Chapter 7

Zorro crept behind the cuartel stables, skirted the entire town, slipped stealthily to the mission, and from there to the back of the tavern.  The door leading to the kitchen was locked, as he’d expected.  Without a second thought, he used the edge of Victoria’s rain barrell to propel him onto the roof, and vaulted through the kitchen’s large upper window.

He moved on cat’s feet across the empty kitchen to the curtain leading to the tavern’s main room.  A quick glance through the chink in the curtain revealed nobody in the main room except Victoria, staring at the bar.  Someone had cleaned up the mess Diego’s and Bishop’s fight had caused earlier that day, and the tavern now gleamed, lighted by more than a dozen candles that made the place glow like the doors had been thrown open on a sunny day.  The bright light easily exposed the look of dejection staining Victoria’s pretty face.

Also staring hard at the bar, Zorro announced his presence by asking, “What are you looking at?”

Victoria whipped around, her dejection changing to alarm in seconds.  She only relaxed when she was certain he was alone.  “Zorro!  Are you here to help Don Diego escape from jail?”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Señorita,” Zorro said in regret.  “I’d only make him a fugitive.  I’d far rather determine what Bishop is up to.  I heard of his attack on you, and that I now owe Don Diego a great debt.”  He cradled her less injured left hand with his gloved fingers.  “I wish I’d been here to help.”

“Diego had things under control in no time,” Victoria complimented in what was quite possibly the first time she’d ever publicly supported the young don.  “He had Bishop tied up faster than the rest of us could react.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say he had taken lessons from you.”

Zorro couldn’t suppress his light chuckle.  “Maybe he simply pays attention.  I’m not here to give lessons anyway.  I need to find the bullet.  Perhaps you can help.”

The reason for Victoria’s previous dejection came out then.  “Except I can’t figure out where it is.  I’m sure I was standing right here, talking to Tansy when Bishop shot at me.  If the bullet hit the bottle of wine I was holding instead of hitting me, then it should be right here.”  Victoria gestured at the bottom half of the counter with her bandaged right hand.  “But I can’t find it, no matter how much light I use.”

That explained her use of so many candles.  Mirroring her pose, Zorro stared critically at the bar.  “You’d think something like a bullet hole would be obvious.”

“Yes.  But I don’t see one.”

“I  don’t, either.  Are you sure you’re looking in the right place?”

“I think I am.”

Zorro glanced towards the rest of the main room.  “Don Diego just told me that--”

“You’ve seen Diego?”

Zorro cocked his eyebrow in a show of exasperation.  “It was ridiculously easy to break into the cuartel and speak with him, especially since everybody thinks I’m him, and he’s in jail.  The Alcalde is already getting sloppy.”

“You always did say that overconfidence would be his downfall,” Victoria wryly noted.

Zorro’s smile was equally as wry.  “I guess I should have been saying that to him instead of you.”

Victoria’s laughter was filled with irony, making it easy for Zorro to guess her opinion.  “He wouldn’t have listened anyway.”

        “Well, I’m listening.  What can you tell me?”

Victoria instantly grew chagrined.  “Not much, I’m afraid.  I’ve already told you what I know.”

“You said that you were standing here.”  Zorro placed his gloved hands on Victoria’s arms to move her into position.  “Were you facing the door, or the kitchen?”

“The door.”

“Then Señorita Caldone must have been facing the kitchen.”  He moved to stand opposite her, and prepared to tug his gloves from his fingers.

Victoria stopped him.  “Tansy kept her riding gloves on while we talked.”

Zorro gave a very convincing jerk of surprise.  “She did?”

“Yes.”  Victoria nodded.  “It’s one of the few things that I’m sure about.  It was so hot today!  I remember thinking that I would have taken my gloves off if I were her, but of course…”  She shrugged dismissively.  “To each his own, I guess.”

The mask didn’t completely conceal the furrows of puzzlement on Zorro’s forehead.  “But it is odd.  Even I want to take my gloves off on a hot day.”

“It’s just coincidence, isn’t it?”

“Maybe.”  Zorro didn’t sound convinced.  “You said that you were holding a bottle… who was the wine for?”

A head shake swished Victoria’s curls against her back.  “I don’t know.  I’d never seen him before.  But Tansy got my attention before I could deliver it.”

“She kept you here?”

Victoria’s expression emitted tolerant exasperation.  “She talked to me, she didn’t keep me here.”

“You’re certain?”

“Absolutely,” Victoria said before his comment had fully registered.  As soon as it did, her expression grew intolerant.  “She’s my friend!  I’m sure she didn’t have anything evil in mind.”

Zorro’s smile again set her at ease.  “I don’t mean anything by this, Señorita, but I also don’t wish to assume.  After all, a man took a shot at you.  I’d be remiss if I left anything up to chance.”

Victoria grinned.  “‘Remiss.’  Now you sound like Diego.”

”Speaking of Don Diego… I heard what you said while visiting him in jail today.”

Victoria blanched, and her eyes widened, not with fear, but with… guilt?  No.  With sadness.

“Is it true?” he asked in the most gentle voice he could produce, not wanting to initialize that guilt he‘d expected her to feel.

She gazed at him for the longest moment in total silence.  Then she gave a reluctant nod.  “I’m sorry, Zorro,” she wailed in a whisper.  “I wish I could lie, but you don’t deserve that.”

She looked about ready to burst into tears.  “Oh, Victoria,” he soothed as he gathered her into his arms.  “Don’t feel bad about it.  I’m glad, if you want the truth.”

She lifted her head so she could stare at him, uncomprehending.  “You mean you’re not angry?”

Zorro gave a light laugh.  “Angry?  How could I be angry?  Honestly, I’m surprised it’s taken you this long to admit your feelings.”

Now she was astonished.  “You knew?”

His chuckle was slightly self-deprecating.  “I wouldn’t be Zorro if I didn’t.”

“Part of me thinks I should be in awe of your information network, but mostly I’m too grateful.”

“You don’t have to feel gratitude on my account.  What brought on this change?”

Victoria hesitated.  “It’s not a change so much as a waking up,” she finally decided.  “One day I realized that you and I have never had a real conversation.”

“Sure we have.  I ask questions, and you give me answers.”

Victoria’s sigh was definitely full of irritation.  “Helping you with your cause isn’t what I mean.”

“Then what do you mean?”

“Your hopes, your dreams.  I have no idea what you want in life.”

“Of course you do.  I want justice, the same as you.”

She shook her head.  “I do want justice, but what I mean is, what do you want to do with your life when your cause is over?  Do you want to have children?  How many?  Where do you want to live?  Should I keep the tavern, or sell it?  Should I open another one, and where?  Should I buy a whole new wardrobe?  What about Toronado?  Does he--”

“Don’t worry about Toronado.”

“But that’s my point,” Victoria argued. “I don’t know what to worry about, what to do.”

His incredulous laughter punctuated the air.  “You don’t have to do anything.”

Tears sounded in her voice.  “So you want me to just sit here and wait till you have to visit the Alcalde, or protest a tax, or--”

“Of course I don’t!  I expect you to do what you usually do.”  There was silence for a moment, then he hesitantly asked, “What do you usually do?”

Her laughter was just shy of a sob.  “Diego knows.”

“You’re saying I should ask Don Diego?”

The sob turned to genuine laughter now.  “No.  But don’t you see?  Diego’s here.  You’re often… not.”

“He’s an usurper?”  He looked at her, amazed.  “I never would have thought that of him.”

“Of course he isn’t,” said an exasperated Victoria.  “That’s not it.  I just mean that he’s always here.  He’s diligent, quiet, unassuming, but brilliant if people would just listen to him for once.”

“I listen to him.  I just talked to him tonight.”

“I don’t mean you, but the Alcalde, I guess.  The people.  His father.”

“Don Alejandro? I’ve always found him to be a very reasonable man.”

“Oh, he’s reasonable, all right, but to you, and people like you.”

        “Like me?”

        “Men of action, of conviction.  He doesn’t give Don Diego much respect, and I’m afraid I...“  She gave a regretful heave.  “I haven’t been much better.”

        “You?  You’re perfect,” he easily refuted.  “You must be confused about--”

        “No!”  She sounded angry now when she elucidated, “I’ve been… not so nice.  He’d understand what I mean.”

“I can’t imagine you being anything but nice and caring and--”

“But I have been,” Victoria persisted.  “Not nice, I mean, and to Diego.  But even then, I knew that he’s just always here, always around, he’s doing what he can, he’s listening… caring…”  Her voice trailed off into a thoughtful silence.  “And I’ve never appreciated him till now.”

“You appreciate him?”  She nodded, and he continued, “I’ll ask again, what changed?”

She shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I can’t put my finger on any one time.  One day I just looked at him… and he seemed different.”

Trying not to feel bad about how he was encouraging her to be open about himself, Zorro furrowed his brow under the mask.  “Different how?”

And again Victoria shrugged.  “I can’t tell you what I don’t know.  He fights injustice in his own way, with words, with his newspaper.  He cares… about everyone, though he doesn’t fight with a sword.  Still, he’s the first one to step in between someone and disaster, usually me.  He does what you aren’t here to do.”

“Sounds like I should either recruit him, or retire and let him be Zorro.”

Victoria’s laugh was again tearfilled.  “I think he’s been more help to you than any of us know, and he does it so quietly.  He’s so subtle that the Alcalde never even hears it when he insults him.”

Zorro rubbed Victoria’s arms in comfort.  “All this is interesting, but what does it have to do with you?”

She looked away, definitely guilty now.  “I… noticed.”


She didn’t do anything but nod.  “He’s always talking to me, and he’s so patient.  I prattle on, usually about you, and he just… listens.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

She gave a look that said the bad part was coming up.  “One day, just as a way to spend a hot afternoon, I asked him what he wants to do with his life, and you know what he said?”


“Exactly what you just said.”

“Meaning?”  There was a hint of apprehension in his voice for the first time.

Victoria ignored it, or missed it entirely, much to Zorro’s relief.  “We want the same things.  But he also wants a family, children, he wants to be the son his father needs, he even asked me what I think about religion, about the Indians, about running the tavern, about what it’s like to be a businesswoman in the colonies.  No one ever asks me that.  They just ask me how much the tavern is worth, like I’m only worth their time if the tavern makes a lot of money.”

“I’ve never thought that.”

“You also haven’t married me, even though we’ve been engaged for over a year.”

He made frustration suffuse his voice.  “You know I can’t do anything until--”

“I know!  That wasn’t a criticism.  It’s just… I don’t believe I’m saying this, but he can marry me when you can’t.”

Zorro couldn’t help himself, and stiffened ever so slightly.  “I don’t think he would appreciate being reduced to nothing more than a body at the altar.”

Victoria quickly agreed.  “I don’t think so either.  I want him to be so much more.  It’s like I simply woke up one day and noticed him, and he’s wonderful.”  She sounded surprised.

“That’s good, isn’t it?”

“But now, after what happened today, what with the Alcalde wanting to hang him, and him maybe not being here any longer, it means that I…”  She seemed hesitant to put her feelings into words.  “He’s the best friend I have in this pueblo, and I realized I don’t want to go on without him.”

Zorro was silent after her confession.  He again wrapped her in an embrace, cradling her to hopefully prove his lack of anger in this situation.  “I should be jealous, or angry, or at least worried.  But I’m not.”

She sniffed.  “Why aren’t you?”

His smile again held absolution.  “I’ve often thought of him as my more scientific… ‘partner’ is the right term.  I wouldn’t give you up to just anybody.”

Her confusion was genuine.  “Give me up?  Do you want to break up with me?”

        “On the contrary, Victoria.  I mean that he’s one of the few men who sees what a treasure you are.  And since I haven’t been able to find a way to give you the kind of life you deserve, I… I have to give you up before I get you killed.”  The last he rushed through like it had been a heavy thought on his mind for a long time, but he wasn’t sure what her reaction would be.

        Her reaction was to show even more confusion.  “How will you get me killed?”

        “It’s dangerous for you to even associate with me.  This thing with Bishop is the latest example.  I’m not safe to be around, Victoria.”  He laid his head on top of hers and hugged her tight.  “Though I don’t know how I’ll go on without you.”

        “You’ll always have a piece of my heart, Zorro.  Diego will keep it safe for you.”

His laugh sounded more like crying.  “I doubt he’ll want to do anything of the kind.”

        “He told me so today when I said I…  I’m rather surprised he believed me, after all the horrible things I’ve said to him in the past.”  She hugged Zorro to her.  “I wanted him to be more like you so it made some sense why I like him.  But I finally decided I like him better because he’s nothing like you.”

        “You like him?”  He couldn’t keep a hint of disappointment out of his voice at her use of the more lukewarm word ‘like.’

She buried her face in his chest so that his shirt muffled her voice, as if it could also soften what she wanted to say.  “I love him.  But I love you, too.”  She shook her head again, as if to shake out her opposing thoughts.  “I’m sorry.”  Tears coursed down her cheeks and wet his shirt.  “I’m such a mess!”

He brushed her tears away with his gloved thumbs.  “I’m just glad you’re alive.  And if I have to release you… for your own safety… I wouldn’t do it for anybody but Don Diego.”

She looked up, her eyes still glistening.  “Really?”

“Really.”  He gave her one last squeeze.  “Now, let’s find that bullet, and get Don Diego released from jail.  Then I can deal with Bishop.”  His voice hardened.  “If it’s a fight he wants, it’s a fight he’ll get.”

She smiled.  “Diego softened him up just right for you.”

He smiled because she did.  “It appears that I owe a lot to Don Diego.”

Victoria abruptly barked a laugh of amusement.

He didn’t see how any part of this situation with Bishop was remotely amusing.  “What is it, Señorita?”

Blinking her tears away, her smile turned ironic.  “We just had our first real conversation, and the entire time, we talked about another man.”