The Hidalgo’s Domain

 
  
The light took Bradshaw by surprise. He hung suspended in the water, moving his fins just enough to maintain his depth, wondering how he could have miscalculated so badly. The water had a beautiful rich tint to it, a silky, sensuous blue, not unlike waters Bradshaw had dove in the Caribbean. But why here, he wondered. There was a spring five miles further to the west, a small one that scarcely warranted a name. But here the network of caves ran uninterrupted through miles of porous limestone. No natural light ever penetrated these waters. Bradshaw should not have breached the surface till he returned to his original point of entry again. This was not his point of entry.
 
Bradshaw drifted upwards, almost without being aware of it. The walls of the spring did not slope at an angle. Rather they rose in sheer vertical ascent. It was as though some vast force, some enormous instrument of destruction, had punched a hole in the mantle of the earth.
 
The water was clear and crystalline, so much so that the light seemed to pass through it unimpeded. There wasn’t a trace of sediment or a hint of murkiness. But for the water’s silky caress along his skin Bradshaw could not have testified to there being anything there at all.
 
Bradshaw breached the surface, slipped the regulator from his mouth. He pushed his mask up on his forehead. A tall stand of cypress stood along one side of the spring, bearing long, graceful streamers of Spanish moss. A thick hammock of oak, magnolia and palm hugged the banks of the stream leading away from the spring. Broad-leafed creepers and vines ascended the trunks of the trees and festooned their branches with a gaudy display of color. A heron stalked the water’s edge, searching for fish. It was only then, watching the bird, that Bradshaw recognized something was amiss. The heron’s movements were a little too . . . precise. Its beak was a measure too sharp and the look in its eyes, the hunger, too intense. It left Bradshaw with the impression that someone had seasoned the soup a little too strongly.
 
“You really shouldn’t be here, you know.”
 
The words, if, in fact, they were words, seemed merely a reflection of Bradshaw’s own thought process, not something apart or distinct from it. He nodded. “You might have exercised a little more caution and care.” Again, this only confirmed Bradshaw’s own train of thought. Apart from the element of reproach it contained, the words echoed Bradshaw’s sentiments almost exactly. “Though there’s nothing to be done about it now.” This was not part of Bradshaw’s inner monologue. It caused him to realize that somebody was speaking to him.
 
Bradshaw jerked around, thrashing at the water in panic. A man standing on the shore wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a serape draped around his shoulders waved to Bradshaw. He was short and wiry and looked as though he had spent much time out in the sun, lending his skin a rough, weathered appearance, though still a young man.
 
“Come ashore, why don’t you?” he called. “You really don’t want to stay in the spring too long. Too much of a good thing is, how do you say, not a good thing?”
 
Bradshaw paddled over to the side of the spring and climbed out. He began stripping off his gear: tank, vest, regulator, mask and fins. He peeled out of his Farmer Johns and was left standing there in his bathing suit.
 
“Well, you’re English by the looks of you. No harm in that.” Javier lent the serape to Bradshaw that he might have something with which to cover himself. “Still, I shall have to take you to see the Hidalgo. The Hidalgo will wish to interview you, as he does all who enter his realm. I am Javier Solamente.” The man paused, his eyes thoughtful. “Or, that is, I was once Javier Solamente. But that was long ago. Too long some should say and I would not be disposed to gainsay them.” Javier gestured at the discarded scuba gear. “What manner of outfit is this?”
 
“I was spelunking,” Bradshaw said.
 
“Come again?”
 
“Spelunking. I was cave diving.”
 
“Ah, cave diving. No wonder. What, Russian roulette wasn’t exciting enough for you?”
 
“There’s nothing inherently dangerous in cave diving. It’s no different than any other sport. As long as you keep your wits about you, you’ll make out fine.”
 
“Perhaps that is true. But perhaps there are dangers you do not apprehend. A man must always take into account the unexpected.”
 
Bradshaw turned suddenly, watched in horror as an enormous dark form serpentined through the underbrush. It slid into the spring and disappeared. Bradshaw stared at the bubbles rising to the surface, mouth agape. “What the devil was that?” he demanded.
 
“That would be a python.”
 
“But it must be sixteen, eighteen feet long,” Bradshaw protested.
 
“Nearer to twenty, I should say. And every inch of it a python.”
 
Pythons infested the Everglades, Bradshaw knew. But he had never seen one this far north before. Or this big. “What is it doing here, in the spring?”
 
“Hunting. The python has to eat, too, you know. Just like every other animal.”
 
“Yes, but what is it hunting?”
 
“I believe it had its eye on. . .” Javier tiptoed forward, peered down into the water, “an alligator.”
 
The spring erupted in a great geyser of water. An alligator, pale underbelly gleaming in the sunlight, leapt clear of the surface in a desperate bid to escape. The python had wrapped itself around the gator’s abdomen and hind legs, attempting to throttle it. The pair crashed back into the water and began a churning, rolling free-for-all, stirring the surface into a white froth. The gator struck out with its claws, thrashing its tail from side to side in a frenzy. The python’s immense coils of muscle constricted ever tighter. Each strove for leverage in a vicious, no holds barred fight to the death.
 
Bloody foam issued from the gator’s jaws. Its sides heaved. It arched its head back and clawed at empty air. There was a sickening crack of bone as the gator’s spine shattered, the sound echoing across the water like a rifle shot. The alligator slumped, limp and lifeless, and the python began towing its trophy toward the shore.
 
“The pythons are a shade aggressive, perhaps.” Javier lifted his shoulders in a gesture of resignation though the look on his face was one of approval. “But these gators are a nuisance. They need to be held in check.” Then, seeing the near approach of the snake, Javier suggested, “Perhaps we ought to grant the python some breathing space. I will take you to see the Hidalgo. He will be most eager to learn of your arrival.”
 
Bradshaw took one look at the distended form of the gator, itself a good thirteen feet, and blanched. He followed quickly behind Javier.
 
They passed along a path which only barely managed to fend off the encroachment of the surrounding jungle. The plants contended for every square inch of space, knotting and interweaving to create a thick, impenetrable mass. The trees were broader and taller, the ferns lusher, than any Bradshaw had seen before. He was accustomed to Florida where plants grew at such a rate that it was almost possible to watch it happen. But these, they exhibited a strange vigor, an acute thirst for life that was at once remarkable and disconcerting. Nowhere did Bradshaw notice any diseased or dying plants. Nowhere did he discern leaves spotted by fungus or canker. All were marked by a pronounced vitality.
 
One aloe grew almost to the size of a bison. The thorns along its branches glinted like newly honed metal. Bradshaw brushed against one and it opened up his arm as though it had been a razor. Blood poured down. The laceration was so extreme that Bradshaw was certain he would need stitches. He held up his arm, horrorstruck.
 
Javier glanced at it, shrugged as though it were a matter of little moment. “Do not concern yourself. It will pass.” Bradshaw was about to protest when Javier broke off a leaf from a nearby plant and slapped it over the wound. “Hold that in place,” he said. “The bleeding will stop presently.”
 
Not only stop! The wound closed up within a matter of seconds, leaving no trace. To all appearances it might never have happened at all. What miraculous medicinal qualities these leaves must possess, what a strange, exotic land, so similar to Florida and yet – so very different.
 
“How is it that I have not heard of this country before?” Bradshaw was deeply puzzled. “It lies so near and yet none speak of it. There is no record of any kind nor any map. None of which I am aware. And the Hidalgo, I had not heard of him, either. A man of such influence and authority, who commands such respect, I should have thought his fame would be of equal extent. Tell me: you work for the Hidalgo, am I correct in assuming that?”
 
“All obey the Hidalgo, all who know what is good for them. He is not a man to be crossed or to trifle with. Some few have found this out to their regret, have been paid out with death as their portion. The remainder need only be reminded of this.” Bradshaw mulled this over in silence. A true tyrant this Hidalgo, whoever he might be. But how had he acquired such power, what leverage did he hold that led others to submit humbly and of their own free will?
 
“This Hidalgo, has he a name?” Bradshaw asked at last.
 
“He has indeed. But it would be better if you were to ask that of him yourself. I will not divulge it. That is the prerogative of the Hidalgo. He might answer or not, as it best pleases him.”
 
Bradshaw did not pursue the matter. This Hidalgo had them all eating out of his hand. Bradshaw must bury his impatience. He must withhold his questions till he met the Hidalgo in person.
 
A hundred yards further on the jungle opened out, gave way to an expansive grove of orange trees. The trees were just coming into bloom, bedecked with hundreds of white florets. The smell of the blossoms was so heady and intoxicating that they fairly made Bradshaw’s head reel. Here, too, the trees were incredibly lush, free of disease and imperfection, unlike any Bradshaw had seen in all of Florida.
 
Passing through the grove they came to the house, the estate rather, modeled after the Moorish fashion, right out of ancient Salamanca. Above the entrance, carved in stone, was a coat of arms and, accompanying it, an inscription. The inscription was in Latin and, translated by Javier, read ‘Many years bring many cares’.
 
Inside, the house was furnished in a style to match the exterior, reflecting a sensibility of five centuries earlier at least. Yet it did not feel dated in any way. It merely demonstrated an exact fidelity to an era of Spanish history marked by conquest and the acquisition of a world empire. Looking at an exquisitely fashioned sideboard in the main dining area, Bradshaw realized with something like alarm that it was not a recreation but an original period piece. The Hidalgo was, indeed, an authentic Spanish grandee.
 
A figure moved in the shadows. Javier hurried forward. “Ah, Dona Teresa. I am most sorry to disturb you. But we have a guest, as you can see. I must notify the Hidalgo.”
 
“A guest?” The Dona’s voice was rich and finely modulated, bearing the barest trace of an accent. “We so rarely have guests.” The Dona stepped forward, offered Bradshaw her hand. She wore a dress of fashionable cut with elaborate ruffles of lace along the collar and cuffs. Her eyes were a deep, velvety black, sparkled with fierce vitality. Her hair, too, was jet black, coiffed in a fashion perfectly suited to her ensemble. She was quite the handsomest woman Bradshaw had ever set eyes on.
 
 “How have you come here, through what hardships and peril?” The Dona leaned toward Bradshaw, as though the two of them were intimate friends of long standing. “Were you alone at the outset – or were there others in your train?”
 
“There were few hardships and little peril.” Bradshaw would not exaggerate. “Or none that I recognized as such. Though as to finding my way back again, that is another matter. I cannot say whether it would be possible. Tell me . . .” Bradshaw stopped.
 
The Dona’s eyes had widened in surprise. “You will not find your way back again,” she stated. “Do not talk nonsense. To return is not to court death. It is to find it.”
 
“But I. . .”
 
A scuffing noise became audible in the hallway. Bradshaw turned. Standing at the entrance to the room was the Hidalgo. It could be no other. He wore elegant leather boots and a jacket embellished with gold brocade. His features were very sharp and distinct, infused with a recognition of who he was and of what he reckoned the world owed to him. He possessed that peculiar air of desperation which attended all who resided in this realm, human and animal alike. His eyes were the same shade as the Dona’s but fiercer, burning with an almost fanatic intensity.
 
“Come, we will not stand upon ceremony. It is not necessary that you bow.” The courtesy of the Hidalgo was that of the aristocrat and might turn to anger in the space of a heartbeat. “You come from La Florida, I am told. As did I, once. But it has changed since my day, by all accounts. You must tell me of your travels and of how you came to find your way here. In return, I shall make such poor recompense as I am able.”
 
It was the use of the phrase ‘La Florida’ which provided Bradshaw with the final clue. The identity of the man they called the Hidalgo could be denied no longer. The driving vitality of his person, the inner core of energy which seemed to burn at a rate not to be sustained, left little doubt. The Hidalgo had found his spring, after all. And, with it, the curse of eternal youth.
 
“Don Ponce de Leon,” Bradshaw greeted him and the great explorer basked in the rolling syllables of his name and the fame, or infamy as some might style it, which attended them.