"THE BEST OF FRIENDS"

CHAPTER ONE

     It was a beautiful late summer afternoon.  The birds were singing.  Wild flowers abounded in the surrounding meadows.  Tall grass waved gently in the light, warm breeze.  But the tall masked man riding a big, black Andalusian stallion through the field did not appreciate any of it.

     What a waste of a perfectly good day, thought Zorro.  Since mid-morning, he had been on the trail of some cattle rustlers.  They had stolen nearly fifty head from the Delgado rancho.  When Zorro had learned of it, he had headed out after them.  It had been the third time the bandits had struck in as many weeks.

     But now Zorro was disgusted with himself.  He had lost their trail about an hour ago.  He would not allow himself to give up. His confidence in his tracking abilities just would not let him.  All that was about to change though.  He had missed lunch, he had missed siesta and now was very hungry and very tired.  Besides his rear end was sore from sitting on the hard leather saddle for so many fruitless hours.

     Zorro picked up the slack reins and tugged gently.  "Let's go home, boy," he said to Toronado.  The black horse tossed his head as if in agreement.

     They were still quite a way from the de la Vega hacienda when Zorro pulled on the reins again, this time bringing the horse to a halt.  A crystal clear stream ran down the hillside.  Zorro allowed the hot and thirsty animal to drink from it.  He took the time to survey the outlying area while Toronado gulped the water greedily.  They were very close to the Mission Road, the highway that connected the pueblo de Los Angeles to the rest of California, as well as to the rest of the world.

     Zorro watched as a coach came lumbering down the dusty path, a cloud of dirt billowing behind it.  He noted indifferently that it was heading north, toward the pueblo.  The Andalusian raised up his head, finally refreshed.  Zorro guided the horse backward, meaning to go home.

    He paused when the passenger coach came to a shuddering stop.  Loud voices could be heard shouting and what sounded like women's screams emanated from inside the vehicle.  Zorro then saw the cause of all the commotion.  Two men on horseback were aiming pistols at the stage driver, who was raising his arms upward.  That was all Zorro needed to see.  He urged Toronado down the embankment in the direction of the holdup.

     One of the banditos had dismounted his horse and had yanked open the coach door.  He pointed his gun at the passengers inside.

     "Your money and jewelry, por favor," he demanded in a gruff voice muffled by the dirty bandanna covering the lower portion of his face.

    The people in the stagecoach began scrambling to find their possessions, intending to obey the outlaw's request.  Zorro came riding furiously up to the sieged vehicle.  He reined his stallion to a quick halt, had his whip out in a flash and rounded to face the bandit who was holding the driver at bay.  The black leather struck out, knocking the pistol from the other man's hand.  His partner spun around at the crack of the whip.  He tried to aim his weapon at the black clad man sitting astride his horse but before he had a chance, his gun went flying harmlessly into the air as Zorro recoiled the whip again.

     The thieves, now defenseless, decided to make a hasty escape.  They knew of Zorro's reputation and did not want any part of him.  It did not matter that the odds were two to one.  Zorro's prowess with sword and whip were legendary.  Only a fool thought he could best him in a fair fight.  The two men both ran to their horses, trying desperately to remount and get away.

     Zorro wielded the black whip once more, managed to trip both of them.  They were laying face down along side the road as the masked hero, a satisfied smile on his face, dismounted Toronado.  He glanced up at the coach driver, who was climbing down from his elevated seat.

     "Gracias, Señor Zorro," offered the shaken man.

     "De nada," replied Zorro.  "Perhaps you can help me tie up these banditos.  Do you have any rope?"

      "Si, si," the driver answered.  He left to go fetch it.

     Zorro stood watch over the unconscious men when the stage door opened.  Four passenger stumbled out, blinking at the sunlight after spending several hours in the dark coach interior.  One of them noticed Zorro and pointed at him, causing his fellow travelers to gasp, mistakenly thinking they were still in danger of being robbed.  One of the women, however, a young woman with long brown curls and stylishly attired in a rather low cut dress, sauntered closer to him.  He smiled with amusement at her boldness.

     "Who are you, Señor?" she asked boldly.

     "I assure you, Señorita, you are in no danger from me," he replied.  He gave her a small bow and flourish with his cape.  "Zorro, at your service."

    The other people from the coach murmured amongst themselves.  Even they too had heard of the legendary fox of Los Angeles.

     "He will rob us too," the other woman passenger stated.  She was many years older than the bold señorita and plumper as well.

     "No, he won't," remarked the younger woman assuredly, staring adoringly at her rescuer.

    "There is no need to be alarmed, good people," said Zorro.  He pointed at the two men on the ground.  The stage driver had returned with several lengths of rope and proceeded in binding them up.  "Those are the thieves who attempted to rob you."

     "I, for one, thank you, Zorro," the young señorita drawled.  "I had some things I could have not beared to have lost."  She smiled up prettily at him.

   He tried to keep his smile friendly, not wanting to encourage her.  He had flirted with other women in the past, sometimes with disastrous results.  Besides, this señorita was just a little too brazen for his taste.  He preferred the quiet beauty and strength of his Victoria.

   He lent his assistance to the driver in getting the two banditos slung across the saddles of their horses.  Zorro withdrew his sword and slashed Z's in the back seats of their trousers.  "Tell the Alcalde of Los Angeles what these men have done when you arrive there," instructed Zorro.  "He will take care of the rest.  Adios."

   Intending to remount Toronado and finally go home, he was again delayed when the bold young lady stepped forward and placed a fine leather clad hand on his arm.

   "Tell me, Señor Zorro," she said, "is it far to Los Angeles?"

    "No, not far," was the reply, "about five miles or so."

    "It is just that I have not been there for quite some time," she remarked.  She threw him another question.  "Do the Escalantes still own the tavern?"

   "Si, their daughter, Victoria runs it now," he answered.  Now it was his turn to inquire.  "Do you know Señorita Escalante?"

    "Indeed, I do," the young woman laughed.  "We were the best of friends when we were children."  She smiled flirtatiously at him again.  "Thank you again, Zorro."

     "Adios, Señorita."  He wasted no time in hopping up on his stallion's back as she slowly strolled back to the coach.

     He nudged Toronado's sides with his boot heels and they started to move away from the scene of the attempted robbery.  He had ridden to the top of a small hill before he stopped.  Then turning his horse around, he watched as the passengers finished loading themselves into the coach.  It slowly started on its way to Los Angeles when the question that had nagged at the back of Zorro's mind, answered itself.

     "Teresa Alvarez," he murmured to himself as he realized that he had seen her before.  He patted Toronado on the neck and laughed.

     "We should be in for a very interesting time, my friend," he mused.  "Victoria and Teresa used to be the terrors of the pueblo when they were chicas.  I wonder if it will be any different after all this time."

     He shook his head.  Then he pivoted the stallion around to continue on their way home.
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      Inside the coach, the two male passengers were talking excitedly about the holdup and how they had been saved by the infamous Zorro.  In their seat on the opposite side of the vehicle, the two women were speaking to each other in more hushed tones.  The younger of the pair was indeed Teresa Alvarez, as Zorro had guessed.  The older woman was her companion, Señora Ada Gomez.  The señora was not a very happy woman at that moment.

     "I do not like this," she complained.  "That Zorro is a very clever fellow, from what I hear."

    "Oh, do not be such an old woman, Ada," Teresa reassured her companion easily.  "He could not possibly know who I am.  And if by some chance he does, so what?  The people in Los Angeles  will remember the sweet little girl I once was when I lived here.  Our plan will work perfectly."

     Ada shook her head wearily.  "I do hope you are right, Teresa.  For my sake as well as your own."

     Teresa laid a ring laded hand on the older woman's arm.  "Oh, Ada, you fret too much," she laughed.  She leaned back against the cushioned seat.  "Soon I will be one of the richest women in all of California."

     Her companion, a true pessimist at heart, just shook her head once more.  Teresa, however, had a small, smug smile on her face as she turned her attention to the  increasingly familiar scenery passing outside her window.

     About an hour later, the coach lumbered into the plaza of the pueblo de Los Angeles, coming to a halt in front of the only inn and tavern in the small village.

   Business on that early evening was busy, as usual.  Victoria was bringing a tray of wine and glasses from the bar to one of the tables of customers.  She did not pay much attention when the tavern door opened.  Two women walked in, followed by the driver of the stage, who was struggling with their considerable pile of luggage.  Victoria delivered the drinks, then turned to head back to the bar.  One of the newcomers scrutinized her carefully.

     "Victoria!" Teresa shrieked loudly.  "Victoria Escalante!"

     Victoria (and everyone else in the tavern) spun around to stare at the woman in the doorway.  Victoria looked at her closely before she finally recognized her old childhood friend.

    "Teresa?" she questioned, still a little unsure.  "Teresa Alvarez, is that you?"

     She put down the tray she had been holding and rushed toward her friend.  Teresa flew at her, arms flung open wide.  The two women met in the middle of the room and embraced each other tightly.  Then they took a step backward to look each other over.

     "You have not changed a bit, Victoria," remarked Teresa, a hint of envy in her voice.  "You are still just as beautiful as ever."

     "Gracias.  Well, I must say, you have," replied Victoria.  "I almost did not recognize you.  You used to be a little. . .well. . ."

   "Plump?" Teresa finished her friend's sentence.  "I outgrew it."

   "Well, you look great," complimented Victoria.  They hugged again.

   The coach driver, standing behind Teresa, cleared his throat loudly.  The other woman tapped Teresa on the shoulder.

    "Teresa, the luggage," she reminded the younger woman.

     "Oh, yes, of course," Teresa acknowledged.  "Victoria, we need two rooms, one for me and the other for my companion, Señora Ada Gomez.  Ada, this is my very dear amiga, Victoria Escalante."

     Señora Gomez gave a little formal bow.  "It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Señorita Escalante.  Teresa has been chattering away about you all the way from San Diego."

     "Si, she has been known to talk one's ear off," Victoria kidded with a smile.  She turned to Teresa.  "My two best rooms are available for as long as you wish to stay here.  Pilar will show you to them."

     "Gracias," said Teresa as Pilar came over and led the driver and the señora up the staircase.  Victoria led her friend over to a nearby empty table where they both sat down.

    "It has been such a long time, Teresa," Victoria stated.  "You must tell me what you have been up to since you moved away.  I did write to you several times, but I never did receive a reply."

  "Oh, I am so sorry, Victoria," her friend answered contritely.  "You remember what a horrid speller I am.  I did try to write, but by then it had been so long and I never did send any of them.  Besides, I would much rather hear about what has gone on here in Los Angeles.  It is still Señorita Escalante?

    "Si, I am afraid so," sighed Victoria.  "Have you married?"

    "Twice," replied Teresa.  She laughed at her friend's stunned expression.  "I have been widowed both times."

    "Oh, I am so sorry," Victoria said.  She reached out and patted her friend's bejeweled hand.

     "Do not be," Teresa said flippantly.  "They were both a great deal older than I, so it was to be expected.  I just cannot believe you have not married.  Why, when we were girls, the boys swarmed around you like bees to honey."

     Victoria blushed a little at that memory.  "Well, that may have been true," she said.  "There is a special man in my life though."

     "Speaking of special men, you will never guess who saved us from banditos this afternoon," Teresa interjected excitedly.  She did not give Victoria a chance to answer.  "Zorro!  I had heard he haunts Los Angeles, but I never expected to ever meet him.  He is as handsome and gallant as they say, but still, he is just an outlaw."

     "Zorro is not an outlaw," Victoria stated, jumping to his defense.  "He is the most brave, most honorable. . ."

    "Why, Victoria Escalante," interrupted Teresa, scanning her friend's face.  "Do not tell me that this Zorro is your special fellow.  My dear Victoria, he is hardly suitable.  There is a price on his head, for heaven's sake."

     "He is not a criminal," Victoria replied.  "We have an understanding."

     Teresa, sensing her friend was becoming angry, decided to change the subject.  "So, where are your brothers?  And how did you come to be running the tavern?  Come on, tell me everything."

    Victoria knew she could not stay upset with Teresa for long.  The two women settled down for a cozy chat, laughing and crying over news of old friends and family.  They did not notice when Diego and Felipe entered the tavern.  Diego smiled when he saw the two amigas talking together.  Felipe saw Ana Maria and her mother eating their dinner on the opposite side of the room.  He arched an inquisitive brow at Diego, who nodded his permission for the young man to join them.

     Victoria thought it was odd though, that Teresa made no mention of her younger brother, Julio, on whom she had doted when they were girls.  She intended to question her friend about him when Teresa pointed toward the tavern door.

     "Who is that handsome man?" she inquired.  "He looks vaguely familiar, but. . ."

     Victoria twisted around to see for herself.  "Oh, that is Don Diego de la Vega."

     Teresa perked up at the mention of his name.  "Have him come over here," she insisted, looking pleadingly at her friend.  "Por favor. . ."

     "Very well," sighed Victoria.  She wondered what Teresa was plotting as she waved at Diego to join them.

     Diego saw Victoria motioning and made his way to their table, trying to hide a smile.  "Buenas noches, Victoria and to you, Señorita," he greeted him, pretending not to recognize Teresa.

  "Diego de la Vega!" she exclaimed indignantly, conveniently forgetting she had not known him at first either.  "You mean you do not remember me?"

     Diego feigned surprise after he had scrutinized her a moment.  "Surely you cannot be Teresa Alvarez?"

     "I most certainly am," Teresa stated, smiling brightly.  "Please, Don Diego, sit with us."

     She patted the empty bench next to herself.  Diego ignored her gesture, seating himself instead in the vacant space next to Victoria.

     "You certainly have changed, Teresa," Diego commented.  "I must admit, I did not know you at first."  He leaned forward a little, putting his elbows on the table.  "So, what brings you back to Los Angeles?  It has been what, almost fifteen years?"

     "Si, nearly that long," agreed Teresa.  "I came back to see all my old friends.  We were just reminiscing about when we were young girls.  Did you know, Don Diego, that we used to follow you around the pueblo?  We thought we were in love with you."

    "Teresa, please," an embarrassed Victoria pleaded.  "Diego does not wish to hear about our childish fantasies."

     "Oh, but I do," Diego contradicted her.  "Please, tell me more, Teresa.  I find this most fascinating."

     "There is really nothing more to say," said Teresa with a bored shrug.  "So, Don Diego, are you married or engaged or in love?"
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"BEST OF FRIENDS"-CHAPTER TWO