For Smithcrafter, because she gave me the idea in the first blace.

Elegy

by Linda Bindner

Get him, men! yelled DeSoto, and the pops of several rifles sounded loud in the afternoon pall that had fallen over the Los Angeles plaza as Zorro tore through the dust, aiming for the Northern gate and the road out of town. He made it with only feet to spare as horses that had hidden inside the cuartel suddenly burst into the plaza and took off in pursuit of the masked legend. The soldiers, led by Sergeant Mendoza, rode recklessly, as if their lives were depending on the masked man's capture, and they probably were, as surely the Alcalde's rage at another lost attempt at catching his arch enemy was sure to be huge. DeSoto laughed loudly at his clever plan and the sound rang across the dry ground as the bystanders watched helplessly and the lancers drew ever closer to Toronado.

It was by far the nearest the soldiers had ever gotten to the black stallion, and he didn't know what to think as more bullets echoed just beyond his streaming, straining hind quarters. He screamed when one of the bullets found its target and embedded itself painfully in his side, just behind the tooled, leather saddle. Blood streamed down to the horse's pounding left back hoof, pooling wickedly on the hair that made up his bushy fetlock, too far down and back for Zorro to be able to staunch the flow of blood on his own. With the abruptness of unexpected turn of events, Zorro saw his and Toronado's lives flash before his eyes as the dust continued to wave behind the slowing stallion.

For the first time in his living memory, Zorro didn't know what to do about the sticky situation he and Toronado found themselves in. He couldn't lose the pursuit of the lancers by jumping Diablo Canyon as he like he had planned, and a bleeding Toronado would lead the soldiers directly to the hacienda if he went back home, so he couldn't do that, either. For once, he didn't have any clever tricks up his black sleeve that would turn the tables on the ever-closing lancers and turn them into fools on horseback. As Mendoza and his men drew closer, Zorro made out the expressions of anticipation of the eventual capture on their faces. He glanced back to ascertain the damage done to Toronado, and suddenly glimpsed his salvation through the trees up ahead as he whipped his head back around to look to the front again. Toronado was slowing, losing blood, and Zorro was for the first time in the unenviable position of becoming a statistic. If he didn't want to break his neck on the end of the Alcalde's gallows rope, he would aim for the black rectangle that meant the cave opening that he had seen in the cliffs surrounding Los Angeles. It was tacitly the only thing left that he could do.

With thoughts of the future time he hoped to spend with Victoria in his mind, he leaned back and pulled the thundering stallion to a halt, then fell out of the saddle before the horse had even come to a complete stop, landing on his feet only by sheer luck. He slapped Toronodo on the rear, yelled, Go home, boy! and ran for the darkened cave opening. He hoped that the lancers who followed him into the forbidding darkness would have the sense not to shoot their rifles, for the noise was sure to ricochet on the rock walls and cause a cave-in of the delicate rocks that made up the opening he was running through. Though he would rather do just about anything than hide in an unknown cave, he had little choice in the matter. He could rely on the fact that the lancers would be the poor trackers that their reputations made them out to be, but that was risky. They were sure to see his footsteps leading obviously into the cave's dark interior, or Toronado's bloody trail leading to the hacienda and home. Just the thought of leading the soldiers to his father gave him goose bumps up and down his arms.

Zorro raced into the darkness, all the while hating to rely on nothing but hope. It was a fickle thing to depend on. The erratic luck he was banking on changed again as he dimly heard one of the lancers call out to his compadres that the footprints of their quarry clearly led through the dust and into the cave's wide opening. The king's men could offer no obvious reason as to why the masked man had chosen not to run on his big, black stallion towards the jump over Diablo Canyon that he had made countless times in the past to outdistance pursuing lancers, and deduced that the shots fired by one of his fellows had actually hit its mark. With a whoop of excitement, he set the other lancers the task of running down the harmed stallion while he and Mendoza, the two senior officers in the ranks of the pursuers, went after the true prey of the day.

Mendoza started to shake with worry that his masked friend had finally met his end, but managed to hide his fear from the other man under his command by tugging distractingly on his uniform tunic. He drew his sword and held it out in front of him with an obviously trembling hand; Zorro was well-known for creating diversions and knowing how to get out of trouble at the final minute, all the while making sport of the lancers who were ordered to capture him, which was sure to enrage the Alcalde. To be this close to an eventual capture and to miss again... Mendoza did not want to find out what his superior's reaction to such possible news might be. He preferred a much safer existence, such as eating the tamales the tavern was sure to offer, than witness his friend boiling like a beef quesadilla while he swung, dead, from the end of the gallows, or an Alcalde hopping mad at not seeing his enemy skewered in the hot sun shining down on the small pueblo. As he was forced to endure one or the other before the afternoon was out, he shook in helpless fear and wished for an unknown miracle to safeguard the friend who had once pulled him from a burning building. He owed the man his life, but he hoped that he would not be forced to pay up today. Still, he refused to look cowardly in front of his men.

Sepulveda, you stay out here in case one of us needs to go back to the pueblo and get reinforcements or, heaven forbid, the doctor. I'll go after Zorro.

But, Sergeant.. protested the corporal. He'll cut you down for sure! We should both go in.

No! Mendoza practically shouted, then lowered his voice as dust started to shower from the cave's opening. Follow orders and stay here. However, the odd prayer might be in order this time as I don't see how either of us will get out of this mess without a sword fight. I know this cave from my early days of exploration as a mission rat, and there's no way out except the opening in front of us. Let's just hope that I capture Zorro before he can disarm me, but be prepared for him to jump out at you with no warning. Then he swallowed. I'm honest enough to admit that I'm no challenge for the expert swordsman that he is, so stay alert... though I can hold my own in even the worst of conditions, Mendoza said, bragging a bit at the end of his speech.

It's a good thing you are one of the best swordsmen the territory has to offer, Sepulveda said with a shake of his head. I would hate to have to go in there where it's dark, and there are spiders, and rats, and...

Thank you, Corporal, that will be enough, Mendoza interrupted, quaking in his boots at this point. He had to move forward to cover the odd shaking of his legs.

I'll wait for your return, Sergeant, began Sepulveda, then admitted, I'm afraid of the dark.

Mendoza wished he wasn't afraid of the dark either, but the quaking had traveled up his legs and settled into twists and churns inside his stomach at the thought of the spiders he was sure to encounter. Without another speech, he did what he'd been ordered to do only that morning by the Alcalde and followed his prey into the blackness just beyond the square of sunlight made by the cave's opening.

Forced by the cloying blackness of the cave to slow down if he didn't want to inadvertently hit his head on a low ceiling, Zorro heard the two men from his hiding spot just inside the cave's opening. He cursed his luck when he heard the sergeant say that there was not another way out, then silently drew his blade just in case he had to use it. Then the waiting began.

But the ceiling was closer in the Stygian darkness than even Zorro expected, and the bat that he woke with his head startled them both. Disturbed out of a deep daytime slumber, the bat flew forward, screeching in the darkness, zooming for the masked man's head with a single-minded purpose. He flew past an oblivious Mendoza and out of the cave mouth, straight at Sepulveda, who fired his rifle at the sudden movement, just as he'd been ordered to do, even if his quarry was moving too fast for him to be sure of its form.

The pride Sepulveda felt at following orders as he'd been told to faded a moment later as the first rumble distantly sounded. Dust and debris shaken loose by the first waves of crumbling rock rained down across the opening even as Sepulveda yelled, Sergeant! The call only aggravated the rocks in the ceiling to crack and give way under the waves of increasing sound, and the rain continued unchecked.

Zorro had only a few seconds to instinctively react. He dropped his sword and fell forward, towards the form of Sergeant Mendoza that was completely highlighted by the sunlight blazing in through the opening. He pushed the sergeant backwards with his freed hand, out of harm's way, felt his balance go with the shove and fell as the ceiling of the cave collapsed in a deluge of released rocks and dust. He felt no pain until his head impacted on the dirty floor, then the blackness that could only be caused by unconsciousness engulfed him.

In the complete quiet that can only be heard after something as destructive as a cave-in, Mendoza coughed, then waved a gloved hand in front of his face to clear away the last of the dust and debris, though he could see nothing in the clinging darkness. Zorro? he called in a hesitant whisper, but he couldn't see anything. Then he decided that he needed light to see by even if such a thing caused nothing but his death by sucking only the good air from the cave, and pulled the lone candle that every soldier was issued in case of an emergency from the pocket of his blue trousers and lit it in shaking desperation, hoping that it wouldn't explode in his face. He figured that he was dead anyway if he couldn't see as soon as possible. A heartbeat later, when the wavering yellow light showed no indication of bursting into flame, Mendoza breathed in relief and looked at his surroundings. What he saw almost surprised him enough to make him drop the candle.

Zorro lay, totally unmoving, not two steps from him, surrounded by crumbled rock. The collapse of the ceiling had not forced the man to the ground, as no rock trapped him to the floor. The shove on his own body must have caused the outlaw to lose his balance abd fall. He was lying with his head only inches from the final resting place of a boulder the size of a horse, and another lay where Mendoza had been standing only seconds before. The size of the boulders indicated certain death, as the rocks were easily large enough to painfully crush a man beneath their apparent weight. In spite of everything the Alcalde had ordered, Mendoza owed his life to his ardent enemy once again.

Heaving in a sigh of relief, Mendoza whispered, Madre de Dios! then pulled Zorro away from the boulders lest any more rocks fall from the ceiling and crush them both. It was then that he became aware of the smear of red on the rocky floor beneath Zorro's head.

He squinted at the color he was suddenly seeing, but knew the sight of blood when he saw it. The unanticipated shake of his enemy's head drew his attention to the black form.

My head... Zorro groaned in obvious pain and raised a black gloved hand to his forehead. He blinked, then looked around with wary trepidation. Sergeant? he said, a little louder.

The rumbling of the remaining walls quelled Mendoza's instant bubble of joy at seeing that his friend was alive for the moment. I'm right behind you, Zorro, he whispered. You saved my life... again.

I'm not certain that I have saved anything yet, Sergeant, Zorro whispered back, his hand still on his pounding head as he surveyed the enclosed surroundings. They were trapped by the rock, and only a glance was necessary to show it. The opening of the cave that had been apparent a moment before was now gone.

Don't move, Zorro, Mendoza whispered next.

Why? Am I under arrest? Here? Zorro whispered back, but the attempt at the lighthearted joke fell flat as more dirt rained down on them and Zorro's head pounded on.

Sh! Mendoza cautioned, warily taking his eyes away from the inert form of the man he'd been chasing, and gazed at the ceiling. Then his eyes flickered back to the man before him. Zorro, you must have hit your head when you fell; you're bleeding.

The black glove instantly went still. I am?

Yes, came the affirmative whisper. You're bleeding a lot...

Head wounds always bleed profusely, Zorro told him as he considered what to do next.

Well, that may be, Mendoza said with a shrug that the man in black couldn't see. But I'd feel a lot better if we could stop the bleeding before it kills you. A lot of good any rescue will be if you bleed to death right in front of me, even if Sepulveda remembers to follow the orders I gave him.

What orders? Zorro asked, suspicious.

To ride for reinforcements, the doctor, or both. But we still have time before anybody gets here and we have a hope of getting out alive. I have to stop the bleeding and cover up the trail of blood before they get here.

Zorro gave a resigned sigh. Do what you have to do, Sergeant.

Mendoza shivered. Do what I have to do, he repeated in surrender. That means I have to remove your mask if I want to stop you from bleeding all over the place.

The tiny jerk that this news advocated sent pain lancing up through Zorro's neck. A black hand instantly shot to the area and forced it to be still. You what? he hissed.

Mendoza repeated his answer.

That's what I thought you said, Zorro sighed. He paused and deliberated his choices; his identity in exchange for his life. For a moment, he thought of all the people counting on his continued existence, such as his father, Felipe, Victoria, and came to a fast decision that mixed with the constant throbbing in his temple. Take it off, he commanded.

Mendoza started again, unsure he had heard correctly. Are you certain?

Zorro gave a weak laugh. It seems to be the only solution.

Mendoza gently, timidly, reached under the masked man's head, lifted once with his gloved hands, and slid the silk mask aside. The black material moved smoothly, accompanied by another smear of blood, and revealed his friend's identity in the wavering candlelight. Mendoza drew in a surprised breath. Don Diego?! he half questioned, half exclaimed.

Diego ignored the sergeant's astonished surprise, expecting it; after all, he was hardly known to be the type of man expected to be the masked outlaw. He was just too... everything. Use the mask to press hard against the wound. That should staunch the flow of blood, Diego calmly ordered next, as if he revealed his identity every day and the event was too blasé to herald a remark of any kind.

Mendoza knew that no-nonsense tone, and he did as he was told, albeit with quivering fingers. A silent moment went by as the sergeant pressed against a long cut on Diego's head. Finally he was able to hesitantly say, I think it's stopped.

Good, Diego whispered, but my head is still pounding. He thought for a second. Must be a concussion.

Can you stand? asked Mendoza.

Again issued the weak sound of mirth. I always see two of you, so I very much doubt it, Diego replied.

Mendoza squinted at the cave's opening that was now a wall of rock. What do you want me to do?

Are you strong enough to drag me?

I think so.

Then do it, please, but make sure I'm back beyond the firelight. A rescue party must not see me, unless I want to get captured, and that event's not very conducive to staying alive. Then you'll have to leave me at the back of the cave. His hands moved restlessly against the floor as the thunder in his head went on.

I can't do that, Mendoza protested.

You don't have any choice, unless you plan to turn me over to the Alcalde the minute any rescue party gets here?

No, I could never look Don Alejandro in the eye again, Mendoza said. Besides, I owe you my life, Diego, twice, apparently. There's no way I'm going to just leave you here alone...

Toronado... Diego started to say.

Toronado's been shot, Mendoza reminded him. He won't be back to help you.

Victoria, Diego said next. She has a wagon. Tell her I need help. Here, and he thrust the blood-covered mask at the sergeant. Give this to her if she needs proof, then bring her here.

But she'll see!

The laugh sounded a third time, but it was softer than before as Diego's consciousness faded before the pounding on his skull. That's the least of my concerns at the moment. Now start dragging me, please, before the corporal gets back with that rescue party, and be sure to rub out any mark I make on the floor. It won't do to lead them right to me. Oh, and go to the hacienda to tell Felipe to meet me here. You'll require assistance to lift me into the wagon, and I doubt Victoria can lift me, or if she'll even want to. He chuckled self-deprecatingly, but the sound of his fear was obvious in his tone.

Mendoza swallowed his own fear again, then tucked the mask safely down his tunic and, once his hands were free, did as he had been commanded after first setting the candle down between two rocks to hold it steady. But the black satin cape immediately impeded any progress. Diego, your cape..? But the outlaw whom he was so so used to addressing as the Fox was already unconscious, asleep the moment the sergeant starting dragging him across the floor. Oh, Madre de Dios, he whimpered, but gamely began to extricate his charge from his satin cape. Getting it out from under him was a problem, and Mendoza simply heaved as the caballero slid away from his cape. The going was much harder the further back he went, and a large track clearly showed which way the heavier man had been pulled.

As he continued to drag the unconscious man, Mendoza noticed that the cave was getting lighter, and his spirits rose as he looked briefly to the side just as a tiny split in the rough rock wall dimly showed the setting sun. Suddenly Mendoza knew why his candle had not blown up in his face; fresh air streamed through the opening, even if it was too narrow for him them to escape through.

When he was certain that Diego was beyond the candlelight, Mendoza stopped, laying his friend gently, reluctantly, on the dirty floor. He hoped that his friend would remain unconscious, for then he would never know how cold the stone floor promised to be, and he wouldn't try to move in what could be concussed-induced dementia. What a disaster that would be!

Mendoza then quickly moved forward again, thoroughly scuffing the drag mark on his way, removing any possible threat of discovering Diego by following his tracks. He grabbed up the cape and ripped it in half without hesitation, burying the excess material beneath a rock at the edge of the pile blocking him from the opening. He hoped it would be enough to convince the lancers of his plan, but he didn't know what else to do. Then he worked at soaking up the remaining blood, the supposed proof of Zorro's death. He grabbed the black hat that had rolled away to the side, blew out the candle, and sat down to wait for the appearance of the promised rescue party, though the thought of leaving Diego in the darkness, alone, only yards behind him clawed at his brain.

He didn't have long to wait. Only several minutes had gone by when he heard the faint sound of approaching voices. Several more minutes later, a face poked in to the opening they had cleared in the wall of crumbled stone. Sergeant Mendoza? came the frantic whisper. Are you in there?

Si! I'm alive! But be careful..! Mendoza warned.

Then the rocks suddenly rolled away, and Mendoza was free to wave his hand in the clinging dust the men had created by setting him free. Slowly he stumbled out into the last rays of the sun. Nothing had ever been such a glorious sight, and for a second he was just happy to be alive.

Sergeant! You survived! Corporal Sepulveda whispered, wanting to avert another dusty cave-in, though his incredulity was still palpable even at a whisper, and Mendoza's wandering attention quickly returned to the task he had set for himself to do.

Si, I'm alive, but that's more than some of us can say, and he held out the bloody remains of the ripped cape.

There was a collective intake of breath as five soldiers tried to inhale in astonishment. Do you mean..? Sepulveda began to say. He looked disbelievingly at the remains of the cloak.

Gone, Mendoza choked back a fake sob. He had to think of all the rotten things that had ever happened to him while being a young boy raised at the mission in order to do it, but he would gladly do it again to save his friend. Fortunately, he didn't have to. Buried... under the rocks. He had just pushed me out of the way when... More sobs tore through him. He was putting on a performance that was highly convincing. The life of his good friend depended on it, he remembered.

Sepulveda crossed himself. I don't believe it. Gone, he whispered back.

Mendoza allowed the men three heartbeats to assimilate the news, but recalled that every minute counted if Diego was going to survive. Come on, men, let's get back to the cuartel and tell the Alcalde. He blubbered again, and loudly blew his nose in the handkerchief that was thrust into his hands. This should make him very happy! He sobbed anew.

It was a subdued party of lancers who rode back through the quickly falling dusk to Los Angeles. The moment they returned, Mendoza slipped off his horse and entered the Alcalde's office to tell him of the events of the day.

With a cry of glee, the Alcalde snatched the remains of the black satin cape out of his sergeant's hands and the next moment found himself shoving back a whiskey in celebration at the tavern.

What's the occasion, Alcalde? asked a complacent Victoria as she hefted the bottle of whiskey into her hand and prepared to refill the Alcalde's glass.

DeSoto laughed as Mendoza inwardly cringed at the sound. I finally got him! Zorro's dead!

Victoria paused with the bottle still in the air, visibly paled, then denied, Dead? But that's impossible! You're just deluded...

Deluded am I? scorned DeSoto, then shoved the torn cape under her nose. Mendoza quailed at the pain that etched itself across the señorita's face. He's been crushed by a cave-in at the edge of town! DeSoto crowed. He shoved the sergeant here out of the way, but couldn't save himself. He's as good as dead by now, if the crumbling ceiling didn't kill him on impact. He chuckled again. That just goes to show you what can happen when trying to commit a selfless deed. He emphasised the word 'selfless' and sneered again at her.

Victoria grew even whiter. That's...

DeSoto finished for her. That's the truth! This is all that's left of him! And he once again held forth the cape.

Victoria recognized the black satin material at once. She slowly lowered the bottle and reached across the green bar for the torn and bloodied cape. Oh, my.., she whispered only seconds before tears of grief pooled in her dark eyes. Get out! she whispered in disbelief and clutched at the black material. Everybody.

DeSoto's laugh was at odds to the tears streaming down her cheeks. I should be gone from Los Angeles by month's end! he predicted.

But Victoria wasn't listening. A sob choked off her breath as she stumbled back. Get out, she repeated, though much more softly. Then she turned with the remains of the cape in her hand and prepared to flee DeSoto's expression of boasting delight.

I'm sorry, Señorita, Mendoza mumbled, and saluted her once with a hand to the brim of his lancer's hat. Then she ran from around the bar and hurried up the stairs without a word to the portly soldier. She slammed the door shut on the eyes that followed her, but the sound of her crying was easy to hear, even through the closed door.

DeSoto's cackle was unnerving in the hush that was broken by the obvious sound of tears. Must have hit a nerve, he said jocularly, and threw back his second glass of whiskey, then beckoned for the sergeant to follow. Come on, Sergeant, let's go. Then, the gloating over, the news spread, his job finished, he led the way across the now-dark plaza to see the return of the men who had been following Toronado. Mendoza noted the absence of the horse, and his waning spirits spiked.

It was incredible, mi Alcalde! one soldier was spluttering. Even with a bullet wound, he made the jump across Diablo Canyon and ran away! I've never seen such spunk in a wounded animal before! That Toronado is sure something else!

The Alcalde was less than pleased to hear about this turn of events. He got away? The group of men collectively nodded. Ah! The officer paused, then sighed in obvious disgust before he quickly rallied. That's disappointing, but the man was our main prey, and we got him, men! We got him!

Zorro's dead? asked a new transfer from Santa Paula who didn't know what the news of the death of the town's hero would do to the citizens of the pueblo.

Yes, gloated the Alcalde. Mendoza cringed again as the Alcalde went on, Crushed by a cave-in. He threw his head back and laughed. We'll all sleep more peacefully tonight! Good work, men!

Was it only Mendoza who was troubled by this news? Sad faces turned dispiritedly toward the cuartel and the garrison's stables, yet the soldiers didn't dare display the raw feelings of dread to their Alcalde. Zorro... dead?

Five minutes later, the only man who knew the truth, Mendoza, was making his way alone across the plaza to the empty tavern. He entered through the back, then made his way to Victoria's closed door, where he could still hear the sounds of obvious crying. With hope beating in his heart, he knocked. Señorita! he hissed, and knocked again. It's Sergeant Mendoza.

The crying paused only long enough for her to call, Go away!

But Mendoza was not going to be so easily deterred. Zorro's alive, if only we can get to him soon enough! Please, I need to speak with you!

That got her attention, and Victoria yanked open the door. Tears still streaked tracks down the sides of her face. What? Alive?

Quickly Mendoza shoved the mask into her hands and told her about the chase and the unforeseen causes of the cave-in. Please, we must save him! Mendoza said while Victoria stopped crying and looked at the mask in disbleif. She listened to the astonishing news even as the black satin material of the cape and mask stayed balled in her fist. I'll get Felipe while you hitch up your wagon, he said, but then paused on the balcony's landing as she spoke.

Felipe? Why Felipe?

Mendoza shrugged, hoping the motion would stem her curiosity, but did not take the time to make certain. Diego's life now depended on his quick action. That's what he told me to do. He must have his reasons. Now we have to hurry!

Mendoza strode ahead of her towards the stairs, and like he hoped, Victoria blindly stumbled along behind him, brushing at her tears as they went. Within moments, she was headed for the town's stables while Mendoza mounted the horse he had confiscated from the garrison and had aimed the animal out of town. Five minutes after that found him at the front of the de la Vega hacienda, where he discovered Felipe dusting in the library, and had explained his strange mission to the surprisingly unastonished boy, and who gestured hurriedly towards the door, indicating that he would come immediately. The two of them were gone into the night before the sergeant could even draw a deep breath, riding for the pueblo without informing or even seeing another soul as to what had happened or what they were doing. The secrecy was more helpful than he knew.

They arrived at the cave amid a clatter of wagon wheels, and within moments were at Diego's side in the cave in the soft glow of Victoria's lantern.

Mendoza felt for a pulse on the unmoving man, and grinned as he found one, beating strongly against his finger. He's alive! Here, Felipe, help me. You take his feet.

Victoria gazed in opened-mouth amazement, but remembered herself enough to hold aloft the lantern she had thoughtfully brought with her and took the rags in her hand as they made their way out of the cave and through the fallen night to the waiting wagon. She climbed up beside Diego, pillowing his head on her lap once he was securely in, but the shaking of the rags in her hand illuminated a bit more of her stunned emotions.

Mendoza understood her astonishment, but didn't have time to fully discuss it. He jumped into the driver's seat after tying his horse behind the wagon bed, then clucked to the patiently waiting mount and they were off, back to the de la Vega hacienda and the safety it symbolized.

Carrying in the unconscious man was not as easy as slipping out had been. The front door banged against the adobe wall, alerting the reposing Alejandro in the sitting room. He met them as they stumbled into his front hall and, hiding no longer, Felipe led them all in the direction of Diego's room.

Dios, was all Alejandro muttered as he paused in shock, then reached to support his son's legs with his servant. The black costume of Zorro was a dead giveaway to the man's hidden identity, but he held his questions until they had Diego laid out on his bed and Victoria had locked the door behind them. What's going on? Alejandro immediately barked.

Sergeant Mendoza quietly told his story to the three people waiting for an explanation, then he touched his hand to the brim of his hat again. I have to go for Dr. Hernandez and get back to the garrison before I'm missed. Hasta Mañana, Don Alejandro, Felipe, Señorita. Then he was gone, disappearing through the halls of the darkened hacienda as if he'd never been there. According to anybody else, he hadn't.

Alejandro whirled on Felipe. Toronado? he asked.

Felipe held out calming hands. He gave some slow signs to tell the two that the horse had come back to the hacienda and he had already removed the bullet, bandaged the famous stallion, and left him to eat the hay in his stall. Now all they could do was wait to see how well he recovered from the day's adventures.

Thank you, Felipe, said Alejandro, no longer surprised by anything when he didn't even show the slightest shock that his houseboy clearly knew of his son's private activities. But then, nothing would surprise him any longer. If the passive Diego could somehow be the bandit Zorro, anything was possible. Victoria pulled up a chair beside Diego's bed as Alejandro sent Felipe to wait for the doctor's arrival.

Felipe was telling the señorita that she would find her wagon behind the hacienda, away from sight, when she left, as she would clearly have to do if they wanted to waylay suspicion, then watched as the only-just arrived Hernandez moved to the head of Diego's bed the minute he and Felipe entered the room.

Concussion, the doctor said after a cursory examination, feeling all along Diego's body for the possibility of more wounds.

But the rest of his cape was covered in blood, Victoria said quickly. The Alcalde was gloating in the tavern tonight about how he was dead.

Oh, he's not dead, assured Hernandez confidently. Nor will he be anytime soon. He should wake up in a few hours, and except for a headache fit to burst through his head, should recover completely in just a few days.

Alejandro and Victoria breathed sighs of relief, then tried to quell the questions they had as to Diego's hidden life.

Keep him cool, Hernandez ordered. Light diet at first. Other than that, it will just take a few days for the symptoms of dizziness to subside enough to allow him to move around. I expect that he's had concussions before, he said, referring to his patient's conspicuous identity for the first time. He should know what to do for a concussion of this kind. Quiet and bed rest are the best things for him, Hernandez said. In about two weeks, it should all be just a memory. He straightened from his position next to Diego. There's nothing more I can do for him.

Alejandro crossed his arms. Thank you for coming so quickly, Doctor. Felipe will show you out.

I know the way, Hernandez said as he snapped his bag shut and headed for the door. He stopped beside Alejandro. I really had no idea, Alejandro, he said and smiled.

Alejandro let his arms fall to his sides. Neither did I, he confessed on a breath of expelled air, then gave a grimace to show the effect of his his new knowledge. Felipe gently pulled Hernandez towards the door, but knew that he had a long night of explanations in head of him.

Felipe wasn't disappointed. It was midnight before all of the story was out and the other two regarded him with open amazement.

Astonishing, Alejandro whispered after a silent moment had gone by. That's just amazing. He shook his head. To think that I never knew... His head landed on his propped up fingers that were spread wide as he tried to comprehend the magnitude of what he had learned; he wasn't sure there was enough time in the universe to fully conceive it all. At last, he laughed humorlessly. I'm either the world's biggest fool or Diego's the best actor in the pueblo.

You're no fool, Victoria said, but her flat tone of voice clearly showed her own astonishment. I had no idea either.

But you never called him a coward to his face! Alejandro burst out, cutting off her comfort, and she had to settle for putting an arm around his shoulder. Then Alejandro sighed. I'm in awe, he admitted with a look at Felipe. Another moment passed before he appeared to recall where he was and who he was with. What are you going to do now, Victoria? he inquired gently.

Victoria's sigh rent the darkness with its agonized sound. Do? What can I do? she asked rhetorically. I can't exactly turn my love off like the water seeping out of the watering trough in town. But it will take me a few days to get used to this...

Lie? Deception? filled in a much deeper voice that was new, yet easily recognizable. You might as well call it what it is.

They all jerked around to look at Diego, lying awake in the big bed. Diego! You're awake! exclaimed Victoria, recovering first.

I have the worst headache... Diego said, slowly raising his hands to his aching head. But yes, I'm awake. And unmasked, it would seem. He glanced ruefully down at the black clothes he still wore.

Alejandro swore in a language that neither Diego nor Victoria knew. Diego didn't even know that his father knew how to swear. We have to get you out of these clothes before someone sees you. But Felipe was already pulling a crisp white nightshirt from a drawer in the bureau. Good thinking, Felipe, he complimented and reached for Diego. This is no time to become shy, Son, he said with an eye cast on Victoria.

But Victoria appeared nonchalant at the promised activity. Go ahead, she invited.

Her blasé reaction prompted Diego to ask, You're not angry? I always thought for sure you would be angry. Or hate me forever.

Oh, I'm angry, Victoria tersely responded. I don't know if I should hit you on the head with my favorite skillet or kiss you until you can't see straight...

I already can't see straight, Diego informed, but dutifully lifted his arms up as the nightshirt was slipped over his head by his father.

Good, Victoria said forcefully, and Alejandro laughed.

I'd advise you to run, he said to Diego, but I'm not sure you wouldn't run straight into a wall.

And as my favorite skillet is cast iron, Victoria continued in a voice that was deceptively sweet, I'll forgo banging your head open again.

Thank you so much, Diego quipped, and Alejandro laughed again.

Once Diego was once again settled under the sheets, Alejandro said, Well, since that's done, I'll go for now and leave you to Victoria's presence, he said as if he knew what kind of punishment that entailed. I'm sure you want to talk with her in private. The hard edge in his voice indicated that he suspected his son was not in for an easy night ahead. He stopped, however, before he reached the door. I would worry about her stainless reputation if I didn't already suspect that it's not so stainless any longer, he added dryly, referring to his son's many visits, both well known and not so well known, at the tavern without the presence of a chaperon. No, don't tell me. I don't want to know.

Diego groaned at his father's dry tone.

I'm going to bed, Alejandro said to the three sets of eyes riveted to him. Victoria, lock the door behind me so no one suddenly enters. Otherwise, I might be known as a bad parent for being too trusting, he joked.

Diego would have rolled his eyes at the departing figure of his father if it didn't hurt so much already with every move he made. Ow! he said as he shifted his head too far to the right as the door clicked behind his father.

Felipe halted Victoria from locking the door, and slipped out of the room full of unexpressed emotions before anyone had the chance to express them. The click of the little-used lock followed him. Then Victoria whirled back into the room. What do you have to say for yourself, Diego de la Vega? she asked with her hands firmly on her hips.

Diego rubbed at his head, then sighed. I'm sorry? he asked.

Sorry doesn't cut it, Victoria informed ascerbically.

Diego sighed again in defeat of his fear of the moment that had finally arrived. I always knew you would be angry if you ever discovered my secret.

Victoria marched back to the side of his bed that she had just vacated. With a plop, she sat back down in the chair she had originally pulled up. You're right, I'm so angry I could spit. Why didn't you tell me before now? We could have been married, have children, a family...

That thought has burned itself straight onto my mind, Diego admitted. Then he shrugged. What could he say to make her understand his reluctance at speaking out? But I was so afraid that my fear was paralyzing...

Afraid? mocked Victoria, and inwardly, Diego cringed. What was there to be afraid of?

You.

Nothing could have surprised Victoria more. It shocked her out of her temper. Me?

Diego nodded, then instantly regretted the action as pain blazed through his head. Yes, you. You certainly never gave me any reason to be encouraged...

Victoria interrupted. Did you?

Diego sat for a stunned, quiet moment. Well no, but everyone knows of your love for the hero of the pueblo. No one would have believed that a little mouse like me could have offered him any serious competition.

Victoria felt the first bubble of humor inside her as she comprehended her love's burdens for the first time. Diego, she said and sat forward. I wish you would have tried. Who knows what might have happened?

I do, Diego asserted in a no-nonsense tone.

Victoria refuted him. No, you don't.

Diego glanced up at her. You can't tell me that there was ever any hope of me beating out the hero of the pueblo? he asked incredulously.

A grin began to spread over Victoria's face. A coy grin. Well, if you had begun relatively early.., she suggested, then at the look of shock that settled on Diego's face, continued with a shy shake of her shoulders, I never told you before, but there was a time when I thought you were quite handsome. I still do, in fact.

That stopped Diego's tentative exploration of his head. You're kidding? he blurted.

Victoria innocently shrugged. I had the hugest crush on you when we were children, she confessed.

Even more stunned, Diego could do nothing but stare at all two of her. He forcefully cleared his throat. Why didn't you tell me?

Victoria looked at him, askance. Tell the only boy in the whole pueblo that he was revered by the other kids and that I, a skinny little nobody, had a crush on him?

Suddenly Diego smiled and reached out to tug on her hair. He wasn't sure until he touched it that he would get a handful of the curls he was after. You were never a skinny nobody.

Victoria eyed him meaningfully. You're right, I wasn't a nobody. She suddenly sounded as serious as her expression indicated. But no one can deny that we are from different social classes...

Victoria, you know I've never cared about that, protested Diego.

I know, Victoria affirmed. And I don't care about it either. Then she sat back. But there are those who will care, she warned.

They can jump in a lake, Diego quickly replied.

Even if that somebody is your own father?

This issue was more important to her than even Diego had thought. Victoria, he would never... Diego didn't finish as the incredulity continued to seep through his voice. How long have you felt this way? he finally asked, hushed.

Oh, Victoria lifted her gaze to the ceiling as she calculated. A few years.

Diego twitched, a difficult action to express while under a pile of sheets. A few years! He stared in her general direction. How come you never said anything about this before now?

Look who's talking, Victoria answered. When he didn't reply, she continued, Fear kept more than you silent for several years.

Almost too surprised to respond, Diego burrowed his head into the pillow. A moment later, he admitted, I don't know if I should kiss you and say that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, or take you seriously.

Victoria smiled, the first encouraging endearment she had given him all night. Oh, kiss me, definitely. She paused an inch from meeting his cheek and warned, But I promise not to let fear lead my future as long as you do.

Diego looked into her eyes as well as he could, saw their clarity, if in a blurry way, and smiled himself. Deal, he said.

Only then would she allow herself to kiss him. She was aiming for his cheek, but he moved his head and caught her lips at the last second.

When his desire was beginning to have to either wane or build, she pulled back and grinned even broader. Do you promise?

Oh, I promise, Diego assured, and gave her another kiss. The double meaning in his words was obvious.

I thought you couldn't move your head, Victoria accused as she understood his promise, a vow that had so much more meaning to him because of his penchant for making them.

I can't Diego explained. Right now I'm in so much pain that I'm amazed this is only a concussion. Is the doctor certain of his prognosis? he inquired doubtfully.

She grinned at him, then held up her two index fingers. How many fingers? Four? she asked, then smiled again when he groaned deeply. She just laughed and kissed him on the forehead. Sleep now. I'll see you when I can get away. As the tavern should be closed tomorrow in deference to your death... Now it was her turn to groan, it won't be hard for me to just disappear.

Fine with me, he voted.

She halted his kiss. Then I'll be sure to see you tomorrow.

Even she could halt him for only so long. I can't wait, he growled, then kissed her more intensely than even Zorro had dared to before.

When they parted, Victoria blinked her surprise as she clearly fought to bring her emotions under control. Now I'm the one who's dizzy.

He laughed. Come back for more.

I will, she threatened, and smiled.

Z Z Z

The next day was an agony for Victoria, who wanted to act happy and had to walk around looking as if she were so depressed, she wanted a hole to open up in the floor so she could fall into it. When Mendoza came by for a brief moment, she brightened, but he could only stay in the tavern's kitchen long enough to ask, Is he all right?

Yes, replied Victoria. He has a concussion, but should be up and about as early as the next few days.

Thank goodness, fervently replied the sergeant, and Victoria didn't disagree with his assessment of the situation, though she did her best to look unhappy and withdrawn when she ventured across the plaza in hopes of being seen.

She was seen, and by the Alcalde. Even he was fooled when she literally ran into him on her way into the mission.

Say a prayer for me, he suggested flippantly as she passed.

I'm going to pray for Zorro, if you must know, she said, and did her best to look teary-eyed.

Go ahead, DeSoto invited, But know that all the prayers in the world won't bring him back. Nothing will. His laugh echoed off the surrounding adobe walls as she escaped through the mission's front doors before she could comment and tell him what was really on her mind.

Victoria waited a few more minutes, and surreptitiously watched while DeSoto disappeared into his own office. What a horrid man, Victoria said under her breath, then shut the door and left the mission from its back walled in herb garden to avoid crossing his path again. She knew it wasn't very Christian of her to feel such a way, but deep in her heart she hoped that DeSoto's promotion back to Spain came through, and soon.

Z Z Z

The memorial service for Zorro was held a week after the day of the original chase. Since they couldn't retrieve his body, which was rumored to be buried under three tons of rock, Padre Benitez was forced to say his speech to anyone who would listen to him in the pueblo cemetery.

It was Diego's first appearance in Los Angeles since the concussion. He told everyone that he had fallen off his horse in front of the hacienda as he dismounted and hit his head on a rock, which was close enough to the truth that everyone believed it, much to his shame and chagrin.

The entire town turned out to pay respects for Zorro in the end, but Victoria was given deference with a place in front. Truthfully, many of the citizens were curious to see how she was going to respond to the padre's speech, as she was sure to give them enough to talk about that would keep their conversations going for a month.

Padre Benitez said what he could about the selfless deeds that had eventually caused the hero's death, until Victoria, biting a lip, meant to show dread, gave the performance of her life when she fell to her knees in apparent grief as the service ended. Diego moved forward to offer her what comfort he could, all the while wondering what she was thinking about that would make her cry so convincingly. He would have been surprised that she was finally releasing the tension she'd felt at the years worth of clandestine, furtive behavior that had been required of her. Not to mention she'd put a pebble in her shoe that felt like a small nuisance when the service started, but had grown to such an annoyance by the end of the ceremony that she wanted nothing more than to get off her feet. Her abject sorrow was only partially imitated.

Two weeks later, the Alcalde's expected promotion came through.

A farewell party, I think, Alejandro said with his finger pointed at the tavern's ceiling. We should celebrate a promotion of this caliber; we'll invite everyone.

A party, just for me? DeSoto tried not to look pleased at the prospect, but he was hard pressed to hide his desire to be honored by such an influential leader of the community. Don Alejandro, I'd be honored, DeSoto responded.

It gives me great pleasure that I can see you off from my humble home, Alejandro deadpanned, but DeSoto didn't comprehend the double intent concealed in the words.

I accept! DeSoto looked as if he had finally arrived at a place he had been striving towards for many long years.

The Alcalde sauntered away, and while he watched, through tightly clenched teeth, Alejandro said to Diego, I think I might be sick.

Then why are you throwing him a farewell party? Diego asked, covering up his true feelings of revulsion with a smile.

Because nothing would please me more than to see him leave this pueblo, muttered Alejandro under his breath. Why didn't you rid us of this pestilence when you had the chance, Diego? he inquired.

Father! Diego admonished as he draped his arm around Alejandro's shoulder and led the shorter man outside to the horses still hitched at the tavern's hitching rail. He didn't once glance in Victoria's direction, and the effort he was making to control himself made his head spin. But no one needed to know. I'm surprised to hear such a peace-loving man say that, he vocalized in his surprise, covering up his true thoughts.

Oh, I'm as peace-loving as the next man, assured Alejandro. I'll just be a happier individual once he's gone.

Diego spoke even more quietly than his father had, That makes two of us.

Z Z Z

The de la Vegas, along with many of the other citizens who had turned out to see Ignacio DeSoto off, stood beside the stage in the shade cast by the tavern porch. Actually, several people were present in front of the tavern just to make sure the former alcalde got on the stage, but they kept that matter to themselves.

I can't believe how many came just to see me off! exclaimed DeSoto.

Can someone be that oblivious and not know it? Alejandro whispered, and Diego shrugged in reply.

No one set DeSoto straight. Victoria shifted a bit closer to Diego, but his hand set unobtrusively on her arm stopped her from doing anything she might regret until the stage disappeared over the horizon in a cloud of dust. The 'Goodbye to our Beloved Alcalde' sign hung askew at the edge of the plaza, and no one moved to fix it.

Diego watched to make certain, like those around him, that the stage really was leaving and it bore his arch enemy away from the small pueblo that the man had spent so many years terrorizing. As soon as the vehicle had trundled out of town, he spoke, but didn't turn, to the sergeant. I believe I owe you my thanks, he muttered as the military man stood next to him.

No thanks necessary, Mendoza muttered back, then waved in the direction of the disappearing stage one final time.

But I owe you my life, protested Diego.

Mendoza gave a jump at the very idea of Zorro owing him his life. But you repaid me, a life for a life, he insisted. Now we're even.

A little louder as the stage continued to roll farther away, Diego said, If you insist.

I do.

When the stage had vanished over the horizon, Diego turned to look fully at Mendoza for the first time. As you wish. Then he held out his hand in the American pose of acceptance. Friend.

Mendoza grinned and took the offered hand. He pumped the hand up and down for all to see, and many did. Grinning, he said, Friend.

Diego smiled. I owe you one.

Mendoza shook his head. You don't owe me anything. Just do everyone a favor and marry Señorita Victoria before she starts putting more chilies in her burritos. I wouldn't want her to feel ignored. The grin grew wider and he winked in Victoria's direction.

Diego beamed. That would be my pleasure, he said, then released Mendoza and turned to Victoria. What do you think, mi preciosa?

She grinned and squinted up at him into the sun. I think I agree with the sergeant, she told him, then lifted her arms until they locked behind his head. You owe him one.

Diego smiled down at her and pulled her close with no longer concealed strength, yet he was as tender as a newborn kitten. Let me get a start on that debt right now, he said, and leaned down to kiss her. The shock they gave the entire citizenry was as deep as the kiss he gave her right there in the middle of the plaza. And there was no doubt in anyone's mind that she wasn't just kissing her friend, Diego de la Vega, but that she was also kissing Zorro, the man she had promised herself to years before.

The plaza of Los Angeles hadn't often been the gathering place of a group of people so astonished, or so happy about that astonishment as they watched their hero kiss his a lady, minus the mask.


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