Chapter Three -- Of Bandits and Haciendados
"The thing that puzzles me the most is that the man sounded more like a university professor than a bandit," I told my father after relating my story.
"Whoever he was, I am grateful to him for helping you," Father said. "Apparently you were right about this bandit."
"I am sure he is doing this to help someone else, but what worries me is that several of the hacendados are even more upset about the theft of their cattle than you were and they may try to capture this bandit, just as I tried, with disastrous results," I mused. With father's help, I had changed out of the costume and was resting in my bed. For once, it felt wonderful to be lounging in the morning; I did not have to pretend to be enjoying this kind of languid ease.
A little later, Bernardo brought in some breakfast; standard fare, cornmeal porridge with a cup of champurrado, a thick chocolate drink, which I preferred to coffee. Savoring its steaming contents, I realized that he had laced it with some kind of medicine, but I had no intention of avoiding sleep; I only hoped that my nightmares of snakes were a thing of the past. I shuddered, remembering the weird, vivid images.
"Is something wrong, Diego?" Father asked in concern. Looking into his drawn face, I realized that he, too, had received little sleep during the night.
"No, Father, I am fine. Why not go and get a few hours sleep. If I need anything, I can ask Bernardo," I assured him. He nodded and grasping my arm a moment, turned and left. Finishing my breakfast, I leaned back with a sigh. "Gracias, Bernardo. How strong a sleeping draught did you put into my chocolate?" I asked with a wry smile.
Bernardo looked innocent and then admitted that he had added just a little. Next he signed his desire to check my hand and rebandage it in something cleaner than a part of my cape. I nodded and he bustled out of the room, returning quickly with clean linen bandages, warm water and medicines.
"By the Saints, Bernardo, you are just changing a dressing, not doing surgery," I protested. He just signed for me to hush and let him do his job, which he did almost as meticulously as the bandit did the night before. My hand looked better than it had the previous evening, but there was still some swelling and discoloration, as well as a little pain. I winced as Bernardo redressed and bandaged the bitten hand.
Stifling a yawn, I thanked him and realized that for a few days anyway, I would have to wear riding gloves anywhere I went, otherwise I might have to come up with some fast answers to interesting questions. Yawning again, I did not remember Bernardo leaving.
"Bernardo, what is it," I asked groggily. It was very hard to wake up, but I had little choice, as he was shaking me vigorously. Finally, I was able to open my eyes and I saw the anxiety on his face. As soon as he saw that I was awake, he began signing. But I was still half asleep, and had no idea what Bernardo was saying, except it was about something going on downstairs. Then I heard loud voices booming from outside my door, voices of very agitated men.
Opening my wardrobe, Bernardo began pulling out an outfit for me to wear. "Bernardo, what is going on? It sounds like a battle downstairs." He nodded and began signing again. "A small group of dons is downstairs. They are complaining about the cattle rustler, and Father is trying to reason with them. They want to see me, too?" I sighed. "Very well, since you have awakened me anyway. Get the outfit that I usually wear for riding. That will eliminate any questions about the riding gloves." Soon I was dressed and had slipped on the largest, softest riding gloves I had. Even so, the left one was a tight fit and uncomfortable. "Go and saddle my horse, I may have to actually go riding to follow through on the pretense."
Putting on an air of casual indifference, I sauntered down the stairs, to greet the hacendados meeting on the patio. Each one of the dons seemed to be vying with the others to be heard, with disastrous results to the eardrums. Father gaped at me in surprise, but quickly recovered. "Diego, tell them that you reported the rustling to the acting comandante, and that he is going to send out patrols."
"Sí, that is true. In fact, Sgt. Garcia told me that he would send a troop of lancers out last night," I explained. "Did anyone have any cattle stolen yesterday evening?" I asked innocently.
"No, Diego, but as long as this bandit is on the loose, there is always the threat of more rustling. He and his gang must be stopped," Don Eduardo blustered.
"Don Eduardo, you mean that this is a gang of rustlers? I thought we were dealing with just one man," I said, in feigned concern, enjoying his discomfiture. "They must be very inept, if it takes so many to catch just a few head of livestock. Surely Sgt. Garcia will be able to catch them soon." Several of the men laughed at my comments. Eduardo Mantano and Ricardo Ventura just scowled. "Whether it is one man or many, he or they must be caught before this becomes a much bigger operation," Eduardo said vehemently.
I wished I could knock some sense into those two hotheads. "Señores, why the sudden interest in finding and prosecuting someone who is stealing a few cattle. If we did that to every poor peon or Indian that needed to feed his family, we would fill up the jail in the cuartel, and be poor citizens, indeed," I argued. I was serious this time.
"Perhaps we should find and prosecute everyone who steals from us. Why do we work hard to feed those who will not work for themselves?" Ricardo said in his whining voice.
"Shame on you, Ricardo," Father rebuked him, sternly. "You know that at various times most of these people have no other way to feed their children then to cull out a cow from our herds. You would have them starve? Is that what your attendance at mass has taught you?" Ricardo flushed at Father's words.
"If it was just one or two head occasionally, then I would not mind, but it has become several each night, with more from your herds, Alejandro," Don Eduardo grumbled. Turning to me, he said, "I have conjectured where this man's hideout may be, based on the locations of the ranches he has stolen from." Alarmed at his revelation, I nonetheless feigned surprise. "How did you manage to do that, señor," I asked. While concerned at the direction this conversation was going, I wished it would end and the rancheros would leave. All I wanted to do now was go back to bed. I had still felt listless when Bernardo had awakened me, and after only a short time, I was feeling totally drained. It was becoming difficult to maintain an air of alert interest and my thinking was becoming muddled again.
Looking smug, Don Eduardo began his explanation. "I just found out who has had cattle stolen from them and deduced that somewhere in the mountains not too far east from the del Brio rancho there has to be a hideout where our bandit is hiding our cattle and himself."
"That covers a lot of territory, Don Eduardo," I stated evenly. He was not too far off in his deductions from where I thought the bandit's hideout was, but I feared that it would not take long for him to narrow his search down. Despite the way I felt, I had to find the bandit and let him know of these developments.
"Don Eduardo, may I suggest that before everyone sends out legions of vaqueros scouring the hills and mountains, that we see what effect Sgt. Garcia's patrols have. It is even possible that this rustler, seeing government involvement, has decided to leave the area," I said wearily. Suddenly, I felt my father's presence at my right elbow. Apparently I was not hiding my condition as well as I thought.
"Diego, you look very pale all of a sudden, are you all right?" Eduardo asked, peering closely at me.
"No, señor, I suppose I must have eaten something that did not agree with me." Bernardo had just come in from the stable and I signed for him to bring me a chair. He grabbed one and brought it over for me. Gratefully, I sank down to rest. "I suppose we can wait a few days as Diego and Alejandro have suggested, but we will ride if this man strikes again. I must return to my ranch now," Eduardo said hastily, still watching me closely. The other hacendados were not far behind.
As we heard the last don ride away, I laughed. "If I had known how quickly our guests would leave when they thought I was sick, I would have acted the part much sooner. By the Saints, Bernardo help me get this glove off," I said fervently, trying to relieve the pressure on my wounded hand, which was beginning to throb again. I sighed in relief when he finally got it off.
Father and Bernardo helped me back up to my bedroom, where once again I was able to rest comfortably. "Wake me up just before sunset, I have to find this bandit and warn him."
"No, my son, you must give yourself a chance to get well. You saw how quickly you weakened. You were up too soon," Father protested.
"The bandit has to be warned, in case he feels the need to go out again," I said adamantly.
Father sighed. "I wish there was another way, Diego. But I will go with you as one who is sympathetic and wants to help."
"I do not think that would be possible at first, Father. I believe that this bandit trusts me somewhat and would meet me again, but he probably would not show himself if someone else was with me." Suddenly I was having trouble keeping my eyes open, and I remembered nothing more of the conversation.
Just before sunset, I rode out of the cave, and headed at a fast gallop to the place that I deduced the bandit was making his home. After a discussion with Father, I felt that the abandoned mission in the mountains east of the del Brio rancho, would be the most likely site for a group of people to be living.
The journey was fairly easy, and the hours I had spent sleeping this afternoon had made me confident that I could make this trip without problem. After a couple hours, when the pink tinged western sky had finally darkened to black velvet, I approached the area where Father told me the old mission would be.
"Stop, señor, if you value your life."
I stopped. "I am Zorro, and I have to speak with your leader about a matter of some urgency."
"It must be urgent, if you have come out here only one day after the snake bit you," another voice commented with a chuckle. A man approached me, but even in the semi-darkness, I could see it was a priest. I heard another person and assumed that it was the one who threatened me.
"Pablo, put away your musket. I think we have no reason to fear this individual knowing our secret." The priest walked up to Tornado's head. "Señor, let me lead your horse, so that you do not have to walk any further than necessary. You are not completely well yet." I did not argue, and handed him the reins.
After a short way, I saw in the semi-darkness the walls of a well built, but small mission. If it had been in decay, this priest and his followers had done a good job of rebuilding. I slid off Tornado and gave him the command to remain where he was. Then I followed the priest into a large chapel where a small congregation was gathered. It was apparent that I had interrupted their evening mass. Removing my hat and kneeling, I made my devotions, before rising and following the priest. He pointed out a seat for me and then returning to his place at the altar, he continued the service.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed most of the other worshipers in the soft candlelight. I noticed many who were maimed and diseased, and in shock, I realized that some of the diseased individuals were suffering from leprosy. It was no wonder that the bandit wanted this place kept secret. Looking back up at the priest, I noticed a large bruise on the left side of his cheek. This priest was the cattle rustler!