Chapter 2

Jose Ramiro was disgusted. He had been certain that old de la Vega would give in and tell him what he knew about Zorro in order to stop the torture of his milksop of a son, even if the senorita couldn't bring herself to give up the identity of her lover to save the life of her friend. But neither of them had given him anything that would bring him closer to trapping El Zorro. Both Don Alejandro and Victoria had agreed that they thought Zorro was probably a caballero who lived in or near the pueblo of Los Angeles (even the alcalde had figured out that much), but both continued to swear that they didn't know who he really was. Ramiro was beginning to believe them.

He looked up at Don Diego's face and frowned. He was still alive, but Ramiro wasn't any too sure how much longer he was going to stay that way. He was surprised, though. The young don wasn't quite the weakling he had been led to expect. After de Soto's amused, condescending description of young de la Vega, he'd expected the man to be begging his father and the girl to tell anything they knew, even before they got him strung up. Ramiro called a couple of his men to him, and waved toward Diego.

"Cut him down. Toss him in the lean-to. Untie the other two and throw them in with him. Give them a bucket of water and some rags, and let them clean him up. It's a cinch he's not going anywhere under his own power, and I don't think they'll try to escape without him. They already know what I'll do to him if they try that. We'll leave them alone until tomorrow morning. If the poet's still alive by then, maybe the old man and the girl will be more inclined to cooperate with us. If they still insist they don't know Zorro's identity, we'll just have to spend some more time with Don Diego.

"What about it, Don Alejandro? Your son in exchange for my brother? That sounds like a fair trade to me. And if my men and I have a little sport with him along the way…" Ramiro smiled, but it was a dark smile that promised nothing but more pain for Diego, and a nightmare that Alejandro would never be rid of for the rest of his life. "…Well, you can just think of that sport as the 'interest' you owe on your debt to me. Right?" He laughed cruelly as he turned and walked away.

One of the men (Alejandro thought his name was Pablo), took out his knife and sliced through the ropes around Diego's raw, swollen, wrists. Alejandro winced as his son's body fell. He heard Victoria sobbing beside him, but his eyes never left his son. Diego never even flinched when he hit the floor. Madre de Dios. Please, God, let him still be alive.

Pablo and another of the bandits drug Diego through a nearby door and left him lying in the middle of the dirt floor. They came back, and Pablo untied Alejandro and Victoria, while his partner, Tomas, held a gun on them and motioned them toward the doorway. Alejandro wanted so badly to break into a run. His eyes fixed on Diego, sprawled face down, as motionless as a corpse. Alejandro didn't even hear the door slam shut behind him, or the latch fall into place as it locked them in.

Victoria dropped down onto her knees beside Diego and reached for his shoulder.

"Wait, Victoria! Don't move him yet." Alejandro dropped down on Diego's other side, and holding his breath, reached a trembling hand to his son's throat. "Gracias a Dios!"

He looked up at Victoria, tears unashamedly dripping down his cheeks. "He has a pulse. It's weak, but it's there. He's alive. We'll have to be very gentle moving him, though. He has broken ribs for sure, probably several. If we aren't extremely careful, one of them could puncture a lung when we turn him over."

Diego still exhibited no reaction whatsoever as they eased him over onto his back. Victoria carefully opened the front of his blood-caked shirt, and they realized that his entire left side and half of his right side was one massive bruise. She couldn't see what his abdomen looked like below the belt of his pants.

"He's probably bleeding inside, too, Alejandro. What can we do? He'll die if we can't get him to a doctor!"

Alejandro was examining the bullet wound in Diego's shoulder. It had finally stopped bleeding on its own, but had reopened a bit when Diego was dropped onto the floor. No exit wound showed on his back, so the musket ball was still there somewhere. It needed to come out, but there was nothing Alejandro could do about that at the moment.

The look he gave Victoria was bleak. "Even if we could leave here freely right now, Diego probably would be dead before we traveled a mile. If one of those broken ribs punctures a lung, he'll drown in his own blood…if he even has enough blood left to drown in. There's no way we could safely move him!"

He reached for the bucket of water and one of the rags. While Victoria held Diego's head in her lap and wiped his face, Alejandro began sponging the blood from his wounds. Diego still hadn't moved or made a sound.

It seemed like hours to Alejandro that they'd been kneeling there on that filthy floor, trying to bring Diego back to consciousness. There was no more bleeding, and they'd managed to wrap his shoulder and part of his ribcage (the part with the worst bruising and therefore the 2-3 ribs they knew had to be broken) with strips of material Victoria had torn from one of her petticoats. His pulse was a little more regular, but his skin was pale and clammy, and Alejandro knew he was going into shock.

They wrapped him in a blanket they found lying in the corner of the room. Diego would be mortified if (No! when!) he woke up and realized what was around him. The blanket was moth eaten, filthy, stinking of dirt and mildew, and God knew what else. But it was dry, and it was warm. God willing, it would keep him from going any further into shock than he already had.

How many times had Alejandro chided his overly fastidious son for not wanting to participate in ranch duties that might damage his fancy clothing or make him work up a sweat? How many times had Diego found excuses to get out of jobs where he might have to roll up his sleeves and get dirty? How much would he give right now for Diego to just wake up and start complaining about being wrapped in that dirty blanket? O Dios, Diego. Please wake up. Please.

Alejandro blinked back more tears as he gazed down at his son's head resting in Victoria's lap. He watched Victoria reach out a trembling hand and push a lock of hair off Diego's forehead. That lock NEVER stays in place, no matter what Diego tries to do with it. I remember his mother brushing it back that same way, five or six times a day, when he was little. Diego would come running into the hacienda from the barn or the yard, crying with a scraped knee, and run into Elena's arms for comfort. She'd kiss his knee, clean and dress his scrapes, and rock him in her lap, brushing that lock of hair back off his forehead and holding his head against her chest until he fell asleep.

He reached out and pulled the blanket down to recheck the bandage on Diego's shoulder. He was starting to pull the blanket back up when Victoria's voice stopped him. Her tone was puzzled, and a little shocked.

"Alejandro, is that a snakebite scar on Diego's forearm? I didn't know he'd ever been bitten by a rattler!"

"What? No, he hasn't. He…."Alejandro's voice faded as he followed Victoria's finger to see the scar three inches above Diego's right wrist. He reached out and touched it. It most undeniably was a snakebite scar. He could see the two circular puncture marks left by the snake's fangs…a rather large rattler, too. And the fang marks were crossed by the x-shaped knife scars left when the snakebite had been treated. Someone, at least, had sucked the poison from the wound. He pushed the blanket back down and peered closer.

"Victoria, I…I have no idea when that happened. I never knew about it! Diego never said anything. Those scars can't be more than a year old, if that! A bite from a snake that size would have made him very ill for at least a couple of days, even if he'd managed to suck most of the poison out as soon as it happened. How could he have hidden something like that?" He frowned. "For that matter, why would he have hidden it?"

This is crazy! Why in the world would Diego have hidden something as serious as a rattlesnake bite? He could have DIED! Diego takes to his bed for an entire day when he has a simple headache. Just last month he lay around for three days when he tripped on the stairs and twisted his ankle. Granted, he was limping quite a bit, but it wasn't swollen. It wasn't even bruised that I could see. I can't believe my hypochondriac son would ever attempt to hide a snake bite! Why would ANYONE try to hide something that serious? He would have to have had help from someone. But who? Obviously, it wasn't Victoria. Felipe? But, Felipe's a responsible boy. He would have come to me immediately; and he would have gone for the doctor. On the other hand, he idolizes Diego. If Diego told him NOT to go for help, would he….?

Just then, Diego groaned, and Alejandro's priorities jumped back to immediate needs. The snakebite mystery can wait, for now. Please just wake up, Son. Diego's eyes blinked open for a second, He attempted to roll to his side, then gasped in pain and fell back. Alejandro took his son gently by his shoulders and kept him flat.

"Diego! Son, don't try to move. Just lie still."