The tavern was about to close for siesta, and there were only a few more customers to chase out the door.  Victoria's shoulders sagged wearily as she cleared another table.  The lunch hour had been unusually busy, and the heat of the August day had not helped.
     "Señorita!  More water, por favor," called Corporal Sepulveda from a table nearby.  She nodded and went into the kitchen, put down the tray, and picked up a pitcher.  As she turned toward the pump, she saw Zorro standing there.
     "Zorro!" she whispered.  "What can I do for you?"
     The masked man lifted her hand to his lips.  "Grant me the pleasure of your company this afternoon.  I know a peaceful picnic spot in the hills,  and on Toronado we can get there very quickly.  Will you come?"
     "That would be wonderful," she replied with twinkling eyes.  "I'll be closing in just a few minutes."  Victoria filled the pitcher and returned to the taproom.  The corporal was nowhere to be seen.  She said farewell to the few others and locked the tavern's front entrance.  Slipping out the back door, she grasped the helping arm of the mysterious hero and mounted behind him.  "Ready," she called, and the ground thundered past the big stallion.

     Sepulveda had just one thought as he ran into the alcalde's office:  a promotion.  "Sir, I just overheard Zorro at the tavern with Señorita Escalante!  They are planning to ride into the hills for a picnic.  If we hurry, I think we can follow them!"
     DeSoto jumped up from his desk. "Get the men mounted at once!  We'll bring him back this time."

     "Here we are.  Isn't this a beautiful meadow?"  The man in black kicked his leg over the pommel and lifted down his lady.
     "Very lovely.  Did you really bring lunch for us?  I was so busy that I didn't have time to eat."
 In response, he opened his saddlebags and tossed her an apple.  "This can take the edge off your appetite while I unpack the rest," he grinned.  Spreading a blanket on the grass, he set out fresh bread, fruit, and a bottle.  "'A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou,'" Zorro quoted.  She knelt beside him with a smile as he poured a drink for each of them.  "To a perfect afternoon together," he toasted, handing her a glass.
     "Perfect for me, Zorro," the alcalde called out as he stepped from the bushes with a pistol in hand.  "Not so perfect for you."  Eight lancers jumped up with muskets aimed at the couple on the blanket, who slowly rose to their feet.
     "Your manners are truly deplorable, Alcalde.  I don't recall extending an invitation to you."
     "Just call me a gate-crasher, my masked friend.  Raise your hands carefully."
     Zorro obliged.  "Stand over there, Victoria--out of the way," he whispered softly.  Her frightened eyes searched his face, and he smiled slightly to reassure her.
     "Oh, the accolades that you will earn from Madrid for bringing in the infamous Zorro," expounded the dark hero, as he strolled away from the blanket and Toronado.  "You may even receive an appointment genuinely appropriate of your achievements.  Commandant of the king's trash dump comes to mind."
     "Joke all you want, Zorro.  This time I'll have the last laugh."
     As Zorro shifted his position, so did DeSoto and the lancers until their backs were directly in front of Toronado.  Then it was a simple matter.  Zorro caught the eye of his horse and nodded almost imperceptibly.  The big stallion whinnied loudly and reared, kicking two lancers, and distracting the others, who dived out of the way of the flying hooves.  Several muskets discharged harmlessly in the air.  The instant was all the masked man needed to have his sabre in hand, deflecting the alcalde's aim.  A crushing left hook followed the sword and left DeSoto sprawling in the grass.  Calling Toronado, Zorro leaped in the saddle.  He caught up Victoria in one arm.
     "Now that I've swept you off your feet, let's tour the countryside instead; the meadow just lost a lot of its charm," he quipped as they galloped away.
     "Lancers!  After them!" shouted the alcalde.
     The chase began.  For once, Zorro had a hard time outdistancing the soldiers.  One would drop off the pace, then another, but most were still in close pursuit.
     Run, Boy, fly! he thought.  They were being driven east into the featureless terrain of the desert.  There was no place to hide.  His only hope was that Toronado's tremendous stamina would outlast the other horses.
     It was more than an hour before he was able to reign in, and Toronado was in a lather.  "Well ridden, Amigo.  Gracias."  To Victoria, the man said,  "I think we finally lost them.  I apologize for the roughness of the ride.  Are you all right?"
     "Yes, fine," she gasped.  "Is life with you always going to be this exciting?"
     He smiled at that.  "I hope not.  Wouldn't it be a miracle if we ever had time together without being interrupted?"  He turned Toronado back to the west but after a few steps, quickly dismounted.  "Something's wrong.  Toronado's limping."  Zorro carefully examined his horse's back left hock and hoof.  When he stood up, he was frowning.
     "What's the matter?" Victoria asked.
     "Toronado's picked up a stone and strained his leg.  We can't ride him."
     She stared at him.  "Then what can we do?"
     The masked man summarized their situation grimly, "We're thirty-five miles from town, out in the desert with a lame horse.  We have no food or water.  It's the hottest part of the day in the heat of summer.  We're in greater danger now than we ever were from the lancers.  What stupidity to run east!" he growled.  One look at Victoria's distressed countenance advised him to bite back any further self-recriminations.  He glanced around.  "There's some shade beneath those scrub oak.  We need to stay out of the sun until it sets.  Then we can start walking."  He helped her dismount and grabbed the reins.  "Come on, Boy."
     They chose the tallest of the bushes, but the sun was still high.  Zorro cut away the lower branches with his knife, using the boughs to build a canopy above them.  Not a breeze stirred to give the slightest refreshment.
     "That will have to do."  Getting the big horse into their shelter was another problem.  But first the masked man picked some wild grass and rubbed down his mount, though it meant working longer in the sun.  Then he turned his attention to the sore hoof, gently probing for the stone.  Victoria watched him from the shadows.
     "How did you get Toronado?"
     "He was a wild stallion--no doubt a descendant of the conquistadors' herds.  I've always been grateful that he gave up the freedom of the open range to work in partnership with me."
     "He must be getting on in years."
     The stallion snorted, and the hero chuckled.  "I think he disagrees with you.  I myself haven't noticed a diminishing in his speed or strength--until today.  But I think we can blame it on this."  He removed a pea-size rock with the point of his knife and flicked it away.
     The trio settled in the shadows to rest until evening.  The oppressive heat was rising from the desert floor in shimmering waves.  Each breath of the heavy air took effort to draw.  Zorro took off his hat and began to fan her and himself.
     Was I really just wishing for time alone together? he wondered.  Now we have the time, but it's too miserable to enjoy.  The sweat trickled down his neck, soaking into his shirt and drying almost instantly.
     He looks so uncomfortable, the woman noticed.  She at least had been able to slip off her shoes and hike up her skirt to her knees.  "You'd probably be much cooler without your mask," Victoria entreated.  She surprised a laugh from him.
     The hero leaned his head back against the branches and closed his eyes.  "I've never been so tempted," he admitted.
     As the sky deepened to twilight, they began to walk over the stony, uneven ground with Toronado limping slowly behind.
     "How do we keep going in the right direction?" queried Victoria.  In answer, her companion pointed to the stars appearing in the west.
     "See that cluster of tiny stars?  That's Coma Berenices.  It's always in the west at this time of year.  The moon will be rising soon and give us more light."  His abilities never failed to impress her.
     "Is there anything you don't know?  Anything you can't do?"
     "Plenty of things, besides our immediate situation.  For instance, I can't figure out how to win a pardon.  I don't know how to replace the alcalde with a just man.  I don't know how to tell my secrets to the loved ones in my life.  I don't know how to win your love in my own name."
     Victoria tucked her small hand in his large one.  His candor was unexpected and touching.  "Have you ever considered courting me as yourself?"
     "That was my original intent, but then I became Zorro, and Zorro has been in the way ever since.  Fortunately you're fond of him, but somehow in the process I became my own rival."  He changed the subject.  "If we walk slightly to the northwest, we'll come to a creek from the mountains after about ten miles.  It's a little out of the way, but we need the water."

     When Zorro had not returned to the cave by nightfall, Felipe began to be concerned.  He had made excuses for Diego at supper, and by late evening he resolved to ride to town to see if he could find him.  The tavern was open for business, but the innkeeper was nowhere to be seen.  He sat next to a table of lancers and listened for news.  There he learned of Zorro's rout of the soldiers, and his escape on horseback with Victoria.  They must have had problems getting home, but where could they be? he thought. It's too late to look now.  I'll start tomorrow morning.

    They reached the tiny stream well after midnight.  Zorro was more relieved than he would admit that it still had water.  He led Toronado to the brook's edge.  The thirsty horse needed no persuasion but began to drink in noisy gulps.
     "You drink too, Victoria," he told the tired woman.
     "No.  Not a drop until you've had your fill."  She scooped up water  and held it out to him.  He gave her a weary smile but drank from her hands.  Three more times she brought up water for him before he said, "Gracias, Preciosa, now drink."  Instead of heeding him, she removed the handkerchief from her sash and soaked it in the water, then wiped his lower face and neck.
     "Ah, that feels good.  How did you know I felt grimy?"
     "How could you not?  I do."  She knelt by the water and washed her own face and neck.  Then she scooped up water to quench her thirst and let the cool brook flow over her dusty feet.
     "Let's get a few hours' sleep, and we'll walk some more before it gets too hot tomorrow.  If we follow this stream, it will take us within six miles of the pueblo, and we'll have water all the way."  He looked around.  "There's not much grass.  I'm afraid the ground will be rather hard.  It may get chilly tonight.  Here, put this around you."  Zorro untied his cape and put it on her shoulders.  Something about his gesture seemed familiar. It stirred Victoria's memory briefly and was gone.  "You can lie down here, and I'll go across the stream.  You'll be perfectly safe," he added with double meaning.
     His companion murmured, "It's not very flattering to be perfectly safe."
     A short, uncertain chuckle was his first response.  "The only dueña we have out here is our conscience."
     "Yes," she agreed with a trace of regret, "but sometimes my heart speaks louder than my conscience."
     "Sometimes, so does mine," he confessed.  "Let's hope our hearts don't speak louder at the same time.  Buenas noches."  He pressed a kiss on her hand and resolutely turned away, striding over the creek.
     A few hours later, Victoria awoke.  The sun had risen, but Zorro was nowhere to be seen. He couldn't be far, she realized, for Toronado was grazing nearby.
     "Zorro?" she called, combing her hair with her fingers.  She was relieved to see him come around the boulders.
     "Good morning," he responded cheerfully.  He was hatless and barefoot and had rolled up the cuffs on his shirt and pants.  In his hand was a stringer with three small fish.  "Breakfast.  If I get a fire started, will you clean these for us?"
     A few minutes later the fish were roasting on sticks propped over a small blaze.  "This will be a first," she told the masked man.  "You're actually going to eat a meal I've prepared.  I'm generally held to be a good cook."
     Zorro struggled to keep his amusement from his expression and failed.  "I know," was his only comment.
     "Food, water, shade; you've provided for us very well," Victoria praised.  She picked at her fish, burning her fingers, and took a few careful bites.  "Do you like being Zorro?" she asked abruptly.
     "Like being Zorro?" he echoed.  He had never really thought about it.  "I made the choice so long ago.  Sometimes I like it.  Sometimes it's a burden."
     She looked into the eyes behind the mask.  "If you had it to do again, would you make the same choice?"
     He threw the remnants of his meager breakfast over his shoulder.  "I didn't know at the beginning that I'd be Zorro for so long, or that the price would be so high.  Delaying our happiness together is part of that price."  He hesitated just a moment, then met her eyes squarely.  "Yes, I'd make the very same choice."

     "Corporal Sepulveda!  Did the señorita return last night to the tavern?"
     "No, Alcalde."
     "Is she there this morning?"
     "No, Alcalde."
     DeSoto stroked his beard thoughtfully as he studied at the map on his office wall.  "Get a patrol mounted immediately.  I think I know where to find her."

     After walking several hours, Zorro and Victoria stopped again to wait out the hottest part of the day.  At least there were trees here giving shade for their siesta.  She hobbled to the stream, stepping out of her shoes, and immersed her feet in the water, barely suppressing a groan.  But the masked man noticed her grimace of pain before she could conceal it.  He strode toward her and pulled one foot from the stream.
     "Blisters!" he accused angrily.  "Why didn't you tell me?"
     "What good would it have done?  I can't ride Toronado, you can't carry me, I must wear shoes, and we must walk."
     "I would have carried you before I'd let you rub your skin raw.  Don't you think I care if you're hurting?" he demanded.
     Victoria felt rebuked.  "Of course you do," she answered in a low voice.  "But this is a small matter; nothing you need to be bothered with.  There are so many more important things to occupy your time and attention; I don't have to be your top priority."
     "You're a lot higher than you seem to think," Zorro retorted, stung by her assessment.  "It's like this," he appealed, taking her hands in his, "Our love for each other is the foundation for everything else in my life.  With that foundation secure, I'm strengthened and encouraged to keep fighting for justice--for the people in Los Angeles.  We can't be together nearly as often as I'd like, but don't ever think that you're loved or cherished any the less for that."
     Her expression softened, and she stretched out her hand to caress his face.  "Thank you for telling me that.  I think I understand better now."
     He gently picked her up, carrying her to a grassy spot beneath a tree.  "You're far more tolerant than I deserve.  Let's rest," he told her.  "I'll bandage your feet before we go farther."

     Felipe had been riding for hours, searching for a clue to Zorro's whereabouts and not sure how to help his mentor if he found him. If Victoria was still with him, the young man would have to be careful about announcing his presence.  With this in mind, as he entered each arroyo, valley, or hilltop he gave a shrill whistle, hoping to hear Toronado's answering whinny.
     He criss-crossed the eastern plateau until it gave way to the desert plains.  I hope they're not out there, he thought, but if they had been driven this far, what would Zorro be likely to do?  I'd make for the hills, where there were trees, shade, and maybe water.  Water!  That was it.  Felipe needed some for himself and his horse anyway.  He turned around and headed to the northwest.

     Zorro eased his aching body down beside her, and she ventured a question. "You've been quiet all morning.  Is something else troubling you?"
     "Two things," he confessed.  "When the alcalde discovers that you didn't return to the tavern last night and that you still weren't back this morning, he may deduce that Toronado went lame.  He may even reason that we're following this stream back to town and return with lancers to search for us."
     She considered his words.  "And the second thing?"
     He responded quietly, "What's going to happen to your good reputation when it's spread around that you spent the night with me all alone?  I can't think how to cover the fact.  This fiasco is my fault entirely."
     She laid a hand lightly on his arm.  "I'm not sorry for the way things have worked out.  Any time alone with you is precious, and I've never known you to be more self-revealing.  That means a lot to me."
     He smiled reluctantly, and leaned over to kiss her cheek.  "Then some good has come from it all."
     "Yes.  But I have an idea.  If I could get to the de la Vegas', I think
they'd cover for me--say I'd spent the night there."
     "It might work, if we could get you there today," he mused.  "You're good friends with the de la Vegas, aren't you?"
     "Yes, they're my second family.  Don Alejandro is like a father to me."
     "And Don Diego?  Is he like a brother?" he asked casually, holding his breath while waiting for her reply.  When she did not answer immediately, he looked at her averted face.
     "I . . . don't know.  Not like a brother exactly."  She tried to explain.  "I used to think I knew Diego well, that I understood what kind of man he was, but lately I've begun to think there's a lot about himself that he doesn't show anyone.  He's always friendly, but he's a very private person.  In some ways he's a bigger mystery than you are."
     She's been more perceptive than I realized, he thought.  "It sounds as though you don't like him."
     "On the contrary," she said solemnly, "I like him very well indeed."

     His companion had fallen asleep in the shade when Zorro heard the whistle about half a mile away.  Toronado neighed in response.  Zorro returned the signal with a sharp, clear blast of his own.
     "What is it?" Victoria asked groggily.
     "Someone's nearby.  Wait here while I see who it is."  He scrambled up the bank and out of sight.  A few minutes later the two men greeted each other with undisguised relief.  Zorro quickly explained the situation and gave his young friend instructions.
     "Look who's here, Victoria!  Just who we need to take you to the de la Vegas'," Zorro called as he and the mounted rider came into view.
     "Felipe!  How good to see you!"  She jumped up.
     "Felipe has agreed to take you to his home.  When you get there, tell Don Alejandro everything.  I'm sure he'll help you.  Give him my regards and thanks."  He helped her mount behind the younger man and turned his head, listening intently.
     "Many horses.  Yes, look over there--the alcalde and his men.  They haven't seen us yet.  Felipe, take the señorita to safety.  I'll lead them away," he gestured.
     "But what about you?  How can you ride Toronado?"
     "Hopefully he's walked out the lameness now.  I'll be fine," he smiled, squeezing her hand.  "You're a brave lady, mi tesora.  Vaya con Dios."  He mounted Toronado and eased him into a gallop in the opposite direction.  "Feeling better, Boy?  It's good to run again, isn't it?"  The big stallion snorted and tossed his head.
     "Alcalde!  There's Zorro!" shouted Sepulveda, pointing across the arroyo.  The soldiers began their pursuit.
     "Ah, our favorite game, Toronado--'Fox and Hounds'.  Let's have a little fun with them this time."  He led the lancers across a plateau and then weaved them through a tree-covered valley.  "Are you up to the jump at the canyon? I think we need not prolong this; I'm ready to go home."  The stallion gathered his strength and pushed off strongly, urged on by his master's knees.  He cleared the canyon with inches to spare, leaving the thwarted soldiers on the other side.
     Zorro hailed the commandant.  "Thank you for the pleasant afternoon.  I've had more fun at your outing than you had at mine, I'll wager."
     "Where is the señorita, Zorro?"
     The masked man schooled his face into a blank expression of bewilderment.  "Obviously not with me.  Do you mean she's missing?"
     "Since yesterday.  She never returned to the tavern," accused DeSoto.
     "Evidently she decided to stay over at the de la Vegas'.  Adios," he called over his shoulder, waving farewell.

     "Home at last, Diego?  I wish you'd let me know you were going to Santa Paula.  I had a errand at the bank."
     "It was a spur-of-the-moment idea. Sorry, Father.  I spent the night with a friend.  Hello, Victoria.  What a pleasant surprise."
     "Victoria's been with us since yesterday.  She and Zorro were ambushed by the alcalde, and she's been laying low since then.  I'm just getting ready to escort her back to the tavern."
     Diego nodded politely.  When they had gone, the tall man sought out Felipe.  "I can't thank you enough, Amigo.  You saved Victoria and me from the consequences of our ill-fated assignation.  Perhaps I shouldn't try to see her alone like that any more."
     Felipe shook his head.  "She needs you," he mouthed.
     Diego agreed ruefully.  "And I need her.  This must be the strangest courtship ever."  He smiled, content with new memories to savor.  Victoria was right; it had been worth it.

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