Word of mouth served to invite the pueblo to the tavern's fiesta on Saturday night.  Victoria told her customers that the food and drinks would be on the house, mentally estimating how much of her savings this grand gesture would cost.  Even the worst scenario was acceptable, so the plans went forward, greeted with enthusiasm by her clientele.
     Saturday she dressed in a white peasant blouse and full, tiered purple skirt.  Perdita put on a green dress, and Ramón wore a camel colored jacket and pants.  He looked quite handsome, Victoria thought, as he moved easily among the guests, introducing himself to those who had not met him and greeting others in a good-humored way.
     Don Alejandro and his son arrived exactly at nine o'clock, the official starting time.  Both men wore trim, tailored suits adorned with elaborate braiding--a sure sign that they regarded the occasion as important.
     Diego lifted his wife's hand and kissed it lightly.  "You have outdone yourself this time, my dear.  Your party will be a huge success."
     "Gracias.  I hope so."
     At her creased brows he murmured aside, "Father would gladly have helped with the expense, you know."
     "That's exactly what I didn't want.  This is an Escalante affair."
     Her voice sounded curt to her own ears, but Diego took no offense.  "That's what I thought, so I told him not to press it."
     That her motive to distinguish herself from her husband's family had been transparent to Diego somehow diminished her joy in the achievement.  Still, his prediction on the fiesta's success was accurate, and soon the taproom was so full that guests spilled out onto the covered porch.  Two of the same local men who had provided music for the wedding reception arrived with guitars and started playing some lively tunes.  Sergeant Mendoza brought most of the garrison's soldiers, a circumstance which alarmed Victoria somewhat.  Soldiers were known for consuming large quantities of wine, but they were on the whole good customers who usually paid their bills at the end of the month.  She had no reason to turn them away; the alcalde was not currently involved with anything that tempted Victoria to ban the military from the tavern.
     Diego's eyes flicked to his wife every few seconds.  It was maddening really, the way she circulated among the guests just as if she wasn't a married woman!  The only signs that she was other than Señorita Escalante of the previous month were the wedding ring on her finger and that ugly bun!  He hated to see her hair bound so severely.  It made her look old and dignified, as if her spirit had been stifled.  But she was right; only unmarried women wore their hair loosely, and to flout convention would give rise to more unpleasant gossip.
     "Ah, Diego!"
     The caballero turned and smiled at Antonio Costilla.  "How good to see you again!  What brings you back to town?"
     The visitor grimaced.  "Same as before:  my father's business!  I live out of a portmanteau these days.  How is married life?"
     Diego smiled and lied, "Wonderful.  Full of challenges, though."
     Antonio laughed, "No doubt!  I made my bow to your wife already; she certainly is in prime looks tonight!  I think I had her pegged all wrong; she's charming and vivacious upon further acquaintance."
     "Thank you, yes, she is."  He knew that the difference had more to do with the circumstances behind the two parties, and his heart sank a little lower.  Victoria was truly in her element at the tavern.  She sparkled, she teased, she cajoled.  Why couldn't she be like that at home?  Not wanting his friend to guess his dismal thoughts, Diego diverted the subject.  "So you travel a great deal?  Monterey is more pleasant this time of year than Los Angeles."
     "Yes, more's the pity.  There isn't a settlement along the coast that I don't have to visit.  My brother accompanies me this time, though; have you met him?"
     Upon hearing that Diego had not met the younger Costilla son, Antonio brought him along side a man with light brown hair and an immaculately tailored suit.  Diego gripped Carlos's hand as introductions were made and found his hand squeezed painfully hard.  The man's gray eyes held no warmth as he smiled; the handshake had been a show of strength.
     "So you are the caballero who married the tavern girl.  I wondered, but it's perfectly plain now."
     "I beg your pardon?"
     Carlos Costilla gave a small, annoyed jerk of his head.  "I wondered why she didn't sell this place."
     "My wife never even considered selling the tavern.  It's been in her family for thirty years."
     "She was fortunate to have more attractive options."
     Diego did not know how to respond to the edge of hostility in the younger man's voice; Antonio was plainly ill-at-ease with his brother's comments.
     "Diego and I were in school together in Madrid, Carlos.  I knew he was from the Americas, but I never imagined we would see each other again.  His family owns a large rancho outside the pueblo."
     "It would be," Carlos mused, and added in explanation, "Large.  Your wife is a smart woman, Señor."
     "That isn't very flattering to Diego," Antonio chided his brother.  "He is a good-looking fellow with many accomplishments to his credit."
     "But when push comes to shove, a woman will go for the money."
     Diego's smile was strained.  "No doubt fortune weighs in a man's favor as a woman sifts through her options, but in this case Victoria and I were already close friends.  We came to an understanding about her business, and I think those things helped win my suit."
     Carlos eyes narrowed.  "And what understanding was that?  That a doña should work here like a tavern wench?"
     Antonio murmured some remonstrance; Diego's eyes hardened to chips of slate.  "My wife is the owner of this business and your hostess tonight.  I hope you will express your thanks to her this evening.  If you'll excuse me."  He nodded to the two brothers and turned away.
     "You dolt!" hissed Antonio.  "What purpose can be served by making an enemy of the biggest land owner in the region?"
     "I don't like games.  Let him know I have teeth," sneered Carlos.  "What have you found out about this Zorro?"
     His brother shrugged.  "Zorro is known as a friend of the common man.  That's why no one has turned him in for the reward, which, I admit, is enough to give even a wealthy man pause."
     "Is he a danger?"
     "I don't think so.  Local word has it that he's usually in conflict with the commandant of the garrison."
     Carlos gave a mirthless laugh.  "An ally!"
     DeSoto was speaking to Don Alejandro concerning the same subject.  "Zorro hasn't been seen in the pueblo for weeks.  The sergeant thinks he's suffering from unrequited love!"  The alcalde gave a snort.
     "Perhaps," returned the rancher, "but I think it's more probable that we haven't seen him because the same period has been crime-free."
     "I thought he'd do something about those four women or Pablo Silva, but he's been quiet in regard to those matters, fortunately for him!"
     "You heard what happened to Pablo, didn't you?"  At the officer's denial, Alejandro informed him, "He's disappeared.  Diego went to check on him shortly after the wedding and found that Pablo had been attacked again.  When he returned later with food, the old man was gone.  No one in town knew where."
     The alcalde grunted in dissatisfaction.  "My men did what we could for him, but Silva was obviously playing a deeper game than he would admit.  His enemies have probably killed him by now and buried the body under the sand."
     "Surely not!"
     "He had something valuable, but he wouldn't tell us what it was.  But I have better things to do than worry about an old fisherman!  Escalante, for example--is he as much a firebrand as his sister?"
     "I couldn't say, Alcalde; my acquaintance with him as an adult has been brief.  He was certainly an active boy.  The old padre once broke a paddle on him at school.  Ramón seems to have turned into a responsible man, though."
     The commandant shuddered, "Two Escalantes!  Why can't Diego make his wife stay home as a woman should?"
     "It's not a subject on which either of them asks for advice.  Cheer up, Alcalde!  Perhaps we're on the threshold of a time of peace and prosperity!"
     The guests were enjoying the party; Victoria had refilled the platter of tamales three times.  Ramón was being received well, and who would not like her brother?  He was attractive and personable.  She glanced up and saw Ramón across the room in deep conversation with the nasty stranger who had offered to buy the tavern.  How did that man get in?  She certainly would never have invited him!  She watched with revulsion, nearly dropping a guest's drink, until the stranger left Ramón.  She weaved her way to her brother's side.
     "Don't talk to that man!" she hissed.  "I don't even know how he got invited!"
     "Which man?"
     "That young man in the blue suit you were just talking to!  He has been rude and insulting!"
     "Carlos Costilla?  In what way?"
     She swallowed her ire and tried an explanation.  "He tried to buy the tavern from me when the deadline was just a few days away.  He only offered me one thousand pesos for the whole thing!"
     Her brother's smile came after a brief pause.  "He must have meant it for a joke.  Señor Costilla is from a very good Monterey family and has no need to pinch pennies."
     "It was no joke!  And that's not all!  He called me a very ugly name when I turned him down!"
     "A misunderstanding, I'm sure.  Don't hold a grudge, Vic.  This is supposed to be a party.  And since he visits the area frequently, I don't want to lose his business."
     She grumbled that she didn't care if they lost the business of such a man, but Ramón brushed off her comments with a bracing hug and a reminder to open some more bottles of wine.  The guests were mostly men, the tavern's usual customers plus some of the dons from nearby ranchos.  The only exceptions were Doña Guadalupe, who came with her husband, Esteban, and Doña Carmen and Lola de Farral who arrived in Don León's carriage.  Victoria remembered her instructions from Ramón, and went out of her way to cultivate friendships with the other ladies.
     "Buenas noches and bienvenidos," she greeted the older women.  "How kind of you to come.  Have you made the acquaintance of my brother Ramón and his wife?"
     Upon learning they had been met and served refreshments by her brother, Victoria was asked by Doña Carmen,  "With all these uniformed men here, how do you keep from going bankrupt?"
     "The soldiers will be hungry and thirsty again tomorrow, Señora Vermuda.  I don't charge guests for food and drink."
     "And the soldiers are among your invited guests?  I thought they invited themselves."
     "No, Señora.  The soldiers are usually good customers, and as long as the alcalde isn't using the military to oppress the people, they are welcome.  Sergeant Mendoza will keep them in line; he is a dear friend of mine."
     Lola de Farral and Doña Guadalupe exchanged glances, and the tavern owner was at a loss to know what she had said of significance.  Don Esteban's wife commented, "The tavern is much more spacious than I remember."
     "Yes, Señora.  I expanded the building several years ago, but I guess you haven't been here for quite a while."
     Lola reminded her companion, "Señora de la Vega has been a very successful businesswoman!"  A sly smile accompanied the words, but Doña Guadalupe's mouth tightened.
     "I have been fortunate to have a business that isn't dependent on weather, like the farmers or ranchers.  Even so, sometimes the government puts restrictions on my business that are almost unbearable!"
     "And then what to you do?" asked Carmen.
     "I protest against unfair treatment, as every citizen has the right to do!"
     "Not in New Spain!" corrected Señora Vermuda.
     "Everywhere, Señora," reiterated the tavern owner.  "We have the right, even the duty, to speak out when our personal freedoms are threatened even if the government doesn't recognize that right."
     "Such views will get you arrested, Señora de la Vega."
     "I have been in the alcalde's jail on numerous occasions.  There are worse things, such as enduring injustice for fear of risking a comfortable lifestyle."
     "Are you criticizing us, Señora?" exclaimed Doña Guadalupe, affronted.
     "I can't say, because I don't know to what extent you would sacrifice your comfort to help others."
     Lola shivered.  "Sacrifices!  Brr!  Aren't you exaggerating just a teeny bit?"
     "The Scriptures make it clear that we are our brother's keeper.  When we let love of our own comfort prevent us from protesting oppression, the oppression becomes bolder.  The government will take whatever we don't defend."
     Señora de Farral gave a high, tinkling laugh.  "My, what a political thinker you are!  But I really want to know what your husband is like--on closer acquaintance!"
     So much for influencing the ladies for the revolution!  Victoria's glance upward sent a mute appeal to heaven.

     As April turned to May, Victoria's trips to town dwindled in number.  Her length of stay was shorter as well, and often she asked Pepe just to wait for her while she looked in on Ramón and Perdita.  When she had ascertained that they had no questions and needed no assistance, she bid them good day and returned to the hacienda.  Her temper, though, was growing shorter.  After watching his wife circle the sala three times, picking up a desk paperweight and setting it down, glancing twice out the window, and flipping through the pages of a lengthy tome his father was reading, Diego put aside his attempts to capture some roses on canvas and cleaned his paintbrush in some turpentine.
     "Victoria, come and sit down here."  He pulled out a dining room chair for her.  She sat down reluctantly, and he pulled out the chair on the end for himself.
     "Talk to me, Victoria.  I know you well, but I can't read minds.  What is on yours?"  He rested his chin on his fist and fixed an azure gaze on her face.
     His concern was comforting.  She had not planned on taking Diego into her confidence, but she found herself telling him about her internal frustration.
     "There's nothing for me to do!  Ramón and Perdita don't need me at the tavern anymore, and I'd just be in the way there.  Maria doesn't want my help with the housework or the cooking, so I can't even do the normal chores of a wife!  I don't know what I'm supposed to be or do the rest of my life!"
     "Hmm, I see your predicament.  May I make a suggestion?"
     She shrugged assent.
     "You are going through some important changes in your life.  What you are to do with your time may unfold slowly as you settle in.  Have you ever taken a holiday?"
     "Do you mean traveling somewhere?"
     "That's an example, but anytime you deliberately stop working and do something you want to do instead is a sort of holiday.  You have worked very hard since your parents died.  In the not-too-distant future you may be working hard again:  caring for our children, and eventually the management of the house.  My father is not going to live forever, I'm sad to say.  Right now you have a rare opportunity, not granted to many people, to take a long holiday.  There must be some things that you always wished you could do but never had the time."
     "Or the opportunity, or the money."
     "Now you have all three.  What would you like to do or try if you could do anything?"
     A small, embarrassed smile trembled at the corners of her mouth.  "Well, I've always wanted more time to read."
     He waved his hand toward the shelves of books across the room.  "Our library is at your disposal.  I could steer you to some excellent novels and poetry.  What else?"
     "I wish I knew more about music.  I love to hear you play the piano."
     "Gracias!  I'll play for you more often.  Would you like to learn yourself?"
     "Oh, no!" she cried, aghast.  "I'm too old!"
     Smiling, he shook his head.  "Not if you want to learn.  Try it for a while; I'll teach you the notes and the fingering."
     "That would drive your people distracted!" she grimaced ruefully.  "They are too used to hearing beautiful music to tolerate a beginner!"
     "They'll have to tolerate anything Doña Victoria wants to do in her house!"
     "Ah," she sighed, "this still doesn't feel like my house.  There's nothing here that's mine."
     "In time this house will feel like home to you," he said, covering her hand.  "Do you realize that now you can take walks in the evening, go for long rides during the day, eat a picnic lunch by the creek, arrange flowers, visit the orphans more, assist the padre, or shop as often as you please?  Take a holiday, Victoria!  You have deserved one for a long time."
     "Be lazy?"
     "Luxuriously so!  Most of your responsibilities have been lifted off your shoulders.  In time you'll add new ones.  Enjoy the rest God is giving you now, and don't feel guilty about it!"
     Her eyes twinkled.  "You never do, so why should I?"
     He chuckled at her gentle ribbing; it was a good sign that she felt free to tease him.  "I work harder than you think.  Someday I'll show you what I do."

     Diego himself felt something of his wife's restlessness; as Zorro he was taking an involuntary holiday.  Where were the banditos?  Couldn't the alcalde come up with some new hardship tax?  Felipe faithfully supplied Toronado with fresh hay and oats.  The silver trappings were kept polished at a high gleam, and the stallion's bridle and reins were conditioned to keep the leather supple.  Each day Diego donned his black clothing and mask and exercised his powerful mount, but each day brought them disappointment in the search for something more interesting to do.
     On the marital front, however, Diego was making progress.  He made it a point to spend several hours each day with his wife.  Victoria realized that she was being slowly indoctrinated in becoming a de la Vega, but did not mind as much as she had at the outset of their strange union.  With the tavern safely in her brother and sister-in-law's hands, she lost the weight of multiple burdens.  At times she felt as though she was having a second chance at finishing her childhood, which had been rudely interrupted by the August Revolution.  Her husband opened her mind to so many things; she read novels recommended by him, and in the evenings they discussed the characters and themes.  He introduced her to Shakespeare's plays and poetry after apologizing for the inadequacies of the Spanish translation from the English.  Victoria did not see the lack; the clever dialogue and sweeping drama enraptured her.  They passed a merry evening reading aloud opposite parts from "As You Like It."
     "But Rosalind is conceited," she declared.
     "Really?" he quizzed.  "I thought you'd like that part; she's a woman with a mind of her own.  Orlando, on the other hand, lost all his backbone when he fell in love."
     "And you don't approve?"
     "No.  Could you respect a man who was lost to all other responsibilities because he was pining for a pretty face?"
     "Not when you put it that way," she conceded.  "I thought he was very romantic, but maybe he's just being silly."
     He taught her to read music and finger the piano keys correctly.  She practiced each morning thereafter on the two simple songs Diego had scored for her when her husband and father-in-law left the house.  Maria's disapproval of her playing Master Diego's ebony grand piano was evident by the housekeeper's frown as she passed through the room, but Victoria persevered and learned a deeper appreciation for her husband's talent.
     The caballero also engaged her attention at the chessboard twice a week.  At first, intuitively knowing that Diego would be a difficult opponent, she protested that she would rather play against Felipe.
     "He won't let you win," her husband explained, capturing a pawn.
     "And you would?" she demanded, torn between laughter and indignation.
     A corner of his mouth turned up.  "Let's just say that I'm in no hurry to end the game.  Not there--your rook is in danger."
     She returned the knight to its square and blocked the threatening bishop instead.  "You'll have to be very patient to make a good chess partner out of me," she warned him.
     "Oh, I'm patient.  Very patient."
     A tiny tap sounded on the front door, and Maria admitted Pepe into the library.  "He insists on seeing you, Señora; perhaps you had better tell him that you are busy."
     "Thank you, Maria."  The housekeeper understood the dismissal and returned to the kitchen.  "Now, Pepe, what is it?"
     The boy clutched his too-large hat in his hands.  "Señora, I have the horses ready.  Wouldn't you like to go to town today?"
     "Not today, Pepe.  Maybe tomorrow."
     "Señora, I think maybe your brother needs more help."
     "Why is that?"
     "He doesn't know as much as you do about running the tavern.  We should check on him."
     Victoria hid a laugh.  "I assure you, my brother is very smart.  He will run the tavern just fine; you'll see."
     "Let's go see!"
     Diego noted dryly, "I think Pepe wants to go into town."
     "Oh, is that it?  What do you want to do in town, Pepe?"
     The boy shuffled his feet and studied the pattern on the carpet.  "I could help your brother maybe."
     "Maybe.  What if he doesn't need any help?"
     "I could see what the other boys are learning at school," he mumbled.
     She exchanged a glance with Diego.  "Pepe, have you changed your mind about the mission school?"
     Pepe lifted a skinny shoulder.  "The town boys think they're so smart just because they know how to read.  But I could read too if I could go to school," he said defiantly.
     "I'm sure you could," agreed Diego kindly, "but your father doesn't want you to spend the whole morning going to school.  I've talked with him about it before; he wants you to help Juan with the horses."
     "Diego," appealed Victoria, "I could teach him to read.  It wouldn't have to take all morning--maybe just an hour or two.  Do you think Roberto would object to that?"
     "I'll have to ask, but is that what Pepe wants?  I think he might rather be with other boys at the mission school."
     "Those boys will think I'm stupid because I can't read or do sums.  I don't have to go to the mission school if the señora would teach me here."  His eyes sparkled with his excitement.  "Will you talk to my father today, Patrón?"
     Diego was at his most persuasive when confronting the boy's father.  Every one of ranch hand's objections was successfully countered, and Victoria's debut as a teacher began two days later.  Her class of one expanded to four within a week; Pepe's sister, Teresa, also requested to learn her letters, and two sons of another vaquero were allowed to participate.  Diego fully supported his wife's new project; he believed in the value of education and was delighted that Victoria had found an interest worthy of her best efforts.  He procured a slate, fresh writing paper, and quills for each student.  Thereafter he absented himself from the dining room while his wife's little school gathered in the mornings; Victoria did not need him looking over her shoulder.
     Don Alejandro observed the changes in his home with satisfaction; the difficulties with which his son and daughter-in-law had to contend in the early days of their marriage seemed to be smoothing out somewhat.  He was pleased that Victoria was turning over the tavern to her brother and staying at the hacienda more.  As yet she showed little interest in the management of her new home, but he was unaware of the rebuff she had received from Maria.  Alejandro's only concern was the doorway that Diego had cut in his bedroom wall to connect his room with the adjacent guest room.  "Victoria needs some space to call her own," was his son's reply.  The rancher feared separate chambers meant trouble in bed, but did not know how to broach the delicate subject to Diego.  After all, the marriage had been one of convenience; perhaps in time they would have a deeper affection for each other.  Listening to his son's deep chuckle and Victoria's merry laugh as they read together in the evenings, Alejandro was encouraged.

     Diego's holiday from his more dangerous pursuits came abruptly to an end one May afternoon.  Felipe arrived home shortly before lunch and found Diego guiding his wife in playing a piece of music.  He waited impatiently while the doña stumbled over the notes to an inglorious finish.
     "You're getting it," Diego contradicted her groan.  "But like anything else, mastery takes practice.  Hola, Felipe!  Did you get the wool from San Pedro?"  His question was accompanied by hand signs; Victoria did not need to know the truth about the young man's hearing.
     The teen nodded and pointed outside.
     "Gracias."  He saw the boy gesture further behind Victoria's back.  Felipe had something more to convey, but in private.  "My dear, would you like to practice by yourself while I take care of the wool shipment?"
     "By all means, give your ears a rest; I'll annoy Maria and Teresa instead."  She was in good humor and enjoying the music lessons with her husband, so did not notice his sudden interest in Felipe's appearance.
     When both had gone out by the front door, Diego asked, "What else did you want to tell me?"
     The teen made agitated movements with his fingers and arms, too rapid for the caballero to follow.
     "Slow down.  From the beginning.  You saw something at the port?  A gun.  A musket.  No?  A rifle.  Lots of rifles.  In a box?  A crate of some kind.  Many crates filled with rifles?"  Diego frowned as Felipe indicated that he had received the message accurately.  "How do you know what was in the crates?  One dropped, and the lid came off?  How many rifles were in each crate?"
     Felipe shrugged, then held up ten fingers.
     "About ten?  How many crates did you see?"
     The teen thought a few moments and held up eight fingers.
     "So someone in the pueblo bought about eighty rifles?  Why would anyone need so many?"  It was a rhetorical question to which Felipe could only shake his head.  "Did you happen to see who picked up that shipment?"
     Here the youth nodded vigorously and pointed to the window from which disjointed music was floating.
     "Victoria?" was the confused interpretation.
     Felipe nodded and then puffed up his chest and flexed his muscles.
     It took Diego several seconds to make sense of the difficult message.  "Do you mean Ramón?  Ramón was at the harbor this morning picking up a shipment of rifles?" he hissed, dropping his voice to an alarmed whisper.  Diego analyzed the information.  "I don't like this.  Ramón couldn't need that many rifles for any legitimate reason that I can think of.  Perhaps Zorro needs to look into it."  The boy concurred strongly, and his mentor told him to have Toronado saddled by eleven o'clock that night.
     A one-on-one confrontation with his brother-in-law was more to Zorro's liking than a meeting in a crowded and very public taproom.  The masked man watched through the windows until the last of the customers had been shown to the door.  He entered quietly through the kitchen and surprised Perdita, bringing in a tray of dirty mugs.  Her gasp of fear brought her husband running.
     "Querida, what--"  He stopped short upon seeing his uninvited guest.  "Zorro!"
     "Buenas noches, Ramón.  It's been what?  The better part of a year since we saw each other?"
     "Er, yes, since we met at the Devil's Fortress.  Sweetheart, this is the famous, or infamous, Zorro--of reward poster fame."
     "Your servant, Señora.  My felicitations on your marriage."
     Perdita looked as though she would faint from fright as the outlaw executed an urbane bow. She could not find words to respond to a criminal, even one as mannerly as the tall man dressed in unrelieved black, and she clutched her husband's sleeve and ducked behind him.
     "It's all right," Escalante reassured her.  "Zorro won't hurt you; he's one of the peculiarities of life in Los Angeles.  May I offer you some refreshment, Señor Fox?"
     "No, gracias.  All I require is information."
     "I am at your service."  Ramón was certain the outlaw's questions would deal with his sister, but he was surprised.
     "I am wondering what a taverner needs with so many rifles."
     Escalante found himself the recipient of fixed, hooded gaze.  "Is this a riddle?  I'm sure I don't know why a taverner needs more than one rifle."
     The gaze didn't move, didn't blink.  "Come," Zorro said softly, "let us not fence with each other.  We are old compadres.  You were seen at the harbor today, where one of your crates was opened."
     "Your source of information was mistaken.  I was at the harbor to pick up a shipment of crockery.  It is here in this cupboard."  Ramón opened the doors of the pine hutch and held out a bowl.  "Nice, eh?  From San Diego.  We were running a little low."
     Wordlessly, the masked man noted the stacks of plates and bowls.  Certainly new tableware--not a scratch on it.  Yet he was not satisfied.  Felipe would not make such a mistake, but Ramón might lie to protect what he was doing.  If Zorro were talking to someone other than Victoria's beloved brother, his tactics would be decidedly different.  Chagrined at the requirement for diplomacy, he asked if his brother-in-law would object to his looking over the tavern.
     "Yes, I would.  After the tavern closes, this is our private home.  My wife is rather tired, so I'll have to ask you to leave."
     At the expected rebuff, one corner of the outlaw's mouth turned up sardonically.  "My apologies for the intrusion.  Until later."  He nodded and left by the door.
     Ramón and his wife watched the door for several moments.  "Do you think he suspects?" Perdita asked her husband.
     "He suspects, but he doesn't know," replied Escalante thoughtfully.
     "Will he interfere?"
     "I don't know.  Was it mere curiosity that brought him or a desire to thrust a spoke in our wheel?"  He sighed.  "If only we knew where he stands!"
     "Does it matter so much what that horrible man thinks?"
     "Were you frightened of him?  There's no need; Zorro is a champion of the people.  He could help us."
     "Oh, Ramón, please don't have anything to do with him!  We don't need him; I'm sure we don't."
     He patted her hand.  "No doubt you're right.  Don't tease yourself about it; let's finish closing up."

     Zorro asked Felipe to confirm what he had seen, though he was certain he could trust the teen on information of such importance.  Felipe understood the confusion and wrote down the details as he remembered them for his mentor.
     "I did believe you," the masked man responded, "but Ramón denies any knowledge of the rifles."  At Felipe's dubious expression, he added, "No, I don't believe him, either."  He unbuckled his sword belt and handed it to his assistant.  When the mask was removed, he ran a hand through his hair to restore its habitual neatness.  "The situation will bear watching.  I'll need your help.  He must be planning to sell the rifles, and the buyers will likely come to the tavern.  I think I can cover the front door; I can sit on the news office's porch and write for the paper.  The real action will be at the back.  Since Ramón denied that he had the rifles, his buyers will likely leave with their purchases by the kitchen door.  Do you think you could watch that for me?"
     The stake-out would likely be dull, but Felipe was game for any action after a long period of inactivity.  To be an integral part of the work was the kind of assignment the loyal teen craved.  He nodded.
     "Good.  We'll start tomorrow morning.  I'll have to make some excuse to Victoria for spending every day and evening in town."
     Felipe did not ask why excuses were necessary.  In the matter of watching the señora's brother for suspicious activity, it was doubtful whom she would support had she known her husband's intent.

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