Bright sunlight filling the room greeted Diego as he opened his eyes the next morning. It has been a sleepless night for the most part, between the haunting images that keep sweeping through his mind and the uncomfortable and narrow cot that he had to sleep on in his cell.
Madre de Dios! He shot straight up into a sitting position as he took in his surroundings, gaping in disbelief. He was not in the cuartel jail where he had spent the night, but in his own bedroom. Diego turned to look at the clock on his bedside table. The small hand rested near the twelve while the big hand stood on the eight. And there, once again, was the book, Phytologia, resting next to the timepiece.
Diego jumped from the bed and strode over to the armoire, wrenching open its door. The blue suit hung there in the first position once again.
Gracias a Dios! He was being given another chance to set matters right, he mused as he threw on his clothes. But what exactly he was supposed to change was still a mystery. A mystery he needed to solve if he wanted to break the cycle of this continuing nightmarish day.
He once again encountered his father in the dining room, where the elder de la Vega repeated the news about his cousin Rafael's impending fatherhood. Diego didn't even have to listen anymore as he had the whole conversation committed to memory.
Diego recalled the last time he had seen the elder de la Vega. It had been the preceding evening when the old don had stormed into the Alcalde's office and started shouting for Zorro's release. It wasn't until Ramón had led his father into the jail that Diego realized that Felipe had also accompanied him.
"How can you accuse Zorro of murder?" Don Alejandro had queried querulously. The man in black had sat up on his cot but kept his gaze aimed toward his boots.
The Alcalde had reached over and removed Zorro's saber from a burlap bag. The blade was still covered with Bishop's blood. "Because I found him in the deceased's room with this on the floor beside him."
"Wasn't there a shot fired?" the elder de la Vega had countered. Zorro noticed that some of the anger had left the older man's tone, replaced by a note of disappointment. "It must have been self-defense."
Ramón had shrugged. "I wouldn't know," he had stated. He raised his right hand to indicate the man in the cell. "He hasn't uttered a word since he was arrested. Not even in his own defense."
Zorro had shut out the rest of the exchange between the two men. He had made the mistake of glancing up and meeting Felipe's eyes. The pain and disillusionment he had seen there drove another dagger into his heart.
"Diego!" His father's impatient bark stirred him from his anguished memories.
"I'm going to send my congratulations right away," the old don announced. "I'll add your best wishes as well."
Don Alejandro eyed him curiously before he left the room. Diego sat down at the table after pouring himself a cup of the bitter tepid coffee from the urn on the sideboard.
As he sipped the vile brew, he reviewed everything that had happened to him in past five days and what he had learned so far. His presence at the tavern seemed to be required. The book was necessary if only to keep his father from riding into the pueblo and being killed by Bishop. Felipe's lessons were also an important element as they too kept him from dying at the hands of the corrupt gambler.
Diego's palm hit the tablecloth in frustration. There had be something, something that was crucial that was needed to change the day's outcome. And it was probably so obvious he kept overlooking it.
He drained his coffee cup then rose.
He had several more hours to mull over his options before he had to go
to Los Angeles. Perhaps the answer would come to him if he could
just clear his mind. Squaring his shoulders determinedly, he headed
out of the hacienda and toward the stables.
Z Z Z
Diego was disgusted with himself as he rode toward the pueblo three hours later. His intention of meditating on the solution to his problem had not come to fruition. Instead he had spent the time while Felipe studied his calculus, history, and literature dwelling on what had happened the previous day.
He kept glancing at Felipe's youthful face and remembering how bloodless it had been on the day he had been killed. Then visions of Victoria's and his father's pale and lifeless countenances swirled about his mind. He thought he had been doing the right thing by eliminating their murderer but he had been so wrong. Every time he closed his eyes, he could see the life draining from Bishop's face, could feel the other man's warm blood as it seeped through the leather of his gloves. His stomach kept churning with nausea.
It was quite unfair that he was the only one who had to live with these disturbing pictures stuck in his mind. No one else, as far as he knew, was reliving this same day over and over again. Why him? Why had he been selected to endure this agonizing torture? What had he done to deserve it?
Diego shook his head to clear it of its self-pitying thoughts. The whys and whats were not important. He needed to put a stop to it, and soon, before he truly went insane.
When he reached Los Angeles, he headed straight for the tavern, where he dismounted his mare before tying her to the hitching rail provided in front of the building.
"Buenas tardes, Diego."
His father's friend, Don Sebastian Valverde greeted him from the left side of the inn's porch. "Hola," Diego replied as he stepped onto the wooden planks carrying his tome on agricultural philosophy. The older man indicated the empty space beside him and Diego sat down. "How are you today, Don Sebastian?" he asked the balding caballero.
"Bueno," Don Sebastian responded. "How is your father? Is he with you?"
"He is well," Diego declared then shook his head. "He's catching up on his accounts this afternoon."
The older man nodded then took a sip from his glass. Diego glanced over at the opposite table where the sight of Bishop sitting with a large pile of coins in front of him caused his guts to wrench even though he had known the other man was alive once again. He watched as the cardsharp dealt out another round of cards to Don Esteban, Don Jose, and Don Carlos. Don Carlos. . . Maybe he was the key all this.
He inclined his head toward the gamblers. "How come you haven't joined them?" he inquired as he recalled asking the same question that first fateful day.
The answer was the same as Diego remembered. "I'm not a gambling man," stated Don Sebastian. He too looked over at his three friends and shook his head. "Don Esteban and Don Jose can afford to lose a peso or two," he explained, "but Don Carlos. . ." He shook his head again. "He's about to lose everything."
Diego felt a sudden surge of ire at his companion's apathetic attitude about one of his amigos bankrupting himself. "Why can't you stop him?" he demanded, barely keeping his anger in check. "He's your friend. Surely there must be something you can do?"
The older man sighed heavily. "Diego, you're young yet," he said in a patronizing tone. "There are some matters of honor in which a man shouldn't interfere, you see. Gaming is one of them."
Don Sebastian took another drink from his cup while Diego saw red. The caballeros of Los Angeles; his father included it seemed; were just going to stand idly by and watch as their friend descended into insolvency.
"So that's that," Diego said crossly.
"Si, Diego," replied Don Sebastian. "Don Carlos is nearly penniless anyway. The only way he can pay back what he owes is to sell off his land. No one can help him now."
Diego didn't want to believe that. He felt compelled to do something. To either stop the foolish old don from frittering away his entire inheritance or to stop the situation from escalating into death threats.
That was it! He almost fell off the bench as the idea struck him. He had to stop Don Carlos from losing the last of his money. And, more importantly, he had to keep him from accusing Bishop of cheating.
It was so simple, he felt like an idiot for not thinking of it before. Without Don Carlos blaming the Americano for his losses, there would be no bad blood between the two men. The old don could maybe salvage some of his property and some of his dignity. All Diego had to do was to interfere in some way, despite Don Sebastian's advice to the contrary.
Don Sebastian and the other two men sitting at the table; Don Arturo and Pedro Gonzales, the bank manager; got up and left, tossing coins onto the table as they excused themselves. Diego nodded at them vaguely, deep in thought, mulling over in his mind a reason to draw Don Carlos away from the card game.
He jerked himself to awareness of his surroundings and stared up at Victoria, who was holding a pitcher and a glass, and wearing a bewitching smile. "Si," he croaked. "Por favor."
The lovely innkeeper set the cup down in front of him then filled it. Diego just stared at her, still somewhat incredulous that she was alive and that she had no memory of his declaration of love three days earlier. To her, this day had never happened before, she had no idea that he was reliving it for the sixth time. No one else knew the anguish that was his alone.
He thanked her politely and she gave him a curious look before she sauntered over to the other table to see to their refreshments. Diego watched as Victoria smiled and joked with the three caballeros but held something back when she dealt with the Americano.
Good, he thought, glad she recognized that the gambler was someone to be wary of. And, it suddenly hit him, that this would be the perfect opportunity to call Don Carlos away from the game of chance that was draining his fortune. Diego got to his feet, setting his book aside.
"Don Carlos," he greeted the older man as he walked toward him. He put his hand on the caballero's shoulder. "Can I speak with you for a moment?"
Don Carlos looked up at him, a frown on his face. "All right," he replied sourly, tossing his cards down onto the table. He rose and followed Diego over to the other side of the porch. "Well?" he asked grumpily after he and Diego had sat down.
"I've heard that you might have some horses for sale," Diego inquired, knowing that he had heard no such rumor but that it might be true all the same considering the other man's financial state. "Father and I are looking for a couple of brood mares." At least that statement wasn't a falsehood.
"I do have a couple I could sell," the old don conceded grudgingly. He began to describe several of his mares as Diego listened attentively.
It was nearly an hour later after Diego had agreed to purchase two horses from Don Carlos that he noticed someone else was occupying the caballero's vacant seat. Then groaned aloud when he realized that someone was Sergeant Mendoza.
"Is something wrong?" Don Carlos asked nervously.
Diego shook his head. "No, everything is fine," he fibbed again. "I just have to let my father know of our deal."
The old don nodded. He opened his mouth as if he intended to say something else, but was interrupted as loud moans of defeat rose up from the other table. Diego looked over as Bishop smiled gloatingly at his companions before uttering, "Gentlemen, the cards don't lie."
Diego watched as Mendoza jumped up from his chair, staring at the cards on the table in dismay, in an eerie replay of the same action he had seen three other times played out by Don Carlos.
But then the stout sergeant veered from the script. "You cheated!" he accused brashly.
Diego didn't realize that Mendoza was an accomplished enough player to even recognize that he was being swindled. A stunned silence hung over the men on the porch as they seemed to hold their collective breath, waiting for the Americano's reaction.
The gambler glanced around with an insincere smile on his face. "Prove it," he challenged arrogantly.
"I. . .I. . ." sputtered the sergeant, suddenly not so bold. "You. . .You. . .just did. I just know you did.
"You have a big mouth, my friend," Bishop declared with more than a hint of menace in his words.
"I'm not your friend, Señor," retorted Mendoza, suddenly angrier than Diego had ever seen him before as the lancer moved around the table to stand face to face with the other man. "You're a cheat. This is a peace-loving pueblo. We don't need your kind here. I'm giving you until sundown to leave Los Angeles."
"And if I don't?" the Americano queried, fury burning in his narrowed eyes.
"Then you will be arrested and jailed," the sergeant explained through clenched teeth. "And your ill-gotten money will be given back to those you stole it from.
"It doesn't seem like I have much of a choice, do I?" Bishop was smiling disingenuously, glancing around at all the tense faces surrounding him.
"No, Señor," Mendoza shook his head. "You don't." He pointed a stubby finger at the other man. "Until sundown, Señor."
The portly soldier took a step backward and started to turn on his heel. Bishop reached downward as he brought up his right knee.
"No man calls me a cheat and lives," he hissed. He pulled a knife from his boot and slashed it across the sergeant's throat.
Diego leapt to his feet in time to catch Mendoza's falling body, keeping him from striking his head on the edge of the table. It was a useless gesture, he noted as he stared in horror at the amount of blood flowing from the lancer's neck. Knowing his efforts were futile, Diego still tore off his jacket and pressed it up against Mendoza's throat.
Bishop used the confusion to escape, using his knife to cut the reins of a horse tied to the tavern's hitching rail before springing up onto its back. Diego looked up in time to see that it was his mare that the cardsharp had taken, using her to ride furiously out of town.
He turned his attention back to the soldier he held in his arms and knew that his friend was dead. All around him, chaos swirled as men shouted and ran about, some going to chase after the murderous Americano, some to fetch Doctor Hernandez.
To Diego, everything had happened so fast that he hadn't even had time to transform himself into Zorro as he had the other times. But now it didn't matter, for once again he had changed nothing. Because once again someone, this time Mendoza, had been killed.
And he was the one to blame.
Z Z Z
"OTRA VEZ" - DAY SEVEN