For Kristi, who had the idea in the first place.

Further note: This story was influenced by, but is not copying, that excellent story on the Live Journal website, 'Amy Ponders Zorro' titled Invisible.

Second Chances

by Linda Bindner

Chapter 1 - Introduction

The new edict being nailed to the post in the tavern fluttered serenely in the breeze wafting through the open front doors. The riffling piece of paper was the only thing moving for a second before all the patrons currently in the tavern for lunch crowded around, trying to scan the new document. Pushing and shoving greeted anyone near the front, and those people were pulled aside for their pains to be one of the first to learn of the Alcalde's newest proclamation.

Except that there was one basic problem faced by most of the tavern's customers; they couldn't read. Almost as one large group, they turned to regard Diego de la Vega with a baleful eye. Everyone in the pueblo knew that he could do more than read - there was rarely a time when he didn't have a book of some kind with him. As he published and edited the town's newspaper, as well, he was known far and wide to be well-educated, too. In fact, Don Diego might very well be the last truly learned man alive in the tiny pueblo off the coast in California. On the whole, the town's citizens respected him and his book-learning, for everyone also knew that he positively abhorred action of any kind, which was a much more typically respected personality trait. The idea of the caballero doing something that required so much work as to make him break a sweat was as ridiculous a notion as was the possibility of it snowing in Los Angeles at Christmas. It just didn't happen. But for reading new documents and treating those who couldn't read as his equal, despite their lack of knowledge, Diego was the man they wanted.

Without ceremony to soften the action, Diego was thrust forward to the front of the crowd before he knew it, his dark hair blowing faintly across his forehead. Read! came the no-nonsense demand from the gathered crowd.

Diego looked once towards Victoria Escalante, the owner of the tavern that was the focal point of the impromptu gathering, and shrugged; her glare sent in the direction of the new edict was a perfect example of the ire she was feeling at her business establishment becoming a gathering place for a discussion of new town taxes. Diego did his best to ignore her look of growing temper, and turned his attention dutifully to the new document.

It says here, Diego started as he quickly scanned through the words facing him. He didn't finish his statement, but instead, turned to look at Victoria again before he finished speaking.

But the gathered crowd wasn't nearly so patient. What does it say, Diego? asked a merchant who had planned to eat a quiet lunch at the tavern.

A strange, expectant hush had descended on the crowd. They jostled together once more, then grew quiet again as Diego turned back to the piece of paper. Go on, read it, ordered the merchant once more, and the farmer standing next to him nodded his head in agreeable encouragement.

Sighing a little unhappily, Diego focused his attention on the words again. It's an official document from the King of Spain himself; there's the royal seal in the corner of the paper.

Don't keep us in suspense like this, the farmer said, his face alight in curiosity. Keep reading.

Diego sighed again, but continued his translation for the gathered crowd. It's dated July 15th, 1822. He looked up once. It's officially dated on August first, and won't take effect until then, so we know this edict came over on the ship sent from Spain that docked in Santa Barbara yesterday. The crowd murmured their agreement, but no one interrupted him this time.

Diego almost would have been glad for an interruption, if it meant he could put off his announcement a bit longer. But it was not to be. It's a new law that proclaims the illegality of single people over the age of twenty-five, who also own property, from remaining unmarried after the 15h of August. Apparently, both single men and women are the subject of this new law.

But what does that mean? The sound of Victoria's questioning voice broke the shocked silence that had fallen over the group of gathered people.

It means, translated Diego once again, that any man or woman who owns property and is also more than twenty-five years old will be in violation of this new law, and will be sentenced to either 500 Pesos or a year in jail... There is no other recourse mentioned.

As predicted, the crowd erupted at this news. But he can't dictate the personal lives of his subjects! protested one woman, a mother of three young girls under the age limit in question.

He can't do this! exclaimed the farmer, who was known to be both single and twenty-seven, so the new law would directly affect him.

Thank goodness I'm already married! said a man standing near Diego's position at the front of the crowd.

What if a person doesn't want to get married? asked the panicked-sounding bank president, a man who wasn't married, either, and had no prospects for matrimony in his near future.

Then pay the fine, suggested another woman.

I can't afford 500 Pesos! Seņor Carrera loudly exclaimed in indignation; it was ridiculous for everyone to think that, just because he owned the bank, he was wealthy, too! He could not afford such a steep penalty as the law was requiring. The bank may be doing good business, but not that good!

Diego stood in his place, rooted to his spot at the front of the crowd, thinking furiously. He didn't actually own the ranch he and his father were currently living on, but he stood to inherit the property when his father passed away. It was true that this hadn't happened yet... Thank goodness, he couldn't help but think.., but it was certain to happen sometime in the future. Diego admitted even to himself that there were only two guarantees in life in general, everywhere in the world, and death was one of them.

Then he caught sight of a small smattering of words at the bottom of the document; the breeze had made the paper curl up, thus obscuring the words from his sight in his earlier dictation. Oh, it says here at the bottom of the page that widows and those who inherit property are exempt from the new law, and people who stand to inherit property in the future are exempt as well. That was something that would benefit his own personal situation, he admitted to himself.

But that addendum affected few people in the room as a whole, Diego realized quickly enough. The crowd shifted and swayed as the connotations began to enter their numbed minds. What about the military? came a male voice near the middle of the group.

There's nothing written in this new law that pertains to the military, announced a thoughtful Don Diego as he carefully scanned the document. It's my guess that even being in military service doesn't act as an exemption.

Corporal Sepulveda looked stunned at those standing near him. Then what am I supposed to do? he inquired in helpless surprise. I don't have a novio. And I'm certainly not even engaged, he said.

You will be in a month, predicted an old man who had been married for longer than he had lived as a single man. Or you'll pay the fine or go to jail.

Sepulveda balked at this news, though it was hardly information that wasn't common knowledge now. I don't have 500 Pesos, either! he informed in a shocked voice. I don't even have 100!

The same old man responded, Then I would clean the jail if I were you.

Sepulveda looked sick. I'm no criminal; I don't want to go to jail!

Then get married, the old man suggested next. It's not so bad, he ended, trying to see the good side of this new law, but failing as he made the attempt.

A babble of voices broke out from the group, then. Diego, unable to deny the relief he was feeling at escaping this mandatory personal behavior, pushed his way out of the gathered crowd of people so that he could breath again. He brushed past another merchant, Maria, the employee of the tavern, and another lancer who had remained silent as the volume increased exponentially and the babbling continued. Then, he had gained the outside of the gathering. He was instantly able to breath easier, and he relaxed a bit as the crowd went on with their impromptu shouting match. It was then that his gaze landed on a concerned and incensed Victoria, and suddenly he felt his insides grow icy and frozen.

Victoria Escalante was an excellent businesswoman, better than most men, even. It was common knowledge that she owned and operated the only tavern Los Angeles had to offer, and she did it with a smile that accompanied the fair prices and good service that her business establishment was renowned for. But that, in itself, was the problem. Victoria was twenty-six. She owned a good-sized chunk of land in the pueblo. And she was very publicly known to be in love with the bandit, Zorro, who had also very publicly promised himself to Victoria, but only when his fight for justice and the pueblo's freedom from tyranny was over. His fight wasn't over yet. But, according to this new law, Victoria had a month to get married, either to him or to someone else, or face the consequences.

Crestfallen at the pain and bewilderment that he saw etched in lines on Victoria's face, Diego crossed over to where she stood beside her bar. Do you have the 500 Pesos? he asked without properly trying to bring up the subject in a softened manner; this new law made the situation so important that softening it seemed a bit ridiculous, now.

Victoria continued to look baffled, though a hint of her inevitable anger was starting to seep through her confusion. I just paid the mortgage last week! she protested in anger and anguish at the unfairness of having her behavior monitored. I don't even have more than fifty Pesos to my name in the bank!

Oh, God, thought Diego then. This was bad. Can Zorro help you? Diego asked next.

I don't see how, Victoria replied. His fight isn't finished yet, so he can't remove his mask... How can I marry him if I don't know who he is? she wailed in building panic.

Diego did his best to stem the tide of emotion he sensed coming from Victoria. Perhaps Zorro can marry you now without revealing his identity, he tried to soothe.

But will he agree to that? Victoria asked in despair. And how can I be married without knowing who he is; he would have to write his true name in the church registry, if nothing else. She went on in something close to utter misery. And how can I ask him to do that when the Alcalde will surely look in the registry and get his identity that way, and arrest him and hang him as soon as his identity is known by everyone, including the Alcalde... I can't do that! Victoria declared in unequivocal terms.

Diego felt uncomfortable making the forthcoming suggestion, but he also felt duty bound to ask, Is there anyone else you want to marry?

Victoria's features fell in on themselves. No, of course there isn't! I don't want to marry anyone else! she objected savagely.

That was good to hear for Zorro, but Diego could barely pretend that such a statement came as encouraging, either. Swallowing his initial reaction of rankled pride, Diego cautiously continued, Can we help? he asked. Surely, there must be something we can do... lend you the money, if nothing else.

Victoria was shocked again. I can't ask you to do that! she said explosively. As wonderful as you and your father's friendship has always been, Diego, an Escalante will not be known as a charity case! she refuted.

But then you'll have to... Diego stopped himself from mumbling any more.

Say it, Diego..! Victoria demanded. I'll have to get married to someone else! And there's no one I wish to marry except for Zorro, and I can't marry him under pain of his death... Oh, she went on, Its hopeless no matter how you look at it!

Diego caught Victoria's hand and wrapped it in his calming fingers. Given the emotional upheaval caused by the uncovering of this new law, there would hardly be any suspicion to contend with now, he convinced himself. Don't worry; we'll think of something, he promised, even though he didn't know what he, personally, could do for her.

It was at that point that the Alcalde chose to saunter into the tavern. He barely had the time to peruse the tables in the building, looking for a place to sit and eat lunch in undisturbed splendor, when the crowd turned to him. Alcalde! someone called. How can you do this?

Do what? inquired DeSoto, confused.

This new law..! the same voice explained.

Understanding dawned on the Alcalde's face. You saw it, then? he asked, but leaned toward Sergeant Mendoza, who stood at his side in an affirming presence. I thought I told you to post it after lunch! he hissed. Less of a crowd to cause a riot!

The sergeant shrugged, looking helplessly apologetic. That's not what I thought you said! he excused. I thought you wanted me to post it right away, so I did!

Ah! DeSoto snorted in disgust and straightened again.

What do you plan to do about it, Seņor Alcalde? inquired a female voice from out of the crowd.

Do? asked the Alcalde. What can I do about it?

But you're the Alcalde! said the same woman who had spoken before.

DeSoto's face appeared to grow redder as he explained in the most degree of patience he had ever displayed. I may be the Alcalde, he said, as if to a small child, but I am still a subject of Spain. There's nothing I can do about such a sweeping new law.

Why's this law even being instated? asked another person. There's no explanation...

Yes, why is it? asked another.

Does this have something to do with the census? inquired the old man who had spoken before. I heard that the number of people in California was lower than expected... Does the King wish to increase the population growth in the colonies?

DeSoto appeared irritated at the interruption to finding a table and sitting down. I have no idea, really, he replied without bothering to look at the crowd of incensed people standing before him. The document didn't come with any reasoning, just orders that it was to be posted immediately, he grumbled in an acrimonious explanation.

The old man went on with his questions, But what are you going to do? he asked next, prying into the Alcalde's personal affairs, but not looking particularly contrite as he continued, Do you plan to marry or pay the fine or spend a year in jail?

DeSoto growled low in his throat at the personal question. I haven't decided yet, but there is no way that a DeSoto will spend time in jail like a common outlaw, he answered. I've thought about waiting to see if there's a wedding in my near future, or I might pay the fine. I don't know yet.

Sergeant Mendoza piped up, That's what I thought of doing, too! He sounded surprised to be agreeing with his superior officer in this matter.

Wait for marriage? asked an incredulous DeSoto. Who would have you? he sneered in a tone of voice so soft that it was almost a whisper.

Mendoza straightened his shoulders under his military tunic. I don't know, but you never can tell... he began to say when the Alcalde cut him off.

You have nothing to offer but a love of tamales! DeSoto exclaimed, still whispering.

To his credit, Mendoza didn't get incensed over the Alcalde's heated tone. You never know... he repeated, though in a smaller, less confident voice.

The woman with the three children asked, So, there's nothing you can do?

DeSoto put his hand on his sword resting in its scabbard, trying to establish his governmental authority. It wasn't something that Diego hadn't seen him do before, but the arrogance of the man hit him particularly strongly this time. No, DeSoto responded anyway. There's nothing I can do about a law ordained from the King himself. I'm sorry. And the arrogance disappeared until he truly did seem contrite.

Nothing? asked the farmer in a sad manner.

No, nothing, responded DeSoto. My hands are tied on this one...

That's a change, Diego thought honestly to himself.

I'm sorry, the Alcalde added.

That won't help me! the farmer went on to exclaim. I don't have 500 Pesos, a novio, and I don't want to go to jail!

We'll have to do something, or... the woman answered.

What can we do? the old man asked.

Diego could sense the rising panic in the gathered people, and his hand tightened almost imperceptibly in Victoria's grasp.

I've never felt so helpless! the farmer said in despair, and held his head in his hands.

Maybe we can send a message to the King, Mendoza suggested, but few heard his soft voice as a babble of sound raised at once in anger and irritation. The discussion in the tavern was quickly growing out of control, Diego realized. He stepped closer to Victoria's side without looking like he wanted to protect her in case the crowd grew ugly in its protest of the new law.

Without a doubt, the confusion and irritation that had been almost universal upon the reading of the new law turned to helpless anger. The gathered crowd stood quietly in one spot near the proclamation post, but their gestures choppily broke through the air coming in the front doors. Then an elbow cracked into an outthrust hand, a foot stamped a bit too hard on the floor, and came down on a shifted boot instead, and the next thing that had happened, a fight had broken out near the posting pillar.

The squabble over imaginary slights and long-held grudges quickly escalated in seconds to become a knockdown, drag-out brawl. Diego barely had time to breath when suddenly a much smaller man standing to his left became furious at his somehow avoiding the new law. I'll teach you to inherit! he yelled, and threw a punch that would have seriously harmed another man, no matter who he was.

But Diego was used to reacting to a surprise attack, and he somehow managed to block the swing, but had to release Victoria in order to do it. One swift punch of his own spun the offending man away, and Diego was able to turn, only to find that Victoria was no longer behind him.

Victoria! Diego yelled, but his voice was lost in the cacophony of panic that always accompanied a fight. He shrugged aside a bench as it was thrown at him, and had to block another vicious attack before he could spot Victoria at all in the melee of writhing, stumbling bodies.

She was backed up against her bar, shoved roughly into the edge at her back, and Diego heard a Woof! of air as her lungs caved in to the sudden and unexpected attack. But, Victoria managed to wrap her right hand around a bottle of whiskey sitting on the top of the bar, and cracked it over the head of the man who was doing his best to take advantage of her as well as of the situation at hand. He was nothing that she wasn't used to dealing with, but both her ways of escape were blocked as fighting men and women stood to her right and to her left.

Victoria! Here! Diego called, pushing a brawling duo of men out of his way and reaching a hand for her.

Thus, Victoria was slightly turned towards him, leaving her back exposed to assault, when two women known to be best friends struggled to gain an advantage over each other on her right. One woman clawed at her opponent, but her friend threateningly raised a black, aluminum skillet in hand. She drew back, then with all her might, swung her arm around towards the friend who had almost succeeded in clawing her face.

The friend ducked at the last minute, avoiding the swinging skillet, but leaving Victoria, who was standing just behind the ducking seņora, wide open to the unexpected missile. Without any warning, the skillet connected with the back of Victoria's skull, and she flew forward, straight into Diego's arms.

Diego reacted fast and was able to catch her before she rebounded away, back into the fighting crowd. Victoria! he cried, and lowered the woman in his arms to the floor. Blood rushed onto his fingers even before he could release his burden. Oh, my God... Victoria! he called again.

The sound of the rushed pain and agony in his voice acted like a sudden balm to the fighting. It stopped immediately, and everyone crowded around Diego, now, as he knelt to lay Victoria the rest of the way to the tile floor and spread her out as comfortably as he could. Still, his decisive actions were instantly belied by his shaking hands with fingers covered in blood as he groped at the side of her neck. No no no no! was all his muddled mind could repeat, like a macabre litany that had taken hold of him in its strong talons, and wouldn't let go. Fear shot straight through him, freezing his heart, and he choked on the bile suddenly in his throat as his questing fingers found the steady pound of her pulse in her neck. Oh, thank God, he muttered. She's alive. But the bleeding... he had to stop the bleeding...

Someone get me towels and a basin of water! Diego yelled without looking up. Someone else get Dr. Hernandez! He didn't even glance toward the crowd to see that his directions were obeyed; he assumed they were. With jerky movements, he yanked the right ruffle of his shirt away from its binding material, and the buttons holding his white, silk caballero shirt closed burst away from the material in a cascade of raining buttons and trailing thread. Diego swiftly bundled the ruffle into the palm of his hand and felt along the back of Victoria's hair, now slippery wet with the steady stream of her red blood.

Diego pressed the balled up, ruffled material against the side of Victoria's head, but his hand was shaking so bad that he had trouble keeping the reddening material over the wound still bleeding profusely. The fact that her black hair kept getting tangled and in his way didn't help matters any as he pressed his hand hard against the back of her head.

A two inch-long cut just below the clip that had held Victoria's hair back from her face greeted his probing fingers when he felt he could explore a little further so he would know what he was dealing with. The skillet must have hit her hair clip, effectively saving her life, he admitted gratefully, but then the edge of the clip had bit into the soft skin of her scalp, and the gash that was even now pouring red liquid through Diego's fingers was the direct result of her clip sliding off her hair and falling to the floor, cutting her head in the process.

There's so much blood, Diego thought objectively to himself. A head wound always bleeds profusely, he reminded, and took what comfort he could from the knowledge he must have gained from a book or article that he'd read in the past. But the solace he found was worth very little as his fingers continued to shake, her head continued to bleed, Victoria remained unconscious, as she had been since the skillet collided with the back of her head, and he pressed harder against the cut, as if he could stop the flow of blood by the force of his willpower alone. The muscles in his arm began to burn and tremble, but he ignored the discomfort, leaning over to whisper to Victoria instead. It's all right. You're going to be all right. You don't have to worry about a thing... Diego glanced up; where was the doctor? he wondered, managing to just barely hold off the edge of his panic. Where was the water he'd asked for, for that matter? His hands slipped again even as the blood coating his fingers grew stickier by the second.

Diego risked taking his right hand away and yanking off his left ruffle in spite of the buttonholes and thread that held it in place. He would have taken off his entire shirt if he thought he had time, but he didn't want to remove his hands from Victoria for even that long. His breath was coming in great gasps, now, but he wasn't so frenzied that he wasn't aware of his own hand when it grazed across her pale cheek. He purposefully rubbed across the skin with the back of his right index finger, trying to give her some comfort, even if she wouldn't be aware of the caress. It's all right, precious girl, it's all right, he whispered, beyond the point where he cared what he said as long as he kept up a steady stream of chatter meant to cut through his hysteria as well as her state of unconsciousness. You'll be fine before you know it, Victoria.

Then the basin of water and towels arrived at his side. Diego didn't even notice who brought them, only that they were there, at his disposal. Gratefully, he dipped his left hand in the water, rinsing away the sticky blood even as his right hand grabbed a clean, white towel and pushed it into Victoria's head wound without removing the soaked ruffles from his shirt. As the blood started to clot and the bleeding to slow, he risked removing his right hand again to rinse it in the pink water of the basin. In a second, a much cleaner hand joined his left to hold the towel in place over her wound.

Yet, his hands were still shaking, and now tears that he had no hope of controlling slid down his cheeks. Oh, Victoria, precious one, it's not so bad, hang on, you can do it, hang on, please... he muttered under his breath. Then, he turned to a tavern customer kneeling beside him and, knowing that some people's hands were far from the clean that he insisted on, ordered, Hold this, but don't touch her! We don't need any infection right now on top of everything else. He washed his hands as fast as he could in the basin of water, and dried them on another clean towel that he added to the bundle pressing on Victoria's head. Thank you, he remembered to say at the last second, then returned his full attention to the lady in his care. He passed the fingers of his cleaner right hand over her forehead and hair as he leaned in closer. Stay with me, Victoria, don't give up yet, stay here...

Suddenly, Dr. Hernandez was kneeling on Victoria's other side and washing his hands in a second basin of water that had been provided for him. What happened? he asked peremptorily, and reached for his black medical bag at the same time.

Skillet, Diego tersely answered, Knocked her in the head. Hit her hair clip, which then cut her head as it fell out...

Hernandez carefully peeled off Diego's towels, one by one, and looked at the oozing scratch. I'll have to do stitches, and that means shaving her head around the wound... He leaned up and yelled, I need a razor - does anybody have a razor nearby? Then he eyed Sergeant Mendoza, who had run across the pueblo to bang on his office door, thus attracting his attention that someone needed his assistance. Water, Sergeant, we can't have too much of it... and light... lanterns... two or three... Mendoza jumped to his feet and ran for the tavern's kitchen, pushing and shoving what had been a warring group of merchants, peasants, and lancers only moments before. Hernandez then glanced at the cut on Victoria's head. This looks good...

I tried to stop the bleeding.., Diego abruptly informed.

Hernandez pushed Victoria's hair out of the way. You did fine, exactly what you needed to do... Did you wash your hands before you touched her?

I wish I had, Diego said, But she was bleeding so much and things happened so fast... He shook his head. I did wash my hands, but there might be infection from the dirt on the ruffles on my shirt...

All right, the doctor said, prior to fishing through his bag, looking for his pack of needles and thread. It will have to do - I don't want to wait and make sure there's no infection - ah, thank you... He carefully grabbed the razor that was thrust into his hand and pulled out a vial of alcohol. He dumped the liquid over the razor, then spread as much of the soap from his basin of water into Victoria's hair. Hold her head steady.., he murmured, and Diego reached out to place his shaking fingers onto her head, one under her chin and one under her neck, cradling his charge as gently as he could.

Hernandez reached for the scissors he always kept on hand in his bag, and quickly, recklessly clipped Victoria's long hair away from her injury. He worked the soap deeper into her hair the shorter he cut it, until he could see what he was doing. Then, with great care, but sureness of hand, shaved the sterilized razor over the area around the laceration.

Seņorita Escalante? Hernandez inquired as he cautiously continued, even after Mendoza interrupted him to bring him another basin of water and more light. Victoria? Can you hear what I'm saying? Can you wake up at all? He didn't seem particularly troubled when she didn't wake at the sound of his words. Very common of head wounds, he told Diego. She might not wake up for days, yet, and even then, she might not remember what happened to her...

What do you mean, 'she might not remember?' Diego asked as he tried to breath steadily and slowly so he wouldn't move his hands or her head while Dr. Hernandez continued to shave the affected area of her skull. Visions of a heavily damaged Victoria flitted through his mind, and his horror increased. Determined, he unmercifully clamped down on the rising tide of emotion; he couldn't afford to give in to his panic so soon.

Hernandez's precise movements didn't cease, in spite of what he had to say. Her motor control should not be affected, not in the area of the head affected, but this cut is deep, and what we know about how the brain inside the head works is incomplete, to say the least... you know that... Here, he handed Diego the razor in his hand, I can't reach that area at the end...

Yes, Diego answered as he took the razor and a deep, calming breath at the same time. He had to stop shaking so much! With a surprisingly steady hand, given the circumstances, he touched Victoria's head and moved the razor over her dark hair. I've only read a little about head injuries... Even saying that term aloud and in connection to Victoria sent shivers of dread down his spine.

Hernandez took the razor from Diego, critically eyed the job they'd done on the seņorita's scalp, then reached for his stitching needle and the strong white thread he kept on hand for just such an occasion as he was facing. I mean that she might not remember the fight, me, you, the tavern, Zorro, everything...

That caught the Alcalde's attention, and he paused in his bid to keep the crowd back and give the two furiously working men some much needed space. Do you mean she may know his identity, and not remember who he is when she wakes up?

That's precisely what I mean, Hernandez mumbled.

Diego cut off the older man. Victoria doesn't know who Zorro is, he said with finality ringing in his voice.

The Alcalde eyed the man in front of him. And how do you know that, de la Vega? he asked, suspicion loud in his own voice.

Diego thought at a furious pace to avoid the discovery by the Alcalde that was imminent. Because... He thought some more, but his mind was sluggish after processing the terror of Victoria's injury. Because she's never mentioned knowing his identity, Diego finally and very lamely said. I assume that she doesn't know anything since she's never said... He would have to be more careful of what he inadvertently blurted in the future, he told himself.

The Alcalde was still staring at him in suspicion, but his next words settled any amount of concern he might be causing. You should never assume, de la Vega, said the governmental man with a shake of his head. Only a fool assumes anything about anybody.

Diego felt like a rattled fool, himself, but he didn't bother to let the Alcalde know that. I'll remember, Alcalde... he promised in distraction.

DeSoto grunted, and went on with a mumbled, That may be more than Seņorita Escalante remembers...

Diego wanted to grab him and shake him for saying that, but instead, he only tightened his fingers into a fist as he restrained himself. But he did say, There's no need to remind us, Alcalde...

By now, Dr. Hernandez had his needle threaded and had made his first stitches. Be quiet, you two, he ordered tersely, I'm concentrating, and one small slip is all it would take to... He didn't finish his threat, but the tone of his voice made his dire prediction perfectly clear.

Diego immediately clamped his mouth shut, but DeSoto said, I think a night spent in my jail will jog her memory sufficiently...

Diego could not let that threat pass without a comment. She'll stay with us, not in the jail, he muttered, but his own tone let everyone who heard him know what he was thinking.

If she knows the identity of that bandit... DeSoto began.

I'll tell you if she says anything, Diego finished for him in short, choppy words. Until then...

Until then, said Hernandez without even glancing at either man, be quiet, or she won't live to spend the night in a jail cell or a guest room, yours or anyone else's.

Again, Diego clenched his teeth so that he wouldn't be tempted to say anything. Victoria's life was far more important than what she did or did not remember, he told himself, and tightened his fingers one more time.

Done, Hernandez said on a sigh a few minutes later, and put his needle and thread back into has bag. Now, all we can do is let her sleep, and wait. He met Diego's eyes in a meaningful stare that promised nothing.

Diego looked at the doctor's doleful expression, then glanced at the unconscious Victoria lying on the floor. He ran his fingers one last time over her forehead and hair. Felipe, hitch up Victoria's wagon for us and pad it with the softest mattress you can find. He grimly met the eyes of the young man over the heads of those in the tavern. We'll take her home that way.

His orders were shortly carried out, and before he knew it, Diego found himself at the head of Victoria's horse, reins firmly in hand. Felipe, climb in and pillow her head as best you can. This promises to be a slow journey. Felipe climbed into the back beside the young woman stretched out in the wagon bed and sat at her head, crossing his legs and pillowing her as much as he could.

Dr. Hernandez appeared at the side of the wagon. I'll ride out later this evening to check on her...

Thank you so much, Doctor, Diego said, promising himself to give the medical man a hefty bonus for his services on that day. Ready, Felipe? he asked, and when Felipe nodded and waved his hand, eased the horse forward as smoothly as he could.

Among a crowd of very silent onlookers, the wagon bearing the injured Victoria Escalante trundled out of town.

Go on to Chapter 2

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