After Rafael and the others had eaten their fill, they wandered back out into the plaza. Their breakfast had been a quiet affair as they shoveled down the plates of food.
Mario had managed to keep his hands to himself, but kept winking and making lewd comments to Victoria and Pilar. The feisty innkeeper deliberately added too much pepper to his huevos rancheros, causing him to have a sneezing fit.
Diego sat at the next table, slowly eating the eggs and sausages that Victoria had brought him. She smiled at him gratefully. Unlike his father, she had come to the realization that Diego was only pretending to be a coward, that in reality he would do anything he could to protect the people he cared for. Victoria did wonder about the need for the pretense though. It didn't make much sense to her.
The gang had scattered and were roaming around the mercado. People stared at them but for the most part tried to ignore them.
Not noticing the four young men proved harder than they anticipated. The gang openly stole from the vendors, taking anything that caught their eye. Mario made indecent advances toward several of the women and older girls. Angry husbands and fathers kept chasing him away.
An irate group of citizens led, of course, by Don Alejandro, marched over to the cuartel. The elder de la Vega pounded his fist on the door of the Alcalde's office. The door squeaked noisily as it was opened a tiny crack, just wide enough so that Mendoza could see who had been beating on it.
"Sergeant Mendoza," the old don began heatedly, "we need your help. The pueblo is being ransacked by a gang of young hooligans."
"I am sorry, Don Alejandro," replied the stout man regretfully. "The Alcalde left strict instructions that Perez and I were have the garrison in tip-top shape when he returned. We are. . ."
"What?" Don Alejandro interjected incredulously. "Sergeant, these men are threatening to kill innocent citizens and all you can do is worry about is the cleanliness of the cuartel? We need something done right now!"
The people with him all nodded and added their own comments. Mendoza started to get even more flustered. He was torn between helping eliminate the men terrorizing the town or escaping the Alcalde's wrath by obeying his orders. Whatever he decided, he probably was going to be in a lot of trouble.
Meanwhile on the other side of the plaza, Felipe was signing to Ana Maria and her mother, offering to get them a cool drink.
"I don't know, Felipe," Leonora Ortega said after her daughter interpreted his gestures for her. "I think we should pack up for the day. People are just too frightened to buy anything."
The young man nodded and the three of them started to put away the handkerchiefs, shawls, and other items the two women had been offering for sale. Carrying the heaviest box, Felipe made his way toward their shop. Ana Maria and Señora Ortega were finishing placing the last of the delicate lace items in a box when Rafael, Alberto and Mario strolled up to their stall.
"Señora," Rafael spoke to Leonora who had her back turned to him. They could not see Ana Maria as she was crouched down behind her mother, closing up a box of merchandise.
"We are closed, Señor," stated the seamstress after she saw who had addressed her.
"I say when you are opened or closed," the man growled. "You are the pueblo's seamstress, are you not?" She nodded reluctantly. "I need you to make my friends and me new suits. All in black. And in three days," he added as she started to protest.
"Señor, I cannot possibly. . ." Leonora trailed off as she realized he was no longer listening to her but was staring at something behind her.
Ana Maria had chosen that moment to stand up, capturing the leering attention of the three young men.
"Well, well, what do we have here?" asked Rafael insolently. He reached out, grabbing Ana Maria's arm and pulled her out from behind her mother.
"Take your filthy hands off my daughter," demanded Señora Ortega. She tried to wedge herself between the gang leader and Ana Maria, but Rafael roughly pushed her aside.
"I think we'll keep this one," he drawled evilly. He yanked on the beautiful young woman's arm again.
Felipe, returning from the Ortegas' shop, saw Rafael with his hands all over his sweetheart. He dashed over to the booth and shoved himself in between the man and Ana Maria. Rafael released the hold on her arm and measured up the young man before him.
"What do we have here?" he questioned. "Looks like a young pup who needs to be taught a lesson."
Felipe ducked as the other man threw the first punch. He then hit Rafael squarely on the chin with a hard right jab, which sent the gang leader reeling backwards. He recovered and took another swing a Felipe, who nearly sidestepped the blow. It caught him on the ear however.
He winced a little at the pain it caused, then hurled himself at Rafael, knocking both of them to the ground where they started brawling in earnest.
"Father, look." Diego had joined the group led by the elder de la Vega, who was still railing at the poor sergeant.
Don Alejandro turned in time to see Felipe land a hard punch to Rafael's stomach. He spun back around to face the nervous soldier.
"Mendoza, do something!" he shouted. "Now, before Felipe gets hurt."
The sergeant hesitated only a second before making his decision. "Perez, come with me," he ordered over his shoulder. The two lancers emerged from the office, Perez carrying a musket.
Rafael and Felipe were wrestling around on the dirty ground, trying to put each other into head locks. The other members of the gang egged on their leader, but did not try to join in the fight. Señora Ortega kept shouting for them to stop as Ana Maria hid her face behind her hands, not able to watch.
"You will both be under arrest," stated Mendoza as gruffly as he could muster, "if you do not stop this right now."
Both combatants paused and stared up at the sergeant. Rafael hastily got to his feet and pointed an accusing finger at Felipe. "He started it. Arrest him."
"Liar," Leonora spat out angrily. "You were assaulting my daughter. Felipe was just defending Ana Maria, Sergeant."
Felipe nodded in agreement with her statement. Mendoza grabbed Rafael's arm.
"I am in charge here," declared the young man peevishly, trying to get out of the soldier's grasp. "I say you arrest this. . ."
The sergeant raised his free hand and Perez brought up his loaded musket, aiming at Rafael's chest. The gang leader visibly paled at the sight of the weapon being pointed at him. He then laughed, albeit a bit nervously and regained some of his swagger.
"If he shoots me," he began, "how can he reload in time to shoot my amigos? Because you better kill all of them or else they will kill you."
Mendoza gulped nervously at the threat. Relief was evident on his face a moment later when several citizens produced their own weapons; swords, muskets and pistols; and aimed them at the rest of the gang. Rafael realized he had no choice but to back down. Bringing up his hands in surrender, he flashed a brilliant yet insincere smile.
"You win," he conceded. He motioned to his friends. "We will leave." His companions stared at their leader as if he had lost his mind.
The troublemakers soon were riding out of the pueblo amid catcalls and taunting from the townspeople. The gang did not travel far from the pueblo, once again stopping at the place they had camped the previous night.
"Rafael, why did you back down?" asked Alberto as he slid down out of his saddle. "Why did we come back here?"
"Si, why don't we just move onto the next town?" Mario chimed in. "Although I must say, the señoritas here are the most beautiful I. . ."
"Silencio, all of you," snapped Rafael crossly. "You think I caved in too easily, don't you? Let me tell you this. When I am through, the pueblo de Los Angeles will wish it had never been built."
"Why can't we just go back to Socorro?" asked Mario. "I have. . ."
"We can't go back there, you fool," replied Alberto. "Remember what we did to the Alcalde's daughters the night before we left? He'd hang us for sure."
"The bastard deserved it," growled Rafael, "after the way he treated my mother. He is the one who should hang." He looked off toward the east, thinking of his mother and his little half-brother. The brother whose father was the alcalde of Socorro, who had an affair with his mother then dumped her when she became pregnant. The poor widow had enough problems without having to add another child to them.
Rafael's father had died, leaving them penniless. His mother had taken a job working in the Alcalde's kitchen. She had caught his eye and she succumbed easily to his charms. He was a widower with two daughters so she had thought marriage was in the future. She had been quite wrong.
The night before Rafael and his friends had left to make the long trip to San Diego, they had kidnapped the teenaged daughters of the alcalde. They had had their ‘fun' with them, then left them on their father's doorstep the next morning.
Rafael dismounted his gelding and began
barking orders to the others, trying to forget what had happened in the
Z Z Z
The citizens of Los Angeles went on about their business after the gang had departed. They chatted animatedly amongst themselves as they did so.
Diego, Felipe and Mendoza helped the Ortega women with their merchandise and booth. The de la Vegas glanced at each other as Mendoza was very solicitously assisting Leonora Ortega.
The sergeant had been impressed how the seamstress had stood up to the young hooligans. He liked a strong woman, although not too strong. He shuddered at the unpleasant memory of Alcalde Ramón's cousin, Hermalinda. She was still locked up in a Spanish prison the last he had heard of the overbearing woman, gracias a Dios.
"Are you all right, Sergeant?" inquired Leonora as she noticed his shiver.
"Oh si, Señora," he replied with a smile. "Just thinking of something distasteful."
"Well, we cannot have that," she stated. "Why don't you join Ana Maria and me for lunch, Sergeant?" She then placed a hand on his arm. "And Sergeant, you may call me Leonora."
Mendoza blushed slightly at both the touch and the invitation. "And you can call me Jaime, Señora. I mean Leonora," he added embarrassedly. He held out his arm which she took and he led her across the plaza at the tavern.
Diego looked over at Felipe who raised his eyebrows. The young man then smiled and took Ana Maria's hand. They followed after her mother and the sergeant.
Later that evening, down in the secret cave underneath the de la Vega hacienda, Diego and Felipe were engaged in fencing practice. The clash of steel striking steel echoed off the stone walls as father and son fought fiercely.
Felipe suddenly executed a peseta Soto, sending Diego's saber sailing across the cave. It landed near Toronado's stall, causing the black stallion to whinny in protest. Felipe pretended to press his point against Diego's broad chest. His father laughed self-deprecatingly.
"I need to pay more attention or else one of these days you will surpass as a swordsman," he stated as the young man lowered his blade, a broad grin on his face. The smile disappeared though when Felipe noticed Diego's grim expression.
"Wh-What is wr-wrong?" he asked worriedly.
"That gang of troublemakers," replied Diego. "I don't like the way they gave up so easily today. Nor the fact they are pretending to be in alliance with Zorro." He walked over and retrieved his sword. Giving Toronado a pat on the neck, he continued, " And where did they get those horses? It would not surprise me if they don't have another trick or two up their sleeve. We will have to be alert the next day or two. En garde!"
He had hoped to catch Felipe unaware but
the younger man defended himself handily. They both laughed as they
recommenced their swordplay.
Z Z Z
It had grown quite dark that evening, with only a thin sliver of the moon in the night sky. Everyone in Los Angeles had retired for the evening. Everyone, that is, except for the band of young men who were creeping silently through the pueblo's narrow side streets.
One of the men, Javier, accidentally tripped over a cat that had been stalking a mouse in the alleyway. The animal hissed loudly as Javier fell flat on the ground, knocking over an empty crate.
"Quiet," whispered Rafael as Alberto and Mario helped their friend to his feet. "Why don't you just wake up the whole town?"
"Sorry," Javier apologized as he brushed himself off.
They continued on their way to the general
store, where Rafael successfully picked the flimsy lock in a matter of
Z Z Z
"A SEA OF TROUBLE"-CHAPTER FOUR