Fox Hunt

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

 

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 his death. 

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 before.  

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 behind him.  

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 help. 

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 explained. 

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.” 

“Gracias, señorita,” 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.  She blushed. 

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 was dead. 

“Maria,” Zorro 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 saddles lay.  

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.”  

“Señor Zorro, 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.”

“Gracias, señor,” 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 age?”

“Sí, Señor 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.    

“Gracias, señorita,” he said, with an appreciative smile. “But what did I do to deserve such an honor?”

“Oh, Señor 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 to home.

 

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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 simultaneously.   The 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.

 

 

 

Chapter Six
Chapter One
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