Felipe and Ana Maria turned to look at each, both sure that the other man was not telling the truth. Felipe just shrugged his shoulders at his wife. If his father didn't want to talk about it, it was not their business to question him.
Ana Maria had other ideas however. "Bueno," she replied. "If you don't think she would mind, maybe we all could visit tomorrow. You and Felipe can teach the boys and Victoria and I can catch up on our gossip. It seems like it's been ages since I've seen her,." She gave her father-in-law a challenging stare along with an innocent smile.
Diego saw through the transparent invitation. But as much as he wanted to refuse it, he knew he had no option but to accept it. To rebuff the offer would cast doubt upon the lie he had just told.
"I'm sure she will enjoy it," he said somewhat ungraciously.
Felipe, feeling the tension between his wife and father, decided to diffuse it. "I was just on my way out to check on the yearlings. Would you like to join me, Diego?"
The elder de la Vega had to smile a little at his son's diplomacy. "Very well," he agreed.
The two men walked in silence over the rocky ground. Felipe pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket, first offering it to Diego, who shook his head in refusal. Shrugging his shoulders, the younger man lit up the cheroot.
Diego finally broke the quiet. "How is the training coming along?" he asked.
"Good," replied Felipe. He pointed in the direction of the paddock. "See those two bays?" Diego nodded. "I'm carriage breaking them for Jose Montero. The rest I'm saddle breaking."
The yearlings noticed the men's approach and almost all of them sprinted away to the other side of the paddock. But one lone horse moseyed up to the fence and waited for Felipe.
He reached out and patted the filly's glossy neck. She immediately stuck her nose up to his shirt front. From his other pocket, Felipe pulled out a lump of sugar, which the roan quickly made disappeared.
"It seems she has you well trained," laughed Diego.
"Si, she does," Felipe chuckled as well. "Mariquita, she does love sugar."
"She seems fond of you as well," Diego observed as he stroked the other side of the yearling's neck.
"Si," said his son a bit abashedly. "I plan on giving Ana Mariquita for her birthday."
"I didn't know Ana Maria could ride," stated Diego.
"She can't." Felipe wore an impish grin. "She's going to learn. She just doesn't know it yet."
Diego laughed again. Then they both watched silently for several minutes as the horses ran about the corral.
"I miss it sometimes," Felipe commented solemnly.
Diego was perplexed by this statement. "Miss what?" he inquired.
"You know, the excitement, the adventure and yes, even the danger," explained his son. "I mean, it was an exciting time. And I was the only other person to know the truth. Me, a lowly peasant boy; I knew the biggest secret in Los Angeles."
"Zorro," said Diego gruffly, realizing now what the younger man meant.
"Si, Zorro," replied Felipe. "I think you miss it as much as I do."
Diego stared at his eldest son. Felipe was right, of course . He realized the young man probably knew him better than anyone else, including Victoria and his father. Way down in the recesses of his soul, he missed it too. He knew he shouldn't. He was extremely grateful that he married the woman he loved, that he was the father of four fine sons with another child on the way, and for the fact he escaped the whole charade with his life. But. . . Dammit, sometimes he craved the excitement and like Felipe said, even the danger the masked man had brought to his life.
"It's why you're going to teach the boys how to fence, isn't it?" inquired Felipe, although he already knew the answer.
"Si." Diego didn't even try to lie. He might be able to get away with lying to Victoria, his father and even to himself. But Felipe was another story. He shook his head. "Zorro is in the past now, hijo," he declared. "And that is where he is going to stay."
"I know," replied the young man. "But that doesn't mean you still don't. . ."
"I don't," insisted Diego a bit angrily.
Now it was Felipe's turn to shake his head. "You can tell yourself that, Diego. But we both know it's a lie." Sensing he was irritating his father, he changed subjects, albeit to another touchy one. "How is Victoria really?"
"I said she is fine."
Felipe sighed. "We both know that's not true either. It's obvious you're worried sick about her." He patted Diego on the shoulder. "She'll be all right, Diego. Remember, she's a fighter."
"I know," replied Diego with a defeated air. He glanced at his grown son and gave him a half-smile. "Well, I'll let you get back to your work. Tomorrow after siesta, then?"
"Si," confirmed Felipe. He absently stroked Mariquita's nose as he watched his father walk away. Once more he shook his head. It was frustrating. He knew what was bothering Diego but there wasn't anything anyone could do about it until the older man admitted it to himself.
"Come on, girl," he said to the roan. "Let's see if you're ready to try a saddle today."
With one last pat, Felipe strode to the
tack room to find the promised item.
Z Z Z
The next afternoon, Alfonso was almost beside himself with anticipation. He rarely napped anymore during siesta time, but today it would have been impossible. He laid on his bed, deep in thought, picturing himself swinging his blade. In his mind, he was all dressed in black, wearing a mask. He was Zorro. And he was going to fight the bad guys.
"Alfonso," said his father quietly from the bedroom doorway, breaking into the lad's daydreaming. The boy sat up in a flash.
"Tio Felipe and Cousin Diego are here to start the lessons."
No music had ever sounded sweeter to the young Alfonso's ears. He eagerly leapt off his bed and followed his father through the hacienda and into the courtyard. There, waiting, were his uncle and cousin. Alfonso could tell the younger boy was as excited as he was.
"Well, then, let's get started," suggested Diego. He opened the box that held the swords and handed one to each of the boys.
It took several minutes and Felipe's assistance to show the lads how to grip the weapons properly. Alfonso and the young Diego looked at each other, both feeling the hold a bit awkward. Maybe this wasn't going to be as fun as they thought it would be.
The elder Diego smiled as he guessed their thoughts. "They're not sticks." He then picked up his own sword, the one that Sir Edmund had given him; the one he had used as Zorro. "Let's begin with the eight parry positions. Prime."
The two muchachos quickly imitated each move as Diego called them out and demonstrated each one. This went on for nearly half an hour until Diego sensed the boys were growing bored.
"All right, then," he said. "Let's try lunges now."
Alfonso and his cousin glanced at each other and grinned. They were really learning how to fence! They clumsily thrust their épées forward.
Again Felipe helped Diego as he correct the boys' stances. After a quarter of an hour, Diego once again called a halt. He glanced over at Felipe and winked.
"I think you're ready to try some blade to blade work now," he announced with a grin, knowing the two lads would be overjoyed by this statement.
And he wasn't wrong. Both Alfonso and the younger Diego were nearly jumping with excitement. Now the fun was really going to begin!
"Watch what Felipe and I do, then do the same," instructed Diego. Felipe picked up his own sword.
The two men saluted each other, then established themselves in the en garde position. The youngsters eagerly followed suit.
"We will take turns attacking and parrying." Diego motioned for Felipe to lunge at him. "Prime," he called out.
The sound of steel on steel filled the courtyard. The noise drew the attention of the people inside the hacienda. First, the twins, Alejandro and Francisco poked their heads through the archway leading outside. They were followed several minutes later by their mother, Victoria; Ana Maria, and Jaime, who was being carried by his mother.
Their audience made the young pupils a little nervous and they began to make mistakes. Diego noticed what was happening and also saw that the pair were starting to tire.
"That's enough for today," he stated. Alfonso and the younger Diego were both a little disappointed but deep down were a bit relieved as well. The muscles in Alfonso's arm were burning and his fingers felt stiff from griping the hilt so tightly for so long.
Both mothers looked down at their sons, then at each other and smiled. It seemed like the misgivings they had had when Diego mentioned teaching the boys fencing were unfounded. The first lesson had gone quite well.
"Maria has lemonade in the dining room," announced Victoria. The two students ducked quickly inside the hacienda, the twins close on their heels.
"So how did it go?" inquired Victoria as she rubbed her swollen stomach.
"Quite well," replied Diego. "They both have a natural affinity for the blade, in my opinion."
Felipe nodded. He too was a little surprised by how swiftly the boys learned the basic skills. It was true, they had been pretending to sword fight for years, almost since they could walk.
The rest of them headed into the dining room where Maria, the de la Vega housekeeper, was busily pouring glasses of the freshly squeezed lemonade. Plates of little cakes and fruit tarts also had been placed on the long table.
After they had all eaten and drank their fill, Felipe inquired about the vineyards. That query led to Diego talking about them and the various wines he was thinking of making for nearly half an hour. Felipe was sorry he asked as he noticed Ana and Victoria's eyes glazing over with boredom. Always the gentleman, he suggested that Diego show him the vines of which the older man spoke.
Diego eagerly seized the idea and the two men rose from their chairs, intending to leave the hacienda. Alfonso and the younger Diego also got to their feet.
"Can we be excused?" asked Alfonso. "Can we go outside to play?"
"Whoa, one question at a time, hijo," replied Diego, trying to keep a straight face. "And it's ‘may I', not ‘can I'."
"Sorry, Papa," said the youngster contritely but then swiftly changed his tone. "So may we?"
"Si," acquiesced Diego. The two boys started heading toward the door but his next words brought them to a halt. "Don't go near the river, muchachos. The rains last month left patches of quicksand near its banks. So stay away from it."
"Si, Papa." "Si, Tio
Diego." The pair then ran out the door before anyone else could think
of something else to warn them not to do.
Z Z Z
Half an hour later, Alfonso and Digo stood on the banks of the Porciuncula River, throwing stones into its muddy, rushing waters.
"So what does quicksand look like anyway?" asked Digo as he heaved another rock into the river.
Alfonso waited until he heard and saw the splash it made before answering. "Regular sand, I guess," he replied with a shrug. "Papa says he's seen it swallow up a whole cow before."
"Whoa, I'd like to see that," stated his cousin, very impressed. "I wonder if my papa saw it too."
"Probably," responded Alfonso. He grunted as he picked up a very large stone and tossed it as far as he could. The weight of it almost flung him into the water as well. But luckily he regained his balance just in time.
Both boys laughed as the rock made a loud ‘kerplunk'. Alfonso searched around for more big stones. As his gaze traveled up the embankment, he pointed out something to his companion. "What's that?"
"Where? I can't see anything," complained Digo. He started jumping up and down, hoping to get a better view.
"Over there, behind that tree," directed Alfonso. The youngster began walking toward it, his curious cousin right on his heels.
"Looks like a chimney," declared Digo, a bit unnecessarily as they could now see that was exactly what it was. "And look, there's a house too."
If such a poorly constructed hovel could be called a house. It was very small, not even as large as Alfonso's bedroom. It was built with a myriad of materials; bricks, sticks, mud and bales of straw. There were no windows and the door was just a dusty, ragged blanket tacked across the hut's only portal.
The boys moved nearer to it, wondering who lived in such a place. There were a few chickens scratching and pecking at the ground not far from what looked like the remains of a tiny garden.
"Maybe nobody lives here anymore," suggested Digo hopefully.
"Maybe," replied Alfonso. "We could make it our secret hideout."
"Si, just like Zorro's cave," agreed his cousin, taking to the idea immediately. "We should look inside, to make sure."
Alfonso had been thinking the same thing. But for some reason, he was very reluctant to do so. There was something a little odd about this place but he couldn't think why he felt so.
"You look in there, Digo," he said, the challenge clear in his voice as he indicated the hovel's doorway.
The younger boy shook his head. "I think you should. You're older than me."
"So? It was your idea."
"You want it to be our hideout."
"So do you." Alfonso realized this argument was getting them nowhere. He saw that Digo was staring at him with a look that unmistakably said that his cousin thought he was a coward. Well, he would just have to show the niñohe was no such thing.
"Oh, all right, I'll do," Alfonso declared. Noticing that Digo's countenance had changed to one of admiration, he walked toward the torn blanket covering the entrance to the small hut.
He lifted his hand up so he could pull back the cloth so he could peer inside. But he was not given the chance. It was violently yanked aside, causing Alfonso to stumble backward several steps.
An old man stood in the doorway, a furious expression on his wrinkled, dirty face. "Who are you?" he asked in a angry, gruff voice. "Just what do you think you're doing on my land?"
Both Alfonso and Digo jumped, startled by the man's appearance and voice. Digo was the first to recover his composure.
"I'm Diego de la Vega," he stated boldly.
The wizened old man seemed to pale at this announcement. "De la Vega?" he queried, almost a whisper.
"Si," replied Alfonso, also getting over his shock. "I am Alfonso de la Vega. My papa and my abuelo own all the land around here."
The stranger mulled over these statements for a few moments. "I see," he finally said. "Well, I'm pleased to meet the both of you. Are you two brothers?"
"Oh, no," responded Alfonso. "Diego is my cousin. His papa is my Tio Felipe."
"He's a lawyer," Digo chimed in. "The bestest lawyer in the territory."
"So your father is. . .?" the man asked as he pointed at Alfonso.
"Diego de la Vega," answered the boy. "My cousin here is named after him."
"Diego de la Vega," echoed the old stranger. A mocking smile crept onto his leathery face as he muttered to himself, "Zorro."
He glanced at the two lads, taking in their healthy countenances and noticing their clothes, although streaked with dirt, were of the finest quality.
"Well, you muchachos are far from home, aren't you?" he inquired casually.
"Not really," Alfonso rationalized. "We were just playing by the river."
"I see," the man repeated, not missing the guilty expressions both boys wore. Obviously they either didn't have permission to be this far away or to play near the river or both. He smiled. "Well, my name is Juan Maldonado. Are you lads hungry? I have some bread and fruit."
"Oh no, gracias, Señor Maldonado," replied Alfonso. "We couldn't impose." The ways of a gentleman had been impressed upon the youngster almost from birth.
"It's no problem," said the old man.
"In fact, I would enjoy the company." He grinned again. "I
like little boys."
Z Z Z
"THE DEATH OF INNOCENCE" CHAPTER THREE