The day's adventure had started
in the usual way; this time Zorro went head-to-head with the alcalde over
the new livestock tax. After a week of chasing down Mendoza and his
work detail on their visits to the smaller farms, the dark hero had had
enough of saving a cow here and a donkey there from confiscation.
At mid-morning, he dropped through the skylight of the alcalde's office
while the officer sat at his desk.
DeSoto started but recovered quickly. Thinking of the loaded pistol in the desk, he yanked open the right drawer. But his adversary was quicker. A sharp blade of steel came to rest lightly but persuasively on the commandant's wrist.
"A bad idea," warned the man in black. "Shut the drawer."
The alcalde reluctantly obeyed, eyes snapping with anger. "What do you want?"
"Justice," grinned Zorro with a flash of white teeth. "Always justice. I weary of tracking down your tax patrols, so I've decided to eradicate the disease instead of treating the symptoms. Perhaps the wealthy can afford your livestock tax, but the poor cannot. A burro, a pig, even a chicken is a devastating loss to most of the pueblo's inhabitants."
"Then let them pay the tax," DeSoto sneered. "Believe me, they will find a way."
"To support you in the style to which you've accustomed yourself?" responded Zorro, lifting the stopper from a decanter of fine Spanish Madeira and sniffing its contents. "Such expensive style, too."
"Put that down!" the alcalde demanded, rising from his chair, but fell back quickly with a gasp as the sabre whipped by his throat and sliced the silk cravat under his chin.
"A clean sheet of parchment, por favor, and pick up your pen. Start writing a new tax law, releasing from obligation those owning less than, say, fifteen animals altogether. That should protect most of the needy from further loss."
The commandant paused, then said congenially, "I'll do even better than that. I'll remove the tax from the peasants altogether. Would that satisfy you?" When the masked man nodded, he wrote quickly in an elegant hand and signed the document. The alcalde was then marched outdoors by his enemy to read aloud the revision. The small crowd gathered in the plaza applauded the announcement which released most of them from taxes, but frowned in consternation as DeSoto detailed the tariff on the sale of cattle. The large ranches around the pueblo were the new target for government revenue.
"Very clever," Zorro admitted, realizing he had been out-maneuvered.
"Why should you object to that?" the officer asked triumphantly. "I've moved the tax burden from the poor to those who can well afford it."
More than one zealous lancer spotted the masked man in the plaza, but were unable to take aim with the commandant standing so close by. Instead, the soldiers called for garrison reinforcements, and the hero knew things were getting too hot to stay longer. He summoned Toronado, who pranced like a colt from concealment behind the jail wall. The stallion had an unerring instinct for distinguishing friend from foe, and the soldiers found him an intimidating sight, bearing down on them with teeth menacingly exposed.
"I'd love to discuss the disadvantages of over-taxing any group of citizens, but as usual, your hospitality leaves much to be desired."
A short right cross from the outlaw bloodied DeSoto's nose and left him too dazed to give orders to his troops. Grabbing the black horse's pommel, the Fox swung himself into the saddle with the ease of practice and crouched low as he galloped out the pueblo's gate. Musket balls whizzed around him, and seconds later he heard the sounds of pursuit. He glanced behind him. Four intrepid soldiers gave chase this morning, and the alcalde was rapidly catching up to his men, mounted on his own horse.
Zorro cued Toronado southward with his knee, following his custom to never turn the same direction twice in a row when leaving the pueblo. South of Los Angeles, the dry landscape was dotted with low hills and scrubby brush. Only an occasional wadi varied the otherwise desolate monotony. To the east, a tribe of Indians usually camped by some thermal springs, but the country through which he was traveling was uninhabited.
The masked man assessed his pursuers' position. One by one, the lancers had fallen off the pace. They and their commandant were strung out far behind him, trying on inferior mounts to catch the fleetest horse in the territory. He weaved Toronado through a field of brush, then urged him to a hard gallop in the clear. Circling around the base of a small rise, he rode to the top and scanned the horizon in the direction from which he had come. Not a soul was in sight. He continued to watch carefully for fifteen minutes before allowing himself to smile.
"They must think we're halfway to San Diego now," he said to his mount, stroking the glossy black neck affectionately. "Someday soon, we're going to give up this crazy life and settle down--me with my wife and you with a harem of Father's mares." The stallion nodded vigorously and whinnied, and Zorro laughed. "Let's take our time going back. The alcalde may be planning an ambush, knowing we will probably return to the pueblo somewhere."
They climbed down the rise. "It wouldn't be a bad idea to familiarize ourselves with this area. I don't recall ever riding in these hills before. Let's find some water." Toronado blew out a shuddering breath and pulled again to the south. "You smell some? Then lead on." The big horse trotted determinedly, and the man in black relaxed, studying the scenery around him and wondering if the area would ever support a settlement. An adequate water supply was the limiting factor for growth along the southern Alta California coast. Oh, to have the rainfall of San Francisco!
Between two low hills, the stallion made unerringly toward a spring which formed a shallow pool, hidden among the rocks. The spring nourished two willows and a cottonwood, making the tiny glen an oasis in the desert. The stallion guzzled eagerly at the water, then snacked on the tall grass at the water's edge. The masked man dismounted and stretched before scooping water with his hand to drink.
"Stand!" a raspy voice demanded.
Zorro's head snapped up. Across the pool, half-hidden by the reeds, was the most wizened, scruffy-looking little man that he had ever seen. The apparition was aiming an ancient musket at him that added weight to the command. The dark hero stood slowly, hands raised. Toronado disliked the sudden appearance of the stranger and reared menacingly.
"No, Boy! Down!" ordered his master. He stepped toward his horse and held the reins. "Easy," he soothed. Of the whiskered old man, he asked, "What do you want?"
The musket did not waver. "Y'er on my property!" he grated. "Y'er trespassin'."
"You live here?" the masked man gaped in astonishment. "Where?" The browned, wind-roughened figure did not answer. "I beg your pardon. I had no idea that anyone lived in this area, or I would have asked before drinking your water."
The old man scoffed, "Since when does a bandit ask before takin'? Ya hafta pay now."
"Very well. What payment do you require? I have no money with me."
The sharp brown eyes narrowed speculatively, carefully considering the tall, black-clad swordsman, then roving over Toronado. "I'll take the horse."
A wide grin spread over the outlaw's face, and he answered, "If you can ride him, he's yours." He bowed with deferential courtesy and stepped well aside.
The old man approached the horse cautiously, gesturing with the muzzle of the musket for the outlaw to move further back. He lifted one deerskin boot into the stirrup and grabbed for the pommel. The result was comical. Toronado strolled away, dragging the man with him, who had to hop on one foot to keep up with the horse.
A half hour later, the would-be horse-owner still had not attained the stallion's back. Zorro had made himself comfortable in the shade while watching each attempt to mount. When the leathery stranger at last put a leg over the horse, Toronado bucked him into the reeds.
The masked man roared with laughter as the sodden shape groped his way to dry ground. "Come, Señor," said Zorro, "you can see that my horse is disinclined to change owners. Perhaps I can assist you in some other way."
The old man blinked the water from his eyes and quickly recovered his musket from the ground. "No tricks, bandit!" But the menacing weapon failed to intimidate the man in black.
"Who are you, Abuelo, and how did you come to be here?" asked Zorro easily.
"I might ask the same of you," the grizzled fellow retorted. "Y'er mighty nosy for a thief."
"I mean you no harm, and your business is your own. But the situation is curious. Do you live here alone?"
"'Course I do. I don't need nobody. I kin take care of myself." He perked up. "I know what ya can do, bandit; ya can fill my water bottles and haul 'em to my place." He gestured to the other side of the reeds, where the masked man found a dozen deerskin bags on the ground. He filled them all for his strange companion and tied off the necks.
Slinging the botas over his shoulder and arm, Zorro asked where he might take them. The weathered old man lifted a basket of small orange and light green peppers picked from a bush by water's edge, and pointed up the hill a little distance where large rocks jutted from the earth. Behind those rocks was a hollow, carved by nature and deepened by the hand of its owner. It was too small to describe as a cave; too short to accommodate a standing man. But the floor of the sheltered space was lined with deerskin and covered thickly with soft rabbit pelts--a bed, of sorts. At hand was an assortment of personal items: carved cups and bowls, hand-fashioned tools, and a knife and whetstone.
"Guess I'll have to do the hospitable thing, and ask ya to share my meal," muttered the stranger.
"I'd be honored," responded the masked man, hanging the water skins on a peg embedded in the rock.
His host started a fire in seconds with the kindling he had stacked, and fed it with larger pieces of scrub oak. Scampering down to the spring again, he returned with a rabbit caught by one of his snares.
"Hope ya like rabbit," he said, neatly skinning and gutting the hare with his knife. Quartering the carcass, he seasoned it with some powder from a bowl. Then he impaled the flesh on sharpened sticks, which he propped over the fire. Juices from the meat sizzled onto the burning wood and made a delicious aroma.
Zorro silently observed his host's expertise at living off the land and asked, "How long have you been here, Abuelo?"
The man looked up briefly from his task. "A long time. A very long time."
"When did you last have a guest?" the masked man asked quietly.
"Never had one. I did see a man last summer though--an Indian. 'Course, he didn't see me. The Indians probably know I'm here, but I don't bother them, and they don't bother me. But I don't recollect the last time I talked with someone." He smiled wistfully. "I sing every mornin', though, so I don't lose my voice. The birds like my songs."
The outlaw smiled back. "I'm sure they do." He paused and asked seriously, "Why do you live out here all alone? Separated from other people?"
The man closed up again. "I got my reasons," he responded huffily. "And anyway, who are you, where are ya from, and why did ya become a bandit? I don't hear ya volunteerin' any information."
"Fair enough. I'll tell you my story in exchange for yours."
"You first," the old man said suspiciously.
"When I wear this mask and ride that stallion, I'm known as Zorro. I'm from the Pueblo de Los Angeles. Years ago I returned home after a prolonged absence, and discovered that the happy settlement I knew had disappeared. In its place was a town beaten, taxed, and starved by a ruthless alcalde named Luis Ramone. If anyone dared speak out against him, Ramone would have that person jailed, whipped, or hanged. When one of my own family members was arrested and condemned for the so-called treason of opposing this tyranny, I could stand it no longer. I had to do something."
"And whut did ya do?" asked his strange companion, curiosity awakening in his sharp little eyes.
"I couldn't act in my own name; no one could have, because of governmental retribution on ourselves and families. So I disguised myself as you see, and fought the alcalde as the mysterious wraith known only as Zorro. Ramone died a couple of years ago, but King Ferdinand appointed as his successor a man almost as bad."
"I don't 'spose them alcaldes like yer antics much," observed the old man.
Zorro gave a short laugh. "No, they don't. I've a price on my head, and will surely hang if I'm caught, if I'm not shot first."
"Do the townspeople appreciate what ya've tried to do for 'em?"
"I think so. I've become something of a local hero--a legend, even. It's all been so much more than I could have imagined when I started, and now I don't know how to quit. Or if I should quit," he added pensively.
The old man poked the fire. "A man's gotta do whut he's gotta do," he murmured cryptically, "no matter the cost. Whut does your family think of all this?" he asked, gesturing at the masked man's clothes.
"One person knows the truth and helps me. One I haven't told; I don't know how. And the woman I love doesn't know either."
"Really? How interestin'." The scruffy desert dweller handed a stick of cooked rabbit to the masked man, and began to eat from another himself. "Then, you're hidin', in a way."
"Yes," Zorro replied slowly. "Perpetually hiding."
"We ain't so different, Señor Fox. I'm hidin', too."
"Soldiers," he answered shortly and took another bite.
The outlaw began eating also, but stopped abruptly. His mouth and tongue were on fire! He gasped and swallowed, but still he burned.
"Seasoning too hot for ya?" asked the old man, slyly amused. "Ya lead a soft life."
"Evidently," coughed Zorro with tearing eyes, and gratefully took a long drink from the bota handed to him by his host.
"Ya say y'er from Los Angeles?" When his guest nodded, he asked, "Ever know or hear of a man by the name of Alfonso Escalante?"
Zorro stopped drinking and looked strangely at his host. "Yes."
"Whut became of him, do ya know?"
"For many years, his children believed him dead. But he was caught near the end of the rebellion eleven years ago, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Devil's Fortress. He died there two years ago."
A shadow of sadness passed over the old man's furrowed face, and he crossed himself. "God be merciful; it should have been me." He sat back on his heels for a few minutes, eyes remote. Finally, he spoke again. "Alfonso and me, we wuz in the same company, ya see, in the rebellion. How we hated the injustices forced down our throats by them peninsular Spaniards! We wanted Mexico free, where decent, common men like me could hold up our heads proud-like." He breathed out a ragged sigh. "But whut a slaughter it wuz. Freedom fightin' didn't seem so glorious and noble when our comrades were blown up before our eyes, and women and children were hacked to pieces by the soldiers' bayonets. And the stench of the battlefield! Powder, smoke, blood, and death--I swear I smell it still. The din of the cannons, and hideously wounded men screamin'." He shuddered.
The man in black waited somberly until the grizzled rebel continued. "Near the end of a battle, Alfonso and me wuz fightin' beside each other. I wuz out of ammunition, and we wuz bein' surrounded. So he sez to me, he sez, 'Run! I'll cover ya!' I ran, Señor Fox. I ran and never looked back. For six days and nights I ran, with scarcely a bite of food or a drop of water, while I dodged and hid from patrols chasin' me and others. Finally, I made it here, and would have died but for the spring."
"And you never returned home?"
"Couldn't. As long as Spain rules this land, I'm branded as a rebel."
Zorro looked compassionately at the weary old man. "Abuelo, Mexico declared its independence six months ago. Spain doesn't like it, but doesn't have the power to regain control. You can go home now."
Hope brightened the bleary eyes, then faded away in despair. "Still can't. I--failed, and I--I'm yella. My wife, my son; they wouldn't understand--hidin' here all this time, desertin' 'em. It's better to let them think I died."
The man in black was about to protest, but an agitated scream from Toronado instantly put all his senses back on full alert. He peered around the concealing boulders toward the spring, and saw the alcalde and two lancers trying to take up ambush positions.
"They followed yer tracks and saw the smoke," grunted the crusty rebel, eyeing the intruders.
The black stallion was harassing the three men, and as Zorro watched, the exasperated officer ordered his men, "Rope that confounded animal!" As the soldiers took aim with lassos, the masked outlaw revealed himself quickly from behind the rocks, shouting and waving.
The result was what he had hoped. The soldiers quickly swung around their muskets and fired at the black figure, who dodged the shots by ducking behind the boulders.
"They will have to reload, but not the alcalde," Zorro told the old man, who watched with him. "Give me that musket of yours, and I'll see if I can bluff him."
"No good," the codger whispered. "Been out of powder fer years."
The man in black groaned. "I hope I live long enough to appreciate the humor of being held up by an empty gun." Toronado had been roped by two more soldiers who had shown up, and was struggling valiantly. "Any ideas?"
"Yep--one," said the old man thoughtfully. "If ya wuz to surrender, could ya get close enough ta touch two or three?"
His guest looked puzzled. "I suppose so; I usually do close-in fighting. What's your plan?"
The gnarled man took a covered bowl from his storage supplies. When he removed the lid, stinging acrid fumes assailed their nostrils. "Haboñero pepper juice, an' it's hotter than fire. Jes' touch their skin with this, and they will ferget all about us. Dab some on yer gloves."
As the outlaw hero followed the advice, his host emptied most of the water from three botas. Into the leather bags he poured the remainder of the pepper extract and tied the tops loosely.
"Ya take out three, and I'll git the others. Go out first, like you wuz surrenderin', and I'll sneak down when they ain't lookin' an' git behind 'em."
The masked man surreptitiously measured the small man beside him, and nodded briefly. Standing up again in full sight, he shouted, "Don't shoot! I surrender!"
DeSoto could scarcely believe his good fortune. "All right, Zorro; I'll spare you for the hangman. Come down slowly with your hands up. Any tricks, and you're a dead man."
The masked crusader did as he was told. Two lancers and their commandant had weapons trained on him while two other men had the unenviable task of trying to subdue the powerful black horse. Zorro stalled to allow his confederate time.
"Let him go, Alcalde," he demanded. "Toronado came from the open range and deserves his freedom, now that you have me."
"Ha!" snorted DeSoto contemptuously. "I've seen before how that devil helps you. But on my oath," he declared, looking cruelly at the animal, "I'll bring him to heel."
"He'll never allow you on his back," warned the dark hero with an irritating grin.
"Then he'll pull garrison wagons like a plow horse," retorted the officer, and gave an order concerning the prisoner to one of his privates. "Tie his hands."
The young soldier obeyed, lowering his weapon and cautiously approaching the outlaw. Pulling the gloved hands around the tall man's back, he hastily began tying them with a cord. But the pepper juice did its work. The lancer jumped, gasped, and began shaking his hands.
"Private!" DeSoto reprimanded. "Tie him up!"
"I--I'm trying to, Alcalde. My hands--they're burning!" He yelled in pain, looking in bewilderment at his reddening hands. Torn between duty and agony, he hesitated only an instant before running to the pool and plunging in.
"Must be divine judgment," murmured Zorro.
More confusion followed immediately. The old desert rat launched a bota at one of the soldiers, and the pepper water soaked through the blue tunic. The surprise attack from the rear spun the lancer around. Trying to find his assailant, he shouted an alert to his compadres before arching his back and crying out as the pepper found his skin. The stallion sensed the slack in the rope and broke free, adding to the pandemonium. His other captor dodged out of the way of the high-strung animal, and made an easy target for the next leather-clad bomb.
The masked man quickly twisted away from the cord that bound his wrists. When Toronado interposed himself between his master and the enemy, Zorro snatched his whip. The thong cracked, and a musket flew into the pond. The dark hero launched himself at DeSoto, whose malice threatened the big stallion. Grappling the officer's arm, he forced the pistol to discharge in the air, and landed on top of his meticulously-dressed opponent. For a few tense seconds, they rolled on the ground, the larger man in black gaining the advantage. The only soldier not incapacitated was disarmed, and helplessly watched them wrestle. A scruffy old rascal held him at bay by threatening him with a pouch of the same substance that had three of his compadres floundering in the pool and screaming in pain.
Zorro released the alcalde's wrist and covered the white-bearded face with one large gloved hand. Gripping it for several seconds soon had the commandant struggling for a different reason. With superhuman strength, he pushed aside the masked man and ran for the water hole. Zorro's strange ally launched the remaining bota at DeSoto's backside as the officer bent over to wash his stinging face. It landed square, saturating the white tailored pantaloons, and the outlaw suppressed a chuckle.
"An unhappy end for the alcalde," he quipped. The lone lancer on his feet held up his hands in surrender, terrified. But all the hero in black said to him was, "Enjoy your walk home."
With that, he unhitched the five garrison horses and cracked the bullwhip over their heads. The saddled animals bolted for their own stable, oblivious to the cries of dismay from the soldiers. Zorro signaled Toronado and mounted, helping his new friend mount behind him.
When they were two miles distant from the spring, the masked man pulled up and stripped off his black leather gloves. Tossing them into a bush, he asked, "Where to, Abuelo?"
The old man rubbed his whiskered chin and finally replied, "Y'er headed the right direction. I use ta live in Santa Paula. Guess I'll see if my family wants me back."
The tall horseman smiled kindly. "I'm sure they will. Christmas is only a few days away. What better gift could you give them than to come home?"
"And you, my boy?" asked the rebel with a challenging twinkle in his eyes. "Them folks ya love; don't they deserve to know the truth about ya? Ya gonna tell 'em?"
The masked man fell silent for a long minute. "I'll try," he answered at last. "I want them to know; it's just that I'm not sure how they will react."
"I know whut ya mean. Mebbe we're both scared o' that. It's a big risk ta take. But mebbe they will understand whut we done, and it will be all right.
"Ya don't have ta go on this way, neither. It ain't good fer one man to take on the world's problems single-handed. Justice has got ta come by law. If Mexico is free, then the law should pertect the people. A smart, brave boy like you could champion their rights in court. That's where the future of freedom is--not in fightin'."
Zorro carefully weighed the words and found them true as tempered steel. He had been granted a vision of how he could merge his two identities--Los Angeles without Zorro, and a meaningful future for Diego de la Vega.
"Gracias, Abuelo. I think we've helped each other this day." He urged the black stallion into an easy lope, and they rode to the northwest.