"A PERFECT MATCH"

CHAPTER FOUR

     Don Alejandro recovered rapidly and by the end of his enforced bed rest, he was a fit as a fiddle.  Diego happily turned over the ranch business to him, though he kept a wary eye on the old don, making sure he did not overdo it.

     Diego had waited until his father retired for the evening before he slipped through the fireplace panel.  His transformation into his alter ego took only a few minutes.

     Zorro, astride Toronado, emerged from the hidden cave exit and galloped out into the night.  It felt exhilarating to ride the black stallion once again.

     He intended to see what his old amigo, de Soto, was up to.  Trust Ignacio to find a way to profit from others' misfortunes.  It was bad enough that these men were being torn away from their families, but to make false promises and take their money.  The man was quite despicable.

    Zorro let Toronado run free.  No doubt the Andalusian had felt as cooped up as he had.  Curiously, the horse was heading straight for the Delgado hacienda.  Zorro groaned.  "You are no help, old boy."  The stallion whinnied softly as in reply.

     Hearing voices coming from inside the courtyard, he dismounted and crept closer to the adobe wall.  In a trice, he was atop it, peering over the edge into the garden.  What he saw made him smile.  Catalina and Benito were sitting on the stone bench, deep in conversation.

     "But what else can you do, Benito?" pleaded Catalina.  "The edict says you will be tried for treason if you do not go."

     "It is all so pointless," the vaquero replied.  "Why should I go fight in a foreign country?  I am no coward, Catalina.  If it were Los Angeles, California or even Mexico that needed me, I would go.  But Spain?  I have never been there.  I have no quarrel with the French."

     "But the Alcalde. . ." she started to say, but Benito interrupted her.

     "It just occurred to me," he declared.  "We could get married.  Then I would be exempt."

     Catalina's eyes lit up at the idea.  "Married?  You and me?"  she squeaked excitedly.  Then a dark shadow crossed her mind.  "Oh no, Benito, I cannot.  Papa has arranged that I would marry Diego de la Vega.  We are supposed to set a date. . ."

     The young man cut in again.  "You do not love Don Diego, do you?"  She shook her head no.  "I love you, Catalina," he confessed, summoning up his courage.   "I have for a long time.  It nearly broke my heart when you were sent away to Mexico City."

     "Oh, Benito, I do not know what to say," the stunned girl responded.  "I. . ."

     "Say you love me too," encouraged Benito.  "And that you will marry me instead of de la Vega."

    "I think I do love you," stated Catalina.  "But what will I tell Papa?  He has his heart set on my marriage to Don Diego."

     "Let me handle your father, querida," Benito sounded more confident than he really was.  "We will elope as soon as I can arrange it."

    He took Catalina into his arms and bent down to kiss her.  Zorro discreetly turned away and slid down to the ground, a huge grin on his masked face.  He found Toronado waiting patiently, munching on a clump of grass.

     Zorro patted the stallion on the neck.  "How did you know, boy?" he asked the chewing animal.  "How could you know?"  Not expecting a reply  (indeed, the day when Toronado started answering him, he was retiring), he swung a long leg over the horse's back and urged him forward.
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     The next morning, Diego and Felipe rode into Los Angeles.  The younger of the pair was very anxious to play a visit to Ana Maria.  He had not seen her for several days as he had been kept busy helping out while Don Alejandro had recuperated.  Eagerly, he looked over at his adopted father as they brought their mounts to a halt in front of the tavern.

     "Go on, Felipe," chuckled Diego.  "I am sure she is waiting for you."

    The young man smiled his thanks and rushed into the tavern, nearly knocking down the Alcalde, who was exiting the building.  De Soto watched as Felipe took the stairs two at time in his hurry to reach the top.  With a sneer, he turned his attention to Diego.

     "So, is Felipe enjoying his last days of freedom?' he inquired snidely, deliberately baiting his old schoolmate.

     "Ignacio, we both know this is an outrage," Diego said with more calm than he felt.  "He cannot hear or speak.  He has no business going, though that is true of everyone."

     "I do not think the King cares as long as he is breathing," retorted de Soto.  "All he needs is fresh fodder for the front lines.  I am truly sorry, Diego old boy, but the law is. . ."

     "The law," Diego finished for him.  "Si, you have said that before.  That does not seem to stop you whenever it suits you to break it."

     The Alcalde's eyes darkened with rage.  "Be careful, de la Vega," he threatened, "or your name might suddenly appear on my list of recruits.  Both of you just might be on your way to San Diego."

     Diego, realizing Ignacio was deadly serious, wisely said no more.

    "Just be sure that the lad reports in five days," warned de Soto.  He glanced back into the tavern  where some of his men were eating and laughing.  "Sergeant!"

     "Madre de Dios, can't a man eat his breakfast?" Mendoza muttered under his breath.  Actually the rotund soldier was on his second morning meal already that day.

     The Alcalde glared at him.  "Come along, Sergeant, we have work to do."  With that, de Soto strode across the plaza.  A flustered and still hungry Mendoza tried to catch up with him.

     Diego shook his head as he entered the inn.  He immediately spotted Victoria behind the bar, her back to the door.  He leaned up against the counter and waited for her.   The usual smile the lovely  senorita wore to greet her customers faded when she noticed Diego standing there.  Very deliberately, she set a glass down in front of him and then filled it with juice.

     "How is Don Alejandro?"  she inquired.  She was still curious about his father even though she was irrationally upset with the son.

    "He is quite well, " announced Diego.  "Back to his old self."

     "Bueno," was Victoria's terse reply.  She prompted spun on her heel and ducked into the kitchen.

     Why is she so angry with me?  wondered the bewildered man.  She was in love with Zorro, so why did she act like she was jealous of him and Catalina Delgado?  Women, Diego shrugged.  He would never understand them if he lived to be one hundred years old.
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     Later that afternoon, Diego and Felipe were in the secret cavern.  Diego sat at his desk, perusing the Spanish botany book, looking up some of the plants that Don Eduardo has mentioned.  Felipe was currying Toronado.  Putting down the brush, he walked over to the desk and waited until the other man glanced up.

     "Ana Maria w-wants us t-o g-get ma-married," he stuttered nervously.

    Diego jumped up and nearly dropped the book on his foot.  "What?  Get married?" he questioned his son.  Trying to calm down, he continued, "Felipe, you are both so young.  Do not rush into something you are not ready for just to avoid being drafted."

    Felipe resorted back to their old hand signal system and passionately tried to get his point across to Diego.

     "No, I am not suggesting you wait until you are as old as I am," Diego interpreted with a sigh.  "You have only known each other a short time.  She is a lovely girl but. . .  I know you are both scared you will lose each other."

     "B-But I l-love her," Felipe admitted.

     "True love will stand the test of time, hijo," Diego counseled, patting the young man on the shoulder.  "I am going to write a letter to an old school friend mine, Capitan Miguel Cortez.  He has been in the army for nearly ten years..  He knows how to pull strings.  Maybe he can arrange for you to be assigned away from the front."

    "Wh-What if h-he c-cannot?"  Felipe asked.

    "I do not know, let's just hope he can help," replied his father.  "Promise me you will put this marriage idea on hold for now, hmm."  Diego had to chuckle at the irony.  His own father was pressuring him into wedlock while he was advising his son against it.  Felipe looked at him with a puzzled expression.

     "Who knows, perhaps the King will have a change of heart, " said Diego lightly.  "Stranger things have been known to happen."

    They were about to resume what they had been doing when they heard Don Alejandro's voice ring out.

     "Diego!  Where are you?"  Don Alejandro had searched every inch of the hacienda for his son who was nowhere to be found.  Nor was Felipe, who might be able to tell him where Diego might be.  Where did those two disappear to all the time?

    He had been to the library, through the dining room and even into the kitchen, where a perturbed Maria had threatened him with a wooden spoon when he tried to sample the soup.  He decided to head out to the stables when he walked past the library.  Don Alejandro blinked then rubbed his eyes.  Diego and Felipe were seated there, engaged in a game of chess.

    "Hola, Father," greeted Diego brightly.  His father shook his head.  He could have sworn they had not been there just a few minutes ago.

    "Checkmate," declared his son.  He glanced up at Felipe, who was grinning widely.  "I don't know why I bother," he added.  "He beats me every time."

     "He had a good teacher.  Forget the chess, Diego."  Don Alejandro changed the subject.  "We need to get ready for dinner.  The Delgados will be here any minute now.

    Diego's levity left him at the thought of another evening pretending he was going to marry Catalina.  He gave Felipe a grim look.  The younger man just smiled.

     "Father, I wish to speak to you about this engagement," he began as he rose from his chair.

     "That is why they are coming tonight," his father said, misunderstanding his son's meaning.  "We are going to set the date.  Now, go get ready."

     Groaning, Diego rolled his eyes and hesitantly trod toward his room, Don Alejandro following right behind him.

     "I think you should wear your light blue suit, you always look good in that," suggested the elder de la Vega, oblivious to his son's reluctance.  "I only wish you had found that ring.  You could have given it to Catalina tonight..."

     Don Alejandro nagged Diego all the way to his room.  Felipe could not hear the conversation after they had move out of earshot, but he was still grinning broadly as he put away the chess pieces.

     An hour later, the guests had arrived and the meal was in full progress.  The engaged couple had hardly touched their plates as their fathers discussed wedding dates and plans all through the dinner.  Felipe had difficulty eating as well, having to choke back his laughter at Diego's pained expressions.

     The two old matchmakers had finally decided upon a date that would suit them, choosing a day only a month away.  Diego determined he had had enough of the charade.

     "Father, a month from now?  he queried, trying to keep a rein on his anger.  "That would be right before Christmas.  I had hoped we could have a longer engagement.  After all, Doña Catalina is newly arrived back home and I thought we could get to know each other a little better."  He glanced over at the young lady, who bowed her head demurely.

     "Nonsense, Diego," contradicted Don Eduardo.  "You will have plenty of time to get acquainted after you are wed.  And what is wrong with a Christmas ceremony.  Everything will be decorated already and. . ."

     "My son does have a point," Don Alejandro cut in.  "Perhaps a spring wedding would be nicer, with all the flowers in bloom and the warmer weather."

     "Papa, I. . ." Catalina tried to say something but was interrupted tersely by her father.

    "Silence, hija," he snapped.  "Why don't you and Diego take a stroll out in the garden while Don Alejandro and I discuss this further."

     The girl started to protest but stopped when she saw the stern look on her parent's face.  Diego, thinking to defuse an explosive situation, rose and escorted Catalina outside.

    Once out into the night air, she sat down on the nearest bench and indicated for Diego to do the same.  Mustering up her courage, she turned to face him.  "Don Diego, I am very sorry," she began, "but I cannot marry you.  I will be honest, I am to marry someone else."

     Diego breathed a sigh of relief.  "I understand completely, Señorita.  I must admit I was not looking forward to this marriage either.  My feelings are otherwise engaged as well.  Who is the lucky fellow?"

    "Benito Trujillo," Catalina replied.  "We are eloping tonight after Papa has gone to bed.  We are going to Santa Barbara so he will not be able to stop us."

     "Best wishes to you and Benito," offered Diego sincerely.  "I think we should go back inside and pretend to go along with their plans.  It will make them happy, for a little while at least."

    "Gracias, Don Diego," the girl said gratefully.  "I was so afraid you would not understand."

     They strolled into the hacienda arm in arm where their paternal parents were still going over all the details of the wedding that would never be.  After about another hour of this, the Delgados finally said their goodbyes.

     Diego was assisting Catalina into their carriage when his father started to gasp for air and put his hand to his chest.  The younger de la Vega caught him before he fell to the ground.

     "Father, can you hear me?" asked Diego urgently.  Don Eduardo and Felipe helped to lower the semi-conscious man down gently.

     "Is it your heart, Alejandro?" the old don inquired.  Don Alejandro nodded his head faintly.  "I will go fetch the doctor," he volunteered.  "Get him to his bed."  He gave Diego a withering glare.  "See what happens when you disobey your father.  You should be ashamed of yourself."

     Don Eduardo agilely jumped in his carriage and drove off toward the pueblo.  Diego and Felipe carried the elder de la Vega into his bedroom.  He had seemed to calm down and was now breathing evenly.  Even so, his heart was pounded rapidly as Diego checked his pulse.

     Felipe motioned for Diego to move away from the bed.  They stood near the doorway as he used hand gestures to convey his message.  He could not risk one of the servants overhearing him speak.

     "You saw Don Eduardo slip something into Father's wine while I was outside with Catalina?"  Diego did not want to believe it but he knew Felipe would not lie about such a thing.  "Could you tell what it was?"

     Felipe indicated he thought it was a powder, then shrugged.

     "Why would Don Eduardo try to poison my father?" asked Diego.  "Unless. . ." He did not finish that thought.  He did some quick thinking before he added, "Felipe, go saddle Toronado.  As soon as Doctor Hernandez has seen Father, Zorro is going to pay a little visit to Don Eduardo."

     Felipe's eyes grew wide as he nodded.  He headed for the library as Diego went to wait by his father's bedside.
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"A PERFECT MATCH"-CHAPTER FIVE