The Curse of Capistrano/Chapter 34
The Blood of the Pulidos
THE TWO TROOPERS CAME BACK INTO the room. They had searched the house well, they reported, invading every corner of it, and no trace had been found of any person other than Fray Felipe's native servants, all of whom were too terrified to utter a falsehood, and had said they had seen nobody around the place who did not belong there.
"Ha! Hidden away well, no doubt!" Gonzales said. "Fray, what is that in the corner of the room?"
"Bales of hides," Fray Felipe replied.
"I have been noticing it from time to time. The dealer from San Gabriel must have been right when he said the hides he purchased of you were n6t properly cured. Are those?"
"I think you will find them so."
"Then why did they move?" Sergeant Gonzales asked. "Three times I saw the corner of a bale move. Soldiers, search there."
Fray Felipe sprang to his feet.
"Enough of this nonsense," he cried. "You have searched and found nothing. Search the barns next and then go! At least let me be master in my own house. You have disturbed my rest enough as it is."
"You will take a solemn oath, fray, that there is nothing alive behind those bales of hides?" Fray Felipe hesitated, and Sergeant Gonzales grinned. "Not ready to forswear yourself, eh?" the sergeant asked. "I had a thought you would hesitate at that, my robed Franciscan. Soldiers, search the bales."
The two men started toward the corner. But they had not covered one half the distance when señorita Lolita Pulido stood up behind the bales of hides and faced them.
"Ha! Unearthed at last!" Gonzales cried. "Here is the package Señor Zorro left in the fray's keeping! And a pretty package it is! Back to cárcel she goes, and this escape will but make her final sentence the greater!"
But there was Pulido blood in the señorita's veins, and Gonzales had not taken that into account. Now the señorita stepped to the end of the pile of hides, so that light from the candelero struck full upon her.
"One moment, señores," she said.
One hand came from behind her back, and in it she held a long, keen knife such as sheep skinners used. She put the point of the knife against her breast, and regarded them bravely.
"Señorita Lolita Pulido does not return to the foul cárcel now or at any time, señores," she said. "Rather would she plunge this knife into her heart, and so die as a woman of good blood should. If his excellency wishes for a dead prisoner, he may have one."
Sergeant Gonzales uttered an exclamation of annoyance. He did not doubt that the señorita would do as she had threatened, if the men made an attempt to seize her. And while he might have ordered the attempt in the case of an ordinary prisoner, he did not feel sure that the governor would say he had done right if he ordered it now. After all, Señorita Pulido was the daughter of a don, and her self-inflicted death might cause trouble for his excellency. It might prove the spark to the powder magazine.
"Señorita, the person who takes his or her own life risks eternal damnation," the sergeant said. "Ask this fray if it is not so. You are only under arrest, not convicted and sentenced. If you are innocent, no doubt you soon will be set at liberty."
"It is no time for lying speeches, señor," the girl replied. "I realize the circumstances only too well, I have said that I will not return to cárcel, and I meant it—and mean it now. One step toward me, and I take my own hie."
"Señorita—" Fray Felipe began.
"It is useless for you to attempt to prevent me, good fray," she interrupted. "I have pride left me, thank the saints. His excellency gets only my dead body, if he gets me at all."
"Here is a pretty mess," Sergeant Gonzales exclaimed. "I suppose there is nothing for us to do except retire and leave the señorita to her freedom."
"Ah, no, señor!" she cried quickly. "You are clever, but not clever enough by far. You would retire and continue to have your men surround the house? You would watch for an opportunity, and then seize me?"
Gonzales growled low in his throat, for that had been his intention, and the girl had read it.
"I shall be the one to leave," she said. "Walk backward, and stand against the wall, señores. Do it immediately, or I plunge this knife into my bosom."
They could do nothing except obey. The soldiers looked to the sergeant for instructions, and the sergeant was afraid to risk the señorita's death, knowing it would call down upon his head the wrath of the governor, who would say that he had bungled.
Perhaps, after all, it would be better to let the girl leave the house. She might be captured afterward, for surely a girl could not escape the troopers.
She watched them closely as she darted across the room to the door. The knife was still held at her breast.
"Fray Felipe, you wish to go with me?" she asked. "You may be punished if you remain."
"Yet I must remain, señorita. I could not run away. May the saints protect you!"
She faced Gonzales and the soldiers once more.
"I am going through this door," she said. "You will remain in this room. There are troopers outside, of course, and they will try to stop me. I shall tell them that I have your permission to leave. If they call and ask you, you are to say that it is so."
"And if I do not?"
"Then I use the knife, señor."
She opened the door, turned her head for an instant and glanced out.
"I trust that your horse is an excellent one, señor, for I intend to use it," she told the sergeant.
She darted suddenly through the door, and slammed it shut behind her.
"After her!" Gonzales cried. "I looked into her eyes! She will not use the knife—she fears it!"
He hurled himself across the room, the two soldiers with him. But Fray Felipe had been passive long enough. He went into action now. He did not stop to consider the consequences. He threw out one leg, and tripped Sergeant Gonzales. The two troopers crashed into him, and all went to the floor in a tangle.
Fray Felipe had gained some time for her, and it had been enough. For the señorita had rushed to the horse and had jumped into the saddle. She could ride like a native. Her tiny feet did not reach halfway to the sergeant's stirrups, but she thought nothing of that.
She wheeled the horse's head, kicked at his sides as a trooper rushed around the corner of the house. A pistol ball whistled past her head. She bent lower over the horse's neck and rode.
Now a cursing Sergeant Gonzales was on the veranda, shouting for his men to get to horse and follow her. The moon was behind a bank of clouds again. They could not tell the direction the señorita was taking except by listening for the sounds of the horse's hoofs. And they had to stop to do that—and if they stopped they lost time and distance.