Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

 

Capitán Rodríguez sat at a table in a small room at the mission at San Buenaventura listening to Capitán Contreras.  His expression was one of disbelief.  "Surely you must be mistaken, Capitán! I cannot imagine a lady of Señorita Valdéz's breeding being mixed up in something like this. She is quite rich and could go wherever she wishes. Why would she have any reason to want to see California no longer a colony of Spain? I have heard that she never plans to go back there, but that does not mean she is a traitor to the king," he protested.

"I am afraid that it is unfortunately very true! Look at these," Contreras insisted, as he laid two of the incriminating notes before him on the table. "Notice the seal, a V with a griffin behind it. There happens to be an old man living in Santa Barbara who once held land in West Florida. He still has some of the papers related to the sale of his land there and this seal can still be seen on the outside of those papers. He says they were completed and then mailed to him by Miguel Valdéz in his work with the government there. One can only suppose that his daughter still has the stamp that makes this. Who knows? Perhaps Miguel Valdéz himself was to be involved in this but was killed before he could get it under way."

"Well, that would make more sense than her having gotten involved on her own. I have heard it said that one reason she was so determined to get that vineyard started was not that she herself had wanted it so badly, but that she refused to see a dream her father held dear die with him. If it is true that her father was less than loyal to the king, then it follows that his daughter might be determined to continue the dream of independence for the colonies, as well," Rodríguez replied thoughtfully.

"As you say, that makes sense," Contreras agreed as he leaned against the table. "Well, I guess the next step is up to you. What do you propose to do? You realize, of course, that you have a potentially explosive situation on your hands, do you not? Just how many lancers do you have at your disposal?"

"Not enough to handle a great deal of civil unrest, I assure you," Rodríguez stated, as if worried. "Señorita Valdéz has made a good many friends here who will not readily believe that she is a traitor. Alejandro de la Vega sponsored her when she first came here and it is to his son that she is betrothed. I have no doubt that they are quite capable of stirring the people up to come to her aid, if they decide to do so. The woman has become quite involved with the peons of our area, too. I would feel better before going any further if I could talk to Capitán Cosío at the San Juan Capistrano Prison first. He has nearly as many lancers there as I have here. If I can, I will have him bring a portion of his lancers to help me."

"Are you sure the de la Vegas are not involved in this too?" Contreras asked.

Greed filled Rodríguez’s heart and he thought for a moment about such an idea. Hmmmm, that might be a way to get even more land IF I could convincingly tie them into this somehow, as well. Then he considered all that he would have to do to accomplish this. No, there would not be time enough to do it right. It is best not to overreach here. Perhaps sometime in the future, I can find some way to set them up for trouble, but not now. The most important thing this time is to keep Alejandro de la Vega or his son from causing trouble.  Humph!  I doubt seriously the younger de la Vega will do more than follow his father's lead in this, regardless of his feelings for the señorita.  Finally, he spoke aloud. "No, Capitán Contreras, I do not believe that they are. The old man is fiery, but loyal to the crown. And as for the son, well, Diego de la Vega is a rather bookish man, more concerned with books, fine wines, and easy living than many. I doubt that he would concern himself with politics."

"Well, at this point, that is a very good thing for them, is it not? So your next step will be to go to San Juan, Capitán?" Contreras asked.

"Sí, as soon as I leave here I will head there without even stopping in Los Ángeles," Rodríguez declared, as if he had come to a decision about the situation. "I will also see if I cannot contact the man who brings the mails up from the boats in San Pedro. You said that the man in Monterey indicated that she sent information and got instructions from someone in West Florida and that it was smuggled here in trunks or boxes of some sort?"

"Sí, that is what he said," Contreras said.

"Well, I shall see if I can intercept some of this. Then I will confront her," Rodríguez said firmly.

"Good luck, Capitán Rodríguez. I will be taking care of the conspirators from my own area. Capitán del Guerro and I agree that it is best to get these trials over as quickly as possible. I understand Judge Vasca is due in this area in a couple of days. Perhaps it would be best if you can get him to preside while he is here. I realize that is faster than most trials are held in such matters, but considering the danger to the peace in this area perhaps he will agree. I dare say that if the other two areas are any indication, you will find more than enough evidence to proceed swiftly." Contreras shook his head. "Yours will be the most unpleasant of the duties, that of bringing in this woman. I do not envy you your task, señor!"

"Sí, it will be most unpleasant for me, Capitán, but then we are not always assured that our duties to the king will be pleasant, now are we?" Capitán Rodríguez frowned deeply as if pained by this duty. "Unpleasant or not, I will see it done from start to the awful finish. That is all I can do."

Contreras nodded his head again sadly. "Sí, that is no less than I expected. God speed on your journey, señor, and may God have pity on all of us if this thing is allowed to get out of hand!"

 

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De Irujo sat by his fire, playing a game of solitaire. At first, he had been rather displeased when Rómez had led him here and told him that this was where Rodríguez meant for him to stay hidden until he was needed. However, after looking around the small, but sufficiently roomy and dry cave close at hand, he had to admit that he had stayed in worse places. The prison cell in which Ania Valdéz caused him to be imprisoned was considerably worse than the cave could ever be. Since Rómez had left to rejoin the lancers, de Irujo had idled away his time, doing little but playing card games and thinking, daydreaming of what Ania Valdéz would soon be facing.  The humiliation of a trial, and if all went as it should, the horror of the hangman's noose. He supposed that was worth a bit of rough lodging. Suddenly, his head jerked up as he heard a horse whinny. Quickly, he climbed the rocks, which hid his campsite, and was relieved to see that the horseman riding his way was none other than Capitán Rodríguez. By the time the capitán reined up not far from him, de Irujo was back beside his fire.

"Hola, Señor de Irujo, mi amigo! I have good news for you," Rodríguez said as he walked up to de Irujo's side.

"Rodríguez, the only news I want from you is that the witch is in your cuartel waiting to be hung, that and the news that I can quit living like a homeless peon." de Irujo grumbled.

Rodríguez himself was in too good a mood to allow de Irujo to ruffle his feathers. "Ah, but that is almost what I was going to tell you. Although she is not there yet, she definitely will be, probably within the next twenty-four hours. There are a few more plans we need to make and then you need only await my order to move on them."

"You have seen evidence that the plan is working as we planned?" de Irujo asked, his mood improving.

"More than that. I am on my way right now to San Juan to request the additional troops which both Capitánes del Guerro and Contreras sincerely recommended I get to deal with the problems our dear Señorita Valdéz will cause with her arrest and the execution they know could very well follow. What we need to do now is assure that she will be well and truly connected with the attack on her cousin, the soon-to-be late Ambassador Córdoba. We can afford no slip-ups.  I have already hired someone who has worked for me before to assassinate the ambassador.  You will be the one to make sure there are no slip-ups.  This is what I want you to do."

As Rodríguez squatted down across from him at the fire, he described the future elements of the plan. When he finished, de Irujo laughed. "It cannot help but work, Capitán! I can imagine the expression on her face now. All I ask is that I be there when she is hung. I want her to see me standing before her."

"No, you are not to come into the pueblo!” Rodríguez insisted, nearly shouting. Then he lowered his voice, going on more calmly. “Rest assured that she will know you have had a part.  I will tell her. But you must not come yourself. There are those who would know you on sight. If you are seen and recognized, it may ruin everything." Rodríguez frowned stubbornly.

"As you wish, Capitán," de Irujo said easily. However, he had not yet decided if he would follow these particular orders or not. De Irujo very much wanted to look in her eyes again and see fear there.

Soon Rodríguez went on his way toward San Juan and to his meeting with Capitán Casio. De Irujo went back to his card game, satisfied that the trap was closing even now on Ania Valdéz.

 

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Comandante Cosío stood facing away from Rodríguez, with his hands clasped behind his back as he listened to the capitán's story.

"And there you have it, Capitán," Rodríguez was finishing up. "Our situation could turn very nasty indeed. You know how the people are about women and their treatment. On top of that, Ania Valdéz has ingratiated herself with many of the people by acting as a curandera for whoever asks.  Why even some of the caballeros and their families have gone to her when the doctor is not in the area! Add to that the fact that she is betrothed to the only son of the richest, most influential man in California, at least, our part of it, and is high born herself and you can see the problems we could very well be facing."

Cosío turned back to face him. "Sí, even the trial of a peon woman was enough to cause unrest in San Francisco last year. This woman will have many supporters of all classes if it is as you say."

"I can assure you that it is, Capitán," Rodríguez declared.

"What is it you wish from me, Capitán Rodríguez?" Cosío asked as he walked back to the chair behind his desk.

"I would ask that you bring at least a part of your lancers to Los Ángeles as support for my lancers and me during the trial, and if it comes to that, through the execution. To stay until the chance of a revolt is passed," Rodríguez requested.

Capitán Cosío was a cautious man. He did not immediately say that he would do so. He sat for some minutes, thinking of all he had been told. He himself was a chivalrous man and the idea of putting a woman through the things that such a charge meant nearly turned his stomach. Yet if this was true, if this woman was a traitor to the king, then it was his duty to bring her to justice, as unpleasant as that would be. "You have proof of this charge?" he finally asked.

"Sí," Rodríguez said, as he reached into his jacket pocket and offered one of the letters that del Guerro had confiscated. "The seal you see there is the Valdéz family crest, or at least part of it. Her father used one like it when he was adjutant to the governor of West Florida. You can also see that the foolish woman also signed the letters with her real name."

"An odd thing for her to do. One would think that she would have used initials or perhaps a false name," Cosío remarked.

"Well, I am surprised that she managed to carry it off for as long as she did, Capitán Cosío. She is a clever woman, though perhaps not as smart as she thinks she is. Perhaps she did not even see a need to conceal herself with these people. I suppose she did not fear that they would turn her in, courting the hangman's noose the way they already were. In that, she simply showed that she, like most woman, have no real grasp of politics," Rodríguez said thoughtfully. "Unfortunately, that was her downfall."

Comandante Cosío looked at him silently for a moment, then commented, "Humph! I suppose you may be right there, Capitán Rodríguez, but I will still be interested in questioning her to find out her reasoning here. It does not seem right somehow."

Rodríguez watched Comandante Cosío, his face never betraying his unease. Hmmm, I will have to be careful around this one. He is not so easily convinced of her guilt. Still, given all the 'evidence' we have managed to plant, he most likely will not be a problem, IF everything goes off without a hitch, that is. If there is a problem, if anything doesn't ring true, he may pick up on it. Rodríguez almost wished that he had not manipulated things where he would have Cosío and his lancers in the cuartel. However, it was a bit too late to worry about that now.

"Very well, Capitán Rodríguez. I will have the work crews placed in their cells and kept there. That will require fewer men to guard them, probably no more than three or four. The rest I will bring to Los Ángeles with me. That will add fourteen men to the fifteen you already have there. That should be sufficient, should it not?" Cosío finally agreed.

"Sí, with double my men, we should be able to defend the cuartel and probably put down any rioting as well. Muchas gracias, Comandante Cosío!" Rodríguez said. He managed to say this humbly, but inside he was positively gleeful. He had once again had a very exciting thought.  With around thirty men at his disposal, he could more than likely hold off even the fifty-man army once raised by Alejandro de la Vega, which had been reported in some of the old records he had read, and that black cloaked demon, Zorro, would be walking into a trap fairly bristling with lancers, many more than he had ever had to evade before when taking a prisoner from the cuartel. Even Zorro could not hope to win. It was going to work! Rodríguez had to fight to keep a solemn expression on his face as he bade the Comandante farewell and headed back to Los Ángeles, with the promise that Cosío would be there with his lancers by nightfall. Zorro, I will see you dead this time! he thought fiercely. Tonight, or tomorrow night at the latest, I will be rid of you for good! With a laugh, Rodríguez spurred his horse toward Los Ángeles. There was no time to waste. Only one more part of the plan needed to be set in motion, and then he could sit back and enjoy the show!

 

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Bernardo paused as he walked past the dry goods store. A curious sight greeted his eyes as he looked up at the sound of many horses coming down the street. There, coming two abreast, were lancers heading in the direction of the cuartel. At the head of the column, was a young officer wearing the rank honor cords of a comandante, the insignia on the arm of his uniform testifying to the rank of Capitán. In his blue eyes was a wary look that bespoke a serious purpose to his actions. From the way he looked at the position of the buildings and the outline of the rooftops, Bernardo wondered if he was expecting some kind of trouble from that quarter, but what it was he could not imagine. Right now, Los Ángeles was as peaceful as he had seen it in the whole three years since he had come here with Diego.

As the last of the column entered the cuartel, he was surprised to see the guard close the big gates as if there was trouble afoot. Usually, when there was none, the gates stood open during the day. Altogether, the occurrence gave him an uneasy feeling. Perhaps this was something that Don Diego should hear about at once. Zorro might need to investigate the reason behind so many lancers being brought here from...where? Bernardo looked back in the direction from which the soldiers had come. San Juan Capistrano was in that direction. Could this be some of the lancers stationed at the new prison? Why would they be coming here?

Feeling even more uneasy, Bernardo turned and walked rapidly to where he had left his horse tied. Until he reached the edge of the pueblo, he resisted the urge to cue his horse into a fast lope, not wanting to attract anyone's attention. Once he reached the outskirts of Los Ángeles, however, he urged the horse on to more speed. Every instinct which he had developed since he had been helping Zorro was now screaming a warning. He only hoped that Diego could figure out what the danger was and would know how to handle it. If anyone could, he could.

 

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Alejandro was enjoying watching Diego work out with his sword in the lower tunnels and was, as always, amazed at the grace and smoothness of his son's movements. He himself had been quite a swordsman as a young man, but Diego's movements were not his. Where did that grace of movement come from? he always wondered whenever he had the chance to see Diego in action, either like this or as Zorro. Then he smiled fondly as he remembered his wife's grace as they had danced. Surely this was a bit of Isabella still standing before him in the son they had both loved so well. Ah, Isabella, you would be so proud of him, even though I know you would worry for his safety, too.

Both men were startled as Bernardo burst in, obviously concerned about something. At first, he signed too fast for either man to understand him.

"Slow down, Bernardo," Diego admonished him. "Your words are running together, mi amigo. What has you so excited?"

Don Alejandro and Diego watched silently as Bernardo took a moment to reorganize his thoughts and slow his expressive hands down. Their faces sobered as they began to understand that a large group of soldiers had come to the cuartel under the command of a capitán. He tried for several minutes to say where he thought they were from, but finally stopped in disgust, as they still did not understand. At last, he sighed and bending down, he wrote 'San Juan' in the dust of the floor.

"Now why would Rodríguez call for troops from somewhere else? Obviously they would not be here without being called," Diego commented. "Bernardo, did you see anything amiss in the pueblo itself or on the way back?"

Bernardo shook his head.

"This is very odd, indeed," Diego said thoughtfully as he laid his sword upon the table.

His father nodded in agreement. "Rodríguez is sure to be up to something, son. Have you seen nothing suspicious when you have ridden lately either?"

"No, Father. In fact, it has been the opposite. It is as if Rodríguez has decided to do his job honestly, with no tricks or dirty dealings at all. His good behavior makes me almost as uneasy as did his constant manipulations and cruelties. I truly doubt that this leopard has changed his spots so completely," Diego replied worriedly.

"Ha! I am afraid that one is like the leopard preparing to strike. If he is not doing anything now, it is because he is saving energy for his attack later," Alejandro stated.

All of them fell silent as they pondered what the meaning of this puzzle could be. Finally, Bernardo looked up, and with a questioning look on his face, made a Z in the air and made the slight whistling sound for the swish of the blade in the air.

Diego paused for a moment as he considered sources of information open to him. "Yes, probably later, Bernardo. For now, I think I will go see if our good sergeant has a thirst for wine, this afternoon," he finally replied, Zorro's sword singing slightly as he resheathed it.

Bernardo and Don Alejandro exchanged looks and nodded at the reference to the wine loving sergeant, who often held military information like a sieve held water. He was frequently Zorro's first and best source of details as to what was going on with Rodríguez. Perhaps if he knew enough details to 'spill' to Diego, Zorro would not need to ride tonight. It was always worth a try.

 

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Diego had almost decided that the comandante had confined all the lancers to the cuartel when Sergeant Garcia finally lumbered into the tavern later that evening. He looked tired and disgruntled, rather than his usual jolly self as he sat down opposite Diego at his table.

"Buenas tardes, Sergeant! Why the long face? Tonight seems like a splendid night. The wine is as fine as ever. Perhaps it will cheer you up, mi amigo!" Diego greeted him.

Garcia shook his head. "Gracias, Don Diego, but I am afraid it will take more than wine to do that right now."

"Oh? What is the problem? Perhaps I can do something to help," Diego offered.

"Not unless you know where the traitor is," Garcia said, then suddenly looked chagrined as he looked to see if anyone else had heard.  He appeared relieved when no one around them seemed to be paying any attention to him.  "Ah, Don Diego, I should not have said that.  You won't say anything, will you?"

 "Why, of course, Sergeant. Rest assured that what you confide in me will go no further," Diego told him. "What is this about a traitor? Here in Los Ángeles? Surely not! Things have been extremely peaceful here since we rid ourselves of the Eagle and his followers."

Garcia took a large swallow of wine and leaned forward, lowering his voice as he answered Diego, "Sí, I think so too.  But that is what the capitán from San Juan says.  When this traitor is arrested it could cause unrest.  That is why he and his men are here."  He shook his head.  "But, Don Diego, I do not know who would be a traitor here."

Fleetingly, Diego thought that perhaps Rodríguez had found evidence of his own duplicity. He looked down at his wine for a moment as he brought his own concern back under control, hiding any expression that may have betrayed him. After a moment, however, he decided that such was not the case, for if it was Rodríguez would not have hesitated a moment. He would have ridden with the lancers directly to the hacienda as he had when Zorro had been injured and Rodríguez decided that Ania had been the one to help him. Only Ania's coolness and clear-headedness and the providence of God had saved them then. Besides that, as well liked and respected as his father and he were in the community, it would hardly be the cause of civil unrest if they were arrested. Then who? "Did they mention what exactly this person had done?" he asked.

"No, they told us little.  Ah, Don Diego, I know everyone here.  If there is a traitor, then it is someone I know.  And if it is true, then I will be forced to watch them hang.  What if this man is my friend?"  Garcia looked into his wine glass.  "I like being a soldier, Don Diego.  It is all I know.  I would not want to watch my friend die, but if I am ordered to, then I will have to do it."  He sighed.  "And worst of all, the comandante has confined us to the cuartel starting tomorrow.  Unless we are out on official business.  I do not think the tavern will be 'official business'." Garcia continued.

"That new company of lancers is from San Juan Capistrano?" Diego wished to confirm.

"Sí, under the command of Capitán Manuel Cosío," Garcia said and then fell silent as he drank his wine.

Diego thought about the situation. There was probably nothing that Zorro could learn by riding tonight, yet the feeling of unease refused to leave him. Garcia seemed unable to tell him anything further, so after a while, Diego left him with the rest of the bottle of wine and rode home, still fighting his feelings.

When Diego had returned and he was alone with Don Alejandro and Bernardo, he told them the little that he had found out. Though he could tell that his father had at first feared for his safety and the security of his secret, he too had discarded that as a real possibility. Beyond that, none of them had any real idea of where to look for this "traitor", whose very arrest could cause unrest enough for Rodríguez to request backup from another comandante.

"I truly doubt that I will be able to learn anything tonight, but I also doubt that I shall be able to sleep. It is as if something is there, just beyond my reach, something which threatens everything. If there is the slightest chance I can head it off, I must be prepared. If we only knew which way to look for this threat." Diego looked solemnly at these two who were so close to him. "I have said before that this peaceful period felt like the calm before the storm. I very much fear that this is the beginning of that storm. We must all be on our guard."

Alejandro laid his hand on his son's broad shoulder. "Diego," he said, meeting his son's eyes, "Bernardo and I will watch out for ourselves. I do not believe the danger is to us or directly to you, but please be careful. Whoever is Rodríguez's target this time, remember that even Zorro can handle only so many by himself. There has never been this many lancers in the cuartel at one time."

"Sí, I am aware of that, Father, and I will promise you that I will not be rash in anything that I do," Diego smiled at Alejandro confidently. "I do not plan to go into the cuartel, though I will probably do a little spying around the edges. It would take a great deal to tempt me to come inside with so many there now."

"Vaya con Dios, my son," Don Alejandro said as he watched Diego and Bernardo disappear into the secret passage. He could hear Diego asking Bernardo to take a message to Ania for him. With their wedding less than five days away, they rarely missed a moment's opportunity to be together. Ania would be disappointed tonight.

However, she was already taking Diego's responsibilities in stride. This reassured Don Alejandro about his son's future. He was well pleased that Diego would not have to go through life alone as a result of his choice to serve his people. Ania's strength and love would be a comfort to Diego in the years to come.

Zorro rode throughout the area that night. His instincts were like bells being set off in his head. Yet everywhere he rode he found no trouble. As far as he could tell everything was just as it should be. He even sneaked onto the roof of the cuartel, hoping to overhear something further. The comments he heard from the local lancers shed no more light on the problem than had Garcia's, while the San Juan lancers seemed to be a close lipped group. He heard few comments from them of any kind. The few he did overhear seemed to indicate that they too knew only enough to get by with.

It was a very frustrated Zorro who returned to the cave in the predawn hours. He jerked off his riding gloves in agitation and flung them onto the table. "Bernardo, I KNOW something is afoot! I know it as well as I know you are standing there, but like a will-of-the-wisp, when I reach out to grasp it, it is gone," he declared as he began to remove the black clothing, the roughness with which he did so betraying his emotion to his friend. "I feel in my bones that Rodríguez is about to do something major again, but I have not the slightest idea just what. I fear that this storm he is about to let loose on the people of this area will be a veritable huracán!" He was silent, thinking for a few minutes as Bernardo watched him in concern. "Tomorrow, I intend to ride into Los Ángeles with Ania as we usually do. I would like you to go in ahead of us and see just what you can overhear. I also intend to ask Father to go into the pueblo on some business or the other, as well. Surely, between the three...well, the four of us..." he paused, smiling even amid his worry as he thought of Ania's probable insistence that she could help, "we will learn something to help whoever it is. I suppose there could be a real traitor somewhere here. It has happened before, but I would bet my last peso that it is not so. I would bet that Rodríguez has a trap laid for someone and heaven help them!"  Shaking his head, he finally returned to his bedchamber. He was to meet Ania early tomorrow to ride into the pueblo and he needed at least a little rest.

He felt sure sleep was not going to come easily. For once, the insomnia he often claimed to have was going to be very real. He wished he could shake this feeling of doom that was hanging over his head. Through three years of depending on his instincts to keep his skin intact, his instincts had become sharp and insistent. They were no longer easy to ignore or suppress. He had no doubt that trouble was coming. Yet he knew of no way for him to protect the people here or even himself and those he loved.

As he tossed and turned in bed later, he could only pray that when it came that he would be granted the strength and wisdom to do what had to be done. The last thought to drift through his tired mind as the dawn was breaking in the eastern sky was a prayer as well. Barely two hours remained until he had to get up and dress to meet Ania for the ride into Los Ángeles. May the saints take pity on us. May they intercede for all of us!

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen
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