Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve


The wind sighed softly around the trees clustered near the river's ford between Los Ángeles and the de la Vega property. The breeze whispered through the tall grass at the water's edge. Even in the moonlight the green brought by the abundance of water at this particular place was apparent. Anna María dismounted and sat on a small boulder to wait, soaking in the soft beauty of the night. There seemed an air of peace about the place. She prayed that the serene feeling was an omen of the beginning of the life and love of which she had dreamed. Somewhere not far away, coyotes howled, disturbing her calm. She shivered and turned in the direction of the sound.

From behind her came another quiet sound that set her heart pounding, the light crunch of gravel and dirt under a soft footstep. Whirling, she saw an ebony-clad figure step into the moon's glow from behind a tree.

"Zorro!" she cried. Without restraint, Anna María ran to him, all caution and modesty pushed aside in her joy to see him. However, she was not greeted with the kiss she had expected, nor did the black clad arms draw her to him as they had done when she had last seen him. These arms offered her comfort, but nothing more. Gently, his hands gripped her shoulders and pushed her back until the outlaw could meet her gaze. She stared up into the eyes behind the mask, trying desperately to read some emotion there, but without success. The moonlight did not allow for that. "I thought...I thought you would be happy to see me, Zorro. Something is wrong, is it not?"

"That depends on what you come here seeking. It is, however, always a pleasure to see a dear friend, Anna María," Zorro said.

"Perhaps it is shocking for me to come to you this way, but I had to talk to you," Anna María said, trying desperately to ignore the "dear friend" in his statement. She pushed ahead with the main reason she had come. "I have been thinking and thinking since I heard something two months ago. Indeed, I was nearly driven mad by a rumor that I had heard."

"What is that, Anna María? You know that I will help you if I can," he replied.

"I heard that you were dead!” She searched his eyes again, her own showing the anguish she had experienced. “I did not want to believe it was true, but for days no other word than that came from the Los Ángeles area. I was inconsolable. Until then, the danger you must have always faced did not seem real to me. You could not be hurt because...well...you were right and just and…because I loved you too much to imagine the world without you," she explained.

The eyes behind the mask reflected her pain. Zorro took a deep breath. "Anna María," he said gently, trying to interrupt her.

"Wait, just let me say what I have come all this way to say!" she cried, once again realizing from his tone that things were not going as she had expected. Apologies were not what she wanted from this man.

Zorro looked down, then back up at her silently.

"My father is no longer pleased with my desire that we be together,” Anna Maria continued. “He feels that I must move on with my life. Father wishes to arrange a marriage for me so that I will know love and a family of my own, he says. I have resisted this for so long now, waiting for the time when you would come back to me. You said that others depended on you and you could not let them down. I tried to accept that. I still cannot understand why you see this as YOUR burden, why yours and no one else's. Until this happened, I thought I had succeeded in accepting that, in holding on to what you said. Between the day I heard the rumor that you were dead and the day I was overjoyed to learn that you were really alive, something changed. I have come to you to ask...no... beg you to stop all this. Surely, the excitement and the people's acclaim cannot mean so much to you. Such things are not worth your life! Can you not see that?" Anna María pleaded, her eyes once again searching for reassurance in his.

Zorro looked at her solemnly for a moment, suddenly aware of how little this woman he once loved understood him. "I am sorry, Anna María,” he finally said. “I cannot do that. Excitement and acclaim have no part in why I do this. Look around! There are people who need help everywhere, high born and low, here, in this area, even in Monterey! Who else is there to help them, to stand up for them to the bandidos, the crooked politicians and greedy men whom our government often sends here to govern these people? I see no one eager to take up this fight. Would you have me abandon them to their fate when I can make a difference in at least a few of the cases? The people depend on me."

"Then let the people stand up for themselves!" Anna María cried adamantly. "There were wrongs committed before you appeared and there will be wrongs after you are gone! What difference will that make?"

Zorro was silent for a moment and then said quietly, "I am not responsible for what went on before, nor will I be held accountable for that which I cannot prevent when I am no longer physically able to do anything about it. However, I must do all I can to help the people here and now, to prevent and punish the injustices that I can. All of your arguments cannot change that!"

"You make it sound like God himself put you here for this very thing. Surely, you do not believe that," Anna María argued.

Zorro remained silent and found himself thinking of something Ania had said, something to the effect that God put you where you were needed. He was not really sure of this, but perhaps it was true. He had found himself oddly drawn to the people of the area, regardless of their station in life, and had found himself possessing just the skills and knowledge to do what needed doing. "However it happened, Anna María, I will not walk away from them now."

"Not even if that is the only way we can be together?" Anna María walked away from him and looked out over the water. "As I said, Father wishes me to marry. If you are not willing to do this, I have decided to agree to what Father wants. I would like to have a family of my own and children to love. I had dreamed they would be yours, but I cannot wait much longer. Also, I do not wish to forever be worrying, wondering if you will return safely from wherever you go and whatever you do. I do not wish to be made a widow by your trading your life for the life or rights of a peon."

There was silence for a few minutes.  Finally, Zorro spoke quietly.  "I am sorry. You will forever hold a very special place in my heart and memories, but I cannot do as you wish. I pray that you will find great happiness in the future and that you find someone who will love and cherish you as you deserve to be treasured," he said.

For a minute, he could see Anna María let her head drop down and her hands clench the sides of her riding habit. Then she straightened her shoulders and held her head high. "So, that is the way it will be. I truly did not believe that you would prove false to what we started in Monterey and to me." She took a ragged breath.

Guilt washed through Zorro. Santa Maria, forgive me for hurting her like this, he thought. He searched for words to comfort her, but very few came to mind. "I am sorry, Anna María. When I was in Monterey, I truly believed every word I said to you. I never meant to hurt you," Zorro began. "It is just...."

"What of you? Will you ever allow yourself the happiness of a home, a family?" she cut him off to ask. Then she made one of the flights of logic he had heard women sometimes did. "This is not just about your dedication, is it? There is someone else?"

There was a pause before Zorro answered. "Sí," he finally said truthfully, "there is."

"And does she, this other woman, know who you really are?" she wanted to know. "You were willing to tell her?"

"Sí," Zorro confirmed. "She knows, but I did not tell her. She realized that on her own."

"How can she possibly love you?" Anna María demanded as she whirled to face him again. "How can she do that and live with having you ride out and possibly being killed for someone else? Why would she allow it if she truly cared for you?"

For a moment, Zorro looked around at the beauty surrounding them, the ford and grove of trees where he and Ania had walked before he had been injured. By choosing this place to meet, Anna María had assured that a sense of Ania's presence would be there with them. She could not have known that, but this was probably the worst place for her to have argued her case, though nothing could have changed what he had told her. As he listened to Anna María's last question, Zorro heard Ania again in his mind as they had been having their heart to heart talk in the cave just before his father and Bernardo had returned. ‘Diego, your life is more important to me than my own,’ Ania had said, ‘but your happiness is even more important to me than your life.’ "Perhaps it is because she sees just a little further into my soul and heart than anyone else, Anna María," he finally said.

Anna María stood silent, hands clenched together, head raised proudly, but he could see that tears were just under the surface. Zorro looked at her solemnly, then gently reached out, and taking one of her hands, kissed it. "Good bye, Anna María," he said. Turning, he was gone, once again part of the shadows under the trees.

Anna María stayed at the ford for quite some time afterwards, letting the cleansing tears flow and coming to accept all that he had told her. When she sadly, but calmly, rode back to the Hacienda de la Vega, she was resolved to start her life again on a new road. After all, she bore a proud name. There were indeed many more fish in this sea.

As she rode, she never realized that there was someone following her, someone who wanted to be very sure she reached home safely, someone who wished the best for her even if he could not be a part of it.

As Zorro watched Anna María enter the patio gate, he took a deep breath. Anna María was now free of the bonds he had carelessly placed on her when he left Monterey, so were he and Ania. Tonight's sadness and finality had left an ache deep within him, one that could be filled only one way. Silently, he turned Tornado and headed north. Before long, he found himself carefully scaling the sides of the plateau where Ania's casa grande waited. Soon he stood beneath her balcony and unfurled his whip. Looking up, he could see that candles were still lit in her room. He smiled. If he knew his Aniasita as he thought he did, she had been unable to sleep. He knew that, though she clung to the promise of his love, she still was very uncertain about his meeting with Anna María. He wanted very much to end her worry.

Almost soundlessly, he flicked the end of the whip around the balcony railing and pulled himself up. Just as he turned to remove the whip, the door swung open, casting a wedge of light onto the balcony. Instinctively, he flattened himself against the wall and waited to see what would happen.

"Señorita Ania, I will place this warm cocoa right here beside the bed. Perhaps it will help you sleep. Would you like me to stay longer with you? We could both sew a bit more if you wish," he heard Rosita's voice say.

"Ah, gracias no, Rosita," Ania's voice answered. "I will be fine now. I appreciate the offer, but you go on to bed. I am sure I will soon get drowsy. Do not worry about me. Get some rest."

"Sí, señorita. Buenas noches," Rosita said. There was the sound of the door to the room closing quietly.

At the same moment, Ania stepped out onto the balcony. At first, Zorro stood where he was, smiling as he watched her. She was dressed in a soft robe and gown and had just thrown a delicate crocheted shawl around her shoulders. Her hair hung like a dark waterfall down her back, gleaming in the moonlight as she stepped to the rail. He heard her sigh. "Diego," she whispered as she gazed southward toward where the ford would be in the darkness, "I wish I knew what was going on now. I wish I could know for sure." Pensively, she leaned her head against the iron post.

"Ania!" he breathed as he pushed himself away from the shadows, startling her.

Quickly, the alarm left her face and she flung herself into his arms. "Diego! I am so glad you are here, mi amor! I know I should not have worried. I do trust you, but..." she confessed, her words tumbling over one another.

Zorro stopped her words as he had done before, pulling her to him and enfolding her in his strong embrace. The intensity of his kiss left her clinging to him, longing for more, knowing that were she to do as her whole being wanted now, she would not let him leave her tonight. They both knew that that could not be, so after another less desperate, more tender kiss, they merely stood in each other's arms looking out at the summer night.

"So, you talked with Anna María? She knows now?" Ania asked as she rested her head against his chest.

"Sí, she knows now, Ania. I am afraid that I have hurt her badly with all of this. I did not mean to, but it is still so," he said and then sighed deeply.

"I know that, Diego, and so too, will she realize that Zorro did not lie to her. His life had merely moved on in ways he did not expect. Someday, when her life has moved on as well, she will look back and see that all things change. Even she will change now that she knows that she is not bound by pledges made in haste, however right they had once seemed. Some bonds get stronger, but some change to another form entirely. While you are fierce when you must fight for right, there truly is not a mean bone in your body, Diego, and someday Anna María will realize that about Zorro as well," Ania stated as she cupped his face in her hands.

"If all things change, Ania, how can you be so sure of things?" he asked. He smiled, already feeling that he knew her answer in his heart.

"Because we are part of each other even now. I shall remain always by your side, doing whatever I can to help you. Perhaps that is why God sent you to save me that day. Maybe He knows that even Zorro needs someone to depend on and you can do just that forever. Even when, someday, I am too busy handling the mischief of our children, children who will no doubt pay me back for the all mischief I used to create, too busy to give you my undivided attention, you will watch me doing it and know that in my heart, I still do it all for you and you alone. With such a testament before you, our love WILL change. It will grow stronger. I love you too much to accept anything else, Diego de la Vega!" Ania stood on her tiptoes to kiss him, gently at first and then more passionately as he again pulled her tightly to him.

He finally pushed himself back away from her, almost painfully aware of the thinness of the layers of silk and satin separating them. Does she even realize the effect she is having on me? Is she feeling the same thing for me? he wondered as he sternly controlled his thoughts and actions. As he looked into her eyes, he realized that Ania was, indeed, as caught up in the moment as he. They were playing with fire here, a wonderful precious flame that they could someday release and encourage, but now was not the time. He bent and gently kissed her again. Reluctantly, he backed away from her. "Ania, I should be g..." he started.

From below the balcony, a previously unnoticed dog suddenly began a furious barking, sure to bring the guards. Quickly, Zorro pulled himself back into the shadows at the end of the balcony. "Go away, perro!" Ania yelled down at the pesky dog. "Oh, shut up, will you? Can I not stand on my own balcony without being brayed at?"

One of Ramón's guards came dashing around the corner. Ania moved a bit so that her body blocked the guard's view of the end of the balcony. "Is everything all right, Señorita Valdéz? There must be someone or something around for this guard dog to react this way. He is a steady one and not easily upset. Can you see anything unusual from there?" the guard asked in concern.

"No, the loco thing just came around here and when he saw me standing on my own balcony, he had the audacity to bark at me. There is nothing amiss anywhere here, except that I will not be able to sleep for his infernal barking. Please, Private, take that dog and tie him up around front. I wish to enjoy the moonlight here for a while longer and he is irritating me. Being barked at quite ruins the peace of the night."

After a careful look all along that side of the casa, the guard must have admitted to himself that the dog was overreacting, for he did take the dog back to the other side with him and tie it securely.

Ania sighed as Diego eased back into the moonlight with her. Both gazed cautiously back in the direction the guard and dog had gone. Ania finally spoke first. "Diego, you really must go now. Much as I wish you could stay, it is safer for you to leave. I will not have you endangered just so that I can feel your arms around me longer."

"Sí, you are right, Ania," he said, as he stepped over the balcony railing.  He stopped and looked back at her. "Te amo, Lady Emerald Fire. I will see you as soon as I can tomorrow." Then after receiving another kiss from Ania, he silently swung down and dropped to the ground below. Within minutes he was out of sight, on his way back to the cave, home and his own bed. Ania stood for a few more minutes, gazing in the direction he had gone, then sighed and returned to her room. Her mind relieved of its worry, she was soon asleep, dreaming very pleasant dreams indeed.

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The next few days were odd ones. Ania felt as if she were walking on eggshells whenever she was around Anna María. Now that she no longer felt threatened by her presence, Ania found that Anna María was not hard to like. Gradually, the two found quite a few interests, which they shared and spent many hours talking.

As Anna María opened up with her and let her know the outcome of her conversation with Zorro, Ania tried to point out how such things can happen with no intent on the other person's side. "Look at Diego and me," she offered. "Ours is not a "love-at-first-sight" type of love. We had known each other some months before we realized what was happening and only in the last three months has it become so undeniable. Perhaps this new love of Zorro’s developed in just this way. Perhaps it happened so slowly and naturally that it surprised even him. Zorro has always seemed to me to be a very wonderful person. He must care a great deal for other people to do the things he does. I am sure he would not have done anything to hurt you deliberately."

“I would like to believe that, Ania, but I just do not know. Who can say? It seems that you and Tía Alicia knew better than I did. Perhaps all that I thought went on between us in Monterey was merely within my own mind. Maybe Zorro was just a rogue taking kisses from a young girl because she let him. I was such a fool!” Anna María sighed and looked away.

Ania knew she would never regret the love between herself and Diego. Nothing would make her wish to change anything. Yet she felt as if her heart would break for this woman’s pain and her own part in it. She sought desperately for words to comfort Anna María, but few came. “Oh, I’m sure that is not so, Anna María. It is just that time moved on and Zorro with it. Luisa always said that it is not absence that makes the heart fonder, but shared time and shared interests. That is why parents often made good marriages for children who have never seen each other before. After they wed, their life together leads to common experiences that build what we call love. You and Zorro are from two different worlds, worlds that drifted in opposite directions. That’s all, surely.”

“I do not know what to think right now, Ania. I suppose I shall have to give some thought to it in the future. Maybe I will come to feel that way then. I hope so. I only know right now that I must start anew. Father loves me a great deal, I know. I am sure that he will find someone for me who will be a good husband. Maybe that love you spoke of growing between the children in an arranged marriage will grow between whomever Father chooses and me. I can hope that it does. At any rate, it can hardly go any worse than following my own heart has, now can it?”

Ania found herself speechless. She sincerely wished she could help Anna María. Time, however, seemed to be the only cure available.

If watching Anna María was hard for her, it was doubly so for Diego. Apparently, his father was conscious of this as well, for the next morning Don Alejandro sent Diego south to San Pedro with a load of skins. It took the better part of a day and a half for him to negotiate a good price with the ship there and then return. While he was gone, things began to resolve themselves in a most unexpected way.

Ania suddenly became aware that Ramón was taking quite an interest in Anna María. Twice in the first day after the nighttime meeting with Zorro, Ramón had gone to the Hacienda de la Vega to "pass the time" as he called it. At first Anna María seemed uninterested. Yet, Ramón persisted.

"Don Ramón, I assure you that I am flattered by the offer of your friendship and companionship while I am here," she said after several visits.  “Believe me when I say that I do like you. You are candid with me so that I feel I can trust you and you have a good sense of humor. Indeed, you are the only one who has managed to coax a laugh from me today. I fear there is not much merriment in me lately." She solemnly looked down at her hands as they rested in her lap. "However, I wish to be honest with you. I do not feel that I am capable of giving you any encouragement beyond that. I am afraid that I would not be very good company for you, now or in the future. I doubt we can go beyond that."

Startled, she looked up as Ramón laughed softly. "Oh, Anna María, I am not looking that far into the future at all. You see, I too have lost someone I love. The loss of a love, whether through death as I have done, or through a change of heart as is your case, is not something to take lightly. It takes time to heal, does it not? But cannot two people who are in the process of that healing enjoy looking at the beauty of the world together? My cousin has a great deal of very beautiful land, as do the de la Vegas. One can ride for miles in any direction and see sights, which are very different from either Florida or Spain. I would love to see all of the land here that I can in the short time I have left. However, it would be much more pleasant with another person sharing it. Ania has far too much to do right now to entertain me all the time. I would like you to ride with me while you are here. Also, as pleasant as my cousin is, I would like to be able to enjoy your conversation from time to time." He laughed again. "Sometimes my cousin and I fall back to our old habits of debating something rather than discussing. I am sure that you would not do that, would you?"

"I am not sure of that at all, Ramón," Anna María replied, intrigued by this charming blue-eyed man in spite of herself. "I can be most opinionated upon occasion. Diego can attest to that. We argued a great deal when he first came to Monterey. You might find my opinions and conversation quite a challenge to put up with."

Ramón laughed, blue eyes sparkling, "I doubt that sincerely, but if that is so, then let me warn you, we Córdobas are always ready for a challenge. That is one thing I have always had in common with my Valdéz cousins. Indeed, challenges are what bring pleasure to life. Do you not find that to be so, Anna María?"

"Maybe you are right, Ramón," she laughed.

"Then you will ride with me?" he asked with a broad grin.

"Sí," she smiled. "Just let me change into something more appropriate for riding."

Ramón smiled brightly. "I shall try not to be too impatient," he laughed.

By the time Diego returned from the trip with the skins, a subtle change had come over things. While there were times when a shadow of sadness could be seen on Anna María's pretty face, smiles were becoming more frequent and her laugh more free. She seemed to look about for Ramón in a room, quite as much as Ramón did for her.

After Diego had seen them together one night, he looked quizzically at Ania. "Ramón and Anna María?" he asked in a surprised tone.

Ania shrugged and replied, "Maybe. I really do not know what to make of it myself."

"You realize that if it does come about, Anna María will be a member of your family," Diego teased. "How will you handle that?"

She simply looked back at Diego and said with a straight face, "And how often do you expect my beloved cousin will be here in Alta California. He is a diplomat, as well as a landowner in Spain, Diego, and as such will travel a great deal. This might be one good way to assure that Anna María is a great deal further away from you than Monterey."

"Oh, you are terrible sometimes, Ania! Did you know that?" Diego laughed.

Ania's eyes sparkled with merriment as she saw by the look in his eye that he did not think her terrible at all.

A couple of days later Ania was startled by the gloomy, almost angry look on Ramón's face as she came in for breakfast. "Whatever is the matter, Ramón? You look as if you could declare war on the devil himself and win!" she asked.

"I have just received a post from Monterey," Ramón replied, picking a packet of papers up from the table and shaking them in her direction.

"And? You are always receiving papers of one kind or another," she commented, puzzled.

"Well, this, my dear cousin, is a request, almost an order, from the governor himself asking me to return to Monterey immediately. It seems that an Emissary from the Russian government has arrived there wishing to expand their trade with the colony of California. The governor has managed to delay the meetings until I can get there. It seems they have sent a boat with the express purpose of carrying me back." Ramón frowned.

"Well, you are His Majesty's Emissary. The governor cannot order you to return, Ramón," Ania said seriously.

"Ah, but the bad thing is, he is right, Ania. As the representative of the King of Spain, I should be there to protect our country's rights in this matter. If only I did not have to leave at this time!" Ramón stated.

"Is it that you would have to part company with a certain dark eyed señorita that is bothering you, Ramón?" Ania asked.

"Well, I suppose you could be right, Ania," Ramón admitted slowly. "After all, I will still return here in time for your wedding, but by then Anna María will be gone. No doubt we will miss each other in transit."

"Sí, that is likely so," Ania said with a grin. "However, I happen to know that in just a few days she is planning to begin her own trip back to Monterey."

"Sí! Sí, I know that, Ania! That is the problem!" Ramón growled.

"Ramón, use your head. Wake up!" she cried, as he merely looked at her blankly. "Ramón, it is this simple, Anna María wishes to return home. Ahead of her is about six days of hard, dusty, dangerous travel. You, on the other hand, as the King's Emissary, have a fast ship at your disposal.  Viola!  The answer to both of your problems! All you have to do is offer her an easy, safe ride home via boat if she will leave tomorrow." Ramón looked at her with interest. "And the bonus, my dear but dense cousin? You will have three days to entertain the dark eyed señorita.  Oh! And her Tía Alicia, as well." she said with a sideways smile.  "Perhaps four days or even more if the winds blow against you." 

"You know, sometimes you surprise me with your intelligence and insight, Ania," Ramón stated with a grin. As Ania smiled back at the compliment, Ramón continued, "That part of you must have come from the Córdoba side of the family."

Ania threw her napkin at his head as Ramón broke into a merry laugh. Soon she joined his laughter.

The next day, Diego, Ania, and Don Alejandro escorted Ramón, Anna María, and Tía Alicia to San Pedro and saw them board a small ship flying the flags of Spain and the colonial flag of Alta California. As they watched the ship unfurl its sails and leave the harbor, Diego crossed his arms and rocked up slightly on his toes. "Now who could have guessed this whole uncomfortable incident would have ended this way?" he said in an amused tone.

"Diego, when someone of Valdéz or Córdoba blood is involved in something, one can never be sure just what will happen," Ania declared.

All of them laughed as Alejandro led the way back to where Bernardo waited with the horses. Things had worked out rather well, it seemed.

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Bernardo looked up as Capitán Rodríguez rode slowly past him on the streets of Los Ángeles the next day. He tipped his hat as the capitán glanced at him and was, as usual, rewarded with being ignored. Bernardo continued watching the comandante as he left town. Why he felt compelled to do this, he could have explained to no one. It was just a vague feeling that perhaps the capitán was up to something.

Rodríguez had been almost unbelievably benign lately. Zorro had ridden many times in the last few weeks, merely to try to figure out what Rodríguez was up to, with no success. Even the dam building had slowed down as if he had given up. Had he finally taken Zorro's warnings to heart and turned over a new leaf? Neither Zorro nor Bernardo felt convinced of that.

"Perhaps we had better keep an even closer eye on him, Bernardo," Zorro had said. "This feels too much like the deceptive quiet before a storm. I just wonder what storm Rodríguez is cooking up for us this time."

Bernardo agreed with him whole-heartedly. As Ania had once told Diego, he felt that Rodríguez was up to no good simply because he could not imagine him NOT being up to something. Bernardo watched curiously as a peon on a tired old horse came out of the street that ran down beside the cartel and appeared to be following the capitán. No, I do not suppose there is any connection between the two. Rodríguez has not even acknowledged that the peon is back there. Just a coincidence, I suppose, Bernardo shrugged and went on about his errand for Don Alejandro.

Several miles outside of town, Rodríguez slowed down and allowed the peon to catch up to him. Then the two of them went to one of the small huts on some of the confiscated land.

"Well, how are all the plans progressing?" Rodríguez asked the black eyed man disguised as a peon.

"Capitán, this had better work. I grow weary of all of this." He indicated his dusty, ragged appearance. "Were the stakes not so tempting in this...."

"Stop your complaining, de Irujo, and let me hear your report. It will work, IF you have laid the groundwork correctly for our grand design," Rodríguez assured him. He reached into a bag he had brought with him, pulling out a bottle of wine and glasses, food and three large sacks of money.

De Irujo took time to dust himself off, pour himself a large glass of wine and heft one of the bags of money before he began his tale. "After I convinced that first rebel group in Monterey that all this was on the level, everything else fell in line. I have been able to contact and unite that group with the other one you knew of in Santa Barbara, as well as a tentative contact with one in San Francisco. They have been the most cautious."

Rodríguez shrugged. "We really do not need them for this. The two other groups will serve our purposes. Did they believe all you said about the woman at the center of all this?"

"Sí, at first they were skeptical, but I soon had them eating out of my hand. I spread plenty of the notes with the Valdéz crest stamp on them. I made quite a few promises for her in all those notes and in her own handwriting, at that. I was actually lucky enough to find an old man who remembered that the Valdéz family had a skeleton in their closet," de Irujo said as he propped his feet up on the chair across from him and lit a cigar.

"What is this about a skeleton?" Rodríguez asked, surprised.

"Sí. Well, it seems that a number of years ago, about the time of Señorita Valdéz's birth, there was a third brother to Ania Valdéz's father, Miguel. Felipe Valdéz, for whom Ania's oldest brother was named, decided that he did not like the then king. He got himself into more than he could handle when it was found out. He was hung for treason. The part of the family properties that he had owned was forfeited to the king. The rest of the family scrambled to make sure the king knew he had their loyalty, and by some miracle, no other Valdéz was ever charged," de Irujo explained.

"Well, that is very interesting, but what does that have to do with this?" Rodríguez asked.

"Nothing really, but it was very useful in helping them connect the Valdéz name with anarchy and rebellion. It simply shows the intelligence, or lack thereof, of these men. No one saw the gap in time as in any way an argument against her involvement in this."

"Well, just be glad they are not very bright. It makes your job easier!" Rodríguez commented.

"So," de Irujo asked with an evil smile, "we can trigger the trap now? Everything is in place."

"No, we wait," Rodríguez stated calmly.

"WAIT!" de Irujo yelled. "Why must we wait for another minute?"

"Because one final piece is missing. Ania Valdéz's cousin is not here right now," Rodríguez said.

"What do we want with him? It is the woman, oh, and Zorro, as you say, who we want. It seems that with him gone that is one less person to worry about," de Irujo objected.

"Simply acting as go between in a plot against the government may not be sufficient enough reason for her to be convicted of treason, not and be hung, my impatient compadre. There is only one thing that I can think of that would convince an honest judge that she deserved hanging, and we DO want an honest judge," Rodríguez explained slowly, as if to a child.

"You mean..." de Irujo started.

"Yes, to murder the King's Emissary, or even to assault him with that intent, always carries that automatic penalty," he finished. "Do not forget that Ramón Córdoba is an ambassador."

De Irujo laughed. "So we wait until the cousin is home, kill him, and make it appear that she did it to cover the treason she was already involved in. A very good plan!"

Together the two conspirators decided that de Irujo would wait in Monterey until he heard from Rodríguez to start the events in motion to "bait the trap". Then he would return to Los Ángeles in disguise to help complete things here. Revenge would be assured and both men would have the money and property they desired.

All they needed was the one part to the trap and it would spring shut with Señorita Valdéz and Zorro at its center with no way out.

 

 

Chapter Thirteen
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