Chapter One -- The Rustler
Through the velvet darkness I rode, black against black, the silk and satin of my clothing softly rustling, the beat of Tornado's hooves making a rhythmic music against the ground. I had spent five or six hours each of the last several nights out amongst the different ranchos, trying to find out anything that might lead me to the mysterious cattle thief, who seemed to be taunting each of the hacendados with his unorthodox methods of rustling.
Even Father was totally unaware of my activities, thinking me unconcerned about this latest thorn in his side. But there was something about this 'crime spree' that bothered me, in fact, nagged me. This problem was a thorn in my flesh, but for a different reason than it was for Father. I had broken up rustling gangs before and this was unlike any of them. There were no large-scale thefts, no evidence of slaughter or branding of numerous cattle. It seemed a silly thought, but it was almost as though someone was out stealing a few head of cattle for a prodigiously large family.
As I rode over a rise near the lands of Don Manuel de Silvano, I saw a small group of vaqueros examining something in the valley below. Riding swiftly down among them, I applied my whip to relieve the mounted vaquero of his pistol, which I used to hold the other vaqueros at abeyance. "Señores, I am only interested in talking with you and asking a few questions."
The vaquero on horseback glared at me. "Señor, how convenient that you show up right after several of Don Manuel's cattle disappear."
"Actually, señor, your accusation would make much more sense if I had shown up just before the cattle were stolen," I said, laughing. "I am here for the same reason as you are, to investigate the thefts."
The mounted vaquero grunted and asked, "What do you want to know, Señor Zorro?"
"By your best guess, how many cattle have been stolen from Don Manuel's rancho and on what nights?" I asked. As the vaqueros conveyed the information, I filed it away with the other facts I had learned. Just like on previous nights, the amount of cattle stolen was never more than two or three, and a pattern was emerging that was giving me an idea where this man might be hiding during the day.
"Gracias, señores, adios," I told the men, and tossing the pistol to the farthest vaquero, I wheeled Tornado and sped off in the direction from which I had come.
Several days later, our rancho was targeted for more rustling. The night's activity made Father furious. For several minutes, I watched him pace from one end of the sala to the other, without saying anything. Sometimes it was just better to let him do something to vent his anger, then it was to talk about it immediately. Waiting, I signaled to Bernardo to bring in some wine. Finally, Father looked at me in irritation, and said, "Diego, why do you sit there quietly without saying anything. I think it is an outrage that someone casually comes to the rancho and steals from the herds that I have worked hard to build up."
"Perhaps, Father, because I do not see this as a conspiracy or an organized effort. It almost seems as though one or two persons are coming periodically to the different haciendas to get just enough head of cattle to meet their personal needs," I said, knowing that I was probably going to risk the fallout of his wrath.
"His personal money belt, you mean. Maybe this is not a large group doing this, but I worked too hard, building the herd to have someone think they can just come in at anytime and steal a half a dozen head each week," Father fumed. He started pacing again.
I then made the mistake of trying to lighten the mood. "Father, you know the cattle raise themselves, we just provide the land," I said, with a chuckle.
Father paused in mid-stride and looked angrily at me. I could see wrath in his eyes.
Chagrined, I realized that I had mistimed my attempt at levity, and overstepped my bounds. "Father, forgive me for my bad attempt at humor. You are right. We should try to find out who the rustler is and why he or they are stealing the cattle." Father's countenance softened. "Perhaps tonight will be a good time for Zorro to go out and try to capture this bandit," I added.
Bernardo brought the wine and poured two glasses half full of the good de la Vega vintage. I motioned for him to pour one for himself. "To the successful end of the rustling trade," I quipped in a toast. Father looked askance at me, and then chuckled, his good humor at least partially restored. He knew full well that I was not taking this as seriously as he was, but was nevertheless, pleased that I was going to do something about the situation, anyway.
While we were the hardest hit, other rancheros were complaining about their stock being stolen, also. Of course, the vaqueros could only conjecture the amount of cattle taken, because the cattle ran semi-wild in the hills. Only the fierros, or rump marks kept everyone's property straight.
I had already made several discreet inquiries at nearby cattle sales and had found no indication of any cattle bearing ventas or shoulder marks, which would be the easiest way for a rustler to get gain from stolen cattle. A venta was branded on the animal when ownership changed. Somehow, I still felt that this was a personal need situation, but there was no way that I could put that feeling into words in a way that Father would understand.
There was a cattle sale in nearby San Pedro today and I told Father that I would go there and see if there were any being sold with the de la Vega fierro. Taking Bernardo, we rode at a moderately fast pace, getting to the port town an hour or so before the sale started.
"Bernardo, circulate and see if you can find out anything of value. I will take a look at the cattle." Bernardo nodded his understanding and sauntered off with a seemingly aimless air.
I loitered near the temporary holding pens, watching the milling animals. Most looked like stock only fit to sell for hides and tallow, the stench of which we had smelled well before we rode into the pueblo. There were some better looking beasts, though, and I walked around the pens to get a better view. The nearest one, I noticed, with a bit of shock had the fierro of Sebastian Alverez, a hacendado who lived near Los Angeles.
I was unaware of Don Sebastian selling any cattle at this time. Predators had cut the size of his herd and he had been trying to build it back up, so seeing one of his cows here, did not make a great deal of sense. I kept looking and found two steers with the de la Vega fierro. I was beginning to wonder if Father might be right in this matter.
I noticed a couple of other Los Angeles ranchos represented, and went to find the auctioneer. "Señor," I queried the auction master, "do you know who brought you those cattle with the fierros of the de la Vega rancho?"
The man just shrugged. "No, señor, I am just handling the selling of the animals. Someone else bought them and brought them here for auction." I just nodded and thanked him. Turning toward the plaza to meet Bernardo, I saw several Los Angeles hacendados, apparently doing the same thing I was.
"Don Eduardo," I said easily. "Are you also here to check on stray cattle?"
"Sí, Diego," he said, scowling at the sight of one of his cows milling around with the rest. "Now the bandit takes the cattle and sells them blatantly in front of our noses."
I nodded. Asking around, I got approximations of the days when each ranch had cattle stolen. Doing a little figuring in my head, I reached a conclusion as to which rancho the rustler might hit next. And it seemed at this point that the rustler was only stealing cattle within a certain radius. It seemed logical, also, that the bandit's hideout was in the eastern hills, where there was more seclusion.
"Señores, I have no plans to stay for the actual auction. But as I return home, I will stop at the cuartel and report this rustling activity to the acting comandante," I assured the rancheros.
Meeting up with Bernardo in the town square, I motioned for him to return with me to our horses. As we were riding away from San Pedro, I outlined what I had found out. He stopped and signed his findings. It seemed that a lone man, in very non-descript, and trail-worn clothing had brought in about ten head of cattle and sold them for less than the market value. As quickly as the cattle were sold, the man left San Pedro.
"Did you hear anything to indicate that this had happened before?" I quizzed Bernardo. He shook his head and signed that from all indications, this was the first time the man had shown up in San Pedro. That was an interesting factual tidbit, but did no more than increase my curiosity about who this person was.
Riding into the cuartel, I found Sgt. Garcia in the tavern, having a glass of wine during the hottest part of the afternoon. "Buenos tardes, sergeant," I greeted him with a smile. While not one of the most intelligent of my friends, he was congenial, honest, and loyal to a fault, having taken up for me many times in the past.
"Buenos tardes, Don Diego. Would you care to join me for a bit of wine?" he boomed, a great smile on his round face. I joined him at his table and waved to the barmaid, Maria, to bring another glass and a bottle of wine. Apparently the good sergeant had only had enough money to get one glass, which was the way it usually was, most of the time through no fault of his own. Soldiers were being paid only sporadically these days.
"Sgt. Garcia, have you received any complaint about cattle rustlers recently?" I asked him.
"Sí, Don Diego, but no one has bothered to make a formal complaint," he answered as he poured himself another glassful from the bottle I had ordered. I poured a little into my own glass and looked into it intently. "Have you had cattle taken as well?" he asked.
"Sí, sergeant," I answered. "A few head until last night. Today, the vaqueros noticed about a half dozen missing. It could be more or less, as you know. It has seemed a minor problem until recently, when more cattle have disappeared than can be explained by just hungry peons."
"Sí, I know," he told me. "I will send out a patrol this evening."
"You might want to send your patrol closer to Don Sebastian's rancho, since he can ill afford to lose anymore cattle and I noticed at the auction in San Pedro that there was at least one of his in the herd being sold."
"You are right, Don Diego, that is a good idea," Garcia said, with a sigh. The sergeant felt great empathy and sympathy for the people of the pueblo. Perhaps, despite his ineptitude, this was why he was a reasonably successful acting comandante.
Shortly thereafter, I took my leave, and despite the heat, Bernardo and I went back to the hacienda before the cool of the evening. Father got great pleasure in seeing his theories, presumably proven right. "You see, my son, I have great experience in this business and I thought someone was doing this for personal gain."
"I think I will have a small meal, and go out early, before dark, to see if I can find any traces of this bandit," I explained. "You do realize with the number of ranchos involved and the amount of land to cover, that this might very well be like looking for a grain of rice on the seashore, even with my calculations."
"I know, son, but something needs to be done," Father said.
Later in the afternoon, just as the heat of the day was beginning to temper, Bernardo and I went to the secret room just off my bedroom and I changed into my costume, while he went on down to the cave to saddle the great black stallion. As I descended the stone steps, I heard Tornado's snorting and soft neighing. He was always eager to get away from the forced confinement of the cave and out into the open air. Bernardo was just putting the horse's bridle on as I walked into the stable area of the cave.
"Gracias, Bernardo," I said as I swung easily into the saddle. He signed his usual, 'Vaya con Dios,' and I was out of the cave, heading for the Rancho del Brio, which I surmised should be the next place visited by the bandit.
Tornado galloped at his mile-eating cantor and within less than an hour, I was riding along somewhat parallel to the boundary of Arture del Brio's rancho. With still an hour of sunlight left, I was confident that I could make a complete circle of the ranch if need be. I believed that the bandit had to come and check out the ranchos before actually stealing the cattle, especially since there had been little moonlight these past few nights.
After a mile, I was rewarded by seeing a man, fitting the description that Bernardo had heard, standing on a bluff overlooking a herd of Don Arture's cattle. Riding up a narrow pathway to the top of the lookout point, I was not surprised to see the man riding away from me towards the hills not too distant. They were an exceptionally rugged, and I urged Tornado to greater speed, wishing to capture the man before he reached their sanctuary.
Despite the stallion's greatest efforts, the bandit reached the mountain before I did and proceeded to climb it, with the surety of one who is used to scaling mountains. There was no recourse, but to follow. Swinging off of Tornado, I started climbing as rapidly as I could, calling out to the fleeing man as I ascended. "Señor, I wish to talk to you."
"No, Señor Zorro, do not follow me. Please, I will not steal any more cattle, only do not follow me." The anguish in the man's voice was evident, and I wondered what else besides capture could be frightening him.
"Please, señor, I will not hurt you. If you need help, I might be able to help you." By this time I was almost two thirds of the way up the side of the rugged incline. He had already reached the top, and he was still pleading with me. Reaching upward, I hesitated, with my left hand tightly grasping the ledge. Perhaps I should try to reason with him in another way and in some other place, other than chasing him up the side of the mountain.
Then I remembered my purpose for being here and felt that I must get an answer to take back to Father and the other hacendados. The emotion in the man's voice bothered me, as it did not seem to belong to one who had no care for anything other than the money from the sale of stolen cattle.
It was then, that I heard the ominous rattling of a pit viper and felt the pressure of its fangs on my gloved hand. Stupido! I berated myself. Reaching blindly onto ledges at this time of the day was idiotic. I had to risk sliding back down the rocky hillside before the snake was able to penetrate the leather riding glove. I felt more pressure and realized that I was too late. As I jerked my hand back and slid down to the next ledge, I felt the snake's fangs go through the glove and into the fleshy part of my hand between my thumb and first finger.