Four months later found Diego sitting in the tavern’s main hall drinking lemonade. In the initial months, the young Don had shared the duties at the tavern with Victoria, as they previously planned – Victoria and Alice had been in charge of the kitchen, and Diego had served the guests. He had had no problems with the inhabitants because, in the end, he was the son of a caballero. And in terms of the few hot-headed visitors, he had managed those with one blow of the fist.
The first month had been the worst and Diego had spent more time in the tavern than in the hacienda. He had also slept several times in the guest room but had never compromised Victoria’s reputation. Because of this, he had felt remorse that he had neglected his pupil. Felipe was only a child, and after the traumatic events, he needed stability, attention and care. Of course, after a few weeks, Felipe has surprised Diego once more with his maturity and understanding regarding Diego’s absence. The caballero smiled at the memory.
“Felipe, I’m incredibly sorry that I have devoted only two evenings to you this week. But Victoria needs me very much now and …” Diego explained with regret.
The boy interrupted him with a quick wave of his hands. He pointed at himself then at Diego and waved his hands again.
“Are you not upset?” asked the surprised caballero.
Felipe shook his head. He pointed at himself, pretended to be riding, showed Diego the “tavern” sign.
“I know you want to help and you like Victoria, of course, you can come with me tomorrow.” Diego saw Felipe objecting once more and frowned contritely. He usually didn’t have the slightest problems communicating with the boy, but he was tired lately and reading the signs was difficult today.
The pupil began to grow a little impatient because he wanted very much to convey his idea. He took a deep breath and started again.
He pointed at himself and reached for the book on the table next to him. He put it under his armpit, pretended to be riding, pointed at Diego and repeated the sign “tavern”. He raised his hand to hold his friend’s comment.
He pointed at himself, sat down in the chair, opened the book and turned the pages. He looked around, showed the “talk” sign, shrugged, pointed at his ears and shrugged again. Then he returned to turning the pages.
After a moment, he looked up, hoping Diego would understand him this time. The young Don laughed genuinely for the first time in a weeks.
“Felipe, when did you become so smart? If you read in the tavern, during siesta we will be able to discuss what you have learned. And maybe we will even pull Victoria into it a bit? Siesta and evening are usually the worst time for her because there is no activity to distract her.”
The boy proudly pulled out his chest, and at the memory of the cooking skills of his favourite girl, he rubbed his stomach and licked his lips.
“Apple pie?” Diego asked incredulously. The boy nodded eagerly.
Diego ruffled the chocolate-brown hair of his ward. “You are impossible, you know?”
END OF RETROSPECTION
However, after two months, something in Victoria had burst. There had still been no news from her family, and she had become increasingly aware of Diego’s daily dedication. She liked his company very much, but she had not wanted to continue like this. The young caballero had been as tired as she was, and in addition, he had devoted nearly every siesta to tutoring Felipe. It was a difficult conversation and she was preparing for it for several days.
“Diego, can I ask you for a word?” she asked and looked out from behind the curtain.
“Sure, I’m coming.”
When the young man entered the kitchen he immediately sensed the tension. Victoria crumpled the cloth in her hands and her head was down.
Diego took her chin and lifted it gently with one hand and put the second on her shoulder. “Hey, what’s going on? Please, tell me.” His voice, as always in such situations, was soothing.
The girl cleared her throat and looked deep into his eyes, and he released her chin to seize both her shoulders. “Recently, I realized that I have been abusing your goodness for too long. You have been patient, you don’t complain about anything, you are always here when I need help or someone to take me in his arms when I’m crying. You work as hard as I do, maybe even more, because you dedicate yourself to Felipe at every break. ”
Diego took a breath to answer, but she warned him. “Don’t interrupt, please. First I have to finish. Diego, I don’t know how to thank you for your help in the tavern, for your support, for your presence, for everything. But the inn is my responsibility until the return of my father and the boys, not yours. And I can’t demand that you all but live here. That’s why I decided that Alice will cook beginning tomorrow and I will serve the guests in the main room.”
There were determination and an unspoken challenge in her eyes. Diego had mixed feelings. On the one hand, he was happy, because such a statement meant that the girl finally accepted the death of her mother and wanted to go on with her life. Even after the return of the male part of the family, now she would remain the main cook. But on the other hand …
“Are you done? Victoria, helping you is a real pleasure. I consider myself to be your friend, so I am happy to support you every day.” He added hesitantly and with concern, “But I’m not convinced that serving guests is an appropriate job for you.”
Her temper was rising and bubbled near under the surface “Tell me, why not? I’m not a child any more. If you can do it, so can I.”
Diego tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Exactly why. You are no longer a child, just a beautiful adolescent, soon a young woman. How many men do you think will harass you every day and demand more than a dinner and a drink?”
The girl blushed, she did not know herself whether because of his of caress, compliment or warning. She wished that there was something more behind this friendly concern.
“I have to learn to deal with them, sooner or later. Mother sometimes served guests and no one ever hurt her.”
She calmed down and asked, “Will you help me at the beginning? Just sit in the main room and react only when a situation turns really bad, ok?”
Diego had found out earlier that he could not refuse those pleading eyes anything. “Do I have a say in the matter? You’re stubborn as a goat. If something happens to you, my father will kill me first, then yours will queue up to do it again.”
Visibly happy, Victoria threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. “Thank you, Diego!”
He wished that there was something more behind this friendly gratitude.
END OF RETROSPECTION
“What does she want to do?!” Don Alejandro did not accept the idea calmly, however. Diego knew his father well enough to know that his first outbreak of anger was violent but quickly evaporated. That’s why he told him about Victoria’s decision at the hacienda.
“Father, calm down. I am not fully convinced either, but we must give her a chance. She is proud, she wants to be independent and wants to earn the recognition of her father when he returns. We cannot keep her under glass all the time.” The young man tried to show his father her motivations.
“Also, in case of trouble, I will still be there, in the main room. Father, please give her the benefit of the doubt.”
Diego’s reasoning was good, so Don Alejandro slowly calmed down, although he was still very sceptical. “I see that she has already convinced you. Eh, she is just as stubborn as all Escalantes. As much as I don’t like this idea, I understand your arguments. What’s more, I prefer to agree with you rather than with her, because she is ready to wrap me around her little finger so that I will be sure that this was my own idea! ” he added with a laugh.
Diego looked at him with tenderness. “Is she your soft spot? Father, I noticed a long time ago that you have transferred your feelings from my deceased sister to Victoria. There is nothing wrong or embarrassing. And I am absolutely not jealous.”
The older caballero was somewhat surprised that his approach was so clearly visible to his son, but also ashamed. “I wasn’t the support you needed at the time. I couldn’t deal with the loss of your mother and sister on the same day. Treating Victoria as a daughter was my way of mourning. But it’s you who is my son and heir, and always remember that. ”
Father and son embraced each other hard in a rare moment of affection.
END OF RETROSPECTION
So four months after Isabella’s funeral and Alfonso’s departure, Diego was sitting in the main hall sipping his lemonade and silently admiring his friend while she worked.
The metamorphosis was extraordinary. Before, Victoria had been a resolute girl, but she had remained in the shadow of her beloved mother and older brothers. Now, the ugly duckling had turned into a dreamlike swan. Senorita Escalante gained confidence and responded to aggravations with a sharp retort. This was usually enough to curb male aspirations.
The first time it was not enough, it was a few days later. A passing vaquero grabbed her waist and set her on his lap but very quickly her tray met his head. Before Diego could react, the tray broke in half, so Victoria demanded compensation for it. Since then, none of the residents dared to mess with Victoria. She was equally good with passable patrons. She and Alice worked in shifts and both cooked and served guests.
It certainly helped that she refused to sell alcohol to people who already had enough in their bloodstream and banned gambling completely.
But that wasn’t all. A month ago, she took over the account books from Don Alejandro and with the help of both de la Vegas she quickly learned how to keep them. It turned out that the income was sufficient to also hire Pilar on some of the busier days.
Victoria was successfully running the tavern with a firm hand.
Life was slowly coming back to normal. Victoria was busy with the tavern, while Diego tutored Felipe or helped on the ranch. The young caballero, sometimes in the company of his pupil, visited his friend regularly.
Senorita Escalante was once again full of verve and joy of life. From time to time sadness and melancholy came over her, but Diego was always around, providing a shoulder to cry on and a caring hug.
Picture of Victoria comes from www.newworldzorro.com