There was a red glow behind his eyelids. Dear God, was he in hell? Diego cracked open one eye then the other. Then he shot up quickly into a sitting position.
Madre de Dios! He was in his own bed in his own room at the hacienda. Disbelief filled him as he gazed around at the familiar furniture and wall hangings. Bright sunlight streamed in through the windows and he watched in fascination as dust motes danced in the yellow beams.
He glanced over at the clock sitting on his bedside table. Twenty minutes before twelve, which, considering the dazzling sunshine, he assumed to be twelve noon rather than midnight. A further glimpse took in the book next to the timepiece. The same volume on agricultural philosophy by Eramus Darwin that he had been in the process of reading. The same book that he last remembered tossing aside on a table on the tavern porch.
Diego stared around in amazement. He was supposed to be dead. He could have sworn that he did die, recalling the pain he had felt moments before his world had grown dark and he knew no more.
The pain. Diego glanced down at his nightshirt covered chest. There didn't appear to be a bandage of any sort. He sprang from his bed and pulled the cotton garment over his head. He stared down again at his bared body.
There was the still healing rattlesnake bite on his right forearm. There was a scrape on his ribs on his left side he had received sliding down a tile roof a bit too hastily. Across his left shoulder was a long, thin scar, put there by Colonel Palomarez when the madman had poisoned him.
But there wasn't even a scratch, let alone a mortal wound to his chest. Had he just dreamed that his breathing had grown shallow and excruciating? Had it all been in his mind that he had licked his lips and had tasted the hint of copper of his own blood? Had the agonizing pain that he had felt been just a figment of his imagination?
Diego sat back down on his bed with a plop. Maybe this was the afterlife. After all, nobody alive knew for sure. But, he wondered curiously as he gazed around his room, was it heaven or was it hell?
He made his way over to the armoire that held his clothes and opened the door. There, hanging as it had for what was now the fourth morning in a row, was his royal blue jacket and pants. He had always just grabbed the first thing in the closet, not particularly caring what he wore on an everyday basis.
What did it mean that the blue suit was there again, innocently waiting for him to put it on? With not a little trepidation, Diego reached out and took the garments from their hangers then hurriedly dressed.
He left the bedroom, walking hesitantly toward the dining room. Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the room, almost afraid of what he might find there.
Don Alejandro sat at the table, a plate bearing the traces of his lunch of carne asada sitting in front of him. "It's about time you got up," he growled grumpily before his face split into a huge grin. "You'll never believe it," the old don added excitedly.
Diego didn't believe it as for the fourth time, his father repeated the news of his cousin Rafael's impending fatherhood.
"Diego." The elder de la Vega's petulant voice broke through his increasingly heated musing. "Diego, son," his father started to repeat the same advice that Diego had heard more times than he cared to count. "It's about time you settled down, found yourself a wife." He started expectantly at his son, before adding emphatically, "I want grandchildren!"
"I know, Father. Believe me, I know," Diego grumbled under his breath, unconsciously echoing the words he had spoken in reply to his father's outburst the very first day of this ongoing bad dream.
Don Alejandro eyed him curiously. "I'm going to send my congratulations right away," he announced. "I'll add your best wishes as well."
"Gracias." Diego sat down at the dining room table as his father left the room. He shook his head. What the hell was going on, he asked himself heatedly.
Obviously martyring himself was not the answer to this never-ending nightmare. Clearly something had gone wrong that first day, that horrible, terrible day when Victoria had been killed by Bishop in an assignation attempt against Zorro. Protecting her from the gambler had resulted in his father's death. And as he previously noted, offering himself up as the sacrificial lamb clearly wasn't what needed to be altered either.
Diego cast a baleful eye upward. "Just what am I supposed to do?" he asked the question angrily, knowing he would not receive an answer. The more that he thought about it, the more irritated he became. He had been given no hints, no clues, about what he needed to change.
It probably was some minor, minute detail, he mused crossly. Something so simple that no one would deem it important. Perhaps. . . Just perhaps. . . if he did the opposite of everything he had done so far. He stood up, slapping the palms of both hands on the linen tablecloth. "Fine," he said aloud. "That's just what I'll do."
Diego turned to the sideboard and poured himself a cup of coffee. Then, remembering its bitterness from previous days, he added two heaping spoons full of sugar and a very generous dollop of cream. He sat back down at the table, stirring the contents of his cup. He mulled over in his mind the events of the past three days while taking small sips of the now almost sickening sweet concoction.
So deep in his thoughts, Diego didn't realize at first that someone else had entered the room. Only when he heard the clatter of silverware did he glance up to notice the kitchen maid, a girl about Felipe's age, had come to clear away the remains of his father's luncheon. He frowned as he tried to recall her name.
"Perdone, Patrón," the girl said, keeping her eyes downcast. She reminded Diego of a frightened little dove. Paloma. . .that was her name.
"Paloma, por favor," he began, "bring
me a big hearty breakfast." Skipping his morning meal was another
thing he was going change in his effort to stop the day's horrific repetition.
Diego grinned at the little maid who nodded then carried his father's dishes
away to the kitchen.
Z Z Z
Close to an hour later, Diego made his way out to the stables. He, however, had no intention of seeking out Felipe. No, he was going to give the lad the day off from his lessons while he planned to ride out to the northern edge of the de la Vega property, checking on the fences and the cattle grazing there.
Today when he entered the barn, Felipe and Paco were each currying a horse in its stall instead of cleaning the tack. Good, he thought, another detail altered. He watched as Felipe noticed his presence and loped over to him with an expectant expression on his young face.
"No, no lessons today," Diego replied to the youth's signed question. "I'm going to check on the cattle in the north pastures." He turned, intending to make his way over to the stall that housed his mare, Esperanza, but came to a halt when he felt a hand tug at his arm.
He faced Felipe, who launched into a series of gestures asking if he could come along. For a moment, Diego was inclined to agree, as the lad was an enjoyable and helpful companion on such outings. But then he remembered that he had spent the past three afternoons with the youth. Doing lessons, that was true, but would it make any difference how they passed the time?
"No, sorry," he replied, shaking his head for emphasis. "I need some time alone," he elaborated as an excuse.
Felipe then surreptitiously mimicked slashing with a sword. He was right, Diego considered, the secluded north pasture would be an ideal place to work on their swordplay. But no, he told himself, he couldn't take the chance if he truly wanted to have any hope of ending the day's unceasing duplication.
"Felipe, I said no," he repeated a bit more harshly than he intended. "I'll see you tonight."
He almost changed his mind when he saw the youth's crestfallen countenance a second before he turned away. Diego regretted that he had to disappoint the young man, but the need to change the day's outcome was more imperative than letting the lad have his way.
Shrugging, he went about saddling Esperanza, then filled one of his panniers with some dried beef and a couple of oranges. Into the other side he shoved his book. It had occurred to him that the only day he had not taken the tome on agricultural philosophy with him had been the only day that his father had ridden into the pueblo and had promptly been killed by Bishop. So Señor Darwin's book was important if for no other reason than it kept his father from riding into the pueblo at precisely the wrong moment.
Diego didn't feel like taking a chance with the elder de la Vega's life. He was doing everything else differently. Besides, he probably wouldn't even have time to read it. He smiled mirthlessly as he gave the volume a pat through the saddlebag's soft leather. Better safe than sorry, he thought grimly.
It was an hour later when he reached the north pasture. And nearly another hour before he found the herd of cattle that were grazing in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Diego had ridden the fence line, which was in no need of repairs. He watched as he sat astride his mare's back as a couple of calves frolicked about in the lush green meadow.
Everything seemed to be in perfect condition, he begrudgingly acknowledged. Taking a glance at his pocketwatch, it was still another two hours before the poker game would break up. Two more hours until Bishop threatened Don Carlos. Two more hours until some innocent bystander was killed by the greedy gambler.
But not today, Diego told himself, gritting his teeth. Not if he had anything to do about it. He rode away from the beasts in the field and found himself a nice shady spot under a juniper tree. As it had been the previous three days, the weather was unseasonably hot and he welcomed the cooler air as he seated himself against the tree's trunk.
Diego ate some of the food he had brought with him as he perused his book. Or tried to read, as other thoughts and worries crowded his mind as he wondered what was going on in the pueblo. Would his absence really change what would happen? Where things playing out as they had when he had been present?
Most of his concern was for Victoria. She had been Bishop's first victim. Would she be again? He sincerely hoped not, remembering she was only harmed because of her association with Zorro. If the masked man wasn't there, then the Americano only had Don Carlos to intimidate.
Diego once again speculated about the older don and his foolish squandering of his inheritance. He could no longer pity him, not after knowing the havoc he wreaked because of his weakness for gambling. Maybe Don Carlos losing everything was something that was supposed to happen. That Zorro's interference in the matter was what disrupted the elder caballero's fate, thereby changing the rest of the day's outcome.
Heaving a weary sigh, he shook his head as if to literally clear of it of its troublesome ideas and turned his attention back to his book. When, after he had attempted to read the same page for the third time, he gave up and closed his eyes, deciding he might as well catch up on his sleep.
A huff of hot breath near his left ear startled Diego awake. He opened his eyes to see one of the calves bending its head toward the book resting in his lap. Snapping the tome closed before the inquisitive calf could eat its pages, Diego then gave the animal a swat to its hindquarters. The little fellow jumped in surprise, then ran away, not stopping until it had buried its nose in its mother's side.
Diego chuckled as he got to his feet.
The darkening sky told him the fated moment was at hand, which he confirmed
with a quick glance at his watch. Full of curiosity of what had transpired
in his absence, he strode over to where he had tethered his mount.
Within minutes, he and Esperanza were galloping toward the de la Vega hacienda.
Z Z Z
The sun had just slipped below the western horizon by the time Diego arrived at the gates of his home. He rode Esperanza to the stable, where he unsaddled her then curried her sweat-soaked skin. It was nearly a half hour later before he walked through the front door of the hacienda, carrying his book.
He had barely set foot inside when he was ambushed by his father. "Where have you been?" the elder de la Vega demanded. "You've been gone for hours."
"I rode up to the northern pasture," Diego explained, trying to control his annoyance at being treated like a small child. "I checked on the fences and the herd. Everything was fine, by the way."
"Oh." Don Alejandro had the good grace to look a bit chastised. "Well, next time let someone know where you're. . ." he began to bluster.
A loud pounding on the front door, followed closely by the sound of it being thrown open interrupted what old don was saying. Both men turned to see Victoria, red-faced and panting for breath, standing in the open doorway.
"It's Felipe," she managed to gasp out. "He's been shot."
"What?" Don Alejandro shouted in disbelief. He placed a hand on Victoria's quaking shoulder.
Diego remained rooted where he stood, his stomach churning sickeningly. "Is he dead?" he asked, even though he could guess the answer.
Victoria shook her head. "He is still alive," she stated. Then tears started streaming down her cheeks. "At least he was when I left to come tell you."
There was a crowd gathered outside the doctor's office when Don Alejandro, Victoria, and Diego pulled up in front of it in the innkeeper's horse and cart. Diego's gut twisted painfully. This was what his laissez-faire attitude had brought about, he thought guiltily. He could only pray now that Felipe's young life wouldn't be snuffed out because of his foolishness.
The trio pressed their way through the townspeople, most of whom moved out of their way when they recognized the de la Vegas. "Where is he?" Don Alejandro inquired forcefully when they had entered the physician's rooms.
Doctor Hernandez came through a archway and shook his head. "I'm sorry," he replied sadly. "He's in God's hands now."
"Oh, Dios mio, no," Diego murmured. He pushed his way past the doctor to the examining area, his knees buckling as he stared at Felipe's still form in disbelief. "This wasn't suppose to happen," he bemoaned, his words thick with grief. "Not Felipe."
"Diego, Diego." Two concerned voices penetrated his consciousness, two hands were placed on his shoulders. He looked to see Don Alejandro to his left and Victoria to his right.
"What. . .? How did this happen?" he asked in a strangled tone. "Why did this happen?"
"It was. . . It was Bishop," Victoria said quietly, but Diego could hear a bitter note in her voice. "Bishop was aiming his pistol at Don Carlos when Felipe stepped in between them. Bishop shot Felipe at point blank range."
"What was he doing there?" he queried in a whisper. "He wasn't supposed to be there."
"He was bored," stated Don Alejandro. "He asked if he could ride into town, so I said he could." He closed his eyes and groaned. "I never should have let him go."
Diego could see the pain etched into his father's face and knew that the old don was blaming himself. He patted the elder de la Vega on the shoulder. He recalled then the crushed look on Felipe's face when he had denied his request to come with him. If only he had agreed. . . "It's not your fault, Father," he said, his voice racked with guilt. "It's mine. I should have let him come with me. If I had, he wouldn't be. . .wouldn't be. . ."
Malditas, Felipe was dead. And it had been done by that gambler Bishop. What kind of a man would murder another over a game of cards? A man whose volatile temper and alleged cheating were indeed unwelcome additions to the pueblo de Los Angeles. A man who needed to be stopped before he killed again.
Diego looked down at Felipe's lifeless body for a moment before kneeling down beside the young man who had been both like a son and a brother to him. He took the nearest hand into his hand, its coldness touching the very core of his heart.
"I'm sorry, Felipe," he murmured softly. He bowed his head. Surely this couldn't be how the day was supposed to play out, ending in the death of another innocent bystander.
But instead of dreading another repetition of the day, this time he wanted it more than ever. Because now he knew without a doubt what he had to do.
He had to kill Bishop.
Z Z Z
"OTRA VEZ" - DAY FIVE