The masked man did not return immediately to
San Pedro; his stallion had worked hard enough for one night. He
stabled the horse in the cave.
"I'll brush him," Zorro told his assistant. "Go and saddle Esperanza and lead her to the cave entrance."
When Felipe was gone, the Fox cared for his equine partner and then toweled himself. His boots needed more time than he could give them to dry thoroughly, but he wiped the insides. His other clothing had almost dried in the long ride home, but of concern was his sabre. He slid the Toledo steel from the scabbard. Yes, as he suspected, it had been sitting in seawater for more than an hour. He wiped the sabre dry and examined it closely for corrosion. After draining the salt water from his scabbard, he decided to allow Kendall's championship sabre to air dry before using it again. From his sword rack he chose an older blade, a Seville style with an intricate guard. He sheathed it and awaited Felipe's return.
Midnight had come and gone by the time Zorro returned to the port. He scanned the schooner's deck from the vantage point of a small rise outside of town. But though a lone lantern was still lit on the deck, he could detect no movement through his spyglass. Had his enemies decided to swim back to shore? Perhaps they awaited him. Perhaps they slept.
One more encounter with Costilla would bring the retribution so richly deserved! For this time he would show Carlos no mercy; one look at Victoria's face was enough to condemn the man. More than that, though--the hero would destroy the Costilla empire! Records of the property deeds and other financial transactions were likely aboard the small ship; with those in his possession, Diego could use legal leverage to bring Armando Costilla down! It was too bad that Antonio would be hurt by Zorro's actions, but that was unavoidable. If his old friend in arms knew nothing of his family's more sordid activities, then he was about to be made a sadder but wiser man.
The outlaw's last borrowed boat had quietly sunk at its mooring, and he had to use another. The town was quiet, though; even the bar was closed and dark.
Though his ears strained to detect human movement on board, the masked man heard nothing when he tied off the rowboat quietly to the bottom rung of the rope ladder. Placing Kendall's dagger between his teeth, he climbed the rungs and peered over the side. All was silent, though, except for the gentle lap of the tide against the schooner's bow and an occasional creak of wood. The lantern that he had seen from the rise was positioned by the cabin door. An invitation?
Lithe as a panther, the dark swordsman hurdled the railing. Still no sound, no movement in reaction. He sheathed the knife in his boot and drew his sword. Warily he strode to the cabin's companionway. The lower hallway was in deep shadows except for a slit of yellow light shining from under the office door. Zorro sprang down the steps, all his senses alert, but no one challenged him. The door unlatched as he turned the knob.
"Come in," a deep voice beckoned.
Unsure how many men occupied the small room, the Fox flung the door open. It crashed against the cabin wall, but no one had been hiding behind it. Seated at the desk was Antonio Costilla, dressed in a tailored suit and seemingly at ease with the intrusion of a masked man with a drawn sabre.
"Buenas noches. Zorro, I presume?" Antonio laid aside his book.
"Señor." The outlaw bowed his head. "I have no quarrel with you, sir. Where is your brother?"
"You could hardly expect him to await your return. I sent him and the others back to shore. He's really not up to your caliber. He's not a bad shot normally, but quite pathetic with a blade."
"Nevertheless, I have a score to settle with him. He had an old man beaten and a lady kidnapped."
"You give him far too much credit. Oh, I'll grant you that I left it to him to arrange the details, but in both cases he was under my orders."
"Yes. Er, thinking is not exactly Carlos's forte. But with general guidelines, he can accomplish things."
"Then you arranged for Señora de la Vega to be held prisoner? Why? You have no reason to hold a grudge against her."
"Granted, I don't. It was nothing personal, unlike my brother. But it was expedient."
"In what way?"
Antonio shrugged. "We obtain control of the tavern, firstly. Not crucial, but helpful to own the only inn in a booming area. It would provide immediate cash flow, something not many of our investments do."
The masked man shut the door behind himself and rested his sabre's point on the floor. "Do go on. This is fascinating."
"There was a second reason for putting the señora in our care. Sooner or later her husband would come for her, but unfortunately he would be killed while attempting to rescue his wife."
"You planned to murder Diego de la Vega? And has that gentleman offended you, Señor?"
"Not particularly. But he's the only heir to the largest piece of range land in this territory. Naturally we wanted to act sooner rather than later, since his wife could conceive a child at anytime. But Carlos failed at his first attempt."
"Yes. I was rather proud of that one. I coached Carlos on what to say and when, and it worked perfectly. De la Vega exploded like a ball from a cannon!" Antonio laughed heartily.
"How fortunate for you that de la Vega chose pistols rather than swords!"
"Yes. We didn't expect him to actually start swinging his fists rather than challenge immediately. So Carlos had to challenge, and it was pure luck that Diego chose pistols. Unfortunately, Carlos missed his shot, so we had to come up with a new idea."
"And if he had been killed, his wife would have disappeared, I take it?"
"Absolutely. You have a grasp of these things, I see! How delightfully unexpected!"
"But Alejandro de la Vega is the owner of the estate."
Costilla waved off the statement. "He's old."
"But very tough."
"Not after the loss of both a son and daughter-in-law, I think. We would not have to wait long, and if we did, the process could be hurried a little."
"And what is your interest in that ranch, or in any of the property you've acquired around San Pedro?"
Antonio smiled condescendingly. "You are very short-sighted, Señor. Tomorrow at this time Los Angeles and every other pueblo in California should be in the hands of the Free Mexico Army."
"A revolution financed in part by your family."
"You would be amazed at how a revolution can be propelled forward with the grant of some essential supplies: a few rifles, a few shipments of gunpowder, some explosives. Zealots do the rest."
"And you reap the profit. You buy up land in California for a pittance and resell it at a much higher price. So you expect a large influx of new settlers in the area."
"Naturally. Independence will free people to try their fortunes elsewhere, and we have already spread the word through the underground that California has a mild climate and excellent soil. Coupled with a few strategic hints of gold and silver in the hills, I think we will see a huge increase in population."
"And the ports. With New Spain independent, the ports will be open to trade with all nationalities."
"Just so. You understand now why it is critical to own everything along the harbor; property values will go sky-high as new businesses come in to support the shipping."
"And with the addition of Cuernavaca's store, you have a monopoly."
"He was the last holdout in San Pedro. Even that slob Gomez sold to us months ago when the promise of bigger profits was dangled in front of him. You see, Señor, California is going to control commerce in this part of the world. She will be the gateway to the Far East; Japan and China are slowly opening up to foreigners, and of course the Philippines is still a Spanish colony. San Francisco has one of the finest natural harbors in the world! From there we can supply California and Mexico and serve as a middleman to Europe and the rest of the Americas. As more of the interior is explored, I expect to add fur trading and timber to our list of exports. Mineral wealth is still unknown, but think if we were to discover gold, silver, or copper! The gold in New Spain was mined out shortly after Cortez, and the silver mines have been worked for three hundred years! They have to be close to depletion."
"And the governor has no objection to your plans for expansion?"
The businessman gave a crack of laughter. "The governor has been in our pocket for years. He'll do just what we tell him."
"All very interesting, but why are you telling me this?"
"Because, Zorro, you'll never tell anyone else!" Antonio slid a dueling sword from the scabbard lying on the desk. "I thought at first you might possibly be an ally, but instead you have been a nuisance at every turn. You really must be removed."
"You will not find that an easy task." The masked man saluted grimly.
"And you will not find me the easy adversary that Carlos was. I was expecting Diego de la Vega tonight, but you first, I suppose." He saluted crisply from behind the desk.
"I admire your nerve," noted the outlaw as the blades clashed, "but don't you think this cabin is a little small?"
"Ceiling too low for you?" taunted his adversary.
"Now that you mention it--" The sabre slashed overhead, and a large slice of wood from the ceiling fell on the desk between the men. "--some more head room would be appreciated."
Antonio feinted to flank and derobed the attempt to parry. He used the distraction to step to the desk's side. Fighting room in front of the desk would be impossibly cramped if Costilla succeeded in advancing. Zorro stepped in front of the closed door and reached back for the knob as he lunged with a compound attack. Predictably his opponent picked up the intent and parried. As the riposte came forward, the Fox opened the door while binding the opposing blade in prime. He stepped to Antonio's left to force the other man out the door.
"Don't like close quarters?"
"I doubt the gangway will be much of an improvement," responded the bandit while finding his lightning cut to Costilla's chest both parried and bound. A relaxed grip helped him to regain control of his sabre and meet the oncoming attack to his shoulder.
Antonio's sword was designed to thrust. Wounds inflicted in the torso by a thrusting weapon were every bit as deadly and often more so than the cuts a sabre made. Moreover, less side-to-side room was necessary to wield it properly.
Zorro disliked having his back in the office while trying to fight out a narrow doorway. The lack of room was disadvantageous to him, and Antonio knew it. The businessman attacked with speed and precision--controlled, cool, and intense. The disparate weapons scraped, beat, and pressed each other. Sabre strategy would not be useful in his situation, so the masked man adapted his style to thrusting.
"Very nice, Señor!" Antonio praised as he was forced to give ground and his opponent gained the companionway. "I didn't think it was possible that a bandit could have such skill in this provincial backwater, but I see rumor has not exaggerated."
"You're too kind."
The blades glinted in the dim light, and Zorro picked up the parry. A reverse bind moved the opposing sword to quarte. His feint to seconde drew the hand movement he wanted, and the sabre slashed Costilla's coat sleeve.
The businessman's son swore roundly. "Can't see a thing down here!" he complained. "Shall we?" He gestured toward the companionway.
"After you!" bowed the man in black.
Unconcerned, Antonio shrugged and sprinted up the steps. The hero followed more carefully, expecting an ambush at the top. But his opponent had waited for him courteously. They saluted each other again in the light of the single lantern and a quarter moon. The aft deck was small, but gave both men room to advance, retreat, lunge, and recover. The increased space was a relief to the outlaw, whose height and reach were no longer limited factors. But his opponent attacked savagely, requiring the Fox to parry and change lines within a fraction of a second. His attempts to take Antonio's blade and step inside his distance were unsuccessful. Costilla could cede as quickly as Zorro could riposte, and then he was forced to recover back.
"You have a weakness, Señor--a well-known weakness," noted Antonio.
"Again you hold me enthralled. What is it?"
"You don't kill. In all your long list of crimes, no one has ever laid a murder at your doorstep. Now why is that?"
"Life is precious."
"Life is cheap," was the retort as Diego's schoolmate beat the sabre on an advance and lunged to the heart.
An inquartata pivoted the masked man's torso from the straight thrust. He followed the blade with a parry in quarte, and when that was disengaged as he predicted, a circle parry again put the dueling sword out of line. A large black boot lashed out and caught Antonio in the chest. He staggered back, giving the Fox a little ground.
"I forgot that you kick your opponents," Costilla noted, regaining his balance. "An unorthodox fighting style."
"Whatever works," the hero replied with a glint of teeth.
"Killing your opponent works in a very permanent way." Antonio launched a blistering compound attack. The masked man picked up the first and second intention, but the third action, a coupé, was unexpected. The opposing blade flicked his shoulder and pierced a hole in the black shirt. The wound brought a sharp pain, but was not deep enough to be debilitating. The outlaw recovered his guard.
"You see, Señor, if you are not prepared to kill, you are not prepared to fight. You have lost already."
Not prepared to kill? Zorro had vowed never to draw blood with Kendall's sabre, but remembered with a start that he was using a lighter weight backup. His vow did not apply to his old university sword! But kill? Antonio had orchestrated Victoria's abduction and left her to the mercy of his vengeful brother! He had approved of Pablo Silva's beatings, had coerced the sale of the Alvarados' farm, Peña's ranch, Cuernavaca's business! If that were not enough, he had also supplied the revolution with the means of mass destruction and death. The rage that the outlaw had pushed away when fighting he allowed to seep into his conscious mind. Anger would give him the focus and drive he needed.
"Never underestimate your opponent, Señor, particularly when I am that opponent." The dark outlaw felt a breeze at his back and cut the main sheet. In response the wind pushed the boom toward Costilla. The businessman was forced to duck beneath to avoid being knocked off his feet. Zorro cut to the flank, and as his adversary committed to parry, he swept his blade in a figure eight, brutally raking across Antonio's chest.
Costilla gasped as his jacket fell open along the gash, and a dark stain spread on the white linen of his shirt. But as he recovered and retreated, his eyes sparkled with a strange exhilaration.
"Oh, I see. I do see. How clever of you! I really should have known!"
"There is a great deal for you still to learn, Señor," answered the Fox grimly. "Kindness, decency, love for people less fortunate than yourself." His powerful remise was parried and bound to septime.
"You sang that same dreary song as a student!" Antonio stepped inside with an opposition thrust. "Yes, you gave yourself away in that last attack! I've only seen one other man execute that sweep in such a style! It looks like we will have another match for that senior trophy, Diego!"
The masked man ceded to prime and flicked the point toward his schoolmate's face. As he hoped, Costilla jumped back and recovered his guard.
"The one man in the territory with a reputation for handling a blade is the mysterious outlaw known as Zorro." Antonio attacked three times in quick succession, was turned aside, and circled his opponent. "Am I the only person in California who knows you were one of the best fencers at the university?" His beat to sixte and disengage to quarte was followed by a coupé. The move was not successful the second time, and he was forced by the sabre to give ground. "And if you were second to me, then you were one of the top fencers in Spain. Two outstanding fencers in a tiny town like Los Angeles? Too much of a coincidence!"
The Fox was silent in regard to Antonio's discovery. A reverse sweep barely missed his adversary's arm, and he ceded the riposte in seconde.
"Tell me, Señor: do you take orders from your father, or does he take them from you?" the masked hero mocked.
"My father has a gift for persuasion. He negotiates the deals, and I orchestrate our next moves." Costilla ceded in octave and disengaged with a lunge to quarte. The blade fell short, and the fencer redoubled. The second move opened a reprise from the parry onto the black-clad arm and left a long scratch.
"Then you are the brains behind the operation." A savage back beat from the sabre grazed Antonio's cheek.
"I have a head for business." His circle to sixte carried the sabre to the outside line. He predicted the Fox's disengage and circled again. But the taller man had retreated out of distance.
"A head, but no heart." A press on the advance pushed aside the dueling sword to clear the line for a low thrust.
"No bleeding heart. Do you actually believe that killing someone is a mortal sin?"
"Indeed I do." His thrust was swept outside, and he beat the riposte.
"Heaven and hell are what we make them. So is God." His flick to Zorro's arm landed flat.
"So even God marches to your orders? You have moved up in the world!"
"Indeed. My swordplay has stayed in top form as well. Do you remember this from our last bout?"
Costilla bound the sabre to the inside line, then reversed the bind and feinted low. The same move had cost Diego the last touch in the battle for the senior trophy, but the tall caballero had not forgotten how he had lost. The dark hero retreated, feinted a parry, and turned the true attack to the high outside line. A sharp graze down the blade forced Antonio's sword from his grip, and the businessman stared down the lethal length of the sabre.
"I guess you do remember," he bowed ironically. "My compliments. You've much improved."
"Señor," gritted the outlaw, lifting Costilla's chin with his sword tip, "you have outlived your usefulness!"
"You aren't the only one with a trick up his sleeve!" hissed the businessman. He pivoted on his right foot and hammered a side kick into Zorro's ribcage. The masked man was pushed off balance and fell heavily to the deck.
A pistol shot exploded as he landed, and Antonio groaned and staggered back against the port railing. The black-garbed bandit's head snapped toward the starboard side. Carlos Costilla had returned and was straddling the railing with a smoking pistol in his left hand.
"Dios! Antonio! Mi Dios!"
The Fox scrambled to his feet and leaped to the wounded man's side. His opponent clutched his chest, dark thick liquid trickling from between his fingers.
"My stupid brother has killed me," he whispered, sinking into the masked hero's supporting arms. "He was aiming for you."
"Don't try to talk, Antonio," urged his schoolmate, propping him up against the side of the schooner.
"This--this is all your fault!" declared Carlos in a shaking voice as the dark swordsman rose and advanced upon him.
"You fool," Zorro said menacingly. "This very night your soul is required of you. What can a man give in exchange for his soul?"
Stark terror distorted the younger man's features as unrelenting death came toward him. He hurled the pistol at the masked man and scrambled down into a boat.
Eyes narrowed to slits, the Fox peered over the railing at Carlos. An easy leap would put him face to face with Victoria's assailant, who was now unarmed. One sabre thrust would rid the world forever of Carlos Costilla and his brutality!
Years of practicing a higher moral code restrained him, though. For an instant he saw himself in the younger Costilla's hate and fear filled face, and his heart shuddered in abhorrence. No, never! Never! He need not be the tool of vengeance upon Carlos; the violent man was destined to meet a fitting end without Zorro's self-contamination.
"Yes, go!" he shouted to the man in the boat, who had taken up the oars and was pulling frantically toward shore. "Your brother is dying of a mortal wound! Tell your father what you have done!"
He watched in implacable silence as the boat drew further away. Reluctantly the outlaw then returned to Antonio's side.
"He won't tell Father the truth," gasped the wounded man, his face twitching in a ghastly smile. "He'll say that you killed me. A murder is going to be laid at your door at last!" He coughed painfully, and blood foamed around his white lips.
The pistol ball had pierced a lung, and the lung was filling with blood. Shortly the businessman would drown in it, unable to draw a breath. Zorro had seen men die of the same kind of wound, and the suffering rarely lasted long.
"The truth cannot be hidden. Sooner or late all things are revealed."
"That sounds Biblical. Are you administering the last rites?" Antonio grimaced.
The outlaw sighed, "That's not my field of expertise, but if there's anything you want to say--"
"God marches to my orders, remember?" he replied in a broken whisper. "I need no absolution; I regret nothing." Costilla reached a weak hand in appeal; the effort was too much, and the hand fell back to his lap. "Diego, in my father's cabin--the senior trophy. Take it."
The masked man finally nodded in consent. Antonio's breath caught with a gurgling sound, and his body jerked spasmodically. A stillness came over him; his eyes stayed open.
When his schoolmate did not respond, the masked man closed the staring eyes. There was work to be done, and perhaps only a short while before men returned to the ship. He stood, sheathed his sabre, and took the oil lantern from its hook by the cabin steps. The door to Armando Costilla's cabin was still ajar from his powerful kick earlier in the evening, and the lantern's light revealed the engraved silver bowl given to the winner of Madrid University's inter-class fencing tournament. The trophy was not something Zorro coveted, and with reluctance he lifted the award from its place of honor on the high shelf. It had been Antonio's only bequest, though the bowl could not be publicly displayed in the de la Vega home for many years to come.
In the office where their duel had begun, the dark hero set the lantern on the desk and opened the drawers rapidly. In a few seconds he had discovered what he sought: an impressive file of title deeds to sections of property from San Diego up the coast as far as San Francisco. All had been signed by a member of the Costilla family and the acting magistrates of the various pueblos. They were perfectly legal documents; it was the manner in which many had been obtained that classified them as morally dubious at best. He piled them on the desktop along with other of Armando's papers from the drawers: correspondence, notes, maps.
Zorro opened the lamp and sprinkled oil over the stack of papers. Feeding one parchment into the flame, he touched the fire to several documents and watched as a bright yellow blaze danced and curled its way through the pile, leaving in its wake an ashy black residue. Somberly he watched the fire build a moment longer before returning to the deck, leaving the door open behind him. With the freshening breeze, the ship should be engulfed in flames within minutes. Armando Costilla would lose positive proof of ownership for his properties and have the financial setback of the schooner's destruction. What Antonio's loss would mean to the ambitious older man Zorro could only guess.
The coming dawn had grayed the sky to the east when the Fox emerged on deck once more. Antonio was still against the railing where he had died. The masked man picked up Carlos's pistol and dropped it and the silver bowl into the rowboat that still bobbed where he had tied it off. Hoisting the dead man over his shoulder, the hero slowly climbed down a rope into the boat. Perhaps Antonio's death would be blamed on him, but let the body and pistol be left as evidence in his favor. He pulled wearily to the dock, each stroke sapping more strength from his protesting muscles, already over-stretched and over-tired from the exertions of the night and previous day.
Reaching the pier, Zorro tied off the boat in the same spot where he had borrowed it some time before. A final glance at the body of his former friend, lying pale and bloody in the bottom of the dinghy, and at the schooner at anchor assured him that his work was done in San Pedro. An orange glow was radiating from the stern of the small ship. The outlaw tucked the large silver trophy under his arm and turned away.
Esperanza approached Los Angeles after the
sun had risen. Her exhausted rider had directed her that way, but
he longed to go home and sleep. His shoulder ached from the puncture
wound, and the scratch on his forearm stung. But Zorro's work was
incomplete, for the dawn signaled Monday, the day of the rebels' attack
on the cuartel. The events of the past few days had overwhelmed his
original intent to talk to Ramón again concerning his plans for
attack. There were explosive feelings in the pueblo toward the king,
and the masked man feared that the hatred of Spain would turn to violence
against her defenders in the garrison. Ignacio DeSoto had been the
enemy of the Fox on many occasions involving injustice, but the outlaw
had no desire to see the alcalde hurt or killed. Sergeant Mendoza
was a good-hearted friend who loved serving his country, and the lancers
were under orders to obey their commanding officer. Zorro wished
for the death of none of them.
Others he knew felt differently, and that necessitated his ride to the pueblo. He pulled up the mare some distance away from the town gate. Riding Esperanza into town would be unwise; Zorro on a de la Vega mount would compromise his identity. And what was he to do with the large bowl he took from the ship? Impossible to send it home with the mare since it could link Diego de la Vega to Antonio Costilla's death, equally impossible to stay in the pueblo without a strong horse on which to escape. His talk with his energetic brother-in-law would have to wait just a little longer. Turning Esperanza toward home, he urged her to pick up speed.
Felipe knew his mentor would return to the cave, so he had slept in the straw by Toronado. He was awakened by Diego's voice calling his name. The teen believed Diego in disguise was equal to any challenge, yet was always secretly relieved when the masked man returned to the cave whole and healthy. He pointed questioningly at the trophy Zorro carried.
"Antonio Costilla gave it to me; it's a long story. Return Esperanza to the stable; I need to take Toronado into town." He set the silver bowl on the laboratory table, and Felipe pointed, alarmed, to the tear in his shirt.
"Nothing serious. I'm fine." The masked man stripped off the black shirt and checked both injuries. The scratch was sore, but the shoulder wound had begun to cramp the muscles down the length of his arm. At least the bleeding had stopped. From the chest of drawers beneath the sword rack, he got a spare shirt and cape. He returned the university sabre to the rack, noting that the dried blood on the blade would need to be buffed off at a later time, then sheathed Kendall's sabre once more.
"Will you check on my wife and bring me something to eat quickly? I'll get Toronado ready."
The youth sprinted up the stairs and returned a few minutes later with some old tortillas and a handful of raisins. He indicated that the doña was sleeping.
"Bueno. Tell my father later that I've returned and gone to the pueblo to see Ramón. No, don't tell him! I don't want him to come into town; the revolution is supposed to erupt today. Keep my father and wife at home."
The masked hero took the simple breakfast gratefully and mounted the black. With a salute to his assistant, he turned the stallion's head toward the hillside door.
The food revived the outlaw a little; how he
would have rather stretched out and slept in Toronado's stall beside the
horse and the teen! At mid-morning the town was quiet and the plaza
deserted--an odd circumstance that set the Fox's senses alert.
He cantered to the arbor behind the church and dismounted. With a murmur to the stallion to wait there, he stepped toward the tavern.
"Hold it, Zorro!"
The man's voice had come from the church's back door, and the outlaw turned with his hand on his sword to see who addressed him. Pedro Chavez and Nicolas Santillano stood there with rifles, and between them was Padre Benitez, being held by the men.
"Señores." The Fox bowed his head; Chavez and Santillano were not his enemies. "Is the good padre a prisoner?"
"Not exactly. Merely in our custody," responded Chavez. "You have walked into a revolution, Zorro, and are not to interfere. If you try, we are under orders to treat you as the enemy."
"I appreciate your warning, gentlemen. I assume you do not wish the padre to alert the garrison."
"Exactly so. His sympathies lie with the Crown."
"As they should, since the Crown commissioned the friars' work in California. Treat him gently; he prays for your souls."
"I have not been mistreated, Zorro," the priest said sadly, "but can you not avert this madness?"
"I have come to try," the masked man reassured him. "Santillano, why are you here instead of Santa Barbara?"
The young man looked at him with cool, steady eyes. "We already have control of the fort in Santa Barbara. Colonel Estrada is a criollo; he is with us, and so are the twenty soldiers assigned there. I was asked by Señor Escalante to assist here."
"And is Señor Escalante in the tavern?"
"Sí, but it is dangerous for you to go there."
Santillano spoke to the hero's back, though, for Zorro had already turned on his heel to find Ramón. At the church's corner he stopped and scanned the smithy and the roof of the tavern beyond. Both buildings had men lying in wait with only their hats and eyes peering over the rooftops toward the cuartel. The outlaw slipped soundlessly behind the blacksmith's shop and ran face-to-face with Rubén the smithy.
"Zorro!" he squeaked and leveled a shiny musket at the masked man.
"Don't shoot, amigo," pleaded the hero, raising his hands. "Will you take me to Escalante?"
Rubén was a thick-set, grimy man with muscled arms the size of roofing timbers. He had often watched the tall, dark figure of the legendary outlaw fight soldiers in the plaza, but never had cause to meet him personally. That such a famous man would ask him, Rubén Torres, for a favor was overwhelmingly flattering.
"Of course, Señor," he said, lowering his weapon and then raising it again when recalling his instructions. "I must ask you not to make any sudden moves. This way."
They paused at the edge of the building, and Rubén had the outlaw check if the plaza was still empty of soldiers. At the indication that they could pass to the tavern undetected, they proceeded quietly to the kitchen door of the inn.
Two knocks opened the door, and they were pulled inside by other armed men: Don Andrés, Don León, and Guillermo Heceta.
"Good work!" praised Andrés to the blacksmith. "You've captured Zorro!"
"Buenos dias, Señores," greeted the masked bandit. "I want to speak with Ramón Escalante."
"Your are not in a position to make demands!" answered the old don. "León, take his sword and his whip."
"Don't try it," cautioned the masked man to his father's peer, laying his hands defensively on each weapon.
"You are on the wrong side of the rifle, Zorro!" reminded Andrés, raising his weapon.
"And you are extremely short-sighted to threaten me with a loaded gun," retorted the outlaw. "You know as well as I that you don't dare fire this close to the garrison for fear of the shot being heard. That would overthrow all your carefully laid plans!"
"What is all this noise? demanded Ramón, flinging aside the serape curtain. "Zorro!"
The smithy explained, "I found him sneaking around outside and brought him here."
"You did well," the rebel leader commended. "You may return to your post." Torres nodded and left by the back door.
"Ramón, we must talk."
"Don't listen to him, Escalante!" urged Don Andrés. "He's a loose cannon! We don't know if he's on our side or the king's!"
"I doubt he's on the alcalde's." Ramón's expression was speculative. "But are you on our side, Zorro?"
"No. I'm neutral. May we speak privately?"
The taverner considered the risks of being alone with the powerful man in black and decided he stood in no real danger. "Upstairs. My room. Heceta, pass the word to Marcias."
The owner of the small ranch nodded significantly and left the building also. The outlaw followed Escalante up the steps to the second floor landing. At every door and window in the tavern were one or two armed men, watching the plaza and waiting. Ramón opened the door to Victoria's former bedroom. Perdita looked up with troubled eyes when the two men entered.
"Ramón, what is your wife doing here at a time like this? Why haven't you sent her to your sister's house?'
"She won't go," he said flatly. "Having her stay upstairs here is the best I can do."
"That is right, Señor," confirmed the petite brunette in a quavering voice. "My place is here with my husband."
"Forgive me, Señora, but your place is away from the danger so that your child is not at risk."
Perdita gasped and placed her hands on her belly, certain that her pregnancy did not show and astonished that the masked outlaw knew such an intimate detail. Perhaps he really was omniscient as some people believed!
Zorro seized the taverner's arm. "Ramón, get your wife to safety and get out of here yourself!"
"Let go of me! This is no concern of yours, Zorro, since you have decided to stay neutral! My wife knows the risks and accepts them. She's in this, too! I must do a man's part!"
"Oh, yes--how very noble and brave!" Zorro retorted sarcastically. "What a comfort that will be to your widow and fatherless child! For the next fifty years when they cry alone in the darkness they can say, 'At least he died for a good cause!'"
"Why do you mock me? We are very much alike; you fight for what you believe, and I do the same. Is there no one who would grieve for you, Señor Fox? No woman, no parent, no child who would cry for you? The thought of their tears doesn't persuade you to change your course!"
Stung by the truth of the rebuke, the masked man released Escalante. "What is your strategy?"
"We have managed to get a fuse under the floor of the powder magazine. When that explodes, the garrison will have few if any muskets, and no powder. We have a large supply of arms and ammunition. At that point it will be a simple matter to take into custody the few soldiers who remain."
"The powder magazine? But that explosion could kill every soldier in the barracks! People in the plaza--the debris!"
"People in town have been quietly warned to stay out of the plaza today. Almost everyone is on our side and understands."
Ramón shook his head. "They are on the other side, Zorro. In a war, you don't tell your enemy when you will strike."
"Those are lives! Innocent lives simply on the other side of an ideological struggle! To kill them and say it doesn't matter is murder!" gritted the masked man, anger burning in his eyes. He stood up abruptly and strode to the door. "Their lives matter to me!"
"Wait, Zorro! The explosion will be any minute! You could be killed!"
His words fell on deaf ears; the tall figure in black slammed the door on his way out, the satin cape swirling around him like a shroud. Ramón shook off the chilling premonition, wondering if he was seeing a living legend for the last time.
"Ramón! Stop him!" begged Perdita.
"I can't. He is driven by his own code. He must go to help the enemy." He glanced at his wife's frightened face. "Chiquita, we have work to do."
Zorro strode down the steps, daring anyone to stop him. Even the dons fell back before the glare in his eyes, and he left the tavern unchallenged. A whistle brought the stallion to his side; he mounted quickly and turned Toronado across the plaza. Sidling the mount next to the cuartel wall, he stood on the stallion's back and pulled himself over the roof edge. Below was a single sentry slouching at his post in the heat of the day.
"Soldier!" shouted the masked man to the lancer, who suddenly leaped to attention. When he saw the caller was the famous outlaw, he hoisted his rifle.
"Don't shoot! There's very little time! There's a lit fuse in the magazine! Get out quickly!"
The soldier hesitated and called for reinforcements. Five more men stumbled from the barracks with rifles in hand. Some raised their weapons to fire. The man in black ducked behind the roof's peek as the muskets spat at him. The alcalde came storming from his office.
"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. His men pointed to the black hat peeking up from behind the roof line. "Zorro!"
"Get your men out now, Alcalde! Hurry! The rebels have planted a fuse in the powder magazine, and it will reach the ammunition any moment! Run! Save yourselves!"
Uncertainty shaded the commandant's face for an instance. "You're bluffing! This is a trick to get us to leave the cuartel! If there's a fuse, it's one you lit yourself! Why are you here if there's danger?"
"To save your ungrateful hide!" retorted the Fox. "Why I don't know, but your men are certainly worth saving!"
"Nobody leaves his post!" snarled DeSoto to the lancers, some of whom were pulling on their boots after stumbling half-dressed from the barracks.
His soldiers looked undecided, but were afraid to disobey their superior officer. "Alcalde, shouldn't we see if he's telling the truth?" asked a private.
"The only menace here is Zorro, and he's in league with the rebels! Reload and fire at will!"
Three more shots popped by the man crouched on the roof, but he turned his head to see hope approaching from the pueblo gates. Sergeant Mendoza was riding into town in the company of two lancers.
"Sergeant!" the masked man shouted, and the non-commissioned officer pulled up in bewilderment.
"Zorro? What are you doing here?"
"Trying to save the lives of the soldiers! The magazine will explode any minute, but the alcalde won't evacuate the men! Can you help?"
Consternation played over Mendoza's features for an instant. "I'll try," he resolved. "Sanchez, Manequa--come with me." He rode to the barred wooden gates of the cuartel and pounded on them. "Open up! It's Sergeant Mendoza back from patrol!"
From inside the courtyard, the commandant signaled his men to open the gates. The heavy doors were pushed open slowly, and the mounted men rode into the cuartel. The momentary distraction was all the dark hero needed. He lifted a clay tile from the roof line and hurled it at the officer's head. It struck DeSoto's temple, and he staggered to his hands and knees with a groan.
The sergeant, usually not known for his mental acuity, was needle-witted that morning. "Oh, Alcalde! Your head is bleeding! Let me help you lie down somewhere!" He grasped his commander from behind and lifted the dazed man upright. "Let's just see if there's a nice place in the shade outside the gates! Don't you worry about a thing, Alcalde! I'll take over for you!"
"Zorro," mumbled the officer.
"Yes, yes--I'll take care of Zorro. Just lie down here for a few minutes." He eased the officer into the shadow on the far side of the garrison headquarters and ordered two men to stay with the injured man. Back inside the cuartel Mendoza looked up to the roof where the masked outlaw still waited.
"Zorro, how do you know about the magazine?"
"Never mind that now; get your men out to safety, and don't forget the horses! Grant me immunity for a few minutes, and I'll try to find the fuse!"
"Zorro says the rebels lit one, and it's going to reach the powder any second!" rattled one of the soldiers.
"Madre de Dios! Boros! Lopez! Manequa! Get the horses out now! The rest of you, out! Out! Get to safety!"
"Gracias, Sergeant! There may still be time to save the cuartel!" responded the legendary hero, jumping down from the roof. The door to the magazine had a heavy padlock on it, though. "Sergeant! Where's the key to this door?"
"The alcalde has it somewhere! I don't know!" Mendoza replied frantically.
"Bring your musket here quickly!" the man in black demanded. The lancer did so, and Zorro snatched it from his hands. Using the butt, he hammered at the lock. Once, twice, three times he brought the end of the weapon down with the full force of his arms against the lock. The iron lock did not budge, but the hinges holding the mechanism in place began to splinter from the door. Two more powerful blows opened the door marked with the sign of a skull and crossbones. The bandit pushed it open all the way, and the acrid smell of smoke greeted the two men.
"The fuse is lit," garbled the sergeant. "We've got to get out of here now!"
"Go!" Zorro told him and shoved him toward the cuartel gates. "I'll try to find it!"
"You'll be blown to smithereens!" wailed the soldier in protest, but when the masked man ignored him and disappeared inside the darkened doorway, Mendoza gave one more desperate look toward the safety of the open gates and fled.
The Fox sniffed the air around himself quickly. The smell was strongest in the center, and he checked carefully around the stacked crates for a fuse. The tiny spark of crackling fire caught his eye in the dim light. Santo Salvador! It was crawling under a barrel of gunpowder at that very instant! No time to put it out! Only time to--