[Some of the following taken from "The Reward" written by Robert L McCullough & Philip John Taylor]   

     Zorro crouched on top of the pueblo gate, watching as the sun sank below the western horizon.  Any minute now, that outlaw, Narcisco, would appear and threaten to kill Paco Garcia for three thousand pesos.  An heinous act that the alcalde was going to allow to happen.

    Don Alejandro had earlier rode into town to demand that de Soto do something about the deadly confrontation, but the commandante had refused, saying that the military did not involve itself in gossip or petty, personal squabbles.

    But the masked man knew better than that.  He also remembered why Narcisco had seemed so familiar.  There was a price on his head, too; two thousand pesos.  Not as much as his friend Baquero, but enough that the alcalde thought to get his hands on both bounties, by allowing Narcisco to murder Paco, then arresting him and claiming all the glory.

     Zorro sighed, growing impatient as the seconds ticked down.  He let his mind drift, to more pleasant thoughts.  Like Victoria's behavior that afternoon.  A smile twitched his lips as he recalled seeing a spark once again in her eyes.  The one that said she cared, that she was alive.  That she was emerging from the dark shadows in which she had been hiding for the past month.  She had been more like the old Victoria for those few moments on the tavern porch.  His Victoria.

     His musings about the woman he loved were interrupted by the sounds of people moving toward the gate.  Paco came into view first, awkwardly carrying the pistol Narcisco had insisted he take.  The young farmer was followed by at least half of Los Angeles's residents.

     Narrowing his eyes, the masked man spotted Victoria walking near the rear of the crowd, an inscrutable expression on her lovely face.  The people came to halt as Paco stopped in front of the archway.  It wasn't long until Narcisco emerged from an alleyway and made his way through the throng.

     Zorro paid little attention to the exchange between the two men.  Not until Victoria came forward to stand beside Paco.  "He doesn't have to defend himself," she stated angrily to Narcisco.

     Both men cocked their pistols, Paco quite ineptly.  Narcisco aimed his weapon at the other man's head. "Be quiet, woman," he growled.

     "If you're going to shoot him, you're going to have to shoot us all," declared Victoria, hands on her hips.  Zorro cringed at her recklessness, especially when Narcisco pointed his gun in her direction.

    "As you wish, Señorita."

    The man in black had seen and heard enough.  Quietly as a panther, he jumped from the top of gate, and after uncoiling his whip, wrapped it around Narcisco's left leg then tugged hard.  The other man fell flat on his back.  He immediately got up onto his knees and waved his hand in Paco's direction. "He killed my friend."

     "Your friend was a man of violence," Zorro snarled back, "whose death was caused by his own deeds."

     "He must pay," said Narcisco, shrugging before he rose up onto one knee.  Whirling around, he fired at Paco, missing as the young farmer ducked out of the way.  Unfortunately, Paco dropped his pistol as he dodged the lethal bullet.

     Zorro unceremoniously shoved the younger man out of the way as Narcisco drew out his sword and lunged.  The man in black deftly unsheathed his saber and deflected the criminal's blade at the last second.  The crowd cheered on their hero as he quickly gained the advantage.

     An advantage that was almost lost when Zorro was distracted by the cocking of a gun nearby.  Expecting to see the alcalde or one of the lancers, his mouth dropped open when he saw just who it was holding the weapon.
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     Victoria had stared at the pistol that Paco had let fall to the ground, as the chaos of the fight swirled around her.  With a bit of hesitation, she reached down and picked it up.  A wave of righteous fury had swept over as she held the unfamiliar piece of metal in her hand.   She glanced up at Narcisco who was being soundly trounced by the man in black.

     Why should this pig be allowed to live? she asked herself as she stared at the outlaw.  Narcisco's features began to blur with Baquero's, the man who had violated her.  Victoria shook her head slightly to rid herself of that vision.  When it persisted, she knew what she had to do.  Using both hands, she brought up the weapon, cocked the hammer, and aimed it directly at Narcisco's black heart.  At once, all the commotion surrounding her came to an immediate halt.

     "Cerdo," she said unemotionally, narrowing her eyes as she tightened her grip.

      Her target visibly gulped.  "Put down the gun, Señorita," he suggested, raising his hands slightly in a gesture of surrender.  "Before somebody gets hurts."

      "It's too late," Victoria murmured to herself.  Then raising her voice, she said, "Leave Los Angeles and never come back."

     "Or what?" Narcisco asked insolently, apparently regaining some of his swagger.  "You're going to shoot me?"

     "Si," she said determinedly, as his contempt enraged her even further.  Her index finger twitched nervously on the trigger.  "I'll shoot you like the filthy rat you are."

     "Victoria."  She heard the urgent plea in Zorro's voice but she chose to ignore it. . .and him.

     "You don't deserve to live," she declared, taking a step away from the masked man and closer to the focus of her anger.  "You and your. . .your friend," she spat bitterly, "you both deserve to die."

     But she knew at that moment that she would not be the one who killed the man before her.  She was not going to have his death on her already overburdened conscience.

    But, oh, she was going to make him feel pain.  Not nearly as much as she was, but a healthy dose of it, nonetheless.

    Victoria moved slowly until she was an arm's length away from Narcisco.  "Cerdo," she reiterated.  Then she swung the pistol still gripped in both hands and walloped him upside his head.  A stunned expression came over his scruffy face just before he dropped like a stone.

     "Victoria."  Noting the even more insistent tone in his voice, she swirled around to face Zorro.   "Put down the gun, por favor," he said politely, lifting his hands vaguely in the air as the weapon she yet held was aimed in his direction.

     "Callarse."  Victoria stepped toward the man in black.  "You. . .  You think you can just riding into town and fix everything then go on your merry little way," she stated.  She saw a look of astonishment in his eyes and  narrowed her own.  "But you cannot.  Just leave me alone, Zorro.  I don't need or want your kind of help anymore."

     Abruptly conscious of her plan to remedy her dilemma, she knew she had to make a clean break with the man before her, aware that he would never be the solution she needed.  Reaching into the neckline of her blouse, she yanked out the emerald and diamond ring that had been pinned to her chemise and threw it at his feet.  The masked man instantly scooped it up then stared at her in disbelief.

     She then tossed the gun down at his boots, turned and walked back across the plaza, paying little attention to the gasps and murmurs she left in her wake.  The whisperings turned to shouts and hoof beats as Victoria entered her tavern.  Her stomach was churning so badly that she was barely aware of the few patrons who had chosen to remain inside instead of witnessing the spectacle no doubt taking place outside.

     Mercifully, the kitchen was empty as she rushed over to the sink and threw up.  Dios mio, another sign of her dreadful predicament.  As soon as her nausea passed, Victoria poured herself a generous helping of wine.  Raising it shakily to her lips, she drank about half the glass.

     As its warmth spread through her, calming her strained nerves, she heard footfalls and laughter coming nearer.  Whatever had been left of the drama out in the plaza must be over, Victoria mused.  And as always, people seemed to be hungry and thirsty after Zorro came to the pueblo and performed his heroic deeds, she thought sarcastically.

     Downing the rest of her drink, she then hid the wine bottle in its usual place and went over to clean up the mess in the sink before her establishment was overrun with customers.
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     Diego sat in the tavern later that evening, sharing a table and a meal with Sergeant Mendoza, who was regaling him with tales of the confrontation earlier that day.  Neither his father nor Felipe had accompanied him to town.  Don Alejandro was working on his accounts, and Felipe was supposed to be reading Shakespeare's play Othello in English.  Although Diego had his doubts that the lad was actually doing that.  More likely he was in the cave, grooming Toronado or fooling around with Zorro's saber.

     Mendoza was telling his version of events between mouthfuls of tamales.  "Zorro had Narcisco beaten," he related before leaning in closer and darting his eyes around the room.  "Then Señorita Victoria picked up Paco's gun, said he didn't deserve to live, then hit him in the head."

     Still a little unnerved by the idea that Victoria had almost shot someone in such a violent display of temper, Diego merely nodded.  He also hadn't realized that the good sergeant had been close enough to witness the incongruous scenario.

     "Then," the soldier continued in a whisper, glancing about once again, "she pointed the gun at Zorro and told him to leave her alone."  He sat back in his chair and dug heartily into his meal.

     Oh, yes, Diego remembered exactly every word she had said to the man in black.  For each one of them had been like a sword piercing his heart.  And when she had thrown his mother's ring at him, it had felt like a fatal blow.   It hadn't been mentioned, but by that gesture he imagined she considered her engagement with Zorro at an end.

     That she blamed the masked man for what had happened to her wasn't surprising, for he blamed himself as well.  When she had stated that Zorro couldn't fix everything, he had seen such venom in her eyes.  It had been quite chilling.  He looked over toward the tavern's kitchen, where he could see her moving to and fro.
     It was several moments later, when he tore his gaze away from watching Victoria, that he realized that Mendoza had resumed his narrative.  "Then she threw something at Zorro and walked off," the stout sergeant stated.  "I couldn't see what it was, Zorro picked it too fast.

     "Anyway," the lancer continued, "Narcisco was knocked out.  Zorro handed Paco the gun and told him to keep it on him.  Then he whistled for his horse and rode off."  He shoveled another forkful into his mouth.  "There was no way we could get to him.  Everyone kept getting in our way.  The alcalde was so angry."

     Taking a sip of his albondigas soup, Diego mulled over the rest of the day's events.  He was grateful that Narcisco was safely locked up in the cuartel.  And that Paco Ortega was going to receive the rewards for both of the outlaws.  He had had a little talk with the young farmer and convinced him to spend his windfall wisely.  No more free lunches for Mendoza, much to the good sergeant's dismay.

     Diego suppressed a smile as Alicia yawned when she came by to take away his empty soup bowl, then had to wait as Mendoza scraped his plate clean.  Clearly a sign that the tavern was closing and its employees wanted to go home.

     Mendoza must have got the hint as well, for he stood up, stretched, then rubbed his stomach.  "Well, buenas noches, Don Diego," he said drowsily.

     "Good night, Sergeant."  Diego watched as the soldier made his out of the building, noticing that the remaining guests followed the portly lancer.  Time he left, too, he told himself.

     He had untied Esperanza from the hitching post and stood beside her, ready to swing up into the saddle,  when the front door of the tavern opened and Victoria stepped out onto the porch.

     "Diego?" she asked guardedly.


     "I wonder if you could help me," she said quietly.  "I opened my bedroom window earlier hoping to catch a cool breeze and now I cannot get it shut again.  Could you come and see why it won't close, por favor?"

     "Of course," he replied immediately.  "Give me a moment."  He indicated the reins in his hand and she nodded.

     "I'll wait upstairs," she said before turning and going back inside.
     Diego tethered his mare to the railing once more.  "I'll be back in a minute, old girl," he assured the horse, giving her a pat on the nose.

     Upon entering the tavern, he was surprised at how quiet and dark it had become in the matter of a just few minutes.  Shrugging, Diego made his way up the short flight of stairs that led to Victoria's quarters.

     A wry smile came to his face as he thought about how he had not been inside the tavern's private rooms since he was a young lad.  Well, not through the front door anyway.  Zorro had always used the window.  A dark shadow passed over his mind, recalling how Victoria had flung the engagement ring back at him.  The man in black wouldn't be invited into her rooms for a very long time, if ever.

     The door was closed when he reached the top of the stairs, so he knocked.  "Come in," came the soft reply.

     Diego opened the door, took a step inside, then stopped dead in his tracks.

     Victoria stood facing him, wearing nothing but her chemise.  He could do nothing but stare as she untied its ribbons and it fell to the floor.
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(coming soon)