"A SEA OF TROUBLE"

CHAPTER TWO

     "Maybe we will have our fun first after all," Rafael snarled in Victoria's face.  He grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him.  He enjoyed seeing the fear in her dark brown eyes.  "Then you will fix us a feast."

     "Feast on this," said an angry voice from behind the draperies of the kitchen doorway.  A large hamhock hit Rafael squarely in the face.  A man dressed head to toe in black followed the hunk of meat into the room.

     "Zorro, gracias a Dios," murmured Victoria.  Using the distraction, she stomped down hard on the reeling Rafael's shiny boot, causing him even more pain.

     Across the room, Mario still held Marta in his unwanted embrace.  Zorro picked up the ham from where it had fallen on the floor and tossed it at him, hitting the would-be Romeo on the side of the head.  Marta pushed away as he released her and he went sprawling backwards, crashing against a table full of alarmed customers.

     Zorro turned to face the remaining two gang members.  He withdrew his saber from its scabbard.  "I suggest you do as the señorita asks and leave.  Now," he ordered authoritatively.  He had also retrieved the hamhock and held it in his left hand.

     The pair scrambled to their feet, tripping over each other and the furniture in their haste to obey the man in black.  Mario had recovered his senses enough to follow his amigos out the front door.  Which left only Rafael. . .

     "Zorro, watch out," Victoria called out the warning.  The masked man swirled around in time to see the knife Rafael had drawn from his waist band.

     Zorro hurled the abused ham one more time, hitting the other man's wrist.  The dagger fell harmlessly to the floor.  Victoria reached out swiftly to pick it up.

     "And now, Señor, we must say adios," drawled the masked man in a sarcastic voice.  With a flash of his sword, he carved a neat Z' into the front of Rafael's jacket.  He then grabbed the young man by the nape of his neck and guided him roughly to the front door.  Rafael stumbled down the steps and landed on his butt in the dust.

     "Learn some manners before you visit Los Angeles again," advised Zorro, an amused smile on his mask covered face.

     The gang leader shot a menacing glare at him as he got to his feet and brushed off his rear end before he went to rejoin his friends who had already mounted their horses.

     "Gracias, Zorro," said Victoria, putting her hand on his arm.

     "De nada," he replied.  He was trying to control himself from taking her into his arms and kissing her with all the passion he had been storing up the past several weeks since he had last seen as the masked hero.  As a diversion, he picked the hunk of ham off the floor and handed it to the object of his desire.  "Sorry, querida," he apologized.  She saw by the look in his eyes that he was not just referring to the ham she held.

     He expertly sheathed his saber, kissed Victoria very quickly on the lips then slipped through the curtains to the kitchen.  Victoria sighed as she went to calmed down the agitated Marta.  The two of them began to clean up the mess the men had left behind them.
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     Rafael and his compadres did not take kindly to being tossed out the tavern and in essence the pueblo.  They rode out of town slowly, grumbling amongst themselves.

     "Why can't you keep your hands to yourself, Mario?" Alberto griped stridently.  "Now where are we going to eat and sleep tonight?"

     "Si, in case you didn't notice, that was the only tavern in this miserable little pueblo," complained the fourth member of the group, Javier.

     "Amigos, amigos," Rafael broke into the argument.  "We still have some provisions and we can camp out tonight."  When the other started grousing again, he added, "It is better than a night in jail, no?"

     That quieted down the trio, especially when they noticed Sergeant Mendoza and Corporal Perez making their way across the plaza.  "Vamonos, compadres," commanded the gang leader.  They spurred their mounts and hurried out of town.

     Mendoza stopped and stared through the cloud of dust the horses had kicked up.  He also noticed that the young men were riding exceptionally fine mounts.  Not knowing what to make of it, he shrugged then continued on his way to the tavern and a big plate of Señorita Victoria's delicioso tamales.

     The gang did not ride far out of Los Angeles before stopping to make their camp beside the river.  The men sat around the fire they had started to cook their supper and plotted their next move.

     "What are we going to do now?" Alberto questioned his friend.  "Move on to the next pueblo or what?"

     "No," was Rafael's terse reply.  "I like what I see here.  A nearly empty garrison, lovely señoritas.  This town will be ours."  He smiled as he thought of that little spitfire who owned the tavern.  He had decided he was going to be the one to tame her.

     "But what about that masked man?" inquired Javier, breaking into their leader's lustful thoughts.  "I think he is the one they call El Zorro'.  If he is, we don't stand a chance against him."

      "Nonsense," Rafael answered.  "He is only one man.  There is a bounty on his head, so he is just an outlaw, same as us.  I believe we can take him if we meet up with him again.  He caught me by surprise," he added in response to the skeptical glance Alberto gave him.

     "If you say so," the other man shrugged.  "So what is the plan now?"

     Rafael leaned forward and the quartet plotted their revenge against the pueblo.
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     A beautiful sunrise the next morning announced the beginning of the new day.  It was once again market day in the pueblo.  The merchants and farmers were all up early, getting ready for the busy day ahead of them.  The de la Vegas were included in that number.  Don Alejandro had several yearling bulls he intended to auction off that day.  Diego and Felipe were awakened from their slumbers before daybreak so they could help the old don get the animals rounded up.

     It did not matter to the elder de la Vega that Felipe had stayed up late, studying legal texts or that Diego had found it hard to sleep at all.

     Images of Victoria filled his head whether he was awake or asleep.  He had dressed once again as Zorro and had taken Toronado out for a good run.  They ended up at the ocean where the masked man sat and watched the waves for several hours before traveling back to the hacienda.

     It was getting very frustrating not being able to be with the woman he loved unless he was hidden behind a mask.  Surely one day, Zorro would no longer no needed.  That fact that some Spanish colonies were declaring their independence was a hopeful sign.  It stood to reason that a more local government would rule the people better than one that was more than eight thousand miles away.

     "Diego, Diego!" called out his father in exasperation.  "Quit daydreaming!  You let that bull slip right by you."

     "Sorry, Father," he apologized sheepishly.  Nudging Esperanza, he took off after the frisky young animal.

     They swiftly herded up the remaining yearlings and went to clean up a bit before heading into the pueblo.  Diego and Don Alejandro emerged from the hacienda after about ten minutes.

     "Where is Felipe?" asked the elder de la Vega, trying to keep the annoyance out of his tone.  "The auction starts in an hour."

     Diego was about to reply when Felipe appeared, dressed in a dark green suit that Señora Ortega had made for him.  His hair was neatly slicked back and he was still fiddling with his necktie.

     The two older de la Vegas, along with some of the vaqueros, snickered at the young man's obvious courting apparel.  Felipe grew indignant when he saw their smiling faces.

      "Come on, let's get going," advised Don Alejandro.  He patted Felipe on the shoulder.  "We don't want to keep Ana Maria waiting."

     The ranch hands smirked even more at that remark and even Diego had to hide his smile.  Half an hour later, they were leading the ten young bulls into the plaza turned mercado.

     "Buenos dias," Victoria greeted them after they had secured their livestock in the makeshift corral.  She smiled too at Felipe's appearance.  He nodded to her and then rushed off to where the Ortega women were setting up their booth.

     "Buenos dias, Victoria," replied Don Alejandro.  "You are looking quite lovely this morning, my dear."

     "Gracias," she said, blushing slightly.   She glanced over at Diego who had remained silent.

     His father was right, she was looking beautiful that morning, dressed in a blouse that showed off her slim, smooth shoulders.  The blouse was also a little low cut. He could only stare at her, his brain had seemed to quit functioning and he did not trust himself to speak.

     Fortunately for him, but not so for everyone else, there was a sudden commotion at the pueblo entrance.  People were pointing and gasping at what they saw.  Victoria and the de la Vegas swivelled around to see Rafael and his compadres ride their horses straight through the middle of the plaza.  Several citizens had to jump out of their way to avoid being knocked down by the large animals.

     The gang drew their mounts to a halt hear the plaza fountain.  There were more indrawn breaths as the crowd got a good look at the young men's jackets.

     Every one of them had a large Z' slashed onto the left side of the garment and an even bigger letter Z' etched into the back as well.  Rafael had to override the protests of his companions who did not want to deface their clothes.

     The townspeople, thinking the men were more outlaws that Zorro had apprehended, started to go back about their business.  Corporal Perez headed over to them to take them into the cuartel.

     Rafael viciously spurred his gelding, causing the horse to rear up on its hind legs.  That gained everyone's attention once again.

     "Atencion, citizens of Los Angeles!" the gang leader shouted as he got his animal under control.  "We are Zorro's men.  He has left this pueblo under our protection."

     "Nonsense," contradicted Don Alejandro loudly as he stepped forward to confront the young man.  "Zorro has no men'.  He has always worked alone."

      "Not anymore, old man," sneered Rafael.

     "It cannot possibly be true," Victoria stated as she too came forward.  "Zorro threw you and your friends out of my tavern yesterday afternoon.  He would hardly be in league with you today.  He would not give control of Los Angeles to you."

     "But that is exactly what he did, Señorita," replied Rafael angrily.  These people were beginning to irritate him.

     "How could he?" Don Alejandro demanded to know.  "It is not his to hand over to anyone, especially a band of ruffians like you.  I don't know what kind of game you are playing, Señor.  But I can assure you, the citizens of Los Angeles are not interested."

     "Father, be careful," Diego warned his parent in a low voice, placing a restraining hand on the older man's shoulder.  Don Alejandro shrugged him off.

     Rafael's response was to dismount his horse and march over to stand in front of the old don.  He unsheathed his sword as he glared threateningly at the elder de la Vega.

     "I am only going to say this one more time, Señor," he growled menacingly.  "We are now in charge of this town.  Anyone who wishes to challenge our authority will be taught a lesson they will never forget."

     Diego, sensing his father was about to say something that would earn him one of those lessons, decided to intervene.

     "Un momento," he began to speak, but paused as Rafael pointed his blade at Diego's chest.

     The younger de la Vega raised both hands defensively.  "We mean no harm, Señor," he stated, swallowing his own anger.  "My father and I are peace loving citizens.  We have no intention of challenging you."  He shot Don Alejandro a look that quelled the protest the older man was about to utter.

     "Now that this is settled," Rafael said as he lowered his sword.  He turned to Victoria.  "Señorita, fix us some breakfast.  Now," he demanded as he saw her hesitation.

     Victoria's fists were clenched angrily as she glanced over at the de la Vega men for guidance.  They both nodded as indication she should obey the gang leader's wishes.  Not very happy with that choice, she stomped off toward her tavern.  Rafael and his hungry companions trailed after her.

     "Diego, what is the matter with you?" Don Alejandro asked as soon as the gang was out of earshot.  "We should have stood up to that bully.  Why did you give in so easily?  Why are you so weak-willed?"

     His son sighed.  He hated the charade of being an ineffectual coward, especially in front of his father and Victoria.  Once again repressing the pain and anger he felt, he answered the elder de la Vega.

     "Father, he would have struck you down where you stood.  What good would that have served?  What you see as weakness, I call practicality.  We need a level-headed, sensible plan to oust these troublemakers, not off-the-cuff bravado.  People would only end up getting hurt or worse."

     Don Alejandro stared at his son, seeing him in a new light.  "You are right, Diego.  This time," he added grudgingly.  "Well, do you have any ideas of what we should do?"

     "Not yet," Diego declared as he watched with narrowed eyes as the last member of the gang entered the tavern.  "Not yet," he repeated.  "I'll go keep an eye on Victoria."

     Don Alejandro nodded his acceptance of that idea, then turned his attention to his livestock as the delayed auction was about to begin.
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"A SEA OF TROUBLE"-CHAPTER THREE