Forge of Shadows

by

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

Over the coming weeks, life began to follow a predictable pattern for Ania. She had almost gotten used to the presence of the burly vaquero whose hiring as her bodyguard had been the outcome of her early morning conversation with Don Alejandro. Bastián did not make a light-hearted companion, but he did, no doubt, deter any who would approach her with less than her best interests at heart, she supposed. The happy fact that there had been no further "exciting" events (as Zorro had phrased it), did little to keep her from feeling more confined than comforted by his presence. Every time Ania left the hacienda, Bastián followed like a shadow. Ania had soon found that he was about as companionable as a shadow as well. She had learned early on that he was not a talker, responding to most comments with grunts, and to most direct questions with as few words as possible. Ania found that the more she could pretend he was not there, the better.

Such was the case now. Ania sighed as she reined in Ventura again. Shortly after signing on as Ania's bodyguard, Bastián had deliberately commented in front of Don Alejandro that any protection he managed to provide for the señorita would undoubtedly be minimal. He stated that Ania was like a crazy woman who thought of every ride as a race. He added that it would be hard to protect anyone from inside a cloud of dust from four leagues behind. When Don Alejandro reprimanded him for referring to Ania in such terms, Bastián had merely shrugged, indicating that he had been hired to protect the señorita. If he was unable to do so, well, he wished the next bodyguard better luck, and the señorita, as well. While scowling at the bodyguard, Don Alejandro had, none the less, taken her aside and cautioned her to travel at a more reasonable rate, for her own good. He had neither scolded nor ordered her compliance, as her father would have done. However, his worry for her safety had been so clear that Ania willingly did as she was asked. Ania frowned. Don Alejandro did, indeed, seem very burdened by her situation. It was just as she had feared when she had told Zorro that she did not wish to involve him. She tried to comply with his wishes as to her comings and goings as much as possible, but she felt as restless as Ventura acted under the circumstances.

Things were going well on her land. The shell of her own hacienda now stood on the mesa overlooking young vines in one direction and healthy, older vines laden with fruit in the other. As soon as the casa was completed, she would be moving into it. She should have felt proud and, even anxious for that day, but, if truth were told, she dreaded it. She enjoyed the company of both of the de la Vega men and the thought of living with only her servants to provide companionship was not pleasing. She would especially miss the surprisingly rare times she was able to spend with Diego. While lacking the boldness she had observed in the handsome outlaw, Zorro, she found herself more and more drawn to the character of the young caballero. She found his wit and gentleness particularly endearing, even as she perceived a surprising strength within him, despite his avowed passive nature.

Ania sighed. She had once felt that she would be able to control the feelings of her own heart. She was finding that not to be the case. She feared very much that her heart was going where it was not entirely wanted. For though, she could tell from the way he looked at her that Diego cared for her and very much enjoyed being with her, he had not at any point indicated that they could become anything more than they were, dear friends. Not that, she had to admit to herself, she could have felt free to respond to a romantic relationship, even had he seemed so inclined. Her vow to her father's memory came first now...and would continue to do so until it was fulfilled. Ania sighed again and forced her thoughts back to more practical matters.

As they reached the gate to the de la Vega hacienda, Ania and her bodyguard walked into the patio. Bastián took up his usual spot under the tree as Ania continued on into the sala. Neither Diego nor Don Alejandro were around as Ania removed her hat and riding gloves and seated herself before the fireplace.

María, one of the servants who worked inside the house, smiled at Ania. "Señorita Ania, I hope you found everything well at your rancho. Would you be needing anything?"

"Perhaps something to drink, María. Fruit juice would be fine. Gracias!" Ania replied gratefully.

"Sí, Señorita, at once.  Oh, while you were out, a message came for you. I placed it there on the table," María said as she left the room.

Ania picked up a sealed message from the table and looked at the seal. She frowned as she saw it was from Comandante Rodríguez. She remembered the last time she had received a message from him and she doubted the news would be any better now. Quickly scanning the sheet, she saw that it was a tax notice in the amount of 800 pesos. Considering that the rancho was still in the beginning stages of being developed, the amount was outrageous.

Over the weeks since the attack on her, Ania had tried to imagine a reason for someone to want either herself or her family out of the way. Perhaps the money they had been carrying had been reason enough for the first attack, but it could hardly have been the reason for the second. Ania could think of no one whom she had offended since arriving here. After much thought, the only thing that seemed to make any sense was that someone wanted her off her land, although she had not a clue why that might be. Rich in water though it was, she blocked water access to no one. In fact, the creek that flowed through her land had already passed through the lands of three other families before flowing over her property line. Whatever the reason, someone seemed to want the land.

As she thought of it, it occurred to her that the only person to even act displeased when they learned of the new ownership of the land was the comandante, and even he did not seem to have a particular reason for his displeasure. Ania shrugged.  Perhaps he needed no reason other than general disagreeableness. Whatever his reason, he definitely let no chance go by to charge his sky-high taxes. It occurred to Ania that if it was he who wanted her off her land, maybe he hoped she would refuse to pay such an unfair tax. The tax that was supposed to be paid from the land's development was not due for some time. However, if she refused to pay this current tax, the land could be seized even prior to that time. "Well, if that is what he thinks, then he will find my pockets deep and my determination long," Ania said out loud.

Ania thought of waiting for Don Alejandro or Diego to return. However, as her irritation at the comandante's tax built, she decided not to wait another minute. She would ride in herself, pay the tax, and have done with it. After all, it was she who was the landowner, not the de la Vegas. The responsibility was hers and she should need no one to hold her hand just to pay a tax.

Ania stalked up to her bedroom and, removing the clothes from a large trunk, lifted a false bottom. Choosing a sizable cloth bag, she opened it and peered in, counting the gold therein. She nodded.  That should be more than enough. With that thought, she walked resolutely out to the stables, gesturing for Bastián to follow. Without saying anything to the surprised servant who had just unsaddled Ventura, Ania began putting the tack back on the horse herself.

"Que pasa, patrona?" an equally surprised Bastián asked. "We just got back. Where are we going now?"

"I", Ania said forcefully, "am going to the comandante's office. Whether you choose to go with me to that snake's den is up to you." Ania turned and gave him a hard stare. "However, since playing nursemaid to me seems to be what I pay you for, do not expect to be paid for this trip if you do not go, but, as I said, that is up to you."  She then turned back to the horse, and, jerking the cinch tight, turned her attention to adjusting the headstall and bit.

Bastián mumbled under his breath about loco females and where they could go. He did, however, saddle his own mount and follow her out of the stables and onto the road to Los Ángeles.

Ania allowed Ventura to set the pace, with Bastián trailing behind as best he could. Within sight of the entrance to the pueblo, Ania turned as she heard Bastián shout behind her. She impatiently reined Ventura to a halt and turned to watch the bodyguard catch up. The man's mount appeared to be slightly lame in his right forelimb. Bastián dismounted and examined the horse's hoof.

"He has thrown a shoe, Señorita Valdéz. I do not think he has had any lasting injury but I will have to have the shoe replaced immediately," he said as he allowed the horse's hoof to drop back to the ground.

Ania looked toward the pueblo of Los Ángeles impatiently. Bastián would have to travel more slowly than she. Ania knew that she could go to the comandante, pay his accursed tax, and come to the blacksmith's shop, all before Bastián could complete having the horse reshod.

"Bastián, you go on and take him to the blacksmith's shop. I will meet you there as soon as I conclude my business with Comandante Rodríguez," she said after a moment's thought. "I am unlikely to need you so close to the pueblo."

"As you think best," he replied as Ania turned Ventura again and galloped off in a cloud of dust.

Sergeant García and Corporal Reyes were crossing the plaza as Ania trotted in and reined up beside them. "Buenas tardes, Señorita Valdéz, and how are you today?" García said as he looked up at her.

Ania smiled at the two soldiers. She had met the rotund sergeant the first day she was ashore and had since learned more of him as a friend of Diego's. While neither was among the brightest examples of his Majesty's lancers, both seemed to have good hearts and, more often than not, something about them lightened her mood and left her with a smile. Today was no exception.

"Muy bien, sergeant...corporal.  I hope your day is going well," Ania greeted them.

"Sí, and now it goes even better since you have graced our fair streets, señorita," García said in an attempt at gallantry. Ania fought to keep her face from betraying her amusement as Reyes, standing behind García, sharply rolled his eyes toward the higher-ranking man. The smaller man's face clearly showed what he thought of García's attempt. "What brings you here today?" García continued.

"I have business with your comandante. Is he about?" Ania asked.

"Sí, he is. But he is not in a very good mood, Señorita Ania. Perhaps you would rather return at another time," he suggested.

Ania shook her head. "No, sergeant. My business should take very little of his time and, unpleasant or not, I would prefer to have done with it."

"As you wish. The corporal and I were just on our way to conduct some business or we would be happy to escort you to his office.  As it is..." the sergeant stated.

"But, sergeant, we have no business," Reyes interrupted. "We were just going to the cantina to...."

The corporal stopped with a grunt as García's elbow nudged him none too gently in the ribs.

Ania carefully kept her face neutral as she pretended not to hear his comment. "No, that is quite all right, sergeant. Thank you for the offer but I know how busy you are. I would not dream of distracting you from your duties."

García smiled. "Very well then, señorita. I hope to see you again soon." Giving her a polite nod, both soldiers continued on across the plaza and into the door of the cantina.

Ania laughed softly to herself and she guided Ventura on up to the rail in front of the cuartel's commanding officer's office. As she dismounted and tied the reins, Ania recognized the comandante's own horse standing lazily beside her own.

At that moment, the door opened and old Josephat, the Indian beggar, shuffled out, something clutched tightly in his hands. When he saw Ania, the feeble-minded old man smiled with delight.

Luisa had always taught Ania that the simple-minded had been touched by the very finger of God and were due respect for that very reason. In addition, Ania found that they often saw things of the common world in a different way. One that could, if one allowed it to, point out the hidden beauty in things that most people missed. "Hola, Josephat. What have you there, my friend?"

Josephat grinned at the lovely lady who always seemed to have a kind word and a smile for him. Without hesitation, he extended his hand and uncupped his fingers. From the look on his face, Ania could see that he felt that he was sharing a rare treasure with her. There nestled on his dirty palm was what looked to be half of a white crystalline geode. The outside had odd streaks of some light gray mineral interspersed with one of dull green, but the inside of the geode was what caught her attention. The hollow center of the geode was lined with quartz crystals, which flashed and sparkled in the late afternoon sun like so many diamonds. Josephat eyes shone and he babbled to himself as he turned the geode this way and that to catch the light.

Ania smiled at him. "Oh, Josephat, take good care of that. It is indeed beautiful."

Josephat laughed softly to himself as he slowly turned and shuffled toward the side of the building.

Ania walked around and unhooked the saddlebag on the far side of Ventura. Just as she reached into it to lift the bag of money out, Comandante Rodríguez himself dashed out of the door, his face a mask of rage.

"Stop, you thieving Indian!" the red-faced man yelled. "What do you think you are doing? Give that back!"

Josephat immediately cringed to the ground, his hands tightly clutching his precious geode to his chest.

"Idiota! Give me that!" Rodríguez reached to pry the geode away from the cowering Indian. "Give it back, you filthy, thieving redskin! Estúpido!"

Josephat merely clutched it tighter.

Rodríguez raised a riding whip that Ania had not noticed until now. "Give it back…Now!" the angry man demanded, every word accented with a blow from the whip.

The feebleminded old man moaned with fear and pain, but still refused to release the rock.

Ania had seen enough. In outrage, she stepped from behind her horse. "There will be no more of that, comandante! How dare you beat this man for picking up a rock! For shame, señor!" Ania attempted to put all the command and haughtiness she had ever heard her father use with inferiors into her voice as she spoke.

Her appearance had a surprising effect on the officer. He whirled toward her, his face filled with alarm and dismay. He paled beneath his tan. "Señorita Valdéz!" he stammered.

Ania was pleased with the effect, even though she was puzzled by it. She raised her head haughtily. "Comandante Rodríguez, I was told that you were in a foul humor. I was not told that you had taken leave of your senses."

The comandante said, "He...he stole something from me." His eyes darted to Josephat still clenched hand.

"So I gather," Ania said dryly. "Are you always so attached to rocks, señor?"

Looking closely at Ania's face, the comandante seemed to recover himself slightly. "I do not have to defend my actions to you, señorita. Why should you care what I do to this thief?"

Ania took a moment to control her own anger. "Surely you can see that this man is hardly more than a child in a man's body. One should not treat one touched by God in such a manner.  Indeed, I would object to such treatment, even of a dog, Comandante Rodríguez. How could I not speak up when you treat a man this way, señor?"

"Man?!  Bah! He is no man.  He is of no use to himself or his people. And by what right do you criticize me, señorita? You, who would play at being the proud landowner.  You will be gone just as soon as you see how miserably you can fail at such an endeavor.  You are no more than a visitor to our pueblo. You stay only because the de la Vegas took pity on someone without the wit to see that she did not belong here," Rodríguez spat. He reached again to try to snatch the geode. Babbling in fear, Josephat scrambled behind Ania and cringed behind her skirt.

Ania glared at the capitán, her narrowed eyes filled with green fire as she laid her hand on Josephat’s back, comforting him as one would a child. "One need only be human to object to the mistreatment of another, comandante." She fought to retain a grip on her temper but felt that she was within an inch of forgetting herself and raging just as he had done. With a calmness she did not feel, Ania looked down to where a jet brooch sparkled on the front of her black riding habit. She quickly unpinned the brooch and, ignoring the angry comandante, bent down to show it to the Indian. "Look, Josephat. Do you like my pretty? See how it flashes as you move it," she said in a quiet voice.

Josephat was intrigued, even though he was not quite ready to give up the geode. He looked up at the now smiling señorita with interest.

"And see, here on the back is a pin.  You can place it like so." Ania slowly fastened the brooch to the beggar's rough homespun shirt. "There. Is that not pretty, Josephat? Now you can use your hands for other things. Who knows?  You might even find even prettier rocks of your own. Well, Josephat, do we have a trade?" Ania slowly extended her hand for the geode.

Josephat sat gazing at her hand with a puzzled expression for a minute. Ania kept her hand still and gradually Josephat extended his hands and gently laid the geode in her outstretched palm. Ania remained still as Josephat slowly looked down at the black brooch and began rocking it so that it sparkled in the light. Only when he looked back up at her with the same pleased expression she had first seen on his face did she pull her hand and the geode toward her and turn back to the comandante.

"Here, Comandante Rodríguez. Since I know you will hound this man until he returns your rock, I have gotten it for you. Amazing that you did not think of doing what I just did.  Why, you might even have managed to get through this without looking like a fool, comandante."

Rodríguez snatched the geode from her hand. "Señorita, be wise enough to mind your own business from now on!" With that, he turned on his heel and stalked into the office, slamming the door behind him.

Ania stood looking at the closed door for a minute. "You are welcome, comandante." she finally said sarcastically through her gritted teeth. Turning at a sound behind her, she saw that Josephat had decided to find a friendlier place to be. Still seething, Ania saw that he might be right. As she was preparing to mount Ventura, Ania was surprised to notice that the mare was flinching and nervously stamping her feet with each swish of her full tail. Mumbling to herself of what she would do to the comandante if only she were a man, Ania began to examine her horse to find the problem. As she ran her gloved fingers through the silky tail, she found a surprisingly large clump of a cactus-like bush called a thorn tree. With each swing of her tail, Ventura had in effect been swatting her flank with a cactus. No wonder she was flinching! Ania started to throw the clump of thorns aside when she suddenly stopped and stared at it. It was true that as a woman, she could not challenge the comandante, but that did not mean she was powerless.  Slowly, Ania began to smile.

Glancing quickly toward the door, she stepped between Ventura and the comandante's horse. Carefully, she raised the back edge of the other horse's blanket. Gently, she pushed the thorns as far under the comandante's saddle as possible. The horse looked around in alarm at the unpleasant sensation on her back. She stamped her feet, but otherwise put up with it. "I am sorry, my friend," Ania said to the horse. "If you put on a really good show for your master when next he climbs on your back, I might even sneak you an treat or two the next time I am in town."

Grinning to herself, Ania mounted Ventura and headed to the blacksmith's shop to meet Bastián. Only as she reached the blacksmith's shop did she think about the still unpaid taxes. "Well, no matter.  They can still be paid on the morrow. Now might not be the best time to return." Ania grinned even broader.

Bastián cast a puzzled look at his employer. Now, there is a mood change for you, he thought. "Your business must have gone well, patrona. What has you so pleased?" he said aloud.

Ania grinned mischievously at the bodyguard as she heard his question. "Prospects of the future, Bastián, merely prospects of the future," she replied cryptically.

Bastián shrugged, and, mounting, followed the puzzling young woman back toward home.

 

 

 

Chapter Ten
Chapter One
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