The bristles of the corn straw broom bent backwards nearly in half as Felipe swept the floor of the library with considerably more force than necessary. He slapped the broom against the decorative rug again and again, more a show of aggression and frustration than a concentrated cleaning effort. His thoughts kept returning to the events of a few days before when he went to the pueblo on an errand for his patron, Don Diego de la Vega.
“Listen, I don’t understand what you’re trying to say,” Senor Diaz growled.
Felipe could only sigh in frustration before trying to tell him again, using simple, broad gestures, that he was there to pick up a package for Diego. Diaz knew who Felipe was and he could clearly see the package addressed to Diego immediately behind the man. What other reason could Felipe have for being there if not to pick it up?
Diaz simply glared, hands on hips, until Felipe gave up and, with a roll of his eyes, pulled a pencil and paper from his sash.
‘Package for Diego de la Vega’ was the simple message the young man wrote.
Diaz took the paper, glanced at the message, then crumpled it up before turning to collect the package. When his back was to Felipe, he mumbled, “I don’t know why they can’t send someone else to get it; someone who can communicate, not some half-wit deaf-mute.”
Felipe felt a deep flush of embarrassment and anger color his cheeks. He snatched the package from Diaz’s hands as quickly as possible and rushed from the building with as much dignity as he could muster.
Once outside, Felipe slowed his hurried steps and took a few deep breaths. He had really hoped it would be Senora Diaz at the freight office that morning. She was a kind woman, while her husband disliked Felipe and continually gave him a hard time, feigning ignorance of Felipe’s gestures when the boy was alone. Oh, the man was polite enough when the de la Vegas were present, and Felipe knew if he told Diego of the difficulties the man gave him, the Don would not hesitate to step in on Felipe’s behalf, but Felipe knew that would only make it worse the next time he was alone with Senor Diaz.
Felipe tucked the light but cumbersome package under his arm and hurried across the road to the front porch of Victoria’s tavern. There he leaned against a wooden support beam and closed his eyes. He breathed deeply, finding a calm in the knowledge that Senor Diaz was wrong. He was neither a half-wit nor actually deaf. It was simply a ruse to aid Zorro. Felipe smiled at the thought of his best friend, surrogate father, and savior, his spirits lifting immediately.
Suddenly, the sounds of the bustling pueblo swelled around him in sweet harmony. Water trickling from the plaza fountain, Mendoza leading his lancers through their daily drills, horses trotting down the road, the squeaky hinges on the tavern door behind him…
“Muchas gracias, Victoria,” a woman spoke from behind Felipe.
“Of course. It is no trouble at all, Senora Ibarra,” Victoria’s voice sounded. “I will have no problems in preparing the cakes in time for Alexandra’s quinceanera celebration.”
Felipe smiled as he heard the women exchange parting pleasantries. He took one final breath and, with the smile still firmly in place and his heart much lighter than it had been only minutes earlier, he opened his eyes to see the retreating form of Senora Ibarra and her niece, Alexandra.
As he watched, a gust of wind swirled around the women a thin strip of dark green ribbon came lose and fell from Alexandra’s hair. The young woman tried to catch it, but it slipped through her grasping fingers. Felipe took a single step towards them into the street and caught the piece of satin before it could hit the dusty ground.
The girl turned to face him and Felipe’s attention was immediately captured by Alexandra’s beautiful almond-shaped light green eyes. With a shy smile, Felipe held out his hand, offering the return of the hair tie. Alexandra giggled and ducked her head, hiding part of her heart-shaped face behind a veil of the newly released soft, brown hair.
Just as Alexandra lifted her hand to take the ribbon, Senora Ibarra snatched it from Felipe’s hand. The elder woman spun her niece away from the boy and thrust the ribbon into her hand. As the two women walked away, Senora Ibarra spoke harshly, “Stay away from that boy, Alexandra. He is a servant boy and a deaf-mute at that. Nothing more than a baboso.”
Felipe’s eyes widened at the insult and he heard Victoria gasp behind him. “Madre de Dios,” she whispered. “At least he was unable to hear that.”
Felipe tried his best to erase the shock from his face and attempted a feeble smile as he heard Victoria close the distance between them.
“Hola, Felipe,” she said with forced cheer after placing a hand on his shoulder to gain his attention. “It’s good to see you. What brings you to the pueblo today?” she asked.
Felipe gestured to the package he still held, willing to feign ignorance to the insult he’d just received if only to maintain some shred of pride.
Victoria nodded, her smile becoming slightly more genuine. “Would you like to come in for lunch?” she offered. “I know it’s a little early, but I have some fresh tamales ready.”
Felipe declined, shaking his head before gesturing again to the package then to the general direction of the de la Vega hacienda. He said his goodbyes quickly and had to force himself to not run to his pony to return home. He spent the entire two-mile journey fighting back tears.
Felipe thought he’d hidden his upset well throughout the rest of the day, but he should have known Diego would realize something was wrong. His patron did grant him the courtesy of privacy when he questioned Felipe about what was troubling him.
That evening when Felipe snuck away to tend to his chores in Zorro’s cave, Diego followed him. Diego knew him too well and easily saw through Felipe’s denials that anything was wrong. Eventually, he coaxed the truth from the boy.
With tears in his eyes, he told Diego of the day’s events. “It hurts,” Felipe signed using halting gestures. “It’s not fair.” He glanced up at Diego and saw a sadness in his friend’s eyes.
Diego drew him into a warm embrace. “I’m sorry our secrets are causing you this pain.” Felipe relaxed into the arms holding him, letting the vibration of Diego’s voice course through his body from where his ear was pressed to the older man’s chest. “I know how much it hurts me to hear and see my father’s disappointment in me every time I must pretend to be weak-willed…”
Felipe’s whole body stiffened as shame washed through him. Diego continued to reassure him, but the young man had tuned him out. Of course Diego had it so much worse than him. In order to protect the secret that he was, in fact, Zorro, Diego was forced to act as a coward in front of not only his father, but also the woman he loved. Until such time that Zorro could remove his mask, Diego was forced to live with the disappointment he could see in their eyes.
At least Diego knew Felipe’s secret. Felipe would always have the respect of the one man whose opinion mattered the most to him. The young man vowed then and there to be more optimistic and remember his blessings when faced with the cruelty of others who didn’t know
A sheen of sweat formed on Felipe’s brow from the unnecessary force he put behind the broom.
It wasn’t so easy to be optimistic when the very next day Ulises, a new vaquero on the hacienda, had decided to test Felipe’s deafness by, among other things, dousing him with a bucket of water.
Felipe had been in the barn, cleaning his pony’s stall, when he heard Ulises chuckling and speaking quietly to another man of plans to sneak up on and startle the young man. Having an idea what to expect, Felipe had ignored the men as they made any number of loud noises behind him while he worked with his back to them. When he heard the soft sloshing of water and the second man’s proclamations that it was going too far, Felipe could only sigh and brace himself for what was to come. He’d not had to pretend shock as the bucket of icy cold water had been poured over his head and Ulises roared with laughter.
Miguel had come racing into the barn at the commotion, scolding Ulises even as the elderly vaquero inspected Felipe for injuries. Using both speech and sign language that was more than a little confusing for its inaccuracy, Miguel had promised Felipe severe punishment for his tormentors in the form of cleaning all the horse stalls for the month.
Felipe had quickly dismissed Miguel’s intentions. With a Herculean effort, Felipe had smiled at Miguel and told him to not worry about it. It had all been in fun and Felipe could take a joke. He could tell Miguel didn’t believe him, but Felipe couldn’t afford to have an enemy right there on the hacienda. With a final reassuring smile, Felipe had disappeared into the house to change clothes before Diego could see him and wonder what happened.
The young man jumped at the sound of Don Alejandro’s voice, cursing himself for allowing his mind to wander enough that he was surprised like that.
“Felipe, where are you?”
Felipe continued sweeping with his back to the doorway, part of him feeling bad for ignoring the calls of his patron, while another part understood the logic that a deaf person couldn’t simply come when called. He heard footsteps a moment before Alejandro’s voice sounded behind him.
“Ah, there you are, Felipe! I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I need you to…”
Felipe heard a sigh, then more footsteps as Deigo joined his father.
“Father? What’s going on? Why all the racket?”
There was a long pause and it was all Felipe could do to not acknowledge the presence of the de la Vega men.
“Once again, I am calling for a deaf boy,” Alejandro answered with a tone Felipe could only interpret as annoyance. “Really, Diego, there has to be a better way to get his attention when we want him.”
Felipe felt his shoulders slump.
“Maria’s son is of age. Perhaps he can help…”
“No!” Diego’s voice carried a note of steel, then softened as he continued. “Felipe has performed his duties admirably these past years and is quite capable of continuing to do so. The hacienda is not so big and we’re not so lazy that we’re unable to look for him if the need arises.”
“Yes, yes, you’re right, Diego.” Another sigh echoed through the room.
Lost in the thought of his patron wanting to replace him, Felipe was startled when someone touched his shoulder. He spun around and would have tripped over his own feet if it weren’t for Diego’s steadying hand on his arm. Diego’s brow rose in silent question, but Felipe could only look away when his friend’s expression shifted to apologetic.
“Felipe,” Alejandro said when the boy’s brown eyes slid in his direction, “I’ve decided we should have lunch in town today since Maria is off. There’s no longer a need to ask you to find Diego, so we can go now if you’re both ready.”
The three of them rode the two miles into town at a leisurely pace, the two caballeros filling the time with idle chatter. The incident at the hacienda only a short time ago seemed to have been forgotten. Felipe knew the elder Don had heard the censure in his son’s voice. It made no sense to apologize to someone for something they supposedly didn’t hear, and Felipe knew Don Alejandro cared for him and would never hurt him so carelessly, but Felipe still felt cheated of a courtesy that would be granted anyone else.
“I wonder what culinary delight Victoria has prepared today,” Alejandro voiced as they dismounted in front of the tavern.
Diego laughed. “Why don’t you go on and find out? Felipe and I will be along as soon as we take care of the horses.”
“A grand idea.” Alejandro clasped a hand to his son’s shoulder for a moment before turning to disappear into the tavern.
“I can take care of the horses,” Felipe signed when Alejandro left.
“I’ll help you…”
“I can do it!” Felipe insisted with short, sharp gestures. He instantly regretted his rudeness. “I’m sorry,” he said, looking down to his feet in shame.
Diego placed one hand on his shoulder, using the other to lift the boy’s chin to meet his eyes. “Felipe, what my father said…”
“I know,” Felipe interrupted. “He didn’t mean…” he paused, not really sure what he wanted to say. “It’s okay. Just let me take care of the horses. I’ll be there soon.”
Diego nodded in acquiescence, surrendering the horses’ reins to Felipe who walked all three animals towards a vacant hitching post across the plaza.
He took his time caring for the horses, wanting a few moments to settle his turbulent thoughts. When he could delay it no longer without the fear that his patron would come looking for him, he gave his pony one final affectionate rub of the nose then headed towards the tavern. He’d barely made it half a dozen steps when a stranger on a large bay came up alongside him.
“Boy,” the stranger said as he approached Felipe. The man was an intimidating sight, with a height to rival Diego, and a girth similar to Mendoza’s. His voice sounded as though he’d been swallowing sand and Felipe had to hold his breath when the smell of a too long unwashed body surrounded him as the man stepped into his personal space. “Tell me how to get to the Garza hacienda.”
Felipe thought for a moment, then pointed towards the west while holding up three fingers to indicate the hacienda was three miles away.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” the man growled. “I asked a simple question and expect an answer, boy!”
Felipe’s eyes widened and he took an involuntary step back. He reverted to simple, broad gestures to indicate he was deaf and mute, then again that the hacienda lay three miles to the west, but this seemed to further anger the hulk of a man.
“You’re trying my patience, boy. Do you think this is funny?” The man clamped a beefy hand onto Felipe’s shoulder with bruising force, causing the young man to wince in pain. “I’ll teach you a lesson you’re not soon to forget!”
Felipe squirmed in the man’s grasp as he raised an arm to backhand him across the face. Realizing his struggles were futile, he could only close his eyes and brace for the blow.
“Is there a problem here?”
The young man tentatively opened his eyes and inwardly sighed in relief as Mendoza’s voice stilled the man’s hand. The sergeant approached from behind the pair and placed himself at Felipe’s side, glaring at the stranger until he loosened his grip on the boy.
“I was just trying to get this whelp here to tell me where the Garza hacienda is,” the man ground out while never taking his eyes off the young man in front of him.
Felipe gestured one more time sharply, “Three miles to the west!”
“Three miles to the west,” Mendoza translated firmly, “as he has told you. I’m sure you’ll want to be going now.” It was more an order than a statement and the stranger complied, shouldering between the two to reach his horse. The man mounted and turned his bay to the west.
“Idioto,” Mendoza mumbled, before turning to Felipe.
“Don’t tell them,” Felipe begged.
“Who? The de la Vegas?” Mendoza confirmed, confused. “Why not? You won’t get in trouble. You did nothing wrong!”
“I know. It’s just…” Felipe paused, searching for a way to explain the desperation without going into great detail of what had happened these last few days. He settled for a simple plea, “Please.”
“Alright, if that is what you wish. It will be our secret.” The sergeant winked at him before continuing on his way to disappear into the tavern.
Felipe released the breath he’d been holding and stepped back to lean against the hitching post next to the horses. His whole body was vibrating and his weak knees threatened to spill him face first into the dirt street.
“There’s a sad story, Private,” de Sotto’s voice sounded behind Felipe. “That boy, Felipe? From what I’ve seen, he’s actually quite clever, intelligent, even. But encounters like the one we just saw will be the story of his life. He’ll never be able to make anything of himself, never be able to rise above his station. He’ll always be stuck in this little pueblo, relying on the kindness of the de la Vegas and those like them in order to survive. Yes, a sad story indeed.” The alcalde’s voice faded as he and the private walked away.
Taking a deep, calming breath, Felipe squeezed back the tears that threatened to fall and forced his still trembling knees to steady. He needed to join the de la Vegas in the tavern. He started towards the tavern again, but paused as feminine giggling caught his attention.
Senorita Alexandra and a friend approached from the opposite direction, giggling and leaning their heads together to whisper. Felipe’s lips curled into a genuine smile at the lovely vision the girls presented. As their paths crossed, Felipe nodded to the girls. Their hushed whispers grew in intensity and somewhere amongst the chatter the word ‘baboso’ floated to his ears. The girls giggled again and hurried on their way.
Felipe’s smile fell and his heart dropped into his stomach. De Sotto was right. Things like he’d been dealing with these last few days were going to be a constant in his life. He would probably never be able to be more than he was, would never see the world, would never…
A fluttering sign tacked to a post nearby caught his attention. It seemed to call out to him.
"Citizen! Glory Travel Adventure in the Service of the Spanish Empire."
The proud soldier in the portrait holding a flag and his musket seemed to be staring right into Felipe’s soul, calling to him.
Felipe stepped up to the poster, studying it, and reviewing his options.
It would be hard to leave the de la Vegas, especially Diego – and Zorro, but everyone had to step out on his own eventually. His usefulness to Zorro was limited anyway. He was no longer a child that people would ignore. Even though he was thought to be deaf, people were less likely to speak freely around him now than they once were. If he left Los Angeles, he wouldn’t have to pretend to be deaf anymore. Soldiers didn’t need to speak; in fact, it seemed to be discouraged by the alcalde. Being a soldier was a respectable career and he could work in his own way to fight the injustices of the world, bring criminals to justice, and serve his country.
Yes, perhaps being a soldier was right for him.