The Curse of Capistrano/Chapter 9

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Chapter 9

The Clash of Blades

ON THE TABLE, NEAR its middle, was an imposing candelero in which half a score of candles burned brightly. señor Zorro sprang toward it now, and with one sweep of his hand dashed it to the floor, extinguishing all the candles in an instant and plunging the room into darkness.

He evaded the wild rush of Don Carlos, springing across the room so lightly that his soft boots made not the slightest noise to give news of his whereabouts. For an instant the Señorita Lolita felt a man's arm around her waist, gently squeezing it, felt a man's breath on her cheek, and heard a man's whisper in her ear:

"Until later, señorita."

Don Carlos was bellowing like a bull to direct the soldiers to the scene; and already some of them were pounding at the front door. Señor Zorro rushed from the room and into the one adjoining, which happened to be the kitchen. The native servants fled before him as if he had been a ghost, and he quickly extinguished all the candles that burned there.

Then he ran to the door that opened into the patio and raised his voice and gave a call that was half moan and half shriek, a peculiar call, the like of which none at the Pulido hacienda had heard before.

As the soldiers rushed in at the front door, and as Don Carlos called for a brand with which to light the candles again, the sound of galloping hoofs was heard from the rear of the patio. Some powerful horse was getting under way there, the soldiers guessed immediately.

The sound of hoofs died away in the distance, but the soldiers had noted the direction in which the horse was traveling.

"The fiend escapes!" Sergeant Gonzales shrieked, he being in charge of the squad. "To horse and after him! I give the man who overtakes him one third of all the reward!"

The big sergeant rushed from the house, the men at his heels, and they tumbled into their saddles and rode furiously through the darkness, following the sound of the beating hoofs.

"Lights! Lights!" Don Carlos was shrieking inside the house.

A servant came with a brand, and the candles were lighted again. Don Carlos stood in the middle of the room, shaking his fists in impotent rage. Señorita Lolita crouched in a corner, her eyes wide with fear. Doña Catalina, fully recovered now from her fainting-spell, came from her own room to ascertain the cause of the commotion.

"The rascal got away!" Don Carlos said. "It is to be hoped that the soldiers capture him."

"At least he is clever and brave," Señorita Lolita said.

"I grant him that, but he is a highwayman and a thief!" Don Carlos roared. "Why should he torment me by visiting my house?"

Señorita Lolita thought she knew, but she would be the last one to explain to her parents. There was a faint blush on her face yet because of the arm that had squeezed her and the words that had been whispered in her ear.

Don Carlos threw the front door open wide and stood in it, listening. To his ears came the sound of galloping hoofs once more.

"My sword!" he cried to a servant. "Someone comes—it may be the rascal returning! It is but one rider, by the saints!"

The galloping stopped; a man made his way across the veranda and hurried through the door into the room.

"Thank the good saints!" Don Carlos gasped.

It was not the highwayman returned; it was Captain Ramon, comandante of the presidio at Reina de Los Angeles.

"Where are my men?" the captain cried.

"Gone, señor! Gone after that pig of a highwayman!" Don Carlos informed him.

"He escaped?"

"He did, with your men surrounding the house. He dashed the candles to the floor, ran through the kitchen—"

"The men took after him?"

"They are upon his heels, señor."

"Ha! It is to be hoped that they catch this pretty bird. He is a thorn in the side of the soldiery. We do not catch him, and because we do not the governor sends sarcastic letters by his courier. This Señor Zorro is a clever gentleman, but he will be captured yet!"

And then Captain Ramon walked farther into the room and perceived the ladies and swept off his cap and bowed before them.

"You must pardon my bold entrance," he said. "When an officer is on duty—"

"The pardon is granted freely," said Dona Catalina. "You have met my daughter?"

"I have not had the honor."

The Doña presented them, and Lolita retreated to her corner again and observed the soldier. He was not ill to look at—tall and straight and in a brilliant uniform, and with sword dangling at his side. As for the captain, he never had set eyes upon Señorita Lolita before, for he had been at the post at Reina de Los Angeles but a month, having been transferred there from Santa Barbara.

But now that he had looked at her once he looked a second time and a third. There was a sudden light in his eyes that pleased Doña Catalina. If Lolita could not look with favor upon Don Diego Vega, perhaps she would look with favor upon this Captain Ramón, and to have her wedded to an officer would mean that the Pulido family would have some protection.

"I could not find my men now in the darkness," the captain said, "and so, if it is not presuming too much, I shall remain here and await their return."

"By all means," Don Carlos said. "Be seated, señor, and I'll have a servant fetch wine."

"This Señor Zorro has about had his run," the captain said, after the wine had been tasted and found excellent. "Now and then a man of his sort pops up and endures for a little day, but he never lasts long. In the end he meets the fate."

"That is true," said Don Carlos. "The fellow was boasting to us tonight of his accomplishments."

"I was comandante at Santa Barbara when he made his famous visit there," the captain explained. "I was visiting at one of the houses at the time else there might have been a different story. And tonight, when the alarm came, I was not at the presidio, but at the residence of a friend. That is why I did not ride out with the soldiers. As soon as I was notified I came. It appears that this Señor Zorro has some knowledge of my whereabouts and is careful that I am not in a position to clash with him. I hope one day to do so."

"You think you could conquer him, señor?" Dona Catalina asked.

"Undoubtedly! I understand he really is an ordinary hand with a blade. He made a fool of my sergeant, but that is a different proposition—and I believe he held a pistol in one hand while he fenced, too. I should make short work of the fellow."

There was a closet in one corner of the room, and now its door was opened a crack.

"The fellow should die the death," Captain Ramon went on to say. "He is brutal in his dealings with men. He kills wantonly, I have heard. They say he caused a reign of terror in the north, in the vicinity of San Francisco de Asis. He slew men regardless, insulted women—"

The closet door was hurled open—and Señor Zorro stepped into the room.

"I shall take you to task for that statement, señor, since it is a falsehood!" the highwayman cried.

Don Carlos whirled around and gasped his surprise. Doña Catalina felt suddenly weak in the knees and collapsed on a chair. Señorita Lolita felt some pride in the man's statement, and a great deal of fear for him.

"I—I thought you had escaped," Don Carlos gasped.

"Ha! It was but a trick. My horse escaped—but I did not."

"Then there shall be no escape for you now!" Captain Ramón cried, drawing his blade.

"Back, señor!" Zorro cried, exhibiting a pistol suddenly. "I shall fight you gladly, but the fight must be fair. Don Carlos, gather your wife and daughter beneath your arms and retire to the corner while I cross blades with this teller of falsehoods. I do not intend to have a warning given out that I still am here!"

"I thought—you escaped!" Don Carlos gasped again, seemingly unable to think of anything else, and doing as Señor Zorro commanded.

"A trick!" the highwayman repeated, laughing. "It is a noble horse I have. Perhaps you heard a peculiar cry from my lips? My beast is trained to act at that cry. He gallops away wildly, making considerable noise, and the soldiers follow him. And when he has gone some distance he turns aside and stops, and after the pursuit has passed he returns to await my bidding. No doubt he is behind the patio now. I shall punish this captain and then mount and ride away."

"With a pistol in your hand!" Ramon cried.

"I put the pistol upon the table—so. There it remains if Don Carlos stays in the corner with the ladies. Now, captain!"

Señor Zorro extended his blade, and with a glad cry Captain Ramón crossed it with his own. Captain Ramón had some reputation as a master of fence, and Señor Zorro evidently knew it, for he was cautious at first, leaving no opening, on defense rather than attack.

The captain pressed him back, his blade flashing like streaks of lightning in a troubled sky. Now Señor Zorro was almost against the wall near the kitchen door, and in the captain's eyes the light of triumph already was beginning to burn. He fenced rapidly, giving the highwayman no rest, standing his ground and keeping his antagonist against the wall.

And then Señor Zorro chuckled. For now he had solved the other's manner of combat, and knew that all would be well. The captain gave ground a little as the defense turned into an attack that puzzled him. Señor Zorro began laughing lightly.

"'Twere a shame to kill you," he said. "You are an excellent officer, I have heard, and the army needs a few such. But you have spoken falsehood regarding me, and so must pay a price. Presently I shall run you through, but in such manner that your life will not emerge when I withdraw my blade."

"Boaster!" the captain snarled.

"As to that we shall see presently. Ha! I almost had you there, my captain. You are more clever than your big sergeant, but not half clever enough. Where do you prefer to be touched—the left side or the right?"

"If you are so certain run me through the right shoulder," the captain said.

"Guard it well, my captain, for I shall do as you say. Ha!"

The captain circled, trying to get the light of the candles in the highwayman's eyes, but Señor Zorro was too clever for that. He caused the captain to circle back, forced him to retreat, fought him to a corner.

"Now, my captain!" he cried.

And so he ran him through the right shoulder, as the captain had said, and twisted the blade a bit as he brought it out. He had struck a little low, and Captain Ramón dropped to the floor, a sudden weakness upon him.

Señor Zorro stepped back and sheathed his blade.

"I ask the pardon of the ladies for this scene," he said. "And I assure you that this time I am, indeed, going away. You will find that the captain is not badly injured, Don Carlos. He may return to his presidio within the day."

He removed his sombrero and bowed low before them, while Don Carlos sputtered and failed to think of anything to say that would be mean and cutting enough. His eyes, for a moment, met those of the Señorita Lolita, and he was glad to find that in hers there was no repugnance.

"Buenos noches," he said and laughed again. And then he dashed through the kitchen and into the patio, and found the horse awaiting him there as he had said it would be, and was quick to mount and ride away.