Luck of the Irish
Chapter Two - Following Shadows
"I must leave, Señores," Sergeant Garcia said resolutely. He got up and accompanied the corporal.
"That is too bad," Alejandro remarked, watching Garcia leave. "The soldiers have been waiting most patiently for their pay." Bernardo came back in and indicated that the horses were saddled.
In the stable yard, Diego looked at his palomino gelding and then sighed. "I must have forgotten to tell Manolito to check my horse’s right rear leg. It is a bit swollen and he was limping on the way home. You two go on. I shall have another horse saddled. If you wait until I am ready, you will miss the sunset." His father nodded knowingly, and he and Sean rode out, followed by a vaquero.
Immediately Diego motioned to Bernardo, and the two men dashed back into the patio area and up the stairs to the young caballero’s room. A slight push against the mantle piece revealed a hidden door. As they stepped through, Diego started removing his chaqueta. "Bernardo, go saddle Tornado. I will be down by the time you are finished." Nodding, the mozo grabbed a lantern and started down the stone steps.
Within five minutes a dark-clad masked man was mounting an equally dark horse. Bernardo signed ‘Vaya con Dios’ to the horseman and stepped aside as Zorro rode out of the cave. Checking the countryside, the dark rider set his heels against the stallion’s flanks and felt the powerful muscles gather and propel the animal to the top of a high hill. Reaching the summit, the stallion reared, screamed a challenge and then raced down the slope toward the western sun.
On another hill, Sean watched in fascination as the ebony-hued horse and rider crested the far ridge, silhouetted in the setting sun.
"The Saints be praised," he exclaimed in awe. "If I didn’t know better I would say that was a banshee riding a pucá. Who is that?"
"That is El Zorro," the older man stated, a tiny bit of pride creeping into his voice.
"El Zorro," Sean repeated, unbelieving of his good fortune.
"But, señor, what is a pucá?" Alejandro queried.
"No time now, Don Alejandro," Sean exclaimed and urged his horse after the masked rider.
"You will not be able to catch him," Alejandro shouted to the retreating rider.
"He will find out for himself, patrón," the vaquero commented with a chuckle. Alejandro just nodded.
Sean lay low across his horse’s neck to lessen wind resistance, but still the black stallion gained distance on him. As the western skies darkened, the Irishman began to have problems keeping Zorro in sight, but still he tried to follow.
Zorro kept Tornado to a mile-eating gallop that would get them to the site of the robbery without overly tiring the stallion. Riding to the top of a hill overlooking the El Camino Real, the outlaw saw several soldiers on the ground and one horse grazing by the side of the highway. The only sound he heard was that of a slight wind moaning through the trees and brush.
Riding down the slope, Zorro jumped out of the saddle and examined the men. It was as he feared; all of them were dead. "Vaya con Dios," he murmured. As quickly as he could, he examined the area looking for clues, before the advancing night made it even more difficult. Soon he discerned the direction of the bandits’ flight. Determined to find these killers, Zorro remounted and followed the path of the bandits’ escape.
Sean Fitzpatrick lay prone on the crest of an eastern ridge, watching the outlaw examine the area. As soon as the dark-clad man had ridden over the summit of the far hill, the Irishman mounted his borrowed horse and followed after El Zorro.
A quarter of a mile into the hills, Zorro dismounted again and leaving Tornado, proceeded on foot parallel to the path. There was too much likelihood of ambush if he stayed on the trail. Stealthily, he slipped from boulder to boulder, listening for sounds in the darkness. Sounds that would betray the bandits. He only heard the buzzing of insects and small nocturnal animals. Occasionally a coyote started a lonely cacophony of howling. Snap! Ahead of him someone stepped carelessly and the outlaw froze, listening.
Peering into the darkness, Zorro was finally able to make out a figure leaning against a boulder, the snapping sound coming from a dry twig in the sentry’s hands. Soon the snapping was stilled; the guard slumped against the boulder, a lump forming on his head. With a smile, Zorro folded the bandit’s hands in the attitude of deep sleep and pulled the man’s sombrero down over his eyes.
Hearing voices, Zorro moved in almost total silence to a boulder overlooking a cul-de-sac where he was able to watch three men arguing. A waxing moon began rising from the east and the outlaw moved to keep from being silhouetted in its light.
"Miguel, do not be so stubborn, Marcos is right to hide the money. If we start buying wine and horses, people will know," one said.
"I only wanted a little bit, Paco. Just enough to enjoy a night in the pueblo. Surely that was not too much to ask," Miguel whined.
"Miguel, keep your mind on business." Paco jerked his head toward the rocks above him, looking in Zorro’s general direction. The masked man ducked down further behind the rock, wondering what had alerted the three men below. It was then he heard the slight sound of someone trying hard to be stealthy and not succeeding very well. Small stones skittered and crunched and Zorro ventured a glance. Either this is a great coincidence or someone has followed me, the outlaw thought irritably. The man was in the deeper shadows and the only thing that he could determine was that his follower was not a soldier.
Glancing down, Zorro saw that the three men had disappeared and he didn’t doubt that they were on their way to his location to find out who was spying on them. Figuring his best ploy was to wait and allow the bandits to show themselves to him, the outlaw crouched even further behind the boulder and carefully unsheathed his sword.
One of the men passed his location, and in a single motion Zorro rose, reached around the man’s neck with his left arm and jerked him back towards him. The hilt of his sword rendered the man unconscious before the bandit had realized he was being attacked. Easing the bandit quietly to the ground, Zorro perused the area and saw the other two robbers struggling with the intruder.
Without hesitation, the masked man raced to the follower’s side and grabbing Miguel, swung him around and dazed him with a solid blow to the chin.
"Zorro!" Paco breathed in fear. Zorro grabbed him by the shirt and pulled the frightened man closer to him. The point of his blade rested just under the bandit’s chin.
"Drop the knife, señor," Zorro hissed at the slight movement of Paco’s hand. "My sword can relieve you of your life much more quickly than your knife can relieve me of mine." Paco’s hand slowly relaxed and the small knife dropped to the ground. "Señor, pick up this one’s knife and their pistols and keep a close watch on those other two men," Zorro ordered his unwanted follower.
"Now, bandito, where is Marco?" he asked his prisoner. Paco just shook his head, his eyes wide with fear. Somehow, Zorro thought that Paco was more afraid of Marco than he was of him, and he supposed rightly so. It was well known that Zorro didn’t kill unless there was a very great need, whereas Marco had easily killed three soldiers. The sword point prodded the shivering man enough to draw a spot of blood. "Where is Marco?" he repeated.
"He went to hide the gold, Señor Zorro."
"Where?" Zorro persisted. He felt the other man’s scrutiny on him, but feeling no threat, chose to ignore it. "The money belongs to the soldiers who earned it. Where did Marco take the money?" The saber moved very slightly, and Paco took its threat seriously.
Paco’s breath was ragged with fear. "A cave. But I do not know exactly where. Please, I know nothing more. Marco will kill me, Señor Zorro."
Swinging him around, Zorro laid the hilt of his sword against the base of Paco’s skull. Then he turned to his follower. "Señor, I had a chance to capture this bandit leader and find the payroll with very little trouble, but now....? Who knows," Zorro whispered to the man. "Follow me and try to walk more quietly this time."
The three bandits were quickly tied up with the very ropes holding their pants up. The outlaw smiled grimly at the thought of these men bound by more than hemp cords. "What is your name, señor?" he asked, although by now he was pretty sure of the identity of his ‘partner.’
"Sean Gerald Donahue Fitzpatrick," the Irishman said softly.
"Well, Señor Fitzpatrick, let us see if we can salvage this situation. You wait here. Keep an eye on these men," Zorro said, and Sean was astonished to blink and see nothing but a whisper of black satin disappearing behind the scrub brush. A slight shiver ran down his spine. This man was like Cúchulainn, the magical hero of Ulster. With a pistol in each hand, Sean settled down near a boulder where he could keep an eye on the bound men and listen for either Zorro or the bandit leader.
The only thing he heard was the soft cooing of a bird a short distance away. The sound was repeated once and then there was silence. Not even the insects were making themselves known. After what seemed an eternity, Zorro returned and it was apparent that his quest had been fruitless. "I am sorry, Señor Zorro," Sean said. The outlaw just shrugged.
"You heard a sound, like that of a bird?" Zorro asked. Sean nodded. "That was Marco. I was too far away and he was gone before I could get to him. It would seem that our bandit leader is very familiar with this area." He lifted his head and a piercing whistle broke the stillness of the night. "There is no more need for a pretense at stealth," he explained at Sean’s questioning look.
Soon a large and ethereal shape loomed before him. The black stallion pawed and snorted and Zorro rubbed his neck and head briefly, murmuring softly to him. Tying two of the bandits on the horse’s back, Sean and Zorro each carried one of the others. As they approached the highway they saw a small contingent of lancers strung out on the trail, climbing slowly, but steadily.
"Sergeant Garcia," Zorro called out. The sergeant looked up in surprise. "I have four guests for your carcel, but unfortunately the leader eluded me and it is he who has the payroll." The outlaw cut the rope holding the two bandits on Tornado. They landed with a soft thud and the stallion danced away with a shake of his head.
"Señor Zorro, I appreciate your help. When word came of this robbery, some of my soldiers left the cuartel to find work elsewhere and others have threatened to. It is a sad thing, but I do not blame them." Garcia’s large shoulders slumped dejectedly. "But if word gets out that there is almost no protection for the people of Los Angeles, I fear what might happen."
"Sergeant, I will continue to look for the bandit and your payroll. Perhaps you should talk to Don Alejandro de la Vega. Is he not the leader of the group of caballeros who swore to band together and protect the area?"
"Sí, Señor Zorro. He is. Gracias," the sergeant said as Zorro mounted and rode back toward Los Angeles.
"This El Zorro would be a wonderful asset against the British and Scottish invaders in Northern Ireland," Sean declared over a glass of wine two hours later. "Well, perhaps not the Scottish. They are there because the British offered them free land to raise crops and families on. I really cannot say I blame them."
"But the way he moved and attacked the bandits. It reminded me a bit of Cúchulainn, one of my land’s most superb and mystical warriors." Seeing the questioning looks on the faces of the two de la Vegas, he continued. "Cúchulainn was a young man of great strength, who could fight hundreds by himself in battle. His attendants were demons and spirits that would frighten the most stalwart enemies away, his crested helmet screamed horrible epitaphs to those who came against him and his invisible cloak protected him from harm. He even fought the powerful faerie, Queen Maeve herself, and stole her magical bull away." He saw that his audience was captivated, so he told the story of the boy warrior and Queen Maeve. When he had finished there was silence in the room.
Diego blinked, having been caught up in the spell of a story well told. Handing his empty glass to Bernardo, he commented, "Sean, I do not doubt your abilities as a writer, but your skill as a storyteller is unsurpassed. The only thing I had heard about Ireland is that it is a beautiful land and Saint Patrick was the man responsible for the conversion of its inhabitants to Christianity hundreds of years ago."
"Sí, Saint Patrick had a confrontation with a druid wizard and through his great faith and the miracles he wrought, proved himself to be stronger. It was then that high king Tara allowed him to preach, baptize and build churches. He was also responsible for ridding the land of snakes as well. Each year we honor him on the day of his death, March 17th. We have great parades, contests and a special mass."
"That is next week, Sean," Alejandro said.
"Yes, I will miss it this year, but I will get to see one of your fiestas. That, I suppose, will be a fair substitute. And perhaps I will get to see El Zorro once more."
Diego just smiled and raised his glass. "Perhaps."
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