Part XIV Duel

The plaza was more than full the next morning by nine o'clock. By nine-thirty there were boys lounging on the mission roof so they wouldn't miss out on any of the promised excitement, and more boys had begun climbing from the tavern's outdoor balcony to its roof, where their view would be as good as their compadres' at the mission. There was so much jockeying to get the best viewing position that the Alcalde finally had to order the lancers to form a ring around the plaza, isolating Sir Miles in a circle of humanity. Diego would have no trouble finding his dueling opponent - if he ever showed up, that is.

But de le Vega's arrival to that fight had obviously been delayed. de Soto's familiar wheezing bark of laughter sounded loud in the growing quiet. “He probably decided to change his clothes at the last minute,” he derided, his voice ringing with disapproval. “As if it matters what he wears when he loses.” He had chosen to back the myth that Diego was incapable of any violent action, including fighting of any kind, and was going about that backing with relish. He leaned in to Sergeant Mendoza next to him, and was only half jesting when he whispered, “I wonder how de la Vega will get out of this one!”

The Alcalde's chuckle caused Mendoza to wince beside him. Don Diego was a friend of his. So was Zorro, for that matter. It made no difference to him that the two men were actually the same person. It made even less difference that one of them was a notorious bandit who'd evaded governmental reprisal for years. His military side wasn't nearly strong enough to overpower the friend in him right at that moment. Both were quailing. The last thing he wanted was to listen to his superior officer expound on the many ways that Diego was most likely going to die in the next hour.

But that death didn't take place because the duel didn't take place. Ten o'clock turned into ten fifteen, then ten-thirty. By this time, Sir Miles was losing what little patience he had. “Where the blazes is he? What does he expect me to do - wait around all day?” He scanned the crowd until he located Victoria standing nervously at its edge. “You - tavern girl - the reason I'm even standing here in the hot sun - where is your protector?”

Anger instantly suffused Victoria's face. “We're standing in the hot sun because of you!” she scathingly reminded him. “And how should I know where Diego is? I'm not his keeper!”

Sir Miles was not amused by such quick defiance, especially coming from a female. “How the devil am I going to have time to meet Zorro when..?”

“There he is!” one of the boys sitting on the mission roof abruptly yelled, pointing to the South.

“de la Vega, come to his own funeral!” The Alcalde laughed his delight.

“No,” hollered the boy. “It's Zorro!”

“Zorro?” sneered Thackery. “I fight de la Vega right now. He'll have to wait his turn!”

Just then, Toronado loped around the mission and through the parted crowd. Sitting easily astride the half wild horse, Zorro jauntily saluted those to his left and his right, looking for all the world like he was going to an afternoon picnic.

He gave a particular salute in de Soto's direction, acknowledging the promise the man had earlier made. “I thank the Alcalde for today's amnesty - without it, there would be no fight, now or ever.”

This announcement did nothing but confuse Sir Miles. “What fight? I'm here to kill de la Vega... what are you talking about?”

Toronado finally entered the lancer's circle surrounding Sir Miles, and Zorro pulled the mighty stallion to a stop. Ignoring Sir Miles completely, Zorro kept his gaze trained on the people in the crowd. “Please forgive my tardiness; Don Diego was surprisingly stubborn when I tried to talk him out of coming to this duel.”

Thackery bristled. “This duel is a matter of honor - how dare you interfere!”

Finally acknowledging Sir Miles, Zorro gestured to himself. “Interfere? I wouldn't dream of it! I'm only here at Toronado's insistence.”

Thackery gave a disdainful sniff. “Your horse is of no consequence.”

Toronado's snort exploded into the silence, and he enthusiastically pawed at the plaza dust.

“Now you've done it,” Zorro regretfully commented. “I won't be responsible for Toronado's injured pride.”

Again came a Thackery sneer. “I'm here to kill de la Vega - either bring him here, or leave.”

Zorro gave a dramatic sigh as he shifted, making the tooled leather saddle creak and groan. “I can't leave. I also can't bring Don Diego.”

Thackery's nose lifted arrogantly into the air. “If he thinks these cowardly ways will convince me to cancel our duel, he's sadly mistaken.”

Zorro sent a mysterious glance in Victoria's direction, then vaulted from the saddle. “He's not avoiding, he's tied up - literally. I tried to persuade him not to come today - he would surely just kill you - I didn't want a death on his conscience.”

“Kill me?!” Sir Miles laughed in incredulity. “I think not! The last I remember, his skills with a sword were just short of deplorable.”

The wrinkle of consternation that creased Zorro's masked forehead wasn't lost on the gathered throng. “That's what I was afraid you would think.” The remorse in his voice sounded entirely genuine. “I regret to inform you that during your sword fight before, he was just toying with you.”

Thackery's surprise was sudden. “Toying with me?”

“You're lucky he chose to do that, and not kill you out right,” Zorro disclosed. “I had to knock him out and tie him up just so that he wouldn't come here and kill you today.”

Laughter burst from the crowd. de Soto doubled up with it. “de La Vega - a killer? That's quite a joke!”

Zorro looked in bemusement at all the laughing people - the merry peasants, the peons, the chuckling caballeros, Sir Miles in the throes of hilarity.

de Soto was still doubled over. “The idea of Diego... a swordsman!” Another wheeze floated across the plaza.

Zorro's look of perplexity grew. “I thought you knew.”

de Soto cleared his throat of his merriment. “The only thing I know is that his absence is just another illustration that the man is stupendously worthless!”

Zorro's jaw tightened imperceptibly. It was a good thing that de Soto had claimed he would perpetuate the myth of 'idle Diego,' or Thackery wouldn't be the only one Zorro would fight that day. As a result of his emotional reaction, no matter how brief, his voice came out hard and biting. “That 'worthless man' can carve you into pieces in minutes.”

All his comment did was make everybody laugh again, de Soto most of all. “The only thing on Diego's mind is poetry.”

Thackery jeeringly added, “He can barely hold a sword!”

Zorro's seeming confusion increased, his gaze darting between Thackery, the Alcalde, and back. “Just because he chooses not to condone the use of weapons and action doesn't mean he can't fight.”

The two men's dismissive laughter stopped, and Thackery demanded, “Are you implying that Diego de la Vega is..?” His voice trailed off as his disbelief mounted.

Zorro nodded. “He's a master swordsman.”

Instead of having the astounding effect that Zorro clearly anticipated, this startling news caused the opposite: the gathered crowd laughed again, Thackery and de Soto the loudest. Except for the few who already knew his identity, general disbelief met him on all sides.

It was a credit to Diego that his persona of the indolent caballero be so complete, but for the first time, Zorro wondered if perhaps he hadn't gone too far to separate the two sides of himself? Diego had come to the aid of practically every family present in the plaza at one time or another - when had the affability of the people so turned into such complete disrespect?

Zorro's gaze once more alighted on Thackery, and he suddenly understood that man's expression of smug superiority; the people were too afraid that they would be next if they didn't deride de la Vega along with the man holding a sword on the pueblo's pulse beat. Thackery was a much bigger threat that de Soto had ever been, for Thackery had no trouble with killing the people who bothered him. In comparison, de Soto was a mere irritation.

The fact that Thackery was only in Los Angeles at Zorro's invitation further galled the outlaw. Zorro shifted his shoulders to make his cape ripple menacingly in the wind. “Let me put this another way.” His sword leaving its sheath made a satisfying ring echo across the plaza, but instead of fighting with it, he held it high overhead so everybody could see it. “Don Diego won this sword when he bested our own fight master in Madrid. He let me borrow it when I followed him from Spain to California, but on the condition that I would only use it in the cause of justice - never to kill.” A smile slowly leaked from one corner of his mouth to the other, and he stared meaningfully at Thackery. “Though I assure you it's most able to do so.”

The disbelief in Thackery's voice couldn't be more complete than if he faced a thousand swords. “You expect me to believe that this poet can best me?”

“No. I don't expect such a simpleton to believe the truth when it smacks him in the face.” Zorro's voice rang with sincerity. “However, I do expect you to believe that just because a man can fight with a sword doesn't mean that he must fight with a sword.” His gaze strayed then from Thackery to his father sequestered at one end of the ring that had formed around the combatants.

Don Alejandro didn't miss the subtle message that his son was sending him, and he didn't pretend to misunderstand it, either. His tan blanched near the edges of his eyes, but that was all. Except for the whitening, the aging don didn't react at all.

Thackery reacted for them both. “Very philosophical. I expected less subtlety from a bandit. But I believe that woman's honor is in question,” and gave a swift flick of his wrist in Victoria's direction.

In a reaction equally as swift, Zorro effortlessly swung his sword around to point unwaveringly at Thackery's throat. “The Señorita's honor is without question. It is clearly you that has none.” And for the first time, Zorro disregarded the traditional salute to attack first.

His sword a blur of Toledo Steele, he slashed down to meet Thackery's blade in the first ringing lunge of combat. Thackery instinctively parried. “I see even the mighty Zorro has feelings,” he remarked, insolent as ever.

Calm in spite of the vocal jab, Zorro coldly eyed his opponent. “Of course I have feelings. I simply know when to control them.”

In a brilliant show of that control, Zorro pressed unerringly forward. Managing to look bored, Thackery met him blow for blow.

They fought first forward, then back, then sideways, the dust of the plaza clouding the air. The only sound was the clang of metal, the occasional male grunt, or the nervous murmur from the gathered crowd. Even the birds were silent, as if they too were watching the fight unfold.

Once he had fully taken the measure of the man he was fighting, Zorro gave a feint to the side, backpedaling instead of the more expected move in the other direction. Thackery followed a second later, but the feint had done its job - to unsettle the Englishman just slightly. Now rattled and jittery, as if he'd drunk too much coffee, Thackery would anticipate another such move, as Zorro intended.

But that move didn't come, any more than Don Diego did. Eventually Thackery feinted to the side as well, but the move lacked the finesse that Zorro's had. Another lunge almost disarmed the Englishman, who recovered with atypical speed to attack anew.

Zorro sloughed the forceful attack aside, and once again lunged to disarm the Englishman. Again, Thackery recovered.

But not in time to avoid the flash of wrist and sword in a sudden swipe that pushed him back instead of the more expected third attempt to disarm him. Thackery's expression of bored insolence wavered.

In a thoroughly unexpected move, Zorro turned to take in the lancers and people surrounding them. His tone academic, as if this was a fencing lesson in the courtyard at the University of Madrid, Zorro stated, “You see, pricking any emotion will give you an advantage, no matter how brief.”

Illustrating the brevity of that advantage, Thackery's next attack was as menacing as it was swift. “Even these fools aren't fooled by a bandit's ravings!”

But Zorro remained ungoaded. “I merely repeat the wise words of Don Diego.”

Thackery lunged, and Zorro had to step back as he thrust the sword aside. His voice filled with disbelief, Thackery contemptuously accused, “You'd have us believe that poet is your mentor!”

Zorro's unhappy sigh filled the plaza. “Not anymore.”

Thackery's intended insult was lost in the murmurs of the crowd, making his impudent barking laugh even more jarring. “Gave up, did he?”

“No.” Zorro's masked expression saddened, though only half of it was visible. “My older brother... died.” He didn't dare turn to see how the Alcalde was taking that embellishment of the truth. He dared not glance at Don Alejandro, either. “I have been ordered back to Spain. I leave this afternoon.” A blink of a suspiciously wet eye was the only sign of upset.

Loss billowed across the plaza, the crowd swelling with it. Leaving! it gasped on a shattered breath. Zorro couldn't leave! Who would protect them? Who would give them justice? Who would..?

Zorro's sword again clashed with Thackery's as he correctly guessed the people's thoughts. “You must protect yourselves,” he called, ignoring his adversary beyond halting his sword.

Frustrated, Thackery thrust him back. “In ten seconds, I'll finish you! One, two, three...”

Zorro spoke again before Thackery counted 'four.' “Zorro is more than just a person - he's an idea. Justice will come if you ask for it. Anybody can be Zorro!”

A familiar earsplitting scream suddenly arrested Thackery's next lunge. All eyes jerked away to goggle at a site even more enthralling than the two combatants. On the outskirts of the pueblo, far out of range of musket balls, sat another Zorro, jauntily astride another Toronado. This second Zorro cheerfully saluted them from the brim of his hat when the eyes of the crowd turned to gape at him. They watched as he galloped away.

And then, another animalistic scream filled the pueblo. Heads whipped around in the other direction, gasps filled the air, turning into a loud rumbling as a third Zorro on a third Toronado careened from behind the mission and saluted in the same way. This third Toronado reared, his front hooves pawing the empty air, his crash back to Earth sounding like thunder echoing across the plaza. Horse and rider then galloped away in a spate of swirling dust.

Three Zorros? How was that possible? Confused chaos reigned, the fight that everybody had jockeyed to see forgotten.

Zorro refocused that wandering attention with a mighty swipe of his sword. Undistracted, Thackery responded with a parry, and a swipe of his own. “From what I hear,” Thackery impudently stated to Zorro, “you will want that woman to accompany you. Good - two stones in my shoe will...”

“No,” Zorro sadly interrupted. “Victoria has decided her life is here. I go home alone.” The bleak defeat in Zorro's voice was unmistakable as his gaze turned to Victoria for just a second.

That second was all that Thackery needed. He lunged, feinted, sideswiped, feinted again, and a flick later, disarmed the masked man. Zorro seemed as surprised by this astonishing outcome as everybody else.

A second later, Thackery struck to plunge his blade straight through Zorro's heart, ending his need to return to Spain. At the same instant, Zorro recovered his shock at being unexpectedly disarmed to sweep up his cape in his suddenly free right hand and wrap it around Thackery's sword to redirect the lunge and push the blade aside. In the next blink, Zorro had mercilessly ripped the offending sword from the thoroughly astonished Englishman's grasp. Eyes showing a fury barely held in check, he extricated the sword from what was left of his satin cape and coldly regarded the foreigner, panting. A frozen moment went by as the two gazed at each other in a silence broken only by pounding heartbeats.

That smothering quiet ended when Zorro disdainfully dropped Thackery's sword into the plaza dust, where it rolled to rest alongside his. He coldly regarded the Englishman. “I'm disarmed. So are you. I'm leaving California. So are you. If you don't, Don Diego will hear of it, and act accordingly.” The familiar cocky grin lifted his lips. “And if he does have to go after you, he won't let his promise stop him from killing you. He'll simply make sure to use a different sword.”

The final threat given, Zorro wheeled, leaving the two swords nestled in the dirt, and jumped onto his Toronado's waiting back. “Remember!” he called to the stunned crowd. “You don't need me in your fight for justice. What you need is each other!” Toronado screamed when Zorro whirled him around, then they were gone in a shroud of choking dust.

Everyone watched the masked legend ride furiously out of Los Angeles for the last time. Silence reigned as dust settled, and no one moved.

Abruptly urged to motion by some hidden source, the crowd surged forward to bid their defender goodbye. They flowed around Thackery until he was caught in the tide and pulled along with them. He watched too as Zorro disappeared into the haze of legend.

Forgotten by everybody, the two swords lay snug in the dust where Zorro had left them. Unseen, a figure strolled from the alley next to the blacksmith shop. The teeming crowd ignored him, as usual, as did the lancers left to guard them. The Alcalde, who rarely noticed him, returned with an air of distracted quiet to his office. His Sergeant rubbed his belly like it ached, his eyes trained in the opposite direction.

Dressed once again in the suit of servitude that made him blend so effortlessly into any crowd, Felipe walked casually into the former dueling area to pluck Zorro's famous sword from its bed of dust. With as little effort, he hid the sword in a prepared swath of material, then melted into the gathered crowd to slip into the tavern. Like Zorro, he and the famous sword simply vanished.

Epilogue

Diego grimaced into the emptiness of Zorro's secret cave, his mind still dwelling on the final sighting of Zorro that he had just lived through.

That scene had been a performance, and it had felt like it. When had Zorro become less about justice, and more about performing for the crowd? Diego ruminated that it was clearly time to let go of Zorro if he'd become nothing more than entertainment to the citizens. Oh, his special brand of justice had been welcome, there was no doubt about that. The lancers owed him several years worth of salary for doing their jobs, if nothing else.

Diego thought about how the fact that his father owned a ranch had assisted with their last-minute plan. By currently having several black mounts in the stable, they'd been able to convince two trusted vaqueros to dress in black and pretend to be Zorro at the appropriate moments. They had succeeded in distracting the crowd better than Diego had anticipated, making it easy to deliver the message that they were so helpfully illustrating.

But as Diego took one last look around Zorro's hidden cave before he and Felipe began dismantling it tomorrow, he knew that being Zorro had never been 'easy,' and he carried the scars from Zorro's many injuries to prove it. He had been shot, cut, sliced, punched, and stabbed more often than any man had a right to survive. His ribs had been broken so often that now they were permanently misshapen, forming an open-ended square rather than the more typical semicircle.

Even now, his right arm above the elbow throbbed where Thackery's sword had unexpectedly ripped through his cape to slice across his bicep. Slight though that cut was, it had needed stitches, and was sure to give him another 'war wound.' He decided to hide it, but to wear it proudly, just as he did with Zorro's other numerous injuries. Only, this injury was Zorro's last, and to Diego, that made all the difference.

With satisfaction, Diego checked on Toronado one last time, then left the cave. He and Felipe planned to reward the horse for years of good service by retiring him among the mares in the North pasture, but that wouldn't be until tomorrow.

Right now, it surprisingly didn't pain him as much as he thought it would to no longer be Zorro. More astonishing even than that, a hesitant truce now existed between Diego/Zorro and the Alcalde where none had been before. de Soto's obvious regret at killing his enemy's brother had kindled an unforeseen avalanche of emotion in him.

The term 'avalanche' was perhaps an exaggeration. Then again, Diego reflected, he was considering Ignacio de Soto here - any kind of emotional reaction regarding Zorro other than crazed anger was an improvement.

No longer did Diego have to ceaselessly worry about eventual discovery. His secret had been uncovered by such a variety of people that it would take him days of thinking to discover all that it meant for him.

Felipe knew, of course, and now so did his father. These last four weeks of being free not to skulk around and make excuses for his sudden disappearances made him wonder why he hadn't disclosed his secret to his father years before. His doubts as to his father's abilities to hold himself in check on the occasions he saw Zorro had proven to be entirely unfounded. Don Alejandro had been the height of discretion those four weeks, focusing more on helping Zorro as much as he could, even if the only help possible was his silence. The sorrow of losing a son he hadn't known existed had unexpectedly kept Zorro's importance in perspective as well.

Sergeant Mendoza's aid had been worth more to Diego than he could ever repay, no matter how many lunches he bought the man. He'd been the single lancer bent on Zorro's continued existence, whether Diego had known about it or not. He had been the one who had constantly convinced the ever-changing lancers to continually avoid hurting Zorro, whether they were chasing him, hunting him, shooting at him, or fighting him. As long as Diego was alive, Mendoza would always have a place at the de la Vega hacienda when he retired from the military. It made no difference to Diego if Mendoza was married or not, or had children or not. There were plenty of rooms available for whoever wanted them. Even if Mendoza wasn't one to want them in the future, the offer was always there - Diego would make sure of it.

The Padre's knowledge probably least affected him, Diego realized. If he had ever intended to do anything with the fact that he'd known Zorro's secret identity for years, it would have transpired. Diego was glad that it hadn't; he got too much joy out of his encounters with the priest to change now... though the two would undoubtedly share a common love for owls from now on.

Most importantly of all, he would finally get to marry and be with Victoria. Oddly enough, that thought didn't frighten him the way it had just the day before. Victoria had proven to be a much more crafty ally than he had expected. With an instigation from de Soto, and simplification from Felipe, the entire plan to bring Thackery to town, and then what to do with him once he got here had been her doing. She claimed to have thought of the plan to get rid of Zorro in only an afternoon, but Diego understood strategy if he understood anything, and he knew how long it took to refine the details of even the simplest plan. He'd been right to some extent in anticipating her anger at discovering Zorro's identity, but that emotion had been short lived, especially for Victoria. He should have trusted her with his secret long ago.

None of his revelations had gone as he'd expected. The Padre was perhaps the most benign, Victoria, Mendoza, and his father the most useful, and de Soto, the most surprising. Best of all, Zorro was gone, leaving Diego with the means to stop the ineffectual caballero persona he had created for himself. He was now reputed to be a master swordsman, whether he chose to use his skills or not. And to top it all off, he wouldn't have to spend the rest of his days looking over his shoulder for bounty hunters, or dueling with the odd swordsman who just wanted to make a fast reputation for himself. Thackery had the notoriety of being the one man in California who wasn't wanted by the law to purposely disarm Zorro, and he had been hounded out of the territory. With any luck, Zorro would be a distant memory by Christmas.

Diego was very contentedly relaxing in a chair in the library, reading a book he had wanted to read for ages, when Don Alejandro and Felipe burst through the door.

“Diego!” Seeing his son's relaxed attitude, Alejandro immediately breathed in relief. “I was worried that being disarmed had bothered you somehow.”

This truly puzzled Diego. “Bothered? Why?”

“Well.” Alejandro shrugged, at a loss. “That must have been a blow to your ego. This is the first time that Zorro's ever been disarmed, isn't it?”

Diego tried to hold his laughter in, knowing that his father's ideas merely stemmed from naivete rather than some form of rampant denial, but it burst out of him in spite of his efforts. “No!” he laughed. “This is...” His eyes turned to Felipe. “How many times have you disarmed me, Felipe?”

Felipe thought about that while Diego continued. “Plus, there was the occasional lucky bandito who beat the odds, a time or two with each alcalde, I accidentally dropped my sword twice, it was knocked from my hand by a crazed steer, and once it landed in the fire and was too hot to pick up for several minutes... I really had to improvise that time.”

“All that?” Alejandro exclaimed, stunned. “And here I thought you never did anything more strenuous than write poetry!”

Diego dropped his book to his lap with an exasperated huff. “Why does everybody think that writing anything is easy? Tell me, have you ever written anything harder than a letter?”

The question made Alejandro scowl. “Oh, you know what I mean!”

“Actually, no, I don't.” Diego growled low in his throat. “Sometimes, I truly do not understand you.”

“I don't understand you, either,” Alejandro testily remarked. “That's the way it is with parents and children.” Just as suddenly as the argument had begun, Alejandro changed the subject. “Now, Victoria's on her way over so we can discuss how to get the two of you together in the shortest time possible.” He looked expectantly at his son.

Diego groaned, knowing what was coming next, his particular skills completely useless against such enthusiasm.

Don Alejandro's expectant grin creased his face, and he clapped his hands with relish. “Grandchildren, Diego!” he took great joy out of demanding. “I want grandchildren!”

The End


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