Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen


Arriving at the inn in Monterey, hot, tired and thirsty, Rómez dusted himself off and headed for the bar. He had instructions not to actively seek de Irujo, but to go to the tavern and wait. Sooner or later, de Irujo would show up, his reddish brown hair darkened with an herbal rinse. Rómez was content to lean against the bar and ease his thirst as if he were merely idling away time. After all, based on what Capitán Rodríguez had told him, this operation was the work of weeks, not days, anyway.

A group of caballeros came in presently and took seats around a table toward the back of the room, near the stairs. Just as a pack of cards was produced and one of the seated men began shuffling the cards, another tall, thin man entered. As the man was dressed every bit as ornately as the other obviously affluent men, Rómez would not, at first, have looked closely at him. However, as he passed, the man hesitated for an instant and nodded. With that, the man Rómez then recognized as de Irujo, continued on to join the card game.

Even though de Irujo must have known that Rómez would not have been here tonight if there had not been an important message from Capitán Rodríguez, he continued with his game. Rómez began to see why as he watched de Irujo win hand after hand, losing only occasionally to make it look honest. Finally, once a large pot was on the table, de Irujo wiped the other players out and claimed the pot as his own. One by one, the caballeros each acknowledged defeat, and with a bow, said their farewells and left de Irujo to his considerable winnings. Finally, he gathered up his money, tossed enough back on the table to pay for the bottle of wine he was taking with him, and went upstairs with two glasses in his hand. As he started to mount the stairs, he casually glanced at Rómez and caught his eye. Then he pointedly looked up the stairs toward his room. As de Irujo continued on up, Rómez noticed that he entered the door at the far end of the portico. Rómez waited five more minutes before casually going up the stairs himself and quietly knocking on the door. The door was instantly opened and Rómez drawn inside.

De Irujo wasted little time. "You have a message for me from Rodríguez?" he demanded with no preliminary greeting.

"Sí, I think you will be pleased with the contents of this one," Rómez said.

"Why do you not let me be the judge of that?" de Irujo commented, as Rómez handed him the sealed message.

For some minutes, there was silence in the room as de Irujo read the letter and slowly began to smile. "For once in your life, mi amigo, you thought rightly. Finally, we are moving!" he grinned. "Now I get to do a little more and we will start this landslide on its way to doing what we have planned."

"What are you going to do?" Rómez asked. He knew de Irujo was a gambler and a slick talker, but he was not sure exactly where he fit into the plan. Of course, he was under no illusions as to his own importance here. He realized that Rodríguez had told him only enough of the plan to secure his help. The money was the main enticement for him, but he was becoming very interested in the manipulations of these two. As far as he could tell, they were two of a kind, clever and as rock hard as they come, with just about as much feeling as a steel blade had for its victim. Rómez settled down on the edge of the bed with a glass of wine as he watched de Irujo at a table in the room.

De Irujo merely glanced at the messenger, without answering, as he quickly assembled paper, quills, ink and absorbent sand on the tabletop. Then he reached into a drawer and pulled out two letters with two different handwritings on the front. Pulling one piece of paper forward, he began writing, glancing at one of the letters from time to time. When he was finished with the first one, he quickly sprinkled absorbent sand on it. Tipping it up to remove the sand, he looked at it closely. He smiled and began whistling a bit under his breath as he lay the first one aside and pulled the second sheet toward him. He took time to examine the handwriting on the second letter before beginning to write again.

Rómez walked over and watched closely. He was surprised to see that the writing on the two letters was completely different, as if two different people had written the words. Not only that, but he had seen notes from de Irujo before. Neither handwriting was anything like the handwriting in the notes from de Irujo. By the saints! he gasped to himself. The man is a master forger! "Where did you learn to do that?" he asked aloud.

"Oh, do not worry about where I learned it, amigo. You just need to know that I am good at what I do," de Irujo bragged. He looked up at Rómez with a cocky expression on his face and then turned his attention back to his messages. From inside the drawer, he withdrew a couple of seals and a bit of red sealing wax. In short order, he had the messages folded and sealed. "Now to get this first note to the comandante here."

"The comandante!" Rómez gasped. "I do not understand. Why in the world would we need to give a note to Comandante del Guerro?"

"Well, just how is he suppose to find this horrible group of traitors unless he knows to look for them?" de Irujo asked as if that explained everything.

Rómez gaped at him. "You are selling them out?"

"Of course! I would never have been here in the first place if they had not been useful in this plan. They will only be useful if they are discovered," de Irujo explained as he turned to look at Rómez. "When they arrest the men involved here, they will find several letters apparently from Ania Valdéz, complete with the Valdéz seal on them. This will be the beginning of a trail straight to Los Ángeles and the totally unsuspecting Señorita Valdéz. The same thing will happen after we get this other letter into Santa Barbara. They have only a small group of lancers there but we only need someone at a high enough level to run an investigation from there too. Sooner or later the two leaders will meet and decide to come to Los Ángeles. Proof will then begin showing up there."

"But will that not spoil the chances of Rodríguez being given the lands and hacienda that will be confiscated? I mean, that will go to whoever uncovers the treason." Rómez asked.

"Oh, they will investigate in their areas and then inform him of the traitor in your midst. He will lead the investigation there, find the traitor, and be rewarded for such by being granted the Valdéz lands."

Rómez was still puzzled. "But...."

"Look, would it not be less suspicious for him to be brought in by others rather than start and finish it himself? The people are already going to be upset by this. I have only heard of one other woman ever implicated and hung for treason in California. Rodríguez is going to have to be very careful! If this is not totally believable, rock solid, it could blow up in all our faces." De Irujo sat back in his chair and met Rómez's eyes.

Rómez swallowed hard, suddenly realizing that what he had gotten himself into was far more serious than anything else he had ever done. This could get him hung! Rodríguez's gold didn't gleam so bright at that moment. However, Rómez doubted seriously that he could back out of the plan now, not without serious consequences anyway!

After a moment, de Irujo got up and began gathering his things together as Rómez watched him. "We are leaving now?" Rómez asked, disappointed. He had been hoping for at least one night in a good bed softer than the one in the barracks.

"Oh, of course, Rómez," de Irujo replied. "You have already taken six days getting here. It will take us about that long to return. It will probably take somewhere around a day for Comandante del Guerro and his men to round everyone up here and find the notes, and maybe another day to decide to go to Santa Barbara to discuss this. Then figure in the travel time to Los Ángeles and a few hours for Capitán Rodríguez to pretend to allow himself to be convinced of the truth of it all. We have very little time. There is just over two weeks until the Valdéz woman is to marry. Rodríguez would like to handle all of this before she becomes a de la Vega. That family has considerable influence. They will no doubt come strongly to her defense, as it is. Things will be further complicated if she is legally married. Now she will stand or fall alone and that is the way Capitán Rodríguez wants it."

Nodding his head, Rómez looked longingly at the bed, but got up and began handing things to de Irujo to be put in a bag. "What of the note?" he asked the gambler.

"Just leave that to me," de Irujo said. "Wait for me here."

"Whatever you say, amigo," Rómez agreed as he lay down on the bed with a sigh. "I have already done my part for now. As you say, I will be right here."

De Irujo frowned at him for a moment, then shrugged and walked out. He really had no time to waste on this man.

By now, it was the middle of second watch. Even a larger pueblo, such as Monterey, slowed down by this time of night. De Irujo watched quietly for a while. Seeing no movement anywhere near him, he casually walked across the plaza as if merely out for a stroll. All remained quiet as he walked slowly by the large gate to Monterey's cuartel. Looking carefully around again, he took out the note to del Guerro and silently pinned it to the gate with a knife. He then walked quickly back to a tree across the plaza from the cuartel and sat on the bench encircling it to watch to see if the note was found. Even in the dead of night, one could expect the occasional lancer to come out of the cuartel and go across to the tavern. Surely, the note would be found then.

Time passed. The Devil take them! de Irujo swore. Are they all asleep in there? I will have to do something about this myself! For a few minutes he was stymied. He needed to draw lancers to the gate, but he had to do it in such a way that he was not connected with the note...but how? A plan quickly formed as he saw a drunk peon begin to stagger his way across the plaza. He watched the peon and then started walking across the plaza, timing this action so that he and the peon would be a few yards in front of the gate when they met.

"Here! What are you doing?" de Irujo yelled loudly as he deliberately collided with the drunken man. "You are trying to rob me! You pickpocket!! I will teach you," he screamed at the confused peon.

"No, ssssennor....Perdóname, pooor favor," the peon slurred, barely able to comprehend what he was accused of.

"You think you can get away with it, just because you are drunk! You peons are forgetting your place. Well, I will show you!" de Irujo screeched. "Lancers! Lancers! This man is a thief! Lancers!"

The face of a curious soldier finally appeared at the observation slot of the gate. "What is going on out there? What is all this ruckus?" he yelled. Slowly the gate opened and two lancers stepped out.

"Señores, this man is a pickpocket and a thief! I demand that you arrest him!" de Irujo stated indignantly.

"But, señores, I have taken nothing. I have nothing. How can I have taken anything from him?" the peon asked, quickly becoming less drunk as the adrenaline, caused by the approach of the soldiers, began coursing through his veins.

"Liar!" de Irujo yelled. "Check his pockets, Private. You will see!"

The peon's mouth fell open as the private reached over and searched him. There in his own ragged pocket was a gold pocket watch, just such as a caballero like de Irujo would have carried. "No! I do not understand! I did nothing!" he cried in disbelief.

"Does this look like you have done nothing, hombre?" the first lancer said as he all but picked the man up by the arm as he pulled him toward the cuartel. "You are under arrest. Will you please come in and sign complaint papers about this man, Señor...?"

"Sí, I am Federico Andres del Gato and I will indeed!" de Irujo declared. They all turned to go back to the gate and into the cuartel.

As they entered, the second lancer noticed the note tacked to the gate. "Señor del Gato, did you put this here?"

De Irujo shook his head.

"Did you see anyone around the gate?" the guard continued.

"No, there was no one in the plaza when I came out for a walk. This drunk here just came out of the tavern and walked into me as I crossed the plaza a few moments ago," de Irujo answered.

The soldier thoughtfully took the letter off the gate and carried it in with him. "Private, put this man in a cell. I think I need to take this directly to the Capitán. Con permiso, Señor del Gato." With a slight bow to the caballero, the lancer turned and went into an office where light still showed under the door.

As quickly as possible without seeming to be in a hurry, de Irujo finished signing papers accusing the peon of being a pickpocket. That done, he hurried back to the inn, whistling to himself as he walked. Step two done! he told himself. The first note was on its way.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Private Lujan snapped to attention as he stepped up to Capitán del Guerro's desk. The sharply dressed and polished officer looked up with a frown. "Sí, Private? What is it?" he asked tiredly.

"Capitán, I found this on the cuartel gate a few minutes ago," Lujan explained as he handed the letter to his commanding officer.

Capitán del Guerro broke the seal and quickly read the letter, the tiredness leaving his face as he did so. "Private, go wake Sergeant Lomas and the other lancers. Have the sergeant come to me in here," he ordered as he rose from his desk.

Sergeant Lomas, a short, stocky man in his late twenties, found Capitán del Guerro leaning against the front of his desk deep in thought. "Sí, Capitán!" he said, as he saluted. "You sent for me?"

"Sí," del Guerro said quietly. "Sergeant, I want you to draw up four groups of men to go to the houses of the people whose names are in this letter. We have treason being plotted here in our very own pueblo. Bring the men here and then I want every inch of their casas searched. If what is in this letter is true, we will find out that they were not alone in their evil. There will be links to other areas and even to other colonies. That is IF this is true. I think we will be able to tell in the next few hours if this information can be trusted." He glanced again at the letter, before handing it over to the sergeant. "Have the men ready to ride in fifteen minutes, Sergeant Lomas."

"Sí, mi capitán!" Lomas saluted again and hurried to do as he was ordered. Capitán del Guerro required sharp discipline, whether in polished boots and neat uniforms or immediate attention to orders. Lomas knew better than to hesitate.

An hour and a half later, Capitán del Guerro himself stood with four lancers looking down at a man, bound but still in his nightclothes.

"You have no right to do this! I have done nothing, Capitán!" Julio Moraga protested.

"Oh? Well, this letter says that you have, Señor Moraga!" the soldier informed him. "It says that you have been the leader of a band of traitors for the past fourteen months. I can give you each of your fellow conspirators' names, señor, and tell you the part each of you were to play in inciting the people to revolt. In addition to that, I know just where to look here for papers that will link you to other groups, even as far away as West Florida."


The prisoner tried to look defiant, but fear was showing clearly in his eyes. That fear increased as he watched a lancer walk to a nearby wall, move a piece of furniture and uncover a hidden hollow in the wall. At the Capitán's gesture, the lancer brought a small box and placed it on the table in front of him.

Things grew quiet for a moment as a lancer tried to open the lock. A woman could be heard crying from the other room of the casa. Moraga looked toward the door in concern. "What are you doing with my wife and children?"

"Nothing, señor," del Guerro answered. "We merely wished to capture you. However, when you are gone, Señor Moraga, they will have neither lands nor casa. You have seen to that by your treachery. All this will be the property of the king whose rule you spurned." Morega hung his head in sorrow then for he knew that once the chest was opened, there would be no hope for him.

The lock had still not been opened. Finally, the order was given for the lock to be broken off. A hammer was found and the job finally done. Inside were nearly a dozen papers of various sorts. The capitán quickly looked through it, noting names and dates. Behind a ribbon in the top of the chest were bound two letters bearing red seals. At first, the capitán merely glanced at the message in these. However, it suddenly had all his attention when he realized that the name at the bottom of the page was a feminine one and one that seemed vaguely familiar for some reason. He would have to think further on it.

There were many questions he wanted answers to here. Why was a woman involving herself in politics in the first place? How deeply was she involved? And just who was she? He would have to look for those answers in Los Ángeles, or at least, someone must.

He also noticed that there seemed to be some sort of a connection to people in Santa Barbara. There was a new, young comandante there at a rather small cuartel. Del Guerro thought for a moment. I can have things squared away here within the next twenty-four hours. This calls for a visit to Comandante Contreras. We must not allow a single person in this plot to escape! This will require us to work together. The day after tomorrow, I will go there to confer with him. That decided, he gave orders for the prisoner to be taken to jail. Knowing it would be done as he ordered, he walked out to the horses to wait for his men. It would be easier to plan further if he were alone for a few minutes.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Comandante Luis Contreras sat and looked solemnly down at the pair of letters before him. Capitán del Guerro had brought one to him. The other, very similar to it, had been found on the gate of his own cuartel just the previous day. He, like del Guerro, had rounded up a small but troublesome group of men in his area. The writing was different but the information and its inferences for the peace of this area were the same. He and the capitán had talked far into the morning concerning what to do about the Los Ángeles connection.

Since all of this had come to his attention, del Guerro had remembered why the name on the letters was so familiar. He had heard over a year ago of a man by that name who had brought a son and daughter to this colony from West Florida. That in itself would not have stuck in his memory, had not the man and the son been killed within two days of coming there. He had heard nearly a year later that they had been connected to royalty. He had always wondered what would possess a man with power and influence in one place to come to another, and for the only surviving heir to actually hide the royal connections for almost a year. The oddness of the situation had made it memorable. This surviving heir's name had now turned up on papers, which tied her very clearly to treason. This was very serious, indeed.

Both men remembered what upheaval had taken place in San Francisco more than a year ago, when another woman had been found to be heavily involved with rebellion. When she had been hung, the area had nearly come apart at the seams...open defiance of law in the streets, bloodshed and anarchy. No one wanted to see anything like that happen elsewhere. This woman, this Ania Cristina Valdéz, being high born would make things even worse. This whole area of California could rise up against them if it was not handled correctly.

"Capitán del Guerro, I think it is time we make sure that Capitán Rodríguez of the cuartel de Los Ángeles is made aware of this situation,” Contreras stated. “I have met the man, and he seems bright and capable. This situation must be handled very carefully and it may take all of us to do it."

Del Guerro shook his head, "I cannot go further with you. The trial for the traitors in my jail is set for the day after tomorrow. I must be back there for that. I was tempted to just hang them. The evidence is clear enough. However, I learned long ago that every man should have a fair trial." He looked closely at Contreras, but was relieved to see that he had apparently not heard the rumor of how he had learned this. Actually, a bandit, the one who called himself Zorro had taught him this. Del Guerro had felt that he would never live down the humiliation of being defeated by the outlaw. He was very careful about the rights of all prisoners to have a fair trial now.

"Very well. I, too, will have trials as soon as I can. I think the best thing for us to do is to get this information to Rodríguez and suggest that he involve the comandante of the prison at San Juan as well. Los Ángeles has only a small cuartel, much like the one we have here. If there is to be civil unrest, Rodríguez will need every lancer he can find. The prison is not yet open. Capitán Cosío should be able to bring enough men to Los Ángeles to almost double the men there. If I were in Rodríguez's position, it is what I would ask him to do. Even if the woman is not in this thing deep enough to lose her life over it, the people here will not agree to what must be done. Rodríguez will be sitting on a powder keg." Contreras frowned again. "Why, in the name of all that is holy, would a woman involve herself in something like this?" Both men shook their heads.

The only person who could answer that, seemingly, was this Ania Cristina Valdéz. For a minute, Contreras figured in his head. Well, I guess it will not be long before the answers can be gotten from her in court. Let us see...three days from here to Los Ángeles...another day or so for Rodríguez to get Capitán Cosío’s support into place. Hmmm, yes, by the sixteenth, or the seventeenth of julio she will most likely have her chance to answer these charges. It is to be hoped, for her sake and Alta California's peace, that she can explain very well indeed. Perhaps if she is not so deeply involved, merely her lands will be required of her. Even this may set the people off. Unfortunately, if she is more deeply involved than that... well... considerable more will be required of her. Contreras shook his head again and turned to a nearby lancer to have a horse prepared for him. However unpleasant, this must be done at once.

 

 

Chapter Fifteen
Chapter One
Zorro Contents
Main Page