Anvil of Iron
Ania saddled Tornado even before going upstairs to change into the ‘borrowed’ outfit. On her way back to the passage, she stopped for a second to consider Diego. She fervently hoped that he would remain asleep a long time. He was going to be furious if he discovered Tornado gone, as he almost certainly would if he woke up and figured out what she had done. Ania frowned as she stood imagining the scene. It occurred to her that there were many herbs that she could put in his food or drink that would assure that he returned to sleep and stayed asleep. No, she quickly decided, he trusts me. I will not break that trust. If I must face his wrath, then that is the way it will be. Quickly, before she could change her mind, she hurried up the passage.
Going to her room, Ania got her own black riding boots. They were not as high as Zorro's, but at least she would be able to keep them on and walk in them, if need be. She doubted if anyone would notice the difference. She did not intend for anyone to get that close. From a trunk, she also took a sword, which had been given to her by her brother, Felipe. “Keep it near you,” he had said. “It will bring you luck and courage.” Running her fingers lightly over the design on the fancy hilt, Ania smiled as she remembered her brother's belief in her. Well, I shall need both luck and courage tonight, Felipe, she thought as she closed the trunk and turned to leave the room.
Being careful not to be seen, she made her way to Diego's room. Using the button Bernardo had shown her, she entered the hidden room and closed the panel. As she stood looking at the black outfit, she nearly lost her nerve. However, in her mind, she pictured Rosita's sad eyes and heard Manolito say that one does not live to return from the mines. Someone has to help Arrio and it has to be done now, she decided. Besides, she told herself, if it manages to confuse Rodríguez and the lancers about Zorro, even a little more, it will be worth it.
Pushing all thought of consequences from her mind, she dressed quickly. Everything was too big, of course, but she tucked the extra pant length into the tops of her boots and took up the shirt and pants with the banda. Quickly, she pinned her long hair on top of her head. After choosing the shorter of two capes and putting his hat on, she pushed it onto her back. Slowly, almost hesitantly, she picked up the black mask. Just a bit frightened by her own actions, she paused for a moment. Then her resolve returned and she tied it on snugly. Returning to the entry chamber and mounting Tornado, she sat looking back toward the chamber where Diego lay sleeping. Finally, with a shake of the reins, she and Tornado rode out into the dusk.
Rather than turn immediately southward toward where the men would be camped, Ania headed for her own land. She had a plan that just might work, but she needed something kept in the place where more irrigation canals were being built in order to see it through. Keeping an eye out for any vaqueros who might still be in the area, she located and tied two small kegs of blasting powder to the back of the saddle. She eyed the kegs uncertainly. She thought it would not take much to do what she had in mind, but wasn't really sure. Finally, she shrugged and decided that it would probably be better to have too much rather than too little. What she had should do the job.
Thinking carefully of where the camp would be in relationship to the trail, she wrote a note and wrapped it around a rock. Arrio had many friends whom she thought could be counted on to help him if they had a diversion to keep the guards busy. She planned to give them that diversion. Quickly, she rode to the house of one of Arrio’s friends and tossed the note through an open window into a room where she could see a lighted lamp. As a man opened the door, she sent Tornado galloping off, but not before seeing the joyful expression on the man's face.
Settling into a mile-eating gallop, Tornado covered the distance more quickly than Ania had expected. Almost sooner than she was ready, Ania saw the glow of campfires beyond the rise of a hill. Pulling up quietly behind a brushy outcropping, and tying Tornado, she crept up to the top and lay very still, watching the camp.
There was only a small group of about ten prisoners this time and only three guards, the two she had often seen following her and another. The peons huddled together in their misery, shackled so as to give the guards no trouble during the trip. As Ania watched, one of the guards took up his weapon and sat on a boulder overlooking the camp and the peons. The other two had taken out a pair of dice and had begun a game within the circle of firelight. No doubt, Zorro could have taken care of all of the guards himself. Well, I will just have to do what I can, Ania told herself. As soundlessly as she could manage, she eased back to Tornado and made a wide circle around the camp to check on a nearby area of the roadway. If it was as she remembered it, things would be perfect. If it was not… Well, she would cross that bridge when she came to it.
"Bueno! Boy,” she said quietly to Tornado, “we are going to give them a surprise they will not soon forget." She looked up with satisfaction at the steep canyon wall rising beside the road at this point.
She remembered what Bastián had told her as he had once again accompanied her on her cattle buying trip down south two months ago. He had surprised her by actually talking about some of the surrounding area as they rode. "This is a good shortcut most of the time, patrona," he had supplied, "at least when the weather is dry. Sometimes when the rains do come, you cannot depend on it. The rock is easily broken loose." He shook his head. "Landslides can come at any time after a rain."
Ania had merely filed the information away in her mind for future use. "Perhaps the vaqueros will be able to bring the bulls back by this route. I suppose it has been dry enough for it," was all she had replied at the time.
Ania smiled now as she looked up at the rock in the moonlight. Well, it had not been dry during the last week, at least, not for this area. The ground and rock on each side of the road should be nice and moist. We will just see if we cannot help nature along with this, Ania thought.
Ania looked around as she climbed up the steep incline and found several odd branches and pieces of flat rock that had been sheltered and were dry. At the top of the bluff were several boulders rather precariously balanced. Ania was pleased with this. As if God himself had placed them there for our use, she told herself, with a smile.
Quickly, Ania placed the dry stones and wood so that it completed a tiny path up the side of the incline. Going back to Tornado, she took one cask of blasting powder up to the top and placed it behind the center boulder. Then taking the second cask, she poured a trail of blasting powder up the dry path she had made and placed the opened cask beside the full one. She had carefully run this "fuse" down to the point where, sitting on Tornado's back, she could fire a pistol into the powder. The fire from the shot would run up the incline and ignite the powder casks. If she timed it right, she would have just enough time to light the "fuse" before the lancers charged through the canyon after her, or rather after Zorro, as they would think. The explosion would start a landslide...which would block the trail...which would prevent the lancers from returning to guard the prisoners. The explosion was also a prearranged signal to Arrio's friends to begin their part of the rescue. Zorro would, of course, escape out the other end of the narrow canyon, leading them on a merry chase. Upon giving up the chase, the lancers would have to loop all the way back to the beginning of the canyon. By that time, Arrio and the others would be long gone.
Ania had no doubt that Tornado would leave them in his dust before very long during this chase. Had she not seen with her own eyes just how fast the stallion was? Even Ventura had not been able to keep up with him when they had raced! In a perfectly imagined scenario, Ania would arrive back at the cave in time to change clothes and return Tornado to his stall well before Diego was awake. But first there is the doing, Ania thought as she shook herself from the pleasant vision.
Remounting Tornado, Ania calmly rode back to the camp, stopping in plain sight, if the sentinel had only been watchful. However, he was now taking his own turn with the dice. After waiting a second with no response, Ania took out the first of her two loaded pistols and carefully fired to hit the ground at the sentinel's feet. As the other two guards ran toward their horses, the sentinel made a dash for his musket. When he brought it to bear, Ania whirled Tornado to the right rather than to the left as would have been thought by her position in the path. As she had counted on, the sentinel missed by a mile.
"Stay with the prisoners! We will get Zorro!" she heard one of the guards yell to the sentinel as he mounted his horse.
Tornado quickly outdistanced the two lancers. Ania was able to take the time to aim very carefully at the powder fuse. That done, she put her heels to Tornado's sides once again. As she took off, with the lancers now almost on her heels, a boom split the air with a sound that echoed off the canyon walls for miles around. Well, they could hardly have missed hearing that signal, she thought with satisfaction. She then concentrated on putting more distance between herself and her pursuers. It is up to Arrio's friends now. Hmmmm, I seem to have not done too badly for my first ride as Zorro, she thought cockily.
Her cockiness evaporated as she rounded the last bend before coming to the exit from the canyon. There before her was another landslide...this one not of her own making...completely blocking her only exit.
Diego awoke to the smell of food and realized that, once again, Ania had managed to come and go as he slept. He frowned. He assumed that eventually, as he healed, he would stop sleeping so soundly. He certainly hoped so. It would not do to sleep too soundly if he ever had to spend any length of time away from the cave as Zorro.
Diego rose carefully from his bed, and walked to the table. Much to his frustration, he still found that he became dizzy if he rose too quickly. He sat down and began to eat, glancing toward the other chamber where he could hear the horses stirring. He could see Paseo nosing the hay on the floor, but from where he sat, he could not see Tornado. He felt restless and knew that he needs some activity to help him gain back his strength. Perhaps when I have finished here, I will tend to the horses. At least, it will give me something to do.
Then something else caught his eye. From where he sat, he should have been able to see Tornado's saddle on a rack on the other side of the entry chamber. That is odd. Bernardo must have moved it down the other way before he left, and I just did not notice. Curious, he rose and went into the entry chamber. What? Tornado is gone! he exclaimed to himself. He could not have gotten out! Diego had another shock as he looked around and realized that the saddle was nowhere in the cave, either. If Bernardo were here, I would think he had taken Tornado out to ride as Zorro again, he thought. Tornado has been getting restless with no exercise. Perhaps Ania noticed that and took him out for a run. Yes, that must be what happened.
He walked back to the table and picked up his fork to start eating again. Yet the idea nagged at him. It did not feel right for some reason. He shook his head. Now what did he expect Ania to have done, ridden as Zorro herself? Of course not! That was absurd, was it not? As soon as he had thought it, he wished that he had not, for a wave of unease washed over him. But that is ridiculous, surely! he told himself. Not even Ania, at her most audacious, would do that! He tried to dismiss the idea, but the longer he sat there, the more uneasy he became. Well, there is one way to prove to myself that she has not done anything of the kind. Surely she has not had time to make an outfit. If I go upstairs, Zorro's costume will be just where it should be. Ania could hardly have ridden as Zorro in her own clothes.
Diego impatiently found himself taking the stairs much slower than he wished tonight, but he eventually reached the hidden room and stopped to catch his breath. Even before he reached the top of the stairs, he could see the glow of a lantern. The sight filled him with dread, for Bernardo could not have left it burning and Ania should have had no reason to come in here. He looked around in disbelief, noting the missing garments. Finally, he noticed the neatly folded riding habit. Madre de Dios! he gasped. Why, in the name of all that is holy, would she do such a thing? Where could she have gone?
He tried to stay calm and think logically about this situation. Perhaps things are not so bad as they seem. Even though Ania seems to have taken leave of her senses, she is no fool. She would not have gone out without a plan of some sort. If she is merely riding to be seen and not to take action of some sort, then she will probably do all right. She has only rudimentary skills with a sword and will know that a pistol or musket will have but one shot. She will avoid having to use either. Still the images of what might go wrong could not be easily dismissed. The fears of her being shot or falling into Rodríguez's clutches played out in his mind and he knew he had to do something. It would not be easy. He did not even know the direction in which she had gone, but he had to try to find her. Ignoring the extreme soreness in his shoulder and the persistent weakness causing his hands to shake, even now, he began to change into an extra black outfit. As he did so, anger also began to build, the kind of anger that often is felt when someone you care for puts themself into danger. She will be lucky if I do not turn her over my knee and give her the spanking she so royally deserves for this trick, he thought. Oh, Ania Cristina Valdéz, you had better have a very good reason for this!
Tornado almost sat on his hindquarters as Ania brought him to a sliding stop before the barrier. Ania could feel her heart pounding against her ribs, as she fought to remain calm. Do not panic! Look before you give up, she told herself firmly.
Rocks and boulders blocked three fourths of the original roadway. The other quarter of the slide consisted of a large tree, which had toppled as the ground beneath it slid. Ania could see moonlight gleaming off the roadway, which resumed on the far side of the tree. Hope returned as she realized that the roadway there looked smooth and sound. Perhaps with a good takeoff and landing area, a strong horse could leap over the tree trunk about midway up its length.
Ania frowned as she considered it. She had heard of Zorro doing amazing things on this horse, but she was not sure just how much of that was truth and how much was exaggeration as one peon told it to the next and that one to another, and so on. That tree is at least seven feet above the ground, probably even more. It will be dangerous, Ania thought. Fear quickened her decision as she heard the lancers rapidly approaching the final curve. Well, there is no other way. We must try it or be captured where we sit.
With that thought, Ania trotted Tornado almost back to the curve and just as the lancers came into sight, urged him toward the barricade. She tried not to think about what would happen if Tornado refused the jump at the last moment. Gathering the reins, she collected him and then gave him his head as the tree rushed at them. Shifting her weight forward, she prayed for Tornado to all but take flight. A musket ball angrily buzzed past her head at that moment, but she truly had no time to think about it. Ania felt the great horse rise, and then almost before she realized it, they were landing smoothly as she once again collected the stallion and sent him racing on back down the road toward Los Ángeles. Leaning close to the horse's neck, she found that she was grinning almost as if at some hilarious joke. I could have been killed as well as captured back there, she reminded herself. She knew it was true, yet she could not remember ever feeling more excited, more alive than she did at that moment..
Once she had heard her brother, Eduardo, describing to Juan what if felt like to ride into a great battle with an army, to have comrades falling all around you and yet to ride out yourself safe and whole. ‘You will never feel life coursing through your body more than just after you have cheated death. That feeling almost makes the chance that death will win unimportant.’ The excitement that had been in his voice as he said it echoed through her mind as she remembered his words. Maybe this is what he was talking about, Ania marveled.
Riding past a hilltop a mile or so from the canyon entrance, Ania caught a glimpse of Arrio and several others hurrying away along a different path. As one of them caught sight of the figure in black, he paused, and thrusting his fist into the air, shouted, "Gracias, Señor Zorro! Viva El Zorro!" Soon the others took up the cry. As the words once again echoed off the nearby rocky hills, Ania gave in to the urge to do as she had seen Zorro do. She reined Tornado to a halt and cued him into the impressive rearing and pawing movement. Then throwing her hand up in farewell, she turned and rode for Los Ángeles as quickly as possible. The miles seemed to fly by as she raced for home.
Ania's excitement was still high as she rode back into the cave. "Good boy, Tornado! What a magnificent show you put on tonight. Good boy!" she cried as she dismounted. Tossing the hat and cape aside and removing the mask, she turned and loosened the saddle. She was startled to catch movement out of the corner of her eye. Whirling with the saddle still in her hands, she suddenly found herself face to face with Diego.
An odd mixture of anger and relief filled his expression as he stood before her, eyes blazing. "What in the name of all that is holy do you think you are doing, Ania? How could you? You steal my horse and my clothes. You ride out of here as if merely wearing the black outfit makes you Zorro! Well? I am waiting for your explanation, Ania, if you have one. I trusted you! How could you betray that trust?" He crossed the chamber to tower over her, every muscle tensed in anger.
Ania found herself speechless for almost the first time in her life. All of her planned excuses went right out of her head. Only with great difficulty did she bring her scattered thoughts back together. Once more she reached within for the strength to face him. Appearing calmer than she felt, she turned and put the saddle on its rack as she tried to find words. "I was doing what you could not do, nothing more," she said in a surprisingly steady voice. "Rosita's brother had been sent to the work camp, but I do believe he was being sent to the mines. I had to..."
"You had to do nothing, Ania! Not at the cost of endangering yourself! You have only minimal skills with a sword and with only one shot to a gun, just how did you propose to do anything, even to protect yourself? Did you think you could talk your way out of there?" Diego countered. "You had no right to put your life on the line like that." Ania pressed her lips together and started to turn away. Diego reached out, and grabbing her arm, pulled her back to face him. "Do not turn away from me! We are not through with this discussion!"
Ania angrily jerked her arm from his grasp. "Why, Diego? Why is this different from what Bernardo does for you? Did he tell you that he has ridden three times for you? That we have both done everything we could to turn suspicion away from you? Sí, I did do this to help Rosita and her brother, but did you know, Diego, that I also did it to protect you?"
"What?" he asked. "This is not some good-natured horse race for you to steal someone else’s clothes and ride in and it is no ‘adventure’. This could have gotten you killed. How can you say that your impersonating Zorro helped me?"
"How? I will tell you how. Remember that list Rodríguez has been keeping of all the young men who were suddenly away on "trips" around the time Zorro was shot. Well, despite everything we could do, he has continued to believe that there is a possibility that the Zorro still riding is an impostor. However, each time Bernardo rode as Zorro, the pressure the comandante put on the lancers to find the real Zorro lessened just a bit. This time, when Zorro did not act to help those men before now, Rodríguez's suspicions increased again. I simply found a way for Zorro to do what Rodríguez expected the REAL Zorro to do!" Ania stated hotly. "If I have convinced him that the Fox is not lying somewhere wounded for him to capture, he will stop searching so hard. This was not something I chose to do for the excitement of it, nor on a whim. I had one reason, and one reason only, I did it to protect you!"
Diego looked at her oddly for a moment, anger mixing with surprise that she would claim such a reason. Dios mío, does she think that makes it all right? What kind of a man would allow a woman to take on such danger to protect him, regardless of the circumstances? And yet, what kind of feelings would lead her to go to such lengths for me? "Whatever your reason was, Ania, it was not your place to do so. You did not have that right! Do you think that I would hide behind your skirts, even under these conditions? I would never have sent you out like that! Have you no idea how I would have felt if something had happened to you?"
"After the last few long talks we’ve had, I don’t see that it would have affected you greatly. Perhaps you’d have felt a bit guilty and more than a little puzzled. There would have been no need for that. Remember, you didn’t choose it, Diego. I did! Why should my own choice...my decision, Diego…anger you so? It really has very little to do with the fact that I borrowed your outfit or Tornado without your permission, now does it? You think just because I am a woman I am not good enough to help. I am supposed to simply sit at home, wringing my hands and looking helpless," Ania challenged as she paced in front of him.
"You do not understand my thoughts and feelings at all!" Diego stated again. “Surely you must have known that I would never have agreed to your putting yourself in danger for me, or anyone! You did it regardless of my feelings about the matter.”
"Oh? Well, perhaps that is so, but surely, if I have learned anything at all over the last two weeks, it is that I achieve nothing by talking to you, but hurting myself. This had to be done and I did not care what you, or anyone, said. Someone had to confuse the capitán’s thinking and there was no one to do it but me. Just what would you expect me to do, Diego?" Ania whirled to face him again. Anger and the pain of his words filled her, bringing the sting of tears she refused to shed to her eyes. "What do you expect me to do to protect the man I love?" Ania demanded. She stopped, openmouthed at what she had just admitted.
Diego, too, stood still looking at her, his angry words stopped by what she had said. For a moment, neither spoke. Then Ania turned her back to him. She pretended to become very interested in removing the headstall and brushing Tornado's glossy coat.
Diego stood quietly watching her. Ah, sweet Santa Maria, could this really be behind all her other reasons? Could what she feels for me be so strong, even after the pain I caused her, that she would risk everything for my safety? His voice, when he spoke, held no more anger, but a serious questioning tone. "Ania, did you mean what you just said?"
Ania stood very still. She answered him without turning around, "Yes, I am afraid I do. I know I should not have said that." Her voice sounded hopeless, lost.
Diego's voice was almost a whisper, "Why would you be afraid to tell me that, Ania?"
Ania laughed mirthlessly, "My stepmother always said that a lady should never reveal her heart until a man commits his. But then, I suppose that does not apply in this case. You have clearly stated how you feel on more than one occasion. I have simply managed to play the fool again."
There was a pause. Ania felt rather than saw Diego come to stand close behind her. Finally, he said quietly, "How can one who has unlocked all my other secrets fail to see the very secret I should never have hidden from her?"
Ania's heart skipped a beat. "What?" she said as she turned around. The expression in Diego's eyes nearly made her heart stop altogether.
"I do love you, Ania," he said softly. "I have since before the fiesta when you lit up the night with your beauty, since before you put that ridiculous clump of thorns under Rodríguez's saddle." He reached out to her, but was surprised as she backed away, a look of mistrust in her eyes.
"How can you say that you love me? Am I now to just trust what you say?" Tears began to trickle down her cheeks. The pain in her eyes was so clear and intense, he wished he could take back all the clever arguments and denials he had used with her during the days just before he had been shot. “If you loved me, how could you hurt me the way you did?" She stopped to dash tears away with her fingers. "How can I let you have this much control over me? I should not! I should be stronger than this. My stepmother nearly beat me to death and still I did not give her tears. I should be stronger," she vowed.
As Diego listened to her words, hope began to fill his heart, for he recognized that though her anger had begun at him, it was now aimed mostly at herself. If he could just get her to stop talking, she would listen to him now and he knew just how to stop her words. Gently he reached out and stroked her hair, which had fallen to cascade down her back. As she started to back away again, he slipped his fingers into the soft waves behind her neck and pulled her to him, stopping her words with his lips. For a moment, she struggled against him but gradually she relaxed, returning his kiss with her whole being. As her left arm slipped around his waist to his back and her right went around his neck, he brought his arm down around her shoulders, trying to say with actions what his words had tried to deny before. As the kiss ended, he pulled her head to his shoulder and lay his cheek against the top of her head. He could still feel her trembling.
Ania made a sound that was somewhere between a moan and a sigh. To his dismay, it was a sad sound, as if she had been defeated rather than won over by someone who loved her.
Ania did, indeed, feel that way at the moment. She realized that no matter how she fought to control her feelings for this man, she had already lost. If he proved false now, well, there was nothing she could do. He would control her, if that was what he wished to do. She could not fight this one. "I want to...I need to know...how could you have found it so easy to hurt me, and so hard to confess that you love me? Am I so hard to love, Diego?"
The question tore at Diego's heart. Rubbing his hand down her back and pulling her even closer, he whispered, "Please, mi amor, do not judge me until you hear my reason."
"I want to know...I need to hear it now," she pleaded.
"Sí, Aniasita, come sit with me. I want you to understand what I did. Now is the time for us to talk," Diego agreed.