When he arrived back at the encampment, it was quiet, but for the snoring and mumbling of sleeping men. With a ghost-like stealth borne of much practice, Zorro made his way to the picket line, moving slowly and deliberately to allow the horses to get his scent and feel comfortable in his presence. A mare snorted and pranced as he passed and he paused to rub her nose and reassure her. She had the earmarks of a horse in season and had undoubtedly smelled Tornado on him. Quickly, he walked to the pile of saddles and selected one, grabbing a blanket nearby. The saddling was accomplished almost silently, and she took the bit with little protest. Untying the rope halter from her neck, Zorro walked her out of the camp and then swung on, letting her race for a quarter mile down the highway toward the pueblo to get the nervousness out of her system.
Finally, he slowed the mare and dismounted, slapping her rump and watching her run on down the road. Turning, he whistled, soon seeing the familiar black shape appear in the pre-dawn dimness. "Ah, good boy, Tornado. Now let us get to work," Zorro said, rubbing the faithful stallion’s neck and nose. Tornado butted him in the chest and snorted. "Tornado, work first and then pleasure," he told the horse with a laugh. Mounting, he rode back to the ridge overlooking the camp and leaving Tornado hidden, watched as the sun rose in back of him and the men below stirred.
The man he figured to be El Desquite went through the camp, kicking at legs and torsos indiscriminately. "Get up, get up, you lazy dogs! Today we begin watching the sun rise over Mexican California and end with it setting over Spanish California. Move!! Pronto!!" Muttered curses and some laughter greeted his morning announcement and the men rose, stretched, scratched, pulled on their boots and put on their hats. "Jose, go relieve Manuel." An older man shuffled out of the camp, but soon came back.
"El Desquite, Manuel is gone!"
"Check the horses," the leader shouted. Another man ran to the picket line and he, too, soon returned. "Jose’s horse is missing!" There was more muttering and cursing from a man by the almost dead fire.
"We will find the traitorous pig when we have finished assassinating the usurper. Miguel, go now, we do not know how long the governor’s last mass will be, so go to your position now and be ready to give us the signal."
"Sí, Excellency," Miguel answered laughing, as he gathered his musket and a pistol and walked to the picket line. Soon he was mounted and turning his horse to the east, rode out of camp.
"The rest of you, a quick breakfast and then to your horses. We must be ready for the signal," El Desquite ordered.
Zorro heard no more, he was heading down the ridge toward Tornado. He stayed discreetly behind Miguel until the scout reached a point only a quarter mile south of Bernardo’s position. Breathing a sigh of relief, Zorro dismounted. "Tornado, go to Bernardo. Find him, boy," he instructed and watched the black stallion trot on down the highway.
Running through the rocks and gullies, Zorro slipped up behind Miguel, who had half stood and was watching Tornado as he trotted slowly toward Bernardo’s position. The scout’s view was suddenly blocked by a black-gloved hand, which jerked his body back. The steel-fingered grip kept Miguel from crying out and the hilt of the sword soon sent the scout into unconscious oblivion. Letting him slide to the ground, Zorro watched the horse trot out of sight.
Then he began his change of identities. Miguel was somewhat shorter than he was, but the clothes would still fit enough for his purpose. Soon the change was complete, but for the mask. His costume, he folded and placed into the conspirator’s saddlebag. The sword and hat hung from the saddle, his whip he kept at his side. Miguel’s pistol found residence in his belt. The scout was soon bound and gagged and laying peacefully at the bottom of the ridge, not too far from the horse. Zorro watched the north horizon, waiting for the explosion, which would signal the beginning of this fight, or the beginning of the end.
Toledano’s face was a study of calmness, but inside his emotions were churning. "Governor Arguello, please understand, there are almost two dozen of these men. Please, stay here until it is over."
"Capitán Toledano, I have encountered much resistance since becoming governor, but I will not cower in hiding every time there is a threat to my person. I would have stayed locked in my house in Monterey, if that was the case," Arguello told the frustrated soldier. "I have the utmost confidence in my men, especially since you have come with your warning. Will you accompany me to Los Angeles to verify their prowess and bravery?"
"Of course, señor, I will not leave you until this is over," Toledano stated bluntly.
"Very commendable, Capitán. It is too bad that you are returning to Spain. I could use more loyal men like you." Arguello motioned for the former comandante to precede him in the carriage. Toledano hesitated. "At least for the first few miles, señor. I wish to talk to you." The capitán handed the reins of his white stallion to one of the accompanying lancers and then climbed into the coach.
"Capitán," Arguello began. "The other reason that I am coming is, perhaps foolhardy, but I wish to see this Zorro in action. I have received reports about this outlaw, including a lengthy one from the former governor. Most have highly praised the man. In fact my predecessor offered the man amnesty, which was refused."
"I believe that he feels honor bound to this duty he has undertaken. He is a very honorable man, Governor, with justice superseding government or position. El Zorro has saved my life on two occasions and my wife’s on one. I am deeply grateful."
"Ah, you are married. Would that be the reason for not staying in California?"
"Sí, señor, and I miss her dearly," Toledano said wistfully.
"There is no chance that she might join you here?" Arguello coaxed. "I would not ask, but I am impressed with you, Comandante."
"Gracias, Governor, but she did come out with me. It did not work out and she returned home last year." Toledano looked out the window and saw in his mind’s eye Raquel, smiling, laughing, happy, before her involvement with the Eagle. He yearned for that once more.
"I am sorry, Comandante. California is a beautiful land of promise, but not everyone is suited for it," Arguello said and he too began looking outside at the scenery. He suddenly turned to Toledano. "I was just reviewing what you told me, Capitan, about this plan. It seems rather complicated. Do you think that this outlaw has the ability to make it work?"
"If anyone can make a plan such as this work, it would be Zorro. I have been in the middle of one of the foxes’ plots and it was a thing of beauty." Toledano outlined the horserace that was a cover for the theft of gunpowder. Arguello laughed as the narrative ended. "Yes, I think I would like to meet this man." Suddenly a loud explosion ripped the peace of the morning. With a jolt, the carriage stopped and both men were thrown from their seats.
One of the lancers stuck his head in the carriage window. "Governor, are you all right?"
"Sí, what happened?"
"The highway is blocked by rocks. There is a road leading to the south in a more easterly direction, but I am leery of taking such a route. It smacks of ambush," the lancer answered.
"This is an ambush of Zorro’s doing and only meant for our protection. This was planned, Governor," Toledano stated.
"Drive on. It seems that we are in good hands," Arguello stated a slight smile on his lips.
Toledano left the carriage and mounted his horse. The driver had brought the horses under control and was turning toward the detour. Soon the carriage was speeding on its way once more, although the way was a bit rougher. The soldiers looked in consternation as the walls of a narrow valley grew closer and closer to the road.
In the far distance a cloud of dust formed itself into a contingent of men and a musket rang out, its echo bouncing back and forth against the rocks. Toledano ordered the driver to stop the carriage. Within minutes the sound of frightened and out of control cattle was also heard and a stampede of animals mingled with the approaching men.
Zorro heard the explosion and rushed down to the skittish horse. Miguel groaned and struggled against his bonds. Smiling, the outlaw just swung on the horse and galloped out onto the highway. Lowering the hat over his eyes, he met the conspirators, their faces showing their puzzlement. El Desquite roared over the inquiries and complaints. "Miguel, what happened?"
"El Desquite, the road is blocked by the rock slide. But I know of another route that will take us to the Governor’s carriage," Zorro shouted, affecting the scout’s voice. Without waiting for confirmation, he wheeled his horse and galloped south toward the other entrance of the Valle Pajaro. The thunder of hoof beats told him that the others were close behind him. He rode low on the gelding’s neck to avoid being recognized. Into the entrance of the valley he swept. In the distance he could barely make out the governor’s carriage. Cocking the musket, he pointed it ahead, knowing that the range was too great, and fired. The shot reverberated, seemingly forever.
Pulling back on his reins, he slowed the horse a bit and noticed that the carriage had stopped as well. The bandits began to catch up with him and pass him as he slowed even more. He brought the gelding to the side of the valley as the first of the cattle herds swept into the Valle Pajaro. Finding a large boulder he brought the horse to a halt behind it and in the hazy clouds of dust, changed back to his costume.
A steer came too close to his place of safety and its horn grazed his borrowed mount, which screamed in pain and fear. Grabbing the reins with one hand, he jerked the horse closer to him and quickly finished changing. It was then that he noticed the numerous screams from the throats of men as well as animals. Mounting, Zorro eased the frightened horse into the milling cattle and carefully made his way toward the Governor’s carriage. He was amazed at the number of animals the vaqueros had been able to gather in so short a time. A vaquero passed close to him. "Señor Zorro, is this what you had in mind?" he asked with a smile.
"Sí, muchacho. It is better than I expected. Gracias," he answered with a smile of his own. He made his way to the forefront of the herd, which had been stopped by several well-placed shots. Horsemen and a dozen dead cattle had kept the remaining animals from advancing any further in the valley. The remaining conspirators were engaging the lancers. Zorro noticed that although the stampede had thinned the ranks of El Desquite’s gang, the lancers were still slightly outnumbered. Toledano was fighting near the carriage.
"Well met, Señor Zorro," he shouted as the masked man rushed into the fray, engaging one of two men harassing a lancer.
"I came as quickly as I could, Capitán," he shouted brightly. His first opponent landed unceremoniously in the dust, knocked off his mount with a well-placed fist to his chin. Another man engaged him with a sword and was soon on the ground writhing in pain from a deep wound in his shoulder.
With chagrin, Zorro saw a face peering from the window of the carriage and assumed that this was the new governor. Then he noticed one of the attackers climbing onto the carriage. The driver lay slumped down in front of his seat. As the man leaned over to shoot inside the carriage, Zorro jerked the pistol out of his sash, quickly aimed, and shot the would-be assassin. With a high-pitched scream, the conspirator fell to the ground.
Suddenly, with a cry of rage, El Desquite rushed him, forcing his horse’s shoulder into that of his gelding. The gelding stumbled and fell. Zorro had just enough time to pull his feet from the stirrups, somersaulting free of the falling animal. Jerking his sword out of its sheath, the outlaw engaged El Desquite, while at the same time avoiding the rushing hooves of his stallion.
At one pass, instead of jumping out of the way, Zorro leaned slightly into the path of the galloping horse and grabbed El Desquite’s arm, pulling himself up behind the leader. His left arm snaked around his opponent’s neck and he jerked backwards. El Desquite’s elbow made sudden impact on his ribcage and the sharp pain caused Zorro to not only release the man, but to almost fall off the horse. Transferring his sword to his left hand, the masked man smashed his fist behind El Desquite’s ear causing him to fall off. Zorro slid off the back of the stallion as well, rolling and then jumping to his feet.
El Desquite jerked his sword out and engaged the outlaw, lunging furiously, alternately advancing and retreating, fighting as though possessed. Zorro saw the effects of unbridled fury and realized the danger as well as the advantage of such a foe. He only needed to wait for his opponent to make one stupid mistake.
"Señor Desquite, you dance so well," he taunted with a smile. With a roar, the would be assassin flew at him, slashing furiously. Jumping out of the way, Zorro felt his right heel come up sharply against a large object, which caused him to slightly lose his balance. El Desquite threw himself at Zorro and both hit the ground hard, rolling in the effort to gain the advantage.
With his right arm under the rebel leader’s chin, Zorro was able to throw him off, but realized with chagrin that his blade had snapped off near the hilt. His opponent laughed evilly. "So, Señor Zorro, fate does not favor you this morning," the royalist taunted.
"Perhaps, perhaps not, but it certainly has not favored you, señor. I still see the governor alive in his carriage," Zorro retorted, dancing out of the way of his attacker’s blade.
"Señor Zorro, catch!" Toledano shouted.
Glancing up, Zorro saw the capitán’s sword arcing through the air, hilt first and he smiled in remembrance of a similar occurrence a year before. Catching it from the air, Zorro parried a thrust and advanced with a shout, the blades clashing. El Desquite retreated several steps and Zorro advanced and lunged, giving no more quarter. Sweat poured down the conspirator’s face and his taunts gave way to labored breathing. With a deft flick of his wrist, Zorro reached in with his blade and tore the sword from El Desquite’s grasp. It flew through the air and landed point first in the ground. With a moan, El Desquite slid to his knees in defeat, Zorro’s sword point at his throat, until two lancers came and bound his hands behind him.
"Well fought, señor," Toledano said from behind him. Zorro turned and looked into the happy countenance of the former comandante. "Señor Zorro, you have my sword."
Zorro looked around and saw the contingent of soldiers near the carriage and realized that there was no possible avenue of escape. He sighed.
"Señor Zorro, you have my sword," Toledano repeated. "But you may keep it. Get on behind me. I will give you safe passage or go to the carcel with you." Zorro eyes widened in surprise and he reached for Toledano’s hand.