It had been unseasonably hot during the month of September, even for the pueblo de Los Angeles.  The atmosphere between Diego and Zafira, however, had remained chilly.

     Diego noticed as the heat wave lingered, Zafira had been foregoing her morning rides, often staying in her bedroom until noon.  Even his father had noted her change of routine.  Diego shrugged off the elder de la Vega's concerns, blaming his wife's altered schedule on the hot weather.

    An area causing more uneasiness was the appearance of a professional gambler in town.  Diego had only heard rumors of the man, who was called Bishop, and his prowess at cards.  Things had been extremely busy at the de la Vega ranch and Diego's spare time had been fleeting, so he hadn't had a chance to see the man in action for himself..

[parts of the following scene taken from "Broken Heart, Broken Mask" written by Eugene Pressman]

     The first free afternoon that Diego had had in several weeks found him sitting on the tavern porch, re-reading his copy of Shakespeare's sonnets (in English, of course).  He was also keeping an ear on the poker game in progress at the table to his left.  Three of pueblo's caballeros, Don Esteban, Don Jose, and Don Carlos, were playing against the newcomer, Bishop.

     It seemed for the most part to be a friendly game of cards.  But as the afternoon wore on, the stakes grew higher and tension began to fill the air.  Victoria had given Diego a very worried glance the last time she had come outside to refill his glass of lemonade.

      It was a short while later that groans of frustration from the card players had Diego looking up from his book.  "Gentlemen, the cards don't lie," declared Bishop smugly.

     Don Carlos's chair scraped loudly across the wooden planks as he jumped up, throwing his cards down in disgust.  He walked over to Diego's table.

     "Don Carlos," he said pleasantly as he closed his book. "Lovely evening, isn't it?

     "Not particularly," the other man grumbled. "It's too hot."

     "How's your game going?" asked Diego.  He knew, as did everyone else in the pueblo, that Don Carlos was a horrible card player, even worse than Sergeant Mendoza.  And he had even less money to gamble away.

     "Terrible."  The caballero sat down uninvited at Diego's table.

     "The only man who wins at poker is the one who doesn't play," advised Diego; advice his companion obviously never heeded.

     Don Carlos glanced over his right shoulder.  "I don't like being cheated," he announced.

     Diego grimaced inside as Bishop reacted instantly to the other man's words and came ambling over to their table.

     "You have a big mouth, my friend," the gambler said, a broad, insincere smile on his face.  Diego took the opportunity to assess Bishop, who wasn't an exceptional tall man but looked as though he had the upper body strength of a bull.  Hopefully Zorro would proved to be his equal, if necessary.

     Don Carlos sprang noisily from his seat once again.  This time, Mendoza stepped out of the tavern and in between the two men.  But Diego knew that the sergeant's interference was only delaying the inevitable.  Diego quickly excused himself.  If he hurried, Zorro might be able to prevent any further conflict between the gambler and one of his father's oldest friends.
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[parts of the following scene taken from "Broken Heart, Broken Mask" written by Eugene Pressman]


     Victoria grabbed his arm as she shouted out the warning which was followed by a loud popping sound.

      Zorro, who had been about to swing up into Toronado's saddle, spun around and watched as Victoria sank slowly to the ground.  He ran over and caught her as she collapsed against one of the pillars of the tavern porch.

     "Oh," she said in a surprised voice that was also filled with pain.

     He stared down in horror at the bright crimson stain that was slowly seeping through the white cotton of Victoria's blouse.  One moment he had been kissing her hand; the next, she was in his arms with a gunshot wound.  At least it looked as if it missed her lung and heart, although who knew what other vital organs the bullet had hit.  Zorro closed his eyes and swallowed hard as he placed his hand against her left side in an attempt to stem the bleeding.  A bullet that had been meant for him, not her.

     "It was Bishop," she whispered between gasps of pain.

      "Victoria, why?"  He asked the question even though he already knew the answer.  And it only made him feel worse.

     She reached up her right hand and caressed the part of his face that wasn't covered by his mask.  "You are safe," she murmured, "and that's all that matters."


     Zorro glanced up when he heard the concern in Sergeant Mendoza's voice as he and the Alcalde came running out of the cuartel.

     "Zorro!" Ramón barked out excitedly as several lancers appeared behind him.  Victoria's hand moving against his face brought his attention back to her.

    "Go," she pleaded.  "Please, you must save yourself."

     He didn't want to leave her.  What if she died?  He wanted to be with her, to make sure she was all right.  And if she did die, he wanted to be with her in her final moments.

     But he gazed into her brown eyes that were swimming with tears and pain and saw that they were begging him to go.   Telling him that if he were captured, her sacrifice would have been for naught.

     Thankfully, Toronado was running interference for him with the lancers, keeping them at bay.  He looked up at Don Esteban and Don Jose, whose mouths were gaping open in shock at the scene before them.  "Amigos, get her to a doctor at once," he demanded a little more harshly than he intended.

     The men both nodded and Don Jose stepped forward.  Zorro relinquished Victoria over to him.

     He prayed during his frantic ride back to the hacienda.  Prayed that she wouldn't die.  Or if that wasn't to be, that she wouldn't die until he could get back to her.  The hidden entrance to the secret cave loomed ahead not a moment too soon.  Once inside, he flung himself off Toronado's back and started ripping off his clothes.  The buttons from his shirt make pinging sounds as they hit the cave floor.  He hadn't even noticed Felipe was there until the youth reached out and touched his arm then immediately snatched his hand away.

     "Victoria's been shot," Diego stated as he tore the mask from his face.   He sat down on a nearby stool, intending to remove his boots but paused when he saw the look of panic in the young man's eyes.  Felipe made a few hesitant gestures.

     "I don't know if she'll live," replied Diego. Oh, dear God, what was he going to do if she died?  What an idiot he had been, giving the pistol back to Bishop.  He should have known the other man wouldn't have just walked away.  He buried his face into his hands, not wanting to scare the lad anymore than he already had.  If he saw that Diego was about to fall apart. . .

     Taking a deep breath, he tried to compose himself before he lowered his hands.  Breathing deeply a couple more times, he resumed removing the rest of his black costume.

     When he had redressed into his regular clothing, he turned to Felipe.  "You can't let my father know about Victoria yet," he cautioned.  "I'll send someone out with a message as soon as I get back to the pueblo."

     Felipe nodded that he understood.  Diego left the cave then, running over to his mare that he had left tied to a tree a short distance away from the hidden entrance.  He wished he could have taken the swifter Toronado, but couldn't risk the chance of someone seeing him riding Zorro's horse.

     The sun had almost slipped below the western horizon by the time he rode up to the back entrance to the tavern, where he immediately dismounted and ran toward the doctor's office.  Quite a large gathering of townspeople had gathered outside, the men with long faces and some of the women were weeping.

     Diego's heart tightened painfully.  Oh Dios, was she gone?  Had he missed his chance to tell her who he truly was and that he loved her?  Ignoring the curious stares he received, he wended his way through the crowd to the physician's office door.

     Not bothering to knock, he went inside.  "Doctor Hernandez," he called out as he looked around the unfamiliar rooms.  He had never been inside the doctor's office before as Hernandez usually came out to the hacienda whenever someone there was sick or injured.

     "In here, Don Diego," the doctor replied calmly.  Diego followed the sound of his voice and walked into what was undoubtably the surgery.  Hernandez was bending over Victoria but Diego couldn't see what he was doing as the other man's back shielded most of her slight frame from view.

     "Is she. . .?"  He couldn't finish the question.

     "No, no," replied the physician, turning away from Victoria and making eye contact with Diego.  But before he could say anything else, Don Alejandro burst in the building.  Evidently someone else had sent word to the elder de la Vega before Diego had even had the chance to do so.

     "Where is Victoria?" the old don demanded.  "Is she all right?"

[parts of the following scene taken from "Broken Heart, Broken Mask" written by Eugene Pressman]

     Victoria drew a ragged breath and the doctor hurried back over to her.  He put his stethoscope onto her chest and listened for several minutes, moving the end of the instrument several times.  He then come back over to where Diego and his father were impatiently waiting.

     "The bullet's out," announced Hernandez.

     A fragile optimism sprung up in Diego.  "Then she's going to live?" he asked.

    The physician shook his head.  "It's far too early to tell," he said, throwing a bucket of cold water on Diego's spark of hope.  "The bullet deflected off one of her ribs, which minimized the damage to her insides."  The older man sighed heavily.  "The bone is cracked and chipped which is going to be very painful until it heals.  Then there's always the risk of infection.  She'll need round-the-clock care for a least a week."

     "She'll stay with us," declared the elder de la Vega in a tone that brooked no argument.

     Which he wasn't going to get from Diego as he heartily agreed.  They couldn't leave her here in the doctor's office.  And the tavern was out of the question.  There was no other logical place for her to go.

     "You can borrow my carriage," offered Hernandez.  "The sooner you can get her settled in, the sooner she can get the rest she needs.  I don't need to remind you that these first few hours are critical."  He went over to a cabinet and took out a brown bottle.  "Here," he said, ‘give her this for the pain."

     Diego reached out for the bottle and read its label.  Laudanum.  He only hoped that the need for it would be minimal.  He'd seen opium eaters in Madrid and the thought of Victoria becoming like them made him shudder.

     The doctor had  turned back  to Victoria, lifting her hand as he took her pulse.  Diego was reluctant to take his eyes off her.  Even knowing that she wasn't in immediate danger did little to lessen the guilt that churned inside him.  This was all his fault.  If it hadn't been for his selfish wooing of the lovely innkeeper, she never would have fallen so deeply in love with Zorro that she was willing to forfeit  her own life to protect his.

     "How did this happen, Diego?" his father questioned crossly, disturbing his son's mental berating of himself.  "Who shot her?"

     "That gambler," Diego responded despondently.  "Bishop."

      "Did you see it happen?"  Diego was taken aback by the ferociousness of the elder de la Vega's tone.  He shook his head truthfully.

     "No, I was, er, answering nature's call," he lied, which had become a unconscious habit to him in order to protect Zorro's identity.  "I heard that the man was aiming at Zorro and. . . and Victoria stepped out in front of him."  Again, a pang of guilt swept through him and he was unable to look his father in the eye.

     "This Bishop is going pay," the old don growled.  "He needs to learn he can't go around shooting at innocent women here in Los Angeles."

     "Father. . ." Diego started to caution the hot-headed elder de la Vega, but Don Alejandro turned away and strode out of the doctor's office.

     "I'll help get the carriage," he said over his shoulder before stepping outside, closing the door behind him.

      It was nearly an hour later when Diego and his father, assisted by two of the ranch hands, carried Victoria through the front door of the hacienda on a stretcher lent to them by the doctor.  Zafira, who was as usual sitting in the library working on her embroidery, jumped to her feet and ran over to Diego who was walking backward as he carried the end of the litter where Victoria's head rested.

     "What is going on?" she demanded querulously.  "Why are you bringing her here?  What's wrong with her?

      Don Alejandro jerked his head at the vaquero to his right who took the handles of the stretcher away from Diego.  The three men moved away, following the elder de la Vega's instructions to the best guest room, and leaving Diego to deal with his fractious wife.  He glared at his father's retreating back.

    "She's been shot," he said through clenched teeth, turning his regard to Zafira.  "She's going to stay with us until she's recovered."

     "What about her employees?" asked his wife.  "She pays them enough, I'm sure.  They could take care of her.  "

     "They're simple serving girls, not nurses," retorted Diego.  "Maria is the next best thing a doctor we have here in the pueblo and I'm not without skill as a healer.  Between us, Señorita Escalante should be well taken care of."

     "You're going to doctor her?" Zafira queried disapprovingly.  "An unmarried woman? You cannot be serious." She shook her head.  "I forbid it."

     Diego chuckled mirthlessly.  "You lost that right long ago," he said wearily.  He started to walk past her.  "Excuse me."

     "I don't why you and your father dote on her so much," she said viciously.  "Everyone in the pueblo knows what she is.  A harlot who is anyone's for the taking, including that outlaw Zorro."

     Diego spun around and glared at her.  "Don't you ever speak such filth in my hearing again," he growled at her.  "She's been a good friend to the de la Vegas.  She's a far better person than you'll ever be."

     Zafira must have sensed that she had pushed him too far, and took a step back.  "Fine," she hissed.  "Just don't expect me to help nurse your ‘good friend' back to health."

     She then stuck her chin in the air and stormed off in a huff toward the front door, then slamming it behind her.  Diego wondered for a fraction of a second where she was heading off to at this time of night, but then shrugged his shoulders.  He had more important issues to concern him at the moment, like making sure Victoria lived through the night.
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