Et Tu, Brutus

 

 

 

Chapter Three - The Fox Sets a Trap

 

Zorro only took enough time at the hacienda to fill Bernardo in on what he had learned.  Now he sat quietly on Tornado, watching the embers of a dying campfire in the tiny valley below him.   Surmising correctly that the bandit gang would have been avoiding the pueblo, he had found this camp, just north of Los Angeles with very little effort. The only thing keeping him from going in and taking them captive right now was the absence of their leader.  Whoever it was, he would need to be captured in the morning; therefore everything would have to look natural in each of the camps.

Dismounting, Zorro motioned for Tornado to remain where he was, while he reconnoitered.  Stealthily making his way down the slope, he positioned himself near the sleepers. By the illumination of a waxing moon, he saw where they had tethered their horses, but more importantly, he saw the weapons.  Creeping silently through camp, he gathered up all of the pistols along with pouches of powder and shot.

A short distance outside of the camp, Zorro emptied the powder and replaced it with dirt. Emptying the shot, he replaced it with small pebbles, smiling broadly the whole time he was working.  The pistols also, were reloaded with the 'fake' powder, and then everything was replaced in the exact spot in the camp from which it came.  The sleepers did not even stir.

The scenario was repeated in a little camp south of the pueblo.   Zorro assumed that the leaders would arrive shortly before dawn, and that this robbery would be more important to them than the one on the northbound stage, owing to the fact that the Viceroy's daughter was a passenger and her valuables, even though not numerous, were more costly.  Settling himself in a hidden location near the camp, the outlaw made himself as comfortable as he could under the circumstances.

Even with a boulder as a backrest, Zorro still found that he had fallen asleep when the morning sun rose above the eastern mountains and struck him full in the face.  Mentally berating himself, he perused the camp and found that two men had arrived fairly recently.  In shock, the outlaw noticed that one of the men was a local don, not one of great wealth, but a landowner nonetheless.

Don Stefano Venado, he thought to himself.  A man reputed to have been spending too much time lately at the cards and games of chance; Don Stefano was a paunchy man, fairly short with a somewhat bushy blond beard and thinning hair.  Since his wife died, he had spent little time tending to the matters of his rancho, leaving that to his eighteen-year-old son, who would be devastated to know that his father was the driving force in these robberies.

The second man was a corporal from the cuartel  Zorro realized that this was Juan, whom he had heard the night before.

"I want nothing to interfere in getting the jewels that the Donna de Vaca is carrying.  Avoid killing, but get the jewelry," Don Stefano said fervently.  "It is entirely too bad that the young lady is not more vain and is not carrying her complete dowry with her, but these three pieces, along with what we already have, will be enough to make you happy and me debt free." The bandits, including Juan, who had changed into civilian clothes, placed bandanas around their necks and left the camp for their place of ambush.  Don Stefano sat quietly on his horse, watching his men ride off.  Then he shook his head and sighed deeply, his previous self-assured countenance replaced with one of despair.

Quietly drawing his sword, Zorro ran into the camp and grabbed the reins of Don Stefano's horse.  "Zorro," the caballero breathed.  His eyes widened in shock.

"Don Stefano, why are you doing this?  Do you not have friends who would be happy to help you?"  Zorro was speaking more as Diego de la Vega at the moment than as Zorro.  Looking intently into the hacendado’s eyes, he saw remorse and guilt in them.  More softly, Zorro said, "What are we going to do about this, Señor Venado?"

"What could I do, Señor Zorro?  In my grief, I abandoned my rancho and my children and now I have made them destitute by my obsession with the cards.   I had to do something to save the land for Juliano and Marianna," he pleaded.   "Can you not understand?  What else could I do?"

"I will repeat myself, Don Stefano, you have friends who would understand.  Or do you feel yourself so alone that you can go to no one for help?"

Don Stefano looked at Zorro with anguish.  "What have I done?"  Zorro just gazed at him intently without saying anything.  Several minutes passed.  "What do you think I should do, señor?"

"What do you think you should do, Don Stefano?"   Zorro asked quietly.  "I could give you all kinds of wonderful advice, but it is you who has to decide to do the right thing."

"I will go to the local magistrado.  This one seems to be a fair man, I can return all that is still in my possession and then see my friend Don Alejandro or Don Sebastion to help me pay back the rest," Stefano said resolutely.  Then a shocked look came over his face.  "Today's robberies!" he exclaimed.   "They must be stopped!"

"Sí, señor, they must.  Especially since you almost gave free rein to your hired bandits to get the jewelry by any means," Zorro reminded him.   "But I have already taken measures to thwart the robberies.  Señor Venado, go to the magistrado, I will take care of your hirelings.  But be warned, I will be aware of your activities and if you return to this path, I will have very little sympathy and even less mercy."  Zorro whistled and awaited the arrival of Tornado.  "Give me your pistol, señor."  The hacendado complied.

"Gracias, Señor Zorro," Stefano said with great emotion, reining his horse toward the pueblo.  Mounting Tornado, Zorro spurred the stallion in the direction the bandits took, and hearing the stage in the distance, the outlaw did not hesitate as he crossed over the ridge and galloped toward the King's Highway.

Halfway down the hill, Zorro reined in Tornado.  By this time the stage had also stopped.  "Señores, I believe you should reconsider your actions."  All the bandits' eyes were on him.  The driver reached under his seat.

Juan laughed and pointed his pistol at Zorro.   "You are very stupid, señor."  A well-aimed shot from the stage driver knocked Juan's weapon from his hand.  The other bandits pointed their pistols at either Zorro or the stage driver and fired.  Or rather tried to; the only thing that happened was a metallic click as the hammer struck the flint.  In confusion, they tried again, with the same result.

Zorro could only laugh at the confused countenances of the bandits.   "Señores, you are very poor bandits indeed, who cannot make sure that you have powder and shot in your weapons."

With a cry of rage, Juan jerked his horse around and galloped into the hills.  Regretfully, Zorro had to let him go to take care of the other bandits.   Riding up to the stage with his pistol pointed at the remaining bandits, Zorro again saluted the driver.  "Gracias, señor," he said.  "The leader was the only one who had a loaded pistol.  The rest could only hurt us by throwing their pistols at us," he said with a laugh.

"I was beginning to get worried, Señor Zorro," the driver said, with obvious relief.  The passengers were becoming more vocal in their inquiries.

"Señor, reassure your passengers, I will take care of the bandits," Zorro told him.  Turning to the four men, he stared hard at them.   "Take off your bandanas, señores," he ordered. With only slight hesitation, they all complied.  "Now, empty out any stolen articles from your saddle bags."  Again there was swift compliance.  "It appears that you have been preparing to go to Santa Barbara or San Diego to sell these things.  It is fortunate that you still had them."

"Señores, I am in a good mood today and therefore am kindly disposed to you.  I have seen your faces, and as I do not forget faces, may I suggest that you never show them in this vicinity again, because if you do, I may become violent."   Zorro's smile was friendly, but his stare was icy cold.  One of the bandits actually shivered. "Go, now, and remember what I told you," he said in a soft, deadly voice.

With one accord, the four men pointed their horses to the south and swiftly rode away.  Zorro retrieved the stolen articles to be returned to the magistrado. Remounting, he turned to the stage and inquired of the passengers.  Donna de Vaca stepped from the coach and with a smile greeted him.  "Well met, Señor Zorro," she laughed.  "The trick with the defective pistols was wonderfully humorous after I got over my initial shock."

Zorro just laughed.  "I am glad that this was resolved without any blood being spilled," he admitted.  "You should be able to enjoy a peaceful journey from here on, señorita."

Looking at him meaningfully, she quipped,  "But a little excitement is good for a person, too.  I regret that I cannot stay in your interesting little pueblo for a few more days.  Perhaps someday you can visit Havana?"

"Perhaps, señorita," he replied enigmatically.  Reaching down, he took her outstretched hand and kissed it a bit longer than the usual gesture of deference to a lady called for.  "Señorita, I must ride.  Bandits are planning to rob the other stage."  Reluctantly, he tore himself away from her gaze, and making a flourish of his hand to his hat, rode in the direction of the pueblo.

The northbound stage departed from Los Angeles later in the morning than did the stage to San Diego, so when Zorro arrived at the place of ambush, the robbery had only just commenced.  The scene was almost identical to that already played out with the southbound coach.  Again he recognized the bandits as men employed locally as vaqueros, and again he gave the same warning and watched the men ride away in frantic haste.

The only loose end that he needed to tie up was the location of Juan.   Somehow, Zorro felt that the lancer was a dangerous spoke in this wheel of intrigue and he wouldn't be content to just ride away.  Why he felt this way, he could not be sure, but his instincts were usually right and Zorro felt that vigilance was in order.

In the early evening, Diego and Bernardo made their appearance at the tavern.  Diego stifled a yawn before walking in the door; he was exhausted from spending almost the entirety of the past several nights dealing with bandits.  Day sleeping was not always rejuvenating. Tonight, perhaps there would be a respite.  As the pair walked in the behavior of the inn's customers struck him as odd.  Everyone seemed to be trying to gather around one table to lay wagers.  Diego made his way to a less crowded area and sat down, motioning to the bar maid to bring him some wine, while Bernardo drifted around the room, unobtrusively trying to find out what was going on.   The barmaid brought him a glass and bottle of wine at about the same time that Sgt. Garcia caught sight of him.  "Don Diego," he boomed and made his way through the crowd to his friend.  Sgt. Garcia's little dog, Caesar, trailed along behind, his tiny legs moving in a blur as he followed his master.  "So much is going on this evening, and after a most eventful day, too."

"So I noticed, Sergeant," Diego quipped. He motioned to the barmaid to bring another glass.

"Gracias, Don Diego," Garcia said with a smile.  "Did you know that Don Stefano Venado had hired the bandits who were robbing the stage?   He spent the day with the magistrado who first ordered restitution, with further punishment coming later.  That must be very hard on his family."

"And very hard on him as well. Yes, I know all about it, he came to see me today," Diego told the sergeant with a look that discouraged further questions on the matter.  Early in the afternoon, Don Stefano had visited the hacienda to borrow money for his debts, which Diego had freely given him.  The noise of conversation rose and fell like waves in the ocean and Diego looked at the table from which most of the tumult seemed to be originating.

"Who is betting on whose riding skills this evening, Sergeant?" Diego asked, his curiosity aroused.

"Don Diego, they are betting on how many days it will take Brutus to catch Zorro," Garcia commented with a chuckle.   "I bet two pesos that it would take three days."

Diego almost choked on his wine.  For once he was unable to come up with a witty repartee.  "Who is Brutus?" he finally asked.

"Do you remember the foxhound that I told you about?"   Garcia asked.  "Well, it seems that Don Marianno's brother, Don Salvadore was most interested in testing the worth of his new dog and so he brought him here to see if he could catch Zorro.  Of course, he did not tell Constancia."

"Of course," Diego murmured.  Being a bit intrigued, as well as somewhat annoyed, he got up and made his way to the little table where all of the wagering was going on. He found himself looking at a young man who looked only a few years younger than himself.  Young Señor Aguayo was slender in build and somewhat short.  His gray eyes looked Diego up and down as though assessing his worth.

"Señor, would you care to make a small wager on the outcome of the impending fox hunt?"  Don Salvadore inquired.

"What kind of fox are you hunting, señor?  Around here the foxes are most cunning and adept in the art of the chase," Diego said smoothly.

"Brutus is going to hunt El Zorro," Salvadore bragged.

"May I examine your hound, Don Salvadore?"  Diego inquired.   The man nodded and Diego knelt down, letting the dog sniff his hand before he scratched under its chin.  The dog was white, with tan and black splotches and it was of medium size, Diego noted as he felt his sturdy legs and barrel chest.  The animal also had the look of intelligence in its eyes.  He had to admit that this dog appeared to have a great deal of endurance, which he really did not want to test.

"Is he not a fine specimen, Señor...  I am afraid you know my name, but I do not know yours."  Salvadore said.

Looking up, Diego introduced himself while he let the dog lick his hand.   Absently, Diego scratched Brutus behind his ears.  Caesar had padded over and lay down next to Brutus, which seemed to be to the liking of the bigger dog.   "Señor, did you get him alone or did you get a pack?"

"We have a pack, but I did not want to travel with a large number of dogs and Brutus is such a good hunter that I felt that the others were unnecessary," the caballero stated, smugly.

Diego smiled knowingly.  "Then I can assume that his kennel mates are probably named Octavius, Antonius, Cicero, Cassius, Casca and Flavius?"

Salvadore just stared for a brief moment.  "Sí, Señor de la Vega. But you missed one, Lena.  How did you know?"

"Señor, you have imported English hunting dogs and I have read English literature," Diego smiled at the young man's discomfiture.

"But these are good Spanish dogs," Salvadore sputtered.

"And William Shakespeare is a good Spanish author," Diego laughed.  Somehow he was getting a bit of enjoyment out of teasing the young man.   Perhaps it was the fatigue he was feeling, but more likely it was a bit of irritation at this added inconvenience making its way into his life.  "Relax, the sergeant is not out to throw us all in jail.  But, of course, we can drop the subject, if it makes you uncomfortable," he added.

"Sí, I would appreciate it.  Would you care to wager that Brutus will corner El Zorro the first time he appears?" Salvadore wiped the perspiration from his brow.

"No, señor, I would like to wager that Brutus does not corner Zorro at all."  Diego knew that this was an idiotic thing to do, since he usually professed ambivalence in the exploits of the El Zorro, but his annoyance at this most recent turn of events caused him to ignore his mental warnings.  Salvadore gaped at him as Diego showed him twenty pesos in good faith and finally the wager was written down.

 

 

 

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