For Wolfdaughter, who asked the right questions in a review of 'Nightmare,' and who refused to give in to my ravings. If not for her, this sequel wouldn't exist. Thanks.

A Hero Unveiled

by Linda Bindner

Don Alejandro rode quietly on the trail towards the hacienda. The ruts that wagon wheels had made to the dusty tracks could easily trap a horse's hoof at an odd angle, so the two riders with him knew better than to gallop their mounts full out to reach the comforts that home provided a little faster. Diego and Felipe cantered along silently beside him, and none of them spoke about the strange scene that had just taken place in the tavern with Victoria and Diego. She had been so distressed when Alejandro had arrived with Felipe, so tormented over her fight with Zorro and so upset that none of the de la Vegas could help her locate him to apologize... until Diego spoke to her, that is, until Diego's personal brand of comfort had calmed the tortured woman so much that she was able to serve food again by the end of the lunch hour. The transformation had been like the difference between night and day. What had he said to her? Alejandro wondered on that silent ride home. What had his son done that no one else in the pueblo seemed capable of doing? Alejandro didn't know for sure - no one did - but he suspected plenty. He remembered the vague suspicion he'd had about his son, Diego, and about Victoria, and about the mutually rotten moods he had witnessed from them all day, and about how Diego and Victoria had come from the kitchen seemingly cured of those moods...

Alejandro looked at Diego out of the corner of his eyes. Neither Diego nor Victoria had behaved any differently towards each other while she had come to their table to collect the dirty lunch dishes, but Diego had grown more and more preoccupied as they neared home. He hadn't spoken ten words on the entire ride, and Alejandro couldn't help but think of his own suspicions that Diego and the legendary Zorro were one and the same, hence explaining Victoria's surprising turnaround in mood. So much would be clarified by the hidden duality... So many unaccountable things suddenly explained... Yes, there was definitely something going on, and Alejandro was determined to get to the bottom of it.

Diego? His father started his questioning in a quiet voice so as not to frighten the younger man into concealing the truth yet again.

Diego galloped until he was abreast of the older caballero. Yes, Father? he dutifully asked.

Alejandro gave Diego one last opportunity to speak the truth. I was wondering if there was something you wanted to tell me? he began without a preface to soften his words.

But Diego, it appeared, could be just as stubborn as his father. I don't think so. Why?

Alejandro decided to play along with the game that Diego had begun. He shrugged. Oh, it's just the ramblings of an old man, perhaps, the suddenly 'seeing of the truth' that has been in front of his face for years, he mentioned nonchalantly.

Diego smiled a little. First, you're hardly an old man, and second, what do you mean by 'seeing the truth?'

Was that a bit of concern in his son's voice? Inwardly, Alejandro chuckled. Outwardly, he shrugged once more. Oh, it could be nothing. But let's just say that, with you gone and speaking to Victoria in her kitchen, and Felipe, here, the strong, silent type... He paused to see if the young servant seemed to show a spark of interest in what his patrón was saying that might mean he was reading lips on the sly again. But Felipe had his head turned to the side, either interested in the passing countryside, or pretending to be interested in it, because he wasn't paying a bit of attention to his older patrón. Alejandro went on, It gave me plenty of time to think.

Oh? What did you think about? Diego definitely sounded worried now, despite his cool, questioning tone.

I wondered... well, I noticed that both you and Victoria came out of the kitchen remarkably whole and in much better moods than when you went into the kitchen... It caused me to wonder, and to think... What did you say to her, Diego, that so clearly helped her get over her heartache enough to serve again by the end of the lunch hour?

Who, me? Diego asked as he tried to laugh off his father's concerns. Why, nothing, really, Father.

No, truly, what did you say to her? Alejandro repeated innocently, though he was really far from innocent. He just liked to see his son squirm a bit after keeping his own father in the dark as to his hidden identity for all those long years that Zorro had been riding in the pueblo. He didn't yet know what he thought about his son keeping such a secret from his own father, but he certainly knew what he intended to do with the new knowledge; watch Diego grow more and more concerned, that's what.

It was Diego's turn to shrug now. Honestly, Father, I just told her that things have a way of working out, and if she and Zorro had a disagreement, then they were no different in that respect than any other couple in the world. That's all.

Nothing extraordinary that you want to tell me? Alejandro shamelessly inquired, changing the subject a bit to ask the question.

Diego shook his head. No, nothing. And nothing happened, either, if that's what you're worried about.

Alejandro sighed, then glanced quickly around. No one was out and about for miles, so he pulled his white horse, Dulcinea, to a halt. Diego and Felipe were forced to stop as well or run into him. Alejandro sighed again, a loud exhalation of breath, and quietly said, Now, we both know that isn't quite true. I saw the twinkle in yours and Victoria's eyes when you emerged separately from the kitchen. Now for the last time, what did you say to her, Diego?

For a moment, Diego looked like a little boy whose britches had fallen down. He was too horrified, though covering it adequately, to speak. Then he tried again, Why, nothing, Fath...

Don't you say 'Nothing, Father' to me, Alejandro gently admonished. This time I want the truth. I know what I saw. He paused. And I saw the eyes of two people who were suddenly something other than best friends; I noticed, and that made me wonder. Out with it, Diego. What's going on?

Diego blankly stared again. He took in his father's no-nonsense expression, and knew that the usual excuses wouldn't work this time; his father was being far more astute then normal. It was amazing, really, that no one else in the pueblo had noticed the different moods with which he and Victoria had emerged from the kitchen. He turned towards Felipe for just a second, and was startled by the hand that was reaching kindly out to pat him on the arm.

Felipe signed that it was expedient of him now to tell Diego of the strange, knowing look that had passed across Don Alejandro's face while at lunch, and of the closed expression that had immediately followed, that very day when he was supposed to have been eating.

Diego blinked.

Well? Alejandro prompted.

Without warning, Diego suddenly sighed and appeared to wilt right before Alejandro's eyes. You're not imagining things, Father.

That's good to know! Alejandro exclaimed with some relief. I'm certainly old enough where seeing things is of great concern.

There's no reason for alarm, Diego soothed, his voice strong, yet low and softer than normal. He kept glancing around as if he expected someone to jump out at him from the bushes that weren't anywhere near their halted position. Alejandro had chosen his spot of inquiry well. They would see someone approaching for as much as fifty feet before anyone was upon them. Plenty of time to stop whispering and start talking aloud in the middle of an alleged conversation meant to throw anyone off from suspecting the real topic under discussion. I believe it's time to consider some matters of great import that I have disregarded for far too long.

It's good to finally hear you say that, Alejandro noted quietly, though not judgmentally.

Diego looked around one last time, then lowered his voice even further. His father had to lean over towards him in the saddle just to hear him. What I'm about to tell you may come as a bit of a surprise...

Alejandro interrupted him. You're Zorro, aren't you? he whispered.

... or not, Diego finished with a stunned look of his own surprise chiseled onto his handsome face. His cheek twitched once. Even Felipe appeared astonished. How did you know? Diego asked, just as quietly.

As I said, I had time to think while in the tavern eating lunch, Alejandro explained. I noticed your rotten mood, Victoria's rotten mood, then your good mood, then Victoria's good mood, put two and two together, and wham, it hit me like a ton of adobe bricks. The fact that I saw you fight the Emissary helped a lot.

Diego was unimpressed with his father's use of his logical skills. He sighed. What disturbs me is that the Alcalde saw a bit of that sword fight, too.

Not to worry, Alejandro vetoed. The Alcalde was more concerned about stealing my horse and shooting my son in the back than paying attention to what my other son was doing at the time. I wouldn't worry about him if I were you. But you did answer one of my questions at least, he stated

Oh? What was that? asked Diego.

Whether or not my suspicions are true. They are, Alejandro now stated much more firmly. My Diego, my own son, is the legend of the pueblo.

I'm no legend, Diego negated uncomfortably. His horse shied a step to the right, and he self-consciously pulled her back in line.

Sure you are, said his father unequivocally. You're as much a legend as Toronado is. Here, Felipe made the motions of laughter, minus the accompanying sounds of it. And I can guess that Felipe can hear and has acted as your liaison between you and the pueblo all these years, he said in a voice that indicated that he expected no argument to his deductions.

Diego continued to stare, amazed that his father had guessed so much of the disguise hidden to most Angelenos. You predicted all that from watching my mood? he inquired a bit incredulously.

Alejandro nodded. That, and a little figuring out of past events, he explained. Now, what did you say to Victoria?

What? Nothing about how his own son had kept this news a secret from him for over four years in his own house? Diego brushed his thoughts aside and opted for a bit of reality in answering his father's inquiry. I told her the truth, he said.

And she..?

Didn't hit me over the head with one of her cooking utensils, as I anticipated her to do. It's much more within her character to hit me than to listen rationally to every word I had to say, Diego said with a grimace. All these years, I thought she'd be angry with me... But she surprised me.

Again, Alejandro interrupted. Hit you over the head? That's not like Victoria.

Yes, it is, Diego argued. But she didn't react like that at all.

What did she say? Alejandro prodded once more.

Thank God, Diego answered.

Don't blaspheme, Diego, Now is not the time for it, Alejandro noted almost habitually. It was the voice of parental discipline issuing from his mouth.

Diego lifted his shoulders in a shrug. Well, you wanted to know her reaction.

Yes, but.., Then, he understood. She said that?

It was Diego who nodded this time. She did. She also wanted to talk about her inheritance...

Her what?

Diego looked surprised for a moment. Her inheritance. You didn't hear about it?

Must have slipped by me, Alejandro remarked.

She inherited 10,000 pesos from an aunt in Spain who died. Victoria knew of her, but had never met her.

10,000! Alejandro said reverently.

Diego looked uncomfortable again. Yes. She's worth more now than even I am. If I were dead, that is.

10,000, Alejandro whispered again in awe.

That's what our argument was about last night, Diego explained more readily. She wanted to offer the money to DeSoto in exchange for my freedom from governmental retribution.

Alejandro breathed. I bet she did.

I told her that the system doesn't work that way. She said it had better, or she would never be allowed to settle down and get married. I said that her inheriting money had nothing to do with our eventual ability to marry. She proclaimed that she only intended to be around those who were serious about marriage. That's when she threw me out. Diego grimaced again at the memory.

But you made things right again? Alejandro questioned as if he wanted to make sure of the smooth running of his world.

Yes, I did, Diego nodded. Or, we did. Then he looked puzzled. I don't know, now that I think about it. Does getting married constitute as fixing things?

Alejandro whitened like a stone statue. What? he asked in a monotone.

That's what we did, Diego said, as if he wasn't telling of some revolutionary news. Got married.

You what? Alejandro was so surprised that he forgot to talk in a whisper.

Diego grinned, then, like he'd just given a huge present to his father. As you've always wanted, you now have a daughter-in-law.

Alejandro's mouth fell open and he glanced around, his gaze landing on an equally as astounded Felipe. Did you know?

No, Diego replied for him. The wedding was today, over lunch.

Alejandro was silent for the next several moments. Then he accused, You talk about it like it was lunch.

Diego shook his head. No, it was far from that, I assure you. There was nothing light about this decision to get married in spite of it's speed, he insisted. I only knew that there was no life without Victoria in it. If there wasn't a life, I might as well marry her, now, and secure her forever, before the struggle for justice in the pueblo comes to an end. I'm truly delighted that I felt that way. She was vindicated to know she had been right all along in wanting to marry, he admitted. She just didn't know she wanted to marry me.

Alejandro tried to swallow. It sounded like the movement hurt. Today?

Diego's eyebrow rose. Well, you saw Padre Benitez afterwards. Was he in an unusually good mood?

Alejandro considered. Yyyyeeesss.

Were Victoria and I in good moods when we came through the curtains from her kitchen?

Yyyyyeeeessss.

Diego's other eyebrow rose to match his first one. There you have it.

And while the padre was making his rounds, you were..?

In the kitchen, kissing Victoria, Diego responded readily.

You were..? Alejandro spluttered and interrupted himself. He closed his eyes and swallowed again. This time, it definitely looked like the action hurt. What about DeSoto? he gagged when he could speak again.

Diego conceded, Yes, well, he's something we'll have to think on tonight.

Alejandro was amazed at his son's seeming nonchalance about his old enemy. Don't you think he deserves a little more than mere pondering? he asked a tiny bit accusatory. What if he figures it out like I did and hangs you?

Diego appeared uncomfortable again, Yes, well, that's a possibility, but a life with Zorro but without Victoria is no life at all, he announced. It was either lose her or marry her. I chose the only option I technically could under the circumstances. He thought for a moment, then said, I presume it's like the option of telling you of my secret identity; no option, really.

Alejandro balked, a move that traveled from him through his saddle to the ever-patient Dulcinea, who jumped three steps. His hand automatically went out to pat her neck in a soothing motion. Why didn't I know of this? he asked next, curious.

A sad little smile crept across Diego's features. Because I don't want you to hang with me for knowing. Because I never want you to worry when I ride out.

Worry? I won't... Diego hushed his father's protest with nothing more than as admonishing look. You're right, Alejandro allowed. I will worry, especially now that I know it's you, my only son, being shot at by every lancer in the pueblo.

Now you know why I never said anything, Diego explained. I don't want you to see anybody but the masked man, he said, I certainly don't want you to see your only son.

Alejandro remained silent. Finally he looked away, over the rolling land of dry, blowing grass. At last he claimed, I understand, but knowing was my choice, and you took that away from me by your silence.

That's what Victoria claimed, too, Diego said softly, admitting something of his own. He looked down, as if he were battling feelings of guilt.

Good, Alejandro thought, feeling uncharitable now. He wanted his son to suffer a bit from the decisions he had peremptorily made in the past without consulting those his decisions affected the most. The move was understandable, even forgivable, but not easily forgotten, Alejandro noted almost dispassionately. Then his thoughts switched, and he finally allowed himself to experience the joy of knowing the son he truly had. It was a slow knowledge that crept up on him. You've been him since you came home from Spain?

Since the beginning, said Diego, hiding nothing now. I've always been him.

And you carried out this disguise right under my nose? Right in my own hacienda? Diego nodded, Felipe joining him after pointing to his own chest in an unmistakable gesture that indicated he was in on the deception as well. Incredible. Alejandro shook his head in awe. And now?

Diego sighed. I don't know, he declared. I only know what's going to happen tonight tonight.

What's that?

Diego readily replied this time, as if he knew precisely what was going to happen. I plan to ride to the tavern and make sweet love to Victoria until either she, I, or both us can't see straight. He sounded determined.

Too determined for his father. Alejandro didn't want to hear about such plans! Diego! he hissed. Don't tell me that! I might feel obliged to stop you.

Then I'll run right over the top of you, Diego promised. I'll go even if I have to tie you up. There wasn't a hint of apology in his voice. Victoria and I have been waiting over four years, and now there's no one who can claim that what we want is wrong or soiled or impure. We married, after all, he argued. It's almost expected. Thank God.

It was the last statement that Alejandro chose to latch onto. There's that blasphemy again. Diego, I have to wonder where you learned that from.

Diego answered immediately. From four years of combating a corrupt government, that's where. Diego patted Esperanza. A government whose learned nothing from my lessons. His voice turned hard at the end.

Which means? Alejandro was almost afraid to ask.

Diego looked around again, scanning the road that ran before and behind them. All that was visible were Felipe, his father, and himself. Zorro will die somehow. I just don't know how, yet, he whispered. Any ideas? Both men, young and old, shook their heads.

I'll think about it, Alejandro promised. But in the meantime, promise me that you won't do anything rash.

Diego chuckled at that. I can promise that easily enough. After all, Victoria will flay my hide if I'm caught now. Not when we're finally married.

She may not be the only one, Alejandro muttered under his breath, but he wisely chose to keep his thoughts to himself. He only urged Dulcinea into a canter to complete the journey home. The two other horses followed.

Z Z Z

It was the following morning when Alejandro rose from his bed and sauntered in to the library to check on the smooth running of his house and his ranch. Both were flowing along according to any plan that had been devised, if he could judge by the smells of cooking coming from the kitchen and the lack of paperwork spread across his desk in the sitting room. He noted also the conspicuous lack of his son waiting in the library, as Diego usually did before breakfast just prior to leaving for mass on Sunday morning. But, for the first time, Alejandro didn't really want to know where Diego was at that moment. If he wasn't in his room - and he wasn't, his father had checked - and he wasn't in the library, then he must still be at the tavern with Victoria...

His son's wife, the older caballero allowed himself to think about that for the first time. His own daughter-in-law. Nothing could please him more, he granted, than to have Victoria become a true relation to the de la Vega family. He didn't know yet how he felt about the secrecy surrounding such a marriage... Diego and Victoria had a lot more to contend with than normal newlyweds, he realized. He wondered if they understood that as well, and suspected that they didn't. Ah, well, he thought, I would have spent the night at the tavern with my new wife despite the dangers, too. But he acknowledged the fact that he would be more than glad that morning to see Diego whole and unharmed with his own eyes...

Diego didn't arrive at the hacienda for breakfast, and Alejandro was forced to meet up with him in Los Angeles. He strolled calmly from behind the tavern as a large amount of citizens were in the plaza, walking to the mission as it tolled its bell to call everyone to worship. The expression of relaxed bliss on his face told Alejandro all he wished to know, but still he whispered under cover of the trampling feet of the crowd, Well, you're alive I see. How'd it go?

Slowly, Diego smiled. I'm going to like this, he said in an answering whisper, but refused to say more while they were in town and surrounded by people.

When they exited an hour later, the sun was hot, Diego was craning his neck to look for Victoria so he could walk with her to the tavern in seeming innocence, and Dons Ernesto and Carlos had cornered him with Padre Benitez to discuss in whispers the political problems facing the tiny town. When Diego ran up to the group to announce his plans to assist Victoria with the cleaning of the tavern, Alejandro suspected that more than cleaning was on the agenda for the afternoon's activities.

But I don't need you at home for anything specific, Diego, Alejandro said. It's fine with me, as long as she promises to feed you lunch, too. That promise was unnecessary, he knew. Victoria was sure to feed lunch to her new husband.

Lunch a la Escalante? Don Ernesto boomed, and Alejandro had his first exposure to his friends speaking of his daughter-in-law without using her proper title of Doña. He didn't like it. It made him angry at the unforgivable, yet perfectly understandable, social slight. He grew even more determined to rid the pueblo of DeSoto, the political scourge that made such concealment necessary. You lucky man! Don't let this opportunity slip away! Don Ernesto was saying.

Fortunately, the Alcalde chose that moment to leave the mission and enter the plaza. It was clear that that particular political scourge was listening in on the conversation of his fellow parishioners. The obviousness of the move made Alejandro's stomach twinge in annoyance. Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than for Diego, DeSoto's sworn enemy, to spend the day at the tavern right under DeSoto's nose, tending to his wife. It may have been an uncharitable feeling, but Alejandro felt exonerated from his original thought just for defying DeSoto.

Diego, enjoy yourself, Alejandro encouraged.

I certainly will, Diego said with a covert look of puzzlement sent his father's way. But I doubt cleaning the tavern will be that enjoyable! he remarked loudly. DeSoto definitely heard.

Diego's waylaying suspicion, Alejandro realized, and admired the smoothness with which the redirecting of the conversation was done. Who knows how many other countless times his own son had redirected the energies of the people he had wanted to divert. Perhaps he had even done it to himself. If so, his own father had never known it, he confessed to himself, but kept silent on the nature of his thoughts.

The group burst out laughing at Diego's last comment, and Alejandro joined in on the merrymaking, not wanting to call undue attention to the group by not joining in. It worked; the Alcalde never realized anything was going on.

Alejandro suddenly comprehended how very much happened despite DeSoto's interference in the pueblo as his son loped back to Victoria's side on the tavern's porch. Alejandro watched him go. The pueblo of Los Angeles may have been under martial law, may have been so for years, but it wasn't the military who truly ran things. The legendary Zorro could take the credit for capturing many of the bandits in the past, thus ensuring the continuance of peace in the small town. Pride for his son's accomplishments soared in Alejandro, but he realized that he couldn't say anything about the feeling to the men around him. Such behavior would be suicide for Diego, and Victoria would never forgive him, he knew. So he listened to the conversation, which had turned to the much more innocuous topic of cattle prices, pretended interest, and all the while watched from the corner of his eyes as Diego disappeared with Victoria into the relative safety of the tavern.

But all the while Alejandro thought, How did Diego do this for all those years?

Z Z Z

That night was the busiest at the hacienda in decades.

First came a surprise visit from Sergeant Mendoza. Have you seen Señorita Victoria? asked the round sergeant as he and Alejandro stood in the front doorway. I haven't seen her all day and I'd love to ask if she plans to make her special beans for tomorrow, and for the recipe she uses to make them. I doubt that the garrison chef could duplicate her directions, but... I thought I might give it a try, and since I was in the area and she's not at the tavern, I would try here.., he admitted in a soft voice full of apology.

No, Sergeant, I haven't seen Victoria since mass this morning, Alejandro said. At least that was the truth as far as he was concerned. Perhaps she went for a walk, he suggested. Or perhaps she and Diego... He didn't finish his thought. She'll reappear in no time.

As you say, perhaps she will, Mendoza responded. But I had to check, Don Alejandro, since you and she are such good friends...

Ah, said Alejandro. You thought she was a guest tonight for dinner? Well, no, we had no plans, but perhaps you would like to take her place?

Mendoza smiled even as he shook his head. Oh, no, Don Alejandro, I didn't stop by here in hopes of getting an invitation...

Alejandro came forward, closer to the door the sergeant was currently filling. Oh, of course not, Sergeant. But I insist. And so would Diego, if he were only here. Alejandro couldn't quite stop the thought from shooting through his mind. He managed to halt the indescribable anger when he thought of his son, working so hard just to see his wife... The anger dissipated as he considered the situation with his dispassionate, logical brain. Please, come in, come in. Alejandro motioned for Mendoza to enter, and suddenly the idea of having a dinner guest didn't seem so unwelcome to him.

But the second he shut the door on the Sergeant, Felipe entered looking as if he had spent the afternoon in the garden, pulling weeds. Mud streaked down the right side of his face. Felipe, called Alejandro. We'll be having Sergeant Mendoza for supper tonight. Please see that the table is set with an extra plate.

Felipe nodded and disappeared to clean up before supper, and Alejandro had just opened his mouth to request that he and Mendoza retire into the library to wait for the food to get done when Diego pushed his way through the front door.

Father, Diego called, then halted the moment his eyes rested on Sergeant Mendoza's. Oh, hello, Sergeant. What brings you here at this hour of the day? he asked as if he'd spent the entire day in the stables rather than with Victoria and he was just now coming inside.

It was clear that Diego had something to tell his father, and now Alejandro regretted having an extra guest at the supper table who would surely dampen the conversation. For the first time he understood what it was to have something he wanted to talk about, but couldn't, not with the sergeant there to hear every word and possibly report back to the Alcalde. Sergeant Mendoza has agreed to join us for supper, Alejandro explained as he shifted nervously from one foot to the other.

The expression of delight that crossed and settled on Diego's face was inscrutable and quick. Alejandro beheld the look with silent amazement. Diego really had become quite an actor over the years. If he didn't know that Diego was less than thrilled at having dinner guests to perform in front of, he would never have guessed it judging by Diego's aspect. Excellent! Diego said enthusiastically.

Alejandro wondered if his son met his new wife with equal enthusiasm, but he quickly turned his mind to other things. Perhaps we should wait for dinner in the library? he suggested. They all turned, entered the room, then found seats. They had all barely settled themselves when Alejandro commented, The Sergeant, here, was out looking for Victoria, Diego, to ask for her recipe on beans. Perhaps you know where she is?

The double meaning in those words was unmistakable if a person knew what to listen for. Diego knew. But he couldn't enlighten his Father while the sergeant was there. No, Father, I don't know where she's gone this evening. We took a walk together after we finished cleaning the tavern, but...

You took a walk together? Mendoza checked.

Yes, we were gone quite a while, Diego answered. Why, were you looking for us?

I was, Mendoza said, but it can wait. I'll find her some other time, tomorrow perhaps. But by the ravenous look of curiosity that passed across his features, Alejandro knew two things; one, it was smart for Diego to give a false alibi to the friendly sergeant, for it was clear that he had come here for the express purpose to find out Victoria's whereabouts, and two, that a walk as the supposed alibi was already turning the sergeant's gossip wheel, which he would then report to the Alcalde, which would go far in further removing his son from the name of the masked man, and Diego would successfully begin a rumor concerning himself and Victoria, not Zorro and Victoria. The added benefit was purely accidental, though all the political aspirations of the move gave Alejandro a headache. Who knew that the simple rumor of a walk could have so many ramifications? Especially since the truth of the matter was that Diego and Victoria had surely been ensconced in her room, doing who knew what, and they simply hadn't heard the sergeant's knock on the tavern's front doors. As he thought about this scenario, Alejandro's temple pounded harder and he fought against the sensation of being sick; he really didn't want to know how his son had spent the afternoon.

But Diego only smiled passively at the mention of Victoria. hiding his true feelings, and asked of his father, You've already spoken to Felipe about setting a plate for the sergeant..?

Just now, Alejandro said.

Diego nodded in a show that he had heard. Well then... He turned to Mendoza. Tell us, Sergeant, how is everyone at the cuartel? Everything's all right, I hope?

Oh, he was good, Alejandro decided in further amazement. If he didn't know Diego so well and that he knew Diego had other things he wanted to discuss, he would never have guessed that his boy wasn't perfectly content to talk to Mendoza all night. Diego sat back in his chair, settling into the cushion for what promised to be a long talk.

Oh, we're all fine, Don Diego, though not especially...

Mendoza was cut off when a servant, Miguel, interrupted him. Supper is ready, he announced.

Diego rose, saying, Go on, Sergeant.

Mendoza continued with his tale of a man in the garrison whom Diego apparently knew who was coming down with a slight chill. It's not bad, but Dr. Hernandez has ordered him to stay in the infirmary. He chuckled and pulled out a chair to sit on at the dining room table that was completely covered in food; Sunday night supper at the de la Vegas was a sight to behold. Too bad he's not here; he could take part in putting away this wonderful supper!

Indeed, Diego said encouragingly.

I don't suppose you could pass the beans, Don Diego? Mendoza asked immediately.

Diego didn't say a word but he sent his father a long-suffering look over the bowl of beans he passed.

Alejandro gave an understanding grin. Beans, Diego, he said, and shrugged a smile.

Z Z Z

Sergeant Mendoza stayed through dinner, but said he really had to leave soon after finishing off the dessert of a rare fruit pie. I really should be going, Don Alejandro, explained Mendoza. I'm supposed to be on patrol right now. If I don't get back soon, the Alcalde will send a search party out for me, and he would be very angry if he found me shirking my duty. Neither Diego nor Alejandro persuaded the military man to stay. In fact, Diego all but ushered him out the door; he clearly had something on his mind.

The moment Mendoza was out the door, Diego met his father in the library.

You thought of something? Alejandro whispered, trying to discourage any eavesdroppers with a lowered voice.

Diego's easygoing demeanor instantly changed. He leaned forward now, intent. No, Victoria did, he whispered back. Here's the idea; I capture bandits in the coming weeks, convince DeSoto to say that he captured them, then have him send his reports to the military garrison at Santa Barbara, which is responsible for all the military transfers and promotions. I make him look so good by capturing all these men that DeSoto will obviously be the next in line for a transfer to a better garrison, where the threat of Zorro won't get in his way of running a garrison. Then, he leaves, which also allows Victoria and myself to be much more open about our marriage and identities.

Alejandro wrinkled his brow. But won't that be taking credit for your work?

DeSoto already takes credit for what I do, Diego insisted, still in a low voice. It's just that he's always sent his reports to Spain. I plan to 'encourage' him to send them to Santa Barbara instead.

Can he do that? Alejandro asked. He was appointed by the King.

Diego shrugged. I don't see why he can't send his reports to wherever he wants. It's just that none of us ever thought to have him send them to Santa Barbara before.

Now Victoria has, Alejandro repeated in his whisper. What a simple, wonderful plan.

I bet he'll be gone in six weeks, Diego predicted.

There was silence as both men considered the plan. But then Alejandro asked, Can it happen that quickly?

I hope so, Diego said, showing for the first time his concern over the idea that DeSoto might discover who he was. It has to, or I might be hung sometime in the future.

That's not an option, stated Alejandro.

No, it's not, Diego agreed. I think I have my work cut out for me.

Diego surreptitiously headed for the library fireplace, for reasons known only to him, when Alejandro placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him. Instinct told the older caballero that if he didn't say something now about what had been nagging at his mind all day, events would unfold and keep him quiet for the unforeseen future. Diego, if I can have a word..?

Diego turned just as he was reaching out a hand towards the fireplace mantel. He appeared distracted already. Yet, he asked, Yes, Father?

Yet what Alejandro had to say seemed stuck in his throat. Finally, he made his voice work around the lump obstructing it through sheer force of will. Diego... He looked to the floor, then glanced back up. I've said some things in the past... Said some things! The shame he was suddenly feeling threatened in an instant to consume him. I know they hurt...

Diego shuffled his feet uncomfortably. It's all right, Father, he said quickly, cutting off his father's attempted apology. I understand. I always did.

Still, Alejandro had to say this. I did hurt you, he said regretfully. He drew in a deep and painful breath. I want you to know that I never intended to hurt you or cause you pain... I was frustrated because I was trying to make you into something you're not. He paused, then couldn't help the grin that spread across his face. Though you really are.

Diego still looked uncomfortable with the sight of anyone attempting to humble themselves before him, but he also appeared forgiving. You don't have to worry about that, he said in a low voice. It's all forgotten. Now, please, I need to... He didn't finish what he was going to say.

Alejandro's whisper stopped him from accomplishing whatever he planned to do. But won't you be tempted to come to the defense of the people as yourself if this all works out and Zorro retires for good? He took a breath that sounded in the room like a sigh. I don't know about you, but I think that now is not a good time for you to be getting caught and hung. Not just because of me and what I know, but because of Victoria. He wasn't trying as a last attempt to dissuade Diego, but he had to admit to the thrill of fear that shot straight through him at the imagined sight of DeSoto catching Diego, a recognized passivist, at suddenly becoming a much more passionate man.

Diego paused again with his hand on the mantel. He peered around his shoulder at his father. I think it's time for me to become the son you've always wished you had, don't you?

Alejandro couldn't quite hide the pride that pulsed through him at those words. Absolutely, he honestly replied. But be careful.

Diego smiled slightly. I have way too much to live for now to be anything else. The look in his eyes added even more meaning to what he'd said.

Surprisingly, Alejandro felt the sting of tears irritate his eyelids. He hadn't cried since his wife, Elena, died. How did I ever get a son like you? he asked, being completely candid for a moment.

Diego's smile widened. Luck, he swiftly answered. Now I really do have to go or I won't be back till morning.

Alejandro shook his head to fling away the emotions that were holding Diego at his side. Good luck, he whispered.

Thanks, Diego whispered back a bit disparagingly. I think I'll need it. Then he pushed some hidden switch that must have been imbedded on one of the fireplace's decorations, and disappeared through the door that swung open in the rear of the space.

Alejandro waited a few moments, then reached forward, and after making sure that no one was watching, pushed in the same place he'd seen his son push, and the door silently swung open again. He prodded the decoration once more, and the door swung shut to seal seamlessly with the other stones at the back of the hollowed out fireplace. Amazing, he muttered to himself.

Z Z Z

The following few weeks were tense. Every time Alejandro and Diego rode into town, Victoria shook her head minutely to show that she had heard nothing about DeSoto's hoped-for transfer out of Los Angeles. For all they knew, the military man wasn't even sending his reports to Santa Barbara, despite the fact that one day, Diego'd had a conversation with him endorsing the idea. But to bring up the concept too often would look suspicious, so all they could do was hope.

Then, one bright autumn morning when Alejandro was sitting alone in the tavern while Diego checked on something or other in The Guardian office, DeSoto stepped into the nearly-empty room and immediately moved to the green bar. I wonder if you could tell me what I have on my account, please, Señorita.

Alejandro leaned forward imperceptibly. He didn't mean to eavesdrop, exactly, but a gut feeling told him to listen to the conversation.

Victoria did her best to ignore her father-in-law sitting just behind the Alcalde. She pulled a ledger down from a shelf behind her and professionally flipped the pages. At last she found the page she was hunting for. Twelve pesos, she answered, then closed the book and returned it to its shelf. Why do you need to know? It's not payday at the garrison, is it? she inquired, sounding so natural that no one knew that she was fishing for information.

Victoria's attempt at luring the Alcalde into conversation wasn't in vain. Of course, responded DeSoto. Then, in a loud voice so that everyone in the room could hear, he continued, If you must know, I've just received this letter, and he pulled a piece of paper from the inside packet in his jacket, that hurries me to finish any business I have in town, as I've been transferred to Guadalupe.

Transferred? yelped Alejandro, while Victoria stood rooted behind the bar with her mouth hanging open.

DeSoto turned to face Alejandro. Yes. That military commander in Santa Barbara has heard of my success at capturing so many of the outlaws in the area. It took every ounce of willpower in Alejandro not to gag at the words. He coughed politely instead. DeSoto never even noticed the interruption. I've been ordered to take the post of alcalde in the much larger pueblo of Guadalupe. He smiled. It seems that the bandits are particularly bad in that area.

There was silence for a moment to greet this announcement, then Victoria recovered, asking in a slightly stunned, soft voice, When are you leaving Los Angeles?

DeSoto thumped his fist once on the bar. Today, if I can wrap up all my accounts in town. He spread coins across the surface of the bar. Twelve pesos. He nodded his head an her. I thank you for such quick service, Señorita. Then he was gone from the tavern in a swirl of his pink necktie, heading in the direction of the bank.

Alejandro carefully rose and joined Victoria at the bar the second DeSoto was out of sight. He smiled and said, Interesting news. The words he didn't dare say sounded much more loudly between the two standing at the bar.

Victoria leaned across the bar and whispered, Do you suppose he's using the reward money for Zorro to pay up his accounts?

Alejandro maintained the grin on his face. I wouldn't put it passed him, he whispered back.

Z Z Z

Diego tried to remain impassive when he found out the news of the transfer, but it was difficult, since the absence of the government man meant the most to him. What he really wanted to do was whirl Victoria around the tavern and shout Our plan worked! but he stayed solidly in place and continued to pretend indifference, like the actor he was. The rest of the pueblo's citizens tried to look sad as well, but it was even hard for them to look suitably dismal when everyone truly wanted to celebrate DeSoto's removal. For the party that everyone wanted to attend, but no one could even throw, Victoria offered an especially delicious lunch of a choice of three entrees instead of the more normal two.

Finally the momentous occasion arrived at one o'clock that afternoon. DeSoto sat on his horse, Mariposa, outside the tavern, most of his belongings in a rented wagon, as the stage didn't come into Los Angeles on that day. It's a pity that I never managed to capture and hang that masked fiend, Zorro, he stated.

Diego tried to cover a yawn behind a polite cough. The job of apprehending bandits often kept him out all night, and only the promise of breakfast with Victoria kept him going in the long, cold, dark hours before the dawn. Yet he couldn't complain. Yes, a pity, he pretended to agree.

But we can't be expected to do the impossible, DeSoto noted. Perhaps the next alcalde will pick up where I left off, he suggested.

Over my dead body, Alejandro thought, but he kept the unpleasant phrase in his head. Perhaps, he said aloud. Well, Alcalde, it won't be the same without you in the pueblo. That's for sure, he thought with a sidelong glance towards Diego. It will be better.

I'll still be in the territory, DeSoto moaned. But be that as it may, I already have plans for the garrison at Guadalupe.

I'm sure you're particular brand of genius will be appreciated there, Diego quipped.

Yes, said the completely oblivious DeSoto. Keep up the work you've been doing on the newspaper, Don Diego, but try to be more accurate.

Diego enthusiastically proclaimed, Oh, I will.

Well, it's time I was off. DeSoto said, shifting in his saddle for the long ride that was in head of him. Adios, good citizens, he called to the group that had gathered in the plaza to see him off. The sound of Mariposa galloping out of the pueblo obscured the sound of the people calling back to him.

A quiet moment went by. Sergeant Mendoza took off his hat and held it in his hand while his other hand ran through his hair as he stared in the direction his old commanding officer had just ridden. He waited another moment for good measure, then turned to the de la Vegas and grinned. I think I should celebrate the eventual coming of a new alcalde, he said. And I should start my celebration right here in the tavern. He turned and walked into the business establishment, passing by Victoria on his way inside.

Victoria crept out of the building and onto the porch in the sergeant's wake. Is he really gone? she asked as she stopped beside Alejandro and Diego.

Alejandro turned towards her. Yes, he's gone, disappearing into the sun, if you can believe that.

Diego held his arm out for Victoria, and she began the many surprises she and Diego had in store for the citizens of the pueblo. I can't believe he's gone, Diego said at last.

Victoria suddenly gave a grimace and rubbed at her stomach as if it ached. I, for one, won't miss him at the tavern, she firmly announced despite her apparent malady.

Alejandro eyed Victoria. What's wrong, my dear? he asked. Too many tamales at last night's celebration?

Victoria grimaced again, but it was Diego who quietly answered as he threw an arm over Alejandro's shoulder and slowly led them all back to the tavern. Father, do you know how you've always said you wanted grandbabies..?


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