Anvil of Iron
When Bernardo arrived at Don Natan de Avilés' hacienda, just north of Santa Barbara, he had difficulty, at first, making it known whom it was he was seeking. Finally, Don Natan remembered that the de la Vegas had a deaf-mute servant and guessed that he was looking for Don Alejandro.
Upon learning that Bernardo could read, Don Natan had written a note saying that Don Alejandro had left just a few hours before on a coach going back southward. Bernardo had rested his horse for a short while as he replenished his food and water. He then began following the coach as quickly as his tired mount could manage. If not for the fact that they intended to say that Diego had gotten hurt somewhere in the mountains, it would have been easier just to let Don Alejandro ride on to Los Ángeles on the coach. As it was, the sooner Bernardo could find him and they could be seen going toward the mountains, the better. He had finally overtaken the coach at a way station about halfway to San Buenaventura.
Don Alejandro could not see who was at the door when the proprietor answered a knock. Out of curiosity, he watched as he ate the simple meal that had been placed before him and the other travelers sharing the coach.
"Well, speak up. Oh, you cannot? Well, come in," the proprietor instructed the newcomer. He scratched his head in confusion for a moment as the person he was speaking to made no move to enter. He finally reached through the door and physically pulled a short traveler in. "I don't know what you want, but come in anyway."
A shock of alarm went through Don Alejandro as he recognized Bernardo. He knew of no reason for Bernardo to come seeking him unless something had happened. He thought of his son's safety immediately. Fearing unwelcome news that Diego had been hurt, captured, or worse, he rose quickly from the table and walked to the two men. "This is my son's manservant, señor. He must be looking for me," he said as he walked up behind Bernardo.
Bernardo, from long practice, did not react to his voice until Don Alejandro touched his arm and stepped around to where he could be seen. ‘We need to talk alone,’ Bernardo indicated quickly by gesture and expression. Although the old don fought to keep his alarm from showing, he did not succeed completely.
"Is everything all right, Señor de la Vega?" the proprietor asked as he watched Bernardo's gestures and the don’s reaction.
“What? Oh...yes...yes, I think so. It is just some problem with my rancho, probably easily set right, but I need to talk a bit more with our servant here to be sure. Privately,” Don Alejandro managed to say evenly.
The proprietor could make neither heads nor tails of what he was seeing when the servant gestured, but apparently the hacendado could, so he supposed it was really none of his business. "There is a small room off there, señor," he said, pointing to a door to the right of the main room. "You are welcome to use it."
"Sí," Don Alejandro agreed, "that would be good. Gracias." Quickly he led the way into the small room. "All right, Bernardo," he said quietly as soon as the door was closed, "what has happened? Is Diego all right?"
Bernardo nodded and made a gesture meaning 'now'. As quickly as he could make himself understood to Don Alejandro, he indicated that Diego had been shot, but was being cared for. The mozo watched worriedly as the older man sank into a nearby chair and looked up at him.
Ai, my son, my son! Don Alejandro thought. I was not there for you when you needed me. Even now, it will take days before I can be with you. He controlled his worry and impatience with difficulty. There were so many things that he wanted to know, but he could follow Bernardo's gestures only so rapidly. "How badly has he been injured?" he asked aloud.
Bernardo touched his own shoulder approximately where Diego's injury was and indicated apparently a lot of bleeding.
Don Alejandro rose from his chair and paced across the room. "Yes, he lost a lot of blood? Was Dr. Mendoza back in the pueblo? Were you able to get him to help discreetly?" Alejandro asked. He thought that the doctor could be trusted, but was not happy with the prospect of one more person knowing Diego's secret. He was surprised when Bernardo shook his head and then made his sign for Ania. "Ania helped him? Bueno. Perhaps she was the best one to turn to. Has anyone questioned his injury? What explanation has been given?"
Bernardo shook his head and indicated himself and Diego going somewhere and then made the sign for mountains. He waited for a moment to be sure that Don Alejandro was still following the narrative, then continued gesturing about the story he and Ania had made up to cover their absence.
"You are suppose to be in the mountains." Don Alejandro watched in confusion for a moment, then realized that Bernardo was indicating that they would say that Diego had fallen and been hurt. "You are supposedly taking me to him in the mountains?" When Bernardo nodded, Don Alejandro decided that he would ask him no more questions now. There was still much he wanted to know, but that could come later. He knew his son needed him and that, as always with Diego's double life, discretion was of utmost importance. That was all he needed to know.
For a moment, Don Alejandro stood looking at Bernardo. The manservant looked near exhaustion and the older man doubted that Bernardo had eaten much along the way, either. Thinking of the role the manservant played in his son's life, and his own, Don Alejandro knew that he owed Bernardo a debt of gratitude. Doubtless, whatever degree of safety Diego enjoyed right now was due, in large part, to this man. As anxious as Don Alejandro was to get back to Los Ángeles, and to see Diego with his own eyes, he knew that Bernardo deserved some consideration, as well. "We will start back just as soon as you have had something to eat, and at least, a short rest, Bernardo," he finally said as he patted him on the shoulder. "Come. Let us have the proprietor get you something to eat."
Bernardo nodded and gratefully followed him into the common room. After the meal, he lay down and slept as Don Alejandro made arrangements for their journey back to Diego.
“Were you not planning to travel all the way to Los Ángeles on my coach, señor?” the coachman asked when he overheard Don Alejandro requesting a horse and supplies from the innkeeper.
“Sí, that was my plan,” the hacendado replied. He thought quickly about just how much to say about the reason he was leaving and decided that perhaps he should start making use of the story Bernardo and Diego had come up with. “However, my son’s servant has brought me disturbing news of an accident my son has had, up in the mountains near here.”
“Oh? That is too bad, patron,” the coachman said. “Was he badly hurt?”
“Thankfully, not so badly as he could have been, but I do need to go to him,” Don Alejandro relied, hoping that the first part of his statement was true.
“Sí, I guess that is so,” the other man said. “May the saints bless you with a safe trip and your son with a quick recovery.”
“Gracias, señor,” the landowner said. He had no doubt soon all the people at this small inn would soon hear the story.
After being wished good luck by the other passengers and the proprietor, Don Alejandro and Bernardo left the way station, heading southeastward toward the mountains, knowing the other curious travelers would watch them. On the east side of El Camino Real, out of sight of the way station, they turned due southward toward Los Ángeles. They had roughly a two-day ride ahead. It is going to be a long two days, Don Alejandro told himself anxiously as he thought of Diego.
Somewhat more than a day and a half later, the two weary travelers stopped beside a small stream. Don Alejandro dismounted and allowed his horse to drink from the clear water. Bernardo pulled up beside him and did the same. Both men looked tired, dusty, and considerably rougher than usual. They had only rarely stopped for more than a couple of hours of rest since Bernardo had caught up with him yesterday morning.
"We will stop here," Don Alejandro decided. "I think we should make camp for a few hours. I would like to just keep going until we reach home, but if we do, we will surely run these horses into the ground. They cannot keep on at this pace. This way the horses can rest and it will still be dark as we get closer to home. Our lands are not too much further in that direction." He pointed to a sheltered area off to one side. "That will do."
Bernardo nodded and indicated that he would go and gather dry wood for a fire. After tying the horses to some low tree branches, he disappeared into the nearby brush.
Don Alejandro busied himself setting up camp and starting the fire.
Suddenly there was a sound of footsteps behind him. Quickly, he turned
toward the bushes beside the trail. Although
he could not see them clearly, he realized that someone was hidden there.
His heart seemed to beat loudly
enough to be heard as he wondered who this was.
Dios, are we already being suspected?
Could Rodríguez have figured out that Diego was Zorro and hope to
follow Bernardo to him? Well, standing here staring at the shadows
will do no good! He
pulled the sword from the scabbard on his belt.
“You, come out!” he ordered. “What are you doing hiding back
there? Come out where I can
Slowly, the bushes shook and two
ragged peons eased out onto the path.
“Perdonamé, patron, we did not mean any harm,” the taller of
the two said.
“What do you want? Why were you hiding there?” Don Alejandro demanded.
“Please, señor, we hid only
because we did not wish to disturb you,” the short peon said, his hat
crumbled in his hand respectfully. “We
had seen the light of your fire in the distance and wished only to share
its warmth for a few minutes before we go on our way.
We did not expect to meet a hacendado out here.
We want to go further before camping for the night, but hoped we
would hear some news of the area around Santa Barbara and Monterey.”
The patron relaxed, but still stood silently, wondering the best course of action. He was thankful for the two days stubble on his own face and the dust on his clothes. Hopefully, these people would not have any knowledge of who he was. However, it would be best if Bernardo were not seen. A deaf-mute would be unusual enough to attract attention and perhaps comments.
“Pedro,” the taller peon said as he looked uneasily at his companion, “maybe we should just go on. Surely this man gets his news from things he can read and doesn’t need the likes of us to tell him. I am sorry we disturbed you, patron.” The two men turned to go back up the path.
News? Don Alejandro thought. Could these two perhaps tell us anything we might need to know? Perhaps troops are still looking for Zorro. The peons always seem to know when the troops are about in the hills. Several minutes had passed and Bernardo had not reappeared. The mozo must have seen the two men and was remaining hidden in the brush nearby. “Wait, señores!” the older man said, as he resheathed his sword. “Come. You seem harmless enough and it is often pleasant to swap news around a campfire, even for one who can read.” He gestured to the other side of the fire. “Make yourself comfortable."
The two peons settled themselves down beside the fire. They shared their meager food with each other and did not presume to ask Don Alejandro for any of his. However, they did not turn wine down when it was offered by the more well to do man. Soon they relaxed enough to begin asking questions about current happenings he could tell them.
Don Alejandro told them what little he knew of current events around and to the north of Santa Barbara, much of it about the repairs of the missions in that area after the earthquakes of the last year or so. He told of a supposed miracle connected with one of the missions, as well.
One of the two peons became excited at the mention of a miracle. "Oh, we have had our own miracle, señor," he said. "El Zorro has returned! The capitán of Los Angeles claimed he had killed him, but he did not."
Don Alejandro's face registered shock at the sudden introduction of Zorro into the conversation, especially in such a way. "What did you say?" he gasped.
The second peon looked at Don Alejandro suspiciously. "Pedro, be quiet. The señor may not want to hear what you are saying. Not about a bad outlaw like Zorro."
"Oh, no. I am very interested in what Zorro has done," said Don Alejandro. “And as far as being an outlaw...well, perhaps in the eyes of the law, but I know that he is a friend to the people," he reassured them. "Tell me, please, what you have heard."
The suspicious one looked at him a moment and his distrust melted. Smiling, he finally said, "I have a cousin who lives in Los Ángeles. He got into a little trouble with that scoundrel of a comandante that they have. 'I will only get some time in jail' he thinks, but the capitán, he has other plans. Joaquin and the others were to be sent to San Juan to work, only they found out after they left that they were going to México to the mines. Well, they had heard rumors that Zorro had appeared here and there since the capitán had claimed victory, but my cousin and the others, they were not sure what to believe." "But your cousin? He and the others saw Zorro?" Don Alejandro prompted.
"Sí, with his own eyes, there on that big black stallion of
his. A big man he is, señor! Zorro blew
half the mountain away to block the road to the mine! Then he
trapped the lancers in the canyon!" the peon exclaimed
"How did he do this?" asked Don Alejandro.
"He led them into the canyon with a ten foot barrier at
each end," said the peon, smiling again.
"Oh? Ten feet?" Don Alejandro prompted. "How did he get out if this was a closed canyon?"
"His horse, señor! It should have wings! They say that he jumped over the barriers with two feet to spare. No pen could ever hold that horse, just like no one will ever be able to take Zorro," Pedro proclaimed.
"I certainly hope you are right," Alejandro said, in spite of himself.
"Of course, I am, señor. Do they not call him the Dark Ángel? One can not kill an ángel!" Pedro grinned a gap-toothed smile across the fire. "Is that not good news, señor? After all Rodríguez's bragging, the Fox is still there for all Californianos!"
"Yes," Alejandro agreed fervently. "That is good news."
Shortly afterwards, the two peons finished the quick meal they had shared at the fire and went on their way.
As Don Alejandro stood looking in the direction the men had gone, Bernardo startled him by walking quietly up behind him. He had a puzzled look on his face as he looked at Don Alejandro and signed a Z.
"You heard?" Don Alejandro asked.
Bernardo nodded and then shook his head. He tapped his shoulder and then pretended weakness.
"You do not think Zorro could have ridden as they say?" Alejandro looked at him questioningly.
Bernardo shook his head again. Then he shrugged and frowned in a perplexed sort of way.
Don Alejandro looked thoughtfully down the road toward Los Ángeles. "Well, I suppose we will find out more of what is going on when we reach home. For now, we had better get some rest."
Rodríguez turned with a snarl toward Private Rómez. "How could Zorro have done what he did, Private? Did I send three fools out with those men, señor? All you had to do was wait there until Vásquez's men arrived. I did not ask you to go chasing after Zorro's apparition. If all three of you had remained there, those peons could not have overcome the one lancer who was left and the prisoners would not have escaped."
"Sí, Capitán," Rómez answered, "but who would have expected Zorro? I was anxious to catch him, if for no other reason than to see what kind of a man could have come through this last week with no effect."
"I gave you orders to guard those prisoners, nothing more, Private. You and Sánchez will be confined to the cuartel for two days for that trick," Rodríguez ordered.
"But, Capitán..." Rómez began.
"That will be all, Private!" Rodríguez declared. He put his hand to his head and leaned wearily against his desk as the man saluted and walked out. Zorro again! How could this be? How is he capable of all this devilment? Rodríguez rubbed his brow, where a persistent ache had taken up residence. I suppose the men must be right It must truly be Zorro and yet something still seems wrong. He sat at his desk and continued thinking about this irritating outlaw. I know. The swordplay of which he is so fond. It has been missing from each of the times he has appeared since the night I thought we were rid of him. Either his sword arm was injured or...hmmm, or else, it is not the same man within the costume. Perhaps it is someone who is not so experienced as a swordsman. Ay, the devil take him! We will just have to keep watching. Someday, he will make another mistake and I will be there waiting for him.