"THE BIRDS AND THE BEES"

CHAPTER FOUR

     Pilar had to restrain Victoria from doing the señora any further injury.  With both children wailing loudly, Monica ran up the staircase to her room.  It took several minutes for Victoria to calm down.

     "Pilar," she said in a tight voice, "she can stay until the weekend, then throw her out.  I won't be back until then.  Adios."

     She stomped out of her tavern and mounted her horse.  Not feeling like heading to the hacienda just yet, she roamed the countryside, lost in thought.

     It was a few hours later she found herself in the de la Vega citrus orchard.  In the distance she could see the men clipping branches from the trees.  It wasn't hard to pick out Diego's tall form.

    "Hola, Victoria," he greeted her, surprised by her arrival.  "How is everything at the tavern?"

     She dismounted and meandered toward him.  "Horrible," she declared.  "That Lopez woman, she told me such terrible things about Zorro."  Tears began to form in her beautiful eyes.

    Diego waited for her to continue.  He desperately wanted to take to her into his arms again and console her.  But he did not dare.  Too many prying eyes and he did not want a repeat of what had happened the other day.  He was just now getting over the frustration.

     "She says that Zorro has other women besides herself," she conveyed bleakly.  "And other children.  Why would she say that?  She is truly a horrible person."

     "Yes, it is incredible," Diego agreed.  "It's as though she is deliberately trying to smear Zorro, despite all her protestations of  feelings for him.  But by doing so, she is ruining herself.  There must be a good reason."

     "If there is, I cannot understand it," replied Victoria, wiping at her eyes.  Diego took pity on her.

     "There must be a way to prove she is not what she says she is," he commented.  "You have to be strong, Victoria."

     "Si."  She thought it odd that he was so defensive of Zorro, eager for her not to lose faith in the masked man.  Was it because he was a good friend or. . .?  What a silly notion!  She shook her head.  "I think I will ride a bit more before I go back to the hacienda," she decided.  She was confused by Diego's reaction.

     "You've been out riding?" he inquired worriedly.  "Victoria, it's not safe.  Felipe and I think there is some kind of wild dog out there.  The one that has been killing all the livestock."

    "I did not see anything," she replied.  "I will be fine."

     "Victoria, please," he insisted.  "Go back to the hacienda for your own safety."  The expression on his face changed her mind.

     "Very well," she agreed, climbing up onto her mount.  "Hasta luego."

     "Adios," he waved after her.  He was going to have to find out the basis of the accusations against Zorro.  And who better than the masked man himself to do it?  He figured it was going to be easier to deal with the possibly rabid dog. He grimaced as he resumed pruning the lime tree he had been working on before Victoria's visit.
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     The de la Vegas and Victoria had just finished their supper much later that evening when there was a loud rapping on the front door.  It was bad news as they all expected it would be.  One of the old ranch hands who worked for Don Jose Montez stood on the doorstep.  He bowed to Don Alejandro who was first to reach the door.  "Señor, there has been another attack," he related.  "Mi patron, he has lost five sheep. All dead," he added.  "But the worst is that Don Frederico was bitten on the arm."

     Frederico, also known as Rico, was Don Jose's youngest son, a lad of only fifteen.  "How bad?" asked the elder de la Vega.

     "Very bad," the old hand answered, shaking his head.  "His hand was nearly torn off."

     Victoria winced and turned her face away.  Diego stepped forward to speak.  "Pedro, did Rico see what attacked him?" he inquired anxiously.  "Was its mouth. . ."

     "No, Don Diego," was the reply.  "It was so dark.  He remembers nothing.  Don Jose wishes you to understand he cannot help search in the morning."  He bowed again and turned to leave.

     "Adios," Don Alejandro said tersely.  He looked at his son's grim expression.  "Why do you want to know about the animal's mouth, Diego?"

     "A foaming mouth is a sign of rabies," Diego replied.  "If a rabid animal bite Don Rico, he will die."

     "Die?" echoed Victoria.  "Poor Rico."

     "Yes," acknowledged Don Alejandro, shutting the door.  "Well, we have another search in the morning.  Better get to bed."

     "Yes, Father," Diego acquiesced easily.  When no one was looking, he gave Felipe a wink.  The  younger man drew a quick Z' in the air.  Diego nodded.

     They had to wait until the others had gone to bed before they could attempt to enter the secret cave.  Felipe saddled Toronado while Diego donned the black clothing that converted him to his alter ego Zorro.  He tried to reassured his adopted son when he saw Felipe's worried face.

     "I'll be all right," he said, holding up his whip and touching the hilt of his sword.

     "I th-thought Zorro w-was n-not going to h-help."  Felipe reminded him of his earlier vow.

     "I wasn't," replied Zorro, "but that was before it attacked Rico.  If it's rabid, we need to find it as soon as possible."

     "B-be car-careful," Felipe advised.  "A-Adios."

     Zorro, astride his black stallion, emerged from the hidden cave exit.  He urged the animal forward into the darkness of the night.  He rode to the Montez ranchero to pick up the fresh trail.  He spent several hours following the wandering tracks.  The new moon shed little light on any other evidence of the wild dog.  The masked man was getting tired and cold.

     Should he go home or into Los Angeles to learn more about the mysterious Señora Lopez?  A gust of cold wind blew through the arroyo, making him shiver.  Home, he decided, nudging Toronado's sides.
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     The next morning the de la Vegas were eating a hasty breakfast in order to join up with the posse.  They were about to leave when Victoria appeared in the dining room, dressed in her tan riding habit.

     "Victoria, where are you going?" Don Alejandro asked after drinking the last of his orange juice.

     "With you," she replied, a determined look upon her beautiful face.

     "Victoria, this is no task for a lady," the elder de la Vega chided gently.

     "Father's right," added Diego.  "It's too dangerous out there."  He stood up as did Felipe

     "Well, I cannot stay here all day by myself," she declared.  "And I cannot go back to the tavern."

     "But Victoria dear. . ."  Don Alejandro tried to reason with her.

     "I either ride with you," she stated, "or I follow you after you leave.  You won't be able to stop me."

     Diego immediately saw her point.  They could hardly keep her locked up in her room all day.  He glanced over at his father and saw he had reached the same conclusion.

     "Very well," conceded the old don.  "Vamonos."

     Victoria smiled triumphantly as she followed Don Alejandro out the door.  Felipe glanced at Diego, who just shrugged his broad shoulders, a bemused expression on his face.

     Early into the hunt Don Alejandro himself had Diego and Felipe take Victoria off in a different direction than the rest of the searchers.  He hoped to keep the beautiful señorita out of harm's way, echoing Diego's thoughts exactly.

     The trio rode to the top of hill from which they could view the ocean, still some miles away.  The sun was high in the sky, indicating it was time for lunch.  Diego carried a blanket in his saddle bags which they used to cover the ground.  They all stretched their legs as they ate cold tamales and oranges.

     Felipe felt a little awkward, as if he were intruding on Diego and Victoria's privacy.  So far that day, they talked about a myriad of subjects, finding out they agreed on some and differed on others.  Also as they rode, Diego and Felipe had surreptitiously pointed out tracks and trails to each other, using their old hand signal system.  Victoria had no idea what had been going on behind her back.

     Diego, on the other hand, was grateful for Felipe's presence.  His self control was wearing thin especially when it seemed that Victoria was deliberately teasing him.

     They sat drowsily in the cool afternoon sunshine after finishing their meal.  Felipe had almost fallen asleep when a twig snapped in the trees behind them.  Diego instantly jumped to his feet, automatically reaching for his sword, forgetting he did not wear one as Don Diego.

     He relaxed when five of the local Indians emerged from the nearly bushes.  "Hola," he greeted them.

     "Hola, Don Diego," replied one of the two women in the group.  Both Diego and Felipe stared at the young woman.

     "Kinona?" asked Diego

     "Yes," she confirmed.  She turned and smiled.  "Hola, Felipe."

     The young man was stunned.  She was just as beautiful as ever.  But what was even more shocking was the infant she carried in a sling draped across her chest.

     "Kinona," Victoria said curiously.  "You have a baby?"

     "Yes, this is my son."  She lifted the child up so the innkeeper could get a better look.  Victoria stepped forward so the young woman could put the baby in her arms.

     "You must be so proud," she said, gazing at the little boy and letting him grasp her finger with his small hand.  He was about six months old with a thatch of black hair and a serious face.

     Kinona answered the question she could see in their eyes.  "Black Feather is his father.  We are together now after all."

     "Congratulations, " Diego offered cheerfully.  He was a little worried about Felipe though.  The younger de la Vega was still staring at Kinyona and the child Victoria was holding.

     Noticing the leader of her party was growing impatient, she put out her arms so Victoria could give the infant back to her.  As soon as she secured her son once again in the sling, she followed her group as they walked back into the trees.  "Adios," she called out as she disappeared.

     "Felipe, are you all right?" Victoria noted his pale face and blank stare.  She faced Diego.  "That was a surprise, wasn't it.  I thought she was opposed to her match with Black Feather."

     "It seems she had a change of heart," responded Diego.  He patted Felipe on the shoulder, finally bringing the young man out of his daze.  Diego was puzzled to see the hurt in his son's eyes.  Felipe stalked over to get their horses while Victoria and Diego cleared up the remains of their picnic lunch.

     It was a little while later before Victoria brought up the subject again to Diego.  Felipe had ridden off up ahead, leaving them alone.

     "Does Felipe still have feelings for Kinona?" she asked warily, hoping she was not prying.

     "I thought not," Diego confided.  "He and Ana Maria, well, you've seen them together."

     "Si." Victoria smiled.  "I suppose it is hard though to forget your first love."

     "I imagine that's true," he agreed.  He knew that Zorro was not Victoria's first love.  But she had no idea she was his.  He still remembered when he was twelve and she only six when they had first spoken to each other.  She had cast a spell on him that very day.  He had watched from afar as she  had grown up from the pretty child to the lovely young woman.  She had only been fourteen when he had left for Spain, much too young in his mind to pay court to her.

     University had been important to him and he had been eager to go.  But he had worried that while he was away, someone else would sweep her off her feet and marry her.  It was a chance he had had to take.

     They spent the rest of the afternoon riding back to the hacienda.  Diego and Felipe took care of the horses once they reached the de la Vega stables.  When Victoria had gone into the house, Diego patted Felipe's shoulder.

     "Are you all right?" he asked as the young man still seemed shaken.

     "K-Kin-ona. . .  B-B-Baby."  Felipe was stuttering badly.  "I-I. . ."

     "I imagine it was quite a shock."  Diego tried to console his adopted son.  "Seeing her again and with a child."

    "I-It w-was. . .is over b-between us," explained the young man.  "B-But Bl-Black Feather?  I-I. . .d-do not underst-stand."

     "Maybe they both have changed," offered Diego.  He smiled wryly.  "Just think though, if you two were still together, you would have never met Ana Maria."

     Felipe glanced up, grinning at the mention of his sweetheart's name.  "C-Can I g-go to. . ." he started to ask.

     "Go."  Diego laughed as his son quickly remounted his horse and headed off toward Los Angeles.  He only wished his love life was as uncomplicated.  His thoughts were interrupted by one of the ranch hands who wanted Diego to come look at a sick mare.
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     Inside the hacienda, Victoria had changed from her riding outfit to a red blouse and black print skirt.  She emerged from her room to discover that Diego was still outside.  At a loss as to what to do, she meandered about the hacienda.

     In the dining room hung a portrait of Diego's mother, Felicidad.  She was quite a beautiful woman, Victoria thought, and she had also been such a good woman as well.  No wonder Diego had not found a wife yet if he judged all women by his mother's example.  Another such as she would be hard to find.

     Victoria sighed.  The past few days she had spent with the de la Vegas had opened her eyes.  The necklace Diego let her wear had to be worth more than she made at the tavern in a year.  She had never thought before about how wealthy they really were.  One would never realized it by their actions.  They worked as hard as their ranch hands did.  They never flaunted their money, but on the other hand, were very generous with it when the need arose.

     She realized this morning she had all the de la Vega men wrapped around her finger.  There wasn't anything they would not do for her.  She had looked upon Don Alejandro as a father ever since she thought her own had been killed.  It was obvious he considered her like a daughter.

     And Diego. . .  A woman could do a lot worse than Diego de la Vega.  Tall, dark, handsome, a bit bookish, but he did his share of labor on the ranch as well.  If something ever happened between her and Zorro, like he was killed, Madre de Dios, or if what that Lopez woman claimed was true, maybe she should marry Diego.

     Victoria put her hand to her mouth.  "Dios mio," she whispered.  Until that moment, she had not been aware that she cared for him that way.  She glanced up again at the picture of Felicidad de la Vega.

     "Dios mio," she repeated softly.  Diego's mother was wearing the same necklace he had had her wear for her portrait.
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"THE BIRDS AND THE BEES"-CHAPTER FIVE