PART TWO: "TRIAL BY FIRE"
A light rap on the door caused both Felipe and Ana Maria to stir from their sleep. Both were a little disoriented, not recognizing the room they were in at first. Then both smiled shyly as they remembered where they were and why.
"Ana Maria," Mendoza hissed loudly. "Please hurry. Felipe needs to be back in his cell, pronto."
"All right, Sergeant," she answered, reaching for her nightgown and cloak. Felipe searched for his own garments and they hastily dressed.
They embraced, not wanting to let the other go. "Gracias, Felipe," she whispered. "I will always love you." Her eyes were brimming with tears as she placed her hand on her stomach as she was unable to speak of what she hoped had occurred. His eyes were damp as well as he put his hand on top of hers.
"No regrets?" she murmured. He shook his head.
‘I love you', he mouthed then touched his lips to hers.
"Señorita, hurry." One could hear the agitation in the sergeant's voice as he interrupted them. Ana Maria knocked on the door, signaling for the soldier to open it. "Come on, Felipe," Mendoza said, reaching for his arm.
The young man stretched out his hand to
touch Ana Maria's face, then kissed her again. He soundlessly told
her he loved her one more time before the sergeant dragged him away.
She stood in the doorway, the tears falling unchecked onto her beautiful
cheeks. Ana Maria donned her cape and stole out into the still dark
Z Z Z
Diego spent the night in Felipe's bedroom. Of course he did not sleep, but agonized over where they had gone wrong during the trial. There was no proof that the Alcalde had tampered with the jury and the judge even though it was very unlikely that he hadn't.
He was tempted to ride out as Zorro, gallantly rescuing Felipe from hanging and disposing of de Soto once and for all. But all he would accomplish would be to make his son a fugitive and his conscience even more burdened than it already was.
Zorro had done a lot of good deeds for the people of Los Angeles, but he had also done a lot of harm to his own soul. All the deception and all the lies were weighing heavily upon him. They were the same sins that also filled Felipe's soul. Even though he had been a bystander to Zorro's masquerade, the young man had not been an innocent one.
Diego touched the few objects his son kept in his room. Several books, including his legal texts, a comb, a small mirror and a rosary adorned the bureau top. On the walls hung two pictures; a painting Diego had given him as a birthday present one year and a sketch of Ana Maria the younger de la Vega had done when the young couple had first met.
He realized then he had dominated the young man's life, not really allowing him to develop his own tastes and make his own mistakes. Felipe had been eager to please his foster family, it was true. But Diego wished now he hadn't held the leash so tightly. They both had been so wrapped up in keeping Zorro a secret the last eight years that other things the young man might have wanted to do were shoved aside. Felipe had decided on his own to become a lawyer, but Diego had taken that over too, forcing his son to study on many occasions.
It was still dark outside when Diego saddled his horse and headed toward Los Angeles. He arrived at the garrison in time to see a caped figure exit a side door and walk swiftly toward the dressmaking shop.
Ana Maria must not have been able to sleep either and decided to see Felipe just as he was doing. . . Dios mio, he thought. Suddenly he was very sure it had not simply been an innocent visit. He closed his eyes in contemplation.
He made up his mind then and there that the señorita would always be a part of their family, whether she bore Felipe's child or not. He could not condemn the young lovers for what they had done. In their place he would have done the same thing. Diego then turned his eyes toward the tavern. He was certain Victoria would be awake and right now he needed her. Dismounting Esperanza, he strode purposefully across the plaza.
The beautiful tavern owner was indeed up and in her kitchen, preparing food for the day ahead. She imagined it would be busy at the inn today, what with the execution. . . Victoria had to set down her knife as tears filled her eyes.
Dios, they couldn't hang Felipe, they just couldn't. She remembered back to when he had been a small boy, not too long after Diego had brought him to Los Angeles to live. Victoria had been eleven at the time. Felipe had been very shy around everyone except Diego but for some reason he always let her hug him as he mouthed the word ‘pretty'. She wondered now if she had somehow reminded him of his mother.
She also recalled the way Diego had looked at her in those days. She may have been young but already she had been receiving second glances from boys and a few men too. What she saw in their faces was not what she had seen in Diego's though. Something more like devotion is what she noticed in his eyes.
And now that she thought about it, that devotion had still been there when he had returned from Spain seven years later. But there had also been desire, of that she was sure. That day he had defended her honor and had almost challenged Ramón was one she had puzzled over for years. Something had happened to him after that afternoon. He had started treating her as nothing more than a friend and was always sticking his nose in a book.
Her musings were interrupted by a knock on the front door. Her first instinct was to ignore it but the caller was persistent and rapped again. Wiping her hands on her apron, she went to answer it.
A very tormented looking Diego stood on her front porch. "What's wrong?" she queried apprehensively. "Is it Felipe?"
"Yes. No," he contradicted himself. He gazed deeply into her eyes as he took a deep breath. "I just need you to hold me."
Without a word she stepped forward and opened
Z Z Z
The youth opened his eyes to see his sister Marta standing beside his bed. She was fully clothed and wrapped in her rebozo. It appeared as though she was planning to go out.
"I want you to come with me," she said quietly, not wishing to wake the other four boys in the room and confirming his suspicion.
"Where are you going?" he asked. He found his answer in her expression. "Mama said we were not to go to the authorities."
"I don't care what Mama said," the young woman declared, her eyes blazing. "I will not allow them to hang Felipe for what I did."
Martin rose from the bed and gave his sister a big hug. She looked at him curiously after he released her. "What was that for?" she inquired.
"You're back," he replied, a broad grin on his face. "Wait outside. I'll get dressed."
She nodded and stepped out of the room as
Martin scrambled to find his clothes.
Z Z Z
Felipe opened his eyes as he heard keys rattling in the door lock. He could not fall back to sleep after returning to his cell. Images of what had occurred between him and Ana Maria filled his mind, crowding out thoughts of anything else. She had been so sweet. And even though he had caused her pain the first time, he had also given her pleasure. It all had been so beautiful.
He sat up and cleared his head as Padre Benitez entered the room followed by Mendoza. Madre de Dios. He closed his eyes and gulped for air as he realized what the priest was there to do.
"You have an hour, Padre," the sergeant announced. He gave Felipe a look of sorrow as he exited through the door.
The priest glanced at the young man behind the iron bars. "I am truly sorry, Felipe," he began. "I don't believe for a minute you killed a man in cold blood. Don Diego and Don Alejandro raised you to believe in the sanctity of life." He paused to shake his head. "But the court in all its wisdom has condemned you to die and now we must prepare your soul to meet God."
Felipe was trembling as the padre removed
items from a cloth bundle in preparation of administering the last rites.
Z Z Z
Diego and Victoria were still embracing as Don Miguel descended the tavern's staircase. He stared at the couple gloomily. He had suspected all week that their engagement was bogus, that it was all just a ploy to keep him away from the beautiful innkeeper.
But seeing them together now, he realized there was a true bond between them. He still wanted Victoria to be his wife, to bear him a son. But he knew it could never be. Her heart belonged to the tall caballero in her arms, which meant she would never be happy with anyone else.
His desire for revenge had left him empty. He knew now the de la Vega lad did not murder his son. The evidence clearly pointed to someone else, in all likelihood some poor girl Alonzo had raped. Would there be another bastard that the boy had left behind? Don Miguel had learned of four of them in Spain. That embarrassment and his son's gambling debts had forced him to sell most of his business enterprises there and seek opportunities elsewhere.
He had just wanted to find a quiet little town to settle down in and grow old peacefully while keeping Alonzo out of trouble. Montoya rued the day he stepped foot in the pueblo de Los Angeles. As soon as he spoke with the Alcalde, he would leave it forever.
Both Diego and Victoria sensed the presence of another person in the room and slowly drew apart. They turned to see the Spanish don, carrying his valise.
"I am checking out, Señorita," he announced. He placed his room key on the bar along with a large pile of bills. He looked remorsefully at Diego.
"I am sorry, Don Diego," he apologized, not only for himself but for his son. "I am on my way to speak with de Soto on your son's behalf. I now believe he is innocent."
"Gracias, Don Miguel," a stunned Diego replied. He looked at Victoria who was also surprised. "I am truly sorry for the loss of your son. I can understand why you would want to avenge him."
"‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord'," quoted Montoya. "I learned that the hard way." He moved past them on his way out the door. "Adios and best wishes. I know you two will be very happy together."
Diego and Victoria stared at him in shock, then at each other. Then they remembered their false betrothal. Apparently it had fooled the man completely.
"I need to see Felipe," stated Diego as
they watched Don Miguel enter the cuartel. She nodded her acceptance
and they too headed to the garrison, hand in hand, passing by the almost
completed construction of the gallows in the middle of the plaza.
Z Z Z
"Visitors to see you, mi Alcalde," Mendoza announced to de Soto who was sitting at his desk. The commandante glared at his subordinate.
"I'm very busy, Sergeant," he stated peevishly. "What do they want?"
"She said she wanted to see you personally, sir," the portly soldier replied.
"She?" queried the Alcalde. Was it Margarita? They had not parted on the best of terms. Perhaps she was here to give him another chance. "Show her in, Mendoza."
But it was not his ladylove who entered his office but a familiar looking young woman and a lad a few years younger. Recognition dawned on him as he remembered her working at the tavern. "What do you want?" he questioned impatiently, staring balefully at the siblings.
"I killed Don Alonzo Montoya," Marta declared without preamble. Her voice was a monotone as she recited the rest of her confession. "I met him walking down by the river. He asked me my name and told me I was pretty. The next thing I knew, he pushed me onto the ground and he raped me. His knife fell out of his boot and he didn't know I had picked it up. I just wanted him to stop hurting me so I stabbed him."
De Soto's expression was incredulous. "You expect me to believe such a preposterous tale? Don Alonzo's murderer is in my jail awaiting his execution," he checked his watch, " in less than an hour."
Mendoza nervously poked his head into the office. "Don Miguel to see you, Alcalde."
"Tell him I will be just a minute," de Soto advised before turning his attention to the young woman standing in front him. But before he could tell her to take her outrageous lie and get out, Montoya bullied his way inside.
"I am leaving Los Angeles, Alcalde," he asserted forcefully. "You can rescind your tax and leave the merchants in peace."
"But Don Miguel," Ignacio pleaded as he jumped from his chair. "What about your revenge? After all, your son died here, you should exact your retribution upon the citizens who allowed it to happen."
"You are Señor Montoya?" Marta asked, cutting off the Alcalde's tirade. She drew out something from her skirt pocket. "Do you recognize this?" She held up a dagger.
"Si, that was Alonzo's," replied the don as she handed it to him. "His grandfather gave it to him for his eighteenth birthday, right before he passed away." He eyed her curiously. "How did you get it?"
"She was telling me some absurd fable about murdering your son," de Soto said with a chuckle. "Loco, isn't it. We both know who the real killer is."
"Do we, Alcalde?" questioned Montoya sarcastically. He spoke gently to Marta. "Tell me what happened."
She repeated her story once again, this time though, her voice cracked a little. When she had finished, Don Miguel leaned over de Soto's desk and glared into his face. "I think she is telling the truth. She has no reason to lie. And why else would she have Alonzo's knife? If you insist on hanging de la Vega, you will be killing an innocent man."
The fury the Alcalde saw in the other man's eyes made him realize it would be expedient for him to change his mind. "Very well," he acquiesced ungraciously. "Mendoza!"
The stout sergeant practically fell into the room as he had been eavesdropping at the door. His smile threatened to split his face as he saluted. "Si, mi Alcalde."
"Release de la Vega," de Soto hissed. He plopped back down into his chair, utterly defeated.
Padre Benitez was only about halfway though his ritual when Mendoza burst into the jail. "Good news," he declared, searching for the key that unlocked the cell door. "Felipe has been acquitted!"
"That is indeed good news," agreed the priest. He turned to the astounded Felipe. "My son, you are free."
He could not comprehend what they were saying to him. Even the sergeant opening the barred door did nothing to dispel the fog that had settled over him. Mendoza tugged on his arm, pulling him from the cell.
Dios mio! It was not a dream. Felipe glanced at the padre then the sergeant who were both grinning happily. One thought filled his head and he took off running, not seeing the people in the office as he pushed past them. Not even noticing the astonished Diego and Victoria as they were about to enter the cuartel.
Felipe threw open the door of the dressmaking shop. Not finding anyone in the front of the building, he headed toward the back where the Ortegas had their living quarters.
"Felipe!" the stunned Ana Maria cried out, clutching her dress to her bosom. She had been in the middle of dressing when the breathless young man rushed into her bedroom. "What happened? Did you escape? Wh. . ."
He interrupted her barrage of questions by kissing her long and hard. Her dress fell to the floor as she wrapped her arms around him. It was many minutes later before they drew apart and Felipe realized she was only wearing her chemise. They gazed at each other, both thinking of the night before and its implications now.
"Hallo?" Diego's voice rang out from the entrance of the shop. Ana Maria then also noticed her lack of attire and shoved Felipe toward the door.
"Let me get dressed," she whispered. He nodded and stepped into the small hallway. Seconds later, the young woman emerged, demurely covered in a lavender dress.
"There you are," Diego said as the young couple walked into the storefront. Victoria was by his side. "Did he tell you he has been set free?"
"Why?" Ana Maria asked the question that was in Felipe's eyes as well.
"Marta Bautista has confessed to the murder," Victoria explained. "She is the one who he. . ."
Felipe and Ana Maria looked at each other in dismay. It was true the girl had caused a lot of trouble in their relationship, but they would not wish what happened to her on anyone.
It was a truly joyful group, however, who made their way to the tavern. Leonora and Mendoza joined them enroute. They sobered a little as Don Miguel, Marta and her brother emerged from the garrison.
"We need to pray for her," Leonora stated solemnly. "And give thanks for Felipe's release as well."
They all nodded and turned toward the adobe
Z Z Z
"HEARTS ABLAZE" EPILOGUE