Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-two

 

Diego stood at the mantel in his room trying to wall out his emotions enough to think with a clear head. It was not easy. The idea that Rodríguez had managed to legally move Ania’s trial forward so quickly caused him to worry that he might do the same thing with her execution. Whenever that thought reared its ugly head, it was all Diego could do to fight the urge to rush in there immediately. Yet he was clear headed enough to realize that with so many opponents, he would need the cover of darkness to have any real chance to even get to Ania’s cell, much less get her out again. In addition, he agreed with Ania’s conclusion that she was bait for Zorro. Logic told him that Rodríguez would probably not hurry her execution for the simple reason that he needed her to be sure Zorro would walk into the trap. However, logic was no great comfort to him at this point.

And what a formidable trap it was! Even with the cover of darkness, he MUST have some kind of plan to handle so many lancers. Zorro could not defeat so many alone. Capture and death would be inevitable if the numbers couldn’t be balanced, at least a little. And yet, the alternative of NOT going in was even more unacceptable. The thought of a hangman’s rope being placed around Ania’s precious neck and what it would do when the trap door was triggered was a constant burning pain in his mind and heart.

Ah, Dios! How could I have been such a fool! he berated himself. How many times in the last two years have I had Rodríguez at my mercy and granted him just that...mercy? I should have gotten rid of him long ago. Did I not tell him, when I stood with my sword point on his chest in his office, that I should kill him and use the silver to weigh his body down in a tar pit...that it would be a service to the people, if I did? I spoke the truth, but I just HAD to try to warn him...give him the chance to change!

Diego turned and walked out the open door to his balcony. Everything looked so deceptively normal outside! He leaned on the railing, searching for a little comfort in the view...a hint of peace. There was none. Why did I not listen to my own heart then? I knew deep inside that Rodríguez would never truly change, that he would eventually be a threat to Ania again at some point.  How could I have taken that chance?

Behind him, he heard Bernardo quietly enter the room. Of all the servants, he, alone, could Diego bear to have around him now. Diego had originally tried to wait out the long afternoon downstairs with his father. He had soon given that up. With his burden of guilt, he just could not bear the tears and sympathy of the servants. With every "Don Diego, I am so sorry", and "Don Diego, I will say a prayer for you and the señorita", the guilt had gotten worse until he had wanted to scream, "Stop! Do not feel sorry for me. I should have stopped this. I could have prevented Rodríguez from hurting her again, but I refused to take that last logical step and rid Alta California of him!"

Walking back inside, he idly picked up one of Ania’s scarves that had been left behind one cool spring night after they had walked in the moonlight. He gently ran its soft weave through his fingers and raised it to his face. The yarn still held a bit of her sweet herb scent. His longing for her made his arms physically ache. This self-pity must stop. It will not help me get her out. Think! How do I narrow the odds? he asked himself. He determinedly walked back to the mantel, gently laying the scarf there. "Bernardo, there just has to be some way to eliminate a few of those lancers," he declared. Bernardo looked thoughtful and began gesturing a possible plan, his expression indicating his uncertainty. He gestured himself putting on the mask, then riding. He would get the lancers to follow him. While he did this, the real Zorro would be going in and getting Ania. By the time the lancers following him had given up and returned, there would be no prisoner to guard.

Diego paced a bit as he considered it. They had done something similar often enough before, and that right there was a caution flag. His father had told them on the way back that Rodríguez somehow had gotten his hands on a journal written by Monastario. While it was an unpleasant surprise to Diego, Don Alejandro had been more concerned about it than he was. Other than perhaps some musings about his being Zorro, Diego had felt that there would be little there that Rodríguez himself could not have observed about Zorro over the two years he had been stationed at Los Àngeles. After all, Monastario had only dealt with Zorro for a bit less than a year before the Viceroy had come here. Rodríguez had more experience fighting him than that. Without knowing just how incriminating Monastario’s observations were, he could only suppose that Rodríguez had not taken them seriously. Just as Diego had told his father, if Rodríguez had figured things out, he would have been here with lancers before, not just waiting for him to come into his trap. However, it would probably be better to use something he had not used frequently with either comandante. There were other reasons, too, that this might not help. He shook his head. "Just as when my father and the others were attempting to rescue Elena and her mother, they will know there is a likelihood of an attack on the cuartel. I doubt that the lancers would follow you for a long enough time to be a great deal of help. We do not want them to be gone only long enough for me to get in and then be back as I am attempting to get her out. Getting out will be the hardest part. We’ll have to come up with something else."

Several other ideas were discussed, with always one or the other of them, spotting some weakness to the plan. Diego’s body was beginning to tell him that he needed at least a short rest, but he refused to stop, even for a few minutes, until something was worked out in his mind. He reached up and rubbed his forehead, where a headache had taken up residence.

Bernardo looked at his friend, concern clear in his dark eyes. He knew that Diego had gotten very little sleep the night before. If he could only rest a little, the manservant would feel better about it. He gestured this to Diego.

"How could I sleep?" was Diego’s question, which was quickly met with the assurance that Bernardo knew that such was not expected. However, even a few moments of quiet might reduce the pain of the headache and help him think more clearly. Bernardo indicated that he should at least lie down for a while and conserve his energy for later. That, at least, made sense and Diego reluctantly agreed.

As Bernardo left, however, Diego sat back at his desk and sketched out a layout of the cuartel and each location where he knew he could expect a guard to be posted. He had already noted some new locations having guards, as well, since there were so many men there now. These he sketched in, too. He looked at it grimly when he had finished. There were going to be precious few weak spots in the surveillance, and the guard posts would be so close together that he would have to be virtually silent if he were to try to take out a few of the guards on his way in. After he did that, there was still the problem of how to get Ania out. Going back over the wall was not going to be easy. Not only would it be a hard climb for her, but if they were spotted (and he was not fool enough to count on that not happening), she would be a very easy target for the lancers to shoot at, as her clothes were light in color and would show up against the roof. Ideally, what was needed was a way for him to get her out the front and to Tornado. Right! And maybe one of the lancers will be so kind as to hold Tornado for me! he thought sarcastically. Still there had to be a way. Diego lay his head wearily down on his hands where they rested on the sketch and thought some more.

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

Rodríguez glanced up from the papers on his desk as Sergeant García walked in and stood somberly before him. "I beg to report, mi Capitán, that all the guards have been posted around the cuartel as ordered. I sent five men to the inn to guard Judge Vasca just like you said."

"Gracias, Sergeant. Has one been posted in front of the señorita’s cell?" Rodríguez asked.

"Sí, he has been posted and instructed as you ordered," García answered unhappily. "Corporal Reyes volunteered for that duty."

"Reyes? I am surprised at that. Did not you and the corporal both consider yourselves friends with Don Diego and the señorita? Why would he volunteer?" Rodríguez asked with a perplexed frown.

"Oh, sí!" Garcia said, scrambling for a way to cover his slip-of-the-tongue.  "He thought that if she had to be shot, it would be better to be shot by a friend.  He felt like it was the least he could do."

"Be shot by a friend?" Rodríguez puzzled.

"Sí, mi Capitan," said Garcia, still scrambling.  "Corporal Reyes is a good shot and he would make sure the senorita did not suffer."

Rodríguez narrowed his eyes at this.  He would like nothing better than for the woman to suffer.  But that was a minor point.  He wanted her dead and whether she died by the rope or by a bullet, in the final analysis, she would be dead.  "Very well, Sergeant," he said as he turned back to his papers.  "Just see that Reyes follows my orders to the letter."

García silently breathed a sigh of relief that the capitán seemed to have other things on his mind at the moment. Perhaps it would be better if I leave quickly before I open my big mouth again! the sergeant thought.

"Wait!" Rodríguez called as the sergeant turned to go.

"Sí, mi Capitán?" García inquired.

"Sergeant, just how well do you really know Diego de la Vega?" Rodríguez asked as he pushed the papers back a bit on his desk.

"Oh, he is my best friend. Uh, at least, he was my best friend up until now." García frowned as he remembered Diego’s earlier comments. "I think I know him as well as anyone. Why, Capitán?"

"I have been reading through some old records and he seems to be listed several times as a suspect for being Zorro. How likely do you think that would be?" the capitán inquired.

"Don Diego?" If he had not been feeling so bad for Señorita Ania, García would have laughed aloud. "He is the last person in this whole pueblo who should be suspected of being Zorro. Why he cannot even use a sword, señor. I think if he had Zorro’s skills, he would be here now trying to get Señorita Ania out. Yet you saw him. He meekly rode out of the pueblo with his father. Zorro would never do that."

"Well, I see by the records that these encounters with the outlaw started within a day or so of his returning from Spain and the comandante at that time seemed to believe that he was Zorro," Rodríguez informed him.

"Oh, no! Capitán Monastario challenged him to a duel. He was trying to make Don Diego confess, but, it did not work," the sergeant explained.

"If he was in a duel with a well trained officer and he himself is such a poor swordsman, how did he survive the duel? You did say he had no skill with a sword, did you not?" Rodríguez leaned back in his chair.

"Oh, truly none at all. He was very clumsy.  But he has always been lucky, too. But he was no match for Capitán Monastario. Had not the real Zorro ridden up outside, the capitán would have killed him, if the Viceroy had allowed it," García continued.

"The real Zorro rode up outside?"

"Sí, and pinned a note to the door with a knife he threw," García explained. "So you see, Don Diego could not be Zorro.  Zorro could not be in two places at the same time."

Rodríguez was silent for a few moments after García finished talking. Sí, that just might fool anyone who had not figured out that there were at least two who rode as Zorro. That is the only answer to how he was back on his black horse so soon after he was shot. There are two of them! he told himself with a smile.

"Uh, Capitán, may I go now? I will make sure the men have their horses saddled and ready," García said.

"Ready?" Rodríguez echoed.

"Sí, Capitán," Garcia said.  "Zorro always gets away over the back wall.  Once he is on the black horse, who can catch him?"  As Garcia talked, he was beginning to get an idea.  He shook his head sadly.  "It will be a shame.  Once he is over that wall, he will be gone."  Garcia tried to gage the capitán’s reaction to his words. "Not even Capitán Cosio's men on their fast horses could catch him. Starting from inside the cuartel when Zorro is already outside is too much.  Just ask me.  I know.  How well I know."  Behind his back, Garcia crossed his fingers.

Capitán Rodríguez said nothing.

Well, it was worth a try, García thought, as he turned to go.

"Wait, Sergeant!" Rodríguez ordered. He thought for a few minutes more as the sergeant stood looking at him. "Perhaps you have a point there. If all the men are in their places and do their parts, I should not need so many here to take the Fox. However, IF by chance the man was to somehow slip through our fingers, it would be a pity to let him get away so easily." The capitán looked down at the blue journal and thought, If the Fox is de la Vega, he will go out of here and head more or less northward toward the de la Vega lands. No doubt he has a hiding place somewhere there, if not in the actual house. He looked back over his shoulder at a map of the area on the wall, then stood and walked to it. "Sergeant, tell Capitán Cosio I need him to place four of his men here and four more of them here," he said, pointing out two places that were nearly straight shots to the de la Vega lands, each starting from a different side of the pueblo.

"Any particular reason for those places, Capitán?" García asked as he looked at the maps as well. Well, that takes care of thirteen lancers, all together. That is the best I can do. Maybe it will help a little, he thought.

"Just call it a hunch, Sergeant, or maybe an educated guess," the capitán answered cryptically.

García stood for a moment longer, but when Capitán Rodríguez did not add anything else, he saluted and left the room.

Rodríguez remained looking at the map for a moment longer, comparing the size of the Valdéz lands, which he now owned, to what it could be if the de la Vega lands were added to them. Yes, he would probably own the largest rancho in all California! He walked over to the window and looked out at the jail.  Seeing the prisoner made him smile.  He remembered her sharp tongue.  It would not be so sharp now, he wagered.  Nothing she could say could bother him now.  As a matter of fact, he might find it quite enjoyable to talk to his very temporary guest.

                                ***********************************

Ania stood looking up at the sky. Sunset was nearing and it seemed that God had outdone Himself painting the colors in the western sky.  But perhaps it was simply that Ania was aware of the fact that this could be the last sunset she would ever see. Looking back at the disheartening scene before her, she saw the door of the comandante’s office open and Rodríguez come down the steps to walk in her direction. Oh, wonderful, just what I need! Rodríguez, coming to gloat over his victory.  She steeled herself for what would no doubt be a very unpleasant meeting. By the saints, I will not allow him to see my fear any more clearly than he did when Diego left! May God strike me down rather than let one tear fall! she vowed. She straightened and, raising her head, stared steadily at the capitán as he walked up.

Rodríguez came within a few feet of the cell. "Corporal, take a break. I wish to talk with the prisoner alone, por favor."

Reyes walked away, wondering how many more ‘breaks’ he would wind up having.

Rodríguez looked back and met the señorita’s cold stare. "What? No witty sayings? No clever word traps or sword edged remarks? Why, señorita, one would hardly recognize you without the rattle of your tongue!" he smirked.

"Well, Comandante, it hardly seems worth the trouble,” Ania popped back. “There seems to be no one around who does not already know what a fool you are, even if they do have to obey your orders. I think I will just save my breath,"

Rodríguez raised an eyebrow and laughed. "You know, saving your breath might be a very good idea, señorita, as you will have very little of it left after the sun rises above the horizon tomorrow morning."

Not a flicker of fear spoiled the beauty of Ania’s face, regardless of what she was feeling in her heart. "That may well be, Comandante, but I still have that breath now and I still have my honor, so you have not totally defeated me yet." She felt hatred well up as the soldier threw back his head and laughed as if she had made some tremendous joke. She glared at him, but said nothing.

"Honor, señorita? What honor have you now? I have done to you just what you did to the unfortunate de Irujo." Rodríguez paused for an instant and glanced around. "Just as I told my good friend, de Irujo, it is the perfect revenge for him to help me have you hanged. You dragged his honor through the mud. In turn, he was overjoyed to provide perfect evidence of your being a turncoat. A traitor has no honor. You know, it would have been far better for the family honor, both yours and your father’s, if you had died as you ought to have when I sent those two men to attack your carriage that first morning. You would have saved yourself and poor Diego de la Vega a lot of heartache if you had. Of course, then I would not have had such a fine hacienda and all those beautiful acres of grapes and herds of cattle. It would have taken me a long time and a lot of silver to afford all that, so I suppose I really should thank you."

An angry cry was forced from Ania as she heard the comandante confirm her own long-held suspicions, with his own lips. "Murderer!" she cried as she clutched the bars in front of her as if they were Rodríguez’s throat. "You will burn in Hell for that someday, and whether I am alive or dead, I will know! Your punishment is coming!"

"Ah, but how can you be sure, señorita? We have been taught that, but how can we truly know? Perhaps what we have here, what we can take, is all there is. Oh, I just thought you might also want to see this paper that I have here. Do you know what this is, señorita? It is a grant. This one has my name on it now." With a flourish, Capitán Rodríguez opened the paper and read, "In recognition and appreciation of his faithful work in uncovering and wiping out the disloyalty and treason of Ania Cristina Valdéz, previous owner of said land, having proven her a traitor to Spain and his Majesty, King Fernando VII, this land and the improvements thereon, as well as all property contained therein, shall from this day forward be the property of Capitán Tristán Francisco Rodríguez, Comandante and Capitán, Presidio, Reina de Los Ángeles." As he stopped speaking, he laughed and stood just out of Ania’s reach. "Now talk to me of honor, señorita."

From somewhere, angry shouts could be heard beyond the wall. Lancers could be heard as well, once again riding to break up angry groups before the gate. Ania listened for a moment and then smiled. "Do you hear that, Capitán? I STILL have my honor. You have fooled very few people, really. Those people you hear out there, they know me better than that. They still honor me with their belief in my innocence and in me. Whether you kill me tomorrow or not, you have not taken my honor, but you have destroyed any chance you yourself have of staying here and enjoying your land. You will never have the honor and friendship, the trust of the good people of this area. You will be reviled until the day you find yourself at Hell’s fiery door."

"This is supposed to be a curse, señorita? I can live with that until the fact that I am now quite rich soaks into the brains of the higher classed people. Money often helps repair the honor, did you not know that?" Rodríguez gloated.

"That is only if you live to enjoy it. Do you not think there will be those who will help you reach your reward, your true reward, Rodríguez?  I will be waiting to watch you die, whether I am alive or merely a phantom clinging to this plane until my mission is complete on this side of the veil! I will be there and I will not have long to wait!" Ania vowed in a clear, certain voice. "Do you fear death, Capitán? Your own will not be long in coming!"

Rodríguez should have been able to ignore her grim prophecy, but to his dismay, something in the way she said it pierced him like an arrow. "Oh, and I suppose you think it will be Zorro who does this?" he asked, as much to change the subject as anything.

"Perhaps," she said.

"I would not count on it. With you here, he will be sure to walk right into my trap. I am certain that you have had wit enough to figure out that was part of my game from the very beginning. I knew that you, señorita, could be the vehicle that leads to Zorro’s own death. He has always come to your aid before, no matter whom I sent to get rid of you. He will come now, but he will lose his own life this time," Rodríguez informed her with a laugh. He could see that his remark bothered her more than she wished to show.

His words and the awful visions they conjured up were very hard for Ania to bluff her way past. The possibility of Diego dying because of her hurt her more than loss of the land, more than the slurs to her father’s memory, more than anything else could have. Ania turned her back and paced to the back of the cell. She was extremely thankful to have her back to him as she heard his next statement.

"I shall be very glad to have him come within my reach, señorita. I can just imagine the surprise of all the people around here when I unmask him before he is hung and show that, surprise of surprises, Zorro is, and always has been, Diego de la Vega," he said, watching her closely.

Ania quickly grabbed for all the control she had ever learned and managed to show only surprise as she turned to face him. "What? Diego?" She actually managed to laugh. "I love Diego very much, but even I could never see him as Zorro. I think it is likely that even I have learned more about handling a sword than he has. I’m sure he wishes he had that training now. Unfortunately, wishing will not give him the ability to rescue me. This just shows what a fool you are, Capitán!"

"We shall see, Ania Valdéz. We shall see!" was all that Rodríguez answered, as he turned and walked back to his office.

As she saw the door close behind him, Ania finally allowed her shoulders to droop. She leaned her head against the iron bars of her cell and sought the strength to hang on to her hope. She had promised Diego that she would not despair while he lived. She intended to keep that vow. She did not want perhaps the last words she would say to him to prove false. "Oh, Diego, please be careful!" she whispered under her breath. "If you die, I will not care what they do to me! Ah, Precious Holy Virgin have pity on us! Lend us your support. To you, I turn for strength for whatever comes for me. Only I beg that he not be taken!" Ania turned then and began to pace, but realized very quickly that it was not helping at all. The cell was much too small. Even Ventura would not have helped how she felt tonight. Ania suddenly remembered something Luisa once told her. Her words had really been about what a healer should do when a patient’s condition seemed hopeless. Well, this situation seemed about as hopeless as any Ania could imagine. "When there is nothing more you can do with your own hands that will change anything, there is still one place to turn. Pray," Luisa had taught her. "Pray to the Holy Virgin and to Saint Rita, patron saint of the hopeless. There is more power in that than in all the herbs of the whole world." Pulling her rosary from her pocket once again, Ania knelt. Making the sign of the cross, she began to pray with all her heart.

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

Darkness lies around him like a living thing, comforting and aiding him as he guides Tornado up to the wall in the near darkness that fills the night before the moon rises. The horse is silent. Quickly and efficiently, he climbs to the roof and sneaks up on the first guard on watch. Silently, the man is knocked out, tied and gagged with his own belt and handkerchief. Within minutes, one more guard joins the first in a nap. As he flattens himself to the roof, he pulls the black cape over his face and hands, so that what little light there is will not reflect off the lighter areas of his skin. When he inches to the edge of the roof closest to Ania’s cell, a cry is almost forced from him as a horrible sight greets his eyes, for he sees that just as he feared, Rodríguez has pushed forward the time of her execution.

Even as he watches, he sees that Ania stands at the bottom of the steps to the scaffold, her hands bound before her. Her hair has been pulled back and up off of her neck and she now wears her rosary around it like a necklace. As she is pushed toward the steps, she takes the time to make the sign of the cross. She walks unsteadily, as if sleepwalking. She trips on the first step and he sees García catch her and place her back on her feet. The look that she turns on García is lost and dazed. García quickly turns his face away. He and Reyes both keep their eyes focused on the ground as Rómez takes her arm and propels her up the steps.

Zorro quickly leaps to the ground. "Rodríguez!" he calls, challenging the capitán who stands with an evil grin on the steps of his office looking up at the scaffolding. "Continue with the execution!" he hears the devil order even as he pulls his sword and accepts the masked man’s challenge. Zorro fights as he never has before, but it seems to take forever. Beyond Rodríguez, he can still see Ania.

Ania has now come to the center of the platform and stares for a moment at the noose. Sánchez reaches and quickly places it around her neck. He sees Ania shudder as the noose is tightened to fit snugly under the jawbone below her right ear. When she looks back to where Zorro is still battling Rodríguez, there is dark despair in her frightened green eyes. He sees it as clearly as he sees the moon in the night sky. After an instant, she crosses herself once again and then clasps the crucifix around her neck with both hands. She closes her eyes, yet shakes her head when offered the blindfold.

Zorro fights with all his might, yet it is like fighting the devil himself. He knows what is going to happen if he does not hurry. Finally, his desperation is answered and his blade finds its mark. Yet even as he turns from Rodríguez’s body, he hears a sound that draws a cry of anguish from the very depth of his being. That sound was the deceptively quiet sound of the fall of the trapdoor on the scaffold. He is too late! "Aaaanniaaa!"

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


Diego sat bold upright at the desk, his heart pounding in terror. It took him a moment to realize that it had been a dream, a horrible echo of his own fears. Bernardo was standing at his side, his hand firmly gripping his young patrón’s shoulder. Diego shakily reached up and patted Bernardo’s hand in gratitude. He did not yet trust himself to speak. Wiping cold sweat from his face, he looked down. There on the floor beside him was a book. He supposed that he had pushed it off as he moved in his dream. The book, no doubt, was what had made the sound that his brain translated into the hideous sound of the gallows. Drawing a long sigh, he bent and picked it up. He could still hear in his mind’s ear the sound that he had heard. It was a sound that could destroy his world, as surely as blasting powder was able to destroy Rodríguez’s dams.

Suddenly he froze as he looked down at the book in his hand. "Of course," he cried, "why did I not think of this before? Yes, this may be just what we need!"

Bernardo looked at him worriedly and gestured, ‘Are you all right?’

"Sí, Bernardo. I am all right, perhaps better than all right. I think I have an answer that just might give us a fighting chance, with a lot of luck thrown in as well." Diego rose quickly from his chair and headed for the passage. "Come, Bernardo, time grows short. We must hurry. What I am thinking will take both of us!"

Bernardo followed him down the stairs leading to the lower levels as fast as his legs could manage it. He was not sure what his patrón had in mind but it was good to see him moving and no longer so tortured by his desperation.

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

Two hours later, Don Alejandro stood watching as Bernardo and Diego made last minute preparations to leave. He longed to put his arms around Diego and tell him how proud he was of him. He wanted to tell him how he would be praying while he was gone, but he did not want to allow his son to see the full extent of his worry for him right now. He knew that just as he loved Diego, his son loved him, but Diego’s mind was not on his father right now. Alejandro could see that his son’s full being was focused on the one mission of rescuing Ania, whatever the cost. He would not have expected anything else. Indeed, Alejandro had to admit that if this had been thirty years ago and the woman in that cell had been Isabella, he would probably have already been dead. He would never have had the restraint and clear-headedness that Diego had shown today.

He was afraid for Diego. Yet he could have asked nothing different from him. Ania had to be rescued. Anything else was unacceptable. If his son failed, Alejandro and the others would be taking their own chances to try to save her. There was no doubt that Zorro was Ania’s best chance, slim though it might be. Don Alejandro knew Rodríguez too well not to believe that he would order her shot if he realized that their group was actually about to get into the cuartel. They could only pray that whoever was beside her cell would hesitate in the carrying out of this grisly order, thus allowing them enough time to get to her, if they got that far. With thirty men in the cuartel, even that was not certain.

He had to keep that objective in his mind and try not to think about what would have already happened to make it necessary for him and the others to go in. For Zorro WOULD go in after her and the only way he would come out was with her. If neither of them came out by the time set for Alejandro to lead the group, then it would be because he had died in the attempt. The older de la Vega desperately hung on to the confidence he had learned to have in Zorro’s judgment and abilities. He had to believe Zorro would succeed. Oh, but the night would be endless until he knew for sure!

As the two who were now dressed in black finished their preparations, Diego did something that he did not do very often, at least not before riding as Zorro. Ania had brought a couple of small but very beautiful religious statues down with her during the dark hours just after Zorro had been shot, one of the Blessed Virgin and another of Saint Luke. These she had placed on a natural ledge nearby. Between the two stood a small silver crucifix that had come from the chapel on Ania’s land in West Florida. Candles flanked the makeshift altar. Ania had come here frequently as they had waited to see if he would fight off the infection in his shoulder. Now Zorro himself knelt before the shrine and, crossing himself, prayed for guidance and protection for himself and the woman he loved.

After a few minutes, Diego rose and started toward the outer chamber. As he passed Alejandro, he paused for a moment and looked down into his father’s eyes. He gave him a half smile and, reaching over, placed his hand on his father’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

Alejandro placed his own hand over Diego’s, willing Diego to feel the extent of his love for him. "Vaya con Dios, my son. May the saints grant you their protection."

Diego nodded. Then he passed on into the outer chamber and mounted Tornado. Alejandro stood and watched as he and Bernardo rode out into the warm summer night. After a moment, Alejandro turned and reentered the room with the small shrine. Crossing himself this time, he, too, knelt before the figures, praying for the safe return of these, all three of them, who meant so much to him. The father stayed on his knees considerably longer than had the son.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-three
Chapter One
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