Author's notes: Here it is: Part Two! This is story #10 of my continuing series. I must warn everyone that this one is a lot darker than the others I have written. And later on it gets a little gruesome. Also I had some problems with the characters having minds of their own and doing things I didn't intend for them to do.

This also runs 6 chapters rather than my usual 5.

Disclaimer: This story is an amateur, not-for-profit publication produced solely for the enjoyment of other Zorro fans and is not intended to infringe upon any rights by Goodman/Rosen Productions, New World Television, Zorro Productions, the estate of Johnston McCulley or anyone else.

"HEARTS ABLAZE"

PART TWO: "TRIAL BY FIRE"

CHAPTER ONE

"What?" shouted Don Alejandro. "That is preposterous! Felipe could never kill anyone. He is..."

"It is all over the pueblo the two of them fought last night," interjected de Soto who then sneered contemptuously, "over the seamstress' daughter. The circumstances are overwhelming." He looked past the two men in the doorway. "Where is he? It will only make things for worse for the lad if he is hiding."

Don Alejandro looked over at his son, who shook his head. He did not wish to admit in front of Ignacio that Felipe had not returned home. He agreed with his father, it was impossible that Felipe had done this foul deed. But without an alibi, it was going to be difficult to prove he didn't.

"We are not hiding him, Alcalde," Diego replied honestly. But de Soto sensed that his old schoolmate was keeping something from him. He acted on that instinct.

"Search the premises," he ordered his men. He glared challengingly at the de la Vegas. Father and son wisely stepped aside to let the soldiers pass by.

Mendoza threw them an remorseful glance. He did not believe Felipe had done this horrible thing either. He had come to look upon the young man as a surrogate son, part of the happy family he envisioned having with Leonora, with Ana Maria as his daughter and Felipe as his son-in-law.

De Soto stood smugly in the foyer as the lancers dispersed to examine the hacienda. Diego could not bear to stay there and do nothing. He touched his father on the shoulder then whispered in his ear. "I think I know where he is."

He started toward the door but was halted by the Alcalde. "Just where do you think you are going?" the commandante demanded to know.

"This is a working ranch, Alcalde," Diego stated stoically. "We have fences to mend in the north pasture, fruit trees to pollinate, fields to plant, animals to feed..."

Again de Soto felt that the other man was not quite telling the truth but decided this time to let it go. "Very well, go fix your fences and plant your corn. But be careful, Diego," he cautioned. "Any attempt to keep the boy from justice will not go unpunished." He smirked evilly, relishing the idea of having the entire de la Vega family behind bars. Their lands might even have to be confiscated. He could barely suppress a chuckle.

A shout from one of the soldiers prevented Diego from departing once more. "Alcalde! I found something," called the voice from back of the hacienda.

De Soto eagerly dashed off to see what had been discovered. Don Alejandro and Diego hastened their own steps as they tailed after him.

"Look, mi Alcalde," said the young private. He was kneeling on the floor next to Felipe's bed. The green suit the young man had worn last night was dragged out from under the mattress. "There is blood on it. See, there on the sleeve."

Diego winced. So his son had returned home long enough to change his clothes. He cringed again as the lancer pulled a white shirt from beneath the bed. Its front was also spotted with blood. Why had Felipe secreted the garments? he wondered.

"He got a bloody nose during the fight," Diego declared, remembering the young man wiping his injured nose on his jacket. "I was there. I witnessed it."

"He's your adopted son," stated the Alcalde. "Your testimony might be somewhat, shall we say, biased?" He eyed Diego curiously. The brawl had taken place down by the river, a notorious spot for courting couples to hide away from their chaperons. What had de la Vega been doing there? And with whom? Interesting indeed, he mused.

"I am telling the truth, Alcalde," retorted Diego angrily. "There were others who observed it as well. They can prove what I say is true."

"I'll worry about that when the time comes," de Soto remarked disinterestedly. "I will give you twenty-four hours to find the lad and bring him to the cuartel. After that, a bounty will be put on his head for his capture, dead or alive." He couldn't quite hide his grin of satisfaction, knowing he had the upper hand.

"It won't come to that," ground out Don Alejandro furiously. "We'll find him." He pumped his fist then left the bedroom.

"Gather up the evidence," instructed the Alcalde. The private carried out the soiled clothing as he trailed his commandante and his fellow soldiers out of the hacienda.

The de la Vegas watched bleakly as the visitors mounted their horses and left. "I'm going to look for him," Diego said unnecessarily. His father nodded wearily. The old don seemed to have aged ten years in ten minutes, Diego thought alarmingly.

The sooner he found Felipe, the sooner this matter could be cleared up. He nodded tersely to his father as he exited the hacienda.

Z Z Z

Diego had taken Esperanza from the stables and rode toward the north pasture. When he was sure he was not being tailed (having a soldier follow him was something he wouldn't put past de Soto to do), he changed directions. Minutes later, he arrived at the rear entrance of the secret cave.

He tied the mare to a tree some distance away. Then stepping on the hidden lever, he walked into the opened entrance.

Diego did not have to look far for his adopted son. Felipe was sleeping in the hay of Toronado's stall. The horse nickered softly as Diego patted the stallion on the neck.

The slumbering young man's nose was slightly swollen and there were dark circles under both eyes. From lack of sleep or because of the fight, Diego couldn't tell.

He knew that Felipe would return here sooner or later. His son probably had been out somewhere else, agonizing all night, realizing this cave would be the first place his adopted father would look for him.

Felipe stirred, then slowly opened his eyes as Toronado snorted loudly. He rubbed his face, wincing slightly when he touched his nose. Then he noticed Diego standing there, an unreadable expression on the older man's face.

"Wh.. what's wr.. wrong?" the young man asked, getting to his feet.

"Where have you been?" Diego countered with his own question. He crossed his arms over his broad chest as he waited for his answer.

"I.. I w.. went down t.. to the b.. beach," Felipe revealed. "I d.. didn't mean t.. to be gone all n. night."

"Did anyone see you?" inquired his father hopefully.

"N.. no," was the response. He looked worriedly at Diego. "Wh..what is...?"

The older man closed his eyes as he interrupted. "Alonzo Montoya was found stabbed to death this morning."

Felipe stumbled backward, his eyes wide with shock and shaking his head. His reaction to the news confirmed Diego's certainty in his innocence.

"I.. I d.. did not k.. kill him," his son gasped out. He stared up at his father and saw that he was believed.

"I know, hijo," Diego stated firmly. "But the Alcalde and Don Miguel think you did. De Soto was here earlier to arrest you."

"N..no," Felipe repeated, shaking violently. He backed up against the wall, then slid down into the hay and put his head in his hands.

Diego crouched down beside him. "Felipe, Father and I will do everything we can to clear you of this charge." He placed a reassuring hand on the young man's shoulder. "We'll get Don Ernesto to help us." Don Ernesto Calderon was the de la Vegas' lawyer in Santa Paula. The same one with whom Felipe was going to apprentice with the next year.

Felipe nodded resignedly. The despair was evident in his dark eyes when he glanced up once again. "Wh.. why d.. do they th.. think I d.. did it?"

Diego quickly filled in his son on the gossip about the fight and what the soldiers had found in his room. Felipe cringed at his own stupidity. He had thrown the clothes under the bed so Maria wouldn't find them. The housekeeper was always after him about getting his clothing dirty and he figured she would get very upset when she saw the blood and mud all over his best suit.

This is not good, he thought. He had a motive, no alibi and bloody garments were found hidden in his room. The only things they didn't have were the weapon and witnesses. Felipe had read in his legal texts though of men convicted with less evidence than what they already had on him.

Diego could tell what was going on in the young man's mind. He had to hide a proud smile. Felipe was going to be a brilliant lawyer one day. If he didn't hang first, Diego thought soberly.

"We have less than twenty-four hours to hand you over before de Soto places a bounty on you," he declared. "Do you want to go now or later, after you have had some more rest and something to eat?"

"N.. now," his son replied, absently rubbing the back of his neck "I really d.. don't w.. want to g.. go at all but..." He shrugged his shoulders.

"One member of this family with a price on his head is quite enough, don't you think?" Diego commented drily as he stood up.

Felipe nodded grimly as he also got to his feet. Diego put a fatherly arm around the young man's shoulders as they headed out the back exit of the cave. They discussed the story they needed to concoct as to where Diego had found Felipe. This time, Don Alejandro not only needed to be deceived, but the Alcalde as well.

Z Z Z

About an hour later, the de la Vegas rode into Los Angeles. Felipe was flanked on either side by the two older men. However, today, instead of riding up to the front of the tavern as they normally did, they came to a halt in front of the cuartel.

People stopped whatever they were doing and began whispering and pointing. Felipe tried to keep from trembling but it was getting tougher to do. The thought of being locked away in a cell terrified him. He tried not to think about what would happen if he were found guilty.

A mirthless smile touched his lips. He had always worried Zorro would be the one to swing from the gallows. Now it looked like he would beat the masked man to the noose.

Both Don Alejandro and Diego placed supportive hands on Felipe's shoulders. One of the lancers had seen the trio approaching the garrison. It did not take long for de Soto to appear at his office door.

"So, I see you found the lad," he said, a tinge of disappointment in his tone. "Is he prepared to turn himself in?"

"Si, Alcalde," answered the elder de la Vega tersely. "This is ridiculous. We all know he didn't do this. You're just trying to make an impression on your lady friend and her father by pinning this murder on Felipe. You want to be the big hero."

"Be careful, Don Alejandro," de Soto warned hotly. "There is plenty of room in my jail for you as well."

"On what charge?" the old don demanded to know. "Telling the truth?"

The Alcalde glared menacingly at the elder de la Vega. Diego decided to step in and cool off the hot tempered men.

"Father, Alcalde," he counseled patiently. "All this arguing is getting us nowhere." He turned to face Ignacio. "I want to see where the body was discovered."

De Soto's anger subsided as he remember the task at hand. "Let me secure the lad in a cell first. Then I will get one of the men to take you there." He indicated to the young private standing there to take Felipe inside.

Diego hugged his son as did Don Alejandro as the lancer waited impatiently to obey his orders. Diego gave Felipe a quick pat on the back. "Don't worry," he advised, knowing his words would go unheeded. "We'll be back as soon as we can."

Felipe nodded solemnly as the soldier finally led him away. The remaining de la Vegas turned to the Alcalde.

"Are you going to set bail?" asked Diego hopefully. He did not like the notion of Felipe spending even one night in the cuartel. If they could get him out of there...

De Soto mulled over the idea for a few moments. An evil smirk grew on his bearded face. "Bail is fifty thousand pesos."

"Fifty thousand pesos?" echoed Don Alejandro, emphasizing each syllable. "That's outrageous!"

Why did most people assume he had piles of money just lying around? Most of his wealth was in his holdings; the land, the livestock, the hacienda, etc. What liquid assets he did have went to pay wages and meet expenses. He did have some money in the bank, but not fifty thousand pesos. He glanced at Diego in dismay.

His son patted him on the back. "We'll find it somewhere, Father." Glaring at de Soto, he repeated his earlier request. "I want to see where..."

"Of course," the Alcalde cut in. "Mendoza!"

The stout sergeant came scurrying out of the garrison. "Si, mi Alcalde," he saluted his commandante.

"Take the de la Vegas to the murder scene," his superior officer ordered briskly. His duty done, he chuckled all the way to his office.

"This way." Mendoza pointed in the direction of the river. They made it about halfway across the plaza when Victoria emerged from the tavern.

"Don Alejandro, Diego!" she called. "I don't believe it." She launched herself into Diego's arms and held him tight. He instinctively encircled his arms around her.

"I just don't believe it," she reiterated, looking up at Diego. "Felipe would not harm anyone."

He nodded in agreement. Victoria pressed herself closer and rested her raven curls on his chest. Longings began to stir in his body. She really did not have a clue of how much he desired her, he thought, holding back a frustrated moan. But if she remained up against him for much longer she was going to find out. Diego extricated himself from her embrace and took a step back.

Victoria misunderstood the gesture, thinking he felt uncomfortable with such a public display of affection. But she could only imagine his pain and anxiety. Even though Diego finally adopted Felipe just last year, the young man had been his son in his heart for a long time.

The men briefed her about the bail and the Alcalde's arrogance as they followed the sergeant to the scene of the crime. Victoria became very upset as she learned of de Soto's machinations.

She was even more disturbed when she noticed the large dark stain on the ground, turning her head away at the sight. Diego, however, knelt down on one knee beside it, examining it and the surrounding area closely.

He got to his feet, looking at Mendoza. "Where is the body?" he inquired calmly. Both his father and Victoria shuddered as did the portly soldier.

"At the undertaker's," responded the sergeant. "But Don Diego, it is not a pretty sight. What with the heat and everything."

"I still need to see it," Diego declared. It did not matter how distasteful it might be, he had to learn as much as he could in order to help defend his son. "Lead the way, Sergeant."

Mendoza made a face of disgust as he walked back up the trail that led to the pueblo.

Z Z Z