About a week later, Diego and Felipe drove the de la Vega wagon into the pueblo. Felipe was signing to Diego as they passed through the town's gateway.
"Yes, I know, Felipe," Diego said when the youth's hands had stilled. "It's getting harder to pretend I don't understand the management of the estate. I know it's wrong to deceive my father, but what can I do?"
Felipe shrugged his shoulders as he did not have an answer either. They arrived at the market area and parked the wagon. Both men hopped down from the conveyance and Felipe grabbed a basket from the back. He carried it as he and Diego went around the market. Victoria spotted them and strolled over to greet them.
"Buenos dias, Don Diego, Felipe," she said, bestowing on them a beautiful smile.
"Buenos dias, Señorita," said Diego. Felipe just smiled shyly at her, then stared down at his feet, a red blush on his cheeks.
"Does your father have you doing the marketing now?" inquired Victoria, an amused tone in her voice.
"No," replied Diego with a chuckle. "Maria was busy today, so we volunteered to come in her place." He smothered a yawn as Felipe tried not to laugh. "It's been so frightfully dull at the hacienda lately."
Victoria nodded in agreement. "It's been quiet here in the pueblo too," she said.
"You mean the Alcalde hasn't raised any new taxes or arrested anyone lately?" queried Diego, knowing full well that Ramón had spent the past week holed up in the cuartel, afraid to step so much as a toe out the door.
"No, nothing since he tried to blackmail me last week," stated the lovely innkeeper. "I think he's scared Zorro will make good on his threat to kill him."
"I think you're right," said Diego. "Zorro usually doesn't make idle promises."
"No, no he doesn't," acquiesced Victoria, frowning slightly. No doubt she was recalling the masked man's vow to refrain from saying he loved her until he could unmask forever, thought Diego.
She sighed then plastered a brightly false smile on her beautiful face. Diego was trying to think of something that would bring her a genuine smile when he noticed a well-dressed stranger riding into town. The man came to a halt in front of the tavern and dismounted his horse. He then removed the saddlebags.
Diego pointed him out. "Looks as though you have a guest, Victoria."
"Oh, dear," she said, becoming a little flustered. "I need to check to see if the rooms are ready. If you will excuse me?"
"Yes, of course," replied Diego.
Victoria walked quickly across the plaza to the tavern. Felipe stepped up to stand beside Diego, who was eyeing the new arrival suspiciously
"I've seen that man somewhere before, Felipe," said Diego, rubbing his hand on his chin. "If I could only remember where. . ."
Felipe looked up at his mentor with questioning eyes.
"Let's just say I don't have a good feeling about him," stated Diego. He lightened the mood by patting the young man on the shoulder. "Come on, Felipe. We'd better finish our shopping."
Felipe nodded and walked on ahead to the next farmer's stall. Diego glanced over his shoulder, however, at the tavern.
If only he could remember where he had seen
that man's face before. . .
Z Z Z
It was quiet at the de la Vega hacienda later that evening a little after midnight. Everyone was asleep except for Diego. He had set up his telescope in the library, planning to spend most of the night studying the stars.
He peered through the lens then wrote his observation on a piece of paper. Diego lowered the scope so he could view a group of stars near the horizon. Once again looking through the eyepiece, he noticed a bright flickering of light.
That's not right, he surmised. The sun had gone down hours ago plus this strange light was coming from the south, not the west. Madre de Dios, he thought, there must be a fire in the pueblo.
Diego got to his feet just as a loud knock sounded on the front door. He hurried over to answer it. A man from the pueblo stood on the doorstep.
"Don Diego, come quickly," he urged. "The tavern is on fire."
"The tavern?" echoed Diego in strangled voice. The man turned to leave but Diego grabbed his arm.
"Victoria, Señorita Escalante, is she all right?"
"I don't know," replied the man. "Please, Señor, I must go warn. . ."
Diego let go of his arm. "Yes, of course."
The man walked back out through the hacienda gate, where he had left his horse. Diego was about to go saddle his own mount when his father and several servants wandered into the foyer.
"What's all this racket?" Don Alejandro inquired. "What's going on, Diego?"
"The tavern is on fire, Father," replied Diego.
"The tavern?" Diego could hear the disbelief in the elder de la Vega's voice that had earlier been in his. "Victoria, is she all right?"
"I don't know," stated Diego. "Since I'm still dressed, I'm going to find out."
Don Alejandro looked down at his own attire which consisted of a hastily thrown-on robe over his nightshirt, and bare feet.
"Si, Son, go on," he conceded. "Be careful. I'll be there as soon as I can."
Diego nodded and started to leave. But he paused as a thought crossed his mind. "Father, will you wake Felipe?" he asked. "He won't have heard all the commotion."
"Don't worry, Diego," said his father. "I'll make sure he knows."
"Gracias," Diego said, then turned and ran out to the stables.
The fire at the tavern was still burning out of control when Diego arrived at the pueblo. People had formed a bucket brigade from the plaza fountain, but their efforts had not slowed down the fire which had almost destroyed the left side of the tavern. Diego dismounted his horse, searching the crowd. He walked toward the fountain where several women were filling buckets with the fountain's water..
"Have any of you seen Señorita Escalante?" he asked anxiously.
The women all shook their heads. Diego picked up a bucket and joined the line of people who were trying to dowse the flames. He kept glancing around worriedly as he passed on pail after pail of water.. He finally spotted Victoria, who was sitting by herself on the church steps, her face in her hands. Diego sighed with relief. He handed off the bucket he held before rushing over to her.
"Victoria, are you all right?" he inquired. "What happened?"
Victoria uncovered her face and looked up at him. "I'm fine, Diego," she replied, then belied her answer by coughing. Once she had recovered she added, "I don't know happened. One minute, I was going to bed, the next. . ." She shrugged her shoulders then coughed again.
"You should see the doctor," suggested Diego worriedly.
"I just inhaled a little smoke, that's all," said Victoria dismissively. "I'll be all right."
Diego sat down next to her. They were both silent as they watched her tavern being consumed by the fire. Tears were threatening to fall from Victoria's eyes, Diego noticed when he glanced over at her lovely face. He could only imagine what she was going through at the moment.
"Did all your guests get out unharmed?" he queried as the thought crossed his mind.
Victoria shook her head. "I don't know," she said. "There was just Señor Sanchez and I haven't seen him. I hope he got out all right." She coughed once more
"Sanchez? Who was he?" asked Diego.
"He's the man who checked in earlier today," Victoria replied. "Said he had some business to take care of here in Los Angeles."
"Did you notice anything odd about him?" Diego queried. The notion that he had seen the man somewhere before was still niggling his brain.
"No, he just paid for his room in advance," she replied, "and ate his lunch and dinner. I think he did go out for awhile but I have no idea where." She eyed her companion curiously. "Why are you so interested in him?"
"No reason really," said Diego with a shrug.
They both turned back to stare at the burning building. A feeling of hopelessness came over Victoria then.
"Diego, what am I going to do?" she asked. "My home, my business, it's all gone."
The threatened tears began to spill from her lovely brown eyes. Victoria covered her face with her hands as she sobbed.
Diego put his arms around her to comfort her. Victoria buried her face into his shirt, continuing to cry. A jolt of desire coursed through Diego's body. She really had no idea how much her nearness affected him. But just as frustrating was the knowledge that he would not take advantage of her innocence.
Sighing, Diego returned his attention to the fire. It was nearly out now, thanks to the efforts of the bucket brigade. Out of the corner of his eye, Diego saw the silhouette of a man over by the cuartel. A sudden flare up of flames revealed that it was the Alcalde who stood there watching the fire.
Diego's eyes narrowed angrily as he noted the expression on Ramón's face. The commandante was smiling one of his little half-smiles. It disappeared when he turned to see Diego glaring at him from across the plaza.
Just why was the Alcalde so pleased that the tavern was being destroyed, wondered Diego. The man was obviously up to no good.
With a determined look on his face, Diego held
the still sobbing Victoria a little closer. He would get to the bottom
of this, he vowed solemnly.
Z Z Z
"UNFRIENDLY PERSUASION" - CHAPTER FOUR