A Matter of Time

 

 

 

 

Chapter 13

 

 

As he and Bernardo returned to the hacienda after a visit with Sgt. Garcia that was most productive in amount of information gleaned, but not pleasing as to its content, Diego noticed the approaching storm with something akin to horror.  The yellow sky to the south and west turned dark within the space of several heartbeats.   This was much more ominous than the previous storm a week ago and he knew that Lee would not have had a chance to get back to the harbor.   He turned to Bernardo, who had apparently come to the same conclusion and ordered Tornado saddled the moment they reached the casa grande.  When they arrived, the mozo rushed to the secret cave to do his bidding.  Diego changed quickly.  Bernardo had glanced at him as though he was a crazy person and perhaps he was, but he would try to get help for Lee.  In a situation such as this, Tornado would be the more sure-footed and speedier horse and Zorro was more effective in recruiting help than Diego would be.  He did not don the cape, as it would be a detriment in this kind of weather.  He mounted and in spite of the rain that was now coming down in sheets, Zorro began to fight his way toward Los Angeles and ultimately San Pedro.

He only made it to Los Angeles before he admitted defeat.  As he watched from the doorway of an old, unused stable on the outskirts of town, Zorro could only pray for his friend. 

 

 

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Lee realized almost immediately that it was too late to ‘out run’ this storm and make it to the harbor.  The swirling winds were wrecking havoc on his sail.  They were coming from the southwest and if he continued in that direction, he would have no sail at all.   Nor would he have a mast.   He fought the tiller and turned about toward Santa Rosa Island.  He could take refuge there until the storm blew itself out.   Seaview II bucked and then slammed down on a cresting wave.  Water slapped him in the face, but he ignored it.  The sailboat hurtled toward what he guessed to be the island’s shoreline and Lee hoped it was the sandy beach and not the rocky shoreline he had seen during some of his explorations. 

Fighting the tiller, he was able to keep what he presumed to be a steady course toward the island.  The rain blinded him and tension caused the pain in his leg to redouble itself.  He felt, rather than heard the sail give way and he knew he was at the mercy of the buffeting waves.   Still, he kept a steady grip on the tiller, hoping to keep the rudder long enough to get to shore.  Remotely, he wondered at his almost obsessive need to return here this day because somehow he knew that he wasn’t going to be able to keep that old sextant with its inscription, or the still intact captain’s watch.  Watch!!   That brought his mind to a terrifying thought.  The timepiece!!  He always stowed it in a tiny cabinet beneath his seat when he was diving, feeling the need to always have it with him. 

While still grasping on the bucking tiller with one hand, Lee reached below him and groped.  The cabinet was still closed, but water was coming in the boat quickly.   He had to get to land and find shelter.   Then he wondered just why he continued to protect the damned watch.  He knew his place was now here—in his past.  Right now, the most important thing was to preserve his life.  That too, gave him pause.  Would his life here, change what his life had been, indeed, what others lives had been—would be—in the future?   Lee shook his head, feeling he was confusing himself.  He needed to concentrate on the here and now. 

Suddenly, he saw rocks looming ahead of him to his left and he jerked the tiller to force the craft starboard.  The sailboat resisted and slammed along the side of a tide-smoothed rock.  Lee felt the port side of his beloved sailboat caving in, the waves hurtling her over and throwing him out into the boiling surf.   He took a breath and dove under the wave that was reaching to claim him as its own.

 

 

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The pen dropped and then rolled to the side of the desk.  Nelson gazed at the number on which the red point had landed and made its mark.   1825.   Not too far into the Mexican period of Spanish California.   Still, he had determined to let fate determine this one last jump. 

Harriman picked up the mike without saying a word to Starke.  “Chip,” he began, knowing that the XO was on duty in the control room. 

“Yes, Admiral,” Morton’s voice replied quickly.

“Ready us for one more jump.”

“Aye, sir.”  And the orders came over the intercom. 

Nelson had the timepiece in its cradle in front of him, and began setting the little control stem.  July 4, 1825.   Then he pressed the stem.  There was the jolt of transfer, the sub shuddered slightly and then it was still.    He picked up the mike again.   “Chip, secure the boat.  I’ll be right up.”

“Aye, aye, Admiral.”

“July 4th, Harry?” Starke asked.

Nelson only shrugged.   “As good a day in this year as any other.”

“I guess it is.”  Starke followed him out the door. 

They entered the control room and saw the turgid water boiling against the observation windows.   “Storm?” he asked, surprised. 

“Yes, sir.  We’re taking her down to a hundred feet and will wait it out.”

“Kowalski, you watch for any readings,” he told the sonar man. 

“Yes, sir.  Already begun.  I did pick up some little brief blip, but it hasn’t reappeared.”

Nelson was immediately intrigued.  That was more than they had had in any of the other jumps.  “How brief?”

“A single ping that I would have missed had I not been watching the screen closely.  That’s how faint it was.”

“Did you mark its position?” 

“Not accurately, sir.  It came and went so fast, I wasn’t able to get a pinpoint reading.   It appeared to be on the ocean floor, though.   Shallow though.  Really hard to tell for sure, Admiral.”

“Hmmm,” Nelson murmured.   He hadn’t thought of the possibility of Lee being transferred into the ocean, but it was certainly possible.   Hopefully if that had happened, he had been close to shore.  Lee was a strong swimmer.   When this storm let up, he determined that this time he would go ashore with Rojas and Morales.  This time they would try Los Angeles, since it was a bigger sized pueblo.

It took several hours before Chip felt it was safe enough to surface.  Even then the wind was still gusting fitfully, blowing spray into their faces.  The afternoon sun was weak but the lookouts could see hints of golden blue skies to the south.   “Break out a skiff,” Nelson ordered.  “Lt. Rojas?” he turned to the young man beside him.

“Sir?”

“I am coming with you.  What would you suggest, based on your previous experiences, that I wear?”

“Sir, I think you could wear the outfit that Seaman Morales wore the last time, since you two are close in size.  It is a tradesman’s costume, if you don’t mind that and the hat will hide your hair color in case the people during this time here in Los Angeles have a fear of foreigners,” Rojas replied. 

“And Ned?” Nelson asked, referring to Morales.

“We had a couple of extra sets of peon’s clothes, sir.”

Nelson nodded.  “Good.  I would like to get underway as soon as possible.  It would be better, I think, to go in under the cover of the tail-end of this storm.”

“Commander,” he continued as Chip came topside to join him. “When we leave, I want you to stand off one of the islands between here and Santa Barbara.   If possible try to find where that signal came from.   We will have communicators.”

“Aye, sir,” Chip replied.  “I’ll go and have the skiff made ready for the landing party.”

Harriman nodded.  When Chip and Rojas had left, Starke joined him.  “Do you think it really wise to go with them, Harry?”

“Maybe not, Jiggs, but if this is the last stopover, I want to see it for myself—and I want to be able to tell myself that we did all we could do.  I want Seaview to make readings and take samples before we return to our day, as well.  I won’t be able to publicize them, but I will be able to use the readings to satisfy myself and show me where I need to concentrate my conservation and ecological work.”

Starke knew that his colleague was covering up his emotions with his bantering, but that was all right, too.  He just grunted his agreement and continued to watch the scudding clouds above them and the distant line of land starboard. 

“I had better get ready myself,” Nelson said and went below.  Within an hour the small party had set out in the skiff, all three men paddling toward the distant shore.

In the skiff, Nelson sat quietly, watching the distant, cloud enshrouded shoreline become more distinct and detailed as they closed the distance.   The two Hispanic crewmen were quietly efficient.  “Lieutenant, I will leave all the talking to you as my Spanish skills extend mainly to understanding, not speaking.”  He held the wide-brimmed straw hat with one hand as an errant gust of wind tried to snatch it from his head.

“Admiral, what if we have to identify ourselves?” Rojas asked. 

Nelson thought a moment and then it occurred to him.  “Just use my name.  They might think I am related to Horatio Nelson who beat the French forces in the Battle of Trafalger.”

“Sounds good, Admiral.  I hope we are successful this time.”

Harriman didn’t answer, he could only wonder if this last attempt, this thrown to the winds effort would have greater success than the others.   With a sigh, he continued to watch the shoreline come closer and closer.   Where the hell are you, Lee Crane?

 

 

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Zorro mounted Tornado and rode out into the remnants of the dying storm toward San Pedro.  A half-hearted growl of thunder sounded behind him, and a strong breeze tried to whip his hat away, but he continued on.  It would be dark in only four or five hours and that time was precious if anyone could be coaxed to go out into the ocean toward Santa Rosa Island to look for Lee.  He rode into the small port town along a lesser-used, narrow road parallel to the main road leading to the docks.  He quickly reached the barn-like structure that served as the Costa’s fish house.  It was here they cleaned, salted and packed the fish in heavy barrels for the large ships that came calling.  Here the local cooks came to buy some of the fresher catches for their kitchens.  

There was no activity outside and it was dim inside.  No one was working since no boats would go out in this storm.  There was a small amount of activity at the end of the building where boats were built and repaired.  He approached in the shadows and saw Luis Costa overseeing a few workers repairing an older boat. 

“Señor,” Zorro said softly as he drew closer. 

Costa whirled around in surprise.  “Zorro!”  Then he quickly recovered.  “Why are you here, señor?”

“A friend of mine is in trouble, I am afraid, and he probably needs your help.”

“Who, Señor Zorro?”

“The American captain.  I rescued him from the former comandante, but this time my expertise will not help him.”

“He went out this morning and hasn’t returned,” Costa commented.  “I hope he took refuge on one of the islands.”

Zorro nodded.  “But perhaps there is time to take your boat and go check.  I happen to know where he has been sailing recently.”

Costa hesitated a moment, then nodded.  “Yes, it has calmed enough to go out.   Where is this place?”

“Near Santa Rosa Island,” Zorro informed him. 

“Even though it is late, we should go.  Will you accompany us?”

This time Zorro hesitated, but he trusted Luis and was extremely anxious about Lee.  “Yes.”

The door burst open and one of the other Costa brothers dashed toward Luis.  Zorro melted back into the shadows. 

“What is it, José?” Luis asked. 

“There are strangers asking about an Americano.  I did not know if they were friends or enemies of Capitán Crane, but told them you would be able to help them.  They seemed most interested in him,” José explained. 

Zorro thought about that, along with the information that Garcia had given him earlier about the arrival of a new comandante.   This was worth waiting to find out more. 

“They are on their way here?” Luis asked.

“Sí, Luis.  They were not far behind.”   And indeed, the door opened and three men entered.  Zorro studied them as they approached.  There was one, slightly shorter, dressed as a shopkeeper, another as a very poor peon.  The one in the front of the group, a vaquero by the look of him, seemed to be the leader, or at least the spokesman.  The stranger smiled and began speaking even before he reached Luis and his brother.  There was something, though, that seemed familiar about the man, even as he realized that the vaquero was from someplace far from here.  But what was familiar about him?  Definitely if a vaquero, he was in charge of others.  Maybe a head vaquero?  Why such a diverse group?

Then Zorro focused on the man at his side, the merchant, who was watching and listening.  He wondered why he had suddenly been drawn to a non-descript tradesman, if that was what he really was.   Suddenly it dawned on him—none of these people were what they appeared to be.  They didn’t seem totally comfortable in their clothing, as though these were just disguises.

“Señor, we were directed to you because we were told you could help us find a friend of ours,” the vaquero said.

“Who are you and why would an Americano be your friend?” Luis asked bluntly.

Zorro knew the fisherman had come to like Lee Crane in a sort of solicitous, big brother sort of way.  Luis saw the capitán as an equal, and yet a somewhat misguided sibling.  He had admired Lee’s boat, was in awe of the American’s skills with it and yet shook his head over Lee’s constant trips out on the ocean.  Zorro knew that Luis especially saw the diving excursions as lunacy, but he had never tried to dissuade Lee, only wishing his friend God speed each time the Americano left the harbor.   Luis was being very protective right now, almost bristling at the possible implications of these men looking for his friend.  Zorro wasn’t sure that there was time for this, but he would wait for another minute or two. 

The vaquero hesitated slightly.   The merchant, or rather the man in the storekeeper’s guise lightly touched the spokesman on the arm and murmured something almost too soft to hear.  But hear it Zorro did, and realized it was English.  This then; the merchant, not the vaquero, was the leader of the group.  The glimpse Zorro got when the man’s hat slipped back a little was that of someone with ruddy complexion and sky blue eyes.  The man was trying very hard not to call attention to himself.  Why?  Perhaps it was because he was really an American who had recruited his companions to help him find Lee Crane.  That would mean then that….  

With the signal, the vaquero spoke.  “I am Miguel Rojas, this is Jorge Morales,” he said, pointing to himself and then to the man in peon’s clothing.  “And this is…”

“Admiral Harriman Nelson, I presume,” Zorro said in perfect English, divorcing himself from the shadows like a dark ghost to stand in front of the strangers. 

 

 

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