Anvil of Iron
“Private, I will not accept defeat at this point. Surely, there will still be something you can follow to that demon. Get back out there and FIND HIM!” the comandante yelled as he rose from his chair.
León swallowed hard and stood at attention. “It will do no good, Capitán,” he insisted. “The rain…it…uh…came down much too hard…”
“But it did not last long, Private. Surely…” Rodríguez said, grasping at straws in his obsession to capture this thorn in his side, Zorro.
“Capitán, I swear it was enough. I searched for more than two hours before accepting the fact that all hope of tracking Zorro was gone,” the young soldier declared. “What few signs of the trail remain are faded to the point that there is no way to tell real from fake.”
The officer looked closely at the private for a moment. It was clear that the mestizo had greatly wanted to capture the outlaw. Whether for the reward or for praise and favors from him, it did not matter. Either was enough to entice this man to do all humanly possible to follow the trail. Suddenly, the capitán’s anger was replaced by a frustration and disappointment so strong that all he was left feeling was an overpowering tiredness. Slowly, he walked back around the desk and sat down in his chair. “You have proved yourself dependable in the past, Private León and you are an excellent tracker. It seems that I have no choice but to accept your judgment, but surely you were able to learn something, anything that might help us before that damnable rain began. Tell me what the trail told you.”
León, surprised and relieved at the commanding officer’s reaction, quickly began recounting all the facts he had been able to glean from the evidence left along Zorro’s trail. As he described the direction the path had taken, Rodríguez had him come to the map spread on the desk and point out the location of each bit of evidence he had collected. A half hour later, he left the capitán staring moodily at the map as if trying to get the ink and paper to tell him more than had been said.
Finally, Capitán Rodríguez rolled up the map and frowned in irritation at a note laying open on his desk. This puzzle did not seem any more promising that the loss of the trail. How could this be? he asked himself. How could this outlaw possibly have been out going about his business last night as if nothing has happened? It has been less than twenty-four hours since Private Olivares says that he shot him. Even if he was not hit as badly as the blood trail seems to indicate, he could hardly have been riding on that accursedly fast horse of his. Rodríguez shook his head. It just did not make sense. Either Zorro had not been hit or the man was not human, as some of the peons seemed to think. Nonsense, he is human, all right, and he was shot! There would have been no blood trail at all if he had not been.
He picked up the mocking note and read it again. Tossing it back onto the desktop in disgust, he thought about what Private León had told him about the trail. There in the thicket, where the blood was first found, the trail had not been confused. There was enough blood to know that Zorro had been bleeding rather badly and when the trail led out of the thicket, he had been able to follow it in a straight line leading northward for almost a mile before another trail started to crisscross the original one, making it difficult to tell the true direction of the trail.
Private León reported that he had been able to tell the difference, however. The first trail seemed to still be leading in an almost straight line while the others looped and curved frequently. Also, as the outlaw's horse had stepped on softer areas of the ground, León could tell that the blood actually showed up right at the edge of the horse's left hoof print as if it were running down the horse's leg. The other trails were more in the form of droplets, as if something had been allowed to drip deliberately. Private León had been sure this was just what had happened, as he had found several animal carcasses along the trail.
That is another sign that he was hurt badly. He would hardly have needed the peons' help if he were able to hide the trail himself or avoid leaving a trail all together, Rodríguez reasoned. So how could he have ridden just to harass me tonight? Ai! Perhaps it will make more sense later, when we have more information. With that, he put that puzzle out of his mind and began to think about the other question of just who Zorro was when the black clothing and mask did not conceal him.
So far, Sergeant García had listed only three young men of the community who had left "on business" within the last twenty-four to forty-eight hours. None of them seemed particularly good suspects for being Zorro. Hmmmm, let us see. No matter who he is, if he was hurt, as we know he was, then he had to have medical help of some sort. He could hardly have cared for himself. Rodríguez pondered. Dr. Mendoza…now where would he have been last night? The fact that Zorro was a wanted criminal would probably not have prevented the doctor from giving him aid.
Getting up, Rodríguez walked to the door and looked out for a moment. "Sergeant García, come in here, please," he ordered before walking thoughtfully back to his desk.
"Sí, Capitán Rodríguez," the big soldier said as he came in.
"Sergeant, do you, by chance, know where Dr. Mendoza is now?" Rodríguez asked. "Was he back in our area last night?"
"I do not think so, Capitán." García shook his head. "I think he is somewhere south of here. He takes care of people near San Juan Capistrano, too."
"Have one of the men ride down there and check on his whereabouts," the capitán said.
"Señor?" García looked at his commanding officer in surprise. "But, Capitán, it would take most of a day if he is almost to San Juan Capistrano. I have heard that he sometimes goes even further than that to see people, I think."
"Do you have a problem with my orders, Sergeant García?" Rodríguez looked up angrily.
"Uh...no, of course not, Capitán!" García stammered. "It is just that I...we...that is the men have had very little rest since last night. Perhaps if we could, maybe, send someone tomorrow...after a little rest...."
"I want this attended to immediately!" Capitán Rodríguez growled, as he walked restlessly back around the desk.
"Sí, Capitán...uh...is that all, Capitán Rodríguez?" García asked as he stood at attention.
"No, Sergeant, it is not. I am sure there are curanderas in our area. Who are they and where exactly do they live? If we find that the doctor did not help Zorro, then it must have been a curandera. The scoundrel surely had help from someone. If we find who helped him, we can, in turn, find Zorro."
"But, Capitán, Zorro was just here. We just chased..." García began, as he pointed vaguely in the direction he had seen the horse and rider go.
"How do we know for a fact that was Zorro, Sergeant?" Capitán Rodríguez surprised him by asking.
"Oh, that was Zorro, Capitán! I have known him...uh...chased him for a long time. Sometimes it seems that all I do is chase him." García looked at the officer as if he had lost his mind.
"Yes, but how good a look did you get this time?" Rodríguez really did not know where he was headed with this himself. He was merely thinking aloud.
"Well, I...that is..." García stammered uncertainly. "Well, I am sure it was his horse. It must have been Zorro."
"Exactly, Sergeant, you did not really see him at all, just a black clad figure on that horse," Rodríguez stood still, thinking. Can it really be true? Could this be an imposter be trying to confuse us?
"Capitán, you mean that was not Zorro? But it looked like Zorro," García said with a puzzled look.
"Sí, I mean, no....Oh, I do not know, Sergeant! I just know that things are not making sense now. First, we know the man is shot. He leaves a blood trail too extensive not to be badly wounded. Then he shows up here, less than twenty-four hours later, apparently none the worse for wear." Rodríguez slammed his fist on the desk in frustration. "We can assume nothing. Keep your eyes open for other young men who are unaccountably missing and immediately send men to check on the doctor and curanderas. Somehow, we will solve this puzzle and we will find him. Do you understand me, Sergeant García? I will accept nothing less!"
"Sí, Capitán," García stood for a moment watching Rodríguez, wondering if the outlaw had not driven the capitán loco this time.
"Well, Sergeant? What are you doing just standing there?" Rodríguez roared. "Get busy!"
García scurried out of the room as fast as his bulk would let him.
During the next couple of days, Ania did a great deal of thinking. I will allow no one to know what a fool I have been, she vowed. Have I not, all my life, said that I would be the one to make my life what it will be? I do not need Diego or anyone to make decisions for me in anything!
She frequently thought of the bitter lessons she had learned from her stepmother. The two and a half years in Spain had been a nightmare and yet some good had come of it. She had learned many things she now put to use. One was to hide her emotions deeply and show whatever she wished others to see, at least, with most people. Her stepmother had called that putting on the "cloak of court", for it would hide the real you as surely as a heavy cloak hid one's clothing. As she became aware of the plans that Leya had to use her to increase her own personal power, Ania vowed to marry for love or not at all. Never would she allow anyone to use her to obtain the power and riches connected to her family. Least of all, would she allow Leya to benefit from her manipulations. She had soon learned to use her wiles to discourage any prospective suitor toward whom Leya pushed her. Nothing was too outlandish for her to do if a young señor became too persistent.
She had also learned the power of words and how to use them to manipulate and confuse. How pleased she had been to find that, in this area, at least, she was more than a match for Leya! Indeed, she found that she could talk circles around the older woman with no problem at all. More than once she had laid a trap for Leya just as she had for Rodríguez at the fiesta the de la Vegas had given for her. Leya invariably fell into the traps, much to her embarrassment. Ania had done this knowing full well what she would suffer in private at Leya's hands. It had been worth it to watch Leya squirm!
For a while after her return to West Florida, Don Miguel had pressed her to wed. Ania had managed to put him off. Always she had felt that this one was more interested in their land, and that one in the titles associated with her family. With only a few of those whom she had grown up did she entertain any idea of marriage, and they had seemed more like brothers to her than possible lovers. Worst of all was the feeling that all of them wished to change her, to control her. With all of them, she would have been expected to "settle down" and to follow her husband's will in most situations that arose. She did not consider any of these worth giving up her independence.
Then had come the deaths of her two older brothers, and it seemed that, at least for the moment, Don Miguel had wanted only to keep his last two children safe with him. When her father had fallen into royal disfavor some months after Felipe's death, it had become only too easy for Ania to say that both she and Juan should stay with her father to give him support. Through it all, she had argued and struggled for the right to make her own decisions. Usually, Don Miguel treated her with loving indulgence in these matters, much to the outrage of many of the community's busybodies.
Finally there had been the move to California and all that had happened since. With Diego, Ania had, at last, let her guard down. She had not cared that her “cloak of court” did not always blind him to her true feelings. She had allowed herself to trust. And, yes, she had allowed herself to dream.
Well, if I have dreamed, she thought bitterly, I am now awake. I will be strong as Luisa always encouraged us to be. I can run my own rancho as well as any man. I need no one to lean on. No one will control me!
Gradually during this time, the world came back into focus for Diego. Even though he found himself sleeping far more than he wished, he was relieved at the feeling that his mental alertness was coming back. However, physical strength was taking a frustratingly long time to return. At first, Ania was there frequently to tend his shoulder or press him to drink this concoction or the other. Once she had seen that the king's staff had done its job, this changed, however. After he was fully alert and tried to get her to sit for a while and talk, she always made some excuse and escaped back upstairs. Escape was the only word he could think of for what she seemed to do. The more insistent he became with his requests, the less frequently she came and the more quickly she left when she did, leaving careful instructions with Bernardo as to his care. He realized that she seemed to be timing her visits to bring food or medicine during those times when she knew he was sleeping. She seemed, once again, to have built a wall around herself. This time it was one she was determined he not breach.
As he healed, he had plenty of time to think through his feelings about this. He still felt that she would have been safer not being involved. However, just as in his father's case, the issue was no longer in his hands. The issue now was how best to go on from here. In this matter, as before, his head and his heart told him two different things, but he also remembered both his father's and Bernardo's advice. Now he was willing to take that advice, to talk with her about everything, if she would just stop running away from him.
"Sí, Capitán, I found Dr. Mendoza at the Romero rancho near San Juan,” the tired, dust covered lancer reported. “He had been there for about a week treating Don Luis. Both of them say that he has seen no one and been nowhere else during that time."
"Thank you, Private. You may go now," Rodríguez said thoughtfully. "All right, Sergeant, what about the curanderas in the area?" he asked, turning to García as the younger soldier left.
"Well, we talked to the old Gypsy woman and her granddaughter who live the furthest back in the foothills. They said that they had seen no one, but then, who knows if they would tell the truth. There was no one else at the cabin, at any rate," the sergeant stated.
"And, did you not say that there was another curandera closer in to the pueblo, south west of here?" Rodríguez reminded him.
"Sí, an old Indian woman," García replied. "She told us no more than the other until we asked about a rider someone had seen on the path to her cabin."
"A rider?" Rodríguez looked up with interest.
"Sí, an old prospector was camped nearby and saw a woman on a dark horse ride past the day before yesterday. Only after she knew the woman had been seen did the curandera admit to having a visitor, but I do not think it is important. It was only someone buying herbs," García shrugged.
"At this point, anything may be important, Sergeant," Rodríguez reminded him with a hard look.
"Sí, Capitán. Anyway, there was no one with her then. We did not see any sign that she had recently treated anyone, either," García continued.
"What did the woman visitor look like?" the capitán asked.
"The old man did not get a good look at her," García shrugged. "Dark hair, nice clothes. The horse he told us more about, black with white markings and two white stockings."
"Hmmmm, no sign of anyone else at either cabin. Maybe there are caves nearby," Rodríguez looked down at his desk thoughtfully. "Are you sure those two are the only curanderas in the area?"
"Sí, unless you count Señorita Valdéz. She acts as curandera for her own workers and, sometimes, for those on the de la Vega rancho." García shook his head.
"Señorita Valdéz?" Rodríguez exclaimed. "Sí, she is a curandera, is she not? How could I have forgotten all about that? Of course!"
"Sí, Capitán," García repeated, "but only for her own people. She could not have anything to do with this."
"She rides a black mare with white markings, does she not?" Rodríguez's eyes shone with malice.
"Sí, but Capitán..." García's face showed his confusion. He regretted even mentioning the young señorita's name now. He knew that she and the capitán barely tolerated each other as it was and now he had accidentally dragged her into this. He fervently hoped that no more trouble came of it. Señorita Ania had had enough trouble since coming to California. She did not need more.
"But nothing, Sergeant! She lives to the north of the pueblo. Zorro's trail led north. She would probably know how to help someone with a gunshot wound, and from the sound of it, she could be the woman seen near the Indian curandera's cabin. I think we have found the curandera we are looking for!" Rodríguez rose from his desk excitedly. "Call together a troop of lancers, Sergeant!"
"Lancers, Capitán? But..." García sputtered in alarm for his young friend, "she could not have been taking care of Zorro, Capitán. When I was following the trail the other morning, she was out hunting."
"Out hunting?" Rodríguez stopped in surprise. "Where was she when you saw her, fool?"
"Just south of the de la Vega hacienda, Capitán, but she had been hunting hares. If she had been helping Zorro, she would have been somewhere taking care of him, not out skinning hares." García tried desperately to get the señorita out of the trouble he seemed to have gotten her into.
"Which would put her very close to the trails that were confused by someone, Sergeant." Rodríguez was positively gleeful now.
"Oh, but not Señorita Ania, Capitán. She is not a large woman, just a little thing..." García shook his head. This was just not to be believed.
"Oh, you would be surprised what some women can do when someone they care about is in danger, and that is the other thing that tells me she could have done it, Sergeant. She seems to feel that she owes Zorro something for some small favor he did her." Rodríguez explained.
"Sí, if saving her life is a small favor, Capitán!" García offered.
"Think, Sergeant! Would she not be all the more likely to try to save his live, as well?" Rodríguez quickly strapped on his sword and began readying his pistol for his belt holster. "Get those lancers and meet me in the cuartel yard."
"But, Capitán..." García hesitated, not liking the direction this was leading at all.
"But, nothing, Sergeant García! That is an order! Now move!" Rodríguez shouted.
"Sí, Capitán." García saluted and rushed to do as the capitán ordered.
Ania silently approached the chamber with a tray of food and a new supply of burnet with which to make a type of tea to promote healing. Carefully, she peered in to check on Diego and Bernardo. Bueno, he is asleep, she thought.
Bernardo looked up and smiled as she came in. As he ate, he watched her. Ania was standing looking down at Diego with an odd look in her eyes, at once both longing and fearful. Though Diego had not spoken much of her, each time he had awakened, he asked if Ania had been there. There was disappointment in his eyes each time he found that she had already come and gone. Bernardo knew that if these two would just stop and listen to each other, things could be resolved happily for both.
Bernardo waved his hand at Ania to get her attention. Then he began to gesture to her. Ania said nothing as she watched him sign that she should talk with Diego.
Ania's expression hardened and she raised her head in an almost haughty manner. "What possible good would that do?" she asked quietly.
Bernardo tried continuing to gesture. However, after a moment, Ania looked away, refusing to consider anything more. He stopped in frustration. One of the most exasperating things about not being able to speak was the ease with which people could ignore what he had to say by simply not looking at him. He sat for a moment, frowning at Ania.
"How long has he been sleeping?" Ania asked as she looked at Diego, and then back at Bernardo.
"Not long," Bernardo indicated.
"Good. Then he will continue to sleep for a while. That is the best thing for him right now. His strength will come back more quickly that way, I suspect." Ania was quiet for a moment. "Bernardo, while I am able to be down here for a while, why do you not take Tornado or the other horses out for some exercise? I will stay with Diego while he sleeps."
Bernardo considered for a moment and then nodded. If they were lucky, maybe Diego would wake up and the two young people would be forced to talk. Shaking his head at the confusing situation, he left to take Tornado for a run down the valley.
Ania tried not to just stand and watch Diego as he slept, yet she could hardly force herself to do otherwise. He had sat up a good part of the day, and with Bernardo's help, had shaved for the first time since he had been injured. After the last few days, his face was a bit thinner and he looked younger, almost boyish, lying there sleeping. He did not look like the all-powerful hero that many people thought Zorro to be. In her own heart and mind, Ania was seeing a far different man behind the mask and he looked vulnerable now...and very much to be protected, and… She almost thought the word "treasured". Ania could almost forget her pride...almost.
Resolutely, Ania turned and walked to the archway between the chambers. There were surely things she could do to keep busy. Too much idle time was not a good thing. As long as things needed doing, she did not have to think beyond the moment, and that suited her just fine. She fed both Bernardo's horse and Diego's Paseo, and then brushed each one from nose to tail.
Bernardo let Tornado work some of his nervous energy out as he allowed him to pick his own speed down the hidden valley. The valley was not very long, but did allow him to stretch his legs a bit better than the cave. After about thirty minutes or so of this, Tornado seemed to be settling down and Bernardo had begun to feel his own tension ease. He allowed Tornado to stretch a bit more as they climbed an incline that bordered the valley. The far side, being sheer, acted as a natural fence to the valley.
Bernardo sat on Tornado's back looking out on the land beyond for a moment before turning back to the cave. In the distance, he could see a cloud of dust. He watched it with interest for a while. He slowly became alarmed as it became apparent that the cloud was made by a group of about ten lancers on horseback riding toward the hacienda in the distance. At first, he hoped they were merely riding past it. It soon was clear that such was not the case. Why would lancers be going to the Hacienda de la Vega? he wondered in concern. Worried, he turned Tornado and returned to the hidden entrance as quickly as he could. He had to warn Ania and get ready himself for whatever was to come.
Ania stood, hands on hips, looking around for anything else that she could do quietly. She turned toward the entrance as Bernardo rode quickly into the area. Her heart immediately began racing, for the look on his face told her that something was very wrong. She watched him closely as he leaped from Tornado's back and began gesturing rapidly. "Whoa! Slow down! I cannot tell what you are saying," Ania insisted after a moment.
Bernardo shook his head, and with a frantic look, started again, a little more slowly. 'Soldiers!' he gestured. Here he held up all ten fingers. He indicated things in a line.
"Soldiers?" Ania repeated. "What about them?"
Bernardo indicated one person at the head of the line and made his sign for Capitán Rodríguez. He then went on to indicate 'here' and point upward, in the direction of the hacienda.
"Rodríguez is bringing soldiers here to the hacienda?" Ania's face went pale as she remembered Rodríguez bringing a troop of lancers to capture Manolito. "Why would he be bringing them to the hacienda unless.... Oh, Dios mío! I must hurry! Bernardo, stay here with Diego and be ready for anything!" She then turned and ran up the passage.
Reaching the hidden door in the sala cabinet, Ania looked to be sure none of the servants were in the sala. As the room appeared to be deserted, she silently eased out into the room and sat down in a chair, an unfinished piece of needlework in her lap. Already she could hear the lancers' horses outside the gate. Ania took several deep breaths and forced her hands to cease shaking. Pulling her "cloak of court" tightly around her, she straightened her back and raised her head regally. Calmly, she began making small, neat stitches in the needlework. She was somewhat surprised at herself when she did not jump at the knock on the sala door.
Rosita came in hurriedly to answer the door. She stopped in surprise upon seeing Ania. She had been almost sure the sala had been empty.
Saying a quick prayer for guidance and protection for all of them, Ania quietly lay her hands and the needlework in her lap and turned toward the door. "Rosita," she said, as if she were a queen receiving her court. "Show our guests in."