Anvil of Iron
When Ania returned home just before supper, she found that Diego was not at home. Anxiously, she paced in front of the fireplace in the sala, praying that he was not already gone for the night. There was only a short while until darkness fell and she felt sure that sometime tonight Rodríguez would attempt to do away with Manolito. What if he has already gone? What can I do to help Manolito? Nothing! she fretted. Diego, where are you?
Finally, she heard the door latch open and Diego walked in, followed closely by Bernardo. It was all Ania could do to keep herself from running across the room and throwing her arms around him. She forced herself to look at him solemnly and wait for him to speak. From the look on her face, anyone could see that she was very upset over something.
Diego paused for a moment looking at Ania. If this was about their relationship, he wasn't sure he wanted to hear it again. It was like a knife in his heart each time he had seen the pain in her eyes, realizing that only her pride had kept her from shedding tears that were just beneath the surface. Only by walking out on her during the last two "discussions" had he managed to continue the charade. Yet this time, it seemed somehow different.
"Ania, what is the matter?" he finally managed to say. "You seem upset."
"You are right. I am upset," Ania declared. "Brisa Mería had her baby this afternoon. Pepe came for me just after lunch."
"Oh, then, things did not go well for her? She is..." Diego started hesitantly, fully expecting to hear that the young señora had died.
"No, no! Brisa seems to be doing fairly well right now and the child, though early, seems to be holding on and does have at least a chance of making it," Ania interrupted. "It is Manolito! He did not leave as we advised him to do. He said he could not go until Brisa had this child and he saw she was doing better."
"Well, where is he now? Perhaps we can convince him to leave now that the child is born. I will go talk to him and see what I can do," Diego was relieved that Ania's mind was on this problem. Manolito was a far more comfortable topic then what they had discussed before.
"No, Diego. It is worse than that. Someone saw him and Pepe together as he was coming to the house to be with Brisa. Whoever it was sold him out to Rodríguez." Ania stopped pacing to face Diego. "Rodríguez brought a whole troop of lancers to capture this one man!"
"Is Manolito in the cuartel now? Rodríguez did not harm him, did he?" Diego asked.
"No, at least not yet. He was ready to shoot him, but I managed to distract him by stepping between them just before Sergeant García came up. He does not want any witnesses when he silences him," Ania told him. Why did I say that? Ania asked herself as she saw Diego's face register his concern for her when she admitted to interfering with Rodríguez in such a dangerous manner. He does not have time for this tonight.
"Ania, I have asked you to be careful around Rodríguez," Diego began.
In spite of herself, Ania felt the hurt rush back through her. "What is that to you, Diego?" she snapped. "You have made it abundantly clear that I do not mean a great deal to you! Someone must do something to help that man! I did what I had to. If it endangers me, then so be it. I do not greatly care what happens to me right now!" She abruptly turned her back on him and stood gripping the front of the mantel, fighting her own emotions and angry at herself for letting it happen again.
"Ania, that is not..." Diego began to object only to have Ania cut him off.
"I do not want to discuss it anymore. I am sorry. I should have never spoken to you that way," Ania went on quickly without looking toward him. "Please, just let me know if you can think of any way that we can help Manolito. That is the important thing right now. I shall be in my room." She then left without looking at him again.
Had she looked at Diego at that moment, she would have seen through the charade he was trying to maintain. The comment about not caring if she endangered herself, hurt and alarmed him more than anything else she could have said. He wanted to go to her and pull her into his arms, to tell her he had been lying. Oh, Ania, would you understand if I said that I had only hurt you to keep you safe? he wondered unhappily. Somehow, he did not feel that she would. He knew that she would prefer anything rather than what he had done to her. He looked down, staring sightlessly at his hands, grasping the chair back, white-knuckled. He glanced up into Bernardo's face as the manservant put his hand on Diego's shoulder and squeezed it in an attempt to comfort his young patron. He shook his head, trying to clear his mind. He needed to think, to plan. A man's life was in danger tonight. He had to think clearly of a way to get Manolito out of the cuartel and safely away from Los Ángeles. Whatever conclusion he came to about this problem with Ania, Manolito's problem deserved...no, demanded...his attention now. "Come, Bernardo," he finally said. "Time is short. There is work for Zorro tonight." Together they went through the secret door in the cabinet and up to the secret room.
Zorro sat on Tornado's back just outside of the cuartel, watching to see if additional guards had been posted. There did not appear to be. This made sense if one thought that Rodríguez wanted to claim that Manolito had been shot while attempting to escape. He definitely would not want an honest guard around when he silenced Manolito. Finally, he walked Tornado back to where he had left an additional horse on which he intended for Manolito to make his escape. Quietly, he rode back to the cuartel wall and tied the second horse's reins to the horn of his saddle. Tornado's reins he merely dropped to ground tie him. He had no doubt that his four-legged friend would be right where he left him when he returned.
Standing on Tornado's saddle, Zorro pulled himself up to the rooftop. Silently, he moved to a point where he could see the cells that served as Los Ángeles' jail. There appeared to be only one guard on the far side of the cuartel courtyard. In the window of Capitán Rodríguez's quarters, he could still see lamps lit. Zorro frowned. No doubt Rodríguez was intending to wait until everyone was asleep, then make his move. Well, he planned to have Manolito out long before then.
Moving silently over the rooftop, Zorro eased down into the shadows not far from the door to a small storage area that hid the keys to the cells. As he moved into view, Manolito jumped and sat up on the cot in the cell. Zorro quickly placed a finger over his own mouth to signal him to be quiet.
Zorro guided the key into the lock with barely a sound, opened the door and pulled Manolito out. He pointed to the side of the courtyard where a dozen or so ammunition boxes were stacked against the wall. "Climb up those to the roof. I will be right behind you," he whispered.
Everything went well until near the top of the stack, Manolito made a misstep. Man and boxes came tumbling down with a loud rumble. The dark cuartel suddenly came alive around them. Catching Manolito's arm, Zorro redirected him to another way up to the roof. He then drew his sword and began buying time for Manolito’s escape.
Casually flipping his cape over his left arm, Zorro stepped to meet the approaching soldiers. Even with so many lancers trying to stop him, Zorro was in his element here. With seemingly effortless parries and thrusts, he held off all comers. His trademark smile was very much in evidence as he managed to disarm one alarmed man, and sidestepping, led another to lunge awkwardly. The lancer stumbled close enough to be brought down by the hilt of Zorro's sword to the side of his head. Trapping another lancer's sword against his own, Zorro then threw his weight against the lancer, tossing him handily back into a group of three other men, taking all four out of the fight, at least temporarily.
Glancing back, Zorro saw that Manolito had finally reached the roof. Time to leave this party, he thought as he watched the carpenter make his way across the smooth tiles of the roof. At this point, Rodríguez finally joined the confusion in the courtyard.
Catching the startled comandante's eye, Zorro quickly smiled and gave him an insolent salute. He would have loved to take the fight to Rodríguez but they were separated by a new tide of lancers. He quickly reminded himself of his true objective tonight. Rodríguez is unimportant right now. Tonight I get Manolito safely out of here, he told himself. The capitán and I will meet again at another time. Once again, pushing a lancer back into those behind him, Zorro dashed up the stairs to the second floor portico of the cuartel. As a half dozen lancers clambered up after him, he sheathed his sword and grabbing a nearby rope, swung gracefully over the heads of Rodríguez and the other lancers in the courtyard, to land on the roof behind Manolito.
As Manolito struggled to swing down to the ground, Zorro took time to turn and look back at the soldiers, milling around like so many ants in the cuartel. "Rodríguez!" he called loudly. Then, laughing aloud, he saluted sharply with his sword once again. Turning, he stepped off the roof to land on Tornado's back. He then led the way northward out of the pueblo.
They had not gotten far from the gates when the lancers came thundering out after them. Hmmmm, they seem to be getting better at this, he thought, oddly amused, rather than alarmed at the development. Tornado can still outdistance anything they have in their stables easily.
However, Tornado was not the problem. After a couple of miles, Manolito's horse slowed down, favoring his right front leg. Zorro frowned, looking back at the horse. He hated to abuse the animal, but they could not exactly stop and change horses at the moment. Zorro thought furiously for an answer to this problem. There seemed to be few options.
Finally, he thought of one thing that just might buy enough time for Manolito to escape. They could split up as soon as they reached a part of the road where they were, at least, temporarily out of sight. He would lead the lancers one way while Manolito went the other. Hopefully, the 2500 pesos on his head would draw the lancers to follow him and allow Manolito to get away. Well, at least, there is some good to having such a price on my head, he thought.
Reining Tornado in, Zorro dropped back beside Manolito, and as best he could at this pace, let Manolito know what to do. A few minutes later, they rode over the top of a rise in the road and were out of sight of the soldiers. Pointing down a fork in the road, he sent Manolito to the right, while he rode to the left.
For a while, it seemed to be working. However, a few miles down the road, the lancers started to show signs that they would turn back. Now that would not have been bad, but he was very much concerned that they would resume their pursuit of Manolito if they did. Zorro slowed Tornado even more, finally stopping him on a rise not too very far from the lancers. There he cued Tornado to rear, pawing the air with a quality as taunting as any of his salutes. Their determination to catch him renewed, they returned to the chase once again. Twice more he did this. It became almost like a game to him as he led them further away from the direction Manolito had gone. When, once again, they appeared to be turning back, he went back somewhat closer to them. It was then he learned that he had miscalculated.
Zorro looked back at the group of lancers, who appeared to have stopped on the rise behind him. As he reared Tornado this time, it suddenly seemed that a blacksmith had struck him solidly on the left shoulder with the blow of a sledgehammer. He found himself knocked partially out of the saddle. However, just as his reactions had saved him as the ledge on the cliff face had collapsed when he had last rescued Ania, so now did his balance and instincts cause him to grab onto the saddle horn and pull himself back into the saddle. Only then did a sound register as a musket shot. At first, there was no real pain, only a sort of numbness that made moving the left arm difficult.
As soon as he recovered his balance, Zorro whirled Tornado and headed away from the lancers. By stopping, doubling back, and changing directions unpredictably, he managed to lose his followers not long after. By this time, there was no denying the white-hot pain radiating from his shoulder down his left arm and across his chest.
Finally, relatively sure he was no longer being followed, he stopped and examined the wound. He was dismayed to see that he was bleeding badly. I must get this stopped if I am to have any kind of a chance to make it home, he thought as he fumbled at taking his sash off. He knew that he was in big trouble. Even now, his head was getting light from the shock of the wound and black spots swam at the edge of his vision. He repressed a moan as a shudder of pain passed through the shoulder and arm, making him feel as if they were on fire. Instinctively, he drew the injured arm tightly to him and curled his body forward, almost resting against the pommel of his saddle in a desperate bid to find some support that might give a moment’s relief.
He forced himself to think as clearly as possible about his situation. He was still miles from home. In all likelihood, he could not make it all the way home before he passed out. He had no doubt that when that happened, he would fall from Tornado's back and be found by the lancers. There has to be a way! he thought desperately. His eyes fell on the chest band that crossed Tornado's chest. Yes, that is it! he thought.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, Zorro struggled to hold the sash with his left hand as he cut it into strips. Reserving two longish strips, he carefully folded the rest and pressed it against the wound in an attempt to lessen the bleeding. Realizing that it was not helping a great deal, he concentrated on tying the other two strips into loops. Gritting his teeth again and closing his eyes in an effort to focus past the pain, he forced himself to reach down and push the loops under the chest strap on each side of Tornado's neck and bring one side of each loop up through the opposite side, so that they were fastened to the chest band. Then placing a hand through each loop, he compelled himself to twist his hands once...twice...three times, tightening the loops to the point that his hands would not slip out even when he was unconscious. With his strength fading rapidly, he leaned wearily against Tornado's neck and commanded hoarsely, "Take me home, boy. Take me home."
The great black horse, made uneasy by the unsettling smell of blood, wasted no time in doing as his master commanded. Tornado began to canter homeward along the straightest, quickest path he could find.