The Worth of a Good Reputation

by Linda Bindner

Part IV

After the wedding, things were calm in pueblo de Los Angeles... for exactly one week. When that week of fragile peace was up, the Alcalde of the pueblo went back to his usual tactics with a vengeance. Taxes were raised, peasants flogged, the town's citizens terrorized as they had never been before...

And Zorro was kept busier than ever. If he wasn't in the pueblo, offering his typical assistance to the peasants, merchants, farmers, and caballeros who needed it, he was riding in the surrounding countryside, chasing and catching groups of bandits who had seen a bath more often than they had seen justice, and they hadn't seen a bath in many a recent month. Zorro frequently found these gangs of criminals simply by standing downwind from them and following his nose to their hidden camps. It wasn't a particularly scientific method of discovery, but even the Fox couldn't ignore the strong scents of sweat that wafted through the hot August air.

The twenty-first time after the wedding that Diego was forced to ride out as Zorro (Victoria was counting), it was well after dark when he was able to return. The bandits belonging to the Pedro Sanchez gang that he had gone after were successfully captured and reposing in the Alcalde's jail. Zorro looked forward to the homecoming he was about to experience from the time he left the pueblo to the time he first spotted the brush covering the cave opening - but it was far from a pleasant welcome that awaited him on his arrival.

Right away, he noticed that Victoria was waiting for his return instead of his loyal assistant Felipe. He carefully looked at Victoria, who was seated at his desk, her head pillowed on arms that must have long since fallen asleep. He couldn't tell if she had joined her arms in slumber, but as her eyes were closed and only a single lantern glowed through the cave's shadows in order to light his way, he could only assume that she had fallen asleep while waiting up for his return.

Zorro didn't quite comprehend what was on his wife's mind when he found her sitting at his desk, simply tarrying in the cave until he returned. Waiting so patiently and so late at night seemed uncharacteristic for one so passionate and impatient as Victoria.

Zorro quickly stripped the saddle from Toronado's back, brushed his mount, fed and watered the horse, then turned his attention to changing back into the 'Diego' attire that he had worn when he had prepared to ride out on the black stallion earlier that afternoon. Once he had the blue trousers back in place and the white, ruffled shirt properly buttoned, he cautiously approached his wife to wake her.

“Victoria?” he whispered. “Mi preciosa?” He gently patted her on the shoulder until she suddenly spoke. “Are you awake?”

“No, I'm not awake,” she whispered, “But I'll open my eyes for you.” Though her voice come out in a groggy slur, it did come out in coherent and complete ideas. “So, you came back.” She slowly sat up, looking him over once with her eyes in a swift, complete perusal. “No broken bones?” she asked next, her voice schooled to a misleading, light tone. “No bullet wounds?”

What is she leading towards with such questions? he wondered. “No, no broken bones or bullet wounds; no injuries of any kind,” he reported back in a hushed voice in spite of the fact that they were hidden in the secret cave.

Victoria sent him and disbelieving stare. “You're sure? Nothing I have to take a look at?”

Diego chuckled warmly. “Victoria, why do you seem so concerned? Felipe is never this apprehensive when I come back late at night.”

She firmly announced, “I'm not Felipe.”

Warning bells instantly jangled in his mind. Diego drew back a little. “No,” he carefully said, “I never thought you were.” Then, before he could lose his nerve at possibly rousing her famous Escalante temper, added, “Aren't you supposed to be asleep in bed? You have as early a start as you normally do at the tavern tomorrow.”

For a moment, Victoria just gazed at him, her eyes showing a shrewd, calculating expression as she carefully answered, “Yes, I start tomorrow as early as I ever begin my day at the tavern... but that's not the point.”

“What is the point?” Diego asked her to clarify.

“'What's the point?'” she echoed, and Diego should have known with that repetition that he was about to get more than just a listing of what her thoughts were centered on at the moment. “Do you really want to know?”

Diego laughed again. “Of course I do - I always want to know what's on your mind,” he proclaimed in spite of his misgivings.

Victoria sat up the rest of the way and blinked the haze of sleep out of her eyes. “All right, I'll tell you,” she said, slowly but distinctly. Her eyes latched onto the sight of her tightly interlaced fingers, as if she had never seen them before and found them fascinating. She stared intently at her fingers, but spoke slowly to him, “Though I know this doesn't particularly make sense, and I really have no right and no reason to...” Her voice trailed away. They could hear Diego's potions bubbling, Toronado munching his after-Zorro treat of hay and oats, but the rest of the cave was filled with a blanketing silence.

Finally, after a few semi-silent moments had gone by, Victoria took a deep breath, then shrugged. “I was worried,” she confessed at last.

Diego's brow wrinkled. “Worried?” he repeated in puzzlement.

“Worried that you would not come back in the same condition as you went out,” she softly added, then grimaced. “Or come back at all.”

Diego thought about the meaning behind the words she was saying, and at last hazarded to guess, “You were worried because I'm Zorro? That I have a job to do that sometimes gives me an injury or two?”

Victoria sighed, and slid her fingers into her curly hair in aggravation. “I told you it didn't make any sense,” she excused. “It's not like I can stay at your side twenty-four hours a day, keeping you safe.”

Diego had to chuckle at that comment. “Again, you never worried about this before we got married; why does it concern you now?” He shook his head, taking in their current situation with the gesture. “You knew how things stood, how...”

Victoria lowered her arms, definitely exasperated now. “Diego,” she said, “I did know how things stood, and I accepted that, but you also need to consider that there's not just you to think about, anymore.”

“What?” Diego rhetorically inquired. “I'm supposed to be more careful now that I have a wife?”

Victoria dug the heels of both hands into her face. “No, I don't think that,” she said, then was forced to shrug. “Well, I do think that, but that's not fair to you at all.” Her voice echoed around the cavern. “This marriage is not supposed to suddenly create chains where there were none before.” Helplessly, she looked at him, and sighed once more. “The truth is that I didn't know who Zorro was before the wedding, and now that I know your identity, I can't help...” Again she shrugged. “I can't help but be a little... concerned... about your well-being.”

Diego swallowed and tried hard not to laugh at her fears. He, personally, didn't understand those fears, but did his best not to treat them too lightly, as he knew just how debilitating such burdens could be. He took hold of her hand, and felt it trembling a little. He kissed it as quickly as he had scooped it into his fingers. “Victoria,” he gravely said, “let's talk about this in as open a way as we can...”

“You think I'm being stupid,” she accused before he could say any more, “Stupid and unreasonable,” she finished. “And I don't blame you for...”

“Victoria, stop,” he commanded. “I don't think you're being stupid or unreasonable.”

“You don't?”

Diego shook his head. “No.” He looked down, now appearing embarrassed. “The real truth of the situation is that you're not the only one who's worried about certain things.”

This came as surprising information. “I'm not?” she asked, and he shook his head. “But that's ridiculous,” she scoffed, thinking that she knew that he was referring to his old fears of being unwanted by her if she knew of his secret identity. “I'm not going to reject you now, at this late date, and anyway, Zorro doesn't have anything to fear.”

Slightly abashed, Diego told her, “Zorro doesn't have anything specific to worry about, true, but Diego has plenty of things that concern him.”

Victoria sat still for a moment, too surprised to move. Finally, she gave him a tiny smile, and doubtfully asked, “Like what?”

He softly confessed, “Like being a bit concerned that his wife is only a stone's throw away, every day, from his most hated enemy while she works in the tavern in town.”

He didn't have time to speak any longer. “But Diego!” Victoria exclaimed, “I have to work in the tavern, or I would go crazy with business worries! Why, sometimes I even serve DeSoto at noon, and he's never done anything except to unjustly arrest me...”

“... or use you as bait to capture me, or threaten to hang you for a crime based solely on circumstantial evidence, or...”

Victoria gave him an irritated look and didn't let him finish. “That was Alcalde Ramon, not Alcalde DeSoto, who tried to hang me,” she reminded Diego. “Besides, even then you were there to dissuade him, just like you always are there now that DeSoto is the Alcalde. What are you worried is going to happen?”

Diego stared her in the eye. “I'm worried about the time when I'm not there to dissuade him from his crazy ideas.”

“But, now that I'm married to Diego de la Vega instead of waiting for Zorro,” Victoria doggedly went on to argue, “won't the Alcalde give up his schemes to use me as bait to capture you?” She shook her head as if to clear it. “I mean, to capture Zorro.” She appeared confused for a moment by the dual roles her husband played.

Diego twitched, but otherwise didn't move. “I hope he'll give up using you as bait in order to trap Zorro, but I'm a little worried that he won't,” he added.

She grinned comfortingly. “You don't have to worry about that,” she soothed. “The Alcalde would never use me again; he's too concerned about not upsetting either of the de la Vegas, both respected members of the community.” She persuasively added, “So you have nothing to worry about.”

Diego looked at her in a pointed fashion. “And neither do you,” he said emphatically.

Victoria took one moment to glare at him. “Your concerns can't be compared to mine,” she informed.

“Why not?”

Victoria shrugged. “Because...” She tried to think of a sound reason, and couldn't. So she lamely shrugged again. “They just can't. They're not the same at all!” she stated.

“Aren't they?” Diego inquired. Victoria shook her head as he went on, “Let's look at both these concerns as logically as possible,” he said.

She sighed in irritation. “Diego, there's no logic to fears like mine!”

“Sure there are,” he refuted, sounding as logical as he wanted her to be. “First, I'm trained perfectly well enough by this time to get through just about any scrape I land myself in without an injury,” he argued, still being eminently logical. “Second, a situation that can cause an injury to me is something I can control, and as long as no one else is unwittingly involved in fighting for me, which isn't going to happen, as I work alone, I can keep just such a situation from unexpectedly arising. So, you have nothing to worry about,” he said, trying to imbue his voice with logical comfort.

But Victoria was still gazing at him with doubt written all over her face. “You're sure?” she asked. “Because I don't want to lose you, not now, just as your own father pushed us to be together...”

“Victoria,” Diego sighed, “Your worries are as groundless as mine. And though I take your fears as seriously as I take mine, I also know that there's nothing to such concerns.” He looked at her. “Now, after all this time as Zorro, am I suddenly more prone to getting injured than you are to be in danger at the tavern?” he inquired.

Victoria looked a bit shamed. “Well... no,” she finally whispered, thinking that she considered that her tavern was as safe a place for her to be in as an outlaw's camp was for him to be in. Both locations were as easily controlled as the location of Sergeant Mendoza at lunch time.

Diego went on. “So don't you think all this distress is...” He searched for the correct word, and at last muttered, “... unfounded?”

Victoria hesitated, but eventually had to grudgingly agree with his assessment of the situation. She grumbled under her breath at his arguments (why did he always have to sound so sure of himself?) but never said anything more specific then what she'd already voiced. When she didn't immediately speak, he declared, “I take it by your silence that you agree?”

Victoria growled this time, but mumbled, “Okay, yes, you have a point.”

Diego laughed at her seeming aversion to admit her assent, but he would take anything he could get at this late hour. “I'm glad you agree... albeit reluctantly,” he added as she growled again. But he continued, “Now, I'd like to see you smile just once before we go to bed; I'm tired after the night I've had...”

“Not too tired, I hope,” she suggested, grinning a bit at what she was hinting at. She figured that if he could extend a tentative peace offering by asking for a smile from her, then she could return the favor by suggesting... other... gestures.

Diego couldn't help himself; he gave an appreciative grin at the particular suggestion she was making. “I'll tell you what... You smile for me, and I'll think about not being too tired.”

Victoria couldn't help herself, either; she giggled out loud.

“I love your laugh,” Diego noted, a little shyly. “Feel better?”

“Much,” Victoria assured.

“Good.” He draped his arm over her shoulders, and encouraged her to rise prior to working their way to their room for the night.

But even as he was leading Victoria out of the cave on his way to their bedroom, a wisp of unease shifted across his mind, making him think that perhaps she was right in her anxiety. After all, he couldn't always control every situation like he said he could... he could do his best, and did, but just enough of any situation was left up to chance, and he sported the scars that bore witness to such a thing happening. Perhaps she was right to worry.

It was something to consider... later. Right now he was just too distracted by his wife to spend time thinking about something as unpleasant as fears. In a sense of distraction that was much more welcome, Diego admitted that Victoria's 'suggestion' was much nicer to think about than fears, anyway.

Z Z Z

It's ironic how such a seemingly unimportant thing as fears can turn out to be so vastly life-altering, however. Diego had predicted that the Alcalde would continue to use Victoria in his mad schemes to capture Zorro, especially as she was so enticingly close in proximity to him on a daily basis. But those particular fears turned out to be entirely unfounded. DeSoto paid no more attention to Victoria than he did to most of the other constituents under his command. Ever since the wedding between Victoria and Don Diego, he all but ignored her. He was clearly under the erroneous assumption that Zorro and Diego were two completely different people; the deception that Diego had enforced for years seemed to be working in that regard.

And, at first, Victoria did all that she could to encourage the Alcalde as well as the rest of the citizens of Los Angeles to think that, too. Due to circumstances beyond her control, she insisted over and over again, she and Zorro had ended their romance. There was no longer any tie between her and the bandit. Thus, she was determined to stand in the back of the crowd, and not draw attention to herself when Zorro showed himself in the pueblo. The citizens' interest in her died as quickly as the wind in the pueblo did every evening.

But only a few visits went by before Victoria's natural tendency to champion the cause of those victimized by the government drew her to the front of the crowd once again when the Alcalde tried to flog a peasant or further terrorize the pueblo's citizens with a raise in taxes. Zorro did his best to overlook her on those occasions while he was in the pueblo, but such disregard was as hard on him to bear as the same neglect was when he visited the tavern in his guise as Don Diego.

Soon, Diego became even more obsessed with Victoria's well-being. Zorro may have been outmaneuvered by fate in his dealings with Victoria, but to Diego, she had become even more precious to him since he had married her. The fact that he knew what could happen to her if she were ever to again become the target of the Alcalde only heightened his fears, making him want to be near her even more often than he had been before. But he also wanted to stay as far from her as possible when he was Zorro so as to not draw any unwanted attention to her. It was a struggle to maintain his hold on normalcy when he was battling two such opposing wishes.

The battle wore on, as did the fears, despite everything Diego and Victoria tried to do to force their emotions to coexist. They might find their fears to be completely unfounded, as previous evidence seemed to point towards a much calmer future for them both, however, long-standing habit made them continue to be vigilant, too, even in the face of that more easygoing future that they hoped for. Yet even vigilance such as theirs can do only so much in averting disaster.

Diego and Victoria had been married six months when that disaster struck again in the form of the Alcalde's new fee on the assessment of all barters performed in the pueblo. As most transactions were based on barter, rather than the actual exchanging of coins, this new fee was understandably very unpopular. From the moment the citizens of Los Angeles understood what was being assessed, they protested... loudly. But the Alcalde seemed particularly difficult to budge from his political position this time around. Victoria found herself at the front of the crowd, yelling right along with the rest of the people who had already been busy demonstrating against the extreme treatment.

“But the barter system has always existed in this territory!” she protested in a sudden break in the shouting voices.

The Alcalde, who had gathered his lancers together in order to ascertain the reason for the protest in the first place, found himself the center of attention once again as that protest/demonstration coalesced in seconds into an angry, shouting mob. He acidly responded to Victoria's hollered comment, “That was then, this is now; now we are in the middle of a drought, which affects how much is grown, which affects how much is sold, which calls into question the fact that very little that's sold is actually exchanged for money. And as we all know, nothing that's sold in Los Angeles is free. I then have to wonder just how things are being sold - after all, there is no noticeable rise in the collected sales tax on items sold in the pueblo. That throws into light the barter system that's already established here in Los Angeles, and it begs to be considered that even though actual money is not changing hands in these bartered transactions, goods are changing hands. So far, goods that have been bartered for have gone untaxed. Now, that stops. I'm not asking that anything that's free should be taxed, only items that are exchanged between two people. This is no different than the income tax. It's just a different kind of income,” he testily explained, his always short patience finally eroding.

But it was very clear by the confused expressions on the gathered citizens faces that his explanation had not been understood any better than most of his explanations were, even though he had endeavored to use small words. However, his statements merely sounded to them like he was once again taxing something that had always been free in the past, and that he was simply interested in the money that would come from this new fee. Their protest was as natural to them as it was for the Alcalde to unjustly tax them in the first place. The people were confused and incensed at what they perceived as their Alcalde's 'money-grubbing' tendencies, and the Alcalde was irritated at the lack of understanding of those same citizens when he tried to explain the situation to them. The citizens merely knew that they were being hounded for more money yet again, and the Alcalde was dangerously close to losing his patience with what he perceived as his citizens' idiocy, seeing them as nothing but dumb, silly, stupid local-yocals.

In essence, the citizens of Los Angeles were inferring from DeSoto's explanation that he was viewing them anew as inferior to him. Though those citizens may not have fully comprehended that their small town education was being found lacking when compared to the Madrid-backed education that he had received, they fully comprehended the fact that once again, the government that he represented somehow saw its citizens as 'less' and its officials as 'more,' and they reacted accordingly.

Or at least, they would have acted out against what they thought of as an unfair tax assessment, but the sudden arrival of Toronado at the edge of the plaza halted their protest mid yell. The great black horse galloped by, in full sight of every gathered lancer, who was then ordered to shoot at the black figure riding on the back of the big stallion. They complied with their orders, but even as Victoria yelled a horrorstruck, “No!” into the hushed air of surprise that had fallen over all the gathered citizens, the lancers emptied their rifle chambers, some of the bullets finding their marks, and going through what was a dummy dressed in the black costume of Zorro, riding on the back of Toronado.

The deception, though simple and often-used, had done the job that Zorro had intended it to do, and he jumped down from the roof of the tavern as the lancers scrambled with their now useless empty weapons while the target of their earlier shooting stared at them from his place atop the adobe bricks making up the water fountain reservoir in the center of the pueblo plaza. His challenging smile was all it took for the nearest lancer to turn his rifle into a club as he aimed for the black bandit.

But Zorro was not content to oblige his attacker by stepping back and losing his footing in the water fountain, as was anticipated. He backpedaled, certainly, but it was around the adobe pricks hemming in the water, not into the fountain itself. The nearest lancers soon followed where they thought Zorro would be going, and found themselves drenched in the puddle of water rather than the man they'd been aiming at.

“It seems that now really is a good time for a bath,” Zorro commented as the splash made by the lancers forced water over the edge of the fountain and into the plaza. A second wave of lancers followed the first, only to add to the confusion of tangled arms and waving legs in the water. The lancers valiantly tried to regain dry land, but only slipped in the mud created by the overflow of water that had washed out of the fountain when they had entered it. They were little help to Alcalde DeSoto, who found himself quickly held at swordpoint by the bandit he wanted to capture above all other bandits.

“Now, Alcalde,” Zorro began to lazily say as he continued to steadily circle the uniformed governmental man. “I think we have a 'barter situation' to discuss this afternoon.”

The Alcalde sneered, in spite of the sword point held at his throat. “There is no 'situation' to discuss, Zorro,” he unwisely scoffed. His protests merely further aggravated his opponent's already irritated sensibilities.

Angered, but keeping his emotions in tight control, Zorro twisted the sword just a fraction of an inch closer to the Alcalde's exposed skin. The prick brought the official up short, and he stopped backing away from the bandit dressed all in black to stand still in the hot afternoon sunlight.

“Oh, I think we really do have a 'situation,' Alcalde,” Zorro objected in a low voice. “A 'situation' that can spiral out of control very quickly, and one that can end the life of a certain government appointed official, if you get my meaning.”

DeSoto sneered again. “Are you threatening me?” he asked in an incredulous voice, as if amazed that anyone would dare threaten him.

Zorro gave his sword another twist. The Alcalde's suddenly indrawn gasp of air was his reward to the subtle motion. “It's not a threat, Alcalde,” Zorro said, making his voice sound like he was definitely threatening the man before him, even when he said that he wasn't. “At least, it won't be a threat if you promise to sit down and discuss the reason behind this new 'fee' with these good citizens. And I will officiate, to make certain that all concepts are understood this time, and no ill will, either real or perceived, takes hold of the proceedings.”

“And if I refuse this 'discussion?'” DeSoto asked in disdain. “What do you plan to do then, Zorro?”

Zorro followed the second twist of his sword into the Alcalde's neck with his gloved fingers suddenly wrapping around the throat of his rival and squeezing minutely. The sword point and the gloved hand combined were enough to make the Alcalde again catch his breath. Zorro leaned in closer to the Alcalde, menacingly friendly in his stance with the elected official. “I suggest, Alcalde,” Zorro began in his most low and dangerous voice, “that you take the time to listen to your citizens for once instead of trying to ride rough shod over them, claiming their inability to understand governmental nuances as your excuse for your more inelegant behavior.” Zorro took a breath, and in that pause, the Alcalde again spoke, muttering into the hot California air.

“You don't scare me, Zorro.”

Zorro's gloved hand squeezed just a bit tighter. The final compression of his fingers at last made the Alcalde's eyes bulge from his sockets in a most satisfying way to the outlaw. “I'm not trying to frighten you, Alcalde,” Zorro responded, then swung them both around so that the Alcalde's back was to his lancers, who were at last successful in climbing out of the pool and surrounding mud to yank their own swords from their scabbards. “Don't come any closer unless you wish to see your Alcalde with a hole in his neck as a reward for your enthusiasm!” he yelled at the suddenly floundering lancers.

DeSoto added his command to Zorro's yell. “Do as he asks!”

“But, Alcalde,” Sergeant Mendoza protested as he tried to pull his sword free of its soggy scabbard. “You've always instructed us to never negotiate with a bandit in a hostage situation,” he pointed out.

DeSoto's eyes now bulged, not with fear, but with anger at his subordinate. “I know I've said that before! But I didn't mean in any hostage situation that involved me as the hostage!”

Zorro gave a chuckle. “This is not a hostage situation, I assure you,” he loudly proclaimed. “If it were, I would use the Alcalde to make good my escape from town. As it is, I would be content if our esteemed Alcalde would simply listen to his constituents for a change.”

Mendoza narrowed his eyes in a questioning manner. “His whats?” he asked for clarification.

It was the Alcalde who responded to Mendoza's question, yelling, “Everybody, you dolt!”

Zorro turned his attention back to the man he held with his gloved hand. “To treat your own men under your command by calling them senseless names can only...”

And that was when it happened, cutting Zorro off in mid sentence. One of the lancers whom Zorro had previously 'encouraged' to fall into the fountain was just then climbing out of the pueblo water supply, freely pushing aside the hair that had fallen into his eyes even as he drew his sword from the scabbard in a last attempt to lend aid in this humiliating exchange. Since the young man, Soldier Ortega, couldn't see particularly well, he only knew that a known bandit had his hands on his Alcalde, and he intended to do something about it. Bringing his sword up in a threatening manner, he pointed the tip in Zorro's general direction, cursing a stream of words meant to sound more intimidating than sensical.

However, with the hair and sun in his eyes, and the water fogging his sight, the lancer missed the evidence of the mud now surrounding the fountain on all sides. As he launched himself towards Zorro, he unceremoniously slipped in the mud and fell in an ignominious tangle of arms and legs and deflated indignation into the shoulder of his fellow lancer, Corporal Gomez. This newest member of 'the event' then fell back, his balance altered by the soldier plowing into his shoulder, and the sword that he was holding in safety at his side instantly became something more along the lines of a missile with a sharp, deadly tip attached to a handle. The sword flew straight from Gomez's side, out of his previous control, and without another word from anybody present, straight through the right edge of Zorro's stomach and out his back as if drawn by a string.

A surprised look momentarily took over the unmasked portion of Zorro's face. He glanced down only to see something he'd thought that he'd never see in his life - a sword impaling him!

That weapon was just as suddenly ripped out of Zorro and away from his side by the Alcalde, who realized that for the first time in history, Zorro's prodigious attention was not fixed on him at all, but on the astonishing events taking place in the plaza.

Zorro's eyes were still wide in disbelief. His gloved hand that had reached out to gingerly sweep across the front wound came back covered in maroon blood at the same time that the wave of pain crashed into him.

The wound that he was only now beginning to feel was fast becoming slick with his own blood pooling on his black shirt to make a darker stain on the silk material. He was aware of the feeling of tightness that indicated that the sword had also pierced the skin of his back, enough to make his satin cape stick to the site of the ejection wound.

With a hissing breath of shock and surprise, Corporal Gomez stared in horror at his sword still dripping from the accidental wound. With an apology already forming on his tongue, his words were quickly swallowed up by the intense hush of silence that engulfed the shocked crowd.

The gathered citizens watched, wide eyed, as Zorro's expression slid from one of mild surprise to pain filled agony in seconds. The blood dripping from Zorro's wound to the dirt underfoot told every watching citizen that this time even Zorro's legendary cleverness had been outwitted by the combined efforts of loss of balance and a puddle of mud.

As they all watched, barely breathing in the quiet air, Zorro's eyes glazed over as that mountain of pain engulfed him even as he sought out Victoria's dark gaze one last time. The comment 'It wasn't supposed to be this way' echoed in his mind, but he couldn't quite force his mouth to form the words that he wanted to make. The beginnings of the phrase, 'I love you' also filtered through his mind, but by then his vision had tunneled down to focus only on a few grains of sand under his eyes as he fell in an undignified heap to the ground, unable to remain standing at this point. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.

For one awful, frozen, horrible second, the gathered citizens stared at the form clothed in black, and at the ever widening pool of blackish liquid collecting under him. Victoria was aware of strange things, like flies buzzing repeatedly in her face, only to land on the hat of the peasant standing beside her. The way the breeze moved the hair on her arms felt like the tickle of Diego's mustache after they had just made love. The only word consuming her mind was a whispered, distant, 'No.'

All of a sudden, that whisper became a scream. “NO!” With a seeming explosion of energy, she shoved her way through the crowd.

“Madre de Dios!” Victoria muttered as she sprang into action. From long-standing practice at dealing with wounded customers at the tavern, she instantly knew what to do. With a sense of calm that was unreal, she stepped over the prostrate legs of her husband, reaching at the same time for his booted foot. She came away from her probe into his boot with the knife she knew that he always kept hidden there, in case of an emergency. Without thought, she yanked her new birthday shirtwaist over her head, one that she had been gifted by her father-in-law, and using the knife, split the material in half.

As she kept the material out of the dust with her shaking hands, Victoria hardly noticed the spectacle she was making in the plaza. She didn't think about how her sudden actions might make Don Alejandro feel. She only knew that Diego/Zorro needed her help, and she intended to give that help in any way she could.

“Someone get Dr. Hernandez!” she yelled to the ground as she concentrated on the two pieces of shirt material. She flipped the rags that the shirt had become until the material was inside out, then folded each bit until she had two tightly packed squares of fabric in her hands. She roughly thrust one of the squares into the waiting hands of whoever happened to be standing beside her in the plaza, and tersely instructed, “Press this on his back, hard, and whatever you do, don't let go of the pressure!” Then, without hesitating, she slapped the piece of material she still held onto the front wound that was pouring blood into the dirt below.

“I need water!” she screamed next, oblivious to the fact that she was basically lying in the mud beside her previous boyfriend, and she wasn't wearing a shirt. But she was only aware of the feel of sunshine on her bare arms as she pressed into Zorro's reddening stomach wound as hard as she could.

Victoria risked a quick glance towards Zorro's face, and chanted the words, “You're going to be all right, you're going to be all right.” She didn't know if she said these words aloud or only in her head. She did, however, realize that in the dream like unreality that she had fallen into, someone had removed the mask that covered her husband's features. She hadn't even noticed who had removed it, or when such a momentous event had occurred. Under the circumstances, that unmasking that each of them had feared for so many years seemed suddenly unimportant in light of the abruptly dire situation they were thrown into now.

Still seeming to be in a fog, she was aware that someone - an unknown peasant or some caballero - handed her an oversized shirt to put on in place of the one that she had just turned into bloody rags. She perfunctorily slipped one arm through the sleeve, then the other, never relieving the pressure for an instant on the stomach wound. Diego had often told her that applying pressure to a wound was the best way to stop bleeding, and she remembered the lessons he had drilled into her. She didn't even know if the man under her fingers was alive or not - she just maintained the pressure, and prayed.

Time slowed almost to a standstill for her, and she was aware only of her breathing in and out. She pushed into the stomach wound with single-minded intensity, knowing that she had to keep pushing, no matter how much blood seeped through her fingers, no matter who demanded that she fall back from her unmoving patient, no matter what happened.

Suddenly, without warning, she was yanked back from the man on the ground, and lost her hold on the wound. In a cold, methodical way, she sank her teeth into the fingers that wrapped around her shoulder, and bit down hard. Unaware of the furor that she was creating with her decision to resist at all costs, she lunged forward again to reapply her makeshift bandage to the wound. She watched, fascinated, as blood once again pooled around her fingers, then quickly dried in the sun. Someone brought towels and other pieces of material to her, and she added those random gifts to pile on top of the one she was already pushing into the wound, desperate to stop the bleeding, but deadly calm in her desperation.

For the second time, the hands of some anonymous person yanked her from Diego's side. She landed on her butt in the plaza dirt this time, sprawled at the feet of her attacker, whoever that was. Without flinching, or thinking, or even looking, Victoria calmly twisted the knife that she had dropped into the folds of her skirt into her bloody hand, then drove the point through the closest booted foot of the individual who had pulled her back. She was dimly aware of a jerk and a yell, but she paid it no mind as the restraining hands on her suddenly lifted. She crawled back to the prostrate form of Diego still lying on the ground, then threw herself onto the wound, using her weight to push against it, hopefully once again containing the bleeding. She was aware that now she was also driving the form of her husband onto the cloth on the second, smaller wound in his back, and she was glad to see that the bleeding from that particular injury wasn't as great as it had been moments before. But that fact was a small consolation, as Diego/Zorro continued to bleed from his front despite her efforts. However, she didn't know what else she could do for him. She only knew that she had to maintain that position until help arrived in the form of Dr. Hernandez.

But Dr. Hernandez didn't come. Or at least, she didn't see his arrival to the bloody scene in the plaza. It was much later that she learned what had actually transpired. But by then, she was only peripherally aware of the cloth that was unceremoniously thrust over her nose and mouth, of the sickly sweet smell of chloroform as the soaked cloth covered her nostrils. Just as Victoria realized that the cloth meant that she was being drugged into a stupor, she felt the woozy affects of the drug wash over her. She fought the effects with flailing arms and legs, but that only caused her to take in deeper breaths of the vile substance. Her own last thought of 'I'm sorry' filtered through her mind as she slipped into unconsciousness to land in the dirt beside her husband.

When she woke with a start, Victoria ignored the headache that crashed through her skull to abruptly sit up in a bed. She had no idea where she was, or how she had gotten there. More importantly, she didn't know what had become of her husband. But now, instead of asking for him, she could only stare wildly around, the soft dizziness and crushing head pain normal to a person waking from the dreamless dark caused by drugs making her momentarily sick. She'd gone from sleeping to waking so fast that she was instantly disoriented.

“It's alright, it's alright!” Don Alejandro's voice washed over her.

Victoria grabbed at both sides of her head and moaned.

“How are you feeling?” was his second solicitous question.

But her father-in-law's voice sounded like it was coming from far away. Instead, a buzzing sound had invaded her ears.

Oblivious, Don Alejandro went on with his explanation, “We had to drug you to get you away from Diego so that Dr. Hernandez had enough room to work on him, and Felipe carried you here.”

Victoria only groaned again in answer.

Still oblivious, Alejandro continued to soothe, “Everything is going to be fine now.” And he smiled what he hoped was a comforting grin.

But Victoria hardly felt comforted. Instead, she felt frantic as memory abruptly crashed into her. “Diego!” she yelled. At Alejandro's confused look, she added, “What happened to Diego!”

Again Alejandro's arms raised to a placating level, and his hands placed on her arms tried to force her back onto the bed. “Take it easy, Victoria, calm yourself!”

The calm that Don Alejandro was trying to enforce only made Victoria more frantic yet. “But Diego!” Why was Diego's father behaving as if things were okay when they couldn't possibly be any more wrong? Why wasn't he answering her questions?

The next thought to claim Victoria's mind calmed her as no words uttered by Don Alejandro could at this point. 'He's not answering my questions because Diego's dead.' The flatness of that mental statement rang with truth.

But a second later, Victoria noticed that Don Alejandro wasn't behaving like a bereaved father. He was instead behaving like he was in charge of calming the suddenly deranged creature that his daughter-in-law had become. And he looked like this task was not very pleasant.

“Stop!” he commanded, his fingers wrapped decisively around each of her arms. “Victoria! I'll slap you if I have to, but you must calm down!” he threatened.

The next inappropriate thought to invade Victoria's mind was that Diego wouldn't like it very well if his own father slapped his wife, and to avoid that unfortunate event, did as Alejandro had ordered and immediately grew calmer.

Alejandro's fingers that had wrapped themselves like bands of steel around her arms carefully released their tightness. “That's better,” he said, relief in his voice. “I'll tell you everything, but first you have to...”

Victoria suddenly flew at the door in an abrupt explosion of movement, blankets, and flailing limbs. If Don Alejandro refused to tell her what was going on, perhaps someone else would. She had almost reached her destination when she suddenly felt a grab of fingers again, then the yank of something powerful on her arm. She couldn't resist the pull as she spun around, now facing Don Alejandro, who next did something that she did not expect. True to his word, he slapped her hard across the face, drawing to a close her mad dash to the bedroom door. Pain burst inside her skull to sit beside the throbs of her drug-induced headache.

As her hand flew to her cheek in a reflex action, Alejandro pulled her to his chest, and wrapped his arms securely around her, successfully imprisoning her against his side in the fastest hold that she had ever witnessed. In between her heaving breaths, her tears of pain, and her befuddled whimpers, Alejandro quietly said, “When you're ready to listen, I'll tell you what happened. Try again to escape out the door, and I'll slap you a second time.”

Victoria didn't know what to think - this was a Don Alejandro she didn't know, the man who had become a soldier in the King's military for Spain, a person much more willing to give in to violence than the caballero she knew. Not knowing what to expect from him made Victoria naturally more wary of him. She quietly nodded once after only a moment had passed.

“Alright,” Don Alejandro agreed, his fingers slowly loosening around her arms for a second time. “Let's try this again.” He steered her towards the bed, and a Victoria with a smarting cheek didn't resist. He pushed her back onto the covers, then regained his seat on the chair pulled up to her bedside. But his fingers didn't completely relax as he didn't completely trust her to do as she said that she would.

As she continued to sit on the bed and heave in breath, however, she felt the bands encircling her arms begin to loosen. Her father-in-law spoke in a soft, gentle voice a moment later.

“Victoria,” he began, “you're quick thinking saved Diego's life, and I can't thank you enough for that.”

A smile of humongous proportions split across Victoria's features when she heard those words. Diego was alive!

Alejandro's next words tempered her joy. “However... I'm sorry to say that though you and Dr. Hernandez worked so hard on him to save Zorro's...” Then he looked confused, and corrected, “I mean, Diego's... life.” Then he looked confused again, and just shook his head. “His life was saved,” he finally settled on saying, “But the Alcalde would accept nothing less than to hang him at dawn the next day. That was this morning.”

Victoria's eyes widened in alarm. This morning! That meant she had missed the death of her own husband!

But wait... Victoria's eyes narrowed. Don Alejandro was taking this death of his son awfully well considering that Diego had died only that morning.

“You're too calm,” she suspiciously reported in a whisper, the strongest voice she could produce now that the adrenaline from waking had evaporated. “What are you not telling me?”

Don Alejandro actually looked guilty now. He quietly confessed, “Victoria, we need your help.”

Her eyebrows drew together. “My help?” What help could she be now? By his own account, Diego was already dead. What could she do to change this fact at this late hour? She warily eyed her father-in-law. “Help with what?”

Alejandro nodded. “Sergeant Mendoza came up with this idea, but the Alcalde knows nothing about any of it. But in order for it to work, we need you to give the most convincing performance of your life, and convince the Alcalde that Diego's dead.”

Wait. Victoria gave a vigorous shake of her head. Had she heard right? “But you just told me..!” A second shake did nothing but make her head pound. The reality of this situation refused to settle into her, and she felt like she was floating on the edge of the words that he'd just said. It made no sense that Diego was dead, and they were sitting around, talking about it like it was of no more importance than the death of a regular bandit.

“Shhh!” Alejandro hissed. “There's always the possibility that the Alcalde will make it across the plaza and overhear!”

Victoria closed her eyes in resignation. “I'm dreaming,” she whispered to herself. “In one more minute, I'll wake up, and all this will make sense.” She opened her eyes, but it was still Alejandro who was beseechingly staring at her. “Don Alejandro!” she squeaked in frustration. “Tell me the truth!”

Alejandro sighed. “I'm not explaining this very well,” he suddenly muttered. “I told them that I wouldn't do a good job of this.” He went on with more cryptic words. “But they said that it would be more comforting to you to wake to a familiar face... and voice. And as Felipe can't talk...”

“Don Alejandro,” Victoria then stated in a no-nonsense manner. “Just tell me - is Diego dead?”

Alejandro gave her a puzzled... and puzzling... look, though she had asked a simple 'yes' or 'no' question. “Yes,” he said, but before the pain of that answer could engulf her in sadness, he then added, “And no.”

Her engulfing pain halted in mid engulf. “What do you mean by that?” she asked, skeptically eying him.

Alejandro winced. “Diego is dead,” he reported. “Officially.”

Officially? Victoria was almost afraid to ask, but she inquired, “And unofficially?”

Alejandro answered readily enough. “He's in a bed, in the next room down the hall, recovering from his injuries. Felipe is with him now.”

Victoria tried to take in this news, and couldn't. “He's alive?” she ascertained. “Just down the hall?”

When Alejandro nodded, she jumped up. “I should go to him!” she said, and once more started for the door.

Alejandro's hands again on her arms made her whirl around. “No!” he hissed. “I can't let you do that!”

Again, that just didn't make sense. Victoria was getting tired of this. “Don Alejandro! Let me go!” she demanded, struggling against his grasp. “I need to be with Diego!”

“No! Listen!” Alejandro cajoled, “You won't help him if you do that! You have to remain here! And calm down!”

Exasperated at his strange behavior, Victoria stomped her foot. “Don Alejandro! Tell me what's going on, now, or I'll shoot you myself!”

Don Alejandro gave a glimmer of a smile when Victoria said her threatening words, but he merely dragged her back to the bed and sat her back down. “I'm trying to tell you!” he insisted in a fierce whisper. “Listen!” He leaned down, and simply let loose a barrage of words that crashed into Victoria. “Yesterday, Zorro was stabbed in front of the entire town. You reacted faster than anybody else, and used your shirt to stem the flow of blood.” He gave an appreciative sigh. “That was such fast thinking - I couldn't have done any better.”

But instead of looking complimented, Victoria only looked peeved. Peeved, and impatient. “And?” she prompted.

Forcing his mind back on the events of the day before, Alejandro continued. “The Alcalde took the opportunity while you were tending to Zorro to draw away his mask. That left Diego...”

Victoria's eyes widened, imagining the scene, momentarily forgetting that she and Alejandro had both referred to Zorro by his given name - Alejandro wouldn't have done that if he didn't know about Diego's double identity as the masked defender of justice. “That must have been a huge shock for DeSoto!” she instead casually noted.

Alejandro shrugged. “Maybe,” he said, then went on, “But that's not the point. What I'm trying to tell you is about when Dr. Hernandez got there.”

“I didn't see him come,” Victoria announced.

“We realized that when you didn't move, even though the doctor had asked you to several times,” Alejandro stated.

Victoria's brows rose again. “He asked that? I didn't hear him.” Then she blinked. “I didn't hear what anybody said about the unmasking, either, come to think of it.”

“That's because there simply wasn't time for anybody to react,” Alejandro explained. “There was the Alcalde, holding up Zorro's mask, and no one was even looking at Diego. They were all staring at you.”

Victoria couldn't help smiling a little at this news. “That must have been disappointing for the Alcalde,” she noted.

Alejandro gave a half smile. “Perhaps so,” he agreed. “Maybe that's why the Alcalde was in such a bad mood later on,” he suggested. “But everyone staring that way at you - you were so determined.” Alejandro suddenly held up his hand for her to see the white bandage wrapped around his palm. “I tried to pull you away when it was obvious that you hadn't heard the doctor. You bit me in order to make me stop,” he said.

Victoria gasped a deep breath as she stared in horror at the white bandage. “Don Alejandro! I'm so sorry! I...”

He interrupted her. “Don't fret about that, my dear. I'll heal. What you did to the Alcalde was much worse.”

Victoria paled at this announcement. “What did I do to the Alcalde?” she asked, afraid to hear the answer. Was she going to be hung as well as Diego? Then she corrected herself: instead of Diego?

Alejandro explained, “After Dr. Hernandez ordered you away again, and you didn't move, the Alcalde tried to haul you back.”

“That much I do remember,” Victoria reported. “Or at least, I remember someone pulling me back. I landed in the dirt.”

Alejandro gave a ghost of a smile. “So you did. And then you grabbed Diego's knife in your dirty hand, and stabbed the Alcalde in the foot.”

Her now cleaned hand flew up to her mouth in consternation. “Please tell me that I didn't do that!”

Alejandro shrugged again. “Sorry, but I can't do that,” he told her. “The knife went right through his boot and into his foot, and almost out the other side.” Then he gave Victoria another appreciative glance. “You must be stronger than you look, Victoria.”

But this statement didn't mollify Victoria's growing horror. “Did I do any permanent damage?” she breathlessly asked. “Is the Alcalde going to be alright?”

Alejandro tilted his head. “Well...” he drawled.

“Tell me!” she again demanded.

Alejandro quietly drawled, “Heeeeeee'll recover... eventually.”

Eventually? Another hand flew to her mouth. “Did I..?”

But Alejandro was explaining again. “That was when Dr. Hernandez put you out. It was the only thing we could do to get you to move aside.” He shrugged one more time.

“What happened next?” Victoria asked. “Was the Alcalde very angry?”

Alejandro smiled at those words. “'Angry' doesn't begin to cover it,” he said. “But Hernandez had him sent to his room, and Felipe brought you here, and that's when things really went haywire.”

“The Alcalde! Did he..?”

“The Alcalde...” Alejandro considered what to tell her. Finally he said, “The Alcalde is bedridden for the next week. We don't have to worry about him, at least, for now. Maybe not ever again.”

That was surprising news! And even more surprising was the complacency with which Alejandro told her. “Of course we have to worry about him!” Victoria started to hiss.

Alejandro stopped this new tirade before it even got started. “No,” he said, then explained, “Dr. Hernandez told him that he wouldn't be able to walk again on that foot unless he got professional help... as in, true motherland help.”

Victoria's forehead crinkled as she frowned. “As in..?”

“Professional help... in Spain,” Alejandro nodded. “Dr. Hernandez really did a great job in convincing the Alcalde that...”

But that didn't make sense. Why would the doctor feel the need to convince DeSoto about anything? She interrupted her father-in-law to quickly ask, “But why would he do that? What did..?”

Alejandro then interrupted her as well. “It seems that our good doctor has known about Zorro's identity for years, and has just been waiting for an opportunity to do something for him that wouldn't arouse the Alcalde's suspicions.” He sent Victoria a knowing look. “While he was examining DeSoto's foot, Dr. Hernandez happened to mention that a colleague of his was going home to Spain from Monterey, and the Alcalde could travel with him if he wanted another medical opinion about his foot, as you had cut through several important tendons - whose names escape me now - and if he wanted to get the help that it looked like he was going to need, then he had to decide to accompany this man or not that very day, as this colleague was planning to leave on the next boat bound for Spain.”

This still didn't make sense. It was all going too fast for Victoria to follow. Dazed, she thought to ask, “How could Dr. Hernandez know about the Alcalde's foot so soon after I stabbed him?” She paused, thought again for a moment, then added, “Shouldn't he wait and see before sending DeSoto half way around the world just because of some cut tendons?”

Alejandro chuckled. “You would think so,” he agreed with her argument. “But Hernandez saw this as the chance he'd been waiting for. He knew that he had to convince DeSoto immediately, while DeSoto was still in too much pain to consider all of his options. He had to get DeSoto out, now, before he has the chance to hang Zorro, just as he'd always said that he would do.”

That confused Victoria anew. “But you already said that Diego was hanged this morning!” she protested. “That The Alcalde will be in bed for a week!” Then she added, “Only Diego wasn't hanged, and the Alcalde...” She glared at Alejandro. “Will you make some sense, por favor!”

Alejandro smiled a second time. “You are so well matched for Diego,” he muttered instead of continuing with his explanation. “Such spirit!”

“Ohhhhh!” Victoria threatened without saying anything specific.

Alejandro soothingly patted her knee. “Okay.” Then he continued, “By that night, DeSoto had decided to leave, but he was determined to see Zorro hang for being an outlaw before he left, just as he had always promised. That was when the Sergeant came up with the plan.”

Victoria's forehead furrowed in confusion. “The plan?”

Alejandro gave a nod. “While his men built a scaffold in the plaza, Mendoza stayed in the tavern and thought while eating beans. No one would go close to him because of the...” He delicately stopped speaking, but as a taverness, Victoria could well imagine what Don Alejandro meant by the hand he pantomimed waving in front of his face in order to ward off a particularly vicious smell. “But I don't think the Sergeant even noticed,” the don he went on. “He was busy thinking.”

Victoria was breathless. “What was he thinking?”

Alejandro told her, “That he didn't want Diego to die - he kept muttering that it all seemed so unfair! Until he figured out that the closest DeSoto would be able to get to Diego's scaffold was the window in his office. He couldn't get his foot full of plaza dust you see - doctor's orders.” And he winked conspiratorially at Victoria.

But Victoria was feeling impatient rather than conspiratorial. “And?” she again prompted.

Alejandro went on, “And... That was when Sergeant Mendoza thought up...”

“The plan, yes, I know, but what was the plan?” Victoria demanded to know.

Alejandro suddenly sported a fiendish grin. “To make the Alcalde think he'd hung Zorro at dawn this morning before leaving to meet the Doctor's friend in Monterey,” he announced.

Victoria gave an exasperated sigh when she heard his words. “But you just said that Diego is..!”

“Alive,” Alejandro finished for her. “Yes, yes, I did say that.”

Victoria was growing angry at this point. “So which is he? Alive? Or dead?”

Alejandro perfectly understood the anxiety she was suffering under. So he obligingly told her, “Mendoza very suddenly asked if anyone had a tall, male relative who had recently died in the pueblo.” Here, Victoria made a face of dislike at the idea of the Sergeant looking for a dead body, no matter the reason, but Alejandro's voice continued to sound in the quiet room. “Dr. Hernandez informed the Sergeant that, as far as he knew, the only person to fit the Sergeant's description was old Pablo Denaldo - you know, that old tinker who lives with his daughter on the...”

Victoria rolled her eyes in aggravation. “I know where he lives!”

It was a comment that made Alejandro laugh. Still chuckling, Alejandro continued, “Pablo's daughter was agreeable to the Sergeant using her father, as long as it was for Zorro's assistance, and when the scaffold was finished being built, but before the Alcalde had taken up his post at his office window, they dressed Pablo's...” Here, even Don Alejandro hesitated, not wanting to offend his listener, but not willing to dress this story up in a pleasant lie, either. So he said nothing, only hurried on. “Uh... so, anyway... Mendoza had him dressed up in a priest's robe - you know how big those robes are - and they dragged Pablo up onto the scaffold. Then when they dragged Diego as Zorro up the steps half an hour later - in plain sight of the Alcalde and the crowd of citizens that Mendoza organized for the hanging, he...” Alejandro stopped to explain more succinctly, “Diego seemed to fight the lancers once they got to the top of the scaffold's steps, and through some very clever maneuvering on Mendoza's part, the robe was yanked off Pablo, then wrapped around Diego.”

Victoria again intruded on his recitation to protest, “But wouldn't the Alcalde be able to see that it wasn't him to..?”

Alejandro cut her off. “Mendoza had the lancers put a hood over Pablo's head before they brought him back to the noose, so the lancers could 'keep him under control.'” Alejandro winked. “Then they tied Pablo's hands behind his back, and one of the lancers seemed to hit Diego in the head for good measure. It looked like Diego had gone unconscious again, and...” Alejandro turned a bit grim when he reached this part of his story. “They hung him, right in front of everybody.” He shook his head in obvious regret. “The fall through the scaffold was so fast that it snapped poor Pablo's neck like...”

Victoria instantly turned green. She vaguely looked around for something to throw up in while Alejandro went on, not realizing what she was doing.

But Alejandro was more aware of his audience than Victoria gave him credit for. He quickly wrapped up his tale even as he reached frantically for the bowl that sat under the water pitcher near the door. “Dressed as a priest, Diego stumbled down the steps, and two lancers moved him into the tavern... not that speed mattered, since DeSoto wasn't watching anymore.” At that point, Victoria threw up into the bowl that Alejandro had successfully retrieved for her. “My dear,” the don calmly noted as Victoria inelegantly lost her most recent meal in front of him. “Are you sure that you aren't expecting already?”

The murderous look that Victoria shot towards her in-law quelled any further questions on his part. Alejandro remained silent, but held the bowl for a heaving Victoria. Sometimes, he considered, the truth didn't always have such pretty results.

Once Victoria was calmer, and she had wiped her mouth and hands with the towel that Don Alejandro had handed to her, she inquired, “How can I be of any help to you if all this happened hours ago, as you say?” She stared beseechingly at Alejandro over the bowl still in his lap. “I don't understand.”

Alejandro removed the bowl to place beside the door before speaking. “Mendoza was thrilled with Pablo's 'performance,' and Diego's, and the lancers...” At Victoria's prodding expression, went on to explain, “DeSoto is determined to see your reaction to all this, however, to see what you'll do.”

Without missing a beat, Victoria proclaimed, “He should be worried - what with all the family members I've lost to the crown so far, I might have to hurt him... again!”

Alejandro bobbed his brows. “Yes, that's just what he's afraid of. But if you walk out to the scaffold, and cry, and carry on, and end up fainting...”

Victoria drew up in protest. “I'm no... I don't faint!”

Alejandro shushed her with a motion of his arms. “We know! We know!” His look turned desperate. “But you have to help us! Convince the Alcalde! For Diego's sake! For...!”

Victoria's unsure voice issued into the room. “You want me to... faint?” She was already sure she would do it - helping Diego by convincing the Alcalde that he was dead was the least she could do.

Alejandro corrected, “You don't have to faint, but we want you to make this as real as possible, in case DeSoto really is watching.” Then Alejandro plaintively added, “Please, Victoria - Diego's life depends on you.”

Don Alejandro had never actually begged for anything before - Victoria thought she'd heard it all now. “All I have to do is go outside, and...”

“Wail, cry, faint, fall to your knees but don't faint... whatever you decide to do,” Alejandro hurriedly told her. “But this has to be the performance of a lifetime.” And he added one final plea, “For Diego's lifetime... Do this one thing for him, por favor.”

A begging caballero was more than Victoria could withstand. She again felt her determination to do this. course through her. “Of course I'll help, Don Alejandro - you know I'll do anything for...” She didn't bother to finish her statement. Instead, she just rose from her place on the bed, aiming for the door.

However, her determination didn't do a thing for her own very real physical ailments. The pounding in her head increased as she ascended, but she ignored it, and only swayed off balance for a second. However, the bile still in her throat swirled when she pulled open the door. She ignored that too, as well as the feelings of dread that sprang to her stomach when she entered the balcony leading to her tavern's other rental rooms.

The eyes of every patron currently in the tavern focused on her the minute she set foot on the balcony. Victoria numbly wondered if she was going to throw up again, and for a blessed second, her gaze wandered to the closed door that was further along the balcony than her own room. The wood of the closed door met her probing eyes, and she knew that Diego lay behind that door, either unconscious or awake, but surely with labored breathing as he fought for his life against the wounds that had almost killed him outright.

Yet, for now, Victoria ignored the other room's calling, too. She abruptly forced herself to turn away from that other closed door, knowing instinctively that if she saw a Diego who was alive and mostly well, she might not be able to give a convincing enough performance in the plaza. And that performance had to be as convincing as she could possibly make it - DeSoto might be watching for her to appear, and what he did next depended on how she reacted to a potentially hung husband. Diego's future well-being depended on it.

As Victoria rounded the balcony and started down the stairs, she asked herself the crucial question: how would she react to this situation if it had truly happened? What would she do? What was in character for her?

Thoughts whirled around in her mind. It was with a sense of distant unreality that Victoria continued down the tavern stairs to the main room. A hush descended on the occupants of the tavern the minute she set her foot onto the worn boards at the bottom of the stairs.

She watched them as they watched her. She swallowed once, a painful movement to force the lump in her throat to recede. All it did was make her cough.

But then her gaze was attracted by the spark on the blade of a long knife sitting aside a half eaten loaf of bread at the table nearest the door. She felt herself blanch - how could anyone eat at a time like this?

That was when the idea hit her. She suddenly knew exactly what to do.

Victoria slowly moved forward as if still half asleep, and the Lancers and citizens alike watched her first stop beside the table to gather the used knife beside the bread, then to wander with more of her single-mindedness to the tavern door. She stepped into the sunshine speckling her porch, and looked up to see the posts of the scaffold that was waiting for her in the plaza. Though she wasn't truly performing yet, her sorrow began to feel numbingly real and to look it to the people whose gazes gazes followed her slow movement outside.

Once outside, she stood, unmoving. The silence continued to oppress Victoria as her eyes were instantly drawn to the scaffold that had been hastily erected near her tavern's main door. Briefly, she wondered what Sergeant Mendoza had been thinking to order such a dreadful behemoth to be built so near a food establishment, but all thought stopped when she caught sight of the furtive shadow in the Alcalde's office window. Either DeSoto was watching her, or a sentinel that he had positioned to watch for her had gone to get him. Either way, she now knew that her main audience of one was spying on her to see what she would do. Her 'performance' had begun.

But she went on standing in the sun, staring up at the black figure swaying softly in the wind. An eerie quiet had settled over the entire coastal village, as if everyone in town, including the Alcalde, was holding its breath in order to see what she would do next. She supposed that squinting against the strong sunlight, throwing a hand up to shade her eyes, and seeming to calmly stare at the man swaying in the wind wasn't what she was expected to do, but it did halt the dancing of sunlight in her eyes for a second. That in turn stilled her heaving stomach enough for her to draw a shuddering breath.

This seemed so real to her. Alarmingly real. It was what she had always feared... Victoria swallowed a second... third?... time against sudden nausea in her stomach.

A noise carried to her across the plaza as she stared at the black form on the scaffold, something that sounded a little like the rustling of dress material. But Victoria didn't have the energy to place it just then. For all she knew, a horse had escaped from the cuartel stables and was preparing to tear up the town. She paid it no more attention than she did the flies that buzzed around her head the closer she drew to... the corpse.

Don Alejandro might not have given its proper name, but she could call it nothing but what it was - a corpse, a dead body, a bloated, swaying...

Victoria stared, a grim, tight cast to her face. There it was, her worst nightmare: a figure dressed in the black of Zorro's familiar outfit, a short burlap bag thrust over its head. A head that hung at a cockeyed angle, it's neck clearly broken, just as Alejandro had said it would be when he...

A cold shiver erupted in the pit of Victoria's stomach, and crawled up until it blanketed her entire being. Without warning, her breath hitched in her throat. Even though she knew that this scene with a dead Zorro dangling in the wind was pretend... it certainly looked real. The bag obscured any sign of the victim's face, and it wasn't too hard for Victoria to imagine the presence of Diego's familiar features above that black outfit that Felipe must have retrieved just for this event.

His hands were bound behind his back, as Alejandro had claimed, and he again swayed slightly in the breeze that scoured through the small town.

He looked so unexpectedly real that at first, Victoria didn't know that she could behave in any way such as what Don Alejandro had said they wanted from her. She could only stare in macabre fascination, that sick feeling taking over more and more of her stomach as she stared.

But after several moments of nothing but staring in sick fascination, a second sob suddenly tore at her throat. Then the hitch issued for a third time from her mouth. She instantly covered her mouth with her hand, afraid to let the scream of terror that sounded loud in her mind to come out of her mouth. For she knew that if she began screaming, she would never be able to stop. Instead, she forced herself to glance away for just a moment. Tears that she was barely aware of streamed down her cheeks. She shook her head, as if to dislodge an annoying fly from her face. This was too real, she knew, too intense... It was like all Victoria's fears coming to fruition in one horrendous moment. Her stomach clenched, her sight blurred and swam before her. Alejandro might get his wish, she abruptly realized. She actually might faint.

At last she had control of herself. With a tight reign on her emotions, she was able to look back at the scaffold, and jumped. It was as if in the intervening second that she had glanced away, the hanging victim had grown larger. It hung, towering over her, a dreadful vision of black and death.

More sobs threatened at the back of her throat. This was... this... Hysteria joined the sob in her throat to claw its way into her mouth, and she clamped her teeth shut tight to hold her wail inside. She really wanted to panic, to let the frantic chaos inside her to burst out and take over this scene, to fall sobbing to her knees in the plaza dust. It would almost seem like a relief to fall victim to the all-encompassing grief just waiting to softly shroud her soul.

But she instinctively knew that that's not what Victoria Escalante would do in this situation. That isn't even how the wife of Don Diego would behave. She must remember that above all, she had to make this seem as real as she could possibly make this... the Alcalde was watching. She needed to keep things together, because if this scene were really real, the Victoria who had been in love with the man supposedly hanging in the wind would not have fallen apart, no matter how much she would have liked to. So this Victoria-wife-of-Don-Diego had to stay together at all costs. Ironically enough, Zorro's life depended on it.

So she took a shivery breath, just barely managing to pull her tattered emotions together again. She still wasn't quite able to blink, so she simply stared at the corpse for a minute that seemed to go forever. She didn't cry now, instead swallowing her tears, but she allowed the threat of more tears to swim in her eyes, and to run together, blurring this awful scene into a surreal painting.

By some miracle, a small part of her mind somehow remained detached from these hideous proceedings just enough for her to briefly wonder if she had stared long enough to give Alcalde DeSoto time to reach his office window. This entire scene was for his benefit, after all. This was his play, even if he wasn't aware of it. If he didn't completely believe that she was grieving for her lost love, then all was truly lost.

With that thought firmly entrenched in her mind, she reached out to the corpse with her free hand, and almost touched the booted foot nearest her. But at the last second, she hastily withdrew her hand. All she could see was black, black black... She had to rapidly blink against the renewed buzzing sound in her ear in order to make it go away long enough for her to comprehend what she was doing. Realizing that she was too short to do what she wanted, which was to use the knife she'd brought with her to cut through the rope that had supposedly ended this bandit's life, she gave a perfunctory search of her tavern porch right beside the scaffold. Her gaze quickly landing on what she sought, she moved jerkily towards the bench on one side of the outdoor table.

She gave a loud sniff as she first picked up the bench, as if she was holding back another sob, then purposefully picked up the bench and placed it right beside the dangling form. Her movements still deliberate, she climbed atop the bench, then forced herself to grasp the waist belonging to the dangling man. A swirling in her mind threatened to crumple her to the dirt the second she felt those knees, but she managed to keep her equilibrium at the bench. Another sob worked its way up from her stomach, and this time, she didn't stop it from exploding out of her mouth in a loud cry of distress.

A second later, she stopped that awful sound from issuing from her mouth by holding her breath until she could feel her face turn red. She closed her eyes and gathered her roiling emotions a second time. She wrapped the fingers of her right hand tightly around the knife handle, grasped the waist more firmly with her left, then with eyes still closed, a third sob threatening in her chest, she started to saw with the knife blade through the thick rope attaching the man garbed in black to the scaffold.

In spite of the way she kept her tavern knives in well-sharpened condition, it still took a lot of her muscles to hold the form steady and saw through the rope at the same time. And even though her rope cutting was fairly quick, she was still trembling almost uncontrollably by the time she felt the weight of a dead man fill her left arm.

'Diego/Zorro' fell into her arms, and it was immediately apparent that she couldn't sustain his weight as well as hers at the same time she maintained her balance on the bench. She allowed the man to slip to the ground below them, and with an ooof, followed his descent to join him in the square of sunshine streaming through the trap door in the scaffold.

The warmth of the sun stuck her back, and her arms, but it was only a slight distraction as the suddenly clear sight of that black costume once again bit through her senses. She whispered an incoherent growl, more a keening sound than a word, letting the grief that she was feeling at the imagined scene overwhelm her for a second. The sound was quickly swallowed up by her very real sobs that racked her body. Soon she was rocking back and forth, the black form gently swaying in her arms.

Yet unlike this dead almost-bandit, she was painfully alive. And this man... this man was dead. Undeniably dead. Unprettily dead. The death of Zorro.

And then it hit her full force - Zorro was dead, whether in reality or in this play. Zorro would no longer steel into her tavern to secretly kiss her hand any longer. He would never give her flowers on the spur of the moment at the side of her porch. He would never ride through town again on the back of his half-wild stallion. For he was here, the legend of Zorro, symbolized if not real by the black clad form stiffening in her arms.

The throbbing of her knowledge bit through her until she trembled with each shuddering breath she took. A huge aching hole suddenly overtook the part of her heart that would always belong to Zorro.

Victoria continued to silently cry as she sat in the plaza dirt and gently rocked the man in black. The sun beat down on them both, but she didn't feel it's burning heat. She was only aware of this scene and the very real possibility of it becoming reality except for her efforts. It wasn't hard to force her strangled cries to pierce the surrounding air as she continued to cradle the dead form of the man dressed in black.

Z Z Z

And then, before she was even aware that much time had passed, it was over. She was numb as Don Alejandro, Sergeant Mendoza, and Doctor Hernandez removed the dead man's body from her arms, laying it gently into at her side. Then it took their combined efforts to gingerly pull her to her feet and into the tavern. The shadows of the building swallowed the entourage and let the group of four individuals become one mass as they entered the building.

Don Alejandro made certain to let them move far away from the discerning, attentive gaze of the of the possibly watching Alcalde across the plaza before he leaned into Victoria. Grinning from ear to ear, he gave her a slight victory shake. “That was marvelous!” he breathed, his whisper barely rustling the hair near her ear. “That looked so real! You had me convinced!”

“Don Alejandro,” Mendoza softly cautioned as he stared at Victoria's trembling form. “I don't think that was completely fake.”

“What do you mean, Sergeant?” Alejandro queried over Victoria's bowed head. “Of course it was faked!”

But in answer, the Sergeant merely gestured to Victoria's shaking form. Alejandro suddenly became aware of how she was trembling in his arms. “Here!” the caballero hastily said, then lowered Victoria to a bench near the tavern's bar. He thrust a glass of water into her vibrating hand. “Drink this!” he ordered.

Victoria drank, because she didn't know what else to do. Her teeth chattered on the glass rim as she tried to form words. “That... that was... so... real!” she was able to mutter at last. “Don't make me... go back... out there!” she stuttered, adding some moaning now to her shaking.

“Of course not, Señorita!” Mendoza assured. “We'll take care of...”

“I know just the thing she needs to help her,” Doctor Hernandez intoned, interrupting the Sergeant. He more fully turned to Victoria. “Diego's room is at the end of the balcony.”

That was all he said, but those words acted like a much needed tonic for her. Her shaking instantly decreased, and her teeth chattering grew quieter as a result. She carefully rose from her place on the bench, and crossed to the bottom of the stairs, intent on reaching Diego's room immediately.

It was like the parting of the Red Sea; every patron who was in between her and the staircase quickly but silently moved aside as she passed. It was as if all the people present wanted to play some part in this 'saving Zorro' scenario, and did so by silently supporting her to the last. As quietly as she had entered her establishment, she now climbed the stairs one at a time, just as deliberate as she'd been outside. Carefully, but with determination, and a lighter step than ever before, she moved to see to her wounded husband.

And the next thing Victoria knew, she was sitting in a chair at Diego's bedside, the calm quiet bulk that was Felipe stationed opposite her. The two of them sat like sentinels guarding against any evil as together they witnessed the steady rise and fall of Diego's chest, one after the other, throughout the rest of that awful, hot day. Each of Diego's breaths was labored, and he wheezed loudly in his unconscious state. But each breath also proved that he was very much alive to make that wheezing noise in the first place, and for that Victoria couldn't even begin to show her gratitude.

She refused to sit anywhere else as the day wore on. Soon the afternoon sun had turned the room into a literal oven, and Felipe rolled up his sleeves while Victoria continually sponged the recovering man as often as possible, but both refused to leave the room for more comfortable accommodations. Only the close of evening when Doctor Hernandez changed the bandage on Diego's wounds would either of them let themselves be moved, and then it was just to the other side of the bed. The wounds had both completely stopped bleeding by this point, and the aging doctor chattered to Victoria and Felipe as he administered to the sick man.

“What you did for us in the plaza must have worked, Señorita... or should I say Señora?” rambled the doctor as he worked. “Not an hour after we helped you back into the tavern, DeSoto left in a very fine coach, his foot bandaged so much that there was barely room for my friend to join him on their trip to Monterey on the way to catch a ship for Spain. He left Sergeant Mendoza in charge of the burial, and only stopped that nasty laugh of his that one time he jostled his foot against the side of the coach. Mendoza was just ordering a pauper's coffin from the undertaker as DeSoto left town, all those horses of his making a huge cloud of dust.” He glanced towards Victoria as he finished wrapping a cloth around the bandages pressed into Diego's side. “Are you quite well now, my dear?” he asked in solicitation. “Is this young man talking your ear off?” And he gestured towards the silent Felipe when she didn't answer.

Felipe gave a small grin at the doctor's joke.

Hernandez went on. “We must remain as quiet as possible so that Diego can sleep and heal - it's the only thing we can do.”

Don Alejandro had entered the room to hear the last comment, but ignored Hernandez, turning instead to Victoria. “It's time,” he simply said, and beckoned his daughter-in-law and Felipe with the fingers of his unbandaged hand.

They left the tavern together in order to lay to final rest the bandit Zorro... or Pablo Denaldo, depending on how one looked at it.

And so it was over... just like that. With barely a fanfare, 'Zorro's' coffin was lowered into the ground. Only a cross marked his burial spot in the cemetery on the hill across from the mission. On the wood of the cross, someone had carved, 'Here lies the hero Zorro.'

The words mocked Victoria during the entire funeral. She knew perfectly well that the man called Zorro was even now lying asleep in an upstairs room in her tavern. This sham of a funeral was equally as faked as the man still dressed in Zorro's clothes was a fake Zorro. 'The clothes make the man' went the saying, but in this instance, the clothes definitely did not make the man.

But the dark costume had certainly done its duty in this case. The body of old Pablo Denaldo lay in the most famous grave the Los Angeles cemetery had to offer. He had helped in pulling off the biggest trick in Zorro's colorful history, that of successfully leading Alcalde Ignacio DeSoto around by the nose. And he had helped to save the life of Diego de la Vega, something that Diego's wife would never forget. She had a life now because of the unknowing sacrifice of one old man.

And so came the end of Zorro, not with a bang, but with a whimper of the breezes that clamored through the trees in the cemetery. At the same time, the citizens would never forget, either, how one man died so that another could live.

Victoria also never forgot what she owed to Pablo and to his family. She wished that he was still alive so that she could personally thank him. Since she couldn't, she paid her respects to the man as best she could, by seeing that his family was never wanting again. She especially turned every August into a month of remembering, at least, when Diego wouldn't distract her 'with other things.'

And when she wasn't too distracted, the month of August eventually became a time when she paid particular homage to the Denaldo family, to a 'deceased' Zorro, and to a certain innocent meteor shower that had truly started it all.

The End


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