"I am feeling a little better today, Don Alejandro," Victoria said loudly, standing outside her bedroom door.  "I probably will open the tavern tomorrow.  Thank you for your concern."

     "De nada," the old don replied.  She was acting a little oddly but perhaps it was because of her illness.  He started to leave but then pivoted around, thinking it would not hurt to ask.  "Victoria, you haven't by any chance seen. . ."

     She interrupted him quickly.  "I have not seen anyone for three days, Don Alejandro, except for Pilar."  She faked a little cough.  "You should go, I might still be contagious."

     The elder de la Vega took a step back.  "Si, si.  I have to be going anyway. Adios."  This time he continued on his way out of the tavern.

     Victoria sagged against the door.  What a close call!  If Don Alejandro had discovered Zorro in her bed. . .  On the other side of the door, Zorro was thinking the same thing.  Plus if she had learned that Diego was missing the same three days he had been injured. . .   Well, she was a smart woman.

     Victoria opened the door and saw Zorro sitting up against the pillow with a grim face.

     "Querida, I need to go," he began.  "Soon."  He continued before she could protest.  "Victoria, you will be in danger if I stay here much longer.  The damage to your reputation alone. . ."

     "I do not care about that," she interjected.  "What matters is that you are well and safe.  I would risk anything for you. . ."

     Zorro interrupted her.  "I know, even though I wish you would not.  I am sorry, mi corazon, but I have to leave."

     "At least wait until tonight," suggested a defeated Victoria.  "It will be easier to slip away in the darkness."  She gave him a determined but sad smile.  "I am going to make you a proper breakfast.  You must be starving."  She marched out of the bedroom.

     He had not realized he was hungry, but now that she mentioned it. . .
                                                         Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

     Felipe's morning had passed without incident, much to his relief.  Just more of the incessant drilling; march right, march left, about face, present arms.  Felipe still remained about a half a step behind the others, but Sergeant Melendez had given up on him and found someone else to abuse.

     He had a little trouble with the firearms, being unfamiliar with them.  The one area in which he excelled was fencing.  He easily defeated everyone in his regiment including Carlos, much to his friend's chagrin.  In fact, Carlos had challenged him to a rematch that morning.

     "Where did you learn to fence like that?" inquired the lieutenant, breathing hard.  Felipe had trounced him once again.

     The young corporal just shrugged his shoulders and smiled.  Carlos laughed and clapped him on the back.  "Let's go get lunch," he suggested.  "Then I have a mountain of paperwork with which I need your help."

     Felipe rolled his eyes as the two young men strode across the compound toward the mess tent.  They had almost made it there when Felipe spotted someone who spoiled his appetite.  Tomas, along with the ever present Juan and Pablo, were about to enter the mess as well.

     Felipe halted but Carlos walked on, not realizing for several steps his friend was not longer beside him.  "Felipe, what. . ." he questioned as he turned to look at the other young man.  He spun around to see the trio of troublemakers.  "How did they get out? Guards!"

    Two sentries immediately rushed over to the young lieutenant.  Carlos pointed out Tomas and his companions.  "Those men are supposed to be in the stockade," he stated.

     The guards ran over toward the three men, meaning to seize them.  Tomas looked at Felipe and Carlos and smirked.  "We have been released, amigos," he spat out the last word.  He stood challengingly as Juan and Pablo lurked nervously behind him.

     "I will just see about that," retorted Carlos.  He motioned for the sentries to stand down.  "Come on, Felipe."

     The young corporal waited until Quiñones and his cronies ducked inside the tent then shook his head.  He gestured he wanted to eat.  He refused to be intimidated by the other man.

     "Very well," Carlos sighed.  "I will get this straightened out.  You stay out of their way," he added sternly but with a smile.

     Felipe nodded and made his way into the mess tent.  He quickly got his food and sat down to eat.  As he lifted the first spoonful of soup to his mouth, the utensil was knocked from his hand, splattering the liquid down the front of his uniform.  He did not have to glance up to know it was his rival who had done it.  He jumped up from the bench and glared at the other man.

     "I have had it with you," growled Tomas menacingly.  "First you steal my woman, then you squeal on me to your friend de la Paz.  Though I have heard you two are more than just amigos," he remarked with a snicker.  Juan and Pablo chuckled tensely.

     Felipe's hand reached for his saber but Quiñones grabbed his arm.  "Not here, you fool," he cautioned with a sneer.  "Behind the armory in ten minutes."  He motioned to his comrades and they all departed the tent.

     Felipe looked down at his meal, losing whatever appetite he had left.  His dark eyes glittered with anger as he also strode from the mess.

     The armory with its thick adobe walls was the only solid structure on the whole base.  It was also the perfect place for the many illegal duels that took place in its shadows.  Located on the edge of the field, it obscured the combatants from prying eyes.  The guards surrounding it were easily bribed with a bottle of wine or a couple of cigars to look the other way.

     It took Felipe nine of the ten minutes to find his way there.  Tomas and the others were already there, waiting impatiently.  Tomas had removed his jacket and drawn his sword.  Felipe quickly did the same.  He pointed his weapon toward Juan and Pablo, also jacketless, and shook his head.

     "What's that, muchacho?"  Tomas pretended not to understand the gesture.  "You have to speak up, I cannot hear you, imbecile," he mocked.  He then turned to look at his friends.  "Stay back.  I can handle this half-wit by myself."

    The two young men nodded, eager not to get involved.  Felipe raised his weapon to the en garde position which Tomas sloppily returned.

     Circling warily, Felipe gripped the hilt of his saber patiently.  Diego/Zorro had taught him well.  He knew Tomas would lash out first.

     He did not have to wait long.  Tomas lunged at him fiercely.  His fencing had improved slightly since the last time the pair had fought.  But Felipe's was even better.  He parried the other blade thrusts without much effort.  The bully's skill was rather brutish compared to the young corporal's more polished style.  He was, after all,  learning from a master swordsman.

      However, Tomas's weapon slipped through Felipe's defense and cut him on the left shoulder.  The young de la Vega winced a little, hoping the injury would not put him at a disadvantage.

     Tomas smiled smugly, quite proud of himself.  The insolent grin was soon wiped from his face as Felipe executed a simple riposte.  The point of his saber jabbed into the private's right shoulder.

     It took a moment for the bully to recover.  He hurled himself at his opponent.  The clashing of their swords had attracted quite a crowd, especially when it was learned who was fighting.  Tales of bad blood between the two had spread all over the camp as well as of Felipe's prowess with a blade.

     Felipe now had an advantage, having wounded Tomas' fighting arm.  His blade parried all of Tomas' now wild thrusts.  He was obviously weakening.  The young corporal noticed the dark stain growing on the other man's shirt.  Deciding to end it, he did a complicated redoublement that left Tomas flatfooted and sending his weapon flying from his hand.

     Felipe aimed his blade intimidatingly at his unarmed foe who slightly raised his hands upwards.  A loud voice caused everyone's heads to spin.  "What is going on here?" Sergeant Melendez demanded as he huffed and puffed his way through the crowd.  He was followed by Carlos and Capitan de la Cruz.

    Felipe instantly withdrew his blade and tried to return it to its scabbard.  That was when he noticed that Tomas had been about to draw out a small pistol from his boot.  Wisely, Quiñones hastily stuffed it back in as the three officers approached.

     "It seems your commandante was a little premature in releasing you from the stockade, Private," stated the capitan.   "Guards, see that he is returned there immediately once his wound has been attended to."  The sentries each grabbed one of Tomas' arms, causing him to cry out in pain.

     De la Cruz then turned to Felipe, whose own injury was being looked at by Carlos.  "It's just a scratch," he told Felipe who nodded in agreement.

     "And as for you, Corporal de la Vega," the capitan began, "I think a discharge from the army is in order."

     Felipe stared in disbelief at his superior officer.  Carlos spoke up on his friend's behalf.  "But Capitan, sir, " he protested indignantly, "this was not the corporal's fault.  Private Quiñones is the. . ."

     He was interrupted by de la Cruz.  "That is neither here nor there, Lieutenant.  Be assured, the private will spend a long time in the stockade."  He glanced at Felipe before he continued, "De la Vega should not have been drafted in the first place.  His release was in the works even before today's little contretemps."

     Capitan de la Cruz reached into his jacket and drew out an envelope, handing it to an astonished Felipe.  "You may leave as soon as you can get your gear together."  He turned to Carlos.  "Make sure he understands, Lieutenant."

     The two young friends both saluted as the other officer departed.  Carlos was as surprised as Felipe.  He chattered on and on as they made their way back to their quarters.  It did not take long for Felipe to change out of his uniform and pack his few belongings.  Carlos escorted him to the edge of the compound.

     "Well, this is goodbye, Felipe," he stated a bit sadly.  "I will write as always."

     Felipe nodded then gestured to his friend.  One part of him was extremely happy at being sent home, but a small part was very sad.  He would miss Carlos.

     "I will miss you too," Carlos interpreted.  He pointed toward the pueblo.  "You should be able to find a coach back to Los Angeles in town."

      They patted each other on the shoulder, then Felipe picked up his satchel and started walking down the dirt road, turning to wave at his friend before continuing his journey.
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     The sun had just slipped down behind the western horizon, darkening the sky.  Inside the tavern, Zorro was preparing to leave, much to Victoria's chagrin.  She had soaked the blood from his shirt and had mended the holes in the left sleeve.

     He was sitting on the edge of the bed, easing slowly into the black garment with Victoria's help.  His arm was still quite sore but it was getting less awkward to move.  Hopefully he would be able to conceal the injury from his father.  He fumbled with the shirt's buttons and received assistance from the lovely innkeeper once again.

     Her hand accidently brushed against the bare skin of his chest, causing him to gasp.  Or had it been on purpose, he thought as he saw the coy smile on Victoria's face.  He pulled her closer with his good arm and kissed her sweet mouth.

     "Gracias, Victoria," he murmured against her lips.  "I owe you my life once again."

     Victoria smiled bashfully.  "I love you, Zorro.  You know I would do anything for you."  He kissed her again.

     When they broke apart, a frown marred Victoria's brow.  "Is your father very important to you" she asked suddenly, remembering his febrile ramblings.

      "My father?"  Zorro was stunned by her question.  Thinking quickly, he replied enigmatically, "Everyone's parents are important to them.  Why do you ask?"

     "You called for him when you were feverish," she stated.  "I thought maybe. . ."

     He cut in then.  "Did I say anything else while I was delirious?" he questioned warily.  Obviously he had not mentioned Felipe's name.  That would have given away his whole charade.

     "You mostly called for me," she answered, blushing a little.  "Oh, I think you said something about the Alcalde being a dirty dog.  I could not quite make it out though."  Zorro laughed with relief.  So he had not revealed any more of his secrets.

     He kissed her again, a kiss that left them both breathless and trembling. Zorro knew he had to go soon or he would never to able to tear himself away.  He donned his gloves and hat before trying to stand.  He threw his cape around his shoulders and strapped his belt around his waist.  He walked at bit unsteadily out of the room, followed by Victoria.

     A thought crossed the beautiful señorita's mind.  "How will you leave?" she queried anxiously.  "I completely forgot about Toronado.  Where has he been all this time?"

     Zorro pictured the big stallion in the cave under the hacienda, contentedly munching on hay.  "Do not worry about him, querida," he said with a chuckle.  "He knows how to take care of himself."

     "And do not worry about me either," he added, drawing her into his embrace for one more kiss.  "Adios, Victoria," he whispered huskily then slipped out the back door.

     "Adios, Zorro."   Victoria watched as he disappeared into the shadows.  "Vaya con Dios."
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     Not quite a week later, Diego and his father drove their wagon full of crates into the pueblo.  They had more citrus fruits to sell at the mercado that morning.

    Diego's left arm was throbbing painfully.  He had loaded the wagon that morning as one of the many things he had done the past several days, pretending nothing was wrong.  Zorro had hitched a ride home in the back of a farmer's wagon, unbeknownst to the man, of course.  He had slipped into his room just minutes before his father had arrived at the hacienda, worn out from the day spent looking for him. Don Alejandro had been very upset with him.  Any sign of weakness would have probably earned the elder de la Vega's eternal contempt.  Thankfully, his father had readily accepted Diego's excuse for his disappearance.

     "Getting lost chasing after a stray cow."  Don Alejandro shook his head in disappointment.  "It surprises me that you can find your way back and forth to Los Angeles."  More likely lost in the arms of his mistress, thought the old don.  Well, he supposed it was none of his business for now.

      Diego rubbed his sore arm as he jumped down from the wagon.  He was not looking forward to unloading all those boxes.  Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Victoria heading their way.  Immediately he started lifting crates out and onto the ground.

     "Buenos dias," greeted Victoria cheerfully as she approached.  "You must have had a very good crop this year."  She picked up an orange to examine it.

     "I am glad to see you are feeling better, Victoria," said Don Alejandro.

     "Feeling better?" asked Victoria in confusion.  What was he talking about?  Oh. . .  "Yes, much better, gracias."  She covered her slip quickly.

     Diego's smile turned to a grimace as he picked up another crate out of the wagon.  Luckily his discomfort went unnoticed as there was a loud shriek.  Everyone's attention turned to Ana Maria as its source.

     She had already abandoned her mother's side and went running in a most unladylike manner toward the pueblo gate.  "Felipe!' she shouted.

     Diego swivelled his head sharply.  "Dios mio.  Felipe!" he called out as well and followed after the young woman.

     Felipe had stopped in his tracks and dropped his case.  He sprinted toward his sweetheart.  They collided into each other's arms and kissed, oblivious of their audience.

     Diego stood back at a discreet distance and cleared his throat loudly.  Felipe looked over Ana Maria's shoulder and grinned broadly.  Father and son embraced as well.

     "What happened?" Diego inquired.  "You have not deserted. . ."

     Felipe shook his head instantly and handed the older man his discharge papers.  Victoria and Don Alejandro had caught up to them and peered at the document along with Diego.

     "It is about time the military came to its senses," Victoria retorted.  She smiled at Felipe.  "Welcome home."  She gave the young man a quick hug as did Don Alejandro.

     Ana Maria clung to his arm as the group walked to the tavern.  She skipped off ahead though to tell her mother the good news.  Felipe and Diego were left walking side by side as they lagged behind the others.

    "You will have to tell me all about your adventures," Diego said.  He had picked up Felipe's satchel, carrying it with his right hand.  Without thinking, he switched it to his opposite hand, causing him to wince in pain.

     Felipe took his bag from his father, his handsome face full of concern.  Diego smiled.  "Do not worry, Felipe." he reassured him.  "I have a little tale to tell you as well."

     Felipe grinned as they hurried to catch up with the others.
                                                         Z                                                               Z                                                                   Z

    No more than an hour later, the Alcalde rode into the pueblo.  His trip north had met with mixed results.  He had received a half-hearted promise from one of the governor's aides on his request for additional personnel.  The governor himself had been too busy to speak with him.  It would probably be a cold day in hell before he actually saw any more men, de Soto thought angrily.

     On a more positive note, he had learned the men in his jail were indeed deserters from San Luis Obispo.  He had orders to hold them until the proper military authorities arrived to deal with them.

     Best of all, he had been able to stay in Santa Barbara on his return trip.  The daughter of its alcalde had been lovelier than he remembered and he had been allowed to pay court to her.  Margarita was her name.  She had hung on his every word, showing much interest in the tales of his battles with Zorro.

     Noting briefly it was market day, de Soto dismounted in front of his office and stepped inside.


     The sergeant had joined the celebration of Felipe's return going on inside the tavern.  He jumped out of his seat at the sound of the Alcalde's voice.  Diego, Don Alejandro and Victoria followed him to the doorway, full of curiosity.

     "MENDOZA!"  De Soto's yell was even louder and angrier this time.

     The stout sergeant flinched as if in pain.  "Oh, no," he guessed correctly.  "I think he just found out someone drank all his wine and smoked all his cigars."  He scurried across the plaza preparing himself for the fallout of the Alcalde's wrath.

     The trio in the doorway laughed as they rejoined the party.
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