Don Alejandro de la Vega paced back and forth in the Tavern Victoria while the proprietress leaned on one elbow and watched.
"Is something bothering you, Don Alejandro?" she asked after a few minutes.
"What? Oh, not at all, Victoria. I was just thinking how much I would like some more of your excellent wine."
"Here you go, then." She refilled his glass and pretended to busy herself at the other end of the bar.
Don Alejandro swirled the wine idly in the glass, his eyes fixed on some inner tableau. "Victoria!" he said at last, a little too loudly.
"Si, Don Alejandro?"
"Do you ever . . . worry about Zorro, when he's out chasing bandits?"
She put down her cloth and dropped all pretense of being uninterested; Zorro was a subject well known to fascinate her. "Oh, Zorro can take care of himself," she averred.
"Yes, but this time there were five of them," Alejandro pointed out.
"But Zorro is certainly more than five times as clever as any bandit."
"True." Alejandro sighed. "Of course, he's still got that wound in his chest to hamper him."
"But from what the doctor said, he should be almost completely healed by now. He left your hacienda over a week ago. Don Alejandro, why this sudden concern?"
"Oh! Well, you couldn't expect me to be glad if the man came to some harm so soon after leaving my protection. If I had been able to hold the Alcalde off a little longer, Zorro might have healed better."
"I'm sure he's fine. He didn't seem troubled at all when he rode through town after the bandits. Stop worrying, Don Alejandro." But as she turned to deal with a customer, there was a line of worry on Victoria's forehead.
Don Alejandro could not stop worrying. He had never before experienced much concern over Zorro's ability to deal with trouble, but then he hadn't known until recently that Zorro was his son. It was only when Zorro had been wounded and taken to the de la Vega hacienda that Don Alejandro had learned the truth. And now, with that wound no better than half healed, his son was galloping about the hillsides after five desperate, armed men. Worse, Diego didn't even know that his father had discovered his secret, and Alejandro knew that any intervention on his part would only make things more difficult. He shook his head grimly and forced himself to drink his wine as if he hadn't a care.
An uproar in the plaza brought both Alejandro and Victoria out of the tavern at once. The caballero's shoulders sagged with relief when he saw a black-masked form leading two horses. The riders, with their hands bound behind their backs, had all they could do to stay mounted; they snarled at the laughter from the people gathered at market.
Sergeant Mendoza came forward to take charge of the captured bandits, saying disapprovingly, "Zorro, you shouldn't just ride into town like this. It makes the Alcalde angry. And chasing bandits is our job!"
"Then, Sergeant, I suggest you go take charge of the other three bandits. They're tied to trees near the entrance to the abandoned mine, up by Dead Man's Creek." Zorro turned his horse and saluted to the people in the plaza, seeking out Victoria's gaze through the crowd.
Something was missing; Don Alejandro found himself waiting for cries of "Arrest him, lancers!" but none came. He looked around anxiously and found the Alcalde standing in the door of his office. Without a sound, drawing no attention to himself, the Alcalde pulled out a pistol and took careful aim.
Don Alejandro started to push a path through the crowd, but he knew he couldn't get across the street in time. Zorro was too far away to use his uncanny skill with a whip, and was unaware of the danger in any case. Alejandro caught his breath to yell a warning just as the Alcalde pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. The Alcalde did not invest much time in the care of his pistols.
Throwing down the useless weapon with a curse, the Alcalde grabbed a musket from one of his men and took aim again. By now, however, Zorro was aware of the danger. Leaning over quickly, the masked man grabbed a melon from a market stand and tossed it at the Alcalde, making him jerk reflexively. The musket went off, and the melon exploded into pieces. Most of the pulp hit the Alcalde.
"Nice shot!" cried Zorro admiringly. "You're getting better." He tossed some coins at the fruit vendor with a wink. "Good melons, too. Excuse me, Senorita," he added with a smile for Victoria, "with such marksmanship at my back, I had better be on my way at once." He saluted her and galloped down the street. The people made a path to let him by and closed it just as quickly behind him.
Losing his tightly-held temper, the Alcalde roared, "After him!" and struck the nearest lancer with the spent musket.
Don Alejandro, still standing in the street, felt his knees wobbling with relief.
"You see, Don Alejandro?" Victoria said. "I told you he could take care of himself."
Alejandro smiled weakly at Victoria, muttering to himself, "I can't take much more of this." He untied his horse from the post before the tavern and was preparing to return to his hacienda when he noticed Sergeant Mendoza's strange behavior. The Sergeant was rushing around the market square, squinting at people and at a scrap of paper he held in his hands, on which he was making small marks.
"Oh! Don Alejandro!" exclaimed Mendoza as Alejandro's horse approached. He ran a finger hastily down the paper, flipped it over and found something on the other side. He made a mark there and looked up again. "Was Don Diego with you, when Zorro appeared?"
Alejandro's suspicions were awakened, but he couldn't risk being caught out in a lie. "No, I believe he's at home, working on the ranch accounts. Why?"
"Oh, well, this is a list of caballeros without beards, and the Alcalde told me --" Mendoza broke off, looking nervous. "Actually, the Alcalde told me not to tell anyone about this. You won't tell him I said anything, will you?"
"Yes, but what are you doing?"
Mendoza looked uneasy. "There's Don Miguel, I have to go. Excuse me." He rushed off across the market.
Alejandro frowned to himself as he rode home. This was doubtless some new scheme of the Alcalde's to trap Zorro. He would have to find some discreet way of warning Diego of the danger.
Don Alejandro entered the hacienda in his usual brisk fashion to find his son seated in the library with a book. He had probably grabbed the book in haste, for Alejandro could not see what possible interest Diego would have in monasteries of the seventeenth century.
Alejandro noticed that his son's hair was wildly disordered, and had to bark gruffly to cover a laugh. "Diego!"
Diego looked up innocently, "Is something wrong, Father?"
"I thought I asked you to supervise moving our cattle to Santa Paula? They're leaving today!"
"Oh, yes. I looked over their arrangements, and everything seemed well taken care of. You didn't really mean for me to travel all the way to Santa Paula with them, did you?"
"Yes, I did! You have to be prepared to oversee these things yourself, Diego. There could be any kind of complications that the men couldn't deal with adequately."
"But it takes three days to get to Santa Paula!"
"Yes, and a day there for the sales, and three days back. A little exercise will do you good." He had almost wavered into laughter on that last statement; he deepened his voice to control it. "I am trying to prepare you, son, for the duties that will eventually become yours."
"Father, isn't this a little extreme --"
"Not at all. I'll hear no more of it. Get ready to leave for Santa Paula today." That, he thought, should keep Diego out of trouble for a week. "And do something about your hair! It's a disgrace!" He hid a smile in a grimace of frustration and stomped out of the room.
Diego sighed and turned to Felipe. "I don't know what's bothering my father lately," he said, "but he's making it very difficult for me to keep appearing as Zorro."
Felipe handed him a comb.
"Diego!" came his father's voice from the other side of the hacienda.
Diego rolled his eyes and straightened his hair hastily. Don Alejandro bustled in with a newly-opened letter in his hand.
"Diego, have you heard? The new governor has been appointed!"
"Yes? Well, I'm sure Fresquez won't be content with mere governorship. He'll probably go on from there."
"No, it's not Fresquez. Apparently he was politically ruined by that scandal when, er, Zorro made him a laughingstock." Alejandro still experienced a jolt of surprise when remembering some escapade of Zorro's and realizing that it had been Diego's doing. "No, the new governor is Jorge Luis Camaras. He hasn't been in California for very long; I'm amazed he's done so well for himself."
"You know him?"
"We were friends in Spain, oh, years ago." Alejandro smiled. "We were nearly inseparable. One time, we . . ." he trailed off in thought. "But you don't want to hear about that now," he murmured, his mind busily working on a new idea. "Diego!"
"Forget about Santa Paula. I'm going to Monterey. I'll be gone for a while. You must take care of everything at the ranch while I'm gone."
"Consider it a part of your education. It will do you good to have some responsibilities. Excuse me; I must get ready to leave. I'll go on the stage tomorrow morning."
Diego watched in growing astonishment as his father hurried off with a hundred new priorities on his mind. "Felipe," he said slowly, "do you think there could be something wrong with my father? He's been acting very strangely lately."
Felipe shrugged and made a tentative suggestion.
"No, you're right. He probably wouldn't be traveling to Monterey if he were ill. Even so, there's something very odd about this."
More than a month later, Don Alejandro found himself in a coach returning to Los Angeles with his good friend Jorge at his side.
"I probably should have sent my deputy to check out this tale of corruption you've been giving me," said the new Governor of California, "but I couldn't say no to my old friend."
"Hmm," responded Alejandro absentmindedly as he looked out the window. "Well, you'll find that the Alcalde is not merely corrupt, but quite incompetent. The area is overrun with criminals that should have been jailed or chased off long ago." The pass that the coach was crossing through just now was a particular favorite for ambushes, despite the occasional discouragement from Zorro. Alejandro had taken two steps to ensure their safety: he was carrying very little money, and he had written to notify his son exactly when they would be arriving.
Jorge had a different concern with the view outside the window. "Is it always this gloomy in Los Angeles?" he asked, his eye on the lowering clouds that stretched from horizon to horizon.
"Not at all. The weather in Los Angeles is nearly always beautiful and sunny. At this time of year, however, it does rain occasionally."
"Is there any danger of flooding?"
"Certainly, if the rainfall is very heavy. The ground here is as dry as a bone, and just as hard. The rain runs right over it. We know how to deal with floods, though. My son Diego will have seen that all our cattle and people are on high ground. I don't expect these clouds will break today, in any case. We'll have some respite."
The weather might not choose to attack them now, but the same could not be said for the bandits along the pass. Just as the exhausted coach horses were laboring up the last rise, Alejandro heard other hooves approaching rapidly, cries and gunfire meant to intimidate the coachman into stopping. Instead, the driver whipped their horses up to a dangerous pace. They crested the pass and started careering down the other side as the bandits closed in.
Jorge, just as much a man of action as in his younger years, pulled out a pistol and reached for the door handle, but Alejandro laid a hand on his arm.
"Wait," he said. "There's something I want you to see."
Jorge frowned quizzically. "Is this really the time?"
"This is the perfect time. Just wait and see. If I'm wrong, you can still use that gun after we're stopped; your aim will be better then, in any case." Alejandro threw frequent glances out the window.
The coach swayed noticeably as one of the bandits climbed aboard, and soon a firm hand was trying to take control of the frightened horses. Alejandro bit his lip as he waited to see if they would capture the coach. He did not see Zorro's arrival, but suddenly as he looked out there was a black horse galloping alongside, with an empty saddle. The coach began to sway even more alarmingly, and heavy thuds sounded on the roof.
"What --?" exclaimed the governor.
Alejandro couldn't resist trying to help. He opened one door and leaned out dangerously, trying to see above. A black-clad form stumbling backwards nearly fell on top of him. Alejandro pushed Zorro back to the top of the coach and strained to see what followed. He could not see much, but within a minute the swaying stopped and the coach began to slow. The driver was in charge of the reins once again, and Zorro leaped from the top of the coach into Toronado's saddle.
"Who is that?" demanded Jorge.
"That," said Alejandro with some satisfaction, "is Zorro." He had hoped for just such an occurrence to show the governor Zorro's true nature.
"Zorro, the famous criminal?"
Alejandro chuckled. "Zorro, the only person in Los Angeles who can stop bandits. The Alcalde's men certainly don't fill the function very well." As the coach finally came to a stop, Alejandro stepped outside.
The familiar black-masked figure waited to greet him. "Why, Don Alejandro. What a pleasant surprise, Senor."
"You know this man, Alejandro?" said the governor. His pistol was ready.
"We have met before," said Alejandro mildly, moving to block the pistol's line of fire. "Zorro, this is my friend Don Jorge, er, Sanchez."
"Sanchez, eh? I'm pleased to meet you, Senor." Zorro inclined his head. "I hope you enjoy your stay in Los Angeles. You must make the acquaintance of our Alcalde; I will be interested to hear your opinion of him."
"Did you catch the bandits?" Alejandro asked.
"No, they fell by the wayside, so to speak. And so might I have done, Senor, without your intervention. Gracias!"
Alejandro shook his head. "De nada."
"If all is well here, I should be heading back to find out where they've gone."
"We'll be fine," Alejandro assured him. "Los Angeles is not far. I think the coach can make it a few more miles."
"In that case, gentlemen, adios." Zorro touched the rim of his hat and wheeled his horse about.
Alejandro saw the governor's pistol coming up again and laid his hand on the barrel. "We owe him much," he said in a low voice. "I and all the people of Los Angeles have depended on his aid more than once. Wait until you have seen more of Los Angeles before you render a judgment on Zorro."
The governor raised a brow. "By territorial law, it is not I but the Alcalde of Los Angeles who must render a judgment on Zorro. He has committed no crimes elsewhere."
"He has committed no crimes here either, that I know of," replied Alejandro. "You will understand better soon."
Their coach arrived in Los Angeles within an hour. Alejandro showed his friend about and explained about the construction of the pueblo's new aqueduct, before they stopped at the tavern for refreshment. When Senorita Escalante heard that they had seen Zorro, she informed them that he had appeared in town not long before, delivering the coach robbers to the jail.
"And what did the Alcalde say?" Alejandro asked in interest.
"Oh, nothing. He was not there. But Sergeant Mendoza seemed . . . disturbed somehow. Especially when he was talking to us after Zorro had left. He asked me if I knew where Diego was."
Alejandro remembered with a chill that he had forgotten to warn Diego of Mendoza's list of caballeros present during Zorro's appearances. But surely the bumbling Sergeant must have exposed himself over the past month; Mendoza could never keep a secret.
"Did you say you were looking for me?" came Diego's voice from the door of the tavern.
Victoria laughed. "Oh, no, but Sergeant Mendoza was, earlier."
"Senorita, you break my heart. But welcome home, Father. I'm sorry I wasn't here to greet you when you first arrived. Is this your friend --"
"This is Don Jorge Sanchez, Diego. He's come to visit Los Angeles for a few days. Jorge, my son Diego."
"I see," said Diego with a wink as he shook the governor's hand and took a seat. "Nice to meet you, Don Jorge."
"Diego. Your father has told me so much about you -- he says you can do anything you set your hand to."
Diego blinked. "He said that?"
"It's quite true, Diego," Alejandro said. All his frustrated pride had come out in his conversations with the governor, but he couldn't let Diego know that. "Now, if only I could get you to set your hand to some tasks more appropriate for a de la Vega . . ."
"And what tasks would those be?" came a new voice. "Treason? Robbery, perhaps? Attempted murder of a public official?" The Alcalde came to stand by their table with his sword drawn, his face nearly glowing with malice and excitement. "Don Diego de la Vega, it is my pleasure to place you under arrest for crimes against the pueblo of Los Angeles --"
"What!" demanded Diego and his father together, coming to their feet.
"Don't move!" cried the Alcalde. He lifted his sword to Diego's throat, and both men froze in awkward half-standing positions. "The game is up, de la Vega. I know your dirty secret."
"Alcalde, why don't you explain what you're talking about?" growled Alejandro, his mind racing frantically.
"Shall I explain, or will you, Don Diego?"
"But I still don't know --" Diego began.
"Be quiet!" The sword pressed closer to Diego's throat. "This man has evaded justice for five years under the guise of Zorro!"
There was an astonished hush in the tavern; Alejandro broke it with a laugh that he hoped was convincing. "Alcalde, you must be joking!"
"Diego is Zorro?" said Victoria. "Alcalde, take it from me, you're wrong."
Diego rolled his eyes at her.
"Yes, he's fooled you both quite cleverly," said the Alcalde with an unpleasant smile.
"Alcalde, if you imagine that my son could carry on such a masquerade -- in my very hacienda -- without my knowledge, you're wrong!"
"Then perhaps you're his accomplice!" suggested the Alcalde.
"What proof do you have of your claim?" asked the governor quietly.
The Alcalde frowned. "Who are you?"
"A friend of the family."
"Well, as it happens, I do have proof. For the past month, at every appearance of Zorro, I have taken the names of the educated men who were present at the time and who didn't have beards -- a mustache is not necessary, you see, since it might be part of the disguise. Only one -- only one! -- of the caballeros on my list was absent during every single appearance of Zorro. It follows, then, that this man must be Zorro. By the process of elimination, it can be no one else."
Diego laughed uncertainly. "Alcalde, my bad luck in missing Zorro's exploits is well known to the people of Los Angeles -- it hardly constitutes proof! The simple reason is that I've been very busy with my father's ranch over the past month."
"Diego is right, Alcalde," Alejandro added. "Your assumptions are flawed. Diego may be educated, but he has no skill at swordplay -- he refused to take fencing lessons even when I sent him to Spain for that very purpose. Perhaps Zorro is some man we don't know; perhaps he conceals his education; perhaps he wears a beard in public, for Heaven's sake!"
The Alcalde's eyes narrowed. "No skill at swordplay? We'll see about that. Sergeant, your sword!"
"Eh?" grunted Mendoza, mystified. At an imperative gesture, he drew his sword and handed it to the Alcalde.
"Station lancers about the tavern. Make sure de la Vega has no chance to escape."
"I've made no attempt to escape, Alcalde," Diego pointed out reasonably.
"Go ahead!" sneered the Alcalde. "Try to conceal the truth! We'll have it out of you soon enough." He backed up and tossed Mendoza's sword. Diego caught it reflexively. "Nice catch! Perhaps you're more familiar with a sword than you've led us to believe. On your guard, then!" He lunged at Diego, and a desperate, clumsy duel was on.
"Oh, not in my tavern!" protested Victoria, as patrons hastily scrambled up and pressed themselves against the walls.
Diego's parries were wild, threatening to tangle his blade at any moment in the furniture. He made no attempt to thrust back at the Alcalde, appearing fully occupied with defense. His stance was laughable, and he nearly stumbled every time he backed up, blundering into chairs and tables.
"This won't last long," predicted the governor.
Alejandro bit his lip as he watched, trying to see a way out for Diego.
Backing away from each of the Alcalde's lunges, Diego fell over the foot of the stairs. He swung his blade in a circle for balance, nearly scratching the Alcalde's face. With a clang, the Alcalde's sword flew free and skittered across the floor, while Diego's borrowed blade lodged firmly in the banister.
"Sorry, Victoria," gasped Diego apologetically.
"Very clever, Zorro," snarled the Alcalde. "You disarmed me successfully, even while appearing completely incompetent. But you won't get off so easily!" He snatched his sword up from the floor.
Diego's eyes widened, and he wasted a few seconds trying to free Mendoza's sword from the banister before dodging aside. Slipping on the stairs, he fell beneath the Alcalde's next thrust and rolled free, grabbing a chair to help him to his feet. "Alcalde, wait --" he began, then hastily lifted the chair to block another blow.
Alejandro could restrain himself no longer. He leaped forward and grabbed the Alcalde's wrist, forcing him to drop the sword. The Alcalde turned his uncontrolled rage on Alejandro instead, landing a punch that threw him back against the bar. Diego's expression hardened at that, and he raised the chair to bring it down on the Alcalde's head.
"Stop!" cried Sergeant Mendoza. His musket pointed waveringly but unmistakably at Diego's heart.
Everyone froze for several heartbeats. The Alcalde picked up his sword slowly and, with a long look at Diego, sheathed it. Diego brought the chair to the ground, and Alejandro straightened beside the bar, dabbing at his cut lip and meeting his son's eyes grimly.
"Arrest him, Mendoza," said the Alcalde.
"You still haven't proved anything," Alejandro pointed out.
"He attacked me with that chair. He's under arrest. He'll stay in my jail for one week, under constant guard, before we hang him as Zorro -- unless someone comes forward in that time to confess."
Diego patted his father's shoulder reassuringly and followed Mendoza out of the tavern without resistance.
"Who's going to pay for the damage to my tavern?" demanded Victoria.
"I'll fine Diego for it," said the Alcalde on his way out the door.
"And who's going to get that sword out of my staircase?" she cried, her voice shaking unhappily. "I'm so sorry for the trouble, Don Alejandro," she said more calmly. "I'm sure Zorro will appear soon to get Diego freed. The Alcalde must see reason."
"I hope you're right, Victoria, but the Alcalde doesn't seem very reasonable just now."
"He seems quite insane to me," the governor replied. "Now I can believe those stories you told me."
Alejandro looked at him hopefully. "Are you planning to do something about it?"
"I am, my friend. Most definitely."
Diego had only to wait a few minutes in his cell before Felipe appeared at the window. "Don't worry, Felipe," he reassured the boy. "I have a plan, but I'll need a lot of help from you."
Felipe signed his eagerness to help.
"Do you remember that sleeping powder I invented last month? Yes, of course you do, you were out for nearly two days. There's a little left in my laboratory, in an envelope on the top shelf. Do you think you can find it? Good. Now, I want you to measure out two grams of it and keep it ready. Sooner or later Sergeant Mendoza will be assigned to guard me, and no doubt he'll order some of Victoria's tamales -- he must eat about a dozen of them every day." He paused at a rumble of thunder from the darkening sky. "You offer to deliver them here, and put the sleeping powder in them -- spread it through several tamales so he won't be able to taste it. Then you can get Toronado ready and bring him here for me. But first, tonight, you must bring me the strong solvent so I can loosen these bars -- they've been repaired since the last time I was here. Also a wig, or something, so I can set the bed up to look as if I'm asleep. Can you remember all that?"
Felipe signed the instructions back at him. The first drops of rain were beginning to fall.
"Excellent. This way, Zorro can appear while Diego is still in jail. Now get home before you get soaked."
Felipe grinned and started around the corner of the building, pausing for a moment under the eaves near the Alcalde's office to make sure no one was watching. A voice from within the office caught his attention, and he moved closer to the window.
"It's true, Alcalde," Don Alejandro was saying.
"Here is my ring," said a quiet voice -- Felipe thought it must be Alejandro's visitor. "You recognize the governor's seal?"
"Stolen!" spluttered the Alcalde.
"Not at all," rejoined Alejandro. "I have known Governor Camaras for years. You can say adios to your badge of office!"
"In the few hours I have been in Los Angeles," said Don Jorge, "I have seen signs of rampant corruption and incompetence -- not to mention mental instability on your part, Senor. You should consider yourself fortunate not to be charged with treason. But, since I would prefer to avoid scandal in the first month of my office, I will try to find you some honest post where you can't do any further harm."
"This is ridiculous! I see what you're doing, de la Vega. You're trying to save your son's miserable life." The Alcalde's voice came closer to the window, then faded. He was moving around the room. "Well, it won't work. I can see right through this charade. You're not the governor --"
There was a thud, a scuffle, a grunt. Alejandro cried out; then came another thud. Felipe clung to the windowsill with wide eyes. He heard sounds of something heavy being dragged across the room. Then the Alcalde stepped to the door. "Mendoza," he commanded, "bring me those two alleged coach thieves -- the ones Zorro brought in this afternoon."
After a few minutes, more boots gathered in the room. "That will do, Mendoza." The Alcalde paused. "Well, gentlemen," he said at last in a pleasant voice. "You are in an interesting position. You have been accused of a serious crime; you could be facing prison for life, even hanging. On the other hand, the only witness to your crimes is a wanted man himself. I would be justified in throwing your case out of court and releasing the two of you, if I thought right."
Brief silence. A voice growled uneasily, "What do you want from us?"
"A very simple favor. Help me dispose of a few dead bodies." The Alcalde moved, and a table was pulled out of the way.
"They don't look dead," the thief pointed out.
"They will be, after they've been tied in Dead Man's gully for a few hours. You don't even have to do anything yourselves. Just get them there before midnight, and the rain will do the rest. I'll give you two horses; after you've finished this little bit of business, you're free to go."
"And if we don't?"
"If you don't do as I say, if you take the horses and run, you mean? You'll have a bigger price on your heads than Zorro. Every bounty hunter in California will be after you, and I don't think you'll evade justice as long as Zorro has."
The thieves conferred just below Felipe's hearing. "We'll do it."
Felipe had heard enough. He ran to Diego's cell window and poured out the story. Diego had to ask him to slow down several times. When Felipe was done, Diego looked very grim. "We'll have to simplify that plan of mine. Hurry and get Toronado -- make sure those men don't see you. I'll meet you by the gate of the pueblo, somehow."
Felipe signed a question.
Diego shook his head. "I don't know yet. We'll have to see when the time comes. If I can't keep my identity as Zorro a secret, I'll have to leave the territory -- but better that than letting the Alcalde dispose of my father and the governor! Go now. There isn't much time . . . Wait! First bring me a rock, about as big as my fist."
When Felipe had brought a rock and disappeared again, Diego turned from the cell window and gathered his wit. "Sergeant!" he called at the door of the cell. "Sergeant Mendoza?"
The Sergeant entered by the other door. "Si, Don Diego? You know, I'm really sorry I had to arrest you."
"I know, Sergeant. It wasn't your fault. You could help me now, though."
The Sergeant looked doubtful. "How? If it's something the Alcalde isn't going to like --"
"Not at all. The light isn't very good in here, and I seem to have a splinter in my thumb." He waved his left hand with an apologetic smile.
"Oh! I'll get a lamp."
Soon the Sergeant was bent over Diego's hand as he thrust it out through the bars. "Is this it?" he probed.
"No, closer to the base," Diego said, working his right hand through the bars with the rock in his fist. "Yes, there. Ow!"
Suddenly Diego gasped. "Sergeant -- behind you!"
Mendoza spun around, swinging the lamp wildly, and Diego brought the rock down hard on the back of his head. He caught the lamp as the Sergeant slumped against the bars.
"Sorry, Mendoza," he apologized as he worked the keys free from the Sergeant's belt, "but I'm in a big hurry." He unlocked his cell, crept outside, and relocked it behind him. The rumpled furs on the cell's one bed wouldn't stand much inspection, but he hadn't time for more. He headed cautiously for the Alcalde's office.
His back to the inner door, the Alcalde was sitting at his desk with something in his hands. As Diego came up behind him, the Alcalde gloated, "Both the de la Vegas in one blow!"
Diego smiled grimly as he knocked the Alcalde out. He propped the unconscious man in the corner and brought the Sergeant in to keep him company. After tying them and gagging them with their own handkerchiefs, he borrowed the Alcalde's sword to leave a Z on a mahogany cabinet.
On his way out of the office, he paused. The object the Alcalde had been playing with was now lying on the desk: a ring with the gubernatorial seal. "I'll see if I can't find a better home for that," Diego muttered to himself as he snatched it up.
The more Don Alejandro struggled against his bindings, the tighter the rain-soaked rope grew. The tree he was tied to was young but still too strong to break. He had managed to free himself of his gag, but Jorge was still unconscious and no one was likely to hear his cries over the sound of the storm. Already the arroyo was awash in several inches of water, chilling Alejandro's legs and fingers; at any moment he expected a flash flood to come and drown him.
Giving up on straining his fingers around to the knots, Alejandro tried to pull the rope up and down against the tree, hoping that the bark would wear the rope thin. The tree's bark was not very rough, but it seemed to be abrading his skin effectively enough. He rubbed harder. The water was almost up to his ribs as he sat against the tree, and the current was already starting to pull.
Suddenly he stopped. Had he heard a voice? "Over here!" he cried shrilly, not really believing that anyone would be out here on such a night. He strained his ears for a response, calling again. He could see nothing in the pitch black, through the falling rain.
Suddenly his bonds were free, and a hand was on his elbow helping him rise -- a black gloved hand that he recognized at once. He touched his son's arm in relief and gratitude.
The roar of the storm was getting louder -- an approaching flood? Alejandro bellowed through the noise, "Get Jorge -- over there!" He waved. As Zorro nodded and turned to free the governor, Alejandro fumbled underwater at the ropes around his ankles.
Zorro had disappeared carrying the governor up the side of the arroyo, and the rush of water was unmistakably getting louder. Alejandro gave up on the sodden knots and hobbled for higher ground. He was halfway up the gully when a wall of water came rushing through. He clung deperately in place through the initial rush and the pummeling of debris; just when his lungs began to strain, the water at last receded below his head. He took a deep breath and reached up for a higher grip, but at that moment a sailing log caught him under the ribs and pulled him free. With his ankles still tied and his clothes weighing him down, Alejandro thrashed helplessly for air.
Then an arm was around his shoulders, and powerful kicks were pulling them toward the shore. Alejandro relaxed in Zorro's grip. As they approached the shore, Zorro's whip lashed out and caught an overhanging branch. It strained under the pull of the current.
"It won't hold us both!" shouted Zorro. "Here!" He passed the whip handle to his father, and before Alejandro could object, kicked himself free to be swept away by the current.
Alejandro pulled himself from the water and stood on the bank straining his eyes for a black form in the water. "Zorro!" he cried. "Diego!" There was no answer but thunder, no movement except the flow of the water. At last he turned back to search for Jorge.
The two of them arrived, staggering and bedraggled, at the de la Vega hacienda. Alejandro was not surprised to find that Felipe had prepared hot blankets and mulled wine for both of them; but he brushed such concern aside. "We must start a search party -- men with lanterns. Zorro was swept away in the flood. We must find him." Alejandro forced himself to function for a few more hours until the search was ordered to his satisfaction; then he collapsed, exhausted, before a fire, wondering how his attempts to end Zorro's masquerade had gone so disastrously awry.
Diego had pulled himself out of the stream not far away from where his father was looking for him, but he had no time to reassure Alejandro's concerns. He rode back to Los Angeles at a dangerous pace through the darkness. He changed his clothes at the back of the mission, pausing to cut a Z in his own coat before he put it on, and sent Toronado galloping back home with the evidence. Then he crept from porch to overhang, trying to keep his clothes dry, until he got to the back of the jail. He didn't dare to go in the front, in case the Sergeant and the Alcalde had awakened.
No one stirred within; no alarm sounded. Diego retrieved the keys he had stolen from Sergeant Mendoza, but before stepping into his cell he pulled a long thread loose from the inside of his coat sleeve. He dipped the coil of thread in the oil from Mendoza's discarded lantern and lit a taper at the flame.
Running the thread through a hook in the wall opposite to his cell, Diego stepped inside holding both ends of the thread and locked the door behind him. Then, reaching through the bars, he attached the ring of keys to the thread and tied the two ends together to make a loop. Very carefully, wary of breaking the thread, he pulled his loop around the hook in the wall until the keys were at the far end. It took him several minutes to coax the key ring up onto the hook; his taper was nearly extinguished by the time the keys were safely in place, but he managed to set fire to the near end of the oil-soaked loop of thread. He watched with satisfaction as the fire burned the length of the thread, all the way to the keys, destroying the evidence. Then, with a quick look around to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything, Diego lay down on the cell's single bed.
After perhaps half an hour, he heard muffled grunts issuing from the Alcalde's office. Apparently the guard at the front of the office heard also, for soon the Alcalde's ungagged voice was bellowing for justice. Diego winced at the noise.
Sergeant Mendoza came to the door of the cell and peered in, holding his head gingerly.
"Don Diego, are you there?"
Diego rolled over. "Of course, Sergeant. Are you all right? When Zorro came up and hit you on the head like that, I was afraid he'd hurt you."
"Zorro?" Mendoza looked confused.
"Yes! Didn't you see him?"
"No . . . I don't remember. You've been in here all the time?"
"Well, yes, how could I get out?"
Mendoza's eyes narrowed. "Zorro didn't let you out?"
"No, he said that would defeat the purpose. He left his signature." Diego pointed at the cut on the breast of his coat.
"But where are my keys?"
"Why, on the hook behind you, where you left them." Diego pointed. "Don't you remember, Sergeant? You said the Alcalde had told you not to bring them within reach of the cell."
"Oh . . . yes . . . that's right."
The Alcalde stood at the door during this interchange, holding a cloth to his head. "You say you haven't been out of that cell tonight, de la Vega?"
The Alcalde's lip curled triumphantly. "Then why is your hair wet?"
"Is it?" Diego said weakly, brushing at his hair. "Perhaps the rain blew in the window while I was asleep."
"Ha! We've caught you out now! Conceal it how you may, but now we have incontrovertible proof. You sneaked out of this cell in some devious manner, made an appearance as Zorro, and thought you could fool us by coming back to the jail. But the weather betrayed you. Think hard on your mistakes, Don Diego. You'll be hanged in the square tomorrow."
Diego swallowed hard, trying to find some innocent expostulation. Mendoza protested too, on Diego's behalf. But the Alcalde, confident of his own cleverness, turned his back on them and went back to his office humming.
The search parties returned a few hours after dawn, reporting no more luck than the recovery of Zorro's hat from a bush overhanging the water. Alejandro turned the hat in his hands and prayed fervently that their failure was a good sign. The rain had ended for the time being, and the sun might come out later in the day. Wearily Alejandro stood, placed the hat on an end- table, and turned to his friend.
"Are you feeling better, Jorge?"
The governor had taken quite a hard blow to his head, but he looked fierce in spite of it. "No. I still feel dreadful. And I still want to have that Alcalde in irons."
"We should go into Los Angeles before he can do any more mischief, and declare ourselves."
Don Jorge sighed heavily, touching his tender head. "You're right. Just give me a few moments to get ready." He blinked in surprise at the back of his hand. "Why, here's my ring. I thought the Alcalde had taken it."
"Someone must have gotten it back for you." Alejandro shook his head in admiration. "We owe a lot to Zorro. I'll go find Felipe and get ready." But even after Alejandro had searched the entire hacienda, he could find no sign of the boy -- and Zorro's hat was gone from the table where he had left it.
It was still some hours before noon when the Alcalde decided it would be best to carry out his sentence at once. Diego was escorted to the gallows by a flatteringly large detail of guards. He managed to find a smile for Victoria, who stood looking pale and strained at the fringes of the crowd, but in fact Diego was worried. He had gotten himself into a serious mess this time -- quite unavoidably -- and with his hands bound behind him and time running out, he could see no way clear of the trouble.
Fortunately, the Alcalde was very long-winded. He stood on the gallows platform delivering a long speech on the iniquities of Zorro and Diego de la Vega, severally and together, while the townsfolk looked on in disbelief. Diego worked to loosen his bonds every time his guards looked away. The Alcalde's sword hilt bobbed and swayed just a few feet in front of him -- if he could only get his hands free . . .
Suddenly a mutter went through the crowd. Everyone was staring at Diego -- or behind him? Before Diego could turn to look, something cold slipped between his wrists and haggled awkwardly at his ropes. Diego turned in wonder, rubbing at his freed wrists.
Behind the gallows, Zorro brought his sword up to a salute. Diego began to grin. If Zorro was a bit smaller today than usual, perhaps no one would notice the difference on horseback. Zorro cracked his whip with abandon over the heads of the crowd, clung to Toronado's mane as the horse reared and pawed the air, and galloped away before muskets could be brought to bear.
Zorro's unusual silence seemed to have affected everyone in the plaza. Even the Alcalde said nothing, until Diego turned to him with a smile.
"There, you see?" Diego declared. "I'm not Zorro."
"That wasn't Zorro!" spat the Alcalde scornfully.
"It certainly looked like Zorro to me," averred Victoria. The rest of the crowd muttered agreement.
"Notice that this so-called Zorro never said anything -- doubtless because we would have recognized his imposture from his voice. It's a trick, good people of Los Angeles! Yet another attempt on the part of this hardened criminal to escape his just fate!"
"And aren't you also trying to escape justice?" cried a new voice. Don Alejandro had just ridden through the gates in time to see Felipe's remarkable exhibition -- he had guessed the black rider's identity at once.
The Alcalde turned pale. "Don Alejandro! You're alive."
"That's right, Alcalde -- no thanks to you. It was Zorro who saved us when you arranged for us to drown!"
"I? Oh, no. I -- I'm so glad you're all right! We all feared the worst when those two criminals snatched you away."
"You neglected to inform anyone else about this kidnapping, Alcalde," Diego pointed out. "And you didn't worry much about sending out search parties."
"It wouldn't have done any good, with last night's weather."
"Enough of this!" roared Don Jorge uncharacteristically, his horse curvetting as it sensed its rider's anger. "People of Los Angeles, I am Don Jorge Luis Camaras, your new governor. Don Alejandro will attest to the truth of what I say. I came to Los Angeles to investigate rumors of corruption in your Alcalde, and found that in fact he's no more than a common criminal. Luis Ramon, as of this moment you are no longer Alcalde of Los Angeles. You will --" He paused as a resounding cheer drowned out his words. "You will return with me to Monterey to stand trial," he continued when the uproar died down.
"But I've done nothing!" protested the Alcalde.
"If you are acquitted of thievery, peculation, misuse of crown funds, wrongful arrest, and attempted murder, I'm sure we can find a good post for you in the Amazon campaign." The governor smiled. "Sergeant!"
"Uh, si, Senor?" Mendoza responded uncertainly.
"Here is my seal. I hope you consider it to be adequate proof of my office."
Mendoza looked at Don Alejandro and the fuming Alcalde. "Of course, Senor," he said weakly.
"Good. Place this man under arrest, and set Don Diego free at once."
"You'll do nothing of the sort, Mendoza!"
"Oh, I'm sorry, Alcalde -- uh, Senor Ramon, but if he really is the governor, I have to do what he says."
Alejandro watched in satisfaction as the former Alcalde of Los Angeles was taken to the jail, protesting all the way. Diego joined him after a minute. "Are you all right, Father? What was this about nearly drowning?"
Alejandro gave his son a quizzical look. "I'm sure you can guess the whole story if you try, Diego."
With a shrug, Diego turned aside. He caught sight of Felipe lurking at the back of the crowd and bore down upon him threateningly. Felipe just grinned.
"That was a very foolish stunt, Felipe. You could have gotten yourself killed!" He gave the boy a gentle cuff. "I thank you for it. But until you get a little more practice with a sword, you should be more careful what you attempt." Diego held up his scratched wrists, and Felipe shrugged sheepishly.
Don Alejandro paced back and forth in the hacienda. "Alcalde!" he grumbled. "I can't be Alcalde. I've got work to do here -- a ranch to take care of!"
"I thought you wanted me to start running the ranch," Diego pointed out.
"Yes, but -- you don't understand! I would have to move into town, I couldn't help you much with the day-to-day business."
"You told Governor Camaras that I could do anything I set my hand to."
Alejandro stopped pacing and glared at his son. "It's not that! I have every confidence in you, Diego, but --"
"But what? You would make an excellent Alcalde, and that's just what Los Angeles needs very badly. You did a fine job as temporary Alcalde, last year."
Alejandro sighed. "I suppose the pueblo does need a change. But it's a horrible job! Just look what I've got to do!" He waved at a tall stack of documents on the table. "And that's only the beginning."
Diego looked at the papers. "What are those?"
"Oh, those are all the listed reports of Zorro's appearances over the last five years. I have to read them over and render a judgment on Zorro's crimes by tomorrow!"
Diego coughed. "Do you want help?"
Alejandro gave him a serious look. "No, I have to do this myself, Diego. If this is going to be my job, I'll do it right." He sat down at his desk and pulled the first report off the stack. "Well, go on, then," he snapped irritably, waving at Diego to leave. "I can't have you bothering me!"
The next day, Alejandro stopped briefly in the tavern. "Buenos dias, Senorita."
"Oh, Don Alej -- ahem -- Alcalde! What can I do for you?"
"Oh, nothing. I'm just about to make a proclamation, and I thought you would want to hear it."
Her eyes lit with excitement. "Zorro's pardon?"
"Well, not exactly. Come out into the plaza in a few minutes and see."
The crowd gathered in the plaza was very thick; it seemed the entire pueblo had turned out to hear Don Alejandro's first speech as Alcalde. Victoria made her way to the front ranks of the crowd and waited eagerly.
Alejandro looked out at the sea of faces and cleared his throat nervously. He gave a few words on his new office and his determination to do well, and then, as he gained confidence, he turned to the subject that everyone wanted to hear about.
"As my first job as Alcalde," he told the excited faces, "I have reviewed the charges against the man we all know as Zorro. These charges, brought on Zorro by the previous Alcalde, include treason, sedition, murder, attempted murder, thievery, arson, coach-stopping, attacks on public officials, vandalism, and reckless riding within the city gates. I have judged that Zorro is guilty --" There was a roar of protest; Alejandro waited for it to quiet. "-- is guilty of twenty-two counts of reckless riding, each carrying a fine of five pesos. He has also been responsible for eight hundred and fifty pesos' worth of property damage, including both public and private property. He is not guilty of any other charges." The people muttered uneasily among themselves. "This brings Zorro's debt to the pueblo to a total of nine hundred sixty pesos. However, Zorro has also brought some fifty-six convicted criminals to justice, with associated rewards ranging from two to fifty pesos for their capture. When this is included in consideration, Zorro owes the pueblo --" Alejandro paused with a smile "-- twenty-five pesos. If he chooses to pay this fine, he will be considered to have discharged all debts, and any charges against him will be dropped."
On cue, a pouch sailed from above and fell with a very heavy clink at Alejandro's feet. "Nine hundred sixty pesos, Alcalde!" cried Zorro from the roof above the platform. "Any rewards I give to the poor."
The cheers were deafening. Zorro swung himself down from the edge of the roof and bowed in acknowledgement. When he reached Alejandro's platform, the new Alcalde handed him an official scroll.
"Here is your pardon, sir!" he said with a smile. "Copies will be posted in town and sent to all outposts within the week. You can stop worrying about bounty hunters."
Zorro opened the scroll and read it, then held it up for all to see. His eyes searched the crowd until at last he found Victoria, watching him expectantly.
"Senorita, the time has come for me to fill my promise to you." He smiled at her warmly and took her hands. "I love you, Victoria Escalante. Will you marry me?"
"But -- you haven't removed your mask yet!"
"Will you marry me, sight unseen?"
She frowned. "If I say no, will you refuse to take the mask off?"
The light died from his eyes. "No," he said shortly, and reached back to untie the mask.
She lifted her hands to stop him. "If I say yes, will you let me take the mask off?"
Slowly, his smile returned. "Yes."
Victoria lifted his hat off and reached her arms around him to undo the knot of his mask. The entire town of Los Angeles waited in anticipation. She loosened the knot, took a deep breath, and pulled it free.
Diego smiled at her.
Victoria blinked, and her forehead wrinkled. "Diego?"
"It really was you!" Sergeant Mendoza exclaimed. "I didn't think the Alcalde could ever be right!"
"Diego?" Victoria struggled with disbelief.
"It's true, Victoria," affirmed Alejandro.
Diego looked up, surprised in turn. "You knew?"
Alejandro smiled. "Surely you don't imagine that you could carry on such a masquerade in my very hacienda, without my knowledge?"
"But, you --"
He turned back to Victoria. "Would you like a fencing exhibition?" he offered, his head cocked. "Or, no -- I have a better idea." He whistled sharply, and an unmistakable black horse appeared around the corner of the quartel. Diego swept Victoria up in his arms and tapped Toronado on the shoulder. When the horse knelt on one foreknee, he climbed into the saddle still holding Victoria.
"Wait -- Diego -- where are you taking me?"
"To Zorro's secret hideout."
"Come back soon!" called Alejandro. "There's going to be a fiesta!"
Victoria looked back as Diego guided his horse through the press of people. "Your father knew?"
"It appears he did. It was a surprise to me. I was sure -- here, hold on." He held her tightly as they left town and Toronado picked up his pace.
Victoria was delighted at the way the cave was concealed in the rocks. Once inside, she looked around with interest. "Zorro certainly has more interest in chemistry than I realized," she said with a smile. "But where are we?"
"Right at home." He showed her the peephole into the hacienda. "This annex was built over fifty years ago. I don't think my father knew about it."
Victoria shook her head in amazement. "Diego de la Vega -- Zorro! You certainly had us all fooled!"
She slapped him -- hard.
"Why didn't you tell me! You were right there all the time, and I didn't know. Oh, you made quite a fool of me, Diego!"
"A fool! Never, Victoria! I didn't want to cause trouble for you!"
"Trouble, hah! Do you know how frustrated I was, never knowing --"
"Would you have been less frustrated if you had known?"
She glared at him.
"I couldn't risk letting my identity be known. How would you have liked to know the truth and have to pretend to ignore me? I know it was all I could do to withstand the temptation --"
She turned her back.
She crossed her arms.
"Does this mean you won't marry me?" he said forlornly.
She turned with an impish gleam in her eye and kissed him contritely. "Of course I'll still marry you. I -- mmm." Any further words were lost.
The fiesta was a great event. Diego, Victoria, and the new Alcalde were surrounded by well-wishers. Felipe brought some of Diego's things from the laboratory, and flares, firecrackers, and explosions lit the sky.
At last Diego found a moment to speak with his father. "How long have you known?" he asked.
Alejandro shrugged. "About a month."
Diego laughed. "One month! Then it must have been --"
"When you were shot, yes."
"You said you would respect my wish for privacy!"
"No, I said I thought I should respect your wish for privacy. If I hadn't thought so, I would have told you that I knew."
Diego shook his head. "In one month, you've done what I tried to do for five years -- gotten rid of the Alcalde and started setting the town to rights. Then, all the things you've been saying in the past month --"
"Well, I couldn't let on that I wasn't still frustrated by your lack of -- manly skills." He waved at the sword Diego still wore, although he had changed his clothes. "Will you always be wearing that, now?"
"Yes, and I think Toronado should have a proper stable."
Victoria broke in, "And I hope you'll start coming and going by doorways, for a change."
"And will you give me lessons in fencing? Some of those moves of yours . . ."
Diego laughed. "I'll help retrain all of your lancers, if you like." Then he caught sight of Felipe and grabbed him by the shoulder. "That reminds me," he said to the boy. "Now that my secret is out, I think everyone should know the truth about you."
"Felipe has a secret?" Alejandro asked.
"Well, I'm glad to see that you haven't discovered everything about us! The truth, Father, Victoria, is that Felipe is not deaf. He can hear perfectly well, and he's been my ears more than once. He just has trouble speaking."
Everyone clapped Felipe on the back, and he smiled. With his eyes on Diego, he struggled with something.
"Felipe, what is it?"
Slowly Felipe forced out words, his voice rough and pitched like that of a much younger boy. "I can -- speak, too."
"That's marvellous, Felipe! How long have you been able to do this?"
He shook his head, gesturing at the faces around him. "It's hard -- with people."
Diego embraced him delightedly. "It will get easier, over time. So you've been practicing in private?"
Diego grasped his shoulder tightly. "Well! Now that Los Angeles has no more secrets --"
"And a new Alcalde," Victoria put in.
"And a new Alcalde," Diego agreed, putting one hand on his father's shoulder, "it's time for us all to start a new life." He smiled at Victoria. "Together."
Victoria held up her glass in toast. "Togetherness!"