Chapter Two - The
When the dusk of the evening turned into the inky black of full night, a dark clad figure rode through the hills toward the pueblo, on an equally dark stallion. The only knowledge one would have of the passing of the horseman was the staccato sound of hoof beats. At the edge of the town square, the ghostly rider dismounted and using a hand signal, sent his mount away. Stealthily, Zorro made his way around to the back of the church and climbed in a window. In the priest's austere living quarters, the outlaw made himself comfortable on a straight-backed chair by leaning it against the wall.
Hearing the strains of music that ended the service, Zorro prepared himself mentally for the arrival of Father Miguel. After a short while, he was rewarded when he heard the click of the door latch and saw the priest enter the dim room. The cleric lit a candle, looked up and gasped when he saw the masked man lounging in his chair.
"Zorro!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here? What do you want with me?"
"I have noted the arrival of two strangers who do not seem to be here in our pueblo for any good reason. It is rumored that they delve in something called voodoo," Zorro explained matter-of-factly. "If I have to deal with these two, then I want to know what it is that I am up against. I assumed since you have been to many places in the world, perhaps you could enlighten me on this voodoo."
Father Miguel sighed. "I wish no one around here had to know about it, but it seems that is an impossibility. Voodoo, to the best of my knowledge, is a derivative form of animal worship, brought by slaves from Africa. The animal worshipped is usually a snake, which is cared for by a powerful woman designated as the voodoo queen. She leads the followers in their worship and through her dominion gets them to do tasks for her."
"What kind of tasks?" Zorro asked quietly, sensing the anxiety of the priest almost as strongly as he did earlier in the day.
"Usually the followers carry out the punishments to those who have been cursed. I have seen or heard of followers stealing, killing and intimidating the enemies of the voodoo queen."
"So, in other words, the queen is unhappy with someone, curses them, and makes her followers carry out the 'curse.' " Zorro explained in his own words, to make sure he understood correctly.
"For some, the fear of the cursing is enough and there is no need to use anyone to help the curse along," Father Miguel added. "For the believers, the curse is a death sentence. By fear alone, the voodoo queen ruthlessly rules her subjects with almost unlimited power."
"Gracias, Padre, you have given me much valuable information. By the way, how does one know he has been cursed?" Zorro inquired.
"Effigies, acorns, simple message written on the victim's doorstep with a chicken feather and in blood are the most common," the priest answered. "Be careful, Seņor Zorro, it may sound like charlatans at work, but these are very dangerous people."
"Yes, I agree. Thank you for the warning. Adios, Father Miguel." Zorro slipped out the window, whistled for Tornado and rode swiftly out of the pueblo.
The speed with which Marie LeMay and her accomplice worked surprised Diego and even Father Miguel. Although Diego had kept his eyes and ears open, and it had appeared that for the first few days that all the pair was doing was plying pesos from superstitious using the tarots cards, the caballero found how wrong he was when a peon summoned he and his father to the hacienda of Don Esteban de Onate, late one afternoon.
"I suspect that Doņa Antonia has either died or is near death," Alejandro commented sadly, as they rode swiftly, having noted the demeanor of the messenger.
Riding up to the front gate of the residence, Diego was surprised to see Marie LeMay just leaving, and the cold fingers of dread started plying a trail up and down his spine once again. The woman gave him a cursory glance, as she rode off toward the pueblo. That glance was full of hate and malice.
"Who was that, Diego?" Alejandro asked.
"Marie LeMay from New Orleans, dealer in tarot cards and apparently curatives as well," Diego commented absently.
"Curatives? Since when would Don Esteban be looking into old folk remedies?" Alejandro asked incredulously.
"I suppose since he saw no other hope of his wife's recovery," Diego said softly.
Alejandro sighed. "Yes, I can imagine that he would grasp at anything. He loves Antonia very much." A house servant showed them into the sala.
Don Esteban was sitting with an empty wine glass in one hand and one of his wife's necklaces in the other. The old man's clothes looked as though they had been slept in for several days, and his snow-white hair was in disarray. Alejandro was by his side in an instant. "My friend, is it Antonia?" he asked, looking into his friend's anguished countenance.
"She is gone, Alejandro. The priest just left and the servants are preparing her for burial," Esteban looked up at the elder de la Vega, a tear slid down his leathery cheek. "It would not have been so bad if she had died peacefully, but she was in pain the entire last day. And it was my fault."
"How was it your fault, Don Esteban," Diego asked, his curiosity warring with his sympathy. "Doņa Antonia had been sick for some time."
"I was desperate, Diego, one of my peons had told me that the woman from America had cured his son of a cough and I had him bring her to me. She burned something in a brazier, gave Antonia some kind of potion and mumbled something that sounded like an incantation. Not long after that, Antonia began moaning in pain, she was that way for an entire day before she finally died. God forgive me for bringing that witch woman in here. And that woman had the gall to come in for a final payment. Marie LeMay is very fortunate that I did not run her through with my sword," Esteban's voice rose almost to a wail. His despair was tangible.
"I am very sorry, Don Esteban," Diego murmured, thinking of the speed with which the voodoo queen had established her foothold. If she had influenced a hacendado in the space of one week, then there must be numerous peons and vaqueros under her sway already. Diego had grossly underestimated Marie LeMay's abilities. Bernardo had even kept an eye on the pair and had only seen them telling fortunes with the tarot cards. The Americanos must have been very busy during the night.
"This is unconscionable," Alejandro stormed. "The woman must be jailed, run out of town, something!"
"No, Alejandro, that will not bring my Antonia back." Esteban said. "I just wanted you to come over because you are my friend. I needed someone to be with me, and I know that you understand my grief, my oldest and dearest friend." The old man looked steadily at Alejandro.
"Con permiso, if you would allow me to talk to Father Miguel about the funeral, that would be a small load you would not have to carry, Don Esteban," Diego suggested. There were several things, which he saw a need to do. Esteban nodded his head.
Alejandro picked up on Diego's desire. "Diego, you go ahead back to the hacienda. I will stay with Esteban for awhile."
"Very well, Father," Diego said and bowing to Don Esteban, left. A very short time later, he was in the secret cave where he saddled Tornado and then changed into his costume. It was then that Bernardo appeared, having heard some slight noise coming from the secret room.
Bernardo signed a question. "I need to visit with Seņorita LeMay, Bernardo. It seems that she is working her voodoo on desperate hacendados now and not just making money telling fortunes." The manservant signed some more. "Hernan Morales was caught with what?" Zorro was flabbergasted, Hernan had been working for the de la Vegas for over a year, and never had there been any cause to suspect him of duplicity. Bernardo signed again. "Silverware from the cabinet and money that father had not hidden away. And you suspect that this was at the orders of our enterprising seņorita and her accomplice."
Nodding, Bernardo signed some more. "You heard him talking to our new vaquero, Armando this morning and then watched them while Father and I were away," Zorro translated aloud, to make sure he had the information correct. "Very good, Bernardo, that will be extremely helpful. Where are they, now?" he asked, and watched intently while the mozo answered him. With a smile, the black clad outlaw made his way to the stable where the two men were trussed up, waiting to be taken to the cuartel. Slipping in through the gate, Zorro approached the two men silently, appearing, it seemed to them, suddenly, like a wraith. Above their gags, the outlaw noticed their eyes widen.
Removing his sword from its scabbard, he carefully slid the point under each of the men's gags and sliced the cloth neatly, without so much as a scratch being left on the thieves' cheeks. As the cloth fluttered gently to the ground, the terrified servants followed its fall with their eyes.
"Seņores, you can now tell me about your association with the voodoo queen," Zorro coaxed the pair. They both shook their heads and started twitching nervously. "Seņores, I know that Seņorita LeMay is very powerful, but you have known me much longer and I am even more powerful. You do not want to incur my wrath," Zorro informed the pair in a chillingly cold voice. "Think about my abilities and what I have accomplished, and then answer my questions."
"Seņor Zorro, the Voodoo priestess has greater power than you do, she works in the dark magic and she will know if we tell you her secrets."
"Oh, that she curses those who are her enemies and kills them with her power?" Zorro laughed. "That she controls the decisions of the acting comandante and any other man she needs to control? That she uses a snake to supposedly increase her power? That I already know, tell me where she meets with her followers," Zorro demanded. Knowing that he was conjecturing, the outlaw hoped that his guesses were close enough to astonish the two men into a confession.
The two prisoners ogled, and Zorro guessed that he must have been somewhat accurate. "The old Santa del Rios Church, Seņor Zorro. That is where the new members of the order are brought and given the signs, instruction, and the drink that makes us powerful against our enemies." Rubbing his chin, Zorro pondered this new information. "Gracias, Seņores, listen carefully, you will see that in the next few days the power of the fox is greater than the power of a snake," he said, his eyes glittering with determination.