Fox Hunt





Chapter 20





When Wheeler raised his pistol, Diego leaned forward slightly in his chair and, reaching under the table with one of the crutch, jerked Wheeler’s legs out from under him.  As Wheeler fell backwards, the pistol discharged harmlessly into the air.  Diego quickly leaned the crutches against his leg and in one smooth motion pulled the whip out from under the table and snapped it on the nearer vaquero’s wrist causing his pistol to discharge in the air, also.  He pushed the table towards the pair, knocking them down again as they were getting to their feet.  Wheeler got up cursing, and drew his sword.  José had a taste of the whip as Diego dumped him on the ground, also.          

“You may have a few tricks, El Zorro, but I will kill you in the end.”  Wheeler screamed.           

“Perhaps you may, Señor, but you will learn the hard way that you have bested a de la Vega,” Diego assured him grimly.  He plied the whip against his assailant’s ankles and dropped Wheeler to the ground yet again.  It was then that he saw that one of the vaqueros had slunk around trying to get in back of him.  Diego snapped the whip to get him to back away, but this time the vaquero was ready for him and he grabbed the whip in a tight enough grip to jerk the hacendado to the ground if he didn’t let go.  Diego chose to let go.          

Diego grabbed the crutches and jumped up.  As he backed up against one of the pillars holding up the balcony, he decided on one last protest.  “I wish I could convince you that you are trying to kill the wrong man if you are after Zorro.  I am not Zorro.”          

“You are a lying dog, Señor Zorro.”  Wheeler cried and moved toward him with his sword ready.           

The vaquero saw the usefulness of the whip and began to use it against Diego.  It snapped against his left leg, and he bit back a cry.  He reached back for a set of bolas that had been left hanging from a peg on the pillar.  He and Bernardo had worked with them lately and he felt he had gotten rather good at their use.  This situation would prove how well he had learned.  Grabbing the weapon and stepping away from the pillar he began to swing them in a perfect rhythm.  As the unnamed vaquero was getting ready to ply the whip again, Diego let the bolas fly.  They slammed against the man’s head and wrapped around him several times, dropping him like a stone.  Diego smiled, fear of the South American weapon kept the other two away from him for a moment.            

Diego was tempted to try to retrieve the whip, but saw Wheeler anticipating the move, and ready to cut him off.  Wheeler lunged at him and Diego used one of the crutches as a staff, hitting him in the solar plexus.  Bent over and gasping, Wheeler was forced to back up until he could recover his breath.  Diego moved to the side, watching José, who had unsheathed a sword.   He stopped when he felt another column against his back.             

Groping around the back of the rough-cut pillar with one hand, he felt the handle of the epée that was left there just this morning, after he had practiced with Bernardo in his room.  At that moment, José came at him, a sword in his hand. A glance showed that Wheeler had regained his breath and was advancing from his right.  As he threw a crutch along the flagstones of the patio, it skittered against Jose’s ankles, causing him to stumble, and giving Diego a chance to concentrate on Wheeler alone.  The vaquero’s sword flew out of his hands and slid behind Diego.           

Leaning slightly on the one crutch, he was able to parry Wheeler’s thrusts and make short advances of his own. For a moment, Diego thought he might be able to hold his own against this madman, but then Wheeler came close and slashed at him, forcing Diego to jump back.  He hit the column with enough force to knock the breath out of him and Diego lowered his guard.  In that instant, Wheeler reached in with his weapon and jerked the sword out of his hand, forcing Diego to revert to the crutch as a defensive weapon.  After what seemed an interminably long time of the holding off the angry hacendado, he realized that his adversary would be able to wear him down eventually, despite all of the rigorous training that he had put himself through.  It was wearing him down to balance on one foot and fight for such an extended period, but a part of him was pleased that he had been able to hold his own for this length of time, and he couldn’t withhold a grin of pleasure.           

“José, you fool, come help me,” Don Paulo shouted.  Diego had not realized that José was watching from where he had fallen.  The vaquero slowly got up and approached the dueling pair.          

Diego realized that if Wheeler were less angry and more methodical, then he would have accomplished his goal of killing him by now.  It was only a matter of time before he lost his balance and fell.  Even as the thought passed through his mind, his opponent lunged at him, and he went down trying to avoid the blow.  Wheeler was almost immediately on him with an evil laugh that echoed across the patio.   Diego again used the crutch, catching the hacendado in the chest and throwing him backwards.  Adrenalin provided extra strength to his arms and good leg, and using the crutch, Diego was able to spring up in time to meet José’s attack.  Feeling the pillar against his left shoulder, the caballero leaned against it as José came at him.  The vaquero threw a solid punch, intending to connect with his jaw, but Diego anticipated his move and ducked under his blow.  José screamed as his fist slammed against the hard wood pillar, snapping bones.  As the vaquero sank down to his knees in agony, Wheeler threw a punch of his own and caught Diego in the jaw, knocking him to the ground once more.           

Standing over him with his sword ready for the thrust, he began laughing. “Only Zorro could have continued to fight against me like this.”  Wheeler laughed insanely, “But as you see, in the end I am going to kill Zorro.”          

Unless something happened to change the situation, Diego was afraid that Wheeler might be right.  Remotely, Diego felt the end of one of his crutches against the back of his head, but knew he would not be able to reach for and use it before the sword point being held at his chest was thrust into his body.  Then Diego was startled by a voice from the stairway.   “Stop, Señor Wheeler, or I will be forced to shoot you.”   He saw Wheeler look up and he quickly glanced up too.  And what he saw astonished him, because he was looking at Zorro.  It was like looking at himself.  Apparently, Wheeler couldn’t believe it either.           

“No, it cannot be true,” he stammered.  “It is a trick, a trick!  I will not be cheated!”           

He turned back to Diego, who had just a few seconds to prepare for the next attack.  A few seconds was all that he needed to finish this, for he had remembered Señora Barosa’s admonition about taking care of his enemy with ‘the big sticks’ as she called them. Reaching back and grabbing the crutch, Diego thrust it under Wheeler’s jaw and gave a hard push.  The hacendado was again thrown off balance, but Wheeler didn’t just fall down as before.  Diego had miscalculated, in that he was much stronger in his shoulders than he had been a week earlier, and the impetus of the blow threw his enemy against a rock planter in the middle of the patio.  Wheeler sank limply to the flagstones. All of the adrenaline that had sustained him during the fight with Wheeler and the vaqueros was gone. This time Diego was unable to get up without help, so he simply sat on the hard ground assimilating the fact that he had actually survived this.            

By this time, Zorro had reached him.  “Are you all right, Don Diego?”  Zorro asked him in concern, helping him to a sitting position.  Staring wide-eyed at the outlaw who was supposed to be himself, all he could do was nod, not believing what he was seeing.  At about this time, the gate burst open and Lt. Lopez, Sgt. Garcia, Alejandro and several lancers burst into the patio.  Alejandro’s jaw dropped when he saw his son and Zorro next to each other.  Stunned, he knew it wasn’t Bernardo masquerading to cover for Diego, because this Zorro was more the size of Diego.  Lt. Lopez, too, was incredulous, because he had not thought that Zorro could have recovered that quickly. Zorro bowled several of the lancers to the ground as he rushed out the gate and disappeared around the corner of the hacienda.  Diego continued staring at the gate where the outlaw had exited.           

Alejandro asked Diego the same question that Zorro had.  This time the younger de la Vega found his voice.  “Sí, father, I am fine, thanks to Zorro,” he stammered, and then he started to laugh.  He continued to laugh until the tears ran down his cheeks.  Lt. Lopez looked nervously at Don Diego and wondered if this confrontation had maybe unsettled the young caballero’s mind.  Alejandro sent one of the lancers into the hacienda to get some wine, and Diego composed himself enough to ask Sgt. Lopez for a hand getting up.  His father pulled a chair over for him to sit in, and then Diego surveyed the scene thoroughly, realizing what he had done.  He nodded to Sgt. Garcia, who had bent down to check the Paulo Wheeler. “Is he dead?” he asked. 

“Sí, Don Diego,” Garcia said, his eyes large in disbelief.  

A lancer handed Diego a cup of wine, which he took gratefully.  “I cannot believe I did this.  I really did not mean to kill him.  I only meant to knock him out,” he murmured, “I cannot believe that I am still alive.”           

“But I thought you said Zorro saved you?”  Sgt. Lopez asked.            

“He did, Sergeant.”  Diego answered in bemusement, “he distracted Wheeler enough for me to use my crutch like a staff.  I remembered a friend’s advice to use the crutches against my enemies, and Zorro gave me enough time to do that.”          

Corporal Reyes looked at Diego in open amazement.  “You mean, Don Diego, that you fought against all of them by yourself, and with an injured foot?”           

“No, no, Corporal, Zorro helped me, but I was very lucky in my part of this fight.”  Diego explained, suddenly remembering the part that he was supposed to play.  “It was a lucky thing that in my boredom of late, that I let Bernardo teach me how to use a whip, which, also luckily, happened to be sitting on the table.  It was also luck that Zorro showed up when he did.”           

“I would argue with you on that one, my son,” Father Francisco said from the door of the sala, “I think it was God who guided you and Zorro against that madman and his vaqueros.  I hope you are all right.  Bernardo had taken me to the wine cellar to get some wine for the Mission and we did not even know what was going on until it was all over.”           

Bernardo handed a handkerchief to Diego, who used it to wipe the sweat from his face.  Looking intently at his mozo, he nodded his gratitude.   “By the way, Lt. Lopez, what brought you out here at a most fortuitous time?” he asked the soldier.            

“I was on my way to your hacienda because a messenger had arrived just this morning from Santa Barbara with orders to capture and arrest Paulo Wheeler for slavery and murder,” Lieutenant Lopez explained.  “I had also received information that Señor Wheeler and a vaquero had been most interested in the activities of the de la Vegas.  When I was told that Wheeler had ridden out of the pueblo this morning in the direction of your hacienda, I felt that your lives might be in danger.  I met Don Alejandro on the way, and we all rode back together.  But it seems that you and Zorro had things well in hand.” 

Father Francisco made a hasty examination of Diego’s foot, without taking off the bandage, while Lopez was making his explanation.  The priest got up with a satisfied look on his face.  “Señora Barosa was right,” he declared smugly, “beware of caballeros with crutches.  Please do not get angry with me in the next few weeks.” 

“Father Francisco,” Diego said somberly, “I would never do anything against you.  I had to stop him, though.  There was absolutely nothing that I could say or do to convince him to not kill me.  And he just about succeeded.”  Diego’s voice took on a slightly puzzled tone.  “If Zorro had not shown up when he did, I think that Wheeler would have won.  Zorro saved me.…” Diego’s voice trailed off.           

Lt. Lopez got up.  “Don Alejandro, if you will excuse us, we shall take the dead man and the prisoners back to the pueblo.”  He instructed the lancers to tie the body of Paulo Wheeler onto his horse. After unwrapping the bolas from around the head of the vaquero, the lancer reported that he was not dead, but had a head wound and would need medical attention.  Father Francisco checked him over and bandaged the wound, also taking care of José, who was still softly moaning in the corner of the patio.   “They will need to be taken into the pueblo in a carriage,” he announced.  “Don Alejandro, would you mind the lancers borrowing one of your carriages?” 

“No, of course not, just get them out of here,” Alejandro said vehemently. “And when that one wakes up, please tell both of these men that they should think twice next time before taking on a member of my family.”  He smiled broadly at Diego, who smiled weakly back at his father.  “Oh, and Lt. Lopez,” Alejandro added, “Take one of the servants, so that he can bring back the carriage and save one of your lancers the trouble of returning it.”  Lopez nodded his thanks and got up to leave.   He left, leaving the lancers behind.   While the lancers carried the injured vaqueros out to the carriage a servant had brought around to the gate, Alejandro and Father Francisco made small talk.  Diego was speechless, still trying to assimilate what had happened.          

“Many pardons, Señores,” Sgt. Garcia said a bit later, “but we will take the prisoners and the body of Señor Wheeler back to the pueblo now, with your permission.”           

“Yes, Sergeant, go ahead,” Alejandro said with a wave of his hand. “And thank you for your expeditious help in this matter.”           

After the lancers left, Don Alejandro signed to Bernardo to make sure that the little group wasn’t overheard or interrupted.  When Bernardo gave an all clear sign, Alejandro looked at everybody sharply, and then said to the group in general, “There goes Lt. Lopez, a man who now knows that Diego is not Zorro, although I imagine he is puzzled as to Zorro’s quick recovery.”  Pausing a moment, he then continued more seriously,  “I know, by the way Diego reacted, that he was as shocked by the appearance of Zorro as I was, but by the Saints, can anyone explain what happened?”  Bernardo had a knowing smile on his face, and Father Francisco coughed in embarrassment.            

Diego looked incredulously at the priest as the truth dawned on him.  “It was you!!” he exclaimed, and he looked at Bernardo, signing, “And you were in on it, too.”  Bernardo nodded acknowledgment.  “Father Francisco, you were willing to kill Wheeler to save me?” he asked. “I appreciate that more than you could ever know.”          

“I heard Señor Wheeler come in with his hired vaqueros,” the priest explained, “and the only thought that came into my mind was that I knew we had to have more than just our hands to fight this evil monster.  I made Bernardo understand that we needed the weapons of Zorro to use against Wheeler.  He took me through the hidden door of the sala and up to a secret room.  That was when it struck me that if Wheeler saw Zorro and Diego in the same place that he would give up his quest of vengeance against Diego.  I had no idea of the unhinged state of his mind.  We were able to listen to most of what was going on through the open door,” he explained, pointing to Diego’s bedroom door and then continued.  “Bernardo and I were afraid that we would be too late when we heard him screaming at you.  I doubt that even you have changed into the costume as quickly as I did-- with Bernardo’s help, of course.  And we almost had apoplexy when we heard the pistol shots.  When we came out of your room and I started down the stairs, I almost did not say anything.  In fact, I didn’t think you were going to need my help until he had you on the ground.  To use a chess term, you were almost in checkmate.”              

“I was in checkmate, Father,” Diego said and then did a double take.  “You mean that you watched some of that and didn’t do anything?!”            

“Diego, my son, you were magnificent,” Father Francisco exclaimed.  “I was there with a pistol,” he looked serious, “and I would have used it if I had to, but you were doing so well. And I was also afraid that as long as it’s been since I practiced with a pistol, I would accidentally hit you.”  Father Francisco paused and looked intently at Diego.  “There were several times that I almost interrupted.  Whether you consciously realized it or not, Diego, I knew you wanted to bring this to a conclusion yourself, and not have someone else do it for you.”  The priest sat back with a smile.  “Now I know why you have succeeded in this clandestine business of yours for all this time.”  He paused.  “And there was also your identity to protect.  Bernardo saw the arrival of Lt. Lopez, and I knew that having Zorro here with you would dispel any last speculations about whether you and Zorro are the same person.”            

“Father Francisco, there is certainly nothing wrong with your analysis,” Diego admitted with a smile.  “You are right, I did hope to have some part in stopping that madman.”  He sobered quickly.  “I am grateful for your intervention.”    

“God was leading this battle, just as he has been leading the battle for justice for the years of your service . . . and before,” the priest declared.   Bernardo brought out a tray with glasses of wine for everybody.  Father Francisco took one of the glasses of wine and held it up.  “I propose a toast,” he said, “to Diego de la Vega.”  

“To Diego, my son,” added Alejandro proudly.   Diego just looked embarrassed.           

Bernardo then raised his glass, and made the sign of a  Z”, for Zorro.  Diego laughed heartily, “To Zorro then, whoever he may be at the moment.”  And everyone raised their glasses to El Zorro, the fox. 


El Fin



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