"DELIVER US FROM EVIL"

CHAPTER FOUR

     The day before the Carnaval was overcast and cold.  Almost every inch of every building in the pueblo had been decorated.  Felipe and Ana Maria were adding the finishing touches to the church.  Several other girls about Ana Maria's age were helping as well and there was much giggling and silliness as Felipe was the lone male amongst them.

      Ana Maria was trying to hang a length a ribbon in a straight line when she realized Felipe was no longer paying attention to the task at hand.  He was staring at the stranger as he strode across the plaza toward the tavern.  She touched his shoulder, drawing his awareness.

     "What is wrong?" she asked both with her voice and her hands.  Even though she knew Felipe could hear, they still used the hand gestures so it would appear to everyone else that he could not.  She was unsure about all the secrecy but if that is what he wanted. . .

     Felipe signed his reply with a look that begged forgiveness.  "But Felipe, you said you could stay and help."  Ana Maria complained.  "Are you sure Don Diego said you had to be back at noon?"

     He did not like to fib to his sweetheart but he knew that Diego would be very interested to learn of the  mystery man's release from the cuartel.  He nodded, gesturing he would return as soon as he could.  Felipe gave Ana Maria a quick peck on the cheek, causing the other girls to twitter.  Sighing, Ana Maria watched him leave.

     His adopted father was indeed quite concerned when he heard the latest development about the stranger.  "I wonder what caused Ignacio's change of heart?" he mused aloud.

     Felipe made a quick series of hand signals which had Diego laughing.  "Yes, first he would have to have a heart," he repeated the comment.  "If only I knew what this man is here to do.  Zorro's search of his room turned up little, save a large pouch of money."

     They were holding their conversation in the de la Vega library, which is why Felipe was relying on sign language instead of speaking.  Another flurry of his hands had Diego thoughtful stroking his chin.

     "Right, Felipe, he could have been paid to do something," he interpreted.  "But what?"

      Felipe looked up at his father questioningly.

    "I hope I can find out soon," Diego said grimly.  "I don't like the way he looks at Victoria."  He changed the subject and smiled.  "Shouldn't you be helping Ana Maria with the fiesta decorations?"

     His son nodded and rushed out of the hacienda.  Diego's smile turned to a frown as he pondered over the situation.  Until he knew the man's purpose in Los Angeles, there was little he could do.  Sometime that evening or the next morning, Zorro needed to confront the Alcalde about the ridiculous tax he had imposed.

     Diego was certain the reason for the levy was to draw out the masked outlaw.  But why?  Maybe de Soto and this stranger were in league together and the man's imprisonment was just a ploy to keep him off guard.

    He had to chuckle.  I am getting as paranoid as Ignacio, he thought, beginning to see evil in everything.

     "Diego!"  The sound of his father's voice snapped him out of his musings.

    "Yes, Father," he answered as he went to see what the elder de la Vega wanted.
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     Evening found the three de la Vega men gathered around the large dining room table, enjoying their supper.  Don Alejandro planned on retiring early as were most people of the pueblo.  The Carnaval started at dawn so everyone wanted to get a good's night sleep.

     Including Diego, who had decided to wait until nearly first light before spoiling whatever trap de Soto had devised for Zorro.  That idea was shattered by a loud knock on the hacienda's front door.

     "I wonder who that is," commented Don Alejandro, putting down his napkin and rising to his feet.  A servant showed a very flushed Victoria into the room.  "Victoria, what's wrong?"

     Diego leapt from his chair to Victoria's side.  "The Alcalde," she gasped as she caught her breath.  "He has posted soldiers at the pueblo's gates to start collecting the Carnaval tax."

     "Tonight?" Don Alejandro was incredulous with disbelief.

     Victoria nodded.  "He announced that no one was going to sneak past him without paying.  And if they can't pay, they would be turned away."

     "He doesn't think he is going to get away with this, does he?" inquired the old don.  "I think we should round up all the caballeros and remind the Alcalde that tomorrow is a special day, not something he can impose a ludicrous levy upon."

     "I thought Zorro would have taken care of this by now," replied Victoria.  "It is strange he has not."

     "Not so strange, Victoria," Diego finally spoke. "Perhaps he is just waiting to see what the Alcalde has in store for him."

     "Well, I think we should confront de Soto," stated Don Alejandro.  "The sooner, the better.  Come on, let's go."

     "Father, wait."  Diego tried to stop the elder de la Vega before he strode out of the hacienda.  "I don't see what good we can do by storming the garrison.  People might get hurt.  We need a plan."

     Don Alejandro paused to face his son.  Part of him thought Diego was being a coward.  But another part could see the logic of his idea.  "Very well, Diego," he acquiesced, "let's hear your plan."

     Diego smiled embarrassedly.  "I don't have a plan exactly."

     "Oh, Diego."  His father shook his head in disgust.  "Shall I escort you back to the pueblo, Victoria?"

     Before she could answer, Diego cut in, "I will."  When he saw their looks of surprise, he added, "I think it might be a good idea to see just the Alcalde has up his sleeve.  Then we can plot from there."

     Victoria and Don Alejandro both nodded enthusiastically.  "Whenever you are ready," Diego said to her.  Felipe drew his attention by signaling frantically.

     "Yes, Felipe, you may come too," his adopted father chuckled.  "Although the Ortegas may already be abed."

    While the trio rode back to Los Angeles, Victoria came up with all kinds of improbable plans.  Diego had to politely point out the flaws of each one.  She was bringing up yet another idea when they neared the arched entrance of the pueblo.  There, just as Victoria had said, were two soldiers stationed, with a long pole blocking the road.  As they approached, Diego could see one of the soldiers was Mendoza.  He urged Esperanza forward.

     "Hola, Don Diego," the sergeant hailed with false cheerfulness.  To tell the truth, he was not very thrilled with the Alcalde's scheme.  It was just not right to tax a fiesta.

     "What is going on, Sergeant?" queried Diego.

     "The Alcalde decided it would be easier this way," explained Mendoza, "no one can get in without paying the tax."

      "Indeed," mused Diego.

     "May I pass, Sergeant?" inquired Victoria through gritted teeth.

     "Not without paying the tax," was the reply.  "I am sorry, Señorita, but I have my orders."  The stout soldier cringed in anticipation of Victoria's angry outburst.

     "This is the most ridiculous, conniving. . ."  Victoria began to rage at the poor lancers.  Diego put up his hand to interrupt the tongue lashing.

     "Here you go, Sergeant," he said as he pulled two pesos from his jacket pocket.  Mendoza took the coins then motioned for the other soldier to move the pole blocking the entrance.  Victoria shot Diego a look of gratitude and outrage before she passed through the archway.

     "Gracias, Don Diego," the relieved Mendoza said.  "What about you and Felipe?  Are you coming in as well?"

     "No," replied Diego.  "We were just escorting the señorita home.  But we'll be back in the morning.  Adios, Sergeant."  He and Felipe turned around to head back to the hacienda as the two lancers replaced the barricade.
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      Once they had arrived back home, Diego wasted no time getting ready to go out as Zorro.  His father had already gone to bed, sparing his son any awkward explanations or excuses.  The black clad man soon rode out of the cave on the galloping Toronado, making straight for the pueblo and the long delayed showdown with de Soto.

     Victoria had stormed into the tavern, still extremely indignant about the Carnaval tax and the Alcalde.  She decided she was too upset to sleep just yet, so she thought she would chop up some of the vegetables she needed for the next day.  Tomorrow was going to be busy, every little thing she did tonight would be beneficial.  Besides, it would help her calm down.  She wondered if Diego would ever come up with a plan or would Zorro intervene like he suggested he would.

     Setting out some tomatoes and peppers, Victoria reached for her knife.  Her hand paused in mid-air as she heard heavy footfalls on the tavern staircase.  Thinking it was one of her guests needing assistance, she stepped to the curtained doorway.  She gasped when she saw that it was Muñoz, who was now at the bottom of the stairs.  When he noticed her, an evil grin spread over his face.

     "C-C-Can I help you, Señor?" she stammered uneasily.  The man ambled toward her.  She tried to take a step back but he grabbed her arm.

     "Perhaps later, Señorita," he leered suggestively.  He caressed her cheek with his free hand.  "After I have completed my other business here tonight."  He then ran his hand up her arm onto her shoulder.  Victoria jerked out of his grasp.  He chuckled.  "Hasta luego."

     Muñoz strode out of the tavern.  Victoria watched as he left, shivering with dread.  What had he meant, that his business would be done tonight?  She had a good idea of what he implied about later.  Well, she would just see about that.  She spun around, snatched her knife off the table and ran to the front door of the tavern just in time to see the man enter the Alcalde's office.

     A pacing de Soto was wearing out the floorboards in front of his desk.  A sharp knock at his door stilled him a moment, then he sprang over to unlock it.  Muñoz walked in.

     "You're late," the Alcalde stated huffily.  "I have been waiting over an hour."

     "You are sure Zorro will be here tonight?" inquired Muñoz, ignoring the other man's complaint.

     "I assure you, Señor, Zorro will be here," declared de Soto.  "He always comes to the aid of these peasants."

     "I do hope you are right, Alcalde," sighed Muñoz insincerely.  "I would hate to have to kill you if you are wrong."

     "Kill?  Me?" choked out an outraged de Soto.  "Why would you kill me?"

     "You would be a loose end," his companion stated calmly, "and I detest loose ends."

     Ignacio saw in the other man's eyes that he would feel no more remorse about murdering him than squashing a bug.  This deeply disturbed the Alcalde.  Even he was not that ruthless.  "Well," he began uneasily, "we should get our plan into action.  Zorro could be here at any moment."

     Muñoz nodded and both men exited the office into the jail area.  A faint noise on the roof had them looking upward.  Was that him?

     Zorro waited until the men had left before opening the skylight window slowly.  He lowered himself through it, landing first onto the exposed beams, then soundlessly to the floor.  He began to rifle quietly through the Alcalde's desk.  Not finding anything of interest, he started to open the drawers and searching their contents.

    It only took a few minutes for Zorro to check all of de Soto's hiding places, but tonight nothing out of the ordinary turned up.  There had to be a good reason for the commandante's insane tax.  Perhaps the man was just going mad, Zorro thought with a grin.  He hopped up onto the desk, intending to exit the same way he had entered the building when the door to the cell area flew open.

     "Going somewhere, Zorro," inquired de Soto sarcastically, aiming his sword at the man on his desk.  Muñoz came up to stand next to him, his gloved hand grasping a pistol pointed straight at Zorro's heart.

     The masked man just smiled confidently at the two men who were threatening him.
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"DELIVER US FROM EVIL"-CHAPTER FIVE