Chapter 1

"Diego! Son, don't try to move. Just lie still." Alejandro's voice was rough, worried. He glanced over and caught Victoria's eye, frowning. Diego had been unconscious for several hours, and it was all so senseless.

The three of them had been headed toward Santa Barbara and the mission vineyards there. Padre Benitez had asked them to advise the friars there on how to improve their winery. Don Alejandro had been experimenting with vineyards and wine making for several years, and Diego had come home from Spain with several new ideas for choosing varieties of grapes, the best soil types, etc., and the latest winemaking methods being used in Europe. In fact, he had even made a trip back to Europe a couple of years ago, just to visit some of the vineyards and wineries in France. Victoria, as the owner of the only tavern in Los Angeles, knew what types of wines were most likely to be acceptable to the inhabitants of the Spanish colonies of Alta California. When Diego had invited her to come with them, she jumped at the chance for a day away from the tavern. Besides, it had been quite a while since she had spent an entire day with her best friend.

They had been riding along at a slow canter, enjoying the lovely spring morning, when suddenly a shot rang out from the rocks ahead of them, and they were surrounded by a band of armed men with weapons pointed at them. Victoria screamed. Alejandro looked sideways toward Diego and was horrified to see his son lying on the ground unconscious, blood soaking his shirt front from a wound in his left shoulder.

"Just sit quietly on your horses, Senor y Senorita," ordered the leader of the bandits. "Remove your hand from your sword, Senor de la Vega, or Senorita Escalante will be the next one to receive a bullet from my gun. Don't worry. Your son isn't dead. I prefer to keep him alive…at least for now."

"Jose Ramiro!" Don Alejandro spoke tightly, as one of Ramiro's men relieved him of his saber and tied his hands together with a short length of rope. Another did the same to Victoria. Two more of the men picked Diego up from the ground, lifted him into his saddle, and tied his hands to the saddle horn. Diego moaned a couple of times as they manhandled him, but didn't regain consciousness.

Alejandro felt a shiver of dread run down his spine. Six years earlier, Ramiro and his men had terrorized the area around Los Angeles for months. Although Jose Ramiro had never been caught, Don Alejandro and his vaqueros had been instrumental in running the banditos out of the territory.

"You are wondering why I am here, no? I promised you I would one day return, Senor. You owe me, and I always collect what I am owed…with interest. I have looked forward to spending some time with you again, on my own terms this time. And I also have a little more official business to take care of. You see, I plan to capture Zorro, and I think either Senorita Escalante or you know who he is behind that mask.

"Senorita Escalante here is well known as the woman of El Zorro. You, sir, have been very outspoken in your approval of Zorro's actions and in your dislike of the present alcalde's rule of Los Angeles. Senor Zorro has intervened in your behalf on a number of occasions. I am certain one or both of you know his identity.

"As for shooting your son…that was simply a safety precaution on my part. I wanted one of you out of commission, and Don Diego was the most logical target. I would prefer not to injure a woman. You are an old man, and any physical injury to you would be likely to incapacitate you to the point you couldn't tell me what you know about Zorro's identity behind his mask. Don Diego, on the other hand, is young and healthy. He may not be much of a fighter, but he would still be the one most likely to cause me trouble as a captive. By weakening him at the very beginning of your captivity, I can eliminate the danger of him trying to escape and go for help, or having a sudden attack of bravery and trying to overpower my men.

And with him injured, the two of you won't be as anxious to try and escape, either. If you do, and leave him behind, know that the first thing I will do, even before I send my men after you, will be to kill him. If you try to escape and take him with you, he'll slow you down enough I'll have no trouble catching up with you. And when I do catch you, I'll still kill him the very first thing."

"You're crazy!" Victoria's voice broke into Ramiro's monologue. "Diego is no danger to you. He's a gentle man, a poet, not a fighter. And we can't tell you what we don't know! I would give anything if I did knowwho Zorro really is, but I don't. I'm sure Don Alejandro doesn't either. Zorro has always made a point of keeping his identity a secret. He says it's for our protection as well as his."

"I do hope you're lying to me, Senorita, or at least mistaken about what Senor de la Vega may or may not know. If you're not, your "gentle friend" here is going to find his day getting much rougher that it is right now."

Don Alejandro and Victoria exchanged glances, and both looked desperately toward Diego, still slumped unconscious, with the ropes tying his wrists to the saddle horn the only things keeping him from falling off the horse. Alejandro's lips were closed in a tight, angry line, and his eyes were suspiciously bright as he watched the patch of blood on his son's shoulder continue to grow alarmingly as they rode along, with the outlaws leading the horses they were on. Tears were streaming down Victoria's face as she heard Diego moan softly when the horses were goaded into a canter again.

By the time they had reached the isolated cabin that served as the Ramiro gang's hideout, Diego was semi-conscious, but not really aware of what was going on around him. When he was pulled off his horse, his legs gave out and he would have fallen if he wasn't being held by two of the outlaws. Victoria and Alejandro were herded into the cabin and tied to chairs in the middle of the room. Two of Ramiro's men stood guard on either side of them. Diego was unceremoniously dumped onto the floor in front of them. He tried to raise himself up onto his good arm, but made it only a few inches off the floor before his arm gave out and he fell back. He let out an agonized scream when Ramiro unexpectedly kicked him hard in the side, rolling him onto his back. Alejandro blanched as he heard his son's ribs break.

Ramiro barked instructions to his men. One of them left the cabin, returning shortly with a bucket of water, which he proceeded to dump over Diego's head. Ramiro knelt beside Diego and began slapping his face, trying to bring him back to consciousness. Diego moaned again, his head rolling from side to side for a couple of minutes. Finally, his eyes blinked open and slowly focused on Ramiro's face. As he gradually became more aware of his surroundings, Alejandro saw the beginnings of panic replace the confusion and pain in his son's eyes.

Then Diego managed to turn his head enough to see Alejandro and Victoria. Even in these circumstances, Alejandro couldn't help but be a bit surprised when he saw the panic leave Diego's eyes almost immediately as he realized his father and Victoria were there. He watched the panic change first to relief, then to dismay as Diego realized they were prisoners and tied up; but then he saw the dismay replaced by a sudden anger and determination that he'd never before seen his son exhibit. Yet again, Diego's expression changed. By the time his eyes focused on the bandit above him, they were again full of pain, fear, and confusion. The changes had all occurred so quickly that Alejandro found himself wondering if he'd actually seen what he'd thought he saw.

"Who…who are you, Senor? Why are you doing this to us?" Diego's voice was weak, and obviously terrified. As anxious as he was for his son, he couldn't help but be embarrassed that Diego would allow himself to show so much fear.

"My name is Jose Ramiro. Your father knows me. Several years ago, while you were in Spain, my men and I raided your hacienda. The raid, unfortunately, was a failure. During the battle, your father shot and killed my brother. The rest of us escaped, but I told your father then that someday I would return.

"A few months ago, your alcalde and I ran into each other in San Francisco. We got to talking. He is extremely anxious to get rid of this vigilante, Zorro, and is certain that either your father or the young lady knows Zorro's true identity. He is quite willing to reward anyone who can assist him in this, uh, shall we say, vermin extermination. When I realized that your family was involved, and that the alcalde wouldn't be all that upset if something also happened to rid him of the de la Vega influence in the pueblo, I simply couldn't resist the opportunity to volunteer for the job.

"De Soto filled me in with everything he could tell me about Zorro. He also told me everything he knew about you, your father, and the senorita." Ramiro snickered. "You must be such a disappointment to Don Alejandro, senor. But, you are still his only son. You and the senorita have also been close friends since childhood, I believe. So you will have your uses to me."

Ramiro turned to a couple of his men. "Throw a rope over that rafter and tie young Senor de la Vega's hands to it. I want him on his feet.

Diego gasped in pain as the men pulled him roughly up. He tried to fight against them, but there was no strength in his struggles. They tossed a lariat over the exposed rafter, and then tied the end of the rope around the original ropes that were still binding Diego's wrists together. They pulled the lariat taut, until Diego was more or less standing with his arms stretched above him. By the time they were finished, he was again only semi-conscious.

It was obvious to Victoria and Alejandro that Diego was actually dangling from the restraints more than he was standing on his own two feet. The entire front of his shirt was by now blood-soaked, and there was more blood on the floor where he had been lying. The wound in his shoulder wasn't bleeding as badly as it had been at first, but Diego needed care. If he didn't get it soon, he would bleed to death right in front of them. They had both watched, horrified, as Diego was strung up. When they looked at each other, there were tears in both of their eyes. Alejandro's face was by now almost as pale as his son's. He had a horrible suspicion that he knew what was coming next. Unfortunately, he was right.

For the next half hour, Victoria and Alejandro were interrogated about Zorro's identity, while Diego's blood continued to drip onto the floor in an ever-growing puddle. Over and over, both Victoria and Don Alejandro repeated that they had no idea who Zorro was.

Ramiro was becoming more irritable as the interrogation proceeded. Several times, when he was especially displeased with their replies to his questions, he turned and slammed Diego with the stock of his musket. The first couple of times this happened, though it was obvious the pain had to be excruciating, and sweat broke out on his forehead, not a sound passed Diego's gritted teeth.

The third time, Ramiro paused his interrogation, and just watched Alejandro for a moment. Then, very deliberately, he turned and rammed his fist into the most vulnerable portion of Diego's anatomy. No man could have withstood the excruciating pain of that attack in silence. The strangled cry that came from his son's mouth left Alejandro struggling against his own bonds, and cursing Ramiro with phrases he hadn't even heard since his days in the Spanish army. Diego's scream of pain seemed to last forever before it finally weakened to a moan. His legs were instinctively pulled up almost into a fetal position, leaving his entire weight dangling from the ropes around his wrists, before he went limp; but the soft moaning continued for a long time. The moans were repeated all too regularly throughout the next few minutes of questioning, but finally they stopped. For the last ten minutes of Alejandro and Victoria's "interrogation", Diego was totally unresponsive.