Ring of Fire
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!
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.
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
"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
"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
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.
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.
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
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
"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
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
"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."
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!
"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
"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
"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
"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,
"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
"What do you want?" Nico
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
"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
"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.
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.