narrowed against the intense glare of the late afternoon sun, the
non-descript vaquero, or cowboy, perused the shady trail leading away
from the El Camino Real. His
broad brimmed hat did nothing to alleviate the effects of the summer
sunlight, which radiated from everything.
The King’s Highway, while conducive for speedy travel, had very
little in the way of amenities, at least in this part of California.
There was little shade, no welcoming inns, except at one-day
intervals, and very few nearby haciendas where comfort would be assured.
those thoughts in mind, the vaquero pulled his hat down even further and
turned up the trail toward the promise of comfortable shade and a cool
spring, tugging gently on the lead rope of the horse following behind.
The vaquero, Diego de la Vega, was actually a caballero or
gentleman of the wealthy class. He
was a young man in the prime of his life, very tall, with dark hair and
a handsome face highlighted by intelligent hazel brown eyes, a small
trim mustache and a quick smile. Being the only son of one of the
wealthiest landowners in the vicinity of the Pueblo de Los Angeles, many
señoritas would have considered him a very good catch if he would only
make the overtures of courtship. What
they didn’t know, however, was that Diego had a secret. He was also El
Zorro, an identity he had assumed after he had been called home from
studies in Spain by his father, to help fight the excesses of a
tyrannical comandante. In
order to allay suspicions that he might be Zorro, Diego had acquired an
air of pacifism about him. He
took to reading even more than he usually did, playing more music,
writing poetry, much to the dismay of his father, Alejandro, who was
hot-blooded and tended to take any situation by the horns.
Now that his father knew of his dual identity, they worked
closely together to help those who were oppressed.
the trail as he slowly made his way toward the hint of greenery in the
distance, Diego suddenly found himself staring at two extremely well
armed vaqueros. His
horses shied and danced in fright at the sudden, almost ghostlike
appearance of the two men. Astonished almost beyond measure, Diego
realized that it wasn’t because the two vaqueros were so well armed
and menacing, it was because he hadn't had a single clue of their
presence until they had suddenly appeared before him on the trail.
Diego prided himself on the fact that he had a keen awareness of
everything around him, a talent developed by his various experiences of
the past. It was apparent,
though, that he had missed something along this desolate trail, or else
these vaqueros were very, very good.
took him a moment to calm his startled animals before he could address
the men who silently and resolutely blocked the path before him.
Tardes, señores," Diego said simply, and then waited quietly for
the men to speak.
you must turn back," the older of the two commanded, without any
preamble of civility.
decided that, despite the appearance of the two men, there was no need
to tell them anything other than the truth, although only a portion of
it. "Señores, I have
been in Monterey on business and am traveling to the Pueblo de Los
Angeles. It has been four
long, hot, dusty days of riding and I was only seeking a shady and
secluded spot to rest my horses and myself, perhaps to camp if there is
a spring nearby. I meant no
harm, and I certainly did not mean to intrude on anyone's property or
younger man moved his mount a few paces towards Diego's horse, eyeing
the intruder with a look of undisguised curiosity.
"Señor, you have the look of a vaquero, but the bearing of
a caballero. And the horse obviously belongs to a wealthy landowner.
Who are you?"
mentally gave the young vaquero several points for being so astute; he
had hoped to avoid any attention that a hacendado might attract, since
he was traveling alone, and on desolate stretches of highway. "I am
connected with the Rancho de la Vega and am doing the bidding of Don
Alejandro de la Vega." This was essentially the truth, but there wasn’t a chance
that he was going to divulge any more information until he had a better
grasp of this situation. “As
for the horse,” he added. “It is indeed the property of de la Vega,
who decided to take the coach back to Los Angeles.
Now tell me, señores, why should I wear out my only horse?” he
asked with a knowing smile.
older man suddenly drew out his pistol and pointed it at Diego. "It
does not matter if you are on the business of King Ferdinand himself,
turn around and leave immediately, unless perhaps you wish Don Alejandro
de la Vega to have to hire a new messenger.
You can go back and stay at the Mission of San Luis Obispo de
Tolosa or proceed south to Santa Barbara."
The speaker was a stocky, darker skinned man, a mestizo, somewhat
short in stature, but fully capable of carrying out his threats.
the younger man chided, "there is no need to be so crude.
This man does not even appear to be armed, I am sure that he will
be sure," Diego agreed fervently, "I certainly am not known as
someone stupid enough to argue with the end of a pistol, but if I may be
so bold, your patron must be a man new to California."
is that?" José, the younger vaquero asked, still curious.
he offers no hospitality to those traveling near his hacienda,
especially during the time of the siesta." Diego replied coolly.
"That is customary in California."
do you know there is a hacienda nearby?" the older man asked
harshly, flustered by Diego’s deductions.
"And besides, it really does not matter if there is or not,
you are trespassing and you are to leave, NOW!"
the Saints," murmured Diego. "But
of course, I will leave," he said more loudly, and turning his
horses around, started back down the hill toward the highway.
Feeling a peculiar prickling between his shoulder blades, he knew
the two men continued to watch his departure, and decided that it was
best to pretend they had convinced him; that leaving was indeed the best
course. Naturally their
manner and speech gave just the opposite effect to the curious Diego,
who believed that something was definitely not right beyond that
mountain pass. It was his
intention to find out what was going on before he continued on to Los
traveler, who was unarmed, but posed as a hired vaquero, puzzled José.
The man could not hide the self-assured air of a caballero that
seemed to be an unconscious or habitual thing.
This man was no simple messenger, José would bet his next
month’s wages on that, and assumed the man was not just delivering the
fancy horse to his patrón, but that he was the horse’s owner, and
therefore a patrón himself. But if the man is a patrón, then why didn’t he just insist
on spending the night at my employer’s hacienda, as was his right,
instead of posing as a vaquero? the young man thought, puzzled.
As he was fairly young and this was his first job with a rich
hacendado, he decided this reasoning was trivial and he just shrugged
and turned back up the trail behind Manuel.
Diego had ridden for, perhaps, ten minutes, and after stopping to check
one of the horse's shoes, listening intently for any signs of pursuit,
he looked back up the trail to further confirm that he wasn’t being
followed. Remounting, he
continued south along the highway, looking for any spot that would
afford some shade until the cool of the evening.
Soon Diego saw a trail that not only promised to afford him the
shade that he and his horses required, but was secluded enough to make a
good camp for the night, with a small stream nearby.
he rested in the shade of a small tree, the caballero wondered if he
might possibly be overreacting, but immediately squelched the thought.
In the past, he had learned to trust his instincts, and right now
his instincts were sending alarm signals that would need to be checked
watched the shimmering waves of overheated air dance off the rocks. Looking
up, he saw an eagle floating on the thermals, looking for prey.
It was during these quiet times since he left Monterey, that he
wished Bernardo, his manservant, could have accompanied him, if for no
other reason than for company. While
Diego was used to being alone at times, he was nevertheless gregarious
by nature and on long trips like this, wished he had a traveling
companion. He sighed,
knowing there was no reason to dwell on that which could not be changed.
Bernardo had been stricken with a fever during their stay in
Monterey and while the Franciscan priests had assured him that the
manservant would be completely well within a few days, Diego's father
was expecting him back in Los Angeles for a very important meeting of
patrons. The papers he was
carrying from the governor’s office were an important part of that
meeting, and made it impossible for him to wait for Bernardo's complete
left enough pesos for Bernardo to return home by coach as well as a
generous donation to the monastery where the manservant was recovering.
Then he had set out alone. By
wearing the livery of a hired vaquero instead of his usual flashy
wardrobe, he hoped to avoid any incidents on the way home.
Diego had also brought Bernardo’s mare along instead of
stabling her in Monterey until they returned.
Since he had stayed with the convalescing Bernardo longer then
the itinerary of the trip allowed, Diego had felt that having two horses
would help him make up the lost time.
As one horse tired he would be able to switch horses, instead of
having to stop and rest for extended periods of time due to the
oppressive heat. Part of
the nights had been spent traveling also and although it wasn’t
customary, these strategies had helped him to save almost an entire day,
at least until now. He
had to admit, though, that he was weary from the long ride of the past
four days, and he certainly knew that the horses were.
This had been one of the most oppressively hot summers that he
could remember, with hot winds blowing from the ocean, bringing very
little rain, instead of the cooler breezes that usually tempered the
heat of summer.
another eagle join the first in an aerial dance across the clear blue
sky, he wondered if part of his reasoning for riding back alone might
not be a reaction to the sometimes scathing comments about his courage,
or rather lack of it. Even though he had, for the most part, come to terms with his
role as a passive, non-aggressive caballero, the comments sometimes
still stung. There were
times that he wished he could do as Diego de la Vega, what he had done
as a child, when he saw what he felt were wrongs being committed.
Chuckling to himself as he remembered his childhood reputation of
being hotheaded and quick with his fists, he hobbled the horses to
prevent them from wandering too far while he rested.
And as he dozed, he wondered why two ranch-hands would be so
heavily armed and have the manner of bandits.
woke several hours later, when the evening had progressed enough for the
air to change from the simmering heat of the late afternoon to the
cooler air of evening. The
eagles were gone, but a single red-tailed hawk had taken their place,
searching for a late day meal before the sun set.
The raptor reminded him of his duties, and he stretched, fed and
watered the horses, then had a very light supper from his provisions
before beginning to prepare for his night's investigation.
By the time he was finished, the sun had set and the campsite had
begun to take on a ghostly aura, with shadows from the trees and rocks,
combining with the noises of night creatures and the slight sighing
breeze drifting through the tops of the oaks.
determining that the area around his campsite was secure, he untied one
of the coquinillos or saddle bags.
In it were a black cape, shirt, pants, sash, hat, bandana, boots,
gloves and the mask, which had become famous around Los Angeles and to
some extent, Monterey. The
sword, he had tied to Tejas’ saddle, under the coquinillo, as he
seldom wore a blade other than when he was in his guise as Zorro.
Swords had no place in the life of the passive Don Diego, even
though, before he had returned home, fencing had almost been life
itself. When the change was
complete, the horses were looking on a different man, El Zorro, and most
of the time, when he donned the costume, Diego felt different as well.