Diego watched helplessly as Don Alejandro was hauled away by a pair of lancers, followed by a dumbfounded Mendoza and a smirking de Soto. He wanted to chase after the alcalde, to explain that this was all a huge misunderstanding, but was hindered by the unconscious woman he held in his arms. Praying fervently that the commandante would not execute his father immediately, Diego turned his attention to Victoria.
A hand touched his shoulder, causing him to twist his head upward. Pilar, one of the serving girls, was gazing down at her employer with an expression of concern. "She's had a bad shock, I think."
"Yes," Diego agreed aloud. Silently, he was positive this was another sign she was with child. Healthy women did not just faint dead away. Although, seeing his father's face under the mask of the man she loved might cause any woman to swoon, pregnant or no.
He slid his arms underneath Victoria's shoulders and knees, intending to carry her to her quarters, when Alicia, approaching with a small vial in her hand, shook her head. "No, we'll see to her, Don Diego," she said. "You should go help your father."
Diego could only stare, uncertain if he had actually heard the disapproval in her voice. What could have possibly caused the normally cheerful woman to glare at him with such hostility? He glanced over at Pilar, who was kneeling by her employer's side. She was also frowning severely at him as he relinquished Victoria over to their care.
Rising to his feet, he watched as Alicia waved the tiny bottle under Victoria's nose. As soon as he saw that she began stirring from the stringent potion's fumes, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the tavern.
Once outside, Diego came to a halt as he observed the Esteban brothers being dragged inside the alcalde's office by four soldiers. Almost immediately, a lot of yelling, banging, and scuffling began emitting from the building. With all the chaos going on inside, Diego highly doubted he would be allowed to plea for his father's release.
And just how was he going to explain why the old don was wearing Zorro's clothes, carrying Zorro's sword, and riding Zorro's horse, he had no clue. Diego scanned the pueblo, relaxing a little when he saw no sign of the big black stallion.
The sensible thing would be to go to the hacienda, make certain Toronado found his way back to the cave, and fill Felipe in on the afternoon's events. He would come back to town later, when things had settled down, and he had thought of a good excuse for the elder de la Vega's behavior before attempting to get the alcalde to free him from his jail.
Then, if her employees-turned-dragons permitted it, he would see how Victoria was faring after her traumatic day. And if he determined she was feeling up to it, they would finally have the conversation between them that had been postponed far too long.
As he headed toward his horse, once again tied up in front of the tavern, he felt as though a thousand eyes were upon him. The townspeople had clustered in several groups, their discussions abruptly breaking off as he neared. Most of their faces were sympathetic, but there were also a few that looked at him with such contempt, he was left to puzzle why.
It was hardly his fault that the elder de la Vega thought he was a combination of their masked hero and some fictional madman who rode around tilting at windmills. He wondered what else his father had been up to while he had been out gallivanting around as Zorro.
Which reminded him he needed to find out just what de Soto intended to do to the elder de la Vega. Diego scanned the plaza and cornered the first lancer he saw. "What does the alcalde plan to do with my father?" he asked brusquely.
"I'm sorry, Don Diego," said the soldier, whose name was Private Cruz, if Diego remembered correctly. "The commandante said he is going to execute Don Alejandro first thing in the morning." The young lancer glanced nervously from side to side. "I really need to get back to work, Señor. We have a gallows to build."
Diego let the private go with a curt nod. Yes,
the gallows that would hang his father in less than twenty-four hours if
he could not come up with a way to stop it. Clenching his fists futilely
as he stalked over to his mare, he freed her, swung up into the saddle,
and took off at a gallop out of the pueblo.
Z Z Z
What was that awful smell? Victoria jerked her nose away but the pungent odor still lingered. Coughing, she opened her eyes and saw Pilar and Alicia staring down at her worriedly. Then she realized she was on the floor, her upper body being supported by the two women.
"What happened?" she asked faintly. With more than a little effort, she sat upright and struggled to recall the events that led to her evidently passing out onto the floor. Had she been drinking?
No, no more than usual, she surmised. Then with a gasp, Victoria remembered being threatened by those two disgusting gamblers, remembered that Don Alejandro had come to her rescue dressed as Zorro, and. . . She put a hand to her head as the room began to spin again. Diego was Zorro. And he knew. . .everything.
Victoria took the glass of water proffered by Pilar with a smile of thanks, although she wished it were something stronger. As she took a sip of the cool liquid, she wondered how she had been so stupid not to see through his masquerade years ago. Now that she knew, it was painfully obvious that no one else but Diego could possibly be Zorro.
Dios mio, how was she ever going to face him again? Inwardly she cringed at all the cutting remarks she had flung in his direction, flaunting her love for Zorro in his face every chance she could. But then he had lied to her, deceived her, let her think he was weak and indifferent, always with his nose in a book or his head buried in some scientific or artistic pursuit.
They could have been together all these years if he had just told her the truth. They could have had the children she so desperately wanted. A rush of fury filled her. She could have been his wife, living at the de la Vega hacienda. She would have been in his bed, safe in his arms, instead of being at the tavern that night she had been. . .raped. Dios mio, if he had only told her. . .she never would have been. . .
As her resentment threatened to boil out of control, she was vaguely aware of Pilar's and Alicia's voices buzzing in the background. With a wave of her hand, she brushed away the two women's concern. "I'm fine," she said, although her slightly slurred words proved she was fibbing.
"Are you sure?" asked Alicia. "We can stay if you need us to." She glanced over at Pilar who nodded.
"No," stated Victoria emphatically. "I'll just close up for the day. It's been slow anyway." One more circumstance she could blame on Diego, she thought bitterly, trying to ignore the fact that she had been the one to lure him to her room in the first place. She finished the water then gingerly got to her feet. A wave of lightheadedness swept through her and she wobbled for a second but remained upright.
"Um," began Pilar cautiously, "the stage from Monterey is due to arrive this evening."
Oh, no. In all the confusion, she had completely forgot about it. The tavern was required to be open in case the passengers needed to avail themselves of its services. With a groan of annoyance, Victoria took a deep breath. "I can deal with it myself. Honestly," she added as she noticed the uncertainty in both women's eyes. "It's not like there will be many other customers to deal with."
"But what about Z. . ." Pilar's question was interrupted by a sharp elbow to her ribs from Alicia. "I mean, all right." She and her coworker exchanged a glance. "But let us know if you need help."
"Si, of course," Victoria replied.
She placed her hands on her hips, a false smile on her lips as the pair
left the building. As soon as the door closed, she walked unsteadily
to the bar and grabbed a bottle of wine.
Z Z Z
[part of the following scene taken from the episode "Like Father, Like Son" written by Tim Minear]
It was nearly two hours later when Diego once again rode into the pueblo de Los Angeles, this time, however, accompanied by Felipe. Try as he might, he could not convince the lad to stay at the hacienda. Not that Diego could blame him. He was just as worried about the elder de la Vega as Felipe was.
The sounds of sawing and hammering coming from inside the cuartel were a grisly reminder of the scaffolding being built so they could hang his father. A shot of panic jolted through Diego. No, he told himself sternly, that was not going to happen. Not as long as he was alive to prevent it.
They drew to a halt then dismounted in front of de Soto's office. He turned to Felipe, whose eyes had widened with the same fear that Diego felt. "Felipe," he said, placing a hand on the youth's shoulder. "See if they will let you visit Father." He nodded his head in the direction of the clamor. "I'll see if I can talk some sense into the alcalde."
Felipe nodded, and with a gesture, wished him luck. Diego smiled grimly as the lad loped off toward the jail. Then with a shake of his head, he pushed open the door leading into the cuartel.
There he was met with a flurry of activity. Lancers were pounding nails into boards in various sections of the gallows. Two of them were hanging a rope from the overhanging beam. Pushing the sight of the noose to the back of his mind, Diego searched the courtyard, and quickly found de Soto, standing under the base of the wooden structure. The triumphant look on the man's face made Diego seethe. The fool actually thought he had captured Zorro. And Diego couldn't wait to wipe the smugness from the other man's countenance.
"Alcalde," he called out as he walked over to the commandante.
De Soto, who had been swinging the trap door, looked up. "Diego," he said irritatedly, "you're not permitted to be here."
"Alcalde," Diego repeated, "you cannot actually believe my father is Zorro."
"I realize it's difficult to accept. . ." de Soto said condescendingly as he climbed out from under the scaffold.
"Be objective for a moment," Diego cut in. "Now, we've both seen Zorro. He's a much younger man. . . Agile. . . Powerful. . . Taller. . .
He faltered as he realized he was describing himself. The alcalde wasn't an unintelligent man, it was quite possible that he could put the puzzle pieces together. . .if he were given enough of them. Which Diego had no intention of doing.
The commandante waved his hand dismissively. "An illusion," he stated. He then leaned in closer. "You see, Diego, you people have idolized Zorro to the point you assign him qualities he doesn't have. I see him for what he really is. . .a common criminal. I'm not blinded by romantic illusions."
"My father's life is not an illusion," Diego bit out angrily. "It has been an exemplary one dedicated to public service. To execute such a man would be a crime!"
"I agree," said de Soto, nodding. "I suggest you think of this as not his execution, but as Zorro's."
Diego had been about to retort that was cold comfort when the trap door opened with a loud thunk, startling him to silence. So much for the alcalde being reasonable. He was going to have to use a different tactic. .
"My father is a much loved and respected man in this community," he declared, trying mightily to tamp down his rage. "The people will not stand for this."
"Oh, please," the commandante said mockingly. "Diego, you realize that common rabble love to see nothing more than a man of wealth and property dangling from the end of a rope."
Diego saw through the contemptuous words to the fear in the other man's eyes. Like he had thought before, Ignacio wasn't dumb. He was frightened that the so-called ‘rabble' wouldn't feel the usual enthusiasm of seeing a man hang and would turn on him and his lancers. "Then why is this to be a closed execution," he inquired, indicating the cuartel courtyard, "behind locked gates?"
He was pleased to watch de Soto swallowed nervously. "Well, you know," the alcalde replied weakly, "passions about Zorro run very high in this town. I cannot afford to have a riot on my hands."
A priest wearing a brown hooded robe came up behind the commandante then climbed up the gallows steps. The man was too tall and too thin to be Padre Benitez. Diego narrowed his eyes. So, de Soto was uneasy enough about executing his father that he even had summoned a confessor from another pueblo. An idea sprang into Diego's head as he scrutinized the hooded priest. A secretive smile passed over his face before disappearing as if it had never been there.
"How was it?" His new plan was unceremoniously shoved aside at the alcalde's whispered question. He stared at the other man, the tenseness now gone from his face, replaced by a look of fraternity.
Diego had no clue as to what de Soto was asking. "How was what?"
The alcalde chuckled crudely. "She is quite the passionate little armful," he said. Then with a sigh, added, "I just wish I had had the chance to bed her before Zorro interfered."
What on earth was he prattling on about now? Diego wondered. When had Zorro ever interfered with Ignacio's love life? He could only recall one woman the commandante had been interested in, Señora Sinestra, and yes, Zorro had also tangled himself up in that black widow's web of lust and lies, much to his chagrin. Since then, there had been no one. . .
Dios mio, Victoria. The bastard was talking about Victoria. And those ridiculous potions of Doctor Wayne's that had the two of them convinced they were in love with each other. Diego remembered with gut-wrenching nausea the images of them billing and cooing, kissing and cuddling. He had been sure it had gone no farther than that. But evidently de Soto wished differently. And obviously he thought that Diego had succeeded, which he had, but that was beside the point. His earlier fury returned with a vengeance.
"Come on, Diego," his old schoolmate chided, snickering lewdly. "You can tell me. Did she let out those little moans when you touched her breasts? Those nearly drove me insane. And. . ."
Diego had heard more than enough. "I have no idea what you are talking about, Alcalde," he lied through gritted teeth. His fists clenched, itching to give de Soto a beating the other man wouldn't soon forget.
"Diego, Diego," said the alcalde. "It's all over the pueblo. Everyone knows you spent the night with her." He paused and grinned lasciviously. "Tell me, was it only the one night? Or have you two been more discreet since then?"
Spinning away, Diego stalked out of the cuartel. De Soto's jeering guffaws rang in his ears as he stepped out into the plaza. Glancing around, he spied Felipe lounging on the railing where they had hitched their horses.
"How is Father?" he asked as he strode up to the youth. Felipe signed that the old don was fine, singing and quoting Don Quixote and thinking Mendoza was Sancho Panza and driving the other two prisoners crazy.
"Excellent," Diego murmured distractedly as he stared at the tavern. So Victoria's good name was being besmirched, had been for the last month or more, and he had known nothing about it. Suddenly all the confusing actions of his male acquaintances, the backslapping and the conspiratorial winks, made sense. What the alcalde said was true, everyone knew about that night up in her room where he had made love to her. The most beautiful experience of his life, and it had been turned into something tawdry. Something that had destroyed the reputation of the woman he loved.
He had been going to go see his father, to see for himself how the elder de la Vega was faring. But now. . . Now he needed to have a discussion with the one person he had been avoiding for much too long.
"Felipe," he ground out, his eyes never leaving the tavern, "go back to the hacienda. I'll be there shortly. I have a plan to free my father and I'll need your help."
When the lad didn't move, Diego turned to glare at him. "I said to go home!" he shouted, his frustration unfortunately getting the better of him. "Now!"
He felt instantly contrite as he looked at the younger man's distressed face. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "Today has not been a good day. But I have no right to take it out on you. Go home, por favor." He put his hand on the youth's shoulder. "I'll be there as soon as I can."
With a wary nod, Felipe put his foot in his
mount's stirrup and swung up into the saddle. Diego watched as he
rode out of Los Angeles. Noting with a bit of rancor that the plaza
was nearly empty of gossipmongers, he stalked across the dusty ground to
the tavern's front doors.
Z Z Z
"IN A SINGLE MOMENT" - CHAPTER NINE