"Good, Felipe. That was
much better. Try it again, this time make sure you're breathing out
as you mouth the words," Don Diego coached his young friend. The
two men been working on Felipe's speaking every morning for several weeks.
Felipe started again on the Scripture passage and shaped out the words in a barely audible whisper, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing." He paused, and his mentor nodded for him to continue. He took a deep breath and forced out air with each word, "He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters; He restores my soul." The young man looked up hopefully for Diego's approval.
"Go ahead and finish the chapter. You're improving a lot; now be as loud as you can be."
Felipe blasted out each word in a soft whisper, then closed the Bible and shook his head.
"Enough for today? Don't be discouraged. Think how thrilled my father will be when he hears you speak for the first time. Don Luis Cristofa arrives tomorrow from Santa Barbara to draw up the adoption papers for us. When he's done, we'll tell my father the truth about your hearing and speaking. I don't think we need keep it a secret any longer; you've been a very loyal partner for Zorro all these years, but it hasn't been fair to you. You're twenty, and you have your whole life ahead of you." Diego leaned forward and gripped the young man's shoulder and smiled. "I want you to know that whatever you want to do in the future is fine with me. Chase your dreams; don't feel you must stay here with me out of any sense of duty." Felipe raised wistful eyes to the older man's face. "Yes, I know; I'd miss you too if you left. But it isn't right for me to keep you here; I can't ask it or expect it. You're intelligent, brave, and determined. Think about your future and let me know what you want to do."
Sergeant Mendoza and two lancers
were waiting in the plaza as the Santa Barbara coach arrived the following
noon. As each person descended from the vehicle, Mendoza stepped
forward and requested five pesos for the traveler's tax. His assignment
was interrupted without warning when a large black horse and masked rider
thundered into the plaza, and a whip cracked the record book out of the
sergeant's hands. He jumped in shock.
"Zorro! I'm collecting the traveler's tax like I always do. If you interfere, I'll be forced to arrest you. Lancers," he called and beckoned for them to seize the horseman. The two soldiers looked somewhat less than enthusiastic about the order, but gamely tried to obey their sergeant. Two more cracks of the whip stung sabres from their hands, and the men decided to leave the scene to gather reinforcements.
"Sergeant, for whom are you collecting this tax?" called the masked man.
Mendoza looked surprised. "For the alcalde, Zorro; you know that."
"The alcalde works for the king of Spain; this is no longer a Spanish colony. For him to tax the people of an independent nation is illegal."
One of the passengers who had disembarked from the coach spoke up, addressing the soldier but pointing to the outlaw. "This man is absolutely correct. The tax you are trying to collect is not valid within the laws governing this new nation." The speaker was an older gentleman, well-dressed and authoritative in manner. At that moment the alcalde and several lancers with muskets emerged running from the cuartel gates.
"Zorro! Get him!" shouted DeSoto.
The dark hero turned his horse quickly and sprang at the approaching soldiers, snapping his whip overhead. The men dived out of the way of the stallion's hooves and ran for cover, being driven along by the whip. A sharp downward crack coiled the leather thong around the commandant's wrist, bringing his pistol with a jerk into the hands of the masked man.
"Lay off your taxation of these citizens; they no longer owe levies to King Ferdinand."
DeSoto glared. "This independence will not hold; wait and see. 'Free Mexico' will return crawling to Spain."
Zorro's response was to toss the pistol in the air toward its owner's head. The angry man dodged, and the gun discharged as it hit the ground, forcing him to jump wildly to avoid being shot in the foot. The outlaw spun his mount around and galloped away.
Don Luis Cristofa leaned back
in his chair and sighed contentedly. "That was an excellent dinner,
Alejandro. It would have been worth the long drive all by itself."
The ranchero smiled at his guest and poured him a cup of coffee. "Thank you, Luis. Now tell us what you think of the adoption Diego's proposing."
The lawyer pressed his fingertips together and studied Felipe thoughtfully, who sat quietly across the table, calmly meeting his gaze.
"May I speak freely in this matter? A good lawyer is supposed to be tactful; I try, but think it's better in the long run to be straight-forward."
Diego shifted uncomfortably. "Please say what is on your mind."
Cristofa still chose his words carefully. "The laws governing inheritance are of long-standing tradition as well as legal writ. They have not changed with the renaming of this land. Upon the death of a man, his oldest son inherits all property and business interests. If there are other children, their father may leave them a small bequest, but essentially, the oldest son gets everything." He broke off and asked a question. "Don Diego, how old are you?"
"I'll be thirty-three next month."
"Most men of a marrying disposition are wed by age thirty-three. Since you are not, and wish to adopt this young man, that tells me you have neither plans nor wish to marry." The tall caballero sat silently while Felipe turned his head to see if his dear friend would correct the lawyer. "If that is the case, well and good. But if you should change your mind at a later time, marry and have a son, Felipe will be considered your firstborn and will inherit an oldest son's share. You could be cutting off your own flesh and blood with an adoption proceeding. It is not my intent to dissuade you from a course of action upon which you've decided, but I do want you to understand fully what you are proposing."
An encounter with Zorro always
left DeSoto furious for the remainder of the day, and Sergeant Mendoza
bore the brunt of the officer's wrath.
"That arrogant renegade! That insolent show-off! He's nothing more than a petty criminal, a busybody interfering in the administration of this pueblo. How dare he correct me in political matters about which he knows nothing. Nothing! And neither do the foolish people who regard him as some kind of hero. I swear I'll defeat him if it's the last thing I do here!" The alcalde stomped back and forth across the floor of his office, muttering angrily. Mendoza stood at attention, fearful to interrupt.
"There must be some way to get him. We've tried chases; his horse is faster. We've tried ambushes; he fights his way clear. We've tried baiting him; he outwits us. We've tried tracking him, but he covers his trail better than an Indian. He moves too quickly to shoot and is a master swordsman. Even the huge reward doesn't seem to tempt anyone to betray him." DeSoto pondered, "We must try something new, some different approach. I wonder what Machiavelli would do?" He drummed his fingers on the desk, frowning. "Cunning may work where force has failed. He has several weaknesses; perhaps one can be exploited. Hmm."
Mendoza cleared his throat nervously. "Alcalde, I think I know how to get rid of Zorro."
"Do you?" snorted the officer. "And how is that?"
"Give him what he wants."
The next day the people in the
plaza gathered to hear their alcalde make the most stunning proclamation
heard in ten years. He stood up on the fountain to be seen by all.
"Good people of Los Angeles; I have an announcement which will be of interest to everyone." He held up a parchment and began to read. "'In gratitude and appreciation for services rendered to the King of Spain in the protection of the people of the Pueblo de Los Angeles, the outlaw known as Zorro is hereby pardoned for past crimes.' This pardon will become Zorro's if he will come and receive it from me publicly at noon in two days." DeSoto stepped down and summoned his soldiers to follow him back to the garrison. Behind him an excited buzz began to ripple through the crowd.
Don Alejandro got word of the outlaw's pardon through Miguel, his foreman who had been in town. The caballero called his son to tell him the news also.
"Isn't that strange? I would never have believed the alcalde would actually pardon Zorro. I don't know what to make of it."
"Strange isn't the word for it. It's so unexpected and out of character, it's bizarre," Diego puzzled.
"Yes. But enough of Zorro for the moment. I want to talk with you about Felipe's adoption. I know you love the boy and want to provide for him. I think the adoption is a wonderful idea. But I've been thinking about what Don Luis said last night about adopted sons versus blood sons." He paused and looked sadly out the window. "I've tried not to pry into your personal life; in regard to marriage, I thought that you should be free to choose the woman and the time that was right for you. I was always sure that you would marry one day, but was Luis correct in assuming that you don't wish to wed?"
His son responded quietly, "No, he was not correct. I have every intention of marrying, and soon. I have chosen the woman I want to be my wife."
Alejandro was astounded. "You have? Who is she?"
"The courtship is at a rather delicate stage. I'd prefer not to say just yet."
"Well, anyway, is it fair to her or to children you might have to name Felipe as your heir? Not many women would be so understanding. Diego, I want to propose to you a different solution. I've thought about it many times before and especially since the discussion at the dinner table last night. I think I should be the one to adopt Felipe--make him my son instead of yours. There are only thirteen years between you two, and he would be your younger brother. As my second son, I can provide for him generously while I live and leave him more in my will. I really want to do this; ever since Risendo was here, I've felt the lack of another son. Should you never have a boy of your own, the end result is the same. Felipe will be the heir to everything, and our descendants will be numbered through him." Alejandro looked hopefully at his son.
"I understand what you're saying, but I've already told him that I'm adopting him. I can't go back on my word."
"Let me talk to him, Diego. Maybe we can all reach a happy accord."
That evening, Diego went to the tavern alone. The inn was as full of voices as it was people, and Zorro's pardon was the main topic of conversation. He strategically chose his companions for the night, and among them were Sergeant Mendoza and Señorita Escalante.
"Victoria," he greeted the tavern owner, "you must be the happiest woman in town tonight." He thought to see her radiant smile, but her expression was troubled.
"I don't know, Diego. Something about that pardon doesn't seem right. I hope Zorro doesn't come."
"How did it come about, Sergeant, that the alcalde pardoned Zorro?"
"I suggested it, Don Diego, and he took my advice." Mendoza puffed out his chest proudly.
"You suggested it?"
"Sí. Last night he wanted to know how to get rid of Zorro. And I said, 'Give him what he wants'. What I meant was for the alcalde to treat the people fairly. That's what Zorro's always wanted. But the Alcalde thought of the pardon."
Victoria and Diego exchanged glances. "I see," was the latter's only comment.
"To make your voice heard, push
down on your diaphragm." The younger man tried several times but
could muster no more than a whisper. "I know you can do it, Felipe;
I've heard you speak. With persistence, you'll recover the ability."
Diego changed the subject. "Did my father talk to you about the adoption?"
His loyal friend nodded. "What do you think?"
His companion began to gesture until reminded to use words. He sighed and whispered, "I think it would be better if your father adopted me. I know he loves me. Would you be disappointed if I choose him?"
"A little, I suppose. We've been so close all these years, but I can't deny the force of his arguments. Are you sure you'd rather be my brother instead of my son?"
Felipe's sensitive heart sought to put the situation in perspective. "Either way, I'm very lucky. I think this way is better for you."
DeSoto called his sergeant to give him detailed instructions for the following noon.
"But what if Zorro doesn't come tomorrow?" Mendoza asked.
"Oh, he'll come, Sergeant, he'll come. Curiosity, if nothing else. But he wants to marry the señorita, and he needs his freedom to do that. I want an armed lancer on every roof facing the plaza. Have them keep out of sight. When Zorro arrives, I'll demand that he unmask before receiving the pardon. If he does that, he'll never be able to interfere with me again."
"But suppose he refuses to take off his mask?"
"Then the lancers will shoot to kill!"
The young soldier waiting on the church's roof with his musket was so intent upon watching the people gather in the plaza that he failed to hear the quiet approach of a pair of black boots. When he turned around to see who was tapping him on the shoulder, he was slugged unconscious by a dark apparition.
"Sorry, Amigo; you're in my way," Zorro said as he bound and gagged the limp lancer. He surveyed the scene below from his high vantage point. "Hmm. Soldiers on every roof. Just as I thought--the alcalde is planning a trap."
On the ground, about two hundred people had assembled to see the masked hero receive his pardon. Among them were Don Alejandro, Felipe, Don Luis, and Señorita Escalante, all with varying degrees of skepticism. The alcalde mounted a platform, and was followed by Mendoza, who looked ill-at-ease. Other lancers were dispersed in the crowd, carrying their muskets.
DeSoto raised his hands to quiet the crowd. "Zorro should be here in a few minutes to receive this pardon." He held up a rolled parchment. "He and I have had our differences in the past, but today will be a new beginning in cooperation for the good of this pueblo."
"A new beginning indeed, if you're thinking about what's good for someone besides yourself!" called a strong voice from the church roof.
Every head swung around and saw the dark figure of Zorro, shrouded in his black cape.
"Zorro, you must come down and receive this pardon personally!" demanded the alcalde.
The black form did not move. "I think not. Just give it to a good citizen, such as Señor de la Vega."
"I'm afraid that's not possible. This is a conditional pardon; you must remove your mask and swear to stop all activities against this administration."
"Your conditions are not acceptable."
"Then I have no choice but to regard you as a criminal and a continuing threat!" yelled DeSoto. "Lancers, fire!"
Several women screamed, and the people scattered as the soldiers swung their muskets up to point at the man on the roof. As they fired, they heard a sharp cry, and the black figure collapsed before the horrified eyes of the town's citizens.
"We got him! At last!" cried DeSoto, jumping off the platform and running toward the church. "Out of my way! Get out of my way!"
He was the first to reach the steps inside the sanctuary but was closely followed by some jubilant soldiers and Don Alejandro, Felipe, and the señorita. When the alcalde reached the roof, he saw the black hat and cape of the hero lying where they had fallen along with the wooden frame which had held them up. Bending down to examine them, the bewildered commandant exclaimed, "It was a trick--another trick!"
"Turnabout is fair play, Señor," said a hated voice, tapping him on the arm with the blade of a sword, "and I prefer a time and place of my own choosing."
With a salute, the masked man gave the officer an opportunity to draw his own weapon. Zorro enjoyed each parry as the sabres clashed. Wherever DeSoto moved, the blade of Toledo steel there blocking his sword and riposting quickly, forcing the officer to give ground and undermining his poise.
"I already knew you were a liar and a cheat, Alcalde; I simply wanted the opportunity to again expose you as such to the people of this community." With expert skill, the hero forced the blade from the hand of his opponent, and it fell harmlessly to the ground far below. "Now, I'll take that pardon, if you please." Since the sword tip was at his throat, the commandant did not argue but removed the parchment from inside his waistcoat and handed it to his enemy. "Gracias."
"It will do you no good, Zorro. I'll revoke it immediately," glared the defeated man.
The dark hero grinned with genuine amusement. "I've no doubt you will, Alcalde. However, I think this will make an interesting souvenir to hang on my wall." With that parting comment, he cut a "Z" in DeSoto's lapel and doubled him over with a sharp kick to the stomach. Zorro saluted, and bowed over the hand of Señorita Escalante.
"Not today, mi preciosa. I'm so sorry," he said with regret and disappeared over the far edge of the roof by means of a waiting rope.
"You were absolutely right, Diego," announced Don Alejandro as he was coming in the front door. He found his son painting a still life in the parlor. "The alcalde had no intention of truly pardoning Zorro. It was all a scheme to neutralize Zorro's effectiveness."
"I suspected as much. It didn't seem worthwhile to go."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that; it's always worthwhile to see DeSoto humiliated. Don Luis says the adoption papers are ready to sign, so I brought Victoria back with us to share this special day."
The artist put down his brush, rose to his feet, and gave the lady a welcoming smile. "An excellent idea--Victoria's one of the family."
His father nodded. "If that's so, Diego, I've a feeling that we'll soon have to include Zorro as well; is that right, my dear?" She blushed but made no reply.
The lawyer spread out the documents on the dining table and explained the meaning of the legal terms. "And when you sign here, Alejandro, Felipe will become Felipe de la Vega, your second son."
The hacendado sat down and dipped the quill in the ink, and smiled warmly at the younger man, who returned the affectionate gaze with a bashful grin. "Alejandro Sebastian de la Vega, October 27, 1821," he read aloud as he signed with a flourish. Diego led the applause and was the first to hug his new brother.
"This is wonderful! I'm so happy for you, Felipe!" exclaimed the señorita, kissing his cheek.
Alejandro poured a glass of wine for each of them. "A toast to my son, Felipe de la Vega," he proposed with his arm around the shoulders of his new child. Everyone lifted his glass and drank.
"And now Felipe has something to share with you on this day," Diego added, with an encouraging nod to the younger man.
Felipe licked his lips nervously and took a deep breath. "I want to thank you, Don Alejandro--I mean, Father, for the love and kindness you've shown me all these years. Thank you, Diego, for all you've taught me and, and everything--you know," he whispered hoarsely.
Two of his listeners were stunned into silence.
"Surprise, surprise," filled in the handsome caballero. "Felipe recovered his hearing some time ago, and I've been working with him on his speaking." He looked proudly at his brother, who waited for the reaction of Alejandro.
The older man's mouth had fallen open, and he shook his head in amazement. "It's unbelievable. A miracle!" With a delighted shout, he embraced his younger son again, as did Victoria.
"You have two remarkable sons, Alejandro," Don Luis complimented. He addressed Felipe. "Don Diego tells me you'd like to be a lawyer. If that is so, I could use a bright, energetic assistant such as yourself. How would you like to come to Santa Barbara and be trained in the law by me?"
Now it was the young man's turn to be overwhelmed. "I'd love to. Gracias," he stammered. Then with a smile at his family he added, "Perhaps after the beginning of the year?"
"Ah yes," responded the lawyer, with a perceptive look. "Alejandro would not appreciate it if I enticed you away now. Next year, then." Don Luis lifted his glass once again. "To the de la Vegas. May you each prosper in the coming years, and may God grant you the desires of your heart."