"Otra Vez"

Day Five

     Diego awoke the next morning to his room once again bathed in bright sunlight.  Forty minutes past eleven, he noted grimly as he swung his legs out of bed.  He had wanted to rise earlier, but it was hardly surprising he had slept so late since he had been up most of the night haunted by images of Felipe's still, lifeless face.

     Hopefully he would be given another chance, another opportunity to make things right.  Doing nothing had obviously been the wrong idea.  Diego just prayed that he wasn't too late, that Felipe was truly dead and he wouldn't get to correct his mistake.

     Walking with apprehension toward the armoire which contained his clothing, Diego threw open the door.  Releasing the breath he hadn't realized he was holding, he saw the blue suit hanging in the same position for its fifth morning in a row.  Swinging around to look at the table beside his bed, he saw that his book, the same one he had been reading for the past four days, was perched upon it.

     Gracias a Dios, the day was repeating itself.  As optimism rose within him, Diego told himself that there was one more factor he needed to see before he could be completely sure.

     He dressed as quickly as he could then fled his room, half thrilled, half dreading what he would find.  Diego skidded to a halt as he came upon the threshold of the dining room.  There, at the table as he had been for the previous four mornings, sat his father.  The plate containing what was left of his lunch sat in front of him.

     "It's about time you got up." grumbled the old don.  The complaint sounded like beautiful music to Diego's ears.  He couldn't restrain from smiling himself as the elder de la Vega's face also broke out into a big grin.  "You'll never believe it."

     Diego twitched with anticipation as Don Alejandro reiterated the news of his nephew's impending fatherhood.   Itching to go out to the stables to see for himself that Felipe was indeed still living, Diego gritted his teeth as he listened to his father chastened him about his unmarried state and lack of grandchildren.

     "Si."  Diego would have agreed to just about anything at that moment just so he could leave.

     Don Alejandro eyed him curiously, as he had all the previous mornings.  "I'm going to send my congratulations right away," he announced.  "I'll add your best wishes as well."

     "Gracias."  Diego watched as the elder de la Vega stood up, tossed his napkin onto his plate, then left the room.  Instead of lingering over a cup of coffee as he had the other days, Diego departed hot on his father's heels.

     Diego made his way swiftly to the stables.  Upon entering the building, he took a deep breath, inhaling its scents of hay, horseflesh, and dung.  Then Diego turned his head and relief swept him from head to toe.  A very much alive Felipe was sitting on a bale of straw next to Paco, the stablemaster's son, and the two lads were scrubbing clean a couple of bridles.

    Both youths jumped to their feet when they noticed his presence.  Felipe waved goodbye to his friend and  trotting up to Diego with an expectant expression on his face.  Diego, overwhelmed by his feelings of guilt about the previous day's events, reached out and grasped Felipe on the shoulder, wanting to reassure himself that the young man in front of him was real.  He really wished he could hug the lad but decided that it would be too awkward, since Felipe had no idea that he had died the previous evening and would wonder about his mentor's sudden show of affection.

     He shook his head at Felipe's gestured question about lessons.  "No, no lessons today," he said, wincing when he realized he was repeating the fatal words he had uttered the previous day.  He hated that he had to disappoint Felipe once again, but it was imperative that he confront Bishop before he and the others started their poker game.  "There's an errand in town I need to take care of," he added, deliberately understating his mission.

     Felipe nodded then pointed toward Esperanza, Diego's mare.  Diego blinked, realizing that he hadn't thought that far ahead in his plan to eliminate Bishop.  Whether or not he would do the evil deed as himself or as his masked alter ego.
 
     His stomach roiled at the thought of killing a man in cold blood.  It was something he had sworn never to do; to take a life; no matter the circumstances.  But, he told himself sternly, this gambler had murdered everyone he loved, even though they had all miraculously come back to life.  But he couldn't keep counting on that to happen, he couldn't keep relying on the day to reoccur until he got it right.

     He shook his head.  Felipe then surreptitiously made a Z' with his right index finger.  "Si," Diego replied with a nod, making up his mind on the spot that his vile task would be somewhat easier if his face was hidden behind the black silk mask.   "Come on."

     On the way to the hacienda, it dawned on Diego that Felipe wouldn't have a reason to go into the pueblo this time.  That the youth would wait in the secret cave as he always did until Zorro arrived back safely.  A huge burden lifted from his shoulders, as the worry that the young man would again grow bored and seek permission to go into Los Angeles dissipated into thin air.

     Diego reached the front door first and opened it then moved aside. As Felipe walked through, Diego patted him on the back again, still somewhat incredulous that he was alive and not a figment of his imagination.  Heaving a heavy sigh, Diego followed him inside.
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      It was less than a half an hour later when an opening suddenly appeared in a tree-covered rock and a black horse carrying a black-clad man shot through it before it thudded closed once again.  Fifteen minutes later, Zorro was sliding off Toronado's back at the rear of the tavern.  He recalled Felipe telling him that first fateful day that Bishop was staying there, in one of Victoria's best rooms.  His anger flared at the thought of the gambler living so extravagantly off the backs of the hapless men he encountered.

     The door leading into the kitchen was propped open, no doubt to let in some air on the unseasonably hot day.  Zorro thought, and not for the first time, how difficult Victoria's chosen livelihood must be.  Slaving over a hot fire day after day, spending hours on her feet, dealing with demanding and sometimes lecherous customers.

     He peered around the door jamb and saw Victoria bustling about in her kitchen.  A torrent of longing swept through him, as it always did when he saw her.  As it even had the night before, as she and his father made arrangements for Felipe's funeral.  It had been disconcerting to be with her and realizing that she remembered nothing of Diego's declaration of love for her the previous day.  She had treated him as she always did, as a friend, someone she would never consider as a suitor.

     Irrational jealous stirred inside him.  It was slightly insane to be envious of one's self, but he was and he didn't know how to stop it.  Sighing deeply, his eyes scanned the room, making certain that she was alone.

     He stepped silently over the threshold, waiting for the moment that the lovely innkeeper would notice his presence.  The interval was short as she suddenly turned with a gasp, her beautiful face breaking into a heart-stopping smile.

          "Zorro," she whispered breathlessly, sending a shiver of desire down his spine.  They had a connection that he felt keenly, either as himself or when wearing his mask.  It was somewhat disheartening that she only aware of it when he was disguised.

     "Señorita."  He swiftly covered the distance between them and took her hand, lifting it to his lips.  "I hope I'm not disturbing you."

     "Oh, no, Zorro," she replied as he released her hand which she immediately pressed against her bosom.  She quirked up one corner of her smile.  "What can I do for you today?"

      He could think of several things she could do for him, none of them proper actions for an unmarried woman such as herself.  Shaking his head to clear it of its indecent musing, he forced himself to recall his task at hand, distasteful as it was.

     "The Americano, Bishop," he said tightly.  "Which room is he staying in?"

     "The one at the top of the stairs," Victoria answered, her voice full of curiosity.  She tipped her puzzled face as she gazed up at him.  "Why do you want to know?  What has he done?"

     Oh, nothing, Zorro responded to himself sardonically, just murdered everyone I care about.  He smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner before stating aloud, "I've heard some rumors about him.  I need to check them out for myself."
 
     To his relief, Victoria nodded.  "He's been fleecing any of the caballeros who are foolish enough to play cards with him," she declared.  "There's been some grumbling about cheating, but so far no one has accused him to his face."

     "Gracias," Zorro said before reaching for her hand once again.  After placing another gallant kiss upon it, he let it go then darted over to the wall.  Victoria barely had time to draw a breath when he had climbed over the top, dropping soundlessly onto the floor above.  Smiling down at her, he gave her a smart salute before turning away, a grim shadow falling over his face.

     Stealthily, he crossed the hallway and stood in front of the door to the Americano's room.  Not sure of what he would find inside, he unsheathed his saber before turning the handle.

      Bishop was sitting on his bed, playing a game of solitaire.  The man jumped to his feet, scattering the cards on the counterpane as Zorro entered the room, quickly closing the door behind him.

     "Who the hell are you?" the gambler demanded gruffly.  "And what the hell are you doing in my room?"

    "My name is Zorro," replied the masked man in a voice that was surprisingly icily calm.  "You killed my father, my woman, and my ward.  Prepare to die."

     He automatically shifted his body into the en garde position, pointing his sword threateningly at the other man.  His blade darted and struck Bishop on his right hand as he tried to lower that hand toward his boot.  "I think not, Señor."  Zorro sliced his saber downward, cutting through the leather like it was hot butter.  A knife fell to the floor with a thud.  The man in black kicked it under the bed with his left foot.

     "You're crazy," stated the Americano nervously.  "I haven't killed anyone.  I'm just a gambler."

     Zorro thrust the tip of his blade under Bishop's chin.  "Only a gambler, you say," he retorted.  "How many men have committed suicide once you have swindled them out of all their money, hmm?"

     Bishop sneered even though he was shaking with fear.  "Nobody forced them to play cards with me," he declared.  "How is it my fault that I'm a better player than they were?"

     "Their deaths are still on your head," Zorro replied.  He pressed his point a little harder on the other man's skin.  "You must be stopped before you kill again."

     Bishop stunned the man in black by laughing loudly.  "You're insane," he said between guffaws.  Then he drew a deep breath and his face became eerily sinister.  "I don't think you have the guts to kill me," he challenged.  "I think if you were truly going to kill me, you would have done it already."

     Beads of sweat rolled off Zorro's forehead and he could feel his mask becoming damp.  The gambler was right, he should have killed him the moment he burst inside the room.  Every second he hesitated, he lost a little more of his nerve.  Zorro took a step backward, lifting the end of his sword from the other man's throat.

     The Americano sniggered jeeringly.  "Hah, I was right.  You can't do it."  He sat back down onto the bed and started to gather up his cards.  "Now get the hell out of my room."

     Now it was the masked man who trembled, although with anger, not fear.  Anger directed at himself.  Why had he ever thought he could murder someone?  He had been kidding himself.  Zorro moved back again.  What was he going to do now, he wondered as his plan shattered around him.  He couldn't let this man harm anymore of the people he loved.  He couldn't let this gambler cheat. . .

     A sudden movement caught his eye and he realized that Bishop had darted his hand under the quilt on the bed and had pulled out a pistol, the same one that he had aimed at Zorro on three other occasions.

     ""Adios, Señor," the Americano drawled insolently as he cocked his weapon's hammer, aiming its barrel straight for Zorro's heart.

     In the same instant that Bishop pulled the trigger, Zorro lunged forward, driving his saber through the gambler's abdomen.  The bullet whistled through the man in black's hat, whisking it from his head.

     "You bastard," murmured the Americano as he fell backward onto the mattress, a trickle of blood running from his mouth.  His eyes rolled back into his head and Zorro knew that the other man was dead.

     He pulled out his sword, then stared at the blood that dripped from the shining silver blade.  Nausea roiled up inside him.  God forgive me, he pleaded as he fell to his knees, then lost the contents of his stomach, his saber landing on the floor beside him with a clang.

    The door to the room burst open and several men, including a couple lancers, stumbled into the room, led by the Alcalde, no doubt drawn by the sound of the gunshot.  "What is going on. . .?" Ramón began to shout but stopped himself as he surveyed the scene before him.  "Well, well, well," he purred sarcastically.  "Zorro caught red-handed in the act.  And murder no less."

     The masked man stared up at him, thoughts racing wildly through his head.  Dear God, this wasn't supposed to happen.  He wasn't supposed to be captured.  He was supposed to have freed the pueblo from the gambler's evil presence then everyone was supposed to live happily ever after.  Except for himself, of course.  He would have dwelled ruefully on what he had done for the rest of his life.

          "Take him away," the Alcalde instructed the two soldiers in the doorway.  The pair strode forward and each grabbed one of Zorro's arms, pulling him to his feet.  They turned as a group and the man in black found himself staring right into the commandante's gleeful face.
 
     "You're going to hang in the morning," Ramón announced jubilantly.  He bent down and picked up the blood stained sword.  "This is all the evidence I need."

     The lancers marched out of the room with their prisoner as the Alcalde moved out of their way.  Curious townspeople had saturated the lower floor of the tavern, all of them straining to learn what was happening.  Loud gasps filled the air as they saw Zorro being led meekly down the stairs.

     "Alcalde."  Zorro closed his eyes as Victoria pushed her way to the front of the crowd.  "What. . .?"

     Ramón held aloft the masked man's saber for all to see.  "He just killed a man upstairs.  He's nothing but a vicious murderer as I have said all along,"  he announced triumphantly.

     Zorro opened his eyes and met the dark brown ones of the lovely innkeeper that were clouding over with tears.  "I'm sorry," he murmured, the pain he saw on her face driving a stake through his heart.  He wasn't surprised that she spun away, pressing her way back through the gathered Angelenos.

     He realized as he was shoved into a cell that he had never kissed her lips.  Had never held her in his arms.  The clattering of the door as it was shut and locked also made him aware that he never had the chance to say goodbye to his father and Felipe.

     Dipping his mask covered head into his gloved hands, he despaired of his situation.  Another bad idea gone wrong.  Bishop was dead, that was true, and would never harm anyone ever again.

     But in his arrogance, he never even considered the chance that he would apprehended in the course of his execution of the malicious cardsharp.

     "Praying, Zorro?"  The masked man glanced up at the Alcalde's mocking question.  "You hang in the morning.  Not even God can help you now."

     With that, Ramón smiled viciously before quitting the jail.  Zorro watched him go, then stretched out on his narrow cot.  He stared up at the ceiling.

     There was no way out.  There would be no escape of his fate.  He had killed a man and for that he must be punished.  He had to accept that it was his destiny.

     But he didn't have to like it though, he thought as he felt tears leaking from the corners of his eyes.
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"OTRA VEZ" - DAY SIX