The arrival of the San Diego
coach was a weekly event eagerly anticipated by residents of Los Angeles.
The original pioneers who came to the area had traveled from Mexico when
the governor of California, de Neve, offered free land and animals to anyone
willing to make the long journey north. Since many townspeople had
relatives in Mexico with whom they corresponded, there was always a crowd
on hand when the coach was due; it brought mail from all over the Spanish
This day was no exception. The coach driver brought the mail into the tavern and called out the names on the letters and parcels. Victoria kept all unclaimed missives in a box; sooner or later the addressee would come to the tavern to collect his mail. But this time there was a letter from Mexico City for the innkeeper herself. It was a thick letter, and she broke the seal and read the pages rapidly. The writer had something of great importance to say, and Victoria was trembling with excitement by the time she got to the end. This news must be shared with the entire pueblo. Standing on a stool so she could be seen by all in the taproom, she called loudly to get the attention of everyone present.
"Excuse me. Excuse me, please. This letter just arrived from my brother Ramón in Mexico City. It has important news for all of us. 'The Spanish general sent to put down the rebellion, Augustín de Iturbide, has joined forces with the leader of the Free Mexico Army, Vincente Guerrero. The two men met in February and agreed to make New Spain an independent country. Together they have beaten the last few forces of the Royal Spanish Army and have declared independence from Spain last month. A new country on the face of the earth has been born. The people here are ecstatic, and there have been celebrations in the streets every night. De Iturbide has been asked to run for president of the nation of Mexico. He has won the hearts of all the people, liberals and conservatives alike. Since California has always been a Mexican province, you too are now part of this new country.'" Her words brought various reactions. Some people cheered openly, others were stunned, and some were shocked and angry. Among the last was the alcalde.
"Señorita Escalante! It is treason to support the rebellion, and your brother is a traitor! Give me that letter!"
"I will not. This is a statement of facts as reported by an eye-witness. The land on which you are standing no longer belongs to Spain but to Mexico," retorted the spirited tavern owner.
"The rebel forces may have won a few victories, but I assure you, Señorita, the king will be sending fresh troops to crush this uprising and bring to heal these colonies. And these traitorous generals will be among the first executed." DeSoto called his men and stomped out, fuming.
That evening, the señorita was a dinner guest at the de la Vegas' hacienda. Her brother's letter was the topic of conversation.
"Ramón says he's returning to Los Angeles after the beginning of the year. I can't wait for him to come home."
Alejandro chuckled, "Ramón back here! I wonder if the pueblo can hold that ball of fire."
"Ramón has always been a staunch supporter of rights for the people and equal treatment under the law, Father," countered Diego. "I think he will be good for the town."
Victoria turned toward him. "Do you think that the alcalde's right? That Spain will reconquer Mexico?"
Diego replied thoughtfully, "It will be very difficult for the king to do so. Last year troops at Cádiz refused to leave on an expedition to suppress rebellion in the South American colonies. The mutiny quickly spread into a country-wide revolt, and since then, King Ferdinand has been unable to regain control over the military. With Spain's economic condition so poor since the Napoleonic wars, he has enough in his dish at home to occupy his concern. Unfortunately, neither the king nor the Cortes have been wise in handling the complaints of the colonies. He may want to reconquer Mexico, but I think he will find himself unable."
Felipe gestured his comments.
"Yes, everyone must make a choice now. Each person must decide whether he wants to be Spanish or Mexican, part of the Old World or the New. Spanish loyalists will probably return to Spain, either by desire or coercion."
"What will you do, Don Alejandro?" Victoria asked quietly.
The silver-haired man leaned back in his chair and sighed wearily. "This is my home, and I'm too old to start all over again. But it's hard, Victoria. I've always been proud to be Spanish, and the ties that bind my heart to Spain are strong. Ties of blood, of loyalty, history, culture. Many friends, many memories. To embrace Mexico as my country is cutting myself off from a large part of my heritage."
"But you were born in Guadalajara."
"Yes, that's the other side of it. When my father, Sebastian de la Vega, received a land grant from King Carlos, we moved here to California. We arrived shortly after the first settlers; I was a little younger than Felipe at the time. My brothers and I helped my father build this hacienda and get the rancho started. Except for my army days in Spain and Panama, it's been my home ever since. I love this land so much, leaving it is unthinkable."
"What about you, Diego?"
"Even though I was born in Madrid, I've been here since I was two years old. I've always considered myself an American Spaniard, even at the university. I grew up here. I want my children to grow up here. I'm proud of my Spanish heritage, but I'm proud of my American heritage as well. Perhaps a democratic government in Mexico City will lead to some of the political reforms we need so badly."
"There's no guarantee of that," Alejandro replied. "I doubt there are many men in the new capital who have the wisdom and experience necessary to create a stable government. They will need our prayers."
"The United States has put together a remarkable republic which seems to be working quite well. If Mexico borrows some of the thoughts and ideas from the framers of that country's founding documents of law, our new country will be off to a good start--yes, Felipe, the winds of freedom are blowing all over the Americas. The vice-royalties of Venezuela and Argentina are trying to establish independence, and Peru is moving that way too."
Don Diego may have had more to say, but a low rumbling began vibrating the air, and the four people in the dining room looked at one another in bewilderment. The crystal and china trembled on the surface of the table.
"What is it?" Victoria whispered, as the floor beneath their chairs began shaking.
"Earthquake!" shouted Alejandro. "Under the table, everyone! Don't panic; it will be over in a few minutes. Stay calm."
The house shivered to its foundation while Felipe and Victoria looked across the trestle at each other with wide eyes, hands tightly gripping the table legs. Gradually the seismic tremors subsided.
"Well, that one wasn't too bad. It only knocked a few pictures off the wall," Alejandro commented. "Are you all right, Victoria?"
"Y--Yes, I think so," replied the white-faced woman.
"It's been several years since we had a quake, but often a little one like this means a big one is coming. Taller buildings can be unsafe after being shaken. I'd better ride back with you to the tavern, and we'll check it over."
The following day Alejandro,
Diego, and Felipe rode out to inspect the damage done by the earthquake.
The pueblo had escaped with relatively little damage as had the outlying
farms and ranchos, but the church would need some repairs as would the
tavern. Later that afternoon, Diego was reading the chronicles of
the pueblo in the library when Felipe ran in.
"My father's right. Usually a larger earthquake will follow one or more smaller ones. The whole California coast seems to have them frequently. The one in Santa Barbara a few years ago destroyed the mission to its foundation. I wonder what underground forces are at work to cause them."
Diego's young friend had waited impatiently to tell him the news from town. He shaped out the words, "The alcalde has arrested three men for talking about the rebellion in the plaza." He looked questioningly at the older man while slashing a "Z" in the air.
The caballero closed the book. "One can certainly understand the alcalde's dislike of the turn of events. However, perhaps Zorro can persuade him to take a more lenient view. Let's go." Pressing the fireplace panel, they both disappeared down the hidden passageway.
DeSoto was in rare form as he stood on a platform in the plaza to address the townspeople. "People of Los Angeles, last night's earthquake is only one example of why each pueblo needs strong leadership during a crisis--the leadership of Spain! I was appointed by the king himself to the position of alcalde. I will continue to serve here until I am recalled by His Majesty. Rumors of rebellions and movements for independence by traitorous persons will not dislodge me from my duty."
"Then perhaps we can find other means to get you to see reason," called Zorro, as he swung down from the garrison's roof.
"I'm not surprised that you're in league with these rebels, Zorro! Lancers! Get him!"
The soldiers had only their sabres, and with a few cracks of his whip, the masked man had disarmed four and put the rest on the run. He jumped on the platform beside DeSoto, who had withdrawn his own weapon. Zorro saluted with an infuriating grin; he loved a duel with someone who had been trained in swordsmanship by a master. The alcalde was the only one in the cuartel who fit that description, but he was sorely outclassed by the man in black. A few moments later, Zorro's blade was around the other man's neck.
"Now, Señor, announce the innocence of the men in your jail."
"Those men are treasonous rebels!"
"They are honest men discussing the news of the day. That is no crime."
"It is in this pueblo while I'm in charge."
"I'm afraid you're missing my point, Alcalde," and the sabre tightened against the officer's throat. "This pueblo doesn't have to tolerate your tyranny any longer. We will wait for official confirmation of Escalante's news, but until then don't push these good people too far. Now, release those men."
DeSoto ground his teeth in helpless rage. "Sergeant Mendoza! Free the prisoners!"
"Sí, Alcalde." The kind-hearted sergeant hurried to the jail before his commandant had a change of mind.
"A sound tactical retreat," commended Zorro, as he pushed forward the garrison's leader, carved a "Z" on the back of his jacket and saluted. Answering a shrill summons, Toronado appeared from behind the garrison. His master leaped into the saddle, and the stallion sprang toward the pueblo gates in a full gallop, to the cheers and waving of the crowd.
"To your mounts!" the alcalde yelled. The hapless lancers scurried to obey the command, and shortly DeSoto, Sergeant Mendoza, and four lancers were riding after the outlaw.
"They're persistent today, Boy," Zorro told his faithful friend after riding six miles. The soldiers were about a half mile behind them. "Let's show them the scenery of the San Gabriel Mountains." At the slight pressure from his master's knee, the big horse turned to the north. "We should be able to lose them there."
The mountains were dry but wooded on the northern slopes and had scrub brush facing south. The peaks towered six thousand feet high, separated by deep gorges. Zorro rode through a pass between two foothills, and then along a saddle connecting a hill to a high meadow. Through the wildflowers they raced and into the pine trees before reining in. "They've dropped back a bit, but we left an easy trail through the flowers. Let's go up the mountain. Perhaps they won't be able to rise to the occasion."
"Alcalde, the men and horses are tired," Mendoza gasped. "I don't think we can catch Zorro today."
"If we're tired, he and his horse are tired too. Now is not the time to give up. Look here, Sergeant. Here's where he rode through the meadow. He's just beyond us in those trees. Lancers, press on."
"Sí, Alcalde. Muchachos, vamanos!"
Toronado climbed out of the forest, then skirted around the eastern slope. There was a ridge connecting two peaks. "Pick your way carefully across this, old friend," warned Zorro. The big stallion eyed the steep, rocky drop-off nervously, but at his master's bidding, stepped gingerly across to the other side, never putting a foot wrong.
"I think we can head for home now, Amigo," said the masked rider, patting his mount's neck. "I don't think they will be able to follow us from here." He turned toward the pines and the cover they provided. Suddenly, Toronado's ears pricked up, and his eyes rolled in fear. "What is it, Boy?" Moments later Zorro heard it too--an ominous low rumbling increasing in intensity. Another quake, he thought, as Toronado began to fidget and whinny with fright. "Easy, Boy, easy," he commanded, shortening the reins to control the stallion's tossing head. As the ground began to tremble, restraining the strong horse became even harder. The trees around them shuddered violently, and he could hear the rocks on the bare slope above him grind as they shifted downhill. Each minute seemed an hour as Zorro fought to calm his terrified mount and stay in the saddle. Finally, the tremors subsided, and as the ground stilled beneath them, the hero was shaking with relief and soaked with sweat. "I think we've had enough for one day. Home, now."
The weak, distant cries for help brought his head around. "It's the lancers--back at the ridge! They must have been trying to cross when the earthquake hit." Turning Toronado quickly, he galloped back into the open in sight of the ridge. None of his six pursuers had been able to hang on to his horse, and all had been thrown down on the rocks below. Two of the men appeared to be unconscious.
"I'm here!" shouted Zorro to the men. "I'll help you!"
"We don't need your help, Zorro!" called DeSoto from the rocks below. His own injuries were slight but climbing up would be nearly impossible unaided.
"Don't be ridiculous, Alcalde. All your horses have scattered. They're probably halfway home by now. Your men need medical attention badly even if you don't." He grabbed his saddle rope, tied a loop at both ends, put one loop around Toronado's saddle horn and threw the other end to a private who had twisted his ankle. He's no older than Felipe, thought Zorro, and yelled, "Put the rope under your arms, and I'll pull you up!" Bringing the young man to safety, he threw the rope to Sergeant Mendoza. "Sergeant! Are you hurt?"
"Just bruised and scraped, Zorro. I think I can pull myself up with a little help."
"Bueno. I'll need your strong arms to bring up the unconscious men." After hauling up Mendoza, he tossed the rope again. "You there, Private! Tie this around your compadre. Make sure it's secure." The limp man was a dead weight and took the combined efforts of the masked man and Mendoza to bring him up to the narrow ridge.
"Let's get him over there, Sergeant. We can't all stand on this path." After carrying the man into the tundra, they helped the first lancer hop across also. "See what you can do for your friend," Zorro told the young private. "Sergeant, let's bring up the other badly injured man." The two returned to the site of the accident and found the man had regained consciousness, but was unable to move.
"He isn't down very far. I'll go and get him if you and Toronado will help us up." Mendoza eyed the temperamental horse warily, but agreed. The masked man threw the rope over his shoulder and rappelled down about twenty feet to where the man lay. The private's face was bloody from a cut on his forehead. "Sanchez, isn't it? Where are you hurt, Amigo?"
"My back. I fell across a boulder," whispered the soldier.
He'll be in a bad way if it's broken, thought the hero grimly, stripping off his gloves. He unbuttoned the private's tunic and carefully probed beneath the man with his fingers. The injured man winced and groaned.
"You've broken several ribs. Getting back to the ridge will not be pleasant, but if you lean your weight on me, the good sergeant will do the hard part. All right, Sergeant, pull!" Zorro supported the man with one arm and used the other to guide them over the rocks. When Sanchez had been moved to safety, the masked man turned to a private with an arm injury.
"My friend, are you able to make the climb?" the Fox called to the soldier.
"I think so, but I can't pull myself up," responded the soldier.
"Get the rope around you, and we'll do the rest." Soon the man was sitting in the field with his fellow lancers. Now for DeSoto, Zorro thought.
"Alcalde! All your men are safe, but they will need help from the garrison to get home."
"All right, Zorro. Throw me the rope."
The hero grinned, "You know, this might be a good time to strike a bargain."
"If you're asking for a pardon, never! I'd rather crawl back on my hands and knees!"
"You may have to do just that!" laughed the masked man. "But I had something else in mind. You give me your word that you won't harass any more citizens in regard to the revolution, and I'll ride back to the garrison and send them here with fresh mounts for you. In the meantime, I'll leave my rope with your trusty sergeant, and he can help you up. Well?"
DeSoto growled in frustration, "Very well, I give my word."
And we all know how much that's worth, Zorro reflected to himself, handing the rope to Mendoza. "I'll lead the rescue party here before nightfall, Sergeant. Adios."
Many townspeople had gathered
at the church the next day to begin repairs to the venerable building.
Adobe blocks had been assembled for reconstruction on a wall, and the sanctuary
was being swept by several women as a hole in the roof was patched.
"And Zorro led the rest of the garrison to where we were and even had the men bring a wagon for the privates too injured to ride. Doctor Hernandez was up most of the night bandaging us and setting broken bones," Mendoza explained to the de la Vegas.
"That Zorro," said Alejandro with a smile. "Even helping his enemies. It's unbelievable that the alcalde won't consider amnesty for him after all the good he's done for this pueblo. Hand me that trowel, Diego. Gracias."
"The alcalde's had a lot to think about lately, Father. Don't give up on him yet. Consider how fragile his position. He's a Spanish officer who realizes he's on the losing end of the battle. When he returns to Spain, the king may not exactly welcome him with open arms. He's more likely to be demoted instead of decorated."
"These are uncertain times for all of us," Alejandro reflected. "It's important that we stay focused on those things which are truly valuable: love of family, serving God, helping neighbors, and hard work to build our dreams."
The other two men smiled in agreement with his wise words and lifted the next stone into place.