PART TWO: "TRIAL BY FIRE"
The funeral of Don Alonzo Montoya was indeed sparsely attended as Diego predicted it would be. Don Miguel was there, of course, along with de Soto, Alcalde de la Roca and two elderly widows who made it a point to attend every wedding, funeral and baptism in the pueblo.
Don Miguel also had expected a low turnout but it still infuriated him. If they had been in Spain, it would have been a large funeral, with all of his friends and acquaintances there as well as the people with whom Alonzo had associated. They would have held it at the Cathedral and his son would have been interred alongside his mother. Instead, it was this tiny Mission church and a windblown cemetery in the middle of nowhere.
He sprinkled a handful of dirt onto his son's coffin and stared at it for a moment. Then he turned to de Soto, who stood a respectful distance behind him.
"When is this so-called trial going to begin?" Montoya demanded to know. "I have no desire to remain in Los Angeles any longer than I have to."
The Alcalde was taken aback. "But Don Miguel, what about your plans to invest in this pueblo? I will be foreclosing on the businesses by next week. You are supposed to purchase them from me." De Soto immediately became concerned. If this scheme fell through, he would be stuck with a lot of worthless property.
"I have changed my mind, Alcalde," his erstwhile partner declared. "This pueblo has lost its appeal for me."
"But you cannot change your mind now, Señor," de Soto whined. His brain feverishly searched for a reason to get the other man to remain in Los Angeles. He smirked wickedly. "Just think of the revenge you can exact upon these people if you stay. Snatching their businesses and homes away from them, making them become your tenants. You would be in a position of great power. They would have to depend on your benevolence."
Don Miguel considered the Alcalde's statement. It was true, he would wield much influence and authority over the citizens of this pueblo if he was their landlord. It would be like it had been back in Madrid when he had been a formidable man, with access to the King's ear.
And he would be near Alonzo's final resting place. Even though his son was not a very likable person, he still had been his flesh and blood, his heir. Montoya had already decided he would remarry and beget another heir. His holdings were too important to him to be reverted back to the Crown. He closed his eyes. Yes, he would have to marry again and father a son. All he needed to do was persuade the only woman he would consider to consent.
"Alcalde, you are right," Don Miguel finally responded. "I will stay. I have realized that there are certain issues I need to resolve yet here in Los Angeles."
"Bueno, bueno," de Soto said with relief. Then he remembered the don's earlier question. "De la Vega's trial will start on Monday. I don't see the point of wasting any time, do you?"
"No, Alcalde," Montoya agreed. "The sooner I see that boy hang, the better I will feel."
"If you will excuse me, Don Miguel," de
Soto began, "I have other concerns to attend to." He bowed politely
and headed back toward the pueblo. Montoya turned and stared again
at the coffin bearing his son.
Z Z Z
Margarita de la Roca stepped lightly down the staircase of the tavern. She was feeling quite perturbed about this sojourn to Los Angeles. Nothing was turning out as she had hoped. Ignacio was busy with the murder investigation, her father was a dull and boring companion (although he was that way at home as well) and the real reason for her visit was nowhere to be found.
Everyone she had spoken with mentioned she should talk to Señorita Escalante. The beautiful innkeeper knew him the best, they all had said. Margarita decided to find out for herself if this was true.
Victoria was working behind the bar, pouring glasses of wine and juice. She glimpsed the lovely young woman coming her way. The señorita was only three years younger than herself, she had learned, but the young woman seemed so immature, so childish. No doubt traits caused by a doting father and an easy life of luxury, Victoria thought resentfully. It would serve the Alcalde right to marry such a vain, spoiled girl.
She groaned inwardly as Margarita paused in front of the counter. "Señorita Escalante, I wish to ask you a few questions, por favor," the other woman stated.
There weren't that many customers in the tavern, so Victoria could not use the excuse she was too busy to converse with de Soto's paramour. She sighed as she replied, "Very well."
"I have heard that you are, how shall I put it?" Margarita said a bit cattily, "That you are Zorro's woman."
"That, Señorita, is really none of your concern," Victoria retorted hotly. She understood the insult she had just been dealt. Zorro's woman, indeed. That was just a polite way of saying she was his mistress, which she definitely was not. "Why would you want to know anyway?" She laughed as a thought crossed her mind. "You are interested in Zorro? Does the Alcalde know you are using him to get to his enemy? I imagine he will be quite irate when he finds out."
"That, Señorita Escalante, is none of your business," the young woman replied haughtily. The two women glared at each other for a moment. Then Señorita de la Roca swirled around in a huff and left the tavern.
Good riddance, thought Victoria with an
unkind smile. Nothing about the encounter changed her opinion of
the young woman. She sincerely hoped if Zorro ever did meet
Margarita, his estimation of her would be the same. Victoria frowned
though as she returned to her work.
Z Z Z
It was nearly noon the next day when Don Alejandro returned home accompanied by his lawyer, Don Ernesto. They found Diego in the library, reading one of Felipe's legal tomes. He thoroughly briefed the attorney on all the background and evidence of the charge against his son.
". . .and I just learned yesterday afternoon the trial is to begin on Monday," Diego advised. "That doesn't give us much time."
"Monday?" queried Don Alejandro. "That's Felipe's birthday." The de la Vegas stared at each other in alarm. What with all the drama of the past few days, they had forgotten all about it.
"Well, let's make sure he will be able to celebrate again next year," suggested Don Ernesto solemnly. "I must admit to looking forward to meeting the young man," he added, "I just wish it could be under better circumstances."
The housekeeper, Maria, entered the room then, signaling to Don Alejandro. "Ah, lunch is ready," he announced. He graciously led the lawyer to the dining room. Diego followed behind them, a grim expression on his face.
Later that afternoon, the three men rode into Los Angeles. Calderon and Diego immediately headed for the cuartel, intent on filling Felipe in on the strategy they had devised over their midday meal. Don Alejandro made his way to the pueblo's bank.
He had finally scraped together twenty-five thousand pesos. By cleaning out both his accounts here and in Santa Paula and calling in a few debts that were owed him, he had raised half of the bail money. Now the elder de la Vega needed to find out if that would satisfy the Alcalde's greedy soul.
With the promissory note safely tucked into his vest pocket, the old don strode forcefully to the garrison. After a cursory knock on the office door, he barged right in.
"Don Alejandro, what can I do for you?" de Soto snarled ungraciously. He was seated at his desk, a quill in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. "The prisoner already has two visitors. You will have to wait."
"That's not why I am here," declared the caballero. "Although I do wish to see Felipe later." He extracted the note from his vest and ceremoniously placed it on the desk. "Twenty-five thousand pesos, Alcalde. I know it's not the full amount but I hoped. . ."
"That I would release the young man anyway?" Ignacio finished for him. He chuckled fiendishly then his expression became very serious. "I said bail was fifty thousand pesos. No more, no less." De Soto glared at the man before him. "I don't trust you and Diego not to spirit the lad away somewhere so he can escape justice."
He held up his hand to stifle the old don's objection. "I know you all contend the boy is innocent. That is why he is not leaving my jail until I have fifty thousand pesos as a guarantee he will not flee."
Don Alejandro's temper had reached its boiling point. The honor of the de la Vegas was being disparaged by this overbearing jackass. Putting a bullet or blade through de Soto would have felt extremely gratifying. Only the thought of making things worse for Felipe kept him from calling out the other man.
"Very well, Alcalde," the elder de la Vega ground out acrimoniously. He plucked the promissory note from the desk, securing it once again in his pocket. He spun on his heel and marched from the office, slamming the door as he left.
De Soto leaned back in his chair, a smug
smirk on his face. So the high and mighty de la Vegas were having
trouble raising the bond money. Life was getting better and better,
he thought as he drained the last of the wine from his glass. Checking
his watch, he arose from his seat and walked over to the door that led
to the cell area. The half hour was up. Time to chase away
Diego and his fancy lawyer.
Z Z Z
That evening found the de la Vegas and Don Ernesto dining at the tavern. The restrictions the Alcalde had imposed on visitation were getting wearisome. The three men had spent the better part of the afternoon speaking with Felipe in thirty minute intervals, trying to discuss his defense. Ana Maria and Victoria had wanted to spend time with him as well, drawing out the process even more.
Don Ernesto and Felipe got along quite well. The lawyer remarked to Diego while they were waiting to see him, that the young man had an astute mind and a firm grasp of legal matters. It would not surprise him if the younger de la Vega passed his bar exam with flying colors. Diego's fatherly pride was very pleased at the high praise of his son.
"Hola," Ana Maria greeted the men at their table. She was followed by her mother and Sergeant Mendoza. The young woman had just come from visiting her sweetheart. "Can we join you?" she asked excitedly.
Don Alejandro gave his consent and room was made so the trio could be seated. "Where is Señorita Escalante?" Ana Maria queried as she glanced about the tavern. "She needs to be in on this too."
Diego looked at his father, who shrugged. Victoria was summoned over to the table, taking a seat next to Diego. She practically had to sit in his lap as there was not much room left.
Everyone turned their attention to Ana Maria. There was a sparkle in her eyes that had been missing the last few days as she began to speak. "Monday is Felipe's birthday," she announced. "I think we should throw him a party."
They all looked at each other, nodding their heads and smiling. Don Alejandro was the first to frown. "But Señorita, the trial starts that day. And I seriously doubt de Soto will allow us to hold such an event at the cuartel."
"You leave the Alcalde to me," Mendoza advised boldly. "I know how we can distract him for an hour or two."
"We can hold the party on Sunday," Victoria suggested eagerly. "One day early wouldn't hurt."
"That only gives us two days," Ana Maria cautioned, glad to see her idea turning into reality. "We will all need to work hard to pull it off."
"Don't worry, my dear," the elder de la Vega replied. "Diego and I will do whatever we can to help. Won't we, Diego? Diego?"
His son was startled from his thoughts. And such impure thoughts they were too. Victoria's body pressing against his plus the scent of her hair filling his nostrils had driven everything else from his mind. Dios, what little self-control he still possessed was rapidly disappearing. He did not know how much longer he could wait to claim her as his. If only this fake engagement could be made real. If only she could truly love him and not the heroic persona he had invented.
If only you had declared your intentions toward her as soon as you arrived home from Spain, a little voice in his head nagged. Or better yet, told her of your feelings before you left. She had been too young then, he argued. And when he had returned home eight years ago, he had been swept up in fighting the oppression of the pueblo by Luis Ramón. Zorro had entered their lives before he had even had a chance with her.
Diego could feel everyone staring at him. Nodding his head, he smiled insincerely. "Of course, Father," he pledged, not quite sure as to what he was agreeing with though. He had heard the words ‘birthday' and ‘Felipe', and so imagined it must have something to do with that.
He glanced over at Victoria who was gazing at
him with an odd expression on her beautiful face. He realized then
he was holding her hand under the table, out of sight from the others'
view. Attempting to relinquish his grip, she stopped him by grasping
his hand tighter. The pair of them stared at each other, trying to
read the other's eyes and oblivious to the conversation of plans for the
party going on around them.
Z Z Z
"HEARTS ABLAZE" PART TWO: "TRIAL BY FIRE"-CHAPTER FOUR