Chapter Three - The
Voodoo Queen Strikes
Zorro found a few supplies in the storage building that stood near the stable. Whistling for Tornado, he vaulted on the stallion's back and galloped in the direction of the abandoned church several miles distant from the hacienda. A quarter mile from his destination, he dismounted and proceeded stealthily on foot, arriving before anyone else did. The wind made moaning sounds among the stones and timbers of the ruins of the tiny pueblo that once stood near the church.
Slipping in through a gaping window, Zorro made his way to the middle of the chapel. All of the benches had been removed and a crude stone altar had been built in the exact center of the room. Bloody feathers stuck to the sides and top of the makeshift altar and a wooden bowl sat nearby. Sniffing the inside of the bowl, Zorro wrinkled his nose in disgust at the foul smell that exuded from the vessel. On the other side of the room, he heard a slight noise.
Investigating, Zorro found a small crate with a banded snake slithering around in the bottom. It hissed at him when he opened the lid a crack and peered in. This must be her voodoo god, Zorro thought to himself. It wasn't a local species; it looked to be a coral snake, native to the eastern part of the continent, and, like the rattlers of California, could be extremely deadly. Placing the lid back on the box, he returned to the area behind the altar where he planned his surprise.
Hearing horses outside, Zorro hastily finished his preparations. Using a flint and steel striker, he lit a tiny candle and then knelt down on one knee, directly behind it, his cape drawn around to hide its light until he was ready. Into the darkened room stepped Marie LeMay, Louis Aristande and over a dozen followers, residents of the pueblo and nearby haciendas. Most of the newcomers had come into the room before Zorro's presence was detected.
A quick gasp of surprise was the only betraying sound that the creole woman made, before she resumed her former haughty demeanor. "Can I assume that you are the mighty Zorro?" she asked in disdain. "How appropriate of you to be kneeling to me."
"Sí, I am Zorro, and I have come here to give warning, Voodoo witch," he said, equally disdainful.
Marie laughed derisively. "What could you possibly say that would frighten me, Señor Zorro? You are only a man who hides behind a mask and a sword."
"And you are only a queen of trickery who uses magic tricks and superstition to frighten people into giving you their money," he retorted, with a grim laugh of his own.
"Warn me, fox and then see how I will crush you before my followers' eyes," the creole woman scoffed.
"When you played games with the cards, I did not interfere, but when you started using the grief of old men to make money, you invited me into your little game. I believe you will find me an unwelcome player." Zorro smiled.
"My people," Marie shouted, her words echoing among the old rafters and rotting roof of the church. "The fox tries to scare me with words. Capture him, so we can work a curse on this pretentious puppy."
As her followers began to converge on him, Zorro slipped a small bag of powder out from his sash with one hand and loosened the drawstring, and then he stood to his full height. When he poured the powder steadily onto the little candle, a loud hissing pop startled his would-be captors and they drew back in surprise. Throwing his cloak back, he threw the rest of the powder on the flame, where it made a choking cloud that enveloped the voodoo accolades and hid the masked outlaw from sight. Zorro dashed to the window and was sitting casually on the decayed wood of the sill by the time Marie LeMay's followers had cleared their eyes of the smoke and fumes.
Laughing, Zorro said derisively, "Do not underestimate my power, witch, and if you choose not to leave, I am sure we will meet again. You cannot say that you have not been warned." Jumping outside, Zorro dashed up the trail where Tornado was waiting. Many of Marie LeMay's followers started murmuring in wonder at the power El Zorro had displayed. Marie LeMay was furious and by the time her own display of magic was finished, she saw that the initiates who had been brought this night were not as impressed as they might otherwise have been. "My people, be vigilant, you only think that Zorro has power. By this time tomorrow, you will see how ineffective the bandit is. And then those of you who scoffed will cringe wondering at my punishment to unbelievers. Go now and watch."
When only Marie, Louis and two of her most stalwart trainees were left, the voodoo queen called them together. "First we must lay a curse for Zorro where all will see it." Taking an acorn from a pouch, she handed it to Louis, who drilled four holes in it. Several of the bloody feathers were stuck through the holes, while one of the Californio trainees took sticks and tied them together into the crude effigy of a man, twisting bits of black cloth around it. The grotesque acorn was attached to the effigy along with a note written to Zorro and signed by Marie LeMay. The hideous little mannequin was placed in another pouch and the small group returned to the pueblo, where the curse was hung on the well in the middle of the plaza.
It was found by Zorro a short time before dawn, after he had delivered the two thieves to the cuartel. Laughing, he threw the grisly thing to the ground and allowed Tornado to stamp it into the dust. Most of his performance was show, since the outlaw knew that at least one person was probably watching. But at the same time, the effigy represented an evil that caused the hair to stand up on the back of his neck.
And although not superstitious, the outlaw knew that there was more to Marie LeMay than just trickery, she represented the very antithesis of the justice and fairness that he had fought for these past two years. This was something more insidious than overbearing comandantes and power hungry magistrados; this was something more subtle, evil, and less easy to fight head on.
About mid-morning of the following day, when Diego came down to the sala for a late breakfast, he noticed that his father was not around. Striding into the kitchen, he took a hot cup of champurrado (chocolate) from Juanita the cook, who had kept it warm in a pot for him. "This will be sufficient, Juanita, but do you know where Father is?" he asked.
"Sí, Don Diego, Don Alejandro went into the pueblo early this morning. He, too, refused the corn porridge and he seemed agitated. He kept saying something about witches and taking advantage of old men like Don Esteban," Juanita said.
Diego felt a flickering of anxiety at what his father may be planning. "Gracias, Juanita. And the champurrado is delicious." Laying the half empty cup on the table, Diego went through the hacienda, looking for Bernardo, finding him on the patio, staring at a feather bedecked acorn in the middle of a wrought iron table, almost an exact duplicate of the one attached to the effigy he had found in the town square. This one was accompanied by a note cursing his father. Muttering a vile epitaph of his own, Diego crushed the note in his hand.
Anger flowed white hot in his veins. Now Diego was sure of his father's errand. It was to confront the creole woman, and he realized that Marie LeMay had wasted little time in her threats. Fearing for his father, the caballero turned quickly to Bernardo. "We must go into the pueblo and find Father quickly. He may be in great danger." Bernardo signed a "Z."
"No, Bernardo, not this time. Just you and I." Diego answered and throwing the acorn to the stones of the patio, stamped it to pieces under the heel of his boot. Soon they were riding swiftly to the pueblo.
As they rode into Los Angeles, Diego vaguely noticed the smell of the Pan de los Muertos, or Bread of the Dead, baking in preparation of All Saints' Day and the Day of the Dead. Startled, he realized with a sense of irony, that the holidays were only a few days away. When they arrived, Diego sent Bernardo to the tavern to check there, while he went to the cuartel.
"Don Alejandro was here about two hours ago, Don Diego," Corporal Reyes informed him. "I have not seen him since. Maybe he is in the tavern or at a friend's house." Thanking him, Diego proceeded to the tavern where he found Bernardo at a table with a bottle of wine and two glasses. The mute had already poured some for himself. Diego signed his query as to the origin of the wine and was told that a message had been left from his father, that if he and Bernardo came into the tavern, they were to make themselves comfortable until his arrival. 'But where is he?' Diego signed. Bernardo just shrugged and poured some wine for his patrón. Taking a swallow, the caballero noticed a strange, tangy taste. As he was about to take another taste, Diego was startled by Bernardo grabbing the glass away from him, and throwing it to the ground. Looking up in astonishment, he saw a spasm of pain cross the mozo's face.
Bernardo started frantically making signs, which Diego finally understood to mean that he had been poisoned. Jerking his chair out of the way, Diego reached Bernardo just as the manservant lost consciousness. With ease borne of desperation, Diego picked his friend up and started for the doctor's office. "Someone open the door, quickly!" he shouted.
Maria, the barmaid, immediately complied and as he carried Bernardo out of the room, he heard muttering behind him about the curse of vengeance that had been delivered to the de la Vega family from the voodoo queen. Looking over his shoulder, he called out to the barmaid, "Maria, bring me that bottle of wine Bernardo was drinking from. Hurry!" Diego grasped it tightly in his fingers when she brought it to him, and then he crossed the plaza and down a small street to the office of the pueblo's only physician. While he was kicking at the door, he felt a sharp pain through his midsection, but ignored it, concentrating instead on Bernardo, who had begun writhing in pain.
As soon as the door was unlatched, Diego kicked it open enough to admit him and Bernardo and pushed past the startled doctor. "He has been poisoned. Here is the laced wine," Diego said quickly, laying his friend on the table the physician indicated. "Take care of him, please, Señor Cortez. Do not let him die."
Sniffing the wine, Doctor Cortez, turned to Diego. "How much did he drink? It does not appear that much is gone."
"Just a little, I think," Diego answered, looking anxiously at Bernardo. The doctor went over to a cabinet and quickly mixed a powder in a glass of water. "Help me get this down him, Don Diego. If we can empty the poison from his stomach, then he should recover." Diego held Bernardo's head up, while the doctor forced the vile looking liquid down the mute's throat. Choking a bit, the manservant, nevertheless aroused enough to swallow almost the entire contents of the glass.
"Get me that basin, Diego," Doctor Cortez ordered. When Diego handed the basin to the doctor, Cortez looked closely into his face. "Diego, did you drink any of the wine?"
Spasms of pain began to hit him, causing him to double over. "I believe that answers my question, Señor de la Vega," Cortes said evenly. "I have to be in attendance to your manservant and my assistant, Carlos is out on an errand. Did you by any chance see what powder it was that I mixed?"
"Sí," Diego gasped, and made his way to the cabinet.
"Two spoonfuls, Diego, and mix it well with water." Diego was barely aware of his actions, but managed to get the concoction mixed and then drank it, almost choking on the bilious tasting stuff.
"Señor, the poisoned wine at least tasted decent," he quipped as he sat quietly, trying to keep the medicine down.
The physician looked askance at him. "If you are trying to keep the ipecac down, do not even try. There is a basin in the other room. The purpose of the medicine is to purge the stomach of poisons." Diego heard no more of the doctor's explanation. He was already in the other room.
By the time he had returned, Bernardo, too, was looking better, although the mozo was still unconscious. "Doctor, I have heard of the term, 'the cure is worse than the disease,' but this gives new meaning to it. I am not sure if I am more angry at the indignity of this attempt on my life or the attempt itself. But I am furious that someone would try to kill Bernardo, in order to get to me or my father."
Calming down, Diego gazed at the man who had saved his life on numerous occasions, and he finally said, "Will he be all right, Señor Cortez?"
"Sí, Don Diego, you got him to me quickly and he is strong," Cortez said with a smile. "I see you are feeling much better."
Nodding, Diego pondered the fact that for the most part, Marie LeMay had been keeping one step ahead of him. That annoyed him very much and he decided to rectify that little problem. It was time for the fox to go on the offensive.