Felipe winced as the landing jarred him, forcing the soundless cry to escape from his lips. The black-and-white pinto raced over the hill.
The 14-year-old mute servant boy glared at Parche as the pony disappeared over the top of the hill. Parche had chosen the worst possible moment to run off and leave Felipe riderless!
And all because of a snake! Felipe thought resentfully, rubbing the back of his neck. Why'd it have to scare my horse?
The young boy rose to his feet and rubbed his perspiring forehead. Nervously, he glanced at the wall of gray clouds approaching him. In a short time, it would block out the late-afternoon sun.
It's awful cloudy, he thought. It's going to storm very soon. He gulped. I've got to seek shelter before it gets here. I won't make it home before the storm breaks.
The young boy slowly pivoted, looking for shelter. To his left, a towering hill rose a short distance away. A narrow tunnel bore into the side.
I'll stay in that cave till the storm passes, he decided. Thank goodness I was able to deliver that message for Don Alejandro before this happened!
Felipe darted toward the opening and slipped inside. The tunnel, he noticed, ended about 10 feet from the entrance. The cool air inside the cave felt good on his sweaty skin.
Minutes later, a loud clap of thunder startled him. At that moment, a solid sheet of rain pounded the ground. The boy slumped against the wall. Don Diego and Don Alejandro are going to be worried, he thought. If this storm lasts for hours, it'll be after dark before I ever get home! He made the sign of the cross and glanced nervously at the cave's ceiling.
Orphaned by the revolution at the age of seven, Felipe had been found by Don Diego and brought to California to live. Since then he had worked for the de la Vegas as their houseboy, and would continue to until he turned twenty-five. Don Diego and his father, Don Alejandro, were the wealthiest, most respected and influential landowners in southern California. Besides doing light work around the hacienda, Felipe did many errands for them. Only that afternoon, Don Alejandro had sent the boy to deliver a message to one of his caballero friends.
Felipe tiptoed toward the entrance to watch for the storm's passing. As he reached the entrance, a forked lightning bolt struck the hill on which he had stood looking for shelter; in the next instant, an earsplitting thunderclap assaulted his ears. The bright flash of light had blinded Felipe; everything looked pitch-black. Screaming soundlessly, the terrified boy backed against the ice-cold limestone wall, squeezed his eyes shut, and covered his ears.
A moment later, he slowly opened his eyes. To his relief, he could see again. Now all he had to do was to wait till the storm was over.
Felipe slid down into a sitting position and crouched against the wall. Yawning, he rested his face on his knees and closed his weary brown eyes. More claps of thunder sounded, but they sounded distant.
The sleepy boy started daydreaming about his master's crusade against tyranny and evil. Unknown to all but Felipe, the weak-willed, bookish Don Diego de la Vega who loved to dabble in science was, in reality, the black-masked avenger, Zorro. Felipe, who had been deaf for six years and who still couldn't speak, pretended to be unable to hear so he could spy for Zorro without arousing suspicion.
A sudden quiet startled Felipe, making him sit up and look out the entrance. The storm had disappeared, and the sun had come out. It'll be dark soon, he thought. I've got to get home now!
As the young boy stepped out of the cave, he smiled. Well, the storm wasn't as long as I feared. Only about half an hour, maybe.
He raced in the general direction of the de la Vega hacienda. I hope the patrons aren't too worried about me, he thought. When Parche got home without me, Miguel probably told Don Diego. Miguel was the head vaquero.
Fifteen minutes later, he saw a hacienda in the distance. Felipe stopped to stare at it. Something was wrong.
That can't be the Calderon hacienda, he thought. It has one floor. That one has two!
Felipe rubbed his eyes and scanned the desert. For the first time, he noticed a difference in the shrubs and trees. They were arranged differently.
Maybe I took a wrong turn, he thought, rubbing the back of his neck. I'll go that way.
He stared down at the ground underneath his feet and noticed for the first time that it was dry. How could this be? he wondered. It never dries this fast after a storm!
The boy turned a little toward his left and trotted over the hill. Long minutes passed as he trudged on and on. The relentless sun's rays made his face turn sweaty.
Throughout his hike, he passed several haciendas he had never seen before. A number of caballeros and peasants passed him, none of whom he had ever seen before.
Felipe was starting to get nervous. None of the haciendas, huts, or people he had seen looked familiar to him! Where am I? he wondered. Where is the de la Vega hacienda? A knot formed in his stomach. Am I lost?!
A carriage appeared over the horizon. A driver, wearing a brown jacket and a black hat, sat in front, and two caballeros sat behind him. As the carriage approached Felipe, the younger caballero saw him and spoke to the older gentleman. The elder man, in turn, tapped the driver on the shoulder and motioned to him to stop when he reached the boy.
Felipe sagged with relief when the carriage stopped next to him.
"Are you lost, muchacho?" the younger gentleman asked him kindly. He had coal-black hair, hazel eyes, an oval face, clear complexion, and a black, pencil-thin mustache. The other man had wavy, grayish-white hair, a mustache, and a goatee. Both men wore fancy charro jackets and hats. The driver wore a white, unbleached cotton shirt and a brown vest under his jacket.
Felipe nodded ruefully, then pointed to his ears and mouth to indicate that he was a deaf-mute. As the two caballeros looked at each other, Felipe had the strangest feeling he'd seen them before, though he couldn't imagine where.
The younger man stepped out of the carriage and motioned to Felipe to climb in. "Can you read lips?" he asked. Felipe nodded.
"Then you're more fortunate than our mozo, Bernardo." The older man nodded toward the driver. "He can't even do that. He can't hear or speak either, you see. He has to rely totally on sign language."
Felipe winced. If their driver was a deaf-mute who couldn't read lips, he had a real problem on his hands. The boy gazed beseechingly at the two gentlemen, who in turned smiled reassuringly at the frightened boy.
"We'll take you to our hacienda," the younger man said. "When we get there, we'll see what we can do about finding your parents and getting you home."
Felipe smiled gratefully and climbed in. The caballero sat down next to him on the soft velvet mattress. The carriage moved on. As the young boy gazed at the two men, his feeling of deja-vu grew stronger.
The two men smiled at him. "I'm Don Alejandro de la Vega," the older man said. "And this is my only son, Diego. Mucho gusto, amigo."
Felipe stared at them. How could this be? These were not the de la Vegas HE knew! These were completely different men! Felipe wondered if he was having a bad dream. These men could not be the de la Vegas! Were they playing some kind of trick on him?
And yet--and yet, there was something about them that reminded Felipe of the de la Vegas he knew. Something about the look in their eyes, their mannerisms.
The two men looked at him, concerned. "Is something wrong?" the younger man asked.
Felipe forced a smile on his face and shook his head. It would not do, he knew, to tell these men that there was another de la Vega family with the same first names. I won't say anything, he silently decided. I'll just keep my eyes and ears open, the way I do for Zorro. I'll keep pretending I'm deaf, too. He wiped his perspring forehead with the palm of his hand.
For the rest of the drive, no one said a word, so Felipe had a chance to examine the two men. The younger man wore a navy-blue jacket embroidered with gold braid, a pair of matching trousers, a snow-white ruffled linen shirt, a coal-black silk cravat, and a brown hat. When he smiled at the boy, dimples appeared on his cheeks.
The young man's father was wearing an orange jacket embroidered with black braid and a light-brown silk cravat. Both men wore woolen sashes. Don Diego periodically reached into an inside jacket pocket for his handkerchief, to wipe the sweat off his face. Once, Don Alejandro glanced at his gold timepiece.
Minutes later, the carriage stopped in front of a hacienda. No sooner did Felipe climb out of the carriage than he stood stock-still and gaped at the imposing residence. A high stone wall surrounded the front of the house. It was much higher than the stone fence he was familiar with. And instead of a picket fence, a wooden door stood ajar, revealing a patio and inviting them to enter.
Felipe pushed the door open and stepped through the entrance. Sure enough, there WAS a patio in front of the house. For a long moment, the baffled boy just stood still and looked around. A high-backed wooden bench stood against the outer wall; clusters of ivy hung over the wall and covered parts of it. The ground was completely covered with stone tiles. In the middle, a tall, stately tree grew out of a section of earth rimmed with bricks.
A flight of stairs led up to a balcony on the second floor, lined with wooden railings. A terrace ran alongside the house underneath, and wooden columns supported the balcony.
This isn't like our patio at all! Felipe thought. The patio he knew was encased by the one-story, rectangular house. This one spread out in front, like a garden.
"Come, Felipe." Don Diego patted his shoulder. "You must be hungry, so come inside and we'll get you something to eat."
Nodding, Felipe followed the caballeros toward the entrance. His woven leather sandals clicked on the stone tiles. Good thing I'm used to spying for Zorro, he thought wryly. That'll make it easier to solve this mystery--I hope! Who ARE these people, and where am I?
Once inside, Felipe gazed at the room for a long moment. Unlike the drawing room at his patrons' house, this one had a whitish, indescribable color, and a red carpet covered the wooden plank floor. Apparently, the drawing room doubled as a dining room, since a long dining table stood further down the room.
A highboy stood against the wall opposite from the entrance. A narrow red tablecloth covered the dining table from end to end. Armchairs stood here and there. Two of them stood underneath the huge stone fireplace. An ebony-colored piano stood at the far end of the room, next to a desk.
This is nothing like our drawing room! Felipe thought, shaking his head. For one thing, ours is much prettier!
"Muchacho, when you've had a bite to eat, we'll show you around our hacienda." Don Alejandro laid a hand on the boy's shoulder. "We're quite proud of it."
Felipe smiled his thanks. As long as he was there anyway, he may as well see everything. Crossing his arms, Don Diego glanced at his father and furrowed his eyebrows.
"Before you eat, we'd like to know who you are. Can you read and write?" Felipe nodded.
Don Diego led the boy toward the desk and gestured toward a shiny gold inkwell. "Why don't you sit down and write your name for us?"
Felipe perched on the edge of the chair, picked up a quill pen, and dipped it into the India ink. As his hosts looked over his shoulder, Felipe wrote his first name.
Don Alejandro smiled as the boy rose to his feet. "So, your name is Felipe." Their young guest nodded. The aged don patted his shoulder.
Don Diego laughed. "At least, we know what to call you, now." He turned to an Indian servant hovering nearby. "Paco, would you get this boy something to eat?"
"Sí, Patron." The servant left the room.
After Felipe had polished off a plate of tamales at the dining table, the de la Vegas gave him a tour of the house. They showed him their library, their kitchen, Bernardo's small bedroom, and the other ground-floor rooms. Then, they took him outside, escorted him up the stairs to the balcony and showed him the rows of bedrooms, including the ones they occupied.
Felipe couldn't believe how very different this place was from the one where he lived and worked. The library was a totally different room, entered by a pine door. The bedrooms were all situated on the second floor and had panelled walls. Unlike the ones in his patrons' hacienda, the doors of these bedrooms opened onto the balcony.
This is unbelievable, Felipe thought, for the umpteenth time.
As the young houseguest followed his hosts down the outdoor stairs, a thought made him freeze. Was this Don Diego another Zorro? If these indeed were de la Vegas, he MUST be! Maybe Bernardo helped him, as Felipe himself helped his Zorro.
If I'm right, that means Bernardo only pretends to be deaf, Felipe thought, as he trotted down the rest of the stairs. I've got to find out!
He glanced at the darkening western sky. The reddish-orange sun had dipped below the patio wall, and a cool breeze caressed his cheeks. When everyone's asleep, I'll find out.