COUNTERATTACK
 
11
 
 
 
     The following evening the sun's glow was fading as Felipe shifted his position to stretch his legs.  He had spent the last few hours either sitting beside a barrel located behind the general store or ambling innocently from the blacksmith's, around the tavern, and back to the store.  A handful of people had come to the inn's kitchen door, but most were tradesmen selling to Ramón and his wife.  None left carrying a weapon.  Diego had brought him lunch, and they had compared notes.  His mentor had seen many more people entering the tavern, but had had no more success than Felipe of observing that which they hoped to see.
     From the tavern's windows light and a myriad of voices spilled out, making the building seem a warm, desirable place to be on a lonely spring evening. The savory aromas from the kitchen reminded the teen that supper was being prepared, and he was hungry!  In a few more minutes he would see if Diego was still keeping watch in the front and remind him that it was time to eat.  Felipe's distractions effectively prevented him from hearing the horse-drawn wagon until it was quite close.  But the conveyance, driven by an ordinary-looking man with a dark, thick mustache, pulled up quietly behind the tavern and knocked on the door.  The youth watched eagerly with his eye to the space between the barrel and the wall.  Perdita opened the door, and the man stepped inside.  When the door had closed again, Felipe ran to get Diego.
     The de la Vega son was getting weary of the vigil as well.  Not that he had expected much to happen in broad daylight, but it was necessary to cover all possibilities.  He surmised that any action would occur under the shelter of night, so when Felipe approached with the news of a wagon he was not surprised.  Ramón had needed time to pass information that he had rifles available before any customers could come to buy.  A horse-drawn cart or wagon was exactly the sort of vehicle that Diego had been expecting if customers were buying in bulk.  The other option was individuals buying the rifles one at a time, and those would likely arrive on foot or horseback.
     Diego was bolder than his young companion, though.  When they returned to the tavern's rear entrance, the caballero strolled up to the kitchen window and put his eye to the crack.  The room was empty.  He gestured for Felipe to stay put in his hiding spot and continue watching.  He entered the building through the front door and looked for the man Felipe had described.  The description was common enough, though, to apply to most of the men in the room.  Far better to locate and watch Ramón interact with the people in the room.  After a few minutes' absence, his brother-in-law entered the taproom from the storage rooms to the side.  No suspect approached him as he circulated among his customers again.  Diego unobtrusively left the building before Ramón spotted him.
     Felipe was visibly relieved when de la Vega returned to the back of the building.  He pointed around the side of the building.  The wagon was being driven out the pueblo gates.
     "What happened?" questioned Diego in a low voice.
     Felipe pointed to the small window in the tavern's storage room and indicated that a wooden crate had passed through it to the man, who had apparently come through the window himself and backed his horse and wagon around to the window.
     "I didn't see the driver, but Ramón exited the storage room.  He must have been lifting the crate from the other side to put it through the window.  I'll follow the man and see where he's going.  Stay here and keep watching; I'll return."
     He untethered Esperanza from the newspaper office's hitching post and followed the wagon at a discreet distance.  The wagon turned south on the Camino Real.  The night was already too dark to make a positive identification of the driver even if Diego passed him and got a closer look.  So he dropped back and listened for the faint grinding of the wooden wheels upon the dirt road.
     His stealthy pursuit continued some three miles until the wagon turned into the stone posts that marked the gate of Don Andrés's large rancho.  Diego paused only a moment at the gate, then decided to trespass upon the don's property.  Was the man merely a courier or did he work for Don Andrés?  The long, low hacienda was lit from the windows as he approached.  The wagon had pulled up to the door, and Don Andrés came out to talk to the man.  The don looked in the wagon and said something to the driver.  The driver nodded and drove the wagon behind the house where some storage buildings and the bunkhouse lay.  Diego waited several minutes in the deeper shadows, but the man did not drive back out of the property.  Instead, the horse was unhitched and led to the stables.  The caballero had seen enough; he turned Esperanza and galloped back to the pueblo.
     "The man was one of Don Andrés's people," he told Felipe.  "Anything more happen here?"
     The teen nodded.  He beckoned Diego into The Guardian's office and, when Diego had adjusted the flame in the oil lamp, wrote that Señor Heceta had also visited the tavern's back door.
     "Did he have a wagon?"
     Felipe shook his head, but indicated the landowner had ridden away with a rifle.
     "It looks like we may have a busy night.  Since the rifles are evidently hidden in the storage room, I'll take up the watch from that side.  Here, get some dinner and keep watching the kitchen door."  He handed the young man two pesos and bade him go to the tavern for supper.
     The night proved eventful.  Three more times did visitors wait outside the small window while a crate or single rifles were handed through by Ramón.  From the blacksmith's portico, the caballero saw Pedro Chavez from the bank receive a rifle.  Money changed hands as well.  Still later another wagon approached, its driver went inside for a few minutes, and then a heavy crate was pushed through the window to him after he had pulled his wagon around to the side of the building.  Diego did not recognize the driver, but he suspected that the man was in the employ of one of the larger ranches.  He followed this wagon also, but the driver was more wary.  Five miles south on the King's Highway, Diego knew that he had been given the slip.  The driver and wagon were nowhere to be seen.  He kicked his mare and sped back to the tavern.
     Felipe had seen two more men receive rifles from the window, one whom he recognized as Rubén Torres from the smithy.  The teen and his mentor kept watch for more than an hour after all the tavern's lights had been extinguished.  But after the tavern's closing, no visitors came knocking at the back door.
     "Let's go home," said Diego.  "We've seen enough for one night."
     The teen, fighting to stay awake, agreed whole-heartedly.  On the way home, the caballero shared his conclusions with Felipe.
     "Ramón is obviously an arms dealer, and his customers are from all over this area.  The two that took away whole crates--one took his orders directly from Don Andrés.  The other I lost could be from one of five or so other large landowners further to the south.  The guns are obviously to distribute among the men on the estates."  At the teen's inquisitive gesture, he explained, "This curious incident of the rifle shipment is a covert operation; Ramón denies he has the rifles, and his customers come to buy secretly at night.  Yes, I think it's a dangerous business.  Citizens feel the need to arm themselves and their households, but why?  Is the purpose offense or defense?  My guess is that Ramón is in league with the rebels.  His sympathies were on that side years ago when he left Los Angeles, and I don't think he's changed his mind.  Those rumors about independence may have the firepower to back them up."
     When he slid between the sheets in his darkened bedroom, he was startled to hear his wife murmur sleepily, "Where have you been?"
     "Forgive me, my dear.  My business took longer than I expected."
     "What business?"
     "Uh, a lead I'm investigating.  I'll probably be working on it several days; I hope you won't mind."
     She made a non-committal "Hm" and turned away from him to sleep.
     The next night's watch expanded his information on Ramón's operation.  Señor Castata bought a rifle at the window, as did Señores Garcia and Tamidor.  Diego recognized Don León's head vaquero drive up to the window and receive an entire crate.  Don Salvador came in person and carried off three of the weapons.  One of Victoria's unsuccessful suitors, Miguel Acaba, came with a man Diego did not recognize and bought four more rifles.  By the end of the night's watch the caballero estimated that three-fourths of the weapons had been delivered to their intended customers.  The next day, however, brought an abrupt halt to the distribution of arms from the tavern.  As Diego monitored the tavern from the shade by the office's front door, a party of four soldiers under the command of the alcalde marched across the plaza and into the tavern.  Curious, Diego followed.  Inside he saw Ramón struggling in the grasp of two lancers.
     "Escalante, you are under arrest," growled the commandant.
     "Why?  What have I done?" demanded Ramón.
     "Dealing in illegal arms and probably treason.  Enough to hang you.  Lock him up," DeSoto ordered his men.
     Ramón resisted arrest all the way across the plaza.  "Don't worry, Querida!" he called to his frantic wife.  "The alcalde will soon see that he's made a mistake!"
     Diego accompanied a tearful Perdita to the cuartel's office to try to aid his brother-in-law.  It was a difficult interview.  The caballero knew that Ramón was certainly guilty of the charges, and somehow the garrison had been tipped off.  Two dozen rifles were also seized from the storage room by Sergeant Mendoza and held by the garrison as evidence against the tavern manager.
     "Ramón has many friends in this town," comforted Diego to the young bride as they crossed the plaza to the tavern, "and my father and I will bring all our influence to his trial to help him.  We'll get him off."
     "Thank you, Don Diego.  I just don't know what to do."
     "Close the tavern for the rest of the afternoon," he advised her.  "Try to compose yourself; Ramón will need your support in the next few days."
     She nodded dolefully and went inside.  Diego mounted Esperanza and rode straight to the cave's secret entrance.  He tethered the mare on a shrub outside and stepped on the hidden foot spring.  The door swung open on well-balanced hinges.  Toronado turned at his footsteps and walked up to nuzzle his master.
     "Come, boy; we have work to do."  He tacked the stallion quickly and changed into his black clothes.  He hooked his whip on one side of his belt; the heavy sabre rested on his left hip.  Zorro put his foot into the silver stirrup and led his mount out the cave's door.
     The uproar that followed Escalante's arrest had quieted somewhat by time the masked man circled around the cuartel's back wall.  He had decided on a frontal assault, and so left Toronado behind the building.
     The commandant, sitting at his desk, stared in astonishment as the dark outlaw strode in the front door of his office.
     "Buenas tardes, Alcalde.  I'm here about Ramón Escalante."
     "Guards!" gasped the officer in horror.  "Guards!"  He plucked his sabre from its scabbard by the desk.
     "Now, really, why must you make a simple matter so complicated?"  Zorro released his whip and flicked it across the room at his enemy's hands.  DeSoto, to his credit, managed to hold onto the sword even though the thong snapped on his arm.  He recovered his poise, advanced and lunged at his opponent.  The man in black dodged to the left, and the blade pierced the satin on his cape.
     "Olé!" Zorro quipped, bringing the butt of the whip down hard on the back of the officer's hand.
      Since his blade was tangled in his enemy's cape, DeSoto released the hilt with a groan of pain.  The ornamental sabre slipped to the ground, and the outlaw wrapped the leather-encased butt of the bullwhip across the alcalde's throat.  DeSoto was pulled backwards against the Fox.  Thoughts of using his fists to defeat the masked man fled instantly; he clawed desperately to relieve the crushing pressure on his windpipe by that unrelenting grip.
     Sergeant Mendoza burst through the back door followed by three of his men.  "Zorro!"
     "Nice to see you again, Sergeant.  I hope you've been well."  His victim gurgled as the whip tightened again.
     "Sí, gracias.  I've been--  Release the alcalde at once, or we'll run you through!"  The sergeant gamely drew his sabre, and his lancers did likewise.
     "I don't think so.  I'm here to talk about this hasty arrest of Ramón Escalante.  I think you've been too severe, Alcalde.  Why don't you have him brought out here, and we can talk about this in a civilized manner!"
     All the commandant's strength could not dislodge the hard handle of the whip from his throat.  He gestured frantically to his sergeant to do as the masked man had said.  Mendoza hastened to obey his superior officer, and a minute later Ramón was led into the alcalde's office where the tense standoff was still in progress.
     "Now what exactly are the charges against this man?" asked Zorro.
     Since DeSoto was still occupied in the matter of drawing each successive breath, the sergeant answered, "The prisoner was found to be selling firearms illegally, and a search of his property uncovered twenty-four more rifles which he intended to sell to persons unknown.  The alcalde thinks he's in league with the rebellion."
     "What proof do you have of that?" demanded Ramón.  "This is mere speculation on the alcalde's part!  You can't imprison me for what you suspect!"
     "That's true, and I'm sure the alcalde would agree if he were able to speak.  But the matter of selling rifles--  Sergeant, isn't a dealer in arms supposed to have a license allowing him to sell?"
     "Yes, and Ramón has none!  I'm sorry, Ramón, but that is the law!  You have to have a license!"
     The outlaw clucked his tongue.  "For shame, Ramón!  If you intend to make a little money on the side, you must get the proper license from the government!   Otherwise, you face a stiff fine!  Alcalde, what is the fine for not having the proper vending license?"  He released the choking instrument from DeSoto's neck a moment, but his victim could only suck in a scratchy breath.  "I think he said, 'One hundred pesos.'  Ramón, I hope you have a hundred pesos."
     The innkeeper gave the outlaw a speaking look and gritted, "I suppose I can find it."
     "Do so quickly before the alcalde changes his mind." Ramón grimaced and ran from the office.  "Sergeant, draw up a license."
     "Do it!" hissed the officer, again struggling for breath. The sergeant ordered his men to stand ready but not to press the outlaw, who stood ready to strangle the commandant if he was threatened by a show of force.  Mendoza scratched out the wording of a license on a piece of parchment.
     "The alcalde has to sign it," he warned.
     Ramón returned with a satchel of coins which he deposited on the commandant's desk.  Pushing the alcalde away from himself, Zorro drew his sword quickly and poised it at the officer's back.
     "Sign, Alcalde, and next time save yourself some trouble.  You are perfectly within the law to fine Señor Escalante."
     "But why so much?" grumbled Ramón to the masked man.  "Why didn't you say twenty pesos, or even fifty?"
     The masked man shrugged.  "You were selling without a license.  The law is reasonable to demand a license and fine you if you don't have one.  Right, Alcalde?"
     The officer scratched his signature across the paper and thrust the license at Ramón.  "Get out of my sight!" he rasped.  The innkeeper left promptly.  "Now get Zorro!" the alcalde commanded.  He bent over his desk wheezing while the lancers attacked the Fox in unison.  Parry three blades together, bind and transfer to low-line!  Closing the distance to his opponents made toppling them with a shove to the shoulder of the first man much easier.  Off balance, the first stumbled into the second, and he in turn staggered into the third soldier.  Zorro retreated toward the door and whistled for Toronado.  A slashing cut forced his opponents backward, and the man in black slipped out the front door and slammed it against the soldiers.  He was in the saddle, giving them a jaunty salute, before Mendoza stumbled out the door with his lancers behind.
     "To horse!" cried the sergeant.  "After him!"  He knew Zorro would elude his men's best efforts, but failing to pursue the outlaw would bring severe condemnation from his superior officer.
     "Zorro!"
     The masked man's head snapped around at the sound of that feminine cry, and his eyes locked with Victoria's.  She was standing there in the plaza with her brother, and in that instant the dark rider saw the naked longing in her face, heard the pathos in her voice.  His face froze, and he deliberately turned away, giving no acknowledgment that her presence had any meaning to him.  He raced out the pueblo gates as if the devil himself were in pursuit.
     The soldiers never had a chance to follow the outlaw, much less to capture him.  Toronado did not understand the continual demands for more speed, but faithfully obeyed the pressure from his master's knees.  Faster, ever faster the dry wind divided before them as the Fox was being driven by the tortures of his own mind.  Victoria still loved Zorro!  It had been written plainly on her face!  Hurt gouged him where no sabre could pierce.  How was it possible to be jealous of Zorro, his own heroic fantasy?  We're the same man, aren't we?  Aren't we? his heart protested.  And he had flattered himself that he had made progress as Diego!  The companionship that they had enjoyed in recent days--it was a delusion!  She would never love all of him!  She only wanted that insubstantial ghostly image--the shadow of who he really was!  Sorrow, disappointment, and lastly anger swelled in his heart.  Why couldn't Victoria see the truth?  He had not played the weakling or the pacifist since their marriage; he had worked on exposing her to his true personality.  But it wasn't enough for her.  Why not? he fumed.  I'm worth her love!
     By the time he entered the cave his sense of ill-usage had reached its zenith.  He slammed Toronado's saddle down on the railing and threw his sword belt across the room, where it smashed into the rack of empty chemistry vials.  The destruction of the fragile glass brought him a black satisfaction, as did kicking over the clothes rack and splintering its post against the stone wall.  After picking up his clothes from the floor, Zorro changed once more into the garments of a caballero and entered the library.  Victoria would be arriving home shortly; what would he say to her?  He would tell her exactly what he thought of her double-dealing!  It was past time to clear the air!  How dare she make such a spectacle of herself!  And him, too!  Why, the entire pueblo would be informed by nightfall that his wife was still in love with an outlaw!
     Diego paced the floor, glaring out the window toward the driveway.  And furthermore, she owed him something!  Respect, for instance, even if she didn't love him! And loyalty in public!  He had helped her when she needed help, and her present situation was not exactly Spartan.  In fact--  His next vituperation was cut short when he saw a plume of dust kick up from the road.  Ha!  She was coming, with Felipe driving the carriage!
     The quick footsteps of his father approached behind him.  "Victoria's back already?" Alejandro wondered aloud.  "You know about Ramón's arrest?  I'm surprised you didn't wait for Victoria in town; you knew she would come."
     "There was no need to wait; Ramón has already been released," Diego said tightly.  "How did she find out he was in jail?"
     "Felipe came home with the news.  I thought you sent him.  When did you get home?"
     "I just got here."  Each word was bitten off, prompting a sidelong look from his father.  Diego lingered in the house while Alejandro assisted his daughter-in-law from the carriage.  Victoria was not smiling.  She made some short, subdued answer to a question posed by the rancher and entered the house with her eyes lowered.  Scarcely glancing at her husband before turning down the hall, she said nothing to him.  The bowed head, the slump in her shoulders spoke eloquently enough.
     The molten words which scorched his tongue Diego restrained, but he did not spare her.  "Well, well.  My brave little wife returns from helping her brother.  Only this time you got more than you bargained for, didn't you?"
     She turned at his hostile tone; her mouth moved but was unequal to a reply.  She stood rooted to the spot, defeated.  Alejandro expostulated, "Diego!"  His son, still furious enough to push aside the shame from attacking a weaker target, stalked out of the house.
     "Victoria?  Are you all right?  What did Diego mean?"
     She gave her head a little shake.  "He must have found out that Zorro freed Ramón.  Bad news travels quickly."
     "It's not bad news that Zorro still cares enough to help the people of Los Angeles.  Did seeing him upset you?"
     "Yes," she whispered.  She passed a hand over her brow.  "Apparently it's upset Diego, too.  I can't say that I blame him."
     Alejandro patted her shoulder.  "Don't worry about Diego, my dear.  He rarely stays angry for long.  Just give him some time to himself, and he'll come around."
     She made a noise of resignation and said, "I think I'll rest a while in my room.  Gracias, Don Ale--Papá."
     De la Vega, stunned by the term of affection, murmured something incoherent in return.
     In the chamber she shared with her husband, Victoria reached deep into the far pocket of her red skirt that was hanging in her husband's large walnut wardrobe.  She withdrew the momentoes of Zorro she had hidden there and sorted them one by one.  They had to be destroyed; she knew that now.  Likely there were hot coals in the adobe oven on the back patio that would serve her purpose.
     Maria was there, though, spending the early evening exactly as her young mistress had at the tavern, by chopping vegetables for supper.  Victoria thought of an errand to get rid of the housekeeper.
     "Maria, Don Alejandro looked so hot a few minutes ago.  I'm sure he would appreciate some of your delicious lemonade."
     "Sí, Señora."  Maria wiped her hands on her apron.  "I didn't know he had been out this afternoon."  She halved two lemons and began reaming the juice into a bowl.  "Does Master Diego want some, too?"
     "Perhaps later.  He--just went out."
     "Then I shall make him a glass as well, though I think he would rather receive it from your hands than mine."  The older woman paused and admitted gruffly, "You have made the young master very happy."
     Victoria blinked in surprise.  "I?"  Of course Maria did not know that Diego had left the house in a rare temper!  "Was he unhappy before?"
     The housekeeper considered.  "No, I wouldn't say unhappy.  But he's a quiet sort of person.  Spends a lot of time by himself.  He goes out late at night often, and doesn't return until the wee hours of the morning.  Sort of a loner."
     That was not exactly the concept the señora had formed of her husband before marriage, but on closer association she could see that there was some truth to Maria's assessment.  "He should have had some brothers and sisters."
     "Sí, Señora.  For years Don Alejandro and Doña Elena tried to have more children, and then at last, Doña Elena died bearing a stillborn daughter.  Master Diego was only twelve at the time."
     "How tragic.  I barely remember her, but she came to the pueblo church sometimes."
     "A great lady.  The young master is very like her; his love for music and art and books he got from his mother.  Sometimes the patrón wishes his son could be more like him, but we are what God decides."
     "Indeed."  Victoria pondered the housekeeper's unexpected confidences as Maria added to the lemon juice some cooled water from a large jug wrapped with a wet towel.  Pieces were beginning to fit to the puzzle of the relationships within her new home.  Diego had inherited more than artistry from his mother; the planes of his face and the shape of his eyes were like those in the portrait of Elena in the little gold frame which sat on the rancher's desk.  There was something of Don Alejandro in him, too; Victoria's husband had a stronger drive--albeit a quiet one--than she had credited him with prior to their marriage.  She had not seen any evidence of that indifferent, detached temperament that had baffled and exasperated her on many occasions.
     "A little sugar, and the lemonade is ready," declared Maria.  Upon learning that the patrón was settling business at his desk, the housekeeper at last left the kitchen patio.
     Victoria verified that Maria was indeed going down the hallway toward the sala before sprinting to the large oven.  She pulled open its iron door with a towel.  Coals from lunch glowed orange in ashy white nests.  One by one the doña fed in the momentoes.  She watched as the flames licked up the papers, curling their edges with black.  The dried rose smoldered a moment, then was consumed by the fire.  Maria would be returning any second!  The last thing to cover the coals was a black silk mask.  When smoke began to seep around the edges of the fabric, Victoria closed the oven door.

     Diego in his foul mood had no intention of returning to the hacienda until his emotions were under control.  He knew he was going to have to apologize to his wife, and as of yet he was not the least sorry, nor did he have a strategy for dealing with the original problem.  What he needed was a distraction for a few hours.  The cave was the best place to be alone until darkness fell, so the caballero climbed down the steep hillside into the gorge behind the hacienda and entered the hideout by the earth-bermed door.
     Zorro decided he would use the evening to investigate more deeply into Ramón's source of weapons.  He was unlikely to get his brother-in-law to volunteer any information even after that afternoon's assistance, and Ramón was not happy with being charged a hefty fine at the instigation of the outlaw.  The Fox smiled grimly; it served Ramón right for not being more forthcoming in their meeting at the tavern.
     The harbor master at San Pedro kept a log of everything loaded and unloaded in the port.  Perhaps a look at that logbook would answer some more questions.
     As soon as night had wrapped the coast, a black gloved fist knocked urgently on the door of a humble home.  The door cracked open, and a wizened face peered out.  Seeing the masked man, the owner tried to slam the door.  A large ebony boot, wedged into the opening, prevented the dark hero from being shut out.  He forced the door open.  The ancient little harbor master dived for his horse pistol, a weapon Zorro estimated to be about as old as the man.
     "Señor, put that thing down before you get hurt," the outlaw advised.
     The scrawny arm shook from the pistol's weight.  "Don't come any closer, bandit, or I'll shoot!"
     Zorro lamented, "Why must everything be the hard way?"  His foot kicked up and contacted the harbor master's wrist.  The pistol flew out of the man's grasp and was caught neatly by the outlaw.
     "As I thought--not even loaded," he stated after examining the firearm.  "Well, to business.  I'd like to look at your log book entries from the last three months."
     "That's an official log of His Majesty the King," scolded the old man.  "Only authorized servants of His Majesty can look at it!"
     "I won't tell if you won't," quipped the man in black, flipping back the cover of the huge ledger on the desk.  "Please have a seat," he invited, drawing his sword to make certain the harbor master obeyed.  "The way you're fidgeting makes me nervous.  Now, what does this entry mean?  'Martín Retana, Santos Pelazio, ten bushels of rice, Trinidad, May fifth'?"  Is Señor Retana the buyer or the seller?"
     "The buyer!" snapped the harbor master, resentful of having his log book violated.  "The grain came in on the Trinidad on that date."
     "And who is Señor Pelazio?"
     "The man who put the goods on the ship in La Paz!"
     Zorro flipped forward some pages and located the date Felipe had seen Ramón at the harbor.  Escalante was listed as a buyer of a chest of crockery from San Diego.  The masked man frowned; Ramón's story was true up to that point.
     "Do you remember this shipment?"
     "Sí.  Young Escalante picked it up.  A pleasant gentleman newly returned from Mexico City."
     "How big was this chest of dishes?"
     The harbor master sketched out the size with his hands, indicating the crate was not large enough or long enough to contain arms.  "If you're interested in setting a table, Señor Fox, order your own!"
     The outlaw brought up the sharpened tip of his blade.  "No need--I already have a knife.  Where are the rest of the entries?"
     The harbor master blinked.  "I don't know what you mean.  This is the official log, and the only one I keep."
     "The unofficial arrivals," the masked man said softly.  "The ones you get paid not to record."
     "I am an honest servant of His Majesty!" blustered the official.
     "Spare my ears, and I'll spare yours."  The sabre tip circled the whiskered ears of the harbor master.
     The man shrank back.  "If there was anything else--and I'm not saying there was--I'd be loco to write it down!"
     "Then let us access the hypothetical list in your head.  Escalante picked up several crates of rifles that day.  Where did they come from?"
     Zorro's arm extended; his fingers twitched the long blade.  The man gasped as the razor's tip sliced by his head.  An oily gray lock of hair floated to the floor.
     "They came on the same ship from San Diego!" he screeched.  "That's all I know!"
     "Who was the sender?"
     "Rodero, Riguero, Rodrigo--something with an R!  I don't remember!"
     "Rodriguez?"
     "Sí!  Sí!  Jesu Rodrigueq!" wailed the harbor master, covering his ears and watching the Spanish sabre fearfully.
     "And the schooner that comes into port occasionally.  What is her cargo?"
     "She carries none that I know of.  That schooner is a privately owned vessel!"
     "By whom?"
     "I don't know--I swear!  She's a gentleman's pleasure boat!  I don't know whose she is or where she comes from!  If she's not trading, she's not in my jurisdiction!"
     Zorro doubted there was any more useful information to be gotten out of the man, and sheathed his sword.  "I thank you for your kind welcome."  He turned swiftly, his cape swirling behind his dark form as he left by the door.
     Jesu Rodriguez!  If the harbor master's dismal memory could be trusted, the masked man was indeed dealing with a strong faction of the rebellion.  Jesu Rodriguez was the name of one of Joaquin Correna's men, and Joaquin was well-known as one of the revolution's leading activists--a man with a price on his head almost comparable to that on Zorro's.  Correna and his band had visited Los Angeles five months before, and Diego still shuddered to recall the discovery of his fiancée from Madrid, Safíra, as the wife of the rebel leader.  He had sheltered Correna briefly in the hacienda when the soldiers came in eager pursuit.  Zorro had lent a hand in occupying the soldiers while Victoria helped the small company to safety.  Yes, Jesu Rodriguez was Correna's right hand man.  He had been with Joaquin through the Los Angeles debacle, but his name was unknown to the army.  If indeed he had sent the rifles from San Diego, then likely he was still Correna's lieutenant.  Correna himself could be in San Diego, and using the town as a base of operations for Baja and Alta California.
     The outlaw contemplated the arguments for and against independence for New Spain.  Alta California would still be considered a provincial frontier, rustic and remote, a mere appendage to the important economic and political hub of Mexico City.  He had mixed feelings regarding the whole uneasy state of government, and had no clear cut guidance for Zorro's involvement with either side.  Yet his curiosity and desire for knowledge topped his ambivalent attitudes, and he knew that he would make the trip to San Diego.

     Felipe was waiting for him in the cave when he returned and warned him that Victoria was sitting in the library.  An eye to the peephole confirmed that his wife was reading by lamplight, and positioned to see him emerge from the secret door.
     "I'll go around from the outside," he told the teen while changing clothes, "and get her out of the room.  Then you can make your escape."  He noticed that the broken glass from his destructive rage had been removed.  "Er, thank you for cleaning up.  I was feeling out of sorts this afternoon."
     Felipe's eyebrows raised, and he nodded solemnly.  A hand gesture followed.
     "Yes, I'm over the worst of it.  I just wish that Victoria hadn't been in town when Zorro rescued Ramón.  It was my intention to keep her from seeing him--me--like this until I could tell her the truth.  Never mind.  You meant it for the best, and I didn't tell you what I planned.  See to Toronado, will you?"
     His wife looked up with an anxious face when Diego opened the front door.  She was no coward; she had been waiting for him, knowing that his mood could still be as nasty as it had been earlier in the day.
     "Buenas noches," she said, standing.  "Have you eaten?"
     Supper had been served a couple of hours before; he had missed it.  His last meal had been an early lunch, and suddenly he felt ravenous.  Was his wife making a placating gesture or a kind gesture?
     "No.  I don't suppose Maria left anything for me?"
     "She's gone to bed, but I'll see."  Victoria left the room, and he followed.
     "Braving Maria's kitchen!  You're not afraid of stepping on her toes?"
     "She'll allow it for your sake.  She's quite fond of you."  She lifted the lids of covered containers until she located some carne asada and beans.  After putting the food in a pan to warm, Victoria opened the oven door.  Not a trace remained of her treasures, she noted in grim relief as she stirred the coals and placed the pan on them.
     "I gather you don't share her sentiments."  It was an opportunity for Victoria to make a denial, and he hoped foolishly that she had already pardoned his caustic remark and would give some indication that he had grown in her esteem.  He was disappointed.
     "Perhaps we should talk about this afternoon.  I don't suppose it matters, but how did you find out that I'd seen--him?"
     "I was there.  I saw."  He watched her dark eyes drop in shame, and he could not bear to behold her suffering.  He sat at the kitchen table and gave his attention to adjusting the lamp.
     "You were very rude when I came home."
     "Yes."  Still he did not look at her.  "I apologize for my behavior."  He bit his lip.  Things could not rest like this; some effort had to be made to bridge the chasm between them!  "Why don't you tell me what happened in the plaza from your point of view?"
     She placed a plate and fork on the table for him.  "I--called to him.  He turned and looked at me.  No, he looked through me like he didn't recognize me."
     "What exactly did you expect?  That he would make you the talk of the town by singling you out for a greeting?  You are a married woman!  And he is a man of honor!"
     Honor, my eye!  Promise-breaker!  Heart-breaker!  She said nothing, but hung her head to hide the mulish expression that twisted her mouth.
     "If you see our brave hero again--"  His sarcastic voice grated her ears.  "--you are to ignore him.  Don't speak to him; don't try to attract his attention."
     "Is that all?" she asked in a suppressed tone.  She turned to leave the kitchen.
     "Victoria, I mean it.  Stay away from him."
     Tears prickled beneath her eyelids, but she kept them open fiercely.  "Sí, Señor."  She dipped the merest hint of a curtsey and swept into the house, leaving him to rescue his dinner from scorching.
 

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