The Curse of Capistrano/Chapter 35

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The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley
Chapter 35

Chapter 35: The Clash of Blades Again[edit]

SENOR ZORRO STOOD LIKE a statue in the native's hut, one hand grasping his horse's muzzle. The native crouched at his side.

Down the highway came the drumming of horses' hoofs. Then the pursuit swept by, the men calling to one another and cursing the darkness, and rushed down the valley.

Senor Zorro opened the door and glanced out, listened for a moment, and then led out his horse. He tendered the native a coin.

"Not from you, senor," the native said.

"Take it. You have need of it, and I have not," the highwayman said.

He vaulted into the saddle and turned his horse up the steep slope of the hill behind the hut. The animal made little noise as it climbed to the summit. Senor Zorro descended into the depression on the other side, and came to a narrow trail, and along this he rode at a slow gallop, stopping his mount now and then to listen for sounds of other horsemen who might be abroad.

He rode toward Reina de Los Angeles, but he appeared to be in no hurry about arriving at the pueblo. Senor Zorro had another adventure planned for this night, and it had to be accomplished at a certain time and under certain conditions.

It was two hours later when he came to the crest of the hill above the town: He sat quietly in the saddle for some time, regarding the scene. The moonlight was fitful now, but now and then he could make out the plaza.

He saw no troopers, heard nothing of them, decided that they had ridden back in pursuit of him, and that those who had been sent in pursuit of Don Carlos and the Dona Catalina had not yet returned. In the tavern there were lights, and in the presidio, and in the house where his excellency was a guest.

Senor Zorro waited until it was dark and then urged his horse forward slowly, but off the main highway. He circled the pueblo, and in time approached the presidio from the rear.

He dismounted now and led his horse, going forward slowly, often stopping to listen, for this was a very ticklish business and might end in disaster if a mistake were made.

He stopped the horse behind the presidio where the wall of the building would cast a shadow if the moon came from behind the clouds again, and went forward cautiously, following the wall as he had done on that other night.

When he came to the office window, he peered inside. Captain Ramon was there alone, looking over some reports spread on the table before him, evidently awaiting the return of his men.

Senor Zorro crept to the corner of the building and found there was no guard. He had guessed and hoped that the com-andante had sent every available man to die chase, but he knew that he would have to act quickly, for some of the troopers might return.

He slipped through the door and crossed the big lounging-room, and so came to the door of the office. His pistol was in his hand, and could a man have seen behind the mask, he would have observed that Senor Zorro's lips were crushed in a thin, straight line of determination.

As upon that other night, Captain Ramon whirled around in his chair when he heard the door open behind him, and once more he saw the eyes of Senor Zorro glittering through his mask, saw the muzzle of the pistol menacing him.

"Not a move. Not a sound. It would give me pleasure to fill your body with hot lead," Senor Zorro said. "You are alone —your silly troopers are chasing me where I am not."

"By the saints—" Captain Ramon breathed. "Not so much as a whisper, senor, if you hope to live. Turn your back to me."

"You would murder me?"

"I am not that sort, comandante. And I said for you to make not a sound. Put your hands behind your back, for I am going to bind your wrists."

Captain Ramon complied. Senor Zorro stepped forward swiftly, and bound the wrists with his own sash, which he tore from his waist. Then he whirled Captain Ramon around so that he faced him.

"Where is his excellency?" he asked. "At Don Juan Estados's house."

"I knew as much, but wanted to see whether you prefer to speak the truth tonight. It is well if you do so. We are going to call upon the governor."

"To call—"

"Upon his excellency, I said. And do not speak again. Come with me."

He grasped Captain Ramon by the arm and hurried him from the office, across the lounging-room, out of the door. He piloted him around the building to where the horse was waiting.

"Mount!" he commanded. "I shall sit behind you, with the muzzle of this pistol at the base of your brain. Make no mistake, comandante, unless you are tired of life. I am a determined man this night." Captain Ramon had observed it. He mounted as he was directed, and the highwayman mounted behind him, and held the reins with one hand and the pistol with the other.

Captain Ramon could feel the touch of cold steel at the back of his head.

Senor Zorro guided his horse with his knees instead of with the reins. He urged the beast down the slope and circled the town once more, keeping away from the beaten trails, and so approached the rear of the house where his excellency was a guest.

Here was the difficult part of the adventure. He wanted to get Captain Ramon before the governor, to talk to both of them, and to do it without having anybody else interfere. He forced the captain to dismount, and led him to the rear wall of the house. There was a patio there, and they entered it.

It appeared that Senor Zorro knew the interior of the house well. He entered it through a servant's room, taking Captain Ramon with him, and passed through into a hall without awakening the sleeping native. They went along the hall slowly. From one room came the sound of snoring. From beneath the door of another light streamed.

Senor Zorro stopped before that door and applied an eye to a crack at the side of it. If Captain Ramon harbored thoughts of voicing an alarm, or of offering battle, the touch of the pistol at the back of his head caused him to forget them.

And he had scant time to think of a way out of this predicament, for suddenly Senor Zorro threw open the door, hurled Captain Ramon through it, followed himself, and shut the door quickly behind him. In the room there were his excellency and his host.

"Silence, and do not move," Senor Zorro said. "The slightest alarm, and I put a pistol ball through the governor's head. That is understood? Very well, senores."

"Senor Zorro!" the governor gasped.

"The same, your excellency. I ask your host to be not frightened, for I mean him no harm if he sits quietly until I am done. Captain Ram6n, kindly sit across the table from the governor. I am delighted to find the head of the state awake and awaiting news from those who are chasing me. His brain will be clear, and he can understand better what is said."

"What means this outrage?" the governor exclaimed.

"Captain Ramon, how comes this? Seize this man! You are an officer—" "Do not blame the comandante," Senor Zorro said. "He knows it is death to make a move. There is a little matter that needs explanation, and since I cannot come to you in broad day as a man should, I am forced to adopt this method. Make yourselves comfortable, Senores. This may take some

little time."

His excellency fidgeted in his chair.

"You have this day insulted a family of good blood, your excellency," Senor Zorro went on. "You have forgotten the proprieties to such an extent that you have ordered thrown into your miserable carcel a hidalgo and his gentle wife and innocent daughter. You have taken such means to gratify a spite—"

"They are traitors," his excellency said.

"What have they done of treason?"

"You are an outlaw with a price put upon your head. They have been guilty of harboring you, giving you aid."

"Where got you this information?"

"Captain Ramon has an abundance of evidence."

"Ha! The comandante, eh? We shall see about that! Captain Ramon is present, and we can get at the truth. May I ask the nature of your evidence?"

"You were at the Pulido hacienda," the governor said.

"I admit it."

"A native saw you and carried word to the presidio. The soldiers hurried out to effect your capture."

"A moment. Who said a native sounded the alarm?"

"Captain Ramon assured me so."

"Here is the first chance for the captain to speak the truth. As a matter of fact, comandante, was it not Don Carlos Pulido himself who sent the native? The truth!"

"It was a native brought word."

"And he did not tell your sergeant that Don Carlos had sent him? Did he not say that Don Carlos had slipped him the information in whispers while he was carrying his fainting wife to her room? Is it not true that Don Carlos did his best to hold me at his hacienda until the soldiers arrived, that might be captured? Did not Don Carlos thus try to show his loyalty to the governor?"

"By the saints, Ramon, you never told me as much!" his excellency cried.

"They are traitors," the captain declared stubbornly.

"What other evidence?" Senor Zorro asked.

"Why, when the soldiers arrived, you concealed yourself by some trick," the governor said. "And presently Captain Ramon himself reached the scene, and while he was there you crept from a closet, ran him through treacherously from behind, and made your escape. It is an evident fact that Don Carlos had hidden you in the closet"

"By the saints!" Senor Zorro swore. "I had thought, Captain Ramon, that you were man enough to admit defeat, though I knew you for a scoundrel in other things. Tell the truth!"

"That is-the truth."

"Tell the truth!" Senor Zorro commanded, stepping closer to him and bringing up the pistol. "I came from that closet and spoke to you. I gave you time to draw blade and get on guard. We fenced for fully ten minutes, did we not?

"I admit freely that for a moment you puzzled me, and then I solved your method of giving battle and knew you were at my mercy. And then, when I could have slain you easily, I but scratched your shoulder. Is not that the truth? Answer, as you hope to live!"

Captain Ramon licked his dry lips, and could not meet the governor's eyes.

"Answer!" Senor Zorro thundered.

"It is—the truth," the captain acknowledged.

"Ha! So I ran you through from behind, eh? It is an insult to my blade to have it enter your body. You see, your excellency, what manner of man you have for comandante here. Is there more evidence?"

"There is," the governor said. "When the Pulidos were guests at the house of Don Diego Vega, and Don Diego was away, Captain Ramon went to pay his respects and found you there alone with the senorita."

"And that shows what?"

"That you are in league with the Pulidos. That they harbored you even in the house of Don Diego, a loyal man. And when the captain discovered you there, the senorita flung herself upon him and held him—delayed him, rather— until you made your escape through a window. Is not that enough?"

Senor Zorro bent forward, and his eyes seemed to burn through the mask and into those of Captain Ramon.

"So that is the tale he told, eh?" the highwayman said. "As a matter of fact, Captain Ramon is enamored of the senorita. He went to the house, found her alone, forced his attentions upon her, even told her that she should not object, since her father was in the bad graces of the governor. He attempted to caress her, and she called for help. I responded."

"How did you happen to be there?"

"I do not care to answer that, but I take my oath the senorita did not know of my presence. She called for aid, and I responded.

"I made this thing you call a comandante kneel before her and apologize. And then I took him to' the door and kicked him out into the dust! And afterward I visited him at the presidio and told him that he had given insult to a noble senorita—"

"It appears that you hold some love for her yourself," the governor said.

"I do, your excellency, and am proud to admit it."

"Ha! You condemn her and her parents by that statement! You deny now they are in league with you?"

"I do. Her parents do not know of our love."

"This senorita is scarcely conventional."

"Senor! Governor or no, another thought like that and I spill your blood," Senor Zorro cried. "I have told you what happened that night at the house of Don Diego Vega. Captain Ramon will testify that what I have said is the exact truth. Is it not, comandante? Answer!"

"It—it is the truth." The captain gulped, looking at the muzzle of the highwayman's pistol.

"Then you have told me falsehood, and can no longer be an officer of mine!" the governor cried. "It appears that this highwayman can do as he pleases with you. Ha! But I still believe that Don Carlos Pulido is a traitor, and the members of his family, and it has availed you nothing, Senor Zorro, to play this little scene.

"My soldiers shall continue to pursue them—and you! And before they are done, I'll have the Pulidos dragged in the dirt, and I'll have you stretching a rope with your carcass!"

"Quite a bold speech," observed Senor Zorro. "You set your soldiers a pretty task, your excellency. I rescued your three prisoners tonight, and they have escaped."

"They shall be retaken."

"Time alone will tell that. And now I have another duty to perform here. Your excellency, you will take your chair to that far corner and sit there, and your host will sit beside you. And there you shall remain until I have finished."

"What do you mean to do?"

"Obey me," Senor Zorro cried. "I have scant time for argument, even with a governor."

He watched while the two chairs were placed and the governor and his host had seated themselves. And then he stepped nearer Captain Ramon.

"You insulted a pure and innocent girl, comandante," he said. "For that, you shall fight. Your scratched shoulder is healed now, and you wear your blade by your side. Such a man as you is not fit to breathe God's pure air. The country is better for your absence. On your feet, senor, and on guard!"

Captain Ramon was white with rage. He knew that he was ruined. He had been forced to confess that he had lied. He had heard the governor remove his rank. And this man before him had been the cause of all of it.

Perhaps in his anger he could kill this Senor Zorro, stretch this Curse of Capistrano on the floor with his life blood flowing away. Perhaps, if he did that, his excellency would relent.

He sprang from his chair and backward to the side of the governor.

"Unfasten my wrists!" he cried. "Let me at this dog!"

"You were as good as dead before—you certainly are dead after using that word," Senor Zorro said calmly. The comandante's wrists were untied. He whipped out his blade, sprang forward with a cry, and launched himself in a furious attack upon the highwayman.

Senor Zorro gave ground before this onslaught, and so obtained a position where the light from the candelero did not bother his eyes. He was skilled with a blade, and had fenced for life many times, and he knew the danger in the attack of an angered man who did not fence according to the code.

And he knew, too, that such anger is spent quickly unless a fortunate thrust makes the possessor of it victor almost at once. And so he retreated step by step, guarding well, parrying vicious strokes, alert for an unexpected move.

The governor and his host were sitting in their corner, but bending forward and watching the combat.

"Run him through, Ramon, and I reinstate and promote you!" his excellency cried.

The comandante thus was urged to do it. Senor Zorro found his opponent fighting much better than he had before in Don Carlos Pulido's house at the hacienda. He found himself forced to fight out of a dangerous corner, and the pistol he held in his left hand to intimidate the governor and his host bothered him.

And suddenly he tossed it to the table, and then swung around so that neither of the two men could dart from a corner and get it without running the chance of receiving a blade between the ribs. And there he stood his ground and fought.

Captain Ramon could not force him to give way now. His blade seemed to be a score. It darted in and out, trying to find a resting place in the captain's body; for Senor Zorro was eager to have an end of this and be gone. He knew that the dawn was not far away, and he feared that some trooper might come to the house with a report for the governor.

"Fight, insulter of girls!" he cried. "Fight, man who tells a falsehood to injure a noble family! Fight, coward and poltroon! Now death stares you in the face, and soon you'll be claimed! Ha! I almost had you then! Fight, cur!"

Captain Ramon cursed and charged, but Senor Zorro received him and drove him back, and so held his position. The perspiration was standing out on the captain's forehead in great globules. His breath was coming heavily from between his parted lips. His eyes were bright and bulging.

"Fight, weakling!" The highwayman taunted him. "This time I am not attacking from behind. If you have prayers to say, say them—for your time grows short."

The ringing blades, the shifting feet on the floor, the heavy breathing of the combatants and of the two spectators of this life-and-death struggle were the only sounds in the room. His excellency sat far forward on his chair, his hands gripping the edges of it so that his knuckles were white,

"Kill me this highwayman!" he shrieked. "Use your good skill, Ramon! At him!"

Captain Ramon rushed again, calling into play his last bit of strength, fencing with what skill he could command. His arms were as lead; his breath was fast. He thrust, he lunged —and made a mistake of a fraction of an inch.

Like the tongue of a serpent, Senor Zorro's blade shot in. Thrice it darted forward, and upon the fair brow of Ramon, just between the eyes, there flamed suddenly a red, bloody letter Z.

"The Mark of Zorro!" the highwayman cried. "You wear it forever now, comandante!"

Senor Zorro's face became more stern. His blade shot in again and came out dripping red. The comandante gasped and slipped to the floor.

"You have slain him!" the governor cried. "You have taken his life, wretch!"

"Ha! I trust so. The thrust was through the heart, excellency. He never will insult a senorita again."

Senor Zorro looked down at his fallen foe, regarded the governor a moment, then wiped his blade on the sash that had bound the comandante's wrists. He returned the blade to its scabbard and picked up his pistol from the table.

"My night's work is done," he said.

"And you shall hang for it!" his excellency cried.

"Perhaps—when you catch me," replied the Curse of Capistrano, bowing ceremoniously.

Then, without glancing again at the twitching body of him who had been Captain Ramone, he whirled through the door and was in the hall, and rushed through it to the patio and to his horse.