Fox Hunt

 

 

 

Chapter 14

Night and Day 4

           

Lt. Lopez was a dejected man.  The prospect of facing Don Alejandro with the news that his son was still missing filled him with dread.  Of all the difficult things he had to do in the past, the thought of having to give this news to the old caballero was probably the most difficult.  But Lopez knew he had no choice.  As acting comandante, it was his duty to report the news to the hacendado, but he had first taken the precaution of having Corporal Reyes clean the blood off of the horse.  That would have given the old man a stroke most likely, thinking that it was Don Diego that had been injured instead of someone else.  Lopez didn’t relish the idea of having to tell a lie to Don Alejandro, but he couldn’t reveal that he had helped the highwayman, Zorro.  The only good thing about all of this was the fact that Diego had not been found injured or dead, and there was still hope that the young man was simply coming home by a later coach.  But still, knowing how anxious Don Alejandro was, the idea that his son was still missing would be very hard for the caballero.          

I might as well get it over with, he thought to himself.  “Sergeant Garcia!” he called out.  Within a few minutes, the portly soldier opened the door and stepped in the room, saluting.  Lopez sighed softly and looked up.  “Sergeant, would you go over to the inn and let Don Alejandro de la Vega know that I would like to see him at his earliest convenience.” 

“Sí, mi comandante,” Garcia said, saluting smartly.  He paused, brightened and then asked, “Did you find Don Diego?” 

“No, Sergeant, we didn’t, but please do not tell Don Alejandro that.  I would like to give him the details of my search,” Lopez admonished, knowing full well that if the hacendado asked Garcia for information the soldier would more than likely give it. 

It was a very short time before there came a knock at the door.  “Don Alejandro de la Vega to see the comandante,” Garcia called out. 

“Have him enter,” Lopez answered.   

The older man came in, his countenance even more anxious, if that was possible, than it was the night before.   “You have not found my son.”  

A statement, not a question.  Lopez looked at Garcia, who looked penitent.  “Sergeant, see to the posting of the details.”  

Garcia saluted and left.          

“No, Don Alejandro.  All I found was his horse on the trail.” Lopez answered.           

“His horse?”  Alejandro was puzzled and alarmed.  “I thought that it was at the way station?”          

Lopez shrugged.  “I thought so, too. Perhaps it got away from them.”   Alejandro looked sharply at the acting comandante.  The patrón’s piercing gaze made Lopez uncomfortable, as though Don Alejandro could figure out from his thoughts, that he was hiding something.          

“I want to see my son’s horse.”  Without waiting for Lopez to say anything, Alejandro went out to the cuartel stable to examine Tejas.  The horse looked as though he had been well used, so the caballero checked him for injury.  It was something to do while he tried to gain his composure and figure out what could have happened to Diego.  When he brought his hand up from the inside of the horse’s right rear leg, there was the rough feel of something clotted in the horse’s hair against his fingers.  He scraped a little of the substance and then looked at what he had found.  It was dried blood.  His heart went cold and his breathing was harsh in his own ears, because he knew he had felt no wounds on the horse.          

He swung around to the comandante.  “What is this, Lt. Lopez?” he said sharply, showing him the evidence on his fingers.  “What are you not telling me?” he asked in a harsh whisper.  Oh, Diego, my son, what has happened to you?  His thoughts were anguished.  “How did blood get on my son’s horse?” he demanded, more loudly.          

“Don Alejandro,” Lopez told the distressed man, mentally berating himself for not seeing to the care of the horse himself.  “I did not find Diego and this is not Diego’s blood, I swear it.”  The old man looked a little relieved, but the lieutenant knew de la Vega would not be totally satisfied until he knew the truth.  He sincerely hoped that Don Alejandro was discreet, because he felt that he at least owed the man a partial explanation to help assuage his fears.  “Please come back to my office and I might be able to explain.”          

After they were back in the comandante’s office, Lopez sat on the edge of his desk, gazing into the hacendado’s eyes.  “What I am about to explain to you would ruin my career if anyone found out.  You must keep this to yourself.  I am telling you only because I think it will ease your mind about your son, Diego . . . and because I think you are very discreet.”            

Alejandro nodded, his emotions running the gamut between fear for Diego, curiosity about what Lopez was going to tell him and anxiety that had built for the past several days.           

“While I was out trying to find your son, I came across Don Diego’s horse and, I thought Don Diego, but I discovered Zorro instead,” Lopez explained.  “It is Zorro’s blood on the horse, not Don Diego’s.  So you see, Diego is probably just fine somewhere and will be home soon, Don Alejandro,” he added to comfort the old man.          

Alejandro blanched.  The blood rushed through his chest like a tidal wave and he felt the reality of the room waver.  I have to get control of myself, he thought desperately.  He kept his face as passive as he could and was glad the acting comandante had closed the shutters and that the room was dimly lit.  His heart beat so loudly in his ears that he almost didn’t hear the rest of the sergeant’s words.  He wanted to scream, You fool, Lopez, it is Diego’s blood on the horse!  He struggled to keep his composure, and finally succeeded.  Then he said calmly, with only a slight quaver in his voice, “I am relieved also, Lieutenant, but I count Zorro as a friend, and so it grieves me terribly to hear this.”           

The thought occurred to Alejandro that Lopez may have brought Zorro to the cuartel, but the comandante’s actions belied that.  “What happened to him?” was all he asked.  I can’t believe that I’m babbling like this when my son needs me! Alejandro thought furiously.           

“Zorro had been shot by an assailant and had bled quite a bit.   He was also feverish,” Lopez answered simply.         

“What did you do when you found him?”         

“Zorro exacted a promise not to take him to the cuartel or to try to find out his identity.  So, at his suggestion, I took him to the safest place he could be right now.” Lopez continued to explain.        

“And where would that be, Lieutenant?” Alejandro asked anxiously.        

“That I cannot tell you, Don Alejandro.  That was part of the promise.  But I can tell you that Señor Zorro is in excellent hands.  He couldn’t be taken care of any better.”          

Alejandro let out his breath in a great sigh. Except by his father, he thought, bitterly.  Musing, he remembered how Diego and Zorro had taken care of him when he was wounded, although at the time he wasn’t aware that they were the same person.  He reassured the comandante.  “You are a good man, Lt. Lopez, and I thank you for your efforts in finding my son.”   Sighing again as he stood up, he added,  “Please let me know if you hear anything further.”           

After he had returned to his room, Alejandro thought about the comandante’s words and realized he was probably right when Lopez had said that Zorro was being safely taken care of at a secret location.  It just didn’t make him feel any better.  Alejandro wanted desperately wanted to be with his son; needed to be by his side.  The old don remembered the times when Diego had hurt himself as a youngster.  He or his wife had been there to make sure he was all right, to clean his scrapes and cuts.  Bowing his head in a brief prayer, he realized that all he could do right now was trust in providence and hope to be able to see Diego soon.         

There was another knock at the door.  “Enter,” he said in a low voice, still mulling over the day’s events.  His irritation grew when no one came in.  “I said enter!” he called out and yanked open the door.  He also yanked in Bernardo, whose hand was gripping the latch.          

“Bernardo!”  Alejandro finished dragging the disheveled manservant into his room.   “Tell me what happened to Zorro!” he begged the mute, as he closed the door.  “Lt. Lopez told me about finding Diego wounded and taking him to a secret location to be cared for.  But he wouldn’t tell me where.”          

Bernardo went through the signs, trying to explain what he had heard about the past four days.  He also explained how Paulo Wheeler had ambushed Don Diego and shot him.  Then he told of his own efforts to find his patrón during the night, only coming across his routed pursuers instead. 

When Bernardo was done, Don Alejandro shook his head.  “I cannot believe the risk he took, traveling alone.”  Then he added softly, “And I cannot believe what he has been through.”  Bernardo nodded his head in agreement.        

“But where could Lopez have taken Zorro?”  Alejandro mused aloud as he paced the room.         

Bernardo had been thinking about this, too.  Given the area involved, he could think of only one possibility.  He tapped Don Alejandro on the shoulder and when he got the patrón’s attention, he put his hands together in the attitude of prayer.  Don Alejandro frowned in concentration and then suddenly brightened.  “A mission, of course, you are absolutely right.  We must go and visit Father Felipe and see if he has heard anything.”           

Bernard shook his head vehemently, pointing to himself, trying to convey that nothing greatly out of the ordinary must be done.  Señor Paulo Wheeler was still very much in the mood for vengeance, and would be looking for clues to the whereabouts of Zorro.           

Alejandro sighed.  He knew nothing of this Paulo Wheeler, but if he understood Bernardo correctly, he was as evil, almost, as the devil himself.  And he realized Bernardo was right.  The manservant sometimes made calls to the local missions to take cattle or money donations; therefore it would be more appropriate if Bernardo went.          

Bernardo signed that he would go, not to San Gabriel, but to the smaller, more remote mission run by Father Francisco first, since that was nearer to the area where he had been looking for Don Diego.  Alejandro nodded his agreement, and then said, “It will be hard not to take a pistol and shoot this Señor Wheeler down the first time I see him.  Perhaps it would be better if I let the acting comandante know of your arrival without word of Diego and that I would rather await any news at the hacienda.”  Bernardo nodded in agreement, realizing how very hard this was on the patrón.             

Bernardo then went on to sign that he would stay until the evening stage came in and get his luggage.  Then he would go to the mission first thing the next morning with some kind of donation.  This plan would also allow him to see if Señor Wheeler had arrived in Los Angeles to look for Zorro, because Bernardo suspected that Wheeler would waste no time coming to the pueblo to finish what he had started. 

Alejandro agreed with the plan and gave Bernardo some money for the donation, shuddering at the vindictiveness that would cause a man to come that far to get revenge on another man.   “If you find him, Bernardo, tell him that….”  He had to swallow several times to keep his emotions at bay.  “Tell him that I love him,” he finished, his voice almost a whisper.

 

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Señor Paulo Wheeler and his vaquero, Jose, arrived at the Pueblo de Los Angeles in the late afternoon.  Securing a room for himself at the inn he then proceeded to go into the dining area to get dinner and listen in on conversations.   The innkeeper was mentioning to someone about the terrible tragedy of young Diego de la Vega’s disappearance and his horse showing up riderless.  He mused on the name, wondering where he had heard it before.  Then he motioned for the innkeeper to come to his table.         

“Señor, I could not help but hear the comments about the unfortunate young man,” he said smoothly.  “Who is this Diego de la Vega?”        

“Don Diego is the only son of Alejandro de la Vega, the wealthiest hacendado in this area,” the innkeeper explained.  “The young man was conducting business in Monterey for his father and somehow disappeared while returning home.  Only his horse has shown up, and poor Don Alejandro is beside himself with worry.”         

“Sí, that would be a hard thing for a father to have to deal with,” Wheeler concurred, effecting a sorrowful look.  “Gracias, señor.”          

Wheeler was elated.  He remembered José telling him about the vaquero who had appeared shortly before Zorro’s raid.  The vaquero who had said he was about the business of the Rancho de la Vega.  The vaquero that Jose offhandedly mentioned seemed to have the bearing of a caballero.  The vaquero, who in all likelihood was not a vaquero, but Diego de la Vega.   All of the strange little coincidences seemed to be coming together, but he needed to be patient and keep an eye on the comings and goings of members of the de la Vega household.   And Paulo Wheeler knew intuitively that if he remained watchful, he would have the opportunity to find and slowly kill Zorro.

           

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Father Francisco put his assistant in charge of evening vespers, deciding that only he should stay with Zorro until the fever broke.  Now that he knew the identity of the outlaw, the priest felt an added burden.  This was a secret he must never divulge and no one else must find out.  Don Diego moaned and thrashed and cried out most of the night.  Even in his weakened state, it was hard to restrain the man and to keep him from doing further damage to the broken foot. Occasionally Diego would lapse into a deep, peaceful sleep and then the priest was able to rest also, with his chair leaning against the door.  Sometimes Diego was semiconscious and would carry on a conversation with him, but it was hard to understand what he was saying.  It was like a jumble of things that were part Zorro and part Diego de la Vega.          

Finally near dawn, while he was dozing, Diego’s fever broke.  Father Francisco jerked awake at one point and saw Diego gazing lucidly at him.           

“You know,” Diego said simply, and the priest realized that he had fallen asleep in the chair with the mask in his hand.  He handed it back to Diego.             

“Diego, my son, you took it off when you were delirious,” the cleric explained.  “No one else knows and I am treating this as I would a confession.”          

Diego nodded his thanks and threw off one of the blankets.  “Father Francisco, please do not tell me to lay back down with your stern looks or words,” he said as he struggled to sit up. “I must move; I am not used to lying around, even though some people seem to think that is all I do,” he added with a slight smile that ended in a grimace of pain.          

The priest helped the injured patron to get into a more comfortable position, and then gave him some watered down wine.  “You realize, Diego, that you are the last person I would have guessed to be Zorro, although I suppose that you have carefully planned it that way,” he said with a smile.          

“Sí, Padre,” Diego answered, “When I realized what was going on in the pueblo, I felt that playing the part of a weak and indolent caballero was the only way to keep suspicion from falling on myself or my family.  It has been hard being a pacifist, and knowing that people are calling you a coward behind your back.  I was not raised to sit back, despite appearances now.”  Diego continued reminiscing.  “And until he knew, it drove Father insane, thinking his son had become a weakling, and that, too, has caused me some amount of guilt.”           

“Sí, knowing your father, I am sure that is so, but please, never forget all of the good that has been done since you became Zorro.”  Father Francisco jerked around at the sound of a knock at the door.  Turning back to Diego to tell him to put the mask back on, he saw that it was already done.  He slipped out the door and faced Pedro.           

“Father Francisco,” the boy asked.  “How is Señor Zorro this morning?  May I stay with him, por favor, if he is better?”           

The priest chuckled at the exuberance of the child.  Zorro was obviously his hero, and the cleric saw no reason to do anything to discourage it.  “Pedro,” he explained.  “Señor Zorro is much better this morning.  The fever has broken and although he is still weak and tired, I think he is well enough for you to help him today.”            

The boy broke into a wide smile and then suddenly remembered why he was looking for Father Francisco in the first place.   “Oh, Father, I almost forgot to tell you,” he said.  “The manservant of Don Diego de la Vega has come to see you.  I think it is about a donation from the de la Vega family.”         

As he followed Pedro to the small chapel, the priest somehow guessed that this was probably no coincidence.  Father Francisco dismissed the boy, telling him to see to breakfast for the injured man.  When he tapped the manservant on the shoulder, Bernardo turned and gazed at him, sighing in relief.   Anxiously handing the priest a pouch with some coins, he made signs to indicate that it was a donation from Don Alejandro.          

Bernardo looked imploringly at Father Francisco, wondering how to ask the question that burned in his mind.  If Don Diego was here, would the priest know who it was under the mask.  Would Father Francisco have taken the mask off?  No, but how in the world could he ask about Don Diego, while at the same time keeping his secret?   Knowing of no way to discreetly ask about Zorro, Bernardo simply explained in sign that Don Diego de la Vega had disappeared.  He wondered if his master had been found and brought to the mission.  Bernardo stopped signing and waited anxiously.  Unfortunately, if Zorro was here, then it was very likely that the priest would tell him no about Don Diego and the manservant would be no further along in his quest to find out about his patrón’s condition.          

The priest knew that Bernardo had to be desperate to come here looking for young de la Vega, but when he looked even more intently into the manservant’s eyes, he realized that Bernardo wasn’t just looking for Don Diego.  The manservant was aware of Don Diego’s dual identity and he was looking for Zorro.  That makes a great deal of sense, having a deaf-mute servant who can be trusted to help.  No one will be able to pry the secret from this man, the priest thought.   Achieving what Don Diego had been doing would be very hard to accomplish alone.          

Bernardo was becoming frantic, stepping restlessly from one foot to the other.  He was still trying to figure out how he was going to approach this dilemma, even though he had thought about it all night and all of the way to the mission.   Now as he stood before Father Francisco, he just very simply asked again if Don Diego was at the mission.  Why didn’t the priest understand him?  At the very least, the padre should be informing him that his master wasn’t here, in which case, Bernardo didn’t know what he would do.  Somehow, he and Don Alejandro had to know.  Don Diego’s father was counting on him, and of course, he wouldn’t even dare imagine that his patrón could have died.  That was totally unthinkable.  The priest was still pondering, and recklessly, Bernardo began to sign a query about Zorro, when Father Francisco stopped him and motioned for him to follow.         

At the door of a small room, he stopped and motioned for Bernardo to go in, telling him in sign that he would return soon.  Bernardo, looking puzzled, carefully opened the door and saw Zorro sleeping peacefully on the bed.  A great smile broke out on his face.  Don Alejandro would be so relieved.  He was so relieved.  Suddenly all of the anxiety and tension of the past several days drained away and all that was left was a lethargy that was punctuated by a gratitude to the Almighty that Don Diego was safe at last.          

Watching his patrón sleeping tranquilly soon made him so somnolent that before long Bernardo was also sound asleep in the chair next to the bed.  When Father Francisco looked in a short while later, he smiled in understanding.  There was more here than a servant/master relationship; he firmly believed that these two were also friends who would give their lives for each other.  The priest backed out of the room, knowing that Señor Zorro was in excellent hands.

 

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