Anvil of Iron
My thanks to Jill for the wonderful pictures.
Ania Cristina Valdéz sighed with pleasure as she looked down on the valley spread out before her like a painting. From where she sat atop a rise at the northern edge of the valley, she could look east and see a herd of cattle calmly grazing on the early season grass. Earlier in her ride she had caught sight of a small herd of horses galloping in the distance, many with the Wine Cup brand. It pleased her greatly to already see several foals making their long legged way behind some of the mares. To the west, she could see the beginning of the vineyard her father had so wanted, and beyond that, the broad mesa with the framework of her hacienda reaching upward. Running through it, tying it all together like a silver ribbon, was the creek which brought precious water that made things so unusually green for this area. It was hard to believe that it was all safely hers now. It had been a hard year, but now her life seemed to be full of promise and new hope.
Ania's mare, Ventura, tossed her head and neighed. Patting her lovingly on the neck, Ania said, "They are still out there somewhere, are they not, girl? I will just bet you enjoyed running free like that, but we both have new lives and new duties now...too many things to do to sit here lazing in the sun like this." With another pat, Ania turned Ventura back toward the path leading down the ridge and headed to her hacienda.
As she approached the vineyard, she began to see workers busy in all directions. Even though she was nowhere near as busy as she had once been, there were still always things that needed her attention. This was just as well, since Ania had never been one to sit and do nothing.
Guiding Ventura up beside him, Ania dismounted and turned the reins over to a servant. She turned to Nico with a smile. "Buenos dias, Nico. What is wrong?"
"One of our brood mares has a bloody gash on her leg," Nico said. "I was just about to work on her, but you, patrona, would probably do a much better job of it than I would." He bowed his head slightly to acknowledge her abilities. "To me, it looks like she did it to herself rather than being attacked by some animal. We have her over in the small corral." Nico pointed in that direction.
"One of those mares we have been watching seems to have injured her leg. It does not look like anything has attacked her. It appears that perhaps she gashed it against something sharp. I was just about to try to treat her myself before I saw you. You could probably do it better than I though, patrona," the head vaquero said. "We have her up in the small corral now."
"All right, let us go see what needs doing," Ania said briskly.
Nico led her to the side of the stable, where they leaned on the fence watching the mare. Treating the nasty looking cut above the mare's fetlock was only the first of several tasks that kept Ania busy this morning.
Sometime later, Ania looked up from checking the workmanship on part of a new construction to find a small boy at her elbow. Pepe Mería was the nine-year-old son of Manolito Mería, a carpenter who was one of the main workers setting up the new buildings and irrigation works on Rancho Valdéz. The boy had become a favorite of Ania's. He reminded her of Juan, her twin brother, when they were his age. Full of mischief and curiosity, Pepe often sought out his patrona.
"Buenos dias, Señorita Ania!" he said with a broad grin. "I have come to help you today."
"Oh," Ania cocked her head and tried to look stern. "And how do you know I need you to work for me, Pepe? You might be more trouble than you are worth."
"Oh no, patrona!" he said as he pushed his hat back to the back of his head and looked up at her. "I am the best helper you have here. Who else can keep up with you like I can?"
"Well, you are pretty quick on your feet," Ania allowed with mock seriousness, "but what if I have nothing that needs doing?"
"Uh," the boy seemed to think for a second. "Then I could take care of your horse for you, patrona!" He looked at her hopefully from under his thatch of black hair. "She probably gets tired of just standing around waiting for you."
Ania laughed. "You scamp! That was the point of the whole thing, was it not?"
Pepe loved horses and made no secret that he wanted to ride Ventura. "She is a beautiful horse. Someday I will have a horse as fast as she is," he said with a cocky grin.
"Oh, and what would you do with this fast horse of yours?" Ania asked with a smile.
"I will win all the races in California and be rich, patrona," Pepe nodded solemnly as if it were a sure thing already. "Then I could pay someone to help my mamá."
"How is your mamá today, muchacho?" Ania asked in a more serious tone. Pepe's mother already had four children and was expecting again. She had been well with her previous children. This time she had been quite sick and seemed to be losing strength as her pregnancy continued. Ania was very concerned for her and often took herbs by their small adobe house for the woman.
"She was very sick today. She sent me to work in her place," Pepe said as he puffed out his chest proudly.
"Well, if she trusted you to do her work, then who am I to say you cannot?" Ania asked, her eyes twinkling. "Come. Let us see if we can find a task worthy of your great skill."
For the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon, Ania allowed Pepe to follow her around as she went from place to place doing the things that were necessary in running a rancho as large as the Rancho Valdéz. He was only too glad to run errands and help with anything she did. Finally, late in the evening, Ania paid him for his help. As she laid the shiny pesos in his hand, she paused, looked at him quietly for a moment and then added three extra coins to his hand.
"Thank you, Señorita Ania! I must have been a good worker for you today, sí?" the boy looked up at her questioningly, wanting the praise as much as the extra money.
"Sí, Pepe. You have, indeed," Ania smiled. Then she cocked an eyebrow at him and added more sternly, "Now, go directly back to your mamá. Tell her that I will be by to check on her and tell your papá that I wish to speak with him about something."
"Sí, patrona. I will tell Mamá but I cannot tell my papá what you said. He is not there," the boy's brow clouded with a frown.
She turned a puzzled look on Pepe. "Oh, where is he?” she asked. I thought that possibly he had been out working somewhere and had gone on home when he finished." Manolito was a dependable man and not given to leaving his family often.
"He is in the cuartel, Señorita Ania." The boy looked down, not quite sure what his patrona's reaction would be to this bit of information.
"Whatever for?" Ania exclaimed.
"He called Capitán Rodríguez a thief...to his face." Pepe looked up with a fierce look of pride in his eyes. "My papá is no coward, señorita. The capitán is a thief! He took my uncle's land and sent him away. Papá knew he was wrong. When he told Papá to shut up and to leave the cantina and go home, Papá refused. He said that he had just as much right to drink there as a thief in blue and red had. The capitán threw him in jail. I do not know when he will get out."
Ania frowned. She could just see Rodríguez's reaction to a peon telling him that. "The cantina, hmmm?" she said. No doubt wine had helped Manolito's candor with the pompous comandante. Knowing the capitán as she did, Ania knew it was a wonder Rodríguez had not killed the man outright under the guise of a duel of honor. Manolito rarely carried a weapon of any sort other than his fists. That is probably what saved his life. Either that, or the fact that Rodríguez would have viewed a peon as below his standard of honor, not that Rodríguez had any true honor. Ania detested that one with all her heart. If she could only prove that he had been the one behind the slayings of her father and brother and the attacks on herself, she could help rid the pueblo of this evil snake...but, well...she supposed it was best to look to the future rather than the past.
"Can you help him, patrona?" The boy's simple request interrupted her thoughts. His eyes were filled with the type of trust only a child possesses.
Ania thought for a minute. She wanted to help, but, if truth were told, she was not sure if she could be of much help. Rodríguez hated her possibly as much as she hated him, and it was questionable whether she would help or hurt Manolito's case by adding her objections. Seeing the trust and hope in the child's eyes, though, she knew she had to try. "Let me finish up here, and then we shall see if I can do anything for him," she finally said. "You run along home and tell your mamá I am coming." Ania had to grin as she watched the boy race to where his faithful burro stood patiently waiting and ride off, an overjoyed expression on his face.
It was a while before Ania finished seeing to things. When she left, it was with several bridles looped around the horn of her saddle. They needed to be taken to the saddler for work and she needed to order several more saddles, as she would soon be hiring more vaqueros. She could take care of this business in Los Ángeles before she went to the cuartel tonight even if it did make her a little late. Señor Cosío, the saddler, was known to take an extra long siesta each day and kept his shop open equally late in the evenings. Ania would just take time to go by the Mería casa on her way.
Later, as she stood looking down at Brisa Mería, Ania ran through in her mind the list of other things that might help the ill woman. Having learned that Brisa had eaten little lately other than tortillas and a few beans, she was trying to get her to eat more beef and, even a bit of liver if she could stomach it.
"The liver, patrona? Ugh, I could not!" Brisa was objecting.
"If you would just try, Brisa, I'm sure it would help bring strength back to your muscles. Some people say it is the strength of the animal that you receive when you eat red meat and the innards, such as the liver. I do not know if that is really so, but it does help. If you will try, I will have some sent over for you," Ania insisted.
"How can I afford meat now, Señorita Ania? I cannot work and Manolito is in jail for who knows how long." The pale woman shook her head. "The children need what little we have."
Ania shook her head in mock sternness. "Brisa, you do me a dishonor. Of course, you will not have to pay me for the meat that I send. I will send enough for you and the children. Just try to eat it a time or two each day." Ania laughed. "Consider that your doctor's...uh...curandera's orders!"
Brisa smiled shyly. "Thank you, Señorita Ania. I will try. That is all I can say. Thank you."
"Well, now that we have that settled, I should be leaving. I still have things to do before returning home to my own supper. By the way, I am going into the pueblo this evening. I plan to stop by the cuartel and see if there is any way I might be of service to your husband. Is there anything you wish me to tell him?" Ania asked Brisa.
"Oh, patrona, do you think you can help him?" Brisa's eyes held much the same hope and trust her son's had had.
The look bothered Ania. She hoped fervently that she would not make matters worse. She thought ruefully that trust could be as big a burden as a vow. After all, she did not yet have the respect and influence that the de la Vegas had in the area. Mmmmm, she thought. Perhaps Diego will go with me and lend weight to my comments.
"Well," she said aloud, "Pepe, if your mother has anything she would like to send to your father, why don’t you come along? Why, I will even let you ride with me on Ventura. Your little burro will be entirely too slow," she said with a grin at the excited boy.
On their way into Los Ángeles, they had stopped at the de la Vega hacienda to leave word that she would be late and to see if Diego would go with them. To Ania's great disappointment, Diego was nowhere to be found. With Don Alejandro still out and about on business, it left only Ania to speak up for her servant. Ania sighed. Well, she would do what she could.
The business with Señor Cosío had taken somewhat longer than she had expected. Dusk had already fallen and shadows were lengthening as Ania and Pepe left Señor Cosío's shop and headed to the cuartel. Ania was quiet as she contemplated what to say that could help Manolito. However, as excited as he was to be riding the patrona's horse and going to visit his father, Pepe filled the silence with his own cheerful chatter. Ania only wished she felt as confident of giving the help Pepe expected, as he was that she could do so.
Having ridden to the other side of the pueblo, they were now slowly trotting up a side street that led around the eastern side of the cuartel. Suddenly, Ventura pricked up her ears, raised her head, and nickered a greeting. Ania realized that several yards from them another horse was standing calmly and silently against the cuartel wall. As the black stallion swung his head in their direction and answered with a greeting of his own, Ania recognized him as Zorro's great horse, Tornado. She quickly reined Ventura to a halt in surprise.
It was at this moment that Ania and Pepe heard a commotion from within the cuartel walls. "Stop them! They are getting away!" they heard someone shout and then the rapid drumming of horses' hooves as what sounded like two or three horses thundered out the gate of the cuartel heading away from them. They could not see who was on the horses from where they sat trying to take in the events. Ania heard a voice she was sure was Rodríguez say, "Forget about them! Get Zorro!" More commotion could be heard, mixed with the clash of steel upon steel. Rodríguez gave an infuriated roar. I wonder what happened to cause that? Ania thought with a grin. I hope Zorro branded another Z on him.
As they sat transfixed, a dark figure appeared, faintly visible against the gray and darkening sky. The figure stood for just a minute on the roof and to Ania's amusement, turned to those inside the cuartel and made an elaborate and very mocking bow. Turning, the figure gracefully stepped off the roof's edge and landed precisely in the saddle on the back of the stallion.
As he whirled Tornado and prepared to gallop off, Zorro realized that he had an unexpected audience. His reactions preceding his recognition, his right hand flew to the hilt of the sword at his side. Yet even as his fingers gripped the hilt, he recognized that there was no danger from these two and he broke into a dazzling smile.
"Zorro!" Pepe gasped, awed to be this close to the Dark Angel of Los Ángeles. He could not wait to tell his brothers and sister and the other children in the area what he had seen.
Ania's heart pounded as she returned Zorro's grin. How could she ever not have recognized that smile? Thankfully, she realized that not everyone in Los Ángeles had memorized Diego de la Vega's smile as she had in recent months. Perhaps she was seeing with her heart now, not her eyes. Suddenly, she realized that he probably did not really have the time for this. She turned her eyes meaningfully toward the cuartel. "Do you suppose, Señor Zorro, that we will be having company shortly?"
The man in black gave a merry laugh, for all the world as if he were on no more that an adventuresome outing, to be enjoyed for its excitement but containing no real danger. "Señorita, it might be best if you pull your horse aside. This spot will undoubtedly have more than its share of traffic in a few moments."
"Señor, I will consider myself well warned," Ania stated with mock seriousness as she looked back into the laughing eyes of the outlaw.
Zorro quickly winked at Pepe and gave Ania a graceful salute and slight bow. He then put his heels to Tornado's sides and disappeared down the street.
Ania glanced at the dusty street where Tornado's hooves had left their mark. Calmly, she guided Ventura twice in a circle, carefully treading over the trail left behind by the outlaw each time. Then with a wink of her own at Pepe, she raised her reins and backed Ventura into the shadow of some nearby trees, far enough to be out of the lancers' path, yet close enough to see what would happen now. They did not have long to wait.
At the head of a column of lancers rode Tristán Francisco Rodríguez himself. The capitán made an imposing figure with his impeccable uniform and steel gray eyes. His height was almost a match for Zorro, while his body was of a wider, heavier type without bearing any fat. The look now in the gray eyes was one of anger and hatred. There was but one thing this man wanted more that gold and power...to see Zorro captured and hung. Each encounter with the Fox left him a bit more frustrated with this goal. However, the frustration would never lead to giving up the pursuit, rather the opposite. He was becoming quite obsessed.
As the lancers rode past where Ania and Pepe were concealed by the deepening shadows, Ventura once again nickered to the other horses. "Muchas gracias, Ventura!" Ania muttered in exasperation. "Moody tonight, are we, girl?"
The lancers immediately circled around facing the barely perceivable rider in the shadow. Many lancers drew their swords nervously, while three leveled muskets toward the shadows.
"Show yourself!" Capitán Rodríguez shouted as he sat with sword in hand.
"Really, Capitán! Do you honestly expect El Zorro to simply sit and wait for you to find him?" Ania calmly said as she eased Ventura into the relative brightness of the street.
"Señorita Valdéz!" Rodríguez nearly spat her name out as he narrowed his eyes at her. "What are you doing hiding in the shadows like that? What are you doing here?"
"Oh, not much, Capitán. The boy and I were on our way to see his father. Brisa Mería has sent something for her husband and I wished to speak to you about bail for him," Ania stated.
Sergeant García spoke up. "But Manolito Mería is no longer here, Señorita...."
"Shut up, baboso!" Rodríguez shouted.
García quickly clamped his lips together.
"Oh," Ania said sweetly. "Fox trouble, Comandante?"
The capitán merely glared at her.
"Señorita," García began. "I do not suppose it would do any good to ask you which way Zorro went, would it? Please."
Ania merely smiled at him. Rodríguez rolled his eyes at García's question.
Suddenly Pepe spoke up excitedly, "Zorro went that way, Sergeant!" He pointed back in the opposite direction to which the lancers were headed.
"Pepe!" Ania gasped.
The boy turned innocent eyes toward her. "Did I do something wrong, patrona?" His eyes grew large with worry.
Ania frowned at him with a sigh, but otherwise said nothing.
García looked at the boy with a look of almost disappointment.
"Well, idiota! What are you waiting for?" the capitán growled at Sergeant García. "After him!"
García immediately signaled the lancers and led them thundering on down the street in the direction Pepe had pointed.
Rodríguez remained glaring at Ania for a minute. "Señorita, have you no place better to be?"
Ania calmly met her enemy’s eyes. "Capitán Rodríguez, it is a good thing that you are not a peon, who must raise chickens to eat and El Zorro a real fox. Why, Capitán, the way he raids your "coop", he would soon have you at the point of starvation." Her expression left no doubt that she found the situation extremely humorous.
With a wordless growl, Rodríguez whirled his horse and rode back around the corner and into the cuartel.
Ania sat and laughed. After a moment, Pepe's bright laughter joined hers. Ania gave Pepe a mock frown. "Young señor, you know that lying is a sin. If you are not more careful with the truth, Padre Felipe will have you doing penance!"
"Sí, Señorita Ania," the boy said as he looked up with a mischievous laugh, "but this time it will be worth it!"
Ania threw back her head and laughed again. "Come on, rascal. Let us go tell your mother the good news. Why, there is even a chance that your father will beat us back to your house!" With a shake of the reins and a touch of heel to side, Ania sent Ventura cantering out of the pueblo.
Feeling fine and frisky tonight, Ventura soon left the pueblo and its inhabitants in her dust.