The Curse of Capistrano/Chapter 16

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Chapter 16

The Chase That Failed

SEÑOR ZORRO CHARGED HIS HORSE DOWN the treacherous slope of the hill, where there was loose gravel and a misstep would spell disaster, and where the troopers were slow to follow. Sergeant Gonzales possessed courage enough, and some of the men followed him, while others galloped off to right and left, planning to intercept the fugitive when he reached the bottom and turned.

Señor Zorro, however, was before them, and took the trail toward San Gabriel at a furious gallop, while the troopers dashed along behind, calling to one another, and now and then discharging a pistol with a great waste of powder and ball and no result so far as capturing or wounding the highwayman was concerned.

Soon the moon came up. Señor Zorro had been anticipating that, and knew that it would make his escape more difficult. But his horse was fresh and strong, while those ridden by the troopers had covered many miles during the day, and so hope was not gone.

Now he could be seen plainly by those who pursued, and he could hear Sergeant Conzales crying upon his men to urge their beasts to the utmost and effect a capture. He glanced behind him as he rode, and observed that the troopers were scattering out in a long line, the stronger and fresher horses gaining on the others.

So they rode for some five miles, the troopers holding the distance, but not making any gain, and Señor Zorro knew that soon their horses would weaken, and that the good steed he bestrode, which gave no signs of fatigue as yet, would outdistance them. Only one thing bothered him—he wanted to be traveling in the opposite direction.

Here the hills rose abruptly on either side of the highway, and it was not possible for him to turn aside and make a great -circle, nor were there any trails he could follow; and if he attempted to have his horse climb, he would have to make slow progress, and the troopers would come near enough to fire their pistols, and mayhap wound him.

So he rode straight ahead, gaining a bit now, knowing that two miles farther up the valley there was a trail that swung off to the right, and that by following it he would come to higher ground and so could double back on his tracks.

He had covered one of the two miles before he remembered that it had been noised abroad that a landslide had been caused by the recent torrential rain and had blocked this higher trail. So he could not use that even when he reached it; and now a bold thought came to his mind.

As he topped a slight rise in the terrain, he glanced behind once more and saw that no two of the troopers were riding side by side. They were well scattered, and there was some distance between each two of them. It would help his plan.

He dashed around a bend in the highway and pulled up his horse. He turned the animal's head back toward whence he had come, and bent forward in the saddle to listen. When he could hear the hoofbeats of his nearest pursuer's horse, he drew his blade, took a turn of the reins around his left wrist, and suddenly struck his beast in the flanks cruelly with his sharp rowels.

The animal he rode was not used to such treatment, never having felt the spurs except when in a gallop and his master wished greater speed. Now he sprang forward like a thunderbolt, dashed around the curve like a wild stallion, and bore down upon the nearest of Señor Zorro's foes.

"Make way," Señor Zorro cried.

The first man gave ground readily, not sure that this was the highwayman coming back, and when he was sure of it he shrieked the intelligence to those behind, but they could not understand because of the clatter of hoofs on the hard road.

Señor Zorro bore down upon the second man, clashed swords with him, and rode on. He dashed around another curve, and his horse struck another fairly, and hurled him from the roadway. Zorro swung at the fourth man, and missed him, and was glad that the fellow's counterstroke missed as well.

And now there was nought but the straight ribbon of road before him, and his galloping foes dotting it. Like a maniac he rode them through, cutting and slashing at them as he passed. Sergeant Conzales, far in the rear because of his jaded mount, realized what was taking place and screeched at his men, and even as he screeched a thunderbolt seemed to strike his horse, unseating him.

And then Señor Zorro was through them and gone, and they were following him again, a cursing sergeant at their head, but at a distance slightly greater than before.

He allowed his horse to go somewhat slower now, since he could keep his distance, and rode to the first cross trail, into which he turned. He took to higher ground and looked back to see the pursuit streaming out over the hill, losing itself in the distance, but still determined.

"It was an excellent trick," Señor Zorro said to his horse. "But we cannot try it often!"

He passed the hacienda of a man friendly to the governor, and a thought came to him—Gonzales might stop there and obtain fresh horses for himself and his men.

Nor was he mistaken in that. The troopers dashed up the driveway, and dogs howled a welcome. The master of the hacienda came to the door, holding a candelero high above his head.

"We chase Señor Zorro!" Gonzales cried. "We require fresh steeds, in the name of the governor!"

The servants were called, and Gonzales and his men hurried to the corral. Magnificent horses were there, horses almost as good as the one the highwayman rode, and all were fresh. The troopers quickly stripped saddles and bridles from their jaded mounts and put them on the fresh steeds, and then dashed for the trail again and took up the pursuit. señor Zorro had gained quite a lead, but there was only one trail he could follow, and they might overtake him.

Three miles away, on the crest of a small hill, there was a hacienda that had been presented to the mission of San Gabriel by a caballero who had died without leaving heirs. The governor had threatened to take it for the state, but so far had not done so, the Franciscans of San Gabriel having a name for protecting their property with determination.

In charge of this hacienda was one Fray Felipe, a member of the order who was along in years, and under his direction the neophytes made the estate a profitable one, raising much livestock and sending to the storehouses great amounts of hides and tallow and honey and fruit, as well as wine.

Gonzales knew the trail they were following led to this hacienda, and that just beyond it there was another trail that split, one part going to San Gabriel and the other returning to Reina de Los Angeles by a longer route.

If Señor Zorro passed the hacienda, it stood to reason that he would take the trail that ran toward the pueblo, since, had he wished to go to San Gabriel, he would have continued along the highway in the first place, instead of turning and riding back through the troopers at some risk to himself.

But he doubted whether Zorro would pass. For it was well known that the highwayman dealt harshly with those who prosecuted the frailes, and it was to be believed that every Franciscan held a friendly feeling for him and would give him aid.

The troopers came within sight of the hacienda, and could see no light. Gonzales stopped them where the driveway started, and listened in vain for sounds of the man they pursued. He dismounted and inspected the dusty road, but could not tell whether a horseman had ridden toward the house recently.

He issued quick orders, and the troop separated, half of the men remaining with their sergeant and the others scattering in such manner that they could surround the house, search the huts of the natives, and look at the great barns.

Then Sergeant Gonzales rode straight up the driveway with half his men at his back, forced his horse up the steps to the veranda as a sign that he held this place in little respect, and knocked on the door with the hilt of his sword.