It had been a quiet ride back to the de la Vega hacienda.  Diego, of course, knew why he wasn't in the mood to discuss what had occurred that evening, but it surprised him that his father was being reticent on the events at the tavern as well.

     The silence lasted until they had reached the hacienda stables and had turned their horses over to one of the stable hands.  "Diego," the elder de la Vega said as they walked toward the house.

     "Yes?"  Diego noticed that his father appeared to be mulling over what he would say next, a rare occasion for the old don, who usually had no compunction speaking his mind.

     "Did. . .did Victoria seem. . .well, a bit odd to you this evening?" Don Alejandro finally asked as they reached the front doors.

      Diego was unsure as how to answer.  Yes, Victoria had not been herself during the Alcalde's questioning, her lack of emotion obvious to anyone who was even the slightest acquaintance with her.  But only he knew the reason why.  And he knew without a doubt that the lovely innkeeper would not appreciate anyone else knowing that the reason for her unusually passive behavior.

    "Uh. . .I didn't notice," he lied, shrugging in what he hoped was a nonchalant manner as they walked inside the hacienda.  "I mean other than the fact she was shaken by being attacked and that a man was killed in her tavern, of course.  Why?"

     "I just thought she was rather subdued," replied Don Alejandro.  "But as you say, she had good reason to be."

     More than you'll ever know, Diego agreed bitterly to himself.

     "I still wish she would have come back here with us," the old don stated, shaking his head.  "To think of her there at the tavern. . .all by herself. . ."

     "Victoria will be fine," Diego declared, perjuring himself once again.  "Baquero won't be bothering anyone ever again."  That fact was the only consolation that he could take from the whole wretched business.

     The old don barely stifled a huge yawn, then gripped Diego's shoulder for a second before letting go.  "Well, I'm off to bed."  He looked expectantly at his son.

     "I think I'll stay up and read for a while longer," Diego replied to the unasked question.  "Good night, Father."

    "Buenas noches."  The elder de la Vega nodded tersely then turned in the direction of his bed chamber.  Diego sat down on the settee in the library as soon as the old don disappeared, not even bothering to grab a book so he could pretend to peruse it.  Burying his face in his hands, he allowed himself a few moments to wallow in his pain.

     So lost in his misery, Diego didn't notice as Felipe slipped into the room until the lad touched him lightly on the arm.  Reluctantly he sat up and watched as the youth flashed a series of hand gestures which he punctuated with lifting his left eyebrow.

     Diego had known Felipe would be brimming with curiosity about the evening's adventures.  But he would never be able to discuss all that had happened with anyone, even with the young man who knew the rest of his secrets.

      "It's a long story, Felipe," he finally answered, "and it's late and you should have been in bed a long time ago."  Diego got to his feet and made a show of stretching.  "No arguments," he added as the lad looked about to protest.  "I'll tell you everything in the morning, I promise."

     There was only a slight twinge to his conscience as he lied for what seemed the hundredth time that night.  He was grateful that the clearly disappointed youth nodded then hied off to his room.  Diego then made his way to his own bedroom.

     Several hours later, Diego arose from his bed, abandoning his futile efforts to sleep.  Images of Victoria and what she had had to endure kept crowding his mind as he paced back and forth across his room.  He wanted to ride back to the pueblo and check on her.  To make sure for his own peace of mind that she was coping.

      Diego did not think that Victoria would do something as rash as suicide, but he knew she was hurting.  Knew the anguish she must be suffering.  And it was torturing him to think she was all alone.  Who knew what hellish place she might sink into, left to her own devices.

     But he knew without a doubt that Zorro was the last person she wanted to see right now.  And Diego de la Vega would not be high on her list either.

     He sat back down on his mattress and sighed with frustration.  There was really nothing he could do.  What had been done could never be reversed.  No amount of heroics would change anything.  Diego stretched out on his bed and closed his eyes, praying that no one else learned the truth of exactly had occurred that night.
                                                                  Z                                                                    Z                                                                    Z

     Dios mio, what was that awful pounding?  Victoria cracked open one eye and realized it was her head.  Dazzling light made her quickly close her eyelid.  Then she heard a loud knocking sound that wasn't related to the throbbing in her brain.

     What on earth?  Victoria hesitantly glanced at the clock on her bedside table.  Eight o'clock!  She should have been awake hours ago.  And why did her tongue feel and taste as if she had cleaned the tavern floor with it?  She stirred in her sheets and felt a wad of padding shift between her legs.

     Then her confusion dissipated and she remembered.  Remembered every agonizing detail from the previous evening.  Except how she had made it to her quarters.  Tentatively she sat up, and when the room stopped tilting, she swung her legs over the side of her bed.  Her foot landed on something hard and Victoria looked down as an empty wine bottle skittered across the floor.

      No wonder her brain was so fuzzy, she thought as she recalled drinking several glasses of wine.  It also explained why she was still dressed in her blouse and skirt instead of her nightgown.  She must have stumbled up to her room and passed out.

     "Senorita Escalante?"  The words were followed by light rapping on her bedroom door.  "Victoria?"

     She recognized the voice of her longest standing employee, Alicia.  "Un momento," she called out as loudly as she could without causing the hammering in her head to grow worse.  Using the bed to steady herself, Victoria stood.  Again she felt the old chemise she had wadded up between her legs move and she knew she was still bleeding.

     Victoria took a deep breath before going over to the vanity and peering into its mirror.  Her clothing was badly rumpled and her hair looked as if birds had made a nest of it.  Purple shadows under her eyes matched the bruise on the lower left side of her face.   She touched it gingerly and flinched at its unexpected tenderness.

     Her inspection was interrupted as another tap sounded on the door.  "Victoria?"  This time she could hear a note of panic in Alicia's voice.  Oh dear, she thought as she recalled  the broken railing and the broken door and the blood on the floor. . . Madre de Dios, blood.   She couldn't remember, as horror rose within her, if there had been any blood on the bed.  The bed where she had been. . .

    Don't think.  Don't feel.   Victoria took a deep breath.  Then another.  After the third, she told herself, "I can do this.  I have to do this."  She had to go out and pretend that nothing extraordinary had happened, even though all she wanted to do was crawl back into her bed and pull the covers over her head, never facing anyone ever again.

     Instead she unsteadily made her way over to the bedroom door and opened it just a sliver.  Victoria again heard the sound of hammers but this time they were not in her head.  She glanced upward and saw her three would-be saviors from the previous evening repairing the broken railing.

     "They showed up about an hour ago,"said Alicia, answering Victoria's unasked question, "with a wagon load of lumber.  They said it was the least they could do since it was their fault it got broken in the first place."

     Victoria stared at the men as they worked, her resentment of their belated rescue somewhat appeased by their reparations.   She did wonder for a moment how they could afford the wood but then realized they probably borrowed against the reward they were to receive for killing Baquero.  A shudder ran through her as she turned her attention back to her employee.

     "I've scrubbed the tavern floor this morning," Alicia volunteered, allaying another of Victoria's worries.  "We can open up now if you want."

     "Si, that will be fine," Victoria acquiesced indifferently.  "I'll be down shortly."  She started to close the door but stopped as her third concern suddenly flitted through her mind.

     "I've also cleaned out the room," the employee stated, unnerving Victoria that Alicia knew so much of the previous night's events.  Hopefully she didn't know quite everything that had happened.  "Sergeant Mendoza has also been here, claiming the dead man's belongings.  I didn't think you would want. . ."

     "No, no, that's fine," Victoria interrupted as her stomach roiled and her legs began quaking.  "Gracias, Alicia."

     The other woman nodded as Victoria shut the door before turning around and leaning against it.  She closed her eyes.  I can do this, she reminded herself again.  I have to do this.   Opening her eyes, she made her way over to the armoire that held her clothing and began to make herself presentable for the day.
                                                                   Z                                                                    Z                                                                    Z

     Diego had finally fallen asleep near dawn and had arisen much later than he had intended to that day.  Then, what with Felipe's lessons and helping the farrier shoe some of the horses, it was very late in the afternoon before he strolled into the taverna to check on Victoria.

     After he crossed the threshold, Diego came to a sudden halt.  Barely registering that Felipe; who had been dogging his footsteps most of the day; crashed clumsily into his back, he was stunned to see the room filled with customers, eating, drinking, talking, laughing.  His eyes scanned what he could see of  the floor then his gaze turned upward.  The balcony railing had obviously been repaired and the pool of Baquero's blood had been scrubbed clean in his absence.  Diego just prayed that Victoria had not been the one who had performed that last task.

     It was incredible, he thought as he moved forward, it was as if nothing untoward had occurred here.  That no one had been killed by three men who were just defending a woman's honor but who now had that man's death on their consciences.  As if the woman he love had not been assaulted and rap. . .

     Don't think, don't feel, he reminded himself.  He must be able to act as though he did not know all of the events of the prior evening.  He had to be careful to give nothing away, for if Victoria learned of his knowledge, she would also be able to piece together that he was Zorro, the only other person who knew the truth.

     Diego quickly noticed that it was Pilar and Alicia, Victoria's helpers, were the ones serving and dealing with the inn's customers.  He wondered where Victoria was; in her quarters, unable to deal with her ordeal or. . .?

    His question was answered as he glimpsed her raven curls through the kitchen curtain.  Glad that she had not succumbed to melancholy, he moved toward the draperies.  But before Diego took another step, however, Felipe tapped him on the arm.  "Yes, go find us a table," Diego answered the lad's signaled inquiry.  "I'll be there shortly."

     Felipe gave him a somewhat mutinous look before loping off to find an empty table.  Diego shook his head.  Ever since he had told the youth the edited version of Baquero's demise, Felipe had been pestering him about it.  It was if the young man knew that Diego was not telling him the whole story.

     Shrugging, Diego brushed aside a serape curtain and entered the kitchen.  Victoria had her back to him, tending to something on the hearth.  He took in the long sleeved white blouse she wore despite it being a warm day both outside and inside the tavern and knew she was wearing it because of the bruising on her wrists.

     "The soup's almost ready," she announced without turning around, clearly thinking it was one of her employees who had entered the room.

     "Excellent, I'll take a bowl, por favor," Diego said with a touch of humor in his voice that surprised him. And it certainly startled Victoria.  She dropped the spoon she had been holding and it clattered loudly against the soup pot.

     "Dios mio, Diego," she gasped as she spun around to face him.  She look so alarmed that Diego was immediately contrite.

     "Sorry, Victoria," he apologized.  "I didn't mean to frighten you.  I just wanted to see how you were doing."

    "I'm fine, just fine," she snapped as she bent down to pick up the fallen utensil.  After Victoria set it on the table, she turned her attention to making the tamales whose ingredients were sitting upon the smooth wooden surface.

     "Father wanted to send some of our ranch hands and lumber to fix the railing, but it looks like someone else beat him to it."

     "Si, they were here first thing this morning."  Victoria did not look up from her task as she spoke.

      Diego could see the dark purple bruises that surrounded both wrists despite the long sleeves on her blouse as her fingers nimbly folded the corn husks.  And even though she kept her head bowed, he noted the dark circles under her eyes and the bruises on her face.

     Raw anger boiled up inside of him again, once again thankful that the man who had dared touched his querida so brutally was already dead.  But it was extremely frustrating that he had nowhere to vent his fury.  Diego clenched his fists as he tried to regain his composure.

     "Is there something else you want, Diego?" Victoria asked, breaking several moments of uneasy silence.  "Besides a bowl of soup, that is."

      Diego could think of several things he wanted at that moment, firstly that the previous night's events could be erased.  He wanted that far more than a bowl of soup.  But he could never let her know he knew.  "Uh, um, no," he faltered, realizing she was waiting for his reply.  "Oh, wait.  A bowl for Felipe.  He's holding a table for us.  He and I, I mean.  Not you. . ."  He trailed off, inwardly cringing at his inane babbling.  He had to get out of there before his emotions got the better of him.

     Victoria didn't seem to notice.  Nodding, she said, "I'll send one of the girls out when the soup is ready."

     "Gracias," said Diego, who then turned and fled the kitchen.  Feeling like the most dastardly of cowards, he sought out Felipe who was sitting at a nearby table with a bored expression on his young face.  He sat down opposite the youth and shoved his face into his hands for a second before raking them through his hair.

     When he raised his head, Felipe was staring at him inquisitively.   "I hope you wanted soup for lunch," Diego said with false cheerfulness.
                                                                  Z                                                                    Z                                                                    Z

     As soon as Diego had left the kitchen, Victoria wiped off her hands and took a deep breath.  She felt bad that she had been so curt with Diego.  But she just could not deal with him or anyone else for that matter.  Picking up the glass of wine she had hidden behind a clay pot, Victoria took a large swallow from it.

     It was just for her nerves, she told herself.  Just to help her pull this.  She would not have made it this far through the day without its relaxing effects.

     After taking another long drink, Victoria went over to check on the bubbling kettle over the hearth.  Satisfied that it was done, she got out a tray and two bowls then filled each with the steaming albondigas soup.
                                                                   Z                                                                    Z                                                                    Z