Dangerous Journey

 

 

 

Part Two

 

 

“What are we going to do, Diego?” Hernando asked anxiously.

“I am going to do what any good host would do and invite your father and you to stay at our hacienda for the duration of your stay in Los Angeles,” Diego answered calmly.  

Hernando was not sure what answer he had been expecting from the caballero, but that was not one of them.  “But what do we do about the governor?  The ambush?” 

“Hernando,” Diego began sedately.  “You are a very intelligent young man, but you are letting emotion cloud your thinking.  There is nothing to be done right now.  Before any action is made, planning must be done and information must gathered.  We do not know any particulars on this yet.” 

Sighing, Hernando nodded.  Diego was right.  He felt a bit silly.  “How do we go about gathering information,” he finally asked.  

“Hernando, there you go using that word ‘we’ again.  You and your father will enjoy the hospitality of the de la Vega hacienda.  I will take care of the assassins.  That is the job best suited for a sword wielding outlaw,” Diego said with a smile. 

“But you, yourself said that I have a very analytical mind, Diego.  At the very least, I can help you find information, maybe plan,” Hernando pleaded.  

Diego stared into the blue-gray eyes of the youth.  He saw determination along with impetuousness.  “Very well.  I get most of my information by listening.  I am known around here as a bit of a ne’er do well, only interested in guitars and socializing.  It is amazing how many people will talk around someone who is not seen as a threat.  But Hernando, one thing I want to impress upon you, is the fact that if you start acting like a spy, people will become suspicious and if the wrong individuals are suspicious....”  Diego left the thought unsaid, knowing that Hernando would understand his meaning.  

“Often I am treated like a child, so that should not be a problem.  People say things in front of children, thinking they do not understand,” Hernando said sarcastically.   

Diego glanced at him in surprise, but saw the young man smiling slightly.  The caballero remembered his own struggle to grow up and be taken seriously.  Even now, his father occasionally treated him like an adolescent, but he supposed that was the way of all fathers.  “Just be careful, Hernando.  At the risk of seeming like an adult talking to a child, this is no game, this masquerade that I assume.  It is very dangerous.” 

“I know, Diego.  And I will be careful,” Hernando replied softly.  The trio rode on in silence until they reached the pueblo.  

“Let me do the talking to your father.  I can imagine that he is worried about you right now,” Diego said.

“Perhaps not worried, because I left him a note.  But he might be a bit angry,” the boy answered.  

Laughing, Diego reined his horse in front of the tavern and dismounted.  “Yes, I would suppose so.  A bit presumptuous, eh?  All the more reason for me to do the explaining.” 

When they walked through the door, it appeared that Don Miguel had been watching the door in anticipation.  His face showed an amazing range of emotions in a brief ten second span; everything from relief to irritation.  

“Miguel de Cordoba!  How wonderful to see you again, my friend,” Diego called out, pre-empting any parental scolding for the moment. 

For a few seconds Miguel gazed at him in bewilderment and then he smiled and cried out, “Ramón!”  

The outburst caused a few eyebrows to lift, but Diego quickly explained to Miguel, loud enough for those nearby to hear. “Diego de la Vega.  I am sorry I did not tell you before I left, but I was still sorting out the memories and my communication skills left a bit to be desired.”  

“Then you are Alejandro de la Vega’s son?” Miguel asked in astonishment.  Forgotten for the moment was his irritation with his forward son. 

“Sí, I am.  And I would be most insulted if you and your son did not come and stay in our hacienda during your visit,” Diego stated, his voice indicating that no arguments would be allowed. 

“Gracias, Diego. That would be most pleasant,” Miguel said, shooting a meaningful glance at his son.  Diego recognized the look and mentally laughed.  It simply said, ‘We will discuss this later.’  He had been the recipient of those kinds of looks all through his growing up years. 

Diego ordered lunch for all of them and they sat and chatted pleasantly while they waited.  Soon the barmaid brought out tortillas, beans and soup.   They were anonymous in the setting of many conversations and idle chatter, and they bantered about Diego’s days at the de Cordoba rancho, as well as cost of cattle, hides and horses in general.   While they were talking, a fairly young, dark haired, somewhat stocky, but not fat man, came in to the tavern and ordered a room. 

“I need you to sign my ledger, señor, por favor,” Señor Pacheco said.   While his voice was not loud, Diego was able to understand what he was saying, the result of several years of practice in the fine art of surreptitious listening.   The man nodded and signed.   While pouring a bit of wine for Miguel, Diego made a quick sign for Bernardo to move a bit closer to this stranger to find out if he was this mysterious Señor Bartola that Hernando had mentioned earlier.   

Bernardo nodded and moved off, pulling out a small wooden toy, one with a ball on a string.  He played with it, moving absently toward the counter with the motion of the ball in the air, sometimes hitting the cup with the ball and sometimes not.  When he got close enough to the stranger, he furtively peeked over the man’s shoulder and then turned toward Diego, still playing with the toy.  He popped the wooden ball perfectly into the cup several times and then nodded to his patrón.  This was indeed Bartola.  Diego smiled and continued talking to Miguel.  

“Take my bag up to my room, señor.  I will return shortly,” Bartola said.  

Pacheco nodded and called to a young boy to carry the man’s things to the designated room.  Bartola turned and sauntered out of the tavern.  Diego glanced after him and began to motion to Bernardo. 

“I am getting a bit sleepy, Father.  I think I’ll go and check on your horse.  Just to make sure the shoe was put on correctly,” Hernando said suddenly. 

“Do not run off as you did before,” Miguel warned.  Diego also gave him a warning glance, one that had a different meaning than Miguel’s.    He then motioned to Bernardo to follow.

Hernando dashed out of the tavern and looked around.  Surprisingly, the man was already out of sight.   No, he was standing in the cooler shadows of the pharmacia.  Another man walked out of the shop and stood next to him, talking softly.  Hernando wondered how he could get close enough to listen.  He saw some peon children playing and dancing in the streets, their feet kicking up dust and their voices generally ignored by the adults going about their business.   He felt himself a bit old for such play, but perhaps Bartola and his friend wouldn’t.   He picked up a stick and began a pretend sword fight with an imaginary foe.  He feinted and parried, moving ever closer to the pair in front of the pharmacia.  He continued to play until he was just beyond the two men, near a tiny alleyway that ran between the pharmacia and the church.  He tossed down the stick and slipped up to the corner to listen. 

“Señor Bartola, Jorge is scouting the road as we speak.  It will all be ready when you go to meet the governor.”

“It had better be, Carlos.   This time I want the governor dead.  Do you understand?”

“Sí, señor.  I understand perfectly.”

Hernando cursed silently.  He had not gotten there quickly enough to find out the particulars of the assassination.   When was it?  Where was it?   He had failed Diego.  Disappointed, he knew he still had to get even this little bit of information to Diego.   It was quiet in front of the shop.  They must have gone.   He started to dash out into the street and ran right into Jorge, who was standing just beyond the corner. 

“So you were listening to us, were you?” Jorge growled, shaking the boy.

“No, no, señor.  I was playing and then remembered that my father wanted me to run an errand.”

“Where is your ‘toy’ sword, you little liar,” Jorge demanded, shaking him again. 

“I dropped it when I remembered what Father wanted me to do,” Hernando stammered.  “I promise.  I was pretending to be El Zorro.”

“A bit old for that….”

“No, Jorge, he was playing.  Let him go,” Bartola said.  

Jorge hesitated, his hand still clutching the boy’s jacket. 

“Let him go, Jorge.  He is harmless.”

Jorge complied reluctantly and Hernando dashed off, fear lending a bit more speed to his feet. 

“Do not worry, Jorge.  Just watch and see where the boy goes and then we will take care of him before we have to ride for our rendezvous with the governor,” Bartola said in a low voice.

 

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“Bernardo, I wish we knew just when the governor is going to arrive.  I believe it will be soon.   Sooner than we think,” Zorro said.  Tornado was placidly munching his hay, but the outlaw had not ventured up the stairs to change out of his costume.  It was only a couple of hours before dawn.  “I visited Sgt. Garcia to see what he knew of this Señor Bartola, and all I received were vagaries.  According to what he told our acting comandante, Bartola is certainly the governor’s aide, but because of the last assassination attempt, he is not making known the governor’s route, only that His Excellency is coming sometime in the next few days.  He swore the sergeant to secrecy.”  Zorro paced the length of the secret cave.  His feelings of imminent danger would not go away.  Finally a tap on his shoulder brought him from his reverie.  Before Bernardo could begin signing, the outlaw said, “I can only question Hernando about the two men again.  And later this morning, we will go into the pueblo and watch Señor Bartola.  You did say that he believed Hernando’s story?” Bernardo nodded.  

The pair quietly made their way through the secret passages to the wall behind Hernando’s room.  As it was on the way to his own room, Zorro looked in to see if the boy was asleep.   A tiny panel beside an equally tiny fireplace opened up to reveal slight moonlight filtering through the window into the boy’s room.  It also revealed an empty bed with a piece of paper lying on the pillow.  The alarm bells began clamoring loudly in his head as Zorro rushed over and snatched the paper.  Quickly reading it, he uttered a short curse and turned to Bernardo.  “Now I am sure that if Señor Bartola is a member of the governor’s staff, he is not looking out for his Excellency’s welfare.  This is a ransom note from an unknown bandit.  Hernando has been kidnapped.”

Bernardo signed frantically, but seeing Zorro’s incomprehension, slowed down.  “I realize that the two men from the stable could have put two and two together, but somehow I feel that Señor Bartola is behind this.  I must ride again.  Take this note to father, tell him what I am doing and let him deal with Don Miguel,” Zorro said quickly as he stepped back through the secret passage.  Bernardo signed ‘good luck.’

“Gracias, Bernardo.  I believe that I will need luck and a great deal more.”

The ride back into the pueblo was swift and the stallion was soon standing behind the tavern.   He climbed up the balcony to Bartola’s room.  It was empty, but not long so.  Pulling off his glove, Zorro felt the bed, noticing that it still held warmth.  There also appeared to have been a struggle; the pillow was on the floor and the blankets were askew.  Footsteps on the stairway caused the masked man to freeze in alarmed silence.  The footsteps stopped just outside the door.   “Señor Bartola.  I heard noises from your room.  Is everything all right?” 

Zorro silently stationed himself behind the door and waited for the entrance of the innkeeper.  A click and a squeak indicated the opening of the door.  “Señor Bartola, is everything all right?  Señor Bartola?” 

As the man came further into the room, Zorro slipped behind him and allowed the point of his sword to rest against the small of the innkeeper’s back.  “Señor Pacheco, do not be alarmed.  It is only I, Zorro.  I am trying to find Señor Bartola and seem to have just missed him.  What happened here?”

“I was asleep and I heard noises that woke me up, Señor Zorro.  There were thumps and bangs.  I was worried and came upstairs.  That is all I know.”

“Light a candle, señor.  Let us see the result of this fracas that we both seem to have missed,” Zorro ordered.   The innkeeper complied and the soft glow soon showed the evidence of the short struggle.  Zorro had no doubt the cause of the noise was Hernando, but he wondered how the boy was brought here so quietly before being able to make so much commotion?  And how he missed him.  Looking quickly around the room, Zorro noticed a sketch in charcoal drawn on the floor, just under the edge of the bed.  It was a crude rendering of an animal with large and accentuated ears.  It appeared to be a mountain lion.  It seemed that Hernando had deliberately slipped off the bed and tried to draw a message.  All he needed to do was interpret it.  There was a pass called the Den of Lions on the road from Santa Barbara.  That must be it.

“I believe you need to inform Sgt. Garcia that there has been a kidnapping, Señor Pacheco,” Zorro stated quietly.   The innkeeper stood gaping at the mess.  Another guest was staring from the doorway, saw Zorro and gasped. 

“A bandit,” he cried. 

Zorro quickly dashed to the doorway and grasped the man’s collar.  “No, señor.  I am El Zorro, and I came only to investigate.  When all the noise woke you up, did you see anyone out here on the balcony?”

The man in his grasp caught his breath and nodded, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in his fear.  “Sí....Señor,” he finally stammered.  “I cracked my door open and saw two men carrying another out this door and down the stairs.  They went out the front door just before Señor Pacheco came from the back room.”

“Gracias, señor,” Zorro said, releasing the terrified man.  Turning to the innkeeper, he said tersely, “Señor Pacheco, go to Sgt. Garcia now.  Tell him what has happened here and also tell him that the information the young man gave him earlier was correct.  Tell him it is imperative that he take his lancers and ride the King’s Highway north to meet the Governor, and keep him from harm.  Do you understand my instructions?”  The portly man nodded, his eyes wide with the implication of Zorro’s words.  “Good, it is vital that you get Sgt. Garcia to listen to you and act.”  

Within a minute the innkeeper and his guest were standing, mouths agape, looking at the space that had been recently occupied by the masked man.  Pacheco roused himself out of his reverie and dashed down the stairs and out the door. 

As he raced around to the front of the tavern, Zorro leaned far over the saddle and examined the tracks in the plaza.  He saw the innkeeper at the cuartel gate, banging loudly.  Knowing that reading the tracks in front of the inn would be an almost impossible task, he tried to find a direction for Bartola and his compatriot.  It was simple to determine the hoof prints of horses that had just recently stood at the hitching post, but once they had been ridden a few feet away, discernment became exponentially more difficult.  It did appear, however, that the horses began heading down the road going west.   West was toward San Pedro, not Santa Barbara.   Bartola had come from San Pedro.

But the clue of the leon.  That puzzled him.  Having lived most of his life in this area, Zorro was not familiar with any landmark, north or west that was fit the description.  He could do nothing else, but ride toward San Pedro and hope to find clues as he traveled.   At least if he was wrong, Sgt. Garcia would be riding to the north.  

As he traveled, though, Zorro realized that he was not wrong.  The hoof prints led unmistakably toward San Pedro and what was more, they led toward a lesser used part of San Pedro, an area slightly north of the main harbor; one where smaller passenger ships sometimes unloaded their passengers.  The sun was well over the horizon as he rode to the top of the hill overlooking San Pedro harbor.  From under the shade of several oak trees, Zorro watched anxiously as a boat in the harbor disgorged several passengers.  He noticed that another was watching just as anxiously from the shore.  Bartola.  He was holding the reins of two horses while another man sat on the third. 

As the rowboat neared the shore, Zorro recognized the governor as well as his daughter, Leonar.  The sailor and Bartola helped them out of the small boat.  After a brief, but cordial reunion, Bartola solicitously helped Leonar on her horse, and when the governor had mounted, they rode east, toward Los Angeles.  The remaining man loaded the trunks on a pack mule and followed more sedately. 

As soon as all were out of sight, Zorro galloped down the hill and across the road.  He had seen nothing from the north side of the road as he rode toward San Pedro.  It only stood to reason that the assassins were encamped somewhere along the south side of the highway.  As he rode, he pondered all the variables, cursing the bad luck that had kept him from finding the criminals before he had reached San Pedro.  It was obvious that Bartola had engaged a sharpshooter to kill the governor from a distance.  That would make his job nearly impossible.  

Leaning over, Zorro urged Tornado to greater speed.  He could only take a chance and hope that his guess was correct.  As the governor’s aide, Bartola might possibly be in line to succeed the governor; therefore, like Ariano before him, he wouldn’t want to dirty his own hands with a killing, especially in front of the governor’s daughter.  In fact, Zorro thought with a cold smile, it appeared at the dock that Bartola had designs on Leonar.  Getting the governor’s daughter and the governorship in one day sounded like a most ambitious dream. 

Tornado surged forward in long, ground eating strides.  

 

 

 

Chapter Three
Chapter One
The Hernando Stories Introduction
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