Forge of Shadows

by

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen


The following weeks turned out to be relatively peaceful ones for Ania. Although minor incidents occurred that were somewhat unsettling, her people on the land pulled together and, defending one another, prevented any further vandalism of the vineyard. Now that the ruins were being cleared away and new structures going up in places, Ania could enjoy walking among the vines that were becoming heavy with fruit.

A week ago, Demetrío had halted all other work on the stables and vaquero quarters, so that the building housing the winery could be finished. It stood behind her now in the early morning light, complete with press and barrels, ready for the harvest to begin.

Ania could hardly believe that success was only weeks away. Once she paid taxes on goods actually produced on the land, the grant would be secured. Nothing anyone could do would take it away from her then. She prayed fervently that would end the danger for all concerned. She glanced quickly over her shoulder to locate Bastián. Though he had learned that his patrona preferred his not being "under her feet" as she phrased it, he usually stayed in sight.

With satisfaction, Ania noted the workers beginning to drift in with their baskets to begin picking the grapes. She herself took the first basket from a smiling worker and poured it into the press. As the great screw was turned for the first time, Ania watched as the first sweet barrel of juice was caught and the winemaker's art begun. She knew that she would have to keep guards around the winery until the new wine was mature, but with the picking of the grapes themselves, she felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

By mid-afternoon, nearly all the grapes had been harvested, though the pressing would go on for a while into the early evening. Ania hummed to herself as she counted the barrels already full. Yes, as she had thought, there would be somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred bottles decanted before they were through, in addition to a fair number of five-gallon barrels which would be left as they were after they had aged. She planned to keep the first twenty or so bottles for personal use and sell what was left. The law did not say that all the grant tax must be paid from goods from the land, just that half of it would. The fifty percent would easily be met by the wine production. The other part would be made up from the funds remaining from the money brought with them from Florida. Ania's happiness was so great that even the realization that the song she was humming was one she had often heard her father hum as he worked brought only a fond smile to her lips. Papá would have been very proud. He had wanted a vineyard in this spot and here it stood, preparing to produce its first vintage. She could almost see Juan as he would have raised a glass of the dark wine, cocked his head and toasted her success. As she stood, looking around at the activity, she realized that she had not felt so relaxed since the first day she had stood on the mesa and looked down the valley.

Still humming, she walked down to the creek, rinsing sticky grape juice from her hands in the cool water. She looked around her. Perhaps now that the hardest parts were behind her, she could enjoy this valley for the beauty it held as well. Sighing, she sat on a half-buried boulder beside the creek and tried to soak up the peace around her. At least, it was peaceful now.  Quickly, she pushed that thought away. At this moment, she wanted only to enjoy happiness of the present. Lulled by the babbling of the swift water over the rocks in the creek bed, she found herself almost ready to fall asleep. Laughing at herself, she rose and began walking up the creek bank away from the vineyard. Perhaps a walk would do her good.

As she walked, a shiny white stone in the water’s edge drew Ania’s eyes. Picking it up, she looked at it curiously. It reminded her of a stone that Papá had brought back from California when he came home nearly three years ago. She turned it over and noted streaks of sort of blackish material and a somewhat reddish gold streak as well running through the white material of the stone. Her heart raced as she remembered her father had said his stone was a sample of silver ore. Ania scanned the ground near her feet for any more of the curious white stones. At first, she saw none, but there not far ahead of her were two more. These, too, had streaks of the black and copper colored materials. Perhaps if she collected a few samples of this, Diego could help her identify it. Eyes on the ground ahead of her, Ania continued walking along the creek.

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Another white rock sat on the table in Zorro's secret passage. Diego picked it up and looked at it thoughtfully.

The stone with its thin blackish line running through it nagged at him. He had as yet found no firm connection to the burning of Ania's property. Zorro had even paid another visit to Rodríguez's office one night hoping to get a look at the geode which Ania had seen but if Rodríguez still had it, he had it well hidden somewhere other than in his office.

The foreign coin was also something of a puzzle. He had learned that it was a small Russian coin. It had little value even in its homeland and he wondered if, perhaps, it could have been used as a good luck piece or as decoration, due to the hole in its edge. No one he questioned about it had ever seen one like it used or carried by anyone in the area.

Finally, he stood and passed through his room on his way out. It seemed that another trip into the pueblo was in order. Since Rodríguez's office had offered no clues to Zorro, perhaps the alcalde's records could shed some light on anything to do with that area in the past. On impulse, Diego took the white stone with him.

"Buenas tardes, Don Diego," the alcalde greeted him as he entered his office. "What brings you here today?"

"My father and I were discussing land rights with Señorita Valdéz this morning. It seems that there is a question as to the true border between our ranchos. My father has the copy of my grandfather's original grant, but part of it is rather faded. It occurred to me that you would also have copies of the original grants as a part of the official records of those early days, do you not?" Diego explained.

"Sí, there are records of many of the early grants. I am not sure that your grandfather's, or the Señorita's grants are there. However, you are welcome to look, Don Diego," the old man said.

"Gracias, Alcalde," Diego smiled. "This should not take long.  At least I do not think it will."

As the old man turned to leave him with the dusty journals covering more than thirty years, Diego noticed another book of a slightly different sort laying nearby. "What is this one, Alcalde?" he asked.

The alcalde picked it up and looked through it quickly. Then he shrugged, "I believe it is merely an old ledger detailing goods and materials traded some years ago, Diego. I doubt if you will find anything of interest there."

"You are probably right. The grants are what I most want to see," Diego agreed as he turned to the other journals.

After searching for a while, Diego was able to locate a copy of a much-faded grant detailing the boundaries of Ania's land. Of course, that was not really the information he desired. The important information was that the land had originally been granted to the Marqués de Casa Calvo. At least, the direct connection to the royal house of Spain explained the long period of time it was not claimed. The wonder was not that it had been so long till another grant was made for the land but that it was granted again at all. Out of curiosity, Diego began leafing through the other ledger.

There did not seem to be much of interest here. It just seemed to, as the alcalde said, list trade items, many of which seemed to have been sent to Spain in lieu of cash taxes. Diego skimmed down the pages until his eyes caught sight of the Casa Calvo name again. Skins, dried meat, he read as his finger slid down the list of items sent to Spain from what was now the Rancho Valdèz. Suddenly one of the items startled him into speaking aloud, “silver ore!"

Silver ore? Could there still be silver on Ania's land? If there was and someone else found out about it, it would certainly make the land attractive. But if the land was not available for grant by the crown, would that truly keep away those that wanted the silver. He sincerely doubted it.

In the weeks since the fires, he had ridden over much of Ania's land, looking for signs of the bandidos who had been described by the vaqueros. Only once had he found the remains of a camp, and those had been several days old. He had also ridden up the larger three of the valleys branching off Ania's...nothing.

Perhaps it was now time to check out the two smaller ones. Diego thought again of the stone. Its edges were worn smooth as though it had been rubbed or tumbled about. Swift water could do that as it washed stones along. Glancing at a hand-drawn map the alcalde had posted on the wall nearby, he seemed to remember coming upon a waterfall in one of those small valleys as he had explored as a boy. Standing, he quickly closed and restacked the alcalde's journals.

As he prepared to mount his horse, he noticed that the nearby blacksmith's shop was empty. There was one more thing he would like to try. Walking over to the blacksmith's anvil, he laid the white stone in a small indention. The first time he struck the stone, the quartz refused to crack. However, the second time, he was satisfied to see it laying in two halves as he put the hammer down. Picking up the two pieces, he looked at the newly exposed surfaces. There gleaming in the afternoon light was a streak, wider than had appeared on the surface. The streak glimmered with an unmistakable silver shine. Only on the surface was it weathered to almost a black. Whether it was true precious silver, or one of the several other minerals that looked similar, it would be enough to excite greed in many. The comandante, he was willing to bet, would be one of those so affected. Mounting, he turned Paseo toward home. There was much to do.

On his way out of the pueblo, Sergeant García hailed him from the gate of the cuartel. "Buenas tardes, Don Diego. I was hoping I might see you."

Diego smiled at the sergeant, hiding the impatience he felt to be on his way. "Buenas tardes, Sergeant García. You were looking for me?"

"Sí, Don Diego.  Well, not me exactly. The little one, he was by here some minutes ago looking for you. I cannot say exactly what it was he needed with you.  I could not make that out. But it seemed to be important," García replied. "He seemed very concerned when he was unable to find you."

"Thank you, Sergeant. I think it would be a good idea for me to go find out what is going on." Diego raised his hand in farewell and headed down the dusty street.

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Bastián jerked himself awake from a slight doze. Thus far his work for the señorita had been decidedly lacking in excitement. While enough had happened to the young woman in the past to warrant his services, his biggest job now seemed to be keeping himself awake as he played nursemaid. He regretfully rose from the comfortable spot in the warm sun where he had been sitting and looked around for his patrona. "Now where has she taken herself off to?" He frowned. "Humph, there she is. It is not enough that she rides like someone crazy. Now she wants to take solitary strolls." With a sour look on his face, Bastián began to walk out toward where he could see Ania far in the distance.

Ania continued to find more examples of the quartz stones. With her mind on searching the ground, she had walked much farther than she had realized. She knew she should turn back. She had now walked past the mouths of two of the smaller valleys in her search and it had been some time since she had found the curious stones. Just as she was about to go back the way she had come, she noticed a fist-sized stone just inside the mouth of the nearest small valley. Curious, she turned and walked to where it lay. Gently digging the stone from among the other pebbles, she saw that she held a hollow geode, similar in form to the one Josophat had been attracted to. As she turned it over, she found that it had about a fourth of its surface broken away. The inner surface was encrusted with sharp quartz crystals, some showing a slight tint of green at their base. She smiled as she thought how excited the old beggar would be to have the geode. Thrusting it into the pocket of her skirt, Ania decided to walk just a bit further to see if she could find any more geodes such as this one.

Bastián mumbled to himself as he hurried to try to catch up with his patrona. What is in her mind to just walk off by herself like this? Bastián frowned and walked faster when he just caught sight of Ania as she turned and walked up one of the branching valleys with her head down, not even paying attention to her surroundings. Several minutes later, Bastián managed to reach the entrance to the canyon. "Señorita Valdéz!" he called as he walked a short distance up the gorge. Still looking ahead for the young woman, he was totally unaware of a figure stepping from behind a nearby rock formation. He was only aware of a sudden darkness that took him as the figure stuck him from behind and left him taking a most unexpected nap on the canyon floor. Silently, the figure continued following the young landowner’s slowly moving form in the distance.

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When Diego met Bernardo coming back toward the pueblo to look for him, he was startled by the concern he could see in his manservant's face. The mozo started gesturing something rapidly, too rapidly for even Diego to follow. A look of anxious frustration crossed his round face as his patrón urged him to start again. Looking nervously at a group of peons walking nearby, Bernardo gestured for Diego to follow him and quickly rode back toward the hacienda. With growing unease, Diego followed.

Upon reaching the hacienda, Bernardo and Diego slowed only enough to not draw attention to themselves as they entered the sala door. Proceeding to the cabinet, Bernardo released the catch to the hidden door for Diego and quickly followed his patrón into the secret passage.

Turning and half sitting on the edge of the table in the secret room, Diego said, "Alright, Bernardo, now that no else is around, what is this all about?"

Gradually, as the mute signed his experience, Diego began to understand his haste. He knew that his father had sent Bernardo in earlier with a post to be put on the noon coach heading toward the harbor. Bernardo mimed the carrying of several objects, letters possibly that he had picked up to bring back to the hacienda and turning, indicated bumping into someone and dropping the objects. He bent to act out stooping to retrieve them. At about the height that his eyes would have been level with someone's belt, he allowed his expression to show that his attention was caught by something.

Diego frowned. Even after all these years of developing communication skills between them, it was sometimes frustrating. "What? Say that again? What was it you saw?"

Bernardo looked at him for a moment and made another motion as if something dangled from the side of his belt. Then looking down at the tabletop, he picked up the small Russian coin lying there.

Diego blinked, "Coins? Like this one? Dangling from a belt?"

Bernardo looked back and nodded. Then he went on to indicate a man walking off and him following him. The man had gone to the cantina and waited at the table closest to the bar for another man.

With no conscious effort, Diego found himself on his feet as Bernardo rapidly drew his finger down his own left cheek, indicating a mark or a scar running from beside the eye to just under the left corner of the mouth. "The scar-faced man who got away from Zorro the morning the Valdézs' carriage was attacked!" Diego exclaimed.

Bernardo nodded again. While he had never seen the man in person before, he had seen a drawing that Ania had done while describing him to Sergeant García much later. There was no doubt. This was the man in the drawing.

As Diego began removing his ornate jacket, already knowing that Zorro would be needed and quickly, Bernardo reached out and touched his arm. He signed that there was more Diego needed to hear. Bernardo indicated that the scar-faced man began talking of orders coming from someone else to whom he had apparently just spoken.  Here Bernardo rapidly drew his left hand down from his left shoulder across his chest to his right side at belt level, then he gestured the dangling of something from the shoulder.  Cords? Rank cords were only worn by high officers in the military.

"Rodríguez?" Diego guessed.

Bernardo nodded solemnly, then he continued. He made several gestures that looked like actions stopped at the midway point.

"Attempts at stopping something? Ania's development of the land?" Diego asked. Bernardo nodded again.

Bernardo made a gesture Diego usually translated as something being done now or immediately. Then looking at his patrón intently, he made his sign for Ania and made the universally understood gesture for death, bringing his finger across his throat from one side to the other.

Waiting for no further explanation, Diego began changing into Zorro's black outfit. "Get Tornado ready for me," he told Bernardo. Bernardo hurried down the stairs to do as he was bidden.

Minutes later as Tornado thundered northward, Zorro prayed that Ania was still safely in the midst of the workers on her land. With the vineyard workers around her and Bastián at her side, he doubted that anyone would have an easy time getting to her. Once he was sure she was safe, he would search for the two men who were her most immediate threat. Then, he thought grimly, a visit to Capitán Rodríguez would take care of matters there.

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A satisfied smile spread over Tomás' face as he took the last basket of ripe grapes toward the presses. It had been very pleasant to watch the fruit as he once again managed its care. He became aware of the sound of a horse cantering rapidly toward him. Turning, he caught sight of the awed expression of a peon standing nearby. Quickly, he looked in amazement at the rider who reined up beside him and understood the reason for the expression. For there before him sat the Dark Ángel of Los Ángeles himself, El Zorro.

"Where is Señorita Valdéz, señor?" the man in black asked without preamble. "I must see your patrona immediately."


"I am not sure where you may find her, Señor Zorro," Tomás answered, tearing his eyes away from the sight before him to look over the land below them. "I have not seen her for some time. I believe I saw her earlier washing her hands in the creek, but I do not see her now."

"Where is Bastián?" Zorro interrupted him. "Was he with Señorita Valdéz?"

Zorro's heart sank as he heard the vinemaster say, "He was not when last I saw him, Señor Zorro. A while ago I saw him walking very quickly up the creek bank. I have not seen him return."

Tomás was surprised to find himself suddenly speaking to empty air as Zorro wheeled the stallion and galloped rapidly along the creek in the direction indicated.

With only the smoothed stone as a hint, Zorro decided that maybe the first canyon to search would be the one with the waterfall. However, remembering how the narrow canyon snaked and twisted, limiting the distance one could see ahead, he headed for a steep path that he knew would take him to the upper edge of the canyon where he could look down in both directions and also cut straight across curved sections to save time. From the first overlook, Zorro saw Bastián lying not far from the entrance to the canyon. The sight filled him with dread. Even as he watched, he saw the vaquero move and grab the back of his head, his hand coming away red with blood. Looking away from Bastián, back to his right, he just caught what appeared to be someone walking. Quickly, he looked for the way down into the valley. Finally he found a scree-covered slope. Dismounting, he led the horse down the loose rock to the canyon floor.

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Ania found the rough beauty of the rock walls around her fascinating. Dozens of colors showed in layers on each side. Some of the layers seemed to have been tortured by some force forming nearly s-shaped waves.  Other layers oddly stood on end. Somewhere ahead Ania could hear a waterfall. Intrigued, Ania decided that she would walk far enough to see the waterfall before returning. She thought it was just around the next bend in the canyon.

As she rounded the bend, she did, indeed, see a beautiful waterfall nearly fifty feet in height. However, the beauty of the waterfall was lost on her as she looked at what could only be a hidden campsite. Near the foot of the waterfall was the entrance to a cave or mine. It seemed deserted at the moment. However, it appeared that at one time several horses had been tied along a picket line at one side. Ania's breath caught in her throat as she realized just what she must have stumbled upon and what the discovery might cost her. As she started to back cautiously away in the direction from which she had come, a man came out of the cave entrance. At his yell, she spun and started to run back toward the canyon mouth. If she could get back within sight of the vineyard, she might have a chance.

Yet even as Ania began to run, another man appeared between her and the canyon entrance. She was now blocked from that exit. Ania looked up at the canyon wall nearby and saw that a rough path zigzagged up to the canyon's edge. She would have to try that way. Even as she thought this, she looked back at the man coming from the direction of the canyon mouth and lost all pretense at planning a defense. For as she recognize the scar-face man, she was filled with a panic that left little room for thought. Terrified, she began scrambling up the path.

Behind her the first man began to take aim with a pistol. "Stop, fool!" the scar-faced man yelled. "Do you want to bring all her workers down on us? She is just a woman. You should not need your gun to handle her."

Tossing his gun aside, the first man ran toward the path up which Ania scrambled. The scar-faced man took time to tie his horse to a nearby bush before joining the chase.

Even as she ran, Ania was mentally berating herself. Fool! she thought. Estúpido! You hire a bodyguard and then walk off and leave him. Fool! At least, she was not totally unarmed this time, if she had time for a defense. Even now, she could feel the hidden stilettos, small daggers, hidden under her sash. Perhaps I will be able to strike back at least! she though grimly.

She had now scrambled about thirty feet up the rough canyon wall. Fool! she thought again, even as she felt the first man reach and grab her arm. Desperately, Ania pulled her weight back away from the edge of the path and, snatching one bejeweled stiletto from its hidden holder, she spun around, her left hand plunging the stiletto up to the hilt in the surprised man's chest. With her right hand, she grabbed the hilt of the sword that he wore at his side. Pushing him backwards over the edge of the path, Ania turned and fled toward the top of the canyon wall.

Even as she turned, she heard Scar-face's rough breathing and loud footsteps behind her. Knowing she could not reach the top with him so close, Ania turned to attack. Praying she could remember some of the defensive moves she had been taught by her brothers before her stepmother had dragged her to Spain, Ania gripped the hilt of the sword and turning, swept the blade in a vicious arch at neck level as Scar-face lunged at her with a drawn knife.

Cautiously, Scar-face backed up and looked at the surprising situation facing him. His surprise grew as he watched the desperate young woman handle the sword. She seemed to have at least some idea of how to use one and that fact made her an unexpected danger. Carefully, he watched for an opening.

For her own part, Ania was also facing a surprising situation. As Scar-face backed away from her, fear began to ebb and anger grew as she stood face to face with the man she had seen kill her beloved father and brother. Ania's eyes blazed as the desire for vengeance for their deaths grew, vengeance at her own hands. Scar-face carefully backed further down the path as Ania suddenly attacked. Her lunge missed the bandido as he leaped back against the stone of the cliff. Grimly, Ania stepped up on a flat stone at the inside edge of the path and prepared to attack again.

An unseen observer watched the battle from below. Zorro realized that he was too far away to be of much help at this point and to yell would probably do more to distract Ania from her own defense than it would to stop the attack on her. He cried out in surprise as he saw Ania push the first attacker from the path and turn with sword in hand to attack the second man. He was not sure her defense could succeed long however, and began to look for the fastest way up to where they were. The fastest way, it soon became apparent, was straight up. As quickly as possible, he began climbing. Yet, even as he reached the halfway point, he saw Ania make a mistake that could cost her everything. Alarmed, he climbed faster.

 

 

Chapter Sixteen
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