Jandro rode through the end of the valley and
saw a carriage and a group of horsemen.
The one closest to the wagon seemed familiar.
in front of his father were two men pointing their pistols at him.
A quick flashback to two weeks ago caused his heart to skip a
beat. Not again! he
thought. A shot rang out
and his father fell out of his saddle.
Jerking his own pistol out, Jandro took quick
aim and fired at the shooter, knocking him to the ground, where he lay
writhing in pain, one arm clutched close to his chest.
Another rider pointed his pistol at him and Jandro shot again,
missing this time, but coming close enough to spoil the shooter’s aim.
The bullet whistled above his head.
Another shot rang out near him and the boy turned in time to see
a rider near some rocks to his left fall out of his saddle, clutching
his chest. He turned again
and saw his sister waving her rifle in triumph. And Mari thought that all the martial arts practice before
our trip here was silly! he thought. But Father . . . is he all
right? He has to be!
The four remaining kidnapers began converging on
the carriage. Whipping out
his sword, Jandro began laying into his nearest assailant, trying to
dispatch him quickly so he could get to the carriage and check on his
family. Tornado snorted,
but did not waver from his position, thus allowing the boy to slash and
parry. Shouts behind him told him that the vaqueros from the
de la Vega rancho had arrived.
Suddenly, it was over, the few remaining kidnapers threw down
their pistols and raised their hands.
His own opponent threw down his sword and raised his hands.
After Mari had cut the rope binding her wrists
and had placed the knife in the swollen fingers of one hand, Minta
reached up and jerked the hated blindfold from her face.
The late afternoon sun half-blinded her for a moment and she
blinked, trying to focus her eyes.
She knew from the shouts around her that someone was trying to
rescue her. Diego? No, he couldn’t be. But
the voice that had ordered Mari to watch behind her sounded like
Diego’s. Surely, though,
this would be too hard on him. Glancing
up at the horseman near the carriage, she felt her heart thrill to see
that it was, indeed, Diego.
Sharp stabs of pain shot up and down Minta’s
tingling fingers, eliciting a soft moan from deep in her throat and the
knife dropped to the bottom of the carriage.
Desperately she reached down beside her and found it again. Curling her stiffened fingers around the knife’s handle,
she bent forward and began sawing at the ropes binding her ankles
together. The pain in her
fingers became almost excruciating and the knife was hard to hold, but
Minta continued pressing the blade against the fibers keeping her
prisoner. She heard Diego
talking to Pablo and Maria Louisa.
She heard Maria Louisa continue to call for her death.
She heard Pablo’s shout and looked up just as he fired his
weapon. Diego fell
out of the saddle toward her and she screamed, even as she was still
cutting at the rope. The
last fibers broke under the strain of the knife and her jerking legs,
and she half leaped and half stumbled from the carriage to Diego’s
side. Behind her, little
Minta began screaming . . . a desperate, heart-wrenching cry.
Kneeling next to Diego, Minta began checking
him, but the only blood she found was a small amount on his upper arm,
the result of a cut or something similar.
His hand reached up and he touched her cheek.
She looked into his eyes, relief flooding through her body. “You are all right?” she asked.
“I was not shot if that is what you mean,”
he looked beyond her shoulder and she turned and followed his gaze. She was shocked to see Zorro, on top of Tornado, confronting
several of the kidnapers. It
appeared that all had surrendered.
Minta gazed at Jandro, proud and frightened at the same time.
“Señor Zorro, why are you not
protecting us against these demons?” one of the kidnapers asked.
The point of Zorro’s sword hovered only a bare inch from the
man’s Adam’s apple. For
some reason, Minta felt the kidnaper was only trying to rationalize
himself out of the results of his barbarous actions.
Somehow she felt that the man hadn’t seen the inside of a
church for some time.
“Señor Zorro fights injustice,”
Diego said, sitting up, his voice strong with passion.
“It is injustice to torture women and children simply because
they are different. You have not given this woman any chance at all,
either now or in the past. Hers
was a trial by jealously, a sentence by ignorance, and an attempted
execution by hate.” He
paused, rubbed his wrist and continued.
“The Church has not found any evidence of demonism in her.
Is that not so, Señor Zorro?
Is that not why you are here to defend her?” he asked, slowly
rising to his feet. Minta held on to him, taking part of his weight when he
moaned softly in pain. She
noticed him nod to Jandro, so slightly that if she had not been attuned
to both of them, she would have missed it.
“Yes, Don Diego,” Jandro said softly, his
efforts to deepen his voice, for the most part successful.
“You will be all right?”
“Yes, Señor Zorro.
We will. Thank you
for your help.”
“Then I must go now,” he said, turning
Tornado and quickly galloping out of the valley.
Vaqueros began gathering the
captured kidnapers together, what few were still standing.
There were several lying on the ground, moaning with their
Diego leaned against the carriage, his breath
coming in soft wheezing gasps, his eyes closed.
Minta realized that he may not have been shot, but he was in pain
and was totally exhausted. She
gathered him in her arms as much in relief as to support him.
“NO!” Maria Louisa screamed.
Minta jerked up in surprise and then cried out
in horror as she saw Maria Louisa running toward them. Her arm was
upraised, in her hand a knife was poised, its blade sparkling with a
hideous light. She was
rushing toward Diego with incredible speed.
It seemed to Minta as though the woman had the speed of a
commuter while all around her were mired in tar.
“I will not let you!
I will not let you!” Maria Louisa screamed as she continued her
Determination and anger supplanted the fear and
Minta pushed Diego to the side, ignoring his soft cry of protest. Her hand shot out and caught Maria Louisa’s wrist.
Her other hand, balled into a fist, struck the vengeful woman
under the chin, snapping her head back and stopping her in her tracks.
Maria Louisa recovered quickly and grabbed at Minta’s face,
struggling at the same time to free her knife hand.
Minta held on, even though the other woman was
like a wild brisal, snarling and spitting, with a strength far
beyond that suggested by her slender frame.
Thrusting her right foot behind Maria Louisa’s left leg, Minta
jerked the other woman off balance.
They fell together in a heap, still fighting for an advantage.
Maria Louisa’s fingers tore at her face, reaching for her eyes.
Minta cocked her free hand into a fist and slammed it into Maria
Louisa’s face. She screamed and shook her head, making the blood from her
broken nose fly everywhere.
Minta finally jerked the knife from Maria
Louisa’s steely fingers as the crazed woman screamed again and once
more came at her. Minta
felt the woman’s weight, slight though it was, bear down on her like a
boulder. She felt
overwhelmed by the grasping, clutching fingers, the hard pointed elbows
and knobby knees.
Still holding onto the knife and trying to keep
her antagonist from reaching her with the snakelike fingers, Minta
thought furiously, trying come up with a way to subdue the woman.
She wondered why no one was helping her and could only figure
that they had their hands full with the prisoners and the wounded.
Maria Louisa’s teeth snapped, seeking her flesh.
With a maniacal laugh, the younger woman reared back and then
threw herself at Minta once more.
Minta rolled to the side, feeling the knife slip
from her fingers. Both
women jumped to their feet at almost the same time.
Maria Louisa’s eyes glittered with a hate that caused Minta to
gasp in astonishment and fear. Then
the younger woman’s eyes glanced downward and she leaped forward,
grabbing the knife from the dust, immediately slashing at Minta.
Jumping to one side, Minta berated herself for
underestimating her opponent. A
vaquero pulled out a pistol and pointed it at Maria Louisa. “No!” Minta cried out.
“No, not that!” She
was gratified to see the man lower his gun, although he seemed to be
keeping it ready. “Please,
no killing,” she added, watching the other woman, assessing her and
trying to find an opening that would end all this.
She heard Diego move next to her. Without taking her eyes off of Maria Louisa, she said,
“Diego, no. This time I
will take care of our enemy.” She
moved away from him, still facing Maria Louisa.
She remembered everything that Wis had taught her, and she
thought how ironic it was that she had, at first, resisted learning
these defensive skills. Breathing
deeply, Minta went into a crouch, studying the Californiano
woman’s every move.
Maria Louisa spat out several curses and charged
her. Minta grabbed one
outstretched hand and shoved it down.
Her other hand formed a partially closed fist that again caught
the younger woman under her chin. Maria
Louisa fell to the ground with a scream, but she held on tightly to the
knife and was soon back on her feet.
Again she charged at Minta, but this time the Rantiri woman
jumped to one side just before the knife would have penetrated her
chest. It was not quite far
enough out of the reach of the crazed woman, though, as Minta felt a
sharp burning sensation along her arm.
She became aware of the warm blood soaking the sleeve of her
As Maria Louisa swept by her, she laughed.
“Ai, witch, you can bleed!” she cried out, turning and then
jumping in and out, slashing the air with her knife.
“Yes, I do bleed, Maria Louisa,” Minta
panted. “I bleed like
you, I bleed like Diego, and I bleed like anyone here.
I am no Hell spawned supernatural being.
I am no demon or witch,” she added vehemently.
Maria Louisa paused for a few seconds and then
charged again. Minta
tripped the woman as she rushed by, but the younger woman seemed
possessed and was up on her feet again in an instant.
She snarled, “You cannot fool me, witch.”
Maria Louisa jumped toward Minta, who balanced on one foot,
striking out with the other one. Maria
Louisa staggered back, clutching her stomach with one hand, still
holding on to the knife with the other.
“I am simply a woman from another country who
loves someone from yours,” Minta added.
She gathered one leg close to her body and struck out again, this
time catching Maria Louisa under the ribs.
“Do you think that I would come back here after what you did to
me over twelve years ago if I did not?”
The younger woman bent over, gasping in pain.
Minta struck with another open fisted blow and then jumped back
as Maria Louisa threw the knife at her.
It swished past her ear and Minta turned in fear of what it might
have hit. She was relieved
when she saw the weapon quivering in the side of the carriage.
Diego was standing nearby, staring, his eyes
desperate with desire to be at her side, to be protecting her. His face was pale, testament to the effects of the ride and
his attempted rescue of her and the girls.
Mari was next to him, watching the battle, her gaze filled with
fear. “Mother, watch
out!” Mari shouted. As
Minta turned back toward her adversary, Maria Louisa slapped her,
grabbed the knife, and shoved Mari aside.
She slashed at Diego, as though
determined that if she could not have him, neither would Minta.
Minta leaped forward and snatched a handful of
Maria Louisa’s long flowing hair, jerking her around to face her.
Diego had grabbed the crazed woman’s wrist with one hand and
was keeping her at bay, but seemed unable to do more.
Not even thinking of her next move, Minta let go of the woman’s
hair and kicked out yet again, her foot connecting just below the rib
cage and shoving her opponent into the side of the carriage.
Maria Louisa grabbed the carriage whip hanging over the side, but
she didn’t have time to use it. Diego
had kicked her ankle and knocked her off balance.
Still holding on to her weapons, stumbling,
Maria Louisa lunged toward her, the whip hissing toward her face like an
angry snake. Images
flashed in her memory, but Minta shoved those visions of the past back
into the dark corners of her mind and concentrated on her enemy.
Reaching out, she snatched the whip from Maria Louisa’s fingers
and flung it away. With
the side of her hand, Minta struck just under the woman’s chin,
causing her head to snap back.
Again, Maria Louisa came at her as one
possessed, but this time with less vigor, as though she were tiring. She should be, Minta thought wryly.
The strength and determination of the former de la Vega servant
was frightening in its intensity and ferocity.
Minta felt exhausted and knew that the battle had to end soon.
The knife still flashed in the late afternoon
sun, deadly and cold. Once
again, Maria Louisa lunged at her.
Minta danced to one side, grabbing the other woman’s arm with
one hand, jerking it behind her, pulling up until the younger woman’s
shoulder creaked. Maria
Louisa screamed in pain and struggled, but Minta held on tightly until
the knife fell from her lax fingers.
Then Minta shoved her forward to the ground, her knee digging
into the younger woman’s back.
Maria Louisa screamed and then began sobbing,
her gasping breaths causing tiny puffs of dust to rise from the ground.
“Listen to me!” Minta cried. “I am not a
demon! I am not a witch! I am a woman! I
am a foreign woman who wants to live here, be one with you, and be a Californiano.
You have given me scars, but I have returned anyway.
I want to be here despite that.
Leave us alone, Maria Louisa!”
Maria Louisa continued struggling. With a sigh of resignation, Minta closed her fist and brought
it against the side of the mad woman’s head.
Maria Louisa went limp. Feeling
stiff and sore, Minta rose slowly from her position on top of the
unconscious woman. She
looked up and saw some of the vaqueros standing in a loose
circle. “Please, take her away,” she said softly.
“Are you all right?” Diego asked from
As she turned to him, her feet felt like lead.
He was still standing with Mari and little Minta’s help, but he
was cradling one hand in the other and looked as though he was ready to
collapse. “Yes, I
am.” She moved to his
side, motioning her daughter away and then she began to examine him
“I should have been the one out there,” he
whispered. “I should have
been protecting you.”
I only see a fraction of the men who kidnapped us.
I know that you followed and I can only guess what you had to do
to try and rescue us.” She
looked into his exhausted face. “Oh,
querido, we are one. We
are a team.” She took his
hand in hers and began to bring it to her cheek, but stopped when she
heard him gasp in pain. “Diego?”
“I was less than graceful when Pablo shot at
me and I threw myself from my horse,” he answered with a slight smile.
“I think it is only badly sprained.”
“Is she dead?” Pablo asked.
His shirt was stained with his own blood and one arm hung limply
at his side, but he had managed to make it to Maria Louisa’s side.
“Is she dead?” he repeated.
“No, Corporal,” Minta answered. “I just knocked her unconscious.
When your wound is tended to and you are well, take her away from
here. Take her somewhere
and care for her. She does
not realize just how fortunate she is to have you by her side,” she
added softly, seeing the look of devotion on his face.
“I can make you so happy if you will let
me,” Pablo whispered close to Maria Louisa’s ear.
Several vaqueros attempted to take her, but the soldier
wouldn’t let them. “No,
you are not going to throw her over a saddle like so much grain,” he
stated vehemently, pushing their hands away.
“In the carriage.
Put her in the carriage,” Diego said.
“But bind her hands in case she wakes up.” He turned stiffly back to Minta.
“Shall we go home?” he asked.
“Yes, but you are not going on the back of a
horse, either, querido,” Minta replied.
Diego sighed and allowed his fiancé and a vaquero to help him into the vacant seat across from the vengeful woman and her lover. Minta sat next to him and pulled him close to her. Then she began to cry softly on his chest.