"CADENAS DE AMOR"

CHAPTER FORTY

"GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE"

[parts of the following scene taken from "The Devil's Fortress" written by Robert L McCullough]

     Diego rode the cleverly disguised Toronado to the top of a ridge before coming to a halt.  He had ridden hard for three days and was now only a few hours away from his destination.  So far, the journey had gone smoothly.

     That all changed a moment later when he heard two gunshots ring out.  Diego turned around and watched as two men on horseback rode straight for a stagecoach that was passing by on the road down below.  More shots were fired.

     "It looks like there's work for Zorro everywhere, old boy," Diego commented as he patted his stallion on the head.  Toronado tossed his mane and whinnied loudly.

     Within minutes, Zorro had taken care of one of the bandits, knocking him from his horse.  The second thief was dispatched just as quickly.  The coach, whose driver had been knifed in the back, was being pulled along at a high speed by the frantic horses.  Zorro managed to get them back under control and quickly brought the conveyance to a shuddering stop.

     Concerned about the vehicle's occupants, he dismounted the bandit's horse he had been riding and opened the coach's door.  He scanned its dark interior and saw that it held only one passenger.  A passenger who offered him her white-gloved hand.

     "I am Rosalinda de la Fuente," she announced imperiously as she stepped out of the coach with Zorro's assistance.  Her eyes swept down his length then back up again.  "To whom do I owe my deliverance?" she asked condescendingly.

     "A thousand pardons, Señorita," he replied.  "Zorro, at your service."  He bowed gallantly over her right hand which he still held.  He saw that she was quite lovely and his treacherous body began to stir with lust

     Rosalinda's voice broke through his fight for self-control.  "The fox?" she inquired.  "I've heard of such a man."  She tossed her head.  "But you could not possibly be that Zorro," she declared decisively.

     "And why is that, Señorita?" the masked man asked.

     The young woman moved a step closer to him.  "They say he is a notorious outlaw with a price on his head," she explained, gazing up into his eyes then giving him a teasing smile.

     He took a deep breath and caught a whiff of her perfume.  It was a heady scent and it made his already overloaded senses reel.  Giving his head a little shake, he grinned down at her.  "That must be another Zorro." he bantered.

     "Just so," said the bold señorita.  "I mean what would he be doing this far south?"

     "Evil and injustice are not confined to Los Angeles," he replied to her query of his appearance so far south. "Besides, this Zorro you've heard about is really not such a bad fellow."

     Rosalinda reached out with a gloved finger and ran it down his chest.  He could feel the heat of her touch scorching him through his silk shirt and had to stifle a deep groan.  "Clearly," she purred, running her finger back up his torso, "if he would risk his life to save a stranger."

     "And may I say, a very beautiful one," Zorro responded hoarsely.  It was because of her looks his body was reacting the way it was, he told himself.  And her bravery in the face of danger.  And the air of independence and a spirited nature he could sense surrounding her.  She was a very confident and poised young lady.  Much like Victoria.  And like how Zafira had been when they had first met.

      He realized that all the women he was drawn to, and that included Amanda Herrera, were cut from the same cloth.  But before he had time to contemplate his discovery, Rosalinda waved a white lacy handkerchief at him.  Its scent matched the one she wore and his body tightened.

     "Please accept this as a reward for your chivalry," she entreated him with a dazzling smile.  Zorro took the dainty cloth then pulled her gloved hand to his lips.

     He lifted his head and gazed into her dark eyes.  "You are too kind," he declared, staring at her unabashedly.  It was taking quite an effort to keep from kissing more than just her fingers.  He let go of her hand.  "I must go."

     After reassuring her that help was on the way, he mounted the bandit's horse and rode off.  It was nearly two hours later, after he had rounded up the robbers and had buried Rosalinda's driver, that Diego de la Vega, astride the camouflaged Toronado, rode up to the lovely young lady who was waiting impatiently by her stranded coach.

     Diego was never quite sure of what had happened next.  One minute he had been driving the coach toward Devil's Fortress, the next he was placed under arrest, accused of being Zorro.  He glared over at Rosalinda as several soldiers aimed their sharp swords at his chest.

     "I'm afraid you're making a grave mistake, Señorita," Diego commented as he held up both hands.

     Rosalinda passed behind him as she circled around him.  "Oh, no," she replied smugly, "it was you who made the error.  I gave the handkerchief to Zorro."  She walked over to where a nervously twitching Toronado was standing, and placed her gloved hand on his neck.  "It was scented with perfume from the Paris house of Sorbonne.  Very expensive and very rare."  She sniffed delicately.  "Now, either it is in here," she stated as she patted one of the stallion's saddlebags, "or you have the sweetest smelling horse in Mexico, Señor Guilerans."

     Diego was extremely glad he had given the ungrateful harpy a false name.  He also noted that all of these women he was attracted to ended up being heartless and unpleasant females.  With the exception of Victoria, of course.  Maybe that was why the pull of attraction to her was still so strong.  She had yet had the chance to let  him down.

     He narrowed his eyes as he looked over at Rosalinda, who was now standing next to her sergeant.  "Well," he began, "even assuming I was this bandit, which I'm not, why would you have me arrested?  You just told me he saved your life."

     The soldier expressed his incredulousness at this and Diego was confused by his amusement. Then the double-crossing señorita revealed that she was the daughter of the very man he was on his way to see.  The commandante of Devil's Fortress, Manolo de la Fuente.
                                                   Z                                                   Z                                                   Z

[parts of the following scene taken from "The Devil's Fortress" written by Robert L McCullough] 

     It had been embarrassingly easy to escape from the merciless Rosalinda's clutches.  Although his body still felt a bit tender from when he had hurtled himself from the moving coach before disappearing into the darkness.  Fortunately, the faithful Toronado had been following and replied quickly to Diego's summoning whistle.

     The next morning, Zorro snuck through the shrubbery that surrounded the base of the imposing fortress walls.  Since, he, as Señor Guilerans, would no longer be welcomed as a guest at the prison; he would have to enter the massive stone building as the man in black.

     "Attention!"  Zorro ducked behind a low hedge as several of the fortress's guards came running in his direction.  He sighed with relief as they ran past him.  Then the hairs on the back of his neck began to prickle.  He reached back with his right hand and grabbed onto a solid, muscular arm.  Zorro flipped the man onto his back onto the ground, then pounced on top of him.

     That was when he got a good look at his would-be attacker.  "Ramon?"

     "Zorro!" exclaimed Ramon Escalante as he stopped struggling.  It had been nearly ten years since Zorro had seen the younger of Victoria's two brothers, but he would have recognized him anywhere.  His eyes were Victoria's eyes.

     Painful pressure on his ribs caused the masked man to wince, which he then covered up with a chuckle.  "Could you remove your knee from my rib cage, amigo?" he asked.

     Soon both men were crouched down behind the hedge, watching the movements of the guards.  Ramon explained that he had met up with the mail wagon that had contained a letter from his sister.

     "I'm glad she's such a faithful correspondent," commented Zorro.  "It'd be good to have an ally in this task."

     Ramon nodded as he scanned the prison's walls.  "I've been watching this fortress for two days," he stated.  "They've doubled up the guards at every station since last night."

      "I'm not surprised," said Zorro wryly.  "Not after my encounter with the commandant's daughter."  He looked over at Ramon and smiled.  "A lady with all the charm of a ravenous barracuda."

     "We must wait until dark,"Ramon advised.

     Zorro shook his head.  "No.  That's what they expect.  We must seize the initiative.  Attack now."  He beckoned with his right hand.   "Come on."

     He lead Ramon over to where Toronado was staked out next to a tree.  "By the way," Zorro asked curiously.  "How did you know who I am?"

     Ramon chuckled as he walked over to where his own horse was waiting.  "Victoria," he replied.  "She's written so many letters describing you and your exploits I feel I've known you all my life."

     The man in black bent down and pretend to adjust the stirrup, not wanting the other man to see the guilty expression on his face.  Ramon had known Diego all his life, at least until he and Francisco had left Los Angeles anyway.

      "She's also written about her feelings for you," Ramon continued.  Zorro turned even deeper into his stallion's side.  "She holds you in great esteem."

     "As I do her," the masked man mumbled.  He really didn't want to get into this conversation at the moment.  They had more important matters at hand, like breeching the Fortaleza del Diablo's formidable defenses.  Zorro stood up and looked over at Ramon.  "I need to you to get some things from the nearest town."

     He reached into his saddlebag and brought out paper, ink, and a quill then began scratching out a list.  When he was done, he handed it to Ramon, who read it then smiled.
                                           Z                                           Z                                           Z

[parts of the following scenes taken from "The Devil's Fortress" written by Robert L McCullough]  

     It was a couple of hours later after Ramon had returned from the small village that serviced the people who worked at the prison and after Zorro had time to concoct a smoke bomb from the materials Victoria's brother had brought back with him.

     It had been an interminable wait during which the masked man had gone over his plan, step by step, making sure all contingencies were covered.  It was all the more incongruous that the next hour had sped by so fast, packed with enough events it made his head dizzy.

     The most shocking thing had been seeing Victoria in the prison's dungeon, knocking down the treacherous Rosalinda with nothing more than a broom.  The fact that she was even there would have been incredulous enough. But the sight of her, flushed with exertion as she defeated the other woman, had been almost more than he could absorb.

     "An Escalante down to her fingertips!" her brother had said with pride as Zorro couldn't repress a grin as he watched her startled expression.

     "Ramon!"  Victoria tossed aside the broom and ran over to Ramon with her arms outstretched.  When the siblings had finished their embrace, she turned her face to Zorro, who had been standing there quietly taking in their reunion. "I knew you would come," she said quietly, her love for him shining brightly in her eyes.

     "Always for you, Señorita," he murmured huskily, fighting the desire to take her into his arms and kiss her.  He cleared his throat.  "Come," he added more authoritatively, "we must hurry."

     He stood back as the two Escalantes unlocked the cell that contained their father.  He watched with a heavy heart as he saw how ill Alfonso Escalante really was.  There was no possible way for this broken old man to make the trip back to Los Angeles alive.

     Everything after that was a blur.  The guards had discovered their location and Zorro fended off soldier after soldier, allowing Victoria and Ramon more time with their dying parent.  He was surprised by the ease of which he despatched each of the prison's guard.  Evidently they had grown soft as the fortress had never been invaded like this before.

     Zorro drove them back up the winding staircase, taking out two or three at a time as he ascended.  The appearance of Sergeant Mendoza only amazed him for a brief moment.  He was at the point now where nothing would be out of the realm of possibility.  He thrust out the ring of keys to the stunned lancer.

    "Here, Sergeant," he instructed, "free all the prisoners."  When Mendoza started to protest, he added, "Don't argue, Sergeant.  It may be the only way we can get out of here alive."

     He didn't even question that the soldier would follow his command, especially after he spied a man lying under a couple of unconscious guards, a man who was dressed in a splendid white and blue uniform, glittering with gold braid and buttons.  No doubt the perfidious Rosalinda's papa, the commandante of Fortaleza del Diablo.

    A mighty duel followed, with Señor de la Fuente being a admirable opponent.  Zorro hadn't enjoyed such swordplay since Sir Edmund's untimely death.  But time was of the essence, and he made short work of the other man, sending the commandante's sword flying before slashing a Z' into the man's uniform.  A punch to de la Fuente's face sent the man sprawling face down on the floor.

     A gasp made Zorro look upward.  Rosalinda stared down at him, her mouth gaping.  Zorro took out the perfumed handkerchief that had nearly been his downfall.

    "I cannot keep something given by someone so treacherous," he declared before dramatically tossing the offensive scrap of cotton and lace onto the floor.  Victoria, her brother, and Mendoza came bounding into the great hall.

    Zorro turned and Victoria flew into his arms.  He held her, never wanting to let her go.  It was time to leave Devil's Fortress, he thought as he started to lead the trembling innkeeper away.

     The commandante began shouting and the man in black turned to see Rosalinda aiming a pistol at him and Victoria .  But before he could do anything, Ramón (whose presence at the prison didn't seem at all out of place) came up behind her, joining her father in urging her to kill the masked man.

     When the deceitful woman didn't immediately acquiesce, the Alcalde tried to wrest the weapon from her hands, most likely intending to shoot Zorro himself.  All that he accomplished, however, was to cause Rosalinda to lose her balance and fall over the top of the balcony railing.  She landed on the floor with a dull thud.

    Zorro stared in horror at the dead woman before looking up into the crazed face of Luis Ramón.  His gaze caught the man in black's then he turned and ran away.

     Zorro went gone off in pursuit of Ramón, knowing instinctive that the other man wasn't there to help Victoria find her father.  That belief was reinforced when he saw that the deed room had been pilfered.

     He made his way upward until he reached the topmost level.  A door at the end of the corridor stood ajar and Zorro made his way toward it cautiously.  It lead to a small balcony on the roof.  The masked man noticed a black-gloved hand clinging to the ledge.

     Even though it felt as time was standing still, everything had happened so fast.  One moment Zorro had been demanding that the Alcalde hand over the deed he had stolen, which he knew without even looking at it was the land grant given to his grandfather, Sebastian de la Vega.   The next minute, Ramón had ripped his hat and mask from his head and stared disbelieving at his exposed face.

     "De la Vega?"  The incredulity in the Alcalde's voice echoed his expression.  Diego realized, just a split second before Ramón did, that he had let go of the ledge.  Diego rushed over and reached out a hand but it was too late.  The Alcalde was already falling.
 
     "Nooo!" the doomed man cried in frustrated fear as he uttered his last words.   "I should have known!"
                                                   Z                                                   Z                                                   Z

"CADENAS DE AMOR" - CHAPTER FORTY-ONE