The next morning, Diego and some other men from the pueblo were going through the burnt-out shell that was once the tavern. Diego had kicked at several things with his foot but so far he hadn't found anything that was salvageable.
That changed when he nudged a black rectangle with his foot and it made a metallic clang. Diego crouched down to investigate his find. It appeared to be a metal box scorched black. He picked it up and shook it, causing it to make a rattling sound. Victoria wandered over to where Diego was standing.
"Don Diego, did you find something?" asked Victoria.
"Yes, this box," Diego replied before holding it out for her to take. "Here."
Victoria opened the box and sighed with both relief and disappointment.
"What is it?" queried Diego.
"The cashbox," she answered. "At least I'm not completely penniless now."
"You wouldn't have been anyway," declared Diego. "My father has offered to loan you. . ."
"I know," Victoria interrupted. "But he has done so much for me already, I don't know if I can accept his help."
Diego shook his head at her stubbornness. Although her independence was one of the reasons he was attracted to her, sometimes she took it too far.
"I'm afraid Father is not going to take no for an answer," he said with a chuckle. "I think you won't have much say in the matter, Victoria."
"We'll see," she replied. Victoria then made her way to the half of the tavern that hadn't been totally destroyed by the fire. The kitchen was mostly intact, though its contents would all have to be replaced. Her quarters also had been spared from most of the damage, she discovered as she opened the scorched door.
Ashes covered everything, along with plaster chunks that had fallen from the ceiling. Directly above her bed, a wooden beam had splintered into two pieces on top of her grandmother's quilt. The heat of the flames had shattered her vanity mirror as it had several other glass objects, including her lamp.
"Oh, no," Victoria said in dismay. "That lamp was given to my grandparents as a wedding present."
"What a shame," stated Diego. "It was such a beautiful lamp."
"How would you know that?" asked Victoria curiously.
Diego closed his eyes as he realized his mistake. Of course, he, Don Diego, had never been in Victoria's quarters before. But Zorro had visited her room on a couple of occasions. Innocent visits where he had left notes and red roses on her pillow when she wasn't there. That was when he had noticed her bedside lamp.
"I can tell it must have been very lovely before the fire," he said, hoping to cover his slip. He sighed inwardly as she seemed to accept his excuse.
Victoria began to sift through the debris covering the vanity. She lifted up a wooden box, wiping the soot and dust from it. Diego could see that it was a very beautifully carved painted chest. And he also noted that Victoria was very happy to find it.
"What is that?" he asked casually. "Is it important?"
"Yes, very important," replied Victoria. She set the box back down on the vanity and opened it carefully. She sighed as she brought out a silver filigreed engraved cross on a chain.
"Very pretty," Diego commented.
"It belong to my grandmother, then my mother," said Victoria. "I would have hated to have lost it." She then lifted out a leather bound book and inspected it for damage.
"Oh, it is all right, gracias a Dios," she breathed in relief.
"What is it?"
"My family's Bible." Victoria was thumbing through the pages when a red rose that had been pressed between the pages fell to the ground. Diego stooped down to retrieve it and handed it back to Victoria.
Her face was pink with embarrassment. "It's from Zorro," she declared.
"Indeed," said Diego. "You must love him very much."
"I do." Victoria hastily stuffed the rose between two pages of the Bible and snapped it shut. She averted her face from Diego's and busily looked through the other contents of the chest.
Diego couldn't keep himself from probing a little into her psyche. "But Señorita, you don't even know his true identity," he stated "You've never seen his face. How do you know such a man is worthy of your love?"
"I know, Diego," Victoria answered, turning to meet his eyes.. "It's hard to explain. But I just know." She put the Bible back into the box and closed its lid. Victoria then surveyed the room once more. "Can you help me with this?" she inquired as she pointed to the shards of wood on her bed.
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to try to salvage the quilt," she said with a determined voice. "My grandmother made it when she and my grandfather first married." She smiled up at Diego as they both removed pieces of broken beam. "Thank you, Diego."
"There's no need. . ." he began to say but she interrupted him.
"Yes, there is." She shook her head. "Not many men would be so helpful to a woman they know belongs to someone else unless they had an ulterior motive. I know that you don't, that you are just being a good friend."
Diego was glad that she was pulling the quilt from the mattress and couldn't see the dismay plainly visible on his face. He knew that her remarks were made in innocence. But still, they wounded him deeply. She obviously no longer even considered him as a suitor. And what made it worse was that his rival for her affections was his own alter ego, Zorro.
He helped her carry the cashbox and the wooden chest to the de la Vega wagon which his father had driven to town earlier that morning. Don Alejandro had arrived at the pueblo as the fire had nearly been put out. He had left the wagon for Diego to transport Victoria to the hacienda and had ridden Diego's horse back home.
Diego was helping Victoria with an armload of her clothing she was also going to try to save when the Alcalde walked up to them. His expression was impassive. As if he was trying to hide something, thought Diego.
"I'm so sorry about your tavern, Señorita," said Ramón with about as much sincerity he could muster. "If there is anything I can do."
"Gracias, Alcalde," replied Victoria graciously. "I'll keep that in mind."
"Do you have a place to stay?" he queried. "You could. . ."
"The señorita has already accepted my father's offer to stay at the hacienda," Diego cut in.
"Yes, I have," said Victoria. "Thank you for your concern though, Alcalde."
"Well, if you need anything else, Señorita, just let me know," offered Ramón. He turned on his heel and walked back to the garrison.
Victoria and Diego both watched as the commandante entered his office. "He is in a generous mood," stated Victoria. "I wonder what he's up to."
"That's a very good question," agreed Diego thoughtfully. He was about to assist Victoria into the wagon when Sergeant Mendoza came up to them.
"Hola, Señorita, Don Diego," he greeted them soberly. His usual smile was not in evidence as he took in the ruins of the tavern. "I'm so sorry, Señorita, for your loss." He made it sound like she had lost a family member instead of an adobe building.
"Gracias, Sergeant," she said. "Don't worry, I plan to rebuild."
"That is wonderful news," exclaimed Mendoza, a broad grin gracing his round face. "Just wonderful."
Diego hated to spoil the soldier's exuberant mood but an unsettling question had yet to be answered. "Sergeant, have they found any sign of the missing guest?"
"Missing guest?" Mendoza's beaming face changed to a bewildered expression.
Victoria threw Diego a worried glance. "Si, Sergeant. A Señor Sanchez was staying at the tavern last night."
Mendoza pondered her words. "Sanchez? But he is not missing, Señorita."
"He's not?" Diego asked.
"Oh, no, " replied Mendoza easily. "He was with the Alcalde last night. I saw them talking in his office. Señor Sanchez left town last night before the fire."
"He left last night?" Now Victoria was the one confused. "He never said anything to me. I didn't know he had gone."
Mendoza grinned once again. "Don't worry, Señorita. He is safe," he declared. "Don't forget to invite me to the tavern's grand re-opening."
"I won't, Sergeant," she said with a smile that did not quite reach her eyes. Mendoza marched off in the direction of the cuartel.
Victoria looked up at Diego, a suspicious look on her beautiful face. "Diego, you don't think that the Alcalde had anything to do with the fire, do you?" she inquired worriedly.
"Oh, I think not, Victoria.," responded Diego automatically. He was wondering the same thing himself. But he didn't want Victoria to try and confront Ramón on her own. Reassuringly he added, "The Alcalde wanted to buy you out, not burn you down."
Diego offered his hand to help Victoria into the wagon's high seat. "Things will be clearer after you get some rest. I expect you are exhausted."
"Si," she nodded. "Gracias, Don Diego." She climbed into the seat.
He hesitated for a moment, his eyes narrowing
suspiciously as he glanced over at the Alcalde's office. If Ramón
did have anything to do with the fire, there would need to be proof before
the commandante could be accused of arson. Proof, Diego suspected,
that was going to be very hard to find, knowing the Alcalde.
Z Z Z
Diego was working on an experiment in the cave when Felipe came walking though the tunnel Diego glanced up at him, a test tube in each hand.
"Is Victoria awake yet?" he asked.
Felipe shook his head and gestured that she was still asleep. Then he pulled out something from the sash tied around his waist.
"What's that, Felipe?" inquired Diego, placing the glass cylinders in a holder.
The young man held out what looked like a charred piece of cloth and indicated that the older man should sniff it. Diego did just that.
"That smells like lamp oil," he said, wrinkling his nose. He stared at Felipe. "Where did you get this?"
Felipe's hands were a flurry of signals. "At the tavern?" Diego interpreted. "When you and my father were looking around there this morning?
The youth nodded.
"Maybe a lamp fell over in one of the guest rooms and started the fire," Diego speculated. He inspected the scrap of fabric closely. "This doesn't appear to be a piece of curtain or bedspread though."
Felipe gave him a questioning look.
"I don't know, Felipe," responded Diego. "It bothers me that the Alcalde and this Señor Sanchez were seen together last night. If only I could remember where I've seen the man before."
Signing with his hands, Felipe made a suggestion.
"Search the Alcalde's office?" Diego translated. "Excellent idea, Felipe." He smiled and patted the young man on the arm. "It will have to wait until to. . ."
"Diego?" A feminine voice floated through the walls of the cave.
"Victoria is awake now, it seems," declared
Diego. He and Felipe rushed over to the viewing hole before making
their way through the tunnel that led to the fireplace.
Z Z Z
Much later that evening, Zorro raced across the countryside toward the pueblo.
He thought he would never be able to leave the hacienda. Don Alejandro was determined to keep up Victoria's morale, so he insisted they keep her entertained and her mind off her troubles. After supper, they played charades and several games of cards before the old don suggested that Diego teach Victoria to play chess.
"It's not much like checkers, is it?" she commented when Diego had easily checkmated her king after their third game.
"No,' he replied. Looking into her lovely brown eyes, he could see that she was close to drifting off to sleep. He let out a big yawn, which he discreetly covered with his hand.
"It's been a long day," said Diego. "I think I'll turn in." Then he glanced over at Victoria. "Unless you wanted to play again?"
Victoria gave him an appreciative smile. "Oh, no, Diego," she said. "You're right, it has been a long day. Thank you again for letting me stay here." She got to her feet, intending to go to the guest room designated for her use.
"De nada," said Don Alejandro. Diego was relieved that his father didn't argue with her to stay up longer. Perhaps the elder de la Vega was tired as well.
Once Zorro had reached Los Angeles, he headed straight to the cuartel. In a few seconds, he was treading carefully across the red tile roof to the office's skylight. No light was shining through it. A good sign, the masked man thought. Only a few moments later, he had landed soundlessly on the wooden floor.
Zorro went immediately to the Alcalde's desk and rummaged through its contents. He knew all the secret hiding places but a search of them revealed nothing of interest.
Beginning to think he was wasting his time, the man in black spun away from the desk to the small bookshelf which concealed a niche behind it, where the Alcalde liked to hide his ill-gotten loot. Zorro stopped though when something on the bulletin board next to the bookshelf caught his eye.
He tore the wanted poster from the board and stared at it. ‘Wanted Dead or Alive,' it read, ‘Jorge Garcia, wanted for setting arson fires in San Diego and Ensenada.' At the bottom was a reward for five hundred pesos. But it was the sketch of Garcia that interested Zorro the most.
Jorge Garcia had the same face as the missing
guest, Señor Sanchez.
Z Z Z
"UNFRIENDLY PERSUASION" - CHAPTER FIVE