Todd and Allison froze and stared at the unpleasant man’s sword pointed at them. Neither spoke a word.
"Who are you?" The man gestured with his sword. "Tell me!"
"Todd Bennett," Todd said in a low voice. The steely expression in the man’s eyes made Todd feel queasy, so he glanced down at his sneakers.
"Speak up! I can’t hear you."
"Todd Bennett," Todd said in a louder voice, looking up at the man. "This is my sister, Allison."
"So—you’re americanos." The man frowned. "Where are you from?"
The man glanced at the plump soldier beside him, then knitted his brows as he stared at Todd. "Excuse me?" With his left hand, he removed a handkerchief from an inside coat pocket and wiped the sweat off his face.
Allison stared at the man, evidently bewildered by his ignorance. "Aren’t there others here from Oklahoma City?" She twisted her necklace as she spoke.
"I’ve never heard of the place." The man sheathed his sword. "What are you ninos doing here?" He stared at their clothes. "And where on earth did you get those strange-looking clothes?"
Todd and Allison stared at each other, bewildered. Strange-looking? Todd thought. They’re the ones who look strange, not us! Out loud, he answered, "We’re just visiting. Our mom buys our clothes." Todd reached down to scratch his legs, then stared at the man. "Who are you? What happened to all the houses? And the fences?"
"And the smog?" Allison added.
The man pursed his lips together and sat up straighter. "Muchacho, there are no houses or fences here, as you can see! There never have been. I’ve never heard of smog; I don’t know what it is. I am Luis Ramon, the alcalde of Los Angeles, and these are a few of my lancers."
"What’s an—an alcalde?" Allison tilted her head.
"Are you like a mayor or something?" Todd asked.
"Yes. And as alcalde, I hereby arrest you children for spying!"
"What?!" Todd gaped at the alcalde.
"You children are spies—sent here to spy on us!"
Todd and Allison gaped at each other in fear and amazement. "No, we’re not!" Todd protested. "We’re not spies!"
"Yes, you are! And I’m placing you under arrest." The alcalde turned to the plump soldier. "Sergeant Mendoza, tie these children to the back of my horse."
Allison screamed and grabbed Todd, who clutched her. Allison puckered her lips; tears welled up in her eyes. Todd’s heart pounded, and his hands felt sweaty.
"But, alcalde—" The sergeant gestured toward the children. "They’re just children!"
"Tie them to my horse! That’s an order!"
"I think you won’t, alcalde!" A man wearing a black tunic, a silk black cape, a black sash, black mask, and a black hat appeared behind the soldiers on a coal-black stallion. He had a dark-brown, pencil-thin mustache. He unsheathed his sword and held its tip on the alcalde’s chest. "These children are free to go."
"And if I refuse?" The alcalde spat at the masked man.
"Then you will be tied to your own horse—on my orders!"
The alcalde pursed his lips together and ordered his soldiers to retreat. He and the lancers rode off in a cloud of dust. The masked man sheathed his sword and turned to the children.
"I am El Zorro." The man removed his hat and bowed. "And who might you be?" He smiled kindly.
"My—my name’s Todd Bennett, and this is my sister Allison."
Zorro gazed at them for a moment. "You must be americanos."
"Why do you say that—americanos?" Allison hung her head to one side. "That’s what the alcalde called us."
Zorro chuckled. "Senorita Bennett, that’s the Spanish word for Americans, as you people are called in your language." He frowned. "How did you get here? And where’d you get those clothes? They’re most unusual."
Todd and Allison stared at each other again. "No, they’re not! Our mom buys our clothes." Allison glanced down at her blue plaid jumper as she spoke.
"We came through a cave," Todd added. "There were houses and fences and stuff when we went in, and they were all gone when we came out. We’re staying with our aunt and uncle this summer. We’ve got to get back to them, or they’ll be worried!" Todd shivered.
Zorro’s frown deepened. "Where was this cave?"
Todd turned around and pointed in the direction of the canyon, now lost to view. "In a canyon."
Zorro nodded, then smiled reassuringly. "Don’t worry, amigos. I’ll do all I can to help you get back to your aunt and uncle; you can depend on me. In the meantime, I need to find you children a safe place to stay. I overheard the alcalde accuse you of spying, and I don’t intend to let him arrest you if I can help it."
"Can I ask you something?" Todd asked. Zorro nodded.
"Is that your real name—El Zorro?" Todd gaped at him. "Why are you dressed like that?" He pointed at Zorro’s costume.
Zorro chuckled again. "I wear a mask, amigo, because the alcalde and his soldiers don’t like me. As for my name, ‘El Zorro’ means ‘The Fox.’ To avoid capture, I have to be as clever as one."
"Ohh!" Todd gazed at him admiringly. "You must be like Batman, then! Are you?"
"Batman?" Zorro stared at the boy, puzzled. "Who’s Batman?"
Todd didn’t know what to say. As he tried to think of an answer, Allison came to his rescue. "He’s a crimefighter on TV. He wears a costume, too—a bat costume. Todd likes Batman. He watches him every day."
Zorro knitted his brows in bewilderment, and scratched his head. "Well, I’ve never heard of him. I have heard of the alcalde, though, and the alcalde is an evil man. Even as we speak, he’s probably plotting to capture all three of us, so I’d better take you children away from here."
He thought a moment. "Let’s see. I could take you to the de la Vega hacienda. I know the de la Vegas. They will be glad to shelter you until we can find your aunt and uncle." He patted the side of his saddle. "Climb up on Toronado’s back, and I’ll take you there."
Todd and Allison stared at each other. The de la Vega hacienda! Maybe the man Uncle Ted had bought the house from was visiting the Bennetts, and Uncle Ted and Aunt Alice were waiting for the children there! When we get there, I’ll ask Uncle Ted what happened to the buildings and stuff, Todd thought.
Zorro helped Todd up onto the saddle behind him, then reached down and lifted Allison up onto the saddle in front of him. Minutes later, Todd, peeking from behind Zorro’s back, saw the hacienda well up ahead.
Sure enough, it was the very same house! It had the same whitewashed walls, the same flat red tile roof, and the same small windows with the wooden shutters.
A whitewashed stone fence, taller than Allison, surrounded the front of the house. It had not been there when Todd and Allison had left! How did it get built so fast? Todd wondered. A white picket gate divided the fence in the middle; through the gate, Todd saw the same polished, dark-brown mahogany door he remembered.
Would things be as different inside as they were in the surrounding countryside?
Uncle Ted said it was built in the late 1700s, Todd thought. He said California was a Spanish colony, back then. He shook his head. Everything’s so weird here!
Zorro stopped in front of the fence and helped the children climb down to the ground. At that moment, an elderly, silver-haired gentleman opened the door and stepped out on the porch. He stood erect, and he wore a snow-white linen shirt with ruffled sleeves and two rows of ruffles down the front. A shiny, bright-red silk vest and a pair of darker red pants completed his outfit. He smiled as Zorro approached.
"Zorro!" He waved as he strode toward the fence; as he spotted the children, he glanced questioningly at Zorro. "Who are these children?" He glanced at their clothes, evidently puzzled.
Why does everyone stare at our clothes? Todd wondered.
"Two young americanos the alcalde wanted to arrest," Zorro explained. "I’ll let the children explain the particulars. Adios!" He waved and rode off.
The man smiled at the children. "I’m Don Alejandro de la Vega," he said. "Who are you?"
"Todd Bennett," Todd said. "My sister Allison." He stared at the house. "Is this your house, mister?"
Don Alejandro glanced at the house and chuckled. "Indeed, it is. My father built it when he and his father emigrated to this land from Spain and applied for a land grant, several decades ago."
Todd and Allison stared at each other in shock. That meant only one thing. The children had gone back in time!
Todd gazed at the yard. As it did in 1998, it consisted of bare dirt. A round table, surrounded by chairs and a high-backed bench, stood next to the porch. Ivy trailed the front wall; small trees stood against it; and beds of flowers stood against the wall bordering the porch.
Don Alejandro stepped forward. "Come inside with me, and tell my son and me what this is all about. From what Zorro just told me, you ninos need help."
"What’s a nino?" Allison tilted her head and gazed at him.
He led the children into the house. The children stopped in the spacious entry and looked around. The house furnishings were very different from the ones they had left! There was no TV set, no overhead fan, no computer, and no air conditioning. It all looked so—so old-timy!
A young man in his late twenties and a teenage boy just a few years older than Todd came from the room to the left and gazed at the children. "Who are these children, Father?" the man asked. Like Zorro, his moustache was dark-brown and pencil-thin. He held a dull-brown leather-bound book in his hand.
Like his father, the young man stood erect. He wore a snow-white linen shirt with ruffled sleeves, a single row of ruffles down the front, and a collar. Over the shirt, he wore a bright blue velvet vest and a black silk necktie. Both men wore dark-brown quality leather boots.
The boy wore a coarse, white, homespun cotton shirt, a pair of matching cotton trousers, a brown wool sash, and a pair of woven leather sandals. The shirt had no collar, no tie, and no ruffles.
Don Alejandro rested his hand on Todd’s shoulder. "This is Todd and Allison Bennett. They’re americanos, Diego. Zorro has just saved them from the alcalde. Children, this is my son, Diego, and our servant boy, Felipe."
"Zorro rescued them, hmm?" Diego set his book on the coffee table. Felipe gestured toward the children, then toward the dining room. "Yes, get them something to eat," Diego said. The boy left. "Felipe can’t speak or hear," Diego told the children. "He can read lips, though, and he communicates through sign language."
Allison grimaced. "Poor Felipe! That must be awful, not to be able to speak or hear."
Don Alejandro chuckled. "I wouldn’t feel sorry for Felipe if I were you. He may not be able to speak or hear, but he communicates with us quite effectively, and he understands us readily." He smiled. "I might add that Felipe’s a good boy and a faithful servant. Now, why don’t you tell us what happened?"
Todd and Allison told them about their aunt and uncle, the canyon they had explored, the cave they had entered, and the earthquake and the blinding flash of light. They described what they had seen and experienced after they had left the cave, right up to the moment Zorro had brought them to the de la Vega hacienda. They did not explain, however, that the house their aunt and uncle owned was the de la Vega home, or that they had come from 1998. Todd was afraid the de la Vegas would accuse them of lying or imagining things; evidently, so did Allison.
As soon as the children had finished their story, Felipe returned with two plates of tamales and set them on the dining table. A maid followed with glasses of lemonade.
"Ah!" Don Diego gestured toward the table. "Sit down and eat, then we’ll take you on a tour of the house. After our siesta, I think we’ll take you to town and introduce you to Padre Benitez—he runs the local mission. He’s a kind, godly man, and he might be able to help you find your aunt and uncle."
"I want to go home, now!" Allison said. "I want my mom and dad."
"We’re just visiting our aunt and uncle," Todd explained. "We live in Oklahoma City." The de la Vegas looked puzzled. "Oklahoma City," Todd repeated. "In Oklahoma." The de la Vegas stared at each other, evidently even more puzzled.
"Our mom had to go to the hospital last week," Allison explained. "She’s going to be there all summer. Daddy said he couldn’t stay with Mom and take care of us, too, so he sent us to California." Don Diego scratched his head as he gaped at his father.
"We’re going to stay with our aunt and uncle until Mom gets better," Todd added.
"Oh." Don Diego nodded, then drew Allison toward him. "Don’t worry, amiga. I know it’s scary to be separated from your loved ones like this, but we will help you find them." He ruffled Allison’s hair. "In the meantime, my father and I will take care of you and Todd as if you were our own. You’ll see." Allison smiled wanly. Don Diego smiled back and hugged her.
Todd scratched his neck. "Uh, do you have a calendar?"
Don Alejandro showed him a wall calendar hanging in the dining room. Todd could not read the Spanish words, but the year listed was 1820.
"What does that say?" Todd pointed at the name of the month. "I can’t read Spanish."
Don Diego leaned over the boy’s shoulder to read the calendar. "Junio," he read aloud. "In English, it means ‘June.’"
June fifteenth, 1820, Todd translated. He subtracted the years in his head. We’ve gone back 178 years! He stared at Allison, who looked stunned.
The children set their backpacks on the floor next to the dining table. They ate the tamales and drank several glasses of lemonade. As they did, Todd gazed at the dining room. It had the same dull-yellow walls and the same Moorish arch for an entrance, but the ceiling fan was gone. So was the air conditioning, Todd noticed.
A shiny, snow-white tablecloth covered the dining table, and a gleaming silver candelabrum, studded with tall white candles, stood at each end. A white china flower vase, filled with flowers, stood in the middle. A dark-brown mahogany case stood against the wall facing the front entrance; gleaming china dishes sat on display in rows. On the wall above, three oil paintings bordered the case. On the floor below the table, an Oriental carpet spanned the gleaming, snow-white marble floor.
After the children had eaten, the de la Vegas and Felipe took them on a tour of the house. They showed the children the kitchen, the patio, the suites of rooms that Don Alejandro and Don Diego slept in and used, Felipe’s bedroom, the guest bedrooms, and the other rooms.
"Most of the other servants sleep in huts out back," Don Alejandro explained. "Felipe’s on 24-hour duty, so he sleeps in the house with the butler and the housekeeper."
The de la Vegas and Felipe took the children back to the front of the house and showed them the living room, which they called the drawing room, and the family room, which they called the library. Leather-bound volumes lined the bookshelves; a small white table, on which an ivory chess set sat on display, stood in front of the black bookcase. Another Oriental carpet covered the marble floor.
"You sure like to read, don’t you?" Todd grinned at Don Diego. Don Diego chuckled and agreed.
"My father loves to read, too, but not as much as I do," Don Diego said. "He is a true man of action; I’m a man of letters." He glanced down at the chessboard. "And we both love to play chess. So does Felipe."
When the tour was over, it was time for lunch. The children ate with the de la Vegas. "This house is—different," Todd whispered to Allison. His sister nodded in agreement, as she ran her fingers through her hair.
That afternoon, after siesta, the de la Vegas took the children to the mission church in town. Felipe drove the carriage. The children leaned back against the soft velvet cushion lining the back seat. The carriage jolted as they rode to town. Todd wiped the sweat off his face several times, and listened to the horses’ clip! Clop!
As the pueblo came into view, Todd stared at it. A gate stood some distance away from the back of a whitewashed building Don Diego called the mission church. The gate consisted of two huge, rectangular stone columns. A long, round wooden pole stretched between them. A wooden sign hung from the pole.
"’Los Angeles,’" Allison read out loud.
As the group passed through the gate and the plaza came into view, Todd stared around. In spite of what Uncle Ted had told him, he couldn’t believe his eyes. This little village was Los Angeles?!
The town consisted of a circle of whitewashed buildings surrounding the plaza. The plaza itself consisted of bare dirt, in the middle of which something stood that resembled a huge, white stone bowl or lemon juicer. Water poured out of a spout. "That’s the plaza fountain," Don Alejandro told him.
Peasants who wore shirts like Felipe’s, and gentlemen who were dressed like the de la Vegas, milled around in the plaza. Stands crowded the plaza’s edges. Some of the peasants stood behind the stands, selling their wares. Children played in the plaza.
As the carriage stopped in front of the church, a beautiful young woman, who was serving lemonade on the terrace of a nearby two-story building, glanced at the de la Vegas and came toward the carriage. She wore a bright-red woolen skirt and a white cotton blouse. Her thick, coal-black hair hung in soft curls down to her shoulders.
"Don Diego!" she said. "Don Alejandro!"
"Senorita!" Don Diego waved. "Busy day, eh?"
"Very busy!" The young woman took a deep breath and wiped the sweat off her face. "People have been flooding the tavern all day, and the rooms are packed." She glanced at Todd and Allison, and stared at their clothes with a questioning look. "Who are these children?"
"Two young lost americanos Zorro rescued from the alcalde this morning," Don Alejandro explained. "We’ve brought them to town to see the padre; perhaps he can help them find their family." He turned to the children. "Children, this is La Senorita Victoria Escalante; she owns the tavern." He pointed at the two-story building. "Victoria, this is Todd and Allison Bennett."
Victoria smiled at the children. "Hello," she said, kindly.
Allison smiled shyly and twisted her necklace. Todd grinned. "Hi, Miss Escalante." He glanced at his lap, feeling suddenly shy.
"Did you say they’re lost?" Victoria glanced at Don Alejandro with sudden concern.
Don Alejandro nodded. "Si, but I hope not for long. We’re going to enlist the good padre’s assistance in locating their aunt and uncle. If you wish to come inside with us, we’ll tell you all about it."
Victoria nodded. The de la Vegas stepped out of the carriage, then lifted the children out. After Felipe fastened the horses’ reins to the hitching post, the group entered the sanctuary and approached the altar.
The wall that faced the front door was covered with bright-red silk cloth. The altar consisted of a long table, covered with a glistening white cloth, which stood against the wall. A gold statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus, hung on the wall above the table. Two rows of long benches faced the altar.
"Sir, is this a Catholic church?" Todd stared at the statue.
Don Diego nodded. "Yes, it is. Are you not a Catholic?"
Todd shook his head. "We’re Baptists."
"Oh." Don Diego nodded. "Protestants."
"I was baptized when I was five," Allison announced. "When I accepted Jesus in my heart."
"I was baptized, last year," Todd added. He glanced at Allison. "Allison’s never naughty. Mom and Daddy say she’s a good girl. Like Jesus wants us to be."
The de la Vegas and Victoria smiled at Allison approvingly. Before anyone could respond, however, a man wearing a soft, brown woolen habit entered the room and greeted the de la Vegas, Felipe, and Victoria. He had the kindest eyes Todd had ever seen.
"Who are these children, may I ask?" The priest smiled at Todd and Allison, after staring at their clothes with a puzzled expression.
Don Diego smiled, in his turn. "Padre, may I present Todd and Allison Bennett? They are americanos whom Zorro rescued from the alcalde this morning and brought to our hacienda. Children, this is Padre Benitez. He runs our mission."
"He took charge of the mission last year," Don Alejandro added. "To replace our former priest, who died some time before that."
The priest nodded agreement. "How old are you?" he asked the children.
"I’m ten years old," Todd said.
"I’m nine years old." Allison held up nine fingers.
"The alcalde said we were spies," Todd said. "But we’re not!"
"We want to find our aunt and uncle," Allison added. "They’ll be worried."
"They sure will!" Todd said. "It’s been several hours, now. Uncle Ted and Aunt Alice’ll be real worried."
Padre Benitez held up his hand. "Hold on, now; slow down! Suppose you start at the beginning. Children, how did you find yourselves in this trouble you’re in?"
For the next several minutes, the children told the priest their story; the de la Vegas broke in at intervals to add to it. Padre Benitez listened attentively until the children were finished. He then sat silently for a few minutes.
"Well, children," he said, at last, "from what you’ve told me, you’re going to need help finding your aunt and uncle. I’ll put the word out and see if we can locate them. In the meantime, you stay with the de la Vegas. It would not be a good idea for you children to stay here a minute longer; the alcalde might see you. If he finds out you’re here, he’ll not hesitate to arrest you."
"We were just getting ready to take them back," Don Alejandro assured him. Suddenly, Todd heard screams, cries, and shouts outside.
"Stay here!" Don Alejandro commanded the children. He, the other adults, and Felipe raced toward the front door and darted outside.
The children followed at a distance and stopped inside the door. Todd held the door ajar and poked his nose through the crack, to see what was happening. Allison poked her head under his arm.
To Todd’s horror, a group of soldiers were gathered outside the church, rounding up struggling Indians. Senorita Escalante and the de la Vegas glared at the soldiers fiercely.
"Sergeant, you can’t do this!" Padre Benitez protested.
"Sergeant Mendoza! You should be ashamed of yourself!" Victoria said sternly.
"Senorita Escalante, I am only following orders!" the sergeant protested. "The alcalde has ordered us to bring them in. He says he needs their services."
"What kind of services?!"
As Victoria spoke, the alcalde strode toward the group, grasping the hilt of his sword dangling in its scabbard. He glared at the de la Vegas, Felipe, and Victoria. "Is there a problem here, sergeant?"
"Alcalde, what’s the meaning of this?" Don Alejandro demanded.
The alcalde grinned. "Well, Don Alejandro, it just so happens I am in need of some labor outside of town, so I am recruiting the mission Indians." He turned to the soldiers. "Hurry up! I haven’t got all day."
Suddenly, the alcalde spotted the children standing inside the doorway. An evil smile spread across his face. "Well, well, well. So here are the children who escaped justice this morning." P>Todd and Allison froze. Todd squeezed his eyes shut. His heart pounded.
"Sergeant, arrest them!" the alcalde ordered.
"You have no right to do this!" Don Alejandro shouted. "They are only children!"
"I am the alcalde!" The alcalde glared at Don Alejandro. "It is my duty to arrest spies, no matter how young or how old they are!" He turned to Sergeant Mendoza. "You heard me, sergeant!"
Sergeant Mendoza sighed and nodded sorrowfully. "Si, mi alcalde." He approached the children. "I’m sorry, children. Orders are orders." Tears welled up in Allison’s eyes. A knot formed in Todd’s stomach, and nausea rose in his throat.
"Don’t worry, children," Victoria told the frightened children. "We will do everything in our power to help you. You have our promise!"
As the sergeant led the children to the jail, which stood across the plaza from the tavern, Don Alejandro followed and protested their arrest. Don Diego watched them with a grim expression on his face. After a moment, he gestured to Felipe, and the two returned to the carriage.P>"We must help those children," Don Diego muttered. "When we get back to the hacienda, Felipe, I want you to saddle Toronado."
Felipe made the sign of the Z with his index finger and looked at Don Diego with a questioning, hopeful expression.
"Yes." Don Diego nodded determinedly. "Zorro rides, tonight!"