TOUCH
 
24
 
 
 

     From the far side of the cuartel wall, Mendoza and the lancers with him heard the first rumble, then an ear-splitting crack of thunder shook the ground as the walls around them fractured.  Flying debris showered the air as some of the men ran further away.  The sergeant leaned over DeSoto, still shaken from the blow to the head, to protect him.
     "Sergeant!  Look!" shouted a private, pointing to the sky.  Behind them where the magazine had stood, a huge fireball billowed into the air.  As their horrified eyes watched mesmerized, the fireball blackened around the edges until it rose into the atmosphere as a cloud of heavy smoke.  Another explosion blasted the morning, and then a succession of smaller ones, each belching its deadly fire.
     "Señores," interrupted a voice into their fixation.
     The lancers looked up, and DeSoto recovered his senses abruptly.  Standing before the king's representatives was a score of armed men.  Ramón Escalante stood in the forefront and was addressing them.
     "Señores, you are now prisoners of the Free Mexico Army.  You will be treated kindly, but confined until the pueblo is under our control."  He gestured for the soldiers to rise and go with the men who had them covered by rifles.
     "So you are a traitor, after all," spat DeSoto weakly.  "I should have hanged you weeks ago."
     "You couldn't have stopped this.  Look around, Alcalde; there are very few men who are not on our side.  The king's reign here is over."
     "We'll see," his prisoner growled but had little choice except to follow his men to captivity.
     "Ramón, Zorro didn't come out," croaked the sergeant.  "He got us out, but he tried to extinguish the fuse.  I never saw him come out!"
     Escalante looked with revulsion at the crumbled pile of burning, smoldering ruins.  "I'll look for him.  Stay here, Sergeant."
     The rebel leader climbed over the rubble that had framed the garrison's gates.  Splinters of wood that remained from the massive doors were charred and smoking.  The force of the first explosion had collapsed the roof of every garrison building save the barracks, which was supported precariously by half its previous number of vigas.  He cautiously approached the burning wreckage that had been the armory; more explosions might be forthcoming.  Shielding his face with an up-flung left arm and still carrying his rifle, Ramón climbed over a pile of broken adobe pieces.  A remnant flame ignited his trouser leg; he slapped it out with his hand.  Smoke filled his lungs, and in rebellion to the mistreatment his throat contracted to cough out the foul air forcibly.  He blinked away tears that formed in his squinted eyes from the hot, unnatural atmosphere.
     Nothing usable was left of the powder magazine.  His team of independence activists had succeeded in their particular assignment; the royal lancers were in the power of the Free Mexico Army.  But the satisfaction and elation he should have felt was oddly tempered by a sober attitude.  He waved away some smoke with his hand.  Here by his feet was an oddly misshapen piece of metal; he nudged it with his toe and recognized it as a twisted musket barrel.  A few feet further on was another musket, its wooden stock charred and glowing with still active sparks.  He prodded through the wreckage a few more minutes but found no sign of the outlaw.  He must have been killed, the taverner thought, heavy-hearted.
      "Escalante!" called Guillermo Heceta.  "What are you doing?"
     "Inspecting the damage," Ramón called back.  "Assign a few men to guard the lancers and tell the rest of our people to go home."
     "Yes, sir!" saluted the rancher and left Escalante to his grim task.
     DeSoto's private quarters were adjacent to the magazine, so little had survived of his personal effects.  A wooden chest was still burning when the rebel leader approached it; a kick to its lid revealed papers and military awards inside.  All were likely to be destroyed by the fire.  Only charred stumps of walnut remained of the alcalde's elegant four poster bed; the coverings and mattress had been consumed in the first blast.  The roof was scattered over the room and in the open field beyond, and the wall was half its height, a crumbling ruin.  There was no sign of the masked man, nor any evidence that he had been in the commandant's quarters at the time of the explosion.
     The barracks beyond had survived better than the rest of the cuartel; though the wooden doors had been incinerated, the partial roof had protected the room's contents somewhat.  One collapsed bunk bed was smoldering; it had not been under the protection of the dubious ceiling still left.  Watching that ceiling suspiciously, the taverner stepped over some rubble to examine the next bunk, also collapsed.  Though filthy and strewn with adobe dust, the straw mattresses had survived somehow.
     A metal rod protruding from between the two mattresses caught Ramón's eye, and he touched it curiously.  It was warm from the blast and twisted unnaturally.  He could not identify the object and lifted the top mattress to find the other end.  A figure in black lay huddled between the layers of straw, and Escalante started with a gasp.
     "Zorro?" he whispered and nudged the man lying there.
     The man did not move.  He was either unconscious or dead, and the rebel leader had to find out which.  He pulled on the shoulder to roll the body to face him.  The scrap of black fabric which had shielded the outlaw's identity stayed behind, shredded by the blast, and the man's exposed face turned toward him.  Escalante stared at Diego's sooty features.
     Dios!  Madre de Dios!  Diego!  Zorro!  Diego was Zorro!
     Heart pounding at the discovery, Ramón pressed his fingers into the hero's neck.  A faint pulse!  The rebel leader shuddered with relief.  Diego was alive--barely.  The taverner's brain kicked into top speed.  He could not risk sharing the secret with his own men; several had wanted to shoot the masked man on sight.  Nor could Escalante reveal to the sergeant and soldiers that Zorro was wounded; the discovery of his identity could still pose a serious problem for his brother-in-law if other pueblos had been less successful than Los Angeles.
     If Ramón tried to move the unconscious man to safety during midday, someone would likely see the two of them, and Diego dressed in black would lead to the obvious conclusion.  Yet if his brother-in-law was left in the barracks until nightfall, he might die of unknown wounds.  Worse, the garrison ruins could be swarmed any minute by people scavenging the wreckage for souvenirs or something to sell.
     "Ramón!  Did you find anything?"
     The shout had come from outside.  The taverner had a flash of inspiration and unclipped the misshapen scabbard which had first caught his eye.
     "Only this," declared Escalante, stepping into the open once more.  He held out the remains of the sword.  "Come, Pedro, let's go and see our prisoners."
     The fourteen lancers, their sergeant, and commander were being held in Chavez's bank.  They shouted protests when the rebel leader entered the building with the bank manager.
     "Silencio!" Escalante ordered.  "You may not be happy with the turn of events, but you can celebrate one thing.  The man whom you hunted for so long, the one who saved your lives this morning, is dead.  He was blown up in the explosion, and this is all that's left of him."
     Ramón threw the battered piece of metal on the floor in their midst.  Sergeant Mendoza reached down to pick it up.  He turned it over reverently in his hands.
     "Sí, this is Zorro's."  Numbly he handed the scabbard to one of his men and turned away to hide the tears that filled his eyes.
     The announcement sobered the mood in the room; only the alcalde seemed to take any pleasure from the news.
     "Ha!  Then I grant you amnesty, Escalante.  You and all your men!  I'm afraid you can't have the reward money, because it will be needed to rebuild the garrison--"  The officer was abruptly cut off.
     "I will grant you amnesty, Señor DeSoto.  You may gather in the morning anything that's left of your personal belongings, and then you will be escorted to Monterey, there to await the next ship bound for Spain.  And in the future, you will address me as 'Major Escalante'."
     "Major?"  The alcalde's eyes bulged, and his lips grew tight with suppressed anger.
     "I received my commission more than a year ago, and am the senior ranking officer of the Free Mexico Army in this pueblo.  And until the governor appoints someone else, I am also acting alcalde."
     His second announcement was received by the lancers in almost the same degree of shock as the news of Zorro's death.  Ramón's men there were not visibly surprised by his words, though one or two permitted themselves to smile.
     The major addressed the lancers and sergeant, "The rest of you have a choice.  If you wish to continue to serve the king of Spain, you may leave tomorrow with Señor DeSoto.  However, each of you is being offered a comparable position in the Mexican army to what you now hold.  You will have the opportunity to sign an oath of allegiance to Mexico.  This new country would be glad to have trained soldiers such as yourselves defending our frontier."
     The lancers glanced at each other uncertainly.  "Is the pay any better?" quizzed one plucky soldier.
     "No, is the food any better?" inquired another.
     The atmosphere relaxed as several laughed.  Escalante smiled, "Perhaps we can make arrangements with my wife about the food.  As for the pay, if we can blast open DeSoto's safe, I'll grant a cash bonus to each of you who re-enlists with us."
     Amid the pleased reaction to his offer, Ramón turned to Pedro Chavez.  "Draw up articles of service to the Mexican Army, and give each man an opportunity to sign.  All of you stay here and continue to keep the men under guard until you have further word from me.  I need to check the rest of the pueblo."
     When the rebel leader left the bank, he strode to the church and slipped into the cool sanctuary.  He found Nicolas Santillano in conversation with the padre.
     "Santillano, everything is under control.  Thank you for your willingness to help us."  He shook hands with the young man.
     "Always glad to help the cause of freedom."
     "I know your wife will be missing you, and perhaps Señorita Ruiz will also be worried.  You may go home now."
     "Gracias."  The stalwart rancher slung his rifle on his back and kissed the priest's hand before leaving the house of worship.
     "If you have come for absolution, Ramón," frowned Benitez, "I have none for you.  'Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft--'"
     "Yes, I know, Padre," the raven-haired man spoke hastily.  "I'm not here to discuss theology.  I need your help to save a man's life!"

     The sunlight from the arched window puddled on the floor of the church's small guest room, making an incongruent statement of optimism.  Doctor Hernandez closed his leather medical bag and glanced once more at the death-like form of the caballero on the bed.
     "The burns look as good as could be expected, and the shoulder isn't showing signs of infection.  But the leg--the situation is very grave, Alejandro.  With a large chunk of flesh gone, gangrene could poison what's left.  I think the leg needs to come off."
     The venerable hacendado was torn by indecision, but Major Escalante chimed in, "The leg is not coming off!  We'll keep it clean and let it heal!  And if you can't help my brother-in-law, we'll find someone who can!"
     Hernandez looked sternly down his nose at the fiery young officer.  "I'll ask Señorita Ruiz to come and help you; she's the best nurse in the territory.  Send for me immediately if there's any change in his condition.  Buenas tardes," the doctor said in farewell.
     "Ramón," breathed the senior de la Vega, "if gangrene sets in, we could lose Diego."
     "It won't!  We won't let it!  Think what life would be for him--a cripple with a crutch!  Him!"
     "I appreciate all you've done for him; you saved him this far."
     "It was my fault he was hurt in the first place," snarled the major.  "If he would just recover consciousness!  Two days!"
     "The doctor says it's not unusual in the case of a head injury."
     "Bring Victoria," advised Escalante.  "Maybe if he hears her voice--"
     "Perhaps she'll be strong enough to come this evening.  I'll sit with him a while.  Get some rest, Alcalde."
     A glimmer of an ironic smile touched the officer's face a moment before he left.

     Padre Benitez watched Señora de la Vega pick up her husband's hand and touch it to her cheek.  She studied his unconscious face as though trying to decipher some puzzle.  Finding no answer there, she sat back in her chair and resumed her silent vigil.
     "The human heart is a complex item," he observed from the doorway.
     Victoria turned at his voice.  "Do you mean mine or Diego's?"
     The priest smiled.  "I was refering to Don Diego."  He entered the small room and stood beside her, contemplating the unconscious man.  "Zorro got everyone out of the cuartel before the explosion.  Thanks to him, not a life was lost."
     "Yes.  I have heard."
     "He made a heroic sacrifice to save the soldiers.  Because of his example, your brother has repented of his reckless disregard for life."
     "I think it is true that Diego cares for others," she said slowly, "but can such a man ever have enough love left over to satisfy a woman?"
     "Victoria my child, when we love many, we don't divide our love; it multiplies."  The padre's gentle countenance beamed.  "We are given an amazing capacity to love.  Don Diego has exercised his more than most people."
     "So do you think he could really love me?"
     The Franciscan pursed his lips.  "He thought of an ingenious ruse to marry you when you were forced to choose a husband.  Let that be your answer."
     Her forehead wrinkled in thought as the priest slipped quietly from the room.

   "Congratulations, Señorita," praised the doctor early the following week.  "I didn't think it could be done, but you have saved the leg."
     Josefina smiled.  "It's the saline poultices.  The salt cleanses the wound."
     Hernandez grunted, "The credit is more to your nursing than the poultices!  He'll recover."
     "Will he walk again?" asked Alejandro.
     "With a cane perhaps, but he'll always have a limp.  Half his hamstring is gone!  Muscle tissue can heal, but it doesn't rejuvenate.  He's alive, though.  Be thankful for that."  The physician left the church's guest room.
     Josefina brushed back a lock of hair from Diego's forehead.  "He sleeps so deeply, like he was catching up on a lifetime of sleep."
     You've no idea!  The rancher watched her strong, capable face glowing with womanly tenderness as she smoothed the sheet under his son's arms.  He had been waiting for a spark, the breathless thrill he had felt when he fell in love with Elena.  But a new thought was forming.  Couldn't love also be a contentment, the comfort of two congenial hearts in tune?  "You're a good woman, Josefina.  You have a very gentle touch."
     She gave him a quizzical smile.  "You're not going soft on me, are you, Alejandro?"
     He stammered at her forthright approach, "I was just thinking--I thought that we might--"
     "I like things the way they are.  I like being friends--good friends.  I've reached the time in my life where that counts for more than almost anything else."
     He nodded slowly.  "I think I've wasted a good opportunity."
     She chuckled, "Yes, you have!  And so have I!  We've given our best years to a bunch of cows who will never love us back!"
     He laughed with her, and in spite of the rebuff, felt lighter in heart than he had in years.

     Diego could hear sounds around him, feel gentle hands soothing his burning skin.  Then he would drift into a delirium where for a short time he could escape the pain.  Sometimes he heard whispered voices, but their words were fragmented and meaningless.  For a long time he floated between a deep sleep and near consciousness.  His body craved rest and time to heal.
     A familiar sound pulled him up from the depths of dream world.  His mind cleared, and he opened his eyes.  A woman was pulling a chair closer to his bed.  Where was he?  He scanned the unfamiliar room.
     A bronzed female face leaned over him.  "Don Diego.  Welcome back."  She touched his forehead, and satisfied that he carried no fever, asked, "We've been quite worried about you."
     Memory was slow to return, and thinking brought a sharp headache.  "Señorita Ruiz?"  The sound of his voice, a thin whisper, startled him.
     "Sí."
     "Where am I?"
     "In the church.  This is where visiting priests stay.  Would you like some water?"  She helped him raise his head and held a glass to his lips.  He took two swallows before indicating that he'd had enough.  She eased him down onto the pillow once more.
     He closed his eyes and heard her murmur, "Rest now."  He gladly drifted away from the pain in his head, from the ache that wracked his whole body.
     Time slipped underneath him, carrying him along willy-nilly.  When he next opened his eyes, it was evening.  The golden glow of a candle warmed the room from a small table.  Ramón Escalante was slumped in the chair, napping.
     "Ramón."  His lips had barely moved, and his voice could not project to his brother-in-law.  He tried again, louder.  "Ramón."
     The taverner sat up abruptly.  "Oh, there you are.  I was beginning to think the señorita imagined that you'd woken up.  How do you feel?"
     Awful.  The pain was relentless.  "What's wrong with me?"
     "Well, you split your head open.  Dr. Hernandez sewed you up, though.  You also have four cracked ribs, and that gouge in your leg--well, let's just say you're not out of the woods yet.  At first the doctor wanted to take off the leg; he was afraid it would turn gangrenous.  But we said no.  Apparently we were right."  His gaze studied the caballero's form covered by a sheet.
     "What happened?  I don't remember."
     "The Free Mexico Army blew up the garrison's powder magazine.  You were caught in the explosion."  He added lightly, "I can't imagine how you came to be there.  Just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
     "Was anyone hurt?"
     "Besides you?  Zorro got the soldiers out in time; none of them were injured."  He hesitated, then continued quietly, "Unfortunately, Zorro himself was killed in the explosion."
     Diego blinked once, twice.  He lifted a heavy arm to his face.  The mask was missing!  Yet he had gone to the garrison as Zorro!  He looked at his brother-in-law, trying to gauge Ramón's expression.  Was the secret out?
     "Killed?"
     The taverner nodded solemnly.  "Blown to bits by the explosion."
     "Oh."
     "I suspect he will live on as a legend.  Fathers will tell their children his brave deeds, and on and on through generations yet to come.  We'll miss him, of course, but there will be less need of him in the future.  We haven't gotten official word yet, but if the freedom fighters in the rest of Mexico were as successful as we were here, Los Angeles will soon have an elected government."
     "I was wondering why you hadn't been arrested."
     "DeSoto was persuaded to leave the pueblo.  Sergeant Mendoza is running the garrison for me.  I hope you're not too disappointed with the way things turned out."
     "It didn't really matter to me as long as my family was--Victoria!  Where is she?"
     "Easy," Escalante soothed the caballero's sudden agitation.  "I sent her home to rest.  She's been sitting by your side these last eight days."
     "Eight days?"
     "The explosion was ten days ago.  Enough talking--I can see you're tiring, and I don't want Dr. Hernandez lecturing me!  Here--drink this soup if you can manage, and go back to sleep."
     Ramón had correctly interpreted Diego's exhaustion and pain.  Though his brother-in-law aided him, the caballero found even swallowing the broth a difficult task.
     "There now.  Rest, and I'll try to send word to Victoria tomorrow."
     The wounded man closed his eyes, hoping that sleep would find him quickly so that he could escape the pain for a short while.  The thought of his wife's arrival brought only anxious thoughts before consciousness faded again.

       When Diego awoke next, his wife was sitting anxiously by his bed.  She looked thin and pale, but the bruises on her face had healed.
     "What day is it?" he asked.
     "Saturday.  Saturday the third of July."
     He assimilated that fact.  "Then you should know if you're with child or not."
     "Yes."  Her hands twisted nervously in her lap.  "I am pregnant."
     He stared at her face for a long minute, then dropped his gaze.  "I have been thinking about you and the child.  If you would prefer, I will buy you a house in some other part of California, and you and the child could live there."
     A nauseating chill hit the doña that nothing to do with morning sickness.  "You want us to go away?"
     "I think it will be for the best."  He spoke to his hands, lying overlapped on his chest.  "Chose where you want to go, and I'll make the arrangements when I'm on my feet again."
     The señora stood abruptly.  "Very well," she replied in a steady voice.  "Until then, I'll relieve you of my presence."
     She swept out of the room, but Diego did not turn his head to watch her leave.

     His wife did not return the next day, nor the next.  He did not expect her to; she had told him in the cave that terrible day what she thought of him, and her blistering words were branded on his heart.  She could not stand him; she would never forgive him.  Providing her with an alternative home was the last thing he could do for her.  Then she would only have to see him briefly once or twice a year when he came to visit the child.  That was not the kind of father he had intended to be, but then neither did he have the kind of marriage he had hoped for.
     Alejandro came every day to see his son, and slowly Diego began to recover his strength.  Josefina was pleased enough with his progress to return to Rancho Verde.  Felipe came daily also, though his visits were brief.  Toronado had returned to the cave, but missed his master.  Yes, of course the stallion had been exercised every day!  The teen had also taken it upon himself to publish the paper while his mentor recovered.  True, it was not up to Diego's high standards--Felipe did not possess the gift of persuasive writing--but the effort was passable.
     The ranch's people had been told that the de la Vega son was investigating the status of other Californian pueblos, a task which would keep him occupied for several weeks.  The tale was allowing Diego to recover in privacy--necessary to prevent the wounded man from being linked to the magazine's explosion.
     Padre Benitez evidently knew Zorro's secret.  It had been he, Diego discovered, that had carried the unconscious caballero from the wreckage and sheltered him in the back room of the church.  The priest came several times a day to ask if Diego required anything, but he never referred to his parishioner's masked activities.  The kindly padre was concerned though; he observed the wounded man's spirits sinking even as his health improved.  Usually when his flock wished for counsel, they came to him.  He tried not to interfere where advice was not requested, but prompted by a divine impulse he sat beside the bed.
     "My son, what is troubling you?  If it's the doctor's prognosis, he may be wrong.  God can work miracles."
     The caballero nodded silently, not meeting the padre's eyes.
     "Are you sure you believe that?"
     Diego murmured, "I believe He can; I just don't know why He would for me."
     "You feel unworthy?"
     "I know I'm unworthy."
     "You're right," countered the priest unexpectedly.  "You are, but so is everyone else.  All miracles are God's acts of grace.  He dispenses them how He chooses."
     "I don't mind so much about the leg, Padre.  If I never ride again or fence, and have to use a cane, I can live with that."  His voice trailed off softly, and spiritual leader thought such a sacrifice would still be difficult for the caballero.  Benitez waited, knowing that Diego had something more to say.
     "Do you fear what others will think of you?"  When there was no answer, the priest asked, "Your wife?"  He noted the ill man's chin quiver and knew he was on the right track.  "My son, the leg won't matter to her; she loves you."
     De la Vega closed his eyes tightly, and tears seeped through his lashes.  "No.  She doesn't love me.  She would stay with me for kindness, or pity, or the child."
     "You have a child coming?  But that is marvelous news!  Do you not see God's mercy?  He blesses you and Doña Victoria in spite of your troubles, in spite of the troubles of the world around us.  Diego, you must take comfort in this."  Benitez grasped the younger man's shoulder.  "The child will draw you and your wife closer together."
     A tear slipped down the caballero's cheek.  "You don't understand; our marriage is beyond healing.  I've ruined it."
     The priest's concerned expression deepened into a frown.  "Have you been unfaithful to her?"
     A tight shake of the bandaged head vehemently denied the suggestion.  "No.  Never!"
     "What then?"
     A sob caught in Diego's throat, and the tears flowed freely.  "I destroyed her trust in me."
     A long minute passed while the gentle priest groped for something to say.  "Do you love her?"
     The long-fingered hands which had been lying lifeless at the wounded man's sides suddenly flew up to cover his face, and the broken weeping began in earnest.
     "You do love her," concluded the Franciscan, satisfied.  "Then there is every reason to be hopeful, for the lady has grown to love you, too.  Trust can be rebuilt, and forgiveness covers a multitude of sins.  There, there, my son--don't despair.  Shall we pray about it?"
     Benitez offered a prayer, not from the missal but from his heart.  It was a simple but eloquent plea for divine intervention into a troubled marriage and two hurting lives.  When he concluded, the caballero seemed calmer.  "I'll leave you in God's hands now, Diego.  You will find comfort there."

     Alejandro asked his daughter-in-law if she planned to go to town with him to see his son, and was surprised when she again answered negatively.  "He needs all the cheering up he can get, Victoria," he reminded her.  "It will do him good to see you."
     "No," she countered.  "It will just upset him."
     "Why on earth would seeing you upset him?" puzzled the older man.
     "He--"  The doña hesitated, unsure of whether or not to reveal Diego's plan for her future.  "He has decided that--it would be better for me to live elsewhere."
     "What?"  The rancher's eyes bulged.  "What nonsense is this?  You aren't going anywhere, my dear.  This is where you belong, and where my grandchild belongs!"
     "He doesn't want us!" wailed Victoria, her dark eyes swimming.
     Nonplused, de la Vega clasped her against his chest.  "Not want you?  He loves you!"  At her head shake, he reiterated, "Yes, he does!  He was out of his mind when he thought you'd left him."
     "When was that?" she sobbed.
     "The day you--found out.  He told me about what happened:  that you said things, and he said things.  I know he regrets not taking you into his confidence--"
     "Why didn't he?  It was wrong to keep such a secret from me!"
     The rancher sighed, "I agree.  But I don't think it seemed that way to him at the time.  He was really trying to do what was best.  And he was scared."
     "Scared?  Diego's never been scared in his life!" she scoffed.
     "He's scared of you."  When she looked at him with wet, skeptical eyes, he elaborated, "Because he loves you, you have more power to hurt him than anyone else.  He thought you would be disappointed if you found out the truth."  He waited for a response from her.
     "I-I don't know what I would have thought if he'd told me before, but I wish he had given me the chance.  At any rate, he's changed his mind.  He doesn't want me now, and he's angry about the baby."
     "My dear, let's remember that Diego is not quite himself now.  He is recovering from injuries and dealing with the political changes.  Zorro is gone, and Diego is going to be a father.  It's a lot to work through.  Give him time."
     She sniffed, "I still don't think I should go with you.  But let me know if he asks for me.  And please don't say anything to him about sending me away."

     Zorro, the Fox of the night--while he had been busily deceiving the whole pueblo, had he also fooled himself?  Had he lived two lives so long that he could no longer merge them into one?  Who was Diego de la Vega?  He did not even know how to define himself anymore.  If everything he had were suddenly stripped away, what would he miss the most?  Ah, it was so hard to choose!  Victoria's lovely face floated before his imagination the strongest.  Yes, he would choose his wife, but his father too and Felipe, and Maria, Teresa, Juan, Pepe--all the rancho's personnel.  Then Ramón and Perdita, the townspeople, the neighboring caballeros, even Mendoza and the soldiers!
     That was it:  the people in his life defined who he was.  He needed them more than they needed him.  They gave him a sense of purpose, a sense of balance, a reason to live.  People--more important than high ideals, morals, education, scientific discoveries, art, music, the sum of all of mankind's knowledge.  In the stillness of his heart, he was finally ready to pray.
     Padre Celestial, I'm alive, and I don't know why You spared me.  I have tried to do my best--

     I haven't wanted your best.  I've wanted you.

     Me?  But the work I've done--wasn't that in Your name?  Isn't that worth something?

     Your deeds have been commendable, but I could not love you more--nor less.  If I have your heart, these other things will follow.

     Ah, You have me.  You have me, and You know my heart.  There is something, a miracle, that I want and dare not ask for.

     Is your love unselfish?

     No.  Yes.  Yes, it is.  Grant Victoria happiness.  If she is happy, I will at least be content.  Grant her peace and health and safety and friends.  Grant her everything that she hoped to find in me and didn't.  That's all I ask.
     The burden of his heart lifted, and the caballero fell asleep.

     Ramón came at least once a day to see his brother-in-law.  A new bond had been forged between them; each had a heightened respect for the other.  Escalante did not coddle Diego nor soften bad news; he was blunt, knowing that his brother in marriage could take hard truths.  The young officer obviously knew the truth of Zorro as well as the padre, but referred to the masked man obliquely.  The acting alcalde dropped by for a visit shortly after the doctor had checked his patient.  Diego's first attempt to stand had been discouraging.
     The caballero's chin hardened, and he declared, "I will walk again.  I will ride again.  And I will fence again."
     Ramón ran an appraising eye over his brother-in-law, lying pale and weak under a sheet.  "I believe you will," he said at last.  "But Zorro will not."
     "You sound very sure.  What if there's a need for him, for his work?"
     "I don't think you understand.  Mexico has given Zorro something he could never have under Spain."
     "And what is that?" asked the injured man, expecting to hear some political hyperboles.
     "Freedom.  Pardon.  Don't you get it?  Zorro's so-called crimes were against Spain.  The Mexican government holds nothing against him currently.  But if he were to flout the new authority, he would be branded a criminal again.  Then how could he hope for a pardon?"
     "Wait for California to be claimed by the United States," joked Diego feebly.
     Ramón gave a crack of scornful laughter.  "That will never happen!  Zorro is dead.  And he better stay dead, comprendes?"
     In a battle for eye contact, it was Diego who dropped his gaze first.  "Comprendo,"  he murmured.
     "So is it true about Zorro killing Antonio Costilla?  His body was found, and Carlos is saying that Zorro killed him."
     "Antonio was right," the caballero mused.  "Carlos did blame it on me.  No, it's not true.  Carlos killed him accidentally while aiming at me.  Antonio and I were fighting, and he kicked me down just before the shot rang out.  Carlos planned to shoot me in the back."
     "He tried to lay a murder charge against Zorro, which is another reason our masked friend should stay dead.  However, after finding out the details of my sister's abduction, I posted a reward for Carlos's capture.  Not surprisingly, the Costillas haven't been seen in the area since."
     As his brother-in-law assimilated the turn of events, Ramón asked, "What about the fire?  The witnesses in San Pedro say that the schooner burst into flames and sank at anchor."
     "I set the fire to destroy all the property deeds.  The Costillas have planned a financial monopoly of California. Amigo, you must destroy the alcalde's ledger where the sale the properties is recorded.  Then they will have no proof of ownership, and the properties will come up for public auction."
     "DeSoto's books were destroyed with his office.  And since the other freedom fighters were to destroy the local garrisons, I imagine that the Costillas will have a difficult time proving ownership of anything.  Here, of course, they have me to contend with, and you can be sure that they will not own anything in this region!"
     That relieved his mind of some of the responsibility he had carried, but Diego recalled another bone of contention.
     "You let Victoria help you after I warned you to keep her out of it," de la Vega accused.
     "It wasn't my idea, amigo.  Vic did that on her own.  We really didn't know how to prevent the alcalde from pursuing the oath of allegiance to our members, but she mentioned to Lola de Farral that the alcalde wanted to meet her.  Well, that was the opening we needed.  Lola is one of our agents, by the way.  I don't know why I didn't think of putting her on the alcalde myself."
     "Was she also to seduce me?"
     "Of course not!  Aii!  Would I do that to my sister?"  He then asked with interest, "Did Lola try?  That was strictly freelance.  Hm, we could have gotten two for one on that deal!"  He laughed and slapped his knee.
     "Oh, shut up!" Diego told him crossly.

     Diego did not ask for his wife to visit; he merely inquired politely of his father concerning the doña's health.  Each day his muscles strengthened, and he walked a little farther, leaning heavily on his cane and teetering into door frames.  Patience! he panted, propping himself against a wall.  The pueblo had been liberated from Spanish rule for a month, but how life was faring outside the thick adobe of the church he had only heard reports.  Soon he would return home and see if Victoria's heart had softened.  Whether it had or not, he determined that he would acknowledge his wrong and ask for forgiveness.  Then the matter was in God's hands.
     "Bring Esperanza tomorrow," he told Felipe.  "I'm going to come home."
     The teen nodded, and the palomino was brought to her master the following noon.  Diego required a boost into the saddle, but held his seat securely.
     "I'm going home the long way," he told Felipe and set off at an easy pace by himself.  After four weeks confined to the church, he reveled in the hot summer sun on his face.
     The caballero did not return to the de la Vega stables; he rode down the hillside and entered the cave, tethering the mare outside.  His awkward dismount was unseen, and he hobbled through his secret laboratory.  With his eye to the peephole, he checked to see if he could leave the tunnel unobserved.  Victoria was on the library sofa with a book propped in her lap, her slippered feet stretched out on the cushions.  She had not bound her hair, and it curled around her face and neck the way he loved to see it.  Her hand moved aside the lace curtain to watch the road anxiously.  She was waiting for him, and his heart lifted in hope.
     The fireplace passage door swung open silently on its oiled hinges, and Diego emerged into the room.  Victoria started up, her worried eyes taking in every detail of his face, his eyes, his bearing.  She could not detect his state of mind.
     In two quick strides he was kneeling on the floor beside her with his face buried in her lap and his long arms clinging to her.  Intuition told her he needed comfort, and she stroked his head, tenderly combing the disarrayed locks into place.   His breath caught on a sob, and his hands clenched her.  He pressed a kiss onto her lap, then several more in frantic succession.  Her hands were seized as well and felt the imprint of his lips over their entire surface.  Finally he raised his streaming eyes and dared to look into her face.
     "I'm so sorry.  I'm sorry for everything.  It was my fault; I should have trusted you, and we would have been together years ago.  Please, please forgive me, and say it's not too late."
     A hard lump swelled in her throat, and her own eyes filled with tears.  "It's not too late," she whispered.  "I love you so much I could never stop."
     Anxiety twisted his features.  "Which one of us do you love?" he blurted out.  "I have to know!"
    "Oh, Diego!" she laughed though her eyes overflowed.  "There's only one man, and I love all of him."
     Like a condemned man granted an undeserved pardon, he could not find words to frame his gratitude.  Instead he took her in his arms carefully and rubbed her cheek with his own.
     "I've been such a conceited idiot!"
     "Yes," she agreed softly.  "And I have been a blind one.  I think that makes us even.  Have you changed your mind about wanting me to go away with the baby?"
     "I never did want you to go.  I thought that after all I've put you through you wouldn't want to stay.  I wanted to give you another option if being with me was intolerable."
     "Very generous," she observed seriously.  "But totally misguided."
     He made a wavering attempt to smile.  "Has the doctor examined you?"
     "Yes."
     "What did he say?"
     "He said that I'm strong and healthy and shouldn't have any problem."
     "Then--"
     "In about seven months, if all goes well.  Do you mind?"
     "Me?  No.  I mean, if you like it so do I."  He placed a hand on her belly reverently.  "Father must be pleased."
     "He will be when he's not worried about you.  Go to him now; he's resting in his room."
     Taking her face in his hands, he kissed her lips very gently.  "I love you more than I know how to say.  I wish I could tell you how much."
     Victoria smiled tremulously in response and stroked his face before he left for the patrón's bedroom.  He knocked firmly on the oak door, then opened it.
     "Diego!"  The older man sat up quickly. "Gracias a Dios!"  He crossed himself and raised his eyes to heaven in silent thanksgiving before embracing his son.  "You're all right?"  He searched the thin face and glanced at the cane.
     "Yes, just clumsy.  Victoria doesn't seem to mind, though."  He smiled, and his eyes held a serene expression.
     Everything is all right between them again.  Alejandro hid a sigh of relief.  "Of course not; she's missed you so much.  Come and sit down.  I've been waiting to hear what happened the day you left to find Victoria."
     Slowly Diego unfolded the story of his hunt, the skirmishes, and dangers before the final confrontation with Costilla.  "I wanted spit him on my blade like a chicken on a skewer for what he had done to Victoria.  Now that he's dead," he shrugged, "I don't know what I feel.  Relieved, in some ways.  Sorry in others.  My anger did more harm to me than it did to him."
     "'The anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God,'" Alejandro quoted.  "Saint James," he explained when his son glanced at him curiously.
     "That's true," Diego noted and fell silent.
     "I think I understand now why you didn't confide in me.  I didn't close my eyes all night after Victoria came home!  I'm too old for this strain.  I'm so proud of you--God knows I'm proud--but please:  no more."
     "You want me to hang up the mask and sword?  Retire?"
     "I'm sure it sounds boring to you to spend your time here on the ranch, but Diego, you're a married man now with a baby on the way!  It's time to settle down, Son."
     "I know," he smiled.  "I feel it, too.  But you're wrong about life on the ranch.  Living with Victoria could never be dull."
     Content, Alejandro sighed, "She is," he groped for a description, "the perfect match for you."
     His son nodded humbly.  "I am a very, very blessed man."
     The hacendado smiled, not because life had become easier, but because it was suddenly less complicated.  California was under Mexican rule, and he could foresee years of political turmoil as an inexperienced government formed from the revolution.  What that would mean to him, his large estate, and to his descendents he could not surmise.  Diego and Victoria would have other quarrels; two strong personalities were bound to clash from time to time.  But an unshakable foundation for their marriage had been laid and leveled.  They had established respect and trust, and their understanding of each other had deepened.  More importantly, their understanding of themselves had been challenged and redefined.  Alejandro watched as his son hobbled from the room.  Whatever Diego had lost physically, he had gained in peace.
     Does love do all of that? he wondered. Perhaps it does.  Perhaps only when we know that we're loved for who we really are, and sometimes in spite of ourselves, do we experience deep satisfaction.  Content himself, the rancher resumed his siesta.
 
 

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