It was now that Lopez was glad he had ordered the men to split into different directions from the King’s Highway. None of the other lancers was anywhere in the vicinity. Lopez knew there was only one decision he could make. There would be other days to try and capture the bandit when the scales were less weighed in his own favor. Zorro watched him intently with feverish eyes, waiting for his answer. And while he was waiting, he took another drink from the water skin. “Señor Zorro, you apparently know me well, considering the short time I have been in Los Angeles. I also hope you understand the position that you put me in.” Zorro nodded, but said nothing. “I knew before you asked, what your request would be, and I think, in my heart, I knew what the answer would be. I will get my two thousand pesos by earning them, not by taking advantage of one who cannot defend himself.”
Zorro let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding.
“I give you my word, Señor Zorro, I will not take you to the cuartel or try to find out who you are.” Lopez almost felt relieved. “But, you do need medical help I am unable to give you. I just cannot let you lay out here and die.”
“Mission...take me to a mission,” the outlaw said simply.
“Yes, there happens to be one not more than a mile or two from here, I think. A small one, a satellite of the Mission San Gabriel, I believe,” Lopez said. “Do you think you could ride that far, Señor?”
“I cannot get up on the horse,” Zorro laughed weakly. “Not able to stay on the horse. Sorry, I will need help.”
“Well,” Lopez considered. “I can help you get on the horse. Can you stay on long enough for me to get on behind you?”
“I think so. I will try.” Zorro answered, and then whistled. Tejas trotted over to the two men.
Lopez was incredulous at the control the man had over a horse that wasn’t even his own, and stated as much to Zorro.
“I have watched Don Diego,” Zorro explained quickly, trying to cover his mistake.
“Señor,” the sergeant explained. “If you can put your good foot against mine and take hold of my arm, I will pull you up.” Zorro nodded to him and followed the sergeant’s instructions. Soon Lopez had the outlaw on his feet. Foot, the lieutenant thought to himself, as he noticed that Zorro put no weight on his injured extremity. “Can I assume the foot is also broken?” he asked.
“Not sure,” the outlaw hedged as the soldier put Zorro’s arm around his shoulder and supported him the few steps to the horse. “I think that Señor Wheeler could not have done any more damage... if he had put the pistol to my head,” he quipped when they reached the horse.
“Señor,” Lopez said dryly. “I was beginning to think that things were desperate, but I see at least a little of your sense of humor is intact.”
“Who said I was trying to be humorous?” Zorro retorted with a slight smile and then groaned as Lopez gave him a leg up onto the horse. He hung on, though, and even managed to slide his leg across Tejas’ rump before he needed more of the soldier’s help. When he was in the saddle he had to close his eyes to control the dizziness. The blanket had partially fallen off and he shivered with cold, even with the sun shining hotly on his back.
“Señor,” Lopez said. “I am going to swing up behind you. The lieutenant reached in front of him for the saddle horn and found essentially nothing. Stepping back and looking at the saddle in disgust, he commented, “Surely you could have stolen something better than this puny thing; you will need to move your foot so I can use the stirrup.”
That elicited a chuckle out of the injured man. “Did not think anyone would mind my stealing a pitiful thing like this. I was planning on giving back the de la Vega horse when I got to Los Angeles.”
When he was in the saddle, Lopez called his own horse over and tied its reins together. Then he gathered the reins of the palomino and started for the Mission, whistling for his own horse to follow.
Lopez continued talking to Zorro, trying to keep him awake. He felt that it would be more difficult to make the journey if the man lost consciousness. The outlaw felt hot and feverish against the soldier’s body. Apparently the wound had become infected, making it even more imperative to get him to the mission. “Señor Zorro, I received a dispatch yesterday about your little raid up north. What in the world did you do to cause such a commotion?” he asked. Zorro was silent for a few moments and Lopez began to wonder if he had ventured into sensitive territory that the outlaw didn’t wish to discuss.
“I freed some slaves,” came the brief answer, finally. “And the owner was not appreciative.” Zorro’s wry comment elicited a chuckle from the comandante.
“If I understood you correctly, it was Wheeler who shot you?” Lopez asked, genuinely curious. His personal admiration of the man increased a little more. The lieutenant was impressed that the outlaw would attempt to free enslaved peons without any help, but then, he thought, who at the Presidio or government offices would listen to a bandit with a price on his head.
“Sí, it was the hacendado, Paulo Wheeler.” Zorro answered. “He caught up with me at Santo Cristobel.” He paused and as though he understood what Lopez was trying to accomplish, he asked his own question. “Lt. Lopez, why did you become a soldier?”
“I really have no definite answer, except the best soldiers that I knew when I was younger, not only protected the people, but helped in other ways. My best friend was a soldier, he was like the father I never had. He really cared about me, and did not just use me as his errand boy. When he had spare time, he even taught me to read. I never forgot his kindness and I feel that all soldiers should be that way. He also never abused his power.”
“That would explain your demeanor, Lieutenant.” Zorro said quietly.
Lopez looked around the outlaw. “I think I see the Mission up ahead about a half a mile. We should be there soon.” Silently he was glad, this was awkward work, having to keep looking around the man. Zorro had to have at least four inches of height on him, and he was trying to stay awake and straight in the saddle. Lopez was tense about being seen with the bandit, also. If anyone found out about his little mission of mercy, the best that would be done would be a dishonorable discharge, the worst, a hanging for treason.
“Who is the head of this Mission?” he asked his companion. “It is more remote. I have never been here.”
“Father Francisco,” Zorro answered quietly.
Father Francisco had finished mass, had a light breakfast and had given the novice priests their instructions. Then he went out to delight in the beautiful morning for a moment before beginning his morning classes with the Indian children. The priest was a congenial man, knowledgeable in scientific things as well as religious matters. Physically, he was a tall man, with intense brown eyes that seemed to delight in all of God’s creations. Unlike many recently transplanted Spaniards, he loved the California desert and he hadn’t needed any time at all to acclimatize. This outlook on life that he had was infectious; the peons came to him for advice and comfort as well as medical help. His knowledge of healing was also well known in the area, many came to him even though there was a physician in the pueblo.
Before he became a priest, Father Francisco had attended a couple of the most prestigious universities in Europe, including the medical school in Heidelberg, being a younger son of a very wealthy landowner near Cordoba. Gravitating toward a career in the medical arts, he had been told that his skill would enable him to practice in almost any court in the Old World. But by that time, he had become totally disenchanted with the whole of European mores and morals. So he had applied for and been accepted as a novice priest of the Franciscan order and because of his knowledge, had risen quickly through the ranks of his order. When the opportunity to head a small mission in southern California had arisen, he had jumped at the chance and had never regretted his choices. Father Felipe, his immediate superior, realized his talents and sent novice priests to him to study and gain knowledge in, not only the medical arts, but also in working with the Indians and raising cattle and grain.
His one vanity though, which he had refused to give up when he became a priest, was his mustache. Sometimes, as he did now, he also had a beard, but when his superiors visited, he usually shaved it off. Occasionally, even with the beard off, his superiors would chide him when they visited, telling him that he wasn’t a caballero anymore. In the end, the mustache stayed, the beard grew in the winter months and Francisco was happy.
One of his Indian students, Pedro, came running around the corner and stopped breathlessly in front of him. “Father, Father,” he panted, dancing in childlike exuberance, “Someone is coming from that way.” Pedro pointed toward the north.
Being a little more remote mission, not many strangers came to visit. It was a special occasion to many of the children, some of whom had never even been to Los Angeles before. The priest followed the boy around to the back of the mission. Indeed Pedro was right, except that there were two men on the horse, and the one behind, when he could be seen, looked like a soldier. Father Francisco waited patiently. Pedro jumped around in anticipation of the visit of someone new.
“Pedro,” Father Francisco calmly told the boy. “Go and tell Father Ignacio to teach the class this morning. I believe that I am going to be needed here for a while. Also send Father Joaquin out to help me.
“Sí, Father,” the boy said, sounding slightly disappointed that he would be missing something.
The priest noted that the man in front appeared to be injured or sick in some way. As the pair approached a little closer, Father Francisco’s eyes widened. He thought that he saw a mask on the injured man, and that could mean only one thing. “Zorro!” he exclaimed in surprise.
Father Joaquin approached him. “What did you say, Padre?” he asked.
“I believe we are about to receive a most renowned patient, Father Joaquin,” he answered his companion. “I believe that El Zorro is going to be in our infirmary for awhile.” The other priest looked closely at the approaching pair for confirmation.
“That could be very dangerous, Father,” the younger priest said in concern.
“Living in a colonial state can be dangerous, too, Father Joaquin,” Father Francisco retorted. “I have never turned away the injured, whoever they are, and I am not planning on starting now. Come. Help me get him down. It looks as though the soldier is in need of some help.”
Lt. Lopez did indeed need some help. Zorro had lapsed into a fevered unconsciousness as they approached the mission and it was hard to hold him and control the horse at the same time. Lopez was grateful for the good training the horse had received that allowed him to guide it with only his knees. The two priests worked together and lowered Zorro to the ground.
“Father,” Father Francisco told the younger priest, “Go and make sure that a bed is ready in one of the rooms we use for visiting clerics. I think more privacy is in order here, and please, do not announce our guest’s identity.” Father Joaquin nodded. “And return when you are done.”
Lopez looked wearily at the priest. “Thank you, Father. Señor Zorro suggested that you might be able to help him, even though it will be dangerous for you to do so.”
“It would seem, my son, that we are all taking chances here,” the priest answered. Bending down to check the outlaw’s injuries, he noted the blood soaked wrappings on his foot. As he was doing what he could to make Zorro comfortable until Father Joaquin returned, he looked up at the sergeant. “Lt. Lopez, correct?”
“Sí, Padre,” was the answer.
“Please answer one question for me and then it would probably be very wise for you to leave, before anyone else recognizes you.” Father Francisco said. “Why would a soldier of the King, and also comandante of the local cuartel, bring an outlaw to me instead of taking him into the pueblo?”
Lopez made the same explanation to the priest that he had made to Zorro. “I feel that you are a discreet man. All I ask is that you not tell anybody who brought Zorro to you,” he told the cleric.
“You do not have to worry, my son, we feel the same way, you and I. Zorro will be safe here and well cared for,” he informed the lieutenant. “And your secret will be secure with me. I will also honor the same promise that you made to our friend, here. You had better go now, Comandante.”
Lopez mounted his own horse, gathered the reins of the palomino and turned back to the Pueblo de Los Angeles. Now all he had to do was figure out a way to explain all of this to Don Alejandro de la Vega. He realized it wouldn’t be easy.