"Otra Vez"

Day Seven

          It was with not a little trepidation that Diego opened his eyes the next morning.  Or what was left of the morning as he noted that it was nearly noon.  As he stared at the clock for a moment, he saw that the book he had been reading was once more perched next to it on the night stand.  With a sigh, he arose from his bed and approached the armoire.  The fact that his blue suit was hanging inside, clean and pressed, failed to surprised him.

     He closed his eyes and remembered what it had looked like the last time he had seen it, covered in the good sergeant's blood.  He recalled the panic in Mendoza's eyes as the soldier realized he was dying.  It was something that Diego would never forget, no matter how hard he tried.

     Plopping back down onto his bed, he lowered his head into his hands.  Dear God, what was he supposed to do.  Would this day just keep on repeating itself over and over again?  What if he never figured out what he was supposed to do to stop it?  Would he eventually just give up or go insane?

     Groaning with frustration, he got back up on his feet.  Maybe he should change nothing.  Maybe he should do everything exactly as he had done that first day.  His legs trembled at the thought of Victoria being killed again, as it went against every chivalrous instinct he possessed to let her come to any harm.

     Maybe whatever he was supposed to do differently would come to him as the day progressed.  Diego sighed wearily.  Nothing that he had thought of so far had been the answer, what made him think that this day's outcome wouldn't be as horrific as the other six?

      Diego took the blue jacket and trousers off of their hangers and dressed.  Then he made his way out to the dining room where for the seventh day in a row, his father sat at the table, the remains of his lunch on the plate in front of him.

     "It's about time you got up," grumbled Don Alejandro as Diego ambled into the room.  Then the old don broke into a big grin.  "You'll never believe it."

     Diego looked at his father.  Did the elder de la Vega really have no clue that he had uttered these same words for seven mornings in a row?  He shook his head incredulously.  "Never believe what?" he inquired as he walked over to the sideboard and poured himself a cup of coffee.

     "Your cousin Rafael is going to be a father!"  The elder de la Vega's eyes once again danced with excitement.  "Isn't that wonderful?"

     "Of course," Diego agreed automatically.   And actually, it truly was, now that he thought about it.  His cousin would make an excellent father.  It was his wife that had Diego a bit concerned. The flighty Margarita had fallen in love with Zorro while the couple had visited Los Angeles nearly a year earlier, before she and Rafael had married.  He only hoped that she had learned her lesson and realized what a good man her husband was.

     "Diego, son," his father's voice broke into his thoughts, "it's about time you settled down, found yourself a wife."  He stared expectantly at Diego.  "I want grandchildren!" he added emphatically.

     "I know, Father," replied Diego before adding softly, "Believe me, I know."  Now that he knew that life was short and full of unpredictable pitfalls, he knew that he needed to grant the elder de la Vega's fondest wish sooner than later.

     His father eyed him curiously.  "I'm going to send my congratulations right away," he announced.  "I'll add your best wishes as well."


     Diego waited until the old don quitted the room before sitting down.  Sipping his cold and bitter brew, he once again contemplated his destiny, mulling over all the details he had so far deemed important.  The book, Felipe's lessons, his presence at the tavern, and, so it seemed, Zorro's inference as well.  There was still that one missing piece of the puzzle, that one little fact that would change everything and put his world to rights once more.

     He set down his cup and pushed away from the table.  Time to get on with it, he told himself, heaving a weary sigh.  He strode from the dining room, intent on finding Felipe in the stables then commencing with the very crucial lessons.
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     It was several hours later before Diego rode into the pueblo.  He and Felipe had spent that time immersed in calculus, ancient history, and conjugating French verbs, just as they had done on the first three days and the previous day as well.

     He noted, as he dismounted his mare in front of the tavern, that it was still an unseasonable warm day. After he had tied Esperanza's reins to the hitching rail, he looked up to see the all too familiar tableau of the men on the tavern's porch.

      Diego recalled how Felipe had informed him about an Americano gambler on that first fateful day, how he had been aggressively persuading the men of Los Angeles into playing his games of chance.  Little had he known then this Bishop would be the cause of so much discord and death.  Shaking his head, he walked up onto the wooden planks of the porch.

     "Buenas tardes, Diego," his father's old friend, Don Sebastian called out from the table on the left side of the building.

      "Hola, Don Sebastian," Diego replied.  The caballero indicated the empty space on the bench beside him and Diego sat down, setting his book by Eramus Darwin on the tabletop.  He tipped his head toward the opposite side of the porch.  "How come you haven't joined them?" he asked, although he had already heard the answer many times.

     The old don shook his head.  "I'm not a gambling man," he confided.  He turned slightly and watched his trio of friends sitting at the other table.  "Don Esteban and Don Jose can afford to lose a peso or two, but Don Carlos. . ."  He sadly shook his head again.  "He's about to lose everything."

     "It's that bad?" queried Diego lightly, although inside he was raging once again at the though of the other caballeros' blasé attitude about their amigo bankrupting himself.  And he was once again exasperated with Don Carlos himself, of the older man's careless handling of the inheritance his father had left to him five years earlier.  Maybe it was because he had no heir to pass it on to, but in Diego's mind that was a pitiful excuse.  There were always the estate's tenants who could benefit from such a situation.

     "Si, Diego."  Don Sebastian's voice broke through his musings.  "Don Carlos is nearly penniless.  The only way he can pay back what he owes is to sell off his land."

     "What a shame," murmured Diego with more politeness than he was feeling.  He shot a glance over at the cards players, watching as Bishop dealt another hand that would drive another nail into Don Carlos's financial coffin.  What a senseless waste, he thought before picking up his book and opening to where it was marked.

      He made the pretense of reading, his mind too filled with troubling thoughts to really concentrate on the printed words on the pages.  It didn't help matters that Victoria interrupted him several times, offering him lemonade and a smile.  The refreshment was welcomed.  Her smile only caused him to have even more troublesome, frustrating thoughts.

     Nothing he had done so far felt as though it needed to change.  But, he asked himself mockingly, was he expecting to be hit with a bolt of lightening at precisely the right moment?  He couldn't count it and he shouldn't, he informed himself angrily.  Still, he had to do something.  If he didn't, there was a very good chance that the woman filling his glass with juice was going to once again die in his arms later on that day.

     It was about an hour later that the anticipated groans came from the opposite table.  "Gentlemen, the cards don't lie," announced Bishop arrogantly, spreading his hand on the table.

     Diego watched almost dispassionately as Don Carlos leapt from his chair, staring at the gambler's cards in disbelief.  Obviously he must have figured to have had a better hand than did the Americano, Diego reflected bitterly.

     The old caballero turned and walked across the porch to where Diego now sat by himself, his companions having taken their leave some time earlier.  Putting his right index finger into his book to hold his place, Diego looked up at his father's friend.  "Don Carlos.  Lovely evening, isn't it?" he said, making no effort to hide his sardonic tone.

     The other man didn't pick up on it.  "Not particularly," he replied disagreeably.  "It's too hot."

     Diego darted a quick glimpse of the men still at the other table, who were already engaging in another round of poker.  "How the game going?" he asked, although he knew the answer all too well.

     "Terrible."  Don Carlos's brusque response was spoken a second before he sat down in an empty chair next to Diego's.

     "The only man who wins at poker," advised Diego coolly, "is the one who doesn't play."  He knew, of course, that the message would be totally lost on the other man.  But still, they were words he had used that first day, and they still held true on the seventh.

     Then, even though he was aware of what was going to happen next, Diego couldn't help but feel a rush of rage directed at his tablemate.  No one should bandy about the accusation that Don Carlos was about to fling, not without serious proof.

     "I don't like being cheated," the old don announced loudly, glaring over his shoulder at his erstwhile companions and Bishop in specific.

     Diego heard the collective intake of breath as the cardsharp deliberately rose to his feet, pushing back his chair, then sauntered up to stand beside Don Carlos, looming over him ominously.  "You have a big mouth, my friend," the Americano stated in a congenial voice that quite didn't cover up the threat hidden in his words.

     The caballero yet again jumped out of his seat, the legs of the chair screeching unpleasantly across the wooden planks of the porch.  Mendoza's broad face appeared in the doorway of the tavern, filling Diego with both relief that his old friend was still alive, and dread that the portly lancer's intervention could possibly cost him his life as it had the previous day.  He barely noted the two other lancers on either side of the sergeant or that Victoria hovered apprehensively behind him.

     "What is the problem, señores?" the stout soldier queried as he pulled nervously at his uniform.

      "No man calls me a cheat and lives," Bishop answered, a polite smile still plastered on his face, although his hostile glare never left Don Carlos's pale face.

     "This is a peace-loving pueblo," stated Mendoza firmly, though his words were belied by his uneasy tugging of his tunic. "You will act like gentlemen while you are here or you will go to jail for disturbing the peace."

     Diego let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding when a few moments later, the sergeant and the two other lancers stepped off the porch, making their way back to the cuartel.  True, they thought they had diffused the volatile situation between the cardsharp and the caballero.  But Diego knew differently and it was born out as soon as the soldiers' backs were turned.

     The civil manner had disappeared as Bishop shook a scrap of paper in Don Carlos's face.  "I'll give you a week to pay this note," he announced darkly before spinning around and rejoining the remaining card players at the opposite table.

     Diego made his excuses then even though no one paid him any attention as all their focus was on the Americano and Don Carlos.  He threw a worried glance over his shoulder at Victoria as he rode out of the pueblo.  Unless he changed something, she was going to die.  And he couldn't let that happen again..
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     Zorro skulked by the left side of the tavern a little more than a half an hour later.  The scene was as he remembered it, Victoria was trying to persuade a intoxicated Don Carlos that he needed to go home.  The masked man watched in disgust as the old don's hands shook as he took another long sip from his cup.

      The poker game was breaking up.  Zorro turned his notice to Don Esteban and Don Jose as they pocketed their meager winnings, somewhat astonished that the Americano hadn't totally cleaned out their purses.

      The cardsharp in question swaggered over to Don Carlos's table as the caballero was about to take another drink.  "You're a dead man," Bishop hissed into the other man's ashen face.

      Don Carlos slammed down his cup as he jumped unsteadily to his feet.  Zorro's heart leaped into his throat as Victoria twirled around and confronted Bishop.  "Haven't you caused enough trouble?" she asked crossly as she rose up onto her toes to fix him with what she must have thought was a menacing stare.  "Get out of here!"

     The Americano ignored her demand with a smirk.  "No man calls me a cheat," he stated hostilely as he glared at Don Carlos.

     "Suppose we just call you foolishly bad-tempered?" Zorro suggested derisively as he stepped upon the tavern's porch.

     Bishop laughed mirthlessly as he reached his hand behind his back then brandished a pistol than he must have had hidden in the waistband of his trousers.  But as soon as he aimed the weapon at Zorro's heart, the gun was knocked from his hand as the man in black's whip lashed out with a loud crack.  The pistol fell onto the table with a thud.

     Zorro stepped forward as he recoiled his whip.  "Go home, Señor," he instructed Don Carlos, "and next time, don't play cards with strangers."

     The old don nodded humbly before making his way toward his horse.  The masked man picked up the Americano's weapon from the table, turning his attention from the departing caballero to Bishop, whose eyes were shooting daggers at him as he rubbed his stinging fingers.

     "A man who returned verbal insults with a bullet is a most unwelcome addition to Los Angeles," Zorro declared.  "Temper your anger, for next time I won't be so forgiving."

     He then looked down at the pistol in his hand.  What had he done with it on the other days he had confronted the crooked gambler?  The first day he recalled stuffing it into the waist of his own trousers; the second he thought he had done the same.  On the third day, he was almost sure that he had just left the gun on the table.

     The man in black narrowed his eyes.  He knew that Bishop was hiding a knife in his boot.  The same knife he remembered vividly protruding from Victoria's chest, and the flank of his father's mare, Dulcinea, and penetrating deep into his own torso.  The memory of it slashing Sergeant Mendoza's throat lingered in his mind as well.

     Maybe he was supposed to return the pistol to its owner.  Although he couldn't fathom how Bishop would be able to do less harm with the gun rather than his blade.  But. . . for some reason. . .it felt like the right thing to do.  He extended his hand toward the Americano, holding the pistol at him butt first.

     Bishop snatched the weapon from his hand, then glaring at him one last time, he walked off the tavern porch.  Zorro watched as the cardsharp ambled across the plaza toward the livery.  Then he turned his attention to Victoria, taking her right hand and leading her to the edge of the porch.

      "I should see that Don Carlos makes his way home safely," he stated, even though he still really wished he could kiss her until they were both sated.  But once again he whistled for Toronado before gentlemanly kissing her hand.

     He had placed his foot in the stirrup when he felt something grabbing his arm.  "Zorro, no!" he heard Victoria shout out the warning.  But it was too late by the time he has spun around.  There had been a loud popping sound and he stared in horror as he saw the lovely innkeeper slump against one of the pillars holding up the porch's canopy.

     Zorro glanced up for a second to see the Americano crouching beside the stables, his smoking pistol still pointed in his direction.  The gambler darted away and the masked man rushed over to take Victoria into his arms before she hit the ground.

     "It was Bishop," she breathed, telling him what he already knew.  He gazed down at her, aware of the bright red stain slowly seeping through her white cotton blouse.  The wound was lower on her left side, and he felt a tide of optimism sweep over him.  The bullet had missed her heart and if his calculations were correct, her lung as well.  She wasn't going to die, at least not at that moment.

     "Victoria," he said softly as he pressed his gloved hand up against her injury.  "It's all right."  He kissed the top of her head before adding, "Everything is going to be all right."

     Dear God, he prayed fervently, please let everything be all right.
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