Chapter Three - The Campaign Begins
Diego rode through the hills much of the night, his thoughts and emotions bubbling and boiling like a stew in a kettle. The more he rode as Zorro and the more he had to deceive people close to him, the harder it was for him to sort out some of these feelings. He understood the need for El Zorro, but sometimes his alter ego, the Diego that everyone in the pueblo had come to know, was someone he could not abide and wished he could separate from. That strange and ironic thought elicited a short laugh, and pulling up his palomino near a small, peaceful lake, he dismounted.
While the horse rested and grazed, Diego sat by the shore and skipped rocks across the surface of the water, listening in amusement as the bullfrogs dived underwater in surprise. The gentle sound of lapping water and the myriad of night noises had a calming effect on him and allowed for more peaceful reflection. As the first tint of dawn light started creeping across the eastern hills, the young hacendado mounted and headed home. The only regret he had was that General de Silva was going to leave the pueblo with an opinion formed from yesterday's conversation.
Diego showed up for breakfast in the sala, as he usually did, but didn't make any comments about his absence the previous night. His bantering belied a residual tension that Alejandro still felt lurked underneath the surface, but although he guessed the reason, and felt he understood Diego's anguish, he would not press him to talk about it.
After breakfast, Diego excused himself and went into the secret room just off of his bedroom. Changing quickly into the garb of Zorro, he dashed down the stone steps, two and three at a time, and saddling and bridling Tornado, was soon riding on the north bound road toward Santa Barbara.
Pausing on a boulder-strewn ridge overlooking the El Camino Real, Zorro waited for the magistrado's carriage to pass by. When it did, the outlaw followed parallel to the highway along the rise for several miles, unseen by those on the road. He was not exactly sure why he felt compelled to come out this morning, perhaps it was to see his former mentor again, and maybe it was a premonition of danger. But whatever the reason, Zorro had learned over the years that his 'hunches' usually were right in such matters and he had learned not to ignore them.
Coming over a ridge that caused a curve in the highway, he saw several masked men in the middle of the road waiting for the carriage's arrival. As the carriage approached, the driver saw three pistols trained on him, and he quickly brought the horses to a stop. "What is it that you want, señores?" the driver asked nervously.
"It is my understanding that you carry tax revenues to Santa Barbara, and we would like this money. Our pouches are thin from the taxes we have paid and it is only right that we get some of it back," the one in front retorted, waving his pistol.
"There is no tax money," Señor Hernandez protested.
"You lie, Señor Magistrado," the bandit returned and motioned to one of his accomplices to begin searching the carriage. General de Silva was slowly leaning down for something under the seat. "General, if you wish to live, you had better put both hands up where I can see them."
The general complied. In the meantime, Zorro had dismounted and was stealthily making his way down the hillside. When he was near the carriage, he loosed the whip at his side, and flicking his wrist, snapped the end on the arm of the bandit leader, causing him to drop his pistol. The other two brigands turned in shock. "Zorro!" they cried in unison.
Unsheathing his sword, Zorro tossed it to de Silva. "It is my understanding that you are a fair swordsman, General. Let us see," Zorro said laughing. Snapping the whip even as he ran, a second bandit found himself jerked from his horse and on the ground near de Silva. The third bandit swung around from his search of the carriage, took quick aim and fired as Zorro threw himself on the ground, rolling. Leaping up, he grabbed his assailant by the arm and threw him to the ground.
Zorro realized that this man was extremely capable of using his fists, and found himself dodging his opponent's blows as much as the man was dodging his own. Finally, as the bandit came at him, Zorro grabbed the outstretched arm and pulled him close, his free hand catching the man in the stomach in a close-fisted blow. The bandit went down, gasping for air.
Turning, Zorro saw the other two thieves closing in on de Silva and Hernandez with swords drawn. The general was holding them off capably, as Zorro knew he would, but the outlaw felt the odds should be evened a bit more.
"Señores, you are afraid to take me on? You have to engage older men?" Zorro taunted with a laugh.
"Do not speak so lightly of my age or my skills, Señor Zorro," General de Silva said testily.
"My apologies, General," Zorro said, as one of the bandits turned to engage him. "But I needed to say something to even the fight a bit, and apparently it worked," he added with a laugh. "I meant no offense." His opponent made a sweeping slash in the air, which Zorro avoided easily. Ducking under the bandit's outstretched arm, Zorro grabbed the knife from his enemy's waistband and nimbly dodged away from the longer blade.
Jumping back, he waited for the highwayman's next move. Thrust and parry, lunge and dodge, the fight continued, with Zorro occasionally able to reach in with his shorter weapon and score small cuts on the man's arm. Finally the opening the masked man was looking for, occurred and he reached in and with a quick flick of his wrist, disarmed the bandit. The knife held at the man's throat finished the fight.
Looking around, he saw General de Silva standing over his opponent as well, the end of the saber lightly touching the defeated man's jaw. The general was looking at him curiously. Zorro helped him and the driver bind the three bandits and put them on their horses. "I will deliver them to the comandante for you, if you so desire, Magistrado."
Hernandez nodded. "Sí, Señor Zorro, and again I must thank you for coming to our rescue," the magistrado said.
"I sincerely hope that this time, your journey will be safe and uneventful," Zorro told the two men.
"As do I." de Silva's eyes gleamed with pleasure at their victory in the battle. "And, Señor Zorro, again I am indebted to you. Your sword?" De Silva was handing him the saber, great respect showing in his eyes.
Zorro smiled enigmatically and shook his head. "General de Silva, I know that your fine blade was broken in battle with the kidnappers. Keep this poor substitute, I have others."
"Gracias, señor, another debt that I owe you, as I felt that I was not equipped to protect the magistrado, without a blade at my hip."
"Por nada," Zorro commented, handing him the sheath as well. Then he mounted and took the rope connecting the bandit's horses together. With a wave he turned and headed back toward the pueblo.
General de Silva observed the departing outlaw for a moment, before getting back into the carriage with the magistrado and resuming the journey to Santa Barbara.
The next fourteen days were a blur of activity, in which Diego had no time for self-pity, or anything else, including sleep. It began to seem to the beleaguered Zorro, that the new comandante was determined to stamp out even the tiniest hint of crimes, real or imagined, in just a few days.
It began the same day that the outlaw had rescued the magistrado for a second time. Alejandro had returned to the hacienda, incensed at the senseless arrest of several peons and a vaquero.
"What is that man thinking?" the elder de la Vega stormed.
Diego, who had taken the opportunity for an early afternoon nap due to his nocturnal activities of the night before, was curious. "What has Capitán Villagro done to raise your ire so quickly, Father?"
"One peon did not pay enough for his license to sell his wares in the plaza. Another protested the first's arrest. Still another peon was unable to pay for his bottle of wine. The innkeeper was indulgent and was going to let the man bring in the pesos tomorrow, but Villagro was there and had him arrested on the spot. A vaquero had become a little drunk and loud and was arrested as well. They are all going to be whipped publicly just before sundown, this evening. No hearing, no opportunity for payment of fines, nothing! It is a travesty!"
"Calm down, Father, I will go into the pueblo and see what a bit of disturbing of the peace can do to change the disposition of our new comandante," Diego said quietly. He too, was incensed, as he was anytime someone in authority arrogantly chose to be excessive or cruel. "Perhaps he can be made to see reason and be a bit more fair minded."
"Zorro?" Alejandro asked. Diego nodded. "Be careful, I do not like this comandante and his arrogant ways."
"Of course, Father," Diego returned, with a smile.
When Zorro arrived, he saw that each prisoner was going to be whipped individually in the plaza. The first prisoner was dragged out of the cuartel and escorted to the whipping post. A few guards were left inside the cuartel, but most were in the plaza. Probably expecting me, the outlaw thought wryly.
Peering over the edge of the jail roof, he silently waited for the jailer to pass underneath him. When he did, Zorro dropped on the guard's shoulders, dragging him to the ground, immediately putting a hand over the man's mouth to prevent outcry. After the hilt of his knife had rendered the guard unconscious, the outlaw dug for the keys to the cells. He quickly opened the doors and motioned for the prisoners to hide in the stables.
With utmost quiet, Zorro approached the remaining three soldiers in the cuartel from behind and knocked them unconscious in quick succession. It was of great help that the men had been intently watching the impending whipping and were oblivious to the action behind them. One of the peons approached stealthily from the stable.
"Señor Zorro," he whispered. "We will drag these into the cells. Rescue Manuel, por favor." The masked man nodded and after instructing them to escape over the back wall of the cuartel when they were finished, he ran up the stairs to the second story barracks. Climbing onto the roof, he had an excellent view of the plaza. Jumping down to the cuartel wall, Zorro unlimbered his whip. Just as the soldier was drawing back his arm to begin Manuel's punishment, the outlaw did the same and the end of his whip curled around the soldier's upraised arm, jerking him off balance and causing him to drop his whip.
"Comandante, a man who has forgotten to bring enough pesos to pay for his wine does not deserve this kind of punishment, but the man who orders it, does." Zorro leaped down next to Villagro and jerked him close to his body. His knife almost magically found its way into his left hand and under the comandante’s chin.
"I am a fair man, Capitán Villagro, I would suggest that you be the same and I will not have occasion to do more with this knife than threaten you with it," Zorro hissed in the comandante’s ear.
"Sgt. Garcia, cut the prisoner loose," he said, more loudly. Garcia was quick to comply with the outlaw's orders, and the peon ran down a dark street. "The rest of you back up quickly."
Then Zorro whistled and the thundering hooves of the great black stallion, reverberated in the plaza. "Get on the horse, Comandante."
As soon as Villagro had mounted, Zorro swung on behind him, and with a shout, wheeled Tornado around, and galloped away. As soon as he reached the end of the plaza, he gave the capitán a shove and threw him ignominiously into the dust. Zorro's laugh echoed down the dark streets.