David Belasco stood at the back of his unmoving train, staring out the open door. His hand clutched reflexively for the pocket-watch he normally twirled. Finding nothing, he had to settle for drumming his fingers steadily against the wall.
The reason for his displeasure was obvious. His train had lost over a third of its length sometime in the last fifteen minutes. The cars containing his company's horses, tigers, and exotic birds had been detached and left far behind. He couldn't even see them from here. That in and of itself would have been good reason to be upset. But to top it off, it was now becoming painfully obvious that he had lost far more than just some boxcars and animals.
Belasco had ordered the engineer to stop the locomotive after learning what had happened. Enough time had passed that the missing tail-end vehicles should have slowed down under their own volition. There was no danger of them crashing into the car he now stood in even if no one had bothered to throw the brakes on them. Which doubtless they had. This was obviously part of someone's plan against him.
Rounding on the only remaining members of his inner circle, he spoke in a manner devoid of his usual actor's zeal. "Zorro was here. You had a gun. Why didn't you shoot him?"
Anatolia sat with the insensate Hernando's head in her lap. She stroked his hairless scalp absently and offered a disinterested flick of her eyes in Belasco's direction. "You hired an exotic entertainer, not a gunfighter. I won't commit murder for you. That's what Bong Cha is for."
"Has your stage name gotten to your head, princess?" he hissed back. "You signed on to this venture. Hell, we all did! There's nothing separating you from me or anyone else. It's no use pretending as if you're above reproach!"
"I may be damned," she replied evenly, "but that's no reason to behave like a monster. I have a…" and her lip quirked, "… conscience."
He looked ready to explode. His jaw thrust out, and the furious mastermind found himself momentarily at a loss for words. Some part of him wanted to rage and stomp and express just how horrible this situation really was, while another facet of his personality urged him to remain calm, not alienate his depleted allies and try to figure out a solution to this problem.
Whipping around, Belasco once more glowered out at the nighttime scenery. He leaned against the frame, feeling it rub against his scalp roughly. A stray thought struck him that the wood was a file he was grinding his brain against, striving to sharpen his thinking into something that would be useful in this situation.
What do I know? Who can I depend on? The two people left behind, for certain. If they had planned to betray me, I doubt they would have troubled to remain within my reach. They ought to know me well enough to understand what that would mean. Better try to reassure them, then.
Adopting a slumped posture, he turned back around and smiled tiredly at his only remaining confidante. "Listen, there's no use arguing about it now. We should prepare for the worst. First off, do you have any idea where the others might be?"
No need to ask whom he meant. "If you haven't found any of them by now, I think it's safe to assume they got left somewhere behind us."
This conversation was not serving to improve his mood.
"You didn't see any of them? Ari, Luis?"
She shook her head.
"Not even Bong Cha?"
The theater manager considered this, drawing a deep breath and tapping his fingers slowly against the doorframe. "We can reverse, go back and pick them up," he muttered. "Obviously they separated at this car for a reason. They wanted the horses."
"Obviously," she responded sardonically.
Belasco banged the cage in a fury, causing the monkeys within to yelp. "If you don't have anything useful to say, then kindly keep QUIET! I need to figure this out!"
"Somebody already has." Anatolia returned a challenging stare to his incensed features. "I can't hazard a guess as to how many of the others are involved, but this Zorro person clearly has it in for you."
"Me?" Belasco scowled. "Why me?"
"I didn't ask, and he didn't hang around to tell. He just said that you were finished." Strangely, Anatolia found herself smiling at the memory. "It seemed to me like he was a man of his word."
His eyes went wide, mouth coming open on a quick inhalation of breath. Slowly Belasco shook his head from side to side. "No. Some… half-baked myth will not bring me down, do you hear? I am the head of this company, I built it up from nothing, and people had best RECOGNIZE that! I've been taking shit from swine who thought they were better than me since I was a boy, and this is MY TIME to shine! I have not begun to collect on what the world owes ME!"
Hernando stirred, groaning, and Anatolia peered closely at him. When he failed to awake, she heaved a tired sigh and rubbed her temples. "Would you listen to yourself, Belasco? You're sounding like one of your own characters. You act as though your life is a play, and maybe that's been true enough up 'til now. But you're not the hero, you know. Just another villain, same as me. " The beautiful woman gave a rueful chuckle then. "Actually, this whole affair is just as tiresome as any play you've ever written. If I had paid money to see it, I'd ask for a refund."
He looked like he was ready to strike her, but before any such thing could happen, another member of their company came bursting in wearing his nightshirt.
"David!" the actor gasped. "Thank God, you've got to come quick! We've got trouble, there's a group of soldiers outside the train!"
"What? Soldiers?" A measure of fear crept into his voice. "You mean… Mexicans?"
"What? No!" The man gave him a funny look. "American cavalry, down from Fort Merril! I thought they were going to help, but they said they've come because someone tipped them off that there was something illegal going on aboard our train! They want to talk to you!"
David paled. "All right. I'll be there in just a minute."
When they were alone together again, he looked to Anatolia. "Seems your Zorro planned ahead. But it doesn't matter. Sanchez is gone, and as far as anyone knows, he was never even here. And no one will say otherwise. Right, my dear?"
She smiled wanly. "Whatever you say, boss."
With a last twist of his lip, he strode past her to deal with this new difficulty.
Pietro was at a loss once again. He had been preparing his steed when the door opened behind him and Luis gave a shout. Then there was smoke and the sound of a struggle. Overhead somebody started screaming, who he couldn't tell. Unnerved, he rushed to see what was happening.
And then a boot hit him right in the gut. The next thing he knew, Pietro was doubled up on the floor coughing, bound, and gagged.
Oh, God, not again.
A few seconds later he was hoisted up and roughly shoved down the aisle. They passed over to the next compartment, at which point he was flung to the ground. Birds chirped in their cages by the dozen. It was absolutely mind-blowing, being yanked from safety to capture back and forth like this. And he was so very tired. For the time being, he resolved to simply lie there and conserve his strength in preparation for whatever lay ahead.
The car gave a rumbling jerk, just as when Ari uncoupled them from the rest. He guessed that the same thing had happened. Then there was a squealing sound, and Pietro actually slid across the floor. The birds squawked in alarm, flying from one perch to another. After a few seconds he realized they were slowing down considerably. Someone must have thrown the brakes.
There came a thump, followed by footsteps coming closer. When he looked up, the dazed youth found himself confronted by the unsmiling dark phantom from before.
"Get up," his attacker demanded.
Pietro only shook his head stubbornly. It was childish, he knew, but he was done being manhandled about like a sack of grain. Unfortunately, this person did not seem willing to argue the point. Instead he hoisted him up with easy strength and shoved Sanchez stumbling along.
"Why are you doing this?" Pietro gasped as they moved into the boxcar that held the wild beasts. Tigers eyed them with a chilling disinterest, like the only thing that prevented the two humans from becoming their next meal were the metal bars between them. "For mercy's sake, what have I ever done to you?"
"Nothing, boy," his tormentor supplied back. "It wouldn't surprise me if someone of your low character could not understand."
This actually served to rouse his spirit, and Pietro jerked suddenly away, turning to confront that shadowy villain. "Who do you think you are? Just a man in a mask, what can you possibly know about who I am? You think I have no regret for what I did? God knows the many nights I have lain awake begging for his forgiveness! I regret my crime as much as any man ever did. Being a sinner does not make me evil! Your judgments hold no weight, only God can determine the worth of my soul!"
"Is that so, Sanchez?" the masked man replied coolly. "Then I will do as you advise, and leave the fate of your soul to God."
Abruptly a sword flashed from its scabbard. The lethal tip pricked him right in the sternum, causing Pietro to go rigid with fright. Around them, the tigers roused, scenting his terror enough to make them prowl hungrily around the pair.
"I could deliver your wretched self up to the Creator right now for His consideration."
The sword slashed sidewise blindingly swift, causing the teen to emit a strangled moan. His shirt parted along the cut. However, there was no pain, nor blood.
"But I am not so arrogant as to think I can divine God's plan enough to know when you should die." Another sweep of the blade, cleaving cloth but only grazing skin.
"Heaven or hell must wait. As long as your heart is beating, you are answerable here and now for every crime you commit against a fellow human being. I need look no further than my own soul to need a reason why."
One last horizontal slice in the same direction as the first, and there was a large 'Z' cut into his shirt. Zorro's weapon slipped back into its sheathe.
"The soul we will leave to God's mercy, then. In the meantime, the man will face justice during his time on Earth."
And with that he spun Pietro about and shoved him towards the back of the train.
The time it took to throw on a pair of pants and shoes gave him the chance to cool down a little. It took some effort to force a smile onto his face, but by the time Belasco reached the front of the train, he was fairly certain he had a version that wouldn't spook small children. In his experience, soldiers were about as troublesome. And just as easily handled.
"Greetings," he said upon stepping onto the platform. "I am David Belasco, the owner of this company. What brings you gentlemen to us this evening?"
Before him in a circle of torchlight were a couple of U.S. army officers on horseback. A company of about fifty rangers milled to their rear. The sight of so many rifles, pistols and uniforms left him feeling decidedly uncomfortable. Nothing like a gun and a badge to let a man know how little his prized intellect really counted in the world.
One of the officers boasting a saber and shoulder-length curly hair patted his horse's neck and spoke soothingly to the beast. He then looked up with a frown half-hidden beneath drooping whiskers. "Mr. Belasco, I'm Captain Cunningham from Fort Merril. This is Sergeant Dimes."
He indicated to his left where a squat stubbly-cheeked brute sat sweating atop his horse. The captain then peered keenly up and down the length of the train, where numerous windows showed the faces of surprised and sleepy travelers roused from their beds. "I see you and your entourage have found yourselves in some difficulty this evening."
"Yes, indeed," David sighed and clapped his hands together, affecting the air of a much-put-upon businessman. "We had something of an uproar, you might say. An oil lamp was knocked over that started a fire in the rear cars. We were forced to cut a few loose to prevent the flames from spreading. Since fortune seems to have smiled on us by sending you fine folk to our rescue, I wonder if we might prevail upon you to ride down the tracks and reassure our friends left behind that all is well and we will be rejoining them shortly?"
Cunningham crossed his hands on the pommel of his mount and leaned forward. "Actually, it wasn't fortune that brought us together, sir. Rest assured I've already dispatched some of my men to see to your lagging kin. The truth is we received a telegraph from Laredo early this evening warning us that a private train coming up from Mexico was engaged in smuggling across the border."
David's mouth had fallen open at the word 'smuggling'. He directed a clearly shocked look at the soldiers, then appeared to collect himself. "Captain, I… I think you must be mistaken. My people are an honest crew to the last man. I insist upon it! There is no way they, or I for that matter, would ever engage in anything so despicable as what you say!"
"I'm pleased to hear it, Mr. Belasco. With that being said, I'm sure you wouldn't begrudge me the opportunity to set my own mind at ease regarding this very serious matter." He frowned beneath bushy brows. "The U.S. Army would be very appreciative if you would kindly allow us to search through your belongings and learn whether or not there is any merit to the charge."
"Ah, you see, we've had a very taxing past few days, as you must understand." David played his part to the hilt, wringing his hands and looking quite put out. "Is there no chance we could put this off 'til the morning and let my people get a few hours sleep? They're all very tired from our adventure this evening."
"We won't take long in our search, I assure you." Captain Cunningham made a gesture to the men behind him, who turned their mounts and proceeded to ride down the tracks. "If you cooperate, and everything is found to be in order, we'll offer you all our help in resolving your difficulties and see you safely on your way."
"Well, when you put it like that," the director flashed a smile at him, "we'd be delighted to have you aboard." He indicated for them to come inside. "I'll let my employees know what is happening and then assist you however you need. Your troops might see a few things that shock them, my good man, but certainly nothing criminal. Of that you have my word."
"Very good, then." Cunningham and Dimes dismounted, slapping the dust from their navy blue uniforms. They then marched up the steps and moved past David, who graciously allowed them to pass by.
No peril at all, Belasco assured himself. Just need to get these fools satisfied and off my train. Even if they do locate the back cars, I doubt they'll find Pietro still there. This is just a nuisance I have to contend with before getting back to my real business. I'm safe. I'm protected.
I'm feeling ill.
Zorro pocketed the thin whistle he had just blown on and proceeded to lean against the rail, waiting. Squatting beside him, Pietro was far less sanguine about their situation. His ankles were now tied as well, rendering him immobile save for the possibility of crawling like a worm. They were at the rear of the caboose, which had finally come to a halt a few minutes back. When asked what they were waiting for, Zorro simply replied, "Our ride."
He took note of how badly the kid was trembling. Not a malicious man by nature, Zorro still felt one thing should be made clear from this point on. "There's no sense in your trying to escape. By now Belasco and his cronies are dealing with the American authorities, whom I contacted back in Laredo. If I hadn't gotten you off the train in time, you would have been arrested for entering the country illegally. After that I couldn't say for sure what your fate might have been, so count yourself fortunate. At least down in Mexico you have some allies to call upon."
Sanchez merely shook his head with tears streaming down his cheeks. "They're going to kill me!" he blubbered. "It doesn't matter what I do, the general is going to have my head! Can't you see that you're sending me off to die? What kind of man are you?"
The black rider gave a contemptuous snort. "I find it laughable to be asked the question by you, boy." He continued to scan the horizon, and was preparing to blow another blast on his whistle when suddenly movement caught his eye. Squinting into the soft pall of night, he at last caught sight of a pitch-black form galloping towards them. Ah, Tornado, you've proven my faith in you once again.
Less than a minute later the great stallion pulled up before them, sweating slightly but looking none the worse at trying to keep a steady pace with a locomotive. Having followed the tracks to join them, Zorro would have preferred to give him time to rest. But there was no guarantee they were not about to have company soon, whether soldiers or not. It was time to get moving.
With that he yanked Sanchez upright, ignoring his pitiful whimpering. Zorro hoisted his spindly frame off the ground and flung him over Tornado's back in front of the saddle. Leaping atop his steed, he then urged him to a swift trot. With one hand on the reins and the other preventing Pietro from falling, they took off south, following the railroad tracks.
The stars were shining down on them as they bore towards Mexico. It was good to be riding again, Zorro reflected. Considering how many surprises had been in store for him on this night's work, it felt strange not to have to look over his shoulder anymore.
But just to be certain, he did.
And the flash of white he saw gave him enough warning to duck flat, seconds before an arrow whistled through the space his body had previously occupied.
At his command, Tornado spurred forth, long legs churning the earth with every stride.
Risking a look behind, Zorro could still make out what he recognized to be one of the white horses from Belasco's train coming towards them. It was too dark to see clearly, but he had no doubt who the rider must be. The archer, Hwa-Rang. She hadn't given up as one might have hoped. While he could admire her dedication, things were far too precarious right now to take any unnecessary risks.
That last shot had come close more through luck than skill. In conditions this close to full darkness, with the concealing color of his apparel and that of his horse, she would be hard-pressed even to draw a bead on them. In spite of this, he couldn't run the risk of her tailing him all the way back to Mexico. The best course here was to let Tornado fly and lose her in the dark. Her mount might be fresher, but there was no way that glorified show-horse could keep up with his own for long.
Ignoring Pietro's cries, Zorro put heels to his partner's sides, and with that the valiant animal seemed to shake off any lingering lethargy and might as well have sprouted wings from his hooves for how fast they now flew.
The night was his greatest ally. Moving away from the tracks, he urged Tornado on. It wouldn't take much time before they were lost in the gloom. Attempting to follow the sound of his passing would prove fruitless for her. By the time dawn arose they would be well in the lead and able to…
Without warning the sun rose and lit the whole area with its blinding golden light.
Next came a loud boom, and as Zorro blinked in stupefaction, Tornado gave a jerk and screamed in pain.
Then the lights went out, leaving him in the dark in more ways than one.
What in heaven's name just happened? Whatever it may be, the black stallion was no longer running quite as fast. He seemed to be favoring his right side, as though it might be paining him.
Looking back, Zorro was shocked to see an arrow protruding from Tornado's flank. Blood gleamed darkly against the pure black surface.
Then another explosion of light came, and immediately he yanked the reins to the left. This time in the ensuing flash he actually caught a glimpse of the deadly missile streaking by them. In that way Zorro had his answer for what was happening.
Of course, he had completely forgotten. He had seen it at her performance; this woman employed arrows tipped with fireworks. She was using them to get her bearings and see where they were in order to fire off her deadlier arsenal. Tornado had been trained to ignore loud noises, but the bright light distracted him all the same. Meanwhile Hwa-Rang's circus mare was conditioned against both as a result of its profession, so it remained steady on its course while his horse balked, making them an easy target.
She can't have too many of those firecracker shots. As if to refute this, another one exploded close overhead. Once again he turned the stallion's momentarily blind head and narrowly missed two more arrows.
They're not even meant for me, the determined avenger realized. She's aiming at Tornado. She knows I've no means of escape without him. Already the wound was affecting his performance. Devoted and powerful though he might be, the black horse couldn't be expected to triumph under these conditions.
At this point Zorro abandoned any notion of eluding her. The only dependable option was attack.
Having reached this decision, he hauled up violently on the reins. Tornado dug his hooves into the earth and cantered back madly, striving to slow down. It was enough. Grabbing Pietro, the courageous crusader threw himself from the saddle, emitting a short sharp whistle as he did. Even before they hit the ground, the signal had its desired effect and Tornado took off as fast as he could once more. The two of them rolled along in the dirt, finally coming to a halt.
Immediately Zorro was up on his feet. As he had hoped, the white horse disregarded his mount and was coming towards them instead, a pale gray ghost in the lightless prairie. She wants Sanchez, after all. And possibly me. But she'll find the Fox is not to be taken lightly.
Bong Cha noticed the sudden alteration in her target. Now there was a large dark mass rolling free, and even like this she could tell the enemy horse was riderless. Whether it was just the man brought to ground or Sanchez as well, she understood what must be done. The black rider must be disposed of before anything else.
She had employed the same trick he used on her, blinding him, and to far greater effect. His steed was wounded. A clever man, he clearly realized his chances of outrunning them had lessened considerably as a result. Going on the offensive was the only choice he could make. While he hadn't displayed any manner of firearms or projectiles, Bong Cha knew he could very well be armed as such. A close quarters fight was to be avoided. He had a sword, after all, and clearly knew something of combat. Her best tactic remained dispatching him from a distance.
Slowing her mount, the archer from the East prepared another dazzler shot. Lighting it with a snap of her flint-tipped gloves, she launched the missile over their general area and swiftly proceeded to notch two arrows at the same time. Still moving, when the firework went off and allowed her to see, it was to catch a glimpse of the assassin before he and Sanchez were enveloped in a cloud of smoke.
Bong Cha let her bow go slack. If she fired into the cloud, one of her arrows might hit Pietro. While not of any inclination to be concerned about his welfare, she realized that her fortune depended upon his continued health. Therefore she held back on shooting and proceeded to prance carefully around that spot.
She had a limited supply of arrows, it wouldn't do to waste them firing blindly. The same went for him, however. She doubted the man had many of those smoke bombs, and the fact he hadn't used his flash sticks again meant he was probably already out of those. Still meant there might be more to come.
What is he doing in there?
Her answer came when a small spark arced up into the air.
There was no need to ask. She had seen enough of that distinctive glitter back in California to guess what it must portend.
It had been a blind throw, but still she banked her mount hard away from it. The tiny star bounced and rolled across the ground, and then exploded with a deafening boom. Rocks and bits of dirt came pattering down all around them. The shock of it jarred her bones. Used to such displays, Bong Cha's horse didn't falter. She herself came back around just in time to see another stick come sailing out of the smoke. There was a high-pitched whistling sound right before this too blew up, but she paid it no mind.
That one hadn't been close, but it came near enough to make her suspect the black rider must be somewhere on the edge of the cloud, allowing him to gauge her position before throwing. Riding around warily, she trained her eyes on that menacing fogbank, searching for some clue as to her attacker's whereabouts. It would clear soon enough, depending on how many of those smoke pellets he had. 'Til then she just had to keep him from getting too accurate with his throws.
Holding her bowstring tense, Bong Cha searched for an opportunity. The spark from when he lit the fuse. That would be her chance. Just have to wait for him to reveal himself that way, and pick him off when he threw. It would take expert timing. If she nailed him before he flung it off, the dynamite would fall near him and explode, killing her attacker, and possibly Sanchez as well. The risk was great. Just have to depend on my own skills to see me through. May the gods guide my hand.
There he is!
Another flash in the night, and she had what she needed. The telltale sputter of the dynamite let her pick out his location. She drew back two arrows and waited for him to throw. Watch for the motion. Pick him off clean the instant it's in the air, before he can move. All her attention focused on that blossoming flower of light.
Come what may, dark rider, you're mine.
And then she heard the sound of a horse's hooves.
Spinning in her seat, Bong Cha saw the black stallion charging right at her. There was no time to turn, only enough to unhook her feet from the stirrups before it plowed right into her horse.
The white mount went down with a scream followed by its inky mate. Bong Cha was flung off by the force of the collision. She rolled to keep from being crushed under the flailing animals. The impact was forceful, but adrenaline and long conditioning kept her from feeling any pain. In just a moment she was back on her feet. The bow was still in hand, and she had it notched in preparation.
It occurred to the young warrior that her adversary had never meant to hit her with his explosives, only use the noise and confusion to prevent her from sensing his stallion's approach until it was too late. That whistle she heard before must have called the black horse back to do just what it had.
A talented animal. She would keep it for herself after its master was dead. And with that in mind…
Sure enough a billowing shadow was racing towards her position. His horse was still tangled up with her own, so that was one less thing to worry about. If he thought her easy pickings now, he was sorely mistaken. There was no sign of dynamite. He must have snuffed it, possibly intending to capture her alive. That or he was out of ammo and the last one was a bluff. Bong Cha had no such weaknesses either way.
As she took aim at his approaching form, the archer stepped swiftly backwards just in case. No sense assuming the first shot would kill. It would be a mistake to let him bridge the gap between them. Not to worry, really. At this distance he was good as dead.
With maybe forty feet between them, she fired.
Three arrows flew, one aimed straight at him and the others to the left and right. No matter if he dodged to either side, one would connect.
But he didn't deviate from his course, nor even duck and roll as she expected. Instead even as Bong Cha drew her next quarrel, she heard one of her shots impact with a whispery thud.
The shadow didn't falter. He kept coming. Impressed at his endurance, she drew and fired a trio again. Once more two went wide and one connected. She heard it.
And he didn't stop.
Unnerved, the woman backed farther away. Only twenty feet separated them now. Was this some kind of demon? No, he was just running on desperation. That's what she told herself as she aimed down the length of her bow. He was human. He could die. He would die.
Bong Cha prepared to shoot, when a crack split the air.
The next thing she knew, her hands were empty.
Things happened quickly after that. She looked up to see her bow flying up against the sky. Immediately her hand went to pull the dagger from her belt, intending to still fight and perhaps retrieve her main weapon. Then something coiled around her ankle, and gave a prodigious yank. Bong Cha fell with a cry.
The shadow man was upon her then. He flung what appeared to be a bullwhip away and unloosed a coil of rope from his belt. As she struggled to stand, he cast the lasso around her, trapping her arms tight against her upper body. Her wrist was seized in a grip of steel, the knife plucked loose and thrown away. Despite her angry struggles, in just under twenty seconds he had her tied hand and foot.
Furious, Bong Cha looked up at the man who stood smirking over her. In one hand he held the broad-brimmed hat he had worn. One of her arrows was lodged in the rim, while another had pierced the top.
Holding the headwear up like a shield before his chest, the black-clad thief flipped it around so she could see the inside. Gleaming faintly under the starlight was a thin circle of polished steel sewn all around the brim. Another such piece of armor plating adorned the crown. And so she knew. It was this he had used to defend himself with while making his approach. All the same it had been a reckless move. If he misjudged her target, he might have wound up with a shaft lodged in his brain.
Unfortunately, she had aimed for the chest. And apparently he anticipated that in advance.
"Nice shot," Zorro complimented her, plucking out the quarrels.
"Yumago!" and Bong Cha spit at him.
Neither understood the other, but the implication was clear. With that the victor of this night's battle flung his kicking conquest over one shoulder and marched back to secure their horses. Checking the gold pocket-watch he had picked up on the train, Zorro judged things to be going as close to his schedule as one could have hoped.
"Mr. Belasco, I have no idea where your pocket-watch may have gotten to, and I'll thank you not to make any groundless accusations. The U.S. Army does not steal."
With that the Captain turned away from him and went back to calmly regarding the search process. For his part, Belasco was growing more uncomfortable by the minute. That damned Cunningham had cleared out the whole train, himself included, and from within they could hear the sounds of wood being pried apart while more of those thick-fingered oafs crawled over the roofs, tapping and peering about.
"I hope you intend to put back together anything your men dismantle," he said in somewhat clipped tones.
The Captain doffed his hat and ran a hand through sweat-soaked curls. "My men know their business. Just relax and it'll be over soon, Mr. Belasco."
Shivering in a thin coat, the fuming thespian tired to restrain his temper. He knew that there was nothing that could incriminate him. They had been forced to admit that an intruder had been on the train, but hardly anyone except himself knew what that really meant. There was no way this pack of savages could accuse him of running a human smuggling operation if they didn't find any humans being smuggled!
However, the mere fact that this was happening served as a reminder of just how powerless he could really be. Maybe when this affair was behind him he should look into running for public office in California or New York, or at least backing a candidate. Having friends in high places generally helped get you out of life's little peccadilloes, and the higher the better.
Still, for the time being he was safe. Unless Anatolia opened her mouth, which he highly doubted. Casting a look over to where the lady was hunkered down along with some other women by a brazier, he considered their relationship. While a very useful member of his troupe, she chose not to treat his orders with the same level of respect others had learned. If this went on, he would have to take steps to remind her just who was in charge around here. Yes, there was no doubt he…
Looking up, he saw that chunky sergeant run puffing up to his commander.
"Sir, we've found it."
David went cold. What did he say? Found it? Found WHAT? What could they possibly have turned up? And what did he mean by 'it'?
The two officers went back aboard the train. Recovering, Belasco hurried in pursuit. He spoke not a word as they moved through the cabin. This must be a trick. They were hoping to rattle him into giving something away. But I won't fall for it, no, they'll soon see just what kind of man they're dealing with here.
Several soldiers were milling about one of the actor's sleeping compartments. Upon reaching that spot, Cunningham and Dimes went inside. Belasco followed them making all attempts to look confused and shaken, which wasn't very hard right now.
He stopped in the doorway. A few planks of the small chamber's floor had been pried up and stacked against one wall. And as Belasco watched, the Captain reached down into the hole and pulled something out. He then turned and regarded the company head with a baleful glare.
"Can you offer any explanation for this, sir?"
David could not.
There in the captain's hand was a rifle.
As he stood stunned, Cunningham looked to one of his men. "How many did you find?"
"Eight here, sir. They look like Mexican Army issue to me. Spanish models, and pretty good quality."
The officer grunted, still watching Belasco closely. When nothing came by way of an explanation, he brushed past the speechless director and back into the hall.
As he walked away, David regained control of himself and went chasing after. "Captain, I… have no idea what this means! Please, you must believe, I didn't… I mean, it's impossible that something like this could be happening, I…!"
As they stepped off the train, David trying and failing to explain something he didn't understand himself, another navy-clad soldier came running up. "Captain, we found three more caches of weapons and some stockpiles of ammunition hidden away with 'em. Some were even wrapped up with tent poles, more than forty rifles so far. The boys all agree, they're Mexican by the look of them."
"I see," Cunningham nodded.
"I DON'T!" Belasco shrieked. The Army commander rounded on him with a frown, but this was too much for him to take in one night. It was simply more unexplainable events than he was prepared to handle. Anxious actors and performers looked on in increasing agitation as they watched their showmaster completely lose his cool. "This is INSANE! I have no idea where those weapons came from or who put them there! I've been framed! It's all some kind of horrible MISTAKE, it just doesn't make any sense!"
The bristly-faced captain pulled out a pipe during this tirade and lit it. When David stopped to catch his breath, he peered at him through a haze of smoke. "Actually, there's no need to think very hard on the matter. The telegraph we received informed us that this train was smuggling guns up from Mexico to be sold to Hopi rebels. Those savages would pay a high price for firearms of this caliber. Obviously greed was your motivation. Unless you can offer me some… explanation for how you could be travelling with such cargo, I will have to place you and everyone else here under arrest."
Cries went up from the people around them, proclaiming innocence even from those who had no idea what was going on. Belasco was one of them. He swayed on his feet, feeling lightheaded. What was the explanation? 'I couldn't possibly be a gun-smuggler, because I only smuggle criminals?' Now wouldn't that be a ridiculous defense. Maybe he could pay the man off to let them be on their way. He had money to spare, after all, and military types were known for being susceptible to bribes. But before even that, how exactly did those guns come to be on my train? When could someone have possibly managed to hide forty rifles without…?
A realization hit him then, but before he could ponder it too closely, shouts and cries came from around them.
Looking up, Belasco was only mildly surprised to find a company of cavalry galloping in to join them. Mixed with those steeds was a white one that looked very familiar.
The thing that actually snapped him back to reality was the sight of Bong Cha draped over the saddle, with a rope looping under the horse's belly to tie her hands and feet together.
"Sir," one of the mounted men supplied upon reigning up, "we found this woman tied to a horse that came wandering up the tracks. Think she might be one of the circus folk, but we can't get a word out of her. It don't seem like she understands English. We weren't sure what to do, so we brought her back here to you."
While the soldiers conversed, Belasco continued to stare at the captive archer. Her gaze came up to meet his. The expression he saw there made him cringe and take an involuntary step back. There was nothing remotely human in those flat black eyes, and much as he wanted to ask her what had happened, he found that he could not bring himself to approach this woman right now for any reason.
'You promised me… No cheating either way. Or someone dies.'
Belasco remembered those words. Back then they had been a threat. Now it seemed more like an inevitability. They're bound to let her go eventually. No way they'd believe him if he accused her of being behind it all. That was too farfetched. And unless he wanted to be a cooling corpse the moment someone loosened those ropes, it seemed clear he had best revise his previous estimate of how much money he had available to pass out bribes.
Clearly there were forces at work this night beyond his comprehension. Well, a man has to be humble. She had been promised $80,000, after all. I can afford to part with that much, I think. It's not so much a loss, he reasoned with himself, as it is buying something very precious to me. Namely, my continued well-being.
He would try to talk his way out of this, bargain if need be. If worse came to worst, David was prepared to do something quite desperate. He was prepared to tell the truth, take full responsibility and confess to having indeed been aware of the guns on his train as well as being the sole conspirator in this plot. With what he suspected of how they really got there, it wouldn't take much effort to concoct a story that would seem plausible. His confession would allow the rest to go free. And that way no one else in his company would have to suffer for his failings.
He was like a father to them, after all. And a man must do his duty by his family.
So resolved, he went to speak to Captain Cunningham. As he did, Belasco passed by Bong Cha, and while striving to avoid making eye contact with her, something caught his attention. He only got a brief glance, but it appeared as if a symbol of sorts had been drawn onto the seat of her pants with charcoal.
Despite being smudged, it looked very much like a 'Z'.
Belasco stumbled and nearly fell, catching himself and proceeding on his way. Everything was clear now. He had challenged a legend and lost. Somewhere out there, the Fox had taken his prize. Shivering in the cold, David Belasco found himself deeply regretting the foe he had made for himself.
He then went to give the performance of his life.
Colonel Mañuelito rubbed his hands and breathed into them before donning his gloves again. Behind him the half-dozen soldiers he had brought sat astride their horses looking rather bored. They had been told nothing about why they were here. His superior had insisted on it, and frankly, Mañuelito agreed with that decision. He himself was uncomfortable about this whole affair. Imagine what the men would think if they knew the purpose for their being out on the prairies tonight?
On a low bank of hills overlooking the Mexican-United States border, his small patrol kept watch. They had been out here for the last hour. This was the place specified. The exact time given was around dawn, and on the horizon, the sky was beginning to clear in presage to the sun's rise. Rocks and bushes were starting to come into individual focus. Lizards scuttled into cracks, and somewhere in the distance could be heard the lowing of a herd of cattle.
Suddenly there was movement in the distance. Frowning, the Colonel removed his telescope and peered through it.
Arrayed behind him, the soldiers saw their leader stiffen in his saddle with a gasp. None of them questioned him, however, and Mañuelito lowered the eyeglass with a look of wonder on his face.
A few minutes later, everyone saw the dust kicked up by a single horse approaching them. That lone rider crossed the river at a shallow spot and entered Mexican territory. Dressed in black from head to toe, he rode a mount of equal hue. Now hushed whispers passed among those disciplined fighters. Disbelief soon gave way to interest and possibly excitement.
When Zorro rode up before them, every man in that force felt like a child again.
The Colonel recovered first. Cantering up before the masked man, he noted the person draped limply over the horse's back. For a moment Mañuelito thought the body might be dead, but then that pitiful form lifted its head at his approach, and at long last he found himself looking upon the face of Pietro Sanchez.
That sense of wonder had returned. The veteran officer studied the other figure astride the black stallion. Only the lower part of his face was visible, and considering the time of day, even that much seemed cast in shadow along with the rest of him. There was no way to identify this man. Assuming he was indeed a man and not a spirit. But no, that was nonsense. You are a soldier, he admonished himself. Focus on the task at hand. And so he spoke as he had been instructed.
"I am Colonel Mañuelito. I have been asked to tell you that…" He squirmed a little inside, but managed to get it out. "… 'The Alcalde is a fat-head'."
"So he is," a light voice responded. And at that, Zorro appeared to relax. "Pleased to meet you, Colonel. I believe you have been looking for this one."
With that he slid Pietro off so that the teenager went sprawling in the dirt. As this happened, Mañuelito noted that there was a wad of bandages stuck onto the horse's flank. Clearly the extraction had not been without its dangers. As two of his men came forward to take Sanchez into custody, the Colonel studied their mysterious helper. Zorro regarded him right back.
"I still don't understand. What was all this about?" Mañuelito demanded as they dragged the prisoner away. "I did as I was ordered. While we were searching the train, my men hid guns amongst their belongings. Why would that be necessary? If you somehow knew Sanchez would be onboard, what prevented you from simply getting him out before they left Nuevo Laredo?"
"My reason for being involved in this affair was not the same as yours," Zorro responded. "You came to bring a murderer to justice, and I aided your mission because it was something I believe in. But my true goal was not to catch Pietro Sanchez, but to destroy the Conjuror's Trick."
The dark swordsman flipped the cape over his shoulder. "For years now, there have been whispers of a secret system of smuggling criminals at work in the Americas. It was known as the Conjuror's Trick, and its presence served as a means for men to break the law and escape punishment, provided they could pay for the service. For two years I have ridden across the borders between nations trying to learn if this blasphemy truly existed, and who might be responsible for it. In time my investigations uncovered evidence that pointed to Belasco's International Artistic Company as the source of these rumors. None of it could be used in a court of law, and so I was forced to bide my time in the hopes of having them be caught in the act."
"But Belasco planned too well. Whenever it seemed as though the authorities were closing in on him, he did not hesitate to murder whatever criminal was in his care to prevent himself from being found out. Their bodies were disposed of either by being dumped in the wilderness or, I suspect, fed to the carnivorous beasts that were in his circus. Eventually I realized that if I wanted to bring this enterprise down, I would need to do so in a manner that Belasco could not have anticipated. So when I learned that he and his gang were coming to Nuevo Laredo by Don Tomás Sanchez's invitation, I knew that it must be to transport Pietro Sanchez out of the country. That was when I hatched this plan to use the military to do what I myself could not. Now both our tasks are accomplished. My sources in the States tell me that Belasco has been taken into custody for weapons smuggling. My role in this play is over."
Mañuelito was staring now, and couldn't stop. "But who are you? Why did the General tell me to cooperate with you in resolving his nephew's murder? I just don't understand!"
Zorro only threw back his head and laughed. The great black stallion reared up on its hind legs beneath him, trumpeting a war-cry that caused the platoon's mounts to retreat from it. Before any of them could react, he spun his horse's head and took off to the west, raising a cloud of dust with his passing.
As if on command, the sun came up then. Even as the astonished soldiers watched, it seemed as if that midnight marauder appeared to fade away from their vision, his dark cloak becoming a mere shadow against the landscape that disappeared when they blinked their eyes. In seconds they found themselves alone on that barren plain.
In Mexico City, Colonel Mañuelito sat in a reception room. The General had been receiving a guest when he arrived, and he had been requested to wait before making his appearance.
After just a few minutes, the large oaken door swung open. Mañuelito rose to attention, but instead of his superior, a young man dressed in fine gray clothes with a canary-yellow cummerbund came out. To his surprise, the Colonel found himself recognizing this person, and as the dandy traipsed down the way toward him he managed to remember the name just as a broad smile split the other man's face.
"Captain Mañuelito! What a surprise meeting you like this!"
"Don de la Vega," he greeted him, not bothering to correct the imbecile on his rank. "What business do you have here?"
"Oh, well, you see Don Sanchez asked me to come and oversee his son's trial, keep him informed of how it goes. Old Tomás has been bedridden ever since Pietro's capture, some of us think he's not even long for this world. Naturally I wanted to help out in whatever way I could!"
And no doubt you jumped at the chance of visiting Mexico City on another man's tab, Mañuelito thought darkly. Out loud, he responded with, "I meant why are you in the General's office. Are you and he acquainted?"
"No, but our fathers were." Diego was toying with a carnation in his breast pocket disinterestedly. "It just seemed polite to stop by and assure him my being here in no way meant I supported the man who killed his nephew. It's simply a courtesy among gentlemen, you might say."
"I see. Please excuse me now." Mañuelito made to brush past him, but Diego turned and kept pace as though not having heard his dismissal.
"You know, I really should thank you. If it weren't for your being in Nuevo Laredo, I would never have hooked up with the most lovely young woman!"
"Is that so?" He wished deeply this little worm would leave him alone.
"Yes! She was one of the entertainers in that circus…" He stopped suddenly. "I'm sorry, 'theatrical troupe', she always corrects me about that. Anyway, her name's Anatolia, and we really hit it off the last night they were in town! I've been writing to her ever since. We've become very close. She tells me all sorts of interesting things going on in America, and I send her money! The dear lady has opened a theater company with some friends of hers, I've been up to visit a few times, never been to America before that, but let me tell you, they have the most splendid performances! You should…!"
Mañuelito reached the door, flung it open and then slammed it in the chattering idiot's face.
"All right, well, nice talking to you, Captain!"
Taking a deep breath to calm himself, the Colonel strode across the room and saluted his commanding officer seated behind the desk. "Sir, I'm pleased to see you are well."
Rising, the General gave the same salute. A hale man in his seventies with a shock of bright white hair and small curled moustaches, General Mendoza actually projected the air of a mission priest rather than a lifelong military man. His eyes crinkled as he chuckled good-naturedly. "I see young Diego was informing you of his latest infatuation."
"Yes, sir." There was no hiding the distaste in his voice. "It disturbs me to see people like that hovering around you, General. They are a bygone relic in this new era."
This brought a dismissive wave of his hand as Mendoza seated himself again. "The perils of involving myself in politics. My old friend Don de la Vega often told me I should run for office, but I prefer to keep myself abreast of things without having the expectations of an elected official weighing me down."
Mañuelito must have been more irritated than he realized, for he found himself continuing to speak freely. "A man is measured by the company he keeps."
"That he is," General Mendoza spoke up with a strange air. "And I am proud to count Diego's family among my friends. Now, what can I do for you this fine morning?"
Well, he had come all this way. Might as well just come out and ask.
"Sir, it's about Zorro."
One white eyebrow lifted. "Indeed? What of him?"
"I have misgivings about cooperating with such an individual. He acts outside the law, and does not respect any form of authority!"
"But he never ignores the law," Mendoza pointed out. "And while he does not recognize any master's hand, the Fox is of benefit because he may act when our own hands are tied by the very things we seek to uphold."
This was not proving as helpful as Mañuelito had hoped. "Sir, I fear this could prove damaging to your reputation. What if the men begin to talk about your relationship with such an unsavory figure?"
In response, Mendoza leaned back in his leather armchair and crossed his hands over his stomach. "In truth, Colonel, the question of my involvement is not a new one. Are you aware that my great-great-grandfather was an officer in the California territories back in the days of Spanish rule? He was by no means a great man, but he was a decent one who believed deeply in his duty to uphold the law. Those were difficult times, and even representatives of the crown might prove unworthy and wicked. My ancestor suffered in silence obeying the orders he was given, even when he recognized they were causing more harm than good to the people."
"But even then, there was Zorro. Perhaps I should say, especially then. My great-great-grandfather encountered him on numerous occasions, and while officially they were enemies, at heart he was deeply thankful that there was someone who could not only perceive when evil was afoot, but also work to vanquish it altogether. He recorded his experiences with the Fox down in a journal, one that could have gotten him hanged for treason if it was ever brought to light. Nowadays it is required reading in my family, and no stigma attaches to it. Rather it is a source of pride to us, that we are a part of the legend of Zorro."
When his subordinate still appeared dismayed, General Mendoza rose and moved around the table to place a hand on his shoulder.
"It might not please you to hear this, but you are part of the legend as well now. Believe me, there is nothing you should feel ashamed of in this matter. The killer of my nephew has been brought to justice, while an even greater evil has been eradicated. I am as content as I could possibly be given this situation. Come, amigo," and he led him over to the bar. "Share a drink with me."
The older man poured two glasses of brandy and handed one over. Mañuelito accepted and examined the amber contents closely, then looked up. "What are we drinking to?"
"To good company," Mendoza responded. "And to all those who fight for justice."
This the colonel could not refuse, and they raised their crystal glasses to chime together a note so pure it could not help but lift his spirits.
Then the door suddenly opened, and Diego de la Vega stuck his head in.
"Excuse me, I think I'm lost, could you tell me how to…?" He stopped, blinking in surprise. "How did you two get here?"