Fox Hunt

 

 

 

 

Chapter 18

 

 

A short while later, Señora Barosa had finished cooking the afternoon meal and they all enjoyed the repast of bean soup and tortillas.  Diego kept expecting the old woman to tease him about the beans, but she said nothing.   As they were eating, they were interrupted by the sound of a carriage and a horse.  Hernando got up to see who it was.  “It is a priest and a vaquero,” he announced.

“Ah, that would probably be Father Francisco and the vaquero from the de la Vega rancho,” the señora explained.  “Make them welcome, my son.”

Hernando went to the door and invited them in.  The vaquero saw Diego and brightened visibly.  “Don Diego, thank the three Marias you are all right!  Your father has been worried sick about you.”

“Vasquez!”  Diego exclaimed.  “You are a sight for sore eyes.  I am very eager to get back home and even have father tell me what an idiot I have been.” Thinking of his father joyously greeting him and then fussing at him, he laughed heartily.  “By the way, Vasquez, I would like to introduce you to one of the two people who have kept me alive these past days.” Pointing to the woman, he said,  “This is Señora Barosa, who has been literally a life-saver.  In more ways than one, he thought fervently.  The other person who helped me is, of course, Father Francisco.” 

Vasquez nodded to both.  “You cannot imagine Don Alejandro’s gratitude to know that your kindness is restoring his son back to him.”  Then he looked at Diego’s bound foot curiously.  “What in the world happened to you, patron?” he asked.

“My horse, Tejas, spooked at the sight of a snake, threw me and almost trampled me along with the rattler.  It was very painful, but I have been assured that if I follow directions, all that will remain is embarrassing memories.”

“I know that you probably should not be traveling much, but I am also aware of how anxious Don Alejandro is,” Vasquez said.  Then he looked at Señora Barosa, who had been quietly listening to the exchange. “How soon do you think Don Diego could travel, señora?”         

“Ask the priest, he came and set the broken foot,” she answered glibly, deferring to Father Francisco.          

“I would say if we are cautious, we could set out anytime,” the priest mused, “All we have to do is keep the foot from any further damage.”           

“Tonight,” Diego declared, giving no one room to argue.  “With Vasquez with us, we should have no trouble with anyone on the road, especially if we start out late enough.  And, of course, if you do not mind a passenger in your carriage, Father,” he added, to keep up pretenses.          

By late evening all was in readiness.  Father Francisco and Vasquez had slept some in anticipation of the night’s journey, but Diego had, for once, been unable to.  In his impatience, he paced back and forth in the main room of Señora Barosa’s house, until she glared at him fiercely and made him sit down.  Then she took the crutches away from him.  “These things are dangerous in the hands of a caballero,” she growled.  The priest watched in silent amusement; Diego’s pacing had awakened him. “Quit aggravating me or I may change my mind about you,” the gypsy added.  “You would think that you were going to your own execution!”          

That thought had crossed Diego’s mind, too.  He really wasn’t looking for another confrontation with Wheeler, but he felt that it would come to that.  And at present, he simply had no idea how he was going to handle it when it did happen.          

Finally the time came to leave; the moon was just ready to rise over the hills.  Señora Barosa walked over to Diego and looked up at him.  “Young man, you listen to old Marlena and stay out of trouble.  If your father is half the man that you are, someday I would like to meet him, too.  Oh, and if anyone comes after you, make sure that you just clout them with those big sticks of yours.  I have seen you practicing with them and I know what you can do.”  She surprised Diego by giving him a motherly hug, which he reciprocated.  It had been a very long time since anyone’s mother had done that and he appreciated her sentiments. 

“Graciás, Señora,” he said softly, “that is the kindest compliment that a son could receive.  And someday we will come and visit, when my foot is healed.”  He paused, wondering why, in such a short time, he could have become so close to this woman that he would have trouble knowing what to say to her.  And in his not knowing, he simply said something general.  Diego only hoped that she would understand.  “I appreciate all that you have done for me, Señora Barosa.”         

Using the crutches for balance, Diego hopped up into the carriage, next to Father Francisco.  The small group then started out for the Pueblo de Los Angeles.  “Diego, my son,” the astonished priest asked, “what in the world did you do to change that crusty old woman?”          

“I shelled beans for her,” Diego answered enigmatically.  With a smile, he lay back to rest, and this time he was able to fall asleep.          

The journey back to Los Angeles was an uneventful one.  Vasquez most often rode next to the carriage, but sometimes went ahead to check out the road.  The moon and stars wheeled their way across the night sky as the hours passed slowly by.          

About halfway into the journey, Diego woke up and offered to drive the carriage in order for Father Francisco to rest.  The priest was soon sleeping and Diego was left to his own thoughts.  Uppermost in his mind was the idea that the matter with Paulo Wheeler was far from resolved.  And that was a source of great frustration to him, because more than anything, he wanted to stop the man before he caused more death and misery.           

Diego was still driving when the dawn began pushing rosy fingers over the eastern hills.  They had just reached the boundary of the de la Vega lands and would soon arrive at the hacienda.  Vasquez had ridden ahead to alert Don Alejandro.  As the carriage went over the last hill before reaching the casa grande, the sun made a glorious entrance, illuminating several figures waiting outside the gate, among whom was his father.  Diego pulled the mule to a stop right next to the little group and slid out to warm embrace of his anxious father.  “My son,” Alejandro murmured, “I was so worried about you.  I am so glad you have finally made it home.”          

“Father, never has a place looked so wonderful as this hacienda.”  Diego said fervently.  “It is wonderful to be home at last.”   Father Francisco handed him his crutches, and he started for the gate.  Bernardo was waiting with the gate open, smiling broadly.  Diego paused, grabbed him by the arm and smiled back.  Then he made his way onto the patio and towards the sala.  The one step up took a slight amount of concentration, but he accomplished it without any hesitation.  In the meantime, Bernardo had rushed past him and opened the main door into the main room.  Diego negotiated the steps down to the table and sat in one of the chairs.            

“Now I really feel like I’m home,” he sighed.  He motioned to Bernardo to get him something to drink, and then he propped his leg up on the crutches as he had gotten into the habit of doing.  Alejandro and Father Francisco had also taken seats.           

“Father, before you say anything to me about stupidity not normally running in the de la Vega blood-line, please let me tell you in front of the good Padre, that I was an idiot to travel from Monterey alone. If I were to offer an excuse, however, I had no trouble until I went on my little side trip,” Diego said.   Standing behind the priest, Bernardo was nodding his head vigorously.  Diego shot him an amused look.  “I also hope that my little adventure does not gain everyone in this room the gallows.”           

Alejandro looked at his son in alarm, knowing where this conversation might be going and anxious because of the presence of Father Francisco.  Diego motioned to Bernardo to check to make sure that none of the other servants were within hearing of their meeting.  Bernardo did so and then stationed himself near the door.            

“I believe that Señor Paulo Wheeler is at least suspicious of me and my activities,” Diego announced solemnly.  “And he is vindictive enough to follow his vendetta  through to the end.”  From the alarmed look on his father’s face, Diego realized that Bernardo had neglected to tell his father what happened in the mission.  “Father Francisco knows about Zorro, Father,” he explained. “And will keep his knowledge secret.  It was an accident; I was delirious and would not keep the mask on.”          

“We could ask for guards,” Alejandro offered, and then shook his head.  “Stupido!  No, we couldn’t.  What would we say?  ‘Lt. Lopez, we need guards at the hacienda.  Why?  Oh, because Don Paulo thinks that my son is Zorro.’ ”  He laughed morosely at his own black humor.  “So do you have any ideas, Diego?”          

“Yes, I have one,” Diego said, pondering.  “I am sure that Wheeler is still in Los Angeles, deciding when it would be best to act.  While he is doing that, we can at least attempt to set the slow wheels of justice moving.”  As Bernardo served everybody a glass of wine, Diego signed a request for him to get some writing materials from the library.           

“What do you have in mind, Diego?” Alejandro queried.           

Diego steepled his hands and with an intense gleam in his eyes, began to relate a story.  “Well, Father, when I was coming south from Monterey, I met a peon, who told me about a rancho from which he had recently escaped, where all of the workers were held as slaves.  Never paid and never allowed to leave.  Now, before I could report that blatant disregard of the law, I had my unfortunate accident in the wilderness.  Now that I am home, I can send a message through Lt. Lopez to the garrison at Santa Barbara.”  Diego smiled broadly.  “If Señor Wheeler stays occupied with keeping an eye on me, then perhaps there will be time for a warrant to be issued, and this devil will be in jail where he cannot enslave or kill anyone else.”  The two men noticed the intensity of Diego’s passion increase as his speech continued.  “Whatever it takes, we must do all that is morally right to make sure this diabolical man is unable to put any other human through the pain and suffering he put those peons through.”  Diego’s eyes had narrowed and now had a dangerous glitter in them.  There was a short period of silence as everyone pondered the situation, which was broken when Bernardo brought in the paper and ink.  Diego began composing his note to Lt. Lopez.          

“I will be coming out to your hacienda each day to make sure that your broken foot is healing all right,” Father Francisco said with finality.  “I am not a fighter, but my presence might be a deterrent.”          

“And I have no plans to go anywhere. The dons can conduct their meetings without me for once,” Alejandro said grimly.  “That should help deter an unwelcome visit at least for awhile.”           

Diego looked up from his writing.  It wouldn’t help matters to express aloud his sentiment that nothing would deter Wheeler.  And he certainly wouldn’t indicate his irritation at having those around him discuss plans to protect him, even though they were correct in their assessment.  “We will just have to wait and keep vigilant,” he did say.   “Father Francisco, I am a very poor host to the one who has risked so much to save my life.  Would you like some breakfast?”          

“No, Diego, I must get back to the Mission.  They will be wondering where I am.  I will pray for help in this matter, however.  May God watch over you all,” he said as he left.          

Diego started to lean over his paper again and then looked up, his face deeply troubled.  “Father, if my secret is revealed, you know what will happen.  These lands will be confiscated, but most importantly the de la Vega name will be dishonored and you would probably be sent to the gallows as an accomplice.”  He looked at Bernardo.  “And you would, too.  Your deaths would cause me more grief than my own capture would,” he added vehemently, signing to keep up that appearance, at the very least.          

“The name will never be dishonored, my son, not to those who believe in justice,” Alejandro said vehemently.   “Take heart, Diego, I feel that something will happen to the good.  But you are tired.  I have had the servants prepare the guestroom for you to use.  That will be easier then trying to negotiate the stairs to your own room.”          

Diego finished the letter and sent Bernardo and another servant into the pueblo to deliver it. Bernardo was able to report later to his patrón that Lt. Lopez had taken Don Diego’s report very seriously and had sent a small contingent of lancers to Santa Barbara even before the manservant had left the pueblo to return home.   Diego smiled in satisfaction.

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The young vaquero, José, reported the arrival of Diego de la Vega to his hacienda.  Wheeler waited for the rest of the report.  “It is as you thought it would be; he has been injured.  At least he was on crutches.”          

“Yes,” his breath hissed out like some giant snake’s.  “I knew it; we have him.  I will kill the fox in its den, and ruin his whole family while I am at it.”   He laughed long and loud.  “What is the story that is being spread as to the injured foot?”          

“It was reported that young de la Vega’s horse was spooked by something in the desert and kicked him or stepped on him breaking bones in his foot,” the vaquero replied.           

“That is a good story; fitting with the other things that are told about the de la Vega heir.”  Wheeler laughed some more.  “I have heard that he is a coward, much to the dismay of his esteemed father.”              

José waited nervously for his next instructions.  He was beginning to become increasingly unsure about the sanity of his employer and the justness of his cause, but he was certainly not going to give voice to his concerns, at least not in his patrón’s presence.          

“Do they keep a lot of servants?”  Wheeler asked.           

“No, Don Paulo,” he answered.  “There are perhaps three or four in the house who cook and clean, plus a deaf-mute manservant.  Other servants come and go.”          

“Good, good,” Wheeler gloated.  “What I want you to do is watch the de la Vega hacienda and then come and get me when ever you see Alejandro de la Vega leave.  The others should not be a problem.  If we need to, we will kill them, and then we can take care of El Zorro.  Do you understand what I want you to do?”          

“Sí, Don Paulo,” Jose protested. “But it seems unfair to cut down an injured man.”         

With a cry of rage, Wheeler struck the vaquero on the side of his face with his open hand.  “Never question my actions again, do you understand?!  I will dispose of Zorro any way I can.  Do you understand me?” he asked again.         

“Sí, Don Paulo,” the vaquero answered meekly, rubbing his quickly swelling cheek.           

“Now get out there and only come back for me when the time is right,” Wheeler hissed.          

José left very quickly.

 

 

 

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