"A REAL HERO"

CHAPTER THREE

     Felipe, dressed head to toe in Zorro's costume, stood in the tavern doorway.  His sword was drawn and ready.  Tomas forced Ana Maria aside quickly as he reached for his own weapon.  Juan and Pablo followed his lead.  Ana Maria made her way through the upset furniture to Victoria and the two females huddled together in a corner.

     Felipe gave the three other men a mocking salute with his saber.  Then he launched his attack on them, trying to fight them one at a time.  He knocked Juan backward against a table, then moved to take on Pablo.  His opponent soon found himself in the same predicament as his friend.  When they had recovered their footing, they both lunged at Felipe.  His steel blade flashed swiftly, parrying skillfully their clumsy thrusts.  Felipe circled his sword around Juan's blade causing it to fly from the stunned man's hand.  Felipe punched Juan in the stomach, doubling him over in pain.  After Felipe hit him in the chin with an uppercut, Juan went sprawling and landed unconscious on the floor.

     Pablo charged at the black clad figure's back, but Felipe spun around in time to ward off the assault.  Pablo was soon dispatched with and lying on the ground with Juan.  That left only Tomas for Felipe to deal with.

     The two remaining combatants circled each other warily, their blades at the ready.  Tomas made the first move, plunging wildly at Felipe's chest.  Felipe smoothly sidestepped the sharp point.  Then the fight began in earnest.  The men battled fiercely, the clashing of steel against steel ringing throughout the building.

    Finally Felipe knocked the sword from Tomas' hand, sending flying across the room where it stuck into a wall.  Felipe brought the tip of his saber to the other man's throat.  The unarmed man fell to his knees and began to plea for his life.

     "Please, Señor Zorro," he begged.  "Please do not kill me.  I swear. . .I swear I will never bother the señorita again."

     He glanced up at Felipe's stern masked face, which was unmoved.  Tomas hung his head down, expecting the worst.  Instead, Felipe, smiling superiorly, lowered his sword point to Tomas' chest and slashed a neat Z' into the young man's jacket.  He delivered a left hook to Tomas' face, rendering him unconscious.

     Ana Maria hurried over to Felipe and put her hand on his arm.  She gazed up at him in awe and gratitude.  Suddenly a crowd had gathered in the tavern.  They were whispering excitedly about what they had just seen.  Victoria and Diego approached the younger couple as Ana Maria spoke.

     "Oh, Felipe, you were quite wonderful.  Thank you so much for rescuing me from those awful bullies.  I do not know what I would have done without your help."

      Felipe took her hand and raised it to his lips in a gesture he had seen the real Zorro do many times.  He then brought up his sword to salute the crowd.  Ana Maria sighed as she placed the hand Felipe had kissed over her heart.  He bowed to her and turned to leave.  But Diego stopped him.

    "Felipe, you were magnificent.  In fact, you were so impressive, I am going to retire as Zorro and let you take my place."

     Felipe smiled broadly.  He patted Diego on the shoulder and nodded his acceptance of the other man's offer.  He swung up onto Toronado's back and rode out of the pueblo.
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     Diego walked into the library of the de la Vega hacienda, calling softly, "Felipe?"

    Drat, he is not here either, he thought.  The library had been the last place Diego had not search for his adopted son.

    "The cave."  The thought occurred to him suddenly. Surreptitiously he glanced around the room.  Making sure he was alone, he strolled over to the fireplace and touched a spot under the mantelpiece.  A panel of the fireplace wall slowly swung open.

     "Felipe," Diego called out again as he walked down the narrow passageway.  When he entered the main cave, he smiled as he saw his son sitting at the desk, obviously daydreaming.  The smile turned into a frown though when he noticed just how Felipe was sitting at the desk.

    Diego walked over to the desk and swatted at the offending feet perched upon the antique desk top.  Felipe nearly jumped out of his skin.  He had not realized Diego was in the cave because he had been so caught up in his musings.  He looked up at his father, who stood with his arms crossed in disapproval.  Felipe grinned sheepishly as he lowered his legs, placing his feet on the floor and sitting up properly in the chair.  He reached for the sketch pad lying on the desktop.  Diego put his hand on it so it would not move when Felipe tugged at it.  Diego turned his head to get a better look at upside down picture.  Recognition dawned in his eyes.

     "I saw her this afternoon," he remarked.  "This is a very good likeness, Felipe.  You certainly have captured her beauty.  Who is she?"

     Felipe blushed and shrugged his shoulders, not knowing where to begin.  Diego tried not to grin at his son's embarrassment.

     "Could she be the señorita Victoria told me about?"  Diego queried.  "Ah, what was her name?"  He snapped his fingers then used them to rub his chin in a perplexed manner.

     "Ana Maria Ortega, that is it," he stated as he pointed his finger at Felipe.  "Is she the one who has you moping around the house like a lost pup?"

     Felipe, who was now thoroughly abashed, nodded his head reluctantly.  He made a series of hand gestures which ended with him throwing his hands up in disgust.

    "You think she does not know you are alive?" Diego asked.  "I would say if she did not know before today, she does now.  I heard what happened this afternoon at the tavern."

     Felipe shrugged his shoulders again, indicating that it was not important.

    Diego disagreed.  "Not important?  I would say to Señorita Ortega it was very important.  You were very brave today, Felipe.  A bit foolish, but brave nonetheless."

    Felipe arched his left eyebrow inquisitively at the last statement.  He looked to Diego for an explanation.

     "The odds were three to one, Felipe," he stated plainly.

     Felipe signed that Zorro had faced even greater odds and had won.  He kept on, saying with his hands, that he had learned a great deal about fighting and fencing by watching and working with Diego.

    "Yes," Diego said thoughtfully.  "I suspect you have picked up a thing or two from Zorro."

     He considered closely the young man sitting before him.  Only then did he observe Felipe's slightly swollen nose, which had also turned a lovely shade of purple.  Diego walked over to the occupied desk chair and knelt down in front of it.  He put his hand under Felipe's chin and turned the injured face from side to side, examining it.

     "Maybe you have learned a little too well," Diego said.  "It does not appear to be broken.  Are you having any trouble breathing?"

     Felipe shook his head no as Diego released his chin.  He gingerly touched his nose and flinched at the pain the light touch caused.

     "Hurts, doesn't it?" asked Diego, trying to hide a smile.  "Just remember that you received it defending a fair maiden.  That should ease the pain somewhat."  He clapped his hand on the younger man's shoulder.  "I am proud of you, Felipe.  It is comforting to know that Zorro does not have to fight all the injustices in Los Angeles."

     Felipe was in a better frame of mind now.  He smiled as Diego stood up from his kneeling  position.

   "Come on or we will be late for supper," Diego announced.  "You know how Maria gets when we are not on time."

    Felipe rolled his eyes, knowing exactly how upset the de la Vega housekeeper got, having been the object of her wrath more than once.  Diego laughed as Felipe rose from the chair.  The two of them headed out of the cave.

    "Besides, I want to get supper out of the way quickly tonight," remarked Diego.  Felipe glanced questioningly at him.

    "Oh, it is nothing of importance," said Diego.  "It is just that Zorro is going to pay a visit to a certain beautiful señorita tonight.  You are not the only lovesick fool around here it seems."

     Felipe grinned and waggled his eyebrows at his adopted father, who pretended to take a swat at him.
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     Diego made his excuses to his father immediately after supper.  Actually, Don Alejandro unwittingly made it easy for Diego to slip away that evening by declaring he was tired and was going to his room to read before retiring for the night.  A twinge of concern struck Diego.

     "Are you all right, Father?" he inquired, an edge of worry in his voice.

    Don Alejandro nodded as he got up from the linen-covered table.  "Just a bit tired, that is all, Diego," he replied.  "One of the mares had her foal last night.  Miguel and I were up late last night with her."  He scowled a little at his son.

    "You would know of such things if you took any interest in this rancho, Diego," he admonished.  "It does not run itself, you know."

    "I am sorry, Father," said Diego contritely.  "It is just that. . .that. . ."

     "Spare me the excuses, Son," the older man said wearily.  "Well, goodnight, Diego."  He turned to Felipe and spoke slowly.  "Buenas noches, Felipe."

     "Goodnight, Father," Diego replied as Felipe nodded.  Don Alejandro left the dining room and headed toward his bedchamber.

      Diego unfolded his long legs from underneath the table.  "Well, I am off as well," he said quietly to Felipe.  "What are you planning to do this evening?"

     Felipe shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

    "Nothing?" queried Diego.  "Then how about you hit those law books you skipped out on this afternoon?"

     Felipe hung down his head, knowing he could not get out of studying again.  He glimpsed at Diego who was smiling.

     Diego held up one finger.  "One hour.  Then you can do as you please."

     Felipe smiled then in return.  Diego sighed as he left the dining room, heading for the library and the secret panel.

   Once inside the cave hidden under the hacienda, Diego quickly changed out of his clothing.  He was buttoning up Zorro's black silk shirt over his muscular chest, lost deep in thought.

     Lately Felipe's almost nonexistent love life had been more interesting than his own, he mused derisively.  Kinona had gone back to live with her tribe several years before, having completed her schooling at the Mission.  Felipe had moped around the hacienda for several weeks.  The young couple had decided some time before she left that they were not serious.  Felipe had explained to Diego that there were just too many cultural differences between them.

     Diego slid the black mask over his head, adjusting the eye holes.  Putting on his black leather gloves was the next step.  And when he had finished that, he reached for the wide brimmed black hat and place it upon his head.

     "Well here's to romance," he said aloud as he swung up onto the back of his trusty steed, Toronado.  He sincerely hoped that this unannounced visit with Victoria went better than the last two had done.  They had been interrupted both times, once by the Alcalde and the other by a thief.

    Zorro urged Toronado forward.  The stallion stepped on the piece of wood that tripped the pulleys that opened the cave's back entrance.  The tall man in the saddle had to duck as he rode through the narrow tunnel.  Darkness greeted the pair as they emerged from the cave.  Zorro dug his heels into the horse's side and they took off into the night.
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     It had been another busy evening at the tavern.  Victoria shook her head as she glanced around her establishment.  The main dinner rush was over but there were quite a few people still there, lingering over their meals and drinks.  There were always men there drinking, she thought sadly.  Men who would be better off at their homes, taking care of their families.  Her own father had not been a drinking man.  He had been far too busy running the tavern and farming to have time to imbibe.

    Victoria admired men who did not drink to excess.  Personally, she thought it took more courage to stay sober.  Zorro did not overindulge, as far as she knew.  Neither did Diego de la Vega, a tiny voice in her head said.  She frowned.  Why did she almost always think of Diego whenever she thought of Zorro?  Shaking her raven locks once more, she picked up two dirty plates from the table.

    She carried them into the kitchen, smiling at Pilar, who was standing behind the bar.  The other woman smiled back, then returned her attention to pouring wine into glasses for several caballeros.

     Victoria set the dishes down on the wooden table in the center of the kitchen.  She did not notice the tall man dressed in black standing by the back door.  He grinned mischievously as she stacked the plates on the table into two neat piles.  Zorro stepped from the shadows as she turned toward the water pump.  Nearly jumping out of her small leather sandals, she put her hand against her fluttering heart.

     "Zorro," she said softly.  "What are you doing here?"

     He came closer, taking the hand that rested near her heart and brought it to his lips.  He lowered it but did not relinquish it before he spoke.

     "I came to see you, mi querida," he replied.  He held up his free hand to stop her as she started to speak.  "I know, I know, it has been a long time since we last were together.  So let us not spoil this time with recriminations."

     He gazed down upon her with such contrite eyes, she could not possibly be angry with him.  Besides, behind the apology, she saw something else in those enigmatic green eyes.

     "You are right, Zorro," agreed Victoria. She stepped nearer to him and rising up onto her tiptoes, lifted her face.  Zorro did not have to be invited twice as he bent down to kiss her waiting lips.
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     Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the pueblo, three young men rode their horses toward the plaza.  Tomas, Juan and Pablo dismounted and tied the animals to the railing in front of the tavern.  The three friends had recovered somewhat from their earlier drinking escapade.  Tomas peered up at the second story of the adobe building, taking a quick survey of all the windows he could see.

     "I wonder which room that lovely señorita is staying in?" he pondered.

     "We dare not ask," said Pablo.  "Señorita Escalante will only throw us out again."

     "Si, si," Tomas agreed.  "That is true, amigo."

     He walked around the right side of the tavern, noting all the windows were dark save for one.  In it a light burned, casting a golden beam onto the ground.

     "Juan, Pablo," Tomas suddenly instructed, pointing to the glowing window,  "climb up there and see who is there."

     Juan and Pablo looked at each other in amazement.  "Us?  Climb up there?" Juan questioned.

     "Tomas, you are loco," added Pablo bravely. "Why us?  You want to see who is up there, you go."

    "Who has been buying the both of you food and drink nearly every day this week?"  Tomas sneered.  "I know the real reason why you are my friends."

     Pablo and Juan bowed their heads in shame.

     "Now get up there," ordered Tomas, indicating again the upstairs window.

      The other two youths shrugged their shoulders, knowing it was useless to argue with Tomas when he was in a mood.  They started to ascend the side of the tavern.  They both lost their footing once, but finally Pablo reached the window first.  He cautiously stared in on its occupant.  Nodding at Juan, he began his descent.  The pair both jumped down, their boots smacking the dusty ground.

    "Well, who did you see?"  Tomas demanded impatiently.  "Who is up there?"

    "It was the señorita's mother," gasped an out of breath Pablo.  "She was sewing."

     "By herself?" inquired Tomas.

      Pablo nodded.  Tomas walked back around to the front of the adobe building, then came around to the side again.  He pointed to the window immediately to the left of the one with the light.

    "That must be her window," he asserted.  He pivoted around to face his friends with a wicked grin on his face.  Bending down, Tomas reached out and picked up a rock.

     "Now, let us get the attention of that beautiful señorita," he said, still smiling cruelly.
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"A REAL HERO"-CHAPTER FOUR