Z Impostor

By Russet McMillan

A dusty stagecoach rattled under the gate of the pueblo of Los Angeles and stopped in front of the tavern to disgorge its passenger. A tall man in elegant clothing unfolded himself from the seat and straightened the lace at his wrists. Behind him, two servants busied themselves unloading his baggage. He cast a keen eye around the square before stepping into the dimness of the tavern.

Inside, several heads turned to look at the stranger. One figure started in recognition and rose. Don Diego de la Vega was dressed just as elegantly as the newcomer; they were of a height, and both cultivated the narrow mustache of a caballero. The two paused, facing each other, and more heads turned as people sensed tension in the air. Then Diego laughed.

"Pedro?" he inquired in amazement. "Don Pedro del Torres?"

The other's answering laugh was deeper and harsher. "Diego. I should have known you would be here."

"Of course I'm here," said Diego, "but I thought you had decided to stay in Spain."

Don Pedro shrugged negligently. "That was while my father was still alive. Now my mother has need of me. How could I fail her in her hour of need?"

"How, indeed?" agreed Diego, but his brow was furrowed with puzzlement. "But come, sit down. I was just having a taste of the Senorita's most excellent wine. Won't you join me? Ah, I don't suppose you remember Felipe; he was quite young when you left. Felipe, this is Pedro del Torres; we were students together at the university in Spain."

Pedro snorted, barely glancing at Felipe. "Well, we weren't exactly `together,' Diego. You spent half your time with your nose in a book and the other half receiving special lessons in swor--"

"Senorita Escalante!" Diego cried. "Come and meet Dona del Torres' prodigal son. Don Pedro del Torres, this is Senorita Victoria Escalante."

Pedro rose to his feet to bow low and reverently over the Senorita's hand. Gazing compellingly into her startled face, he breathed, "If I had guessed that such a lovely flower would bloom while I was in Spain, I might have returned sooner."

"Ah, Don Pedro," stammered Victoria. "How nice to meet you."

Diego, frowning ever so slightly, suggested, "Perhaps some more of your fine wine for Don Pedro, Senorita."

"Oh, yes, Diego. Of course. What a good idea." She headed back to her bar, turning once to look back at Don Pedro.

"Well," said Pedro, seated once again, "are you still such a devoted scholar, Diego, as you were in Spain?"

"Oh, yes, I've tried to keep up with all my studies. Science, art, music . . . "

"And the sword?"

Victoria, returning hastily with a glass of wine, laughed at this suggestion. "Oh, Don Pedro, you must not have known Diego very well. Why, he will have nothing to do with weapons of any type. He does not even carry a sword. And he fades to the back of the crowd every time Zorro shows up, don't you, Diego?"

"Oh, well --" Diego eyed the astonishment on Pedro's face. "I don't see why I have to be bloodthirsty just to be thought a man. The peaceful arts are so much more congenial, and more enduring as well. Don't you agree?"

Pedro's mouth closed slowly. "Oh, ah, quite. But what was this you mentioned about a fox, Senorita?"

"Oh, Don Pedro, not just any fox -- The Fox. Surely you have heard of El Zorro before?"

Pedro shook his head in bewilderment.

"Well, the Alcalde will tell you he is a criminal, but in fact he's a great hero. He rides a black horse and wears a black mask and cape, and he can beat any swordsman in California!"

"But who is he?"

"Oh! No one knows. It is a great mystery here. The Alcalde would love to find out, but he can't catch Zorro. No one has ever seen behind the mask."

"But surely you can guess --" Pedro glanced uncertainly at Diego.

Diego coughed. "Oh, we've all tried to guess. The Alcalde arrested a few people on suspicion -- he even accused me, once! But when Zorro showed up to free all his best suspects from the jail, the Alcalde gave up that line and decided to catch Zorro first and unmask him later. Of course, he hasn't had much success there, either."

"But this sounds most intriguing! You must tell me more, Senorita."

As Victoria started to sit down next to Don Pedro, Diego coughed discreetly. "Don Pedro, isn't that man at the door one of your mother's servants?"

Pedro turned. "Oh, yes, I suppose he must be here to take me home. Ramon! Take my bags outside and put them on the wagon, I'll be there shortly. Senorita, I regret that our first meeting was so brief. Perhaps next time we may speak longer."

"I -- I'd like that, Don Pedro." Victoria's gaze followed the young caballero as he left the tavern.

Diego watched Pedro and the Senorita with a gathering frown. He started at a gentle tap on his shoulder and turned to see what Felipe wanted. He watched the signs and sighed grimly. "No, Felipe, Don Pedro and I were not good friends at the university. In fact, we were not friends at all."

Diego returned home with a sense of grim foreboding, which was not eased when he learned from his father that they had been invited to the del Torres' for dinner. He could not decline, and so was forced to sit through an entire hour of stories about Zorro's exploits. Every time Diego tried to change the subject, Don Pedro expressed his interest in hearing more, and Don Alejandro, an avid admirer of Zorro, was only too willing to comply. After the dinner, the two young men found themselves thrust into each other's company, as both parents assumed they must be eager to share reminiscences.

They walked through the garden, and Pedro kicked desultorily at the pebbles in his mother's flowerbeds. "This Zorro sounds fascinating," he said. "The best swordsman in California, eh? Better than Sir Edmund Kendall's favorite student?"

"Please," Diego urged. "Why don't we forget about Zorro for now --"

"And that great, flashing silver sword of his! It sounds almost like that sword Sir Edmund gave to you. What did you do with it?"

"What are you suggesting, Pedro?"

"I know who Zorro is, Diego. You may have everyone else in the pueblo fooled with your foppish show, but I remember what you were like at university. I remember what you did to me!"

"Pedro, we were both young and foolish --"

"You were foolish, Diego! You were a fool to deprive me of a bit of innocent fun."

Diego's jaw hardened. "It didn't seem that innocent to Senora Valante."

"I haven't forgotten, Diego. In all these years, I haven't forgotten what I owe you. And I could pay it back right now with just a word in the Alcalde's ear. With just one name."

"What makes you think the Alcalde would believe you?"

Pedro pulled back thoughtfully. "He might not, you're right. But I'll be watching. I'll be waiting my chance, Diego. You'd better see that I don't get that chance. You were my better with a sword two years ago, but I've learned a few things since then."

Diego's chin came up. "Is this a threat?"

"Just a warning, friend. Just a warning. Watch yourself."

Two pairs of glittering eyes met and flashed like swords.

"Diego?" Don Alejandro was standing in the lit doorway of the dining room. "We should leave soon, before the moon sets."

Diego let his breath out. "Of course, Father. We'll go at once." He turned and walked away without another look at Pedro.

"Were you and Pedro quarreling, Diego?" his father asked as they climbed into their carriage.

"Oh, we had a few disagreements at university that aren't really resolved yet."

"It looked a little more serious than that."

"Well, Pedro's very hot-tempered, but you know I wouldn't involve myself in any kind of a fight, Father."

Don Alejandro sighed. "Yes, Son, I do know that."

They finished the ride in silence.

The next market day, a man in scruffy clothes rode into the pueblo with a kerchief over his face. He pulled out a pistol and aimed at Sergeant Mendoza, who was overseeing the tax collection. When Mendoza dived out of the way, the bandit spurred forward and snatched up several bags of tax money from the table. He emptied his pistol in the direction of the garrison, where several startled soldiers were scrambling for their weapons, and galloped out of town.

The Alcalde was howling. "Mendoza!" he bellowed. "Get a dozen men and follow his trail -- at once! If you don't get that tax money back, I'll have it right out of the peasants again."

"Oh, but Alcalde, they can't afford to pay that much twice in one week," Mendoza protested.

"Then you had better get the money back, hadn't you?" The Alcalde hissed venomously. "Now get going!"

Even before the lancers had saddled up, another, more skilled tracker was on the trail of the tax bandit. Zorro had gotten word of the theft and set out immediately. He found the outlaw's tracks surprisingly easy to follow; they led straight out of the pueblo toward a dead-end canyon. Zorro knelt at the mouth of the canyon to examine the markings there, then led Toronado around to a grove of trees. Moving as swiftly and silently as a panther, he scaled the rocks at the back of the canyon until he was within sight of the suspected ambush. He smiled in grim appreciation as he saw the bandit sitting in an alcove in the rocks, with two pistols and a musket at the ready before him.

Creeping up steathily behind the bandit, Zorro extended his sword lefthanded and snagged the sack of tax money. At the chink of coins, the bandit whirled in surprise.

Zorro stood poised on the rocks with sword and money in one hand, whip in the other. "What were you planning to do with this money, my friend?" he demanded.

The bandit's grey eyes crinkled above his kerchief. "Why, give it back to the peasants, of course!" he exclaimed, and in an instant he snatched up his pistols.

Zorro was ready, but he had not expected two weapons. Even as the whip pulled one pistol free, the second spoke, and Zorro staggered backward. The whip fell from his hand. With a triumphant cry, the bandit grabbed his musket and made to fire at point-blank range, but Zorro brought his sword up in time to turn the muzzle aside; the musket ball ricocheted harmlessly off the rocks.

The bandit growled and pulled out a knife. "You are wounded, Senor Zorro. I have only to wait until you weaken, then I can take you in and claim the bounty on your head."

Zorro's sword point never wavered. "You would be arrested yourself if you did that, and never see one centavo of the bounty." He gestured at the mouth of the canyon, where they could hear horses approaching. "Your guns are empty. I suggest that if you want to remain a free man, you should leave now." He pulled his cloak forward to conceal the wound in his right arm.

The bandit spat a curse and hauled himself onto his horse's back. He pulled out of the direct line of sight from the front of the canyon and waited until his pursuers appeared.

"Zorro!" gasped Sergeant Mendoza as he saw the masked bandit on the rocks. He pulled up his horse hastily, sending the others into confusion. The tax thief took this opportunity to spur forward and brush past the soldiers. Zorro watched with an ironic smile as his foe escaped, then emptied the bag of money at the Sergeant's feet. "Here you go, Sergeant," he said. "Next time, have more care when you walk into an ambush; you might have been killed." He leaped up the rocks and lost himself in the bushes at the top of the canyon. The soldiers, occupied in picking up the scattered tax money, forgot their pursuit.

Felipe entered the secret cave at the back of the de la Vega hacienda to find Diego dismounting stiffly. He smiled grimly at the boy as he stripped off his cloak and shirt without even unmasking. Felipe started at the sight of the blood on Diego's arm and hurried to support him to a seat.

"Don't worry, Felipe. I think it's not very serious. Get me some of that linen from the cache by the door, could you? Gracias. And some water?"

Felipe helped Diego clean and bind the wound as the caballero explained what had happened. "It seemed like a deliberate trap -- it almost succeeded, too. I wish I had gotten a chance to see behind that mask of his. His voice was probably disguised." He watched Felipe sign a question. "Yes, I do have a guess who it might have been, but I hope I'm wrong." Diego frowned for a while into the middle distance, then levered himself to his feet with a sigh. As he pulled on a clean white shirt, he said apologetically, "I'm afraid I've made more work for you, Felipe. Could you see to Toronado for me, please, and do something about the blood on that shirt. Oh, very well," he chuckled as the boy took his arm firmly. "You can see me to bed first. Just remember to tell my father, if he asks, that I have a bad cold, nothing more."

Under cover of darkness, a black-cloaked figure crept to the back of the Victoria Tavern. Looking both ways, he slipped inside and tiptoed up behind Senorita Escalante as she wiped down the bar. Two black-gloved hands gently covered her eyes.

"What -- oh, it's you!" She looked around quickly. "Is there some trouble?"

"No," whispered the man in black. "I didn't come to deal with trouble this time. I came to see you."

"Oh!" Victoria lifted a hand to her cheek.

The masked figure captured the hand and its twin and held them together earnestly. "You must know, Victoria, how I feel about you."

She twitched an eyebrow. "Well, yes, it did seem that there was something . . ."

"I had hoped to wait until there was no need for the mask, no need for me to fear arrest. You know that is why I haven't spoken before?"

"Yes . . ."

"But the time drags on, and still there is so much more work to do. I cannot stay silent any longer. I have decided to come out into the open."

"Oh, no, you cannot do that!"

The black figure stiffened slightly. "Why not?"

"If the Alcalde knows who you are, he will have you arrested and shot. At the least you would have to go into hiding!"

One black-gloved finger touched her lips. "No, I will not tell the Alcalde who I am. And he will not suspect me, for he did not even know I was in Los Angeles before now. Only you will know, Victoria. I know I can trust you not to betray me."

"Of course."

"So at last the time has come, Victoria." He reached behind his head and undid the knots of his mask while Senorita Escalante watched in breathless anticipation.

"Diego! Diego!" Don Alejandro's voice drifted closer, and Diego's eyes opened blearily. "Diego, aren't you getting up?" Don Alejandro came to his son's bedside.

Diego groaned and lifted a hand to his head, remembering just in time to keep his right arm under the covers. "Oh, I'm not feeling very well today, Father. That head cold is getting worse."

Don Alejandro frowned. "You look as if there's more wrong with you than just a head cold." He put a hand on Diego's forehead. "You have quite a fever! I'll get the doctor."

"No!" Diego moderated his objection hastily. "Oh, Father, you know how I hate doctors."

Alejandro grinned wrily. "I remember when you were a little boy, you used to hide every time you'd hurt yourself, so the doctor couldn't find you."

"Well, I won't hide now, but I still don't want to see the doctor. I'll just rest today, and by tomorrow I'll be fine."

"Very well, but if you're not better by tomorrow, the doctor it is. I'll send Felipe to you with some fruit." He patted his son's shoulder under the covers, not noticing the grimace that passed over Diego's face, and strode out of the room.

The next day, Diego left his bed, insisting to Felipe, "If I don't get up today, Father will call the doctor in -- and then the game will really be up. Don't worry, I'll take it easy."

He was reading in the library when Don Alejandro returned, shortly after noon. "Diego!" he exclaimed. "You should have seen it. I never thought I'd see the day when Zorro would lose his temper."

"Zorro?" Diego gasped, nearly betraying himself with surprise.

"Yes! He attacked the Alcalde, right in the square, without any provocation -- at least, no immediate provocation. He disarmed him at once, of course --"

"Of course," Diego repeated, meeting Felipe's gaze.

"-- and then, as he was holding his sword to the Alcalde's throat, it looked as if he had really decided to kill him!"


"Then one of the lancers' muskets went off -- by accident, of course, none of them would fire for fear of hitting the Alcalde -- and Zorro dashed away."

"On his horse?"

"I suppose so. I didn't see the horse. But I wonder what could have set him off like that?"

"I really can't imagine. Zorro's usually quite, ah, lighthearted."

"True. I don't know of anything particularly infuriating that the Alcalde has done lately."

"How very strange. Perhaps I should go into town today after all."

"But I thought you still had a cold!"

"Oh, no, it's much better today. Come on, Felipe."

Diego took a seat in the tavern and surveyed the room, listening to the stories still circulating about Zorro's earlier appearance. Senorita Escalante brought him a glass and he raised it absently to his lips, lost in thought. The color and smell of the liquid he was about to drink brought him back to the world with a start. He frowned at it and swirled the drink in the glass.

Just at that moment, a man at the bar spat, "Bah! This isn't tequilah. What do you mean by this, senorita?"

Diego got to his feet. "I believe I can help," he offered. "Is this your drink?"

The man frowned suspiciously at the drink and then at Diego.

"I assure you, I haven't touched it. I believe our orders were confused. That looks like my wine you've got there."

The man knocked the glass aside contemptuously. "Bah!" he roared again. "I want my money back."

"Here it is then!" Victoria flared. "And you can get out of my tavern." She slapped some coins down on the bar.

"You won't be seeing my business again," the man vowed.

"Good! I don't want to." She watched angrily as he left, then turned to Diego. "Here's another glass, Don Diego."

"Thank you. Is something wrong, Victoria? It isn't like you to mix up orders."

"Well, I suppose I have been a little distracted." A smile tugged at her lips, and she leaned forward. "Can you keep a secret?"

"Well -- yes."

"I shouldn't tell you, but I just have to tell someone, or I'll burst!" She smiled at him warmly. "I've decided to get married!"

Diego's face froze. "Married? But -- what will Zorro say?"

"Oh, Zorro knows all about it!"

"He does?"

"Oh, Pedro!" Victoria cried as a tall figure darkened the doorway. "I'm so glad you could make it." She hurried to meet him, oblivious to Diego's gathering frown.

Don Pedro took both of Victoria's hands in his, saying in a low voice, "Have you decided on a date yet?"

"No, not yet, I --"

Sergeant Mendoza, on his way out of the Tavern, bumped Victoria's elbow. "Oh, pardon, Senorita!" he started to exclaim, but Don Pedro grabbed him by the collar and pinned him to the wall with an arm across his throat.

"You should be more careful, Sergeant, where you walk."

"I said I was sorry!" Mendoza protested.

"It didn't sound as if you meant it."

"Pedro, stop!" Victoria urged. "It was an accident!"

"That's right!" the Sergeant exclaimed. "An accident."

"I think, Sergeant," growled Don Pedro, "that you need a lesson in manners."

"No, Pedro," said Diego grimly, laying a hand on the caballero's shoulder, "I think you do." He pulled Pedro away from Mendoza, blocked one punch with his left arm, and landed a weak right-handed blow.

Pedro snarled, grabbed Diego, and pushed him hard against the doorpost. The pressure on his wound made spots dance before Diego's eyes. He tried ineffectually to dodge several more punches, then found himself pressed back against a table with Pedro's hands around his throat. He tried to bring his arms up to resist, but Pedro freed one hand to punch Diego hard in the right shoulder. Diego fell back, nearly spent, then felt the pressure recede as three people, including his father, pulled Pedro away.

"I suggest, Senor," grated Don Alejandro, "that if you don't want to find yourself in jail for brawling, you should leave town now -- and quietly."

"That's right, Pedro," Victoria cried, infuriated almost to tears. "And you can stay out of my tavern after this."

"But, Victoria! I was only trying to defend myself!" He gestured at Diego, sprawled gasping across a table.

"Defend yourself! You nearly killed poor Diego. We can do without your kind of cruelty in this pueblo!" She followed him to the door and called after him down the street, "And you can forget about the wedding! I'd sooner marry --" she cast about for a contrast "-- Diego!"

Massaging his throat weakly, Diego rolled his eyes at this faint praise.

"Are you all right, son?" Don Alejandro asked in concern.

Diego lifted his father's hand off his shoulder. "I'll be fine," he croaked.

"Sit down, Diego," Victoria urged. "I'll get you some wine." She glared out the door, her temper still smoldering. "Monster!" she muttered.

"You were going to marry him?" Diego whispered as she dabbed at his swollen lip with a moistened napkin.

"Well, I thought . . . he seemed -- it wasn't like I thought it would be!" Tears glittered in her eyes, and she tossed down the napkin. "Here, Don Alejandro -- you help him!"

Alejandro watched as she escaped into the kitchen, her shoulders shaking. "She seems really upset," he said. He turned and frowned at his son. "Diego, is that blood on your sleeve?"

Diego looked. "I don't think so. How could it be? Probably some sauce."

"Perhaps we'd better have a look." He started to open Diego's coat.

"No, Father, between this -- this brawl and my cold, my head is pounding. I think I'd better just go home and rest."

"Are you sure you're not hurt?"

"I'm fine. See, my voice is coming back already. I just need to rest."

"I'll ride with you, then." Alejandro followed his son outside and watched him mount his horse. "I thought you said you weren't going to get into a fight with Pedro?"

Diego sighed. "I didn't think I would. And I assure you," he declared firmly, "it won't happen again!"

That night, as Felipe helped him rebandage his arm, Diego mused, "Pedro seemed to know that I had been hurt. He knew exactly where to hit me. I think we can be pretty sure who that tax thief was."

Felipe made a Z.

"Yes, and if he persuaded Victoria to agree to marrying him, he's probably the false Zorro, too." Diego stood up and tested the arm. "Well, I won't be able to fight with this hand any day soon, but I think this matter has to be settled tonight. Zorro rides -- and this time, it will be the real Zorro!"

Night shrouded the pueblo of Los Angeles. Indoors, voices were buzzing over recent events. Outside, a shadow crept through the town, pausing near lintels and alleyways. Another, stiller shadow waited quietly on the roof of the Alcalde's office.

The shadow on the street came closer, gradually resolving into Zorro's masked form. He moved silently to the door of the Alcalde's office and paused to listen. When no sound issued from within, he brought out a knife, wedged it under the hasp of the lock, and broke it free. Then he disappeared soundlessly inside the office. Within a few minutes, his mask showed again around the doorway, and he slipped cautiously into the street. Keeping close to the shadows under the eaves, he headed for the north gate of the pueblo. He had just come opposite to the church when a black form leaped down on him from above.

Knocked flat in the dust, Zorro groped at his belt, but the second black-masked figure leaned down and removed a pouch.

"And what were you planning to do with this money, Senor Zorro?" whispered the second Zorro.

"I was taking it to the mission poor box," the first Zorro hissed, "Senor Zorro!"

"Ah! Then be my guest." The second man tossed the pouch to the ground and gestured with a gleaming blade.

The first Zorro picked himself up and started toward the mission, but after only a few steps he whirled around and pulled out a gun.

The second Zorro threw himself down, and the bullet passed harmlessly over his head. "A mistake, Senor!" he cried, leaping to his feet. "The real Zorro never uses guns."

Doors opened about the plaza as the pistol fell in the dust and the first masked man pulled out a sword. "No," he agreed, "the real Zorro uses a whip. Where is your whip, Diego?" He lunged.

The second Zorro parried, and the two stood face to face as the blades ground against each other. "Don't use that name," he whispered, "and I'll forget I know yours -- Pedro." He broke the bind and turned to leap to the top of the plaza fountain, switching the sword to his left hand. A duel began in earnest.

Ranged among the onlookers, Don Alejandro turned to Victoria. "Can you tell which one is real, Victoria?"

One of the figures turned his head slightly. "Isn't it obvious?" he cried. "I always fight right-handed."

The other figure brought his sword up to a swift salute before blocking another lunge. "A trifling and temporary indisposition, I assure you." He leaped over a cut to his legs. "Can you not tell the difference between our voices, Senorita?"

"Well?" pressed Don Alejandro.

Victoria shook her head. "I can't tell. They seem so much alike."

Alejandro watched the black-masked pair as the fight ranged down from the fountain and onto the terrace of the tavern. "They're both very good fencers."

"Perhaps this will decide you!" cried one of the two, and with a blindingly swift movement he disarmed his twin.

"Surely the better swordsman is the real Zorro?" Victoria murmured.

The weaponless Zorro dodged behind a pillar as the other's sword nearly nicked him, then reached overhead, lifted himself on the edge of the awning, and kicked his opponent in the chest. Before the other could recover his balance, he had retrieved his sword and was on guard again.

"I don't know, Victoria," returned Alejandro. "That looked to me like a move Zorro would use."

"Take them now, lancers!" came the Alcalde's voice.

Suddenly a hedge of blue-uniformed figures materialized from the encircling crowd, forming a solid wall around the two black-cloaked figures. The two Zorros turned to stand back to back, their swords menacing the soldiers. The press was too close for muskets, and even twenty to two the soldiers hesitated to attack with swords.

One of the Zorros whistled shrilly, and within moments a black horse thundered down upon the lancers, rearing and neighing alarmingly. A gap opened in the wall of soldiers, and one of the two black figures leaped to the horse's back. Whirling his mount around in a circle to scatter the other soldiers, he stretched out his hand to the other Zorro. "Come with me!" he cried, but he got a swordpoint in the face for his efforts. Dodging out of the way, he fought free of the press and galloped down the street. As he passed the mission he leaned over and snagged something from the ground with his blade.

The second man had been caught and disarmed.

"Well, well, well!" exclaimed the Alcalde. "We got one of them, at least. Now we know why we could never identify one man for certain as the bandit; there were two all along. But now you've had a falling out, eh? No honor among thieves, it seems."

Zorro spat in his face.

The Alcalde wiped away the spittle, his expression turning to ice. "Tie him up, men!" he bellowed. "Tie him to the post. The moon is bright; all we need for a night-time firing squad."

"A firing squad!" Don Alejandro protested. "But he hasn't even been tried!"

"We all know Zorro's crimes! He was tried in absentia, and now we're going to carry out the sentence. Tie him securely, men! Once we've got half of the Zorro team, it shouldn't be too hard to find the other."

Zorro twisted fiercely against his bonds, to no avail. He watched with widening eyes as a firing squad formed before him.

"Wait, men! Hold your fire." The Alcalde walked up to face Zorro, just out of spitting range. "I've waited for this moment for a long time." He raised his sword to Zorro's throat, caressed it briefly with the point as the masked man stood frozen, then whipped the blade up and cut through Zorro's mask. A long line of blood sprang up along the man's exposed cheek.

"Don Pedro!" exclaimed the Alcalde as the crowd gasped. "And we all thought you were in Spain these past five years. What a clever alibi." He moved back out of the line of fire. "Ready muskets!"

"Wait!" cried Pedro. "Don't you want to know who the other Zorro is?"

The Alcalde stroked his mustache musingly. "How do we know we can trust you? You might choose to blacken the name of an innocent citizen."

Pedro laughed incredulously. "With a dozen muskets aimed at my heart?"

"Ah, but will the information buy your freedom, Pedro?" cried another voice. "There's no point if it doesn't." Zorro's horse appeared just behind the firing squad. Before anyone could react, he had forced the horse into the line of soldiers, staggering them all. The black whip rose and fell, liberating muskets and drawing cries of pain from the soldiers.

"Catch him, you imbeciles!" bellowed the Alcalde; but no one would dare Toronado's flying hooves. Muttering imprecations, he drew his own pistol and took careful aim. He was beyond the range of the whip, but suddenly a projectile flew out of the press and struck him on the forehead with a clink. He crumpled to the ground with coins dribbling down his chest.

"There's half of the reward for capturing half of me!" cried Zorro. "The other half is in the mission poor box." He maneuvered behind the post and cut Pedro's bonds with one blow. "Come on now," he urged. "Up behind me. No tricks."

Pedro made a face and accepted his hand, leaping up to the black horse's haunches. Doubly laden, Toronado galloped out of Los Angeles, pursued by a few belated musket balls.

"That," said Victoria with some satisfaction, "was the real Zorro."

"They haven't caught him, so Pedro must be over the border by now. His poor mother is very distraught." Alejandro looked around at his son, Sergeant Mendoza, and Senorita Escalante. They all sat in the tavern discussing the events of the previous night. Felipe listened with interest.

"Yes," agreed Diego, "it's a double blow to her, so soon after her husband's death. But I suspect, after the furor has died down, she may find she's better off without the kind of help her son would give."

"Pedro was certainly a troublemaker. Didn't you say, Diego, that he was nearly thrown out of the university?"

"Yes -- more than once."

"But what I don't understand," Mendoza complained, "is whether Don Pedro really is Zorro or not. Is Zorro really a team, two men working together?"

"If he is -- or was," Victoria put in grimly, "I doubt that one of them would offer to betray the other, even in front of a firing squad. I suspect that Pedro was merely an impostor."

"I think you're right, Victoria," said Diego. "Didn't you say, Father, that Zorro was very unlike himself in the plaza yesterday? That must have been Pedro, instead of the real Zorro."

"Yes, I think you've got it, son."

"And I fell for it!" Victoria exclaimed. "I thought he was the real Zorro. I was even going to marry him."

"It's quite understandable," Diego assured her. "He looked just like Zorro with that mask on."

"Yes, but so would you, and I'm not mistaking you for Zorro, am I? Come to think of it, your voice sounds similar to Zorro's. I never thought of that before last night."

"That's it, then!" Diego exclaimed. "The mustache, the fencing, the accent -- Zorro must have been educated in Spain, perhaps even at the same university Pedro and I went to!"

"Yes, well, that only narrows it down to about fifty caballeros and their sons," Alejandro pointed out. "And we might not even know the man. He could have been living here in secret all these years, just as Pedro claimed that he was."

"You're right, Father." Diego sighed. "I guess we'll have to wait longer before we can learn Zorro's true identity." He turned his head with the blandest of expressions and winked one eye where only Felipe could see.

May 1992