19.  THE ONLY THING CONSTANT
 
 

     Zorro's alert eyes scanned the scene outside his cell window.  There were two guards on duty along this wall, too, and the shadows were getting longer as the afternoon progressed.  His restless energy was held firmly in check by the strength of his will; too much fidgeting would keep the lancers with him alert.  He fingered the supplies still in his pocket:  another lump of gunpowder clay, a fuse, and flint--enough to blow the lock on his cell door but almost impossible to do while being watched by Corporal Sepulveda and a private.  His knife still rested in his boot, but he had never yet used it to draw blood.  No, help must come from somewhere--Felipe or Ramón, perhaps.  The masked man knew he had to be ready the instant opportunity presented itself.  He had no intention of dying today; there were still so many reasons to live.
     The sound of keys rattling the door to the alcalde's office brought his head around.  DeSoto had denied him any visitors, which was not surprising.  The door opened, and Padre Benitez stepped into the jail.  The alcalde ordered the guards to give the priest five minutes with the prisoner.  Zorro stood back while the cell door was unlocked for his visitor.  The kind church leader had a sympathetic expression on his face as he greeted the outlaw.
     "It's good of you to come here, Padre," greeted the outlaw, grasping the priest's outstretched hand.
     "I had to persuade the alcalde that every condemned prisoner is entitled to a last confession--even you, my son.  Come; let us sit down."  The priest sat on the crude bed with his back to the guards, and Zorro sat down facing him.  "The alcalde allowed me to bring you this special rosary," he announced, holding up a cross on a string of beads, with his right hand in full sight of the guards.  "There may be many things on a man's mind as he prepares to meet God.  Of course, one does not always know when that will be."  With his other hand, he carefully removed from his full sleeve a lock-pick, a note written on a scrap of paper, and two small bottles--one labeled as ether and the other an ammonia compound.  The priest had brought him supplies from his own laboratory!  Zorro looked into the gentle face and saw his friend's eyes twinkling.
     Reaching out to receive the rosary, he resisted the urge to grin.  "Gracias, Padre."
     "I'm an interested student of human nature, Zorro, and it's my business to know my parishioners.  You have done many good things for this pueblo, and it's been an honor to know you.  Now, kneel here and begin your prayers."
     As the masked man recited formal prayers from memory, his heart was praying for the opportunity to use the tools graciously given him.  One by one he scooped the small treasures into his shirt sleeve.

     "Alcalde, the whole pueblo has gathered in the plaza to protest the hanging of Zorro.  We could have a huge riot on our hands!" worried Sergeant Mendoza.
     DeSoto looked up from his paperwork and sneered.  "Everything is under control.  We'll march Zorro out in a few minutes with all the lancers in the garrison armed and ready.  Gather the men and order them to shoot any citizen who interferes with the execution."
     "Sí, Alcalde."  Mendoza left the office with a heavy heart.
     As the escort of lancers assembled in front of the armory gates, they were met with hoots and jeers from the restless mob.  They struggled to maintain dignity as they marched around the office to the outside jail door.  The first evidence the alcalde had that all was not well with his prisoner came when the patrol rounded the corner and saw the lancer there on guard duty asleep against the wall.  DeSoto was infuriated that the soldier had been negligent at such a crucial time, but the man did not wake up at the sound of the commandant's yelling.  Mendoza shook the guard's shoulder.
     "Private.  Private Garza, to your duty!"  But the man would not be roused.  A horrible thought struck the alcalde at that instant.  He pushed open the lockless wooden door and glanced at the jail's interior.  He had left two guards on duty here, and now there was only one, coughing and crying in a chair.  But at least Zorro was still in the cell, though how the outlaw could sleep so close to his own execution was unfathomable.  DeSoto unlocked the cell door, ordering his lancers to bring their guns to bear on the prisoner.
     "Get up, Zorro.  It's time to die," the officer ordered the curled figure, kicking the foot of the bed.  When the sleeping man did not stir, he lifted the black hat from the man's face, and with a shock saw the unconscious countenance of Corporal Sepulveda, whose bright uniform had been carefully covered with a black satin cape.  For a few moments, the officer stared at the lancer as the unpleasant truth sunk in.  "Zorro's escaped!  Search the area!"
     As the men scrambled out the door with muskets in hand, they were greeted by the harsh sound of fifty rifle bolts being drawn back in unison.  The angry crowd facing them was composed of caballeros and farmers, vaqueros and shopkeepers, the wealthy and peasants side by side, grimly armed.  The vastly outnumbered soldiers halted in place until their commandant joined them.
     "What is this?" demanded DeSoto.
     Ramón Escalante stepped forward from the crowd.  "The people of Los Angeles demand that you leave this pueblo, Señor.  We also demand the release of Zorro."
     "Lancers, prepare to fire!" the alcalde ordered.
     Mendoza and the eight men with him looked uncertainly into the rifle barrels surrounding them.  A soldier must obey orders, the sergeant knew, but this was suicide.  Slowly the muskets were raised by nervous hands to face the mob.
     "Lancers!" shouted a voice from the office roof.  Every head looked up to see Zorro standing there, and a cheer went up from the pueblo's citizens.  "Lay down your weapons, and you will not be hurt," the masked man promised the soldiers.  "Today, you must choose.  Will you serve Mexico or Spain?  If Mexico, cross over and stand with the people.  If Spain, you may return there in peace; we will not harm you."
     The anxious privates looked at each other and their sergeant for direction.  Mendoza took a deep breath, straightened up proudly, and let his musket drop.  With newborn courage, he marched over to the crowd and joined their ranks.  Señora Amistad squeezed through the throng to take his hand.  One by one, the other lancers followed his lead, until DeSoto was left alone.
     "Traitors!  Rebels!  Worthless jackals!" bellowed the deserted commandant.
     "Alcalde, drop your pistol carefully, and you may yet escape with your skin," called Zorro.  His adversary resentfully obeyed.  "There's a ship in San Pedro sailing tonight for Spain.  Be on it," the hero warned.  DeSoto knew he was staring defeat in the face and was not a gracious loser.  But glaring at the citizens whom he had abused, he retreated without a word to his quarters to pack.
     Zorro continued, "Good people of Los Angeles, put aside your weapons.  You have won your freedom this day without any bloodshed by standing together. Tomorrow, here in the plaza, we will have our first truly free election for the office of alcalde.  Let every citizen come and vote.  Select from among yourselves a man who is a good leader--honest and responsible, and we will have justice in our town at last."
     He saluted them, pierced the air with a sharp whistle, and Toronado answered with a shrill whinny.  The black stallion sprang forward from behind the jail to directly below where his master was standing.  Zorro jumped down into the saddle and galloped away, with the sound of unrestrained jubilation ringing in his ears.  In the plaza, the Mexican flag was proudly raised for the first time.

 Ignacio DeSoto had one more thing to do before leaving Los Angeles.  This dusty outpost would pay for humiliating him, he fumed as he dialed the combination to the office safe.  With Zorro's reward money and the taxes he had collected from the cattle, he had leave this pueblo about ten thousand pesos richer.  He wrenched open the safe's door but found the shelves empty except for a single piece of paper.  He picked it up and read, "Finders, Keepers.  Z."  The former alcalde closed his eyes and moaned.

     Diego hugged his brother when the younger man returned to the house.  "The things you sent me through the padre were exactly what I needed.  Sepulveda took a whiff of the ether, and the other guard fell victim to the crying gas formula.  It was easy after that."
     Felipe looked up at him with a relieved smile.  "I wasn't sure what to send; I hoped it would be enough.  I didn't know how to get the things to you until Padre Benitez came to me.  I think he figured out Zorro's secret for himself some time ago; he's pretty shrewd."  His older brother nodded.
     The following day, the townspeople trickled in one by one to cast their ballots in the large box in the plaza.  Diego de la Vega stood by watching the voting process and taking notes for The Guardian.  Ramón walked up from the tavern.
     "Quite an exciting story for the newspaper, isn't it, Diego?  This is one of the biggest days in the pueblo's history."
     His friend agreed.  "You helped bring it about, Ramón.  You were the leader who rallied the people to finally make a stand."
     Escalante disclaimed, "Maybe, though I think Zorro was right after all.  We didn't really need the rifles.  Standing together and confronting DeSoto would probably have produced the same result.  Does anyone know if he actually left for Spain?"
     "Yes, he's gone.  Zorro saw to that."
     Ramón grinned appreciatively.  It was almost five o'clock and many people gathered to watch the counting of the ballots.  Sergeant Mendoza announced the voting closed and opened the box.  He called out the name on each piece of paper, and two of his lancers recorded the votes.  More than thirty citizens' names were called out, but the final count yielded Don Alejandro de la Vega clearly the winner, with Ramón Escalante not far behind.  Victoria's brother was flattered to have finished so well, especially being newly back in town.
     "I voted for your father, Diego.  Let's go and congratulate him."
Don Alejandro was accepting the best wishes from those around him, and looking overwhelmed but happy.
     "Diego, can you believe it?  I'm honored to serve as alcalde, but what about the rancho?"
     "Father, don't worry about the rancho.  I'll run it while you serve the people."  He clapped his father on the back.  "I'm so proud of you.  You had my vote."
     "And mine," Ramón added.
     "Mine, too," Victoria put in.
     "And my vote," Felipe whispered hoarsely.
     Alejandro announced in a loud voice, "My fellow Los Angelenos, I thank you for your confidence in me.  I will not let you down.  Tomorrow as I take office, the first order of business will be a new tax system where every citizen will pay only his fair share; there will be no more arbitrary taxes."  Enthusiastic applause approved his decision.  "And the second thing, something long overdue--I'll write a pardon for Zorro."

     A few nights later, the Escalantes were the dinner guests of the new alcalde.  He explained to them how his tax plan was progressing.
     "The difficulty so far has been determining how much money is actually needed to run the garrison.  DeSoto kept records, but the figures are obviously inflated to cover the extra taxes he charged.  Then I'll have to budget for civic improvement projects, too.  I'll call a town meeting to see what the people think is the most pressing need.  At any rate, with the ten thousand pesos Zorro recovered from Alcalde DeSoto, we'll have plenty of money to operate the town for some time."  He turned to his guest.  "Ramón, can you get us some more of those new rifles?"
     "Sí, Alcalde.  They are from Texas, developed by the Americanos.  I'll get you as many as you need."
     "Good.  The garrison's muskets are obsolete.  I'm going to undertake the military training of the men myself.  They need to be re-taught, too, that their function is to protect and serve the people."
     "With you in office, Don Alejandro," Victoria put in, "the people will not need to fear that the military will be used against them."
     "Speaking of that, I got a note from Zorro today.  He thanked me for the pardon and said he will come and receive it from me at noon on Thursday.  I think he finally means to unmask; we'll at last know the name of the brave man who has been our guardian angel."
     "He knows you are an honest man, Father.  With your election, injustice from corrupt leadership is over.  His work is finally over, too," Diego said pensively.
     "A man like that is too valuable to lose.  I hope I can persuade him to continue using his gifts for the benefit of the pueblo.  By the way, Diego, that was a good reminder to send copies of the pardon to the other pueblos throughout the territory.  We don't want any crazy bounty hunters looking for Zorro after he's been pardoned.  I have an idea--suppose we plan a celebration in Zorro's honor.  I'll open up the hacienda to the whole town, and we'll have a big party right here.  What do you think?"
     Felipe nodded vigorously, the Escalantes were enthusiastic, and Diego quietly gave assent.
     "I'll help you with the food, Don Alejandro," offered Victoria.
     "Excellent.  I was hoping you would.  Between us, we should be able to set out a first-rate banquet."
     "Felipe, shall we volunteer to decorate the plaza?" asked Ramón, and the younger de la Vega son agreed with a grin, wondering what his brother was thinking of all this fuss.
     "And I'll cover the event for the newspaper," stated Diego.
     "Wonderful!  Then I'll proclaim Thursday as 'Zorro Day'," smiled the alcalde.

     The pueblo of Los Angeles embraced the idea of the celebration with unbridled enthusiasm.  Speculation concerning the possibility of the hero's unmasking made every citizen determine to witness that  historic moment in person.  For the three days between the announcement and the event no other subject was as much discussed or thought of.  Never had the tavern been busier, and between her duties there and food preparations for the party, Victoria had no time for herself.  She hardly had time to think of what Zorro's pardon could mean to her, but put aside her personal hopes until a note on her pillow forced her to consider the future.
     Wednesday night, Don Diego walked in the tavern's front door and was lucky to find a seat at an empty corner table.  He watched Victoria as she went from one customer to the next and realized with regret that he would not have the privacy he had hoped for this evening either.  She finally noticed him sitting alone and brought him a glass of cold juice.
     "Business is really booming.  You look tired," he told her, studying her face closely.  "Is all this too much for you?"
     Her heart was warmed by the kindness in his expression.  Victoria looked quickly around the room, but saw no one to trying to get her attention.  She gratefully sat down beside him.  "It's not just that, Diego.  It's--"  She dropped her eyes and slowly pulled a small envelope from her pocket.  Holding it out to him with trembling fingers, she said in a quiet voice, "It's this."
     He took the already familiar note and read again the message he had struggled so hard to compose.  "From Zorro.  He wants to marry you tomorrow afternoon."
     "Can you imagine?  After waiting nearly ten years, he says, 'How about tomorrow?'  I don't know whether to laugh or cry."
     "I suppose after waiting ten years he doesn't want to wait even one more day.  It seems ideal; after all, the guests will be there, ready to invite, and food and drink for a large reception.  My father would be delighted to host your wedding supper.  Are you going to accept Zorro's proposal?"
     "I don't know.  Why does he insist on surprise?" she fretted.  "Why can't he tell me personally who he is?"
     Her companion glanced around the crowded taproom.  "Maybe he has wanted to, but has found it impossible to have a moment alone with you since all the commotion began.  Have you never tried to figure out his identity?"
     "Of course I have; who hasn't?  But I know everyone in this pueblo, and Zorro isn't the least like anyone.  I can't make any sense of it."
     He spoke earnestly, "Does it make sense that there would be someone like him?  If there were, even a child could put the two together."
     As she absorbed that new thought, consternation distressed her features.  "Do you realize what you're saying?  That he's been in disguise continually all these years.  As Zorro he's masked his face; as himself," she breathed in hushed tones, "he's masked his soul."
     "I think that's what he would want you to know in preparation for tomorrow--that you may not have known him as he really is."
     "Oh, Diego," she raised tearful eyes to his face, "now I'm really scared."
     He covered her hand with his own and squeezed it reassuringly. "Probably not half as scared as he is.  Remember, every man wants to be known and loved for himself.  Zorro is no exception."  He smiled and returned the note.  "Can you close up earlier tonight and get some extra rest?  I think you'll need it.  Buenas noches."

     The next morning, Alejandro dressed in his finest suit and checked the food preparations of his kitchen staff.  Everything was going smoothly.  "Diego, Felipe, are you ready to go?  I want to be in the plaza well ahead of time."
     Felipe appeared in a tailored brown suit, running his finger around the starched neck of his shirt.  His silk cravat was already rumpled, and his expression decidedly harassed.
     Alejandro shook his head.  "This will never do, Son; we must have you looking your best.  Lift up your chin, and I'll re-tie this mess for you.  Diego," he called.  His older son came from the hallway without coat or tie.  "Why aren't you ready?"
     "I have some more things to finish up here.  I'll join you in the plaza later."
     "All right, but watch the time.  Don't be late."
     "Don't worry, Father.  I wouldn't miss this for the world."
     When his father and brother had gone, the caballero walked slowly to the fireplace door and pressed the secret latch.  He ducked under the mantel and stepped down to the cave.  An overwhelming sense of nostalgia came over him as his eyes lingered on the objects in his private laboratory.  This room contained years of adventures and memories, and this was the last time it would be his alone.
     No wonder human beings resist change, he thought as he ran his long fingers over each precious item. It's so painful to break with what we know, especially when it's been good.  He sighed and closed his eyes a moment.  No, it's Zorro's turn to stand aside.  Diego has waited long enough to have a life to himself.
     Toronado's snort broke into his reverie.  The stallion was already saddled, courtesy of Felipe.  The man stroked the nose of his faithful friend.  "One last ride with Zorro, Boy."  He began to unbutton his shirt.  "This will be the most difficult ride of all."

     In the plaza, nearly every man, woman, and child in the pueblo had assembled well before noon.  The choice spots near the platform where the alcalde would stand had been staked out since early that morning.  Others had chosen to get above the throng and lined the balcony of the tavern and even the rooftops.  Don Alejandro emerged from his office and dismissed the lancers to enjoy the celebrations for the rest of the day.  He mounted the platform with his younger son, the Escalantes, and Sergeant Mendoza, who had chosen to remain loyally by his new commander.
     Exactly at noon, the young boys watching the road for the first glimpse of the hero caught sight of the black horse and rider approaching the pueblo gates.  The word quickly spread throughout the crowd, and as Zorro cantered his stallion by the church he was engulfed in a human flood of people shouting his name, calling out their thanks, and reaching up to shake his hand.  Until this moment, he had never fully realized how much he meant to the people of his town, and it touched him deeply.  He returned their best wishes with a triumphant smile, greeting many by name as he weaved his way toward the alcalde.  As he reached the platform, Zorro dismounted and handed the reins to a thrilled young man, then climbed the steps and approached the official.
     De la Vega signaled for quiet and told his guest of honor, "Zorro, the people of Los Angeles and I personally have so much to thank you for.  You have been here for us when justice needed a brave champion, and your wisdom and compassion have inspired all of us to a higher standard.  In my office as alcalde, I hereby grant you this full and complete pardon."
     As the masked man shook hands with Don Alejandro and accepted the rolled parchment, the people below roared their approval and applauded the leader's words.  Zorro slid off the ribbon and unrolled the document to read the precious words.  When he had finished, he rolled it slowly with tears in his eyes.
     "Thank you, Alcalde," he whispered.
     "May I ask you a question, Señor?  Why?  Why did you risk so much to be Zorro?"
     The tall masked figure blinked rapidly as he surveyed the many faces below him.  "There are--hundreds of reasons."
     Don Alejandro nodded in understanding, then asked, "Zorro, will you now let us know the name of the man to whom we owe so much?"
     "Yes, I will," the hero replied in a low voice, and gave his hat and gloves to Felipe.  With shaking hands, he untied the knot behind his neck.  Pulling the mask aside, Diego looked his father full in the face.
     The world froze in silence for what seemed like an eternity to the man in black.  All he could hear was the painful slamming of his own heart, but his eyes never wavered from his father's.
     "Don Diego!" gasped Mendoza.  "It's impossible!  It couldn't be!"  The sentiment was echoed by the crowd in wonder, then appreciation, and lastly wild cheers.
     Alejandro was shocked; his jaw dropped, and his brain refused to process what he was seeing.  For the first fleeting instant, it crossed his mind that Diego was playing a joke on them all, that the real Zorro had yet to arrive.  But slowly the truth, the incredible truth, began to make inroads to his reason.  The senior de la Vega tried to speak, but could not frame any words.
     Diego saw the color drain from the alcalde's face and feared his father would collapse where he stood.  He reached out and grasped the older man's arms.
     "Father," he appealed.
     "Diego," Alejandro croaked, "are you really Zorro?"  His fingers gripped his son's shoulders like talons, and his frantic eyes searched the other face.
     "Yes, Father," he confirmed, "I've been Zorro from the beginning.  The apple did not fall so very far from the tree."
     "What a blind fool I've been!" de la Vega cried brokenly, and clutched his son in a trembling embrace.  The two men clung to each other for a few moments, weeping unashamedly, oblivious to the many people watching.  As he released his son, Alejandro's wet face shone with simple pride.
     The pardoned man turned anxious eyes toward Victoria, who had not moved or spoken since he had unmasked.  But the alcalde's catharsis of acceptance had been her own as well, so when Diego held out his hand toward her and called her name softly, she came to him without hesitation.  There she was crushed to his chest by a powerful pair of arms.
     "Is it all right--that your hero is only Diego?" he whispered in her ear.
     "My hero will always be Diego," she gulped in a voice choked with tears.  A relieved groan escaped him, and his hungry mouth found her eager lips for a hard, passionate kiss.
     "The ring--did you bring it?" he murmured unsteadily.  In answer, she withdrew the heirloom from her pocket.  He slid the ring firmly on her finger for the second time.  "May I invite everyone to our wedding this afternoon?"
     Her eyes sparkled as she smiled, "Yes.  Oh, yes!"
     The man in black threw back his head and gave a whoop of exultation that reverberated through the hills.

     It was three-thirty in the morning before Ramón, the last of the guests, left the hacienda.  He refused the offer of overnighting at the large house, reminding them that he would be opening the tavern by himself in a few hours.  "I told you so, Victoria," was his parting shot to his sister as Felipe closed the front door.
     Alejandro stretched and yawned.  "What an amazing day!  The questions I've been asked!  I still can hardly take it in--that my older son was Zorro and my younger son knew the whole time."
     "Felipe has been my priceless ally.  Together we made an unbeatable team.  We'll show you the cave tomorrow; I think that should be kept our family secret.  And yes, before you ask, Toronado would be happy to meet your prize mares," smiled Don Diego.
     His father looked pleased, then frowned.  "I have a bone to pick with you," he scolded.  "Why didn't you think you could trust me with the truth?"
     His son put his arm affectionately around the older man's shoulders.  "You know it had nothing to do with a lack of trust, but sharing my secret would have put your life on the line.  For two of the people I love most in the world, that was too high a price.  Your safety has meant more to me than your respect or understanding, but losing those things was the worst part of being Zorro."
     "Please forgive all the things I've said in ignorance, Diego," pleaded Alejandro.  "I couldn't be prouder of you and Felipe for what you've done."  He turned to his daughter-in-law.  "Victoria, my dear, did you have any idea that Diego was Zorro?"
     "No, but I should have.  I think he tried to tell me several times."  Her husband nodded, and she stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.  "I thought the man I loved was so far away; you've been loving and protecting me the whole time, right here.  I don't understand it all yet, but I'm so glad it's you."
     "Our lives have turned upside down in the last few days," Alejandro reflected.  "Who would have believed it all possible?"
     "It's been said that the only thing that never changes is change itself," his older son observed.  "This is a transition for all of us."
     "What now for you, Son?"
     "Zorro is retired, but should you ever need his sword, Alcalde, you have but to ask.  I'll always be concerned with the welfare of Los Angeles, and am thinking about taking up the law myself.  Otherwise, I'm going to run the estate for you, concentrate on being a good husband, and making you a grandfather.  Speaking of which," he added, picking up Victoria in his arms, "Father, Felipe, good night."
 

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