Fox Hunt






Chapter 3



Even though he realized the horse was in some pain, Zorro had no choice but to continue, at the same time straining for a glimpse of the unknown assailant ahead.  He still had his sword unsheathed, in readiness, because he knew the guard would not just stand idly by and let him ride past.

And indeed, he didn't, for Zorro suddenly heard a growling ahead of him and the next thing he knew, a large object had slammed into him, hurling him to the ground.  An enormous dog backed up several paces as though preparing to attack, and although he was gasping for air, having the wind completely knocked out of him, Zorro struggled to stand up and face the dog and the guard, whom he had yet to see in the dark shadows. Zorro was still trying to gather enough air into his lungs for a confrontation when a voice said, "Attack, Morte."      

The large dog lunged at him as he grabbed the sword from the ground beside him and rolled under the creature.  The startled dog jumped over him snapping its huge jaws, but Zorro had gained just enough seconds to enable him to thrust the blade under the dog's neck, even as he was rolling beneath him, and in one quick stroke, finish him.  Jumping to his feet in an instant, the masked man faced his assailant who also had a sword out.  The light was dim in the shadows of the rocky outcroppings, but Zorro was able to make out enough of the movements of the vaquero to be surer of the outcome of this fight.  "Señor, I do not wish to kill you and I will let you go if you drop your sword and walk down the trail toward the hacienda.  My dispute was with your employer, not you," Zorro said.            

"You will die, bandito, once for attacking the hacienda and again for killing my dog," the vaquero growled, and then lunged forward with his saber.  The man had a little fencing skill, but it was apparent that he was fighting in rage and not because he was confident of victory.  Soon Zorro had disarmed him with a cut to the wrist, and he tossed his enemy’s sword away as an extra precaution.           

"I will now take your horse, señor.  Adios," Zorro said, as he vaulted into the saddle of the vaquero's horse that had been standing nearby.  Zorro rode a few yards, and as the trail crested, he looked back to see what the situation was in the valley behind him.  A three-quarter moon was beginning to peek through the thinning clouds, and Zorro was astonished to see that many of the horses had been caught and that there were at least ten vaqueros almost ready to give chase.  It appeared by the yelping and howling noises that there were also several dogs available to help.           

"It is cursed luck tonight," Zorro murmured to himself.  Still I do have a head start and a great deal of practice being in fox hunts, he thought grimly, as he wheeled his horse around and headed down the trail.  What Zorro didn’t know was that the peons, with new confidence and weapons, had killed almost all of the dogs that had not died in the fire and had stolen about half of the horses.  The outlaw had simply misjudged the number of animals that Señor Wheeler had on his rancho.              

If the moon was a help to his enemies, it was an even greater help to Zorro, who was in unfamiliar territory.  He was able to see that this was the same trail he had followed in his search for the rancho and that it led him back to the place where he had made his camp earlier in the day.  The outlaw was tempted to change clothes and assume the role of Diego de la Vega, feigning innocence and surprise, but realized that while the men might be fooled, the tracking dogs probably wouldn’t, so he quickly untethered his horses and tied the lead to his saddle.  This would leave his hands free if it became necessary to fight.  The trail back to the highway was quickly negotiated, and he proceeded to ride as swiftly as he could on the smooth roadway.  It was very late; he surmised that it was well after midnight, and the likelihood of anyone else being on the El Camino Real would be remote.  If he could ride swiftly through the remainder of the night, he should get a fairly good lead on his pursuers before dawn.  Grimly, Zorro realized that there was no doubt in his mind that he would be pursued.         

After riding at a fast gallop for some miles, Zorro felt his ‘borrowed’ horse tiring swiftly.  With regret he pulled the animal to the side of the road and dismounted.  Checking the saddlebags, he found a pistol and extra powder and shot, as well as a waterskin and some trail bread, for which he was grateful.   Zorro realistically felt that he had most likely tackled an adversary who was not going to give up easily.  It was also likely that Señor Wheeler had the resources to continue this chase a great deal of the way to Los Angeles.  He would be in the saddle for long time.            

Quickly uncinching the borrowed horse's saddle, he let it drop to the ground and then took the bridle and threw it off the road.  Removing the provisions, he added them to the saddlebags of his own horses.  Then using the flat of his sword, he urged the vaquero's spent horse on down the road ahead of him.  Rapidly mounting, Zorro listened a moment for pursuit and was able to hear the quick bark of a dog in the distance, but that was all.  Feeling that he must have a lead of at least three or four miles on his pursuers, he nevertheless urged his mounts ahead quickly and soon passed the vaquero’s worn out horse.  With any luck, the exhausted horse would soon stop and rest near the highway.  Investigating a horse belonging to the rancho of Paulo Wheeler would hopefully lose his enemies a small amount of valuable time.           

The de la Vega trail horses were extremely hardy, but they, too, had been well used for several days, even though part of the time without a rider.  Zorro knew that he would soon have to try to find a safe place where men and dogs could not find him, so that the horses could rest for a short while.   Zorro took the chance of slowing down to a slow cantor to conserve their energy, knowing that Wheeler's men would eventually have to do the same thing.           

The sky was just beginning to lighten with the dawn when Zorro spotted a small creek leading to a pond, which he guided the horses into.  The water came halfway up to the horse's bellies and the grateful animals dipped their muzzles into the water and took a drink.  Zorro quickly filled the water skin and forced the horses’ heads up from the pond.  "Do not fill up here, faithful ones.  This chase is not done yet, and I fear that we have many more miles to go," Zorro told the horses.             

He guided them out of the pond at the opposite end and a quick perusal of the area showed him that he could cut across country for quite a few miles before having to return to the highway.  Hopefully, the trip through the pond would have the effect of confusing the trailing dogs for a few minutes, and leaving the highway might also confuse the vaqueros a bit, although he doubted it.






Don Paulo Wheeler surveyed the damage to his hacienda with barely controlled rage.  Like lava in an angry volcano, his wrath simmered and bubbled just beneath a thin veneer of self-control. His stable was nothing but rubble; his kennel was also destroyed.  Most of the hacienda had been saved but that did not assuage his fury at the man who in just a few moments had done this much damage to him.  "Ramón!" he bellowed at a nearby vaquero, one who had been helping to put out the fires.                

"Coming, Don Paulo,” the vaquero tried to wipe soot from his face as he ran up to Wheeler.   Ramon was very quick to obey; he knew the temper of his employer.           

"Tell me quickly about this Zorro, this devil who dared to invade my rancho."  Wheeler wanted to scream in rage, kick something, anything to get rid of the fury inside him, but he knew that would be futile in his quest to exact revenge on Zorro.  And more than anything else, he wanted desperately to get revenge on this black-clad masked man.           

"Señor," the vaquero began, "Zorro is usually seen further south than this, nearer to the Pueblo de Los Angeles."  The vaquero cringed a little as he saw Don Paulo's face take on an even deeper shade of red, and hurried on with his report.  "I have heard that Zorro is the protector of the oppressed and those unjustly accused.  I have also heard that some of the peons believe that he is almost supernatural, because he has never been caught, or defeated in a sword fight, or any kind of a fight for that matter.  It is said that the peons feel that Zorro is their champion."           

"Peons?  Did you say peons?"  Wheeler swung around and looked towards the peons' quarters.  "Where are the peons?" he roared.           

Another vaquero ran up to Wheeler.  "Don Paulo, we have been able to capture about twelve of the horses, but all of the dogs in the kennels are dead.  The peons have disappeared; they have apparently fled into the mountains.  I believe that they may have taken some of the horses."           

Wheeler had had enough.  The volcano inside of him exploded, and with a roar, he struck the second vaquero with a blow hard enough to send him to the ground unconscious. "Everyone of you who can ride, come here immediately."  As a group of vaqueros gathered around, the beginning of a plan started forming in his mind, and the plan would work if they used speed in its execution.               

"We will divide into two groups.  I will lead one group quickly to the Presidio de Santa Barbara, where I will lay my just cause before the comandante.  As much as I would like to catch and skewer this Zorro myself, I know that would not be practical.  I will be just as happy to see this devil hang in the Presidio.  Manuel will lead the second group, since he is the best tracker in California."  Wheeler paused for breath before continuing.  "Manuel, you will start in the direction that we last saw this cursed Zorro go.  There is only one trail in that direction that leads directly to the highway.  I am sure that he will proceed with haste towards Los Angeles since that is the area that he is most familiar with.  The rest of you will stay here and try to round up any more stray horses or escaped peons. Get this hacienda in readiness for the time when I return with news of Zorro's death."          

Another vaquero stumbled into the group.  He was holding his wrist, which was bleeding. "Don Paulo," he panted.  "El Zorro took my horse after he killed Morte and wounded me.  I tried to stop him, but he is like the devil himself.  Even after Morte knocked him from his horse, he was able to do this!"           

"I will kill him, even if it means tracking him to the depths of hell and back,” Wheeler hissed.  "No one does this to Paulo Wheeler and lives to boast of it."           

He turned to the vaquero, Manuel.  "Take four of the best men and eight of the best horses, and get on this man's trail. If you catch up with him before I join you, then go ahead and kill him but make sure that you take his body to the nearest garrison.  I am sure there is a reward for this cursed pest, and it will do my heart good to use the money to build up the rancho again."  He laughed at the thought, and continued laughing as Manuel and his men rode away in the same direction that Zorro had taken.  The sound became more sinister as it echoed and re-echoed off the rocks.            

Manuel had taken just enough time to fill and light a good lantern.  It would be hard to track in the dark, but he also had a healthy enough fear of Senor Wheeler to know that waiting for dawn would be suicide, if Don Paulo found out, and, of course, he would with four other vaqueros riding with him.  The tracker also took the three remaining dogs with him.  Their noses would be invaluable in saving time, even though he was confident that he could find this Zorro without their help.            

It was still an hour or so before the dawn when the group reached the campsite of Don Diego.  Manuel carefully studied the ground, even though the other vaqueros were restless and grumbling.           

"Quiet!"  Manuel ordered them.  "A small amount of precaution now will save much explanation of failure to Don Paulo later."  He noted with a grim smile that the threat had stilled them quickly.           

It was easy to see that Zorro had had two horses waiting at this site, and that he continued to use the horse he had stolen from the rancho.  And he could tell from the prints that they were well taken care of traveling horses, ones used for long distances.   One had only been recently shod, and  "Ahh,” Manuel sighed in satisfaction.  "I will have you yet, fox."  He grinned as he held the lantern close to a hoof-print with a flaw on one side, one that had the appearance of a cut in the side of the horseshoe.  How fortunate that the blacksmith used inferior iron, thought Manuel.   The dogs barked in anticipation, as though they felt Manuel's elation.  "It doesn't matter what El Zorro does; as long as he has this animal, I will be able to follow him quite easily.   Let us go down to the highway to make sure of the direction of Zorro's flight."           

Manuel’s eyes gleamed as he thought ahead to the hunt.  Like the dogs, he felt great anticipation in running his quarry down and making the capture, and though he thought that Zorro would be worthy of his talents, Manuel knew that this fox would, in the end, be his.




Chapter Four
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