Fox Hunt

 

 

 

 

Chapter 6

Night and Day 2

 

           

 

When Zorro jerked awake for the third time, he decided that whether he wanted to or not, he had to stop for a few hours of sleep.  The air was chill at this midnight hour and he wrapped the blanket a little tighter as he tried to survey the terrain to find the best site.  By the light of the newly risen moon, the outlaw finally found a secluded thicket, which, if necessary, could be easily defended. 

Dismounting, he led the horses in amongst the brambles and bushes.  There was just enough room for the two horses to move around a bit and for him to stretch out.  Zorro was confident enough of Tejas’ training that he didn’t tether him.  Bernardo’s horse, on the other hand, he tied to his left wrist.  If anyone or anything approached, the mare’s movements would awaken him quickly.  As he stretched out under his blanket, he drew his sword and fell asleep with it clutched in his right hand.           

The stars wheeled above, oblivious to the problems of mortals below, and the horses quietly grazed on whatever edible vegetation grew up between the brambles.  The sharp bark of a dog in the distance made Tejas jerk his head up suddenly.  He flicked his ears nervously in all directions, but slowly relaxed when the sound was not repeated and there were no alarming smells in the air.

Zorro was startled into total wakefulness with the feeling that his left arm was being jerked out of its socket.  Jumping to his feet to face whatever danger had spooked the horses he found himself face to face with three enormous dogs.         

One was snapping at Tejas, who was in such a panic that he brushed past Zorro, and, lashing out with his hooves, kicked one of the dogs senseless as he dashed out of the thicket to safety.  Zorro was only partly aware of this as the other two dogs chose this moment to make their attack.  One handed, the beleaguered outlaw slashed at the dogs while trying to keep control of Bernardo’s horse.  It would be much easier to fight the animals if he cut the tether, but the outlaw knew he couldn’t afford to lose both horses.  He had miscalculated and lost Tejas, he wouldn’t do the same with the mare. 

One dog leaped back and forth, snapping and trying to get at Zorro’s legs.  The other hound kept attempting to slink around to his right side for an attack. Finally Bernardo’s horse had backed up enough that she was no longer jerking on his left arm.  With more control available, Zorro was able to run one dog through the next time it lunged at him.  It died with a short yelp.  The last dog was stopped in mid-leap and collapsed to the ground with a gurgling cry.  Checking all of the dogs, Zorro made sure, with a quick stroke across their throats, that each was dead, and would no longer be able to harass him.  At this moment, he thought sardonically, if someone had suggested getting a dog for the de la Vega rancho, he would have been tempted to slit their throat, too.         

He next cut loose the tether and checked the horse.  Other than a few bramble cuts, the animal was none the worse for its ordeal.  His left wrist however, had been abraded and was bleeding slightly.  He checked quickly outside the thicket to ensure that none of the vaqueros had closely accompanied the dogs, before tearing a strip from his blanket and tying it around his wrist as best as he could one-handed.  Zorro’s thoughts were bitter as he checked the cinch on the mare.  The only good thing that had happened with this attack, other than being alive, was that he had had the foresight to change the saddle to the mare before going to sleep.  He had ridden Tejas the longest and wanted to begin the day riding Bernardo’s horse.  

It had been his expectation that he would make it into familiar territory today, especially with two horses, although how he would shake his followers once he did so, he hadn’t yet figured out.  Just being near home, he felt, would give him some advantage, and definitely some inspiration he was lacking now.       

Zorro allowed himself a brief flash of anger as he passed by one of the dead dogs, before mounting the faithful trail horse.  There were only a few hours before the dawn and he wanted to get out of the area before anything else happened.  The abbreviated rest had helped somewhat, but exhaustion was still not very far off and he realistically knew he had to find someplace safe to regain his strength.  Zorro rode slowly out of the thicket and getting his bearings from the stars, put the horse into a canter towards the southeast.  As he rode, he ate breakfast from the provisions in his saddlebag and washed it down with some water.  It wasn’t much, but it was sustenance.          

Several hours later, not too long after the sun had risen gloriously in the east, Zorro approached a ridge, dismounted and cautiously made his way up to the crest.  His suspicions that he was near the highway were confirmed when he saw it stretching below him in the valley.  Cursing under his breath, he realized this time of the day was not a good one for an outlaw to be on the King’s Highway. The post dawn hours were usually busy ones on the thoroughfare, with farmers, rancheros, and soldiers taking advantage of the cooler hours of daytime to get to their destinations. It was a wonder there were no peons or soldiers on the road already.   The countryside on the far side of the highway appeared to have many more areas in which to hide.  It also presented a more direct route to Los Angeles, so Zorro decided that the best time to cross the road was now, while the road was deserted.        

As soon as he had made up his mind, Zorro didn’t hesitate.  Swinging into the saddle of the trail worn horse, he rode over the ridge at a gallop.  And to his horror, as he was crossing the highway, a contingent of ten lancers came into view from the north.  Their cries of triumph as they spotted him spurred him to urge greater speed from the beleaguered animal.  Instead of immediately crossing the highway, Zorro turned his horse onto it and rode on the relatively smooth ground until he saw a narrow ravine.  Quickly his knee-signaled directions to the horse and they turned up the small trail.  The whine of a bullet caused him to duck.         

This day was certainly not starting out either well or as he planned, Zorro thought morosely.  Wheeler apparently had complained to the Comandante of the Presidio de Santa Barbara and enlisted his aide.  Bernardo’s horse fairly flew down the trail in response to his urging, but Zorro knew that this would not be enough.  He scanned each side of the trail, looking for opportunities to elude the lancers he knew were still following him.  Finally he saw his chance as he came upon a deep, swift river flowing westward.  Jumping off the mare while she was still running, he hid in the rocks as she crossed the river and disappeared down stream.             

Hiding in the boulder-strewn waste near the river, Zorro watched for the arrival of the pursuing lancers.  His eyes narrowed in anticipation as he untied his cloak and gathered it in his hands for the confrontation.  Soon the soldiers rode up to the riverbank, where they hesitated slightly to check the tracks before following.  At that moment, Zorro leaped out from hiding and, snapping his cape, screamed like the devil himself.  Dancing in and among the animals, he flapped the black cape in their eyes and waved it in their faces.  The frightened animals danced and reared in fright, dumping their riders ignominiously into the dust, before scattering in various directions.  In the narrow confines of the ravine, some of the horses, which had been at the back of the line of pursuers, were only able to turn and run back down the trail carrying their clinging riders with them.  That made the odds even better, Zorro thought.         

The outlaw admitted to himself that these were well-trained men.  Almost immediately after their unhorsing, he found himself facing two of them.  Throwing the cape behind him, he whipped out his sword and advanced on the lancers before they could find time to decide on strategy.  He found himself smiling broadly.  This was more like it, something he himself had initiated.  This was a scenario that had the possibility of predictability, as well.  His blade could not be seen, its action was so fast.  One of the soldiers was quickly disarmed with a deft flick of Zorro’s sword and the other found himself bleeding from a score on his sword arm.  Of the other five, one was unconscious and another was furiously trying to load his pistol.  Zorro soon had that one’s weapon and ammunition.        

“Line up against the boulder, señores,” he ordered.  “I am left with the decision of what to do with you,” he said with a great smile.  “I really would like to stay and ponder that matter but....”  Zorro’s sword swished with unerring accuracy the lancers found their belts and consequently their trousers sitting in the dust around their ankles.  “Señores, give my greetings to Comandante Gregorio.  I must bid you good day,” he laughed and with a great flourish of his hand to his hat, grabbed his cape and disappeared into the rocks. The lancers groaned and gathered their pants, having to hold them up with one hand.        

That little episode restored a bit of the humor Zorro had felt slipping away during the last two nights and one day of grueling flight.  Realistically understanding that he still had a powerful enemy to reckon with, the outlaw felt the odds were never impossible.  His problem right now was the lack of a horse.  It had been impossible to deal with the lancers and capture one of their mounts at the same time, or he would be riding on Government Issue right now.  Speedily making his way along the riverbank in the same direction that the mare had taken, he also kept his eyes open for any stray horses or more importantly, any other pursuers.  The firing of all of those pistols would have been heard reverberating among the rocks for some distance.          

After walking a short time among the brush near the bank, Zorro saw the mare standing quietly on the opposite side.  Whistling, he waited for her arrival.  As with most of the horses the de la Vegas kept for their personal use, this one was well trained enough that she immediately crossed the river and was soon standing before him.

“Ah, faithful one,” he murmured, rubbing her nose.  “Soon you will have the rest you so richly deserve.”  A nickering behind him made him pivot around, his sword already out by the time he had made a complete turn.  Zorro laughed when he saw one of the lancer’s horses standing nearby greeting the mare.  “Well, I suppose that I will get to ride government horseflesh after all.  That will give you a bit of a rest, little one,” he said to the tired mare.           

Swinging himself up onto the lancer’s gelding, he guided it out into the river.  The mare followed him.  The current propelled them along to the junction with the King’s Highway, where they had to duck under a large timbered bridge.  Shortly past that point, Zorro decided that it was time to leave the river and continue south.  With a chuckle, the outlaw realized that ironically he was still on the same side of the highway that he had begun on.           

A sudden pistol shot hitting the gelding right in front of its shoulder caused it to pitch forward.  Zorro leaped off, immediately dashing back to the mare.  Vaulting on her, he spurred her to a gallop.  Glancing behind, he noticed a group of vaqueros was now trying to converge upon him.  By leaning forward, he avoided several other balls that whizzed his way and was also able to urge his horse on to even greater speed.  “Swiftly, faithful one,” he said into the horse’s ear.  The horse put on a little extra speed, but the outlaw knew this was only a temporary respite.  As he looked back again, he noted that inexplicably the vaqueros following him had slackened their pace a bit.  “Slow down, girl, slow down,” he told the mare.  As soon as the trail curved, Zorro urged the horse up a fairly steep, rocky slope and down the other side. Continuing this course of action, he was able to reconnoiter the position of his enemies at a glance, taking note of their unwavering pursuit.          

Zorro was now heading more towards the ocean, but at this time he really didn’t see any immediate recourse.  There were many places near the beaches where one could stage an ambush, although he felt that these men were led by one who would not be fooled as easily as were the lancers.  The thought also occurred to him that perhaps his retinue of vaqueros wanted to corner him where he had nowhere to escape. 

His previous light-hearted mood dispelled, Zorro almost shouted in rage.  Never had he been hunted and badgered like this before.  One of the things that kept him going now was the fear of retribution against his father were he to be captured or killed and then unmasked.  He would ride into the ocean first. 

Startled by these dismal thoughts, Zorro slowed the horse down from a slow canter to a trot.  I must think clearly, he chided himself, and not despair.  “There is still breath in us,” he softly told the lathered horse, “And while there is breath there is hope. The odds are never impossible,” he repeated quietly.

           

 

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Manuel and his companions had ridden almost the entire night, in order to catch up with their dogs and quarry soon after sunrise.  Their horses, while not fresh, were in better shape than the outlaw’s horse.  The vaqueros had been able to change mounts often.  It was shortly after sunrise that they came across the scene of the dogs’ demise.  Manuel scrutinized the tracks, noting with satisfaction the loss of one of the outlaw’s horses.  While the vaqueros were bemoaning the loss of the dogs, Manuel ordered them to mount up.  “We cannot be far behind Zorro.  We are certainly not far from the highway,” he explained, noticing, with satisfaction, that the man had been fatigued enough, to have left some of his belongings behind.  He saw a torn blanket lying in a heap where it had been dropped during the confrontation with the dogs.         

A short time later, the group heard shots coming from the direction of the highway.  Manuel spurred his horse to greater speed and after a short while the vaqueros came over a ridge and almost on top of Zorro, who was just coming out of the river on a lancer’s horse.  The horse that followed looked as though it should have collapsed a long time ago.  Manuel gave a cry of triumph, fired his pistol at the outlaw, killing the horse immediately.  Zorro very nimbly leaped off the dying animal and sprang on his own mount, urging it to a speed that surprised the tracker.  It was no matter, the mare was not good for a prolonged chase.   In his premonition of a final confrontation, he admonished the vaqueros to greater speed.  Zorro turned westward, a route that would take him more towards the ocean.  Manuel’s eyes glittered in victory.  They would have him soon.  In satisfaction, he ordered the vaqueros to slow the horses down a little.  All they had to do right now is keep running the outlaw on his present course.          

Zorro thought about his situation as he continued his route almost straight west towards the ocean.  Apparently there had been at least one group of lancers, as well as a group of vaqueros from Senor Wheeler’s rancho. Smiling grimly, he thought again of how he was usually in control of situations, not being controlled by them.  It would seem that the situation with the small group of lancers was only a temporary victory.  As he rode, Zorro thought furiously of how to change this whole mess back to his advantage.        

Suddenly, a wild plan forced its way into his mind.  It was so outrageously insane that he laughed aloud, and it was something so amazingly simple that it should have occurred to him before.  He had ambushed the lancers almost without thought; it was not inconceivable to do something similar with these vaqueros, especially since he had dispatched the only dogs they had brought with them.  

“By the Saints,” he said to the horse as he began laughing. “I think it is time that we hunt the hunters.”  He slowed the horse down to cross a rocky ridge, and then crossed the valley beyond at a more leisurely rate wanting to lead the vaqueros as far from the main road as possible.  Up ridge and down valley he went at a slow trot throughout most of the rest of the day until, finally Zorro came across a small stream where he let the exhausted horse have a small drink, while he did the same. 

Taking his hat, he scooped up some water and wet down the horse’s withers and flanks.  Looking around and confirming that he was still alone, he took the mask off, dipped it in the cool stream and replaced it.   Feeling much better, he and the mare turned back up stream, walking a quarter of a mile past the point where he entered.  He wanted to go parallel to the route he had taken, not retrace it.   It was at this time also that the outlaw took the time to check his saddlebags.  Sighing at the ruin inside the leather containers, he was glad he had transferred the government papers back to his person.  Undoing the saddlebags, he simply threw them behind a bush on the opposite side of the stream.  At least that would be a little less weight for the mare to carry, he thought ruefully.          

As the sun began to set, Zorro slightly increased the horse’s gait to cover more ground before darkness made it difficult to see the landmarks of his outward journey.  When it was sufficiently dark, he stopped near a rocky formation and settled himself at the top, where he could watch his previous trail without betraying his position.  The horse he tethered loosely at the base of the formation, where she could graze if she chose to, although right now the mare simply hung her head in exhaustion.   He just sighed and shook his head in pity as he listened to her heavy breathing.  “Rest for a while, little one,” Zorro said softly and then turned his gaze back to the trail he had left.  By the moonlight, he saw that the vaqueros were nowhere in his range of vision.  Smiling to himself as he thought of tomorrow, he kept watching and listening for their arrival on the westward trail, but like the mare, he was exhausted.  After trying to listen for his pursuers for another hour, the outlaw threw his cape around his shoulders and dozed off into a fitful slumber.

 

 

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Manuel looked at the tracks with increasing satisfaction.  El Zorro was heading in the direction that he had wanted him to, the ocean.  And he realized that the outlaw’s horse was running all out.  Surely Zorro’s mount must be nearing the end of its endurance.  He would take nothing for granted, but it appeared that the Fox was running blindly now.  It had been very fortunate for them that his shot had killed the lancer’s horse.  Following Zorro on a fresh mount would have been much more difficult. As it was, they could spare their horses and follow at an even more sedate pace.  This quarry had been very fortunate and determined, but Manuel had not earned the reputation he had by letting prey escape.  The Fox was aptly named, but Manuel would take him soon.  And that thought gave him a great deal of pleasure. 

 

 

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Paulo Wheeler fumed, cursed and raved at the sergeant in charge of the lancers.  But Sergeant Martinez was adamant.  “Señor, my orders come from my comandante, whom I have sworn to obey.  I am to return to the presidio, if we have had no success by tonight,” the sergeant explained for the third time.  “Capitán Gregorio was very clear that he would not take a chance of ruining good horse flesh by running them all the way to the Pueblo de Los Angeles.”   Sergeant Martinez was disgusted with the complaining and “suggestions” that Señor Wheeler had inflicted on him throughout the previous afternoon, night and all day today.  “If you have a complaint, take it up with Comandante Gregorio or better yet, complain in Los Angeles.  They have more experience with this Zorro.”  The sergeant promptly ordered his men about and they trotted in formation back toward Santa Barbara.  As they went, the sergeant heard Señor Wheeler curse some more and then order his own men towards Los Angeles.         

About ten miles further up the King’s Highway, Sgt. Martinez came across ten very hot, disheveled and disgusted lancers.  Owing to the fact that there were only a half dozen horses, most were riding double.  At his query, the leader of the contingent explained what had happened at the river with El Zorro.  Sgt. Martinez just shook his head and laughing, said, “You had better embellish your tale a little bit, Armando, before you get to the presidio, or Capt. Gregorio will slice the rest of your uniforms off.”  Corporal Armando Tordano and his men just looked more glum.          

“Sí, Sergeant, but we had him,” he said plaintively.  “We had him boxed in a ravine with the river at his back and still he managed to ambush us.  I can understand why he has never been captured.  And his sword work...” The corporal’s voice trailed off in remembrance and he sighed again as the group traveled the last few miles to Santa Barbara in the orange rays of the setting sun.

 

 

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