Author's note: I thought I had finished this story.  Then I realized I left a huge, dangling loose end flapping about in the wind.  However, I couldn't work it into the last chapter so I wrote an epilogue that takes place about six months before the original end of the story.



     "Papa, may we be excused?" asked Alfonso.  Both he and his cousin Digo were looking up at their parents expectantly.

     The boys had just finished another fencing lesson.  They were progressing rapidly, even though they had not had instruction for nearly six months.  Diego had felt guilty about that and had resumed their regular schedule of lessons a month earlier.

     "Yes, you may," he replied.  "Don't go too far.  It will be dark sooner than you think."

     "We were just going to go visit Señor Maldonado," explained Alfonso.  "We haven't seen him in ages and we're worried about him."

     "Maldonado?" queried Don Alejandro who got to his feet and tossing his napkin into his plate.  "Do you mean Juan Maldonado?"

     Diego looked over at his son and grandson.  The muchachos looked at each other and shrugged.

     "I don't know his first name, Father," Diego said.  "He's the old man who lives in a shack down by the river.  The one where I found the boys that night."

     "Madre de Dios!" exclaimed the old don, slapping his hand against the table.  "I knew it."  He then spun around and headed for the front door.

     "Father, wait!"  Diego chased after his father.  Don Alejandro had his hand on the door knob when his son caught up with him.

     "Father, who is this man?" Diego inquired.

     "He used to work for us," said the elder de la Vega.  "About twenty-five years ago.  I caught him and one of the kitchen girls in my bedroom. . .uh. . .um. . ."  He broke off his explanation as Alfonso and Digo had arrived just in time to catch the tail end of the conversation.

     "What were they doing in your bedroom, Abuelo?" asked Digo innocently.

     "Something they shouldn't have been doing," replied Don Alejandro.  His face was flushed a deep pink color.  "I fired both of them on the spot."

     "So why would he be living in a shack near our property?" Diego wanted to know.  "It doesn't make any sense."  He had only been about fourteen at the time but he clearly recalled the incident.  No wonder the man had seemed familiar.  And no wonder he was bitter toward the de la Vegas.

     "That's just it, Diego.  This shack of his isn't near our property, it's on our property.  He threatened me that day I tossed him out of the hacienda.  He said that one day he would own this ranch and then he would throw me out."  Don Alejandro shook his head.

     "So what are you going to do?" Diego asked curiously.  "Evict him?"

     "No," his father replied, mulling over his options.  "I bet he's just waiting for me to challenge him."

     "I don't know, Father.  He's a sick old man, living in a crude little hovel.  I think he was afraid of us finding out he was there.

     "Well then, let's go."  Don Alejandro opened the door and strode through it.

     Diego glanced over his shoulder at Felipe, Ana Maria, and Victoria, who were still seated at the table in the dining room and shrugged.

     "Be careful, Diego," Victoria called out as she stood up and placed one of her hands on the bulge of her stomach.

     "I will," he said before turning his attention to the youngsters beside him.  "Come on, boys."

     Alfonso and Digo were the only ones who knew where this Maldonado lived.  Of course, he had been there once before as well.  But it had been so dark and rainy that night he had found the children there, Diego doubted he would be able to find his way back.

    Diego and Don Alejandro hung back a little as the two lads ran ahead of them as they all neared the old hut.

     "Señor Maldonado!  Señor Maldonado!"  Both Alfonso and Digo called out their amigo's name several more times, but the old man did not appear.

     "Maybe he's moved away," suggest Alfonso as his father and grandfather walked up to stand in front of the little shanty.

     Diego could see the hut was in even worse disrepair than when he had visited it nine month earlier.  He brushed aside the poorly re-hung blanket that served as the dwelling's door and stepped inside its dark interior.

     It was obvious that no one had lived inside for quite some time.  A thick layer of dust covered every flat surface.  Intricately woven cobwebs were everywhere.  Mice had gnawed so many holes into the straw-filled mattress lying on the floor that there was barely any fabric left at all.

     "He's gone," Diego called out over his shoulder.  "This place is mess."

     Don Alejandro poked his head through the doorway.  "I think you're right, Diego."  He backed away as his son exited the hovel.

     "Where do you think he went?" asked Alfonso.

     "I don't know, hijo," said the elder de la Vega.

     "He said something about having some children," Diego remembered.  "He said that Alfonso and Digo reminded him of his own sons at that age."

     "That's because they were about the boys' age when I threw him off our property," said Don Alejandro.  "They wanted nothing to do with him after what he had done to their mother."

      "You mean, he was a married man when you caught him. . ." Diego paused as he noticed the two boys eagerly listening to every word.

     "Si," replied his father tersely.

     "Whatever happened to his wife then?" queried Diego.  The poor woman, he thought sympathetically.

     "Oh, she stills works for us," answered Don Alejandro.  He looked at his son with an odd smile on his face.  "She's one of my oldest and most trusted employees."

     Diego pondered over the possibilities in his mind.  He could think of only one female servant that had been at the hacienda twenty-five years ago.  He stared at his father in horror.


     The old don nodded his head.  Diego was in shock as he never realized that the de la Vega housekeeper had been married or even that she had any children.  She must have managed to keep her personal life well separated from her work, he thought.  The other alternative was that he had been a spoiled, selfish young man who only cared about himself and his family.  He sincerely hoped that wasn't the case.

     "I never knew," Diego said.

     "Maria is a proud woman, Diego," stated his father.  "But she was grateful that I had gotten rid of her husband for her.  By the time she realized that he was a no-good. . . a bad man, it was too late, they were married and had two little boys."  He had changed what he was going to say as Alfonso and Digo were still listening.  Then his expression turned thoughtful.  "I wonder if she knew he was living here?"

     Diego laughed.  "I doubt it.  She would have chased him away herself this time, I imagine."  He chuckled again as a picture flashed through his mind.  "With the biggest frying pan she could carry."

     Don Alejandro glanced again at the disheveled hut.  "I'll send some vaqueros out here tomorrow to tear this thing down.  I don't want anyone getting hurt."  His eyes moved to the youngsters.

     "Where did Señor Maldonado go?" Alfonso inquired on their way back to the hacienda.  "Why didn't he say goodbye to us?"

     "He must have left in a hurry," answered Diego.

     "Was he really a bad man?"  Digo had a look of worry on his face.  "Mama told me to stay away from bad men."

     "That's good advice," said Don Alejandro.  "The señor wasn't a very nice fellow.  But I don't think he would have hurt you boys."

     Diego sincerely hoped that would have been the case.   Alfonso and Digo could have been kidnapped and held for ransom, or worse.  His stomach churned at the thought of someone murdering or molesting his children.

     But then he looked at the happy, innocent faces of his son and grandson as they skipped along side of him and smiled.  No harm had come to them and for that, he would be eternally grateful.
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