Anvil of Iron

by

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine


Ania leaned miserably back against the wall of the cave, arms wrapped tightly around her middle as she watched Bernardo walk back across the small space. Both were desperate to think of something, anything, they could do to protect Diego. The blood trail left by Zorro was surely too extensive for them to find and destroy. Even if they could, by the time they had enough light with which to see the trail, the soldiers also would be able to see and follow it. There had to be something else they could do, but what?

Bernardo tried various ideas in his mind, but nothing seemed the least bit likely to work. Yet he refused to give up. He loved this young man, not only as master, but also as dearest friend. As he paced, he allowed his eyes to glance over the area. For a moment, his eyes rested on Tornado standing a few feet away.

The black stallion was just finishing his feed. He turned to the water trough and thrust his muzzle into the water. The horse then turned his head toward the two humans for a moment. Bernardo noticed that as the horse lifted his head toward them, his muzzle dripped, forming a line of dots across the floor. As Bernardo watched, Tornado turned back to the water again. As he finished his drink, Tornado raised his head and looked around at them once more. Again the muzzle dripped, leaving another line that crossed the first. An idea suddenly began to form in Bernardo's mind, one that offered them, at least, a chance. Excitedly, he turned to Ania and began gesturing rapidly.

Ania looked at him in bafflement. "What? I do not understand."

Bernardo walked over and reached past Tornado to plunge his hand into the water. Raising his hand, he allowed the water to drip off his hand in a line. He then looked at Ania intently.

"All right. So?" Ania questioned as she looked at him.

Again the manservant dipped his hand into the water and allowed it to drip across the floor.

As Ania looked at the pattern of water droplets, she realized that the second one had crossed the first at an angle. She watched as Bernardo did this twice more. Her face lit up with hope as it dawned on her what he was suggesting, for with each time the water was dripped, the trail of droplets became less distinct as to which direction the first trail led. If they could do the same with the blood of a small animal, then they stood a chance of confusing the trail. It was worth a try. "Sí, that might work, but how do we do it? That is a lot of territory out there," she commented. "Do you know what path he would have been taking tonight?"

Bernardo bent his head in thought for a moment. Of course, he could not be totally sure of the path Zorro would have taken, but there were paths that he used more often, paths that given his head, Tornado would be more likely to follow back to the cave. He held up one finger and shook his head. Spreading three fingers wide in front of him, he ran the other index finger along each of the three.

Ania watched him closely. "There could be three paths that he may have used?" she translated. As she watched, he raised a fourth finger, gestured to it and shrugged.

"Maybe four? How do we cover all four?" she asked.

Gesturing again, Bernardo indicated that he was surer of the first three than he was the fourth. Reaching down, he brushed the hay back until he reached the dirt floor of the cave. He placed a fist-sized rock in the center of the cleared area and then drew thick lines out away from it.

Ania watched silently and suddenly recognized the pattern of the roads leading out of Los Ángeles. "The pueblo," she said and nodded.

Bernardo added thinner lines in places, which Ania realized must be paths that either skirted the road or crossed open territory. He watched her and only began doing something else when she indicated she understood. He pointed to the side of the "pueblo" where the cuartel would have been located and reaching into the water again, dripped a path that would have led back roughly in the direction of the de la Vega lands. Spreading his hands and shrugging, he indicated that he was not sure if this was the way Zorro had taken from Los Ángeles.

"Sí, I understand that. Go on," Ania urged.

He thought for a moment and then gestured something that made her think of a cow and brought his hands together to indicate something small.

Ania looked puzzled as she translated, "A calf?"

Bernardo mimed shooting a gun and then lifting something. He then gestured going along each path in a random pattern that repeatedly crossed the path. Occasionally, he would make wider loops which connected two separate paths. He then looked up at Ania.

"We shoot a calf and go looping and crossing each possible trail. If we slit its throat, we might be able to do that, but it is going to take time and a certain amount of luck." Ania glanced thoughtfully toward the entrance. "We probably have no more than four or five hours until sunrise. Can we do it in that time?" She looked questioningly at Bernardo.

Bernardo's face tightened in determination as he looked at her and made a definite nod. Ania knew that the answer spoke more of the older man's determination that it be so, rather than any real assurance of success. Still, it was a comfort to her.

'I will do it,' he gestured emphatically as he turned and went up the tunnel. When he returned, Ania was sitting beside Diego lost in thought. Bernardo paused as he watched them for a moment from the tunnel leading into the chamber. He was worried about leaving them and it was not just on Diego's account. Ania seemed to be in control of her emotions right now, but there was an odd quality to her control, almost a brittle quality as if she would shatter like glass if one more thing happened.

As he watched, unseen, Ania reached over and gently brushed an errant lock of hair back from Diego's forehead. As she did so, the touch became a caress as she allowed her fingers to follow the curve of his face to finally rest lightly against his cheek for a moment. Watching her face, Bernardo saw very clearly the inner struggle she was having. She closed her eyes tightly, holding back tears that she would not have allowed to show before him. She took several deep breaths and seemed to be fighting for control, then opened her eyes and straightened her back. At this point, had he not seen her before, Bernardo would have thought she was as calm as she appeared. However, he feared that this situation might be just one too many for the young woman to handle. Had there been any other way, he would not have even considered leaving them here alone, but he had no choice. The situation was too desperate. Backing a few steps up the tunnel, he pushed a lantern against the wall making a metallic clank so that Ania would be warned of his approach. Then he walked on into the chamber. Kneeling beside Diego, he looked at him intently and then up at Ania.

Ania gave a tight smile, though her eyes remained haunted. "He seems to be stronger than he was a while ago," she said in answer to his unspoken question. "His heart beat is more easily felt, and although he has not regained consciousness, he has moved a little as if he were trying to wake up." She glanced up and noted with surprise that the servant had changed clothing. She realized that he was dressed just as Zorro and that it must have been one of his own. This one fit him too well to be one borrowed from Diego.

Bernardo nodded. Reaching down and giving Diego's hand a squeeze, he rose and turned toward the entrance chamber.

"Wait," Ania suddenly called. "Bernardo, if you do not get all the area covered, I mean, before it gets close to sun up, I can help. We must be sure you are not seen if I am to be able to use our story of you being gone into the mountains. Since you would naturally go with Diego when he left, there would be no way to explain why you are still here if he is gone," she said.

Bernardo looked at her in surprise. 'You go?' he gestured. Then he gestured the shooting of a gun and allowed his expression to show that he questioned her being able to shoot well enough to kill the animals needed.

"Of course, I can do it, Bernardo! Do you think I would let my brothers be able to do something that I could not do?" she stated with a slight smile. "I hunted with Juan with or without anyone else's approval."

Bernardo smiled at her and placed his fingers against his forehead. He rolled his eyes, then swept his fingers outward from his head as if something was flying out of his mind. 'How could I have forgotten and not expected that?' his gesture seemed to say. Turning, he went into the entrance chamber and resaddled Tornado. With a determined look on his face, he rode out into the night to begin their plan.

After Bernardo left, Ania realized just how comforting she had found his presence. With him here, she could focus on only what must be done right now. Her thoughts could be held at bay. Now they rushed in like water into a Florida sinkhole. Uncomfortable thoughts...thoughts that brought back feelings of pain and failure as she remembered caring for Felipe, of trying everything she knew and still not succeeding in saving him. The sense of loss and failure that swept over her as she held her brother in her arms as he had slipped away from them would be with her till her own dying day.

There were things about Diego that had always reminded Ania of Felipe. Though Felipe had been a little bit shorter than Diego, there was a smooth, balanced quality to their movements that was alike. She knew that Felipe's movements had become more fluid after he had gone to school in Spain. She wondered if he and Diego could have had the same fencing master there, for regardless of what Diego said about his schooling publicly, Zorro was far too skilled with a blade for Diego not to have had extensive training somewhere. Grace and aptitude one was born with, skill was developed only by long hours of discipline. Both had had that discipline. No! Not had. Diego has that discipline. We will not lose him.  No! Ania corrected herself. Just because we lost Felipe, does not mean we will lose Diego. I will not let that happen! she vowed. Oh? And just what will you do different this time to keep that from happening? the devil on her shoulder whispered. What will I do? What can I do? seemed to echo in her mind.

Ania covered her face with her hands and tried to shove this kind of thinking aside. Still she knew she had to plan, to think what she really could do. Well, since it was the infection that defeated us before, that is what I must think about this time. I must attack it before that can happen with Diego, but how? she thought. Ah, I will sit here and think of all the herbs that I might use to treat or prevent an infection. That will help Diego and keep my mind busy as well.

Just at that moment, Diego moved slightly and mumbled something. Ania’s heart filled with joy at the thought that he might actually be regaining consciousness. Remembering how thirsty her brother had been during the times he was conscious after having lost so much blood, she reached for a cup of water to offer Diego. She prayed that he would be truly conscious enough to drink it. He would need fluids to help his body replace the blood he had lost. She realized that she needed to raise Diego somewhat. He was laying too flat to safely drink as disoriented as he would be for some time to come. Lacking any additional pillows to use, Ania set the cup down and gently eased his head and shoulders into her lap.

As awareness tried to return, it seemed to Diego that he was caught in a strange world, one with no past or future and where the very darkness itself was an incredible weight which threatened to crush the life from him. People and events seemed to drift past him with no discernible logic or sequence, often complete with the emotions he had experienced in that situation when it truly occurred. As the darkness seemed to lift further, he saw Ania in front of the mantel as she had been earlier tonight. Though he did not hear her words, even in memory, he again felt the helplessness of watching her walk out. No! Wait! he cried mentally. Ania, do not go! There is so much I need to tell you, so much I want to say that I may never get the chance to say.

As Ania looked behind her and reached for the cup, she thought she heard Diego call her name. It was not spoken clearly and she was not sure if she had heard what she thought. However, as she quickly turned back, she found herself looking into Diego's eyes. She could tell from the confusion and weakness in them that he was not fully coherent yet, but Ania rejoiced that he had come this far. "Diego!" she exclaimed with a smile. As he tried to speak again, she spoke soothingly, "Sh-h-h-h, it is all right, Diego. Bernardo is taking care of everything." Tears clouded her vision. It hurt so to realize that he did not really comprehend what she was saying. Tenderly, she slid her right hand into his and brought it up to her cheek.

For a second, he closed his eyes. Then he looked at her again and spoke. "Do not go," he said in a faint whisper so different from his usual voice. "Do not leave me...." Ania felt his hand grip hers, and then slowly relax as he drifted away from reality again.

Ania felt as though her soul had been ripped apart by his simple words. For him to ask her not to leave him, when she was so terrified that he would be the one to leave them forever, shattered the fragile hold Ania had on her emotions. Please, Saint Luke, intercede for us before that Great Physician. Help us! Help us please! she prayed desperately. Cradling him like a child, Ania pressed her face against the back of his hand and sobbed, all pretense gone.

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Ania, calm now, sat with her knees pulled up to her chest in much the same way she had often sat as a child. Her arms encircled her legs as she lay her head on her knees and watched Diego. She was remembering Luisa and how she had trained her.

Even as a very young child, Ania was always finding hurt animals and bringing them home to care for them. While other children might forget to care for animals after the novelty wore off, Ania was unfailingly gentle and attentive. With people, she was equally gentle, always having to touch or pat them to show that she was concerned. Luisa had called it having "healing hands". When the boys occasionally ran off and left her, Ania began to follow Luisa around as she helped oversee Don Miguel's household. By age eight, she was astonishing Luisa by naming some of the more common herbs she had seen Luisa use and actually being able to tell how they were used. Luisa began Ania's formal training at that time.

Don Miguel was delighted that Luisa did this, for Ania was already beginning to show the wild spirit and stubbornness that would mark her all her life. He hoped the training would give her an outlet for her restless energy and that she would settle down as she grew older. It did not quite work that way, but she did, nevertheless, show an aptitude and thirst for this learning. By age twelve, she was regularly helping Luisa as she tended the sick.

One day during that year, she learned that there was more to this than just giving herbs to their people. One of the field worker's blades slipped as he was cutting the cane that day, slicing deeply into his leg. Luisa was upstairs when someone ran to the house for help. Ania, thinking that she could do the job herself, grabbed a bag of burnet and some bandages and ran to the quarters where the man had been taken. However, as Ania looked at the terrible wound, she panicked. Even after Luisa arrived, Ania was frozen, unable to even follow directions without dropping the herbs due to her hands shaking.

Luisa had finally shaken her roughly by the shoulders and admonished her, "Do your job, Ania. Would you let the man die due to your fear?"

Ania had moved then, but remained silent and subdued in shame.

Later, in private, Luisa had hugged her as Ania cried and apologized for letting her down. "Oh, Aniasita, mi niña preciosa, did you not know that of all the things that make a healer, your own emotions can be your biggest enemy? It is true that you must care about the people you help, but if you give your emotions full rein, they will lead you astray," the old woman said. "Always, you must wall your feelings away, so that you can do whatever is necessary. Focus only on that. Push your fears and emotions far back in your mind. Control, Ania. Do you understand?"

Ania had nodded solemnly.

"Bueno! Now...straighten up, Ania. Anything else makes you look weak, and that you must not be." She smiled as the girl had straightened her shoulders and raised her head proudly. "That is the way! Remember, control and focus on whatever has to be done, whatever it takes. Then what a healer you will be!"

Control? Ania thought now as she watched Diego. Oh, Luisa, but what if the person you want to help is the one person in all the world who can break you with a single word? How do I focus then? The answer echoed in her mind, Do whatever has to be done, whatever it takes.  Ania felt her resolve harden as she thought of that. Yes, she would do whatever it took to protect and help him. Whatever Diego felt for her, she already knew that she would always love him. No one had ever affected her the way he had, and she could not conceive that anyone else ever would. If he never felt about her in this way, that would not change what was in her heart. She would just have to hide it deeply, but the love would still be there. Gently, Ania traced her fingers down the back of Diego’s hand and then curled her hand almost protectively over his. Whether he ever loved her or not, Ania did not want to even think of a world without this man in it somewhere. Anything, up to and including, giving her own life to protect him, she would do.

When Bernardo returned, he sensed none of the brittleness he had felt from Ania before. There was a steely determination in her eyes now that reassured him. He was relieved to feel that once again, should anything happen, he could trust her to help them if the need arose.

As they again looked at Bernardo's diagram of the area, he pointed out a small area just northeast of the pueblo where he had not been able to reach, due to the nearness of dawn. Ania clearly translated what he was telling her and described back to him the route she needed to cover, when he questioned her about it. When he handed her his musket and two hand guns, she quickly demonstrated loading and aiming accurately. Deciding that it would be best to go on Ventura and appear to be openly hunting if she was seen, Ania went out through the sala and to the stable. Within minutes, she was riding to the southeast, looking for any fair sized smaller animal.

The first two animals, a coyote and a feral pig that she chanced upon were easily taken and she covered much of the remaining path. Then her luck seemed to sour. She traveled some distance, finding nothing of the size needed, although she did take several hares to cover her story of hunting. When her luck did finally change, it was still not an easy thing for her...for the next thing she chanced upon was one of her own mares, with a brand new foal just standing on wobbly legs. Ania looked around for a few minutes, hopeful that something else would present itself. Nothing did. Looking up, Ania realized that the sky was beginning to show gold streaks off to the east. Very soon now, it would be light enough for an experienced tracker to begin following the trail. There was no more time! Ania set her jaw and urged Ventura closer to the two horses. As the frightened mare challenged them for coming so close, Ania raised her musket and fired. She felt tears sting her eyes, but fought them back. "Whatever it takes," she muttered to herself. "Whatever it takes."

An hour later, Ania found herself resting in a meadow not far from the hacienda. As she sat atop Ventura’s back, she suddenly heard approaching horses. Quickly, she dismounted and began skinning out the hares that she had slung over the back of her saddle. Soon she could hear voices.

"Sergeant, this can not be right. Three times now we have backtracked on this trail and three times, it has led us in different directions," a voice that she recognized as belonging to Corporal Reyes said.

"I do not know, Corporal. It seems that even injured, Zorro is full of tricks," Sergeant García's voice replied.

"Sergeant, I do not think we will find anything. Why do we not go back?" Reyes asked plaintively.

"Because, Baboso, the capitán is already displeased with having to split us up to follow a seemingly impossible number of trails," the sergeant explained as they rode into sight. "Do you want to be the one to tell him that Zorro has escaped him again?"

Reyes looked at García with a smile, "That is what you get to do, Sergeant.  As an officer that is your job, not mine."

"Gracias for reminding me," García groaned at the smaller man just as he caught sight of Ania. "Señorita Ania! he exclaimed.  “What in the world are you doing out here so early?"

Ania looked up and gave him a bright smile. "Buenos dias, señores! How are you today? I am hunting hare, Sergeant García, and a fine morning I am having for it."

"I wish I thought the morning was so fine, señorita," García said solemnly. He did, indeed, look downcast as she looked at him. Reyes looked little better.

"Oh, what is the matter? What could bring you out so early? Surely not a routine patrol with only the two of you?" Ania put down the hare she was skinning and walked over to the two soldiers.

García suddenly seemed to realize what she had said she was doing. "Hunting? That is strange, Señorita Ania. I have never known of a woman hunting before."

"Oh, is there anything wrong with that? I did it frequently when I was growing up. This is simply the first chance I have gotten to do it since I came here." Ania met his eyes with a level stare and allowed herself to look insulted.

"Oh, I did not mean anything by that, señorita," García stammered realizing how rude his comment sounded. "I guess I should not have been so surprised."

"He just means that if we had been told that a woman was doing something strange like hunting out here today, well, we would have expected that it would be you," Reyes said, trying to be helpful.

Ania cocked an eyebrow at him as Sergeant García cast a withering look at him. "Somehow, I do not think that helped matters, Corporal!"

Reyes looked away in confusion.

Ania gave an easy laugh. "Never mind, Sergeant, but you have not answered my question."

"Question, señorita?" García looked confused.

"You said this was not a fine day. Why not?" Ania rephrased the question.

"Oh, sí. I am afraid that we are hunters ourselves, in a way. We are following Zorro's trail." García seemed saddened as he said this.

"Oh, I do not believe you will find him," Ania said. "After all, you have hunted him many times before with nothing to show for your efforts."

"But this time, I am afraid it is different, Señorita Ania. I hate to tell you this, knowing that you are fond of him, but Zorro was shot last night by one of the lancers, perhaps mortally," García said frowning. "He was bleeding badly and left quite a trail. The capitán is very happy with the situation."

"I can just imagine," Ania scowled at him. "Well, you always said you wished to catch him. Perhaps now you will get your wish, Sergeant."

"Yes, catch him," García shook his head. "But perhaps now only to find his body? He did not deserve this. Between the three of us, you know, I think he was a good man in many ways, despite being an outlaw." He looked at Reyes as if to dare him to dispute his opinion. Reyes merely looked at the ground. "You have seen nothing, señorita?" he finally asked. When Ania shook her head no, he sighed. "Well, then I suppose I will need to go on to the hacienda and ask Don Diego if he has seen anything since late last night."

"Diego is not home now, Sergeant," Ania said smoothly. "He and Bernardo have gone on a trip."

"Oh, where did they go? Don Diego did not mention anything like that when I saw him yesterday," García said in a puzzled voice.

"Oh, the way I understand it from the note he left, he had been reading about eagles and began wondering something about them. He decided to go up into the mountains where he knew there were some nesting pairs and observe them for himself." Ania shook her head as if she was surprised by her friend's behavior. "You know how Diego is about such things. Sometimes there is no stopping him if he takes something like that into his head."

"Would he and Bernardo be very far away yet?" the sergeant asked, glancing toward the mountains. "I should really speak with him."

"I am afraid that since Diego was not sleeping well last night, they left sometime around midnight," Ania said. "I can let him know you would like to see him when he returns, if you wish."

"Gracias, that would help," he replied. "Well, I guess we had better go back and inform the capitán that we did not find him. He will probably make us hunt some more."

"Oh, well, I hope, in that case, that you do not mind if I do not wish you a good hunt, Sergeant," Ania said, scowling again.

"Oh, I do not mind," the sergeant sighed. "This time I do not think I want a good hunt anyway. Hasta luego, señorita."

Ania nodded at both of them, and watching them ride off, walked back over to where her hares waited to be skinned. Only after they had ridden out of sight did she allow her shaking knees to buckle under her. She covered her face as she sat shaking on the ground. Dios mío! she thought in relief. It is working.  At least for now Rodríguez can not find him. Five minutes later, she managed to get back on Ventura's back and head for home. On the way, she had to smile in sympathy for the two soldiers. She would not like to be them when they returned empty handed. No, Rodríguez, this is just not going to be a good day for a fox hunt for you. You may find that it is not so easy to trap a fox as you thought, especially not one with friends. Kicking Ventura into a canter, Ania allowed herself the first true laugh she had enjoyed in many hours. "Whatever it takes, Rodríguez. That is what we will do. Whatever it takes," she said aloud with another laugh.


 

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