Anvil of Iron
Diego kept up his act until after the servants had welcomed him and his father home. He then went to his room to 'rest'. The act was getting somewhat tedious, but having a broken collarbone would afford him a bit of cover for at least a month longer. By that time, no one, including Rodríguez, would doubt that Zorro, the real Zorro, was back, if he had ever been gone.
As soon as they had arrived, he had asked about Ania. He was not really surprised that she was not waiting to greet them. They had sent no message ahead, so it was likely that she was on her rancho at this midafternoon hour. He was disappointed to learn that she had been called away. Trying to hide his feelings as best he could, he thought, Surely, she will have left a message for me. He found himself pacing anxiously as he waited for Bernardo to come to his room.
When Bernardo finally arrived, Diego asked him for any details he could give him about Ania's trip. As he started to answer Diego's questions, Bernardo suddenly shook his head and closed his eyes. He tapped his forehead and swept his fingers outward in the gesture he used for something forgotten. He then gestured for Diego to remain where he was. Disappearing into the hidden room, Bernardo reappeared with a note in his hand. He laughed silently at the enthusiastic way his patrón reached for the note as soon as he caught sight of it.
Diego immediately sat on the edge of the bed to read. He stopped for a second as a whiff of the herbs Ania used in her hand lotion and on her hair rose from the folded sheets of paper. It was such a light fragrance that it was hardly noticeable after the first few minutes you were with her, yet was distinctive enough that he had only to get a small sniff of it for the sense of her to surround him. Diego smiled in amusement at himself on that. It does not take much to bring her to mind. I seem to think of little else. He could think of only one other time when he had been so affected and he had never thought he would feel this way again.
Quickly, he opened the note and read it. He read through it twice before he finally looked up with a smile as he refolded it. "Bernardo, everything just might work out for us if I could only be sure of her safety." His longing for Ania seemed to have grown far beyond what he ever thought it could be during the time they had been apart. The thought of further separation from her was almost unbearable, yet to keep her safe had to remain his main goal. He sighed.
Bernardo gestured his sign for Ania and then for Rodríguez as he mimed someone looking at something.
"Sí, I know," Diego frowned, nodding as he translated. "Rodríguez watches her. That concerns me greatly." He watched as Bernardo gestured about Ania in her casa and then moved his other hand around that gesture. Bernardo then raised his shoulders in a shrug and expression for 'nothing'. "All right, no one there. You mean she will be alone?" Bernardo nodded. Diego's expression became worried as he translated Bernardo's next statement. "Rodríguez comes...." He quit translating and looked down as Bernardo made a motion for death.
Bernardo quickly reached out and touched Diego so that he would look back up. He again gestured for Ania, then planted his feet on the floor and pointed down to indicate here. "Ania, here," Diego began translating each of his gestures aloud again. "Me, you, Father, all? Everyone can watch her?" he finished. Bernardo nodded again. He then made a movement that looked like he was shielding something.
Diego smiled. "Yes, it just might be that we could protect her better if I kept her here because we would all watch out for her. You might be right, Bernardo. I have been thinking about that very thing." He laughed as Bernardo grinned and leaned forward to tap him on his ring finger, the one on which he would wear a wedding band. "Well, that would be one way to keep her here, would it not? It is definitely tempting." He paused for a second as he brought the note to his nose and he was once again enveloped by the light fragrance of herbs. "I am sure we will come to some conclusion when she returns. I will just have to make the best use of my time while she is not here." He rose as if the idea had given him sudden inspiration. "Come, mi amigo. Seems to me, a while back I asked you to get your sword and join me in a friendly match so that you could give Zorro some practice. You did not then because you said I already had an opponent. Well, I do not have that opponent now and Zorro seems to need practice more than ever."
Bernardo followed his patrón into the secret room, and once again, down to the caves. Bernardo smiled happily as he watched the strength and energy in the young man's movements. It was very good to have life get back to normal.
Diego's sword swished gracefully through the air as he once again pushed himself through a series of exercises. He had designed them to put the edge back on his fighting style. He had, at first, felt just a bit slower, his movements just a bit less sure than the last time he had ridden from the cave, and he would tolerate none of it. Several times a day, as he supposedly rested in his room, he had come down here and worked, sometimes with Bernardo, sometimes alone. After nearly two weeks, he at last felt the old speed and confidence return. It would have been difficult to explain to anyone else just how good that renewal felt! He executed a short balestra and then lunged, laughing aloud.
It is well that he felt this way, for as soon as Bernardo came into the chamber, he could tell that the manservant had heard something of interest. As he entered, Bernardo began gesturing something about Rodríguez and someone else.
"Who is Rodríguez meeting?" Diego asked after a moment.
Bernardo had no specific gesture for the person he wanted to name, so he wrote in the dust as Diego watched. "V-a-s-q-u-e-z," he spelled and then gestured something suggesting someone bound or in chains.
"Vásquez, the slaver?" Diego translated. "Where? They are to meet in the pueblo?"
Bernardo shook his head. Then, in similar fashion to what he had done for Ania, Bernardo drew a map and gestured what he had overheard.
Rodríguez was once again sending a very small group of men to the mines, only this time he was going as far as the first campsite with them. Vásquez had sent word that he wanted to see him personally to discuss something. While the guards remained with the prisoners, the two men would meet on a high point not far from the camp. After the meeting, Vásquez would go on with the prisoners. Rodríguez would return to Los Ángeles.
"I think this is the chance I was hoping for when I learned what Rodríguez was up to," Diego said with a smile.
Bernardo looked up with a questioning expression and made a "Z" in the air.
"Yes, Bernardo, it is, indeed, time for the fox to return," Diego said as the two exchanged smiles. "Since we want to free the prisoners, and yet, at the same time, I need to be on that point where Rodríguez and Vásquez are going to meet, we will take a page from Ania's book. Here is what we will do…"
Zorro leaned against the top of the rock that screened him from the guards and prisoners. He could see Rodríguez slip a watch from his pocket from time to time as if anxious for Vásquez to arrive. The Dark Ángel thought it had been a bit over 5 hours since he had gone one way, and Bernardo, also in a black outfit and mounted on a black horse, had gone another.
Just as Ania had done nearly four weeks before, Bernardo had learned the names of some of the men being taken to Vasquez. Knowing who their friends were, he rode to their homes and tossed a note to them telling of the location of the camp and suggesting that they gather together to help the prisoners. The note told the friends to be at a certain spot and that Zorro would lead them to where the prisoners were camped. Without letting them get too close to him, Bernardo would have the friends quietly surround the camp.
As he waited, Zorro watched the camp closely. Ania had told him of the guard's fondness for games of chance the night she had ridden. Perhaps they would distract themselves with a game once again, enough to keep them busy, but not be noticed by the capitan who was making his up the hill to meet with Vasquez. Zorro hoped he would not have to go after Vásquez and Rodríguez at the same time the others arrived to rescue the prisoners. He wanted the guards rendered harmless without warning Rodriguez in the process. He continued to watch, hoping that Ania's observation would hold true.
Sure enough, after a time, Rómez and Sánchez began a game with dice. The fact that they waited until Rodríguez had left to meet Vásquez confirmed what Zorro had thought, that it was an activity that would be frowned upon by the comandante. They would not want to draw attention to themselves, in peace or arguments. As he waited, Zorro saw movement in the boulders not far away and realized that the group of friends had arrived. Edging closer to the two guards, he finally stopped just on the opposite side of the boulder against which the two lancers were leaning as they played.
Since he wanted no sounds that would carry any distance, the first order of business was to distract the guards long enough for the muskets to be disabled. The lancers themselves presented distraction for this. As they threw the dice toward the fire, their backs were to the muskets leaning against the boulder. Their game carried them several steps away. It was really a simple matter of quickness of hand and silence of movements.
"Ah-ha!" Sánchez laughed. "Now there is a lucky pair for you, amigo. See if you can beat that," he said as he and Rómez walked forward to recover the dice.
"Ha! That should not be so hard," Rómez countered as he took the dice and began shaking them. Behind them, where there had been two muskets, there was now one.
As he rolled and they walked forward, there were again two muskets.
"Oh, too bad, Paco," Sánchez said in mock sympathy. "Now pay up." Behind them a black clad hand reached for the other musket only to be jerked away as the two lancers turned around and walked back. Sánchez laughed as he lay another peso in his pile of coins by the boulder.
"Come on, you old thief!" Rómez demanded. "We go again. You cannot stop without giving me a chance to win my money back."
"Oh, we will play again, but you can kiss Señorita Dinero adios, hombre. She has found herself a better man." Sánchez jingled the coins at him mockingly. As they turned to roll again, the second musket vanished, only to reappear a minute later with the firing mechanism hopelessly jammed.
Zorro considered the matter of bringing down the two gamblers. No doubt he could handle both, yet there would probably be more noise than he wished. After a moment, he smiled. Perhaps they would bring themselves down. Carefully, he considered the shape of the canyon walls around them. There was a trick an Indian boy had taught him when he was a child. Turning toward a rocky wall near him, he cupped his hands around his mouth and made a sound, not unlike that of a cougar on the prowl. To his satisfaction the sound bounced off the stone wall in just the way he had remembered. Instead of sounding as if it had come from where he was, the sound echoed from the rocks on the far side of the canyon as if it had come from there.
Both lancers were immediately alert and reaching for the muskets. Cautiously, they walked toward the sound, scanning the rocks above them for the large cat. Behind them, a portion of the money was moved from one stack to the other.
"Well, I guess that was farther off than it sounded," Rómez said uneasily.
"Sí, I hope so," Sánchez replied.
Once again, the men began to gamble. Again the cougar was heard, now off to the left. This time money found its way into Rómez's glove lying beside the pile of money. As Sánchez was again adding Rómez's peso to his stack after the next roll, he suddenly became aware that there was a great deal less in the stack than there should be. "All right, Paco, give it back!" he demanded.
"Give what back?" Rómez asked.
"A few minutes ago, my pile was bigger and yours was smaller. Why is that, Paco?" Sánchez asked accusingly.
"If yours is smaller, it is because you won less than you thought," Rómez declared.
"I say that you took it!" Sánchez stood up to his full height.
"You are loco!" Rómez exclaimed. But as he stood up, he picked up his gloves and several pesos fell out to roll at Sánchez's feet.
"Why, you thieving...." Sánchez rumbled as he lunged for the smaller Rómez.
The more blows passed, the angrier the men became. Finally, Sánchez knocked Rómez to the ground. As Rómez attempted to clear his head enough to fight back, Sánchez reached and hefted a rock, fully meaning to end Rómez's fight then and there.
Until this moment, Zorro had been somewhat amused at the extent that these two had fallen in with his plans. He had fully intended to let the prisoner's friends take over at this point before the lancers knew what was happening. However, Zorro was not sure how quickly they would act and he could not allow Sánchez to kill Rómez over something Zorro himself had started. Quickly, he stepped behind Sánchez, and placing the tip of his sword against his back, demanded, "Drop the rock, señor, and stand very still. Do not make a sound or it will be your last." Sánchez froze immediately. Rómez still lay on the ground, too dazed to react.
As they saw what had happened, several peons stepped out of the surrounding rocks.
"Tie these two up securely. Be sure you take all their weapons and gag them," Zorro told the peons. "See that they do not yell out to warn the comandante or the labor contractor, Vásquez. I wish a word with them and I do not want to have to chase them down to do it." He grinned as the men hurriedly did as he asked. "Now free the prisoners and get away from here as quickly as you can."
"Sí, Señor Zorro, we will do that. Gracias!" one of the rescuers said in low tones.
Now for Vásquez and Rodríguez, Zorro thought as he mounted Tornado and rode off on Rodríguez's trail. Within only a couple of minutes, he had located another campfire where Rodríguez stood talking with Vásquez. Cautiously, he found, and silently subdued and bound the two men that Vásquez had on watch. Then he freed all the tethered horses he could find and sent them scattering through the brush so that no one could use them to escape from him. That taken care of, Zorro walked to within a few feet of the two men, making no more sound than a cat.
"I do not know what you expect me to do about the problem, Vásquez," he heard Rodríguez say. "I told you that I will eventually have Zorro and I will. It will just take time."
"You do not have a great deal of time, Comandante," Vásquez threatened. "I have already lost money once with you. If I do so again, you will pay more than just the money you owe."
"No money changed hands last time. I owe you nothing!" Rodríguez declared.
"I had to pay the guards I sent for the men, even though I did not get the workers," Vásquez said. "I told you to beware of Zorro. It seems that he can always be counted on to interfere."
"Well, it is nice to hear that I can be depended upon for something," a voice laughed from behind them. "Buenos noches, señores!" he greeted them merrily.
"Zorro!" both men cried as they turned with pistols in hand. The whip that suddenly appeared in Zorro’s hand immediately snatched Vásquez’s pistol. Zorro lunged aside as Rodríguez's shot went wild. Vásquez, deciding that discretion was indeed the better part of valor at this point, turned and dashed toward where he had left his horse. Zorro let him go. Without his horse, Vásquez would not get far.
With jaw grimly set, Zorro then turned to Rodríguez. Steel sang as both men drew their swords and circled each other watching for an opening.
"Well, so you did somehow escape that lancer's shot," Rodríguez growled. "I had dared dream that I was rid of you."
"Capitán, as long as you continue to torment the people of California, I will be here," Zorro vowed. "You will never be rid of me."
"We shall see about that, Zorro!" Rodríguez exclaimed. Rodríguez opened the first phase of the fight with a sudden lunge and straight thrust that was easily parried and answered by Zorro. Back and forth the attacks and defenses went.
Zorro drew first blood as the comandante barely managed to twist aside when Zorro's sword pierced his jacket to skim across his ribcage. Rodríguez managed to deflect the following attacks, and for a moment the two foes stepped apart.
Zorro's eyes glistened in the firelight. "Did I not say you should not hurry our next match, Rodríguez? My patience is at an end with you, señor."
"You have not won the match yet, outlaw," Rodríguez blustered as he rejoined the battle. Even though he continued to be able to parry Zorro's attacks, the comandante slowly but surely began yielding ground.
As Zorro pursued him, they soon found themselves on much less stable ground. Off to the left, the land dropped away, first to a boulder-strewn shelf about three feet below them, and then, beyond that it fell perhaps forty feet straight down. Under their feet, small pebbles and scree slid, making the footing perilous for both men. Rodríguez barely parried one of Zorro's strokes, yet still managed to mount an attack the next second. Suddenly, Rodríguez swung his sword in an arc. As Zorro stepped backwards away from this move, the loose pebbles under his boots began to slide. Unable to catch his balance quickly enough, he suddenly found himself flat on his back, scrambling for purchase so as not to go over the edge that suddenly seemed much too close. Rodríguez, seeing his chance, lunged for the killing thrust. Desperately, Zorro rolled to the right and to his knees, narrowly avoiding being skewered by the point of Rodríguez's sword. Still from a kneeling position, Zorro was forced to parry several rapid attacks. Unexpectedly, as Rodríguez stepped in closer, Zorro shifted his position. Sweeping his leg out and hooking his foot behind Rodríguez's lead foot, he jerked it out from under him, tumbling the capitán to the ground. As Rodríguez rolled to get back to his own feet, Zorro finally managed to regain his footing and bring the attacks back to bear on the capitán. Rodríguez had clearly begun to tire. Zorro drew blood twice more, but neither wound bled seriously as he stepped up his attacks on Rodríguez. Finally, in his retreat, Rodríguez made a misstep. His feet sliding, he tottered for a moment and then fell, landing heavily on the ledge a few feet below Zorro.
Now I have him! Zorro thought triumphantly as he remembered all the wrongs for which this man had to atone. He prepared to leap down to where Rodríguez lay, fully intending to finish the matter now. However, he then realized that Rodríguez had struck his head when he fell and was no longer able to make a pretense at defense. Zorro hesitated, not willing to kill an opponent in cold blood who was incapable of defending himself, in cold blood. He stood for a moment, considering the right and wrong of the issue. Finally, he gave a grim smile as he watched the comandante struggle to remain conscious. "Fate has made you a gift of your life once more, Capitán Rodríguez. We will meet again." As Rodríguez sank into unconsciousness, Zorro turned his attention to Vásquez.
Vásquez soon found that his horse was nowhere to be seen. Only Tornado remained, standing quietly ground tied nearby. Now, would that not be a fine joke, if I could ride off on Zorro's own horse? Vásquez thought, amused even in his fear. But when he reached for Tornado's reins, he found that that was not as easy as it sounded. As the frightened man reached toward him, Tornado backed away nervously. He did not like the sudden movements this strange man made, nor did he like the smell of fear that this human carried. As Vásquez pulled roughly at the reins, the bit pinched hard at the tender corners of Tornado's mouth. Upset by the situation, Tornado immediately let his feelings about this be known. Teeth bared, ears back, Tornado reared bringing his front hoofs down alarmingly close to Vásquez. When Tornado continued to rear, Vásquez backed up to safety between two nearby boulders. It was here that Zorro found him a few minutes later.
"Easy, Tornado," Zorro soothed as he stroked the still nervous stallion. "I think I shall have a word with your guest here." He gently nudged the horse aside, as he brought his sword tip up within a few inches of Vásquez's chest. "Now, Señor Vásquez, what am I to do with you? It seems that some time ago, I thought that you had learned a lesson not to deal in human flesh from the Los Ángeles area. But then since I did not deal with you personally, you perhaps need a little refresher course. You look like a man who puts a high value on his own life, if not that of others, señor. I will make you a deal, a true bargain. The government allows what you do under certain circumstances. I do not like that, but I must accept it. As long as you do not come to the Los Ángeles area again for your miserable victims, and they are acquired legally through the courts, then you may continue your existence. If, however, you do your human hunting in this area, or enter into a deal such as you made with Rodríguez, then I will see that you wish you had not, señor. You will truly wish you could hide in the pits of those mines you supply. Do you have any questions, Señor Vásquez? Good," he said as Vásquez shook his head. Hearing a noise behind him, Zorro saw that one of the horses he had untied had wandered back to the area. "Now, get on that horse over there, señor, and ride out of here and stay away from the Los Ángeles area. Do I have your word?"
"Sí, Señor Zorro, you do," Vásquez cautiously eased out of the sheltered area between the rocks. "What of my two men?"
"Oh, they will be sent on their way as soon as they awaken, Señor Vásquez, I assure you," Zorro stated. "Beyond a headache, they have not been harmed, other than their pride."
Vásquez nodded and mounting, turned his horse south, away from Los
Ángeles. Zorro watched until he could no
longer see Vasquez, and then called Tornado to him.
Not far from the campsite, Zorro pulled up alongside a thicket where Bernardo had remained hidden. With a questioning look, Bernardo pointed back toward the camp.
Zorro grinned, "Sí, the problem has been handled. Señor Vásquez seems to be a reasonable man if one knows what he values and puts it in words he understands. I dare say he finds his life somewhat valuable. I do not think we need to fear that any more workers from Los Ángeles will wind up in the mines now." He shook his head as Bernardo gestured a question about Rodríguez and imitated a stabbing motion. "No, he lives, although I do not suppose he will be in a hurry to cross swords with me again any time soon." He frowned as he looked back toward where he had left the capitán. "He may behave himself at least for a while, but I am afraid he will not have learned anything by tonight's lesson. He must still be watched." After a moment, both men urged their horses back toward distant Los Ángeles.