Starlight Dreams

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

Dreams or Reality?

 

Diego woke up with a jerk, realizing that he had fallen asleep in the library.  The fire had gone out, leaving the room dim and the shadows ominous.   He had dreamed about the rustlers and about Minta, his first wife.  It was a strange dream; one mixing a near reality with a fantasy that had haunted him off and on for over twelve years.  However, what was most important was that he recognized the area about which he had been dreaming.  It was to the east and south of the hacienda, not too far away, but in an area that was not only remote, but also an easy place in which to hide a large herd of stolen cattle.  He berated himself for not having thought of such a possibility before.  Standing up slowly, little Minta in his arms, he carefully made his way up the stairs and to her room, which was next to his.  He tucked her in bed and kissed her forehead.  “I will be back soon,” he whispered. 

She sighed in her sleep and murmured something. With a stealthy speed perfected over the past fourteen years, he quickly made his way to the secret room and changed into the costume that was instantly recognized throughout the area.  The sword slid into the scabbard with a hissing sound, while the soles of his boots slipped almost soundlessly across wood worn smooth by the same passage made many times. 

Young Tornado nickered at him, just as his sire used to, and he paused to rub his neck and reassure him before throwing the blanket and saddle on his back.  Throughout the procedure the stallion stood placidly, but Zorro knew that pent up energy was building.  The horse knew what was coming.  For six years he had carried him safely to and from his encounters with those who would take the freedom from his people, from those who would terrorize and rob and plunder.  While at times, this role seemed a burden too great to bear; yet it was also a joy more sweet than the most delectable sugared candy that could be made.  It gave purpose to his life; it gave meaning to the often sordid events that he saw around him.  It helped him expunge the guilt at not being able to save his first wife from her pain and sorrow. 

As he pulled the cinch tight, Zorro thought of the large herd of cattle that these rustlers had probably amassed by now.  He pondered the best and safest way to separate the cattle from the men who had stolen them.  If he could stampede them, they would eventually wander back to their owner’s lands or be found.  That called for some powder.  There was a keg that had been purchased to blow a rockslide from the lower end of one of the rancho’s ponds.  It would do nicely, he thought to himself with a grin.   

When he burst from the cave, the early morning sun was just resting on the back of the hill to the east, as though waiting to decide whether to make the effort to continue traveling through the sky.  He turned Tornado’s head toward the storage shed built a quarter of a mile from the hacienda.  There, in a blanket, he quickly gathered the powder keg, a length of hemp for a fuse, and a flint and steel striker, all of which he tied in a bundle to the back of Tornado’s saddle.  Then he turned to the south and urged the stallion into a gallop, hoping that his dream had some basis in fact.  It made him nervous to be starting this mission during daylight, but it made him more nervous to wait.  If the dream was accurate and he waited for nightfall, they might have moved the cattle while he waited. 

The stallion’s gait was smooth and the ground flowed effortlessly under his hooves.  Before the sun had risen much more, Zorro had reached the area of his dream.  He thought in bemusement that he had gone on missions with information from strange and unlikely places, but this, he believed, was the first time he had followed the clues of something that came to him while he slept.

Leaving Tornado behind with a command to remain where he was, Zorro climbed the rocks to the crest of the valley, which was more like a box canyon than a valley, and looked down.  What he saw astonished him, but didn’t totally surprise him.  Below were enough cattle to make a man rich from the sale of their hides and tallow.  The herd filled most of the valley, while the men camped on the other end, the end that had a natural opening.  Zorro saw in an instant the best place to plant the powder keg.  It would frighten the beasts enough for them to break through the makeshift barricade and stampede toward the far end of the valley, destroying the camp and scattering the rustlers.  He checked all around the perimeter of the valley and the surrounding hills and noted the location of one sleeping guard. 

Very lax, he thought with a smile.  Zorro returned to Tornado and gathered his supplies.  Stealthily, he eased down the slope, using scrub brush, wind blown trees and boulders to hide his progress from anyone in the camp who might be watching.  The bandits seem to be busy.  Probably gambling, he thought to himself.   That would make his job much easier. 

He hid the keg under a pile of loose rocks.  Watching the cattle that were milling around, not wanting to overly frighten them before he could set his plan in motion, he carefully wedged the little barrel under some of the rocks.  Next he stuck the rope into a hole at the top and wedged it in tightly with a piece of the cork that had formed the bung.  Quickly, he wound out the coil of rope to a place where he could light it and then get up the hill to Tornado before the explosion.  Pulling out the striker, he worked it until a spark hit the frayed end of the fuse and began smoldering.  He waited until the rope had fully caught and the tiny flame was on its way toward the keg before he began his journey away from the camp. 

About ten meters up slope, he looked toward the camp.  What he saw horrified him.  They were not gambling; they had a woman.  As he watched, she pulled away from one of her captors and tried to run away.  She was grabbed and thrown to the ground, her light-colored hair escaping from the comb holding it in place.  Looking toward the fuse and keg, he decided that the explosion would serve to make it easier to get the woman away from her tormentors, if only he could get there before it blew.  Glancing at the fuse again, he noted that it was burning slowly.  Good, he thought with satisfaction.  He turned and headed down the steep hill again, his hand pulling loose the whip that had been tied to the same belt that held his scabbard.   Using the handle, he shoved aside the cattle milling along the edge of the valley floor.  Speed was of the essence.  If he were lucky, he would be able to call Tornado and get to the woman by the time the keg exploded.  Then if luck persisted, he would be able to mount and leave before the stampede began.  It would take a great deal of luck, though. 

The ping of a musket ball off of a rock nearby told him that at least one of the rustlers had spotted him.  He went ahead and called for Tornado, his whistle echoing among the rocks.  Another shot and a steer bellowed in pain.  Zorro kept as close to the nervous cattle as he could, taking advantage of the protection of their bodies.  As he left the safety of the cattle and ran closer to the woman, he began to use his whip.  Several of the rustlers were on the ground writhing before the rest knew what was happening.  Snap!  Another bandit screamed.  One pulled out a pistol, but before it could be used, the sharp point of Zorro’s small dagger had plunged into his chest.  That left only a few more to go.

Zorro heard Tornado screaming a challenge as he plunged down the hill.  He saw the woman break away and run toward him, screaming his name. She was very dark and, while her hair was a very light brown, she still looked so much like Minta!  Shocked, Zorro almost stopped in his tracks, but behind her a rustler was raising a musket, aiming.  Its barrel was pointed directly toward her back.  There were furrows of bloody scratches running down his face, a testament to her struggling.  Desperate to reach her in time, Zorro pushed himself to faster speed, but he felt as though he was moving in slow motion as he watched the man’s thumb pull back on the hammer and his finger squeeze the trigger.

 

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Jandro turned back toward the place where he had hidden his horse and saw a furtive figure in black coming over the crest of the hill opposite him.   The figure stopped for a moment and looked around, and then glided down the slope, like a black ghost.  A thrill shot up his spine.   Zorro!  Father!   Jandro stayed and watched, his eyes riveted to the scene below.  If anyone could save Mother, it was Zorro. 

Zorro stealthily worked his way down the slope to a point near the back of the herd of cattle.  Why isn’t he helping Mother? Jandro thought.  He watched as Zorro laid a small barrel among the rocks and stuck a cord into it.  Then his father unrolled the cord about ten meters and lit the end.  Jandro finally figured it out; it was an explosive.  But why?  He wanted to shout to his father, point toward Mother, tell him that he needed to rescue her.  Then he saw Zorro stop as he was running back up the slope.  Father gazed toward the camp and then ran toward it.  Apparently, until that moment, Zorro had not realized that Mother was in the camp. 

Zorro moved with amazing speed.  Jandro prided himself on his physical fitness, but he truly thought that if his father ran a race with him right now, the older man would win.  Jandro watched the fuse on the explosive as it slowly burned toward the keg.

With his breath sucked in and held tight in his chest, the young man continued to watch the race.  His mother broke away from one of the men and ran toward Father.  The man lifted a musket and aimed it at her.  Without thought, Jandro jerked up one of his muskets, even though it was a bit too big for him, held it tight against his shoulder and sighted.  He muttered under his breath, because Zorro was just barely on one side of the barrel and Mother just in front of Father, almost hidden by him.  It would be close.  He got the rustler in his sight, almost over Zorro’s shoulder, just on the point at the end of the barrel of the musket. 

As he squeezed the trigger and felt the awful kick of the weapon against his shoulder, Zorro reached his mother and pushed her out of the way.  Zorro jerked toward Jandro, almost as though pushed by a giant hand.   Although thrown back by the recoil of the musket, Jandro nevertheless managed to keep sight of the drama on the valley floor.  After a short silence, there was a great boom that reverberated from the far end of the valley.  The cattle answered with bellows of fright.  Several cried out in pain as rocks and debris flew from the point where the keg had been placed.  But all Jandro could think was that he had missed and hit his father instead.  Zorro lay on the ground; Mother was hunched over him.  “No!” he wailed softly, his eyes squeezed shut to hold back the tears.

 

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Bernardo was making up Don Diego’s bed, a frown on his normally placid face.  It was apparent when he had gotten up that his master had gone out as Zorro.  What bothered him, though, was the lateness of the hour.  Whatever it was that had sent him out, he would be doing it in broad daylight.  While that was something that Zorro sometimes did, the mute always felt a bit of discomfort about it.  During the night, the masked man was pretty much hidden by the darkness.  Bernardo’s personal belief was that the darkness had kept his friend alive on more than one occasion.  In the day, though, he stood out like a bear in the plaza at noonday.  Stiffly, the servant straightened up, rubbing a sore spot on his back.  Mentally, he cursed the pain in his joints and back that kept him from helping Don Diego as much as he’d like.  These days he spent more time with the little one in the hacienda.  Even climbing up and down the steps of the secret passage brought its own kind of pain.  Don Diego had noticed that and had taken on more of the duties of caring for the black stallion.   Sighing, Bernardo pushed aside the twinge of guilt that always came with that thought.  Opening the door to the little outside balcony, Bernardo threw out the dirty water that had sat in the washbasin.  He kept a tight grip on the porcelain bowl, hearing his joints pop as he did so.  Don Diego had even tried to get him to give up doing those mundane things like straightening the patrón’s room, but Bernardo would not hear of it.  Until he could no longer walk, he would take care of Don Diego, at least in this little way.

A piercing scream caused him to almost drop the bowl, but with a speed that he seldom was able to muster nowadays, he put it on the bed and ran for the next room.  When he opened Don Diego’s door, he saw Lucretia dash past him, rushing into little Minta’s room, where they found the child huddled on the bed, sobbing and moaning. 

“What is it, child?” Lucretia asked, taking the child in her arms and holding her tight to her chest. 

“Papá!  Something’s wrong with Papá!” Minta cried, her fists grabbing at the woman’s blouse.

“I am sure your papá is out with the vaqueros,” the woman said. 

“No!  He’s hurt.  Bad men have hurt him.”  She turned her tear-filled eyes toward Bernardo.  “Papá needs help…” she added to him, almost whispering. 

Bernardo cringed inside as he pretended to not be able to hear the little girl, knowing that she was not in any shape to sign.  Minta pulled away from Lucretia and ran to Don Diego’s room and looked in.  “He is out there,” was all she said when the servants had followed her to the room.  “Papá needs help…” she repeated.  Bernardo turned to Lucretia and signed to her that he would take care of the child, that it was just a nightmare.  As he was as much her personal servant as he was Don Diego’s, the woman didn’t argue.  There was something strange in Minta’s demeanor, though, and for some reason, which he couldn’t understand, Bernardo felt it had to do with Don Diego’s secret.

Lucretia only shook her head as she left, muttering softly under her breath.  “The child needs a mother.”

As soon as the door closed behind Lucretia, Minta turned to Bernardo.  “I know you can hear me.  I have seen Papá talking to you when he did not think anyone else was around.  I did not understand why at first, but I do now.”

Bernardo shook his head, as though he didn’t understand.  He crouched down so they were looking at each other eye to eye.

“No, you understand me!  Papá is in trouble!  I dreamed that he was riding and found the place where all the stolen cattle were.  Then he did something to take the cattle away from the rustlers.  It looked like a wine keg, but I know it was gunpowder, because I saw him light a cord that was sticking out of the keg.  It was just like what he bought last month when we went to San Pedro.  You know, the powder for making the pond bigger?” she paused for only the briefest of moments before continuing.  “When he was going away, he saw a woman…it was the woman Papá dreams about.  He ran toward her to save her from the bandits.  One of them had a musket pointing it at the other Minta, but Papá kept running to save her anyway.”

Bernardo felt his blood run cold as he listened.  He could picture what was happening vividly, filling in the details that the girl’s narrative left out.

“He pushed Minta out of the way and then the bandit fired.  Papá fell down and lay on the ground.  I woke up then.”  She looked up, her tears still flowing freely.  “Bernardo, I felt it!  I felt the ball!  It hit Papá right here.”  She pointed in the proximity of her stomach. 

As he stared in disbelief and horror, she continued.  “And he was dressed all in black.  Bernardo, he had on a mask.”  She looked up at him with tear filled eyes.  Her next words were whispered but clearly understood by the mozo.  “Papá is Zorro.”  She began crying again and fell against his chest.  He held her tightly while she sobbed uncontrollably, and he felt the tears streaming down his cheeks.  For some reason, which he couldn’t fathom, he believed the little girl.  This was no simple nightmare.  Minta had been given a view of something that had just happened.  And he didn’t know what to do about it. 

After a few minutes, though, he made a decision.  Holding little Minta away from him, he signed to her.  

“Where was it?” she repeated.

He nodded and she proceeded to describe what the hills looked like, the valleys, and the plants.  He thought he knew where it was…an area somewhat south of the hacienda in a fairly rugged and remote part of the countryside.  He stopped her and signed.  ‘I will go there and see what I can do,’ his fingers said.

“And I will go with you,” Minta declared. 

He shook his head and signed again.

“But I do not wish to stay here.  I want to be with Papá,” Minta stated, her eyes pleading.  

Again, Bernardo shook his head and signed.  ‘There may still be bandits,’ he told her.  ‘Your papá would want you to stay here.’

With her head bowed and tears still rolling down her cheeks, she said, “All right, but hurry, please?”  He nodded, kissed her on the forehead and dashed out the door.  Even though his joints protested, the servant rushed quickly to the stables, grabbed a saddle blanket and started saddling his gray gelding.  Another servant put the saddle on the horse and cinched it up while Bernardo got the bridle.  In just a few moments, the mozo nodded his thanks, mounted and rode away, kicking his horse into a canter that he soon urged into a full gallop.  

                                         

 

 

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