Pacific Odyssey:

Book I

 

 

 

Chapter One 

Zorro Uncovers a Plot

 

 

Zorro sat astride Tornado on the hill above the secret cave.  He sighed, a frown deepening the lines of worry and fatigue that etched his face.  Leaning down, he patted the stallion’s lathered neck.  “Ah, my friend.  You have served well, but it was not meant that we have success tonight, eh?”  Looking up, he noted the rosy hints in the east.  It would soon be dawn.  Ai!  Another fruitless night of searching, he thought.  Giving the stallion his head, they easily negotiated the almost imperceptible trail toward the hidden entrance. 

As they entered the secret cave, Zorro felt the burden of failure weigh down on him even more.  The only daughter of a wealthy hacendado from San Fernando had disappeared from her home without a trace two days earlier.  Although he had talked to all of the servants and looked for clues near the hacienda, he had still learned nothing.  According to Bernardo, the local soldiers had been unable to learn anything either.   It deeply saddened him, because the young family was close to the de la Vegas.  His father was little Marguerita’s godfather, and Diego enjoyed bouncing the seven-year-old on his knee whenever they visited the Montoya rancho.

This was only the latest in a long string of disturbing and violent incidents.  Several nights previously, he and his father had also spent some time near San Juan Capistrano, investigating the murder of another friend of his father’s, Don Armondo Alvarado.   His wife had found him poisoned in the library of their hacienda.   While they had come to give support and condolences to the widow, Diego had found several opportunities to check out any possible clues to the crime.   And while he had found nothing to help him solve the murder, there was still much to think about.  That incident had followed practically on the heels of two other murders:  First, the brutal stabbing of a wealthy wine grower near San Pedro, then the suspicious fall of a ranchero down the staircase of his newly built casa grande near San Gabriel. 

Since taking on this role of protector of the people, Zorro had never felt so powerless.  He realized that it was impossible to help everyone, but whoever was perpetrating these crimes seemed to be systematic about it.  There were no robberies, there was no plundering, no one else in each of the families was harmed, even though in two of the crimes, there was someone else in the house beside the victim.  Whoever these people were, they were very, very good.  After the third murder, Zorro had no doubt that it was the same group, even though the criminals were striking at different pueblos.  But why?  What is their purpose? he asked himself.  And then there was the latest- not even a murder at all.  At least not yet.  But even so, the masked man felt that this latest crime was related to the first three by a dark, sinister purpose.  But what?

Zorro sighed and removed the sweat stained saddle from his horse’s back. Turning to put it in the corner with the rest of the tack, he found his manservant, Bernardo, reaching out to take the saddle from him.  “Bernardo, I didn’t even hear you approach,” he told the mozo, whose eyes showed his concern.  Bernardo seemed to be showing the effects of several sleepless nights just as he supposed that he was.  “What did you find out in the pueblo this evening?” he asked and then realized that the servant had Tornado’s saddle in his hands.  Quickly Diego took it back and watched Bernardo’s fingers.

‘Absolutely nothing,’ the servant signed, also adding an apology.  

That Bernardo could not find out anything doubled his frustration.  “Bernardo, you have nothing to apologize for,” he reassured the older man.  “I could not find one trace of what happened to little Marguerita!” Diego threw up his hands in exasperation.  “What is happening?  First the wine merchant, then Don Ramon, then Don Armondo, and now this!!”  Removing his hat, mask, bandanna and gloves, Diego cooled off by dipping a towel in a bucket of water.  As he was wringing it out he heard his father approach from the secret passage to the hacienda. 

“Diego, my son, were you able to find out anything?” Alejandro de la Vega asked anxiously.  Diego shook his head, and wiped the sweat from his face with the damp towel. 

“Since I started riding as Zorro, I do not believe that I have ever had as frustrating a night as this one,” Diego said with a sigh as he related to his father what he had already told Bernardo.  “What could I have missed?” he asked bitterly, throwing the towel down.  “Don Renaldo and his wife are beside themselves with grief.  After the murder of Don Armondo last week, and the other murders before that, they feel only the slimmest chances of hope for Marguerita’s safe return.”

Sighing, Alejandro put his hand on his son’s shoulder.  He knew Diego felt a great responsibility to solve these horrendous crimes, and the weight that lack of resolution brought.  The past nights of hard riding, investigation and frustration were telling on him.  Fatigue was etched in every line of his son’s face.  “You did all you could do, Diego, now we have to leave it in the hands of God and the saints,” Alejandro consoled him.  “You go on to bed.”

Diego just sighed and walked through the tunnel and up the stone steps to his room.  After lying down on his bed for a few hours of much needed sleep, Diego found himself wide awake with the events of the last few nights tumbling relentlessly through his mind.  He began mulling over all of the facts of the murders and the kidnapping in an attempt to solve the mysteries.  It was only after a great deal of tossing and turning that he finally fell asleep.

While his son struggled to sleep, Don Alejandro sat in the library, pondering the strange happenings around the Pueblo de Los Angeles.  He was not able to shake the feeling that the four events were linked, and, in turn, that it was part of something much bigger.  He wanted to go over step by step with his son, just exactly what he had done during his investigation as Zorro.  Stroking his silver-gray beard in contemplation, he felt that surely there was something they were missing; something they should be seeing in this mystery. 

By midmorning, Diego was awake and had come into the sala for a late breakfast.  His father was already sitting at the table, trying in vain to bring the books of transactions up to date.  Stretching his long legs under the table, Diego presented a picture of languid ease, but such was not the case.  His hazel eyes were focused far away and had a troubled look in them, and his mind kept working furiously, trying, as his father had done earlier in the morning, to find a connection between the events.  Bernardo brought him his breakfast. 

“Father, listen to what we have so far,” Diego said, hoping that one or the other of the two men might have some insight that he had missed.  “One:  all the crimes were committed against hacendados.  Two:  all of the families are old California families, some of the wealthiest in the area.   Three:  in all of the crimes, only one member of each family was targeted.   Four:  ah, who knows what four is?” he sighed.  “These all seem so trivial, but somehow, I feel, that they are connected to what is happening.  These crimes are very deliberate and systematic.”        

Bernardo made signs and tapped Diego on the shoulder to get his attention.  He watched as the manservant made signs to remind the men of a conspiracy in the recent past, which had tried to overthrow the colonial government of California. 

“Ah, yes, the Eagle,” Alejandro said.  “What of him?”            

Some people had the impression from his moon-faced appearance and innocent expressions, as well as the fact that he was mute that Bernardo was not very intelligent, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  Diego philosophically assumed that Bernardo’s astuteness was partially due to the fact that he didn’t spend his time talking and therefore was able to listen and ponder much more than most people.  Whether he was right or not, Bernardo often put new perspectives on problems that others couldn’t figure out.

“You know, Bernardo, you might be on to something,” Diego said thoughtfully.  “Except this conspiracy, if it is one, only seems bent on breaking the wealthiest landowners, not everyone in California, like the Eagle’s plans seemed to be.”

“Wait a minute,” Alejandro exclaimed, breaking into his son’s conversation.  “I believe this is a conspiracy.  All the victims were very staunch King’s men, and have been involved in activities to keep Spanish California strong.”

Diego looked up and gazed at his father intently.  “As have we, Father, and many others in the area,” he said softly.  “If this is the case, then we have to find out who these men are and break this conspiracy,” Diego declared more loudly.  “I think that in order to do that, the first step is to find Marguerita.”  Then he banged his hand on the heavy oak table, making the other two men jump.  “But how?” he asked in frustration. “I just cannot believe that the intent was to kill the girl, or her parents would have found her dead, just as Don Armondo was found.  She has to be in the area somewhere.  Alive!” 

Diego sat back in the chair, sifting through every detail, everything he had seen and heard, trying to think what he might have missed.  He thought back to the evening before when he had slipped into the casa grande unnoticed.  He remembered finding Renaldo and his wife in the library.  They sat quietly, holding hands, staring into a small fire, a fire that seemed to carry no warmth into the room.   “Don Renaldo, Dońa Marquesa?” he said, startling both of them.  

“El Zorro!”

Sí, I am sorry to frighten you, but I feel I must be allowed to talk to all of your servants about the disappearance of your daughter.”  

“Our servants?” Seńora Montoya asked, disbelief in her voice.  “Do you think one of them could have taken our daughter?”

“I think someone knows and I want to talk to everyone, excluding no one,” Zorro said emphatically. 

Sí, please, whatever you can do to find our lost Marguerita,” Don Renaldo said.  His wife nodded, hope showing through tear-filled eyes.   

Zorro bowed and left, slipping from room to room, almost like a ghost, first eavesdropping on the conversations; then asking questions and listening to the servants giving their tear-filled testimonies, hearing Don Renaldo’s anger and desperate fear, his wife’s sobs in the corner of the library when he had reported that he had found nothing.  He tried to remember every servant, everyone who worked and lived on the hacienda.  He tried to remember what everyone did and said, how they looked while he was there.  Anything!  In a flash, Diego saw a quiet furtive figure moving on the periphery of a group of servants.  Out of the corner of his eye and his memory he saw the man stealthily slip out of the room.  He also remembered that he had not seen him again that night.  With swift deliberation, Diego went over the names of all of those who worked on the Montoya hacienda.   

Suddenly, he jumped up, startling his father.  “I remember now!” he exclaimed.  “I was talking to all of the servants, but I missed one.  He had disappeared by the time I was ready to talk to him and I had forgotten about him by the time I was ready to leave.  He totally slipped my mind.”

“Who was he, Diego?”  Alejandro asked, hope in his features. 

“He was an Indian from the mountains.  His name is Lupe.  The one who comes down occasionally to help with the horses in the roundups and during the time that they break the young colts,” Diego’s eyes glittered with hope.  “I think that it’s time for Zorro to visit one of the isolated Indian villages and find out if they know anything about this.”  

“Be careful, my son.  Some of these people are very jealous of their seclusion,” Alejandro admonished Diego.

Zorro was ready and away from the hacienda in less than fifteen minutes, not bothering to take a less conspicuous route, because he felt that speed was the important thing now.  The patrols that were out were also hunting for the girl, and at this point they wouldn’t be worried about the black-clad outlaw.  He felt confident that his great stallion, Tornado, was equal to the task of riding hard into the mountains and possibly having to travel rapidly back down again, even after his workout of the night before.  What he wasn’t all that sure about was the disposition of the Indians themselves.  This group had managed to keep itself separate from the influence of the white colonials, and Zorro knew that they actively discouraged visitors.  He sincerely hoped that his reputation might get him an audience with the Indians’ tribal leader.

Traveling higher into the mountains, the outlaw slowed Tornado down, until, at its steepest point, he had to get off and walk.  The stallion didn’t need to be led; he followed docilely behind.  Stopping to survey the area ahead, Zorro saw nothing out of the ordinary.  However, that didn’t mean he was not being watched.  Indeed, the prickling sensation between his shoulder blades told him he was.  He looked around but saw no one. Cautiously, he continued until he had almost reached the crest of the mountain where a narrow pass made a sharp turn to the left.  There, three scowling individuals stood shoulder to shoulder, barring the way.   Zorro stopped and raised his hand in silent greeting.

“You are El Zorro,” the oldest one said simply.  He looked neither pleased nor displeased to see the masked man.  Apparently the leader of the small group, he had a face that showed the effects of many years of concerned leadership and eyes that had seen much change in his land.  His long hair was streaked with gray, pulled back and tied with a leather strip in back.   He was dark from days in the sun and weather worn from the wind, but his eyes were deeply piercing, and even a tiny bit inquisitive.  

Zorro nodded.  Seńores, I have come in peace.  I need your help in finding a young girl who has recently been stolen from her mother and father.”  

“Why do you come to us?” the older man demanded.  “What is a white girl to us?  What are your affairs to us?”

“I believe that the girl is being kept in one of your villages,” Zorro answered honestly. 

“Why would you believe that?” the Indian asked. 

Zorro saw no clues on any of the men’s faces to indicate if his hunch was correct or not.  “Seńor, the only person I did not speak to at the girl’s hacienda was a member of your tribe,” Zorro explained carefully, watching the men’s faces to check for any change in their attitudes towards him.  “He left before I could speak with him and he left in a manner that made me believe that he was hiding something.”  

The men stared at him for several minutes.  While Zorro was impatient in his desire to find Marguerita, he knew better than to try to hurry these people.   He stood calmly, waiting for their decision.  The leader motioned for him to remain where he was, and the group moved away to discuss the matter among themselves.  Their voices were sometimes strident, raising and lowering as one or the other became agitated, but they spoke in their own language and Zorro could not tell what was being said. 

When they came back, they looked disturbed.  “Listen to me well.  We will take you to our village to talk about this matter, but only if you give your word that you will tell no one of the things that you see and hear,” the older man said, standing quietly and waiting for Zorro’s reply. 

“I give you my word,” Zorro promised solemnly.

“You have more weapons than that one at your side?” the youngest man asked, pointing to his sword.

Zorro nodded his head, handing him his whip before unhooking the sword and its scabbard and giving them to the man.  Then they turned and went back up the trail, the youngest man following behind Zorro and Tornado.  After another hour’s walk, the outlaw and his escort came into a small clearing, where about a dozen hide and bark dwellings stood.  Some of the children looked up in alarm and hid behind their mothers’ skirts when they saw the tall, black clad Californiano following the elders of the tribe into the camp, and in turn being followed by a large, coal-black stallion. 

The youngest Indian held out his hands for Tornado’s reins.   Zorro shook his head and turned to the stallion.  “Tornado, stay here,” he said, also giving a hand sign to reassure the horse.  Flicking his ears, the stallion gave no indications of uneasiness.  The Indians looked at Zorro with increased respect, but said nothing. 

Zorro was led into one of the dwellings, where he and the three elders sat down facing each other.  The outlaw waited for the Indians to make the first statements.  “Two things cause us to break our tradition to bring strangers to our camps,” the older man explained.  “The first is that one of our own made the mistake of becoming involved in the affairs of the Spanish.  He thought that by doing so, he could, perhaps, drive your people from the land, and make it better for our people.”  That statement slightly puzzled Zorro, who wondered what the kidnapping of a little girl would have to do with the ousting of the Spanish colonial government.  Then he remembered the episode with the Eagle, the man who by great subterfuge and cunning, had almost taken over California for himself, trying to overthrow the legal Spanish backed colonial government.  Zorro turned his thoughts back to the words of the elder. “The other reason is the talk among us that you are a Spaniard who can be trusted.  We would have talked to no one else.”  He paused and then took a deep breath before speaking again.  “But be aware that you are not the first stranger who has been in our camp.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two
Prologue
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