The Curse of Capistrano/Chapter 22
THE FRAILES DROVE THE CART ONWARD, Fray Felipe raised his hand in blessing, and Don Diego Vega turned aside into the other trail, the deaf-and-dumb Bernardo following at his heels on the mule.
Back in the pueblo, the dealer in hides and tallow was the center of attraction at the tavern. The fat landlord was kept busy supplying his guest with wine, for the dealer in hides and tallow was spending a part of the money of which he had swindled Fray Felipe. The magistrado was spending the rest.
There was boisterous laughter as one recounted how Fray Felipe lay about him with the whip, and how the blood spurted from his old back when the lash was applied.
"Not a whimper from him!" cried the dealer in hides and tallow. "He is a courageous old coyote! Now, last month we whipped one at San Fernando, and he howled for mercy, but some men said he had been ill and was weak, and possibly that was so. A tough lot, these frailes. But it is great sport when we can make one howl. More wine, landlord! Fray Felipe is paying for it!"
There was a deal of raucous laughter at that, and the dealer's assistant, who had given perjured testimony, was tossed a coin and told to play a man and do his own buying. Whereupon the apprentice purchased wine for all in the inn, and howled merrily when the fat landlord gave him no change from his piece of money.
"Are you a fray, that you pinch coins?" the landlord asked.
Those in the tavern howled with merriment again, and the landlord, who had cheated the assistant to the limit, grinned as he went about his business. It was a great day for the fat landlord.
"Who was the caballero who showed some mercy toward the fray?" the dealer asked.
"That was Don Diego Vega," the landlord replied.
"He will be getting himself into trouble—"
"Not Don Diego," said the landlord. "You know the great Vega family, do you not, señor? His excellency himself curries their favor. Did the Vegas hold up as much as a little finger, there would be a political upheaval in these parts."
"Then he is a dangerous man?" the dealer asked.
A torrent of laughter answered him.
"Dangerous? Don Diego Vega?" the landlord cried, while tears ran down his fat cheeks. "You will be the death of me! Don Diego does nought but sit in the sun and dream. He scarcely ever wears a blade, except as a matter of show. He groans if he has to ride a few miles on a horse. Don Diego is about as dangerous as a lizard basking in the sun.
"But he is an excellent gentleman, for all that!" the landlord added hastily, afraid that his words would reach Don Diego's ears, and Don Diego would take his custom elsewhere.
It was almost dusk when the dealer in hides and tallow left the tavern with his assistant, and both reeled as they walked, for they had partaken of too much wine.
They made their way to the carreta in which they traveled, waved their farewells to the group about the door of the tavern, and started slowly up the trail toward San Gabriel.
They made their journey in a leisurely manner, continuing to drink from a jug of wine they had purchased. They went over the crest of the first hill, and the pueblo of Reina de Los Angeles was lost to view, and all they could see was the highway twisting before them like a great dusty serpent, and the brown hills, and a few buildings in the distance, where some main had his hacienda.
They made a turning and found a horseman confronting them, sitting easily in the saddle, with his horse standing across the road in such manner that they could not pass.
"Turn your horse—turn your beast!" the dealer in hides and tallow cried. "Would you have me drive over you?"
The assistant gave an exclamation that was part of fear, and the dealer looked more closely at the horseman. His jaw dropped; his eyes bulged.
"'Tis Señor Zorro!" he exclaimed. "By the saints! 'Tis the Curse of Capistrano, away down here near San Gabriel. You would not bother me, Señor Zorro? I am a poor man, and have no money. Only yesterday, a fray swindled me, and I have been to the Rein a de Los Angeles seeking justice."
"Did you get it?" Señor Zorro asked.
"The magistrado was kind, señor. He ordered the fray to repay me, but I do not know when I shall get the money."
"Get out of the carreta, and your assistant also!" Señor Zorro commanded.
"But I have no money—" the dealer protested.
"Out of the carreta with you! Do I have to request it twice? Move, or lead finds a lodging-place in your carcass!"
Now the dealer saw that the highwayman held a pistol in his hand, and he squealed with sudden fright and got out of the cart as speedily as possible, his assistant tumbling out at his heels. They stood in the dusty highway before Señor Zorro, trembling with fear, the dealer begging for mercy.
"I have no money with me, kind highwayman, but I shall get it for you!" the dealer cried. "I shall carry it to where you say, whenever you wish—"
"Silence, beast!" Señor Zorro cried. "I do not want your money, perjurer. I know all about the farce of a trial at Reina de Los Angeles; I have ways of finding out about such things speedily. So the aged fray swindled you, eh? Liar and thief! 'Tis you who are the swindler. And they gave that old and godly man fifteen lashes across his bare back because of the lies you told. And you and the magistrado will divide the money of which you swindled him."
"I swear by the saints—"
"Do not. You have done enough false swearing already. Step forward."
The dealer complied, trembling as if with a disease; and Señor Zorro dismounted swiftly and walked around in front of his horse. The dealer's assistant was standing beside the carreta, and his face was white.
"Forward!" Señor Zorro commanded again.
Again the dealer complied; but suddenly he began to beg for mercy, for Señor Zorro had taken a mule whip from beneath his long cloak, and held it ready in his right hand, while he held the pistol in his left.
"Turn your back!" he commanded now.
"Mercy, good highwayman! Am I to be beaten as well as robbed? You would whip an honest merchant because of a thieving fray?"
The first blow fell, and the dealer shrieked with pain. His last remark appeared to have given strength to the highwayman's arm. The second blow fell, and the dealer in hides and tallow went to his knees in the dusty highroad.
Then Señor Zorro returned his pistol to his belt and stepped forward and grasped the dealer's mop of hair with his left hand, so as to hold him up, and with the right he rained heavy blows with the mule whip upon the man's back, until his tough coat and shirt were cut to ribbons, and the blood soaked through.
"That for a man who perjures himself and has an honest fray punished!" Señor Zorro cried. And then he gave his attention to the assistant. "No doubt, young man, you but carried out your master's orders when you lied before the magistrado," he said. "But you must be taught to be honest and fair, no matter what the circumstances."
"Mercy, señor!" the assistant howled.
"Did you not laugh when the fray was being whipped? Are you not filled with wine now because you have been celebrating the punishment that godly man received for something he did not do?"
Señor Zorro grasped the youth by the nape of his neck, whirled him around, and sent a stiff blow at his shoulders. The boy shrieked and then began whimpering. Five lashes in all he received, for Señor Zorro apparently did not wish to render him unconscious. And finally he hurled the boy from him, and looped his whip.
"Let us hope both of you have learned your lesson," he said. "Get into the carreta and drive on. And when you speak of this occurrence, tell the truth, else I hear of it and punish you again! Let me not learn that you have said some fifteen or twenty men surrounded and held you while I worked with the whip."
The apprentice sprang into the cart, and his master followed, and they whipped up and disappeared in a cloud of dust toward San Gabriel. Señor Zorro looked after them for a time, then lifted his mask and wiped the perspiration from his face, and then mounted his horse again, fastening the mule whip to the pommel of his saddle.