The Curse of Capistrano/Chapter 38
The Man Unmasked
TWENTY-THREE HORSEMEN WERE GALLOPING into the plaza. The beasts they rode were magnificent, their saddles and bridles were heavily chased with silver, their cloaks were of the finest materials, and they wore hats with plumes, as if this was somewhat of a dress affair and they wished the world to know it. Each man sat straight and proud in his saddle, his blade at his side, and every blade had a jeweled hilt, being at once serviceable and a rich ornament.
They galloped along the face of the tavern, between the door and the soldiers who had been battering it, between the building and the governor and assembled citizens, and there they turned and stood their horses side by side, facing his excellency.
"Wait! There is a better way!" their leader cried.
"Ha!" screeched the governor. "I understand. Here we have the young men of all the noble families in the southland. They have come to show their loyalty by taking this Curse of Capistrano. I thank you, caballeros. Yet it is not my wish to have any of you slain by this fellow. He is not worthy your blades, señores. Do you ride to one side and lend the strength of your presence, and let my troopers deal with the rogue. Again I thank you for this show of loyalty, for this demonstration that you stand for law and order and all it means, for constituted authority—"
"Peace!" their leader cried. "Your excellency, we represent power in this section, do we not?"
"You do, caballeros," the governor said.
"Our families say who shall rule, what laws shall be just, do they not?"
"They have great influence," the governor said.
"You would not care to stand alone against us?"
"Most assuredly not!" his excellency cried. "But I pray you, let the troopers get this fellow. It is not seemly that a caballero should suffer wound or death from his blade."
"It is to be regretted that you do not understand."
"Understand?" queried the governor, in a questioning tone, glancing up and down the line of mounted men.
"We have taken counsel with ourselves, excellency. We know our strength and power, and we have decided upon certain things. There have been things done that we cannot countenance.
"The frailes of the missions have been despoiled by officials. Natives have been treated worse than dogs. Even men of noble blood have been robbed because they have not been friendly to the ruling powers."
"Peace, excellency, until I have done. This thing came to a crisis when a hidalgo and his wife and daughter were thrown into a cárcel by your orders. Such a thing cannot be countenanced, excellency, and so we have banded ourselves together, and here we take a hand. Be it known that we ourselves rode with this Señor Zorro when he invaded the cárcel and rescued the prisoners, that we carried Don Carlos and the Doña Catalina to places of safety, and that we have pledged our words and honors and blades that they shall not be persecuted more."
"I would say—"
"Silence, until I have done! We stand together, and the strength of our united families is behind us. Call upon your soldiers to attack us, if you dare! Every man of noble blood up and down the length of El Camino Real would flock to our defense, would unseat you from your office, would see you humbled. We await your answer, excellency."
"What—what would you?" his excellency gasped.
"First, proper consideration for Don Carlos Pulido and his family. No cárcel for them. If you have the courage to try them for treason, be sure that we will be on hand at the trial, and deal with any man who gives perjured testimony, and with any magistrado who does not conduct himself properly. We are determined, excellency."
"Perhaps I was hasty in the matter, but I was led to believe certain things," the governor said. "I grant you your wish. One side now, caballeros, while my men get at this rogue in the tavern."
"We are not done," their leader said. "We have things to say regarding this Señor Zorro. What has he done—actually—excellency? Is he guilty of any treason? He has robbed no man except those who robbed the defenseless first. He has whipped a few unjust persons. He has taken sides with the persecuted, for which we honor him. To do such a thing, he took his life in his own hands. He successfully evaded your soldiers. He resented insults, as any man has the right to do."
"What would you?"
"A complete pardon, here and now, for this man known as Señor Zorro."
"Never!" the governor cried. "He has affronted me personally. He shall die the death!" He turned around and saw Don Alejandro Vega standing near him. "Don Alejandro, you are the most influential man in this south country," he said. "You are the one man against whom even the governor dare not stand. You are a man of justice. Tell these young caballeros that what they wish cannot be granted. Bid them retire to their homes, and this show of treason will be forgotten."
"I stand behind them!" Don Alejandro thundered.
"You—you stand behind them?"
"I do, your excellency. I echo every word they have spoken in your presence. Persecution must cease. Grant their requests, see that your officials do right hereafter, return to San Francisco de Asis, and I take my oath that there shall be no treason in this southland. I shall see to it myself. But oppose them, excellency, and I shall take sides against you, see you driven from office and ruined, and your foul parasites with you."
"This terrible, willful southland!" the governor cried.
"Your answer?" Don Alejandro demanded.
"I can do nothing but agree," the governor said. "But there is one thing—"
"I spare the man's life if he surrenders, but he must stand trial for the murder of Captain Ramón."
"Murder?" queried the leader of the caballeros, "It was a duel between gentlemen, excellency. Señor Zorro resented an insult on the part of the comandante to the señorita."
"Ha! But Ramón was a caballero—"
"And so is this Señor Zorro. He told us as much, and we believe him, for there was no falsehood in his voice. So it was a duel, excellency, and between gentlemen, according to the code, and Captain Ramón was unfortunate that he was not a better man with a blade. That is understood? Your answer."
"I agree," the governor said weakly. "I pardon him, and I go home to San Francisco de Asis, and persecution ceases in this locality. But I hold Don Alejandro to his promise—that there be no treason against me here if I do these things."
"I have given my word," Don Alejandro said.
The caballeros shrieked their happiness and dismounted. They drove the soldiers away from the door, Sergeant Gonzales growling into his mustache because here was a reward gone glimmering again.
"Within there, Señor Zorro!" one cried. "Have you heard?"
"I have heard, caballero!"
"Open the door and come out amongst us—a free man!"
There was a moment's hesitation, and then the battered door was unbarred and opened, and Señor Zorro stepped out with the señorita on his arm. He stopped just in front of the door, removed his sombrero and bowed low before them.
"A good day to you, caballeros!" he cried. "Sergeant, I regret that you have missed the reward, but I shall see that the amount is placed to the credit of you and your men with the landlord of the tavern."
"By the saints, he is a caballero!" Gonzales cried.
"Unmask, man!" cried the governor. "I would see the features of the person who has fooled my troopers, has gained caballeros to his banner, and has forced me to make a compromise."
"I fear that you will be disappointed when you see my poor features," Señor Zorro replied. "Do you expect me to look like Satan? Or can it be possible, on the other hand, that you believe I have an angelic countenance?"
He chuckled, glanced down at the Señorita Lolita, and then put up a hand and tore off his mask.
A chorus of gasps answered the motion, an explosive oath or two from the soldiers, cries of delight from the caballeros, and a screech of mingled pride and joy from one old hidalgo.
"Don Diego, my son—my son!"
And the man before them seemed to droop suddenly in the shoulders, and sighed, and spoke in a languid voice.
"These be turbulent times. Can a man never meditate on music and the poets?"
And Don Diego Vega, the Curse of Capistrano, was clasped for a moment in his father's arms.