The Curse of Capistrano/Chapter 15

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The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley
Chapter 15

Chapter 15: At the Presidio[edit]

SENOR ZORRO HAD GONE a short distance through the darkness to where he had left his horse in the rear of a native's hut, and there he had stood, thinking of the love that had come to him.

Presently he chuckled as if well pleased, then mounted and rode slowly toward the path that led to the presidio. He heard a horseman galloping away from the place and thought Captain Ramon had sent a man to call back Sergeant Gonzales and the troopers and put them on the fresher trail.

Senor Zorro knew how affairs stood at the presidio, knew to a man how many of the soldiery were there, and that four were ill with a fever, and that there was but one well man now besides the captain since one had ridden away.

He laughed again and made his horse climb the slope slowly so as to make little noise. In the rear of the presidio building he dismounted and allowed the reins to drag on the ground, knowing that the animal would not move from the spot.

Now he crept through the darkness to the wall of the building and made his way around it carefully until he came to a window. He raised himself on a pile of adobe bricks and peered inside.

It was Captain Ramon's office into which he looked. He saw the comandante sitting before a table reading a letter which, it appeared, he had just finished writing. Captain Ramon was talking to himself, as does many an evil man.

"That will cause consternation for the pretty senorita," he was saying. "That will teach her not to flaunt an officer of his excellency's forces. When her father is in the carcel charged with high treason, and his estates have been taken away, then perhaps she will listen to what I have to say."

Senor Zorro had no difficulty in distinguishing the words. He guessed instantly that Captain Ramon had planned a revenge, that he contemplated mischief toward the Pulidos. Beneath his mask the face of Senor Zorro grew black with rage.

He got down from the pile of adobe bricks and slipped on along the wall until he came to the corner of the building. In a socket at the side of the front door a torch was burning, and the only able-bodied man left in the garrison was pacing back and forth before the doorway, a pistol in his belt and a blade at his side.

Senor Zorro noted the length of the man's pacing. He judged the distance accurately, and just as the man turned his back to resume his march the highwayman sprang.

His hands closed around the soldier's throat as his knees struck the man in the back. Instantly they were upon the ground, the surprised trooper now doing his best to put up a fight. But Senor Zorro, knowing that a bit of noise might mean disaster for him, silenced the man by striking him on the temple with the heavy butt of his pistol.

He pulled the unconscious soldier back into the shadows, gagged him with a strip torn from the end of his serape, and bound his hands and feet with other strips. Then he drew his cloak about him, looked to his pistol, listened a moment to be sure the short fight with the soldier had not attracted the attention of any inside the building, and slipped once more toward the door.

He was inside in an instant. Before him was the big lounging-room with its hard dirt floor. Here were some long tables and bunks and wine mugs and harness and saddles and bridles. Senor Zorro gave it but a glance to assure himself that no man was there, and walked swiftly and almost silently across to the door that opened into the office of the co-m andante.

He made sure that his pistol was ready for instant use, and then threw the door open boldly. Captain Ramon was seated with his back toward it, and now he whirled around in his chair with a snarl on his lips, thinking one of his men had entered without the preliminary of knocking, and ready to rebuke the man.

"Not a sound, Senor," the highwayman warned. "You die if as much as a gasp escapes your lips."

He kept his eyes on those of the comandante, closed the door behind him, and advanced into the room. He walked forward slowly, without speaking, the pistol held ready in front of him. Captain Ramon had his hands on the table before him, and his face had gone white.

"This visit is necessary, Senor, I believe," Senor Zorro said. "I have not made it because I admire the beauty of your face."

"What do you here?" the captain asked, disregarding the order to make no sound, yet speaking in a tone scarcely above a whisper.

"I happened to look in at the window, Senor. I saw an epistle before you on the table, and I heard you speak. Tis a bad thing for a man to talk to himself. Had you remained silent I might have gone on about my business. As it is—"

"Well, Senor?" the captain asked, with a bit of his old arrogance returning to him.

"I have a mind to read that letter before you."

"Does my military business interest you that much?"

"As to that, we shall say nothing, senor. Kindly remove your hands from the table, but do not reach toward the pistol at your side unless you wish to die the death instantly. It would not grieve me to have to send your soul into the hereafter."

The comandante did as he had been directed, and Senor Zorro went forward cautiously and snatched up the letter. Then he retreated a few paces again, still watching the man before him.

"I am going to read this," he said, "but I warn you that I shall watch you closely, also. Do not make a move, senor, unless it is your wish to visit your ancestors."

He read swiftly, and when he had finished he looked the comandante straight in the eyes for some time without speaking, and his own eyes were glittering malevolently through his mask. Captain Ramon began to feel more uncomfortable.

Senor Zorro stepped across to the table, still watching the other, and held the letter to the flame of a candle. It caught fire, blazed, presently dropped to the floor, a bit of ash. Senor Zorro put one foot upon it

"The letter will not be delivered," he said. "So you fight women, do you, senor? A brave officer and an ornament to his excellency's forces! I doubt not he would grant you promotion if he knew of this. You insult a senorita because her father, for the time being, is not friendly with those in power, and because she repulses you as you deserve, you set about to cause trouble for the members of her family. Truly, it is a worthy deed."

He took a step closer and bent forward, still holding the pistol ready before him.

"Let me not hear of you sending any letter similar to the one I have just destroyed," he said. "I regret at the present time that you are unable to stand before me and cross blades. It would be an insult to my sword to run you through, yet would I do it to rid the world of such a fellow."

"You speak bold words to a wounded man."

"No doubt the wound will heal, senor. And I shall keep myself informed regarding it. And when it has healed and you have back your strength, I shall take the trouble to hunt you up, and call you to account for what you have attempted doing this night. Let that be understood between us."

Again their eyes blazed, each man's into those of the other, and Senor Zorro stepped backward and drew his cloak closer about him. To their ears there came suddenly a jangling of harness, the tramp of horses' feet, the raucous voice of Sergeant Pedro Gonzales.

"Do not dismount!" the sergeant was crying to his men at the door. "I but make report, and then we go on after the rogue! There shall be no rest until we take him!"

Senor Zorro glanced quickly around the room, for he knew escape by the entrance was cut off now. Captain Ramon's eyes flashed with keen anticipation.

"Ho, Gonzales!" he shrieked before Zorro could warn him against it. "To the rescue, Gonzales! Senor Zorro is here!"

And then he looked at the highwayman defiantly, as if telling him to do his worst

But Senor Zorro had no desire to fire his pistol and let out the captain's lifeblood, it appeared, preferring to save him for the blade when his shoulder should have healed.

"Remain where you are!" he commanded, and darted toward the nearest window.

The big sergeant had heard, however. He called upon his men to follow, and rushed across the large room to the door of the office and threw it open. A bellow of rage escaped him as he saw the masked man standing beside the table, and saw the comandante sitting before it with his hands spread out before him.

"By the saints, we have him!" Gonzales cried. "In with you, troopers! Guard the doors! Some look to the windows!"

Senor Zorro had transferred his pistol to his left hand, and had whipped out his blade. Now he swept it forward and sidewise, and the candles were struck from the table. Zorro put his foot upon the only one that remained lighted and extinguished it in that manner—and the room was in darkness.

"Lights! Bring a torch!" Gonzales shrieked..

Senor Zorro sprang aside, against the wall, and made his way around it rapidly while Gonzales and two other men sprang into the room, and one remained guarding the door; while in the other room several ran to get a torch, and managed to get in one another's way.

The man with the torch came rushing through the door finally, and he shrieked and went down with a sword blade through his breast, and the torch fell to the floor and was extinguished. And then, before the sergeant could reach the spot, Senor Zorro was back in the darkness again and could not be found.

Gonzales was roaring his curses now and searching for the man he wished to slay, and the captain was crying to him to be careful and not put his blade through a trooper by mistake. The other men were storming around; in the other room one came with a second torch.

Zorro's pistol spoke, and the torch was shot from the man's hand. The highwayman sprang forward and stamped upon it, putting it out, and again retreated to the darkness, changing his position rapidly, listening for the deep breathing that would tell him the exact location of his various foes.

"Catch the rogue!" the comandante was shrieking. "Can one man thus make fools of the lot of you?"

Then he ceased to speak, for Senor Zorro had grasped him from behind and shut off his wind, and now the highwayman's voice rang out above the din.

"Soldiers, I have your captain! I am going to carry him before me and back out the door. I am going to cross the other room and so reach the outside of the building. I have discharged one pistol, but I am holding its mate at the base of the captain's brain. And when one of you attacks me, I fire, and you are without a captain."

The captain could feel cold steel at the back of his head, and he shrieked for the men to use caution. And Senor Zorro carried him to the doorway and backed out with the captain held in front of him, while Gonzales and the troopers followed as closely as they dared, watching every move, hoping for a chance to catch him unaware.

He crossed the big lounging-room of the presidio -and so came to the outside door. He was somewhat afraid of the men outside, for he knew that some of them had run around the building to guard the windows. The torch was still burning just outside the door, and Senor Zorro put up his hand and tore it down and extinguished it. But still there would be grave danger the moment he stepped out.

Gonzales and the troopers were before him, spread out fan-fashion across the room, bending forward, waiting for a chance to get in a blow. Gonzales held a pistol in his hand

—though he made out to despise the weapon—and was watching for an opportunity to shoot without endangering the life of his captain.

"Back, senores!" the highwayman commanded now. "I would have more room in which to make my start. That is it

—I thank you. Sergeant Gonzales, were not the odds so heavy, I might be tempted to play at fence with you and disarm you again."

"By the saints—"

"Some other time, my sergeant. And now, senores, attention! It desolates me to say it, but I had only the one pistol. What the captain has been feeling all this time at the base of his brain is nought except a bridle buckle I picked up from the floor. Is it not a pretty jest? Senores, adios!

Suddenly he whirled the captain forward, darted into the darkness, and started toward his horse with the whole pack at his heels and pistol flashes splitting the blackness of the night and bullets whistling by his head. His laughter came back to them on the stiffening breeze that blew in from the distant sea.