Chapter Two -- Snake
Quickly, I was able to flip the snake off of my hand and fling it away from me, but felt almost immediately the searing pain of the poisonous bite. It felt like hot coals coursing through my veins, and I cried out before I could stop myself. Ripping off my glove, I could see the bite already becoming swollen and discolored. In chagrin, I realized that I had no knife and therefore no means to open the wound or tear a piece off my cape to tie around my wrist to slow the flow of the poison. I knew I must quickly get back down the slope to Tornado, where I had a knife in a small saddlebag.
Then I remembered my sword. Drawing it, I awkwardly cut a strip from my cape and just as awkwardly twisted it around my wrist and tied it off one-handed. The pain was excruciating, so I did not even feel the blade of my saber as I made small cuts to release the venom. I sucked out as much as I was able and then began my journey down the slope.
I alternately slid and climbed down the rocky hillside. By the time I reached Tornado, I was panting and the beating of my heart was thunderously loud in my own ears. I knew the exertion had not helped my condition, but there was nothing I could do about it. I stumbled over to the stallion; my legs felt weak and barely able to hold me up. Reaching for the saddle horn, I realized that my weakness extended to my upper body as well and I was unable to draw myself into the saddle.
Standing there, hanging on to the saddle, I vaguely heard the approach of someone behind me. Letting go, I turned around and through blurry eyes, I recognized the bandit, his bandana still covering the lower part of his face. Reaching for my sword, I realized that the man was unarmed and I left my saber in its scabbard.
"Señor Zorro, I believe that you need help," he commented, the concern was easy to detect in his voice. I tried to rub my eyes to clear my vision, but was unable to do so. Why am I not able to see? I thought in confusion as each heartbeat sent pain shooting through my arm.
"Señor," he said fervently. "I promise not to hurt you or take advantage of your injury to ascertain your identity." He sounded desperate.
"I certainly am not going to argue about the word of a bandit, since I am considered one, also," I told him with a short laugh, which ended in a groan. I only wished that my hand would stop throbbing. It made it so hard to think. "I am also in no position to fight you. I accept your offer, even if it only consists of helping me on my horse."
"The only position you are in right now, señor, is a position to die, if the bite is not taken care of soon," the bandit said tersely. Nodding, I saw the wisdom of his words. He came over and helped me to the ground. A boulder served as a backrest.
First he found materials that were nearby and made a small, hot fire, and then drawing my sword, he placed the end of it in the flames. When that job was done, he came over and loosened the makeshift tourniquet I had applied. The throbbing that had diminished slightly, now came back in full force and I drew in a quick breath through clenched teeth. The bandit said very little, but worked methodically and calmly. It was becoming clear to me, even through the pain and weakness that I felt, that he had doctored others before me. He removed my saber from the fire.
"Señor, why are you doing this? I was pursuing you with the intent to capture you," I asked, partly out of curiosity and partly to try and take my mind off of what he was doing.
"I am helping you because you are in need, Señor Zorro, is that not what you do?" came his simple reply. I cried out as he applied the edge of my saber to the wound and then drew out a little more poison. "It seems that there is no more poison in your hand. You did a pretty good job up there on the slope." Gently, he untied my cape and eased it from around my shoulders. I was still having difficulty seeing clearly and tried to wipe my eyes again.
"There is no need to do that, señor. The problem with your vision is just another manifestation of the poison. It will go away when the effects of the snake venom dissipate," he explained to me, as he cut another strip off of my cape and bandaged my hand. I was appalled at how discolored and swollen it had become.
"I will get you some water," the bandit told me as soon as he had finished bandaging my hand. Remotely, I watched him walk away, feeling extremely disconnected from the here and now. Suddenly the thought of anything on my stomach, made me nauseated and it was a struggle to avoid losing my supper, small though it had been. The man came back with a water skin and I shook my head. He did not argue, but just took my cape and wrapped it around me. The sun had gone down and the air was beginning to chill rapidly. "Gracias," I whispered. I was extremely glad for his company. Somehow, although I was well used to the night, the thought of spending it alone, feeling the way I did, disconcerted me. "For everything," I added.
"I could do no less, señor. Are you a bit more comfortable?" he asked.
"Sí, though beware, I might suddenly lose my supper," I said, laughing shortly and then concentrating on avoiding that embarrassing action.
My companion nodded. "That, too, is a result of the venom," he explained. "But I guarantee that you will begin to feel better by dawn."
I chuckled at his statement. Feeling better seemed very remote and distant right now. Dawn was a long way off, it had not been an hour since the sun set. Feeling lethargic and weak, I nevertheless could not sleep and watched the man prepare a camp. He built up the little fire and I was grateful for the tiny bit of warmth it offered.
"Señor," I asked, bluntly, after a lengthy silence. "You sound educated. Why cattle rustling?"
"Señor Zorro, why the mask? You, too, strike me as one who is educated," he asked in return.
I could not reason quickly. It was though my thoughts were trying to navigate through a dense fog, and the bandit's question had taken me by surprise. In confusion, I just stared at him for a moment.
"I am sorry," he told me. "Perhaps that was an unfair question for me to ask you at this time. I cannot tell you why I am rustling the cattle other than there is a need. Believe me when I say that it is not for my own personal gratification. There is a higher purpose for this stealing that I must do."
It was frustrating having to wade through each of the bandit's comments and carefully think of an appropriate comment, but he waited patiently for my answer. I had only seen that kind of patience in the priests I knew. Bernardo had that kind of patience, also. "If it is not for personal gain, then why not just tell the hacendados of your need and let them help you?"
"Who, Señor Zorro, Don Ricardo Ventura? Or Don Manuel de Silvano? Or Don Eduardo Mantano? Which one, señor? You choose." There was fire in his voice.
The time it took me to compose an answer, also served to cool his ardor. "For every one of those men you named, there are at least three or more hacendados who would be willing to help you if the cause was just. And it would only take one generous ranchero, because he would convince the others."
We both lapsed into a lengthy silence, the bandit in his own thoughts, I suppose, and me trying to cope with the misery of my condition. The nausea finally went away sometime later, leaving me with a slight thirst, for which I was very grateful. I reached for the water skin he left nearby and took a sip.
"I believe that your patron saint must have been watching over you, Señor Zorro. I think that much of the venom was wasted on your riding glove, before the snake actually penetrated it. I have seen cases much worse."
I just stared at him for a minute. "Are you trying to cheer me up, Señor Bandit? I laughed and he laughed along with me. "I understand what you are saying and I am grateful. To have done something so stupid, my patron saint must definitely have been keeping an eye on me."
Suddenly, I felt not only weak, but tired. Whistling for Tornado, I motioned for him to lower his head and then I pulled off his bridle. A few hand motions and he left the camp to graze nearby during the night. Sighing, I tried to settle myself as comfortably as I could and I stared at the little campfire waiting for sleep to come.
It was then that I saw the huge snake slithering toward me, its fangs open and ready, hissing like some huge kettle over a too hot fire. The monstrous snake was accompanied by others, much smaller, but just as menacing as the first. Reaching for my sword, I saw it beyond my grasp, on the other side of the fire. I tried to gather my legs beneath me to get to Tornado, but one of the smaller snakes had chased him off, and when I attempted to jump up, I found the monster's great tail resting across my knees.
When it addressed me by name, I gasped in shock and shouting out, began to use my fist against its head. It grabbed my hand with its mouth and even though injured, I used my left hand to try to beat it off. The hideous snake continued to call me by name and the shock wave of pain from the blow of my left hand against its body made my eyes fly open.....where I saw the bandit straddling my legs and holding my arms.
Confused, I just blinked at him, panting from exertion. I felt the hammering of my heart. "What...where....where is the snake?" I stammered, and then realized that I had just come out of a nightmare. The bandit let go when he saw that I was totally awake. Even with the chill morning air, I felt the sweat rolling down my face.
"That must have been some very vivid nightmare, Señor Zorro," he chuckled. "I will feel the effects of it for some time."
"I hit you?" Now I was embarrassed. "I am very sorry. It WAS vivid."
"You not only hit me, but you might have awakened every vaquero on Señor del Brio's ranch with your shouting," he said. "Let me walk out of camp a bit and see if I hear any noise. I believe that we are well away from the hacienda, but neither one of us can afford to be caught unaware."
Whistling for Tornado, I stiffly rose to my feet, still feeling the aggravating weakness, but none of the other symptoms. My left hand was throbbing slightly, but I assumed it was due to using it against my 'dream snake.' Even in the semi-darkness, it appeared that my vision had cleared. Reaching for the bridle, I slid it up over the horse's nose, the bit slipping into his mouth. Fastening the chinstrap was awkward one handed, but Tornado was still and cooperative, as he usually was, and I managed.
"Señor, how do you feel?" the bandit asked as he walked back into camp, anxiety in his voice. "It is too soon to be riding."
"It will be dawn in perhaps an hour and a half, and since I may have alerted more than the coyotes to our presence, I thought that it might be a good idea to leave," I reasoned. "And I do not have very far to ride. It is not far to the pueblo," I added, not telling a lie, but putting off any guesses as to my destination.
He was not fooled a bit. "It may not be far to the pueblo, but if your home is of any distance, you may be doing yourself harm. Are you sure you can make it?" He helped me on with the cape.
"I am sure of nothing, but I believe that riding during the daylight would be foolish. At least the darkness will cover my injury," I explained. He nodded, understanding my concerns. Cupping his hands, he gave me a leg up, and I gratefully accepted his help.
"Señor, I appreciate your doctoring and your company. I wish you would consider my offer as well. I would be happy to intercede with one of the local hacendados. There are several who are sympathetic to my efforts and would listen," I implored him.
"Gracias, but no, Señor Zorro, please just let me do this alone," he said, his voice almost pleading.
"Adios, and again, thank you," I said as I turned Tornado toward the pueblo and rode off at a trot. Soon I turned more toward the hacienda and increased the stallion's pace to an easy cantor. The cool air was slightly invigorating and kept me alert. I would be glad to reach home, however; I still felt so abominably listless.
Before too long, I was riding through the entrance of the secret cave. None too soon, for I had felt an increasing weakness the past quarter mile and gratefully slid off Tornado. Awkwardly, I took off his bridle and uncinched his saddle, letting the tack fall to the floor of the cave. Tornado simply stepped over his saddle and walked into his stall to the grain that Bernardo had left for him.
I just stood there, trying to gather enough energy to move the saddle, when I heard a slight shuffling noise from the far end of the corridor. "Bernardo, is that you?" I asked. "I need your help."
"No, son, I sent Bernardo to bed. He was exhausted. Neither one of us expected you to be so late coming home." I heard the fumbling of Father's fingers trying to adjust the light in the lantern. Soon a soft glow suffused the cave as he approached. A glance told him that I did indeed need some help. "Diego, what happened?" he asked, concern etched in his face.
"A snake bit me, but help me to my room, Father and I will tell you some of the story on the way up." Putting my right arm around his shoulder and gratefully leaning some of my weight on him, we made our way slowly up the stone stairway. I could see Father's glance at my bound left hand, as I related what had happened.