Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-four


Pepe quietly approached the de la Vega stables, sticking close to the deeper shadows, much as he imagined Zorro might have done. However, this was no game of pretend that he was about, but a mission he took very seriously. Not long after he was sent out of the cuartel when he had seen Señorita Ania, he had heard that Rodríguez had been awarded her land and property, just as she had feared. Well, he was determined that he would keep his vow to the patrona. The capitán would never ride Ventura!

Pepe looked toward the casa grande. There were many lights showing in the windows. It appeared that few people could sleep tonight. No one here could possibly believe the evil things said of the patrona, yet why were they all still here? Things seemed shamefully quiet, in this place of all the places where action should be taken. How could they all still be here and not out trying to save her? Did they all plan to just sit here and let them hang her? Pepe’s eyes stung again as he thought about it. They cannot do that! Surely, someone will stop them from killing her. Zorro will! But why do they leave it all to him? Pepe swiped a hand over his eyes. I will not cry like a baby. I must be brave and do what she asked me to do. I cannot save her but I will take Ventura and hide her, so Rodríguez does not take her. I promised!

He had nearly made it to Ventura’s stall when he heard footsteps approaching. Quickly, he ducked back behind a rack of saddles. He held his breath as he watched Benito walk by. The head vaquero had always been kind to him, but Pepe doubted Benito’s kindness included turning a blind eye to what would appear to be the theft of the patrona’s horse.

Benito stopped and leaned on the gate to the stall for a moment in thought. He reached out to pet her, but Ventura tossed her head and backed away. "Easy, girl, you are upset tonight, too. Everyone’s emotions have you on edge. I wish I could tell you everything was going to be all right. I wish that was true. There, there," he said quietly. Slowly the horse settled down and allowed herself to be patted. After a minute, the tall vaquero turned and walked back toward the main house, his head bowed in thought.

Pepe silently hurried to the stall as soon as Benito was out of sight. The horse drew a deep breath and blew it out again as she caught his scent. She looked around at him with interest. This was one of the two people who often fed her and cared for her. There was no uneasiness here. Quickly locating the patrona’s own saddle, the boy stepped up onto an overturned bucket and swung the saddle over Ventura’s back. "Whoa, girl," he whispered soothingly as she sidestepped nervously. "We’re just going for a run. You would like that.  You always want to run."

As soon as he had tightened the cinch and shortened the stirrups for his height, he hoisted himself into the saddle and swung the gate wide. Reining the spirited mare in, he stopped while still in the shadows of the stable and looked out. All was still. Holding Ventura to a quiet walk, he then guided her out and headed southeastward from the casa grande. On his way here, he had taken the time to look for the nearest herd. There was one relatively close by that looked like a good one for the purpose.  There were already several black horses in it.  Ventura would blend right in. He would hide with Ventura tonight, and early tomorrow morning, he would go to one of the people living nearby and ask if Señorita Ania had been rescued. If she had not, if she was dead, then he would do as he had promised and release Ventura with the herd.

At the last thought, he kicked Ventura and allowed her to go as fast as she wished. The moon had now risen and the trail was easy to see. Finally, he reined the mare back to a slow trot as he thought. Ventura gradually slowed and began cropping a bit of the fresh grass along the trail.

Pepe hoped his mother was not too worried about him. She had been so upset by the news about the patrona when he left that he doubted she would even realize that he was gone. He had sometimes spent the night at the stable. If she did miss him, perhaps she would assume that was where he was. Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of horses trotting along the path toward him.

Quickly, he pulled Ventura back behind a large boulder not far off the trail. He dismounted, and pulling Ventura’s head to him, he rubbed his hand on her nose, keeping her quiet. He could just see the path from where he was and it was not long before the two riders came into view. Iago! And that is Private Rómez with him. Why would Iago be going anywhere with a soldier?

He thought for a moment, remembering that someone had said that some of the señorita’s own servants had turned against her. Could Iago be one of them? He is certainly a liar. I wonder what he is up to now. Maybe I can learn something to help Señorita Ania if I follow them. He felt resolve strengthen in his mind. Yes, I can do that! As the two men moved far enough down the path not to hear him, Pepe remounted Ventura and eased out onto the road behind them.  Maybe I CAN help Señorita Ania after all!

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

Don Alejandro paced across his room in front of the fireplace. In the time since he had figured out his son’s secret, he had learned to pray for the man behind the mask and then rest easy, trusting that Diego would be protected. Tonight he was having a harder time doing this. He stopped for a moment and gazed up at his wife’s picture. His son was like Isabella in so many ways. Ah, Isabella, have I been wrong to encourage him in this mad plan?

Yet, even as he asked the question, he knew the answer. No, he was not wrong! He was right, just as Diego was right to have found such a powerful way to help his people. Diego had God-given talents and intelligence that was needed for this very thing. And this mission, regardless of Diego’s personal stake in it, was also just. Ania was an innocent person caught in an evil plan of greed and revenge. There was no doubt that Zorro would have to ride! Even if they had been strangers, he would still have done so. Alejandro sighed.  He supposed the fact that Diego WAS emotionally involved was what worried him. He could only pray that his son would be able to divorce himself from his feelings enough for Zorro to remain objective in his reactions and planning.

Don Alejandro thought about the previous times Zorro had faced poor odds and still triumphed. There had been several that he knew about. He particularly remembered the time when he, himself, had led a group of dons to try and rescue the Torres women.

He remembered turning with shock as Zorro had ridden up to the cuartel, shouting a warning to all of them that it was an ambush. The other men had managed to get back to their horses and escape. He had not.  When the gate started to close with him inside, he was surprised to see the man in black ride right into the midst of the cuartel to help him. The outlaw had taken on all of the soldiers there, moonlight and torchlight turning his swift sword to flame as he fought to give Don Alejandro time to get over the wall. Somehow, after seeing him shot, Zorro had fought his way clear to come to him, helping him onto the black horse and riding with him into the night. The hills had been full of lancers, seemingly everywhere they turned. In spite of the danger, Zorro had remained by his side, refusing to seek escape for himself. Don Alejandro’s heart had tried to tell him that night that Diego was behind the mask, but he had not believed it. How could his weak, cowardly son, so changed after his stay in Spain, be this bold, determined man of justice? Just as he had told Zorro, he had been too frightened to pull the mask aside. Even though he did not really believe it was his son, he did not want to have that doubt proven true. It had taken him months longer to finally begin putting all the odd bits of information together…the sudden disappearances and reappearances, the occasional unexplained bruises and minor injuries that Diego had explained away with tales of clumsiness…and realize the truth.

How proud he had been when he realized who Zorro really was! What a blessing Diego had become to the people of California! It had always been a struggle for Don Alejandro to keep that pride from showing on his face as he had seen his son take on evil and win time and time again.

Don Alejandro walked to the window and stared at the sky. The moon had now risen and the ground was bathed in a soft silvery glow. It was not long until the middle of the second watch. With a sigh, he turned and started getting ready. Soon it would be time to ride to Don Alfredo’s.

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

Zorro felt his heartbeat quicken and his breath shorten as he looked beyond the muzzles of the guns aimed at him to the faces of the soldiers holding them. Time was measured not in seconds now, but in heartbeats as he waited to see if they would shoot. As time passed, he began to feel that, just as he had hoped when he had tried to devise a plan, they had been told to shoot only as a last resort...to hold him at bay otherwise. Apparently, Rodríguez had his heart set on a hanging. There was still hope. He quickly squeezed Ania’s hand again, willing her to get his message. Do not give up yet. Trust me! he thought, as if he could tell her aloud.

Ania stood behind him, her eyes filled with terror. All she could think about, at first, was that she was going to see him gunned down right here and now. She could see no way of escape. Zorro still held her hand as they had backed as far away from the guns as possible. Ania had clung to it as a drowning person clings to a floating log or branch, as to life itself. When he squeezed her hand, she realized that if she concentrated just on him, she could sense no despair in him.  How can that be? she asked herself as she felt him squeeze her hand again. Surely nothing can get us out of here! Could he have another plan of some sort?

Suddenly, her own voice echoed through her mind..."While you live, I will not despair!" Since the moment she had said it, she had struggled to make it so and keep it the truth. Did she still mean it? She had said it then to give him a focus, a reason to rein in his anger and bide his time, to remind him of how she trusted and depended on him. It had worked, but did she really mean what she had said? YES! she told herself. I will not have the last promise I made him turned into a lie. While he still stands before me, alive, I WILL NOT lose hope, and he still stands there now, full of strength and courage. I do not know what we can do, but I...WILL...TRUST...HIM! She nearly screamed the words in her head to keep her focus on them, on that hope, rather than on the guns that could destroy her world between one heartbeat and the next.  

The nearest lancer ordered, "Come, Señor Zorro! Surrender. Surely you can see that here is no way out for you this time." He gestured for one of the men standing nearby, armed with a sword, to step up and take Zorro’s weapons.

The foolish swordsman must have believed that Zorro would agree that there was nothing else to do, for when Zorro burst into action again, piercing his shoulder, the unfortunate lancer looked as much shocked as pained by it.

At the instant the man’s sword clattered to the ground before his feet, Zorro kicked it back in front of Ania, hoping she would take the hint. If things went as he thought they would, he would need to be able to step away from Ania to fight. She had to have some way to assure that they could not just rush forward, taking her to use against him. She did not have a great deal of skill with a sword, but she did know a little about defense with it. He had seen her use it in just such a way before.

Ania had watched closely as Zorro stepped forward to attack the lancer sent to disarm the masked man.  As the soldier's saber slid close to her feet, she bent and scooped it up, understanding just what Diego wanted from her.  They will not take me, she vowed.  They will not use me to force him to surrender.

She met Zorro’s eyes as he quickly spared a glance over his shoulder to see if she would take up his unspoken suggestion. He could still see fear in her eyes. That was not gone, but she had mastered it. It did not control her. Along with the fear, he could see determination in their green depths. Ah, mujer, when we get out of this I will be sure to tell you how proud I am of you and your courage, he thought quickly, then brought his attention back to the guards. Come on, Rodríguez! Where are you? he thought.

Across the parade ground, he noticed Private Sánchez sprinting up the steps of the comandante’s office. "Capitán! We have Zorro trapped, Capitán!" he shouted as he rushed into the room.

"Zorro!" Rodríguez laughed as he strapped on his sword again. "I knew it would work. He could not let things stand as they were with Ania Valdéz. Did I not tell you?"

"Sí, Capitán!" Sánchez grinned back as he started out the door.

"Wait, Private! There is something you are to do for me," Rodríguez said, stopping at the door. The man looked back questioningly. "I feel sure that the others will keep Zorro at bay. I do not think he can go anywhere. However, he also is quite wily. No doubt he will try to continue to fight. Private, if he gives us very much trouble, at my command, you are to shoot the woman."

"The señorita, Capitán? I do not understand," Sánchez questioned.

Rodríguez considered just how much he wanted anyone else to know of what he had discovered. He smiled as he imagined the utter astonishment around him when he unmasked Zorro, revealing Diego de la Vega and decided that there was no sense in reducing the pleasure of that surprise by even one person. He would keep his knowledge to himself. "I have promised Zorro that I would see him hang. I intend to do just that. He will hang, but if he fights, if it seems that he will just not give up...  Well, I cannot explain to you just why right now, but if we shoot Ania Valdéz in front of him, it will have such an effect on him that I think his planning and craftiness will be quite thrown off. You will see. Just be ready to do it on my command and only on my command."

"Sí, Capitán," Sánchez answered.

"Now, let us go have a look at our cornered Fox," Rodríguez laughed as he started out the door at a trot.

Zorro was keeping a close watch on the lancers surrounding them. The gunmen came no closer, but the swordsmen would, from time to time, attempt to distract him. Twice he had two come at once, one from each side. He had been forced to step away from Ania in order to be in a position to deal with both of them. The second time, as he dealt with the first two, another advanced in an attempt to disarm and take her. He had quickly wounded one lancer and forced the other to retreat. He immediately turned to protect Ania. However, just as he did, he was delighted to see her raise her sword from low guard and go into action herself. In a rapid movement that he remembered seeing her brother, Felipe, use against him in a tournament, she not only turned aside the surprised lancer’s sword, but followed it up with a very effective and bloody slash to the soldier’s shoulder and upper chest. As their fellow lancer fell to the ground, moaning in pain and fear that he was bleeding to death, the others moved back. It had suddenly been shown to them that this "kitten" already had teeth and was not afraid to use them. This put a whole new light on their "easy" assignment to take her.

Zorro’s focus was distracted for a moment as he heard Rodríguez walk up, laughing uproariously. "Ah-ha, ha, ha! Oh, how the mighty art fallen! Is that not what the Bible says? I think it could apply to this situation quite well, Zorro. We seem to have cornered a fox."

At last! Zorro thought as he spared enough attention from the guards to look Rodríguez’s way. Cautiously, he moved back in front of Ania. "Perhaps, Capitán,” he said. “However, do they not also say that a cornered animal is also the most dangerous?"

"Ha! You still consider yourself a threat, Zorro? I have nine guns trained on you right now and all these lancers. What can you do?" Rodríguez asked. "Come, there is no hope for you. What would you say if I said that I would try to talk to the judge into letting the señorita live if you put your sword down? Perhaps he would consider simply keeping her in prison. She is young and strong. She just might live long enough to get out as an old woman. I would do that if you simply put your sword down right now. This useless fighting is tiring."

Zorro eyes glistened with restrained anger, but even as he started to speak Ania found her voice amid her fear and spoke up herself. "Regardless of what he would say, Rodríguez, I would call you a liar! You would never let me live. You have tried too many times before now to kill me. You have wanted my land and silver ever since I came here. Sergeant García," she called over to where the sergeant pretended to be aiding the ‘injured’ Reyes. "Think, Sergeant, how many times have you seen geodes and rocks in the Capitán’s office that were identical to the silver ore you helped me remove from my mine the day after I killed the bandido on the canyon wall? Private Santos, how many times did you take raw silver to Señor Cortéz’s shop? How many times did you bring back payment for that ore from the metal dealer to the comandante before my family and I came here? Think all of you! Who in this pueblo profits from my lands being forfeit? Only the capitán!" Several of the lancers began to look uncomfortable, darting glances at the capitán out of the corners of their eyes.

Zorro smiled grimly as he saw Rodríguez nervously take note of the soldiers’ reactions.

He decided to irritate the capitán further. "She is right, Rodríguez. You are a liar and a coward. You have never been able to find a way to take one of the larger ranchos legally, so you set your sights on what was supposedly unclaimed king’s land. As long as no one came here with a grant to the land, you could claim the silver without recording it in the official ledgers, and by doing so, cheated the king of his rightful profit. You are a coward, señor, as well as a murderer. When Señorita Valdéz’s family came here, you paid those bandidos to attack their carriage. Only, the señorita did not die, but fought her way back to build that rancho and vineyard anyway. And you have taken the coward’s way ever since. You have made war on a woman. How brave of you, Capitán Rodríguez!" he said sarcastically. "You, who has never been able to defeat me in combat of any sort! By attacking a woman, you thought you were assured a victory. You joined forces with a convicted criminal, a forger, to make things appear as they are not. You are no better than he, señor. You are less of a man than most of the criminals you have held in your cuartel!"

"Ha! Your words mean very little. I can have you shot where you stand," Rodríguez said, his voice rising in irritation at the insults.

"Sí, I suppose that you well might, Capitán. After all, that is the only way you would ever be able to defeat me. You have never been much of a swordsman. How many times have I taken your sword and left you sitting with your rear in the dust like a clumsy schoolboy? You would surround yourself with all these men to do your evil, as well, for you are afraid to try it again yourself," Zorro watched Rodríguez closely. The capitán was getting red as he held his temper in. Only a little more now! Just a little more! Zorro told himself. "Even as I die, these men will know you as you really are, Capitán! They will know you as a cheat, a liar, an attacker of women because you are afraid of doing the same to a man. A weakling and a coward who will let nine armed men do with guns what he himself is afraid to do with his own sword!"

Rodríguez’s breaking point came almost more quickly than Zorro was prepared for. Even as Rodríguez drew his sword, he leaped forward to attack the Fox. Zorro parried the lunge in one smooth motion and moved away from Ania so she would be a little safer. As Rodríguez attacked again, Zorro could see that he had improved since the last time they had battled.

After a few minutes, Rodríguez stepped back out of the circle of combat and glanced around at the gunmen. He needed more space to move if he was to handle the swift Fox. "Stand down, lancers!" he ordered.

The lancers looked at the capitán in surprise.

"I said ‘Stand down’! Put your muskets down. This shall be between Zorro and me. However, if he attempts to escape, kill him!" He glanced at most of the men and then seemed to give Private Sánchez a long hard look. "Now put your muskets down and move back. Give me room to cut this worthless scoundrel down to size."

Now why would he spare that much attention for Sánchez? Ania wondered as she saw the look that passed between them. Perhaps I had better keep my eyes on Sánchez.

Most of the lancers moved back beyond the steps on the other side of the completed scaffold, with its ominous noose already hanging from the crossbeam. Zorro noted that, not only did they have the attention of all the guards inside the cuartel, but also all the guards he could see on the roof were facing this way. That meant there was no one watching the outside of the cuartel. He smiled grimly again.

Rather than wait for the capitán to attack this time, Zorro leaped forward with a sudden cry that nearly caught the capitán unprepared. Rodríguez did manage to avoid Zorro’s blade and responded with such a sudden reply that his blade managed to skim along Zorro’s upper arm, cutting a gash in the black fabric, but amazingly, not cutting the skin.

Zorro realized that he would have to stop dividing his attention between Ania and the capitán. The soldier had indeed improved since their last battle. To survive, he would have to watch Rodríguez even more closely. The older swordsman was giving away little in his stance or shoulders. Zorro focused on his hands, trying to remain aware of any movement of the free hand as well as the hand with which Rodríguez held his blade. There! The slightest move of the backhand.  Rodríguez was going to attack to the left. Zorro met and deflected the expected attack and answered it with a lunge aimed at the capitán’s ribcage. Frustratingly, a button deflected the tip of his blade and he merely managed to skim along the soldier’s ribs as he had done before.

Rodríguez seemed to hardly pay attention to the nearness of Zorro’s attack. Instead he lunged forward and came hilt to hilt with Zorro, each pushing against the other for purchase. "Did you think it would truly be easy to defeat me this time, de la Vega?" Rodríguez said quietly as the two men struggled.

Ania gasped and García looked at the two men in surprise. No one else was close enough to hear him. If Rodríguez expected his statement to rattle the Fox, he was disappointed. Zorro’s only reaction was a slight narrowing of his eyes and a renewal of the ferocity of his fighting. With a mighty shove, he pushed the capitán backwards toward one leg of the scaffold, which Rodríguez used to catch his balance again.

Improved or not, it soon became apparent that the older man was tiring. Zorro kept up a flurry of slashes and thrusts, most turned aside at the last possible moment, some to leave small nicks and cuts here and there on the capitán. It was clear that unless something changed, the killing stroke would come and the victor would not be the capitán but the Fox, as it had been in the past. This time, the Fox was giving no quarter. As he had warned Rodríguez in the past, Zorro had run out of patience with him. This duel could have only one end. Once again, the two enemies came hilt-to-hilt, sweat beginning to trickle down the capitán’s face as he looked into the steely hazel eyes of death. Desperately, Rodríguez looked at Sánchez and gave a slight nod.

Ania was puzzled. Now why would Rodríguez chance taking his attention off Zorro for even an instant now. Why look at Sánchez? As she looked at the soldier, the answer became terrifyingly apparent.

To Ania, things suddenly seemed to be going in slow motion. She saw Sánchez shoulder his musket and turn toward her. Her mouth dry, her breath seemed to freeze in her throat as she realized that he had centered the bore of the weapon on the middle of her chest. She felt the rough, coldness of the adobe wall behind her as she staggered backwards, but there was nowhere to run. The saber fell from nerveless fingers, unnoticed.

Then she saw what, at first, was a puzzling thing. Instead of pulling the trigger and killing her, the soldier looked toward where the two men still fought, his eyes focused on Zorro's unprotected back. Ania suddenly saw, as clearly as she could have read it from a book, just what was going through Private Sánchez’s mind. Images of pesos were drifting through it, hundreds and hundreds of pesos, 2500 pesos, to be exact.

I know what Capitán Rodríguez said,” Sánchez was telling himself.  “But if I say that I feared that the outlaw was killing him and decided to shoot him instead, what can he really do? Tell me I should not have saved his life? No, he can only give me the reward. 2500 pesos! I have never seen that much money in my entire life!  I will deal with the Capitán’s anger later. Now I will see to collecting that reward!

Ania had gone from one horror to another that was even more unthinkable to her. For a moment, she stood frozen against the wall as the bore of the musket swung in what seemed to be a slow motion arc from her to Zorro where he was locked in combat with Rodríguez. Ania wanted to cry out, to warn him, but for once she could not get her vocal cords to work. Not a sound could she seem to force out, yet she had to do something to prevent Sánchez from shooting Zorro. Finally, she managed to get out one word, as she pushed herself off the wall with all the force she could muster, desperately rushing forward to stop Sánchez anyway she could. "Noooooooo!"

In the confines of the cuartel and the tension of the moment, the report of the musket seemed to shake the walls with the force of a cannon.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-five
Chapter One
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