Light streamed through the windows of the de la Vega hacienda. Don Diego sat at his ease, a book propped casually in one hand and his eyes narrowed in concentration. He did not notice at first when his servant Felipe entered the room, but when the mute boy touched his arm a smile lit Diego's face.
"Ah, Felipe!" he exclaimed. "I believe I have discovered an error in this translation. See here --"
Felipe tapped Diego's arm more urgently.
"What is it? Something is wrong?"
Felipe gestured quickly, pointing to the north.
"Bandits attacking a farm! Where?" Diego watched intently. "Jose Garcia is one of my father's tenants. I'll go at once." He headed for his own room, and the secret passage through the fireplace to a hidden cave. In his hurry he nearly bumped into his father.
"Diego! Where are you going in such a hurry?" Don Alejandro glanced at Felipe's tense face. "What's the matter?"
Diego hesitated. "Felipe has just brought word," he said at last. "Outlaws are raiding Jose Garcia's farm."
"Outlaws attacking my tenants? I'll see about that. Come with me, Diego."
"No, I -- I'll ride into the pueblo and get help."
"From the Alcalde? I doubt you'll have much luck, but if you can't stomach a fight don't bother to come." With a sour look, Don Alejandro stamped from the hacienda.
Diego bit his lip and found his own unhappiness mirrored on Felipe's face. "I must hurry," he told the boy. "It isn't easy to keep up with my father."
Minutes later, a figure cloaked in black, with a black mask, rode a black horse out of the hills near the hacienda.
Don Alejandro arrived at the scene alone, and still fuming at his son's cowardice. He found four bandits at the farmhouse; two were on horseback trying to fire the brush, one was leading a bull from its corral, and one was dragging Jose's young daughter from the house. Don Alejandro announced his presence with a bullet in the shoulder of the man stealing the bull. He cast his empty pistol aside and set his sword at the throat of the man holding Senorita Garcia.
"Let her go, you cur," Alejandro growled. He was aware of the other two bandits trying to circle their horses behind him, but he didn't mean to give them time to attack. He didn't know, however, that one of them also had a pistol.
"Look out!" cried the Senorita.
Don Alejandro spurred his horse around, and the bullet grazed his thigh instead of entering his stomach. His horse reared in fright, throwing him and galloping off. Don Alejandro lay dazed in the dust and watched as the outlaw leader drew a second pistol from his belt.
Before the man could even take aim, a black shadow blocked his shot and a whip wrapped about his wrist and pulled him from his saddle. The pistol went off harmlessly. Another crack of the whip stung the second rider's face and frightened his horse into bolting. A silver sword tip flicked Alejandro's fallen blade out of the dust and into the Don's hand.
"Zorro!" spat the leader of the bandits, cradling his stinging hand.
"Well met, Senor Zorro!" cried Don Alejandro.
The outlaw holding Senorita Garcia trembled in fear and pulled out a dagger. "I'll kill her! I'll kill her if you don't let us go!"
Zorro's mouth, all that was visible of his face below the black mask, tightened in contempt. His sword flickered too quickly to see, and the outlaw's exposed sleeve bore a perfect, miniature letter Z. Cowed by the masked man's speed, the bandit released the senorita and slunk backwards, but she quickly turned and tripped him.
"Well done, Senorita," Zorro complimented her. He turned to the farmer. "I trust you have enough rope to see these criminals safely to the jail."
"Si, Senor Zorro," said Jose, kneeling to bind the leader's hands.
Zorro dismounted at Don Alejandro's side. "Is your leg badly hurt?"
"It is only a scratch," Don Alejandro assured him, "But I cannot walk well and my mare is probably halfway back to her stable by now."
"Then I will give you a ride," the masked man said. He helped Alejandro to his feet, mounted his horse Toronado, and pulled the Don up behind him.
"But -- Senor Zorro, Don Alejandro," Jose Garcia called out, "what about the reward for capturing criminals?"
"Use it well!" Zorro waved a hand as he guided Toronado off the farm.
Despite the pain in his leg, Don Alejandro chuckled over their triumph as they rode toward the hacienda. "I don't know why the outlaws even try anything with you around, Senor Zorro. They haven't a chance anymore." He sobered slightly. "I owe you once again, Senor, for saving my life."
"I assure you --" the masked man began, but his words were cut off by an echoing gunshot.
Don Alejandro looked about in startlement and saw a mounted figure just turning to ride away. He remembered the fourth bandit, whose horse had bolted from the farm. "He's getting away, curse it! Zorro --" He stopped as he realized that the man in black was slumping over weakly. Even as Don Alejandro tried to hold him up, Zorro slipped from his saddle.
Alejandro dismounted and hurried to Zorro's side. He found the wound quickly: high in the chest on the right side, and bleeding profusely. Ripping his shirt to make a bandage, Alejandro muttered, "Oh, this is bad, my friend. I hope Zorro has not seen his last adventure. We had all begun to think that you could never be killed, but I suppose that even you are human, after all."
He finished binding the wound as well as he could, then paused as a thought struck him. Almost of its own accord, Don Alejandro's hand went to the black mask, paused as he wrestled with his conscience, then lifted the silk to reveal the face underneath. His eyes widened.
"Diego!" he gasped. "Diego, my son? But how can it be?" He shook his head. "I thought -- I thought you were a coward, I thought you had no stomach for sword play. How could I have been so wrong? And why? Diego, why have you deceived me?"
He pulled back in startlement as Zorro groaned and moved his head. Remembering the dreadful wound, Don Alejandro cried out again. "Diego, hold on, my son. I will get you help soon." He lifted his son's body, ignoring the pain from his leg, and turned to the black horse. "Toronado, if you will bear me for Diego's sake, he may live."
With a whicker, the horse lowered himself to his foreknees so that Don Alejandro could mount with his burden. Then they galloped swiftly and carefully toward home.
Felipe met Don Alejandro at the gate of the hacienda. His eyes widened when he saw the black horse, and darkened when he saw the limp, black- cloaked form. He hurried forward to help.
Don Alejandro had made his decision on the way home. "Felipe," he said crisply, "Senor Zorro has been shot. Is Diego about?"
Felipe was almost too stunned to respond, but indicated hesitatingly that Diego had gone to Los Angeles.
"Well, you take this horse then -- it's fast. Ride into the pueblo and fetch the doctor. If you see Diego, tell him what has happened, but tell no one else. We cannot risk the Alcalde getting word of this."
Felipe offered to tend the wounded man himself while Don Alejandro rode for help.
"No, I've hurt my leg -- I can't ride as fast. I'll take care of him; you go now, and hurry! Zorro's life may depend on your speed."
Felipe swallowed hard and swung onto the black horse's back. If Don Alejandro noticed that Toronado seemed to recognize the mute boy, he did not reveal it. He carried Zorro into a guest room and laid him on the bed, removing hat, cloak and shirt. He left the mask in place and brought water to wash the bloody wound.
As the cloth touched him, Diego moaned. "Father?" he breathed weakly.
His father bit his lip. "No, Senor Zorro, it is only I, Don Alejandro."
The blue eyes turned to him, glazed slightly with pain.
Alejandro went on with difficulty. "Whoever your father is, I am sure he must be proud of you."
Diego's eyes closed; he raised a hand and brushed at the mask on his face. "You have not --"
"I thought that I should respect your wish for secrecy. But if you wish me to take word to your father, I will not betray your confidence to anyone."
"No. My father does not know. But -- is the wound bad?"
Don Alejandro's jaw was hard. "It is bad."
"If I die --"
"You will not die, Senor Zorro."
"If I die," Diego repeated doggedly. "Will you tell my father . . ."
"Tell him I am sorry I could not tell him the truth. Will you make him understand that?" His blue eyes bore into his father's grey ones.
"I am not sure I understand it myself," Don Alejandro said slowly.
A noise outside broke the tableau between them. Don Alejandro rose to his feet. "Felipe has brought help faster than I would have thought possible. Rest easy, Senor Zorro. You will keep your secret, and by the grace of God you will not die. You will live." He looked down at his son, who had lapsed again into unconsciousness. "You must live."
The doctor departed after several hours, leaving a sense of uncertain hope. Don Alejandro sat in a chair by the bedside, exhausted after holding down his son's shoulders while the bullet was removed. He had insisted on staying, wanting to make sure that the doctor never saw beneath the mask. He had forgotten about his own injury until Felipe drew it to the doctor's attention. Felipe, who had also refused to leave the room, was standing by the door looking rather pale. Don Alejandro roused himself to divert the boy.
"Felipe, that black horse -- if the Alcalde's men see it, they will be certain to find Zorro here. Do you think you can hide it somewhere?" He had guessed that Felipe already knew where Diego hid the horse.
Felipe nodded slowly.
"Good lad. You know the hills around here like no one else, except perhaps Zorro himself." He sighed. "Did you meet Diego in the pueblo?"
A doubtful look came over Felipe's face. He signed uncertainly, as if he had troubling finding the right gestures.
"Ah, yes," Don Alejandro mused. "Clever of him, to stay in the tavern and avoid drawing attention here by returning too soon. Did he say when he would be back?"
Felipe shook his head and excused himself hastily.
"Yes, go hide the horse at once, by all means." In spite of himself, Don Alejandro chuckled a little at the boy's consternation. His laughter died quickly, though, and he reached forward to grasp the wounded man's hand. "Diego, I have kept your secret. Still, I wish I could ask you why. Why -- and how? To be sure, Zorro has always been very clever, but when I think of the times you and Zorro have been seen at once I can hardly believe it even now. Did Felipe help you? I wish that I could have --" He started at a sound from the doorway; Victoria Escalante was looking in.
"Senorita!" He sat back as she hurried to the bedside.
"How badly is he hurt?" she whispered.
"It is bad, but the doctor thinks there is hope. If there is no infection, he may recover within a fortnight. How did you know?"
"How could I not know, when I saw Felipe riding that horse to the dooctor's house? I don't think anyone else saw, but I stayed in the tavern until it was time to close, so that no one would suspect." Tears welled in her eyes. "If he had died while I waited . . ."
"But he did not die, Senorita, and now we must pray that he will soon get better."
Her hand stroked the black-clothed forehead and paused at the knot that bound the mask. Don Alejandro reached out to grasp her wrist.
"No, Victoria," he urged. Remembrance of his own surrender to temptation roughened his voice. "Not this way, while he is helpless. When he is better, you can ask him for the truth. It is not a true gift unless it is willingly given."
Her hand slackened. "But --"
"We owe him so much. Is this too great a price?"
She sighed. "You are right. But I am so curious!"
"I, too. But there must be a reason he won't tell us. Perhaps -- perhaps he wishes you to recognize him and love him for himself, without the mask."
Her mouth twisted. "But I have been trying to do that for ages! I can't find out who he is! Not even one hint?" She smiled appealingly.
Don Alejandro laughed. "I cannot give you that hint. Ask him when he is well. But now I think you must go."
"So soon? I had hoped to stay a while."
"That might draw the very suspicion you were attempting to allay. He is in great danger while he is here, and the doctor has warned us against moving him for at least five days."
"Very well. But I'll be back tomorrow, after closing time."
"Perhaps he will be awake then."
Don Alejandro showed Senorita Escalante to the door, then paused in thought. He checked the still form in the guest room, then went to his son's writing desk and pulled forth some paper.
When the next morning dawned, Don Alejandro was drowsing in a chair by his son's bedside. He roused at Felipe's touch to find Diego watching him.
"Ah! You are awake, my friend. Good. The doctor has given us some medicines for you."
"Felipe has already been kind enough to give them to me. Or perhaps--" Zorro's mouth quirked "-- kind is not the word."
"Yes, Felipe, what is it?" Don Alejandro turned. "A note on Diego's writing desk? Let me see it." He read the note and grunted. "A sale of rare artifacts in Monterey! How could he leave at a time like this? Felipe, when did Diego leave this note?"
Felipe glanced at the man on the bed and made a gesture.
"Well, last night, of course, but why didn't he tell me in person? I was here all last night." He smiled apologetically at the masked patient. "My son appears to think I am too old to have my sleep interrupted even for such a simple thing. He has left without bidding me goodbye. Ah, well, if you will excuse me, Senor Zorro, I have some business to attend to. If you need anything, Felipe will get it for you."
Diego waved a hand as Don Alejandro departed, then turned at once to Felipe. "Let me see that note." He puzzled over it. "Quite a good imitation of my handwriting, Felipe. I didn't know you had it in you." He watched Felipe's astonished signing. "But if you didn't write it, who did? I'm too weak to get out of this bed, and no one else knows . . . do they?" He sighed and put a hand to his head. "This is too confusing. Perhaps I did write it, and I just don't remember. In any case, whoever wrote it . . ." his head sank weakly to the pillow " . . . it must have been a friend." He was asleep.
Felipe looked again at the note, shook his head in bewilderment, and tiptoed from the room.
Senorita Escalante arrived that evening to find Zorro awake, but slightly feverish. His eyes, unusually bright, feasted on her face, and he gripped her hand tightly.
"I wanted," she confessed with her head bowed, "to take off your mask, but Don Alejandro wouldn't let me. He said I should ask you to tell me freely when you get better."
"There is no one, Senorita," he murmured huskily, "that I would rather tell. But --"
Don Alejandro burst into the room. "The Alcalde is coming, now! We must hide you quickly, Senor Zorro."
Victoria jumped to her feet. "But the doctor said not to move him!"
"We must," said Don Alejandro grimly. "But only to my son's room. You are about his height, Senor. Perhaps you can pretend to be him, in the dark. No, don't try to get up. We will carry you. Felipe, help me with him."
They carried Zorro into the next room and slipped him into Diego's bed. "Felipe, get him one of Diego's nightshirts. Senorita, go to the guest room and make sure there is no trace of his presence. Ah -- the medicines!" He snatched them from the chest next to the guest bed and stuffed them down the bedcovers near Diego's feet.
The three of them swarmed about, trying to eradicate every clue. Then they gathered in the front of the hacienda. Heavy footsteps sounded outside the door.
Victoria gathered her breath and said clearly, "Of course, Don Alejandro. I would be glad to give you the name of the man who sold me those fine wines. But you have a brandy that -- why, Alcalde!" she exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
The Alcalde sneered at her. "We heard a rumor that Zorro is hiding here, wounded. We know he was last seen in your company, de la Vega. At last your collusion with the bandit is revealed. And of course the Senorita is a known sympathizer. Well, you can sympathize even more, Senorita, when Zorro is hanged in the plaza in Los Angeles."
"You will never catch Zorro!" she cried.
"Won't I? Mendoza! Take your men and search the house. Find Zorro! Find him!"
"There is no one here, Alcalde, but the three of us," said Don Alejandro mildly. "And also my son, who is ill and went to his bed early tonight. I hope your men won't disturb him."
The Alcalde's eyes narrowed. "You hope so, eh? Mendoza!" he bellowed. "Diego's room. Search it carefully!"
"Si, mi Alcalde," wafted down the hallway.
Victoria started forward in alarm, but Don Alejandro gripped her by the arm. "Don't worry, Senorita," he whispered. "Zorro won't be caught so easily."
They listened tensely to the sounds of the search: Mendoza's apologies and the sick man's replies. At last the sergeant returned. "There is no one there, Alcalde. Except for Don Diego; he doesn't look so good."
"Are you sure?"
"Well, I think so. At least, he's kind of pale, and he says he feels--"
"No, you fool! Are you sure it was only Don Diego in the room?"
"Well, it looks like him!"
"Arrgh! Incompetent fool! Zorro must have escaped while you were talking to Diego." The Alcalde paced restlessly about the room. "Well, you got away with it this time, de la Vega, but I won't forget. I know you've been harboring a criminal here, and I intend to catch him."
"Zorro's not a criminal -- you're the criminal!" Victoria spat. "Invading Don Alejandro's hacienda, interrupting a sick man's rest . . ."
"Silence, or I'll put you in the jail. If Zorro is as badly hurt as I've heard, he won't be able to come to your rescue this time." He gestured to his men. "Come on, Mendoza. We can try again later."
As soon as they had left, Don Alejandro and Senorita Escalante hurried to Diego's room. They found Zorro standing, masked, in the doorway.
"Well done, Senor Zorro!" Don Alejandro exclaimed.
Victoria frowned. "But how could the Alcalde's men be so mistaken?"
Zorro cocked his head. "The light was poor, just a few candles -- and I think the sergeant's vision is not so good."
"Unfortunately, Senorita," put in Don Alejandro, "the resemblance between Zorro and my son is no more than skin deep. But come, Senor. You should not be out of bed! Here, take my son's bed. Since he is out of town for some time, he won't be needing it, and it will be less trouble if the Alcalde's men come again."
Four days later, Don Alejandro had Felipe bring Toronado out of hiding. He returned the cloak, the hat, and the shirt -- with its bullet-hole mended -- to Zorro, and stood at the door of the hacienda to wave him goodbye. Then he went back inside to await his son's return from "Monterey."
It did not take long. Diego came in and placed a box on the table. "I saw Zorro leaving. I take it he's recovered."
"Not quite. He still needs rest. But we thought he would be safer away from danger."
"Yes, the Alcalde's men heard he was here and they've been looking for him. But the fox slipped away, as usual. Sit down, Diego. You seem stiff."
"Ah, yes, a horse kicked me in Monterey. Very bad-tempered beast. Right in the ribs, too."
"How uncomfortable. But come, Diego, tell me what you found in Monterey."
"Well, it wasn't as good as I hoped. But I did pick up this." Diego opened the box and lifted out a strange-looking object. Don Alejandro had never paid much attention to the things Diego kept in his collection, but he thought he recognized this one. He hid a smile. "It's quite a clever object. You fill the body with water, heat it up, and it spins around under the force of the steam inside it."
"What is it good for?"
"This little model isn't very useful. But a larger version might be able to move something much heavier -- a wagon, even."
"What, a wagon that moves without a horse? I'll believe that when I see it, Diego!"
They both laughed.
"You know," said Don Alejandro after a pause, "I came to know Senor Zorro a little better while he was here. But there was one thing I never could understand. This Zorro must be someone we know, someone from near Los Angeles. How could he keep his identity a secret from his family, his friends, even from Victoria Escalante, who loves him?"
Diego's face hardened. "Perhaps it is for their own safety. If any of them knew the true identity of Zorro, the Alcalde would give them no peace."
"True enough for Senorita Escalante, though the Alcalde gives her no peace as it is. But what about his family? Don't they have a right to know?"
Diego was silent for a long time. "Perhaps," he said at last, "he would rather be known and appreciated for the man he is in real life. Zorro's brand of heroism is very special and exciting, but it is unusual for it to be needed. Someday there will be justice in Los Angeles, and there will be no more need for that sort of bravery. Much more important is the sort of ordinary heroism that a man or woman lives each day, every day. Perhaps Zorro wants his family to appreciate him for that, and not for his skill with deadly weapons."
Don Alejandro listened intently, and gradually his frowned eased. "You may be right, Diego. In fact, I think you are. I was sure I could depend on you to see the reason behind it; you are so much more clever than I. I think you must get it from your mother."
"Oh, well, I --" stammered Diego in surprise.
"But tell me, Diego -- I have not asked in so long -- how are your experiments in science coming?"
Diego's face lit up and he leaned forward to explain to his father things that Alejandro had never been able to understand, and had little interest in. But underneath his resignation this time Don Alejandro felt much joy and even more pride.