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The Legend of Zorro
By Scott Ciencin
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Scott Ciencin
All right reserved.
San Mateo, California. 1850.
A very special bell tolled in the high reaches of Mission Santa Lucia. The bronze bell, cast in Peru and tuned to a strident minor chord, rang so hard that Brother Felipe imagined it swinging clear of its campanario and diving headlong into the swelling mass of visitors thronging the street below.
A pair of young wash women giggled as the balding, bleary-eyed Felipe raced past them from his private office, where the brother was known to catch an additional siesta from time to time. He was headed toward a low stairwell on the mission's ground floor. So was a rush of water from the mouth of a gargoyle which flowed into a trough next to the sweating ladies as they washed the mission's laundry, spattering their cow-elk hide blankets, aprons and petticoats -- along with the slippery bottom stone step. With surprising grace, Felipe danced over the slick step and bolted up the stairs.
"Padre, are you not the friend of Senor Zorro, the one to whom the tolling of that bell is entrusted?" the bolder of the women called after him.
"Yes, who is ringing it, Felipe?" asked the other.
Who indeed, wondered the Franciscan missionary as he scurried up the steps. His thoughts fixed on one of the biggest troublemakers he knew. Joaquin, if it is you, it will be your hide I tan next!
He reached a landing and rushed through a busy workshop where shoes and children's toys were being made. A cloud of sawdust flew in Felipe's face, causing the brother to cough as the rich musk of well-tanned leather reached into his lungs. George Cook, a Native American man whose friends knew him as Laughing Coyote, grinned toothily and hummed El Cantico del Alba as Felipe bustled by. The devotional song about the Virgin Mary was sung every morning once all the people had risen, and everyone knew that was the often sleep-deprived Felipe's least favorite time in the world.
The bell tolled once more. That sound marked Mission life. Prayers, instruction, afternoon siestas, work, meals, and bedtime were all signaled by its ringing.
Felipe huffed indignantly and pulled sharply at the fold of his brown wool habit, making the hood resting at the back of his neck scratch him like a spider's fuzzy leg. He adjusted his cincture as he hurried to another set of stairs, the three knots expertly tied from decades of practice, one to remind him of his vow of poverty, the other two chastity and obedience. His rosary and cross dangled from the cincture as he picked up steam once more, the pouch he carried banging against his side, weighted by his prayer book and personal journal.
From the distance sounded the squalling wooden wheels of a carreta -- an ox-cart used by hide and tallow traders to transport their wares. Felipe was well aware that although today was indeed a momentous day for the people of California, those same people still had to make a living.
The bell tolled again as Felipe mounted the last set of stairs, an orange-striped tabby cat brushing his leg. Cats were as plentiful in the missions as tales of hauntings. They were necessary and so too were the little access doors they had in every room. Without them, rats would overrun the place. And with the thought of rats . . .
Joaquin, you little scamp, I love you as if you were my own, but if it is you again? thought Felipe, picturing the dark-haired ten-year-old hauling on the rope in the belfry. As he climbed, a little out of breath, his head now hanging low, Felipe nearly stumbled over a young neophyte in a cotton jacket sprawled on a high step, snoring blissfully, oblivious to the ringing bell a dozen feet over his head. A bowl next to the snoozing man sported the remains of an early and austere meal: fruit, soup, milk and bread. Life here was not one of sangrias and fandangos. A few marked playing cards drifted from the sleeping man's sleeve. As the best card player in the mission, Felipe noted this man's face well, and vowed never to play a hand against him.
Felipe finally cleared the landing -- and found himself peering at the wide-eyed, well-scrubbed face of the mission's youngest and most skittish brother.
"Brother Ignacio?" asked Felipe.
The young monk spun, the bell rope flying through his twitchy pale fingers as he faced the mission's curator. Its last toll was now a dull echo.
"What are you doing?" questioned Felipe, struggling to keep his tone mild.
"Five rings, Fray Felipe," explained the short, roundfaced Brother Ignacio earnestly. "To summon Zorro in case there's trouble."
Fray Felipe. Not Brother Felipe, as it might be said in English, the language they had all promised to speak from now on. Ignacio was an educated man, a fresh recruit from Felipe's alma mater on the Isle of Mallorca. Yet he could be so thick upon occasion.
I come to serve, I come to serve, Felipe chanted in his mind, begging the Lord for patience.
Releasing his frustration, Felipe gently patted Ignacio's shoulder. "If I know Zorro . . . he's already here."
Leaning closer to the campanario, Felipe peered into the sea of excited faces below. Many looked up expectantly, as if Felipe might tell them why Zorro was being summoned, if some threat they could not yet see was moving among them. Felipe shooed them back to what they had been doing. His searching gaze scoured the wide street, which swarmed with hundreds who formed long lines to cast their votes today. Red, white and blue flags decorated the plaza. Patriotic buntings flapped in the afternoon breeze near a banner that demanded, "VOTE TODAY!"
The orange glow of the waning yet still bright sun told them that the voting would end soon, and the voice of the California people would at last be heard.
"Freedom," Felipe whispered, crossing himself.
Excerpted from The Legend of Zorro by Scott Ciencin Copyright © 2005 by Scott Ciencin.
Excerpted by permission.
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