Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 


Chapter Eighteen


When Bernardo came to the cuartel’s big gate, he was not surprised to find it closed and barred. All the way into Los Ángeles, he had seen groups of people gathered here and there. More than once, he was stopped and questioned. He always pretended not to understand what they wanted, and quickly enough, they decided that they could learn nothing from a deaf mute and allowed him to go on his way.

"Go away! No one is allowed in without official business!" greeted his pounding on the gate, but again, a deaf man would hardly have been expected to stop knocking when shouted at, so he continued. Finally, the gate was opened by one of the lancers from San Juan and Bernardo slipped in.

The lancer scowled darkly at him. “What do you want?”

Gesturing that he was deaf and mute, Bernardo pointed past the soldier toward Ania’s cell. Ignoring the soldier’s obvious disapproval, he smiled and started out across the cuartel’s parade ground.

“Here, you! Just where do you think you’re going? Give me those,” the lancer cried, placing himself solidly in Bernardo’s way and reaching for the rosary himself.

Bernardo shook his head, clutching the amber beads tightly to his chest. He pointed to himself and gestured toward Ania again.

“I do not have time for this. If you will not give it to me, then just go away,” the lancer insisted. Irritated, he began pushing Bernardo back out of the gate.

"Here now! What is going on? Why are you mistreating this man?" a voice suddenly boomed. Bernardo was relieved to see Sergeant García walking toward them.

"Sergeant, he will not give me the rosary," the lancer explained.  "He wants to take it to the prisoner himself."

"I'll bet my last peso that Don Diego told him to," said Garcia, looking sympathetically at Bernardo.  "He always does what Don Diego says.”

"The capitán said that no one was to go near the prisoner," the lancer reminded him.

"No one who could possibly be Zorro," the sergeant insisted.  "We both know that the Little One can not be Zorro, don't we?  Let him pass."

"If you say so, Sergeant García." The lancer then stood aside and Bernardo hurried over to Ania’s cell.

"Bernardo!" Ania gasped as she looked around at his footsteps. "How did you get in?"

He gestured, explaining. Then he gently reached through the bars and placed the amber and gold rosary in her hand.

"Thank you, Bernardo,” Ania said.  She gestured, as if using signs as well. “Other than the alcalde, no one has been here.  Rodríguez has not even allowed Padre Felipe in. I heard his voice just a while ago and they turned him away. It seems that I am not to be allowed even that comfort while I am here." Then Ania looked up and met Bernardo’s eyes. "How is Diego? I know how much it must have cost him to leave here, as he had to. Is he all right?"

He nodded and patted her hand, comfortingly. Noticing how Ania’s hand shook as she signed, Bernardo moved closer so that Ania could not be seen. That would at least relieve her of the need to make the unnecessary gestures. Realizing this, her eyes softened and she smiled faintly in gratitude.

He grew serious as Ania gripped his hand tightly and said, "Bernardo, take care of him. Do not let him do anything foolish, not for me. Surely, you all know that the main thing Rodríguez has on his mind, regardless of what he says, is that Zorro will soon be coming here for me. I am the bait in Rodríguez’s trap! There are thirty men here now. I counted them. Please, Bernardo, do not let him come unless he has a good chance of getting back out. It would have been better for me to die that first day here in California than for him to sacrifice himself for me!" She stopped speaking as Bernardo shook his head and tried to say what he was thinking with his eyes. He quickly indicated that nothing he could do would stop Zorro. Ania looked away and nodded. She understood. She really had not expected any other response but her fear for Diego was far worse than any she felt for herself.

She started to speak again, when the noise of a carriage interrupted them. As the gates were pushed wide, the carriage was quickly driven into the parade grounds, closely guarded by lancers. Even under these circumstances, Ania was curious to see who could have had the bad luck to have to come to Los Ángeles now. She and Bernardo both watched as one of the coachmen climbed down and opened the door for the passenger. Ania did not recognize the big man, as large as Sergeant García and somewhat shorter, who stepped down. She heard Bernardo gasp and looked back at him, surprised by his reaction.

Bernardo began gesturing something that made her think of long hair.

"What? What has hair got to do with anything?" she asked.

He then pantomimed someone putting on or taking off the hair.

"A wig?" For a moment, Ania was puzzled. Then it hit her. A judge wears a wig. "A judge? Judge Vasca? He was not due here for another day!"

Bernardo nodded. The expression in his eyes as he looked at her, matched the dread filling her heart.

Well, this is the start of it. For better or worse, my trial is coming soon. She felt her knees tremble at the thought. We will soon see what Rodríguez has ahead for me now.

====================

Capitán Rodríguez looked up at a knock on his office door. "Pasé," he called. He was surprised to see Capitán Cosío walk in. "What are you doing back, Capitán? You have only been gone a few hours, hardly long enough to go from here to San Juan."

"Sí, Capitán, but we did not have to go that far. We met the judge’s coach less than half way there," Cosío reported.

"He is here? Now?" Rodríguez cried. "Wonderful! Perhaps we can get this thing over with even more quickly than I had hoped. The sooner it is over, the sooner the people will begin settling down."

"It is to be hoped that they will, but I do not know. We saw several very suspicious looking groups in the area surrounding the pueblo. Nearly all of them turned ugly as soon as they recognized us as soldiers. If things do not go the way they wish, the situation could get out of hand very quickly," Cosío said seriously.

"Well, it will get no better as long as the situation is not resolved. Please show him in, Capitán," Rodríguez rose from his chair and walked toward the door.

At that moment, the door opened quickly and the rotund man Ania had realized was Judge Vasca came in. "Ah, welcome, Judge Vasca. It is good seeing you again. We did not expect you until tomorrow. I hope that there was no trouble during your journey here."

"Capitán Rodríguez, just what is going on in your district?” Judge Vasca asked with no preamble. “Usually when I travel through this area it is just a sleepy stop along my way. This time, the people are upset enough to set one’s nerves on edge. I can make a guess what the problem is, if even half of what the good capitán here tells me is true. What is this about a traitor, and a woman, at that?"

"I am afraid that it is true, Judge," Rodríguez replied. "As shocking as it is, we do have all the evidence to convict her, more than enough, really. Not only to prove that she was involved in treason, but also prove that she tried to murder an emissary of the king."

"An emissary of the king? Who?" Vasca asked, shocked.

"Ambassador Ramón Teodoro Córdoba, her own cousin, if you can believe that." Rodríguez answered with a shake of his head.

"Córdoba? Why I met him not a month ago in Monterey, just before I started back to this area! You said ‘tried’.  He lives?" Vasca continued.

"Sí, but the doctor does not offer much hope that he will recover," Rodríguez answered.

"How do you know this woman did it?" Judge Vasca was not one to drag his feet when getting into one of his court cases. He plunged ahead with this one as he did most of the others.

"We have a witness, señor," Cosío assured him. "He saw her come out of the room, wiping blood from her hands."

"Hmmmm, I would seem most of the people do not believe this," Vasca said bluntly.  "Judging from what I saw as we came in and the fact you thought it necessary to send an escort."

"The lady in question has done very well in covering up her treasonous activities and has ingratiated herself with the people in a number of ways," Rodríguez explained.

"Well, since you say you have all the proof you need, then I suppose you will be expecting me to preside over the trial as soon as I can," Judge Vasca said as he finally sat down in the chair Rodríguez offered him.

"I think that would be best, señor," Rodríguez answered.

Vasca surprised him by saying, "Well, I can be back here some time week after next. What do you plan to do about the problem here in the meantime?"

"But, Judge Vasca, we cannot wait that long!” he exclaimed. “Señor, this situation is a powder keg! With a cut and dried case as this is, must you wait any time? You are here, the accused is here, the evidence is here." Rodríguez doubted very seriously that he could maintain control in the present situation. The longer this went on, the more likely someone would discover the truth.

"Has the woman had any legal counsel?" Vasca asked.

"No, not officially," was the reply. "Los Ángeles has no lawyer at this time, señor. However, we did have the alcalde go to her and explain what her rights are and what will be asked of her," Rodríguez stated. "She will know all she needs to know. There is really no way she can defend herself against the charges. The evidence is too great. The only thing that will happen if we delay the trial is that the rabble will be further encouraged to follow her example and rebel."

Judge Vasca raised his considerable bulk and began to walk across the room, considering what should be done in this case. The room grew quiet as the two capitánes awaited his answer. Finally he turned back to them, a worried expression on his face. "It is highly irregular to do things so quickly in a trial where the penalty might be death."

"Sí, Judge Vasca, but I have heard of it in cases which involved a generalized revolt, which we MIGHT have if this thing carries on too long. I ask you, Judge, are you willing to risk open revolt?" Rodríguez insisted.

"Hmmm, when you put it that way, no, I am not."  The judge then turned and continued walking. Finally, he stopped and faced the two officers. "I am afraid that I must agree with you, señores. In weighing the rights of one person verses the safety and peace of the entire area, I must choose for the peace of the area. Señores, allow me but a few minutes, perhaps an hour, to get ready and to review your files on this. After that, I will hear the case."

"That will be sufficient, Judge," Rodríguez assured him. "Is there anything we can get for you in the meantime?"

"Oh, a light meal would be good, not too much. A chicken, some ham, tortillas, salad and some type of dessert would do nicely.  Oh, and some good wine, as well." Apparently, controversy did nothing to lessen the judge’s appetite.

"Of course. Right away." Hurriedly, Rodríguez sent one of the men for food for Judge Vasca.

Just as he was closing the door behind the lancer, he caught sight of Bernardo standing at the jail. Quickly, he walked out to Ania’s cell.   "What is the meaning of this, Sergeant García?” he asked of the sergeant, who was standing nearby.  “I thought I told you no one was to see her!" he snapped.

"Sí, Capitán, but you went on to say that "no one who could be Zorro" must get in here. Bernardo could never be Zorro, Capitán Rodríguez!" García objected.

"Well, send him about his business, Sergeant, and give the prisoner some water. No doubt she would like to be cleaned up a bit as she begins her trial," Rodríguez continued.

"My trial?" Ania gasped. "I knew it would not be long, but how can it be today? I am not prepared!"

"Señorita, that will make very little difference. I have all the evidence I need to prove what a traitorous little liar you have been. You will never be able to disprove it." Rodríguez allowed himself a smile that turned Ania’s blood to ice. She could feel her heart thudding in her chest as she looked back at Bernardo in shock. The mozo wore a puzzled, uncomprehending look.  Even now, he was able to continue the act he had used to help his master.

The officer also looked at Bernardo.  The man seemed harmless enough, but there was no sense in taking chances.  “Get this man out of here, Sergeant,” he ordered.  Garcia hurried to do so.

 "How long, Capitán? How long until the trial will begin?" Ania asked.

"I would say less than an hour and after that who knows how long until it is all over for you, my dear Señorita Valdéz. Even Zorro will not be able to help you this time!" With a laugh, he turned and went back inside.

As Sergeant García hustled him out, Bernardo looked back at Ania. He wished there was some way to comfort her. In the young woman’s eyes was a look of fear and helplessness that even her best efforts could not hide. His heart went out to his young friend, but he knew of only one thing to do right now. As soon mounted his horse, he sent it at a run toward the Rancho de la Vega. It would take more than an hour for him to get home and for Diego and Don Alejandro to get back here. There was not a minute to lose.

================

A babble of voices filled the air in the de la Vega hacienda as forty-three men tried to discuss facts or make their opinions heard over all the others. Some of them had heard part of the story, while others had heard other parts, but only a very few knew all of it. Alejandro de la Vega intended that they learn the facts now and that they decide on some way to help this innocent young woman whom he had already begun to think of as a daughter.

"My friends, if I may have your attention, por favor!" He waited a moment as the conversations subsided. He looked at the people in the crowd as he waited.  Although, it was risky to have so many here, he felt that all the ones in attendance now could be trusted.  The situation called for group action.  He would trust to fate and the honesty of these people.  "I am sure that most of you know why I have called this meeting this afternoon. Capitán Rodríguez has finally overstepped his bounds and shown just how depraved he is. I have over the last several months been to each of your homes, talking with you of what I considered warning signs of this man’s greed. Up until now he has confined the confiscation of rancho lands to the lower classes, usually taking it by raising the taxes on a plot until finally the owner can no longer pay them. However, now he has started to set his sights on the lands belonging to those of us of pure Spanish blood and he has begun by targeting one who has few ways to protect herself. This morning, Rodríguez sprang a trap on Señorita Ania Cristina Valdéz. The evidence used in that trap, I have absolutely no doubt, was created either by him or for him. I firmly believe there is not one ounce of truth to any of it!"

Don Carlos stood to attract Don Alejandro’s attention. "Don Alejandro, it is understandable for you to come to this young woman’s defense. After all, she is betrothed to your son. However, how can we be sure that she was not in some way involved with this rebel group? I will admit that, even not knowing her well, I would be very surprised to find that she could be, but I truly do not know. Did not a lot of the evidence against her come from as far away as Monterey?"

Another voice asked, "And did not at least one of the letters they confiscated have marks indicating that it had come from West Florida, where she originally lived, and was not that letter found lying beside Ambassador Córdoba’s hand as he lay injured?" An assortment of voices vied with each other then, both for and, disturbingly, against Ania.

Don Alejandro held up his hand for quiet again and tried to answer the questions. "Sí, there were letters and supposed evidence from these places. We believe that they, as well as the other written evidence, were forged for the deliberate purpose of creating the image of guilt."

"Father, if you do not mind, please let me tell them what Ania told me of de Irujo," Diego requested as he stepped up beside his father.

 Alejandro nodded and stepped aside.

Quickly, Diego told of the trials Ania had had with events concerning de Irujo. From the narrative, no one could doubt that this was a man who wished for revenge at any cost. Many of the hacendados who were listening shook their heads in disgust at the idea of a high born man stooping so low as to shoot an opponent in the back after losing in a fair duel. Finally, Diego described the facts of the chance encounter of Ania with de Irujo in San Pedro and how that led to the attack outside the tavern a short time ago. "Rodríguez swore that he sent de Irujo to the San Juan work program. However, now I believe that he merely pretended to do so. He had better uses for de Irujo than that of a common laborer. He once again had de Irujo use his forger’s talents for gains. This time his own."

"But, Don Diego, why would Rodríguez choose Ania as his target?" a voice spoke up from the other side of the room.

"In one word, silver. Rodríguez knew about the mine on the Valdéz land although everyone else had forgotten about it. Ania, and we, suspect he had been getting silver from that mine secretly for a long time. When the Valdézes showed up with a grant to that land, he had to take drastic measures to make sure he could continue to do so. We have just never been able to get definite proof of this to send to the governor, so she could not formally accuse him. By accusing her of treason and leaving a trail of false evidence, he will more than likely be rewarded with her land for "uncovering" this. By framing her for the attack on Don Ramón, he can also assure that she is no longer around to continue looking for proof of his crimes, " Diego explained.

Just as Don Alejandro walked back to the table to let the others know what he was asking of them, there appeared to be a slight disturbance in the crowd of caballeros on the patio. Soon it was apparent that Bernardo was desperately trying to work his way up to where Diego and Don Alejandro stood without being rude. "Let Bernardo through, por favor. We sent him into the pueblo just a while ago," Don Alejandro said in concern. "Something must have happened."

Diego turned to give the manservant his attention as Bernardo hurried up to him. Three years of practice pretending to sign to Bernardo came in very handy, as Diego gestured back to Bernardo while he asked questions aloud as well. "A carriage arrived? Who was on it? A judge?" he asked in rapid succession. "Wait! A judge? You mean Judge Vasca has gotten there already?"

There was a buzz in the crowd. Don Alejandro shook his head. "Surely, that means that Ania’s trial will begin in the next day or so."

Bernardo could hardly wait for Diego to make another almost meaningless gesture. As soon as he did, he shook his head desperately and signed the word ‘now’.

Diego’s expression became even more worried, if possible, as he repeated Bernardo’s sign and said, "Now?" As Bernardo began pulling at his arm, indicating urgently that he must come, the meaning of the word in this case sank in. "Now, you mean they are starting the trial now? Surely not!  How could they do it so quickly?" With a final look toward his father, who was also hurrying toward the door, he rushed out, calling loudly for someone to bring his horse.

Some of the gathered hacendados followed the two de la Vegas and Bernardo as they left, pushing the horses as fast as possible. Others stayed behind, waiting to see what would happen as they discussed what must be done, if anything.

 

 

 

Chapter Nineteen
Chapter One
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