Los Angeles was abuzz.
Day-to-day conversation in the sleepy pueblo usually revolved around farming, pastures and problems with the water supply. The alcalde’s eccentric and selfish decrees, his attempts to raise the taxes or organise the traffic were also a popular subject for grumbling over a cup of wine. Zorro’s actions were equally widely discussed, being as they were a welcome distraction from the drab, sun-scorched daily grind, as well as a source of amusement, good cheer and a sense of justice and safety. When the black-clad rider disarmed another group of lancers in the middle of the square, everyone knew that the alcalde would not step outside the cuartel that evening. Sergeant Mendoza would bring him his supper, leaving the laughing peons and caballeros to sit at Victoria’s tavern and jokingly comment on the latest events.
This time, however, the latest events proved to be all too eventful.
Firstly, the dam and the new lake which was supposed to guarantee a supply of water for the area. This alone required careful consideration; however, before the inhabitants of the pueblo could reach an agreement on how best to make use of this novelty, the problem of the labourers’ wages came up. This was a source of many complaints, both among the simple peons and among the caballeros, who felt that they had been cheated and insulted by the alcalde. Whenever they were removed from the cuartel, they would walk straight to the tavern, to vent their frustrations over a glass of wine. The resolution of the matter, with two spectacular appearances from Zorro, would have been enough to provide everyone with something to discuss for weeks to come. One did not often have the chance to see Luis Ramone, alcalde of Los Angeles, parted from his money at sword’s point. As always whenever that happened, people were quick to reminisce about past occasions that had ended in a similar fashion.
But before the tales and the gossip could get started in earnest, before everyone had gone over the whys and wherefores of Ramone’s previous encounters with Zorro’s blade, they were brought to an end by the story of an audacious robbery. The victim was to be none other than Señorita Victoria Escalante, surprised by an unknown assailant in the main room of the tavern shortly before dawn. She had been saved only because of the presence of Don Diego de la Vega, who – without any regards for his personal safety – rose in her defence and received a wound that was likely to be mortal.
Rumour followed upon rumour, each more fantastical than the last. Don Diego was said to have fought valiantly, trashing the tavern in the process, before being overpowered by his attacker. No, said other people, commonly those who had spent that night at the inn. There had been no noise and no fighting. They were all awoken by a shot and Victoria’s scream, and all they heard afterwards was the sound of a horse riding away at a gallop. The stranger must have escaped very quickly. Others were wondering why Victoria had not called for help earlier on; others still, who the brazen intruder might be, and whether he would be caught.
The alcalde’s reluctance to chase him was another topic of conversation, though no one was particularly surprised by his inaction. It was widely known that the soldiers from the garrison were more likely to ride in pursuit of Zorro than to search after a common bandit. Whatever crime had been committed, it did not count for very much, unless the victim was Luis Ramone himself. Therefore, after a day had passed without any steps being taken, Don Alejandro himself went to see the alcalde. The caballero was shocked by what had befallen his son. After a long discussion, Sergeant Mendoza paid a very respectful visit to the distraught Señorita Escalante, heard her relation about the night’s events, and finally led a patrol to look for the attacker. They returned in the evening, empty-handed, dusty and tired. According to what Mendoza reported, rinsing his parched throat with some wine, they had seen no one but a few local peons on their way – and Zorro, just once and from afar. They had not chased after him, the sergeant tried to explain to a furious alcalde, because Zorro had been very far away and seemed to be in a hurry, preoccupied by something on the ground. He might not even have seen the patrol pass him by.
That chance meeting put new questions in people’s minds. Could it be that Zorro was pursuing the robber? And if he was, why hadn’t he caught him and brought him back to the pueblo yet? He was, after all, not indifferent to Señorita Victoria’s charms. Even with all his nonchalance and teasing behaviour, he had always paid special attention to her alone. The inhabitants of Los Angeles were once again gathering at the tavern, drinking the wine distributed by the two serving girls Victoria had hired, and debating what events might have taken place that night.
Señorita Escalante herself was rarely seen these days. Don Diego lay in one of the guest rooms on the first floor. The doctor had strictly forbidden moving him to the hacienda – the rocking of the cart on a bumpy road would surely reopen the young de la Vega’s wound and bring about his death.A death – the doctor predicted – that might come at any moment regardless. It was a bad sign that the injured man had not recovered consciousness after fainting on the floor of the tavern. Don Diego had lost a great amount of blood, the shock of which brought about a fever, and his weakened body had no strength left to fight it. The young caballero was too far gone even for delirium.
Victoria did not leave the sick man’s side, then, in the hope that her ministrations and care might help him at least a little. Whenever she grew too weak with fatigue and anxiety, Don Alejandro took up the vigil in her stead. The deaf-mute boy, Felipe, also watched over Don Diego ceaselessly from the corner of the room. If the señorita ever came down to the main room of the tavern, it was usually to draw some fresh water into a jug, and then her drawn, grief-stricken face and the dark circled under her eyes commanded a respectful silence. Few were brave enough to question her; only the kindly, artless Sergeant Mendoza would always ask after Don Diego’s health, loudly expressing his hopes that the doctor had been mistaken, and that the wounded man would recover after all.
It was then that a new piece of gossip joined the others circulating through Los Angeles. At first no one knew where it had originated. Some people had already pointed out that it was unusual for de la Vega to visit Victoria so late in the evening, but the rumour’s anonymous author was the first to claim that there might have been no attack at all – or rather, that if one had occurred, Victoria was certainly not the intended victim. Simply put, someone had raised the suspicion that the unfortunate shot might have been fired during a quarrel between Diego and Zorro, fighting over a lover. If that had not been the case, the gossip-mongers asked, what had Diego been doing at Victoria’s tavern shortly before dawn? There was no ill-feeling in the rumour, though. Eccentric though he was, DonDiego was generally well-liked by the pueblo’s inhabitants. Señorita Victoria was similarly popular, not only for her determination in holding on to the establishment she had inherited from her father, but also for the courage with which she always involved herself in the squabbles between the people of Los Angeles and their alcalde. If there were tender feelings between the pair, no one could begrudge them too much, not even if Zorro himself had stood between them. Instead, most were inclined to bemoan the unfortunate turn of events, although there were some who wagged their heads over the future fate of the señorita.
The rumour, like others before it, reached many ears, including those of Don Alejandro himself. Since the tragic night, he had been dividing his time between his son’s sickbed, the alcalde’s office and the areas around Los Angeles. When the regular patrols had brought no news of the intruder, the elder de la Vega saddled his horse and went out to continue the search himself. He returned in the evening, tired but oddly calm, and never again raised the matter of having the soldiers out in pursuit. That same evening he sat in his son’s room for a very long time. He watched as Victoria replaced the cold compress on the wounded man’s forehead, and then again, and again. He saw Diego open his eyes several times – feverish at first, then visibly calmer at the sight of the girl sitting at his side. There were moments when Don Alejandro seemed to want to speak, but he held his silence every time. Perhaps he was afraid that he might say something that would make his son’s last living moments even harder.
But the young de la Vega knew how to go against people’s expectations, it appeared. The doctor’s sombre predictions went unfulfilled for the first two days. On the third day the fever broke and the patient fell into a deep sleep from which he could not be awoken, not even to take in some nourishing chicken broth. Doctor Hernandez was of the opinion that this slumber was not a sign of recovery but rather of a final collapse, and that Don Diego’s life would simply flicker out, like a burnt-out candle. Victoria, however, took heart. Now, when people asked her how Diego was doing, she would answer that he was asleep, and smile a hopeful, radiant smile. Her hopes were not in vain. Don Diego woke up, at first only for a moment, but he appeared stronger with each subsequent awakening.
And because Diego was obviously determined to remain alive, Don Alejandro decided that it was time to take some necessary steps. When Victoria passed him by on the stairs, hurrying off to Diego’s room with a bowl of broth in her hands, he asked if he could have a few words with her later.
He joined her in the room shortly after, but did not begin the conversation immediately. At first he only sat down in an armchair and studied her and his son together. Diego was asleep or resting, eyes closed and face ingeniously hidden from the light of the lamp. Victoria sat at his bedside, holding his hand. Every once in a while she touched his forehead, as if to check that the fever had not returned. Don Alejandro could not delay any longer.
“Some time ago,” he began, “I heard a number of rumours about what had happened that night.” Victoria turned to him, unsure what he meant. “I know I should not be repeating them, but there is one in particular which is too persistent for me to stay silent.”
“Which one?” she asked without much interest. At the moment nothing but Diego mattered to her.
“It’s no gossip, really,” Don Alejandro sighed. “It’s more of a question. What was Diego doing in your tavern before sunrise?”
Victoria raised a hand to her mouth in fear.
“Stupid, stupid…” she whispered. “I didn’t think. Neither of us thought…”
“Shh, my girl,” Don Alejandro touched her shoulder in a soothing manner. “I’m not blaming you.”
“Don’t you worry. Once Diego is well again, he will put it all to rights.”
“Diego? This can’t be, I…”
“Victoria, hear me out.” De la Vega raised a hand to silence her. “It’s true that your mother was an Indian and your father an innkeeper, while the de la Vega family is one of the oldest in the territory, with traditions that hail back to the Moorish Wars. But among these traditions is this: we value integrity and courage more than anything else. The circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. More than that, you’re the daughter of a friend of mine. Victoria Escalante, if you should accept, I will be more than happy to welcome you as my son’s future wife. I know he could have made no better choice.”
“After I’d heard the rumours, I watched you. I had my doubts. I didn’t doubt that Diego would survive, although I worried about him greatly. I doubted your feelings about him. But I have seen you during those terrible days, and now I can tell for sure that you do love him.”
“It’s true, Don Alejandro.” Victoria raised her head proudly. “I love him, and he loves me back.”
“I can promise you won’t be disappointed in him. I know Diego can appear ineffectual, he has some strange ideas, he seems to shrink back from fights – but these are only appearances. In truth, he is upright and brave. You will see this one day, I promise you.”
“Don Alejandro, you don’t need to convince me.”
“I know, I can see that,” de la Vega smiled. “Perhaps I need some convincing myself. Before this all, I only knew you as a proud and beautiful young woman, attracted to the courage and daring of Zorro. Now I’ve noticed that you value my son as well. You know, there’s more thing I need to tell you: you remind me of his mother. You’re brave and beautiful, just like her. Everything will turn out fine, you’ll see.”
Don Alejandro gave Victoria’s shoulder another reassuring pat and walked out of the room. He had not noticed, as he was leaving, that Diego was watching him closely through narrowed eyes…
To be continued…