Zorro Hunts A Jackal
By Johnston McCulley 1933
Page 8 of 8
The Last Taunt
Out of the pueblo they flew, along the hard highway which ran toward San Fernando. There was no moon, but the mist had now been dispelled by the sea breeze. Ahead, now and then, they caught sight of horse and rider against the starlit sky. They gained some, and that heartened them. Capitán Torello, leading, urged them on. Half-naked they rode, the troopers from Reina de Los Angeles, rage burning within them. In some strange manner he had made babies and fools of them, this Zorro, and they sought revenge—as well as the reward that had been offered. Over hills they went, around great curves in the highway, up slopes and down through gulches. And because of the mocking laugh that came back to them, and the hoofs pounding on ahead, they knew they still followed Zorro.
“Flaming skeleton!” Zorro chuckled as he rode. “A man may have a certain amusement by the use of phosphorus.—A glow in the night!”
He laughed yet again, so that his pursuers heard as they slackened pace to negotiate a steep hill. Then Zorro increased speed a little, gradually increasing the distance between himself and the enemy—yet not so much that the pounding of his mount’s hoofs could not be heard.
They swept after him, around another long curve in the road and up another slope. Zorro increased his speed again, and presently skidded his big black to a stop near the edge of a sea of brush.
“All is well, José! Ride!”
Zorro sprang out of the saddle, and José of the Cocopahs sprang into it. The black started again, and again the ringing hoofs gave signal to those behind. Crouching in the brush, Zorro watched them ride furiously past, chasing José, who had a way of losing them when he willed, and of caring for the black in a secret hiding place.
Zorro rushed along a little trail and came to the spot where he had left his clothes. Swiftly he stripped the Zorro costume from him, put aside mask and blade, and donned the clothing of Don Diego Vega. The Zorro costume, streaked with phosphorus, was hidden beneath a rock, where José would get it later.
Through the brush Don Diego Vega hurried, then, and up the side of the hill, approaching the great house of the Pulidos cautiously. From the servants’ huts there came a gale of laughter, and he heard the raucous voice of Sergeant Pedro Gonzales, evidently happy.
Zorro went up to the big front door, and used the knocker. A servant opened to him, and he strode across a wide room to find Don Carlos Pulido rising to greet him.
Don Diego! At this hour! There is something amiss?”
“Why, no, señor,” Don Diego said, and yawned. “Two or three hours ago I came to your fine house to make you a visit of courtesy and to have speech with the father of my betrothed. Do you not remember?”
“How is this?”
“We have been talking of politics, all this while, and I have been greatly bored. I am just now taking leave of you, señor. I came with the big sergeant, Gonzales, for escort. Will you have the kindness to send a servant and tell the sergeant to bring my horse to the front?”
“Certainly, Don Diego!”
The servant was called by a clapping of hands, and the order given.
“This man realizes that I have been here for hours, does he not? He admitted me again just now, it is true, but I had only stepped out to ascertain the meaning of some sound we heard.”
“Have no fear.” Don Carlos Pulido smiled.
“There is but one soiled wine glass on the table,” Don Diego observed.
“And there should be two when two men have been talking for hours? Do me the honor, Don Diego, of soiling another.”
Don Diego did so, and as their eyes met over the tops of their glasses, Don Carlos Pulido’s brows arched questioningly.
“Zorro has been riding?” he asked.
“So I understand.”
“Good fortune attend him always!” Don Car-los said earnestly.
“I thank you.”
“And wipe the red dust from your boots before you leave. Can you imagine even a dolt of a trooper thinking you got that dust on your boots in my house?”
Don Diego turned scarlet, took out his scented handkerchief and wiped his boots with it, then tucked it away where no other could find it.
“The best of us grow careless at times,” he muttered.
Then they went to the door together, a servant holding a torch; and there was Sergeant Pedro Gonzales with the horses.
Don Diego Vega mounted, waved to his host, and rode away, down the lane and toward the main road that ran to Reina de Los Angeles.
“Did you find your wench, Gonzales?” he asked haughtily.
“She was away on a visit to an aunt—but I found another.”
“And the wine was good?”
“Excellent—and plenty of it. I ask a favor, Don Diego. Whenever you need an escort to come to the Pulido hacienda, ask for my services.”
“You had sport, and I but talked politics,” Don Diego said. “But what is this we have ahead?” he demanded all at once.
“Ha!” Gonzales gasped, and whipped out his blade.
Ahead of them was a body of horsemen, riding slowly into the highway from a cross trail. Three of them carried torches.
“Troopers!” Gonzales said, and sighed in relief.
He had expected to fight a band of highwaymen in defense of Don Diego Vegas’s proud and wealthy person.
“And what can they be doing here?” Don Diego asked.
They were heard, and the troop rushed toward them, the torches being held high, Capitan Torello in the van. Arms gleamed in the light. Strained faces looked at Gonzales and the man who rode beside him.
“What is all this?” Don Diego asked.
“Capitén! You ride abroad half-naked, like a native? And your men—some in their night clothing! Is it a lark of some sort?”
Capitán Torello did not like the bantering tone, but he was on guard. He was suspicious of Don Diego Vega, but a man had to have more than mere suspicion when he affronted one of the mighty Vega family.
“We have been chasing Zorro,” the capitán said. “He came to the presidio and attacked the horse trader.”
“The fellow who beats natives?”
“The same,” Torello replied. “You have been to the Pulido hacienda?”
“For a lifetime, it seems,” Don Diego said. “And now I am eager to get me home and to bed.”
The troopers made way for him, and he rode forward.
Capitan Torello urged his mount beside that of the sergeant.
“What has this Don Diego been doing?” the capitán asked.
“He visited in the big house.”
“I cared for it the entire time.”
“Take charge of the troop!”
Capitán Torello spurred forward to a place beside Don Diego Vega again.
“This Zorro marked the—er—horse trader,” he said. “Carved his accursed letter on the fellow’s cheek.”
“Spare me!” Don Diego begged. “Am I always to hear of blood-letting?—Capitán, you are commanding officer under the governor for this district. It is your duty to catch or slay this Zorro and put an end to the turmoil, the constant fighting and pursuits. Why do you not do so?”
Capitan Torello had no adequate answer.