Later that evening, after Don Alejandro had returned, their supper eaten and everyone retired for the night, Felipe and Diego stealthily made their way to the secret cave.  When the younger man had come back from the pueblo, Diego could tell he was almost bursting with information.  Information that Zorro needed to know.

     Unfortunately there had not been a moment all evening when either Don Alejandro, Victoria or one of the servants had not been hovering nearby.

     "S-Señora L-Lopez," Felipe said as soon as Diego appeared.  The young man was so eager to depart with what he knew, he switched to using hand gestures to convey it faster.

     "She met with the Alcalde?"  Diego interpreted as he changed his clothes.  "When she came out of his office, they were both smiling?"  He stroked his chin thoughtfully.  "Very interesting indeed."

     Felipe raised an eyebrow.  "D-Do you th-think. . .?"

     "I'm not sure what to think," his father cut in.  "If they have struck some sort of deal. . . "  He looked grimly at his son.  "Or if they already had one?  I think it is time Zorro should find out why she is out to destroy his reputation."

      Felipe nodded.  "B-But h-how?" he asked as he saddled Toronado.

     "A little visit to the padre in San Pedro should answer a few questions," the man in black replied, tying on his mask.  "If I'm not back by morning, tell Father I went to check the fences in the south pasture."

     "Don't worry," Zorro said to the concerned young man as he swung up onto his stallion's back.  "Get some sleep. Adios."  He turned the horse about so they could exit the cave.

     It took over two hours to cover the twenty-five miles to the port of San Pedro.  The church there dominated the pueblo's small plaza.

     The padre, awakened suddenly from his slumbers, was alarmed to see a masked man in his chambers.  Thinking him a bandit there to rob the church, he tried to shout.

     "Forgive me, Padre," Zorro said as he put a gloved hand over the priest's mouth.  "I don't mean to frighten you."  He lowered his hand as recognition dawned in the other man's eyes.

      "Zorro?"  The padre knew of him, of course.  "What are you doing here?"

     "I need information," was the reply, "on a Señora Monica Lopez and her two children"
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     Streaks of light were beginning to show above the eastern horizon.  Both Zorro and Toronado were tired from their long journey.  The masked man was riding across the de la Vega south pasture when he heard a low growl.  Several head of cattle, about ten cows and their calves, were just ahead of him in the field.  Scanning the dark shapes, Zorro saw a smaller animal to his right, slowly creeping toward the dozing cattle.

     It was a large black dog.  His problem now was to stop the canine from attacking the unsuspecting livestock.  He quietly slid off Toronado's back and moved around behind the dog, who was still snarling and growling as it slunk toward the cattle.

     Zorro got close enough he could almost touch the dog's tail.  He began to uncoil his black leather whip when one of the calves started bawling.  It had somehow separated itself from its mother and stood alone on a small hillock.  The dog, sensing its vulnerability, advanced in its direction.

     Crack!'  The whip snaked out, hitting the canine on the back.  Snarling angrily, the animal paused for a moment before continuing to stalk its prey.

     The leather whip lashed out several more times, scoring direct hits on the dog's back and head.  Finally the creature had had enough.  He growling loudly, baring his teeth as he turned to face his attacker.

     Zorro remained calm as the large dog crept his way.  His whip and saber were at the ready but it was at times like this, he almost wished he carried a pistol, something a little more quicker and deadlier.

     The calf let out another cry, attracting the canine's attention again.  Zorro snapped the whip over the dog's head.  Growling, the dog crouched low in front of the man in black.  Zorro stood his ground, hoping he would be able to anticipate when the animal would make its leap.

    A loud whinny came from his left.  Toronado!  Zorro shot a quick glance over his shoulder to check on the Andalusian.  In that instant, the dog launched itself at his throat.  Zorro barely had time to raise his sword to defend himself.

     Suddenly the creature fell to the ground, an arrow in the left side of its neck.  Zorro spun to see an Indian standing near the edge of the pasture.

     "Black Feather?" Zorro asked as the man approached.  It was still hard to see in the early morning light.

     "Si, Zorro," affirmed the brave.  "This dog has attacked our horses."

     "You saved my life," declared Zorro.  "Thank you."

     "I only did what I had to do," replied Black Feather.  Both men looked at the dead animal.  Zorro examined it carefully for any signs of hydrophobia.  Thankfully he noticed nothing to indicate it was rabid.

     "I need to take it back to Los Angeles," he stated.  He smiled gratefully at the warrior. "Thank you again, Black Feather."

     The Indian just waved, then strode across the meadow to where Zorro could now see the other man's horse near the pasture fence.  He lifted up the body, carrying it over to where Toronado was waiting patiently.
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     Diego slipped through the open panel of the library fireplace.  He paused in the middle of the foyer as Victoria came around the corner.

     "Diego?"  She was surprised to see him up and already dressed.  Inspecting him closer, she noted he was wearing the same clothing from the day before.   A worrisome thought crossed her mind.  "Are you just getting home?"

     He smothered a fake yawn.  "Buenos dias, Victoria," he greeted her, then rubbed his neck.  "No, I fell asleep in my chair again.  I guess my book on crop rotation wasn't as fascinating as I thought it would be."

     Victoria rolled her eyes.  "Oh, I thought there might be another reason."  She smiled, glad her suspicions that he may have been with another woman were unfounded.

      "I don't understand," he said cautiously.

     "Oh, nothing," she replied.  "I. . ."  She was interrupted by the sound of footsteps in the hallway.

     "Buenos dias."  Don Alejandro hailed them cheerfully.  "Come on," he added.  "Maria has breakfast ready."

     "Sorry, none for me," Diego declared.  "I've quite a bad headache.  I think I will go lie down for awhile."  He walked down the hall and went inside his room.

     Don Alejandro shook his head.  "Up all night reading again, no doubt," he said in disgust.  When Victoria nodded, he groaned a little in despair.  "Victoria."  He offered his arm to her then led her to the dining room.
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     Diego slept until noon.  At lunch, his father informed him he was needed again in the orchard.  Before he headed out, he had a task for Felipe.

     "I need you to take these to town," he instructed, dipping his quill as he finished writing the last note.  After placing it in an envelope, he wrote on that as well.  "Make sure no one sees you."  He handed the young man three letters.  Felipe's eyes widened when he saw to whom the missives were addressed.  He nodded solemnly and left to do the errand.

      The dinner conversation that evening was very interesting.  Don Alejandro related how the dead dog had been found at the Alcalde's front door with a note from Zorro.  The letter had stated the animal was not rabid so Don Rico would be fine once his hand healed.

      Just as the two previous nights, Diego and Felipe had to wait until everyone had gone to bed.  "You delivered the notes?"  Zorro inquired of Felipe as he pulled on his black gloves.

     "S-si," the young man replied.  "N-no one s-saw me."

     "Bueno."  The masked man placed his hat upon his head.  He swung up into his stallion's saddle.  "Adios."

     Half an hour later, Victoria was having trouble falling asleep.  She was a little unnerved by the news that Zorro had been in the pueblo.  Had he also gone to visit that Lopez woman? She froze when she heard the handle of her bedroom door jiggle slightly. Dios mio, surely none of the de la Vegas would come into her room this late at night.

     Victoria sat up sharply.  "Zorro," she whispered.  "What are you doing here?  Where have you been?  Why is that. . . ?"

     "Always so curious," he remarked softly, kneeling beside her bed.  "Victoria, do you trust me?

     She was taken aback by the question.  Did she trust him?  Once she would have with her life but now she was not so sure.  Zorro noted the hesitation and saw the conflict in her eyes.  He should not have waited this long to discredit Señora Lopez and her outrageous claims.  But he had been selfish, enjoying Victoria's company as Don Diego.   He thought that she had altered her opinion of the scholarly caballero at little.

     "Will you come with me?" he asked, not waiting for her answer.  "There is something I need you to see."

     "All. . .all right," she acquiesced.  She glanced down at her night dress.

     "I'll wait outside while you change."  He was also looking at the thin material of her gown.  "Meet me at the stables," he said huskily.

     Ten minutes later, Victoria was walking toward the stables.  Zorro came out from behind the building, leading her horse as well as Toronado.

     "Where are we. . .?" she tried to ask after they had mounted their animals.

     "Shh," he cautioned, holding a gloved finger to his lips.  "Follow me."

     The ride to Los Angeles took longer than Zorro usually covered the two miles.  Victoria's horse would have never kept up with Toronado.  They halted at the back of her tavern.  Victoria threw Zorro an angry look.  "Why are we here?"

     "All in due time," was the enigmatic reply.  "I need you to stay in the kitchen.  Can I trust you to do as I ask?"

     She nodded.  Quietly they entered through the rear door and swept through the kitchen to the draped doorway.  Zorro gave Victoria's hand a squeeze before he slipped through the curtains.

     Monica Lopez was sitting alone at a table.  She started when she saw the black clad man appeared in the room.

     "Señora Lopez?" he inquired.  "You will have to forgive me.  We both know I have never met you before, let alone do what you say I have done."

     The woman hung her head down in shame as he continued.  "I wonder how your late husband Jorge would feel about you telling everyone his children are supposed to be mine?"

     Monica began to sob.  "I am sorry, Señor Zorro.  Jorge. . .  Jorge, he drowned three months ago.  He was a fisherman.  I was left destitute so when Alcalde de Soto offered me five hundred pesos, I could not refuse."  She started crying even harder.

     "The Alcalde," Victoria whispered from her vantage point behind the drapes.  "I should have known."

     The tavern door opened and de Soto strode in.  "Zorro," he said angrily, then paused when he saw Señora Lopez there sobbing.

     "You're late, Alcalde," Zorro chided.  "The señora has already confessed.  You really have sunk to a new low this time, preying on poor widows and children."

     "She's lying," the Alcalde declared huffily.  "I have no idea. . ."

    The masked man was unfurling a rolled document.  "This is a signed affidavit from the padre in San Pedro.  It states that the señora was the wife of Jorge Lopez and that both children are his.  Their baptismal papers have been stolen from the church records."  He held up the parchment for the other man to see.  When Ignacio made a grab for it, Zorro whipped it out of his reach.

     "I think not, Alcalde," he advised sternly.  He then looked about the tavern.  "Señora Estevez?"

     Everyone turned to see the plump matron rise up from behind the bar.  Zorro handed her the document.  "I know I can trust you with this, Doña Carmen."

     "Of course, Zorro."  Already she was thinking of the delicious story she would be telling everyone tomorrow.  Imagine, Zorro asking for her help. . .

     He gallantly kissed her hand.  The older lady twittered like a school girl.  Zorro then swung around to face the Alcalde.

     "Zorro, what are you going to do now," the man asked nervously.

     "It is not so much what I am going to do as you," was the reply.  "You will give Señora Lopez her five hundred pesos and an escort back to San Pedro.  Next time, do your own dirty work if you want to drag me through the mud."

     "Done."  De Soto agreed then whistled loudly, summoning his men.  Zorro just shook his head.

     "Really, Alcalde," he chuckled.  "Will you ever learn?"  A black clad fist hit the other man directly between the eyes.  De Soto fell unconscious to the floor.  Zorro bowed to the ladies.  "Buenos noches, Señoras."

     He disappeared into the kitchen, leaving the senseless Alcalde, the tearful Monica, and the smug Doña Carmen behind.  He swept Victoria up into his arms, kissing her long and hard.  Then without giving her a chance to speak, he led her outside to their mounts.

     Victoria was too stunned by the kiss and the revelations she had witnessed to say anything until they reached the de la Vega hacienda.  Zorro led her to the front doorstep.

     "Zorro, I. . ." she began to apologize but he kissed her again.

     "Victoria," he said hoarsely once they could both breathe again.  "I swear to you that I have been faithful to you in both mind and body since the day I first donned this mask.  There has never been anyone else but you in my heart."

     "Oh, Zorro," she said.  "I believe you.  But sometimes I don't see you for days, weeks on end and I begin to wonder."

     "Word has reached my ears," he stated with a wry smile, "that you have been spending a lot of time with Don Diego de la Vega lately.  Should I be worried?"

     "Diego?" she replied in surprise.  "Don't be silly.  Do not worry about him, he is just a dear friend."  She sensed that was not the answer the masked man had wanted to hear.  She then recalled he had once recommended Diego as a husband for her.  Any further reflection she might have done was pushed aside as Zorro kissed her once more.
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     A month later, it was the beginning of a new year.  Victoria was waiting on customers sitting out on the tavern porch.  The weather was quite warm despite it being winter.  She smiled when she saw Diego step onto the wooden porch.  Her attention was then diverted toward a young man who was helping a woman from a carriage.  Diego turned to see Benito Trujillo and his bride, Catalina Delgado as they walked to Doctor Hernandez' office.  The slight bulge in the front of the young woman's dress told of the reason for the visit.

     Victoria sighed as Diego put a comforting hand on her shoulder.  She looked up at him with tears in her beautiful dark eyes.  "Everyone is having babies but me," she whispered wistfully.  "Do you think you and I will ever have children, Diego?"

     It was one of his dearest wishes but he could hardly tell her that.  She mistook his silence for confusion.  "Oh, no, not you and I together," she laughed, "don't be silly.  I mean. . ."

     "I think we will someday," he cut in.  "When the time is right."

     She nodded her head, then frowned suddenly.  "Diego, I have been meaning to ask you.  What happened to the portrait you did of me?  I thought you meant to. . ."

     "It's finished," he replied, relieved she had changed the subject.  "I will bring it the next time I come to town."

      "Gracias."  She glanced up at him curiously.  "One more thing, Diego.  Why did you have me wear the same necklace your mother wore in her portrait?"

     "I didn't realize I had.  Why?" he lied glibly.

     "Oh, no reason," she replied, feeling he was hiding something from her, but what?  She shrugged her shoulders and made her way back into the tavern.  Diego followed behind her, wearing a smile of both relief and concern.  She was getting much too close to guessing his secrets.
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