Don Alejandro de la Vega galloped into Pueblo Los Angeles with a fierce expression on his face. He tethered his mount outside of the tavern, and even though the tavern was closed for Sunday, strode straight in through the unlocked door. As he had expected, he found his son inside, contemplating Victoria Escalante's glowing face over the top of an easel. They had just shared some joke, and Senorita Escalante was still laughing, but she sobered quickly when she saw de la Vega's face.
"Is something wrong, Don Alejandro?" she asked.
"Wrong!" he exclaimed. "Yes, something is wrong! Diego, four bandits have just been sighted passing through the de la Vega ranch, and I find you here, occupied with, with -- frivolity!"
"Bandits?" Diego said, setting aside his painting things. "Was anyone hurt?"
"No, but perhaps if you had been there, attending to your duties to our tenants, we wouldn't have lost track of them. No one knows where they might be heading now, or what they're about to do."
Diego wiped his hands on a paint-stained cloth. "I think our duty to our tenants is to stay out of trouble, father. If there are bandits, the Alcalde can take care of it -- or failing that, Zorro."
"Stay out of trouble?" thundered Alejandro. "Diego, you spend entirely too much time avoiding trouble. A de la Vega should be ready to get his hands dirty once in a while, instead of hiding indoors like a -- a coward!"
Diego's head was bowed so that an unruly black forelock hid his expression. He pulled a cloth over the painting and set the easel in a corner, saying calmly, "You'll have to excuse me, Victoria. I think I'll finish this later."
"Where are you going, Diego?" his father demanded.
"Why, I'm going to get my hands dirty, Father," Diego said with a polite edge to his voice. He stepped around Don Alejandro and reached for the door handle.
"You amaze me, Diego. Sometimes I wonder if you really are a son of mine."
Diego paused briefly on the threshold, then stepped stiffly outside, closing the door quietly behind him. Alejandro stomped over to the bar and leaned his head on his fist. Victoria, watching the caballero carefully, brought out some wine and set a glass before him.
He sighed and accepted the glass. "Thank you, Victoria. I didn't mean to cause a scene in your tavern."
She leaned an elbow on the bar. "You were pretty rough on Diego just now."
"I'm tired of seeing him shirk his responsibilities."
"But Diego's not a coward, Don Alejandro. He's just -- a peaceful man."
"Peaceful! Well, that would be fine in some quiet town in Spain where nothing happens, but here on the frontier there is crime and danger everywhere. What would happen if Zorro were as -- peaceful -- as Diego is?"
"Oh, even Zorro is never violent when he doesn't have to be. He doesn't kill anyone, not even bandits. Sometimes it can be a virtue in a man to be gentle."
"Not a de la Vega. Not here, in Los Angeles."
Victoria threw up her hands. "Have it your way, then." She took the empty glass from Don Alejandro. "I have work to do in the kitchen. Close the door when you leave." She disappeared through the curtain.
Don Alejandro contemplated the empty tavern grimly, his anger gradually draining away. "Ah, perhaps Victoria is right," he conceded at last, and made his way out the door.
Diego left the tavern with a storm of frustrated emotions churning inside him. He was so preoccupied by his father's harsh words and imaginary responses to them that he didn't notice the bandits until he almost stumbled over them. They broke down the door of the bank of Los Angeles, and two went inside while the other stood guard with a gun. Diego paused only a few feet away, trying to figure whether Zorro could appear in time to stop the robbery. As blue-uniformed soldiers began to fill the plaza, the bandit guarding the door cast around him for shelter and sprang forward to catch Diego's arm.
With one arm around Diego's throat and a pistol pointed at his head, the bandit shouted, "Come closer and the caballero dies!"
It was at this moment that Don Alejandro stepped out of the tavern.
The other two bandits appeared in the ruined doorway with heavy bags slung over their shoulders. "Get the horses!" cried the first bandit. "I'll hold them off. Stay very still, Senor," he growled at Diego.
Diego, with his father's accusations still ringing in his ears, decided the time had come to take a stand as himself and not as Zorro. He waited until the bandit was reaching for his horse's reins; the pistol's muzzle left Diego's temple, and with a swift blow of his elbow he doubled the bandit over. He brought both fists down on the back of the man's neck, but even as the bandit measured his length in the dust, the horse reared in fright. One flailing hoof struck Diego behind the ear, and he followed the bandit to the ground.
"No!" cried Don Alejandro, starting forward from the crowd. Two of his caballero friends grabbed his arms and held him back.
The leader of the bandits clambered to his feet and pointed his pistol at Don Alejandro. "You!" he spat. "You care about this man, Senor? Well, if you want him to live, see that we are not pursued. Here," he waved to his comrades, "take him up in front of you. He will be our hostage."
They slung Diego awkwardly over a saddle and mounted up together. "Follow us, and he dies!" cried the leader over his shoulder as they galloped away.
Lancers milled uncertainly in the plaza. "Well, get after them, you imbecile!" the Alcalde roared at Sergeant Mendoza.
"Alcalde, wait!" Don Alejandro interrupted. "If you chase those robbers, my son may be in danger."
"Nonsense. The sooner we get Don Diego away from those murderous desperadoes, the safer he'll be. Track them carefully, Mendoza; stay at a distance."
"Si, mi Alcalde," Mendoza agreed uneasily, and started to gather his men together.
Don Alejandro watched anxiously as the detail of lancers rode out of town. "If my son is hurt, Ramon, I'm going to hold you personally responsible!" he vowed.
"Will you now?" The Alcalde stroked his mustache in contemplation, and a smile chased around his lips. "I do hope that's not a threat, de la Vega."
Alejandro started to raise a warning finger, but Victoria pulled him away. "Don't worry, Don Alejandro," she promised, "Zorro will stop them. Won't he, Felipe?" She led Alejandro toward the tavern. Behind them, Felipe only looked grim.
Alejandro let himself be guided to a seat in the tavern. "But that horse kicked him right in the head. If only he hadn't resisted them . . . Victoria!" he said, as a thought struck him, "you don't think Diego did that because of what I said to him, do you?"
"I think it was an accident, Don Alejandro. Nobody plans something like that." But she turned away quickly and wouldn't meet his eyes.
Diego awoke late in the afternoon as rough hands turned him over. Someone pulled off his coat. He tried to resist, but nausea and dizziness doubled him over. Dimly he recognized their surroundings; they had stopped by an abandoned shed, not far beyond the de la Vega land.
"Here! Look at this!" a rough voice echoed in his head. "I'm a caballero!"
Lying on the ground, Diego lifted his eyes to see one of the bandits wearing his coat. He posed laughingly for his comrades' amusement, then found the watch fob in the coat pocket. For several moments they were all occupied in examining the watch. Seeing a chance to escape, Diego crept around the edge of the shed and climbed to his feet, clinging unsteadily to the wall. He took his bearings and staggered toward the horses tethered to a rotting post.
"Here, stop that!"
Diego lifted a hand to his head as the loud voices made his temples pound. Heavy hands grabbed him and dragged him back to the shed.
"Tie him up!"
"Take his boots! He can't escape without boots."
"Eh, good idea!"
Diego soon found himself bound and barefoot while the robbers argued over possession of his boots. It became obvious that the boots only fit one of the men -- the same who was tall enough to wear his coat. The other two conceded grumblingly, and they all sat back for a late siesta. A bottle of tequilah was passed around, and the man wearing Diego's coat had a cigar whose foul smoke made Diego's stomach even more uneasy. He closed his eyes and leaned against the rough wall of the shed, trying to rest and gather strength for an escape.
He roused to cries of pain and terror. Two of the bandits started up from the ground nearby. The third, who had been smoking the cigar, was bellowing in pain and trying to put out the flames in his coat. His thrashing upset the remains of the tequilah, which roared into flame and ignited the ancient straw on the floor of the shed. In moments, Diego guessed, the entire shed would be ablaze. He tried to shift himself away.
"Help him!" one of the remaining two screamed.
"Why?" the leader responded. He pulled a pistol from his belt and shot the man on fire. The screams ended in the crackles of the flames. "There. He was dead already. I've just put him out of his misery. Now we can split the money two ways instead of three." He backed away from the rapidly increasing heat of the fire.
"What about him?" the second man pointed at Diego, standing unsteadily near the horses.
"We bring him along. We can still use a hostage." The leader walked up to Diego and met his sickened gaze. "Of course, he was a better hostage before he woke up." He brought the butt of his pistol down hard on Diego's head.
Don Alejandro waited in the tavern, refusing to leave town until some word had arrived. He paced back and forth under Victoria's worried gaze and refused all refreshment. He had sent Felipe home long before Mendoza's men returned, at dusk.
The Alcalde came to the tavern and stood in the doorway looking at Don Alejandro.
"Well?" the caballero demanded, his jaw tight.
The Alcalde paused, obviously enjoying his effect. "Mendoza's men tracked the bandits to the abandoned shed behind Big Rock."
Don Alejandro nodded. "I know the place. And?"
"It appears they stopped there for a siesta, and there was -- an accident."
"What sort of accident?"
"A fire." The Alcalde's voice was silken. "We'd like you to come and identify Don Diego's remains."
Don Alejandro stood frozen for several moments in disbelief, then pushed past the Alcalde and out the door.
Victoria, following him, paused before the Alcalde. "You're really enjoying this, aren't you?" she accused.
"Not at all. I am crushed by the tragedy. I confess, however, that it will be no more than I expect if de la Vega does something foolish."
Victoria shook her head. "You sicken me." She followed her old friend out of the tavern.
Mendoza's discoveries had been brought to the cuartel in a wagon. Don Alejandro looked at the evidence with a torch to help against the failing light.
"Yes," he said with difficulty. "That watch was Diego's. And the boots, too, I think." He straightened his shoulders. "Did you find a body?"
"Oh, si, Don Alejandro, but you don't want to see it. We tried to put out the fire quickly, but --"
"Where is the body?"
"No, Senor. You don't want to see it."
"Let the man have a look, Mendoza," came the Alcalde's voice. "It's his son, after all."
The Sergeant stood aside reluctantly and lifted a cloth from a dark form. Don Alejandro looked for several minutes, then turned away and bowed his head. He pressed a fist to his lips. Victoria hurried to his side, her cheeks wet with tears.
"Come away, Don Alejandro. Come to the tavern and rest."
"The church --" he murmured unsteadily. "Must get the padre . . ."
"We will take care of everything," she promised. "Just leave it to us."
"Victoria." He gripped her hands firmly. "Those things I said to him --"
"He knew, Don Alejandro. He knew you didn't mean it."
"He died in horrible pain, Victoria. Horrible! And I said such dreadful things --"
"Don't blame yourself, Don Alejandro." Victoria was weeping openly now. "Come to the tavern."
"No." He squared his shoulders. "I must go back to the hacienda and -- and tell Felipe. He and Diego were -- very close. I can't leave it to someone else to tell him." Concentrating on another's need, he pulled himself together and mounted his horse. "Victoria, Sergeant Mendoza, if you will -- see to the care of his body."
"Of course, Don Alejandro."
"I'll be at home." He turned his mount and rode numbly into the deepening night.
Felipe was waiting anxiously. He had gone several times into the secret cave, trying to decide if he should take Toronado out and try to help Diego. But he had no way of knowing where the bandits had gone, so always he came back to the front of the hacienda to wait for news. When he heard Don Alejandro's arrival, he came at once to the gate.
Alejandro dismounted and came to stand before him. "Felipe," he said slowly, laying a hand on the boy's shoulder, "There's been an accident. Diego is dead."
Felipe's eyes widened and he began to shake his head.
"There was a fire, Felipe. In the shed behind Big Rock Ridge. It -- I've seen the body. There can be no doubt."
Felipe backed away, gesturing repeatedly, No. No. No.
"It's the truth, Felipe. We must both accept it. Tomorrow -- Felipe!" The boy had turned and run away. "Come back, Felipe! There's nothing you can do!"
Felipe saddled Toronado in a haze of tears and galloped recklessly through the darkness to Big Rock Ridge. He found the remains of the shed still glowing. Even when he had wiped his eyes and lit a torch from the smoldering coals, all Diego had taught him about tracking was insufficient to untangle the prints of so many horses. He saw where the wagon had come and gone, but he could be sure of little else. For hours, Felipe stood watch over the embers of the shed, but Diego never appeared.
Diego drifted in and out of unconsciousness during the night, finally coming awake shortly before dawn. He spent a while working free of his bonds, then rolled onto his hands and remained still, pretending to be helpless. It wasn't long before the two bank robbers began to stir. One of them walked over and nudged Diego with a toe, then kicked him. He didn't react.
"I don't know, Roberto," the bandit muttered. "I think maybe you hit him too hard. After he got kicked by that horse --"
"Shut up. We couldn't afford to have him trying to escape."
"But what good is a hostage if he's dead already?"
"Eh, well, we don't need a hostage any more. No one's going to find us now. We can leave him here to rot. Put the gold on the third horse; we'll lead it behind us."
Diego waited while the two broke camp and readied their horses. Clearly there was no time for Zorro to appear; he would have to make do without his sword -- worse, without Toronado. While the bandits were occupied with the gold and horses, Diego crept out of camp and into the trees. He could hear a stream gurgling nearby, and guessed the bandits would go that way. Within a few minutes they brought the horses down to the water and stopped to let them drink. Diego took a deep breath, hoping his broken head wouldn't betray him, and rushed out of cover to leap to the back of the third horse -- the one carrying the gold. Before the robbers knew what was happening, he pulled the reins free, turned the horse, and galloped away down the stream.
"Follow him -- he's got our gold!"
Hearing pursuit, Diego prodded the horse with his bare heels and bent low over its neck. As he had hoped, first one pistol, then the other sounded behind him. The bullets went hopelessly wide as the horses lurched over uneven terrain. Recognizing the territory at last, Diego took the opportunity to double back.
The bandits paused beside an overhang of rock. "Which way did he go?" demanded the leader, peering about uncertainly. "I didn't see--"
The squeal of a frightened horse made them look up just as Diego forced his mount to leap down at them from the overhang. The second bandit was knocked from his horse and fell limply to the ground. The leader, growling, pulled out a knife as Diego rode in close. His first blow ripped Diego's sleeve and drew a line of blood from his forearm, but Diego grabbed his hand and forced him to drop the knife, then knocked him from his saddle with one punch.
Bringing his bruised fist to his mouth, Diego remarked calmly, "You should be more careful next time you choose a hostage." He pulled a length of rope from his mount's saddle bags and approached the groaning leader, adding, "Not, of course, that there will be a next time -- for either of you." He squinted into the morning sun and wondered how many hours it would take to reach Los Angeles.
Don Alejandro wandered restlessly through his hacienda, finding Diego's belongings everywhere. He paused before the piano, hearing his own words echo from the past: " . . . all you ever do is paint, or play the piano, or fiddle with one of those useless experiments! . . . hiding indoors like a coward! . . . wonder if you really are a son of mine . . ." He closed his eyes briefly against the memories. He tried a few chords on the piano, striking more than one sour note, then covered the keys and closed the piano with a sigh.
Victoria Escalante was cleaning her tavern in preparation for the week's business. She was not looking at the painting in the corner. She was not thinking about the unfinished painting in the corner. She was not about to go over and uncover the painting . . .
She looked down at the half-completed work under the cloth. It showed her laughing and smiling, a very warm and affectionate image. She had known that Diego was fond of her, but she had never bothered to respond to his attentions. She remembered uncomfortably that even Zorro had suggested once that she should marry Diego. She had laughed at him. Poor Diego had been so patient . . .
She covered the painting with a sigh and went back to scrubbing tables.
Felipe puttered through Diego's laboratory, his eyes still red from weeping. More than one experiment was in progress on the rows of tables, and Felipe hadn't the heart to interrupt them. He patted Toronado, brought the horse more feed, and paused to finger Zorro's accouterments. He set the sword rattling in its rack, stroked the black silk cape, and tightened his hand around the black mask. His jaw firmed with resolution, and he marched determinedly out of the cave.
"Felipe!" cried Don Alejandro, as the boy appeared in the hacienda. "Thank God you've come back. Are you all right?"
Felipe gave a stiff nod.
"Felipe, will you come to Diego's funeral? I'm sure he would want it that way."
Felipe agreed hastily and began to gesture toward the fireplace.
Don Alejandro frowned. "Something to show me? Well, it will have to wait until after the funeral. You should go and get ready now."
Felipe frowned stubbornly, but nodded assent and went to change into better clothes.
The service was scheduled for noon, and a large crowd had gathered before the church to pay their respects. Don Alejandro was surprised to see so many faces, surprised to realize what an impact his son had made. One face, however, brought a scowl to his eyes. Don Alejandro made his way slowly through the press of mourners to the Alcalde's side.
"Come to offer condolences, Alcalde?" he growled.
"But of course, Don Alejandro. Why else would I be here?"
"To gloat!" spat Alejandro. "Isn't this exactly what you intended yesterday when you sent your men after the bank robbers?"
"They warned you! They demanded no pursuit, but you ignored their demands. And now my son is dead. Your fault, Ramon, your fault!"
"Don Alejandro, you grow unreasonable!"
"I'll have your head for this, Alcalde. One way or the other--"
The Alcalde gasped. "A threat, Don Alejandro! Mendoza, this man has just threatened me with bodily harm. Arrest him."
"But, Alcalde --" the Sergeant protested.
"Arrest him, Mendoza!"
"I don't think that's a very good idea," came a new voice.
"Zorro!" gasped Mendoza.
"Zorro," grumbled the Alcalde.
Felipe started forward in amazed delight.
A silver blade touched the Alcalde's shoulder and pressed close to his neck. "Don Alejandro is free to go." The sword's pressure grew stronger.
The Alcalde's breath grew strained. "Don Alejandro is free to go," he agreed at last.
"I'm not sure," Zorro breathed menacingly in the Alcalde's ear, "that Don Alejandro's idea is so unlikely. You were certainly very eager to send your men after those bank robbers, even though it endangered a man's life -- most unlike you, Alcalde. If nothing else, you've been trying very hard to goad Don Alejandro into incriminating himself." One black-gloved hand grabbed the Alcalde's shoulder and spun him around; the sword point was now at his throat. Zorro's voice rang out loudly now. "I suggest, Alcalde, that you leave the de la Vega household alone from now on."
Swallowing hard, the Alcalde managed a slight nod of agreement.
Zorro pulled his sword back, saluted grimly, and whistled for his horse. A path cleared through the crowd of people.
"Senor Zorro!" cried Don Alejandro as the masked man mounted. Zorro turned at once. Alejandro's mouth twisted. "Could you not have saved him?"
Zorro cocked his head gravely. "I did everything I could, Senor. Perhaps you will understand soon." He turned his mount aside, bending to ruffle Felipe's hair as the boy tried to conceal his happiness. Pausing before Victoria, Zorro said in a low voice, "It is an unhappy occasion, Senorita, but you do look lovely in black." Then, with a flourish of his sword, he was off.
The funeral service was simple and brief; there was no viewing of the body. When it was over, the mourners streamed out of the church and started to follow the coffin toward the de la Vega family plot, but before they had gone very far a rider appeared leading two horses.
"Buenos dias!" said Diego, dismounting. "What is this?"
Felipe ran to his side; the other mourners stood stunned for a long moment. Then Don Alejandro's lips moved soundlessly around his son's name, and he started forward to embrace Diego, unshed tears glittering in his eyes.
"I brought back the stolen gold." Diego waved at the laden saddlebags and the bandits tied to their mounts.
A general rush started toward him, and he was soon swamped by enthusiastic greetings. He leaned on Felipe and pleaded dizziness until the press eased. "Yes, Zorro was there," he explained. "He freed me and captured two of the bandits. The other was killed in a fire." He frowned in puzzlement. "Is this a funeral for the bank robber?"
"Diego . . ." Don Alejandro shook his head incredulously. "This is your funeral. We found your watch and boots in the fire." His mouth was beginning to stretch at the sight of his son, sound and smiling.
"Oh -- yes," Diego realized, "they were stolen." He gestured at his bare feet. "I haven't had a chance to get more." Within moments, he was being lifted on the shoulders of his erstwhile mourners and carried into town. The robbers and the gold were turned over to Sergeant Mendoza, and Diego was ensconced comfortably in the tavern.
He had scarcely gotten his breath back when Victoria came to him, took his head in her hands, and kissed him soundly on the lips.
"That," she said warmly, "is for being alive."
Diego watched speechlessly as she smiled at him.
"But what's this?" said Don Alejandro, pointing to the cut on Diego's forearm and his barked knuckles. "You look like you've been fighting."
Diego came to himself with a start. "Well, you couldn't expect Zorro to do it all himself, could you?" He grinned.
Don Alejandro's eyes lit, then he sobered as he recalled his own words. "Son, those things I said to you--"
"What things?" Diego met his father's eyes directly. "Oh, that! I never gave it a thought."