Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-three


Josefina Gonzales kept herself busy over the small cooking fire as she watched the smaller children play nearby. Her oldest daughter, Abril, stayed close to her mother’s side and helped. On the surface, everything seemed safe and ordinary. Josefina drew her breath in sharply, as the youngest, Carissa, toddled playfully over to the slim man lounging next to a tree not far away. The dark eyed man smiled as the toddler giggled, ran a few steps away from him and turned, expecting him to catch her, which he did. He tossed the child into the air above his head, summoning peals of laughter from her. "Please, señor, be careful. Do not hurt her!"

"Oh, do not worry, señora," de Irujo assured her. "She is safe with me, just as long as your husband keeps his part of our deal." He juggled the little girl once again and then walked over to stand beside her mother. "You all are." He smiled and bowed his head gallantly to Abril.

 Abril quickly looked away, fearful of this man’s attention.

Josefina wanted to snatch the child from him immediately, but did not for fear of angering him. Although she had no doubt of this man’s cold-bloodedness, so far she had only heard him threaten them once, when he had first burst into their home with three other men just one day ago.

When she had attempted to help Tomás and Rico, de Irujo had quickly overpowered her. Pulling her tightly to his chest, he had placed the barrel of his pistol against the side of her head. In a voice that left no doubt of his seriousness, he said, "Señor Gonzales, if you do not put your gun down immediately, you will be without a wife and your children will be motherless."

Tomás had surrendered immediately, "Please, señor, do not hurt her! I will do whatever you say!" De Irujo had looked meaningfully at Tomás’ gun and Tomás had laid it on the floor in front of him. Tomás glanced quickly to where his oldest son had been fighting another intruder. To his dismay, Rico now lay on the floor, bleeding from a gash on his head. His middle son, Roberto, only eleven years old, had leapt up and tried to protect his older brother. Rico’s assailant had simply picked the child up, pinning his arms against his sides. There was nothing the vinemaster could do. Too many precious lives depended on him giving these men what they wanted. "Señor, I have no money to give you. Just take whatever you want and get out. Only leave my family in peace."

"Ah, but it is not for riches that we have come," de Irujo had stated with a smile. "Why, I probably have more pesos in my pocket than you have to your name!"

"Then what do you want from us?" Tomás had asked.

"You are merely to do us a service, Señor Gonzales. One that few other people can do so well," the dark eyed man had informed him. "While we talk, why do you not have your wife go with my friend there? They can take your son in the other room and tend to his wound. I do not think he is hurt badly, but no doubt he would feel better if his bleeding was stopped and the wound bandaged. You and I will come to a little understanding in the meantime. Of course, my friends here will keep their guns and knives very handy all the time." He looked meaningfully at the man standing over Rico. "If they, any of them, try anything, kill them." The very calmness with which he spoke was chilling.

The man had nodded.

 De Irujo slowly released Josefina and pushed her gently toward her son. It was on her that de Irujo kept his gun trained rather than Tomás, as the mother helped her son up and was escorted into the next room.

 After they had gone, de Irujo explained Tomás’ part in "a little drama" involving the Señorita Valdéz. Tomás was horrified. "To attack a representative of the king is death!  No, I cannot do that!  I cannot help you.  And I owe her too much to help you kill her.  No. No, I will not help.”

De Irujo had simply cocked his head and asked in a deadly quiet voice, "Sí, but do you owe her your life, or even more important, does your family owe her their lives?"

As he spoke, little Carissa had toddled into the room. She had stood looking up at the strange man, not sure whether to trust him.

De Irujo slid his watch from his pocket and set it swinging in front of the child. When she had cautiously approached de Irujo, Tomás started to rush forward to get her, but was prevented from doing so as the man beside him leveled a gun at his chest and cocked the hammer. Smiling like the most benevolent uncle, de Irujo picked the child up and handed her the watch. Innocently, Carissa smiled and giggled. De Irujo looked back, meeting Tomás’ eyes. "I once had dreams of marrying well and of having children of my own,” he said.  “Precious things, children, the building tools of a man’s own dynasty. However, that little witch destroyed my hope of marrying well and becoming a man of importance. You WILL help me get my revenge, Señor Gonzales." He paused a moment and looked at the fascinated toddler in his arms as she played with the watch. "You know, it is a shame. So many of our little ones like her do not live to grow up. So many things can happen to rob their parents of them. Illnesses, accidents, falls.  They have such fragile little bones." He ran his fingers over the back of Carissa’s neck, causing more innocent giggles. "She has such a delicate little neck, señor." He turned and met Tomás’ eyes again.

"You could not..." Tomás gasped, his mouth dry from fear.

"That depends entirely on you, señor," de Irujo said levelly.

Tomás had looked at his little girl in this man’s arms and known that there was truly no choice to be made. Silently, he had nodded his head and prayed for forgiveness from the patrona and heaven above. Then he had said, defeat ringing in his voice, "Sí, I will do whatever I must. Just do not hurt her, I beg you!"

Smiling, de Irujo put the girl back on the floor and sent her toddling back to her father. "As long as you keep your end of the deal, I will keep mine. If you vary one iota from what we tell you…  Well, I think you can imagine what will happen."

Tears clouding his vision, Tomás had swept her up in his arms and nodded. As his wife had come out of the back room, helping his son, he had placed Carissa in her arms. He remained silent as Josefina looked at him inquiringly.

"Señora, you will be pleased to know that your husband places a very high value on your lives. He has just traded Ania Valdéz’s life for yours," their captor informed her.

Josefina looked at her husband in horror.

Tomás looked away and explained, "I have no choice."

"Now, señor, señora, we will be taking a short journey. Please take a few provisions and such things as you feel you might need for the next few days," de Irujo had ordered.

In the twenty-four hours since that had happened, they had all been brought to a large cave in a rocky canyon perhaps an hour’s ride from the pueblo. Early this morning, a rough looking man named Pancho had ridden out with Tomás. Josefina had begun to worry that perhaps they had killed Tomás. She tried to keep her mind on her children. Rico and Roberto were tied up not far away. The others were too young to be a danger.  Indeed, at one, three and five years of age, they were too young to even realize the danger. They played nearby, oblivious to the drama around them. Josefina fervently wished her littlest one had not developed a liking for their captor. Watching Carissa play with him sent chills though her.

Finally, not long before dark, Tomás and his guard returned, Tomás, pale and red eyed as if he had been crying. Josefina ran to him and threw her arms around him. "What has happened, Tomás?"

"They have condemned Señorita Ania to death because of what I told them," her husband answered in a shaky voice. "She is to hang at dawn." He reached down and picked up Carissa as she ran to greet him. For a second, he buried his face in her soft curls, and then looked back up with guilt stricken eyes. "May God forgive me."

De Irujo walked up to get a report on how things had gone in Los Angeles in time to hear his comment. Laughing, he turned to Pancho. "Is this so, Pancho? So, Rodríguez was really able to do as he said he could. He actually manipulated Judge Vasca into having the trial this quickly. And it worked!! Ah, I believe I shall enjoy a ride into the pueblo early tomorrow morning. I want a front and center seat for the festivities. Most of all, I want to watch Ania Valdéz’s face when she sees me just before they pull that lever!"

"I thought Capitán Rodríguez told us all to stay here until everything is over and the unrest put down," Pancho said.

"So what if he did, my timid friend," de Irujo laughed. "Nothing will stop me from being there. Without me, none of his plan could have worked. In this, I exact my own price."

Still laughing, de Irujo walked off. He sat not far away, watching the men Rodríguez had hired as they kept close watch on the Gonzales family. He sobered as his eyes fell on the attractive Señorita Abril. She was probably about sixteen years of age, the age Ania Valdéz had been when he had met her. Somewhat darker in complexion than Ania, Abril had a touch of beauty that promised to continue to bloom as she matured and there was already a touch of sensuality in her looks and movements that made a man wonder what it would be like to take her to his bed and teach her just what God had made women for. Ah, yes, dress that one in silks and satins such as Ania Valdéz wore at court and she would rival her as the center of attention of any gathering. Beautiful, and so young and innocent.

De Irujo glanced back at one of the men, who was also looking at the young girl. De Irujo was not the only man here to think such thoughts about her. He had already heard talk about what might go on before they were all killed, as they would be, regardless of what their father did for them. After all, the older ones could identify all of them and had heard enough to know that Rodríguez was at the center of it all. That would never do. The capitán planned to be a well-to-do hacendado when this was all over. Perhaps he would let the three little ones live, however. They could tell no one.  But the older ones… Well, it was just too bad. De Irujo shrugged. What does it matter? Rodríguez will not send word for them to be killed until after everything is over with Ania Valdéz and this Zorro that Rodríguez is determined to get. I won’t be here when that happens. I shall be in the pueblo enjoying seeing that little witch pay for all she has done. Ah, Ania, my little wildcat, my revenge has been long in coming, but it will be as sweet as honey! He smiled in anticipation. Nothing else is important. What happens back here in my absence is not my business anyway. Humming to himself, he walked over to where his bedroll was and stretched out on it. He might as well get some extra sleep now. After all, he would have to be on the road long before dawn if he was going to be there to see the end result of all his hard work.

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

Capitán Rodríguez executed a lunge which his ‘assistant’, Private Rómez, barely turned aside as they fenced in his office. This was merely the latest of many bouts they had gone through after Zorro had made such fools of them at the meeting with Vasquez. Rodríguez, already an expert swordsman, was determined to be even better by the time he met the outlaw again. Day after day, he had practiced with Rómez or another lancer. It was getting frustratingly easy to defeat any of his men. Without a challenge, where was the push that made one get better, faster? He could only hope that it would be enough to allow him to defeat that black-cloaked demon if they met. It was now the beginning of second watch and surely Zorro would be coming soon. He planned to be ready for him when he did.

If things went as planned, however, he would not have to take on Zorro at all. After all, he had more than enough men armed with muskets here now. They could hold him at gunpoint until he could be taken to await the grand unmasking and hanging. On the other hand, if he did not give up, they could merely kill him where he stood. He felt it very unlikely that Cosío’s troops, hidden and watching the roadways, would be needed. Either way, he would be rid of Zorro. Rodríguez smiled grimly. Hmmmm, I do not really want him shot. That is too quick a death for him. After suffering the man this long, a hanging would be most satisfying!

Rómez seemed to recover a bit and actually made a fair showing of himself for another few minutes. Then with a quick motion, Rodríguez sent the soldier’s sword flying to the side of the room and rested his sword point lightly against the private’s chest. "I yield, Capitán," Rómez gasped as he tried to catch his breath.

"And well you might, Private. Still, all in all, it was a good effort. Thank you for your help, with this and other things," Rodríguez smiled and saluted with the sword.

Rómez could hardly avoid knowing just how pleased the capitán was with the way his plan was going. He himself was less pleased. The young señorita was attractive and had always treated the soldiers with respect, all except Rodríguez, of course. The private was beginning to regret his part in all of this. However, he was now far too deep in it to back out. If Rodríguez failed, Rómez knew that he would spend many, many years in prison, if indeed he were, by some miracle, spared the noose. No, now it was either Señorita Valdéz’s life or his. He was in this thing to the bitter end.

Both men were startled by a knock on the door. "Pasé," Rodríguez called as he laid his saber on the desk.

Quickly, a peon came in, closing the door firmly behind him.

"Why did you come here? Do you not think someone could see you and wonder what one of Ania Valdéz’s servants was doing coming into my office, estúpido?" Rodríguez demanded.

"I had to come, Capitan," the peon answered.  "I could not trust anyone else to bring you a message."  He took a deep breath.  "Don Ramon is getting better," he said.  "The doctor says he is coming around.  He might live after all and that would not be good for us, eh?  What if Cordoba can say that it was not the woman who hit him?"

Rodríguez slammed his fist on the desk. "That fool, Pancho! I told him to be sure Córdoba was dead!" He paced out away from his desk and turned to face the two hirelings.

"But no one expected Córdoba to live, not even the doctor!" Rómez gasped.

"Well, Pancho will just have to go back and correct his mistake. If that man does say that she was not the one to attack him, not only will that part of the plot fall apart, but it will also raise serious questions about the rest of the charges. We cannot let that happen. Rómez, I want you to ride out to where de Irujo is camped. Pancho is there. Tell him he is to go back to the Valdéz hacienda immediately and find a way to silence Córdoba. Tell him if he fails, I will see that HE is the first person in our conspiracy hung, for I will do it with my own hands."

"Sí, Capitán Rodríguez," Rómez replied and started for the door.

"Wait, take this one with you," Rodríguez ordered with a wave toward Iago. The peon scurried out the door with him. Outside the door, Rómez grabbed the peon by the collar, as if he was forcibly taking him somewhere.

Ania stood at her cell door. She was once again counting the lancers she could see. Now she counted only seventeen soldiers, where before there had been thirty. She smiled slightly as she thought about it. I do not know how the sergeant did it, but surely this is some of his doing. Seventeen is still an awful lot, still too many for one man to take on alone, but maybe it will help a little. Ah, if I do manage to get out of this, I shall never forget what Sergeant García and Corporal Reyes have done. If I live to be a hundred years old, I shall remember and do what I can to thank them. Then her smile faded. However, we are not out of here yet. Right now, the likelihood of her living to reach twenty-three seemed just as remote as her living to reach one hundred. She sighed.

Then Rómez coming out of the office almost pulling a peon by the collar caught her attention. The peon looked familiar. Ah, yes, that is Iago. Humph, I wonder what he is doing here. Somehow I cannot imagine him coming to my defense, not after I nearly fired him. The servant had been suspected of stealing, but there had been no proof, so she had merely warned him that if it happened again, he would be looking for other employment. As she watched the two of them ride out of the cuartel, she shrugged. Oh, well! I have bigger things on my mind. Iago is just a simple man. I suppose he can do me no harm now, if he had ever intended to. She shrugged again and went back to her waiting and her prayers.

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

Zorro glanced at the dark night sky as he and Bernardo rode up almost silently to the back of the cuartel. They waited under the shadow of some trees as they carefully took note of any guards in view: one far to the left, looking away, and one far to the right, doing the same thing. Hmmm, Rodríguez does not seem to be using all the men on guard, as I would have. I wonder what his game is? I guess we shall know soon enough. He took note of the approximate hour of the night. If he was correct in his reckoning, he had less than half an hour until the moon would rise. After that, things would brighten considerably. He planned to use the darker time to get to Ania and the brighter time to allow Tornado more light for their swift dash to freedom. If he was to keep to his timetable, he must get busy. The darkest hours would not last much longer.

Sticking to the denser shadows, he eased Tornado quietly up to the wall, and handing his reins to Bernardo, he hoisted himself to the edge of the roof. Easy! he urged himself. I must make no noise to warn the guard I am nearby.

Behind him, he heard just the slightest sound of the horses being taken to the place he and Bernardo had agreed on. He froze for a moment, then smiled grimly. He could hear the nearest guard humming to himself. The guard’s own humming had covered the sound of the horses. How fortunate for Zorro that this man was a lover of music!

Moving with the stealth of a cat, Zorro moved slowly to within a few feet of the humming guard. In front of the cuartel, there was the noise of what could have been the breaking of a flowerpot. The soldier’s attention was immediately caught by the sound and he made the mistake of turning in that direction in an attempt to figure it out. An instant later, a black glove was tightly clamped over his mouth and he was yanked none too gently into the deep shadows. A slight thud of sword hilt to skull was all that marked the end of the soldier’s struggle. Zorro tried to ignore the similarities to his nightmare as he quickly tied the man’s hands with his belt and gagged him with his handkerchief. This WILL NOT have the same ending. I swear it! he told himself.

His heart suddenly leaped into his throat as he found that he had not been quite as silent as he wished. "Geraldo! Geraldo! Is everything all right over there?" came the voice of the guard on the right.

Zorro flattened himself to the side of the chimney he was beside. He’d have to gamble that his voice was enough like the unconscious guard’s to get him by. "Sí, sí, everything is fine, amigo! My foot just slipped," he called.  But I am fine now. Gracias.”

"Ha!" the man laughed back. "I will just bet you nearly fell asleep. That is why you almost fell. You had better keep alert. If you do not, you may wake to find El Zorro at your elbow. How would you like that, Geraldo?"

"Ah, that would be a surprise indeed, would it not, but a profitable one," Zorro answered.

"Ha! As if Capitán Rodríguez would let you be the one to collect the 2500 pesos," the other laughed as he turned back to his own post.

Zorro breathed a sigh of relief and then immediately peered around the chimney to see if the shadows were thick enough to hide him as he crept up on the talkative guard. They were, and slowly his first trick was repeated with the second guard. Happily, this time no one else realized that anything was wrong.

The removal of the two guards had given him just the space he needed to get into the cuartel and he soon found himself peering over the edge of the roof not far from the storage door at the end of the row of cells. He looked around and could see only three other guards on the ground, all close to the gate and drowsy. Where were the others? He shook his head. He would deal with those when they showed up.

As he looked back toward Ania’s cell, the second one from the end, he got a shock. There standing, leaning on his gun, was Corporal Reyes. Why that worthless scoundrel! he growled silently to himself. He is no better than García! Both of them claiming to be her friend, but willing to take an active part in her murder. Cold anger rose up in his heart as he looked at the corporal. Well, let both of them beware! I shall have no more pity on them than they have on her.

He noticed one good thing however. Though quite a few torches were burning around the parade grounds, the one closest to Ania’s cell was dark. How it happened to go out, he had no way of knowing. He could only hope it was not part of a trap, a way to draw him into just the path they wished for him to follow. After considering it a moment, he shrugged and prepared to ease himself off the roof into the deep shadows beside the storage door. If it was part of a trap, he still would need to take advantage of it. He could not afford to be seen, and like it or not, THAT was the spot where he was least likely to attract attention. Once he was on the ground, he flattened himself to the wall and stood still, willing himself to be one with the shadows. When everything remained silent, he began easing toward the corporal, who appeared to be dozing on his gun. Ania, who had been kneeling once again in prayer, jumped and stifled a cry as she caught a motion in front of her door. Zorro quickly placed a finger over his lips to signal her to be quiet.

Zorro watched Reyes closely. He could have sworn that the soldier had jumped at Ania’s slight cry, yet he still had not moved. He was even more surprised when, as he grabbed the lancer, the man crumbled to the ground as if he were knocked out. Yet Zorro knew that he had not struck him. He stood for a moment looking down at the corporal with a look of astonishment.

"Pssst! My pocket," he heard Reyes whisper.

Zorro stood still for an instant, trying to make sense of it.

"My pocket, the key!" the corporal tried again.

Suddenly, it made sense and Zorro smiled. Maybe Reyes, at least, understood friendship. Quickly, he patted Reyes’ shoulder and reached into the lancer’s pocket for the skeleton key.

He quickly unlocked the door and praying that the door would not squeak, opened it far enough to pull Ania out. As she came out, her left hand hit the bars and her rosary fell to the floor just inside the cell. It had been her mother’s and was special to her. Automatically, she reached back in for it, but Zorro pulled her on out. "Leave it!" he hissed urgently.

Nodding, she turned to him. She longed to throw her arms around him. However, there was no time now for that. She was puzzled as he took off his cape and put it around her shoulders.

"We must go back across the roof," he explained quietly in her ear. "Your outfit is too light. Cover it up," Without hesitation, she did as she was told.

Keeping her close to his body, he guided her back into the shadows and started to boost her up to the edge of the roof. This is going better than I was expecting, he allowed himself to think, just before things got decidedly worse.

As Ania pulled herself almost onto the rooftop, she found herself staring at the scuffed toes of a pair of army issue boots. Gasping, she looked up just as the lancer looked down.

"Zorro!" the surprised lancer cried as he looked past her at the man in black. "Lancers! Here! Zorro is here!" He reached out with his foot as if he would step on Ania’s hands. She jerked them out of the way and lost her grip on the roof, which was just as well. Zorro had already realized that he could not send her up on the roof ahead of him now, nor could he get up there fast enough to stop the lancer from shooting at him, or even more importantly, at her.

Quickly easing Ania to the ground, he looked around desperately for another way out. With dismay, he saw that lancers who had been hidden beside them guarded the two alternate paths that he had noted on the way in. It had been a well-laid trap indeed! He pulled Ania behind him and drew his sword from its scabbard, preparing to fight their way free. The few soldiers who came his way armed with swords soon fell back before the ferocity of his flashing blade, several with wounds for their trouble.

For a moment his heart lifted. Then reality reasserted itself. From three sides, front, right and left, stepped nine lancers. In their hands were muskets, primed and cocked, each one aimed squarely at him. Slowly, he backed up with Ania behind him until they could retreat no more. With the wall at his back, the lancers and their guns formed a ring of fire around them for which a sword was no match.

Behind him, he heard Ania moan. "Oh, Dios! Oh, Dios, no!" he heard her whisper. Taking her hand, he squeezed it, wishing to comfort her. Yet there was precious little comfort in his own heart. He knew that things were bad, very bad, indeed. The Fox was well and truly caught.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-four
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