Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two


A slight breeze stirred the lush green leaves of the grapevines around Ania as she sat on the ground and worked on the records for the rancho. She smiled and closed the ledger, which was balanced on her lap. She had just completed entering the current financial figures for the Rancho Valdéz and was quite satisfied with the growth in value. While it was hardly a huge moneymaker yet, if current growth continued as it appeared to now, the rancho would be paying its own way within the next year. Perhaps it would be even sooner than that if this year's vintage was plentiful and the herds reproduced well. That was far ahead of what she had thought. Even Papá, optimist that he had been, expected the rancho to take about three years to be a clear success. All in all, everything was going well. She almost wished she had gotten the bookkeeping done before Diego left to return to the hacienda. He would have been as pleased at her success as she was. She could hardly wait to tell him.

Folding her arms and hugging the ledger against her chest, Ania sat and looked around at the patterns made by the sunlight shining down through the leaves and thought of the future. Of course, whether Rancho Valdéz is a success or not will hardly be noticeable a few months from now. It will, in effect, be a part of the Rancho de la Vega. Hmmmm, I wonder if Diego will object to me still running it as if it were separate. I would love to know that it was able to be successful without anyone else's help. She knew most men would at least expect her to take a backseat to them in administering the land, but she had a feeling that Diego would understand her desire to continue doing most of it herself. Besides, he has everyone fooled. The Diego de la Vega that everyone knows wouldn't care a great deal for running the rancho, although he just might be expected to take an interest in the winery if I could develop some fine wines. Other than that, THEIR Diego would just lounge lazily under a tree with a book and guitar, satisfied to let his wife continue her obsession with the land and herds, Ania laughed to herself. If they only knew! There is so much more to MY Diego, so much that he does not show. He is also a merry rascal who is as much legend as flesh and blood. Mmmm, "my Diego".   What a nice sound that has to it!

Ania was startled to suddenly realize that a worker stood not far away, watching her. As she looked up into Tomás' amused face, she realized that she had done it again. She had sat with a thunder struck...no, love struck...expression as she thought of Diego and it could clearly be seen by anyone who happened to observe her. Ania blushed. This was happening entirely too often lately. She really must get her mind back on the business. If I continue to act like this, Pepe will be right. I WILL be useless. Quickly clearing her throat and assuming a businesslike manner, she said, "Sí, Tomás? Were you looking for me?"

"Sí, patrona. I was just going to mention that the workmen constructing the new irrigation system wanted to know if we wanted to extend it into the older vineyard as well. I told them I thought that it was a good idea, but I needed to talk to you before they started on it," the vinemaster explained. "What do you have planned?"

Ania thought for a moment. "Hmmm, I think it would be better to build it now even if it turns out that we do not need it this year. Tell them to continue with the building."

"Sí, that is what I thought, too."

"Tomás, I appreciate your referring to me in this, but it is not a total necessity. I am finding that I made a very good choice when I chose you for my vinemaster. I know that I can trust you to oversee this place like your own. Speaking of that, how are your own vines progressing on your land?"

"Oh, very well, patrona. All have rooted well and are beginning to grow. A couple of years from now, I will have wine of my own," Tomás smiled happily at the thought. "It is very satisfying to have my own vines to tend again. I am very grateful to you, Señorita Ania, and my family is very thankful for the casa as well. That was very generous of you."

"You deserve it, Tomás," Ania replied. "Without you and the others who stayed here to see that no one was able to destroy the harvest, I probably would not have managed to keep the land at all. I had hoped you would be comfortable in the new casa. You have quite a large brood there, Tomás. A group to be proud of, to be sure."

The man laughed as he thought of the wife and six children who made up his "brood". "Oh, sí, señorita! I am proud of them. You should see little Carissa! She is walking now and is into everything. Her mother is busy from morning to night keeping her out of mischief." Tomás' face glowed with love for his family. "As for the older ones, Abril and Rico consider themselves grown and their father an old man," he laughed.

"Well, I suppose the three in the middle are perfect ángels who do nothing to call attention to themselves. You do not mention them," Ania teased.

"Ha!" Tomás responded. "With such ones as they are, our home is always in an uproar, but usually a happy one. Perhaps, someday it is to be hoped that you will have a houseful of such blessings, patrona...you and Don Diego."

Ania smiled her thanks for the good wishes. "Oh, so you have heard, have you?"

"Sí, Señorita Ania. Who has not? Everyone wishes you the best. Both the workers on the de la Vega Rancho and those here feel that we are very lucky to work for you both. For the two ranchos to be joined can only be good for us as well, señorita."

"Thank you, Tomás," Ania said, thinking that she too, was lucky to be surrounded by trustworthy people like Tomás. Life, as well as the future, was very good!


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True to her word, Ania stopped at the Mería casa on her way home after leaving the rancho. Brisa smiled brightly as she invited her patrona in and offered her something to drink. From a carrier made from a soft scarf tied around her shoulders and under one arm, peered the bright, curious eyes of eight-week-old Nita, gazing at the newcomer in the unfocused way of babies.

"Ah," Ania laughed delightedly, "look who is awake now!" She reached down gently and stroked the back of the little fist with which the baby had just found her own mouth. "Brisa, she looks wonderful. I think this is the first time I have seen her awake. She seems to be taking in everything around her."

The young mother smiled fondly. "Sí, Señorita Ania, I thought she would never stop sleeping all the time, but maybe now she is catching up. She is a fighter, this little one. Except for her size, no one would believe she was so early."

"May I hold her?" Ania asked.

"Of course, patrona. Just a moment," Brisa said as she gently lifted Nita from the carrier and lay her in Ania's arms.

It took a moment, but Ania quickly figured out how to hold the baby. She sat for several minutes, cooing and talking to the infant. Suddenly, Ania could have sworn that the baby smiled. "Look," she cried, "she is smiling! How can one so young smile?"

Brisa laughed, "Oh, Señorita Ania, it is just a sign that an ángel has passed by!"

"An ángel?" Ania looked up with a puzzled look on her face.

"Sí," Brisa explained, "my mother used to say that a tiny baby smiled because the feathers on an ángel's wings tickled her as it flew past."

Ania laughed as the baby seemed to be staring at her. Nita's eyes were gradually changing to a deep brown. Ania suddenly found herself wondering if her future children would have green eyes or a much more interesting hazel. Shaking her head at her own folly, she determinedly brought her mind back to why she was here. "Oh, Brisa, as wonderful as it is to just sit here and hold this little miracle child, I came to speak to you about Pepe." Reluctantly, Ania handed Nita back to her mother.

"Pepe? Why? What has that scamp done now?" Brisa said as if she expected him to be in trouble.

"Nothing," Ania quickly assured her, "at least not anything wrong. In fact, it is something you should be proud of, Brisa!"

"Oh? What is that, patrona?" Brisa asked.

"Let us show you instead," Ania suggested. "Call Pepe in. There is something I wish him to do." Brisa quickly complied.

Pepe's face lit up with a smile when he saw Ania. "You did come!" he cried.

"Of course I came, Pepe. Did I not say I would?" she asked.

Pepe merely grinned.

From the pocket of her riding habit, Ania removed a folded piece of paper and a charcoal stick. "Come here, Pepe. Come show your mamá what you can do."

Slowly and carefully, Pepe wrote, "Pepe Mería." "That is my name, Mamá!" He looked up at his mother with a look of pride.

"Pepe!" his mother cried, "where did you learn to write your name?"

"Señorita Ania taught me," he said with a smile at the patrona.

"Pepe, why do you not go and play now while I talk a bit more with your mamá," Ania suggested. "Pepe is a very bright child, Brisa. He deserves to learn all he can," she continued after he slipped obediently out the door.

"Sí," Brisa agreed with a sigh, "but how can I send him to the mission school. The fees are not much, but they are more than I can manage with so many mouths to feed. There are also things he would need while he is there."

"Sí," Ania said, "but I would like to help. I would like to sponsor him while he is there. I am very fond of Pepe and I would like to see him learn."

"He would then be indentured to you, señorita?" Brisa frowned worriedly.

"Well, I guess you could look at it that way, but I prefer to look at it as merely a way for him to pay back a loan, if you will. I have thought of something that I think Pepe would be very excited to do, work though it is," Ania commented. "Pepe loves horses and he is now old enough to begin learning a trade. Nico, my head vaquero, would not mind teaching him how to care for and train horses. Pepe would start out as a stable boy, of course, but as he learns more and shows that he can handle his tasks, he would be given more responsibility with the horses themselves. Perhaps if he grows to be as strong as his father, he can even learn to make shoes for the horses and that could lead to blacksmithing. Either horse trainer or blacksmith would make a good lifetime trade for Pepe. I doubt there will ever be a time when those two professions will not be needed."

Brisa looked thoughtfully out the open door to where her oldest son played. "Pepe...able to read and write...and have a trade to make a living with," she said under her breath as she thought Ania's proposal over. "But what of when his papá sends for us to come to Santa Barbara where he is working?"

"Well, you and Manolito have decided that you will not try to move until Nita is at least a year old, so that she can catch up a bit and grow stronger. Who knows? Maybe things will have changed in Los Ángeles by then and Rodríguez will be gone. If that happens, I think Manolito will be able to come back home." Brisa noticed that even the patrona's voice sounded wishful as she spoke of Rodríguez's leaving. "If not, then I will allow him to have a room at the Rancho Valdéz where he will be close to his job when he is not at the mission school. I promise to keep an eye on him and I'm sure Nico will as well. He has several children himself and I'm sure he will take Pepe under his wing. I have already asked him about it, by the way. I'm sure Pepe would miss you a great deal, but we will do our best to make him feel that he is not alone."

Brisa sat silent as she thought about her oldest child, "Sí, he does love horses...." Finally, she came to her decision. "Thank you, patrona. I think Pepe will make a good worker for you and I know he will love the opportunity to learn. When will he start?"

"Well, he can start tomorrow with Nico. I cannot go to the mission with him tomorrow. I must go to San Pedro. However, I will ride with him to the mission school the day after I get back. Padre Felipe will let us know what days he must be there. I know he must be there during the week. I will try to arrange for him to be home or at the rancho on the weekends," Ania stated.

"Gracias, Señorita Ania. I will see that Pepe knows that he must make you proud of him."

"I know he will, Brisa," Ania assured her. "Well, now that we have come to our conclusion about Pepe, I fear that I must be going, fascinating company though there is here." Smiling, Ania reached out again and tickled the baby's soft cheek. "I will be back to see you again."

"You are always welcome, Señorita Ania," Brisa said as she walked Ania out to where Ventura stood.

Pepe was standing with Ventura, patting her and scratching the mare along her jaw line and around her ears. Ania had to laugh at the lazy, relaxed way the horse was standing with eyes half closed, all but asleep. "Pepe, you are spoiling her."

"But she likes it, patrona. Did you talk about, you know?" Pepe began excitedly. He looked hopefully from Ania to Brisa.

Both women laughed. "Sí, we did, Pepe," Brisa answered.

"Then I am to be allowed to work with the horses and go to school?" Pepe asked joyfully.

"Sí, Pepe," Ania laughingly assured him. "Be at the stable on my rancho early tomorrow morning and don't tarry on the way. Nico likes for everyone he oversees to begin to work not long after sunup."

"Oh sí, Señorita Ania! You can count on me!" Pepe vowed, excitement lighting up his whole presence.

"Then I will see both of you later," Ania said as she mounted Ventura and turned the horse toward the de la Vega lands. She smiled to herself as she rode away, urging Ventura into the mile-eating gallop that she and the horse enjoyed so much.


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By noon the next day, Ania stood looking at a broad Spanish galleon as it rocked gently at anchor in San Pedro Bay. It appeared to be somewhat larger than the La Buena Vista on which she had come to California and probably carried a good deal of cargo. Within its hold was something less than half of the furniture and other assorted items that Miguel Valdéz had seen fit to keep when his property in Florida was sold. Ania was not totally sure what had been chosen and what had not of the smaller items in the casa grande. Opening the boxes would be like a bittersweet Christmas, with the boxes as gifts from her father to her. Ania was not looking forward to the chore. She remembered her father and brother's excitement as they had made plans for all of this. Oh, if only Papá and Juan could be here now! she thought with a pang. And they would have been if it were not for Rodríguez's greed and cold-bloodedness. She frowned at the thought.

Diego stood not far away enjoying the beauty of the scene around him. He smiled as he looked at the young woman with whom he hoped to spend the rest of his life. Ania had been wearing her hair in a much softer style since she had returned from Monterey. While layering and small combs controlled the front, the back was allowed to hang free nearly to her small waist, held back by a satin ribbon. She looked at once younger and more innocent than before, and yet more self-assured, as if she was more secure in allowing the world to see her as she was. It's shine and softness almost begged to be touched and he found himself often finding some reason to do just that. Gently the ocean breeze lifted a bit of her hair and blew it over her shoulder. Lost in her own thoughts, Ania absently pushed it back and frowned. Diego was immediately aware that her earlier lighthearted mood had changed. Glancing at the ship, he thought for a moment of what it must be like for her to realize that she would soon be seeing things that she had last seen with her father and twin brother at her side. Silently, he walked over to her and gently lay his hands on her shoulders. Ania glanced up at him with a somewhat uncertain smile. Leaning back against his chest, she crossed her arms, placed her hands over his and sighed. It was a comfort for her to feel that he understood her emotions now.

Capitán Rojas had said in his note that due to the fact that he could not offload until Ania signed the transfer papers, he would hold his ship out in the bay until noon. The lack of space at the pier precluded his just tying his ship up at dockside until then. The noon hour having arrived, he began the process of bringing his ship to dock. Together, Ania and Diego watched the galleon raise anchor and make its slow and careful way up to the dock. As Capitán Rojas walked down the gangplank toward them, Ania's apparent mood once again changed. She became businesslike and cheerful, outwardly giving no indication of the confused emotions the capitán's shipment brought to her.

"Ah, Capitán Rojas! It is good to see you again. I trust your passage was a pleasant one this trip," she said with a smile.

"Sí, that it was, Señorita Valdéz! It is a pleasure to see you again," Capitán Rojas declared as he bowed over her hand gallantly.

"Capitán Rojas, may I present Diego de la Vega, my..." Ania scrambled for the right term. She wanted to say "fiancé", yet it was not technically so until it was formally announced. "My...uh...dearest friend," she substituted. If the capitán was perceptive he would be able to read between the lines as to the way things stood. Although he did not say anything to indicate this, Ania could tell by the way he looked at Diego that the capitán did indeed understand. She could also tell by the exasperating occurrence that the capitán almost immediately began directing his questions to Diego rather than to her.

"Ah, well met, Señor de la Vega," he said. "Do you have wagons prepared to receive the cargo?"

"Sí, Señorita Valdéz has seen to that," Diego answered, redirecting Rojas' attention to Ania.

Ania cleared her throat, "I have a half-dozen wagons on their way here, Capitán. They should be here before dark. Until then, the shipment may just be placed upon the beach. We do not seem to be due any rain today, so it should to be fine there."

Capitán Rojas seemed puzzled at the indication that the woman and not the man was in control of this. "Do you think that many will hold it all?" he asked, somehow splitting his glance between Ania and Diego, as if he were not sure who to ask.

Ania straightened her back and raised her head, changing her tone just a bit as she answered him,  "No.  As I’m sure you are aware, some of the items are quite heavy.  I wouldn’t want us to over tax the horses. I have rented a small warehouse near here where I can store the things that we don’t take now until the wagons can go to my rancho, unload and make the return trip for the rest. The other things to be shipped to me can wait in the warehouse for transport to Los Ángeles as well. You have arranged for the other half of my things to be shipped, have you not?"

At her commanding tone, Capitán Rojas, at last, centered his attention on Ania and proceeded with the business at hand. "Sí, Señorita Valdéz, our sister ship, La Gaviota Andante, will be perhaps a week behind us with the rest of the cargo that was stored in Monterey. The capitán of the Gaviota will contact you when he makes port here, as I did. Now, señorita, if you will just sign for this cargo, we will begin transferring it to shore."

Soon burly sailors began using block and tackle to offload crates and boxes, which were then moved off the dock and onto the beach to await the wagons. Ania walked busily from one area to another checking off the numbered boxes and crates from a list she had gotten in Monterey listing everything in storage. By mid-evening, some of the wagons began to arrive, having made better time than expected on their outward journey. As much of the cargo as would fit was loaded onto the back of each wagon and covered securely with canvases. Cargo for which there was no space was safely locked away in the warehouse. The drivers then took their wagons to a spot just east of the town of San Pedro and camped for the night.

"Well, what shall we do with the rest of the night?" Diego asked Ania with a smile. "Perhaps a stroll on the beach? It is quite beautiful."

Ania smiled back and was about to agree when she noticed a frown on Bernardo's face. As the young people both looked at him, Bernardo patted his stomach to indicate that he was hungry. He then pointed to them and patted his stomach and shook his head to indicate that they were not. He continued gesturing to indicate love and made a gesture of being full. Ania chuckled as she realized that he was saying that she and Diego were "full of love" and therefore never hungry. He, on the other hand, was quite hungry. She laughed, "Perhaps we should have supper first. It seems that our would-be chaperone is about ready to faint from lack of food."

Diego rolled his eyes at Bernardo's description as chaperone and then laughed as Bernardo looked embarrassed by it. The fact that Ania still refused to hire a dueña at this late date did leave him in an unusual position. "Well, come then," Diego said. "Let us go see what this town offers in the way of dining." As Ania took his arm, he continued in a loud whisper, meant for Bernardo to hear, "Perhaps, if the food is satisfying enough, he will be unable to stay awake afterwards, and you and I can see what mischief we can get into as he sleeps!" As Ania laughed, she looked back to see Bernardo grinning good-naturedly at the teasing as he followed them back to the inn.

After taking time to clean up and change for supper, they found that the inn's common room served very respectable food and that the atmosphere was as jolly and congenial as the tavern in Los Ángeles. Bernardo had retired to a table near the back, allowing Ania and Diego an opportunity to speak in relative privacy. They discussed many things as they sat, amazingly comfortable with each other.

Not all the discussion was of private matters however. Ania had noticed a symbol on the storage list that she had never seen before. She had forgotten to ask about it before, but as they talked about the cargo that had come in today, she remembered it again. Usually Ania could visualize anything she had seen and reproduce it later. However, this time, for some reason, the symbol was not quite clear in her mind and she could not describe it well enough for Diego to make a guess at its meaning. "Wait a minute and I will go upstairs and get the list," Ania said. She was more than a little bit outdone at her unusual forgetfulness.

"Would you like me to go up with you?" Diego offered.

"Oh, no! If you go, Bernardo will decide he must go as well. I will be right back," Ania hurried to assure him.

Quickly, she went back to her room and picked up the list from where she had laid it down. Her mind on the list and the unknown symbol, she came back downstairs and began walking past the bar area where several people leaned with their drinks. She suddenly found her way blocked by a tall man with reddish brown hair and eyes so dark they were almost black. Ania gasped, eyes going wide in alarm and dismay as she looked up into the face of a man she had hoped never to see again. She felt the color drain from her face.

"Well, well! It is indeed a small world, Señorita Ania Cristina Valdéz, is it not?" the man said. The voice sounded pleasant enough if one did not know what kind of a man this was.

"Apparently much too small, señor! What are you doing here?" she managed to say.

"Well, California is one of His Majesty's colonies that your family did not manage to have me barred from, señorita. But for my dear father's influence, I would have still been in that jail cell, so I guess I ought to be thankful for small blessings," the man said coldly. "Who knows? I might be running into you frequently. After all, I do have the freedom to seek my fortune in THIS colony, whether you are here or not. I might even run into some of the other members of your family again."

"Stay away from me!" Ania snapped.

Diego had been watching as Ania came down the stairs. He was never sure why she always thought of herself as unladylike. Her movements, while energetic and quick, were fluid and like poetry in motion as far as he was concerned. There was always the sense of her drive and love of life in her presence that had always affected him like a fine wine when he was with her.

A shock of alarm went through him as he saw the stranger deliberately step in front of Ania, blocking her path. He was immediately on his feet as he saw her pale as she looked up at the man. He could not hear what was being said from where he was, but it could not be anything good. Whatever was going on would be stopped and right now.

Ania gasped again as she saw the look on Diego's face as he approached the man. The expression in his hazel eyes was not that of the lazy caballero he pretended to be. Though Ania had never seen it happen before, she knew instinctively that for Diego the line could be blurred between himself as Diego and himself as Zorro. Pushing past the stranger, she stepped up to Diego as he glared at the man. "It is all right, Diego! I am fine. Let us just go finish eating," she assured him.

"Oh, just who do we have here, señorita? A member of your family whom I have not met? Perhaps I will be seeing more of you both soon," the man smirked.

"I hope not," Ania snapped.

"We shall see, Señorita Valdéz. California interests me. I think I shall enjoy a long stay here," he said with another smirk.

"Señor, whoever you are, the lady has indicated she is not pleased with your presence. It would be best if you go about your business," Diego growled.

"Oh?" the stranger began.

"No, Diego! Let us just go back to our table, please," Ania pleaded.

 Diego was astonished to see such fear in Ania, but at the sight of it, he reined in his temper. He put his arm protectively around Ania's shoulders and escorted her back to their table.

She relaxed only a little as she saw the stranger turn and saunter out the door of the inn.  Her breath hissed out in a long sigh of relief when the door closed behind him.

"Ania, who was that and how do you know him?" Diego asked as he looked toward the door.

Ania sat quietly staring at the door with a worried expression on her face for a long moment. Diego reached out and took her hand in his. She was still trembling. "That," Ania finally said slowly, "was the man who murdered my brother, Felipe, and the worst enemy anyone in my family ever had. Be careful, Diego. Please be very careful of him!"

 

 

 

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