6000 Pesos

by Linda Bindner

The day was warm already. The hot sunlight streamed down on the almost deserted plaza as the temperature rose as the day wore on. A week had passed since Don Alejandro and Diego de la Vega had ridden into town accompanied by the Alcalde, a woman, and the dead body of Alejandro's stolen son, the Emissary to the king, Gilberto Risendo, alias Gilberto de la Vega. An uneventful week had followed, one of heat, calm, dust devils in the plaza dirt, bandits captured by the outlaw Zorro, and yet no reprisal from the Alcalde. The peace was growing more suspicious by the moment.

The unusual display of quiet was what was on Zorro's mind that Tuesday afternoon as he led the three horses belonging to his most recently-apprehended banditos up to the very edge of the pueblo. The men sitting astride the horses all had the familiar 'Z' carved into the backs of their ragged vests, practically obscured by the hands tied firmly behind their backs that created the 'v' that indicated the thy were safe enough to arrive in the tiny town. It would take knots tied by his own hand to give Zorro enough peace of mind to lead the captured men into the very town where the love of his life resided. She was currently oblivious to his presence as she continued to wait on her customers in the one tavern gracing the tiny pueblo. Victoria Escalante was many things, and she could take care of herself, as he well knew, but only a fool would willingly put his love in the danger of a possibly escaped convict. Zorro yanked once more on the knots of the bound men, making certain of the tightness of the ropes before leading the horses the rest of the way into Los Angles and up to the cuartel gates.

Sergeant Mendoza! Zorro yelled, the sound of his voice splitting the air of early siesta. I have a gift for you!

The blue and red of the sergeant's coat came into view as he hurried from the confines of the tavern, across the plaza, and up to the masked man sitting comfortably astride his great, black stallion. The moment the sergeant reached Toronado's side, the green door of the Alcalde's office burst open and Ignacio DeSoto slid through. Instantly, Zorro's demeanor changed to one much more wary at the sight of the military officer.

Zorro continued, despite the number of lancers and their rifles that accompanied the Alcalde from his office. He was certain that the customary battle was about to ensue, though that promise didn't bother him. The idea of an unexpected sword fight made his spirits, as well as his adrenaline, rise like the summer temperatures. Still, he kept an alert eye on the appearance of his chief adversaries even as he noted the influx of interested people who streamed from the tavern and onto the tavern's porch. The serenity of the small town was shattered as he called, Please accept this gift of the Pascuela brothers, tied tighter than the Alcalde's closed doorway, and the tinkle of the silver that they 'borrowed' from the Los Angeles bank the other day, found resting coolly in the leader's saddlebags.

Sergeant Mendoza glanced over the entourage with appreciation. Thank you, Zorro, but how did you capture them so quickly? I know these are three of the most cunning outlaws this side of Mexico.

Zorro grinned first at the audience watching the scene unfold, then at the sergeant's comment. Even the most cunning of bandits leave a trail, Amigo. He turned to face DeSoto. Isn't that right, Alcalde? he goaded.

DeSoto looked almost uninterested as he answered, I wouldn't know, Zorro, never having been the one to successfully track you to your hideout in all these years that I've been chasing you. He looked over at the apprehended men. But I thank you for the trouble you took in bringing these men to justice. My lancers's tracking abilities being what they are, you saved us several days under the burning, hot, sunshine.

Zorro shook his head. Had he heard correctly? Had DeSoto actually delivered what could only be considered a compliment? Zorro was instantly suspicious of any nicety coming from Ignacio DeSoto. It had to be a trap, so he carefully watched the Alcalde from his higher perch atop Toronado. Consider it all just part of a day's work, Alcalde, Zorro said as he wheeled the black stallion around, heading out of town.

Thank you again, Zorro, DeSoto said as his main enemy spoke only a word to his mount and they took off out of town, raising a cloud of dust on their way.

The same outcome, nothing, awaited Zorro four days later when he apprehended Pedro Vincento and his evil cohort, Manuel Gonzalez. Tethered tightly to their saddles, 'Z's cut neatly into the rears of their shirts, he encouraged the horses into Los Angeles with a sharp slap to their rumps. He followed only seconds later, but the audience he was hoping to avoid had already streamed onto the tavern's shaded porch and was watching his every move with held breath. Zorro was particularly aware of the longing gaze belonging to one señorita in the group as he once again found Ignacio DeSoto greeting him from his place just outside the cuartel, where he had been leading a training exercise for the men under his command.

Zorro made certain the two criminals and their horses walked sedately through the open cuartel gates before he called, I feel I should warn you, Alcalde, that the last time I snuck into your office, I took a glance at all the training exercises for the lancers. You can stop putting these men through their paces, since I know all about their next planned moves.

The Alcalde only laughed, not the reaction that Zorro had expected. You did, did you? DeSoto shook his head. I hate to disappoint you, but these training exercises aren't meant to be used against you, despite how such an activity looks.

Oh? Zorro queried, not quite believing his ears as his past experiences came to the fore. Then what are these exercises for if not to capture me?

DeSoto's response was to laugh again. The sound carried easily to those listening on the tavern's porch. Sorry to disappoint you again, but it's just training that these men are undergoing. He looked up at the cloudless blue of the sky. We're about to call it a day, as it's getting so hot this afternoon. I don't want any of my lancers confined to their quarters due to the heat. His gaze landed on the man in black before him, and his eyes turned shrewd, a much more common expression. However, what he said next was anything but common, Perhaps you would like to join us for the drink I was about to order?

Zorro's eyebrows rose in surprise at the invitation. He glanced once towards Victoria as she stood on the porch and watched, bemusement clearly evident in her expression. It was only with firm discipline that he remembered that this man was his sworn enemy in time to shake his head, smile charmingly, and say, No thank you. I don't imbibe, as you well recall, and besides, I would expect a drink from you to be poisoned, so I would naturally have to say 'maybe next time.' He tilted his head in a clearly beguiling manner.

The look on DeSoto's face was not arrogant, as expected, but sad, the diabolical pleasure conspicuously absent from his familiar features. Well, perhaps next time, as you say, the man responded before preparing to round up his men.

The response Zorro shot at his arch enemy's turned back was one of astonishment. Again he threw a glance at Victoria. She was obviously as mystified as he was. What was the Alcalde up to this time?

The lack of the typical call for loaded rifles greeted the masked legend when he turned back around in Toronado's saddle, and the deficiency was duly noted before he cried, In the meantime, please receive these bandits as a gift from another bandit.

I don't consider you a bandit, came DeSoto's amazing response.

Zorro gave a start before he could force Toronado out of the pueblo. What did you say? he asked, the words ripped from his mouth almost against his will.

DeSoto smiled. I said that I don't consider you a bandit, he repeated.

Zorro could only stare at him in disbelief. That's what I thought you said, he replied softly, yet every member of the gathered crowd heard his hushed response.

DeSoto gazed up at him, swathed in the heat waves that danced across the plaza. After a silent moment, he came carefully forward, cautious of Toronado's famed and deadly strength. I might as well tell you now as later.

Tell me what? Zorro inquired in a suspicious voice.

The Alcalde answered, I'll be happy to tell you, however, I would like it if you dismounted and I can say what I have to say to you face to face.

Zorro snorted a laugh. What? Dismount and leave myself open to the sharpshooters you undoubtedly have positioned on the rooftops of the pueblo? I think I'll listen to your news from here if it's all the same to you.

Again DeSoto wore that sad look that he'd displayed earlier. I assure you, Zorro, there's no trap, no sharpshooters, nothing that might ensure your capture hidden around the pueblo. Just me and my news; you have nothing to fear.

Still circumspect, Zorro carefully regarded his enemy from his higher perch on Toronado. Forgive me if my past personal experiences encourage me not to believe you, Alcalde, he said.

DeSoto shrugged. You can do as you wish, of course, but you have my word as an officer in the King's military that you won't be harmed, captured, or otherwise detained.

Zorro looked in alarm at his opponent, almost too stunned to react. He paused for a moment. What's come over you lately? he asked boldly, opting for honesty in his surprise.

DeSoto laughed now. Well might you ask, he said, then went on to explain, I've been thinking, that's all.

Zorro looked at him as if he didn't believe a word DeSoto said. About what?

About the Emissary, my near execution, did I want to be known to be as ruthless as the Emissary for causing your own execution, and how could I change my ways if I really wanted to. The Alcalde squinted through the sun. Nothing of any import, he added.

That last statement stunned Zorro enough to force him to dismount so the Alcalde would no longer need to squint just to see him. He stared at the shorter man with a measure of the incredulity he was feeling. I would say that was important, he commented.

DeSoto finally smiled.

Here it comes, Zorro thought to himself, ready to spring back into the saddle again at the first sign of trouble.

DeSoto went on smiling. I'm glad you think so, Zorro, because the news I have will directly affect you and, I hope, start my reputation along a much nicer path, shall we say.

Zorro was far too dazed to resort to the bravado that usually went with his words. I'm listening, he said.

DeSoto glanced around to find that the entire town was listening, too. It's just as well, he said to himself in answer to his observation. I'll only have to say this once. That's good. Then he turned back to the legend standing before him. As I've said, I've been thinking, he began, and I've decided that the turnaround I want to make should start with you, so I wrote to the governor, whose reply I got just today, and he agrees with me and he bids me to act as I see fit. So I hereby rescind the price you currently have hanging over your head.

Zorro gaped. You what? he asked inelegantly. Could he believe what he was hearing?

DeSoto stared at him. The bounty has kept you busy for long enough, don't you think? he asked without emotion coloring his voice. I rescind the price of six thousand pesos from you, effective immediately, as well as the call for your arrest.

The only thing Zorro could do at that point was to allow his amazement to continue to grow. Don't you mean that you want to double the price on my head? he asked.

DeSoto just shook his own head. No, I meant to say that I rescind it. It's kept you from living your life, after all. He glanced pointedly towards the tavern's porch where Victoria stood, her mouth hanging open like a fish trying to breath in the open air. He would have laughed at the sight, but instead added, And if I wish to be different from the Emissary, this seems to be as good a way to start as any.

Zorro stood still, rooted to his spot in astonishment. If he'd been mounted, he would have fallen off his horse, he was so surprised. Momentarily, he met Felipe's gaze in the crowd, but the young man who had just come in to town to eat some lunch with his patrón didn't know how to react to this astounding news any better than his mentor did. In fact, he was so surprised that for the first time in his life he forgot to behave like he couldn't hear.

It was so quiet that the call of a bird echoed from one end of town to the other. Zorro looked once at the Alcalde, once at Victoria, then turned his attention back to the man standing in front of him. What's the catch? he asked, sure there was a bump somewhere in the words uttered so recently by the governmental man.

DeSoto smiled once more, the gesture still sad. No catch, he said instantly. Look, no guns, no call to arrest you, no threat to hang you, no promise of retribution through those you love... the Alcalde went on. I imagine you won't need that mask you wear any longer, and he flicked his hand towards the black piece of cloth that showed only his opponent's eyes. You can take it off.

Zorro couldn't help it; a thrill shot through his entire body at the Alcalde's words, but he tried to calm himself, tried not to get too excited at the prospect of unexpected freedom. What if I say that I don't believe you? he asked.

DeSoto waved his hand. You can suit yourself, he said, but I would think that you would jump at the opportunity the loss of the mask represents. He gazed shrewdly again and pursed his lips. You don't have to worry; I'm telling you the truth, he informed, and he did sound sincere. You're as free as you were the day you were born. e glanced at the town's citizens to gauge their reactions. Incredulity met him on all sides. To amaze them even more, he said, You can have my words in writing by tomorrow.

For a breathless moment, Zorro stared at the Alcalde and DeSoto stared at Zorro. Finally Zorro asked, In writing?

In writing.

Zorro paused, then went on, Nothing happens to my family?

You have a family? inquired DeSoto smoothly. Then he shook his head hard enough to make his white hair swing back and forth. But no, nothing will happen to them.

Or Señorita Escalante? Zorro asked next.

DeSoto grinned patiently. Or that tavern owner you seem to prefer. Nothing will befall her for any of your decisions. You have my word, he said with another glance towards Victoria's spot on the tavern porch. My word as a member of the King's military.

Another thrill coursed through Zorro's frame; he simply couldn't help himself. Your word?

As a member of the King's military, DeSoto reminded. I didn't think my word as a fellow gentleman would carry as much weight with you, DeSoto remarked.

Zorro looked at him suspiciously. How do you know I'm a gentleman? he asked. I never told you that.

Once more came DeSoto's laugh. It's not that hard to figure out! he exclaimed. Only a gentleman would have the leisure to parade around in that get-up, spoiling all my best-laid plans. You're wealthy, too, he went on, Or at least, wealthy enough to create all those wonderful things you've been using against us. He looked at Zorro conspiratorially, with raised eyebrows. That's also not hard to figure out.

Zorro's gaze grew even more suspicious. Were you trying to uncover me? he asked.

DeSoto shrugged again. I was, he informed honestly. But then the Emissary came to town, and, well, you know how that ended. May he rest in peace. Then he raised his voice momentarily. Forgive me, Don Alejandro! he called.

It appeared that Don Alejandro had not heard him, or chose not to reply, because again there was silence in the plaza. At last, DeSoto just shrugged his shoulders.

Zorro felt himself becoming convinced. He didn't want to be convinced... Well, he wished to be persuaded by the Alcalde's words, if he was honest with himself, but he was always suspicious of good news. Such a policy had kept him alive over the years. But he found himself wanting to believe that what he was hearing was true. Are you serious? he asked.

DeSoto grinned. I am, he said, then added, It seemed like a good way to be as different from the Emissary as I could be. As he wanted me to capture you, it stands to reason that the opposite thing would be to set you free. This time he only shrugged one shoulder, just to be different. So I am. Setting you free, he specified.

Zorro scratched at Toronado as the horse nuzzled his gloved hand. For a moment, he just stood there while the sun beat down on the plaza. He could feel the heat soaking through his black clothing. Nothing happens? he asked, just to make sure he'd heard the Alcalde correctly.

Nothing happens, DeSoto promised.

I have your word? Zorro next inquired.

DeSoto smiled a tiny smile. You have my word.

Not a scratch?

Not a scratch.

Zorro whipped his head around to face an astounded Victoria. Well, Señorita, he said in a deadpan tone of voice. What do you want to do with this freedom?

Victoria pushed herself away from the scarred post that had been supporting her. Slowly, as if she was in a dream and swimming upstream against a hard current of water, she approached the two men. When she was even with them and Toronado, she stopped and simply stared at them both. The two men who had been sworn enemies since the day they had met stared back at her.

This is amazing, Zorro thought to himself as he gazed at Victoria. Never before had he stood next to her, loving her, as a free man. The headiness from such knowledge was almost overwhelming, and even as a third chill coursed up his spine to send tingles shooting throughout his body, he cautioned himself to be careful. She doesn't love me, he reminded himself, but for once he felt a halving of his old fear of rejection. Somehow, it didn't seem to have the same power to secure his silence as a free man as it had over a wanted bandit. Victoria? he questioned when she remained silent, and took her hand as he continued to stare at her.

Finally, Victoria reacted. Drowsily, as if she were still under water, she squinted in the bright light and said, I think you have a promise to keep, Señor.

Zorro stared at her, at the way the sunlight absorbed into her black hair, at the way the shadows she created just by being alive bounced off the plaza dirt. It all looked radiant to him. You're sure? he asked cautiously. What if you can't really love the real me?

Victoria put her hands on her hips in a mock show of impatience and anger. Are you still using that as an excuse? she asked.

DeSoto laughed, and Zorro suddenly had the thought that he would rather not unmask in front of the Alcalde and an entire town full of people. However, an entire town full of people was what he seemed to be getting.

DeSoto went on chuckling. I'd hate to be around when you have your first disagreement.

Zorro never took his eyes away from Victoria. A disagreement shows nothing but spirit. I love the señorita's spirit.

It's a good thing, DeSoto mumbled.

Victoria sent him a glare before whipping her eyes back to the masked man she loved. Well? she prodded. She sounded courageous, she was glad to note, but inside her heart beat in an erratic rhythm, even when she attempted to calm it. Are you or aren't you?

Señorita, we have something of an audience, Zorro said softly, though he knew he was grasping at any excuse now to avoid the inevitable.

Just kiss her and get it over with! someone yelled from the crowd.

Zorro briefly held Victoria's fingers up to his lips. Know that nothing would please me more, he said, a twinkle of mischief in his eyes. But you have to remember that you don't love the real me.

Yes, I do, Victoria protested. How can I not?

Zorro gazed down at her. You have never shown any interest in the real person I am, he said back, and DeSoto laughed again.

Have you shown any interest in her? asked the Alcalde.

Zorro sighed in impatience. Stay out of this, please, Alcalde.

You haven't, have you? Victoria quickly asked.

Zorro felt like the two were ganging up on him, and he had to spend a moment enjoying the irony of a situation where the Alcalde and Victoria were on the same side of a predicament together. Then the moment was over, and he defensively replied, Well, no, and I didn't want you to uncover the truth, either. It was far too dangerous for you to know.

Why? asked the Alcalde suddenly, butting in to the conversation. Your accomplis knew.

Zorro sighed again, then turned to look at DeSoto. How do you know I had an accomplis, and I thought I asked you to stay out of this?

DeSoto looked chagrined. First, you had to be working with someone to be in two places at once, as you have been many times in the past, the Alcalde said, and second, my apologies. I'll just remove myself now.

That would be appreciated, Zorro said as the Alcalde trotted back to his gathered lancers.

Victoria looked once again at her masked love. Longing that he had difficulty resisting glowed out of her eyes at him. Don't you wish to marry me? Is that it?

Victoria, you must know that I wish beyond anything to marry you, Zorro stated emphatically.

Victoria's gaze turned uncomprehending. Then what's the problem?

Zorro glanced down to stare at his boots. I'm afraid, he admitted at last. I always have been.

You said that when you proposed, Victoria let slip, and the gathered crowd of people responded with further amazement to hear that the favored couple of the pueblo was secretly engaged.

What are you waiting for? someone hassled from the crowd on the tavern's porch. Zorro suspected that the man who was listing drunkenly to the right was the one who had spoken, but he couldn't prove it.

Zorro isn't truly afraid of anything, Victoria announced confidently. So unmasking should be no problem now.

Of course it's a problem, Zorro quietly argued back.

Victoria snorted impatiently again. Look, Zorro, we can stand out here in the hot sun, waiting all day for you to conquer your fears, she said, not unkindly, But the truth of the matter is that if you want to ever marry me, you'll have to take the mask off. Than a sly smile lighted her features. Unless you plan to leave it in place all the time, for the rest of our lives.

Someone whistled a catcall, sounding loud and shrill in the quiet of the plaza as Zorro smiled in embarrassment, fully understanding exactly what Victoria was referring to. No, I have no plans to wear a mask all the time, he said as the echo of the whistle resounded loudly off the sides of the adobe buildings that made up Los Angeles.

Well then? Victoria prodded again. You did promise.

Zorro nodded. That one day, when my fight for justice was over, I would remove the mask and declare my love for you.

Victoria grinned, and Zorro felt his insides melt at her inborn sparkle. I'm waiting, was the only thing she said.

Yes, you've been waiting for a long time, mi preciosa. Long enough, Zorro said softly in a voice that was almost a whisper. He removed his gloves and tucked them in his sash, then took a moment to gently caress her cheek. With a pounding heart, he lifted his hands to the back of his head. A squeak of excitement slipped through Victoria's held breath, but that was the only sound in the plaza.

Victoria's eyes grew wider and wider with every twist he made of the binding ties behind his head. She could see his arms shaking even as they remained behind him. You're trembling, she announced. Maybe I should..?

No, he refuted. I should, as I should have years ago. The last twist of the mask fell away in his shaking hands. He kept his blue-eyed gaze firmly locked with hers as the black material went slack in his fingers. Nothing remained but for the mask to be removed, truly freeing him forever to live the life he'd always promised himself he'd live. He closed his eyes for a second, feeling the edges of the mask flapping against his cheeks from the slight breeze. With quaking arms, a thundering heart, and as the promise of a fulfilling future cried out to him, he took a deep breath for courage. Then without another moment's hesitation, pulled the offending piece of black cloth away.

The sharp sound of indrawn breaths resounded from the crowd on the porch. Slightly softer were the gasps of the citizens in the plaza, which he knew included his father and Felipe. But his gaze remained glued to Victoria's reaction to his unmasking.

For a moment, she just closed her eyes and stood motionless except for her lips. Diego wasn't that good of a lip reader to know if she was thanking God or cursing him for the remainder of his life. He supposed it could be either. Then she opened her eyes, and her dark gaze met his blue one for a split second full of sizzle and energy. Passion blossomed behind her lashes like the flowers of Spring. Gracias a Dios, she whispered, the only coherent statement she ever made in all her mutterings. Then she fell forward, leaving him no choice but to catch her or let her fall to the dust of the plaza.

Diego caught her in his arms, and the fresh smell of her hair assaulted his nostrils only seconds before he wrapped her up tightly in his embrace. He could feel her pounding heart beat an aberrant rhythm against the front of his chest, but felt her trembling arms circle around his back and clamp tightly together. Before he knew what was happening, her soft, velvety lips were on his in a kiss passionate enough to make his father and the padre blush from innuendo.

A cheer from the gathered people cut through the fuzzy, red haze that had invaded Diego's mind, but he was far from ready to relinquish the feel of Victoria's lips in their first kiss of freedom. The taste was intoxicating, invigorating, and it was only after his lips had slid from hers to graze across her cheek, that he remembered they were in a public setting and he shouldn't be consorting with her so openly. But his arms tightened even further around Victoria, and he held on as he buried his face in her hair, and the world tilted strangely around them.

He marveled at how good she felt in his shaking arms, thrilled at the feel of her body so close to his, and quaked in reaction to the fear he felt as he acknowledged that unmasking was probably the hardest thing he'd ever done, sword fights included. He whispered that sentiment to an equally shaking Victoria.

It's something that you'll never have to do again, she soothed.

Thank goodness, he said, and hugged her close.

No, whispered Victoria as her lips did their own slide across his cheek. Thank the Alcalde.

Suddenly Diego laughed. I won't tell him that if you won't, he whispered.

Victoria smiled. I promise.


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