Memories in the Dust

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

After several more nights of fruitless searching, lost trails and frustrating dead ends, Diego peered at the large map of the area haciendas, missions and pueblos that lay spread across his writing desk.  He lightly marked each place where he had lost the trail of members of El Diablo’s gang.  When he had finished, he gave a whistle of surprise.  A tap on his shoulder forced his eyes away from the map and to the concerned face of his mozo. 

‘What does this mean?’ the fingers signed. 

“It means that his hide-out is right about here, Bernardo, and it’s very well hidden.  These are the places where I lost track of the bandidos.  All of these trails are equidistant from this point,” he said pointing to a place on the map indicated by his index finger.  “Diablo Arroyo,” he murmured.  “How appropriate.”  He studied the map for a few more minutes, making sure that he had every detail in his mind.

He finally looked up.  “Get Tornado saddled, Bernardo.”   

The mozo signed his concern. 

“I realize that El Diablo probably has over fifteen men by now,” Diego said.  “I also realize how dangerous it will be, and yes, it is still light outside, but it will be dark by the time I get to the arroyo.”  Seeing his servant’s concern still etched on the moon-shaped face, Diego placed a hand on Bernardo’s shoulder.  “It will work out, my friend.  It will work out,” he said, reassuringly.  Then he turned toward the tiny door that led to the secret room where his costume hung on pegs on the wall.  Bernardo moved past him and on down the stone steps to ready the ebony stallion for the night’s work. 

Diego felt the reassuring smile leave his face.  Foreboding rushed through his chest, but he pushed it aside.  It had been over four months since he had taken on this role; he had lived it, had breathed it, and had let it become part of his heart and soul.  He had pushed aside the Director’s instructions and immersed himself in the psyche of Diego de la Vega, el Zorro.  He was not going to stop because this role had suddenly taken on the appearance of deadly danger.  And what about the chosen one? a tiny voice in his mind asked.  What about him? he answered himself.  Wouldn’t the Designated One do the same thing?  Hadn’t the human been putting himself into harm’s way for almost two years?  What if he comes back?  His mind kept asking the questions and then provided the answers.  If he comes back, it will be with help.  Whoever is helping him will take care of what he needs.   And, of course, there is Bernardo…faithful, loyal, devoted Bernardo.   Yes, all will be well….

Diego tied the thick cord of the cape, pulled the bandanna over his hair, tied it and then drew the mask toward his face.  The world narrowed to the two slanted eyeholes, the focus of justice in this place and at this time.   Then he tied the soft silk against his face, and, taking the steps two at a time, Zorro quickly made his way to the bottom of the cave where Tornado stood waiting, Bernardo holding the bridle in readiness.  Swinging on the great stallion, the black clad avenger smiled.  “I will return, Bernardo, but not before El Diablo is taken.”

Bernardo signed his good wishes and watched as his master and friend rode out into the late afternoon, but his heart was seized with worry, his soul filled with fear.  Even though Don Diego had gone into danger equal to what he was going into this evening, something just didn’t seem right.  Pondering, he realized that he had felt fear for his master ever since Don Diego’s escape from his kidnappers, whoever they were.  Perhaps his anxiety was related to that incident and he had just been over-reacting since that time.  However, his steps led him to a small alcove, where he kept a tiny candle.  Taking a straw from the ground, he stuck the end in the lantern and then lit the candle from the flame that flared.  Finally, he said a prayer, crossed himself and walked slowly back up the stone steps, where he began tidying up the already immaculate room.

 

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Tornado galloped effortlessly, his muscles rippling under satiny smooth hide, his hooves beating rhythmically against the ground.  Zorro felt the taut energy under his legs and felt empowered by it, his sword banged lightly against his left hip, his whip swishing softly against his saddle.  The chill knife in his sash was beginning to warm against his stomach and the wind drove itself into his lungs, sighed under the brim of his hat and caused the cape to billow out like the wings of a giant black condor. 

“Ah, Tornado, we are going into great danger tonight,” he said.  “We must be ready for whatever comes and fight with great courage.”  The stallion increased his mile eating pace until they made their way into the more rugged hills southeast of the de la Vega rancho.  As they followed a faint trail, one they had tried several days earlier, it suddenly ceased, looking for all the world like the edge of a cliff.  Tornado stopped short, shaking his head and snorting.  Dismounting, Zorro studied the end of the trail as his eyes were seeing it.  Along with his frustration, he felt a peculiar sensation, one of aversion, as though something odious lay ahead of them, something to be avoided at all costs.  The closer he stepped to the end of the trail, the worse that feeling became. 

His Rantiri memories supplied him with a possible answer, a camouflage force field of some kind, one that fooled the physical senses as well as his inner feelings.  Idioso!  I should have realized this before.  I know there is no cliff here! he thought.  His Rantiri memories clashed jarringly with his Diego memories, but it became very clear that the outlaws had found a space ship, one with a working force field.  Bernardo had a piece from an obviously damaged craft.  If this was the same one, there were still parts still working and he had to destroy it.  If an alien was working with the gang….   That was an unwelcome thought that he shoved aside.  He had to investigate and had to get rid of the evidence. 

Pushing his hat back, he carefully pulled off his bandanna and tied it around Tornado’s eyes.   The stallion snorted again, but calmed down, trusting the voice of the one leading him.  Taking a bearing on the path ahead, Zorro closed his eyes and eased his way forward.  The sensation deepened, until he wanted to run in the opposite direction.  He felt Tornado tug on the reins, evidently feeling a bit of the same thing, but the stallion followed him despite his fears.  

Zorro continued his slow pace, his feet serving as his eyes, until the sensation lessened.  When he finally opened his eyes, the masked man saw the trail as it should be, narrow and meandering up the arroyo, the hoof prints of horses coming and going very evident now.  Standing completely still, his hand over Tornado’s nose, Zorro listened intently for evidence of a guard.  That was what had worried him the most when he had entered this protected area, his vulnerability.   Apparently, however, these men felt that their force field was enough.  There were no guards on duty.  It amazed him how the outlaws had been able to become comfortable with this alien technology, especially something that could so easily be considered magical and evil.  But then, these men themselves were evil.   And like all humans they were also very adaptable.

Quickly, he swept the bandanna from Tornado’s eyes and tied it back on his head.  Then remounting, he continued up the path slowly, ears on guard, eyes darting from left to right, checking out every shadow, every movement, and every sound. 

The sun slipped over the horizon and the shadows grew longer.  The scent of a campfire came to his nose and, in the deepening dusk, he saw its glow.  With hand motions to Tornado, Zorro left the stallion and crept forward. A stunted tree and the deepening twilight hid him from view of the bandits’ camp.  Quickly, he counted fifteen men, some lounging near the fire, drinking out of mugs, others scooping the remains of their dinners into their mouths with rolled up tortillas, others lying on blankets near the edge of the camp, dozing. 

Excruciatingly patient, he could wait as long as it took for the outlaws to fall asleep.  Then he would act.  Pulling even further back into the shadows, Zorro found a place where he and Tornado could hide while they waited.  Soon he heard snatches of boasting, laughing and singing.  Zorro was sure that El Diablo’s gang didn’t understand what it was that protected them, but their confidence in its power was evident in the careless manner they were kept their camp.  That would be to his advantage. 

Finally, the voices lessened until only the soft, mournful hooting of owls and the rustle of mice and rabbits remained.  With another hand sign to the ebony stallion, Zorro again crept forward, his steps almost soundless, his eyes taking in everything around him.  He traveled around the perimeter of the camp until he found the picket line.  One horse snorted in alarm at his approach, but with a soft whisper and gentle hand, he quieted the animal.  Pulling a short knife out from his sash, Zorro cut the picket line, untying the horses, leaving them to graze and wander. 

Quietly he gathered up the pieces of rope and resumed his journey around the campsite.  In the light of a waning moon he made out a glint ahead of him.  As he approached the unnatural-looking mound, Zorro could see that it was a pile of mangled and tortured metal, shards of steel pointing skyward like spears.   Inside what had once been an airlock, there was a small flash of blue, sporadic and weak.  Carefully stepping across the wreckage, he approached the tiny beacon and recognized the source of the camouflage field.  His hands found the wiring that connected the machine to a small battery-pack and pulled it loose.  The light weakened and then died. 

With a smile of satisfaction, Zorro stepped back out of the wreckage and continued around the perimeter.  He ducked behind a boulder as a sleepy bandit yawned and shuffled his way out of camp, scratching his stomach and mumbling about what he considered the obscene chill of the evening.  With the hilt of his knife, the masked man cuffed him, quickly tied him up and dragged him a short distance further from the camp.  Soon two more bandits, each shuffling out of camp to relieve the excesses of their evening wine, found themselves likewise bound and unconscious. 

His next victim was sleeping only a little beyond the rest of the bandits, but only the slight breeze sloughing through the branches of a nearby juniper tree witnessed Zorro’s approach.  Quickly and efficiently, the masked man clamped his hand over the sleeping bandit’s mouth and clipped him across the temple with the hilt of his sword, then pulled the unconscious man away as well.  Soon four others followed in a similar manner.   Then disaster struck. 

Despite the chill of the early morning hours, Zorro felt the sweat trickle down his neck and back.  Just as he reached the ninth bandit, the man snorted, then gasped in the middle of a yawn.  Zorro froze, with only the cape rustling softly behind him until the man seemed to ease into a more restful sleep.  But as Zorro reached over with his sword in his fist, the bandit rolled over, regarded him sleepily for only the barest of seconds and then cried out, his voice shrill with fear, before the sword hilt quieted him.  

Zorro jerked himself to his feet, sword ready in one hand, whip loosened in the other, writhing on the ground like a snake ready to strike.  He didn’t wait for them to respond.  Even as skilled as he was, the odds of defeating six men were too great to allow them to have any advantages.  Lunging forward, he pierced the nearest man’s shoulder with the point of his saber and then jumped back to the accompaniment of the bandit’s screams of pain.  The whip disarmed the next man, sending his pistol sailing over his head and into the brush behind him.  Another flick of his wrist and the whip coiled itself around the man’s arm.  Zorro jerked the bandit toward him, his sword hilt rendering him unconscious. 

The next man was ready, sword out and lunging.  Zorro parried the thrust, slamming his left fist into the face of his opponent.  The man staggered back, shaking his head, splattering blood everywhere from his damaged nose.  A quick moment, though, and he was back, slashing the air with a mighty swing that Zorro easily dodged.  This one was more skilled than the others and the black clad outlaw studied the man carefully in the dim light, checking his abilities, and looking for weaknesses, as he quickly located the other three men.   One had a knife and was charging him from the side.  Sidestepping quickly, Zorro stuck out his foot and sent the man sprawling into the dying fire.  His screams joined the whimpers of pain from his injured comrade. 

The sword-wielding bandit took advantage of the momentary distraction, slashing again.  Zorro barely had time to dance out of the way, much less assess the situation, deciding the best way to dispatch the remaining bandits, including this one.  As the moonlight struck his opponent’s face, Zorro realized that he was fighting El Diablo himself.   His eyes narrowed as he watched the movements of the bandit leader.  Slight shuffling behind him alerted Zorro of his dangerous position, but El Diablo evidently wanted to fight the masked man one on one.  A tiny motion of the hand and the shuffling stopped. 

Zorro leaped forward, a quick thrust tearing El Diablo’s shirt.  The outlaw’s eyes narrowed as he leaped back.  Leaping forward, Zorro alternately slashed and thrust at El Diablo, trying to keep him on the defensive as much as he could.  He had to grudgingly admit that his opponent was very, very good.    The duel went on for some time, back and forth.  While not overly tired, the masked man was fully aware that time was not in his favor.  He still had three other men to deal with after El Diablo, men who might now be armed with pistols. 

Then, in the faint light of dawn, El Diablo began to falter, his strokes growing less forceful and wilder.   Not that he could be easily dismissed.  Zorro barely deflected the last riposte that left a small tear in his shirt.  El Diablo threw his head back and laughed.  “You are mine, Señor Zorro!  God favors me with His protection.  You will be dead and I will own this part of California!”  He laughed again as he leaped forward in a great lunge that would have skewered the masked man had he remained still.   But Zorro hadn’t remained still. 

Tossing his sword aside, he grabbed El Diablo’s arm and jerked him toward the ground, slamming the man’s chin on his knee.  Then he hauled him to his feet again and with one arm around his neck, jerked Diablo in front of him, pivoting around to meet the other men.  Their pistols went off simultaneously, their balls striking El Diablo with enough force to send Zorro staggering backward several steps.  Without even a groan, the bandit sank to the ground. 

Zorro scooped his sword and faced the now weaponless men.  One came at him with a knife, but he was quickly dispatched.  The other two threw up their hands and surrendered.  Within a short time, Zorro had them tied up.  Sgt. Garcia would be most pleased with this night’s work since the rancheros as well as the priests and townspeople had been complaining about the continued depredations of El Diablo.  All that remained was to destroy the damaged spacecraft and get a message to the good sergeant. 

As he walked out of the camp, he heard the sharp report of a pistol about the same time that he felt the sudden painful stabbing of a ball entering his back. 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen
Memories Prologue
Zorro Contents
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