Mendoza soon learned that life was far from perfect when it included two small boys who, it seemed, were hell-bent on destroying everything around them. To say Ricardo and Roberto were having a hard time adjusting to their new situation was putting it mildly. Several of Leonora's knickknacks had been broken before she thought to put them away or out of reach of the two curious muchachos.
Jaime and Leonora's hearts would break every time they heard Ricardo mention to his little brother about their going back to live with their mother. The lad obviously didn't understand the woman was dead and they were going to be his parents from now on.
It was obvious that the tiny living quarters tucked into the back of Leonora's dressmaking shop needed to be expanded. The boys were sleeping on cots in the married couple's room. Juanita, the apprentice Señora Mendoza had taken on three months earlier, was staying in Ana Maria's old bedroom.
"I don't know how much longer I can take it," Mendoza commented to Felipe and Diego as the three men worked on the new addition. "I mean, it's been nearly a month since. . .you know."
"We get the picture," replied Diego wryly. He held back a chuckle as Felipe shuddered, apparently actually seeing that mental image. "We should be finished by next week. Hang in there, Capitan."
"Gracias," said Jaime. He looked over at Felipe. "I am so grateful that you are taking time away from building your new casa to help us."
Don Alejandro had given Felipe and Ana Maria five hundred acres of de la Vega land that bordered the pueblo. The young couple were constructing a house; nothing in comparison to the hacienda though, of course, and the facilities to start a horse farm. Felipe was also going to have his law office there.
The younger de la Vega just shrugged his shoulders. "De nada. We're not so crowded at the hacienda. At least not yet anyway." Felipe shot a look of amusement at his adopted father, a big grin on his handsome face. "Although I think Diego and Victoria are trying to fill it up to capacity."
Mendoza glanced from Felipe to Diego with confusion in his eyes. Diego did laugh aloud this time. "What Felipe is so cryptically alluding to is the fact that Victoria is expecting another baby."
"Congratulations!" cried Jaime enthusiastically. "That is truly wonderful news." He patted Diego on the back then looked over at where their wives sat in the shade. Ricardo and Roberto were playing with the now two-year old Alfonso and the year-old Diego under the women's watchful eyes.
Mendoza smiled benevolently at this scene of domestic bliss. Leonora and Ana Maria were busy stitching garments while teaching Victoria the finer aspects of needlework. The boys were playing with sticks and rocks they found on the ground.
Suddenly the tranquility was broken by a loud wail. Little Diego, who was just learning to toddle about and therefore quite unsteady yet on his feet, had been knocked down by Ricardo. Ana Maria immediately jumped up and went over to comfort her son. Leonora also rose from her seat and walked up to where Ricardo stood.
"Say you're sorry," the seamstress instructed the little boy. He just glared up at her defiantly. "Ricardo," said Leonora with a touch of exasperation in her voice. The boy's lack of manners were appalling. "It's not polite to not apologize when you bump into someone, even if it is an accident."
"I don't care!" shouted the youngster. "You're not my mama!" Leonora gasped as he then turned and pointed at Jaime, who along with the de la Vega men had paused their labors to watch the exchange. "And he's not my papa. I don't have to listen to you!"
Ricardo took off running across the plaza.
Leonora started to go after him, but was halted by a shake of her husband's
head. "I'll go get him," Mendoza stated, putting down his saw and
trotting behind the angry young boy.
Z Z Z
Jaime found the little lad down by the river, throwing stones into the muddy water. He wished he could say he knew exactly what Ricardo was going through, but that would be a lie. He hadn't been old enough when his parents died to remember them the way his foster son recalled his, especially his mother.
Sitting down on a fallen tree, Mendoza observed the boy tossing rock after rock into the stream. He used this opportunity to think of what he could say that would make everything all right.
Finally, whether it was because his arm was tired or he ran out of stones, Jaime wasn't sure, Ricardo stood there for several minutes, just staring at the flowing river. He must have felt the sensation of being watched, for he suddenly pivoted around and glared angrily at the man behind him.
"Go away!" yelled Ricardo. "Leave me alone!" He started to run up the trail that led to the pueblo. But this route took him right by Mendoza, who stood up and grabbed the youngster's arm.
"Ricardo," the soldier began, "I know this isn't easy for you." Jaime squatted down so he could look the lad in the eyes. "Your mama is dead, hijo. She is never coming back. You need to realize that."
"She is not!" the boy cried as he struggled in Mendoza's grasp. "She is too coming back to get us. You're stupid! Let go!"
"No," said Jaime firmly. "I am going to be your papa and Señora Mendoza is going to be your mama." He sighed wearily. "You need to get used to that idea, Ricardo. We are adopting you and Roberto, you are going to be our sons. We love you and we want to take care of you both."
"I don't need you," declared Ricardo. "I can take care of Roberto myself. I hate you!"
Mendoza was so stunned by this outburst,
he released his grip of the little boy's arm. Ricardo fled, running
up the embankment as though a pack of jackals were at his heels.
Jaime just watched as the lad disappeared over the horizon. Taking
a deep breath, the soldier started up the trail, wondering what he could
do or say to win the youngster's acceptance.
Z Z Z
Several weeks had passed after Ricardo's tantrum, in which he did everything he could to disrupt the Mendoza household. At first, he enlisted his brother's unwitting help in his campaign to be returned to his mother. But Roberto was soon swayed by Leonora's motherly care. The younger boy easily transferred his affection for his deceased mama to the new woman in his life. It had brought tears to Leonora's eyes the day Roberto had first called her ‘Madre'.
Ricardo, however, went on a rampage after his sibling's defection. He would refuse to eat, sometimes throwing his food on the floor. He never did anything that was asked of him and would usually do the opposite. Here and there around the shop and living quarters, they would discover items Ricardo had destroyed then hidden away. Reverting to baby-like actions, like wetting himself, was the almost the final straw for Jaime and Leonora.
They were lying in their bed late one night, discussing Ricardo's obnoxious behavior. Thankfully, the new addition had been completed and the two boys now had their own bedroom.
"You will never believe what he did today," stated Leonora disgustedly.
Jaime put his hand on his forehead in an attempt to quell the throbbing ache there. He could well imagine any number of things. "What?"
"He took a pair of scissors to a bolt of silk," his wife replied. "Totally ruined every inch of it. I was supposed to make a wedding dress from it. Now I have to buy more."
"I'm sorry," offered Mendoza, not knowing what else to say.
"I just don't know what to do with him," bewailed Leonora. "Punishing him doesn't seem to help at all. The more I spank him, the worse he acts. And if I try to reason with him, he just sticks his tongue out at me and runs off. I wish. . ."
She clamped her lips shut before she finished her thought. But Jaime knew what she had been going to say. He had pondered doing the same thing as well. Keeping Roberto but sending Ricardo back to the orphanage.
It was such a vile idea that neither of them wanted to voice it aloud. To split up the brothers was such an unspeakable thing to do. But they had tried everything they could think of to deal with Ricardo's behavior. And they had run out of ideas.
Jaime reached over and drew his wife into his arms with the hope of his comforting her leading to something else.
"Mama!" The high pitched scream pierced the quiet of the night. The couple looked at each other in amazement as it had been Ricardo's voice that had called out.
Leonora sprang from the bed, grabbed her robe and headed to the boys' room. Ricardo was thrashing wildly and whimpering for his mother. Roberto was sitting up beside him, his eyes wide and his thumb in his mouth.
Jaime had just entered the room as Leonora placed her hand on Ricardo's forehead. "He's burning with fever," she announced. "He must be delirious."
"I'll go fetch the doctor," volunteered her husband. He threw a glance at the sick youngster. The boy was deathly pale and moaning as though he was in great pain. Jaime cursed himself for thinking so badly of his foster son just a few short minutes earlier.
It was nearly an hour later before Mendoza arrived back with the doctor who had been out attending another ill child. The physician opened his black bag then spent several minutes examining Ricardo.
"Is it the same thing the little girl has?" questioned Jaime worriedly. The doctor had not said what was wrong with her, just stating that she was very ill.
"I'm not sure," was Hernandez' reply. He placed his hand on Ricardo's head again. "He has a fever like she does, but not the rash she does." He shook his head warily. "You will have to keep a close eye on him the next few days. Let me know immediately if he develops any spots or rash.
"We will, Doctor," said Leonora solemnly. "Gracias."
"And watch this little fellow as well," advised the physician, indicating the sleepy-eyed Roberto.
Jaime put his hand on the doctor's arm to prevent him from leaving. "Just what do you think Ricardo might have?" he demanded to know.
Doctor Hernandez again sighed tiredly. "I believe it could be the measles, Capitan Mendoza. But I'm not entirely sure. Keep the room dark just in case. Buenos noches."
This time his departure was unimpeded. Leonora looked at her husband with fear in her eyes. She was thinking of her small grandson Diego and also of young Alfonso. And oh no, Victoria might have been exposed as well. It definitely would not be good for her upcoming baby if she came down with the measles.
Leonora then glanced down at her foster son. Poor little chico, she thought. For so many terrible things to happen to him in his short lifetime. Determinedly, she vowed that he would not be affected by his illness. When she was a young girl, Leonora had a cousin who had become blind after contracting the measles. Nothing like that was going to happen to Ricardo, she promised herself.
"We'll take good care of him," stated Jaime,
seemingly reading her mind as he patted her shoulder. "Don't worry."
But one glimpse of his face told her he was as apprehensive as she was.
Z Z Z
As it turned out, Ricardo did have the measles, along with about a dozen other children in and around the pueblo. Mercifully, Victoria and Alfonso were spared but not so Felipe and Ana Maria's little Diego. The toddler was barely afflicted however, up and walking around in no time at all. And somewhat miraculously, Roberto did not get the measles.
Leonora had her hands full with just Ricardo though. His fever lasted for nearly a week and his rash was dry and itchy. It was hard to get him to drink anything and they had to tie socks over his hands so he could not scratch himself.
One horrible night, the Mendozas were sure they were going to lose their foster son. The constant sponge baths did little to cool Ricardo's temperature which had spiked even higher. His breathing had grown shallow and he moaned as if in terrible pain. Leonora and Jaime took turns keeping watch over him but it did not stop them from becoming exhausted. Leonora ended up falling asleep on the sitting room settee as she sipped a cup of tea while Jaime had drifted off in the chair next to Ricardo's bed.
Both of them woke with a start the next morning when a rooster crowed just outside the shop. "Dios mio," murmured Jaime as he quickly crossed himself upon seeing Ricardo lying so still under the thin sheet. Leonora gasped as she entered the room.
"Is he. . .?" She could not bear to finish asking her question. Her husband reached over, intending to grasp the boy's wrist to search for a pulse, when Ricardo opened his eyes.
Relief shot through both of the anxious adults. Leonora rushed over to the bed and placed her hand on the youngster's forehead. "His fever is gone."
Ricardo turned his head from side to side as he looked at his foster parents. "I didn't die," he declared through parched lips.
Jaime patted the lad's shoulder. "Of course you didn't, Ricardo. We took very good care of you."
The boy shook his head. "That's not why," he contradicted. "My mama told me I couldn't die."
This statement stunned the couple. Jaime and Leonora stared at each other in amazement. What on earth did the muchacho mean?
"I really wanted to stay with her up in heaven," continued Ricardo, unaware of the consternation he was causing. "But she told me I had to stay here and help you take care of Roberto."
"He must have been delirious from his fever," Mendoza explained to the trio of de la Vega men a week later. They were all sitting at a table at the tavern, drinking glasses of wine. All except Diego of course, who was sipping lemonade instead.
"That must have been it," commented Don Alejandro sagely.
Felipe nodded his agreement. But Diego said nothing as he recalled the time he had been visited by a guardian angel several years earlier. An angel who had shown him what life in Los Angeles would have been like if there had been no Zorro. He never could quite convince himself that it all had been a delusion caused by the terrible cold he had had at the time.
Diego had not mentioned the incident to anyone, not to Felipe at the time nor to Victoria after they were married. He had no trouble believing that Ricardo could have communicated with his dead mother during his illness. Stranger things had been known to happen.
Don Alejandro shot his son a curious glance before speaking. "Well, tomorrow is a big day," he stated, then drained his glass of wine. "We best be heading home."
The next day was indeed an important day. Ricardo and Roberto realized something was different when Leonora made them take a bath on Friday night instead of Saturday. Then the next morning, she gave them new clothes to wear.
The boys were even more confused when they led to the church. "What's going on?" Roberto asked his brother before popping his thumb into his mouth.
"I don't know," Ricardo replied. He had no idea of what was going to occur as the Mendozas walked up to the front of the church instead of taking their regular pew.
After everyone had arrived and were seated, Padre Benitez claimed their attention. "My children, we are gathered here today to announce the adoption of little Ricardo and Roberto here by Capitan and Señora Mendoza. And since we don't know if they have been baptized already, we will perform that ritual today."
The boys stared at each other. Adopted? Baptized? What was going on? They soon found out as they were brought in front of the priest. Felipe and Ana Maria stood as Ricardo's godparents while Sergeant Sepulveda and his wife were Roberto's sponsors. The younger boy giggled as the padre sprinkled the cool holy water onto his forehead. Ricardo however, kept a solemn expression on his face throughout the whole ceremony.
After it was completed, everyone made their way from the church to the tavern, where a feast had been prepared to celebrate the occasion. It was on the way there that Ricardo tugged on Mendoza's uniform jacket.
"Does this mean that you're my father now?" he asked seriously, "and I can't do anything about it?"
Jaime was taken aback by the question at first. "Si," he answered simply when he regained his senses.
"All right then," declared Ricardo, a smile on his young face. "Come on, Papa, I'm hungry." He reached for, then pulled on the soldier's hand.
It was a good thing that the boy was
intent on filling his stomach so he didn't see the tears that Jaime had
to wipe away with his free hand. Now he finally felt like a father,
something just a year ago he thought he would never get to be. Mendoza
quicken his pace to keep up with his son.
Z Z Z
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