Starlight Dreams

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Deja Vu?

 

 

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.  Father!  And 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.

 

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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 various injuries.

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 mad rush. 

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 shirt. 

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 nearby. 

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 again. 

“I should have been the one out there,” he whispered.  “I should have been protecting you.”

“Oh, Diego.  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.   

 

 

Chapter Thirty

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