Forge of Shadows
The following day dawned clear and bright, the weather becoming warmer as spring approached. While Diego drove Ania to her property, she attempted to act as she always had, but he sensed that it was becoming increasingly difficult for her the further north they traveled. The seńorita seemed preoccupied, finally retreating into the plans written in her father’s journal, seemingly oblivious to the beautiful land they were traveling through. Toward the end of the trip, they left the main road and turned onto the remains of a narrow, long-unused path. At first low hills, then larger cliffs, arrayed in a seemingly endless variety of colors and shades, rose on each side. The small canyon, which the road followed, opened out into a broad valley, which ran to the east and then back to the west almost to the coast. Down the center of this valley ran a babbling creek, which was fed by smaller streams flowing from five lesser canyons leading off the large valley. For a while, they traveled along the edge of the creek. Ania looked at the sparkling water with a pensive expression. Then, as if she suddenly realized just how withdrawn she was becoming, she closed the journal firmly and looked ahead.
Seeing a landmark that she recognized from her father’s words, Ania began watching for the rather unusual location which he had chosen. "Papá's notes say that the site for the casa is over that way," she said at last, pointing toward the northwestward side of the mouth of the broad valley.
Diego nodded, "Yes, that would be about where I thought it would be. When I was a child there was an abandoned rancho here. On a large rise at the end of the valley, there was a hacienda, not as big as ours, but still large. The house burned down some time ago.”
Ania looked at him in surprise. "I was not aware there was ever anything here. Papá never mentioned previous owners. I wonder what happened to them".
"I am not sure," Diego replied. "I do not think anyone has lived there since before I was born. Ah, there is the rise I remember."
Ania peered ahead. She saw what looked like a large flat-topped hill extending from the northern edge of the valley. The sides of the hill gave the appearance of having been terraced. She nodded to herself.
"Yes, that is where Papá intended to situate our hacienda. He said that from there you could see the coastline." She thought for a moment. "I believe I shall still put it there."
When they had forded the babbling creek and come closer to the old
house site, they saw weatherworn,
overgrown steps leading up the sides of the terraces. While
Diego directed Bernardo in gathering up the picnic basket and other
materials that Ania had brought along, the young landowner gingerly
picking her way to the top. Then
she turned and looked up the valley.
Diego soon joined Ania, taking in the beauty of the valley where the unexpected green contrasted with the colors of the mountains and rocky foothills beyond. "The title to this land must have been held by absentee heirs or, perhaps, by someone in the royal court itself for land with this much water to remain unclaimed for so long." He smiled as he turned to her, "It shall make a most exceptionally beautiful rancho, as it should to match its terrateniente."
He saw that the compliment had gone completely unnoticed as Ania continued gazing into the distance. When she spoke, so low that he almost missed what she said, he realized that her comment was not truly in response to his words, but to something she was remembering.
"Sí, muy encantador," she whispered. Her expression was resolutely impassive, yet her eyes were filled with sorrow. In her mind, she could see her father's face as he talked about this land and his plans for it. He and Juan had talked endlessly of how they would have the most magnificent rancho anyone could imagine on this land. She felt the responsibility for seeing those plans take shape almost as a physical weight. Ania feared that she was not equal to the task, but she had to be. If she did not do it, then no one would. Oh, santos, let me not fail them, she pleaded silently.
Diego watched her, compassion softening his hazel eyes. Ania had seemed different since visiting the graves the day before, distant, as if she had closed a door between herself and others. It was not good for her to shut others out like this. It would only extend the sorrow. Yet, he knew that one must allow others to help. It was not something that could be forced on another. The "door" must be opened from within. Gently, he touched her arm.
Ania jumped at his touch. She glanced at him in surprise and then turned quickly away. Seeing the concern in his eyes, she realized just how much he saw of her inner turmoil. She fought to hide her feelings. Pity was not something she wanted from anyone, least of all from Diego! Get busy! she scolded herself. There is too much to do for your self-pity now. Then in a gesture he had become familiar with, she straightened her shoulders, raised her chin, and was once again the practical, dispassionate woman she wished the world to see. Giving Diego a quick smile, she turned and briskly walked to the far side of the mesa.
Diego watched her walk away, then turned to Bernardo who had just finished bringing their things from the carriage. Bernardo signed that he had observed the conversation and was also concerned for Ania. Then he shrugged, indicating there was nothing they could do but wait until...here he gestured at Ania and signed the opening of a door. Diego smiled, somewhat surprised and amused that the mute servant had chosen the same analogy that he himself had thought to apply to the situation. He nodded. Yes, she must be the one to allow them to help her. Until then, all they could do was be available if she needed them.
Gazing in the far distance westward, Ania could see what appeared to be sun on water. A slight breeze caressed her face, bringing just a hint of salt air. Papá had been right. Although there was an wide expanse of grassy land between the low mesa and the cliffs overlooking the ocean, they were close enough to see if you were standing on the western edge of the house site. From the top of a two-story hacienda, perhaps you would be able to see even more of it. Finally turning her eyes inland, she eagerly drank in the wonder of the valley that her father had loved so much. Below her, in a small box canyon of about five acres, was a profusion of vines that Ania had trouble identifying until she looked closely. Suddenly, she began laughing aloud. Behind her, Diego and Bernardo exchanged startled glances.
As Ania sat on a tumbled building stone and continued to laugh, Diego looked down at her with a look of concern and inquired,"Ania, are you alright?"
Ania looked at him in surprise. "What? Oh, sí, Don Diego. It is just that I have found Papá's surprise," she explained.
Diego looked around in puzzlement. Behind her, Bernardo glanced around and shrugged as his patrón looked at him. "Surprise?" Diego prompted.
Realizing how strange she must appear, Ania quickly brought her laughter under control and continued. "When Papá was planning our move, I found out that the grant was provisional. I was concerned about what we would be able to do in so short a period of time, as he was adamant that the vineyard come first. Since Juan never seemed concerned about it, I assumed that horses and cattle would make up the difference. I finally asked Papá point-blank about it. Don Diego, you never got to meet Papá, but I assure you that in his own way, he could be as big a rascal as Juan. He loved to tease me. Often, he would be mysterious just because he knew it annoyed me," she smiled and shook her head. "Anyway, all he would tell me was that there would be a surprise in a large box awaiting me that would explain everything. After he said that, I gave up in disgust and swore I would never ask him another question about it if I died of curiosity." She paused for a moment, her face thoughtful. "After everything that has happened, I forgot all about it until this moment."
The two men still looked puzzled, but as Diego glanced down at the smaller canyon, he realized that it was a box canyon. "That?" he asked as he began to figure out the riddle.
Ania nodded, "Sí, a "box" filled to overflowing with already established grapevines…Pedro Ximenex vines, unless I miss my guess. Those old established vines down there will not produce as many grapes as my new vines will in, say...oh, three years or so, but they will produce better grapes. The Oloroso wine from them should be enough to pay taxes and secure the land grant." Then she shook her head with a rueful chuckle, "However, that will take a tremendous amount of work to get back under control."
"Perhaps, now that you are back on your feet, you will allow us to help you secure workers to start the reclamation," Diego offered.
She smiled up at him briefly, then cast another look at the matted growth of vines below, considering his offer. She hesitated to depend on others more than necessary. It is I who have made a vow, not Diego and his father, she thought. Still, they do know the people here. They will know whom I can trust. "Gracias, Don Diego. The sooner we get started, the better." She shook her head slightly as she began trying to make sense of the overgrown area that could prove so important to any success she prayed for.
The rest of the stay was spent in observing and Ania making detailed drawings of the land as it was and as it would look as a working rancho. Diego watched as Ania used quick, sure strokes to modify the design of the hacienda. Porticos, more suitable to Florida's climate, were reduced or eliminated as the symmetry of the whole building was changed to blend better with the surrounding area. The resulting casa looked less like the plantation houses Ania was familiar with, and more like the larger houses in California, yet with some characteristics of both.
"You draw quite well," Diego commented as he looked closely at the detailed drawing of a walkway leading down from the patio to a path into the box canyon. He laid that plan aside and picked up one Ania had just finished of new, more elaborate steps that would eventually lead up to the front of the hacienda from the canyon floor.
"Gracias." Ania cocked her head as she changed a detail on a bay window. Then she smiled rather grimly. "It was one of the few things that I learned in Spain that was to my liking. That and the time I spent riding were what kept me sane while I was there."
"Oh? I would have thought that the affluence and culture of the Motherland would have been a relief after the troubles plaguing Florida at that time. I found it quite a pleasant place," Diego stated.
Ania glanced at him as she said simply, "Obviously, Don Diego, you did not go with a step-mother who was determined to remold your character." She looked up, a frown flickering across her face at some memory.
The following weeks passed quickly as Ania busied herself with planning the work needed and hiring workers to help. She did her best to follow her father's practice of hiring men with families. Perhaps an odd man for his class and time, he was always concerned for the welfare of those who worked for him. Not only did you often get steadier workers with family men, but often helped those with several mouths to feed by providing odd jobs for the women and children in the families. These extra workers usually stayed on when full-time jobs were available with the Valdézes so employer and employee both benefited from this practice. To be sure of the character of those she hired, Ania depended greatly on Don Alejandro and Don Diego. Padre Felipe had also sent letters of recommendation with three of the men giving information which he felt would be helpful.
For Ania, time could not go fast enough. Her arm no longer hurt and the splint had become an irritation. It seemed to be always in the way. She often refused to keep it in a sling and threatened to remove the bothersome thing herself rather than tolerate it another day. Rosita, more mindful of her health than Ania herself, always managed to find ways to convince her mistress to put up with it just a bit longer.
Finally, Dr. Mendoza returned and declared the bones healed. As the splint was removed, Ania felt that she could dance for joy. All she could think of was being able to ride again, now that she was no longer bound by her promise not to ride until the arm was healed. For this was the true reason for the irritation with the arm. Ania never felt more alive than when she was on horseback and it seemed a lifetime ago since she had ridden. Her friends had been kind enough to see that someone could always drive her to her land when she needed to go, but a carriage was a poor second to having a fast horse under you and the wind whistling past you as you rode.
Don Alejandro had graciously offered her the pick of the many fine horses in their herds. Diego had promised to show her several he thought suitable just as soon as her arm was healed. Well, the arm was healed now. She even had appropriate riding outfits in her mourners’ black. Now, to her great disappointment, Diego was nowhere to be found. So great was her excitement over the prospect of having her own horse again that she found it hard to alight anywhere but, rather, paced like a caged cat.
Diego would have been taken by surprise by her mood, had not Bernardo intercepted him before he entered the patio. Diego was tired, having been busy by night as well as by day for the last few weeks. At first, all he got of what his manservant gestured was something about Ania, a cat, and horses. Diego shook his head in puzzlement. "Whoa! Start again. What's all this about Ania or our horses being ...what? Attacked by a cat?" He frowned. Considering that Bernardo’s expression showed more exasperation than alarm, that made no sense at all.
Bernardo rolled his eyes and threw up his hands in a frustrated gesture, then began again more slowly.
Diego began to chuckle as he understood more of the message. "Ania," he began to translate aloud, "is waiting to...oh, pounce like a cat...on me? For what? Oh, I had totally forgotten that I was to help her choose a horse." Bernardo shook his head and gestured that if his master had forgotten, Ania definitely had not. The usually easy going servant stood, fists on hips, looking at Diego as if he had reached the end of his patience. It was up to his patrón now. Diego laughed again. Ania was not usually hard to please and had been a favorite of many of the servants ever since she was first able to sit on the patio, but, obviously, her impatience was such that it was felt in no uncertain terms by anyone around her. "Well, tired or not, I had best take care of this promise immediately. Otherwise, no one will be given any peace." Bernardo nodded and looked relieved as his patrón entered the gate.
It was well that he was warned, for Ania did, indeed, "pounce" on him as soon as he walked in. "Don Diego! Finally! Where have you been? Surely, you did not forget your promise."
"What? My promise?" Diego pretended confusion. "Oh, yes, I did promise to take you into the pueblo today, did I not?"
"The pueblo? What? No, no!" Ania snapped at him in confusion. "That is not...."
"Oh, of course not, it is that guitar lesson that you wanted which I have forgotten!" Diego continued without giving her time to finish.
"Yes, of course," Ania fumed sarcastically. "I always wear a new riding habit to play a guitar." She stalked to the table and flung her riding gloves down. "No, no, no. You promised...." As she turned back to him, she found him smiling down at her with laughter in his eyes and realized that he was teasing her. Snatching up her gloves, she threw them at him, only half in play.
Diego easily caught the gloves in the air and, reaching back, opened the door. He then stepped through, leaving Ania gaping after him in surprise. Ania slowly followed him, peering curiously through the door, not quite sure what to make of his actions. She found him casually leaning against the wall beside the gate, arms crossed across his chest, laughing quietly. "Now who is keeping who waiting?" he asked.
Ania could not help but laugh. "Diego, am I crazy or are you?"
"Would you expect a gentleman to answer that question?" He cocked an eyebrow and grinned broadly, leaving no doubt what his answer would have been.
Ania felt her heart skip a beat as he smiled at her. She really was becoming quite fond of him, much more than she should. She did, after all, have too much to do to become involved right now. Laughing aloud, she shook her head and stated, "Diego, just show me the horses."
Still smiling, the young caballero bowed gallantly, "As you wish, Seńorita Valdéz."
Ania, impatient mood all but forgotten, as had been Diego's intention, laughed as she walked ahead of him to the corrals.
Over the last month, the vaqueros had been rounding up the herds of both cattle and horses, some for branding, some of the cattle to butcher for their skins, and others for sale. Many fine horses were in evidence in the corrals. Along one side of the nearest corral, three of the fully broken and trained horses were tied awaiting her inspection. Ania walked carefully around them, examining each for good conformation and, as best she could, making a guess at the temperament of each. Years of experience were evident in the way she checked each horse. Nodding to herself as she ran her hands over a gelding's legs, Ania's attention was drawn to a nearby corral. There a beautiful mare paced the perimeter of the enclosure.
The mare was coal black with a somewhat feather shaped star marking her forehead and two white stockings. Her conformation looked perfect, with a small, well-shaped head balanced on a gracefully arching neck. Her coat, full mane and tail caught the light, casting it back with a soft gleam in the sunlight. But it was not her beauty which caught the young woman's eye, but the fire and spirit with which she pranced around the enclosure. Without another look at the three horses tied to the fence, Ania walked to the enclosure which held the mare.
"She is beautiful!" Ania said, her eyes never leaving the black horse. "Is she fully trained?"
Asking a nearby vaquero, Diego found that the mare had been broken for riding, but had had very little other training yet. "There is still a lot of work to do with her before she will be trustworthy." They leaned for a moment on the fence, admiring the spirited movements of the horse. Sensing the two humans' attention, the mare turned to watch them. Tossing her head, she continued keeping a cautious eye on them.
Ah, just look at her! Such energy, such life! Ania thought. I have had too much death around me. It is time I had something to again represent the joy of living. She had made her decision. "That is the one I want, Diego! She is exactly what I am looking for."
Diego looked at her doubtfully, "Ania, I doubt that she would be easily controlled. Perhaps after she has been trained for a while longer...."
Ania turned to him, a look of determination in her green eyes. "Diego, I was riding almost before I could walk. I assure you that I am quite capable of training my own horse, if need be. I can handle her! Just give me the chance to show you. Let us take a ride right now and you will see."
Diego looked at her for a moment, then back at the mare. "Well, I guess we shall see, but if the worst happens, we shall both have to answer to Father." He raised an eyebrow as he smiled down at her.
"Thank you, Diego!" Ania's eyes gleamed with excitement. "I promise you, you will not be sorry."
I certainly hope not, Diego thought as he turned to give instructions for the mare and his gelding to be saddled. He had no intention of taking chances with her safety, yet he was touched by Ania’s excitement. Just the thought of riding the horse seemed to rekindle the spark of light heartedness that had glowed in her eyes when he had first seen her. Perhaps that spark was worth the small danger that riding the new mare presented. After all, he reminded himself, it is not like we will be riding a wild, no-holds-barred race.
Minutes later, they were riding along the road toward Los Ángeles, Diego on relaxed old Paseo and Ania on the new mount. Tossing her head, the mare pranced and minced sideways as Ania used hands and legs to remind her who was in command. Occasionally, the horse would almost bounce on her forefeet, mouthing the bit and shaking her head as if her energy was almost too much to hold back. Far from being frustrated at her steed's behavior, Ania glowed with an inner joy that Diego had not seen in her before.
A mile or so from the hacienda, Ania gave up trying to hold a conversation and reaching down, gave a loving pat to the horse's neck. "I know what you need, my lovely girl. You want to run, do you not?" She glanced quickly at Diego; then back down at her horse. "Well, if that is what you wish, then run we shall." With only the slightest glance to ascertain road conditions ahead, Ania dug her heels into the mare's sides. The mare leaped forward almost before Diego realized what Ania had in mind.
Calling upon all the saints to preserve the reckless woman, Diego kicked his own horse into a run as he attempted to keep up with the mare and her rider. By all that was holy, what was she thinking to ride so recklessly after not having ridden in months?! Paseo was hard pressed to remain close behind the other horse.
Ania showed no sign of fear or lack of control as she leaned forward along the horse’s neck, allowing it to run as fast as it wished. She felt entirely in control of something for the first time in months. She knew it might not be wise to ride so recklessly after so long. Indeed, although she knew that she would pay a price in sore muscles the next day, she could not have cared less. She had been tied to the earth by grief and responsibility for so long, but now she felt as if she had merely to extend her arms and she and the horse would soar through the clouds, like Pegasus. She reveled in the feel of the wind in her face and the movement of the horse’s muscles under her. Her soul felt alive again.
Diego began to relax as he watched her effortlessly move with the horse. The horse was indeed beautiful and, if he had already had his own ideas as to the blood line running in the mare's veins, they were confirmed now as he noted with pleasure the horse's speed and surefootedness. Only one other horse he knew of ran with such speed and grace. Even as he thought this, Ania guided the horse slightly off the road and began jumping low obstacles as if to test the horse's ability. As he wondered whether to compliment Ania on her ability or scold her like a mischievous child for her brashness, he had to marvel at the horse's agility in doing what her new mistress asked of her. There was no doubt in his mind as he watched her. He was not sure of the exact relationship, but surely Tornado's own bloodline showed in the mare's appearance and spirit.
Finally, Ania brought the mare to a stop. A word of reprimand rose to his lips as Diego pulled up beside her, but remained unspoken as he caught the look on Ania's face. A look of pure joy and excitement filled her eyes and she seemed happier than he had ever seen her. The joy changed her lovely face to one of absolute beauty. Diego realized that he would give much to see the young woman this happy more often.
"Is she not beautiful, Diego?" Ania laughed as she patted the horse on the neck. "Did you see how fast she was? What a racehorse she would make! I doubt if she could be beaten."
"Sí, beautiful, indeed," Diego answered, his eyes on Ania rather than the mare.
Ania laughed as she realized that Diego was not speaking of the horse. "Gracias, amigo mio, but I mean my horse. Diego, have you ever seen a faster one?" Ania said as she blushed at his compliment.
"No, truly, Ania," Diego admitted as he pulled his mind back to the mare. "I can think of only one other that might be faster."
"You mean El Zorro's horse, Tornado, do you not?" Ania guessed.
Diego looked at her, startled that she should automatically draw that conclusion.
"Oh, I have heard all about that one," Ania nodded. "Faster than the wind and as sure footed as a mountain goat. All but uncatchable. I have encouraged the servants to tell me everything they hear about El Zorro. After all, he did save my life." Ania paused for a moment, wondering about the mysterious man others called the Dark Ángel. "I'd like the chance to thank him for that someday. Who knows? Maybe I will. Perhaps it would also be interesting someday to really know how my horse could measure up to Tornado as well. It would be nice to brag about having a brood mare as fast as Zorro's own steed. Can you imagine what a line of racers that could be the start of?" Ania grinned as she turned the now calm horse back toward home.
Diego smiled to himself as he watched the young
woman ride away. He laughed as he shook his head. He, too, would have to
admit that he would like to know if Tornado could be beaten. He did not
think so, but it was an interesting thought. Still amused, he turned Paseo
and joined Ania on the ride home.