Fox Hunt

 

 

 

 

Chapter 19

 

Next Seven Days

 

                          

 

Only two days following Don Diego’s return, when Bernardo went upstairs to straighten his patrón’s room, he was astonished to see Diego dozing on his own bed.  Awakened by the mozo’s entrance, the young man sat up.  Startled, the Bernardo signed a query as to how the trip up the stairs was accomplished.           

“I have been able to get up here since yesterday,” he said simply.  “Bernardo, I have been practicing getting around the hacienda since I came home. I just had no desire to give Father more to worry about then he already has.  The only place I have not been yet is the secret cave, and I have plans to do that soon.”   Seeing Bernardo’s alarmed look, he quickly went on, “You have to understand, Bernardo, Paulo Wheeler has every intention of trying to kill me.  I am fully of the opinion that he knows I am Zorro.  And I feel I have to do everything in my power to be ready for him when he comes.”  Bernardo stood quietly, concerned, but signing nothing, knowing the hacendado had more to say.     

“I have been working on achieving as much mobility under the circumstances as I can.  I plan on continuing that. Right now, the best thing you can do is to not interfere.”  Diego saw Bernardo’s slightly hurt look.  “What I mean by that, is do not try to stop me from going anywhere.  Or fuss at me about my activities,” he explained.  “Bernardo, Señor Wheeler is very clever and will find a way to come when we least expect.  You and Father may not be around, and I have to be able to defend myself and if, at all possible, to defeat him.”  Bernardo nodded, having thought about that, too.         

“Later, when I am able to go to the secret cave, I want you to train with me,” Diego smiled reassuringly.  “There are a few things I thought I was proficient enough to do in my sleep, that I now have to learn to do on crutches.  I want to be ready, but I need your help.”  Bernardo signed his willingness to help, but to himself, decided that his patrón would not have to fight the madman alone.

           

         

A week had passed since he had come home, and Diego at full strength, except, of course, for the foot.  There had been an increased urgency in the past few days to push himself to the limit of his current abilities.  Personally, he felt blessed by providence to have all of this time to prepare, but he had no illusions that it would last forever.  There was no place in the hacienda that he could not get to, including the secret cave.  Steps were no consideration and he had practiced getting around with only one crutch and then without any at all, although he realized that was too awkward to be of any service in a fight against Wheeler.           

There was only one thing that Diego had been unable to master to his satisfaction, and that was getting up quickly from the ground.  If he had something to hang on to, Diego was up in an instant; he had practiced pull-ups along with everything else.  However, if he tried to get up directly from the ground without the crutches to help him, he found that more awkward and slow.  Therefore, Diego determined that if it did come down to a confrontation with Señor Wheeler, he would have to make sure he wasn’t knocked down.  Bernardo found Don Diego’s increased agility amazing, but had to agree with his patrón's conclusions.           

Diego practiced his fencing, using his left hand as well as his right, something he had not worked at since his college days.  He was able to hold his own with Bernardo, even though the inability to advance and retreat adeptly was frustrating.  The most difficult aspect was the realization that he could not lead off with his right foot as he had been taught.  But once he compensated, Diego was pleased that he could use the epée while on a crutch, at the same time understanding that he would not be able to totally rely on it as he had done in the past.  The whip would be the next weapon of choice, and he went up the stairs to get one from the hidden room.        

Since their conversation of several days before, Bernardo noticed the incredible ease with which his patron seemed to be able to get around the casa grande.  With a great deal of satisfaction, he also couldn’t help but notice how much more strength Don Diego had in his upper body, and, knowing what he had been doing in the last week, it was certainly no surprise. On the morning of the seventh day he found Don Diego in the secret room going through a trunk with the costumes and equipment of Zorro.   The caballero pulled out a whip and hung it over his shoulder, then he saw Bernardo watching.  Shrugging, his only comment was, “Whips have a long reach and are not dependant on two good feet for their use,” he explained.  “I have also been practicing with a bolas.  Shall we go down and see Tornado?”           

Diego started down the narrow staircase with ease, avoiding cracks and holes in the stone steps.  Bernardo brought the lantern.  Knowing that his patron had come down alone, he queried as to how he could get down the steps and carry a lantern at the same time.           

Diego laughed.  “I came down with only one crutch, so I could hold the lantern in my other hand,” he explained.  “And besides, I think I could go up and down these old steps blindfolded.”  Bernardo just signed a comment about asking silly questions.  Diego chuckled and went over to the big black stallion, which was snorting and pawing a greeting.  Stroking him along his head and neck, Diego let the horse lip his fingers, knowing that Tornado would never use his teeth.  The stallion nuzzled Diego’s chest and then gave him a great push with his head.  The caballero totally lost his balance and ended up flat on his back looking up at Bernardo’s concerned face.  He laughed, “Do not worry so much, I simply bruised my posterior and my pride, and nothing more.”          

Bernardo reached out his hand to help Don Diego, but the offer was refused.  Using his arms and a crutch, Diego sprang up on his good leg.  He grumbled in disgust at the time with which it took him to get on his feet.  Bernardo thought that he had done quite well and told him so.  “Who would have been quicker, Wheeler with a sword or me getting up off the ground?”  Bernardo said nothing.          

Diego turned back to the stallion, and gave a long hard stare.  Tornado just snorted at him.  “Bernardo, if I did not know better, I would think he is laughing at me.  He must be trying to keep me humble.  Hand me his curry brush, por favor.”  Diego spent the next half-hour brushing the black stallion wherever he could reach.  It was a good tension reliever, and he only stopped when he heard the voice of his father at the other end of the cave.  “In here, Father,” Diego called out.            

His father came into the light of Bernardo’s lantern and stared in amazement at his son.  “How, in the name of all the Saints did you get down here?” he asked incredulously.   “Those stairs are steep!”          

“Very carefully, Father.”  Diego quipped.  “I have also been practicing.”        

“I can see that,” the elder de la Vega commented dryly.  “Father Francisco is here to check your foot.”         

“Tell him I will be right there, por favor.”  Diego handed the brush to Bernardo and then started back up the stairs.  The journey up was no more difficult than the trip down.          

Diego decided to show off a bit.  He went all the way up the steps to his room and after Bernardo had checked to make sure no one was there, he and Diego walked through the secret doorway and then through his room to the balcony.  Leaning over the balustrade, Diego grinned and greeted the priest.  “Hola, Padre.   I will be down in an instant.”  With no hesitation, Diego made good his promise and was soon standing before the startled cleric.              

Father Francisco just shook his head. “I can see what you have been doing with your time,” he observed with a bemused smile.  “Let me look at your foot to see if I need to give you one of Senora Barosa’s tongue-lashings.”  After removing the splints and wrappings, he felt gently to get an idea of the placement of the bones.            

Diego winced slightly.  “It only hurts a bit when you do that now,” he told the priest.  Father Francisco rewrapped the foot with clean bandages.  “Well, how much longer, Father?” he asked, hopefully.          

“Diego, my son, you must be patient,” he admonished the young man.  “Bones take time to heal, especially bones in the foot.  I explained that to you before,” he reminded young de la Vega.           

“Father Francisco, I know you did, but you still have not answered my question,” Diego gently told the priest.          

Realizing that Diego was probably as well aware of the timetable as he was, but was simply asking in the hope that the convalescence would be shorter, Father Francisco answered as positively as he could. “Well, I am happy to say that all of your boyish risk taking has done no damage.” the priest answered him happily. “But I would still guess that we are talking about another five weeks.”  Diego groaned.  “And, as long as you are careful, I think that the exercise has been good for your recovery,” the priest praised him.  “Oh, and please realize that when the four weeks are up and I think the bone has healed, then you have to work back to normal activities very gradually.  You do not want to reinjure anything by overdoing it right away, and the muscles in your leg will be weakened by that time, also.  If you follow my instructions, you will be able to do most of your normal activities in about six weeks.”           

Diego’s reaction was to stare at the priest.  Father Francisco had shortened his convalescence by a week from his initial pronouncement, but five more weeks seemed an eternity to one used to the activity that Diego had been doing since his return from Spain.  Even though he was extremely mobile under the circumstances, he nevertheless, chafed under the restrictions the injury had set upon him.   “Padre,” Diego said in mock solemnity, “you really know how to cheer me up.”          

The priest couldn’t help but laugh.  “Somehow, my son, I knew this bit of information would please you.  But, it’s something that you must keep remembering, because if you do anything foolish, it could affect you the rest of your life.”  Diego nodded in agreement.  He understood, it just didn’t make him any happier.   Father Francisco continued, “I will return in the morning to check on your progress.”

 

 

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It was the eighth morning after the surveillance began, when Paulo Wheeler decided to finish what he had come to Los Angeles to do.   He had become tired of the vaquero reporting no progress to him each evening, and he felt that the José’s heart was not in this work.  If he didn’t need him so badly, he would have been rid of him a long time ago.  So on a bright, cloudless morning, Wheeler rode out with José and another vaquero to the vantage point where José had been watching the hacienda.  They settled themselves in comfortable positions to watch, but after only a couple of hours that, which Wheeler had been waiting for, occurred. 

Don Alejandro de la Vega rode away from the hacienda with a vaquero.  Before he and José could venture down, though, a priest arrived.  Wheeler waited impatiently for a while, but when the priest didn’t leave, he decided that they could take care of the cleric, if need be, and then young de la Vega.  “Let us go and finish what should have been done a long time ago,” he growled to the vaqueros.          

They rode their horses down slowly as to not make too much noise and then approached the front of the hacienda.  Dismounting, they entered through the front gate and saw young de la Vega sitting on the patio, reading, his leg propped up on a crutch.  No one else was in sight.  Diego looked up calmly, even though he surely recognized his guests.  “Señores, what a pleasant surprise.  I know I have seen the one vaquero before,” he said, pointing to José, “but I have not had the pleasure of meeting you, Señor.  Would you care to sit down?  As soon as my manservant comes out I will order refreshments for us all,” he bantered amiably.             

“Diego de la Vega, I presume,” Wheeler said smoothly, “I believe you have had the pleasure of meeting my vaquero, José, near my hacienda, some days ago.”  He gave de la Vega credit for his composure; he acted as if a friend was stopping by to visit.           

For his part, Diego had no choice but to play this word game with Wheeler and see where he was going to go with it.  Nodding to the young vaquero, he said, “Sí, Señor, we met on the trail.  But I have not had the pleasure of making your acquaintance.”  He noticed that the vaquero looked nervous, as though he was not entirely happy to be here.  He does not like the idea of ganging up on an injured man, Diego thought to himself, grimly, And personally I do not either.           

Wheeler continued, “Actually Don Diego, we have met before also, except at that time you were in a black costume burning down my property.  I really was not appreciative of that.”  Wheeler noticed that the hacendado didn’t even flinch.           

“Señor,” Diego replied coolly, “I do not like your implications.  I am trying to understand why you would think that a landowner such as myself would burn down someone else’s property.”  Diego watched Wheeler carefully for signs of impending loss of temper; that’s when he would be most dangerous.  “But let us forget that.  Sit down, señores; make yourselves comfortable.  Let us talk of more pleasant things.”           

“Do not play word games with me, Don Diego, or rather, should I call you Zorro?”  Wheeler queried.           

Diego looked incredulous and then began to laugh.  “You flatter me greatly, Señor.  Zorro is considered by many to be a hero around this area, a man of great prowess and daring.  I have neither and am no hero.”  Now would come his display of evidence, Diego thought.           

“Come now, de la Vega,” Wheeler began, “I shot Zorro in the leg or foot and there you sit with an injured foot.  The right foot, too.  You were also seen in the vicinity of my hacienda just before the arrival of El Zorro.”          

“A coincidence, nothing more, Señor.”  Diego explained pleasantly to the man.  He saw Wheeler’s face begin to redden, and he tensed for the big fight, however short it might be.  “Please, enough of these unpleasantries.  Again I ask you; sit down and relax and we will enjoy a glass of wine together,” Diego said placatingly.           

“You are Zorro!!” Wheeler screamed, slamming his fist on the wooden table where Diego sat.  The caballero feigned surprise and grabbed his crutches from under his propped leg, quickly turning one around under the table where the move couldn’t be seen.  Wheeler was screaming again.  “Admit it, tell me you are Zorro!  Tell me!!”           

“How can I admit to something that would be impossible for me to admit to?”  Diego calmly said to Wheeler.          

“This has gone far enough!”  Wheeler pulled out his pistol from inside his belt and raised it, pulling back the hammer as he did so.

 

 

 

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