Doña Victoria's fury burned bright red;
nothing mattered except escape from the hacienda! She darted through
the library and out the front door. Diego had called her once before
the closing fireplace panel shut on his voice, but she ignored him.
A horse--she must get away fast, or Diego would be after her! The
stable boy was still waiting patiently at the gate for her.
"Stay here, Pepe," she commanded thickly. "I'm going to ride by myself." She dared not look at the child; she knew the harsh order hurt his feelings, and tears were collecting under her lids already. Victoria gathered Cielo's reins in her hands and mounted the gelding in a smooth motion. Without a backward look she turned her face toward the west, wishing she could ride off the edge of the world.
How could he have treated her so--so disrespectfully? It pleased him to break her heart for no good purpose! The bitter tears she had cried into her pillow when he had written that horrible little note--and it was all a scheme to him! A scheme that cared nothing for her feelings as long as his own purpose was accomplished! Diego was a monster of selfishness. She did not really know him at all, and he intended to keep her deceived forever. The Fox--he had chosen an apt name, for he was a master of craftiness and duplicity. He claimed he loved her, but what faith could be put in the word of such an underhanded, dishonest rogue? She was just another pawn in his life whom he directed according to what would benefit him the most! Scalding tears flooded her eyes, blurring the road ahead.
Victoria had no clear idea where she was going; the road led to the pueblo, but she certainly did not feel sociable. Ramón wouldn't understand if she tried to tell him of her marital difficulties--as if he and Perdita ever faced something like this! And what could she tell her brother without explaining the monumental discovery she had made? The padre might be a safe, non-judgmental place to pour out her wrath and sense of ill-usage, but no; she did not feel like talking to anyone. She just needed to be alone for a while and make something out of the shambles of her life. Leaving the road, she directed Cielo across the northern corner of the de la Vega ranch that led to the sea. Perhaps somewhere along the rocky shoreline she would find the seclusion she needed.
I loved you! she railed. I gave you my heart twice; how skillfully you won it from me! What a master of tender words you are! What a consummate actor! In her fury she lashed her crop in the air; its song made Cielo's ears flick back.
Gloves forgotten, hat hanging by its cords around her neck, the señora rode uncaring while the blistering summer sun licked up the drops that spilled down her cheeks. Gently rolling hills and clumps of larger trees in the valleys witnessed her suffering as they passed by. She could smell the salty tang to the air; she was drawing nearer to the ocean. There Victoria could cry and rail until there was nothing left to feel, and the continuous roar of the waves would sing her a soothing lullaby. Solace could be found at the beach as well as solitude, and the doña was in desperate need of both.
Passing by a grove of scrub oak, she noted three riders emerging from beyond the brush. De la Vega gauchos, she thought sourly. Now that someone from the rancho had seen her in this section, Diego would likely come riding this way after her. And if he did, she would tell him, "Márchate!"
The trio of mounted men did not salute her respectfully as Don Alejandro's vaqueros normally did, but rode to cut her off. She pulled up the gelding abruptly as they surrounded her. They were not men that she recognized, and a quick glance at the rump of one horse revealed an unknown brand.
"Señores, you are on private property. This is the de la Vega estate. If you are looking for work, inquire at the stables near the main house." She pointed over her shoulder.
The large man in front of her touched his hat as he sidled closer. "Thank you kindly, Señora. We do have work; we've just lost our way." He grinned, and she tried not to recoil at the broken, brown teeth.
"Oh. Well, the Camino Real is just another mile to the northeast. You can pick it up easily at Tres Esquinas, and that will take you into the pueblo of Los Angeles."
"Bueno. Now we know just what to avoid!"
Stretching out a grimy gloved hand, he seized her reins and jerked them from her hands. Cielo neighed in pain and tried to rear. The doña, riding side-saddle, was nearly unseated, and grasped the horse's mane. The two other men had hemmed her in from the side and rear and laughed.
"What do you want?" she snapped, surprised she had a surplus of indignation for anything. "If it's money, I have none with me."
"That's too bad; it would be nice to get paid twice for the same job!" the spokesman guffawed. The man beside him gave a greasy grin at the joke.
"Who is paying you and for what?" she demanded impatiently. "Get to the point!"
The spokesman whistled mockingly. "Aren't you high and mighty since you married into a flush family! Money does that to people," he joked to his cronies. "The point is you're coming with us--no fuss, no noise. You see, we're just supposed to bring ya; we weren't told that you had to be in good condition. What happens between here and there is pretty much up to me. So be a good girl--"
The childish cry came from behind her. Victoria's head snapped around and saw Pepe approaching on his pony.
The man beside her drew a deadly-looking pistol. "Tell the boy that you're with friends, Señora, or he comes with you."
A craven impulse to have Pepe with her was Victoria's first reaction. She did not know where the men were going to take her, though, or what they intended, but whatever their purpose was Pepe should not be at risk. So she turned to the boy with a brittle smile.
"It's all right, Pepe. These men are friends of mine, and we're going for a ride together. Go back to the hacienda and help Juan."
The stable boy hesitated; something about the situation did not feel right to him, but he could not figure out what it was. Maybe it was the rough appearance of the men. They were not gentlemen of the patrón's social class, but the mistress knew many people from her years at the tavern.
"I'll go with you, Señora," he boldly offered, "if you would like an escort."
Two of the men snickered rudely at him, but his mistress said, "Thank you, Pepe, but no. Go home--that's an order."
Crestfallen, the boy turned his pony, and with a final glance at Victoria he trotted back toward the de la Vega estate. The man uncocked the large pistol and returned it to his belt.
"You just saved that muchacho's life, Señora. Let's go."
He spurred his mount hard and led the way, holding Cielo's reins. To Victoria's left and right rode the other two men, effectively pinning her. The leader cut across country to bypass the pueblo, crossed the Camino Real, and located the wheel-cut dirt track to San Pedro. Victoria's emotional preoccupation with her marriage faded, and her mental acuity sharpened with each mile. Their plan must be to hold her for ransom. Considering how she had parted from Diego less than an hour before, she rather doubted he would pay anything to get her back. He would be glad, yes, and relieved that his difficult shrew of a wife had disappeared! She could just see his lip curl with scorn at the thought of redeeming her, but the image made her feel lower than ever.
Victoria had taken advantage of her new knowledge,
decided her husband grimly. She had run up the secret passageway
and out the fireplace door while he was trapped in his black clothes!
Who knew what she might do or say while in such a state of mind?
He had to find her and quickly! Diego tore off the garments of the
legendary outlaw and put on his daily clothes again. His hands, shaking
with uncustomary emotion and fear, struggled to push the buttons through
the holes of his shirt. The jacket stayed behind; he shoved his shirttail
into his pants as he sprang up the passageway. The library was empty.
He called his wife's name, but expected no answer. Had she gone to
their bedroom? A quick glance showed him otherwise. Nor was
she in her sitting room. Felipe had retired to his quarters and had
seen nothing. The young don called Maria and asked if she had seen
his wife. The housekeeper replied negatively, but he didn't know
if he believed her. But the outdoor kitchen patio was also empty;
Victoria was not in the house. He strode to the stables.
"Chico!" he called sharply. "Where did the señora go?"
The stableman looked up from the saddle he was conditioning. "I don't know, Patrón. She just rode away. Pepe followed her."
"Pepe was with her?" he asked in a calmer voice.
"Not at first, but I'm sure he caught up."
Diego scanned the edges of the horizon. No horses and riders could he see. "Very well," he forced himself to say. "Gracias."
She must have gone to the tavern. She would not likely stay long since Pepe was with her. He wondered if he should follow her; there was the possibility that she would confide her discovery to her brother or sister-in-law. On the other hand, she was probably just looking for a place of refuge for a few hours, somewhere that she could assimilate the truth she had learned. Maybe he just needed to give her that chance. When she returned, they could both talk over the situation in a calmer manner.
He returned to the house but instead of resuming Zorro's errand, he sat in the library with an open book, determined to pass the time reading. An hour slipped by, and his eyes were still staring at the same page. Victoria had not returned. It was too early to expect her to get over the shock and her anger, he consoled himself. She would though, he tried to convince himself. When she had time to reflect on everything, she would be more understanding. He hoped she truly loved him; he was not sure. If she did, she would forgive him for keeping such a secret from her.
After riding captive more than an hour, Señora
de la Vega saw with dawning hope that they were approaching the harbor
of San Pedro. Though the population was small, surely someone would
notice her trouble if she screamed loudly. But before the four horses
drew near the outskirts of the village, the lead kidnapper signaled for
them to stop.
"Señora, I don't want you to get any stupid ideas about making noise. Nobody much cares in this town anyway, but just to make sure--" He withdrew a dirty handkerchief from his neck and seized her throat as she recoiled. "Open wide!" He forced the cloth between her clenched teeth by squeezing her neck until she gasped for air. The two other men snickered at her helplessness, and one bound her wrists with a piece of cord.
The gang leader continued on, holding the doña's reins, and his compadres followed. He walked his mount through the quiet streets; the port was napping in the June heat, and no one was outdoors. The horses were stabled in a small house on the pier.
"The patrón was right that this place would come in handy!"
"I don't think he plans to keep it a stable," said the third man in response to his partner's comment. "Hey, Valdez, how are we going to get her to the boat?"
"Put her in this," answered the leader, lifting up a burlap feed sack. "C'mere, lady." He seized Victoria roughly and forced the bag over her head. "You'd be smart to cooperate; if you don't we'll toss you overboard." He hoisted her over his shoulder, and told his companions, "Let's go."
The doña felt herself bounced a distance. She was outside again; the sunlight pierced the bag where her vision was confined. After a few steps she was dropped ungently onto a rocking surface. A soft splash of water caught her ears and then another--the rhythmic stroke of oars. She was being rowed somewhere, but one of the men, presumably the man called Valdez, had his foot on her to keep her lying down in the boat.
"The patrón better have the money when we get there," grumbled one of the men. "I have plans tonight."
"At Gomez's filthy tavern?"
"Silencio!" hissed Valdez. "Your voices carry across the water, babosos!"
The two rowers muttered that no one was awake during siesta to hear them, but pulled on the oars without further commentary. Several minutes passed before she heard bumping noises of oars being drawn into the boat. Someone whistled, and shortly afterwards she was lifted up again, precariously because her captor uttered a foul oath as he stumbled. Another pair of hands received her. She must be at her destination, but where exactly was that?
"Give her to me," said the burly leader, and a few moments later she was thrown over his shoulder again like a sack of oats. Down some steps he carried his burden, and the dim light told his captive that she was in an enclosed space.
Valdez announced, "Here she is!" and dropped his captive on the floor. "Now we want our money."
"Let's see the goods first, shall we?"
Victoria stifled a groan and clawed her way from the bag. Looking at her speculatively was Carlos Costilla. He pulled the grimy gag from her mouth.
"You!" she exclaimed in revulsion.
Costilla smirked. "You got the right one, and she appears to be reasonably undamaged."
"We didn't damage her none. So do we get paid?"
"You get paid." The young man reached in a desk drawer and handed Valdez a small satchel of coins. "I trust you can divide this fairly among the three of you. That will be all." He waved them out of the small cabin, and they left, snickering lewdly.
The señora gulped down her fears. A show of fury might impress her hated captor, and she stood to face him. "What is the meaning of this outrage?"
"Full of pepper, aren't you? The meaning is that I would like to own the tavern, and I think now I'll get it at any price I name."
"You're loco," she said scornfully. "In case you haven't noticed, my brother is in charge of the tavern now."
"But he's not the owner, is he?" At her consternation, he chuckled. "No, Señora, you are still the owner."
She could deny it, but sensed he would know that she was lying. The title deed had not been signed. Did he know from her brother or the official pueblo records? "I am the sister of your friend Ramón! How can you treat me so disrespectfully? Don't you think he will find out about this?"
"Your brother is a starry-eyed fanatic; I don't worry what fanatics think. But your husband will come, and I'll be waiting for him." He rubbed his bandaged hand, and suddenly Victoria knew that Diego's opponent in his duel had been the young aristocrat with the cruel gleam in his eyes.
"He won't come," she said dully. Why would he, after the way they had parted! Diego would not even know what had happened to her.
"Of course he will! He's quite fond of you."
"No, you're out there. He wouldn't care whether I lived or died." The great weariness of her tone caused a single tremor of doubt to shake Costilla for a moment, but he brushed it aside.
"Trouble in paradise? No matter--if he won't come for love, he'll come for family honor. If he doesn't figure out where you are, I'll send him a message--after you have relinquished your claim on the tavern."
"You'll be waiting a long time for that to happen."
He laughed--a terrible sound that prickled the hair on Victoria's neck. "It won't be a long wait; I think you can be persuaded."
He thrust a well-manicured hand under Victoria's chin and forced her face to his. Realizing he was trying to kiss her, she twisted her mouth far enough away that his wet lips contacted only the corner.
She gasped, then screamed shrilly. The chances that someone would hear and aid her were remote, but the din so close to her assailant's ear made him recoil. He tightened his grip on her throat.
"You do that again, and I'll choke the life out of you!" he snarled. "I want what you gave Zorro!" His lips reached for hers once more.
Victoria's eyes were dimming from lack of blood. Her tied hands were useless, but she could kick! Two kicks contacted his shin, but were not sharp enough at close range to be effective. His mouth covered hers even as she shrank away. Carlos tried to force his tongue into her mouth, but her clenched teeth refused to let him in. How repulsive and horrible this man's touch was! A fleeting contrast to her husband's lovemaking flashed into her mind for a moment, then in sudden inspiration she brought up her knee sharply. One thing she had learned from relations with Diego: men had a soft spot!
Costilla doubled over in pain, groaning. "Zorra! Filthy little ramera!" He lashed out at her face with his fist and caught her left temple. The blow knocked her against the cabin wall, and he came at her again, too fast for her to ward off. His second blow landed beside her mouth, smashing her tongue between her teeth even as she fell to the floor. Dazed, she could taste the blood from a split lip as he loomed over her, and she knew that she could not fight him much longer.
But her last defensive move had purged his lustful thoughts for the moment. In fury he seized her by the arm and dragged her from the cabin. Down a narrow passageway he propelled her and stopped momentarily to fling open a trap door. His captive was thrust through the hole, where she impacted a narrow ladder as she fell awkwardly to the damp, wooden floor of the hold.
"You can stay in there until you rot!" he exclaimed, slamming the trap door closed. She heard a bolt being passed through the catch to lock her in, and then his footsteps returned down the hall and faded away. She could only be glad for a temporary reprieve from the baleful man's company; his threat of leaving her there indefinitely was something she doubted he would do.
In pain from his blows, she spit the blood violently from her mouth, and her stomach lurched. She groped around the dark floor until she found a corner. The cold chill of nausea preceded the heaving of her insides, and Señora de la Vega quietly vomited up the remains of her breakfast.
"Isn't Victoria joining us?" asked Alejandro
as he and his son sat down to eat.
"Apparently not," was the reply.
"Is she unwell?"
That was a pithy question! "She hasn't come back from her ride."
"Hasn't-- Diego, aren't you worried? She could be hurt!"
"I know where she is," he said wearily. "At the tavern. I'll bring her home."
The young caballero ate his dinner before going, however. Whether it was in hope that his wife would return shortly and save him the trip, or dislike of the confrontation that would result when he found her he could not have said. Watching his son eat in silence, Alejandro suspected a quarrel; well, that too was part of married life, and he now had confidence that his children could solve the problem. He knew Diego loved his wife far more than anybody had suspected. The boy had probably loved her in silence for years, but had never let his heart show. And how could he with Zorro in the picture?
Where Victoria's heart lay was the tricky part. Undoubtedly she cared for his son, but whether her regard could ever supplant the grand passion she had felt for a certain masked man was another unknown. Time would tell, and the hacendado decided to wait in patience for the young couple to work through their marital difficulties.
After dinner Diego saddled Esperanza and rode toward town. With several hours to think through the problem, surely his wife would at least be able to talk about it without hurling more harsh epithets at him. If she was still angry, fine--but he would bring her home. He disliked the thought of their contention being on parade in front of Ramón, Perdita, and possibly everyone in the tavern. The gossip concerning the duel was damaging enough since the source of that quarrel was known to be Victoria's reputation. For that reason he approached the kitchen door rather than the public entrance. His sister-in-law answered his knock and invited him in.
"Buenas noches, Perdita. I've come for Victoria. Where is she?"
The young wife's smile of greeting faded into puzzlement. "Don Diego, I haven't seen her. Was she supposed to visit us today?"
"Perdita, let's be honest. Victoria and I have quarreled, and she left the house this afternoon. If she's here, please tell me."
"I'm sorry, but I truly haven't seen her." The alarm in the soft brown eyes was genuine. "But maybe you should ask Ramón."
What if Victoria had not come to the tavern? Where else could she be? Quelling a rising panic, Diego found his brother-in-law serving drinks in the taproom.
"Diego! Good to see you! Find a seat if you can, and I'll be right with you."
"I didn't come for service, Ramón; I came for Victoria. Where is she?"
"I haven't seen her. Should I have? She wasn't coming in today as far as I know."
"Please, can we speak privately?"
Ramón agreed and led the way back to the kitchen. "Is something wrong?"
"Yes," de la Vega admitted. "Victoria and I have had a bad quarrel, and she left the house. Have you seen her or do you know where she is?"
Escalante exchanged a worried glance with his wife. "I haven't seen her--God as my witness. I'd help you if I knew anything. I've been concerned about you and her ever since she wanted my help with--" He stopped short, realizing that Victoria might not have mentioned her wild scheme to her husband. But he did not catch himself in time; Diego pounced on the opening.
"Your help with what?"
He explained, "She had this crazy plan to get an annulment and live here with us. But that was right after we got here, and of course I did my best to talk her out of it!" he added hastily upon seeing his brother-in-law recoil. "She didn't get much sympathy from me, so I doubt she'd come here to weep on my shoulder."
"An annulment?" Diego repeated.
"Well, yes," Ramón confirmed, feeling awkward. "I told her it was impossible if you'd-- And she said you hadn't. But I told her that an annulment wouldn't help her, because the alcalde would likely take the tavern anyway! Then she seemed to give up the scheme and decided to sign the tavern over us."
"An annulment isn't an option anymore. I've taken care of that loophole."
"I'm glad to hear it," Ramón said, looking solemn. "If she shows up here, I'll take her home myself. Victoria can be very strong-willed; don't give her too much slack, or she'll take over," he advised. "I'm on your side, Diego."
De la Vega tried to smile, but instead his mouth twisted in a grimace. "Then you're probably on the wrong side."
An annulment! Diego hoped he had not looked as sick to his brother-in-law as he felt. That Victoria had been so unhappy in the early days of their marriage that she would actually undo their union was a horrible thought that had never occurred to him. Apparently the idea of leaving him never lost its attraction, for now she had done it. He wanted to weep, to vomit, to rage. How could he blame her? She was right; he was a liar. He should have told her the truth about Zorro years ago when they first declared their love for each other. But a misplaced sense of safety and knightly gallantry had warped his perspective. What kind of gentleman would expect his lady to wait for him indefinitely while he played his masquerade? Maybe he had never grown up, never wanted to take up the sober responsibilities of the ranch or a wife and children. It had been so much more interesting and satisfying to play Zorro, the hero of Los Angeles!
Meanwhile, the woman who had loved him remained faithful even when he gave her so little those years--a smile, a wink, a glib compliment, a stolen kiss! How she must have ached for more, and he had been afraid to trust her with the truth. Afraid for her or afraid for himself?
The years she had passed in loneliness, the slanders she had endured for his sake, the letter he had written to deliberately break her heart, subjecting her to a marriage she did not want, her cry of agony at their first mating, and the coup de grace: withholding the truth about Zorro from her when every day he'd had the chance to make it right! What had he ever done that had not hurt Victoria? Why would she come back to him? He did not deserve her. He did not even know what he could say if he did find her; having lost her trust, it seemed futile to try.
If she had not taken refuge with her brother, where could she be? She had no women confidants as far as he was aware. The church! Perhaps she had taken shelter with Padre Benitez. He turned Esperanza around and cantered back to the church. The priest answered his fervent knock on the back door. But Diego's humble entreaties were for nothing; the padre had also not seen Victoria.
"Diego, my son, have you put this in the Lord's hands?"
The caballero, shamefaced, shook his head.
"That is the first thing you must do. Give yourself, and Victoria, and your marriage to Him. Tell Him what you're feeling and thinking; He knows anyway, so you might as well be honest. I'll pray too--that you both will be healed."
"Gracias, Padre," Diego whispered and sadly led his mare away.
The doña surveyed her prison.
It was hot and airless; no window served to bring in the natural light.
Only a crack around the edges of the trap door provided what little light
there was. When her eyes had adjusted, she could make out several
coils of heavy rope and folded piles of canvas. Her cell was the
hull of the small ship--a storage area, now adorned with the acrid stench
of her vomit. Depending on how long Costilla kept her a prisoner,
her other physical needs would likely be met in the same manner as her
upset stomach. The ship's rolling continued to make her queasy.
Having never been on a boat before, she had no way of knowing that she
was prone to seasickness. Victoria chose a pile of canvas as a bed;
her head had a peculiar dizzy feeling that she attributed to the blow to
her temple. Ugh! Would this ship never be still? She
crawled back to the corner, and her stomach heaved again. But this
time it was empty, and her misery was complete.
The light under the door gradually faded until the hold was completely dark. Was she the only one on the ship? She wondered if she was going to be fed, but the thought of eating did nothing to calm her stomach. Would she be left here several days until she was so weak from lack of food and water that Costilla could force her to sign over the tavern? And then what? How could he allow her to leave after that? Her life was worth something only as long as she kept the tavern. But if she were to die here, her property would go to her husband. Whatever else he had done, Diego would not let the Costillas get the tavern.
The image of her husband clothed in black as she had seen him in the secret cave rose up before her mind's eye. She could see his hand reaching for the black mask as he snapped orders to Felipe, wearing at his side the heavy sabre she had seen Zorro use so often. Two men were the same man! Two completely different men! Could she ever have believed it if she had not seen for herself? Diego, the dreamy scholar and poet as the dynamo of justice? Wait--she stopped her thoughts short. Dreamy scholar and poet? That is how she would have characterized him before their marriage when they had been merely friends. How little she had known him! For the man who shared her life was so much more--more than Zorro, more than the Diego she had known. He was someone else, a third person. Who are you really? What is the truth about you? Hours passed in darkness without providing answers, and at last she fell into an uncomfortable sleep.
The night brought no consolation or counsel
to Diego. The empty space where his wife usually slept was cool and
barren as he stretched his arm across it. Would he ever see her again?
Would she ever share the bed with him again? How could he find her?
Where could she be? His brain searched every cranny, recalled every
conversation, only to turn down a thousand profitless cul-de-sacs.
Perhaps she would return in the morning. Perhaps she was spending the night somewhere just to get back at him, knowing he would be out of his mind with anxiety. If that was the case, she certainly had her revenge; he felt his mind teetering on the far edge of sanity. When had he ever confronted a situation where he held no cards to play? None of the legendary Zorro's great strength or skill or cleverness could serve him now. He was bankrupt.
The cheerful golden rays of dawn seemed to mock him. The world had changed; how then could the sun still smile? He passed the day in solitary dreariness, going through the motions of normal activity but wondering why. Neither was he hungry, but out of habit he joined his father for a late afternoon snack.
"I didn't hear you come in last night; I was tired and went to bed early. Is Victoria around the house today?" asked Alejandro.
His son managed to say, "She went out."
"Did she go for a ride? I wish I'd known; I'd have ridden with her. I admit I had my doubts about your marriage, but Victoria seems to be adjusting well, don't you think? It's really nice to have a woman around the house again. There's something about the sweet scent of lotions and swish of long skirts that makes the house a home. I'm glad she's given up the tavern; I like having her here with us. She's done wonders for you, too! I haven't seen you exert yourself so much for another person since Felipe came to live with us! And listening to you two read Shakespeare together! There's something delightful about her giggle that makes--"
"Stop it!" Diego shouted.
His father stared at his white-faced son. The blue eyes were smudged with dark rings and had a terrible, haunted look in their depths. "What's wrong?"
The younger man buried his face in his hands and drew a ragged breath. "She's gone!" he choked.
Aware that his reserved son was about to release a confidence not meant for all ears in the house, Alejandro got up from the table and touched his son's arm. "Come to my room. We can talk privately there."
When the solid oak door closed behind them, he asked, "What do you mean--Victoria's gone?"
"We--we had a fight, and she left the house. I thought she'd gone to the tavern or the church, but I checked last night and she wasn't there."
"She's been gone all night and all day? Where else could she be?"
"I don't know; I can't think of anyplace."
The older man was quiet a moment. "Do you think she'll come back?"
"I don't know. I hope so, but I don't know why she would."
"Now, now--all marriages have these little problems. What you need to do when you see her again is say 'I'm sorry, Sweetheart. I was wrong, and you were right, and I'll never do it again.' Then give her a hug and a kiss. You'll be surprised how that will patch things up."
"That won't work this time. We didn't argue about something silly like picking up dirty clothes or the right way to fold a towel. It was about trust."
"Trust, eh? An advanced marital lesson! Some couples never do learn it, and so are never truly happy. Do you want to tell me more about it?"
Diego sat on his father's bed and sighed deeply. The burden of Zorro's secret had never seemed heavier. "I'd like--no, I need to tell you everything. I couldn't bear to lose your love too for the same mistake. But what I'm going to tell you could put you in deadly danger. Do you want to take that risk?"
Alejandro sat down beside him, troubled in spirit. "Son, are you in deadly danger?"
His mouth trembled, then tightened. "Yes."
"Then I must know. Whatever it is, I don't want you to bear it alone."
"I have been alone," Diego confirmed with a catch in his voice, "because I wanted to protect you, and later, Victoria."
"What is this thing?"
"I'm Zorro," he said simply, surprised at how easily the words slipped out. For years they had refused to sit on his tongue; now they flowed from his lips so naturally that he wondered how he could have thought them difficult to say.
His father stared. "Forgive me; I'm not sure I understood. What did you say?"
"I am Zorro. I have been Zorro from the beginning when I broke you and Victoria out of the alcalde's jail. There is no other Zorro." He recited the litany in a monotone.
Alejandro stood abruptly and took an agitated turn around the room, rubbing his neck. "Diego, I don't think you'd lie to me now, but I can't quite believe what you're saying. I mean, I've seen you handle a sabre!"
"An act. It's all been part of an elaborate act. I was Sir Edmund Kendall's star pupil. Have you never wondered why I'm not around when Zorro makes his appearances?"
The query caught the older man up short. "I guess," he said slowly, "I thought you were at home reading or painting or some such thing."
Diego shook his head.
"How could it all have been done right under my very nose?" demanded his father. "It's impossible!"
His son shrugged. "People see what they want to see, or what they expect to see. That was why the disguise worked."
"But the clothes! The sword! The stallion! Where do you keep all these things that no one has found them?"
"The old escape route behind the fireplace."
"But I had that sealed up years ago!"
"I unsealed it when I was seventeen; I thought the cave was an interesting place. Later as Zorro, I found it very useful."
Dazed, Alejandro dropped into a chair. He took several deep breaths and rubbed his aching temples. "Will you show me?"
"Not now, Father. Help me with Victoria! I've made a mess of everything."
"You didn't tell her the truth about Zorro, and she found out somehow?"
"Yes. I think she must have seen the fireplace door shutting, and figured out how to open it. She walked in on Felipe and me after I'd dressed in black. I just didn't have the mask on. She knew then--knew everything and almost fainted on the steps. Then she screamed at me--horrible things, and they were all true! She ran out of the passageway, and by the time I'd changed clothes again she was gone."
"Why didn't you tell her before? You know she would have jumped at the chance to marry you!"
"I thought if she looked too happy, people would figure it out. Then there was the possibility that she'd be very disappointed that her hero was only me, and would refuse to marry me."
"First you were afraid she'd be too happy, then you were afraid she wouldn't like you for yourself. There's a fine bit of rational thinking! So weren't you going to tell her at all?"
"I was! I tried the day after the wedding to tell her the truth, but she didn't want to hear anything about Zorro; he was a sore subject. Zorro wrote her a note to break off their romance to increase the chance of getting her to marry me. Then when she didn't want anything to do with Zorro, I wondered if I could win her heart as myself."
"Oh, Diego! From bad to worse!"
"I thought it was a good plan; it was working, too, until this. I don't think she'll ever forgive me."
Alejandro did not know the answer to his son's marital woes, but he said sternly, "Enough self-pity! You won't be able to make things right until you find Victoria! Now, where else could she have gone?"
"Maybe one of the other missions--I don't know. She isn't close enough to any of the local women to run to them."
"I don't believe she would, anyway. There's no way that she could pour out her story without implicating you, and I for one believe in her loyalty." He hoped Diego felt the rebuke. "How did she leave here?"
"On Cielo. She started out to see Ramón in town, but returned a few minutes later. Then she found the cave and took off again in a fury."
"Hm! Our search must start at the stables, then. Come on."
He strode out of the bedroom, and Diego followed behind reluctantly. At the mews Juan was grooming the Andalusians while several of the young boys scrubbed the tackle the vaqueros had used. Juan looked up deferentially when his patrón came around the corner.
"Juan, who saddled Cielo yesterday for the señora?"
"I believe that was Chico, Patrón."
"Where is he? We need to talk to him."
"He's with the remuda this evening and will be back in several hours. Shall I send a boy to fetch him?"
Juan bellowed to the stable boys, and lanky young Miguelito answered the call. "Ride to the north pasture where the remuda is and tell Chico that the patrón wants to see him now!" The boy sprinted to a pony and began the process of saddling the animal.
"Is there any news of Cielo?"
"No, Patrón. Doesn't the señora have him at the tavern?"
"She's not at the tavern; we don't know where she is, and we're worried."
"Don't know where she is? She rode out yesterday afternoon! She could be hurt somewhere or captured by savages! Shall I saddle the horses so the men can help you search?"
"Maybe. We must hear from Chico first. He may remember in what direction she went."
"To the sea, Patrón!" piped a childish voice.
The men's heads turned to look at Pepe, who was eavesdropping rather than giving a bridle his full attention. "Quiet, boy!" growled Juan. "Don't speak to the patrón unless he speaks to you first!"
Abashed, the boy hung his head.
"Pepe, I thought you were with Doña Victoria! When did you get home?" Diego asked more kindly.
The young stable hand glanced nervously at Juan to see if his answer would earn him another scold. The stable master ordered him to tell the patrón anything he knew.
"Yesterday afternoon. I followed her for a while, because she rode out alone, and you said you didn't want her riding without a groom."
"Then why didn't you stay with her?"
"She told me to go home since she was with her friends."
"What friends? Did you see them?"
Pepe nodded vigorously. "Three men, but I don't know who they were; I never saw them before."
"What did they look like?"
"Big hombres. Rough. They were growing beards. Their hats and clothes were dirty. One of them had a chestnut, and the other two had bays."
An idea occurred to Diego. "Did you happen to notice any brand marks on the horses?"
"Only on one. A 'C' with a line under it."
"Like this?" Diego sketched a design in the dirt.
"I don't recognize that brand," said Alejandro with lowered brows. "It may not be from around here."
"Pepe, where you when you saw the señora and these men?"
"By the grove of oaks beyond the hill," he responded, pointing in a northwesterly direction. "That's where I caught up with her. The men didn't seem very nice, but the señora said they were her friends. Then she told me to go home," he added forlornly, his lower lip protruding.
A new fear gripped Diego, and it was all he could do to smile reassuringly at the boy. "I'm sure she wanted what was best for you. Thank you; you've been a great help. She'll be pleased to know that you've learned your letters so well." He stood and brushed the dirt off his hands.
"Shall I saddle your horses?" asked Juan.
Alejandro was about to open his mouth to answer affirmatively, but his son interceded. "Not right now--maybe later. Father, I need a word with you. Let's go back in the house." Diego grasped his arm and pulled the older man from the stables.
When they were out of earshot, Alejandro said, "Diego, you don't think she's gone to meet another man, do you? Perhaps she did find some friends to shelter her while she works through this problem."
"No. She couldn't have arranged that rendezvous ahead of time; she tore out of here as fast as she could. The meeting was accidental, but what were these strangers doing on the ranch? And why did she go off with them? Why did she send Pepe back?"
"To hide where she was going," supplied his father helpfully.
"Or to protect him," was the grim reply. "What if those men weren't friends but rascals up to no good? What if they kidnapped Victoria?"
"We haven't received a ransom demand," frowned Alejandro, skeptical.
"No, but--" Diego trailed off, his mind processing bits of information at lightning speed. His sixth sense, a sense of danger, cast its shadow over Victoria's continued absence. The ground was dry and hard, but not impossible to follow a trail over it. "Zorro will take it from here," he muttered, and sprinted to the library.
"Wait!" called his father close behind. "Let me help!"
The great room of the house was quiet and empty of servants. Diego paused a moment before opening the fireplace door. Tight-lipped he beckoned his father to precede him into the hidden passageway. Down the darkened slope they hurried, Diego holding aloft an oil lantern. The path opened into a large cave buttressed with arches against the roof. Before the astonished eyes of Alejandro the mysteries of Zorro unfolded, mingled oddly with Diego's personality. A sword rack displayed some ornate Toledo steel, and suspended against the ceiling was a pair of bat-like wings. An old oak desk and bookcase held evidence of his son's scholarly pursuits. Lab tables were spread with beakers of strangely colored chemicals, fuses, containers of gunpowder, and other substances that the older man could not identify.
"Don't touch that! It will eat your skin," warned Diego while lighting more lamps around the room.
The rancher quickly set the test tube with the glowing white powder back into its rack. He watched his son strip off his blue jacket and trousers and exchange the clothes of a caballero for black garments relieved only by ornaments of silver. When the mask was in place, before his father stood the dark hero known only to him as Zorro. The outlaw buckled on a heavy sword belt over his sash while his father continued to stare dumbfounded. The masked man did not resemble his son much at all. The pair of eyes behind the black slits glittered unfamiliarly, and the square jaw hardened with purpose. It occurred to the older man watching the transformation that when Diego changed clothes, he also changed personalities.
"Shall I saddle Toronado for you?" asked Alejandro, scarcely able to pull his eyes from the fascinating figure of his son.
"No," was the terse reply. "He wouldn't let you near him." Zorro tacked the stallion in less than a minute in the efficient manner of a well-drilled soldier who had practiced short notice tacking. When he had mounted and swung the horse toward the rear exit of the cave, his father stopped him.
"Don't ever call me that when I'm wearing black!" the outlaw interrupted harshly.
"You're right; I'm sorry. Zorro, I'll saddle Dulcinea and meet you at the grove."
"You cannot be seen riding with Zorro; I've a price on my head. Wait here."
"Find Victoria, then! And bring her back!" The older man gripped the black-sleeved arm briefly.
"I will," the hero promised curtly. "Use the peephole before leaving the cave. Adios!"
Zorro pressed his knees against the stallion's sides, and Toronado stepped on the pulley release. The cave door in the side of the hill swung open on well-balanced hinges, and the dark horse and rider disappeared out the sunlit doorway. Alejandro watched the place where his son--his magnificent son--had just been. The cave door closed silently, blotting out the patch of brightness. Still the rancher stood, scarcely able to take in what he had learned in the past hour. His brown eyes traveled over the cave's interior again, and slowly he moved about the room. Testimony witnessed the truth from every corner. Diego was Zorro--that daring, clever crusader for justice. The rancher recalled several times when the mysterious masked man had saved his life. On those occasions, Alejandro had wondered how Zorro knew of his danger; the hero had seemed omniscient. So many things about Diego and Zorro congealed to make sense. Emotion washed over the hacendado, and he sat on the stone steps and let tears roll down his face. His prayer was a strange mixture of wonder, gratitude, pride, and worry.
Another hour passed before he carefully emerged from the hiding place into the library again. His home looked the same, but everything had changed.