Anvil of Iron
Zorro found it almost ridiculously easy to get into the office of the new prison building. Granted, the building was not yet complete. However, he figured it would, more than likely, still be easy to get into it even when it was finished. Guard posts and all seemed to be designed with only the idea of keeping prisoners in, not curious passersby out. Zorro smiled at the irony of that. Who but he would be contrary enough to want to break into a prison?
After riding most of the evening and part of the night, he had hidden on a rocky hillside and watched the area until he felt he knew where and how many guards there were. The layout was predictable enough that within minutes of starting to look for the office, he was leafing through records detailing when and how many men had come from each of the pueblos surrounding San Juan Capistrano. He soon found the information for which he was searching. He knew of five times when prisoners had been sent from Los Ángeles. According to the records, they had received only three of those five groups of workers. Apparently, the other two groups had gone elsewhere, probably México, based on what Manolito Mería had to say. That meant that possibly as many as twenty men had been sent to the mines already.
If it had been conducted in a legal manner, there would have been little Zorro could have done about it, distasteful though it was. However, Rodríguez had actually done him a favor. By doing it secretly and for his own enrichment, Rodríguez had left him an opening. It was just about time for Rodríguez’s partner, Vásquez, to see more than Zorro's back as he led him and his men on a wild goose chase. It was time for them to meet face to face. Perhaps Señor Vásquez could be shown that Los Ángeles was not such a good source of slaves for the mines after all. He would watch for other groups being sent out and follow them to wherever the men were being transferred.
Midmorning found him back in the vicinity of Los Ángeles and anxious to return home. Since daybreak, he had been taking more care in watching for followers and frequently stopped to watch the road ahead and behind him. Not far out of the pueblo, Zorro spotted a lone horseman riding away from town. As he got closer to his hiding place, Zorro recognized Rodríguez as the rider. Now, where is that scoundrel going and alone yet? Zorro wondered. "Well, Tornado, let us see where our greedy friend leads us?" he said as he directed the stallion on a parallel path with the rider in the distance.
Rodríguez rode onward for several miles before coming to a small adobe house. The house appeared to have been abandoned only recently. On the door was tacked a notice that the premises were now the property of the government for nonpayment of taxes.
The capitán tied his horse to a post and smirked at the sign as he walked around to the side of the house. How convenient a raise in taxes can be, he thought. He continued past the house to the base of a long rocky ridge. To the left of the rock face, there was a clear, cool spring that flowed with a pleasing babble from the ground. Yes, Rodríguez told himself, this will be easy to control not far below this point. He stood, hands on hips, with his back to the ridge.
Zorro, by his parallel path, had come to the sloping back of the ridge. Removing his cape as he looked at the bushy slope, he dismounted. Leaving Tornado ground tied, he eased up to the top until he was right above where Rodríguez stood. He then considered what he should do.
It occurred to him how much simpler things would be if not for Rodríguez. He thought of Ania and of all the harm this man had already done. He thought of the men who were probably even now in the mines in México. Retribution would be a simple matter of his fighting Rodríguez and killing him here and now. Simple? he thought. Perhaps too simple.
In the past, he had killed only when the situation demanded it. He was not sure if the situation did now. Rodríguez was no immediate threat. Zorro had as yet only a suspicion of what Rodríguez wanted with the land. He could deal with the selling of the men by confronting Vásquez, and Rodríguez's fear still seemed to be sufficient to protect Ania.
Zorro realized that he was now standing with his hand clenched around the hilt of his sword. Yes, he realized he would definitely like to get rid of this man. And that desire, in and of itself, was its own warning. Would not going into this fight with the intention of killing him still amount to murder, no matter how clearly the scoundrel deserves to die? I would be no better than he if I acted on this. Would the ends truly justify the means or would I just be doing it for my own purposes? he wondered. For my own soul, I must not do this. He forced his hands to relax and continued to watch Rodríguez as he studied the area around the spring. If it is meant to be, then the opportunity will present itself in a fair fight. Next time I will not disarm him. I will deal with the vermin as he needs to be dealt with, he vowed.
Rodríguez began to get a odd feeling, as if he were not alone. Nervously, he looked back toward the house. I must be imagining things, he thought uneasily. Suddenly there was a soft sound just above and behind him. Whirling, he caught sight of Zorro standing casually on a ledge about five feet above him. Quickly, he reached for the pistol on his belt. Even before he could level it at the outlaw, the tip of a black whip had wrapped around the gun and jerked it from his hand. As it did so, the end of the whip lashed his hand, causing it to burn like fire and leaving a dark welt. Rodríguez, nevertheless, fumbled for his sword and stood prepared to do battle. Zorro merely watched him silently.
"Planning to do some farming, Capitán Rodríguez?" Zorro finally asked quietly.
"What I do is no business of yours, outlaw," the capitán growled.
"Anything you do that affects my people concerns me," the man in black replied. His eyes were cold as he watched the soldier. He calmly propped his foot up on a boulder and rested his arm on his knee as he observed Rodríguez’s search for a way up to the top of the ridge. The ridge being undercut at this point, he found no way up without going far around to the side. He remained glaring up at Zorro.
"Come down, coward," Rodríguez challenged. "Let us finish this thing."
To the soldier's extreme irritation, the outlaw threw back his head and laughed disdainfully. "Capitán, have I not beaten you often enough?" he laughed. "Shall I take your sword and put your backside in the dust yet again?"
"Coward! Come down and fight!" Rodríguez yelled.
"Do not tempt me too much, señor, for I have already decided that the next time we duel, I will not simply relieve you of your sword, but perhaps also of your life, Rodríguez. I would not hurry our match if I were you." Zorro's voice was quiet but carried eerily in the morning air.
Something about the outlaw's eyes or manner made Rodríguez realize that this was no idle threat. The stakes in their bitter rivalry had just been raised.
"Whatever your plans for this land, Capitán, I would make sure they do not include endangering the people of the area or trying to cheat them out of their rights, water or otherwise." Zorro straightened up as he started to turn away. "You have been given fair warning, Capitán. I would take heed, if I were you." As the soldier yelled at him from below, the outlaw turned and calmly walked away. Presently, the sound of a galloping horse could be heard fading toward Los Ángeles as Rodríguez stood clutching his sword with his injured hand.
Rodríguez cursed loudly and continued to yell, "Zorro, I will be the one to win someday. You will see, you have underestimated me. Someday you will see! With your dying breath, you will see that I am more than your match!" Yet, even as he said this, much to his shame, he was filled with a sense of relief that there had been distance between them.
Ania pushed the plate back further on her desk and got up to pace the floor again. She was dying to know what had been discovered about Rodríguez's new scheme. A few minutes ago, she had heard a faint click that she had decided was the sound of a latch either opening or closing somewhere behind the wall that ran behind the head of her bed. She could always hear the click better when she was leaning against the headboard itself. She did not know yet where they were, but she was sure there were secret doors and passages in this house. She assumed that, since Diego would have to have a way to come and go as Zorro, there would be one in his room, but that could not be all. There were times she had heard him speaking downstairs, yet when she went into the sala or library, she had been unable to find him. The last few days she had not had the heart to continue her investigation. She had too much to deal with concerning Diego to be concerned about Zorro right now. However, this thing with Manolito had her worried. She wished she could just come right out and ask Diego what he found out. She thought about doing just that, and bringing the matter of his secret into the open, but realized that it might be some time before she even saw Diego. She had noticed that Diego had been gone ever since she had gotten back from Rancho Valdéz last evening. She would bet that he had gone out to investigate Manolito's story as soon as he left her at the rancho yesterday. If he had gone all the way to San Juan Capistrano and back, he would only now have been returning. That was probably what the click was that she heard. If that were so, then he would be in great need of sleep now. She really should not disturb him just for her curiosity.
There was a knock at her door. "Come," Ania called.
"It is me, Señorita Ania," Rosita said as she came in. "I thought if you were finished with your plate I would take it back for you. Oh, I see you are not through."
"No, it is all right. You may take it. I have had all that I
want," Ania said.
"You two fret over me too much. The food was good. I just..." Ania began just as a loud knock sounded on the gate downstairs. In a moment, she could hear voices. As she opened her door a crack, she recognized young Pepe's voice. There was a sound of panic to it that caused Ania to immediately open the door and walk to the banister. "Pepe, what is the matter?"
"Señorita Ania, you must come at once. My mother is very sick. Señora Inéz, she sent me to get you! Please hurry, patrona!" he begged.
"Of course, just let me get some of my things. Rosita, tell someone in the stable to saddle Ventura for me, pronto!" Ania cried.
Ania rushed back inside her room and to a large chest sitting in a corner. Flinging the lid back, Ania quickly searched the contents and found several packets of herbs that she thought she might need with Brisa. The balm and cotton plant root would be especially needed now. Señora Inéz was a local midwife. She would not have sent for Ania unless she had feared for Brisa's life. Closing the trunk, Ania quickly changed into her riding habit and hurried to join Pepe. As Ania ran down the stairs, she told the frightened boy, "You will have to ride back on your burro, Pepe. I am going to do everything I can to get there a bit faster and the less weight Ventura carries, the faster she can go."
"Sí, Señorita Ania. Whatever you say. Just hurry, please, patrona!" he said, almost stammering with fear.
Within minutes, Ania was racing toward Brisa's casa, taking every shortcut she knew of. As she rode, she tried to plan ahead to what she might need to do. She was glad that the midwife was already there, for she had never before been present at a birth. It had been another taboo in West Florida for a young, unmarried woman to be involved in the birthing process. Many people there would have been shocked at how much Luisa had taught her on the subject, but not even Luisa had crossed the line so much as to have her actually observe a birth. Even after Luisa's death, Ania had not done so. There had been several good midwives among her father's slaves and servants. Her services as a curandera had only been called for before and sometimes after the child had been born.
As she arrived at the Mería house, she recognized Señora Inéz's daughter, who was taking care of the three youngest children. The girl gave a courteous nod to Ania as she passed but otherwise did not speak.
Inside, Ania found Señora Inéz trying to encourage an obviously exhausted Brisa. "I am glad you came, Patrona," Brisa whispered as she gripped Ania's hand. “I was not sure that you would.”
"Of course I came, Brisa. Now you just rest while you can. Do not try to talk. You just concentrate on getting you and this little one off to a good start," Ania reassured her.
She immediately began boiling water over the fire to make a decoction of the cotton plant root that she had brought with her. Perhaps if the cotton root could ease her labor, Brisa could recover some of her strength between contractions and be better able to help herself as the birth approached.
Ania glanced up to find Señora Inéz frowning at her. So, she thought, I am here because Brisa wanted me, not because Inéz felt I was needed. She could feel the midwife's animosity and reminded herself to tread lightly on what Inéz felt was her territory. Perhaps it would be better if I show her that I will not try to put myself over her in this situation, she decided. “How would you have me help you, Señora Inéz? I am sure I do not have your knowledge, but you will find I have two willing hands. I have brought all the herbs I thought might help Brisa, but surely there are other things that need doing.”
“Humph!” the older woman began before grudgingly accepting her help. “Well, Brisa seemed to feel that you would want to help her, so do just that. If I need your help, I will tell you, señorita.” While that did not sound overly friendly, it was a start. Ania quickly busied herself responding to the young mother's needs and the midwife's demands. Soon she lost all track of time.
Suddenly, Ania became aware of another figure in the doorway of the room. Turning, she was surprised to see Manolito standing looking at his wife with tears in his eyes.
"Manolito!" she exclaimed before she could stop herself. "You should not be here!"
"How could I leave Brisa as ill as she has been, patrona?" he said as he brushed past her. When Brisa moaned his name he knelt at his wife's bedside and tenderly brushed the damp hair from her forehead. "Once she is safely past this, then I will worry about myself," he continued.
“You should not have come back, Mano. You should have stayed hidden. Ohhh...,” Brisa’s voice trailed away into a moan and she gripped her husband’s hand tightly in desperation.
“Hush. Hush. Save your strength, mi amor, “ Manolita admonished her. “We may never have a lot, but I know that I have a treasure right here. Where else do you think I would be? My heart is here, so here I will be, too. It will be all right.”
Ania was touched by the couple’s devotion and had to blink back tears of sympathy before exchanging looks with Señora Inéz. She saw that the midwife looked as nervous over the situation as she did.
Pepe stood just inside the doorway, looking very much at loose ends as to what he should or could do right now. Ania's heart went out to him. She knew it would be best to give the young boy something useful to do. Manolito's presence suggested a job that could help keep his mind off his mother's danger just now.
"Pepe, you did a good job coming for me," she began as she laid her hand on his shoulder and smiled.
Pepe's eyes looked tired and frightened when he looked up at her. "It is all right for my papá to be here, is it not, Señorita Ania? He will be safe here for a while, will he not? I did right to bring him here?"
"Perhaps, Pepe," Ania replied, "and you can help him even more by going out to the little rise to the left of the path there. Watch for any sign that you might have been seen and followed. Come warn him the minute you see anything suspicious."
"Sí, patrona. I can do that!" The young boy seemed relieved to have found another job to do. Ania could imagine how helpless he was feeling now.
"Good, Pepe. I am sure your parents know they can depend on you." Ania smiled gently at him. As Pepe dashed back out the door, Ania returned to Brisa's side.
Just over an hour later, Manolito sat and held his tiny child. Brisa slept the sleep of the exhausted, but otherwise seemed to have been stronger than they had feared. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the young mother would live. It was difficult to tell whether the little premature infant would or not. So far the little girl seemed to be determined to hang on to this world.
As Manolito sat and marveled at this little one scarcely larger than his big work toughened hands, Ania and Señora Inéz quietly discussed things that might be done to help Brisa and the infant.
“Perhaps I should stay with Brisa tonight, señora,” Ania suggested quietly. “She seems to be safe for now, but no doubt, she is going to be quite weak for a while.”
She was surprise when the midwife raised her head proudly and declared, “I am quite capable of caring for her.”
“Sí, I am certain of that. I was not suggesting otherwise,”
Ania quickly assured her. Hmmm, I see that hacendados are not the only
ones who have their pride, she thought. She looked away, allowing her
irritation at the woman’s attitude to dissipate. As Luisa would have
reminded her, this was not the time for her to allow class differences to
cause friction either. Their cooperation was needed for Brisa’s sake.
Then she smiled ruefully, remembering just how quick Luisa had always been
to put her in her place whenever she had made a mistake while she was
learning how to help others from her. It had almost been as if their
stations in life had been reversed in such situations, as well it should,
since she had been the learner and Luisa the teacher. I suppose,
she reminded herself, that there are times when class does not have a
lot to do with it. “I have brought a large packet of dried milkwort.
It has been dry for over a year, but I think it will still help Brisa feed
her baby. Hopefully in a day or two, she will not need anything to help
her milk production. Would you like me to leave the milkwort with you?”
“Surely not! Why would you want to reduce her milk flow?” Ania cried. “As small as the little one is, she will need to eat all she can to grow.”
“Sí, she will IF she lives. She is very early, patrona,” the midwife insisted. “It is far too soon to tell.”
Ania opened her mouth to argue, but then looked back at the tiny infant. In her heart, she knew it might be so, but the child all ready seemed to be such a fighter that Ania immediately wanted to believe that she would soon grow strong. She shut her mouth and turned to her satchel. She stood for a moment holding the bag of milkwort in her hand, then reluctantly reached back in and withdrew the bag of periwinkle. With a sigh, she placed both packets on the table beside Señora Inéz.
Suddenly, the adults were all startled when the door flew open and Pepe rushed in. "Soldiers coming!" he gasped out, as he tried to catch his breath. He looked at his father with terror filled eyes. "You have to go now, Papá! They are almost here."
"Go out the back, quickly!" Ania said. "We will try to distract them here."
Manolito placed the infant beside Brisa and hesitated as he stood looking down at them.
"Hurry! You do not want to make Brisa a widow and leave that pretty little one fatherless, do you?" Ania insisted. "Go!"
Manolito took time to bend and place a kiss on his sleeping wife's
forehead and then turned and dashed out the back of the house.
The boy looked at her and swallowed hard. He closed his eyes for a moment and breathed deeply. When he looked at her again, he looked a bit nervous but no more than any nine year old who had just been presented with a new sister whom he must watch over. He even managed a little smile.
Ania smiled back and winked. "Remember how you fooled them the other evening in the pueblo. I am sure Zorro was very proud of you," she whispered.
Pepe smiled bigger at the memory, and squaring his shoulders, went to the other side of the room and began grinding corn.
By now, they could hear horses approaching. Señora Inéz’s daughter was frantically calling the little children to her and gathering them safely against the front of the casa. Then Ania was dismayed to hear Rodríguez's voice. "There he is! I will get him myself!
With a sinking feeling in her stomach, she realized that Manolito had not left soon enough. Just as she peered out the back door, she saw Manolito run back around the side of the house, looking for a place to hide. There were none. Rodríguez's horse could be heard coming from the same direction.
Dios mío! she thought in panic. Rodríguez will shoot him down right here in front of his children. No! Without thinking of the consequences, Ania ran quickly between the peon and the capitán, as if by accident, just as he raised his gun. She saw the capitán pause for a split second, then realized that she had made a very foolish mistake. Rodríguez smiled and leveled the gun at her even as she turned to Manolito as if encouraging him to give himself up. Ania had but a moment to think a prayer for protection. Just as she expected to be shot down, another voice boomed out.
"Well done, Capitán Rodríguez! I see you have captured him yourself. You did not need our help, after all!" Sergeant García exclaimed good-naturedly.
Ania felt like she could have kissed him if her legs had not been so weak and wobbly right then. She and Manolito both gave a relieved sigh as they looked at each other.
"Señorita Ania, what are you doing here?" García asked. "It seems that every time we turn around, you are there, señorita."
"Sí, I agree, Sergeant. The señorita has been sticking her nose into affairs that do not pertain to her again. I, too, would like to hear your explanation for your interference, Señorita Valdéz." Rodríguez looked at her coldly. "And it had better be a good explanation." He kept his gun leveled on both of them as García walked over to them.
"I was trying to convince Manolito to turn himself in, Capitán," Ania lied.
"Is that so, Señorita Valdéz? Well, what were you doing here in the first place?" Rodríguez watched her suspiciously.
"I sent for her," another voice said from the doorway. Señora Inéz walked out and looked up at the capitán. "Señora Mería has now had her fifth child, Capitán. Things did not go well and I feared we would lose both of them. Sometimes it is necessary for a midwife and a curandera to work together." Señora Inéz looked at her with a look that said that she knew what Ania had just done.
"I brought herbs to help the new mother and child," Ania stated truthfully.
"Capitán," Manolito spoke up, "neither of these women had anything to do with my being here. I came because I was worried about my wife. She has been very sick with this child."
"You should have kept running, Mería," Rodríguez said menacingly. "What lies have you been telling the women, peon?"
"Nothing, Capitán! I have only been concerned with my wife and child. I have had no chance to talk about anything else with them, I swear," Manolito stated.
Ania cast what she hoped was a puzzled look at him and then back at Rodríguez. "He has been in San Juan Capistrano...What else could he tell us?"
"Señorita, outlaws will tell you anything to get your help. Did you not know that?" Rodríguez said. "I have no doubt that even Zorro spreads false tales of the military incompetence in this area to keep the people stirred up."
"On the contrary," Ania snapped back. "I feel sure that Zorro has always been quite happy for you to point out your own incompetence for yourself, Capitán!" Too late, she remembered her promise to Diego about bridling her tongue. Diego is right! she scolded herself. I am my own worst enemy in this matter. The man nearly shoots me and I still cannot keep my mouth shut! She clamped her lips together and turned to watch García help a manacled Manolito onto a horse.
Rodríguez merely glared at her as he turned his horse and rode after the lancers.
Señora Inéz met Ania's eyes as the soldiers rode away. They both knew that this was bad...very bad, indeed. Señora Inéz simply shook her head as if she had no idea what to do.
Ania frowned as she watched the group ride out of sight. If something was not done, she doubted that Manolito would live out the night. She clenched her fists in frustration with the situation. Well, she could do nothing more to help him, but she knew someone who could. As soon as she was free to, she would ride back to the Rancho de la Vega and look for Diego. Even though she would make it sound as merely one concerned person telling another, she knew that Zorro would ride tonight. Zorro would never let this good man die!
Turning on her heel, Ania walked determinedly back into the adobe house to comfort Pepe and make sure she had done everything she could for the mother and child before leaving. Rodríguez, she thought angrily, your time is coming someday.