Zorro watched as the masted vessel traveled farther away from the dock where he stood.  He groaned in frustration.

     The dull thud of wood hitting wood snapped him out of his desperation.  Walking to the edge of the pier, he looked down to see a small row boat tied to a post of the wharf, bobbing with the tide.  Zorro jumped into the boat, retrieving the oars from under its seat.  He was soon rowing toward the vanishing ship.

     On board the vessel, Rafael and his friends were drinking rum with the captain and some of the crew.  "Them is some mighty fine wenches you have there, amigo," Olvera commented.  "What you planning to do with ‘em?  Hold ‘em for ransom?"

     "No, that's not what we had in mind," replied Rafael.  His compadres began to laugh lewdly.

     "Si," the captain chuckled then frowned.  "Too bad.  I know a fellow in Monterey who would take them off your hands and for a nice price too.  Especially those two younger ones if they're still virgins."

     "Is that so?"  Rafael was interested in the opportunity to acquire more money.  "Tell me more about your friend."

     Below deck in the locked cabin, Victoria still struggled with the rope binding her hands.  The skin on her wrists was raw and beginning to bleed from the coarse fibers.  She sagged back against the wall, totally exhausted.  Suddenly the image of Zorro showing her how to twist her hands to undo the rope popped into her head.  She quickly followed the remembered instructions and the bonds fell from her aching wrists.

     "Leonora, Ana Maria, stand up," she whispered.  The younger Ortega began to squeal excitedly when she saw Victoria was free but the innkeeper hushed her.

     "There might be someone outside guarding the door," she cautioned, keeping her voice low.  "Here, let me untie you both."  Victoria made fast work of the knots confining the other women's hands.   They all stood there, rubbing their sore wrists and wondering what to do next.

     "Find something to use as a weapon," suggested Victoria.  "Anything we can use to defend ourselves.  Quietly."

     "I suppose a real weapon would be too much to ask for," remarked Leonora drily.  She began to rummage through a small closet.  Victoria searched the contents of a trunk stowed under the cot while Ana Maria pulled open the drawers of a small bureau.
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     Zorro had considerably closed the gap between the ship and himself.  Just a few more meters and he would be able to catch up with it.

     That was when he noticed his feet were getting cold through the thick leather of his boots.  He looked down to see salt water filling up the bottom of the small boat.

     Just my luck tonight, the masked hero thought.  He could not spare the time to bail out the ever-rising water.  Heaven knew what atrocities were being committed against the women on the ship.  Zorro rowed even faster, splitting the seams of his black silk shirt.

     The water had reached his ankles by the time he drew up next to the larger vessel.  The man in black leapt from the sinking row boat onto a rope ladder that hung down the side of the ship.  Offering a silent apology to the small boat's owner, he watched as it disappeared into the ocean.  Zorro then climbed up the ladder that led the deck.

     The captain, crew and the gang were still drinking and discussing the fate of the three women hostages.  Rafael was having a hard time convincing his amigos, especially Mario, that selling the women would be a good idea.

     Zorro listened to the evil conversation from behind the wheelhouse.  Keeping his temper in check, he determinedly slipped down into the vessel's hull.  He moved noiselessly down the narrow passageway, peering into all the cabins.  Trying the handle of one door and discovering it was locked, he surmised Victoria and the Ortegas were being held captive inside.

     The masked man used his dagger to pick the lock.  It clicked open without much effort.  He pushed the door open to step inside.  And narrowly averted being whacked on the head by a pewter candlestick wielded by his beloved Victoria.

     "Zorro," she whispered.  "I'm so sorry.  We thought you were those pigs who kidnapped us."  She put down her weapon and went into his arms for a quick embrace.

     "Is everyone all right?" he questioned.  He noticed the ropes lying on the floor.  "I see you managed part of your escape."

     "They have not harmed us, Señor Zorro," replied Ana Maria.  Her mother was surprised that the masked swordsman had indeed come to their aid, just as Victoria predicted he would.

     "I thought not," Zorro commented wryly.  "They have much more fiendish plans in store for you."

     "How can we escape?" asked Victoria.  "We are already out at sea."  A puzzled expression came over her face as she glanced up at him.  "Just how did you did get on board anyway?"

     "It's a long story, querida," replied Zorro with a smile.  "We need to make our way up on deck and into the lifeboat on the port side of the ship."  When the ladies looked at him in confusion, he added, "The left side.  Victoria, can you lead?"

     The brave señorita nodded and cautiously opened the cabin door.  Checking to see if the coast was clear, she then headed toward the ladder.  Ana Maria and Leonora followed behind her, with Zorro bringing up the rear.

     The nightgown clad women made it unobserved to the ladder.  Zorro, chivalrous as ever, turned his back as they climbed up it.  After all three ladies were at the top, he scaled it himself.  When his head popped up through the portal, Zorro found six blade points aimed at himself.

     Glancing around, he saw the women were struggling to break free from the sailors who were holding them.

     "This is just not my day," complained Zorro, shaking his head.  He raised his black gloved hands into the air in a gesture of surrender.  Or so Rafael and the others thought.

     The masked man had other ideas however.  He grabbed three of the swords in each hand, jerking them from their owners' hands and dropping them to the deck below.  He then shot up out of the hole.  Grabbing his whip, he began to twirl it around, hitting everyone in its path.

     All the men hastily jumped out of the way of the stinging black leather.  Zorro shifted the whip to his left hand then unsheathed his saber with his right.  Several of the crew lunged at him with their blades.  He disarmed them one by one, sending their weapons flying harmlessly out of the way.

     The masked man sidestepped an errant thrust by Javier, who ending up going over the side of the ship and landing in the ocean with a loud splash.  Zorro then smashed his fist into Mario's face, deriving a little too much satisfaction from doing so.

     Javier's cries for help were ignored by both his friends and the sailors.  Zorro summarily dispatched with Alberto, then circled around to face Rafael.  The gang leader grabbed Ana Maria from the sailor who held her captive.  Placing his sword against her throat, he snarled, "Drop your weapon, Zorro.  Or else the pretty little girl dies."

     "Let her go," the man in black drawled, "and I will think about it."  He still held his whip in his left hand behind his back, hidden from Rafael's view.

     "I said to drop it or she dies," repeated Rafael angrily, pressing his blade closer to Ana Maria's neck.

     "Por favor," said Zorro enigmatically.

     "What?" demanded Rafael in quite a temper now.

     "You did not say por favor," the masked man calmly replied, a sarcastic smile on his face.

     "That does it." Rafael started to move his hand, intending to carry out his threat.

     ‘Crack!'  Zorro's whip snaked out, squarely hitting Rafael's hand holding the sword, leaving a large, red welt.  The gang leader dropped his weapon, cursing Zorro as he shook his injured hand.

     Zorro grabbed the young man's other arm and twisted it up behind his back.  "If I ever see you or any of your worthless friends in Los Angeles again," he stated in a low growl, "that day will be your last.  Comprende, amigo?"

     The black clad man applied more pressure to the already painfully bent limb.  "Let's see if you can swim," said Zorro, shoving his captive to the railing of the ship.  Javier was still bobbing up and down in the waves, weakly calling out for help.  Zorro smiled as he pushed Rafael into the ocean to join his comrade.

     He then pointed his saber at the cowardly captain.  "Turn this vessel around immediately or you will befall a similar fate."

     The slimy Olvera nodded nervously and signaled to his men.  The crew members released Victoria and Leonora.

     Zorro gathered up Alberto and Mario and prodded them into the lifeboat.  Then he cut its ropes and it crashed into the water.  The masked man shouted at the two men already in the ocean.

     "I suggest you row as far away from here as possible, amigos.  The sharks are particularly hungry this time of year."

     Rafael and Javier paddled swiftly to their friends in the lifeboat, nearly capsizing it in their haste to get out of the water.  Zorro, the women and even some of the sailors laughed as they stood at the railing, watching the hapless men in the dinghy.
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     It was nearly dawn by the time the ship re-entered the San Pedro harbor.  It was met by Sergeant Mendoza, Don Alejandro and Felipe who were waiting on the wooden pier as it docked.

     Zorro had found blankets for the ladies to cover up from the chilly night air.  He escorted them down the gangplank as soon as it was lowered.  Ana Maria ran straight for Felipe whose anxious expression turned to one of joy when he saw her.

     "Where are those troublemakers?" asked Mendoza after he made sure Leonora was all right.

     "See that little speck out there, Sergeant?"  Zorro pointed toward the horizon.  The soldier squinted his eyes as he tried to make it out.

     "So?" he queried.  "Where are they?"

     "That's them," replied the masked man with a chuckle.

     Mendoza shrugged then led Señora Ortega to the carriage Don Alejandro had brought to the harbor, in hope that the women would be returning home in it.

     Victoria hung back as the Ortegas were being assisted into the conveyance.  Zorro noticed her reluctance to join them.  "Querida, what is wrong?" he asked gently.

     "I want to ride back with you," she blurted out.  She gazed up at him with tear-filled eyes.

     "Oh."  He reached for her hands only to have her wince in pain.  Zorro then saw the bloody rope burns on her delicate wrists that had been hidden by her nightgown's long sleeves.

     "Dios mio," he murmured.  He tenderly examined the extent of the damage to her skin.  "I am so sorry, mi corazon," he stated.  "You won't be able to hold on tight enough if you were to come with me.  You should go back with Señor de la Vega and the others.  I hear that Don Diego has an excellent salve that should help heal your wounds."

     Seeing her crestfallen face, he lightly kissed both her wrists then did the same to her lips.  Zorro then whistled sharply, bringing his trusty stallion to his side.  He mounted Toronado and swiftly rode off into what was left of the night before he changed his mind.
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     Several hours later, the carriage finally arrived at the de la Vega hacienda.  The damaged front door burst open, startling the seemingly relaxed Diego who sat in the library, reading his novel.  He glanced up as everyone walked into the foyer.

     He held up a finger to silence his father as he quickly skimmed the last page of the book.  Diego snapped the volume closed then stood up to greet the new arrivals.

     "Where has everyone been?" he asked innocently

     "Diego," Don Alejandro replied in exasperation.  "Where have you been?  That gang of hooligans tied me up, kidnapped the women and tried to sail away with them.  But Zorro put a stop to it.  So where were you?"

     "I remembered there was a meteor shower last night," explained his son.  "I went up to the hill behind the hacienda to get a better view.  When I came back to the hacienda, it was so quiet I thought everyone was asleep.  So I decided to finish reading my new novel."

     Everyone present rolled their eyes, sighed or both, knowing of Diego's absentmindedness.  Victoria stepped toward him.

     "Zorro said you have a balm that would help my wrists," she stated, holding out her injured arms.  Diego had to check his anger again at the sight of the damage to her delicate skin.

     "Indeed I do," he replied.  "It is made from the aloe vera plant.  The Indians say it has great healing powers.  Come with me ladies."  He noticed Ana Maria and her mother had rope burns too, just not as bad as Victoria's.

     He led them to the kitchen where he kept his supply of herbal medicines he had concocted.

     It was the next day after everyone had rested and recuperated when the ladies were escorted back to the pueblo by the de la Vegas.  Most of the vandalism that the gang had done had been cleaned up by the townspeople.  Mendoza greeted them as they halted the carriage in front of the tavern.

     "Hola."  The stout sergeant grinned broadly at them.  Diego could tell he had some information he wanted to share with them.

     "Those young men," Mendoza began, "they are wanted in Nuevo Mexico for assaulting an alcalde's daughters there.  And for stealing horses in San Diego.  Zorro shouldn't have let them go.  They are very bad men."

     "I wouldn't worry about it, Sergeant," Diego remarked.  "Justice always finds a way of catching up with such men."

     Actually he and Felipe had ridden out the night before while the others were asleep.  They had traveled along  the coastline until they caught up the gang at Buenaventura.  They had seen to it the men were arrested as soon as they set foot ashore.

     "I certainly hope they don't come back here," declared Victoria.

     "I wouldn't think so, my dear," replied Don Alejandro.  "No, Diego is probably right.  We've seen the last of them."

     Everyone nodded in agreement with the elder de la Vega's statement.  Felipe and Mendoza picked out the Ortegas' luggage from the carriage and squired the ladies to the other side of the plaza to their shop.

     Diego lifted Victoria's satchel and was surprised at its heaviness.  What did she have in there, he wondered.  He smiled at her as they entered the tavern.

     He reappeared a few minutes later.  He climbed up beside his father who was waiting in the driver's seat of the conveyance.  Don Alejandro flicked the reins.

     The old don looked up at the clear blue sky and shook his head.  "Diego, we need rain."

     Diego just chuckled as the elder de la Vega continued talking about the drought conditions he had been complaining about days earlier.
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