Ring of Fire
Time once again settled into its
seemingly slow, yet surprisingly rapid progression as the days and weeks
slipped by. Plans and arrangements began to fall into place for the
wedding and the fiesta days that were to follow.
Many of the betrothal gifts, which
passed between the man and woman, as well as between their families in the
Spanish culture, had already been exchanged.
There were the usual exchanges of cattle and horses, as well as
more personal gifts. Ania
followed tradition with her prewedding gift to Diego. She had Señor
Mendez, the jeweler, cast a beautiful gold medallion for him with the
image of the Holy Virgin on it. While
this was not an unusual gift, she prayed especially hard during her
devotionals that the image would represent, not merely the Holy Mother’s
blessing on their union, but the special favor and protection of the
Virgin upon him.
The discovery of the cloth her
father’d had sent to Los Ángeles and Ania's insistence on using it so
as to have the wedding sooner, caused a bit of confusion with tradition as
far as Diego's gift to her was concerned. Diego insisted on paying back
into her estate the value of all the cloth she was using and was, of
course, paying for the work of all the seamstresses, so Ania was surprised
when he also had a donas delivered to her. This ornately carved wooden
chest, one of the traditional bride's gifts, was filled with cloth and
laces, as well as several items of jewelry.
"Where in the world did you
find it all so quickly?" she had asked, knowing how seldom really
fine materials were shipped into the colonies.
"Oh, that is for me to know and
you to wonder about. After all, I must be allowed to keep some secrets
from you!" he laughed.
Ania laughed in delight as she ran
her fingers over the intricate carving of the wood. She knew that he must
have sent someone to every pueblo up and down the coast to have gotten it
together. Even more surprising to her was the fact that he had contacted
each seamstress and had the dresses commissioned earlier delivered to him,
rather than to her. He had requested of all of them that they keep this a
secret from Ania, so that she would have no idea that they were finished.
These dresses along with accessories for each were included in the trunk.
Carefully folded across the very top of the contents was the unusual white
wedding dress, with a white lace mantilla, silk stockings and satin shoes
"Oh, Diego! I was hoping to
surprise you," Ania had cried when she saw it.
"Believe me, you did! I do not
believe I have ever seen a white wedding dress before. I should have known
you would choose something a bit different. Is there a reason for your
selecting white and not the black most brides would choose?" he
"How could I wear black,
Diego?” she asked, her face glowing with the love that filled her heart.
She reached out and took his hand. “I feel as if I have spent half of my
life in black, mourning for those that I loved. I am starting a new life,
one of joy with you. I want no reminder of the past sadness anywhere
around me on that day. My heart is far too full of happiness to want
anything to do with mourning."
Diego looked at her for a moment
before speaking, his expressive hazel eyes tender with emotion. Then he
smiled. "Now I understand and I agree, mi preciosa. There is nothing
but joy in this for both of us." He leaned forward, intending to kiss
her, but their usual luck returned as Rosita came into the sala looking
for the patrona. The expression on Diego's face prompted a quiet chuckle
from Ania as he quickly lifted her hand and placed the kiss there instead.
The chuckle became a laugh as he rolled his eyes and whispered, "I
know...I know! My timing again!"
The next morning, Ania sat in her
room, content for the moment to let her hands work at something, while her
mind roamed where it would. She
and Rosita were approaching completion of the first night set as well as
several other sets of simpler nightclothes. The creamy silk of the gown
was now spread over Ania's lap as she stitched the lace to the bodice. As
she finished the last stitches, she spread it upon the bed beside the
robe, which Rosita had already finished. Hmmm, it is pretty, but it
seems to need something else to set it all off, Ania thought as she
stood looking down at it. On sudden inspiration, she walked to the
dressing room where the small chest containing her family's jewelry was
kept. Opening it, she took out the velvet bag containing the loose pearls
from her mother's necklace. She
look down at them a moment and then took the bag to the bed. She cocked
her head to the side, considering, while placing the smallest of the
pearls carefully on the gown as well as the robe, accentuating the pattern
of the lace. There! That is it! Just what it needed, she decided
with a smile. Going to a sewing box nearby, Ania chose the finest needle
from the pin cushion, threaded it and sat down with the bag of pearls and
first night set, carefully stitching each tiny pearl in its place.
Daydreams drifted through her mind
as she worked. She smiled as she vividly recalled the time she had spent
with Zorro on the balcony three weeks before. Her body seemed to tingle at
just the thought of him. His need for her had been so strong that night
that her growing desire for him physically had come fully into being. The
strength of those feelings surprised her, and yet also frightened her just
a little, as well. There was still so much she did not know of such
things. Luisa had been a widow long before Ania was even born and had
never remarried. She had taught Ania far more of how to help a woman
having a baby than she had ever talked to her of what went on between a
man and his wife. They had never discussed such things before her trip to
Spain and very little, other than Luisa's concern that Ania be happy with
whomever she did marry, was discussed after she had returned. Ania
supposed this was something most girls discussed with their mothers. In
her case, that had been impossible. She had definitely not discussed it
with her stepmother! What if there is something that I should know, but
do not? Ania worried as the smile left her face. Diego deserves so
much. What if I fail him?
Ania remembered overhearing
whispered comments referring to "a wife's duties" and seeing
knowing glances exchanged among the old tías of their pueblo. She
remembered the shared frowns. Surely things could not be as difficult as
all that, for on the other side of the coin, she also remembered a servant
girl who had worked in their hacienda when Ania had been eleven or twelve
years old, a servant girl who gave a much different picture of such
things. Ania had always found it fascinating to hide nearby and listen,
although she had understood relatively little of what was said.
Bonita had been the girl's name and
she had the looks to go with such a name. Bonita had been the despair of
the area's priests. Regardless of the preaching and penitence she
received, she could not resist the attentions of the men of the area. She
enjoyed the courting, but even more she enjoyed lying with them in the hay
above the stables. When confronted by her father or the priests, Bonita
would act contrite and appear to repent of her "weakness".
However, when she thought only the other servants were around, she had
talked about the excitement it all, of how good a lover this young don or
that handsome caballero was. The looks shared by the servant girls and
their laughter indicated that this was no mean duty, but rather something
to be welcomed and experienced to its fullest.
Ania had to laugh at the irony of
her confusion. There were those who had observed her at court who would
hardly have believe it was true. In Spain, she had raised her ability to
flirt and tease to a high art form. However, she had used it more as a
weapon in the war against her stepmother than as a true way to relate to a
suitor. If Leya wanted her to attract a certain one, then she would flirt
outrageously with another. Or with one whose father was known to be
strict, she would act forward enough to cause the parents to decide that
perhaps it was best that their son not be involved with her. She had
shared a few kisses in this game she played, but none had ever meant what
those she shared with Diego did. No one else she had ever known had ever
had such a powerful effect on her emotions, and she now had to admit, upon
her senses as well. Yet beyond the kisses and flirting, she knew very
little. Growing up in a household of boys and men, as well as being around
the breeding of horses and cattle, had taught her some of the cruder facts
of life, but surely that could not be all there was to it.
Ania stopped sewing for a minute,
staring thoughtfully out the open balcony door. With both her parents
dead, there had been no one to choose a padrino or madrina de boda for
her. Her own godparents of birth were too far away to be any help with
choosing these godparents of marriage. Ramón was the logical person to do
this, but he knew few people in the area. After much thought, Ania had
gone to Don Alejandro and asked if he would help her. As she had expected,
he had been only too glad to do so.
The couple he chose should have been
no surprise to her. Don Pedro and Doña Carlota had gone out of their way
to be kind to her ever since she had been introduced to them after mass
when she had first been well enough to attend. Now they treated her almost
like a grandchild. Ania had been relieved when they were chosen to guide
her during this time. She would be spending her last night as a single
woman at their hacienda, there to be given advice as to her role in
marriage. After more than thirty years of marriage herself, Doña Carlota
surely would have much wisdom to share. Maybe Ania’s questions would be
answered then. However, if the information was not volunteered, Ania was
not sure she could openly ask them. As wonderfully caring as Doña Carlota
was, Ania was not sure they were that close.
She began sewing again as she
thought about Bonita's slightly wicked laughter and the excited look in
her eyes as she shared the story of her latest fling with the other
servants. Bonita had not loved the men she was with, and yet she had made
things sound very pleasant. Surely, as much as she and Diego loved each
other, things just must be wonderful for them. Is not love supposed to
make everything easier? Her mind back on Diego and the wonderful feel of
his muscular body against hers, his lips driving all thought of speech
from her mind, Ania smiled once again, only to immediately prick her
finger as her mind wandered a bit too far. "Ay!" she cried,
jerking her finger away from the pale cloth. Hmmm, perhaps, instead of
Diego, I should be thinking of where each pearl goes and where this
accursed needle goes as well!
As she gave her hand a shake, she
became aware of a horse's whinny. Someone had come to the front of the
long steps to the hacienda. She knew immediately who it was and remembered
with a start what they were supposed to be doing today. "Diego!"
she cried. How could she have forgotten that they were to meet Ramón's
coach from Monterey today? He’d had his own coach return with them to
Rancho Valdéz after his ship had left San Pedro. A letter had arrived
last week requesting that they meet Ramón in Los Ángeles today with a
horse for him and one for each of his escort. The horses had already been
sent ahead. They had only to meet his coach. Rising and folding her sewing
quickly, Ania rushed to put on a riding outfit.
When Ania hurriedly entered the
sala, she found Diego quietly studying the portraits on the wall. She was
startled when he turned with a scowl on his face and snapped, "Well,
it is about time! I suppose this sort of thing will only get worse after
we are married!" Ania opened her mouth to speak, but Diego gave her
no time for a reply. "I suppose you know that I have been waiting
here a full twenty minutes! Have you treated all your fiancés this
"I...all my fiancées?...Ah...I
did not mean...ah..." Ania started, totally flustered. Diego had so
seldom been angry with her, and usually only with great provocation then.
"I am sorry! I forgot...I will be more careful in the fu..." She
stopped speaking as Diego slowly began to smile, and then laugh. "Oh,
Diego! I thought you were serious!" she exclaimed as she sighed in
"The chance to tease you for
doing what you so seldom do was too good to pass up," Diego laughed
as he came over and took her hands. "Actually, since you rarely keep
someone waiting without a reason or message involved, I was beginning to
wonder if I had done something to anger you again. I decided to see what
you would do if the ire was unexpectedly turned back on you. If I had
known just how lovely you are when one finally manages to get you
flustered I would have tried that long before now. Have all of the young
caballeros who have courted you been able to fluster you so easily?"
"Only the handsome rascals from
California," Ania replied, smiling up at him teasingly. "Well,
now that I am ready, finally, shall we go?"
he offered his arm. Ania took it as though accepting a royal escort, and
laughing, the two went on their way.
Tristán Rodríguez looked down at
the letter just handed to him by the man standing before him. Postal
markings showed that the letter had been posted in the colony of West
Florida, Pueblo de Pensacola. The script had a feminine appearance to it.
Laying it flat on the desk, Rodríguez carefully eased the blade of his
silver letter opener under the seal, opening it out. Hmmmmm, yes, it
seems to be from that friend, Rodríguez glanced quickly at the
signature, Antonia Velasco, who sent her the chest of tea just after
Zorro was shot. He scanned through the rest of the letter, a smile
growing as he read. This could not be better. She is actually sending
another chest. I can use this! He ignored the man as he rose and paced
along the side of the room, stopping before the window.
Across the plaza he could see that a
coach had stopped before the tavern. He watched it idly for a moment, then
removing a bag of money from his pocket, he turned back to the man.
"Well done, Señor Lunas! I do appreciate your help," he said as
he lay a handful of pesos before him. "I wish you now, in addition to
bringing me any mail addressed to Señorita Valdéz, to watch for another
small chest...oh, about so big." He spread his hands about a foot and
a half apart.
"But, Comandante, such a chest
is already here, tied to the back of my saddle. I was not sure if you
wanted it so I waited to mention it," Lunas interrupted.
"It is here? Bueno!" Rodríguez
smiled as he lay a gold piece on the desk with the pesos. "Bring it
in then. Is there anything else?"
"No, señor," Lunas
replied slowly, already looking ahead to all the wine he would be able to
"Then go back and watch for
anything else coming to her," Rodríguez said, dismissing him.
"Oh, and Señor Lunas...." Rodríguez tossed another gold piece
through the air. Lunas caught it, looked at it closely, bit it, and then
looked at it again. "That is for your forgetting where it was you
brought these things," the capitán continued.
"Things, Capitán? You must be
mistaken. I have not been to Los Ángeles in a week!" Lunas winked.
Shoving the money in his pocket, he went out to his horse and returned
with a chest, which he sat on the edge of the desk. Minutes later, he had
disappeared back along the road on which he had come.
The capitán smiled as he walked
back to the window and gazed out at the dusty plaza. His attention was
riveted to the area in front of the tavern as Diego de la Vega and Ania
Valdéz rode up to where the coach was now being unloaded. His smile grew
even larger as
he saw who got out of the coach. Ramón Córdoba had returned. He could
see the man standing with de la Vega now and his escort was hurrying to
get the luggage off the coach and onto a small wagon standing nearby. As
the last piece of luggage was placed on it, the mule and wagon were driven
northward out of town, while Ambassador Córdoba, de la Vega, and the
woman went into the tavern. Sí! Rodríguez thought excitedly. Now
we can begin the plan! And yet, he did not really have enough
information to do so safely. I had better go over and play
"friendly comandante”, he thought to himself. I would not
want him to leave the area again at just the wrong time. Perhaps I had
better go see how his trip went.
Capitán Rodríguez stood quietly
just inside the doorway to the tavern, casually observing the crowd
gathered there. The usual mixture of classes was represented. The peons he
hardly glanced at. The caballeros and the few señoritas or señoras with
them received a gracious nod and a smile. Even the few deemed important
enough to exchange words with received little of his time. The important
group was there toward the back, at a table somewhat away from the rest of
the crowd. The group seemed in a jolly mood, laughing and joking, while
the four lancers escorting the ambassador lounged in a deceptively casual
manner at the bar not far away. Hmmm, they are going to be a problem,
but not an unsolvable one. I must plan carefully, however.
This problem filed away for later
consideration, Rodríguez smiled as he walked toward the table. The four
guards snapped to attention and saluted. "Buenos dias, Ambassador Córdoba,
Don Diego, Señorita Valdéz. Ah, you seem to have good men here,
Ambassador," he said as he returned their salutes. "As you were,
lancers." The soldiers relaxed, though not to their former state of
ease. They gratefully turned back to their wine.
"Buenos dias to you as well,
Capitán Rodríguez. Sí, I picked these men myself. They are a very
competent group. I depend on that." Ramón turned and smiled up at
Diego nodded a polite greeting,
while casually observing Ania. He thought she managed things rather well,
even though he had felt her uneasiness. She smiled and returned the
comandante’s greeting in a cordial voice, although there was very little
warmth in her eyes. Anyone knowing her less well would have missed that
detail and never known of the tension between these two. As the capitán
and Ramón continued talking, Diego looked over and smiled at her. From
the look in her eyes as she returned his smile, she was pushing Rodríguez
from her mind and giving him her full attention. The smile she gave him
was very genuine indeed.
Rodríguez noticed the look passing
between the two. "Well, I hear that the big day is coming soon for
you two. The bans were read last Sunday in mass, were they not?"
Ania gave him what appeared to be a
sincere smile for once. "Sí, that is so. Only three weeks to go
after this one." Ania looked at Diego, her eyes shining. Even before
this man, her enemy, she would not hide her joy.
"I wish you both the best, of
course. As a military man, I have found myself with little time to search
for a lovely señorita to share my life, Don Diego. I find myself envying
you a great deal," Rodríguez commented.
"Gracias, Capitán. I am,
indeed, a lucky man." Diego smiled at the capitán as he answered
him. Yet the feeling he got was not altogether pleasant. Instead it was
almost like a chill of foreboding that shot through him as he saw Rodríguez
look back at Ania, as she thanked him for his well wishes. There was
nothing he could actually point to as threatening. Even the man's
expression was benign. As a matter of fact, Rodríguez seemed to be
totally sincere, as if he had never had any ill will toward Ania at all.
Perhaps that was what set Diego’s nerves on edge. For all that Rodríguez's
act appeared real, it was too good to be true. As the beaded lizard's
beauty hid poison, so Rodríguez's manner now hid danger. The feeling was
so strong that he had an almost physical urge to pull Ania behind him and
put himself, here and now, between the two. Instead, he forced himself to
keep a smile on his face and respond to the conversation.
"It is too bad, Ambassador Córdoba,
that you will be on the road now seeing to the King's business. You will
be unable to be here for your cousin's wedding, I believe someone said.
That is indeed a shame," Rodríguez said with a shake of his head.
"Oh, Capitán, I do not know
who could have told you that, but they were mistaken. I very much intend
to be here for the wedding. Only the King himself could drag me away from
here now. I made it quite clear to the governor that I was not available
for any more meetings of any kind until after the twentieth of the month.
My uncle and cousins were and are very special to me. It is only right and
fitting that I represent them at this happy occasion. No, señor, wild
horses will not keep me away from the wedding." Ramón looked over
and smiled at Ania.
"Bueno! That is very good to
hear. It is indeed fitting that you attend for them. The señorita has
unfortunately been through a great deal of tragedy since coming here. It
is time a bit of joy came her way and that you participate in the joyous
event. My best wishes to all involved," Rodríguez said with a bow.
"Well, Ambassador, I am very glad to hear that the trade talks went
well. However, I really should be returning to my office. My paperwork
awaits me. Adios, señor, Don Diego, señorita." With this, he
turned, walked to the bar and, after purchasing a bottle of wine as if
that had been his reason for coming in the first place, walked out.
He quickly reached and took her hand
in both of his. "It is all right, Ania. It will not be this way
forever. I promise you!" Diego vowed.
"How can you both believe this
so strongly? Neither of you seem to have any proof that you can show me. I
am a man of fact, Don Diego. Give me proof!" Ramón demanded.
"Ramón, listen to me. I cannot
show you solid proof, but I know it to be so," Diego said fervently.
“Simply because we have not found enough evidence to send to the
governor does not mean that it is not there. He is a very clever man who
has covered his actions well, but I am sure he bears watching. Don Ramón,
it would be wise for you to be very careful in any of your dealings with
the comandante. You could find out the hard way just how right we are.”
"That," Ramón said with a
laugh, "is what these men are for." He looked around at his
escort. "They are here so I do not learn anything of the sort the
Diego looked across the table and
met Ania's eyes. After a moment, she glanced at Ramón and shook her head.
"Ramón, there are times when you are entirely too stubborn for your
shrugged. "Isn't that a little like the pot calling the kettle black,
dear cousin?" he asked with a laugh. "Come now. Let us not talk
of such somber things right now. I have yet to tell you of my most
pleasant stay in Monterey. I am hoping to enjoy more of that pleasure when
I return there after the wedding. Anna Maria and her father were most
hospitable. They send their greetings and their best wishes to the two of
you. I have a letter from them for you and also a wedding gift." With
this, Ramón launched into a lively tale of the past few weeks.
Across the plaza, Rodríguez had
returned to his office and sent for Private Rómez. "Private,"
he said as the man walked in and closed the door tightly. "I have a
job I wish you to do."
Rómez asked, giving his comandante a hard look.
"Sí, I need you to find de
Irujo in Monterey and take a message to him.
Oh, and go as a private citizen, Rómez. I do not want anyone to
connect the military with this yet. Deliver this note only into his hand.
Do you understand?" Rodríguez instructed as he wrote the message and
"Sí, senor. It is time for us
to begin, is it not?" Rómez asked, thinking of the money he had been
promised once the capitán had what he wanted.
"Indeed! All the parts of the
trap are now in place. We have only to set the parts in motion and do our
jobs when the time comes," Rodríguez agreed. "Go as quickly as
possible. Even with our speed now, it will probably take a fortnight or so
before things really begin to happen, but happen they will!"
"Sí, Capitán," Rómez
saluted and walked out to get a change of clothes and begin his journey.
leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. He smiled broadly at the
closed door. He could almost feel the thrill of revenge already, for once
all the pieces were in motion, the trap would close as irrevocably as the
great traps of steel used to capture bears.
"De la Vega, you had better enjoy the company of the señorita now
for I fear that she will not be around for the wedding, nor will El Zorro.
Nothing shall stop us now!" He suddenly put his hands out in
front of him like a hinged trap, and with a slap, brought them together as
if it were closing. His laugh, ringing out in the silent office, would
have been enough to freeze a listener's blood had anyone heard him.