Anvil of Iron
Capitán Rodríguez sat stoically in the meeting, listening to a discussion in which he had very little interest. The speaker was the comandante of the new garrison of lancers to be stationed at the territorial prison. He would rather have kept the workers who were the topic of discussion in his own area to use. There was surely no profit for him to send workers who could have been used in Los Ángeles, to San Juan Capistrano. And now, having to come here to San Juan Capistrano for this meeting rankled him even more. However, orders were orders.
He tried not to fidget so that he gave the impression of polite attention. In truth, he was sorely irritated to be called away from his post for such a matter, and bored by further discussion of methods of supply and shared duties if severe problems arose in any of the surrounding districts. There were far more important matters on which he could have been spending his time. The slow acquisition of lands that might control water supplies was one. Rodríguez allowed himself a small smile as he thought of that. He was pleased that the dons in the area seemed to be oblivious to all he had done thus far.
He remembered an odd thing that he had once read in a book of science. A frog, if put in cold water and put over a slow fire, would warm up so slowly that he would not realize the danger he was in until he was cooked to death. He would not even attempt to leap out of harm's way. That was just how the dons were. As long as he took no direct action against the large landowners and only seized the land of a few peons, no one was apt to realize until too late that the "government" would own a large part of all the water sources. Then he would build dams and declare that the king was requiring a "usage tax" of all who used water originating from government owned lands. Taxes that would, in large part, find their way into his own pocket. But it must be accomplished slowly and carefully. No use in alarming the "frog" prematurely.
Rodríguez came out of his reverie to the relieved realization that the windbag had finally concluded his comments. With a final reminder that prisoner labor would be a use of resources much appreciated by his Majesty, the speaker thanked the other military men for coming and bid them a safe trip back to their posts. After a few insincere comments to the speaker about the significance of the information he had been given, Rodríguez found himself at last out the door. Deciding to get some refreshment before starting the long ride back to Los Ángeles, he went to a nearby tavern.
He casually gestured for the barmaid to bring him wine and watched
silently as the wine was poured. It had occurred to him it would be a long
time before he could realize any "taxes" from this new venture.
He frowned as he drained his glass and started to signal again to the
woman to refill it. However,
at that moment, a tall, broad shouldered man walked over and set down his
own glass and a nearly full bottle of wine on Rodriguez' table.
"Perdonamé, Capitán," the stranger said with a slight bow. "Would you mind if I join you at your table?"
"Do I know you, señor?" Rodríguez said as he narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
"No, but I think you might find what I say interesting," the man said quietly.
Rodríguez eyed him silently for a moment. "Very well, señor. Have a seat. Now, what business do you have with me?" he finally said.
The stranger unhurriedly seated himself and took the time to light a cigar before turning and offering one to Rodríguez. Rodríguez shook his head and waved the cigar case away as he impatiently watched the man.
"I just thought a man such as you seem to be, señor, might like to make a bit of money on the side. I hear that as gracious as his Majesty is, his soldiers at arms are often poorly paid." The man leaned back and insolently exhaled a cloud of smoke.
"What is that to you, señor?" Rodríguez asked. "Who are you anyway?"
"My name is Vásquez, Carlos Vásquez." The older man squinted his eyes through his own cloud of smoke.
"I repeat, Señor Vásquez, what is that to you?" Rodríguez tensed, wondering what this scoundrel was up to.
"I could not help but notice that you were at the head of an escort of men being taken into the labor camp for the government construction," the stranger said, for the moment ignoring Rodríguez's first question. "A dozen men in that group, I believe. I do not suppose that the government pays you anything for each man you bring here, do they?" Vásquez raised a bushy dark eyebrow questioningly.
"I do not think I care for our conversation, señor," Rodríguez rose as if to walk away.
"You could have made nearly a thousand pesos on that lot, Capitán," the man continued quietly.
Rodríguez stopped in his tracks. "What do you mean, Vásquez?" he asked.
The older man merely removed his cigar from his mouth and silently examined it.
Rodríguez glanced around the room, and, seeing no one who would know him, walked back to his seat. He sank silently into his chair and waited for Vásquez to continue.
"I supply labor to certain mining interests in California, and also in Mexico, Señor...?" He looked up inquiringly.
"Rodríguez," the capitán supplied.
"Señor Rodríguez. I am always on the lookout for supplies of new workers. The ones I deliver have a way of, shall we say, wearing out rather quickly." Vásquez paused for a moment. "A business deal might help both of us, Capitán Rodríguez."
"What would I tell my superiors, Señor Vásquez?" Rodríguez muttered.
"That, mi amigo, would be your problem. Where is it that you hail from, Capitán?" the labor contractor inquired.
"Los Ángeles," Rodríguez replied, his mind already on the possibilities for making a profit. He was surprised when Vásquez suddenly shook his head and began to rise from the table.
"Oh, then I am sorry to have taken up your time. Perhaps if you are ever stationed somewhere else, you can think of my offer," Vásquez stated.
"Wait," the comandante exclaimed. "What is wrong with me being from Los Ángeles? My peons will work as well as anyone!" He reached out and stopped the businessman from leaving the table.
Vásquez looked at him as he sat back down. "I can tell you in one word, Capitán: Zorro!"
"What has Zorro got to do with me supplying you with workers?" Rodríguez asked.
"Let us just say the man has cost me money on a similar deal before," Vásquez explained.
"Suppose I could keep Zorro from being a problem. I can assure you that I shall very soon capture him and put him to death!" Rodríguez boasted.
The labor contractor threw back his head and laughed. "You and how many armies, Capitán? The lancers stationed there have hardly been what one would call successful. You are merely the latest in a long line of comandantes who proudly stated that intention at the beginning of their tour of duty in Los Ángeles. Some of those left California in chains, while others were buried here, Capitán. Whatever, all have failed at capturing the Fox, señor. What makes you think you are different, Capitán Rodríguez?"
"Perhaps others have not been as determined as I. Regardless, Señor Vásquez, what if I could guarantee delivery to you?" Rodríguez set his jaw stubbornly.
Vásquez looked at Rodríguez solemnly for a moment. "Are you prepared to pay a big price if you do not? The last men from the Los Ángeles area who told me that took the place of the workers they failed to deliver."
"What do I have to lose, señor? After all, I will not be the one delivering them to you personally." Rodríguez smiled coldly.
Vásquez blew out a cloud of smoke and laughed again. "Señor, you are a man after my own heart. To the success of our "business", Comandante Rodríguez!" He raised his glass in a toast. Without hesitation, Rodríguez raised his glass as well.
Diego smiled as he noticed Ania unconsciously reining Ventura back to remain beside him as he rode Paseo. There were so many little things that she seemed to do lately that betrayed her feelings. No doubt she thought she still hid it well, and perhaps to others, she did. Surely, nothing had been said verbally, and she was usually very careful to act before others as though they were no more than friends. However, he was no longer unaware of the effect he had on her, if he ever had been. She was even making a very determined effort to be civil to Rodríguez because he had asked her to. He doubted seriously that she would have been willing to do that for anyone else. Seeing how she felt about him filled him with a happiness that was hard to hide.
He realized that Ania was not the only one whose behavior might give away their feelings if they were examined closely. Hardly a day passed anymore that he did not seem to find some reason to ride out to Ania's rancho during the mid-day. He could not always be sure of being around each night when she was home, and, even when he was, the time between one night when he saw her and the next was becoming entirely too long. He had begun taking every opportunity to ride with her, either into the pueblo or, at rare times, on moonlight rides. At Rancho Valdéz, he often took a simple noon meal with her and her workers, and walked or sat with her during siesta time. If he came later, he went about with her as she went from one job to another. Sometimes it amazed him that she had taken so naturally to running a rancho and having workers look to her for help as well as direction in their tasks. He felt a pride as he watched her and saw the respect and trust those working for her had in her. He chuckled aloud at the thought. It was not as if he had anything to do with making her as she was and yet the pride was there.
Ania looked around, amused curiosity in her eyes. "What is so funny, Diego?" she asked.
"Oh, nothing. I was just thinking what a pleasant day this is for a ride," he said, sidestepping the question. “Why, even Bernardo seems to be enjoying the trip today, “ he commented.
Ania turned slightly in the saddle to glance at the mozo, whose presence generally kept tongues from wagging over the time she and Diego spent together. She smiled as Bernardo grinned at her. She laughed aloud as his horse appeared to nod its head, almost as if agreeing with Diego’s assessment of the day. Looking back at the young caballero, her green eyes seemed brighter in the sun's glow. But then, perhaps it was more a glow from within that lit up her eyes. "Yes, this is a wonderful day for riding like this. However, it is getting warmer. I am sure the horses would appreciate a brief rest and a drink of water. What do you say we stop at that grove of trees at the edge of the ford ahead and give them a rest? I always love walking there, anyway."
"That sounds good," he said, smiling broadly.
Ania smiled back, still with a somewhat puzzled look in her eyes. Diego seemed to be in an odd, if obviously happy, mood today. She mentally shrugged. She realized that, whatever his mood, she enjoyed being with him.
As they dismounted under the trees, Bernardo took all the horses on down to the water's edge. Ania and Diego walked in the shade along the riverbank and talked.
The sight and sound of moving water were among the few things that Ania missed from West Florida and this spot along the river was a favorite stop for her on the way into Los Ángeles. She sighed as she paused for a moment to lean against a tree to look out over the rapids. This riverbank and the creek on Rancho Valdéz sometimes felt like links to her childhood. She stood thoughtfully watching a bird dive into the water after its food. It was very similar to the kingfishers of West Florida and seeing it brought back memories of playing and even swimming in the bayous running through their plantation. She began to laugh softly as she remembered the trouble she and her brothers had often gotten into.
"Looking at the water like this makes me almost wish it were deep enough to swim in," she said as she looked back at Diego, with a smile.
"Oh, you can swim?" Diego asked. This was something he had not known about her. He doubted that many of the women in the area could do so. It was a skill rarely needed in this arid region. "How did you learn? I mean, skirts would have a tendency to pull you down, would they not?"
Ania's face took on that mischievous look that he had come to love. "Who said anything about having skirts to get in the way?"
Diego looked at her in amused shock. "You can not mean...!" he exclaimed.
Ania's rich laugh rang out as she looked at his face. "Well, I was not quite that bold. I did keep my chemise on! But, I will admit that I invited a great deal of embarrassment in the name of keeping up with my brothers and, yes, if you are wondering, Luisa and my father skinned me alive whenever they discovered what I had done. However, I would go to almost any length to compete with my brothers. That competitiveness almost got me eaten by an alligator once."
"Why would you swim anywhere there were alligators?" Diego asked.
"Diego, I had never seen fresh water where the beasts did not live until I went to Spain," Ania explained. "If we were to swim, then the alligators came with the territory."
"Let me guess. You did this on a dare," Diego ventured.
"Oh, you are beginning to know me too well," Ania laughed. "I shall become a bore if I become predictable."
He merely smiled and shook his head. He was beginning to feel that she was predictable only in doing the unexpected and boring was a word that would never apply.
“We usually kept a watch for the alligators, but this day, Juan and I must have been too busy teasing each other to notice. We got careless. Juan had just swum to a small island in the middle of the bayou. I was making my usual comments about his being passed by a turtle or some such nonsense. Anyway, he said that I could not even get to the island, much less do so as quickly as he. Well, that was all it took. In I went. I struck out full speed, without pacing myself. I managed to turn back at the island but I was just about tired out. Suddenly, I realized that a "log" nearby had grown eyes." She shuddered dramatically at the thought.
"And I suppose Juan had to pull you out," Diego smiled, remembering the young man he had known only briefly.
Ania laughed and shook her head. "He may have wanted to, but, no, I remember many more times that Juan and I got each other into trouble than I do where he got me out of trouble. Felipe actually dove in and helped pull me out of the water before it could get to me. Felipe seemed to always be getting me out of tight spots." Her eyes grew distant as she thought about her eldest brother.
"Felipe? I do not think I've heard you speak much of him. Tell me about him." Diego requested, mindful of the grief with which Ania had only a short time before come to grips.
"Felipe was my oldest brother, my champion and protector when I was little, and later, too, even after he went to school in Spain. He was the only one of my brothers whom I got to see when I was there with my stepmother." Ania's voice took on a wistful note. "He died following a duel when I was nineteen."
"He must have been very special to you," Diego said. He was silent for a moment. "What university did he attend? I do not suppose he was there when I was."
To his relief, Ania shook off her sadness. "As a matter of fact, I believe he might have been. He attended the University of Madrid for four years. If you had attended any fencing exhibitions during the first year or so you were there, you might actually have seen him. He won quite a few tournaments." Ania here made a series of graceful movements as if fencing. "He had some rather unique moves, I am told. He is the one who taught me all I know...well, what little I know of fencing."
Diego's mind jumped back more than six years to his first year at the university as a younger student. He remembered an upper classman who had made quite a name for himself. "Felipe Valdéz y Córdoba!" he exclaimed. "However, he was usually known as Felipe Córdoba."
"Yes, that was how he would have been known," Ania replied in surprise. "He went by my mother's family name because he was in line for a royal title, marqués, inherited in her family. Did you know him?"
"Yes, I...," Diego changed what he was going to say in midthought. "I saw him do some brilliant fencing. It just never occurred to me that there was a connection to you." Diego realized that he had come very close to saying that he had actually fenced against her brother and been narrowly beaten. He had learned a great deal in the months and years following that match and some of the knowledge had come from watching Córdoba.
"Someday I want you to tell me all you can remember of him," Ania requested.
"You can count on it," Diego said. He watched Ania thoughtfully as she walked a little distance away. A feeling had been growing in him that he should tell her more, a lot more and not just about her brother. He longed to take her in his arms and kiss her, confessing what was in his heart. In the last couple of weeks, he had begun to actually believe that Rodríguez had turned his attention away from Ania. With Ania being more circumspect in her dealings with him, he felt a real hope that the danger had passed. If it was, well, that opened up a lot of possibilities. He remembered what his father had said about the strength there would be in a woman who could accept him, and his responsibilities, as he was. Diego smiled as he watched Ania. The more time he spent with her, the more sure he was that his father had been right about this. He knew what he saw when Ania looked at him as Diego and, happily, in recent weeks he had seen the same look in her eyes as she looked at him as Zorro. He wondered if she was concerned or confused as to what she could be feeling for him and for this rogue, Zorro. His smile deepened as he decided that perhaps the time had finally come to take her into his confidence, to clear up her confusion.
"Ania, come here," he said suddenly, in a surprisingly earnest tone.
Ania looked back at him, slightly puzzled. There was a note of seriousness that had not been there a moment before and she was unsure what had prompted it. She grinned mischievously, "Is that an order, señor?" She cocked her head teasingly.
Diego, laughing, reached out and caught her hand, pulling her back to his side. "Mujer, will you be headstrong with me?"
Ania's eyes shone with mischief, "Oh, I am afraid so, Señor de la Vega! Would you have me change?"
"Never!" he answered fervently. He pulled her into his arms, intending to kiss her.
Suddenly, a sound only slightly behind them intruded on the scene. Glancing back, they saw Bernardo leading the three horses toward them. He was studiously pretending to study the treetops above them, but it was not hard to guess that he realized what he had interrupted.
Ania tried to suppress a laugh. "Oh, Diego! You really must work on your timing of these things!" Slowly, reluctantly, she stepped back away from him.
He tried to hold an indignant expression on his face for a moment. "My timing?" he managed to get out before joining her in laughter.
"What was it you wanted, anyway?" Ania finally said.
Diego smiled ruefully as he shook his head. "Nothing that can not wait until later."
As Diego took his reins from his manservant, he cast him a slight scowl. "There is nothing wrong with my timing," he muttered just loud enough for Bernardo to hear. "But you, my friend, sorely need to better yours!"
Bernardo shrugged apologetically and was relieved as his patrón smiled, showing no real anger.
They continued on into Los Ángeles, the horses prancing and tossing their heads, reacting to their riders' high spirits.