"A PERFECT MATCH"

CHAPTER THREE

     Later that same evening, at the Delgado hacienda, Catalina sat on a stone bench in the courtyard garden.  She had just finished speaking with her father, who had informed her that she was to marry Diego de la Vega as soon as it could be arranged.

     The young woman had protested a little at first.  But Don Eduardo had been quite insistent and finally she acquiesced to his wishes.

     Now she sighed as she glanced around the lovely courtyard.  Her father took a lot of pride in his carefully tended flowers and herbs, doing much of the work himself.  There were still many flowers blooming despite it being late October.  The weather had remained mild so far.  But Catalina was not thinking of flowers or the temperature.

     Footsteps behind her brought her attention back to her surroundings.  Dreading for it to be her father, intent on berating her again, Catalina turned to see who it was.

     "Catalina?  Is that you?" asked the handsome young man who had paused and was now walking toward her.

     The young señorita did not recognize the man at first, but as he drew closer, she realized who he was.

     "Benito?" she asked cautiously.

     "Si, Catalina," Benito Trujillo replied.  "I had heard you had returned home.  Welcome back."

     The two had been childhood playmates despite Benito being nearly three years older.  His mother, Ada, still served as the Delgados' cook.  Catalina and Benito had been inseparable until her mother had died and her father had sent her packing to her aunt's to live. Now they smiled shyly at each other, remembering their mutual past.

     "Gracias," Catalina said.  "It is good to be home again."

     "I am the assistant foreman for your father now," Benito boasted proudly.  He stepped closer to where Catalina was sitting.

     "Sit down and tell me all that has happened here since I left," she invited, patting the empty bench beside her.

     He immediately did as she bid.  "I would much rather hear about you," Benito said.  He took her hand and brought it to his lips. "You are so beautiful," he added, almost in a whisper.

     "Catalina!" Don Eduardo called from inside the hacienda, startling the young couple.  "Where are you?  Catalina!"

     "I am sorry, but I must go see what he wants," she apologized as she rose to her feet.  "It is wonderful to see you again, Benito."

     He stood up as well.  "It was my pleasure, Catalina," he replied.  He turned to leave the courtyard.

     Catalina did the same, but stopped to a glance at his departing back.  Sighing, she continued inside to see her father.
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     The next day, Diego made a trip to the pueblo, running several errands for his father.  Plus he just wanted to get away from all the pressure at the hacienda for a while.

     Loud, angry shouts greeted his arrival in the plaza.  A large gathering of the townspeople were protesting whatever the Alcalde was saying.  He stood once again on the ledge of the fountain, a mixture of anger and disgust marring his features.

     Diego dismounted his horse, Esperanza, tying her to the railing in front of the tavern.  He ambled over to the edge of the crowd to listen to the Alcalde's tirade.

     "I am just following orders," he said vehemently.  "Even my lancers that meet the requirements are included. So far only three men have reported for duty.  If more do not report soon, military action will have to be taken against them."

     The angry mob did not care for the Alcalde's threat and let him know it. Sergeant Mendoza stood nervously near his commanding officer, beads of sweat forming on his forehead.  He tugged at his jacket's high collar.

     Victoria spotted Diego at the outer fringe of the people and made her way toward him.  "Hola, Don Diego," she greeted him. "How is your father?"

     "Much better, gracias," he answered.  Lowering his voice so only she could hear, he added,   "Ignacio is right.  He is only doing his duty."

     "That is true," Victoria said, shaking her head wearily.

     The crowd began to disperse, still talking angrily amongst themselves, as the Alcalde and his soldiers marched back to the cuartel.  Victoria and Diego strolled slowly back toward the tavern.

     "Padre Benitez has told me nearly twenty couples have applied to get married this week," she related.  "All the young grooms are ones who are to be drafted."

     "Indeed," replied Diego, smiling a little.  "I wonder if he will be able to get them all wed before the deadline."

     He felt much better now.  He enjoyed spending time with Victoria even if only for a few minutes. He had not had much of a chance to do so lately.

     "The caballeros are upset because they are losing most of their ranch hands.  How many do you stand to lose?" she inquired, looking up at him.  They had reached the tavern porch but stayed outside as they continued their conversation.

     "Five," was Diego's reply, "and Felipe."

     He knew when he mentioned Felipe's induction, Victoria's boiling point would be reached quickly.  And he was right.

     "Felipe?  How can the Alcalde include Felipe?"  Her anger exploded loudly. When she noticed several of her customers staring at her, she moved closer to Diego and lowered her voice.

     "That is crazy,"  she said, still very upset.  "He cannot hear or speak.  He should not be a soldier fighting some meaningless war in Europe."

     "I agree, " Diego concurred.  "Besides, we need him here now that Father's health is uncertain.  But I do not see any way to get him out of serving."

     "I have heard a rumor," Victoria said, "that for enough pesos, one does not have to go.  Maybe. . ." She shrugged her shoulders as she did not finish the thought.

     "Are you suggesting I bribe the Alcalde?" Diego questioned quietly.  He was about to ask her for more details when Don Eduardo rode up to the tavern on a fine Palomino gelding.

     "Buenos dias, Señorita, Diego," he acknowledged.  He was unnerved by the fact that once again he found Diego and Victoria Escalante together.   It had seemed to him they had been speaking very intimately.  "I have just been to visit your father, Diego."

     "Is everything all right?" the younger de la Vega asked.  " I was concerned about leaving. . ."

     "Oh he was in quite high spirits when I left," replied the older man.  "Your engagement to my Catalina has made him very happy."

     "Engagement?"  Victoria visibly paled at the news.

     "We will be expecting you for dinner tonight," Don Eduardo stated.  "I will not take no for an answer," he added as Diego started to decline the invitation.  "Adios."

     The old caballero urged his horse away from the porch and then headed out of the pueblo.  Diego's mood had plummeted at the thought of spending the evening as well as the rest of his life with Catalina Delgado.  He reluctantly turned to face Victoria's inquisition.

     It was impossible to describe the look on the beautiful innkeeper's face.  She had placed her hands on her slim hips.

     "You are engaged to that...that Delgado girl?" she asked in disbelief.  "You cannot be serious.  You hardly know her."

     Diego eyed her curiously, wondering at her attitude.  "I had no choice," he stated flatly.  "I had to promise my father I would court the señorita.  I did not wish for him to have a setback."

     "Neither would I, but. . .  His illness was rather sudden, wasn't it," Victoria speculated suspiciously.  "He always seemed so hale and hearty.  I had always thought he was indestructible really."

     Diego was about to respond when a loud wail came from the cuartel.  "You will not get away with this," yelled an angry farmer as two soldiers dragged him by the arms from the Alcalde's office.  The lancers ungraciously dropped the man in the center of the plaza, then returned to the garrison.

     Diego recognized the man as Alberto Perez, a widower who had a small farm north of the pueblo.  He and Victoria rushed over to help the man to his feet, as did several other people.

     "What happened, Señor Perez?"  Victoria asked solicitously.

     The old farmer dusted himself off.  "The Alcalde is stealing my son, Bertalito.  He is just sixteen and my only child.  I need him on our farm.  If something happens to my Bertalito, I do not know what I will do."  He began to sob.

 Victoria placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.  Perez stopped weeping long enough to finish his story.  "I heard that the Alcalde was taking money to look the other way.  So I took all my savings and offered it in exchange for my son's freedom."  He shook his head.  "He just laughed in my face and said it would take more than ten pesos to keep my worthless son off the front line.  What am I going to do now?"  The man dissolved into tears again.

     Diego glanced over the man's bowed head at Victoria who gave him a grim look.  So what she had heard was true, de Soto was taking payoffs.  And evidentially only the wealthy need apply, he thought viciously.  Well Zorro might have something to say about that.

     "Excuse me, Victoria," he announced, " I need to go back home and check on Father.  Adios."  He mounted his horse and rode off.

     The innkeeper watched as he disappeared into the distance.  She should be outraged about Señor Perez' situation but she could not get her mind off Diego's dilemma.  She shook her head as if to clear out the strange and disturbing thoughts she was having.
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     Later that evening found a despondent Diego seated at the Delgado's formal dinner table, not enjoying yet another well prepared meal.  Don Eduardo monopolized the conversation, much to the relief of both Diego and Catalina.  The younger de la Vega did perk up a little when the old don began to talk about his flowers and herbs.

     "Many of the plants in my garden are native Californian species," he was saying, "although some were brought over from Spain by my dear departed Isabella when she was a bride."

     The old man's eyes started to fill with tears as he spoke about his late wife.  Diego noticed and decided to distract his father's friend.

     "Don Eduardo, I have been doing some research into the native flora," he remarked.  "Why don't you show me your garden?"

     His host glanced at him.  "I think Catalina should go instead," he countered.  "It is such a beautiful night out, just right for romance."

     "But I know nothing about plants, Papa," interjected his daughter.  "I think Don Diego would like to hear your expertise on the subject."

    Diego shot her a grateful look of surprise to which she just smiled innocently.  "Indeed, Don Eduardo," he replied.  "I would love a tour."

     The older caballero, sensing he had been out maneuvered, rose from the table and stomped out the French doors.  Diego followed behind him.  Don Eduardo began pointing out the different flowers half-heartedly until he realized his guest was genuinely interested.  They had covered nearly all of the garden when Diego noticed a group of tall purple and pink flowers against the whitewashed wall.

     "What are those?" he asked.  "They are quite lovely."

     Don Eduardo peered at them through the darkness.  "Oh, those are foxgloves," he responded.  "Digitalis purpurea, a member of the figwort family."

     "Are they a native plant?" inquired Diego, smiling at the implication of the flower's name.  "I do not remember ever seeing them before."

    "No, no," the older gentleman shook his head.  "They are from Europe."  He coughed as if he was clearing his throat.  "I think we have ignored your bride-to-be long enough, Diego."

     He swirled around and marched back inside the hacienda.  Diego had no other option but follow him.  He wondered what had brought about his host's abruptness.

     Diego soon departed and rode home deep in thought.  He needed to find a way to keep Felipe from being drafted.  He needed to put an end to de Soto's greedy plot.  He desperately needed to find a way to avoid marrying Catalina Delgado.  Then there was his father, the ranch...

     Diego looked up in surprise as he had nearly passed right by the hacienda.  Sighing, he pivoted Esperanza about and headed for the stables.  When he arrived outside his bedroom door, he heard noises like someone was rifling through his belongings.

     "Father, what are you doing out of bed?" Diego questioned as it was Don Alejandro who was digging around in a bureau drawer.

     The old don did not glance up at his son but continued his search, opening another drawer.  "Buenos noches, Diego," he said absently.  "I am looking for the ring."

     "The ring?"  Diego did not know what was so important about a piece of jewelry that it would get his father out of bed at this time of night.  "What ring?"

     "The ring your mother gave you," replied Don Alejandro.  "You know, the one with the emerald and diamonds."

     Diego froze.  Oh yes, he knew exactly which ring his father meant.  The very same ring that Zorro had given to Victoria the day he had proposed to her in the secret cave.  He could hardly tell his father that fact though.

     "I do not know where it is exactly," he fibbed.  "After all, Mother gave it to me over twenty years ago."

   "Diego, you were supposed to give that ring to your bride," complained the elder de la Vega.  "I gave it to your mother and your grandfather gave it to my mother."  He put his hand to his forehead, obviously feeling a bit dizzy.

     "Father, you really should be in bed," warned Diego.  "I will look for it tomorrow."  He took his father's arm and escorted him back to his own room.

     Just what I needed, Diego reflected, another thing to worry about.
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"A PERFECT MATCH"-CHAPTER FOUR