"A REAL HERO"

CHAPTER TWO

     "Stop it! Stop this right now!" Victoria called to them as she made her way through the crowd which had gathered to watch the two young men brawl.

     When she reached them, two soldiers had separated the fighters, each soldier having to restrain one of the youths.  Tomas tried to kick at Felipe as Victoria stepped between them.

     "Leave him alone, Tomas Quiñones," demanded Victoria.  "I think you have caused enough trouble here for one day.  I want you and your friends out of my tavern."

    "Please, Señorita," sniveled Tomas.  "He started it.  Throw him out, not us."

     "I do not care who started what," declared the innkeeper firmly.  "Get out. Now."

     Pablo and Juan were already sidling toward the tavern's exit.  The lancer holding Tomas pushed him roughly in the same direction.  Tomas twisted around and glared at Felipe.

     "I am not through with you, muchacho," he threatened as the soldier threw him out the door.

    Victoria spoke to the lancer who was still confining Felipe.  "Release him.  I will take care of him."

   The soldier relaxed his hold on the young man and returned to rejoin his comrades.  Felipe stood with downcast eyes before Victoria.

     "I do not know what caused this fight, Felipe," she said to him.  "But I cannot allow you to behave this way in my tavern."  She lifted his chin up so he could read her lips.  "Do you wish for me to tell Diego about your shameful behavior?"

    Felipe shook his head negatively.  Victoria smiled.  "I thought not.  Perhaps you should be on your way home also."

     Felipe nodded in agreement.  As he commenced to leave, he noticed the package lying on the floor that Ana Maria had dropped when Tomas had grabbed her.  He swiftly picked it up and handed it to the still upset young girl.  Felipe smiled shyly at her then headed for the door. "Gracias," she called out after him.

    "Who. . .  Who is he?" Ana Maria questioned Victoria.  She was quite shaken by the afternoon's events.

   Victoria was clearing away the glasses from the now vacated table.  "Oh, that is Felipe," she replied.  "He is the adopted son of Don Diego de la Vega."

   The other tavern patrons had gone back about their business with the earlier commotion now over.  Victoria went to take the dirty glasses to the kitchen.  But she was delayed by Ana Maria's hand on her arm.

    "Señorita Escalante," she began, "why didn't he speak to me?  He seemed, well, sort of strange."

   "Oh, no, Felipe is not strange."  Victoria was quick to defend him.  "Felipe is a deaf mute, Ana Maria.  Don Diego found him orphaned many years ago and has brought him up as his own son.  And although Felipe cannot hear or speak, he is very intelligent.  He can read and write.  Oh, and he can also read lips."

     "Oh," said Ana Maria quietly.  "Well, I had better deliver this shirt for my mother.  Adios."

     "Adios," replied Victoria.  She then continued on her way back to the kitchen.

    Ana Maria walked unmolested this time to the tavern door.  She almost bumped into Diego as he entered the open doorway.  "Excuse me, Señor," she apologized, then hurried away.

     Diego paused and gazed at the girl for a moment.  Then, with a smile of understanding on his face, he quickly scanned the room before wandering over to the bar.  Victoria had returned from the kitchen and was wiping the bar counter with a damp cloth.  Diego leaned his right elbow on the bar top, intentionally blocking the area she had yet to clean.  The beautiful innkeeper was so intent on her work, she did not notice Diego standing there until she ran into his arm.  Then did she glance up in his direction.

     "Sorry," they both said at the same time, smiling at each other.  Diego removed his arm from Victoria's path so she could continue with her cleaning.

     "You have not seen Felipe around lately, have you?" he casually inquired of her.

    "You just missed him, Diego," she acknowledged.  "He left just a few minutes ago."

     "I was hoping to catch up with him," commented Diego.

     "Oh, why?" asked Victoria.

    He explained the subterfuge the young man had pulled earlier that afternoon as she poured him a glass of orange juice.

     "I had hoped to learn the reason why he had to resort to such trickery," said Diego, shaking his head.

     "I think I may be able to help," answered Victoria with a smile.  She leaned over and spoke softly so that only Diego could hear.  "It is a señorita."

     Having Victoria so close to him sent shivers of longing throughout Diego's body.  He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, praying all the while that the woman he desired has not noticed his momentary lapse.

     Apparently she had not, much to his relief, because she had stepped back and resumed her wiping of the counter top.

     "A señorita, you say?" queried Diego.  "That is what my father thought."

    "He is right," stated Victoria.  "Her name is Ana Maria Ortega.  Felipe is in here nearly every day, moping over her."

   "Ortega?"  Diego mulled the name over in his mind.  "Surely you do not mean the new dressmaker, do you?  She is a bit old for him, don't you think?"  A disapproving tone crept into his voice.

     "No, not Señora Ortega, Diego," Victoria corrected him.  "Her daughter.  I am not sure if Felipe will have much of a chance with her.  She is quite beautiful and has more than her share of suitors."

     "I would like to think that Felipe could hold his own with any girl," Diego responded a bit haughtily.  "Handicapped or not, he is a handsome lad.  I would say he is quite a catch."

     "That is true," she agreed, smiling at Diego's display of paternal pride.  "And he is quite the gallant as well."  She told Diego what had transpired earlier between Felipe and Tomas.

     "Tomas Quiñones?" Diego asked as Victoria nodded.  He shook his head.  "His father has gambled and drank away half his estate.  And now it seems young Tomas is following in his footsteps."  He drained the remaining juice from his glass, setting the empty container down on the now sparkling clean counter.

     "I had better be heading home," he remarked.  "My father is waiting."

    "Buenos tardes, Diego," said Victoria, picking up the dirty glass.

   "Adios," he returned.  He departed the tavern then, stopping and turning back to look just outside the doorway.  A grin of mischief was on his face as he watched Victoria take a tray of refreshments to a table of customers.  Zorro was going to have to pay a covert visit to a certain señorita.   And soon, he thought as he proceeded on his way.
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    Tomas and his friends had traveled to the Quiñones hacienda after they had been unceremoniously thrown out of the tavern.  Once there, they had raided Don Jose's, Tomas's father, wine cellar.  Several hours later, the three youths were all quite drunk.  Tomas staggered over to a table that held an assortment of liquor bottles, both empty and partially full.  He filled his glass from one of the bottles then drank it down in one shot.  He filled the cup again from a different container and then lifted it high in the air.

     "A toast, amigos," he said.  His friends lifted their glasses as well. "To beautiful señoritas.  And especially one in part.. partic.. particular."  He stumbled drunkenly over the word, hiccuping several times.

     The other two youths drank from their glasses.  "Too bad that de la Vega boy got in our way today," remarked Juan.

     "Yeah, he spoiled all our fun," Pablo complained.  "He's been real cocky lately, ever since Don Diego adopted him."

    "That may be so, but he is still nothing but a half-wit peasant boy," sneered Tomas.  "That señorita would not even give him a second look if she knew what he truly is.  A deaf mute dummy, a no-good peon. . ."  He would have continued if his alcohol addled head could have thought of more insults.

   "Maybe we should tell her," suggested Juan, after he drained the last drop of wine from his glass and set it down on the table with a bang.

     "And maybe we should warn Señor High and Mighty de la Vega to stay away," said Pablo in threatening tone.

    "Si, si, maybe we should just that," agreed Tomas.  He held up his goblet again.  "Another toast, mi amigos.  To. . .to. . ."  Searching his befuddled, wine-soaked brain, he could not come up another salute.  He waved his hand in disgust.  "Just drink, amigos."

    They all lifted their finely cut crystal glasses in the air, then to their lips.  Tomas then threw his goblet at the fireplace, a wicked smile on his face.  The delicate crystal shattered into tiny pieces on the stone hearth.  Juan and Pablo followed suit, smashing their goblets as well.  Tomas started laughing as he tried to sit back down in his chair.  He tripped on a rug and fell face first onto the floor.  His friends, instead of helping him, started giggling drunkenly.

    "We will go later," decreed Tomas, lifting his throbbing head off of the floor.  It fell back down with a plop as he passed out.  That made his companions chortle even harder.
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     At approximately the same time, Ana Maria had finished delivering the mended shirt and was walking back into the tavern.  She was surprised to see her mother sitting at one of the tables.  Señora Ortega obviously had been waiting for the girl's return because she rose immediately when she saw Ana Maria.

    "It is about time you got back, hija," the woman hissed when Ana Maria was near.  "I have wasted an entire afternoon waiting for you."

    "I am sorry, Mama," said the girl contritely.  "The Moreno rancho was farther away than we thought.  I walked as fast as I could."

     "I am not interested in your lies," Leonora Ortega snarled.  She glanced over at Victoria who was working behind the bar.  "Señorita Escalante told me what happened here earlier.  Boys brawling over you, fighting for your attentions.  Ha."

    Ana Maria glanced up at her mother, her eyes blazing.  "That is not true, Mama."

     Señora Ortega brought up her hand, intending to slap her daughter.  But then remembering where they were, she lowered it.  Instead she grabbed Ana Maria by the arm and whispered in her ear.

   "Do not ever contradict me again, Ana Maria.  Now everyone in this pueblo knows what kind of girl you are.  You were probably out meeting one of those boys, maybe even both.  I still have not forgotten that disgusting display I witnessed between you and those men in San Diego."

   "But, Mama, it was not what you think," Ana Maria protested.  "They were attacking. . ."

    "Be quiet.  I said no more of your lies."  Her mother tugged at the girl's arm.  "Let's go upstairs.  I have work for you to do."

     The mother and daughter walked across the tavern over to the staircase.  Victoria came out from behind the counter and stopped them before they stepped up onto the first step.

   "I could not help overhearing what you said to your daughter, Señora," remarked Victoria.  "It was not Ana Maria's fault.  I thought I explained that to you before."

    "I know what I saw," Señora Ortega stated.  "I do not see where it is any your business, Señorita Escalante.  I will discipline my daughter as I see fit."

     She tugged at Ana Maria's arm, dragging the girl the rest of the way across the room and on up the stairs.  Victoria watched them, shaking her heard.

     That poor girl, she thought.  To have to live with a mother like that.  It was obvious that the woman was jealous of her daughter's beauty, being rather on the plain side herself.  Victoria sighed.  True the señora was raising her alone, but she did hate to see any child be mistreated. She sighed again and went back to her work.
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     Felipe had been hiding out in the secret cave under the de la Vega hacienda for most of the  afternoon.  He sat at the large mahogany desk that Diego's grandfather brought over from Spain many years earlier.  In his hand was a quill and a pad of paper.  His feet were propped up on the old desk and he was slouched down in the equally antique chair.  He was putting the finishing touches on a sketch he had drawn of Ana Maria.  When he felt the portrait was complete, he set the quill down and gazed down at it, smiling wistfully.  He sighed and leaned back in the chair.

   He glanced about the cave, lost in thought.  His eyes focused on the clothes rack which held the clothing of Zorro's dark disguise.  A slightly mischievous grin slid across his face as he closed his eyes and began to daydream.

     It started at the tavern which was empty except for Tomas and his two obnoxious friends.  They had formed a circle around Ana Maria, who was attempting to get away from them.  Tomas made a grab toward her.

     "Come on, my beautiful señorita," he said.  "Just one little kiss."

   "No, never," cried Ana Maria.  "Por favor, leave me alone."

     She tried to push him away, but he grabbed her and pulled her to him.  She struggled valiantly in her efforts to be free from him.  He bent down so he could kiss her lips but she twisted  her head at the last second.  Tomas kissed nothing but air.

    "Help!" she shouted.  "Oh, please, someone help me!"

   Victoria rushed into the room from the kitchen and immediately went to Ana Maria's aid.

    "Stop it," she said as she tried to push them apart.  "Leave her be, you bully."

     She shoved at Juan and Pablo but they easily pushed her out of their way.  Victoria stumbled and fell against a table.  She caught herself just before she landed on the floor.  Using the table to lean on, she rubbed her bruised hip.

    "Oh, if only Zorro was here," she whimpered helplessly.

     Tomas snickered contemptuously at her plea.  "Zorro?" he sneered.  "I am not afraid of that outlaw."  He turned his unwanted attentions back to the resisting Ana Maria.

    "Señorita, just one kiss, por favor.  Then I swear I will leave you alone."

    "No," replied Ana Maria.  She raise her right hand, intending to slap him.  But Tomas snatched it just before it reached its target.  He chuckled evilly as he jerked her closer and leaned down to place his lips on hers.

    Tomas's mouth stopped a mere fraction of an inch from Ana Maria's though when he heard his companions and Victoria gasp loudly in surprise.  Relaxing his grip a little, he swivelled his head to see what it was they were all staring at so intently.
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"A REAL HERO"-CHAPTER THREE