PRISE DE FER
 
 22
 
 
 
 
 

     Zorro pushed the stallion to a hard gallop.  At the grove of trees he circled the area until he crossed a set of tracks coming from the hacienda.  There should be two sets, though; Pepe's as well as Victoria's.  Ah, this set of tracks had a short stride; it belonged to the stable boy.  Then Victoria's were a little further on--yes, here!  He followed the tracks to a converging point.  Here she stopped her gallop, and the horse sidled restlessly.  Other tracks from the west opposed.  Here Pepe approached and was turned back.  But the boy had been correct; three sets of tracks--three men.  They had circled her closely, for when the four tracks headed south in an easy canter, the horses had been almost next to each other.  The possibility that Victoria had not gone of her own free will with the men was taking stronger hold on the hero's mind.
     The horses had not taken the main road but had stayed off to the side for several hundred yards.  Why?  To avoid being seen by a chance passer-by?  He sorted through the possible destinations even as the powerful stallion thundered toward the estates on the very fringe of the Los Angeles area.  The brand with a C-bar did not belong to any of the ranches he could think of, and the only reason that came to mind for her possible abduction was ransom.  She had been the subject of malicious gossip, but nobody kidnapped for such a reason.  No one hated her--  His train of thought caught him up short.  Carlos Costilla!  Antonio's brother had contempt for Victoria before the duel; after having his hand shattered, might he hold the lovely doña responsible for that, too?  Costilla, with a C, and horses that might have been brought to the area on a certain schooner from Monterey and stabled at the la Cruz hacienda or elsewhere!  Now the masked man had two probabilities for his wife's location, and the hoofprints would show him which was right.

     Señora de la Vega had spent the day in the darkness of the hull, without food or water.  For hours she had heard no sign of human presence and wondered if she had been abandoned on the ship.  The thought was almost as fearsome as that of Costilla and his hired brutes being there.  What if the ship should spring a leak and start sinking?  She would be drowned like a trapped rat!
     Her head hurt.  She hurt all over.  The lower lip split by Costilla's blow remained tender, but the swelling had subsided some.  The nausea had not gone, however.  The strong odor of creosote permeated her clothes and invaded her lungs, churning her stomach with its repulsive sweet scent.  She lay on her back with her arms folded protectively over her belly.  Ugh!--that cold, hollow sensation of the bile about to rise!  There was nothing in her stomach to vomit, but she had lost count of how many times she had crawled to the corner with dry heaves.
     What is this all about, Lord?  Why is this happening to me?  Do You want me to die here?  I don't understand.  I don't understand about Diego.  How could he do that to me?  Why did You let him lie to me like that?
     She did not know whether she wanted Diego to find her or not.  She did not want him to see her like this, did not know what she would say to him if he came, was afraid for him to come with Carlos waiting for vengeance.  How would he even know what had happened?  Her lie to Pepe was probably convincing enough to hide her circumstances for quite some time.  Would he even want to come after the things she had said?  She had been furious, shocked, gouged excruciatingly in the heart, and she had lashed back at him without giving any thought to the words she used.  Now she just felt numb.  Sick, hurt, and defeated.  No, Lord, please don't send Diego.  If I'm to be rescued, send someone else!
     Hours later she heard the sound of footsteps above coming toward the trap door.  Was it someone bringing food?  Was it Carlos coming to renew his lecherous attacks or his demands for the tavern ownership?  She was too weak to hold off Carlos or his thugs.  Perhaps she should exaggerate her ills; if they thought her near death they might leave her alone.  She closed her eyes.  The hinges protested with a screech, and the door opened a patch of light into the hold.  A shadow bumped down the ladder.  A profane curse sounded; her visitor was Valdez, and he had smelled the vomit.
     "How can a little lady make such a stink?" he demanded, prodding her with the toe of his boot.  "Hey, Señora--get up.  Here's some water for you."  When she failed to respond, he poured the water from the jug onto her face and cackled with glee.  The initial splash shocked her, then she reveled in its cooling stream.
     "That wake you up?" he asked when the water was gone.  He leaned over to shake her.  "You're not a bad looking piece, even though you smell to high heaven."
     She opened her eyes wide and mumbled in a vacant voice, "Hail Mary, full of grace--"
     Her outburst startled the man, who laughed coarsely.  Then he seemed undecided what to do.  "Ramera loca going off her head," he muttered.  He bumbled halfway up the steps and shouted, "Patrón!  You'd better come and look at her!"  A few seconds later another set of footsteps approached the trapdoor, and the painfully bright glow from a lantern came down the ladder with a man.
     "What have we here?" said Costilla's voice.  He knelt beside her and turned her chin with his hand.  "Ready to sign that deed, Señora?" he asked in a soft, taunting tone.
     Her eyes fluttered open, and he forced her to look at him.  The glare of venom she shot him made him laugh.  "No, she's not at death's door, baboso.  This one's a fighter.  Get up on deck and wait for her husband; alert me when he comes."
     "Sí, Patrón," muttered the hireling.  They left Victoria in the darkness once more.

     The sun had set, and the tracks Zorro followed in the deepening twilight were much harder to make out.  One comfort to him--he had passed the la Cruz rancho, so San Pedro was his likely destination.  If the daylight failed before he came to the end of the tracks, he intended to go to the harbor and search.  Still four distinct sets of hoofprints--his wife had been with the three men up to this point.
     Darkness descended on his efforts two miles before he reached the small port.  The masked man gambled on his hunch and urged Toronado toward the few distant lights.  He left the stallion again in the small copse near the buildings and approached the settlement on foot.  What he expected to find he was not sure, but since the Costillas now owned Silva's old hut, he stealthily came up to the back door.  It was unlocked, and the outlaw pulled it open slowly.  The interior was dark, however, but he found the four horses stabled there.
     "Cielo, old boy," he murmured to the de la Vega gelding, "you're a long way from home.  There, there, fella--not even rubbed down?  I think I care less and less for these friends of Victoria's.  Come on; I want you to meet Toronado."
     He backed his wife's mount from the small make-shift stable and tethered him with the black stallion in the copse.  When Zorro returned to the hut, he led out the remaining horses one at a time and drove them away.  Even if they returned to the stable, the men would have a harder time catching and saddling them, giving the Fox the time he might need to get away safely with his wife.
     The absence of the riders and the quiet of the make-shift stable gave the masked man the conviction that Victoria's companions were not lingering nearby.  He might find them in Gomez's greasy tavern, but when he walked around the building to the dock, he saw a gray shadow sitting silently on the murmuring swell of the sea.  The schooner!  The mysterious schooner!  If she did belong to the Monterey businessman as he suspected, and Victoria's captors worked for Costilla, then chances were good he could find the answers to many of his questions on board the small ship.  Please God, let me find her, too! he prayed as he unknotted a rowboat tied to the pier.  No twinge of conscience troubled the outlaw as he stepped into the boat and shoved off; the boat would be useful on his return from the schooner, and he could tie it off again in the same spot.

     Another night had come without anything to eat.  Victoria doubted she could retain any supper, but she was so hungry!  Her stomach had never hurt like this!  But was it all hunger?  How much of it was seasickness?  Neither explained that her stomach had felt oddly hollow for several days before her abduction.  Perhaps she was ill as well.  Was the combination of the three enough to kill her here?
     A rodent scurried by her in the darkness, but she did not care.  Tales of sailors getting hungry enough to eat rats came to mind.  The doña decided she was not yet that ravenous.  She tried to think of other things besides her own misery.  Independence could come to Alta California, but she might never see it.  What was today?  Oh, yes--Sunday.  Tomorrow the pueblo would be under attack.  She had not gotten Perdita safely to the hacienda as she had planned.  Her little pregnant sister-in-law would be there at Ramón's side, aiding him in her loyal way and exposing herself and baby to terrible danger.
     Baby.  Bits of conversations with Perdita filtered through the distracted haze in Victoria's mind.  Her petite relative had described her stomach pains as an unrelenting hunger.  She had mentioned how strong odors triggered nausea, and how tired she felt.
     Could it be?  Has there been enough time to tell?  When had Victoria first had relations with her husband?  She counted the days painstakingly.  It was possible.  She rubbed her wrists over her flat belly.  Are you in there, Little One?
     If she indeed carried Diego's child, she must live through this imprisonment.  She must return to the hacienda, where her baby could be born.  This child would be the heir to everything for which she and the de la Vegas had worked, the culmination of their lives.
     And Diego?  The doña closed her eyes, thinking of the mysterious, multi-faceted man she had married.  The pieces still did not fit together. Perhaps he did have feelings for her--at least, as much as he was capable of.  But love without trust was no love at all, she decided.  She wished she could return to a moment in time when they had lain in each other's arms, laughing, and she had believed that he loved her.  She had finally felt free to love him in return; then her world had come crashing down again like a house of cards.   For the third time her life had been destroyed, but once more she would rebuild.  Yes, for the sake of the child she must try.
     She did not know what to think or feel about her husband.  Maybe it was futile to think at all; there was a good possibility that she was already in her tomb.  Victoria cradled her belly protectively and dozed into a fitful rest.

     Zorro dipped the oars quietly in the water and pulled strongly and rhythmically toward the schooner at anchor.  When the rowboat drew near and bumped the side of the larger vessel, he heard movement up on the deck.
     "Ahoy there!" came a voice from the deck.  "Is that you, Señor Costilla?"
     Which Costilla? wondered the man in black.  "Sí," he replied in a passable imitation of Armando's voice.  "Let down the ladder."
     "Yes, sir!"
     A rope ladder tumbled over the side of the ship, and the Fox tied off the rowboat to the bottom rung.  That secured, he climbed the ladder warily.  A man awaited him at the top.
     "Who are you?" he demanded in surprise.
     Beneath the mask, white teeth suddenly flashed, and a sabre winked in the lantern light.  "I am the man who will kill you!"
     "Please, Señor--I have done nothing!" cried his weathered victim, backing away as the black shadow advanced.  "I sail the ship; that is all.  If you want money, there is some in the office below deck!"
     The sharp point of Toledo steel was at the captain's chest, and he could feel the tip pressing into his flesh.  A few steps later the rail was at his back, and he was trapped.  His mouth worked like a fish's, and beads of sweat popped out on his brow.
     "I don't want money," hissed the outlaw.  "I want answers!"
     "Wh-What?"
     "Is there a lady aboard this vessel?"
     The captain gasped, "Below!"
     "Gracias," said the masked man coolly.  "I think you've served your purpose."
     His victim screamed, certain that he was looking at the face of death, and the sword point slowly pushed harder, harder.  The captain leaned ever farther over the rail to avoid a fatal wound.
     "Adios," the Fox whispered.
     An instant later the captain lost his balance and tumbled backwards over the rail.  A yell preceded his entrance into the bay.
     "Zorro!"
     The snarl across the deck came from the large bully he had met at Pablo's hut many weeks before.  The captain's scream had alerted the thug, who had been napping on watch.
     The Fox saluted grimly.  "We meet again."
     "I knew we would."  Valdez pulled from his waistband a large pistol.  "You're good with a sword, but no match for a gun!"  He took aim at the black figure and pulled the trigger.
     Smoke and flame spat from the pistol, but the masked man had dived toward the ruffian and rolled.  The shot went over his head and splintered the mast.
     The Fox clucked his tongue in mock pity.  "Care to try again?"
     The burly hireling apparently did.  Though his shot from the handgun was used, he grasped the warm barrel to use the butt as a weapon.  "You don't scare me with that sword!"
     His dark opponent stepped into fighting distance and raised his weapon.  "But then you're not very bright.  You should be scared of me."  He stayed just out of range as Valdez feinted toward his head and brought the pistol down toward his arm.  He disengaged from the blow and was outside his adversary's shoulder.  "You forced Pablo Silva from his home."  The blade was beaten back by the thug's powerful swing, but with lightning reflex the hero disengaged again and brought the flat of the sword down hard on the bully's wrist.  The pistol fell from nerveless fingers.
     "Stupid old man got what was coming to him!  And so will you!"  Valdez seized a coil of rope and tried to entangle the masked hero's blade.
     Zorro lowered the point to his opponent's feet and retreated.  "No doubt.  But tonight justice will be dealt to you."  His steel could easily cut one or two strands of rope, but an entire coil would trap his blade and likely disarm him.
     The thug was stronger than most of the outlaw's adversaries, and a blow with the full power of his arm made a formidable weapon.  But when outmatched in strength, skill and brains succeeded.  Valdez used his size to intimidate his opponents, but this time faced someone who analyzed him for weaknesses.  Movements to the inside were stronger, Zorro knew.  When next his adversary swung the coil across his chest to the inside, the Fox stepped in quickly and seized the outside of his wrist.  As Valdez struggled to push his arm outward, the guard of the Toledo sabre came sharply across his jaw.  The bully staggered back, but the outlaw pressed his advantage.  Twice more Zorro punched the ugly face with the curved steel, and then brought down the hilt on the side of the thug's neck.
     The bully dropped the rope with a groan.  Then he felt himself propelled willy-nilly by a gloved grip on his shirt and another on the seat of his trousers toward the deck's railing.
     "You can jump or be pushed," warned the man in black.
     Valdez flailed his arms in a futile attempt to shake off his persistent adversary.
     "Push it is."  The outlaw threw the hireling's body across the rail, and the sword's point scratching across the seat of his trousers caused the bully to yelp before tumbling into the water.  Zorro admired his signature letter as it fell for only a moment.  Now to find the lady of whom the captain spoke!
     He spun about and saw Carlos Costilla watching him from the cabin's starboard side.  "Señor!  Why am I not surprised to find you here with the bilge rats?  Were you hoping your bodyguard would succeed and save you the trouble?"
     Costilla's eyes flared with hate, and he raised a pistol in his left hand.  "You expected to find me here, then?"
     The outlaw shrugged.  "The inefficient in the employ of the incompetent--a natural conclusion.  Tell me:  are you any better a shot with your left hand than you are with your right?"
     "You tell me, bandit!"  Carlos fired, but the masked man judged the timing correctly and leapt nimbly aside.  The ball pierced his cape.
     "You'll have to pay for this, you know," quipped the hero, pointing to the hole.  "I can't keep replacing my cape every time some hotshot takes a potshot."
     "Oh, aren't you clever," sneered the younger man, drawing a blade.
     Zorro sliced the air to the inside line, and the jib halyard was severed.  Detached from its anchoring cleat, the rope slithered through its stay a second later.  The heavy yards of canvas blanketed Costilla as the jib fell to the deck.
     "I have my moments."
     The furious gentleman slashed his way from beneath the pile of sail and regained his feet.  "You won't be so lucky this time, Zorro!"
     "Luck had absolutely nothing to do with our two previous encounters," stated the masked man, beating his opponent's blade and deftly disengaging to attack the outside line.  "If you can't beat me with your right hand, how do you expect to do it with your left?"
     Steel clashed against steel as the outlaw parried every attack and forced the businessman's son back with relentless cuts.  Costilla's weaker left arm was absorbing the shock of each blow down its length.
     "Where did you find that pond scum I just threw overboard?"
     "Valdez?  A bar vagrant," puffed the younger man contemptuously.
     "A bully for hire.  And you decided to retain his services after he rid you of Pablo Silva."
     "He's been useful several times."
     "Did you also use him to bring a lady here?" the Fox inquired, meeting the opposing blade in quarte and binding it to seconde.
     "That's my business, bandit!"
     "Not when the lady is Señora de la Vega!"
     A vicious sweep toward his head made Carlos crouch as he brought up his blade to parry.  It was awkwardly done, though, and with a sharp graze down the blade, the dark hero disarmed his opponent.  The sword clattered to the deck near the black boots.  Zorro kicked it overboard.
     "It's true, then," panted Costilla with a triumphant grin.  "You are her lover!  De la Vega is a fool!"
     "A fool, yes--for not killing you when he had the chance.  Now I have to do his dirty work!"  He retracted his arm for a straight thrust to the heart.
     A venomous glare shot from the gray eyes before the businessman's son dived overboard.  Relieved that Carlos had escaped his sabre, Zorro took a deep breath to steady himself.  Then he heard the sound of someone climbing up the rope ladder.  He sprinted to the site where it was tied off and severed the rope from the schooner.  Valdez gave a yelp and tumbled back into the rowboat.  Satisfied that the three swimmers could not easily ambush him, the dark hero sheathed his sword and took a lantern with him below deck.
     "Victoria!" he shouted.  "Are you here?"
     No sound answered him from the three cabin doors.  One was opened; a quick check revealed a deserted office with a desk and bunk.  Another door was unlocked--the captain's quarters, but unoccupied.  The third door was locked.  He backed up and kicked at the wood near the knob.  The door shivered from the blow.  A second kick splintered the frame, and the masked man held aloft the lantern to search the room.  It was a stateroom--Armando Costilla's chamber when he was aboard.  No one occupied it that night, though.
     The captain had said the lady was below.  Ah, below!  In the hold!  A trap door in the gangway was secured from the topside.  The outlaw removed the pin and called into the black hole, "Victoria!"
     In response a faint groan reached him.  "Diego?"
     A pause.  "No, Señora.  It's Zorro, at your service.  Can you climb up?"
     Her weak voice was nearly swallowed by the darkness.  "My hands are tied."
     He turned around and quickly descended the ladder with the lantern.  The hold was dank and malodorous, and he suspected had a rodent population as well.  A revolting place for his wife!
     She staggered toward him over piles of sacking, her skirt and jacket stained.  A purple splotch discolored her cheek; her lip was split and puffy.  Rage threatened to devour him.  What kind of beasts would strike a woman?  She turned her large pansy eyes on him, and he could not read her emotions.
     Victoria wondered briefly how he had found her, but her first words surprised her as much as him.
     "Be careful!  They're waiting for you to come."
     "Not anymore."  He slipped his dagger between the cords that bound her hands together, and severed the strands smoothly.
     "If they come back, you must go!" she urged.
     "If they come back, I will kill them," he replied grimly.  She staggered as she reached for the ladder and grasped his arm.  "Can you walk?"
     "I'm just stiff.  I can make it."
     She slowly climbed the ladder ahead of the masked man, painfully conscious of her appearance and smell.  He made no derogatory comment, though.  He stopped her when they reached the cabin level and put her behind him. After drawing his sabre, the Fox proceeded cautiously up the companionway.  Victoria crouched behind him, her heart in her throat.  Her panicked thoughts could only grasp one idea: Please, God, don't let anyone see us leave!  When his eyes were level with the next deck, he paused, looked around carefully, but he saw no one.  Zorro signaled with his hand for her to stay close behind him as he finished mounting the narrow steps.  The schooner was deserted, and the dinghy was missing.  Apparently the men he had tossed overboard had decided to go for reinforcements.
     "Where are they?" she whispered.
     "Gone with the rowboat."
     She was relieved that the black-garbed man beside her had managed to rid the schooner of her captors, then realized she and her husband were stranded on board.   "How do we get off here?" quavered the doña.
     "Can you swim?"
     "Not very well."
     "Then you'll have to wait while I exterminate some vermin.  Stay here; I'll come back for you."
     "No!" she hissed fearfully.  Her husband was coldly furious, and what vengeance he might take terrified her more than her leering captors.  "You've never killed anyone!  Don't start over me!  Never mind them!  Let's just out of here!"
     The flint-like purpose in his eyes did not abate, but her appeal touched something in him, she was certain.  He wavered an instant.
     "Very well," he said curtly.  "I'll take you home."  Zorro gestured that they were to go over the starboard side.  "Take off your skirts.  They'll weigh you down, and we've got to swim for it."
     "In only my drawers?"
     He answered impatiently, "You can stay here with your skirts or come with me in your drawers.  Which will it be?"
     She cast an anxious glance behind her; no one was in sight.  Quickly she untied her sash and unbuttoned her skirt.  Her petticoat dropped to the floor after her skirt, and Victoria felt indecently exposed in the dark night.  But Zorro had already slipped over the side to grasp the anchor line.  He stretched his hand toward her as he braced his legs against the prow of the ship.  She straddled the bow rail, crouched down, and kicked her legs in his direction.
     Catching her firmly about the thighs, he whispered, "Let go!"
     But she was off balance, the greater portion of her weight still hanging over the bay.  "This is no good; you won't be able to hold me!" she hissed back.
     "I am not going to let you fall!  If you can't trust me in this, maybe you should wait for another rescuer!"
     His tone was so bitter that Victoria knew she had wounded him deeply.  She let go of the rail, and as she expected, her torso dropped head down toward the water.  At any moment she was sure she would be dropped into the bay.  But a handbreadth at a time he let the anchor chain slip through his large palm and lowered them noiselessly into the cool seawater. It filled his Cordovan boots, making them uncomfortably heavy, and seeped up his trousers and shirt.  Victoria's bare calves and feet entered last; her chest and belly touched the water right after her arms, plastering her blouse to her skin.
     From the pier a rowboat was approaching the schooner, its oars dipping rhythmically in the water to make a quiet splash.  The murmur of voices carried indistinctly across the water from the dinghy.
     "Shh," whispered the masked man as he guided his companion to the anchor chain.  "The rowboat's coming back.  They'll discover that you're gone and will start looking."
     "We can't swim by them," she shivered.  "They'll see our heads."
     "We can't hide here either," he pointed out.  "The first place they'll look is over the side.  Can you tread water for a little while?"
     "I-I guess so."
     "Then I have an idea.  Follow me."
     He released the anchor line and silently glided to the far side of the bow.  She dog-paddled after him, careful not to make a splash though her legs were kicking furiously beneath the surface.
     "Tread like this," he instructed, noticing her struggle.  "Spread your knees apart and kick one leg out at a time.  With your arms do a little figure eight pattern in front of you.  Relax.  At least your skirts aren't drowning you."
     "What will we do?" she shivered.
     "Steal the boat as soon as they get aboard."
     "Why not just swim?"
     "We'll strand them on the ship.  Without the rowboat, their pursuit will be a lot slower, and I'll have time to get you away."
     As she hid on the far side of the ship's bow, he kept a stealthy watch around the corner.  The rowboat bumped softly against the schooner's side.  Several men were in the boat; one Zorro recognized as Valdez, who stood and threw a rope ladder aboard.  With that secured on a cleat, the men climbed the ladder one at a time.  Hats shaded their features.  As the last man reached for the rungs, the masked man glided silently to the dinghy's stern and grasped it.  As the remaining occupant's second foot found the lower rung, a hand emerged from the water and untied the knot that secured the little boat to the larger one.  The rowboat began easing away from the man, pulled by a black shadow.  Tempting as it was to tilt the rowboat and dump the man into the sea, the dark swimmer restrained.  The men on board had likely come prepared with primed pistols, and a person in the water would be an easy target for someone above.
     He pulled the boat backwards toward the schooner's bow where Victoria was waiting.  Above on the deck, voices called to each other, and the glow of lanterns roamed to and fro, casting sparkles on the otherwise dark surface of the bay.
     "I'll hold it steady while you get in," he whispered to his wife.
     She was unable to pull herself into the rowboat without his boost.  Tumbling into the bottom, her noisy entrance prompted a concerned glance from her husband toward the deck.  Someone had heard the sound and called to the others!
     Zorro grasped the anchor chain and lifted himself from the water far enough to swing his legs into the dinghy.  He no longer cared whether their exit was silent or not; the hounds had been alerted!
     "There!  The boat!" shouted a voice on the deck.  A lantern was thrust over the bow, and its glow illuminated the escaping pair.
     "Get down!" warned the masked man to Victoria.  "Stay on the bottom!"  He positioned the oars and pulled strongly away from the schooner.
     "Patrón!  They're getting away!" called Valdez's voice.
     A shot rang out and splintered the seat beside the rower.  Someone cursed explosively at the miss.  But each stroke of the oars put the dinghy further out of range and out of the light's reach.  Another crack of gunfire brought a gasp of fear from the woman huddled on the boat's floor as a hole was blasted through the stern.
     "Water is coming in!" she quavered.
     The outlaw did not answer immediately but pulled twice more on the oars.  "We're almost there. If the boat is swamped we can swim the rest of the way."  He made a mental note to locate the boat's owner later and pay for the damages.
     The water was ankle-deep when the dinghy glided into the dark pier.  Zorro tied off the little boat and lifted his wife onto the dock.
     "The horses are nearby," he said, pushing himself onto the wooden planks.  "Can you ride?"
     "Not that far."  At his skeptical look she defended, "I haven't eaten anything since yesterday morning."
     He castigated himself silently for his thoughtlessness.  "You can ride double with me.  Here." he offered, untying his cape and putting it around her shoulders.  "It's wet, but may give you some protection."
     The doña nodded, shivering, but found she needed his support to even walk the several hundred yards to the copse.  Faintness threatened to overwhelm her, either from the long fast or--
     He untethered both animals and lifted his wife onto the back of the huge black stallion.  Smoothly he mounted in front of her and, holding the reins of Cielo, urged Toronado into an easy canter.
     "Was Carlos Costilla the man who hit you?"
     "Yes."  She must look a fright!  Self-conscious, she hid her face against his back.
     He paused, choosing his words carefully.  "Did he--hurt you in any other way?"
     "He tried, but I was able to hold him off."
     "You?"
     "I'm not entirely helpless!" she protested wearily.
     "What reason did Costilla give for kidnapping you?"
     "He wants the tavern.  He intended to keep me prisoner until I signed it over to him."
     "Surely he knew that I would come for you."
     "Yes, well, he expected Diego to come.  He wanted to settle a score with you."
     Her tone and manner confirmed that Victoria no longer saw Zorro, but Diego wearing a mask.  She had understood the secret he had tried so hard to hide from her.  "You mean he planned to kill me."
     "Yes."
     With Diego dead and Victoria held captive until she released the property, how easy it would have been to quietly dispose of the doña and obtain the tavern from Ramón, the next of kin!  The masked man understood better than ever that when money failed, Carlos Costilla had no hesitation about using brutality to achieve his ends.
     "He's going to find the shoe is on the other foot.  It is I who am hunting him now, and I have a score to settle.  It should have finished with the duel.  I granted him mercy; that was a mistake."
     The miles passed by them in darkness; only a slice of moon shone.  His wife's frail arms were wrapped around his drying shirt.  The stench clinging to her in the hold of the schooner had been washed off by her swim in the bay, but her wet clothing had chilled her thoroughly, though the summer night was warm.  She said nothing for so long that he wondered if she had dozed off.
     "You can't go on like this," Victoria stated flatly, breaking the long silence.  "There's someone else in your life who needs you."
     "The last time we saw each other, we didn't part on the most amicable terms!"
     "No, we didn't.  But we have to work through that somehow.  I think--I'm almost sure that we're going to have a baby."
     He did not respond, and she could not gauge his reaction.  Was he even angrier?  Sorry that he married her?  Over a mile of highway pounded beneath the hooves of the big stallion.
     "What makes you think you're pregnant?"  The terse question was fired at her with a strong air of disbelief.
     "My body feels different."  She knew that sounded weak, so she tried to elaborate.  "I don't know how to explain it exactly.  My--my breasts are sore and swollen, and my stomach has been queasy for the past few days."
     "It might have been seasickness."
     "For the several days," she emphasized.  "Before I was taken to the ship.  Before our big fight."
     "Why didn't you tell me then?"
     "I thought it was just something I ate and would go away!  I've never been pregnant before; I don't know what it feels like!"
     Abruptly he pulled the reins, and Toronado, protesting, was slowed to a walk.  "When will you know for sure?"
     "I guess by seeing if my monthly starts.  It's a little overdue, but sometimes that happens naturally."
     "When we get home, you go to bed and rest!  Rest--do you hear me?" he thundered.  "And send for Dr. Hernandez the first thing in the morning!  Have him check you.  If you are, he can tell you how to take care of yourself."
     "It's not the baby's mother I'm worried about," she said in a low voice.  "It's the baby's father.  What good will it be to our son or daughter to hear tales of a brave father if you are dead?  Your obsession must stop!  Please--for the sake of our baby!"
     Her entreaties did reach him, but they were not strong enough to overcome his burning anger.  "I have to finish this," he said at last.
     So no more was spoken between them, no word of love, no sign of apology or forgiveness, no attempt made at healing the breach in their marriage.  Both had badly underestimated the character of the other, and both were struggling to understand.
     Victoria slumped against his back and dozed fitfully until they reached the de la Vega hacienda.  All was quiet; the only sign of life was a lone lamp in the library.  Don Alejandro was attempting to read, hoping that Diego would return with news.  As the door opened, he started from his chair.  His daughter-in-law entered, shrouded in black.
     "Victoria!  Praise the saints you're home!"  He embraced her.  "How did you get here?"
     "Zorro found me and brought me home," she answered dully.
     The rancher then recognized her dark robe as the masked man's cape.  "Are you all right?  Santa Madre! Your face!"
     "I'll be all right," she said wearily.  "But I need a bath.  Then I want to go to bed."
     "Of course!  Maria!" he bellowed, then turned to Victoria again.  "Is Diego coming in?"
     She looked at him curiously.  "Diego?  I-I didn't see Diego."
     "He told me the truth, Victoria.  We both got a bad shock, didn't we?"
     "Oh."  Her tired brain processed the new information.  "He's not coming in.  He's going back after those men!"  A hoarse sob escaped her cut lips, and her face crumpled.
 

Next chapter
 
Back to chapter index
 
Back to Ruth's Zorro fiction page