Anvil of Iron
As Ania opened the sala door, she was not surprised to see Diego de la Vega already sitting before the fireplace. In his hands, he held a book of some sort. He appeared carefree and comfortable, for all the world as if he had done nothing but relax in this room all evening. He looked up and smiled as Ania walked in. "Ah, Ania! It is good to have you home. How has your day gone?" he asked.
"It has been a most interesting day," Ania replied, deliberately using a phrase that Zorro had used when talking with her before. Much as she wished to, she had decided not to let Diego know that she knew Zorro's identity. Ania wasn't sure how Diego would react when he did realize it. Nor was she sure she was ready to find out why he hadn't trusted her enough yet to tell her the truth.
Inwardly, Ania sighed. She supposed Diego had his reasons. Patience, they say, is a virtue. Unfortunately, it was one that Ania had to work very hard at learning in this particular instance. Seeing the warm look in his eyes as he smiled at her and knowing her own heart did not make the game any easier, but play the game she would as long as Diego seemed to wish it. She would tell the events just as if he did not already know of them.
Showing the excitement she had felt as she caught a glimpse of Zorro in action, and for once, not being in the thick of things herself, she launched into a spirited telling of what she and Pepe had seen in the pueblo. She loved the pleased expression that came into his eyes when she told of Pepe's deliberate misleading of Sergeant García and the lancers. She had seen that expression before in an unguarded moment when, in the pueblo, they had observed a group of children playing a game called "Fox and Coyote". These glimpses of how the common people loved him must mean a great deal, especially in view of the steady rise of the bounty on Zorro's head.
When she had come to California, his wanted posters had declared 2000 pesos as the bounty. Rodríguez had recently raised that to 2500 pesos. Many peons were struggling under terrible conditions now. The amount of the bounty must have sounded like a king's ransom to many of them. Yet Ania found it hard to believe there were more than a handful of peons in all Alta California who would have taken even twice that much to betray him, if there had been any with such knowledge to sell. Those who might be tempted to do so had their own reasons for wishing to rid themselves of the Fox, for he did not reserve his sword or his warnings for those unjust government officials who threatened his people. Many a common bandido had found themselves sitting in the cuartel after an encounter with Los Ángeles' Dark Ángel.
The landed upper class, the hidalgos and hacendados, were somewhat different. While most did not view him as the outlaw the government had branded him, many did not know quite what to make of a vigilante who defended peons as vigorously as he did the upper class. They would probably have been even more puzzled at this were they ever to learn that Zorro was himself the heir to one of the richest haciendas in all of California. Most of the rich would occasionally go out of their way to help their own workers. However, in general, the landed class was indifferent to injustices as long as those injustices happened to peons or merchants. Zorro's motives were a complete puzzle to these people.
Diego laughed with her over the events of the evening. "However, Ania," he said as she paused in her narrative, "you really should not encourage the child to lie."
"Encourage? Believe me, that one needed no encouragement. I merely was my usual sweet self when asked which way Zorro had gone," Ania here gave an exaggerated version of her earlier smile to demonstrate, "and held my peace. Suddenly, Pepe pops up with this innocent act of his. I do wish you could have heard him, Diego. That rascal sounded as innocent as an ángel with newly earned wings and halo. Not even Rodríguez doubted that Zorro had truly ridden off in just the direction indicated by this ángel."
"Rodríguez himself was with the lancers?" Diego asked, a sudden concern filling his eyes.
"Why, yes," Ania replied, not quite understanding his concern.
"And were you your usual sweet self with him as well?" Diego cocked a dark eyebrow and looked at her intently.
Ania smiled and tried to look innocent. "Am I not always, Diego?" she said.
Diego propped his head lightly on his hand and looked at her doubtfully. "Ania?" he said in that certain tone which meant that he wanted no dissimulation between them.
"Well, I guess you could say I managed to get my jabs in as usual," she finally admitted, with a stubborn look. They had had this discussion before and she did not like where it was leading.
The look of happiness faded a bit as worry took its place. Diego sighed and, rising, came to stand by her side before the mantel. It always bothered Ania when Diego looked at her that way, and she looked away as if watching the fire.
"Ania, I wish you would use more caution with that man," he said seriously. "If you are right in your beliefs, Rodríguez nearly had you killed at least three times. Were it not for Zorro's intervention, you might not be here now." Diego's eyes were troubled as he spoke of that possibility.
"But Rodríguez would not try anything like that again," Ania stated as she watched the fire. "If what Sergeant García told us is so, he would not dare. Zorro has seen to that."
Diego shook his head at her comment. "How do you know that is why Zorro paid that visit to Rodríguez? Perhaps it was on another matter entirely."
"I think it is quite logical to think that was the reason. Why should the two occurrences have happened immediately following each other otherwise?" Ania insisted. "Also, nothing alarming has happened since then. I doubt that is coincidental."
"At any rate, how can you be sure that Rodríguez will continue to have learned his lesson, if he has, especially if you continually irritate him," Diego insisted.
Ania still could not meet his eyes. Oddly, he was the only person Ania could ever remember to have affected her like this. She knew that if she met his eyes her composure and resolve would melt like snow in rain.
"Diego, how else can I react to him? After what he has done, how can I let him go with nothing? It is little enough that I can do. If only I had the skill my brothers had! Were I able to exchange words for a sword and the skill to use it on him, I would, but I cannot. For what he has done, he deserves hell, yet you tell me that I am to not even use words to make him regret ever hearing the Valdéz name. Am I to just forget, Diego? How can you ask me to do that?" Strengthened with anger, Ania finally looked up from the fire. The expression in his eyes made her look away again.
"Ania...Ania, look at me!" he insisted. Reaching out, he took hold of her arm and with the other hand, raised her chin until she had to meet his worried gaze. "I never want to see you in the kind of danger that you went through ever again. If holding your tongue and that Valdéz temper will help keep you safe, yes, that is what I want you to do. That does not mean forgiving or forgetting what the man may have done. We will continue to watch Rodríguez. Someday he will overstep and expose what he truly is. Then the government, or Zorro, can handle things with him. Until then, promise me that you will try to bridle that fiery tongue and wit of yours, at least in Rodríguez's case. Only try...for me?" Diego said solemnly.
As she knew it would, Ania's resolve and anger faded. She could see something that touched her and frightened her at the same time. There was more than concern in what he said. He seemed to truly fear for her. Fear in him, for any reason, was something she could not imagine.
"All right. If you feel so strongly about it, I will try," she said quietly. "I promise to try, but I can not say that it will be easy."
"That is all I ask," Diego smiled, a look of relief in his eyes. "I know you, Ania. If you set out to do something, then that is what you will do. It will make me feel much better about you. Just remember, even Zorro cannot always be around every time he is needed."
Ania nodded and would have said more. However, at this moment, Don Alejandro entered the sala.
Diego dropped one hand to his side and the other lightly rested on the mantel. "Buenas tardes, Father," he said as they both turned toward the older man. "How was Don Hernándo today?"
"Buenas tardes, Ania...Diego. As cross and stubborn as ever! I am not sure if he will live to be a hundred because he is too stubborn to die, or if he will make everyone feel like it has been a hundred years having to put up with him," Don Alejandro grumbled.
"Beat you at cards again, did he?" Diego tried to put suppress a chuckle. "And I suppose you had to disagree with him over every hand."
"Hah! Can I help it if the man makes up his own rules as he goes along?" his father grumbled.
"As far as being stubborn...well..." Diego finally broke into a wide grin.
"All right! All right!" Don Alejandro dismissed his comments with a wave of his hand and a mildly irritated frown. "Since you seem to know so much of what my visit was like, we will drop that for now."
Ania smiled as she watched the two men together. The affection they clearly had for each other often brought back memories of watching her father and brothers together.
"Well, did you two, at least, get to talk about the problems we have noted between Rodriquez and the peons in the area?" Diego asked.
"Yes, we talked of it. However, the man seems to be totally unaware of anything unusual. It is my guess that something would have to happen right under his very nose and he would still not pay attention to it as long as it did not involve his family or the hacendados of the area." Don Alejandro shook his head. "He is like too many others, blind to anything happening to others around him."
Ania spoke up for the first time. "How can they not see what is happening? Why, just among my workers alone I have two families who have relatives living with them because the relatives' land has been confiscated. And to make matters worse, the men arrested have been sent to that government work site out beyond San Juan Capistrano."
"Where they are building the prison complex and road?" Diego asked.
"Sí, it is no more than government slavery," Ania said indignantly.
"Well, it is their right to do that, Ania. When a tax is not paid, the government can require labor to offset the loss of the revenue. One can hardly call that slavery," Diego reminded her.
"Well, it sounds awfully close to it to me," Ania insisted. "The men were forcibly taken from their land in most cases. Also, remember, we're not talking about a huge sum here. These were more like small farms than ranchos. Of course, Rodríguez had raised the taxes on them quite a bit. Still, to take a man's freedom just because he has no money to pay a tax and force his family to rely totally on the charity of neighbors little better off than themselves is too much,"
"That is a somewhat unusual attitude for someone from West Florida, considering the slaves being bought and sold there," Diego said. They had debated this issue before. Their opinions differed on this issue, perhaps due to differing circumstances in the two Spanish colonies in which they had grown up.
"That is different, Diego," Ania declared, as usual. “No slave owner would take everything from his people and then leave them to starve. Very few slave owners mistreat their slaves, Diego, regardless of what you’ve heard.”
"Why would you see the situation as all that different? Because their skin color is different?" he countered.
"Of course not! You must remember that the people who worked on our land were originally heathens. It is better, by far, that they be in a place where they can be taught about God and the Church. Papa and I were very careful that that be done for our people," Ania explained.
"Oh, and that couldn't have been done in their own lands?" he challenged.
"Not as completely as it needed to be," she insisted. "And at any rate, Papa was allowing them to pay back their price as indentured servants, just as soon as they showed that they were hard workers. After all, those that could not work well enough to take care of themselves needed to be taken care of. That seems perfectly logical to me. Even the lazy ones were given food, clothing and a place to live. I dare say they were happy enough. We had very few runaways from our plantation," Ania reasoned.
"I guess you are saying that these people had the good fortune to be brought thousands of miles to work the land, yes?" Diego paraphrased.
"Well, I guess you could say that we lacked the indigenous people that many Alta Californians have exploited," Ania said as she raised an eyebrow. “Our slaves often had more than some of the Indians have been left with here and the Indians often have to work as hard or harder than our slaves ever did.”
"Touché," Diego said ruefully. "Although I'm still not sure one is as bad as the other."
Ania merely shrugged. Usually she fared a bit better in her debates with Diego, but tonight she was not as articulate as usual. Her mind was still on Rodríguez and the seizing of the land.
"I think it would be best to keep an eye on what Rodríguez is doing here," she said returning to the original subject. "I think he is up to his old tricks, taking land for his own purposes."
"Why would you say that, Ania?" Don Alejandro inquired. "As you said, these are not large holdings. Unlike others who came before him, other than raising everyone's taxes, he has left the larger haciendas alone."
"I guess it is just a feeling that I have," Ania said uncertainly. "I truly cannot see many ways, other than size and the lack of importance of the owners, that the lands are alike. They all have some water flowing through them but with almost all of them, the streams are just that, streams. Many are near the headwaters of the little streams. The quality of the land varies from place to place and what is being raised is often different as well." She shook her head, "I don't know. Maybe this feeling is just experience speaking. Maybe I think he is up to something because I can't imagine him not being up to something."
Ania was once again gazing into the fire. She did not see the glance that passed between Diego and his father.
"Well," she said, after a minute, "I really should go change and get cleaned up for supper, if we are to eat anytime before midnight. Con permiso," she said with a smile in Don Alejandro's direction and another to Diego.
Diego watched her go with a smile of his own. She seemed to move with a barely controlled energy and grace, as if she had not just spent hours riding and walking from place to place getting things done. He suddenly became aware of his father watching him with a speculative look in his eyes. "Were you about to say something, Father?" he said levelly.
"Not a thing, son. Not a thing," Don Alejandro said, unsuccessfully trying to hide a smile. "Now what do you think about the seizing of the land? I think Ania may be closer than she imagines to what is going on."
"You mean, with the headwaters being on so many of these lands?" Diego nodded. "I'm afraid so. It's possible that if he can claim the land himself, he would be able to try to control water access to the people downstream for these plots of land."
"I'm sure that he will try something like that if he can find a way to do so. He will certainly bear watching, not that he doesn't always," Alejandro commented.
"Oh, watch him, I will or, at least, Zorro will," Diego nodded meaningfully. "I still do not totally trust him to remember the warning to leave Ania alone. So far he seems to be, but his fear may wear off at some point. Perhaps he is turning his attention to other targets. Whichever target, I shall have to watch him closely."
"Well, just remember to watch out for him on your own behalf, Diego," Alejandro looked closely at him for a moment.
"Oh, I will, Father," Diego said seriously. "You need not worry there. I shall watch him like a hawk