Chapter Four -- Father Vincent and Don Eduardo
After mass, most of the parishioners passed by the padre, who gave them his blessing, and then they filed out of the small chapel. Some helped others who were less mobile. Soon the chapel was empty except for myself and the priest.
"I am Father Vincent, my son," he introduced himself. "I saw recognition in your eyes, so I assume you know who I am."
"Sí," I told him. "And I also know why you have been struggling to keep this place a secret. If some people in the pueblo knew that you were running a leper colony..." I let my voice trail off and I shrugged. I knew the fear that certain diseases caused in people and leprosy was one of them. Realistically, I recalled the quick jolt of alarm that I, myself had felt when I realized who I was sharing the chapel with, so I could well imagine what a narrow minded person might feel. People have a hard time dealing with that which is not understood. I trusted Father Vincent and realized that he would not have invited me into the chapel if there were any danger to myself.
"You have news to relate to me, Señor Zorro?" Father Vincent asked, obviously eager to change the subject.
Nodding, I proceeded to inform him of the disposition of some of the hacendados. "If you do not steal anymore cattle, then you should not be bothered," I ended with my warning.
"I hope that we have enough to accomplish my plans. If the weather is cooperative, then the cattle that we have here should have enough vegetation to live on and this winter be able to reproduce, providing us with meat and whatever else we need, by summer," the priest informed me. "My hope is that we can be self-sufficient soon, without having to rely on any outside help. I only sold some of the cattle because I needed supplies that we could not make or produce for ourselves here. I know that my methods are a bit unorthodox, but I really had no idea how else to accomplish my goals."
"Several months ago, I went to a hacendado in an outlying part of Los Angeles and told him of my needs and was treated as though I had leprosy myself. What was worse, was I only mentioned that I was taking care of disabled and sick people, I did not get very specific and tell him I had people with consumption and leprosy."
"You had the misfortune to talk to the wrong person. I can give you the names of a few individuals who would help and feel it an honor to do so," I told the priest.
"But, señor that would be very difficult now. I, a priest, have stolen cattle, it would not matter the reason," Father Vincent pointed out. "I do not care what would happen to myself, but these people...." I could see the anguish of the double burden he was carrying; his sick flock that he was responsible for and guilt over the means he had used to care for them.
"Father, what you are feeling for your actions, you will have to work out with God. But what you are doing for these people is important; more important than Father Vincent, El Zorro or any hacendado who happens to be narrow minded and bigoted."
With a smile, I offered a suggestion that might help the priest become legitimate. "Father, suppose a rustler stole the cattle, but having sympathy for your parishioners, gave them to you instead, after selling only a few head to benefit himself. You can also add that you assumed he was representing some of the local haciendas, which wanted to be charitable. Very simple explanation, and it provides you with the means to approach those sympathetic to you."
"Which hacendados might you suggest would be the most amenable?" Father Vincent asked, looking hopeful.
"Probably Don Ignaccio Torres or Don Alejandro de la Vega," I said simply.
"Would you be willing to intercede for me?" the priest asked.
"I would be happy to, señor," I agreed. Knowing of the poverty and inequality that existed among many people in California, I realized that Father Vincente was providing an invaluable service, and I felt it a privilege to help him. I was sure that Father would, also.
"Come into my infirmary, Señor Zorro. I want to check the bite. Professional curiosity, especially in light of your seemingly remarkable recovery."
"Forgive my ignorance, Father, but how do you keep some of these diseases from spreading?" I asked, as he changed out of his vestments and cleaned his hands before examining my wound.
"One thing I have learned about leprosy is that it is not as deadly and easily spread as it seems from biblical accounts. Another thing I have learned is that cleanliness seems to keep most of these diseases from spreading from person to person. Basically, I try to be careful and teach my people to also be careful. I do not understand what causes some people to get these diseases and others not, I only know what has worked in caring for those who have them," Father Vincent patiently explained.
Nodding, I pondered his words. After several more hours of quiet conversation, I whistled for Tornado and mounting, bid the padre farewell for the night. I had much to consider, and much to discuss with Father, (who, of course, would be the liaison for the hacendados,) but the first order of business, my tired body told me, was an appointment with my bed. With promptness, I kept the appointment.
The next morning, it was I, who paced the sala, and Father who sat at the heavy oak table listening patiently. "Stop pacing, Diego and sit down. You will wear a hole in the floor." I smiled wryly and sat down, where I looked morosely into my now cold cup of champurrado.
"I only worry about a few of the hacendados, such as Don Eduardo or Don Ricardo. They would make much of the fact that Father Vincent is taking care of lepers at his mission," I said, unable to dispel the nagging feeling that I had of impending disaster.
"This seems strange coming from me, but you are worrying too much, Diego, about something that cannot be changed. We just have to proceed with helping Father Vincent and hope that the rest of the pueblo sees the good that the padre is doing for those people. If most can be swayed to sympathy before some hotheaded imbecile does something stupid, then all should be well,” he admonished.
"You are right, Father." I sighed, and finished the chocolate. And his observations seemed to be coming to fruition. Not only did most of the hacendados donate to Father Vincent's cause, but many other members of the pueblo contributed what they could. On a visit to check on the padre's small but growing herd, Bernardo and I both noticed the exuberance with which Father Vincent and his parishioners were enlarging the mission holdings. I saw that soon, building materials would have to be provided.
"Father Vincent, you have greatly improved this old mission. This is a wonderful endeavor you are undertaking," I complemented to him.
Beaming, he replied, "I would have never thought it possible, Diego, my son. Please thank your father for me, his help has been invaluable, and Zorro also, if you have occasion to see him."
"I will, Padre. Adios." We took our leave, and I was pleased at the way things were turning out.
That night, I retired early, not seeing any need to ride as Zorro, but before I could follow up on my plans for a normal evening, Bernardo admitted a very breathless and agitated vaquero. Throwing my robe on, I hurried down to the sala where Father was trying to make sense of the frightened man's message. "Slow down, señor and tell us what the problem is," Father said calmly.
"Don Eduardo and Don Ricardo have taken a group of vaqueros and have gone to Father Vincent's mission to burn it down. They said they were going to get rid of him. They did not want those kind of people in this part of California." He paused for a quick breath. "Señor, I knew you had been helping Father Vincent and so I came to you. Please, we must stop them."
"Sí, you are right, señor. How many are with you?" Father asked. That was the last I heard of the conversation, as I had run out the door and taking the steps two at a time, was quickly in my bedroom and then into the secret room, throwing my robe and nightclothes off and my costume on. Bernardo, having heard most of the conversation, almost had Tornado saddled by time I reached the secret cave.
"Bernardo, go with Father and pray that we are not too late." Swinging on the stallion, I was out of the cave and into the hills almost before I had finished my sentence.
In full gallop I raced onto the mission grounds, knowing in advance by the acrid smell of burning buildings, what I would find. Father Vincent and many of his people were fighting small fires that lingered, but for the most part the mission buildings were almost completely demolished. "By the Saints, is Don Eduardo mad?" I cried and the padre turned at my cry. Soot streaked his face, but I could see tracks that represented tears. The wanton destruction was enough to make any man want to cry. "I am so sorry, Father. I got here as soon as I could."
"My son, there is nothing you could have done, even if you had been here earlier. They had over a dozen men and they attacked during mass. I would not allow any of my people to retaliate."
A furious anger built up inside of me and it must have shown on my face, because Father Vincent grasped Tornado's reins. "My son, revenge will not solve anything. Do not retaliate against these men; adding the fire of hate will only build more resentment."
Leaning toward him, I said, "Father, revenge is not exactly what I have in mind. Let go of the reins, I must ride." Only for a moment did he hesitate, and with a sigh, he let go.
"Vaya con Dios, Zorro, my son, be careful," he said, as I wheeled Tornado around and galloped off in the direction of Don Eduardo's hacienda.
It was not long before I caught up with the group. Apparently, Don Ricardo and his men had already split off toward his ranch. All the better, I thought. Two of the mission's residents were huddled together, while a few vaqueros were harassing and taunting them. Although the men were not physically abusive, I was nevertheless incensed at their behavior and my fury grew to a white-hot flame.
Spurring Tornado to even faster speed, I plied my whip freely on the abusers, scattering them in all directions. One tried to use his pistol and found himself pulled close to the stallion with the end of the whip. Reaching down with my barely healed left hand, I grabbed him by the collar and jerked him off the ground. "Señor," I said quietly. " Leave these people alone. If you wish to harass someone, harass someone who has a chance to fight back, like me. Do I make myself clear?"
The vaquero nodded, his eyes rolling in abject fear. Dropping him, I turned my attention to Don Eduardo. He had his sword out and was charging his horse toward me. I really had no desire to fight a duel with him, but would certainly accommodate his wishes if I had to. Drawing my sword we met squarely, with a clash of steel, as though we were two medieval knights on the jousting field.
I did not want to take a chance of Tornado getting injured inadvertently, so drawing my foot up, I quickly pushed Don Eduardo out of the saddle and onto the ground, leaping down after him with my sword still drawn. My opponent was quite good, but not good enough. After several minutes, and with a quick flick of the wrist, I sent his sword flying through the air and had the point of my saber at the base of his throat.
"Señor, yield," I said softly, my eyes testifying of the result if he did not. Normally I did not require such a declaration from an obviously defeated opponent, but in this case I was willing to make an exception.
"I yield, Señor Zorro." There was fear in his eyes as well as something else. Guilt? I thought so, but could not be sure.
"Tell the vaquero who is trying to approach from my rear, that it would only take a small thrust to send you to purgatory, Señor del Mantano," I said evenly. Don Eduardo complied and I heard all of the vaqueros retreat. "And the same threat holds true if someone wants to try and shoot me," I added. "I would fall forward, which would be very unfortunate for you, patrón."
"Why do you not fight to drive those who are undesirable away from Los Angeles, like you did Capitán Monastario?" del Mantano asked in a trembling voice.
"Do not fire my wrath any hotter by asking stupid questions, señor. I fight for justice, not for rich hacendados. Tell me how much justice has been meted out to those?" I asked him, pointing to the two young men who were still clutching each other in fear. Their deep and racking coughs told me they were victims of consumption. The cool night air was not helping their condition at all. Then a sudden thought came to mind and I turned my attention back to Don Eduardo.
"Don Eduardo, how is Conchita these days?" I asked, watching him wince when I said his daughter's name. He had sent her to see specialists in Mexico City two months ago.
"Leave Conchita out of this, señor."
"Why, Don Eduardo? You are so defensive all of a sudden. What did the doctors in Mexico City say about her condition? When did they say she would be well enough to come home?" I even winced slightly at my cruel questions, because having a good idea of what Conchita was suffering from; it evoked memories that were still painful for me.
"Why do you bring up my daughter, señor, why?" del Mantano was alternately showing anger and sorrow on his face. It probably mirrored the emotions on my own face.
"What disease did the doctors say Conchita has, señor? Tell us. Does she have consumption? Is that what it is, señor?" I was hating myself, but felt I had to do this to exorcise the demon I believed Don Eduardo was carrying around. "Is that it?" I repeated, quietly.
The eyes of my memory were seeing a dear and beautiful woman wasting away, a woman I still found myself missing at times. A woman who had taught me to read, who had consoled me when I made mistakes or had not done well enough to please Father. It had taken several years to come to terms with the death of my own dear mother from this cruel disease. I shook my head to clear the past away and return to the present.
"Yes, Conchita has consumption. Are you happy now? Does that please you, Señor Zorro? I had no idea that you were so cruel," he sobbed. I shuddered, as I sheathed my sword. The vaqueros were motionless, shocked at the revelation.
"Señor, I was not trying to be cruel just for the sake of being cruel," I whispered. A little louder, I said, "But what if your precious Conchita was being cared for here by Father Vincent. Think about your daughter amongst those kindly taking care of her, and then a cruel hacendado coming and stripping that security away from her during her last days."
Don Eduardo looked up at me with tear filled eyes and then he sobbed some more, as though unable to bear his sorrow. His wife had died bearing Conchita and then, when all seemed to be going right, his daughter had taken ill. The man had become harsh in his sorrow and now all of his pain was being forced to the surface at once. I hated being the cause of that.
Taking Tornado's reins, I walked over to the two young men and motioned for them to mount. After they had done so, I led the stallion back to the newly ruined mission.
I saw Father there, with several of the de la Vega vaqueros, and Bernardo. Looking into my eyes, Father began to ask a question, but I cut him off with a shake of my head. "No, Señor de la Vega, do not ask me any questions." Father Vincent looked at me with concern, but wisely did not ask any questions either.
After the two men had dismounted, I swung up on Tornado and looked steadily at the priest. "Father Vincent, Don Eduardo is perhaps a quarter of a mile to the northwest, if you borrow one of the vaquero's horses you can find him quickly. I think he needs to talk to a priest about something that has been bothering him greatly. I believe he is ready now." Father Vincent's face registered surprise, but he immediately procured a horse and rode off.
"Don Alejandro, I do not think that I am needed here anymore. I will take my leave, con permiso." Father nodded and I galloped off into the pitch-blackness, dark thoughts swirling in my brain, like my cape in the cool night breeze.
Even Bernardo did not bother me with questions the next morning and Father just kept glancing at me with concern. Finally I deigned to say something about last night's incident. "I reminded Don Eduardo of his daughter and her condition. I felt like a tyrant, Father, and I remembered so many emotions that I thought I had left in the past, but perhaps Don Eduardo can be relieved of the pain that he has been suffering." Father winced, Bernardo looked confused and I sighed. "Bernardo, my mother died of consumption, and Don Eduardo's daughter is in Mexico City in an institution, dying of the same disease. It took me awhile to understand why he was so incensed about Father Vincent's mission. It was because he resented the very disease that took his daughter away from him and this endeavor of the padre's was a constant reminder." Bernardo nodded in understanding, but did not try to sign anything to me at that time.
The next day, Father sent workers into the mountains to cut timber for the mission and several days after that, he and I and myriads of workers from the pueblo, various ranchos, and even some soldiers from the cuartel appeared to rebuild the mission. Father Vincent was ecstatic. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he pumped Father's hand. By the end of that day, the skeletons of the new buildings had risen from the ground as if by magic.
The following day, everyone was surprised to see another group of wagons and workers appearing from the northwest. At their head was Don Eduardo del Mantano. Father walked out to greet him in the shocked silence that followed his arrival. "Eduardo," he beamed. "How wonderful for you to lend your support. You are most welcome."
"Gracias, Alejandro, my friend. I have been most ashamed of myself these past few days, and wished to make amends for the damage that I did," del Mantano said in a low voice. "I kept remembering Zorro's words and picturing Conchita in this place as it was being ravaged and then I started picturing her here when all was rebuilt. She would be close to home, Alejandro, where I could be with her when it is time for her to die."
"I think she would love it here, especially with you nearby, Eduardo." Father coughed and then composed himself. And at that moment, I motioned to Bernardo and we began to unload Don Eduardo's wagons of supplies. Soon there were many hands helping us and the sound of cheerful workers filled the air once again.