Forge of Shadows
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
is burning!" Diego exclaimed as he turned back to the house to call
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.
wait!" Diego called. "It is too dangerous! I will let you know
what we find," he said as he caught up with her.
chance!" was all Ania took time to say.
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
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
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.
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...."
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."
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.
many...men..." he whispered as she raised his head. "...tried to
not speak. We are here now. It is all right," Ania tried to assure
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
“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.
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
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!
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.
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