Diego and Victoria, who were observing it from the tavern porch.  Diego turned to the beautiful innkeeper.

     "Aren't you going to say good bye to her?"

    Victoria shook her head slightly and said, "I know I should...  But there is so much..."

     "I think you will regret it if you do not," advised Diego.  He inclined his head in the direction of the prison wagon.  The two women has stepped into it, followed by a glowering Antonio.  "You do not have much time."

    "You are right," she agreed.  She hurried off the porch, walking swiftly across the plaza.  Diego came after her but at a much slower pace.

     "Teresa, wait," Victoria called out when she reached the wagon.

    Her old amiga turned to look at her.  Victoria was surprised by Teresa's appearance.  Her face was pale, her eyes red from crying and her hands were shackled.

    "I want to say good bye," said Victoria.  "I am sorry it has to be this way."

    "No, I am the one who should be sorry," Teresa apologized contritely.  "I have betrayed our friendship.  I hope someday you will find it in your heart to forgive me."

     "I think I already do," replied Victoria with a sad smile.  "It is strange what one will do for love.  I know."

     Teresa nodded sadly.  She noticed that Diego had joined them.  "I want to apologize to you as well, Don Diego.  I know I made you uncomfortable."

     Diego just waved it off.   "De nada."  A soldier came over and shut the barred door with a loud clang.

     "Adios," Teresa said.  "I wish you both well."

     Another soldier tapped on the side of the wagon and it began to rumble away.  Diego and Victoria watched as it headed south until it was a tiny speck in the distance.  Then they slowly walked back toward the tavern.

     "You know, Diego," Victoria began, "Teresa's plot was not the only thing I learned that night.  She told her lover you were in love with someone else."  She glanced up coquettishly at him.  "Is it the same woman you told me about before?"

     Diego sighed heavily before he answered her.  He dared not look her in the eye.

     "Si, it is," he replied.  "And yes, she is still in love with someone else."

     "That is too bad," said Victoria sympathetically.  "You should find someone who loves you."

    "One cannot always chose whom one will love," responded Diego.  "Take you and Zorro, for example.  You have had to make sacrifices."

     "That is true," she agreed.  "But I would gladly make them again to be with him."

     The strolling couple reached the tavern.  About to go inside, they nearly collided with a beaming Felipe and Ana Maria, who were on their way out.  It was obvious the younger pair was oblivious to everything else but each other.

     "Ah, to be young and in love," said Diego wryly.  Victoria laughed as Diego guided her through the doorway.  He glanced back at the young twosome and shook his head.

     If only he could tell Victoria the truth.
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FIN

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