A few days later Captain Alejandro de la Vega galloped into the mission. He leaped from his horse, tore off his heavy uniform jacket, his neckerchief, and his hat, and thrust his head into the trough where women were rinsing their wash. His horse was covered with foam; it had carried its rider many leagues, along with all the gear of the Spanish dragoon: lance, sword, heavy leather shield, and carbine, plus saddle. De la Vega was accompanied by a couple of men and several packhorses loaded with supplies. Padre Mendoza rushed out to welcome the captain with open arms, but when he saw that he had brought only two trail-weary soldiers as depleted as their mounts, he could not disguise his frustration.
"I am sorry, Padre. I have no available soldiers other than these two good men," the captain apologized as he wiped his face on his shirtsleeve. "The rest of the detachment stayed behind in Pueblo de los Angeles, which is also threatened by the uprisings. "
"May God come to our aid, since Spain does not," the priest grumbled.
"Do you know how many Indians will attack?"
"Not many here know how to count accurately, Captain, but according to my scouts it might be as many as five hundred."
"That means no more than a hundred and fifty, Padre. We can defend ourselves. Who can we count on?" asked Alejandro de la Vega.
"On me, for oneI was a soldier before I was a priestand on two other missionaries, who are young and brave. We have three soldiers who live here, assigned to the mission. We also have a few muskets and carbines, ammunition, two swords, and the gunpowder we use in the quarry. "
"How many converts?"
"My son, let us be realistic. Most of the Indians will not fight against their own kind," the missionary explained. "At most, I can count on a half dozen who were brought up here, and a few women who can help us load our weapons. I do not want to risk the lives of my neophytes, Captainthey're like children. I look after them as if they were my own. "
"Very well, Padre. Shoulders to the wheel, and may God help us. From what I see, the church is the strongest building in the mission. We will defend ourselves there," said the captain.
For the next few days, no one rested in San Gabriel; even small children were set to work. Padre Mendoza, who was expert in reading the human soul, knew he could not trust the loyalty of the neophytes once they saw themselves surrounded by free Indians. He was disquieted when he caught a glimpse of a savage gleam in a worker's eye and witnessed the unwilling compliance with his orders: the neophytes dropped stones, burst bags of sand, got tangled in the ropes, and overturned tubs of tar. Forced by circumstances, Padre Mendoza violated his own rule of compassion and, without a twinge of doubt, as punishment sentenced two Indians to the stocks and dealt out ten lashes to a third. Then he had the door to the single women's lodge reinforced with heavy planks; it was sound as a prison, constructed so that the most daring could not get out to wander in the moonlight with their lovers. A solid, windowless building of thick adobe, it had the additional advantage that it could be bolted from outside with an iron bar and padlocks. That was where they locked up most of the male neophytes, shackled at the ankles to prevent them from collaborating with the enemy at the hour of battle.
"The Indians are afraid of us, Padre Mendoza. They think our magic is very powerful," said Captain de la Vega, patting the butt of his carbine.
"Believe me, Captain, these people know what firearms are, all right, though as yet they haven't discovered how they function. What the Indians truly fear is the cross of Christ," the missionary replied, pointing to the altar.
From Zorro by Isabel Allende. Copyright © 2005 by Isabel Allende. English-language copyright © HarperCollins Publishers.
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