Darkness was beginning to fall as Victoria finished putting the tavern back to rights.  Mendoza had escorted the troublemakers to the garrison where the Alcalde wanted them locked up.  He was positive they were deserters, perhaps with a reward for their capture.

     People were starting to arrive for their evening meals.  Victoria and Pilar hastily finished the supper preparations that had been interrupted.

     A little while later, Victoria was alone in the kitchen, slicing a loaf of bread.  A faint scratching sound came from the direction of the backdoor.  She thought nothing of it until she heard it again, this time a little louder.  Probably just a stray cat, she imagined.  She wiped her hands and went over to the door with the intention of shooing it away.

     "Dios mio," she gasped when she opened the door.  Zorro, clutching his upper left arm, was leaning heavily against the door frame.  It was obvious he had lost a lot of blood because his sleeve and glove were dripping with it.

     Victoria glanced over her shoulder, then pulled him into the kitchen.  "What happened?" she asked.

     "One of the lancers got lucky," Zorro replied weakly.  "Must have gone clear through and hit a vein."  He swayed dizzily.

     "Come on, this way."  Victoria put her arm around his waist and led him to a doorway.

     "Victoria, no," Zorro protested when he saw she was leading him to her quarters.  "I must not be found here.  Just bandage my arm then I will be on my way."

     "Do not be ridiculous," she chided.  "You can barely walk, let alone ride.  No one will know you are here.  It will be safe, I promise."

     She led him over to her bed where he sat down weakly, no longer balking.  Victoria winced as blood dripped onto her grandmother's quilt that was spread upon her bed.

     "Let me look at that wound," she stated.  "You will need to take off your shirt."

     Zorro fumbled with the buttons, his gloved right hand hindering his progress.  Victoria grabbed his wrist and removed both of his gloves.  Then she deftly opened the buttons and helped him shrug out of his shirt.

     "Dios mio," she gasped again as she saw his bare chest for the first time.  She knew he was strong, but she had no idea. . .  Her eyes hungrily wandered over his exposed skin.  It took every ounce of her self control not to caress the chiseled muscles.  A moan of pain brought her back to the task at hand.

     The musket ball had indeed traveled through Zorro's arm, leaving a nasty exit wound.  It was still bleeding profusely, confirming his assumption a blood vessel had been nicked.  Victoria left him lying on her bed and went to gather the supplies she needed to nurse his injury.

     It did not take long for her to clean it, stitch the exit wound close and then tightly bind both wounds.  She tried to get Zorro to drink a little wine, but he was barely conscious.  Before she had finished wrapping the strip of cloth around his biceps, he seemed to have passed out.

     Victoria gazed down upon the man asleep in her bed.  Hopefully she had applied enough pressure to stem his blood loss.  She removed his boots from his feet and drew the quilt up over his legs.  A wicked thought then crossed her mind.

     No, she told herself, she must not.  She struggled with her conscious for a few moments, but curiosity won out.   She leaned down and touched Zorro's face, sliding her fingers up under his mask.

     Victoria shrieked when his right hand grabbed her slender wrist tightly.  His eyes had popped open and she was instantly contrite when she saw the pain in them.  Pain cause not only by his injury.

     "I am so sorry," she pleaded softly.  "I could not help myself.  Please..."

     "Victoria," whispered the masked man.  "Promise me you will not. . .  Promise me. . ." He was having trouble forming the words.

     "I will not look under your mask," she solemnly pledged.  "Cross my heart and hope. . ."

     His grip on her wrist tightened a little more.  "Don't say that," he said.  His hand fell away from her arm.  "Never hope to die."

     His eyes closed again.  Victoria anxiously searched for his pulse and was relieved to find it albeit weak.  She was still worried about all the blood he had lost.  Her mother had taught her that wine was the best way to build up the blood but she could only get Zorro to drink a little of it.  All she could do now was wait and see.  Maybe rest would be all he needed.

     She left the room to go speak with Pilar.  She had the other woman finish serving supper then told her to close the tavern.
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     By the time Felipe was able to lie down on the narrow cot in the small canvas tent that was now his home, he was exhausted.  It seemed as though he and Carlos had covered every square inch of the large field that day.  His friend was quite popular and knew his way around very well.

     Felipe had been issued a uniform, musket and saber.  Carlos had managed to secure him a tent next to his.  He was assigned to Carlos' regiment and had been introduced to his comrades-in-arms.

     He just wanted to go to sleep for a long, long time.  Carlos had informed him that reveille was at five o'clock in the morning and it was not a good idea to be caught still abed.

     But he wished to let Diego and Ana Maria know he had arrived safely, about Carlos and everything else that happened since he left Los Angeles.  Felipe removed several sheets of paper from his satchel.  A little digging around in the bag produced quill and ink.

     Sighing wearily, he dipped the quill and started to set his adventures to paper.

    A loud bugle blast startled Felipe from his slumbers.  It seemed only a few minutes had passed since he had finally fallen asleep.  Groaning a little, he pulled his wool blanket up over his head, hoping the cacophonous noise would go away.

     Carlos stuck his head through the tent flaps and saw his friend still in his bed.  He stepped in and shook Felipe's shoulder.

     "Felipe, get up," he urged.  He pulled the blanket from the other youth's head.  An indignant Felipe sat up, rubbed his eyes, then glared at his friend.

     "You have to get dressed," instructed Carlos.  "Hurry up, you do not have much time."

     Felipe stood up as his friend tossed him the pieces of his uniform.  It took him awhile to don the unfamiliar garments.  Carlos inspected the final result.

     "Button that button," he pointed to Felipe's collar.  The young de la Vega did so then gasped for breath as it was very tight.

     ‘No, leave it," he said.  "You will get a demerit for being out of uniform."

     Felipe raised an eyebrow as if to say just because of one button.  Carlos laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.  "You are in the army now, amigo.  Come on, let's go."

     Somehow Felipe made it through the day.  There were constant inspections and drills.  And there were so many rules to follow.  He had gotten to the point where he just saluted everyone.  Thankfully Carlos stayed with him most of the day.  The young lieutenant tried to explain to his superior officer, Capitan de la Cruz about Felipe's lack of hearing and speech

     The capitan grumbled about the Crown being so desperate for soldiers that they were inducting imbeciles now.  Felipe clenched his fists as he pretended not to hear the insulting remark.  But the officer made no mention of the possibility of a discharge.

     Carlos requested that Felipe be made his aide-de-camp.  Capitan de la Cruz agreed and the young man was also given the rank of corporal.

     It was dark by the time he returned to his small tent.  Felipe was grateful that Carlos had arranged it so he would not have to share quarters.  He lit a match intending to light the lantern just inside his tent but it was not there.

     He held the flame out in front of himself.  The interior of the canvas shelter was a disaster.  Everything had been dumped out of his bag and strewn everywhere.  His cot had been upended and the bedding thrown on the ground.

     Felipe stared in disbelief at the wreckage.  He located his lantern, noting its bent frame.  Salvaging the candle, he lit it and began to gather up his belongings.  His clothes had been tromped on, pages had been ripped from his books and ink was splattered on everything.

     The letters! Felipe thought with alarm.  His shoulders sagged with relief when he remembered he had them in his jacket pocket.  He had forgotten to ask Carlos where to post them, the day had been so hectic.

     A cursory check found nothing was missing.  He picked up what he could, righted his cot and shook out his blanket.  He laid down on his bed and wondered, who would do such a thing?
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     Ignacio de Soto finished packing his saddle bags.  He had decided to personally check to see if there was a reward for the men in his jail.  He was prepared to ride all the way to Monterrey if necessary.  The Alcalde had thought of appealing to the territorial governor for more soldiers to be stationed in Los Angeles.  He figured he had a special case because of Zorro.  Half of the garrison had been requisitioned and now he was left with only five lancers, two who almost ready for retirement.  Sergeant Mendoza was probably the best of the lot.  De Soto cringed at the thought.

     And now he had to leave Mendoza in charge while he was away.  Hopefully things would be quiet.  Strange occurrences always seemed to take place whenever the bumbling sergeant was running the garrison.

     Slinging his bags over his horse's back, the Alcalde then swung himself up in to the saddle.  A misplaced key had delayed the start of his journey as he and Mendoza had spent most of the morning searching for it.  Now he would be lucky to reach Santa Paula by nightfall.  De Soto had hoped to stay that evening in Santa Barbara where that pueblo's alcalde had a daughter who caught his eye the last time he passed that way.  Perhaps on the trip back...

    He looked down at Mendoza who was waiting to see him off.  "Sergeant, I want this garrison to be spotless when I get back.  Everything should be polished and as neat as a pin," he ordered with a hint of a threat in his voice.  "And Mendoza," he added so only the sergeant could hear.  "Stay out of my wine and cigars. Comprende?"

   "Si, mi Alcalde," gulped Mendoza nervously.  He and the other soldiers saluted as their commandante headed out of the pueblo.

      As soon as de Soto had disappeared down the road, the stout sergeant headed toward the tavern, intending to indulge in a late lunch.  He abruptly stopped and a look of dismay came over his face.

     "Closed?  Why is the tavern closed?" he wondered out loud.  The hungry soldier stood in front of the inn, scratching his head in confusion.  The door opened and the Ortegas stepped outside.  Mendoza called out to them.

     "Buenos dias, ladies."   He walked toward the mother and daughter, eyeing the basket the señora carried. "What is going on?  Why is the tavern closed?  Is Señorita Victoria ill?

     Leonora answered the sergeant's barrage of questions.   "Victoria is indeed ill, Sergeant.  I spoke to her this morning and she looked terrible, like she had been up all night.  She has decided to close until she feels better."

     "But, where will..." Mendoza did not think he could stomach eating at the cuartel mess for any length of time.  The garrison cook could do the most unspeakable things with food.

     Señora Ortega smiled at him, guessing at his dilemma.  Mendoza had not noticed before what a handsome woman the new seamstress was.  He grinned back at her.  The good sergeant would have been surprised to know that she was thinking what a nice fellow he was.

     "We are on our way to inspect our new shop," Leonora stated.  "We were going to do some cleaning and later have a picnic supper.  Would you like to join us?"  She hoped he would not think her too forward.

     "I would love too," responded Mendoza graciously.  He never turned down an invitation to a meal, especially if it was issued by a lovely lady.  He gallantly offered his arm to the seamstress.  They made their way across the plaza to the old tailor's shop followed by the melancholy Ana Maria.
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     Victoria had indeed been awake for most of the night.  She had to change Zorro's dressing three times.  Finally the bleeding had subsided and she was able to clean the wound a little better.   The masked man had drifted in and out of consciousness throughout the night.  She managed to get him to drink a glass of wine during one of his more lucid periods.  He had slept peacefully most of the morning.  By early afternoon, he had awakened and eaten a bowl of beef broth.

     Victoria came back into her bedroom after taking the tray back to the kitchen.  She was shocked when she saw Zorro struggling to sit up.   He was having a difficult time being able to use only his right arm.  He fell back into the pillows and gave his love a wry smile.

     "Zorro," she scolded.  "You have lost too much blood.  You are not going anywhere just yet."

     "I have discovered that," he admitted grudgingly.  "But I worry what will happen if I am found here.  You could be in great danger, querida.  I need to leave as soon I am able."

     She sat down on the edge of the bed and checked on his bandage.  Good, she thought, no red stain showing through.  She smiled up at her patient.

   "Please do not worry.  No one knows you are here."  She glanced at him as a disturbing thought crossed her mind.  "There isn't someone else who would be worried about you, is there?"

     The injured man thought about his father.  He had been gone for over twenty-four hours and he imagined Don Alejandro would be wondering where his son might be.  Of course it was possible he was so busy, he had not missed Diego as yet.  Zorro prayed that was the case.  He had often disappeared before for long periods of time without much consternation on his father's part.  Zorro just hoped his father did not raise too much of an alarm once he realized Diego was missing.

     "No, querida," he fibbed to her.  "No one at all."  He touched her face with his hand and she leaned over to kiss him.

     The kiss deepened as they moved closer together.  Victoria placed her hand against his bare stomach.  Zorro moaned, but not in pain this time.  The mood was broken when he instinctively move his injured arm to draw Victoria even closer.  This time he groaned in agony and fell heavily onto his back.

     "Oh no, your arm!" she exclaimed, urgently checking to see that he had not reopened the wound.  Rewrapping the cloth, she looked  chagrinedly at the masked man.  They both realized what might have happened if they had continued with their intimacy

     "My fault," Zorro apologized.  "I guess I got carried away."  He was breathing hard and was slightly flushed.

     "You should rest," Victoria smiled wryly.  She kissed him gently on the cheek.  "Buenos noches."

     "Buenos noches, querida," replied Zorro, closing his eyes.
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