A note from the Author:
Chapter One - Surprise!
Mexican California - 1822
"By the Saints!!! This is too much to bear." The peaceful atmosphere of breakfast was broken by Alejandro de la Vega's sudden outburst. His fist hit the table at the same time he made his exclamation and surprise almost caused his son, Diego, to drop the cup of champurrado that he had been drinking. As it was, some of the thick, creamy chocolate sloshed on to the table.
Alejandro had been ominously quiet throughout the whole meal and Diego had seen the signs of an impending explosion, but was wise enough by this time in his life, to allow his father to decide when to let him know what was bothering him. And there had been a great deal bothering him lately.
"I still cannot believe that we are not only receiving a magistrado from Mexico City, but they are sending a new comandante as well. Do they think we are a rabble of lawless cutthroats?" the elder de la Vega thundered. "Even as incompetent as Sergeant Garcia seems to be, he has for the most part succeeded in doing a good job. And why can we not continue to be ruled by Spain? This is almost too much, this independence. There was nothing wrong with the old way."
"Father," Diego said soothingly. "For one thing there is nothing we can do about the independence that Mexico has been granted. For another thing, even Spain sent comandantes; just consider Monastario. Maybe Mexico City can judge comandantes better then Spain did. And even you must admit, that most of the time, Spain turned a deaf ear to our problems."
"Yes, I know you are right Diego, but it is still the principal of the thing." Alejandro had calmed down considerably. "California has always been part of Spain."
Bernardo was taking away the breakfast dishes. Laying down the pile in his hands, he made signs for Sgt. Garcia and Zorro. Diego laughed in understanding. "Bernardo is reminding us that Sgt. Garcia succeeds for the most part because of the intervention of Zorro."
Alejandro chuckled in understanding. Diego suddenly assumed a more serious demeanor. "Maybe, Father, this change in government will mean more stability and peace. Maybe Zorro can finally hang up the mask that he has used for the past, umm, two years. Sometimes it seems it has been forever. A peaceful life, and perhaps a family. I doubt that you have totally given up your quest for grandchildren."
The melancholy in Diego's voice startled the old man out of his own self-pity. "Perhaps you are right, Diego, my son. Perhaps this change is a good thing. Heaven only knows how much you have sacrificed and how much you deserve some peace. And grandchildren would be nice."
While the two de la Vegas sat pondering the changes that had occurred in their part of the world, Bernardo indicated that he was going to take the carriage into the pueblo to purchase supplies for the cook. "Bernardo, also find out if Sgt. Garcia has heard anymore about the arrival of the new comandante and the magistrado," Diego told him. The manservant nodded and left.
Two hours later, Diego heard the jingling of tack and the thundering of hooves that told him that Bernardo had returned, but the manservant seemed to be in a great hurry. Puzzled, Diego walked out to the patio, surmising news of great import if the manservant came home in such a rush. He was right; Bernardo burst in the gate and immediately started signing.
In the past three years, Diego had become quite adept at interpreting Bernardo's signs, but there were still times when he had problems and this was one of them. "Whoa, Bernardo, I understood something about San Pedro harbor and a ship, but you lost me after that. Slow down, por favor." Bernardo complied and Diego interpreted out loud to ensure he was understanding correctly. By this time, Alejandro had come out from the sala and was listening.
"A ship from Mexico City arrived in San Pedro harbor last night, carrying officials from Mexico City. They will be coming to Los Angeles this morning, but you overheard someone saying that a vaquero was boasting early this morning that he and several others will be laying in wait for them somewhere on the route." Diego looked sharply at him. "You are sure they are kidnappers?" he asked. Bernardo nodded.
"It would seem that some of our local citizenry are trying to find out how good Mexico's money is," Diego said with a wry smile. Bernardo made the sign of a 'Z' and Diego nodded. "I will also make a quick stop in the pueblo on the way to San Pedro." Taking the stairs two at a time, Diego bounded up to his bedroom and into the secret room where he kept his accoutrements. Changing quickly, he took only enough time to write a hurried note, attaching it to a knife. As usual, when he donned the costume of Zorro, much of his melancholy disappeared.
Zorro then hurried down to the cave where Bernardo had just finished bridling and saddling the great black stallion. Signing 'Vaya con Dios,' he stood back as his patrón swung onto Tornado and rode out into the mid-morning sun. The stallion's mile eating stride soon had the pair in Los Angeles. Sweeping through the plaza, slackening speed only enough to avoid running over the morning shoppers, Zorro threw the knife at the cuartel gate.
The weapon buried itself in the heavy wood, exactly equidistant between the heads of Corporal Reyes and Private Montoya and before the knife had finished quivering, the outlaw had swept out of the plaza again and was galloping down the road toward San Pedro.
"Santa Maria," Reyes breathed, grateful that El Zorro had a good eye. Reaching up, he pulled the knife out of the wood and undid the string holding the paper on the hilt. Seeing that it was addressed to the acting comandante, he rushed through the cuartel gate and to the comandante’s office. The corporal knew that whenever Zorro left a message like this, it was usually important. Bursting in through the door, Reyes ran up to the comandante’s desk, saluted, and breathlessly stood at attention.
Sgt. Garcia was just finishing his midmorning snack, and looked up at Reyes in irritation, with his napkin still tucked under his ample chin. "Baboso, can you not see that I am busy? Come back, in say, ten minutes."
"But, Sergeant Garcia, Zorro left this at the cuartel gate, just a few minutes ago as he rode through the pueblo. He did not even stop. It must be important."
Sighing lustily, Garcia took the note and then read it quickly. His eyes widened and he read it again, his snack astonishingly, left forgotten. "Corporal Reyes, call out a contingent of six lancers, saddle your horse and have someone saddle mine. There are officials coming from San Pedro this morning and they are going to be kidnapped by bandits. Quickly, Corporal."
Garcia got up, hurriedly, and grabbing his hat, lumbered toward the door. Reyes pointed to his chest and looking down, Garcia realized that the napkin was in place. Jerking it out from under his chin, he threw it behind him as he went out the door. Soon, a contingent of eight soldiers was riding on the road to San Pedro.
Zorro came upon an abandoned carriage about halfway between Los Angeles and San Pedro. The team had been cut loose and the carriage abandoned. The signs of a struggle were clear to read in the dust on the road, but there was no evidence of blood. Zorro, therefore assumed that Bernardo's information was correct and set about looking for the trail that the kidnappers took away from the site of the ambush. It was not hard to find, a child could have followed the trail that led up into the eastern hills.
The hilt of a sword lay in the dust, the blade broken. Picking it up to examine it, Zorro noticed that is was of Spanish make, and of very good quality. He kept thinking that he had seen a sword like that somewhere once before, but couldn't think where. With a shrug of his shoulders, he tossed it into the abandoned carriage and rode up the trail at a slow trot.
When the trail narrowed to such a degree that Tornado had to walk, Zorro decided that it was time to reconnoiter on foot. With hand signals, he motioned for the stallion to wait for him and then he slipped in among the boulders like a ghost. Although the bandits had left a trail that any amateur could follow, the masked man wasn't going to assume that they were so stupid that they would not leave a guard or lookout.
After perhaps a half an hour, he spotted a guard sitting on a boulder overlooking the trail. Slipping up behind him, Zorro put his hand over the man's mouth and jerked him backward off his perch. A quick blow behind his right ear rendered the bandit unconscious and after tying him up, the outlaw climbed up on the boulder to view the immediate area.
Below him in a small cul-de-sac was a group of six bandits, most of them appearing to be itinerant vaqueros; he didn't recognize them from any of the local ranchos. Tied up and sitting near his position, with their backs to him was the man he assumed to be the magistrado and an escort representing the Mexican military. From his best guess, Zorro figured the man to be a general. In shock, the outlaw realized that the Mexican government was very serious about this transfer of power, sending a man of that rank to Alta California.
"General, your government will pay many pesos to get you and your precious magistrado back alive," a very slender man, presumably the leader of the bandits, was telling the officer.
"The Mexican government is not in the ransom business and will not give in to your demands," the general retorted. Zorro had heard the voice before, but, like the sword, he couldn't figure where.
"Someone will pay this ransom. You are much too important for someone not to pay." The bandit leader began to pace. "Manuel, bring me the paper and pen. Quickly!"
"Sí, José," a smaller man said and digging in a saddlebag, brought the requested items to his leader. Zorro was coming to the conclusion that these men had never done anything like this before and had not planned their first venture very well. The word 'inept' kept coming to his mind.
"Now, General, you will write what I tell you." The general shook his head, even before Manuel could reach him to cut his bonds. José reddened. "You will do as I say, and do it now."
Zorro was, by now, laughing silently at the utter stupidity of this man, and he was the leader! Not having had a note prepared, not being able to write it himself and now trying to get their own prisoner to write something that they wouldn't even be able to corroborate as authentic. It was a struggle to avoid laughing out loud. Perhaps these men would give themselves up in frustration.
José was pacing and shouting again, and then he stopped in front of the general and reaching down, jerked the man up by his collar. Shouting into his face, the bandit struck him with a backhanded blow, once and then twice before letting him fall back to the ground.
Shocked, Zorro recognized the man. It was his old fencing instructor, Juan Morales de Silva y Montez! A thrill of excitement at seeing his mentor again, the man who was the closest thing to a father he had had in Spain raced through his body and he smiled broadly. De Silva looked to have hardly aged a day; he still had the trim look of a fighter, with the aristocratic bearing that even his present circumstances couldn't hide. The meticulously maintained mustache and beard had perhaps a bit more gray than they had three years ago, but Zorro was amazed at how little had changed in the time that had passed.
Then reality set in. He was in the guise of an outlaw, in the presence of the man who taught him almost everything he knew about swordplay. Zorro may have been able to fool his own father for a time, as well as everyone in the pueblo, but he didn't feel he would be able to hide his identity from the man who had examined his every fighting move everyday for almost three years. He wouldn't be able to use his sword in front of de Silva, and he couldn't reveal himself to his former mentor.
Zorro believed that de Silva wouldn't turn him in, but he wouldn't put an official of the Mexican government into that kind of a position. Coming back to the present, he saw José slapping the general again, and the outlaw knew that even as inept as these bandits were, it was time to step in before the prisoners suffered serious hurt. Gathering his feet underneath him, Zorro waited for the right moment and then launched himself toward José. He hit the leader feet first and knocked down another bandit as he landed. José was unconscious before he hit the ground and a well-placed blow of his fist took care of the other bandit.
"El Zorro!!" the other bandits said in chorus. One of them quickly drew a pistol, but Zorro was quicker with his whip and had the weapon sailing through the air and into his own hand before any of the others could draw on him. Walking behind the two prisoners, while holding the remaining kidnappers at bay, Zorro drew his sword and sliced through the two men's bonds.
While resheathing his sword, two of the erstwhile kidnappers attempted to rush him. One went down with a bullet in his shoulder, while the other ended up with Zorro's fist in his face. Throwing aside the pistol, the outlaw concentrated all of his efforts on defending himself. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw General de Silva contending with another of the bandits. A rock tripped him and he went down with his opponent on top of him. Struggling, Zorro was able to throw him off and end the fight when he got his arm under the man's chin and cut off his air supply. The bandit quickly surrendered.
Zorro saw that the general had also defeated his opponent and was looking at him curiously. "Well met, General...."
"I am General Juan Morales de Silva y Montez, and did I hear rightly, when these bandits called you El Zorro?"
"Sí, General, at your service. And yours as well, Excellency," Zorro added turning to the magistrado.
"Please, Señor Zorro, do not call me excellency. I am a citizen, like yourself, although most law abiding citizens do not go around wearing a mask," the magistrado admonished gently.
"My apologies, Señor Magistrado. And there is reason for the mask. I only ask that you not judge all Californianos on the reception that you received this morning. Most people in California welcome law and order; just laws and fairly administered order," Zorro said seriously in warning.
"Surely you are not threatening us, señor," the magistrado said a bit testily.
"No, Magistrado, I am simply letting you know that injustice will not be tolerated, but you will not see me again if you are a fair-minded official," Zorro explained with a smile. Noise from below them on the trail, told the outlaw that Sergeant Garcia was coming. When the corpulent sergeant arrived in the cul-de-sac and saw Zorro with the freed officials, he beamed.
"Señor Zorro, somehow I expected you to be here before us. Especially since I saw your black horse on the trail below. And you have saved us the trouble of having to chase down these rascals. It appears that they are ready to go into the cuartel jail," the sergeant said brightly. "Corporal Reyes, Corporal Aguillo tie these bandits up and make them ready for their journey to the pueblo."
Leaping back up among the boulders, Zorro waved to Sgt. Garcia and the others. "Adios, Amigos," he called out with a smile. As he trotted back down the trail to Tornado, his smile faded, thinking of the pending confrontation with his old mentor. Somehow, Zorro didn't think that de Silva would approve of the new Diego.