Fox Hunt

 

 

 

Chapter 9

 

 

The old patrón held his peace throughout the remainder of the afternoon.   In fact, the old man had not even ventured out of the stage during a stop to change horses. Of course, Bernardo hadn’t either.  He not only wanted to stay on guard to make sure Zorro remained safe, but the outlaw was still using his shoulder for a pillow.            

Conversations between the señorita and her aunt had remained in low tones.  However, Bernardo was of the opinion that it wouldn’t have mattered if a fiesta were being held in the stage; Zorro would have slept through it.  His patrón shifted in his sleep and his long legs stretched out, forcing the old man to move his own legs aside.  Somehow, Bernardo saw this as poetic justice.            

It was late afternoon and soon the stage should be arriving at the way station and inn for the night.  That would be the most perilous time.  He knew Zorro would need a horse.  If they could arrange that, and he could get out of the way station without being stopped, then Bernardo felt his patrón would make it home without further incident.          

Within an hour, the driver announced their impending arrival at the way station.  Anna Teresa saved Bernardo the trouble of having to try to explain waking Zorro up when he wasn’t supposed to be able to hear the coachman, by reaching over and shaking the sleeping man’s arm.  Zorro sat up quickly, grasping for the pistol, which wasn’t there.  “Señor Zorro,” the señorita said with a smile, “We are approaching the way station.  I assumed you wished to be awake when we got there.”          

Bernardo handed him the pistol, and Zorro tucked it back in his sash, nodding his thanks.  He knew that Bernardo had saved him from some kind of dangerous situation while he slept, but he would have to inquire about it later.  Gratefully, he looked at the señorita.  “Gracias,” he told her.  “Indeed, I did. And despite the fact that it is rude, I must insist on leaving the coach first, por favor.”          

Zorro noticed that the old patrón was strangely quiet.  He wondered again what had happened, and suspected that not only Bernardo, but also the señorita had protected him in his sleep.   A little embarrassed at his vulnerability, the outlaw realized it couldn’t be helped.  A little lunch and a siesta can do much for a tired and famished man, and he felt much better for it.        

While the stage was covering the last mile before the station, Zorro asked the young woman, “How long did I sleep, by the way?”          

“All afternoon, señor.  I would guess about five or so hours. It will soon be dark,” she answered with a conspiratorial smile.  “I do hope you are feeling better.”  Then she laughed lightly, “You even slept through a changing of horses, señor.  I believe you would have slept through a saint’s day feast.”           

Zorro laughed with her, her humor was infectious.  “Probably, but you are right, I do feel much better,” he answered.  “And I thank you for your hospitality,” he said to everyone in general.  Then he looked at the old man.  Patrón,” he spoke respectfully, trying to soothe the old man’s ruffled feathers, knowing how quickly his own father could became agitated, “I am truly sorry for my rudeness earlier, but I was extremely tired and was in no mood to explain all of the circumstances of the past.  Please forgive me.”          

“Pretty words coming from a common bandit and thief,” the old man huffed.  “I still believe you should be treated as a criminal and not as an honored guest on this coach.”  He looked pointedly at Bernardo, before turning back to glare at the outlaw.  “Maybe I will yet get a chance to see your execution,” he said with a conspiratorial smile.          

Zorro saw no point in verbally sparring with the old caballero.  He just shrugged.  “Perhaps you will, patrón.”  The coach came to a stop and Zorro slipped out the side that was close to the wall of the inn.  Quickly making his way around the back and towards the stable, he realized that the old man was right in one thing; he was going to be a common thief, because he had to have a horse.  Silently, he slipped into the stable and in the half-light checked out the available animals.  Most were coach horses, which were strong, but he needed something quick and agile.  Near the end of the line of stalls, he was astonished to see his own horse standing quietly.  Tejas had apparently been well taken care of; he was brushed and fed.  An old saddle in a corner of the tack area caught his eye.  It was so plain and small that he assumed that it was an Englishman’s saddle, but at this time, he wasn’t going to be particular.  Zorro quickly found a blanket and saddled Tejas.  His bridle hung on a peg nearby.            

As he was slipping on the bridle, the stage driver came in.  “Señor Zorro, you must leave quickly.  The old patrón is spreading the word that you are here and soon there will be many after you to get the reward.”  He glanced at Zorro’s choice.  “A good horse, señor, but I have been told that it belongs to a hacendado in Los Angeles, please leave it there to be found when you arrive, assuming, of course, that is the direction you are traveling.  A message was sent with the last stage to the owner of the horse and they might be upset if they found out it had been stolen while in our care,” he smiled.  “But, señor, I think you have greater need for this fine animal than a rich and pampered hacendado does right now.”           

In consternation, Zorro realized that the driver’s worry would not be the reason for upset at the hacienda de la Vega.  Father would be worried sick wondering what had happened to him.  All the more reason to hurry.  “Would you open the door, por favor?”           

The driver did so and Zorro led the horse out as quietly and discreetly as he could.  The driver closed the door and calmly walked towards the inn.  Zorro heard a noise from around the corner of the building. Looking cautiously, he saw Bernardo motioning to him.  Leading the horse around the corner to where Bernardo was waiting, and seeing no one else, Zorro pulled the government papers out of his sash and handed them to the manservant.  “Somewhat the worse for wear, but make sure you get them to Father.  Some are from the governor’s office.”  He noticed a look of surprise on Bernardo’s face as he saw the mount Zorro was leading, and he laughed shortly.  “Don’t be so surprised.  I am only half a horse thief.  I only stole the saddle, and it is such a sorry, tiny little thing that I believe it will not even be missed.  Apparently Tejas showed up near here earlier.  Your horse was well used, but she should make it home soon, just minus some shoes.”  Bernardo looked puzzled.   “A long story, but one of the shoes was defective and that was how I was being tracked.  She will lead no one to the hacienda, now.”          

“Bernardo,” Zorro continued.  “I have been warned to make haste.  As soon as you get to Los Angeles, please let Father know I am all right.  They sent word about finding my horse and, well, you know Father.”  Bernardo nodded and looked at his patrón with a worried look.  “Bernardo, I will be fine.  Stop worrying.”  The outlaw assured him by putting his arm around the smaller man’s shoulder, something a patrón normally did not do with his manservant, but something which was much easier among them since the return from Spain.  “It will work out, my friend.  A man could not have a better compadre.”           

Zorro started to swing into the saddle and looked at the stirrups in disgust.  They were just bits of metal and adjusted too short as well, so he made a short, running leap and vaulted onto Tejas’ back. The stirrups could be adjusted when he was well away from the station.  The gelding was well trained to respond to leg commands with full tack or without.  Then the realization hit him again that there wasn’t even a saddle horn.  The English, he decided, just didn’t know how to make a decent saddle, a sentiment that repeated the way he had felt when he was a student in Spain.          

There was a great deal of commotion from the inn, which Zorro surmised had to be due to his presence, just as the driver had warned.  Numerous vaqueros and caballeros were milling around in front with the old man from the stage and some were preparing their horses for pursuit.  Sighting him, one of the men raised a great shout of alarm.  The outlaw booted Tejas into a gallop and the horse leaped ahead in response. There was no doubt in Zorro’s mind that once he had reached the open highway, he would be able to elude these pursuers, especially since some of them seemed to be somewhat inebriated anyway.  Glancing back at those behind, Zorro was startled by a pistol shot from ahead of him.  At the same time he felt a burning sensation on the outside of his left arm.            

Praying the shooter had only one pistol, Zorro shouted to Tejas to increase his speed in the same direction he had been going.  Directly in front of him, Señor Wheeler and a young vaquero were attempting to block his way.  Their horses looked winded, but still fully capable of stopping him.  Apparently, Zorro thought grimly, they had guessed at his mode of transportation and destination. In this rocky area, there was only the way from the north and one from the south.  If it had been full daylight, he would have chanced finding a path among the rocky outcroppings, but he could not risk that in the evening dusk.           

In a split second, the outlaw decided that the sword would be useless and pulled out the damaged knife from his sash.  A shot from behind was too close, and holding the knife between his teeth, Zorro jerked out his pistol and reaching over his shoulder, shot the closest assailant behind him.  His pursuers were more careful now as their comrade fell moaning to the ground.  Shoving the pistol back in his sash, he took the knife back in his hand and concentrated on the confrontation ahead of him.          

Tejas was at full gallop by now and Zorro decided that the best course of action was a direct assault as he had done before, especially in light of the fact that his way was cut off behind him. The vaquero was busy trying to reload his pistol and was unprepared for a large horse ramming into his mount.  The young man was soon on the ground, unconscious.  But Señor Wheeler was undeterred by Zorro’s headlong rush, and pivoted his horse enough to block the gelding’s impetus, which had been already been impeded by the vaquero’s horse.

The palomino skidded almost to a halt and reared.  Zorro clamped his knees tightly against the horse’s side as Wheeler aimed his pistol point blank at his head.  “Now, I will kill you, you devil from hell,” he shouted and began to laugh hysterically.            

“Señor,” Zorro shouted back with a laugh of his own. “How many men has it taken you to get to this point?  You have not put me into the ground yet and I have no intention of letting you do so.”  The only recourse that Zorro had was to ride in as close as he could and slash out with the knife to knock the pistol away.  A line of blood appeared down Paulo Wheeler’s arm and although his aim was thrown off, it was not enough to cause the determined man to drop his weapon.  With his heels, Zorro guided Tejas even closer and slashed again.  Wheeler roared with anger and tried to raise the pistol, but Zorro’s second blow prevented that, only causing his opponent’s fingers to tighten their hold before proper aim could be achieved.           

At that moment, the weapon went off, and a searing, stabbing flame of pain shot up the outlaw’s right leg from his foot to his back.  With a cry of rage and agony, Zorro closed his fingers tightly around the handle of the knife and slammed his fist into the side of Wheeler’s jaw, dumping him onto the trail, unconscious.     

Shoving the knife back in his sash, Zorro drew his pistol and pointed it at Wheeler’s head, forgetting it was empty.  The pain kept knifing its way up his leg with every jolt that the nervously prancing horse was making.  But even in pain and anger, Zorro couldn’t shoot an unconscious man.  Quickly wheeling Tejas back toward the highway, he ran his two antagonists’ horses before him, galloping south towards home.

 

           

The innkeeper, who had come out to presumably watch the capture of the outlaw, ordered several vaqueros to carry the unconscious and wounded men into the inn.  Bernardo, having heard the first shot, had been a witness to almost the entire scene and was desperately afraid for his patrón.  Watching the altercation between Señor Wheeler and Zorro, he had heard the second pistol shot and seen Zorro knock his attacker out of the saddle.  Then the manservant had been shocked to see Don Diego draw his pistol on the unconscious man, something that Zorro never did.  

Bernardo drew the only conclusion he could… that the pistol ball had hit its target and shock had nearly driven his patrón to do something he would otherwise never even consider.  Being a hopeful man, the mute ran to the place of the fight, praying he was wrong.  When he got there Bernardo found a small, dark area in the dust, which he knew was blood.  Looking up the highway he saw occasional droplets in the dust.  Perceiving the same thing he did, several of the mounted men saw an easy way to earn two thousand pesos and galloped down the King’s Highway in pursuit of Zorro.          

Bernardo felt a touch on his arm, and looking up, saw Anna Teresa.  She looked concerned, and he realized that she too had seen the confrontation.  “He was shot, wasn’t he?” she asked and went through the motions for Bernardo to understand.  Despairing, he just nodded.  She made motions again, that of two close friends.  “You really like this Zorro, don’t you?” she asked.  Bernardo made the sign of the “Z” and nodded.           

Suddenly Bernardo had an idea and he quickly motioned to the señorita what he had in mind.  So great was his excitement and agitation that she had to make him slow down, but when he went through the motions again she understood.  “So you want to rent a horse and try to follow Zorro and help him.”  Bernardo opened his pouch.  Only a few pesos remained.  Anna Teresa understood.  “I have enough to help you.”  She opened her purse and showed Bernardo, then she grabbed his hand and they ran to the stable master.          

The only animal available was an old coach horse that could no longer be used for pulling the coaches.  The man was indeed happy to rent the horse.  It would save him the effort of taking it to the Pueblo de Los Angeles himself.  Glaring at the old nag in frustration, Bernardo really had no choice, but to accept the animal. With Anna Teresa’s help, Bernardo was able to secure a saddle also.  In sign, the señorita assured the mute that she would take care of his luggage.  Mounting the old horse, the manservant watched as Anna Teresa made signs wishing him Godspeed in his journey.  Nodding his thanks, Bernardo turned his horse in the direction that Zorro had fled, fervently praying that his patrón would be able to elude his pursuers until he could find and help him.

 

 

 

Chapter Ten
Chapter One
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