Disclaimer: This story is based upon characters appearing in the Walt Disney Zorro television series. No copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made. I don't own 'em, I'm just a fan wanting to keep the spirit of a favorite show alive.
Author's Note: This story takes place during The Curse of the Santa Quintero. For that reason, if you haven't already done so, I highly recommend reading the Santa Quintero first to fully enjoy this new adventure. As always, my thanks go out to Ida Mirei. Without her nudg…er, gentle reminders, I would never have finished this for the holiday. :-)
The Trouble with Proposing
"What is that, Sergeant?" Corporal Reyes asked coming up from behind. He picked up his pace and tried to peek at the object in the other man's hands, but Garcia shifted slightly to block his view and kept walking. With a frown, Reyes approached from the other side, but was once again blocked by the plump frame.
"It is none of your business, Corporal," Garcia replied, doing his best to shield the article from the set of prying eyes while crossing the plaza. When he reached the carriage waiting in the confines of the cuartel's walls, he stopped and placed the heavy woven wicker container on the floorboard at the base of the passenger seat. Next to it sat a rolled up blanket.
"It sure does smell good," Reyes added.
"Sí, it does, doesn't it?" Garcia turned around smiling. Seeing the inquisitive look on the lancer's face, he shook his head. "Don't you have anything else to do, Corporal?"
"No," Reyes answered simply.
Garcia's eyes narrowed skeptically, "Aren't you supposed to be leading a patrol?"
"I finished," the corporal responded. He rested the butt of his rifle on the ground and balanced his weight on the weapon. "It's Private Ortega's turn to lead the patrol now."
"Well, go find something useful to do," Garcia ordered, "I don't have time for this." He circled around to the driver's side of the carriage.
"A picnic basket!" Reyes exclaimed excitedly when he finally glimpsed the mysterious object. "I bet you are going to see Señora del Lugo."
"And what if I am?" Garcia stated defensively. "I told you, it is none of your business."
"Do you have a chaperone?" Reyes inquired.
"Now why would I need a chaperone?" Garcia remarked in an irritated tone.
"Don Alejandro is very proper. He will not allow you and the señora to ride off together alone," Reyes explained. His normally droopy features suddenly brightened, "I can come with. There is enough food for all of us, even with you eating."
"You?" Garcia said disbelievingly, his jaw dropping open. A corporal chaperoning a sergeant? It was ridiculous. More than that, it was insulting. His face twisted into a scowl. "Attention!" he roared.
Corporal Reyes jumped at the command; he drew his boots together, squared his posture and clasped his arms to his sides. In the process, he dropped the rifle in his hand and it fell to the dirt ground with a dull thud. From the corner of his eye, Reyes looked at the fallen weapon to the sergeant and back to the rifle. Biting his lower lip in momentary uncertainty, he quickly scrambled to pick it up and resumed his stance as instructed.
Garcia rolled his eyes at the bumbling soldier. "Since you have nothing to do at the moment, Corporal, it will be your job to clean the stables."
"The stables?" Reyes repeated in trepidation.
"Sí, the stables," Garcia nodded smugly. "When you finish shoveling the manure away, check with the padres at the mission. They might need it to fertilize their crops with."
"All right, Sergeant," Reyes relented, his features crestfallen again.
"You are dismissed." Garcia chuckled as the corporal slowly and reluctantly made his way to the horses. It wasn't nearly as large a task as fertilizing a small farm like Pablo's, so it probably wouldn't take the lancer more than two baths to wash away the distinctive odor. It served him right for being insubordinate to a superior officer.
Climbing into the driver's seat of the carriage and taking hold of the reins, he urged the horses forward and proceeded to the de la Vega hacienda. It was supposed to be a pleasant journey, but the corporal spoiled everything. Garcia was so sure that he had everything planned to the last detail. How could he forget a chaperone?
A wave of remorse washed over Garcia; deep down, he knew the answer to the question. It was because he and Eva weren't exactly abiding by the traditional courtship rules. They even had supper together alone at her bakery when it was still standing! Now that she was staying with the de la Vegas, there was always someone close by; hence the lack of need for a dueña.
It was easy to forget a chaperone when you never really had one to start with.
The sergeant's shoulders slumped forward. He spent weeks scouting the area for the perfect spot for a picnic. Once he finally got up the courage to invite her, he put such loving care into choosing what food and wine to bring along. Garcia even practiced asking her the oh-so important question in front of the mirror at night.
That was a conundrum all in itself! Eva del Lugo was a widow with no living family in California. The sergeant originally wanted to do this right, but how was he supposed to stick with Spanish custom when there was no male relative to ask for her hand in marriage from? That's when he decided to give in and stick with their unusual courtship by going to her directly.
The sergeant's hands started trembling and beads of sweat formed along his hairline. Garcia pushed his hat back and rubbed the moisture away with the sleeve of his jacket. What was he going to do now? It wasn't like he could pick up a dueña alongside the road. Who could he ask to accompany them on such short notice? Here he was less that two miles from the hacienda and his meticulous plan was in peril!
There was always Diego. Garcia was positive his friend would help him out, especially if he knew the underlying reason the sergeant asked Eva on the picnic. Oh, but it would be embarrassing to have him along while proposing. Cresencia, the de la Vega housekeeper, was a possibility. No, she wouldn't be a good choice either. The sergeant would be even more self conscious in front of her than Diego.
Slowing the horses to a stop outside the main gate to the hacienda, Garcia stared at the picnic basket by his side. The mouthwatering aromas wafting up made his stomach grumble hungrily. Feeling dejected, he fumbled around in his pocket, finally pulling out the soft velvet pouch that had taken up permanent residency there. He tugged the drawstrings open and let the contents fall into his open hand. The sun's warm rays reflected off the two gold rings; rings that once belonged to his mother.
The sergeant pressed his lips together defiantly; he could not allow this one little setback to ruin his plans! He would just have to confide in his friend and hope for the best. Diego would know what to do. Garcia returned the betrothal ring and wedding band to the safety of the pouch, pulled the strings securely closed and shoved it back into his pocket.
He stepped down from the carriage and headed to the gate. With a deep breath, the soldier opened it and stepped onto the patio. The young caballero was sitting at a small table in the shade reading a book, with his manservant a few feet away tending to the plants. His manservant…
Garcia's eyes lit up as he was struck with sudden inspiration. Bernardo would make a perfect chaperone! If the worse happens – Eva says no – he wouldn't have to worry about his quiet friend laughing or telling everyone in the pueblo what a failure he was. There was the added benefit of privacy in proposing to her. He wouldn't be embarrassed reciting sweet words to Eva.
The sergeant also felt a certain kinship with the little one. Many of the people in the pueblo looked down on the mozo because of his status and disability. Bernardo was only tolerated because he was a de la Vega servant. It wasn't much different from how those same citizens turned their noses up at the big, fat acting commandante, showing him respect merely because he was a friend of the de la Vega family.
"Buenas tardes, Sergeant," Diego greeted, closing his book.
"Buenas tardes, Don Diego," Garcia replied. "I have come to take Eva on a picnic."
"I believe she is in the kitchen with Maria," the caballero responded. "I will let her know you are here."
"Uh, before you do, Don Diego," Garcia faltered, "there is a matter I would like to talk to you about."
"This sounds serious," Diego observed. "What's on your mind, Sergeant?"
"Well, I, um, I failed to arrange for a dueña this afternoon," Garcia confessed. "I was hoping that perhaps Bernardo would be able to accompany us as a chaperone." There, he spit it out. "That's if it's okay with you and Don Alejandro…" he added abruptly.
The young don chuckled. "I'm sure Bernardo would be happy to tag along. He's rather fond of both you and Doña Eva." Diego walked over to the plants and gently tapped his manservant on the shoulders. The deaf-mute twisted around, slightly startled by the contact, and waved upon seeing the sergeant.
"Hello to you too, little one," Garcia waved back.
"Where is this picnic to take place?" Diego inquired.
"There is a small lake on your rancho about a mile from here," the soldier elucidated.
"Ah, I know the one," the caballero grinned. He got Bernardo's attention and began a series of signs.
Garcia watched the exchange intently. At first, he easily followed the hand gestures indicating him, Eva and the carriage, but he was quickly lost after that. The flurry of hand movements made his head dizzy. How any of that could translate into a picnic or a lake was beyond him! The sergeant stood there in awe; it was amazing how the little one appeared to understand it with minimal difficulty.
When Diego finished, the mozo nodded ardently.
"Bernardo is honored you asked him," the caballero noted. "Now, if you will excuse me, I'll see if I can find Doña Eva. We wouldn't want your lunch to get cold."
Left alone on the patio with the deaf-mute, Sergeant Garcia cleared his throat, unsure of what to do. He started to say something to his companion, but stopped knowing it was fruitless, so he settled on a smile instead. Bernardo answered with a smile of his own and bobbed his head up and down enthusiastically. Garcia returned the nod and wiggled his fingers. The little one waved too, and the two men stood there smiling, waving and bobbing heads until a soft, feminine giggle drew the soldier's attention.
"Oh, Demetrio, you are both so adorable," Eva said playfully.
Garcia's cheeks blushed. "Why, uh, yes," he tugged at his collar. "Are you ready to go?"
"Sí," she replied.
The sergeant held his elbow out for the señora to take and led her to the carriage, Diego and Bernardo not far behind. "What's that?" he questioned, only just then noticing the bundle in her free hand.
"You went to the trouble of arranging our lunch; bringing dessert is the least I could do."
Garcia's eyes lit up thinking about the mysterious treats. He hoped they were some of her tasty chocolate cookies. Ooh, or the ones with cinnamon… The sergeant grinned knowing they'd be delicious no matter what flavor they were.
With the picnic basket and blanket occupying the floorboard of the front passenger seat, Eva climbed into the back of the carriage. Garcia strolled around to the other side with Bernardo close behind. He climbed into the driver's seat and was about to take off when Diego, standing near the gate, called out to him.
"Sergeant, why don't you let Bernardo drive? He knows where to go."
Garcia turned and saw the manservant standing beside the carriage with a confused look. "That is a good idea, Don Diego," he responded, trying to hide his embarrassment. The sergeant stepped down, motioned for the little one to take his place and took a seat next to Eva. He barely got settled before they were off.
The ride was mostly silent; Garcia becoming more anxious as the important moment drew nearer. When Bernardo brought the carriage to a stop, both men exited and ambled to the other side. The sergeant offered his hand to Eva and helped her down. "Oh, no, little one," he exclaimed, "You do not have to do all of that."
But there was no stopping the manservant. He had the blanket spread out and was starting to take out the contents of the basket before Garcia could even get over there. "Gracias," he waved when Bernardo had finished. The mozo then shuffled over to a tree several yards away and sat down in the shade.
"This is lovely, Demetrio," Eva cooed as the couple also sat down. "But it does not seem right to eat and leave Bernardo sitting over there by himself." She shuffled the contents of the many dishes and made up a small plate of food. "Here, take this to him," the señora's lips curled up.
Garcia rose to his feet and did as requested. Their chaperone was busy whittling away at a small block of wood, undoubtedly making one of his toys the children loved so much. The manservant glanced up when the shadow of the lancer drifted over him.
"Here, little one," Garcia said, bending down. "This is for you."
Bernardo pointed to his chest.
"Sí, for you," Garcia nodded.
Bernardo took the plate, smiled and nodded again. Garcia responded by retuning the smile, bobbing his head up and down merrily and wriggling his fingers. Another one of Eva's soft giggles reached his ears and the sergeant stood up, rolled his eyes and returned to the blanket.
The couple went about eating their lunch while discussing a myriad of topics. When the last remnants of their meal were consumed, Eva unfolded the cloth bundle revealing dessert. Garcia's mouth watered as his eyes fell upon the chocolate cookies covered with powdered sugar. Oh, they were his favorites! She certainly knew the way to his heart.
After the last cookie was devoured, the sergeant swallowed hard and took a deep breath. Now was the time he planned so carefully for. He crawled closer to her and reached in his pocket for the ring pouch. Glancing over to the tree, he was relieved to see Bernardo busy with making his toy.
"Eva," his voice shook a bit, "there is something I would like to ask you." He took another deep breath. "Since you first arrived in the pueblo, I have enjoyed spending time with you."
"And eating my cooking," Eva chimed in, her eyes sparking with mirth.
"Well, yes, I can't argue with that," he replied sheepishly. "These last few weeks have been wonderful. I was wondering if…" Feeling a prickly sensation on his lower leg, similar to brushing up against a cactus, Garcia trailed off. Trying valiantly to ignore it, he carried on: "I was wondering…Ouch!" The thorn-like stabs intensified, turning into sharp bites followed by stinging pain. He looked to his boots.
"Ants!" Garcia hollered. "They are all over me!" He jumped to his feet, swatting at the pesky little bugs. "Yikes!" The sergeant yanked off his boots, trying to get rid them as they continued to bite. "Aieee, get off me," he cried out, running toward the lake, dropping his prized velvet pouch in the process.
"Oh, Demetrio, they are on my dress, too!" Eva called out. She tried shaking them off. The commotion and movement caught Bernardo's attention and he ran over to help her. The insects kept clinging to her, so she ran into the lake behind the sergeant.
When they emerged from the water, Garcia having run in up to his knees and Eva up to her mid-calves, he turned to her, "I think they are all gone now. Are you okay?"
"Sí," the señora answered. "I think they are off me, too."
They walked back to the picnic area, mindful of where they stepped. Bernardo had packed up the basket and shaken the bugs off the blanket. Garcia picked up his boots and ran back to the lake and submerged them. "There," he declared, "they should all be drowned by now." Satisfied, he lifted the boots up and poured the water out.
Wearing wet, muddy socks, the sergeant went to rejoin the others. The manservant met him halfway and handed the pouch to him. "Gracias, little one, gracias," Garcia smiled, never even realizing he dropped it. He checked to make sure the rings were okay and put it in his pocket.
With the romantic mood shattered, the group piled into the carriage and returned to the hacienda. "What happened to the two of you?" Diego asked incredulously as they entered the gate.
Garcia frowned. They must have been quite a sight! "We ran into a little problem." The caballero tilted his head curiously and the sergeant groaned. "There were ants, lots of ants."
Diego covered his mouth, yet it was still obvious he was chuckling.
"Demetrio, I had a lovely afternoon," Eva said, and with a teasing grin added, "up until the ants, that is."
Diego was laughing heartily now and Garcia shifted his large frame awkwardly. Oh, this was the worst picnic ever! If there was an upside, at least Eva wasn't angry. The sergeant hastily bid them goodbye, crawled into the carriage and headed to the cuartel. He hoped Corporal Reyes wasn't there. Perhaps he would look back on this one day and find it amusing…but right now, it wasn't the least bit funny.
The lively music, carefree laughter and cheerful voices of the party faded into the background as Sergeant Garcia carefully crept around the side of the hacienda, mindful to avoid tripping in the dark. Of course, the clouds chose to drift in and veil the moonlight only after he decided to sneak away. How Zorro snuck around all the time in the blackness of night was a mystery to the sergeant.
When he came across a small sitting area under two large trees that now filtered the moon's glitter, the clouds apparently done playing tricks on him, he stopped and glanced around to make sure he was alone. Positive that no one was lurking in the shadows, not even the fox, Garcia reached into his pocket and pulled out the drawstring velvet pouch. He tugged it open and let the two rings inside fall into the palm of his hand.
Picking up the betrothal ring with his chubby thumb and forefinger, he held it up and let the soft glow of the heavenly body reflect off the gold band and polished gemstone. After the disaster of the picnic two days ago, Garcia wasn't sure how or when to try asking Eva the important question again. Maybe tonight, he thought. Being the señora's escort to the gathering at Don Marcos Cortazar's home had put the sergeant at ease and he was having a most enjoyable evening. Besides, it would be a good time to announce their engagement – if she said yes.
Garcia put the two rings back into the pouch and pulled the strings tightly closed. Taking a deep breath, he steadied his nerves and pondered exactly what he would say. "Eva," he said aloud to the darkness, "There is something that I have been meaning to ask you…" His voice trailed off. "Oh, that will not do."
Garcia shuffled his feet and turned to one of the tree trunks. "Eva, I like you a lot. I more than like you. I lov… I lov…" The word failed to roll off his tongue. What if she did not feel the same way? It might get rather embarrassing.
"I am going to ask her to marry me. If I can't tell her I love her, I shouldn't even be asking such a thing," the sergeant admonished himself. "But something is missing." He rubbed his stubble-covered chin with his free hand, the other still gripping the velvet pouch. The soldier recalled the bedtime tales his mother recited to him as a child and smiled.
"That's it!" he exclaimed triumphantly. Garcia clumsily got down on one knee. He glanced up, trying to imagine where Eva would be standing, but then realized she would probably be sitting on one of the benches, so he adjusted his line of sight accordingly. "Eva, I have been a great admirer of yours since the first day you arrived in the pueblo. I lov…"
"Who are you talking to, Sergeant?"
Garcia's head spun around at the sound of the sleepy voice. The quick motion threw him off balance and he almost tumbled to the ground on his rear end. He reached out and placed a hand on the nearby tree trunk to steady his frame. "No one, baboso," he replied agitatedly. With a grunt, he clambered to his feet and shoved the velvet pouch into his pocket, hoping the darkness cloaked his blushing cheeks.
"It sure sounded like you were talking to someone," Corporal Reyes pressed.
"Do you see anyone here with me?" Garcia inquired.
Reyes glanced around, "No."
"Then I could not be talking to anyone, could I?"
"I guess not," the corporal shrugged. He tilted his head, "Why were you down on one knee?"
"Because I dropped something," Garcia said hastily, becoming impatient with the lancer's nosiness.
"I will help you look for it," Reyes offered eagerly.
"You don't have to," Garcia responded in an annoyed tone.
"But I want to," Reyes argued.
"There is nothing to find," Garcia scolded. "My hands were empty; therefore, I could not have dropped anything. If I did not drop anything, then there is nothing to find."
Corporal Reyes' eyes narrowed as if deep in thought. He raised a finger to his lips and mulled over the sergeant's explanation. After a long minute of silence, he finally lowered his hand, "That makes sense."
Garcia breathed a sigh of relief. "Now, what is it you wanted?" he asked, happy to get the matter settled.
"Nothing, Sergeant," Reyes answered.
"Oh, not this again," Garcia moaned, slapping his forehead. Why did the corporal have to be so difficult? He tried rephrasing the question, this time being more specific. "Why did you come looking for me?"
"Señora del Lugo asked me to."
"Why couldn't you just say that in the first place," Garcia muttered. With a shake of his head, he pushed past Reyes and headed back to the party. The corporal followed on his heels. Rejoining the festivities, the lancers moved toward the refreshments table where they stood and watched the partygoers dancing to the tuneful strums of guitars.
Garcia's eyes scanned the crowd searching for Eva. He chuckled when he spotted Diego dancing with the governor's daughter. Leonar Velazquez was visiting Los Angles with her aunt and it was obvious the señorita had her eyes set on the caballero. The sergeant wondered if she would be the lucky woman who finally captured the fox's heart. Having the governor as a father-in-law would also be a definite plus when you are a wanted bandit.
As the song came to an end and the couples spread out, Garcia's eyes found Eva, who had been dancing with Don Alejandro. The older de la Vega was leading her over to the refreshments table when Don Cornelio Esperon intercepted them. Sergeant Garcia watched impatiently until Eva excused herself from the two hacendados.
"Demetrio," the señora grinned, taking his arm, "Where did you disappear to?"
"He was looking for something he didn't drop," Reyes interjected.
"She wasn't talking to you, baboso," Garcia huffed. He raised his arm and pointed to the other side of the patio. "Go stand over there, Corporal."
Reyes lowered his head, "Sí, Sergeant."
Eva watched the lancer wander through the crowd and come to a stop by the musicians before turning to gaze at the sergeant, her eyes full of playful sparks. "What was that all about, Demetrio?"
"Oh, it is nothing," Garcia tried explaining. "I don't think the corporal knows what he is talking about most of the time." She didn't look entirely convinced, causing the sergeant to tug awkwardly on the collar of his uniform jacket. "There is something I would like to discuss with you in private," he said, changing the subject.
"It sounds so intriguing," Eva teased. "Are you trying to become a man of mystery, Demetrio?"
"Well, no, I uh…" Garcia stammered. She laughed and he smiled sheepishly, the sweet sound giving him a boost of courage. Taking her hand, the sergeant started leading Eva to the small sitting area on the side of the hacienda when the noise of clinking glasses drew their attention.
"Señoras y señores, may I have your attention please?"
"Wait, Demetrio," Eva whispered. "Let's listen to what Don Marcos has to say."
Garcia sighed, released her hand and pivoted around to view the proceedings.
"I want to thank you all for joining me at my home this evening. It has been a joy to have so many of my closest friends as my guests, but I must confess to having an ulterior motive in inviting all of you," Don Marcos began. "It is with great pleasure that I announce Don Víctor del Amo has asked for my daughter Margarita's hand in marriage."
The crowd began applauding to show their approval.
"Isn't this wonderful?" Eva gushed.
"That dirty rat," Garcia muttered through clenched teeth.
"What did you say, Demetrio?" she asked, twirling to face him.
"Uh…nothing," he replied.
Eva's eyebrow arched suspiciously.
"It's just that I, uh," his heart began pounding faster, "I thought I saw a hairy cat."
Now she was looking at him like he was loco en la cabeza.
"A hairy cat?" she repeated in bewilderment.
It was bad enough that Don Ricardo del Amo pulled so many practical jokes on him, but now his cousin was doing it! Don Víctor was a handsome and charming caballero who could make an eloquent proposal any night of the week. That dirty rat! Why did he have to choose the sergeant's night?
Eva frowned when he didn't respond, "We should go over and congratulate the happy couple."
Garcia certainly wasn't in any mood to congratulate the dirty rat. "I'm sorry, Eva," he lowered his head shamefully. "It's just that…" he struggled, desperately trying to think of an excuse that didn't involve a hairy cat. "There is an urgent matter that needs my attention at the cuartel, so I must leave."
"Is that what you wanted to tell me in private?" she asked with a hint of disbelief in her voice.
"Sí," he answered. "I did not want to alarm any of the partygoers with a sudden departure. I hope you do not mind, since Don Alejandro and Don Diego will escort you home anyway."
"It is all right, Demetrio," Eva said sadly. "I understand the duties of a soldier."
Garcia nodded his appreciation and signaled for Reyes to come over. "Let's go, Corporal," he instructed. As they exited the patio gate, he glanced back and observed Eva strolling over to greet the blissful couple. The sergeant continued muttering under his breath all the way to the stables to retrieve their horses.
"That dirty rat. If only Don Marcos' hacienda was infested with ants…"
Eva del Lugo's eyes narrowed in irritation at her dinner companion, "And that is why I have decided to move to San Diego, where I will reopen my bakery."
"That is nice," Garcia mumbled, absently twisting the stem of the glass in front of him.
"Demetrio," she scolded, "you have not been listening to a single word I've said!"
The sergeant's head snapped up in attention. "Of course I have," he refuted.
"Then what was I just saying?"
Garcia inhaled a sharp breath. "Well, you were, um," he stammered, desperately trying to figure a way out of the mess he managed to get himself into. "You were talking about your bakery?"
"And what else?" she added in annoyance, clearly not accepting his lucky guess.
"I was telling you about my move to San Diego," Eva hissed.
"You are moving to San Diego?" Garcia repeated in disbelief. "But you can't!"
Eva shook her head. "No, I am not leaving Los Angeles," she sighed. "I was only trying to make a point. What could possibly have you so preoccupied this evening?"
"Oh, some military matters," he lied. Relieved his love wasn't moving away, the sergeant went back to twirling the wine glass. All he could think about lately were his failed marriage proposals. At this rate, they would never be married – or even engaged.
Glancing around the tavern, Garcia was surprised to find it nearly empty. When the couple first arrived, the establishment was brimming with customers, all eager to see the latest dancers. The scent of food being prepared in back slowly mixed with the puffs of cigar smoke, creating a unique aroma and soft haze in the large room. It wasn't easy securing a table, but he succeeded in snagging one by the fireplace.
Now they were almost alone. In the far corner, two older dons huddled over a table. Between them, Don Horacio and Don Julio had over a dozen children. No wonder they didn't want to go home to their wives, Garcia grinned. A few tables over, three vaqueros from the Torres rancho were playing a friendly game of cards. Bernardo, once again acting as their chaperone, leaned against the bar. The innkeeper was busy moving between the counter and the back room.
It was late and he knew he should be getting Eva home, but a single thought lingered in his mind.
The sergeant bit his lower lip, contemplating his next move. The other patrons weren't paying attention to the man and woman on the opposite side of the posada; there was a tad bit of privacy. What was the old saying? The third time's the charm? Garcia reached into his pocket and slowly pulled out the velvet pouch.
"Eva," he began. "There is something I have been trying to…"
He didn't get to finish. The tavern door slammed open and crashed into the wall. Garcia jerked his head; the color drained from his features. Three armed bandits stormed in, their lower faces covered with bandanas. Two of the men directed their pistols at the vaqueros and dons, while the other went straight to the bar.
"You, innkeeper, put all of your money in this bag," he tossed a cloth sack to the older man. "Don't try to be a hero," he smirked, aiming at Bernardo.
"Demetrio, do something," Eva whispered.
Garcia looked at her with wide eyes. How was he to stop three bandidos with at least five pistols between them? Even if the sergeant had his weapon, one shot wasn't going to deter these men.
"You, lancer," the leader commanded, "try anything and I shoot the lady first."
Once the innkeeper finished and handed over the money, the other two bandits relieved the vaqueros and dons of their valuables. The leader headed toward Eva and Garcia. "What's this? A soldier with a coin purse?" he snickered. "Hand it over."
Garcia's heart dropped. "No…"
The cherished velvet pouch containing his mother's rings was ripped from his hand.
"Let's ride, hombres!" the leader shouted, shoving the pouch into his jacket pocket. The trio ran out the door. Seconds later, the rattle of hoof beats echoed in the quiet night air.
The sergeant propped his elbow on the table and rested his chin in his palm. "This just isn't my week," he muttered, not quite believing what transpired. The third time was supposed to go better…
"Sergeant, what are you sitting there for?" the innkeeper reproached, his cheeks red with fury. "Go after them and get my money back!"
Garcia rose to his feet and proceeded to the door. He stopped shy of it and turned to Eva. "Wait here and I will have some of my lancers escort you and the little one home." With slumped shoulders, the dejected soldier crossed the plaza and entered the cuartel.
"What's all the commotion, Sergeant?" Corporal Reyes inquired. "There's lots of noise out there."
"Round up the lancers and saddle the horses," he commanded. "The tavern has been robbed."
"Who would do such a thing?" Reyes asked, offended at the thought.
"Bandidos," Garcia admonished. "Who else would rob the tavern?"
Reyes shrugged and left to carry out the order.
"You, Private," Garcia called out to Herrera. "Señora del Lugo and the de la Vega servant Bernardo are at the posada. I want you and Private Hernandez to escort them home."
"Sí, Sergeant," the young man saluted and took off in search of his fellow soldier.
Garcia went over to the stables and mounted his horse. "Follow me," he shouted, leading a regiment of eight lancers east into the hills. Only a sliver of moon provided any glimmer of light, leaving the night sky dark as ink and the paths hard to see. The air was chilly, so the sergeant kept an eye out for any sign of a burning fire. More than two hours later, they weren't any closer to finding the bandits.
The acting commandante was tired, depressed and cold. "Let's head back to the cuartel. We aren't going to find them tonight." By the time they reached the gates, Garcia wanted nothing more than to crawl into his bed. Leading his horse to the stables, he glanced at the jail cells and did a double take. He rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn't seeing things. There behind bars were three men, all with 'Z's' cut into their jackets.
Thrusting the reins into Corporal Reyes' hands, who muttered incoherently under his breath about having to tend to both their animals, Garcia ran to the nearest guard on duty. "What is this?" he motioned to the jail, his spirits remarkably improved.
"Zorro delivered them a few minutes ago," Private Ortega replied.
"Did he recover the stolen money?" The sergeant's heart beat a little faster in anticipation of the answer.
"Sí, it's over there. We haven't had a chance to take it to your office yet."
Garcia rushed over to the cloth sack sitting atop a chair by the storage area. Pulling it open, he rummaged through the contents. "Fetch a lantern so I can see more clearly." Ortega complied and held the glowing light up for his superior officer. The money from the tavern was there, as well as several coin purses and rings that probably belonged to Don Horatio and Don Julio. But there was no velvet pouch…
"Is this it?" Garcia inquired.
"I guess so," Ortega responded.
"Did you check their jacket pockets?"
"Well, uh, no" Ortega hesitated. "We thought Zorro did that."
Garcia marched over to the cells. "Take off your jackets!" When the bandits didn't acquiesce, his voice adopted an angrier edge. "Take off those jackets, babosos!" The three men slowly removed the articles of clothing and passed them through the bars. The sergeant searched every pocket fervently, tossing each garment to the ground after he finished with it.
"Where is it?" he demanded.
"Looking for your coin purse, Sergeant?" the leader taunted. "Is that how you keep the company of such a beautiful woman? You buy her affections?"
Garcia gnashed his teeth together. How dare this scoundrel insult his Eva! He unsheathed his sword and thrust the blade between the metal bars. "I will not ask you again. Where is it?"
"It must have fallen out as I rode," the bandit smirked.
"Sergeant, get a hold of yourself," Ortega whispered to his ear.
The words startled Garcia and he turned to the private with a mortified expression. This was how the evil army officers acted; he didn't want to be like that. Returning his sword to its scabbard, the sergeant calmed his emotions. If the bandits knew what was in the pouch, they'd probably be throwing even more insults his way. He grabbed the bag with the stolen money and headed to his office. Maybe his rings settled to the bottom. "I'll secure this in the safe. Carry on, Private."
Garcia wearily opened the door to his quarters. A warm, flickering light welcomed him and he briefly wondered which of his men left it unattended. The black clad figure was the last person he expected to see. "Zor…" he clasped a hand over his mouth and quickly shut the door behind him.
"Buenas noches, Sergeant," the fox greeted.
"Zorro, what are you doing here?" he asked, keeping his voice hushed.
The masked man laughed and leaned against the edge of the desk. "The bandits who robbed the tavern earlier this evening surrendered to me. I thought it would be best to relinquish them to your custody."
"But how did you know?" Garcia felt foolish as soon as the words left his mouth. Of course Diego knew. Eva must have told him and Don Alejandro about the holdup when she arrived at the hacienda. Oh, this was awkward knowing his friend was the fox! What if he slipped up and said something he shouldn't?
"I have my ways, Sergeant," Zorro replied wryly.
"Gracias, but you should be going now," Garcia urged, setting the sack down. What if the lancers came to the office? He didn't want his friend to be captured. This was going to give him a heart attack.
"I also wanted to make sure these got back to their rightful owner," the fox pulled a small item from his sash and handed it to the sergeant.
Garcia's eyes lit up. He tugged the drawstrings open and let the two rings fall into his hand for what must have been the hundredth time. "You found them!"
"Ah, so they are yours," Zorro smiled. "Let me be the first to congratulate you."
"Eva hasn't said yes, yet," Garcia pointed out.
"She will, Sergeant," Zorro patted him on the shoulder. "Trust me, she will."
Garcia's expression brightened. All thoughts of failed marriage proposals drifted far away. Gazing down at the gold bands in his grasp, his heart swelled with anticipation. The fox's vote of confidence eased his fears. She would say yes. "Gracias," he raised his head to thank his friend, but the figure was gone.
A knock on the door interrupted his deliberations. Corporal Reyes entered the office, cautiously studying the surroundings. "Who were you talking to, Sergeant?" he inquired apprehensively.
"Don't you know you are supposed to wait until I say 'enter' before coming in?" Garcia scolded, quickly hiding his prized possessions. "To answer your question, no one."
"But I know I heard voices this time," Reyes argued.
"You are starting to worry me, Corporal," Garcia said. "Maybe you should see Doctor Avilla tomorrow. This matter of hearing voices can't be good."
Reyes pivoted around and exited the office, muttering unintelligibly as he sauntered to the barracks.
"That will teach him to eavesdrop on the acting commandante," Garcia laughed heartily.
Cool, crisp air touched with the sweet fragrance of night blooming flowers greeted Sergeant Garcia and Eva del Lugo as they strolled through the de la Vega garden. Stars twinkled in the dark heavens above while the moon's soft shimmers illuminated the earth below. Dinner had been delicious and their hosts generous as always. Everything was perfect…too perfect, which made Garcia nervous.
He tried concentrating on the white blossoms that speckled the lush greenery and the woman whose arm was entwined with his. The last time the couple visited this corner of the hacienda's grounds, an unexpected visitor interrupted them. Father and son sure did put on a good act, Garcia chortled. If only he knew then what he knew now!
"What is so funny, Demetrio?" Eva asked, glancing up to meet his eyes.
"Oh, I was just thinking about the last time we walked through the garden," Garcia grinned.
"I remember," the señora grinned knowingly. "We were talking about a kiss when the fox disturbed us."
The sergeant blushed when reminded of their first kiss. "Something tells me he won't bother us tonight." Now that Diego knew he was going to propose, he was confident that Zorro would do his best to ensure all went well. No ants, no dirty rats and certainly no bandits.
"Demetrio," she playfully chastised, "you aren't planning something devious, are you?"
"Maybe I am," he teased back.
They reached the stone bench in the center of the garden and Eva sat down. Garcia stared at the adjacent birdbath and swung his arms back and forth, nerves creeping back in. She reached out and took his hand.
"Please sit down." Eva scooted over and he did as requested. "Why you're trembling," she exclaimed in concern. "It is not that cold out here tonight. Are you feeling all right, Demetrio?"
"I am fine," Garcia murmured. He shifted slightly and faced her. "Eva, I have enjoyed spending time with you and I hope you have enjoyed being with me."
"Of course I have," she smiled brightly.
The words gave him a big boost of encouragement and the words came rushing out, "Eva del Lugo, I love you. Will you marry me?"
Eva raised her hands to her mouth. "Oh, Demetrio," she finally said after what felt like an eternity to the sergeant, "I thought you would never ask. Yes, I will marry you."
"You will?" he repeated, not trusting his ears.
"Sí, I will," Eva reaffirmed, leaning into kiss him.
When their lips parted, Garcia's eyes lit up and his heart began beating with pure exhilaration. He wanted to jump for joy and announce to the world that she said yes. With a crooked grin, he decided on kissing his fiancée again. Pulling away for the second time, they remained silent until the sergeant let out a quick gasp.
"Oh, I can't believe I forgot," he muttered, reaching into his pocket for the soft velvet pouch. Fumbling with the drawstrings, he finally got it open and let the rings fall in his hand. "Eva, these belonged to my mother. I would be flattered if you would accept them."
"It would be an honor to wear them," she beamed.
Garcia picked up the betrothal ring and slipped it on her finger. He put the wedding band back into the safety of the pouch, while she admired the jewelry on her hand. "It fits you perfectly," he observed.
"Sí, it does," she agreed. "I can't wait to show it off and make the announcement."
"Me, too," Garcia added eagerly. "Let's go tell Don Alejandro and Don Diego. I think they should be the first to know." He got up and offered his arm to Eva, who grasped it enthusiastically.
When they reentered the sala, the de la Vega men rose from their seats. "I trust you found our garden to be agreeable?" Don Alejandro inquired. "After all, you two have been out there for quite some time."
"Oh, Father," Diego chuckled. "I don't think they want to hear any more lectures about proper decorum."
"Actually, about that," Garcia interrupted hesitantly. "We have an announcement to make." He looked to his fiancée, who gave him a reassuring smile. "Eva and I are to be married."
"Congratulation to you both," Diego exclaimed, crossing the room. He kissed Eva's hand before shaking the sergeant's and patting him on the back. Garcia got an odd sense of déjà vu.
"Congratulations," Alejandro repeated, following his son's motions. "It's about time," he winked. "A toast is in order, don't you think? I have a bottle of Rioja that is perfect for just such an occasion."
"I will get it, Father," Diego offered. He returned from the wine cellar a few minutes later with the fine vintage. The young caballero poured four crystal goblets and the group drank to the upcoming nuptials. They continued chatting and celebrating until Eva, unable to resist yawning, retired to her room.
It was late into the evening when Sergeant Garcia finally returned to the cuartel. Entering his office after checking with the guards on duty, he was surprised to see a wine bottle on his desk. Who could have left it? None of the lancers knew of his engagement. Picking it up, the sergeant furrowed his brow trying to make sense of the foreign writing on the label. It finally dawned on him the language.
This wasn't any ordinary vintage; it was French champagne! The sparkling wine was the drink of kings and nobility across Europe. Americano trade ships would transport the rare find to ports in Mexico and California, much to the dismay of the French. Securing a bottle was a matter of pride for wealthy dons, pompous government officials and even the church.
Who would give one to a sergeant?
Setting it down, Garcia was puzzled by the mystery until his eyes fell on the small piece of paper adorned with his name lying atop the desk. Unfolding the note, he smiled widely.
I told you she would say yes. –Z
But how did he? When did he? The sergeant chuckled. The fox was a sly one indeed. It seemed Diego still had a few tricks up his sleeve…
Garcia could not ask for a better friend. Grabbing the gift and the note, he headed to his bedroom and tucked them safely away. He would wait for his wedding night to share the champagne with his bride.
Cupid is a Sergeant…
Word spread like wildfire all over the pueblo of the engagement between the sergeant and the señora. As Garcia made his daily rounds up and down the streets, merchants and peons eagerly approached him with their congratulations and best wishes. A few of the dons offered to buy him a celebratory drink in the tavern. Advice on relationships and marriage flowed freely, from both the married and single populace.
Some of the stories had him laughing, some had him scared stiff, but he shrugged those off. Nothing was going to ruin Garcia's good mood. Strolling into the cuartel with a lopsided grin plastered on his face, the sergeant spotted Corporal Reyes and several of the privates huddled by the barracks. What were they up to? Moving closer, the hushed voices became clearer.
"You ask him."
"Me? Why can't you ask him?"
"Hernandez can ask him. It was his idea."
"So, now it's my idea? You liked it, too."
"Ortega, you take the lead."
"Oh, no, I'm not doing it."
"I've got it! The corporal can."
"Forget it," Reyes replied dryly.
"Oh, come on, Corporal."
"Let's take a vote. All who think Corporal Re…"
"Attention!" Garcia bellowed. Silence descended amongst the soldier and they pivoted around in alarm, causing Herrera to knock over Ortega and starting a domino chain that also sent Hernandez and Sanchez sprawling to the dirt. When the three fallen lancers scrambled to their feet, they straightened their backs and stood at full attention. All five men shared the same guilty expression etched on their faces.
The remarkable display of the king's army at their finest had the sergeant shaking his head in disgrace. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. The silence persisted, so Garcia placed his hands on his hips trying to adopt a more formidable stance. "What is the meaning of this gathering?"
"Well, um," Hernandez spluttered, "Corporal Reyes can explain it."
If looks could kill, the glare Reyes shot the private would be laced with a dozen daggers. Slowing turning his head to face Garcia, the color drained from the corporal's face. "You see, Sergeant, since you are engaged to Señora del Lugo," he hesitated, "the privates were hoping you could give them some advice."
"Sí," Hernandez added, showing more confidence. "There is this girl, Adelita Varela, but I don't think she even knows I exist."
Herrera stepped forward, "And you know I've been seeing Ramona, but her father hates soldiers. He does everything he can to keep us apart."
"All of my friends are single and my family is back in Spain," Sanchez explained, "I don't have anyone in Los Angeles to ask for advice on wooing the señoritas."
The privates crowded around the newly engaged sergeant, the chorus of voices describing their woes with the fairer sex, or in Herrera's case, his woes with the fairer sex's parents. So this is what his men were so concerned about? Garcia had to suppress the urge to laugh out loud. The lancers wanted his guidance on love!
"Slow down, slow down," he called out. "One at a time!"
Who knew that cupid wore a sergeant's uniform?