Friday, May 10, 2019

Forgotten Stories: ZORRO STRIKES AGAIN by Johnston McCulley (1944)

After the publication of the first Zorro novel, The Curse of Capistrano (also known as The Mark of Zorro) in 1918, Johnston McCulley put Zorro through his paces in four more novels and 57 shorter stories, the last of which saw print in 1959. Most of the short stories appeared between 1944 and 1951 in the pulp magazine West, and that includes this one, from November, 1944. 

DON DIEGO VEGA yawned as he slowly crossed the patio of his father’s house in the outskirts of the little town of Reina de los Angeles. He brushed a scented, lace-edged handkerchief of the finest linen across his delicate nostrils. He bent over a rose bush, and inhaled deeply of the fragrance. Then he strolled on, like a man to whom daily existence is wearisome and without interest.
Don Diego’s attire was resplendent—trousers and jacket of thick brocaded satin, a ruffled white shirt of heavy silk, boots of the finest leather made by skilled workmen, a wide silk sash of brilliant hue.
He had been languid in his extreme youth, and he had returned to his father’s California estates after schooling in Spain, with the appearance and manners of a fop. He was the scion of the Vegas, an only son. Not only must he inherit the broad estates in days to come, and operate them for the credit of the family, but also he must carry the honor and dignity of that family on his shoulders and guard them with his life.
At first Don Alejandro, his proud white-haired father, had felt a measure of shame because his only son had seemed so utterly devoid of spirit. He had nothing in common with the other young caballeros. He drank wine sparingly, did not care for gambling, seldom gave the eye to a pretty wench, and was not sensitive enough to brawl now and then at an affront. He even said that riding a spirited horse at breakneck speed was not sport but a sort of fatigue-inducing labor.
It was about this time that a mysterious Señor Zorro began riding around, helping the oppressed and punishing the oppressors, dodging the soldiers of the unscrupulous Governor and mocking those who tried to catch him. With the tip of his sword, he carved the letter Z on the cheeks or foreheads of men he fought, until it became known as the Mark of Zorro.
It was a happy day indeed when old Don Alejandro learned that Zorro was none other than his languid son, whose dispirited attitude was nothing but a pose. Don Alejandro felt himself compelled to choke back his pride, for the identity of Zorro must not be disclosed. But he smiled after that whenever a friend pitied him because his only son and heir had cold blood in his veins and read poetry.
Now, Don Diego paused beneath the arches at the side of the patio. He had heard voices in the house, and did not wish to enter until he ascertained the identity of the visitor talking to his father.

THIS was Don Alejandro’s birthday, and before sunset the guests would be arriving for the birthday fiesta. There would be feasting, dancing, music until the dawn. Young caballeros and beautiful señoritas of noble families would be there, filling the air with their merry laughter. Older persons would sit around an smile and talk of the days of their own youth.
Don Diego made out his father’s voice, and the first words told him the visitor was a certain Estebán Morales, a good man though of peon blood.
Morales had worked for Don Alejandro, and in middle life had acquired a wife, the start of family, and some land which he worked day and night. He was an honest, industrious fellow, and Don Alejandro helped him when he could, saying that the country needed many such to give it substantial growth and progress.
“I am like an animal caught in a trap, Don Alejandro,” Morales was saying. “Capitán Carlos Ortega had me arrested by his troopers, and I was taken before Pedro Ruiz, this magistrado without knowing with what fault I was charged.”
“And with what did they finally charge you, Morales?” Don Alejandro asked.
“It was a monstrous lie, Don Alejandro. I started out as a poor peon; and have had some success because of hard work and thrift. So they would take from me, bit by bit, that which I have earned by my sweat, thinking I am helpless to prevent it—which I am.”
“Explain in detail, Morales,” Don Alejandra said.
“The other day, Don Alejandro, I sold some hides to a traveling trader. He said he was making up a cargo of goods to take to Monterey to ship. This morning, the soldiers came and hauled me before the magistrado. The trader was there. I was accused of changing the bundles of hides, Don Alejandro, and substituting inferior ones. They listened to the trader, but not to me. When I tried to tell the truth, they said I lied.”
“No doubt,” Don Alejandro said. “We live in mean times, Morales. The present Governor is a rogue, and most of the men he names to office are rogues also. Capitán Carilos Ortega, stationed in Reina de los Angeles, is one such. Pedro Ruiz, the magistrado, is another. They do as they please, and no doubt send a share of their ill gains to His Excellency. What was the result of your trial, Morales?”
“I must deliver to the trader twice as many prime hides, and without payment. I must pay as a fine twenty pieces of gold.
It will impoverish me. My hard work will go for nothing. My wife and children will be hungry. They would strip me, Don Alejandro. When I told them this, the capitán laughed and said a peon should not have property.”
“The rogue of a capitân is nothing but a peon himself,” Don Alejandro said. “Pedro Ruiz is another.”
“You will help me, Don Alejandro?” Morales begged.
“I wish I could, Morales. But I am not friendly with the present Governor of Alta California—who, is another peon. He hates all men of blood. If I appeared in this as your friend, they would only double the punishment.”
“Then I am ruined,” Morales said. “How I wish Señor Zorro rode these days and punished the wicked! But it has been a long time now since he helped men like me. No doubt he has left this country, or has lost his life somewhere. How he would deal with a case like this!”
Don Diego Vega strolled through the open door and into the big main room of the house. He was yawning again, and brushing his nostrils with the scented handkerchief. Estebán Morales got to his feet quickly and knuckled his forehead in respectful greeting.
“My son, Estebán Morales has just been telling me of a certain injustice,” Don Alejandro began.
“I had the misfortune to overhear it,” Don Diego said. “Is there anything in the world except trouble and discomfort? I was trying to meditate on the poets. Why must men always be having controversies and annoying other men with them?”
“I beg your pardon humbly, Don Diego,” Morales said. “I did not mean to annoy you.”
“Even mentioning that fellow Zorro fatigues me,” Don Diego said. “I remember when he rode the highways, dashing here and there with the troopers always chasing him, upsetting everything and wrecking our tranquility. A pest!”

MORALES made a distracted gesture. “There is no chance for a poor man to better himself,” Morales declared. “When those in high places oppress him, what can he do?”
“Do not ask me questions,” Don Diego begged. “It makes my head ache to think up the answers.”
Don Diego picked a pomegranate off a dish on the table and strolled on across the room. His father gave Estebán Morales his hand.
“Do not despair, Morales,” he said. “Something may happen to aid you.”
After Morales had backed to the door and left the house, Don Alejandro sat at the head of the table again and looked at his son. Don Diego came back slowly across the room and sprawled in another chair.
“Estebán Morales is a good man, and I hate to see him swindled of the goods he has worked so hard to attain,” Don Alejandro said.
“It does seem a pity,” Don Diego admitted.
A barefooted servant dressed in white entered the room silently and went across toward the patio. He was carrying a huge platter heaped with little cakes, the sort guests ate when they drank wine. The servants were commencing to get ready for the birthday feast.
Bernardo was always looked upon as Don Diego’s personal body servant, though he helped the others when his master did not need him. He was a huge man, strong in his shoulders and arms and quick of wit for a man half peon and half native. He could hear and understand, but could not speak. Bernardo had been born dumb.
He glanced toward Don Diego as he crossed the room, and Don Diego lifted a hand languidly and beckoned. Bernardo grinned and turned toward him, to stop a few feet from the chair and stand waiting.
Don Diego ignored the servant and looked at his father again.
“It occurs to me, my father,” he said, “that the man Morales was right in one particular. If Zorro were riding now, he probably would attend to the affair in a proper manner.”
“No doubt, my son,” Don Alejandro said, his eyes glistening suddenly.
“My father, this day is the anniversary of your birth, and there will be many guests this evening. No doubt all the turmoil will give me a headache. Do I have your permission to retire for a time during the festivities, to rest? I shall reappear before it is time for our guests to depart, of course.”
“Certainly, my son,” Don Alejandro replied, smiling broadly.
Don Diego looked up at the waiting Bernardo, then. He made a peculiar gesture. Bernardo straightened his huge shoulders and tossed up his head, and his nostrils dilated as if at the thought of excitement. Don Diego motioned for him to go away.
It was enough. Words did not have to be spoken. Don Alejandro understood and Bernardo understood. For Bernardo was Señor Zorro’s helper, a man always eager to aid his master in his good work—and a man who could not talk to the soldiers if questioned. He would have everything ready. Señor Zorro’s black attire would be where he could don it swiftly. And his powerful big black horse would be waiting. That night, Zorro would strike again!
Three hours after sunset found the merrymaking at Don Alejandro Vega’s casa well under way. Long tables creaked beneath a weight of food. Wineskins were scattered around, gurgling continually as the servants filled goblets. Musicians were playing in the big main room of the house and in the patio.
Guests from prominent families made merry in the house and patio, and those of lesser degree had their feast beneath the huge pepper trees around the huts in the rear. This birthday feast was an annual event, something to which everybody looked forward.
At a certain time, Don Diego approached his father, who was talking to a group of guests, and said he had a headache. After receiving permission to retire, he said he would return later, and left the room. Don Diego had already danced a couple of times with the prettiest of the señoritas, who was much disappointed to see him leave.
As Don Diego strolled languidly through the corridor near his own quarters, he noticed the fat figure of a friar lounging upon a bench near the door of his room. This mendicant monk had visited the casa frequently of late, and Don Diego remembered noticing the man several times near the soldiers’ barracks at Rema de los Angeles. For a moment the young man’s eyes narrowed and he slackened pace. Then he nodded pleasantly to the monk and passed on. In his room he found Bernardo waiting.
“Everything is in readiness?” Don Diego asked.
Bernardo grinned widely and nodded his head.
“Your own mule is ready, also?”
Bernardo nodded his head again. Don Diego gave him a keen glance.
“By the way, Bernardo, I see that Fray Sabio is again visiting the casa tonight,” he said. “I observed him, just now, seated upon the bench, as if he were watching my door. Before you leave be sure and tell the servants to give him plenty of meat and wine.”
He smiled significantly and winked at Bernardo, who ginned broadly and bobbed his head emphatically up and down to show that he understood.
Don Diego slipped through a window with Bernardo close behind him. They went through the darkness and away from the scene of festivities. In a secluded place, there was a hut not used by any of the workers on the estate. Behind the hut was an adobe stable, usually empty. But it was not empty now. The big black horse was in it, saddled and waiting.
Don Diego worked swiftly changing his attire. He got into the saddle, and Bernardo opened the stable door and let him out.
Bernardo rode a huge mule bareback. They went slowly and cautiously through the shadows, down a long slope, toward the road which ran to Reina de los Angeles.
It was only a short distance to the town. But, before they reached it, Señor Zorro stopped and gestured to Bernardo. He slipped off his mule and disappeared in the darkness, going toward where a fire burned at a camp traders had made not far from the highway.
He was back within a short time.
“The trader is there?” Zorro asked.
Bemardo nodded assent.
“How many are with him?”
Bernardo held up two fingers.
“Are they heavy with food and drink?”
“Yes,” Bernardo nodded.
“Are many of the horses saddled?”
Bernardo shook his head in the negative.
“Remember all I have told you,” Zorro ordered.
He listened a moment, to make sure no travelers were near, then rode out into the highway and urged the big black horse along it. Slackening speed as he neared the fire, he suddenly swerved off the highway and toward the spot. He could see three men around the fire, emptying a wineskin.
They sprang to their feet when they heard the horse coming. They recoiled with fright when they saw the masked man dressed in black.
“Stand still!” the rider commanded. He held a pistol in his left hand and a whip in his right, and the reins were looped around his saddle horn.
Zorro looked them over. The one in the middle was the trader who had conspired with Capitán Ortega and Ruiz, the magistrado, to despoil Estebán Morales.
“You see Señor Zorro before you!” His voice had a ring to it. “Step forward!” he ordered the trader.
“In what way may I serve you, señor?” the trader asked, his voice shaky.
“I do not allow myself to be served by such scum as you,” Zorro said. “Robber of men! What you have done has come to my knowledge. I mean this affair of the man Morales. So you would help swindle an honest, hardworking man, eh? You cannot do such a thing in this neighborhood, you dog, and escape punishment.”
The whip cracked through the air and the lash bit into the trader’s body. The man screamed and dropped to his knees, wrapping his arms protectingly around his head. The whip sang again and again, and the lash bit.
The trader’s two friends were stunned to inactivity for a moment. Then there came to them a realization of what was happening. Here was the notorious Señor Zorro, and there was a big reward for his capture.
They leaped forward, howling, one holding a bludgeon and the other a knife which flashed in the firelight. Señor Zorro swerved his horse, and the whip lashed out and cut across the face of the man who held the knife. He screamed, dropped the weapon, and put his hands to his bloody face. The one who held the bludgeon dropped it and sprinted away through the darkness.
Again, the whip cut into the back of the dishonest trader.
“Get up!” Zorro ordered. “Hitch your horses to your cart and start down the highway. If I see you again after dawn, I’ll use pistol or blade instead of a whip.”
“I’ll go, Señor Zorro,” the trader whined. “But I-I was only a tool for the use of others.”
“I know that. I’ll attend to the others, you may be sure.”

ZORRO put his pistol back into his sash, grasped the reins and wheeled his horse. Hoofs spurned the flinty ground as he rode away from the trader’s camp.
He left the highway as he neared the town, slowed his horse to a walk, and listened. Everything appeared to be serene in Reina de los Angeles as usual. Song and loud talk came from the tavern at the corner of the plaza.
Lights burned in houses and huts.
Pedro Ruiz, the magistrado, lived in a rather large house off to one side. He had acquired the property within a year, though he had been poor and in debt when he had received the appointment as magistrado. It was no secret that his money had come from misuse of his office, that he and Capitán Ortega had conspired together, and that in their deviltry they had the backing of the Governor.
Ruiz’ house had a garden in front of it, surrounded by a low wall. Señor Zorro put his horse at the wall, and the animal cleared it easily. He rode to the front door, reached out and hammered on it with the butt of his pistol.
The summons, in itself, was an insolence, and Zorro hoped that the magistrado would answer it in person. A servant pulled the door open, but Ruiz was only a step behind him, his face a picture of wrath. The streak of light shot out and revealed the masked man on the black horse. A pistol menaced Ruiz.
“Step out here, Señor Ruizi” Zorro commanded. “At once, or I fire!”
“What is this outrage?” the magistrado demanded.
“Tell your servant to come out also, and not give an alarm. At once!”
Ruiz came out of the house, the quaking servant behind him.
“What do you want?” Ruiz asked. “Who are you? How dare you come to my house masked, which is against the law since that thrice-accursed Señor Zorro brought his lawlessness to this province?”
“I am Zorro!”
“You-you are Zorro? And you have the insolence to approach the residence of a magistrado? For this, you will be hanged.
There is a reward offered for your capture.”
“Do you aspire to gain it?” Zorro asked. “Do you hope to capture me here and now, perhaps?” He gestured to the servant. “Close the door! I can do my work by moonlight.”
“What would you do?” Ruiz cried, as the door was closed.
“Your evils are well known, Señor Ruiz,” Zorro said. “You are perfidious to the core. But the affair which interests me now is that of the man Morales, which has come to my attention. He is honest and hard-working, and you would despoil him. That calls for punishment.”
“Do you presume to dictate to the courts?” Ruiz asked with a show of bravado.
“Not to decent courts, but to such as that over which you preside. I know the demands you have made on Morales. The trader has been sent away by me. You will erase your judgment from your books in the morning, and let the original hide deal stand.”
“Very well,” Ruiz said.
“You comply too easily,” Zorro told him. “No doubt you think I will ride away now, so you can inform Capitán Ortega what has happened, be guarded on the morrow, let the judgment stand, and possibly persecute Morales some more for this act of mine. Rest assured, Morales knows me not, nor does he know I am acting in his behalf. In reality, señor, I act in behalf of all the oppressed who cannot help themselves.”
“I-I’ll do as you say, Señor Zorro. If the trader is gone, I can state that no doubt he gave false testimony and feared to remain, and so reverse my decision in the case.”
“You will also resign your office at once,” Zorro said.
“You ask too much, señor. I shall not!”
The whip cracked. Pedro Ruiz gave a cry of pain and fell back. Zorro urged his horse forward, and the whip sang again and again. Ruiz’ screeches rang through the night as he howled for mercy. The servant ran away, and Zorro guessed he had gone to spread an alarm. He knew, also, that the man who had run from the trader’s camp had gone to the inn to shout that Señor Zorro was about.
Zorro ceased whipping. “That is enough for now,” he said. “There will be greater punishment if you do not do as I say. Resign your office and make public announcement of the fact.
You are not fit to be a magistrado. If you do not do as I say in all things, I’ll visit you again. And all the troopers of His Excellency cannot keep me from getting at you.”

ABRUPTLY Zorro put his horse at the wall and cleared it and galloped away. He turned from the town and cut up over a slope. Men were shouting down by the plaza, and he knew an alarm had been given.
He stopped and listened, then circled and approached the town again. This time he went toward the soldiers’ quarters.
Troopers were leading out their horses and saddling them. Zorro heard Sergeant Garcia bellowing orders. Some of the men rode toward the plaza immediately.
Zorro left his horse in a dark spot and went forward afoot, to come to the wall of the building and follow it around to the window of the capitán’s quarters. Ortega was inside. Sergeant Garcia was with him.
“It is this Zorro again, without a doubt, Capitán,” Garcia was reporting. “The description fits. He whipped the trader and ordered him down the highway. He whipped Pedro Ruiz and told him to resign. The Morales affair was mentioned.”
“I was not stationed here when Señor Zorro rode before,” Capitán Ortega said. “But I have read all the records. It was suspected at one time that Zorro is Don Diego Vega.”
“Ridiculous, if the capitán will pardon me,” Garcia said. “Five minutes in Don Diego’s company would convince anyone differently.”
“I know. He dresses like a fop and is always yawning. People think he has water in his veins. But I have looked at Don Diego closely on occasion. I have noticed his back and arms, which are not those of a weakling. I have noticed his stride when he thought nobody was looking. It is the step of a fencer, Sergeant.”
“But Zorro is here in Reina de los Angeles, or was a short time ago,” Garcia protested, “and Don Diego no doubt is out at his father’s place. This is Don Alejandro’s birthday and there is a big fiesta. I had intended riding out myself when I got off duty. There is food and wine for all. Don Diego would be there helping entertain the guests.”
“That is easy to settle, Sergeant,” said Ortega. “We’ll ride out to Don Alejandro’s place, taking a detail of troopers with us. I’ll pay my respects, and we’ll see if Don Diego is at home, or whether perhaps he is riding around with a mask on his face. Also for the last few weeks, I have placed a friend in Don Alejandro’s casa, to watch Don Diego’s movements. He is a wandering monk named Fray Sabio. He will tell us the truth. Saddle my horse.”
Outside the window, Zorro heard the sergeant reply and leave the room. There was a rear door, and Zorro got through it quickly. Nobody was in the corridor. Zorro went swiftly to the door of the capitán’s quarters, pulled the door open and entered.
Ortega was winding his sash, and turned quickly, enraged when he heard the door opened without somebody first asking for admittance. The capitán reeled back against the wall at the sight of a masked man threatening him with a pistol.
“Do not call for help unless you wish to die!” the intruder ordered.
“Who are you?”
“I am Zorro, as perhaps you have guessed.”
“Indeed? And you dare come here to my quarters? You spare us the necessity of running you down, you scoundrel!”
“For some quaint reason, I refuse to be frightened,” Zorro replied. “I know you have sent your sergeant for your horse, and he will be returning soon to say the mount is ready. So we have but a moment.”
“A moment for what, señor? For you to confess your errors to me before I have you into jail?”
“A moment for me to punish you,” Zorro said. “You are but a cheap swindler, Capitán. You disgrace the uniform you wear. You should wear a mark of shame, and I intend to mark you. You have a blade at your side!”
“And you have a pistol in your hand,” Ortega reminded him.
“I return it to my sash, señor—so! Now, if you will draw your blade, we are on even footing.”
Capitán Ortega gave a glad cry as he whipped blade from scabbard. In the same instant, Zorro backed to the door and shot the bolt. Then he darted aside as Ortega made for him, and whipped out his own blade.
Ortega kicked a stool aside, and Zorro tossed a bench back to the wall, so they had ample room. Flickering tapers in a huge silver candelabra illuminated the scene.

THE blades touched, rang. Light flashed from them as they sang a song of combat. Feet shuffled on the floor of packed earth.
Capitán Ortega was noted for skill with a blade. But after he had felt out his adversary for a moment, he knew he had met his equal, if not his master. He redoubled caution and set to work seriously.
Ortega pressed the fighting, and Zorro gave ground. The masked man worked along the wall to get the flickering of the tapers out of his eyes. Then he, in turn, pressed the fighting.
Zorro’s blade seemed like a live thing as it darted. Ortega felt himself being driven backward. The perspiration stood out on his face. Zorro was playing with him, he knew.
There came a knock on the door.
“Garcia!” Ortega shouted. “Zorro is here! Get help!”
“Poltroon!” Zorro cried at him. “So you need help, do you? It will not arrive in time, señor.”
As he fought, he could hear boots pounding the floor of the corridor. He drove Ortega back against the wall again. Zorro’s blade darted in, he gave a quick twist of his wrist, and Ortega reeled aside, and almost collapsed against the wall, dropping his blade.
“Now, you bear my mark on your cheek, señor,” Zorro told him. “Surrender your post here to some honest man, or we may meet again and my blade find your heart.”
Men were trying to smash in the door now. Zorro slapped his blade into its scabbard and ran to the window. He was through it and gone before Ortega could lurch to the door and open it.
“Get your mounts!” Zorro heard the capitán shouting. “I ride with you.”
A trooper running around the building appeared in front of Zorro as the latter hurried toward his horse. Zorro whipped pistol from his sash and fired a ball past the man’s head to make him dart aside. Zorro ran on.
As he got into his saddle, he heard hoofbeats back by the soldiers’ quarters. He urged his big black along the hillside, and as he rode he gave a peculiar strident cry which pierced loudly through the night. That was a signal for Bernardo to mount his mule and ride to a certain rendezvous.
Bernardo was waiting when Zorro rode up, and side by side they went along the highway.
“The troopers are close behind,” Zorro reported. “Their capitán leads them. He suspects me, I think. We must work swiftly, Bernardo.”
They got top speed from their mounts, and knew they were gaining slightly on the pursuit. Over a stone fence they jumped, to cut across a field where the going was slower. At the hut Zorro sprang out of his saddle and handed the reins of the big black to Bernardo.
Bernardo rode his mule away, leading the horse. He would go to a pasture a half mile distant, unsaddle the wet horse and turn him loose with the mule. Capitán Ortega and his troopers would find no wet horse to increase their suspicions.
In the hut, Don Diego divested himself of the Zorro costume and put it in a safe hiding place. He washed the dust from his face and hands, wiped it off his boots, brushed his hair. Darting from the hut, he kept to the shadows as he got to the house.
Through a dark side patio he made his way to a door which let him into a hallway which ran to his own rooms. As he got in unseen, he could hear a commotion at the front of the house. The music stopped, some of the women squealed in fright, and he heard his father’s stern voice demanding an explanation:
“What does this mean, Capitán Ortega? Have you taken too much wine? How dare you bring your men here in this boisterous manner and frighten my guests. And your face—it is slashed and covered with blood!”
“It bears the mark of Zorro, señor, if you must know,” Ortega replied. “The rogue is riding again, and caught me off guard and wounded me when I was unable to fight him fairly.”
“And must you ride here to tell me this?”
“We pursued him in this direction. We could hear the pounding of his horse’s hoofs up to a few minutes ago.”
“No doubt he passed and rode into the hills,” Don Alejandro suggested.
“Or he may have stopped here,” Ortega insinuated. “I have no desire to interrupt your merriment, Don Alejandro. I hope my troopers will be welcome to join in it.”

FOR a long minute Don Alejandro stared at the capitán coldly. “They are,” he said at last.
“When they have finished with their duties,” Ortega added. “I do not see your son, Don Diego. Does he not attend his father’s birthday fiesta?”
“My son has retired for a little time because of a headache. He will appear again presently.”
“Indeed? May I visit his room and suggest a remedy for his headache?” Ortega asked. “I am eager to see Don Diego-here and now.”
Don Alejandro drew himself up haughtily.
“I do not like your manner, Señor el Capitán, and fail to find a proper meaning in your words,” Don Alejandro answered haughtily.
Perhaps he would have said more, but he saw Don Diego entering the room from the hallway. Don Diego was in his usual splendid attire. He was brushing a scented handkerchief across his nostrils, and he yawned.
“What is all this turmoil, my father?” Don Diego asked. “My head is splitting already.”
“Some troopers are here, my son. They have been chasing Señor Zorro, their capitán says.”
“Is that rogue abroad again? Now we shall have constant excitement, I suppose. These are turbulent times. A man cannot muse on the works of philosophers and poets. And what is wrong with the capitán’ s face? Is that a sight for gentle ladies?”
Capitán Ortega was watching him closely, listening carefully. Don Diego’s voice certainly was not like that of Señor Zorro. He began wondering whether he had made a fool of himself with his suspicions.
Then he remembered something—his best card-his ace, known as Fray Sabio. Turning to a servant, Ortega motioned him to approach.
“Fetch Fray Sabio to me at once,” he ordered in loud tones. Turning to Don Alejandro, who had suddenly grown pale with dismay, Ortega smiled maliciously.
“Fray Sabio is an honest monk,” the capitán said. “We can all believe what he says. We will question the good friar regarding your son’s whereabouts tonight.”

DON DIEGO patted his hand against his lips and stifled another yawn.
The portly monk entered hurriedly. His eyes were red and swollen. He looked inquiringly at Capitán Ortega.
“Fray Sabio, you have been here all evening?” Ortega asked.
“Si, señor.” The monk nodded vigorously. “I have been out in the corridor, seated on a bench near Don Diego’s rooms. I have not moved from that spot for hours.”
“Ah!” Ortega grinned with satisfaction. “Doubtless you saw Don Diego leave. At what time did he return?”
Fray Sabio showed surprise. “I do not understand, Señor Capitán. Don Diego retired to rest several hours ago and did not come out again until just a few minutes ago. I should have seen him otherwise.”
Ortega scowled. “You are lying!” he cried.
The monk drew himself up with offended dignity. “I do not lie, señor,” he said stiffly.
And without another word, he turned and left the room.
Capitán Ortega, his face crimson with baffled rage, glared at Don Diego, who smiled serenely.
“My father, have some servant bathe the capitán’s face, so he will be more presentable,” Don Diego suggested. “And there is Sergeant Garcia, looking like a thundercloud. Let him take his troopers out to the tables under the trees, and fill them with food and wine. This is the anniversary of the day of your birth, my father, and nothing must mar it.”
Don Alejandro, his face a mask, clapped his hands for the same servant who had executed the previous errand. Don Diego stepped closer to the capitán, brushing the handkerchief across his nostrils again, almost significantly.
“This Señor Zorro marked you well,” he said.
“It shall be my delight some day to see him twisting and squirming at the end of a rope,” Ortega replied.
“Before you can experience that delight, Capitán, this Zorro will have to be caught,” Don Diego remarked. “Ah, well! Something is always ruining our pleasure.”
Don Diego bowed slightly, and turned toward where a bevy of hopeful señoritas were waiting as they eyed him over the tops of their fans.
In the meantime Fray Sabio had left the casa and was pacing back and forth beneath the trees, in the orchard. Spears of light from the nearby windows showed that his fat face was creased with worry and indecision.
“I wish the good servant Bernardo had not ordered that servant to give me that meat and wine,” he muttered aloud to himself. “He knows it always makes me sleep. I wonder if I did tell the truth to Capitán Ortega?”

1 comment:

Cap'n Bob said...

Another exciting tale.