Three months had passed since Señora Alberta Sinestra had been transported back to the New Mexico Territory to stand trial for her husband's murder.  Deputy Ventura had written that he had made it back safely to Santa Fe with his prisoner and that her fate had been quickly decided.

     Diego had to admit he was less disturbed by news of her execution by hanging than he was by the knowledge that he had almost committed adultery with her.  Even so, he said an extra prayer for her immortal soul, along with his own, that Sunday at Mass.

     He glanced around inside the church, noting the number of empty pews.  Parishioners from the outlying areas were noticeably absent.  For the past several weeks, a group of ruthless cutthroats had been holding up military payrolls and arms shipments, killing four soldiers in the process.   The weekly stagecoach had been attacked but curiously only the mail pouch had been taken.

     The bandits had struck a wide area, from San Diego to south to as far north as Monterey.  No one was even sure if it was one group of outlaws who seemed to be everywhere at once or several bands of criminals independent of each other.  Zorro, too, was unsure of which was true even after he had spent hours in the saddle, searching for any signs of their activity.

     After the service had ended, Diego and Don Alejandro waited as the rest of the congregation filed out of the pews.  "I've never seen so few people in church before," the old don commented as he and his son followed the others out of the dark interior into the bright sunlight of the plaza.

    "They're afraid of being robbed," replied Diego.  "And with good reason."

    "Oh, nonsense," Victoria interjected as she came up beside the two men.  "Ordinary folks have nothing to fear.  Only government officials and their minions."

    The elder de la Vega nodded.  "She's right," he conceded.  "Doña Carmen said after they raided the stagecoach last week, they rode away shouting ‘Libertad!'."

     "They're revolutionaries, not thieves," stated Victoria.  Diego was taken aback to see the glimmer of excitement in her eyes as she spoke.  "They're not all that different from Zorro."
     "They're nothing alike," declared Diego heatedly.  "Zorro doesn't murder people."

     "That's true, Victoria," agreed Don Alejandro.  "We all know the colonial government is corrupt.  But stealing and killing are not the way to go about changing things. Ah, Sergeant Mendoza, buenos dias," he said as the portly soldier walked their way.

     "Buenos dias," the sergeant replied, "I heard you talking about that gang of robbers."

     "That's right," said the elder de la Vega.

     "I thought you might be interested to know," Mendoza began, lowering his voice as he glanced over his shoulder, "we found out the name of their leader.  Joaquin Correna.  He's wanted in Spain as well."

     Don Alejandro looked thoughtful for a moment. "Never heard of him," he announced.  He glanced around at the others.  "Well, I need to get back to the hacienda.  I'm leaving for Santa Barbara this afternoon," he said to Victoria and the sergeant.  "My nephew and his wife are having another christening."

     He eyed Diego balefully.  Diego grimaced at the thought of his cousin, Rafael, and his once fickle wife, and the fact they had just had their third child, a son.  The niño joined an older brother and sister.  Diego was keenly aware that the elder de la Vega, although he loved Isabella dearly, wanted more grandchildren.

     After the old don left, Mendoza was called to the cuartel by de Soto, leaving Diego and Victoria standing in the middle of the dusty plaza.  "Where's Doña Zafira this morning?" the innkeeper asked.

     "She wasn't feeling well," Diego answered, the lie falling automatically from his lips.  The truth was his wife had gone out riding before he had even risen that morning.  He actually hadn't seen her for about three days.  He had been out tracking the band of outlaws and only heaven knew what his spouse had been doing.

    "Well, I hope she's feeling better soon," said Victoria.  "Adios, Don Diego."

     She turned and headed toward her tavern.  Diego watched as she disappeared inside, his heart heavy with longing.  Sighing, he went to find his horse.

[parts of the following scene taken from "The Old Flame" written by Tom Sawyer]

     Less than a week later, a wagon load of ammunition bound for Los Angeles was blown up.  The garrison's soldiers were only slightly injured, with Mendoza receiving the worst of it.  Zorro had been too late to stop the attack.  And he had lost the bandits' trail after only a few miles.

    Diego went to the pueblo the next day to find it in utter chaos.  Soldiers were searching everyone entering Los Angeles.  Even he had to suffer through the indignity of such an examination.  He then ambled over toward the tavern where he noted that Mendoza, his right arm in a sling, was nailing something to the building's porch.

     "Five thousand pesos, Sergeant?" he queried after perusing the wanted poster of Joaquin Correna.  Diego studied the man's face.  Something about it seemed familiar but he couldn't place it.

     "Ah, not enough," said Mendoza, turning to look up at him.

     Putting the mystery of the bandit leader's identity out of his head, Diego smiled.  "That's almost as much as the price on Zorro's head."

    The sergeant groaned as he pointed to his bandaged limb.  "Joaquin Correna put my arm in this sling," he declared.  "If it weren't for Zorro, I would have bled to death."

     Diego nodded, knowing that for once the soldier wasn't exaggerating.  The slash he had received from one of the thieves's sword had nearly severed an artery.  Zorro had applied a tourniquet on Mendoza's upper arm and had hurried him to Doctor Hernandez, who had stitched the wound, declaring the sergeant a very lucky man.

     Victoria stepped out onto the porch, holding a tray of drinks.  "Well, if Joaquin Correna is in California, we may soon be independent from Spanish rule," she stated with the same touch of enthusiasm that Diego had heard in her voice a few days earlier.

     He knew why she was so eager for a regime change.  She was hoping that things would improve and that Zorro would no longer be necessary to defend the pueblo from the evil government.  That the masked man would also change his mind and sweep her off her feet, carrying her off on Toronado as they headed off into the sunset.  She wanted a happy ending.

     "You sound like you support Correna, Señora," said Mendoza, his slightly bitter words breaking through Diego's musings.

     Victoria's eyes sparkled with fury.  "I support any resistance that opposes the tyranny of men, Sergeant," she declared angrily.

     The sound of calliope music silenced whatever Mendoza had been about to retort.  They all turned to see a brightly painted wagon lumber to a stop underneath the pueblo gate.  Diego squinted his eyes as he read the fancy lettering on the side of the caravan: ‘The Circus Rodriguez, Daring Acrobats, Clowns & Magic.'  He smiled as he watched the sergeant head toward the wagon as if mesmerized.

     "A circus," Diego said to no one in particular.  "Isabella would certainly enjoy that."

     Victoria chuckled and indicated Mendoza as he enthusiastically greeted the men driving the caravan.  "I don't think only children can enjoy a circus," she stated.  "I hope they plan to perform here.  We need something to laugh at about now."

     "Indeed, we do."  Diego looked again at the sketch of Correna, wondering again why the man's face nagged at his brain as someone he should recognized.  "Indeed, we do," he reiterated.  He smiled at Victoria then stepped inside the tavern.
                                                   Z                                                   Z                                                   Z

     Diego arrived back at the hacienda later that afternoon and headed straight toward the nursery.  "Señora Batido!" he called out as he entered the room.

    "Shh, Patron," the plump little nurse scolded.  "Isabella is napping."

    "Excellent," commented Diego as he glanced from the woman knitting in a rocking chair to the crib where his daughter slept.  "The circus has come to town, Señora," he announced in a hushed tone.  "They're to perform at the tavern tonight at seven o'clock."

     "Oh, she'll love that," replied the niñera.  "I'll make sure she's ready."

     "Gracias."  Diego stared down at the sleeping toddler.  It was hard to believe that she was almost two years old.  A lump formed in his throat as he couldn't imagine his life without her.  She had been the one bright spot in the dark, hellish muddle he had made of his existence.

     He turned and headed for the door but then spun back around to face the nanny.  "Has Doña Zafira been to see Isabella today?"

     The woman shook her head.  "No, Patron," she answered sadly.  "She hasn't been here for nearly a week."  She set down her knitting needles in her lap.  "Forgive me for saying this, Patron," she began and Diego could hear the nervousness in her voice.  "But I've never seen such an unnatural mother as the señora.  It's as though she cares nothing for the poor child."  The nurse gazed over at Isabella.  "How could anyone not love this child?" she asked.  "Some days I wish she were my own."

     Diego opened his mouth to spout out some platitude that Zafira was high-strung and unused to being around children.  But he refused to excuse her behavior anymore.

    "I don't know, Señora," he said wearily.  "I want you to know how grateful I am that Isabella has you to take care of her."

    "Gracias, Patron," the niñera murmured as she picked up her yarn again.  "And I have to say that you more than make up for the señora.  A child could not have a better father."

    Slightly embarrassed, Diego nodded in acknowledgment of the nanny's compliment then departed the nursery.  He couldn't help but dwell on the woman's words as he walked toward the library.
                                                   Z                                                   Z                                                   Z

   Señora Batido had Isabella ready to go at the appointed time.  Felipe drove the carriage into town while Diego sat with his daughter and several of the vaqueros' children in the cushioned seats.  The excitement in the air was contagious and Diego couldn't help smiling.

     The tavern was crowded with people, young and old, when Diego and his contingent arrived a little before seven.  Victoria rushed over to them, herding the children to seats near the stage.  When they were all settled, she turned to Felipe and Diego, who was carrying Isabella in his arms.

    "I've saved you seats right up front," she announced with a smile.  She reached up and put her hand on Isabella's curly hair.  "I wanted to make sure she would be able to see."

     "Gracias," said Diego.  He followed as she led them to three chairs in the very first row.  Sergeant Mendoza sat on one side of the empty seats.

     "Don Diego," he grinned as he greeted them.  "Felipe.  Sit down, sit down."  Diego and Isabella sat down next to the jovial soldier.  Much to Diego's chagrin, Victoria appropriated the chair next to his, leaving Felipe to sit on her left.

     Isabella started to bounce up and down on her father's lap as the calliope music began playing.  "Circus," she said, clapping her hands with delight.  "I want to see clowns."

     "In a minute, little one," Diego said with a chuckle.  He glanced over at the beautiful woman next to him and saw again the wistful expression on her face as she looked at his daughter.  She had a strong maternal instinct, quite unlike the woman he married.  Guilt tore through him, knowing that his reckless actions had denied her a chance at becoming a mother.

    "Here," he said huskily, thrusting the toddler toward her.  Isabella immediately held out her arms to Victoria, who placed the little girl on her lap and hugged her.  Her eyes darted to Diego and he noticed behind the gratitude, he saw sorrow.

[parts of the following scene taken from "The Old Flame" written by Tom Sawyer]

     "Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages!"

     The announcement drove all thoughts from Diego's head as Isabella squealed as two men dressed as clowns emerged from the kitchen and began to juggle.  After an remarkable show of dexterity, one of the men asked for a volunteer from the crowd.  Diego chuckled as Mendoza's good arm shot straight up in the air.

     Although, Diego noted, the sergeant might have regretted his eagerness when he was placed against a board and the clown came back out on stage carrying a handful of lethal looking knives.  The man picked one of the weapons and exaggeratingly aimed at the now nervous soldier.  The first blade missed Mendoza's left ear by a mere fraction of an inch.  A second knife followed, nearly missed his right ear.

     After throwing more of the sharp weapons, outlining the sergeant's stout body, the clown tossed the last knife, which landed with a thud into the board above Mendoza's head.  Diego led the applause as the man took a bow.

    Mendoza laughed as he sat down.  Diego thumped him on the back.  "Well done, Sergeant," he said proudly.  The soldier had displayed a measure of courage that Diego had never knew the other man had possessed.

     Again, his musings were interrupted by the clown who was loudly proclaiming the next act.  Diego smiled skeptically at the supposed talent of the man being described as ‘the premiere acrobat of the universe', especially when a tall, thin man with dark curly hair and a oversized mustache walked out onto the stage, flourishing his arms dramatically.

     Diego noticed as the man stumbled a little as he got up onto a small trampoline.  The man started to jump up and down then grabbed his side.  Seeing that the acrobat was turning a sickly shade of green, Diego watched as he resumed his bouncing.  The man then doubled over and pitched forward off the apparatus.  The clown dashed over and caught the man before he fell face first onto the wooden planks of the stage.

     "No problem, no problem," the clown said reassuring as he dragged the man toward the kitchen.  "We'll be right back.  No problem."

     The audience murmured with concern as the two men disappeared behind the curtains.  Mendoza leaned over and tapped Diego on the arm.  "Poor fellow," he said in a low voice.  "He drinks."

    Diego nodded absently.  "Yes, it does take its toll," he acknowledged.  Perhaps he was the only one who noticed, but the acrobat's mustache appeared to have come partway off as his compadre had pulled him off the stage.  Very curious, he reflected.

     "It is a shame that Don Alejandro is out of town," stated the sergeant.

     Diego didn't have a chance to reply as the clown rushed out of the kitchen.  "And the show will go on." he said breathlessly.  "Ladies and gentlemen, for your delight, to mystify you with feats of magic, the incomparable, the magnifico. . .Antonio the Amazing!"

     There was a small bang and a cloud of white smoke suddenly shrouded the stage.  A man dressed in a red-lined black cape and a black silk top hat pulled down low on his brow emerged from the fog, waving a red cloth in his right hand.  He then tossed the fabric into the air and when he caught it, it had turned into a walking cane.

    The audience clapped in appreciation.  The magician then turned and picked up a copper bowl and lit it.  He waved it about so that everyone could see before he lifted it up and down.  The flames abruptly extinguished and the bowl was then filled with paper flowers.

     Antonio then stepped off the stage and approached Victoria, who still held Isabella on her lap, holding out the flowers.  Diego got a good look at the man then, causing his breath to catch in his throat.

     The other man's eyes slid in his direction and he smiled malevolently.  "Hola, hermano," he said sarcastically.

     Diego couldn't believe his eyes as he stared up into the face of Zafira's presumed dead brother, Ricardo.
                                                   Z                                                   Z                                                   Z