Diego ducked out of the way as the bottle flew past his head before smashing against the wall behind him.  Victoria glared at him reproachfully as Alicia looked on in horror.

    "Dirty filthy stinking cerdo. . ." Victoria declared in a loud voice.   She glanced surreptitiously at the table.

    He instantly spotted the long sharp knife that had caught her eye.  Staring challengingly at her, all the while praying that she would not actually use it on him, they both lunged for it at the same time.  Victoria was quicker, grabbing the handle a split second before Diego.  His hand covered hers and he used his superior strength to keep her from lifting the knife off the table.

    "Let go," Victoria hissed angrily, trying to pull away from him and knocking a plate piled with tamales to the ground.  It shattered as it hit the tiles, splattering food and broken crockery all over their feet.

     "I don't think so."  The fumes from her breath were so strong, they made his eyes sting.  Enough that he was considering her ridiculous demand.  She must have started drinking as soon as he had left the pueblo that morning to be so intoxicated.

     Victoria squirmed in frustration.  "You're nothing but a lying, sneaky. . .two-faced . . .pig who thinks he can just ride in on his bla. . ."

     "Victoria," Diego interrupted her tirade before she revealed his secret to everyone in the tavern.   "That's enough."

     "What's going on in here?" Mendoza asked as he poked his head through curtains.  "Where are my tamal . . ."  His mouth fell open as he gaped at the tableau before him.  Diego wasn't sure if the sergeant was more alarmed at the sight of he and Victoria struggling over a knife or the sight of the ruined tamales.

     "Get out!" Diego, Victoria, and Alicia all shouted in unison at the poor soldier, who immediately complied, backing out of the room with alacrity.

     Victoria used the momentary distraction to kick Diego in the shin.  Pain blossomed in his leg but he held fast.  She then put her free hand on his chest and tried to push him while at the same time kicking at him again.  He moved out of the way of her foot and she slipped in the sauce on the floor, relinquishing her hold on the knife and landing on her bottom.

     "Malditas," she muttered, placing her hands on her sides of her face.  Diego, now sole possessor of the knife, flung it behind him and upward, where it stuck high into the wall, out of everyone's reach.

     Then intending to help Victoria to her feet, Diego moved toward her.  A hand momentarily touching his arm brought him to a halt.   "Don Diego, perhaps it would be best if you left," Alicia said impatiently.  "Pilar and I can. . ."

    "I'll deal with her," he announced authoritatively.  Until Victoria was sober, he did not trust her to be alone in her inebriated state with anyone other than himself.

     "And why should I let you?" asked the serving woman testily.  "She wouldn't be in this condition in the first place if it wasn't for you."

     The accusation stunned him as he realized what it meant.   Victoria's employees thought he had seduced then abandoned her, allowing her to become fodder for the pueblo's sanctimonious  rumormongers.  They thought that was the reason for her drinking and were placing the blame squarely on his shoulders.

     They had no inkling of the nightmare she had been living for the past few months.  Of course, he hadn't known about the drinking problem until yesterday, though he now recalled smelling wine on her breath that night they had spent together.  He had thought nothing of it at the time, figuring she must have taken a sip or two to boost her courage in order to lure him into her bed.

     He faced Alicia who was once again staring hostilely at him.  "She is my responsibility then, isn't she?" he stated bluntly.  Sensing that the other woman was still unwilling to let him near her employer, he vowed, "I swear that nothing untoward will happen while she's in my care."  Diego felt her skepticism lessen as she seemed to accept the sincerity of his words.

     "All right," the serving woman reluctantly agreed as Victoria struggled to get up off the floor.  Both Diego and Alicia hurried over, each grabbing an arm before hoisting her upward.  Victoria wobbled unsteady but remained upright as they released her..

     "Stop talking about me like I'm not here," Victoria repeated angrily.  She swung her right hand at Diego, who nimbly dodged out of its way before wrapping his arms around her, trapping hers against her body.  He then lifted her up and onto his left shoulder.

     "Put me down, you big oaf!" she shouted.  "Don't touch me!" Diego ignored her pleas, carrying her toward the back door, she lunged wildly at the table as they passed, knocking off more plates..  The sounds of shattering dishes followed in their wake.

      She then began to pummel his back with her fists.  "I'll scream!" she threatened, evidently unaware that she was not exactly being quiet about her circumstances.  "I'll tell everyone you are. . ."

     Luckily, Diego had carried her through the door, kicking it closed with his foot before she finished her sentence.  He set her down on her feet then backed her up against the outside wall of the tavern, using his hands to pin her in place.

    "I'm taking you somewhere where you can sober up," he said.  He used a finger to raise her chin so that their eyes met.  "And then we are going to finish our discussion from yesterday."

     "I am not drunk," Victoria's slurred words belied her statement.  "And I'm not going anywhere with you. . .perro," She shook her head violently.  "I have nothing more to say to you, you pig.  You bastardo."

     Diego gazed at the stubborn expression on her lovely face and sighed.  Then he turned his head slightly and let out a loud whistle.  Within seconds, Esperanza came trotting up to them.  Gathering up the reins, he swung up onto the mare's back.  Victoria tried to take advantage of her freedom, but before she had taken more than a couple of steps, Diego scooped her up and placed her across his lap.

     "Let me go!" she yelled.  "Help!  I'm being kidnapping!  Help!"  Diego urged his horse forward and away from the pueblo, hoping no one would take heed to her.  But, he thought, the way his luck was running, someone would hear her pleas and would report them to the alcalde.

     Victoria quieted down as they rode across the countryside.  She was beginning to feel sleepy and the rocking motion of the horse was lulling her even further into drowsiness.  And though she was very, very, very mad at Diego, it felt good to be held in his arms.  He was so warm and strong and. . .  She sighed and closed her eyes.
                                                                                                    Z                                                                       Z                                                                       Z

     Victoria slowly became aware that she was no longer on horseback and no longer in Diego's arms.  Little hammers were pounding inside her skull and her mouth felt as dry as a desert as a wave of nausea swept over her. Warily opening one eye, she noted that wherever she was - and where exactly that was, she had not a clue - it was dimly lit and quiet.  Her head rested on a feathery soft pillow and she seemed to be lying on some kind of a cot, covered with a warm wool blanket.

     She stared upward for several minutes before she finally determined that the ceiling above was rough hewn stone.  And there were bubbling noises coming from somewhere near her feet.  Inhaling, she got a whiff of a strange acrid odor she could not identity and another more earthy scent, one that she recognized instantly as a mixture of horse, straw, and manure.

     She had the vague sense she had been here before, not so long ago.  Victoria placed a hand over her eyes as she tried to concentrate.  The sound of footsteps shuffling in her direction disturbed her thoughts before she even had a chance to begin them.  She uncovered her face and saw a panicked looking Felipe standing over her.  Felipe?  Why would he be here?  Unless. . .

     Madre de Dios, Diego had taken her to the cave.  Zorro's cave.   The very place, not so many months ago, that the masked man had proposed to her and she had been so happy to say yes.

     Tears welled up in her eyes and she futilely dashed them away.   Felipe's expression grew even more alarmed at the sight of her weeping.  No doubt he was like the rest of his gender, she thought wryly, unable to cope with a woman crying.

     He held out his hands palms down, and made a pressing motion.  Then he dashed out of the cave.  Victoria interpreted his gesture to mean that she was to stay put.  And as much as she would have liked to disobey that order, her body was content to stay right where it was.

     She must have drifted off again because it seemed like a long time before she heard the footfalls of someone entering the cave.  Her instincts told her it was Diego even before he came to a halt beside her.

     "How are you feeling?" he asked solicitously as he knelt down next to the cot.

     "Why did you bring me here?" she asked, irritated by his considerate manner.  All her feelings of anger, guilt, and shame churned sickeningly within her at the sight of him. She attempted to sit up, but the room began to spin and she had to lie back down again, placing her hands on her temples in a vain attempt to end her dizziness.

     "Because this is the only place I could think of where we won't be disturbed," Diego replied.   "You cannot go on like this, Victoria.  You need help."

     "I am fine," she lied through gritted teeth.

     "You cannot honestly believe that." stated Diego.  He ran his hands through his hair agitatedly.  "The drinking, it has to stop."

     "I can quit whenever I want," she declared boldly even though she knew that was untrue.  Her dependence on alcohol was getting out of control.  But. . .it helped her to cope, to forget, to. . .

     "Victoria," he began gently, interrupting her thoughts, "I'm afraid for you."  She frowned at that.  "I know that everything that has happened in the last few months has been terrifying and overwhelming.  But you cannot go on like this."

     "And why do you think you can help me?" she asked sullenly.  Summoning all her will, she sat up, swinging her legs until her feet touched the ground.  Instant regret flooded through her as pain filled her head and her stomach roiled violently.

      "Victoria, you shouldn't. . ."  Diego never had the chance to complete his admonishment as he watched her face turned a pale shade of green.  As she leaned forward, Diego jumped backward, but sadly, not in time to save his boots.

     "Oh, Dios, I'm so sorry."  Victoria, her complexion still an unhealthy pasty color, clamped her hand over her mouth in mortification.  Diego was at a loss as to what to say, because really, what did you say to the woman you loved who had just cast up her accounts all over your feet.  He walked over to the nearest laboratory table and picked up a pitcher sitting upon it.

     He poured some of its contents into a cup, then thrust it at her.  "Here," he said gruffly.  Cautiously she took the proffered glass, sniffed it, probably to make sure it wasn't the cactus tea he had made her drink the only other time she had visited Zorro's lair.  Diego reached into a box under the table and pulled out several rags and began cleaning up the mess.  Surreptitiously he watched as she listlessly sipped the water from her cup.

     "This is crazy," Victoria said suddenly.

     Rising up to his full height once again, Diego stared down at her.  "For heaven's sake, I'm perfectly capable of wiping up your. . ."

     "That's not what I mean," she broke in impatiently.  "Although you really should let me do that."  She started to stand again but he glared menacingly at her and she promptly sat back down.

     "I cannot stay here with you," she stated hotly.  " It won't be long before the whole pueblo learns that you carried me off somewhere."  With a sad sigh, she continued, "My reputation is already in tatters.  My business is suffering.  This," she indicated the cave with a flourish, "this madness is going to destroy everything I've worked so hard for all these years.  I cannot let that happen.  I need to leave.  Now."

     "No," Diego said firmly.  "You are going rest here until you feel better."

     "Then what?"

     "Then we are going to talk."

     "I do feel better," Victoria muttered unconvincingly.  "And I'm tired of talking."  Diego arched an eyebrow as he looked pointedly at the floor.  "Oh, all right, I don't feel better.  But I am tired of talking."

     "Then you won't mind taking a nap," Diego suggested, knowing that in a few moments she would be doing just that.

      Victoria glanced sharply at him then into her empty glass.  "What did you. . .  What was in. . .  It tasted like regular water."  As she spoke, her eyelids began to droop heavily.

     Diego smiled mischievously as he helped to recline once again on the cot.  "I distilled the bitterness out of the cactus juice," he explained as he pulled the blanket up to cover her.  "It does taste exactly like water now but with all the same sleep-inducing properties as before."

     "You cerdo."  Victoria's oath lacked its usual acrimony as she slipped deeper into unconsciousness.  Diego gazed down at her, the worry returning to his expression.  How was he supposed to help her fight her demons if it seemed as though she and those demons were on the same side?
                                                                                                       Z                                                                       Z                                                                       Z

     A repetitive drumbeat kept sounding in her head.  Dios mio, I must be hung over again, Victoria thought.  She didn't want to open her eyes because she was all too well aware how painful that simple movement could be.  But then suddenly she could see and she gasped in horror at what she saw.

     The gallows had been erected in the middle of the plaza, surrounded by the pueblo's citizens.  They were pushing and shoving toward the scaffolding,  shouting something she couldn't catch.  Victoria turned her head to see a lancer beating a drum as he led a procession of other soldiers to the gallows.

     Standing on tiptoe, she tried in vain to see who was walking next to de Soto, who was wearing a grotesquely evil grin on his face.  Finally she caught a glimpse of someone in a brown robe, hanging their head as if in shame.  Who was it? she wondered.  She looked to her left as she was jostled by a large man she vaguely recognized as the general storekeeper.

     "Who is it?" she asked him.  "Who is the Alcalde hanging now?"

     The man ignored her, thrusting his way past her before being swallowed up by the crowd.  She was propelled forward by those behind her and she began to fear being trampled by the frenzied mob.

     Then their muted shouts became clearer, making her wish they had remained muffled.  "Kill him!"  "Hang him!"  "Death to the imposter!"

     The imposter?  Surely they didn't mean Don Alejandro?  Zorro had saved him that very morning.   And if it wasn't the elder de la Vega, who were they denouncing so angrily?

     The parade of lancers had reached the platform, encircling it as de Soto and the condemned man climbed the stairs.  The prisoner tripped on a stair and was promptly lashed with a riding crop the Alcalde held in his right hand.  The man cried out in pain and stumbled again.  The commandante yanked him up the rest of the steps and flung him underneath the waiting noose.

     With his hideous smile still in place, de Soto turned to face the swarm of townspeople at the base of the scaffolding.  There was an instantaneous hush over those gathered.

     "Citizens of the pueblo de Los Angeles, " the Alcalde announced loudly.  "Today we rid ourselves of the scourge who has lied and deceived you, who has stolen from, not only me, but from all of us.  Who kills unarmed men, beats and starves defenseless children, and defiles our most beautiful women."

     The shouts of "Kill him!" and "Hang him!" once again rang throughout the plaza.  De Soto gazed out at the crowd with a sickeningly pleased expression.  After a few moments, he raised his hands and the people quieted at once.  The alcalde then stood next to the hooded man.

     "I give you Zorro!" he declared as he tore the robe from the man beside him.  The man in black continued to stare down at his boots.  A lancer placed the rope around the masked man's neck and cinched it tightly. "And now, we will all see who this villainous scum who has been hiding behind his mask of shame truly is."  With that, de Soto ripped the black silk from Zorro's face.

     Victoria screamed in terror.

     For it was not the face of Diego de la Vega that was revealed.  But the man who had raped her, Jose Baquero.
                                                                                                     Z                                                                       Z                                                                       Z