9.  A FRIEND IN NEED
 

     Don Alejandro de la Vega closed the front door behind him and called loudly for his son.
     "Here, Father," came the answer from the library, where Diego and Felipe were intently studying a chessboard.  The younger man advanced his rook, which Diego captured with a knight.  Felipe moved his queen to checkmate, and his opponent groaned, "You've gotten too good at this game."
     Alejandro chuckled, having watched the final moves.  "Yes, that's why I don't play him anymore," he said with a wink at Felipe.  "Here's a letter for you, Son.  It just arrived."
     "From Tampico.  I wonder who I know there."  He broke the seal and spread the page.  "Oh, it's from my old school friend, Jonás Brioso.  He says he's traveling up the coast and would like to stop and visit with me a while.  He's arriving by coach on the fifteenth."
     "Good.  Seeing old friends again is always enjoyable, and I'd like to meet one of your schoolmates."
     "I hope you don't change your mind after meeting Jonás.  He's--quite a character."  Diego smiled to himself, amused by a distant memory.

     The coach arrived late, and Diego and Felipe were already waiting in the plaza with the carriage.  The stage door opened, and out stepped an impeccably dressed man with light brown hair and a laughing countenance.
     "Diego!  I'd know you anywhere.  The years haven't changed you a bit," he declared, enthusiastically pumping his friend's hand.
     "I can say the same for you, Amigo.  Your journey went well, I hope."
     "Except for the dust--I've eaten enough to choke."
     "In that case, let's get you some refreshment before we drive out to the hacienda.  This is our pueblo's tavern, and its owner is a good family friend."
     "Wonderful suggestion.  Oh, Diego, this is my man, Voraz.  He's indispensable to my comfort."  The servant was middle-aged and unobtrusive.  He bowed slightly to the caballero and began the work of unloading his master's trunks.
     "And this is Felipe.  He's been with us for fourteen years and is about to become a permanent member of our family."  Jonás shook hands with the younger man.  "Come, let's get a table."
     "Buenos dias, Diego, Felipe," greeted Victoria as she set juice down in front of each man and waited expectantly for an introduction to the stranger.
     "Gracias.  This is my friend from the university, Don Jonás Brioso.  He's staying with us a while.  Jonás, this is Señorita Victoria Escalante."
     Brioso had risen to his feet in rapt adoration and bowed gracefully over her hand.  "Señorita, I am absolutely enchanted.  Now that I see the beauty of California I know that a rose can bloom in the desert."  His most charming smile was not without effect on the lovely innkeeper.
     "Delighted to meet you, Señor!" she laughed.  "May I bring you anything else?"
     "Bring me my heart, Señorita, for I've just lost it!"
     Still giggling, Victoria asked, "Wherever did you find him, Diego?" before returning to her work.
     "What an angel!  How is it that she's unmarried?" queried Jonás.
     "It isn't for lack of offers, I assure you.  She's known throughout the territory for her spirit as well as her beauty.  However, the suitor she favors is formidable competition.  Most men know better than to try to cut him out."
     "I don't see any big ape around.  And when the cat's away--"  His eyes danced with an irrepressible twinkle.
     "You're mixing your metaphors, but try if you wish.  She'll send you about your business quickly enough.  The señorita is the tavern owner and family friend of whom I spoke."

     That evening at the insistence of his guest, Diego played several Bach selections before finishing with a sonatina by Haydn.
     "Bravo!  You're even better now than you were before, Diego.  It's unjust for one man to have so much talent.  Don Alejandro, you must be very proud of your son.  He's too modest to wave his accomplishments under the noses of others, so I'll do it.  What are friends for?" Brioso grinned.  "Diego was at the top of his class in every area of study--chemistry, history, mathematics, political theory, literature, music, philosophy--the list could go on and on.  I'll never forget the day he, as a freshman, corrected Professor Juarez on Newton's explanation of calculus.  The old man almost had an apoplectic fit!" He howled with laughter, and father and son joined in.  "Of course, Diego was right, and after that the math teacher always deferred to him.  But it wasn't all studies.  I could occasionally lure him away to more interesting pursuits."
     "If you're referring to our exploration of Madrid's night life, let's set the record straight.  I went along to bring you home before curfew, remember?  By the way, whatever happened to that ravishing redhead you were seeing?"
     "Isabel, the magistrate's daughter?  Her papa chased me off.  I think she eventually married a richer man than I, alas."  Jonás's eyes belied the mournful tone of his voice.  "But what of you and the fair Magdalena?  Did you ever tell your father about that glorious creature?  No matter, I will.  Don Alejandro, this gentle lady had such beautiful blue eyes that the gallants were writing poems in her honor.  But did she favor any of them?  No.  She cast those magnificent orbs of heaven toward Diego, who was too busy studying to notice."
     "It wasn't that," protested the younger de la Vega.  "I found out early in the relationship that she had a rooted dislike of the Americas, so there was no future in it."  He chuckled, "Do you remember when we made that sulfur bomb and put it under Pataco's chair?  And you set it off when he stood up to bore us with his explanation of Aristotle's treatise?  The whole building had to be evacuated for the rest of the day!"  Diego's friend further embellished the tale, and soon all three were laughing hard enough to wipe away tears.
     When the hilarity died down, Brioso queried, "Did you know that pompous pig Pataco was our class valedictorian because you left?  Why did you drop out so close to graduation?"
     An affectionate glance passed between son and father.  Diego answered his friend, "Father wrote and asked me to come home.  Politically, the situation here was very bad.  Our alcalde was corrupt, greedy, and oppressive.  My father felt I should be here to take a stand with the people against such tyranny.  The current alcalde is only a slight improvement, and he's a peninsular Spaniard who won't leave free Mexico."
     Brioso nodded gravely.  "Unfortunately, corruption and greed are not confined to California."

     The next day, Diego mounted his friend on one of his father's better horses, and he himself rode Esperanza.  He took Jonás through the rancho and surrounding countryside.  Brioso kept up a continual stream of good-natured banter, which made him an enjoyable companion.  The light-hearted man gave Diego reason to think.  He had always been more serious than his ebullient friend, and felt a pang of envy.  He was reflecting on the differences between them when he noticed that his friend had fallen silent.
     "Jonás?  Is something wrong?"
     "Yes, my friend.  I have not been entirely straightforward about my reasons for this visit.  I'm not traveling up the coast.  I've come this far from home expressly to see you.  Now that we're alone, I can speak freely."  He took a deep breath.
     "My father died two months ago, and as his only son, I expected to inherit the estate and business interests.  The problem is that I'm adopted.  Without proof of the adoption my father's younger brother will inherit everything, which he very much wants.  He's challenging my father's will in court."
     "But surely adoption papers were drawn up.  Can't you present them as evidence in your favor?"
     "That's the difficulty.  I didn't find out until Father was dying where he kept the papers, and now I no longer have them in my possession."
     "What became of the documents?"
     "You have them, Diego.  Or at least, I hope you still do."
     "I?  How is that possible?"
     "Do you remember when you were leaving school, I gave you a gift--a first edition of Góngora's Polifemo y Galatea?"
     "Yes, of course--that book of poetry is one of my prized possessions."
     "My father gave me that book and told me it was very valuable.  What he didn't tell me at the time was that my adoption papers were within its pages.  I confess I never read the book, so never knew.  Did you come across my papers when you read it?"
     "Now I must confess.  I didn't read it either because the old pages were too fragile to handle.  I've treasured the book because of its value, but more because it was a gift from you.  Let's turn around and go home.  We must find out if the papers are still there."  The two men kicked the sides of their mounts and galloped westward toward the hacienda.
 
     "It's here in the library.  I keep it with some of our other rare editions."  Diego led the way in the house, and his friend ran to keep pace with his long strides.  "It should be on the second shelf; let's see," he mused as he scanned the binding of each book.  "Here it is."  De la Vega withdrew a thin volume with a brown leather cover and handed it to his friend.  Jonás eagerly fingered the crisp pages and pulled out several loose sheets of parchment.
     "Yes, this is it--the adoption document!"  Relief flooded his tone.  "Thank you, Diego.  You keep the book," he added, holding out the volume.
     "No, I think I should return it to you.  Your father valued it enough to secure precious papers between its pages.  It's part of your inheritance from him.  Perhaps it's still a good hiding place for the document until you reach home safely."
     "Gracias, compadre; that's a good idea.  Let me put this with my things, and we'll continue our ride.  I'd like to go into town and see your pretty friend again," he asserted with a wide grin.

     Diego could hardly suppress his amusement at watching Brioso's advances to a flattered but adamant Victoria.  He could charm a snarling cougar, he thought.
     "Fairest flower, I have heard that California's air is so clear that the stars sparkle as brilliantly as a woman's eyes.  Come with me for a walk under the night sky so that I may make a comparison.  I don't think it possible that your bright eyes could be outshone by the heavens."
     Victoria giggled at his effusive compliments.  "I'm so sorry, Señor, but I really must work tonight.  Why don't you ask Diego?  He could show you the stars."
     "He isn't as beautiful as you," Jonás quipped.  "Have mercy on your humble servant, Señorita.  Not in all Mexico is there such a happy blending of grace and loveliness as in your sweet self."
     "Thank you, sir," she replied with a delighted smile.  "You certainly add a lot of style to our pueblo; what a shame you're only here for a short time."
     Brioso lifted her hand for a kiss.  "My lady, you could persuade me to remain."

     When the two caballeros returned from a ride up the coast the following afternoon, both were hot and tired.
     "I'll get us some juice and a snack," volunteered Brioso's host.
     "Fine.  I'll be right with you."  Jonás disappeared to his room but emerged a few minutes later with a concerned expression.
     "Diego, you did give me the book yesterday, didn't you?  I just looked where I thought I put it, and it's gone."
     "Are you sure?"  De la Vega set down the glasses and led the way back to the guest quarters.  "Let's both look."  A thorough search of the room only revealed that the volume was not there.  Neither had the housekeeper seen it.  Diego was perplexed, and Brioso genuinely distressed.
     When the silver-haired rancher and Felipe returned from town, Diego urged his friend to lay before them the whole story.  Jonás did so, and the two other men joined in the search.  After turning the house upside down, they all admitted defeat as they collapsed in the parlor chairs.
     "Perhaps there's another legal alternative if you cannot recover the papers," suggested the senior de la Vega.  "If you weren't leaving so soon, we could consult with my lawyer friend in Santa Barbara, Don Luis."
     "Have I outworn my welcome already, Don Alejandro?" questioned Brioso, with a glimmer of his former grin.  "I haven't made any plans to leave Los Angeles yet."
     "But I saw your man in town making arrangements to journey on the stage.  I thought--"  He broke off, as the same thought occurred to them all at once.
     "Jonás, do you have any reason to question Voraz's loyalty?" pounced Diego.  His friend shook his head.
     "Better yet, did your man know of the book and the papers?  And where is he now?" Alejandro wondered.
     "He might have known of the book and papers, though I haven't told him myself.  Perhaps he overheard my father telling me."
     "Let's find out if he's returned from town."  A quick check with the housekeeper confirmed that the quiet servant had not returned and his personal effects were no longer in his quarters.
     Don Alejandro pulled out his watch.  "The stage left almost two hours ago.  If we all mount up on the Andalusians, we should be able to overtake it within a few hours.  Come on, everyone."
     "Father, it's not necessary for all of us to go.  You and Jonás chase the stage; you're the better riders.  Felipe and I will alert the garrison and send a patrol after you.  You may need the soldiers' help if you find the man and he's stolen the book."
     "Good thinking. Jonás, are you ready for a hard ride?"
     As soon as his father and friend left the room, Diego ran to the desk and dashed off a quick note to the garrison's commander.
     "Take this to the alcalde, Felipe.  I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't want to trouble himself to run down the stage, but try.  Anyway, Zorro will be riding too."  He disappeared behind the fireplace door.
 
     At his master's urging, Toronado raced like the wind.  They rode through fields within sight of the highway until they passed Don Alejandro and Don Jonás.  Then Zorro cut over to the road, and the stallion raced even faster with solid footing.  Three hours later as darkness was falling, he caught sight of the coach in the distance rumbling along at an easy pace.  He pulled up directly behind the vehicle, kicked his feet free of the stirrups, and crouched in the saddle.  Springing to grasp the luggage rack, Zorro climbed over the trunks and onto the coach's roof to the driver's seat.  The startled coachman turned his head to see the masked outlaw directly behind him, and he reached for his rifle.
     "Sorry, Amigo, but I require no additional ventilation," asserted Zorro, kicking the gun onto the ground below.  "Pull up.  I have business with one of your passengers."  Having a fearful reputation did have its advantages, for the coach driver did as he was told without any argument.  The outlaw jumped down and wrenched open the door.  There were several terrified passengers cringing inside, and among them was Voraz.
     "Please excuse the unavoidable delay," Zorro greeted the others with a smile and bowed, then beckoned the manservant to step out of the coach.  As Voraz descended from the coach, he quickly drew a small pistol from his coat pocket.
     "I have no intention of being robbed, bandit, and I'm not a rich man.  I have nothing of interest to you."
     "That's a matter of opinion.  I'm a voracious reader and interested in rare books, especially the kind that contain legal documents."  The man's eyes widened in astonishment, but at that moment two other horseman approached the stalled coach.
     "Zorro!" called Don Alejandro in surprise.  The distraction was all the masked man needed.  His sabre hissed from the scabbard and flicked the pistol from the hand of Voraz.
     "Now, Señor, your luggage.  If you would be so kind as to open it for inspection.  These two gentlemen are particularly concerned with its contents."  The man hesitated but a moment, being at the wrong end of the sharpened blade.  He brought down a small portmanteau, opened it, and stood back, chagrined.
     Brioso had dismounted.  Without a word to his servant, he searched through the bag and brought out a thin volume from the bottom.  "This is the book, Don Alejandro.  Now let's see if the papers are here as well."  He leafed through the valuable edition carefully and found several sheets of paper tucked between the pages.  "Yes, here they are!" he cried exultantly.  Jonás looked up at Zorro.  "Señor, I thank you for your assistance."  To Voraz he said sternly, "An explanation, please."
     The servant shrugged, "Your uncle was willing to pay a great deal for the recovery of those papers."
     The sound of galloping horses approaching turned around the head of the masked man.  "I think soldiers are arriving.  They can help you file charges, Señor."  He saluted, and vanished into the deepening shadows.
 
     The night air was cooler than the hacienda, and Diego and his friend strolled out into the garden the following evening.
     "I understand your desire to clear up your inheritance as soon as possible, but I wish you weren't leaving tomorrow.  I've enjoyed your company more than I can say, Jonás.  I hadn't realized how dull I'd become."
     "My friend, you are anything but dull," chuckled Jonás.  His expression sobered as he gazed across the pastures of the rancho.  "Do you recall Sir Edmund Kendall, the sabre master?  I thought so.  After you left the university, he began extolling your skill.  Rumors even said that you defeated him, and he gave you his championship sabre.  I remember that sabre well; I was on the losing end many times."  He paused and studied his friend's face in the moonlight.  "Last night I saw that sword again for the first time in nine years."
     Diego returned the gaze frankly.  "You always had a good memory for detail."
     "True.  It's my one great accomplishment," his guest grinned.  "This Zorro--he wouldn't happen to be the 'formidable competition' you mentioned for the señorita's hand, would he?"
     "The very same."
     "Ah," Brioso said with a knowing look.  "In that case I'll concede the field gracefully.  She's chosen well.  So has he."
     De la Vega acknowledged the compliment with a slight nod and turned, looking with unseeing eyes at the California countryside.  "At school, Jonás, it seemed that the whole world was open before us--that we could do anything or be anything.  But real life is a different story.  Sometimes adversity chooses our paths for us."
     "Does adversity choose our paths, or does it bring to the surface what is already there--the best or the worst of what's in us?"  Brioso grasped his friend's shoulder.  "In your case, Diego, it's been the very best."
 

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