The news of the stranger's arrest traveled swiftly throughout the pueblo, although Diego did not hear of it until he and Felipe were about to depart the hacienda later that evening.
An idea quickly formed in Diego's mind which delayed them for a few minutes. They were still on time though when they arrived at the Ortegas' new shop and home. A very disappointed Mendoza greeted them. He had no idea that Leonora had also invited Victoria and the de la Vegas to dinner as well. Don Alejandro could not attend, but the appearance of the other guests shattered the sergeant's dreams of a romantic evening. He had even spent his last few pesos on a nice bottle of wine, hoping to impress the señora.
"I hope you like arroz con pollo, Sergeant, " Leonora said when everyone was seated. "It is an old family recipe." Which she had gotten from Victoria. He didn't have to know whose family, she thought.
"Mendoza loves it," Victoria answered for him. "That and frijoles and enchiladas and. . ."
"I'm sure it will be delicious," the sergeant interrupted the litany of food. He smiled reassuringly at Leonora.
The meal was indeed delicioso. Mendoza, recovering from his earlier dismay, monopolized the conversation, telling stories of his illustrious military career. Diego and Victoria grew bored after about an hour. They both had heard the stout sergeant's embellished tales many times. When Felipe signed for permission to take Ana Maria out for a moonlight stroll, Diego saw a chance for them to escape as well.
"Weren't you telling me you had to be up early tomorrow, Victoria?" he queried with feigned innocence.
"No, I don. . . Oh." Victoria paused in mid-sentence as Diego nudged her foot with his. "Oh, yes, that's right. I must get up very early in the morning." She smiled insincerely.
"Please allow me to escort you home," Diego graciously offered. Felipe was having a hard time holding back his laughter as he led Ana Maria out the door.
"Gracias, Diego." Victoria stood up and allowed him to drape her striped rebozo on her slim shoulders. "It was a lovely meal, Leonora."
"Gracias," Diego added, winking at the sergeant. "Sorry to rush off and leave you two all alone."
"That is quite all right, Don Diego," replied Mendoza, happy for the first time that evening. "You and Señorita Victoria just run along."
Victoria waited until they were outside before she started laughing. Diego could no longer contain his mirth as well. When they regained their composure several minutes later, she looked up at Diego, her beautiful face full of curiosity.
"I know Mendoza can be boring," she stated, "but that does not excuse your behavior, Diego de la Vega."
"It was obvious that the good sergeant did not want us there," Diego replied with a smile.
"I think they make a nice couple," said Victoria. "They both deserve some happiness."
They walked slowly toward the tavern. "I heard the Alcalde arrested the mystery man," Diego remarked casually.
"For once I do not mind his irrationality," replied Victoria. I will be able to sleep soundly tonight, she thought.
Leonora was peeking out the window at the strolling couple, then turned her attention back to the sergeant. "Wouldn't they make a handsome couple?" she asked Mendoza, who was cleaning the last bite of rice off of his plate.
"Who? Don Diego and Victoria?" When he realized who she meant, he started to chuckle. "That will never happen, Señora. Victoria, she is in love with Zorro, and Diego. . . Well, he is more interested in his books than women. Why, if I had half the women who were interested in Don Diego, I would. . . I. . ." He stopped as he thought about what he was saying and to whom.
"You would what, Sergeant?" inquired an amused Leonora.
Mendoza smiled. "I would not be as happy as I am right now," he replied.
"Let's clear away the dishes, then take a walk in the moonlight ourselves," suggested the señora. The sergeant agreed and they were soon outside.
Diego walked Victoria to the front porch of the tavern. He gazed at her lovely face which was free of the worry he had seen etched there the last several days because of Muñoz. It was so tempting to gather her up into his arms and kiss those ruby red lips.
And it was frustrating that he, Don Diego, was unable to do so but if he had been wearing his other mask, the one of black silk, he would be welcomed warmly by the woman standing in front of him. He noticed that Victoria was looking up at him with a puzzled expression that not only contained confusion but something else he could not quite put his finger on. Surely it couldn't be a spark of attraction, of interest, in him, Diego de la Vega. Could it?
Throwing caution to the wind, Diego took her right hand and lifted it to his lips. "Buenas noches, Victoria," he said in a thick whisper. Turning before he could see her reaction, he then walked back across the plaza toward the Ortegas, where he and Felipe had left their mounts. He never knew that Victoria had stood on the porch, staring after him with the hand he had kissed pressed against her bosom, a very shocked, yet curious look on her face, for several moments before going inside her tavern.
Diego had made his way to his horse and was about to remove something from the saddlebags when both of the promenading couples came from opposite corners of the building. He discreetly shoved the black silk back into the porch, away from prying eyes.
"Lovely night, isn't it," he said, hoping to distract them. "Look, there is the constellation Orion." He pointed up to a group of stars.
Everyone looked up into the night sky except for Felipe. He instead had a huge grin on his face when he glanced at adopted father. It vanished as Ana Maria looked his way. He indicated another group of stars and signaled to Diego.
"Yes, Felipe," he replied. "Those are the Pleiades. Notice how they fade in and out." With the Ortegas and Mendoza's interest diverted again, Diego gestured to his son that it was time to say goodnight to Ana Maria and her mother.
Fortunately it had grown a little chilly,
so no one complained of the de la Vegas' departure. They rode a little
way out of town then doubled back to the livery. In a matter of minutes,
Diego's transformation into his alter-ego was complete. In spite
of Felipe's protest, he sent the young man home, then set out on his mission.
Z Z Z
One of the lancers brought a tray of food to the man locked up in the cuartel. Muñoz took one look at the unappetizing meal prepared by the garrison cook and set it down roughly on the floor.
"Sadly, it is not going to taste any better cold," remarked de Soto drily as he entered the cell area. "Our cook greatly lacks any culinary skills."
Muñoz cast a disgusted glance at the Alcalde and then directed his attention to the window.
"Señor Muñoz, you could put an end to your stay here," the commandante began, "all I want to know is what you meant when you said we both after the same man. Tell me and you are free to go."
The man in the cell laughed derisively. "What guarantee do I have? You could lock me up again because you don't like my answer."
"You have my word," promised de Soto, although he had no intention of keeping it if indeed he did not like what he heard. "Do you mean you are after Zorro?"
"And if I did?" Muñoz was enjoying this game of cat and mouse.
"Then I had better warn you that Zorro is a difficult man to capture, " stated the Alcalde. "You may think he is in your grasp and then ‘poof', the next minute he is gone."
"You sound like you speak from experience, Alcalde," remarked the prisoner with a sneer.
"Unfortunately," replied de Soto. "If it is indeed Zorro you are after, Señor, you have the full cooperation of my men and myself. The rest of the citizens of Los Angeles, though, are another matter."
"I do not require any assistance," said Muñoz contemptuously. He resumed staring out the window, leaving the Alcalde in frustration.
Meanwhile, Zorro was climbing up the outside of the tavern. Reaching the window of the stranger's room, he swung it open and moved inside, landing soundlessly on his feet. The masked man quickly lit a candle and began to rummage through the mystery man's belongings. It did not take Zorro long to sort through the items in Muñoz' saddlebags. They merely contained several changes of clothing and a pair of pistols. Nothing out of the ordinary. Zorro started to look for other clues to the man's identity.
He suddenly threw the door of the room open, his hand on the handle of his saber. He let out a sigh of relief when he saw Victoria standing there, a sharp kitchen knife in her hand.
"Zorro," she whispered, allayed to see him as well. "I heard noises and. . . What are you doing here?"
"I heard the Alcalde arrested this man," he explained. "I thought I would do a little investigation into his identity."
"Have you found anything?" inquired the curious woman.
"Unfortunately, no," said the masked man. "Whoever this fellow is, he keeps his secrets closely guarded." He sat down on the bed as did Victoria. Feeling a hard lump under the mattress, he jumped up and reached underneath it. He pulled out a leather pouch.
Her eyes wide with curiosity, Victoria asked, "What is it?"
Zorro opened the bag so they both could see its contents. "There must be more than five hundred pesos in there," Victoria guessed. She looked up at the man by her side.
"Closer to a thousand," estimated Zorro, weighing the bag in his gloved hand.
"Where did he get so much money?" queried Victoria.
"Good question." Zorro plucked one of the coins from the pouch and examined it closely, turning it over several times. "These coins weren't minted in Mexico. Possibly Spain or South America, " he observed. "Look at their color. They are much lighter than ones from Mexico." He lifted the mattress and shoved the money pouch back under it.
Sensing he was about to depart, Victoria held out her hand. "Would you like something to eat or perhaps a glass of wine? I. . ."
"I must regretfully decline," he said, thinking of the big dinner he had just eaten a short while before at the Ortegas. "Maybe another time."
"That is what you always say," she pouted a little. "But you never do."
"I am sorry, querida." Zorro smiled and brushed his hand against her smooth cheek. Again he saw something in her eyes but not what he had seen earlier that evening. This time there was something that looked suspiciously like guilt. Incapable of believing the implications of it, he decided to take pity on her. "All right, a glass of wine. But then I must go."
Victoria beamed happily as she led him down
Z Z Z
The Alcalde personally delivered breakfast to his prisoner the next morning. Muñoz frowned as he eyed the congealed eggs and burnt sausages.
"You said last night you did not need my assistance," de Soto remarked as he noted the other man's dissatisfaction with the food. "But I think you do need my cooperation . Whatever you plan to do, it will be extremely difficult to accomplish from this jail."
Muñoz exhaled wearily at the Alcalde's show of importance. But he also realized the petty man was correct. Unless Zorro was apprehended and placed in the adjoining cell, there was little chance of him achieving his goal. And that scenario seemed highly unlikely in view of the whole garrison's ineptitude.
"Very well, Alcalde," he conceded. "What exactly do you wish of me?"
De Soto chortled smugly. "Tell me why you are here."
"I have been hired to kill Zorro and collect the reward," declared Muñoz.
"Hired? By whom?"
"My employer wishes to remain anonymous," replied the prisoner. "Let's just say he and Zorro are old enemies and since he cannot do the deed himself, he paid me to do so."
"Kill Zorro?" De Soto shook his head. "Good luck, Señor. Other men have tried to capture that elusive bandit and failed. What makes you think you will succeed where they did not?"
"I am very good at what I do, Alcalde," stated Muñoz.
The Alcalde found the key to the cell door and unlocked it. "You are free to go, Señor."
Muñoz stepped out, a free man once
Z Z Z
"DELIVER US FROM EVIL"-CHAPTER FOUR