"A  REAL HERO"

CHAPTER ONE

     In the Spanish Territory of Alta California, there was a very small pueblo with a very long name.  El Pueblo Nuestra Señora Reina de Los Angeles was founded in 1781 as an agricultural outpost.  Sebastian de la Vega had already established his ranch near there several years earlier.  The de la Vega rancho was now one of the largest in all of California, raising cattle and sheep, fruits and vegetables.

     At that moment, the grandson of Don Sebastian was not concerned with the problems of running such a large estate, much to the constant dismay of his father.  Don Diego de la Vega was in a cave deep underneath the impressive hacienda where he and his father lived.  In the cave with him was his adopted son, a handsome young man named Felipe.

     Felipe was sitting on a stool in the middle of the cave.  The cave was cluttered with all sorts of scientific equipment, for Diego liked to consider himself a scientist.  But in another section of the cave was the reason it remained a secret between the two men who presently occupied it.  On one wall hung several swords, whips and daggers.  And hanging on a clothes rack next to the small arsenal, was an outfit of  black clothing.  Black shirt, black pants, black hat, gloves, sash, boots, a long black cape and a piece of black silk that had two eye hole slit through it.

    For Don Diego de la Vega, the son and grandson of wealthy landowners, was Zorro.  Who, depending on whom was describing him, was either a dashing defender of justice or a treasonous masked bandit.

     But once again, Diego was not concerned with Zorro and his problems.  He was concentrating on the young man perched on the stool.

     "Say 'a'," Diego instructed.

     Felipe tried to say the letter, but no sound would come from his lips.  Before Diego had found him, Felipe and his parents had been caught in one of the battles of the August Revolution.  His mother and father had been killed by a stray cannonball as they were making their escape.  Felipe had been left without his hearing or power of speech.  He did regain his hearing several years later, but he still could not speak.  However, about a year ago, he had saved Zorro's life by calling out his name when the other man had been in danger.  Ever since that day, Diego tried to work with Felipe when they had the time.

     Felipe attempted again to pronounce the requested letter but to no avail.  He looked up at Diego with a defeated expression on his face, his shoulders sagging.

   "Do not give up so easily, Felipe," encouraged Diego.  "You spoke once and I know you will again.  Let's try the letter 'Z'.  You have said that once before."

     Felipe struggled to make the sound several times.  Finally about his fifth, he made a quiet Z' sound.  He looked up at Diego this time with a big grin on his youthful face.  Diego was smiling too.

     "I knew you could do it, Felipe," said Diego proudly.  He clasped the young man on the shoulder.  "I think we have done enough for one day, don't you?"

      Felipe nodded.  He jumped off the stool and walked over to the wall in which there was a small viewing hole, giving the occupants of the cave a clear view of the hacienda's library.  Felipe peered through the hole, then turned and gave Diego the all clear signal.  The two men went through the archway leading out of the cave.  They emerged from the fireplace's secret panel into the empty library.

     "Now it is time for you to study your law books," said Diego.  Felipe rolled his eyes at this suggestion.

     "It was your idea to become a lawyer, Felipe," reminded Diego.  "You need to be familiar with Spanish laws before you can take the examination."  He removed a rather large book from one of the bookshelves.

     Felipe made several frantic hand signals.  Then he gave Diego a pleading look.

     "All right, all right," Diego said, shaking his head.  "You can go to the pueblo for my father.  But hurry back.  This is not going to go away."

     He held up the law book, then put it back on the crowded shelf.  Felipe smiled his thanks and headed quickly out the front door as Diego selected another volume to read.

    The young man made his way to the stables, where he saddled his pinto horse.  Cinching the saddle into place, Felipe then swung up easily on the horse's back.  He nudged his heels gently into the pony's sides and they were on their way to the pueblo.

     Inside the hacienda, Don Alejandro came into the library.  Diego looked up from the book he was reading.  "Buenos tardes, Father," he said, returning his attention back to his reading.

     "Diego, have you seen Felipe this afternoon?" his father asked.  "I have been looking for him since lunch.  I have an errand for him to do for me."

    Diego's confusion was obvious.  "But I thought. . ." he started to say.  "That rascal," he said, shaking his head and smiling.

    Now Don Alejandro was baffled.  "What are you muttering about, Diego?"

     "Felipe told me you already had an errand for him," Diego explained.  "And then he left to do it."

    "How could he when I had not asked him yet?"  Don Alejandro was still perplexed.

     "He didn't, Father," Diego elaborated further.  "He just did not want to study any more today."  He became serious for a moment.  "We have been hitting the books rather hard lately."

     Don Alejandro smiled then, finally understanding.  "Don't worry, Diego," he said.  "He will be fine.  You have to remember, Son, not everyone is as studious as you are.  Felipe needs to blow off a little steam and then he will be back, ready to work."

     "I guess you are right," conceded Diego.  "Lately I have noticed that he seems a little restless.  Remember a few years ago, he wanted to join the army so he could see the world?"

     "Yes, I recall that," said his father.  "It would not surprise me though, Diego, if it is not an affair of the heart this time.  I have seen him looking rather moonstruck of late."

     "You know, Father, you might be right," agreed Diego. "That would explain a lot."

    "Well, since Felipe is not here," Don Alejandro began, "maybe you could run this errand for me?"

     Diego looked up at his father, trying to think up a plausible excuse.  Not finding one, he said, "Very well, Father."
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     The object of their discussion was riding into the pueblo.  He stopped his horse in front of the Tavern Victoria and dismounted.  Tying the reins onto the wooden posts provided, he patted the black and white pony, then walked into the building.

     The tavern was filled with people from all walks of life.  The caballeros, the soldiers from the garrison, peasants, and travelers just passing through all came to the tavern to eat, drink, rest, and to gossip.  The proprietor of the establishment, Victoria Escalante, was wending her way through the tables, stopping here and there.  To place a pitcher of refreshment, to clear away empty glasses, to take an order for food or more drink, she did all of this with a beautiful smile.  For Victoria Escalante was extremely beautiful.  A goodly portion of the male customers came to the inn just to look at her.  But they knew, as did everyone else in the pueblo, that her heart belonged to that dashing outlaw, Zorro.

     Felipe managed to find a small empty table in the crowded room.  Victoria came up to him with an inquiring look on her face.  He cupped his hand and brought it to his lips, indicating he wanted something to drink.  He smiled up at her.  Victoria nodded and smiled back, then left to go fetch it.

     Felipe searched the room with his eyes.  So intent he was in his observation, he did not notice Victoria as she set a glass of lemonade in front of him.  He jumped slightly as his search brought her into his line of sight. Victoria smiled and gestured toward the glass.

    "Is lemonade all right?" she asked, slowly pronouncing each word carefully.

   He nodded and smiled at her again, this time a bit embarrassedly.

    Victoria walked away, shaking her head as she went through the curtains that led into the kitchen.  Poor Felipe, she thought.  It must be so hard for him not being able to hear and speak.  He was such a handsome and intelligent young man.  She sighed and returned to her work.

     Felipe sat at his table, sipping his drink.  He would have been angry if he had known of Victoria's pitying thoughts.  But right now, he was very disappointed.  The reason he had been in such a hurry to come to the pueblo did not seem to be present.  He took another drink from his glass.

     He glanced around the room once more, hoping he had not just overlooked the object of his scrutiny.  His gaze skipped quickly over all the men in the tavern.  There were only a few women present and these he studied intently.

     A movement at the doorway drew his attention in that direction.  His heart sank when he saw who it was.  Three well-dressed young men strolled into the tavern.  They were a few years older than Felipe, about twenty-one or twenty-two.  Felipe narrowed his eyes with dislike as he followed their progress through the room.  They all sat down at an empty table.  When nobody immediately came over to their table to take their order, one of the young men began to bang his hand on the wooden surface.

     Then the youth, whose name was Tomas Quiñones, called out when he saw Victoria with her back to him, "Hey, wench, bring us wine.  Pronto!" he added when she continued to ignore him and his companions.

      Victoria kept smiling as she finished her customer, but the smile did not reach her eyes.  When she was done at the table, she walked back to the kitchen.  Tomas hit his fist on the table again.

     "I said bring us wine, wench," he repeated loudly.  His friends, Juan and Pablo, began to pound their hands on the table as well.

     Victoria emerged from the kitchen, her dark eyes blazing.  Felipe had seen her look that way several times and knew she was extremely angry.  He grinned to himself.  He knew to stay out of her path when she was in such a temper.

    She marched over to the table where the young men continued to beat on the wooden surface.  They stopped as Victoria stood in front of the seated Tomas.  She drew up to her five foot, three inch height and glared hostilely into Tomas's eyes, a stare that often left braver and smarter men quaking in their boots.

   "You will wait quietly to be served," she began condescendingly, "and you will ask politely.  Or you will get out of my tavern."

     She stayed in front of him, challenging him with her hands on her hips.  Felipe, at his table, was ready to rush to her aid if it proved necessary, as were several of the other male customers.

     Tomas darted his eyes to glance at his comrades.  They looked as intimidated as he felt.  He also noted the other patrons who were prepared to come to Victoria's defense.  So, swallowing his pride, he decided to honor her request.

     "Wine, por favor, Señorita," he asked meekly.

     "Very well," Victoria said.  She turned and went over to the bar.  Felipe let out a sigh of relief, taking a sip of his lemonade.  He watched as Victoria brought the young men a carafe of wine.  Then something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.

     There, walking gracefully down the stairs, was the reason he had been in such a hurry to get to town.  A beautiful girl, about seventeen years of age, entered the main room.  She made her way between the tables, carrying a flat bundle.  Felipe followed her every move, transfixed.  The young lady had long, black hair which she wore loose so the glossy curls tumbled down her back.  Her eyes were dark.  Felipe was not sure of their color since he so far had been too shy to look her directly in the face.  She wore a stylish dress of a pretty rose pink which was trimmed with white lace.

     Felipe did know the reason behind the fashionable clothing she always wore.  Her mother, Señora Leonora Ortega, was a seamstress.  And her only child, her daughter Ana Maria, was the perfect advertisement for her services.  Slim and pretty, she showed off her mother's skill with the needle quite well.  The girl and her mother had moved to the pueblo de Los Angeles about a month before.

     The first time Felipe had seen Ana Maria, about three weeks earlier, he had been love struck.  He had not as yet gathered up the courage to meet her, realizing his lack of speech and supposed deafness could and would be a major obstacle in courting her.

     Felipe took another sip of his lemonade, his eyes never leaving the girl as she made her way across the room.  He choked on his drink though as he watched Tomas pull the unsuspecting Ana Maria onto his lap.  She dropped the parcel she had been carrying as she struggled to get free.

     "Let me go, Señor," she pleaded.  "Por favor."

     "Just sit with me awhile, Señorita," Tomas said.  His friends were laughing and nudging each other.  "You are such a pretty girl.  I mean no harm."

     Juan and Pablo laughed even louder because they knew Tomas' true intentions.  He reached up to stroke her hair.

      Felipe could not sit still and watch any longer.  He sprang into action, dashing across the room.  He encircled Ana Maria in his arms and whisked her off her unwanted suitor's lap.  Tomas, stunned by this turn of events, just sat there for a moment.  Then he leapt to his feet to confront Felipe.

    "Mind your own business, muchacho," he snarled.  He pushed Felipe on the shoulder.

     Felipe stood his ground, staring down his opponent.  "All right then, muchacho," Tomas sneered, "you asked for it."

    He shoved Felipe backwards, almost knocking the younger man to the floor.  Felipe regained his footing and came up swinging, his right fist smashing into Tomas' eye.  The injured youth took a jab at Felipe, who ducked out of the way.  Tomas threw another punch which barely missed Felipe's head.  Felipe hit Tomas hard in the stomach.  As Tomas fell backward against a chair, Felipe smiled, appreciating all the fight training he had done with Diego.  Moreover counting the times he had seen Zorro in action, Felipe felt pretty good about his ability as a fighter.  Tomas had collected himself off the floor and finally connected his fist with Felipe's nose.  Blood streamed from both nostrils as Felipe jumped at Tomas, wrestling him down to the ground.  The two of them rolled around, upsetting chairs and table as they exchanged punches.
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"A REAL HERO"-CHAPTER TWO