A/N: Thank you for reviews!
Señorita Victoria Escalante, the owner of Los Angeles’ largest – and only – tavern, sighed and closed the cash box she kept underneath the day had been long, but not unprofitable. After Zorro had solved the issue of the laborers’ wages, some of the peons had decided to drink to their good luck at the inn. Other inhabitants of Los Angeles had similarly come to the conclusion that a glass of wine and some gossip were the best way to recover after the latest sensational events. Zorro’s antics had been so thrilling this time, and the alcalde’s face after being made to part with his money so comical, that the discussions had continued until long after sunset. Victoria was a little surprised that Don Diego had not come to the tavern to celebrate the successful execution of his plan, but Don Alejandro claimed that his son must have gone to check that the dam was working, as he had previously announced. Victoria had missed him that evening. Don Diego, whenever he could be enticed to emerge from behind the book he was reading or the painting he was working on, was a very kind and entertaining guest. Never confident enough in himself, though, as she had could on occasion be decisive, even stubborn, only to give in and retreat for no reason moments later. In addition to that, he seemed to be enamored of her in his own reticent way. Speaking of which, in the afternoon and later during the evening she had peeked through the kitchen door several times, hoping that Zorro had not yet holed up in his hideout, wherever that was, and that he might still come to visit her. Unfortunately, he never appeared either…
Heaving another sigh over the fickleness of her two admirers, Victoria went upstairs, to her room and the secret place under the bed where she hid away the day’s earnings every evening. When she opened the door, only the experience of her long association with Zorro prevented her from screaming loudly enough to wake her sleeping guests. That, and the sight of a finger pressed to her visitor’s lips in a universal request for silence.
She put the lamp and the cash box on the table before she spoke.
“Felipe?” she asked, lowering her voice. “What are you doing here?” At once she rebuked herself for the stupidity of her question. Felipe, Don Diego’s ward and personal servant, was deaf and mute. True, he could use signs and gestures to express himself quite well, but not well enough to answer an inquiry like this.
Felipe hopped off the parapet, caught hold of her sleeve and pulled her towards the door, still gesturing at her to keep silent. She stopped him.
“You’re all dirty – what happened to you?” she asked, seeing the dark stains on the boy’s light shirt and trousers. “What is this?” She pulled him closer to the table. “Oh!”
In the light of the lamp, the stain on his sleeve turned out to be reddish-brown in color, stiff and rough to the touch. Felipe’s knees, his shirt-front and his sleeves were covered in blood. The need for silence suddenly took on a different meaning.
“How did this happen? Are you wounded? Is Diego in trouble?” she asked feverishly. Felipe made a desperate grimace as if there was more to it than he could express with his gestures. Once again he tried to drag her towards the door.
“I’m going, I’m going with you!” she promised.
Hectic with worry, Victoria stashed her cash box in its hiding place, grabbed a fresh bed sheet from her coffer, and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders.
Felipe led her to a shed in the outskirts of the pueblo. She got another shock once she saw the horses tied up behind it. As far as she could tell in the darkness of the night, one of them was Felipe’s little pied mare, and the other… was Toronado, Zorro’s horse.
“Something happened to Zorro?” she demanded, unable to stop herself from asking. It was the first question that came to her mind. The others, like why Felipe of all people had come to fetch her, could wait until later. The boy’s sudden arrival and the bloodstains on his clothes had a new sinister meaning to her now.
In response, Felipe nudged her towards the stallion. For a moment she feared Toronado’s reaction, but the horse stood motionless like a statue as she climbed into the saddle and tucked up the folds of her skirt. The boy grabbed Toronado’s reins and they were off into the darkness.
She had no idea where they were going. Felipe set a pace so fast that she could only hold on to the saddlebow, watching the boy’s shirt flash in and out of the darkness. She knew the area around the pueblo like the back of her own hand, but Felipe was leading her through side paths and little-used trails. She had the unpleasant feeling, even so, that he was heading straight for their destination, and that the hurried pace was a sign of real danger. She knew more or less that they had entered the hills where some of the larger haciendas were located, but she had no way of telling exactly where they were. Finally the boy slowed down and then stopped inside a small arroyo. When she dismounted, he patted Toronado’s hindquarters and the horse obediently walked ahead into the darkness. She understood the reason when she saw the animals disappear behind a bend of the path, so rocky and narrow that she could not imagine anyone traversing it in the saddle. Once past the bend, the youth pulled her into a dark, cramped rift in the rock. They walked for several paces before she saw a faraway light down in its depths, cast by a lamp or candle, no doubt. Ahead of her, the horses’ hooves clattered over the stones.
The cave was small. Most of the space was taken up by a stable where Toronado had already taken his place by the manger. Off to the side she noticed a brick entryway to another section, which looked more fit for human habitation and was filled with tables and strange equipment. Her attention, however, was drawn to a shape by the entry – a man bundled in blankets and lying on the floor.
“Zorro!” She fell to her knees, drawing the blanket aside.
He lay on his side, curled up. Someone, most likely Felipe, had placed a second blanket and some straw underneath him. She could see why. A tall, strong man like Zorro must have been too heavy for a slim youth to carry anywhere far. Zorro’s shirt was torn, a ragged, bloody strip of cloth wrapped around his bare chest. Felipe must have dressed his wounds in frenzied hurry.
Victoria looked around. Dark stains on the floor were a sign of what must have happened. Zorro had been wounded somehow, made his way back to his hideout and collapsed after climbing off his horse. Remembering that last round of shots from the alcalde’s soldiers, and how Felipe had been at Don Alejandro’s side for most of the afternoon, she shivered. While they were feting their victory, the man they owed it to was bleeding out alone on this stony floor.
But now she was here – now she could help.
“Felipe,” she spoke. “Thank you for trusting me. I need your help now, please.”
The first thing she did was to get another bundle of hay from underneath Toronado’s feeding rack. She wrapped an arm around Zorro’s shoulders and pulled him up. On her signal, Felipe placed the hay underneath the blanket, supporting the wounded man and providing some measure of comfort. Later on she would need to move him somehow, she thought – the floor of a cave was not the best place to recover from one’s wounds. Zorro moaned weakly. His skin was alarmingly cold and clammy.
“Shh,” she whispered. “You should be a little more comfortable now. We’ll get those bandages fixed in no time. Felipe,” she turned towards the boy, “I will need hot water and a knife to dress his wounds better.”
“No,” she heard Zorro whisper weakly.
His eyes were open. For a moment it seemed to Victoria that he did not recognise her, but then he smiled a little and caught her hand. She shivered at the feebleness of his touch, so unlike the strong, certain hand she knew. Zorro led her fingers to the back of his head – to the knot of the mask which hid his face.
“Zorro, don’t…” she whispered.
“I promised…” he replied, then fell silent for a while, as if to gather his strength. “I made you a promise,” he repeated in a quiet yet unwavering voice, “that a day would come when you would see me without the mask. I beg you, forgive me that the day comes today… and take my mask off.”
She remembered that promise. With shaking fingers she untied the knot and removed his mask. When the black fabric slid from his face, Zorro sighed, as if relieved.
“Madre de Dios!” Victoria pressed the fabric to her own face, unable to believe her eyes.
Before her lay Don Diego de la Vega, son of Los Angeles’ wealthiest caballero, known for his odd, eccentric ways – the very last man she would have connected with Zorro if she were asked. She briefly thought it must be a joke, some sort of cruel, unhappy prank of Diego’s, that had backfired on him for whatever reason, but then the memories returned. How Zorro spoke of having eyes and ears within the pueblo as an explanation for why he always knew what was happening there; how he encouraged her friendship with Diego in spite of all their supposed differences; how she had never, ever seen them together, even though both claimed they were in touch with one another on occasion; and how Zorro had first appeared after Diego’s return from Spain. And finally that promise – the promise that was between her and Zorro alone, the promise on which she had wanted to build her future. It all fit.
“Diego… Zorro…” she stammered.
“Forgive me…” he whispered.
“There’s nothing to forgive…”
“It’s good you’re here… I was afraid I might never see you again…”
She put an arm around Diego’s – around Zorro’s shoulders and lifted him up to lean against her. He breathed a sigh of relief. With effort, he brought her hand to his lips and kissed the inside of her palm. Victoria hugged him and closed her eyes in a vain effort to keep the tears from coming.
The shiver that ran through Diego brought her out of her reverie.
“I must dress your wounds,” she said. “Felipe.” The boy kneeling at the wounded man’s other side raised his head at once. She felt a momentary surprise that he could hear her, but explanations could wait. “I need hot water. Could you bring me some? And please cut this sheet into strips.”
“No,” Diego protested.
“What? Why not?”
“I wanted… I only wanted to see you once more… Say goodbye and ask forgiveness…” His strength was all but spent and he was whispering again. “And warn you… You must run…”
“What do you mean, goodbye?” Victoria could not believe her own ears. “What do you mean, we should run? And what has that got to do with me bandaging your wound? Do you mean to bleed to death?”
“Better that way. I don’t much fancy an execution,” Diego sighed. He turned his head so that his cheek was resting against Victoria’s shoulder. “I’d rather stay with you… But the alcalde… The alcalde will kill you…”
The alcalde. Suddenly Victoria understood what he meant. A wound on Diego, shortly after the soldiers had shot at Zorro – it would be enough to convince anybody. They could not hide the injury, or Zorro’s conspicuous disappearance while Diego was incapacitated. In any case, the alcalde wouldn’t need much proof. He not only hated Zorro, but also had reasons to dislike both her and Don Alejandro. Felipe for his part counted for nothing; Ramone could send him to the gallows merely because he happened to live at the de la Vega hacienda. No wonder the wounded Diego, or rather Zorro, was thinking about her safety, and the safety of his father. At once she realised what it must have been like, to lie here alone, desperate, bleeding, waiting to make his farewells and warn her about the danger she was in. She knew why he was so resigned to his inevitable death, whether it would be from the wound or at the alcalde’s hand.
But she was not resigned at all. She gently lowered Diego back to his pallet and shifted on her knees to look into his face.
“No,” she said. “I will not run.”
Beside her Felipe was gesturing wildly. He touched Zorro’s shoulder, shook his head, drew a “Z” sign in the air, pointed at Toronado a few times, and finally tapped on his forehead insistently as if he were trying to make the man see reason. At length, Diego shook his head.
“Won’t work this time… Not a wound I can hide… Run…”
“No! You’ll think of something! You must! You can’t just go and die on me!” Victoria exploded. Her fear, sadness and despair had given way to irritation. She might not have spoken to Zorro that way, but now that he was also Don Diego, she had no qualms about it. “Zorro, if you don’t think of something at once, I’ll kill you myself, I swear!”
The violence of her statement brought a smile to Diego’s face. It was the same insolent little smirk that she had on occasion seen on Zorro’s lips. Victoria fell silent at once, and Felipe started in shock. He pointed at her, then at Diego, then made a sign as if he were aiming a gun.
“No, Felipe…” sighed Diego. “The alcalde would kill her for this. And I wouldn’t be there to help, so it would all come out.”
Felipe rubbed his forehead in thought, then suddenly darted to his feet. He mimed a whole sequence of events, touching his face to signal something, aiming a gun at Victoria, struggling with an unseen enemy. Diego watched his every move closely.
“Yes…” he finally said. “Yes…” Suddenly his eyes opened wide. “What time is it?”
“Late. Must be midnight, I think.”
“This… this might just work!” he said, suddenly energised. “Felipe!” In spite of his weakness, his voice once again had that steely tone she had heard Zorro use. “Bring me Diego’s clothes! We must return to the pueblo!”
“Why?” Victoria interrupted. “You’re still bleeding! I need to dress your wound!”
“No. Felipe, go! We must stage a robbery.”
“A robbery?” She stared at him, amazed.
“Yes, a robbery.” Diego looked back at her, suddenly animated and determined. “I will be attacked and shot in your tavern…”
“Jesucristo!” Victoria crossed herself. “This will work! But how shall we get there?”
“We’ll ride. Felipe will tie me to Toronado’s saddle.”
“Are you mad? You’re bleeding. You won’t survive this.”
“I’d rather die in this way than at the alcalde’s gallows. At your side, not along with you,” replied Zorro. For she had no doubt that it was Zorro talking right now – a weak, injured Zorro, dying perhaps, but still determined to save the people he loved. “And one more thing. If I should die from my wound, you will put the blame on Zorro.”
“Yes. If he shoots his rival, even by accident,” he smiled to soften the harshness of his words, “no one will wonder why he’s disappeared. No one will be looking for him at all.”
X X X
The sky over Los Angeles was already beginning to brighten with the dawn when Victoria looked around the main room of the tavern. Everything was ready. A plate with some bread scraps on the table, a jug, two glasses, a puddle of wine, an overturned bench nearby – all told the story of a late supper cut suddenly short. Diego was lying on the floor. He was paler and weaker than a few hours ago; his white shirt was soaked through with blood. The pool of blood on the floor by his side was Felipe’s work, though – he had appropriated a chicken somewhere in the outskirts of Los Angeles, and spilled its blood around to lend credence to the story of Diego’s wound. The boy was already gone, hiding outside the kitchen door in Zorro’s black clothes, ready to playact an escape or a chase after the killer.
Victoria picked up a pistol, loaded only with gunpowder. It was a heavy, crude weapon, such as an unknown vagrant might be expected to carry. Felipe had unearthed it from some nook of the cave. Holding it, she knelt at Diego’s side.
“Ready?” she asked.
“Yes.” He smiled feebly without opening his eyes. Even though she had put a new bandage on him in the end, even though Toronado had a remarkably steady gait, the ride from the cave had been hard on Diego. Not all the blood on his shirt came from the chicken, especially now that Felipe had removed his bandages and taken them with him. Even so, Zorro smiled and added, “Kiss me.”
She did as he asked. His lips were dry and cold, tasting a little of the wine she had forced him to swallow.
“I love you,” he whispered when she raised her head.
“I love you too.”
“Just by the side, remember. It must be a fresh shot, from the struggle.”
Victoria put the barrel of the pistol to her lover’s side and pulled the trigger. When the shot rang out, she flung the weapon aside and started screaming for help. A short while afterwards she heard the thudding of Toronado’s hooves somewhere outside.
To be continued…