It was a late afternoon one warm spring day that found Diego de la Vega and his adopted son Felipe sitting at a table on the front porch of the tavern.  They were drinking fresh orange juice and sorting through the collection of rocks they had gathered earlier that day.

     Diego had not insisted that the young man accompany him on this expedition but Felipe volunteered to come along.  The relationship between the two had subtly changed over the past two weeks since the young man's near execution.  It was not so much like father and son as before but more like brothers.  Diego would still catch himself treating Felipe like a small boy from time to time.  He had to remember his son was a man now, in all the ways that mattered.

     Felipe was passing particularly interesting specimens over to Diego to examine when Victoria stepped out the front door, a pitcher of juice in her hand.  "More juice?" she asked with a smile.

    "Por favor," replied Diego as he lifted his glass.  Felipe did likewise.  After she refilled them, she noticed the colorful stones scattered on the table.

     "One of your experiments, Diego?" she inquired, trying to keep the amusement from her voice.  Diego was notorious for his scientific projects, much to the dismay of his father, who wished his son would spend his time selecting a wife and then making babies.

     "I'm conducting research to determine if there is a correlation between rock types and seismic activity."  Diego had been reading some interesting theories by scientists in Europe of a relatively new science called geology.  It was quite fascinating but he could see his explanation went over Victoria's head by her bewildered expression.

     He smiled bemusedly and picked up a glittery stone, holding it up for her to see.  "That's not gold, is it?" she questioned, looking at the rock then at Diego.

     "No, it's an iron pyrite.  Fools' gold," he answered.  Felipe interrupted with a series of hand gestures.  "Yes, it even fooled me for a moment," he interpreted with a laugh.  He placed the stone in the innkeeper's hand.  Their hands touched, then their eyes met; each wondering if the other felt the same jolt of desire.

     Diego's relationship with Victoria had also undergone some changes recently.  She had been a source of strength for him when Felipe had been on trial for murder, strength he had needed to help his son through the ordeal.  They both knew that they had gone beyond being just friends but neither knew if the other was ready to take the next step.  And both were too afraid to find out.

     "You may keep it, Victoria," Diego offered as he moved his hand away.

     "Gracias, Diego."  She thanked him as she held it up and watched it sparkle in the sunlight.  "It is pretty."

     He drained the last of his juice from his glass.  "Time we headed back to the hacienda, Felipe," he commented, hoping it did not sound like an order.  "Father needs our help getting ready for the cattle drive."  The young man began to place the strewn rocks into an old bandanna.

     When he had finished, he signed that he was going to go see Ana Maria before he went home.  ‘Only for an hour' he promised with his hands.

     Diego nodded.  "Very well. Hasta luego."  He smiled at Victoria as he rose to his feet.  "Adios, Victoria," he said in a wistful voice.

     "Adios, Diego," she answered.  She noticed the exchanges between the two de la Vegas were very different lately.  Before, Felipe would ask for permission which Diego granted or denied depending on the circumstances.  Now the young man ‘told' his father what he was going to do with no argument from Diego.  She picked up their empty glasses and sighed.  He was twenty-one now after all.  Which made her. . .  She didn't want to think about how old she was.

     Victoria turned and re-entered the tavern.  None of them had noticed the two rough looking men sitting on the table on the opposite side of the porch.  They had been there most of the afternoon, nursing a bottle of tequila between them.  One of the men, whose name was Marco, nudged his friend, Jose.

     "Did you hear what he said?" he asked in a gruff voice.  "Gold."

     "Si, and did you see the size of that piece he gave to her?" Jose countered with his own question, inclining his head toward Victoria.

     The beautiful señorita made her way to the kitchen, adding the glasses to the growing pile of dirty dishes.  She stepped over to the water pump, intending to start washing up before the dinner rush was upon her.  Victoria was not aware of the two men sneaking up behind her until Marco clamped his grubby hand tightly over her mouth.

     Jose wrenched the stone she still carried from her hand.  "Your caballero friend was very stupid to give you this, Señorita," he snarled into her startled face.  "Now he must give us more for your safe return."

     Victoria struggled valiantly against Marco's strong grip on her mouth and the arm he had encircled around her waist.  She hesitated for a second, then sank her teeth into the fleshy part of his palm, praying she would not catch some nasty disease from his filthy hand.  He instantly let go of her, shaking his injured hand and cursing viciously.

     She tried to run toward the back door but did not get far as Jose seized her from behind, lifting her feet off the floor.  Kicking and flailing, she landed several hard blows to her captor with her heels and elbows.  "Help!" she screamed as loud as she could.  "Someone please help me !  Help!"

     Her pleas were quickly muffled as Jose covered her lips with his own dirty hand.  He nodded his head toward a towel that was drying on the back of a chair.  Marco snatched up the cloth and tied it firmly over the thrashing woman's mouth.

     Diego had his foot in the stirrup, intending to mount Esperanza and ride home.  Felipe was nearly across the plaza on his way to the Ortegas' shop when they both heard the faint cries for help emanating from the tavern.  Their eyes met in alarm.

     "Victoria," Diego guessed correctly.  He extricated his foot and leapt onto the tavern porch.  He ran through the curtained kitchen doorway, Felipe close on his heels; just in time to see the rear door close.  The two men rushed through it themselves, halting in their tracks as they watched the two kidnappers gallop off with the gagged Victoria sitting in front of Marco, his arms embracing her tightly.

     Diego put a restraining hand on Felipe's shoulder as the young man would have chased after them on foot.  "No," he stated with more calmness than he felt.  For a split second, he too had wanted to run after her and her captors.

     Felipe discreetly slashed a ‘Z' into the air.  His adopted father nodded.  "Si, and the sooner the better.  Come on."  They returned to their horses and rode hard for the de la Vega hacienda.  Diego glanced in the easterly direction in which the kidnappers were disappearing.  He urged Esperanza to go faster.
                                                          Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

     Not more than a quarter of an hour later, Sergeant Mendoza with corporals Perez and Sepulveda, strolled into the tavern, hoping for a quick glass of wine before they had to return to their duties.

     "I am certainly looking forward to supper tonight, amigos," the rotund sergeant declared, rubbing his stomach.  Not only had Victoria promised to make her special frijoles for him; Leonora had accepted his invitation to join him.  She was very grateful that he had helped her and Ana Maria during Felipe's trial.  Although if she learned of everything he had done, she would have been extremely upset with him.  Only four people were aware of all of what had occurred and they wanted to keep it that way.

     "Ah, Señorita Victoria's frijoles."  He smiled broadly as he sniffed the air.  "Hers are the best in the territory."  The other tow lancers nodded in agreement.  Mendoza suddenly stopped and glanced around the room, realizing for the first time the tavern was empty.  "Victoria?" he called out, a puzzled expression on his round face.  "Señorita?"

     His two compadres shrugged their shoulders.  "How odd," the sergeant mused aloud.  He gestured to the other men.  "Go look upstairs.  I will check the kitchen."

     The lancers immediately obeyed their superior officer.  As they scrambled up the staircase, Mendoza walked through the curtained doorway that led to the kitchen.  He peered around the room.  The wafting scent of beans simmering over the fire filled his nostrils.  "Umm," he sighed as his mouth watered.  Seconds later, he was plunging a large wooden spoon into the bubbling frijoles.  Just as he was bringing the heaping spoonful up to his mouth, the Alcalde appeared through the draperies.

     "Mendoza!" he roared, causing the startled soldier to drop the utensil he was holding, spilling its contents down the front of his uniform.  De Soto sighed in exasperation.  "Just what do you think you are doing, Sergeant?"

     "Victoria is not here, so I thought I would keep an eye on the beans for. . ." a sheepish Mendoza started to explain.

     "Señorita Escalante is not here?" the Alcalde cut into the other man's prevarication.  "It's nearly suppertime."  The garrison's soldiers liked to eat at the tavern as often as possible.  Their own mess cook made every taste like boiled shoe leather.  "Where is she?"

     "I don't know, sir," the sergeant responded.  "We have searched the tavern."

     "Maybe she is closed tonight," de Soto suggested a little despondently.  He had been looking forward to a big plate of enchiladas himself.

     "Oh, no, mi Alcalde," Mendoza contradicted his commandante.  "She especially promised me the frijoles tonight."  Thinking it over further, he added, "The door was unlocked.  She always locks the door when she closes the tavern."  He began to worry.  "What am I going to do?  Leonora is coming over to have dinner with. . ."

     De Soto summarily dismissed the soldier's love life with a wave of his hand as he mulled over what the portly man had already related.  "Maybe something is amiss," he conceded.  "Mendoza, I want you to stay here in case the señorita returns.  If she is still missing at midnight, we will form a search party to go look for her in the morning."

     The sergeant saluted crisply.  "Si, mi Alcalde."

     Ignacio started to leave the kitchen but pivoted back around just as Mendoza was about to dip into the bean pot again.  "Sergeant, do try to control yourself," he admonished sternly.  "Just because Señorita Escalante is not here, it does not mean you can help yourself to everything in her kitchen."

      With the warning issued, de Soto strode out of the room.  Mendoza grinned as he scooped out a large portion of the frijoles.  He ate them slowly, savoring their delicious taste.  Ah, heaven, he thought as he filled another spoonful and lifted it to his mouth.
                                                             Z                                                       Z                                                           Z

     Diego's mission to rescue Victoria was almost thwarted by Don Alejandro.  His father had wanted to go over the details of running the ranch again with his son.  It was something the elder de la Vega did every year before he left on the two week cattle drive to San Diego.  And every year it seemed, Diego would forget to do half the chores he needed to do.  His son always had some excuse but frankly Don Alejandro was getting tired of hearing them.  This estate would one day be in Diego's hands.  He needed to learn how to run it from top to bottom instead of sticking his nose in a book or fiddling with some silly experiment.

     Felipe had come to his adopted father's rescue.  Signaling frantically, he wanted the old don to come see what was wrong with his new stallion.  Actually the horse, whom Felipe had named Viento, was fine but he knew how desperate Diego was to go after Victoria and her abductors.   Diego slipped through the library fireplace before his father and his son were out the front door.

     As he swiftly donned the black clothing that transformed him into the legendary fox, he thought of the last time he had rode out to save the lovely señorita.  It had been well over a month ago.  It had been also the last time he had encountered her as the masked hero.  He had come to a point where he did not trust himself around her anymore when he was disguised as Zorro.  Victoria allowed him to take liberties no mortal man should be permitted to take with a woman not yet his wife.  Not that she was totally to blame, he thought with a smile.  He enjoyed her kisses and caresses just as much as she welcomed his.

     He automatically tied the mask behind his head, set his hat upon his head and went to saddle Toronado.  Within minutes, he was ducking through the long, narrow tunnel on the way to free his querida from her unsavory kidnappers.
                                                          Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

     In a clearing of the forest in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, approximately fifteen miles northeast of Los Angeles, a small fire burned.  Victoria sat propped up against a tree, her hands and feet now bound and her mouth still gagged.  Marco and Jose lounged near the fire, examining what they thought was a nugget of gold.

     "How much gold do you think we should ask for?" Jose questioned his friend.

     "Oh, I think she is worth at least a bag's worth," replied Marco, grinning wickedly.  "Maybe two."  He ambled over to where the lovely señorita sat.  He extended one of his hands and touched her hair.  Victoria jerked her head away violently, causing both kidnappers to laugh.

     "She is spirited as well as beautiful," stated Marco as Jose also came over to the tree.  Marco reached out again, this time cupping the back of her head so she could not move it.  "Just think, amigo, all the gold we need plus the pleasure of her ‘company'," he leered menacingly into her eyes.  Victoria closed them and struggled in a vain attempt to get away from him.  His fetid breath was making her ill and when he touched her breast through her blouse, she nearly did lose the contents of her stomach.  Madre de Dios, please save me, she screamed in her mind.  Oh Dios, por favor.

     Marco eased back a little.  "You will write a note to your caballero friends, Señorita," he ordered.  "Your safe return for a bag of the gold."  He removed the towel from her mouth as no one was around for miles to hear her cries for help.

     "It is not real gold," Victoria spat out angrily.  "It's only fools' gold.  And that is what you both are.  Fools!"   As soon she uttered the words, she wished she could have  them back.  Diego could have delivered these idiots a whole bag of the useless rocks and they would have never known the difference until they tried to have them assayed.  By then, she would be back in the pueblo, safe and sound.  But likely not a virgin anymore, she brooded gloomily as she glanced at her captors.  The notion of these pigs taking the precious gift she had been saving all these years for the man she loved made her eyes fill with tears and her insides twist up in knots.

     Marco just shrugged his shoulders.  "No matter," he conceded.  "Your amigo better deliver the ransom in gold or else."  He drew his forefinger slowly across her throat then traced along the edge of her blouse's neckline.  She shuddered nauseously as she prayed silently.

     "Jose, find something so she can write the note," Marco commanded.  The other man rummaged through their saddlebags until he came up with a small scrap of paper.

     Marco untied Victoria's hands and gave her the paper.  Jose had found a twig and stuck one end of it into fire until its point was burnt black.  He then passed the stick to the worried woman.

     "Write the note, Señorita," Marco commanded.

     "No," came the defiant answer.  "Why should I?"  She had come to the conclusion she would rather die than let these two animals touch her.

     "Señorita, por favor," Jose said pleadingly.  "Do as we ask.  Marco, he has a very nasty temper."

     "My friend is right," the other man agreed.  "Write it.  Now."  He leaned down and snarled into her face.

     Victoria jabbed him in the eye with the hot end of the twig.  He jumped back in pain, clutching his face and swearing ferociously.  With him distracted, she bent over to undo the ropes around her ankles.  But Marco recovered too quickly.  He grabbed her wrists and shoved her up against the tree.

     "You'll pay for that, you bitch," he growled savagely.  He let go of one of her hands as he reached for the hem of her skirt and pulled it up to her waist.  He got on top of her and leaned in to force his disgusting lips onto hers.  He pulled up short however as the tip of a blade was thrust a mere inch away from his face.
                                                          Z                                                               Z                                                               Z