Anvil of Iron

by

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven


Ania rode for some time before slowing down and actually laughing at herself. Things could not really be as they seemed, now could they? The things the curandera had said were general enough to fit many circumstances. Perhaps the old one had even heard of some of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Ania's father and Juan. That would certainly be considered a shadow that she had gone through and it definitely had changed her life. However, Ania became uneasy again as she thought about the reference to the dark man.  Could that be so general a term?  No, she was afraid that it was not general at all, afraid that the old woman had actually seen something in her mind that could be a danger to them all. Hopefully, the old woman was as good at keeping secrets as she was at seeing them. But that is silly! Here I am talking just as if the old woman could really read my mind. Ania shook her head at such a thought. Nonsense! she told herself.

Ania placed her hand on the saddlebag and felt the comforting bulges of the herb packets within. Well, at least, I have goldenrod now, Ania thought. That is what is important.

Soon, Ania came back onto the Camino Real. As she approached Los Ángeles, she had planned to bypass it. However, there were others on the road with her now. Unsure if any of them knew her, she decided she should stop at the church to pray. Since she had been the one to request prayers for Zorro, it would surely look more normal for her to do so. Besides, Ania thought, it would be a comfort to go into the church now, even for a short time.

As Ania entered the church, she had expected the interior to be somewhat dim. Instead, she was greeted with an amazing sight as she stepped through the doors. Twinkling candles were sitting in just about every conceivable spot around the holy statues in the church. She stopped and looked around in surprise. Across from her were several more people, also lighting candles.

 Padre Felipe walked up quietly beside her. "Buenas tardes, Ania.  It is good to see you,” he said.

Ania quickly turned to him, but found her eyes pulled back to the bright candles even as she answered him, “Buenas tardes, Padre.  I am very glad to be here.  I have need of the comfort that I find here.”

“There is always comfort for those who seek it from our Lord, my child.  I think I can guess what it is that troubles you.”  He followed Ania’s gaze to the people lighting the candles. “ I see you have noticed all the candles. People have been coming and lighting them since early this morning. I noticed that a great many of the de la Vega workers, as well as quite a few from your rancho, have come, so I am not surprised that you have found your way here as well," he said with a smile.

"All of these are for Zorro?" Ania asked.

"Sí," the padre nodded. "Many of the people have petitioned intercession in his name, señorita. If sheer numbers of prayers will gain heaven's blessing, then Zorro will surely come through this."

"I pray that you are right, Padre Felipe," Ania replied. "He has done a great deal of good for many of us here, regardless of what Capitán Rodríguez says."

"Sí, es la verdad, Ania," the padre smiled at her. "Have you also time for confession today, my child? It has been a while since I have heard you," he reminded her.

Ania thought about it and immediately rejected the idea. She had done a great deal of lying in the last few hours, and, truth be told, she intended to do a great deal more if the situation required it. The words "go and sin no more" could hardly apply in this case and she did not wish to take her instruction lightly. No, it was best to wait until she could take it to heart. "Uh...no, Padre. I am afraid that my time is limited today." Well, that much is true, she thought. "I really just want to add my prayers to the others. I owe Zorro a great deal and I cannot help but feel that God will help him."

"We can pray so, Ania," he replied. "Although, only God himself can see the future and know for sure." In a moment, he moved away to speak to someone else.

Ania quickly walked to a pew, and making the sign of the cross, knelt and prayed. On her way out, she herself took a candle, and with some difficulty, found a spot near the Holy Virgin and lit it. Feeling somewhat calmer than she had in a while, Ania then left the church.

As Ania looked toward the cuartel, it occurred to her that it would be helpful if she could find out what Rodríguez was up to now. She didn’t want to take a great deal of time doing it, however. Seeing Sergeant García coming out of the cuartel gates, Ania had an idea of just how she could get the most information in the least amount of time.

"Buenas tardes, Sergeant," she called as soon as García was close enough. "Well, I see that our good comandante has let you come home from the chase."

"Shhhh, señorita," García said with a look over his shoulder. "Do not say that so loudly. Capitán Rodríguez is still threatening to send us back out until someone finds some new trace of Zorro. If his other plan does not work, we probably will have to go back. The capitán is not a man to give up."

"I will try to keep my voice down, Sergeant García," Ania whispered with a smile. "We would not want you to do that."

García looked uncomfortable. "It is not truly funny, señorita. I rode all morning, with the only result being that the comandante is yelling more than ever."

Ania grinned, "I take all that to mean that you have not found Zorro."

"No, Señorita Ania," García said. After a second, he leaned toward her and said in a quiet voice, "And between me and you, I am glad."

"Well, Sergeant, I must go to the tavern to see if my chest of tea has come in yet," Ania said, using the first excuse that popped into her mind. "Why do we not go and have a glass of wine to celebrate your ‘bad fortune’ today."

"YOU would buy me wine, Señorita Ania? That is not usually the way things are done." García sounded surprised, but he looked tempted, nonetheless.

"Of course, amigo mio. I once told my father that I saw no difference in me going into a cantina and Juan doing so. Well, this is the same.  I raise grapes and produce wine. Men do the same. Why should one wine producer be more able to buy wine for a friend than another? What possible difference should it make, especially since I will be partaking as well? Besides, would it not look stranger for me to go unescorted and drink alone?"

"Well, when you put it that way..." García said with a hearty grin. "How could I refuse a lovely señorita a request like that?" He waved his hand grandly toward the tavern.

Ania favored him with a smile and walked with him across the plaza.

Ania found, to her surprise, that a chest of tea had, indeed, come in for her from her friend in West Florida. Now what do I do with this? she wondered as she sat and contemplated the chest. It was not large, but would be a problem on horseback. She ordered wine while she considered the problem. Oh, well, let us see if I can learn anything.

García took a swallow of his wine and sighed. "Oh, gracias, Señorita Ania. This does, indeed, put a better light on this day."

"So, Sergeant, it seems that our fine fox has given all of you the slip again," Ania commented.

"Sí, it would seem so. The capitán has decided that someone helped him, peons more than likely," he said.

"Oh, he thinks a peon is hiding him then?" Ania toyed with the lock on the chest as she sipped her wine.

"Yes, as well as confusing the trail that we were following. Private León is out on the trail now. He claims that he can sort out which trail is which. He has already found where the bodies of some small animals were tossed. The animals' throats had been slashed and were probably used to add more blood trails. You know Private León, do you not?" García continued conversationally.

Ania swore silently at their not having thought to hide the animal carcasses, but carefully kept her worry from clouding her expression. "No, I do no believe that I do," she replied. "Do you think he can really follow the trail like he said?"

"I do not know, Señorita Ania." García shook his head. "But they tell me that he is half Indian and grew up with his mother's people. Perhaps he learned tracking from them."

Ania frowned. "Well, I will say that I hope he does not, Sergeant." At least, this was one opinion she did not have to hide. Everyone knew how she felt about Zorro.

García shook his head again. Then he surprised her by changing the subject. "Has Don Diego returned yet?"

"Why, no. I do not expect him back for several days. Why do you ask?" Ania looked at him quickly.

"Well, that is too bad, Señorita Ania. Then I will have to put him on the list that the capitán ordered me to make," García looked thoughtful as he took another swallow of wine.

Ania could feel her heart speed up its beating. "List? What list, Sergeant?"

"Capitán Rodríguez has some ideas about who Zorro is," he replied.

"He thinks he knows who Zorro is?" Ania fought to keep her voice level.

"Oh, no! Not yet!" García stated quickly. "Just ideas as to clues to who Zorro is. He says that he is a hidalgo. He even has some loco idea that if we take note of who among the young men of the area have supposedly gone away on trips in the last day or so, then we will figure out who he is. With Zorro injured, whoever he is the rest of the time would stay out of sight, too."

Ania took a sip of wine, her mouth having suddenly gone dry. "Oh, so you feel that Diego should be on this list, Sergeant? What kind of a friend is that, to accuse him of being Zorro?" She scowled at him.

"Me?" García shook his head an emphatic no. "I know Don Diego could not be Zorro. I have known him too long to think that. Besides, he cannot even manage to hold a sword properly. How could he be Zorro? Nevertheless, the capitán will have him on the list since he is not back. I merely wanted to keep him from being accused falsely once again."

"Again? When was this, Sergeant García? I can not believe anyone would think such a thing of Diego," Ania said in surprise.

"Oh, it has happened a time or two before. The second time, I will admit that I knew he was going to be arrested, but I knew that he would be proved innocent. Zorro himself came and freed him from his cell that time, though I did not see the two together. The first time was more serious. The comandante at that time was convinced that Don Diego was Zorro, even to the point of fighting a duel with him in front of the Viceroy." García frowned at the memory.

"How did he prove his innocence?" Ania asked, intrigued in spite of herself.

"He himself did not, Señorita Ania. The comandante was almost on the point of killing him when the real Zorro showed up and pinned a message to the door with a knife. The viceroy wound up arresting the comandante and returning him to Spain. Everyone clearly saw that they were two different men. It is just strange that Don Diego does seem to often be near where Zorro appears and yet never seems to meet the outlaw face to face," García looked thoughtful, "other than the time he let him out of that jail cell, that is."

"I am sure there are many men here who have not seen Zorro face to face, Sergeant," Ania declared. "That should not make one suspect they are Zorro themselves."

"I agree, but the capitán would consider that a clue." García looked up from his glass. "But as I said, at least that one time, Zorro was just outside on his horse and Don Diego was clearly inside with the comandante and several others, including me, so this should just be an irritation to him, no more."

"Well, I am sure he will be relieved at that," Ania commented dryly as she noticed one of the de la Vega servants walk in. "Manuel!" she called. "Excuse me a moment, Sergeant. I will be right back."

"Of course, Señorita Ania," García said.

At this, Ania walked over to Manuel and found that he had come into town in a cart, meaning to take supplies back for Crescensia before he went on to the fiesta tonight. She arranged for him to take the small chest of tea back with the other supplies.

"Well, that takes care of that," she said as she returned to her table. "I really do need to be going now. I have quite a few things to do."

The barmaid had just about to refill Sergeant García's glass. When she heard that Ania was leaving, Maria quickly set the bottle back on her tray. García frowned and looked back at his almost empty glass with a sigh. "Sí, señorita. Hasta luego and gracias for the wine."

"Hasta luego, Sergeant," Ania turned with a smile and walk out to where Ventura was tied. She carefully kept her pace relaxed. She felt a great desire to check on Diego and to tell Bernardo all she had found out. It was clear that they would need to discuss the capitán's plans and see if they could come up with plans of their own to counter his. Ania felt confident that Bernardo would come up with something if she could not. She was learning to have a great respect for the manservant's intellect. There was definitely much more behind his silence than most people gave him credit for.

As she rode, she worried about this Private León. If he could truly unravel the confused trail, he was going to be the first problem that must be solved. Ania looked at the sky. The day had grown cloudy, but that did not mean it would actually rain now. Twice already in the last week, clouds had blown in from the sea only to dissipate without dropping rain onto the land. If only it would rain, our problem would be solved, she fretted.

On a hunch, Ania rode up to the top of a ridge not far from the pueblo and looked over the lower land around it. Far out to the east she caught sight of a lone soldier, walking as he led his horse. Carefully sticking close to the scattered trees and rocky outcroppings, Ania closed the distance between them. Soon she was hidden behind a group of bushes not far from him. As she watched, she wondered what she should do. The path he was slowly, but surely, following was leading him alarmingly in the direction of the de la Vega lands and the hidden entrance to the cave. Twice, she saw him walk out to the side as though following other markings, but always he came back to the original path. He is doing it! Ania thought in alarm. He is somehow telling the difference between the blood trails. I have got to stop him, but how?

She began to feel sick as she watched him turn again in the direction she knew the cave to be. Her mind felt frozen by panic. She could think of only one way to stop him. Slowly, almost of its own will, her hand reached out to where the musket still rested in its case beside her saddle. It was almost as if Ania was watching herself from a distance, so detached did she feel from what she was doing. Ever so slowly, she began to raise the musket and take aim. Dear God! What am I doing? He does not look even as old as I am. Please, if there is another way, please show it to me, she prayed. Ania pulled the hammer back until it locked with a click and began to place her hand back on the trigger.

Ania blinked as she felt something hit her hand. Startled, she looked down at the hand and saw a wet spot. Suddenly, huge raindrops began falling all around her as the sky, at long last, opened up with the long awaited spring rains. Within a minute, it was coming down in sheets. As Ania put the musket back in its case, she was almost weak with relief.

On the trail before her, she could see Private León straighten up and look at the sky. She watched in amazement as he shook his fist at the sky and then stood with his hands on his hips looking around him. Finally, he shook his head, mounted his horse and rode back toward Los Ángeles. It was clear that rain such as this was turning into would destroy any chance the private had of tracking this outlaw for his capitán. He was not pleased that he had lost the chance to earn his capitán's praise. But then, he did not know just how fortunate the turn of events was for him.

There sitting on Ventura's back in the pouring rain, Ania made the sign of the cross and said a quick heart-felt prayer of thanksgiving for the rain's coming at just that moment. Tears mingled with the raindrops on her face as she wondered what other things she would have to confess before this was all over. However, she knew one thing: her resolve still stood. She would do whatever it took to see that Diego’s secret was not discovered and worry about the consequences later. Determinedly, Ania at last turned Ventura back toward home and urged her into a canter. Well, at least that is one less problem to worry about, she reminded herself gratefully.

When she arrived home, Ania was irritated to find that Crescensia and Rosita had decided to come back to the hacienda earlier than most of the others. She knew without even asking that the two had come back to keep an eye on her, not that that was exactly what either would have admitted to her. Just what she needed! Under normal circumstances, Ania would have felt touched and grateful for the friendship that had developed between the two servants and herself. Rosita had become a good companion, as well as her lady's maid since the day Don Alejandro had assigned her to sit with Ania following the first attempt on her life. Crescensia had quite clearly begun to mother her, almost as she seemed to treat Diego.  She was motherly in a respectful sort of way, but watchful of her, nonetheless. Of all the servants, these two will be the hardest to fool, Ania grumbled to herself. However, they cannot be watching me all the time. I will just have to be careful.

As Ania left her room after changing into dry clothing, she could hear the two servants back in another part of the hacienda. Quickly going into the kitchen, she filled a platter with food and carefully made her way into the secret passage.

When Ania got to the chamber again, she filled Bernardo in on what she had found out as she treated Diego's shoulder with the goldenrod. "It seems to me that there must be some way that we can confuse the capitán, make him think that Zorro was not so badly hurt after all," Ania suggested, but without a clue as to how to go about it.

Bernardo nodded. Looking at his face, Ania realized that he already had an idea of some sort. "What are you thinking, Bernardo? Tell me what we must do."

Bernardo shook his head. 'Not you,' he gestured. He pointed to himself. 'Me.' As Ania watched him curiously, he reached toward a nearby ledge and picked up Zorro's mask and held it up to his face.

 "YOU will ride as Zorro?" she exclaimed in surprise. As Bernardo nodded emphatically, she realized the significance of several things she had seen or heard in the last few hours. One was what García had said about Diego being inside the tavern accused of being Zorro, when Zorro actually rode up outside the tavern, proving that he and Zorro could not be one and the same. Another was the fact that Bernardo already had a black outfit much like Zorro's himself. Then she remembered one more thing. The night García said that Zorro had paid Rodríguez a visit, he had said that he did not understand how they could chase Zorro all over the hills and he still beat them back to the cuartel. She looked at the older man in amazement. "You have ridden in his place before," she said.

Bernardo nodded again.

"What will you do this time?" she asked.

Bernardo mimed writing a note and then throwing something. Then he indicated riding, and by looking over his shoulder and gesturing for soldiers, indicated that he would have them chase him long enough for them to be sure he was no ghost.

Ania found that it was becoming easier for her to follow his meaning. Together they came up with the note he would pin to the cuartel gate with a knife. "Did you think you could be rid of me so easily?" it read. "Sorry to disappoint you, Capitán Rodríguez!"

When darkness had fallen outside the cave, Bernardo once again knelt at Diego's side as he prepared to go out. Up close, she would not have mistaken him for the real Zorro, but Ania knew that at a distance in the dark, it would be hard to tell the difference.

There had been more times when Diego seemed almost, but not quite, awake. Some things he mumbled seemed to make an odd kind of sense, but most did not. As they sat beside him this time he mumbled something that Ania recognized as a name. At first, she thought it was her own name, but then she realized that it was not. The names had similar beginnings but after that it was different. "Anna María..." Ania heard him say.

Ania sat very still looking down at Diego for a moment. She realized that the time she had heard what she thought was her name, it may not have been hers at all. Ania, Anna  The names sounded somewhat alike. So,  she thought, a cold, sinking feeling inside, that is the way of it. No wonder he could deny we were anything other than friends. He already loves someone else. Now it makes sense. It was the only explanation that make the rest of the puzzle pieces fall into place.

Even as she thought this, she could hear Luisa's instructions. "Hear only half of what an injured person says.  Believe none of it," she had always said. However, this time Ania could not push it out of her mind so easily.

She suddenly realized that Bernardo was looking at her closely and shaking his head. Her feelings must have shown clearly on her face. That would not do at all, Ania thought as she quickly pushed her dismay down deep inside. Putting a smile on her face, she looked at Bernardo, "Good luck, amigo mío. Lead them on a merry chase."

Bernardo looked at her solemnly for a moment, then nodded. He rose, and quickly saddling Tornado, rode out into the night.

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A group of lancers, including Sergeant García and Corporal Reyes, was just coming out of the cuartel gates on their way to the tavern. An increasingly rare messenger with their pay, the first in three months, had arrived today and the soldiers were anxious to leave at least part of their money with the tavern keeper. The sound of a horse's rapid canter approaching out of the shadows concealing the square suddenly startled them. Gasping as the very shadows themselves seemed to flow into the form of a black horse and cloaked rider, the men stopped in their tracks. Frozen by the sight of this apparition, no one moved until a whistling sound split the air and a knife flew between Reyes and García to stick, vibrating, in the gate.

García jerked it out of the wood, even as the masked man rode away. For a moment, all the lancers stood transfixed. "Zorro? That is impossible! It cannot be Zorro! He was shot just last night. How can he be here? To horse, lancers! To horse! After him! Whether he is man or ghost, get him!" he shouted when he finally found his voice. Sending a private with the note to Capitán Rodríguez, he rushed to join the other men on their horses. Over the hills and through canyons, they gave chase, sometimes closer, sometimes further behind the outlaw. Sometimes, it seemed that they would almost catch up to him. However, in the end, the black horse took off, effortlessly leaving them behind under stars just beginning to peek through the clouds as the moon came up.

"Ah, that one must be a demon horse!" one man exclaimed. "No one can catch him!"

"Sí," García agreed, as he gave his panting horse a rest. "You might as well try to catch the wind. And his master must have all the lives of a cat."  He smiled, unseen, into the darkness.

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Ania thought of what she should do as she sat beside Diego waiting for Bernardo to return. She had decided that there was only one course of action open to her. As Diego improved, she would gradually turn most of his care over to Bernardo. She would spend as little time as she could with him. It would hurt too much to do more. She would control her emotions at all times, no more of the questions or demands that she had tried to put on him. As soon as she could, she would move onto her own rancho. No one must see how badly she had let herself be hurt by this. She had already been foolish enough. She was determined that she would play the fool no longer.

Hearing a sound, she looked up to see Bernardo coming back into the chamber. He was grinning from ear to ear, so she knew the ride had gone well. As he glanced at Diego, she told him that there was not much change, but that Diego seemed to be doing well for now. Ania looked at Bernardo and realized just how tired he looked. "Why do you not lay down and sleep for a while, Bernardo? I will stay with Diego," she suggested.

After a moment, the manservant agreed. He rose and went up the tunnel to change out of the black outfit. When he returned in his usual clothes, he lay down against the wall of the chamber not far from them. It seemed almost that he was asleep as soon as his eyes closed.

Feeling both tired and downhearted, Ania leaned back against the wall of the cave beside Diego’s bed. Her eyes felt like she had sand in them, so tired was she. She was determined not to doze off and once again began reciting various herbs to be used to give an injured person strength. She thought carefully of where she could find some of these plants fresh and of the instructions she must give Bernardo about their use when she had them. She knew where to find some of these plants nearby, but one that she knew she had seen somewhere eluded her. She closed her eyes to visualize its location better. In a second, without ever realizing it, Ania’s head dropped lightly back against the wall behind her and she slept.

A sound jerked Ania awake some time later. Startled she sat upright, immediately looking toward Diego. His eyes were open and Ania was overjoyed to realize that, by the expression in them, he was not only awake but also fully aware of where he was and what was going on. He was truly back with them.

"Diego!" she cried joyfully.

Diego looked puzzled for a moment and then she could see the realization that not only was Ania beside him, but that they were in the cave. Concern filled his eyes as he realized that she now knew everything. "Ania," he managed to say weakly, "how...what are you...?"

"It is all right, Diego,” she hurried to assure him. “I have known who Zorro was since the night you rescued me from the canyon wall. Your secret is safe with me. I would guard it with my life, if necessary!" 

Bernardo, awakened by Diego's voice, was immediately at his patrón's side. As Diego raised his right hand slightly, Bernardo grasped it in both of his, letting his feelings come through in the handclasp. The manservant tried, without much success, to fight back tears of relief.

Only then did she realize that tears of joy were flowing down her own cheeks as well. "Welcome back, Diego," she said quietly. "Welcome back to this side of the Jordan."

 

Chapter 12
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