Anvil of Iron

by

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

The sound of approaching horses attracted the attention of Emilio Cuadra.  He paused, taking a break from helping his neighbor, Julito, split a log. Curiously glazing up the barely discernable trail which led from mountains above them, he saw a most unusual sight for their small settlement. Three men, riding fine horses, were coming down the path. Though all seemed travel worn, their clothes had the cut of fine tailoring. However, as the trio came closer, Emilio realized that, by the simpler style of his clothing, one might be a servant.

As he watched the strangers, he noted something else unusual. The servant and the older of the other two travelers seemed to be occasionally reaching over to lend support to the man who rode between them. Emilio looked more closely at this man, who appeared to be the youngest of the three men. The young traveler had his left arm in a sling and he appeared to hold his shoulders quite stiffly, as if from some injury. Emilio wondered if broken bones had caused this, for the greenish-blue of partially healed bruises on the young caballero’s face gave testament to some kind of mishap. He walked over as the three reined up at the water trough in the center of the clearing between the three houses.

The older man looked over in concern as the injured man slumped forward wearily, holding to the front of his saddle for support. As the servant rode closer to the young man, as if to support his patrón if he began to fall, the older man turned to Emilio.

"Buenos dias, señor. There has been an accident and I must ask for your help, por favor. Is there anyone who knows of healing here, perhaps a curandera?"

"Señor, we are only a poor settlement of but three households. There is no curandera here, but we will be glad to give what help we can. What happened, señor?" Emilio replied.

"As he was climbing high up in the mountains, my son lost his footing and fell," was the reply as the older man dismounted and walked around to help his son from his horse. "Is there at least a place where we might stay until my son is better? I will gladly pay for lodging and any other inconvenience we cause you and your family."

Emilio thought for a moment. He would like to help the men and the thought of being paid for it did not hurt the situation. "Sí, señor, our houses are small, but my family and I will gladly sleep over in my brother's house for as long as you need lodgings."

The older man smiled tiredly. "I am Alejandro de la Vega and this is my son, Diego. Bernardo, there, is my son's servant. We are in your debt, Señor...."

"Emilio Cuadra, Señor de la Vega. I will go and see that a bed is prepared for your son. No doubt it would be best for him to lay down for a while, would it not?"

"Gracias, Señor Cuadra. Diego's fall was some days ago, and this is the first time he has ridden since it happened. I am afraid that his strength was not what he was expecting," Don Alejandro said gratefully.

Alejandro looked at Diego in concern. Diego's weakness was only partially false and his paleness beneath the fake bruises was only too real. The ride here had been hard on him. He watched as a young girl walked up behind Bernardo as he assisted Diego in sitting down with his back to the water trough.

"Señor, perhaps your patrón would like some water. Here," she said as she held a full dipper of water out toward him. "Señor?" she repeated when Bernardo did not turn to take the water.

"Bernardo cannot hear you, muchacha. He is deaf and dumb. Just touch him if you wish his attention," Alejandro advised her.

At her touch, Bernardo turned, and taking the dipper, held it for Diego to drink. He then turned back to the girl and smiled his thanks. The girl smiled back shyly, not quite sure how to communicate with someone who could not hear or speak.

Shortly, Emilio returned and led them into his house. To one side, there was a simple, but clean bed which Emilio's wife, Marta, had prepared. Beside it, sat a large basin and a pitcher of clean water for the use of the travelers.

As they were left alone once more, it appeared that at least a portion of Diego's strength returned. He sat up tiredly and said, "Well, it seems that we have a good start on my alibi." He looked down ruefully at the bed on which he sat. "I have spent so much time sleeping lately that I did not realize I would ever be so glad to see a bed again." He shook his head as Bernardo gestured for him to lie down. "No, not yet, Bernardo. That basin of water is even more inviting. Before I lay down again, I want to clean up a bit and maybe even shave." He smiled at the stern frown Bernardo gave him. "All right. I promise you, I will rest, but the shave first, sí?"

His father smiled. "Well, while you two get settled, I will go see if I cannot give Emilio some of the background of your accident, Diego, and arrange for our payment to this family." He cast an affectionate look at his son, and said in half serious tones, "Bernardo, see that he keeps his word about resting. He is not to push himself now. Uh, Diego, do not forget to reapply the bruises after you wash."

"Oh, sí, Father, I had forgotten. Do not worry, though. I am sure Bernardo would not have forgotten, even if I had," he replied with a smile. "Now, go see if you can not put a bit more substance to our story." With another smile, his father did just that.

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Over the next week, Ania fully resumed the normal running of her rancho. Although there were whispers from servant to servant, and from hacienda to hacienda, that there had been more to it, most people merely assumed that whatever illness had shortened Ania's time on the land was now past and she was well once more.

If Rosita believed otherwise, she spoke of it to no one, not even Ania. She still did not know if Ania had truly been helping Zorro, but she did know that Zorro apparently was healed again. Within two days of the time that Arrio's work group had been taken from Los Ángeles under guard, a man had come to her mother's house. He brought word from Arrio that he was safe with a group of men hiding at a camp in the mountains. If nothing happened soon to remove Rodríguez from power, Arrio planned to go somewhere else to look for work. But many in the hills hoped that Rodríguez's time would end soon. This was Arrio's hope. The man had also joyfully told them that Zorro was to be thanked for the rescue of the men. Apparently, the saints and ángels had helped Zorro and he was alive and strong. It seemed nothing short of a miracle.

Ania was very cautious when traveling anywhere, still wary of Rodríguez’s spies. Under the wide sashes of her riding habits, Rosita noticed that Ania once again carried the pair of jeweled stilettos she had worn after she had been attacked before. "Are you afraid of someone now, Señorita Ania?" the lady’s maid asked in alarm.

"Well, one can never tell, can they, Rosita?" Ania had said with a smile. "Do not worry about me, Rosita. It is just a precaution."

Rosita had said no more but she prayed that Don Diego or Don Alejandro would return soon. Regardless of how independent the young patrona wishes to be, it is just not right for her to be alone as she is now, she thought with a shake of her head. Why, oh, why, did Don Diego not think of such things before running off as he did?

She continued to keep a close eye on Ania as the days passed. She was concerned for her, for though Ania seemed her normal self when away from the hacienda, Rosita often came upon Ania merely sitting when she was home. Oh, perhaps the young señorita would have a book in her lap or a piece of needlework, but often her hands were still, the expression in her eyes distant and preoccupied. Poor thing, Rosita thought. It must have something to do with those arguments she and the patrón had before he went to the mountains.

She and Crescencia had long noted the growing attraction between Don Diego and Señorita Ania and considered it a very good thing. Why Don Alejandro had not simply told his son to marry long before now was anyone's guess. Now it appeared that Don Diego might actually make the step himself. Well, perhaps not now. Rosita and Crescencia had both gotten quite good during the days before Don Diego's trip at making sure most of the other servants were elsewhere when Señorita Ania and Don Diego got into 'discussions'. Perhaps if given the privacy to work things out, the two servants hoped the two young people would do so. Why he had run off on this ludicrous trip into the mountains instead of facing their problem was a puzzle.

Don Diego was well liked by all who worked for the family and by most in the pueblo. He was kind, concerned and generous, almost to a fault. Yet, sometimes he got his head into music or books, and just did not do things as most Spanish men would have. It seemed now that he would let a very good match slip through his fingers again. There were many more young men who would be quite attracted to the pretty young señorita, especially as everyone now knew of her connections to royalty. Ah, Don Diego, Rosita thought. Someone should tell you to get your nose out of your books and look around you. Oh, well! That is not for me to do, she reminded herself as she went on about her work.

Ania, did indeed, sit deep in thought now, although it was not quite as Rosita thought. Ania was quite literally preparing for a debate when Diego returned. She knew of no way to deny that, just as Diego thought, the danger from Rodríguez was great, especially if he found out she had aided Zorro and knew his identity. She, instead, spent her time planning what she could say to make Diego see that she accepted the danger as a small price to pay for the joy of being a part of his life, regardless of how high a price she might pay or how short a time they might have. She frequently rehearsed what she would say in her mind.

One night, she was surprised to look up and see Bernardo come through the door of the sala. When Ania looked hopefully back at the door, he quickly gestured that he was alone. He smiled encouragingly at her and patted her arm at her look of disappointment. Quickly, he handed her a thick folded packet.

The outer note, written by Don Alejandro, was false information to be shared with everyone as a part of their plan. It stated that there had been an accident and that he was now caring for Diego in a small hamlet called Río Madre. Diego was much improved and they hoped to be able to return within a few days. Ania quickly shared this news with Crescencia.

Within that note was another addressed only to Ania. It was a joy to watch the happiness in Ania's face as she read Diego's flowing script. Bernardo, of course, did not know exactly what was written there, but he knew it had to be good news. He had seen the pensive far off look in his patrón's eyes many times as he began to get back his strength. He knew that Diego had been thinking of Ania and the future. Ania's reaction merely confirmed his conclusions.

However, after the other servants had gone, leaving Ania alone with Bernardo, she laughed, "All right, Bernardo, admit it. The real reason Diego sent you back is not to "prepare for him to be brought back here to recover", as Don Alejandro said, now is it? Diego also wanted to be sure I did not ride out on Tornado again while he was gone, did he not?"

Bernardo merely shrugged and smiled. While he did have to arrange for Diego's "recovery", Diego had mentioned in passing, only half in jest, that, at least, with him there, Ania would not feel she had to do something if Zorro was needed. So she was partially right.

Ania could hardly contain herself as the time she expected Diego to return grew closer.

While, true to his word, no mention was made in his note as to their future plans, his letter had told how he missed her and restated his love for her in the most beautiful of words. Ania treasured it more than any gold or jewels, rereading it many times over the next few days. The days could not pass fast enough for her.

So, it was with a great deal of aggravation and regret that Ania read another letter, several days after Bernardo had returned. This letter was from a Señor Marcos, a lawyer sent, among other things, to go over with Ania some of the details of her father's estate and to deliver more of the money that had been left in trust when her family had moved to California. It seemed that after Señor Marcos had arrived in Monterey on other business, he had had a riding accident that had left him quite unable to travel to Los Ángeles to conduct his business with her. His letter stated that it was imperative that she travel there to finalize their business and receive the money. While she could fume and fuss all she wished about this occurrence, Ania knew that she truly had no choice. Being her father's only heir, there were things only she could take care of.

Quickly, Ania prepared for her trip. She arranged for Bastián to again go as her bodyguard and had Rosita go as her companion and lady's maid. She hired three of her most trusted vaqueros to go with her as guards. She would, after all, be carrying a great deal of money on the way back and it was a long way from Monterey to Los Ángeles. She told no one of the full reason for the trip, keeping the money secret for safety's sake. The final thing she did before leaving for Monterey with her escorts was to write a note of her own to Diego and leave it in the drawer of the table in the secret room, telling Bernardo to have Diego look there as soon as he could after his arrival.

The next morning, Ania set off in an enclosed carriage. It would be much easier to hide the money on the return trip with an enclosed carriage, so Ania, for once, traveled as a lady usually did, complete with lady's maid. However, nothing said that she had to use a carriage to get around once she arrived at Monterey. Ventura was tied securely to the rear of the carriage and Ania's riding habits packed. Only Rosita knew that under the sash of her travel dress, Ania also wore her stilettos. She felt prepared for anything. She just hoped that her business did not take long to conduct. She frowned as she looked at the distant mountains from the window. Diego will have been home nearly three weeks before I can get back here. Then she smiled. Well, at least, he will be home when I return. The waiting will be over.

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Diego flexed his shoulder experimentally a few times and grunted in satisfaction. There was still a twinge when he moved it certain ways, but not enough to hinder his use of it anymore. His strength, too, seemed to be nearly fully recovered, not that he let that be seen by the people here. Over the days since he had come here, he had slowly lightened the color of the ointment that Ania had given him to fake the bruises, so that they seemed to fade as part of the natural healing process. He still allowed himself to be bandaged in such a way that he appeared to be braced for his collarbone to heal and continued using the sling, although it was no longer needed. He intended to keep on doing this and using a cane to "steady himself" for some time after he returned home. Given a few days to hone his fighting skills and be sure his stamina for fencing was as it needed to be, he meant to begin riding once again as Zorro as soon as possible. It would be handy to still be seen as something of an invalid when Zorro made his presence felt. At a sound at the door, he immediately sat on the edge of the bed and cradled his arm. He relaxed as his father entered. However, in a moment, he realized that his father was concerned about something.

"Father, what has happened?" he asked.

"Diego, do you remember the two new lancers that Rodríguez added to the troop a few months ago?" Don Alejandro asked with a frown.

"Sí, a Private Rómez and a Private Sánchez, I believe," Diego answered. "Why?"

"Well, there is a trapper out there now, or at least that is what he says he is, but he seems to have few traps and even fewer furs with him," his father continued.

"Perhaps he is just starting out or has had bad luck. What does that have to do with the two lancers?" Diego asked, perplexed.

"Because that trapper bears an amazing resemblance to Private Sánchez," Alejandro stated with a hard look at his son.

Diego looked at his father in surprise for a moment. "This trapper is Sánchez?" Quickly he stepped to the door and eased it open just a crack. Across the clearing, he could see Emilio as he stood talking to a man dressed in buckskin. He looked closely at the man. He had gotten several close looks at Private Sánchez in the past. In fact, unless he was mistaken, Sánchez was the lancer he had pushed back into the men behind him, as Zorro had been dashing for the rope during Manolito's rescue the night he had been shot. "I am afraid you are right, Father. That is either Sánchez or his double," he said quietly.

"What would Sánchez be doing here and pretending to be someone else, at that?" Alejandro said worriedly.

Diego thought before answering. "Ania said that Rodríguez had a list with only a few names on it of people who were 'suddenly on trips' as she phrased it. He was keeping track of just who disappeared at about the same time Zorro was shot. Perhaps Rodríguez is checking on the whereabouts of all the men on that list when it is known where they are suppose to be. Unfortunately, Ania's escapade the other night must not have totally convinced Rodríguez that it was the real Zorro. Bernardo would have had just about enough time to get home and the information spread about my accident and where we could be found." He thought again. "I do not think that this means that he is any more suspicious of me than the others, but it can only help our cause to put on a good front for him."

A few minutes later, Marta knocked and entered to begin cooking the noon meal. She found the young hacendado, fully dressed with his arm in the sling and cane by his side, reclining on his bed. "Buenos dias, Don Diego," she said with a smile. "How are you today?"

"Ah, buenos dias, Marta," Diego replied with a sigh. "I think I am a bit better today, if I just was not still so tired. I suppose it will take time."

"I imagine that is true, señor," the señora answered. Marta looked at him as she began her work. He had regained his color since coming here, and in the three weeks she understood it had been since his accident, he should have recovered most of his strength. Hmp! she thought to herself. Either his injuries were much more serious than they appeared, or he is the laziest man I have ever seen. If Emilio slept as late as he, we would have starved long ago. "Perhaps if you take a stroll outside, Don Diego, it would help you build your strength," she said aloud.

"You might be right, Marta," Diego said as he pulled himself to his feet and leaned on his cane. "I think I will do that right now. Oh, by the way, I believe my father mentioned another traveler had come. Is that so?"

"Oh, sí, he is a trapper, a Señor Goméz," Marta said. "He has just asked to camp in the clearing down by the river long enough to eat and rest a bit. Then he will be on his way."

"Well, I think I shall go and talk to this trapper. Wildlife is an interest of mine. Perhaps he can tell me something I do not know," Diego stated. Marta watched him as he walked out the door and shook her head.

Leaning heavily on his cane, Diego slowly made his way over to the small campsite where his father already sat talking with Señor Goméz. "Hola again, Father. Buenos dias, señor," he said as he walked up. "It was such a nice day outside, I decided that I might walk for a bit...at least, until I weary of it." He allowed himself to drop somewhat awkwardly onto a small boulder not far from Goméz's campfire.

"Diego, if you would push yourself just a bit more, you might be surprised to see how much more you can do," Alejandro said with a frown.

"Oh, but Father, I think the body tells us what we need to do. I'm sure I will eventually begin feeling like myself. Patience is often the best thing, I have heard. I'm sure you would not wish me to irritate any of the injuries at this point," Diego looked at Goméz. "Do you not think so, Señor Goméz?"

Goméz merely grunted noncommittally. "Your father was just telling me of your accident, Don Diego," he said. "What were you doing in the mountains in the first place? That is no place for the careless or unwise."

"Well, I do not think I was unwise. I suppose I might have been a bit careless since I am not the most graceful of men sometimes. I had been reading about the mating and nesting habits of the eagles that are found in our beautiful area. Do you know, señor, that eagles mate for life? Why, that makes them more faithful creatures than some people!" Diego paused to give him a somewhat surprised look.

"Uh, I suppose you might be right," Goméz mumbled noncommittally again. "I know only a little about birds. I have no use for them since they do not have fur."

"I suppose not. Nasty business, trapping, but without it I suppose we would not have furs and skins that are needed. Frankly, I am glad I do not involve myself in that part of running the rancho. I would prefer to study animals rather than butcher them myself," Diego said. He ignored his father's frown as Alejandro walked a bit away as if aggravated with his son.

Goméz gave him a funny look, "How did you come to have your accident, señor?"

"Well, I was carefully watching a nest. Both parents were there for a while. From our observations, we knew that the female had laid eggs already. In fact, I had hoped they might even be close to hatching," Diego continued. "I saw the male fly off, and decided that I would climb up and look. I thought the female had already left as well. Unfortunately, I was mistaken."

"You forgot to watch for the female?" Goméz appeared surprised at so glaring an error of judgment.

"Well, yes, I am afraid so. As she flew down on me, I stepped backwards," Diego said, an expression of embarrassment filling his face. "Unfortunately, the path was not quite as wide as my step was."

"I see," Goméz said.

"You know, Señor Goméz, animals are fascinating. Perhaps I should study them rather than eagles. I had a professor in Spain who said that anyone can learn much about life just by observing animals and the way they get along." Diego appeared lost in thought for a moment. "The bear, now he represents the person who depends on brute strength to get along in life. Many people do that. It does not take a lot of thought there. The snake, not surprisingly, represents trickery." From here, Diego dove into further examples with explanations of the professor's philosophy along the way. Diego hid a smile. Not far into his lecture, Goméz's eyes all but glazed over. There did not seem to be much danger of this one thinking he was capable of being the forceful Zorro. I might have a bit of fun with this one, he thought.

"But do you know the one he said was the one he believed most people should imitate?" Diego asked seriously.

"No, I cannot imagine, Señor de la Vega," Goméz admitted. "But I am sure you will tell me."

"The fox!" Diego exclaimed. "He claimed it was quite the cleverest animal in the world. Have you caught very many in your traps, señor?"

"No, I catch more minks and beaver really," Goméz answered.

"Señor, I am not at all surprised! You know, he even credited the fox with being able to think better than other animals and to think ahead to outsmart his enemies. Well, I would not know, not hunting them and all, but he swears that the fox can hide out in the open with just the barest of forethought. He says that he has seen hunting dogs all but driven loco as the fox led them in circles for half the night. Why, señor, you could be looking right at the old fox and not even see him!" Diego nodded as if this were absolutely true.

"That might be so, Don Diego. I really do not know," Goméz began looking around and gathering up his camping gear. "That is all very interesting, but I really need to be going. I want to get a great deal farther up in the mountains before nightfall."

Diego's instincts told him that this man was no longer a threat. He seemed to have accepted the story totally. By the expression on his face, all Goméz wanted to do was escape further lectures. He clearly could see Diego as no more that a bookish weakling, without even backbone enough to shoulder responsibilities as the heir to a large rancho.

Father and son stood and walked slowly back toward the cabin. Alejandro frowned at the amused expression Diego had allowed his father to see as they watched the trapper walk down the path, away from the mountains. Apparently, the man did not even think they would notice that. No doubt, he would have been more careful had he had any suspicions.

"Diego," Alejandro began with a shake of his head.

"Yes, Father?" Diego looked at him with a smile.

"Do not do anything like that again. At least, the next time you intend to, warn me and I will be elsewhere. That is entirely too nerve-racking for me." He shook his head again.

Diego grinned. "All right, Father. I promise never to do it more than I must." Then, he laughed aloud, realizing that he had accidentally used almost Ania's very words to answer his father. He was quiet a moment, his face thoughtful. "Father, I think I am suddenly going to feel a great deal better in the morning, for our hosts' benefit." He thought of Rodríguez's mischief, and more importantly, he thought of Ania. "I think it is time I was going home. I have been away too long."

 

 

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