The hardest thing

Disclaimer: This story was written solely for the enjoyment of other Zorro fans and is not intended to infringe on any copyrights held by Goodman/Rosen Productions, New World Television, Zorro Productions, the estate of Johnston McCulley or anyone else.

Chapter 1

Alejandro and Felipe were already seated on the tavern's porch when Diego joined them for lunch. "Are you finished with your edition of 'The Guardian', Diego?" his father asked. "Come join us for a cool lemonade on this hot day." Alejandro pushed up the sleeves of his white caballero shirt and opened the collar a little to cool off.

The tavern was more busy than usual. It seemed that half of the pueblo had decided to spend that hot summer day in the cool shade of the tavern or its porch.

While his father and Felipe were already drinking their juice, Diego had to wait for his order. He had arrived late and now he literally stood in line to be served. Since neither Victoria nor any of her helpers made an appearance on the porch, Diego decided to go inside and help himself. It was also a perfect excuse to look for Victoria.

Inside the tavern Pilar was busy serving the customers who were eagerly awaiting their drinks. Victoria's usual place behind the bar was empty and Diego decided to make a short visit to the kitchen. He only met Alicia, Victoria's other helper who was making more juice and pouring it in one of the pitchers.

"Ah, Don Diego," Alicia said, "I'm sorry you have to wait so long for your juice, but you can see how busy we are today."

"Is Victoria not here today?" he asked, curious about her absence.

"Victoria doesn't feel well today. She has a terrible headache and gone upstairs to bed."

"It must be very bad," Diego said surprised. "It is not her way to abandon you while she is needed here."

"She hasn't been feeling well since last night and finally she couldn't stand it anymore. She'll probably be fine again tomorrow."

"Is there something I can do?"

"That is very kind of you, Don Diego. Just take your pitcher and help yourself. Victoria said that she doesn't want to be disturbed. We will close early tonight to give her some quietness while she is trying to sleep."

Diego knew it wouldn't be proper for a caballero to pay Victoria a visit in her bedroom, but as Zorro he would look for her as soon as the tavern was closed.

Z Z Z

It was still early in the evening and the night had not cooled down so close after sunset. The window was slightly ajar when Zorro lowered himself from the tavern roof. He slowly pushed it open and swung himself silently inside. A dimmed light was burning on Victoria's nightstand, illuminating her white-clad body lying on the bed. She had tossed the covers aside and the thin nightshirt that clung close to her body revealed more than it concealed. Her eyes closed, she lay on the bed without moving.

Zorro decided that it would be better not to disturb her and started to leave when he heard her moan. She turned around to her side and blinked through her half opened eyelids.

"Zorro," she whispered hoarsely when she recognized his black shade.

"Victoria, how are you? I heard you were not feeling well today." Zorro went to her side.

"Hot, it is so hot," she moaned. "And the light hurts so much. Please turn it down, it is so bright."

Zorro sat down at her bed and looked surprised at the tiny light on the nightstand that was already quite low. He poured her a glass of water from the pitcher beside the bed. When he lifted the glass to her mouth, he supported her with an arm around her shoulders. Her nightshirt was thoroughly soaked from sweat and her body was emitting an unusual heat. She kept her eyes closed while she slowly sipped the water.

"You have a fever, Victoria. Tell me how you feel."

"My head hurts terribly and I can't stand the light." She tried to turn her head from the lamp, but instead of moving her head she turned her whole body to the side.

"Ow," she cried. "My neck, it's totally stiff. I can't move it."

Zorro had become more and more alarmed by her symptoms.

"Don't worry, Zorro," she said. "It's just the heat and tomorrow I will be fine again."

Zorro had a suspicion, but he needed to confirm it. "Victoria, please open your eyes and look at me."

Victoria did as he requested but winced with pain. She tried, but she couldn't really focus on him. Her reaction was all the confirmation he needed. He had seen those symptoms before at the mother of a boyhood friend who had suffered from brain inflammation and died after a few days. The illness had been detected too late and the doctor's treatment couldn't save his friend's mother any more.

Zorro knew he had to act quickly. Victoria needed to be treated immediately if he wanted to save her. Since the doctor was gone to Santa Paula for a few days he had to treat her himself. He hoped that he could fix a potions with some of the ingredients he had stored in the cave at the hacienda. But first he had to get her there. He took her bed cover and wrapped it around Victoria.

"What are you doing, Zorro. I don't need a cover. It is too hot for that." Victoria struggled to free herself of the linen.

"You are very ill, Victoria and I'll take you to the De la Vega hacienda. Don Diego has some medical knowledge and may be able to help you. I can't ride with you across the countryside when you are only wearing a nightshirt."

"I don't mind that. I don't want to be wrapped in that hot bed cover and I want to change my nightshirt," she said stubbornly.

"Where are your spare ones?" he sighed, trying to calm her down.

"In the second drawer on the left. Will you help me to change?"

"That has to wait until we reach the hacienda," he said embarrassed while he snatched a shirt from the drawer. Then he wrapped her again in the sheet and lifted her in his arms. Ignoring her protests, he swiftly carried her downstairs to the back door. After a sharp whistle Toronado appeared at his call. With a tight grip on Victoria he climbed into the saddle and rode towards the hacienda. He was already out of reach when the lancers sounded the alarm.

He didn't bother to knock upon arriving at hacienda's entrance. Alejandro jumped surprised from his seat in the library where he had been reading.

"Zorro," he exclaimed. "What are you doing here?" Then he recognized Victoria in his arms. "What is wrong with her?"

"Victoria is very ill and needs treatment, but the doctor is out of town. Don Diego might be able to help her."

"Take her to one of the guest rooms. I'll show you the way." With a fast stride he proceeded Zorro to the guest quarters who pretended to follow Don Alejandro's directions.

"Diego, Diego," Alejandro called. "Your help is needed."

"Where is he again," he murmured to himself. "He is never around when I need him. Probably gone to bed already."

"I'd better go and wake him," he said to Zorro who was laying Victoria down on the bed.

"You'd better awake up Maria, the cook to take care of Victoria while I talk to Don Diego. After that I must be on my way.," Zorro commanded and Alejandro acquiesced. "Very well, as you wish."

"Zorro, please don't go. Nobody will capture you here." Victoria tried to hold him by clinging to his neck.

"Querida, I can't stay. You must release me now. I have to go and talk to Don Diego if he can help you." Gently he removed her arms from his neck and let her sink into the soft covers. Tenderly he cupped her cheek with his hand and caressed her with his thumb.

He sighed a little. Who would have thought she would be so stubborn when she was ill. When he looked up, Alejandro entered the room with Maria in his trail. The middle aged woman still wore her nightcap over her graying hair and had hastily put on some clothes. The two women had always gotten along well and Maria had helped Victoria with womanly advice after the death of her mother.

"I must be on my way. I'm in your debt seƱor." With a short salute he turned around and strode towards Diego's door.

As soon as the door was closed he stripped his black outfit and shoved it together with his gear under the bed. In his normal attire he emerged from his room. His father was waiting outside Victoria's door where Maria was changing her on her request.

"Father, I just talked to Zorro and he told me of Victoria's illness. If it is true was he suspects I have to act immediately. I hope that one of the potions I have read about in my books will help her. I'll make it straight away."

He headed to the library where he found Felipe waiting for him while he took care of Toronado. At Felipe's inquiring look Diego explained the situation to him. He sat down at his desk and snatched one of his medical books from the shelf. After a short time he found the section he had been looking for.

"Look Felipe, it is just as I thought. The symptoms of the brain inflammation fit exactly Victoria's illness."

If that is good? He interpreted Felipe's sign. "Not really. It means that Victoria is truly very ill and that she may die from it. I still have some willow bark in my store and mixed with some Indian remedies it may help her and keep the fever down. She will have to drink some quantities for it to be effective."

Felipe signed again.

"Yes, you are right, Felipe. Together with some cactus tea it will taste horribly but I can't help it. Hopefully she will be less stubborn when it comes to medicine."

Z Z Z

Diego needed much persuasion to make Victoria drink some amounts of the medicine and her disgust rose every time he approached her with a new cup. The medicine kept the fever at bay, but Diego couldn't see any improvement of her condition.