RIPOSTE
 
15
 
 
 

     The San Martíns lived nearly five miles from the pueblo, and it took Diego an hour to get to the presidio.  A quiet survey by moonlight suggested that the two sentries stationed on the wall at both ends of the gate had relaxed.  The observation was heartening; the walls, though, would require a ladder to scale.  He remembered seeing one at the livery, so he eased back into the shadows and made his way there.  The large double doors on the stable front were secured from the other side; the back door was locked as well.  Was old Ben Rodriguez sleeping inside?  Was Pablo?  He preferred not to wake either.
     A large oak outside had branches that extended toward a small loft window.  The window was open to allow the day's heat to escape and the sea breeze to cool the animals.  Climbing trees with his long limbs was not an activity he found as easy as he had in boyhood, but occasionally necessary.  The closest heavy branch to the window still required a leap of seven feet; he caught the sill with his hands and pulled himself into the hayloft.
     His ears strained to pierce the darkness which his eyes could not.  Except for the occasional rumbling breath drawn by a horse, only silence reached him.  His entry had gone undetected.  The caballero groped for the ladder and descended as quietly as the wooden rungs allowed.
     "Hold it, bandit!"
     The whispered command froze the hair on Diego's neck.  "Rodriguez!" he murmured.  "You almost scared me out of my skin.  It's Diego de la Vega!"
     The name did nothing to satisfy the ostler.  "Señor, you are still breaking in like a thief.  And for that, the soldiers will put you in jail!"
     "You don't want to do that; I can help Jesu.  I just learned that Colonel Fuergun has a list of everyone suspected to be rebels," he explained rapidly.  "I need your ladder to break into the presidio and find the list."
     "You would steal the list from the colonel?  For Jesu?"  Patent skepticism sounded in Ben's voice.
     "Not just for Jesu.  Fuergun claimed that every rebel's name in California was on the list.  Jesu can handle San Diego; I'm concerned about Los Angeles.  I want to know who the government is accusing in my own pueblo."  The young don paused.  "Don't you think Jesu would want to know the names on that list as much as I do?"
     Rodriguez rubbed his bristly chin.  "Sí, but I don't think you can get it.  The soldiers will catch you."
     Diego clapped him on the arm.  "You leave that part to me.  Open the back door and help me get this ladder out."
     The ostler shook his head doubtfully but did as the tall man asked.  Diego carried the ladder from shadow to shadow until he had reached the back wall.  The courtyard was behind the front gates; he surmised that the commandant's office would be opposite the gates.  The wall was sixteen feet high, the ladder only ten.  The caballero's own height would make up the difference.  He carefully mounted the rungs and balanced precariously on the top while Rodriguez steadied the ladder's base.  Diego's eyes skimmed the courtyard for movement and found none.  The two guards on the front wall were facing the town plaza rather than looking inside the garrison.
     Satisfied, he hoisted his lean body over the wall and dropped down lightly on a second story roof.  Rolling on his stomach, he slipped over the edge and swung onto a balcony.  His boot scuffed the wooden floor planks, and one of the guards swung around and called to his partner.  For several tense minutes the pair scrutinized the courtyard and military buildings.  But Diego had crouched into the deep shadow of the balcony; eyes narrowed, he was watching them as a fox who lets the hounds determine his next move.  After stretching patience to the limit, the sentry grunted to his fellow, and their stance relaxed once more.  At last they turned their attention back to the plaza.
     A door was at one end; the caballero reasoned his search might as well begin there.  With another glance to ascertain that the sentries had not detected him, the intruder quietly turned the doorknob and put his eye to the crack.  Inside the large room were rows of bunk beds filled with sleeping men.  The barracks!  The one room he needed to avoid!  Amid their soft snores, the caballero shut the door.  If things got hot for him, it would be wise to delay the soldiers' pursuit.  He pulled off the cravat he was still wearing and tied one end around the knob.  He stretched the silk to its limit and was able secure the loose end with a single knot to the rail of the balcony.
     A quick glance at the guards told him his surreptitious mission was still undetected.  He crept to the stairs and descended warily.  Somewhere on the ground floor was the colonel's office, and the list he sought was likely within.  The first door he checked was unpromising, but the second had a crude sign announcing the office.  As he suspected the door was locked.  The only tool he had brought was the knife tucked in his boot, and he tried the tip of the blade in the keyhole.  But the blade was too wide to insert deeply enough to reach the tumblers, and before forcing the blade between the door and jamb, he decided to see if the window would similarly need to be forced.  The shutters were fastened with a single latch-hook--a simple problem to overcome.  De la Vega inserted the blade of his knife between the shutters and lifted the hook from the eye.
     Inside he located the oil lamp before closing the shutters once again; the sudden flare of a light from the office would attract the attention of the guards.  After fumbling with the flint, Diego sparked the wick and adjusted the flame low.  The list would probably be in a secure area; every drawer of the commandant's desk was locked, and the keys, no doubt, were with Colonel Fuergun.  After several laborious minutes digging at the wood around the lock, the intruder had the first drawer open.  Inside was a disappointing collection of expense ledgers; a brief examination assured de la Vega that they were not what he sought.
     The second drawer had more to offer--a collection of personal and military correspondence.  He bypassed the letters written in a feminine hand and skimmed through the army directives.  A letter from the governor's office in Monterey contained only vague allusions to unrest.  A requisition, a transfer of men, official reports:  a quick glance through those documents left Diego with work still to do.  Ah, this was more promising!  The paper with a broken wax seal was signed by General Miguel Enrique Ontiveros y Losca, the commander of the colonial battalion in Mexico City.
     "Be on your guard," the letter warned.  "The rebels have infiltrated even the army.  A captured revolutionary has confessed the names of those involved in Alta California.  Watch them; when you have proof of treason, arrest them and make the trial brief.  Carry out the sentence in full view of the populace.  Spread this list to the garrisons in your district."  Diego read further; Jesu was listed as were others whose names he did not recognize.  Thankfully the San Martíns were not mentioned.  Further down, he saw a list under his own pueblo of Los Angeles.  Ramón Escalante was the first name; that explained how the alcalde had caught the tavern manager in his sale of illegal arms.  Don Andrés was listed; Pedro Chavez, Don León, Guillermo Heceta, and Perdita Escalante followed.  The next name was--Victoria Escalante?
     A step outside the door and the scrape of a key in the lock set the caballero's senses on full alert again.  He quickly turned off the flame and set the lamp on the floor where its still-glowing spark would not betray him.  As the door swung open, he shut the drawer.
     A dark figure filled the doorway; the colonel's firm steps moved toward the desk.  He groped its surface.
     "Now where is that confounded lamp?" he muttered.
     Clutching the lamp by its base, Diego swung it at the officer's head.  Too late did Fuergun sense the fast-moving shape rushing at him from the darkness; the metal base made solid contact with the colonel's skull.  He fell to the floor with a groan.  Still clutching the letter, the caballero leaped past him toward the door.  Before the sentries knew anything was amiss, he had gained the balcony and was reaching for the upper level roof.
     "Guards!  Guards!" shouted the officer, stumbling to the door.  "An intruder is in the cuartel!"
     One of the sentries caught sight of the young don pulling himself up onto the terra cotta roof.  The tile by Diego's hand suddenly shattered as it was struck by a musket ball.  The second guard's shot went wide, and below him were the cries of consternation as the soldiers in the barracks were aroused by the noise.  His ounce of prevention would hold them in place long enough for his escape, and the silk cravat would be stretched and frayed beyond recognition when the lancers forced their way out.
     The caballero's feet touched the top rung; hardly had he reached the ground when Ben Rodriguez caught up the ladder and sprinted into the shadows.  Diego followed him.  They had just ducked into the shelter of the barn when they heard the gates of the presidio open to allow mounted soldiers and foot soldiers to pursue.  The ostler bolted the back door; the don replaced the ladder and scrambled up to the loft window to watch.  Ben followed.
     "Did you get it?" he asked.
     In answer, Diego handed him the letter.  "I've seen all I need to see.  Give it to Jesu to destroy.  The colonel has, I fear, already contacted the other cuartel commanders in Alta California with this information.  But Jesu could alert his network, and they'll be more careful."
     "You are a true compadre, Señor," breathed Rodriguez.  "I thank you in behalf of my nephew."
     They watched as the soldiers spread out to search the town for suspicious persons.  Some of the mounted men galloped toward the road from town, and the caballero knew that they would be watching that route for some time.  His return to his wife would be delayed until the soldiers gave up and returned to the presidio.
     "Is Pablo Silva here?" he whispered.
     "Sí, Señor.  He is asleep in the empty stall.  Can't you hear him snoring?  Too much wine!" the ostler grinned.  "If he awakens, it will be an easy matter to convince him he dreamed any noise."
     "Ben, give him a few nights' lodging on me," replied de la Vega, dropping some pesos into the older man's hand.  "He's a friend of mine, and I hate to think we've disturbed his rest!"
     Rodriguez pocketed the change.  "Señor, you are a strange gentleman.  You won't fight for independence, yet you help us!  Are you sure you don't want to join us?  I've never seen a man fight like you!  And you got this information right out from under the colonel's long nose!  Like a--"
     "--fox?"
     "Sí, like a zorro!  Aii, you could give lessons to Jesu's men!"

     A soft tapping at the door startled Victoria from a fitful doze.  Her husband still had not returned; she must deceive whoever was at the door!
      "Who's there?" she said in a low voice at the wooden door.
     "Diego," came the equally soft reply.
     Relieved, she quickly unlocked the door.  Her husband slipped inside, his cautious glance back down the hallway indicated that he was still concerned about being seen.  Apparently reassured, he closed the door behind him and fastened the lock once more.
     "What happened?" she asked.  "Where did you go?"
     "Shh.  I'll tell you in bed."
     While she crept between the warm sheets once more, he undressed quickly.  Victoria never watched him change clothes; he wished she would.  Instead she turned away modestly to allow him some privacy.  When his nightshirt was on, he joined her under the blanket.
     "Come here," he commanded, curling an arm around her waist and pulling her back against his chest.  "I'm cold."  His wife did not protest, though he felt her muscles grow rigid.  That did not matter to him; if she was tense, he was not.  He felt chilled and exhausted, and Victoria's warm, curved body was a delightful balm that would soothe him to sleep.
     "Where did you go?" she repeated.
     "To the presidio," he murmured drowsily.
     "Did anyone see you?"
     "No one important," he yawned.
     "Diego!  Is that all you're going to tell me?  I've been half out of my mind with worry--"
     "Worried about me?  What a sweet wife!"
     She gave a huff of exasperation.  "You're putting me off!  Did you find what you were looking for?"
     "Yes," he replied after a pause.  "Even more than I expected."
     "Then that's good, isn't it?"
     His eyes focused on her dark hair where the moonlight touched it with silver and wondered if the precious woman he held in his arms was one of the key rebellion leaders in his pueblo.  The fighter in her nature was inbred, and it was one of the chief reasons he loved her.  How deeply was she involved?  Would they find themselves on opposite sides in a confrontation?
     "I don't know yet," he said with finality.  Thankful that Victoria asked no more questions, he closed his eyes.

     Both slept later than usual that morning, but found when they arose that their hosts had also just risen.  The two couples breakfasted together, and Diego thanked the San Martíns for their hospitality.
     "But you're not leaving so soon, are you?" fluttered Doña Catalina.  "Surely you can stay another few days."
     "Regrettably, ma'am, we cannot.  My business concerns in Los Angeles are pressing," Diego replied graciously.  "We will gather our belongings and be off shortly after breakfast."
     "I hope last night's gathering has not dissuaded you from extending your stay," said Don José.  "The colonel has been a little on edge recently."
     De la Vega smiled at the understatement and disclaimed, wondering how much more the officer's temper would be frayed after the incident at the presidio.  He did not have long to wait to find out.  Before they had finished eating, Miguel ushered in Colonel Fuergun and two soldiers.
     "Don José, de la Vega, ladies," the officer said, inclining his head rather than bowing.  "Forgive the early intrusion."
     "Buenos dias, Colonel," responded San Martín, troubled.  "Is something wrong?"
     "Indeed there is.  Last night an intruder broke into my office and stole an important paper!" Fuergun touched his temple briefly where a gray bruise was just visible by his hairline.  "He escaped over the wall, and my men could not catch him."
     "How dreadful!  But what has this to do with us?"
     "Perhaps a great deal, Señor.  We have one clue to his identity."  The fierce commandant threw onto the table a shredded piece of black cloth.
     "What is that?" wondered Doña Catalina.
     "I surmise, Señora, that it is a man's silk cravat.  It was used last night to tie shut the barracks's door, so that my men were delayed in their pursuit of this criminal.  It is an article of clothing such as only a gentleman would have.  The kind that you, Señor de la Vega, were wearing last night."  He turned a cold, hard stare in Diego's direction.
     "Are you accusing Don Diego?"  San Martín rose from his chair.  "This man is my guest!  How dare you, sir!"
     "Please," de la Vega placated his host, gesturing for him to remain calm.  "Of course the colonel must investigate this matter.  I do have a black cravat, though I don't recall if anyone else wore one last night or not."
     "Men pay so little attention to such details," prattled his hostess.  "I could tell you the color of every woman's dress!"
     The officer ignored her boast and said to the visiting caballero, "Can you produce yours, sir?"
     "Indeed I can," Diego replied, rising from the table.  "It's upstairs with my luggage."
     "One moment.  My men will accompany you."  Fuergun summoned forward the two soldiers.
     "Colonel, this is an intolerable insult!" fumed the rancher.  "If Don Diego says he has his cravat, then he has it!  How dare you question the word of my guest!"
     "It's quite all right, Don José.  This way."  De la Vega beckoned with his finger for the two lancers to follow him, and they closely trailed the caballero from the room.  A few seconds later, the tread of footsteps ascending the stairs filtered back into the dining room.
     "Did your husband go out last night after the party, Señora?"
     Victoria felt the officer's dark eyes boring into her.  What had Diego told her to say?  Something about taking a walk, but that would not do now.  She should not admit that her husband had been out at all.
     "I couldn't say, Colonel.  I sleep very soundly after--"  She dropped her gaze modestly and let the implication hang on the air.  Something useful had been gleaned from the women's conversation the previous night!
     The colonel's mouth hardened, and the young doña was suddenly afraid.  The footsteps were returning down the stairs, and the air in the dining parlor was fraught with tension.  But Diego strolled in the room with a comfortable smile, and across his palm was a strip of black silk.
     "Here you are, Colonel.  I'm always happy to assist the military."
     Fuergun took the tie from him and after a cursory inspection said, "There are no creases in it, sir."
     "Oh, but there are!  Look here and here!"  He held the strip toward the window and pointed to two spots.  "What a pity that silk creases so easily!" he lamented.  "No matter how much my wife presses it, some of the crease is permanent!"
     "There!  You see?  Don Diego naturally had nothing to do with your intruder, so kindly leave us immediately!" huffed San Martín.
     "Indeed I will," growled the colonel, snatching the frayed scrap from the table.  "Buenos dias."  He ordered his men to follow him, and soon the door was shut firmly once again.
     Weak with relief, Victoria released the breath she had been holding.  Her husband resumed his seat across from her and picked up his fork.
     "That man," declared Doña Catalina, "has really grown impossible!  We should not invite him to any more of our parties, José!"
     "Again I must apologize, Don Diego.  To think that my guest should have been subjected to such an accusation!"  The hacendado mopped his brow and sat again also.  "I hope that this unpleasantness has not given you a distaste for our company."
     "Not at all," the younger caballero told San Martín.  "We understand perfectly.  Victoria and I have had our share of zealous commandants in Los Angeles.  We must leave your gracious hospitality and return because I have a newspaper to put out, and our furniture is ready."
     His horses and wagon were brought to the front of the house, and he and his wife made their farewells.  After a stop at Llandro's to pick up the new furniture, the newlyweds turned northward along the Camino Real.
     "All right, Diego," said his wife when they were several miles north of the pueblo, "that was your cravat, wasn't it?"
     He stopped his cheerful whistling and grinned at her.  "Of course it was!  Didn't you see me bring it downstairs?"
     "Not that one!  The torn one the colonel had!  I saw you pack two black cravats, and I certainly didn't iron one of them this morning!"
     "One of the things I chiefly appreciate about you, my dear, is your intelligence."
     "What really happened last night?"
     Diego cocked a shrewd eye at her.  "Are you sure you want to know?"
     She thought a moment.  "No.  I think I already know more than I want to."
     He only laughed at her look of horror but sobered quickly enough as he turned over in his mind the information from the colonel's letter.  Was Victoria actively involved, or did suspicion rest on her merely because she was related to Ramón?  Did her maiden name on the list indicate that she had been supporting the rebellion for some time before her marriage?  Remembering the punishment recommended for persons guilty of treason, the athletic caballero barely repressed a shudder.  What had happened to Victoria's mother he would not let happen to her!
     "My dear," he broke the silence anxiously, "is there anything you want to tell me?  Anything that I should know?"  He watched guilty confusion shade her expression, and his heart sank.
     Was he pressing her again to talk about Zorro?  Or was he trying to open a discussion of the marital intimacies she had successfully avoided?
     "Wh-What do you mean?"
     "Are you helping Ramón with his arms deals?"
     "Oh, no," she smiled, relieved.  "Of course not.  I wish he wasn't doing something so dangerous, but he doesn't take political advice from his sister."
     A half-smile answered her.  Unease over her involvement had not been eliminated, only soothed temporarily.  "I think I know who broke into the tavern on our wedding night--the alcalde."
     "The alcalde?  But he was at the wedding!"
     "He left shortly after the dancing started.  There was plenty of time to ransack the tavern."
     "But why would he do such a thing?"
     "I suspect he was looking for evidence of treason.  He thought you might be involved in the rebellion.  If you are, I hope you'll confide in me.  I'd rather know than not know."
     "Then you're braver than I am!" she laughed easily.  After a small pause, she asked a question in what she hoped was a nonchalant voice.  "Diego, is it true that husbands want intimate relations three or four times a week?"
     Surprised that she would bring up a subject which made her uncomfortable, he glanced at her face.  "No," he said at last, and the corner of his mouth began to curl up.  "But men are ashamed to ask for more!"
     The doña caught her breath audibly when she understood his implication.  Her cheeks reddened as she tried to turn an embarrassed giggle into a very unconvincing cough.  Her husband, though, seemed to take fiendish delight in her blushes; his chuckle kept him grinning for the next few miles.
     Alejandro greeted their return joyfully the following night and urged them inside to wash for supper.  The couple unpacked, and the young doña asked Teresa to press out the wrinkles of one of her new gowns.  Her father-in-law complimented her appearance and held her chair while she sat.
     When Diego had joined them, his father asked, "Now tell me more about your trip.  How is Don José?"
     His son thought a moment.  "Guarded.  The garrison commander is a little over-enthusiastic in suppressing any leanings toward independence, and I suspect your old friend is leaning.  He hosted a supper while we were there, and the colonel came as well as some neighbors.  The discussion after dinner was stilted with an undercurrent of tension.  I thought the colonel was trying to find a reason to arrest someone."
     "Rather unpleasant for the ladies."
     "Fortunately they were not present."
     "If only we'd been with our husbands, the talk might have been more pleasant for everyone," Victoria noted.  "But Doña Catalina escorted the women to the salon while the men took their drinks and cigars outside.  All the other ladies talked about was husbands, children, and servants.  Why can't a group of women ever discuss anything significant?  Independence is an important issue, but they're all afraid to voice an opinion!"
     "I wish you had been with me while the men were exchanging views on the patio.  Your presence might have tempered some behavior," Diego said to his wife.  "And I know you would have found the discussion more to your liking."
     "Where do you stand on independence, my dear?' Alejandro asked her.
     She considered her answer carefully before responding.  "I think I know your views, Papá, so I hope mine will not give offense.  I would prefer independence from Spain.  I just don't believe that the king truly understands our situation or our needs here on the frontier.  I too love my Spanish heritage, but maybe we need to consider ourselves something more than Spanish only."
     He did not seem offended.  "And what form of government would you like to see established in the colonies?"
     "I don't know.  Diego has been telling me about the republic government of the United States, where citizens elect their own representatives.  The representatives serve for a few years, then can be removed from office if the people vote for someone else.  That might be a good alternative."
     "Perhaps.  I still wonder how the United States maintains order, but I have to admit that they have done so for thirty years.  I don't see how corruption can be avoided, though."
     "It can't be," contributed Diego.  "Men have a fallen nature, so of course any form of government is subject to corruption.  But in a republic, the people have a say in who governs them.  We certainly have dishonest officials under King Ferdinand, but we can't do much of anything to get them replaced."
     Victoria chimed in, "Think of Luis Ramone!  There wasn't any crooked deed he wouldn't do if it lined his own pockets.  Remember those snakeskin boots with the silver toes?  And that porcelain bathtub!"
     "DeSoto is not much better," Diego noted from his own wide experience.  "He's just more subtle."
     "Power drives your old school friend.  He's after the next promotion," Alejandro said knowingly.  "He wants those colonel's bars on his shoulder."
     "Yes.  I hoped that coming from a poor family himself he'd have compassion on the needy here, but instead he seems to be trying to erase that part of his past.  But having been poor and overcoming it through his own hard work reflects well on him."
     "His character would impress me more if his heart had not hardened in the process," Alejandro stated.  "He is also a staunch royalist, being a Madrilèno, and will crack down hard on any revolutionary activity in the pueblo."
     "I'm not a revolutionary, Papá, even though my sympathies lie in that direction.  I just hope that if change comes, it can take place without bloodshed."
     "I hope so too, but I must stand with Spain."
     Of course his father would take the king's side, despite his many grievances against governmental corruption!  The whole volatile independence issue suddenly resolved for Diego.  He knew which side he must support, regardless of the outcome of the political battle in progress.
     "Then I will stand with you, Father.  We can't be a divided house on this issue.  Victoria, you are free to follow your heart, and there will be no hard feelings whichever you choose."
     "Gracias, Diego," she said quietly.  "But I have to be on the same side as both of you.  I can't be advocating something different from my husband and patrón.  My private feelings I'll keep to myself."
     Touched by her loyalty, her husband said softly, "Thank you, my dear."
     Warmed by a sudden sense of family, Victoria favored him with a contented smile.  She declined a chess match that evening, tired from the journey home.  The remaining items purchased for her by Diego still lay on the bed.  The turquoise dress needed pressing before it could be worn, and the nightgown was rather crumpled as well.  She held it up.  It was pretty:  lace edged hem and armholes, pin-tucked bodice, and pink ribbon threaded through the lace on the button placket.  She slipped it on, reasoning that the gown would get wrinkled anyway as she slept, and was examining her reflection in the cheval mirror when her husband walked in.
     "Very nice.  Turn around and let me see the front.  Yes, that's better--a little more concealing."
     "You should have told me my nightdress was see-through!" she scolded.  "I could have easily made another in a day at a fraction of the expense!  But now that I have those two new dresses, I can copy the style since you're so fond of extravagant Spanish ladies!"
     "How thoughtful of you to go to such lengths to please me!  Very wifely!"  He laughed at her nonplused face.  "No, no retorts, please.  I'm just teasing you, and I'm too tired to play Beatrice and Benedick tonight.  Just come to bed."
     As Victoria lay quietly beside her sleeping husband in the darkened room, she analyzed Diego's comment.  Weren't Beatrice and Benedick the bickering couple in one of those Shakespeare plays?  That play ended with the two combatants acknowledging that they loved each other.  She glanced at her husband's slumbering form.  Love Diego?  Well, perhaps she should try; Ramón had said it was possible.  Diego had never tried to kiss her, though, since that one little peck before the padre, and she found herself wondering what his lips would feel like on hers.  Would she enjoy his kisses?  His hands caressing her?  Curiosity on those points lingered until she drifted to sleep.

     Monday the couple resumed their normal routine.  Victoria's pupils gathered in the morning and pleased her with their progress.  They had learned their letters and were putting sounds together to read written words.  Roberto's children had done especially well.  Teresa's motivation was easily explained; when the doña mentioned the romantic novels on the library shelves, the housemaid was eager to read the stories for herself.  Pepe's goals were longer-ranged.
     "Those boys in town won't be able to laugh at me anymore," he declared, carefully copying his vocabulary words.  "I'll be so smart the patrón will put me in charge of all the horses!"  The other students scoffed, but the stable boy was not deterred.
     "Then I will tell Chico and Samuél and Benjamín what to do!" he boasted.
     "Perhaps," his teacher commented.  "But if you wish to lead men, you must be wise as well as smart.  You must apply what you know."
     "Then I shall do that," he announced.  "I shall be the smartest, the wisest, and the bravest!"
     Diego returned to the newspaper office and set up rough columns for the week's stories.  One would concern the enlarging of the aqueduct, a civic-minded project which the alcalde had reluctantly approved.  The editor chafed for nightfall, though, and the opportunity to ride as the Fox.  Before investigating his brother-in-law's activities more thoroughly, he had one loose end to tie up on Pablo Silva's case:  the identity of the fisherman's benefactor.
     After making excuses to his wife, he slipped down to the hidden cave.  The black stallion was fresh and eager for a gallop, and his master donned the black disguise.  He reached the pueblo and circled quietly behind the garrison wall.  No sign of any soldiers on guard duty tonight.  The alcalde's office was entered through the window; the masked man slipped a knife blade between the shutters and lifted the latch from its eye.  He closed the shutters behind him and glanced through the opposite window at the cuartel gates, also unguarded.  It was safe to light an oil lamp.  There were several record books on the shelves, but a cursory inspection of these confirmed that they were not the files the masked man was seeking.  The alcalde's desk drawers were locked; a slim steel tool overcame that barrier, and the outlaw searched through the drawers one at a time.  In the bottom right drawer was a large ledger; he opened it on the desk and drew the lamp closer.
     Yes, this is what he sought!  Recorded in DeSoto's neat handwriting was every property transaction in the pueblo for the last year.  His finger scanned down the page.  Here was the sale of Ana Alvarado's farm to--Armando Costilla?  What would the businessman want with that impoverished acreage?  Puzzled, he continued to the next entry.  That detailed the transfer of Rancho Verde to Nicolas Santellano.  Since Diego had assisted in that transaction, he had expected to see it properly recorded.  The transfer of Constancia Heceta's house to her brother was written after that.
     The following entry was also anticipated:  the change of his wife's name on the tavern's deed.  But the next line astounded the masked man:  the sale of one hut and small piece of land by Pablo Silva to Armando Costilla!  Costilla also buying the fisherman's hut?  Why?  It was a poor hovel, unlikely to bring its new owner any profit!  The princely price paid to Pablo was twenty-five pesos!  Zorro's mouth tightened to a thin, angry line.  Twenty-five pesos would scarcely keep the fisherman fed a week!
     Brows lowered, he decided to read through all recent transactions.  The next entry was the inheritance of a small home and farm by one of the local young men whose father had died shortly after Diego's marriage.  He remembered the elderly man passing on; Victoria had attended the funeral on one of her working days in town, and he had written a brief obituary for the paper.
    The last line contained another surprise.  Marco Peña sold his cattle ranch to Armando Costilla!  The dark hero was astounded; news of a ranch for sale usually circulated quickly among the caballeros, but he had not heard so much as a whisper of Peña wanting a buyer.  Peña's spread was near the coast, east of San Pedro.  The salt from the sea and dry climate combined to make his acreage particularly infertile; the rancher had lived hand-to-mouth for a number of years but had always managed to scrape by.
     Zorro read again the three entries in which Costilla had purchased property.  What was the connection?  He closed his eyes and placed each site on a mental map.  Of course!  All three were in or adjacent to San Pedro.  The businessman's venture must have something to do with the port, but the masked man was still stumped.  San Pedro was a small port, favored with a south facing harbor--an adequate facility for the needs of the territory considering its sparse population. It did not seem to have the potential for real estate investment.  Zorro closed the ledger and returned it to the drawer.  One more thing needed to be done before he left the garrison.
     Ignacio DeSoto was awakened abruptly by a gloved hand patting his face.  A lamp's light assaulted his eyes, and upon recognizing his nocturnal visitor, he gasped in fear.
     "Shh!" cautioned his nemesis.  "Don't call out.  I'm a nervous man; see how my hand shakes?  If I drop the lamp--  Have you ever seen how quickly an oil fire spreads?"
     DeSoto's eyes widened at the sight of the oil lamp being held by a trembling hand directly over his bed coverings.  He weighed the possibility of scrambling out the far side of the bed before flames engulfed it, and decided not to take the chance.  "You'd burn me in my bed?  The great Zorro, just a murderer after all!"
     "I didn't come here to discuss my morals, but the entries in your property ledger.  Why is Armando Costilla buying so much property around San Pedro?"
     "How should I know?  There's no law against a rich man buying land!"  A new thought occurred to him.  "How did you know about Costilla?  You've been in my desk!" the indignant officer accused.
     The outlaw shrugged apologetically.  "I didn't think you would volunteer to show me the ledger.  Three entries made me curious.  Ana Alvarado was holding out for a husband, Pablo Silva wanted to live in San Pedro all his life, and no rumors circulated about Peña selling out.  Now what particularly interests me is, how did Costilla find out about those properties?"
     "Maybe he asked around!"
     "You told him, didn't you?" asked the masked man softly.
     "And what if I did?" snarled the officer.  "That's hardly illegal.  His agent inquired a number of weeks ago if I knew of anyone who might be willing to sell.  I merely gave him a list of taxpayers who are constantly in arrears."
     "And how much were you paid for this information?"
     "Nothing.  All right!" he growled as the oil lamp tipped dangerously.  "Fifty pesos!"
     "I think you settled for far too little.  Has it occurred to you that Costilla might be a bigger threat to you than I am?  No?  Think on that awhile."
     Zorro propped the oil lamp on the soft, unstable blankets at the alcalde's feet and slipped quietly out the window.
 

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