PART TWO: "TRIAL BY FIRE"
Felipe was lying on his back on his cot late Saturday afternoon. If he closed his eyes and imagined, he could almost pretend he was not locked up in this cell, accused of murdering another man.
The young man was growing concerned that his steady stream of visitors had dwindled down to almost no one. It was true they had busy lives, but. . . Most likely it was the Alcalde's fault. He had ranted and raved the day before about constantly tripping over people coming to see him. De Soto really blew his top last evening when he had stumbled upon Sergeant Mendoza teaching him to play poker.
It was a blessing the commandante hadn't appeared about an hour earlier. The stout soldier had offered Felipe one of the Alcalde's cigars and a glass of his brandy. He tried to refuse but Mendoza had been insistent. The first few puffs had made him cough and gag, as had the first sip of the brandy. But eventually his eyes quit watering, his throat stopped burning, and he actually began to enjoy them a little.
Felipe knew Diego would strongly disapprove but that really didn't bother him. He was a man now and it was time he made his own decisions. Besides, despite everyone else's optimism that he would be found innocent, he thought darkly that these might be his last days on earth. This might be the only chance he would have to smoke, drink, and gamble.
He groaned softly as the other thing he would never get to do if he was hanged came to mind. Ana Maria had been in to see him early that morning. She couldn't stay long so their visit consisted mainly of soul shattering kisses and her whispered endearments that left him yearning for more.
It would not take much to persuade her, Felipe thought. If it came about that he was to die, maybe he could get the sergeant to arrange for the couple to be alone for a few hours. . .
He moaned again as he mentally slapped himself. How could he be so cruel to Ana Maria? Abusing her love and trust just to fulfill his own selfish pleasures. She would be devastated enough as it was without adding that sin to her troubles. And what if she became pregnant? Tears came unbidden to his brown eyes.
Dios, he wanted to be the only man to ever make love to her, to be the father of her children. Hold her hand when they were both old and gray, surrounded by their grandchildren. He wanted to see his father and Victoria together, married and happy at last with the hacienda full of their children. He even wanted to be there when Don Alejandro breathed his last, enveloped in the love of his family.
Felipe regarded it an honor and privilege to be a part of that family, to be considered a de la Vega. He would never do anything that would dishonor their name. He rejected the idea of a last minute marriage. It would be even more unforgivable to become husband and wife, knowing Ana Maria would be a widow within hours.
Wiping the dampness from his cheeks, Felipe diverted his thoughts in another direction. Like the peculiar behavior displayed by Diego and Victoria the previous afternoon when they both came to visit. It was obvious they hadn't planned to be there at the same time by their reaction to the other's presence.
Felipe knew of the pretense that the older couple was engaged but he could swear they had been flirting with each other, something they didn't need to do in front of him as he was in on the deception.
Had Victoria finally realized that Diego was a man worthy of her attention, of her love? Felipe fervently hoped so. Diego deserved to be with the woman he loved.
He closed his eyes, getting as comfortable
as he could on the narrow cot. He sighed as he supposed everyone
forgot about his upcoming birthday as they seemed to have forgotten he
was here in jail. Oh well, he thought pessimistically, there was
no reason to celebrate anyway.
Z Z Z
The conspirators were all up early the next day, eager to put their scheme into motion. Mass seemed interminable that morning. Victoria sat in the same pew as the de la Vegas as she always did every Sunday. But it seemed different somehow and not just because Felipe was not there. It felt like she truly belonged beside them.
After the service was finally over, Mendoza scurried off to prepare the distraction he had in store for the Alcalde. Everyone else headed for the tavern where things for the party had been stored.
On the tavern porch, Diego snapped his fingers absentmindedly. "I forgot my present for Felipe," he announced. "I need to go home and get it."
"Well, don't take too long, Son," Don Alejandro advised. "We only have about two hours."
"I'll hurry," his son replied. "Adios." He mounted his mare and rode off toward the hacienda.
His ruse was twofold. He really had not forgotten Felipe's present. It had just been impossible to bring it with him that morning. The second reason was to insure de Soto was truly diverted away from the cuartel for several hours.
Alcalde de la Roca had agreed to preside over Felipe's trial. But his daughter wanted to returned home. Margarita did not wish for Ignacio to find out about her obsession with Zorro. Her father and the Alcalde were to escort her to Tres Equinas from which two of the lancers would take her the rest of the way to Santa Barbara.
Mendoza was going to intercept the entourage and inform de Soto that Zorro had been spotted nearby. It was hard to imagine the commandante would not seize the opportunity to chase after the masked outlaw just to impress the de la Rocas.
Diego thought an actual appearance by the man in black would guarantee the hunt would last long enough for the celebration to take place without detection.
And it worked perfectly. Zorro ambushed the travelers at the junction, informing Alcalde de la Roca he would be watching the trial closely to make sure it proceeded fairly. Then he turned on de Soto, warning him he was under scrutiny as well and unless his new tax scheme had a valid reason, he should consider it rescinded.
The Alcalde sputtered furiously as the masked bandit sped away. He and the two soldiers took up the pursuit immediately. Zorro led them on a merry chase for about half an hour before covering his tracks and losing them.
Less than another thirty minutes later, Diego rode back into Los Angeles. The birthday party had started without him, much to his chagrin.
Felipe was grinning broadly as his adopted father entered the cuartel. Everyone had not forgotten him as he had feared. They had just been busy planning this surprise.
"Feliz Cumpleaños," Diego said, reaching through the bars and clasping the young man's shoulder. "Look out the window."
The younger de la Vega did as he was bid. Outside was a horse of deep chestnut brown with black mane and tail. The stallion was sixteen hands high, almost as tall as Toronado. Felipe's eyes widened as he looked at the animal then back at Diego. At the base of its mane was a small, white heart-shaped mark. The exact same mark Toronado had in the same place.
Diego answered the silent question he saw in his son's eyes. "He was a wild colt when he was captured with his mother about eight years ago." The statement confirmed Felipe's suspicion that the horse was indeed Toronado's son, the foal they had helped when they had first found the big, black stallion.
The young man kept peeking out at his gift for the remainder of the celebration. Victoria and the Ortegas began cleaning up about an hour later, assisted of course by the gentlemen present.
Diego saw a flash of concern cross his son's face as he glanced again at the stallion. "Don't worry," he told his son. "You'll get to ride him. Have you decided on a name?"
Felipe shook his head. He was not as optimistic as they all seemed to be. It was good to know he had so much support though. Maybe everyone would be right in their conviction that he would walk out of here a free man.
He shook his head again, gazing forlornly
at his new horse. If only he could believe it.
Z Z Z
Monday morning dawned warm and sunny with the promise of extreme heat later in the day. The de la Vegas and Don Ernesto arrived in Los Angeles not long after sunrise. They brought Felipe a clean suit, shirt, and shaving implements. Diego noticed the day before that his son was decidedly scruffy-looking after nearly a week in jail.
The Alcalde was very perturbed at being awaken so early. He would only let Calderon and Don Alejandro see Felipe. Eyeing Diego balefully, he commented, "Since you are on the list of witnesses, you cannot confer with the murderer."
"Accused murderer," corrected Diego irritatedly. He was beginning to sense the odds were being stacked against his son. These qualms were confirmed when Don Ernesto showed them the roster of jurors. All of them were wealthy caballeros, many not on the best of terms with the de la Vegas.
"This is outrageous," declared Victoria when she learned of de Soto's machinations. Since she and Diego both were to testify, they sat together in the front row of chairs that had been set up in the tavern. It was being used once again as a courtroom.
"I know," replied Diego. "We must have faith that the facts will speak for themselves." He reached over and gave her small hand a quick squeeze of reassurance. She grasped his hand with both of hers. He could see the apprehension in her beautiful eyes. But behind that was something else, something he dare not name in fear that he was mistaken.
They were joined by Ana Maria. The good mood she has been in the day before was gone and replaced by one of great anxiety. She was very pale and had been biting her lip until it was almost bleeding. Tears filled her eyes as Felipe was led into the tavern by a lancer, his hands shackled behind his back. Don Ernesto followed behind the young man, pausing to whisper something to Diego.
Diego's reaction was sharp, swift and furious. He strode up to de Soto, who had just entered the building. "Alcalde, I insist you uncuff Felipe this instant," he demanded fiercely. "His hands are his only way of communicating. To keep them confined is to deny him speech."
"He is charged with a very serious crime, Diego," Ignacio replied with just a hint of amusement in his voice. It was so easy to irritate the de la Vegas. "I am worried he will try to escape." The glare Diego leveled him had him reassessing his decision. De Soto got the feeling then if his old schoolmate ever did completely lose his temper, it would be a truly frightening experience. Especially to whomever was on the receiving end of it.
"Very well," the commandante acquiesced. He signaled to the lancer guarding Felipe. "Unlock the manacles."
Felipe shot his father a look of immense gratitude. He rubbed his wrists as Don Ernesto spoke to him.
Sergeant Mendoza emerged then from the kitchen. "Everyone rise," he instructed in his gruffest voice. "The honorable Don Bernardo de la Roca, alcalde of Santa Barbara presiding."
The stocky official materialized through the curtains and took his seat behind the table that had been designated for him. Everyone sat back down when instructed to do so by de la Roca. All but de Soto, who strolled over to stand in front of the jury.
"Gentlemen," he began his opening statement. "We are here today to determine the guilt or innocence of Felipe de la Vega, adopted son of Don Diego de la Vega. I intend to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he committed cold-blooded murder by stabbing to death Don Alonzo Montoya, the only son of the esteemed Don Miguel Montoya."
Ana Maria started to sob quietly as the
Alcalde continued his diatribe against Felipe.
Z Z Z
The girl lay curled up on the bed she shared with two of her sisters. Her blank, unseeing stare was beginning to unnerve her brother.
Something had happened, something so horrible it made his sister retreat from the world, turning her into a lifeless doll.
She had been this way for nearly a week, just barely going through the motions of life. He had tried to cover for her as much as possible, but even so, their mother was starting to become aware of her daughter's changed personality.
He wished he could find out what caused
her to be this way. He wanted to help her but didn't know what to
do. All he did know is that he wanted his sister back.
Z Z Z
"HEARTS ABLAZE" PART TWO: "TRIAL BY FIRE"-CHAPTER FIVE