Diego was on his feet and sprinting to where he had left
Toronado before DeSoto could twist his face into one more grimace
You four, come with me! Diego ordered, calling
over his shoulder as he mounted without stopping his run or using
the saddle's stirrups.
The rest of you, round up the
prisoners and escort the Alcalde to the jail! And go for the
doctor! I'll join you when I can! With that promise, he was
gone, heading at a gallop back to the woods he had so recently
left. The pace of the horse could be heard by those remaining
behind at the hacienda. The roundup began by removing the
bullets from the soldiers' discarded rifles, and moving DeSoto
onto a blanket brought from the hacienda. The soldiers didn't
resist at all now that they had no leader.
Diego hadn't even looked at the men he had 'volunteered' to come along with him, but the luck of the draw colored those four men as excellent riders. They weren't vaqueros for nothing. They charged over the ground behind the hacienda in a short but violently fast sprint, in Toronado's wake, the dust from his passing not having the chance to settle before four more horses stirred it again.
They came to a halt beside an already riderless Toronado and dismounted, then followed Diego's trail that led further into the trees where they had left Victoria and the four quiet vaqueros guarding the captured and tied lancers. But now, the scene was a bit different than when they had all abandoned it.
Now, three of the vaqueros lay, splayed and unconscious, across the ground. The lancers were struggling mightily against knots that had been tied so tightly that they just couldn't escape, and Victoria was backed into a tree, one of the pistols still in her hand as she strained against the fourth silent vaquero, who was so busy grinning over his apparent conquest that he didn't even notice Diego's quiet approach.
You're as pert and as pretty as you are in that tavern of
yours, the man declared, the sound of his voice covering up
the noise Diego naturally made as he crept up behind the vaquero.
And they say you won't act like a true tavern wench... We'll
see about that now that you're all mine! he promised with a
leer that froze on his face as Diego drew his sword from his sash
and miscalculated the distance between himself and an opponent
for the first time in his life. He drew a trickle of blood that
traced a path down the vaquero's back.
Don't you dare lay one finger on her, he said as he
heaved in air that he hadn't realized he'd been fighting to suck
I don't take kindly to anyone who threatens
The man smiled again, said nothing, but whirled around in blinding speed, gave a swift kick, and knocked Diego's sword out of his hand.
No! Victoria yelled, for all the good a distracting
call did for her.
Diego followed his sword to the ground after a swift punch that he didn't even see coming as the vaquero struck out. But the man hadn't counted on Diego having enough wherewithal left to roll to the side, then use his boot to trip the man. The vaquero crashed to the ground very near to a kneeling Diego, who used his fist to punch him so hard, he was instantly unconscious.
Diego stood up, swaying, but remaining on his feet. Heaving in a shuddering lungful of air, he turned his head to Victoria as she launched herself from the tree and into his arms. Dizzy with all the fast turns of the fight he'd just gone through, Diego led Victoria over to a rotting log lying on that ground and helped her to sit on it. He joined her, then, trying to catch his breath.
Oh, God, Diego! Victoria shakily exclaimed, and
dropped her face into her trembling hands.
I shot him in his
left leg, but then the other pistol from Don Eduardo jammed when
I tried to use it next... That man moved so fast in spite of a
bullet wound... I did all I could...
Diego gathered Victoria into his dirty arms... How had he
gotten so dirty? he vaguely wondered...
It's all right, it's
all right now, he soothed, though his voice came out no
stronger than a whisper. To the four vaqueros who had come with
him, he nodded and said,
I took out my sword so fast, I cut my
sash in two. You can tie him up with those pieces of cloth that
fell on the ground... Then, he was busy holding Victoria and
trying to keep his seat as he successfully drew in more and more
The vaqueros tied their fellow with less sympathy than even Diego would have shown, then literally threw him on the back of a horse. Despite what the man had been about to do to Victoria, Diego winced at the thudding sound as he hit the saddle. With no more fanfare, the four vaqueros rode off in the direction of the hacienda to join the other vaqueros and to escort the Lancers and DeSoto into Los Angeles, before they tossed the lot of them into the pueblo's jail. Diego didn't put a stop to their enthusiasm.
However, that left Diego and Victoria completely alone for the first time since ten o'clock the night before. So much had happened since then that it was hard to believe that so much activity could have been crammed into one night. Still, Diego didn't want to appear to be taking advantage of the situation; he was still as concerned for Victoria's reputation as he had ever been. But what he didn't count on was the strength of will in Victoria. She was so small compared to him that he frequently found himself thinking of her as much more delicate and fragile than she truly was.
There was nothing remotely weak about her now, though, as
she sat in the woods, clinging to him so tightly that he was
afraid that she was going to break him in two, and he had never
thought that anybody could do such a thing before, even with his
strongest male opponents.
Victoria, he was finally forced
please loosen your hold or you might...
He got no further as her lips hungrily sought his in a move that was hardly chaste or innocent. Desire instantly surged out of control to bombard them both with soft sensations that swept through each of them and left them more breathless than the events of the morning put together.
Diego felt himself spinning with the new emotions, inhaling her every scent as if she were his for the taking. It was only with a supreme effort that he reined his stampeding emotions back and scooted away from her.
Heaving in air, Diego and Victoria stared in wide-eyed astonishment at each other. They had never before experienced such sensations, such strong passion. Of course, they had never dared give in to their full emotions before, either, and the tide of feeling had taken them both completely by surprise.
Slowly and very deliberately, Diego touched his cheek to
hers. He closed his eyes and sighed deeply, just soaking in the
velvety feel of her skin.
I'm so glad he didn't hurt you,
Victoria, he whispered.
I know, or you would have to kill him, she said in a
matter of fact tone.
Am I right, Diego? she asked after a
silent moment had gone by.
Diego chuckled in spite of the unhappy situation.
wouldn't have felt too kindly towards him, I admit, he said
and smiled, squeezing her even tighter, as if it were his sole
responsibility to treasure such a precious bundle as Victoria had
That precious bundle currently in his arms was about to
shock him so deeply that even the socks inside his boots curled.
With no fanfare and no easing into a new topic of discussion,
Diego, I'm not a virgin.
Another silent moment followed, where Diego was frozen in
surprise by her admission. Finally, perplexed, Diego lifted his
head from touching her cheek and slowly asked,
Victoria looked as if she were about to crumble until she
looked like the dust her feet were resting on. She babbled in
I'm so sorry, Diego, but it's true! I was
only seventeen at the time, I had no mother, no father, no
brothers, no one to talk things over with, nothing to lend me any
comfort when I needed it... I had convinced myself that you
wouldn't remember me when you sailed back from Madrid... Then
Manuel moved to the pueblo, and I thought he was so handsome, and
one thing led to another, and then he and his family had to move
back to Santa Barbara six months later, and... well, say
something, please, Diego - I've been dying of guilt for months...
years... Her eyes seared his in the same pleading
expression that was beginning to be evident in her tortured
Diego simply sat still for a minute, letting the news
blanket the corners of his mind the same way the wind fluffed the
hair on his head. After that quiet moment passed, he found
But all those rumors about your pristine
reputation that needed protecting...
Everyone assumed, Diego! Victoria protested back.
You have no idea how strong the power of assumption can
A tiny, wry smile was on Diego's face.
Oh, I think I
have a little idea about the power of an incorrect
assumption, he quietly interrupted.
When Manuel had to leave with his family, he swore that
he would stay true to me until his dying day, but when I've
questioned those guests I've had in the tavern that have come
from Santa Barbara, I've only found out that he's married and has
three boys... Diego, aren't you angry or disgusted or... I've
truly been terrified over the years that you would somehow find
You say that I was at the university at the time?
inquired a careful Diego, trying his best to understand the
details of Victoria's claim.
Yes, and I your father told me that you had no plans to
return until your graduation three years from then...
Has it ever occurred to you that there might have been a
good reason for that decision?
This interruption caught Victoria off guard this time.
Wh... What? she asked.
I... um... had a bit too much fun my first year in
Madrid, Diego slowly confessed, sounding shy in his
I didn't want to come home at first, and I still
didn't want to come home even after three and a half years
What made you change your mind? Victoria asked.
Father started writing about trouble in
the pueblo with Alcalde Ramon, and he mentioned you once or twice
Well. Diego shrugged again, apologetic and
His mentions of you started me to thinking,
wondering what had happened to you, kind of peripherally, even
though I was seeing Sophira by then...
You didn't change your mind because of anything she did,
or I did, did you, Diego?
No! Diego emphatically said.
Father wrote that
the trouble in the pueblo had grown so large that he couldn't
handle things on his own any longer, and I...
Suddenly, Victoria's eyes narrowed in speculation.
how much fun did you have while you were in
Diego's neck reddened.
Quite a bit, he answered, now
sounding reluctant. He'd had a passion for his studies that were
well known on campus, but he knew that wasn't what Victoria was
Go on, she prodded.
Well, Diego said again, slowly, trying to buy some
time by drawing the word out for all it was worth. Finally, he
Some of the other first years went to the two week
Festival of Barcelona, and dragged me along, and while we were
there, we just happened to visit a particular lady who, it was
So what you're saying is that this lady was part of the
'fun' you were having...
Actually, she was the main reason that I
didn't wish to return home right away... we planned to see her
again the next year during the Festival... and eventually I
didn't wish to come back because of my school work, but that
wasn't always the case...
How many times did you see this... this lady?
Victoria asked, unsure of what, precisely, she should call her.
She'd never met a true courtesan before, but had heard of them,
whispered of in hushed, reverent conversations in her tavern.
Twice, Diego confessed.
Her response surprised Diego.
Don't you think that was
Not when compared to some of the
stories of visits with women of... of ill repute... that I
overhear some of my customers telling about...
Diego smiled as she rolled her eyes. Referring to the fact
that she had heard, and always would hear, many things in her
tavern, Diego said,
I guess you know more about reality than
the normal lady ever learns.
The 'normal lady' is supposed to remain 'innocent' until
she gets married, Victoria pointed out, in a slightly
sarcastic tone of voice.
True, Diego conceded, refusing to fall to the bait of
her sarcasm. He knew he would have to be careful in what he
said, for he, in essence, agreed with what Victoria was saying,
but he also didn't wish to revile the customs of the day, either.
So he continued, but in a quietly modulated voice and with
carefully chosen words,
But is that really when you want
someone you plan to marry find out about..? He didn't
finish, as the subject of intimate relations was a rather
delicate topic, in spite of the way he and Victoria were able to
discuss it so freely with each other.
Many men expect that the woman they plan to marry be as
innocent as an unborn baby. Victoria went on to admit,
was so worried that you would think the same way.
Diego had a sudden insight that wasn't unlike Victoria's
realization the night before that he was the masked bandit. An
explosion suddenly went off in his head.
Is this what had you
so upset last night? Victoria nodded, and Diego couldn't
help his smile as relief at finally comprehending her problem
flooded through him. He considered that relations with another
man who had moved away while they had both still been teenagers
to be relatively a minor issue, but apparently Victoria's
concerns were that he would believe more along the lines of what
was commonly held as an inviolate practice. Setting her at ease,
he smiled again and said,
It is prevalent in a marriage
for the man to know much more about the wedding night than the
female, but is the wedding night when one really wants half of a
wedding party to discover what a marriage is all about? he
And personally, I have always wondered about the
practice of expecting virginity in women when the same thing is
not expected of men, but in order for men to become so... He
floundered for a moment, and finally settled for the word,
knowledgeable.., they have to encourage women to become exactly
that thing that they are taught from birth to revile. Such a
double expectation doesn't make much sense...
Victoria couldn't quite withstand such a direct referral to
the very subject she had been so concerned over for several
I've always wondered the same thing, but I also know
that to give such an opinion might be enough to make a person
become very unpopular. I decided it was best to keep my thoughts
A miracle, in your case, Diego grinned in a teasing
Victoria eyed him, then continued as if he hadn't even
... but I have to say that keeping anything to myself
was extremely... um... worrisome... when it came to
I guess we both had secrets that we were keeping from
each other, Diego murmured thoughtfully.
Victoria started, then wrapped an arm around each side of
I promise to never keep anything from you again if
you promise to do the same thing.
Diego had to keep grinning as he hugged her back.
easy promise to make, he said solemnly.
Much like that
earlier promise I made in the plaza to declare my feelings for
you when I was free to do so...
I'm waiting, Victoria said, interrupting him with a
slightly sing song voice.
Diego tightened his arms, then, and touched her cheek again
with his. He whispered,
I love you, Victoria, and always
will, even if you're not what everybody assumes you are.
Victoria lay her head on Diego's left shoulder, and smiled a tiny, closed lipped smile; she had received even more than she had hoped for... She sighed, the content sound slipping around the small clearing in the trees as the sun continued to rise on a new California morning.
Z Z Z
Later on that California morning found Diego outside the Alcalde's office in Los Angeles, standing in a somewhat nervous demeanor. He had seen an ever sleepier Victoria back to the tavern, where she had roused herself enough to cook him one of the best breakfasts he'd ever had the good fortune to eat, but had left her behind to wash and with the warning that unless she intended to spend the entire day in bed, which she most definitely deserved, she would do better to avoid sleep altogether, as an hour or two of sleep could do more damage to a day full of sleep deprivation than several hours spent languishing in bed. He ought to know, as he'd spent many sleepless nights out patrolling on Toronado, followed by equally as sleepless days, rather than ending up feeling sick after only an hour or two of sleep to keep him going. Victoria was beginning to learn that being Zorro had not always been the romantic, adventurous escapade that she had always thought it to be; there was much more to being a dueler for justice than the few times she had seen Zorro fighting the Alcalde in the plaza. Most of his time spent dressed in the black of Zorro had been filled with the questionable joy of enduring uncomfortable weather from the back of Toronado while on patrol, looking for the trouble caused by unwelcome bandits or desperate outlaws. It was a job free of the glamour and excitement that most people often envisioned as coming from Zorro, and it left Victoria with new ideas to ponder as she washed and couldn't resist tumbling into bed.
But that left an equally tired Diego to deal with DeSoto and the lancers. He couldn't let all those men languish in jail while he slept the day away in order to regain his strength. They deserved better treatment than that... unless, of course, they refused to renounce their allegiance to Spain and continued to view him as a wanted criminal. Diego had little hope that DeSoto would see the errors of his opinions versus an extended stay in jail, for Diego could not let him go free to return to Spain and the King, and quite possibly, to his ideas that a price on Diego's head was an appropriate response to his 'outlaw' ways... But, the lancers might not have the same opinion, and Diego was willing to offer them a deal that few could refuse, given the alternative.
Diego took a deep, steadying breath, then entered the office through the green outer door. The room inside was, naturally, empty, and Diego had to admit to himself that he found it rather strange not to see DeSoto sitting at the pine desk. However, the presence of his sword lying on the desk top, negligently left behind the night before, did a lot to cancel out the emptiness left by the absence of DeSoto. He grabbed the sword left him so many years before and half a world away as he also reminded himself that the vacuum of DeSoto's presence was for a very good reason, and so, he stepped lightly to the door leading from the office to the jail cells, bouncing the sword in his hand the entire way.
The cells were in the opposite condition from what the outer office was; they were full of men in blue and red uniforms, a sea of color. Sitting defiantly on one of the cell's built-in cots sat the vaquero who had tried to attack Victoria. Diego felt his face grow hard, and he refused to look away from the man's expressive, hate-filled eyes. The other vaqueros whom Diego had organized into an army large enough to threaten the Alcalde had dumped their fellow man still tied with the pieces of Diego's sash, and he couldn't go anywhere with his feet held together and his hands bound behind his back... All he could do was look and growl, and he was throwing his remaining energies into wholeheartedly doing both while Diego stared him down, unfazed by the fierceness of the man's glare. Yet, it was the vaquero who glanced away first, leaving Diego with his determined stare, a sour taste in his mouth, and a driving anger to hurt this man as much as he had intended to hurt Victoria. It was only through a supreme grip on his temper that he was able to turn to deal with DeSoto and his men at all. Even then, he felt the eyes of the evil ex-vaquero burning into his back when he turned to face DeSoto.
So, DeSoto said after a few silent moments had gone
by. He was sitting on the cot in his cell, his wounded
leg bandaged by Dr. Hernandez while Diego had enjoyed that
excellent breakfast that Victoria had fixed for him. Now, it was
also propped up by the cot in the cell. The military man was
surrounded by his men, who had only an hour before professed
their allegiance to King and country, as well as to him. It had
to come as quite a humiliating blow to find out that those men
weren't as loyal as he'd first expected.
So? Diego echoed, his monotone voice matching the one
used by the Alcalde.
As Diego had anticipated, the repetition of his question
left a rattled and irritated military man. DeSoto sighed in
So, he repeated in asperity,
Diego remained quiet for a few seconds longer, just to
irritate the men even more, then said,
Well, that depends on a
great deal of things.
The lancers, who had grown quiet in order to listen to the
exchange between the famous outlaw and their Alcalde, shuffled
their boots across the stone floor. It was Sergeant Mendoza who
spoke. The sergeant, whom Diego had to remind himself was an
automatic enemy due to the uniform he as currently wearing,
gripped the bars of the cell as he continued,
We're not much
of a threat to a swordsman like yourself, he admitted
truthfully, gazing pointedly at the sword that Diego let hang at
Diego never lifted his gaze from the Alcalde, but he
addressed his underling's concerns.
You give yourself too
little credit, Mendoza, he said.
On the contrary to your
probable opinions just now, I need you and your fighting skills
more than anything.
You do? Mendoza asked with a quizzical twist of his
Here's the deal, Diego declared then, having to fight
off a yawn even to speak; he was just plain too tired to be
diplomatic. He went on,
DeSoto I have to leave in prison,
behind bars, because if I let him go free to return to Spain, he
could easily tell King Ferdinand all about my identity, and he
could potentially be ordered to return to Los Angeles, intent on
collecting on the reward placed, unjustly, in my opinion, on my
head. My family members would be endangered through no fault of
their own, and I can't have that at any cost. Then, Diego
grinned, like he might be enjoying his next thought a bit too
He will, on the other hand, remain alive to think about
the reason for his incarceration, which will end when Spain no
longer controls California, or Ferdinand is no longer king, both
events that could potentially happen any day.
Or not at all, DeSoto announced in despondency when
he heard Diego's words. Still, a tiny bit of defiance laced the
tone of his voice.
Or not at all, Diego conceded, repeating the words of
the governmental man.
And the lancers? Mendoza nervously inquired. He
wasn't quite sure if he wanted to know his part in Diego's plan
The lancers... Here, Diego paused for a moment, and
The lancers have the option of remaining
here, in jail, which tells us all where your loyalties truly lie,
or in declaring a loyalty to a new alcalde, one freely elected by
the citizens of this pueblo, one who will govern... more
wisely... than those who have come before. Again, he glanced
at a glowering DeSoto, but ignored the man's magnetic expression,
aware that to give in to his look meant to give in to
And... and the King of Spain? Sepulveda asked in a
soft voice that was almost a whisper.
Can go to the devil, Diego answered.
for my rudeness, but I'm so tired right now that I've grown
punchy in what I say, he continued.
I'd rather be honest
than nice. Then his stance changed just a bit as he rested
his weight on his left leg, preparing to depart the jail.
have today to think about what I've said and who you're truly
loyal to. In the meantime, I'm going to sleep in a nice, soft
bed at the tavern. Good night, gentlemen. With that, he
turned towards the door to the outer office, intent on returning
to the plaza and the town.
But the words from the cruel ex-vaquero halted him in mid
Tell us, does bed include joining that dark-haired
little piece of choice meat who runs the tavern? He
chuckled, as if he had given voice to one heck of a good
Diego halted at the speaker's words all right, but he didn't
turn around to face the man. Instead, he addressed his next
question to Mendoza.
Sergeant, tell us, what's the punishment
for assault with intent to do bodily injury? he asked while
silently chastising himself for ever leaving this man in
Victoria's company for even a moment, though the vaquero had
fooled even his friends about his true character; hence Diego,
who had known him barely a night, had had no chance against him.
It was a bitter knowledge to possess, and he vowed not to forget
this lesson; he was entirely too trusting, he decided with an
ironic twist in his heart. He had no intention of letting
Victoria pay the price of his character flaw. Trusting the wrong
person wouldn't happen again, he decreed to himself.
The sergeant broke in on Diego's pessimistic thoughts.
That's easy, he declared with a smile.
followed by six months in prison, or hanging, depending on how
serious the offense is. He looked without mercy in his eyes
at the vaquero he was condemning.
Considering it was Señorita
Victoria who he attacked, and she has been known to be under
Zorro's protection for years, the six months prison sentence is a
given. The fact that Don Diego stopped him before he could do
any harm to the lady in question means a lighter sentence, so the
hanging is canceled in light of the circumstances. But not the
flogging or the jail time.
Diego breathed out a sickened exhalation of air, but then
turned to face the man and said,
Hope that I don't catch up
with you when you get out, or flogging and jail time will be the
least of your concerns.
The vaquero protested,
But I always heard that Zorro
doesn't kill, and hanging me would be a death, sure as I'm
Diego sneered then.
You're death isn't worth the kind of
stain it would leave on my soul, he announced.
killed, but I've threatened many men with that fate, he went
on explaining. Then he faced the vaquero more head on, and the
look of steel in his eyes and on his face chilled many of the
soldiers in the cells.
But threats are not quite
satisfactory, in this case. You come any where near Victoria or
the rest of my family again, or run to the king with the
information of who I am... if you're lucky, I'll make sure that
you're hanged. If not... He left the rest of his threat go
unfinished, as an incomplete threat had more weight then a
completed one. To drive his point in more fully, he smiled.
You don't frighten me with your empty threats, the
vaquero said, though he looked frightened enough to wet his pants
Diego's grin grew bigger and more ferocious the longer the
It's a promise, Señor, not a threat, Diego
I'd remember that if I were you. Then, he
turned his back on his adversary and calmly walked into the outer
The calm dissolved the moment he had closed the door on any audience he'd had, and he was shaking in reaction to the confrontation he'd just endured. He was so sick to his stomach, that felt like he'd just fought a duel.
It was the large breakfast he'd just eaten, he decided. It was behaving in ways that he had not intended.
Ignoring the rumblings in his intestines then, he crossed the plaza and returned to the tavern to check on Victoria before falling into a bed himself. With a definite goal in his mind now, at least a goal that lasted for the next few hours, he made sure that both the back and front doors of the tavern were locked against the wandering of the general public, and that Victoria's 'closed' sign was in plain view on the tavern's locked front doors, then wearily climbed the stairs to the second floor, and hopefully to the room that he usually stayed at when he remained in town. But, he paused outside the door that he knew was the opening to Victoria's room, and knocked lightly, though he heard no sound coming from within.
There was no call for him to enter, either, and Diego suddenly endured the unpleasant image as it coalesced in his mind of Victoria under another attack by more unfriendly vaqueros, and it was the fear caused by that mental picture that led him to cautiously open her bedroom door and peek in, just to make certain she was alright, he told himself.
A perfectly safe Victoria greeted his initial glance into the room. Diego pushed the door open even more, and it swung aside on silent hinges; Victoria kept the doors to her upstairs rooms in excellent... and quiet... condition, so that they would never squeal and bother other, paying costumers. Upon further perusal of the woman he loved, he noticed that she was dressed in a white nightgown, covered by the blankets on her bed, and sound asleep in reaction to the events of the night they had just lived through. When Diego considered all that had happened to them from her point of view... the crying scene in her tavern, discovering that her best friend was also the man she loved, changing clothes in Zorro's secret cave, the strange encounter with Don Eduardo, the concept of having to confront DeSoto, the attack by the vaquero... It was a wonder that she could sleep at all, considering that so much had happened and she had the potential to have much on her mind. But her head was laid on the pillow, and she seemed to be completely oblivious to her surroundings as she deeply slept the sleep of the exhausted, while her hair splayed out behind her across the pillow.
Victoria appeared refreshed in sleep. She looked younger, inviting, and terribly vulnerable to him as he stood in the doorway to her bedroom and contemplated her, conscious that he should go home to assure his father as to his and Victoria's safety, or to sleep in another bedroom in the tavern. But he was also aware of the draw he felt towards the woman sleeping so innocently in the bed. Before he knew what he was doing, he was crossing carefully on silent steps over the wooden planks of the floor to reach the side of her twin bed, and he knelt down beside her, all without making a sound.
He lightly skimmed his finger on the skin of her forehead,
So beautiful, so full of life... He felt
his love for her blossom inside his heart, and the desire that
naturally followed such a sensation stir in his stomach, but he
refused to do more than acknowledge its existence as he stared at
the oblivious Victoria asleep under the covers. He wanted her to
feel safe with him above all things, and to inherently know that
he would never hurt her... That wish acted as guide to his
actions now as his finger traced just as helplessly down her
cheek. He couldn't deny himself the internal need to caress what
he automatically worshiped...
Diego lay his head down on the edge of her bed, content just to be near her for now, to touch her forehead and cheek in reverent strokes of his fingers. He would just close his eyes for a moment to enjoy this sense of rapture inside him...
Z Z Z
Diego, came Victoria's whisper, quiet, serene,
floating into his mind like the velvety soft petal of a rose. It
was accompanied by the rougher shaking of his shoulders as
someone or something tried to awaken him.
Diego opened his eyes to the wash of sunlight that came through the left corner of the window, and to find the scratch of unfamiliar blankets under his cheek. He blinked, drew in a mind-clearing breath, and slowly raised his head so that he could glance around in confusion. Where was he?
Immediately, his eyes alighted on Victoria. He could hardly help noticing her first, as her face came into focus only inches from his. But that was odd; what was Victoria doing in his room?
With almost an audible whoosh, the events of the morning came back to him in a rush of mental images and memories.
Victoria, he slurred, sounding groggy, but more awake
with every passing second.
What's going on? Why are you in
Why are you in mine? she asked in
response to his question.
It's five o'clock in the afternoon,
and I wake to find you sleeping on my floor with your head on my
blankets... What's going on in that mind of yours, Diego?
she inquired interrogatively.
Planning on taking advantage of
me? she asked teasingly.
But Diego wasn't in a mood for teasing her back.
five o'clock in the evening? he asked instead, turning his
eyes again to her window to note the slanting sunshine coming
from an westerly direction. It was most definitely afternoon, at
least, according to the direction of the setting sun. He tried
to wrap his tired mind around that concept, but found it a
You must have fallen asleep in here this morning, and we
slept all day... Victoria hypothesized.
All day? Diego inquired, just before he was
overwhelmed by the horror caused by his actions.
I had only
meant to sleep for a few hours, then head home... he began to
explain. How his father must be worried sick by now that
something had happened to both him and Victoria..! In reaction
to that thought, Diego jerked his head the rest of the way
upright, followed by his body.
I'm so sorry, Victoria, but I
should go before...
Victoria gave the sarcastic comment,
Don't worry about
me... I'm used to you always running off to do something
that seems to be utterly urgent...
That statement of hers made Diego pause in his flustered and
flurried activity. He bent down to place a quick kiss on the top
of her head.
I'm so sorry, Victoria, but I have to go, now!
I can only imagine what Father is thinking at such a long
absence... But he peered into her face and saw her
understanding expression. It made him halt for a second.
so sorry, Victoria, he said again.
It would make things easier for me if I weren't always
so... Victoria murmured under her breath, but she shoved him
towards her bedroom door with a small hand on his arm.
I'll see you later, she said with a sense of resignation in
Diego hesitated. He wanted to go to his father, but he also
wanted to stay with Victoria...
Tomorrow, early, I'll come
into town, and after I see to the lancers in the jail, we'll talk
to Padre Benitez about getting married as soon as we can... I
promise, he ended pleadingly.
Victoria rolled her eyes.
Of course you promise, she
muttered, her voice a touch sardonic, but again came the shove.
A little louder, she said to him,
I'll be waiting. Now,
Diego went, jumping down the stairs, throwing open the doors to the tavern, and hurtling onto a bored Toronado, who had tried to entertain himself all day by butting with his nose Victoria's flowerpots that displayed cascading, gloriously colored flowers from her second story balcony. He could just touch them, but forgot about them and easily responded to Diego's rather hurried command to gallop out of the pueblo in the direction of the de la Vega hacienda.
Much sooner than he would have reached the hacienda if he'd been riding Esperanza... he had to remember that he'd chosen Esperanza from the family's collection of mounts because of her steadiness, not her speed... Diego pulled Toronado to a halt and jumped to the ground. As he habitually did with Toronado, he didn't take the time to tie the faithful stallion to the hitching ring set in the adobe of the protective wall, but lay both reins on the horses neck and vaulted to the ground in a very Zorroish imitation, and ran up the steps to the front door.
Pushing through the right portal, he called,
home! the instant he reached the inside of the hacienda. He
hastily slammed the door closed with his foot and strode into the
The sight of Don Alejandro and Felipe calmly sitting across from each other, the chessboard between them, halted Diego in his tracks. The board was set with enough pieces to indicate that a game had been in progress for quite some time. Felipe's white pieces were placed in such a way that it was clear the young man was winning. Again.
Diego, Alejandro began in a conversational tone, but
he was interrupted by the sudden arrival of a servant holding out
a basket with a cloth cover, and a canteen.
requested that these be delivered to you the moment Master Diego
Alejandro pushed himself up from his chair with a grunt.
So I did, Rosa, thank you. He took the offered basket and
canteen out of the servants' hands. Then, he linked his free arm
I apologize, Felipe, but our game will have
to wait. I need to speak with Diego. Alone. He glanced
pointedly up at his tall son.
Felipe shrugged his good will to show that he didn't mind the interruption of his and Don Alejandro's game.
Uh, Felipe, stuttered Diego before Alejandro had
managed to lead him back to the front door.
Toronado is just
outside... Can you see that he gets into the stable and rubbed
down..? Then he was pulled out doors by his insistent
You wanted to say something to me? Diego
sarcastically inquired, wondering then if he had been spending so
much time lately with Victoria that her mocking manner was
beginning to rub off on him.
Oh, very funny, Diego, Alejandro began in a tone of
voice that was far from inviting the teasing that Diego had just
Yes, I wish to say something to you, or I wish to
hear you say something to me, more accurately. Once
he had propelled Diego out of the front gate and they had started
walking in the direction away from town, out into the surrounding
countryside where they were assured not to be bothered by
anybody, Alejandro released Diego's arm, threw the basket's cloth
covering aside, and reached into the basket. He withdrew two
paper wrapped bundles from the basket hanging from his hand. He
offered one to his son.
Sandwich? he politely
Diego took the offering without hesitation. He was
quite hungry after spending the entire day asleep.
Father, he tried to explain,
I meant to come home hours
ago, but I fell asleep at Victoria's bedside...
Please, Diego, spare me the long and windy explanation
that you feel I absolutely have to hear, Alejandro ordered,
then stared his son questioningly right in his blue eyes.
Unless you have something about Victoria that you would like
to tell me?
Without hesitation, Diego blurted,
We plan to get married
sometime soon. I'm not sure when, yet, as we're going to speak
to the padre tomorrow.
Alejandro lifted his eyebrows in surprise as he stopped
unfolding his sandwich. Then, he began unrolling his food again,
but he commented on his son's news.
Well, that is a
surprise, though it isn't much of a surprise, if you
Diego gave his father a puzzled expression.
No, I'm not
sure I do follow you.
Alejandro snorted and explained,
It's hardly a secret
that there's always been... something... between Zorro and
Victoria, and as you're Zorro...
Yes, Diego interrupted,
that's something we need
to talk to each other about.
I thought we were talking to each other,
Alejandro said without missing a beat.
Well... er... yes, Diego stuttered again, thrown
totally off guard by Alejandro's slightly jocular demeanor.
Okay, out with it, Alejandro demanded next.
want to hear all about you and Zorro, and Felipe, and Victoria,
One at a time, please, Diego said, stemming his
father's enthusiasm about the topic.
All right, then, start with
Victoria. However, he glared at Diego.
And make it
good, he balefully ordered.
Diego tried right from the start to 'make it good.'
loved Victoria forever, he said bluntly to his father.
Alejandro nodded as if he'd expected to hear something like
what Diego had declared.
Good start, he commented then.
Diego didn't quite know what to add to his statement.
Um... We've been engaged to be married for quite some time,
Alejandro stumbled a bit upon hearing that.
aware of any engagement, he said as he took a bite of ham
sandwich. The huge chunk of meat dangled between the two pieces
Of course, being unaware of it doesn't somehow
cancel it out of existence.
No, murmured Diego as he took a bite of his own ham
We kept quiet about it, he answered.
Why? Alejandro questioned, puzzled.
There was no
point in keeping such a thing a secret, was there?
There was if I didn't want DeSoto finding
out about it and using Victoria against me even more than he
usually did, he answered bluntly.
Alejandro shrugged around his sandwich.
that, he admitted wryly. Then he peered more closely at the
food in his hand.
You know, Diego, one thing you brought home
from Madrid that has done us nothing but good is knowledge of
this kind of food. I've never known a lunch to be so easy to
make, or to eat, or as satisfying. We didn't know about a
sandwich before then.
Father, Diego reminded in a slightly aggravated tone,
please don't let your attention wander so much.
Alejandro lifted the sandwich to his mouth to take another
bite. He used the cloth cover on the basket to wipe the bread
crumbs from his mustache.
Sorry. Then, tell me about
Felipe, he ordered next.
Felipe is my assistant, he's known about Zorro from the
beginning, he can hear, and I couldn't have done it without
him, Diego admitted, all in one hurried breath of air.
He's bandaged more wounds for me than I care to
Alejandro glanced at him, then.
questioned, and at Diego's nod, asked,
All those times you
were unavailable, you were recovering from wounds you received
when you were out as Zorro? Diego nodded again, his mouth
too full of sandwich to answer. Alejandro went on once more,
No wonder you had so many colds, then... You were hiding in
your room while wounds healed. Diego nodded a third time.
Alejandro told his son,
You know, Diego, you wouldn't have
risked discovery just by admitting that you needed some time to
heal or needed to see Dr. Hernandez, or...
How could I have done that? He
took a swig from his father's canteen, then wiped the excess
It was far easier... and safer... to have you
think I had a headache rather than a concussion, or a cold
instead of a sword cut on my shoulder.
Alejandro paused for a moment in his walking.
sword cuts? he asked in incredulity.
Often, Diego admitted, though with a great deal of
Sword cuts, bullet wounds, concussions, snake
Good grief! Alejandro muttered.
And here I
thought you were lying in bed after falling off a horse or
something! He shook his head in wonder.
I guess that
being Zorro was far more dangerous than I ever knew.
You have no idea, Diego murmured before taking
another bite of sandwich.
I'm beginning to see that, Alejandro grunted, despite
Diego's lowered voice. Another moment went by before he asked,
And Toronado? Don't tell me that you stole him from
Stole him! Diego repeated in an aggravated voice.
I would never steal a horse! You taught me about property
values and morals better than that... Of course, I didn't steal
him, Diego went on to explain.
Felipe and I found
Toronado out in the farthest eastern edge of the east pasture.
He was part of a herd of wild horses, I think, but settled into
the secret cave quicker than I expected, given his
He's a marvelous horse, Alejandro commented almost
under his breath.
He's been a marvelous ally, Diego corrected.
gotten me out of many tight spots.
Alejandro looked as if he was going to say something,
hesitated, then with a shake of his head, said,
No, I don't
want to know how tight those spots were. He said,
less I know about Zorro's adventures, in this case, the better, I
Diego sent a wry look in his direction, one full of
How do you think I got some or those wounds?
I guess I hadn't thought about it, reported a
There were a great many things that I
never thought about, he said, still thinking.
You, and a lot of other people, Father, Diego told
him knowingly. It was an accepted fact with him that the
citizens of Los Angeles looked on Zorro as their savior, but
hadn't given him much thought beyond that. Except to distrust
him in his initial debut onto the scene of Los Angeles tyranny,
they simply expected him to come to their aid now. He
said as much to his father, asking then,
Do you think that
because Zorro is present and part of Los Angeles... folklore,
he settled on, for want of a better description,
tyranny in Los Angeles than in other pueblos? That Zorro has, in
effect, continued the very tranny he's spent years trying to
overcome simply by trying to overcome it?
Alejandro carefully considered his son's question.
don't think so, Diego, but that's an interesting theory, he
said at last.
I've never thought of it before.
Diego answered his father with the comment,
wondered about that.
There are a lot of things to make me wonder,
Such as, what's it really like to tear into the plaza
while galloping on Toronado? Alejandro inquired.
Diego stopped walking and exclaimed,
All right, all right, Alejandro said.
I was just
curious, that's all!
Suddenly, Diego gave a ghost of a smile, more like the quirk
of his lips than anything else.
It is fun, he
confessed in a soft, quiet voice.
Alejandro grinned a bit at his son.
I knew it had to be
at least a little bit fun... or else, what would be the point if
Why, indeed, Diego echoed.
Alejandro came to a complete stop in order to stare up at
Why did you become Zorro? he asked in a
Diego paused as well to thoughtfully examine the horizon
while his attention delved inward.
Mostly because you and
Victoria were in jail, I had to do something about that, and I
needed a way to protect my identity while I did that something.
What better way to protect an identity than to cover up that
identity to begin with? I had no idea that Zorro's secret would
last this long, however, or I would never have asked Victoria to
wait for me the way she has.
Yes, Alejandro muttered thoughtfully,
is well known.
Her loyalty almost got her raped last night, Diego
I don't know what good it's really done
Alejandro balked at Diego's words.
What good it's done
her? he asked disbelievingly.
I'll tell you what good
it's done her... There's a very good possibility that if not for
you and your impossible declarations, she would have long since
fallen into the patterns of a common barmaid and tavern owner,
that's what! he sputtered.
Her father was always worried
about that very thing happening to her, he reported.
saved her in more ways than one, Diego.
But Diego was shaking his head.
Victoria would never
sell herself like you're suggesting, he negated.
Alejandro raised his eyebrows at that statement.
be too sure about that, he warned, then popped the last of
his sandwich in his mouth.
A girl can only hold out for so
long against peer pressure like she was getting from other tavern
owners in the area, and oppression from men like Luis Ramon was
at the time. You put a stop to that oppression, and gave
her and every other citizen something that was far more precious:
Diego smiled at his father's dramatic tone.
what I did sound so noble, Father, he teased.
It is noble, Alejandro argued.
understand how far hope can take a people. Take Victoria, for
instance. The very fact that Zorro existed gave her the courage
to continue to say 'No more!' to the forces of the King and his
minions. Her courage, in turn, gave courage to others.
You started that trail of courage. Zorro became a symbol
of hope of continued resistance. Just look at what you did last
night if you don't believe me, Alejandro pointed out.
Don't sell yourself short, my boy: what you did is pretty darn
incredible, and don't you cut yourself short on that. He
shook his head.
It's no wonder that King Ferdinand wants you
out to the way, so he placed an exorbitant price on your
Diego suddenly grinned at that idea.
I've never thought
of it that way before, he exclaimed in wonder.
Alejandro gazed at his son in abject astonishment.
thought of it? he echoed.
I have to admit that that
surprises me a bit. It always seems like you think of
I don't, Diego negated.
I've just always been
extremely lucky, is all.
Well, you delude yourself all you
want, but your 'luck' seems to me to be nothing but very thorough
Suddenly, Diego paused in his walk through the grass.
Alejandro stopped beside him.
What is it, Diego? he
Diego didn't quite know how to frame the question he had in
mind to ask in diplomatic words, so he just blurted,
does it... upset you... that I want to marry Victoria like I
do? he inquired.
Upset me? Alejandro repeated in a tone of amazement.
No, I'm hardly upset about the idea! I'm just glad that
during all this time, you've been in love with her, and
that's the reason you put off all my suggestions about getting
together with someone else... I thought you weren't remotely
interested in anything feminine and that I would never get those
grandchildren I've always wanted... I sure didn't know that you
were secretly Zorro and in love with my good friend's daughter!
No, I'm not upset! More like ecstatic!
That was good news to Diego. Good news, and calming news,
he had to admit to himself as relief flowed through him.
don't mind, then?
Mind? Alejandro spluttered.
Why on Earth should I
Well, she is the daughter of a
man who was a member of the working class, which technically
makes her part of that same working class...
Alejandro stopped his rambling by putting a hand and his
Diego, no, stop... I don't mind at all. In fact,
I could care less what class some people think that Victoria is
from... He sighed, then.
As much as no one would care to
admit it, single females are a rather rare commodity in the
Colonies, and though some caballeros want to stick to only those
in their class, the truth is that no one has really cared about
class for fifty years or more.
But Grandfather protested your marriage...
Yes, but you have to remember that your grandfather came
from Spain, where he lived and was educated... Alejandro
interrupted to explain.
A lot of his morality came from
Europe, and in a place like Europe, things like class matter much
more than they do here. He shrugged both shoulders, making
the canteen he was carrying bounce against his hip by the rising
and falling of its strap.
We can't afford to worry
about that here, Alejandro went on to say.
thrilled you've chosen to marry Victoria; she's bright, a good
businessperson, is quite beautiful... oh yes, I've noticed... she
cares about the same things you care about... And, I admit that
I naturally like her a great deal... That last bit is a tad
selfish, I admit...
Father, Diego said.
Her beauty aside, you truly
don't mind the fact that I plan to marry 'beneath me,' as the
Diego, Alejandro laughed his interjection.
want to get married! Plan to get married! He
shrugged disarmingly again.
To the daughter of what was a
good friend... Of course I'm thrilled to death! He grinned.
And I expect grandchildren as soon as possible - you've kept
me waiting long enough! he exclaimed.
Diego had to grin along with his father, simply because what
he was saying was so outrageous.
Give us some time, Father,
please! he exclaimed back.
I give you one year, Alejandro predicted.
need even that long.
Father! Diego remonstrated.
I can still get a rise out of you by
being a little...
Unconventional? Diego suggested.
The grin was back on Alejandro's face.
'unconventional.' Then, he was as silent as Diego as they
slowly resumed their walk.
Diego stared at the horizon where the sun was low in the
sky. He felt a little uneasy about leaving the lancers in the
jail cells for the night, especially since they were so crammed
in to the cramped space that they had no place to sleep. He
decided right then and there to ride back to town later that
night and release whomever wished to pledge to work at his side
to bring peace to Los Angeles... Of course, thinking about the
lancers made him think about the town, and that made him
think about Victoria... He smiled softly, thinking that she
would have liked to see this sunset and its colors that painted
Victoria is rather incredible, isn't she?
he asked of his father, though he didn't expect a response to
such a rhetorical question.
Alejandro nodded anyway.
Yes, she is. I will be
delighted when she is my daughter-in-law.
Diego sighed, then, his eyes still on the pinks and mauves
I truly do love her so much, he stated, a
silly grin gracing his features.
I only hope that, in time,
she and Felipe can share the same kind of closeness that I share
Felipe? Alejandro questioned.
What does he have
to do with your future marriage?
Diego shrugged then.
Well, I haven't had time to talk to
Felipe yet, I admit, but I have the feeling that he will resist
the idea that I want to take a wife, he explained.
has been the sole holder of the secret as to Zorro's identity for
a long time... something tells me that he won't like the fact
that I am now a part of the local... What would you say that
Zorro is part of? he asked.
The folklore? Alejandro asked.
The stories told
in the tavern? Then he went on.
I just want you to
prepared with how fast this news of Zorro's identity is going to
travel, and the reaction that people will give to you from now
on. Diego grimaced at his father's announcement, but
I'm serious! You went from something of
a scholastic dandy who reads poetry at the tavern to the greatest
hero this pueblo has ever known in the matter of a day... People
will not know how to take that information, or how to treat
you, he warned.
Well, what do you suggest that I do? Diego asked.
Bury myself here and never ride into town?
No, Alejandro thoughtfully began.
But you may
want to expect that some people will treat you a bit...
suspiciously at first. Some will think you did something very
noble, and some will treat you as if you have the plague. Just
be patient with whatever reception you get in town, he
Eventually, everyone will come around.
Diego sighed quietly into the evening air.
I'm not sure
I want to hear this, he admitted.
I'm just telling you not to be surprised by the reception
that you get tomorrow, Alejandro protested.
nothing you can do about influencing it one way or another, so I
suggest that you don't worry about it, my boy. He shrugged
his shoulders again, sending the canteen careening.
telling you, he repeated.
So you'll be prepared.
Softly, Diego smiled.
Be prepared for the
unpreparable? he asked, and Alejandro had to smile and nod at
that particular way of rephrasing his warning. Suddenly, Diego
stopped and turned.
If I'm not to worry, I might as well go
about my business, then. I'm riding back into town to talk to
the lancers I had thrown in jail, then maybe I'll see Victoria,
and let her feed me supper...
But you already had a sandwich! Alejandro
And I thank you for that, but I am a man
fully grown with a man's hearty appetite.
Oh! Alejandro scowled.
If the sandwich wasn't
enough, all you have to do is tell me!
The sandwich wasn't enough, Diego immediately told
And what a good excuse that will make.
Go on! Alejandro said gruffly. Then in a light,
mocking tone of voice, added,
Tell Victoria that I plan to see
With that, Diego walked away, back in the direction of the stables.
Alejandro sighed happily as he watched Diego leave.
son... getting married, he said, and grinned again into the
Go on to Part IV
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