"A PERFECT MATCH"

CHAPTER TWO

     Diego dropped Victoria's basket and made his way across the plaza to where Don Alejandro was lying on the ground.  Diego knelt down beside him, his face full of concern.  He looked up as Victoria knelt on the other side of the inert man.  He then turned his full attention back to his father.

     "Father," Diego said, gently shaking his shoulder.

     Victoria checked for a pulse as she held Don Alejandro's hand.  Her face wore a distressed expression as she said, "He is still alive, Diego."

     Felipe, leading Ana Maria by the hand, arrived on the scene.  Diego glanced up to see their panic-stricken faces.

     "He is alive," he announced to them.  "Go get Doctor Hernandez. Hurry," he added as they hesitated slightly at his order, reluctant to leave.

     The young couple left to find the doctor as Diego and Victoria remained with Don Alejandro.  Don Eduardo watched as Diego hovered over his father.  His eyes narrowed as he saw Victoria place a reassuring hand on Diego's arm.  Much of the tension left Diego's body at her gesture, the old caballero noted.  He turned as his daughter, who came up beside him, a look of disinterest on her beautiful face.

     He would have to have a little talk with her when they got home, he thought.

     They took Don Alejandro back to the hacienda, to his own bed. Doctor Hernandez arrived in short order and examined him as Diego and Felipe waited impatiently at the end of the bed.  Victoria and Ana Maria were in the library awaiting news about the elder de la Vega's condition.

     The physician slowly put away his medical instruments into his black leather bag.  He had finished with his examination of the patient, who remained unconscious.  Diego and Felipe both eagerly went over to him.

     "Don Diego, Felipe," the good doctor began, "I am afraid that your father suffered a mild heart attack."

     "A heart attack?" queried Diego, staring at his father lying so still on the bed.  "What can we do?"

     The women had ventured into the bedroom doorway, wishing to learn of the diagnosis yet not wanting to intrude.

     "He must rest quietly for a week until he recovers his strength," the doctor instructed.  "There must be no worries or burdens placed on him during that time.  Do you understand, Don Diego?"

     Diego nodded grimly.  He glanced over at Felipe, who nodded as well.

     Doctor Hernandez, having made his diagnosis, picked up his bag.  "I will be back in one week," he stated.  He then departed.

     Diego sat down next to his father's bedside and grasped his hand.  The older man's eyelids fluttered several times before he was fully aware of his surroundings.

     "What happened?  Where am I?" he questioned, struggling to sit up.

     Diego gently but firmly pushed his father back against the pillows.  "You had a heart attack, Father," he explained plainly.  "The doctor says you must rest.  Quietly," he added as Don Alejandro started to protest.

     "Don't worry, I will take care of everything," Diego tried to reassure him.  "Felipe will help."

     Felipe came over to stand next to Diego, nodding his head in agreement.

     "Good," Don Alejandro said weakly.  He laid meekly on his pillows and sighed, too tired to argue.

     "Rest now, Father," suggested Diego.  "We will be back later."

     Don Alejandro nodded slightly as the four concerned young people left the room together.  They wandered  into the library where Maria, the housekeeper, brought them cups of hot, sweet tea.

     They all drank it in relative silence, speaking in hushed tones when they did converse.  Shortly afterward, the ladies took their leave.  Diego and Felipe escorted them to Victoria's wagon.

     "Thank you for all your help," Diego said to Victoria as he aided her into the vehicle.

     "It is the least I could do," Victoria replied.  "Don Alejandro has been like a father to me.  And I know what he means to you.  Let me know if there is anything else I can do."

     "I will, gracias," he accepted her offer with a smile.

     They both then glanced over at Felipe and Ana Maria.  The younger couple were embracing and then Felipe assisted her up into the seat.  Diego could not help but be a bit envious of his adopted son.

     They stood by the hacienda gate, waving as the women drove away, a chorus of "adios" filling the air.  Diego put a fatherly arm around Felipe's shoulder and the two of them walked back to the house.
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     The next several days were quite hectic in the de la Vega household.  Don Alejandro had many visitors, for he was an extremely popular man. Diego began to restrict the length of their visits so his father could get his prescribed rest.

     Diego was wishing he could have a few minutes of peace and quiet himself by the end of the third day.  Between all the guests, the demands of the ranch and keeping a worried eye on his father, Diego was worn to a frazzle.

     He looked up from his work at the desk as Don Eduardo strolled through the hacienda.  He had just been in to visit with his old friend, who was tired of staying in bed.  Don Eduardo had brightened his day by sneaking a flask of brandy past Diego.  The two caballeros had imbibed freely from it during the visit.

     "Adios, Diego," he said as he made his departure.

     "Adios," Diego said before returning to his paper work.  He scowled a few minutes later when a loud knock sounded upon the door.  Grumbling under his breath, he got up to answer it.

     His expression remained unchanged when he opened the door and saw the Alcalde standing there.  He was accompanied by four soldiers each armed with a  musket and a sword. Diego wondered at the show of weaponry.

     "What can I do for you, Alcalde?" he asked somewhat ungraciously. He supposed it had something to do with the King's edict.

     The Alcalde nodded to the soldier standing closest to him, who unrolled a parchment and held it so de Soto could read from it.

     "King Ferdinand of Spain has ordered the immediate induction into his majesty's royal army the following members of this household," he read..  He went on to recite the names of five ranch hands that worked on the de la Vega land.  He got Diego's full and undivided attention though when he announced the last name on the list.

    ". . .and Felipe de la Vega," finished the Alcalde.  "They shall report to the garrison by noon next Friday or. . ."

     "Wait a minute, Ignacio," Diego interrupted him.  "You cannot be serious.  Felipe should not be included in this...this ridiculous edict."

     "I am just following orders, Diego," replied de Soto hotly.  "All unmarried men, aged. . ."

     "Yes, I know all that," Diego stopped him again.  "You know as well as I that Felipe is a deaf-mute.  He is still recovering from a serious head injury.  And what about. . ."

     This time the Alcalde cut in.  "There are no exceptions, Diego.  Just make sure he reports on time next week or he will be arrested for treason."

     He executed a perfect military turn and strode away, his lancers tagging after him  Diego stood in the doorway for a moment, then slammed the door.  He marched angrily across the foyer back to his desk.  But before he could resume his accounting, the tinkling of a bell echoed through the hacienda.

     Sighing wearily, Diego thought as he went to see what his father wanted.  He entered the bedroom to find his father propped up with pillows.  Diego sat down in the chair when Don Alejandro indicated for him to do so.

     "Father, what is wrong?" Diego asked with much concern.

     Don Alejandro let out a small sigh.  "Diego my son, I have been doing some serious thinking," he began, "and I have decided you should be married.  Wait, hear me out," he added as Diego started to protest.  "I am not getting any younger and now there is this problem with my heart.  I want to see you settled before I die."

     "Father, please," replied Diego.  "Let's not talk of this now.  You have many years ahead of you yet and. . ."

     "But I want to discuss it now," interrupted Don Alejandro peevishly.  "Catalina Delgado would be perfect for you.  She is young and beautiful.  Her father owns nearly as much land as we do.  There is not anyone else for miles nearly as suitable."  He eyed his son closely.  "Is there?"

     Diego rose from his chair, walking to the end of the bed and  back, contemplating his answer.  He decided to be truthful.

     "There is someone else," he stated.  "A lady whom I love very much."

     "Then why don't you marry her?" queried his father.  "Who is she?  Is she already wed or not respectable?"

     "No," Diego answered, shaking his head sadly.  He glanced out the bedroom window, a far away look in his eyes.  "She is in love with another man.  She does not know how I feel about her."

     "Well, that settles it then," declared Don Alejandro.  "Either you reveal your feelings to this ‘mystery' woman or you pay court to Señorita Delgado as soon as possible."

     "Father, I hardly know the girl," Diego said.  "You surely do not expect me to marry so quickly.  I. . ."

     "I do not want to hear excuses, Diego," retorted his father.  "I want grandchildren! Soon!  And I am convinced that Catalina Delgado will make you an excellent wife!"

     Diego looked sharply at his father, who was becoming quite agitated.  Don Alejandro's breathing was fast and his face was as red as a beet.  Diego knew the only way to calm down his father was to agree to this ridiculous plan.  He sat down again in the bedside chair and grasped the older man's hand.

     "Very well," he agreed very reluctantly.  "I promise I will court the señorita as you ask."

     "Excellent," replied Don Alejandro, visibly relaxing.  "It will all turn out for the best, you will see.  Oh, by the way, who was at the door earlier?"

     Diego had arisen once again.  "It was nobody important," he lied, not wanting to upset his parent again with the reason for the Alcalde's visit.   "Why don't you get some rest?" he suggested.

     Don Alejandro, smiling satisfyingly, leaned back into the pillows and closed his eyes.  Diego left the bedroom heading back to resume his work on the account books.  He entered the foyer, stopping to place his hands to his throbbing temples.

     Maria came in to ask him if he would be in for supper that evening, but changed her mind when she saw him there rubbing his forehead.  The housekeeper had known him since he was an infant.  All the responsibilities were getting to him, but it was about time he learned to handle them, Maria thought somewhat unsympathetically as she returned to the kitchen.

     Diego, unaware of the housekeeper's presence, glanced over to the library fireplace, then over at the desk, then back to the library.  He hesitated for a moment but making up his mind, strode across the room.  Diego touched the spot under the fireplace mantel, causing the back panel to swing open.

     Besides, he thought to himself, he needed to speak with Felipe anyway, pushing away the pangs of guilt.

     Glass beakers and bowls of liquid bubbled noisily as Diego entered the secret cave.  Felipe was nowhere to be seen and neither was Toronado.  They must be out exercising, he thought.  Felipe took the big black stallion out for a gallop several times a week during siesta.

     Diego wandered to the laboratory table where the dried remains of his botany specimens were strewn all over it.  He had not been able to return to the cave to work on his project since his father's collapse.  Sighing, he swept the shriveled plants into a neat pile with his hand.

     The creaking sound of the pulley system that opened the rear cave entrance alerted Diego that Felipe was returning.  Sure enough, the young man and the black Andalusian were coming through the narrow passageway.

     Felipe was surprised to see his adopted father there waiting for him.  Fearing the worst, he quickly dismounted.

     "Wh-What's wr-wr-wrong?" Felipe asked slowly, stumbling over the words.  His tongue had become weak due to the years of inactivity, causing him to stutter slightly. "Is it D-Don Alejandro?" he questioned worriedly.

     "No, he is as well as can be expected," replied Diego.  He had walked over to the horse's stall.  Distractedly, he picked up a brush and  began grooming Toronado's neck.  Felipe removed the horse's tack.

     "The Alcalde was here earlier," Diego explained.  "It would seem you are to be inducted into the army, handicapped or not."

     "I h-have t-to go," Felipe said, nodding solemnly.  He grabbed another brush and started to use it on one side of the horse as Diego did the other.

     "We need you here now, Felipe," declared Diego, "what with Father's illness and the loss of the other hands.  And I can only imagine how  Ana Maria feels about your leaving."

     Felipe paused his brushing.  He had not considered any of those things.  He had just thought how exciting it would be to serve his country; to travel and see some of the world.  He remembered now how stricken Ana Maria looked when anyone mentioned the decree.  He did not want to leave her, or Diego and Don Alejandro either.

     "B-But how c-can I st-stay?" Felipe wondered.

     "I don't know," replied Diego.  "That is one more problem I have to figure out."

      He set down his brush and stalked out of the cave.
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"A PERFECT MATCH"-CHAPTER THREE