Capitan Enrico Gregorio was a man used to being obeyed. He was an extremely strict disciplinarian almost to the point of being tyrannical, and any man under his command who could not stand the rigid rules he established was shipped to Los Angeles or some other backwater garrison. His personal appearance also showed a strict attention to detail; his mustache and beard were trimmed to exactness each morning, and soldiers claimed that they could see themselves in his shiny buttons and buckles, if they had the courage to get that close to their comandante to try and do it.
It was rumored that the soldier unlucky enough to be caught sleeping while on guard duty or who was late to inspection had to measure the length of his hair to see how many inches the comandante had cut off with the sharp edge of his tongue.
So it was with some surprise that the comandante’s aide allowed Don Paulo Wheeler to burst in without making him wait to be announced. Gregorio shot a warning glance at the sergeant, before dismissing him with a wave of his hand.
“Comandante,” Wheeler blustered, not allowing the captain any time to say anything. “I demand that your men protect the haciendas of this area against the depredations of outlaws such as that devil, Zorro! In one night he has destroyed what it has taken me an entire year of work and money to build! It is outrageous!”
Gregorio’s eyes widened in quick surprise. He immediately controlled the response. “Zorro, here?” he asked, still incredulous. Arrogantly, he had assumed that Zorro would never dare come into the territory under his jurisdiction. His vigilant efforts to maintain order with the well-trained and disciplined soldiers under his command should have precluded that. Apparently he was wrong.
“Sí, Comandante.” Wheeler spoke more quietly now. He had most certainly managed to get the attention of the commander of the Presidio de Santa Barbara. “He deliberately and maliciously sneaked onto my rancho last night, burned most of the buildings, frightened all my peons away, destroyed part of my livestock and wounded some of my vaqueros.” He paused for breath, as well as for effect, which, of course, was not lost on the comandante, who prided himself on the strict enforcement of rules and regulations.
“How could this travesty be? Here in my district?!” Gregorio half rose from his seat, his features showing his indignation. “Sergeant,” he bellowed.
Sergeant Martinez opened the door immediately, his eyes the only thing showing his fear at the summons. “Sí, Comandante.” He was statue still after his salute.
“Sergeant Martinez, muster two groups of ten lancers each. Inform them they must be ready before the noon bell rings to ride after the outlaw, Zorro. I will inspect the troops fifteen minutes before they ride.” He looked at his pocket watch and then glanced back up at his aide de camp. “That gives them only five minutes, Sergeant.”
“Sí, Comandante,” the sergeant answered,
saluted again and left. Gregorio
had no doubt the orders would be carried out to perfection by the time
he left his office.
“Now, Don Paulo, in order to save my lancers
time, which direction did El Zorro take when he finished the destruction
of your rancho?” Gregorio
had calmed down and pondered the hacendado’s
words in the few minutes it had taken him to give his orders.
There was no doubt in his mind that the outlaw had damaged Don
Paulo’s holdings, but surmised the peons had either been helped to
escape or had taken the opportunity when it presented itself.
The Capitan was strict almost to the point of harshness, but the
reputation of this foreigner from the British Indies made his own
character seem almost angelic. The
rumor was that the peons on the Wheeler rancho were treated like slaves,
which was technically against the law, but he didn’t doubt that they
were true. Unfortunately,
Gregorio had been unable to prove their veracity.
And there were too many other pressing matters to deal with to be
checking up on rumors.
Despite himself, Gregorio began to feel an almost begrudging admiration for this Zorro, who was able to accomplish so much single-handedly against such great odds. He wished he had such determined and courageous men under his command. However, his own sense of military discipline would brook no disharmony in the order he kept in his district.
Wheeler looked carefully at the stony-faced comandante before answering. “He stole one of my horses and was traveling on a south-bound trail out of the valley. Since he is normally seen in the vicinity of the Pueblo de Los Angeles, it was my assumption that he is heading that way. I have an expert tracker following him. If anyone can track the fox to his lair, it is Manuel. But of course your lancers will run him into the ground and take him first,” he added hastily, to placate the comandante.
“My lancers are well trained and well disciplined, unlike those buffoons in the cuartel of Los Angeles, which is probably why the outlaw has not been captured yet. If he comes anywhere near my troops, they will have him.” Gregorio answered Don Paulo. He wasn’t fooled by the conciliatory tones of the hacendado and was irritated by the man’s clumsy attempt to flatter him. Gregorio had quickly formed an opinion of Señor Wheeler, first when he had come into the district and paid for the land in the mountainous valley and now, and he found himself despising the man. “If you will excuse me, Señor, I am going to give my lancers their instructions.” And Capitán Gregorio left Don Paulo Wheeler standing in his office.
Wheeler cursed the comandante’s seeming lack of passion in this quest, especially after his initial outburst. But he knew the lancers would, at the very least, serve the purpose of forcing the diabolical Zorro into his hands. Between the soldiers, Manual, and the dogs, the outlaw wouldn’t have a chance to escape.
When he stepped out of the comandante’s office he saw twenty smartly dressed lancers standing at attention next to some of the finest horseflesh in this part of California. Wheeler smiled grimly to himself in satisfaction and would have laughed with malicious pleasure if he had been alone. This would indeed be a foxhunt he would long remember and one he was going to take immense delight participating in.
The day dragged on, interminably long and hot; the sun beat down from above and radiated from the dry ground below. The horizon danced and shimmered in the distance, and the heat waves mocked the traveler with visions of cool refreshing water. It was approaching the time of the afternoon for the siesta, the time when it was too hot to do much of anything else, but rest. Later, when the air cooled did the Californianos go about their routines again.
The dust of the trail choked man and horse. Zorro slowed the pace to a trot and then to a walk. By mid-afternoon, both he and the horses were covered with sweat and dust. Even though he had changed mounts often, the outlaw could tell the horses were becoming overly fatigued, especially his own Tejas, which was a good traveling horse, but not meant for this kind of pace.
Pulling up his mounts in a secluded thicket, he let exhaustion wash over him for a moment before dismounting. The vegetation was dried and yellow from the overlong heat wave, but Zorro let the horses graze on what they could find while he dug through the saddlebag for provisions. Looking disdainfully at the trail bread, he simply couldn’t bring himself to eat any of it. It looked as dry and tasteless as the dust of the trail. He did pull out one of the water skins, however and took a long drink of the lukewarm water. Sighing, he thought of the long miles ahead and took another drink before replacing the container back in the saddlebag.
Wearily, he pulled out his other clothes and laid them out to change into. Now was probably a good time to revert to the role of Don Diego. At the very least he would be able to stay in an inn tonight, he thought to himself with a smile. The little bit of breeze that stirred the dust felt good against his sweaty back as he removed the black shirt and sash. Diego picked up the plain cotton shirt, but hesitated as he started to put it on. Something was nagging him, some feeling of wrongness about changing identities at this time. At first, he couldn’t figure out what intuition or inspiration was making him feel this way, but he had not survived thus far without trusting his instincts, intuitions or sixth sense, however anyone wanted to explain such a phenomena. Sighing, he decided he would follow this one to the end as Zorro and hope by the Saints above that his choice had been a good one. If anyone had asked him at that moment to explain in words what he was experiencing, he wouldn’t have been able to do so.
The outlaw redressed slowly, reluctant to draw on the heat retaining clothing again. The horses had finished grazing; they too would need water soon. The scant bit of rest they had received seemed to help somewhat, but Zorro realized that he and they would need more than a little rest. He had already traveled four days before this venture ever began; travel which, although not grueling, had been hard and steady. This was now becoming a test of his endurance such as he had never experienced before.
Zorro reached into the saddle bag one more time, this time for the papers, which were part of the business and government transactions he had conducted in Monterey, seemingly so long ago. Included were papers from the governor’s office, which were intended for the patróns at the upcoming meeting in Los Angeles. He placed them under his sash where they would be safe. Then he mounted Bernardo’s trail horse, which he had been using more frequently than Tejas, the dark palomino, simply because she was a sturdier horse.
Sudden remembrance made him laugh out loud. “No wonder it felt wrong to change,” he said quietly to the mare. Again, he remembered that he was not just being tracked by men, but by dogs. The dogs would not be fooled by appearances even though men might. Whatever he wore, it would make no difference to the tracking hounds, and however much dust he picked up on the trail, the dogs could still undoubtedly figure out his scent. He berated himself from forgetting such an important detail.
Zorro broke the horses into a canter, which
would hopefully take him back near the highway before sunset.
Even though his sense of direction was very good, and, like most
aristocratic Californianos who must travel on occasion, the caballero
could use the sun and stars to guide him, he still wanted to survey
activity on the King’s Highway. Perhaps,
Zorro thought wryly, I have
traveled far enough so that my pursuers have given
up. And, he added to
himself, perhaps cows can sprout
wings and fly across the mountains.
Resolutely, he continued across the dusty valley towards the
highway some miles distant.
Manuel paused at the pond and scrutinized where
Zorro had entered with his horses.
It was nearing noon and they had already stopped to investigate
the signs when they had found the spent horse standing head down near
the side of the highway. Some
of the vaqueros had complained bitterly about the delay and were all for
continuing at full speed down the highway, assuring Manuel that Zorro,
being in unfamiliar territory would ride the swiftest, surest route.
“Stupidos,” he had berated them. “This man has a price on his head and I suspect he at least guesses the disposition of Don Paulo. Do you think he would gallop straight down the middle of the King’s Highway during the day? Do you think El Zorro has escaped capture for this long by being a baboso?” He laughed sneeringly at them; they were idiots, all of them, thinking only of how they were going to spend their pay and how best to impress the señoritas in Santa Barbara. “I guarantee you, unless Zorro is a complete imbecile, he will leave the highway. I think he also has a very healthy respect for the dogs. And he will yet learn to respect me, too,” he hissed softly, his eyes glittering in anticipation of the hunt.
His theory became reality when they reached the pond. Manuel carefully walked his horse around the edge of the water and saw the tracks of Zorro’s horses in the soft mud. His piercing black eyes glittered with joy. “Ah,” he sighed with great satisfaction. “I was right. Come,” he shouted to the others. “We will change horses now and follow the tracks. They lead off towards the hills. Zorro is trying to cut across the hills and avoid the highway, just as I said he would.” Manuel pointed towards the south. “I told you he would do this. El Zorro is stupid to think this trick with the pond would fool me. We should be able to catch him tonight or tomorrow. Even the mighty Zorro has to stop and rest sometime.” The group mounted up and started off again at a steady ground-eating trot. The three dogs lolled across the saddles of their vaquero handlers, whining slightly in anticipation.
Comandante Gregorio’s two groups of lancers were crisscrossing both sides of the southbound highway by early afternoon. While the comandante had assured them that El Zorro would most likely not be on the highway, he felt the outlaw might be traveling near it. The soldiers were also under orders to question any and all travelers to see if the bandit had been spotted.
Wheeler and his vaqueros had been allowed to accompany one of the groups as it searched and the hacendado felt he had been exercising a great deal of restraint all afternoon to avoid ordering the men to greater speed. It was becoming increasingly difficult to restrain himself, though, with each hour that passed. Finally in exasperation he asked the sergeant in charge what his plans were when the evening came.
“Don Paulo,” Sergeant Martinez answered,
“We will make camp. Our
orders are to do our best to find this outlaw, not to kill our horses in
the effort. We were also
given orders to return to the presidio tomorrow evening if we have not
captured Zorro by that time.”
The sergeant’s curt reply effectively silenced Don Paulo’s heated retort. All he could do was grind his teeth in frustration and hope the next day brought the black-clad fiend into his hands.