Author's note:  I don't like this story as well as I do my others.  It contains bits and pieces of another story I wrote but used most of  for "Time Heals All Wounds" (Story #5).  I really liked Chapters 4 & 5 of this one though and didn't want to see them go to waste.  "Waste not, want not"!  Plus I wanted to resolve the men being drafted issue.  So this story is rather a hodge-podge of plot lines.  Sorry!



     Don Alejandro, Diego and Felipe de la Vega were eating a late lunch at the Taverna Victoria and discussing the weather.  At least Don Alejandro and Diego were.  Felipe was quickly wolfing down his meal so he could go seek out his sweetheart, Ana Maria Ortega, once he finished.

     "We need rain, Diego," stated the elder de la Vega, expounding on the subject he had been making dire predictions about for the past month.  "Our livelihood depends on it."

     "It's not us I worry about so much, Father," Diego contradicted the older man.  "We can handle one dry year.  It's the smaller farms I worry about, a drought could wipe them out."

     "True, true."  Don Alejandro had to agree with his son.  He was about to say more but was interrupted by loud shouts and screams coming from outside in the plaza.

     "What in the world. . .?" he asked rhetorically, getting to his feet, his lunch forgotten.  Diego rose from his seat, glancing at Felipe who was also on his feet.  They all ran to the tavern's front door to see what was happening, followed by a curious Victoria and most of her other customers.

     What they saw stopped them in their tracks.  Dozens of young men were streaming into the pueblo.  The shouts and shrieks were coming from family members who recognized their sons, grandsons and brothers.

     Don Alejandro spotted Paco and Manuel, two of the de la Vegas' ranch hands.  "What is going on?" the old don queried, his voice full of amazement.  "I certainly hope you all haven't deserted."

     Paco was the first to speak.  "Oh no, Patron, we were released from duty.  We have returned to work for you, if you will have us."

     "Si, si," Don Alejandro replied.  "Of course."

    "Do you know why everyone was released?" Diego inquired of the men.  It was indeed a strange turn of events.

     Paco shook his head.  "No, Don Diego," he began to explain.  "We sailed from San Diego right after Christmas to Panama.  But once we arrived at Cuidad de Panama, we were told to turn around and go back home."

     "Panama has declared itself an independent nation," added Manuel.  "We were told we were longer needed in Spain."

     Diego glanced at his father who shrugged.  The younger de la Vega had been hearing rumors of freedom movements in some of the other territories.  Now one had evidentially broken away from Spain.  How many more would follow and when, he thought.

   Diego was also relieved that the draft had been rescinded.  He had felt guilty that other men were having to go to Spain to fight while Felipe had come home on what were really false pretenses. The deception that he could not hear and speak had become second nature to both Diego and Felipe.  That had not eased the pangs of conscience Diego felt whenever he had thought of the other recruits however.

     "Where are the other vaqueros?" asked the elder de la Vega.

     "Over there," Manuel said as he pointed at the other three men who were walking through the pueblo gates.

     "Well, let's get you back to the hacienda," declared Don Alejandro.  "It is good to have you all back safe and sound.  Are you coming, Diego?"

     "I had planned to work on the next issue of ‘The Guardian' this afternoon, Father," said his son.  "It seems I have a new front page story however."

     "Bueno," his father stated.  "See you later."

     With that, Don Alejandro led the ranch hands to the wagon they had brought to town that morning.  Diego and Felipe watched as they drove away.   The mens' clothing was nothing but rags and they looked malnourished too.  Well Maria, the de la Vegas housekeeper, would soon take care of that, Diego thought with a chuckle as he imagined the woman fussing over the vaqueros.
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     There was a great influx of young men pouring through the pueblo de Los Angeles over the next several days, heading northward on their way home. The local men who had been inducted were gratefully welcomed back by their family and friends.

      The tavern had become an extremely busy  place, its rooms bursting to capacity and the dining area the same.  Victoria had to hire two more women besides Pilar and Alicia to help out with all the extra customers.

     It was in the middle of a very busy breakfast rush when Diego and Felipe walked into the tavern.  They each carried a basket of eggs.  Victoria smiled appreciatively when she saw the two of them.

     "Oh, gracias," she declared with just a hint of desperation in her voice.  "I just used my last egg and I still have half of these people to serve yet."

     "De nada," replied Diego.  He and his son took the eggs into the kitchen as the lovely innkeeper went to deliver the plates of food she held in each hand.

     Dios mio, she was beautiful, he thought.  Her face was flushed a pretty shade of pink and her smile had threatened to melt what was left of his resolve.  He wished he could reveal his true feelings for her.

     Felipe grinned broadly and nudged his father, guessing at what the other man was thinking.  When he finally captured Diego's attention, he made a quick series of hand gestures.

     "Yes, you may go see Ana Maria," sighed the older man wearily.  "But not for too long.  We've plenty of work to do at the hacienda today."

     Victoria walked back into her kitchen as Felipe departed and overheard Diego's last remark.  "I thought all of your ranch hands have returned."

     "Si, they have," acknowledged Diego.  "But they are in poor physical shape.  The army didn't take very good care of them, it seems."

     "I know," she agreed, her dark eyes glittering with anger.  "I am surprised that some of these man have made it this far.  They were just dumped off the boats in San Diego and told to go home.  They weren't even  given money or provisions for their journey.  I am letting most of them stay here for free.  There have been a few who can pay but. . ."

     She shrugged her slim shoulders.  Diego smiled at her generosity.  She was indeed a kind woman, as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside.  No wonder he loved her.

     He sensed she was anxious to get back to her work as no doubt there were many customers waiting for their meals.  "Adios, Victoria," he said.  "I'll be back later with that side of beef Father promised you."

     "Gracias, Diego.  Hasta luego."  Victoria smiled as he ducked through the curtained doorway.  She thought about how generous he and his father were, helping her out whenever and with whatever they could.  She tried to pay for all the meat and produce they had been providing her with the last few days but they would not accept her money.  What kind of friends would they be if they took money from someone in need, Don Alejandro had stated.

     Sighing, she picked up several of the eggs Diego and Felipe had brought her and expertly broke them over a hot skillet.
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      Later that afternoon Diego delivered the beef to Victoria he had promised he would earlier that day.  The tavern remained busy, not even slowing down for the usual after lunch siesta.

     As he was heading back home with the now empty wagon, he noticed a group of young men just outside the pueblo entrance.  This in itself would have not been of any note, but they were all riding extremely fine looking horses in Diego's quick and expert estimation.

     He nodded politely at the men on horseback before turning north toward the de la Vega hacienda.  One of the group returned the gesture and received a dirty look from another of his companions.  The others did not acknowledge Diego at all.

     Diego traveled a short distance before he glanced over his shoulder to assess the mounted quartet.  They all looked to be in their twenties so they had to be returning recruits.  But where did they get such first-rate horses when all of the other draftees were making their way back home on foot?

     Something wasn't quite right about the gang of young men, Diego thought.  He flicked the reins urging the draft horse to go a little faster.

     The group of men still waited just outside the pueblo gate.  They were a scruffy looking lot, wearing patched and dirty clothing, with unkempt hair and faces.  All of them looked as if they had not shaved in days.

     "What do you think, Rafael?" questioned one of the men as they surveyed the dusty little pueblo.

     The man called Rafael sat taller in his saddle.  He wore a dusty black jacket that at one time had been quite splendid.  On his feet though, was an expensive pair of gleaming black leather boots.  His mount was a beautiful chestnut Andalusian gelding.

     Rafael carefully scanned the small town that lay before him.  "It is perfect, Alberto," he finally replied.  "Yes, I think the pueblo de Los Angeles will suit us very well."

     The other three men glanced at each other and smiled broadly, nodding their heads in agreement.

     "Vamonos," ordered Rafael.  He dug his sharp spurs into the gelding's sides.  The rest of his compadres followed behind him as he headed toward the tavern.
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     Across the plaza, the Alcalde was ecstatic about the return of his lancers who had been included in the forced induction.  He had never received the additional men he had requested and it was probably for the best.  The less interference he got from the governor, the better.

     De Soto gave the men a few days to recuperate from their journey back to Los Angeles before he informed the garrison they were to go on maneuvers.  He had been conversing with Corporal Sanchez, who had told him of the new tactics they had learned while in San Diego.

     The Alcalde thought this new strategy might just be the very thing he needed to finally capture that pain-in-the-backside Zorro.  All of the soldiers were going except Mendoza, whom he had to leave in charge again and Corporal Perez.  They were like old dogs, he thought irritatedly, unwilling to learn new tricks.

     "Adios, Sergeant," de Soto said as he mounted his horse.  "We will be back in two weeks."

     "Si, mi Alcalde."  Mendoza saluted as his commandante and the other lancers spurred their mounts forward.  The sergeant did not understand why the men had to train near Santa Barbara.  The Alcalde had told him it was to get away from all the distractions in Los Angeles, but Mendoza had the sneaking suspicion it was so that de Soto could continue his courtship of the daughter of Santa Barbara's alcalde.

     The soldiers rode past the group of four men as they came to a halt in front of the tavern.  Rafael and his friends dismounted as they watched the garrison soldiers ride out of town.

     "Where are they going?" he demanded of a man who was sitting on the inn's front porch.

     "On maneuvers for two weeks," answered the man disinterestedly, then returned his attention to his glass of wine.

     Rafael turned and grinned wickedly at his companions.  "Well, amigos," he drawled, "let's see what this charming pueblo has to offer."  He stepped up onto the wooden planks of the porch and through the opened tavern door.

     The tavern was still bustling with activity.  Marta, one of the new serving girls, emerged from the kitchen with a tray of soup bowls.  She was a young woman, about seventeen years old.  Victoria kept her on as an employee even though Marta was somewhat clumsy because she knew the girl's family needed the money.

     The new arrivals eyed the young Marta appreciatively, taking in her trim figure and pretty face.  One of the group, Mario by name, sauntered boldly to where the girl was carefully placing the bowls of soup on a table that was crowded with customers.

     Mario would have been a handsome enough fellow if it weren't for the very large and ugly wart that grew right between his eyes.  That impediment did not stop him from thinking he was a great Don Juan however.

    "You are the most beautiful señorita I have ever seen," he delivered the practiced line smoothly to Marta.  "Why don't you and I run away together and see the world?"

     "I am sorry, Señor," replied the girl nervously, trying not to spill the hot liquid in the soup bowl she still held.  "Por favor, I have work to do."  She set the bowl down then tried to move past him.

      Mario was nothing if not persistent.  "Now chica, do not be coy with me.  You know you want me."  He pulled her into his arms, causing her to drop the empty tray she had been holding.  It clattered loudly on the tile floor.

     Rafael and the other two young men had seated themselves at a recently vacated table and watched their friend with a combination of amusement and annoyance.  "Why don't you let her get us some food and wine first?" he suggested to Mario, who was embracing the struggling Marta.  "Then you can have your fun with her."

     The disturbance brought Victoria out from the kitchen to find out what was happening.  Seeing one of her employees being manhandled by a stranger, she quickly darted behind the bar and extracted a large wooden club she kept hidden there for exactly the situation like the one occurring before her.

     "Let go of her.  Now," demanded Victoria loudly, holding up her weapon so Mario could see that she meant business.

     The gang of men stared at the beautiful but petite woman and started to laugh.  Rafael stood up and came toward the innkeeper.  He towered over her by a good twelve inches.  Grabbing at the club in her grasp, he only came up with air as Victoria took a backward step.  She unconsciously tightened her grip on her weapon.

     "Now, now, Señorita," scolded the gang leader mockingly.  "We mean no harm.  Put that away, eh?"

     "I said to let her go," Victoria reiterated with a calmness she did not feel.  Something about this arrogant young man felt dangerous.  She repeated her demand, "Leave her alone and get out of my tavern or you will regret it, Señor."

     The four compadres laughed even harder.  Mario ignored the innkeeper's request and was trying to kiss the frightened Marta.  Rafael took another step forward.  Victoria tried to back away again but didn't get far as she bumped up against a wall.  She held the club menacingly in front of her body, renewing her tight grasp on it with both hands.

     "Get out of my tavern," she ordered angrily.  "All of you.  Right now or I will. . ."

     "You will what, Señorita?" sneered Rafael with a chuckle.  "I said to put down that stick and go fetch us some wine."

     Victoria had enough of his insolence.  She started to swing the weapon, intending to hit the young man in the stomach.

     Unfortunately Rafael saw the blow coming and wrenched the club out of Victoria's small hands.  In a flash, it flew across the room, landing noisily in a far corner.  The gang leader closed the distance between Victoria and himself, trapping her against wall.
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