It took a few moments for the Alcalde's words to penetrate Victoria's mind.   Then she was quite stunned.  It was several more seconds before she could speak.  "Francisco, a traitor?" she asked in disbelief.  Then her tone became disparaging.  "You must be out of your mind, Señor.  No one would ever believe. . ."

     Ramón didn't let her finish her tirade.  "Yes they would, Señorita.  I've spelled it quite clearly in this document.  Your brother will hang within a week of its receipt."  He handed her the rolled-up paper.

     "Why would you do such a horrible thing?" queried Victoria after she had read the missive's contents.  "Francisco did nothing wrong.  He doesn't deserve to hang. . ."

     "He assaulted me and my men," Ramón pointed out.  "He was supposed to capture that renegade Zorro, not help him escape."

     "Zorro is not a criminal.  You are the one who should be locked. . ."

     "I would watch what you say, my dear," interrupted the Alcalde.  "I can always add a postscript to that letter, implicating your traitorous actions as well.  You can hang along your dear brother, if you like."

     Victoria was at a loss for words as her mind raced.  Why had the Alcalde waited almost two months before bringing up this threat against her brother?  And why the sudden interest in her tavern?   He was up to no good, that was for certain, she thought.

     "Well, Señorita, what will it be?" asked Ramón impatiently.  "Your tavern or your brother?  Because mark my words," he said as he leaned down so his face was mere inches from her own, "you're going to lose one of them or perhaps even both if you don't decide soon."

     Victoria averted her head as she took a step back.  She unconsciously twisted the parchment still in her hands.  She didn't want to lose either of them.  There had to be a way she could stop this madman from taking her inheritance without Francisco ending up with his neck in a noose.  She could only think of one thing to do.

     "Alcalde," she began, choosing her words carefully, "I need more time to think about this.  It's a big decision.  I. . . "

     "What is there to think over?" demanded Ramón angrily.  "It really is quite simple.  Sell me your tavern or your brother dies."

     "Por favor," Victoria begged.  "Just give me until tonight.  Just a few more hours.  I need to talk this over with someone."

      A sneer came over the Alcalde's face.   "I suppose you mean Zorro?  You must think I'm a fool, Señorita, if you think for a moment that I would let you consult with that masked outlaw. . ."

     "No, not Zorro!" she interjected, her dark eyes flashing  indignantly.  "Don Alejandro de la Vega.  He has helped me with business matters in the past and I trust his judgement."

     "As you wish, Señorita," acquiesced Ramón diplomatically, plucking the nearly ruined letter from her nervous hands.  "But not a word of your brother's fate to de la Vega or else I mail this. . ."  She nodded as he waved the scroll.  "I will give you until ten o'clock tonight to mull over my offer,"  he said before reaching out and raising one of her hands to his lips.  Victoria wretched her hand away and violently wiped it off on her apron  "And I know you'll make the right choice, won't you, my dear," he said in a voice dripping with a politeness that barely concealed his fury.

     Felipe realized the conversation was coming to an end and not wishing to get caught eavesdropping, quickly picked up his basket.  As soon as he had passed through the tavern door, the Alcalde thrust aside the dividing curtains and entered the main room.  Luis Ramón smiled evilly as he exited the building
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     "No, no, son," admonished Don Alejandro, pointing to a number in the ledger.  "That is a credit, not a debit.  It goes here."  The exasperated caballero jabbed his finger at the other side of the book.  "I cannot believe you spent nearly four years at university and you cannot understand basic accounting principles".

     Diego felt guilty deceiving his father, pretending not to understand the very simple bookkeeping system that the older man has always used.    He kept his gaze averted from Don Alejandro's angry glare.

     "I'm sorry, Father.  I did try to warn you," he murmured apologetically.  "I spent much of my time at school learning abstract mathematical theories.  The works of Euclid and Archimedes and da Vin. . ."

     "Bah," interjected the elder de la Vega.  "What good are mathematical theories?  All a man needs is good solid basic arithmetic."  Don Alejandro shook his head purposefully.  "No, I think we should spend an hour each day on improving your accounting skills, Diego.  Felipe can join us too.  It certainly wouldn't hurt him to learn this as well."  He poked the ledger once again for emphasis.

      Diego inwardly cringed at the thought of wasting sixty minutes every day learning something he already knew.  Nor was he looking forward to having to keep up the pretense of being a thick-headed dullard. Outwardly he set his expression to one of ennui.   "If you really think so, Father," he said after heaving a weary sigh.

     "I really. . ." the old don began.  But he was interrupted as Felipe ran into the study.

     The young man skidded to a stop and tried to compose himself when he saw that Diego was not alone.  Diego could tell by the lad's eyes that Felipe had something very important to tell him.

     Alejandro didn't notice Felipe's desperation and motioned to him.   "Felipe, come here," he instructed

      The teenager walked over to where the two men were, sliding Diego an urgent glance.

      The younger de la Vega decided to intervene, thinking that Felipe would positively burst if he had to listen to one of  Don Alejandro's lectures for too long.  "Father," he began, "I promised Felipe we were going to collect botanical specimens this afternoon for a book I'm thinking of writing on the flora and fauna of California."

      The elder de la Vega did not looked pleased.  "Well, if you promised," he grumbled.  "I guess tomorrow is soon enough to begin the accounting lessons."  He slammed shut the ledger.

     "Thank you, Father," said Diego with sincere gratitude.

     Don Alejandro shook his head as he left the room, muttering ". . .pointless flower picking expedition. . ."  As soon as he was out of earshot, Diego rose from his chair. "Felipe, what's wrong?"

     The youth gestured what he overheard of Victoria's and Ramón's conversation at the tavern.

     "The Alcalde wants to buy the tavern from Victoria," Diego interpreted aloud. A disconcerted expression came over his face as the boy finished his tale.  "Have Francisco hung for treason?  Are you sure that's what he threatened to do if she didn't sell."

     Felipe nodded vigorously before adding to his message.

     Again Diego translated the youth's hand signals.  "He wants an answer by tonight or he'll send that letter to Francisco's commandante," he said in a incensed voice.  "I won't let that happen."

     Felipe nodded again, then made a ‘Z' in the air with his finger.

     "Si, Felipe, tonight Zorro rides, " Diego declared with a mischievous grin.  "But I think we'd better go on that ‘pointless flower picking expedition' first."

     His smile grew even bigger when he saw confusion on Felipe's young face.

     "Let's go saddle our horses.  I'll explain on the way to the pueblo."
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     It was nearly twilight before Diego and Felipe returned to the hacienda.  Over dinner, his father told him about Victoria's visit that afternoon and of the dilemma she faced.

     "You advised her not to sell?" inquired Diego when the old don had finished.

     "Of course, I told her I would help with the taxes if she needed me to," replied Don Alejandro.  "That he is intending to levy another tax. . ."  He shook his head.  "Too many already cannot pay what this alcalde demands from them."  He threw down his napkin in disgust.  "And if he actually uses that money to build a school, I'll eat my boot."

     Diego barely heard the elder de la Vega's ultimatum.  So Victoria had not told his father of Ramón's blackmail.  That the alcalde would be so ruthless made his blood boil.  He eyed Don Alejandro before letting out a gaping yawn.

     "You'll have to excuse me, Father," he said.  "I think I'll go to bed early tonight.  I must have worn myself out this afternoon."

     The old don stared at him incomprehensibly.  "Diego, how can you calmly go to bed when one of our dearest friends is in dire trouble?"

     "I'm sure she'll do the right thing," Diego stated, getting to his feet.  "You gave her excellent advice, what more can we do?"  Not waiting for an answer, he started to walk to his bedroom.  His back stiffened when he heard his father muttering about his son's cowardice.

     Sticks and stones, he thought bitterly, invoking the old nursery rhyme as he continued on down the hallway.  Diego stepped into his bedroom, where an anxious Felipe waited.

    "We must hurry," Diego whispered.  "It's nearly ten."  Felipe nodded as he pulled Zorro's disguise from its hiding place.  Minutes later, a black clad man exited the room's lone window as the young man inside stuffed pillows under the bedcovers.
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     Victoria peered through the curtained doorway of the kitchen at the clock that hung over one of the tables.  Fifteen more minutes until she had to face the Alcalde.  She glanced about the main room of her tavern.

     Only five customers remained.  Good, thought Victoria.  "Time to go home," she called out as she emerged through the striped blankets.   "Come on, everyone out."

      The patrons were annoyed to be chased from their drinks.  Victoria walked through the room, collecting their glasses on a tray.  She even grabbed one mug from a man's hand as he raised it to his lips.  Grumbling amongst themselves, the men filed out of the building.  After the door had slammed behind the last person, she set the tray down on the nearest table and sighed heavily.

     "Buenas noches, Victoria.  Are you closing early tonight?" Zorro asked nonchalantly as he leaned against the kitchen entrance.  His lips twitched with amusement.

     The tavern owner spun around, nearly flinging tray's content onto the floor.  Placing a hand over her heart, she breathed deeply.  "Zorro, you scared me," she admitted shakily.

     "I'm sorry," he apologized.   A couple of long strides closed the distance between them. "Victoria, I've heard a rumor. . ." he began.

     "Zorro, you must go," she interrupted curtly  "Por favor, you have to leave. . ."  She tried to slip past him but he steadfastly blocked her path.

     "So eager to get rid of me, Señorita?" he asked, not able to resist teasing her a little.  "Usually you are pleading with me to stay longer."

     "I'm sorry, Zorro," she said, avoiding his eyes.  "I have work to. . ."

     "We both know that's not the reason," stated Zorro, who became serious once again.  He looked up at the clock.  "You're meeting the Alcalde in less than five minutes, aren't you?"

     "Si, it's true," she said.  Then Victoria stared at him quizzically for a moment. "How did you know?"

     "That's not important," declared the masked man.  He mentally crossed his fingers that she wouldn't put two and two together and realize that the only people who knew of their meeting time were Ramón and herself.  And that the only other person who knew anything at all about this little rendevous was his father.  "What is. . ."

     The rest of his words were lost as there was a  loud thud as the tavern's front door flew open.  Zorro immediately spun into the kitchen and was unseen by the Alcalde as he smugly strolled into the building.

     "Ah, Señorita Escalante," Ramón greeted her in his smarmiest voice.  "How lovely you look this evening."  He try to grab one of her hands, intending to kiss it, but she quickly picked up the tray of glasses.

     "Let me put these away," she said as she was turning to go into the kitchen.  But the Alcalde yanked her toward him by pulling on her nearest arm.  The tray tipped and the glasses went crashing to the floor.

     "I'll deduct that from your selling price, " he declared with a laugh.  "Well, time's up, my dear.  What is your answer?  Will you sell me this tavern?  Or will I be forced to turn your treacherous brother over to the authorities?"

     "I don't believe she likes either of those choices, Alcalde, " drawled Zorro from the balcony railing.  "I know I don't."  The man in black then jumped down, landing on the table next to where Ramón stood.   He hopped the short distance from the table top to the floor, unsheathing his sword as he did so.  Its sharp edge was against the other man's throat before he even had a chance to breathe.

      "This is none of your business, Zorro," Ramón choked out as his eyes began to bulge.

     "Señor Alcalde,"  Zorro retorted, "whenever the señorita is concerned, I make it my business."  He tipped his head toward Victoria and winked at her.

     "The answer is no, Alcalde," said the innkeeper, emboldened by her hero's presence.  "I will never sell this tavern to you."  She crossed her arms across her chest and stared challengingly at Ramón.  Zorro relaxed the hold he had on the weapon he held up to the other man's neck.

     "Then you leave me no choice but to send that letter," the Alcalde stated.  "I hope you enjoyed your brother's visit. It will be his last."

    "You monster!" cried Victoria.  She spun to face Zorro.  "He's going to accuse Francisco of treason.  He's going to mail a letter to Francisco's commandante."

     Zorro pressed the saber blade hard against the Alcalde's throat and drove him backward several feet, slamming him up against the nearest wall.

     "I want your word, Señor," he growled menacingly, "that you will leave Señorita Escalante, her tavern, and her brother alone."

     "Why should I promise you anything?" Ramón gasped out defiantly.

     "Because if you don't and if you threaten the señorita again, I promise I will kill you," hissed the masked man, pushing the sharp steel so hard into the Alcalde's skin that it drew blood.  "Your word, por favor."

     "Si, si," rasped out the other man.  "I promise."

     Zorro withdrew his sword but kept Ramón up against the wall.  "You promise what, Alcalde?"

    "I promise to leave the señorita and her brother alone," the commandante vowed.  "I'll tear up the letter. I won't ever mail it."

    "Bueno," replied the man in black.  He let go of the Alcalde, who slid part way down the wall before regaining his composure.  Ramón touched his tan leather glove to his neck and made a face of displeasure when it came away smeared with blood.

     "It had been so quiet around her lately, Señor Alcalde," said Zorro sardonically.  "Let's hope it continues to be that way."

     Ramón snarled at the black-clad man before sprinting out of the tavern.

     "Buenas noches, Alcalde," Zorro called out after him.  He waited until the other man was gone before he turned to Victoria.  He lifted her hand to his lips.

     "Gracias, Zorro, for your help," she said, gazing up into his eyes adoringly.  "I have to admit I was not looking forward to facing the Alcalde alone."

     Zorro nodded.  "I can understand that," he acquiesced.

     The coupled stared into each other's eyes for an eternal moment.   Zorro tore his gaze away first, bringing her hand up to kiss again.

     "No, Zorro, don't go," Victoria pleaded, placing her hand on his arm.  "Please stay.  I could make us a late supper."

     "If only I could, dear lady," he said, his voice full of regret.  "But I fear the Alcalde will be back with his soldiers to try and arrest me."

     Victoria sighed, knowing he was right.  "Gracias, Zorro," she said as he disappeared through the curtained kitchen doorway.  "Be safe."

       She stood where he had left her until she heard the pounding hooves of Toronado fading in the distance.
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