"THE BIRDS AND THE BEES"

CHAPTER ONE

     Felipe had been back home from San Diego for about a week.  Diego had made sure de Soto examined Felipe's discharge papers.  The last thing Diego wanted was for the Alcalde to think the young man was a deserter.   De Soto's reaction had been one of contempt, sure that the de la Vegas' influence had secured Felipe's release from service.

     Felipe had been quickly swept up into all the work that needed to be done at the ranch.  It had been difficult to spend much time with Ana Maria, some days he had been too busy.  Now he understood what Zorro went through with Victoria.  A few stolen moments here and there were not enough.  Still Felipe was happy to be home, back with the people who cared for him.

     It was early one afternoon when Ana Maria Ortega walked down the tavern staircase.  The inn was nearly deserted as it was time for siesta.  The young woman knew however she would find Señorita Escalante hard at work in the kitchen.

     Indeed the lovely tavern owner was busily chopping up onions and peppers. Simmering over the fire was the beginnings of a pot of her famous albondigas soup.  She smiled as Ana Maria entered the room and sat down on a nearby stool.

     "Hola," said Victoria cheerfully.  Then noticing the girl's pale face, she added, "What is wrong, Ana Maria?"

     "Señorita Victoria," the young woman began, twisting her hands nervously.  She blurted out, "How do a man and woman make a baby?"

     Victoria nearly sliced off her thumb.  She deliberately put down her knife before she answered, "Isn't that something you should ask your mother?"

     "Oh, but I cannot," Ana Maria replied.  "You know Mama, she would be upset.  She has told me before that I would find out when I married.  That is all she would say."

     Victoria studied the young woman curiously.  She had recently turned eighteen and was very beautiful.  Obviously her mother did not think as her own mother had.  "Is there a reason you want to know about. . .about this now?"

     "I think I might be having a baby."  Tears began to glimmer in Ana Maria's dark eyes.  "But I am not sure."

     "Felipe?"  Victoria was stunned.  Surely he would not take advantage. . .

     "Si," the girl confirmed.  "It was the night before he left for San Diego, we. . .we did things.  I am not sure. . .  Por favor, Victoria."

     Victoria suspected the young woman really had no clue at all.  She liked Señora Ortega but sometimes she seemed such a hard woman.

     "I will tell you," she said and related to her the facts of life her own mother had told her.  She saw relief creep over Ana Maria's face as she spoke.  When Victoria had finished, the other woman was a bit overwhelmed but smiling.

     "Oh, gracias a Dios," she murmured.  "Nothing like that happened.  I could not be. . .  It was just that my time is late. . .  I was so worried."

     "You have been so upset about Felipe," reassured Victoria, "besides you did not eat much for nearly a week.  Such things can cause a delay."  She became more serious then.  "Ana Maria, I know you and Felipe love each other, but you cannot let him, well, take improprieties.  You are both so young," she held up her hand to silence the girl's protest, "but not too young to make a baby.  You need to be careful."

     "Si," Ana Maria replied.  She glanced up at the older woman.  "Do you and Zorro ever. . .?"

     "No!" exclaimed Victoria, interrupting her.  "Ana Maria, really. . ."

    "Sorry."  The young woman jumped down from the stool.  "I had better go.  I am supposed to be doing errands for Mama.  Gracias, Victoria."

     "De nada."  The innkeeper watched the girl leave.  She needed to have a little talk with Diego.  And soon.  Smiling with amusement, she wondered if he knew as much as Ana Maria had.  Walking out of the kitchen, she did not have long to ponder that thought as Diego was just entering the tavern.  Through the open doorway she could see Felipe and Ana Maria, hand in hand, heading across the plaza.

    She went behind the bar as Diego leaned up against it as was his custom.   "I need to speak with you," she demanded as she grabbed his hand.  Meeting with his resistance, she said, "Now."  He could only follow her as she dragged him into the kitchen, a puzzled look on his handsome face.

     "Victoria, what. . .?" he started to ask when they were alone.

      "Be quiet and listen."  Usually she was never so rude but right now she was a little upset with him.  "What have you told Felipe about. . . Well, relations between men and women?"  Now that she had his complete attention, she felt a bit awkward.  He, after all, was a man and one did not mention such things to members of the opposite sex.

     "I told him what he needs to know," replied Diego, quite surprised at her curiosity.  "Several years ago actually, when he met Kinona.  Why?"

     She quickly filled him in on her conversation with Ana Maria.  She was a little glad to see him visibly pale, knowing the revelations had stunned him.

     "I see I need to discuss it with him again, " he said, shaking his head.  "I keep forgetting he is a man now, with a man's desires."

     Victoria peeked up at him, an mischievous smile on her lips.  "And what about you, Diego?  Do you have a man's desires?"

     Diego was stunned she would ask him such a question.  Clearly he was playing his role as Don Diego the passionless dreamer a little too well.  He looked at her, coyly waiting for his reply.  That really infuriated him.

     "As a matter of fact, I do," he retorted hotly.  He had to control himself from showing her just how much desire he could burn with.  He spun about sharply and strode from the kitchen.  Victoria hurried over to the curtained doorway in time to watch him walk out of her tavern as well.

     "My goodness."  It was Victoria who was shocked now.  She could not recall a time that Diego had ever been angry with her before, not like this.  She had only meant to tease him, not for him to get so upset.  She would definitely have to apologize when next she saw him.  He was a good, dear friend and she could not bear to lose him as such.

     Sighing, she stepped back into the kitchen and resumed her work.
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     Diego's anger dissipated on his ride home.  Poor Esperanza had borne the brunt of his temper as he had galloped her hard most of the way to the hacienda

     Poor old girl, Diego thought as he brought her around to the stables.  He took the time to care for her himself  instead of turning her over to the groom.  Before he headed for the house, he added a little extra grain to her feed trough.

     When Diego walked through the front door, loud angry voices led him to the library where several of the local ranchers and farmers had gathered.  As usual, his father had taken charge of the group.  "It's agreed, then," he declared to the assembled men.  "We will form a search party tomorrow at dawn."

     The men all nodded in agreement then started up their separate discussions again.  Diego wandered over to where his father was conversing with Don Eduardo Delgado and Don Roberto Salazar.

     "What is going on?" he inquired as he waved at the other men.  "Why is there need of a posse?"

     "Something attacked three of Don Eduardo's steers last night," Don Alejandro informed him.  "They were mauled so badly they had to be put down."

     "I'm sorry, Don Eduardo," Diego said sincerely.  He held no animosity toward the older man, even though he had drugged his father and almost forced him to marry his daughter.  The old don was dying as evidenced by his wheezing cough.

     "Gracias, Diego," Don Eduardo replied when he could speak again.  "Three head of cattle from my herd is a drop in the bucket," he said proudly.  "Most of the others here though can not afford to lose any of their animals."

     "What was it?" questioned Diego.  "Felipe and I saw puma tracks the other day when we were out gathering samples of. . ."

     "Puma?"  Don Alejandro asked incredulously.  "You recognized its tracks, Diego?"  His son's lack of tracking skills were legendary in the pueblo.

     Diego realized his error immediately.  "Uh, it was Felipe who pointed them out," he said with mock embarrassment in his voice.  "I don't believe a puma would attack livestock though, unless. . ."  The elder de la Vega interrupted him by laughing heartily.

     "Nonetheless, son," he said.  "I expect you to ride with us in the morning.  Tell Felipe."  Don Alejandro surveyed the room.  "Where is he anyway?"

     "Still in town," his son replied through gritted teeth.  He knew what was coming next.

     "Where is the ink you were supposed to pick up?" the old don asked impatiently.  "And my boots I had repaired.  You knew I needed them. . ."

     "I forgot," Diego lied, biting his tongue.  He did not appreciate being scolded like a naughty schoolboy in front of all these men.  "Excuse me."  He stalked off toward his room, leaving his father staring open mouthed at him.  The sound of a slamming door made him think twice about following his son.

     Diego stood in his room, his hands in tight fists.  He felt like hitting something, anything to release all this anger he had pent up inside.  It was not everyday two of the people you loved the most, insulted you.  Insults that cut deep.

     He was getting quite tired of this masquerade.  True, he had brought it upon himself.  But he had not imagined that Zorro would still be necessary after so many years.  Surely one day he would be able to take off both his masks; the black silk one he wore as Zorro and this one he wore as Don Diego, the weak-willed poet and scientist.

     He wished he could be free to be himself.
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     Zorro did not ride that night to search for the culprit of the attack on the Delgado steers.  The people of Los Angeles needed to stop being so dependant on their masked hero to save the day.

     Diego was up before dawn, refreshed from a restful night's sleep for once.  Felipe, who had stayed up late reading his law books, looked bleary eyed while they ate breakfast.  He thought his adopted father seemed bothered by something, especially from the way the older man was stabbing his eggs.  He had heard gossip that he and Victoria had a spat the day before, but did not believe it.  But. . .   Maybe there was something to the rumor.  As they were alone at the table, he took a chance and voiced his concern.

     "D-Diego, are y-you all r-right?"  He still stuttered when he spoke, something he hoped he would grow out of in time.

     "Yes, just peachy," he muttered.  He was instantly remorseful when he saw the hurt expression on his adopted son's face.  "Sorry, I had a rough day yesterday," he stated apologetically.  He smiled and changed the subject.  "Do you remember where we found those puma tracks?"

     Felipe nodded as Diego continued.  "Then that's where we will go later. . ."  He paused as Felipe made several gestures.  Diego wondered why he has switched over to their old system of communication until his father strolled into the dining room.

    "No, I don't think it is a cougar, either," Diego agreed later as he and Felipe were mounting their horses.  "I just want to cover all the possibilities."

     Several hours later Diego and Felipe had broken away from the rest of their group.  Coming up to the edge of an arroyo, they gazed down below to the canyon floor.

    "Th-This is it," Felipe pointed out.  They found a narrow trail to make their way to the bottom where they discovered the same paw prints they had seen earlier that week.  It was late afternoon before the pair abandoned their hunt.  They had followed the puma's tracks up into the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, in the opposite direction of the Delgado ranch.

     Felipe eagerly agreed to Diego's suggestion that they stopped in the pueblo on the way home for a glass of Victoria's sweet lemonade. Diego also wanted the chance to let her know he had already forgiven her.  It was not her fault he played his dual roles too well.

     Father and son entered the tavern a short while later.  Felipe immediately headed toward the table where Ana Maria and her mother sat, each hemming an edge of a large quilt.  Diego was shaking his head when Victoria placed her hand on his arm.

    "Diego, I want to apologize," she began, looking up at him with her dark eyes.  "I did not mean what I said yesterday.  I had no right. . ."

    "It's forgotten already," he replied graciously, smiling at her.  "Perhaps a glass of your lemonade will ease my pain," he added teasingly.

     Victoria grinned back at him, relieved he was not still cross.  She poured him a tall glass of the cool liquid.  Noticing he was staring in Felipe and the Ortegas' direction, she asked, "Did you speak with Felipe yet?"

     He grimaced.  "No, yet another thing forgotten," he replied.  "There has not been time."

     "Si, I heard about the cattle being attacked at the Delgados."  She was still a little peeved with Don Eduardo.  Thinking that silly girl would be a good wife for Diego.  What a preposterous notion!  She sighed as she glanced over at Felipe and Ana Maria smiling at each other, holding hands so her mother would not see them.  "They fell in love so fast, didn't they?" she added, sounding envious.

     Diego did not understand her at first, then saw what she meant.  He realized her relationship with Zorro was as equally as difficult for her as for him.  She loved a man, not even knowing who he truly was.  It must be hard for her as well to watch normal couples, holding hands, getting married, etc.  She and Zorro were not even allowed to court properly.  Yet, her love was deep and strong, despite it all.

     He sighed and took a sip of his lemonade.  Victoria had gone back behind the bar, restacking clean glasses.  A young woman wearing a shabby dress that had once been fashionable sauntered into the tavern.  She carried a baby about six months of age with one arm and led a little boy who looked to be around three years old with the other.  Their clothes were noticeably worn as well.

     The young mother glanced around in confusion before she noticed Victoria behind the counter.  "Are you the innkeeper?" she asked, coming to a halt next to where Diego was standing.

     "Si, Señora," Victoria greeted her warmly, smiling at the children.  "How may I help you?"

     "I need a room, por favor," the woman replied.  "I am not sure for how long.  I am to meet with the children's father here."

     Victoria thought it strange the way the woman spoke of her husband.  "Oh, is he here on business?" she inquired inquisitively.

     "You could say that," the young mother replied with an enigmatic smile.  "He is the outlaw known as Zorro."
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"THE BIRDS AND THE BEES"-CHAPTER TWO