Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen


Ania felt as if she were walking through some kind of nightmare. Surely, she would wake to bright sunshine coming in her windows and marriage to the man she loved just days away. This couldn’t be real!  She knew the reality of it all would set in soon, but for now she almost felt as if it were happening to someone else. García walked with his eyes focused ahead as if he could not bear to look at her. The lancers from San Juan stared at her in open curiosity, while Reyes and some of the others who knew her were shaking their heads or merely standing with their mouths open in shock. Ania could well understand their astonishment.

How could she and Diego have underestimated Rodríguez this badly? It had honestly never entered her mind that he would do anything like this. Undoubtedly, he would have been quick enough to charge her with treason if he had found evidence of her helping Zorro, but to elaborately plant evidence to create a convincing image of treason where there was none and for him to attack Ramón. Ania fought back tears as she thought about her cousin. She was not numb enough for that not to hurt. At least, Rodríguez had said 'attempted murder', so Ramón was alive. Oh, Ramón! Please hang on! Saint Luke, please intercede for him. Do not let him die! she prayed.

As she walked, she willed herself to keep her head high and her back straight. No one must see the humiliation she was feeling, and even more important than that, she must not let Rodríguez see her fear. Heaven forbid that she cry in front of him or that she break down in any way. She determinedly held on to her dignity as the iron door closed behind her. For all their openness, the iron bars forming the front of the cell seemed to be suffocating her. The clanking of the door as it shut sounded so final!

She could not give up. She had to hold on to the belief that they would somehow prove her innocence, or that Zorro could get her out. She knew that nothing on earth would keep him from coming for her tonight. However, that thought was hardly comforting to her at the moment. Everywhere she looked there were lancers.  The place was nearly bursting at the seams with them. How could Zorro possibly hope to get her out with this many soldiers here? It would be suicide! The thought made her go cold all over. Of course! That is Rodríguez's plan. He knows that Zorro will not leave me in here without trying to help me. I am bait for Zorro! Ania quickly realized. No doubt, he will enjoy repaying me for my public ridicule of him and silencing me, once and for all. My land also might be his if he gets away with this, but the real prize is Zorro! Ania lowered herself onto the rough cot. Looking out, she began to count the lancers now present in the cuartel. Thirty! How will he be able to avoid thirty men, all intent on taking him, dead or alive? Ania rose to her feet again and began pacing.

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Capitán Rodríguez watched Diego de la Vega closely. He had been surprised at the fire the young hacendado had shown, but then cool-headed reasoning was seldom found hand in hand with love. When the object of one's love is threatened even a cowardly man could be expected to strike out. However, Don Diego had done no more than verbally protest the situation. His father had prevented what might have been rash action on de la Vega's part, a pity really. It might have been interesting to see just how far the young man's passion would have pushed him. Of course, then the lancers would have felt it necessary to shoot a prominent hacendado and that might have caused even more unrest when the people heard the news about the senorita's arrest. No, this way was better. The capitán was going to have to walk a very thin line here if he was going to both get what he wanted and avoid inciting an uprising. At the moment, the young man stood transfixed, watching the door close behind his fiancée and her escort, his father's hand still on his shoulder, more of a comforting gesture now than restraint.

Rodríguez expected more arguments from de la Vega. However, when the young man spoke again, it was to Capitán Cosío that he directed his plea. "Capitán Cosío, I implore you, think well about everything you see before you help Capitán Rodríguez! Things are not as they seem!" Diego insisted.

"Señor de la Vega," Cosío said solemnly, "I received a message packet from Capitán del Guerro of the Cuartel de Monterey even before Capitán Rodríguez came to me the other day. In it, he sent me one of the letters seized from members of a known rebel group there. Capitán del Guerro indicated in his message that it was he who contacted Capitán Rodríguez, not the other way around." He reached into the pouch at his waist and withdrew the letter. "I am afraid that you will recognize the writing on this. I compared it to a letter that Señorita Valdéz had posted a day or so ago. The writing is the same," he continued as he handed it to Diego.

Diego looked closely at the letter in his hand. Had he not known better, he would have sworn that the writing was Ania’s. "Señor, I do not care how much alike it appears to be to her writing, she did not write this. Everything you are seeing has been fabricated! I do not know exactly how it could all have been started from Monterey, but if you just keep looking before accepting what you see, you will find a loose thread in the plot somewhere and given enough time the whole thing will come apart. What you have left will lead you to that man there, Capitán!" Diego looked sharply at Rodríguez as his father took the letter and examined it. "Of course, that is it! De Irujo...he is a forger! That is what Ania testified against him for in Spain. You did not send him to that prison at all, did you, Rodríguez?" Diego leaned angrily against the desktop.

Rodríguez merely shook his head. "You are grasping at straws, Don Diego. Whether you choose to accept the evidence of your own eyes is your business, señor, but the law must operate on the evidence that has been brought forward."

"In this case, the law would be blind indeed to accept what we see here, Capitán," Don Alejandro declared. "I will never believe this of that young woman and neither will most of the people of this pueblo. Señor, I believe you are capable of such treachery. She is not."

"What you say of this de Irujo is not possible. I know you wish it were so, but he has been very closely watched in my work program for over two months now. I will testify that no one has been to see him, nor has he been unaccounted for during all that time," Capitán Cosío said sympathetically. "I understand how you feel. I wish there was some way to prove that the señorita is not involved in this, but I am afraid there is a great deal of evidence from several different sources against her. I am sorry, Señor de la Vega."

"All I ask is that you not stop looking for other explanations. Do not close your mind. Ask Rodríguez there what the connection is between himself and de Ir..." Diego insisted.

"You have gone on with this quite long enough, Don Diego. I will listen to this slander no longer!" Rodríguez exclaimed, cutting off Diego's protest. Then turning to the elder de la Vega, the Capitán continued, "Don Alejandro, I suggest you take your son out of here before he finds himself in a cell out there with Señorita Valdéz. I know what a shock this must have been, but I will tolerate no more."

Diego struggled and mastered an almost overpowering urge to take his father's blade and finish Rodríguez where he stood. Even doing that would not help Ania now. He needed to get Ania out of here and then find some way to clear her name. He was certain that if he could only raise enough questions in Cosio's mind, he would have an ally, but Ania had to be safe first. To do that Zorro had to act. As Diego, he could do little more than make noise. However, Zorro cannot ride if I am locked in a cell.  Diego looked over and met his father's eyes. He could tell by the expression in them that Alejandro understood this, too. He would let his father "guide" him out of here. He had to get somewhere to think, to plan!

Alejandro immediately picked up on Diego's thoughts. "Diego, my son, we can do Ania no more good here. Come. Let us go see if we can find any legal way to help her. It would only make things worse for her to see you arrested as well. Come!"

Diego forced his tense muscles to relax, almost as if the fight had gone out of him. He shook his head and put a sorrowful, defeated look on his face. When his father took his arm to lead him toward the door, he went without a struggle. At the door, he turned for a second and looked back at Cosío. "Remember what I said, Capitán Cosío. Look for the loose thread." With that, he and Alejandro walked out to join Bernardo on the steps.

He stood for a moment looking back toward the cells, where he could see Ania pacing. A lancer blocked his path as he attempted to go to her. Once again, aware that he would be throwing away any real chance he had to help Ania if he acted now, he fought back the urge to seize this 'obstacle' that stood between him and Ania. He knew he had to go, but the pain of leaving her here was like a knife within him. Bernardo reached out and gripped Diego's shoulder, much as his father had. With that added bit of encouragement, he finally turned and went with Alejandro and Bernardo to where they had left the horses what seemed like a lifetime ago. A short time later, they rode out of the pueblo to see what help could be mustered, legal or otherwise. Bernardo rode grim faced behind them, leading the black mare, her saddle heartbreakingly empty.

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Rodríguez sat at his desk, pretending to be busy with paperwork. Now that Ania Valdéz was actually in his jail, he could hardly contain his pleasure. However, in front of Capitán Cosío it was very important that his demeanor remain that of a concerned, and somewhat reluctant, jailer.

The younger capitán had sat on the bench beside the wall quietly for some time after the de la Vega men had gone, his expression showing that he was considering something very deeply. "Capitán Rodríguez," he had finally asked, "have you had a great deal to do with Señorita Valdéz since she came here. Señor de la Vega seemed to feel that you have a personal grudge against her for some reason. Just what would that reason be?"

Carefully hiding his unease, Rodríguez shook his head sadly. "Well, I will admit that what interactions I have had with the young señorita have been strained. Her father and brother were killed and she was injured less than twenty-four hours after they came here. For some reason, she decided that I had something to do with that and she has not been shy about expressing her opinion of me if the subject came up. Whether she really believed that or simply used that as a way to raise questions about my administration of justice, I do not know. Now knowing what we have discovered, I imagine it is the latter, but who can say. At any rate, we have several times had unpleasantness between us. She is sharp witted and acid tongued. She can be brassy and more direct than a lady should be. No doubt, her father spoiled her and her disregard for rules and laws is probably the result. Her boldness may have served her well as she worked to set up that rancho and vineyard, but has done little to endear her to me."

"I understand that there is some connection between her and this de Irujo who is in my jail. What is that?" Cosío asked, as he turned to look at Rodríguez.

"Well, according to de Irujo, he got the rougher end of that deal." With that, Rodríguez told him de Irujo's version of the story, while stressing Ania's waywardness and de Irujo's good intentions.

"Then how did he wind up in my prison, señor?" Cosío asked.

Rodríguez could see that he had to make the story convincing. "Capitán, can you imagine what an effect such an experience would have on a young caballero of noble birth? The humiliation was terrible. He found that even after he was released from the prison, he was not welcome in his own home province. He decided to come to New Spain to make a life for himself. He had the bad fortune to land in West Florida and was soon challenged by the lady's brother. The brother died and the family had him charged with murder. It must be a sign of his relative innocence that the court there did not hang him but merely barred him from remaining in West Florida. Anyway, not long ago, de Irujo, now a gambler,  wound up here. He had no idea the Valdézes had come here. He saw Ania Valdéz outside the tavern, and being drunk, approached her and became angry when she scorned him. He grabbed her, intent on making her stay and talk with him. Young de la Vega came upon them and a fight started. Now I cannot say that de Irujo was not at fault for laying hands on her as he did, but he was too drunk to be totally accountable for his actions. I decided that perhaps a work sentence could straighten him out and satisfy the de la Vegas as well. That, Capitán, is how he got to your prison."

"Hmmm, odd.  I somehow did not get the impression that the man in my prison was high born. I think I will have to talk with him when I go back."

A chill of alarm went through Rodríguez at Cosío’s statement. That will never do! Sometime in the future something might have to be done about the inquisitive young capitán, Rodríguez thought. I hope, for his sake, he will forget about it before long. I shall definitely have to keep an eye on our young officer here! Rodríguez resolved.

Further thoughts along these lines were forgotten when one of the guards knocked and hurried into the room. "There is a crowd gathering out front, Capitán. What are your orders?"

"A crowd?" Rodríguez repeated and then looked at Cosío. "Well, Capitán Cosío, it seems that you and your men will be earning your keep. Let us go see how much of a threat this crowd is." He rose and headed for the door, motioning Cosío to follow. As he walked into view at the big gate, a group from the crowd came forward.

"Comandante, why have you arrested a young señorita?  She is even now held in a filthy cell in the cuartel.  You cannot do that.  We do not treat our ladies that way," the leader of the group said.

"You are in no position to demand anything, señor. You and the other members of this rabble are hereby ordered to leave. Return to your homes. The woman of whom you speak is a traitor and therefore no longer due the honor of her rank and privilege. Any citizen, male or female, who works against the king, will soon face the king's justice. Just as soon as Judge Vasca arrives here, the señorita will have her chance to defend herself. Until then, she will have to endure the hospitality of my jail. A traitor deserves no more than that. Indeed, what she deserves is a quick punishment for her deeds. However, I will await Judge Vasca's judgment before I render to the señorita that which she deserves. Meanwhile, I have room in my jail for any who wish to join the señorita and share her fate."

A roar arose from the crowd and rocks, rotten fruits, and other assorted garbage began to shower the Capitán, most to land on the gate as he ducked back. A second later, Capitán Cosío and six of his men rode out of the gate as it opened wide. When faced with soldiers on horseback, armed with swords and lances, the crowd had no other recourse than to give way before them. Capitán Cosío and his men deliberately let the angry men and woman escape by ones and twos back to their homes...in any direction except toward the cuartel.

"Why did you not pursue them and bring the leaders here, Capitán?" Rodríguez demanded when Cosío returned, empty-handed.

"Señor, you cannot blame them. This is hardly how we are raised to treat our women," was his answer. "Did I not think she was guilty, I would probably be on their side.  Most of them are not convinced of her guilt and may never be, even if she is convicted at her trial. As long as they cannot come together and storm the cuartel or stop Judge Vasca, then we have taken care of the problem without making it worse by mistreating the people."

"Humph!" was all that Rodríguez said as he glared at Capitán Cosío.

"I, however, have a suggestion, Capitán Rodríguez. I understand that Judge Vasca is due on his regular round tomorrow or the next day. Is that so?" Cosio asked.

"Sí, maybe even earlier than that. Why?" Rodríguez asked.

"Perhaps it would be best to send an escort out to ensure Judge Vasca's safety."

"I think you are correct, Capitán," Rodríguez quickly agreed. "Take about eight of your men and do that. He should be coming up from San Juan any time now."

Capitán Cosío and his group were soon on their way. Rodríguez was relieved that it at least gave that man something to do other than sit and think!

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"Well, Diego, I have sent the word out for most of the rancheros in the area to come here so that I may speak with them about the situation," Don Alejandro said as he came back into the sala where Diego stood at the fireplace.

At first Diego did not answer. He was trying to figure how many men were now in the cuartel and how they might be deployed tonight. He could not go blindly in there, but the devil himself would not keep him from getting Ania out of that filthy cell just as soon as he could! No risk was too great, but getting himself captured or killed would do her no good. Rodríguez would simply continue with her execution.  For, horrible as the thought was, that had to be exactly what the Capitán wished. The passing of treasonous information could have cost her her land, if that was all he was after. He could even have used her as bait with the lesser charge, but assault on the Emissary of the King was virtually an automatic death sentence. The fact that such a sentence had only been carried out on a woman in California once would not stop it from being imposed in Ania's case.

"Diego," his father repeated as he lay his hand on his son's arm, "are you all right?"

"Oh, sí, Father, I was just thinking. There just has to be a way to get in there and get her out without having half of the soldiers in California in the way! I have already failed her once. I cannot do so again," Diego answered.

"My son, you must not blame yourself. I doubt that Ania herself is holding you responsible for the way things happened," Don Alejandro assured him.

"No, but the fact remains that I could not have delivered her straight to Rodríguez any better if I had been one of his hirelings! I knew he was going to accuse someone falsely of treason. I also knew that Ania had been a favorite target of his virtually from the hour she first set foot in Los Angeles. Ania and I even discussed the fact that greed for land would be one of his reasons for doing this. Why could I not have added all these things up and seen that Ania herself was the most likely target?" The misery in Diego's eyes as he turned to his father made Don Alejandro wish he could do as he had when Diego was a boy and find some way to make everything right. However, he was only too aware that the majority of the responsibility for Ania's rescue would rest on Zorro's shoulders. He himself could only do so much, regardless of what plans he and the others made.

There was a knock at the door, which Don Alejandro himself answered. Nico Alvarez stood there, a worried frown on his face. "Perdonamé, Don Alejandro," the vaquero spoke urgently.  "I have just come from the Rancho Valdez.  We do not know what to do, we do not know just what has happened!  Please, patron, can you tell me about Senorita Ania?  Has she truly been arrested for treason?  No one would really believe that she could hurt Don Ramon, would they?"

"I am afraid it is true, Nico," Diego stated as he walked up beside his father. I am sure you know that the charges are false, but someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to make it appear that she is guilty! Capitán Rodríguez has her in the cuartel now."

"We cannot let this happen!" Nico cried angrily. "Don Diego, just give the word!  We will all ride with you to get her out of that stinking place!"

"It may come to that, Nico, but we must exhaust our other options first. There may yet be a way to prove her innocence," Diego explained. "How is Don Ramón?"

"Not so good, Don Diego.  He is still unconscious.  Dr Mendoza says that he was hit hard by a heavy silver candlestick.  He is hurt very bad, the doctor says.  He may not make it," Nico said with a shake of his head.  "Dr Mendoza says we all must pray very hard."

"Where were the guards who usually protect Don Ramón? Why were none of them around?" Don Alejandro queried. "Even Ania's bodyguard did not seem to be nearby."

"They were drugged or poisoned, Don Alejandro," Nico said.  "We found them just after Senorita Ania rode out this morning.  When Dr Mendoza left Don Ramon, he looked at them.  They will be all right in a little while, he said.  One of the soldiers from the cuartel who came to the hacienda later said that the senorita must have been the one to drug them."  Nico smiled for the first time. "Rosita poured a pitcher of water over the lancer's head and then hit him with the empty pitcher. The lancer left very fast."

"Well, that would fit in with the effort to make Ania look guilty. Ha!” exclaimed Don Alejandro. “As if she is the only one who would know what to put in wine to incapacitate someone! By the way, Rodríguez claims there was someone who saw Ania coming out of the study. Have you any idea who that was?" "If we can find out who it is and question them, we can begin to tear down the case they have built against her."

"I wish I knew, Don Alejandro! By the saints, we would tear him limb from limb! Such a liar deserves death," Nico growled.

"Listen to me, Nico," Diego hurried to say, "you must not kill this man if you find him. He may be our only way of proving the charges are not true. Please, you must impress on everyone that if they find this person, get in contact with my father or me. Give us the chance to question him. If he dies, so might our chance to free her!"

Nico looked at him solemnly for a moment. "I will tell them, Don Diego, and I will tell them YOU wish it.  But you do not understand how we feel about our patrona. She is not just our employer, señores. She is a friend, too. Many times, she had gone out of her way to help us. Our wives and children have been treated with the patrona’s herbs and her own hands.  No matter when we came begging her for help, she came. We have watched her defy enemies who tried to burn her out and who would have killed her, had it not been for Zorro. Maybe she helped him, too, when he needed it." Nico shook his head. "I do not think even your word will keep people from fighting their way into the cuartel to help her, if that is what it takes.  If that lying snake is here then...well, may heaven have mercy on him for no one from the Rancho Valdéz will. He should beg the saints to let Zorro catch him.  Zorro will at least keep him alive long enough to change his story. The men and women I know will not do that!"

"Thank you for telling us this, Nico. It helps to know that the people are behind her. I will tell her this as soon as they allow me to see her again," Diego said as he patted the man's shoulder in appreciation. "Just try to make them see that it is for Ania's benefit that we keep this person, whoever he is, alive."

"I will, Don Diego," Nico said. "Oh, Don Diego, please also tell her to remember what she suggested the people do for Zorro. Let her know that they are doing the same thing for her."

"I do not know exactly what you are referring to, Nico," Diego stated. "I was away then. What was it she suggested?"

"The prayers and candles, Don Diego. We will light many candles again. Only this time, the prayers will be for her. God heard our prayers then. We can only beg that He will again," Nico answered.

Diego felt a lump in his throat, which made speaking difficult. "Gracias, Nico, from both of us."

As they talked, a young lancer rode up to the gate and dismounted. He slowly walked in, looking nervously around as if he expected trouble. He stopped short as he saw the three men standing before the door. He had heard of Rosita’s attack on the soldier who’d dared to accuse Señorita Valdéz of drugging Don Ramon’s guards.  While his own mission was more sympathetic to the young patrona, he wasn’t sure anyone would listen to him long enough to know that.  Deciding that the Rancho de la Vega might be a slightly safer place, he’d come straight there. 

"What do you want?" Nico snarled.

Don Alejandro laid a calming hand on the vaquero's arm and turned to the lancer. "What is it, Private? Why do you dare come here?"

"Perdonamé, Don Alejandro, Don Diego, but the sergeant sent me with a request from Señorita Valdéz," the lancer stammered, meeting their eyes as little as possible.

"What is it the señorita needs, Private? Well, out with it!" Diego quickly demanded.

"She...she asked if someone could bring her rosary to her, Don Diego," the man answered.

"Well, at least he is allowing her to make requests for her needs and to have some personal items with her. That much, at least, is a comfort!" Don Alejandro declared.

"Ah...señor, please do not mention this to the comandante. Sergeant García did not tell the capitán. The rosary was all she wanted," the lancer admitted.

"Oh, have no fear of us mentioning it. The less we have to say to him at the moment the better. That man deserves nothing but condemnation from any of us!" Don Alejandro said.

"I will have Bernardo and Nico go with you. I have no doubt that it would be better for a single lancer to have an escort going back there. Or perhaps it would be best if you would simply go back to the cuartel now. I will have Bernardo get the rosary and take it back into the pueblo for her," Diego suggested. "I doubt that Rodríguez would let me see her right now."

The lancer looked relieved. "I think that might be a good idea, Don Diego. Things are getting rather...unsettled."

"I can see how it would," Diego said dryly.

The lancer shifted his weight uncomfortably. "Don Diego, please, señor, I would like you to know that many of the soldiers are hoping someone can prove Señorita Valdéz is innocent.  At least, those of us from Los Ángeles hope so. She has always been kind to us and to our families.   I...I cannot believe she would be a traitor, but...but...I am a soldier. I have no choice but to do what I am ordered to do."

"No matter how cruel and unjust those orders?" Diego demanded.

The lancer remained silent and looked away, unable to meet Diego's eyes.

Diego looked at the lancer for a second and then turned to Bernardo, giving him instructions by word and gesture about Ania's request. While he did this, he brought his simmering resentment back under control. "You may tell the sergeant that the message has been delivered, Private. Tell him that I, at least, do appreciate him trying to help her this way, small though it is. And, Private, I suppose I do understand what you say about orders, a little. I am sure that over the next few hours we will all do what we feel we must." The lancer looked up at him and nodded slowly, then turned and walked back to his horse. Indeed, Private, Diego thought as he watched the soldier ride away, you shall do what you must and I, as well as El Zorro, will do what I must or die trying.

 

 

 

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