Diego looked downward as a warm breeze caressed his bare face.  Luis Ramón had finally unmasked Zorro.  Had finally learned that the bandit that had plagued him for the last four years had been none other than Diego de la Vega.

     And it was knowledge that the Alcalde would take to his grave.  Diego stared at the man lying on the cobbled stones below.  Ramón was dead, he realized as he observed the halo of blood around the erstwhile commandante's head and the unnatural angles of his arms and legs.

     Diego saw that the black silk mask and the black felt sombrero were still clutched in the dead man's right hand.  Bile began to rise in his throat.  He choked it back down and turned away, remembering the tasks that he still had to face.

     Thankfully, he met no one as he rushed through the fortress.  The smoke bomb he had tossed into an open window had done its job and everyone had clear out of the prison.  Diego made his way to the courtyard where the Alcalde had met his demise.  Again, a wave of nausea and guilt swept over him as he gazed upon Ramón's lifeless body.  Gritting his teeth, he bent down and retrieved his hat and mask then the deed to the de la Vega hacienda that had slipped out of the other man's limp hand.

     Zorro quickly retied his mask as he heard voices coming nearer on the other side of the tall hedge that separated the tiny courtyard from the rest of the prison's grounds.  He walked over to a small break in the bushes just as the litter bearing Alfonso Escalante passed in front of him.  Sergeant Mendoza and Victoria's brother, Ramon, were carrying the stretcher, assisted by two of the prisoners that had been freed.

     Victoria walked along beside, holding her father's hand.  Zorro could tell by the sad expression on her beautiful face that he, too, has passed from this world.

     He waited until the solemn procession had passed him before he slipped through the narrow gap and fell in at the rear of the grieving group.

     Three deaths, he thought wearily.  Of course, Señor Escalante's death had been imminent, had been expected.  Hence the reason for his and the others's trip to La Fortaleza del Diablo.  But the other two. . .Rosalinda and Ramón. . .  Neither of them had needed to die.  And he knew he was responsible in some way for both deaths.

     Victoria and the others had reached the front of the prison and came to a halt.  She turned and faced Zorro.  "We need a wagon," she stated.

     "A wagon, Señorita?" queried Mendoza.

     "Si, Sergeant," she replied.  "We're taking my father back to Los Angeles."

     "Victoria," began her brother, "it's at least a four day ride back to the pueblo.  We can't. . .  I mean, Papa. . ."  Ramon looked away, obviously unable to voice the rest of his objections.

     "I'll get a wagon," said Zorro.  He took the few steps that separated him from Victoria and lifted her hand.  "I'm truly sorry, Señorita," he said.  "And you still have my word I will do want ever it takes to ensure your father makes it back to Los Angeles."

     "Gracias," she responded automatically, her eyes glistening with tears.

     "I'll go fetch that wagon," Zorro said before kissing her hand reverently.

     "Where's the Alcalde?" asked Mendoza as the man in black began to walk away.  Zorro paused in his tracks, bowing his head then looking upward.

     "He's dead," he declared baldly.  "He fell off one of the fortress's tower."

      "D-D-Dead?" asked the incredulous sergeant.  "He fell off a tower?  W-What was he doing up there?"

     "He was stealing land grants from the deed room," Zorro explained, deciding not to mention it had been his family's documents with which Ramón had been trying to abscond.

     "I knew he was up to no good," said Mendoza as he removed his hat then made the sign of the cross.  "Where is the body?"

     "Back there," the masked man turned and pointed.  "Just inside that hedge."  He saw the struggle the soldier was having with his emotions over the Alcalde's death.  "What are your intentions, Sergeant?"

     "His family is in Mexico City," said the sergeant.  "He hates, I mean hated, Los Angeles."  He shook his head.  "I don't know, Zorro.  Do you think it would all right if he was buried here?"

     "If you think that would be best, Sergeant," Zorro replied.  "I shall leave you to make the arrangements."

     The soldier nodded then placed his hat back onto his head and motioned to the two former prisoners.  "Come with me."

     Zorro took one end of the litter bearing Señor Escalante and Ramon grabbed hold of the other as Mendoza and the other men went to go retrieve Luis Ramón's body.

     It wasn't until later that evening when the four Angelenos had stopped for the night that Zorro had a chance to speak with Victoria again.  She, Ramon, and Mendoza had secured rooms for the night at a small inn.  Of course, Zorro couldn't stay with them, instead hiding out at the stables with the wagon and Señor Escalante's coffin.

     He was attending to Toronado when Victoria walked into the stables, carrying a cloth covered tray.  "I brought you some supper," she explained with a smile.

     "Gracias."  He took the tray from her and set it down on a hay bale and removed the napkin.   A bowl of albondigas soup, bread, a serving of flan, and a glass of lemonade stared up at him.  Zorro slid Victoria a surreptitious glance.  All of Diego's favorite foods.

     "It was all they had left," she said a bit nervously.  "I mean, I don't know what you like. . ."

     "It's perfect," the man in black replied, grinning with relief.  "Thank you."

     He indicated the stack of bales then helped her get seated before he sat down beside her.  He placed the tray on his lap and took a spoonful of the soup.  Not bad, he thought.  Not as good as the woman next to him made, but adequate.

     They sat quietly, side by side, while Zorro ate his meal.  When he was done, he put the tray aside then reached for Victoria's hand.  She didn't look up at him but grasped his hand tightly.  Neither of them spoke but the silence wasn't awkward.  It just felt right; peaceful and intimate.

    "Victoria," he said after several minutes, giving her hand a squeeze, "I'm so sorry."

     "It's all right, Zorro," she replied stoically.  She took a deep breath.  "It's just so hard, you know.  I thought he was dead all these years and I had made my peace with that.  But then to see him alive again then. . ."  She swallowed back her tears.  "Well, it's just ripped everything open again."

     Zorro nodded.  He knew he would feel the same way if it had been his father.  To have grieved and finally accepted the death of a loved one, then to have to watch him die all over again.

     "I was so mad at him when he left after Mama was killed,"Victoria said, staring at the opposite wall.  "I was so alone and so scared."  She wiped at her eyes with her free hand.  "I. . .I hated him for deserting me.  But I loved him too."

     She dissolved into tears then and Zorro took her gently into his arms.  The front of his shirt grew damp as she wept.  He patted her on the back as he placed a kiss the top of her head.  His poor, brave, beautiful Victoria.  She snuggled up against his chest as her sobbing subsided.  Her hands slid around to his back.

     His body tightened instantly.  Zorro glanced down at her as she gazed up at him with her tear-stained face.  It was so tempting to give her what her shimmering eyes were begging for and his mouth moved towards hers for a second.

      A wave of regret washed over him as he pulled back away from her, making him wish he had never laid eyes on Zafira.  That he had returned to California a free man.  A man who could have pursued and wed the lovely innkeeper.

   Then he remembered Isabella and he was consumed with guilt.  He would not trade his daughter for anything, or anyone, in the world.  He slowly pulled away from Victoria and helped her dry her face.

     "I'm so sorry," he reiterated, knowing that his words were inadequate.  And he was sorry for much more than her father's death.  He was sorry he couldn't be the man she wanted him to be.  And sorry that he had duped her all these years.

     Victoria nodded, obviously unable to speak as she wiped her wet cheeks.  Zorro hopped down off the bale and helped her down before moving what he hoped was a safe distance away.

     "I, um. . ." he began, slightly worried by her reaction to what he was about to say.  "I won't be able to travel with you, Ramon, and Mendoza the rest of the way back to the pueblo."  He held up his hand as she opened her mouth to object.  "I will continue keep on watch over you, however," he clarified.  He indicated his mask and the rest of his costume.  "I don't want to bring any more trouble to you."

     "It would be no trouble," Victoria declared earnestly.  "You could do as you did today.  Hiding whenever we chanced upon other travelers."

     Zorro shook his head.  "It would only be a matter of time until someone spied me riding with you," he said, "and tried to turn me over to the authorities."  Taking a deep breath, he realized that he had to tell her he could no longer allow her to think of him as a suitor.  He owed it to his wife and child.  He owed it to her.  He looked down at his hands and noticed they were shaking.  "Victoria, you need to find someone who is more worthy of you than myself," he stated.

     "But. . ."  The protest died on her lips as she stared into his eyes.

   "I know this is a bit harsh, considering all that has happened."  He turned away, unable to look at her beautifully sad countenance.  "But you're truly alone now.  And you need a family.  One that I will never be able to provide you."

     He turned back around and watched helplessly as tears began streaking down her face again.  "I'm truly sorry, Victoria.  But it's for the best.  One day you'll see that I'm right."

     She snatched the tray off the hay bale.  "And one day you'll know that I'm right," she retorted passionately.  "We were meant to be.  I know it as sure as I know my name. Buenas noches."

     She spun around and stormed out of the stables.  He could hear things falling off the tray as she walked away.  Zorro shook his head once more.  Stubborn little fool, he thought ruefully although he conceded he was the one to blame.  He never should have led her on, never should have let her think that there could ever be anything between them.

    Zorro went back over to Toronado and picked up the currying brush, resuming with a heavy heart his grooming of the Andalusian that Victoria's visit had interrupted.
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[parts of the following scenes taken from "The Devil's Fortress" written by Robert L McCullough]

     "Diego!" his father shouted.  "Look at you!  What happened to you?"

     Diego wished he was a betting man because he had guessed what the elder de la Vega was going to say when he walked through the door of the hacienda almost to the word.  He had dirtied his clothing and face, torn his clothes (in mendable places, of course), and had mussed his hair.  Staggering into the foyer was the finishing touch, he thought as he repressed a grin.

     "I'm afraid I got lost," he explained sheepishly.

     "What do you mean you got lost?" asked Don Alejandro incredulously.  Diego winced inwardly as he saw the glimpse of disappointment in his father's eyes.  Telling himself it was all part of the charade, Diego sighed dramatically as he shrugged.

     "Well, you're back and that's all that matters, son," the old don said graciously.

     "Well, look who's back," announced Zafira as she strolled into the hacienda through the front door, dressed in her riding habit and carrying a crop.  "Where have you been?" she asked, glaring at him suspiciously.  "The Escalante woman and the others arrived back days ago."

     "He got lost," stated Don Alejandro.

      "Lost?" she echoed as she yanked off her gloves.  "Why doesn't that surprise me?"

     "How is Isabella?" Diego asked, a bit concerned by the coldness of his wife's demeanor.

     He had wanted to return home immediately but knew that it would appear suspect if both Diego and Zorro arrived back in Los Angeles at the same time as the others.  Instead he had spent several days in San Pedro, holed up in a tiny inn by the waterfront.  There he had read, composed a couple of poems, and drank a little more than he should have on more than one occasion.

     He usually abstained from spirits, as he liked to keep his wits about him.  He had seen too many men in their cups spill their most intimate secrets, something he could not normally afford to do.  But, alone in his small room overlooking the harbor, it had seemed harmless to drown his sorrows in a bottle or two of wine.  Unfortunately, all the alcohol did was to give a sore head and a sour stomach.

     It had done nothing to assuage the guilt that ate at him over Rosalinda's and  Ramón's deaths.   Then he had had to hurt Victoria and at a time she was already distressed over her father's passing.  But, he told himself over and over again, it was for the best.  He had a wife and a child.  It was time she got on with her life.  Even if seeing her married to another man, bearing another man's children, would be like a knife in his heart, it was something he was going to have to suffer through.

     "She's fine, Diego," his father replied.  "She's learned to roll over, the little rascal."

     "She didn't even notice you were gone," Zafira said with a spiteful gleam in her icy blue eyes.  She turned on her heel and headed toward her room.

     The elder de la Vega shook his head.  "I don't know what's gotten into her lately," he began.  "She's been awful moody."  He glanced at his son inquisitively.  "She's not, you know. . .expecting again already, is she?"

     "No," Diego said forcefully.  He hadn't touched her in more than a year, not since that night their daughter was conceived.  Unless it was the second occurrence of an immaculate conception, Zafira was definitely not pregnant.

    "Oh, well," sighed his father.  He clapped Diego on the shoulder as Felipe came into the room.  "Oh, I've got to tell you what happened at Devil's Fortress," he stated excitedly.

     Felipe looked up at Diego with a smile.  The young man no doubt knew that the story circulating about the pueblo was only about half true.  They both started to follow Don Alejandro as he walked toward the library.

     "I'll tell you what happened at Devil's Fortress," Diego told Felipe in a low voice.  The youth grinned broadly as they sat down in the library to listen to a garbled version of the real story.
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