A Matter of Time

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 7

 

 

His vision cleared and Harriman looked out of the observation windows.  Everything seemed as before.  The sky was blue and almost cloudless and the sea was calm.  “Injury and damage report, Mr. Morton?”

Morton called over the intercom for both.  “No structural damage,” came the answer after a moment to check systems on the computer.  After several more moments, it became apparent that the uncomfortable effects were manifestations of a temporal displacement or the attempt at one. 

Nelson strode into the hub of the control room with Starke right behind him.  “Any indication of when we are, Chip?” he asked.  He had attempted to set the watch for a hundred thousand years in the past.  It would at least be easier to check to see if they had actually gone anywhere . . . or rather any-when.

“No sir, although the instruments are picking up more activity in the ocean,” the executive officer reported.   “And there is absolutely no radio, or any other kind of activity, on the airwaves, sir.”  He was smiling his pleasure. 

It probably echoed what he was feeling, Harriman thought.   “Sonar readings of the ocean floor, Kowalski.”

“Working on it, Admiral,” the rating reported, almost immediately.  “From what I have seen so far, it would appear that you did it, sir.  We are in the past.”  He, too, was grinning.   “The contours of the ocean floor are different as are the coastline features I can make out.”

“You did it, Harriman.  You did it,” Starke said, his voice hushed in awe.   He turned and looked outside the observation windows.  The part of the window that was underwater showed shadowy distant objects slightly more exotic, perhaps larger than he was used to seeing in his own time.  Several of those objects came closer.  Sharks.  And there were differences!

Nelson could only nod.  “Let’s crack the hatch topside.  I need a breath of fresh air.”  Several of the men rushed to do his bidding and soon Nelson and Starke were standing on the conning tower breathing in air untainted by factory emissions or other pollutants. 

“My congratulations,” Starke said softly as he watched his friend light up a cigarette with slightly trembling fingers. 

“Thanks, Jiggs, but I suspect that we have just done the easy part.  Now we have to figure where to look.”

Starke didn’t bother to correct Nelson’s use of the word ‘where.’   They both knew what was ahead of them.  What Starke was worried about was whether they could figure out the answer before the funds ran out.  If not?  Mentally shaking his head, Starke decided not to even go down that path right now.  If anyone could find the proverbial needle in a haystack, it would be Harriman.

 

 

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Alejandro and Bernardo had escorted Diego up the steps to the secret room and practically forced him to the bed to rest while they gathered belongings for a trip.   Despite his best efforts, Diego was unable to stay awake.  Alejandro announced, “I think it would be wise if we left now.”   His voice sounded odd, almost fearful and Lee could only think that the old don had figured out the same thing that he had. 

“We?” Lee asked, not having heard the older man say he was going. 

“Yes, I have decided, as I had discussed with Diego several days ago, to go with him to Santa Barbara to check out the new bulls and stallions,” said Alejandro with a tight smile.  “We have done this before, so it is not unknown.”

At Bernardo’s touch, Diego stirred and sat up, groggy, not only from the injury, but also from lack of sleep.  He was soon on his feet, though, standing quietly while Bernardo buttoned on a clean shirt.  He reached for his vest, but the mozo motioned for him to sit down and allow him to do the work.  The vest came next, then Bernardo brought out an appropriate pair of calzoneros, easily slipped on because the buttons were all undone.  The outer jacket was last and then Bernardo pulled on the boots. 

“Go down and tell the servants to quickly pack pouches food for us,” Alejandro finally said to the manservant.  “And to saddle horses for three of us.”

“Four of us.  These hats hide facial features and if there are patrols out, it would be better for me to be with your party rather than alone,” Lee said matter-of-factly.  There was another reason for his strong suggestion.  Somehow, he didn’t think they were going to get away so easily.

Alejandro’s countenance grew stormy again.  “And being caught with Diego would further implicate him.” 

“True,” said Crane, “Unless you had the right alibi.  And I believe I do.”

“Captain, when Diego said you should accompany us to Santa Barbara, I thought that meant you would be joining us later, not ride with us.” 

“You will have to trust me on this one, Don Alejandro.  I think it will be much better this way than if I was wandering alone in the wilderness, which I would be.  I don’t know your country.”

Diego, like his father, didn’t like the idea of Lee coming with from the hacienda.  It would bring more attention to the American, but the captain had brought out a very viable concern.   He wondered just what Lee’s plan was, and was uncomfortable with unknown factors, but right now he was just too tired and their time was too tight to ask.   “He’s right, Father,” Diego said as the two men seemed to be trying to stare each other down.  The young don could see the captain’s command presence in his bearing as well as in his assertive and self-confident words.  “Lee has been sequestered for almost a month and unable to become familiar with our area.  We could give directions that are totally familiar to us, but would be meaningless to him."

“Harumph,” grumbled the older man, before he threw up his hands.  “All right.”

“By the way, Don Alejandro, you might want to look like you have been up and freshly dressed for this trip,” Lee suggested as Bernardo turned to leave.  “And I will do the same.”

The hacendado gazed at his rumpled and stained clothing and shook his head at his oversight.   He left the room and the two men heard the door of his bedroom open and then close.  Lee quickly shaved and then looked into Diego’s wardrobe.  “Any of this something you haven’t worn for a while?” he asked. 

Diego pointed out a suit that was not quite as flashy as what he was wearing, but sufficiently dashing enough to let Lee pass as a caballero.  That, too, would fit with what he had in mind.  Despite his frustration with all the buttons on the pants, Crane was soon dressed. 

Even as Diego stood in front of the mirror, they heard Alejandro’s door open again.  The don joined them and he and Diego hastily put together a story that would also explain Lee’s presence.  Then Alejandro left again to make sure everything was ready.  Diego smiled as he brushed his hair left-handed.   “So far we have been fortunate,” he said, as he finished and put the brush down. 

“I hope it continues,” Lee murmured, feeling the pinch of anxiety that he experienced whenever he began a mission.  A mission….   Somehow, he felt that this was indeed a mission; no less important than any he had done for the ONI.  He only hoped that he was reading the signs and interpreting them correctly.  Everything was so foreign and his own knowledge so limited.  However, he would trust to luck and hope that his efforts would negate what his carelessness had done. 

“Shall we go, Captain?”

“Yes.”  Lee opened the bedroom door and watched as Diego made his way out and toward the head of the stairs.  While his steps were more deliberate, he seemed sure and confident and Lee’s estimation of the young rancher rose higher. 

Don Alejandro was waiting.  “Ah, Diego, Leandro,” he said in a pleasant tone of voice.  “The horses are ready and the day could not be more perfect.  Come, before it becomes too hot.  We should be able to get to Don Ari’s hacienda before mid-afternoon if we start now.” 

Lee smiled inwardly.  Their hastily prearranged show for the servants was seemingly going off smoothly.  And he thought Don Alejandro’s rendition of the admiral’s first name was a nice touch as well.  “Uncle will be awaiting your arrival,” he said with a slight smile.

They mounted, Diego still able to continue the pretense that nothing was wrong and then rode along the trail that would first take them toward the pueblo and then north to Santa Barbara.  Ironic, Lee thought, that they were going toward his home, but not for another hundred and sixty years.   It was dry, but not yet hot, even though the sun had been up for a couple of hours.  The air was filled with sounds that carried far beyond what they would have in his day, even if they could have been heard over all of the modern hubbub.  The tiny rustle of ground squirrels was only slightly muted by the soft clopping steps of the horses’ hooves on the dusty trail.  A hawk called above them, another seemed to answer from far off.  Still the sounds of the hacienda behind them came to his ears—the singing of the cook, the protest of the horses left behind, a rooster crowing too late to serve any purpose other than his own vanity.  The leather gear creaked and the bits jangled. 

Crane had, at times, stood in the observation room of the Seaview and listened to the sounds the Gray Lady made during her more quiet moments and it sometimes seemed he could almost follow them along the lines of the boat to the next sound and the next, all the way to the mighty propulsion units that allowed the sub to speed through the water.  It almost seemed that way now, except these were sounds he had never really known before.  A fly buzzed by his ear with startling clarity and then flew ahead to pester his gelding.   

Still they continued, now in a trot, until they had left all the sounds of the casa grande behind them.   Just as the sounds of the pueblo began to come to their ears, they approached the road that would lead toward Santa Barbara.  When they turned onto the more northerly route, they saw their way blocked by a contingent of eight soldiers, Capitán Ruiz at their head. 

“Going visiting, Don Alejandro?” Ruiz asked with a pleased smirk, urging his mount toward them.

“As a matter of fact, we are, Comandante,” Alejandro said easily.  Lee could tell from beneath his lowered hat brim, though, that the older man was nervous.  “I have been planning for some time to go to Santa Barbara and check out several new stallions and bulls.  If you will let us pass, señor.”

Ruiz shook his head.  “And you, Don Diego, you do not usually go on these buying excursions.”

Diego’s palomino snorted at the approach of the large military stallion.  “Usually, you are right, Capitán,” Diego said, his voice pleasant, but his eyes hard.  “However, this time I decided to go and visit some friends as well as help my father choose new breeding stock.”

Ruiz was now almost side-by-side with Diego.  The young don noticed how uncomfortable Sgt. Garcia appeared and wondered how they would get out of this one.  He had a ready lie to tell, but no one to back it up.  Lee had said something about trusting him with an idea, but somehow, Diego figured it would entail the young American exposing himself to recapture. 

“Come now, Don Diego,” Ruiz said sarcastically.  “I can understand the visiting part, but helping your father?”  He was now right next to the hacendado by now.  “It couldn’t be because you have been doing something traitorous, would it, and you were trying to run from the consequences?”  Then like the strike of a snake, he reached out and punched Diego in the chest. 

Diego frowned, but didn’t flinch.  “Capitán, what cause have you to treat me this way?” 

Without saying anything more, Ruiz grabbed Diego’s right arm. 

Diego hissed in sudden pain, but still didn’t pull away.  “Unhand me, Comandante,” he said quietly.

Lee continued to be impressed, even while feeling the anxiety build.  If he hadn’t come to know Diego well the past four weeks, he would not have caught that slight change of facial expression.  Alejandro started to protest, but Ruiz waved him off.

“Something wrong with your arm, Diego?” Ruiz asked, his voice also snakelike.   He loosened his grip, then clasped higher, tightened his grip for several minutes longer and then suddenly let go.  With a feral smile he pointed to the small stain that now appeared on Diego’s jacket just where his hand had recently gripped.  “I arrest you, Diego de la Vega, for being the bandit, Zorro.”

Diego had been reining left-handed, something not normal for the right-handed man.  Ruiz had apparently realized that too.  The time had come, Lee thought.  He began to chuckle, then he laughed out loud.  Everyone gaped at him, except Ruiz who continued to study Diego, his eyes flint-hard.

Finally as Lee continued to laugh, Ruiz’s steely stare turned to him and his eyes narrowed.  “Who are you and why do you laugh?” he barked.

“Because what you propose is so outrageous,” Lee replied, still laughing.  Even the soldiers, including Sgt. Garcia, were snickering.  “Don Diego is many things, but Zorro?  You are telling a very good joke, señor.”  He slowly pulled his glove from his hand and wiped his eyes as though wiping away tears of mirth.  “Besides, why would a wound that I accidentally inflicted on my friend be reason to accuse him as Zorro?” 

“You inflicted?” Ruiz roared, still staring at Lee.  “What are you talking about?  My patrol reported wounding Zorro last night, noted blood on the ground.  De la Vega stands here wounded.”

“Capitán, I was trying to teach Diego how to shoot the pistols.  He was hopeless,” Lee continued his tale with an apologetic glance at Diego.  “And when I was showing off, I am afraid that I got careless.  But today he said he was well enough to ride back with me to my home in Santa Barbara, so here we are.”   Lee paused and then looked directly into the captain’s eyes.  “He said the atmosphere would be much more conducive to recovery there.”  The last was delivered with a tone of deep sarcasm. 

“You are lying.  You never answered my question!  Who are you?” Ruiz’s face drew even closer and then his breath hissed between his teeth in surprise.  “The Americano!   So now I can arrest all of you!”  He swung around to face Don Alejandro.  “You, Señor Alcalde for harboring a criminal!  Zorro—your son—helped him escape and you have been hiding him since.”

“Don Diego is not Zorro!   Don Alejandro was only doing what was best for his government and his people, Capitán Ruiz.  Something more than you thought of doing when I first appealed to you for help out there in the wilderness,” Lee said, his voice deepening to his more commanding tone.  “He knew that torturing and eventually killing a foreign citizen, especially a high ranking officer like me, might very well lead to hostilities with a country that has great military resources.  Zorro knew that, too.  He left me near the de la Vega hacienda and Don Alejandro and his son took me in and nursed me back to health.”  Lee drew himself up. 

Diego found himself at a loss for words at Crane’s audacity.  What did his new friend have in mind and how would that help them?  Yes, what Ruiz had done to Lee was extreme and uncalled for, but not something that he would be necessarily censured for in Mexico City.  The Mexican government distrusted the young United States and many thought with good reason.   So what Ruiz had done was not totally out of order.  It may have been cruel, but not without merit, at least in the eyes of many of the politicians in Mexico City.  So what was Lee Crane trying to do? 

“I am a Commander in the United States Navy.  Until I was shipwrecked, I was captain of a great vessel with a large complement of men,” Lee declared. 

The American’s voice was one that Diego figured would make any sailor cringe.  Even Garcia and his men were gaping in awe.   It now took on a deadly tone.  

“I am an officer and a gentleman.  You, Capitán Ruiz, are an officer, but you are no gentleman.”   Lee took the glove and slapped Ruiz across the face.  “I demand satisfaction!” he thundered.  “On the field of honor!”

For a moment, even Ruiz couldn’t say a thing.

 

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