by Linda Bindner

Felipe watched as Victoria Escalante moved through the curtain and out into the main room of her tavern, balancing four plates heaped full of food with ease in her two hands. It was amazing that she didn't drop at least one of the plates - Felipe had tried to carry four full plates at once at the hacienda just the other day, but had failed to even make it out of the kitchen without losing his tenuous hold on the crockery. He went through every body contortion that he could think of, and tried his best to save the plate that had become unbalanced, but it wasn't to be. That plate fell to the floor with a particularly impressive crash so that food smeared the walls and platter chips littered the floor everywhere he looked. The resounding crash had brought both Don Alejandro and Diego running to make certain that he was alright. When they discovered what had happened, Felipe and Diego cleaned up the mess, Felipe was forced to remake the burritos that he had ruined, and he had to promise never to play 'tavern owner' again. As further punishment, he had to tell Victoria himself what had 'befallen' him... as well as the burritos.

Which brought him to the tavern, by himself, on what was otherwise a perfect day for spending outside, next to a lake, fishing. Instead, he was watching Victoria do the impossible by carrying four plates at once, and making it look easy. Felipe knew that it wasn't. As he watched, he idly wondered how she did it.

The Señorita first served two of the plates to hungry customers sitting next to the staircase leading to the second floor, then handed one to the waiting Sergeant Mendoza and the last to his companion sitting across from him, Corporal Gomez.

Just as she turned to leave, wishing that they might enjoy their dinner, Gomez requested that his glass be refilled with wine. “It took so long for our food to get here that I had to drink all my wine just to keep from growing too parched!” he complained.

Victoria turned slowly around to face Gomez, who was still relatively new in town and had no idea what he'd just done by insulting the only tavern owner in the entire area. More to the point, he didn't understand what it meant to insult Victoria Escalante in particular. In order to educate him in the quickest fashion possible, she glared at him, then declared, “If you're so short on patience, why don't you pour your OWN drink! And then while you're at it, you can cook the food yourself, too!”

Stunned at her outburst, Gomez replied, “What did I do? It's not like I said something nasty! There's no reason to get into a temper!”

Victoria loudly responded, “And the next time I do your job and capture a bandit, you can have free food. Until then, Señor, I suggest that you show patience, common sense, and above all, some manners!”

Gomez still didn't seem to understand what he had said to the Señorita, but held out his hands anyway in his first show of the common sense that she had requested. “No disrespect intended, of course, Señorita.” Then in an undertone added, “But if it takes a Mama to cook food, it takes a Mama to yell for no good reason.”

“That's enough, Gomez!” Mendoza finally intervened. He was pointing at the Corporal with the fork that Victoria had just given him. He was about to tell Gomez that if he didn't apologize to Victoria instantly, he could kiss future use of the tavern 'Adios,' as Victoria would surely ban him from her tavern for the remainder of the year.

But Victoria did something better than Mendoza had in mind. Retreating to the bar, she grabbed a bottle of wine from where she had set it on the counter, then marched back to the two men wearing regimental red. She slammed the bottle on the table before Gomez, making the liquid inside the bottle shimmy and shake with the abrupt action. “Here is your wine! Pour it yourself! Then for your rudeness, after today, I don't want to see your face in the tavern for a year!”

“A year!” Gomez incredulously yelped. “What did I do to warrant being expelled for a year!?”

Victoria stared down his puzzled expression without blinking. Instead she just told him, “If I have to spell it out for you, then what's the point. Manners can't be explained to one so rude as you!”

She whirled to leave again. Mendoza was telling Gomez to “sit down and shut up, before she bans you for two years,” when Gomez, always on the lookout for a way to be stupid, grabbed the Señorita's arm in his callused palm, demanding, “I think that for the price we're paying for the service around here, you can pour my wine yourself.”

An evil glint came into Victoria's eyes, and Felipe knew that if Corporal Gomez was even remotely intelligent, he would be diving under his table in search of the safety it represented just due to the Señorita's expression.

But Gomez wasn't particularly intelligent, for he not only had the indelicate manners to smile when Victoria picked up the bottle of wine, but the idiocy to whisper to the Sergeant, “That's how a man needs to handle a woman - by showing her who's boss!”

Victoria smiled all the more sweetly. By this time, every patron in the tavern was waiting to see how much further Victoria would let Gomez bury himself before she threw him out.

Not long, as it turned out. Victoria could only contain her famous Escalante temper for a second. That second was spent in lifting the wine bottle from the table. As Gomez smugly grinned at his superior officer, Victoria upended the entire contents of the wine bottle onto Gomez's head. Luckily for him, the bottle was only half full.

Mendoza gleefully laughed as his Corporal spluttered beside him. “Now,” Mendoza suggested to his fuming compadre. “I think you should leave, and don't come back for...” He glanced at Victoria, who stood seething at the table. “A year? Two years?” he asked. When she only nodded at his first suggestion, unable to form a sentence yet because her anger was so great, Mendoza just continued. “A year.”

“Sergeant!” Gomez stuttered, astounded that a fellow lancer was clearly not on his side in this debacle. “What about my dinner?”

“Oooooh! Be careful!” Mendoza cautioned. “You're not wearing it yet, but give her one more incentive and you will be. Now get out, and don't show your face to me until you've learned how to show proper respect and manners like a true lancer should!”

“A true lancer!” Gomez hollered. “Show respect? To Zorro's w..?”

And that was as far as he got. As the other customers of the tavern chuckled, Victoria scooped up Gomez's plate of tamales and beans, then plunged it right into the middle of his pristine Lancer's coat. “Now you can take your food with you!” she announced. “There's the door,” she added. “And if you don't go, I invite you to my kitchen, where I slave in front of a veeeery hot fire all day to prepare meals for idiots like you! Don't inspect my fire too closely, or the next thing you know, you'll be covered in soot, as well as tamales!”

When Gomez was too stunned to move, Victoria took a threatening step closer, holding the now empty plate aloft. “The door, Corporal, or do you need to find out just how hard my plates are when I throw it at your head before I 'show' you out?”

“Cut your losses and go,” Mendoza recommended. “And this afternoon, I'm assigning you to talk to Don Diego about manners!”

“Don Diego! That..!” Gomez began to say, then wisely swallowed his words when everyone in the tavern rose to their feet to come to the absent Diego's defense.

“Sí, Don Diego,” Mendoza firmly repeated. “And he won't like it too well if I tell him how you treated Señorita Victoria. And Don Diego has the ear of his father, who has the ear of Zorro, who can sneak up on you in the dead of night and slit your throat. If you want to live to see tomorrow, I suggest that you go quietly, and without another word. I'll deal with you after my excellent lunch of burritos with a side order of frijoles.” He sniffed at the food in great appreciation, rubbing the fact in to Gomez that he, at least, knew how to treat a woman who bent over a fire all day just to cook his favorite beans.

Gomez threw down the red-checkered cloth that he'd been using as a napkin, then stalked out of the tavern, muttering to himself.

Victoria watched him go, then calmly turned back to the Sergeant. “Thank you, Mendoza,” she murmured.

The soldier grinned. “Anything for another helping of these marvelous beans!”

Victoria narrowed her eyes at the Sergeant's not-so-subtle yet cheerful suggestion that she bring him another plate of beans as payment for his help in the recent incident, but she only nodded once, then moved away to return to the kitchen and the Sergeant's frijoles. She had made a whole pot of beans especially for him, after all. She could hardly help it if he asked for a second... or a third... helping. Besides, if he happened to be standing right next to Corporal Gomez when those beans decided to revisit him in a few days' time, she would consider it Universal Justice!

Smiling in satisfaction, Victoria entered the kitchen.

Felipe saw this as his opportunity to 'talk' to Victoria by herself, away from the rest of the town's citizens who would undoubtedly misunderstand his attempts at communication, and reach the instant conclusion that his intelligence level equaled the number os words he was able to speak. Slowly, so as not to draw any attention to himself, he followed her into her kitchen.

“Felipe!” a delighted sounding Victoria exclaimed, and the boy was glad that she greeted him with more enthusiasm than she was likely to show Gomez in the future. “Is there something I can do for you?” Felipe shokhis head, so she added, “For Don Diego then, or perhaps Don Alejandro?”

Grinning, Felipe gave his head another shake. Wondering how to go about his confession, he regretfully admitted to himself that getting the details of his 'punishment' across to her was going to be difficult, as she, like most everyone else, often had trouble understanding his gestures. Diego had purposely sent him on his own so that he would have trouble... this was part of his punishment, Felipe suddenly realized. He gamely began making his gestures anyway.

First he pointed to a plate, then pantomimed filling it full of food.

Victoria looked puzzled. “You need some plates?” she guessed, which made Felipe silently laugh even as he shook his head 'no.' He picked up the plate, then actually filled it full of the beans that Mendoza had requested.

“You want beans?” she guessed then, making Felipe laugh again.

Felipe continued to fill plates with beans until he had four plates filled before him on the hearth.

“Don Alejandro wants me to feed beans to his horses the next time he's in town?” Victoria guessed.

Felipe sent her a 'huh?' expression, wondering where she had gotten 'horses' out of his gestures thus far, but didn't even try to fix the mistakes she was making as she continued to guess. He simply picked up the four plates, two in each hand, which all wobbled as he stood in front of Victoria with his four offerings.

“Careful Felipe!” Victoria instantly exclaimed, taking two of the plates from him. “You'll drop one!”

Felipe gestured to her with his plate-filled hand when she said that, trying to indicate that he had already dropped just such a burden.

But Victoria was hopeless at Felipe's signs. “What does a bean-covered burrito have to do with anything?” she asked.

Felipe rolled his eyes, shook his head, then tried again. He gestured at her with the plate, then bent down to set it on the floor right before he widened his hands and wiggled his fingers to pantomime pieces of plate tinkling across the kitchen. Then he pointed to himself, hoping that he was being clear enough for her.

But Victoria just didn't get it. “Your horse broke a plate?”

Felipe rolled his eyes again and shook his head.

“Don Alejandro's horse broke a plate?” Victoria guessed next.

Felipe made the same gestures, then repeated his wiggling finger movement.

“Toronado broke a plate... When did you see Toronado?”

Felipe just slapped his hand over his eyes and shook his head in a silent show of 'Wow!' Where had she gotten Toronado out of what he had gestured? He hadn't even made his sign for Toronado!

Felipe was just about to give up and request pen and paper to write down his explanation for her when she stopped him with her sudden words, “Felipe, speaking of Toronado, and Zorro, in a roundabout way, do you know who Zorro is?”

How had they moved from beans to Toronado breaking plates to Zorro's secret identity? Felipe wondered at how her mind worked, briefly theorizing that her seeming leaps in logic might be due to the fact that she was female, and he wasn't accustomed to talking to a female when her next question stopped him cold. “Why is Zorro so afraid to tell me who he is? Do you know?”

Zorro was afraid? Well, of course he knew that Zorro was afraid of revealing his identity to her, but he couldn't exactly tell her who he was, either! It was for Diego/Zorro to decide when to unveil himself, not for anybody else. So Felipe violently shook his head, gesturing at himself as if to ask 'Why would I know?' He hoped that she would understand him for once, and that he had made just enough gestures to deter her asking any more questions.

But Victoria was as stubborn as the Sergeant's beans were odorous. She sighed in aggravation, and propped her hands on her hips in a show of that bad mood. “I don't even know why I'm asking you this,” she commented, half to herself, and half to him. “I just promised myself that I would ask everyone I saw today, and you're part of that 'everyone,' so I'm asking!” And she fixed a glare at the young man that perfectly communicated her desire to 'hear' his thoughts on this subject, or he could look forward to the same fate as Corporal Gomez.

Felipe now understood that he had seriously underestimated Victoria's desire to know this information. She waited for him to start gesturing while he frantically tried to decide how to handle this situation. What would Diego have done, he suddenly thought to ask himself. His mentor found himself in just such impossible predicaments with growing frequency as of late. Felipe had watched his patrón try to wriggle out of similar messes by giving unspecified responses that still held grace and finesse. But Diego inevitably did or said something clumsy that just cemented his low standing in the pueblo.

And thinking of Diego's wild attempts at pacifying the odd individual gave Felipe an idea as to how to answer Victoria now. He paused to gather his thoughts, then launched into a slow, precise bit of signing that was much easier to follow than his previous attempt had been. First, he touched Victoria on the arm to make certain that he had her undivided attention, then made his gesture of a mask being drawn across the eyes that indicated 'Zorro' in Felipe-speak.

“Yes, I want to know about Zorro,” Victoria interpreted, watching the boy with intensity. “But what exactly do you think about him?” she repeated, her voice getting faster with every word. “Who is he - what's your opinion on..?”

Felipe cut her off with another brief touch to her arm. She halted her speech just in time to witness him again make his gesture meaning 'Zorro,' followed by his sign for 'Toronado,' and his sign meaning 'running through the pueblo.'

Victoria's brows crinkled in question, but guessed, “Every time that Zorro and Toronado run through the pueblo?”

Felipe went on to make his mask of Zorro sign again, followed by his index finger pointing to himself, and then he pointed to his eyes, as if to indicate that he was telling her 'I look.'

Victoria sighed in disgusted resignation. “I look, too, and have for years, but...”

Felipe cocked an eyebrow, hard, and canted his head. It was a definite expression of inquiry, and the look in Felipe's eyes made her pause. He was clearly saying 'Have you really looked... for years?'

The slight chastisement made Victoria take a step back, even though they were on her turf, in her kitchen. “Well,” she conceded. “I guess it wouldn't hurt to look again... the next time I see him.”

Felipe grinned, and nodded. If Victoria thought that he closely watched the pueblo's hero, then she did the same, who was he to stop her? If Victoria then figured out Zorro's identity on her own, by truly looking at him, what could he say? Or sign?

And if he could push his mentor and the Señorita just that little bit closer to the truth, get them that little bit closer together... then..?

Laughing to himself, he had to admit that he doubted that Diego had had this particular outcome in mind when he conceived Felipe's punishment.

Then again, Felipe decided, what Diego didn't know was actually very good for him!

The End

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