by Paula Stiles

Episode #310

Part One of Four

Disclaimers: The characters from the Queen of Swords are copyright to Fireworks Productions and Paramount. No copyright infringement is intended or revenue expected from their use. The story, plot and other characters are copyright to the author, Paula.

Many thanks to Judith Hill and Jim Guy for their help with this story.


She always came to him dressed as the Queen. Helm had never questioned it before, but it made him wonder how Tessa truly felt about him. He also wondered how much longer they could skirt around impropriety, even in secret.

Tonight, as they lay on her guest bed at the Alvarado hacienda, her head on his shoulder, his hand cupping her face, she was telling him about her erstwhile suitors. "That Carlos," she laughed. "Who would have thought that one of Montoya's nephews has fallen in love with the Queen!"

"Very amusing," he said quietly, stroking her back through the black silk of her blouse.

"And now, Don Juarez is trying to set me up with his son. And then there's Montoya. I'd swear he's still after my hand in marriage, though I think that Grisham has finally given up."

"Well, thank God for that." Was it worth it, telling her about Grisham? Probably not. Helm had no evidence, and she knew, already, that Grisham had been involved in Colonel Alfonso's dealings. She wasn't going to trust him, anyway, though he would spend January conveniently serving out his sentence for cattle rustling as a vaquero on Don Juan Pablo's cattle drive.

Such a pity that Alfonso's sergeant had met with an unfortunate accident while Helm had been out comforting Tessa at her home. Alfonso really should not have insulted her father so gravely or so publicly. While Helm couldn't condone her shooting Alfonso in hot blood, she really could not have reacted in any other way and kept her family's honor. The dons had recognized this by pretending to have never seen the whole thing. Montoya had gone with public opinion--no surprise there, and let her go free. And why not? Whatever Alfonso had known had died with him, and Tessa was still agonizing over her rash act, no matter how much Helm reassured her.

However, one of the sergeant's men was in Monterey, and rumor had it that he was quite the drunk. Helm smiled up at the dark ceiling. He could handle interrogating a drunk.

"What are you smiling at?" The moon shining in the window must have given enough light for her to see his face.

"I'm thinking about Grisham trying to woo you in marriage." I'll get you, you bastard, but I won't put Tessa in the middle to do it.

She chuckled. "What a joke, huh?" She turned serious. "But, with no male relatives to stand up for me and Montoya pushing Grisham's suit as hard as he could, it was a close thing. I could still easily end up married to a man I hate."

"What about me?" He winced at the plaintive note in his voice.

She raised her head, her face turned toward him. "You would want that?" He couldn't see her eyes, in the dark.

"I wouldn't have asked if I didn't. But, do you? I'm not Don material. I'm a foreigner and working a profession. Even if my family were nobility, they wouldn't be Spanish nobility. The other dons would never allow you to marry me. Even if they did, the gossip would be hideous. People would say that I was marrying you for your money, trying to ennoble myself at your expense, by robbing you of your hacienda."

She laid her head back down on his chest. "You're right. Those are all excellent reasons why we cannot marry."

"Yes," he agreed with her, sadly. "They are, all of them, excellent reasons."

"And yet, I must marry--and I don't want to marry that young idiot Juarez, or Montoya. Or, God help me, Grisham. And you know who I am; you know my secret. I can trust you." She sighed. "If only you had some money. Or even a title, however empty."

"But I don't." He brushed her hair back and kissed her forehead. "I'm afraid that what you see is what you get--an apothecary-surgeon from nowhere and a washed-up old war veteran. That's all."

She snuggled up against him. "It's enough for me."

"But not for your class, Tessa. A Doņa does not marry for love, only for politics, family honor and money--and not always in that order."

"You make it sound so cold," she reproached him.

"It is cold and you know it--or we wouldn't be meeting in a dark room, with you coming through your own window in disguise." He turned to face her, the two of them touching, despite the way it made him ache. "I love you, Tessa, and I'll do whatever we have to in order for us to be together without hurting anyone. But, this is not the perfect situation for us, and you know it. You just don't want to admit it."

She sighed and looked sad, but she didn't contradict him. That only made him feel worse.

Act One

Helm hated how he felt after spending the night with Tessa, and he hated riding in that mood even more. Equus sensed this and behaved more mulishly than usual.

"Don't even think about it, horse," Helm snarled, when Equus laid his ears back as Helm cinched up the saddle girth. "Take a chunk out of me today and you'll pay.

"Don't know why you get this way, anyway. You've been a gelding for years." He finished cinching the girth, then kneed the horse in the belly. Equus grunted, and let out the air he'd sucked in. Helm tightened the girth another notch. He might never be cavalry or vaquero material but he'd only needed to slide off once, saddle and all, to learn that lesson. He mounted and rode out into the plaza at the center of town. As he did, he found Colonel Montoya riding in the opposite direction, on his fine, black stallion, Salan. Salan snorted at Equus (who ignored him) and sidestepped. Helm watched with envy as Montoya controlled the stallion with his knees. The man seemed to have been born on a horse, unlike Helm, who certainly had not been born under an equine star.

"You are out early, Doctor," Montoya said, as he turned Salan to ride alongside Helm.

"I have to resupply in Monterey," Helm said, hoping to keep this short. "It will take me half the day to get there." He didn't mention his secondary reason for going, which was to find that old private of Grisham's and pump him for information.

Salan shied and whinnied a challenge at Equus. Equus, finally prodded out of his calm, laid his ears back, bared his teeth and nipped at Salan. Helm pulled his right foot out of its stirrup, waited until Equus tried it again, and booted him in the head. Equus shied and half-reared, but Helm pulled in the reins before the horse could get his head down for a good buck. Equus looked shocked; Helm loved that look in a horse. It meant he had got its pea-brained attention.

Helm let himself sink into the saddle and held on with his knees, keeping the reins tight, until Equus settled down. Then, he put his foot back in the stirrup.

"You were saying, Colonel?" he asked.

"You know that horse well," Montoya remarked, frowning.

"I should. He's tried to kill me often enough. Was there some medicine that you wanted me to bring back from Monterey? I'm afraid I can't spare much expense."

"I did give you a raise," Montoya said, touching, for the first time in months, on the subject of Helm's contract adjustment, which Helm had enforced on him after Montoya had been poisoned over All Hallow's Eve.

"Well, it's not enough for anything fancy, I'm afraid," Helm said.

"Yes, a pity. Perhaps if your suit for the hand of the lovely Maria Teresa Alvarado is ever successful, that situation might change. I do wonder, however, what the poor Queen of Swords might think of your betrayal."

Oh, Christ. Where did that come from? Helm glanced at Montoya and saw Montoya looking straight back, a smirk on his face. Jesus! He knows something! He suspects! He stared straight ahead, frowning. Play the fool, Robbie.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said, as stiffly as he could. "Yes, the Queen has helped me out from time to time, and I'll admit to feeling some pity for her. Something terrible must have happened to her, to make her hate so much. But if you think I'm going to set my sights on marrying some madwoman in a mask, you must think that I'm as mad as she is."

"But what of poor Maria Teresa Alvarado?" Montoya said lightly. "Surely she is rather...pale in comparison."

"Seņorita Alvarado is a perfectly nice girl," Helm said firmly. "I admire how she's managed to run that hacienda since her father's death. No other woman could do better, not even, I suspect, Seņora Mary Rose Guevara herself."

Montoya's face stiffened at that, when Helm glanced at him. Ah, so the rumors of antipathy between the retired pirate queen and the Colonel had some basis in fact. Helm hoped that Mary Rose was well, wherever she and Captain Mazar had escaped to. Though he suspected she'd be back and with a great bang. It seemed to be her style.

"Yes, Mary Rose has done well--for a woman," Montoya admitted, rather grudgingly, Helm thought. "And yet, Maria Teresa's interest in you seems foolish, dear Doctor. What could you possibly offer Seņorita Alvarado?"

"Aside from honesty, loyalty and support? I have no idea." Montoya's expression soured further at that, and Helm saw any hope of approval from that quarter die. If Helm did ever marry Tessa, Montoya would oppose it with everything he had.

"I shall send an escort with you today. I do not want to lose our only doctor."

"Please, Colonel, I do this trip all by myself every few months. I do not need an escort." Or one of your spies, watching my every move. "Unless, of course, you think I might run."

"As you wish." Montoya snapped his reins and Salan sprang away. "We shall see you on your return, Doctor. I will pray for your safe journey." Right. And Texas would secede to the United States of America.

Helm continued, but as he headed out of town, he saw Gaspar and Vera Hidalgo, riding into town on their wagon.

"Dr. Helm! You are out early. Have you received a call?" Gaspar looked jovial. Vera seemed too pale, but she smiled as well, as she fanned herself. As usual, she favored Helm with a devouring glance. Some things never changed.

"Yes, I am going to Monterey for the night," Helm replied. "Seņora, you should be home, resting."

"Oh, but it is so dull at home," Vera complained, smirking at Helm over her fan.

"I try to persuade her to stay in bed, as you ordered, Doctor, but she is stubborn." Gaspar laughed nervously as Helm glared at him. He should be nervous. Vera was pushing herself too hard. She was bound to have a serious relapse, at this rate. Yet, Helm was not surprised; Vera was saving face, trying to salvage her shattered honor. It didn't matter to the jealous Doņas of the Pueblo that her rape and subsequent miscarriage had not been her fault. They would still call her a puta behind her back--and to her face, if she showed them any weakness. Helm had no doubt that honor mattered more to Vera than a quick recovery.

"Are you coming to Seņorita Alvarado's Christmas party?" Vera asked, changing to a safer subject (for her; how convenient). Christmas was only two days away, and everyone was a-twitter about it.

"Oh, I didn't know about that. If she does invite me, I suppose I had better go--if I get back in time." Helm played dumb. He and Tessa had discussed the party at length. They had finally decided that it would look odder for him to avoid the party--and her--than for him to go. Many, like Montoya, suspected an attraction between Helm and Tessa, but no one, save for Marta, knew how far it had gone. And even Marta, who was wrapped up in renewing her love with Roman, did not look as deeply into the situation as perhaps a proper duenna should. And thank God for that.

"Is there anything that you would like for me to get either of you in Monterey, any medications?" If they said 'yes', he was going to have to charge them, right then and there.

"Oh, no. We are perfectly fine," Gaspar insisted. Vera nodded over her fan. "However, I would like for you to visit with us at our hacienda when you get back. I would like to discuss some business with you."

"If it involves the Council of Dons, Don Hidalgo, I would prefer not to get involved." He had to tread lightly, here, so as not to insult the Hidalgos, but he had no intention of getting involved in local politics. He had far more to lose than any of the dons, and would surely swing first if things ever went wrong again--say, if another of Montoya's endless nephews should meet with a well-deserved accident.

Gaspar waved his hand at Helm. "No no. Nothing like that. Just come by the hacienda so that we can discuss it discreetly and in comfort."

Helm didn't like the sound of that at all, but saw no way of begging off it right then. "All right," he agreed reluctantly.

"Excellent. And when are you due back, Doctor? In time for Christmas, I hope?"

"Oh, yes. I plan to be back by tomorrow afternoon, Christmas Eve."

"Very good. Until then. And don't forget to come by." Vera waved as Gaspar snapped the reins and urged his horses into a quick trot. Helm watched them go into town, then turned away, shaking his head to himself. Whatever that was all about, he was not going to find out what it was out here on the road, especially not in front of Vera. Gaspar seemed determined to keep something from her. Could it have something to do with Grisham? But what could that be? Surely, Gaspar hadn't seen Grisham at Colonel Alfonso's camp, as Tessa had. He would have denounced Grisham immediately, he hated the Captain so much. Tessa had never reported to Montoya that she saw Grisham. She was still too upset after killing Alfonso, and getting away with it. She felt (and Helm agreed with her) she had had a lucky escape and didn't need to muddy the waters to no good turn. Could Gaspar have a plan against Grisham in mind? But why ask Helm?

Get it out of your mind, Robbie. You have other fish to fry right now. And, truth be told, if Helm succeeded in Monterey, he might not need to have a chat about Grisham with Gaspar at all.

It was hard to hear his informant over the cursing and laughter of the filthy, crowded, stinking bodega. Helm reflected that, say what bad things he could about Montoya's governance, he had to admit that Santa Elena was a far more pleasant town than Monterey with its 400-odd people trapped within the half-ruinous walls of the Presidio. He'd grown old enough to appreciate the sweetness of the Alvarado hacienda, its orange trees, olive groves and small vineyard--though not its horses.

"Have you ever looked for buried treasure, Doctor?" Private Jimenez asked, as Helm poured him another cup of wine. Helm, despite a headache and a need for a drink himself, sipped conservatively. Jimenez downed half of his cup at one go.

"Once or twice," Helm admitted. "But it always turned out to be a fool's errand, in the end." He considered refilling Jimenez' cup, then reconsidered. Jimenez was no good to him drunk to incoherence. Jimenez had once been a Corporal, but he loved his wine more than anything, including rank. And so, he'd been broken to private a week after being reassigned to Monterey. Grisham must have had little argument from Montoya about getting rid of him. Helm watched him, eyes narrowed in calculation. You had to be careful with drunks; sometimes they could be cunning, though Jimenez seemed too focused on his pipe dreams to be very cunning, so far. It was probably why he had survived his transfer.

"This is no fool's errand, Doctor," Jimenez declared, waving a finger at Helm. "The treasure is there for the taking. All we have to do is go out and find it."

Helm watched him in disgust. "Let's get back to that don you killed."

"I'm telling you! It wasn't me!" Helm was glad that this was a bodega near the wall facing the harbor. Hopefully, no one from the Viceroy's barracks would be spying on this poor, drunken sod. "It was that hijo de puta, Grisham! The man was running away from us. We could have caught up to him, but instead, the Capitan shot him from a distance and he fell off his horse. The Capitan said he was only trying to wound him, so we could catch up, but....." Jimenez leaned over and spat on the floor. "When we rode up and found the don dead, the Capitan didn't look too upset, you know? I'm not even sure it was the bullet that killed him, anyway. I think he broke his neck when he fell off."

Helm ground his teeth. This was at least the third version that Jimenez had told him about the event. "I find that a little hard to believe. I heard that don was an expert horseman. You're trying to tell me he just fell off, even after he was wounded?"

Jimenez looked sullen. "Okay. Maybe he wasn't so dead when we found him. But he was sure dead when we left!"

"And what happened then?"

Jimenez peered at him. Oho! Was this cunning rearing its head? "How do I know that Grisham didn't send you?"

Because he hates my guts and the feeling is very mutual? No. Couldn't say that; it wouldn't work. "Unlike you, Grisham has nothing on me; nor does he have anything I need. Why would I work for him?" He poised the bottle over Jimenez's glass. "More wine?"

Continue to Part Two

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