Friday, August 9, 2019

A PROMISE TO ZORRO - A 100th Anniversary Story by Evanston McLewis

NOTE: Zorro made his debut 100 years ago in the August 9, 1919 issue of ALL-STORY WEEKLY, in the first installment of the serial "The Curse of Capistrano" (later published as The Mark of Zorro). The Facebook page "Zorro - 100 Year Anniversary Celebration"(HERE) has encouraged fans to post stories, videos, posters and other tributes today, and this is mine.

THE LITTLE VILLAGE of Reina de los Angeles was no more. It had been engulfed by the American city of Los Angeles, while the former Spanish province of Alta California was now one of nearly forty States comprising the United States of America.
The once splendid hacienda of Don Alejandro de la Vega, which had been located on the outskirts of the village, was now one home among many in a city of more than 50,000 souls, with that many more residing within the boundaries of Los Angeles County.
In the glaring light of day, the old hacienda showed its age, but on this night of nights gay lanterns bathed the house and patio in a roseate glow, as if defying the ravages of time. For this was indeed a special night. It was the 100th birthday of the city’s oldest living resident, the man affectionately known as Don Diego de la Vega.
Though the Spanish title of Don had gone by the wayside, it was still afforded Diego as a mark of respect. For more years than most Angelenos could recall, Don Diego had thrilled the city’s children with wild tales of adventure, wherein a romantic figure he called Zorro rode up and down El Camino Real protecting the poor and weak and punishing evildoers.
Most adults accepted his stories with a wink and a nod, in the belief the indefatigable Zorro was a figment of Don Diego’s imagination. When other ancient residents advanced the claim that Zorro was no myth—that they actually recalled those days when he rode the highway righting wrongs with his blade—they were dismissed as unreliable. Their memories were feeble, it was said, and they’d confused Don Diego’s tales with reality.
Now the birthday fiesta was in full swing. While the adults drank wine, feasted and danced to the music of guitars and mariachis, Don Diego sat on the patio with a bevy of children at his feet, holding them in thrall with his still-strong voice. He was clad for the occasion in the resplendent style of his youth—trousers and jacket of gold brocaded satin, a ruffed white shirt of heavy silk, boots of finest leather and a wide silk sash of brilliant red.
As ever on such occasions, Don Diego was deeply engrossed in his story, altering his voice to portray various characters, and sweeping his arms about dramatically during the sword fights.
Suddenly one of the children spoke. “Please, sir! Are your stories true? Was Zorro really real?”
Don Diego paused, blinking, and peered about. An Anglo lad of less than ten held his arm high, waving frantically. Don Diego studied the boy’s clean, intelligent features and earnest manner, and smiled. “What is your name, son?”
“Johnny, sir,” the boy said.
“Well, then, Johnny, sir. What do you think? Was Zorro real?”
The boy chewed his lip. “I can’t decide. The deeds you describe are fantastic, but your stories are most convincing.”
Don Diego favored him with a nod. “Gracias, young man. I have seldom received so fine a compliment. As to whether Señor Zorro was real, I leave that for you to decide. After all, if he exists in your heart and mind, does he not truly exist?”
Johnny’s face twisted in thought. “Perhaps,” he said at last. “I still can’t decide.”
Don Diego resumed his tale, and when he had finished, a man appeared at his side, proffering a glass of wine. The fellow was powerfully built, but his shoulders were stooped, his face deeply lined, and his hair as white as Don Diego’s own.
Don Diego addressed the children, “Do you recall Zorro’s faithful servant Bernardo, the man who could not speak? Coincidentally, my own servant—and my very good friend—bears the same name.”
The children clapped and whistled, as Bernardo, with a shy smile, shambled away. But he had taken only a few steps when a party guest blundered into him, knocking him to the ground.
This second fellow, a tall, well-dressed man with a pointed beard, had been kicking up his heels with more enthusiasm than skill, and stumbled into Bernardo’s path.
Now, eyeing the servant on the ground before him, the bearded man flew into a rage. “Lowlife scum! Dare you impede the pleasures of your betters? You will rue the day you crossed paths with Ramon Ignacio Cortez!” And with that, the fellow raised a boot and stomped heavily on Bernardo’s ankle.
Bernardo’s mouth flew open, and though no sound came out, the scream penetrated to the core of Don Diego’s being.
Don Diego was on his feet in an instant, rage coursing through his veins. “You, señor, are a scoundrel and a bully! Your conduct is a stench in the nostrils of decent human beings. You should count yourself lucky Señor Zorro is not here to teach you manners!”
The force of Don Diego’s words took Cortez aback, but he quickly recovered his haughty expression. “Zorro!” he scoffed, curling a lip. “The imaginary Señor Zorro! The delusions of a dotard! You, old one, are fortunate I am without my sword, or this birthday would surely be your last.”
Don Diego stood rooted in place, fists clenched and quivering, as Cortez turned his back and strutted into the hacienda. Then Don Diego knelt at Bernardo’s side, examining his ankle and calling for assistance from the servants.

THE OLD HACIENDA was blessed with many guestrooms, one of these occupied by Johnny and his parents. The boy’s mother had attended college in the East with Don Diego’s granddaughter, and the family had taken advantage of this occasion to visit Los Angeles.  
Johnny lay awake, listening to his mother’s rhythmic breathing and his father’s robust snores, until certain both were deep in sleep. Then he slipped from bed, donned a robe, and silently left the room. He crept past other guestrooms to the stairs, and descended quietly to the living room, where he had last seen Don Diego. His imagination was afire with the adventures of Zorro, and he longed to hear one last story before surrendering to sleep.
He rounded the corner just in time to glimpse Don Diego make his way—with the aid of an elegant cane—to the giant fireplace. The old man’s back was to him, and Johnny was about to announce himself when Don Diego pressed fingers to a particular spot on the mantel. To Johnny’s astonishment, a panel at the rear of the fireplace slid away, revealing a dark opening. Taking an oil lantern from the mantel, Don Diego ducked his head, stepped through the opening and disappeared.
Johnny stood gaping, hardly believing his eyes, until the panel slid silently shut, and the fireplace was as before.

LEANING HEAVILY upon his cane, Don Diego made his way down the old stone steps. This hidden passage had not been traversed in many years, and he used the lantern to swipe cobwebs from his path. His progress was slow, for the myriad pains of age had long ago invaded his limbs.
By the time he reached the bottom, he was winded, and paused for breath. Here the steps opened into a room containing an oak table, a battered sea chest, and a large wardrobe, all covered with the dust of decades. Though the lamp failed to pierce the gloom beyond the wardrobe, his mind’s eye pictured the stable that had once housed his black stallion Tornado. So many memories, now reduced to stories listeners refused to believe.
Don Diego placed the lamp on the dusty table and approached the wardrobe. He pulled upon the handle, but the hinges proved as fickle as an old man’s muscles, and it required all his strength to pry the door.
At once, he was smote by the pungent odor of moth balls, but was pleased to note they had done their job. The black silk capes, shirts and trousers hanging within were coated with dust, but appeared free of holes.
Bending over the sea chest, Don Diego struggled to open the rusty latch, but found himself unequal to the task. He needed his old friend Bernardo now more than ever, but the poor fellow was still unable to stand.
He beat at the latch with the head of his cane, producing no better result, and, for perhaps the first time in his life, Don Diego felt despair.
That was when a voice spoke to him from behind.
“It’s true!” the voice said. “Zorro was real, and you were he!”
Don Diego turned, astonished, to behold the young lad who had interrupted his story.

HALF AN HOUR LATER, Johnny was back in the upstairs hallway. His head still swam with the enormity of what he had learned. Don Diego and Zorro were one and the same!
The old sea chest, when it finally opened, contained a flat-topped black hat with a wide brim, a black silk mask, an old flintlock pistol, a long, braided bullwhip and the finest sword Johnny had ever imagined.
As he’d helped Don Diego transform himself, Johnny had received detailed instructions on the mission he was to accomplish upstairs. He paused now, counting doors to be certain he stood before the correct guestroom, then carefully turned the latch.
Slipping quietly into the dark room, he paused until he could discern the man snoring in the great oak bed. Señor Ramon Ignacio Cortez, Don Diego had explained, was a business associate of his son-in-law. The man was visiting from Santa Barbara, and, like Johnny’s family, had chosen to spend the night.
Johnny stepped to the bed, placed a hand on the man’s shoulder, and gave it a tentative shake. “Señor Cortez!” he hissed. “Wake up! You are needed!”
With a great snort, Cortez thrashed in his sleep, dislodging the hand. But Johnny steeled himself, gripped the man harder and shook him with force.
“Wake up, señor! Wake up! There is an intruder in the house!”
This time, Cortez sputtered awake, staring dumbly into Johnny’s face.
“It’s likely an Indian, señor! Or perhaps some dirty peon!”
Malevolence gleamed in the man’s eyes. “Indian? Peon?”
“Please, señor, get your sword! You are brave and strong, and the only man to deal with him!”

NEAR THE GREAT FIREPLACE stood an ominous figure. From hat to boots, and to the tips of his gloved fingers, he was clad all in black. Only the eyes were visible, and they burned with the intensity of blue hellfire. This was not Don Diego de la Vega. For the first time in decades, Don Diego was gone, and Señor Zorro, the man once known as The Curse of Capistrano, had taken his place.
Zorro stood with drawn blade, and the sword felt marvelous in his hand. It was of Toledo steel, razor sharp and bright as lightning. Like an old friend, it lent him strength, and—for the moment—banished the pains of age. He felt once again like the hero who had darted about the countryside on Tornado, thumbing his nose at the lancers who tried to catch him.
Hushed voices came to his ears—young Johnny and the bully Cortez descending the stairs.
“Where is this intruder?” came the rough tones of Cortez. “If you have flummoxed me, boy, I shall whip you to bloody rags.”
Johnny’s reply was cut short, for at that moment the two rounded the corner and came face to face with Señor Zorro.
“If there is whipping to be done,” Zorro said, his voice like ice, “I will do it, and the bloody rags will be your own.”
The bearded man’s eyes bulged, then slowly narrowed. “What treachery is this, boy?” He made a grab for Johnny, but the lad had already melted into the shadows.
Zorro spoke again. “You will kindly step a few paces to your left, señor. I do not wish to befoul this fine carpet with your blood.”
Cortez answered with a snort.
With no wasted motion, Zorro uncoiled the whip from his side and cocked his arm. The whip sang through the air, the lash biting into the man’s right ear.
Squealing like a pig, Cortez clapped a hand to his head and launched into a stream of curses. But Zorro had accomplished his aim, for the fellow stumbled to his left, off the carpet and onto the tiled floor.
Zorro returned the whip to his belt. “Now, you would-be whipper of boys and scourge of peaceful servants, we may stage a proper duel.” He raised his sword, and the candlelight played along the blade like dancing flame.
Cortez shook himself and straightened, presenting his own sword. The man, Zorro saw, was bringing himself under control. Though an ill-mannered bully, he was apparently no coward.
The blades met and rang. Cortez attacked fiercely, but when Zorro refused to give ground, they fell into a steady rhythm, taking each other’s measure. Cortez’s wrist was strong, and he knew how to handle a blade. This was no mere tradesmen, but a man who had learned the finer techniques from a master.
Zorro feinted and attempted a particularly clever riposte he had learned from his own master in Spain, but Cortez read it easily, diverted the blade, and countered with a clever thrust of his own. Zorro winced as a streak of fire touched his shoulder.
As the music of the blades played on, Cortez seemed to grow stronger, while Zorro's sword grew heavier with each stroke. Age had returned to his limbs, and he could not rely on the aid of fancy footwork. He could only stand in place, parrying his opponent’s blows and praying for an opening.
Cortez was smiling now, full of confidence. "Your tongue is sharp, señor, but your skills are dull. I perceive this fight will be over quickly."
Zorro feared the man was right. What strength he had was fading fast.
Then the boy Johnny rushed from the shadows, cupping a hand to his ear and pointing down the hallway toward the stairs.
Zorro understood. The ringing blades had roused the household, and other guests would soon be flooding into the room.
He had no choice now. If he failed to end this quickly, he faced either discovery or death.
An inspiration struck him.
"Atención, señor! Have you seen this one?" Lowering his blade, Zorro raised his left hand, reached behind his ear, and produced a lush red rose.
As Cortez stared dumbfounded, Zorro's blade flashed past his guard like a living thing, made a quick twist and came away red.
Cortez dropped his sword and screamed, hands clawing at his face. Shouts of alarm came from the houseguests in the hallway. And while Cortez was oblivious, Zorro pressed the secret latch on the fireplace and ducked through the opening unseen.

THE PANEL had barely closed when people in sleeping gowns poured into the room. Johnny remained in the shadows as they passed, then slipped among them from behind.
"Look!" a woman cried in horror. "It is Señor Cortez, and he’s been hurt!"
The once-proud bully stood slumped before them, one hand covering his cheek. And from under that hand came drops of blood, making red splotches upon the white tiles below.
Don Diego's son-in-law rushed forward, gripping his associate by the shoulders. “Ramon! What has happened here?”
“An excellent question!” said another voice.
Heads turned toward the hallway, as Don Diego came hobbling into the room. His white hair was awry, and his sleeping gown hastily tied over what appeared to be black silk pajamas. He waved his cane at the group. “What is all this tumult? Cannot an old man sleep peacefully on his own birthday?”
The group dutifully parted, and Don Diego made his way to the center of the room. He bent, with great effort, to pluck the red rose from the floor, and flourished it in the face of Ramon Cortez. “Buenes tardes, señor,” he said with great politeness. “I perceive you have suffered some difficulty. Did you encounter, perhaps, a housemaid who resisted your charms?”
Cortez glared at him through hate-filled eyes. “I was attacked by a gang of ruffians, who sprang upon me unawares!”
“Indeed!” Don Diego exclaimed. “These are truly turbulent times. And to think such a thing happened here in my own house! But please, señor. We cannot allow that cut on your cheek to become infected. Will you not let us see it?”
With much wincing and gritting of teeth, Cortez removed the blood-soaked hand from his face, bringing gasps from all assembled.
For there upon his cheek, cut deep into the flesh, was a large and perfectly formed Z.
“Hm,” Don Diego mused, “how odd! It would appear that one of those ruffians was that figment of my imagination known as Zorro.”

AFTER CORTEZ had been led away and the guests returned to their rooms, Don Diego sat alone with Johnny near the great fireplace.
“The thing I don’t understand,” Johnny said, “is how you pulled that rose from behind your ear. Did you have it hidden there just in case?”
Don Diego smiled mysteriously. “A magician,” he said, “never reveals his secrets. And neither does Señor Zorro, if he can help it. But look here!” He raised a hand, reached behind Johnny’s ear, and produced another rose. “With enough determination, all things are possible.”
Johnny laughed, clearly delighted.
“Still,” Don Diego said, “Zorro and I are greatly in your debt. Is there any other favor I might grant?”
“Yes,” Johnny said. “You could write up your wonderful adventures of Zorro and have them published as dime novels. Then I could enjoy them again and again.”
 Don Diego pursed his lips. “I am afraid my skill at writing is limited to a single letter etched in flesh. But if Señor Zorro now inhabits your imagination, I trust you will be able to visit him there.”
From the hallway, a woman’s voice called, “Johnny! Where are you?”
“It’s my mother,” Johnny said with a sigh. “We start home tomorrow—to Illinois—and I may never see you again. But I make you this birthday promise, Don Diego. When I grow up, I will write up your adventures myself, and someday Zorro will be famous all over the world.”
Just then, a woman in a dressing gown rounded the corner and eyed them with frank disapproval. “Johnston McCulley! You come to bed right this instant, you scamp. I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”


Cap'n Bob said...

Nice presentation. I'm not sure I like this version of the song more than the Chordettes', but it's pretty good.

Rick Robinson said...

This Evanston McLewis is very talented indeed! Nice job!

Evan Lewis said...

Yes, Cap'n. You do.

Mr. McLewis thanks you, Rick. said...

Thank you, really enjoyed the story. I'm publishing a collection of pulp stories featuring Zorro, and was wondering if you had any interest in being included