A/N: One more time – thank you, dizzy fire!
There was no telling whether the rumours caused the alcalde to be suspicious. He (aided by Sergeant Mendoza’s irrepressible chattiness) might well have been the author of a number of them, after all – particularly those that painted Zorro, Don Diego and Victoria Escalante in the most unflattering light. It was widely known there was no love lost between Luis Ramone and the señoritaor the de la Vega family. Therefore, when the gossip had reached him, he might have concluded that it was a good opportunity to settle some scores with Don Diego, his father, Victoria, and, indirectly, with Zorro himself. The outlaw had been disconcertingly absent for a few days, until one of the soldiers saw him again, talking to Victoria in the balcony of the tavern, which might have influenced the alcalde’s actions as much as the earlier rumours. Or perhaps at some point while sipping his wine Ramone had simply heard one of the guests swear that Victoria and Diego had not been in the main room when he had come down there during that night.
One way or another, the alcalde made a decision. Ten days after the attack he called for an assembly in the main room of the tavern. The doctor would not agree to have his patient moved anywhere farther than that, and, in addition, Ramone’s hints about wanting to determine what had really happened brought in nearly all the inhabitants of the pueblo and the surrounding area.
Before the assembly started, Don Alejandro rushed upstairs, to his son’s room. Diego was ready. Face newly shaven, he was resting in a wide armchair. Victoria knelt at his side. They were whispering to each other urgently. As his father walked into the room, Diego had just kissed the inside of Victoria’s palm, and she hugged his hand to her cheek.
“Diego,” Don Alejandro cleared his throat. The tenderness between them tugged at his heart.
“Yes?” His son looked at him calmly.
“It’s time. Everyone has gathered downstairs. The alcalde is about to send some soldiers to fetch you.”
“Sadly,” smiled Diego, “I can’t get downstairs on my own, just yet. So be it, then. Let’s get this over with. Will you call for them?”
When Don Alejandro turned towards the door to call the soldiers in, he noticed Diego and Victoria exchange a smile; not like a pair of lovers, but as two warriors smiling before battle to keep up their courage.
Don Diego was carried down to the centre of the main room with extreme caution, wrapped in a blanket and seated in a wide armchair lined with pillows. Victoria and Don Alejandro took their seats at his side.
“We are gathered here…” Ramone began. “We are all gathered to determine what really happened ten days ago. Because I must inform you that things did not play out quite as you all believe. Today the truth will be revealed and the guilty parties will be judged.”
“What exactly do you mean to reveal?” asked Don Alejandro.
“I’ve told you once already,” she replied. “Why should I have to remember those terrible moments again, in front of everyone?”
“And I’m telling you, Señorita,” said the alcalde, “that you lied to us then and you’re lying even now.”
“What?” several people in the room cried out.
“Why should I be lying?” Victoria tossed her head proudly.
“To protect your lover, Zorro.”
“Señor!” Don Diego tugged at his blanket. “If I could but lift a sword…”
“We’d have a duel at once, I know…” the alcalde laughed derisively. “But you can’t, and I’m still saying that Señorita Victoria lied. There are witnesses. You were not at the tavern that night, and Zorro was seen in the outskirts of the pueblo immediately after the shot was heard. So I’d like her to confess what really happened here, with everyone present, before I decide that she is responsible for your near-fatal injury.”
“When I’m strong enough to stand…” Diego drawled out, suddenly oblivious to his father’s hand on his shoulder. “When I’m strong enough to stand and lift my sword, I shall demand satisfaction for these words, alcalde!”
“Alcalde, if you don’t stop with your insinuations at once,” Don Alejandro cut in, “I will challenge you in my son’s stead, to defend the honour of his bride!”
His words threw the room into a hubbub. Don Alejandro, the first among Los Angeles’ caballeros, declaring that Señorita Victoria Escalante, a half-Indian innkeeper, was his son’s intended bride? Los Angeles had never seen the like. The harsh words had exhausted Don Diego’s strength, though, and the wounded man slumped back onto the pillows. He and Victoria exchanged a long glance, as if talking silently, and the girl rose.
“Very well.” She proudly raised her head. “Very well, alcalde, you’ve forced me to tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We weren’t at the tavern that night – this much is true. That evening, when I was already locking up,” she began her tale in earnest, “Don Diego arrived to see me. He was returning home from the lake, saw the light and came in to eat his supper and talk to me. But I had another visitor that night, too. Zorro appeared only moments later.”
Whispers rippled through the room. Nobody doubted that Victoria was telling the truth. Only Don Alejandro looked at the girl with wide-eyed surprise.
“Zorro appeared,” she continued, “and he was pleased to see Don Diego.”
“He was pleased?” interrupted Mendoza.
“Silence, Sergeant,” Ramone waved his hand.
“Yes,” replied Victoria, “he was pleased. You all know he cares about me.” She blushed but did not lower her eyes. “He hoped to explain…”
“He wanted to speak with me,” Don Diego cut in. “Since the conversation might well prove quite emotional, the three of us left the tavern.”
“Conversation? About what?”
“That, alcalde, is no business of yours.”
“Oh, but it is, it is… I want to know what you were plotting.”
“We were plotting nothing!” Victoria cried out. “Diego and Zorro only wanted to settle the matters between us. Which one of them would be allowed to court me.”
Gasps were heard around the room. Everyone knew that Zorro was courting Señorita Escalante, and Don Diego might not have been as demonstrative of his feelings as that, but he clearly cared for her as well.
“In a duel?” Mendoza asked loudly in surprise. He only said what everyone else was thinking – that Diego, known for his aversion to weapons, had stood no chance against a seasoned fighter like Zorro.
“No, not in a duel!” Victoria replied fiercely. “We talked! We talked for a long time, and they agreed to leave the decision to me. And I, may God forgive me, I made my choice! I made my choice!” she cried and fell to her knees by Diego’s armchair, hiding her face in her hands.
In the hubbub of surprised whispers from the pueblo’s inhabitants, Diego put his arms around the girl’s shoulders.
“Yes, Victoria made her choice,” he said in a voice that was faint but steady. “She chose me.”
More noise from the crowd. The news was so shocking that everyone present felt the need to express their opinion. It was some time before the sergeant was able to restore order, and no one noticed that the door to one of the rooms upstairs had opened just a crack.
“And Zorro?” the alcalde finally asked. “Didn’t he accept your choice, then?”
“Zorro did accept it,” Victoria said. She dried her tears. “He’d agreed to let me decide, and he accepted my decision afterwards.”
Diego gently took hold of her hand. She thanked him with a smile before she spoke again.
“We returned to the tavern. It had been a long, difficult conversation, so I wanted to offer Diego at least a slice of bread – we still had a lot to talk about between the two of us. But when we walked in…”
“I had just poured us some wine,” Diego joined in, “when a man I didn’t know rose up from behind the bar. He must have entered the tavern while we were out – we did leave the door unlocked. He had a shawl wrapped around his face and a gun in his hand. I expect we surprised him when he was looking for money at the bar… He ordered us to keep silent. I was afraid he would shoot Victoria, so I tried to get closer to him, to shield her…”
“Then Zorro appeared. He’d followed us and must have seen what was happening through a window. He wanted to disarm the man, but before he could get close enough, he stepped on a creaky floorboard and the bandit heard him,” Victoria continued. “He turned around and Diego jumped him, catching his hand. They started to struggle and… the gun went off. Zorro couldn’t help him in time.”
“And then what?”
“That man escaped. He pushed Zorro away from the door and ran for it. Diego was wounded, I thought he was dead, I tried to stop the bleeding… Zorro didn’t know if he should help me or chase after the man that did it. He pursued him, but lost him in some alley. He didn’t know where to go until he heard the horse.”
“But he didn’t catch him?”
“He was seen here yesterday.”
“That’s right. He came by every evening to ask about Diego.”
“We’re friends, alcalde,” Diego interrupted. “That’s why there was no duel. And why he feared for my life.”
“Any right-thinking man in Los Angeles is a friend of Zorro. This is the truth about what happened that night – the whole truth.” Diego put an arm around Victoria’s shoulders and turned to his father. “Father, I did not mean for you to find out like this.”
The alcalde deliberated for a moment. Finally, he declared, “I don’t believe you.”
“I suggest that you try.”
“I’d rather have you both arrested, I think.”
“I’d advise against it.” Diego was imperturbable. He raised his hand. “Zorro might beg to differ.”
Before the alcalde could reply, an arrow whistled through the room and hit one of the pillars with a thud. A piece of paper slipped off the shaft and landed on Mendoza’s head. The sergeant jumped up and showed everyone whose sign was drawn on it. “It’s Zorro!” he cried out.
“What? He’s here?”
A horse whinnied outside, causing an uproar. The soldiers pushed through the crowd to try and get to the door and windows, the alcalde cursed and hurled abuse. Before he managed to give any orders, though, Diego spoke up again.
“Zorro is waiting for you, alcalde,” he said calmly. “Do you really want to face him? After what you said about my fiancée?”
Luis Ramone looked at him angrily, then turned towards the door, still blocked by the inhabitants of the pueblo and the thronging soldiers. He gave up.
To be continue…