Luck of the Irish
Chapter Three - The Leprechaun
As soon as Sean had retired to the guest room, Diego again changed into the garb of El Zorro. The moon was slowly descending toward the western horizon, casting elongated and mysterious shadows, but he ignored them, thinking that at times the night seemed more familiar than the day. For some reason Tornado was skittish, but even so they soon returned to the camp of the bandits. Zorro carefully searched the area for any indication of the direction that Marco had taken to hide the payroll money. Small imprints in the dust led him in a northwesterly direction, but a short distance later the path and the prints ended.
Tornado snorted and pulled at the reins. Holding the stallion’s bridle and stroking his nose to calm him, the outlaw listened for evidence of anything that might be spooking his horse. There was nothing. Puzzled, Zorro whispered soothingly before trying another path leading more to the east. This one continued and occasionally he was able to discern footprints. Tornado still seemed nervous, to the extent that he was lathered around his legs and on his neck, but he continued to follow his master.
Just as the eastern sky began to show signs of the coming dawn, Tornado stopped suddenly and began shivering, pawing the ground in front of him and shaking his head. In consternation at the ebony stallion’s strange behavior, Zorro took a tighter hold on the reins, and then looked around for evidence of snakes. Suddenly, from beneath his feet he felt a strange shaking and heard with it, a soft rumbling as though from distant thunder. Screaming, Tornado jerked the reins free and scrambled backward.
The shaking became an undulating rhythm and the feeling that the ground was falling away from him became real. It was though a giant was jumping up and down on the earth. Zorro stumbled to his knees, watched rocks rolling nearby and continued to hear the rumbling, though now it was louder. Earthquake! he thought and tried to get to higher ground. Rocks began cascading down from the slope above him, pelting him incessantly, and he heard Tornado’s frightened scream from above him.
Quickly glancing at both sides of the arroyo, Zorro started to climb up the hillside that appeared to be more stable. A short way up the slope, he looked over his shoulder and saw a pile of dislodged rocks and earth cascading down to the spot where he had been standing. The outlaw managed to get halfway up the heaving, dancing slope, dodging rocks and coughing in the thickening dust, when a dislodged juniper knocked him off his feet. His head banged against a boulder and the shaking of the earth continued for a moment and then died away without any sympathy to the plight of the unconscious form lying half buried in the dust, gravel and rocks. The only caring soul was an ebony stallion that danced, pawed, ran one way and then another. When the shaking finally began dying away, Tornado stood on a nearby hill and screamed his echoing challenges.
Sergeant Garcia had spent a very frightening morning, one that he hoped he would never have to experience again. The lancers had left the cuartel before the first light and about the time they had reached the site of the soldiers’ ambush, the earthquake hit. Frightened horses screamed and scattered in all directions. Some bucked their riders off as they dashed back to the perceived safety of the pueblo. Others, like his own horse, took off in whatever direction their heads were pointed, blindly and panic-stricken.
Finally in its terror, his big horse dancing and bucking. Although Sergeant Garcia could sit a horse well, this time he was thrown off and the acting comandante sat nursing a sprained wrist and many bruises as his gelding ran back in the direction of the cuartel. Groaning, the sergeant heaved himself to his feet and began walking in the same direction.
The sun was just rising, and the reflection of the light on the dust motes that still lingered in the air gave the sky a reddish glow. It was at once fascinating and hellish. The screaming of a horse caused Garcia to look over to a far hill, where he saw the coal-black stallion that Zorro normally rode. The horse screamed once more, pawed the ground, reared and dashed a little ways down a slope before racing back up again.
Curious, the acting comandante walked toward the stallion, wondering if Zorro might be somewhere down in one of the little valleys. Saints preserve him if he is, Garcia thought with concern. The morning light began to illuminate more of the countryside and the sergeant finally saw a still black form. In alarm, he made his way as quickly as possible down the slope to where the motionless figure lay. Moving some of the rocks and gravel, he discerned that it was indeed Zorro.
Carefully turning the unconscious form over, he checked for signs of life. He could find none. "Oh, Señor Zorro, after all this time, an earthquake kills you," the sergeant said sadly. And then he wondered, since the outlaw was dead anyway, who this man, who had alternately been a great thorn in his side or a great help, actually was. So he reached up and gently pulled the mask down revealing the face of... "Don Diego!!" he cried in shock. Always empathetic and kind-hearted, tears filled the eyes of the sergeant who was doubly shocked by the death of his friend as well as the highwayman, whom he had come to respect.
For some reason he felt compelled to replace the mask, but when he tried to remove the debris near Zorro, his injured wrist betrayed him. He sat and pondered for a moment. He could not allow Zorro’s identity to be found out, even in death, for fear of retribution against Don Alejandro, whom he also greatly respected. Sighing, he realized that all he could do was to bury him here as best he could and let Don Alejandro know what had happened. He wondered remotely if Don Diego’s father was aware of the secret. One-handed he removed the cape and covered the still form, not seeing the slight rise and fall of the cloth on the outlaw’s face. Then he moved a few rocks to hold down what he now considered a funeral shroud.
Pain caused him to cease his endeavors and Garcia hoped that he had done enough until he could talk to the hacendado. It was not something he looked forward to.
Zorro came to a painful semi-consciousness, coughing and choking, trying desperately to clear the dust from his lungs and throat. He felt someone lift his head and put a water skin to his mouth. Avidly, he drank the tepid liquid, feeling that nothing could taste more refreshing. Too soon it was pulled away and with relief to his parched throat, came the awareness of a throbbing in his head.
Slowly he opened his eyes and saw that he was laying in the semi-darkness of a large cave. Awareness brought nervousness at being in such a place during the time of earthquakes and the outlaw struggled to raise himself to a sitting position. The pounding in his head increased and he felt the large lump that had formed above his right ear.
Looking around, his eyes widened when he saw before him the smallest man he had ever laid eyes upon. "Who are you?" he asked, bewildered at the sight of someone who couldn’t be more than two and a half feet tall. Somehow, the mental picture of Sean Fitzpatrick’s little people came to mind, but he kept telling himself that was an impossibility. Tornado whickered from the far side of the cave where he was eating a bit of grass that had been gathered for him.
The little man spoke to him in a lyrical language, but he was unable to understand. Zorro started to shake his head, but stopped when the motion increased the pain. "I do not understand you," he said simply. The little man stepped back, his hands on his hips, frowning. A short, curly brown beard covered his chin and he wore what appeared to be American style breeches that ended just below the knee. A leather vest covered a light colored cotton shirt. His eyes were blue-gray in color and looked deeply into his own.
"Well, do ye understand that foul language of the Britons?" the man asked, a disgusted look on his face. "It pains my tongue, it does."
"Yes, I do, somewhat," Zorro answered.
"Well, I suppose we must converse in it then, if ye ken not the true Gaellic," the man commented morosely.
"Who are you?" Zorro repeated in English.
A mischievous grin spread across the man’s face. "I am one of the little people," he said brightly.
"I can see that," Zorro said wryly, trying to hide his shock. The man’s grin changed back to a frown when he got little reaction from the outlaw.
"You big lummox, don’t you understand what I am saying? I am a leprechaun."
Eyes widened, the outlaw just stared at the little man for a moment, while he thought furiously. The idea of such tales having veracity astounded him, but he had seen evidence that pointed to the reality of ghosts and he believed in miracles. His host just kept grinning at him, obviously enjoying the reaction of the black-clad man. Zorro decided to test the waters of conversation with this enigmatic little man and see what happened. "Then you must be Irish," he stated with a smile.
"What do you think I be?" the man said, his voice rising a bit. "See, there is my pot of gold," he added, pointing to a smallish chest near a wall of the cave. Going over to it, he lifted the lid and showed the startled outlaw the glittering contents. Near it, Zorro was able to discern another chest bearing the seal of Mexico on it. So this was where the payroll was hidden, he thought. Could this be Marco? Surely not.
"What is your name? I would at least like to know who to thank for helping me," Zorro inquired evenly.
"Bran Coll O’Conner Muldowney, King of the Western Band of Leprechauns," he stated proudly. He caught Zorro’s eyes looking over at the chest. "Now don’t you be thinking about taking me gold away, you black-clad giant," he added testily. "You would not have the slightest chance to get it away from the likes of me."
"Was it you and your band who brought me here? I remember being on a hillside when the earthquake hit," Zorro said.
"Aye, with the help of that big pucá of yours," he answered, pointing to Tornado. The stallion seemed quite calm right now.
Zorro’s eyes narrowed. "Well, I appreciate your help, Señor Muldowney, but I must return to my home," he said, gingerly getting to his feet. "Let me ask you a question before I go, if I may."
The leprechaun looked suspiciously at the outlaw. "Now don’t you go asking for your one wish. And besides, I did not say you could go."
Zorro shrugged. "You are a leprechaun by your own admission." Bran nodded. "Leprechauns usually do not help mortal men. In fact, they normally think up devious ways to harass them. Why did you help me?"
Bran frowned. "I took a liking to you," he said simply and then he started laughing. "And besides, who are you to talk about harassing mortals. I sneaked into that village and saw you making life miserable for the officer that left two weeks ago. That was a very nice touch, slicing a ‘Z’ in his trousers and then cutting his belt off." Bran continued laughing, while Zorro smiled at the memory of the overbearing lieutenant, who had been sent to take command of the cuartel. The man had simply been another in a long line of self-righteous dictators, who thought to advance his position by oppressing peons, priests and landowners.
"That was worthy of a leprechaun," Bran added, chuckling. "And besides, I need you to do something for me."
"I thought leprechauns were magical and could do anything," Zorro said dryly.
"I want to go home," Bran said, ignoring the outlaw’s remark.
"To Ireland?" Zorro asked the obvious. "Perhaps you can tell me how you got here."
"I made myself invisible and stowed away on board a ship." Bran shrugged. "I was curious and I was also tired of mortals forever chasing after my hard earned gold."
"Well, Señor Muldowney, first of all I do not believe you have a band of leprechauns here in California. You are no more a leprechaun than I am a far darrig or my horse is a pucá," Zorro stated evenly, arms folded across his chest and eyes piercing deeply into those of the ‘leprechaun.’
Bran’s shoulders slumped. "Aye, it would be my luck to end up with a knowledgeable outlaw," he sighed. "I am a midget, still a little person, but not a leprechaun," he added with a slight smile, then he told of his journey through the courts of Europe, performing and earning the gold that sat in the chest. Then he told of his return home, only to be hounded by those who thought he was a real leprechaun. He had fled to the new world with his gold to try and find peace and quiet. Bran had found too much of both.
"Nevertheless, I will still help you," Zorro added, when Bran had finished.
The Irishman looked up at him with hope in his eyes. Then he looked down again, a slight frown on his face. "And I think you will be needin’ my help as well, along with the luck of the Irish."
"Why do you say that?" Zorro asked, wondering what Bran was talking about. "I feel fine, other than a slight headache.
"Because that big, hulking soldier from your village found you before I could get to you, and it seems he thought you were dead," Bran said sadly. "He must have been most curious to see who you were, because I saw him take your mask off."
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