Chapter 9

Zorro stood for a moment in the silence of the empty tavern, swamped by feelings of abandonment.  Though he knew on one level that he was being completely ridiculous, the place where he had always stored his yearnings for Victoria shivered and jumped and eventually collapsed.  A gaping hole set up residence in his heart, making its thuds more painful than he’d ever experienced.  Even when his father was shot several years before hadn’t been this agonizing.  The fact that he’d lost Victoria to himself did nothing to ease the pain he was feeling now.  Faintly astonished at how much this hurt, he let the acidic sensation of a broken heart slowly numb his limbs.

He knew that he needed to move, knew that in reality, this wasn’t really happening… or that it was happening, but it didn’t need to bother him this much, since it was Zorro who had lost Victoria, not Don Diego.  But he just couldn’t force his brain to accept that reality now that he faced it.  For several long moments, he stayed cloaked in shadowy grief, and his body remained heavy and wooden.  Only the sounds of Victoria returning with Sergeant Mendoza in tow woke him to the danger he was in.  She was speaking loudly to help ensure his escape, and he needed to take advantage of that now while he had the chance.

He heard her stomping footstep on the porch, then a rattle of a key in the lock on the front door, then her voice declaring that she’d forgotten the door was already unlocked.  By then, Zorro had darted through the curtain into the kitchen just as Victoria led a yawning Mendoza straight to the bar.

“It’s right up there,” she said, and pointed with her less bandaged hand.  “Move the broken dish a little more to the side, and you should be able to dig it out.”

“That’s… impossible.”  Mendoza’s voice trailed away as he glanced sharply around the tavern.  “How did you move this ladder into place with your hands bandaged like that?”

Zorro wished the Sergeant hadn’t chosen this particular moment to grow quite so astute.  From the look of anxiety suddenly covering Victoria’s face, so did she.  But she kept her head and didn’t once glance towards the kitchen, the most obvious spot for someone to hide.  Instead, she laughed lightly through her nose, proclaiming, “My hands are much better now.  I moved the ladder myself, then climbed up… as safely as possible.  Please Sergeant, take a look.”

Still unconvinced, but clearly willing to humor his favorite cook, Mendoza grasped the ladder and began climbing.

Zorro knew it was time to leave before he was captured.  He’d assured that the bullet remained available to be found by the right persons in this instant, as well as indulged his own heartache for several minutes.  It was time to return to Diego’s incarceration.  There, surrounded by the darkness of the jail, he could give in to his depressing contemplations as much as he wanted.

He vaulted through the kitchen window, snuck stealthily from shadow to shadow, and was at the cuartel stables before he knew it.  It was a quick moment to change back to his guise as Don Diego, and from there, to slip quietly back into the jail.

“We found the bullet, Felipe!” Diego imparted in a whisper.  “It was there all right, but much higher than I’d anticipated.  It was as if Bishop never intended to shoot Victoria, but to only look like it.”

Felipe raised his blue-coated arms in a shrug, furrowing his brow at the same time in a questioning manner.

Diego whooshed out a sigh of frustration.  “I don’t  understand it either, Felipe.  Why would Bishop want to act like he planned to shoot Victoria, but have no real intention of doing so?  Earlier he told me that targeting Victoria was meant to bring out Zorro so that Bishop could kill him.  But that doesn’t make any sense, no matter how I look at it.  I’m still missing something.”  His second frustrated sigh filled the jail.  “I need to think on this some more.  Good thing I’m in jail; I’ve never discovered a better place to think.”

A smile on his face, Felipe unlocked Diego’s cell and gestured into it with a pleasant wave.

“Gracias.”   Diego walked right into the cell, and Felipe obligingly locked him in.  He lay down on the bunk and curled into a tight ball under the blanket as if he’d been there all night.

Minutes later a second lancer entered the jail to relieve Felipe.  The two soldiers didn’t even glance at each other.  This new lancer took up position outside Diego’s cell as Felipe strode smartly from the jail.

The minute he was gone, Diego threw aside the smelly blanket on the bunk, then stretched comfortably to indulge his emotions at last.  The reality of ending the romance between Zorro and Victoria and starting one between Diego and Victoria had finally set in; unless he wanted his secret identity revealed to her in their first conversation, he needed to constantly utilize his more affected Diego voice and persona… for the rest of his life.

And that was as far as he got in thinking about his problematic relationship with the tavern owner.  Sadly enough, now that he had all the time in the world to give in to distressing thoughts, he instead found his mind dwelling on the one missing piece of information in the Bishop puzzle; the gambler’s true intentions.  What was really going on here?

It was as if Bishop and his partners actually wanted to bring Zorro out into the open so they could then… kill him?  Let him kill them?  Converge on him as one to capture him so they could collect the large bounty that Spain had placed on his head?  It gratified him to think that Victoria hadn’t really been in danger that afternoon, at least not from a bullet.  But he hated it when things didn’t make sense, and he didn’t think that he would have much luck in making them make sense, either.  Not this time.

Growling in annoyance, Diego turned on his side and crossed his arms, not even caring what his guarding lancer might think about his apparent inability to sleep.  The lancer would most likely put it down to Diego’s worry about his own predicament.  In reality, Diego secretly knew that Victoria and Mendoza were probably right now convincing the Alcalde that something else was clearly going on in this situation, and that to hang him for his role in Bishop’s capture would surely bring harsh repercussions from Spain onto De Soto himself.  The more immediate reason for his hanging, his claim to be Zorro, was definitely more troublesome, but the Alcalde’s aforementioned time limit of twenty-four hours wasn’t up yet.  Diego still had one more day to come up with a plan to handle the Alcalde’s decree.  He was sure that he’d come up with something by then.  He had to.

All in all, Diego felt confident that he had nothing to fear… yet.  There were just too many unanswered questions for even De Soto to hang anybody.

It was therefore a tremendous surprise to Diego that at 6:00 the following morning, Sergeant Mendoza entered the jail wearing the most apologetic expression on his face that Diego had ever seen.

“I’m sorry, Don Diego,” Mendoza began while jangling the key in the cell door.  “I’ve been instructed to bring you outside for your hanging.”

 “My what?” Diega gasped.  He jumped up from where he’d been sitting on the bed.  “But it hasn’t even been twenty-four hours yet!”

“I know, Don Diego.”  Mendoza looked miserable.  “Señorita Victoria led me to the bullet from Bishop’s gun, but it wasn’t enough to convince the Alcalde that Zorro shouldn’t be hung as soon as possible.  And that’s you.”

This was an occurrence that Diego hadn’t anticipated.  He didn’t have a clever idea worked out to rescue Diego from hanging using either Toronado and Zorro, or his father and Felipe.  There was nothing in his numbed mind now… nothing except that he hadn’t even gotten to marry Victoria.

Marriage was the best way he had to keep Victoria safe at this point.  She would enjoy so many luxuries as his wife that she didn’t currently have.  And now it was too late.

Despair hovered at the edge of his vision again, threatening to once more overwhelm him.  He forced himself to take a deep breath, refusing to waste any more time on regrets.  He should have prepared for this eventuality, but he hadn’t.  There was nothing more he could do for her now.

But then he remembered…

“A man’s dying wish must be accepted even if he has no will,” Diego quickly reminded Mendoza as the Sergeant worked to tie his hands behind his back.

  “This is still true, Don Diego,” Mendoza choked out, clearly upset at the near demise of his friend even as he dutifully led him from the jail and into the bright morning sunshine.

Diego squinted against the light.  The sun had barely risen, and it was still so early that a crowd hadn’t yet gathered in the plaza near the hastily erected wooden gallows.  His father hadn’t arrived, or even Victoria.  There was no one gathered for his hanging except the Alcalde and his lancers.

In a rush of understanding, Diego realized that the Alcalde knew his actions were questionable if not downright illegal, and wanted to get it over with before anyone could stop him.  That was the reason for the early hour.  Diego also realized he couldn’t suddenly utilize Zorro’s skills for a daring last minute escape, either, as such a thing would only cement what De Soto thought he knew about the bandit’s identity.  If it became known that Diego really was Zorro, then the Alcalde would have every right to hang Diego as an enemy of the Spanish Empire.  Yes, both Zorro and Diego were good and caught this time.

Even with a sinking heart, Diego managed to keep his wits enough to yell over the heads of the gathered lancers, “Since our lawyer never arrived to show the illegality of this hanging, or to settle my affairs, I have a few requests to make.”

“I understand, Don Diego,” Mendoza said from his side even as De Soto hissed, “Mendoza!  I order you to hurry it up!”

I bet you do, Diego bitterly said to himself, but he refused to be cowed into silence at this last moment of his life.  Knowing that he had nothing left to lose by alerting the people of the pueblo as to what was going on, Diego hollered more loudly yet, “I want all my monetary holdings and future inheritance to be equally split between Felipe and Victoria Escalante.  I want 1000 pesos to go to Jaime Mendoza, who will also carry out these instructions.”

There, that made him feel better.  It also satisfied him to note that his yelling had brought out several people from their houses surrounding the plaza to see what was going on.  What should have been a private hanging had suddenly become a public spectacle, thanks to him.

This of course did not sit well with the Alcalde.  “I told you to hurry!”

Mendoza awkwardly remarked, “Don Diego has the right to a last request, mi Alcalde.   I can’t change the law.”

De Soto growled in restrained anger.  “Very well.  Carry on, Sergeant.”

But by now, people were streaming into the plaza, shouting protests at the tops of their lungs.  Hastily dressed guests poured out of the tavern to add to the growing melee.  In the next instant, Victoria was there, still dressed as she had been the night before, interjecting her small form between Diego and the Sergeant.

“No!” she yelled.  “I won’t let you!”

Somehow his father must have discovered De Soto’s plan, and he was there, too, doing his best to push aside the nearest lancers.  “You can’t hang my son!”  A lancer shoved his rifle into Don Alejandro’s face as a deterrent, and Alejandro struck out with his fist.

A fight instantly erupted.  The gathered crowd quickly formed into a mob, though some people still wore no protection but their nightclothes.

“You can’t!” Victoria yelled, pushing against the lancers still in her way.

“Victoria, don’t!” Diego answered back.  “It’s not worth your life.”

She turned to face him, the morning light sparkling on teary cheeks.  “But don’t you see that I won’t have a life if you’re gone?”

“You’ll still have Zorro,” Diego insisted, willing her to listen and stop resisting.

“A legend isn’t what I want.  You are!” Victoria yelled, just as insistent.

Before he had the chance to privately rejoice at these words, hands abruptly grabbed Diego from behind and pulled him to the gallows, propelling him by force up one of the steps to the hanging platform, though he resisted all the way.  Victoria held on tight to his white shirt sleeve, propelled with him by the crowd surging around them.  

Alejandro threw himself between his son and the lancers behind him while Victoria intervened with the lancers in front of him.  Diego tried to call over the noise of the crowd not to hurt her, but his voice was lost in the growing confusion.  De Soto had a stranglehold on his collar, tugging him backwards up the steps, and it was getting hard to breathe.  His father continually pushed himself in front of the Alcalde, while Sergeant Mendoza had his hands full trying to protect the Señorita.

Pitchforks and axes had somehow found their way into the hands of several outraged individuals, and a true revolt formed in the shadow cast by the gallows.  The lancers brandished their rifles, though no one had fired a shot yet.  But it was only a matter of time before someone got hurt.

“No!” Victoria yelled once again, pushing against Mendoza.  “You can’t--”

Rifles cracked into the early dawn light when two soldiers fired over the heads of the protesting crowd, forcing everyone into a pregnant silence.  They stared at each other, breathing hard, all of them afraid to move.

Toronado’s ear-splitting scream suddenly rent the air.  Heads jerked up, eyes darted skyward, lancers and gathered crowd alike scanned the tops of buildings and the road leading out of town, searching for the expected appearance of The Fox.  The Alcalde jerked Diego to a stop, his hand now on the hilt of his sword as both he and Diego completely stopped breathing, united in their mutual astonishment.

A black clad Zorro raced around the corner of the cuartel, brandishing his sword in his right hand as his left fought Toronado for control of the bit.  Gentle yet firm, he restrained his high-strung mount, but nudged him right up next to where Diego stood at the bottom of the gallows.

“You’ll thank me for this someday, Alcalde,” Zorro said, in Zorro’s voice, using Zorro’s inflections.  The fist in the black glove that connected with De Soto’s jaw was also a perfect replica of Zorro’s unique brand of justice.

Except Diego knew that it wasn’t Zorro.  At least, it wasn’t his Zorro.

The hold on Diego’s collar disappeared as De Soto flew backwards.  Feeling flabbergasted and amazed and wholly out of control, Diego gaped in open mouthed astonishment at the man dressed in black.  His expression did nothing to deter the bandit from efficiently slicing through his bonds, releasing him.  A nearby lancer instantly raised his rifle, almost as if he had known the outlaw was coming, but Zorro’s whip cracked the air as it yanked the rifle from his hands.

More raised rifles met similar fates.  Toronado pushed himself to become a 1500 pound wall of muscle and fury as the great black horse first herded the lancers into a corner near the cuartel, then spun around in ever widening circles to keep them there.  Finally recovered from the masked man’s punch, De Soto planted himself directly in Zorro’s path and sneered at the outlaw.

“You’re surrounded, Zorro.  Give up or die.”

“I don’t like ultimatums.  Instead, here’s a present.”  Zorro raced around the corner again, but returned immediately, leading an irritated but otherwise uninjured Bishop on a horse with his hands tied securely behind his back.  “Look who I discovered trying to sneak away from the good doctor’s house.  I convinced him to tell me what’s really going on, and now he wants to share it with you.”  He glanced at Bishop, as did everyone else.  “Please, just as we rehearsed.”

Bishop snarled and glared, but grumpily said, “The Alcalde promised to pay me if I found a way to bring out Zorro.”  His glare turned on Victoria.  “I found a way, but it’s the Alcalde who wants to kill him.  I just did this for the money.”

Murmurs broke out at the same time that De Soto drew his sword to point at the outlaw.  “And my plan worked perfectly.  Like I said, you’re surrounded.”  Men dressed as common peasants suddenly stepped out of the crowd, waving their pistols in Zorro’s direction.  “Dismount and accept your punishment, Zorro.  You can hang in the place of de la Vega.”

His grin never wavering, Zorro replied, “Then you admit then that I’m not Don Diego?”
        “Diego as Zorro?  Don’t make me laugh,” De Soto coldly stated.  “He’s nothing but bait, and never has been, the useless....”  He pointed his sword straight at Zorro.  “You, on the other hand, are--”

Each lancer dressed as a peasant suddenly had ten real peasants converge on him, knocking their weapons aside and subduing them with minimal effort.  In a few blinks of the eye, every plain clothed lancer was on the ground, breathing dust.

“Gracias, amigos.”  Zorro turned back to face the Alcalde.  “That tends to happen when you pit good people against someone who’s paid.”  Abruptly much less pleasant, he struck out at De Soto’s sword in an unfriendly swipe, disarming him in one move.

“Here’s how it’s going to be,” he said, all hints of jocularity and friendliness gone from his voice.  “You’ll leave the people of Los Angeles alone… especially the de la Vegas.  Bother any one of them… at any time… and I’ll be back… in a far less amiable mood.”  A terrible smile curved his lips under the dark moustache.  Despite the typically pleasant notions promised by a smile, this one promised other things, all of them extremely unpleasant.

Bishop chose that moment to let a hidden knife slip through the rope binding his hands, toss the rope aside, and throw the knife straight at Zorro.

At the same time, the Alcalde drew his own knife to also throw at Zorro in one smooth motion.

In two furious swipes, Zorro used his sword blade to deflect Bishop’s knife into DeSoto’s leg and the Alcalde’s into Bishop’s heart.

 De Soto clutched his leg and yelled in pain as Bishop gave a small yelp of surprise and slowly slid to the ground to lay in an unmoving heap in the dust.

The outlaw stared at Bishop’s prone form in cold calculation.  “I did promise, Señor.  That’s what you get when you gamble with Zorro.”

Utter silence met this surprising move.  The only sounds in the plaza were Toronado crunching on his bit, the song of a lone bird, and a cry from De Soto as he slipped in his own pool of blood before righting himself again.

Zorro turned his glare on De Soto, eyes sparking his fury.  “I’ll let you live this last time, Alcalde.”  Then those eyes behind the mask narrowed as his voice lowered to a livid rasp.  “But don’t do that again.”

His eyes then softened as they met Victoria’s gaze, but he didn’t kiss her knuckles, or make any promises, or say anything at all.  Then his gaze slid to Diego’s… and Diego found himself staring into a set of familiar brown eyes.

The glance lasted a second, then it was over.  Toronado reared, and when the great black horse’s hoofs smashed back to the ground, Zorro leaned over in the saddle, and with great relish, carved a ‘Z’ into the Alcalde’s pristine military uniform.  Then he straightened up, said, “You’ll find Bishop’s accomplices waiting inside the jail.  Adios!” and galloped out of town in a cloud of choking dust.

For the first time, the people didn’t know whether to cheer their hero out of the peublo, or to hold silent vigil at his leaving.  They compromised by holding their collective breath, and to exhale as one, the air now trembling with the breeze of the bandit’s passing.