Forge of Shadows

by

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Diego de la Vega watched the little drama with interest. He could not hear the conversation from where he was, but it was easy enough to follow what had just happened. He had not expected the older gentleman to allow the young woman to come down. However, she was extremely attractive and it would have been nice to mix business with pleasure. Ah, well, he thought as he brought his mind back to the business at hand. Anyone observing him would have doubted that he was doing anything constructive. He looked like a lazy caballero with nothing more than a good time on his mind. Looks, as they say, are deceiving.

He listened to bits and pieces of conversations around him. All the conversations were not lighthearted, or good-natured. There was much grumbling against a new round of taxes the comandante had just imposed. While the taxes were hardly pleasant for the wealthier landowners in the Spanish upper class, for those in the merchant and lower classes they were totally beyond reason. The peons often had very little left to live on after paying. Something needed to be done.

Diego noticed that the young man who had been on the balcony with the lovely señorita was now leaning against the counter, glancing around the room, apparently looking for a seat. There may yet be an opportunity to meet the spirited young lady. Smiling, Diego motioned for his manservant, Bernardo, seated next to him, to rise.

At first, Bernardo looked at him questioningly. Then, looking over his shoulder at the young stranger, he realized the connection to the young lady his young patrón had been watching earlier. He glanced back at Diego with laughter in his eyes and rose quickly from his chair. He chuckled to himself as he walked away. It was good to see the young hacendado, who was friend as much as master, take interest in the less grim aspects of life. Despite the responsibilities he had secretly shouldered when he returned from Spain, he was, after all, merely twenty-five years of age.

Bernardo had barely left when the stranger walked over. "Por favor, señor. The room seems to be a bit crowded tonight. Do you mind if I share your table?" he asked with a polite bow.

"Why, not at all," Diego responded as he indicated the now empty chair with a wave of his hand. "I am Diego de la Vega. Please have a seat."

"Gracias, Señor de la Vega. I am Juan Luis Valdéz. Thank you for your kindness," Juan said as he turned to gesture for a bottle of wine.

The two men began an easy conversation. Juan talked freely of their move and the land to which his father held a grant. Diego was surprised to hear that the valley Don Miguel owned was just beyond the northern border of the de la Vega rancho.

"Ah, I know that land well. It is, indeed, a beautiful place. It seems we are to be neighbors. Our lands adjoin yours to the south. Perhaps we could arrange for you and your family to dine with my father and me as soon as you are settled," he suggested.

"That is very gracious of you, Señor de la Vega. However, it may be quite a while before we are settled. We will soon begin building our hacienda and my father has some idea of even spending a few days camping at the site!" Juan said with a frown.

"Oh, you and your father? What of the young lady with you? Your sister, did you say? I suppose she will be remaining here," Diego commented.

"That one? Ha! Whatever we do, Ania insists she can do as well as we, with or without servants.  She hates to be outdone by anyone or anything,” Juan laughed quietly, relighting his cigar as he did. “Though, to give her credit, she might be right. She looks on all of this as some sort of adventure. She is not your typical helpless lady, señor, often far from it. When she sets her mind on something, she usually gets it." Juan shook his head. Diego could see by his expression that he was both amused and proud of his sister. "Still, she has never tried to live out of the back of a wagon.  She might find it a bit more of an "adventure" than she wished. That could be amusing to watch."

Diego was somewhat amused at how Juan referred to his sister. No doubt, there was affection there, but also a kind of competitiveness. It occurred to him that these two might have been quite a handful growing up.

As he spoke, Juan's sharp gaze raked the room and spotted a card game just beginning not far away. Noting his interest, Diego introduced Juan to the others in the game. When invited to join the game, Diego bowed out. "I am not much for taking chances," he said, straight faced. "My money is quite happy in my own pocket. I think the safest way to keep it that way is to just watch for a while."

Juan soon dominated the game and money flowed like water. Diego was dismayed to see how unconcerned Juan was about displaying the large sum of money he carried. He would try to caution the brash young man about this when he could.

Sergeant García walked tiredly into the cantina. He looked dusty and disgruntled...and thirsty, as usual. Diego chuckled as he saw García glance hopefully around the room. The sergeant's round face lit up as he saw Diego. García never seemed to have money and he was not too proud to mooch wine. Diego smiled broadly and waved the lancer over to his table. "Buenas tardes, Sergeant García. It appears you have been working late and dry work at that, I would bet."

"Sí, Don Diego, very dry." García flopped down in the chair and gratefully extended his glass. He drained the glass quickly and stared at it morosely as Diego refilled it.

"Something wrong, sergeant?" Diego asked.

"Well, no, Don Diego," García said slowly. "It is just that...well, you know that I love being a soldier but..." García frowned at his glass. "...Sometimes when following orders...well, some orders I wish I could just ignore."

"Oh, what has happened?" Diego prompted.

"You know Señor Mendez...you know, the jeweler...you know he had just gotten the shop going well and the money that he makes...he puts that right back into supplies to make more..."

"Sí, sí, go on, sergeant. What about the jeweler?" Diego urged.

"Well, Capitán Rodríguez had me ride with him to Señor Mendez's shop. It seems that he had not yet paid his taxes. The comandante decided to collect them personally. Well, anyway, to make a long story short, the jeweler said he could not pay. The comandante ordered me to take his merchandise as payment. Now, Don Diego, I know a man must pay his taxes, but Señor Mendez is an honest man. I am sure he would have paid his taxes when he could. The comandante would give him no more time. Señor Mendez begged us to leave some merchandise, but I was ordered to take it all. I am sure it is worth more than the taxes amount to. And, also, without goods to sell to buy more materials to make goods for his shop, how will he be able to keep the shop itself open? I am afraid he will lose everything for which he has worked. Ah, but what else could I do?" García shook his head.

"I am sure he does not blame you, sergeant, and take heart, perhaps someone will help him. He is well liked." Neither Diego's voice, nor face, betrayed the anger he felt at the moment. Never fear, amigo mio. Señor Mendez will indeed have the help of a friend tonight, he thought fervently.

Presently, Diego took his leave, indicating he was anxious to finish a book that he had started reading at home. García was grateful that Diego left the rest of the bottle for him. What a strange man Don Diego is sometimes, he thought as he poured himself another glass of wine. Who would leave wine and good times for a book? Oh, well, I guess that is just Don Diego for you.  He shrugged and returned his attention to the wine.

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Zorro sat motionless on the back of his glossy black stallion. Both man and horse were tired and frustrated. The night had begun well, but now seemed endless. They sat in dense trees on a ridge above the roadway, watching for pursuers. As he rested in Zorro’s black costume, Diego thought of the events of the past several hours.

Dressed as Zorro, he had little trouble finding his way into Capitán Rodríguez office where the recent tax collections were stored. He had not been surprised to find Señor Mendez's jewelry stored in a different trunk from the taxes to be sent to Spain. He had already suspected the comandante intended to keep it for himself.

He had made it back as far as the door to the courtyard when he unexpectedly came face-to-face with Rodríguez himself returning, no doubt, to gloat over his newfound wealth. Zorro quickly pushed the astonished man backwards into the courtyard. With his cape momentarily swirling around him like wings, he leaped onto the ground from the doorway and whirled to face the soldier, drawing his sword as he moved.

Recovering his wits quickly, Capitán Rodríguez growled, "Zorro! I shall enjoy taking care of you myself." He drew his sword and lunged at him with one smooth movement.

Zorro grinned his infuriating smile as the swords met with a loud click. He almost welcomed his duels with this man. Until Rodríguez was assigned here six months ago, it had been some time since there was a swordsman who could give him any kind of a challenge. It was almost as if Rodríguez kept him on his toes. If Zorro did not fight to the best of his abilities with him, the comandante might even win but it was not likely. Zorro laughed aloud as he parried his opponent's thrusts and pressed his attack. Suddenly, with a flick of his wrist, he enfolded Rodríguez's blade and sent it flying to stick point first into the ground some feet away. He touched the tip of his sword against Rodríguez's chest just over his heart, then paused long enough to note the look of uncertainty on the comandante's face. Then, laughing again, he ripped a Z into the fabric of the uniform jacket. Still smiling broadly, Zorro gradually pushed Rodríguez backwards with the point of his sword until the soldier's heels touched the steps up to the office. With one final push, Rodríguez was sent tumbling backwards. Only as he fell back against the door, did he at last call for reinforcements.

"Lancers! To arms! It is Zorro. Do not let him escape!" he screamed.

Zorro whirled, sheathed his sword, and dashed for the wall. He heard shouts and commotion behind him as he hoisted himself to the top of the wall and turned to give a final insolent salute to the defeated comandante. He was surprised to see less than half the usual number of lancers responding to Rodríguez's cries. For the first time during the battle, Zorro frowned. There should have been well over a dozen men now pouring out of the barracks. Where were the others? A pistol shot struck alarmingly close to his foot. No time to figure it out now, he thought, quickly giving a loud whistle. As Tornado trotted up below him, he leapt into the saddle and raced away in a cloud of dust.

He had just begun to think he had an easier than usual escape, when, as he passed a clump of trees just outside the pueblo, several lancers rode from behind the trees to give chase. With another kick to Tornado's flank, he had led them on a wild chase, finally losing them in the rocks northeast of the pueblo. After being sure he had lost that group, he doubled back to head toward his cave and home, only to be spotted by another patrol and chased again. When this first happened, it had been somewhat amusing to leave them choking in his dust but, long before it happened for the fourth time, he had ceased to find it funny. He felt as if he had ridden half way to Monterey before he lost the last group and felt safe enough to finally head for home. He had followed a zigzagging course back to de la Vega land, pausing from time to time to check for followers. Thankfully, the soldiers must have been as tired as he, for he saw none now.

The sun was now well up in the sky and he was bone-weary. Bernardo would no doubt be concerned over the fact he had not yet returned. Later, after he had rested, he would have to figure out a way to get the jewelry back to Señor Mendez. Once he was able to do that, the jeweler could melt it down so that Rodríguez could not recognize it as the same jewelry. Returning the jewelry would probably prove more difficult than retrieving the jewelry from Rodríguez had been. He had no doubt, now that he had the jewelry, Rodríguez would have Señor Mendez's shop and house watched as another part of the trap he had laid for Zorro. Whatever plan he could come up with would have to wait. He was just too tired now.

Far in the distance, he could see the road which crossed their land and lead northward. Just as he started to urge Tornado out of the tree line, he heard a pistol shot to the south. At first he thought the shot was fired at him and he whirled Tornado back into the trees. As he tried to see the origin of the shot, another shot rang out just as a large carriage came barreling around the curve below him to his left. There appeared to be two men and a woman in the carriage pursued by two men on horseback. One man in the carriage appeared to be firing back at the bandidos as the other drove the carriage horses as fast as they would go. A third shot rang out and the man inside the carriage fell backwards against the woman.

Zorro had seen enough. Lancers or no, he had to help. He urged Tornado onto more level ground and kicked him into a run toward the road. Even as he raced to their aid, he saw the carriage veer to the side, its right wheel striking a boulder and shattering. The three people were tossed high into the air and onto the rocky ground as the speeding carriage flipped over.

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Consciousness returned slowly to Ania Cristina. A roaring filled her head and pain swept over her like a wave when she attempted to move. Struggling to remember what was happening, she slowly opened her eyes. Not far from her, two men were standing over her father and brother. Even as she tried to make sense of what her eyes were telling her, one of the men aimed a pistol at her father and squeezed the trigger. She must have cried out, even though she did not realize that she had done so, for the men turned to look at her. She found herself staring into the cold eyes of the man who still held the gun...eyes that held not an ounce of compassion as he looked down at her. Black-eyed and with high cheekbones, he had a scar that ran down the left side of his face. Throwing his own empty gun aside, the man took his companion's gun and walked over to her. Slowly, he aimed the gun at her and dispassionately cocked the hammer back. Ania tried to say something, but no sound would come out.

Suddenly, there was a loud crack. From seemingly out of nowhere, a black whip wrapped itself around the barrel of the gun. Even as the gun was jerked sideways, it fired. Ania was vaguely aware of the sting of rock fragments spraying her hand as the lead ball barely missed her. Her shocked mind struggled to understand this new turn of events. She saw Scarface and his friend pale and back away. Even as Scarface turned to run, the whip snapped out again and yanked him to the ground. His companion snatched up her brother's sword and slashed at the masked figure in black. The man in black sidestepped the attack easily and met it with his own blade. A quick thrust ended the bandito’s life as her rescuer hurried in an attempt to prevent the escape of the other attacker. Hearing Scarface's horse thunder away, the man in black turned quickly and took a step toward his own horse as if to go after him.

Desperate to help Juan and her father, Ania tried to move again. A wave of pain forced a moan from her as she fought to remain conscious. When she opened her eyes again, she found herself staring into a pair of concerned hazel eyes framed by a black silk mask as the stranger knelt beside her. "Who?" she managed to whisper.

The stranger in black laid his hand gently on her arm and said simply, "A friend, señorita."

Ania closed her eyes and drifted into darkness again.

 

 

Chapter 3
Chapter 1
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