"HEARTS ABLAZE"

PART ONE:  "FANNING THE FLAMES"

CHAPTER FOUR

     Ignacio de Soto was like a man possessed.  He had spent the entire morning barking out orders and checking last minute details.  Even more exasperating was the fact he had to continually stress the importance of his visitors to his men.

     About an hour ago, he changed into his finest suit, then wondered if he would wear his uniform instead.  That might be more impressive, he thought.  It took half an hour to remove the one set of clothing and don the other.

     Now he was pacing in his office, peering out the front door every five minutes or so.  The de la Rocas were due to arrive at any moment.  As every second passed by, the Alcalde grew more and more agitated.

     Too bad it was market day, he mused as he spied out the door again.  It made the plaza look so tacky, all those peasants and their wares littering the ground.  He sneered with displeasure at the scene before him then his eyes lit up.   A cart filled with flowers was just on the other side of the fountain.  Perhaps he should purchase some for Señorita Margarita.  Making up his mind to do just that, he exited his office.

      De Soto bought a huge bouquet of roses and headed back toward the cuartel.  About halfway there, he noticed Don Miguel by the fountain, staring at the tavern with a very sour expression on his face.

     "Señor Montoya," he called out to the other man.  "How goes the search for opportunity?"

     "Not well, Señor Alcalde," Don Miguel replied bitterly.  "These peons don't understand a good business deal when they hear one."

     "Yes," de Soto agreed.  "There is quite a lot these people don't understand."

     "I am debating whether to move on," Montoya stated.  "Somewhere more progressive in its thinking."

     The Alcalde was dismayed at this news.  He had hoped Don Miguel would become a major landowner in Los Angeles.  He seemed like he would be an ally in the fight against Zorro.

     De Soto had also been mulling over a way to get his hands on some of Montoya's wealth.  He had saved up some money of his own over the years, but it was not nearly enough for the fine estate he wished to buy once he returned to Spain.  Someday soon, he hoped fervently.

     "Don Miguel," Ignacio began, "I think I have an idea that just might solve both our problems."  He smiled wickedly as Montoya looked intrigued.
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     Felipe did not linger for the cattle auction.  He stalked off, mounted his horse and left the pueblo before Don Alejandro could stop him.

     Victoria had shooed Diego away, saying she was extremely busy with preparations for the fiesta the next night besides all of her regular work.  So he ambled over to where his father was now bidding on a big, black bull.

     "Father, where is Felipe?" he asked as he searched the crowd for his son.

     "He went home, I presume," replied the old don, who then called out, "One thousand pesos!"  He turned to Diego and briefly filled him in on what had occurred earlier between the young man, Ana Maria, the Bautista girl, and the Montoya lad.

     Diego shook his head sadly.  Felipe must be devastated.  He knew what his son and Ana Maria felt for each other was not just an infatuation.  Felipe often spoke practically of the couple's future together.  He was going to apprentice with the de la Vegas' lawyer in Santa Paula for a year.  Then he and Ana Maria would get married after he passed his bar exam.

     The young man had turned down the offer to go to university in Spain.  Mainly because it was so far away, but most importantly he didn't think anyone there could teach him as well as Diego had already done.

     Diego smiled as he remembered his son's earnestness.  He could not hold back the pride he felt knowing he had helped raise such a fine young man.

     Maybe this misunderstanding could be cleared up soon and the young couple could be together again.  Diego passionately hoped so.  He hated to see Felipe so dispirited.

     "Two thousand pesos!" his father called out, driving Diego from his thoughts.

     Diego eyed the bull the elder de la Vega was bidding on critically.  He appeared to be an exceptional animal, though not quite the equal of El Diablo, the bull they had lost several months ago.

     He sighed wearily as Don Alejandro won the bull with a bid of twenty-two hundred pesos.  The old caballero grinned triumphantly as he motioned for Diego to assist him.

     The sudden blare of a bugle brought everyone's attention to the carriage that was drawing up in front of the cuartel.  The Alcalde, indeed looking splendid in his full dress uniform, led the procession of lancers that emerged from the garrison gate.

     A sturdily built man in his mid-fifties, with graying black hair and beard, stepped down from the conveyance.  He reached inside the coach but was outmaneuvered by de Soto.  The lovely señorita took the commandante's hand as he assisted her out of the vehicle.

      The de la Vegas looked at each other and smiled knowingly.  So this was the young woman who had their alcalde in such a dither.  She appeared to be perhaps twenty-two or three, with long dark brown hair.  She was dressed in the latest fashion in a light yellow silk dress with a matching bonnet.

     Margarita smiled shyly as de Soto presented her with the large bundle of red roses.  He graciously offered her his arm and they, followed by her father, went back inside the cuartel for a grand inspection.
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     It took Don Alejandro and Diego nearly an hour to bring their new bull home from the pueblo, put it in a stall in the barn, then feed and water the animal.

     Diego kept an eye out for Felipe while he completed his tasks but saw no sign of his adopted son.  A quick search of the hacienda also did not yield the young man.  Diego realized he must be hiding out in the secret cave.  That was where the youth usually headed whenever he was feeling troubled.

     And indeed it was where Diego found him, currying Toronado's already gleaming black coat.  Felipe barely glanced up as his father entered the cave and picked up a brush.  He began to stroke it over the opposite side of the big stallion.

     "Father told me what happened today," he said bluntly.

     Felipe closed his eyes, trying to hide his pain.  "I. . .I d-don't w-want to t-talk about it."

     Diego sensed there was much more to Felipe's despair than the break up with Ana Maria.  "Felipe, what's wrong?" he inquired gently.  "Maybe I can help?"

     The young man just shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck, a nervous gesture Diego had not seen him make for quite some time.

     "I. . .I lose every. . .b-body I l-love," he stammered out sadly then looked away.

     "Felipe, that's not true."  Diego reached out and grasped his son's shoulders.  "I know you lost your parents but you still have Father and I."

     "S-si, b-but for how l-long?" questioned Felipe.  Gr-Grandfather, h-he's old and you. . .  You'll m-marry V-Victoria and h-have your own ch-children or else Zorro w-will. . ."  He could not bring himself to confess one of his biggest fears, that one day Zorro would be killed by bandits or captured and hung by the Alcalde.

     Diego embraced him reassuredly, reading his mind.  "I will always love you, Felipe.  You will always be my eldest son, even if Victoria and I have a dozen more."  He took a step back and looked Felipe in the eye.  "I know what it feels like to see the woman you love with another man.  It hurts."

     He tried not to think of the times when he thought he had lost Victoria to someone else.  The memories still were painful.  He could imagine how fresh Felipe's wound felt.

     "I. . .I w-want her b-back," his son declared fiercely.  "B-But I d-don't know h-how.  Sh-She w-won't listen to me."

     Diego had to hide a smile, knowing he did not mean that literally.  An idea came to him then.  "Perhaps you should write her a letter, explain your side of the story.  Tell her how you feel about her."

     Felipe nodded eagerly, taking to the suggestion.  He put down his brush and went over to the desk.  Diego laid down his brush as well, gave Toronado a pat on the neck then pulled his watch from his pocket

     "Don't tarry too long," he advised.  "Dinner is in about an hour."

     Felipe nodded again as he dipped the quill into the inkwell and began to write.  Diego smiled as he exited the cave, glad that his son's mood was a little more hopeful.
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     Victoria was up the next morning before dawn.  She liked to work when it was cooler in the morning and evenings.  The middle of the day had been so hot lately.  She took her cup of coffee and sat on the step of the tavern's porch to watch the sun rise.

     She was hoping it would drive out of her mind the ugly incident that had occurred the evening before.  She had forgotten that she was to have saved her best room for Señorita de la Roca's visit.  The very room that she had given to Don Miguel.

     He had been difficult, to say the least.  When Victoria had offered him a free night's lodging for moving to another room, he had replied that was not what he wanted and had leered suggestively at her.  She retorted he should remember she was an engaged woman.

     Montoya had sneered then, saying her novio was a fop and doubting that the man had even kissed her.  He offered to demonstrate how a passionate man treated the woman he was to marry.

     Victoria had been outraged.  True, Diego lacked the fire that Zorro possessed but that didn't mean he was emotionless.  Recently she had been noticing a certain spark in his green eyes, one that spoke of hidden thoughts and desires.

     Eventually everyone had settled into their lodgings.  Victoria had worked far into the night.  She had only  slept a few hours before she awoke.   Well she planned to take a long siesta this afternoon so she would be rested for the fiesta that evening.

     Victoria glanced up from her coffee as she heard noises coming from the cuartel.  The gates opened and several lancers appeared.  None of them seemed very pleased to be up so early.  She could hardly blame them.  The Alcalde had worn them ragged this week.

     She got to her feet as she watched the soldiers tack papers to the doors of every business.  What was this all about? she wondered.  A very nervous private walked apprehensively toward Victoria and gave her one of the handbills, then quickly darted away.

     And with good reason, she fumed as she read the announcement.  Taxes for all businesses were hereby doubled!  It was exorbitant what they had to pay already and now they were to hand over twice as much.  Victoria knew some of the other tradespeople would not be able to make it, they could barely afford the present taxes.  Just what was the Alcalde up to now?

     She thought about stomping over to the garrison and confronting de Soto.  But then she recalled something she had overheard about a month ago.  Several of the caballeros' wives had been having lunch at the tavern and hadn't realized she had been listening to their comments.  No wonder Victoria had driven away every man who had been interested in her, they said.  No man would want to be embarrassed by his wife's outspokenness.  The fact she ran an inn probably didn't help either.  They knew what kind of women ran taverns in Spain and men only hung around them seeking one thing.  They even noticed that Zorro seemed to be staying away from her lately.  Maybe he had tired of her charms and had moved on to a more demure woman.

      Victoria was worried they could be right.  She hadn't seen Zorro for several weeks, not since he had rescued her and the Ortegas from that gang of troublemakers that had plagued the pueblo.  She knew he was still around, having brought in some cattle rustlers to be locked up just last week.  But she had missed seeing him and he had not sought her out.  Was he tired of her like the matrons suggested?

     She sighed wearily and dumped out the rest of her coffee, which had grown cold.  Maybe Zorro would hear of this new scheme of the Alcalde's and challenge him tonight at the fiesta.  She would have to try to speak with him then if that happened.  Victoria turned and walk back into her tavern, a disheartened expression on her lovely face.
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     Zorro had indeed learned of the Alcalde's increased business levy and was planning to find out the reason behind it.  He just did not think it had to be tonight.  The business owners had a week to remit the taxes so he had plenty of time, he thought.

     Besides, he would not have to disguise himself as the masked hero tonight to spend time with Victoria.  He was her ‘fiancé' after all, he mused with a roguish smile.

     Diego had changed into his dark blue suit and went to go search for his father.  He was surprised to see Felipe dressed up in a dark green suit, pacing anxiously in the library.

     "I thought you wouldn't want to go tonight," Diego stated, "considering Ana Maria will be there with Montoya."

     "Th-That is ex-exactly wh-why," his son declared.  "I d-do not tr-trust him."

     Diego smiled proudly.  The chivalry he had drilled into Felipe's head over the years had not been for naught.  "Just don't do anything foolish," he admonished.  He patted the young man on the shoulder just as Don Alejandro entered the room.

     "Let's go," the elder de la Vega said, seeing that everyone was ready.  The three men headed out the hacienda door.
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"HEARTS ABLAZE"  PART ONE:  "FANNING THE FLAMES"-CHAPTER FIVE