IN A SINGLE MOMENT

CHAPTER SEVEN

     Diego glanced around the bustling tavern.  Mentally cursing his luck, he squeezed past a line of men bellied up to the bar and claimed the last empty table in the room.  It was market day in the pueblo, a fact that had understandably slipped his mind and one that dashed his hopes of any kind of a private conversation with Victoria.

     "What can I get you, Don Diego?"  The cheerful voice of Alicia cut through his frustration.  The serving woman had come to a stop in front of him, carrying a tray holding a couple of dirty glasses.

     "A glass of lemonade," he said indifferently, "and whatever the special of the day is, por favor."

     "Arroz con pollo," announced Alicia.  "I'll bring your lunch out right away."

     She whisked off to the kitchen, where Diego heard her relaying his order to someone whose reply he could not comprehend.  Victoria, he surmised, craning to catch a glimpse of her through the parted serape curtains.  Failing to do so, he sat back as a yawn overtook him, reminding him of the hours he had spent tossing and turning, alternately fearing he had taken advantage of Victoria's desperate situation and being aroused by reliving the most magnificent experience of his life, before falling into an exhausted slumber just before dawn.

     "Late night, Don Diego?"

     Diego turned to his right, noting for the first time the lancers sitting at the table next to him.  The good sergeant was unusually absent, but five of his comrades were there, including Corporal Sepulveda, who had spoken.

     "Um, not really, no," Diego lied distractedly before refocusing his attention toward the kitchen, not seeing the smirk on the corporal's face as he leaned forward and quietly said something to his companions that brought leering grins to their faces as well.

     It was only a few moments later that Alicia returned the tray bearing Diego's meal and drink.  "Gracias," he murmured politely as she placed it before him.  Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement behind the curtains and spied Victoria peeking out.  She vanished as quickly as she had appeared, before he could get a good look at her and assess her well-being.

     There were so many questions he needed to ask her.  Was she pregnant?  Not pregnant?  Was she suffering from pangs of remorse?  Did she love him, or had she just used him like a stallion put out to stud?  Did she really think him to be so gullible that he would accept her attacker's child as his own?

     A bitter bile rose in his throat as he looked at his untouched plate, disgusted with himself.  He wasn't the victim in all this.  Victoria was.  And if he truly loved her, he would do anything for her.  Anything.

     Diego realized his coming to the pueblo had been a mistake.  He couldn't talk with her, not rationally anyway, not today.  Not until he could come to terms with his unresolved feelings of anger and guilt.  Not until he was sure he could forgive her duplicity, if indeed it had been her intention to deceive him.

     He was reaching into his vest pocket for coins to pay for his untouched meal when a shadow fell over his table.  Looking up, he groaned inwardly when he saw his father and Felipe smiling down at him.

     "Buenos tardes, Diego," Don Alejandro greeted him, taking a seat opposite.  He raised his hand to catch Alicia's attention.  "Two more, please," he called out to her, pointing at Diego's plate.  As she nodded, the old don narrowed his eyes at his son.  "I didn't expect to see you here today."

     "Why not?" asked Diego as Felipe moved around the table and sat down next to him. Like it or not, it seemed he was having company for lunch.  He sighed resignedly.

     The elder de la Vega shrugged.  "Thought perhaps you were planning to sleep the day away.  You did come in quite late last night."

     Diego had just taken a bite of his cold food and choked inelegantly at his father's words.  "How. . ." he began.  Unable to continue, he grabbed his glass of lemonade and took a big swallow.

     "I was getting a glass of milk," replied Don Alejandro.  "Bit of insomnia now and again, you know," he added gruffly.

     No, Diego hadn't known that.  Now, on top of all his other concerns, he had to worry about his father's health, not to mention the fact that the old don might be wandering about the hacienda at night.  Which would make his slipping in and out more difficult.

    "Ah," said the elder de la Vega as Alicia placed plates in front of him and Felipe.  "Gracias."

     Diego took advantage of the distraction to slide his gaze once more to the kitchen.  It was just as well his conversation with Victoria would have to be postponed.  Until he could get his emotions under control, being alone with her probably wasn't a good idea.

     Well, miraculously it seemed as if no one had noticed his sneaking out of the tavern earlier that morning.  With a prayer of relief that at least one thing had gone his way, Diego returned his interest to his meal.
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[part of the following scene taken from the episode "Like Father, Like Son" written by Tim Minear]

     "Mendoza!" Victoria scolded as she walked up to his table.  "How many times have I told you there is to be no gambling in this tavern?"  At least a couple dozen times, she answered  herself wearily, since she had banned games of chance after she had been shot by that gambler, Bishop.

     It had taken her the better part of an hour to work up the courage to confront the naive sergeant and two strangers who were shamelessly fleecing him.  There was just something about Mendoza's cohorts that made her uneasy.

     As soon as the chastised sergeant made his apologies and scurried out the front door, Victoria began to pick up the cards strewn about the table.  "We were just having some harmless fun, my pretty señorita," said the older of the two men, with a smile that he must have thought charming, but in reality only displayed his rotting teeth.

    "In the first place, Señor, gambling is not harmless fun," she stated tightly.   "And in the second place, Mendoza doesn't earn enough and he has the card sense of a turnip."  She paused before glaring at both men with all the disdain she could muster.   "And in the third place," she said haughtily, "don't even think in your wildest dreams, that I could be your señorita."

     Victoria snatched one last card off the table then marched over to the bar.  After tossing the deck into a waste bin, she furtively glanced over at the pair of erstwhile card players.  They were both openly ogling her, causing her stomach to churn nervously.

     She was safe, she told herself.  She was in a room full of people.  Except that when she looked around, Victoria noticed that apart from the two strangers, there was only one other person, an old man sleeping in the opposite corner.  Panic began to fill her from head to toe.

     Why had she been so stupid as to let both Pilar and Alicia have the afternoon off?  Because business had been slow lately, and she knew the reason why.  Someone had seen Diego leaving that night after she had lured him up to her room.  Rumors of what he had been doing there so late - and unfortunately, most of them true - had spread like wildfire through the pueblo.

     Not that he had been affected by them.  Oh, no.  She had seen other men clap Diego on the shoulder,  winking knowingly.  Not that the big oaf knew what they were about, though.  He just sat there, clueless, calmly eating with his father and Felipe on the rare occasions he had been in Los Angeles in the past few weeks.

    On the other hand, she had been scorned, propositioned, and once, someone had spat at her.  They had missed, gracias de Dios, but still. . .  Her usual customers were staying away in droves, which was just as well, she sighed,  since hardly any of the farmers; or more accurately, the farmers' wives; would sell her the supplies she needed to run her tavern.  It was all so unfair.

     With trembling hands, she poured a healthy measure of wine into a glass.  But just as she raised it to her lips, the two men sauntered up to the bar.

     "Uh, Señorita," the elder of them said, "my brother and I, we just had a little wager. . ."

     Victoria slammed her cup onto the counter.  "Didn't I just explain to you that gambling. . ." she said hysterically, unable to conceal her rising fear.

     "Si, si, you told us," the man interrupted.  "But you see, I have just bet him," he said as he indicated his sibling, "ten pesos that you would give me a kiss."   Both men grinned lasciviously at her.

     Shuddering with disgust at the thought of his lips on hers, Victoria said, "Then I think you should pay him his ten pesos."  She then snatched up her glass, turning her back to the men before gulping down its contents in one swallow.

      A shattering sound had her spinning back around to see one of the wine bottles from the bar had been tossed to the floor.  Shards of glass and pools of red liquid were splattered all over the floor.

     "Are you crazy?" she asked, not even trying to keep the terror from her tone.  Evidently he was, grabbing another bottle and dropping it.  Then with an evil chuckle, he swept his arm across the countertop, knocking off the remaining wine bottles, smashing them all to bits.

     Victoria rushed out from behind the bar, appalled by the huge mess of glass and wine.  "Get out of my tavern!" she shrieked, pointing toward the main door.  "Get out!"

    The older and bolder of the pair grabbed her wrist, squeezing it tightly.  Victoria's legs felt like jelly as her insides roiled.  No, please not again, she pleaded silently as she struggled to free herself.

     "Is all this worth one little kiss?" asked her captor, yanking her closer.

     "Filthy heathens!"

     Victoria jerked her head upward.  Zorro sat astride the balcony railing, his arms crossed angrily over his chest.  She had not laid eyes on him since that fateful day when she had returned his ring then seduced another man, only to discover it had all been for naught.  He looked. . .well. . .different somehow.

     "Remove your hands from the lady!" the man in black demanded.  "Or I'll remove them," he continued, in a louder tone, "from your wrists!"

     The stranger pulled Victoria toward the end of the bar.  "I'll get my kiss from you yet," he promised, his face so close she could smell his fetid breath, "and more."  Before she could react, he roughly shoved her away, drawing his sword as she crashed into the wall.

     Where she must have hit her head too, because what else could explain what she was seeing; Zorro hanging from the chandelier, kicking ineffectively at the men who were thrusting their weapons at his legs and feet.  Closing her eyes, she gingerly shook her head before reopening them.  Unfortunately nothing had changed.  What on earth was wrong with him? she wondered, as the masked man cried out in dismay.

     Victoria winced as Zorro clumsily fell atop the men, driving them to the floor.  She could only stare incredulously as he picked himself up and limped over to her.

      "Lady," he said gallantly, taking her hand, "are you injured?"

     Dumbly she shook her head, too stunned to speak.  This man was not Zorro.  His face was too lined with age.  His mustache was more gray than black.  And he was much shorter than she knew him to be, with a much stockier build.  He couldn't possibly be Zorro. And if he wasn't the true masked man, who in the world was he?
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[part of the following scene taken from the episode "Like Father, Like Son" written by Tim Minear]

     Diego rode into Los Angeles in time to see de Soto and his lancers scurrying about the pueblo.  He hadn't known where to begin the search for his father but thought the pueblo was as good as any place to start.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how one looked at it, his instincts had been correct.  This was just what he needed at the moment , he thought sarcastically; his father off doing who knew what, who knew where, dressed as Zorro, and riding the masked man's horse.

     It was bad enough that for the past five weeks (actually five weeks, three days, and twelve hours, give or take a few minutes) he had been impatiently waiting for Victoria to announce that she was going to have his child.

     Diego had tried to avoid going to the pueblo by himself, usually waiting until either his father or Felipe could come with him, just so he wouldn't have to face Victoria alone.  His cowardice had been made easier by her tendency to hide in the tavern's kitchen.  He mainly just caught glimpses of her peering through the curtains that divided the main room from her refuge from the rest of the world.

     But even in those fleeting glances, it was glaringly obvious that she was putting on weight.  Diego didn't know if that was a good or a bad sign.  She had become nearly skeletal after her attack.  But lately, that gauntness was gone and she was looking much healthier.  And almost plump in some areas.   Areas that Diego remember vividly, touching and caressing and. . .

      As he shook his head to clear it, Diego brought his mare to a halt near the cuartel and quickly dismounted.  He strode over to where his old schoolmate was issuing orders to his men.  "Alcalde!" he shouted, drawing de Soto's attention, "What's going on here?"

     The alcalde just sneered at him and waved his hand dismissively.  "Not now, Diego."

     Diego, fearing the worst, sidled up to Mendoza, who was standing a few feet away.  The stout sergeant smiled broadly at him.  "The brothers Esteban, they're inside," he said, answering Diego's earlier question.
     A bit weak with relief that it was not his father causing all the commotion, Diego racked his brain, trying to recall what he knew about the Esteban brothers.  If he was remembering right, they had left a nasty trail of chaos behind them; destruction of property, cheating, theft, assault, and on more than one occasion, murder and. . .rape.  All the anxiety about his father's masquerade swiftly dissipated.

    "Where's Victoria?" he demanded of the portly soldier.
 
     Mendoza shrugged nonchalantly.  "Señorita Escalante's also inside."

     "The brothers Esteban are ruthless cutthroats. . ."  Dios mio, if they threatened her, if they laid so much as a finger on her, he would forget the oath he had made and kill them himself.  Diego started toward the tavern but didn't get far before the Alcalde grabbed his arm.

     "Diego, this isn't a surprise party," de Soto stated briskly, pushing him back, "it's an ambush."
 
     Less than a second later, a man rolled out of the tavern's front doors, landing face down in the dust.  As Diego watched, the man struggled to his feet and turned toward the building.  A large Z' was slashed into the seat of the man's trousers.  In an instant, all of Diego's worry about his father came roaring back.

     "Zorro!" exclaimed de Soto excitedly.  "He's inside!"  His mouth grew into a gleeful smile.  "And he's surrounded!  Lancers!"

     The alcalde rushed toward the tavern, waving the other soldiers forward.  Most of the townspeople had gathered in the plaza and they followed as well, leaving Diego to fight his way to the front of the crowd.
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[part of the following scene taken from the episode "Like Father, Like Son" written by Tim Minear]

     Victoria stared at the farce occurring right before her eyes.  The more she saw, the more she was convinced that it was not Zorro who had come to her rescue.   Oh, he was winning the fight, but only by sheer luck and good timing.  Although, she noted as she watched the masked man fence against the elder of the duo, then the other, that his skill with a sword was certainly a close match for the real Zorro's.

     Her confusion became secondary, however, when just as the man in black had defeated the younger man, the Alcalde and several lancers burst through the tavern door.  She stared in disbelief as Zorro was quickly surrounded without even trying to escape.

     De Soto grinned smugly at his captive.  "El Zorro," he declared, plucking the blade from the man in black's hand.  "At last it ends.  The moment I've been waiting for. . .  The moment that I've dreamed of since I came to this pueblo."  He removed the masked man's hat.

     Her attention was diverted for a moment as Diego slipped through the soldiers to stand a few inches from her, causing a frisson of awareness to shoot through her.  He was radiating a nervousness she swore she could have touched.  Which told her that something was very, very wrong.

     The Alcalde paused in his gloating for a moment, no doubt reveling in his triumph.  "And now everyone shall see the face beneath the mask," he continued, nearly breathless in anticipation.

     Dramatically, he pulled off Zorro's mask, revealing the face of Don Alejandro de la Vega.  All around Victoria, people gasped.  Everyone, that is, except Diego, who; although he had visibly paled; didn't look surprised at all.

     Victoria would have staked her life on the fact that the elder de la Vega was not Zorro.  She had been right by his side too many times while the man in black had fenced, fought, and rode his way through the plaza.  So how could Don Alejandro be standing in her tavern at that moment, dressed in Zorro's clothing, if he couldn't possibly be Zorro?

     She glanced again at Diego, and all of a sudden, everything fell into place.  Madre de Dios, Diego was Zorro!

     Then another thought hit her.  Zorro was the only person who knew she had been raped.  So if Diego was Zorro, then he knew as well.  And he had to have known that night they had. . .

     Victoria inhaled sharply as the edges of her vision began to blur and darken.  The last thing she heard before everything went black, was  the elder de la Vega quoting a line from Don Quixote, "Do your worst. . .  Oh ye of the woeful countenance."
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"IN A SINGLE MOMENT" CHAPTER EIGHT