16.  TRIAL OF DEATH

 
     The sky above was brilliant blue, and the air cool but clean, washed by the previous evening's rain and scented with the fragrance of damp pine.  Felipe de la Vega inhaled an intoxicating breath as he stretched on the back of his pinto pony.
     The morning had all the promise of a new beginning, appropriate for the new year.  The young man scanned the panorama of California countryside:  gently rolling hills, pasture, valleys, and trees.  Parche picked up his pace again at the gentle squeeze from the knees of the man who had trained him from a colt.  To the southeast he galloped easily, traversing several miles until they approached a drier, more rugged landscape with rocky gorges and sandstone cliffs.  De la Vega pulled up and checked his bearings.  Yes, there was the spot at which he always met his Indian friend.  But no one waited for him by the large rock.  The rider sidled his pony down the ravine to approach the monolith, mentally reviewing the meeting arrangements the two had set up.  He was certain this was the right day, the right time, the right place.  Looking around the area, his dark eyes carefully searched for any sign of human presence.  He found none.
     A sixth sense prickled the back of his neck, an alerting that he was not alone.  He swung around again quickly, still seeing nothing, but the eerie silence had unsettled him.  He weighed the desire to call out to his friend against the compulsion to run, and decided in favor of the former.
     "Hola!  Blackfeather!" he called out hoarsely, but as loudly as he was able.  The sound of his own voice bounced off the rocks as he listened for a response.  The wind whispered past him, the only other sound in that desolate place.  He shouted a second time and again waited for the echoes to die away.  This time from across the ravine came the faintest stirring, as light as the ruffle of a butterfly's wing.  Felipe hesitated only a moment, then proceeded warily to the other side.
     Parche advanced slowly as his rider's eyes darted this way and that searching for the source of the sound.  It could have been a rabbit, squirrel, or bird.  Yet the pony's ears pricked up; he had heard or smelled something and was as cautious as his master.  A sudden scraping from the rocks on his left snapped de la Vega's head around.  He urged the pony that direction, then dismounted for a closer look.  Between the boulders lay a prostrate form face down.  Felipe knelt next to the young brave clad in buckskin.  The Indian coughed and trembled.
     "Can I help you?  Are you hurt?" asked the young Mexican urgently.
     "F-Felipe?"  The man tried to raise himself on shaky arms to look at his rescuer.
     "Blackfeather!"
     The Shumash warrior clutched Felipe's coat with twitching hands.  His eyes were frantic, his skin blotchy, his face etched with agony.
     "F-Failed test," he stuttered.  "S-Silver water."

     Don Alejandro de la Vega was in the courtyard of his hacienda, pruning back the growth from last summer's roses.  He lifted his head as his younger son galloped through the gates.
     "You're back early; I thought you'd be gone several hours," he greeted, but the words died on his lips.  Felipe, breathless from a hard ride, was helping an Indian down from the pony.  The silver-haired man dropped his pruning shears and ran to assist.
     "Is it Blackfeather?"  His son nodded as Alejandro got under the other arm of the brave.  The legs of the young warrior collapsed as he lost consciousness.  "Whoa, he's out!  Help me carry him, Felipe.  Into the parlor--we'll put him on the couch."  Together the two men struggled to get their limp burden inside.  After placing him carefully on the sofa, the senior de la Vega got his first good look at the brave's face.
     "What on earth happened to him?" he questioned.
     "I don't know; the only thing he said didn't make sense.  I found him on the ground near our rendezvous.  I didn't know what else to do, so I brought him home.  Can we send for the doctor?"
     As his father nodded, Felipe's older brother Diego came from the back hallway, his left arm supported by a sling.  Seeing his family and the guest, he quickly joined them.
     "Blackfeather!  What's wrong with him, Felipe?"
     "I don't know," he repeated.  "Can you help him?"
     "Let's find out if he's been injured."  Diego examined the head and inert body of the Indian.  "No sign of any wound.  Not a bruise or mark on him."  The brave twitched convulsively, and his eyes shot open, staring blankly at them all.
     "Blackfeather, you're at Felipe's home.  What happened to you?" Diego addressed him in the Shumash tongue.  A desperate, fearful expression returned a kind of sanity to the wild face.  Trembling uncontrollably, he tried to shape words, but only guttural sounds issued from his throat.  With a final violent shudder, he sank back into the cushions, quite still.  The tall caballero pressed his ear to the warrior's chest, listening for a heartbeat.  Holding their breaths, Felipe and Alejandro waited for his verdict.  A long minute passed, then Diego sat back on his heels.  He did not need to say anything; they knew.

     A solemn party of three traveled toward the Shumash camp.  Felipe drove the wagon bearing the carefully wrapped body of his friend while his brother and father rode beside him.
     "What are you thinking, Felipe?" asked Diego.
     The young man blinked away tears.  "I'm remembering how I met Blackfeather.  How he was jealous of me when Kenona and I liked each other."
     "Then you fought with spears at Big Rock and beat him.  He respected you after that."
     "In the end, Kenona married Pedro Lladro, whom she met at the mission school.   But Blackfeather and I became friends, learned from each other, and enjoyed each other's company.  His wasn't a natural death," stressed the young man.  "Someone or something killed him.  We have to find out."
     "That won't be easy.  Tribes are close-knit, especially against outsiders," his father warned.  "I'm afraid all we'll be able to do is return Blackfeather's body to his people for Indian burial."
     "We can at least ask questions," Diego countered.  "This reminds me too much of the Carbajal brothers.  No wound could mean poison.  If it's anything that's a danger to the pueblo, we need to know.  Do you know exactly where the camp is now, Felipe?"
     "I think so.  We should find them in the valley by the hot springs pool."
     "Why on earth would they camp there?" Alejandro exclaimed.  "That place stinks, and the water's undrinkable."
     "The smell comes from sulfur that's distilled by the springs.  But the mineral water is regarded as a tonic, even having restorative, curative powers.  The Indians believe it's a place of special magic," informed Diego.  "And there is also fresh water nearby."
     As the men approached the valley, two braves stepped out of the trees, blocking the path and indicating for the white men to stop.  Diego dismounted and spoke to the advance guard in their own language.  He brought the Indians to the wagon and uncovered Blackfeather's face.  The stoic tribesmen gave indication neither of dismay nor alarm.  One spoke a single sharp word and indicated a direction with his hand.
     "Follow," Diego told his family briefly as he mounted again.  More than a mile into the valley they trailed the braves until they came within a camp of teepees.  Their escorts again indicated for them to stop.  One of the men went into the nearest tent and emerged shortly with a strangely-dressed older man.  The de la Vegas dismounted, and Diego strode forward to exchange formal greetings in behalf of his family.  Then proceeded a long dialogue between the caballero and the Indian, the former making repeated inquiries which evidently were not being answered to his satisfaction.  At last the older Indian gave orders to the two escorts, who reluctantly removed the body of Felipe's friend from the back of the wagon.  The older man lifted his hand in farewell; the interview was over.  Diego returned the gesture and rejoined his family.
     "Let's go," he said, turning his mount.  The de la Vegas left the valley, with the escort accompanying them back to the place where they had first been intercepted.  The two braves then disappeared, melting into the trees.
     "All right, Diego, what did that strange man tell you?  Was he the chief, Kenona's father?" asked the senior de la Vega.
     "No.  Kenona's father died three weeks ago.  The Indian with whom I spoke is the medicine man, Swift Hawk.  He's in charge until the next chief is chosen.  As for Blackfeather, I was stonewalled.  Did you notice something strange?  No one in the village seemed surprised about his death.  They should have been asking questions of us; instead it was the other way around."
     "I guess it's an Indian matter; they will handle it themselves," stated his father.  Diego glanced toward his brother, who drove the wagon with a grim set face.  I doubt that's the end of it, he thought.

     Felipe was grieving deeply and silently that evening, and his brother watched him, sympathetic.  After their father retired, Diego spoke.
     "What are you going to do?"
     "I'm going back to the camp in the morning."  When he got no response, he stated in a flat voice, "I must know; don't you see?  Maybe I won't be able to find out any more than you did, but I have to try."
     His brother nodded.  "All right.  But I go with you," he said quietly.
     "I don't think you should; you're still recovering from that gunshot wound.  Today's ride was hard on you, wasn't it?"
     "Yes," he admitted, "but we're a team.  I won't interfere with your handling of it, but let's at least investigate together."
     The next morning, the two men rode out after breakfast.  Passing by the area where Felipe had found his friend the previous day, a young Shumash girl sat on a boulder, seemingly waiting for their return.  She appeared to be about ten or eleven years old, her leather clothes and dark, flowing hair in perfect harmony with her surroundings.  Her apprehensive little face was in contrast to her impassive tribespeople.  She held up her hand, indicating her desire to speak with the strangers, and climbed down from her perch.
     "Are you the man who found Blackfeather?" she asked timidly of Felipe.  He nodded.  "How did he die?  Please tell me."  The younger man answered passably in her own tongue, much to his brother's surprise.  Her face crumpled, and she ground her fists into her eyes.  "Then Strong Bear will die, too.  There is no hope."
     Felipe dismounted and knelt beside her.  "Who is Strong Bear, little one?  And why is there no hope?" he asked gently.
     "My big brother," she sniffed.  "He will undergo the test to be chief when the sun sets.  Now three braves have failed; they've all died.  Swift Hawk says none of them were worthy."
     Diego dismounted also and approached the girl.  "What is the test for chief?" he asked.
     The girl lifted tearful black eyes to his face.  "He must drink the silver water.  If he is the right leader for our people, he will live."
     "Silver water?  That's what Blackfeather said before he died!" recalled Felipe.  "But what is it?  Do you mean water from the hot springs?"
     "No," the girl shook her head emphatically.  "The silver water comes from the rock.  It is beautiful and magic.  It can tell what is in a man's heart."
     Diego spoke again, "Can you bring us some of this rock?  Perhaps if we see it, we will know how to help your brother."  The child looked at them uncertainly, then nodded.  "Can you run secretly and quickly like a mouse?"  Again she assented.  "Go then; we'll wait here for you."  The young Indian girl slipped through the boulders and out of sight.
     "Water from a rock?  It sounds like a Bible story," commented Felipe.
     "Yes, except that water brought life; this water brings death."  They waited for more than an hour until the maid again appeared, breathless.  In her hand was a reddish chunk which she held out to Diego.  He turned it over, examining it carefully.
     "It's an ore, volcanic origin," he said to his brother in Spanish.  "Not surprising to find something like this near a thermal springs.  Feel how heavy."  He handed it to Felipe, who weighed the rock with his hands.  "I think I know what it might be, though I've never seen a piece of cinnabar before.  Let's test it in the laboratory."  He turned to the girl and bent down to her level.  "Do not give up hope."  He smiled kindly, and an answering smile crept to her lips.  Mounting their horses, the caballeros rode north toward home.

     "What we need to do," said Diego, arranging beakers, funnels, and vials on the laboratory table, "is heat the rock and see if anything separates from it.  Open the cave's back door; we'll probably need extra ventilation for this experiment."  So saying, he placed the ore in a closed container.  From the lid a long narrow glass tube came out, spiraling downward into a beaker.  Beneath the container with the rock he placed a small alcohol-fed burner.  The men sat down to watch carefully.  After forty-five minutes passed, Felipe stirred restlessly.
     "I don't think we're getting anywhere."
     "Patience.  Look here at the tube.  Have you noticed it's slightly silvery?"
     The younger man looked closely.  "You're right.  But what is that distillation?  Silver?"
     "No, something better.  More valuable, more interesting, and far more deadly.  It's called mercury, the only metal to stay in liquid form under a wide range of temperatures."  Another hour went by, and Diego tapped the tube with his fingernail.  The condensed vapor beaded together to form small shiny droplets, which rolled down the tube into the beaker.  There they bounced together and apart with dizzying speed as Felipe tipped the glass from side to side.
     "Try to touch it," his brother suggested.
     The younger man pushed and poked at the beads of metal, which always eluded his finger.  "This is the best thing we've ever made!" he pronounced.
     Diego laughed and agreed.  "In my chemistry classes at the university, we all loved to play with the mercury.  Its unique properties make it endlessly fascinating to work with.  Some beneficial uses for it have already been discovered in the fields of medicine and agriculture, and I suspect science has only scratched the surface of the possibilities.  But like most metallic poisons, it attacks the central nervous system--including the heart and mind, bringing delusions, convulsions, and in a large enough dose, death."
     "So this is what killed Blackfeather and the other braves," said Felipe, setting the beaker on the table.
     "Yes.  The tribe has obviously been distilling their own supply of mercury from the nearby ore, and because of its distinct characteristics has endowed it with magical powers.  The question is, does Swift Hawk know this is poisonous and did he start the superstitions to rid himself of competition to be chief, or is he as taken in as the rest of the tribe?"  He pondered, then the corner of his mouth turned up.  "I think I know a way to find out."

     Two men crept closer to the Indian camp as the shadows stretched in the setting sun.  The masked man in black whispered to his partner, who held a crossbow, "Can you make a good shot from here?"  His brother nodded.  "I need to get closer to follow up your surprise."
     The men, women, and children of the tribe began to gather in front of the medicine man's tent.  The bizarre Indian emerged and surveyed the villagers with steady eyes.  He held up his hand to indicate he was about to speak, and a hush fell over the crowd.
     "The duty to find the next chief for the Shumash is still heavy upon me.  Who is he who seeks to lead our people in this time of great trials?"  A young bronzed brave stepped forward.  Swift Hawk gestured to the man behind him, who brought forth a small bowl and placed it in the medicine man's hands.  "Let the silver water determine the strength and heart of this warrior."  He gave the bowl to Strong Bear, who raised it to his lips.  Without warning an arrow shot by, dashing the bowl to the ground and spilling its contents.  In the aftershock of the tribe's astonishment, Zorro ran between the medicine man and the brave.
     "Hold, my friends!  Strong Bear, you will certainly die if you drink the silver water; there is no magic in it.  It is a deadly poison which will kill old and young, men and women, strong and weak, leaders and followers."  The Indians drew back, murmuring their dismay at the hero's words.
     "This is a Shumash matter, Zorro.  Do not interfere," Swift Hawk commanded.
     "To see your people destroyed for a wrong belief is a great sorrow to me," responded the masked man.  "But let us devise a better test for the silver water.  Let more be brought."  The older Indian again indicated to his subordinate to bring another bowl.  When it arrived, the man in black took it and spoke loudly enough for all to hear.
     "Swift Hawk, you've been entrusted by the old chief to pick his successor.  To do that wisely, your own heart must be strong and true.  Are you willing to take the test yourself and drink the silver water?"  His words met with voices of approval.
     The medicine man held out his hands and received the bowl.  "I am."  The Indian without hesitation raised the bowl to drink.  But the masked man reacted quickly, wrestling it from his grasp.
     "Enough have died already.  I'm convinced now that you did not knowingly give poison to the braves.  Do you have a horse, Swift Hawk?"  The Indian nodded.  "Is he a good horse, loyal and courageous?"  When the medicine man nodded again, Zorro said, "Have the horse brought here."  When the stallion arrived, the hero told the village, "It's better to test the silver water on an animal than a person.  Swift Hawk, feed this to your horse."  The older man took the bowl slowly but did not move toward his mount.  He shook his head.
     "I cannot.  I believe what you say about the silver water, Zorro, and I would drink it myself before giving it to Fleet-of-Foot."  He handed the bowl back to the masked man.  "When we first discovered the water in the rocks, the old chief said it was magic water.  On his deathbed, he asked that I use it to find the next chief.  The braves who died drinking it were all good men.  Each would have been a strong leader for the tribe.  When they died, I wondered if the silver water was a good test."  His shoulders sagged in defeat.  "How do I choose a chief now?"
     The masked man looked at the villagers.  "There is much wisdom in your people and still many good braves--Strong Bear here, for instance.  Why not let each person have a say in the choosing of the next chief, with you as the final voice?"
     The older man considered.  "You have spoken well.  It will be done."
     "One more thing.  The silver water has other uses.  Continue to collect it; someday the white man will pay you."  He raised his hand and exchanged farewells with the tribe.

     The following afternoon, the hacienda had a small visitor.  Alejandro opened the door and beheld a young Shumash girl holding a fistful of flowers.  She indicated she wished to speak with someone inside the house, and the senior de la Vega showed her in.
     "Felipe, Diego," he called.  His sons entered the room.  The girl shyly approached the younger man and held out her bouquet.
     "This is for you," she spoke in her own language.  "I know somehow you helped my brother.  The tribe has chosen him to be the chief."  She took off the bear teeth necklace she was wearing and handed it to Felipe also.  "This is for Zorro, if you should see him.  Tell him Little Dove thanks him."
     Felipe smiled, "I will, Little Dove.  I am glad for you and Strong Bear.  May I take you home?"
     She shook her head.  "My legs are strong.  I will run."  They saw her to the gate, and the girl made good her word.
     Alejandro joined them.  "What was that all about?" he questioned.
     "I owed a debt to her tribe for Blackfeather's sake," his younger son answered.  "It's been paid."
 

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