The morning of July 18th, 1892, a duel was held in the streets of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

Exactly how this altercation began was the source of many rumors. Some claimed both men had sought the favor of a charming young woman working in a local bar. Others insisted it originated from a friendly game of poker turned deadly. No matter what story you heard, however, it always ended the same. There were, after all, many witnesses.

On that fateful dawn, enough time had passed for word to spread and eager citizens to come clamoring to view the spectacle. Understandable, since one hardly found entertainment of such shocking caliber every day. Ask yourself: would you rather dig an irrigation ditch, or watch a man die for love or honor? Any civilized person knows the answer to that. Such things often gave birth to legends, and if you were lucky, you could regale your grandchildren with the story of how you were there to see it all transpire.

The chosen weapon was pistols. A hush fell over the crowd as they watched the challengers place cocked guns to their shoulders and obey the chant of the designated official. Each man stood back-to-back and counted off ten paces. Down the empty street they marched. Many spectators recalled how handsome the combatants appeared, stripped down to their fine-quality white silk shirts, their black boots raising dust with every step.

They also took note of how the younger man was shaking, and his walk seemed less sure than his opponent. He stumbled once on the way to meet his destiny.

Tension rose as the count grew higher. Even those who lacked an education in numbers could tell that very soon something exciting would occur.

And then the voice cried, "Ten!"

Over a hundred people drew breath when the duelists spun to face one another in the cleared street, and children clutched their ears as two shots split the air with fearsome cries.

Blood soaked into a white shirt for all to see, and the younger man crumpled, his face a mask of shock and pain. His opponent stood unharmed.

Their seconds rushed forward to attend to each fighter. The excited banter of the crowd took over then. Was there to be a funeral? No, look and see for yourself. The injury is not fatal. See how he clutches his shattered arm so? He may not raise a toast again anytime soon, but he will assuredly live. Men suffered far worse wounds in the recent war against the Europeans, and returned home to tell their families about it. Sadly, there would be no tearful ballads sung about the duel for the heart of fair Carmine, or whatever her name might have been.

Donning his black silver-thread-sewn jacket, the victor handed over his weapon and strode down the street to where his adversary sat gasping and haggard. No one who watched could hear what words he spoke over the noise of the spectators. They remembered only the cool authority of his silhouette, and the way his gleaming black curls swung as he turned away.

In so doing, he never saw the wounded man snatch a pistol from the belt of the attendant at his side and aim at that departing back. Cries from the crowd came far too late to prevent what happened next.

There was a burst of white smoke, followed by a hail of red. And then that victorious noble fell to his knees and collapsed forward, his shirt and his heart ruined by a bullet from behind.

Thus did this saga begin.

The lights flickered in the Centro Cultural, indicating that soon the performance would begin anew. Audience members were asked to return to their seats at this time in order to enjoy the rest of the night's proceedings.

In a well-lit private antechamber, several wealthy men about town noted the signal and looked to their host for this evening. Don Tomás Sanchez pretended not to notice their concern. Dark eyes practically closed, the stout gentleman brushed idly at his muttonchops, a gray cloud hanging over his receding salt-and-pepper hairline. He took a long drag on his cigar and blew the smoke into his brandy glass. Settling back into one of the comfortable leather armchairs scattered about the room, Sanchez put his feet up and watched the fumes mingle sensuously over the liquor of orange and gold.

Seated to his right, plump old Don Empañada noticed the discomfort of his fellows and decided it was his duty to speak. As a contemporary of Sanchez, he could affect a greater degree of rapport with him that the younger men would never dare.

"Tomás," he began, leaning forward and rapping the arm of his chair, "Wouldn't you like to move back to the auditorium? The show is about to begin."

A swallow of brandy was his only response. Don Sanchez never even looked up.

The pall of silence that had fallen over this once convivial group left no doubt as to their true feelings. While attempting to maintain an air of gaiety and respect for the opportunity he had given them, many remained uncomfortable in the old man's presence. There was no need to ask why.

Empañada began again. "Tomás, the troupe won't begin the show without you. They are here at your express invitation! Many of the guests have already gone back in by now. If the theater master does not see you, then…"

"I am waiting for someone," the nobleman grunted.

And that was the end of that.

Don Empañada cast a sad look around at the others, as if to say, 'What can we do?' Certainly now none of them were permitted to return to their seats or possibly even leave the room. Instead they were all forced to sit in that richly stocked alcove and watch the door. A crackling fire in the hearth which had seemed so pleasant now only made the room uncomfortably hot with the press of bodies inside it. Gas lights lent a further glow on the plaster walls, and shadows stretched long across the floor.

Manuel de Flores, mayor of Nuevo Laredo, was gazing forlornly at the bar on the other side of the room. His reputation for drinking being no exaggeration, it was obvious the portly politician wished to refill his glass but was uncertain if any movement would be taken as an insult by Sanchez. Cattle baron Don Esposito continued to frown and play a card game with the extravagantly dressed Spaniard Nestor Salinas, owner of the local casino and several hotels. In turn handsome young landowner Don Diego de la Vega walked back and forth behind them, peering at their hands and alternating between chuckling and clucking his tongue forlornly at what he saw, making both players wish he would find something else to do. In a corner of the room, Captain Ljubisa Toblar puffed on a meerschaum pipe and regarded the proceedings with wary eyes. His distance from this company was as much symbolic as it was literal, his notably Slavic features and seafarer's garb making him stand out in this august gathering despite being the head of a prosperous trading company.

After five minutes, the lights dimmed again. This signal garnered even less response than the last.

But when the door opened two minutes later, all heads turned.

A short man wearing the military uniform of a colonel stepped into the room. His spike-topped helmet was cradled under one arm. A saber swung at his side, along with a pistol. Lean pockmarked cheeks were somewhat hidden behind a broad handlebar moustache while narrowed eyes swept the room as if to catalogue the face of everyone present.

Once this was done, the officer's gaze swung to rest on his true target. "Good evening, Don Sanchez."

Tomás' face was a hostile mask that served to silence any others. Still he managed to keep his voice even when he spoke next. "Colonel Mañuelito. I see you received my invitation."

"Not a very subtle tactic, Señor." Mañuelito stepped across the Arabian carpets slowly, looking at each of the occupants in turn. Most chose to avoid direct eye contact for fear of appearing guilty. Of all of them, only Captain Toblar did not look away, puffing calmly on his pipe. "Not very subtle at all."

"I do not know to what you are referring."

And the colonel stopped his perusal of the comfortable nook, spinning on his heel to once more confront his stern elder. The level of ice in his tone made up for any previous perceived warmth. "I will not play your games, Don Sanchez. No matter how this might appear to you, it is not a provincial matter, easily swept under the rug. My authority in this case extends beyond your reach. No favors, no speculations, no…" He waved a hand at the environs, "… gifts can influence the performance of my duties. And rest assured, I will carry them out. Until my duty is fulfilled, my men and I are not leaving Nuevo Laredo."

Tomás stubbed out his cigar in an ashtray slowly and methodically. "Then you had best look into buying a house, federale, because I do not see you completing your butcher's work."

"Gentlemen!" Mayor Flores interjected, rising unsteadily in an attempt to defuse the simmering powderkeg. "This has been going on for… months now! Can we not reach an agreement here? Colonel Mañuelito…" he turned to the stiff-backed soldier, "Your men are disrob… disrupting the economy of my fine city! The Northern merchants, they are furious at being searched and questioned coming and going, and are beginning to avoid us for the ports! Y-you even inspect every head of cattle before it leaves! Please, is there not something that can be done?"

Mañuelito continued to stare down the glowering gentleman before him. He did not so much as deign to look in the mayor's direction, and when he spoke it was clear that his words were not meant to answer that man's question.

"Surrender your son, Don Sanchez, and this will all be over."

Tomás' jaws clenched, and he seemed to swell in his seat. Of a sudden his glass went sailing through the air, and the fire blazed with a whoosh when the brandy-filled goblet crashed into it. Several people sprang up in panic at the prospect of the flames spreading, but their leader rose at his own pace, to let everyone know that it was his decision to do so.

"Never," he whispered. "Are you hearing me? You will NEVER have Pietro! I don't care what he did or to whom, you will NOT have MY SON!"

"You can't protect him forever," Mañuelito snarled without any appearance of being intimidated. "This isn't about him cutting up some bootblack's face or swelling a few girls' bellies, Señor. It is murder. Don't stand there and tell me it wasn't!" The colonel's voice swelled to military parade volume, and spittle flew from his lips. "There are a hundred people who witnessed him shooting the general's nephew in the back after the duel was concluded! You may hold sway in Nuevo Laredo, but this incident will be overseen by a federal court! No local politicians doing you favors!" A jerk of his head in the mayor's direction, followed by kicking the carpet towards a surprised de la Vega. "No friendly neighbors reaching out to the courts!" He turned a venomous eye on the Baltic trader in the corner. "And no business acquaintances spiriting him from the country on their ships while you bring this northern cavalcade into town to distract us! Rest assured, we will also conduct a very thorough examination of this circus' train, the contents and the members before we allow them back across the border."

"Actually," Don de la Vega raised his hand hesitantly, "I believe they call themselves a 'theatrical troupe' rather than a 'circus', Colonel."

Several of the other people in the room looked at him as though he had gone mad, and Diego managed an abashed smile before ducking his head and going back to being quietly irrelevant.

Mañuelito cocked his head at the disturbance, then lifted a finger in front of Don Sanchez' face. "Be aware of your limits, sir. That is all the advice I will give you. The suffering your interests are feeling now is nothing compared to what might happen if we are forced to remain here overlong. I swear to you!"

Tomás gave no response to this except to sneer, openly demonstrating his contempt. At this, the federal official turned smartly and strode out the door, not even bothering to close it behind him as he left.

Once he was gone, Don Sanchez' veneer of civility dropped.

"Of all the GALL!" he roared and kicked over the ashtray, spilling cinders across the stone floor. Striding around the snug chamber, his wrath caused his colleagues to back up against the walls. "Damn federales, WHO DOES THAT MAN THINK HE IS? My ancestor BUILT Laredo long before his incompetent brethren lost it to the Texans, and he dares to come into MY city, which I helped to found and make prosperous again, and tell ME how to deal with my own FAMILY?"

He drew to a halt with one fist on his hip and glanced around wildly at his allies. "I ask you, WHO does he think he IS? My God, did I not say this was coming? Did I not WARN YOU?" The irate powerhouse shook a trembling finger at the door through which the source of his anger had left. "They give guns to peasants, hang that Austrian the French tried to conquer us with, and they think they own this country! No, the old days are gone, my friends! There is no decency in the world, no order and civility, no JUSTICE, I tell you! If people like that had their way, we would all be mucking about in the fields with the campesinos! No regard for noble blood or history, they think only of themselves and their short-sighted interests! Is THIS what we fought the French and Spanish to achieve?"

"Pardón, Señores."

It was with some relief that the others turned to see an usher peering past the doorframe.

"Señor Belasco wishes to inform you that his performers are ready to begin. He asks for Don Sanchez to kindly grace us with his presence."

All eyes turned to where the host of this gala stood fuming. Straightening his collar, which had come somewhat askew, Tomás then grabbed a glass from the table and gulped down the brandy within. With that he then made his way from the room, and with mingled levels of relief, the rest followed suit.

When Sanchez entered his box in the theater hall, a triumphal march was played by the colorful band in the pit. The audience stood and applauded him generously, and he waved a gracious hand before taking his seat high above the other spectators.

David Belasco, the master of revelry for this performance, emerged from the side of the stage, and the crowd clapped once more. An American like so many of his troupe, he was a well-dressed man in his early forties, of solid build and slightly graying hair, and possessed of a consummate showman's prowess. The smile he directed out at his audience let them all know the delight he felt at being onstage to perform for them.

"Hombres y mujeres!" Belasco announced in a voice that resounded through the acoustics of this chamber, "I am pleased to welcome you for the second act of our play, The Darling of the Gods. As you may recall, our beautiful princess Yo-san has managed to conceal her lover, the bandit Kara, under the nose of the sly and powerful Zakkuri, minister of war! But now the gallant rebel must attempt to flee her father's estate while soldiers prowl the grounds in search of his life! And Yo-san herself must bow to the wishes of her divine emperor and marry the minister's loathsome nephew! Does love have the power to challenge both the laws of heaven and man?"

He twirled his golden pocket-watch on its chain and cast them all a searching glance. "My friends, tonight you shall see these questions put to their most heart-stopping tests! Now, on this joyous and festive evening, please welcome once more the actors of Belasco's International Artistic Company!"

The lights dimmed, the curtain began to part, and once more the story unfolded.

"I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one who'd had his fill of theater," Salinas complained as they strode together through the packed streets. "The translation of the script into Spanish must have been done by a man on horseback. And their accents… atrocious! Mercy, is that what passes for high art in the States?"

Don de la Vega lit his cigar and took a few puffs, then blew out his breath with a sigh. "I've never been there myself. But I agree, all this culture can be wearing. I prefer more… sedate entertainment. A ride through the hills, the company of a lady; what more does a man need?"

"Now that you mention it… wait, come this way, there's too much commotion around there to be heard."

They dodged a group of loud youngsters running through the boulevard. The crowd had not dissipated in the slightest since they entered the Centro an hour past, in spite of the gathering twilight. The lure of novelty kept the citizens from seeking their beds as the different performers from Belasco's entourage demonstrated their talents. In a cleared ring, ladies in feathered crowns and bared legs balanced three apiece on the saddles of white horses racing around the center stage, where a bravo in a bright red shirt cracked a whip to goad three tigers to leap from one plinth to another and through flaming hoops. Elsewhere, shrieking peasant children dangled from the biceps of a strongman with shaved head and oiled moustaches, drawing amazed laughter from the crowd as he continued to balance two jugglers on his upraised palms without any visible effort.

Nestor took the dandy's arm and guided him over to a relatively quiet section of the festivities. Here the cries of the spectators were subdued to low murmurs of fearful appreciation as a blindfolded knife-thrower flung sharpened steel at his beautiful assistant tied to a spinning wheel.

"As I was saying, my girls have been complaining they haven't seen much of you lately, Diego," the bordello owner murmured in the low tones of men discussing private matters. "They value your company more than any man in the province, you know. Is there something keeping you occupied these days? Or perhaps… someone?"

"No, no, there's no one special in my life," Diego chuckled and stroked his moustache uneasily. "Nestor, you're one of the few men I can talk about such things with in public, and I'm sure you understand I mean you and your lovely ladies no disrespect with my absence. It's just…" His voice descended to a low pitch, and sweat gleamed on his brow as he puffed on the cigar. "You see, there have been a lot of soldiers in the city these past months. And many of them are known to frequent your… establishments. Men like that tend to bring trouble for men like me, especially if they think I'm monopolizing all the brightest flowers in your garden."

The Spaniard's mouth twisted, and he crossed his arms over his chest. "Listen, it's true those thugs come and go at all hours of the day, but not for the reason you think. I assure you, they're not paying customers, all they're interested in is…"

He stopped, and a dagger thudded into wood a scant inch from fair flesh, drawing small gasps and cries from the spectators.

"What?" Diego looked at his comrade with confusion. "Nestor, don't tell me those federal soldiers are shaking you down somehow? I thought you had connections you could reach to in such instances!"

"You're wrong, my friend." His eye was drawn to where three men in military uniforms stood watching the proceedings, the butts of their rifles settled securely in the dusty street. A shudder went up Nestor's frame. "The truth is, they're under orders to search all my businesses."

"Search them for what?"

"Not what. Whom."

De la Vega appeared puzzled. Then he blinked, and his eyes widened in shock.

"Madre de Diós! Don't tell me they think…?"

Salinas spit into the dirt and eyed the soldiers angrily. "Yes. They've got it into their heads that Pietro Sanchez is holed up somewhere in one of my buildings."

"But that's nonsense!" the other man scoffed. "After two months, it should be obvious to everyone that Pietro is no longer in Nuevo Laredo! Clearly his father smuggled him out of the city sometime before or after the garrison was called in."

"I wish it were so." The crowd applauded as the knife-thrower removed his blindfold and took the hand of his unharmed assistant, bowing together and stepping back behind the folds of canvas that served as their backdrop. A few coins and flowers flew through the air, to be collected by clowns in painted faces. "Unfortunately, the old man thought there was no danger for his rowdy offspring. He didn't know the deceased happened to be the nephew of one of the top generals in the army, a man with political and military clout. By the time Tomás learned of this, the soldiers had already come up from the river. They've had the city surrounded ever since. These men aren't like the local constabulary, I tell you. Most are veterans of the war with France, and none of them kindly disposed to bluebloods and noblemen. No, I'm afraid Pietro is still lingering somewhere in the limits of town, trapped like all the rest of us."

"And now, ladies and gentlemen," a carnival barker in silk top-hat called out loudly, "For our next example of deadly precision, we bring to you a fair maiden from the far Eastern land of Shilla! Renowned for their skill with the bow, even greater than the savages who still roam the Western United States, for your enjoyment, I present the keen-eyed beauty Lady Hwa-Rang!"

He clapped his hands, and the curtain parted to reveal a small figure dressed in pants and shirt of cured deerhide. Laced fur boots encased her tiny feet, and black hair was cropped short around her shoulders. A pointed cap carried the only color in her dress in the form of two long red feathers rising back on either side. The lady herself was rather young, with a stern unsmiling face, round cheeks and black eyes that did not seem to reflect any light. She carried a short curved bow in one hand and a quiver of arrows on her back.

"Good people of Nuevo Laredo, watch and be amazed by…!"

Before he could finish his sentence, an arrow skewered the hat from his head and nailed it to one of the posts holding up the canvas. The audience gasped, and the announcer jumped.

"Ah! Forgive me, I think I'm done talking for now!"

Everyone laughed as he promptly fled back behind the curtain, and a juggling clown stepped through the opening in the flap tossing half-a-dozen apples in the air. A few seconds were given for everyone to appreciate his talent at sending the red orbs high up and keeping them aloft.

Then Hwa-Rang spun about from her position several yards before him, drawing and firing as she did. Now one of the apples did not come down, being pinned to the thick fabric of the curtain. Lest this be considered a fluke, five more arrows went winging in less time than it took to draw three breaths, and the sad clown gazed about in perplexity at his empty hands. The audience murmured appreciatively, afraid to make any further noise lest they draw the archer's attention.

More targets were produced and swiftly pinned to the curtain until it looked like a merchant's stall displaying wares. Meanwhile, Diego turned back to his companion. "Please tell me you're not really involved with this messy business."

"Not on your life," Nestor responded. "I have memories of what happened to people back in the old country who thought themselves too important to obey any law. A new century is almost upon us, and stubborn dogs like Sanchez had best look for a new bone to chew on, lest they find themselves with nothing at all."

"So do you think that colonel was right, then? Did Tomás bring this troupe down from the States to try and distract the soldiers while he smuggles Pietro out?"

"What other reason would there be for it? It's not as if he's ever been keen on treating the citizens to free performances in the past. But if he thinks some acrobats and actors are all it takes to get his way, he's going to be greatly disappointed. Not a single horse can leave Nuevo Laredo without the army inspecting it, and the caravans are no different. In a way, I rather hope Pietro does try to make a break for it. If something doesn't happen soon, this city is going to go up in flames. But that's not what really sparks my interest."

"Oh?" The handsome rake was distracted by the sight of three arrows with fireworks attached to them soaring high overhead and exploding to the delight of the onlookers.

"Indeed not. You may laugh at me for saying this, but one of my girls told me something interesting the other day." He leaned in a little closer as Diego continued to stare mesmerized at the heavens lit by explosions. "According to her, the Fox has been spotted in the streets of Nuevo Laredo!"

"Eh?" De la Vega's eyes glowed with more colorful displays of pyrotechnics. Then he seemed to realize what had been said to him, and turned a shocked expression on Salinas. "Did you say the Fox?"

"I did."

"You're not serious." There was doubt in his voice now. "That old legend? I haven't heard stories about him since I was a child of five. Wasn't he supposed to be the one who captured the Austrian Archduke during the war and handed him over to the authorities?"

The town rumormonger only shook his head seriously. "I don't give it much credence either, but I'm considered a foreigner still in these parts. You are too, moving here from the west. I tell you, those legends you speak of are something the superstitious peasants of this region take as seriously as going to church on Sunday! And as far as they're concerned, this disaster we're living in has finally caught the attention of someone neither side planned on ever facing. If the Fox is on the loose, there's no telling what may happen next."

"You'll understand if I don't lose any sleep over that particular worry."

A final arrow lit the entire area with golden light for a brief flash, and then died out. As loud applause began to be heard, the two men resumed their walk about the festival.

"You know, Nestor, I was thinking about checking out the woman they call the Python Princess tonight. Would you care to join me?"

"Didn't you hear? She won't be performing this evening."

"WHAT? Why not?"

"Bad luck, I'm afraid. Apparently the snake swallowed a calf sometime this afternoon. She can't very well dance with the thing when it's got that in its belly. You should have gone last night. Believe me, you missed quite a show."

"What a disappointment! Although… if she's as lovely as they say, perhaps I could offer to escort her about the city now that she won't be working."

"Don't my girls catch your fancy anymore?"

"Of course they do! But this is the last night for me to try my luck. They're packing up and heading back north tomorrow. If I miss this chance, there might not be another."

"Well, I can't argue with you there."

They proceeded on to enjoy the final round of the carnival.

For a brief time, the people of Nuevo Laredo were able to forget about the uncomfortable position they had all unexpectedly found themselves living in. Come the dawn, however, it was once more made abundantly clear that their distraction had been short-lived. As the performers pitched their stalls and rounded up their wondrous animals, grim-eyed soldiers now flocked where before there had been frantically exuberant patrons. Passers-by scowled at seeing those honest folk being detained at seemingly a moment's notice to open the contents of a trunk or doff their caps to allow their faces to be compared with the wanted posters.

Still, there was nothing that could be done about it. The military was dead-set on preventing any efforts made to smuggle the fugitive Pietro Sanchez from their reach. In times like these, it was best to see to your own affairs, hurry on past and console yourself with the knowledge that like so many other unpleasant things, this couldn't last forever.

While his extended family of entertainers struggled to pack up the tools of their craft, David Belasco could be found in the bar of the Centro Cultural. At this precise moment, he was happily autographing a handbill for his company that a sailor from the Caribbean had requested in return for spotting him a drink. When he had done so, the seadog thanked him and left to return his hotel. Belasco saluted with his glass as he did so.

When the foreign entertainer sat alone, a man who had been hovering by the entrance of the cantina took this opportunity to approach his table.

Downing the whiskey, David gave a contented sigh and leaned back in his seat. He swatted idly at a few flies that were buzzing about and observed the dismantling of his circus through the slats of a wooden blind. He gave no sign of having noticed the person approaching him.

"May I join you, señor?"

Belasco sucked his teeth idly and nodded while keeping close watch of what transpired outdoors. "By all means, stranger."

His guest seated himself, placing his hat on the table between them. A slender and unremarkable man, he was made slightly more noticeable by the rich cut of his suit, indicative of a prominent career. Whether it be politics or law was hard to say, but this sort of attire would have served him well either way. Clothes do make the wearer, after all.

The two gentlemen sat quietly for a time, their silence punctuated by shouted commands and the bellows of animals on the move.

"Did everything go well?"

For the first time, Belasco turned his attention away from his livelihood and seemed to notice the person sitting opposite him. A broad smile exposed clean white teeth, and he rapped the wooden surface smartly. "Of course. Nothing untoward in our performance yesterday at all. Everything went quite smoothly, in my opinion."

The banker, or whatever he might be, seemed less than placated by that façade of geniality. "My client is heavily invested in this enterprise. He asked me to remind you that if any part should fall through, for whatever reason, he will be pursuing every available recourse to hold you responsible for it."

For a moment nothing more was said.

And then Belasco uncurled from his seat and leaned across the table. The grin remained, but the charm was conspicuously absent.

"An actor must empathize with the mood of his audience if he wants to remain successful. Understand, he can't play only for himself, he must be appealing to the crowd! Basically, he needs to imagine himself in their place, and find out what will bring them back for a second showing." The carnival owner held up a dramatic finger in the air. "What I mean by that is, put yourself in another man's shoes before you open your mouth. If someone were to speak to you as you just spoke to me, all it would do was create needless hostility in your heart. Especially for such a proud man! After all, 'you catch more flies with honey than vinegar'. Remember that, my friend."

His companion appeared unimpressed with any of that soliloquy. "In addition, I've been asked to point out that the full amount you agreed upon will not be made available to you until after you are on Canadian soil and proof of surety has been established. After this our business will be complete."

"Of course, of course," Belasco waved a negligent hand. "I won't be forgetting anytime soon, and your client will have no cause for complaint."

"So long as we are clear. Remember your reputation is at stake."

"Something I treasure like it was my own child! Please return to Don Sanchez and inform him he has nothing to worry about. Give him my best wishes and highest regards while you're at it." Belasco took a sip of his drink and gazed into the bottom of the glass. "If there's nothing else, I believe you should be on your way."

His duty fulfilled, the emissary rose, but as he reached for his hat, the other man put out a hand atop the bowler, preventing him from removing it. He turned a questioning glare on Belasco, who still sported that phony smile.

"Before you leave us, however, I'd like for you to do something for me."

Disliking this situation, the banker yanked his hat roughly away. "And that would be?"

"Take off your shoes."

He paused in the act of settling his cap back on. "Pardon?"

A hand clamped firmly on his shoulder.

Looking behind him, he found himself being stared down by a seven-foot giant with a handlebar moustache and gold loop earrings. A thin shirt was stretched over the muscles of his frame, and sweat from the late morning heat made his prodigious forearms gleam beneath thick black hairs. Enveloped in his shadow, the designate swallowed as a pit of fear opened up in his bones.

"Take off your shoes and leave them here," David repeated calmly. "Walk back home in your socks, and perhaps the experience will serve to make you more… understanding… of other men's temperaments. Particularly my own."

A minute later there was a pair of brown loafers resting by his table, and the ringmaster and strongman were alone in the bar.

"Excellent timing, Hernando."

His employee seated himself into the vacated seat with a groan. "You are making trouble again where we cannot afford it, Belasco. I might not be there to help you out next time."

The director kicked at the discarded footwear vacantly. "You know I don't like to be ordered around. Why do you think I got into directing? If I wanted to be bullied by loudmouth weaklings, I would have remained an actor forever. Say, do you remember that performance in Cedar Springs? You know, the one where the audience heckled Marco so badly he actually opened his pants and pissed on the front row? My word, now that was a spot of trouble! Nothing like what we're dealing with now."

Hernando noticed a platoon of fresh soldiers marching down the street outside and rubbed a hand over his bald scalp, frowning. "The animals might be getting restless from all the heat, you know. They're probably scared and jittery."

"They'll be safe up north very soon," Belasco replied confidently. He appeared as cool and unruffled as though every inch of his livelihood was not being turned upside down by federal authorities as he spoke. "And we gave the young ones enough sedative to keep them from acting up. Cooler heads will prevail, my friend." His light brown eyes watched the disassembly slowly continue. "Even in this heat."

A waiter brought over a narrow snifter of sherry, and Hernando took a swig while shifting his bulk around in the relatively small chair. "At this rate, it will be dark again by the time we are given permission to leave. Can the beasts hold out that long?"

"They will if they know what's good for them. We've given every possible convenience. It all depends on how well they can manage to endure until we're off."

The colossal performer finished his drink and stood up. There was admiration in the way he looked down upon his longtime compatriot now. "You are always certain of yourself, Belasco. I pity any man who thinks he can get the better of you."

"If the director doubts himself, how can he expect any man to follow his directions?" he replied. Then, in a casual vein, "Check up on Anatolia after you go, eh? See if her pet snake is feeling agreeable to travel yet."

A grunt of confirmation, and that great big fellow went stalking back outside.

From his seat by the window, David continued to observe.

"Do not tell me you are 'certain', Lieutenant," Colonel Mañuelito remarked calmly as he watched the sunset begin to fade through the glass bay doors. "Convince me that you are right and I should have no reason to fear letting them go."

His junior officer stood at attention in the municipal office the Colonel had appropriated as his own. A comfortable chamber once belonging to this city's deputy mayor, it boasted Oriental carpets, a bronze bust of the current president, and rows of books that filled up one wall. The flag of Mexico was prominently displayed over the door, beside which was a phonograph, one more sign of the luxury and wealth that Nuevo Laredo enjoyed from being the trade hub with their northern neighbors.

Without preamble, Lieutenant Velasquez endeavored to obey what was clearly an order.

"Sir, we have catalogued and inspected every artifact as it came off the train, and again when they were put back on. Every trunk, bolt of cloth, podium and stage prop. Anywhere they might have conceivably thought to hide a human being, as well as anything too small for such a purpose has been checked. My men scoured every single car, inside and out, above and below, including the locomotive. We looked inside compartments. We removed seat cushions on benches and looked under there. Floorboards have been pried up, roofs investigated for crawlspaces, closets and walls checked for secret compartments, and a close watch has been kept on the train in the interim. We examined the feed bags for the animals, and even searched through the coal piles for the engine. One man actually shot into them to make sure no one was hiding beneath. The animals' pens were searched thoroughly; whether straw or manure, we discounted nothing. We know everything that is on that train, from nails and planks to coffee grounds and cans of powdered milk. And we found nothing suspicious."

"In addition," he continued, "each member of Belasco's Company has been tallied, questioned and documented. We know how many people got off, and how many are on board now. The count is the same. Those who do not speak Spanish had questions translated into their native languages, and all denied being involved in any attempt to smuggle Pietro Sanchez from our borders. Belasco met with Don Sanchez, as well as some of his legal representatives, but nothing indicates that they discussed anything other than the matter of providing entertainment for the citizens of Nuevo Laredo. I interrogated Belasco myself, in your presence, and I am of the belief that his presence here is in no way malignant. As you suspected, this was merely a diversion intending to occupy our time and energy while Sanchez sought to spirit his son to safety by a different method."

Mañuelito pondered the pastel colors of orange and purple that colored the horizon. Opening the doors to the veranda, he stepped out into the pleasant warmth of dusk, his black boots clicking slowly across the red-tiled floor of the small balcony. Several potted cacti were blooming on the balustrade, and he brushed his fingers over their tiny dry petals.

"So," he commented laconically, "it is your belief that were I to give them free passage back into the States, I would not find myself regretting that move somewhere down the line. My superiors would not scorn me as an incompetent, and the General would not strip me of my rank for gross negligence before having me gunned down by firing squad. That is what you are trying to tell me, yes?"

Remaining behind the office desk, Velasquez understood well this situation and considered carefully before replying. "Colonel, I will stake my own life and reputation on it."

The military commander was a darkened silhouette against the backdrop of the fading day. His words were untroubled as he spoke next. "Then I will not go into the night alone." Turning around, he faced his fellow soldier. "Very well, Lieutenant. I am convinced. Give them leave to depart, and make sure they understand to do so at once, I want as few distractions to my work as possible. Have the train followed until they are back across the border, then return and prepare to take over the nightly patrols."

"Yes, Colonel."

They saluted, and the lower-ranked officer left his superior alone.

Mañuelito looked back across the city skyline. Less than half an hour later, he saw the cloud of soot indicating a locomotive was being fired up, and heard the sound of its departure as the train began the journey back across the border to the foreign sister-city of Laredo, Texas.

Soon afterwards the stars were shining down. But for all the beauty they had to offer, the Colonel could not help wondering if this night had cost him his future. Had anything been overlooked? Was any detail deemed too insignificant to warrant reporting? Could his duty still be upheld, or had he just slipped his head into the noose all unconcerned?

Perhaps the dawn would provide him with answers either way.

Recognizing that there was nothing more he could do about it, Mañuelito retired to his chambers and went to bed.

"Mr. Belasco."

The manager-director looked up from a game of solitaire he was playing in his private compartment. Standing in the doorway wearing a Japanese yukata was the exotic dancer Anatolia. Her regal Grecian features combined with a serious expression made her look particularly imposing to his mind right now. Dark eyes lined with kohl, hollow cheeks, long curly hair and painted lips; his fancy imagined that a Medusa had come to freeze his blood in the night. Given her profession and the way she was looking at him, that might not be far from the truth.

"My dear, we're all family here! Won't you ever just call me David?"

As usual, she pretended not to have heard him. "We need to let him out. He's started to thrash around in there. I'm worried he might injure Artemisia."

A troubled look stole over Belasco's features. "We'll be in America in a matter of minutes. Can't you wait until we're over the border?"

"No!" she shook her head, eyes widening with anger. "Our agreement is that I would determine when the time is right. That is the only reason I ever consented to this arrangement! And I say we have to do this now!"

"Yes, yes," he raised his hands in a conciliatory fashion and rose up. "Forgive me, let's not waste another moment. Please lead on."

The two entertainers then moved swiftly down the swaying corridors of their mobile home. They passed closed doors behind which several of their comrades were already sound asleep, exhausted after their grueling ordeal and no doubt eager to leave this inhospitable climate. As they did, David gave a knock on two of them. As if awaiting this signal, men emerged carrying buckets and followed their employer down the hall. Moving in between cars, their hair was briefly rustled by the wind of the train's passage. Two more doors later, the party came upon the car which held the pens for several of the animals.

Upon entering, they went immediately to the side reserved for Anatolia's partner.

Wire-mesh fences that rose to the ceiling separated this cabin into two sides with a corridor running between them. Several Macau monkeys jabbered and hooted at their backs as Anatolia opened the gate which led to her prized pet's habitat.

The female python Artemisia did not stir at their entry. Along her 17-ft. long body, a large bulge indicated the position of her latest meal. As had been stated, this lump was moving and twitching faintly, something that should not have been possible for this breed of predator's normally suffocated prey.

Belasco sucked his teeth and chuckled. "Well, at least we know he's still alive, eh?"

The snake princess flashed him a dark look and knelt to check the eyes of the serpent. Upon closer examination, there looked to be something like a tail extruding from the creature's mouth. Her perusal complete, she looked back up and nodded. "She's still sedated. Let's hurry before any harm is done."

David gestured for the other men to come forward while he remained out in the corridor with a perfumed handkerchief pressed to his face. Once the brawny men took up positions, the Python Princess carefully felt over the snake's jaws until she found the hinges. With practiced ease, she separated the lower mandible, dislocating it and opening her pet's mouth wide. In this matter it became apparent that something indeed had been sticking out, which proved to be a rubber pipe no wider than a man's thumb. This in turn was coming out of the tied-up opening of a bag.

Both men donned heavy gloves at this point. One took up position farther down the length of the python's body and dropped down to straddle it just below the evidence of its meal. He patted the bulge firmly three times, and at this signal, the struggles ceased, whereupon he placed his hands firmly around that thick body.

His associate waited for Anatolia to finish clamping the needle-thin fangs out of the way. She then moved aside while keeping Artemisia's jaws opened, and the man reached in and got a firm grip on the twine-wrapped ends of the sack. Setting his feet firmly, he then began to slowly pull back while his partner held the scaly reptile in place as best he could.

"Gently," the lady cautioned them, "Gently, now."

"It's all right, my dear," David advised from his position well-removed from this endeavor. "They've done this before, after all." He then turned an eye on the fellow doing all the pulling. "Mind you don't squeeze off his air tube, there's a good man."

Once again, she chose to ignore him, and the director lifted his eyebrows in resignation and began to poke his fingers through the monkey cage, teasing them.

After a minute the man doing the pulling held off, panting. What appeared to be a thick leather sack was now partway out of the beast's gullet, but a great deal more remained within. "It's not coming easy," he grunted and wiped his brow. "We might not have put enough grease on the bag."

"No, we probably just applied a little more powdered milk to it than usual," David drawled without looking over at them. "His Wealthiness insisted that his darling treasure not be harmed any more than he already is, so we overcompensated to make sure Artemisia's stomach acids would be neutralized. Probably made it look like she was swallowing a big white maggot, really."

"Keep going," Anatolia insisted, worriedly stroking the python's hide with her thumbs. "If she wakes up, she might start swallowing again on reflex."

Mindful of their peril, the workers once again began to repeat the procedure. More of the sack came into view, and as it did, the contents started up with their struggles once more. A faint gasping sound could now be heard.

"Stop it!" And Anatolia smacked the bag roughly.

"Can you hear us in there?" David called. "Don't go making a fuss, now, you're almost free." When the convulsions died down, he indicated once more. "Proceed."

Over half the bag was now out. With practiced care, the handlers continued to perform their parts, withdrawing the snake's meal while keeping either from being harmed. After about fifteen minutes of cautious coaxing, a three-foot long duffle bag slithered completely into the dim light of the pens and was dragged clear of its living confinement.

Without waiting for an order, the first man brought a pair of clippers from his back pocket and cut the twine holding the sack closed. At this point it began to thrash about violently, and everyone close drew back.

A pair of hands burst up through the top, grasped the sides and thrust out violently. The leather gave way.

Pietro Sanchez huddled naked before his rescuers. He was trembling, sweat-soaked and wild-eyed. As they watched, he desperately pulled the rubber tube out of his throat and flung it away, gagging somewhat before proceeding to cough violently. One of the men patted him firmly on the back, and after a few seconds, the wretched escapee managed to draw sufficient breath to find his voice.

"How… long?"

"Around eighteen hours," David supplied helpfully. At seeing the way the teen's eyes widened, he rushed to explain. "I know, longer than we told you. But the military was very thorough in their inspections of us, I'm afraid. Far more than we estimated. Still, it's all over now."

"S… safe…?" the stowaway gasped.

"You're a wee bit ahead of schedule, actually," Belasco informed him as he stood in the doorframe. "We should be crossing into United States territory any minute now, however. We'll switch tracks in Laredo and continue the rest of the way north from there."

With some help, Pietro found his feet. David took a moment to study this youngster he had never met. Perhaps seventeen years old at most, the son of Don Sanchez was not as he had imagined. He looked unhealthy, even for a man who had just spent almost a full day inside a constrictive reptile's guts. Never particularly robust, his frame was now wasted, like he hadn't had a good meal in some time. Once carefully-trimmed cheeks were sunken and darkened by what must have been a few weeks of stubble. His hair was also longer than what his wanted poster had depicted. All in all, nothing special to speak of.

"What a handsome young man!" the veteran showman proclaimed. "Certainly that is a face worth a half-million dollars. I can see your father's strength and fortitude dancing in your eyes!"

More like trauma and desperation, really, but who cares?

Sanchez was handed a towel to wipe himself off, and once having done so, the workers produced some clothes and shoes for him. He put them on with unsteady hands, flinching and favoring one shoulder heavily. The telltale mark of a bullet wound marred his skin on that side.

Pietro cast shuddering glances at the slumbering beast which had helped him to elude his pursuers. "I thought…" he gasped while trying to knot his trousers, "I thought I was going to die… in that filthy thing! S-sometimes I felt like it was still swallowing me, or that… I couldn't b-b-breathe, I wanted to get out, but I could hear what was going on around me, and I was so afraid I had to keep perfectly still like she said, and the whole time I thought it was going to be… the end for me!"

"No, certainly not!" Belasco came forward and clapped a hand on that shuddering shoulder, noticing how the boy winced when he did. "Didn't we tell you? You are not the first honest man we've smuggled out this way. You owe our cold-blooded companion your life, actually."

Pietro finished dressing and started for the door. "Just get me to my cabin!" he cried. "I don't want to have to see that monster ever again!"

He thrust a violent finger at Artemisia. Stroking the elongated form, the snake's owner did not try to hide her contempt for him.

Before he could leave the cell, however, Belasco stepped in front of him smiling.

"Actually, young man, you're going to have to wait here for a brief time."

When Pietro opened his mouth to speak, David cut him off with a look that brooked no argument. "Like I said, you're out somewhat ahead of schedule. And right now, there's a complement of Mexican soldiers on horseback following along our little steam engine. It's still light outside, and if any of them catch sight of you through the windows, or if they simply notice that four people walked into this car and five came out, then the curtain will fall on your escape attempt, I'm afraid. So for the time being, you'll have to remain in hiding right here. At least until we're over the U.S. border, that is."

Their living contraband gaped about disbelievingly. Upon seeing the stern, serious faces of the other four people in that room, it became obvious that this was not up for debate.

"Just pull up a seat, stout fellow, you must be starving!" At a gesture from their ringleader, one of the men produced a plate of cold chicken and boiled potatoes from the bucket he brought in, along with a canteen of water. The other fished up two stools and set them out. Belasco flopped upon one of them, swinging his gold watch and grinning gamely. Anatolia remained down beside her python, while the men took up places by the door. Seeing himself firmly opposed from leaving, Pietro accepted the plate of food and took the seat across from his host. It suddenly dawned on him that he was ravenous. Having not eaten all day, he set about wolfing down his meal.

"It'll be over before you know it," David insisted pleasantly. "While we wait, perhaps you'd care to tell us about yourself? I for one would like to know a bit more about what stars might have brought us to this fated meeting!"

Swallowing down cold meat and not trying to equate it with the sensation of having been eaten alive only hours past, the son of Don Sanchez looked about miserably.

"I wish I knew…"

The train's whistle cut off anything else he might have said, as their conveyance hurtled on into the deepening gloom of evening.

Atop a hillock overlooking the town of Nuevo Laredo, a figure mounted on a great midnight stallion noted the train as it departed. A contingent of cavalry rode in escort on either side of the tracks. No doubt a last-minute precaution against treachery.

Of course, he suspected that hand was already played.

His steed whickered softly beneath him, and he laid a black-gloved hand on its neck soothingly.

"Almost, amigo, almost."

The train was still well away from his position. The time would soon come. Once the Mexican authorities were out of the way, then he could play his part. He must be prepared. After they crossed the border, he would have to strike when it seemed like they had made good on their escape. That was when their guard would be at its lowest.

With that, the masked avenger turned his horse's head and spurred it on across the established line between nations.

Like his predecessors long before him, Zorro answered the call for justice.

To be continued…