17.  TURNING POINT
 

     A black stallion and masked rider stood in the night shadows by the wharf in San Pedro and silently observed the transactions conducted by two men--the vaquero on the pier and the bearded first mate of the ship which had just docked.  Perhaps his source of information had been mistaken.  The men were only discussing terms concerning the cattle brought to port.  The cowboy insisted on a higher price than he knew he would get--the usual haggling.  Black-market selling of longhorns had for years provided a stable income for the huge ranches in southern California.  When the territory had belonged to the Spanish Empire, the ranchers were only legally allowed to sell and trade with Spanish ships, but British, Russian, and Portuguese ships pulled into port and were happily met and supplied with local beef and hides.  Even since Mexican independence had been declared, the selling of cattle on the sly continued in Los Angeles because of the alcalde's high tariffs.  The man listening from the darkness saw no need to interfere for DeSoto's sake.  He shook his head, thinking what a waste of time it had been to spend most of the night at the port instead of in his own bed.  He had made up his mind to go home when the first mate asked the vaquero about money for a certain crate.  The cattleman asked to inspect the contents of the crate and was invited on board.  Two more men appeared on deck, their faces shaded by their hats, lugging a heavy wooden box between them.  The box was opened by one of the men, who reached in and brought up a rifle, gleaming in the yellow light of a lantern.
     "Thirty guns, Amigo, and the newest kind.  With these, we will finally liberate Los Angeles."  A price was negotiated and the man who had brought out the guns helped the vaquero carry the box from the ship onto a waiting wagon.  He then climbed onto the driver's seat.  It was time to interrupt this dangerous conspiracy, decided the masked man.  As he was stepping from the shadows, the driver of the wagon turned his face toward the lantern's light.  The rider in black recognized him with a shock.  It was the brother of the tavern owner, Ramón Escalante.

     Early the following morning, a lone horseman rode into the plaza and tied off his reins at the tavern's hitching post.  The handsome, dark-haired man strode confidently through the inn's front door and shouted his sister's name.  Victoria hurried from the kitchen at the sound of his voice, and ran into her brother's arms.  He wrapped her in a bear hug and swung her around, laughing with delight.
     "Ramón!  I can't believe you're here at last!"  She held his face in her hands, absorbing every detail.  "You look wonderful!" she declared, throwing her arms around his neck and embracing him warmly.
     "So do you.  It's so good to be home!"
     "How did you get here?  I wasn't expecting you until next week."
     "I had the opportunity to take a ship up the coast.  It docked last night in San Pedro, and here I am," he smiled.  Ramón glanced around the tavern's interior.  "What have you done to this place?  It looks great!"
     Victoria was pleased that her efforts to renovate their family business had not gone unnoticed or unappreciated.  "I've worked hard, saved some money, and made some improvements.  I want this to be the finest tavern in the territory.  Perhaps it can make a good impression on travelers to offset the bad one made by the alcalde."
     His expression sobered.  "You will not have to worry about him much longer, Sister."
 
     Felipe had noticed his elder brother's preoccupation since returning home in the wee hours of the morning.  Usually Diego would tell him what had happened, but he had been uncommunicative all day, restlessly moving from one activity to another before announcing he was going for a ride.  The younger man called to him hoarsely, "May I come with you?"
     Diego de la Vega turned and looked unsmilingly at his brother before nodding briefly.  They rode together through the open countryside without a word.  Felipe had become sensitive to every mood of the tall caballero, who was not at all his usual open-mannered self.  Diego was riding fast and hard, as if trying to trample some troublesome thoughts, scarcely aware of his companion.
     Perhaps I'd better not ask him about it yet, thought Felipe.  He'll tell me when he's ready.

     It was no use postponing the inevitable, Diego conceded, as he rode to town the following morning.  He tied his horse in front of The Guardian's office and walked over to the tavern to see if Ramón had made his presence in the area known to his sister.  No one was on the main floor, but he heard voices upstairs.  Reaching the second floor landing he called the innkeeper's name.  The siblings emerged from one of the bedrooms--Victoria holding a pile of linen and Ramón with paper and pencil.
     "Buenos dias, Diego--I didn't hear you come in.  Look, Ramón is back.  He arrived yesterday," she beamed.  The two men shook hands, exchanged greetings and smiles.  De la Vega managed to conceal his uneasiness and engaged the brother in small talk.
     "Is Victoria teaching you about the tavern's management?
     "That's right.  I'm taking notes and making a ledger.  Now that I'm living here, I need to earn my keep.  Victoria's done well for herself, but it's more than she should have had to do alone."
     Diego nodded his approval.  "An admirable sentiment."
     The señorita interjected tartly, "You both would do well to keep in mind that I haven't needed anyone's help to make the tavern a success!"  She relented, "Still, it's good to have you here, Ramón."
     "Diego, I understand that you're the editor of the newspaper."
     "That's right; in fact, I'm spending the morning at the office to set the type for this week's edition."
     "Do you ever allow others to contribute articles to the paper?  I might like to write an editorial or something."
     Diego smiled politely.  "Of course.  This week's paper will be concerned mostly with Don Esteban's rodeo, but if you can get an article to me by tomorrow, I'll try to put it in."

     Three days later, Sergeant Mendoza reported to his commandant for the day's orders.  Alcalde DeSoto enumerated several things which were standard duties.
     "One more thing; I want a lancer assigned to watch Ramón Escalante.  He's fostering rebellion among the people.  Listen to this tripe."  He picked up a copy of The Guardian and read, "'It is the privilege and duty of democratic citizens to elect their own officials to govern them.  This is what the rest of Mexico is doing.  Why does this pueblo lag behind, still tolerating Spanish rule?'  I want a report of where he goes and with whom he speaks."
     Mendoza had known Ramón for years, but he answered obediently, "Sí, Alcalde."
     Then the commandant spoke of a concern nearer his heart.  "We haven't raised nearly enough revenue from our cattle tax.  With the thousands of head of cattle in this area our coffers should be overflowing.  The caballeros are evading the taxes somehow."  He stroked his beard, frowning.  "They must know of ship movements that we don't.  The only logical place to sell the beef is in San Pedro.  They're probably moving the cattle at night to avoid our tax assessors."
     "But, Alcalde, we cannot spare the men to watch the ships at San Pedro every night on the chance that someone is moving a herd," protested the sergeant.
     "We may not have to; I have an idea.  Don Esteban's rodeo promises to be a big affair to which the community is invited.  The lancers will all go too, dressed in civilian clothes.  They will enter contests, mingle with the vaqueros, and listen for information.  The lancer who brings word of a black-market movement will receive one hundred pesos.  You and I will go dressed in uniform and be vigilant ourselves."
     "Sí, Alcalde."

     That night, Ramón locked up the tavern and went to the small room at the back, which he had claimed as his own rather than take one of the nicer rooms on the second floor.  As he closed the door behind him, he saw a dark figure standing in the shadows.
     "Zorro!" he cried in astonishment.
     "Buenas noches, Ramón."
     "Ah, Amigo, it's good to see you!" he greeted, striding forward with his hand outstretched.
     The masked man took his hand gravely.  "And I have already seen you--at San Pedro a few nights ago, unloading a shipment of thirty rifles.  You're arming the people for revolt."
     Ramón's smile faded.  "You sound disapproving.  I thought you especially would be an ally."
     "A violent confrontation is not the answer.  Innocent people could be hurt or killed."
     "You're very naive, Zorro.  Do you know how many people died in Mexico to produce independence?  Sometimes freedom must be bought with blood!" declared Escalante heatedly.
     "Whose blood, Ramón?  Who are you sacrificing?  The alcalde?  As wrong as he may be, are you willing to kill him?  The soldiers?  They're just trying to follow orders.  Do you intend to shoot them?"
     Escalante's eyes slid away.  "I hope it won't come to that."
     "If you plan a standoff with the garrison, it will come to that; DeSoto won't back down.  And townspeople will be killed.  Women and children will suffer too in the slaughter; they lose husbands and fathers.  I know well the people of this pueblo.  They are not a nameless, faceless mass.  It's too high a price."
     "DeSoto should have left for Spain months ago with the rest of the Spanish military.  And do you know why he's still here?"  He cocked an eyebrow inquisitively.  "He's enriching himself from the caballeros.  That's what his new cattle tax is all about; my vaquero friends have told me.  He can't get enough from the poor, so he's building a nest egg with money from the rich.  He knows his days are numbered here."  Ramón jutted out his chin.  "It's time to drive him out and elect our own alcalde.  The people only need a leader.  You  could have rallied them.  Why haven't you?"
     "I'm not the one to do that; I'm an outlaw.  Besides, it was never my objective to interfere with the politics of the government.  I'd rather see our bad officials come to a better understanding of the people they govern."
     Ramón gave him a contemptuous look.  "All you've done all these years is react.  You set yourself an impossible task; you can't get rid of the evil inside of a man.  What have you accomplished?  Yes, you have helped many people, my sister and myself included.  But what has changed?  The town is still oppressed by unjust leadership, and the people have learned to depend on Zorro to solve their problems.  You should have taught them how to help themselves.  Crime and injustice are everyone's responsibility."
     Zorro responded in a low voice, "Much of what you say is true.  But know this--if you arm the people, I will oppose you."  He met the challenge of Escalante's eyes and then slipped out the window.
 
     When Zorro returned to the cave, Felipe was waiting for him.  He was not surprised; he knew the young man had been concerned about him for several days.  Never had he felt less communicative, especially after bearing the brunt of criticism which he suspected had more than a grain of truth in it.  Still, he needed his one ally's help.  Dismounting, he told Felipe, "I've been to see Ramón."  While changing clothes he told his brother about his observations at San Pedro and this evening's visit, skimming over the details of Ramón's stinging rebuke.  Felipe listened carefully as he unsaddled and brushed Toronado.
     "I can't let him distribute guns to the populace to use against the soldiers.  It would be like condoning murder."  He heaved a sigh, "If it were someone other than Victoria's brother, I might handle it differently.  But Ramón will soon be my brother-in-law.  I don't want bad feelings between us, and I certainly don't want Victoria caught in the middle."
     "Where did Ramón take the rifles?"
     "I didn't follow him.  I didn't need to; I recognized the vaquero with him.  It was Jorge, Don Esteban's foreman.  I'm sure the guns are at their hacienda somewhere.  I don't know whether or not Don Esteban is involved, but tomorrow at the rodeo, we both have work to do.  I want you to watch Ramón, and I'll watch Jorge.  Perhaps we'll find the guns and discover who else is part of this scheme."
 
     The day of Don Esteban's rodeo dawned fair and promised warmer weather than late February usually delivered.  The de la Vega carriage pulled up to the gracious hacienda of Don Alejandro's best friend, and the three men got out.  The driveway was blocked with the vehicles of other families, and people were milling about everywhere.  A rodeo was a holiday for which the entire pueblo put aside daily chores to enjoy.
     "Just pull up under those trees, Juan," Alejandro directed his driver.  "Take care of the horses, and the rest of the day is yours."
     "Alejandro!" shouted a portly, gray-haired gentleman.  "And Diego, Felipe.  Welcome to my home," he said, shaking hands with each.  "Bring your picnic basket inside for now.  There are calf-roping contests going on in the north corral, and cockfights behind the house.  Some of the vaqueros are having a shooting contest in the east paddock, and I believe I saw Señorita Dolores walking that way with her uncle."  Don Esteban winked at Felipe, who directed a pleading glance at his brother.
     The tall caballero sighed inwardly.  "Thank you, Don Esteban.  Can you tell me whether or not the Escalantes have arrived?"
     "I have not seen them yet."  Diego nodded to his brother, who took off running.  "Alejandro, I know what you are looking forward to--the race.  Jorge is going to be hard to beat, especially on Diablo.  Who are you putting up?"
     "Miguel is the best rider on my rancho, and he'll be on Emilio.  Say adios to your money, my friend," laughed de la Vega.
     "A small wager, then, to encourage our men--two hundred pesos?" grinned his host.
     The bet was agreed upon, and the older men went off congenially together, leaving Diego alone.  He decided to waste no time in locating the rancho's foreman and went first to the north corral.  It was an accurate hunch, because he spotted Jorge on the opposite side of the fence, watching his compadres rope young steers.
     This is a perfect vantage point, he thought, and watched the vaquero as well as lasso throw after throw of amazing accuracy.
     "Don Diego, I'd like a word with you," DeSoto's voice spoke harshly beside him.
     "Certainly, Alcalde, what is it?" the caballero greeted him with an innocuous smile.
     "It's about that rhetoric of Escalante's you published in the paper.  Its purpose was clearly to criticize my administration and foment revolution.  The article should not have been printed!"
     "It was an editorial, which means it's a matter of the writer's opinion only.  I didn't agree with everything Ramón said, but a public forum in the newspaper is part of what a free press is all about.  You are welcome to submit a rebuttal," calmly responded de la Vega.
     "Escalante is digging up more trouble than he can handle.  He'd do better to keep an eye on himself instead of my business," DeSoto muttered.
     "By the way, Alcalde," said Diego blandly, pulling a small notebook and pencil from his jacket pocket, "I'm writing an article for next week's edition on the cattle tax.  Would you mind telling me the purpose of this tariff and how much money you expect to raise?"
     The commandant looked discomfited for just an instant, then quickly recovered.  "I don't have time now; I must find Sergeant Mendoza."
     The genial sergeant was at that moment with Señora Amistad, and her daughter Ana was happily perched on his shoulders to get a better view of the bullfight.  Don Alejandro strolled up and greeted them.
     "Buenos dias.  Well, Señora, what do you think of the Californian style with the bull?"
     "It's much more enjoyable to watch than the slaughter in Mexican bullfights; the vaqueros are experts at exhausting the bulls."
     "Yes.  We consider ourselves more genteel up here though we take a lot of abuse about our love of horses.  It's quite true that a Californio would rather hunt than fish since hunting can be done from the saddle," laughed Alejandro, and the others joined in.
     One of the de la Vega men ran up.  "Patrón, Miguel has been injured in the steer-throwing contest.  He cannot ride for you today."
     "Oh no."  The older man was concerned but disappointed.  "Take him home, Pablo.  I'll have to withdraw my horse, I guess.  On second thought, where's Diego?"
     Don Diego was listening carefully from behind a feed shed to Jorge discuss the rifles with another man.  Don Esteban's foreman opened the shed door, and the two men went inside.
     "There are more than a hundred rifles here, Amigo.  Tonight, while everyone is preoccupied with dancing, meet me here and we'll distribute them."
     De la Vega stayed hidden until the sound of their footsteps had faded away.  Then he inspected the contents of the shed himself, finding inside several crates of rifles and ammunition.
     It's like a small armory, he thought.  I must get home.  His father found him a few minutes later saddling their prize racehorse, Emilio.
     "Diego, I've been looking for you everywhere.  It looks like you've already heard about Miguel; I was coming to ask you to race for me instead."
     "Actually, I was going--"  His son stopped short upon seeing his father's hopeful expression.  "You know I'm not much of a rider, Father."
     "At least try for me, Diego.  Emilio deserves the chance to run.  Just let him go; he'll make you look good.  You don't have to win the whole race; just beat Esteban's Diablo."
     "Jorge's his rider, isn't he?"  His son made an unexpected decision.  "Yes, I'll race for you."
     A few minutes later, nearly thirty mounted riders approached the starting line.  Most of them Diego recognized as vaqueros or caballeros from the neighboring ranchos.  A few horses were familiar, too--from the garrison, and their riders were wearing plain clothes.
     Well, well--it seems the alcalde has his own purposes for being here today, he thought.
     Don Esteban gave instructions to the participants.  "Señores, this is a four mile course marked by red flags.  You must keep the flags on your left.  The route will go around the base of the hill, through the meadow and over the stream, then across the pasture.  The finish line is back here.  The starting signal will be my pistol shot.  Ready?"
     At the sound of the gun, everyone dug in his heels and started off to the roar of the crowd who had gathered to watch.  De la Vega had not begun on the front line so initially had to contend with the cloud of dust kicked up by the flying hooves ahead of him.  Soon the field spread out a little, and he was easily able to move up.  There were only a few horses racing that were even close to Emilio's caliber, and he could see Diablo in the lead.
     "C'mon, Boy, we're gaining on him," he urged the chestnut.  Emilio was almost as responsive and strong as Toronado--a fabulous horse.  The stallion needed very little encouragement to put forth his best effort, and as they rounded the hill, only two horses were still in front of him--one of them the black blur of Diablo.  Through the meadow the leaders galloped, and Diego was closing the gap between himself and the white horse in second place.  As they jumped the stream, Emilio pulled ahead and redoubled his efforts to catch the leader.
     Now will it be the horse or the rider that makes the difference? he wondered as he drew up on Diablo's flank.  Jorge was an excellent rider who spent most of his days in the saddle, and his mount was magnificent.  The foreman turned his head to look at the challenger as Diego pulled even with him.  Now it was a hard, flat ride to the finish line, both men and their horses giving their utmost.  The few hundred guests of Don Esteban had gathered to watch the finish and began cheering.  Not in years had there been such a close race.  The riders crouched low over their horses' heads, racing dead even toward the flag held aloft by the rancho's owner.  Emilio inched ahead a few yards shy of the finish, winning by a nose.  The cheers of approval from the crowd surrounded Diego as he walked the victorious stallion back to the finish.  He could scarcely contain his own elation as he accepted the congratulations from well-wishers clapping him on the back and wringing his hand.  Alejandro was beside himself with delight as he embraced his son.
     "I knew you could do it; that was the best riding I ever saw!"
     "Thank you, Father, but it would be hard to lose on Emilio.  He deserves the credit.  I think he needs to cool down a bit.  I'll ride him home at an easy pace and leave him with Miguel, then return in time for the picnic."

     I hate to destroy our neighbor's property, thought Zorro, but it's far easier this way than waiting until after the guns have been distributed.  The masked man pushed all the crates in the shed close together.  He then sprinkled a trail of gunpowder from the door to the boxes of rifles and ammunition and set the small powder keg between them.  Striking a piece of flint, he sparked the fuse and went out, locking the door behind him.  Looking in all directions, he jumped into Toronado's saddle and rode away hard.  This was one action of Zorro's that he did not care to have linked to the hero's name.  It would be far better to have the shed's destruction a mystery.  The explosion a few minutes later was loud enough to be heard halfway back to the cave.  He turned his head and saw a column of smoke billowing in the sky, and grimly pressed on, unaware he had been seen riding away by Ramón Escalante.
 

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