It was very late when Don Alejandro arrived at the cuartel. He banged on the closed gate. “I need to see Lt. Lopez, immediately,” he bellowed.
“Patrón,” the guard answered. “It is after ten o’clock. Can you please come back in the morning?”
“No!” shouted Alejandro. “This is urgent. Get Lt. Lopez, immediately!!”
The guard opened the gate to admit him. Lt. Lopez was just coming out of his quarters. “Don Alejandro,” he greeted the older man. “You seem distressed. Please come into the comandante’s office and we can talk privately.”
“Graciás, Lieutenant,” Alejandro followed the comandante into his office, where they both sat down.
Lieutenant Lopez was a fairly young man, in his late twenties, justly proud of the fact that he had risen through the ranks to the position of comandante in such a short time. Lopez attributed it mostly to working hard and to the attention of his patron saint. Many with whom he had worked also attributed it to his ability to balance fairness with justice, whether working with his fellow soldiers or civilians. The lieutenant seemed to know when to administer the full measure of the law and when to use mercy. He also had an instinctive talent for diplomacy, which he saw was going to be needed tonight with Don Alejandro de la Vega.
His sudden promotion had come when the previous comandante had been ordered to take command of the Presidio at San Diego after the comandante in that garrison had been brutally murdered. Capitán Menendez had taken several men with him and Lopez had been left with fewer men than he would have liked, but so far, he had been able to handle things admirably. Rumor had it that the viceroy was planning on making the change permanent. Lopez hoped it was true.
Physically, Ricardo Lopez was of medium height, a couple of inches less than six feet. Through conscientious effort, Lopez kept himself in very good physical condition, and he believed strongly that if a man was going to be a soldier, he must keep himself physically ready for any contingency. Consequently, he expected the men under his command to do the same. Therefore, it had been common of late to see the comandante running his men through all sorts of different drills during the day, from horsemanship to shooting practice. He was even gratified to see that his sergeant participating, even though with less than overwhelming zeal. While wondering how Sergeant Garcia had managed to run this garrison as long as he had, Lopez had to admit that somehow he had and had done quite well. So even though he worked the rotund sergeant as much as he did the other soldiers, he still tried to give the man the respect that a former acting comandante deserved.
The lieutenant’s dark brown eyes took in Don Alejandro’s state of agitation and wondered if the patrón had seen more in the letter that came with the stage than he had. Presumably so. “Don Alejandro, may I assume this is about the letter that came with the stage earlier this evening?” he asked.
“Sí, Comandante,” Alejandro was grateful that Lt. Lopez was taking the time to see him this late in the evening. “From the contents of the letter, I have inferred that something has happened to my son, Diego. The horse described is his palomino, Tejas.”
“I wondered about that, Don Alejandro, but was not sure. You were expecting Don Diego back from Monterey soon?” he asked soothingly.
“Sí, I had been expecting him to arrive any time within a day or two,” Alejandro explained. “He was also with Bernardo, but it was only Diego’s horse that showed up at Santo Cristobel. Lieutenant Lopez, he is my only child,” the old man said with anguish in his voice. “I know you have no children, but try to understand how I feel and how important it is to go and search for him.”
“I think I can understand a little, Don Alejandro,” Lopez told him. “I have very few men, but I can send out a small contingent at first light to search along the King’s Highway, as far as the way station. That is in our jurisdiction. I will lead the lancers myself,” he assured the old man. “I also think it would be best if you not go out with us, patrón. You need to stay here in case word comes on the stage or by courier. Otherwise no one will know where to find you when Don Diego is located.” Lopez felt this was best, especially if young de la Vega was found dead.
Don Alejandro nodded, his shoulders slumping in resignation. Although he felt he should be out looking for Diego too, he realized the lieutenant was right. “Graciás, Lieutenant,” he murmured. “You have no idea how much I appreciate your help. I will take a room at the inn tonight and stay there until I hear something.”
Lopez watched the hacendado walk dejectedly out of his office. He had come to know Don Diego a little since he had been assigned to the cuartel. The young man had always been friendly to him. Diego de la Vega struck him as one of those caballeros who had a natural grace, which didn’t come from physical exertion. The man also had a pleasing personality, even if he was a bit languid and cavalier at times. Young de la Vega had been described to him as a coward, but Lopez didn’t agree. The man simply didn’t like physical confrontations and avoided them whenever possible. Lopez had more than once seen an altercation peacefully ended by the caballero’s eloquent speaking skills, and to Lopez that was not necessarily a sign of cowardice. Not everyone was cut out to be a soldier, he thought to himself philosophically. He rather liked Don Diego and his father, Don Alejandro, and was genuinely sorry to hear the news.
The lieutenant looked at his roster and picked three men, who would be most suitable to accompany him in the morning. He also decided they would get an early start, before dawn, so as to be well along the King’s Highway by first light. Lopez surmised that if the horse had been found near Santo Cristobel, then young de la Vega would be found some distance away from Los Angeles as well. Yawning, he left his office to give the three men their orders, and then told the guard to make sure and wake him up at the appointed hour. Next he gave Garcia his orders for the morning. Only then did he go to his own quarters to sleep.
Lopez also noted to himself that this search would serve another purpose too, since he had also received a dispatch on the stage from the Presidio de Santa Barbara, telling of the destruction of a rancho north of Santa Barbara by Zorro. Lopez had puzzled over that one for a short while. He wondered what in the world El Zorro had been doing as far north as Santa Barbara. Zorro usually didn’t operate that far north, although the outlaw had been known to work outside of Los Angeles on occasion. The bandit was believed to have passed back into his jurisdiction and he was to keep a look out for him.
Zorro was the only blot on an otherwise perfect record. The only problem was that Lopez didn’t have a real issue with what Zorro did. Garcia, especially, had told him many stories about Zorro when he had first come to the garrison in Los Angeles. When he heard them, and then had seen the outlaw at work first hand, he realized that Zorro, although working outside the law, was in reality working to uphold justice. Being a fair minded man himself, Lopez had been glad at times when Zorro had intervened to solve problems he himself couldn’t satisfactorily resolve, mainly because of nit-picky laws that shouldn’t even have been on the books. Of course, he would never tell his superiors or fellow soldiers that. And he was still obligated to try and capture the outlaw, since he was a soldier of the King.
Bernardo woke up shortly before dawn stiff and
sore. His sleep had been
fitful, full of dreams of Paulo Wheeler shooting at him and of finding
Zorro dead on the trail. Wearily
pulling himself into the saddle, he carefully walked the horse along the
King’s Highway, first on one side and then on the other, hoping to
find some clue as to the whereabouts of his master.
Shortly after the sun rose over the eastern ridge, he saw
something out of place near the highway.
Guiding his mount over to the spot, he saw evidence that Don
Diego had stopped for a while.
As he picked up the remains of one of his patrón’s boots, it was obvious it had been cut off in order for Zorro to bind his wound. It was also apparent that he had been hit in the foot and the wound had bled a great deal before it had been bound. Hiding the boot under a large rock so no one else would find it, Bernardo remounted the old horse and continued down the highway, again checking carefully on each side. Several hours later, he had not found any additional evidence and Bernardo could only conclude that either Don Diego had been able to return home or he had wandered far enough off the King’s Highway to not be found easily.
Alarmed, Bernardo saw a lancer coming up the
highway. It would certainly
not do for one of the soldiers to find Zorro.
The soldier, through sign indicated that he was sent out to look
for Don Diego. Knowing that
Bernardo was his manservant, he asked if he knew the whereabouts of the
young hacendado. Bernardo
shook his head ‘no’ and signed that he, too, had been looking for
him. As they parted ways,
Bernardo saw that the only thing that he could do now was to go into Los
Angeles, where the lancer had indicated Don Alejandro was staying.
Saying a prayer for his patrón,
Bernardo kicked the old coach horse into as fast a gallop as it was
willing to go, south on the King’s Highway.
Just before the sun rose over the hills, the object of everyone’s concern fell off his horse again. It seemed to Zorro that the whole world pitched and swayed like some huge sailing vessel in a storm. He had managed to hang on to Tejas’ mane for the past few hours, weaving his fingers tightly in the blondish hair, remaining in the saddle mainly by will power, but the little while before dawn had brought a fever to alternate with the dizziness.
Tejas nudged the still form, but Zorro remained
unresponsive. The horse
moved away to graze a bit until his master called him back.
Occasionally he returned to where the injured man lay, sometimes
nuzzling him, sometimes not. Several
hours later, with the sun shining in his eyes, Zorro sat up groaning.
At this point he was somewhat lucid.
Gazing at the bound foot, he noticed that the fall had started
the wound bleeding again, but certainly not to the same degree as
Whistling for the horse, he used the stirrup to help pull himself up into a standing position. Laying his head on the saddle, he wondered lethargically what to do next. Get into the saddle, he prompted himself. But his strength was like water poured onto sandy ground. It was completely gone. He tried to pull himself up onto the saddle, but couldn’t get his foot off the ground. I’m not going to make it home, mi padre, Zorro thought wearily. Continuing to lean against the horse, he thought remotely that Tejas felt warm and he was so cold. It was then that he heard the sound of hoof beats. Slowly, he managed to pull his sword from its sheath, but he really wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it. Needing both hands to hang onto the saddle, he let the sword drop to the ground.
Then he heard a cheerful voice, “Don Diego, the Saints be praised, I have found….” the voice trailed off when the newcomer saw Zorro hanging on to the other side of the horse. “Zorro!” Lt. Lopez cried in surprise. “How did you get Don Diego’s horse?”
“It was at ...the way station,” Zorro replied weakly. “I borrowed it.”
Lopez noticed the condition of the outlaw in a glance and rushed over to help him. As soon as Zorro released his grip on the saddle, he sagged against the lieutenant. Lopez lowered him gently to the ground where he could recline against a boulder “Seńor Zorro,” he queried the injured man. “What happened?”
Zorro laughed weakly. “You see before you... a man incapacitated by a pistol shot to.... to the foot. Ironic, is it not?”
“Seńor,” Lopez explained gently. “I knew a lancer who accidentally shot himself in the foot. He swore that was the most painful wound he had ever received.”
“Apparently...it bleeds a lot, too,” Zorro
added with grim amusement, but the despondency in his voice tangible. Then he looked up at Lt. Lopez in desperation.
“Lieutenant, I know and you know that you hold within your
hands... two thousand pesos. There
is no way I can get away from you... or fight you.”
He paused a moment before continuing.
“What I am going to ask you to do is probably too much for an
outlaw to ask a soldier, but I am going to ask you anyway.”
Lt. Lopez was pretty sure what the request would
be and if his guess was right, he would be making one of the most
difficult decisions in his military career.
“Seńor Zorro, before you continue, let me get you something to
drink. You look as though you could use it.” Zorro nodded his thanks and Lopez left him sitting against a
boulder. Not only did the lieutenant bring his water skin, but also a
blanket. Zorro gratefully
drank the water and accepted the blanket.
The attention of the lieutenant seemed to help the outlaw gather his thoughts a little better, and he continued. “Lt. Lopez, even though you are fairly new to this area, I hope you know that I have never taken up an unjust cause or consciously done harm to any innocent person.” Lopez nodded his acknowledgment of the statement. Zorro reached for the water skin and drank some more, and then went on. “I even know that several times you had a clear shot at me and did not take advantage of that, just as I have saved your life on one occasion.” He paused and then assured the officer. “Please do not think I am trying to hold anything over you. I just feel you are a friend, and I desperately need a friend right now. And I am asking you as a friend to please not take me to the cuartel or try to find out my identity. I know you are an honest man. If you promise this, then I will be content, because I know you will keep your word. If you refuse, then it will be disaster, but I will still understand.”
The speech had been a long one for the injured man and he rested against the boulder while the lieutenant considered the request. Lopez didn’t realize that Zorro had noticed he had indeed held back or deliberately missed the outlaw the times he had chased him. Capturing Zorro would certainly make his military career sweeter and the road to promotion even faster than it already was, but how would he deal with the guilt of having caused the death of a just man? And he did feel that Zorro was a just man. The outlaw also needed medical attention soon. Lopez had been shocked at the state the seemingly invincible swordsman had been reduced to. He was seeing the effects of, not only a gunshot wound, but, if he knew Comandante Gregorio at all, an all-out chase across this entire end of California. The man was completely worn out. If Lopez took him to the cuartel, he would at least be cared for, but he would be resting up for the gallows.