Forge of Shadows
Ania gradually became aware of a carved beam crossing the ceiling above her. She slowly realized that she was lying on a soft bed in a well furnished room...somewhere. She closed her eyes again. She had not a clue as to where she was and how she had gotten there.
Gradually, images began to appear in her mind like bits and pieces of a dream. At first, the images seemed to make no sense. Ania tried to think. What was the last thing she could remember? She remembered the ship and the pueblo. She remembered looking at a wanted poster of...of whom? Oh, the kind stranger in the black mask, she thought groggily. She vaguely remembered him being there as she drifted in and out of consciousness. What had the poster called him...Zorro? Yes, that was it. But what had happened to her and where was she?
Suddenly, she clearly remembered asking Zorro, "My father and brother…they are both dead?"
He had said nothing, only looked at her with pity and she had known.
An image of the scarfaced man pointing a gun at her father and firing appeared as clear as truth in her mind. Ania's eyes flew open as she cried out in horror, "Father! Juan! No!" She tried to sit up, sending streaks of pain through her shattered ribs and broken left arm. The room spun crazily as her head protested her sudden move. "Dios mio, no!" she breathed.
"It is all right, señorita. Shhhh...You are safe now. Just lie still. You are being cared for," a sandy haired man said. "I am Dr. Mendoza. You must listen to me. It is important that you remain still. You have been very badly hurt." The doctor quickly sat in a chair beside her bed and took her hand in his, watching her closely.
"My papá? Juan?" Ania pleaded. “Please...my father and brother.”
"I am sorry, señorita. There was nothing I could do," the doctor said quietly, gently squeezing her hand.
For a moment, Ania stared into his kindly eyes looking for some sign that what she remembered and what he was telling her was a falsehood. Unable to find any trace of what she wished to see, she pressed her eyes tightly shut as tears welled up. She could not bear to think about it right now. Fighting for control for a minute, she finally whispered, "Where am I?"
"You are at the hacienda of Don Alejandro de la Vega and his son. They were kind enough to bring you here after your...accident. It was on their land that your carriage overturned."
Ania tried to think, but her head hurt and it was so hard to concentrate. "de la Vega?" she mumbled uncertainly. Where had she heard that name? Oh, yes, Juan spoke of meeting someone by that name last night...last night? "How long...have...I been here?" she struggled to ask aloud.
"It has been three days since you were injured, Señorita Valdéz," Dr. Mendoza answered. After a moment, the doctor arose and walked just out of Ania’s line of sight. Distantly, she could hear liquid pouring and a spoon clicking against china. At the moment, the sounds meant less than nothing to Ania, her mind and heart too full of her grief to even care what was going on around her.
Three days?! She thought in despair. Then if it is true that Papá and Juan are dead, then they would already have been buried. I was not even there. Sobs threatened to choke off her breath. Again, Ania fought for control. I will not be weak! I will be strong like Papá would want. I will not show weakness!
Through the haze which seemed to cloud her mind, Ania remembered Luisa, the niñera who had raised Juan and her after their mother had died giving them life. Luisa had also been a healer who had taught Ania all that she could of herbs and nursing. Once, Ania had asked the old nurse how she was able to ignore blood and gore or fear as she treated someone whom she cared about badly hurt.
"You build a wall between what you feel and what you do. You lock the pain and fear away, and you do whatever has to be done. You focus only on that," was the old woman’s answer.
Oh, Luisa, how can I do that? What can I do to keep this horror from destroying me now? Oh, Papá...Juan, she grieved.
Suddenly the doctor was back beside her, a warm herbal potion in his hand. "Here, señorita, let us get a little of this in you," he said, as he gently raised her head and held the cup to her lips. "You must rest to heal. Everything will look a little better when you wake again." He sat quietly patting her hand as Ania drifted into a merciful sleep.
Dr. Mendoza was relieved with the improvement in his patient. So
severe had her injuries been that he had been very uncertain for the first
couple of days whether she would even survive. However, today when she had
awakened, her eyes had been clear, and she had seemed coherent, if
distressed. He thought the corner had been turned and her recovery was
only a matter of time now. He left her
sleeping and went out to speak to the de la Vegas about her condition.
"Well, Don Alejandro, it appears you will have a houseguest for a while. Señorita Valdéz has, at last, improved enough that I feel we are unlikely to lose her. Keep her quiet for the next month or so. Give those ribs a chance to heal. It would be best if she did not move around much. Also, the splint should stay on her arm, at least, a couple of months. I will check back on her improvement as often as I can," he explained as he stood in the sala with the men. "Oh, it would be a good idea to have one of the servants stay with her. She now knows about her father and brother. She will have to adjust to a lot of difficult changes. We will have to wait and see how long it is until she is well enough to travel."
"The length of time until then does not matter. I assure you she is welcome here until she is ready to do whatever she decides," Don Alejandro declared. "It is just good to know at least one member of that unfortunate family will survive. I will have Rosita stay with her." He shook his head. "It is a shame, a young woman alone like that. She will now face a lot of decisions about what to do."
"She still has her father's land grant," Diego commented. "Her brother mentioned that he and Ania Cristina were the only surviving children. That makes her the only heir now."
"Yes, but Diego, you are forgetting...according to the comandante, this was a provisional grant. The land must be in profitable production of some sort within one year or the land goes back to the crown. With no one to help her, that will more than likely be the way of it," his father reminded him.
Diego shook his head, "I suppose she might go back to Florida or to Spain. Perhaps she has family there."
"Well, at least, she will go back a wealthy woman. I understand that Zorro prevented the bandidos from taking all the gold Ania, her father and brother had with them. It is amazing they would travel with so much gold," the doctor commented.
"The son said they had sold all their property in West Florida and intended to start immediately on developing the land and hacienda. I suppose they thought they would need ready cash for that," Diego ventured.
"Perhaps," the doctor said, "but it was still not a wise thing to do. Well, señores, I shall leave my patient in your care. Don Alejandro, if you will be so kind as to call Rosita to come with me to my carriage, I will give her the packets of medicine for the señorita and instruct her as to their use. She will, no doubt, need something for pain for a while and perhaps something to help her sleep as she comes to grips with everything that has happened. She should be closely watched, but then, I know that I could not leave her in better hands."
"Of course, Dr. Mendoza. We will do everything we can for her," Don Alejandro said as he turned to Bernardo and gestured for him to get Rosita. "I will walk you to the gate."
As his father and the doctor walked out, Diego picked up a book and pretended to read. He had much to think about. In addition to keeping his eyes open for any sign of the bandit who attacked the señorita and her family, he still needed to get Señor Mendez's jewelry back to him. Capitán Rodríguez had persisted in keeping such a close watch on the jeweler that it almost amounted to house arrest. Regardless of what he said publicly as to Zorro being a common thief who seemed to have everyone fooled but him, it was clear by his actions, that he fully expected Zorro to try to return the jewelry at some point and he planned to be ready when he did.
Had there not been other considerations, Zorro would have attempted to go to the jeweler's house the first night. However, Diego knew if Zorro was seen, there would be fighting, and perhaps, shooting, as well. Unwilling to increase the danger to a household with small children, he knew he would have to bide his time. Eventually, Rodríguez would decide his plan had failed and that would be that. Diego hoped it would be sooner rather than later. Señor Mendez and his family were in terrible financial condition. He had managed, under the watchful eye of a lancer, to press a small loan on him "for the children". He could only hope that the jeweler understood Zorro's motives as well as Rodríguez seemed to do. He was determined to get the jewelry back to him as soon as he could possibly do so.
Diego thought regretfully of the two men who had been killed. He probably could not have saved the young man he had met, but had he gotten there a minute or so sooner, he could possibly have saved the father. He hoped the scar-faced man had the good sense to leave the Los Angeles area. It bothered him that the scoundrel had gotten away, but he felt that the badly injured señorita could not be left alone. He sincerely wished there had been more he could have done to help them all.
He had sent Tornado for Bernardo. Only when the manservant was available to sit with the injured woman, did he finally make his way back to his cave. He barely arrived in time to change and appear tousled and sleepy-eyed as his father roused the household to go to the aid of the victims. Supposedly, his father had learned of the emergency in a note pinned to the door by Zorro.
The woman and the two men's bodies had been brought to the hacienda and the doctor summoned. For all the good it would do, the comandante was notified, as well.
In deference to the victims' status, Capitán Rodríguez had personally ridden out, but had done little. Señorita Valdéz had been much too ill to tell what had happened.
Rodríguez had made much of the fact that Zorro "just happened" to be close by when the incident happened. He stated to all who would listen that Zorro merely had his eyes on the gold. In fact, he conjectured that Zorro had probably argued with the other bandido and killed him in a disagreement over the gold. "As I have always maintained, the man is a common thief. Others would see this, too, if they were not such fools!" he had announced with a snort.
Diego could not resist pointing out that, apparently, Zorro had taken none of the money.
The comandante had merely shrugged.
More than a week passed before an opportunity occurred to tie up loose ends. A chance meeting with Sergeant García once again led to useful information.
As Diego sat at his usual table in the tavern with the sergeant, they discussed a bit of this and that. Wafting from the back room was the aroma of freshly made bread. This was a rare enough occurrence, due to the scarcity of real flour, that it attracted almost everyone's attention. However, Diego noted that Sergeant García was almost as distracted by the aroma as by the wine in his glass. "Mmmmm, there is nothing better than fresh bread to go with good wine," he said wishfully. He tried in vain to get the barmaid's attention. Diego hid a smile as María pointedly ignored the always-broke sergeant. García's face fell as he gave up on his hoped-for snack. “Oh, well, I have to be going anyway. I am due on duty soon," he shrugged.
"Oh, is something special going on, sergeant?" Diego asked, only half listening.
"Sí, the capitán is taking most of the troops to escort the governor along the northern road back toward Monterey. Even though Zorro has shown no intention of coming to Señor Mendez's, the capitán still will not give up. Corporal Reyes and I have drawn guard detail there tonight along with a few others. It is a complete waste of time. However, orders are orders."
García had Diego's attention now. As the caballero watched the big man pause on his way out the door for another deep breath of the aroma-laden air, a plan began to take shape. Diego smiled. Zorro was going to return the jewelry and would not even have to go near the Mendezes to do so, thanks to Sergeant García.
Señora Mendez stood in the parlor of the small house that served as both home and shop to her family. Frowning, she looked at the meager amount of food left in her pantry. The children needed more food on which to grow, and what they had would not last much longer.
Outside, she heard the sound of a horse from somewhere close by. Soldiers' horses no doubt. From the time that Zorro had entered the cuartel and retaken the jewelry taken from them by the comandante, there had been soldiers keeping them always in sight. Capitán Rodríguez had even ordered that they were to go nowhere without a soldier in attendance. Of course, she and her husband knew why he was going to such great lengths with this...they were bait for Zorro. If he tried to return the merchandise, the soldiers would be here to close the trap. It would be good to have something for her husband to start his business again with, but, between irritation at the presence of the soldiers and fear for her family's safety, Señora Mendez hardly thought it mattered if el Zorro did try to return it or not. She just wanted the soldiers to go away and leave them alone.
Suddenly, a paper wrapped stone came through the window to roll at her feet. For a minute, she peered curiously out the window, but saw nothing.
"How may I help you, Señora Mendez?" Sergeant García stepped out of the shadows of some nearby trees to ask.
Señora Mendez frowned at him. "By going away, sergeant!" she snapped as she pulled her head back in the window and slammed the shutters. García shrugged as he stepped back into the shadows near Corporal Reyes.
"José, come quickly!" Señora Mendez called quietly to her husband. She held out the note that had been tied around the stone.
José Mendez read the note twice before looking up at his wife with hope in his eyes. He pointed at the bold Z on the bottom of the note and laughed. "I knew he would not let us down. Hurry, Rosa! Let us get this plan under way."
Sergeant García was tired of standing watch. His feet hurt and he thought longingly of being able to sit down with his feet under a table at the tavern, enjoying a glass of good wine. He sighed. "Well, I can do nothing about the wine, but perhaps if I sit for just a while." Looking around he spotted a fallen log nearby. Walking over, he realized that the tree was not exactly concealed. Ah, what does it matter? It is not as if Zorro is really going to come here tonight! he thought in disgust. "Ah-h-h, that is better!" he sighed as he eased his bulk down on one end of the log. After a moment, he realized that he was not alone on the log. Slowly, he turned toward the other end of the log. There with his gun casually clutched in his folded arms, sat Corporal Reyes sleepily watching the house.
"What are you doing, corporal?" he asked as he frowned at him.
"My feet hurt, too, sergeant, and you made the log look so comfortable. I just thought that...." Reyes began.
"Baboso, how do you expect to surprise Zorro if you are in plain sight?" García exclaimed, ignoring the fact that he was doing the same thing.
"But, sergeant, you…" Reyes tried to object to no avail.
"Get back to your post, corporal, pronto!" the sergeant ordered loudly.
Corporal Reyes blinked at the big man for a moment, then rose from his spot. "Sí, sergeant," he said with a sigh, and slowly ambled back behind the nearest trees.
Rolling his eyes heavenward, García continued rubbing his feet as he sat on the log.
"Buenas tardes, sergeant," Señor Mendez said as he walked up to where he could see García sitting. "I hope you do not mind if I join you out here for a while. My wife is trying to make supper for us and she is not exactly happy with the task. She had her heart set on making something special for us but we are almost out of supplies."
"And to you, Señor Mendez. Uh...what was it that your wife wished to fix?" García asked.
"She wanted to make some loaves of bread. The children especially like it when it is hot.” He smiled indulgently as he thought of his children and then sobered again. “Ah, but I guess they will have to make do with tortillas. We are all but out of flour. Oh, but it would be nice if she could make the bread. My wife makes the lightest, tastiest bread this side of the ocean. It is always so crusty and delicious, especially slathered with butter." Mendez shook his head. "But with no flour, there is no use even dreaming, I suppose." He sighed.
García's stomach growled in the sudden silence. "Señor Mendez, do you suppose, just, maybe, your wife would consider making some bread for me...if you can get the flour?" García asked as his mouth watered at the images of hot bread dripping with butter floated before his eyes.
"But, sergeant, I have no money to get flour," Mendez objected.
"I have no money either, but perhaps Padre Felipe will have an extra sack of flour at the mission. I could go see. I am sure the other lancers can manage without me for just a little while," García said without hesitation.
Señor Mendez smiled broadly. "Then in that case, I am sure she would do it for you, Sergeant García. It is the least we can do!"
Not much later, García rode back from the mission with a sack of flour securely tied behind his saddle. He had been rather pleasantly surprised to actually receive the scarce flour requested. He would have been more surprised still had he known of the padre's recent visit from someone with a very unusual request.
Realizing that a tree had somehow fallen across the path since he had last ridden this way, the sergeant pulled his horse to a halt and looked the situation over. The tree was not very large. He decided that he could move it easily. Now, I wonder what caused that to fall? he thought as he dismounted. However, the soldier really did not puzzle over it very long. His mind was too much on the bread soon to be baked.
He quickly tied his horse to a bush and walked to the fallen tree. While his back was turned, a dark figure quietly approached the horse and untied the top of the sack of flour. The figure had melted back into the shadows before the sergeant finished his task. García remounted and continued on his way with his sack of flour. At a safe distance, a shadow followed along the roadside.
García was gratified to see how overjoyed Señora Mendez seemed to get the flour.
"Sergeant García, I will make you two of the prettiest loaves you have ever seen." she smiled.
Señor Mendez shut the door almost in Sergeant García's face. "I am sorry, sergeant, but my wife.... She allows no one with her other than family when she bakes bread. She uses a family secret to make the bread so good," he said quickly. "I will just help her hurry with preparing the dough."
By the time the dough had risen, the oven behind the house was just the right temperature. Soon the delicious aroma of baking bread drew García, and Reyes, to the back of the house, their attention on the oven.
From the woods nearby, another figure watched, only his attention was skyward. In the center of the house's roof beside the main fireplace extended a second smaller chimney. This chimney opened out above a small indoor forge used by the jeweler to melt precious metals. Zorro smiled as he noticed sparks drifting out of the small chimney, evidence of a hot fire on that forge, one hot enough to melt gold jewelry back into bars of gold to be used again. He knew that within the next few minutes nothing would remain of Mendez's jewelry but loose gems and gold ingots.
Then he almost laughed aloud as García walked
back around the corner of the house. In each beefy hand was a slab of
bread. As Zorro watched, García rolled his eyes with pleasure. Enjoy
your reward, amigo, Zorro thought. You have earned it.
Chuckling softly to himself, Zorro quietly backed Tornado out of the
bushes and went on his way.