Zorro studied Toledano’s face carefully. Something was bothering him and he wasn’t sure what it was. Shrugging, he shoved his feelings to the back of his mind and considered this latest piece of information. "Capitán, do you believe that you could get to Don Jeraldo’s hacienda before Governor Arguello leaves?"
"Sí, I believe I can. It is said that the governor attends mass every morning. That should give me ample time to get there."
"Good, now do you think he will listen to you and take your warning seriously?" Zorro asked soberly.
"He should at least give me some time to explain the situation. Reports were given to him of the conditions of all the presidios and most of the cuartels in California. He should have seen that my record was very good and my loyalty to law and order unsurpassed," Toledano said with obvious pride in his leadership. "I do have my uniform packed in my saddle bags. I will change before I get there. A uniform has a tendency to create interest as well," he added sardonically.
"Yes, very good. If you can get him to listen to you, have several of his men keep him under their protection at the hacienda and you accompany the carriage to the point of ambush. If my plan works, then there will be little need for killing, but be ready to fend off these conspirators, just in case...." Zorro told him, letting his sentence trail off. Both men knew what was left unsaid.
"Vaya con Dios, Señor Zorro," Toledano said as he mounted.
"Gracias, Capitán. And may He go with you as well," came the answer. Zorro waited until the hoof beats had totally faded away and then he stealthily returned to the encampment. Several more of the men had fallen asleep, leaving only a few around the campfire and most of those were nodding off with fatigue.
When the camp was finally quiet, Zorro crept down and watched the somnolent men once again. An almost invisible hand snatched the pouches of powder that were within reach. The pouches were soon returned and lay as though they had not been touched. He was tempted to take a pistol, but Zorro resisted the temptation, not wanting El Desquite to be any more suspicious than he would be with two missing guards.
Leaving the camp, Zorro checked the guard he had left unconscious during his rescue of Toledano. He saw the signs of returning awareness, so the outlaw used a strip of the man’s own shirt to secure his hands and his bandanna to gag him. Then he dragged him back to the cul-de-sac, where he found Bernardo waiting for him.
Leaving the guard, Zorro pulled the manservant aside. "Did you deliver the note?" A nod answered his question. "Good, now we are going to arrange a few surprises for our conspirators. I want you to go back to the hacienda and get one of the small wagons and meet me at the cuartel." Bernardo motioned to the disguise he was wearing. "I believe that the time for two Zorros is ended for now. Change, but wear dark clothing. If at all possible, do not let yourself be seen. We are under a much tighter time limit, but that may work in our favor." Bernardo nodded again and then mounting the sorrel, rode away.
Walking back to the half-conscious guard, Zorro whistled softly to Tornado. The black stallion immediately complied and the outlaw pulled his prisoner to his feet and grasping him by the seat of his pants, threw him onto the horse’s back. Tornado stood rock still, and Zorro was soon astride as well. A short distance away, near a remote area, Zorro dropped the guard onto the ground. "Señor, you had better pray to your patron saint that I succeed in stopping your leader. I will return this afternoon, when everything is over and release you. The sun rarely makes its way into this little niche, so enjoy your stay."
Wheeling the great horse around, Zorro rode toward the de la Vega hacienda. The embers of a dying fire as well as the muted sounds of resting cattle warned him of the proximity of a vaqueros’ camp. He rode quietly around the temporary corral, looking for the one guard that the head vaquero usually posted at times like these. His hand lay ready on his whip should the guard prove trigger-happy. Suddenly a large man stepped in front of him, pistol raised and ready. The vaquero’s breath hissed in sudden realization, "El Zorro!"
"Sí, Señor, and I am in need of your help. May I approach your camp to talk with you and your compatriots?" he asked.
"Sí, Señor Zorro. You are most welcome to our campfire," the vaquero said, replacing the pistol in its holster. Soon there was a small group of sleepy eyed cowboys gathered around the campfire curious about the need of El Zorro to interrupt their sleep.
"Señores, there is a group of men several miles to the west of here who plan on killing the new governor of California later this morning as he rides into Los Angeles." Muttering and soft outcries greeted his announcement. Zorro held up his hand to silence them. "Whatever your loyalties may be, if the governor is cold-bloodedly murdered outside the Pueblo de Los Angeles, the retaliation will affect us all. All of our families may be targeted as those of traitors, and retribution will most likely be swift and merciless."
"But what can we do, Señor Zorro?" one of the vaqueros asked.
"Are you aware of the Valle Pajaro?" Zorro asked.
"Sí, it is familiar to us. That is a good place to corral the larger herds of cattle for culling and branding, señor, because it is too steep for the cattle to climb out and narrow at each end, making it easy to block."
"Good, you will herd your cattle to a place near the southern end of the valley and await the shot of a musket. Then you will stampede the cattle into the valley. Do you think you can do that?" Zorro asked.
"Sí, señor, we will gather all the other vaqueros in the area and combine out herds," the head vaquero told him.
"Excellent, muchachos, you must be ready not too long after breakfast and you must do all in your power to keep the herds from being seen by the conspirators until the signal is given," Zorro told them.
He whistled for Tornado and with a salute to them rode swiftly into the night. The hoof beats and their echoes made a staccato music in the deep velvet darkness of the early morning hours. Soon he had reached the pueblo and rode up to the back of the cuartel. Standing on Tornado’s back, he climbed the wall and ran silently across the roof, only disturbing one skittish mount stabled below. It soon quieted down when nothing happened and Zorro slipped onto the next roof and down a rope to the parade ground.
Running to the comandante’s office, Zorro stealthily made his way inside and found Sgt. Garcia snoring loudly in the bedroom. It had been months since a regular comandante had been assigned to the cuartel and the sergeant had found it easier and much more comfortable to reside in the comandante’s quarters than his own tiny cubicle. Noticing the keys on a peg near the door, Zorro silently reached for them and slowly and methodically pulled them down. He slipped back out of the office without the sergeant even breaking the rhythm of his breathing.
A lone guard was leaning on his musket near the gate. It was quite easy to slip up behind him and take him captive. As he was tying and gagging the lancer, Zorro said apologetically, "Corporal Reyes, I am very sorry to have to do this to you, but I need to borrow some things from the cuartel. I assure you, it is for a most useful purpose. Besides," he said with a smile, "this will afford you the opportunity to sleep in a more comfortable position than leaning against your musket." Reyes just rolled his eyes and mumbled something. Zorro dragged him to the small guardhouse.
Running back to the gate, he pulled the wooden beam and opened it. Listening intently, Zorro was finally rewarded with the sound of a horse and wagon approaching the plaza. Soon Bernardo came into view and the outlaw motioned him inside. Running to the armory, Zorro used the keys and carefully opened the rusty-hinged door. Inside were kegs of gunpowder stacked against the far wall. Motioning to Bernardo, they each took a keg and loaded it on the little wagon. They paused, statue still when the night crier came by, but apparently the man was tired as well and didn’t even call out the hour.
Next, a length of fuse was taken from a peg on the wall, as well as a musket, pistol and some powder and shot. When all was loaded, Zorro checked outside the cuartel gate and seeing it clear, he motioned Bernardo out. Closing the gate behind his servant, he ran up the stairs to the second floor and climbing the balustrade, pulled himself onto the roof and then over the wall to where Tornado was quietly waiting.
Riding swiftly out of the pueblo, Zorro met Bernardo. "Bernardo, let us see how quickly we can get these explosives set. It is past the fourth hour and time grows short." Detouring through Don Sebastion’s lands gained them valuable time and kept them from being seen by any of El Desquite’s men. Soon the two men were surveying the road north of the conspirator’s encampment.
"Bernardo, here is a very good place. See the rocks on both sides; just a bit of the powder and the highway will be impassable. And you also have a good vantage point to see the governor’s coach well before it reaches here, giving you time to set off the charge," Zorro explained. "Let us begin. I think that as unstable as some of these rocks are, we only need one of the kegs."
Soon the powder was placed. Bernardo tapped Zorro on the shoulder. When he got his patron’s attention, he signed and looked intently to see if he had been understood.
"Just use the powder as a fuse? Hmm, that will work if no one come by and disrupts it," Zorro mused. And then he laughed softly. "If someone comes by in the daylight, they will surely see it anyway. Very well, the road is not wide along here. It will not take that much powder. But I must warn you, my friend, we know how fast the powder burns. Do not get caught in the blast the way I once was." Bernardo nodded, signing that he would be more careful than they were the last time they had dealt with gunpowder.
"Now, Bernardo, you have a waiting game to play. Be careful. I must go back to the encampment and wait for the scout to take his post along the highway," Zorro told him. The mute signed as he was mounting. "Gracias, Bernardo. And may you, too, go with God." Soon Bernardo was left with the sound of the night creatures and the sighing breeze.
Arturo Toledano rode at a rolling, mile eating gallop and was soon at the home of Don Jeraldo. The night was beginning to wane, but it was still dark. The sound of worship came to his ears and he turned his horse toward a small building that served as the church at this remote hacienda. A soldier stepped in front of him as he approached the building.
"Halt, señor and state your name and business," the business-like voice ordered.
"I am Capitán Arturo Bastian Fernando Toledano, detached comandante of the Presidio de San Diego," he returned quickly. "I am here with important information for the governor."
"The governor is attending mass. He cannot be disturbed. Capitán, do you have your orders?" he was asked.
"Soldier, I will give my orders to the Governor only. I can wait until the Mass is finished," he said, dismounting and tying his horse to a post nearby. Toledano stood quietly near the entrance of the little building and from the corner of his eye, he noticed with amusement that the lancer seemed to be nervous. While waiting, he pulled out a crinkled piece of paper and held it up to read by the light of the lantern. With a slight smile, the capitán realized that he really didn’t need the light. Everything in the letter was burned into his mind.
‘I am so looking forward to your return,’ he read. ‘It seems so long since we were able to look into each other’s faces and feel the beat of each other’s hearts. Please hurry. How I have wished that things had been different and that mistakes had not been made... We might be together even now..... But then there would have been no chance at all, had it not been for the outlaw, Zorro, who saved not only my life, but also my honor. You were right, Arturo, there is more honor in the black-clad bandit than in all of the high born officials in California......’ Folding the letter yet again and placing it inside his jacket, Toledano sighed and longed to be on a ship sailing from San Pedro right now. But his own honor would not allow him to leave until the governor was safe.
He pondered how Zorro was faring in his part of the plan and wondered at the man who would so jeopardize his life, family and future to don a black costume and fight against those who were unjust and cruel. And he saw the hazel eyes that stared into his own that night in the inn, expecting him to do the honorable thing. After Raquel had confided her terrible secret to him and he had sent her back to his family in Spain, the face of Zorro haunted his thoughts continually. The face of the man who had saved his wife. And he wanted to thank the man. Voices from the door of the building brought him out of reverie.
Governor Luis Arguello stepped from the building and looked at him in curiosity. "Capitán, have you been waiting a long time for me? Why not join me for a quick breakfast before I journey to the Pueblo de Los Angeles?"
"Governor, that is why I am here. I have disturbing news. I have learned of a plot to assassinate you on the road north of Los Angeles," Toledano stated bluntly.
Arguello stared at him carefully in the early morning sunlight. "Capitán.....?"
"Toledano. Capitán Arturo Bastian Fernando Toledano, at your service."
"Capitán, I believe that you definitely do need to join me for breakfast," Arguello murmured, and motioned for Toledano to accompany him into the hacienda.