San Diego was the site of the first Californian mission, established by Padre Junipero Serra in 1769.  Its location on a natural harbor made it an important center of trade and transportation.  It was much larger than the pueblo de Los Angeles.

     After three long days of traveling, the recruits from Los Angeles did not care which was the biggest pueblo.  All they wanted was a decent meal and a place to sleep.  The days and nights on the  road had taken their toll on the already dispirited men.

     Felipe was tired, hungry and filthy.  Ana Maria's mother, Leonora Ortega, had made him a new suit of a deep forest green.  It was now covered in dust and much to Felipe's dismay, torn in several places.

     The wagonloads of men finally arrived at a large field filled with tents on the outskirts of San Diego.  The weary draftees disembarked eagerly, realizing their journey was at an end.

     A short, stout sergeant immediately marched over to the newcomers.  "The garrison from Los Angeles reporting, Sir," announced a young corporal with a neat salute.  He and six of his fellow lancers had been recruited along with the others from the pueblo.

     "Where is your roster?" the sergeant barked, taking charge.  The nervous corporal quickly handed it over to the other soldier.  The portly man began reading off names.

     As each man stepped forward, he and his belongings were searched for contraband.  Then he was asked if he had a trade or other skill.  He then was assigned to a regiment

     This process went on for quite some time, with the gruff sergeant very much in command.  Paco, one of the de la Vega ranch hands, nudged Manuel, another hand, and said, "He only looks like Sergeant Mendoza."

     Felipe barely had a chance to grin at the remark when the man in question leveled them all a menacing glare.

     "Felipe de la Vega," the officer finally called out nearly half an hour later.  The young man had almost fallen asleep where he stood.  Paco had to elbow him in the ribs and point toward the sergeant.  Comprehending it was his turn, he jumped, grabbed his satchel and moved forward.

     The stout sergeant eyed the young man up and down.  "We have ourselves a caballero here," he sneered to the two lancers who were assisting him.  "Age."

     Felipe hesitated, not sure what he should do.  Should he reveal he could hear and speak or perhaps if they thought he could not, he might be sent home.

     "Age," the sergeant repeated impatiently.  "What is the matter, cat got your tongue?"

     Paco was about to speak up on Felipe's behalf when another voice answered the sergeant's question.  "He is twenty, Sergeant Melendez."

     When everyone turned to see who had spoken, Felipe's face broke into a wide grin.

     "Hola, Felipe," greeted Carlos de la Paz, a smile on his handsome face as well.  He turned to the sergeant.  "What seems to be the problem here, Melendez.  My good friend here is a deaf mute.  He is quite intelligent though and can read lips.  Isn't that right, Felipe?"

     Felipe nodded with relief.  He was surprised to see his old friend Carlos here.  The two young men had kept in touch over the years via letters.

    "I did not realize, Sir," Melendez sputtered.  "He did not answer. . ."

     "I will personally see to his induction, Sergeant," interrupted Carlos authoritatively.  He had obviously matured from the spoiled brat he had once been and was now a responsible young man.  He motioned for Felipe to follow him.  The young man eagerly snatched up his case.

    "Can you believe it, Felipe?" Carlos asked, his own disbelief creeping into his voice.  "I am a lieutenant in charge of my own regiment.  I will see to it you are placed under my command if you wish."

    Felipe nodded, marveling at his good fortune.

     "Bueno, it is settled then," his friend declared.  He glanced over his shoulder at the stout sergeant and began to laugh.

    "Oh, Felipe," he said when he realized Felipe's confusion.  "Sergeant Melendez dislikes me.  He thinks my father bought me my rank just because he is a judge.  But he cannot say anything because I outrank him."

    Felipe smiled hesitantly, still not understanding fully.  Carlos skipped onto the next subject.  "You must tell me what has been happening in Los Angeles since you wrote last.  How is Ana Maria?  I bet she was sad to see you go."

     Once again, Felipe nodded.  He had decided it was probably best to conceal his ability to hear and speak, especially since Carlos was here.

     "I have a lovely senorita pining for me too," continued Carlos, bragging a little.  "My poor Carmelita cried buckets when I had to leave."

      The two young men had nearly walked half way through the crowded field.  Carlos stopped in front of one of the dusty tents.  It was slightly larger than any other of the surrounding canvas shelters.

     "Home, sweet home."  Carlos lifted the flaps to show Felipe inside.  A small desk, a cot and a large trunk took up most of the floor space.  "All the essentials," he joked.  He sobered before he spoke again.  "I am sorry, Felipe, but you will probably have to share quarters with another recruit.  As you can see, accommodations here are pretty tight."

     Felipe indicated he understood the situation.  Carlos took his satchel and set it upon the trunk.  "Let's go find you something to eat," he suggested.  "I wager you are starving."

     Felipe grinned and the two friends set off in search of food.
                                                        Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

     He loved her.

     Not as friend, although he valued her friendship.

     Certainly not as a brother, but as a man loves the woman he wants to marry and bear his children.  The woman he desires above all others.

     He treasured every glance his way, every smile, every touch.  He tried not to dwell on the times that as Zorro he was allowed to hold her in his arms, caress her soft skin and taste the sweetness of her mouth.  But such thoughts often filled his head and left him with such an aching inside.

     It was getting harder and harder to bear.

     He watched her move about the tavern, serving her customers.  Smiling, she attended to their needs, taking orders, fetching more wine.  Sometimes that smile even reached her eyes when she spoke to a old friend or a good customer.

     There were some, mostly men, with whom the smile was forced and her politeness barely skin deep.  These were the one who tried to become too familiar, attempted to take improprieties.  She had worked at the tavern since she was a young child and knew how to handle the unwanted attention that came her way.

     He realized now that some in the pueblo knew he loved her. The young bucks who had seen the territorial look in his eyes when they tried to approach her.  The sharp-eyed matrons who saw the way he glanced at her and gossiped amongst themselves about it.   He was grateful no one had betrayed this secret.

     Diego drank the last of his lemonade and placed a coin on the counter.  He had time for only a quick bit of refreshment.  After running errands all morning, he needed to hurry back to the ranch to help his father.  The loss of five vaqueros had more than doubled their workload.

     He caught Victoria's eye, waving as he walked toward the doorway and she smiled at him.  One of those smiles that reached her dark eyes.

     Victoria held a soft spot in her heart for the tall caballero who ducked out the door into the bright afternoon sunlight.  He and his father had been good friends to her, almost like family, always lending a hand when needed.

     She had never thought of him as a suitor.  Perhaps when he had first arrived back from Spain, so handsome and dashing.  But then she had met the only man she would ever love.  A man who was almost a complete mystery to her.  Zorro.

    Oh he was brave and strong, smart and witty, easily defeating his opponents with a sharp sword or tongue.  He was also gentle and kind.  She did know the color of his eyes under his mask.  She knew the taste of his lips and of his passion for her.

     She stood behind the bar and scanned the room.  Almost any one of these men could be him.  It frustrated her that he might be someone she encountered every day.  There were those she had mentally scratched from her list of candidates.  Men who were too old, too young, too short or too fat.  Although he was none of those things, Diego de la Vega was not considered a candidate either.

     He was certainly tall enough and probably about the right age.  But he lacked everything else that Zorro had, courage, weaponry skill and a passion for injustice.  Diego lacked passion for everything except for science and the arts.

     Victoria sighed as she wiped the counter.  She was getting tired of waiting for the day Zorro removed his mask and swept her away on Toronado, somewhere, anywhere they could be alone together for more than a few minutes.  She wanted a home and children.

    She threw down the cleaning cloth and went to the kitchen to start supper.
                                                        Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

     The next afternoon found Diego at the tavern once again.  He had been inspecting the fences in the de la Vega pasture not far from the pueblo.  His father planned to move some cattle there in a few days.

     "Buenos tardes, Diego," Victoria greeted him as he leaned against the gleaming bar.  "Juice?"

     "Por favor," he responded.  Victoria poured out a glass of cool orange juice.  "I cannot stay long," he said then took a sip of his glass.

      "You and your father have been keeping busy, " she remarked casually.

     "Si, this edict could not have come at a worse time," he complained.  "The cattle need to be moved and readied for market, the sheep need shearing, the orchards need harvesting and we have to get it done with half as many hands.  Father has hired a couple of older men but. . ."  He shrugged his shoulders.

     "Things are tight everywhere," agreed Victoria.  "It seems like I have lost half my customers." Changing the subject, she asked, "Any news yet of Felipe?  I still cannot believe he was included.  It is an outrage."

     "Father is writing letters to anyone he thinks might be able to help," Diego informed her.  "I have also written to a friend of mine who is a capitan stationed in Spain.  He knows several important officials."

    "It is a shame anyone had to go."  Victoria shook her head.  She had placed glasses of wine on a tray.  "Excuse me, Diego."  She whisked off to deliver the wine to a table of waiting customers.

     Diego turned to look about the nearly empty tavern.  He spied Ana Maria and her mother seated near the staircase, eating a late lunch.  At least Leonora Ortega was.  Ana Maria was just toying with the enchilada on her plate with a glum expression marring her beautiful face.

     "Ana Maria," her mother spoke sharply.  "Eat your lunch.  We cannot afford to let food go to waste."

     "Sorry, Mama," replied the morose girl.  "I am not very hungry."

     "This is the third day you have not eaten," scolded Leonora.  "Starving yourself is not going to bring Felipe back."

     "I know, but. . ."  Ana Maria was close to tears at the mention of her beloved's name.

     "We need to pinch every penny now that we are buying the tailor shop, " the señora remarked.  "Please eat your lunch, hija."

      "Buenos dias, Señora y Señorita," Diego said as he approached their table.  "Did I hear correctly?  You are buying Señor Reynoso's shop?"

     "Si, Don Diego," replied the elder Ortega.  "His eyesight is failing and he is going to go live with his daughter in San Gabriel.  We are getting quite a good deal but then it needs some work."

     Ana Maria could wait no longer.  "Have you heard from Felipe?" she burst into the conversation.

     "Ana Maria, please, " chided her mother.  "Don Diego, you must forgive my daughter.  She has forgotten her manners today."

     "Quite all right," Diego said with a smile.  "I am sure he will write as soon as he can," he added, trying to reassure the worried girl.  "Now if you will excuse me ladies, I must be going. Adios."

     Leonora watched as he walked toward the door.  "I am surprised," she declared, "that such a handsome man as Don Diego has remained unmarried for so long.  It is really quite a shame."

     "Mama!"  Ana Maria was shocked.  "Surely you are not thinking. . ."

     "Oh no," replied her mother.  "Just curious, that is all."  She shot a meaningful glance at Victoria who was also watching Diego leave.

     As he stepped over the threshold into the cool November sunshine, a group of rough looking men were trying to enter.  Diego moved aside so that the five of them could pass.  He noticed they all looked to be in their early twenties.

     Perhaps heading to San Diego to join the other recruits, he mused, or. . .  He paused and looked at them again, maybe deserters.

     One of the men turned to see Diego staring at them and spat out his tobacco on the tavern porch.

     "I think Zorro needs to monitor this situation," murmured Diego to himself.  He quickly mounted his horse, Esperanza and swiftly rode out of the pueblo.
                                                        Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

      The tavern was quite a raucous place by the time Zorro rode back into Los Angeles.  The gang of young men had been eating and drinking and laughing loudly at each other's deplorable table manners.  Several of them tried to get too friendly with Pilar but she had learned from Victoria how to escape lecherous clutches.

     Señora Ortega had hustled her daughter quickly upstairs to their rooms and made sure their doors were bolted.  She would be glad when they could move to their shop.  She really liked Victoria but a tavern was no place for a young girl to live.

     The men were drunk enough now that tempers began to flare.  Finally one of them said the wrong thing to the wrong person and a fist fight broke out.

     Victoria had reached behind the bar for her trusty club before she marched over to where the two men were shoving each other into the furniture.  "Stop this right now," she demanded as she held up her weapon.  "Get out of my tavern.  All of you."

     Another of the men came up behind her and seized her about her tiny waist.  "It is just harmless fun, eh, querida," he slurred in her ear.  She could smell his sour breath as she struggled to get away from him.

     "Let me go, cerdo," she hissed at him.  Victoria tried to swat at him with the club but could not land a good blow.  The drunken man wrenched the weapon from her hands.

     At that moment, Zorro dropped from the balcony above to the tavern floor.  "Do as she requests, por favor," he growled, his hand ready on the hilt of his sword.

      "What is this?" the man sneered at Zorro's mask and cape.  "A masquerade?"

     "No," the man in black snarled back at him, "a bash."

    He unsheathed his saber then punched the other man square in the nose. The man reeled backwards and fell against a table.

     His companions took notice of their friend's predicament.  They drew their swords and tried to attack Zorro.  It was hardly a fair fight.  The masked man soon had them all writhing in pain on the floor.  A couple of them had 'Z's' expertly slashed into their clothing.

     Zorro had ascertained that Victoria had been unharmed and was about to kiss her sweet lips when the tavern door burst open.  "What is going on in here?" the Alcalde demanded as he strode in.  Unfortunately he had been crossing the plaza and heard all the commotion coming from inside the tavern.

     His jaw dropped when he saw Zorro standing there, holding Victoria in his arms.  "Zorro!" he shouted.  "Lancers!"

     "You know, Alcalde," the man in black drawled, "you spoil all my fun."  He gave the woman in his embrace a quick peck on the mouth.  He ran up the stairs and into one of the empty guestrooms just as several soldiers rushed into the building.  Under the room's window awaited his faithful steed, Toronado.

     "Around back," roared de Soto.  He and the lancers circled behind the tavern.  "There he is."  The Alcalde pointed at Zorro as he landed on his stallion's back.  "Shoot!  Shoot him!"

    The soldiers raised their muskets and aimed as Zorro galloped away.  The guns fired noisily but the masked man kept get further away.

     De Soto was beside himself with rage.  "We had him in the palms of our hands!" he yelled at his men.  "You fumbling fools could not hit an elephant.  What I need is more soldiers, better soldiers," he emphasized as a wheezing Mendoza finally rounded the corner of the tavern.  "Back to the cuartel!" he shouted once again.
                                                        Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

     Zorro winced as the musket ball tore through the flesh of his left arm.  He had managed to stay astride the galloping stallion despite the searing pain.  As soon as he was out of sight of the pueblo, he slowed Toronado to a halt.  That was when he noticed that the lower half of his sleeve was soaked with blood.  He was already beginning to feel a bit lightheaded.

     "Must have nicked an artery," he guessed as he pressed his right hand over the wound.  It was over a mile and a half to the hacienda and it just dawned on him that Felipe would not be there to assist him.  Zorro realized he had no other choice.

     He wheeled the black Andalusian around and headed back to Los Angeles.
                                                        Z                                                               Z                                                               Z