Author's note: Bad Language Alert in the 4th paragraph of this chapter.  Other words meaning the same thing just didn't have the same impact as the one I used.  There are also a couple of other bad words in Spanish.



      A scream pierced through the noise and chaos that already filled the night air, a sound so chilling that it caused a shiver to slide down Zorro's spine, stopping him in his tracks.

     Dear God!  Victoria!  He should have gone straight to the tavern, taking his chances that his presence in the pueblo would have gone unnoticed by the lancers serving as night watchmen.  Instead his miscalculations had roused the whole cuartel.  Worry gnawed at his gut as he heard faint thumps and thuds coming from the upper level of the tavern.  Footsteps closing in behind him reminded him of his own perilous predicament.

     Swearing viciously under his breath, he ran across the plaza with several soldiers in hot pursuit. Zorro ducked into the first darkened doorway he noticed, then watched as the lancers raced past. Looking upward, he grabbed onto the door's overhang then climbed up, praying all the while that Victoria would be safe enough until he could manage to make his way to her.
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[parts of the following were taken from the "The Reward" written by Robert L McCullough & Phillip John Taylor]

     The rattling of the door handle unfortunately brought Victoria back to her senses, the agony she was desperately trying to will away tearing through her once again.  The sound of hands pounding and slapping on the wooden surface brought a curse to Lamarca's lips.  "Malditas," he grumbled as he pulled himself upward.  "Can't a man fuck in peace around here?"

     "It's locked!" a man's voice yelled.  "Bust it down!" called out another male voice.

     "Mierda," Lamarca swore as he slid off the mattress, jerking up his breeches before beginning to close them up.  A loud thud landed against the door and it popped open, ripping out its hinges.  Three men burst inside the dorm.

     Victoria had wrenched down her skirts the second her attacker moved off of her.  She watched numbly as her belated rescuers tussled with Lamarca.  Not so surprisingly, he held his own against the trio.  She could sadly attest to his strength firsthand.

     Biting her lip in an effort to quell the tears that were threatening to spill from her eyes, she pressed her face into the pillow and prayed that her assailant would be defeated.  She didn't even want to contemplate what would happen if he emerged from the battle victorious.  Don't think about it, she told herself firmly. Don't think about it.  Don't feel. . .

     A horrific crash snapped her head up.  She saw her three champions rush out of the room.  Where was Lamarca?  Gingerly she sat up, a mistake as her head began to spin and her stomach rebelled.  Leaning over the side of the bed, she retched violently onto the floor.

    Victoria took a couple of deep breaths then got up off the bed.  She was still quite shaky but she had to see what had happened.  She had to know.  Walking what seemed like a mile, she made it to the doorway.  The balcony railing directly in front of her was in splinters.  An ominous feeling filled her as she stepped out of the room and looked downward.

     "Dios mio," she whispered in shock.  Her attacker, her violator, was lying on his back on the tavern's floor, a halo of blood surrounding his head.  One of her defenders glanced upward and she recognized him as Paco Ortega, the eldest son of one of the local farmers.  The expression on his young face told her that Lamarca was dead.  She could see guilt in his eyes and wondered if he had been the one to deal the fatal blow.   She wanted to tell him that he had done the world a favor by getting rid of Lamarca.  That the man had been nothing but scum, a bully, a rap. . .

     Don't think.  Don't feel.  She repeated the words in her head, wrapping her arms tightly around herself in a futile effort to stop from shaking.  Don't think.  Don't feel.


     The tenuous control she had just achieved nearly shattered when Victoria heard Zorro's voice, full of concern and worry.  Tremulously, she turned slightly as he approached.

     "Are you all right?" he asked, stopping just a couple feet in front of her.  He had noticed the broken railing and glanced downward.  "What happened here?"

     She looked in the same direction, not trusting herself to either look at or speak to him.   She felt him take a step toward her and knew he was staring at her but she couldn't face him.  One glimpse and he would know what had happened to her.  And she wouldn't, couldn't allow that.  If no one else knew, she reasoned, then maybe she could pretend nothing untoward had occurred.  That she hadn't been rap. . .

     She drew in a deep breath, fighting against the nausea that stirred inside her.  Don't think.  Don't feel.

     "That man attacked me," she whispered, hating that her voice quavered.  Her gaze still avoided Zorro's  as she pointed down at the body on the floor surrounded by her tardy rescuers.

     The three men swivelled their heads upward.  "Zorro," one of them murmured.

     Another said, "We didn't mean to kill him."  The trio all looked stunned by what had transpired.  Victoria could see the remorse and regret on all their faces.

     The masked man nodded.  "Taking a man's life is always a painful thing, amigos," he commiserated. She knew that he was thinking of Pablo Zaragosa, the thief who had been killed falling on Zorro's knife nearly a year earlier and how he mercilessly blamed himself for the robber's demise.

    Then hearing a sharp intake of breath, she knew his regard was fully on her once again.  Hoping to avoid his scrutiny, she glanced down, noticing for the first time the bruises purpling on her wrists and realized she must have a matching set on her face.  Thank God, she prayed, he can only see the damage on the outside.

    She watched impassively as his gaze traveled down the length of her body before stopping to stare at her feet.  "Victoria, you're bleeding," he announced quietly.  "Where are you hu. . .?"  He broke off his own question with a sudden gasp.

     She glanced downward then, seeing the thin stripe of red on her right ankle.  It was only then that she felt the sticky warmth trickling down her leg

     Don't think.  Don't feel.  Drawing on the tiny amount of strength she had left, she pulled herself together and raised her head, finally meeting his eyes.

    He knew.  And that knowledge destroyed what was left of her self-control.  Don't think, she scolded herself bitterly as she felt the tears gathering.  Don't feel.

     Zorro moved toward her and she involuntarily shuddered as she took a pace back.  Confusion flooded his countenance as he opened his lips.  But before he could say anything, a loud shout from outside the tavern interrupted him.

    "Check the tavern!" called out a voice Victoria recognized as de Soto's.  "Sergeant Mendoza!"

     She flinched her face away before she saw Zorro's apologetic expression.  That same expression she had hated almost from the beginning.  The one that told her that he was leaving and that once again she would be left behind to pick up the pieces.

     And the worst part of it all, she couldn't even really be angry with him.  He had to go.  To stay. . .  To risk his life. . .  To be killed. . .  Well, that would be even more unbearable.

     "I'm sorry," he said unnecessarily.  "I have to go.  My presence here will only complicate matters."  He glanced once more at the dead man below.  "Adios."

     Out of the corner of her eye, Victoria noticed that he started to raise his hand but let it drop.  Then with a swirl of his black cape, he was gone.  She stayed where she was, her arms still wrapped tightly about her.

     Don't think.  Don't feel.  She kept repeating those four words over and over.  If she didn't think and didn't feel, she just might make it through this, she told herself as she watched indifferently as the alcalde and his lancers stumbled into her tavern.
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     Don't think.  Don't feel.  The constant repetition of those four words was all that held him together as he rode back to the cave.  They continued to echo through his mind as he saw to Toronado's needs before exchanging his Zorro costume for his one as ‘Don Diego.'  Only then did he allow the image of Victoria he had been suppressing to materialize.  The image of the woman he loved looking so fragile that he had been afraid if he had touched her, she would have shattered into millions of pieces.

     That picture knocked him to his knees as a wave of devastation and guilt washed over him.  Devastation that the one woman he had especially sworn to protect had been. . .had been violated.  And guilt because he could have prevented it.  It had been, he admitted to himself now, his own arrogance and boredom that he had driven him to challenge the cuartel guards.

     And he only felt worse knowing that no matter how much he was hurting at the moment, it was nothing. . .nothing. . .compared to what Victoria must be experiencing.  He would never forget that look in her eyes when she realized he knew.  It would haunt him for the rest of his life.

     He had also loathed leaving her once again to pick up the pieces.  That she should have to shoulder this particular burden alone was almost more than he could bear.

     A vision of Lamarca's dead face mingled with the man atop Victoria, hurting her, taking her innocence so brutally, made Diego curl up his fists and pound them on his thighs as he mightily smothered the urge to howl with rage.  For the first time in his life, he wanted to kill another human being.   Providentially, the bastard was already dead, saving him from committing the sin of murder.   He had just about driven the vile image from his head when he heard his father urgently calling out his name.

     His first instinct was to ignore the elder de la Vega's summons, guessing that Don Alejandro had just been informed of the events at the tavern.  He just wanted to stay where he was and be swallowed up by his anguish.  But, he sighed as he heard his name ring out again, the old don was tenacious and wouldn't give up his search until figuratively every stone had been unturned.  After checking the viewing hole, Diego entered the passage way that led to the library fireplace.
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[parts of the following were taken from the "The Reward" written by Robert L McCullough & Phillip John Taylor]

     "Well, how did this happen?" de Soto asked.  When no one else answered, Victoria guessed he was asking her. . .again. . .for what seemed like the tenth time..

      The alcalde had been interrogating her and the three men who had come belatedly to her aid for nearly an hour, asking them same questions over and over.  And then, to make matters worse, the de la Vegas  had arrived about a half an hour earlier, all full of outrage and concern.  Victoria had been very grateful that she had taken the time to tidy herself up a bit before going downstairs to deal with de Soto.  The thought of the two caballeros seeing her mussed hair and torn blouse, never mind the blood, made her queasy.

     "Well," she began, tamping down the urge to scream into the Alcalde's stupid face.  "That. . .that man attacked me," she replied in a low monotone, staring across at Mendoza's scuffed boots, afraid if she looked anywhere else, they might see in her eyes what had been done to her.  "There was a big fight."

     "And which one of you killed him?" the commandante inquired of the trio of men who stood awkwardly around the body of her attacker, still laid out on the tavern floor.

     Victoria tuned out the rest of interview.  Her attention was drawn away from her perusal of the portly sergeant's boot though as she heard the words ‘three thousand pesos' and the name Jose Baquero.  She paid no heed to the claims of each of the three rescuers that he had killed her attacker.  Jose Baquero.  Evidently that was the true name of the man who had. . .   Don't think, she scolded herself.  Don't feel.

     Victoria became conscious that de Soto was staring expectantly at her again.  "Señorita," he said in an exasperated tone, which meant that he had already posed this question to her, "which man dealt the fatal blow?"

     "I really don't know," she answered truthfully, the bits and pieces of the battle flashing through her mind.  "It was a terrible fight.  There was so much confusion. I really can't say."  She ended her words with as casual a shrug as she could muster before withdrawing into herself again.

    "Alcalde, um. . ."  The sound of Diego's voice startled Victoria out of her detachment.  Inexplicably she had been aware of his presence by her side even when she had shut out everyone else.  And it was both comforting and disturbing.

     "Since it may well be impossible to prove which of these men is actually responsible for Baquero's death," Diego continued addressing the commandante, "perhaps they could share the reward money."

     A spontaneous smile came to Victoria's lips, which just as quickly disappeared.  Trust Diego to play the diplomat, she thought appreciatively as the others all agreed to his suggestion.

     "All right," said de Soto.  "I'll divvy up the reward money to all three of you once it arrives from Monterey."  He turned to Mendoza who stood next to him.  "Sergeant."

     Victoria sighed with relief as the stout soldier motioned to the two lancers who had been waiting next to the bar.  She stared one last time at the face of the cerdo who had robbed her of her innocence before turning away.  Don't think, don't feel, she admonished herself yet again.

     "Victoria."  Diego's voice interrupted her mental rebuking.  She spun around but kept her eyes lowered.  For some reason, the thought of tall caballero learning of what had happened to her caused a frisson of distress to course through her.

     "I'm alright," she lied, answering the query she had heard in his tone.

     "I think you should come stay at the hacienda," offered Don Alejandro, reaching out toward her shoulder.  Victoria shrank away from his hand, then chastised herself.  Good heavens, the old don would never hurt her, he had thought of her as a daughter for years.  But yet. . .  The notion of anyone touching her right then made her feel violently ill.

     She turned abruptly and walked behind the bar, deliberately using it as a barricade between the well-meaning de la Vega men and herself.  "Thank you, Don Alejandro," she replied, proud that the earlier quaver in her voice had disappeared.  "But no.  I'll be fine."

     "All right, then," the elder de la Vega agreed, with some reluctance she noticed.  "Let us know right away if you need anything."

     "I will.  Gracias."  Victoria picked up a glass and made a show of wiping it out, hoping they would take the hint and leave.

     "Adios," the old don said as he turned toward the door, motioning for his son to follow.  But Diego stayed where he was, the intensity of his eyes on her making her squirm inwardly.

    "Victoria," he uttered in a low voice.  "I. . .um. . ."

     "Diego, I am fine," she cut him off, not bothering to keep her vexation from her words.  She lifted her gaze as far as his mouth, still not wanting to face him, or anyone really.  But especially him, a little voice in her head chimed in.  She ignored it as she watched his chin bob as he spoke.

    "Very well," he said tiredly.  "Buenas noches."

     After his departure, Victoria set down the glass she had been cleaning.  Spying under the counter a bottle of wine that was half full, she grabbed it and shakily poured it into the cup.  Just one drink, she vowed, just one to help calm her nerves.

     She lifted the glass to her lips and took a tentative sip, then drained the red liquid.  Setting the cup onto the counter, she refilled it.  Just one more, she promised herself before she drank down the wine in one mouthful.

     A hazy feeling of numbness descended upon her as the alcohol began to take effect.    Ignoring the pledge she had made only seconds before, she poured a third measure of the rich red wine.  She picked up the glass and slowly sipped it this time, savoring it as it dulled her senses even further.

     After the fourth cupful, she lost count.
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