"CADENAS DE AMOR"

CHAPTER FIVE

"A CHANGE OF HEART"

     Zafira curtsied politely as her father-in-law's mouth gaped open in astonishment.  She presented him her hand which he graciously took and placed a courtesy kiss upon.

     "You got married?" queried the incredulous don.  "Without telling me?  When?  Why?"  Then realizing he was being extremely rude to his new daughter-in-law, he smiled at her.  "Not that it isn't wonderful, my dear," he stated as he patted her hand.  "It's just that I had no idea.  Diego, you never said one word about her."

     "I'm sorry, Father," replied Diego in a tone that wasn't entirely contrite.  It wasn't often he could surprise his father like this.  "We were married about three months ago.  There just wasn't time to write you with the news before we left Spain."

     "I am greatly honored to finally meet you, Don Alejandro," Zafira remarked, smiling up beguiling up at the old don.    "Diego has told me so much about you.  And this wild land called California," she added.

     "The pleasure is all mine," said Don Alejandro, beaming.

     Felipe had stood back during the introduction, not wishing to intrude.  Well, it was now or never, thought Diego.  He indicated the young man to his wife.

     "And this is Felipe," he informed her.  "The boy I was telling you about."  He turned so Felipe could read his lips easily.  "Felipe, this is my wife, Doña Zafira.  We were married three months ago," he repeated, not knowing if the lad had understood the earlier conversation.

     Felipe nodding and bowed gallantly.  Diego could see that the smile his wife wore did not reach her eyes and could tell that Felipe noticed it as well.

    "Charmed, I'm sure," murmured Zafira, lowering her head.

     Felipe threw a frantic glance at Diego, who realized that the boy couldn't understand what Zafira had said and wasn't sure of how to respond.  Diego just nodded, indicating to Felipe not to worry.  The youth imitated his mentor's movement then took a step back.

     Diego was furious with his wife.  Hadn't he told her that Felipe could read lips, but only if he could see the speaker's face?  Had Zafira forgotten his instructions or had she deliberately ducked her head?  He took a deep breath.  He would deal with her later, he thought as he reached out to take her arm.

[parts of the following scene are taken from "The Legend Begins" written by Robert L McCullough]

     The quartet strolled through the hacienda's front door.  Diego could see that little had changed in the nearly four years he had been away.  "Ah, it's good to be home," he said contentedly.

     He let go of Zafira's arm and ran his fingers over the keys of the grand piano.  His head filled with the new compositions he had learned in Spain that he would have to play for his father.  Then Diego remember the soldiers who had ridden by and the reason Don Alejandro wanted him to come home.

     "Father, those soldiers, what on earth was that all about?" Diego asked, removing his cape then graciously assisting Zafira with hers.

     "The Alcalde imposed martial law in Los Angeles six months ago," replied the old don.  "Diego, it's just inhuman how he treats the peasants.  Confiscating their lands when they can't play his outrageous taxes, public floggings. . ."  Alejandro shook his head.  "And the other caballeros. . .bah, they sit idly by and do nothing.  Just as I was saying to Victoria the other day. . ."

     "Victoria?" Diego interrupted his father in a slightly strangled voice.  "Victoria Escalante?"  It was just the shock that Don Alejandro had mentioned the young tavern owner so familiarly.  Si, that was it. Ignoring the confused glare from his wife, he asked, "How is she?"   Then realizing the question was rather blunt, Diego added, "I mean, is she still running the tavern?  It was such a terrible tragedy. . ."

     His father didn't let him continue  "Si, Victoria still owns the tavern.  She's a woman now."

     "She hasn't married or anything?"  Diego could hardly believe he was asking the question.  Why, after he hadn't thought of her for years, did the mere mention of her name fill him with. . .with such. . .  Emotion, he thought, for the lack of a better word.  Diego didn't dare meet Zafira's eyes.

     "No," his father answered, not sensing the struggle taking place inside his son.  "But you should hear how she speaks out against the Alcalde.  The caballeros are looking forward to seeing you in the pueblo.  We need every man we can get.  The old don walked over to a table and picked up a long object covered in black silk.

     "And you're going to need this," Don Alejandro said as he handed the package to his son.

     Diego accepted it with confusion.  "And what's this?" he asked.  He unwrapped it enough to reveal the hilt of a sword.  "A sword?" he inquired  incredulously.

    "A man has to take care of himself these days," replied the elder de la Vega.

    Diego shook his head. "I don't understand.  The pueblo's secure.  Those soldiers outside looked rather well-trained."

     This time Don Alejandro shook his head.  "Indeed," he said.  "They don't protect our people, they exploit them.  He eyed the weapon in Diego's hand.  "You can handle that?" he asked, his voice full of concern.

    His son pulled the sword from the black cloth and held it aloft.  "Seems a little light, don't you think?

    "It's a beginner's weight," answered Don Alejandro.  He worriedly added, "Just don't hurt yourself with it, that's all."

     Diego smiled wryly before saying, "Father, I think there is something you should know. . ."

     "I know," interrupted the old don, "you didn't have time to complete your studies with Sir Edmund."  He grasped Diego's left shoulder.  "Ah, well, "he continued, "we'll just have to do the best we can."  He then turned to his new daughter-in-law.

     "You must be exhausted after your long journey, my dear," he said solicitously.  He took her arm.  "Let me show you to the library where you can rest until Maria prepares Diego's room for the both of you."

     Don Alejandro cast a withering look at his son.  "We had no idea that Diego would be bringing home a wife, so we were caught quite off guard."

     "That is quite alright, " Zafira said.  "It sounds like you have enough to do without worrying about me as well.  But you are right, I am tired."

     The elder de la Vega led the young woman to the library, leaving Diego standing in the foyer.  He looked at the sword in his hand and shook his head with a grin.  If his father only knew. . .
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[parts of the following scene are taken from "The Legend Begins" written by Robert L McCullough]

     The next day, Don Alejandro and Diego rode in the pueblo de Los Angeles.  Zafira declined her father-in-law's invitation to join them, pleading she was still very weary from the trip.  The two men entered the tavern only moments after Victoria had poured the contents of a pitcher of lemonade over the head of a garrison soldier who had been trying to get too friendly with her.

     Diego walked into the tavern just as she had turned away from the insolent man and her eyes were filled with fiery anger.  Diego was immediately dazzled by her beauty.  This was the little girl he had left behind?  Madre de Dios, he thought as a lead weight dropped into his stomach.   It only grew heavier as he saw that Victoria was staring up at him with an expression on her face that showed she was clearly attracted to him as well.

    Don Alejandro broke the spell between the two of them by speaking.  "Diego, you remember Señorita Escalante?"

     It took Diego a moment to regain his power of speech and to remember his manners.  He lifted one of her small hands to his lips.  "Indeed," he finally said.  "But you have changed."  Inwardly he grimaced and hastily added, "For the better, that is."

    "Thank you, Diego," replied Victoria demurely.  After an awkward pause she added, "You have changed too.  You wear the sword of a caballero."

     Don Alejandro smiled proudly.  "Hmm, Diego's returned to assume his proper place in the community.  Especially now that he's a married man."   Diego visibly cringed at his father's words.

     "Married?" queried Victoria with an arched brow.  The look of interest slowly dissipated from her face.

    "Si," replied the old don.  "He and Zafira wed just before he left Spain to come home to California.  She is still recuperating from their journey but I know she will want to meet you as soon as possible."

     "Of course," Victoria said in a tone that definitely lacked enthusiasm.

     A man sitting at a table near the kitchen waved his hand at the elder de la Vega then.  "Ah, Sebastian.  Excuse me."  He went over to greet his friend, leaving Diego and Victoria standing there, still staring at each other uncomfortably.

     "He's a popular man," stated Diego with a nervous chuckle.  But his mind was screaming, why, why, why?  Why was he feeling like he had made the biggest mistake of his life three months ago?  He loved Zafira, he told himself.  She was his wife.  But why was there this tremendous pull of attraction toward the young tavern owner?  This was more than the school boy crush he had had on her before he left for Spain.   He felt as though he were drowning and no one was noticing.

    Victoria broke their eye contact to glance at his father before returning her regard to the man standing in front of her.  "You should hear how he speaks out against the Alcalde. . ." she began to say, but just then the soldier she had dumped lemonade upon earlier grabbed her arm and spun her around to face him.

     "You owe me an apology," he growled menacingly.

     Victoria struggled to free herself.  "Let go of me!" she exclaimed.  The corporal just laughed and seized her arm with both hands.

     Diego grasped the corporal's arm and shoved him away from Victoria.  "The señorita said let go!" he interjected, barely keeping his fury in check.

     The man shook his finger in Diego's face.  "Just who do you think you are?" he demanded.

     Don Alejandro jumped up from his friend's table to intervene.  "This is my son, Corporal," he said with forced politeness.  "He's just returned from Spain."

      Diego took the opportunity to lean in closer to the soldier's face.  "Where among other things," he drawled haughtily, "I learned how to treat a lady."

     The corporal sneered, "And how to insult the uniform of the colonial military government?"

     The elder de la Vega tried to defuse the situation between the other two men by placing a hand on each of their shoulders.  "Gentlemen," he began, "let's not let this get out of hand."

     The angry soldier pushed Don Alejandro, causing the older man to stumble several steps backward.  "Out of the way, sir," he snarled.

     This only made Diego's temper grow.  "You need a lesson in manners, Corporal," he declared through clenched teeth.

     A stout sergeant rushed into the tavern.  "What is going on here, Corporal?" he demanded in an authoritative voice.

     The soldier waved his finger in Diego's face again.  "This man has challenged me," he informed his superior officer.

     A wide-eyed Victoria stuck out her chin bravely.   "And with good reason too," she spoke up.  She gazed up at Diego and smiled.  "Thank you, Diego," she added graciously.

     "Diego?" inquired the sergeant of Don Alejandro.  A big grin burst onto his round face.  "Diego de la Vega, your son?"

     Diego reached out to shake the sergeant's hand.  "Please to meet you, Sergeant."

     "Sergeant Jaime Mendoza," he introduced himself.  The trouble-making corporal was squeezed out of the way by the portly officer.  "Permit me to welcome you to our pueblo de Los Angeles.  And to collect the traveler's tax," he added officiously.

     "Traveler's tax?" asked Don Alejandro.  "This is preposterous."

     Diego decided to mollify another possible volatile situation.  "How much is it, Sergeant?" he inquired politely.

     "Five pesos," replied Mendoza.  "It's not much, but it adds up."

     Victoria rolled her eyes before looking up at Diego.  "If they could, they would tax the very air that we breath."  Having said that, she turned on her heel and walked away from the men.

     The sergeant said pensively, "Actually, the Alcalde is working on something."

     "And what if one refuses to pay such tax?" queried Diego, rubbing his chin.

     Mendoza shook his head knowingly.  "The Alcalde becomes very angry," he stated, "and that is not a pretty sight, Señor."

     The sound of two gunshots outside in the plaza interrupted any further discussion of taxes and their payment.  Victoria, Diego, his father, and the sergeant all hurried out the tavern door in time to hear the Alcalde speak.

     "The next shots will not be aimed over your miserable heads," he announced as he strode in front of a line of peasants who had their hands tied behind their backs, "but into your rebellious hearts."

     Don Alejandro stepped off the tavern porch.  "Alcalde, what's going on here?" he demanded loudly.

    The Alcalde, Luis Ramón, turned to face his inquisitor.  "It's quite simple," he stated.  He waved his hand to indicate the bound peasants.  "These vermin refuse to pay any portion of their taxes."

     "These are poor farmers," said Victoria pleadingly.  "They have no money for taxes."

     "The fact remains that these disloyal reprobates only understand one thing - force," ground out the Alcalde.

      The young innkeeper looked up at Diego.  "Just don't stand there," she said quietly, "do something."

      Diego put up his hand as Ramón continued on with his ranting, "And force is they will get."  Then he stepped in front of the commandante.

     "Just how does the government intend to spend these new tax revenues?" he inquired, knowing in the back of his mind that they weren't going to be spent on the citizens of Los Angeles.

     "You must not know who I am," replied Ramón mockingly.

     "Oh, I know who you are all right," retorted Diego sarcastically.  "Allow me to introduce myself.  I'm Diego de la Vega from Spain."  He gave a barely polite bow.

     The Alcalde struck Diego in the chest with the gloves he held in his right hand.  When Diego lifted up his face to glare at him, Ramón smirked.

     "You bear the rank of a gentleman," stated Diego through gritted teeth, "why not act like one?"

     The commandante smiled contemptuously.  "Is that a challenge, de la Vega?"

     "If it were, my sword would be at your throat," answered Diego furiously.

     The Alcalde's expression became deadly serious then.  "Only long enough for my soldiers to put a bullet through your head," he declared as though he might relish the idea.

     Diego reached for the sword he wore but his hand was stayed by his father.  "Not now, Diego," cautioned the old don.

     "Listen to your father," Ramón sneered.  "Be careful or you will regret ever coming back to Los Angeles."  He stared menacingly at the younger de la Vega for and moment then shouted at his lancers.  "Bring the prisoners to the cuartel."  He then turned and walked away, following behind as the soldiers herded the peasants across the plaza to the garrison.

     Victoria looked up at Diego with admiration in her lovely eyes.  "Would you have challenged the Alcalde?" she asked him excitedly.  He averted his gaze from her face.

     "The Alcalde has clearly lost his mind," he declared.

     Don Alejandro shook his head.  "Somebody's going to have to challenge him or we'll lose this pueblo."  He grasped his son on the shoulder.  "I need something to drink."  He started walking toward the tavern as Victoria did the same.

     "I think I'll go back home, Father," said Diego flatly.

     "Si, of course," agreed the elder de la Vega.  "Your bride is probably missing you."

     Diego flinched at his father's mention of Zafira.  A surreptitious glance at Victoria allowed him to glimpse the confusion in her eyes.  He knew she had felt the same jolt of attraction he had earlier.   But he was married and he knew that ended the matter for her.

     What a cruel hand fate had dealt to him, he thought bitterly as he went to mount his horse, Esperanza.  Common sense told him that he could not love two women at one time.  Or was he just mistaking lust for something more?

     Victoria was very beautiful, he mused, and he respected her outspokenness against a corrupt government.  He admired her courage at being so young yet running an obviously successful business on her own.  She had spirit, another trait he found appealing in a woman.

     But Zafira was his wife and he had promised before God to love, honor, and cherish her for the rest of his life.  Sighing resignedly, he urged the mare toward the hacienda.
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"CADENAS DE AMOR" - CHAPTER SIX