"I have something to show you
tonight that is absolutely fascinating," Diego de la Vega told his brother
Felipe as they descended the steps to the laboratory cave. "Douse
those candles; we'll only need one for now." He led the way to the
table and opened a small packet containing a white powder.
The younger man looked unimpressed. "What is it?" he asked.
"An element called phosphorus, discovered by a German scientist in 1669. It's condensed from the vapor of heated phosphate rock. No, don't touch it," the scientist warned, as Felipe stretched out his hand. "Phosphorus is very poisonous and can cause serious burns. Now watch what happens when we put out this last candle." So saying, he blew out the cave's only light. The blackness of the room was absolute except for the white powder, eerily glowing on the tabletop. "It's luminescent, meaning it absorbs energy from sources around itself and gives off the energy when that source is removed." The tall man stirred the powder with a thin stick, and they both watched the light swirl into different shapes. As Diego withdrew the stick, some of the powder clung to the end, making the wood glow also.
"That is amazing," Felipe commented in awed tones as his mentor fumbled for the candle and relit it. When the light shone on the table, the powder reassumed its ordinary white appearance.
"What I need to discover is the effects of phosphorus on clothing, hair, leather, and so on. This could be a valuable tool to add to Zorro's repertoire."
Sunday evening, Don Alejandro and his sons were discussing over supper the horse auction at Santa Paula in two days' time. The ranch owner had already sent up several prize stallions and mares to be sold under the care of Miguel, the foreman. But the senior de la Vega planned to go also to watch the proceedings and see how the market was doing in general.
"Felipe, it's your turn to go with me if you want, and I'd be glad for your company," he told his newly adopted son.
The young man's expressive face was wistful. "Thank you. I'm sure I'd really enjoy the auction, but if Diego goes instead, I'll have the whole house to myself. I could study my law books all day without interruption, and I need to do that to get ready to work for Don Luis."
His brother encouraged, "Go, Felipe; there's time for books and studying later."
But the youngest de la Vega was adamant. "You wouldn't have done it. I won't either."
"He has you there, Diego," Alejandro laughed. "That's richly deserved retribution on your head. Well then, do you want to come with me?"
"Yes, I think I will. Shall we leave in the morning and stay overnight before and after the auction?"
Departing Santa Paula three days
later, Alejandro set an easy pace for Dulcinea, and Diego matched stride
for stride on Esperanza. It had been a successful auction for the
de la Vega rancho; their horses had brought a higher price than the owner
had hoped, so it was with light hearts that the men turned southwest toward
the main highway.
"The market for good horses is very strong right now, favoring sellers. The influx of more people in the territory is increasing the demand and will continue to do so for some time to come. Our rancho is getting an excellent reputation for having the finest horseflesh in California."
Diego commended his father, "You've worked hard to make it so and deserve all the credit. You have a good, discerning eye for horses--which ones to buy and sell and which ones to breed together."
"Well, I've always loved horses. They are such magnificent creatures: noble, strong, loyal, hard-working. Nothing will ever replace them."
That drew a smile from his son, who only added, "I hope not--at any rate, probably not within our lifetime."
Alejandro had a sudden thought. "Your birthday is at the end of the week. What would you like as a gift?"
Diego answered the same as every year, "Nothing. I have everything I need or want."
"Don't give me that nonsense. Everything you need I'll grant you, but everything you want? No man has that."
A shadow passed over the younger man's face. "There are several things I want," he conceded, "but they are not within your power to give. Some things a man must get for himself or do without."
The serious tone brought Alejandro's head around. "You know if I could get those things for you, Son, I would."
The handsome caballero acknowledged the affection with a half-smile. They covered several more miles together compatibly and joined the Camino Real for the rest of their journey south. The sound of thundering hoofbeats in front of them made Diego pull up.
"Several horses are coming this way at a full gallop. Let's move to the side," he advised.
Six horsemen bore down on the two men standing off the road, but instead of passing by the travelers, they stopped directly in front of them, surrounding the de la Vegas with cocked rifles. The father and son were taken by surprise.
"What is this--a robbery?" demanded Alejandro angrily.
The leather-faced bandit leader laughed aloud. "Oh no, Señor de la Vega. I doubt you are carrying enough money to make a mere robbery worth our while. Dismount. Amigos," he addressed his companions, "tie their hands."
"Pedro Pereza!" Alejandro recognized the speaker. "I see you haven't changed your ways since I fired you last year!"
"So unkind of you, Señor. But you see, I have a long memory, and it's payback time."
"You were the laziest ranchhand it's ever been my misfortune to employ, but your petty pilfering was more than I could stand. You were lucky I didn't press charges." The feisty caballero resisted having his hands tied. His temper flared; he whirled around and punched that bandit in the face. His unfortunate victim staggered back with a bloody nose, dazed, and Alejandro pulled another man from the saddle.
"Come on, Diego!" he yelled, though his son had already followed suit, pulling his hands free and attacking the man behind him. Now it was the outlaw gang who was caught off-guard by the two men, fighting unarmed and outnumbered through their ranks.
"Get them!" ordered Pereza, and in desperation, one of his men swung his rifle toward Don Alejandro. The butt made violent contact with the back of the older man's head, and he collapsed on the ground with a groan.
"Father!" cried Diego in alarm, shoving away his current assailant. He knelt beside Alejandro and examined the cut opened by the blow. The next moment, his own head exploded with pain, and his vision went black.
Diego heard voices speaking before the rest of his senses returned. A persistent throbbing in his head was the price of consciousness; it would be easier to rest a few more minutes, but something was tugging at his memory--his father! He forced open his eyes and found Alejandro beside him, still out cold. He surveyed their surroundings; a crude cabin was their sheltering place, and most of the bandits were enjoying a meal. One of them noticed Diego and indicated him to Pereza. The outlaw leader stood up and approached the younger caballero with a bowl of food.
"It smells good, eh? I'm afraid there isn't enough for you and the old man." He laughed, and the others roared in appreciation of their leader's jest. Diego sat in stony silence; both de la Vegas were bound hand and foot, and his concern was all for his parent. The rancher moaned and stirred.
"Father," called his son anxiously.
Slowly, the bandits' other prisoner sat up and tried to focus his eyes. "Where are we?" he mumbled.
"You are in our hideout, Señor," Pereza executed an elaborate bow, to the hoots of his cronies. "I'm sorry the accommodations are not as luxurious as what you're used to, but perhaps you can help us make some improvements."
Diego had reasoned it out. "Then this is a kidnapping. You're holding us for ransom."
"That's right, Señor. I understand your father recently adopted that servant boy, Felipe. He will bring five thousand pesos to us."
"I'm afraid that's impossible," the senior de la Vega contradicted. "Felipe is underage and can't withdraw money from the bank. His name isn't on the account anyway."
The outlaw captain was disconcerted for a moment. "We will think of another way, then; you may be sure of that." He motioned to his compadres to follow him outside.
"We must send one of them back for the money, but which one will give us less trouble if released?" questioned one of the six.
"The old man," recommended another. "He's dizzy from the blow to the head. He is also likely to move heaven and earth to free his own flesh and blood." His reasoning brought forth grunts of approval from several others.
"No," Pereza decided. "It will be the son. The father is known as a fighter. He's an excellent shot, a swordsman, and tracker. But the son isn't good at any of those things; he went to a university and spends his time reading and playing the piano."
The youngest member of the gang sneered in disgust and observed, "Education sure can ruin a man."
Returning inside, Pereza ordered Diego's feet untied. "You will bring us the ransom money. Come alone to the big oak, ten miles north of the Pueblo de Los Angeles. One of our men will meet you there at two o'clock tomorrow afternoon. Don't try to double-cross us, and don't be late; you see, we haven't enough food and water here for your father." The outlaw gave instructions to the man on his left. "Put him on his horse and blindfold him. Take him to the Camino Real and leave him there."
After a long ride, Esperanza's
hooves finally found the solid footing of the royal highway, and Diego's
blindfold was removed.
"Your hands stay tied behind you. I hope you can stay on your horse, caballero," his captor grinned and gestured down the road with his pistol. Diego looked around himself carefully to mark the spot and kicked the sides of his mount. He rode away grimly, without a backward glance.
Felipe heard the hoofbeats seconds
before his name was shouted by his brother's voice. He left his books
open on the table and ran into the courtyard where Diego was dismounting.
The tall man had worked his hands free many miles back.
"Where's Father?" the young man whispered hoarsely, scanning the countryside. His brother did not answer, but sketched a "Z" in the air and strode toward the door. Felipe ran after him. Something was terribly wrong; Diego's fury was barely restrained.
In the cave the tall man ordered tersely, "Saddle Toronado," while changing into black clothes.
"Where's Father?" demanded the younger son again as he buckled the cinch strap beneath the big stallion.
"We were ambushed on the road. Pedro Pereza and his gang are holding him for ransom," explained the masked man briefly.
"I'm going with you," announced the adopted man. When his brother started to protest, Felipe jutted out his chin determinedly. "He's not just your father anymore; he's mine, too. I'm going."
Zorro paused, then gave a curt nod. "All right. Saddle Parche quickly and meet me in the grove. I can use some help this time." His glance was thoughtful as he turned again toward the laboratory table and picked up a small packet. "Maybe I can also use this."
The two horsemen galloped to
the spot where Diego had been set free and searched the ground carefully
to pick up a trail. The sun had set, and daylight was fast disappearing.
"Here are the tracks," Zorro called, and his ally joined up with him. "There's no time to lose. While I look for the trail, you keep your eyes opened for a cabin, or members of the gang. I don't want them to have any advanced warning of our approach."
Alejandro was still bound, sitting on the floor with his head against the wall. He cursed himself for leaving home without his pistol. The bleeding on his scalp had finally crusted over, but what a horrendous headache he had. His captors taunted him with the supper they now enjoyed, and the caballero realized how acutely thirsty he was. Well, Diego would not return until tomorrow, but he would come for his father, no matter what the cost--of that the older man was certain. He knew how worried his son--his sons--would be since Felipe must know of the kidnapping by now.
The bandits' drinking and laughter were cut short by an unearthly moan from outside the cabin. They looked at each other in bewilderment.
"A wolf," one man guessed. The sound came again, and even Alejandro felt the hair on the back of his neck rise.
"That sounds more human than animal," Pereza said suspiciously, reaching for his pistol. "Follow me." The others grabbed their guns and cautiously tiptoed after their leader. Outside the night was black; the moon had not yet risen. "The sound seemed to come from behind the cabin; search carefully."
As they approached the back wall, a glowing figure flew up from the bushes to about ten feet in the air and hovered there. The body was soft and flowing, but the hands and feet of the apparition were skeletal in appearance. Long scraggly hair around a featureless face completed the horrible vision. A disembodied voice spoke to the terrified men, whose bullets had no effect on the eerie visitor.
"Why do you trespass on my land?" the voice asked in hollow tones.
"Who--what are you?" Pereza stammered.
"I am the Indian princess, Little Fox. Leave this place, or you will join me in death!"
The men did not need to be told twice. Into the cabin they ran to collect their gear. The door slammed shut behind them, causing the bandits to jump around in fear.
"So glad you could join us," Zorro announced, tripping one man with a crack of his bull whip. Alejandro jumped to his feet, bonds already cut, and attacked the man nearest him. Pereza drew a sword and started toward the older man.
"Don Alejandro!" shouted the masked hero, tossing his sword to his father, who caught it neatly by the hilt. Within seconds, the caballero had disarmed his opponent and driven him back to the wall. One of the remaining bandits pointed his pistol at the silver-haired gentleman, but whether his aim was off or the rancher moved out of the way remained a mystery. But the bullet pierced the chest of the vengeful outlaw leader, who collapsed to the floor. Zorro leveled the gunman, who was the last man still conscious, and with his father knelt beside the dying man.
"I guess you will still have the last word, Patrón," Pereza whispered in Alejandro's arms.
"Why did you do it, Pedro?"
"Not strong like you; I took the easy way. My wife and baby girl--they are in Santa Paula, on the third street from the church. Help them, if you have any mercy," he gasped, and his head lolled.
"I will, Amigo," promised Alejandro, and gently laid the dead man on the floor. He and Zorro slowly stood up. The older man heaved a deep, troubled sigh. He recalled that he was still holding the masked man's famous sword. "Thank you," he said, handing the sabre back to its owner. "It was an honor to use it."
"It is my sword that is honored, Señor," replied Zorro quietly, returning the sabre to its scabbard.
"How did you find me?"
"Through your son. Both sons were instrumental in your rescue, and Felipe is waiting on the road for us. Let's tie these others over their saddles, and I'll help you take them back to town."
Don Alejandro de la Vega hosted a small birthday celebration for his older son a few days later at the hacienda. The family's closest friends had come to wish the young caballero many happy returns of the day, among them Sergeant Mendoza, Señorita Escalante, and Don Esteban and his family.
"I'm glad your head is better in time for your party. Tell me again how you and Felipe helped Zorro," Mendoza urged Don Diego.
"With the help a chemical which glows in the dark, I suggested creating a 'ghost'--sticks for hands and feet, grass for hair, and Zorro's cape for a floating body. Felipe provided the eerie voice with the aid of a speaking tube. I understand the overall effect was quite impressive. The diversion gave Zorro the time to enter the cabin and free my father."
"Those banditos will be in jail for some time. It's too bad about Pereza."
"Yes," Diego agreed sadly, "especially since he left a family behind."
His father overheard his comments and drew him aside to speak privately. "I did as you requested for your birthday gift. I put the money I would have spent on you in a special bank fund for the widow, along with the proceeds from the sale of one of the horses. The bank will pay her a living allowance every month. The money will last for several years if she is frugal."
"Thank you, Father; that's very generous of you."
"It's very generous of you. I'm glad you have a heart to see the needs of the unfortunate and do what you can to ease their distress. I don't think I've fully realized until now how deep a desire that is in you."
"It's one of my deepest desires--one of the 'wants' I mentioned; maybe it's something we can work together to achieve."
"Helping others is a good use for money, isn't it?"
His son nodded.