Just before the sun
set, the horses pricked up their ears and snorted, jolting Zorro into
full wakefulness. With
chagrin, he realized that he had dozed in the saddle and even though the
time had been short by the position of the setting sun, he berated
himself nonetheless, for such a lack of vigilance could very well mean
The object of the horses’ attention was a
small lake just down the ridge. Zorro
gave Tejas his head and both animals galloped down to the edge of the
water. Quickly unfastening
the cinches, he let the saddles drop on the ground near the lakeshore.
Putting the government papers into one of the saddlebags, he
removed his boots, gloves, and hat and remounted Tejas.
Taking both horses out into the lake to a point where the water
began lapping gently at the bottom of the horses’ bellies, Zorro stood
up on his horse’s back and proceeded to dive into the lake. He was not impeded by the cape, as he had removed that hours
Zorro, like most
Californianos of this dry region, was not an expert swimmer, although he
was more proficient then most and got pleasure from an occasional dip. But he didn’t think he had felt anything this refreshing
and pleasurable for a long time. The lake seemed to have the coolest,
wettest water he had ever experienced and he luxuriated in it for a
short while, until, while readjusting his mask, he heard a soft cry from
Turning as quickly as
the water would allow, Zorro observed a young woman among the rushes on
the opposite side of the little lake, watching him with wide, dark eyes.
She had apparently just finished washing her laundry when he had
approached and startled her. Again, he berated himself for his lack of attentiveness.
“Buenas tardes, señorita,” he said calmly.
He figured he had probably frightened her enough with his strange
behavior. It would
certainly not do to have this young peon girl run off, screaming for
Zorro needn’t have
worried. For her part,
Maria was fearful, but not to the point of hysteria.
She rarely screamed and never became hysterical, and at present,
she was fascinated by this tall, slender stranger who chose to wear a
mask. She was also amused by his action of taking his horses into
the lake and swimming with his clothes on.
“Who are you, señor?” she asked in a voice loud enough to be
heard over the man’s splashing. He
quickly motioned her to remain quiet for a moment while he remounted the
palomino he had ridden into the lake.
Both the horses and the stranger looked better for their dip.
When he had ridden up to the lake, the man had appeared to be
dressed in gray, she could see now that the apparel was of pure black
cloth. Puzzled, Maria
frowned, because she felt there was something she should know about this
stranger, but she couldn’t think what it was.
The man had ridden his
horse closer to her. The
other horse followed behind docilely, and Maria could see that despite
the mask the man was roguishly handsome.
But then again, she thought to herself, maybe it was because of
it. When he was almost to the shore on which she stood, he
stopped and asked gently, “Señorita, are you alone?”
From some men, that
would have been threatening to her, but for some unexplained reason, she
didn’t feel at all threatened by his query. “Sí,
señor, I was just finishing my family’s laundry,” she answered.
“One more request,
señorita, and then I will feel free to answer your question,” the
stranger said kindly, but firmly. “Will
you promise not to tell anyone you have seen me, at least not for a
week. If you cannot make this promise, then I will continue on my
way immediately.” The
dark stranger paused a moment and then smiled grimly at her.
“I believe that I have made an extremely powerful and dangerous
enemy and I would not want you to be endangered on my account,” he
By no means did Maria
wish the man to go away right now, as she was very curious about him.
“Oh, señor, I promise,” she said quickly.
“My family will not even know.”
he laughed softly at her exuberant reply.
“I am called Zorro. And
I believe I am still being followed by a very vindictive and ruthless
ranchero. I do not think he
enjoyed it when I burned down his stables and released his slaves.”
He laughed again, and despite the grim explanation he had given
her, the sound of his laugh reminded her of the joy she felt at the
fiestas and Saint’s day celebrations.
And it was infectious.
The girl laughed with
him. She had realized why
she thought there was something familiar about the outlaw.
All of the peons within two days journey from Los Angeles had
heard of Zorro. She noticed
that El Zorro was watching her very closely.
Zorro admitted to himself that the girl was very lovely. He also appreciated the fact that she had a very level head on her shoulders. This girl was not one to scream and weep at the slightest hint of danger like some of the hacendados daughters he had met.
“My name is Maria,
Señor Zorro,” the girl said simply.
“My younger brother, Rico, went to work for such a hacienda
some distance away and we have heard nothing of him since.
I can only hope that maybe you have freed him.”
Maria sighed, remembering her brother, whom she loved dearly and
missed very much. It had
been a time of great sorrow since Rico’s disappearance, and it
saddened her knowing that her parents now believed her younger brother
said, and then coughed softly, as though something was in his throat.
“It is getting late. Your
family will be worried. Get
your laundry and you can ride my other horse part of the way to your
home.” Zorro took her
bundle while she jumped up onto the other horse.
She was quite nimble, too, Zorro thought to himself.
He handed her bundle up to her and then returned to where the
He resaddled Tejas,
but left the papers in the saddlebags for now, as he didn’t want to
ruin them in his wet clothing. “I
hope you do not mind, señorita, but two saddles are becoming somewhat
of a liability right now. Do
you mind riding bareback? I
would offer you the use of this horse, but it might be necessary to make
a quick departure, if those following me show up suddenly, and I really
would not care to ride all the way to my destination bareback.”
bareback is just fine. It
is so much better than walking,” Maria said with a smile.
Zorro took the water
skin and attached it to his saddle after refilling it in the lake. After
removing any extra provisions from the soon to be discarded saddle, he
flung it as far into the lake as he could.
Sighing, he realized that when he returned home he would have to
have a new saddle made for Bernardo.
His extra clothing was with the discarded saddle, too, so he was
now committed to his previous decision.
“I am terribly sorry
for the inconvenience, señorita, but I must go back through the lake.
I hope you do not get too wet,” Zorro said apologetically.
“Por nada,” Maria
said with a smile. “Our farm lies in that direction,” she added,
pointing to the southeast.
“Good,” the outlaw said. “When we reach a rocky area where you will leave no foot prints, it will be time to climb down and proceed alone.”
the girl said quietly, coming to a more complete realization of the
gravity of the situation that Zorro was in.
After a few minutes of
riding in silence, Zorro asked softly in the deepening gloom of night,
“Maria, is Rico a small boy of about thirteen or fourteen years of
Zorro,” Maria answered anxiously. “Have you seen him?”
“I think so.
If we are talking about the same young man, I hope he is at or
near the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa by now.
He helped to get his fellow slaves away from the rancho of Paulo
Wheeler,” Zorro explained. “His
Uncle Antonio was there, too.”
He was surprised when
Maria brought her horse close to his and grabbing his arm, jerked him
toward her. Then she gave
him a long kiss of gratitude. Not
unpleased by the attention, he looked at her, and saw tears in her eyes.
he said, with an appreciative smile. “But what did I do to deserve
such an honor?”
Zorro,” Maria exclaimed, “That
was my brother you saved from slavery, because when he never
returned with his wages, my Uncle Antonio went to find out what happened
to him. He never returned,
either.” She smiled
happily at him. “Our
family will be eternally grateful to you.
No one will ever curse the name of Zorro around our house,” she
said with great emotion. “Let
me go now, this is a rocky path and not too far from our home.”
Maria slid down from the horse and started down the path.
“And Señor Zorro, I will not tell anyone I have seen you,”
she promised again. “Vaya
con Dios,” she added.
“Gracias, Maria, God
go with you also.” Zorro
wheeled his horse and galloped away, the other horse following behind.
It was only then Maria
allowed herself to cry. She
cried for the hope renewed that her brother and uncle were still alive
and would be coming home soon.
She cried quietly for a few minutes and then turned and walked
the last quarter mile to her home.
Zorro circled back and
dismounted near the place where Maria had left him.
The dogs of Señor Wheeler’s rancho still worried him and he
wanted to make sure they didn’t follow her trail instead of his. He
walked around the horses a few times and even brushed his cape against
the dirt a bit. Even though
he felt he had probably outrun the dogs, he would still prefer to be
overcautious than not.
Continuing towards the
southeast at a trot, he was more careful now that it was dark. The moon had not yet risen and the velvet darkness hid very
real dangers to man and horses. And
although he had not been able to reach the highway, he knew by the
constellations that the direction he was taking was getting him closer
As the sun set, the vaqueros’
grumbling grew more intense.
“Manuel,” one of them said.
“You said we would catch him tonight.”
“The night is not
over yet,” Manuel growled at him. “Now we will see if these dogs you
have been coddling and allowing to ride most of the day are worth
anything. See if they can
get the scent and do part of our work for us.”
The vaqueros took the dogs over to the trail Zorro had left and
pointed it out to them. “Seek,”
the vaqueros said
dogs sniffed, growled, and whined anxiously.
“Seek, Find, Kill,” they were ordered.
The animals jumped and danced in eager anticipation.
Lunging away from their handlers, the three dogs shot off along
the trail, following not only the scent of the horses, but the scent
molecules of the man who rode them.
Soon the great hounds were swallowed up in the darkness, and
their eager cries and yelps slowly became muted as they loped along in
pursuit of the quarry they had been waiting all day to chase.
“If all goes well,” Manuel stated, “the dogs will take care of our quarry by first light. If they fail, then we will take care of him.” Manuel and the other vaqueros laughed harshly. Manuel thought in grim amusement that this fox’s chance of surviving the night was slim to none. He laughed quietly as he mounted his gelding.