Less than an hour later, Diego rode into the secret cave and changed into clothing more appropriate for a hacendado. Sitting languidly at the big oak table in the sala, with his long legs stretched out under the table, young de la Vega recounted the last day's adventures to his father. Alejandro laughed as he pictured some of those events. "What do you have in mind next, Diego?" he asked.
"I think that our impostor may be ready for something a little easier. Father, do you think you could gather the wealthiest dons in the area for a meeting tomorrow in the pueblo?" Diego asked. "Preferably at the inn?"
"Sí, Diego. Would a group of eight or ten men be sufficient?" Alejandro queried. "I do not believe I can gather more than that at this short notice."
"Sí, that many men would make excellent witnesses. Also inform Sgt. Garcia that the meeting involves him." Diego explained. "Do you remember when my friend, Ricardo del Amo challenged Zorro to a duel?" His father nodded. "Well....," Diego's voice trailed off as he realized that he had been doing exactly what everyone else had done since beginning his tenure as Zorro. He had concentrated on the costume and not the distinguishing characteristics of the impostor that would tell him who the man was. "One moment, por favor," he said remotely as he pondered.
Remembering his opponent's excellent swordsmanship, he tried to think with whom he had crossed swords. The man's voice, his height, the structure of his face, the scar near the top of his arm. With the beard shaved off, of course! Diego thought to himself. He drew in his breath quickly and then swung on Bernardo, who had been standing nearby. "Did you say that you recognized the voice of one of the bandits as being vaguely familiar?" Bernardo nodded. "I did, too," Diego murmured. Then a great smile crossed his face.
"Father, the inn is where I cornered a false
Zorro once before and tomorrow it will be deja vu," Diego said, with
a self-satisfied look on his face.
During the late night hours, while Corporal Reyes was dozing on guard duty, a black clad figure crept up behind him and woke him with the point of his sword. Startled into full wakefulness, Reyes grabbed the musket he was leaning on and sucked in his breath in surprise.
"Corporal Reyes," the ghostly voice said. "Do not make an outcry. I only want to talk to you."
"Sí, Señor," the corporal said, his eyes wide in fright.
"Tomorrow at the meeting of the dons, an assassin will try to kill one of the hacendados," Zorro warned him
"Do you mean Zorro?" Reyes queried.
"No, Corporal, I do not mean Zorro. It will be a man with a blowgun. He will have darts with deadly poison, which he will shoot with a small blowgun. Watch for such a man at the meeting tomorrow and stop him at all costs. Do you understand?"
"Sí, Señor, but shouldn't Sgt. Garcia know about this?" Reyes asked. He received no answer, but still felt the point of the sword at his back. "Señor? Señor?" When he shifted from one foot to the other, the object at his back fell to the ground. Astonished, the lancer wondered if he had dreamed the whole incident, but decided that the pointed stick proved he hadn't.
Since the payroll had come in, Sgt. Garcia had enjoyed himself immensely and was late getting to his quarters in the back of the comandante’s office. Stepping into the bedroom, he swallowed the note he had been singing when he saw Zorro sitting on his bed, grinning at him. "Zorro!" he exclaimed and then looked puzzled. "Which one are you?"
Zorro laughed heartily. "That is a good question, is it not, Sergeant? Either one of us could say, 'I am the real one,' but how would you know who was really telling the truth and who was lying?"
Garcia looked even more puzzled and just stared at the outlaw. Finally he said, "Oh, Señor Zorro, why do you always try to confuse me?" Zorro just sat quietly on the bed. Then recognition of the truth he had just spoken dawned on the confused sergeant and he, too, smiled. "Señor, you must be the real Zorro, because you sometimes confuse me with your words. Was it you who saved the payroll?"
Zorro nodded. "I have something very important to tell you, Sgt. Garcia. I am positive that tomorrow at the meeting of the dons, the impostor will attend. But he will not be alone, he will have at least three of his gang members with him. Do not guard the outside of the tavern door. Do not worry about the false Zorro, let me take care of him. You will only need to watch for the members of his gang. Will you do this?" Zorro asked.
"Sí, Señor, but what if by some chance the impostor wins? How will I know who it is?" Garcia asked perplexed.
"Sergeant, have faith in my abilities," Zorro quipped. "But even if he wins, just figure it out the way you did tonight." The outlaw grew serious. "These men are dangerous, they will not hesitate to hurt or kill anybody in the inn tomorrow. Protect the dons, Sergeant, and everyone else who will be there."
"I will do my best, Señor Zorro," the sergeant said fervently as the masked man slipped out the window.
Stealthily sneaking behind the inn, Zorro whistled and was soon climbing up the rope, which had been dropped for his use. Removing the cape, he looked at his father with a grin, and joked, "You should not have stayed up for me." Alejandro just rolled his eyes in exasperation. Taking rooms at the inn, while unusual, was not unheard of when something important was going to happen the next day in the pueblo.
Once in his own room, Diego changed, lay down and pulled the blanket over him. Bernardo tapped him on the shoulder and queried about his plans for the next day. The patrón looked over his shoulder at the manservant. "Did Father spread the word about Zorro challenging the impostor to a duel?" Bernardo nodded. "Good, then everything will be ready for noon tomorrow." Diego looked at his servant’s concerned countenance. “Bernardo, you have to trust me. I will tell what you need to know when the time comes.”
With that, Diego rolled over and effectively terminated the conversation. Bernardo lay on his pallet and pondered the coming day's events. While he had no concerns over his patrón’s abilities, he nevertheless fretted. He somehow didn't believe that what Don Diego said would transpire and what really was going to happen would be the same thing at all. Finally after tossing for close to an hour, Bernardo also fell asleep.
Just before the noon hour, the hacendados began filing into the tavern. Diego had slipped in through the storeroom of the inn, mask on, hat down, and stood by the back wall watching everything transpire. Wearing borrowed vaquero's garb; he was overlooked by the small crowd. No one even looked in his direction. Tables had been cleared and put together for the nine men to sit around. Don Alejandro sat down at the head of the table and the others joined him, their expressions curious. The innkeeper, himself, began serving wine to the men and when each hacendado had a filled glass in front of him, Don Alejandro brought the meeting to order. Diego smiled, everything was as it should be and if his calculations were correct, they would be seeing the impostor and his henchmen within five minutes.
In four minutes, the bandit gang burst through the door very near where Diego was standing. "Señores, do not move. We have enough weapons to kill a goodly number before anyone can harm us," the man clad as Zorro shouted. One of the bandits stood only three feet from him. Diego was motionless, waiting for his moment to act. The man stepped forward, and seeing no one looking his way, young de la Vega sidestepped quickly and grabbed the man around the neck, choking off any outcry.
Dragging him behind the bar, Diego knocked him unconscious with the handle of his knife and then went through his pockets. It was soon apparent that this man was a walking apothecary. Not only was there a small calabash with the remainder of the curare, but various packets of powders and vials of liquids. The imposter must have met up with someone of great imagination in his travels. He had used more simple approaches when they met before, such as blackmail and extortion. Curiosity caused him to place all of the materials in a corner cabinet to examine later, carefully covering them up. He left the unconscious bandit on the floor.
The fraudulent Zorro had been laying down the terms for the dons' release. "Señores, I only want one thing and that is the man who has been thwarting my efforts. I want the one who also calls himself Zorro. I know he is nearby and hears my voice. If he does not come in five minutes, I will have my men start killing one hacendado each minute until he arrives. And after ten minutes, there will be no need for him to come, because you will all be dead."
Diego crept along the floor and slipped out the storeroom door. With a smile on his lips, he changed into his costume. Everything was going according plan. Stealthily making his way back into the dining area, he stepped over the still unconscious bandit and cautiously peered over the counter top. Another bandit was standing at the end of the counter. Everyone was intent on the impostor, who was lambasting him and his father. Concerned, Zorro saw his father flush with anger. Easy, Father, he thought. Just take it easy. There was no time to waste in bringing his plan to fruition.
While everyone's attention was on the black clad figure in the middle of the room, Zorro silently leaned over the counter and grabbed another of the bandits around the neck. "So, Señor Pineda, we meet again," Zorro whispered in his ear. "I see that your partner forgot what I told him the last time he was in Los Angeles." The outlaw clouted Pineda behind the ear and let him slide quietly to the floor. Jumping on the counter and standing there with his arms folded, he listened to the tirade of his enemy. As more people in the room noticed him, his smile broadened. Finally the black clad figure realized that the audience had their attention elsewhere and he turned swiftly.
"Ah, Señor, you should continue. You were doing so well." Zorro commented wryly, eliciting laughter from the onlookers. His opponent's face started to redden, but before he could say anything, Zorro continued. "Señor, I believe we have a duel to fight and since I am the one who initiated the challenge, it is only fair to allow you to choose the weapons."
The imposter's eyes darted around the room, and seeing Pineda on the floor, reached over and grabbed Don Alejandro by the arm, jerking him close to him. Zorro's breath hissed through his teeth, this had NOT been planned. "Señor, you thought that you had beaten me," the impostor said. "But you have not. Take off your mask now, or the old man dies. I will at least have the pleasure of ruining your operation, and the family of the man behind the mask will suffer great dishonor as well." He held a knife to Alejandro's throat, drawing a small bead of blood to the surface. The elder de la Vega’s eyes were telling him no.
There was fear in Zorro’s heart, and he began to reach behind his head to undo the knot when he saw Corporal Reyes creeping up behind his father's captor. Slowly he continued to pretend to do as ordered. Reyes stuck something into the small of the imposter's back. "Release Don Alejandro, or you will be taking your last breath, Señor," Reyes said. Alejandro jabbed the man in the ribs with his elbow and jerked away. The third bandit suddenly raised a pistol, but Zorro's whip jerked it away. Catching the pistol as it sailed toward him, Zorro threw the weapon to Alejandro. With grace born of experience, Zorro leaped from the counter and stood only a half dozen feet from his double.
"Don Alejandro, use that to make sure no one does anything like that again," he said grimly. That had been too close. He watched the blood trickle down his father's neck, and was angry at himself, as well as with the imposter. "Corporal Reyes, my deepest thanks for your quick action." Turning to the impostor, he said, "Señor, despite your cowardly actions, I offer you the same deal I made a few minutes ago. I told you I would kill you if you ever showed up here again. I am giving you a way out, Señor Avila. Accept it."
Avila saw his plans crashing down around him, but thought if he could best the outlaw and kill him, then he could still get out of a jail sentence by claiming it was the other who had committed the crimes. Zorro did, after all, still have the jewels and what dead man can dispute such a claim? The swordsman saw this as the only way to salvage the situation. In addition, he could conceivably walk away from this debacle with the reward for Zorro in his pocket. "Very well, señor, I will accept your challenge. My choice of weapons is knives, and as Zorro, I will beat you and prove your claims to be false." He smiled; he was the best and most devious knife fighter in all of Mexico. Grimly, Avila felt that Zorro had outsmarted himself this time. The masked pest would soon be lying on the floor, dead.
"Señor, I have made no claims. I have no need to." Zorro bowed, undid the cord holding his cape on, and caught it as it slid from his shoulders. "Clear an area, señores. Corporal Reyes, would you consent to be my second, since you have already proven yourself today?"
Reyes nodded and came over to stand near him. "Señor Zorro, I never did see the man with the blow gun," he whispered.
"Por nada, Corporal. I already took care of him," Zorro answered. "I want you to watch carefully and let me know if you see Señor Avila or his friend trying anything underhanded." Reyes nodded.
"Welcome back, Señor Zorro," Reyes said simply as the outlaw prepared for the duel.
"Gracias, Corporal," came the reply. Zorro knew that Avila had chosen a form of fighting that he probably excelled in, and while knife fighting was something that he was adept at, the outlaw didn't care for it and therefore didn't practice with that weapon as he did with the sword. Wrapping his cape around his left arm, he went to stand in the middle of the now cleared room, facing Avila.
Alejandro was worried. "Señores, why this business of a duel? Arrest Señor Avila now and take his mask off. We know he is the impostor!" he cried.
Zorro looked steadily at his father. "Don Alejandro, when this man came to the pueblo and started robbing and assaulting people in my name and using my disguise, it became more than crimes, it became a matter of honor; my honor," Zorro said fervently. "Señor, I know honor means much to you. Would you wish it to mean any less to me?"
Alejandro sighed and shook his head. His eyes locked onto his son's for a brief moment and in them, Zorro saw pride and fear. "Señor Zorro, you are right, I apologize," was what his father finally said.
"Patrón, would you begin the duel?" Zorro asked him. He got into a fighting stance, a razor sharp steel knife in his right hand.
"Gentlemen, are you ready?" Alejandro asked. Both men nodded. Avila removed his cape and threw it away from him. Then Señor de la Vega stepped back. "Begin."
|Hernando Chronicles Introduction|