It took several hours for the doctor to arrive and examine the elder de la Vega.  He had been with Jose Rivas' wife who had given birth to twin girls.  By the time he reached the hacienda, Don Alejandro's heart was beating normally and he was getting irritated at being kept quiet in his bed.

    After a thorough exam, Doctor Hernandez gave his patient a clean bill of health, though he advised that the old don take it easy for a few more days.  Diego drew the physician aside as he was leaving.

      "Doctor, is there something that can be given to a person that would make their heart beat faster?" he inquired.

     "What do you mean, Don Diego?" countered the good doctor.

     "A potion or herb of some sort," Diego elaborated.

     "There is digitalis," was the reply.  "It is derived from foxglove leaves, I believe.  It is used to cure dropsy by speeding up the heart.  But foxglove does not grow here in California, I have to get my supply from Spain.  Why?"

     "Just curious," answered Diego slyly.  "Gracias, Doctor."

     Doctor Hernandez departed, leaving a pensive Diego behind.  Not too long after that, Zorro was galloping across the dark countryside on Toronado's back.  He had voiced his suspicions to Felipe, who had listened solemnly.  Now the masked man was on his way to confront Don Eduardo.  And to assist the eloping couple if the need arose.

     The Delgado hacienda looked quiet and peaceful as Zorro drew near.  A light shone through one of the windows, indicating that someone inside was still awake.  Dismounting his stallion, Zorro crept soundlessly toward the house.  He scaled the courtyard wall with ease and dropped silently in the garden.  Treading warily, he made his way to the French doors that led to the dining hall.

     Zorro ducked to one side of the doors and peered through the glass, observed Don Eduardo sitting at the mahogany table.  He was sipping from a glass of red wine, obviously thinking unpleasant thoughts if the expression on his face was anything to go by.  The masked man's eyes scanned the garden and focused on the fading spikes of pink and purple flowers.  With a flick of his saber, a stalk of the bell shaped blossoms flew through the air.

     Don Eduardo drained the last drop of wine from his glass.  Setting it on the table, he rose unsteadily from his chair.  A stem of purple foxglove suddenly appeared on the white tablecloth, causing the old caballero to sit back down with a thud.

     "Digitalis purpurea," announced Zorro as he stepped into the room.  "Commonly known as the foxglove.  An extract made from its dried leaves is used as a heart stimulant."

     "Zorro," gasped Don Eduardo in a horrified whisper.  Regaining his composure, he added, "What is the meaning of this?"

     "I wish to know why you are poisoning Don Alejandro de la Vega with digitalis," demanded the masked man, barely containing his anger.

     "I do not know what you are talking about," the old don said defensively.  "Don't be absurd."

     "I have information from reliable witnesses that you were seen putting something in Señor de la Vega's drinks, " Zorro bluffed.  "And then a short while later, Don Alejandro suffered heart problems.  Problems that could be caused by digitalis, which is extracted from a flower only you have growing in your garden."

      Don Eduardo hung his head down in defeat.   "What I desire to know is why?" queried Zorro.  "Why are you trying kill my fa. . .Señor de la Vega?   I thought he was your friend."

     "He is," the other man's head snapped up.  "I was not going to murder Alejandro, just scare him a little.  I wanted him and his son to think he was dying so Diego would marry my Catalina."

     "Why would you need such drastic measures to force such a marriage?"  The man under the mask was very curious to know.  "Your daughter is quite lovely.  Why are you so desperate to get her off your hands?"

     Don Eduardo launched into a fit of coughing that lasted several minutes, placing a lace trimmed handkerchief to his lips.  Zorro waited patiently until the older man could speak once again.

     "I am the one dying," he explained.  "I have consumption.  The doctor says I have less than six months.   That is why I wished to see Catalina settled.  I do not want her to be overwhelmed by con men and fortune hunters who would only be after my estate."

     "I am sorry, Don Eduardo," said Zorro sadly.  He glanced through the glass doors.  "I do not think you will have to worry about her at all," he added a little more cheerfully.  He inclined his head toward the courtyard.  "I think she can take care of herself.  Look."

     Don Eduardo turned to see Catalina and Benito kissing in the garden.  The girl held a satchel in her hand, which the young foreman gallanting took from her.  The old don rose abruptly from his chair and flung open the French doors.  Zorro followed just a step behind him.

     "Wait," the old caballero called out to the departing couple.  "Catalina, wait!"

     The young couple paused and spun around.  Their eyes widened when they saw the tall masked man standing behind Catalina's father.

     "No one can stop us, Papa," said Catalina defiantly.  "Not even Zorro."

     "She is right," agreed her groom-to-be.  He dropped her bag and drew out his sword.  He approached the other two men bravely albeit nervously as testified by his quaking blade.

      Zorro unsheathed his own weapon as a precaution.  Benito regarded this action as a threat and lunged forward at the black clad man.  Pushing Don Eduardo out of harm's way, Zorro parried the other man's initial thrust.

     Not a bad fencer, Zorro mused as they engaged in a heated (mostly on Benito's part) battle.  A little more practice and the young vaquero would be better than the Alcalde.  The masked man kept on the defensive, allowing the younger man to make all the attacks. Growing weary of the unnecessary fight, Zorro executed a rather complicated redoublement that sent Benito's sword flying through the floral scented night air.  It landed with a clatter against the tile floor.

     "Don Eduardo?"  urged Zorro, seeing the fear in the young couple's eyes.

     "I had no idea," muttered the old man.  He placed a hand on his daughter's shoulder.  She flinched, thinking he was going to drag her away.

     "Catalina, are you sure?" he inquired paternally.  "Benito is a good man, a hard worker, but I had hoped. . ."

     "Si, Papa," replied the girl.  "I wish to marry Benito.  We have loved each other since we were children."

     "Then you have my blessing," Don Eduardo declared.  He kissed Catalina's forehead.  "Vaya con Dios, my children."

     "Gracias."  Benito grasped the older man's extended hand.  Then placing a protective arm around Catalina's shoulders, they exited the garden through a narrow side door, where he had horses waiting for their journey.

     The old caballero sagged with relief.  Then he remembered his other visitor.

     "Zorro, you will not tell Alejandro what I have done, will you?" he asked anxiously.

     "No," replied the masked man, crossing his arms across his broad chest.  "But you will."

      "Si," agreed Don Eduardo, sensing he had no other option.

     Zorro nodded, sheathed his saber and exited the garden via the garden wall.  The black Andalusian stood waiting patiently for his master's return.

     "Well, that mystery is solved," the man in black said as he swung up onto the horse's back.  "Now it is time to have a little chat with the Alcalde."

     Nudging his heels into Toronado's sides, man and beast headed off in the direction of Los Angeles.
                                                               Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

     The next morning, Sergeant Mendoza had the dubious task of returning large sums of money to several citizens.  He also had to inform them that their sons and brothers had to report for duty in four more days.  Sometime during the night, the Alcalde had a change of heart.  The portly soldier thought it more likely that it had been changed for him by Zorro.  He had seen Corporal Sepulveda mending de Soto's coverlet, which had something suspiciously like a Z' slashed across it.

     Mendoza had to smile.  Zorro always seemed to know when the Alcalde was up to no good.

     The next several days passed by quickly.  They had been filled with more protests against the forced enlistment but to no avail.  More and more young men came to the realization they had no choice but to report for duty.

     Padre Benitez had been extremely busy, marrying about five couples a day.  He had his doubts about some of the unions.  Most of the young men and women had been courting already with only a few rushing into hastily arranged agreements.  Diego was relieved that Felipe and Ana Maria were not among them.

     Don Eduardo had confessed his crime to his friend Alejandro.  The elder de la Vega had been upset at first, but finally forgave his old amigo, especially when he learned he was dying.  Don Alejandro was disappointed that Diego would not be marrying Catalina after all.  Oh well, the grandchildren would have to wait a bit longer, he had thought, at least he knew now that he was still a healthy man.

     The day before Felipe was due to leave, he and Diego rode into the pueblo.  As usual, they headed straight for the tavern.  Business was light that day, most people still at their siestas.  Felipe spied Ana Maria and her mother using several of the tables in one corner to cut a length of fabric.  He hurried across the room to greet them.

     Diego wandered over to the unattended bar and leaned against it.  Victoria emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.  Upon seeing Diego standing there, she sauntered over slowly, a playful smile on her lips.

     "Buenos tardes, Diego," she said as she reaching for a glass and the pitcher of juice.  "I hear you are no longer engaged to Catalina Delgado."

     "You have heard correctly," replied Diego.  "I am once again a free man."

     Victoria gave him a look that said that was hardly surprising as she poured him a glass of fresh orange juice.  Diego just smiled.  "I also hear she eloped with Benito Trujillo to San Clemente," she added smugly.

     "I heard Santa Barbara," Diego contradicted her as he took a sip of juice.  "I wish them both well."

     "I wonder if you will ever marry," commented the innkeeper idly.  She picked up a cloth and began wiping the countertop.

     "I think I shall someday," Diego stated a bit haughtily.  "I am just waiting for the right woman to say yes."

     Victoria rolled her eyes and went back into the kitchen.  Diego's eyes narrowed as he watched her go.  Little did she know she was the woman he was waiting for.
                                                            Z                                                               Z                                                           Z

     That evening Felipe and Ana Maria took a long walk under the starry sky.  When they were out of sight of the pueblo and its prying eyes, they embraced tightly.  When they parted, Felipe noticed the tears flowing down Ana Maria's beautiful cheeks.  He kissed them away, then kissed her lips.

    Felipe reached into his pocket and brought out a ring made of three strands of silver braided together.  He had seen her admiring it several times at the smithy's when they had passed by there.  He held the ring out to her.

     "Oh Felipe," Ana Maria murmured.  She watched as he made several hand signals.  "Are you asking me to wait for you?"  He nodded at her interpretation.  She smiled.  "Of course I will.  You must promise to come back to me safe and sound. Oh Felipe, I love you so much."

     He soundlessly mouthed the words back to her and placed the ring on her finger.  They came into each other's arms and their lips met again.

    Men from all over the territory made their way to Los Angeles the next day.  There were many tearful embraces as men bid their families goodbye.  That some of them might never return dominated the minds of many of them.

     Diego and Don Alejandro accompanied Felipe and their ranch hands into town.  Dismounting in front of the crowded tavern, they tied their horses.  Victoria had been waiting anxiously for their arrival and rushed out of the building carrying a basket covered with a checkered cloth.

     She held it out to Felipe.  "For your journey," she said slowly.  "All your favorites."

     He lifted the cloth and smiled.

     "Gracias, Victoria," Diego answered for his son.

     "It is the least I could do," she replied.  "I just wish he did not have to go at all.  It is all so pointless."

     "I agree," concurred Don Alejandro.  "But what can we do?  The Crown has long exploited its colonies.  One day soon, I think it will tighten its grip a little too far then. . ."

     Diego was saved the trouble of interrupting his father's treasonous speech when the Alcalde and his lancers made a great show of emerging from the cuartel and marching across the plaza.  De Soto assumed his favorite spot on the fountain ledge and raised his arms.

     "All recruits line up, pronto," he announced loudly.  "Sergeant Mendoza, por favor."

     The rotund soldier began directing the men who came forward into three lines in front of his commandant.  It took quite some time as there were more embraces and tears.  Felipe was hugged by Diego and Don Alejandro, then embraced by Victoria, who kissed his cheek.

     "Vaya con Dios," she said, wiping the tears from her eyes.  He turned to join the other inductees.

     Ana Maria emerged from the tavern and threw her arms around him.  The Alcalde watched as the young couple kissed with a cynical sneer on his face.  Ana Maria reluctantly let go and he joined the others.  She twisted the silver ring around her finger as tears streamed down her beautiful face.

     "You will be departing shortly for San Diego," the Alcalde stated, "where you will receive some military training before setting sail for Spain.  Mendoza, call out the roll."

     This procedure took awhile as there were nearly one hundred names on the list.  All but a handful of the men had reported for duty.  Personally, de Soto hoped that Zorro was among the recruits who were about to leave.  Or better yet, perhaps he was one of the men who had not shown up, Ignacio thought evilly.  He chuckled wickedly, relishing the idea of shooting Zorro right through the heart for being a deserter.

     The men were finally being loaded in the munitions wagons for their journey south.  Felipe went through another round of embraces and kisses.  When everyone was through fussing over him, Diego drew him aside.

     "You do not have be a deaf mute once you leave Los Angeles," he reminded his adopted son in a low voice.  "The choice is yours to make."

      Felipe smiled sadly.  Father and son embraced once more as the Alcalde snarled at them.

     "De la Vega!  Get going!" he barked angrily.

     "Be careful," admonished Diego.  "Vaya con Dios."

     Felipe hopped into his assigned cart.  The wagons began to rumble out of the plaza , kicking up large clouds of dust.  When they could see again the vehicles were well on their way.

     Diego and his father walked slowly over the tavern and untied their horses.  Ana Maria and Victoria watched as they mounted their animals and headed for home.  They both started weeping when they noticed that Diego was leading Felipe's riderless pinto behind him.
                                                            Z                                                               Z                                                               Z