Forge of Shadows

by

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

Sergeant Demetrío García sat bolt upright in bed at the first clang from the tumbling bell rolling down the cuartel roof. As he looked up at the roof from the cuartel portico, a strange sight greeted his eyes. There on the comandante's roof, with sword drawn, stood Zorro watching the bell make its noisy way to the ground. "Now what is he up to?" García wondered aloud.

It occurred to him to wonder why the bell had taken this particular time to fall. Being neither very bright, nor very curious at this moment, he merely shrugged the thought off. Perhaps, having been unused for a long time, it had just rusted loose and Zorro had bumped it causing it to fall. Zorro had probably been attempting to get into the cuartel to cause mischief again. But what did all this matter?

What did matter was that there, on that roof, stood 2000 pesos, just waiting for the man who could collect them. The thought jolted García into action. "To arms!" he yelled to the other lancers. "Zorro is in the cuartel! Do not let him escape!" Dressing as they ran, soldiers scattered in all directions.

As so often happened, a laughing Zorro stepped from the roof onto his swift horse.

"To horse! To horse!" the stout sergeant yelled right on cue. Soon only one lonesome sentinel remained on guard to explain to Capitán Rodríguez why his sleep had been interrupted.

Outside the city, the soldiers were surprised at how easy it was to keep Zorro within sight tonight. The one time they had lost track of him, he had reappeared at the top of a hill not far ahead, black horse pawing at the night sky. Off they had raced again, determined to make those 2000 pesos their own this night.

They would have been even more surprised to have seen a silent shadow slip in the cuartel gate through which they had just ridden.  However, no one was more surprised than the lone sentinel who remained on guard at the cuartel and who had lapsed back into a drowsy lethargy as soon as the lancers were gone.  The silent shadow which had slipped in through the cuartel gates unseen suddenly placed a black gloved hand over his mouth and the hilt of a sword made of good Toledo steel completed his journey to dreams with hardly a sound to mark the occurrence.  The shadow then stopped and listened to the sounds of the chase now fading far off to the east of the city.  All else was silent.

Zorro smiled. He wanted no interference tonight and, with Bernardo's help, he was having it just as he wished. Being sure that the sleeping guard was securely tied, Zorro made his way to the window of Capitán Rodríguez's quarters. Finding the window open, Zorro silently slipped into the bedchamber, only to find the bed empty. Easing the door open, he could see the comandante sitting at the desk with a large box open on the floor beside him. Inside the box, Zorro saw the gleam of silver bars and the duller shine of some of the white quartz stones, which he now knew, contained rare silver ore. On the desk in front of Rodríguez was the white geode, which Ania had described.

Zorro eased out and calmly placed the tip of his blade at the base of Rodríguez's neck. He had to admit that the capitán showed an amazing calm under the circumstances. The capitán neither jumped, nor cried out, but merely froze with one hand on the geode and the other on the blotter on the desk.

"Capitán Rodríguez, I would have a word with you," Zorro said quietly.

"What do you want, thief?" Rodríguez spat out. "Have you come for my silver?"

"No, Capitán, I have not come for the silver," Zorro informed him, "but, rather, about the silver and your methods of obtaining it."

Just as Zorro took a step to come in front of Rodríguez, the capitán threw himself sideways away from the blade point and, at the same time, heaved the geode at the masked man. Bounding to where his sheathed sword hung nearby, the comandante whirled toward Zorro, his own blade now in hand. Both men calmly watched each other as Zorro walked around the desk to face the capitán more directly.

"Very well, Capitán Rodríguez, I think tonight I would prefer that our blades speak for us as you seem to wish." The hazel eyes glistened in the candlelight. They showed none of the laughter so often present when the two had crossed blades in the past. With a suddenness that almost caught the soldier unprepared, Zorro leaped forward, his abrupt cry startling Rodríguez almost as much as his sudden movement.

The comandante managed to barely parry Zorro's first thrust, only to attack with one of his own. Without a doubt, more evenly matched than with anyone else in the pueblo at this time, the duel went on longer than most would have thought it could have.

During one point of the battle, the capitán seemed almost to be gaining on the outlaw, but just as he thought he would have him on the tip of his sword, Zorro easily spun out of harm's way, letting his own blade carve a fiery line along Rodríguez's upper arm. Anger flared out of control in the older man's eyes as he turned with a roar, trying to get the upper hand on the infuriating fox.

Zorro allowed himself a grim smile. Angry men often made mistakes. This fight would not last much longer.

Finally with a loud clang and a quick twist of his wrist, Zorro sent Capitán Rodríguez's sword spinning away to land in the corner behind a chair.

"García! Lancers!" the dismayed comandante screamed. "To me! To me!"

Zorro did not so much as glance toward the door. With deliberate movements, he placed the point of his sword against the capitán's chest, as he had done so many months before. Only, this time, the eyes staring through the upturned eyeholes in the mask, looked as deadly as did the gleam of the sword he held.

Rodríguez backed up slowly, struggling to swallow as he found that his mouth had suddenly gone as dry as ash. He felt the desk against the backs of his legs. He could retreat no further.

Zorro stood silently watching the trembling soldier as he held his blade perfectly still. "Capitán, I did not come for your silver," he finally said. "Though, truly, you deserve to die with it weighting your body down in some bog or tar pit near here. It would be a service to the people if I did kill you tonight."

Rodríguez relaxed just a little as he caught the implication that perhaps Zorro did not intend to kill him outright.

"Capitán, it has become clear to me just recently that you have sunk to a new low. It seems that you have made war, after a fashion, on a certain young señorita of our area. The young lady happens to be of high birth, but do not mistake me, I would take offense at this were she the daughter of the poorest peon. It is from her land that this silver came, did it not, capitán?" He paused as if expecting the soldier to confess. When Rodríguez said nothing, Zorro applied just a bit more pressure with the blade's tip.

"Yes...yes!" Rodríguez gasped. "It is from the old mine on that Valdéz woman's land," he added.

Zorro's eyes narrowed at the lack of respect Rodríguez used when he spoke Ania's name. His voice was, however, still quiet and controlled when next he spoke. "Capitán, I will tolerate no more of this in the future. If she is ever again injured by your hand or by those you send to do your dirty work, you will answer to me. Is that clear?" When Rodríguez again did not answer, he suddenly made a quick move with the blade that left a crimson slash from left to right across the capitán's chest. The cut was not deep, but it would leave a scar and stung like the fires of hell.

Rodríguez gasped and would have clutched at the slash, had not Zorro met his hand with the flat of his blade. The capitán lowered his hand again and clung to the edge of the desk.

"Is that clear, Capitán?" Zorro repeated, more loudly.

"Sí! Sí!" Rodríguez gasped out.

"Good, because, Capitán Rodríguez, if I ever learn of you trying anything like this again, with any woman, I will pay you a return visit and I will complete my Z. I have left the first stroke as a reminder to you." Zorro paused and held Rodríguez's eyes with his own. "If I must add the other two strokes in the future, comandante, they will be deeper, a great deal deeper. Do I make myself clear?"

This time Rodríguez nodded immediately. He cringed as Zorro suddenly made two additional slashes, completing the Z covering his chest. To the capitán's relief, the last strokes had parted cloth only.

"Now stay just as you are, capitán. It would be a shame if I had to finish my handiwork so soon." With that Zorro moved silently back to the window and was gone.

Supporting himself with his hands, Rodríguez slowly made his way around his desk and sank with trembling knees into his chair. He noticed that the open box of silver still sat as he had left it. The outlaw had touched not a single bar or nugget.

Rodríguez suddenly kicked the box in outrage, scattering its contents across the floor. A look of determined hatred took the place of the fear on his face as he vowed, "Someday, Zorro!  Someday I will see you hang!"

When Sergeant García and the other lancers returned from yet another wild goose chase through the hills, they found their capitán carefully bandaging his own chest. While not the most brilliant of men, García, like the other lancers, knew enough to make no more comments on the somewhat bloodstained Z cut into the capitán's shirt after the comandante ordered them out in no uncertain terms.

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Ania surprised both de la Vega men as she joined them at the breakfast table the following morning. To their concerned inquiries as to her health, Ania assured them that aside from a sore spot on the back of her head and a slight bruise on her cheek, she felt fine. As she waited for her breakfast to arrive, she showed them the stones which she had picked up and told them that she was almost certain that it was silver.

"When I was a boy," Don Alejandro said, "there were rumors of silver somewhere near here. I was never sure if it was truth or merely rumor." He thoughtfully examined the stones in the morning light and then passed them on to Diego.

"I know where these washed out into my creek now, Don Alejandro. Last night as I thought about what happened, it occurred to me that if I immediately declare the old mine as active, I could within the next few days pay off the grant tax and the land would be mine without having to wait until the wine matures. That is assuming that there is enough silver there to gather within that time. I think...." Ania paused as if gathering courage, "I think I want to go back to the canyon today and be sure that it appears rich enough to make this worthwhile."

"Are you sure you are ready to go back there today, Ania? I understand that this was a near thing yesterday. One could hardly blame you for not wanting to go back in there right now," Diego commented as he watched an unusually clear look of fear haunt her eyes for just an instant.

"If you go with me, I know I will be all right, Diego," she replied as she straightened in her chair.  How can I not feel safe when, if I am right, I have already seen you protect me three times? Ania thought.  But then, I can never tell you that, can I, amigo mio?  She smiled.  Well, maybe someday…

"Then let me make a suggestion," Diego began. "Let us have Sergeant García and a few of the lancers go with us. I doubt that there will be any other bandidos to return there, but should there be any others at this camp, they can arrest them."

"That would be wise," Don Alejandro agreed.

Ania nodded, then quickly looked down to keep any sign of amusement from showing in her eyes.  If he IS Zorro, he certainly will not need the sergeant’s help.  Ah, so that is part of his ruse.  How clever!  No one would expect El Zorro to be depending on Sergeant Garcia for protection.  Ah, hide in plain sight, so to speak…at least, I think so…maybe…  She looked back up, bringing her mind back to the conversation still going on around her, even as she wondered how to find out the truth of what she wanted to know. 

Just before lunch, Sergeant García and Corporal Reyes joined them at the rancho. No one was surprised that they arrived just in time to be invited to eat with them. Over the last of the meal, Sergeant García confided to them, in strictest confidence, what he thought had happened at the cuartel last night.

"But, Sergeant, how can you be so sure of what happened if Capitán Rodríguez did not see fit to make it public knowledge?" Diego asked, leaning back in his chair and shaking his head in disbelief. "Surely, he would have reported an attack by Zorro!"

"I do not know, Don Diego, but I do know that one does not cut Z's into one's own chest," García declared.

"And this time," Reyes added, "Zorro carved it much deeper than he does on the sergeant's pants." He shrugged as García turned a scathing look on him. "Well, he did, sergeant!"

García decided it was best to ignore the corporal's helpful comments.

"You do not mean that Zorro actually injured the capitán last night!" Diego exclaimed in surprise. "Does he not usually just try to make a fool of the comandante rather than go for blood?"

"Sí, that is usually so. But this time, he went further," García replied.

“It does seem odd, sergeant, that the capitán would not make an official report of it, if that is what happened,” Don Alejandro insisted.

“Perhaps he did not want it to be common knowledge that he had been beaten in a duel by Zorro once again, Father. A matter of pride, in that case,” Diego said as he and his father looked at each other.

“You could very well be right, Don Diego. Capitán Rodriguez is a proud man. His encounters with Zorro usually leave him very hard to get along with,” Garcia said with a nod.

“I do not think I have ever seen the comandante’s office empty of troops as quickly as it did last night when he told us to get out,” Reyes said with a laugh.

Garcia looked at him for a moment and then gave a rueful chuckle. “You just might be right about that too, Corporal. The man did not have to tell me twice!”

Ania smiled broadly as she listened to all the men laugh. She had watched Diego throughout the conversation. He sat apparently at ease. Ania did, however, notice a quick glance that Don Alejandro cast at Diego when the subject of the comandante had first arisen.

She felt just a little uncertainty when she thought of the conclusion she had reached last night. But then, she reminded herself, if what she thought was indeed true, Diego had had almost three years to perfect his act. He had, no doubt, played this sort of game with García many, many times in that period of time. Being careful not to be obvious in her observation, Ania was determined to continue her search for the truth about this complicated young man.

That afternoon the soldiers preceded them into the canyon. García suggested to Don Diego that the others wait at the entrance to the canyon so that they could "clean up" as he phrased it within Ania's hearing. Ania felt her stomach contract with revulsion as she realized that what they must be doing was burying the two dead men, one of which, she had killed. Somehow in all that had happened since, she had given that issue no thought until now. Her face paled quite noticeably.

"Ania, what is wrong? You look ill," Diego said, concern for her showing in his voice. He quickly took her hand to comfort her.

Ania looked up at him, horror filling her eyes. "Diego, I killed a man here yesterday and I did not think enough about it to even remember it until today," She wasn't sure which thing alarmed her more, the fact that she had taken a life or that it had bothered her so little.

Diego turned her toward him. "Ania, no one, not even God can blame you for what happened here. I know you well enough that I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever about that fact. What you did, you did because you had no other choice," he said as he took both of her hands in his.

Ania looked deeply into Diego’s eyes and felt herself begin to relax. As always, this man seemed to have the ability to calm and comfort her as no one else she had ever known. This time, there was even more reason for that to be so. If what she suspected was true, then Diego had spoken the truth. He would have no doubt. He would have seen her desperate flight up the canyon wall and all that went with it with his own eyes. It felt good to accept what he said as fact.

Not far away, García handed something to Don Alejandro. Ania saw him cast a surprised look her way. Apparently, whatever the truth about Diego, he had not told his father of all that had happened here. Perhaps there had not been time.

Don Alejandro walked over to where they stood. "Ania, Sergeant García found this. He did not think it belonged to either of the men. Do you recognize it?" He held out a cloth wrapped object out and unfolded the cloth around it.

Ania reached out and took the now clean stiletto. "Sí," she said. "It is mine. My father gave a pair of them to me on my sixteenth birthday." She was quiet for a moment. "This is the first time I have ever had to use them."

"Good," Don Alejandro startled her by saying, "I am glad that you had them and that you did not hesitate to use them. You did only as you should have."

Ania looked up in gratitude as she realized that both of them were right. She had no blame to bear in this. Now if only her next confession would leave her with the same feeling, she could rest easy about it.

Finally, they had been able to take a good look at the mine beside the waterfall. Ania was pleased to see that while the men did not think the mine still contained an extremely rich deposit of silver, enough could be gotten in just a short while to pay the tax and have some left over. As soon as they returned to the winery, Ania asked Nico to gather some men and go collect all the raw ore that they could easily pick up in the area. The chosen workers were already on their way to the mine before Ania left. By sunset that evening, three large boxes of ore had been brought to the hacienda, one of which, oddly enough, was found already full just inside one branch of the mine.

The next morning, with the ore loaded on a wagon, Ania, Diego, and Don Alejandro made three stops in Los Ángeles. The first was at the shop of Señor Cortez, who besides selling sundry supplies, also appraised and bought such precious metals as prospectors sometimes brought in. He had immediately paid her for half of the silver and offered to have the other silver ore smelted out and formed into bars for her. Ania burst into happy laughter as the medal dealer laid the heavy bag of gold in her hand.

"Well, Ania, I do not suppose you will be wanting to make a stop at the comandante's office now, will you?" Don Alejandro teased as he returned her smile.

"This should prove most entertaining," Diego added with a laugh.

Diego watched Capitán Rodríguez closely as Ania presented the gold for the tax payment and the paper from Señor Cortez stating that the gold was the proceeds from the sale of silver found on the land described in her land grant. Except for stiffness in the way he moved his shoulders, Rodríguez showed no sign of their duel the night before last. However, he was unable to hide his dismay at the payment of the grant tax. The capitán sat opened mouthed as Ania handed over the money and he read the paper over three full times before he was willing to accept it as valid. He gave the distinct impression that, had the de la Vegas not been standing behind the young señorita, he would have refused to honor the grant's terms. In fact, even with their presence, he once looked as though he would shove the paper back to her in disgust. However, even as he hesitated, he seemed to cringe as he moved his upper chest. A strange look came over his face as he looked down at the paper and, after a moment, he picked it up and began recording the transaction in his records. Diego wondered just what it was that Rodríguez was thinking right then. He would have been willing to bet that a sharp twinge had reminded the comandante of an unwanted visitor who just might return if the grant was not honored.

With one final stop at the alcalde's office to duly record the tax as paid and the provisions met on her grant, Ania went home knowing that the land was well and truly hers.

 

 

Chapter Eighteen
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