Chapter Five - The Final Battle
Marie LeMay was disconcerted. She had assumed erroneously that El Zorro was a simple, foolish swordsman, helping the peons and harassing soldiers. Misunderstanding him had cost her almost all of last night's new initiates. Even they felt the power of this black clad spawn from the depths of Hell. Tonight she would not be surprised by El Zorro, she would be ready for him and have him gibbering at her feet.
"We will be able to more than double the amount of followers that we lost last night," Louis told her. "Maybe you should get that fat sergeant to send patrols after that nuisance Zorro."
"Perhaps, but I think it will be decided in a confrontation and not from any help that the so-called comandante can give us," Marie stated decisively.
During the day, Bernardo loaded the pumpkins onto a small cart along with the disgruntled badger, and the two sacks containing the bats. Zorro rode into the pueblo and picked up the sugar skulls. Riding to the inn, the outlaw stood on Tornado's back, climbed onto the balcony of an empty room and then to the stairway overlooking the tavern. Seeing Marie and Louis below him, he smiled broadly.
"Muchachos, what day of the year is it today?" he shouted in a loud voice.
"All Saints Day," came the reply in chorus from the patrons below.
"And what is tomorrow?"
"The Day of the Dead, Seņor Zorro," came the litany, with a laugh or two sprinkled in. The clientele of the tavern was beginning to enjoy this performance by El Zorro.
"Sí, the day we make welcome the ghosts of those who have passed before us. We should prepare to make them welcome, should we not?" Opening the first package, Zorro removed the skull marked with Louis Aristande's name. "What better way to honor the dead than to make and eat the confection skulls with the names of our dead written upon them, is that not so, muchachos?" A chorus of sí's answered his question.
Louis reached into his sash to pull out a pistol. Zorro tossed the skull into his left hand and jerked out his whip from the belt that also held his sword. Snapping his wrist, the whip looped around one side of the chandelier, and the outlaw swung down among the crowd. Louis shot as Zorro was making his descent and the ball went wild, gouging a hole in the ceiling.
"Louis, here is the skull with a dead man's name written on it." Zorro tossed the sugar skull to the American. Catching it deftly, Louis blanched when he read his own name on its forehead. Dashing back up the stairs, Zorro gathered the second skull and swinging down again, landed on the bar. "Seņorita LeMay, here is your Day of the Dead present," he said more politely and jumping down, carried the skull to her and placed it in her hand. Bowing, Zorro calmly gathered up his whip and walked up the stairs. No one raised a hand to stop him.
"Seņor Zorro, enjoy your tiny victories, I will enjoy bringing you to your knees in the end," Marie hissed with barely controlled fury. She threw the skull at him with all the force she could muster, causing it to shatter on the stairs, then she reached into the folds of her sleeve and threw a substance into the candle flame. A great gout of foul smelling smoke rose into the air, causing the patrons of the tavern to gasp in surprise and then cough and choke. Zorro just laughed as he went back through the room and out over the balcony.
Two riders on horseback and a man driving a cart made their way to the abandoned church that the followers of voodoo had made their own. Not too far from their destination the small group stopped and a lone rider dismounted and proceeded on foot, pausing to reconnoiter periodically. Within the next hour, the black clad masked man had found a half dozen guards, rendering each unconscious. Each recumbent sentry was positioned to appear as though he was awake and watching.
Rejoining his companions, Zorro hauled the crate containing the badger out from the back end of the cart and with the help of his father, carried it into the old church. Looking around, the outlaw was disappointed to see that the box with the snake was not there. "Too bad, but no matter. Seņor Badger will yet get his snake dinner," he said with a chuckle. He shoved the crate into a dim corner and threw in a little beef to take the edge off the animal's hunger. The animal allowed him to rub behind its ears, having gotten used to his scent and gentler way of handling him. The lid was left loosely latched.
Alejandro went outside to help Bernardo with the pumpkins. Each one was placed behind a boulder, bush or tree to remain hidden until the right moment. Zorro joined them. "It will be hectic, lighting candles for this many pumpkins, but if they have a ceremony like the one I last attended, the participants will not be paying attention to what is going on out here." Turning to his father, he added, "I hope to be able to attend the haunting. Your performance should be worthy of any stage production put on in Europe." The outlaw laughed, picturing the scene in his mind's eye.
"My biggest problem is going to be getting that higher voice that Doņa Antonia had. And I hope that she is not offended, either. I would really prefer to be visited by a friendly spirit, rather than an angry one," Alejandro quipped.
Zorro laughed again. "Father, Doņa Antonia may even be here to help you after what Seņorita LeMay did to Don Esteban. It has been hard enough for him to cope with her long illness and then to have her finally pass away the way she did."
Alejandro frowned. "Yes, he has been irreconcilable. It has been all I or anybody else could do to keep him from riding into the pueblo and killing Marie LeMay himself."
Zorro saw that in another two hours the sun would set. He noted that Bernardo was in readiness. The horses and cart were hidden well away from the church and the badger was asleep. Picking up the bags with the bats, he carried them into the church, setting them in an unobtrusive corner near the doorway. A little fluttering inside told him that the creatures were beginning to become restless.
Slipping back outside he gave his final instructions to his father and Bernardo. "Under no circumstances do you come into the building. I know what has gone on before, but I am sure the seņorita is planning something special tonight. It would be much more helpful if you two were out here making distracting mischief."
His father didn't look happy, but he nodded nevertheless. An hour later, Marie LeMay and her most stalwart followers arrived. They looked around, saw the sentries, supposedly in various positions of watchfulness and then went in to prepare for the night's activities. Several braziers were lit, and the box with the snake was placed on the east side of the alter. Zorro watched all of the preparations from a dark corner.
A short time later, more initiates arrived. Marie started chanting, with the musicians beating their drums at regular intervals. Watching, Zorro felt that the drums could almost hypnotize a person. He had to occasionally shake his head to focus on the task ahead. The bag with the bats began to move around as the animals sensed the arrival of the night. As the ceremony became more intense, Marie began to pass around a cup with some kind of dark liquid, admonishing each participant to drink. It was at this time that Zorro decided it was time to begin.
He opened the bags and poured out the bats. After extricating themselves from each other, they took to the air in a mad frenzy to get out of the dark room and into the freedom of the night sky. Some floated above the heads of the participants, who shrieked and tried to knock the animals away. Marie LeMay pivoted and stared at Zorro, anger blazing in her eyes.
Rushing past her, he grabbed the box containing her snake deity, and opening the lid of both the box and the crate with the badger, dumped the snake in. Marie screamed when she realized what he was doing. "You will pay for that, spawn from Hell," she hissed at him, sounding for all the world, like a snake herself. Zorro had left the lid to the badger's crate open, and in a moment the animal stood up on its hind legs and peered over the edge, the dead snake dangling from its mouth. It was growling happily as it ate.
"Look around you, misfortunate ones. Look outside, see how the spirits of our dead attend to their misguided relatives," Zorro shouted. Most of the initiates looked out the windows and seeing the lit pumpkins, gasped in wonder. The ghostly apparition of Doņa Antonia rose from behind a boulder and in a fair approximation of the late woman's voice gave warning to those who would follow the voodoo.
Some of the less stalwart followers started running out of the church. "Stop, I command you," Marie shouted. She glided across the straw strewn floor toward Zorro, who was standing behind one of the braziers. The glow of the embers made eerie shadows behind him. Suddenly the seņorita reached into a pouch and threw a crystalline powder into the brazier. A choking, cloying smoke rose from the burning coals and enveloped Zorro.
He coughed and tried to jump backward, but it seemed suddenly as though his feet had been nailed to the floor. In consternation, Zorro realized that he had again underestimated Marie LeMay's resolve. Desperately he tried to move away, but could not make his limbs work. His mind felt as cloudy as the smoke wafting its way to the rafters. The voodoo queen was making her way slowly toward him, a knife out and glittering in the dim light of the braziers.
"So Seņor Zorro, I told you I would bring you to your knees." She reached up and putting her hands on his shoulders, pushed downward. Unable to do anything else, Zorro sank to his knees, but a small rock beneath one, snapped a portion of the trance that he seemed to be in. Marie gripped the knife tightly in her hand and with a downward sweep attempted to drive it into his chest.
The knife never reached its destination. Zorro grabbed the voodoo woman by her wrists and stared into her surprised eyes. "No," she hissed, as his grip caused the knife to slide out of her hand. Looking deeply into his eyes, she realized what a fool she had been. Because of her talent, she had recognized in Diego de la Vega an inner strength and will that was an antithesis to the demeanor that everyone saw. Marie recognized Zorro and Diego de la Vega as one and the same.
Marie now knew that she should have been spending more time laying the traps for de la Vega. Zorro was almost invincible when in the costume, she thought in ironic amusement. But Don Diego had a role to play and that was when he was most vulnerable to those who might suspect who he was. She struggled in his iron grip. "You may have broken my order of voodoo followers, Diego de la Vega, but I will break you as well, with my knowledge," Marie hissed. Only a betraying flicker of alarm in his eyes, showed Marie that she was right in her assessment.
"No one will believe you, Seņorita LeMay, even if it were true. You are not the first to have accused de la Vega of being Zorro."
The door of the church burst open and with a shout, Don Esteban advanced on Marie LeMay. A musket was in his hands and an insane fire was in his eyes. Zorro threw the creole woman aside and jumped up to face the crazed hacendado. "Don Esteban, do not do this. A killing will not bring back Doņa Antonia," Zorro tried to reason with the old man. Alejandro stood in the doorway behind Esteban and was pleading with his friend also.
Louis jumped at the old caballero and tried to wrest the musket from his hands. Growling in frustration, Esteban struggled with the American and as he did so, the weapon went off. Louis was thrown across the room, where he lay in a heap. Esteban growled in frustration and rushed across the room, determined to reach Marie. Sliding on the straw, he tripped over a brazier, scattering coals everywhere. The dry straw blazed up in an instant, making the floor of the church a sea of blazing fury.
Alejandro grabbed Esteban by the chaqueta and dragged him outside. Initiates scattered, running in panic. "Seņor Zorro, Seņor Zorro," Alejandro called from the doorway, where he was struggling with the hate inflamed Don Esteban. He could not hide the anguish in his voice, knowing that his son was still inside the burning room. Choking on the smoke, he was finally able to drag Esteban away from the church, where they both watched the roof of the old building collapse in a shower of flame and sparks.
A group of lancers rode up, headed by Sgt. Garcia. Dismounting, they could do little else, except gather up the dazed initiates, who had been wandering around, and watch the final destruction of the old church.
A racking cough made Alejandro and the others turn sharply and to his immense relief, he saw Zorro emerge from the shadows with a struggling body in his arms. Laying the Marie LeMay on the ground, he whistled for Tornado. Don Esteban's inner fire had burned itself out and the old man just sat looking at the ground. Thundering up to his master, Tornado shook his head at the smoke and snorted loudly. "Seņor Zorro, are you all right?" Alejandro asked as his son swung on to the stallion.
"Sí, Don Alejandro, but I must ride." Tornado leaped to one side as a slightly singed badger grumbled and growled on its way into the scrub pines. Then the stallion galloped off into the dark night.
Marie LeMay started screaming, "Zorro, I know that Zorro is Diego de la Vega." She stared at Sgt. Garcia and repeated her claim. Alejandro's breath caught in his throat.
"Don Diego, Zorro? That is very funny, Seņorita LeMay, but it has been proven that he is not Zorro. Several times, in fact," Garcia laughed a great booming laugh that echoed across the hillside. "You will have to make a better guess than that. I will also have to arrest you for your crimes," the opulent sergeant added.
Marie gave up and sat quietly, watching the church and her dreams of power smolder into the dust. The quiet was only broken by the sighing of wind in the trees. Don Esteban looked up suddenly. "Antonia, my love," he said softly, with a great smile on his lips. Alejandro was startled to realize that it was after midnight, and was officially The Day of the Dead.