Fox Hunt

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Night and Day 1

 

Zorro decided he would take a chance on finding the mysterious hacienda on foot, even though like most Californianos, he would prefer to ride.  A horse would be heard easily on such rocky trails, especially by guards as observant as the two he already met.  He also didn't feel the trip would be too far.  The outlaw traveled along the trail in the general direction he felt the rancho or whatever the two men were protecting, must lay. 

After a walk of about an hour in the semi-darkness, he came over a ridge and looked down on a long, but narrow valley.  By the light of a waxing moon he saw a modest hacienda, with several outbuildings, probably stables and storage sheds, and a little beyond, several smaller buildings, near the fields.  Zorro surmised that those were the peons' quarters.  He was about to start down into the valley when he heard the sound of a horse just to his left on a different path; and trailing behind the horseman was a large wolfish-looking dog.  Zorro noted, with satisfaction and gratitude to the Saints above, that the breeze was traveling from the valley up the ridge so that the dog was not able to get a scent from him.  There were few dogs on the de la Vega estate for work and none for pleasure.  His father didn’t care that much for dogs, claiming that their barking was a detriment to a good night’s sleep.  He had never had a desire to have one either.   Not that he was afraid of them; there just was no reason for them on their rancho.  The thought occurred to him that this hacendado might only have big dogs for guard duty if he were hiding something.           

Zorro considered this development and realized that he would have to be very careful of the direction of the wind and of his movements.  Men were easy to fool; dogs' senses were not.  This was probably not the only guard dog on the premises, there were most likely others posted around the perimeter of the valley.               

When the guard was far enough away to suit him, Zorro quietly slipped down the trail toward the hacienda.  So far everything was quiet and remained so until he had reached the main house.  There he heard the voice of an angry man and the sound of what seemed to Zorro to be that of someone being slapped.   He risked a glance through the window nearest the sound.  The glance told him that no one was looking anywhere near the window and he took a longer look at what was transpiring.         

"Did I not tell you what I would do to you if you could not get more work from those lazy peons?" the angry man roared at a peon lying on the floor.  He paced like a caged and volatile tiger, snarling threats at the cringing peon.  The angry man, obviously the patrón of this rancho, was of medium height, about a half a foot shorter than himself.  By the standards of the day, the man might be considered ruggedly handsome, with light brown hair and gray eyes, but his intense rage made him only seem base and corrupt.  He sported a short pointed beard, which didn’t alleviate the taint of evil that the man exuded.  The patrón was a trim, well-muscled man and appeared to be quite strong. Perhaps, thought Zorro in anger, because he spends so much time beating his peons.          

Although the peon on the floor was much larger than the man who had slapped him, the former was groveling and crying in fear.  The smaller man grabbed a whip that was hanging on the wall and proceeded to give several lashes to the peon, an act which made the big man wail even louder.  The echoing cries reverberated through the night.  They also caused Zorro to keep reaching for the handle of his sword, but he felt the servant was in no harm of being killed at the present moment, and he needed to assess the total situation before rushing in to save him.          

"Please, master, I'll do better. Please, master, give me another chance, please," the peon whimpered.          

Zorro realized with horror that he was probably not witnessing the punishing of a rebellious servant, but of a slave.  He knew that many peons were treated much like slaves, but others, like those on the de la Vega rancho were housed, fed and paid salaries.  Even the indentured servants would be free after a certain period of time had elapsed, to go and make their fortunes or to continue their work for appropriate wages.  Zorro wondered if the other peons were in similar conditions as that of the cringing man.  If that were the case, then it was no wonder the valley was so heavily guarded from outsiders.  And it was no wonder he had felt the need to investigate.          

Zorro crept around the corner of the house and toward the nearest hovel.  Like the pads of a large cat, his soft-soled leather boots made no sound, and he only hoped that there were no dogs nearby.  So far there was no evidence of any, down here on the valley floor, this near the main house.  Reaching the door of the little house, Zorro heard only the sounds of tired men groaning and snoring in their exhaustion.  He also heard footsteps of someone approaching the doorway, and he slipped back outside the door to wait.  A very young peon shuffled out the door and then sensing another presence, suddenly stiffened and turned toward the outlaw. Seeing he had been discovered, Zorro quickly grabbed the young man by the arm and covered his mouth to avoid any outcry.          

The outlaw felt the fearful trembling of the boy and quickly tried to reassure him.  "Muchacho, if you promise to make no outcry, I will take away my hand," Zorro whispered in his ear.  "I only want to ask you a few questions and I promise that I will not harm you."   The young man nodded his head and Zorro slowly withdrew his hand.            

"Where were you going this late at night?" Zorro asked quietly.           

The young man pointed a trembling finger to a very small building nearby.          

"Then by all means continue, but I am trusting you to return without anyone becoming suspicious that I am here.”  The boy nodded and left Zorro without any further sound.  The outlaw slipped around the corner of the hovel and awaited the boy’s return.   The peon returned shortly.  “Let us talk here, so that we will be away from the door," Zorro whispered.   Motioning for the boy to sit down, he made a quick, but thorough perusal of the immediate area, and then joined him.        

"What goes on here?" Zorro asked anxiously.  The young man, who appeared to be only about thirteen, just looked at Zorro without speaking.  Soon tears began to roll down the boy's face and quiet sobs racked his small frame.  Zorro was a bit taken back by the young man's reaction and put his arm around the boy to try and comfort him.  "Amigo, I am called El Zorro.  I have never hurt youths before and I promise not to start now. I am only concerned by what I have seen here this night and want to know more so I can help you and your people,” he whispered in reassurance.  The boy pulled back and looked at him as though for the first time.           

The young man’s eyes widened. "You are the outlaw, Zorro, who has helped peons escape those who would mistreat them?" he asked hopefully, wiping the tears away with a grimy sleeve.           

"Sí," Zorro said, simply.           

"And you came here to free us?" The boy's voice trembled slightly, with hope.           

"First to obtain information and then we will see how best to proceed.  What is your name, muchacho?"           

"Rico, Señor Zorro."

"Rico, what is your position at this ranchero?"

"Oh, Senor, we were promised great wages when the vaqueros spoke in the plaza of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, but anyone who was foolish enough to come here has never left, at least alive, and none has received any payment.  I, myself, came to earn wages for my family and now my poor mother probably wonders if I am dead or alive."             

Zorro drew a deep breath in anger.  "Who is the so-called patrón of this rancho?" he asked, trying to calm himself.  “I am assuming it is the man with the small pointed beard and gray eyes,” he said before the boy could answer.            

"Sí, señor, that is Don Paulo Wheeler,” Rico answered.  “It is said that he came from the Indies where they use slaves brought from Africa.  Don Paulo has peon slaves working in mines in the nearby mountains.  It is whispered that he only grows cattle and grain until he finds gold or silver or anything else precious in the mines."             

This statement puzzled Zorro.  Mining was almost unheard of; everyone in California knew that if gold or silver, in any quantities existed here, the conquistadores would have already found it.  He wondered what reason Wheeler would have to think he could find those things in these mountains.  Greed made people act in strange ways.           

"Is everyone treated as the peon foreman in the hacienda was?"  Zorro asked, getting back to the problem at hand.            

"Oh, Señor Zorro, sometimes it is horrible!  I saw my uncle, he is the foreman, beaten near death.  And those who have tried to escape have the dogs of that devil set on them.  Those unfortunates do not usually live."            

Zorro realized that while he was listening, he kept clenching and unclenching his fist as though it was around the neck of an imaginary enemy.  Taking a deep breath, the outlaw realized that he had to put away his anger in order to have a clear head to make plans and carry them out methodically.  Anger had a place, but at the present time it served no purpose, except to give him the resolve to help these slaves.           

"How many peons would like to escape tonight and go back to San Luis Obispo?" Zorro asked, surprising himself at the words that came before the thought had formed.  So much for planning methodically, he thought wryly to himself.           

"Tonight?" the boy asked incredulously. "Why, all of us, I am sure, señor. But what about all of the vaqueros and their devil dogs?  The dogs are what frighten us the most.  They are like demons from hell. If it were not for the dogs we would have probably tried to escape a long time ago."           

"Yes, there must be a diversion and then if I can lead the dogs and their handlers after me, you will be able to escape.  And, muchacho, you must be sure to tell the local administrado what is going on in this valley," the outlaw told the boy.        

Zorro sat pondering for a moment, and while he was doing so, he heard the stumbling approach of someone from the hacienda.  Rico froze against the wall of the adobe hovel, while Zorro crept to the corner of the building to see who was approaching. The man leaned wearily against the doorframe and paused, which was the exact time that Rico sneezed.           

The man stared in Rico’s direction, intense fear etched in his face, and evident even in the pale moonlight.  "Who is that?" he asked, with a trembling voice.           

 “Rico, Uncle Antonio," the boy answered quietly.  He crept around the corner of the building to reassure the foreman, before he made any further outcries. "I had to come out for a moment and then you frightened me. Did the master beat you badly, Uncle?" he asked.           

"Sí, Rico, but that would not be so bad if I knew that I could keep the rest of you from being beaten when you do not please him.  It seems so hard to please Don Paulo," he sighed and slowly shuffled over to where Rico and a little beyond him, Zorro waited.           

When Antonio reached Rico, he sensed the outlaw’s presence and stiffened. "Who else is here?" he hissed.           

Zorro had decided that Antonio was someone who could be trusted in the planning of the escape as long as he could keep Don Paulo and his whip away from him. This was when he wished he had his own whip with him, feeling that it would serve a better purpose against Don Paulo's back, then at home on the wall. "Señor Antonio, I am a friend.  I have come to attempt to help you and your people escape," Zorro explained quietly.           

"Uncle Antonio, it is El Zorro," Rico whispered excitedly.  “He....”          

Zorro interrupted Rico.  "Antonio, tell me more about this landowner, Paulo Wheeler.  His name and accent sound foreign.  Is he from the British Indies?"           

"Sí, Señor Zorro, that is what I have been able to learn.  Señor Paulo is of the opinion that the land is only good for the money it can earn him, and that paying wages to peons is wasteful.  I hear that he believes that all peons should be slaves, as black men are in the Indies."  Antonio told him.  "He also has an evil temper, like that of the vicious wolverine, and if you are able to help us escape, he will follow you to the ends of the Earth to get revenge."           

"I will have to deal with that when the time comes."  Inwardly Zorro had confidence that volatile men such as Señor Wheeler usually ended up making deadly mistakes in the end.  That had always been the case in the past.           

"What is your plan, Señor Zorro," Antonio asked, hopefully.           

Zorro thought quickly.  It would be unwise to let these two know that he had not really formulated a clear plan, but he did have several ideas that together might work. "Antonio, is that building over there near the hacienda the stables?" he asked.           

"Sí, Señor Zorro.  They also keep the kennels for the dogs along the back wall of the stables.  As you probably already know, this and the next building are where the peon slaves sleep.  That building to the north of the stables is the vaqueros’ quarters.  About a third of them work at night and the rest work during the day."          

“Do any of the dogs roam free down here, near the hacienda?”  Zorro questioned.   The two peons shook their heads, no.           

"Do all of your people know routes away from here?  You need to pick two or three trails that you feel would be easiest to escape along, and if necessary, hide on," Zorro explained.            

"But Señor Zorro, if we try to hide, they will find us with their dogs," Antonio moaned.           

"If I am able to arouse Don Paulo's wrath enough, most of the vaqueros and their dogs will follow me.  Once I get to my horse, no dog will ever be able to catch me."  Zorro wished he felt as confident as he sounded.  "Go to the other building, Rico, and as quietly as you can, rouse everyone.  Tell them to be ready to leave as soon as they get the signal.  Antonio, you do the same in this building.  Do you think they will listen to you?"           

"Sí, Señor Zorro, and the few who would tell Don Paulo to curry his favor, we will tie up and make sure that they can do nothing to prevent our escape,” Rico declared, fervently.         

“I saw what appeared to be a tool or ammunition shed near the stable.  Which is it?”  Zorro queried.           

“A tool shed, señor, but it is always kept locked,” Rico answered.            

“If I can, I will break in and bring what I am able to carry for you to use as weapons,” Zorro explained.            

“Bueno,” Rico replied.            

“What will the signal be?” Antonio asked anxiously.          

“I believe that tonight is a good night for a bonfire,” Zorro said with a grim smile.  “I will release the horses before I light a fire in the stable.  What your people must do is wait for the guards to come after me and then keep to the shadows until you get to your chosen trails.   You must do everything in your power to get to San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.  Talk to the padres there; they will help to intercede for you at the Presidio de Santa Barbara.  If anyone comes after you, then you must do whatever you have to do in order ensure your escape.  If you can catch any of the horses, that will help you and it will mean that fewer vaqueros will be able to follow me.  If any dogs chase you, use sticks, rocks, anything you can to kill them.  A group of you can kill a dog where one person cannot.   Do you understand this?”          

“Sí, Senor Zorro,” Rico and Antonio answered together.  “We will do as you say.  And may God go with you.”   They both quietly crept away.           

Zorro did the same toward the tool shed.  When he reached it, he found that it was indeed locked, but was able to work the point of his knife under the hasp and pry the nails loose from the semi-rotted wood.  You would think that with all of the money saved by not paying peon workers, that Paulo Wheeler could build decent buildings, Zorro thought in grim amusement. Quickly, he gathered all of the tools that might conceivably be used as weapons.  It took two trips to carry everything, but he was able to do it in relative quiet.  By the time he had made his second trip, most of the peons had been told of the plans and eagerly took the offered ‘weapons.’              

Zorro next crept toward the stable.  Inside the doorway he found a lantern and flint and steel.  Carefully, he poured the oil over some straw and put the flint and steel inside his sash.  Then he quietly approached the horses and untied them.  Most of the animals were docile enough that they didn’t protest someone coming in the middle of the night and entering their stall.  A few he had to take time to soothe before he left them.   In order to avoid mistakes, he did all of this slowly and methodically.   When he got to the last horse, which, by quick inspection, seemed to be sound, he led it near the back of the stable, where he had poured the oil.  Zorro found a suitable bridle, and put it on the horse, but he didn’t bother with a saddle, hoping to be away from the rancho and to his own horses soon enough to make saddling this animal unnecessary.  He surmised that he had been in the stable more than long enough for all of the peons to have gathered and be awaiting his signal.              

Zorro found a stick and some rags.  With a piece of hemp, he tied the rag around one end of the stick.  Next he struck the flint and steel together and fanned the resulting sparks until they caught in the straw.  Then he thrust his makeshift torch into the fire.  As soon as the torch was lit, Zorro vaulted onto the back of the increasingly nervous horse and with a loud yell, urged the other horses out of the stable.  Many things happened at once, Zorro noted with a great deal of pleasure.  The oil in the straw was quickly creating a conflagration in the stable, the dogs were yelping and howling in fear and anger, and vaqueros began pouring out of their quarters, like a small colony of ants from a disturbed hive.          

Zorro also noticed that Señor Wheeler had rushed out onto the patio of his hacienda.  Now is the dangerous moment, Zorro thought as he wheeled his horse towards the man.  Thowing the torch into what he hoped was material dry enough to start a fire in the hacienda; he then turned his attention to Wheeler.           

"Señor Wheeler, you have tortured and enslaved these peons long enough. Now feel the wrath of Zorro," he thundered in as loud a voice as he could in the tumult.  He drew his sword and slashed a Z on the man's vest.  "Señor, you will treat your workers fairly or I will return and make you wish that you had never left the Indies."  To increase the man's ire, he laughed and with the horse's shoulder, knocked Wheeler to the ground.  When he saw Wheeler struggle up and reach for something in his belt, Zorro realized that it was probably a pistol and the time for a quick departure was at hand.  He only prayed that Antonio and Rico were successful by this time, in their efforts to lead the peons out of the valley.           

At almost the same time, Zorro heard two pistol shots, one from behind him, presumably Señor Wheeler, and one in front of him, probably a guard.  At that moment, Zorro felt the horse miss a stride and lurch a little to the right, almost unseating him.  Quickly surmising that the horse had taken a ball in its right flank, he deduced that this animal would be of service to him for only a short distance.  This was very unfortunate, he thought grimly to himself, as he had counted on this animal to know the way up these trails in the dark better than he himself did. 

 

 

 

Chapter Three
Chapter One
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