Fox Hunt

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16

 

           

When Pedro arrived with the midday meal, he saw Zorro practicing on his crutches, back and forth, back and forth in the little room.  The outlaw was concentrating so hard that he didn’t see or hear the boy, and Pedro stood by the door, quietly watching until he saw Zorro sway and lean against the wall.  Quickly putting the tray down, he helped the injured man back to his chair.  

Sitting down heavily, Zorro sighed. “Graciás, Pedro. I am glad to have these crutches to help me get around, but I will also be glad to be relieved of them and walk normally again,” he commented and then smiled conspiratorially at the boy.  “Father Francisco would have taken the hide off me with his tongue if he had come in the room instead of you.” Pedro laughed at the thought of anyone tongue-lashing Zorro.  His companion laughed good-naturedly with him.  “Now what have you brought me this afternoon, muchacho?”

Pedro gave him the tray and then said, “Unless you need me, I have been asked to help in the kitchen.”           

“Graciás, Pedro, you have been a big help to me today.  You go on, I will be fine,” Zorro reassured him.           

“By the way, Señor Zorro,” the boy said with a smile, “I will be glad when you are well and can be rid of them, too.” 

“Thank you, Pedro,” he said as the boy left.        

Zorro savored the beef and gravy that had been brought to him.  He certainly could not find fault with the cook at this monastery.   Although he knew that the smaller missions didn’t always have the herds of livestock that the larger ones did, somehow Zorro figured that Father Francisco was making sure that the best was being served to his patient.  That was just another reason for getting their convoluted little plan in action, he thought to himself, as he used a bolillo to mop up the last of the gravy.   He felt he was taking food from those who most needed it—the children.         

Zorro set the tray aside and yawned.  Once again he felt tired and lethargic, and, to his disgust, he was ready to sleep again.  The bed didn’t look the least bit inviting, though, so he leaned the crutches against his left leg, and, using them as a prop for his right leg, leaned back in the chair and quickly fell asleep.        

Through the afternoon, Zorro alternated sleep with practice on the crutches.  Sometimes Pedro came in to visit with him and invariably the boy would ask the masked man about his exploits.  This was somewhat frustrating to the outlaw, because he really didn’t want to give the boy the idea that what he was doing was glamorous, and he certainly didn’t like to sound like he was bragging.  Finally, he told Pedro to sit down on the bed.  Zorro sat on the chair, propped his leg up on the crutches and proceeded to ask the boy a question.  “Pedro, how do you think I got this?” he asked pointing to his injured foot.           

“You were shot, Señor,” the boy answered.  “In a fight.”          

“Sí, Pedro, in a fight for my life.  The man was aiming for my head,” Zorro said solemnly.  

Pedro couldn’t help it.  He started giggling.  “The man had very poor aim, no?” Pedro quipped before Zorro could say anything. 

The masked outlaw just gazed at his companion for a moment and then, he too, began to laugh.  “Pedro, you have a quick wit about you.  No, his aim was quite good, I was just able to knock his arm down.”  They laughed for a moment more.  “Pedro, I do the things I do in order for everyone to be treated justly.   I do it behind a mask because I simply could not see any other way to accomplish the job.  I guess swordfights and chases on horseback seem exciting, but you know, sometimes it is very discouraging.  I get no joy in the possibility of having to kill people and sometimes I have had to do that.”  

Pedro’s countenance had become so serious that Zorro put his hands on the boy’s shoulders and told him, “But, you know, Pedro, I do feel good when I can help somebody who needs my aid.  You are doing that and you do not even have to wear a mask.”   Being a bachelor, he sometimes wondered if he was saying the right things when dealing with children.  He had enjoyed Pedro’s company and appreciated his help, but didn’t want to say anything that would hurt the boy’s feelings.          

Pedro looked puzzled.  Zorro laughed, “Pedro, you are helping me.  I am unable to accomplish anything without your help right now, muchacho. Graciás.”  Pedro brightened considerably.          

The evening meal came late, in anticipation of the late night journey.  After the meal, Zorro again felt tired, and, resigning himself to the need to sleep often, he leaned back in the chair and was soon doing just that.          

A hand on his shoulder woke him up.  “It is time to go,” he heard Father Francisco say in a low voice.  “Pedro told me you were practicing walking with the crutches.  Did you want to try this without help?  I can assist you if there is need.”          

Zorro answered him by getting up on the crutches and motioning to the priest to lead the way.  Father Francisco went down a long hallway and to a door that led outside to the back of the mission.  With the concern of a priest and a physician, he kept looking back to check on the progress of the outlaw and could see that, although his patient’s concentration was intense, the steps were steady, and there seemed to be no danger of him losing his balance at present.  Father Francisco would not interfere unless he had to, realizing that Diego was a proud and independent man and the events of the past few days had probably frustrated him immensely.          

The short way from the mission door to the old carriage was rutted and strewn with gravel, and he continued keeping a careful eye on Zorro.  At the side of the vehicle, the outlaw stopped and leaned against the carriage for a short rest.  “Now, my son,” the priest said, “this is the difficult part.  Let me help you.”           

“You will get no argument from me this time, Padre.” Zorro told him with a tired smile.  “But I will be eternally glad to recover my strength and not feel so weak all of the time.”           

“You must remember, my friend, that it has only been two days since you were shot.”  Father Francisco explained.  “You have recovered remarkably well in such a short time.”           

“I have you to thank for that,” Zorro said, gratefully.         

As Zorro settled into the carriage, and the priest made sure that the injured foot was well cushioned, he said with a chuckle,  “I think that your stubbornness and determination had as much to do with it as my good food and experience in doctoring.”          

Father Francisco got in and started the mule at a slow pace until they were away from the mission.  Then he increased the animal’s speed to a fast trot when they reached the highway.  The moon was bright enough to show any dangers in the road.  “Your manservant came by not long after supper and brought some clothing that he said you requested.  Perhaps it would be best to make the change now.  If we are stopped, it would be easier to explain the presence of Don Diego than Zorro.  I also have a blanket, when you get tired.”         

“It seems that I am always tired these days,” his companion grumbled good-naturedly.  The change was soon made, and the black shirt and mask were safely hidden behind the seat.  Diego felt an almost tangible relief to finally be ridding himself of the costume, even temporarily.  It had seemed to become a burden, heavier than any physical pack or load he could have been carrying.  At least now, if they were stopped, there would be no danger of Father Francisco explaining why he was with a wanted outlaw. 

The mule’s steady pace ate up the miles.  At this time of night there were no other travelers on the King’s Highway.  The priest and his companion talked of many things, including the events at the hacienda of Paulo Wheeler.  Father Francisco shook his head, sorrowfully, “Slavery in whatever form is a sickening thing.   I, for one, am glad that you took action, but I am sorry that it has resulted in so much suffering for you.”           

“I have no regrets for what I did that night, either,” Diego said, “The idea that this poor excuse for a hacendado would treat peons like slaves was totally repulsive to me.  I could not leave without doing something.  But I cannot help but think that perhaps added planning on my part may have prevented Señor Wheeler from still being free to bring more misery to others."          

“What you say may be true, my son, although somehow I doubt it,” Father Francisco responded, “but you know that nothing can be done to change that now.”  The pair lapsed into a troubled silence.           

“Why not let me take the reins for a short time while you rest,” Diego offered, after they had ridden awhile longer.           

“Graciás, I think I will take you up on your offer,” the priest said, “but do not hesitate to wake me if you begin to feel tired.”           

As the mules continued their mile eating pace, Diego enjoyed the cool breeze and the night sounds of the California wilderness more than he had in a long time.  While he was still not master of the events transpiring around him, things didn’t seem quite so grim as they had before.  Somehow, Diego felt that Father Francisco was a factor in that feeling.  Although he had had dealings with the priest before, he had not realized what a powerful presence the man had.  If someone else had to find out the secret of El Zorro, Diego was glad that it was the priest.            

Several hours later, the priest took the reins back from the caballero, whom he observed was definitely tiring.  “How is the foot feeling?” he asked, noticing that an occasional spasm of pain crossed Diego’s face when he shifted positions or when they went over a rough spot on the road.           

“A little sore, but otherwise not too bad,” was the much too quickly answered reply.          

“Having come to know you somewhat in the past day and a half, I think I can safely translate that to mean ‘it is painful, but I will do all right,’ ” the cleric laughed softly.  “There is a small flask of wine next to you on the seat.  Drink a little.  It will relax you and make the pain easier to take on this journey.  We still have several hours before we get to our destination.”           

“Father, I really would prefer to not make this journey drugged, if you please,” Diego said with a forced smile.  “The pain is not that bad.”          

“Ah, Diego, my son, I thought we had addressed that issue yesterday.  But since I knew you would protest anyway, I made the potion stronger of wine than of narcotic.  I think it will help you, if you just have a little confidence in my judgment.  Remember, my son, you promised to trust me.”           

Diego sighed and reached down for the bottle.  “Father, I want you to know I am not happy about this, but you have not done anything but good for me, so I will trust you in this, too.”  Diego drank a little of the medicine-laced wine, and then drank a little more at the padre’s insistence.   After talking for a short while, he began to feel the dreamy, euphoric feeling that came from ingesting the narcotic, and it wasn’t long before Diego had fallen into a deep, relaxed sleep.          

“I made the potion stronger of wine, but not much,” the priest murmured, with a knowing smile.   Two days earlier, he would never have dreamed of the events that had occurred since Lt. Lopez had brought the injured man into his care.   Pondering, he was still amazed at what he had learned of Diego de la Vega and was sure that maintaining the dual identity of Zorro had to be frustrating at times.  Especially in light of the fact that he also knew the elder de la Vega had been extremely disappointed in his son since coming home from Spain.   Playing the part of El Zorro was a dangerous tightrope to walk, but Diego had so far been able to do it with finesse.  Father Francisco was determined to help him all he could to stay on that tightrope and not fall off.           

About an hour before dawn, the priest’s carriage pulled in front of the old gypsy woman’s house.  The house itself looked as though it had been cobbled together of many different materials at many different times.  Señora Barosa peeked out of the door and then came out to greet the priest.  The woman couldn’t have been over five feet tall.  She had long, thick gray hair, which was braided and hanging down her back.  She also had a large smile for the padre, which showed a few teeth missing.  Her face was creased with numerous wrinkles.  The woman had been through many trials, but still took pleasure in life.  Her eyes had the light of youthful laughter, even though she was considered ancient by most who knew her.  “What brings you here this time of the morning to see old Madame Barosa?” she inquired bluntly of the priest.           

Before Father Francisco could answer, her sharp eyes noticed that the priest was not alone.  “And I suppose that whoever is with you is part of the explanation,” she added tersely.           

“Sí, Señora,” the cleric answered, getting out of the carriage and tying the reins to a small sapling.  “My friend will rest comfortably where he is for now.  Let us go in and discuss this.”           

When they were inside, the priest began his explanation to her, which he had gone over with Diego earlier in the night.  “Señora, I know how you feel about the Spanish landowners, but Diego de la Vega is a good man who needs the help of someone who is discreet and can be trusted explicitly.”          

“Well, at least he is harmless enough now,” she chuckled.  “Go on, priest, convince me that I should bring a hacendado into my house.”          

“It seems that young de la Vega has aroused the ire of another patrón.  He needs an alibi for the last couple of days in order to keep his family from suffering any serious consequences from the event.  It also seems that while he was escaping the wrath of the other patrón, he injured his foot and is somewhat incapacitated.”  Nothing that he said was exactly a lie, but he mentally made the sign of the cross in response to his half-truths.  “I believe him when he told me that he was unjustly accused of something that was done by another, and you know that I am a pretty good judge of character.”          

“Well, of course I know you are a good judge of character,” the woman quipped, “We are friends, are we not? As for this young patrón, what did you say his name was?”           

“Diego de la Vega.”          

“I had heard of someone with that name who helped one of my relatives in the Pueblo de Los Angeles,” the gypsy pondered.  “I wonder if he is the same.” 

“I have no doubt of it, Señora,” the priest answered with a little wry sarcasm.  “He seems to have a great sense of justice for a patrón, and he is from Los Angeles.”           

“Do not tease me, Father,” Senora Barosa replied.  “Even I know that not all landowners and soldiers are arrogant and self-serving-- just most of them,” she added with a chuckle.  “So this Diego de la Vega made eyes at some old goat’s daughter, eh?”          

“Now I did not say that,” the priest laughed.  “But it would be better for him if he had been in this vicinity for the past few days, if you know what I mean.  And in all seriousness, we are not talking about something so frivolous, we are talking life and death.  Will you help him, and, for that matter, me, too?  I would be in a small bit of trouble from this other patrón for having aided him.”  As well as from all of the soldiers and most of the politicos in the area, he thought to himself.

Madame Barosa rubbed her chin and gazed sternly at him, then she turned away and paced the short length of her house, muttering to herself.

 

 

 

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