"Zorro," Victoria said.
"At your service," Zorro bowed. "If you'll excuse me, I believe there are some lancers who need my help."
"Of course," Victoria followed Zorro as he jumped on his black stallion and disappeared into the night.
"See? I told you Zorro would show up," Jose said.
"Yes," Victoria nodded, but something seemed different about Zorro. If only I could put my finger on it, she thought.
"Victoria, you aren't going to let us die of thirst, are you?" one of her patrons asked.
"No more than Zorro would," another answered.
She walked to the bar and started serving her customers. As always, Zorro could wait.
Zorro peered at the garrison atop Tornado. He silently counted lancers.
"Six," he spoke at last. "But that doesn't mean more aren't hiding, huh, Tornado?"
Tornado snorted and pawed the ground.
"Patience. This will require some cunning."
Tornado bobbed his head up and down as if in agreement. Zorro looked around, trying to formulate a plan. He smiled as an idea took shape.
"Come, Tornado," he dismounted and led the horse closer to the wall.
The lancer yawned and thought briefly of his small bed. He looked at the other five lancers and saw they were having the same problem as him. If only Zorro would show up and this would all be over, he thought.
As if on cue, Tornado trotted into the garrison. He seemed to be waiting for the lancers. The lancer did a double take.
"That can't be Zorro's horse," he said.
"It is," the lancer next to him said.
"I've chased that horse a hundred times. I'd recognize him anywhere."
"What's he doing here?"
The second lancer shrugged and shook his head. They heard a soft moan.
"What was that?"
"But where - "
"On his back. Zorro's been injured."
The first lancer rushed to investigate. As soon as he reached Tornado, a sword point was pointed at his throat. He silently cursed himself for his foolishness.
"Where's the alcalde?" Zorro asked.
"Inside," the lancer pointed to the office, his hand shaking. He had heard tales of Zorro before and saw him from a distance, but up close and personal was nerve-wracking. "He told us to sound the alarm when you arrive."
"Don't bother. I'll surprise him myself. But I'll require an escort."
"Why not? I don't want the other lancers to attack me at will. Of course, you understand, don't you?"
The lancer nodded then turned around. He heard Zorro slide of the horse. Moments later, a blade was pointed at his back. They made it to the alcalde's office and the lancer was about to knock.
"Uh-uh," Zorro warned. "Allow me. The alcalde and I are better acquainted. Wait here."
Zorro disappeared into the alcalde's office and the lancer relaxed a little. He hoped it was his first and last encounter with Zorro. He looked at Sergeant Mendoza and the other lancers watching the office expectantly. How did the sergeant handle all his encounters with Zorro? he wondered. Perhaps that's why he's always in the tavern after we ride after Zorro.
"Zorro!" he heard the alcalde.
"Alcalde," Zorro answered. "Sorry to disturb you at such a late hour, but there's something we need to discuss."
"We have nothing to discuss - except your surrender."
"Ah, ever the optimist. That's what I like about you, but what I don't like is the sergeant and his lancers being locked up."
"If you don't like it, you can always take their place."
"As sincere as your invitation is, I must pass and ask you to release them."
"They committed treason."
"Somehow I find it hard to believe Sergeant Mendoza is capable of treason. But what I do believe is that you set up this elaborate scheme to capture me."
"That's - preposterous," the alcalde blurted out.
"Oh? You've tried the same stunt with other members of the community. Bringing false charges on innocent people. What penalty should that crime bring?"
"You can't do anything to me."
"No! Put your sword down," the alcalde begged.
"That's more your style. Though as much as you deserve to have a 'Z' carved into your backside from the front; I'm afraid violence doesn't suit me. I'll take Sergeant Mendoza and his lancers release instead."
Silence hung in the office.
"I'm thinking...All right, all right. Don't hurt me. Sergeant Mendoza and the three lancers are absolved of all charges."
"Gracias. That's all I wanted to hear. That wasn't so bad, was it?"
The door opened abruptly, catching the lancer off guard. Before he could react, Zorro hit him on the head with the hilt of his sword. The lancer was unconscious before he hit the ground.
"Lancers! Get Zorro." The alcalde ordered.
Zorro whistled and Tornado responded. He came between Zorro and the lancers, bucking wildly. Zorro laughed as the lancers steered cleared of the deadly hooves. In one swift leap, he mounted Tornado and rode into the night.
Once Zorro rode out, the lancers went for their horses and took to chase. Sergeant Mendoza watched the action, slightly upset because he wasn't part of it.
"Alcalde? Lancers?" he called out, but no one answered. "Where is everyone?"
The other lancers shrugged and sat down t wait for their return.
The lancers rode the countryside. They had never really caught sight of the direction Zorro rode off in, but they still searched in case the alcalde showed up. After riding a few miles the lead lancer held up his hand and motioned back to the pueblo.
"Well?" a voice asked in the darkness.
"Alcalde?" the lead lancer asked.
"Who else? Do you honestly think Zorro would walk up to you in the middle of a chase? Hmm?"
"Uh, no, mi alcalde."
"Got away again. Why am I not surprised? If I had a descent army, I'm sure this wouldn't happen."
"But, mi alcalde, it's dark - "
"Save me your excuses. Let's return to the pueblo."
As they rode back, Luis put the night's failure behind him. A new plan was starting to develop in his mind. He couldn't help but feel this one was guaranteed to work.
Felipe sat in a chair in front of the table writing notes for Diego. He still donned the Zorro outfit minus the mask and hat. He heard the door from outside open and jumped up.
He was facing the entrance, gripping Zorro's sword when Tornado trotted in and went to his stall. Felipe eyed him cautiously. He waited for someone else to enter, but no one came. He picked up the lantern and slowly walked down the entrance, sword held before him. Yet, the tunnel was empty.
He returned to Tornado and inspected him. Lather foamed on the horse's coat.
Who rode him? Felipe wondered.
He looked to Tornado for an answer, but the horse only stared back.
I should've known better, Felipe thought. He can keep a secret better than I can.
He shook his head then proceeded to remove Tornado's tack and brush him down. While Tornado munched on his oats, Felipe finished his letter to Diego.
The small party rode into the pueblo. Victoria stood outside her tavern and watched.
"Better luck next time," she said as they rode past.
Luis would have grumbled an answer, but his latest plan took all his attention. When they rode into the cuartel, the lancer Zorro had knocked out stood rubbing the top of his head. The alcalde dismounted, gave him the reins, and walked into his office. The lancer watched him then looked at the sergeant.
"Alcalde?" he climbed the stairs.
"What about Sergeant Mendoza and the other lancers."
"Let them spend the night in jail," the alcalde answered. "Serve them right for messing this up."
"But - "
"Wait. Let them go and send Sergeant Mendoza to my office. I want to speak wth him."
Minutes later, Sergeant Mendoza stood in front of the alcalde's desk.
Luis sat back in his chair. "Other than Zorro, who would you say is the most dangerous outlaw near our area?"
Sergeant Mendoza stood a while in thought. "I would have to say - Paco Lopez."
The alcalde shuffled through the small stack on his desk. "According to these reports, he and his band were last seen - here."
The alcalde got up and pointed to a spot on the map. Sergeant Mendoza rubbed his shirt collar. He didn't like where this was leading.
"Alcalde, that's not the best part of California."
"Wanted outlaws don't stay in places like Victoria's Tavern."
"Sí, but, alcalde, why are so interested in Paco Lopez? He's dangerous."
"Not if he can be persuaded into helping us catch Zorro," the alcalde grinned walking back to his desk.
"I don't understand."
"Then I'll explain it to you," Luis Ramon leaned forward in his chair and told the sergeant of his idea.
Felipe rode into the pueblo. In the excitement, he didn't have a chance to get the book he promised Diego. He rode up to the mail station and walked in.
There was a small crowd picking up parcels and dropping some off. He caught bits and pieces of conversation as he made his way to the front.
"Felipe," the man at the front smiled. "Here's the package for Diego. I know he's been waiting for it. It's a shame it came in the day after he left. Here's the rest of the mail."
Felipe nodded and left. The conversations intrigued him, but he felt he wasn't getting the whole story. He looked at Victoria's Tavern and smiled. The lunch crowd should just be getting in, a perfect time and place to catch the latest gossip. When he had the packages secured, he led his pinto to the hitching post and walked in.
As he suspected, the tavern was half full. He walked up to the bar and sat on one of the stools. He could hear everything from his perch. The gossip he heard in the mail station concerned Zorro releasing Sergeant Mendoza, but he needed more details.
He didn't know who was impersonating Zorro, but he had to stop him before something dangerous happened. He found out the hard way that being Zorro came with its consequences.
"Enjoy, Felipe," Victoria placed a bowl of steaming soup in front him with a chunk of bread.
He smiled as the aroma wafted to him. This alone was worth the trip to the pueblo.
As he dipped the spoon in the broth, his ears tuned in to the voices around him.
"Did you hear about Zorro?" he heard someone ask.
"Of course. He saved Sergeant Mendoza and the lancers. What else is new?"
"But I was here when it happened."
"Of course you were. You spend every night in the tavern."
"Jose, are you telling one of your stories again?" Victoria asked.
"No. I was just getting ready to tell them about Zorro saving the lancers. I saw it all."
"How could you? You left right Zorro did."
"But I swear, I did see Zorro rescue them."
"So what happened?" the second person asked.
"I was right outside when it all happened," Jose began. "Zorro rode up to the garrison as bold as can be and called out the alcalde. They fought and then Zorro carved a 'Z' in the alcalde's jacket."
"You saw him make a 'Z?'"
"I saw the strokes."
"Mhmm. Then what?"
"The alcalde released the lancers."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that. Then Zorro rode out of the pueblo with the lancers hot on his heels."
Felipe smiled at the story. He knew Jose told tall tales which sometimes helped Zorro's reputation spread throughout California. He doubted much of the story was true and kept his ears open for more news.
"That's not how I heard it."
Felipe recognized the voice as belonging to a caballero around Diego's age.
"Don Ricardo," Jose said and the mirth left his voice. "What have you heard?"
"I heard Zorro tricked the lancers into letting him into the alcalde's office, then he rode away."
"That's one version," Jose replied.
Felipe heard more conversations about the rescue last night; some like Ricardo's, but most like Jose's version.
A lancer sat next to him. Felipe could see the white of a bandage sticking from under his hat.
"Victoria, some wine," he grumbled.
"What's with you?" she asked.
"I have to inspect the pueblo today."
"Why? Sergeant Mendoza always does that."
"But he and the alcalde have gone off somewhere. Now, I have the sergeant's duties."
Felipe's listened carefully.
"You are a corporal."
"I don't think so, perhaps when you're finished."
The corporal sighed.
"Here, will some juice help?" Victoria asked.
"Where did they go?" she asked as she poured him a glass. "It's not like the alcalde to go off somewhere in the middle of the day."
"I don't know, but it can't be good. Sergeant Mendoza looked like he'd been handed a death warrant."
"After last night - "
"I don't think that's what it was."
The lancer leaned over and looked around. "I can't be sure, but I think I heard the sergeant say something about Lopez or Gomez. He wasn't too clear on the subject."
Felipe froze. Diego had mentioned something about a Paco Lopez. He hoped it wasn't the same person.
"That's odd," Victoria shrugged, then returned to serving her other customers.
Felipe didn't even bother to finish his soup, he had to get to the secret cave. Diego usually left notes on his adventures. Perhaps the answer to Lopez was buried there.
The alcalde rode calmly through the wooded area. Sergeant Mendoza kept glancing around.
"Will you stop that? You're starting to make me nervous."
"I'm sorry, mi alcalde, but I don't feel right here. At any moment Paco and his band could be upon us."
"That's the whole idea," the alcalde explained.
"Wha' idea might it be?" a gruff voice asked.
The alcalde stopped his horse as several people came up in front of him. He recognized the man from the wanted poster. It was Paco Lopez alright.
Play your cards right, Luis, he reminded himself.
"Paco Lopez," he stated.
"Tha's right. Who wanna knows?" the man squinted at the alcalde and sergeant. He couldn't quite figure out who they were. They didn't dress like the peasants or the rich.
"Luis Ramon, alcalde of the pueblo de Los Angeles."
"An alcalde?" Paco pondered then grinned.
Luis moaned as he saw the glint in his eyes. "Yes."
"I betchya fetch a good peso or two."
"Not our alcalde," Sergeant Mendoza broke in.
Luis gave Mendoza a menacing look. He always said the wrong thing at the wrong time.
"Nevermind him," the alcalde focused his attention on Paco.
"Wha're you doin' here?" Paco asked. "You little bit aways from Los Ang'les."
"I've come to make you a proposition."
"A deal," the alcalde almost shouted. Is it possible I met someone dumber than Mendoza?
"Wha' kinna deal?" Paco scratched his head.
"Zorro - for your pardon."
"Zorro?" Paco's face grew grim. He recounted Zorro's last warning to him. "I dunno know, alcalde. Zorro's not sa'ctly a guy I wanna face."
"You don't have to face him."
"All I want you to do is terrorize the poor people of Los Angeles. We'll know exactly where you are and when Zorro strikes, we'll be there to catch him."
"Jus' cause folks tr'uble?"
"An' I get a pard'n?"
"I'll see to it personally," the alcalde grinned.
"I dunno - "
"Now listen. You can spend the rest of your life, here. Robbing people for what - a few pesos."
"Pes's? How's much my rew'rd?"
"I wan's my rew'rd, too."
"Very well." This was going better than he hoped. Perhaps he could kill two birds with one stone. "Here's what I want you to do."