The Gift

 

 

   

 

CHAPTER 19

THE HUNTER’S PREY

DECEMBER 9-10, 1821

The Dark Knight allowed Ricardo to believe that he traveled the Camino Real alone and unobserved. But what surprised El Zorro was the discovery that his enemy had a more extensive knowledge of the terrain between the Mission and the de le Vega hacienda than the average caballero. Del’Amo eluded the three military patrols that he had, so far, encountered just one day’s ride from Los Angeles.

Ricardo had also found a couple of the same caves that the Fox had used many times before in his cat and mouse games that he so enjoyed playing against the Spanish Colonial Army. Zorro noted that del’Amo cleverly erased whatever hoof prints his horse made between the edge of the road and the beginning of the mountains’ vegetation by swishing some sagebrush across the Camino Real. As Señor Blazer Felipe Maria y Castile, his fencing instructor during the less than three years he studied at Madrid, the only “soundly defeated adversary is a dead one. NEVER underestimate you opponent!” The Fox would never make that mistake again!

“Easy, Tornado,” the Fox comforted his agitated steed after his riding companion alerted him by pawing the ground twice, indicating that Ricardo del’Amo was near. “Smell the scoundrel, eh boy? Easy does it my friend. All in good time. You see, Tornado, I am driving him toward home. He is clever, but half of the deadly game we are playing involves ingenuity as well as bravery. I want to delude him into thinking that he can successfully dodge me. He is foolishly entering my personal defense circle and I am thoroughly prepared for him to enter my private domain.”

 

[[[[ZZZZ]]]]

 

“Wonderful, Joaquin, just wonderful! Your performance is wonderful and your physical resemblance to Diego is striking. “Come with me, son of mi viejo, Don Alfredo. This is the usual time that I check in on Doña Moneta and make sure that she has everything she needs for the afternoon.”

“Lead the way,“ said Joaquin to Don Alejandro. “I have been looking forward to this meeting since we were twelve years old!” He glanced down into Moneta’s warm brown eyes as he raised the back of her hand to kiss it. 

“Ah, my Arabian princess! You are even more beautiful now than ever! I am still your most faithful servant!” Then he executed a grand, sweeping bow, the formal greeting of the Spanish court. Joaquin also told her the true reason she was feeing better was because he had arrived to take excellent care of her.

”Joaquin, you have not changed one bit! Join me for some refreshment.” Moneta said. “but I cannot stay up away from my bed very long until Dr. Perez says I can-- my eyesight is still quite poor. I love to sit in the patio in the afternoon and I cannot do this until the good doctor gives me permission. But, let us talk of happier times, Joaquin! We have more than a decade of news and stories to exchange with each other!”

Don Alejandro harrumphed. “Ah, Moneta, Don Joaquin and I have much discuss regarding our strategy to deal with del’Amo. Be assured that after we have concluded our meeting I shall order Don Joaquin not to leave you alone, even for a minute!”

Don Joaquin sighed in mock distress. “If only I can survive the next several hours without basking in the glow of Señora de la Vega‘s ‘mystique‘!”

Diego’s father chuckled. “Moneta was right. You have NEVER learned to grow up! Seriously, Joaquin, we have urgent matters that we must talk about, so we shall see you for dinner, my dear daughter.”

“Bueno." Moneta nodded, sighing deeply.

 

[[[[[ZZZ]]]]]

 

As they sat in the library drinking some aged and very mellow Jerez, Don Alejandro’s voice became serious.  "Joaquin although you were obviously a very good actor and mimic, your impersonation must be perfect!”

"Sí, Don Alejandro- I mean my father,” Don Joaquin said in his best imitation of Diego’s firm, yet light baritone voice, “I can and do perfectly imitate a person’s voice as you are hearing me mimicking Diego’s voice now--about five minutes after I have heard it for the first time. Actually, I try not to mimic the person or his voice. I study the person’s walk, mannerisms, and the inflections in his voice. Diego’s tones are easier for me to ‘adopt’ because I have known him most of my life.”

“If I understand you correctly, Don Joaquin, I mean, ‘Diego.’ you do not impersonate your subject, you try to actually become that person!

Don Joaquin clapped his hands in admiration. “BRAVO, Don Alejandro! In the words of someone we both know and love very dearly, ‘EXACTLY SO!’” Joaquin frowned briefly and then decided to ask Don Alejandro something that had been bothering him greatly since Joaquin received Diego’s note earlier today.

“Don Alejandro, I may be overstepping the bounds of propriety, but may ask where Diego will be while I am taking his place here in his home?”

[By the three Marias! I am glad that Diego provided me with an answer to that obvious -- and dangerous -- question.] Don Alejandro said to himself.

‘Sí, Joaquin, you are most certainly entitled to an explanation. Zorro approached Diego about providing protection for my son and his wife after Moneta was shot by Ricardo. Naturally, Diego felt that the Fox could capture Ricardo and protect Moneta, Bernardo and myself. Joaquin, Diego and Don Juan del’Amo are making arrangements to have Ricardo committed. Well, for his own safety! Diego is trying to help Don Juan del’Amo, who is already en route to Monterey, expedite the incarceration procedure. He hopes to be home soon.“

Don Joaquin pursed his lips. "I always knew that Ricardo was extremely selfish and, well, unstable!”

Don Alejandro grunted in agreement. “And now, Joaquin, por favor, speak in Diego’s voice as much as you can.”

“Bueno.” Joaquin bowed to Diego’s father. Then Joaquin straightened himself as much as he could and his cleared his throat. "Father,” Joaquin said wearily, "I wish you would allow me to lead my own life! I am a lover of poetry, wine and song! "

Don Alejandro smiled. "That was nearly perfect! However, Diego has a slightly deeper voice. Try again. For example, practice calling out for Bernardo. “My son rolls the ‘r’s in his mozo’s name.”

Joaquin tried the phrases once again. After half an hour, Don Alejandro believed that when he closed his eyes, Diego was sitting right before him.

Don Alejandro sighed, quite pleased with Joaquin’ s efforts. [However, he thought, there is one test that would prove Joaquin could help Zorro defeat his adversary!] “ Go to the door of the sala and call Moneta to come to the library asking her to join us here!”

Joaquin bowed to Don Alejandro, and he walked to the library door and opened it, Moneta, mi preciosa, will you have Jorge Paco bring you to the library where we can have some refreshment together?” Joaquin‘s baritone echoed throughout the patio.

“Diego!” Moneta instantly replied as she removed the tinted spectacles to help block any light that could irritate her eyes. “We did not expect you back until ... much ... later... Confused, she glanced back and forth from Don Alejandro and Don Joaquin.

“Oh, Joaquin was that you?“

Joaquin reveled in his smugness. “Don Alejandro, I believe that I have solved the problem of Sergeant Garcia or anyone else whom will only be satisfied with speaking with me/Diego personally. Just leave everything to me! I have a ‘prop‘ that I would like to use to ‘insure‘ that Don Ricardo accepts my impersonation of ‘Don Diego!”

Don Alejandro’s tone was somber but his eyes twinkled mischievously. “I trust your judgment. Your servant, Señor Alvarez. I mean ‘Diego!’”

 

[[[[ZZZZ]]]]

 

Ricardo’s sword slashed repeatedly through the air as he practiced exactly how he was going to relieve El Zorro -- and later -- Diego of their lives.

Del’Amo had learned two very important lessons from his duel with El Zorro: Rule number One, the best defense is to always be on offensive; and Rule Number Two, always defer to Rule Number One. He knew that the Dark Knight was a consummate master of the defensive art of misdirection. More than once during their duel, Ricardo allowed his blade to be “pulled away” or change from his original line of defense, usually Ricardo’s upper right side. Zorro’s rapid false attacks wrongly convinced Ricardo to lower his saber from defending his original position. The Fox then executed a perfect lunge and struck Ricardo on the opposite side, his upper left torso, and had it been a real duel of honor, Zorro would have skewered him like a hog on barbecue spit.

 

[[[[ZZZZ]]]]

 

“Sergeant Garcia. I am very tired and I want to go back to Los Angeles!” Corporal Reyes said mournfully.

“Sí, Baboso! Do you think that you are the only one who is weary! Like you, I have been in the saddle since sunrise. But you do not hear me complaining, do you?”

Reyes shook his head. “Well, only three times since lunch--”

Garcia covered his face with his hands.

“And I think that the reason we cannot locate Don Ricardo is because he wants to stay lost! It is getting late!” Reyes continued to complain.

“Stupid one! The lack of rest has turned your brains, such as they are, to mush! But you are right --we cannot continue to search in the dark, especially since it has rained recently. There are mud pits deep enough -- up to a man’s knees --everywhere! Buglers, sound the regroup and retreat signals!”

Ricardo never ceased to be amused by Garcia’s ineptness as he watched the army search fruitlessly for him. [He obviously has not figured out I travel by night and sleep during the day.] del’Amo silently laughed. No, what was truly irritating was the fact that the Fox was toying with him. His continued freedom meant that El Zorro was delaying their inevitable showdown.

But since his previous duel with the outlaw, Ricardo had been receiving twice weekly fencing lessons from the Master Fencing Instructor to Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s General Staff, Monsieur Girard. When Ricardo defeated the Fox his pleasure would be multifold. First, he would unmask Zorro and then kill him. His fame would become unlimited since Ricardo del’Amo would always be known as the man who killed Zorro. The authorities and the gente de razon, the upper class, would hail him as a hero. Of course, the peons would despise him, but their opinion had never mattered to him anyway. And lastly, the Fox’s death by his hand would torture his faithless wife Anna Maria forever.

[[[ZZZZ]]]]

Zorro made one final trip to the secret cave where his father was waiting for him with fresh clothes and food. As he changed his clothes, he told Don Alejandro “Tonight is the night, father. I only came home to get see you and Moneta. I have to decide whether a man who used to be one of my best friends must live or die. Yet, as I told Father Felipe, I am still so full of hate that I find it difficult to concentrate on my final combat with Ricardo del’Amo. I know that I gave you my word.”

Don Alejandro looked into Diego’s troubled eyes with fatherly love and understanding. “Never, ever underestimate yourself, my son! You have dedicated your entire life to aiding the poor and defenseless. When the time comes, you will do the right thing! After all you are a de la Vega and you are El Zorro!”

Diego finished his transformation into the Fox by pulling on his mask. He shrugged. “May it happen as you wish, my father.  How is Bernardo doing?”

“Come and see for yourself. He is doing much better. Bernardo is finally starting to eat again,” said Don Alejandro as he handed the Fox back his saber.

“Gracias a Dios! I cannot wait to talk with him. Come father, time grows short and I want to see Moneta before I leave. I also want to make certain that Don Joaquin has everything prepared before Ricardo arrives here as scheduled!”

Don Alejandro put his hand on Zorro’s shoulders, “Go take care of Moneta. Do not worry about anything or anyone else! Joaquin and I know exactly what to do when that porco, Ricardo, does finally show his face here!”

[[[[[[[Z]]]]]]]]

Moneta brushed her hair for the third time since she learned Diego was back. As she was rearranging her toiletry articles on her dressing table Moneta saw her Dark Knight’s reflection in her hand held mirror.

" El Zorro! "

Zorro rushed to her and lifted her into his arms. “ Querida mia, how are you feeling? "  

Moneta sighed happily. "Now that you are home, I am doing very much better! I am so glad to see you before Ricardo’s arrival."

The Fox found that he could not remove his gaze from her lovely face. “Moneta --”

She placed her fingers over his mouth. "Be quiet, my darling! El Zorro is here so everything is going to be fine. "

“You know that I swore to my father I would bring Ricardo del'Amo back to Los Angeles to face the King's justice. Moneta, I also solemnly promise you that I will come home to you alive." He kissed her deeply on her lips and then he was gone.

Moneta leaned against the wall, vainly trying to prevent herself from crying. Several minutes later she left the cocooned safety of her bedroom and went to talk to Don Alejandro and Don Joaquin.

 

[[[[ZZZZ]]]]

 

Ricardo finished polishing his saber and placed it in its scabbard. He mounted his horse, Sky Fever, and urged his steed onward to the de la Vega hacienda. Del’Amo checked his pocket watch. Bueno. Only a half-hour to sundown, and the people’s hero usually appears just after the sun has relinquished its searing hold on the day to its serene cool Mistress of the Night, the moon. As the crimson red sun vanished behind the mountains, Don Ricardo felt he was not alone as he turned his mount onto the small dirt road that led directly to the de la Vega hacienda. Zorro can’t possibly be watching me now. I know that he is waiting for me at the hacienda. Well, Señor Fox, here I come. Ricardo whistled in the night air. He felt supremely confident that his combat with Zorro would end quickly and then he would deal with Diego de la Vega.

The Dark Knight watched as calmly as he could as Ricardo del'Amo tied up his horse at the de la Vega hacienda's hitching post. Del'Amo quickly scanned the hacienda’s grounds. He pressed his ear against the gate and could not hear anything. Then he moved several paces back, took aim at the door, and kicked it in.

To his astonishment, no one was sitting in the patio, nor did he see any lights on in the sala. Then Ricardo looked more closely at the balcony and he saw the light shining beneath both Diego's and his father's bedroom doors. He began shoving the patio furniture around and this resulted in the response he wanted. Don Alejandro emerged from his bedroom first. He saw Ricardo in the patio aiming a pair of pistols at him.

“Old man, knock on Diego’s door.”

“Father, what is all that noise?” ‘Diego’ said as he stepped out onto the balcony.

"Buenos tardes, Don Diego!“ Ricardo sarcastically greeted the younger de la Vega. “Get one of the servants to bring a lantern and the both of you come downstairs immediately!”

Their new Indian servant Jorge Paco and Don Alejandro’s mozo, Felipe Lopez, came through the sala and placed a lantern on the patio table. Del'Amo told the both of them to return to hacienda.

"I said move it! Pronto! Please, gentlemen,” he said, gesturing with one of his pistols, “Take your seats. I promise you that the evening's entertainment will soon begin.”

As ‘Diego’ started to sit down, Ricardo noticed that he had a handkerchief wrapped around his face. "What is the matter with you Diego?"

"I have a toothache," he said in a muffled voice. "It really hurts."

Del'Amo picked up the lantern and held it next to Diego's face.

Don Alejandro clenched his fists inside his night robe. “Por favor, Blessed Virgin, let our ruse work!”

“OUCH!” ‘Diego’ yelped as Ricardo pulled at the swollen left cheek

"What a pity that the swelling has affected your handsomeness! But, soon you will be unable to feel anything at all. "

Don Alejandro snorted angrily. " Get to the point Ricardo! What is it that you want here?"

Ricardo del'Amo moved away from them and sat down in a chair across the patio where he could observe his “guests” at all times. “Why, I am looking for that coward, El Zorro!"

‘Don Diego’ shook his head and then grabbed his mouth. " Ouch!“ he said aloud. “Uh, Ricardo,” he said slowly, “Zorro is not here."

"Unfortunately for both of you gentlemen, I have plenty of time to wait for him to appear."

Alejandro de la Vega started toward del’Amo. "If I were 20 years younger I would thrash you myself! Why are you searching for Zorro here? "

Ricardo sneered at the two hidalgos. “Zorro seems to have certain affection for you de la Vegas that is beyond my understanding. I know that I only have to wait here a little while and Zorro will come. Oh, and Diego? "

‘Diego’ painfully turned his head towards Ricardo. "Sí."

Ricardo grinned evilly. " If I were you, Diego, I would recite all the prayers that you know, because after I kill El Zorro, I am going to relieve you of your miserable life!”

Don Alejandro and ‘Diego’ traded sharp looks. “Do not count your chickens before they are hatched Señor!” The elder de la Vega warned.

 

 

 

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