The evening passed quite differently at the other de la Vega household.  Once their guests had departed and Alfonso and the twins were readied for bed, it was quite a while before Victoria and Diego had a chance to talk.  And it would have been postponed indefinitely if Diego had his way.

     He closed the door to Alfonso's room after he had tucked the boy in for the night.  The lad was still upset with him for taking away his pinto for a week.  "But Frijol won't remember me," Alfonso had wailed earlier.  "He'll think I hate him."

    Diego had remained firm in upholding the punishment.  Finally the boy had resigned himself to his fate and grudgingly bade his father goodnight.

     Don Alejandro had gone to bed right after Felipe and Ana Maria left.  He had been out since dawn that morning, moving the cattle to their winter pastures.  Diego hated to admit it (but not nearly as much as his father did) but the old caballero was starting to slow down.  He complained more of aches and pains .  Tasks around the rancho that five years ago were no problem now were getting more difficult for Don Alejandro to accomplish at all.

     Diego's concerns for his father dissipated as he entered the bedroom he shared with his wife.   Victoria was in her nightdress which  prominently displayed her swollen stomach.  He looked up from her belly to her eyes and gulped.  Then he smiled.  She was still beautiful when she was angry.

     "Diego," she said softly, "I know that Alfonso deserved to be punished.  He did disobey you.  But to decide his punishment yourself. . .without. . .without consulting me."  She was so mad she had trouble getting her words out coherently.  "I am his mother, you know," she added defensively.

     "I know."

     Victoria sat down on the bed, suddenly weary.  She stared down at the bulge that was now her lap.  "It just seems like you are making all the decisions concerning him lately.  It's like my opinion doesn't even matter anymore."

    Diego knelt down before her, taking her hands in his.  "I'm sorry, querida.

     "He's my son too," she declared.  "Why didn't you take away the sword fighting lessons?"  She laughed bitterly.  "Because it's something you want to do, isn't it?"

     Diego sighed.  "I didn't think it would be much of a hardship since he just had his first lesson today.  Not letting him ride Frijol is much more effective as a punishment."

     "You're probably right," Victoria had to concede although she still wasn't happy about it.  She looked away, biting her lip as another thought crossed her mind.  One that had been plaguing her for a couple of months.

     He could see the tears beginning to glisten in his wife's eyes and immediately felt contrite.   He had been making decisions without consulting her and keeping certain things from her as well.  But he rationalized he was only trying to keep her from unnecessary worry in her condition.  He should have expected that Victoria would be upset with him once she realized what he was doing.  He was not, however, prepared for the words she spoke next.

     "Do you have a mistress, Diego?"

     Totally stunned, he could not even begin to form an answer to her shocking question for several minutes.  Then he stupidly shook his head and stammered out, "N-No.  No. . .of course. . .  Of course not.   Why. . .  Why would you even think such a thing?"

     The threatened tears began flowing down Victoria's face.  "Because you've been so preoccupied lately.  I can tell you've grown restless and you disappear for hours.  And. . ." she added as she began to sob, "you haven't touched me in months."

     "Dios mio, Victoria," he said more roughly than he meant to do.  "You're going to have a baby.  You haven't been feeling well and. . ."

     "It's because I'm so fat, isn't it?" she queried through her tears.  "You find me repulsive."

     "Querida, no," he replied.  Diego took her chin in his hand and made her look him in the eyes.  "I love you, Victoria and no one else."  He smiled roguishly.  "I like that you've added a few pounds in certain places."

     "So you are saying I'm fat," she spat out angrily.  Diego rolled his eyes and thought he would have been better off keeping his mouth shut.  Pregnant women and their moods.  There was no correct way to deal with them, he was finding out to his despair.

     "No, not at all."  He gathered her into his arms and kissed her.  "I love you," he reiterated.  "There will never be anyone else.  Believe it, querida."

     Victoria pull away from him then tried to dry her face with her hands.  "Prove it," she said challengingly.

     Diego was surprised once again.  "Prove what?" he asked curiously.

    "That you love me and you find me attractive," Victoria dared.

     "What do you want me to do?"  He had a very good idea of what she wanted.  But he was afraid.  Of hurting her.  Of hurting the baby.  One of the things he had been keeping from her was that Doctor Hernandez had taken him aside after checking on Victoria two months earlier.  The physician had been appalled that the couple had still been engaging in marital relations.

     Victoria looked down at him seductively.  "Oh, I think you know what I want," she said with a smile.

     One glance at his wife's face told Diego that she wasn't going to take no for an answer.  But what else could he say?  "Querida, I. . .we cannot. . .  I mean. . .I don't want to hur. . ." he began to stammer as he tried to think of a diplomatic way out of this dilemma.

     Victoria placed one of her fingers against his lips before he could finish.  "I know something we can do that won't hurt the baby."   The smile on her face told him he was about to find out what she and Ana Maria had been talking about earlier in the courtyard.  Madre de Dios.

     She leaned over as far as she could and he rose up to meet her halfway.  Sure enough, what she whispered into his ear made his eyes grow big, among other things.  Diego did have one stray thought though, however.  How on earth did Felipe and Ana Maria know about such intimacies?  It certainly wasn't something he had told his adopted son about when he had explained the birds and the bees long ago to the teenaged boy.

     He sighed resignedly, accepting his fate.  Then he grinned.  It wasn't everyday that your very pregnant wife suggested something like this.  He should be counting his blessings.

     Which Diego did as he gathered Victoria into his arms and laid her down gently onto their bed.
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     It had been the longest week in Alfonso's young life.  Never, since he had learned how to ride, never had he gone so long without riding his pony.  He had spent as much time as he possibly dared out in the stable the past seven days.  Alfonso hoped that by doing so Frijol would not have forgotten him.

     Not even the weekly fencing lesson had cheered him up.  All right, it had a little.  His cousin Digo didn't seem too upset about his punishment though.  He and Tio Felipe had come by themselves on the appointed day.  And Digo had gotten to ride on a horse with his father.

     It just wasn't fair, thought Alfonso.   He had had to wait until the next day before he could saddle up Frijol and go out for a long ride.

     And now another week had passed, seemingly much quicker than the previous one.  And once again his cousin would soon be at the hacienda for another fencing lesson.   Alfonso was almost as excited about the lesson as he was about what he and Digo had planned for afterwards.

     "Now," said Diego as the boys and Felipe had gathered in the hacienda courtyard, "today, we're going to learn to riposte.  Alfonso, Digo, assume the en garde position, por favor."

     The lads eagerly raised their foils and followed Diego's instructions diligently.  Alfonso liked to think he was learning faster than his cousin but knew in the back of his mind that he and Digo were evenly matched.  That reality didn't stop him from thinking he was Zorro and his cousin was the evil alcalde.

     All too soon, the lesson was over.  Alfonso and Digo carefully wiped off their blades and put them back into their case.  Once again, Victoria had a snack waiting for them in the dining room.

     "May we be excused?" asked Alfonso after he had eaten his fill of his mama's delicious flan.

     "Of course, hijo," Victoria agreed with a tired smile.

     "Gracias."  Alfonso wiped his mouth with his napkin and glanced over at his cousin who did the same.  The boys left the room in a cacophony of scrapping chairs.

     "Did you bring the chocolate?" asked Digo once they were outside.

     "Si," replied Alfonso.  "And I hide a loaf of bread in the stable."

     The cousins quickly found the trail they had taken two weeks earlier.  Today, however, the Porciuncula River was not their destination.

     "Señor Maldonado!  Señor Maldonado!" the boys called out when they reached the shabby little hut.  It looked as deserted as it had when they had first stumbled upon it.

     "Maybe he's not here," suggested Diego.  "Maybe we should go back."

     "Just a minute," Alfonso replied.  He walked purposefully up to the blanketed doorway.  "Señor, it's us, Alfonso and Digo.  Don't be afraid."

     There seemed to be no movement inside the shack.  "I don't think he's home," said Digo.  "Let's go."

     "I think you're right," agreed Alfonso.  The boys turned to go.

     "Hola!"  The dusty, tattered blanket was pushed to one side and Señor Maldonado stepped outside.

     Both boys rushed over to him.  "Look, we brought some food," Digo said excitedly, pulling out the slab of chocolate from his jacket pocket.  Alfonso also produced the loaf of bread he had filched from the de la Vega kitchen.

     "What do you think I am, a charity case?" growled the old man angrily.

     "Oh, no sir," replied Alfonso, intimidated by the man's anger.  "We can't invite you. . .  I mean. . ."

     "You didn't tell your parents about me, did you?" surmised Señor Maldonado.

      "No," both boys answered in unison.   Alfonso added, "Since we can't invite you to our house for dinner, we thought we would bring it to you."

     "Very well," conceded Señor Maldonado.  "Come in, come in."  He pulled aside the blanket in a welcoming gesture.

     Alfonso and Digo eagerly bounded inside.  Their host stood outside for a moment, an peculiar smile on his wrinkled old face.  Chuckling quietly to himself, he ducked inside his squalid home.
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Late February 1832

     When will it stop raining, thought Diego as he stared out the library window at the dismal, gray clouds.  Never before could he remember there being such a wet winter in Alta California.

    The normal trickle that was the Porciuncula River was now a turbulent rush of muddy water.  Some of the lower-lying farms were in danger of being flooded.  Many head of cattle had been swept away or lost in the rapidly multiplying patches of quicksand.

     But Diego was more worried about the effect all the excess moisture would have on his grapes.  True, they wouldn't be ready to pick until late September, but this was going to be the first major harvest of his vines and he wanted everything to be perfect.  He had invested so much of his time and energy into this project.  Diego hated the idea of it all being for naught.

     Diego also wondered if Felipe and Digo would be able to make to the hacienda that day for the boys's fencing lesson.  He shrugged his shoulders.  If they were unable to come, he and Alfonso could practice by themselves.

     Moving away from the window, Diego walked over to the settee and picked up the wine-making book he had been reading.  A clap of thunder made him pause for a moment before he sat down.

     "Papa," said Alfonso anxiously as he came running into the room about the same time as a flash of lightening could be seen in the distance.  "Are we going to have to cancel the lesson?"

     "No, hijo," reassured his father.  "If your tio and cousin cannot make it, you and I will practice anyway."

     "Gracias, papa," replied the relieved youngster.  He sat down on the couch next to Diego.

     The next rumble of thunder sounded even closer.  After the last vestiges of it has faded, a loud pounding was heard at the front door.  Alfonso gleefully jumped off the settee.

     "They made it!" he exclaimed before scampering toward the door.

     The commotion caused by the four soaking-wet people entering the hacienda drew the attention of most of its inhabitants.  Victoria and Don Alejandro rushed to the foyer as dripping jackets and rebozos were removed and fluffy towels were handed out.

     "We were almost here before we got hit by this cloudburst," explained Felipe as he rubbed a towel on his damp hair.

     "Well the main thing is that you all arrived here safely," stated Don Alejandro as he draped a towel around Digo's shoulders.

     "I'm surprised you and Jaime came along," said Diego to Ana Maria.

     "We'd been cooped up in our casa all week," replied his daughter-in-law as she dried off her youngest son.  "It had stopped raining long enough this morning, I'd thought we risked it just to get out of the house."

     "Well, I'm glad you did," Victoria declared, smiling at Ana Maria.  She had been going stir-crazy as well, because of the inclement weather and her advancing pregnancy, she hadn't left the hacienda for several weeks.

     "I think we'll work on our footwork today," announced Diego once his eldest son's family was sufficiently dried.   He had to suppress a chuckle as his pupils groaned in protest.

     "I hate footwork," Alfonso hissed in his cousin's ear as his father went to retrieve their foils.  "It's so boring."

     Digo nodded his agreement.  "But Papa says it's very important," he added solemnly.

     "I know, mine too," replied Alfonso who shook his head sadly and watched as his father and uncle moved the rugs from the foyer floor.

     The lesson flew by too quickly in Alfonso's opinion.  It seemed like only a matter of minutes when his father called a halt and they all went into the dining room for refreshments.  The young lad was heartened though as he walked by a window and saw that it was no longer raining.

     Alfonso and Digo ate their tarts as fast as they could.  The older boy obediently placed his napkin on his plate then glanced at his parents.  "May I be excused?" he asked.

     Diego smiled fondly at the boy's polite manners.  "Si, hijo, you may," he replied.  "Why don't you show Digo the new book you just received from Spain."

    "I thought we could go outside," Alfonso declared, quickly pointing at the window as the adults began to protest.  "Look, it's stopped raining.  Can't we go out for just a little bit?"

    Diego glanced over at Victoria.  The children had been confined indoors for several days because of the bad weather.  She nodded, seemingly reading his mind as did Felipe and Ana Maria who were silently agreeing as well.

     "Very well, muchachos," he acquiesced.  "But only for a hour or until it starts raining again."  He held up a warning hand as the boys darted toward the door.  "And don't go far from the hacienda."

     "We won't," Alfonso said over his shoulder as he and his cousin exited the house.

     "Are we going to Señor Maldonado's?" whispered Digo conspiratorially as the boys walked past the stables.  Alfonso nodded.  "But you told your papa we wouldn't go far."

     "It's not that far," reasoned Alfonso.  "As long as we get home before dark, everything will be fine."

     "I just don't want to get in trouble again," stated Digo worriedly.

     "We won't," repeated Alfonso.  "Come on, we need to hurry."

     The two lads began running determinedly toward their destination.
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