Colonel Palomarez had returned.

     And as the year before when the military man had come to Los Angeles, he was about to wreak havoc upon the citizens of the pueblo.

     It was just one more thing to add to the growing pile of problems that had been heaped upon Diego's broad shoulders in the past month.  He, despite how many overtures he made toward Felipe, couldn't get the young man to meet him halfway across the chasm that had sprung up between them.  He really couldn't fault the boy.  He had let him go off with that woman.  But he had apologized over and over again for his lapse in judgement.  But Felipe refused to be placated.

     The youth disappeared from the hacienda for hours at time, not telling Diego where he was going nor what he was doing.  Diego was growing more and more concerned, especially after the day just a week earlier when he had gotten a whiff of alcohol on the lad's breath.

    Then there had been Zafira to contend with.  She was incensed that Felipe had come back to the hacienda and was making everyone's life as miserable as she thought hers was   She never talked to Diego except to insult him or to complain about the conditions he was making her live in, her list of grievances growing longer each day, it seemed.

[parts of the following scene taken from "Palomarez Returns" written by Robert L McCullough]

     So it was no wonder that Diego took himself off to the tavern every chance he could.  And that was where he was one afternoon, letting Sergeant Mendoza think he was teaching him how to play poker.

     "Well, you have finally met your match, Don Diego," gloated Mendoza as he looked over the cards in his hand.

     "Yes, I can see you know this game very well, Sergeant," Diego lied glibly.  Everyone in the pueblo knew what an abysmal gambler the good sergeant was, though he did get lucky every once in a while.

     The soldier smiled boastfully.  "Well, you do pick up a few tricks in the barracks."  He set his cards down, three eights and two aces; a full house.

    Diego had a hard time keeping a straight face as he laid his four queens down on the table.  "Then I suppose this is just beginner's luck?" he asked with mock innocence.

     Mendoza was stunned.  "B. .  B. . .But I had a perfect hand," he stammered.

     Diego patted the sergeant on the shoulder and offered to buy him lunch.  The promise of free food perked the soldier's sagging spirit right up.  Those feelings of elation were dashed, however, when they learned from Victoria that she had had to fire her cook.  It seemed the Alcalde had enacted a bed tax and the innkeeper couldn't pay both it and for outside help in her kitchen.

      "You have your commandante to thank for you empty belly," Victoria pointed out a little harshly.  Diego saw that she had an opened account book on the bar and that her countenance was unusually worried.  He hoped that her business was not in trouble.

     Mendoza was taken aback by her angry outburst.  "Well. . ." he said, "the Alcalde can be a bit aggressive.  Look on the bright side. . ."

     Victoria broke into the sergeant's weak reasoning.  "Mendoza, there is no bright side to oppression."

     Smiling at her audacity, Diego took the opportunity the heated discussion between the innkeeper and the soldier provided to feast his gaze on Victoria.  Dios, but he loved to watch her when her temper was riled.  The way her eyes sparkled, the flush that rose on her smooth cheeks, the way her. . .   Then Mendoza said something that recaptured his attention away from Victoria's heaving bosom.

    "Well, the Alcalde is better than Colonel Palomarez.  Is he not?"

    Diego slid a glance over at the soldier.  "That's not saying so much, Sergeant," he said sardonically.

    "Sergeant Mendoza," Victoria began loudly, "please do not mention that name again in my tavern.  I would rather die than submit to his rule."  She slammed shut the ledger book.

    "Is that so, Señorita?" drawled an evil voice that they all had hoped never to hear again.  Everyone's attention was drawn to the open door of the tavern to where Colonel Mefisto Palomarez stood, his usual battalion of soldiers at his back.

     "Death, you see," he declared, "is easily arranged."

    Death wasn't all the deranged colonel had on his mind either.  He produced a land grant signed by King Ferdinand that turned the pueblo de Los Angeles and its surrounding territory over to his ownership.  Diego could hardly believe the words even though he had read the document three times.

     It couldn't be true, he thought.  How could all the land he and his father had owned and worked for decades be taken away with one stroke of a pen?

     Palomarez gave everyone forty-eight hours to move or they would become subject to his rule.  Diego could only imagine how harshly he would treat the people who stayed.  But how could everyone leave so quickly?  Where would they go?  Diego saw that the colonel did not know nor did he care.

    The harshest blow of all came when the mad colonel evicted him and his father from their hacienda, claiming it for his new living quarters.  Of course, Don Alejandro did not take the news submissively.

     "I am Don Alejandro Sebastian de la Vega," he stated in a loud angry voice.  "My father set the first stones for this hacienda.  You can't throw me out of my own house!"

     Diego and Felipe, along with all the servants, stood in the foyer as Palomarez and four of his armor-plated soldiers blocked the front door.  The tense atmosphere was broken by the arrival of Zafira.

     "Why, Colonel Palomarez," she came up to greet him.  "What a pleasant surprise.  What's all this commotion?"

      "Señora de la Vega," he drawled congenially.  He took the hand she offered him and brought it to his lips.  "I am sorry to say that we must meet again under such distressing circumstances."

     "Why?" she asked curiously.  "What is going on?"

"I'm afraid I now own the land this house is situated upon," explained Palomarez.  "I intend to make this hacienda my headquarters."  He glanced over at Diego and Don Alejandro and smirked nastily.

     "You're throwing us out?" Zafira cried.  "But. . .  But. . ."

     "I am so sorry, Señora," said the colonel with only a drop of apology in his voice.  He turned his attention once again to the de la Vega men.  "I am giving you one hour to vacate these premises."

     He started toward the door but Zafira clutched his arm.  "But where will we go?" she asked pleadingly.

     "I believe the inn in Los Angeles has a few rooms yet available," suggested Palomarez in a bored tone as he shook off her hand.  He took out his pocketwatch and glanced at it.  "You now have fifty-nine minutes to remove yourselves from my home."

     Diego looked over at Felipe.  "Go pack your things," he said to the boy slowly.

     "No," said the colonel.   "The servants are to remain here until I can hire my own."

     Diego and Zafira began speaking at the same time.  Diego's "But he's not a servant" was drowned out by Zafira's exuberant "Of course he'll stay behind, he's just the houseboy."

      Felipe just stared passively at Zafira but Diego could see the anger in the young man's eyes.  It only grew more intense when the lad glanced up at him and realized he was not going to press the matter.

     "Come on, Felipe," he said.  "You can help me pack."  A plan had been forming in his mind and he wanted to relay the details to the youth before he had to leave the only place he had called home.

     He put his hand on Felipe's shoulder and steered him toward the bedrooms.

     Fifty minutes later, the last of Zafira's luggage had been secured in the back of the wagon.  She had insisted on taking nearly everything she owned with her, claiming she was unable to part with any of it.  It didn't seem to matter to her that her husband and father-in-law were leaving behind most of their belongings.

     Don Alejandro had challenged Palomarez's claim as they left, and somehow had got the colonel to agree to a public forum with an impartial judge to determine the legality of the land grant.

     On the way to the pueblo, Diego tried to erase the expression on Felipe's face from his memory but couldn't.  The accusatory look the young man had given him had burned itself into Diego's brain.  He only hoped that the boy would follow the instructions he had given him when they had been alone in Diego's room, throwing a few articles of clothing into a bag.

    "Victoria, do you still have rooms available?" inquired the elder de la Vega as he, Zafira, and Diego stepped into the tavern.

     "Si, Don Alejandro," she replied with a grim smile.  "I have just two left."

     "Only two?" questioned Zafira shrilly.

     Victoria walked behind the bar and took down two room keys.  She handed one to Don Alejandro and the other to Diego.  "Si, that is all that is left.  Why?"  She eyed the other woman curiously.

     Zafira ignored the innkeeper's inquiry and spun around to face Diego.  "I am not sharing a room with you," she hissed under her breath.  "You're just going to have to find somewhere else to sleep, because it won't be with me."

     Diego had about as much desire to share a room with her as she did with him, but it was a bit humiliating to admit such a thing in front of everyone.  His father and Victoria were staring at him and Zafira oddly.

     "It will be fine," he said, glaring at his wife.  "I'll go help Miguel with our luggage."

     He turned and walked out of the tavern, taking the room key with him.  The elder de la Vega joined him and even with his help, it took the three men five trips up the stairs to bring up all the baggage.

     "I need a drink," stated Don Alejandro, wiping his brow with a white handkerchief.  He went down the staircase once more and sat down at a table where several of his friends sat.

    Diego and Zafira stared at each other outside the room they were to share.  "Why can't you and your father share the other room?" she whispered crossly.

     "How would that look?" he countered.

     "Oh, yes," she replied mockingly, "I forgot about the mask of respectability you de la Vegas must wear at all times."

      Diego sighed wearily.  "I have no intention of sleeping here tonight," he declared dispassionately as his plans for that evening had hinged on him having a room to himself.  "I'll be at the livery if you need me."

     Zafira laughed scornfully.  "Don't hold your breath," she said before she shut the door in his face.  Diego turned and saw that Victoria was staring up at him from behind the bar.  He noted the pitying look in her beautiful brown eyes and averted his face, unable to bear her gaze upon him.

     Diego walked downstairs and sat down with his father and the other caballeros, who were discussing what to do about Palomarez and how to get their lands back.
                                                   Z                                                   Z                                                   Z

[parts of the following scene taken from "Palomarez Returns" written by Robert L McCullough]

     Dios, he was dizzy.  The combination of the poison and the head first dive through a window had taken its toll on him.  Zorro sagged against the cool stone wall of the cave's exit tunnel for a moment.  He could scarcely remember how he had made it this far.

     Using what strength he had left, he pushed himself upright and staggered the rest of the way through the tunnel.  He took off his black sombrero as his head began to sweat profusely.

     Zorro looked up as Felipe ran over to him, then anxiously clutched his arm.  "Were you watching?" asked the man in black needlessly, the look of trepidation on the boy's face giving him his answer.

     Felipe threw the masked man's uninjured arm around his shoulders and led him over to the laboratory table.  Zorro held up the small, brown vial that he had nicked from the treasonous colonel.  His left shoulder felt as though it was on fire and he could feel as the searing heat crept slowly away from the scratch Palomarez had given him with the poisoned tip of his sword.

     He uncorked the bottle and sniffed its contents.  No discernible odor.  "It appears to have natural origins," he said.  "Possibly a refined snake venom."  He re-corked the vial.

    Felipe pointed worriedly at his shoulder.  Zorro could see the fear in the young man's eyes.  "Yes, I know," he acknowledged, putting his gloved right hand on the burning cut, ‘it's already inflamed."  His world then turned black for a second.  Struggling mightily, he forced himself to awareness again.  He sat down in a chair he spotted nearby.

     "But even the strongest poison has to have an antidote," he said, some of his wits coming back to him.  Felipe hopelessly shook his head.  "Exactly," he agreed.  "It would take months to research all possibilities.  By then, I'll surely be dead."

     His heart clenched painfully as he watched as Felipe nodded sorrowfully.  Looking for a distraction, Zorro noticed a white quill lying on the laboratory table and picked it up.  An idea began to form in his head, one that hopefully would lead to his full recovery.

     He tentatively touched the end of the quill to his gloved left index finger and felt its prick.  "Actually quite sharp, isn't it?" he asked rhetorically.

     Felipe looked at him in confusion, which turned to panic as once again, the masked man's vision blurred and darkened.  He grabbed Felipe's arm tightly as he took a deep breath and willed himself to stay awake.
     "Go down to the river and select a strong, straight thistle reed," he instructed the apprehensive lad, who shook his head, obviously unable to figure out what the man in black was thinking.  "Because Felipe," Zorro explained, "we're going to get Colonel Palomarez himself to lead me to the antidote."

     He glanced up at the clock on the bookcase behind his desk.  "Now, it's nearly sunrise.  I must get back to the tavern before my father misses me.  Hurry," he urged, patting the youth's arm with as much reassurance as he could muster.  They held each other's eyes for a moment and Zorro was relieved to see the concern in the younger man's expression.  Maybe there was hope yet for their tattered relationship.

     Nodding respectfully, Felipe then ran off to do as he was asked.  Zorro sat where he was for quite awhile, trying to stave off the waves of lightheadedness that kept swirling over him.  He started removing his costume piece by piece, knowing he needed to hurry if his plan to save his life was to work.

    The rest of the morning was a time that came back to Diego in bits and pieces over the following days.  He vaguely recalled speaking out at the forum against Palomarez, voicing his suspicions that the land grant was the clever work of a infamous forger named Enrique Rodero.

    That accusation had drawn the desired response from the mad colonel, as did the quill dart that Felipe had shot into the military man's neck.  Palomarez had left the tavern immediately in search of the antidote.  Diego had to wait several frustrating moments before he was able to go off in pursuit.

    The nectar from the prickly pear cactus blossom was one of the sweetest things he had ever tasted.  He felt its effects instantaneously.

     After extracting a promise from Palomarez to never return to California, he had ridden back to Los Angeles and to the livery where he once again changed from the masked savior of the people to plain old Diego de la Vega.

     He walked into the tavern, where the townspeople were still celebrating the return of their property.  He wandered over to the table where his father and Felipe sat, the former with a glass of wine in his hand and the latter with a glass of lemonade.

     "Diego, have you been asleep all this time?" asked the old don.  Diego had told his father he was going to lie down for awhile after Mendoza had declared that the land grant was ‘fraudulent and it's also no good'.

     "Sorry, Father," he said, hanging his head as if ashamed.  "I guess all this excitement just caught up with me."

     "Well, everything turned out all right, thanks to you," Don Alejandro stated proudly.  He unsteadily got to his feet, making Diego think that the cup of wine in his hand was not his first.  "Let's go home, son."

     Diego darted his eyes upward.  "Where's Zafira?" he asked.  He had not seen her since the day before, right after they had checked into the tavern.

     "Went out riding first thing this morning," the elder de la Vega replied.  "We'll take her things back to the hacienda with us and leave her a note.  She'll be so happy to be back home."

     "Yes," said Diego with a sarcastic bite to his voice.  "I'm sure she will be."

                                                   Z                                                   Z                                                   Z