Authors: Diego Vega
The Iron Brand
By Diego Vega,
A Descendant of Zorro,
As Told to Jan Adkins
Based on the Novel Zorro by Isabel Allende
Mountain and Ocean
The Circle Game
A Special Dance
The Poppy Brand
Boats in the Night
The Island Camp
Council of War
EDERNALES WAS PLEASED
with himself. He had the tired and happy feeling of finishing a good job. He was a fine carpenter, trained by the padres of the San Gabriel Mission, and he had just built a wall of bookshelves and cabinets in the lavish hacienda of Don Miguel Moncada. He had coins in his pocket and knew his wife had a good meal waiting for him.
This was a Thursday evening in late March, in the year 1810, near the Pueblo de los Angeles. Paco's burro was patiently carrying his boxes of tools. He spoke to it now and then: “Soon, Maria, soon. I'll take those heavy boxes from your back and you can eat hay while I eat tamales, yes? You're a good friend. We'll be home soon.”
He reached a place where the road dipped into a streambed. The light was dim. As he looked hard to find the stepping-stones across the stream, a voice called, “Paco!”
He turned, smiling. This was a pleasant surprise: he would have the company of a friend on his walk to the pueblo.
A hard leather loop fell around his shoulders and tightened painfully, binding his arms to his sides. A gag was pushed into his mouth, and a rag tied around his eyes. In a few seconds his hands were bound with leather strips. A deep, hard voice said, “Welcome, brother carpenter. You're coming on a trip with us. Aren't you lucky?”
A sudden blow to the side of his head convinced Paco that he was not so lucky. The meal his wife had cooked would grow cold, and then she would wonder what became of her husband. It would be a mystery.
Almost two hundred years after Paco Pedernales disappeared, a small earthquake opened a secret room under an old hacienda in Los Angeles. On the walls of the room were whips, pistols, and a rack of wickedly thin swords. Hanging beside the swords were a black hat, a black cape, and a black mask. It was the secret den of el
Zorro, the legendary hero of Old California. There was also an iron-bound chest filled with papers.
In those papers were stories written by el Zorro himself, Don Diego de la Vega, or by his best friend and silent brother, Bernardo. Each of the objects with the papersâornate candlesticks, lace shawls, maps, spursâseemed to be part of a story.
The historians who sorted the papers tracked down the last of the de la Vegasâme. I learned that el Zorro was my ancestor.
In that treasure trove of stories I read all the wild and brave tales of el Zorro, that black-masked hero, a fighter for justice and defender of the weak. But the best stories were the tales of Diego and Bernardo when they were youngâhow they grew up on the vast de la Vega rancho and in the GabrieleÃ±o Indian villages, the tricks they played and the mischief they made. This was before Diego became the real el Zorro, when he and Bernardo were just cub foxes. They were only boys in the stories, but justice meant so much to them, even then.
The first story was linked to one of those objects in the chest: a strange branding iron. It explained why Paco Pedernales was kidnapped on his walk home, long ago.
, you sleepy boy!”
Bernardo was up and about. Estafina had seen him in the kitchen. As soon as that boy's eyes opened, he was out of his cot and headed for food.
Estafina swept through the boys' room and onto the sleeping porch. Was it possible Diego was up already and out the door?
It was curious about Diego and Bernardo. They should have been like two quail chicks, exactly the same. They'd been raised together all their lives.
“There you are, blanket pig!” Estafina saw Diego shifting beneath the covers.
Both were loose-limbed, awkward boys a few months shy of fifteen years old. They both ate like starved wolves. But beyond thisâand a disgusting
delight at noisy burping after mealsâthey were completely different.
“Dreamtime is over, Diego!” If he didn't jump out of bed, she would dust his bottom off with her long-handled broom.
Entirely different, and it wasn't just that Bernardo didn't speak. To tell the truth, Diego talked plenty for both of them. He was chatty enough to be annoying. He was the kind of boy grandmothers want to reach across the dinner table and rap with a spoon: “Hush!” Bernardo was calm, even somber at times.
Diego was tall and thin, all arms and legs connected loosely to a head that sprouted large ears. Bernardo was short and compact, sure-footed, and almost too careful. He had that strange ability to disappear in a room just by being still. Both were good runners and climbers, but Bernardo could move like a shadow, slipping from place to place without seeming to be anywhere between. People always saw Diego, and they mostly missed Bernardo.
“Get up, Diego! You can't sleep the day away!”
More than once Diego had been dragged from the big hall of the hacienda by a furious Estafina, twisting his ear and shouting, “Barnyard animal in the house! Out of here with your dung-caked sandals! Go foul the
house of the chickens!” While Bernardo, with sandals just as dirty, would slip out the other door, unnoticed. Diego longed to be invisible.
Tall and small, loud and quiet. Visible and invisible, excitable and calm. Morning wren and night owl. They were like reverse images of each other. Yet that's the way they lived, too, like images in a mirror. If you saw one, the other was nearby.
“Sleep is for the night; day is for work!” Estafina believed this so passionately that she tore the bedcovers off in a single heave.
“Aaah!” she bellowed. The goat named Flower looked up from Diego's bed, annoyed to be disturbed and then yelled at. She rose daintily to her feet and stepped down from the bed. She refused to stay in a place where she wasn't wanted.
Estafina swatted at the goat. Flower decided to leave more quickly. Estafina pursued it, yelling, “That boy is the devil's cousin!”
Diego looked out from the big wardrobe cupboard in which he had been hiding, stifling his laughter. As energetic as he was, he was not above wanting a few extra minutes of sleep in the morning. His prank had gone well, but now that he thought about it, a little breakfast might be good.
Mornings at the hacienda were full of light, songs from the caged birds, and the
of someone making tortillas. There were all the pleasant noises of a great house preparing itself for the dayâsweeping, water splashing on stone floors, the snap of sheets and blankets being shaken out of bedroom windows.
Diego climbed out of the wooden cupboard and washed his face in a basin. He dried himself with a coarse towel. He could smell tortillas on the griddle.
Horses nickered in the stable, a blacksmith was beating rhythm on a horseshoe and his anvil, someone was singing upstairs, and Bernardo was playing his flute back beyond the herb garden wall. The Santa Monica Mountains were brown and gold through the window; a breeze from the northwest brought the smell of the Pacific Ocean through the hacienda. Why would anyone live anyplace but the golden hills of California?
Diego came into the kitchen with a smile. “Estafina,” he said, “you are so beautiful that everything for the rest of the day will look like mud.” And he snatched up a fresh, hot tortilla.
Estafina snorted and aimed a halfhearted swing of her broom at him. “Diego the goat boy! Take a tortilla
for Bernardo, too. Regina wants both of you in her sitting room.”
Sometimes Estafina and Regina called each other by name. They were both GabrieleÃ±o Indians of the same tribe. When they were arguing, Estafina called Regina “Mistress” and Regina called Estafina “SeÃ±ora Esposito.” With Mistress Regina, there were many arguments. Padre Mendoza, always diplomatic, described Regina de la Vega as a woman of “high spirits.” This was a hot pepper of caution wrapped in a tortilla of praise. She could be warm and charming. She could also lash out with a tongue so sharp that it took the skin off your hopes.
It wasn't surprising that she was fiery. She had not been raised to be the mild and mannerly mistress of a hacienda. As a young woman, her name was Toypurnia. She was a ruthless and deadly warrior, and her fierce warrior heart was never far beneath the polite surface.
The only way Diego could ever make sense of his parents' stormy, up-and-down marriage was that they had met at sword point. Captain Alejandro de la Vega had fought off an Indian raid on the Pueblo de los Angeles led by the war chief Toypurnia. He had killed many raiders and wounded their leader. Only when the battle was over did the captain discover the lean and
lovely face of a young goddess. Of course he fell in love with her. How could their marriage be anything but stormy?
But today Regina looked up from her household account books with affection. “You boys are growing up,” she said, smiling. “Look at these handsome young
. Too soon the hacienda will be howling and wailing with the sound of your babies.”
Diego blushed and scowled at her teasing, but Bernardo only shook his head.
Regina reached out and smoothed Bernardo's hair. “Your dear mother would be proud of her son,” she said. His mother had been her best friend. The two women had given birth to the boys within days of each other. When Regina was wracked with a fever after the birth, Bernardo's mother had nursed both boys. This was why they were called “milk brothers,” and they had a special bond. As a very young child, Bernardo had seen his mother murdered by pirate raiders. Since that dark day, the boy had never spoken. Of course Regina had raised him as her own. Bernardo was a part of the family, a member of the household, though Don Alejandro could never quite let go of the class distinction between them as
and Indian, Spanish conqueror and native.
“Now there's work to do,” she said. “I've had our good potter, SeÃ±or Porcana, make some bowls and serving plates for me. And some mugs to replace the dozens that are broken.” She gave the boys a sharp glance from under her eyebrows. “So you will please me by riding into the pueblo with packhorses and picking up the pottery. I have some notes for the padre, some gifts for the good brothers, and if any ships have arrived you may fetch the packages for us. Now, do you understand?”
And should we discover a mine of gold on the way, we'll become the richest young hidalgos in California.”
“But while you are gathering your riches, you will be careful with my pottery,” Regina said over a stern finger.
With the letters and packages for Padre Mendoza and his Franciscan brothers, she gave them a few coins. “Perhaps the baker at the pueblo has something to interest two brave young
. If you find the gold mine, you can pay me back. Be home by dark.”
Out in the horse corrals, Diego slipped a halter over Lucrecia's long, mild face. She was an old friend, a big sand-colored mare, quiet but powerful. He knew she
could lope across the grasslands all day long. Thick saddle blankets went over her broad back, then the wooden saddle. He tightened the saddle's bull-hide girth. He laid the soft leather
over the wooden saddle tree. Since this was the pad that rode between Diego's backside and the wood, he placed it carefully.
Bernardo walked into the barn with Frying Pan, an iron-gray mule, following him like a long-eared dog. Even without words he could charm the wildest horse and, with a few hand strokes or clicks of his tongue, calm a skittish mount.
“No, Bernardo, you're not taking a mule. We have the finest horses on the coast, and you ride around like a poor padre on a lop-eared mule! What's wrong with riding a real vaquero's horse?”
Bernardo ignored him, cinching up the saddle girth. He made a rude noise with his tongue. Frying Pan looked at Diego and seemed to grin, not caring what he thought.
“You and your mules. You're as stubborn as one!”
Mules or horses, they were careful riders. They had both learned from their idol, Scar, the rancho's managing
“You want to be a real rider?” he would say. “Something more than a grin strapped to a horse's
back? Then ride with the horse. Ride
the horse.” Scar had made them fine horsemen, even among
âand the fancy people in Mexico City joked that their
country cousins would walk two hundred paces to ride a horse fifty paces.
Lucrecia and Frying Pan waited patiently while Diego and Bernardo haltered four mules and cinched on the wooden packsaddles. Scar and horses had taught them patience.
“A real caballero takes his time,” Scar said. “Horses hate these jump-up-and-ride-off jackrabbits. The horse remembers. It has a big heart that knows your heart. You ride like you love the horse, it will know. Take your time with every blanket and cinch. Love the horse's back like your own.”
They were almost finished when Scar and their other idol rode into the stable yard.
Don Alejandro called. “Hello, boys. Off to town for your mother?” Diego's father stepped off his stallion while it was still moving and snapped the reins over a hitching post.
Alejandro de la Vega was as straight as a ramrod, like a soldier on parade. He wore the hidalgo's colorful, embroidered clothes with a red sash.
Scar wore the vaquero's old-fashioned short pants
over leggings. He slid down from the saddle soundlessly and loosened his horse's girth, then loosened the girth of his
Both men jingled when they walked toward the house, the big rowels of their spurs spinning in the dust.
“Is all well,
?” Diego asked. His father's brow was creased.
“Well?” Don Alejandro stopped, frowned a moment, and replied, “All is never well on a rancho this size. SeÃ±or Pedernales, the carpenter, should have come yesterday, but he's nowhere to be found. Disappeared. And we're losing de la Vega cattle, boys. A few hundred head.” This was a small part of the thousands of steers the rancho owned on the broad grazing lands of Pueblo de los Angeles. But Diego knew that cattle were the lifeblood of the pueblo and of the rancho. What does a rancher worry about? Cattle and water and cattle and feed and cattle.
“Could it be bears?”
“Not unless every bear is the size of the mission church.”
“Indians from the mountains?”
Don Alejandro loosened his chin cord and took off his hat. “I doubt it.” He looked at Diego and Bernardo
with a little smile. “If you were an Indian, even from the far mountains, would you steal the cattle of White Owl's son-in-law? Perhaps they're braver than I am. Your grandmother is tougher than Scar, here. More dangerous, too.”
Scar chuckled, a rare sound.
Bernardo's hands flashed from his stomach to his head in the sign for illness.
“Yes,” Don Alejandro said. “That could be it. A cattle sickness. But we're not finding dead cattle. It's a mystery to me. Keep your eyes open, boys. So, you're going to the pueblo to fetch something?”
. We're picking up things at the potter's for
and delivering letters to the padres. If a ship has come in, we'll pick up packages for the rancho.”
“A good day's ride,” Don Alejandro said. “Perhaps you will do me the service of stopping at the shop of Julio Dos Ochos. He may have a few branding irons ready for this year's
.” The parting of the herds into each rancho's share and the branding of new calves was one of the pueblo's most important times.
“Vayan con Dios, hijos,”
he said. “Go with God, boys.” He strode into the house.
Scar walked among the pack animals, inspecting the
saddles and girths. He tightened one girth but said nothing, and this was high praise from the
As Scar jingled into the dark hacienda, the sound of loud, arguing voices rolled through the sitting room window. Don Alejandro and Regina were battling over some small thing. Bernardo put his fingers in his ears and squinted his eyes shut.
“Saints and cats and little fishes,” Diego said. “Yes, let's get out of here.”
They mounted up and started along the tree-lined trail toward the mountains. They rode a few hundred paces and stopped to retighten their girths. Diego looked back through the trees to the hacienda's garden. His mother and father were walking in the garden with their heads affectionately together.
“Remind me, Bernardo, never to marry. I will never understand how men and women go together.”
Bernardo nodded, agreeing, and Frying Pan brayed.