by Linda Bindner

Ignacio DeSoto groaned and rolled over. It wasn't even six o'clock in the morning yet, but there was nothing he could do about it; he was awake and itching to start the day.

He rose to a sitting position in the bed, then threw back the covers. Warm air greeted him as he hurried to dress. Another unseasonably warm day. That was all right; sunshine would be nice after the rain the day before. In fact, the birds were already singing, their song coming through the crack in the window's shutters.

Ignacio pushed those shutters wide open, letting in even more air, and the cool breeze felt wonderful on his face and combing through his hair. Perhaps there was time before the day started to take a walk.

The empty plaza greeted him the minute he opened the green office door, but he knew already that he didn't want to stroll around the plaza, a place he saw every day. No, he wanted to see parts of the buildings that he rarely saw, hence his sudden and unprecedented decision to walk behind the town, seeing the dried grasses of October sway in the breeze that must be rolling in off the ocean to be so warm. The brown and dirt on the backside of the buildings were the only things he saw as he skirted his office and walked into the alleyway behind the church and houses that lined the plaza.

Dust streaks on the bottoms of those buildings met his gaze as it swept over his domain, dirt from the rain of the day before and the summer they had just passed through. Warmth and sunlight spread across the white adobe, silent testimony to the inevitable in California, but more birds added their raucous song as they awoke and joined their fellows in a praise to the morning just beginning. The sun was barely over the horizon, peeking across the town one breath at a time, but it already promised to be a warm day.

At the word 'promise,' DeSoto's thoughts turned unpleasantly to his arch enemy, Zorro. Ah, why did he have to ruin such a glorious day? But it was too late for meditations of the coming day to interrupt those thoughts centered around that bandit. He supposed it was only a matter of time before that man's emotions drove him to keeping his pledge to Seņorita Escalante, the 'promise' spoken of in reverent tones throughout the plaza. The famous 'promise' that his citizens talked about and whispered of when they thought he wasn't listening. Oh, but he heard the mutterings; they drove him crazy with disdain on the good days, to despair of ever catching the rouge on the bad days. And more than anything he wanted to capture that man dressed in black so he could return to Spain, a hero.

But that was all just a dream at the moment, and a daydream at that. DeSoto chuckled to himself as he strolled around behind the town, determined that today, at least, would be a good day.

Thus, he was still incredibly surprised to see two figures approaching the pueblo on horseback. Bandits! thought DeSoto at first, and he prepared to gather the lancers from the cuartel. His men would put an end to whatever devilry those figures on horseback had in mind. But wait. DeSoto turned and stared again, suddenly arrested by the familiarity of the gestures of the two. One, especially, caught his eye.

They both pulled up behind the tavern, and DeSoto was glad that he was far enough away that he wouldn't immediately be seen, yet close enough to identify the ruffling skirt and blowing black curls of the tavern owner, Seņorita Escalante. She dismounted, then stopped the second visitor before he could whirl his horse around and gallop away. For it definitely was a man, dressed in what looked like a white shirt and dark blue trousers. He wore no hat, no sash, and by the way his shirttail hung untidily out of his pants in back, dressed in somewhat of a hurry that sunny morning.

The seņorita looked up, said something that DeSoto had no hope of hearing, and the man smiled. In a moment of pristine clarity, DeSoto abruptly knew who it was on the other horse. Diego de la Vega.

Astonished as he was that the two would be out, together, so early, DeSoto was still not prepared for what he saw next. Diego looked first to the right, then swung his head around to look left, and DeSoto followed his instincts to hide and ducked into the alley between a house and the blacksmith's shop. When he peeked again around the shop, Diego had dismounted as well, and wasted no time in drawing the lady closer with his arms. When she was apparently close enough, he leaned down to kiss her passionately, right on the lips.

No brotherly peck of affection was this, but a kiss that was well practiced and didn't come as a surprise to the seņorita. In fact, she clearly appeared to be enjoying the attention, if DeSoto could judge by the way she leaned into Diego and fanned her fingers through his hair. Diego's arms circled her waist, and he looked as if he never wanted to let go.

So, Seņorita Escalante has a secret tryst going with the young de la Vega! thought DeSoto. He was amazed that the young man had enough energy for anything romantic, let alone a clandestine love affair with the hero of the pueblo's woman. Just convincing her to be unfaithful would have taken loads of energy, and it seemed that the two had energy left over for something else.

DeSoto smirked in amusement. He wondered what the illustrious Don Alejandro would think of his son when he found out. For he was bound to find out. Eventually, she would become pregnant, and no matter how quiet the two were about the affair, they couldn't hide such obvious evidence. Everybody was sure to find out then. DeSoto wondered why de la Vega didn't marry the woman outright and let the entire town in on his secret affair. No one would blame him too much for getting a woman with child. It happened all the time in Europe. The rich, it seemed, could practically do anything they wanted and get away with it.

DeSoto smirked again as the two shared one last embrace before Diego mounted again and set of at a trot for the hacienda, her horse in tow. The seņorita watched him go from her open back door, then too disappeared into the tavern. It was as if they had never existed, and their affair of the heart had vanished as well. Except DeSoto had seen, and it was only a matter of time before that bandit knew about it, too.

But wait. DeSoto stared at the empty prairie, thinking hard. What if Diego didn't have to marry her to make an honest woman out of her? What if they already were married, in secret? Then Don Alejandro either knew about the affair, or for some reason didn't approve of his son's choice, therefore necessitating the more furtive activities.

What was not to approve of? DeSoto wondered about what he had seen, still not completely understanding everything. If Diego had unexpectedly fallen in love and married, why the need for secrecy? It was not classified information that Don Alejandro wanted grandchildren, and that Diego, as his only son and heir, would one day have to marry and produce those grandchildren.

But Diego could have chosen better than Seņorita Escalante for his lifelong mate. Not only was she not of his class as a tavern owner, she was also known to belong only to Zorro. And the obvious secrecy was not conducive to producing grandchildren. So what was going on?

DeSoto racked his brain, making it consider possibilities that it hadn't considered before. The effort on an empty stomach was almost too much for him. But he forced himself to continue, promising himself food from the tavern before the hour was up as a reward for his in-depth thinking.

Then, an incredible idea hit him, going off in his mind like a candle. Well, actually, like a candelabra; it lit up his entire brain. He was suffering under the assumption that Diego wasn't energetic enough to require secrecy. But what if the secrecy was for another reason? What if the two DeSoto had seen really were married, Don Alejandro knew, and the need for secrecy still existed? That meant that Seņorita Escalante wasn't cuckolding Zorro at all, because her husband, Diego was...


DeSoto had said the word aloud, but fortunately nobody was about yet and hadn't heard him. No one would believe him, anyway. The idea that the sleepy Diego could have enough energy to be the outlaw was ridiculous.

Unless... and the puzzle DeSoto had been trying to solve for years finally solved itself. What if Diego was Zorro, but gave a face of ineptitude to the pueblo to avoid suspicion? He would have to be in disguise all the time, be forced to visit his lady love in concealed, hidden moments behind a screen, perhaps in the tavern's kitchen, where curtains would hide illegal activity. The disguise he wore as Don Diego, his known abhorrence of violence, would allow Diego to disappear so he might have the freedom necessary to ride out as Zorro every time there was a crisis in the pueblo. And all those times DeSoto had been humiliated at the hands of Zorro? Diego would pay for his crimes of being an outlaw just like any other man; being from a rich family, leaders in the community, wouldn't absolve him this time.

Now DeSoto understood everything. He would have to confront Diego later on that day, in public for a public unmasking, at the tavern, perhaps, so that troublemaking Seņorita Escalante could witness the downfall of her hero. Just imagining the look of horror on her face might make a mistake in the identity of that hero worth the effort. It sent tingles of anticipation up and down DeSoto's spine.

For a moment, DeSoto allowed himself the luxury of a laugh; yes, this was going to be a very good day, indeed.

Slowly, as if they didn't have a worry in the whole world, the de la Vegas walked from the sunny porch and into the darker, cooler tavern for lunch. The Alcalde was already at a table, eating what appeared to be tamales and a loaf of bread, and many other caballeros had followed suit, eating their lunches and talking together as if they had nothing better to do.

The Alcalde's recent new cattle tax was enough to keep any caballero busy, however. Just the necessity of separating their income from their ranches and their income from their cattle would be enough to keep any ranch owner busy at this time of year. The de la Vegas, for instance, were in town only long enough for lunch before riding out into their wild back pastures prior to rounding up what cattle were ready for sale. The herding was sure to keep Don Diego and his servant boy, Felipe, busy, while the paperwork would keep Alejandro up for the next few nights. The ranch's records were far beyond what Diego could handle, unfortunately. Alejandro wasn't likely to allow something so important to fall into the hands of his only son; for everybody knew that Diego was something of a disappointment to the aging don.

A table full of a patrol of lancers erupted into laughter suddenly, and Victoria had her hands full trying to keep order in her tavern for the next few moments. Swinging from their table to the table of new arrivals, she set her serving tray on top of the scarred wood and asked what she could bring them for lunch.

Diego pointed to the Alcalde's plate. Those tamales look too good to pass up, he said without a hint of affection in his voice. Oh, he was good.

DeSoto smiled at Don Diego, and nodded as if in appreciation.

Alejandro interjected, Make that three, Victoria. I think Diego has the right idea.

She smiled benignly, and no one would ever guess that her husband was sitting only a foot from her, ordering his lunch. Anybody witnessing this exchange saw a man suggesting something to eat from his best friend, not a man seeing his lover for the first time that day. Diego's acting abilities had been honed by years of practice.

Except DeSoto knew. He knew everything, and the table of lancers eating lunch were actually men under his command, waiting for his signal to surround the de la Vega table and apprehend Victoria to keep her from interfering. But DeSoto was patient, waiting, watching his prey, hoping for a slip in the disguise, but not needing one at the same time. The suspicions against Don Diego were more than enough to jail the man, and even hang him for treason. The Alcalde was merely curious to see how the disguise played out when the man was content with good food and relaxed.

Another girl brought the food, and the two de la Vegas and the ever-present servant boy, Felipe, began eating their lunch, and still DeSoto watched from behind lowered lashes. It was so obvious, now that he knew what to look for; the features in Diego's face easily matched those of the outlaw, Zorro. It was so obvious, in fact, that DeSoto wondered why he hadn't noticed the similarities before. But no one would ever suspect that Diego, the sanguine, lazy don, could possibly be Zorro. Why, he even pretended not to be able to fence. If DeSoto hadn't seen what he'd seen earlier that day, he might not believe the news either. But he had seen it, and now that lunch appeared to be over, he rose and tossed his red checkered napkin onto the table top. It was time to catch a bandit. He pulled out the loaded pistol tucked into his belt.

Seņorita Escalante interrupted the capture when she inadvertently brought out a cup of coffee for the comfortable don, but she disappeared behind her counter quickly enough, content to polish her wine collection with a rag, wiping off cobwebs and the inevitable dust that found its way to the bottles from her cellars. Diego drank his coffee, completely at ease and unaware, as the three of them joked and laughed together for what could possibly be the last time.

Sergeant Mendoza approached Victoria, remembering instructions for once, and DeSoto approached the de la Vega table. Hot out, isn't it? he remarked, congenial enough to pass for an old friend commenting on the weather.

Don Alejandro nodded. Warm enough for this time of year, Alcalde. Certainly unlike weather in Los Angeles.

Hmm. Well, I think it's going to get a little hotter before it cools off, answered DeSoto, raising the pistol, and he signaled his lancers with a wave of his hand to surround the table prior to taking prisoners.

The lancers did as they were expected, leaving DeSoto free to watch the smile of friendliness fade from Diego's face. Don Diego, you are under arrest for cavorting as the bandit, Zorro. Your father is also under arrest for knowing and helping that bandit in his crimes against the king.

Unsurprisingly enough, Victoria kept her cool and didn't react. The rest of the patrons responded with laughter, however, not what DeSoto expected at all, but that type of reaction could be dealt with later when he had Diego in custody.

Surely you can't possibly believe that I'm Zorro, Diego stated, playing his role of passivity to the hilt.

But DeSoto would have no excuses this time. It doesn't matter what I believe, Don Diego, but what I inadvertently saw this morning, outside, behind the pueblo, that matters.

Unable to completely stop himself, Diego slid his gaze across a suddenly horrified Victoria, but it landed on the table. What you saw this morning may have looked like...

No excuses this time, Diego. Face it; you've been discovered, uncovered, unmasked, if you will, by you're own actions. What I saw this morning at an indecent hour before the pueblo awoke wasn't an embrace between two friends but a kiss between two lovers, perhaps even between a man and his wife. I don't know all the details yet, but I'm certain to learn them after you're in jail. Sergeant, do your duty and apprehend the seņorita, or should I say seņora? Take him, men.

It was the threat to Victoria that did it. There was no way Diego was going to let the government men do anything to her. Like he was known for, he reacted with a speed that astonished his schoolmate.

In one blink, even a heartbeat, Diego reached under the table and turned it over towards DeSoto, knocking the pistol down in the meantime. In one fluid motion, he rose and pushed the single bench he'd been sitting on towards the lancers in an attempt to disorganize them. The attempt worked. With one mighty swing of his arm, he created more chaos by felling the nearest lancer, causing him to windmill helplessly into his fellows, taking a step nearer to Victoria in the process.

But Victoria wasn't as helpless as most women would be in this situation. She ducked the initial ruckus, then broke a bottle of wine over the nearest lancer's head as her husband methodically threw his fist into the face of any lancer who had the misfortune to wander near enough. Diego, here! was all she yelled before tossing a bottle over the heads of the lancers into his waiting hands.

He smashed the bottle over the head of the nearest lancer, then whirled around again as another took the lancer's place in the melee. Several tried to surround Victoria, but she was too well defended in her place behind the bar. She ducked a wildly thrown seating bench, then stood back up to assess the incursion. She was just about to smash another bottle on a lancer's head when DeSoto recovered from the table diversion and again raised his pistol.

Unless you want a chest wound, a wound that would make the seņora a widow, I would say that is quite enough. DeSoto's pistol bent unwavering at Diego's suddenly exposed chest.

Diego turned around to find the Alcalde's pistol leveled at his heart, and he stopped, halting as precipitously as he had started. The fight, while causing plenty of chaos and damage to the tavern, hadn't really changed his standing to the government much. He was still unmasked and under arrest, alive at only the slightest whim of the evil man standing behind the pistol.

DeSoto laughed. I've captured Zorro and uncovered a long-standing plot to deceive the entire town. And you resisted arrest. This is indeed my lucky day. He cocked the pistol and pointed it directly at Diego.

That was the last move DeSoto made. Completely unexpectedly, another pistol in the room cocked and fired, the smoke clearing only after the event had unfolded, basically too late for anyone to help.

Mendoza stood with the smoking pistol, his eyes wide but resolute with his chosen action, as DeSoto slowly crumpled to the floor, a bullet wound already spreading blood across the chest of his pristine military tunic.

Madre de Dios, Alejandro whispered, catching DeSoto and easing him to the floor, careful not to jar him or bump the upturned table in the process. He ripped open the coat, only to reveal more blood on DeSoto's otherwise clean chest.

Mendoza crossed himself. I had to choose, you know, him or Diego. And Diego's my friend...

But few paid attention to the rambling sergeant as more blood seeped from the Alcalde's wound.

Dios, someone, a patron of the tavern, whispered. Right through the chest. He's dead for certain.

Nothing's certain! Alejandro bellowed, his head still hanging down over the Alcalde, not even knowing who he answered, He's still breathing. That means he's alive. Diego?

All heads turned to the man attempting to be apprehended and jailed. But no one would dare challenge him now.

Diego stepped over his father's dislodged bench. The fight and the shooting had happened so fast that Felipe hadn't even had the chance to rise to his feet yet, an astounded look frozen on his face, but not so for Victoria, who had dropped the bottle she was holding immediately to the bar and come around the end to stand beside the group at the table.

Diego knelt, pulling the tunic back to further expose the wound. Victoria, I'll need rags, water in a bowl, wine from a clean bottle, and a knife. Can you get these things, please? And someone go for the doctor! he ordered, knowing that it may already be too late. Hang on, Ignacio! he said quietly, while rolling up his long sleeves even further and placing his hand on DeSoto's shoulder.

Diego? DeSoto slurred, and he gripped the hand that seemed to have attached itself to his shoulder, trying to avoid the burning sensation in his chest.

Don't speak! commanded Diego. That's the best advice I can give right now. Save your energy. He turned his head, and found Victoria standing at his elbow with the items he had requested. Gracias, he said, then without another word, submerged the cloth into the water, wrung it out, then proceeded to mop up the blood that ran freely down the Alcalde's chest.

Several submerges later, the water was very pink, and Diego said tersely, I think that's as good as it's going to get. Victoria, open the wine bottle and dump it on the knife. That should sanitize it well enough for a quick exploration.

But it was a lost cause. Even as Diego fastened his grip around the knife and lowered the point into the bullet hole, DeSoto's heart stopped beating, resumed, then stopped again. A minute later his eyes lost the look of surprise and took on the dazed glaze of someone dead. His head listed helplessly to the side.

Don't you die on us, Alcalde! ordered Diego under his breath, still concentrating. My capture isn't worth it! He frantically cleared more blood out of his way.

Alejandro carefully put his hand over Diego's to stop him. I think... that's enough, he said quietly, removing the knife from his son's suddenly shaking hand.

Blood covered Diego's blue trousers in splotches of color as the tavern grew very quiet. No one even breathed in the stillness, and a buzzing fly lent its own brand of annoyance to the room. Dr. Hernandez burst through the door, carrying his black medical bag, but he knew by the silence that he was already too late. Someone had died.

Diego stood, too stunned to react much, and the only thing he was aware of was Victoria's supporting, warm hand on the back of his shoulder, near his left shoulder blade. Hair hung down over his forehead to swing wildly with any movement he made. He kept a white rag in his hand only to absentmindedly wipe off the blood and water. There was plenty of both.

Victoria's voice was the only one that dared to break that silence. You tried, Diego.

His quiet, solemn voice answered back, He died while trying to capture me.

She squeezed his shoulder comfortingly. I'm just glad it wasn't the other way around. It could have been.

Surprised, but not overly affected by the death of the Alcalde, his main enemy, Diego mentioned, I think I should go home and change, in his quiet, assumed, high voice that he was accustomed to. He gazed down at the body of the Alcalde, trying to understand the new events that stared him in the face.

Mendoza stepped forward then, determined to take responsibility for his actions. He hadn't earned his sergeant's stripes for nothing. I'm sorry, Don Diego, but I had to choose between the two of you, and you've been my friend for a long time.

It's all right, Sergeant, Diego said, though it wasn't, his voice friendly now, but also full of that self-sacrificing, judicious tone the pueblo was so familiar with. Guess we should all be wise in choosing our friends in the future.

The comment was met by general laughter, though Diego hadn't meant to be funny. It was discombobulating to be humorous at such a serious moment in life. Alejandro turned to his son.

It's unclear who Mendoza was protecting at the end, but I think it's up to you how this whole ordeal should go.

The quiet threatened again and Diego tried to think as he stared down at his one time acquaintance. I think there's been enough death for one day. The sergeant should go free, absolved of any retribution for his acts on this day.

And you? Alejandro almost hated to ask, aware beyond measure of his son's sense of honor and duty in the face of sacrifice.

Mendoza took the answer away from Diego, saving him from another sacrifice that he felt he should make, but didn't really want to. As you say, there's been enough death and suffering today. I don't see any enemies of Zorro here, do you? There's no reason to take you in. He turned his attention from DeSoto's dead and unblinking body to the rest of the stunned patrol. Let's go back to the cuartel, men. There was no crisp command to scat this time, but at least the sergeant was coherent enough to take control, and to know that he had to.

The last two lancers to leave hefted the body between them, and carried DeSoto out the door in preparations for taking him to the undertaker of the pueblo. That's a good idea, said Alejandro quietly. Why don't we all go home and think about some things that are important, like life? Victoria, can you close the tavern for the rest of today and come along with us? I expect it's your place now.

Si. I think so. She sounded stunned, too impressed by events to argue. Diego slowly wrapped his arm around her waist, and she buried her face in his chest as the events of the day finally caught up to her to make her cling to him all the more tightly. She had almost lost him that day, and the truth of that was so sad it was almost overwhelming.

Slowly the patrons of the tavern took Don Alejandro's sage advice, and the tavern emptied of all but the de la Vegas and Felipe, knowing that they were the center of the events of the day. Solemnly, they made their way out of the tavern as well, and Diego pulled Victoria up in front of him in the saddle, not needing to pretend any longer. His secret life was out, and it would soon be known to everyone in the pueblo, but that was little consolation to the four as the horses began their journey out of town. The sign squeaked as it swung in the warm breeze and the death of the Alcalde tolled in the bell that rang out from the mission in the solemn silence of the pueblo.

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