Anvil of Iron
Over the next two days, Ania began returning to her normal responsibilities for a few hours each day. She was very careful to make everything appear normal, for despite the distance from her land or the de la Vega hacienda to the cuartel, she had become aware that, more often than not, a lancer would be somewhere just out of sight whenever she left the hacienda. Usually, this lancer was one of the two newer lancers Rodríguez had brought into the group already stationed there. She knew that these two often acted as an escort for the groups of prisoners sent to the labor camps and she could only assume that they were somehow being paid to help Rodríguez with his schemes. She played with the idea of calling on Bastion’s services again, but decided against it. They did not seem to wish her harm, but seemed to merely spy on her comings and goings. The two tried to remain out of sight, but if she looked and listened carefully as she rode along, she could almost always spot them. They never interfered with what she did, yet they always seemed to be nearby watching, as if the capitán still expected her to lead him to Zorro. The rare occasions when she did not sense one or the other of them nearby made her almost as uneasy as when she did. She could never quite get the image of Rodríguez tapping on the walls out of her mind. The idea that the missing lancers might show up as part of a larger group sent to do a more thorough search of the hacienda was never far from her thoughts.
During this time, she managed to go down to check on Diego and Bernardo and to smuggle food and other needed supplies to them two or three times each day. She was careful to make her visits very short. She did not think any of the servants would pass information along to Rodríguez, but she was taking no chances. She could not afford to be missed. Diego must not be endangered by anything that I do, she reminded herself frequently.
However, were she to admit it, she also used this as an excuse not to stay longer and talk. She did not trust herself as far as Diego was concerned. I will not be hurt again! she vowed. I let him have far too much influence on me before.
Realizing the effect he had always had on her, she resolved to have no private talks with him beyond what she must.
Diego was finding the situation not only frustrating, but confusing, as well. He found that as long as he kept the conversation on anything, Rodríguez, his health, anything other than what he truly wanted to talk to her about, she did not hurry away. However, as soon as he tried to bring up how she felt about things now, out she would go. It is as if she were frightened of me, he thought. How can that be? He often thought about the situation as he walked about the lower chambers trying to regain his strength. Somehow, Ania reminded him of a horse that had been frightened by a loud noise, skittish and ready to run at the first suggestion of that sound again. Could I have hurt her so badly? Oh, but surely, if she would just listen to me for two minutes, she would understand! he thought. It had taken so long for her to trust him enough to stop hiding her emotions before. Maybe that is what he would have to do again, regain her trust. Maybe, given time, she will listen to me again if I just do not push her now. Well, since he had been responsible for this wall of hers going back up, he would just have to be patient until he could coax her to drop that wall again.
However, his feelings were not unmixed on the issue. Perhaps she would still be safer if he did not involve her any further. He felt that they, both of them, should give the matter serious thought before going any further.
Finally, one evening after having been shadowed by a lancer again, Ania came to a decision about getting Diego to go somewhere else, perhaps to another small settlement near the mountains so as to have an alibi. Carefully, without Diego's knowledge, she called Bernardo up to the secret room and talked with him about what they should do.
"Bernardo," Ania said as they stood in the secret room behind Diego's room, "have you thought anymore of what I said about getting Diego to go somewhere to establish an alibi?" When he nodded, Ania continued, "Have you said anything to him about it?"
Bernardo shook his head and gestured someone riding a horse. He then pointed down the stairs, and putting a questioning look on his face, he made her understand that he wondered if Diego could or should ride yet.
Ania thought about it carefully. Diego was a long way from being well, even if he did insist on being up much more than Ania thought that he should be. In this, he was proving no better patient that Ania herself had been. To ride for any great distance would probably be too tiring right now and his being able to fight for any length of time, if at all, would be unlikely. However, he did seem to be getting his strength back faster than she had thought he would. Perhaps travel would be possible in another few days. "How long would it take you to get to Santa Barbara and locate Don Alejandro?" she asked before giving Bernardo an answer to his question.
He held up two fingers, tracing up one quickly and definitely, and putting a look of uncertainty on his face, traced up the other one more tentatively. "So," Ania translated, "one whole day, and perhaps, the better part of another?"
Bernardo nodded and then cocked his head questioningly and tapped the side of his forehead, asking her what she was thinking.
"Well," she replied thoughtfully, "I do not think Diego would be able to do any hard, long distance riding yet, but it occurs to me that probably by the time you go to Santa Barbara, get Don Alejandro and return, he probably could do so, with fairly frequent halts to rest."
Bernardo gestured something about him staying in one spot for three or four days, then pointed down toward where Diego was and indicated going out.
For a minute, Ania was puzzled. "Why not stay here and wait till he can leave?" she guessed. When Bernardo nodded again, she explained. "Would it not be better to have another person to help if you have trouble on the way? Besides, Don Alejandro would definitely want to know about all of this. He will probably understand my not asking you to leave Diego’s side to come for him at first. However, I doubt that he would appreciate us waiting another three or four days to get in touch with him, and we can not just send a message."
Bernardo considered this for a moment and then nodded his agreement.
"Well, now for the problem. How are we going to get Diego to agree to this? You did keep our agreement, did you not? You have not told him about Rodríguez coming here the other day, have you?"
He gestured that he had not.
"All right. Now what do we say to convince him to go?" Ania asked. The room grew quiet as they thought.
Bernardo gestured something that puzzled Ania for a moment. Finally, she guessed, "Help? Helping?" He nodded and pointed at himself and her.
"Ah, make him see that it will help us," Ania nodded in agreement. "But what do we say to make him see that? I guess he really should know why we are so concerned that the passages may be found." She paused for a moment. That information might work against them but she still felt that he should know now. "Well," she said as Bernardo shrugged, "I guess we shall hope something occurs to us as we go."
As Bernardo returned to the cave, Ania took the time to steal into the kitchen and out with more food. Then she, too, made her way below. She was not looking forward to this. Diego would not be easy to convince and she would have to hide her emotions deeply to oppose him. He just had to go, however. She was not sure how long things could go on the way they were.
"No, absolutely not!" Diego declared after he had been told that Rodríguez had come to search the hacienda and Ania had suggested that he go elsewhere until he recovered. He sat at a table that had been brought into the cave and looked first at Ania and then Bernardo. "What would you do if he did come back? If I go and Bernardo goes with me, you would have no one to help you."
"And what would YOU do if he did, Diego? Be sensible, will you?" Ania crossed her arms and looked at him sternly. "You do not have the stamina now that you should have. Oh, I know your skill and determination, but without the strength and endurance, you could not win."
"I might be able to do more than you think," he said.
"Could you? Could you really?" Ania challenged as she reached behind Bernardo to where Zorro's sword lay on a ledge. "All right. Let us see something. Let us try something simple." Holding the sword out hilt first, she waited until he had taken it before she continued. "Now, all I want you to do is go through a few simple exercises, maybe a lunge or two, for say, oh...five minutes."
"Just five minutes?" Diego asked as he stood and stepped away from the table. He started the exercise well enough, even considering his left arm remained in a sling. However, much to his disgust, long before the five minutes were up, he found himself sweating heavily and trembling.
"Now, think about it, Diego. What if, instead of empty air, Rodríguez had stood before you with his sword?" Ania's eyes dared him to try to lie to himself or to them.
Diego lay the sword down in frustration and placed his hand on the chair back to steady himself. "That still does not indicate I should leave here. Given a few more days I should be as ready as ever."
"Diego, I do not even know if two weeks or a month from now you will be back to the strength you need in order to ride as Zorro. That depends on a lot of things," Ania argued. "Do you want to gamble that Rodríguez will not come back? Maybe he will not, but then we do not know that, do we?"
Diego glanced at her defiantly and then looked at Bernardo. "And what of you, Bernardo, do you think we should just run off like this, leaving her here to face Rodríguez if he comes again?" He frowned darkly as Bernardo slowly nodded his agreement. "Well, that is just fine! You have both decided that I am to just be shipped off like a school boy then." He finally walked back and sat in the chair, angrily looking from one to the other.
"No, of course not. We cannot force you to go, Diego. It must be your choice," Ania insisted. "I truly feel that it would be better for us if you did."
"How so?" Diego tossed back.
"Well, if Bernardo goes with you, then, of course, he is out of danger, too," Ania offered, still searching her mind for a convincing argument to present to him.
Diego looked thoughtfully at Bernardo. After a moment, his expression softened and he said quietly, "I am afraid that you, my friend, made a decision long ago to help me with this game of deception. However, if you wish to be released from that decision now, I will do so."
Bernardo looked at him with a look of surprise and dismay for an instant. He then shook his head emphatically and gestured that wherever Diego was, he was. He was rewarded with a grateful smile from his patrón before Diego turned again to Ania.
"I am sorry, Ania, as much as I want to see Bernardo remain safe, we will take our chances here. How would our leaving help you?"
"Simply this, if Capitán Rodríguez does find the passages and you are not here, I figure the worst he will do to me is put me in jail. With you here...well...I am sure there will be fighting and who knows what will happen," Ania answered.
"He will take your land if that happens," Diego reminded her.
“He would more than likely do that anyway, whether you are here or not,” Ania stated. "I am willing to take that chance,"
"I am not," Diego countered. "I still say, at least if we are given a few more days, that we can handle him. That will give you a chance to get out of here and go to Padre Felipe to ask for asylum if he comes."
"Is that what you think I would do, Diego?" Ania asked as she met his eyes. "Are you so sure that you could just put me on a horse and send me on my way?"
"Of course, that way you would be safe. I could not allow you to do otherwise. Perhaps word could be gotten to someone still connected with the government or your father's family and their influence could help save both you and your land," Diego said. He seemed to think that he had already won the argument.
Ania watched him and reached inside herself for strength to continue to oppose him. She shook her head and said in a quiet, but determined voice, "No, Diego. You have neither the power nor the right to make that decision for me. I would not go." She saw a change in the expression in his eyes, and she suddenly knew just how to force him to agree. He had always shown very deep concern for her safety. Even after he had claimed that they were no more than friends, he had continued to show that concern. Perhaps she could use that concern against him.
"Ania, now you are the one being unreasonable," he said. "Of course, you would go."
"No. If you were still in these tunnels, I would try to stop Rodríguez before he got down here, but barring that, I would be right here at your side, doing everything I could to help you," she stated flatly.
"But you could not! He would have no qualms about killing you too if you interfered. You would have no chance..." Diego began.
"Maybe, but I will not leave you to whatever fate Rodríguez could devise, Diego. You could not force me to go and if you had the strength to physically carry me away from here, I would come back. I would either help stop him or die trying right here in this room beside you," Ania stated emphatically. For a moment, she was almost forced to relent by the look in his eyes as he realized what she was saying. She had expected the argument to have an effect on him, but not to the extent she was seeing. Ania hardened her resolve and pushed her surprise out of her mind. She had no time now to puzzle out his reaction. That he change his mind was the goal now.
"You would put THAT burden on me?" Diego asked, almost in a whisper.
Beyond Diego, Ania caught a disapproving look from Bernardo. Well, what did he expect me to do? Ania wondered. She met his eyes calmly and then looked back at Diego. "No, neither the choice nor the responsibility for that decision is yours. It is mine alone and I vow that is exactly what I would do."
Diego looked at her for a minute with a look of pain in the hazel eyes she loved. Then, without a word, he looked at Bernardo, who merely waited to see what his patrón would do. Finally, he spoke, "And if I do go, if something happens, you will go to Padre Felipe?"
"Yes, if I can manage to do so. If I cannot, then you will hear of it, and if you are strong enough, you will be able to help me, if no one else can. I cannot believe that even Rodríguez would do much to a woman."
"Ania, you are too trusting," he said. "How can you say that?"
Ania merely shook her head. She was not about to get into a discussion with Diego about her danger from Rodríguez. The only thing important to her now was getting his word that he would go. "Besides, there is another reason that you should go: so you can be seen away from here and have an alibi," she continued.
"An alibi?" Diego asked, surprised. "Is he that close to being on to us?"
"Well, I don't know how close he truly is, but an alibi might be a very good thing to have," Ania explained. She then told him everything García had told her about the list of names and Rodríguez's guesses about Zorro's background and clues to his identity.
Bernardo explained the plan he had discussed with Ania. They would let it be thought that Diego's injuries were from a fall, somewhat after the date that Zorro was shot. He would go get Don Alejandro and together, they would supposedly go into the mountains and bring him back here so that he could recuperate at home, rather than in the tunnel. On the way back, they would be sure they were seen and perhaps stay a while in a settlement near where he had supposedly been hurt, so as to have an alibi.
"Well, what is your decision?" Ania asked as Bernardo finished.
Diego looked at her gravely, then rose from the chair and walked away from them. He stood with his back to them for a long moment, thinking. He hated to admit it, but it did make sense to create an alibi if the comandante was becoming suspicious. However, the fact that it was logical, did not mean he had to like it. Finally he answered reluctantly, "All right. We will do it, but, Ania, promise me one thing. Give me your word that you will not wait until the last minute to go to Padre Felipe. Go as soon as you suspect anything." He turned and looked at her intently.
Ania nodded slowly, "I promise. Now I must go. I have already been out of sight too long. I'll be back when I can." Without a backwards look, she turned and hurried back up the passage.
"Bernardo," Diego said as he watched her go, "I hope we do not regret this."
Bernardo wasted little time getting started on his way to Santa Barbara. The first leg of the journey he would make at night so there was less chance of being seen by anyone who might know him. After that, he would travel as long as he could before stopping to rest, skirting El Camino Real and avoiding the missions on the way out. His inability to talk would make him easily remembered by anyone he met along the way. The one benefit that Diego could see of Bernardo being gone was that he hoped he could finally get Ania to talk privately and clear the air between them. It did not work out that way, however. She continued to flee at the first sign of his trying to bring the subject up. Once he reached out and grabbed her arm, preventing her from leaving. "Ania, you cannot continue to run away like this. We must talk!" he insisted.
She turned to face him, anger flashing in her eyes. Jerking her arm free, she had snapped, "I do not think so, Diego. I have tried talking with you before, remember. I have learned that is something I am better off not doing!" Turning quickly before he could react, she rushed back up the passage, leaving him standing looking after her.
"By the saints, of all the women in California, she is the most stubborn!" he swore.
Things continued in much the same way until the third day after Bernardo had gone. Returning from her rancho, Ania met Rosita in the sala. Rosita's eyes were red and her expression worried and upset.
"What is wrong, Rosita?" Ania asked, immediately thinking illogically of Rodríguez's return.
"It is my brother, Arrio, Señorita Ania," Rosita said sadly. "Capitán Rodríguez has arrested him for refusing to pay his taxes. It is so unfair, Señorita Ania! Arrio is unable to pay them, really. Capitán Rodríguez has raised the amount of his tax three times before and this last time it was so high that there was no way for Arrio to find the money. My sister-in-law was just here. She has learned that he is being sent to the work camp. They are leaving this afternoon. They say that it will take him two years in the work detail of the prison before he is allowed to return."
"Has no one tried to help him? He worked for Don Alfredo, did he not? What did he do?" Ania asked.
"Don Alfredo tried to help him, patróna, but the arrangements for his work detail had already been made," Rosita said, despair and hopelessness filling her voice.
Ania patted her hand. "Well, do not give up, Rosita. Perhaps he will be back sooner that you expect, " Ania comforted her.
"I hope so, Señorita Ania, but so many have gone before and some of them do not return," Rosita said, with a sigh.
The more Ania thought about it, the less she liked it. Something should be done, she told herself, but what? Without Zorro, there is no one to turn to. She tried to put the subject out of her mind, but it returned to her over and over. I will just bet this group is going to the mines. Why else would they be starting out so late, instead of in the morning? They are probably being transferred to Vásquez somewhere when they make camp tonight. Ah, but what is to be done?
Later, when she went into the pueblo on business, the matter returned to her mind as she was talking to Sergeant García. He had just finished telling her that the capitán was still having him keep track of the young men who were on the list as suspects. The capitán did not believe the Zorro they had seen was the real one. He still wanted to know where each of these people was. Rodríguez had declared that one of them was surely the Fox. Ania did not like the sound of that at all, but what could be done about it?
Bernardo had ridden as Zorro three times. Each time, the pressure from Rodríguez had been less for a short while afterwards. Well, Zorro could not ride tonight and that was an end to it. She would just have to be watchful if Rodríguez's attention turned Diego's way.
The conversation then swung to the fate of the men in this work detail. She stated, as if in idle curiosity, "It seems strange to me, Sergeant, that they would leave so late. Why is that?"
"Well, señorita, the capitán looks on it as an early start, rather than a late one. They can be that much further on their way and the escort that much sooner back, if they go today," he supplied. "Although, between you and me, señorita, I think the capitán thought that if Zorro heard of this, he would come, sort of a trap, I guess. I think he held them here as bait, but this time the Fox did not come. Maybe he has not heard, but he almost always does. It is a puzzle, Señorita Ania. The capitán has declared that that was one more proof that we have seen a false Zorro."
"Perhaps you are right about his not having heard. They are following El Camino Real all the way, are they not?" she asked.
"Oh, sí," he replied. "Except for a shortcut just before where they plan to make camp. One of the men escorting the workers said that he knows of a shortcut that takes about ten miles off the length of the trip."
"The trail that leads through Cañón Rojo?" Ania asked, referring to a narrow canyon with walls of bright red about three hours ride or less south of Los Ángeles. She had actually gone through it on a cattle-buying expedition about two months before.
"Sí, that is the one," García replied.
The conversation stayed with her long afterwards, as Ania thought regretfully of what Zorro would have done if he were only able. As it was, she would not even mention it to him. It would be frustrating for him to hear of it and not be able to do anything about it. It is a shame there is no one to help the men this time, she thought with a shake of her head.
Diego was sleeping as Ania brought food down later. Quietly, she placed the food on the table and turned to walk out. From the outer chamber, she heard Tornado nicker. Ania walked out and patted the big stallion, talking to him quietly as she did so. "You are getting restless, are you not, Tornado? It is hard just to wait around for someone to take you for a run. Perhaps later I will come down and give you some exercise. How would you like that?"
She smiled as she remembered the power with which he had moved the times she had ridden with Zorro. Such an animal would be a pleasure to ride. I wonder, she thought, would you behave with me or do you need Zorro's touch? No, I bet you and I could come to an agreement, could we not? Ania shook her head. What a thrill it must be to ride this beautiful animal and know that you helped other people, as well! She could almost see herself doing that, if only she were not a woman. She shook her head again, but stopped slowly as she thought, What if they did not know it was a woman? The image of herself standing clothed in black from head to toe, with the cape covering her body, appeared in her mind. No one would be able to tell. But I am too short, she thought. Wait! If I am on Tornado's back and it is dark, no one would be able to tell that anymore than they have noticed the differences between Bernardo's Zorro and Diego's. Ania could feel her heart beating faster as she thought about it. Mujer, you are loca! she told herself, even as she began to smile.
An idea began to form in her mind. If
she could just confuse Rodríguez yet again so he would perhaps give up
any suspicion of the real Zorro being Diego, and help Rosita's brother, as
well. Would that not be worth a bit of a gamble? As Juan always
said..."The only gamble worth taking is one where the stakes are
high." That did, indeed, describe this gamble: one man's freedom, and
safety for another man's life, high stakes, indeed. Now if Diego will
just not wake up too soon, she thought. She definitely wanted to get
Tornado back in the chamber as quickly as possible. She smiled to herself
as she returned to the hacienda. This is going to be fun!