"THE LEGEND UNMASKED"

CHAPTER ELEVEN - "THE LEGEND UNMASKED"

     Mendoza, shaking with trepidation, saluted his commandante, then motioned the other garrison lancers to follow him.

     Aguila and de Soto climbed up the stairs and stood on the high platform.  "I must commend you, Alcalde," the governor stated.  "I had serious doubts about your leadership capabilities since you failed to bring this outlaw to justice for so many years."  He smiled insincerely.  "It is amazing what a little motivation in the right direction can accomplish."

     "It was just a matter of time, Excellency," de Soto gulped nervously, wondering what was taking his dim-witted sergeant so long.

     Inside the cuartel, Padre Benitez was just finishing up administering last rites to the masked man.  Zorro was a strong person, thought the gentle padre; seemingly undaunted by his impeding death.  He had so much to live for though.  His wife, son, and father were all going to miss him terribly.

     The priest was putting away his implements when Mendoza entered the jail.  "It is time," he said quietly.  He unlocked the barred door and let Padre Benitez and Zorro pass though before closing it with a clang.

     The crowd grew silent as the garrison gates were opened wide.  Two soldiers beating drums led the possession out into the plaza.  The sergeant walked side by side with Zorro, whose hands were shackled behind his back.  The padre brought up the rear of the line, praying for the masked man's soul.

      The townspeople moved out of the way as the lancers progressed to the scaffolding that held the single noose.  Victoria suddenly jumped down from the tavern porch and pushed her way through the crowd.  Felipe and Don Alejandro tried to stop her but she was too quick for them.  "No!" she shouted.  Two of the governor's soldiers attempted to impede her but she shoved them aside.  She threw her arms around Zorro, pressing her face against his broad chest.

     "Señora de la Vega!" de Soto bellowed irately from the platform.  "Step away from the prisoner!"

     "No!," she exclaimed defiantly.  She looked into Zorro's sad green eyes.  "If I don't tell you now," she began tearfully, "you will never know.  I'm going to have a baby.  Our baby."

     People standing near the couple overheard what she said and quickly spread the news across the plaza.

     Zorro was stunned by her announcement.  "A child?" he inquired gently.  He gazed at her, full of remorse.  "Oh, querida, I'm so sorry.  I would not have. . ."

    "It will be all right," she reassured him unconvincingly.  "Maybe I will not be so sad because of the niño.  But I will still miss you every day for the rest of my life."  Tears flowed down her face.  "I love you so much, Diego," she whispered.

     "I love you, my dearest Victoria," he murmured.  He wished he could wrap his arms around her one last time.  He wanted to touch her stomach, to connect with the child inside.  Hell, he wanted to make love to her, right here, right now.  But it was impossible.  A tear fell unchecked from his eye.  "I'm sorry, querida," he said again.  He bent down as she reached up and their lips met for their final kiss.

     De Soto stomped down the steps to where they stood.  "That is quite enough," he hissed angrily.  "Stand back, Señora, or I will hang you alongside your lover."

    The couple ended the kiss and Victoria stepped back, still gazing into his eyes.  Don Alejandro, unbeknownst to her, had come up to stand behind her.  He could not believe what he had heard.  Victoria was carrying Zorro's child.  Is that why his son married her or had he been played for a fool by his bride?  Where was Diego anyway?  He should be here, defending his wife's honor.  He put his hand on Victoria's shoulder as Zorro glared menacingly at the Alcalde.

     "You promised not to harm her," he reminded the other man.  "You have me.  Let's get this over with."

     "My sentiments exactly," de Soto agreed.  "Sergeant, proceed."

     The masked man gave one last look at the woman he loved and the man standing behind her.  "Keep her safe, Father," he said quietly before Mendoza guided him up the wooden stairs.  The stout sergeant removed Zorro's hat then placed the thick rope of the noose around his neck.

     De Soto removed a rolled document from his jacket pocket.  "This is a warrant of execution for the rebel outlaw known as Zorro," he read aloud from it.  "He has been found guilty of the following crimes; treason, sedition, robbery, conspiracy, insurrection, assaulting government personnel, damaging government property. . .and it would also seem adultery."  He glanced at Victoria then at his prisoner.  "Any last words,  Zorro, before you die?"

     "Everyone of my so-called crimes was done in the name of justice, in the cause of freedom," he declared forcefully.  "I know in my heart as you all know in yours, I am guilty of no crime.  Unless it is a crime to fight against injustice and tyranny; to not stand idly by and do nothing as your friends and neighbors, your family, the very people whom you love."  He paused as he looked down at Victoria.  She had been surrounded not only by his father, but also Felipe, Ana Maria and her mother.  The man in black continued. "watch these people being beaten down and oppressed by the very government that is supposed to protect them."  He took a deep breath.  "Señores y señoras, I'm neither a criminal nor a hero.  I am just a man who wanted to right the wrongs he saw going on around him."  He closed his eyes.

     There was a growing restlessness among the gathered citizenry as Zorro's words sunk in.  De Soto, sensing that things might get out of hand, cleared his throat.  "First we will see just who this traitor is, hiding behind his cowardly mask," he announced.  "Governor Aguila, if you will do the honors, por favor."  He gestured toward the man in black.

     "It will be my pleasure," replied the governor.  "Let this be a lesson to all of you," he chided.  "Men like this Zorro do not care about you.  They just spout such treason as they lighten your purse."  He reached behind Zorro's head and untied the knot of black silk.

     Loud gasps of surprise swept through the crowd as the mask was removed to reveal the face of Diego de la Vega.

     "Don Diego," murmured Mendoza in shock.  "I never would have guessed."

     Don Alejandro tried to climb the gallows' stairs but two lancers detained him.  "There must be some mistake," he protested.  "That is my son.  You cannot hang him."

     "I'm sorry, Father," Diego apologized profusely.  "I should have told you a long time ago."  He regretted he had not had the chance to say goodbye properly to his father.  That their last words to each other had been so hostile.  They were only a few of so many regrets.  "Father, I lo. . ."

     But de Soto cut short the conversation between father and son.  "Oh I can and will, Don Alejandro."  He spun around to face his old schoolmate.  "So it was you.  I never suspected it for a moment until last night when you called me Ignacio."  He chuckled self-deprecatingly.  "You had us all fooled, Diego and now you must pay the price."

      The Alcalde nodded to Mendoza, silently issuing the order to pull the wooden lever that would send Diego to his death.  The sergeant rolled his eyes upward, uttering a short prayer of forgiveness as he crossed himself.  He gripped the handle tightly with both hands.  Then he let go, taking a step backward.

      "I cannot do it, sir," he said, knowing the trouble he would be in.  "I am sorry, it is not right."  He looked at the man who had considered him his friend and smiled weakly.

     He did not have to wait long for the Alcalde to unleash his fury.  "You coward," de Soto hissed into Mendoza's round face.  "How dare you embarrass me in front of the governor.  I will personally see to it that you are demoted to private with permanent assignment to latrine duty.  That is if I don't court martial you first."  Then, just as swiftly, he turned and smiled politely through clenched teeth at Aguila.

     "I have to do everything myself," he complained.  De Soto shoved the disobedient soldier aside and reached for the lever.

     Victoria buried her face into Don Alejandro's shirt.  She could not bear to watch as the man she loved, the father of her child, died such a horrible death.  Many of the other women, including Ana Maria, were openly weeping as well.

     The Alcalde was about to pull the handle when a lone man on horseback came galloping through the pueblo gate.  He was shouting something no one could hear quite clearly.  Slowing to an abrupt halt, it became obvious he was a soldier and that he had traveled a long way, judging by the dust and grime that covered his uniform.

     "Wait!  Stop!" he cried as he dismounted his animal then forced his way to the scaffolding.  "I have urgent news for Governor Aguila from Mexico City."

     "Well, what is it, Capitan?" the official asked impatiently.  "Come on, man, we haven't all day."

     The soldier took a deep breath before making his pronouncement.  "Three  months ago, Mexico declared itself an independent nation.  Agustin Iturbide has been installed as presidente of the new government."  He waved a rolled parchment.

     Cheers arose from the people.  They began celebrating; dancing and shouting, "Viva Mexico!" Amid all the chaos, the Alcalde tried to be heard.

     "Silencio!  Silencio!," he shouted.  "This is nothing more than one of Zorro's nefarious tricks."  He pointed to the messenger.  "Lancers, arrest that imposter!"

     Several soldiers seized the man by the arms.  The document he had held fluttered unnoticed to the ground.  The townspeople began to protest, shouting insults at de Soto and the men detaining the courier.

     Aguila turned to the Alcalde and sneered.  "I can see why you are such a laughingstock, de Soto.  You cannot even control a few farmers and shopkeepers."

     The commandante's spine straightened in response to the verbal jab.  "Lancers!" he called out.  "Arrest the protestors!"

     This order caused total havoc.  Nearly everyone had been demonstrating.  The soldiers started chasing citizens all around the plaza.  De Soto kept barking out commands, adding to the mayhem.

     Diego used this opportunity to slip his head from the thick noose.  He gestured to Mendoza, who still stood on the platform; to unlock his shackled wrists.

     The poor sergeant was torn once again between his duty as a Royal Lancer and his longtime friendship with both Diego and Zorro.  He was still reeling from the revelation that all this time, the masked bandit had been his old amigo, Diego.  Realizing what the other man's fate was destined to be otherwise, friendship won out.  He awkwardly searched for the key to the manacles that held Diego's hands together.  Finally finding it, he first unlocked one then the other.

     "Gracias, Mendoza," whispered a grateful Diego.  He then snatched the sword the soldier wore from its scabbard.  "Sorry, amigo," he said, an unapologetic grin on his handsome face.  Diego leapt over the platform railing, landing nimbly on his feet.  He raised the borrowed blade into the air.

     "People of Los Angeles!" he shouted.  "It is time for all of us to fight our oppressors.  Let's rid this pueblo of tyranny once and for all!"

     The angry mob began shouting again.  Chants of "Viva Mexico!" and "Viva Zorro!" filled the air.  Many ran to their homes and shops, bringing out anything that could be used as a weapon.  A few swords were mingled with the odd assortment of brooms, iron skillets, shovels, and other household tools.

     Ana Maria and Leonora had quickly hustled Victoria out of harm's way, practically having to drag her to the tavern porch when the demonstrations had first broken out.  Now she ran into the building, returning with several skillets and pots.

     "Here, give these to anyone who needs a weapon," she urged the Ortega women.  "Arm yourselves as well."  Victoria ducked back into the tavern and brought out the club she kept behind the bar.

      The lancers from the garrison were joined by the soldiers of the governor's contingent.  But they were seriously outnumbered.  Men, women, and even children had entered the melee.  Don Alejandro had picked up the messenger's dropped decree and put it inside his vest pocket for safe keeping.  He was having a great time, hitting and poking at the soldiers with a borrowed shovel.

      Diego had engaged a few of the governor's men in easily won sword fights.  He had just punched his last victim in the stomach, causing the soldier to fall to the ground.  He spun around to find Felipe behind him, holding out Sir Edmund's saber.

     "Gracias, hijo," said Diego.  He tossed Mendoza's sword to the young man at the same time Felipe launched Zorro's weapon at him.  Both swords were deftly caught.

     "Gracias, padre," Felipe returned with a grin.  They saluted each other with their blades, then searched out citizens who needed assistance.  Felipe went to help an old lady who was keeping a lancer at bay with her cane as she called him names.

     However, when Diego scanned the plaza, his eyes met the enraged ones of Ignacio de Soto.  Within seconds, they were crossing swords.

     "Diego de la Vega," de Soto spat out his name, but it still left a bad taste in his mouth.  "So the meek and mild poet turns out to be the cunning fox.  It is still hard to believe."

     "Believe it, Ignacio," replied his old schoolmate mockingly.  He parried the sudden lunge of the Alcalde's weapon so fiercely it nearly knocked the other man off his feet.

     De Soto recovered in time to ward off a thrust by Diego.  "Where on earth did you learn to fence?  As I recall, you spent most of your time at university with your nose in a book."

     "Not all the time," retorted Diego, executing a riposte after warding off another attack by the commandante.  "Sir Edmund Kendall worked me into his schedule whenever he could.  In fact, this is his saber."

     "Kendall?"  De Soto's jawed dropped.  The master swordsman had offered his championship saber to any student who could best him.  No one had done so while he had been at the university nor the ten years prior to that when the British knight had first issued the challenge.  So Diego had been the one to do it.  Ignacio stared at his opponent warily.

     The Los Angelenos had contained all of the soldiers and things were beginning to calm down.  Several of the local lancers, led by Mendoza, had switched sides early on and fought along with the people.  The stout sergeant held the governor at bay, much to the official's indignation.

     The duel between Diego and de Soto became the focus of everyone's attention.  The clashing of their blades echoed throughout the plaza.  Ignacio held his own for awhile but soon it was evident that Diego was the superior swordsman.  A compound redoublement knocked the Alcalde's sword from his hand.  Diego's saber was at his throat before he could retrieve it.

     "Please," begged the humiliated man as he sank to his knees.  "Don't kill me."

     "If it had been my intention to kill you, Ignacio; you would have been dead the day you first stepped foot in Los Angeles."  Diego lowered his sword, then slowly and deliberately slashed his last Z' onto the Alcalde's finest jacket.  He hit his adversary in the face with a left hook, rendering the man unconscious.

     A great shout rose up from the people.  Don Alejandro held up the parchment he had recouped earlier.  "This clearly states that Mexico is now indeed an independent nation," he read from the document.  "All Spanish officials and military personnel are to return to Spain immediately unless they sign an oath of loyalty to the new government."

     More cheers of "Viva Mexico!" and "Viva Zorro!" drowned out any more of what the elder de la Vega might have read.  He would have been interrupted anyway as Diego made his way over to his father.

     "I am sorry, Father," his son apologized as he embraced the old caballero tightly.  "I should have told you long ago.  Can you forgive me?"

     Don Alejandro was still a little stunned by the disclosure that all this time Zorro had been his son, his own flesh and blood.  A deep shame settled over him, as he thought of all the hurtful barbs he had said to Diego over the years.  And all this time, his son had been risking his life for him and the people of this pueblo.  "Can you ever forgive me, Diego," he countered.  "I should have never. . ."

     "I have, Father," the younger man interrupted.  "Believe me, it is not your fault."

     The elder de la Vega hugged his son once more.  Then his face broke into a wide grin.  "A grandchild.  I'm getting another grandchild."

     He nodded in his daughter-in-law's direction as she was pushing through the throng of well-wishers and celebrants, trying to reach her husband.  Diego fought his way toward her.  They stared at each other for a moment, reeling a little from their good fortune.  They merged together and kissed hungrily.

     No one noticed as Felipe seized Ana Maria's hand then got down on one knee before her.  "Oh Felipe, are you. . ." she began to say, but he held up his hand to silence her.

     "I love you, Ana Maria," he said self-consciously, but his voice remained steady.  "Will you marry me?"

     It was Ana Maria's turn to be speechless.  She started to sway.  Felipe stood up in time to catch her before she fell to the ground.

     "Felipe, you can speak?" she whispered in astonishment.

     "Si," he replied with a smile.

     "Madre de Dios," she uttered, still in shock.  Then she remembered the question he had asked her.  "Si."

     "You mean. . ."

     "Si," she repeated then she kissed him.  When they pulled back from each other several minutes later, she looked at him with narrowed eyes.  "You have some explaining to do, mi querido."

     He just smiled happily then kissed her again.

     "Dios mio."  Both Diego and Victoria murmured when they finally drew apart.  He reached down, placing his hand on her still flat stomach.  "Are you sure so soon?  It must have been that first night."

     "Si," she replied.  "In a little over seven months, Señor, you're going to be a father."

     "It is a good thing Zorro has retired his mask then," declared Diego.  "Hopefully the people of Los Angeles and California are free of their oppressors at last."  He hugged her close.

     "I love you, Diego," she said.

     "I love you, Victoria, mi querida, mi corazon."

     He kissed her again as the citizens of the pueblo continued to celebrate the good news of their freedom.
                                                             Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

FIN

EPILOGUE

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