"Anima ejus, et ánimæ ómnium fidélium defunctórum, per misericórdiam Dei requiéscant in pace."

     Diego watched as Padre Benitez then made the sign of the cross over the coffin of his father's closest amigo, Don Sebastian Valverde.  The don had been shot and killed; his wife, Maria, had also been shot and left for dead.  But the señora had survived, and was now weeping inconsolably on Don Alejandro's shoulder.

     He glanced over to his left and saw Victoria standing next to Jose Rivas.  Jose, one of the Valverdes' most loyal tenants, had been falsely accused of the heinous crime.  Diego smiled inwardly as he recalled the elaborate ruse that had been concocted to prove Jose's innocence to the new alcalde.  Making de Soto think that he had been ill and unconscious for several days and that Sergeant Mendoza had carried out Jose's execution had taken the cooperation of the whole pueblo.

     Diego was nudged out of his reminiscing by his father's elbow.  The funeral service was over and the mourners were leaving the cemetery.  He observed as Victoria took Jose's hand and walked away with him.  Jealousy roiled up inside him.  He had noticed that the two of them had become quite close in the preceding days.  And the knowledge that Victoria had helped the other man before only made him more envious.  Was there more between the innkeeper and Jose than just friendship?  Was she thinking of marrying him?

     "Diego, come on," said Zafira, tugging on his arm.  "Everyone's already left."  She glanced up at him curiously.  "What are you waiting for?"

    "Nothing," he replied.  He smiled half-heartedly and offered her his arm.  "Shall we?"

     He led her out of the graveyard, trailing behind the others.  He searched for his father and the grieving widow but instead saw Victoria and Jose, their heads together in close conversation.

     He had not been able to look Victoria in the eye, let alone speak to her beyond what was polite, for several months.  The image of her, dressed in her thin cotton chemise, standing next to his bed, would fill his mind and render him dumbstruck.    Every time he had seen her in the subsequent weeks, he thought of how she had been in his bed.  True, Señora Moreno, the elderly widow,  had also slept in it, but he tried not to think of that.  He knew he was torturing himself needlessly by the fantasies he wove around the incident, but he couldn't help himself.

     He gazed down at Zafira as they walked into the plaza.  She had never mentioned that night, but he had caught her staring at him from time to time, an enigmatic expression on her face.  He wondered if she had deliberately let him burst in on the two women in his room.  If she knew about his feelings for Victoria, she never hinted at them.  But there was a certain maliciousness the lovely innkeeper seemed to bring out in his uncaring wife.

    Sighing, he assisted the woman he had impetuously wed up the steps of the tavern as they went to join the wake for Don Sebastian.
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      A month later, Diego found himself attending another service presided over by the good padre.  Only it was a much happier occasion.  One of the de la Vegas's ranch hands was getting married that day to the daughter of the de la Vegas's stablemaster, Miguel.

     Unfortunately, he, Zafira, and Don Alejandro were seated directly behind Victoria, who was sitting next to an older couple, the Estevezes.  Doña Carmen was a notorious busybody and her husband, Don Esteban, was nearly her equal as a gossip.

    Instead of paying attention to the ceremony being performed in front of him, Diego had spent the entire Mass staring at the back of Victoria's head, except for the times when the congregation stood, then his gaze would drift a bit lower.  Thoughts occupied his head that had no business being there, especially while he was in a place of worship.

[parts of the following scene taken from "A New Lease on Love" written by Philip John Taylor]

     "May the Lord fill you both with his blessings," declared Padre Benitez as the service finally came to a close.   "And what God hath joined, men must not divide.  Pedro. . .  Benita. . ."

     He motioned for the newlyweds to stand up.  Diego watched covetously as they kissed.  He remembered his own wedding day and slid a quick glance over to Zafira who was sitting between him and his father.  The expression on her face told him nothing of what she was thinking, beyond a pleasant smile directed at Pedro and Benita.
     "It's time you got married," Doña Carmen whispered to Victoria.

     Diego noticed that the innkeeper's spine stiffened as she looked over at the older woman with an irritated countenance.

     Señora Estevez blithely continued on as the now married couple walked down the aisle on their way out of the church.  "Victoria, you should find a good husband and have little ones," she declared.

     Diego's stomach clutched at the thought of Victoria having another man's children.  He knew he had no right to feel that way but he could not help himself.  He didn't realize he was gripping the back of the pew in front of him until Zafira nudged him with her elbow.

    "Diego, come on," she prompted impatiently.  Don Alejandro also was glaring at him in annoyance.

     He got to his feet and exited the bench, allowing his wife and the elder de la Vega to leave as well.  He turned to look over his shoulder, catching more of Doña Carmen's unsubtle coercion of Victoria.

    "Let's face it, Victoria," she stated, "Zorro's not the marrying kind. Champions of liberty have never been good providers.  The pay is dreadful."

    "I don't need any man's money," the lovely innkeeper retorted.  Diego wasn't able to hear anymore of the conversation as he followed Zafira and his father out of the building.  Again, pain twisted his insides.  Señora Estevez fancied herself as the pueblo's matchmaker.  And now, it seemed, she was focusing her attention on Victoria.

     And again, Diego had to scold himself that was none of his concern.  He had a spouse and a child.  He couldn't deny her the same.

     The next few weeks were interesting, to say the least.  Diego watched as Doña Carmen paraded suitor after suitor in front of Victoria.  And was filled with a smug self-righteousness as she spurned them all.

     De Soto was also up to something, although Diego had yet to figure out exactly what it was.  The Alcalde was making a big fuss about a statue of King Ferdinand that was being delivered to Los Angeles. Sergeant Mendoza had let slip (during a meal that Diego had bought for him, along with a good measure of wine) that de Soto had told him that the sculpture was going to bring about Zorro's downfall.  Then Felipe, after returning from a errand in San Pedro, informed him that armed lancers had met the ship the King's statue had arrived upon and had immediately began guarding the wooden crate it was packed in.

     His curiosity drove him to find out what exactly was in the well-protected box.  His first attempt failed and he had barely escaped being captured.  His second try the next day met with more success.
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[parts of the following scene taken from "A New Lease on Love" written by Philip John Taylor] 

     Zorro quietly slipped into the back of the church.  Even though Mendoza had told him it was taking place, he hadn't wanted to believe it true.  But he couldn't disregard the proof right before his eyes.  Victoria, heart-breakingly beautiful in a white lace dress, stood in front of Padre Benitez, gazing warmly at the man by her side.

    Lieutenant Juan Ortiz.  It had been many years since he had seen the other man but he still recognized him.  He recalled hearing at one time that Juan and Victoria had been childhood sweethearts, but then Juan had joined the Royal Navy and Victoria had taken over running the tavern.  But that knowledge didn't help with the churning sickness in his gut as he observed them with a heavy heart.

    Padre Benitez was looking at Ortiz.  "Juan, do you promise to be true to her in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love and to honor her all the days of your life?" he asked.

     "I do."  The lieutenant's voice was confident and clear.

     Then the padre turned to Victoria.  "Victoria, will you take Juan to be your husband?  Do you promise to be true to him in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health to love and to honor him all the days of your life?"

     She glanced over at Juan and Zorro saw a tiny flicker of indecision in her eyes. "I. . .I. . ." she murmured nervously.  Then she took a deep breath and glance over at her groom then at Padre Benitez.

     "I do."

     Zorro watched in silent anguish as Juan slid a gold band on Victoria's left ring finger, forever marking her as his wife.  Whatever doubt he had seen in the lovely innkeeper's eyes before was now gone, replaced by an expression of hope.

     Padre Benitez made the sign of the cross over the newlyweds.  "May the Lord fill you both with his blessings.  And what God hath joined, men must not divide," he said.

    Men must not divide.  The words echoed through Zorro's head as he closed his eyes, unable to watch as Ortiz lowered his mouth to Victoria's.  She was now truly out of his reach.  She was somebody else's wife just as he was somebody else's husband.  Pain clenched his heart

     The sound of people getting to their feet shook him out of his despondency.  Victoria and Juan, on their way out of the church,  were just about to pass by his hiding place.  Impulsively, he stepped out into the aisle.

    "Zorro!"  Victoria's shocked cry was repeated by others inside the church.

     He bowed before the bride and groom.  "My congratulations," he offered, the sincerity in his voice at odds with the roiling of his insides.  "I wish you both great happiness."

     Victoria murmured, "Gracias," before averting her gaze.  However, the lieutenant withdrew his sword from its scabbard and pointed it at the man in black's broad chest.

     "Señor," said Zorro as he took a step back.  "I mean you no harm."

     "I'm a officer in His Majesty's Navy," retorted Juan, thrusting his weapon forward, touching it to Zorro's black silk shirt.  "You are under arrest.  Step outside."

     Zorro nodded as he raised his hands.  "If you insist."

     Victoria clutched at her new spouse's arm.  "Juan, please don't do this!" she pleaded.  She glanced from Ortiz to Zorro, who saw the distress in her liquid brown eyes.  "He's not our enemy." she stated as she tugged on Juan's forearm.

     The lieutenant shrugged off her hands.  "He's an outlaw," he said, his wary stare never leaving Zorro's face.  "I have to do my duty."

     He lifted the tip of his blade from Zorro's chest then motioned forward.  "After you, Señor Fox," snarled Juan.  Zorro started to exit the church, the naval officer's sword now pricking into his back.

     Once outside, Ortiz came around and held his weapon to Zorro's chest once again.  "Now, Zorro," he commanded, "kindly hand over your sword."

     Zorro stared at the cannon aimed directly at him then turned to Juan and his thin piece of steel.  "Excuse me, Lieutenant," he drawled sarcastically, "but don't think your request is somewhat superfluous?"

     Gasps filled the air as the wedding guests got a glimpse of the massive weapon pointed at them and the mission.  Zorro noticed for the first time his father and Zafira were part of the crowd leaving the church.  Don Alejandro had come up behind Victoria, placing a protective hand on her shoulder, leaving his daughter-in-law to stand by herself.

      People began to scatter as the line of lancers standing behind the cannon raised then cocked their muskets.  De Soto was also behind the cannon, holding up a piece of lit punk and wearing a grin so wide it threatened to split his face in two.

     "Prepare to die, Zorro!" he called out cheerfully.

     Zorro pushed aside Ortiz's sword and took a step toward the commandante.  "Be reasonable, Alcalde," he said calmly.  "You could kill every citizen within fifty meters with that diabolical device."

     More people ran away from the front of the church.  Sergeant Mendoza, who had also been attending the ceremony, sprinted past the masked man on his way to his superior officer.  The soldier began to dance excitedly in front of de Soto, trying to gain the other man's attention.

     The Alcalde ignored the sergeant's antics.  "Ah," he said confidently, "then you've heard of Sir Henry Shrapnel's magnificent invention."

     The man in black nodded although he hardly agreed with de Soto's assessment of the wicked piece of  artillery.  "Each cannonball contains hundred of lead pellets," he announced in a loud voice, wanting everyone in the pueblo de Los Angeles to realize just what their new commandante has brought into their midst.  "They cause devastation over a vast area."

     "Alcalde!"  Mendoza's shout was filled with panic.

     "Be quiet, Sergeant!" the Alcalde ordered as he glanced down at the still prancing lancer.  Then he raised his venomous stare back up to meet Zorro's eyes.  "This is one piece of artillery you will not evade and you cannot outrun.  And after I have blasted you out of existence, I will leave it here, mounted in the middle of the plaza as a reminder to the good people of Los Angeles of what can befall them if they try to cross me."

     He opened out his arms and swept them over the plaza as he turned to his right and left.  The remaining people in the plaza ran to take cover, leaving Zorro, Victoria, Juan, Don Alejandro, and Zafira standing in front of the church.

     Juan touched his hand to Victoria's arm.  "Let's get out of the line of fire," he suggested firmly, waiting only a moment before he marched over to stand beside the Alcalde.  He was obviously throwing his support behind de Soto and his insanity.

    "Victoria!" Juan called out when he realized that his bride had not followed him.  Zorro turned to look at her and saw the uncertainty on her beautiful face.  She was visibly torn between joining her new husband or protecting the man who she felt was the savior of Los Angeles.  But a man who had also broken her heart.

     "Victoria!"  Zorro heard the impatience in Ortiz's voice and watched as Victoria stayed rooted to where she was standing.  A single tear rolled down her left cheek.

    "Señor de la Vega," he said to his father.  "If you would kindly escorted the ladies to safety."  He pointed to his left.  Don Alejandro nodded and took Zafira's arm.  The old don reached for Victoria's hand and pulled her out of her inertia in the direction the masked man had indicated.

     Juan's shouts at Victoria were mingled with Mendoza's pleas to de Soto.  The sergeant, seeing that the commandante was about to light the cannon's short fuse, tried to run toward Zorro, but the Alcalde grabbed him by the collar of his jacket with his right hand as he touched the lit punk to the massive weapon's detonator with his left.

     The ensuing explosion was deafening.  A cloud of thick white smoke obscured the entire plaza as people screamed then began to cough.  Zorro took the opportunity the thick haze provided to run back inside the church and up the narrow, winding staircase that led to the bell tower.  He peered downward as the dust settled back down in the plaza.  He had to stop himself from chuckling aloud as he saw the destroyed cannon with de Soto on his butt in the dirt beside it.


     The anguished cry from Victoria drew his attention as he watched as she streaked toward the ruined weapon.  Tossing aside the bouquet she still had been holding, she knelt down beside a body lying on the ground.

     Zorro squinted downward and noticed the once shiny black boots and the once white trousers the man was wearing.  Madre de Dios!  For the second time in less than an hour, he couldn't believe what he was seeing.

     Don Alejandro came over and helped the shaking Victoria to her feet.  The man in black then clearly saw Lieutenant Juan Ortiz, a large piece of shrapnel lodged in his left temple and another piece sticking up out of his chest, lying in a pool of blood.

     He had just killed Victoria's husband.
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