People in the pueblo started to stir at dawn.  But instead of the pleasant spring morning they had been expecting, a horrible sight greeted them.

     Bold streaks of paint had been splashed on every wall of every building.  Flowers and tree were uprooted.  Extremely foul things had been done to the water in the plaza fountain.

     Every business, including the tavern, had been broken into and robbed.  Even the church was vandalized and the poor box wrenched from its wall.

     Everyone was appalled at the damage and thievery that had occurred during the night.  One of the main subjects of conversation were the large ‘Z's' prominently displayed on each building.  A muttered threat against Zorro was overheard by Victoria as she stood out in front of her once lovely tavern.  A rainbow of paint colors had been splattered everywhere.  All the flowers she had so lovingly tended were trampled into the ground.  She swung around angrily to face the man who had spoken against her hero.

     "Zorro did not do this!" Victoria insisted crossly.  "Any fool can see it was done by that gang of no-good, trouble-making. . ."

     The arrival of the de la Vegas interrupted her tirade against the unfortunate man.

     "So what we heard is true," stated Don Alejandro as he dismounted his horse and looked around.  "What a disaster."

     "Look at it, just look at it," said Victoria, nearly in tears.  "We work so hard to make this pueblo a nice place to live and poof," she snapped her fingers, "everything is ruined overnight."

     "Now there, there, Victoria dear."  Don Alejandro tried to comfort the distraught woman by patting her shoulder.  "A little more of that hard work and Los Angeles will be as good as new in no time.  Isn't that right, Diego?"

     "Yes, of course, Father," answered Diego automatically.  He had drifted off, thinking Zorro was going to enjoy teaching a group of young men a much needed lesson in manners.

     "I can't believe it.  Look!" the elder de la Vega exclaimed and pointed as the gang rode into the plaza.

     "They have a lot of nerve coming back here."  Victoria stood with her hands on her hips, ready to do battle.

     The men on horseback glanced around concernedly at all the vandalism.  Rafael shook his head in mock disgust as he drew up his horse in front of the tavern.

     "How dare you show your faces again in this pueblo!" an irate Victoria shouted at him.

     "What has happened to your lovely little town?" queried Rafael, ignoring her outburst.

     "You know very well what happened," replied Don Alejandro indignantly.

     "You have no proof it was us, old man," stated Rafael.

     "Who else could have done it?" retorted Victoria.

     "My amigos and I will track down the culprits and see to it they are punished," offered the gang leader.  "And to insure that it will not take place again, a small fee of ten pesos a month from every household and business will guarantee our protection."

     "That is called extortion," commented Diego drily, crossing his arms in front of his chest.  His father nodded in agreement.

      "And if we don't pay?" Victoria asked although she already knew the answer.  "Many people here do not make that much in a year, not to mention in a month."

     "Then these ‘little events' will probably continue to occur," snarled Rafael.

     "Zorro has always watched over us before," declared Victoria, "for free."

     "Well, Señorita, he is not here and we are," stated the young man.  "We run this pueblo.  Get used to it."  He withdrew a pistol from his jacket and brandished it in the air.

     "You all have twenty-four hours to pay the protection money," he shouted, pivoting around to address everyone gathered in the plaza.  He then turned to Victoria.  "We will be staying here at your tavern, Señorita."

     "All my rooms are full,"  replied the innkeeper, somewhat pleased by that fact.

     "Clear them out or we will," he sneered at her.  He aimed the gun at her heart.

     Both Diego and Don Alejandro immediately tried to move in front of her.  But she staved them off.

     "Very well, Señor," she conceded, agreeing only because she did not want either of the de la Vegas to get hurt.  She stamped her way back into the tavern.

     Felipe tugged on Diego's arm and made a series of hand gestures.  Diego looked across the plaza at the Ortegas' shop which had been damaged as had every building in town.

     "Father, I think we should ask Ana Maria and her mother to stay with us at the hacienda, ‘ recommended  Diego, acting on Felipe's worried suggestion.  "And perhaps Victoria too."

     "Good idea," agreed the elder de la Vega.  "I don't like the idea of them being here alone with those ruffians."

     The three men stayed in town most of the day, helping not only the Ortegas and Victoria to set their businesses back to rights, but helping other Los Angelenos as well.
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     All three women graciously accepted the de la Vegas' offer.  "I was not looking forward to staying under the same roof as those troublemakers," declared Victoria.  She had locked away most of the wine and food down in the cellar along with anything else of value in the tavern.

     Don Alejandro sent the carriage to pick up the ladies later that afternoon.   Three of the gang members were lounging on the tavern porch and watched as the women were loading bags into the conveyance.

     "Why are we wasting our time here?" whined Mario.  "It is obvious these peons are not going to fall for your scheme, Rafael."

      "Why don't you shut up?" he snapped.  "There is money to be had in this pueblo."  Then he pointed at the cloud of dust the carriage kicked up as it drove away from Los Angeles.  "And women.  Where are they going?"

     The fourth member of their group, Javier, stepped onto the porch.  He had been conversing with a couple of teenaged girls until their mother dragged them away.

     "The de la Vega hacienda, two miles north of here," he said in response to the leader's question.  "They are the richest landowners in this territory."

     "Javier, you get half my share," Rafael offered in gratitude.  "See what you can learn by not whining?  Mario, find out when the next ship sails from San Pedro."


     "Because," began Rafael with an evil grin, "I have a plan."
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     The evening seemed indeterminable to Diego.  He was very impatient, wanting to ride out as Zorro and drive the gang out of the pueblo once and for all.

     Not surprisingly, the troublemakers were the main topic of discussion at dinner.  "What bothers me," remarked Victoria, "is their insistence that Zorro has left them in charge.  He would not leave without saying goodbye, would he?"

     "I hardly think so," Don Alejandro tried to reassure her.  "No, these hooligans are here on their own and the sooner they leave the better."

     Everyone at the table agreed with the elder de la Vega.  After they finished eating, he insisted Diego play the piano for their guests.

     Diego selected a rather easy piece of music, one he knew by heart.  Mellow tones flowed through the room until he deliberately hit a wrong key.  He kept playing, striking several more bad notes.

     "Son, what is wrong?" asked his father.  "That is one of your best tunes."

     "Sorry, Father," he apologized.  "My mind just wasn't on the music tonight."

     "It's all right, Señor de la Vega," assured Leonora.  "We are quite tired.  It has been a long day."

     "Of course, Señora."   Don Alejandro was ever the cordial host.  "Diego, show the ladies to their rooms."

     Diego stood and did as his father bid.  He led the women down the hallway to the guest rooms.  Ana Maria and her mother entered the bedroom they were going to share.  Diego found himself alone with Victoria in front of her room.

     "Who is she?" inquired Victoria, trying to keep the jealousy from her voice, a jealousy she did not understand.  Why did it bother her so much that Diego might be hurrying out to meet with another woman?

     "I beg your pardon," replied a bewildered Diego.

     "You intentionally played badly tonight," stated Victoria.  "Obviously you wish to be somewhere else."

     Diego laughed as he realize she was jealous.  "Sorry to disappoint you, Victoria.  I intend to finish a new novel I recently started reading."

     She eyed him curiously.  "Good night then, Diego.  Enjoy your book."  She rolled her eyes as she shut the door to the guest room.

     A short while later, Zorro, astride Toronado, was galloping full speed toward the pueblo.  They traveled a lesser used trail, hoping to keep an element of surprise to their visit.

     Unbeknownst to the masked man, the gang had left the pueblo and were heading to the very place from which Zorro just departed, the de la Vega hacienda.  Rafael and his companions came to a halt just outside the gate of the impressive home.

     "This must be it," he said quietly.  "No lights, everyone must be asleep.  Bueno.  Surround the building, then wait for my signal."

    The men nodded as they dismounted their horses.  Silently they crept around both side of the hacienda.  Rafael strode up to the front door.

     Not everyone inside was abed however.  Felipe had been in the cave, tidying up a little.  He was just emerging from the fireplace when Rafael kicked open the door.  Felipe hid in the shadows of the library as the gang leader walked into the foyer, a pistol in each hand.

     He started pulling open doors until he found the room where Ana Maria and Leonora had been sleeping.  He whistled sharply.  The Ortegas commenced screaming at the sight of the intruder.  Don Alejandro, hastily donning a pair of trousers, came rushing from his bed chamber.

     "What is going on?" he demanded.  Rafael spun around, waving both guns at the old don.

     "Back off, old man or your days of interfering will be over," he growled.

     Victoria was spying through the small crack of her opened door.  She quickly tried to shut it when she saw the pistols.  She barely had time to scan the room for a weapon when a rough yank on her arm dragged her out into the hall.

     "Look what I found," gloated Mario.  He grabbed her about the waist as she tried to resist.

     "Tie them up," ordered Rafael.  Alberto and Javier had pulled the Ortegas from their bed.  All the women put up a fight as their hands were bound together.

     "Should we kill him?" asked Mario who was now tying up Don Alejandro.

     "No," said Rafael.  "I may be many things, but I am not a murderer."

     "That is about all you are not," spat out the old don.  "I hope you all rot in prison for a very long. . ."

      His remaining comments were cut off as Mario gagged him with an old handkerchief.

     "Come on, let's go," instructed Rafael.  "We have a boat to catch."  The three women were carried outside to the waiting horses.  Rafael and Alberto ransacked the house, taking everything of value that was small enough to carry.  When they were satisfied with their loot, they joined the rest of the gang and rode off toward the harbor of San Pedro.
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     Zorro quickly climbed up the outside of the tavern to its balcony.  He listened for any sign of activity inside.  Strange, it seemed unusually quiet, even for this late at night.

      Easing open the balcony door, he slid quietly into the hallway.  He slowly withdrew his saber as he crept toward Victoria's best room, positive Rafael would choose it for himself.  Zorro flung open the door and entered blade first.

     "What. . .?" a stunned masked man uttered in confusion as the bed was empty.  Cursory checks of the other rooms found them without occupants as well.

     They must have decided to leave after all, he thought.  He elected to go after them, to make sure they would never set foot in Los Angeles again.  Making his way back to the patiently waiting Toronado, he intended to follow the gang's trail to wherever they had disappeared.

     Anxiety grasped his heart as he tracked their horses' hoof prints, for they led northward, right to the de la Vega hacienda.

     Where a struggling Don Alejandro was trying to free himself.  Felipe, as soon as the gang had departed, swiftly made his way to the elder de la Vega and deftly untied the man he considered his grandfather.

     "Felipe, gracias," the old don said, rubbing his wrist.  "Where is Diego?  Those ruffians have kidnapped the women.  We have to go after them."

     The young man helped Don Alejandro to his feet when they heard someone else in the house.

     "Zorro!" exclaimed the elder de la Vega.  "You are too late," he added, shaking his head in despair.

     "What happened?" asked the man in black.

     Don Alejandro promptly filled in the masked man about the abduction.

     "Are you sure he said a boat?" questioned Zorro, trying hard to repress his anger.  "They must be heading for San Pedro."

     "Well, let's go," declared the old don, wearing a fierce expression on his lined face.

     Zorro stared at his father.  "Señor de la Vega, I need you to ride to the pueblo and notify Mendoza, " he advised, wishing to keep the elder de la Vega out of harm's way.  "I must go ahead alone if there is to be any hope of stopping them."

     "Very well," a disappointed Don Alejandro agreed.  Zorro swirled around, planning to take up the chase but was accosted by Felipe, who had pursued him to the front door.

     "I w-want to g-go w-with you," he said challengingly.

     "No, Felipe," replied Zorro.  "Go to the cuartel with Father.  Don't worry, hijo.  Ana Maria will be safe."  He patted the young man's shoulder, then hurried out the door, hoping he would be able to keep his promise to his son.

     Minutes later, Toronado's hooves thundered over the ground as they ate up the miles.  Zorro could only pray he would be in time to save the three women.
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     The trip to San Pedro took longer than Rafael thought it would.  All that mattered though was that the ship he planned to make their escape upon was still at the pier.

     He called out to one of the sailors preparing the tall masted bark to set sail.  "Where is your captain?  We want to book passage aboard your ship."

     The man nodded and went below.  A few seconds later, the captain appeared and walked down the gang way.  "Ye wish to sail with us?" he asked.  His name was Olvera.  He had dark greasy hair and a long scar down one side of his face.  Victoria shuddered when she saw his greenish teeth as he spoke.

     Rafael and the man made their deal and a bag of coins exchanged hands.  "We'll be leaving shortly," Olvera advised before re-boarding his vessel.

     Victoria knew she needed to stall for time if there was any chance of Zorro coming to their rescue.  She grabbed onto the pommel of the saddle as Alberto tried to pull her off the horse.  The Ortegas noticed what she was doing and attempted to do the same.

     Leonora's hands, like Victoria's, were strong from many years of doing hard work.  But Ana Maria didn't have their strength and Mario easily tugged her to the ground.  He was trying to lift her limp body when Rafael came over to see what was causing the delay.

     "Get the women on the ship," he demanded.  "This captain will sail without us.  What's the problem?"

     "We cannot get them off the horses," complained Javier who was pulling on Leonora.

     "We are four strong men and they are three small women," stated the gang leader.  "I don't care if you have to break their fingers.  I want them on that ship."  He took Ana Maria from Mario, hoisted her to his shoulder and carried her seemingly lifeless body up the gangplank.

     The two other women, fearing the girl was injured, released their hands and slid down off their mounts.  They were prodded up the board walkway into the waiting vessel.  Victoria made one last scan of the shoreline before she was ushered down a ladder into the belly of the ship.

      The ladies were shoved roughly into a cabin.  "We'll be back," Rafael promised as the other men leered at them suggestively.  He closed the door then locked it from the outside.

     "Mama?" whispered Ana Maria.  "I'm so scared."

     "Madre de Dios," her mother said with relief.  "I thought you were hurt."

      "No, I'm fine," replied the frightened young woman.  "What are we going to do?"

     "Pray for Zorro," stated Victoria as she tried to undo the rope that bound her wrists together.

     "Zorro?" queried Leonora.  "How can he help us?  He doesn't even know where we are."

     "He will come," replied a determined Victoria.  "I know it."

     "I hope you are right."  The señora did not sound convinced.  She moved closer to her daughter, trying to comfort her as best she could with her tied hands.

     The answer to Victoria's prayers was indeed riding to save her and the other women.  He knew he was nearing the port by the smell of salt and fish in the air.  Sprinting across the empty plaza of San Pedro, he could hear the ship's captain shouting out orders to disembark.

     "Come on, boy," Zorro urged his stallion.  "We have a boat to catch."

     Seconds later the masked man tugged on the reins, bringing the Andalusian to a halt when they reached the wharf.  Zorro dismounted and stared out at the water in despair.  The bark, in full sail, was already fifty meters from the dock.  He was too late.
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