The Curse of Capistrano/Chapter 11
Chapter 11: Three Suitors 
HERE WAS A FIX. Don Carlos had no wish to anger Don Diego Vega or a man who stood high in the governor's regard. And how was he to evade it? If Lolita could not force her heart to accept Don Diego, perhaps she could learn to love Captain Ramon. After Don Diego, he was the best potential son-in-law in the vicinity.
"Your answer, senor?" the captain was asking.
"I trust you will not misunderstand me, senor," Don Carlos said, in lower tones. "I must make a simple explanation."
"But this morning Don Diego Vega asked me the same question."
"You know his blood and his family, senor. Could I refuse him? Of rights I could not. But I may tell you this—the senorita weds no man unless it is her wish. So Don Diego has my permission to pay his addresses, but if he fails to touch her heart—"
"Then I may try?" the captain asked.
"You have my permission, senor. Of course, Don Diego has great wealth, but you have a dashing way with you, and Don Diego—that is—he is rather—"
"I understand perfectly, senor," the captain said, laughing. "He is not exactly a brave and dashing caballero. Unless' your daughter prefers wealth to a genuine man—"
"My daughter will follow the dictates of her heart, senor!"
Don Carlos said proudly.
"Then the affair is between Don Diego Vega and myself?"
"So long as you use discretion, senor. I would have nothing happen that would cause enmity between the Vega family and mine."
"Your interests shall be protected, Don Carlos," Captain Ramon declared.
As Don Diego talked, the Senorita Lolita observed her father and Captain Ramon, and guessed what was being said. It pleased her, of .course, that a dashing officer should enter the lists for her hand, and yet she had felt no thrill when first she looked into his eyes.
Senor Zorro, now, had thrilled her to the tips of her tiny toes, and merely because he had talked to her, and touched the palm of her hand with his lips. If Don Diego Vega were only more like the highwayman! If some man appeared who combined Vega's wealth with the rogue's spirit and dash and courage!
There was a sudden tumult outside, and into the room strode the soldiers, Sergeant Gonzales at their head. They -saluted their captain, and the big sergeant looked with wonder at his wounded shoulder.
"The rogue escaped us," Gonzales reported. "We followed him for a distance of three miles or so as he made his way into the hills, where we came upon him."
"Well?" Ramon questioned.
"He has allies."
"What is this?"
"Fully ten men were waiting for him there, my captain. They set upon us before we were aware of their presence. We fought them well, and three of them we wounded, but they made their escape and took their comrades with them. We had not been expecting a band, of course, and so rode into their ambush."
"Then we have to contend with a band of them!" Captain Ramon said. "Sergeant, you will select a score of men in the morning, and have command over them. You will take the trail of this Senor Zorro, and you will not stop until he is either captured or slain. I will add a quarter's wages to the reward of his excellency, the governor, if you are successful."
"Ha! It is what I have wished!" Sergeant Gonzales cried. "Now we shall run this coyote to earth in short order! I shall show you the color of his blood—"
"'Twould be no more than right, since he has seen the color of the captain's," Don Diego put in.
"What is this, Don Diego, my friend? Captain, you have crossed blades with the rogue?"
"I have," the captain assented. "You but followed a tricky horse, my sergeant. The fellow was here, in a closet, and came out after I had entered. So it must have been some other man you met with his companions up in the hills. This Senor Zorro treated me much as he treated you in the tavern —had a pistol handy in case I should prove too expert with the blade."
Captain and sergeant looked at each other squarely, each wondering how much the other had been lying; while Don Diego chuckled faintly and tried to press the Senorita Lolita's hand and failed.
"This thing can be settled only in blood!" Gonzales declared. "I shall pursue the rascal until he is run to earth. I have permission to select my men?"
"You may take any at the presidio," the captain said.
"Sergeant Gonzales, I should like to go with you," Don Diego said suddenly.
"By the saints! It would kill you, caballero. Day and night in the saddle, uphill and downhill, through dust and heat, and with a chance at fighting."
"Well, perhaps it were best for me to remain in the pueblo," Don Diego admitted. "But he has annoyed this family, of which I am a true friend. At least you will keep me informed? You will tell me how he escapes if he dodges you? I at least may know that you are on his trail, and where you are riding, so I may be with you in spirit?"
"Certainly, caballero—certainly," Sergeant Gonzales replied. "I shall give you the chance of looking upon the rogue's dead face. I swear it!"
"'Tis a terrible oath, my sergeant. Suppose it should come to pass—"
"I mean if I slay the rascal, caballero. My captain, do you return this night to the presidio?"
"Yes," Ramon replied. "Despite my wound, I can ride a horse."
He glanced toward Don Diego as he spoke, and there was almost a sneer upon his lips.
"What magnificent grit!" Don Diego said. "I, too, shall return to Reina de Los Angeles, if Don Carlos will be as good as to have his carriage around. I can tie my horse to the rear of it. To ride horseback the distance again this day would be the death of me."
Gonzales laughed and led the way from the house. Captain Ramon paid his respects to the ladies, glowered at Don Diego, and followed. The caballero faced Senorita Lolita again as her parents escorted the captain to the door.
"You will think of the matter?" he asked. "My father will be at me again within a few days, and I shall escape censure if I am able to tell him that it is all settled. If you decide to wed me, have your father send me word by a servant. Then I shall put my house in order against the wedding day."
"I shall think of it," the girl said.
"We could be married at the mission of San Gabriel, only we should have to make the confounded journey there. Fray Felipe, of the mission, has been my friend from the days of my boyhood, and I would have him say the words, unless you prefer otherwise. He could come to Reina de Los Angeles and read the ceremony in the little church on the plaza there."
"I shall think of it," the girl said again.
"Perhaps I may come out again to see you within a few days, if I survive this night. Buenos noches, senorita. I suppose I should—er—kiss your hand?"
"You need not take the trouble," Senorita Lolita replied, "It might fatigue you."
"Ah—thank you. You are thoughtful, I see. I am fortunate if I get me a thoughtful wife."
Don Diego sauntered to the door. Senorita Lolita rushed into her own room and beat at her breasts with her hands, and tore at her hair a bit, too angry, too enraged to weep. Kiss her hand, indeed! Senor Zorro had not suggested it—he had done it. Senor Zorro had dared death to visit her. Senor Zorro had laughed as he fought, and then had escaped by a trick! Ah, if Don Diego Vega were half the man this highwayman appeared!
She heard the soldiers gallop away, and after a little time she heard Don Diego Vega depart in her father's carriage. And then she went out into the great room again to her parents.
"My father, it is impossible that I wed with Don Diego Vega,* she said.
"What has caused your decision, my daughter?"
"I scarcely can tell, except that he is not the sort of man I wish for my husband. He is lifeless; existence with him would be a continual torment."
"Captain Ramon also has asked permission to pay you his addresses," Dona Catalina said.
"And he is almost as bad. I do not like the look in his eyes," the girl replied.
"You are too particular," Don Carlos told her. "If the persecution continues another year we shall be beggars. Here is the best catch in the country seeking you, and you would refuse him. And you do not like a high army officer because you do not fancy the look in his eyes. Think on it, girl! An alliance with Don Diego Vega is much to be desired. Perhaps when you know him better, you will like him more. And the man may awaken. I thought I saw a flash of it this night, deemed him jealous because of the presence of the captain here. If you can arouse his jealousy—"
Senorita Lolita burst into tears, but soon the tempest of weeping passed, and she dried her eyes.
"I—I shall do my best to like him," she said. "But I cannot bring myself to say, yet, that I will be his wife."
She hurried into her room again, and called for the native woman who attended her. Soon the house was in darkness, and the grounds about it, save for the fires down by the adobe huts, where the natives told one another grim tales of the night's events, each trying to make his falsehood the greatest. A gentle snore came from the apartment of Don Carlos Pulido and his wife.
But the Senorita Lolita did not slumber. She had her head propped on one hand, and she was looking through a window at the fires in the distance, and her mind was full of thoughts of Senor Zorro.
She remembered the grace of his bow, the music of his deep voice, the touch of his lips upon her palm.
"I would he were not a rogue." She sighed. "How a woman could love such a man!"