|A Long Night of Masks
Author: yorickjones PM
1875. A hero just coming into his own shares tea and conversation with a hero in the twilight of his legend. The Lone Ranger meets Zorro.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure - Words: 4,705 - Reviews: 4 - Favs: 5 - Published: 09-26-05 - Status: Complete - id: 2595722
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A Long Night of Masks
Excerpt from Reid's journals:
"August 13, 1875. Reina de Los Angeles seems little different from all of these other California pueblos. Pretty, dry, and old. Hardly likely the site of such mythical exploits as I have heard whispered across the plains, and with worse cantinas than San Diego. My brother tells me I do not allow the magic of this place to work on me. Possibly, but my purpose lies not in the setting, but in the man that I have crossed this country to find."
The bullets lodged in his thigh and shoulder were a constant reminder of the kind of pain a human body could withstand. He had carried them with him for two years and he would carry them to his grave. A month of hard riding. The pain. He ignored it.
The perfect night breeze through cypress branches and the deep indigo sky were of no comfort to the man once called Reid. It seemed an eternity since he had been comforted by anything; an eternity as far and near as the horizon he and his brother chased. The dome of night stars above them were the same that saw them leave El Paso; beautiful and patient, those stars watched over The Ranger. He ignored them.
Once, long ago, there had been a father and a mother, vague untrustworthy memories of happiness. Blood. Fire. The first of his endings.
There had been the learned peace of his adoptive family, his adoptive people. They who called themselves the Potawatomi. But the white world he had been born to reclaimed him. He was reunited with his white brother and was told he would have a proper home. But in his heart, young Reid knew that no home of his, proper or not, seemed to want him for long.
Later the motherly bosom of academia fed him abstract ideas of law and justice, and this sustained him from Harvard to Bryant's Gap, the box canyon where he was reunited with blood and fire. Six graves left behind but only five bodies. The Ranger buried his white brother and his name. Orphaned again, this new man was left no haven and no connection to the world save one: his blood brother from an earlier life, the one who restored him to health after the massacre at Bryant's Gap and who now shared his travels and his dead man's mission.
He wore a Franciscan cassock the night he entered the overgrown courtyard of Hacienda De La Vega, though he was no friar. Almost immediately he felt they were being watched. A shared look with his brother told him their instincts were in agreement. They continued into the view of the rambling adobe mansion. Caution warned, The Ranger ignored it. Under the majestic Californian night he took for granted and under the rough sackcloth hood, The Ranger felt safe.
It was the disguise. Not the mask or the badge this night, but enough to hide behind. In the five saddlebags that helped conceal his startlingly beautiful horse were enough costumes and make up pieces to supply a small theater troupe. He walked beside the ghostly white animal pleased with the disguise, pleased with the shadows, and pleased to have reached their destination.
The Ranger's Potawatomi brother slid from his own mount and watched the shadows that his brother could not; the combined perception of these two men was matched only by the animals that made the night their home. Each movement, sound, smell was catalogued and weighed for potential threat. Thus their surprise at the sudden voice from behind.
"Guests! What an unexpected pleasure."
The two travellers coolly turned to face this greeting, neither betraying a trace of nerves. They cursed themselves. How could any human have gotten behind them? The Ranger betrayed nothing, but behind his eyes it was plain; here in the fox's lair he had been startled by an old man in the dark. Wearing white, for God's sake.
The figure was healthy and slim, shimmering in a fine linen suit under the trees; the voice was rich, amused, sweetly accented with Spanish blood and wealth. He remained perfectly still but seemed capable of moving like lightning. The Ranger knew this man. The old man spoke again.
"Hacienda De La Vega is honored by your presence, Padre. Would you dine with the master of this house before journeying on?"
The friar shrugged his shoulders for the gentleman and replied in perfect Californian Spanish. "Please, señor, I do not understand English. If you would -"
The Spaniard laughed and for the first time seemed more than an intangible phantom. The rich, booming sound sent swallows winging from the trees. "Ah, forgive me, Padre, I did not recognize you as a fellow countryman. You have travelled far?"
The Ranger nodded, "From Capistrano with my native convert here."
The figure stepped forward soundlessly but for the soft tap of a scabbard against his knee. "Then dinner it shall be after a taste of steel!"
A movement of his arm and the quicksilver flash of moonlight on something tossed. And caught.
"Those reflexes will serve you well," the old man teased, "though, perhaps, not as well as a strong faith."
The old man barely moved and his sword was free of its sheath and ready unbelievably ready. The Ranger held the scabbard of the sword that had been thrown to him, continuing his show of polite confusion. "But -"
"Come, Padre, indulge an old man."
A half second's pause and then a lunge that The Ranger was only able to block by batting it aside with his still sheathed sword. Quickly stepping back and loosing his own sword, The Ranger committed to this impromptu challenge. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his brother going for the dagger he kept in the back of his belt, but he shook his head and thrust ahead himself.
The Ranger knew when to let the play acting drop, and now
that new business was afoot the business of staying alive it was time. The gleaming gentleman was toying with him he knew as they danced a combative dance across the courtyard to the sound of stinging metal. Fencing had been one of the sideline interests in the hooded man's university days, and now he found himself wishing that he had been less hasty to trade blades for bullets.
A shallow nick from the old man's rapier opened his right cheek and served as an apt reminder to stay focused on where he was and whom he was fighting. A saner man facing the same certainty would have surrendered. The Ranger thrust again, never coming near the ghost who laughed under his breath with each dodging, liquid step.
It felt as though The Ranger was wielding his blade with the grace of an infant swinging a woodcutter's axe. Every move, every tactic he had learned was recalled quickly and equally fast each one was met and bested. The mistake, he soon realized, was playing by the master rules, especially when facing a master. Pressed chest to chest, blades crossed, The Ranger hooked his foot behind the old man's and shoved him to the ground with his free hand.
From his prone position, the Spaniard effortlessly parried The Ranger's victory blow, laughing as he did this. "Very good, Padre! Let's end this now, shall we?"
And as the Indian watched, the old man sprung to his feet and, in the same leaping movement, delivered the killing blow.
With three bounding steps as silent as the dark, The Ranger's brother closed the distance between himself and the Spaniard, gripping his chin and bringing his dagger to the old man's throat.
His white brother's words came through a flurry of feathers. That stroke should have been fatal the speed of it, the strength, the depth!
Just deep enough to gut the padded stomach of the costume he wore.
Their host remained cool until the Potawatomi lowered the dagger with a face of stone. The Ranger pulled a thin strip of black cloth from a pocket in the slashed cassock and turned his back to the Spaniard as he tied the ends behind his head. When he faced him again, The Ranger let the hood drop and now looked upon the older gentleman through the windows of the mask. The corners of his mouth barely arching in a hard, flat smile.
"An honor to meet you at last Don Diego Vega. El Zorro."
He held his hand forward and it was instantly clasped by the old man's own strong grip.
"The honor is mine, my masked friend, though the advantage is yours seeing as I do not know your name. The newspapers and penny dreadfuls call you any number of things "The Masked Man," "The Masked Ranger," "Ghost Ranger," "The Lone Ranger." What do you prefer?"
The Ranger was tired, impatient. There was a reason he was here. "Any. None."
Don Diego smiled warmly and dropped a small, concise nod that considered the matter closed. He swung his hand towards the yellow lit veranda doors. "Please, rest in my home tonight, both of you, as my cherished guests."
Excerpt from Reid's journals:
"The tea was a rare Oriental blend imported at a no doubt phenomenal expense, the china set was among the finest creations currently gracing French salons. Every square inch upon which the eye fell was sumptuous with unabashed wealth and taste. The interior of Hacienda De La Vega was a warm, thriving heart in a decrepit body ravaged by the elements. Seductive surroundings to be sure, full of promises of sleep and comfort, but I could not help the thought that pierced every word of small talk between my host and I. I was being served tea by a legend and couldn't shake free of the thought, 'Where is he? Where is Cavendish?'"
"Don Diego, I – we both thank you for your hospitality, but there is a reason we--"
Their host, holding one of the objects from The Ranger's belt aloft, interrupted him with a smile and an amused shake of the head.
"A silver bullet. Very good indeed. Yes, I like this very much."
Tonto was mixing cream and sugar into his tea, a manner of taking it introduced to him by his white brother and about which he had become very particular. He answered for The Ranger, "Silver flies true. Also it is a weaker metal, gives those it strikes a better chance of healing."
"Ah," Vega concluded, "so there is mercy in the choice."
The Ranger was shooting his brother an impatient look, the muscles flexing in his jaw. "I never claimed to be a ready and anxious killer, señor. I regret the taking of any life."
"None more so than your own, I would wager!" Vega interjected with a wink. A boggling and all-pervasive air of mirth hung about his features lending his words a tone of gentle mockery.
The Ranger shrugged, "I neither fear my death nor welcome it. My only apprehension towards its arrival would be in leaving the task incomplete – the denial of seeing justice done."
Don Diego listened patiently as he leaned towards the parlor's hearth, stoking the fire's embers with the blade of his sword. "Is it only about vengeance then? Is there some personal stake to be served by your actions?"
"I seek a man, the same criminal who-"
"Stole your woman? Killed your family? Slapped your face with a pair of his unwashed stockings?" Vega straightened himself, a movement accompanied by the quite audible popping of his joints. This, and the small grimace briefly shadowing his eternally grinning face, was the first indication his visitors had witnessed of the infamous Zorro's lengthening years. The mind whirled on, however, and his words made their every mark. "You disappoint me, Señor Ranger. So much have I heard – even here in my crumbling corner of Los Angeles – of your exploits. They seemed to me worthy. You have, in your short time of operation, not acted merely as avenging lawman, you have also saved lives, have you not?"
The Ranger squirmed, "I do what I can – in the course-"
"Modesty is an admirable trait, my friend, and one completely alien to me." The old man found his chair again and sinking to it once more melded with its timeworn contours. "Did I happen to read of a colorful event in which you trounced a ring of rustlers disguising themselves as Paiute Indians that was troubling the fabled Ponderosa Ranch?"
"That you may have, though I, myself, have never been to Virginia City."
"Ah. Then what of your amazing rescue of Princess Gina Carlotta of Albania, kidnapped here on American soil by her own treacherous brother?"
"I haven't had the pleasure of meeting any princess. That was, the way I hear it, carried out by a couple of Grant's secret service men." He sighed, "I've also never faced down Billy the Kid or challenged Doc Holliday to a shooting match."
"A shame, I particularly liked that one. But such is the nature of legend – it does tend to take on a life of its own."
"I am no legend, nor is that any consideration in my actions."
Vega dropped his head, keeping his eyes levelled at The Ranger. "You wear a white hat and a mask. Your gun fires silver. Whether or not you have consciously sought it out, legend has chosen you, my friend. The reins have been taken from your hands and your own story goes galloping away."
The Ranger again sipped at his tea, "I keep a journal; perhaps when I am in the grave, the truth will be known."
"The people will not care. The truth has a rather damnable habit of disappointing. Fiction feeds the imagination and is therefore far more reliable. And its lifespan shames the modest stretch of fact. Believe me, you will be facing down Billy the Kid for far longer than you can imagine, Señor Ranger."
"You're speaking from experience, I gather."
"Oh yes. Perhaps you will live on to a ridiculous and useless age as have I, become a soft-bellied grandfather to far-distant children, finally passing quietly in your stale old-man's bed one unexceptional night, but the public of this great land will not have it. They will accept nothing less than your heroic, bloody demise in some glorious shootout with the fiery minions of El Diablo himself. Accept this, Ranger, and if you are wise enough to heed my counsel, you will never attempt to live up to your own myth."
"And failed. It is best to simply do what one can, carry forth your ideals and your mission. And it doesn't hurt to flash the people a smile now and again."
The Ranger's eyes squinted behind the mask, "I don't follow you."
Vega sighed slightly. "No, I gather you do not."
"Right now, at this moment, my 'mission,' as you put it, is to find a gang of very bad men and the outlaw who leads them," The Ranger insisted. "My sole reason for being is to see this man brought to justice or laid low. I have little preference which of the two comes to pass."
"Is this all you are, then? A grim executioner with a useless star affixed to your chest? Are you nothing but that mask?"
The Ranger set his teacup down with a surprising clatter. "I am – I – this mask is nothing more than a tool."
"It's your mother's breast, señor. It is something that brings you comfort and something to hide behind. I, myself, took to wearing a mask to protect others – my father or the peons who may have been blamed for my actions. You, however…. I sense that you wear that piece of cloth to protect yourself. From – what? The past? A life you will never know or know again?"
"With all due respect, sir, I do not see the necessity of justifying either my motives or my methods to you."
"Someone's university education is showing. A big Eastern law school, perhaps. There is the distinct flavor of the judicial about your vocabulary."
"The law, as I have seen all too clearly, is a useless notion in this frontier," Reid said. "But justice is a living, breathing thing whose province is the hearts and hands of men."
"Ah, yes, surely," Vega winked, pointing a spindly forefinger at his new acquaintance, "I believe I have at last discovered the Romantic in you, Señor Ranger."
Tonto, who had spent most of the evening as silent audience to this parlay of personality and ideology, spoke up, "Why do your eyes laugh, Old Fox, when my brother speaks from a true heart?"
"Please - Tonto, is it? -" The Indian nodded and Vega continued, "do not for a moment believe I doubt your 'brother's sincerity; if I smile it is only in bemusement at this young man's fire, so similar to that which blazed away in my own breast once upon a prehistoric time." And again he summed up The Ranger with a shrewd gaze, "Do you have children, señor? A son?"
The Ranger shifted uncomfortably on the exquisite brocade couch. "No. I-- My brother had a boy. Dan. Fatherless now."
"Children change you. They eclipse the drives of youth, they soften the heart and inspire a shocking protectiveness. Your children steal your purpose and, whether or not they truly deserve to, they become a purpose unto themselves. And what becomes of the mission?
"When my son Cesar was born I retired my blade and left California to struggle on without me. And when she was swallowed whole by your young and ravenous country I had no say. Though I did try not to place any unmerited blame at the feet of my wife and child, there were times I-" The elegant old Spaniard squeezed his worn and weathered temples in a thoroughly unamused gesture of regret. "At times it seemed my fight had been a long and pointless one."
The Ranger's Potawatomi brother spoke what he clearly intended to be words of comfort, "As long as your son honors his father, then your sacrifices were not in vain."
Only now did the old man laugh again, "My son grew into an entirely frivolous man. Strong? Oh yes. Formidable? Yes. Quick-witted? Absolutely. But frivolous through and through. My last trip to Madre España was solely to aid him in entwining himself with some general's daughter who, subsequent correspondence informs me, ceased amusing him some handful of months into their engagement. So it is scandal and quite probably a dark-eyed bastard running about Madrid cursing the name of Vega.
"But you are correct, my Indian friend. Whether it be through the acts themselves or the legends sprung from them, the cause is carried forward from generation to generation – or perhaps simply from man to man. It is your turn now, Señor Ranger. But I beg you not to lose yourself in bloody games of vengeance. It might serve to become a bit more of the hero the people already believe you to be. They are children too, and they learn by example."
His patience for the evening's formalities having finally dissipated, The Ranger stood his full height and insisted as politely as he could manage, "Don Diego, all of this talk of masks and causes, missions and children, this has nothing to do with what brought Tonto and myself here. We seek a man – a fugitive and killer – whom we have chased across four states."
But now an odd feeling was sweeping through him as he stood. His urgency seemed to cloud his thoughts, they had become thick and slow while his words seemed to tumble forward undirected. "We've heard that he and his men are encamped in the hills to the north--" The Ranger paused, alarmed at the buzzing that filled his head now. From behind him, he dimly registered his brother dropping his teacup to the floor. "Cavendish--", he struggled on, "This man we- Butch … Cavendi-"
Utter blackness followed as did the very distant sound of something heavy hitting a tile floor.
The sunlight of early morning came dappled through the cypress leaves and leaded glass of the hacienda's windows to abuse The Ranger's tender eyes. His brother, who had awoken only moments before, wordlessly held out a letter for him to read. The Ranger got to his feet, swayed momentarily, and quickly absorbed the words.
Do forgive the inhospitable exit, but I trust you both slept well and fully (those draughts were amongst the very kindest that my own loyal Bernardo ever mixed). I knew days before you arrived who you were and whom it was you sought. Unfortunately, your quarry knew this as well and has been lying in ambush since last sundown. Though I do not doubt that the pair of you would have acquitted yourselves with distinction in any melee you might have happened upon, I felt the need to remove you from this particular snare. They are expecting the two of you riding from the south and not a shadow swooping in from behind their backs and under their noses. Humor an old fox and come collect these tokens of my esteem. From one masked man to another.
Pausing only to replace his Friar's costume with the gray and dusty vestments of the ghosts of Bryant's Gap, The Ranger mounted his brilliant white horse and, with his brother ever at his side, rode hard for the trail Vega had marked at the bottom of his letter.
Barely four miles sloping gently upward into the hills, they came upon a narrow outcropping lined with scrub brush and a few trees. This, they knew instantly, was the spot where Cavendish and his men would have lain in wait for them. Vega had been right, in the dark of night, following blindly along this path, the two of them could have been easily picked off yards before their trained senses would have been alerted. Dismounting, The Ranger's brother indicated the trample of dry yellow grass that spoke of a recent struggle. The Ranger nodded and was in the process of hopping to the ground himself when they both heard a muffled groan from nearby.
Scrabbling up the rise, The Ranger and his brother met a remarkable scene. Within this clearing, not more than three yards across, they found the kicked over scorch of a former campfire, a scattering of discarded firearms, a string of tired horses tethered to a nearby tree, and five unwashed and bloody men hogtied and unconscious on the ground. Only one was beginning to stir and it was the one whose face had haunted the blazing, smoky picture shows that were all the man once called Reid knew of dreaming anymore. Kneeling over him, The Ranger could see the clotting, skin-deep scar across the man's chest carved with three elegant sword strokes. The letter Z.
Cavendish's bloodshot eyes rolled vaguely before focusing on The Ranger, something between a sneer and a gasp flickered across his face.
"First the old man and now you," he spat. "I must be the prettiest gal at the masquerade ball. You wanna dance now? Huh, spook? Y'all just cut me loose an' I'll be more than happy t-"
The Ranger drove his fist into Cavendish's jaw with a lightning pop. The outlaw just rolled his head back around, letting a string of bloody drool dangle from his lower lip.
Cavendish gave no struggle as The Ranger hauled him to his feet, gloved hands gripping his stubbly throat. His voice working its way out in a liquid gurgle, "You know what I call a man hides his face behind a mask, don't you? Same thing I call a man sends one ol' Meskin' with a pigsticker t'do his fightin' for him. I call that man a coward."
A fearsome rage churned inside the masked man, but he staunched it, bit back hard and replied through locked teeth, "One old man seems to have been more than enough for the likes of you, Butch."
One of Cavendish's men, a Kansas gunman named "Sweetwater Slim," was also awake now and, as Tonto righted him, he offered with wide, wondering eyes, "You couldn't see him! He was so fast an' he just – he just sprung up outta th' dark! And he was laughin' the whole time! He just laughed!"
But it was Cavendish who laughed now, a low, mirthless chuckle. "Yeah, the ol' boy worked us over but good, but I don't think he was laughin' so much by the time it was all over. No sir. I left him a little something to remember me by – one .38 slug to the gut!"
This time his laugh was cut short by The Ranger bending him forward to receive a knee hard in the belly. Cavendish hit the dirt, floundering with his wrists and ankles still tied and all the air suddenly gone from his lungs. The Ranger had lost all semblance of his usual stoic demeanor and was now kicking the fallen outlaw hard enough to send him scooting back a couple of feet with each contact. Nearby, his Potawatomi brother watched without judgment until The Ranger, his face still twisted in fury, relented, sagging forward with his hands on his knees and his breath coming heavy and ragged.
With Cavendish and his men strapped like four bedrolls across a pair of their horses, Reid and his brother made for Hacienda De La Vega once more. Though they were smart enough to not take Cavendish at his word, they also refused to discount it entirely.
Upon reaching the grounds, The Ranger left Tonto to watch their captives and stole inside the crumbling manse. He called out for Don Diego but received no response. The rooms he passed through seemed more empty than empty, as if they were already in mourning. It was in the master bedroom that Reid found the only clue as to the fate of the master of the house – a trail of blood from the windowsill to the large fireplace. A trail that ended just there with a final, mysterious bloody handprint upon the mantelpiece. Nothing else.
After relating the news to his brother, the two mounted their steeds and started immediately for Texas, turning their backs on the setting sun and riding for morning.
Excerpt from Reid's journals:
"October 28th, 1875. Cavendish is in the Waco jail, awaiting trial for multiple crimes, including murder - but not the murders of six Texas Rangers that left no witnesses save one dead man who gave up the grave.
When I woke this morning, the notion suddenly occurred, 'It's over. It's all over.' I gave momentary thought to the fantasies of a wife, a home, children and a life of comfort and small challenges, small worries, small victories. The man I used to be thought of these goals frequently, but that was before.
My shoulder is aching dully as I write this, but that nags at me not nearly so much as the doubt that I am now a man adrift. Without purpose. But I reflect on all the people out there whose lives are being torn asunder by men every ounce as bad as Cavendish, and then Don Diego's words echo back to me. Perhaps I can make this mask represent something more than a hiding place. Perhaps I can become the hero they already think me to be. And perhaps it wouldn't hurt to flash the people a smile now and again."