Zorro paced back and forth in the secret cave, while he waited for Bernardo to finish donning his disguise. Diego had quickly outlined El Desquite’s plot to the mute on the way home from the pueblo, but had only given a minimum of instruction after that. The pacing continued even after Bernardo was finished and the manservant finally laid his hand on the caballero’s arm, bringing him out of his moody reverie. The mute signed a query and waited for the response.
"Bernardo, I am stuck on the horns of a dilemma. If I show up too quickly as Zorro, it will surely make Capitán Toledano suspicious of my identity. And yet, on the other hand, I cannot delay just to keep my secret," he explained, ending with a deep sigh.
Bernardo indicated his understanding of the problem, but would offer no solutions. He next signed a question as to the purpose of his being costumed as the fox.
"I believe that if I understood Capitán Toledano correctly, he and I will need all the help we can get. Only vague notions of ideas are presenting themselves to me right now, but I feel that your presence will be of great help tonight and again tomorrow when the governor comes," Zorro expounded. Bernardo nodded and gathered the reins to the sorrel mare he had brought from the stables only a short time earlier.
"There is no decision to mull over here, Bernardo. We ride. We must do what we can to save Governor Arguello," Zorro stated resolutely and mounted Tornado. He rode through the vine-covered entrance, with Bernardo following close behind.
The moon was a tiny crescent and would soon set. That much was in their favor, the outlaw thought morosely. Zorro held Tornado back to allow Bernardo to keep up on the slower horse. They had to detour around small camps of de la Vega vaqueros and their temporary corrals of cattle, for it was the time of the annual branding. On the larger ranchos, it was much easier to build the temporary enclosures and brand the cattle in the hills, than it was to herd them all together and run them down to the haciendas. Zorro pondered this bit of information and then turned his mind back to El Desquite.
As they neared the portion of the roadway that was the most likely setting for an ambush, the pair dismounted and listened. At first the sounds drifting across the moonless landscape were those of the night creatures; insects calling to one another, night birds hunting, the foxes and coyotes prowling the hillsides. Then came the slight sound of something that didn’t belong in this wild and ghostly vista of the night. The sound of laughter and men’s voices. Bernardo pointed to a spot across the road and Zorro was barely able to make out the glow of a tiny campfire in the distance.
"Excellent, Bernardo," he whispered to the mozo. They led the horses down a sandy creek bed and across the road, pausing periodically to listen for the voices. Soon Zorro found a hidden cul-de-sac and signed for Bernardo to watch the horses. The outlaw slipped off toward the conspirator’s encampment, his sword held tightly against his left leg as he glided from boulder to bush to tree. Like a phantom, he slowly neared his destination. Within a short time he was lying on a ridge overlooking a large camp of about twenty men. Many of them were already asleep, but others were sitting around the campfire, smoking and telling off-color jokes.
To El Desquite’s credit, Zorro didn’t notice any wine being passed around. These men would not be hung over for the attempt on the governor’s life. There was no sign of Capitán Toledano. The masked man could only conclude that, like himself, he was scouting the area. Zorro felt it was imperative that he find the former comandante, and stealthily making his way down from the ridge, began searching the perimeter of the campsite. Soon he had found not Toledano, but a guard. Zorro simply avoided him.
Searching further out among the rocks, Zorro still didn’t see the capitán, but did find an outer perimeter guard. Slowly sliding his sword out of its sheath, the outlaw slipped up behind the man and prodded him in the back. "Not a sound, señor, or the last one you will be hearing is that of your final breath leaving your body," Zorro hissed menacingly. The guard raised his hands and stood trembling.
Grabbing the man’s sash, Zorro jerked it loose and spinning around, the bandit was finally able to see his captor. "El Zorro," he breathed in awe.
"Sí, señor, did you think I would ignore such a plan as your El Desquite has thought up?" he asked quietly, not even awaiting an answer. Quickly, he tied the man’s hands behind his back and then stood before him once more. "Now, instead of sitting in the hot sun tomorrow, you get to enjoy the comforts of a nice cool carcel." A gag was quickly placed in the man’s mouth. There was little mirth in Zorro’s smile as he escorted the guard to Bernardo’s hiding place. His eyes almost bugged out when he saw two Zorros in the shadows.
Leaving the prisoner tied up near the horses, Zorro motioned for the manservant to follow him. "Bernardo, I feel that I must find Capitán Toledano. He is essential to my half-formed plans. This one you will take into the pueblo and leave for Sgt. Garcia, then return as quick as you possibly can. I think I have an idea how to keep the governor from his rendezvous with death, but it will take all three of us working together." Pulling out writing materials from Tornado’s saddlebag, Zorro quickly wrote a note and handed it to Bernardo. "Make sure that Sgt. Garcia gets this note. He will play a small part in this as well." Bernardo nodded and was soon riding off toward the cuartel, the bound prisoner astride the sorrel mare.
Zorro crept stealthily back toward the camp, watching intently for signs of the capitán. When he reached the encampment, he still had not seen any sign of Toledano, but his half-formed plans had coalesced and he smiled grimly at the thought of thwarting yet another threat to the peace of the pueblo. Watching from the same position as before, Zorro took careful note of each man below. With a start, he recognized one of them as the capitán. He had not picked him out before due to the civilian clothing he was wearing. Toledano was talking softly to one of the other men, whom Zorro now felt must be El Desquite. Suddenly standing up, Toledano began leaving the camp, but was abruptly stopped by a pistol in his midsection.
‘This is not good,’ Zorro thought to himself. Slipping down the hill, he came across the first guard he had encountered and this time the outlaw didn’t avoid him. Creeping up behind him, Zorro knocked the man unconscious with the hilt of his sword and then dragged him behind a boulder. Quickly, he pulled off the man’s shirt and jacket and just as quickly, pulled off his cape, sash, shirt and sword, laying them to the side as he donned the bandito’s clothing. He pulled his hat a little farther forward to hide evidence of his mask.
Striding nonchalantly into the shadowy camp, he was immediately noticed. "Manuel, what are you doing away from your post?" one of the men called out.
Zorro coughed several times and then pointed to his throat. "Something to drink," he said hoarsely.
"Get it and then go back to your post," the other man said. El Desquite had gone to the far end of the camp. Zorro stepped in front of Toledano, facing away from him and with his hand, motioned for the former comandante to slip out of the camp. A slight noise indicated that the capitán had understood him. Getting a drink from a bucket, Zorro then slowly sauntered back out of the camp.
Toledano was waiting for him near the unconscious bandit. Quickly, Zorro gathered his clothes and soon had retired to the same cul-de-sac that he and Bernardo had found earlier. "Capitán, it would seem that your new found friends do not entirely trust you," Zorro said with a wry smile as he changed back into his full costume. "Why were you in civilian dress? I almost did not recognize you."
Toledano’s blue eyes flashed with quick humor. "That was part of the instruction that El Desquite gave me when I met him north of San Diego. Now I know why. They wanted me to take part in the killing. I tried to get out of that by being honest and telling them that I wanted no part in the actual assassination. I tried to bluff my way out of camp by telling them that I was only there as an observer for King Ferdinand. They did not feel that was enough service to the king," Toledano said with a slight smile. "But may I ask you a question?"
"How did you find out about this so quickly? I only told two people." Toledano’s eyes bored into his, the intensity of his curiosity as tangible as the cool night air. But somehow Zorro also had the feeling that Toledano was not surprised to see him here.
"Don Diego passed the word to trusted vaqueros and servants, knowing that at least one of them would be able to find me," Zorro answered vaguely.
"By the way, I thank you for saving me. That is the second time you have kept me from death, Señor Zorro. I am indebted to you," Toledano said.
"We will discuss debts when this is finished," Zorro said tersely. "I have an idea how we might be able to turn the tables on this assassin," he added and quickly outlined his plan.
"It might have a chance of succeeding, Señor Zorro, but we only have until mid-morning to make it work. That is no more than eight hours from now."
"Sí, the governor is spending the night at the hacienda of Don Jeraldo Delgado......"
"Don Jeraldo lives only eight miles from here!" Zorro interrupted.
"Sí, and after mass and his breakfast, he will cover the last miles to Los Angeles, arriving in the pueblo before the noon hour," Toledano said bitterly.