Disclaimer: Queen of Swords was created by Fireworks Entertainment, and is owned by ContentFilm. This story is NOT affiliated with the rights holders or the show's original creators. No infringement is intended and no profit is being made. This story is for entertainment purposes only.
The author would like to thank Robert Vincent for all his valuable support and input.
Chapter 5: Lives in the Balance
The public had gathered round the shop in the outskirts of the town in no time at all. The tailors known as Evita's had always had a reputation for being one of the quietest, most trouble-free parts in all Santa Helena. So the reports of a disturbance spelt 'gunfire' coming from a simple little tailor shop was plenty of reason for residents and soldiers to gather round.
Sergeant Pablo, for the lack of a better term, was a warmongering psychopath. When the crowd had refused to disperse, he and his men had fired shots into the air to make people back off. Not at all taking into account that it would set the schizophrenic Gregorio Evita off into self-destruct mode, taking himself, his own five-year-old son Tito and the other customers he was holding hostage. Pablo's plan was to simply storm the shop…and 'clean up'.
"Please!" begged a crying Susana Evita, grabbing onto Pablo's arm. "My son is in there!"
"Get this ugly tramp off of me!" yelled Pablo, shoving her away like she was carrying a disease. "Men, get ready to move in on my mark!"
"Sergeant!" protested Corporal Benjamin, briefly consoling Susana before he stepped in. "Do you really think Colonel Montoya…?"
"Shut up, Benjamin! Our mission is to take care of the trash and not ask questions! You're in my platoon now! Not the one being run by your precious Golden Sergeant…!"
"Sir!" interrupted one of Pablo's men, pointing to a cavalry of soldiers arriving on the scene. A cavalry being led by a very familiar face.
"Williams…" seethed the trigger-happy sergeant in annoyance.
"Go back to 1808 where you belong, Pablo!" belittled Lionel as he dismounted to approach him, with his men in tow. "Or whatever period of the Napoleonic Wars you felt happiest killing things within a hundred-mile radius!"
"This is my arrest, Golden Boy!" Pablo roared back in his face, "I don't need…!"
"It's mine now," interrupted Williams indifferently, shoving Pablo down hard onto his backside, humiliating him in front of his own men and the people. "That finger of yours so much as twitches and I'll have you on charges. Men! Form a perimeter around the premises, and get those civilians back more!"
The hostile Pablo rose to his feet, determined to get to Williams, with five of his men struggling to restrain the mad dog. Benjamin silently smiled and turned to the formerly AWOL Marco, who had now quietly rejoined Pablo's ranks without the sergeant even noticing.
"Nice timing, Marco."
"Glad I found our real sergeant in time."
"Perimeter's secure, sir," informed one of Williams' men. "People are at a safe distance."
"Good. Everyone continue to stand guard until further orders."
Williams then slowly advanced towards the shop. Much to the ominous silence that now loomed over the street and all its inhabitants. Lionel could see the sight of unhinged Gregorio, with his pistol pressed against his own child's head, through the shop's window. The man's blood crazed eyes met the soulless, unreadable eyes belonging to the Golden Sergeant.
Moments of tension passed, neither one of them blinking. Gergorio's mouth had formed into a fierce scowl, like he might foam any minute. Williams' own face was just completely calm and utterly cool. He slowly drew his sword, holding it for the self-destructed man to see. He then thrust it into the ground by his side before slowly removing his pistol from his holster for Gregorio and everyone else to see.
"Damn it, Lionel," whispered an anxious Benjamin, as Williams dangled his pistol from his fingertips. "What are you doing?"
"You glory-hogging show-off," cursed Pablo, fuming jealously as Williams then let it drop to the ground. "I hope he blows your head off."
Williams ignored him and then slowly advanced towards the closed front door of the shop. Susana whimpered and covered her mouth, little Tito with his father's pistol still pressed hard against his head, shed more tears and panted in panic, his eyes wide and frozen as the soldier made his way to the front door and casually opened it.
The crowd gasped as he made his way inside. A terrible silence fell again as Williams closed the door behind him, leaving himself trapped, unarmed and alone with the (incredibly) once-sane Gregorio and his innocent hostages.
Several nerve-wracking seconds passed. No one could hear what was going on inside. No soldiers could see anything as Williams and Gregorio had moved to another part of the shop.
Susana continued to sob for her son's wellbeing. Corporal Marco was doing everything to comfort her. Sergeant Pablo didn't know why he was letting this heroic upstart walk over his clean-up operation. He had just decided to move in and override Williams' orders when…
A shot went off.
And a man screamed.
Susana shrieked and Marco and Benjamin did everything they could to hold her back. The rest of the crowd gasped in horror. Pablo smirked in sadistic satisfaction before yelling, "Move in! Take no prisoners!"
But before the soldiers could comply…the door of the shop swung open.
And a hatless Williams, his uniform stained with blood, emerged from the nightmare. He slowly trotted out, holding the crying Tito in his arms and doing his best to comfort him. Susana gasped with relief, the crowd erupted into cheers for their golden hero, Marco and Benjamin smiled with satisfaction.
Pablo just fumed in humiliation.
"Move in and help the hostages!" ordered Williams to the other soldiers. "Marco, get Doctor Helm out here right now! We have several wounded but no fatalities! And someone get word to Captain Grisham!"
Susana ran up to the sergeant, who gently handed her son over into her loving arms, assuring her, "It's okay. Your son is fine."
"God bless you, Sergeant Williams," sobbed Susana with gratitude. "God bless you."
"Benjamin, look after them."
"Right away, sir," nodded the corporal before leading them away. Williams paused to study the sight of Susana and Tito. A simple family, with a simple business…just completely shattered because one man had snapped over unfair tax payments and lack of trade.
Yet another casualty of the governor's hardship, sighed Lionel painfully.
He paid the approving townsfolk no attention as he walked over to where he'd dropped his sword and pistol. Replacing his weapons back in their proper holders, he then turned to see two soldiers bringing out the wounded Gregorio to escort him to jail.
And then finally walked over to Sergeant Pablo, whose eyes had remained fixated on Williams with cold, silent fury.
"Only an idiot thinks that the best way to solve every problem is to shoot it," belittled the Golden Sergeant angrily. "But having said that…I think shooting you would save everyone a world of grief."
Williams directed his eyes away in disbelief, and left the enraged Pablo alone, who was now deeply brooding and very vengeful.
Later, at Doctor Helm's office, the Englishman had finished treating the last victim of the hostage crisis, bandaging his head for the violent blow from Gregorio that had cracked his skull. The ever kind-hearted Tessa had been a big help, bringing patients over, assisting in cleaning wounds, bandaging patients, tidying the room for the next patient, sterilising medical tools etc. It would've been more of an ordeal had it not been for Senorita Alvarado.
"Right, stay indoors, avoid manual labour and any major physical activity for at least a week," ordered the Doctor to his last patient after throwing away the last remnants of excess bandaging. "Then see me again. In the meantime, get plenty of rest and relaxation. Make sure you don't bang your head or get into another argument like you did today."
"Okay, Doctor," he nodded, smiling wearily.
"Hèctor," informed Tessa, returning to the room, "your father's outside with the carriage to take you home."
"Take care of yourself," reminded Robert as his patient stood up. "I'll see you in a week. Remember to keep those bandages clean and dry. I'll remove them to see how you're healing."
"Thank you, Doctor," nodded Hèctor gratefully, as he slowly made his way to the door. "And thank you, Tessa."
"Do you need any help walking or getting inside the carriage?" the noblewoman asked, gently coming to his side upon noting Hèctor's slow, unsteady walk.
"I'll be fine. My father can help me. Thank you both again."
Tessa gently guided Hèctor into the assisting arms of his father and then closed the door, leaving her and the doctor in private. Helm blew out a weary breath and ran his hand through his hair.
"Thank you for all your help today, Senorita Alvarado," said the doctor, facing her with gratitude, "I do appreciate it."
"It's the very least I can do, Doctor," dismissed Tessa. "You do so much for this town."
"I do what I must. You don't have to help me."
"I wanted to. And maybe…I have obligations of my own."
Robert felt a little bit perplexed over that admission Tessa had made. While there was no denying she was a good woman with a good heart, it seemed uncharacteristic of her to say such a thing. Since when did she have obligations?
Helm nodded at her contently and then turned to resume cleaning his office for the next emergency.
"I'll be fine tidying all this up," he insisted.
"Very well," Tessa nodded back. She had hoped that Williams might've popped over by now to check on the injured, maybe confer with him about Pablo among other things. But it didn't really matter on reflection. The wellbeing of the hostages did, and they would certainly be alright now.
"I hope to see…"
The sound of the door knocking interrupted Tessa's parting remark. Doctor Helm invited the visitor to come in and Sergeant Williams obliged.
"Hello, Sergeant," nodded Tessa as the soldier removed his hat.
"Greetings, Senorita," Lionel nodded back before turning to Robert. "How were the hostages?"
"They'll all live to see another day," confirmed Helm with no hostility in his voice.
"Thank you again for everything, Doctor," said Williams, genuinely meaning it. Helm didn't look at the sergeant as he carried on tidying, but did acknowledge his sincere comment with a cordial "You're welcome, Sergeant," before turning to wash his hands.
"Do you know how Susana is?" asked a concerned Tessa.
"Maria's with her now," explained Lionel, exhaling his sympathy. "She's brought Theresa along to keep her son company. Needless to say, all this is hardly something a good night's sleep will remedy."
"That poor woman," sighed the aristocrat, really feeling for the Evita family. "What on Earth does it take for a good man like her husband to just snap like that?"
As if I don't already know, thought Tessa. Montoya's taxes and the Evitas' prior struggles ran through her mind.
Williams didn't answer. Tessa then remarked, "Sergeant Pablo must have been furious over you stealing his thunder."
"Frankly, I couldn't care less over petty rivalries with volatile dogs, Senorita."
"I am most delighted to hear that kind of professionalism from you, Sergeant."
Everyone turned to see Colonel Montoya, who had just entered Doctor Helm's office as he pleased.
"What a shame that it is tainted somewhat by personal distaste for one of your fellows."
"I apologise for my hypocrisy, sir," said Williams, standing to attention.
"The sergeant was just enquiring about the wellbeing of the victims, Colonel," explained Tessa politely.
"One thing I will say for him," admitted Doctor Helm, drying his hands, "is that he's very punctual when it comes to knocking."
"Mere trivialities, Doctor," dismissed Montoya, viewing Helm's criticism of his own manners as completely irrelevant. "Maybe they can be fawned over in England, perhaps. Now, Sergeant, I trust all is well with the victims."
"Doctor Helm says that they will heal. In time."
"Good. And with the maniac Gregorio Evita behind bars pending firing squad…we can all sleep soundly tonight."
Silence fell over the room. Everyone was quelling their horror and disgust for Montoya's trademark ruthlessness.
"Colonel, the man was struggling like no other," pointed out Tessa. "Surely some leniency could be granted."
"Perhaps a fair hearing instead of an open-shut-case," suggested Lionel, agreeing with the Senorita.
"Due to the highly serious nature of his crime, that is completely out-of-the-question," replied the governor adamantly, refusing to publicly acknowledge his pressurising of Evita's. All over his disappointment with the repairs Gregorio had once done to his suit.
"Even medical treatment to the man's abdomen?" asked the doctor icily.
"Especially medical treatment. Now, the matter is as good as closed. Sergeant Williams, accompany me back to my office at once."
"Yes, sir. Thank you again, Doctor. Senorita, I will see you soon."
"Looking forward to dinner Saturday evening, Sergeant. Give my love to Maria and Theresa. Goodbye, Doctor."
"Goodbye, Senorita," Helm nodded again, thankful that at least two of the people were now out of his hair. Not so thankful for the remaining one's departure.
And he wasn't entirely sure why.
Later that evening, Williams was sat under the porch of the back of his house, drinking a hefty bottle of beer, and thankful that being politically connected entitled him to certain luxuries. Like being allowed to enjoy the privacy of his own home, being with his family and other really nice off-duty privileges. More than most sergeants were known to receive.
It had been a long day. Needless to say, the incident at Evita's had been hard. But dealing with the aftermath had been arduous. Montoya had congratulated him on yet another job well done - and without casualties at that - but he had also reprimanded him for muscling in on another sergeant's assignment, and informed him that both Marco and Benjamin would be penalised for abandoning their posts and disobeying their official sergeant. Williams' protests had been noted…and ultimately ignored.
"Forgive me, Colonel," Williams had asked, "but why do you allow rabid creatures like Pablo into your ranks? Such hostile elements are renowned for backfiring."
"Even a bloodthirsty wolf has its uses in the battlefield, sergeant," Montoya had justified. "So long as you stand well back before you unleash it, you have nothing to worry about."
"But Napoleon is a thing of the past, sir."
"All humans are warmongers at heart, Williams. Why do you think Napoleon's legacy still lives on?"
Then there'd been a confrontation with Don Cascajo de la Calderón, a rich, powerful man who owned several businesses in Santa Helena. A few of them were in the same street Evita's was situated. The Don had angrily voiced his dissatisfaction with the Golden Sergeant, saying that because of today, customers were now afraid to leave their homes, costing him money. Williams had personally despised de la Calderón since day one, and told him flat out that he couldn't care less about his petty businesses. The sergeant's primary concern was the safety of the community. And that if the Don had any suggestions on how to achieve this, share them here and now, or go home and act like a circus monkey in private. Williams had left the insulted ingrate screaming abuse and threats.
A punch-up with Sergeant Pablo before he went off-duty hadn't made Lionel feel any better, either. It was a given that the maniac would confront him to try and obtain some form of retribution. Nevertheless, it had ended quickly with Williams coming out on top, but the Golden Boy now had a new annoyance to contend with. The involvement of Captain Grisham and his mocking comment of "Yet another priceless contribution from the Golden Reprobate! Keep 'em comin', Williams!" had been most welcome indeed.
Finally he'd come home to a very heated argument with Maria, which was the last thing he'd wanted. Ever the gossiper, Vera had been quick to inform her of his latest heroic deed with complete details. Mrs. Williams had let her husband know just how upset and angry she was over his recklessness. Lionel's comeback was that it was no different than the days of the war and he asked why Maria was getting so bothered about it now.
"Maybe it's because you're getting too complacent with your job!" accused Maria venomously. "So happy with spitting in Montoya's face and riding with certain Queens that you've forgotten everything you were and what you're supposed to be!"
"You mean building a bright tomorrow for women and children only? Sorry I'm letting you down, Maria. Didn't realise you were that urgent. Or maybe you're just jealous that I'm in the thick of the action and no one else will let you have any fun?"
Lionel felt that he'd deserved the slap that followed. For intensifying their argument even more. Both had raised their voices over Theresa, the alliance with the Queen of Swords, and both spouses forgetting what they were supposed to be doing to achieve survival. Things had ended with Maria going to bed by herself, Lionel cooking his own dinner and now in the back all alone with his thoughts and his booze.
But not for long.
"I really don't know what's worse, old man."
Williams sighed and cast his eyes to the Queen now standing adjacent to him, hands on hips.
"The beer itself or the legacy it leaves on your breath," she smiled.
"Do I insult the vintages you drink whenever you take that mask off, kid?" he retorted bitterly.
The masked Tessa looked up, smiling in contemplation and cocking her head from side-to-side, before answering, "I don't believe in drowning my troubles in alcohol. It's known for backfiring."
"You focus on your coping skills, and I'll focus on mine. Now, what do you want?"
"I was just joking around with you, Williams."
"Not in the mood. I'm not going to ask again."
The Queen rested against the porch wall and explained, "Just wanted to say thanks for your information about the Monterey shipment for the fundraiser. Those bandits would have made off with it. And Montoya would have taken it from them without leaving a trace if I hadn't stopped them."
Williams took another swig from his beer and then nodded, "You're welcome, kid."
The Avenging Angel paused for a moment before saying, "I heard about the incident at Evita's this morning."
"Yeah," was all Williams could give.
"I'm sure the fiesta will be able to help. Maybe put their lives back together."
"I hope so. Surprised you're not going to try and break Gregorio out of jail."
"I don't think that would do anyone any good," remarked the vigilante, looking down on the ground. "His family hates and fears him. He's already given up."
"He had his last rites with Padre Quintera earlier," explained the sergeant. "Prayed for forgiveness and then cried himself to sleep. A family shattered and a good man ruined. And over what? Taxes and Montoya's dissatisfaction over a repair to his suit? Jesus. "
The sergeant then stood up, downed some more beer and turned to go back inside. Puzzled, the Queen asked, "Nothing more to say?"
"Is there meant to be, vigilante?" he asked very coldly.
The Queen of Swords narrowed her eyes, studying the sergeant's tone thoughtfully before replying, "There always is, sergeant."
"That you know and accept what I am. Yet you still can't stand the sight of me."
"You feel the same way about me, 'ally'," pointed out Williams, his face letting the Queen know just how tired he was. Tessa ignored it and persisted, "The real problem you have isn't bandits or vigilantes. It's masks."
Williams seethed, took his hand off the door handle and then glared at the vigilante, whose solemn face continued, "That's why you followed Montoya's orders to bring me in at the Garcia farm without question. Because you assumed the worst about me because of the mask I wear."
"Is that any different than you originally labelling me corrupt whilst trying to defend that family?" asked Lionel cynically. "After your experiences with soldiers?"
"Williams…that's my point."
The sergeant stared unblinking at the Queen, sighing painfully as bullets, screams and masks once more flashed in his tormented mind.
"Why the prejudice?" she asked simply. After Williams refused to answer, the masked Tessa looked down at her feet and then back up to the sergeant, encouraging, "In my experience, the truth comes out sooner or later. Even to someone you don't fully understand or appreciate yet."
"Alright, then," shrugged Williams darkly, moving away from the door to sit back down on the porch steps. He finished the last of his beer and began to explain to the masked Tessa.
"I did actually love masks once upon a time. Back in the days when I could afford to love trips to the circus or the theatre or fancy dress parties. All those wonderful entertainers and fun-seekers. The jugglers, the knife-throwers, the clowns, the pantomimes…all those wonderful colours and decorative patterns. The auras of mystique and intrigue they emitted.
"Then I turned seven. That was when my childhood ended."
The Queen noted Williams' remembrance change from fond smiling to bitter, painful seething. She remained respectfully silent, allowing Williams to continue his story.
"I was still in America. My parents had just picked me up from school. Broad daylight, the sun shining down. Excited smiles all looking forward to going to Spain to visit relatives.
"Then I saw those wonderful masks. Colourful, decorative, stylish masks all riding behind us at top speed. My parents were concerned, then grew fearful. I was stupid. I couldn't understand.
"I thought it was a travelling circus. I'd never heard the term 'Stand and deliver!' before. I was confused. Then they made us stop. And when I saw the guns…that's when I became scared.
"My father handed them the dollars. It wasn't enough. One of them touched my mother, like they wanted to have her. It angered my dad enough to fight back. And their leader…a man wearing the Face of Tragedy, pulled the trigger and blew his head off. Right in front of me."
Lionel's lip quivered in despair, and he tried to fight back the tears. The Queen silently exhaled her shock and horror.
"My mother cried," Williams wept, agonising over the trauma, "then she got shot by that same man. Right in the chest. The recoil knocking her off the wagon onto the ground, making her land right on her head. It became my turn to cry. I fell from the wagon, trying to get off. I hugged my mother, begging her to wake up. Not wanting to accept the fact that she was dead already. I then looked to my murdered father, and screamed the same of him.
"And all the bandits…all the masks…were just laughing at me. Never stopping laughing at me. I blubbered and dared to look their leader in the face. It had changed to the Face of Comedy. And it laughed as it took a dollar coin out of the bag my father had surrendered. It threw it down at my knees, and said, 'Nickel for your troubles, kid!'.
"Then the masks ran for the hills, leaving me screaming for help. And there was no one. No one to answer my prayers. Which were for it all to be a bad dream, and my parents to be there by my bedside. I was on my own, poor, helpless little orphan in that godforsaken desert…for hours, before help arrived. All because of masks."
The Queen put every ounce of sympathy she could offer in her face. Williams' tear-streaked eyes narrowed evilly as he furthered in a harsh, bitter voice, "And I never found that faceless son-of-a-bitch, let alone who he was. After all these decades. For all I know, he's still out there. Still hiding behind a mask, still pillaging, still murdering…escaping justice every time, and mocking the law."
The masked Tessa's mind flashed back to the dream where her father had visited her. Many fingers on the trigger. The deserter Raul present when it happened. Montoya and Grisham's desire to take over the Alvarado land, Don Horatio's fortune, the incident with her uncle and Don Ricardo, the soldiers involved in all those affairs.
Tessa had long suspected that Montoya and Grisham had been involved in the murder of her father, Don Raphael Alvarado, and the conspiracy to take his land. After fighting them for so long, she had every reason to believe it to be true. But no proof existed to confirm her beliefs. And despite all attempts…she still had yet to unmask the killer personally responsible. After all this time.
And it still caused her such pain.
"Do you know what that's like?" asked Williams, standing up to look the vigilante in the face. "To have the people you love ripped from your heart, leaving you forever scarred? And bleeding?"
The Queen of Swords placed her hand on Williams' shoulder and vehemently assured the sergeant, "Yes. I do. And in my case…the bastards responsible were soldiers."
Williams silently nodded his complete understanding of the Queen. She removed her hand from his shoulder and then said, "If there's one thing I've accepted, Williams, out of all the masks, thieves, bandits, soldiers and killers…there's one crucial thing that separates everything. The line between good and evil."
Williams looked down at the ground, lost in deep thought. When he looked back up to face the Queen, she was gone. He closed his eyes, sighing in despair and then returned inside. Maria moved away from the bedroom window as soon as her husband did so. She sighed in pain and despair before going back to bed.
"You know how much I understand and sympathize your humiliations, don't you, Sergeant?" smiled Montoya, feigning pity as he walked round the fuming Pablo in his office. "It makes you mad. Lusting for a man's blood."
"Just say the word, sir, and I'll bleed him like a sponge and mop up what's left of his family," sneered the animalistic sergeant, his sinister face basking the dim candlelight.
"Such extremities are unnecessary, Pablo," laughed the Colonel, like he was fond of a child's suggestion. "Though I do understand the sentiment. Captain Grisham has made several similar suggestions, albeit less colourful than yours. However, like you, Pablo…Williams is much more valuable to me alive. And the same can be said for his family. That way, I am in no danger of reprisals from others."
"Huh. Never thought the great Montoya would cower from the risks of military warfare."
With such superb reflexes, the governor span round, grabbed Pablo by his collar, drew a knife and pressed it up against the sergeant's throat. Pablo's eyes widened with surprise as his commanding officer's eyes narrowed with fierce venom.
"Caution is not the mark of a coward, Pablo," warned Montoya slowly. "It is the mark of a great strategist. If you ever live long enough, you may come to appreciate the fact that it takes a soldier to guide and unleash the full destructive force of a cannon. And use it effectively to fight and maim another day."
Pablo smirked in satisfaction, "Of course, Colonel. What would I ever be without your inspired leadership?"
"A neutered carnivore rotting in an impound. Never forget that."
Montoya released Pablo, who smiled and nursed his throat to get the circulation back. Montoya withdrew his knife and continued, "You should be proud of your efforts, my sergeant. Because of you, I now know the best way to control Williams and ensure it indefinitely."
Pablo's confused face gave Montoya some satisfaction. Another chance to prove his superiority.
"The Golden Sergeant's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. That was visible with the Garcias. And it was visible with the Evitas. His compassion for families. More specifically…his family. Exploit that, you exploit him."
Montoya's ruthless smile then dropped, and a fierce look of intimidation rose thereafter. He directed it at the savage Pablo to make sure he understood.
"Because of Williams and the Queen of Swords, the Garcia farmland is now out of my grasp. With the upcoming fiesta and public opinion against me, that plan is no longer viable. Neither is the notion of making Williams into a martyr. The Golden Sergeant problem has already cost me too much. I could do without yet another failure from my overrated monkeys.
"So listen well."
Neither Maria or Lionel had slept well that night. They'd woken up the next morning not speaking to each other. Not because they were still angry, but because they were both ashamed. They hadn't given Theresa any reason to be concerned. As far as their daughter was concerned, she was still innocent, sweet and enjoying life in Santa Helena, enjoying school and playing with her new friends.
In the adult world, though, Lionel had had his breakfast and reported for duty without even kissing his wife goodbye. Maria had been left alone to sigh her anxiety after taking Theresa to school. She'd tried to cheer herself up, remembering that the fiesta was on Friday, and the Williams family would be going to the Alvarado hacienda for a dinner party with Tessa and Marta. Shopping with Marta normally made Maria feel better about problems.
But it didn't this particular afternoon.
"I think those tomatoes are in danger of shrivelling if you hold them in the sun any longer," pointed out Marta.
Maria came to her senses and put them in the basket, before handing the money over to the grocer.
"Sorry," was all Mrs Williams gave. "What else did we need for Saturday? Cajun spices and garlic, wasn't it? Cocoa powder, strawberries…butter, sugar…argh, I've forgotten to get that wine again! I'll be back in a…"
The Gypsy gently grabbed Maria's hand to make her stop. The American woman looked back at her friend, who smiled, "You're very distressed for someone who seemingly has little reason to be so."
Maria sighed and asked, "Do you ever have massive rows with Tessa? And feel really bad about it afterwards?"
"Everyone argues and shouts, Maria. It is human nature, even among loved ones."
"You're right," agreed Mrs Williams as they left the market to head for the cantina, deciding it was lunch time. "These tomatoes are in danger of shrivelling."
Marta smiled. Soon enough, their shopping was by their feet and they were both now sat down at the table, with soup, bread and a bottle of red wine.
"Please pardon me for being so bold, Senora," began the Gypsy, after swallowing the spoonful of warm, creamy soup. "But I gather it must be husband trouble."
"That is being very bold, Marta," grinned Maria modestly, dunking a piece of bread in her soup. "I'm not Spanish and I'm no aristocrat."
Marta smiled again as Maria ate the soup-soaked bread and wiped her mouth with the napkin. "You present yourself with class, Maria. And you are married to a hero from Spain. That makes you so much more than what is skin deep."
Mrs Williams smiled a little over that but was soon overcome again by anxiety.
"Suppose I'm lucky, after all. More than I should be."
"Or maybe you're fearing more than what you actually should be."
Maria looked up to Marta, understanding what her friend meant, and explained, "It's complicated, Marta."
"Or maybe less so," pointed out Tessa's servant as she gently intercepted Maria's hand from reaching the wine bottle. The American raised a curious eyebrow, but she trusted Marta and allowed her to continue caressing her palm, reading the patterns.
"Marta…no offence," smiled the soldier's wife, "but I wised up to fortune-tellers a long time ago. Someone tried to con me when I was six, I caught on, punched him in the nuts, got my coin back…never believed in or participated in that stuff since."
"I get that most of the time," downplayed Marta. "So no offence taken. Now…you have three brothers…"
"Lucky guess," conceded Maria, still smiling. Marta continued reading her palm, smiling as she further revealed, "Two of them twins."
Maria's smile dipped slightly. "Luckier guess."
Marta's own smile vanished as she focused hard on the images she was now seeing.
"Your mother…relinquished her life to bring you into being."
Maria was now no longer smiling. She was shocked, absolutely stunned that Tessa's servant could be that accurate. How could Marta possibly know that Maria's mother had died giving birth to her?
The Gypsy was now absolutely mesmerised by the flashes of life she was seeing.
"You grew up in a man's world. A rich man's world. It gave you hunger for adventure…"
Maria's mind flashed back to her growing up in America. Times of wild, daring horse riding, rock-climbing, rodeoing, and her brothers teaching her how to use her fists.
"…and a sense of rebellion."
The strictness and discipline of Maria's father, the endless arguments, the contentment of being a rich lady, yet nowhere near satisfying as a life of thrills…all the memories made Maria shed a tear.
"Your life…" Marta then read, slowly realising the truth, "your life is not your first. You died and reincarnated. You fell from grace. And everything you were…including your father…"
Marta saw a past Maria screaming in despair, Lionel doing everything to comfort her as her home, her father, her whole world…
"Was lost to fire," gasped Tessa's servant, looking up at her friend in shock.
"Stop it," demanded Maria, feeling very afraid. Marta continued reading, and saw a hardened and more mature Mrs Williams, fighting…and killing to protect her young from evil.
"And you became a warrior when no other was around."
"Enough!" cried Mrs Williams, yanking her hand out of the gypsy's tender hold. The reaction inadvertently making her knock the flower vase off the table onto the floor, where it smashed. Marta looked into her friend's eyes, now visibly shaken from having relived all those memories. Other customers and staff looked over to their table to see what all the trouble was about.
"Just saying that there's nothing nice whatsoever about spiders!" explained Maria to everyone, her fear washed away by the mask of silliness she'd put on. "Sorry for the zero warning! If I shriek again, I'll let you all know!"
The people stared at her for a bit before resuming their drinking, eating and talking. The owner came over, making his feelings over the smashed vase visibly clear. Mrs Williams apologised profusely and paid enough to satisfy the owner. Once he'd cleared up the mess and left them, Maria turned back, exhaling fearfully as Marta looked at her through apologetic eyes.
"I'm so sorry, Maria. I didn't mean…"
"If you want to help me or understand me, words are more preferable," explained Mrs Williams, helping herself to another drink.
"I'm sorry," Marta apologised again. "I didn't mean to torment you, only…"
"How did you know those things? I've never told anyone. Only Lionel knows."
"Not all fortune-tellers are con artists, Maria."
"Yeah, I know that now!" admitted the soldier's wife, putting her spoon back in her soup bowl to finish off the remainder. She rested her hand on her head for a moment, stirring the last of her lunch before sighing, "I'm sorry I panicked. I just want to know what you're trying to tell me."
"Everyone has reason to be afraid, Maria," assured Marta soothingly, after finishing her meal. "But to be afraid of the good is just foolish."
"Let me guess. The Queen of Swords."
"You know of the truth. You've heard the stories. From me, Tessa and your husband. Yet you fear a snake that does not exist. Why? Is it because she chooses to hide behind a mask? We all wear masks."
"It's nothing to do with masks, Marta," sighed Maria, shaking her head. "It's not them I fear. Or guns or swords. Just the wrong people behind them." She then looked up to her friend after another painful reflection and asked, "If you've ever been betrayed by someone you thought you knew…and it led to the unravelling of your life, could you ever take another chance like that? To be honest, I'm not really up for that all over again. It took me a long time to build a…new life."
"The actions of one are not the same as another," soothed the Gypsy again.
"How do you know that? Are you really that psychic?"
"Experience," Marta joked. She then went serious again and encouraged, "Fear and anger may help you survive, but faith and trust do a much better job. Maria…fallouts are always inevitable. And I myself have questioned my mistress plenty of times if she's doing the right thing. Tessa has made mistakes but she has also learnt from them to become stronger and more positive. Has your husband followed the same path?"
Maria thought about this for a moment before nodding, "Yes. He has."
"Then if you cannot at least trust the Queen…trust his judgement. And that will inevitably lead to reconciliation, acceptance all round, and a happy ending."
Maria knew that this afternoon would stay with her forever. She couldn't ignore or even doubt the word of Marta now.
Tessa's servant asked the waiter for the bill and after lunch had been paid for, Marta smiled at Maria as they picked up their shopping. "Now…I believe we were missing the wine for Saturday?"
Lionel was having difficulty remembering the last time he slept soundly. If it wasn't nightmares about his parents, his suffering and eventual betrayal of the French, or him screaming for forgiveness from Esperanza Garcia before she was executed all over again…
It was either his new bogeymen Montoya and Grisham, laughing and mocking him. Or Doctor Helm, Maria and the Queen all taking turns to curse him for his arrogance and his ruthlessness, saying he was no better than those he was fighting.
But at least he hadn't had his worst nightmare since coming to Santa Helena.
Small consolation, he thought bitterly.
He'd been put on night watch again, had come in at four in the morning, and had climbed into bed for tossing and turning instead of relaxation. Maria had put up with it for years and was too tired to comfort or argue with him again. So when he woke up screaming, Maria had just turned a deaf ear. Lionel ducked his head in loneliness and regret. For everything.
He looked to the clock and groaned in drained frustration. He was just about to lower his head back onto the pillow when an urgent knock threatened to batter the door in.
"Sergeant Williams!" came the voice. "You're needed at once!"
Williams angrily grunted and climbed out of bed to put some pants on and answer the door. The knocking grew louder and louder, as though the soldier wanted to break the door in.
"Alright! I'm coming!" Williams yelled. "Keep it down! My family's asleep!"
The sergeant opened the door to see Clencho, a soldier outside of Williams' unit, salute him.
"Sergeant Williams, Colonel Montoya needs you at Evitas' at once. We've had reports of a break-in."
Who the hell would target that place at this time? thought Williams as he stared incredulously at the soldier. Montoya shut the place down after Gregorio was arrested and hanged. There's nothing left there now.
"Clencho, I've only had two hours sleep," reminded the Golden Sergeant. "I've been on night watch, I'm not supposed to be back on duty until this afternoon. Sergeants Hernandez and Ruy are fresh. And they patrol that area regularly. Surely they can…"
"It's an emergency, sergeant. The colonel needs someone he can trust. Those are his orders."
"Fine. Tell the colonel I'll be there in five minutes. Have my horse ready."
Maria hadn't been able to shut out the talking, so naturally had woken up to discover what was going on. She reluctantly got out her husband's uniform and prepared him a mug of coffee. Williams was soon ready, ignoring his body's moaning for rest and relying on the caffeine to jumpstart his brain. Clencho was there with the sergeant's horse, and he was soon mounted and riding to investigate the crime.
On the rooftops opposite Williams' house, the Queen had closed her spyglass and grimaced in dismay as the Golden Sergeant rode off.
Williams, turn around! Please! I can't reveal myself to warn you!
She looked back to see Clencho scratch his cheek as he walked off back to the fort. The masked Tessa shook her head in disbelief. If the soldier was going to signal, why not just do it instead of trying to be clever by pointing the direction with his moronic scratching?
As the soldier turned to walk down the dark alley, he felt the weight of the Queen dropping right on top of him. He exclaimed and ultimately fell into unconsciousness. The Queen dusted herself off, waited for the right moment and darted for the house, hoping Williams had heard enough of the distraction to turn around.
He had. He was only about to enter the town square when he'd heard Clencho's cry. Curious, Williams stopped his horse and turned around. There was no sign of anyone but himself. Yet there was a trail of dust across the street, that was just dispersing. Someone had clearly run over…to his house.
I'm tired, unfocused, remembered Williams. Evitas is no longer an emergency. Montoya DOESN'T trust me. Orders…to get me out of the house. Maria…Theresa…
The rush of adrenaline made him forget all about tiredness. He yanked the reins hard and turned his horse round to dart for his home. Within seconds, the sergeant was at the back of the house. He quickly jumped off the saddle, drawing both his sword and pistol and slowly advancing towards the door, on the alert for trouble's first sign. Williams discovered that the door was naturally locked, so he kicked it in and entered the shattered safety of his home.
There'd been a struggle. Pans, cutlery and smashed crockery were all over the kitchen floor. Williams shook his head in denial and slowly ventured deeper. The front room was much less worse for wear, but there'd still been a fight going on. The whole house was as quiet as a tomb, and there was no sign of Williams' family or anyone.
"Maria! Theresa!" shouted Lionel, desperately.
The sergeant span on the spot…and felt his blood turn to ice.
A bandit, hatted, wearing a big coat and masked with a balaclava round his mouth…had his arm wrapped round Theresa's neck and the tip of his blade hovering precariously over her right eye.
"Hello, sergeant," sniggered the bandit sinisterly. "Wasn't expecting to find you home so soon."
Pablo…Williams thought, instantly recognising the man's voice. Those psychopathic eyes.
"Lionel…" gasped Maria, held by a burly masked bandit with a pistol pressed hard against her head. Williams turned to redirect his aim at the man who had Maria as his hostage. There was another bandit next to them who had his gun poised to take Lionel's head off if he tried anything. Three more bandits, armed with rifles entered the room, pointing them at the Golden Sergeant
These men are all soldiers, realised Williams with growing horror. Montoya's behind this. He's got to be.
"Drop your weapons, Williams," ordered Pablo, drawing his knife even closer to the scared Theresa's eye. "Wait until we've gone, then head over to Evitas' and wait…"
The whip cracked round Pablo's arm, surprising him enough for the Queen to yank his arm away from Theresa's head. The knife flew out of his grasp, and the Queen ran in to punch the corrupt sergeant in the face and release Theresa. As Pablo fell to the floor, the other murderers turned to fire at the vigilante, who quickly grabbed Theresa and dived for behind the sofa, to use it for cover.
"GET DOWN!" yelled Lionel as he fired his weapon at the bandit who was holding Maria at gunpoint. Williams knew he couldn't afford to go for a wound, so he shot to kill. Mrs Williams ducked as her captor fell dead to the floor, then instinctively looked up to see that the other killer was about to shoot her husband. She swept the man's legs, to make him land hard on his head. The gunshot travelled harmlessly into the ceiling. Maria made sure he was knocked out by punching him hard in the face.
Good girl, Maria, thought Lionel as he took his sword to slash another disguised soldier in the back. Just like I taught you.
"Stay down with your hands on your head, okay?" The Queen told Theresa. The frightened little girl nodded quickly and did what she was told. The vigilante got her sword up just in time to block the man that was trying to get to them. She fought him off quickly and then turned to see Lionel occupied with the remaining bandit. The vigilante turned to help him but was caught unawares by the recovered Pablo. He swung his arm out wildly, tripping the masked Tessa's legs. She fell flat on her face, the impact disorientating her.
Williams disarmed the other 'bandit', then quickly put him down for the count before turning to see that his ally was in trouble. Concern for the kid arose, then confusion. One mask trying to save his family, another meaning them harm. The bizarre feeling overwhelmed the sergeant…and distracted him.
"Lionel, look out!" screamed Maria too late. Pablo fired his pistol, the bullet catching his nemesis right in the shoulder. Williams cried out his pain and fell to the floor, clutching his bloody shoulder. The crying Maria ran over to tend to her husband, the Queen was still woozy from Pablo tripping her up. The corrupt sergeant made a grab for Theresa, picking the screaming child off the floor and running out the door with her.
"THERESA!" screamed Maria hysterically.
"No…" grunted Williams in agony, trying to get up. Pablo regrouped with the other 'bandit' outside, climbed onto his horse with Theresa crying for her parents, and hightailed it out of the street. The enraged Pablo glanced over his shoulder. Montoya's plan had gone to pieces.
"Go to the barracks, Maria!" yelled Lionel, making himself stand up to his feet and pursue. "Get help! Marco! Benjamin! ANYONE that came from Spain with us! Anyone that isn't corrupt!"
The sergeant's shoulder was on fire. He struggled to bury the searing agony as he picked up his sword and sprinted through the door. Screaming as he climbed onto his steed, the Golden Sergeant threw caution to the wind as he commanded his horse to right harder and faster like never before.
Back in the house, the masked Tessa shook her head, willing herself to get it together quick. The blurring in her vision had nearly subsided when she looked up to see herself staring up the barrel of another pistol.
One that was being held by a scared woman.
"Don't move," said Maria, through clenched teeth. "Don't you dare move. I'm warning you!"
"Mrs Williams, please, you have to trust me!" implored the vigilante, picking up her sword and assuring her friend with truthful eyes, "I won't let your daughter die."
Marta's advice and palm-reading once again rang through Maria's tortured mind. Tears trailed from her eyes, and the pistol shook uncontrollably in her grasp. The Queen sheathed her sword and sprinted to Chico waiting outside. Maria lowered the gun and looked back to survey the mess of her home, the bodies of the men that had tried to kidnap her, and the sight of the Queen riding fast to save Theresa. Maria snapped out of her hysteria and quickly ran off to get help.
Far ahead, Lionel had pursued Pablo and his accomplice right out of town. They had rode half-a-mile due east south from Santa Helena and were now approaching the bridge that crossed over Provincial Canyon, which would take them far out into the country. The sun was starting to come up, meaning it would be easy for help to pick up their trail. But Lionel knew he had to do something now. He was tired, injured and in no real condition for this.
Williams shook off the cobwebs that clouded his head and kicked his saddle, snapping the reigns and screamed at his horse to go faster. Pablo's subordinate looked behind him and stopped to draw his pistol. He cocked the weapon and was just about to fire when the enraged Pablo, growing more and more frustrated over the situation, was forced to stop and bark, "Montoya will have our heads if Williams dies, you idiot!"
Thankful for the soldier's stupidity, the relentless Lionel (timing it just right) sped by and swung hard with his fist, connecting with the thug's jaw and knocking him hard off his horse. The surprised Pablo could only watch as Williams then dived off his steed and onto his enemy, tackling both him and his daughter. Williams made sure he landed on top of Pablo as they all fell, and twisted his body to cushion his daughter as much as possible. Theresa cried and screamed but was physically unharmed. Pablo took the full brunt of it, grimacing over the hard impact. The exhausted, already-injured Williams hadn't the energy to pull off such a reckless move so skilfully and ended up damaging his shoulder even more.
"Daddy!" cried the frightened Theresa again as she got up to her feet and ran over to her father. Lionel grimaced, fearing it wasn't over yet. He made it to both feet but his balance was shaky and he sagged to one knee momentarily. The sergeant willed himself on again to regain his footing and looked to his side to see his daughter.
After he'd said that, Williams screamed in agony as Pablo's knife caught him violently across his side. Theresa wailed as her father fell to the ground clutching his vicious wound. Pablo's fellow soldier grabbed Theresa and ran for the bridge, panicked and not thinking straight.
Pablo ripped the bandanna away from his mouth and turned his enemy over. Mounting on top of Williams, Pablo (now completely over the edge) raised his knife high into the air and brought it down. The Golden Sergeant, drained and agonised, barely managed to get his hands up to grab Pablo's wrists and stop the blade being embedded in his face.
"To hell with Montoya's orders," spat the corrupt sergeant with savage glee. "It's much more fun making you bleed like a stuck pig. What's left of you can then watch your little witch flail like a falling chicken before she goes splat in that canyon! As you burn in hell with your wife!"
"You BASTARD!" screamed Lionel, struggling to overpower the fresher, healthier Pablo, who just cackled mockingly at him. Pablo's accomplice was very near to the bridge, Theresa shrieking and still reaching out to the sight of her daddy. Lionel dared to cast his direction at the sight of his child being taken away from him.
The thug was just about to step foot onto the bridge…
When a horse's cry filled the rising dawn.
It was like everything was now in slow-motion. Pablo, Williams, little Theresa and her big captor could only stop and stare in freezing, numbing shock as the dashing Chico came out of nowhere onto the scene.
The Queen of Swords dived off him, onto Pablo's accomplice, tackling him and grabbing Theresa.
Lionel's eyes widened as the multiple mishmash of bodies crashed on the ground in a cloud of dust and tumbled uncontrollably together.
Right over the edge of the precipice. Into the canyon below.
"NOOOOOOO!" screamed Williams. His worst nightmare had finally come true. The horror became everything, all else became nothing. Completely ignoring the pain in his side and shoulder, Williams used his hands - his remaining strength - to twist Pablo's wrists and make him relinquish his knife. Pablo cried out his pain and then felt Williams' hands suddenly reach for his neck. The shocked Pablo felt the air being cut off from his lungs and then nothing else except the pain of Williams twisting his head and snapping his neck.
Lionel threw the body away from him and then sprinted over to the edge of the cliff, remembering the screams of the falling 'bandit' and his child.
Williams couldn't fight the tears. He couldn't hide from the failure, the guilt that would haunt him forever. The laughs from Montoya and Grisham over their victory, the well-deserved hatred from Maria and Doctor Helm…
Williams knelt down on the edge of the cliff, daring to look at the devastating aftermath.
And shock overwhelmed him again.
The Queen of Swords, tightly cradling the terrified Theresa, was hanging by a rope attached to her waist. Attached to the rope's end, was a grappling hook, one that she'd thrown out as she dived and had found a secure purchase on the ropes of the canyon's bridge. The momentum had been wild, and Theresa had clutched onto her heroine for dear life as they swung from underneath the bridge before finally coming to a stop. Pablo's accomplice had long met a grisly end.
"HELP ME!" yelled the vigilante to the amazed sergeant, who quickly made it to the spot on the bridge where they were hanging. He carefully reached out for the Queen's rope, ignored his taunting injuries and used all the strength he had left to haul his daughter and ally back up to safety. The Queen relaxed her body to ease the load. Still cradling the frightened Theresa, the Avenging Angel soothed, "Just hang on, okay. Don't move around."
Williams tangled all the rope he'd pulled, tying it to the ropes of the bridge to secure them. The masked Tessa grabbed one of the bridge's side ropes to stop herself falling and then handed the girl to her father, who safely hoisted her over onto firm footing.
"Run over to the road, Theresa!" ordered Lionel, urgently. "Go to the middle and stay there!"
Theresa did what she was told, then the Golden Sergeant held her hand out to the Queen of Swords without even thinking. The vigilante instantly took it and Williams helped her over to safety.
The Queen and Lionel panted for air. And now looked at each other with completely different eyes after everything they'd gone through. The vigilante untied the rope from her waist to free herself, still surveying the Sergeant and vice versa.
Their feelings mirroring the other.
"Daddy!" The cry of Williams' child snapped him out of his trance.
"Theresa!" he cried and ran off the bridge back onto hard ground. He lifted up his little girl high into the air and span her round and round, making her laugh. Lionel then drew her close to his body and fell to his knees, hugging her tighter than ever.
"Good girl…good girl," he nodded, weeping his joy. "You're safe now. You're safe."
The Queen, having untangled and rounded her rope and hook, smiled warmly as she went over to Chico to hang it on his saddle. She then looked up to see Maria riding on a horse of her own towards them. She stopped and dismounted, joining the family reunion. They all hugged each other tightly, never ever wanting to let go.
When they had to, Maria looked to her badly injured husband and said, "We've got to get you to Doctor Helm."
"I can wait," he nodded tiredly. "Are you alright? Did you get help?"
"I'm fine. I found Marco. He and our friends will be here shortly."
Theresa was staring at the Queen of Swords, who was still smiling at the Williams family. Theresa then broke into a big grin and ran up to throw her arms round her hero, which surprised the vigilante.
Lionel and Maria turned to see the masked Tessa, with full acceptance and gratitude. The vigilante smiled again and knelt down to return the hug.
"Thank you," said Theresa happily.
"You're very welcome, Theresa," said the Queen proudly. "You're a very brave girl. Just like your father."
The seven-year-old looked at the masked woman, confused.
"Well, he's not a girl…but you know what I mean."
Maria found herself letting out a little laugh. The surprised Lionel couldn't help but laugh, too. The Queen nodded Theresa back in the direction of her mother and she obliged as her content father walked over to the vigilante, who got up to her feet.
"That's a very handy piece of equipment you have there," remarked Williams, nodding over to the rope and hook coiled on Chico's saddle. "You must be either very rich, or know the right people."
The vigilante cocked her head to the side, gave an impressed smile and simply remarked, "Yes." She felt as though the sergeant was entitled to a bone for his educated guesses. Williams looked around, giving a tired smile and said, "You know what I really hate about deserts? All this sand. Always getting in your eyes, stopping you from seeing things…apprehending bandits…"
"I hate that, too," she nodded, fully understanding what he meant.
"They're gonna be here in a few minutes. You'd better go."
The masked Tessa's face then went serious and she asked, "Are you sure?"
"No different than helping the Duke of Wellington rid the world of the Napoleon menace," declared Williams resolutely.
"Is that a compliment from you, sergeant?" grinned the Queen, somewhat flattered.
"Yes, it is, kid. Because you've earned it."
The Queen's smile became more touched upon hearing that. She nodded her thanks and turned to mount her horse. Williams smiled warmly, clutching his side as his wife and child came up to him. Maria let a tear of joy fall and then smiled, "I'm so sorry about before. And thank you."
"You don't have to apologise or thank me, Maria," dismissed the Queen of Swords, mounted and ready to go. She then assured her friend with a smile, "You never do."
And the vigilante rode away, with her number one fan waving, "Bye!" and her parents making their silent reconciliation. As the sunrise heralded what was now sure to be a very good day.
Two days later, Sergeant Lionel Williams was out of uniform and dressed in his suit. A navy blue coat with gold epaulets, embroidered red and gold patterns on giant sleeves and collars, gold cufflinks, a scarlet waistcoat, white shirt, cream pants with gold and red stripes down the sides and polished black shoes. He stood up straight with his hands clasped behind his back, in Montoya's office no less.
"I am glad to hear of your family's safety, Williams," confessed the governor smiling. "What a tragedy it would have been had your wife or daughter been murdered by these animals."
"Indeed, sir," nodded Lionel. "I am most thankful to God. Among others."
"As you should. You are most fortunate to have such loyal men at your disposal. Such a shame that loyalty does not transfer so well over to my jurisdiction."
"Kinks that can be ironed out in due time, colonel. My presence has had a big impact on crime and the effectiveness of your force."
"True enough," conceded Montoya, walking over to the American. "But obedience is the biggest issue. I trust you will take that into consideration upon your return to active duty."
"Of course, sir," assured William professionally. "Doctor Helm says I am healing nicely from the injuries I sustained. And my rest has been most beneficial. I should have a clean bill of health by Monday."
The colonel's eyes narrowed warningly, "My sergeants generally lick their wounds in time to resume service much sooner, Williams."
"Surely a man with such expert hindsight can respect that my best work entitles me to such recognition," flattered the Golden Sergeant. "Besides, there are other issues that need dealing with before I can resume active duty."
Montoya stared for a moment and then rose a sly smile.
"Ah, yes. The status report for the Spanish Court."
"I have been sent to unearth the appalling corruption here, after all," reminded Williams respectfully. "They must know of the rogue soldiers who murder and pillage."
"Indeed," Montoya mused as he turned back to the report that the sergeant had laid on his desk. He picked it up again to flicker through the pages, keeping his back turned on Williams.
"Pablo said he was acting on your orders, sir," reported Lionel truthfully. Montoya turned round and calmly replied, "So I have been informed. Surely you cannot believe such a wild accusation to be true?"
Williams gave a sly smile of his own and answered back, "Who would ever believe the word of a psychopath, colonel? And a dead one at that?"
The governor chuckled, "Indeed. Pablo's men are now also off the streets, further exorcising this cancerous corruption. Clencho's violent resisting of arrest, obviously made him an accomplice. His execution will bring no harm to anyone."
How convenient that he won't speak against you, thought Williams to himself. All loose ends tied up.
"This report is…mostly satisfactory, sergeant," nodded the governor. "It accurately details the rate of crime and how corruption has somehow managed to infiltrate the army here. But I do have some issues which I feel will need revising."
"You have detailed little to nothing about the Bandit Queen. She is the biggest scourge of San. Helena and she has been overlooked. Is there a reason for this?"
"Yes, sir. Not enough information to draw an accurate assessment."
"Surely a man with such appreciation for facts and reports can provide more for his superiors?"
"Are we talking about the actual Queen, sir?" asked Williams. "Or impersonators and false accusations?"
Montoya cast him a sinister look, making Williams give a professional response.
"Simply an honest question, colonel."
"Very well," nodded the governor, refusing to rise to debate. "We shall leave that matter alone for now. I am satisfied with your appraisals of myself and Captain Grisham. Very impartial indeed. However, is it really necessary to emphasis such details like the number of breakouts, the plaguing corruption we hadn't noticed until now…and the executions of lawbreakers without trial?"
"Corruption and crime can never be overlooked, sir. It must be reported and dealt with immediate effectiveness. That is why I've personally suggested the troops I brought with me from Spain to be reassigned in my platoon to help achieve this."
"That will be taken into due consideration," downplayed Montoya, placing the report back down on his desk. He smiled at Williams again, asking, "I will hang onto this to review one more time before submitting to the Royal Court. I trust you have no objection?"
"Of course not, sir. I have copies. And I sent one back to Spain already as per their orders. It should be with them by tomorrow morning." Montoya's face masked his fury very well as he glared into Williams' soul, who furthered, "I apologise for lack of communication. It was an honest slip-up, made understandable by the traumatic events I've recently experienced. The Royal Court will be pleased by this obedience. Besides…it's not as though you have anything to worry about. Nothing to hide. Nothing to fear. Do you, Colonel Montoya?"
The governor ominously approached the indifferent American, let him see the silent venom in his eyes for several seconds before answering back, "Not at all, Sergeant Williams. I have absolutely nothing to fear. Or lose."
The tense silence lasted for a few moments before Williams broke it by smiling, "Will that be all, colonel?"
"Yes, sergeant. You are dismissed. Enjoy yourself until Monday."
Williams saluted and then made for the door. He was about to touch the handle when Montoya called back, "My congratulations on all your excellent work are sincere, Williams. But be forewarned. All these victories only make you a bigger target to the evils of this town."
Williams fought a chuckle and replied, "Your concern is appreciated, but unnecessary. After all…I survived Napoleon. I can - and will - survive all the lesser beings."
The Golden Sergeant left the ruthless Colonel's office. Montoya's eyes remained determined and conniving as he said to himself, "We shall see in due time who the lesser beings really are, Williams."
Outside in the Main Square, the fiesta was bustling with happiness and celebration. The streets were decorated with colourful banners, streamers and flowers. A great band with violins, castanets and Spanish guitars were playing in the Rose Courtyard, with Dons and their wives practising dancing for the upcoming flamenco competition to determine which couple would donate the funds for the charity case of their choice.
Delicious food stalls were open and run by the peasants to earn money for their own causes, cakes and fine wines were for sale, and lovely sizzling roast meats were on the spit. The families were enjoying all the games on offer, most of the Dons were playing a high-stakes card game, with a tense moment between Dons Ricardo and Philippe, the final two players left who were smiling playfully as they both sought to outwit the other.
"Runner's up prize is good enough for the Anguilla family, Ricardo," chuckled Philippe, grinning over his hand. "They'll still be able to rebuild their barn and house."
"If you feel that way, Philippe," Ricardo smiled back, equally confident, "why don't you face the music and give the Davilos what you've got?"
"Their son deserves more than expensive treatment in Monterey. He deserves a holiday after everything he's gone through. And I'm going to give it to him!"
"Good luck, my friend!"
Elsewhere, Tessa and Marta smiled and laughed as they saw all the wonderful costumes and fancy dress outfits go by. They were very impressive indeed, and Tessa was indeed looking forward to the judging later on. She and Marta were at the remnant clothing & fabrics stall which a smiling Susana Evita was running. Marta had just purchased some beautiful red velvet which she thought might look good as a new waist scarf for the Queen.
"All these people buying!" beamed Susana. "If it's not for the fancy dress, it's for the flamenco competition! All this money, these satisfied customers! I'll be able to open up a new shop!"
"You deserve it, Susana," smiled Tessa happily, excited about the new dress material in her basket.
"I don't know how I can thank you, senorita."
"Just enjoy the day," said Tessa, hugging the widow. "And reap the happiness wherever you can find it."
Tessa and Marta said their goodbyes and moved away to another part of the pueblo. They looked up ahead to see Maria and Doctor Helm trying some of the roast meats Lucia Garcia had had on the spit. Between smiles, she was playfully yelling at her brothers to hurry up with serving those sausage meats to the eager customers. Both of them looked happier than they'd been for weeks as they continued to serve and take the money.
"That is so tasty, Lucia!" appreciated Mrs Williams, licking her lips after she'd finished her share. "No way it would've been this good if Montoya had taken the farm!"
Lucia giggled and shook her head in disbelief. "All the Dons recommending our farm and produce! My papa's land will surely be ours officially after today! Thank you, Mrs Williams."
"I just helped, Lucia," smiled Maria. "It was all down to you. You saved your family's world. You. Well done, kid."
Maria gave the twenty-one year old a big hug, and Doctor Helm smiled and put his plate down.
"Thank you, Lucia. That was excellent."
"Gracias, doctor," she nodded. Turning to her next customer, she said, "One side of roast chicken coming up, sir. Beto, unpack more of the cheeses for tasting, please!"
"Senoritas," greeted Helm as Mrs Williams gave her friends a hug. The foursome walked off together to enjoy another part of the fiesta.
"Is Theresa having a good time?" asked Tessa.
"Oh, you would not believe it! When I went to the schoolyard, I couldn't even prise that stick off her hands! She's so determined to hit that piñata! And of course she's having too much fun playing those other games and telling all her friends about the Queen of Swords saving her life."
"Yes, many people just can't stop talking about her. Or things in general," smirked Doctor Helm in Tessa's direction. The aristocrat just smiled and raised her eyebrows at him, implying innocently that she had no idea what he meant by that remark.
"Dinner tomorrow evening will be excellent," smiled Marta, looking forward to the Williams coming over to the hacienda. "Now that we finally have that wine."
"Okay, I have a brain that's easily scattered! So sue me!" laughed Maria. Marta giggled back. Tessa then asked, "So how do you feel about the Queen of Swords now, Maria? Surely nothing ugly is hiding behind that mask. From what I've seen and heard, some people think there's nothing but beautiful intentions."
Doctor Helm simply blew out an amused puff and smirked over the blatant cheap shot from Senorita Alvarado.
"Well, don't get me wrong, Tessa," shrugged Maria, running her hand through her long ginger hair. "I like her. But she can never be my hero exactly."
"Nope. I already have a hero. And he's coming towards us right now."
They all looked to see Lionel smiling and greeting the happy people and shaking hands with the Dons that passed him by. He continued to walk and saw his wife, who grinned and threw his arms round him.
"Ow! Easy, darling! My shoulder! My side!"
"You big baby!" laughed Maria, as she pulled apart a little from her smiling husband and then gave him a little kiss.
"Senorita Alvarado. Marta," Lionel greeted the smiling ladies. He turned to Helm and nodded, "Doctor."
"Sergeant," Helm nodded back respectfully. "How are you healing?"
"Well enough. Thanks to you."
Robert considered this momentarily and then turned to Tessa and Marta, aptly changing the subject by saying, "The wine-tasting competition is starting soon. I'm due to partake. Ladies."
"Doctor," nodded Tessa. Helm gave his goodbyes to Lionel and Maria and then left. Tessa shook her head slightly and rolled her eyes upward.
Typical stubborn Englishman, the noblewoman thought. Oh, well.
"How's Theresa?" Lionel asked his wife.
"Just about having the time of her life," she smiled. "We'll drop by the playground next."
"Maria told us that it was the Queen who helped save the day," came in Marta.
"It must have been so exciting for Theresa," suggested Tessa, putting on her naïve demeanour, which didn't fool the Williams couple. "Maria says she looks nice under that mask…"
"Uh…" Mrs Williams laughed, scratching her head.
"So what's your verdict, Sergeant? As a soldier trying to capture a masked outlaw?"
Lionel put on a smile, raised an eyebrow and - picking his words carefully - he replied, "My apologies, Tessa. That's classified, military business."
"Of course," she grinned, dizzily.
"But just between us…" he explained lowering his head to the senorita's ear, "there are times in life where it's really nice to be proven wrong."
Tessa couldn't help but betray a fond smile. Marta also smiled in delight.
"Come on, you!" grinned Maria, pulling her husband by the hand, making him cry a little over his lingering injuries. "We check on Theresa, and then we are going to the courtyard! Got to get some last minute practice in the for the dancing competition!"
"Sweetheart!" laughed Lionel as his spouse dragged him away from the chuckling Tessa and Marta.
"No 'buts!' Let's show these Californians, Spaniards and Mexicans what we Americans can do! Tessa! See you on the dance floor!"
"Bye, Maria!" laughed Senorita Alvarado happily. She and her servant then moved on.
"The Golden Sergeant is right, Marta."
"It is nice to be proven wrong sometimes."
"And for the heart of an enemy to be that of a friend?"
"I'm sure Lionel feels the same way."
"And do you feel relief?" asked the Gypsy. "That the transitional death of Pablo was the one that brought you and the Golden Sergeant together?"
"You've no idea," grinned the aristocrat in relief.
"Just one mystery left then."
"Why did you invite the sergeant to dinner tomorrow night?"
"Simple," explained Tessa, having long figured it out. She waited for Marta to press her for the answer, before saying, "Celebrating everything. It's fiesta weekend."
The two friends smiled and laughed as they made their way to the Rose Courtyard.
END OF ARC 1