Forge of Shadows
"I am sorry, Señorita Valdéz," the comandante said smoothly, a short while later. "Just because you wish to, does not mean that you are capable of successfully developing the land. It is, after all, a long way from plans to the reality of anything.” He looked with a kindly expression at the woman dressed in mourner's black in the chair across from him. "You are a young woman alone and this is still a frontier in many ways."
"That is no reason to refuse to allow Señorita Valdéz the chance to do this," objected Diego from where he stood listening to the capitán's words. “There are, after all, other women who have proved capable of running ranchos and businesses as well. She has a great deal of intelligence and determination to bring to this endeavor. I believe you are selling her far too short in this matter.”
“Perhaps what you say is true of some of these other woman, Don Diego. I have met this…uh…señorita, who owns the businesses and lands in San Pedro.” Capitán Rodríguez paused for a second, a look of vague distaste on his face. “While that woman seems self-sufficient and independent, she is hardly one whom I would like to see our young, pretty señorita here emulate.”
Ania chose to ignore the backhanded compliment for the insult it hid. "Capitán Rodríguez, I assure you that I am very capable. My father not only allowed, but even encouraged me to learn right along with my brothers about the running of a plantation," Ania snapped, green fire flashing in her eyes. "I do know what I am doing."
"Knowing and doing are two very different things and running a rancho will not exactly be like running a plantation," Rodríguez shook his head. “Perhaps your learning would be best put into use on land to which you are more accustomed. Misjudgment of what it would take to successfully raise cattle, or even grapes, in this area could cause you to make extremely expensive mistakes. I must remind you that the grant we are discussing here was a provisional one. If you were to fail to meet the stipulations of this grant through some easily made mistake, you would lose everything you had put into it.”
"You do the señorita an injustice, Capitán Rodríguez," Don Alejandro stated. "We all made some mistakes when we were just beginning our ranchos. We learned from them, corrected them and our ranchos still prospered. She will, no doubt, do the same. It is her right to do this."
The capitán looked up at him politely. “I agree that everyone is capable of making mistakes, Don Alejandro, but in most cases, one has more than one year to make a success of something. She has already lost much time due to her injuries. There is no more time for errors.” Rodríguez turned back to Ania. "Señorita, even if everything you say is true, I must warn you, there are still many ruffians and bandidos in our territory. A woman with no family to turn to would find herself the target of these ruffians. In good conscience, I cannot allow that," he said.
"I am more than willing to take that chance, capitán," Ania declared. "I will, after all, be hiring servants. I will not be totally alone."
"Your willingness only shows the fool heartedness of your youth. How do you know that those you hire would be trustworthy, or that one so young as you could command their respect and obedience?" Comandante Rodríguez asked. He used the quiet reasonable tone one often used with fretful children, but his expression showed he was losing patience with the stubbornness of the people before him. Walking around his desk to stand over Ania, he looked down at her, frowning.
Ania bristled even more at his condescension and his attempt to intimidate her with his body language. "Stop speaking of me as if I were a child, señor! I am one and twenty and, therefore, of age to accept my father's responsibilities as well as his estate." She clenched her hands in her lap as she attempted to control her anger.
His face changed to one of disbelief. "I have only your word for that, Señorita Valdéz, as well as for the fact that you are the only heir. You ask me to accept much on faith." Capitán Rodríguez glared at her, clearly accepting nothing about her on faith.
Ania sprang to her feet, outraged. “Every word I have said is truth, capitán! How dare you call me a liar?!” Even in her rage, she was aware of both de la Vegas reacting with immediate anger to the insult to her.
"She has stated that she is of age and the rightful heir. I, myself, have said that her brother indicated he and his sister were the only surviving children. Would you call both of us liars?" Don Diego asked as he stepped up beside her.
"You go too far in your objections, Capitán Rodríguez!” Don Alejandro interjected. “This young woman has been under my roof for more than a month and a half now. I feel that I have come to know her well enough to be an excellent judge of her character. Both Diego and I can attest to this woman's honesty. You would hardly have dared go so far if this had been her brother here and not this lady. You should be ashamed, señor!" Don Alejandro added hotly.
The comandante glared at them as he stood quietly for a moment. Young de la Vega he dismissed as being any kind of a threat, but the old man commanded much respect in the community. He could, indeed, stir up trouble if he wished. Rodríguez softened his approach somewhat, "You have my apologies for any offense, Señorita Valdéz.” He inclined his head in a slight bow to her. “However, I feel that it still would be unwise, even dangerous, to allow you to take this on alone."
Ania leaned forward against the desk as though to speak again, but stopped as Don Alejandro spoke up.
"You still seem to think her age and lack of family are factors that allow you to deny her the grant. Well, I believe I can solve this dilemma," he said solemnly. "I will act as her progenitor en ausencia, although by law she should not need one.” His expression, as he looked toward Ania, made clear his belief in her. “By my doing so, her age, one way or another, will be of no importance, and by law, it should also take care of the problem of her having no one to see to her well-being."
The comandante looked at him in surprise. "You would take that responsibility?" he exclaimed.
"Sí, I would be honored to do so if Señorita Valdéz will recognize and accept my authority in this matter," Don Alejandro stated, looking questioningly at Ania.
Ania met Don Alejandro's eyes. By accepting his offer to, in effect, act as her parent in looking out for her legal interests, she could technically be giving up final word on her land. An unscrupulous man, under the guise of administering the land for her, could use the land as he saw fit and the law would, in many cases, recognize his right to do so. However, Ania hesitated only long enough to compose her response. Gracefully, she dropped into a deep curtsy where she remained with her head slightly bowed. "As a father you shall be to me," she replied with the formal response taught to her when she was younger.
Don Alejandro quickly stepped past Diego to take her hand and raise her from her curtsy indicating his recognition of her response.
Diego crossed his arms and glanced at the comandante. Smiling he said, "That would appear to take care of your objections as to her having no family to depend on, Capitán Rodríguez." The humor the young caballero seemed to find in the situation shone in his eyes as he took pleasure in the way his father had outmaneuvered the comandante at his own game of legalities.
"You will, of course, draw up the papers immediately, comandante," Don Alejandro stated as he gave him a cold stare, "and reinstate the grant papers, as well."
From the sour look on the comandante's face, it was clear that he was not happy with the turn of events, but he did begin to write out the documents. Very shortly thereafter, they were signed and registered.
Outside once more, Diego helped Ania into the carriage and climbed up beside her, as his father and Bernardo both mounted their horses. She turned to his father, smiling in gratitude. "I do not know how to thank you enough, Don Alejandro. I do not think there was anything I could have said that would have changed his mind."
"You are most welcome, Ania. I could not stand there and see you cheated out of the chance to make something of that land. I believe, if given the chance to, you will do extremely well in all your plans. I am honored that you accepted my offer so quickly." He smiled down at her for a moment. "Many would have thought longer on it."
Ania shook her head as she returned his smile. "An offer from a trusted friend does not have to be contemplated long. It becomes more and more clear that God was good to allow fate to cast me practically on your doorstep. If I have learned nothing else the last few weeks, I have learned that you...both of you," she stressed as she turned her smile on Diego, "would wish only the best for me and would act accordingly. Gracias, Don Alejandro."
"De nada, Ania. I shall be most gratified to be allowed, a year from now, to see you put that man in his place as you pay off that grant tax. I have no doubt that you will do just that. Now, unless there is some other way I may help you, I will be returning to the hacienda. I have matters that must be attended to," Don Alejandro said as he turned his horse homeward. “Perhaps you and Diego can find something less irritating than this visit to the comandante to do on this, your first outing since coming here.”
As he picked up the reins, Diego turned to Ania. "Well, amiga, where to now?" he asked with a smile, gesturing to the world in general. "I am at your service. Do you still feel up to looking at your land? Or perhaps you would like to do some shopping, since you have had no chance until now?"
As Ania glanced around the plaza, Diego sensed her mood change. Her face was solemn as she turned to him. "Gracias no, Diego (Ok, I need someone’s opinion who speaks Spanish. I’m confused. In this Spanish phrase, do we put the comma between gracias and no or leave it out? I thought that it was one phrase without a division.)," she said slowly. "But, are we not near the cemetery were Juan and Papá are buried? I must visit their graves to say my farewells. I dread doing it, but it is something that I must do."
"Sí, it is not far from here, but are you sure you are ready to do this now?" Concern filled Diego's face as he looked closely at his young friend. She was still pale and he knew that she tired easily. "I am sure that is not the destination my father meant when he suggested we extend our outing. The first visit to a loved one’s grave is always the hardest."
"Es verdad,"Ania said softly, looking away and gently biting her lower lip in indecision. After a moment, she squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. "However," she continued in a firmer voice, "I do not believe time will make it any easier. I will go now. That, too, is a part of what I owe my brother and father as I start all this, is it not?"
“Sí, if you feel you are ready. However, I am sure neither of them would blame you for waiting until you are totally well,” he replied gently.
Ania straightened her back and raised her head to meet his eyes. They were filled with a determination that would not be denied. “I assure you I am ready now, Diego. You must not worry about me so. My father was a strong man and there is much of my father in me,” she declared.
“I do not doubt the truth of that one bit, Ania, not a bit.” He smiled reassuringly at her before turning to Bernardo to gesture their intentions, indicating that he was to follow them. With a flick of the reins, they proceeded in silence to the cemetery at the western edge of the pueblo.
Regardless of her determination to be just as strong as her father would have wished, when Diego helped Ania down from the buggy, he felt a slight tremble to her hand and her eyes looked haunted. His heart told him that he needed to be with her through this. Yet, as he took her arm to accompany her, she turned to him with a wane smile, and gave his arm a grateful squeeze. "Gracias, Diego, but I think I need to do this alone."
"Are you sure?" he asked. At her nod, he said quietly, "I am here if you need me." He watched with concern as she gave him a grateful smile, then walked to the two graves a short distance away. He remembered so well his own experience when, ten years before, he had visited his own mother’s grave for the first time. No determination, no force of will could truly prepare one for such an experience. Yet it was a very personal thing and Ania’s wishes must be considered.
Ania, at first, felt oddly detached, as if she were watching a stranger. Her heart wanted to object that this was not real, that Papá and Juan were just away on business and this was some horrible mistake. Surely within a few days, Juan would come striding in the door, teasing her unmercifully with Papá a few steps behind, laughing at his children’s good natured bickering. No, she reminded herself firmly. This is no cruel fantasy or trick. This is real and I much accept it. Numbly, she read the names on the rough markers, slowly running her fingers over the words as she did so. The wood of the crosses was rough under her fingertips. It felt as course and hard as the reality she was facing. These simple markers were not what they deserved any more than they had deserved to die here in a land where no one other than her knew or loved them. They deserved so much more. "I really must order something more suitable," she thought. She wondered what would be fitting enough for what she felt and where she would find such a monument. She really should make that decision soon.
Decisions.... How many times had she and her father argued over her ability to make her own decisions? Tears finally began to come as she thought guiltily about arguing with him just that last night after returning to their rooms. How proudly she had stated that she was capable of ordering her own life as she saw fit. Her father had merely laughed good-naturedly at his daughter's not uncommon temper. Turning on her heel, she had gone into her own room, slamming the door behind her. How she wished she could take it back!
Well, now she would be making those decisions, all of them, on her own. Ania suddenly dropped to her knees at the foot of the graves, her grief threatening to break her into little pieces once again. Reaching out and touching each grave, she thought of the plans both men had made for the new property. "I swear to you, I will see this through,” she declared aloud. “I will remember the things I have been taught and the self-reliance you both taught me. It will be done just as you wished, I promise on all that is holy!"
Diego’s heart ached for Ania as he saw her drop to her knees. Although he honored her wishes in this, he knew how alone she must be feeling. As she knelt, he quietly walked up to stand behind her, resisting the urge to reach out to her.
"Ania," he said softly, "it will be all right." As she rose and stood, still with her back to him, he gently laid his hands on her arms.
At his touch, Ania wanted nothing more than to
turn to him and bury her face against his chest, taking shelter from the
reality of it all. Instead, she squeezed her eyes tightly shut and managed
to again lock her grief away inside. I have got to be strong, she
thought to herself. If I accept pity now, I will fall apart.
I swear I will not do that, not in front of Diego. He and his
father have all ready done so much for me. If I give in to my weakness
now, I will be letting them down, just as I will my father and Juan.
She quickly wiped her eyes. There is too much to do for this! she
thought fiercely. She stood for a second longer allowing herself the
luxury of the comfort he offered. Then she squared her shoulders and
lifted her chin. As she turned and walked back to the buggy, Diego saw
that her eyes, though reddened, were once again dry and filled with
determination. However, a new emotion was also visible in their green
depths. A bitterness seemed to lurk there, one that looked out of place in
eyes so young and beautiful.