Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 

Ania was hustled quickly out the back of the tavern since the anger and unrest among the people who had attended the trial was growing.  Surrounded by lancers, she was taken across the plaza and placed back into her small cell in the cuartel.  If she had thought the clank of the door final before, now it seemed like the door closing on life itself. For a few minutes, all she could do was sit, staring unseeing at the floor, shivering, the heat of the summer afternoon totally unnoticed.

Suddenly, a sense of her old self arose to scold angrily, Look at you! Luisa would be ashamed of you and Papá would remind you that no one can take your honor from you unless you let them. Pull yourself together! If you die, you die, but let those who see you before that happens know that they have laid eyes upon a person of strength and honor. Ania closed her eyes and forced her trembling to stop. Things were not hopeless yet. Her "guardian angel" would come tonight as he had those three times before when she needed him. Yet, rather than comfort her, the thought started her trembling all over again. She did not know who she was more frightened for, herself or Diego. With a mighty effort, she brought herself under control again.

A motion by the gate caused her to look up. García was just in the process of trying to have the big gate closed. They would not bar the gate until the capitán and other lancers came back inside, but it would be closely guarded. As it stood almost closed, the gap was suddenly widened by a strong push from the outside. The sergeant and guards immediately grabbed their weapons and made ready for any possible attack. However, it was no band of rebels which entered, but Diego, a look of grim determination on his face. As he stepped further past the gates, Sergeant García rushed forward, stopping his men from striking down his clearly distraught young friend.

"Don Diego, stop! You cannot come in!" he sputtered. Behind him, he heard Ania cry Diego’s name.

Diego stopped and glared at him, a look of bitter condemnation in his eyes. "How can you take part in her murder, Sergeant? You, who called her friend, for murder it will be!"

"Don Diego, I am sorry! I have no choice! I am merely a soldier. I must do as I am ordered," García began, trying to convince himself as well as Diego.

"That is always your excuse, is it not? How many times during the last three years have I heard that same excuse from you? This time it will not work. Your hands will be as red with her innocent blood as Rodríguez’s!" Diego declared.

"Don Diego..." García began again.

"Get out of my way!" Diego snarled as he suddenly pushed past García and stalked to Ania’s cell.

"No, wait!" García quickly ordered his men as they raised their weapons once more. "It is all right. Let them have a few minutes together. After all, this will be the last time for them to see each other in this life."

"But, Sergeant, what about Capitán Rodríguez?" one of the surprised lancers asked.

"I will take responsibility for him. At least, I can do that. You remain here at your post. I will stand guard over Don Diego, so that he does not get himself killed in his grief," García said with a sad shake of his head.

Diego ignored the lancers as he reached the door of Ania's cell and reached through to her. It took all his control to fight the mad urge to pull the bars separating them apart with his bare hands. Especially frustrating was the crossbar at her face level. He wanted to share another kiss with her and to be able for a few moments to feel her cheek against his, but the desire was not merely the desire of a grieving lover. He had to be able to get his mouth close to her ear to speak with her without being overheard, to encourage her and reassure her that he would get her out.

Whatever her own motivation, Ania was quick to sense what was needed. Looking back in a corner of the cell, she spotted a chunk of wood. Apparently used by a previous prisoner to sit on as it was on end, it was also thick enough when laid on its side for her to stand on. Quickly, she lay the wood down at the base of the bars, and stepping up, was able to bring her face above the crossbar.

Diego, ignoring social tradition and the onlookers, then reached through the bars to intertwine his fingers in her hair and pulled her lips to his in a desperate kiss. As the kiss ended, he disregarded the cold metal bar touching his left cheek and tucked her head against the side of his right cheek and chin to whisper in her ear. "Oh, Dios! Ania, Aniasita mi preciosa, I am sorry, so sorry!"

Ania had already known that he would blame himself for her predicament. "No....Oh, Diego, you are not to blame. Whatever happens now, you must not blame yourself!"

He kissed her again and brought his lips back to her ear. "Do not despair, Ania. I am going to get you out. Nothing Rodríguez can do will stop me from getting in here to free you."

He felt his cheek grow wet with Ania’s tears. "I know you will try but, Diego, you have got to know that is what he wants. He wants Zorro to walk into his trap. I am the bait for you! Please do not sacrifice your life for mine. Please! I would rather die tomorrow morning than for you to fall into Rodríguez’s trap!"

To hear her speak of her own death in such a way sent a chill through him. "I will not allow that to happen, Ania. I would go through the gates of hell before I would see that happen. You must know that!"

Ania nodded. Her voice shook as she whispered back. "Yes, I know that you will try, but Diego, I am frightened, so very frightened, for you, for me, for all of us caught in this damnable situation!"

As she cried, Diego moved back a bit and leaned his forehead against hers for a minute, long fingers gently wiping away her tears. His own voice was thick with emotion as he whispered again. "Whatever you do, Ania, do not give up!"

Behind him, Diego sensed García move and he glanced back to see what the big soldier was doing. García had not been able to hear their words, but the mere sight of his two friends’ anguish was almost more than he could bear. Wiping his own eyes, the sergeant turned his back to the two lovers and took another step or so away.

"Diego, there are thirty lancers here now. I counted them. I know that Rodríguez maintains that they were necessary because of unrest among the people, but I have no doubt that he will have Capitán Cosio’s men, as well as his own, guarding this whole place. They will be watching for Zorro. Capitán Rodríguez will make sure of that," Ania said. Her hands clutched nervously at the ruffles on his chest. As one hand slid upward in a caress, Diego took it and placed a kiss in her palm, then tenderly pressed it to his cheek. "They will all be after you. Even the lancers from here, who should know the good you do, will see only the price on Zorro’s head. How can you handle thirty of them, Diego? Even Zorro has his limits!" Ania bit her lip and fought her tears at that thought.

"Let me worry about that, mi amor," Diego whispered. Then he again backed up a little and looked into her eyes. "Ania, do you trust me? I know you love me, but do you trust me?"

Ania looked deep into his eyes, the tears in her own making them that bright disturbing green that he had seen when they argued in the past. "Yes, but...."

Diego kissed her before she could continue. "No buts, Ania! You have got to hold on to that trust.  Hold on to it as if there was nothing else around you in all the world! Let that trust and the love I have for you surround you. Let that give you strength and hope now. Rodríguez will find that Zorro is not so easily captured as he thinks and neither will the Fox allow him to harm an innocent lady. I promise you!  You will live to wear that white dress and I will be waiting for you at the door of the mission chapel. Keep that vision in your mind."

Ania nodded mutely as he reached around her, hugging her in spite of the bars. For a few minutes, the two stood taking comfort in each other’s arms.

Suddenly, there was an angry roar from behind them. García, distracted by his friend’s grief, had not even noticed Rodríguez’s return. Outside the gates could be heard the noise of horses and lancers once again forcing the crowds to disperse, apparently having a harder time than they had before. 

"Capitán Rodríguez!" García gasped.

"What is this man doing here, Sergeant García? Can you not keep anyone out?" the capitán demanded.

"I...I thought...since this was her fiancé...that it would be all right to let them say good-bye, mi Capitán,” the sergeant sputtered.  “I mean since Don Diego is not Zorro that could not hurt, could it?"

"How do you know that, idiota? He may have us all fooled. I should have you court-martialed!" Capitán Rodríguez yelled.

"Don Diego? Oh, no, Capitán, of that I am sure!" García gasped.

Although Diego said nothing, Ania felt the muscles of his body tense and those in his jaw work in silent rage. She felt his tension, like the over winding of a watch’s spring, and knew that he was fighting for control.

He wanted so badly to destroy this demon who would threaten her, but he knew that he must wait. He could not throw away whatever chance Zorro might have to rescue Ania later by losing control now. Yet, the rage was so close to the surface!

"Out, de la Vega! Your time with this little traitor is over! The sergeant should never have allowed you to come. I am sorry for you, señor, for I see that she had you totally fooled. Perhaps you should count yourself lucky that you will live to love again someday. You should be well pleased that the de la Vega honor is not sullied by her dishonor," Rodríguez sneered.

Ania felt Diego tense further and knew that he did not even trust his own control at that moment. He remained with his back to Rodríguez.

"You can have no more time, Don Diego! Your oh-so-touching good-bye is at an end! Leave now or be shot where you stand!" Rodríguez warned.

Ania gasped. "Diego, please..." she began.

"Of course, if you want to be with us at sunrise, you are free to see her as that platform drops away beneath her," Rodríguez continued cruelly.

Diego could take no more. As he whirled toward Rodríguez, intent on killing him with his bare hands, if necessary, the two lancers behind the capitán raised their guns. It was almost as if Diego did not see them as he prepared to reach for Rodríguez. Ania grabbed his arm and hung on with all her strength. "Diego! Diego, no!" she cried. For a minute, she wasn’t even sure he was hearing her.

"You have until the count of three, señor!" Rodríguez warned and then began counting to the lancers, keeping his eyes on Diego. "Uno...."

"Don Diego," García pleaded, "I beg you, do not let the last time Señorita Ania sees you be the sight of you being killed. You must go!"

"Diego!" Ania gasped. "Diego, while you live I will not despair! Diego, please go!"

Ania’s words seemed to break through to Diego. He turned his head and met her frightened eyes. With the slightest nod, he reached around, and taking her hand from his arm, placed a final kiss there. Ania allowed her fingers, once again, to caress his cheek. At the caress, a look of pain so intense that it was like a physical blow showed in his eyes. He swallowed hard and backed up further until he was just able to hold her fingers for one second longer. As the distance became too great and Ania dropped her hand back to the bars, he suddenly turned, walking past the Capitán and lancers with Sergeant García escorting him. When the lancers guarding the gate opened it enough for him to leave, Diego paused, his back still to the cuartel. He placed a hand on each side of the opening and then seemed to almost push himself on through, as if he had had to force himself to leave by the strength of his own arms.

As Diego disappeared through the gate, Ania leaned her forehead against the bars. Her tears flowed unchecked. For once, she did not even try to hide them.  She could no more have stopped the tears than she could build a wall to keep a huracán out. Oh, Blessed saints, have pity on us! Please protect him! she prayed.

===============

At the conclusion of the trial, there was a sudden push of the crowd toward the front of the tavern and the prisoner. Don Alejandro managed to keep his feet as someone bumped into him from behind. He turned to watch as lancers almost pulled Ania from the room out the back door. When he turned back to Diego, he was concerned to see that his son had vanished into the angry crowd. Under other circumstances, he would have trusted Diego’s judgment without question. Now, however, he was worried. He felt the need to be with his son and made a determined effort to push his way toward the front door. It was like trying to swim upstream in a very fast river.

Finally, he managed to get out to the street. He became even more worried as he looked around and still did not see Diego. He did, however, see a very concerned Bernardo hurrying across the plaza from the cuartel. "Have you seen Diego?" he asked as he supposedly gestured the same question. Bernardo pointed over his shoulder toward the cuartel. "The cuartel?" Alejandro cried, anxiety over Diego’s possibly rash actions coloring his voice. Quickly, he turned to cross the plaza, but was once again blocked by a crowd, this one gathered angrily in front of the closed gate. At that point, mounted lancers came around the side of the building and began forcing the crowd away. Alejandro was relieved to see that Diego was not in the crowd, but where was he? After the square was cleared, Alejandro and Bernardo cautiously made their way closer to the gates.

"Halt!" a lancer posted nearby yelled. "Who goes there?"

"It is Alejandro de la Vega," came the answer. He was about to ask about Diego when the doors of the cuartel swung open and his son came out. Don Alejandro hurried forward as he saw Diego turn and place one hand against the wall, leaning against it wearily.

"Diego!" Alejandro asked quickly. "Son, are you all right?"

"Sí, Father, I am fine, as fine as I can be with Ania in there," Diego declared. He ran his hand over his face as if trying to wake from an unpleasant dream.

"Diego, my son, I doubt that there is any good you can do here. Let us go and talk to the others. Perhaps one man does not have to carry this load alone," Alejandro said as he laid his hand upon his son’s arm. He was no question in his heart but that Zorro would ride tonight, but he hoped something else could be done to help him. He was just as aware of the number of lancers in the cuartel as he had been last night before Zorro had left on his futile ride for information.

“This is one man’s responsibility," was Diego’s answer.

Just as they started to return to the horses, the gate opened once more to allow a lancer to exit. "Don Alejandro de la Vega!" he called.

"Sí? What is it you want?" his father asked as he turned back.

"The capitán wishes to speak with you, señor," the lancer explained. "Just you, Don Alejandro," he stressed as all three men started to turn back toward the gate.

For a moment, Diego and his father exchanged looks. It could be a trick, but then, probably not. Surely, Rodríguez would not risk outraging the people more right how. Diego finally gave a short nod to his father. "Go ahead, Father. We will wait by the horses." He cast a longing look back at the cuartel, then turned and walked slowly away, the set of his shoulders indicating his dejected state of mind. Alejandro watched his son with concern, then turned and entered the gate.

When he was escorted into the comandante’s office, Rodríguez had the audacity to keep Don Alejandro standing without acknowledging his presence as he finished looking over a paper from an open file near him and the pages of a blue ledger open on his desk.

"Well, what did you want with me, Capitán? I have better things to do with my time, señor, than to stand waiting on the likes of you!" Alejandro declared.

"A moment, if you please, Don Alejandro. I seem to have some very fascinating documents before me here, amazing reading. Lots of action to the story, but then I imagine you already know all about it," Capitán Rodríguez said smoothly.

"What nonsense is this, señor?" Alejandro demanded, wondering what the papers were.

"It is a fascinating story of a vigilante group that came here one night about three years ago, Don Alejandro," Rodríguez said as he looked up and met the older man’s eyes. Don Alejandro remained silent as the capitán rose and walked around to the end of the desk and perched insolently on the edge. "Señor de la Vega, you seemed to have been the leader of that little vigilante group. You and your group attempted to rescue two ladies the comandante of that time was holding.  I believe they were being held for questioning, were they not?" he asked.

"Some things, señor, are just cause for desperate action," Alejandro admitted.

"Perhaps, at least sometimes," the capitán allowed, "if not in that particular case, then at least in the case of the revolt that occurred a bit over two years ago, with a man who called himself the Eagle, I believe. It no doubt was a lucky thing then that you had called together your fifty man army, was it not?" Alejandro looked at him suspiciously. "However, in the more common circumstances of our world such actions may often have rather unfortunate consequences."

"What are you getting at, Capitán Rodríguez?" Alejandro met the capitán’s eyes with a fiery glare, but bit back his temper as much as possible.

Capitán Rodríguez carelessly dropped the ledger to the desktop, where it fell with the cover open to the page with the past comandante’s name on it. As Alejandro looked down and his eyes took note of the name, he stiffened just a little, but enough for Rodríguez to notice. Had the capitán not been looking at the hacendado at that instant, he would have missed his reaction. Hmmm, he seems dismayed to see something written by Capitán Monastario in my hands. I wonder why. Then he shrugged. He would try to figure that one out later. Now he had more important matters on his mind. "Merely this, Señor de la Vega, should you think to raise this group again and attack this cuartel tonight in the hope of freeing Ania Valdéz, I am taking steps to insure that the effort is futile."

"What do you mean ‘futile’, Capitán?" Alejandro demanded.

"Hear me well, Don Alejandro. I know that you do not accept even Judge Vasca’s ruling on this woman’s crimes against the king. You wish her to live, while I, on the other hand, am dedicated to seeing his Majesty’s law upheld. I have no doubt that there has already been discussion of interference with the justice as stated by this court, if not by you, then by someone you have influence with. That would be folly, Don Alejandro, I assure you. In the event of an attempted rescue by your group or another, I am ordering that a lancer be stationed outside her cell. When that lancer becomes aware of the rescue attempt, he will have orders to shoot the prisoner, thereby assuring that the sentence is carried out."

"What?" Alejandro gasped, appalled at the comandante’s warped sense of justice.

"You heard me correctly," Rodríguez said shortly.

"But that was not her sentence..." Alejandro objected.

"No, not exactly, but she was sentenced to death and rather than see her cheat the government of the just payment of her penalty, I will see that she is dead before anyone can come within fifty feet of her cell, señor!" Rodríguez’s eyes were cold and steady as he returned Alejandro’s glare.

"That is outrageous!" Alejandro cried.

"Maybe, but at any rate, go ahead and raise your group if you wish, señor.” The capitán shrugged.  “All you will have accomplished by it is to shorten her life by the number of hours from then until dawn. That and creating new charges of treason which I will hold against any men, either peons or hacendados, who are so foolish as to come here with such an idea in their heads," Rodríguez warned.

"The governor will hear of this, Capitán Rodríguez!" Alejandro sputtered.

"That will be to my benefit. This time, I am not overstepping the laws as this other comandante was, but rather upholding it," the capitán reminded him.

"You are a cruel, evil man," Alejandro declared hotly.

Rodríguez shrugged. "You had better spread the word throughout this area, Don Alejandro, to both high and low born. I will not tolerate any interference."

Don Alejandro shook his head and looked at him in shock.

"Lancers," Rodríguez called, "escort Don Alejandro out. Buenas tardes, Señor de la Vega."

As Don Alejandro exited the gate, he found Diego and Bernardo, already mounted, with his horse ready for him. "I will tell you everything as soon as I can, Diego. Right now I think we need to get back to the casa and talk to the others as quickly as possible," he advised as Diego started to asked him what had been said. He led them out only a little less rapidly than they had ridden on the way back into the pueblo for the trial. Diego had a lot on his mind, indeed, because for once, he did not question his father closely.

Most of the same men who had been at the meeting before were still there awaiting Don Alejandro’s return. The crowd had grown beyond that, however. Interspersed with the caballeros were a representative number of the vaqueros and house workers from both ranchos and the surrounding area. There were shouts of "When do we ride?" and "Rodríguez must be stopped!" as the crowd talked in angry groups. Silence gradually reigned as Alejandro walked solemnly to the front and faced the crowd.

"Listen to me," he began in an oddly subdued tone, unexpected by everyone who knew him. "That is not possible right now. We MUST wait until much later to do anything."

Gasps of "What?" and "How can that be?" rose up around him.

Alejandro held up his hand for quiet.

"Father, you said that you would tell me with the rest. Just what did Rodríguez say that convinced you of that?" Diego asked. A look of dread filled his eyes. "Why must you wait?"

Alejandro met Diego’s eyes sympathetically for a moment and then, as gently as possible, announced what Rodríguez had vowed he would do if they attempted to rescue Ania. After a moment, Diego turned and walked to the fireplace behind them. There, he placed both hands upon the mantel and leaned heavily, fighting desperately against the desolation and fear in his heart for Ania.

After a moment of stunned silence, the crowd erupted in an uproar. Finally, Rosita stepped forward, her fists balled up in anger and desperation for her young friend. "There has got to be something we can do, Don Alejandro. We must not let them hang her! I will not stand by and see that happen. How can you stand there and say we will do nothing?" she demanded.

Alejandro shook his head. "I did not say we would do nothing, merely that we must not rush in there. We must wait as long as possible, until perhaps an hour or so before sunrise. In this way, we will not hurry her death overly much if Rodríguez does as he says. We have no assurance of getting to her cell before that can happen."

"And until then, we will do nothing, Don Alejandro?" one voice called out.

"Until then we will, first, be readying ourselves for the attack, if we must. Those who can should rest. Secondly, we shall be praying that Zorro will be able to go in and get her safely out of there before then. We know that he has helped the señorita before. I think it is safe to believe that he will wish to help her now as well. That which a loud, angry army may be unable to accomplish in this case, we can pray that a single silent, brave man might be able to do," Alejandro answered. "We will gather around the end of the second watch of the night at Don Alfredo’s hacienda, since his rancho is closer to the pueblo than ours. If by the beginning of the third watch, Zorro has not been able to deliver Señorita Valdéz from this deadly situation, then we will make the attempt," Alejandro continued solemnly.

The crowd burst into excited talking again. "Viva El Zorro!" and "Zorro can do it!" could be heard throughout the crowd. "Sí," someone said, "he will not let Señorita Ania die!"

Alejandro and Diego both stood silent amid the chaos. Diego had begun searching his mind for a plan, but his father was doing something even more fervently. He was praying. He knew that there would be only one reason for the Fox to have failed to bring Ania out before the time set for their raid on the cuartel. If that time came and passed, then Zorro himself would already have fallen in the attempt.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-one
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