A touch of a hand on his shoulder roused Diego from his melancholy.  Ana Maria was looking at him with a deeply concerned expression.  He noticed that she was trembling from either exhaustion or anxiety or perhaps both.

     "I'm scared, Diego," she said.  "What if she d. . ."  She put one hand over her mouth as her other arm clutched her stomach, not able to utter the dreadful word.

     Diego reached out and drew her into an embrace.  He closed his eyes to block out even thinking of the word.  He couldn't lose Victoria.  He just couldn't.

     There was a quick rap on the bedroom door a second before it was opened.  Don Alejandro stared at the sight of his son and his grandson's wife, then his gaze traveled over to his daughter-in-law on the bed.  Then shaking his head, he said, "The doctor is here.  What. . .?"  He didn't need to finish his question as he saw the answer in their faces.

     Diego and Ana Maria moved apart as a soaking wet Doctor Hernandez entered the room, followed by an equally damp Felipe.  Ana Maria ran to her husband and embraced him tightly.

     "Doctor, gracias a Dios," said Diego as he knelt down beside the bed and grasped Victoria's hand.  He heaved a sigh of relief as he felt a faint pulse.  "She's bleeding.  We didn't. . .   We don't know what to do."

     The physician removed his coat and opened his black bag.  "Let me take a look," he said.  He glanced over his shoulder at the two men lingering in the doorway.  "A little privacy, por favor."

     Felipe released Ana Maria who went over to pick up the tiny blanket wrapped bundle that the unconscious Victoria still held loosely in one arm.  He led Don Alejandro from the room.

     Doctor Hernandez listened as he examined then tended to Victoria.  "And then she passed out," finished Ana Maria.  "Is she going to be all right?"

     "It's too soon to tell," said the doctor honestly.  "She's lost a lot of blood, but there was no internal tearing."  He stood up, wiping his hands on a clean towel.  He glanced over at Ana Maria then over at Diego.

     "You did the best you could," he stated.  "The baby just came too early.  I doubt I could have done anything different if I had been able to get here sooner.  I'm sorry, Don Diego."

     "Gracias," Diego managed to choke out.  He noticed that Ana Maria was still holding the baby in her arms.  "Doctor, the baby.  What do we. . ."  He was unable to finish his sentence.

      "I'll take her with me," suggested Hernandez.  "You can make arrangements for burial in a day or two."

     Diego couldn't listen to the rest of the doctor's instructions.  Burial.  The realization hit his stomach like a fist.  He had heard the expectation in the physician's voice that it just might be a double funeral.  A hand on his shoulder cause him to jump.

     "You need to rest, Diego," declared the doctor.  "There's nothing more you can do tonight.  I'll come back as soon as I can in the morning."

     "No," said Diego vehemently.  "I'm not leaving until I know she's going to be all right."

     "You can't help her by making yourself ill," said Hernandez as he closed his bag.

     Ana Maria smiled at the doctor.  "It's all right," she said.  "We'll get him to rest."

     "Bueno," said the physician.  He gathered up his coat and left the room.

     Ana Maria placed her hand on Diego's back.  "He's right," she said, "you need to rest.  I can stay while you. . ."

     Diego shook his head.  "No," he replied.  "I'm staying here."  He got to his feet and grasped his daughter-in-law's hands.  "I want to thank you, Ana Maria, for all your help.  I'm glad you were here."

     "De nada," she murmured.  She glanced over at Victoria.  "I only wish. . ."

     Diego could only nod.  Ana Maria left the room as he returned to Victoria's bedside.

     This was his worst nightmare come true.  To lose Victoria as he had lost his mother.  It had always been there, clawing at his insides, every time that Victoria had announced she was pregnant.  He was ashamed to admit he had been more relieved that she had survived each birth than he had been proud of the sons she had borne.

     What had frightened him even more with this last pregnancy was that Victoria was nearly the same age his mother had been when she had died after giving birth to his sister.   That coincidence had weighed heavy on his mind.

     Diego closed his eyes as he kissed Victoria's limp hand.  This was all his fault, he reasoned.  It was he who put off marrying her until Zorro was no longer necessary.  All those years when she had been young and healthy, he had wasted them chasing after petty criminals and greedy government officials.

     And for what?  The momentary thrill it had given him?  The glory?  He had told himself all those years it was to right the wrongs of injustice and to protect those who could not protect themselves.  But how true was that?  He would be lying if he said he hadn't enjoyed the notoriety.

     Brushing his hand over Victoria's hair, he sigh heavily.  If she died, it would be all his fault.  And he didn't know how he could live with himself after that.
                                                 Z                                                   Z                                                   Z

     "Diego?" queried Ana Maria as she opened the bedroom door several hours later.  No one had responded to her repeated rapping.

     She saw Diego still kneeling beside the bed although he had drifted off to sleep.  Victoria, though still unconscious, was moving restlessly under the blankets.  Ana Maria went over and place her wrist on Victoria's forehead.

     "Diego, Diego, wake up," she urged as she shook his shoulder.  Ana Maria hated to disturb his rest but. . .

     "Wha. . .?  What?" said a disoriented Diego as he threw off the vestiges of sleep.  His whole body yelled in protest as he went to stand up.

     "She's burning up," stated Ana Maria.  "I'll go get some cold cloths."  She paused by the door on her way out of the room.  "Diego, you need to eat something.  The boys are having their breakfast now.  You should go join them."

     She then left the room without waiting for a reply.  Diego shook his head as nausea churned in his stomach. The boys.  How could he ever face his sons again?  He was responsible for killing their mother.

     Diego sat down on the end of the bed and hung his head in his hands.   From what little his father had told him concerning the circumstances of his mother's death, this was the next step.  Felicidad de la Vega had only lingered on for two days after her infant daughter had died only moments after birth.   It was only a matter of time now, Diego thought, until Victoria followed in her footsteps.

     Looking over at Victoria, Diego remember another time when his beloved had been at death's door.  And he had been the one to blame for that incident as well.  He recalled it as if it had just been the day before; that gambler Bishop, shooting at Zorro but Victoria stepping in the way and taking the bullet instead.

     He had almost given up Zorro then, going so far as to throwing his mask in the fire.  Diego reached out to take Victoria's hand.  He should have done it.  He should have quit the very moment she had been shot.

     But no, instead he continued to play the masked hero for five more years.  Five years that they could have spent together as husband and wife.  Instead those years had been wasted.

     Diego slid off the bed and knelt back down beside it.  He kissed Victoria's hand and used his free hand to push her hair off her forehead.  She was burning with fever.

     Ana Maria re-entered the room then, carrying a tray containing a pitcher, a bowl, and a pile of cloths.  She was followed by Doctor Hernandez.  Diego got to his feet.

     "I told him about the fever," said Ana Maria as she dipped one of the cloths into the bowl of water.  After she had wrung it out, she placed it on Victoria's brow.

     The doctor shook his head.  "I was afraid of this," he said.  He patted Diego on the shoulder.  "There's nothing we can do but let nature run its course."

     "What does that mean?" questioned Diego angrily.  "You mean we just let her die?"

     "No," replied the physician.   "Try to make her as comfortable as possible and make sure she gets plenty of liquids."  He looked Diego in the eye.  "I wish I had a magic potion that could restore her to perfect health, Don Diego.  But I don't.  Not every woman dies from childbirth fever, you know," he added in a reassuring tone.

     Diego turned away in disgust.  "Thank you, Doctor," he ground out.  He knelt back down beside the bed.

     Ana Maria walked with the physician to the door.  She shot a quick glance at Diego.  "Is there really nothing we can do?" she inquired.

     Hernandez patted her hand.  "I'm sorry, my dear," he said.  "I've seen this more times than I can count.  Whether or not the mother makes it or not depends on her health and her age."  He paused to look over at Victoria.  "I'm afraid it is in God's hands now."

     He left the room then.  Ana Maria turned around and saw Diego's face which told her that he had overheard her conversation with the doctor.  She never knew anyone could look so devastated.
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     The burial of Mercedes Maria de la Vega was not attended by either of her parents.  Her mother was still at death's door, burning with fever.  Her father refused to leave her mother's bedside.

     Don Alejandro de la Vega was there.  He could not look at the tiny casket however.  His eyes were lifted skyward as Padre Benitez sprinkled his granddaughter's coffin with holy water and murmured the appropriate prayers.

     That his son was having to endure the same pain that he had had to endure was eating him up inside.  First the loss of a precious child.  Then the love of your life dying.  Don Alejandro sent up a silent prayer that Victoria would pull through this ordeal.  He couldn't bear to think what it would do to Diego if she didn't.

     Felipe and Ana Maria held each other's hand tightly.  Each knew what the other was thinking.  They too were concerned about Diego and his state of mind.  They remembered the pain and anguish they had gone through when Ana Maria had miscarried six years earlier.  It had nearly tore their marriage apart.  They didn't know what this would do to Diego and Victoria's marriage if she survived.

     "I want to express my deepest sorrows," said the priest, coming over to Don Alejandro after the rites were completed.  "Let there be some comfort that she is up in Heaven now, in the loving bosom of God."

     "Gracias, Padre," the old don replied with more graciousness than he felt.

     "And how is Doña Victoria doing?" asked Benitez.  "I am thinking about coming out to the hacienda again this afternoon."

     "She's the same," answered Ana Maria, stepping in so her abuelo wouldn't have to respond.  She wasn't sure he could.  "Come for lunch, Padre, por favor," she invited.

     "Si, gracias," the priest said.  He touched his hand to Don Alejandro's shoulder before turning to leave the cemetery, followed by two altar boys.  Felipe and Ana Maria went over to speak with her mother, Leonora, and Mendoza who had also attended the funeral.

     The elder de la Vega swallowed hard.  It had to be some kind of curse, he thought as he walked a little while later with Felipe and Ana Maria to their carriage.  A curse put on the de la Vega women, causing them and their daughters to die young.

     He thought of his own mother then.  She too had passed on at a early age.  He had been twenty years old at the time, off fighting in some foreign land with his brother Alfonso.  There had been no way to get word to them, so they didn't learn of her passing until nearly two years later when they had come home on leave.

     It had to be a curse.  Don Alejandro shook his head.  It was stupid to believe in such things but what else could it be?  He just couldn't accept that God could be so cruel.

    He sat silently, brooding all the way back to the hacienda.
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     "No!  You are not giving her last rites!" Diego shouted at Padre Benitez.  The priest had arrived a little before lunchtime to visit the sickroom.

     "Don Diego, you cannot deny her the sacrament," countered the padre.  "If she dies, the fate of her immortal soul could be jeopardized.  You would not want that on your conscience, my son."

     Diego looked irritably at Benitez.  What was coming out of the other man's mouth all sounded like superstitious nonsense to him.  Victoria was a good woman, why would she be condemned to hell because a priest didn't sprinkle her with holy water and say a few words over her.  He wasn't even sure there was a place called hell anymore.  He had seen too much of it right here on earth.

     The padre could sense the struggle inside of the man in front of him.  "You can't lose faith, Diego," he said benevolently.

     Diego leaned his forehead against the cool wood of the armoire.  It was too late, he wanted to tell the kindly priest.  He had begun to lose his faith when he was twelve and his mother had died.  Over the years it had been chipped away by all the inhumanity and cruelty he had witnessed, especially those acts that had been done in the name of the Church.

     This was just the final straw, thought Diego.  He lifted his head and saw that Benitez had moved closer to Victoria.  The priest made a sign of the cross over the rosary he held in his hand, kissed the crucifix that hung from its end, then placed it into one of Victoria's hands.

     Then the padre turned to look at him.  Diego knew what the other man must be thinking.  He hadn't changed his clothes since that night.  He hadn't shaved or combed his hair in those days either.  If he slept, it was only for a few hours at a time and he knew his eyes were bloodshot from the lack of rest.  He must look like a madman.

     "I know you won't allow me to do this because if I do, you think she will die," said Benitez.  "She's a strong woman, Don Diego.  But she still needs our prayers."

     "Fine, do it."  Diego knew the padre would give him no peace until he relented.  He flung himself down in a chair beside the bed and closed his eyes.  He tried to shut his ears as well as he could hear the priest setting out the items he needed to perform his ritual.
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