18.  MY BROTHER'S KEEPER
 

     Don Diego de la Vega strode up to the shade trees where families and friends had gathered with their picnic lunches. The alfresco meals had been generously supplemented by their host's beef, which had been roasting over open pits since the previous day.  He found his father and Felipe, who had been joined by Victoria and her brother.
     "Diego, there you are at last.  Did you hear the explosion?  While you were gone, one of Don Esteban's sheds blew sky-high," Alejandro informed him, handing his son a large plate of roast beef.  "Luckily no one was hurt.  But what caused the explosion nobody knows, or nobody's saying.  The alcalde and his men are sifting through the damage."
     Felipe caught the eye of his brother and nodded toward Escalante, who was eating quietly, not contributing much to the conversation.  Diego understood that something was up with Ramón and bided his time to talk privately with Felipe.
     "Congratulations on your victory, Diego," smiled the señorita.  We got here just in time to watch the beginning of the race.  What an exciting finish!  I had no idea you could ride so well."
     "Neither did anyone.  From now on, Miguel can stay home, and I'll bet on my son!" laughed Alejandro.
     Diego smiled depreciatingly.  "Thank you, but the praise should go to the horse, not the rider.  Emilio is indeed the finest racehorse in the territory; you can be proud of him."
     "I'm proud of you both.  A test of riders' skill is coming up this afternoon," his father reminded them, "The coin pick-up at a full gallop.  Don León is competing himself, as well as several top vaqueros.  It should be very interesting to watch.  I love a good rodeo; what a day this has been already!"
 
     "Alcalde," Mendoza panted, running to the commandant, who was examining pieces of debris at the explosion site.  "Private Vela has something to report."
     The young man saluted the officer.  "I heard the vaqueros of Don Andrés talk about moving cattle to San Pedro in two nights."
     DeSoto straightened up, pleasantly surprised.  "Well done, Private.  If the information is accurate, you will receive the one hundred peso reward.  Back to your duty; see if you can learn anything else."  The soldier again saluted, and left.
     "Have you discovered any reason for the explosion, Alcalde?" questioned the sergeant.
     "What I've found is this," he said, holding out a misshapen piece of metal.  "It looks like part of a gun barrel.  Whatever was stored in this shed was highly explosive."  His eyes narrowed.

     "So Ramón saw Zorro riding away," Diego mused.  "No wonder he was so quiet at lunch.  Has he told anyone else?"
     Felipe shook his head.  "Not that I've heard.  But before the explosion he was talking to Don Esteban and several other foremen from the surrounding ranchos.  It looks like there are a lot of people in this plot.  One more thing; there's also a lancer in disguise following Ramón, so the alcalde probably will know all this too.  I don't think the lancer saw Zorro, or the alcalde would probably be blaming the explosion on him."
     "What will Ramón do with his knowledge?  Things could get ugly for Zorro; he could be forced into early retirement.  Keep watching and listening for news of a cattle movement; I think that's been their cover for buying the arms."

     That evening, the hacienda of Don Esteban was lit with candles, and several musicians began strolling through the guests, playing guitars and inviting couples to join the set for the first dance.  Diego looked around for Victoria and spotted her across the yard, already surrounded by admirers asking for a dance.  She went inside with one of the men, a young caballero.  It was just as well, he thought, as he watched the couples form long lines facing each other.  The contradanza was not his favorite.  He then spotted Dolores, the shy, pretty daughter of Don Sebastian without a partner, and beckoned Felipe.  When his brother approached, Diego indicated the girl.  Felipe gave him a sheepish grin, and went to ask the young señorita for the next dance.
     Several hours later, Diego was still enjoying the cooler night air rather than the dance floor and had passed the time in various conversations with his neighbors.  Two or three times he had caught undercurrents of rebellion; nothing definite--just a tone of voice, the inflection of a word.  He even wondered if he himself was being tested in some way, but turned aside queries with vague, noncommittal answers.
     Señorita Escalante emerged from the house vigorously fanning herself and sat down on a garden bench.  Diego excused himself from his companions and joined her.
     "Not dancing?  I thought you were the most popular lady here."
     "Oh, Diego," she groaned.  "I'm sitting this one out; I've been dancing non-stop for three hours.  It is so hot in there, and now they're doing the fandango.  I just can't imagine stepping that lively in such heat, and all the extra candles make matters worse.  Please, sit down."  She moved over and patted the bench beside her.
     "How are things going with Ramón at the tavern?"
     "Well, it's a matter of two strong-willed people trying to work together," she told him frankly.  "He's suggested several changes which I don't favor."
     "Such as?"
     "He wants me to sell the cow and buy the milk and cheese from local farmers.  He says the cow is not worth the time it takes to care for her."
     "He may have a good idea.  Why don't you like it?"
     "I'm very fond of my cow," she admitted with a giggle.  "Besides, it's hard to find a good milker around here; most of the cows are too wild."
     "Perhaps you can hire a boy or girl to take care of the cow for you.  How about Ana Amistad?"
     "That might work.  She's a little young, but she loves the cow.  I could teach her how to milk."  Victoria reflected on the thought, then added, "Ramón also wants me to stop baking bread--hire someone to do that, too."
     "Remember when you paid Señora Nielsen to bake bread for you?  Maybe she would help out again."
     She was silent a moment, opening and closing her fan restlessly.  "I guess it's just that I've been running the tavern by myself for so long; now it feels like he is taking over."
     "Ramón has a lot of managerial skills, just as you do.  May I offer a perspective you may not have considered?  Teach him everything you know, and let him run the business.  Soon you may want to be free to marry, and with the tavern in your brother's hands, you can leave without reservations."
     She responded slowly, "You may be right.  Thank you."  Inside, the music started again and her companion lifted his head to listen.
     "Ah, a waltz at last."  He rose and bowed over her hand.  "Will you honor me with this dance?"
     "I'd love to, but it's so hot in there," Victoria answered regretfully.
     "It's pleasantly cool where we are, and I can hear the music well enough, can't you?"  Diego drew her to her feet with a smile.

     After breakfast the following morning, Felipe again spoke privately with his brother.  "I'm not positive, but I think there will be a cattle movement tomorrow night.  There's a ship arriving late in San Pedro."
     Diego nodded.  "It's worth a look.  The revolt plot received a setback with the destruction of the rifles and ammunition, but they may be expecting more.  Considering the number of guns in the shed, this underground movement for a violent overthrow of the alcalde is stronger than I thought."
     "Do you think Father's involved?"
     "An unsettling thought.  It would be just the kind of thing he wouldn't tell us.  He knows how I feel about violent solutions."  At an amused, quizzical expression from the younger man, he conceded, "Well, he thinks he knows.  But his surprise over the shed explosion seemed to be genuine.  The whole plot doesn't sound like something he would favor."
     "The conspirators are sure to approach him on the matter if they haven't already.  If he goes along, we'll be fighting against him.  If he doesn't, we could have another kind of trouble."

     "Ramón," Señorita Escalante approached her brother hesitantly, "I noticed you talking very seriously to a lot of men yesterday, and you go out a lot at night by yourself.  Are you involved in something dangerous that I should know about?"  His expression was hard and unapproachable.  She tried again, "Please, Ramón--I'm worried about you."
     "If there is something going on, it is better for you not to know.  There's a lot at stake; if I'm caught, or any of the others, we could go to jail or worse.  But I want you to know this," he put his hands on her shoulders and looked into her distressed face, "I believe in what I'm doing.  It's for the higher good of the people of Los Angeles."
     "But we have Zorro to protect us."
     "It's time to protect ourselves.  Besides, I don't think we can count on Zorro anymore.  He may not be on our side after all," he muttered.  "Are you still in love with him?  Are you still waiting for him?  I'm not sure that's a good idea now."
     She drew herself up to her full height.  "It's my life, Ramón, my choice.  Besides, I have his promise."
     "Promises are easy to make, hard to keep.  I wonder what the promise of a masked man is worth; he could say anything because you don't know who he really is.  There are so many other good men in this town; have you even noticed that Diego de la Vega's in love with you?"
     "Diego?"  Her voice was a stunned whisper.  "No, no.  You're wrong.  We're just very good friends; we've known each other for years."
     "I'd say that you're closer than two peas in a pod.  It wasn't like a friend that he was watching you at the dance last night; his affection for you is pretty obvious to me.  And in all your letters, you never failed to mention Diego.  Maybe your feelings for him are deeper than you know."
     She turned her face away so Ramón would not see how much his words upset her.  Victoria tried to think if there had ever been anything of the lover in Diego's manner.  What had he wanted to tell her at Christmas?  She had stopped him, suddenly afraid of the tender expression in his eyes, but something, some deepening of intimacy, had happened between them.  Diego had never brought up the subject again, and since then had continued to be his usual friendly self.  And what did she feel for him?  Better not examine that too closely.  Victoria shook her head slightly to dispel the disturbing thoughts.
     "You're imagining things," she told her brother coldly, and flounced off to the kitchen.

     "As you ordered, Alcalde, eight lancers will be hiding outside the gates of San Pedro tonight.  They know that they are to count the cattle in any herd that comes through and wait for you."
     "Good, Sergeant.  I'll be joining the men shortly after dark.  If any ranchers are avoiding my cattle tax, we'll arrest their herdsmen as they leave the port.  That way, I'll get both the tax from the owners and bail money for the vaqueros.  I'll also charge a stiff fine for tax evasion; about a thousand pesos, don't you think?"  He chuckled, and the sound was not pleasant.  "What is the report on Escalante's activities?"
     Mendoza recited a long list of names, men with whom Ramón had spoken at the rodeo.  His commandant nodded.
     "All vaqueros or property owners.  There's more to Escalante than meets the eye.  It wouldn't surprise me if we find him tonight too, on another kind of business."  He removed a pistol from his desk drawer and began to clean it.

     Zorro had two options; he could go to the port and watch again for a rifle shipment to be unloaded, or he could keep an eye on Ramón.  He chose the latter, feeling more obligated to protect the energetic brother of the woman he loved.  So when Escalante stepped from the tavern at nine o'clock that evening, mounted his horse, and rode out the pueblo gates, he was followed at a distance by a black shadow.
     The lancers lying in wait in San Pedro had the kind of luck for which they had hoped; a small herd belonging to Don Andrés was being driven through the port's gates.  They counted close to fifty animals, and reported to their commandant.  He ordered them to move in closer, and they observed the cattle being loaded on the ship.  The officer still held back his men in silence.  Another man on horseback galloped to the pier and was greeted by the vaqueros.
     "Just in time, Ramón," his friends noted.  "There is the crate, being brought out now."  Escalante dismounted, ran up the gangway to give the sailors a hand, and then saw to the box's loading upon a wagon.  He brought out from his pocket a small bag of coins and paid the purser for the crate.
     "We must be more careful this time, Amigos," he told his compadres.  "A new hiding place must be found that only two or three know of.  And look over your shoulder before you speak of these things with anyone," he added.
     "Excellent advice!" called DeSoto, stepping out of hiding with his pistol pointed at the young ringleader.  The eight lancers also appeared from the darkness with muskets cocked.  "Raise your hands slowly.  You are all under arrest for conspiracy as well as tax evasion."  Ramón and the ten vaqueros with him did as they were told; conditions were not favorable for resistance.  "Privates Sanchez and Vela, search the prisoners for weapons."  The two soldiers lowered their guns to obey the order, but were interrupted by a loud explosion from behind them and then another to the left.  The distraction was all some of the vaqueros needed to escape.  The driver of the wagon whipped up the horses and drove out of town at top speed, with several of his fellow workers riding a protective formation around him.
     "Fire!  Don't let them get away!" yelled DeSoto.  But the sting of a bullwhip spoiled the aim of several lancers.  Zorro followed the whip with his fist, and shortly, between the whip in one hand and a sabre in the other, had thrown most of the soldiers off balance.
     "Go, go!" the masked man shouted to the remaining vaqueros.  He did not see Escalante anywhere and hoped that the determined leader had already taken advantage of the confusion to escape.  The dark hero dived out of the way of the alcalde's pistol shot and rolled to regain his footing.  The officer had withdrawn his blade and began a grim duel in the darkness with his enemy.  Zorro saw the soldiers recovering and knew he would shortly be outnumbered.  He whistled a shrill blast, and Toronado charged into the melee, scattering the lancers.  The outlaw turned aside a sword thrust and kicked the alcalde's supporting leg out from under him.  The man in black was already in the saddle before DeSoto could pick himself off the ground.
     "Alcalde, all the vaqueros have gotten away, and Zorro as well," Sepulveda reported as the shaken lancers regained their poise.
     The commandant muttered curses under his breath as he looked over the scene of the battle.  A dark shape on the ground some distance away caught his eye.  He strode over to investigate and discovered the unconscious form of Ramón Escalante, knocked out by a startled horse.
 
     The next morning, DeSoto addressed his prisoner.  "Escalante, you've been found guilty of conspiracy against a government office.  The sentence for this crime is death by hanging, to be carried out today at sunset."  He let that fact sink in, then added in a milder tone, "There is one way to win a commutation of your death sentence.  Just tell me the names of everyone who is in this plot with you and where the guns are being kept."
     Ramón sat in his cell unmoved.  "You are wasting your time; I will never betray my compadres.  It is not conspiracy to oppose a foreign ruler.  You have no right to still be here, Alcalde.  We are a free people."
     "You don't seem to understand.  I am the law in this pueblo, and I have the authority to do as I please.  The people would rather have the stability of a leader they know than risk everything on change.  The Californios are not nearly as volatile as those in Mexico City, Señor."
     Mendoza ran in, out of breath, and reported to his commander.  "Alcalde, the vaqueros from Don Andrés are not at his hacienda; neither are Don Andrés and his family.  They've all vanished."
     "Never mind them now; we can't spare any men to search.  I want all the lancers back here.  Put every man on guard duty and station them around the cuartel in pairs.  They are to be alert for a possible jail break.  This man," he said, pointing his finger at Ramón, "is a very important prisoner.  He will bring us Zorro!"

     Victoria was beside herself with anxiety as she explained to Alejandro about Ramón's arrest and scheduled execution.  "The alcalde won't even let me speak with him; he has every soldier standing guard against an escape attempt.  Don Alejandro, please think of something; I can't watch my brother die!"
     De la Vega closed his eyes and groaned.  "Oh, Ramón--the firebrand with a heart of gold.  Come on; I'll talk to the alcalde.  Maybe he'll listen to reason.  Diego, Felipe, it sounds like we'll need reinforcements for a show of strength.  Gather the caballeros quickly while we go into town."
     After his father had left with Victoria, Diego beckoned his brother to follow him downstairs.  "This will be a good time to rescue Ramón; it's almost lunch time, and the soldiers may be distracted by their bellies."
     "From what Victoria said, it sounds like the garrison is expecting Zorro to come.  How can you rescue Ramón and win free yourself?  You have used every trick in the book already.  What can you do that the alcalde won't anticipate?"
     "Good question, Felipe.  However, DeSoto hasn't personally seen all our little gimmicks, has he?  But just in case, do as Father said.  Inform the neighbors of Ramón's imprisonment, starting with Don Esteban."
     It was one o'clock when Toronado cantered up behind the cuartel, his rider looking around carefully for soldiers.  But there were none stationed in back of this wall.  He climbed onto the roof and scanned the garrison's courtyard.  Four lancers stood at their posts, but none looked up.  Zorro carefully scrambled along the outside slope of the roofs until he got to the jail.  Two more guards stood outside the back wall by the cells' windows and another pair by the jail door facing the plaza.
     Now, where are the rest? the outlaw wondered.  There were probably two by the cuartel gates and one or two in front of the office.  That would leave two actually in the jail, plus the alcalde, guarding the prisoner.  Time for my little diversion.
     A few minutes later, a thick cloud of black smoke billowed from the barracks' windows.  The result was just as the watcher on the jail roof predicted; the four lancers left their posts to fight the "fire", and Mendoza and three others came running through the large wooden gates to help their compadres.  Zorro had to act quickly; the fraud of his smoke bomb would soon be discovered.  A roof tile leveled one of the guards by the jail door, and his astonished partner was grounded by a punishing fist.
     So far, so good, thought the masked man as he mashed a lump of gunpowder clay into the door's lock and lit its fuse.  Now for the tricky part--he would have to take by surprise the guards within the jail.  The explosion was not loud but of sufficient force to destroy the lock.  He wrenched the door open and saw but one guard gawking at him.  Zorro sprang at the lancer before the man had a chance to bring up his musket, grabbed the gun and swung its butt up to crack the soldier across the jaw.  The unfortunate man dropped like a stone.  Zorro took the keys off the hook, and unlocked the cell door.
     "Shall we be going, Amigo?" he whispered to Escalante with a grin.  The younger man's eyes sparkled as he returned the smile and quickly left the cell.  "Toronado's on the far side of the garrison wall; we'll go over the rooftop.  You first," the hero added, stepping outside through the opened door and making a foothold with his hands.  Ramón climbed up, and his rescuer boosted him onto the roof.
     The alcalde rounded the corner by his office door with a lancer.  "Hold it right there, Zorro.  Don't move a muscle, or I'll shoot you where you stand."  DeSoto pointed his pistol straight at the man in black, and the soldier cocked his musket to do the same.  The two lancers guarding the back wall ran through the archway with cocked muskets, cornering the masked man.
     "Go, Ramón, go!" the outlaw shouted, as his compadre hesitated.
     "Ha, do you think I care about Escalante?  I'll catch him again soon enough.  I have who I really want.  You'll hang at sunset in that rebel's place.  Your sword belt and whip, Señor--very carefully let them drop to the ground."  As Zorro obliged, his confident manner was in contrast to the watchful eyes behind the mask.
     "I'll have to concede this round to you, Alcalde," he grinned.
     The smile irritated DeSoto.  "This is the last round, Zorro.  Now back up slowly into the jail.  The doors to my office and the cuartel are locked from the other side.  There is no escape this time.  You see, we've been expecting you."  A few townspeople had gathered to watch the tense drama enacted by the jail door, among them a dismayed Alejandro and horrified Victoria, who had arrived on the scene as the "fire" alarm was raised.
     "Shouldn't we unmask him, Alcalde?" asked the soldier beside the commandant.
     "I think not.  I like him better in pistol range than up close.  I can contain my curiosity until sunset."  The armed lancers stayed cautiously out of reach as they backed the masked man into a cell and locked the door.  "Two of you stand guard here, and one outside the door," the officer ordered.  He turned to observe his enemy on the other side of the cell bars, and laughed derisively.  "Adios, Señor Fox!"
 

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