Author's Notes - Dedication and Explanation:
Therefore, this story is lovingly dedicated to Matt Baker, who wishes he could have kept Caesar, and who has been a stalwart supporter from the very beginning.
slightly re-edited, July/November, 2001
Chapter One - Fate Lends a Hand
Diego de la Vega watched in silent fury as the bandits jerked open cabinet doors, throwing the contents onto the floor of the library. He kept his features as passive as he could, but it was becoming more and more difficult. One of the thieves had the barrel of a pistol pointed at his temple; another had a pistol covering Bernardo and his father, whose face clearly showed his wrath. "This is unconscionable, señores!" Alejandro cried in outrage.
"Old man, if you make one more sound, I will lay this pistol across the side of your head," the bandit at Alejandro de la Vega’s side growled.
The leader of the bandits, a man named Cordero, walked over to them and smiled. "You have made our journey to Alta California very profitable, señores. If your neighbors are even half as wealthy as you are, we can return home very rich men indeed," he said, throwing his head back and laughing uproariously.
Diego saw his father’s eyes burn with righteous indignation, his feet shift and his hands ball into fists. In alarm, he realized that Father was prepared to fight these men. It would be a very short-lived fight, with all of them very much dead. "It is indeed too bad that your name and temperament do not match," Diego said softly as Cordero turned away. With a speed that surprised even Diego, the bandit swung around, his fist connecting with the pit of the younger man’s stomach. The caballero sank to his knees, doubled over in pain, gasping for air.
Alejandro stepped forward in alarm, anxiety temporarily replacing the anger. Cordero stepped in front of the older man and held the pistol to his forehead. "I do not normally kill those I rob, but I have been known to make exceptions, Señor de la Vega. If you want your son to live to celebrate another birthday, you had better stand still and pray that he keeps his mouth shut." Alejandro could do nothing else but nod and step back.
Cordero looked down at Diego. "Señor, I will let you live. I hope this has taught you a valuable lesson, that of keeping quiet in the presence of greater superiority," the bandit said with a chuckle. He bent over and shook his pistol in front of Diego’s face. "You see your superior, señor?" Without waiting for an answer, Cordero turned and walked away, calling for his men to gather their confiscated goods and follow him.
As the sound of hoof beats died in the distance, Bernardo and Alejandro helped Diego to a chair. "I am fine. But I do believe that Zorro will be quite busy tonight."
"Yes, my son, I imagine so. But that is a large gang of bandits for just one man to deal with, even if that one man is Zorro. In this case, the battle between a fox and a lamb may not be as one-sided as it would seem on the surface," Alejandro commented with a wry smile.
"I will do what needs to be done, Father," Diego stated in a low voice. They heard the pounding of fists on one of the upstairs doors.
"Bernardo, go and let the servants out of the bedroom and then have them take stock of what is missing," Alejandro instructed.
Several hours later, Diego sat in the tavern, quietly musing over a glass of wine, one he had hardly sipped from. The rumors and reports had started flowing in within the last hour. The de la Vega hacienda was the first to have been robbed, but it certainly was not the only one. These bandits were very fast, very experienced in their craft and very determined. They had raided two other haciendas since theirs had been attacked this morning. Diego was having an increasingly hard time acting cavalier about the whole thing, when all he wanted to do was go out and stop these men. When he had indicated that he should ride immediately, his father had wisely suggested waiting to see if the lancers could deter these banditos, also pointing out that the odds would be better at night against so many proficient and organized men. It had galled him, but he accepted his father’s wisdom.
"Don Diego!" a voice boomed. Looking up, the caballero saw his friend and acting comandante, Sergeant Demetrio Lopez Garcia. The rotund soldier stumped over to his table and sat heavily on a chair. It creaked menacingly. "What a day," the sergeant said with a lusty sigh. Looking longingly at the wine bottle sitting in the middle of the table, he glanced up at Diego with a questioning look. It was a ritual that was repeated often. Diego nodded and waved to the barmaid to bring another glass.
"Ah, chasing bandits was never so hard, Don Diego," Garcia commented. "Chasing El Zorro was certainly never this tiring."
"So it is true that this Cordero and his men have raided the Torres and the Cuesta haciendas?" Diego asked, seeing a pattern.
"Sí, Don Diego. It is as though they have demons pursuing them. They just keep going from one hacienda to the next, grabbing what they can, as quickly as they can, and then disappearing into the hills. That is pretty much what they did at your house, was it not?"
"Sí, Sergeant, it is. I believe what they are doing is making lightning raids, taking what they can of value, and then they are going to go back to Mexico before being caught," Diego explained.
"Do you think they are from Mexico?" Garcia asked.
"Yes, it certainly looks that way," Diego said. "They are not just a rabble of discontented men. They are very good at this, which tells me they have had a great deal of practice. Now tell me, Sergeant, if these men had been operating anywhere in Alta California south of San Francisco, would we not have heard about them?" Diego asked, remembering Cordero’s comment about ‘their visit to Alta California.’
"Why, Don Diego, you are right. They have to be from Mexico. Well, I sympathize with you and your fellow rancheros, but I sincerely hope they leave soon," Garcia said, and then looked up hastily at Diego when he realized what he had said. "Oh, do not get me wrong, Don Diego. I hope we catch them, but if we cannot, I would just as soon they leave quickly."
"I understand, Sergeant. It is a wonder that no one has been seriously hurt by these ruthless men," Diego said. Garcia nodded and refilled his glass. The young man was seeing a pattern; a pattern so plain that these bandits could not be expecting any kind of resistance. With a mental sigh, Diego realized that Zorro would indeed have his work cut out for him. These men had come to California where they were unknown and could check out the local ranchos without interference. Diego had remembered seeing Cordero in the tavern almost a week ago. And he and his men were so sure of themselves and their abilities that they made no effort to conceal themselves at all.
Tossing a couple of pesos on the table, Diego stood up, motioned to Bernardo and with a farewell to Sgt. Garcia, walked sedately out the tavern door. When they had climbed into the carriage, Diego leaned over to his mozo and murmured. "I believe it is time for Zorro to enter the scene. This has gone on long enough, and it is obvious that the lancers are not even slightly effective in deterring these men."
Bernardo signed furiously, indicating his disapproval of Diego’s comments. Diego took the reins while the mute was ‘talking.’ "Bernardo, it does not matter if there are too many of them, someone has to do something. Most of the rancheros are too busy trying to protect their own haciendas to form a posse. Perhaps that is what these banditos figured would happen. As long as no one tries to stop them, they will continue attacking one hacienda after another," he explained as they rode home. Bernardo nodded, but signed that he was still not happy. "I am not happy either, Bernardo, but I can think of no other way." Bernardo signed a suggestion for Diego to talk to his father about gathering the vaqueros to go after these men. "Yes, my friend, that would be a good idea. I will talk to father and then ride. In the meantime, you saddle Tornado." Bernardo looked only slightly relieved as he took the reins from Diego.
A short time later, Bernardo signed ‘Vaya con Dios’ as Zorro mounted Tornado.
"Gracias, Bernardo." What he didn’t say was that he would probably need all the help God could give him. Cordero’s men would be at or near the Hernandez rancho by now. It was in the rugged foothills south of the pueblo and as such would suit his purposes very well in the dark. The late afternoon sun bathed the landscape in pinks and gold, giving an almost hellish glow to the surrounding hills. Riding through a narrow arroyo, Zorro came to the back of the hacienda.
His calculations had been correct. Dismounting, he quickly counted horses and perused the layout of the area surrounding the house. The hacienda was nestled against a boulder-strewn hillside, the front of the patio opening on a narrow valley. There was a small, stunted oak tree near the front entrance and a stream running placidly just beyond a rough roadway.
As Diego, he had visited Don Tomas Hernandez’s rancho only once, and that was when the family had just moved in a year ago. He had found it to be a most unusual house, laid out as much like a miniature medieval castle as a proper California hacienda. As he stood behind a boulder at the top of the hill overlooking the back of the house, he felt it shift. Studying the lay of the land, Zorro did some quick calculations and then began pushing against the boulder. It wasn’t any bigger than himself, so with a couple of shoves, the boulder began teetering and finally rolling slowly down the hill, picking up speed and other rocks as it made its headlong rush. With a reverberating sound, it crashed into the outer corner of the house, but did not go through the wall. The dust from displaced rocks and gravel gave the air an even more menacing aura, and Zorro noticed that when the banditos rushed out to see what had happened, several looked around and then crossed themselves.
Running along the crest of the hill, but out of sight of any watchers below, Zorro dislodged several more, smaller boulders. Not waiting to see the results of his handiwork, the masked outlaw ran back down the hill, motioned to Tornado to follow him and then ran along a path that would take him to the front of the hacienda. Another hand signal and the stallion trotted away from the house, but remained close enough to answer his call. Zorro slipped across the rock-strewn vista until he was near a front corner of the hacienda. A rounded two-story stone tower provided partial cover and he watched with amusement as more than a half dozen bandits scrambled up the hill to check out the disturbance. As the sun dropped behind the western hills, the outlaw skulked along the shadowed patio wall until he arrived at the front gate. Just as he reached it and wondered why there was no one on guard, it creaked open and a large, muscular man stepped out.
Zorro immediately launched himself at the man, his weight carrying the guard to the ground. To his surprise, though, his opponent possessed the agility of a cat as well as the bulk of a bear, and suddenly Zorro found the burly guard on top of him, aiming blows at his head with one hand while trying to pull out a knife with the other. Quickly, the masked avenger’s hand found a rock, and with no pretense at civility, he brought it against the guard’s head. Pushing himself out from under the unconscious bandit, Zorro next dragged him behind the tower and tied him up.
The darkness was now almost complete, only broken by the glow of two lanterns on the patio. Slipping in the gate, Zorro barred it behind him. Dashing to the side gate that opened to a small stable, he barred that one as well. Next he crept to the sala window, peering in unobtrusively. It could have been a repeat of the robbery of the de la Vega hacienda. Behind him, Zorro began hearing the sound of approaching bandits. Now was the time for action. As he drew his cape close in anticipation of crashing through the window, he suddenly thought of something Don Tomas had told him during his previous visit. Sprinting toward the tower, he ran up the steps three at a time, soon reaching the top. There, just as the hacendado had said, were stored all sorts of defensive weapons.
At the time Don Tomas had stated his fear of Indian attacks and, yet, for all of his worries, his home had been easily taken over by the dozen bandits. Several muskets lay in a neat stack, with powder and shot next them. Peering out the window, he saw the intruders’ horses picketed nearby. Zorro grabbed a musket, quickly aimed and fired off a shot that passed over a horse’s head. All of the horses began prancing and snorting in fear. A shot from the second musket soon followed, this time near a horse’s feet. Screaming with fear, several of the animals reared and began pulling at the tether line. A third shot just barely whistled over another horse’s head, sending all of them into a frenzy of panic. With all of the animals pulling and jerking at the same time, the tether line broke and the horses galloped off into the darkness, followed by the shouts of frustrated men.
Two men from the sala ran out to the patio and then stood for a brief moment, bewildered. Zorro quickly pulled out the stopper from a keg of gunpowder and poured it out the narrow window overlooking the patio, letting a small bit fall inside. When the keg was empty, he groped in the deepening darkness and found a flint striker and a rope. Tying the rope to a low beam, he cut a small piece off the end, and left the rest coiled near the window away from the powder. Taking the striker, the outlaw began coaxing sparks from the device. After a few tries, the sparks caught the end of the powder trail and with a whoosh, a flame began following the line of powder. Lighting the tiny piece of rope, Zorro dropped it out the window and backed away. A dull roar and blinding flash came almost instantly, causing the tower to shake slightly. Grinning, he realized that although a bit eccentric in his architectural tastes, Don Tomas knew how to build sturdy walls.
Immediately, he threw the coiled rope out the window and repelled down the wall of the tower, landing lightly on his feet. As soon as he landed, Zorro pivoted to meet his enemy, his sword out of its sheath in a single, fluid motion. The two banditos were rubbing smarting eyes. These he knocked unconscious with the hilt of his sword. The men outside the gate were banging and shouting, their cries echoing back and forth across the valley. Cordero burst out of the sala, his sword unsheathed, it blade flashing in the flickering light of the lanterns. Throwing his cape over his left arm, Zorro prepared to engage the bandit leader.
"So you are the mighty Zorro. Did you have to take the time to build up your courage before coming against me?" Cordero taunted.
Saying nothing, Zorro waited for his opponent to make the first move. Cordero wasted no time, advancing in a lunging thrust that would have skewered the masked man, had he remained in place. But he didn’t. He simply danced to one side and lunged in with a slight slashing movement of his own. A new opening appeared on the bandit leader’s shirt. Shouting in anger, Cordero advanced again, but this time in a more calculated manner, testing his opponent. Zorro parried each thrust, quietly assessing Cordero’s skill as well. It took only a minute to see that this man was a very good swordsman, although a bit impetuous. With a smile, the masked avenger got to work, advancing with his characteristic shouts, his sword a flashing blur that occasionally found its mark. Soon the bandit’s shirt was well ventilated, which Zorro thought wryly, was a good thing. The redness of Cordero’s face indicated that fencing was something he had not spent a great deal of time on lately.
Zorro ducked another slashing move and leaped over a stool thrown at his feet. Remotely, he heard some of the bandits attempting to climb the wall and the boulder that had broken through, and assumed that it wouldn’t be long before they succeeded. He also noticed Don Tomas and his family standing in the sala door, watching the engagement, which told him that the inside of the house was secure. It was time to finish this. Advancing quickly, the sword flicking right, then left, in and out, until it finally found its mark and Cordero’s blade clattered into a corner of the patio.
Undeterred, the bandit jerked a knife out of his sash and lunged at him. Sidestepping, Zorro simply used the hilt of his sword to knock Cordero unconscious to the ground just as he had previously done with two of his followers. Immediately, he turned his attention to the Hernandez family. "Are you all right?" he asked, not sheathing his sword. At their nods, he continued, "There is supposed to be a group of vaqueros coming to help you against these bandits, but I do not know how long it will take them. We must prepare for attack and quickly, Don Tomas."
"Sí, there should be enough powder and shot in the tower to hold off the banditos for a short while, Señor Zorro," Don Tomas said. Zorro nodded, and the two men went into the tower. With a servant loading the muskets, they were able to hold the agitated bandits at abeyance for some time. Zorro noticed, with great satisfaction, that about half of the men outside the wall had run off, leaving only a few of their comrades to rescue their leader. Soon the sound of hoof-beats told the outlaw that help was arriving.
"Don Tomas, the posse I mentioned is finally here. I will take my leave now, con permiso," Zorro said, with a slight incline of his head.
"I cannot thank you enough, señor. Gracias," Don Tomas replied.
Nodding, Zorro sprinted down the stairs where a servant met him. "Señor Zorro, the leader of the bandits hit my compadre over the head and ran out the gate to the stables." Running out the patio gate confirmed the words of the peon. The one thing he didn’t want right now was for Cordero to be loose to gather his men together again. Whistling for Tornado, Zorro turned to see his father approaching from the patio. "Señor Zorro, well met. You left us with very little work to do," Alejandro said.
"Except the leader, Cordero has escaped. I must ride after him. But I appreciate your timely arrival. The Hernandez family will be safe now," Zorro said.
Alejandro nodded. "Go with God," he said, as his son mounted the ebony stallion and rode in the general direction of Cordero’s flight.
A large, almost full moon began peeking over the hills, illuminating the trail, occasionally showing a hoof print. For almost an hour Zorro followed the sporadic prints through the increasingly rugged arroyos and hills. Suddenly Tornado jerked his head, snorting in alarm and Zorro saw a horse standing forlornly in front of what appeared to be a cave entrance. Carefully, he dismounted and approached the opening. Rocks skittered down the slope, landing at his feet. In alarm, the outlaw realized just how unstable this hillside was. There had been tremors several months previously, some of which must have loosened the outer layers of strata in this area.
Taking a deep breath, Zorro also realized that he had to capture Cordero. Go in, get him and get out, he thought. Ducking, he entered, grateful for the moonlight that showed at least a portion of the cave before him. With an angry shout, Cordero attacked, his momentum knocking Zorro to the ground. And as they lay there, the rocks above them began to shift, rumble and move in a slow geological dance downward. Pebbles and dust started raining down on them, and, grabbing Cordero’s collar, Zorro dragged the bandit back into the cave. The moonlight was suddenly cut off.
|Caesar Chronicles Introduction|