Fox Hunt

 

 

 

Chapter 7

Night and Day 3

 

           

 

Bernardo was slowly eating his evening meal alone in the inn at Santa Barbara.  Even though he had departed Monterey before the priests said he should, the manservant had been restless and even a little guilty that his patrón had left without him.  Don Diego had assured him that all would be well, but he felt responsible for the caballero and not just because he happened to be Diego’s manservant.  Despite the master/servant relationship, there was still a friendship, a camaraderie that transcended their stations in life.  They had been through much together and had each saved the other’s life several times.  The mozo rubbed his temples, trying to get rid of the slight headache that threatened his concentration. He fretted again about Don Diego traveling alone; it was a dangerous thing for a wealthy hacendado to do. 

And Bernardo had a nagging, gnawing feeling of impending doom.  He couldn’t explain it, it didn’t happen often, but the few times it had occurred in the past, something usually had happened.  Therefore he had left the day after his patrón, taking the speediest stage available to the Pueblo de Los Angeles.  So far, this coach had been able to make good time due to the fact that it changed horses frequently.  Bernardo had secretly hoped that he might meet Don Diego at one of the inns along the stage route, but so far that hadn’t happened.

A tap on his shoulder brought Bernardo out of his reverie.  The innkeeper was pointing in an exaggerated manner to his tankard asking about a refill.   Even though the moonfaced and cherubic looking manservant could hear very well, it suited his and Don Diego’s purposes for him to pretend to be deaf.  But there was no faking the fact that he was mute, and had been since birth.  He, too, pointed to the cup and shook his head, no.  Sometimes this ruse of his caused people to believe he was an idiot, as apparently this man thought, but, even though it exasperated him occasionally, this too, served a greater purpose.  From time to time he even cultivated this belief, acting the fool as it were.   It wasn’t hard to accomplish.  Most were very quick to believe that because he had no tongue, he also had no brains.  And the benefit was that people often said things in front of a foolish deaf-mute that they would certainly never say in front of a hearing man. 

Mulling over the last few sips of wine, he was astonished to hear in the latest gossip amongst the other diners, about a raid that El Zorro had made against the rancho of Don Paulo Wheeler, two nights previous.  By the Saints, what in the world would Don Diego want to stop and do that for? Bernardo thought in wonderment, mentally shaking his head at the audacity of his patrón.  Don Diego sometimes had a penchant for impetuosity that not only worried him, but sometimes scared the mozo to death.   This was one time he wished that Don Diego had not taken the costume.       

Some of the speakers were indignant, making comments to the effect that honest landowners couldn’t make a living without bandits looting and pillaging.  Many comments seemed to indicate that this Don Paulo was a sadistic tyrant who had gotten his pesos from the backs of peon-slaves and El Zorro had done the peons a great service.  Bernardo smiled to himself, and knew the latter tale sounded just like something Don Diego would get himself involved in.  But then he heard an additional comment that sent a stab of fear shooting into his heart.          

“I do not think Señor Zorro will get away with this venture,” one man at the next table commented sadly to his companion.  “Between Don Paulo’s dogs and his famous tracker, Manuel, it is my humble opinion that the devil himself could not escape.  And on top of that, Comandante Gregorio sent out twenty lancers to find Zorro, too,” the man explained. “I tell you, Pablo, this Zorro is a dead man, whoever he is.”            

Bernardo shivered in fear for his patrón.  With great anxiety in his heart, he paid for his meal and retired to his room where he spent a very restless night worrying about El Zorro.

 

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Zorro also spent a restless night, but not from worry.  He had trouble sleeping because of the cold.  The temperatures in the drier regions would often get quite low by the early morning hours, and in his haste, he had left his blanket in the thicket where the dogs had attacked him.  The cape, unfortunately, didn’t offer much warmth except during the day.  Periodically, he woke up shivering.   Grumbling, Zorro finally gave up trying to sleep and sat up to reconnoiter.  His abraded wrist was throbbing slightly and he was also stiff and sore from the six days of steady and hard riding.           

The moon was three quarters full and the soft filtered light allowed the outlaw to see the previous trail he had come along quite clearly.   The few hours of sleep Zorro surmised he had received made him almost eager to get this confrontation over with.  Although not someone who relished violent confrontations or killing, nevertheless he felt his cause was just, and he would defend himself.  Riding slowly for another two hours, he saw the soft, ghostly glow of embers from a campfire, and left the mare to graze a safe distance from the campsite.  Stealthily, he crept closer and marveled at their arrogance.  The vaqueros must have assumed they had him totally beaten to have made a fire of that magnitude.  He had been able to see it for some distance, and that was just the dying embers. Zorro felt a flash of anger at their presumption, but cast it aside and quietly moved closer to listen to two vaqueros softly conversing.  In a flash of recognition, he saw that one was Manuel, the tough and testy vaquero who had ordered him from the mountain trail more than two days ago.          

“Manuel,” his companion asked, “When are we going to catch this devil?  You promised we would have him yesterday.”  The voice sounded weary.  Zorro felt a flash of wry amusement.  It serves you right, he thought testily.  At least I am not the only tired one from this hellacious chase.

Manuel answered, “The saints or the devil must be looking after this one or I have totally misjudged his abilities.  Despite the flaw on the horse’s shoe, it has been harder than I thought it would be to catch up to him.”          

Zorro’s eyes flashed astonishment at the vaquero’s statement.  So that was how he has been able to keep finding me!  This was something he hadn’t even considered.  Then he conceded that this tracker was very good, with a great eye for detail, and certainly deserving of his reputation.  Again he turned his attention back to Manuel.         

“But mind you, we will catch him!”  Manuel vehemently asserted.  “Another hour’s rest and then we go.”  The other vaquero grunted an affirmative.       

Oh, you will catch me all right, Zorro thought with grim humor. You’ll catch more of me than you really want to.  You will wish you had never ventured from your hidden valley.’          

He slipped back down the ridge and returned to the patient mare.  Taking out a short knife that he kept hidden in his sash, he pried off each of the horse’s shoes, one by one.  It was extremely hard using a knife not meant for this purpose and he even broke the tip off before he was through, but finally he managed to get them all off.  Throughout the ordeal, the mare was very patient, and when Zorro straightened his stiff and aching back he had acquired a new appreciation for blacksmiths.  “I know that this will be hard on you, little one,” Zorro said softly, “but you will make your way safely back to the hacienda and then you can rest.”           

Then he took off the saddle and bridle, and using the saddle blanket, quickly rubbed the mare down.  “You have been faithful and strong; enjoy your freedom, even if it’s for a short while.”  Zorro rubbed the horse’s nose and gathering up his knife and sword, walked away, back towards the vaqueros’ camp.           

The outlaw arrived just as the camp was stirring and he waited patiently for his opportunity while the men ate a quick breakfast.  Zorro’s stomach growled; his provisions had been spoiled in the river the day before and he had had nothing but water since.  Exceedingly great patience was one of the things that had kept him alive during his tenure as the masked highwayman, so he ignored the grumblings of his stomach and continued to watch.  One of the vaqueros left the camp and Zorro saw the chance to make the odds a little better.  The man had not taken ten steps beyond the sight of the other men when Zorro silently grabbed him and rendered him unconscious with the hilt of his sword.  Dragging him behind a boulder, he sat him upright against it.  That will cause a little bit of consternation if someone investigates, the weary outlaw thought in amusement.  Chuckling softly, he even put the man’s hat back on his head.           

Zorro then crept around the other side of the camp where the horses were tethered.  The outlaw was grateful for the stupidity of the one who chose to put the horses in an area where there was plenty of cover to slip up to them.  He quietly cut the tethers of all of the horses but one.  Checking the campsite quickly, he found the rest of the men congregated near the fire.  A saddle blanket and saddle were lying nearby; Zorro carried the tack over to the waiting horse. Thankfully the horse was well trained and stood quietly while he saddled him.  

Undoing the final horse’s tether, he gathered the reins, and swung into the saddle.  With almost no noise, Zorro led the horse away from the camp to make a determination of how responsive he would be.  The gelding seemed to respond to his light knee commands and the man in black was satisfied that this horse would serve him all the way to Los Angeles.   Gripping the pistol in one hand and his sword in the other, Zorro kicked the horse into a gallop and yelling like some kind of demon from an All Hallow’s Eve celebration, he charged into camp toward his pursuers, looking, he hoped, like some fiend from hell. 

Laughing out loud, he realized that he felt like one.   His yelling caused the remaining horses to scatter in all directions.  One of the vaqueros was so startled he tripped over his saddle and fell amongst the embers of the dying fire.  Screaming in pain, he stumbled out of camp.  That left only three men to deal with.  Zorro smiled broadly, the odds just kept getting better and better.  The man closest to him reached for his pistol, but was unable to use it as Zorro slashed his arm with his sword.  The other vaquero fired his pistol but thankfully the ball whizzed harmlessly past his head.  Throwing his pistol away the vaquero drew his sword, as did Manuel.  

The sporting thing, thought Zorro, would be to fight them on foot, but he didn’t feel very sporting at the moment and he let the horse continue its wild rush.  Catching Manuel’s sword with his own he tossed it into the brush near the camp.  The other vaquero lay in a heap where the horse had bowled him over.            

Zorro leaped from the horse and began gathering up the two loaded pistols the vaqueros hadn’t had a chance to use.  In desperation, Manuel grabbed another sword and rushed him.  Angry with himself for having misjudged his opponent so miserably and failing in his assignment, the mestizo looked into Zorro’s tired countenance, and saw in the other, someone just as desperate as he was.  Manuel also believed he saw his own death in the masked man’s eyes if he persisted, but his own pride and code of honor would never allow him to surrender.  

Manuel lunged and parried and realized some hope because, while El Zorro was very, very good with a sword, he had also been worn down by the ordeal of the past two days.  There was much skill, but not a lot of strength in his moves.  Manuel went on the offensive and pressed the outlaw back towards the fire.  Zorro stumbled on the same saddle the vaquero had, but, having quicker reflexes was faster to recover and he fell just beyond the embers.  Leaping up, he then began pressing Manuel, his sword flashing so fast as to become a blur early morning light.        

Zorro realized, as had Manuel, that he was in no position to carry on a prolonged duel.  The endless days in the saddle and the sleepless nights had taken their toll.  This confrontation had to end quickly.  While realizing that Manuel would probably never yield, he had some amount of respect for the vaquero who had persisted in the chase all of this time.  Disengaging for a moment, Zorro paused for breath, “You are a worthy opponent, Señor.  Let us each go our own way.”         

Manuel smiled.  “Señor Zorro,” he replied.  “You have been a thorn in my flesh, but I still salute you, because you are the only man who has ever eluded me.  You are indeed a fox.”  With that he continued the fight with increased vigor, advancing with the desperation of one who knows he can’t win.  Manuel lunged at the beleaguered bandit and that was when Zorro saw his chance.  Parrying the vaquero’s thrust just slightly, he lunged forward and pierced his opponent’s shoulder with his blade, ending the fight.  Manuel slid silently to the ground in shock, his left hand clutching the wound that bled between his fingers.            

Zorro stood quietly, catching his breath for a few minutes.  “Señor,” he finally said, “you were a most worthy adversary.  Even though I know you were sent to kill me, I myself, cannot kill one possessed of such honor, tenacity and sense of duty.  I leave you to the care of your men.”  He cleaned and sheathed his sword, put the two pistols in his sash and mounted the horse.  He was not worried about the other vaqueros.  Their effectiveness had been neutralized as far as he was concerned.  Zorro looked intently at the one with the slashed arm.  The man stared at him in fearful awe.  

“My friend,” the masked man told him. “It is a long walk back to the King’s Highway.  I leave you with all of your provisions, but I am taking the horse.  Might I suggest that you think twice before you deal with me again?  Adios.”  Making a quick salute, he rode in the direction of the Pueblo de Los Angeles.

 

 

 

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