Two days later, Diego and Felipe left on the annual de la Vega cattle drive to San Diego.  Don Alejandro was supposed to have gone, but the day before he had cut his leg while mending a fence post.  The injury required several stitches.  It took much convincing before the old don agreed to allow Diego and Felipe to take his place.  Diego assured the elder de la Vega he was quite capable of handling the trip and the selling of the livestock at the journey's end.

     His father finally saw reason and acquiesced.  There was always plenty to do around the ranch, especially without Diego hovering over him like an old mother hen.  He did not know what had gotten into his son lately.  He would catch Diego staring worriedly at him from time to time. It was beginning to get on his nerves.

     Diego had mixed emotions about being away for two weeks.  On one hand, he was concerned about Victoria.  She was a strong, independent woman, capable of running her own business, that was true.  She also had strong opinions and was not afraid to voice them.  Diego had lost count of how many times she had been in the garrison's jail.  And for all her fierceness and strength, she was still a small and delicate lady.  She could put up a good fight, but eventually she would be overcome by any man who wanted to hurt her.

     He had gone out to search for the two kidnappers to no avail.  They must have escaped their bonds and headed off for parts unknown.  Diego wished he'd had more time to look for them.

     He was relieved on the other hand to put more time and distance between Victoria and Zorro.  The other night had proved that the ardor they shared could be quenched by only one thing.  And he knew once would never be enough.  He wasn't looking forward to Zorro's next encounter with the lovely innkeeper.  He  probably wouldn't stand a chance against her seductive wiles.  No, it was for the best he was going to be away for two weeks.

     He glanced over at his adopted son as they rode down the trail, keeping the steers moving to their destination.  The young man had a broad grin on his face again, the same grin Diego had noticed him wearing quite often the past few weeks.  He did not have to wonder what his son was thinking about.

     Felipe actually was remembering the previous evening.  He and Ana Maria no longer met down by the river.  Their special place there now held too many unpleasant memories for them.  There was an old abandoned house not far from the pueblo where they now rendezvoused.

     Neither realized how hard it would be to keep their vow of abstinence.  Once they had tasted the forbidden fruit, it was extremely difficult not to go back for another bite, knowing now how delicious it was.

     It had been while they had been kissing and caressing each other that Ana Maria whispered that she was not pregnant.  She had just found out that afternoon.  Felipe had been relieved as had she, but both were a little sad as well.   It had been so hoped for that a child would result from their lovemaking at the time, it was a bit disappointing that it did not.  Felipe kissed away the tears from Ana Maria's eyes.  ‘Next time' he pledged soundlessly.  On their wedding night, they both promised themselves.

     "I love you so much, Felipe," she murmured as they held each other tight.

     Felipe often wondered why such a beautiful woman would love him.  He knew it wasn't because of his looks or the fact he was now a de la Vega.  And it certainly was not pity because of his supposed handicaps.  She just loved him and for that he would be eternally grateful.

     A cloud of dust caused him to sneeze, bringing him back to the task at hand.  It was going to be a long two weeks.
                                                            Z                                                           Z                                                               Z

     While the younger de la Vegas were in the midst of their cattle drive, a lone soldier came riding into the pueblo one afternoon.  He was dressed in a white uniform trimmed with gold rather than the blue and red the garrison lancers wore.  Coming to a halt in front of the cuartel after nearly knocking down several people in the plaza, he dismounted.  He retrieved a rolled parchment from one of his saddle bags.

     Ignacio de Soto sat at his desk, eating a late lunch.  When he heard the office door squeak open, he glanced up in annoyance.  "Mendoza, I thought I told you not to disturb. . ." he started to yell, breaking off when he saw it was not the stout sergeant barging into the room.  He rose to his feet, pulling the napkin from his collar as the officer stopped smartly in front of the desk, snapping a crisp salute.

     "I am Lieutenant Valdez.  I bear an urgent message from the governor," he announced, getting right to the point.  He proffered the rolled document to de Soto.  The commandante, after taking it, sat back down in his chair and opened it.

     "The garrison at Los Angeles. . ." he began to read aloud, "hereby informed that the governor of the territory of Alta California is to visit on the date noted below.  Please arrange for all the proper ceremonies.  Also," the Alcalde continued, "the garrison is hereby put on notice to capture the rebel outlaw Zorro, alive if possible, by the time of the governor's arrival.  Signed, Carlos Octavio, secretary to the governor, etcetera. . ."

     De Soto glanced at the day designated then up at Valdez.  "Three months to capture Zorro?  That is impossible.  The governor surely cannot be serious."

     "I assure you, Alcalde de Soto," the lieutenant replied, "that he is most serious.  The pueblo de Los Angeles has become the laughingstock of the territory.  This masked bandit, this Zorro, makes the governor look like an incompetent fool, not to mention yourself.  Governor Aguila has decided that Zorro has been a thorn in his side long enough."  The messenger saluted again.  "With your permission, Alcalde."

     "One moment, Lieutenant," de Soto requested.   "What makes the governor think we can capture Zorro in three months?  We haven't been able to for. . ."

     "That is your problem, Alcalde," Valdez said with a sneer.  "Personally I thought he was being generous to allow you that much time.  He wants to see Zorro hang while he is here.  I suggest you grant that wish."  Saluting again, he turned on his heel and swiftly left the office.

     "Generous, my foot," muttered de Soto sarcastically.  He stared at the announcement in his hand and sighed wearily.

     The messenger bumped into Sergeant Mendoza on his way out the door.  The portly soldier stood there for a minute, watching as the other man mounted his horse and rode out of town.  A puzzled expression marring his round face, he entered the Alcalde's office.

     De Soto pushed away his plate, no longer having an appetite.  "What's wrong, sir?" asked the sergeant, eyeing the uneaten enchiladas.  "Who was that?"

     "I have just been informed that we have three months in which to apprehend Zorro, Sergeant," the Alcalde explained, his disgust evident in his tone.  "The governor will be here to inspect the garrison and wishes, no demands, that Zorro hangs while he is here."

     "Catch Zorro? In three months?" Mendoza asked incredulously.  "We have not been able to capture him for years and years.  What makes the governor think we can do so in so short a time?"

     "Who knows," the Alcalde replied tiredly.  He leaned back resignedly in his chair, pondering his fate.  He imagined the penalty for failing to comply with Aguila's orders would be extremely harsh.  Probably his own neck would end up in the noose.   An exhilarating thought occurred to him then.  He could be on his way home to Madrid in three months!  That was all the motivation de Soto needed.  He grinned wickedly as he pointed his finger at his bewildered subordinate.

     "All I do know is," he declared determinedly, "that I will use any means in my power to fulfill the governor's edict.  Any means I can, Sergeant."

     "Si, mi Alcalde," said Mendoza nervously.  He began to walk out of the building but not before glancing over his shoulder at his commandante, who had resumed eating his meal with a renewed gusto.
                                                            Z                                                           Z                                                           Z

     By the end of the next week, Diego and Felipe had returned from their journey to San Diego.  Don Alejandro was quite pleased with the deal Diego had negotiated for the cattle.  Maybe there was hope for his son after all, he thought.

     Since they arrived home quite late in the evening, the de la Vegas waited until the next morning to visit the pueblo.  That it was market day made no difference to the two younger men.  Felipe was very anxious to see Ana Maria and Diego wanted to check on Victoria.

     They rode up to the front of the tavern as they always did, tying their horses to the rail.  Felipe immediately took off toward the seamstress shop.  Don Alejandro and Diego smiled indulgently at the young man's eagerness to visit his sweetheart.  They were about to enter the tavern when Diego spied Victoria walking their way.  She was carrying her empty market basket on her arm.  Either she had just started her shopping or nothing suited her this morning, Diego mused idly.

     He was about to call out a greeting when a very odd thing happened.  Three older women, the wives of respected caballeros, had been strolling toward Victoria.  When they noticed her, they abruptly moved out of her way, sweeping around her in a wide arc.  Turning back to stare at her as they passed, they whispered loudly to each other.

     Victoria stopped in her tracks as they circled by her.  Her back straightened as she overheard their unkind comments.  She gathered up her skirt with her free hand and ran to the back of her tavern.  Diego had heard one of the remarks as well and could not believe someone would say such a thing about her.  No wonder she was so upset.

     He spun around to face his father.  "What was that all about?" he demanded to know.  "Those women deliberately insulted Victoria."

     Don Alejandro shook his head sadly as he sighed.  "I thought this would have blown over by now."

     "What are you talking about, Father?" questioned Diego.  "What would blow over?"

     "Remember before you left, when Victoria was missing?" his father began to explain.  Diego nodded, recalling it well.  "And Zorro brought her back the next morning?  Well most people prefer to believe the Alcalde's version of what transpired that night.  That she and Zorro were. . .you know." Seeing his son's bewildered expression, he added a bit embarrassedly, "having intimate relations."

     Diego was outraged.  "That is totally ridiculous," he declared angrily.  "No one could possibly believe that."  It certainly clarified the obscenity the women had called her though.

     "I'm sorry, Son, but it's true," the elder de la Vega replied wearily.  "Her reputation is in shreds and her business is in trouble.  I've tried to defend her as much as I could but. . ."

     "There must be something we can do," protested Diego, clenching his fists.  They stepped into the tavern, which was usually bustling with activity on market day.  Today, however, there were only two old peasants who sat at one of the corner tables.  One of the men was sleeping and the other was slowly sipping a glass of cheap wine.

     Diego was finding it harder to contain his fury as he surveyed the room.  Walking up to the bar, he could hear muffled sobbing coming from the kitchen.  "I must speak with her," he told his father.

     Nodding, Don Alejandro glanced around.  "I am supposed to meet Don Esteban here."  Which seemed highly unlikely to Diego, as the caballero-in-question's wife, Doña Carmen, was one of the women they had just seen ostracize Victoria.  "I'm going to look for him.  Adios."  He then exited the tavern to do just that.

     Diego strode over to the curtained doorway, brushing the fabric aside as he moved through it.  He halted when he saw his querida, sitting on a bench and weeping as though her heart was breaking.  She glimpsed up at him and tried to wipe her tears with her hands.

     "Diego, you're back," she said in a shaky voice, smiling weakly at him.  She didn't want to admit it but she had missed him these past two weeks.

     "You've been crying," he stated needlessly.  "Here."  He handed her his handkerchief.

     "Gracias," she said as she accepted it.  She used the fine linen to daub at her cheeks. "I am fine, Diego.  There is no need for you to be concerned.  It's just. . ."

     "I beg to differ, Victoria," he interrupted her prevarication, sitting down next to her.  "When the reputation of a good woman such as yourself is being questioned. . ."

     "Oh, you have heard," she stated in a small voice.  One look at his face told her he didn't believe it a word of it.  Why would he have so much faith in her innocence, she wondered.  Everyone else in town thought the innuendo was true.  "It's not important."

     Diego contradicted her.  "It is important.  There is no reason to treat you like this.  You are the most decent, generous, honest. . ."

     "No, Diego," she stopped him, shaking her head.  "There have always been those who disapproved of me running this tavern after my parents were gone.  I have been told more than once I should sell it and find some nice man to marry."  She paused to take a breath, looking away from his intense gaze.  "Then I made my feelings for an outlaw too obvious.  I guess I should have expected this sooner or later."  She exhaled and glanced at him once more.  "Ramon is in Guadalajara now and Francisco is stationed in Ensenada.  I just might sell the tavern and move someplace where I would be closer to them."

     "No!"  Both Diego and Victoria were surprised by the vehemence of his response.  Reining in his anger and fear, he added, "I mean, don't do anything rash, Victoria.  There must be another alternative. . ."

     He did not finish his sentence.  He was upset that she had had to endure this by herself while he had been gone. This is my fault, he thought; making her wait all these years for her masked hero to marry her.  He should be the one who helped her become respectable again and to keep her from leaving Los Angeles.  That was something he could not bear.  But how. . .?

    He looked at the beautiful woman beside him, tears still sliding down her cheeks.  His heart ached for her.  He wanted to gather her into his arms and kiss her sorrow away.  An idea suddenly occurred to him.  He acted upon it immediately before he had the chance to change his mind.

     "Victoria," he began as he knelt down on one knee before her, taking both of her hands in his.  "Victoria, will you. . ."  He nervously took a deep breath.  "Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"
                                                             Z                                                               Z                                                               Z