To Friends

By Linda Vogt Bindner

The coach rolled to a sharp stop at the front gates of the imposing de la Vega hacienda. Dust particles swirled in the warm air, momentarily blocking the red glow of the sun as it dipped softly beyond the horizon. The coach driver jumped down from his high perch above the wheels and, after the dust settled, swung the door open on squeaky hinges.

This is it, he commented in a rough peasant accent. The wind ruffled his shaggy hair as he reached up to help the passengers alight.

A young girl wearing a long, stifling black dress and high buttoned shoes descended first into the cooler air of evening. Her flushed cheeks betrayed how badly the heat of the journey had affected her, and she fluttered a fan weakly at her sweaty neck. Are you sure this is it, Papa?

Of course I'm sure, answered the aging gentleman that followed her to the ground. Not a drop of sweat would dare show itself on his round cheeks, though he also wore black, and a silk cravat kept his white shirt close to his throat. A round, trim bowler sat flat on his grey hair. He pulled the brim down determinedly and asked the driver to remain at the front gates until released, then passed him a couple pesos to help persuade him. The driver grinned, showing several rotten teeth, and nodded enthusiastically.

Don Alejandro answered the man's incessant knocking on the hacienda's front door, his shirt clinging to his sweaty back, his tie hanging limply around his neck. It was unusually late to be receiving visitors. When he pulled the door open to reveal the staunch man and his ruffled daughter standing impatiently at the gates, his face fell to a look of disbelief.

I see you remember me, Señor de la Vega, the man said, his American drawl pronouncing itself clearly.

Edward! Alejandro exclaimed. My old friend! What are you doing clear out here in California? His wide smile beamed at the two. Won't you come in? He opened the door wider, allowing the man and girl to pass into the cool interior of the hacienda. The girl's boots clicked on the inlaid Spaish tile in the entryway, and Alejandro reached out towards her. Is this lovely young lady your daughter? he asked gallantly.

Edward removed his hat. Yes, this is Elizabeth. Then he paused before softly saying, I have come to collect on our bargain.

Don Alejandro glanced from the man to his female companion and back again. Bewildered, he suddenly turned and called into the house, Diego, would you come here for a minute?

What is it, Father? The tall, scholastic Diego appeared from the library, his tone slow and casual. He leisurely buttoned his shirt sleeves at his delicate wrists as he joined his father in the hall. You didn't tell me you were expecting guests, he accused mildly and smiled at the strangers.

Diego. Don Alejandro faltered, then took a steadying breath and continued. Diego, this is Mr. Edward Spencer and his daughter, Elizabeth. He paused again as Diego shook hands with the austere Mr. Spencer and bowed to the young lady. I feel a little awkward telling you this, Diego, continued Alejandro, but Mr. Spencer's daughter is your fianceé.

The smile immediately left Diego's face and he looked sharply at his father. She's my what? he exclaimed.

Darkness enclosed the library windows in soft, velvety sheets. Flickering candle flame broke through the night, casting strange shadows in the corners, and the furniture looked large and cruel without the kindness of sunlight. Diego watched the shadows leap along the fireplace as he sat listening to his father talk to Mr. Spencer. He let their voices drone in the background as his mind roamed from thought to thought. He felt Felipe's eyes on him and he glanced over to the corner where the teenager leaned tiredly against the wall.

Very little had been said about this mystery engagement since Mr. Spencer had retrieved his bags and released the coach not long after his arrival. Don Alejandro had naturally asked his friend and daughter to stay at the hacienda while arrangements could be made for the marriage.

Diego's mind recoiled as the word entered his thoughts. Marriage! He simply could not get married now. There was still too much work for him to do in Los Angeles for his life to be complicated with a wife. And Victoria.... Diego groaned and lowered his head to his hands. How could he explain to his father that he didn't want to marry this young American girl because he was in love with the local tavern owner, though she had never reciprocated his feelings except for the times he'd been dressed in black and masked so she wouldn't recognize him, a secret which he could not admit to since discovery meant a certain death sentence? Somehow Diego knew his father would not understand his dilemma.

A laugh from Mr. Spencer caused him to lift his head. Alejandro and Spencer were thoroughly enjoying themselves as they relived some moments of the thrilling times they'd spent together as young men travelling in England, and Diego and Elizabeth, the apparent reason for this unexpected visit, were going unnoticed as the night wore on.

Elizabeth sat primly on the love seat under the open window, but he could see what the effort was costing her. The lack of light in the room could not hide the shadows under her eyes or the dirt on her dress. Travelling in California was a hot, messy business, as Diego well knew, and it looked like Elizabeth had reached the end of her endurance. Her blond hair straggled loosely from her black bonnet, and he could see the pink of sunburn on her cheeks. With her fair complexion, even the short ride from the coast in a covered coach had taken its toll. She looked uncomfortable, out of place, and unhappy as she blinked exhausted eyes at the candles.

Diego stood and motioned for Felipe, who gladly came to him after standing so long in the background. The two older men continued talking, ignoring the others in the room. Felipe, prepare the second guest room for the señorita. It looks like my father is too caught up in his memories to remember his manners. I think Señorita Spencer needs sleep more than stories from the past. Felipe grinned and hurried off, glad to have something to do.

Diego crossed to the young lady. Señorita Spencer, would you like me to show you to your room? Felipe is preparing it now. I fear if we wait for our fathers to finish talking, we'll be up all night. He smiled kindly and offered his arm to her.

She sighed gratefully and let him help her up. I am a bit tired, she agreed hesitantly, her quiet drawl sounding strange to his ears.

You look exhausted. Travelling in such hot weather is tiring indeed. He picked up a candle sitting on a nearby table, then led her out of the room and down the hall. They had almost reached her room when she stopped and looked down the length of her black dress to her shoes.

Sir, she started after a short pause.

Please, call me Diego.

She looked up. Diego. May I be honest with you?

Diego encouraged, By all means.

She bit her lip, her sunburned face flushed. I just want you to know that I had nothing to do with this marriage business.... I'm sorry. I'm so tired I'm not speaking very politely.

Diego patted her consolingly on the arm. No, not at all. You have something on your mind? he prompted.

Well, I've been trying to talk my father out of this silly wedding idea of his for over a year. The truth is, there's a man back home in New York who asked for my hand, but Papa.... She stopped, biting her lip again.

Diego smiled softly in understanding. I gather your father prefers a complete stranger over this gentleman?

Elizabeth nodded. He's not a bad sort, but he's not very well off financially. We've argued with Papa for months, but he won't listen. She drew back a bit to settle her thoughts. I'm afraid my father's a very stubborn man. He's very powerful and not used to people not seeing things his way. She took a deep breath. I wanted you to know how things are before this conspiracy goes any further.

Diego laughed, feeling his spirits lighten as she spoke. I thank you for speaking so freely, señorita. Your arrival gave me quite a shock.

I can only imagine, she laughed with him, her hesitation gone now.

No matter how well meaning our parents are, they can't expect two people to marry when neither wants to.

Elizabeth nodded. Then I can assume you have reasons to discourage this match as well?

Diego glanced over at Felipe as the young man came out of the guest room, carrying a candle. Let's just say that a marriage would complicate some...long term projects I'm working on. Felipe rolled his eyes and shook his head.

Elizabeth sighed. I'm glad you understand. Thank you, Diego.

Diego smiled, nodding. Any time, señorita. Now, here's your room, and a candle. He handed the light he carried to her outstretched hand. The nights are cool in California, so make sure the windows are closed.

She smiled and said good-night, and Diego slumped against the wall and sighed in relief.

Diego got a late start the following morning due to the long hours he'd sat up with his father and Mr. Spencer. Zorro's midnight rendezvous with three rather unfriendly banditos did not help Diego's disposition either. Dark, heavy clouds covered the sky like an unfriendly scowl, weighing his spirits down even further than the lack of sleep, but he greeted Felipe cheerfully nonetheless and asked if their guests had risen for breakfast yet. It was then that he discovered how Don Alejandro and Edward Spencer had gone to town earlier that morning to spread the happy news that Diego was finally accepting the responsibilities of a caballero and getting married.

The instant he understood Felipe's quick message he hurried to Elizabeth's room, saying to Felipe as he went, Leave it to my father to make a bigger hash of my life than I already have. A fast explanation of the situation spurred Elizabeth to dress in a habit suitable for a ride into town. Hopefully they could catch their fathers before too much damage was done.

Elizabeth was astonished and disapproving at the smallness of Los Angeles as she, Diego, and Felipe cantered under the wooden sign proudly bearing the name of the pueblo on its weathered boards. The streets were brown and dusty, and dirt streaked the lower half of most of the buildings surrounding the central plaza. She could see straight through main street to the other end of town and out to the barren land beyond. Elizabeth's eyes widened. My father wanted me to live here? she asked in disbelief.

Diego laughed at the look on her face. It's not bad once you get used to it. He reigned his buckskin to the left and dismounted at the tavern hitching rail. Here's the tavern. We should find our exuberant parents inside. He helped Elizabeth to the ground and preceded her into the noisy, bustling building. Elizabeth wrinkled her nose at smells indistinguishable to Diego's more seasoned senses, and paused hesitantly on the threshold.

Diego, I'm not sure I should come into a place like this, she mentioned.

Diego heard her concern, but saw Victoria Escalante come towards him from the bar and he knew that any hope of avoiding damage from Alejandro could be forgotten. He sighed, but turned a bright smile on her as she approached, an accusatory look on her pretty, dark face.

Diego de la Vega! What is this about you getting married? Don Alejandro has been talking about it all morning!

Diego found his father in the crowd and glared at him. Alejandro smiled back and lifted his glass. The wine he was drinking perfectly matched the new gold embroidered burgundy coat he wore over his white silk shirt, but Diego was not impressed with the costume. My father has the tendency to be a little hasty at times, he announced loudly, still glaring.

As does mine, included Elizabeth firmly.

Victoria looked around Diego's shoulder at the American standing behind him. Is this your - fianceé? She stressed the last word mockingly.

Diego raised his eyebrows in surprise at Victoria's unusually harsh tone. Forgive me. Victoria Escalante, this is Señorita Elizabeth Spencer. She's come all the way from New York with her father. They arrived only last evening.

Victoria and Elizabeth politely shook hands, but Victoria eyed the other girl like a cat protecting its dinner. Diego's puzzlement increased when Victoria pointed out the table where Alejandro sat, then stiffly turned her back and walked away.

Elizabeth seemed slightly taken aback as well. She's not very friendly for a waitress, she commented.

Diego assured her that Victoria didn't seem to be herself today.

They moved to the table where Alejandro was sitting with Edward, the Alcalde, and Sergeant Mendoza. All four men had glasses of wine in front of them, and Mendoza was working on a plate of tamales from the kitchen. They seemed to be in high spirits for so early in the day. Before either Diego or Elizabeth could say anything, Edward stood up, his glass in hand.

Here's to the happy couple! he exploded jovially and swallowed half the contents in his glass. His face was getting a bit red from the amount of liquor he had already consumed.

Now, Papa.... came the nervous reply from Elizabeth.

Alejandro cut her off. Look, Diego, I finally get to wear this coat. Do you know how long I've been saving it? It's your engagement coat, which I swore not to put on until the day....

Yes, Father, I know what it's for. Diego's voice sounded patient, but he didn't feel patient at all. What had happened to everybody all of a sudden? His dignified father was getting drunk before noon in the tavern, a young prissy American girl was looking around the room like it was a brothel in San Diego, and Victoria was treating him like he'd committed some heinous crime against a beloved pet. What was wrong with everybody?

Diego placed a calming hand on Alejandro's burgundy shoulder. Look, Father, can I talk to you for just a moment? He pulled the older man up and walked a bit away from the group at the table. Elizabeth and I....

Isn't she a wonderful girl, Diego? Alejandro interrupted. She's perfect, just what we've been looking for.

Father -

She's a little timid now, but wait...

Please, can I..?

...till she gets used to the place! It's...

Will you listen..?

...perfect! Now Edward and I have it all planned. You'll wear your black suit and she'll wear....

Diego lost his patience. Father! The yell echoed in the suddenly quiet room.

What? was Alejandro's mild reply.

Diego sighed. How he hated to make a scene. I need to talk to you about this marriage.

Alejandro sympathetically patted his son's shoulder. I know you don't know her very well yet.

That's the point, Father, Diego said emphatically, trying to control his temper. I don't know her, she doesn't know me. I don't feel it's right for two perfect strangers to....

Edward Spencer scraped his bench on the floor and sauntered over to join the de la Vega's. He draped his arm around Alejandro's shoulders and said to him, What's the problem, Shorty?

Shorty? Diego questioned, looking at his father. The name was incongruous since Edward was a good two inches shorter than Alejandro, and Diego towered over them both.

Papa, please listen to me, Elizabeth urged, coming to stand at Diego's side.

Diego tried again. We don't think we should get married. The statement sounded clear and blunt in the hushed room. Every customer's head had turned to watch the interesting scene unfolding between the well-respected caballeros and the unknown Americans. Entertainment was rare in Los Angeles, and no one wanted to miss this special treat.

Edward spluttered angrily at Diego. Why? Is there something wrong with my daughter?

Diego spread his hands, defenseless. Well, no, of course not. It's just that we don't....

We've had this bargain since'82. Before you were even born! Edward poked a finger at his daughter's pink face. My first child to Shorty's first child.

With respect to sexes, of course, Alejandro interjected.

And you're my first child, continued Edward.

And you're mine. Alejandro bobbed his head, a little perplexed. My only child. The only de la Vega left!

Diego said, Believe me, I know, Father, but that doesn't give you the right to marry me off to someone I've never met.

And what about Gerrold? added Elizabeth vehemently.

Bah! Gerrold! Edward said scornfully.

Victoria appeared at Diego's other side, a white cloth wrapped in her hands. Who is Gerrold? She stood by Diego half defensively, half accusingly, an angry expression on her face.

Reluctantly Diego turned to her to explain, I think he's a good friend of Elizabeth's in New York.

He's a loafer! exclaimed Edward.

Elizabeth disputed, Papa, he is not!

'Elizabeth'? Victoria confronted Diego. You've barely just met the girl and already you're calling her by her given name? Victoria sounded scandalized.

The Alcalde's chuckle broke through the arguing conversations. Oh, Sergeant, this is getting good! He rubbed his mustache in gleeful anticipation, the buttons on his gray coat catching what little light came from the cloudy sky into the tavern.

Diego glanced over at DeSoto still seated at the table. Ignacio, please.

Mendoza twitched nervously in his chair. Should I call some lancers, Alcalde?

Whatever for, Sergeant?

What if there's trouble? The sergeant's voice rose with each word. He looked worriedly at the group standing before him.

Trouble? From a de la Vega?! The Alcalde laughed hysterically. Sit down and enjoy your lunch, Mendoza. You won't get another scene like this for months!

Alejandro waved a hand at the Alcalde. Just what is that supposed to mean, sir?

Diego grabbed a burgundy sleeve with his fingers. Father, could we please discuss this someplace less public?

Oh, no! Not this time, Diego! Alejandro jerked back to glare at the Alcalde. Explain yourself!

The Alcalde laughed heartily. The noble de la Vega - in a tavern squabble!

Edward's face turned a shade pinker. Apparently the wine he'd drunk had greatly weakened his hold on his hot temper. He said, You are not to use that tone of voice in front of my daughter!

Elizabeth groaned and bit her lip. Papa, please.

Edward turned on her. You stay out of this! He linked arms with Alejandro, his round shape fluffing with rage. We'll defend our noble names to the last! he cried, raising his arm straight into the air.

Diego realized he was rapidly losing control of the situation. He moved away from Victoria to get on the other side of Alejandro, trying his best to steer both men towards the door. Let's talk about this at home. Felipe moved to help him.

Alejandro looked baffled. Don't you want to get married?

Exasperated, Diego said, Not to a total stranger!

Edward leaned across Alejandro and slapped Diego on the arm. Well, here's your chance! Get to know her all you want!

Diego shook his head. Can't you understand? I don't want to marry Elizabeth! She doesn't want to marry me!

Victoria snapped the towel against her side. There's that first name again! How long did it take you to use my first name? Months! She angrily set her jaw and glared at him.

Mendoza laughed this time. He leaned conspiratorially into the Alcalde and said, If I didn't know better, I'd say the señoritia is jealous.

The Alcalde looked shrewdly at Victoria's angry face. You know, Sergeant, you may be right.

Victoria's eyes widened. Me? Jealous? Ha!

Edward waved a pudgy hand at Victoria. You, tavern wench! Stay out of this!

The blood suddenly drained from Victoria's face.

DeSoto cackled. Here it comes!

How dare you! Victoria advanced on Diego. Diego de la Vega, I want him out of my tavern! Now! she roared.

He put up a hand to stop her advance. Now, Victoria, calm down.

But she continued. I would not expect your family to own such animals as friends!

The experience of former dealings with her father gave Elizabeth a good idea of where this conversation was heading, and she smoothly stepped in front of Victoria, blocking her father's path to his new adversary. Now, please, let's stop this arguing.

She didn't have a chance to continue further. With a surprisingly powerful swing of his left arm Edward effortlessly knocked his daughter aside. A split second later his right hand was up and swinging down on Victoria, who was too stunned at the quick action from such a fat little man to get out of the way. A snarl spread over his red features, and his face broke into a distorted smile of enjoyment.

But Diego's fingers wrapped around Edward's wrist, stopping his swing only inches from Victoria's face.

His mouth set in a tight line of controlled anger, Diego softly said, I don't know how you're used to treating women in New York, Señor, but you will not strike this woman in Los Angeles.

Edward's bleary eyes tore themselves away from Victoria and focused on Diego. The younger man saw the muscles in the red face gather together and Diego instinctively ducked.

He had to crouch almost to the floor as Edward was so much shorter than himself to avoid the little man's second attack. When Edward lost his balance with his badly aimed swing, Victoria took the opening to bump him hard, sending him to the floor. Felipe, who had caught Elizabeth when she'd been pushed out of the way, set her on her feet again and went to lure Alejandro out of the tavern.

But the elder de la Vega was saying, I'll have none of that, Felipe! He hauled Edward up and said, How dare you take a swing at my son! and punched his friend so hard Edward stumbled to land on his back across Mendoza's tamales.

My lunch! wailed Mendoza.

Lancers! bellowed DeSoto.

Get up, you coward! yelled Alejandro.

You'll pay for this! screamed Edward.

Not in my tavern! ordered Victoria.

But it was too late. The entire lunch crowd was spontaneously engaging in a wild free-for-all.

Diego motioned to Felipe to protect Elizabeth, who was standing frozen between two groups of men that were beating each other with sheer joy, and he moved in Victoria's direction. Once he got her moving, pulling Elizabeth to a safe corner was easy for Felipe, but Victoria was smaller than Diego and wove with ease through the tumbling crowd of men and women. Diego had to push around three women, wives of local caballeros who had suddenly decided they hated each other. When he'd untangled himself from the yards of skirt material that wrapped around his legs, he was forced to block two punches from a farmer known for his benevolent temper, and crawl under a table just to reach the bar.

He stood up, then ducked as a chair flew past him and over the counter top, where it smashed into a row of nicely arranged wine bottles. Glass flew in a hundred directions and wine sprayed across the floor, making the worn tile slippery and dangerous. Diego stayed crouched, but glanced up to find Victoria. He saw her red skirt swish behind the bar, not three feet from him.

Alcalde! she yelled into the fray. Do something!

The arrival of five unprepared, red-coated lancers kept the Alcalde's attention away from stopping the fight long enough for those five men to be drawn into the battle. Another chair flew into the bar, and Victoria fell to the floor to avoid the splintering wood. She jumped up, furious, shards of glass imbedded in her palms, and grabbed an unbroken bottle of liquor to drop on any unsuspecting head that came in reach.

Diego managed to avoid the bottle as she threw it in the general direction of a lancer coming up behind him. His fist flew into the face of a dirty man he'd never seen before, and he flipped the man's companion over the bar away from Victoria. She was reaching for another bottle when he grabbed her around the waist and unceremoniously hauled her through the curtain into the relative safety of the kitchen.

Diego, let me go! Victoria struggled against the arms wrapped like steel girders around her tiny waist. They'll destroy my tavern!

He held her close, her back pressed against his chest, refusing to release her. I'd rather they destroyed your tavern than you, he stated simply.

But your father! she insisted, twisting against his arms to get a look at his face. His hair was over his eyes, and a streak of wine dripped down his right temple. His shirt was torn and glass sparkled on the tops of his shoulders.

Diego nodded. I know. He's probably having the time of his life. He parted the curtain for a discrete look at the fight raging beyond the scanty barrier. He saw Alejandro floundering in the crowd with Edward, their hands at each other's throats. The Alcalde expertly parted two yelling ranch hands, and Felipe tripped a man twice his size as he made a grab for the terrified Elizabeth Spencer. He caught a glimpse of the satisfied smile on Felipe's face, but a caballero wearing a tall hat blocked his view. The man was striding purposefully towards the kitchen, and Victoria pulled a skillet off its hook on the wall to crack on his head, dropping him to the floor. Diego pushed him out of the way, then punched another stranger also heading for the safety of the kitchen.

Damn! he said, shaking his hand and flexing his fingers to make sure he hadn't broken anything. The jaws of these men are getting harder all the time.

The joyful noise from the other room was rising to a hysterical level. Men yelled, women screamed, glass shattered, and wood scraped on the walls and floor. Alcalde DeSoto added to the melee as he ordered more lancers from the garrison to assist him, succeeding only in adding more bodies to be thrown across the room.

Victoria, skillet in hand, tried to push past Diego to rejoin the fight. He pulled her back just in time to avoid another bottle of wine sailing through the air. Diego, let me go! she ordered loudly.

I don't want you hurt! he answered briefly, struggling as he was knocked off balance by two fighting señoritas. One of them pulled back her arm, preparing to punch her rival in the face, and her elbow collided with Diego's cheek bone. Oof!

Victoria put her shoe square on the woman's behind and pushed her into the bar, where she collapsed with her opponent. This is the type of situation for Zorro, she suggested pointedly, looking fiercely at Diego.

Unfortunately, he's not here! Diego yelled over the noise. He yanked a rolling pin off a shelf just as two men fell sprawling into the kitchen. They rose quickly to face each other again. Diego swung his weapon down hard on one man's head.

You're wrong, Diego! Victoria continued as she prepared to wield her skillet again. He is here!

Who is? Diego busily kicked the second man's legs out from under him, and Victoria brought her skillet down on his foot.

Zorro! she yelled ferociously.

Diego grunted a laugh as he towed the second man to his unsteady feet before pitching him through the separation in the curtain. The man fell into the two warring señoritas, making a pile of all three on the floor behind the bar. If only I were Zorro, he mocked, grabbing for the other man as he rose to lunge for Victoria.

She ruthlessly clubbed the stranger in the face and said, But you are Zorro!

Diego had thrown the unconscious man through the curtain to join his friend before Victoria's statement fully registered in his mind. What?! He whirled disbelievingly to stare at her with widened eyes.

She smiled, suddenly calm, and endearingly cocked her head. You're Zorro, she stated again.

His eyes widened further. Excuse me?

She laughed, a serene island of happiness in the tavern bedlam. Don't try to pretend, Diego. Then, when he continued to look confused, she said, You've given me plenty of hints, you know.

He blinked and sat back on his heels. This was certainly an unexpected surprise. But how...?

She interrupted him. Simple elimination. You've always talked about eliminating certain variants during your science experiments. I just did as you told me to do; I watched everybody and eliminated each man in the pueblo until I came down to you.

Diego's eyes were only less wide now. Really?

Victoria looked at him uncertainly. Didn't you want me to discover your identity?

Well, he hesitated, Um...yes..I mean no! Victoria, this is utterly ridiculous! I am not Zorro!

She circled him shrewdly, an expectant smile on her face. I admit I only had my suspicions until I watched you fight today. Then it was pretty obvious.

Why, Diego thought, do I still feel like a piece of meat? Aloud, he said, Victoria, don't you think you're forgetting one important variable? She waited for him to go on, the skillet resting on the old chopping block in the center of the kitchen. Isn't it possible that Zorro is a man from outside the pueblo? Someone none of us has ever seen before? He crossed his arms, trying to look as analytical as possible to hide the fact that his heart was racing in his chest.

Victoria had to admit that she had not considered that. But you're tall like he is, and you have a mustache.... She heard the doubt she was beginning to feel creep into her voice. I was so certain.

Calmly Diego patted Victoria's shoulders and looked squarely into her troubled eyes. Let's look at this from another angle. We both know Zorro is an excellent horseman. He took on a look of consternation. I, on the other hand, occasionally have problems with horses.

Your old mare did throw you a few years ago, Victoria agreed.

Diego dropped his hands and continued. We also know that my abilities as a swordsman

Victoria covered her mouth with her hand to hide her smile. True. Yet before he could say anything more, she said, But what about the fighting you just did - throwing that man over the bar, coming in here to keep me 'safe'? She looked accusing again.

He lifted his hands and shrugged. Well, I was taught a few moves for moderate self defense in Madrid - every student is. And, he hesitated, letting his guard down a bit, and I care about you. I didn't want to see you hurt.

A slow, pleased smile spread across her face. She quietly placed a hand on his torn sleeve. Thank you, Diego. I....

The sound of a pistol firing interrupted the calm in the kitchen and stopped the fighting in the tavern. The sudden silence halted the conversation and brought Diego and Victoria hurriedly through the curtain to see what new event had transpired.

The Alcalde stood with his arm raised, a smoking pistol in his hand. Every eye in the tavern was trained on him.

That will be quite enough, he said, his tone commanding and condescending at the same time.

No one moved. No one made a sound.

Then Victoria slowly gasped. My tavern! she wailed. She carefully walked out among the splintered furniture, the upturned benches, the broken bottles and liquor spilled on the floor. The bar remained untouched, though pieces of wood and glass littered its top, and the windows were still intact. But only one table was remotely usable again. The rest lay in scattered heaps under bodies and across the floor. Blankets that had been draped over the balcony railing hung in shreds, and several slats in the banister needed repairing. Only the chandelier remained completely untouched as it swung sedately from the ceiling.

The Alcalde pointed to Don Alejandro and Edward Spencer. Lancers, arrest those two!

Lancers in torn and bloodied uniforms converged on the two men leaning against the wall as Diego stepped forward. Arrest them? But why? he demanded.

Mendoza timidly tapped DeSoto's shoulder. But mí Alcalde, that is Don Alejandro!

DeSoto sighed in aggravation. He is a tavern brawler and a disturber of the peace. He wrinkled his nose. And he's drunk. Get him out of here. The lancers seized Alejandro and Edward by their coats. Both men were too tired to resist.

Papa! Elizabeth cried.

Diego rushed forward. Alcalde!

DeSoto patiently raised his arm. Don't worry, de la Vega. A few hours in my jail won't hurt either of them. I'm not going to hang them, he sneered, just sober them.

What about this mess? Victoria's angry voice stopped his departure.

The Alcalde glanced around the demolished room. Well...I will send some lancers over to clean up when the opportunity arises. That is the best I can do at the moment. He gave a little bow of his head, then motioned his men and the prisoners out.

Diego turned concerned eyes to Victoria. Excuse me, but I must see to my father. She nodded, and he hurried Felipe and Elizabeth outside where most of the fighters were straggling. Laughter replaced the angry shouts from only moments before as opponents became friends again, and it seemed that peace was restored in the little town.

Several hours later a disgruntled Diego threw himself into his desk chair in his laboratory. The old chair creaked loudly in the echoing cavern, and Toronado snorted at the noise. Diego groaned.

Felipe, if I ever become as stubborn as that...that Mr. Spencer, please beat me over the head with a board. Felipe smiled quietly as he continued his job of dusting the beakers and other tools Diego used in his experiments. The man completely refused to listen to me! I spent three hours trying to reason with him this afternoon! I wager he'd rather stay in jail than pay the fine for starting that fight in the tavern, and he'd prefer an unhappy daughter to admitting he was wrong about his choice for her husband. He dropped his hand to his desk with a thud. This situation is intolerable!

Felipe set down the test tube he was holding and motioned at Diego.

You're right, Felipe. Maybe force is the only thing Edward Spencer understands. But what can I do? Challenge him to a fist fight? A duel at twenty paces? His voice took on a sarcastic tone. Or maybe just a simple fencing match in the plaza at noon, so Victoria can discover my identity again. He sighed. No, talking doesn't work and I can't force him to change his mind.

Felipe sent him a scheming smile, and plopped Zorro's black hat on Diego's head. Diego looked up and his depressed features lightened. He sighed, then grinned. You know, Felipe, if it weren't for Zorro, I'd have to solve my own problems, he joked as he stood up and began unbuttoning his ruffled shirt.

Don Alejandro leaned wearily against the back wall of his cell and tried again to relax. The pounding in his head subsided somewhat with his motionless position, but Edward's incessant talking kept it from diminishing much further.

Preposterous! Edward was saying from the only other cell in the Los Angeles jail besides the one Alejandro occupied. Outrageous! I demand to be released!

Alejandro groaned. Sit down, Edward. Raving won't get you out of here any faster.

Edward jerked a purple face in his friend's direction. How can you take this so calmly?

Alejandro futilely waved his hand at the empty air. What choice do we have? You won't pay the fine for disturbing the peace and I won't let you sit here alone in a foreign prison. We should be thankful that the Alcalde hasn't decided to hang us.

He wouldn't dare!

Oh-ho-ho, he would indeed! You shouldn't put anything past Ignacio DeSoto.

Zorro stepped suddenly forward, out of the shadowy doorway. Wise words from a wise man, he said appreciatively.

Edward's mouth fell open. Who the devil are you? he asked while Alejandro jumped up as quickly as his head would permit to grip the bars of the cell door.

Zorro! What are you doing here?

Zorro? Edward repeated, a blank look on his round face.

Zorro looked at Edward thoughtfully out of the corners of his eyes, but spoke to Alejandro. I understand I have your son to thank for saving Victoria from a rather nasty beating this morning.

Alejandro chuckled, though his memory on that part of the morning was a bit hazy. Yes, Diego does surprise me at times.

Don't be too harsh on him, Señor. Zorro allowed himself the luxury of a small smile. He will be all that you hope, given time. I can guarantee that.

Edward sneered. Perhaps he needs a heavier hand. If Diego and Elizabeth did as they were told in the first place, we wouldn't be in this unacceptable situation.

Zorro's attention slowly slid from Alejandro to Edward, his features hardening as he did so. Señor Spencer, he began. You should be grateful to Don Diego. I have the tendency to dislike people who threaten Señorita Escalante, and my temper far exceeds the limits of yours

She's only a barmaid, was Edward's contemptuous answer.

With an extreme effort, Zorro contained his anger. I'm here to see that your fines are payed, as the Alcalde asks. He turned to Alejandro and said apologetically, Even the best citizen must admit when he is wrong. Alejandro nodded in shamed agreement. And a generous donation to the tavern is not out of order. I heard the lunch crowd became quite rowdy with the two of you to instigate them.

He moved to Alejandro's cell and deftly picked the lock with the tip of his sword. The door swung open and an amazed Alejandro stepped out. But the minute Zorro released Edward from his cell, he rushed past him without a word, charging through the door to the Alcalde's office. Luckily DeSoto was supervising his clean-up crew, so the office was deserted. Edward spotted a pistol left carelessly laying on the edge of the Alcalde's desk and jumped for it.

Only an outlaw would hide his identity under a mask! he said as he raised and cocked the pistol, pointing it directly at Zorro.

Alejandro moved quickly to stand next to the man in black. Edward, you don't know what you're doing!

Edward only waved Alejandro out of the way. I don't want to hurt you, my friend, but that Alcalde of yours will be most happy to receive an outlaw, I'm sure. Now, bandit, hand over your sword.

Zorro calmly stared at him. He drew his sword from its sheath with a harsh scraping sound. You don't miss a trick, do you, Señor? He moved warily into a more open position than the doorway to the cells. I'm afraid you leave me no choice but to teach you a lessen the hard way.

In a blur of steel, Zorro expertly flicked the pistol out of Edward's hand and sent it spinning across the floor. The sword point leveled at Edward's throat. Now, your fine, please.

Edward gulped, his eyes wide, but he dug through his trouser pockets until he pulled out the right amount for the fine set earlier by the Alcalde.

I'm sure the Alcalde will be just as happy to receive that as me, Zorro said with his blunt humour. He then escorted the two men outside, where he summoned the Alcalde with a sharp yell. DeSoto stumbled out of the tavern, taken off guard by the sudden appearance of his nemesis. Victoria followed him out, as did Mendoza. They stood just in the shade offered by the tavern roof to watch.

Zorro! Lancers, get him!

But before any man could make a move, Zorro said, Hold, Alcalde! I merely wish to tell you that your fines from these gentlemen are on your desk. Felipe and Elizabeth joined the group in the plaza as he glanced at Victoria. They also wish to generously donate a little something to the tavern as amends for this morning's disturbance.

Victoria smiled graciously. That would be most acceptable. Thank you, Zorro.

Our pleasure, Alejandro interrupted, stressing the first word. Victoria smiled her forgiveness.

Zorro continued, Señors, this whole problem started with what was obviously an arranged marriage. He swatted Edward's rear end with the flat of his sword and looked Alejandro reproachfully in the eye. Such contracts often work out well, but to force children into a marriage they cannot abide or do not want proves only one thing; that the parents are cruel and unwise. He confronted Edward then, his sword point lowered safely to the ground. I believe you would rather see your lovely daughter in an unhappy marriage than admit your error in the judgement of her chosen husband. This can only cause unhappiness to you as well as to her. Edward looked uncertainly at Zorro, then glanced at Elizabeth. His grey hair blew in the California wind, and he suddenly looked tired as the fight wore out of him.

I admit I might have judged him harshly, Edward said at last. Perhaps I will rethink Gerrold's request. He looked sharply at Elizabeth. But some things will have to improve before I allow my daughter to marry such a man. Elizabeth's slow but radiant smile showed her happiness.

Zorro smiled slightly as well. I believe you've made the right decision. Now, Señor, go home where you belong.

Edward ruffled his fingers through his aging hair. Yes, yes I think we will.

The lancers in the plaza had been standing silent throughout the entire exchange. They remained motionless as the conversation lulled, but the Alcalde moved forward like lightning was at his heels, charging the three men with his drawn sword. Nobody's going anywhere! These men are still my prisoners. And you will be joining them, Zorro!

Zorro's sword came up to easily shove aside the Alcalde's attack. Not so fast, Alcalde. You forget, their fines are paid; they are free men.

The Alcalde sneered. But you are not! He raised his sword, standing ready to fight.

Zorro shrugged affably. If you insist. But remember, this was your idea. He saluted, then met the Alcalde's position.

The two men slowly fought around the crowded plaza, Zorro carefully avoiding the many spectators standing near the buildings and under awnings, while the Alcalde tried his best to confound the outlaw's defense by staying as near the people as possible. Zorro only smiled and placed himself between the Alcalde and the crowd, frustrating the official at every turn.

Then suddenly Zorro calmly stepped forward and flicked his sword against the Alcalde's wrist. The political officer gave a yelp of pain and dropped his sword to the dusty street. Hugging his wrist to his chest, he backed up until he met a hitching rail, then stopped, unable to retreat any further. Zorro's blade hung steadily in the air to wave seductively in front of the Alcalde.

The Alcalde gasped, Someday, Zorro, I'll see you hang.

Zorro smiled winningly. Not today, Alcalde. His piercing whistle rang through the plaza like a bell on a clear day, and Toronado appeared from behind the mission. The horse snorted, then reared, scattering lancers and bystanders alike.

Zorro stepped back, abruptly carved his Z signature in the Alcalde's opulent brown silk vest, and leaped quickly into Toronado's waiting saddle. He circled the horse in the center of the plaza to keep the soldiers at bay before pulling Toronado to a stop in front of Victoria. His eyes turned a soft blue as he tenderly gazed at her from behind his mask.

Señorita, you have my heart, always. He reached down to take her hand in his glove. You will have my identity at the soonest possible moment. Please, be patient.

Victoria looked up, puzzled. But how did you know that I thought...? She stopped, cut off by her sudden confusion.

He smiled fondly. Affection for you encourages me to know many things, mí cariña. Until next time. He squeezed her hand, and released it slowly.

Zorro swiftly backed Toronado over two lancers who were ambitiously trying to maneuver around behind him, pushing them both to the ground. He allowed Toronado to rear, but he never took his eyes off Victoria until the horse's hooves thudded the ground. Toronado raced across the plaza, leaving only a cloud of dust hanging over the cheering crowd.

Late the next evening:

Diego leaned wearily on the top of the table under his hands. Here's the last table, Victoria. Where do you want it?

Victoria looked up from behind the bar to consider the arrangement of new tables in her tavern. After a thoughtful minute, she pointed to a tiny alcove created by three other strategically placed tables and a corner. There. It will make a nice little place for two people - no, too far to the left - there, perfect! She sat back on her heels to admire the effect. Diego and Felipe placed two single benches at the table, then gratefully sank onto them to rest.

You're right, it's perfect for two people. Diego grinned and winked at Felipe.

Victoria rolled her eyes, though she chose not to comment. Instead she carried three glasses of lemonade over to the two men and gave one to each, keeping the third for herself. Thank you both for helping me tonight. She glanced around the almost-clean room. I can't believe I have my tavern back in order so quickly. She laughed shortly. I also can't believe Señor Spencer made all these tables. They're beautiful. You didn't tell me he was a carpenter, Diego.

I found out when you did. In all the upset, I never thought to ask Father how his friend came by his money. How was I to guess he owns three of the most prestigious furniture markets in New York? There was a hint of irony in his chuckle.

Victoria set her glass down. By the way, how is Don Alejandro?

Well, he'll live. However, I don't think he'll be so quick to celebrate anything too soon. His head has to stop spinning first.

Victoria laughed and even Felipe smiled.

Sergeant Mendoza straggled in unannounced. With a hand supporting the small of his back, he said, Señorita! I don't suppose there's anybody here who can help a poor, injured sergeant move the rest of the broken wood to the burning pile out back? I'd do it myself, but.... He indicated his aching back, wrinkling his nose confidingly. Back problems - from so many grueling military campaigns. You understand.

Diego tried to hide his smile behind his glass. I'll be there in a moment, Sergeant.

Felipe shook his head, pointing at himself, then to the door.

Diego smiled in pleasant gratitude. Well thank you, Felipe. Felipe winked quickly at his friend and rose to help Mendoza, leaving Diego and Victoria to finish their drinks.

So, where is Señorita Spencer? Victoria asked casually when Felipe had disappeared through the door.

She's at the hacienda tending to a nasty sunburn, Diego answered just as casually. It's her fair skin, he explained.

Victoria nodded. Of course. They were silent, listening to evening sounds from outside; Mendoza's laugh, a horse whinny. Still nonchalant, Victoria asked, There is to be no marriage then?

Diego's eyes studied her calm face for a second before moving away again to gaze about the room. Not for me, thank goodness, he said after a long drink of the sour lemonade. Señorita Spencer plans to marry her friend if her father agrees. As for me...I guess I'm just not the marrying type. His eyes riveted to her face to gauge her reaction.

Her eyebrows rose.

Diego lowered his glass. Victoria, I've been wondering.

Yes, Diego?

He smiled shyly. Well, what Mendoza said yesterday morning - being jealous - were you?

Victoria's answer was a nervous giggle. That was when I thought you were Zorro.

Ah, yes, he nodded. And we both know I'm not Zorro, He gave a little laugh.

She laughed with him. Yes. She was watching him closely, her eyes narrowed and shrewd, just as they had been that morning in the kitchen.

Diego leaned back quickly, throwing his face into the corner's shadows. You're right, Victoria. This is an excellent table for two.

She tilted her head suspiciously. Then she surprised him by saying, You might not be Zorro, but you are a good friend. Diego smiled as she placed her left hand comfortably on his arm. Victoria lifted her glass of lemonade. To friends, she said.

He returned her toast. With a smile, he added, To tables for two.

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