8.  IN MINT CONDITION
(dedicated to BelleBook, who suggested a Padre Benitez story)


     "You see my dilemma, don't you, Don Diego?"  The kindly face of Padre Benitez sagged in an uncharacteristic frown.
     Diego de la Vega blew out a speculative breath as he lifted one gleaming ingot, measuring its mass against the muscles of his arm.  Zorro had discovered a clever theft of the gold and returned the ingots to the church.  Colonel Seguro had then allotted the padre his share and taken the rest of the bullion north with a heavily-armed cordon of lancers.
     "Anyone who hasn't heard about the gold robbery yet is bound to hear soon," noted the caballero.
     "Exactly so!  It happened in such a way that the whole territory knows that I have this gold here!  And then what?  I could have thieves breaking into the house of God and tearing it apart to find this terrible burden!  I haven't had a moment's peace since the colonel left town."
     "What instructions did the bishops give you?"
     "They gave none except to use the gold for the glory of God.  Therefore, I can follow my conscience in the matter.  And my conscience says that this gold should be distributed somehow to the poor of this pueblo," murmured Benitez.  "Think of the suffering it could alleviate!"
     "Think of the new problems it could cause!" responded the don.  "Greed, envy, strife!"
     "Those are spiritual problems, my son," reminded the Franciscan.  "I'm better equipped to handle those than incessant hunger and deprivation.  Some children are clothed only in rags!"
     "Wait; I wasn't done.  In a small community like ours, goods are bartered more often than bought.  A sudden influx of wealth will artificially drive up prices, and the peons will be no better off than before.  And count on it; the alcalde will find a way to siphon off some of this into the garrison's funds!"
     "Or into his pocket!" declared the priest.  "Oh, forgive me."  He glanced heavenward and crossed himself.  "That was not charitable.  Nevertheless, I still want to give this gold to the poor.  It breaks my heart to think what this gold could buy, but it's of no use in this condition!"
     Diego sighed, "Then it must be smelted and separated into nuggets.  The nuggets could have some agreed-on exchange value, and you could distribute them."
     "I was thinking," breathed the padre, enthusiasm lighting his weary eyes, "of making coins!  You could help by creating the design!"
     Taken aback, the don gave a shaky laugh.  "Impossible, I'm afraid.  Minting a design not approved for currency by the government--new or old--is a serious offense.  The alcalde would arrest us both."
     The eager look in the priest's face faded as he lapsed into pensive silence.  After a few moments passed, he ventured another thought.
     "But this gold belongs to the Church!  The government has no jurisdiction over church property.  We can still make coins from the gold; we'll just make a design honoring the Lord.  Surely an artist such as yourself could manage a nice design.  Would it not be a project that interests you?"
     Diego cocked his head skeptically.  "I think you're on dubious legal ground, Padre.  But if the alcalde approves of a church coin, I'll sketch a design."
     Benitez beamed a smile and stood to shake the caballero's hand warmly.  "Thank you, Don Diego!"
     "I'll speak with the alcalde now.  May I go out this way?" he asked, gesturing to the priest's private entrance.
     "Of course!  Just watch your head.  Father Serra was a short man," the priest chuckled.

     The pueblo's military and civilian commander, Ignacio DeSoto, testily approved the padre's idea of minting gold coins under the church's auspices.  De la Vega was uneasy about confiding in the officer any plans to distribute wealth among the populace.  He had often seen the alcalde squeeze levies from the peasant farmers that they could ill afford.  Knowing that the padre intended to grant them a golden gift, might DeSoto not think of some new tax to impose?  But the opportunity to design a coin representing both the Church and his town intrigued the artist in the tall young man, and upon the return to his hacienda he began sketching ideas for the Franciscan's approval.
     The padre marveled appreciatively at Diego's design of a single angel, the words "Los Angeles" framing his head, and the year of 1821 beneath his feet.  Diego then carefully carved the image on a block of plaster.  The plaster design was examined by Rubén Torres, the pueblo's blacksmith.
     "Aii, Señor!" he exclaimed.  "So tiny!"  He scratched his stubbly beard.  "But it could be done.  I'll make an iron stamp from this template.  Does the padre want me to make the coins?  I've never worked with pure gold before.  It's supposed to be very soft."
     "Yes, it is, so it will take the stamp well.  It also has a lower melting point and can be rolled, hammered, or pressed very thin."
     "Hm.  A lot of work.  It could take several days.  You say the padre has twelve bars?  What will he pay?"
     "I'm sure it will be a fair amount.  Padre Benitez knows that the job will take much of your time.  We only ask that you not mention the job to anyone else, because of the risk of robbery and the danger to you."
     The stocky blacksmith flexed huge muscled arms, accustomed to lifting large pieces of scrap metal, working the bellows, and hammering tempered iron.  "I can take care of myself, Señor," he said solemnly.  "I'll let the padre know when I have the stamp made."
     The tradesman was good to his word.  When Diego and his father rode into town two days later, they were greeted by the ecstatic priest.
     "Look, Don Alejandro, Don Diego!"  In his palm he displayed several small gold coins.  "Rubén and I have just finished the first batch.  I've been stamping the coins after Rubén hammers the sheet.  Just like cutting galletas!"
     The dons admired the gold piece, after which Benitez exclaimed, "I must hurry back!  So much more to do!"
     The senior de la Vega chuckled, "The padre is so excited about this project!  Do you suppose he's trying to create a legacy for himself?"
     "Not for himself, Father, but a legacy of good deeds.  He's more excited about giving away this fortune than most men would be to keep it."
     "I've never known a churchman as dedicated to his parish as Padre Benitez," stated Alejandro.  "No one could credit him with an impure motive."

     De la Vega's assessment was challenged three nights later.  The priest scrambled into the tavern's taproom and looked frantically for the alcalde, who was sitting with some caballeros and enjoying his dinner.
     "Alcalde, you must come quickly!"  He tugged on the officer's jacket to persuade him to rise.
     "Calm down, Padre!" growled DeSoto, testy at being interrupted in the tale he was relating.  "What is the matter?"
     Benitez glanced around, conscious of the many eyes and ears in the crowded room.  "I can't say here, but you must come with me immediately!"
     Alejandro and his son were sitting nearby.  The rancher asked, "May we help, Padre?"
     The unexpected offer seemed to throw the Franciscan into indecision.  He glanced about, at a momentary loss for words.  "Yes, perhaps!  But the alcalde must help me; this is a matter within his jurisdiction."
     Diego exchanged a glance with his father.  Knowing that the padre had been assisting Rubén with the minting of gold coins, the younger caballero said, "Alcalde, I think it would be an excellent notion for you to accompany Padre Benitez.  I suspect this matter may concern what I talked to you about the other day."
     The priest's face lightened in partial relief.  "Yes, yes, that's it precisely!  Hurry now!"
     Irritated at the pressure which was forcing him to abandon his meal, DeSoto rose from his stool and followed the anxious Franciscan and the de la Vegas out the tavern's door.  As Diego had anticipated, their destination was the smithy.  In the warm glow of the forge's fire, Rubén Torres was getting slowly to his feet.  The burly man looked blankly at the unexpected visitors.
     "Padre?  Is something wrong?"
     "Terribly wrong, Rubén.  The gold has disappeared!"
     The blacksmith glanced at the melting pan in the furnace.  Liquid gold still swam in the intense heat.  His gaze traveled then to the workbench where the gold had been cut and stamped into coins, but the large thin sheet of solid metal remained.  "What do you mean?"
     "The sacks of coins I filled are gone!"  Benitez pointed to the bench where evidently the sacks had sat.  "Rubén, when I went back to the church to put out the candles, I left them here.  When I returned the sacks were gone, and you were lying on the ground!"
     "I was?" mumbled the smithy.  "I don't remember."
     "A likely story," sneered the military officer.  "You waited until the padre returned to the church, and hid the gold yourself.  Then you pretended to be unconscious so the blame wouldn't fall on you.  But the truth is, Torres, you and I and the padre are the only ones who knew the gold was here."
     "And Don Diego," put in the priest.  "But of course I'm not accusing you, Diego.  Alcalde, this is absurd.  Rubén is an honest man, or I wouldn't have trusted him with this task."
     "His guilt or innocence should be easy to prove," asserted DeSoto.  "Tell me how anyone could have overcome someone as big as Torres!  How could a robber have sneaked past him without getting caught?"
     "The noise of the forge would have kept Rubén from hearing someone approach," defended Don Alejandro.  "The thief could have knocked him unconscious.  That would explain why the padre found Rubén on the ground."
     "Still easy to fake," disputed the alcalde.  "But he can't fake a lump on his skull.  Let me see your head," he demanded of the bemused blacksmith.  Torres sat on a stool while the commandant examined his skull.  "I don't feel anything."
     "Let me try," requested Diego.  The caballero could detect no bruises around the neck or base of the skull.  Neither did he feel a lump beneath the thick black hair.  The accused man did not wince in pain, for no spot on his head felt tender to the touch.
     DeSoto growled, "Torres, you're under arrest."
     "Please, Rubén, tell the alcalde that you're innocent," pleaded the priest.
     "I can't, Padre.  I don't think I took the gold, but I don't know what happened."
     "Alcalde, wait.  You have no proof that Rubén took the money.  If he did, where is it?" the rancher asked.
     "Yes," the priest chimed in.  "I wasn't gone long enough for him to hide it far away.  If he is our thief, then the gold should be hidden here somewhere."
     "I'll have my men look for it," the commandant snarled.
     "No, you can't do that.  The fewer people who know of the gold mint, the safer this whole operation," pointed out Diego.  "You said only a few people knew of this.  You did, but I can vouch that you were in the tavern the last hour."
     "I can't say the same for you de la Vegas," retorted the white-haired officer.  "I wasn't watching you."
     "We can vouch for each other," declared Alejandro.  "Neither of us left the taproom, and we arrived before you did.  I'm sure there are others who could supply us with an alibi; Don Ricardo, Don Andrés, and Guillermo Heceta were there."
     "But you could all be conspiring together.  Cattle prices are low, are they not?" sneered DeSoto.
     The younger caballero rolled his eyes.  "You're grasping at straws."
     "Then we have our two original suspects:  Torres and Padre Benitez!  Perhaps the padre himself took the money and hid it in the church when he went to extinguish the candles.  He knows every cranny in the church; he could hide it where we'd never find it!"
     The priest did not appear deeply affronted by the accusation, but his frown deepened.
     "And how do you explain that he overcame Rubén?" demanded Alejandro indignantly.  "And why would he bother?  The padre had the gold in his keeping from the first.  Why stage a robbery when he could have held back some coins for himself when the gold was completely minted?  Who would have known that he had done so, if his motive was impure?"
     Logic which showed the defects in his thinking never sat comfortably with Ignacio DeSoto.  "Then we're back to our original suspect.  Torres, you're under arrest until we can find the gold.  Come!" he commanded.
     The huge, sooty blacksmith stood, rubbing his neck, and followed the officer without protest.  The padre voiced his opinion repeatedly but to no avail.
     "I am sure Rubén is innocent," the Franciscan stated to the de la Vegas when DeSoto and the prisoner had gone.
     "Then let's search the smithy and his rooms," said the older don.  "If the money's not here, it will be harder to make a case against him."
     The three men spent the next thirty minutes looking for the sacks of minted coins.  The alcalde, they noticed, returned unconcerned to the tavern after jailing Torres.
     Alejandro dusted off his hands.  "Well, if the coins are here, I don't know where."
     "It's getting late," noted the padre sadly.  "Help me take the rest of the gold to the church.  Perhaps we can think of some way to help Rubén tomorrow."
     Diego and his father removed the melting pan from the forge and lifted it between them with long-handled tongs.  They followed the padre, who had picked up the gold sheet, to his private doorway.
     "Watch your heads," he warned.
     "Padre," said Diego when the molten gold had been stowed, "are you certain of Rubén's innocence?  He asked questions of me when I first approached him about the job that now make me wonder."
     "Such as?"
     "He wanted to know how much he would be paid and asked what I knew about the properties of gold, what it would be like to work with.  And he made a point of saying that he could take care of himself."
     "Nothing which is suspicious in itself.  Of course he would be interested in those things."
     "But with no lump to show that he was knocked out--"  The younger caballero let the thought hang, then murmured, "'Tis here, but yet confused.  Knavery's plain face is never seen till used.'"
     "Othello.  An apt quotation," the priest noted.  He reiterated his belief in the blacksmith's innocence, but with a contemplative expression.
     The de la Vegas left him and rode home rather than returning to the tavern.
     "I can't seriously believe Rubén is guilty, Diego," stated the rancher.  "He's shod our horses for a generation--since you were in short coats."
     "But one of us must have done it, for we were the only ones who knew of the padre's intent.  By the way, I can't vouch for your whereabouts every minute tonight.  You stepped out for a few minutes shortly before the padre came to the tavern."
     "I went out to relieve myself!" protested his father.  "Surely you're not accusing me?"
     "No, I'm simply stating that you don't have an alibi."
     "Then neither do you," retorted the older don.  "I don't know what you were doing when I was out of the tavern; when I returned you weren't at our table any longer."
     "But I was across the room talking with Pedro Chavez."
     "The point is that probably no one can vouch that you were in the room the whole time."
     "Then the only one with a solid alibi is the alcalde!  There's irony for you!  But if I didn't steal the money, and you didn't, and we can't imagine the padre doing it, that leaves only Rubén."
     "No, there's something...something I can't put my finger on."
     "If you do, let me know," his son requested with a half-smile.  "I'll be thinking on it myself."

     The younger caballero slept fitfully, for the theft's puzzle disturbed his rest.  Early the next morning he met Felipe in the cave beneath the hacienda.  After hearing the story of the gold's disappearance, the youth slashed a Z in the air and gave his mentor an inquisitive look.
     "No.  There's nothing that Zorro could do that hasn't already been done."  He perched on a high stool at his lab table and sighed.  "You know what the worst thing about this is?  The suspicion!  The suspicion falls on all of us, even when in rational moments we know that the others among us can't have done it!  I even wondered about my own father!  And Padre Benitez!  How could I possibly mistrust them?  Rubén could have faked his faint, and he seems the most likely suspect--ah, it's so improbable!  But the alcalde sowed seeds of doubt, and they were effective with me, I must admit."
     "Rubén cannot have stolen the money!" Felipe whispered forcefully, defending the tradesman who had always treated him with kindness.  "There must be another answer."
     "I've been racking my brain all night trying to find one, and I'm stumped."
     "The thief can't do anything with the gold coins," observed the youth.  "If he has taken the only ones made, he could never spend them in Los Angeles without being caught."
     The tall don gave his helper an appreciative glance.  "Good thinking!  Even if he went to one of the other pueblos, word would get back to us with a description of the thief.  So we have a thief holding three sacks of gold that he can't spend!  He must be hoping that the minting will go on, and when the rest of the coins are distributed he can blend in his own without attracting attention."
     "Think how frustrating for the thief if the minting were stopped indefinitely."
     Diego's eyes lit with laughter.  "And with Rubén in jail, who will work the forge?  The thief is at a standstill!  He probably didn't foresee that Rubén would be blamed for the crime."  He slid off the stool to pace the lab in his excitement.  He loved the way one thought would trigger the next as his mind bubbled with ideas.  Felipe was just the catalyst that he had needed!  "And if Rubén is innocent, then Zorro must do something."
     Felipe threw out his chest to indicate the brawny blacksmith and started gesturing.  When his mentor's keen eye fell on him, he searched for words to express his question.  "How could Rubén have been overpowered?"
     "And he doesn't remember a struggle."  Diego snapped his fingers.  "That's it!  Of course!  He was rubbing his neck as he talked, yet I could not find a bruise or lump!"
     The youth favored him with a skeptically-raised eyebrow.
     "The neck pinch!  I've used it before myself!"  He paced the room, deep in thought.  "I learned it from my father, but where did he learn it?  Who else might know of that technique?"  He leaped up the stone steps three at a time, then spun about suddenly.  "I think you can saddle Toronado.  Zorro will ride within the hour!"

     The young don's most difficult task in questioning his father was the assumption of an air of idle curiosity.  Don Alejandro was saddling his mare when his son joined him at the stables.
     "I had a notion, Father, about the theft.  It probably has no bearing on the case."
     "Well, what was it?  I'm going to oversee moving the stock today, and Miguel is waiting for me."  The rancher was preoccupied with his day's work, which Diego noted with relief.  Even if his father agreed with the idea, he probably would not change his plans to pursue it.
     "Wasn't there a move, some kind of pressure squeeze that you learned in the army to knock a man out?"
     The idea connected.  "Yes!  Yes, that could be it!"
     "How did you come to learn that?"
     "When I was working as an army guerrilla for His Majesty in Panama, we were taught that neck pinch for overcoming Indian sentries noiselessly.  It squeezes a blood vessel to the brain, and the victim passes out in seconds.  It leaves no mark or bruise!"
     "You demonstrated that to me once.  What it leaves is a headache!"
     "I'm sorry about that," the don grinned.  "And you think perhaps someone did a neck pinch on Torres?  Hm, now I'm really suspect!"
     His son smiled sheepishly.  "I guess I am too, because you showed it to me.  Was this pinch a usual training technique for the army?"
     "No."  Alejandro shook his head decisively.  "Only certain regiments, depending on their duties, were taught how to do it."
     "Are we talking about a soldier, then?  Because many of the local dons have military backgrounds."
     "Almost all of us," mused the rancher, "except the few who inherited their estates from military fathers!  I know about the service careers of a few dons, but couldn't definitively eliminate anyone."
     "And the soldiers now at the garrison are suspect as well.  One man could have brought the technique to Los Angeles and taught the rest of the soldiers."
     "Possible, but less likely.  Everyone except Corporal Sepulveda and the alcalde is a local boy."
     "Ah, well," Diego responded with a shrug.  "It was just a thought.  Have a good ride!"
     Alejandro favored his son with a quizzical glance before mounting.  "It might be worth following up if you could exert yourself just a little.  Where are your reporter's instincts?"
     "Still in bed, I guess," the younger man yawned.  "Adios!"

     Ignacio DeSoto started violently upon recognition of the tall masked figure in front of his desk.  Since Zorro had his sabre drawn but resting with deceptive idleness over his shoulder and he himself was seated behind the pine commandant's desk, the officer had no thought of trying to draw his sword on the outlaw.  Besides, he had set his scabbard against the corner when he sat down to do paperwork.  On the other hand, a shout might bring some lancers, and with the right combination of luck and mediocre skill, perhaps one of them could put a musket ball through the confounded nuisance!
     But the dark apparition apparently read minds.  In an instant the sabre tip was at DeSoto's throat, and the shout died stillborn.
     "We have business, and I don't want to be interrupted," his visitor said pleasantly.
     "I suppose your business has to do with Torres," scowled the alcalde.  "I don't care personally whether he's guilty or innocent, but the padre claimed the church was robbed.  Torres is the most likely suspect, unless the padre staged the whole thing himself."
     "Perhaps.  But shall we investigate other possibilities?  Show me the service record of Corporal Sepulveda."
     "Sepulveda!" exploded the officer.  "If you're trying to insinuate that one of my men is a thief--"
     The alcalde's counterattack was abruptly cut off.  Padre Benitez burst into the office without warning, panting from the exertion of running across the plaza.
     "Alcalde, you must release Rubén," he gasped, scarcely taking in Zorro's presence and not at all surprised to find him with his sword drawn at the commandant.
     DeSoto despised interruptions, and here was the second unwanted visitor in his office at the same time!  "He stays where he is until I have another suspect," retorted the officer, "unless you have proof of his innocence."
     The priest stood still, trying to catch his breath, but his manner changed. The Fox watched his eyes blink, and an air of reserve masked his face.  "I cannot give you proof, but I know for a fact now that Rubén has been falsely accused and imprisoned.  Release him at once."
     The white-haired man on the wrong end of Zorro's sword barked a scornful laugh.  "Show me your proof, and I'll be happy to let him go.  Otherwise he can stay there."
     "But I know he's innocent!  Someone else stole the coins!"
     "Who, then?" asked the officer with patent skepticism.  "Give me a name!"
     The Franciscan's earnest face fell.  "I cannot."
     Comprehension dawned on the masked man.  "Padre, return to the church," he urged.  "Allow me to look into this matter for you."
     Reluctant to leave the office with his purpose unfulfilled, Benitez hesitated a long moment.  "Very well," he said at last.  With a backward glance when he reached the door, he bit his lip, still seemingly undecided if he was doing the right thing by abandoning the fight so easily.  Frozen in tableau to his eyes were the exasperated alcalde seated at the desk and the tall black-garbed man with the drawn sabre still pointing at the officer.  DeSoto watched the priest as he left; Zorro's eyes never left his opponent.
     "Well?" snapped the officer.  "What do you have to say about Sepulveda?  Get to the point; I have work to do!"
     The outlaw's face held a momentary thoughtful expression which transformed itself into that amused half-grin so irritating to DeSoto.  "Sepulveda?  Why, you should give such a promising soldier a promotion!"
     The alcalde ground his teeth in frustration and rubbed his brow.  "That baboso a promo--"  A glance upward caught him short; the masked man was already halfway out the window.
     The pine desk received a blow from the officer's fist.  By the time he could get the men mounted and after the outlaw, Zorro would have disappeared like the morning sea mist.

     In the sanctuary of the church that evening, Padre Benitez was kneeling before the altar, making earnest supplication to the Savior.  A quiet scuff behind him made the priest suddenly aware he was not alone.  No fear seized him; his parishioners often made late calls, especially if their confidences were intensely private.  So he rose with effort from the floor to face his visitor.  The tall masked outlaw stood nearby.
     "What can I do for you, my son?"
     Zorro had never before come to confession--to the best of Benitez's knowledge--nor had he sought out the padre for advice or spiritual counsel.  Of course, perhaps the priest ministered to the Fox when the man was not wearing a mask.  Yes, it was likely that the outlaw was in his parish and known to the gentle Franciscan.
     "I came to inquire about your proof of Torres' innocence.  Someone made a confession to you today; is that not true?"
     The priest wrestled with his conscience.  "Yes, that's true.  Rubén should not be in jail, but I cannot tell the alcalde what I know!  The confessional is a sacred trust!"
     "Then you do know the name of the man who stole the gold."
     The padre clasped his hands and looked away.  "Yes.  I recognized his voice."  To recognize their parishioners' voices was a talent most priests developed.  Even the masked man's voice had a familiar intonation to it.  A few minutes' thought and Benitez could probably match the voice to a face.
     "A young man or older?"
     "I--cannot say.  Really, I can't.  Don't ask it of me.  The man is conscious of his crime; it was done on a sudden impulse."
     "Has he returned the gold?" demanded the man in black.
     "No," Benitez replied sorrowfully.  "I urged him to do so, but he hasn't.  Not yet.  His 'stronger guilt defeats his strong intent,' as Shakespeare would say.  I told him I could give him no absolution unless the money was returned.  I am praying that his own conscience will give him no rest."
     "Men's consciences can be very pliable," noted the outlaw.  "Given enough time to think of a rationale, a man can justify worse crimes than stealing from the church."
     "Yes.  But the Lord can change a man's heart."
     A smile lit the masked man's face.  "Perhaps I can be the right arm of the Lord for you, Padre.  You see, as I rode into town this morning I noticed the horse tethered to your grape trellis, and I recognized the brand.  The rider of that horse was here confessing to you as I paid the alcalde a visit.  That narrows the field of suspects down to two, and between the father and the son, I think I know which is our thief."
     Alarm and remorse distorted the padre's features.  "Oh, this is terrible!  Terrible!" he groaned.  "I should waited to talk to the alcalde, and now you have guessed a secret I should have concealed!"
     "You wished an innocent man to be set free as soon as possible," consoled the outlaw.  "There is no sin in that.  I reasoned out most of the mystery myself.  And as for young Don Lucas, well, he will come to repentance.  Men may not fear the Lord as they should, but they are likely to fear the consequences in this life for their crimes.  The gold will soon be back in your care."
     The noise of horses riding into the plaza turned Zorro's head to glance toward the back of the sanctuary.  "Do you mind if I leave by your side door?  I would prefer not to be seen here," he said quickly, knowing the priest would not refuse him.  He sprang lightly toward Benitez's private quarters, and padre trundled after him.
     "Of course not, Zorro," he assured his guest.  "Just watch--"  The warning about the short doorway died in the padre's throat as he saw the dark hero duck his head in a practiced motion and disappear into the night.  Stunned, he stared for a long minute, then finally blinked.  A smile tried to form; then as if the walls could read his mind, Benitez sternly repressed the spurt of delight.  Only a glimmer could have been discerned in his eyes as he breathed softly, "God go with you, my son."

     Seven miles from the pueblo gates lay the comfortable estate of Don Esteban Hidalgo y Pundonoroso.  The wealthy don was perhaps the closest friend of Don Alejandro, therefore it was a home which the masked man hoped never to have to visit with a sword of justice.  But Diego had noticed that the spoilt only son of their neighbor often spent his evenings in the tavern playing cards or dice.  He was not a successful gambler, either, if gossip were to be believed.  When passing the smithy at night, such a man might easily succumb to the temptation which the situation presented.  Lucas was barely more than a boy, but one who needed something constructive to do with his time.
     The autumn night was still warm; Zorro slipped into a darkened bedroom window and settled himself to wait.  The tavern would close soon, and Lucas would be on his way home--that is, if he was sober enough to stay on his horse.
     Another twenty minutes, and the sounds of someone striding heavily to the bedroom door came to his ears.  The door was flung open, and a man holding aloft a tallow candle entered the room.
     "I can undress myself, curse you!" Lucas swore at the servant behind him and slammed the door, shutting out his valet.  The young man sat the candle on the table beside the bed and unbuttoned his shirt.  Turning around to throw it on the floor, he gasped with terror.  A huge masked man dressed in black held the naked point of a sabre scant inches from his bare chest.  Don Lucas cowered in panic against the back wall.  It did not occur to him to cry out; his vocal cords were paralyzed.
     "Buenas noches, Don Lucas.  You have the church's money.  You will return it."
     "I--I don't know what you're talking about!" the young caballero desperately claimed.
     "I think you do.  You came out of the tavern last night and saw Torres and the padre minting gold coins in the smithy.  You watched the padre return to the church, and then you sneaked up behind Torres and used a neck pinch to render him unconscious--a neck pinch that your father had demonstrated to you from his military days.  Then you scooped up three sacks of minted coins.  Your gambling loses have been heavy, and you need a way to pay your debts of honor.  Tomorrow I will lay proof of your guilt before your father and the alcalde."
     "Proof?" quavered Lucas, vainly putting on an air of contempt.  "What proof could you possibly have?"
     "There was a witness," said the outlaw harshly, his sword still threatening.  "A reliable witness whose testimony will condemn you before the pueblo as a thief."
     The young man blenched in fear.  "Señor, think of my father!  Such a shame would kill him!"
     "Were you thinking of your father's honor when you stole?  But I am thinking of him.  Therefore you will return the gold early tomorrow--every coin!--or your shame and punishment will be very public indeed."
     Lucas did not answer until his frantic mind grasped one thread of hope.  "Then you won't expose me if I do as you say?"
     "No," said Zorro, lowering his sabre.  "I'll say nothing to your father about the gold, but you will go to him and confess the total of your debts.  Let him do with you as he wishes.  But you will give the gold to Padre Benitez personally and receive absolution from him.  I'll be watching you."
     The young don gulped and nodded, trembling.
     "This will be the second night in a row that an innocent man sleeps in jail because of a crime you committed.  The padre himself has fallen under suspicion.  You will not only return the gold, you will restore their good reputations to--shall we say--mint condition," ordered the hero with an ironic smile.
     "Sí, Señor," agreed Lucas without his former bravado.
     "Never give me cause to visit you again," warned the outlaw, who saluted crisply and slipped out the window.

     "Don Diego!" greeted the priest with a broad smile the next noon as the tall don entered the sanctuary.  "Praise the Lord!  The money has been returned, and Rubén has been released from jail."
     With inner satisfaction, the caballero returned the smile.  "Yes, I saw him at the smithy when I rode into town.  This is good news!  Is he back at work minting coins?"
     Benitez grimaced ruefully.  "He is a little reluctant to continue the work at present, and I don't blame him.  I can't guarantee his safety.  We may have to give up the idea of making the coins.  Such a shame!  They are so pretty!  But we will probably make nuggets from the rest of the gold as you originally suggested; the work would go much faster that way and be safer all the way around."
     De la Vega nodded.  "And the thief?  Was he repentant?"
     "Oh, yes," said the priest with a wise twinkle.  "Zorro kindly took an interest in the case and put the fear of the Lord into the man!  He told our erring brother that there was a witness to the crime, and it's not like Zorro to lie.  Whom do you suppose he meant?"
     The don quoted solemnly, "'Heaven's bright eye never blinks; o'er all deeds it doth keep watch.'"
     "Ah, yes.  The Lord sees all.  Shakespeare?"
     "No," grinned the caballero.  "De la Vega."

    Next story

    Back to Fox Tales index

    Back to Ruth's Zorro fiction page