The next morning, Felipe rode to town with Bernardo and the de la Vegas in the carriage. The early-morning breeze caressed his face as he leaned against Don Diego. The cushioned velvet mattress sagged underneath his weight.
Felipe glanced up at the handsome caballero, who smiled back and patted the boy's arm before straightened his jacket. Diego had donned a light-blue charro jacket embroidered with gold braid, and a matching pair of trousers; Alejandro was wearing a black jacket embroidered with light-yellow braid. Both had tied black silk cravats around their snow-white collars and had donned felt hats. Bernardo was again wearing a brown jacket, matching pair of trousers, a plain cotton shirt, and a hat.
These de la Vegas must always wear cravats, Felipe thought, scratching his chest. I have yet to see them without one! My de la Vegas sometimes wear them, and sometimes don't. He glanced at their hats. They don't often wear hats, either. Even though they have them.
The boy frowned. The de a Vegas I know don't smoke cigars either! Yet this Don Diego does--he smoked one after dinner last night. My Don Diego would never approve. He smiled wryly at the thought of his Don Diego disapproving of the practices of another Don Diego de la Vega.
When they arrived in town, Felipe silently gasped. The boy had thought that he was immune to any further surprises by now, but he wasn't. This Los Angeles was much bigger than the one he was used to! It had a variety of streets and plazas. Not only that, the alcalde's office was hidden behind a high wall and equally high, solid wood gates.
Felipe tugged Don Diego's sleeve to ask who the alcalde was. "At the moment, Felipe, we don't have an alcalde. The last one we had died, and the governor has yet to replace him." Don Diego sighed. "And when he was alive, the comandante basically usurped his power--Monastario took over the pueblo, tyrannized it." He pursed his lips as he spoke.
Felipe signed a question. Don Diego glanced at his father. "Sergeant Garcia is the acting comandante at present."
"Yes, and at the moment, we also have an emissary." Don Alejandro tugged at a ruffled sleeve. "He arrived two days ago, and we still don't know why."
The elderly caballero shook his head and pursed his lips. "Whatever his purpose is, it's no good. So far, Zorro's had to rescue five peons and two caballeros the emissary's had arrested and threaten to hang." He glared at the cuartel gates as he spoke.
Felipe winced. This emissary sounded like the alcalde of his Los Angeles, Don Luis Ramon, and Colonel Palomarez, both of whom were notorious for oppressing innocent people. Palomarez had visited Los Angeles twice; first to force Zorro's surrender by executing innocent people, then to force the people off their land and sell California to Great Britain. The territorial governor had appointed Luis Ramon as alcalde months before Don Diego's return from Madrid, and ever since, he had used his office to crush the people and grind them into the dust. Only Zorro could rein him in.
Bernardo pulled up in front of the tavern, and the others stepped out of the carriage. The de la Vegas' boots clumped as they followed Felipe onto the wooden terrace. Clasping his hands behind his back, Don Alejandro gazed at the boy for a long moment. In a low voice, he asked his son, "Are you sure Felipe here can keep your secret and Bernardo's?"
Diego scrutinized the young boy, then nodded. "Yes, Father. I don't know him well, yet, but I would swear to it. He has the same loyal, trustworthy attitude as Bernardo. I sense it." He touched Felipe's shoulder.
Don Alejandro nodded. "So do I. I'm quite sure we can trust him fully."
Felipe smiled his appreciation. These de la Vegas were right. He'd go to his grave before betraying Zorro, as surely as Bernardo would.
Out loud, Don Alejandro suggested, "Well, Diego, I'm thirsty. Let's go inside the tavern."
"Good idea." Don Diego lowered his voice again. "I need to get some information from Sergeant Garcia anyway, and we will probably find him here."
The four of them entered the tavern, which, Felipe saw, greatly resembled the one owned by Victoria Escalante. Victoria was the de la Vegas' good friend and Zorro's lady-love. For a moment, as Felipe looked aroud, he wondered who owned this tavern.
A man wearing a white cotton shirt, a black cotton vest, and a huge apron was standing behind the bar. "That's the innkeeper, Seņor Tio," Don Diego told Felipe. Before the boy could respond, a booming voice startled him.
"Don Diego!" From across the room, a tall sergeant with an enormous belly rose from his table with a beaming smile spread across his unshaven face. The soldier, Felipe noticed, wore a blue shirt with a white, diagonal stripe that stretched from his shoulder to the hem, and a hat resemblng those the de la Vegas wore. Again, Felipe started in surprise. The soldiers in his Los Angeles wore shakos that rose upwards.
Don Diego laughed and strode toward the table. "Buenos dias, Sergeant!"
The fat sergeant stared at Felipe as the young boy followed Diego alongside Don Alejandro and Bernardo. "Who's this boy?" the sergeant asked, glancing at Don Alejandro.
"This is our houseguest, Felipe." The elderly caballero laid a hand on Felipe's shoulder. "Like Bernardo, he's a deaf-mute, but unlike our mozo, he can read lips."
The sergeant smiled at Felipe. "Well, permit me to introduce myself. I am Sergeant Demetrio Lopez Garcia, acting comandante for the pueblo de Los Angeles." Felipe smiled back. "Where are you from, muchacho? And what brings you to Los Angeles? Where are your parents?"
Don Diego sighed and crossed his arms. "He's lost, I'm afraid. My father, Bernardo, and I found him wandering on the road yesterday, and took him to our hacienda. We've brought him to town to start a search for his family. Has anyone been to the cuartel, Sergeant, to report a missing son?"
Sergeant Garcia shook his head. "No, there haven't. But if anyone does, Don Diego, I will let you know." He grasped a shiny tin mug and gulped its contents.
Suddenly, Felipe overheard shouting in the plaza. The de la Vegas and Sergeant Garcia overheard it, too, as did Bernardo, though he also pretended not to hear it. The group rushed out the door to see what was happening.
Two soldiers had just grabbed the arms of a peasant man. Don Diego caught his breath. "Sergeant! That's our caporal, Benito Avila!" Don Diego's face had frozen in alarm; his father clenches his fists and scowled.
Don Diego glanced at his father, then stared at Sergeant Garcia. "My father sent him here to run some errands. Why is he being arrested?"
Garcia sighed. "Quien sabe, Don Diego. The emissary and his aide have had several arrested since they came here. If it hadn't been for Zorro, they would have all been hung."
As the soldiers marched the vaquero toward the cuartel, Garcia followed them with slumped shoulders. A grim-faced Don Diego nudged Felipe and pointed toward two gentlemen talking on the other side of the plaza fountain.
"Felipe, that's our new emissary, Don Alberto Sanchez, and his aide, Capitan Juan Santiago." He sighed. "I wish one of us could approach them and eavesdrop on their discussion, but in that particular location, any attempt to do so would attract attention. Even Bernardo would be noticed, I'm afraid."
Felipe noticed that the two men were facing in a direction that allowed him to read their lips. For a long moment, the boy focused intently on their faces, visually deciphering what they were saying. When they turned around to return to the cuartel, Felipe looked at Don Diego, who had clasped his hands behind his back.
"Do you know what they said?" the caballero asked. "You read their lips?" Felipe nodded. The de la Vegas looked at each other.
"Good." Don Alejandro glanced down at his gleaming timepiece. "Let's return to the hacienda, then, and Felipe can tell us there what he knows."
Back at the hacienda, the de la Vegas watched as Felipe explained, via signs, what the emissary and his aide had said at the fountain. "So, the emissary intends to hang Benito for supposedly plotting to incite rebellion among the peons." Don Diego shook his head and crossed his arms. "And he intends to set a trap for Zorro." The handsome caballero gazed at his father, then at Bernardo. "Well, it won't be the first time that's been attempted."
Felipe smiled wryly. He didn't doubt that for a minute.
Bernardo signed something as the others watched. Don Alejandro nodded agreement. "Yes, we'll have to spring their trap if Zorro is to rescue Benito. Question is, how?"
Don Diego gazed at Bernardo. "I'll need help, I'm afraid. Bernardo, meet me in the room. We've got to make plans for tonight." The mute manservant nodded his acquiescence, and Felipe realized Diego meant the secret compartment where he hid his clothes.
Felipe grabbed the caballero's sleeve. He tapped his chest, then pointed at Bernardo. At that point, he made the sign of the Z.
"You want to help, too, Felipe?" Don Diego gazed at him thoughtfully as the young boy nodded. "We'll see. I don't want to put you in danger, you know. I could never face your parents when we do find them, if you got killed. But I may need more help than Bernardo alone can give, so I'll see if there's a way you can help. Meanwhile, you may join us in the secret room."
Minutes later, upstairs in the secret room, Diego, Bernardo, and Felipe planned their strategy. When they had ironed out the details, Don Diego sighed. "Well, there's nothing more we can do till nightfall, so let's take Felipe, here, on a picnic. We can make our preparations later."
For the rest of the day, the de la Vegas and Bernardo kept Felipe busy. They took him on a tour of the rancho, then had a picnic by the creek before the siesta hour. Late that afternoon, Diego and Felipe played two games of chess in the library while Don Alejandro and Bernardo watched. Don Diego won the first game, and Felipe won the second.
Chuckling, Don Alejandro opened a crystal decanter of wine and poured some into a crystal goblet. "Well, son, it seems Felipe has been well-taught. He kept you on your toes throughout both games."
"Yes, he certainly did." Don Diego gazed at the boy curiously. "Peons don't normally keep chessboards. Do you work for a caballero, Felipe?" The boy nodded. "And he taught you how to play chess?" Felipe nodded again.
"What servant position do you hold, Felipe?" As Don Alejandro sipped his wine, he and the other two men watched Felipe's gestures. "You work as a houseboy." The boy nodded.
Don Diego smiled. "I'm not surprised. Your manners are different from those of most peasant boys. More like a gentleman's. And I strongly suspect you've had an excellent education, too." Felipe smiled shyly and shrugged, then nodded.
The handsome caballero glanced out the window. "Well, Father, it'll be getting dark soon. If Zorro is to rescue Benito, we've got preparations to make."
"Certainly." Don Alejandro set down the crystal goblet on the rectangular coffee table. "While you're doing that, my son, I'll stay in here and do some paperwork. I'll probably be in bed before the three of you return, so I'll say buenas noches now."
Minutes later, in the secret room next to his bedroom, Don Diego donned his black costume with his mozo's help. Felipe leaned against the wall and watched. Why doesn't he wear a bandanna mask like my Zorro does? the boy wondered. Why does he just wear a strip of cloth over his eyes?
Zorro smiled at Felipe. "I want you to remember your instructions, Felipe, and obey them carefully. I don't want to have to rescue you, too." Felipe nodded his acquiescence. "Good boy. Bernardo, saddle a horse for Felipe and another for yourself. I'll meet you both outside the cuartel." He girded his saber and left.