Diego woke up late again the next morning as bright sunshine streamed through his window. With a groan, he glanced at his bedside clock. Eleven-forty. About time he got up, he mused as he swung his legs out of bed and stood up.
Then the realization that his father was dead hit him and his knees nearly buckled. Bile rose in Diego's throat as horrific images of the previous day flashed through his mind. Of having to turn over Don Alejandro's limp and frail body into the care of his two grief-stricken friends, Don Jose and Don Esteban. Of Ramón and Mendoza's appearance in the plaza which drove the masked man out of the pueblo just as it had the day before. But instead of thinking of Victoria's sacrifice, he now had the guilt of his father's death on his head.
The whole situation was eerily similar to the day Victoria had died, only now instead of pictures in his head of her cold, lifeless body, he now had his father's. And as the elder de la Vega had taken over arranging for the lovely innkeeper's funeral, she had taken over the arrangements for his.
And once again, out of his sense of responsibility, he had volunteered to write a letter, this time to his cousin, Rafael. And as before, Diego had been unable to finish the missive, instead burying his head in his arms and sobbing. His eyes felt gritty with the salt of his tears this morning.
He dressed quickly and walked toward the door of his room. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror that hung on the opposite wall. He was wearing the same blue trousers and jacket he had donned the previous two mornings. Spinning around, he noted that the book about the philosophy of agriculture he had been reading was sitting in the same place on the night stand by his bed.
Diego was wondering what it all meant as he ambled into the dining room, intending to get a cup of coffee before he had to face what would no doubt be a grueling day.
"It's about time you got up." At the sound of Don Alejandro's grumpy voice, this time Diego's legs did give way and he had to grasp the edge of the table to remain upright.
Dear God, his father was alive! And well, it would seem as Diego eyed the mostly empty plate in front of the old don.
He watched with amazement as the elder de la Vega's face broke out into the same large grin for the third morning in a row. "You'll never believe it," his father said with the same excitement in his tone as before.
Diego only listened with half an ear as Don Alejandro repeated the news that his cousin Rafael was going to be a father. His mind was still reeling from the shock of seeing that his paternal parent was a living, breathing person once again.
"Diego, son." Shaking himself out his reverie, Diego turned his attention back to his father in time to hear the old don's advising him to settle down and find himself a wife. Diego's lips twitched into the beginning of a smile as Don Alejandro stared at him expectantly before adding emphatically, "I want grandchildren!"
Diego swiftly closed the distance between himself and the elder de la Vega then pulled the older man from his chair and embraced him. He was just so happy that his father wasn't dead that he would gladly marry the first eligible woman he met and begin producing those longed-for grandchildren
"Diego?" Don Alejandro's slightly strangled voice caused him to realize that he was nearly crushing his father's ribs he was hugging him so tightly. Diego lowered his arms and took a step backward.
The old don eyed him curiously, just as he had done the previous days. "I'm going to send my congratulations right away," he announced after a moment or two. "I'll add your best wishes as well."
"Gracias," Diego replied, unable to keep a grin from splitting his face. He walked over to the sideboard and poured out a cup of coffee, sitting into one of the chairs as his father strode from the room.
He took a sip of the cold, bitter beverage, not caring that it tasted the same as the past two days. Diego then leaned back in his chair to contemplate on what it meant that this same day kept reoccurring over and over again.
He appeared to be the only person aware of the repetition. Everyone else seemed to keep repeating their same actions and words and only he was the one changing his behavior. So it must be he who kept altering the day's outcome.
Diego let out a heavy sigh. Evidently he had been given another chance to make something right. If only he had a hint of what that something was. It certainly would make his job easier, he thought with a small chuckle.
Then he sobered as he speculated on what he should do. He had saved Victoria but that had caused his father to die. If he saved the elder de la Vega this time, did Victoria die again? Or someone else entirely?
Someone like Zorro, he mused grimly. That was who Bishop had been aiming at both times, but instead had hit Victoria and his father's horse when they had crossed in front of the masked man. He was the intended target. He was the one who was suppose to die. Not Victoria, not his father, nor anyone else. He, Diego de la Vega, disguised as his alter ego, was the one the Americano was suppose to kill.
Diego began to tremble. He didn't want to die, of course. He was young and healthy with a full life yet ahead of him. He had responsibilities; Felipe, the rancho, his father. He was in love with a beautiful woman who he wanted to marry and make the mother of his children. He had everything to live for.
But, he scolded himself, was it fair that others should die in his place just because he was afraid? No. Diego got to his feet. He had a lot of things to do that day if he was going to die later on that evening.
Today his footsteps took him directly to the stables where he knew Felipe was, cleaning the tack with Paco, as he had been the past two afternoons. The youth came with him eagerly when Diego announced it was time for his lessons. He watched emotionally as the lad opened his calculus book, knowing that this would be the last time he would be there to teach him.
Diego swallowed hard as he wondered if he should tell Felipe what he was going to do. The young man would protest, Diego knew, quite strongly. But maybe once he explained why he was doing it. . .
He shook his head, remembering Felipe's reaction yesterday when he tried to describe what he was experiencing. There was no reason to believe that his response today would be any different.
After spending a couple of bittersweet hours with Felipe, Diego rode into the pueblo, once again noting the unseasonable heat. He dismounted Esperanza in front of the tavern then secured her to the hitching rail, just as he had done twice before. Reaching into his saddlebag, he pulled out his agricultural philosophy book.
The same seven men were seated at the same tables on the tavern's porch, the ones on the right playing cards, the ones to the left discussing local politics. As Diego approached, he was once again hailed by his father's good friend, Don Sebastian.
Diego took up his seat next to the older don where they yet again conversed about Don Carlos and his bad luck at the card table and how he was about to lose the inheritance his father had left him.
"What a shame," Diego commented, thinking too, of how his own father would be left without an heir. He glanced over at the card players, narrowing his eyes as he focused on Bishop. The gambler had no idea of how many lives he was ruining, and, Diego thought crossly, the man probably didn't care.
Sighing in frustration, Diego opened his book where he had marked it. He had barely read more than a few words, however, when Victoria stepped out onto the porch, carrying a tray that held several glasses and a ceramic pitcher.
He still marveled that she was alive, the images of her dead in his arms yet fresh in his mind. She was the one thing he would regret in what remained of his life, that he hadn't told her his feelings for her, that she would never know he was the man she loved underneath the mask.
Why not tell her? He had already said his goodbyes to his father and Felipe before he left the hacienda, although neither of them realized they were seeing him for the last time. He had written a letter of explanation, telling the elder de la Vega of his secret identity and instructing Felipe to show the old don passage through the fireplace and the Fox's hidden cave.
There was no reason why he couldn't at least reveal to Victoria that he loved her. She deserved to know, his conscience nagged him.
Diego glanced up to see that Victoria was staring at him curiously. Their eyes met, then she gave him a guarded smile before turning to back inside.
He immediately got to his feet, tossing his book aside. "Victoria, wait," he pleaded. She faced him, an inquisitive expression on her lovely face. "I need to speak with you," Diego requested.
"All right," she replied. She continued inside the building and he followed her into the kitchen. He watched as she set down her tray of dirty glasses then place the ewer of lemonade on the table. Wiping her hands on her apron, she turned her attention to him. "Well?"
Diego's stomach was tied up in knots as was his tongue. He wasn't sure how to begin. He wanted to do more than just blurt it out, but perhaps that was the only way. Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, he once again took in her scent of peppers and spices mingled with a hint of roses, which only added to his frustrating situation.
"I, uh, I. . ." he stammered as Victoria gazed up at him expectantly. Berating himself for being more afraid of telling the woman he loved of his feelings than he was of facing ten soldiers with muskets and swords, he indicated that she should sit down. When she was seated on the bench near the table, he sat next to her.
"Victoria," he began, his voice quaking a little, "I know that you're in love with Zorro. But. . ." He held up his hand as she opened her mouth. "I just wanted you to know that I. . .that I. . . love you."
Her eyes grew wide as she gaped at him. "Diego," she finally said after gaining her composure a few moments later, "I. . .I don't know what to say."
"You don't have to say anything," he said, reaching out to capture one of her hands in his. "I've always love you, even before I left for Spain. But it wasn't until I returned that I fell in love with you heart and soul."
"Oh," she squeaked. She glanced down at their joined hands then into his eyes. He could see the bewilderment in hers and smiled awkwardly. He wondered if now was the time to tell her his secret identity. She would never believe him, he told himself, not without some kind of proof.
He gently squeezed her hand then stood up. "Well, I'd better let you get back to your customers," he said.
"Diego, wait," Victoria said, getting to her feet as well as he started to leave. He turned to face her. "Why?" she asked. "Why are you telling me this? Are you leaving again?" There was a plaintive tone in her voice and he was surprised to see tears gathering in the corners of her eyes.
"You could say that," he replied wryly. He was a bit taken aback by her distress. Perhaps her protestations of love for Zorro were more to convince herself of the fact along with everyone else.
Diego tilted his head upward slightly. Of course, he couldn't tell her he was going to be dead in a few hours. But he didn't want to lie to her either. "Someplace very far away," he compromised. "Where," he added with a wistful smile, "someday I hope to see you again but not for a very long time."
He could see that she was completely mystified by his words. But he could not explain to her their meaning. "If you will excuse me," he said politely. He left the kitchen then before she could ask any more questions.
Afternoon drifted into evening. Diego had resumed his seat out on the porch and pretended to read his book. In fact, he was once again enthralled by the activity around him as it eerily repeated itself for the third time. Don Carlos accusing Bishop of cheating. Bishop threatening Don Carlos. Mendoza's futile intervention, then more threats from Bishop as soon as the sergeant's back was turned.
Zorro was sweating bullets as he brought Toronado to a halt near the back of the tavern. Dismounting, he rubbed his gloved hand on the black stallion's forehead. "Adios, viejo amigo mio," he murmured huskily. The horse snorted and bobbed his head as if in reply. Zorro left the Andalusian munching contentedly on a hillock of grass.
He approached the front corner of the tavern just as cautiously as he had done the previous two days. Don Carlos was sitting at the table that he, Don Sebastian, and the others had abandoned earlier. The masked man watched as the old don's hand shook as he brought a glass of whiskey to his lips. Carrying an empty tray, Victoria emerged from the doorway and head straight for the drunken caballero.
"Shouldn't you be on your way home?" she inquired as she picked up the pitcher on the table. Zorro's heart was in his throat as the Americano sauntered over and glared menacingly down at Don Carlos.
"You're a dead man," he snarled. The older man jumped to his feet.
Victoria, putting herself in danger once again, directed her angry retort to the hulking gambler, "Haven't you caused enough trouble? Get out of here!"
Bishop just smiled mockingly at the fiery innkeeper before his eyes narrowed meanly. "No man calls me a cheat," he sneered.
"Suppose we just call you foolishly bad-tempered?" Zorro asked as he stepped up onto the tavern's porch.
With the same jeering grin on his face, Bishop wielded his pistol, aiming it straight as the man in black's heart. Zorro's hand twitched as he tightened his grip on the handle of his whip. He stared at the Americano, daring him to shoot him down in front of all the witnesses present.
To his shock, the gambler didn't pull the trigger. Zorro recovered his wits enough to lash out with his whip, knocking the weapon from Bishop's hand and onto the table. The masked man turned to a visibly trembling Don Carlos.
"Go home, Señor," he advised once again as he recoiled his whip. "And next time, don't play cards with strangers."
Zorro picked up the gun from the tabletop. "A man who returns verbal insults with a bullet," he began, reiterating the warning he had already delivered twice before to the brazen gambler, "is a most unwelcome addition to Los Angeles. Temper your anger, for next time I won't be so forgiving."
As the words left his mouth, he realized that there wouldn't be a next time. He wondered what would become of the pueblo and its people once he was no longer there to defend them. Panic gripped him as he questioned whether or not he was doing the right thing.
Squaring his shoulders, he told himself he had no choice, that no more innocent bystanders were going to pay the price for his masquerade. He took deep breaths as he observed the Americano ambling across the plaza.
Zorro took Victoria's hand and gave it a lingering kiss. "I must go, Señorita," he said as she beamed up at him happily. Closing his eyes as he wanted the picture of her beautiful face to be the last thing he saw, he whistled for Toronado then stepped off the porch.
Pain unlike any other he had felt before exploded in his chest. His eyes flew open and he saw Bishop crouched down by the livery. Then his vision began to grow dark. He could hear shouting but it sounded as if it were coming from far away. He could feel soft hands on his face and he turned to see Victoria's tearful countenance.
"No," she whispered as she squeezed the sides of his face. "Zorro, no."
He licked his lips, surprised at the effort it took to do so. "I love you," he said, each word causing his agony to worsen. "I've always loved you."
He thought he saw a glimmer of comprehension
in her dark eyes. Then everything went black and he thought or felt
Z Z Z
"OTRA VEZ" - DAY FOUR