Fox Hunt

 

 

 

Chapter 10

 

Night and Day 3

 

 

 

 Zorro traveled several miles at a hard gallop before even looking down to see what damage Wheeler had done to him.  A throbbing pain radiated up his leg with each stride that Tejas took.  He was not surprised to see the blood splattered on the horses’ belly behind the stirrup, but what did surprise him was the hole in his boot just about halfway between the toe and the ankle.  It seemed incredible to him that such a wound could bleed so profusely and cause such pain.   He remembered his class in Spain that dealt in the medical arts.  Bleeding patients was still the norm for relieving many ills.  After what had happened to his father, Zorro wondered about that.  His father had certainly not felt better; indeed he had almost died.  And his own wound?  So much bleeding!  Zorro jerked back to the present.  Such a small wound, but undoubtedly, if something wasn’t done, he, too, could die and without the benefit of someone nearby to comfort him.  His father had lived because he had help.  But he had only himself.             

Realizing he would have to stop soon and bind up his foot, he was also uncertain if anyone at the inn, knowing he had been wounded, was following him.  Getting as much distance between himself and the way station was the important thing right now.  That and getting home.  He had to get home.  It was like the beat of the horse’s hooves, the throbbing beat of his heart; each stride seemed to be chanting, “home, home, home.”  And it distracted him from anything else at the moment.          

It was only a short while later that Zorro heard the sounds of pursuit. Knowing that a long chase would only be advantageous to his pursuers, he pulled off to the side of the rode.  In the gloom that followed the setting of the sun, the outlaw and his horse stood statue still, hoping for anonymity. The rushing group almost completely passed by before one of the pursuers noticed him by the side of the road and alerted the others.  Zorro counted half dozen men.        

With a grim smile on his lips, he drew his sword and urged Tejas into the melee as the men swung their horses around.  Again, the agility he possessed allowed him to disarm and unhorse his first opponent within seconds.  Another opportunist found his sword quivering point down in the ground twelve feet away.  Zorro’s fist sent the man sprawling into the dust after his sword. Despite the incessant, throbbing pain, the outlaw guided Tejas closer to his enemies with his knees and with the point of his sword, relieved one of the vaqueros of his pistol.  “Señores, which one of you chooses to feel the ball from this pistol?  Drop your weapons,” he ordered.  In answer, one of the other vaqueros tried to attack from Zorro’s left side.  Swiveling in the saddle, the injured man quickly aimed and shot his attacker, breaking the man’s arm.  And before the other three could move, Zorro dropped the pistol and held his sword at the throat of the nearest man.           

“Señores, I am very serious.  Do not force me to injure anyone else.  Drop your weapons,” he ordered again.  The remaining two men complied.  “Now dismount and do not try to reach for any of the pistols, this horse is very quick and so am I.”  Again there was instant compliance.  “Gather up your injured compadres and start walking back to the inn.”           

With shouts and the flat of his blade, he scattered the horses.  Wearily, he watched the men walk slowly north for a few minutes, then he reached down and adjusted the stirrups that he had not had time to previously deal with.  Gingerly, he stuck his injured foot in and rested the heel on the thin strip of metal.  His boot was slippery, but he managed to get as comfortable as possible, then he turned and headed toward Los Angeles once again.                       

The dusk deepened to a heavy darkness, unrelieved by any moonlight, and still Tejas galloped his easy gait.  Zorro assumed he was well away from his pursuers and since he had not heard any others it would be safe to stop and examine the injured foot.  It was imperative that he do something or he would die before he ever got anywhere near home.  Somehow the last thought struck him as almost ludicrous.  ‘Here lies Zorro, dead from a ball in the foot.’  He almost laughed out loud at the thought, but it spurred him to the action he needed to take. 

Pulling the horse off the roadway where he would not be seen, he gingerly began to ease himself out of the saddle.  Pulling his feet out of the stirrups, he swung his injured foot over Tejas’ withers and slid off the horse, Indian style. When he tried to put any weight at all on the foot, the throbbing of before became knife sharp pains racing up his leg.  Grasping the saddle, Zorro waited for the pain to subside.  In chagrin, he realized that the foot was also broken.  He thought of several applicable curses in a variety of European languages, but such were useless right now.  He had to do something.            

Hobbling to a nearby rock, the injured man sat down and gazed at his ravaged extremity.  Gritting his teeth, Zorro tried to pull his boot off, but had no success.  The abused tissue had swollen and made it impossible for him to get it off.  Pulling out his knife, he sawed at the leather.  It was very awkward and painful work, and as he continued, the sweat gathered under his mask and trickled down the back of his neck.  Finally, the boot leather parted.  Laying the knife aside and biting his lip, Zorro yanked the boot the rest of the way off, and was appalled at the amount of blood he had lost.  The sock and trousers were soaked up past his ankle.           

By the moonlight, he used his sword to cut a strip from his banda and then he bound the injured foot as tightly as he dared.  His breath hissed through gritted teeth.  Some of the torments of hell must feel like this, he thought grimly. Fortunately in his tenure as Zorro, he had never incurred anything much more serious than bruises, cuts and scrapes.  Wryly, he felt that he would have quit this business a long time ago if he had been injured like this more than once.          

Tejas had wandered away to graze.  Zorro whistled softly and the gelding came to him.  Just as Tejas reached him, the outlaw heard the staccato sound of hoof beats coming up the highway.  Putting his hand over the horse’s nose to keep him quiet, Zorro waited until the sound receded in the distance.  It was very possible that he had been right in his suspicions, at least one other person may be following him, a peon most likely.  The horse sounded to be a workhouse, its steps slow and plodding.           

Waiting until well after the hoof beats had been swallowed up in the darkness, Zorro hung on the saddle with both hands, again regretting that he hadn’t stolen a decent Californiano saddle with a saddle horn.  Using his left foot to push off the ground, he pulled his body all the way across the saddle before swinging his right leg over the horse’s flank.  While he was low in the saddle, he took the opportunity to readjust the stirrups.  At least this was an advantage with this puny thing; you couldn’t make that kind of an adjustment with one of the heavy western saddles.  As he sat up, a quick wave of dizziness swept over him, and he waited a moment for it to pass.  Zorro gingerly placed his foot in the stirrup, and finding it much more comfortable than before, he slowly made his way back toward the highway.  Usually only bandits used the roadway this late at night and he thought with grim humor, that he wouldn’t meet any.            

Zorro tried to work his horse into a gait that wouldn’t jar his foot too much.  A walk was the best for his injury, but too slow to suit his purpose of getting to Los Angeles tonight.  A trot was pure agony.  A slow gallop was the best he could do.  Tejas had a smooth rolling cantor, which he had been bred for, and it was one of the reasons he liked the palomino gelding for long travel.          

Zorro continued for several more miles before he had to drop to a walk.  In the moonlight, he noticed that blood had soaked through the makeshift bandage.  The pistol ball not only damaged a bone, but a large enough blood vessel that even the tightly tied bandage couldn’t completely stop all of the bleeding.  In the back of his mind, he still felt somewhat disgusted that such a seemingly insignificant wound could threaten to incapacitate him so easily.            

Remembering the lone horseman he had heard earlier, Zorro decided to ride parallel to the highway.  Even though the way would be rougher, it made him nervous to be on such an open road.  Another hour of slowly walking just barely within sight of the highway and Zorro tried the canter again.  This succeeded for several miles until he got complacent and relaxed in the saddle. When the horse stumbled slightly, Zorro slid over the gelding’s head and landed on his back with enough force to black out temporarily. Tejas nuzzled the outlaw, but when his master didn’t move, he wandered away to graze.

Zorro woke up an hour or so later, stiff and cold.  Confused, he wondered what he was doing on the ground, and then remembering where he was, groaned.  Not only did his foot ache, but his shoulder did, too.  He remembered that the vaquero’s shot had grazed his arm, and he gingerly felt the wound.   With a relieved sigh, he noted that it was not bleeding and was only superficial.  

Then he checked his other injury.  It was still bleeding; certainly not as much as before, but steadily. Zorro whistled for the gelding and could hear its approach.  Jerking what was left of his banda from around his waist, he wrapped it around the already existing bandage.   It would also serve to provide a cushion in the stirrup.          

Slowly in the darkness of the horse’s shadow, Zorro groped for the reins and pulled Tejas’ head down towards him.  Reaching around the horse’s neck, he pulled himself to a standing position.  Tejas accommodated him by jerking his head up as Zorro knew he would most likely do.   Again, he felt very light-headed.  The horse seemed to be dancing away from him, but under his hands, he could tell that he wasn’t.  Closing his eyes against the dizziness, Zorro went through the same mounting procedure as before, but it seemed to take twice as long. I must not allow myself to fall off again, he thought in fierce determination.           

In dismay, he realized that he would not make it to his hacienda by morning, but he hoped he would be close.  Remotely, he remembered again the time when his father had been shot and his lucidity seemed to waver between reality and semi-consciousness.  Father had hallucinated and gone into a delirious state, and Zorro wondered, distantly, if that was happening to him now.  

It was the very quietest time of the early morning hours.  The time several hours before dawn.  Can’t stop.  Have to keep going...get home, were the thoughts that kept flowing into his head, overpowering every other thought.  The vertigo passed and he nudged Tejas into a walk and then into the slow, rolling cantor of before.   Soon, he realized, in his wavering lucidity, he would have to leave the highway as well.   He could not be found near the El Camino Real.

           

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Bernardo had come across a group of six men, three of whom were being helped by their comrades.  He couldn’t help but smile at their discomfiture.  They admonished him not to try to capture Zorro, because the fox still had teeth.  It was hard to keep a straight face while trying to convey that he was deaf and mute.  Using signs, one of them maintained Zorro couldn’t have been injured, while the others said that even injured, the man was like a devil.  Shrugging his shoulders, the manservant finally continued down the King’s Highway.            

Some time later, Bernardo reached a point where he knew that it would be impossible to find Zorro’s trail.  His patrón had probably left the highway so as not to be seen.  Realistically, he even surmised that he might have ridden right past Zorro and not even realized it.  Don Diego would have no idea that he was looking for him.  Even though the moon had risen and was almost in its third quarter, Bernardo still didn’t have enough light to see well that far off the highway, even if he had been an experienced tracker.  In despair, he went back down the road a few miles and looked again, but found no more evidence.  The manservant wished now more than he ever had before, that he had a voice so he could call for Zorro.   All he could do now was find a place near the road and wait for dawn.  And pray.

            

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Don Alejandro de la Vega was enjoying the cool air on the patio of his hacienda when he heard the approach of a horseman.   Remotely, he wondered if it could be Diego.  His son was due back from Monterey any day now, and Alejandro looked forward to seeing him again.  The hacienda became a very large and lonely place when Diego was gone and sometimes he wondered how he had stood the loneliness when his son had been away in Spain for over three years.  The hacendado rose in eager anticipation.  When the horseman opened the gate, Alejandro was disappointed to see that it was only a lancer from the cuartel.  “Good evening, Private,” Alejandro greeted him amiably.  “What can I do for you?”          

“Don Alejandro, I was sent by Lt. Lopez to give you a message that arrived on the late afternoon stage.”           

Alejandro was puzzled.  On the stage? I wonder if Diego could have been delayed and is sending me a message?  He nodded to the waiting lancer to continue.          

“The message came from the station master at the way station of Santo Cristobel,” the lancer rehearsed.  “A horse with your brand was found near there this morning, riderless and without saddle.  It appeared to have been ridden hard, but they wanted to assure you that it is being well taken care.  They will send it with the next stage tomorrow and wanted you to know so you can get the horse at the pueblo tomorrow evening.”          

Alejandro blanched.   “Corporal, was it a palomino gelding?”           

The lancer just shrugged.  Patrón, I do not know.  Here is the actual message they sent.”  The corporal handed him a paper.           

Alejandro’s shoulders slumped.  Apparently from the wording of the message, the horse found was a blooded horse of fine quality. Tejas, he thought uneasily.  Something has happened to Diego.          

The soldier interrupted his thoughts.  Patrón, is there anything else I can do?”          

Alejandro thought furiously for a moment.  He wanted to jump in all directions at once, but one thing he had learned from his son since Diego had returned from Spain, was the virtue of taking a moment to think things out.  Apparently that was a trait Diego had inherited from his deceased wife, certainly not him.  “Yes, Corporal,” he answered the lancer.  “Wait a few minutes and I will accompany you back into the pueblo.”         

“Sí, patrón,” the soldier said.  “I will wait outside the gate.”           

What could have happened?  Alejandro thought in anguish.  May the Saints protect you, my son.  “Miguel!”  Alejandro shouted.  “Miguel!!”           

“Sí, Don Alejandro,” the peon heard the anxiety in his patrón’s voice and came running.           

“Saddle the fastest horse we have,” he explained to the servant.  “I am going into the cuartel with the lancer.  And send Vasquez to me also.”            

“Sí, patrón,” Miguel answered, and he ran to do Don Alejandro’s bidding.  Vasquez appeared in the patio in less than three minutes.  Miguel, hearing the urgency in Alejandro’s voice, had summoned the vaquero first.          

“You sent for me, Don Alejandro?”  Vasquez inquired.           

“Sí, Vasquez,” Alejandro said.  “At the very first light of dawn, I want you to go to the way station Santo Cristobel.  A message came on this evening’s stage that my son’s horse had been found near there.  I want you to go there and start a search in the area for Diego, if he has not been found by the time you get there.  You may take as many vaqueros as you need or hire some to help you at Santo Cristobel.  I leave that to you, just find my son!”          

Vasquez was shocked.  Don Diego, while not a physically active young man, nevertheless was pleasant to be around and he liked him.  “Sí, patrón,” he answered.  “I will prepare now and ride for Los Angeles tonight.  It will save some time.”  As he started to leave, he turned back to Don Alejandro.  “Patron, I know that God will watch out for Don Diego.”          

“Gracias, Vasquez,” Alejandro said.           

A short while later, he and the lancer were on their way to the pueblo.  Vasquez and his men weren’t very far behind.

           

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Paulo Wheeler woke up about midnight feeling as though his jaw had been totally broken off.  The innkeeper brought him a cup of wine and he groaned when he moved his jaw, but realized it was badly bruised, not broken.  His arm, too, had been bandaged.  “Where is my vaquero?” he asked the innkeeper gruffly.           

“He is down in the dining area, Don Paulo,” the innkeeper answered.           

Wheeler got up and looked out the window into the darkness.          

“Señor, you have been unconscious for almost eight hours,” the innkeeper explained.           

“That devil can swing his fist,” Wheeler touched the jaw.  It was swollen and probably sported a big bruise.  “Tell me, innkeeper, even though I think I already know the answer; did my shot hit that cursed Zorro?”          

“Sí, señor,” the innkeeper answered, noncommittally, having heard of this man’s temper from the vaquero in the room below.  “There was blood in the dust. But Zorro ran off your horses and fled down the King’s Highway toward Los Angeles.”           

“Good, good,” he gloated. “No matter about the horses.” He began to laugh, it was an evil thing starting low and ending higher and shriller.  He finally paused to get breath.  “But I’ll wager that El Zorro is cursing the day he tried to interfere with Paulo Wheeler.  Send my vaquero up to my room immediately.”           

A short while later the vaquero knocked on the door and entered.  José reported the loss of the horses also, which Wheeler dismissed with a wave of his hand.  “It is a little matter at present.  We will go to Los Angeles on the stage this morning.  If that cursed Zorro dies from his wound, then his body will be found soon enough.  If not, then we will hear of a citizen with injuries.  This dog; this thorn in my flesh is at least a vaquero, but most likely a caballero.  We will hear of it.  Be assured we will hear,” Wheeler said in a soft deadly voice.  “And then I will strike down my enemy with swiftness.  My own hand will strip the life from this hell-spawned fox.  My own ears will hear him beg for mercy.”  And again he laughed maniacally, picturing the scene of his enemy’s demise.

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven
Chapter One
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