The Last Adventure

By Russet McMillan

Victoria Escalante ran a damp cloth over the bar in her tavern, scrubbing vigorously at a circle left by a glass. It was noon of a very hot, dusty day, and all sensible folk were taking their siestas. The tavern was deserted, but as Victoria finished the bar and carried her bucket to the tables, the doors opened and closed.

She recognized the step and turned with a smile. "Did you find your father, Diego?"

"No, I think he's still out at the Vargas' farm. In this heat, too." Diego shook his head unbelievingly.

"Yes, he takes his position very seriously," Victoria agreed. Diego looked absolutely marvelous, she thought -- cool and relaxed without a single dust speck or sweat stain on his coat. Even the lace at his wrists was crisp and unwilted. She felt ragged and grimy by comparison.

Well, she thought to herself, perhaps Diego would be flushed and sweaty too, if he lived the life of a working woman instead of a caballero. She pushed back a damp strand of hair with her forearm and turned back to scrubbing the tables.

Diego came behind her and touched her shoulders. "Unhappy, senorita?" He took the spare cloth from her bucket, wrung it neatly, and started on the next table.

Victoria blushed at her own unworthy thoughts. "Yes -- no -- I mean . . . I don't know."

"Only one week left."

Victoria swallowed hard. "Yes."

"Any regrets?"

"No! Of course not." She attacked the next table with unnecessary violence. "I think I may have found a buyer for the Tavern," she said brightly.

"Ah. The mysterious correspondent from San Diego?"

"Yes. He says he's seen the Tavern before and likes the looks of it. He's offering a good price." She swallowed again.

"Are you quite sure you want to --"

"Diego, would you really care if I --" Victoria began at the same moment.

"Sorry. What were you saying?"

"Oh, no, you first."

"I didn't mean to interrupt you. Go on."

Victoria took a deep breath. "I've been thinking --"

She was interrupted by a shrill scream from outside, that she almost didn't recognize as a horse. It sounded again, more angry than frightened, and Diego started.

"That's Toronado!" he cried, and hurried to the door.

Outside, a strange man was holding the reins of Diego's black stallion, trying to pull him down as he reared and pawed the air. "Let him go!" Diego commanded, jerking the reins free and pushing the stranger back by one shoulder so that he staggered and almost fell. Toronado calmed immediately and retreated a few steps at Diego's urging, eyeing the stranger suspiciously.

Diego and the stranger looked at each other. The man's dress was flamboyant, but ill-fitting and slightly worn. He carried a sword and two pistols shoved through his belt. "Is that your horse?" he demanded belligerently.

"Yes, he is. Why do you want to know?" Diego returned calmly, but with a hidden edge to his voice that Victoria recognized.

"I'm looking for a man called Zorro. He rides a horse like that." The stranger pulled a paper from his shirt and showed it to Diego. "Have you seen him?"

Even from the doorway of her tavern, Victoria could see that the paper was one of the widely-circulated Wanted: Reward posters for Zorro's arrest.

"Zorro has been pardoned," Diego said, waving at the more recent posters outside of the Alcalde's office. "He hasn't been seen in Los Angeles for months. That bounty is no longer good."

"I know that," the stranger growled. "I'm looking for him because he killed my brother."

Diego stiffened. "Pablo Zaragosa?" he asked, barely above a whisper. "He was your brother?"

"My name is Enrique Zaragosa. And I'm looking for the man who killed Pablo so I can cut his heart and liver out. Are you this Zorro?"

Diego didn't answer.

Zaragosa shrugged. "Easy enough to find out." He drew his sword in a blinding flash and rushed upon Diego. Victoria couldn't suppress a gasp, but Diego simply moved out of the blade's path and tripped the man as he passed. He backed away and drew his sword as Zaragosa got to his feet.

"There's no need for this." Diego held his point low, but brought it up quickly as Zaragosa lunged again. "I don't want to fight you," he said, sending the man stumbling past him once again.

"Stand your ground!" Zaragosa spat. "Let me see how you fight."

Once it was apparent that Zaragosa was not just going to give up, Diego assumed a fencing stance and began to fight in earnest. Before long he sent Zaragosa's sword tumbling away, while the man wrung his wrist in dismay. "So," he panted, "you are this Zorro. Prepare to die, murderer!" He pulled one of the pistols from his belt and aimed at Diego.

Before he could pull the trigger, one well-placed black hoof sent the pistol flying harmlessly. Toronado's whicker sounded almost like laughter. With an oath the man pulled his second pistol.

"Stop -- right -- there, senor," came a cold voice from behind Zaragosa. "If you don't want three musket balls in your heart, I suggest you lay down that pistol." Don Alejandro de la Vega backed up his suggestion with a swordpoint at Zaragosa's neck.

Eyes darting right and left at the lancers who had him in their sights, Zaragosa bent slowly and placed the weapon on the ground. Keeping his hands in plain sight, he protested, "No harm done. Just a little innocent fencing lesson."

"Diego?" Alejandro asked.

Diego cocked his chin. "No harm done, in any case," he admitted, sheathing his sword.

Don Alejandro frowned. "If it wasn't really a fight, there are no charges to be laid. Is that what you want?"

"I see no reason to lay charges." Diego glanced at Victoria, and she swallowed the protest on her lips.

Don Alejandro shook his head and motioned his lancers to lower their muskets. "So be it, then. But be aware, Senor, that discharging a firearm within the gates of the pueblo earns you a fine of ten pesos." He glanced at Diego. "And that goes for both of you if there's a repeat of this `fencing lesson'. Keep your quarrels out of Los Angeles, Senor."

Zaragosa assented with an attempt at a winning smile, retrieved his pistols and his sword, and headed for the pueblo gate. The look he threw at Diego in passing, however, was anything but ingratiating.

"Diego, you can't just let him go!" Victoria urged, coming up beside him. "He said he would kill you."

"Is that so?" Alejandro gasped. "Well, we can have him back here at once. Lancers --"

Diego interrupted. "Father, I really don't think you should arrest him. He was frightened by Toronado -- he probably said things he didn't mean." He gathered up Toronado's trailing reins. "And now I must be getting back to the hacienda -- one of my experiments is due to finish soon." He mounted up and was gone before anyone could object.

"Now that's not like Diego," Alejandro mused, "leaving such a troublemaker free to go about his mischief." He shook his head.

"Perhaps he's just bored," Victoria suggested. "Now that he's working with the lancers, all the bandits are gone. There isn't much excitement around here any more."

"You could be right," Alejandro allowed. "But I think he also feels guilty for Pablo Zaragosa's death -- even if it was really an accident."

"So he's giving Pablo's brother another chance?"

"Maybe. I just hope he doesn't give him one chance too many!"

Felipe found Diego puttering over his yards of glass tubing. He still used their formerly secret cave for his chemistry projects, although Alejandro had set aside a workroom in the hacienda for his less malodorous experiments. Felipe waved a hand inquiringly at the apparatus, but Diego pretended not to notice. He had been urging the boy to use his developing voice more often. Felipe swallowed hard and managed, "What is it?" with another reflexive wave.

"Ah," said Diego with pleasure, "this is an idea I had for a new type of explosive. Yes," he said, catching Felipe's reaction, "it can be dangerous, but very useful also -- in the construction of our new aqueduct, for instance."

He showed Felipe an unprepossessing lump on his worktable. "I'm trying to suspend an explosive powder in a soft substance that can be molded and shaped. This way we can place it exactly where it's needed, much better than, say, a keg of gunpowder. This is the result of my latest experiment. It's very easy to shape . . ." he pulled off a piece of the lump, rolled it into a ball, and placed it on the end of a metal probe.

" . . . But it's not so good as an explosive." He extended the metal probe toward a candle until the dark lump on the end began to sizzle and spark.

Felipe moved back quickly, but Diego didn't even bother to set the probe down as his explosive cracked and popped. "An interesting noisemaker," he concluded, "but not good for much else. In my next batch --"

"Diego?" came Don Alejandro's voice from above. "Are you down there?" he appeared around the corner of the stairs. "Diego, I've told you, you're perfectly welcome to set up your experiments --" he wrinkled his nose at the smell of sulphur. "Then again, perhaps you are better off here." He shook his head. "I don't know how poor Toronado could bear it, all those years."

Felipe snickered softly.

Diego bent a severe glare on Felipe, making him sputter harder. "Was there something you wanted, Father?"

"Just to tell you that I'll be dining with Don Manuel this evening."

"Again? Hasn't he agreed on a property value yet?"

"Not one that I can agree on too." Don Alejandro shook his head. "I hate to press him for more taxes -- I'm too used to being on the other side of the argument. But the caballeros have to start carrying their fair share, or we'll never get that aqueduct finished. In any case, you know where to find me if there's trouble."

Diego nodded. "I'm having dinner with Victoria."

"Ah! Well, I won't expect you home too soon, then."

Victoria reached out and adjusted the position of the candles by a hair's breadth for perhaps the tenth time. She snatched her hands back in annoyance and folded them determinedly in her lap. The table was perfect. The food was ready. Now she just had to wait for her guest to arrive.

She sighed and inched her chair sideways so she could see through the gap in the kitchen's curtain to the tavern. The door was closed; no one was coming. Victora sighed again.

Suddenly a pair of hands covered her eyes and Zorro's voice breathed warmly in her ear, "Impatient, my heart?"

Victoria lifted the hands away and turned gladly in her chair. Diego must have climbed through the gap below her eaves, but he was not dressed as Zorro. Instead of hat, mask and sword, he wore the elegant clothes of a caballero's son. Once again Victoria felt shabby by comparison, although she had taken great care over her appearance tonight.

Diego caught the change in her expression. "Is something wrong?" His voice was still a shade deeper than usual, more that of Zorro's than the meek dandy whose part he had played for years.

"No, I -- you're late." Victoria still hadn't quite gotten used to the real Diego. Even he seemed confused about it at times.

"I'm sorry. I thought I heard trouble and went to check, but it was just some children playing."

"You, ah, you look very nice."

"I could never compare to such a vision of beauty as yourself." Diego pressed a burning kiss on her hand.

His behavior throughout dinner was exactly right; he praised the food, but paid more attention to Victoria herself. He touched her hand frequently, refilled her glass when it was empty, and made her feel like the center of the universe.

At last the wine gave her courage to say what had been on her mind. "Diego, are you happy with -- the way things are now?"

He blinked. "Happy? What more could I want?"

"Well, are you sure you have enough to keep you busy?"

He wrinkled his brow. "I have my experiments, my work on Father's ranch, I've been training the lancers --"

"Yes, and that's been going so well that soon you won't have anything more to do."

"Well, surely that's a good thing?"

"Yes, but are you -- bored?"

Diego was silent a moment. "Victoria, why are you asking this?"

Victoria played with her fork. "It's just that I was thinking -- maybe -- are you sure you want to settle down?"

This time the silence was longer. "Are you having second thoughts about the wedding?"

"No! No, not at all." Victoria searched for words. "But you seem so restless. You go looking for trouble -- those children you heard earlier. Or the way you let that man go, after he attacked you --"

"Victoria." Diego grasped her hand tightly. "That was my decision. Thank you for backing me up, for not telling my father to arrest him. But please understand that I couldn't do anything else."

"Why not?" She tugged her hand free. "Diego, it frightens me. If you get bored you may get careless -- you could be in even more danger than when you had a price on your head!"

Diego's worried frown softened to a smile. "Don't be afraid for me, love. How could I be bored -- or careless -- when I'm just waiting for the day when I can put a ring on your finger and make you mine? I promise you, I won't get into any trouble. And now . . . " He raised her to her feet. "If we don't want everyone in the pueblo to be counting months on their fingers, I had better be going home."

Victoria blushed deeply. "Be careful," she begged, but he was already gone.

Diego had ridden his father's sorrel mare into Los Angeles, since Toronado had bruised a hoof on a stone. He rode slowly on his way home, partly because the night was black and moonless and partly because he was thinking about Victoria's words. He was distracted enough that the two dark figures who grabbed his shoulders pulled him from the saddle before he could react.

Diego wasn't carrying his sword, and the sorrel mare ran off instead of helping him as Toronado would have done, but even so his attackers had a hard time. When a third man approached with a rope, Diego leaned against the two holding his arms and raised both feet to kick the man in the chest. Then, as the first two staggered under his weight and loosened their hold, Diego jabbed them both sharply in the stomach with his elbows.

With all three attackers doubled over and coughing, Diego pulled free easily. He knocked out the man holding the rope with a neat punch on his chin. As he turned back to the other two, he saw in the dim light that one had pulled out a pistol. But the second croaked, "No!" and knocked the barrel aside. The pistol ball flew harmlessly into the night.

"The Captain said don't kill him!" said the second man, still gasping. Diego's fists cut off anything else he might have said and laid him low in the dust.

The remaining attacker threw aside his empty pistol with a growl and drew a blade. Diego ducked under his first lunge, caught his wrist and twisted it back until he cried out and dropped the blade. Then Diego spun on one heel and twisted the man's arm up behind his back.

Holding his attacker helpless, Diego demanded, "Who's this captain your friend mentioned?" He glanced down at the man's heavy sword, a rather outdated cutlass. "Pirates?"

It was not a common menace on the California coast, but many of the less law-abiding traders had begun to search for new haunts, not so well patroled as the West Indies or the Ivory Coast.

"Who is your captain?" Diego repeated, jerking the pirate's arm a little higher.

"Ah! Enrique Zaragosa! Let go!"

Diego eased his grip a little in surprise. "Well," he said slowly. "Tell Captain Zaragosa he should take my advice: stay away from Los Angeles if he doesn't want trouble. This is the last warning." He placed one well- aimed blow beneath the pirate's ear and let him slide to the ground. Tossing the cutlass off into the surrounding scrub, Diego wiped his hands on his thighs and started to walk home.

When he reached the hacienda, Felipe was waiting anxiously near the door. Diego wasn't surprised, since he had already checked and found the sorrel mare unsaddled and safely corraled.

"Everything's fine." Diego replied to Felipe's look with a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "There's no need to worry my father with this."

"Too late," said Don Alejandro from behind his back.

Diego sighed. "Back from Don Manuel's already, father?"

That brought a chuckle. "Diego, even allowing for the time it took you to walk home, you spent half the evening with Victoria. I've been home for hours." He sobered. "In fact, I did come back early, because Don Manuel gave me some disturbing news. This Enrique Zaragosa we met today -- he's a pirate."

"Is that so?"

Alejandro frowned. "He attacked you again tonight, didn't he? That's why the mare came back alone."

"I was careless. The mare got away from me."

"And I suppose you didn't get this --" he gestured at Diego's reddened knuckles "-- from somebody's jaw? Diego, why are you giving him the chance to get away? The man's a pirate with a bounty on his head -- obviously there's bad blood in the family."

"Less of it than there used to be," Diego added grimly.

"So that's it. You're still feeling responsible for the accident that killed Pablo Zaragosa, even though he was trying to kill you at the time! Diego, for the sake of the people of this town, if not for your own good, bring the man in if he causes any more trouble."

Diego nodded. "I will. If he causes more trouble."

Alejandro threw up his hands. "There's just no reasoning with you!"

There was no more trouble; no suspicious ships appeared off the shore, and Alejandro eventually accepted that the pirate was gone. In any case, there was another important event drawing attention: the marriage of Diego and Victoria. The fateful day had dawned, the appointed hour was drawing near, and even Felipe was losing patience with Diego. The boy stood back and watched while Diego attempted to wear a hole in the rug of the vestry.

"Nervous, son?"

Diego jumped. "Oh, not at all, Father. Why would I be nervous?"

Alejandro smiled. "I was, too, when I married your mother."

"Father, do you -- think I can make her happy?"

"That was the same question I asked that day. You'll have to find the answer yourself, every day and every year from now on."

"Maybe this is a mistake. She's in love with a phantom. She can't really want to marry me!"

Alejandro raised his brows. "I wouldn't want to be the one to try to persuade Victoria she's been wrong for the past five years."

"But she's late. Maybe she's having second thoughts."

"The bride is always late. And the groom is always nervous."

"Maybe there's a problem. I'll go ask her if I can help."

"Ah, no, you don't, son. It's bad luck to see the bride --"

" -- before the wedding, I know. But this is the wedding!"

"If it will make you feel better, I'll go check on Victoria myself. Try to relax. Everything will be fine."

When Alejandro didn't reappear after twenty-five more circuits of the room, Diego broke off his pacing and headed for the door himself. Felipe cut him off, making placating motions with his hands and offering to go himself. Diego subsided into a chair, foot tapping nervously as he counted off the minutes. He had just risen one more time to attempt his own investigation when Felipe returned.

"Ah! Is she ready?"

Felipe didn't answer. His face was pale. At last, not trusting his voice, he gestured hesitantly.

"Gone? Then she has changed her mind!" Diego fell back.

Felipe shook his head earnestly, expanding with more gestures.

"Father's gone too? But what --?" Diego strode determinedly out of the vestry and across the chapel.

He found one of the bridesmaids retrieving Victoria's veil from the floor. "What happened?" he demanded.

"I -- I don't know," she stammered. "She was here, and then Don Alejandro came to speak to her, and then they were both gone. Lupe says she saw some horses and a closed carriage --"


"Behind the church." She gestured toward the back.

Diego stormed out the back door and studied the tracks in the dust. The wedding guests stayed back from him, their voices hushed. At last Felipe gathered the courage to come up and touch Diego's elbow inquiringly.

Diego looked up from the scrap of white silk he had just disentangled from a rosebush. "They took them that way." He pointed west. "They'll be at the coast before we can catch them." His face was grimmer than Felipe had ever seen it.

"Pirates?" the boy whispered.

Diego nodded. "I don't think they'll harm Victoria or my father, though. They're just using them as tools to get what they want." He curled his hand protectively around the silk. "And I'm going to give it to them."

The pirates pushed Victoria hard onto the deck of the ship, so that she tripped on the train of her dress and tore yet another scrap from the hem. She glared back at them while she gathered up another fistful of the material.

Don Alejandro gripped her elbow, either for support or restraint. A cut on his forehead bled sluggishly where he had been hit with a pistol butt. Victoria also had a collection of bruises from the struggle, but she was otherwise unhurt.

"Well!" Enrique Zaragosa swaggered toward them. "If I had realized what a catch I'd be making, senorita, I would have decided to keep you for myself." He tried to take her hand and kiss it, but she snatched it away.

"And if I had realized I would be seeing you today, I would have worn a sack!" she spat.

"Such a temper! Perhaps it's just as well, then, that I won't be keeping you. I have an exchange planned."

"Letting us go would be a very wise idea, Senor," Don Alejandro warned. "Don't ask for anything in exchange but your life."

"Oh, I'll be getting something much better than that -- someone else's life!" Zaragosa laughed roundly at his own joke, and waved at his men to take the hostages away.

The cabin they were locked into was probably the second largest on the ship -- no doubt the captain kept the largest for himself -- but to Victoria it seemed miserably cramped and stuffy. She took the only chair in the room, and Don Alejandro sat on the edge of the bed; if he stood he would crack his head on the beams above.

Without any pirates around to be angry at, Victoria felt her fear coming to the fore. She brushed miserably at the salt stains on her dress. "I spent almost the entire profit from selling my tavern on this dress, and now look at it!" The hem was hopelessly muddied and torn.

"It looks beautiful to me. I couldn't wish for a fairer companion in captivity. Diego has excellent taste."

Victoria blinked. "Then, you're not disappointed that he wants to marry me?"

"Goodness, no! What made you think that?"

"Well, I'm not exactly a -- a lady of wealth and refinement."

"You don't need wealth to be the perfect lady for Diego. And as for refinement --" he chuckled. "-- I take it Diego hasn't told you much about his mother?"

"I thought she came from a very respected family."

"Oh, yes, but she wasn't always what her family wanted her to be. When I first met her, in fact, she was dressed as a man, plotting to rescue her brother from some trouble he'd fallen into. In fact, now that I come to think of it, that must be where Diego got his flare for drama."

"And disguise!" Victoria laughed, but her amusement quickly faded. "Don Alejandro, what that man was saying -- did he really mean he was going to exchange us for Diego's life?"

"I expect that's what he thinks, but I wouldn't worry. Diego won't fall for his trap." Alejandro's tone was light, but Victoria could see a line between his brows.

"You're right," she said with difficulty. "Diego's much too clever. I'm sure he has a plan worked out already."

"Of course I have a plan," Diego said to Felipe as they reached the hacienda. "Everything will be just fine."

A servant held out an envelope. "This was delivered here an hour ago, senor."

Diego opened the message and read it.

"What is it?" Felipe whispered in an agony of curiosity.

"They want an exchange. Father and Victoria, unhurt, in return for me, unarmed and unresisting. The trade is to be at sunset tonight." His face darkened over the rest of the message. "If I don't hand myself over, they will let me choose which of them to return to me alive, and which dead. If I don't choose, they will both be returned dead." Diego crumpled the paper in his fist. "Obviously, I'll have to hand myself over."

"You can't!" Felipe protested in a louder voice as he trailed after Diego to the cave.

"Don't worry, it won't be for very long." Diego looked over his worktable as if searching for inspiration. "As soon as Father and Victoria are safe, I'll make Enrique Zaragosa very sorry he didn't listen to my warnings."

He rolled up his sleeves and began to work one of his ugly brown lumps into a thin worm. "Remember what I said about this stuff? It's noisy -- exactly the distraction I'll need to get free. I won't want it to go off right away, so I'll use one of these slow-burning fuses, here. Now, the best part about this new explosive is that I can mold it onto the bottom of my boot. I can kick it off where it won't be seen, and when it starts to bang I can be over the side of the ship and swimming to shore." He smiled at Felipe. "Don't worry; I have it all worked out. Now, where did you store my Zorro costume? I might as well do this with flair, if I'm going to do it at all."

After an interminable wait, Don Alejandro and Victoria were once more bundled roughly into a boat and rowed to shore. Alejandro's hands were bound, and Victoria's were occupied in keeping the train of her dress out from underfoot. They toiled up a cliff path with armed, suspicious pirates before and behind, until they reached the sloping green fields above the shore.

Zorro was there, garbed in black on his black horse, with his cape billowing in the sea breeze. Behind him the sky was rosy with the reflection of sunset. Victoria felt a surge of relief when she saw him, but at the same time a different sort of alarm constricted her chest. A little apart from Zorro stood Felipe and Sergeant Mendosa.

At a gesture from Zaragosa, the pirates fanned out from the trailhead, some of the muskets and pistols trained on Zorro and some on the two captives. Zorro slowly dismounted from Toronado and walked forward with his hands held open. Victoria noticed anxiously that he carried neither sword nor whip.

Zaragosa's lieutenant freed Alejandro's hands with a jerk and pushed him toward Felipe and Mendosa. Another hand sent Victoria stumbling in the same direction.

Alejandro rubbed the feeling back into his wrists and paused next to Zorro. "Good work, son."

The masked man smiled quietly, his eyes still on the musket barrels that followed their every move.

Alejandro went on, "I didn't think you'd be able to get us free without --"

As Victoria drew even, Zorro continued walking on toward the half- circle of pirates. Sergeant Mendosa came to stand with the two freed captives.

"Wait!" Alejandro protested. "What is this? You can't mean --"

As panic bubbled in Victoria's chest, Zorro turned his head and gave them one silent wink. A moment later, the pirates closed around him.

"Stop!" cried Alejandro. "We didn't agree to this! Diego, you can't just give in to them! Mendosa, let me go."

"Don Diego said you should stay here, mi alcalde," Mendosa said nervously; his grip on Alejandro's arm was firmer than his voice.

Felipe tried to calm Toronado, and Victoria watched in frozen dread as Zorro's arms were bound behind his back.

"Take the mask off", growled Zaragosa. His lieutenant brushed the hat aside and pulled off the mask with a jerk that made Zorro stagger. Victoria's dim hope that someone else might be masquerading as Zorro died.

"That's him," Zaragosa gloated. He backhanded Diego, starting a trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth.

"No!" Alejandro roared. "Diego --" He hauled Mendosa forward several feet, making all the muskets swivel toward him.

"It's all right, Father," said Diego in a shockingly normal voice.

"Shut up, you!" said the lieutenant, shoving Diego toward the cliff trail hard enough to make him drop to one knee for a moment. With more such urgings, Diego started down the path to the beach, the fan of pirates closing up behind him.

Victoria didn't realize she'd been holding her breath until it escaped from her as Diego's head disappeared below the cliff edge.

"What is the meaning of this, Mendosa?" Alejandro demanded in a dangerous tone. He pulled his arm free of the Sergeant's grasp.

"Don Diego has a plan," said Mendosa apologetically. "There was no way to warn you without warning the pirates. He told me to make sure you didn't come after him."

"Whose orders do you follow, Sergeant?" Alejandro barked.

"What is his plan?" Victoria cut in over Alejandro's outrage. "How can he get free once he's on their ship?"

Felipe started to explain, but as soon as his attention was distracted from Toronado the horse reared up with a shrill neigh, freed his reins from the boy's grasp, and galloped away down the shoreline, near the cliff edge.

"Let him go, Felipe, and tell us what Diego plans," Alejandro urged. "Is he sure this plan will work?"

Felipe explained with a combination of words and gestures. Victoria kept missing bits of it as she glanced at the boat receding out to sea. Eventually the sunset dazzled her so she couldn't follow the boat any more.

Diego paid no attention to the taunts and shoves of the pirates; he was too busy counting off the minutes under his breath. He had to drop the explosive somewhere before it went off, and get well away from it so the sailors would be looking the other way when he made his escape. If they didn't reach the ship in time, he would be in trouble.

The pirates rowed to the ship in good time -- Zaragosa must be in a hurry to finish his business, Diego reflected. The pirate captain immediately gave orders to hoist sail. This had both advantages and disadvantages for Diego. If they got too far from shore, he would find it difficult to swim back -- especially with the tide against him. On the other hand, as the ship began to buck over the waves, Diego made a convincing show of staggering with the roll of the ship, which made it easy to knock the inconspicuous bit of explosive off near a pile of rope. He had wrapped the fuse in a bit of fire- resistant cloth to conceal its burning; now he just had to hope the fuse hadn't smothered. He tried to shift his position away from where the noise would begin, but his two burly guards immediately leveled their pistols.

Just as Diego was considering whether to feign seasickness and rush for the side of the ship, Zaragosa finished issuing orders and came gloat over his captive. "So!" exclaimed the captain. "Now I have you at my mercy -- just as you had Pablo."

Diego swallowed his own lingering unease over Pablo Zaragosa's unintended death.

"And I shall have exactly the same mercy for you, Senor Zorro, as you had for my brother!" Zaragosa brought his pistol to bear.

Diego lifted his chin. "At least I gave your brother a chance to fight back, in a fair duel."

Zaragosa shifted uncomfortably. "What chance, with all your friends to help you?"

Diego looked around pointedly at the pirate's crew, who were listening with interest. "Of course," he shrugged, "if you're afraid to fight me . . ."

A mutter passed among the watchers. A pirate captain lasted only as long as he could retain the respect and fear of his crew.

"It would hardly be fair!" Zaragosa protested. "You're a caballero, with your fancy schooling, and I had to make my way on my own."

"But we're fighting on your ship," Diego pointed out, staggering again with the roll over the deck. "That evens things out."

Zaragosa bit his lip as more mutters arose. He would have to do something. "Almost even", he declared, "but not quite. Luis, untie his left hand. Leave the other tied. That, Senor Zorro, is even." He waved at one of his men to give Diego a weapon.

Diego hefted the unwieldy cutlass, so different from his own fine blade, and glanced around at the muskets bracketing him. He knew well enough that winning a duel with the captain would not buy his freedom; he would have to play a much subtler game than that. He staggered again -- only half a show -- and Zaragosa, as he had hoped, took the opportunity to attack.

Diego fell back, parrying carefully. The cutlass moved much more slowly than the light sabers and rapiers he had trained with. He circled away from the pirate captain, making a show of the awkwardness of his left arm, and allowing Zaragosa to maneuver him around until he was facing the afterglare of the sunset. Then the pirate stopped pressing him to circle and began pushing him back steadily.

Diego retreated again and again, pirates clearing away behind him, until he was almost up against the ship's port rail. With no one behind him he began to twist cautiously at the ropes still holding his right hand back. Now he was positioned well away from the spot where he had dropped his explosive, and he just had to pray that the fuse had not been smothered.

Even as Diego glanced at the pile of rope where he had left his little distraction, he saw one of the crew, maneuvering for a better view, kick it accidentally. The claylike worm rolled across the ship's canting deck and fell down one of the hatchways.

Diego felt the blood draining from his face. He was not intimately familiar with the design of this sort of ship, but he had a strong suspicion that that hatchway led to the powder magazine.

Perhaps, he reflected, he should be praying that the fuse _had_ been smothered.

A familiar sizzle and pop sounded through the hatchway where the explosive had fallen. Heads began to turn.

"Run!" Diego yelled. "The magazine's going to blow!" He threw his cutlass at Zaragosa's head to distract him, wrenched his right hand free, leaped to the top of the railing, and dived for the water, hoping that he could get far enough away before . . .

The glare of the sunset had faded enough for them to see the ship silhouetted against its afterglow. Victoria, Felipe, Don Alejandro, and Sergeant Mendosa clustered at the cliffside, straining to see.

"Can anyone make out anything?" Don Alejandro asked. "The ship is so far out from shore. Surely that noisemaker should have gone off by now." He lowered the hand that had been shading his eyes and looked at Felipe.

Felipe shrugged. "Soon," he whispered.

The next moment, the sun came back over the western horizon.

Victoria shielded her eyes from the fierce bloom of light. "What --" she began, but her words were engulfed in a crack of thunder.

The four of them watched in amazement as flaming bits of debris began to rain back down into the sea.

"Madre de Dios," murmured Mendosa. "I didn't know Don Diego's explosive would be like that!"

Felipe shook his head.

"It wouldn't," said Alejandro in a dead voice. "That was the ship's powder magazine exploding. It must have killed everyone on board."

A rising plume of smoke dirtied the red sky. Victoria searched the horizon intently.

"Senorita Escalante, are you all right?" Mendosa asked.

"Victoria? Victoria . . . "

She ignored the voices. After an hour or so, when the last of the twilight and the last of the fires had faded, she let them lead her back to the pueblo.

Diego was in a bad way. He had not dived deep enough before the explosion went off; something heavy had struck his head, and a large splinter had lodged in his right leg. He was managing to swim with only one leg, but his head reeled dangerously. Parts of his memory were blank; he could not remember pulling off his shirt, cape or boots, and the twilight had faded strangely soon.

Most of Zorro's costume was sinking to the bottom of the sea now, but at least Zorro himself was still afloat. Unfortunately, the light was gone, and Diego could not remember which way was west or east. Whenever he tried to raise his head to look at the stars, he got dizzy. He could not keep his chin above water forever, and he suspected that a current was pulling him further out to sea. It seemed that his plan had not worked out very well, but at least his father and Victoria were safe. That thought gave him strength to struggle on for a few more minutes.

A strange sound came to him in the moments when he rose to the tops of the swells. At first he thought it was merely an echo of his own labored breathing, but it continued when he held his breath for a moment. Perhaps, he thought hopefully, it was the whisper of breakers on a nearby shore; he swam toward the sound.

As it became clearer, it seemed more and more like someone gasping -- but it was someone with much larger lungs than any of Diego's friends. He remembered strange sailors' tales of dolphins aiding castaways -- but surely dolphins did not blow so often? He paused, treading water, straining his eyes and ears to identify what was steadily approaching him.

He saw it rising over the next wave: a dark, long shape cutting the water. He backpedaled uneasily in the face of the unknown, but in a few more moments it caught up to him. A wet nose snuffled anxiously at his face, and he recognized it suddenly.

"Toronado! Old friend, how did you know where to find me?"

The stallion snorted imperatively and started to swim away. Diego grabbed at his mane, searching for the reins trailing in the water. "I hope you know which is the way to shore, old boy. I'm rather lost myself."

Toronado began to surge through the water surprisingly fast. Diego tightened his grip on the black mane. He didn't dare straddle the horse's back, since he was swimming dangerously low in the water. A brief investigation revealed that the stallion still carried his saddle, waterlogged and undoubtedly heavy. Diego struggled with the cinch for several minutes before he could pull the saddle free at last. Another item of Zorro's treasured gear was lost to the rapacious ocean.

After the effort, spots danced in Diego's eyes. He clung to Toronado's neck, laying his head against the sleek black poll and trusting the horse to bring him safely home.

He would come back to her. She was certain of it.

He had been dead once before, although of course she hadn't known then that he was Zorro; she had grieved merely for Diego, without guessing what Diego would one day mean to her. He had come back then, and he would come back now.

At the same time, beneath this certainty, a darker undercurrent ran through Victoria's thoughts. He would come back, surely, but he would never truly be hers. For years, her passion had been stayed by the mask, and his by his obligations to help the powerless. If the mask was gone, Diego's commitments were not. No matter how much he loved her, someone else would always need him more. He would always be pulled away from her; by his nature he couldn't refuse to help. He would always throw himself into danger with that frightening abandon, and no matter how quick and clever he was, he would lose someday.

Victoria had wondered, over the past weeks, whether it was really appropriate for her to marry Diego, the more-than-perfect caballero. She had smothered her doubts, sold her tavern, given herself over to the wedding -- and it had all been disrupted by the sort of trouble that only Diego could attract. It was inevitable, really. She should have realized.

Her mood was drastically out of tune with everyone else in the pueblo. Alejandro sat motionless, staring at the dancing flames of a lamp, responding woodenly to the condolences of the villagers. Felipe wept silently in a corner, voiceless, trying to be invisible. Mendosa repeated the story of Diego's plan, of the explosion and his own astonishment, as if his exaggerations could somehow make the whole story untrue. Victoria, on the other hand, was quite sure that Diego was alive, and she was hard put not to laugh when she was offered sympathy. At the same time, her darker ruminations filled her with fears for the future, while everyone else seemed to be mourning the past. At last she could stand it no longer; she slipped out of the tavern and went to stand by the gates of the pueblo, looking out at the moonlit desert.

She had not been there long when she heard hoofbeats approaching. She peered through the darkness. It was a dark horse, reminding her of Zorro's swift appearances from the night -- but Zorro had never ridden so slowly. As the horse neared she could not shake the conviction that it was Toronado, but his rider seemed to be slumped over his neck. Victoria took two steps forward, then three -- then she was running to greet Diego with tears on her cheeks. She had known he would come back, but still a darkness lifted from her heart.

He was wet, and he had lost his shirt. He slid from Toronado's back into her arms, leaning more of his weight on her than he had ever let her bear before. He held her, and kissed her, and she wiped the blood from his temple. They sat on a dusty rock outside the pueblo gates, and they clung to each other, and Diego voiced no wish to see anyone else. Victoria's heart leaped with joy and dread.

Eventually someone found them there and raised a cry. Strong people came and lifted Diego from Victoria's arms and carried him into town to have his leg treated. Victoria followed along behind, hugging herself and holding back tears.

He would go away from her. She was certain of it.

"Are you sure you're all right, son?"

"I'm fine, Father. Didn't Sergeant Mendosa explain to you that I had everything planned?"

Alejandro's lips thinned. "I had the impression that your 'plan' took some unexpected turns."

"Well, it turned out all right anyway. You and Victoria are back safely, and in a few days my leg will be as good as new. See?" Diego lurched and Felipe caught him. "Well, a week, maybe. Thank you, Felipe, I'll sit down now." He glanced at Victoria, who was still watching him in a silence as complete as Felipe's. "Are you all right, dear? The pirates didn't hurt you?"

She smiled wanly. "No, Don Alejandro protected me from insult."

"That's good. Except --" Diego frowned. "I promised him that by tonight you would be calling him 'Father' instead of Don Alejandro."

Alejandro snorted. "Well, Diego, you can't expect all of your plans to work out."

"Why not? Felipe, will you go find Padre Benitez? I'm sure he's awake -- everyone else in the pueblo is."

Victoria was startled into protesting. "What, now? But my dress -- I haven't had time to mend it, or clean it."

Diego beamed at her. "I don't mind. You don't have a dress -- I don't have a shirt! Of course, if it bothers you, I'm sure I can borrow one." He glanced around at the circle of grinning onlookers.

"But Diego -- you can't be serious!" Victoria was blushing.

Diego pulled her close and said in a voice for her ears alone, "I gave you until today to be ready to marry me, and I won't wait a moment longer! If you'll still have me, of course," he added, releasing her with a disarming grin.

Alejandro leaned forward to whisper to Victoria, "Remember what I told you -- the de la Vegas have no need for refinement."

And so Victoria was married in one of her work dresses, to a man with an ill-fitting shirt and a cane, who swayed at odd moments during the ceremony. Both of them swayed as they kissed at the end, and Alejandro had to catch them before they could fall. Victoria cuddled deliciously in Diego's arms all the way to the de la Vega hacienda, and even persuaded him to keep one arm around her shoulders for support as they maneuvered into the front hall.

"Ah, before the two of you disappear together, I have something to show you."

Diego, the obedient son, frowned rebelliously at his father.

"Now, this will only take a moment. Victoria, my dear daughter, here is my gift to the bride." Alejandro handed her a packet of papers.

Victoria puzzled over the familiar forms. "How did you get this, Don Ale -- Father? This is the deed to my -- to the tavern."


"But I mailed it to the buyer in San Diego last week."

"Ah! You mailed it to my agent in San Diego."

Diego boggled. "_You_ bought the tavern?"

"That's right." Alejandro surveyed the two of them indulgently. "Now, I don't wish to interfere between the two of you, and I quite agree that Victoria deserves a life with plenty of leisure, but I thought it might be best if she has something to keep her mind occupied."

"My tavern . . . " whispered Victoria, a warm glow spreading through her.

Alejandro continued to her, "It brings in quite enough money that you can hire someone for the daily running, but you'll still be able to manage things and make all the important decisions yourself. You've done such a fine job with it in the past five years, I thought you deserved more opportunities for success."

Diego's arm tightened around her. "I wondered myself if it was a mistake to sell the tavern. Did it make you very unhappy, dear?"

"Yes," she admitted, "but I was afraid it would make you unhappy if I didn't."

"So long as you have time to spend with me, I have no objection." He placed a hand under her chin and drew her lips up to his.

After a few minutes, Victoria wondered, "Where did Don, uh, mmmm, Father go?"

"Mmmm, to bed?"

"Sounds like a, mmmmm a, uh -- mmmmmmmmm -- good idea."

Two weeks later, Victoria was sitting in the sun outside of the hacienda with a glass of juice in her hand. Diego had been putting Toronado through his paces, but now he turned the stallion over to a groom to be stabled. He came to sit next to her as she poured out another glass of juice.

"It looks as if your leg is much better," Victoria commented.

"As good as new," Diego affirmed. "Toronado is fully recovered as well."

"That's nice. Diego, I was thinking of that chemistry experiment you showed me yesterday."

"You were?"

"Don't sound so surprised, dear."

He chuckled. "I'm sorry. But no one's ever been very interested before."

"Well, I have my own motives. Do you think you could use that stuff to make a hard protective coating over paint? You said it was waterproof."

"Well, I don't know if it would discolor the paint."

"Perhaps we could try it. The tavern's sign is getting faded again, and I was thinking --" Victoria broke off as she saw Don Alejandro come riding up in a hurry.

Diego followed her gaze and stood to greet his father.

"Diego, remember the outlaws who've been troubling the farms on the south side of the pueblo? They've just stolen another dozen cattle, but this time Corporal Sepulveda says they left tracks."

"It shouldn't be that hard to find them, then," Diego agreed.

Victoria's hands were white-knuckled around her glass. She studied the hem of her dress carefully.

"Right! Saddle up, and you can come along with us."

"Sorry, I can't. My solutions will boil away if I leave them too long."

"What?" Alejandro was flabbergasted.

"And Victoria and I were going to take some fruit to Senora Valdez, since all her children have the flu."

Victoria looked at Diego incredulously.

"But, Diego, we need your help!"

"Nonsense. Sergeant Mendosa has been doing very well with his tracking lessons, and the lancers are perfectly capable of surrounding and subduing half a dozen criminals."

Alejandro closed his mouth slowly. "Sometimes, Diego, you truly amaze me."

Diego laughed out loud. "That's what you said when Sir Miles Thackeray was terrorizing the pueblo."

Alejandro smiled at the memory. "Yes, son, but --"

"They don't need me to do their job, Father. But they do need their Alcalde. You'd better be going." He gave Alejandro's horse an encouraging smack and watched his father ride off toward the pueblo before rejoining Victoria. "Now, what were you saying about the tavern's sign?"

Victoria stared at him. "Why didn't you go along? Didn't you want to help?"

Diego shook his head. "Those lancers have to grow up sometime. After all --" He shrugged "-- they can't expect me to be Zorro forever."

The End

July 1992