Fox Hunt

 

 

 

Chapter 8

 

           

At sunrise, the cochero cracked his whip and whistled his team into the slow run that would inexorably take them to Los Angeles.  Bernardo had spent a worrisome night, being unable to do anything about the Zorro’s situation, except fret.  Nightmares had dogged his sleep as well.  Not having been able to bring himself to eat breakfast, he had nevertheless bought some provisions for lunch.  After contemplating most of the night what he should do, the only thing the manservant could decide upon was to continue his journey home and hope his patrón would be able to safely do the same.          

His companions in the stage were a very lovely señorita and her chaperone, an older woman whom the señorita addressed as Aunt, and an older patrón, who appeared to be about the age of Don Alejandro.  When the señorita addressed him early in the trip, he reluctantly had to signal his inability to communicate.  Still she had flashed him a friendly smile.  The señorita had very long, dark brown hair, which unlike most upper class Californiano women she wore loose, with hair combs on each side to keep it from falling into her face.  Her eyes were a bluish gray that were lit with a good humor that was infectious.  Just being in the stage with her made his mood lighten a bit.            

The duenna was more serious in demeanor, but looked to be one who could enjoy life also, when she wasn’t watching over her niece.  Bernardo signed a query to her as to where they had come from.  The older woman indicated that they had come from up north, near San Francisco de Asis.   The manservant didn’t pursue the conversation, as the duenna seemed a bit uncomfortable trying to sign to him.  Bernardo had come to accept that, also.  As the stage began its journey, the señorita undid the scarf at her neck and tied it around her hair.  The older woman seemed to be slightly put out with the unconventional behavior of her niece, but made no comment.          

Invariably, the topic of conversation seemed to center on the exploits of Zorro.  The young woman’s curiosity about the outlaw was insatiable, although the old patrón was painting a picture that was far from flattering.  The older man had a thick beard, trimmed to a point somewhere just below his collarbone, and in his agitation, it bobbed up and down as he described the depredations of El Zorro.  It was hard for the mozo to continue to act as though he couldn’t hear what was going on.          

Irate at the old man’s detailed, but inaccurate descriptions, Bernardo waited until the old man had stopped for a moment and then motioned to the young woman, making a “Z.”  She nodded and signed a question about his knowledge of the black clad highwayman.  With many signs, Bernardo described some of his patrón’s exploits.  The old man growled his displeasure at the more flattering picture Bernardo was painting, but in that Bernardo had an advantage, he could ignore the hacendado.  The señorita was fascinated, and even her aunt watched in interest.

 

 

                                         =========================

           

 

 

Zorro rode ever closer to his destination, avoiding the highway whenever possible.  At times, though, rocky hills made it necessary to ride close to the road. During one of these times, Zorro was shocked when a small group of riders came around the bend from the north.  Before he was able to find escape in a rocky arroyo, they fired at him.   The horse under him grunted and stumbled, and he realized that his mount had been seriously hurt. 

Cursing his foul luck under his breath, Zorro noticed that among the pursuing group was Paulo Wheeler.  As the animal lunged forward, the masked man jerked his feet from the stirrups, and as the horse fell to the ground, he rolled and leaped to his feet, already running.  The rocks were welcome now and Zorro darted in and out and among them.  He heard Wheeler order his men to dismount and capture him at all costs.  Finding an overhanging rock formation where he could observe his pursuers without being seen, he paused to watch the activities of his enemy.  The tumble of boulders almost made a maze; he could see two of the vaqueros, but not the third.  Taking careful aim, he fired and heard a vaquero scream as he ducked behind a rock.  Zorro dropped from the crag and jerked his hand back as a pistol ball gouged a hole not two inches from where it had been. Turning quickly, he shot the vaquero before the man could reload.  Even in his haste, his aim had been true and his attacker dropped without a sound. 

Zorro raced past the dead man and then stopped, grabbing the pouch with powder and ball. Then he resumed his flight among the boulders.  Another pistol shot smacked against a rock, causing splintery shards to fly everywhere.  The shot actually came as a relief to him, because he could get ahead of the remaining vaquero, especially if the man chose to stop and reload.  Now began a strange and baleful parody of the game of hide and seek that Zorro used to play as a child, only this time if he became ‘it,’ he would be dead.

After running and scrambling among the scattered rock formations and boulders for what seemed an eternity, Zorro felt this must be what walking in quicksand was like. The ever-increasing heat drained him of energy, and his leg muscles burned with the exertion.  Deducing that it must be near midday, the outlaw climbed almost to the crest of a small outcropping of rock and peered over the top.  He was not able to see anyone following, but the reconnaissance allowed him a quick rest.  Keeping vigilant, he realized that Wheeler and the vaquero had not given up their search for him.  All he needed to do was make one stupid mistake and the hacendado would have the revenge he seemed to crave so badly.           

Zorro decided that if he stayed near the highway, the opportunity to “borrow” a horse or other transportation would afford itself.  He was a true Californiano of the upper class and walking to Los Angeles was not even a consideration for one who spent the majority of his time on horseback.  Finally, he caught a glimpse of his two pursuers in the distance riding carefully amongst the rocky ridges and outcroppings.  So that’s why I have been able to stay ahead of them, he thought with grim satisfaction.  They were now trying to search on horseback and in this, he did have the advantage, although it was slight.  Right now, Zorro was grateful for any advantage that came his way.           

Keeping the rocks between himself and the two men, he managed to make his way to a spot overlooking the highway.  It was perfect, in that he could see anyone coming in either direction and would be able to leap on him before his victim was even aware of his presence, including Wheeler or his vaquero.  He would be hidden from them if they came up from behind.  

Wheeler was intensely angry, and fumed that he had lost two vaqueros to someone, who by rights, should have already been dead back on the trail.  He could only assume that the bandit had somehow dispatched or eluded Manuel and his group, presumably the former, because the young vaquero, José, had told him that the dead horse had Don Paulo’s brand on it.           

Cursing, he took his frustration out on José, shouting, “Make sure you find him or I’ll flay you!”  It was inconceivable that a lone man on foot would be able to elude so many hunters.  He jerked his horse around so savagely that bloody foam flew from the animal’s mouth.

At first, Zorro heard, rather than saw, the stage coming from the north, and he couldn’t believe the incredible fortune this afforded him.  He still had a loaded pistol and if need be, could force the driver to accept his company.  The stage drove around the bend and Zorro gathered his legs under him to make the jump.   It had to be just right.  A little closer.  Now!  He leaped into the air and landed squarely onto the top of the stage among the baggage.  Scrambling over boxes and bundles, he jumped into the seat next to the driver and drew his pistol from his sash.  “Señor, will I need this or may I ride as a passenger?”          

The driver looked into the tired face of the outlaw and shook his head.  “Señor Zorro,” the driver said, “I have nothing against you or what you do.”  The man smiled and then laughed.  “As long as you are not planning on robbing me, you can put away your pistol and ride as a passenger.  In fact, there is a place in the coach if you desire to rest.”            

Zorro looked intently into the man’s face to see if there was any sign of deceit and saw none.    “Thank you, Señor,” he said gratefully, “That would be most suitable.  Be assured that you will be paid well for your generosity, later of course, as I seem to be short of pesos,” he added with a chuckle.  “Continue to drive for another mile or two before stopping, por favor.”  By no means did he wish to stop too soon and make it easy for Señor Wheeler to know where he had gone.          

Finally, along a rough and rocky section of the road, at Zorro’s command the driver brought the stage to a halt.  “Go ahead and get in, señor,” the driver told him.  “I will warn you if anyone approaches or tries to stop the coach.”           

“Gracias, señor,” and opening the door, he climbed into the stage, where he met the gaze of the astonished Bernardo.  His hesitation was slight, though, and he motioned Bernardo and a middle-aged chaperone to make room for him on the seat.  “Por favor,” he murmured apologetically as he sat down heavily and with great relief.           

Bernardo had heard the thump on the roof of the stage, just like everyone else had, but had, as he usually did, hidden the fact.  He listened to all of the speculations, but was as shocked as the other passengers when he looked into the drawn face of his patrón.            

Bernardo was a brave man, resourceful, and very intelligent, and while not exactly what one would call ‘tender-hearted,’ he was certainly close to it.  When he saw the condition his patrón was in due to the rigors of the past three days, he almost wanted to cry.  With three days growth of beard and the haggard look of one deprived of adequate rest and nourishment, Zorro did, indeed look the part of a criminal.           

The older man on the seat across from him began to protest.  “Driver, order this brigand from your stage at once,” he blustered.  “This man is wanted for many crimes and....”           

Patrón,” the driver said simply, interrupting the old man.  “I am not aware that this man is wanted for any real crimes,” he stated.  “Right now he is a paying passenger and he is welcome to ride on my stage.  I must now continue.”  Zorro shot an appreciative look at the driver as he closed the door and climbed back up on his seat.  With a shout from the cochero, the team began its journey once more.          

The patrón continued to complain bitterly.  “You are that outlaw the lancers have been looking for, are you not?  This is inconceivable! This is an outrage.  Peaceful citizens cannot even enjoy a tranquil ride on the stage!” he grumbled loudly.  “If I was twenty years younger, you would not be sitting there so complacently!”          

Bernardo felt Don Diego stiffen next to him.  The manservant wasn’t sure of the state of his employer’s mind, but he knew he couldn’t be in a patient mood at the moment.  Bernardo recognized the signs, but even he was surprised by what Zorro did next.           

The outlaw whipped his pistol out and held it two inches from the patrón’s nose.  The old man’s eyes widened in shock and his lip began to tremble slightly. “Señor,” the outlaw smiled coldly at the man.  “I am normally known for being very patient and having a fair sense of humor, but I am possessed of none of those qualities at this time.  Let me explain something to you and I will see if you understand me.”  He spoke quietly, but with deadly intent.  “What I did three days ago was justice and the rightness of it will be decided by God.  Nothing else matters.  I do not abide slavery, and was not going to let it continue.”  The barrel of the pistol was now only one inch from the man’s nose.  “I have been deprived of decent sleep and refreshment for three days, and now I am a passenger on this coach just as you are.  If I wish to sleep, then I will do so, do I make myself clear?”          

The patrón nodded vigorously making the beard bob up and down.  The end of the pistol touched the man’s nose.  “And if you try to do anything while I am sleeping, I may be tempted to blow your head off.”  He turned to the señorita and her duenna.  “Please forgive my incivility, Señorita and Señora.”  Putting the pistol back into his sash, he gave each of them a smile of reassurance.  The aunt didn’t smile, but her look was one of kind consideration, nonetheless.          

“Señor Zorro,” the senorita said, “My name is Anna Teresa Hernandez and this is my aunt, AnnaMargarita Hernandez.”  Zorro nodded to each.  “We are from San Francisco de Asis, but your reputation is known even that far north.  I wish there were more caballeros who dared to stand up for the rights of those less fortunate, unlike some I know,” she glared at the old patrón.            

“You are most gracious, Señorita Hernandez, but I am only an outlaw, not a caballero,” Zorro replied with a weary smile.           

Bernardo tapped Zorro on the shoulder.  When Zorro turned to him, the mozo handed him a package.  As he opened the package, Zorro drew in his breath quickly, before looking at Bernardo and thanking him with a nod.  In the package was the food purchased for lunch.  He pulled off his gloves, and the tortillas were quickly consumed, but the oranges were eaten one slice at a time with great enjoyment.           

Anna Teresa laughed in a friendly, merry sort of way.  “Señor, I have a little bit of wine.  Would you care for some?”          

“Forgive my table manners,” he said as Bernardo handed him a handkerchief to wipe the juice from his fingers. “But, yes, I would, por favor,” Zorro answered.  Greatly savoring the contents of the flask down to the very last drop, he settled back to rest with a satisfied sigh.           

Again he thanked his fellow passengers for their hospitality. And for the first time in three days, he felt some measure of safety. Zorro tried to stay awake and answer questions posed to him by the curious señorita, but his weary body would not allow that.  After much yawning, he removed his hat, laid his head on Bernardo’s shoulder and fell deeply asleep.  

A short while later, the old man’s eyes narrowed and he slowly began to reach for the pistol in Zorro’s sash.  Bernardo grabbed it first and pointed it at the old caballero.  The outlaw didn’t even stir when the manservant moved, and the fierce look in Bernardo’s eyes made the old man sit back again without protest.           

Anna Teresa laughed softly.  “Señor, you are outnumbered.  There are more in this coach who believe El Zorro’s deeds are just than those who do not,” she looked at him coldly.  “I agree with the deaf-mute, leave him alone. Let the poor man get some sleep.  If there is justice to be had, let it happen later.”          

So it was that Zorro slept through the afternoon oblivious to any events surrounding him.

 

                                  =========================

           

When Wheeler and the vaquero, José reached the king’s highway and still had not found the outlaw, he became livid with rage.  “Where could he have gone?” he screamed.  “The man is truly a devil’s spawn to be able to escape so easily and so many times.  Go back into these accursed rocks and search them again.”  Several hours later, when no sign of the outlaw had been found, the pair met again on the King’s highway.          

José had been looking at the tracks on the road.  “Don Paulo, perhaps he rode on the stage.”           

Wheeler turned and glared at the vaquero.  “Explain yourself,” he demanded.          

“Here are wheel tracks from something large, and since there is a regular stage that runs from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, perhaps while we were looking in the rocks, Zorro was able to get a ride on the coach.  This coach was southbound, I can tell by the tracks even though they have been disturbed.”          

Wheeler stared at the ground, unable to see what the vaquero had seen.  The hired man’s logic was impeccable, though.  “Yes, and he did not have a horse,” Wheeler thought out loud.  “Let us hurry.  Perhaps we can catch up with him, if not on the road, then at one of the way stations.”  They rode a little further and saw where the stage had stopped and someone had gotten on.  Wheeler laughed in triumph.  “I have you now, Fox!”

 

 

 

Chapter Nine
Chapter One
Zorro Contents
Main Page