It had been without a doubt the longest month of Diego's life. Or at least it had felt like it. Unfortunately it had coincided with one of those rare lulls of activity at the hacienda. All the cattle had been branded, sold, or moved to a different pasture. Everything that could be had been harvested, pruned, or weeded. There had not been any criminals about causing trouble and de Soto had been behaving himself, so Zorro's presence hadn't been required.
Which also meant that the masked man had had no contact with Victoria since that fateful evening. Which was as well, for he doubted that she could handle facing Zorro. He himself didn't know how he was going to deal with seeing her again as his alter ego, with the knowledge of what had happened between them. In the handful of conversations that Diego had had with the lovely innkeeper, there had been none of the usual disappointed sighing about Zorro's absence from the pueblo. Indeed, when the man in black's name was mentioned, Victoria had visibly tensed and changed the subject.
The lack of anything to occupy him was driving Diego to distraction. There was entirely too much free time to dwell on what had happened to Victoria and his failure to prevent it.
And then. . .then there was Victoria herself. It was the most painful thing Diego had ever had to witness. The fiery, outgoing, vibrant innkeeper was no more. In her place was a pathetic being, one that was very fragile and timid. The bruises on her wrist and face had faded away, he noted as the days passed, but he also knew the damage on the inside was far from healing.
There were dark circles under her eyes betraying her lack of sleep. Her clothing hung loosely on her already petite frame, a sign that she was not eating. Her skin had lost its rosy bloom, her hair was dull and lank. It was if she had stopped caring, about herself. . .or anything else for that matter, Diego thought as she poured him a glass of lemonade as he sat at a table on the tavern's front porch.
It had only been in the past week or so that she had ventured from the kitchen. She still was skittish, preferring to wait on established, and in the case of men, older customers, he had noted. Today was actually the first time she had been outside since the ‘incident,' as he referred to it. A promising sign, he fervently hoped, that she was finally on the road to recovery.
[Most of the following taken from "The Reward" written by Robert L McCullough & Philip John Taylor]
"Señorita," called one of the men from the opposite side of the veranda, "More tamales for the good sergeant, please."
Victoria barely glanced their way. Diego did look, however, and realized that the men buying Mendoza his lunch where the three who had fought and accidentally killed Baquero. Spending money they did not yet have. He shook his head at their unwise generosity as Victoria disappeared into the tavern.
Rising to his feet, Diego drained his glass then walked over to the other table. He was warmly greeted by Paco and the others, although Mendoza only bobbed his head at him as his mouth was stuffed with a tamale.
"Paco, you've been buying lunches for everyone all week," Diego stated reprovingly.
Paco bristled at the disapproval in his tone. "Why not?" the younger man said, shrugging his shoulders. "When that reward money comes from Monterey, we're going to be rich men." The other two men nodded in agreement.
"Even a rich man doesn't spend money he doesn't yet have," Diego pointed out even though he knew his advice would fall on deaf ears. Indeed, already they were staring at something past him. Diego turned to see a man riding toward them. A stranger, he surmised swiftly as he watched the newcomer dismount his horse then remove his saddlebags. A stranger who seemed vaguely familiar, though Diego could not place him at the moment.
"That's him," Paco said excitedly to the sergeant who had paused in his eating long enough to assess the stranger as he entered the tavern. "The man from Monterey with the reward money."
Mendoza nodded a bit uncertainly. "I think so, Paco," he replied. "I'll go find out." He stood up, threw down his napkin, picked up his hat then followed the man inside. Diego's curiosity got the better of him and he moved closer to the doorway.
He saw Pilar pouring a drink for the newcomer as he stood in front of the bar, his saddlebags sitting upon the counter. Diego wondered, if the man was not the courier with the reward, what was in those bags that the stranger would not allow them out of his sight?
Diego's suspicions grew as the portly sergeant introduced himself only to be blatantly ignored. Mendoza then leaned forward and in a whisper loud enough for even Diego to hear, asked,"Are you the man from Monterey who's bringing the money?"
The man glanced at the soldier contemptuously before taking a long drink from his glass, then banging it on the bar. "I'm not from Monterey," he announced. "I know nothing about any money." He turned his head from side to side, sweeping the interior. "Here to meet a friend," he continued in a clipped tone. "Maybe you see him, huh? Mean guy. Drinks a little. Goes by the name, uh. . ." The man paused a moment as if he was trying to remember his friend's name. "Lamarca."
There was a loud gasp. Diego looked up in time to see Victoria visibly pale. The tray in her hands rattled as she began to sway ominously. Slipping through the doorway, he was by her side in an instant.
And she wasn't the only one who shuddered at the utterance of the dead outlaw's alias. Mendoza gulped nervously before stating in a strangled voice, "Perhaps our alcalde can help you?"
The stranger stared suspiciously at the stout sergeant. "Your alcalde?" he asked incredulously.
"Oh, si, he is a very friendly man," Mendoza declared with an air of assurance that Diego recognized at once as false. "He knows everybody in the pueblo."
The soldier pointed a pudgy finger over his left shoulder. "His office is across the plaza."
"Gracias." The man smiled insincerely before picking up his glass and draining the remaining tequila. He then snatched up his saddlebags and strode out of the tavern. Mendoza hesitated a few seconds, long enough to watch the newcomer depart before trailing after him.
Diego glanced away from the entranceway to the woman who stood next to him. Victoria was still as white as a sheet, the platter of tamales she held trembling and in grave danger of spilling onto the floor.
"Victoria?" he inquired softly, extending his hand to touch her arm. She jumped, her eyes darting immediately to where his fingers rested on her skin. Slowly her gaze moved fleetingly to his face where he saw a tumult of emotions flicker in her dark brown eyes. With what sounded like a whimper, she abruptly turned on her heel and fled back into the kitchen.
Diego was torn. Part of him wanted to go after her. Reassure her that he would make sure she was safe. Which was a laugh, a little voice in his head jeered sarcastically. You protected her so well before, didn't you?
Ignoring the painful regret in his heart, his other half acknowledged it wanted to find out who the insolent stranger was. The man who was at that moment no doubt learning that his so-called friend was dead. One could only guess what his reaction would be.
That curiosity made Diego's decision for him.
With one remorseful glance toward the tavern kitchen, he made his way back
Z Z Z
The tray hit the table with a thud, the tamales spilling off their plate. Victoria barely noticed the mess created, instead wrapping her arms around herself.
Don't think, don't feel. . . The now familiar admonishment was shoved rudely aside as the painful memories came flooding into her mind. Every dreadful, mortifying moment tore through her. With an agonizing groan, she reached for the wine she kept secreted behind a clay pot and without bothering with a glass, took a long drink from it.
Shakily she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Dios, why did that man have to come to Los Angeles? Just when she was beginning to erase what had happened. Although, if she wanted to truthful with herself, she wasn't sure if her disquietude came from the fact that the amigo of the cerdo who had. . .who had. . .violated. . .her had come to the pueblo or the lack of revulsion she had felt when Diego had touched her.
Victoria grabbed the wine and took another hearty swig. Then she glanced at her arm at where Diego's hand had rested, recalling the spark of awareness that had swept through her. It had been the first time anyone had touched her since. . .since. . .
It had been the first time in a month. Had it really been that long? A month? Victoria gasped as another thought occurred to her. No, that cannot be right, she told herself. Surely she must have. . .
Sheer panic along with bile rose within her, causing her to clutch at both her stomach and her mouth. No, she could not be. . . Dios mio, it had to be impossible. . .
[Most of the following taken from "The Reward" written by Robert L McCullough & Philip John Taylor]
Loud thumps and scraping noises from the front porch drove all the distressing thoughts from her head. She rushed out of the kitchen and out the main doorway. Victoria drew up short when she saw the stranger, Narcisco she thought he said his name was, pointing a pistol at Paco Ortega and the other two men who had ‘rescued' her.
"These men have no quarrel with you." Diego's voice made her turn his direction. He seemed utterly calm, even when Narcisco aimed his weapon at the tall caballero's heart. Victoria took a small step to stand next to Diego.
"Of course," Narcisco agreed with an insincere smile on his face. "What's the point of killing them when they're going to give me the three thousand pesos they got in reward for killing my friend.?"
Victoria's temper exploded. How dare this man, who was probably no better than his pig of a friend, try to steal the money that Paco and the others deserved for ridding the world of that monster Baquero? "I don't think they should pay," she declared hotly, "not even one peso."
She felt Diego's eyes on her and snuck a quick glance at his face. Strange, but she could swear he was smiling.
"Oh, yes, they will," the gun-wielding man stated before targeting the trio of men once again. "By sundown or you don't see the sunrise."
Two of the men shrank back, fear clearing filling their eyes. Only Paco stood his ground. "We don't even have the money yet," he said in a unsteady tone. "It's still on its way from Monterey."
The disingenuous grin appeared on Narcisco's unshaven face once more. "Three thousand pesos by sundown or this is the only reward you'll ever see." He waved his pistol toward Paco, who immediately moved back a pace.
"Please, Señor," one of the men behind Paco pleaded. "I had nothing to do with your friend's death." He pointed at his companions. "It was them! They killed him!"
The third man raised his hands in the air before asserting, "I didn't even touch him! When the reward was offered, I just wanted the money."
Cowards, thought Victoria. It was true that she didn't remember much about the fight, but she had unmistakably seen all three of the men attacking Baquero. That they would lie about their involvement now that they were face with a little adversity; all right, quite a lot of adversity, she acknowledged; somehow cheapened their actions that night, that her safety hadn't mattered. That they had only cared about the money. She glared at both of them until they had the decency to look away in shame.
"And you?" Narcisco trained his weapon on Paco. "You had no hand in my friend's death, huh?"
Victoria could see the beads of sweat forming on the young man's forehead and wondered if he, too, was about to deny any involvement in Baquero's death.
"He attacked Victoria," Paco announced, straightening his shoulders. He looked over at her as he continued, "I would kill him again if I had to." She could see the fear in his eyes and silently applauded his courage in standing up to this bully.
"Brave words," Narcisco sneered. "They mean nothing. Sundown. The pueblo gates." He started to back away then hesitated. "Oh, bring a gun."
Paco turned his gaze from Victoria but not before she saw the panic there. "But. . .but I don't even own a gun," he stammered.
The other man pulled another pistol from his belt and tossed it onto the table, where it landed with an ominous thud. "You do now." He began retreating again toward his horse. No one said a word until he had ridden out of the pueblo.
Victoria glanced up at Diego, who wore an uncharacteristic expression of fury on his face as he watched the troublemaker disappear from sight. Then as he turned and looked at her, it was if a mask slid down over his features, dissipating his anger and replacing it with an air of boredom. Baffled, and a bit irritated, by the sudden change, she shook her head as if to clear it.
"Diego, we have to do something," she said beseechingly. She just could not allow Paco be killed by that bastardo. Without realizing what she was doing, she reached out and touched his arm. At once, Paco, Narcisco, the challenge, everything, was forgotten, as a jolt shot through her whole body, leaving her a bit breathless. She glanced up at Diego and saw that he was similarly affected by the contact. There was a flare of something in his eyes that she could not name before another veil glided over his face and he was smiling vaguely at her.
"Um, yes," he agreed casually. "I'm going to tell my father."
"Your father?" Victoria clutched his arm tighter. She didn't want him to go anywhere. An idea was forming in her mind. A horrible, terrible idea to be sure. If what she suspected was true (and please God let it not be). . . Well, Diego just might be the solution to her problem.
He was staring down at her with a mixture of concern and surprise. Bringing his free hand to rest on top of hers for a brief moment, he took a deep breath before giving her hand a gentle pat then removing it from his arm. "Si, my father," he repeated, "he'll know what to do."
"Of course," Victoria murmured absently. Diego stepped off the tavern porch and she watched as he mounted his horse and rode away.
As soon as he was out of sight, Victoria swirled around and re-entered the tavern, purposefully making her way to the kitchen. Her bottle of wine sat on the table where she had left it. Without hesitating, she reached for it and the comfort it would provide, the courage it gave her, the oblivion she desperately sought.
Feeling a bit dizzy, she plopped down on a bench and glanced at the nearly empty bottle in her hand, realized that it had just been opened that morning. She had nearly drank a whole bottle of wine without even being aware of it. "Madre de Dios," she whispered.
She knew it was false comfort. She knew it was false courage. And the oblivion was never complete. Reality still would creep in and strip away all her defenses. Defiantly she lifted the bottle to her lips and drank what little it yet contained.
She was going to need every bit of comfort, courage, and oblivion she could muster if she intended to go through with the vile plan that had come to her when she had been with Diego moments earlier.
Her courses were late. She was
never late, never had been since they had begun when she was thirteen.
Victoria feared, deep down, that she carried the child of her rapist.
Z Z Z