Concerned that the arsonist had a twenty-four hour head start, Zorro rode hard down the Camino Real toward San Diego.  About five miles south of the pueblo, however, he urged Toronado off the main road onto a little used trail.  Suspecting that Garcia would be lying low for awhile, he knew of only one place the authorities would never look for him.

     Zorro shook his head as he rode up to the crudely constructed dwelling that served as Ramón's ranch house.  For a man who was so obsessed with owning so much land, the Alcalde had no idea what to do with the farms he acquired from the poor peasants he had foreclosed on, allowing the land to go to rack and ruin.

     What a waste, mused the masked man.  Ramón probably never gave a thought to the revenue he was losing by letting it go fallow.  The Alcalde's poor land management skills were pushed to the back of his mind when he spotted a plume of smoke rising from the house.

     He dismounted and slowly approached the building.  Creeping up to one of the windows, he peered inside.  Garcia was seated in front of the fireplace, poking a stick into the fire.

     "You have a strange fascination with fire, Señor," Zorro drawled from behind the arsonist moments later.

     Garcia jumped from his chair, knocking it over with a loud bang.  "Who. . .  What do you want?" he choked out.

     "What I want, Señor," replied the man in black, unsheathing his saber, "is for you to come back with me to Los Angeles.  You have a confession to make there."

      The other man sneered, "What are you, a priest?" When Zorro just chuckled, Garcia added defiantly, "Why should I?"

     "Because if you don't, I will kill you," threatened Zorro, grabbing Garcia by the throat. "Like you almost killed someone very dear to me."  He tightened his grip.  "The Alcalde's jail will be a pleasant experience compared to what I will do to you if you don't cooperate."

     The arsonist struggled as he gasped for air.  But the masked man's hold was too strong for him to get free.

      Zorro leaned into Garcia's face menacingly.  "The choice is yours, Señor.  Jail or death?"  He released the man then by throwing him up against a wall.

     "I. . . I will c-come with you," Garcia replied when he could finally speak again.  He rubbed the bruise marks on his neck.

     Zorro smiled humorlessly.  "Excellent choice, Señor."

     He brought out a piece of rope from under his cape and tied Garcia's hands behind his back.  Zorro then shoved the man outside.  He pushed Garcia all the way to the derelict shed that served as a barn, where he had left Toronado next to the other man's horse.  Tossing the arsonist over the saddle of his horse, he then took up its reins before he swung up on the back of his black stallion.   Zorro urged the Andalusian forward and the two men were on their way back to Los Angeles.
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     Early the next morning, Victoria and Don Alejandro were in the de la Vega carriage, heading toward the pueblo.  The old don looked at his passenger with concern etched into his face.

      "Are you sure you want to do this today, Victoria?" he inquired solicitously.

      "Si," she replied, nodding her head.  "The sooner I get things started, the sooner I'll be back in business."  Victoria looked down at the large scroll she held in her hands.  "It was so kind of Diego to draw up these plans for the tavern.  I think with some of the changes we came up with, it will be better than ever."

     "It's about time Diego's education was actually put to good use," grumbled Don Alejandro.

     Victoria stared at her companion, taken aback by his harsh tone.  "I'm sure he has used it for other good purposes," she said defensively.

     The elder de la Vega shook his head.  "He can't even balance a simple ledger," he complained.  "Sometimes I regret even sending him to Spain.  If I had known that he would come back an over-educated coward who wastes all his time on pointless activities. . ."  He shook his head again gloomily.

     Victoria started to say something, but changed her mind.  Diego had helped her with the tavern's books a couple of times before he had left for Madrid.  Why would his father think he didn't know basic accounting?  There certainly was something strange about Diego's behavior since he had returned to California, she had thought on several occasions.  But not wanting to strain the relationship between father and son any further, she kept those opinions to herself.

     A few minutes later, the carriage passed under the pueblo gate.  Victoria hopped out of the conveyance as soon as it had stopped and marched over to the ruins of her tavern.

     "Just what do you think you are doing, Alcalde?" she demanded of Ramón, who was poking through the burnt-out building with Sergeant Mendoza.

     "There's no need to be alarmed, Señorita Escalante, he replied smarmily.  "The sergeant and I are merely assessing the damage for my report."

     "Your report?" queried Don Alejandro skeptically as he alit from the carriage.

     "For the official records," the Alcalde answered.  "I have to rule out any criminal activity, such as vandalism or arson."

     "Get off my property," Victoria ordered angrily.  She had noticed the smirk that had appeared on Ramón's face for a split-second.  She had suspected that he had something to do with the fire, but now she was positive.

     "Be reasonable, Señorita," the Alcalde began to wheedle.

     "I suggest you do as she asks, Alcalde," said Don Alejandro.  "Or else I'll make you."  He took a menacing step toward the commandante.

     Ramón smiled insincerely as he stepped over a charred board.  "There is no need for all this hostility," he said as he walked up next to them.  "I am only doing my duty as alcalde of Los Angeles.

      "Hah," sneered Victoria, putting her hands on her hips..

     "Now, now, Señorita," began the Alcalde.  "Is this any way to treat the one person who can help you?"

      "What does that mean?" snarled Don Alejandro.  "There are plenty of people in this pueblo that will help Victoria rebuild the tavern."

     "Not with the new lending and borrowing tax I just levied," said Ramón with smug grin.  "Each lender will be assessed a twenty-five percent fee per amount they lend and borrower will have to pay a fifty percent fee on the amount they borrow."

     "That's insane!" exclaimed the old don.

     "I, on the other hand, am exempt from the tax," explained the Alcalde, "I can lend you the money you need to rebuild the tavern, Señorita Escalante."

     "You'd lend her the money?" Don Alejandro asked doubtfully.  "With no strings attached?"

     Ramón kept smiling unpleasantly.   "Of course, there will be a modest interest charge of forty percent.  Plus the tavern itself as collateral," he revealed.

     "I would never agree to those terms," said Victoria, shaking her head.

     "Who else would be able to lend you the sum you need, Señorita?" queried the Alcalde.   "However, I  have another proposal for you to consider."

     Victoria felt sick to her stomach.  The last time the commandante had proffered her another deal, he had threatened to hang her brother.  She could only imagine what he would suggest this time.  "And what would that be, Alcalde?" she finally inquired of him.

     "If my investigation reveals that the loss of your business resulted from criminal activity," Ramón said.  "I will pay to rebuild the tavern at no cost to you."   It was clear by his tone and the look on his face that such a scenario would be highly unlikely.

     "You will indeed pay to build the tavern, Alcalde, since according to my investigation, you were the one to burn it down."

     Everyone looked up to see Zorro standing atop a roof near the tavern.  He saluted them  with his sword.

     "That's ridiculous," retorted the Ramón indignantly.  "You cannot possibly have any evidence I had anything to do with it, Zorro."

     "Alcalde," replied the masked man, shaking his head.  " I would hardly accuse you of such a heinous crime without proof."

     He whistled sharply.   Toronado trotted then into the plaza, leading another horse.  On its back sat Garcia, his hands tied to the saddle horn.  The Alcalde's jaw dropped several notches when he saw the man on the horse.  Victoria and Mendoza were shocked to see him too.

     "Señor Sanchez ?" asked Victoria in a confused tone.  "Zorro, what does he have to do. . ."

     "Everything, Señorita," he cut in.  "He is not Sanchez, but Jorge Garcia, an arsonist."

     The man in black then jumped down off the rooftop and landed near Victoria, the alcalde and the others.  Zorro took a rolled up piece of paper from his belt.  He handed it to Don Alejandro.

     "What is this?" questioned the old don.  Zorro indicated that he should open it.

     The elder de la Vega unrolled the paper.  Victoria and Mendoza stood on either side of him and peered over his shoulder at the wanted poster.

     "That is Sanchez," commented the soldier.  "But his real name is Garcia?"

     "Indeed it is, Sergeant," Zorro replied.   "And here is his signed confession that he set fire to the tavern and who hired him to do so."

     Pulling another rolled paper from his belt, the masked man stared ominously at the Alcalde before handing the document to Mendoza.

     Ramón slowly started making his way across the plaza to the garrison.  He fell to his knees though when Zorro's whip coiled, then uncoiled around his ankles.

     "One moment, Señor," drawled Zorro, winding up his whip.   "I'm not through with you yet."

     The Alcalde got to his feet.  "It's my word against that of this criminal," he sneered.  "That's hardly ‘proof', Zorro."   He spun around to face Mendoza.

     "Sergeant, arrest this Garcia," he commanded then he turned back around to point at the man in black.  "And while you're at it, arrest Zorro."

     The masked man shook his head.  "No, Alcalde.  If you want me behind bars, you must do it yourself," he said challengingly.

     The Alcalde drew out his sword, an evil smile upon his face.

     "With pleasure, Zorro."

      Flashing a salute with his sword, Zorro approached Ramón with a deadly serious expression on his face.  The two opponents circled each other before the Alcalde made the first move, lunging violently.  The sound of steel striking steel filling the plaza as the battle grew heated.    The noise attracted quite a crowd of people who gathered around to watch them.

     Ramón sensed that somehow this encounter was different than the others he had fought with the man in black.  Usually Zorro smiled arrogantly and toyed with him.  Eyeing his enemy's grim face, the Alcalde faltered, nearly falling to the ground again.  After he regained his footing, the commandante was subjected to a progressively stronger series of attacks which drove him across the plaza toward the cuartel.

     Zorro finally struck his saber at the Alcalde's wrist, slicing through the leather glove that covered it and cutting into the flesh beneath.   Ramón's blade flew in the air.  The Alcalde took several steps backwards, holding his injured hand, and found himself with his back up against the garrison wall.  Zorro advanced forward and placed the tip of his saber against the Alcalde's chest, right over his heart.

    Victoria, Don Alejandro, and Mendoza hurried to cross the plaza to stand behind the man in black.

     "Señor Alcalde," said Zorro intimidatingly.  " I want your promise in front of these witnesses that you will rebuild Señorita Escalante's tavern at your expense."

     The Alcalde, fearing for his life, nodded.  When the masked man pressed his weapon against him a little harder, Ramón spoke aloud.

     "You have my word, Zorro," he groveled.  "I will reconstruct the tavern."

      Zorro moved closer to his foe.  "The señorita could have died in that fire, Alcalde," he growled darkly just inches from Ramón's face. "I could kill you now, but I do not wish to soil my blade with any more of your worthless blood."

     The Alcalde's eyes grew wide with fear as Zorro deliberately slashed a horizontal line on the other man's vest.  He proceeded to carve a ‘Z' right over the Alcalde's heart just as slowly.  Ramón glanced down at it, a sick expression on his face.  Zorro then punched him and he slid unconsciously to the ground.

     He turned to Don Alejandro, who was still holding the scrolled documents.  "Señor de la Vega, you will make sure the Alcalde keeps his promise?" he asked

     "Yes, of course, Zorro," said the old don.  "I'll see to it he keeps his promise."

     Zorro then turned to Victoria and took her hand.  "Señorita, I am very glad you were unharmed," he said tenderly.  "I'm sorry I wasn't there to assist in putting out the fire.  But believe me when I say I was there in spirit."

     He lifted her hand, intending to kiss it when Sergeant Mendoza and another lancer started to drag Garcia across the plaza.  The arsonist tried to resist his arrest by kicking and screaming curses at his two captors, distracting the masked man.

     Victoria drew his attention back to her when she placed her other hand on top of his gloved one.  "I want to thank you, Zorro, for helping get back my business.  It has been in my family for a long time."

     "I know," he said.  His eyes darted from side to side.  "I must go however before one of these soldiers becomes daring and tries to arrest me."

     He leaned down to kiss her hand.  But Victoria, knowing his intent, pulled him close and attempted to kiss him on the mouth.  Zorro quickly took a step back, turning his head, and she grazed him on the cheek instead, much to her chagrin.  He gazed down at her, a smile on his face.

     "Sometimes I don't know who is more dangerous, the Alcalde or you," he murmured before kissing her hand.     He whistled then and Toronado came to him from across the plaza.  Zorro sheathed his sword, then mounted his horse's back.

     "Someday," he vowed, looking into her sad brown eyes.  "Adios, Señorita."

     "Adios, Zorro," Victoria said, pouting a little

      The masked man urged Toronado to go and they were soon on their way out of the pueblo.  Victoria sighed as she watched him ride away.
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     About a week later, several soldiers were at work, rebuilding the tavern.  A carriage containing Don Alejandro, Victoria, Diego, and Felipe drove up into the plaza.  They all got out and walked over to inspect the soldiers' progress.

     "The Alcalde is certainly keeping his word this time," commented Diego.  He and Felipe exchanged knowing smiles.  Between Zorro's threats and Don Alejandro's constant hovering, the commandante had no choice.  Diego then spotted Sergeant Mendoza working on the upstairs portion of the tavern.

     "Sergeant, how's the construction coming along?" he asked.

     "Fine, Don Diego, just fine," the stocky soldier replied.  He grinned widely.  "We should be done by the end of the week."

     "The end of the week?" queried Victoria a bit worriedly.  "So soon?"

     Mendoza's smile grew even bigger.  "Don't worry, Señorita," he said reassuringly.  "Everything will be as good as new."

     "It had better be or the Alcalde will hear about it," declared Don Alejandro   He shook his head.  "It's about time he realized he can't outwit Zorro.  One would think he would quit trying."

    Mendoza looked left and right, then motioned the little group closer.  They moved nearer to the building as Mendoza leaned down towards them.

     "The Alcalde is determined now more than ever to capture Zorro," he whispered conspiratorially.   "You should hear him rant and . . ."

     He stopped speaking as the Alcalde came out of his office and glared at Mendoza when he noticed the soldier was talking to the others.  He did not seemed pleased.

    "Mendoza!" he ordered.  "Back to work!"

    They all turned in time to see the Alcalde slam his office door.  Mendoza shrugged his shoulders before lining up a nail to drive into a wooden post.  He brought his hammer right down on his thumb.

     "Madre de Dios!" he yelped in pain.

     The others tried not to laugh out loud at the poor sergeant, who shook his injured hand while muttering more curse words.
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