2. HIGH STAKES
(dedicated to Hunter for his story suggestion and his devotion to the ideals of Zorro)
"I could beat you blindfolded,
sergeant's stripes or not!" declared Private Sanchez, following immediately
behind his superior officer as they entered the tavern.
Mendoza pulled off his shako and smoothed a lank forelock out of his eyes. "You would need both eyes open and an extra pair just to beat the stupidest dray horse in the stable!" he scoffed good-naturedly. "I have been fencing since you were born and am the best swordsman in the garrison. Ask anybody."
"I will--when I need a good laugh!" retorted the private, undeterred. "You don't even know what to do with the pointy end!"
"I'll tell you exactly what to do with it," said the sergeant, shaking his finger at the younger man's face. "You be careful with it. It's sharp," he added in lofty tones.
A crack of derisive laughter was Sanchez's response.
"A little friendly rivalry, gentlemen?" greeted Don Alejandro from the bar. He spilled a few coins on the counter for Señorita Escalante.
The tavern owner scooped up his meal payment with a quick word of thanks and asked what she could get for the two soldiers.
"Lunch," answered Mendoza. "And Señorita, would you put an extra big helping of your frijoles refritos on the plate?" He turned a beatific smile on her to sweeten the request.
"By all means, Señorita, fatten him up," interjected the private. "He'll be so heavy he won't be able to move." Sanchez made a few slow advances and retreats, imitating in an unflattering portrayal his superior's fencing style.
"Don't tell me you gentlemen are going to fight a duel," remarked the don mildly. "Amanda Herrera is long gone."
"Oh, no, Don Alejandro," corrected the senior lancer. "Sanchez couldn't challenge me because I outrank him. For the same reason I can't challenge him. But we are both going to compete in the tournament."
"What tournament is this?" asked the rancher. "Something to boost morale at the garrison?"
"No, no--it's for the whole pueblo. The alcalde is offering a cash purse of two hundred pesos as an incentive to encourage all the swordsmen in the territory to compete."
"But someone could get hurt," protested the innkeeper, returning with two full plates in time to hear Mendoza's explanation.
Alcalde Ignacio DeSoto strode through the door, his frosty hair meticulously brushed, his light brown cutaway coat and pantaloons immaculate. A blue silk cravat was tied under his chin, and his legs were encased in gleaming Hessian boots. A hand rested lightly on the hilt of his sword.
"The tournament will be fought with practice foils, Señorita," he stated coolly. "Of course no one will get hurt. The idea is merely to encourage some good sport and camaraderie between the garrison and the townspeople."
"An excellent idea," nodded Alejandro with a smile.
"Señorita Escalante, I was hoping you would lend your lovely hand to our little tournament," said DeSoto with an ingratiating smile. "Perhaps you could give the prize to the winner?"
Her face was a fleeting study of mixed emotions. Nothing made her skin crawl quite like the alcalde at his nicest, yet being offered a key role appealed to her vanity.
"I--would be happy to help in any small way I can," she stammered.
"Excellent! I hope you will plan to take part also, Don Alejandro," said the officer to the distinguished hacendado. "As a former colonel in the army, I'm sure your technique with a blade is still strong. Come and show my men what you can do!" he invited jovially. "We will start at ten in the morning on Friday. I'll set up a fencing area in the plaza, and with people coming to town for market, we should attract a big audience as well as extra competitors."
"I think I will participate," confirmed the don. "It sounds like a lot of fun." He nodded in farewell to the commander and his soldiers, but the señorita stopped him briefly.
"Here is a letter that came this morning for Don Diego," she explained, handing him a thick folded packet.
Alejandro thanked her and rode home.
Diego de la Vega did not look
up from the Handel sonata which was rippling lightly from his long fingers
when his father entered the front door.
"How was town?" he merely asked.
"Interesting," the rancher responded shortly, then strode to a sword stand by the fireplace and unsheathed a ceremonial sabre. He tested his wrist and finger control with a few feints and counterparries against an imaginary opponent. The shuffling of his booted feet on the tile floor at last broke his son's concentration.
"Reliving your wild youth?" commented his son dryly, having spun about on his piano stool to watch the strange display.
Alejandro lowered the blade indignantly. "For your information, I used to be the best sabreur in the regiment, even when I was a colonel!"
"So you've told me--many times." Diego's smile glimmered with a gentle hint of irony.
"I'm just warming up a little," puffed his father, resuming his exertions. A parry in prime and a longer lunge brought a sudden cessation to his endeavors. "Ow, oh," he groaned, regaining his feet. "I guess I can't go that deep anymore. But I intend to show Ignacio DeSoto a thing or two about how we handled a blade in the cavalry!"
A pained look replaced the amusement. "Don't tell me you've made another bet with the alcalde."
"No," denied his irritated parent. "There's an open fencing tournament in town on Friday. DeSoto is offering a two hundred peso purse as first prize. He even got Victoria's promise to award the prize to the winner!"
"Shades of Robin Hood," murmured the tall caballero softly.
Diego gave a slight shake of his head. "Just an errant thought. So you have designs on winning the purse?"
"The money means nothing, of course. It's the honor of victory--and the pleasure of showing up Ignacio DeSoto and all his arrogant pomp!" A thought occurred to him. "Say, you could compete, too. You would certainly be one of the top finishers if what I saw against--Gilberto Risendo--was anything to judge by."
"That was going to be our little secret, remember?" warned Diego, wishful to distract his father from sad thoughts of his bitter elder son. "But I might participate. I'll think about it."
"Good. Oh, I almost forgot; there's a letter for you." He handed his son the packet.
The musician received it eagerly. "From Mexico City. Maybe this is what we've been waiting for." He broke the seal and spread open the stiff, folded sheets of parchment. "Yes! It's from Señor Emilio Albarrado of the Central Bank there." He rapidly scanned down the first page and read the second. "He thinks there's a very real possibility to my theory, and he's traveling north by stage to meet Felipe and talk with him in person. He arrives--what day is the twenty-ninth?"
"Saturday, if the stage is on time."
"Then on the twenty-ninth, we could finally have the answers to Felipe's past!"
The caballero found Felipe in
the cave beneath the house. Silently he observed his companion brush
Toronado's glossy coat and then stroke his long equine nose. The
black nuzzled the young man's face affectionately. Felipe could communicate
to the stallion without a word, an ability which Diego had noted and envied.
"Hola, and thanks for looking after Toronado," the older man greeted, descending the rest of the stairs. "I have something important to talk to you about. Come over here; let's sit down." The two men perched on lab stools; Felipe sat quietly but with a faint look of apprehension on his face.
"You remember, I'm sure, when Señora Deranoso came here and pretended to be your mother?" At the youth's hurt, downcast eyes, the caballero hurried on. "After thinking on the incident a while, I wondered if you could be related to the boy she and her partner planned to kidnap."
His companion looked up with a quizzical expression.
"Francisco Escalante said you were enough like him to be his twin, and Francisco knew the boy and his father well. Of course, people can resemble each other and have no traceable connection whatsoever; then it's just chance. But I thought the lead was worth following up."
The young man's attention was now riveted, and he signed a quick question.
"Yes, I know it's been a while, but it took me a long time to track down Francisco again after the fiasco in the plaza to his career. But he finally wrote Victoria, so I got the address from her and asked him the man's name and the bank where he worked. When I heard from Francisco--another long wait, you understand--I wrote to the man who is the father of this look-alike of yours. Today I heard from him, and I want to share this letter with you."
Felipe could sit still no longer; he stood behind his mentor and read along silently over Diego's shoulder.
"My Esteemed Señor de la Vega,
Regarding your letter of April
16th, I found your story about the orphan boy in your keeping extremely
interesting. Now I have a story to tell you.
I am the eldest child in my rather large family and followed my father into the banking business. The sister two years younger than I, Maria Luisa, fell in love with our stable hand, a Carlos Patavera. Against my father's wishes, they married and left Mexico City. They settled in Tepic, up the coast some miles from Guadalajara, as you well know. Do you see how thus far our two stories could be the same story?
Communication between my sister and me was sporadic at best in the years after that, but she wrote me about the birth of her son. He was christened Emilio Felipe in my honor. Do you see another link? It was only the next year that my own son was born, Emilio Luis. As her son grew my sister told me of the boy's affinity for horses. Perhaps he took after his father in that way; at any rate, it seemed 'Felipe' had been a propitious choice for the boy's name.
Several years passed uneasily, for I'm sure you must know even in California of the rebellious factions that have struggled against Spanish sovereignty from time to time. One such violent confrontation was fought on the Guadalajara road just outside Tepic, the very battlefield through which you journeyed and found your Felipe.
Concerned for my sister's safety after hearing of the battle, I wrote to her frantically in the months that followed. One of my letters was returned at last, saying that no such person lived in Tepic. I took leave from the bank for several weeks to journey there and search for my sister, her husband, and my nephew. No one could tell me what had happened to them. They had apparently vanished from the earth, never to be heard from again. As I stood at the mass grave dug for the battle victims, I wondered if I had found their final resting place. My nephew would have been almost six years old when he died.
I had long given up any hope of seeing them again. I was certain they were all dead until I got your letter. Now a strange longing has stirred within me, and I must see this boy of yours myself. You see, I was my nephew's godfather. I saw him only twice: at his christening, and when he was about four or so. Perhaps in your Felipe's face I can see something of my family. If he indeed resembles Emilio Luis, that will be proof enough for me.
I have made arrangements to travel north to Los Angeles. Barring delays on the road, I should arrive on the twenty-ninth of June.
Until then, your most
Emilio Miguel Albarrado"
"Well, what do you think of that?"
Diego smiled. "Perhaps after all these years you'll be reunited with
your own family."
The young man's eyes glistened with unshed tears; his mouth worked as though trying to say something that could only be expressed verbally. But no sound came from the trembling lips; they shut firmly again, and Felipe's chin quivered in the effort to hold back sobs.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he signed angrily.
"I didn't want to get your hopes up," explained the caballero quietly. "I thought my efforts would likely come to nothing, just as they had before."
Diego watched as the young man, Zorro's only confidant, took a few steps while running his fingers along the edge of the lab table. Felipe lifted one test tube from its rack, released it, and repeated the same restless motion to the remaining tubes there. He was deep in troubled thoughts, and his mentor waited patiently for the questions to surface.
At last with a long face Felipe gestured his most weighty concern. "If he's my uncle, do I have to go with him?"
Nonplused, the caballero queried, "Wouldn't you want to? I thought this would be the best of good news for you! Your own family, your own flesh-and-blood!"
Felipe turned away sadly, shrugging his shoulders to indicate his dissatisfaction with both the opportunity presented and his mentor's lack of understanding. He sprinted up the stone steps, and after ascertaining that the library was empty, left Diego alone in the lamplight.
"Repeat back to me what I've
told you, Sergeant," ordered the alcalde.
"The tournament will be a double-elimination format. When a lancer is eliminated, he is to bring his musket to the tournament and watch until a winner is decided in the last round," Mendoza parroted. "But I don't see why. You said this was to be a goodwill event, something that would promote better relations between the military and the people."
DeSoto gave the sigh of a man condemned to deal forever with mental inferiors. "Zorro may come, and I want the men to be ready."
"Zorro?" The bemused royal lancer goggled. "He won't come, Alcalde. He's not crazy!"
"No, he's not crazy, but he's sly. All foxes are. Of course he won't come in his black mask, but think of the temptation to his pride. He knows he's the best fencer in the territory."
"Sí, that is true," confirmed Mendoza.
"But at the end of the tourney we will award the title of Best Fencer in Los Angeles to the winner. Could he bear that title going to someone else?"
The sergeant thought he could have borne it had he been Zorro, knowing a noose awaited him on his capture, but the alcalde rolled on.
"No! I think he will be there without his mask. He will fence in the tourney, and he will fence to win. He wants the recognition, he wants the prize money, and he'll want to receive it from his true love's hand."
The soldier at attention did not agree with all of his commander's line of reasoning but intuitively knew not to contradict the officer. "Do you think Señorita Escalante knows who Zorro is?"
"I don't think she does," he muttered, "which will make the moment all the more poignant for that menace. Oh, yes, our little tournament could flush out a Fox!"
Alejandro had asked his son how
Felipe had taken the news, and Diego was forced to report that the young
man had seemed distressed rather than pleased.
"Give him time, Diego. Let him come to terms with this revelation in his own way. It may all be for naught; Albarrado may be no relation at all."
Diego nodded silently but turned down his father's plea for a sparring partner in preparation for the tournament. "Perhaps you could get Felipe to participate." At his father's surprised glance, he added, "I've been teaching him since I returned from Madrid. He knows a few moves." He turned back to his books, and his father with a wry expression went to find the young man.
In the days that followed, the young caballero supervised the practice bouts between his father and Felipe. Mornings were the coolest time for vigorous exertion, so the men occupied the side garden before the rancher's daily routine began. Don Alejandro had expected to have to teach Felipe basics as they sparred, but to his delight found that the youth had been well-trained and had fast reflexes. The silver-haired man also discovered that his own wrist and fingers had lost much of their flexibility through years of non-use, and was hard-pressed to hold off the challenge of the younger man.
"Oh, Felipe," he groaned after his tip had fallen short of the target, "you have youth on your side. It's a great advantage."
"Felipe, have you noticed how Father keeps binding your blade in quarte and transferring you to seconde?" Diego pointed out, using gestures with his words. "Then he drives for your flank every time. Cede to a low quarte and attack in quarte or feint quarte and drop to the belly."
"Why does he get all the coaching?" protested the older don.
"Why does the 'best sabreur in the regiment' need any?" retorted his son.
"Well, I guess I've gotten a little rusty." Alejandro rubbed his aching weapon arm with a rueful expression.
The tall caballero relented. "This is foil, not sabre. Too many of your actions are cuts instead of thrusts, and cuts will land flat. Also, you're taking your parries too wide."
The older de la Vega grimaced as he tried to catch his breath. "If you know so much about fencing, why aren't you competing in the tourney?"
"I'm more of an armchair fencer," Diego replied with a self-depreciating shrug.
"Huh. I know what I saw. All right, all right," added Alejandro as his son opened his mouth in warning. "I'll keep quiet about that, but why is beyond what I can fathom."
Market day always saw a crowded
plaza; stalls were set up for selling various wares, and most farmers sold
produce directly from the back of their carts. With the promised
tourney as both competition and entertainment, young dons and their fathers
rode into town from the outlying ranchos, and even a few merchants had
decided to take their chances with a blade.
The alcalde himself signed up every contestant who reported to the judges' table. "Welcome, Don Esteban! Come to try your hand? Excellent! Your son too, I hope?" His voice dropped as he registered the two men and discussed the rules with them.
"I'll sign us in," said Alejandro de la Vega to his companions and trotted his mare into the plaza.
Diego hung back with his protégé. "Just remember what I've taught you. Watch the distance. Do low line attacks if your opponent is strong high. Get the parry; priority will be used to decide between double touches. Keep your weapon shoulder relaxed. Look for your opponent's weaknesses, then exploit them."
The young man nodded in understanding, then signed a question.
The caballero shook his head. "I may be suspicious by nature, but I think the alcalde will be looking for Zorro at this tournament." At Felipe's doubtful expression, he explained further, "He'll watch for a man with Zorro's flair and style, and will accuse that man of being Zorro. At least, that's my guess for holding this tournament. The Sheriff of Nottingham did the same thing in 'Robin Hood,' and Robin's pride was so great that he competed in disguise and got caught. I hope I can learn from that," he smiled ruefully. "Now, what are you going to do if anyone asks you how you learned to fence?"
The young man pointed to Diego's father and grinned.
"That's right," laughed his mentor. "Now go and show them what you can do with a blade!"
DeSoto called the forty-four participants, including twelve men from the garrison, and announced the pairs for the first round. The bouts were fenced to two points, each touch needing to be what the alcalde called a "palpable hit," easily seen by the hand judges. Spectators gathered to watch; odds were offered on fencers who won their bouts in the first round. Alejandro marched to his first victory by easily defeating a young private from the garrison. Felipe was paired with Don Andrés, a tough old campaigner from the army, and lost by a touch.
"You did well," Diego consoled him quietly. "He has a lot of skill. Remember to step back with your parries. Distance buys you time."
The second round saw roughly a quarter of the contestants eliminated. More had one defeat, and some had two victories. DeSoto had easily beaten his two opponents and between his bouts officiated the others. De la Vega had dealt a loss to Sergeant Mendoza, and Felipe won a tough bout against Don Esteban's son, eliminating the other young man.
The betting increased, and the crowd grew larger and noisier. Advice, encouragement, derision, cheers, and groans blended together into a raucous cacophony of sound. Diego noted that Victoria was now following the bouts with somewhat disgruntled interest; she had set up a taco stand in which to sell food to the contestants and spectators, but like the other vendors she had too few customers to continue. Padre Benitez was also present, craning his short neck to see over the crowd in front; he enjoyed sport but abhorred the gambling that usually accompanied it.
The tall caballero watched the various bouts and rooted enthusiastically for his father and young companion. The first round pairs had been arranged to put a better fencer against a weaker fencer to begin the process of weeding out the weaker contestants. The second round had paired the men with someone of similar ability. DeSoto, he observed, was keenly studying each fencer and keeping track of those men still in the hunt for the prize. Just as I thought, he mused.
After the third round only fifteen men remained in the competition. Don Alejandro, Don Esteban, Don Andrés, and the alcalde had survived unscathed. Felipe had handed a loss to Marcos Lopez, who had been previously undefeated. The lancers had been eliminated except for Private Sanchez, Corporal Sepulveda, and Private Gonzales.
"I suggest we draw names out of a hat to determine our opponent for the next round," announced the white-haired officer.
The suggestion met with approval; luck could be a helpful ally at this stage of the contest. Felipe drew Don Esteban and suffered a close but hard loss. Disappointed, he retired from the field of combat to the cool shade of an adobe wall. He expected a comforting word from Don Diego, but the caballero was nowhere to be seen. Puzzled, the young man scanned the crowd in vain.
Alejandro lost to the alcalde, which nettled the rancher no end. He joined Felipe and complained about his loss of physical conditioning, a problem he intended to remedy if the tourney were to become an annual event. He wondered what advice his son would give him after witnessing the bout, but Diego was still absent. "Armchair fencer," he muttered, angrier at himself for having lost than at his son.
The remaining fencers were reduced one by one. Don Esteban lost to the alcalde after defeating Sanchez. Gonzales was removed from the tourney by Lopez, who was taken out by Alejandro. De la Vega was eliminated by Don Andrés, who himself had been handed a loss by Don Esteban. At last the numbers were reduced to two men.
"I don't believe it," muttered the officer, facing his opponent for the final round. "This can't be."
Saluting him crisply across the field of honor was the diminutive dynamo, Don Andrés. The wiry sexagenarian with the balding head and thin gray mustache quizzed him, "Why not, Alcalde? If you practice every day, you could still be fencing when you're my age!"
"But," sputtered the commandant, lowering his blade, "you couldn't possibly be--"
"Fence!" ordered Mendoza.
Andrés sprang from the line with an athletic balestra, derobed DeSoto's attempt to parry, and hit his opponent in the belly.
"Touch right!" bellowed the sergeant.
Marcos Lopez's voice could be heard above the din. "Twenty pesos on Don Andrés!"
"Wait until I'm ready!" snarled the officer to the referee. He assumed an on guard stance again. He won the next touch on a divided vote from the hand judges, and the two men squared off for the definitive touch.
The alcalde launched a ferocious attack, feinting with a lunge to sixte and disengaging to octave. Don Andrés fell back and picked up the second intention. His parry to octave was anticipated, though, as was his bind to quarte. DeSoto reprised during the blade transfer and closed the distance. Though the old don had the priority, he could not wield his blade in the short space remaining. The reprise was counted as valid.
The don saluted his opponent with all formal courtesy and retired from the field. A smattering of applause greeted the alcalde's victory.
"Well, I didn't expect to win the purse when I proposed this tourney," he announced with false modesty to the crowd. "I'm astonished to think with all of you fine fencers that I could be the best in Los Angeles!"
A loud, amused shout of laughter openly mocked the officer, and heads turned to see a masked man clothed in black sitting easily upon the rooftop of the garrison's supply bunker. In his hand was a gleaming sabre of Toledo steel.
"The best in Los Angeles?" jeered the Fox. "Seriously, Alcalde; how can you claim that title when I didn't participate?"
DeSoto's close-set blue eyes snapped with fury. "Why don't you come down here, and we can determine which of us is better?"
"I'd be delighted to oblige you," smiled the outlaw with an elaborate gesture, "but I don't care for your welcoming committee." He nodded toward the lancers interspersed through the crowd. The soldiers carried their muskets alertly, but none raised to fire without an order from the officer.
The game was not going as the commandant had planned. Why did that miscreat come boldly at the end instead of with craft and guile, as DeSoto had expected? He knew if he ordered his men to open fire, the Fox would slip over the roof peak and be gone before his men could reload.
Chagrined, he announced to the lancers, "Hold your fire. Let him come down; I'll fight him!" He leaned over to Sanchez and said quietly, "Shoot him on my command." Snatching the sabre from the lancer's sheath, he growled to his enemy, "No buttoned tip for you!"
"Fifty pesos on Zorro!" shouted a voice as the masked man jumped down to salute his opponent. The call suddenly awoke another round of frenzied betting.
"No, wait. Stop!" protested Pedro Chavez, the bank's manager and holder of the stakes. "I can't give you odds if no one will bet on the alcalde!"
"Give them odds!" roared DeSoto, stung by the prevailing opinion of his ability matched against the outlaw's. "Twelve to one!"
Twelve to one! A gasp went up from the crowd and some bets changed sides. At twelve to one, those who backed him stood to gain an appreciable sum if the alcalde was lucky.
"We have odds at twelve to one for Zorro!" announced Chavez. "Place your bets now!" A few moments later, the adversaries crossed blades. "No more!" he told those still thrusting money in his face. "The bout has started!"
The spectators stepped back to clear a larger area for the combatants; the arc of sabres needed more room than the thrusts from foils. DeSoto did an advance lunge with his point in line; the masked man merely stepped back until the attack had run its course. The white-haired officer recovered and circled. Zorro did the same; he knew the alcalde would come to him, so he waited with the half grin that his opponent found so irksome.
The officer attacked again, this time to the belly. He found his sabre parried in quinte and trapped between the shining guard and Toledo steel blade. Had he time to contemplate, DeSoto might have admired the ease with which his nemesis had picked up his blade and transferred it to another line--one which left him momentarily suspended.
But only for a moment. The next, the officer was picking himself up from the ground, having been propelled there by a black boot to his stomach. The indignity of landing on his backside in the dust infuriated him. He would show that masked menace!
A blistering compound attack in which the alcalde feinted to the black hat and then dropped to cut flank was picked up with unruffled calm by the Fox. The dark hero took a half parry in quinte with a retreat until the true cut was delivered. It met his sabre with a metallic ring. Zorro lowered his point, this time trapping the alcalde to the outside. He closed the distance and propelled his arm forward explosively. Again DeSoto was thrown back and staggered to regain his footing.
"I see you have no regard for rules of honorable combat," sneered the officer, circling more warily. "Just what I would expect from an outlaw."
The masked man shrugged. "All's fair in-- Well, this certainly isn't love."
The duelists made an odd study in contrasts. The afternoon sun reflected with dazzling brilliance off the snowy hair of the commandant and the bleached white of his ruffled cotton shirt; his aggressive posture revealed his determination and his snarl blatant hostility. His opponent was clothed from hat to boot in unrelieved black, excepting only a few ornaments of silver. Through the slits of his mask his eyes appeared to be sparkling with joy, but whether from the thrill of danger or his own irrepressible good humor no breathless spectator could have said. Whatever action the alcalde launched, it was met with graceful ease and tranquilly turned aside.
DeSoto was fast regretting his challenge to the outlaw; despite having defeated the best fencers in the region he was still no match for the popular hero. He wished he had called on his men to fire at Zorro as he sat on the roof; even if every shot had missed, the townspeople would think that he had done his duty toward a known criminal. Now the officer knew he stood a good chance of losing to the masked man in a very public, humiliating manner.
Señorita Escalante squeezed through the crowd, never taking her eyes from the man she loved, and approached Sergeant Mendoza.
"Where's the prize money?" she demanded. "I need to give it to the winner, and I think we're about to have a winner."
"The alcalde won the money," the lancer protested. "Zorro was not officially entered."
"Try telling that to this mob," she threw back and snatched from his hand the satchel of pesos. His feeble protests faded as she pushed through the packed bodies to a ringside view.
The noise had not abated with the hero's unexpected entrance into the tourney. Now there was much more at stake than a mere purse of pesos; Zorro, the dashing hero of the people, was risking his life for the sport of it. He had come into the lair of the enemy to do so! Winning would increase his legend ten-fold. The Fox had never lost, but if he should lose this time--
A uniform gasp of admiration echoed when the masked man adroitly arrested his opponent's blade with an inquartata. The riposte was a slashing cut to the officer's torso; the Toledo steel sang as DeSoto jumped back, sucking in his chest. The sharpened tip of the blade fell short, and the crowd released a collective breath.
DeSoto looked for an opening in the outlaw's defenses. There was none. He had the unenviable task of creating an attack into flawless form. He was too blinded by his hatred to notice that the masked man never attacked; the Fox was content to play defense and let his opponent do the hard work. The alcalde was panting heavily from his exertion under the June sun, and perspiration glistened on his high forehead; his enemy appeared to be perfectly comfortable.
"As pleasant as this is," remarked the dark hero, "I think you're getting overheated." He beat the officer's blade in different lines as he retreated, but to the spectators' consternation, he made no ripostes to the furious attacks.
Lack of breath stymied any answer the alcalde wished to make. He knew that he was being baited to continue attacking, but was lulled into believing that the next remise would succeed. Desperate, he tried a counterbeat to tierce and disengaged to his adversary's right cheek. The attack was lightning-fast; only reflex could save the masked man's face.
But Zorro had not followed the counterbeat with a parry in tierce; his blade still covered quarte, so the commandant was attacking into a closed line. A retreat gave the outlaw the distance he required; a sharp graze down the length of the alcalde's blade forced it from his hand. Some spectators scattered as the sharpened steel cartwheeled toward their feet. The Fox finished his counterattack with an uppercut; the rounded guard impacted DeSoto's jaw with a crack as steel met bone. The officer staggered back, dazed.
"The winner!" called Señorita Escalante, running to her champion. She held aloft the satchel of coins. Applause and cheers erupted from the pueblo's fascinated spectators.
"Gracias, Señorita," he smiled at her as he received the prize. "Padre," he called to the priest, "surely you can find people in the pueblo more needy than I." The bag arched through the air and was deftly caught by the surprised Benitez.
"Indeed I can, Zorro!" he exclaimed.
"Wait!" protested DeSoto, mumbling his words and cupping a reddening jaw. "You can't have that! It can't leave the cuartel!"
"What do you mean, Alcalde?" demanded Don Andrés. "If I had won the tourney, would you have denied me the prize?"
"You don't understand," snapped the officer. "That money is--is--"
"That money is from my reward fund," grinned the man in black. "The alcalde didn't think it would ever leave his keeping."
"You used government funds for the prize money?" questioned Don Alejandro.
"It's in my jurisdiction to use--" The commandant stopped abruptly, realizing he had been successfully distracted from a larger issue. "Sanchez! Shoot him!"
The private had followed the bout with as much interest as any of the crowd; at the officer's orders he recalled his duty and raised his weapon at the man on the black stallion. One of the fencers ambled in front of his sights as he took aim. Grunting with frustration, he recognized the deaf-mute servant of the de la Vegas. Shouting at the idiot would do no good, and Zorro was almost out of range.
"Daughter," chided the priest as the crowd dispersed, "you should not be gambling at these events. It shows a lack of trust in the Lord's provision."
Victoria looked up from counting her share of winnings. The coins were slipped into her skirt pocket. "Staking Zorro is no gamble, Padre; it's a sound investment." She winked saucily and returned to the taco booth.
Don Emilio Albarrado's coach
arrived several hours late, but Don Alejandro and his son were waiting
for it to arrive. The banker was a tall, slender man with graying
hair. He sported a handsome goatee which was still dark brown, and
his fine suit and hat showed him to be a man of means, even distinction,
in Mexico City.
"Welcome to Los Angeles, Señor," said the rancher, offering his hand. "I'm Alejandro de la Vega, and this is my son, Diego."
Words of greeting were exchanged, a drink procured from the tavern for the tired traveler, and the three men departed for the de la Vega hacienda.
"I am grateful to you for your hospitality, gentlemen," said Albarrado, "but please understand that whether my mission here succeeds or fails, my stay must be very brief. The journey is long, and I have taken a furlough from the bank to travel here. I'm concerned for my business and my family in my absence."
"If our Felipe turns out to be your nephew, what then?" inquired Diego.
"He must return with me, of course. You need not worry that I'll provide well for him, though being mute will certainly limit his opportunities! Still, if he's my godson," Albarrado shrugged, "I must do what I can for the boy."
"I assure you, Felipe is very bright despite his handicaps. His lip-reading is remarkable. He tried to speak when I first found him, but was unable though he had no injuries that I could see. But if he could speak back then, I'm certain he could also hear. The noise of the battle may have deafened him."
"Felipe is quite a fencer, too," added Alejandro. "He competed with honor yesterday in his first tournament, and finished in the top twelve."
"I hope he's better-tempered than my son," grumbled the bank president. "Emilio Luis struts around like a little peacock, irritating his sisters and everyone else. I'm afraid he's quite spoiled. In fact, he did not at all like the idea of my coming north to find a look-alike cousin. But I told him, 'Family is family!' He'll come around." Albarrado did not sound very sure.
The confession tightened Diego's mouth. The idea of gentle-spirited Felipe in a house with a young tyrant! This Emilio Luis could make life miserable for his possible cousin. The tall caballero felt saddened; he would lose his companion, and Felipe might find the change just as disagreeable as he.
The young man in question was waiting for them when the carriage returned to the house. He had clothed himself as usual in loose-fitting trousers and a shirt of unbleached linen, though his sash was dark blue. Only Diego could discern how nervous Felipe was at meeting his prospective uncle. Head erect, shoulders thrown back, he stood rigidly with lips pressed tightly together as the de la Vegas and their guest entered the house.
"Ah, and here is Felipe waiting for us, Señor Albarrado," said the older don. "Felipe, this is Señor Albarrado from Mexico City. He is most anxious to visit with you."
The young man inclined his head in a civil but distant bow.
The banker was transfixed. "But this is incredible! Incredible!" he whispered.
"Is he like your son?" asked Alejandro.
Albarrado approached Felipe and circled around him slowly, studying his features and form. "He is very like Emilio Luis. Very like. A little taller, perhaps, and the hair a little lighter. Same nose and eyes, though. Felipe's mouth is shaped a bit differently. Certainly there is a strong resemblance both to my son and my family. Felipe, do you understand what I'm saying?" The banker looked into the youth's face and enunciated his words carefully.
The young man nodded solemnly.
"I would like you to tell me everything you remember about the battle and your parents."
Felipe began gesturing but was interrupted by his mentor. "No, I might not be able to interpret everything you want to say. Write it down for Señor Albarrado."
"Please sit here at the table, Señor," invited Alejandro. "I'll see what Maria has for refreshments and make sure your luggage is being brought to the guest quarters."
Diego procured a clean piece of paper and the pen and inkwell from his father's desk and set them down in front of his companion. Señor Albarrado sat in one of the chairs, Felipe in another, and the tall caballero at the end. The young man picked up the quill, dipped it in the ink, and began to write.
"I cannot remember much of anything before I came to live with the de la Vegas. I know I had a mother and father, but I was an only child. I can't remember my parents' faces anymore. All I have is vague images. They loved me. That's why when I lost them I lost my whole world."
The pen faltered; Felipe's eyes
glistened with trembling tears. He passed the paper to the guest
Albarrado scanned the contents quickly and returned the sheet. "What do you remember of the battle?"
"Noise. Explosions, very loud and all around us. I was terrified. My parents pushed a cart, and I rode in the cart. We were trying to get away, I think, from the battle. Then, I don't know. Something terrible happened. The cart turned over on me, and when I crawled out my parents were lying dead on the ground beside me. I tried to call to them, but I couldn't."
"So you did hear and speak when you were a little boy," noted the banker softly. "And then Don Diego found you?"
"Yes. He took care of me. I don't know what would have become of me otherwise. He looked for my family, and I couldn't tell him until years later that they were dead. None of my relatives lived nearby, or they had been killed or chased off by the soldiers."
"Can you remember anything about
your parents? Anything at all? The clothes they wore, the way
your mother kept her hair, what work your father did?"
Felipe thoughtfully dipped the pen again into the ink.
"My mother was beautiful. At least, I thought so. She had long dark hair that she combed every night and then braided. She sewed. I remember watching her weave a needle in and out of something she was making. My father was a quiet sort of person. He was gone from the house during the day and came home for supper. I don't know what he did."
"Do you remember being around
The young man shook his head.
"Ah, I don't know, Señor de la Vega." The banker sat back in his chair and accepted the glass of wine that Alejandro pour for him. "Much is similar in the stories. My nephew was an only child. My sister was quite beautiful, and she was proud of her hair. But I remember it being a lighter brown, not dark. She was a credible needlewoman, but most women are. Carlos was a quiet man, but that Felipe remembers nothing about being around horses-- Well, that would be unusual for my nephew; he loved them."
"Perhaps it's impossible to know for certain," suggested Don Diego. "Then what?"
"Let me sleep on it. Perhaps I'll think of some more questions in the morning that will help me decide."
Felipe joined the de la Vegas and the visitor at the table for supper. The guest politely inquired about life on the Californian frontier and about the rancho where he was staying. In turn he described his home, family, and the political changes since independence had been declared. After the meal he asked if Felipe could show him the gardens. It was an opportunity to have private speech with the young man, and Diego acquiesced.
"I thought my course of action would be so clear when I got here, Felipe," confessed Albarrado, strolling into the quiet garden. "I don't know for certain if you're my nephew or not, though I think there's a good chance that you are. What do you think?" He withdrew something from his pocket and popped it into his mouth.
A sharp, pungent odor tickled the young man's nose. He sniffed and pointed to the guest.
"What? Oh, it's a peppermint. I keep a pocketful of them; my throat gets dry in this heat. Would you like one?" He handed the mute a small white square.
Felipe sniffed it cautiously. Something strange stirred in his memory, and a vignette sharpened from the mist. A man's knees and lap. Crawling into the lap. White candies with the same distinctive scent. It's a peppermint . . . a peppermint.
The memory, as fragile as a sand castle, crumbled and was gone. The youth placed the sweet onto his tongue and savored the crisp, spicy taste. The de la Vegas had candy only at Christmas, and then just caramels.
In answer to Don Emilio's question about his past, he shrugged his shoulders in a non-committal manner.
"If you think you are part of my family, you should return with me to Mexico City." At the youth's troubled look, Albarrado added, "You will be treated kindly and provided for. I'll have you trained as an apprentice clerk in the bank. That's a fine position for a young man, but Don Diego assures me that you are clever."
"I will sleep on it also," Felipe gestured.
The banker, not used to reading the sign language, looked confused momentarily. "Oh, you want to sleep on it? Very well. I'll say good night and see you in the morning."
The young man sat on a wooden patio chair and rolled the candy from one side of his mouth to the other. His name was Emilio Felipe Patavera. His mother's name was Maria Luisa. His father had been Carlos Patavera, and he had managed horses. Emilio Albarrado, who had always carried peppermints, was his uncle, and there was a cousin named Emilio Luis, plus several younger girl cousins. There were probably many more uncles, aunts, and cousins in Mexico City. Someday he might like to meet the rest of his family, but not now.
All the years of wondering! All the years of being a nameless orphan! They were over, but Felipe felt no joy in the discovery. A silent sob shook his shoulders. It was enough to know the truth. A great weight slid from his heart.
Don Diego found him in the garden a few minutes later. The young man was rubbing tears from his eyes and snuffling. The caballero handed him a handkerchief, and Felipe blew his nose vigorously.
"I know this visit by Señor Albarrado is stirring up a lot of painful memories," said the older man quietly. "But perhaps dealing with these memories will help you come to terms with the past, so you can move forward." He broke off abruptly. "What is that strange smell?"
Felipe could think of no gesture that would convey the word. His lips pressed together in an exaggerated enunciation and mouthed the name of the candy.
"What?" asked his mentor again.
The youth drew a deep breath. "Peppermint!" he exploded in a gusty whisper.
The next morning the de la Vegas
and their guest met and the breakfast table. Felipe again joined
"Has the night brought you any counsel, Don Emilio?" asked the rancher as he poured coffee for the visitor.
"One question. Don Diego, how did you pick the name 'Felipe' for the boy when he could neither hear nor speak?"
"I asked him his name, naturally, but he couldn't tell me. So I said every name I could think of as he watched my mouth. He seemed to like 'Felipe', so that's what I began calling him."
The guest nodded, thoughtful for a few moments. "You say he's about twenty?"
"As far as we can tell."
"That would be about right," mused the guest. "Twenty is old enough for a man to decide his own path. Well, Felipe, what will it be? Do you wish to become a member of my family and return with me to Mexico?"
The young man looked at the visitor, then at Don Alejandro, and lastly at Diego. The tall caballero could disguise his face, voice, and mannerisms, but his eyes mirrored his anxiety. The youth was more than merely a silent partner for Zorro; his mentor loved him. He had said as much in halting sentences when they had met in the cave after the fencing tourney. The Fox was proud of him.
Felipe pointed to his chest, drew a heart, and then pointed to the floor.
No one mistook his meaning; even Albarrado understood the emphatic gesture. "I see. Well, if you should ever visit Mexico City, please come to see me. I think there's an excellent chance that we are related, and you'll always be welcome. Gentlemen, please don't think me rude, but I'll take the stage south to San Diego today if I can get to the plaza before ten. My business here is concluded, and I hope it's for the best all the way around."
Alejandro had protested and begged his guest to stay longer after such an arduous trip north, but the offer was courteously refused. He had the carriage hitched up and drove the guest toward town as Diego and Felipe waved farewell.
"Any regrets?" asked the caballero.
His companion turned serious, dark eyes on him, and rapid gestures followed. "You don't have to adopt me, but I want to stay here. I want to help you. This is my home now."
"Yes, you are home," agreed Diego.
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