Author's note:  This chapter contains a rather graphic description of childbirth.  Definitely not for the squeamish.



     "I've been having little pains all afternoon, but I thought it was just from worrying about the boys," Victoria said.  She grasped Diego's hand.  "It's too soon."

     He could only nod.  Dios mio, it was too soon.

     "What's going on?" queried Ana Maria, taking a couple of steps into the room.  "Is it the baby. . .?"

     Diego reluctantly relinquished his wife's hand and stood up.  "Si," he replied.  He walked over to where Ana Maria stood and placed a hand on her shoulder.  "Can you keep an eye on her?" he inquired.  "I need to go get Doctor Hernandez."

     "Diego, no," Victoria said.  "You just got back."  She broke off as she was wracked with another contraction.

     "Querida," he said gently.  "We need the doctor."

     "I'll go," volunteered Felipe from the doorway.   Diego and Ana Maria spun around and started to protest.  Felipe shook his head.  "Diego, you need to stay here."  He disappeared down the hallway before anyone could say anything against his decision.

     "I'll go get Maria," suggested Ana Maria.  "She can help until the doctor gets here."

     Diego nodded before kneeling once more beside the bed.  He reached up to stroke Victoria's face.  "It's going to be alright, querida," he said as much to convince himself as her.

     "I'm sorry, Diego," she murmured.  She tensed as another labor pain hit.

     Diego looked up at the clock on the bedroom wall.  Madre de Dios, it couldn't have been more than two minutes since her last contraction, he surmised.  This baby was going to be born soon if this continued.

     "What's going on?" queried Don Alejandro who appeared at the door in his nightshirt and robe.  "I was just getting into bed when I heard all this commotion."  He then glanced at his daughter-in-law lying on the bed.  "Is she having the baby?" he asked in a strained voice.

     "Si, Father," replied his son.  "Felipe has gone to fetch the doctor and Ana Maria is getting Maria."  Diego turned as his father made a funny sound.  "Father, are you alright?" he inquired, taking in the elder de la Vega's sudden pallor.

     "Yes, yes," retorted the old don.  "Is there anything I can do?"

     "You can keep an eye on the children," said Diego.

     Don Alejandro nodded.  "I'll pray as well."  He exited the room.

     Alfonso and Digo had stuck their heads out the door and watched as their abuelo came toward them.  "What happened?" asked Alfonso.  "Where is everyone going?"

     "Don't worry, muchachos," the old don said.  "Go back to bed."

     "But my mama said my papa was going to get the doctor," said Digo.  "We're not sick."

     "You are supposed to be sleeping," said their grandfather authoritatively, "not eavesdropping on adult conversations.  Back to bed.  Now."  He pushed them into the bedroom and shut the door.

     Reluctantly, the two boys crawled back under the blankets on the bed they were sharing.  "I think my mama is sick," whispered Alfonso.  "I saw Papa carrying her."  He looked over at his cousin.  "What if we made her sick?"

     "Madre de Dios," said Digo.

     The lads stared at each other with guilty eyes.
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     Half an hour later, Ana Maria came back into Diego and Victoria's bedroom.  She motioned to her father-in-law, who was kneeling beside the bed where Victoria was laboring.  He got to his feet and walked over.

     "I can't find Maria," she revealed quietly.  "I've looked all over the house."

     Diego didn't know what to make of this information.  Usually Maria assisted with all of the births around the hacienda.  And right now, her expertise and knowledge were desperately needed.  "None of the other servants know where she is?"

     Ana Maria shook her head.  "Paloma thought someone knocked on the kitchen door but she was putting things away in the pantry so she didn't hear or see anything else."

     "Maybe one of the hands was injured during the storm," speculated Diego.  "I'll go look for her."

     He started to head out the door as Victoria moaned as another contraction came over her.  Ana Maria grabbed his arm.

     "Diego, don't leave me here alone," she pleaded, her lovely brown eyes filling with tears.  "I don't know what to do by myself."

     "But you've helped. . ." he started to say but stopped as she shook her head.

      "All I've done is fetch towels and hot water," revealed Ana Maria.  "Maria and the doctor did all the actual work."

     "I'll get someone else to go look for Maria," he said.  He understood his daughter-in-law's panic.  He didn't know what to do either.  Sure, he had helped with the births of many calves, foals and lambs, that was true.  But this was his wife.  And she wasn't supposed to be having this baby for another six weeks.  The odds that it would survive were slight.  And he didn't want to think about how he was going to deal with that possibility.  He glanced over at Victoria, who was resting against the pillows on the bed, sweat glistening on her brow and her breathing heavy.

     The baby was coming and there wasn't anything anyone could do about it now.  Diego gave Ana Maria's hand a squeeze before opening the door and going out to find one of the servants to send out into the rain to find the missing housekeeper.

     He was only gone about five minutes before he re-entered the bedroom.  Ana Maria was placing towels under Victoria's legs.  She looked up at Diego.

     "Her water broke," she announced.  "I don't it's going to be very long now."

     "Diego," whispered Victoria through clenched teeth.

     He immediately rushed over to her side.  "Si, querida," he said, reaching up to brush her hair from her forehead.

     "I want you to promise me something, Diego," she said quietly.  She was interrupted by another labor pain.  Diego took her hand and let her squeeze his, hoping to take away some of her agony.

     Victoria closed her eyes after the contraction had passed.  "If the baby is a girl," she began, "I want you to name her Mercedes."

     Diego was surprised by her request.  The only Mercedes he knew had been his father's old girlfriend, who had died over ten years ago, killed by her estranged husband.

     "If that's what you want, of course," he agreed.  "What if it's a boy?"

     Victoria shook her head.  "It's a girl," she stated.  She smiled weakly.  "Don't ask me how I know," she said.  "I just do."

     Not about to argue against her intuition, he nodded.  But before he could say anything more, Victoria tensed up in pain again.

     "Diego," cried Ana Maria.  She was peering under the blanket she has placed over Victoria's raised legs.  "I think I see a foot.  That's not good, is it?"

     Diego hurried down to the end of the bed where the other woman stood.  He couldn't believe how squeamish he felt as he lifted the blanket that covered his wife's most intimate parts.  It wasn't like he had never seen them before now.  But again, this was a very different state of affairs.

     Tamping down his nausea, Diego took stock of the situation.  The baby's foot was indeed visible.  He was experienced enough to know that the baby should be turned or it could get stuck in the birth canal and then both mother and child would die.  It had happened many times with the animals on the ranch.

     "Ana Maria," he said, "we have to turn the baby.  We need to get her on her hands and knees."

     His daughter-in-law looked at him like he was crazy.  And maybe he was.  On all fours was the only way he had ever repositioned a calf or foal in the womb.  It was the only way he knew how.  He murmured a little pray that it would work on a woman as well as a mare.

     "Try not to push, querida," he told Victoria as he and Ana Maria helped get her into the desired position.

     She could only nod her head faintly.  Diego began to manipulate her stomach.  Surprising, it didn't feel that much different than that of a cow or mare.  Madre de Dios, he thought.  He could never voice that sentiment to his wife.  She would not appreciate being compared to a farm animal.

     It took nearly twenty minutes, but Diego finally managed to get the baby turned so it would come out head first.  Both he and Ana Maria were dripping with sweat as they placed the limp Victoria back down onto the bed.  Her contractions had intensified while they had worked.

     "You need to push now," he said to his exhausted wife.  "Push with the next pain, all right?"

     "I'm so tired, Diego," she replied weakly.  "I don't think I can."

     Diego leaned down to kiss her forehead.  "Querida, por favor," he pleaded.  "You can do this.  You have to push."

     The words were barely out of his mouth when a contraction hit.  "Come on, Victoria," said Ana Maria with feeble enthusiasm.  "Push."

     Victoria tried to bear down but she grew too weak too soon.  Little if any progress was made as just the baby's head was showing.  Then she hardly had a moment to rest as another wave of pain washed over her.

     "Push," Diego urged again.  He glanced over at Ana Maria.  "Lift her shoulders."  When she looked at him questioningly, he shrugged and said, "Gravity.  It might help."

     The younger woman did as he instructed.  Diego saw immediate results as the head emerge, followed by a shoulder.  He also noticed the cord wrapped around the baby's neck.  Quickly, he looped it away as the other shoulder came out.

     "Get me a cloth or something," he said.  Ana Maria grabbed a blanket from an armoire and handed it to Diego.  He carefully wiped the baby's face, trying to clear its nose and mouth.  He was concerned as the rest of his daughter slid out of her mother.  He hadn't heard so much as a whimper from the tiny infant.

     "Is she. . ." Ana Maria started to inquire, but stopped when she saw how blue the baby's skin was.

     Diego pressed his ear to the little girl's chest.  Slowly he drew away and shook his head.  Tears began to stream down Ana Maria's cheeks.

    "Diego," said Victoria in a barely audible voice.  "Where. . .?"

    "I'm here, querida," he replied, moving into her line of vision.  He noticed out of the corner of his eye that Ana Maria was cutting the umbilical cord and wrapping the small baby into a clean blanket.

     "The baby," Victoria said.  "Can I see her?"

     It nearly broke Diego's heart to gaze upon her pale and weary face.  Silently Ana Maria placed the tiny bundle into his arms.  "Let her see," she whispered.  "I know I would want to."  She turned away quickly as quiet sobs wracked her body.

     Diego looked down at the little face so still yet so beautiful.  "Victoria, there's something I need to tell you," he began.

     The way Victoria focused onto her husband's face told him she already knew.  "Let me hold her," she said with as much determination as she could muster.  Diego gently handed her their daughter.

     "Oh, she's so lovely," Victoria cooed, stroking a finger down one tiny cheek.  "She would have been a real  beauty."

     "I'm so sorry, querida," murmured Diego.  He hung his head.  "I did the best I. . ."

     "Shh," his wife cut in.  "It's not your fault."

     Diego shook his head.  His common sense told him she was right.  But in his heart, he felt like he had failed her.  He bent down to kiss her cheek and tasted the salt from her tears.

     "We can have more children," said Victoria.  She gave him a tired smile.  "But not right now.  Maybe tomorrow..."  Her head suddenly lolled to one side and her hold on the baby loosened.

     "Diego," exclaimed Ana Maria frantically.   "She's bleeding too much.  It shouldn't be this bad."

     He glanced over to see the bloody towels the young woman held.  "What do we do?" he asked.  Suddenly the image of a mare he had over twenty years ago that had hemorrhaged to death popped into his head.  The nausea he had fought earlier returned with a vengeance.

     "I don't know," cried Ana Maria.  "I don't know.  We need the doctor."  She wiped the tears from her face.  "Why hasn't Felipe come back yet?"

     Diego glanced up at the clock.  Over four hours had passed since he had first carried Victoria into this room. Dios mio, where was Felipe?   He must have had trouble finding the doctor.

     And where the hell was Maria?  It was totally out of her character for her to disappear like this.  She should have been here to help.  She would have known what to do.  Maybe if she had been here, his little girl would have been born alive.  Maybe. . .

     Diego shook his head.  It did no good to place blame on anyone for what happened tonight.  It had been God's will, he thought bitterly as he looked upon his unconscious wife.

     The pain of losing of their daughter was almost unbearable.  And if he lost his Victoria as he had lost his mother. . .
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