Tonight, the nightmare was different. It started as a pleasant dream: He was walking the roads surrounding the pueblo, taking the time to notice the splendor of the terrain. The beauty of the desert was something he had grown to appreciate over the years. The wildness and the starkness appealed to his soul. A feeling of peace he had never known surrounded him.
Then, suddenly, like a gunshot, the peace abandoned him to be replaced by a feeling of overwhelming dread. Escape was imperative. From whom or what, he did not know. He just had to escape! He started to run, looking everywhere for safety from the unknown, but where could he find refuge?
He began running towards the de la Vega hacienda. Instinct directed his actions, insisting that he could find safety there. He had to get there. Abruptly, as it is in dreams, he was standing outside their garden.
A part of his mind, the one screaming in protest, realized that the nightmare had been a reality at one time. The dream images were memories he refused to let go of, for reasons he refused to admit, even to himself. He had struggled the last month to forget, but the memories insisted on staying, ignoring all his pleas and commands. They would not be forced out of his mind like so many other uncomfortable ones had in the past.
Watching as Gilberto Resendo--aiming at Diego de la Vega--raised his pistol, he could hear the glee in Resendo's voice. He reached down for his own firearm, as he had in reality, but in the dream world, it was not there. He could only be a spectator of the horror playing out in front of his eyes.
"When I kill Diego de la Vega," Resendo chuckled. "I also kill . . ."
"Zorro!" With sweat dripping from his brow, the man sat up in his bed and heard his own voice echoing back at him. Shaking his head in disbelief, Ignacio DeSoto gasped, "Diego de la Vega is Zorro?"
It has been one month and one day, Diego thought. Yesterday had been rough on his father, and, if he would admit it, himself. Resendo had only spent a little over a week in their pueblo, but his presence had been felt everywhere on the one-month anniversary of his death.
Diego watched, pleased, as his father heartily ate Victoria's soup. Looking over at the woman he was secretly engaged to, he noticed her smile brighten at the sight, too. Even though Don Alejandro had never known Gilberto, had never even known of his other son's existence until those last few moments, he had taken his death hard. The lines around his eyes had deepened, and he walked like a man carrying a heavy burden on his back.
However, life was slowly returning to normal. Occasionally, his father would smile without thought. His shoulders were regaining their proud straight lines, and his eyes were healing from the emotional wound. Diego could finally look in those eyes and not feel like crying for himself and for his father. Maybe one day, thoughts of his brother and the vengeful lady who had stolen him would not cause torment. Maybe one day, Diego could find it in his heart to forgive the midwife who had drugged his mother and stolen his twin brother almost from the womb, raising him to hate the name he should have been given at birth.
Glancing towards the entrance, Diego spotted Ignacio DeSoto standing there. The alcalde's uniform was perfectly pressed and spotless as usual. However, the quiet, respectful manner that he now held himself was new. Over the last month, the people of Los Angeles had been treated to a changed leader. Instead of snapping orders without thinking, DeSoto now thought through the consequences. Instead of refusing to hear the input of others, DeSoto sought it out, walking the streets, talking to the people he had been given the privilege to govern.
And he did seem to be considering it a privilege. Diego had watched from a distance, amazed by DeSoto's questions and his new attitude. Watching him had been a joy and a pain for Diego. He had been right. DeSoto, with his background, could have made a fine alcalde. It hurt to see how good he could have been, if only he had not let a lust for power and respect overtake his common sense.
Forced to work for everything he wanted, DeSoto had taken excessive pride in his position in the community. He forgot the station to which he had been born, and the pain he suffered. Since his assignment to the office of alcalde, he had felt uncomfortable with the peons. He only sought the company of the caballeros.
In the last month, Diego saw DeSoto not only ask the caballeros their opinions on the government and what it should be doing--unheard of in itself--he also asked the peons for suggestions! The people had been leery. While Diego had seen some of his brilliance at school, Los Angeles and its people had only seen the cruelty and the arrogance. However, DeSoto's skills as an interrogator served him well. Most people found themselves confiding in the man almost against their will.
Standing in the doorway, DeSoto shifted from foot to foot. His eyes raced across the room, finally settling on Diego. He hesitated a moment, and then smiled. Walking briskly, he headed for the de la Vega table. "Ah, good morning, Don Alejandro, Don Diego," he greeted them, making a proper bow. "May I join you for a moment?"
Smiling, Alejandro waved his hand for the man to sit. Since DeSoto had saved Diego's life, Alejandro struggled to consider the alcalde a friend. If he had questions about the man's new personality, he had yet to voice them.
But, then, Diego had never voiced any of his own concerns. Instead, he watched the man closely and listened to everyone else's comments, eager to find DeSoto's slip. The alcalde, however, had managed to stay in his new disposition. No new taxes had been implemented and no old tax orders had been collected. Diego's instincts screamed out in protest, but he could find no reason why he found DeSoto's strange behavior so unsettling. After all, with DeSoto, everything would soon return to normal.
Focused on thoughts about the man's behavior, Diego did not even notice the sword in DeSoto's hands until he sat down. Even though it was wrapped in a sheath, Diego knew it was not DeSoto's weapon. Unlike Ramón, DeSoto's choice of foil had been practical and smart instead of beautiful. He kept only a two in his room, and one was by his side at the moment. DeSoto would not be carrying a sword to show to others.
He glanced towards Victoria, and saw her frown. Having learned a lesson when Ramón's brother impersonated him, she did not believe the "new" DeSoto and had expressed her opinion on the subject to many people. Like him, she waited for the one slip, that one hint, that would tell her what DeSoto was trying to do. Seeing Diego look at her, she smiled and started walking over to the table.
DeSoto's odd behavior had provided some benefits for Diego. The month of rest had allowed his arm to completely heal. Back in top physical form, he had no reason to come to the pueblo as Zorro--the lancers seemed to be handling what bandits were in the area. After two weeks of no activity, he had finally come to visit Victoria. He had been ready for battle, but he had not been bothered on that visit or any other one he had made since then. His new freedom of movement was allowing him and Victoria to spend more time together in the last two weeks than they had the previous six years--at least as Zorro and Victoria.
Before anyone could say anything, Victoria arrived to ask the alcalde if he needed anything. "Yes," he answered with a smile and a nod. "I would love a glass of your wonderful orange juice, please." The improvement in DeSoto's manners had been noted and commented on also.
Raising her eyebrow, Victoria sauntered off to fill his order. DeSoto looked at Alejandro and started making small talk. Diego's trained eyes took in the constant shifting and the fingers gently thumping on the table. DeSoto's eyelids blinked rapidly. It was obvious to tell that the man was nervous, but Diego could not understand why.
Besides being anxious, DeSoto also had a particular interest in him this morning. DeSoto's eyes kept straying over to Diego, even as he talked to Don Alejandro. The look in his eyes reminded Diego of a man seeing someone for the first time, or perhaps it was closer to the appearance of man seeing a ghost. What was the alcalde up to now?
Victoria walked back over and placed DeSoto's orange juice, with a little thump, in front of him. "Anything else, Alcalde?" she asked. He looked up at her and smiled again. He must know what she felt towards him, but he gave no sign that it bothered him.
"No, thank you. I'm fine." He watched her as she strolled away from the table. Then, he turned to look at Diego. "She's a beautiful lady, isn't she?" he asked with a note of appreciation in his voice.
Diego could not hide his reaction totally, although he tried. He stiffened slightly, and his face became a hard mask. Don Alejandro's eyebrow rose at the sudden change in subject from cattle prices to the beautiful señorita who owned the pueblo's tavern. "Yes, she is. She was a beautiful child," Diego heard his father answer, but he hardly noticed. His entire focus was on the alcalde, whose only interest appeared to be Diego's reaction and answer. DeSoto, with a look in his eyes that made Diego uneasy, raised an inquiring eyebrow at his one-time schoolmate.
"Yes, she is a beautiful woman--inside and out," Diego answered, wearing a tight smile. "I'd say every man in the pueblo has noticed that fact." DeSoto stared at him for a moment longer, as if making a decision. He grinned slowly and returned his attention to Don Alejandro.
"Don Alejandro, I came looking for you today, because I have a favor to ask of you," he said rather loudly. Relief flooded Diego; at last, the man was beginning to act like himself. He wanted something. "I know that you are a close friend and supporter of Zorro, and I need you to return something to him." Diego's stomach twisted at the words. What new game did DeSoto have planned for him later?
Alejandro started to protest that he would be unable to return anything to the outlaw, but DeSoto kept talking. "Last month, when he fought . . . When he was fighting on the rooftops, he dropped his sword, and I was hoping that you could return it to him. It is a beautiful piece, and I believe it probably holds sentimental value for him." DeSoto offered the sword towards Don Alejandro.
Diego could finally see the handle of the blade and knew with one glance it was his. The night after his brother's funeral, he had returned to look for it, but it had been nowhere to find. He had feared it lost forever. Now, the alcalde was giving it to his father? What was DeSoto up to this time? Was he hoping to harm Alejandro in some way? Maybe accuse him of treason?
DeSoto drained his glass and stood. "I know you probably have no way of contacting him, but I have let the soldiers--including Mendoza," he said with a wry grin. "Know that I was giving it to you. I believe the whole pueblo should know soon, and hopefully word will get to Zorro. He should be at your hacienda to claim it in a few days."
Alejandro raised his eyebrow, and his voice was cold in its calmness. "Should I expect your soldiers to be surrounding my hacienda for the next few nights?"
DeSoto laughed and waved his hand. "Oh, no! If I wanted to use it to capture Zorro, it would make more sense to leave it in my office. True, he would be more prepared for battle, but I would be, too, and with more available troops at my command. No, Don Alejandro, I simply want him to have his sword again. Good day, Gentlemen."
Alejandro, with suspicion in his eyes, watched the alcalde leave. Diego noticed the look, pleased that his father had not given up all his doubts about their appointed leader. He performed a good deed in saving Diego's life; however, he had also shot Resendo to save his hide. "What is it, Father?"
Sighing, Alejandro looked into his eyes. "I am very thankful that he saved you, and I have tried to keep an open mind about his new behavior. However, I do have my doubts. I know it is impossible for a leopard to change his spots." He shook his head. "Then, I remind myself that a man isn't an animal." Alejandro looked down at the sword in his hands. "What is the alcalde up to this time?"
Diego was unable to answer. He was too busy asking himself the same question.