Anvil of Iron
Bernardo stood for a moment looking around trying to plan what to do. There was little one person could do against so many if they did find them down here. However, that would not keep him from trying. He quickly readied the pistols and the musket and placed them close at hand. He stood for a second, looking toward Diego. Bernardo considered the idea of waking him up, but rejected it, at least for now. Unfortunately, as weak as Diego still was, there would be little he could do except worry. Bernardo decided to wait and hope, if it came down to it, to have time to wake him and arm him later. Hopefully, it would not come to that. Unless the hidden passages were found, he and Diego should be safe. Ania was another story.
Bernardo looked at Diego again thoughtfully. He remembered the conversation they had had as Diego had attempted to practice. Was it really less than a week ago? ‘What if something happened? Could you protect her from Rodríguez?’ In his mind, he could again hear Diego voicing those questions. He had quickly answered then that he would try. But now, what was he to do now? He could choose to stay at Diego's side, guarding him, or he could leave Diego here, sleeping, and go up the passage to be close by if Ania needed help. How do I choose? he wondered. Either choice could have dire consequences if things when wrong.
He considered carefully. It is unlikely that anyone will come in through the hidden entrance. We have no reason to think anyone even suspects its existence. Trouble will more likely come if the passages are found. Bernardo felt torn by the choices. Leave Diego and trust to fate or let Ania stand alone? Then he remembered another part of the conversation with Diego. ’Yes...I know I could trust you to try to help her if she needed it, and I could not’ Suddenly, it was clear in his mind what Diego would tell him to do if he did wake him up. Laying one pistol within reach of Diego's hand, Bernardo took the other pistol and hurried up the passage.
Ania composed herself as she watched Rosita walk to the door. Through the window, she could hear Rodríguez giving orders to some of the lancers to wait in the patio area, while Sergeant García came with him. As Rosita opened the door at the capitán's second knock, Ania rose from her chair and walked toward the door as if to welcome guests.
Ania smiled graciously as a stern faced Rodríguez and an upset, uncomfortable looking García entered. "Ah, buenas tardes, Capitán Rodríguez…Sergeant García. To what do I owe the honor of this visit, señores? Rosita, bring wine and glasses for our guests. Gentlemen, please come be seated."
"This is not a social call, Señorita Valdéz." Rodríguez gave her a cold smile. Even without Rodríguez showing his teeth, Ania was oddly reminded of the alligators in the bayou back in Florida. "Although I expect that it will be a pleasure of a sort."
Oh, I do not doubt you are enjoying yourself, you jackal, Ania thought, carefully keeping her expression bland as she turned back to the capitán. Aloud, she said in a puzzled tone, "Well, it is to be hoped that my company does not strain anyone's enjoyment of the day, Capitán." She looked at Rodríguez sharply.
Oh, I am sure he does not mean it that way, Señorita Ania. It is just that..." García began hurriedly.
"I will handle this, Sergeant!" Rodríguez said quickly, never taking his eyes from Ania.
"Well, Capitán," Ania said calmly, "if this is not a social call, I will assume that it is business. However, I hate to disappoint you."
"Disappoint me?" Rodríguez seemed uninterested in shortening this scene. He was looking forward to toying with her the way a cat does with a mouse just before it springs in for the kill. "In what way, señorita?"
"Well, since it is common knowledge that both Don Diego and Don Alejandro are away at the moment, I would guess you are interested in buying fresh stock for the cuartel from me. However, I am not planning to sell any of my stock for another year or so. I am still in the process of building up my herds."
"You are mistaken again, Señorita Valdéz," Capitán Rodríguez said, with another cold smile.
Ania crossed her arms and gave him a hard look. "Is this some sort of guessing game, Capitán? If so, I do not find it amusing."
"Oh? But, señorita, I was under the impression that you rather enjoyed games of wit." Rodríguez's eyes gleamed as he watched for her reaction. García shifted his weight uncomfortably and looked away as Ania glanced at him.
"Only with people with wit enough to make it worth my while, señor!" Ania gave in to the urge to reply. She forced herself to meet his eyes with a level stare.
"Well, it may not be worth your while, but I fully expect it to be well worth mine, Señorita Valdéz," Rodríguez smirked. "I doubt that I will have to bargain for those horses after our meeting today."
"Just what do you mean by that, Capitán Rodríguez?" In spite of her control, Ania felt a chill go through her. She had no doubt of his meaning. Rodríguez had made it clear that many of Zorro's crimes would be considered treason. Anyone found helping him would also be accused of that crime. If convicted of treason, all of the convicted person's lands and property would revert back to the government, or in some cases, to the ownership of the person uncovering the treason. So, he has connected me with Zorro somehow, Ania thought. Oh, Blessed Saints, grant me strength and grant all of us your protection! she prayed silently. With a struggle, she managed to keep her fear from showing on her face. "Are you then thinking that I will just give you what you seek?" she said in a steady voice.
"I doubt seriously that you will have a great deal to say about it." Rodríguez smiled again.
"Explain yourself, Capitán!" Ania said as if outraged by his manner and statements.
"No, Señorita Valdéz. You explain yourself," Rodríguez demanded as he dropped all pretense.
"What do you mean?" Ania allowed a bit of nervousness to show through. "What do I have to explain?"
"Zorro," Rodríguez said quietly.
Ania looked puzzled. "Zorro? Capitán, I am afraid that I do not understand. The last thing I heard was that you had been celebrating killing the outlaw, a bit prematurely, as I am given to understand. Has that situation changed?"
Instead of giving her a straight answer, Rodríguez asked, "You are a curandera, are you not, Señorita Valdéz?"
"Sí, when my workers, or anyone else, for that matter, need me to be," Ania said innocently. She was determined to make it as hard for him as she could.
"Hmmmm, sí, anyone else, such as Zorro, maybe, Señorita," Rodríguez finally suggested.
"Zorro? That is absurd, Capitán. How would I have any way to help him?" Ania asked.
"Is it, señorita? The sergeant tells me that he came across you not far from here two days ago very early in the morning. That would put it only a few hours after that worthless scoundrel was shot. Oddly, the trail the outlaw left did lead in this direction," Rodríguez continued almost in a conversational tone.
"And I suppose the sergeant also told you what I was doing when he "came across" me, did he not?" Ania asked indignantly.
"Oh, sí, he said you were doing something outlandish, like hunting, Señorita Valdéz," Rodríguez cocked his head as he looked at her. "An odd thing for a woman to be doing, I would think, even for you."
Ania glared at him. "Odd, maybe, Capitán Rodríguez, but hardly a crime. I have done so since I was quite young, and, by the way, I am not under the impression that I must ask permission to do so either on my lands, or as long as Don Alejandro approves, on the de la Vega lands. What, pray tell, does that have to do with Zorro?"
"The blood trail left by the outlaw had been confused with blood trails someone had made with butchered animals," Rodríguez stated.
"So? What is that to me?" Ania asked angrily.
"A person, even a woman, with the skill to shoot hares would have very little trouble shooting other small animals. A person, even a woman, who is not too squeamish to skin out hunted prey, would not be too squeamish to slash a butchered animal's throat and carry it along a trail," Rodríguez watched Ania carefully, certain that she would give herself away by expression or action.
Ania merely scowled at him. "And just how many of the hares would I have needed to kill to cover a whole trail, Comandante? Twenty? Thirty? Sergeant García can tell you that I had but six hares that I was skinning when we met. Blood there was, Capitán, but hardly enough to do what you are suggesting."
"No, but calves or coyotes would have more blood, would they not?" Rodríguez asked.
Ania surprised him by laughing. "Do I look like an Amazon, Capitán? I might be able to lift and hold a coyote carcass, but a calf? To be of any good for that purpose, I suppose it would have to be a fair sized calf, more than I can lift and hold for any period of time, I imagine."
"Laugh if you wish, Señorita Valdéz. I do not say I know how you were able to do it, but I feel sure you did," Rodríguez contended.
"Comandante, your lack of wit has gotten excessive in this case," Ania objected, shaking her head.
"We shall see, señorita, for I also think that we have no further to look for the Fox than this hacienda," he stated, fully expecting Ania to show fear at the announcement.
Ania merely glared silently at him.
"Sergeant, tell all your men to search this hacienda thoroughly," Rodríguez ordered as he turned from Ania.
"Sí, Capitán," García said as he shot an apologetic glance at Ania, who spared him an angry look. García quickly turned away, and with bowed head, went out the door to give the order.
"Do you have anything further to say, señorita?" Rodríguez demanded.
"Well, Capitán, I was going to say that you are free to search for him, but I see that I can save my breath," Ania turned her back to him, and stalking to the sofa, sat stiffly, with ramrod straight back and her chin angrily lifted. Inside she was praying as she listened to the outcries of various servants startled in their work in different parts of the hacienda. Cold fear clawed her insides as she watched Rodríguez casually walk over to the wall beside the fireplace and tap it. Oh, Dios! Is he searching for hidden doors? She fought to control her fear so that it would not show. She remembered from the days when she had been learning the ins and outs of Madrid court life that one could use other emotions to mask the ones you do not wish to reveal. She found that there were plenty of emotions other than fear that she felt about this monster. She opened the door to the pain she had known when Juan and Papá had been murdered at this man's order.
When Rodríguez looked back at her, instead of the fear he so wanted to see, Ania's eyes were filled with cold hatred. He met her gaze for a moment and then turned away, somewhat disappointed. Strange, he thought uneasily. This is not exactly what I expected. If she did help Zorro, would she not be frightened that I will find, at least, a trace of him here? She is too calm. His actions today would be hard to explain if he could find no proof. Already he had overheard disgruntled comments, even among some of the lancers, over this treatment of a señorita of high birth. Without proof of the charge, he dared not throw a lady of her rank into jail. However, he knew the proof was here somewhere. He merely had to find it. The capitán started across the room intending to knock on the wall where the cabinet stood.
"Capitán," García interrupted as he came in, "the men report no sign of Zorro anywhere. Everything is just as it should be."
"I KNOW that this woman helped him, Sergeant!" Rodríguez declared. "Have them search all the outbuildings and stables. Be sure to search for trap doors in all of them."
"Sí, Capitán," García went back out, carefully avoiding having to look in Ania's direction. Rodríguez stood glaring at Ania as a smug look appeared on her face.
"See, Capitán. I did tell you that your wit had deserted you in this matter. You can not find someone who is not there," she said quietly.
"We will find him," he rumbled.
Ania exchanged looks with Rosita. Rosita was obviously shaken by all this, but stood resolutely behind the patróna. She relaxed just a bit as Ania gave her a little smile.
Rodriguez narrowed his eyes as he remembered there was still the matter of her buying herbs from the old Indian curandera. "I do know that you helped him, señorita. You were seen going to another curandera two days ago, a few hours after Sergeant García saw you near the trails. You were buying herbs, señorita, herbs used to treat a gunshot wound, perhaps treat infections, sí?" At last, he was rewarded by a change in the infuriating woman's face. So she did not want me to find out about the herbs, he thought in satisfaction.
With difficulty, Ania brought her fear back under control. She had not expected that he would know about her visit to the old woman. Has the old curandera sold me out? Did she read the truth in my mind and then sell it to Rodríguez? Yet, even as she thought it, she rejected it. No, she did not feel that the woman would betray her. Then how did he know what herbs she bought? Perhaps he was merely fishing for information or her reaction. Maybe she could turn this bit of information around on him. She set herself to watch for the opportunity to turn the tables.
"You did not think I knew that, did you?" Rodríguez grinned. "I may know a great deal more than you expect, Señorita Valdéz." Just then a soldier came in from the direction of the stairs and handed something to him.
"By the way, señorita, can you tell me why such a careful, capable landowner, as you think yourself to be, has been neglecting her rancho for the last two and a half or three days? I shall be most interested in your explanation. According to everything I can find out about you, this is highly unusual. Could it be that you were busy with a very special patient for your curandera skills? It seems odd that practically the first days that you ever let your rancho run itself were the very days that Zorro would have, more than likely, needed someone to play nurse or doctor to him." Rodríguez watched her as he hefted the small bag that the lancer had brought him.
"I...I have not been feeling well," Ania was angry at herself as she heard a slight break in her voice as she answered him.
"Oh? You felt well enough to undertake a fairly long ride to get to the old Indian woman's cabin, then stop at the church and at the cantina for a package," Rodríguez walked over to stand before her.
"I needed some of the herbs that I bought and decided to buy them from her. She was the nearest other curandera I could find," Ania looked down at her lap, still trying to think of a way to turn things around on him.
"I will just bet you needed some of the herbs. Which ones, señorita? Burnet...maybe goldenrod...this?" With that, Rodríguez opened the small sack and poured some of its contents into his hand. Rodríguez walked up to her and held it out. "What is this? Something you needed badly to treat a wound, is it not?"
As Ania looked in surprise at the herb, she realized that he had absolutely no herb lore about him, not even that of recognizing simple herbs. Perhaps she could use his lack of knowledge. "Sí, Capitán, I did need that herb. As I said, I have been ill." She began to blush as she realized what she was going to make this man believe. Rodríguez glared at her as García walked back in.
"Nothing, Capitán," he reported. The look he gave his comandante behind his back told Ania that was just what García had expected to find and also said a lot about what he felt was the comandante's state of mind.
Rodríguez continued to glare at her. "Well, señorita, I am waiting. What is this and how is it used? It was found lying beside a trunk in what I assume is your bedchamber."
Ania glanced down in what she hoped appeared to be confusion. As she started to speak, Rosita spoke first.
"That is balm, Capitán," she said almost in a whisper.
Ah, thought Ania in delight. Could Rosita have an idea of where we are going with this? Ania allowed a pained embarrassed look to fill her face as she continued to look down.
"And it is used for wounds, sí?" the capitán asked.
Both women looked down.
"Well?" Rodríguez demanded.
"It is also called Maiden's Ease, Capitán," Rosita continued.
"It is called what? What is it used for?" Rodríguez suddenly looked uncertain.
"It is a woman's herb, Capitán, to be used for...uh," Ania let her voice falter and was immensely thankful to feel her face grow hot as she blushed.
Rodríguez's face was a study in confused embarrassment. Ania was surprised to see that even he could blush over such a blunder as he seemed to have made.
"How can I accept your word that you were ill, Señorita Valdéz?" he managed to continue. "I have learned that you gave all the workers time off. Most, if not all of them were at the fiesta. I have only your word and you know how I feel about that."
Ania raised her head and glared. It was on the tip of her tongue to say that her word was all he could get on the subject, regardless of how he felt about it, when Rosita spoke up again.
"I was with the patróna, Capitán," Rosita said in a quiet but clear voice. "I will testify that things are just as she has said. Señorita Ania is an honorable lady. She does not lie!"
Rodríguez scowled at the two women. Señorita Valdéz did, indeed, look pale. Could she truly be ill? Women, especially of high birth, were often known to have what was delicately referred to as "troubles" and "the vapors". He felt anger at himself as he felt a flush climb up his neck again at this line of thought. He became angrier still as he realized that he still had no proof, no way of finding Zorro through her. Whatever the truth was, he would wind up looking like a fool again. Oh, someday he would pay this woman back for all the ridicule she had brought on him! However, he angrily had to admit today would not be that day.
"Uh...Capitán, perhaps we might find more traces of Zorro somewhere else," García began tentatively. "What are your orders, Capitán?"
As Rodríguez stood watching her, Ania suddenly realized that he was waiting for her to make some comment. She thought for a moment. If she played it too safe and guarded her words, she would not sound normal. He might get more suspicious. Things would sound less suspicious if she was her "usual sweet self" as she had phrased it to Diego. As Rodríguez turned toward the door, Ania smiled and said, "Well, you were right about one thing, Capitán. IF the Fox had come to me for help, I would have helped him."
The evil look on Rodríguez's face sent a chill through her again as he replied, "Señorita, you have no idea what a fond wish that would grant to find you AND Zorro together!" Unspoken, but understood, nonetheless, were the words, "then I would be rid of you both."
The feeling she got from this man sobered Ania. For a moment, she merely met Rodríguez's cold gaze with her own level glare. Then she smiled, "Sí, Capitán, but then if wishes were so easily granted, any worthless devil could have silver mines for the asking, could they not?" The hatred in his gaze would have taken her aback had she not been expecting it.
Rodríguez turned on his heel and stalked out. García started to apologize, but as Ania's angry look was turned on him, he beat a hasty retreat.
Ania sat very still as the two woman listened to the sound of the lancers riding away. As Rosita walked toward the door to make sure it was completely closed, Ania looked at her, smiling in appreciation. "Thank you, for supporting me like that, Rosita. I did not expect you to lie to help me. I am grateful."
Rosita smiled at her, "I was only too glad to be able to help you, Señorita Ania. I know what you have said and I have said that you do not lie, but it occurs to me that IF you were somehow helping Zorro, that the best way for those of us who do not know where he is to help him, is by helping you, is it not? That is IF you were to help him." She looked away as if there was nothing unusual about her comment.
Ania almost gasped aloud. Could Rosita mean what it sounded like? Could she have some idea that Zorro was nearby. At first, Ania was horrified. Then she realized that this was another one who, even should she know anything, would die before she would reveal it and, she probably had no more that guesses. Ania smiled at her lady's maid. "Sí, Rosita., IF I was the one to help Zorro, that might be true. I am sure that Zorro would appreciate that, IF it were the case, which we both know it is not." For a minute, they exchanged smiles, then Rosita left to return to her work.
Now that the danger was past, Ania found herself trembling. Shakily, she made her way through the hidden door into the passage. When Bernardo suddenly stepped out of the nearby shadows beside her, she nearly cried out in fear. Grinning from ear to ear, he reached out and patted her arm. Recovering from the fright he had given her, Ania became aware that Bernardo was holding a primed and ready pistol in his hand. She was touched to realize that he had had every intention of protecting her, had she not been able to beat Rodríguez at his own game once again. She smiled gratefully at the manservant, knowing that she had a friend in him, just as Diego did. She grinned bigger, "So, Bernardo, you liked my little drama with the capitán, or at least, its outcome. Well, as long as I do not have to repeat it anytime soon, I am pleased with it, too." Together, they walked back toward the cave.
Just before they reached the lowest levels, Ania turned, the worried look back on her face. "It just occurred to me, Bernardo, that Rodríguez was checking the walls out when he was distracted. What if he decides to come back to check more closely? Now that scares me, amigo mío. What can we do?"
Bernardo stopped and looked at her solemnly. He mimed shooting his gun and then shook his head. As he had realized before, it would be hard for one, or even two, to do a great deal in that situation.
"Perhaps, this hacienda is not the safest place for him. Perhaps we need to see if we can get Diego to go somewhere else," Ania ventured.
Bernardo frowned and gestured a sign that indicated to Ania that he knew that Diego was still too weak to be asked to go anywhere, whatever the circumstances.
"Yes, you are right, not right now. But when he is stronger." Ania stopped uncertainly.
Bernardo pointed down and planted each foot firmly on the floor. Along with his expression, Ania understood that he knew that Diego would try to refuse to go.
Ania nodded. Yes, he probably would refuse. "Then, it will be our job to figure out some way to convince him that it will be for our good that he go, as well as his." Ania thought a moment, "You know, it would be a good idea if he could manage to be seen in another town or settlement before coming back here, to give him an alibi for that accursed list that Rodríguez has had García make."
Bernardo nodded his agreement, but the frown
deepened on his face. He had an idea that Ania did not know just how hard
it would be to get Diego to go, leaving her here, no matter how good an
idea it was for Diego personally. Nor would she realize that she was part
of the reason unless she was made to stop and listen to someone. But, she
was right. It would help matters tremendously if he could be seen
somewhere else. Well, they had time to think of some way to talk him into
it. It would be for the best. They
just had to get him to see it that way.