Forge of Shadows

by

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven


Within the next couple of days, Ania began turning her attention to acquiring other things for her rancho. She bought livestock to begin her herds from several other hacendados, as well as from Don Alejandro.

She was especially excited to be buying stallions and brood mares. She had even been determined to attend an auction being held just outside the pueblo. Ania had been somewhat nervous about this, since in West Florida it was unheard of for a woman to concern herself with the breeding of animals, just as it was unusual for a lady to ride astride. Indeed, many people there, as in the Americano lands to the north of them, strove to "protect" the women from the less genteel aspects of raising animals. While the lines of what men and women could do were a bit less tightly drawn here in California, it was still unusual to see a woman bidding on stallions. She drew quite a few surprised stares. By the end of the bidding, many of these men had to admit, that somewhat unorthodox or not, this woman did know what she wanted in horseflesh. Not only wanted but got...as some were forced to concede when they were outbid for the very horses they had coveted. Diego found it amusing to watch the reaction to her as she moved among the crowd. He had offered to bid for her, but she had refused.

"How will my people respect me if I turn to someone else every time I need something like this done?" she had asked. She had raised her chin, and walked through the crowd like a queen.

Only once did he see her thoughtfully biting her lip, a habit he had noticed she had when she was uncertain of something. The bidding had been soon to start on some rather unusual bulls that one man had managed to have run past the blockade from Cuba. Diego gathered that, while Ania knew horses, cattle were another story. Without telling her what she should or should not do, he had quietly walked beside her, seemingly talking at random of the benefits or drawbacks of this breed or that breed of cattle which they had had in their herds. Ania had smiled gratefully at him. While neither admitted that what he had been doing was coaching her on the best animals to buy, he noticed that she did bid on the types of animals that he had made positive comments on.

By the time the cattle and horses were brought onto her land she had had the blacksmith design branding irons for use on her rancho. Not surprisingly, she had chosen as her brand a design related to wine production. The branding irons were in the shape of a stemmed wine glass, the top being somewhat U shaped with a stem and base below that. The wine cup was duly registered as the Valdéz mark.

As soon as quarters for the vaqueros were finished, she had hired men to work the cattle for her. This was the first building on the rancho to be finished, with the stables finished within a few days of that. With mixed feelings, Ania then sent to Monterey for furniture that her father had arranged to follow them to California from their home in Florida. The furniture had not been shipped yet, but when it finally arrived, Ania knew that she would no longer have any excuse for not moving onto her own land. She wished she felt happier about that.

After the evening meal one night, Diego suggested an evening ride in the moonlight. She concentrated on enjoying the occasion. He had been very witty and attentive all night. Ania rather suspected that he sensed her unhappiness and was trying to cheer her up.

As they arrived back at the stables after their ride to the south toward the pueblo, Ania happened to look to the north toward her lands. How strange! she thought. There must be a cloud low on the horizon that is still reflecting the sun. “Look, Diego,” she said aloud as they stopped for a moment before entering the front gate. “Does California often have clouds that catch the last beams of the sun like that? In all these months, I do not believe I’ve ever seen one just like it. What an odd cloud?”

“Cloud?” Diego repeated as he looked back in the direction Ania was indicating. “I have seen some that reflect the sun, but even this far west, it is much too late for the sun to be reflecting like that, or I would think it would be. Surely, it must be something else.” His voice trailed off uncertainly as they both stood quietly looking northward.

Oddly enough, the glow against the cloud did not remain steady but seemed to dim and then get brighter. A feeling of unease began to grow in the pit of Ania’s stomach. Diego, too, frowned as he watched the strange light. Both realized at the same time what it was they saw.

"Something is burning!" Diego exclaimed as he turned back to the house to call for help.

Ania gave a horrified cry. "Diego!" she cried. "My hacienda! That is the only thing out that way that would make a big enough fire to light up the sky like that!" She turned and ran back toward the stables. With any luck, Ventura would still be saddled.

"Ania, wait!" Diego called. "It is too dangerous! I will let you know what we find," he said as he caught up with her.

"Not a chance!" was all Ania took time to say.

Reaching their horses, they mounted quickly and set off at a run toward the glow. Behind them, vaqueros scrambled, hurriedly catching horses and saddling them. Still for all their hurry, they would be far behind Ania and Diego.

Diego was soon wishing that Tornado were beneath him rather than Paseo, for now Ania did, indeed, ride like a mad woman. The land flew past in a blur as Ania pressed even Ventura to her limits. With little regard for her own safety, Ania took short cuts as she came to them and sent the mare flying over obstacles as they appeared in her path. As the faithful, but less fleet, Paseo fell behind, Diego could only pray that Ania's guardian angel would again watch over her. Both horses were lathered and breathing hard by the time the inferno that had been Ania's nearly completed hacienda came into view.

Pulling up hard at a stand of trees a short distance from the fire, Ania was out of the saddle almost before Ventura halted. She was forced to take time to double hitch the reins as the wild-eyed mare tried to pull back at the roar of the flames.

Ania's heart sank as she stopped long enough to look at the chaos around her. Not only the casa, but also both completed outbuildings were aflame. Looking at the vaquero quarters, she suddenly realized that none of the three vaqueros already in residence were anywhere to be seen.

"Juan!...Jesús!...Teo!" she called over the roar. Dread filled her as she prayed that none of the three were still in the burning building. As Diego joined her, she turned frightened eyes to him. "Diego, there should have been three men here! Good men! Diego, if something has happened to them...."

"We will find them," he said, grasping her gently by the shoulders, trying to comfort and calm her. He looked around. There seemed little to be done to halt any of the fires. The creek was too far away to be much help, even had there been enough people here to man a bucket brigade. The buildings would just have to burn themselves out. Finding the vaqueros was now the priority. They began methodically searching the area, yelling the men’s names from time to time, trying to make themselves heard above the destruction of the nearby buildings.

Finally, two of the men were found bound and gagged behind a clump of nearby bushes. The men reported that while they were separated, each at his own chores, they had suddenly come face to face with a group of armed bandidos. At gunpoint, they had had little choice but to allow themselves to be tied up and left there.

As Juan put it, "My fists did not look so big beside his gun, patrona. I'm sorry I failed to stop them, señorita."

"You did what you could and you are alive. There is nothing to be sorry for," Ania said. She then turned away, still searching for the other vaquero.

It was Diego who finally stumbled upon the still form of the third vaquero. Ania felt angry tears streak down her face as they knelt beside the fallen man, Teo, the youngest of all the men she had hired. Still not out of his teens, the young man had been so proud of the job he had been given and had indicated that a certain young girl in the pueblo might soon agree to become a vaquero's wife. Ania felt a sick coldness within her as she quickly examined his injuries. Frantically, she searched her memory for some way to help him. Yet even as she did so, her mind tried to tell her that there was nothing to be done other than to comfort him as much as possible for the short time that he had left. She knew that even as they knelt there, his life's blood was seeping away and there was nothing she or anyone else could do about it. There was no treatment for such a wound in that part of the upper abdomen. Too many vital organs were surely damaged. Ania could tell that, even without medical knowledge, Diego realized it as well. His eyes were filled with angry helplessness when she looked across at him. Then, as Teo moaned, she looked back down at the dying vaquero.

"Too many...men..." he whispered as she raised his head. "...tried to stop them...."

"Sh-h-h, do not speak. We are here now. It is all right," Ania tried to assure him.

"...said...destroy everything....Man with scar on face...leader." Teo seemed determined to tell what he could. "Scar down left cheek...tried to stop him." Teo struggled for breath, exhausted by his attempt to speak.

Ania felt her own breath leave her body in a rush as she heard Teo's description of his assailant. Visions of the man who had killed her family and nearly killed her flashed before her eyes as he described the scarfaced man. Almost in a panic, Ania jerked her head up and met Diego's eyes. The intense fear reflected in her eyes reminded him of that of a doe when she sees a human and knows she is being hunted. Even in the reflected fire's glow, he could see that her face had gone deathly pale. He too knew that the man described could only be the bandido who had escaped Zorro as he had remained at the injured Ania's side. Even as he reached out to comfort her, Ania did as he had seen her do before. She pushed her fear aside and turned to what must be done. Her responsibility to Teo was what mattered to her at that moment.

Ania pulled herself back together and leaned down to speak to Teo. "You did what you could, Teo. You are a good man."

Teo seemed to look in the distance for a moment. Then, whispering something too low to make out, the young man lay still. Diego gently reached down and closed the young vaquero's eyes. In shocked silence, Teo’s patróna lay his head back against the ground and stood up.

Standing numbly looking at Teo's body, Ania suddenly remembered what Teo had quoted the scar-faced man as saying. "Destroy everything," he had said. With horror, Ania realized that even the precious vines might have been put to the torch. She startled Diego by suddenly running back to their horses.

"Ania, what are you doing?" he demanded as he hurried to catch her.

Ania did not answer. Quickly uncinching her saddle, she dumped it to the ground. Grabbing the saddle blanket, she ran to a nearby water trough and plunged it into the water. Looking up to ascertain how best to reach the box canyon, she lifted the heavy, dripping blanket and hurried toward the shortest path she thought was still usable. "I have got to save the vines!" she cried over her shoulder.

Snatching his own blanket from Paseo's back, Diego quickly followed her example. Turning, he was alarmed to see that Ania was running toward the steps to the top of the plateau. He realized that she must be heading for a path that skirted very near the north wall of the hacienda.

"Stop, Ania! You have got to find another way in. That wall could go at any minute. Ania, stop!" he repeated. If she heard, Ania gave no sign. He hurried to catch up with her.  Grabbing her arm tightly, he stepped in front of her.

With a strength born of her own desperation and rage, Ania turned on him like a cornered animal. "Let me go and get out of my way, Diego!" she snarled. "If I lose those vines, I lose everything!  Either help me or leave me alone!" Without waiting to see what he would do, Ania pushed past him and hurried determinedly toward the path, taking the steps as rapidly as possible.

And if that wall goes, I could lose you, Diego thought as he watched her. He had to protect her if he could. "Wait for me!" he yelled over the fire. Dashing beside her, he pulled her close to his side, and covering both their heads with the blankets, guided both of them along the dangerous path that led behind the casa.

“Oh, Madré de Dios, no!” Ania cried as she saw that hay had been tossed down among the vines and set alight. Leaping down the still sound steps two at a time, they began beating at the flames with the blankets.  Soon men from the Rancho de la Vega joined them, lending their efforts to put out the fires as quickly as possible.

An hour later, Ania was relieved to find that the fire was out. She tiredly walked among the vines assessing the damage. Her heart began to lift a bit as she realized that the damage to the vineyard was not nearly as bad as she had feared. Perhaps there would still be enough fruit to meet her needs.

However, raising her eyes to where her buildings had once stood, she realized that the damage there could hardly have been worse. Flames still leaped here and there, and the roofs of all three buildings had collapsed leaving only crumbling, blackened walls. She knew she now had the responsibility of rebuilding, for there was no way she would let this beat her. Worse by far, was the fact that a young man had died here, trying to defend her property. Oh, Papá, she cried silently, What can I do now? What would you do? Only silence answered her question. It seemed that the shock and horror of this situation had even taken away her memory of her father’s and brother’s voices. Not even in her heart could she hear them. Ania felt very alone. She wished desperately that she could hear her father's or Juan's voices again, just for a moment.

Diego could feel her despair as he watched her walk along the path between the lattices. Quietly, he walked behind her and gently placed his hands on her shoulders.

Ania did what she had longed to do before.  She turned and lay her cheek against his broad chest, taking comfort from the strong arms wrapped around her. She felt safe there. If she could only stay where she was forever. She wished she could talk to Diego about what she was feeling, but every time she tried to speak, tears threatened to break through her walls of defense, and that she could not allow. How weak she must already appear to him!

Gradually, her unwillingness to show weakness strengthened her resolve, and stepping away from Diego, she turned her mind back to things that must be done. There was so much to do, send a messenger to stop the shipping of the furniture, have the ruins cleared away and the rebuilding started.... so much. That was what she must keep her mind on now. It was, after all, her responsibility. Straightening her back and raising her chin, she climbed back up the steps and walked back to where she had left Ventura.

Diego said nothing as he watched her walk away. He had felt her mood change and he sensed that whatever wall Ania had put up around herself was now back between them. He wondered if she would ever trust enough to let that wall come down.

 

Chapter Twelve
Chapter One
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