Victoria felt Diego slide down to the floor beside her, and at first she thought he was just bending over to get a better look through a wider gap in the curtains. But with her next breath, she knew that something was terribly wrong; his eyes were shut in unconsciousness, not peering through the curtains! That wasn't right!
Her heart pounding now in fear, she tried to catch him, but he was so heavy! The best she could do was ease him down to the floor as he fell forward through the divided material, a cut on his right temple trickling blood to the clean tile.
Well, at least he didn't hit his head on the floor, she thought, and then was almost consumed by the urge to giggle at where her thoughts had taken her; everything seemed so wry, and out of place that events had become practically comical. But the bandit who jerked the curtain roughly aside and entered the kitchen behind her was anything but amusing.
The two men who had been pawing through the money that Victoria kept in her cash box gave a start and turned to look straight at her. Frozen herself, Victoria could only stand half bent over, one hand resting uselessly on Diego's shoulder, and stare back at them, too dumbfounded to move.
But not so for the third outlaw.
Jose! he yelled in
a gruff, overly loud whisper.
It's a good thing I was keeping
watch in the other room, but I couldn't act in time; they saw
your faces! He pulled out a gun and pointed it in Victoria's
and Diego's directions, but the added insurance against letting
them make a move of any kind was superfluous; Diego was
unconscious, and even if Victoria hadn't been frozen by the sight
of the red blood oozing from Diego's temple, there was not a
chance that she was going to leave Diego alone and in the hands
of these bandits!
What? the man called Jose cried, instantly
nervous and jumpy.
I told you we should wear our bandannas over our faces!
We'll have to take them with us now, the first man declared,
and waved his pistol at Diego and Victoria, who was ministering
to him as best she could on the kitchen floor. The first bandit
looked anything but happy with the turn of events in the
Jose balked and looked to his companion before again turning towards the first man, who was doing his best to jerk Victoria away from Diego and tie her hands behind her back at the same time. Only Victoria was being far from a cooperative victim.
I thought you said this was going to be an easy job!
Jose said. He turned again to the man standing beside him.
Isn't that what Luis said, Alsergio? That we would be in and
out before anyone even knew we'd been here?
The third man grunted.
Yeah, that's what he said. But
it doesn't look like that's what's happnin'.
The man named Luis glared daggers at the two men standing
near the chopping block.
It doesn't matter what I said, only
what's goin' on now! And now I need some help here! You two,
hold her still, will ya?
Victoria writhed and fought, but her strength was no match for that of three grown men. Still, she was sourly happy to note that it took all three of the criminals to subdue her; one to hold her steady, one to hold her hands, and Luis to tie a rope around her fingers. He drew the knot tight, cutting her circulation off at her wrists, and then spun her around and grabbed her chin in his callused hand.
Luis stared into her brown eyes with a look of pure malice.
I think we need a gag for this one, he said quietly,
We don't want her yellin' for help or
Jose lifted Diego's arm with the toe of his dirty boot.
Is this one even alive? he asked.
Alsergio knelt to feel for a pulse.
Victoria felt herself flood with relief that Diego had
survived the rough handling of the three men until Alsergio
Ya want me to finish 'im off for ya?
Luis laughed a light chuckle of a laugh with no humor in the
Naw, we don't need murder hangin' over our heads, too.
But tie 'im up good and tight, both hands and feet. We don't
want any escape attempts before we even get back to th'
hideout. He wheeled around to look again at Victoria.
But this one... this one looks like trouble. His voice
was low, slick, and his eyes twinkled with pure evil.
She's as much trouble as she is pretty, is that whut ya
mean? grunted Jose.
Yeah, Luis slowly drawled.
Gimme that rag on the
counter, Alsergio. His fellow outlaw quickly complied, and
Luis shoved the wet cloth into her mouth, tying it tightly behind
her head, laughing as he made sure to withdraw his fingers to a
safe distance before Victoria could bite him.
ya? he whispered on a raspy breath that was so foul, Victoria
Keep actin' that way, and we'll kill 'im, he
promised, pointing to Diego, and grinned.
Victoria closed her eyes against that gesture, momentarily giving in to the panic that was busy attacking her nerves and making her struggles as weak as if her muscles were made of water. She was reminded of how she had felt when she first awoke after sustaining her head injury. Luis instantly grabbed her chin again and held it steady.
I'm warnin' ya - make any sudden moves, and he's dead.
Victoria felt tears rise to her eyes, but she was determined not to cry in front of these dirty outlaws. She blinked rapidly, fighting back the feeling. Mute, she nodded her head, but her eyes gave a better indication of her mutinous emotions than her actions did.
The only thing the expression in her eyes did was make Luis
Grab the money, and let's go, he said,
clearly taking command of the group of men as they stood around,
trying to decide what to do next. Victoria was jerked out the
kitchen's back door and unceremoniously thrown towards a horse.
Mount, Luis roughly ordered, and she had no choice but to
yield to his orders.
With quick, sure movements, the outlaws blew out the candle,
shut the door, then untied the three horses from the post at the
rear of the tavern.
No use allertin' every soldier in th'
pueblo that we're here, Alsergio commented under his breath.
Then he nimbly climbed onto a horse's back. Jose tossed Diego
from his shoulders, where he had been carrying him, over another
horse's back. Diego's head and feet hung down to almost scrape
the ground. Jose climbed up behind his prisoner, using his left
hand to keep Diego in place while his right clung to the horse's
Victoria let the relief flow through her again when she was assured that they were taking Diego with them and that he wasn't going to slide off the horse's other side. But that's where her sense of relief ended; it was evident that the three outlaws whom she had caught trying to steel her money had more plans for her than simply taking her hostage. Luis ran a hand through her hair and smiled at the frown on her face, but only tightened his arms around her more securely as he led their horse out of town in a northeasterly direction. The other two followed more sedately, yet casting appreciative glances at Victoria that she could see by the light of a full moon.
Within fifteen minutes of hard riding that Victoria felt certain did nothing for the blow on the temple that had rendered Diego unconscious in the first place, they reached the hideout, an old shack that was falling in and was downright unwelcoming as well. Luis dismounted before the horse had come to a complete halt, and Victoria felt herself jerked from the saddle, where she landed in the bandit's arms. She writhed and strained against her bonds, but Luis did nothing but laugh and slap her hard on the face. Tears stung her eyes once more, but she didn't have time to indulge in feeling the pain of his hand on the soft skin of her cheek. Still laughing, Luis pushed her forward so hard that she would have stumbled if she hadn't fallen into the rough wall of the house.
Get in, Luis commanded. Victoria paused for a moment
to catch her breath, and when she didn't recover fast enough to
suit Luis, he pushed her into the dark shack ahead of him.
Hey, Alsergio, get a fire started so's we cin see whut we're
doin' in here, will ya? Luis asked, though the question was
more a command.
We'll put 'im an''er in that pantry closet
fer now. It doesn't lock, but... and he pulled out a gun
again from the holster on his hip to stroke the cold, steel of
the barrel across Victoria's reddened cheek.
I don't think
they'll be goin' anywhere anytime soon. His low chuckle
sounded again, as if he were getting far too much enjoyment out
of his prisoners' helpless states.
Victoria was so afraid and worried for Diego at this point that she was almost grateful when Luis and Jose threw her into a dark closet that was off to the side of a great fire pit. She fell painfully to the floor, landing on her right side. Another thud followed as Diego was abruptly dumped beside her, and Luis laughed one last time at them both. In the light of a meager fire, Victoria managed to catch sight of a bed, the far wall, and another door that must lead outside before darkness covered her as Luis slammed the closet door shut. Silence immediately descended like it was a living thing.
Victoria's thoughts froze. She didn't move. Oh God, she thought, finally coercing her mind to form a complete sentence. Are they going to come in and... Victoria had trouble even thinking about what the bandits might have in store for her next. Her ears strained to pick up any useful sounds, and she instantly heard voices as the three men argued about something, but she couldn't make out the words over the sound of her heart as it pounded loudly in her ears. Terror threatened to devour her again as images of what men like Luis, Jose, and Alsergio commonly did with women while they had them in their clutches; with her arms tied, she knew she was fairly incapacitated by herself, and she was glad that Diego was with her. It was true, he was currently unconscious, and since he was tied up like she was, he could do nothing to help her even if he wasn't unconscious. If one of the men decided he wanted to play with her, he could do nothing but watch. Yet, his presence was immensely comforting to her all the same.
That consolation gave her the courage to fight down her panic and take better stock of her situation. She was tied up, shut in a pantry cupboard, in the dark. So she couldn't use her eyes or hands to help her and Diego escape. Okay, what else did she have at her disposal? What could she do about her situation?
Instantly, her mind recalled all the pantry cupboards she had seen in the past. And without an exception, they all had shelves built into them. After all, what was the point of having a pantry closet if it wasn't built with shelves to hold food stores? she asked herself. Victoria tried to smile, but the gag in her mouth stopped her from doing more than curling the edges of her lips. But she felt satisfaction blossom through her frame. Those bandits should have remembered not to kidnap a cook, she thought to herself. She knew more about pantries than the outlaws gave any tavern owner credit for.
Victoria worked until she was on her back, sat up, and then scooted carefully towards the rear of the closet. She would have walked, but she was afraid of walking straight into a shelf that she didn't discover in time, knocking herself out. Two unconscious prisoners was one too many! So she scooted. Within moments, she had collided with the set of empty shelves that she was looking for. Then, it was a simple matter of catching the back of her gag on the edge of a shelf, patiently working the cloth down her hair, and then over the ends of her jaw once she had enough slack in the towel to make a difference with how tightly it gagged her mouth. Before she knew it, she felt the towel slide off her roughened chin.
Elated, Victoria spit and drew in breath after breath that didn't taste of what the towel smelled like; it was clear that she had used the towel to wipe her hands after chopping onions, then cleaned up some spilled water to make the towel wet enough to need to be washed. She had then thrown it negligently aside on the tavern's counter top sometime during the day, hoping to add it to the laundry in her hamper at a later time. Only the bandits had come before that later time had come. Victoria was glad to be free of her gag at last.
Okay, what next? she asked herself, excited by her success with the gag. Diego, she answered her own mental question. Diego was still lying somewhere on the pantry's dirt floor, unconscious. Victoria was positive she could wake him now that she could do more than simply grunt at him. She bent her knees up and down, searching in the dark for Diego with the toe of her boots.
She found him almost immediately, and had to draw her feet back lest she inadvertently slam her boot into him. She was happy, then, that she had chosen to wear her sturdiest pair of boots that morning when she got dressed instead of the slippers she could have chosen. The boots made her feet hurt after working all day long in the tavern, but they would be far more suitable for running across uneven terrain if she and Diego ever managed that escape that Luis was so certain would never transpire. The fact that she had the man known as Zorro with her, and she knew that he truly was Zorro, gave her a decided mental edge. Victoria was not so confident that she would disdain anything she could win as a mental advantage at this point of the situation. In an attempt to wake up that advantage of hers, Victoria scooted again across the dirt floor on her hands and her butt until she could swivel aside and feel what must have been Diego's shirt-sleeve.
Carefully, she probed with her fingers and managed to find his head a minute later. It was then that she realized he had not been gagged, due to his unconscious state, and once more, Victoria let the gladness glide through her. It was a tiny victory, but she was happy to count even the minor successes. Determined to wake him, she turned herself on the dirt floor and gently shook him until he rolled back and forth. When he still didn't wake, she shook him even harder. Her resolve was rewarded when, after a minute or two of shaking, he groaned and reflexively rolled away. Victoria waited for him to say something, anything, but there was only the silence.
Go on to Chapter 12
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