Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five


Bernardo managed to get to where the horses were tied just in time to watch Capitán Rodríguez direct de Irujo across the square to the cuartel at gunpoint. Unlike Diego, he had actually seen the stranger rise from the table just after Ania had gone out. Suspecting that de Irujo was up to no good, Bernardo had attempted to get to Don Diego to warn him. However, as the vaqueros had moved toward the bar, clearing the way for Diego to see that de Irujo was gone, they had crowded up to the bar around and in front of Bernardo. It was all he could do for several moments to avoid getting trampled. When he was finally able to push himself through the press of thirsty bodies, Diego had already gone out. Bernardo had hurriedly followed, knowing that there was a possibility that Diego and Ania might need help. After Rodríguez passed, Bernardo immediately turned to go down the small alley and nearly ran into Ania and Diego. As he looked at Ania, his eyes reflected his concern, for he could already see bruises forming on her face and arms. Clearly, Diego had gotten there only just in time. He signed, 'Are you hurt?'

Ania shook her head and squeezed his arm in thanks, "No, I am all right now, Bernardo." She smiled ruefully. "However, it seems that once again I should have taken Diego's advice rather than being so bullheaded about things. I am sorry, Diego."

Diego looked at her worriedly, "Well, I should have been a bit more on my guard when that group came in. De Irujo apparently realized that the vaqueros were blocking my view of his table and seized the opportunity. You do not need to apologize. We were both at fault here. Let me get a good look at you. Are you sure you are not hurt? He did not cut you with the knife?" Gently, he tipped her face upward and ran his fingers lightly over the red spots rapidly turning blue on her cheeks and then did the same to her arms.

"No, though had you been a second or so later...." Ania shut her eyes and fought back a shudder. When she opened her eyes some of the old humor was back. "However, it seems that my guardian angel came through again, just as he always does."

Now it was Diego's turn to smile ruefully. "Yes, I suppose you are right," he allowed. Then he sobered again and the look in his eyes was haunted. "However, it was too close this time, Ania." He cupped her face with his hands and allowed himself to lightly caress her cheek, wishing they were not standing on a public street. "Far too close!" He sighed, releasing a bit of the tension he still felt as he looked toward the door of the tavern. "I think we could all use some wine after that."

They all turned to reenter the cantina. "Wait," Ania suddenly cried. "Dona Carlota's medicine! Don Pedro is still waiting for it."

Bernardo pointed to the horse and put a questioning look on his face. Spreading his hands, he gestured, 'Where?'

"In the saddlebag," Ania said, gesturing as well, in case someone was watching. In a moment, Bernardo handed her the packet of herbs and they rejoined Don Pedro at the table.

The old don was extremely upset to hear of the attack on Ania and asked her repeatedly if she was sure she should not see the doctor. Finally reassured about her condition, he rose from the table to return to his hacienda. The three friends remained, nursing their wine and allowing their nerves to relax.

"Well, I guess some good came of my foolhardiness, Diego," Ania commented as she looked up from her glass of wine. "At least now de Irujo is in jail where he belongs. If Rodríguez does what he should with him, I will be safe again."

"Yes," Diego agreed, "IF he does what he should, but with Rodríguez who can be sure of that?" He turned to watch as Bernardo gestured a question. "Yes," he answered, "we will have to go file a complaint in a few minutes.  Ah, but maybe Sergeant García can save us the bother." This last was said as the aforementioned sergeant entered the tavern door and looked around. García's face brightened as he spotted them and lumbered over in their direction.

"Buenas tardes, Señorita Ania…Don Diego!" he said before turning to nod at Bernardo. "I am glad you are all right, señorita! Capitán Rodríguez told me about it and sent me tp see if you are all right."

"Thank you, Sergeant García. Yes, I am all right. Diego got there in time to prevent any real damage. Would you care to share a bit of our wine? It is good for the nerves, you know," Ania commented as she shoved the wine bottle in his direction.

"Well, just a little would not hurt.  I will drink to your escape, Señorita Ania," García said, never taking his eyes from the bottle as he sat down in the empty chair at their table. "The capitán says you knew de Irujo?  How is that?"

"Sí.  De Irujo is a murderer, Sergeant. He murdered my brother," Ania explained.

"But I thought that bandido in the canyon was the one who killed your brother's and father's deaths." García looked in confusion from Ania to Diego and back.

"This was an older brother, Sergeant.  Felipe would have been a couple of years older than Diego if he had lived. He died following a duel when I was nineteen," Ania continued.

"But if it was a duel..." García started.

"Her brother won the duel, Sergeant. The man in your cuartel shot him in the back as he walked away from the field of honor. That is the type of man you have there. He had a hold-out pistol," Diego continued for Ania as she frowned down at her glass.

"Ah, so that is how you knew of the hidden pistol. It is good you warned Capitán Rodríguez. We searched de Irujo before we locked him up. We found not one, but two pistols.  One was no bigger than this.” Garcia held his fingers about 4 inches apart.  “That little thing could probably still kill a man.  But why would he have come after you, Señorita Ania?" García asked.

Ania sighed. "It is a long story and not a happy one, my friend. Suffice it to say that he is an old family enemy. Had my father and Juan been here, they would have been his first targets. Since, as he said, some bandido had saved him the trouble, he thought to finish up the feud with me, the last of my family. I am very glad to have him behind bars now. I hope you keep him there a very long time. I suppose it is too much to hope that something more permanent will be done with him."

"Capitán Rodríguez had not decided, señorita," García stated. "He wants to talk to you before he makes up his mind."

"Yes, I thought as much, Sergeant. I was hoping it would not be necessary, but I will escort Ania over there to give our statements as soon as our nerves are a bit settled," Diego looked meaningfully toward Ania.

"Oh, I am all right, Diego. I can go any time you wish," Ania declared proudly.

"Oh, there is no rush, Señorita Ania!" García interjected. "I do not want to hurry you. As you said, wine is very good for you." He quickly drained his glass and poured another one as he spoke. Ania fought the urge to laugh as Diego, sitting with his back partially to García, hid a smile at the wine-loving soldier's comment.

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An hour later, Rodríguez sat and stared thoughtfully at the recently closed door. Don Diego de la Vega, Señorita Valdéz, and de la Vega's deaf-mute servant had just left. My, my! What an interesting story that was, little señorita! he thought with a smirk. Amazing that I was just wishing a few days ago for someone who could help me build my trap for you and the Fox...and, low and behold, you have dropped the perfect man into my very lap! Of course, I do need to be careful with this man. One cannot trust him too far. He has a somewhat warped sense of honor to say the least, by the sound of it. We will go slowly with this de Irujo!

He had sensed that Ania Valdéz had given him only a sketchy background as to why de Irujo had wanted revenge on her family in the first place. She had merely said that she had passed on some information that led to his being imprisoned for a while. Having been released from prison, de Irujo had followed her family to the colony of West Florida and killed her older brother after a duel. Apparently, de Irujo's family was very powerful, as his neck had been spared the noose following that incident. Rodríguez thought for a minute before he remembered a Spanish ambassador by that name. Hmmmm, yes, if that is the connection, we had better treat this one with a gentle touch as well. Let us just see what this young man has to say in his defense. Rodríguez got up and reopened the door. "Sergeant García," he called, "please bring that new prisoner in here."

"Sí, Capitán," came the muffled reply from just beyond the door.

Soon, the door opened again, admitting Sergeant García and a shackled de Irujo who came to stand before his desk. Rodríguez deliberately sat in silence for a long period of time, just watching the prisoner, so de Irujo would begin to become uncomfortable.

"Have a seat, señor,” Rodríguez finally said.  “Sergeant, you may leave now,".

"But, Capitán, this man may be dangerous!" García objected.

"Sergeant, you have an annoying habit of questioning my orders," Rodríguez said with a frown. "I doubt sincerely that our guest here will be much trouble without the use of his hands. You are dismissed."

García scurried out the door, closing it securely behind him.

Rodríguez sat watching the prisoner for a moment. "Señor, I offered you a seat. I would also offer you a cigar and a glass of wine, but it seems to me that might be a bit hard for you to handle at this time."

"What do you want with me?" de Irujo finally demanded, as he stared defiantly back at the comandante.

"Señor, I am the one to ask questions here, not you," Rodríguez stated as he rose and walked around the desk. "However, since you asked I will tell you. I am deciding what to do with you, Señor...de Irujo, I believe the name is. Were I to take the situation at face value, I should hang you for your laying hands on a Spanish lady in such a way."

"You would believe that one, Comandante?" de Irujo sneered.

However, Rodríguez observed that the phrase, 'hang you', had not gone unnoticed. De Irujo had turned quite pale, but otherwise gave no indication that he was fearful. "Well, Señor de Irujo, it so happens that the man you were preparing to try your sword upon is the son of a very rich and influential hacendado. HE seems to tell the same story as the señorita. However, it is being whispered around the pueblo that he has become enamored of her, so perhaps he is not the best judge of her truthfulness." Rodríguez paused and walked back to his chair. "Why do you not tell me your side of the story? Then I can make my decision of how this whole thing will be handled."

Without saying a word, de Irujo looked at Capitán Rodríguez suspiciously. What is this fool up to? he wondered.

"The señorita says that you are a criminal and a murderer, señor. Have you nothing to say to that?" Rodríguez asked.

"She is a liar!" de Irujo snarled, finally breaking his silence.

"Well, you may be surprised to hear that I might possibly agree with you. I repeat, tell me your side of the story," Rodríguez countered.

An openly doubtful expression filled de Irujo's eyes, but he slowly sank into the chair.

"Now, that is better," Rodríguez began. "She said that this all started when she found evidence of your being involved in a crime and turned it over to a magistrate in Spain."

"She fabricated all of it!" de Irujo interjected.

"Oh? Well, I'm ready to listen. Tell me the truth," Rodríguez said, pleased that the prisoner seemed ready to talk. He listen carefully as de Irujo told of meeting Señorita Valdéz's stepmother..."a lovely, concerned woman"...and of the stepmother's desire to see the rather rebellious girl wed well. Since he was from a good family and was willing to overlook the girl's faults, he began to pursue a relationship with Ania Valdéz. At first, she welcomed his attention, but after a while she tired of him. Apparently, seeing no honorable way out of their informal engagement after things had gone "a bit too far", she made up a story of his being a forger and thief. She even created "evidence" which she turned over to a magistrate. Being a clever one with words, she also convinced the magistrate to believe her accusations. Her family saw to it that he was sent to prison, where he remained for more than ten months, sharing his food with rats. Finally, his father managed to get his sentence ended and he was allowed to return home to La Mancha. However, even there he was a cause for shame. He no longer was an accepted part of his class and society, regardless of the falseness of the charges. His own father suggested that he leave Spain and make his life in the colonies. All because of the girl's connivance!

"But, señor, you make no mention of a murder...Señorita Valdéz's brother, I believe," Rodríguez stated.

"Lies again!" de Irujo spat. "I merely chanced to be on a ship which landed in West Florida. I heard of a Valdéz family there and when someone asked if I knew them, I simply stated what I knew about her and her family."

"Yes, I am sure you did," Rodríguez commented dryly. "And you set out to murder anyone you could in this family?"

"NO! It was a duel of honor and her brother challenged ME, not the other way around!" de Irujo declared hotly.

Hmmmm, one would almost think he believed what he was saying himself! Rodríguez thought, somewhat amused. The man is quite an actor!

"So you did not shoot this Valdéz man as he left the field of honor?" Rodríguez asked, looking at de Irujo cooly.

"Ah...that is what she is saying, is she?" de Irujo sneered again.

Rodríguez noticed that he did not directly deny it. Hmmmm, so much for Señor de Irujo's honor. However, that does not necessarily mean I cannot use him for my own purposes. We shall see. He sat silently watching the prisoner again.

Finally, de Irujo began to fidget and asked, "What do you plan to do with me? Is that little witch going to finally have her revenge on me through you, Capitán?" A bitter fire of hatred lighted his eyes as he spoke.

Rodríguez steepled his fingers and looked down as if in deep thought. Actually, he already felt he knew what he was going to do, but de Irujo did not need to know that just yet. It will do this hotheaded man good to wonder if he will finally pay the price for something he has done. Let him think about it for a while. It will make him all the more eager to help me with my plan, he thought. Aloud he said, "I have not made up my mind just yet. Perhaps there will be revenge, Señor de Irujo. However, maybe it will not be quite the revenge you fear."

"What do you mean by that, Capitán?" de Irujo asked, managing to look both alarmed and puzzled.

"We shall talk again," Rodríguez said noncommittally. He turned toward the door. "Sergeant García!"

The door all but flew open, with García first looking to see that the prisoner was still subdued as he should be. "Sí, Capitán! Is there trouble, Comandante?"

"No, no, Sergeant! It is simply time for our guest to return to his cell. See that he is made as comfortable and as secure as possible. We would not want him to leave our hospitality prematurely." He paused for a heartbeat, and then could not resist adding, "IF he is ever permitted to leave here at all." He was pleased to see the uncertainty and fear shine in de Irujo's eyes as he was led away. He would definitely have a lot to think about as he waited Rodríguez's pleasure in his cell. Rodríguez smiled, and leaned back in his chair, fingers linked behind his head. Things were going very well...very well indeed!

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Three times over the next three nights, Rodríguez had de Irujo brought to his office. Two times they talked, with Rodríguez still sending him back to his cell uncertain whether he would hang or not. Finally, Rodríguez decided that de Irujo would be so relieved to be freed that he would be at least fairly trustworthy. It was time to bring him into the plan.

The Capitán looked at the five-course meal spread out on his desk and then turned toward the door. "Sergeant García!"

The door opened. "Sí, Capitán Rodríguez?"

"Sergeant, bring...."

"I know...I know. Bring de Irujo in," García finished for him as he hurried to follow the order. This time the sergeant did not even hesitate when he brought the prisoner in. He immediately turned and walked out, leaving Rodríguez and de Irujo together.

"Have a seat, Señor de Irujo," Rodríguez began politely. He then surprised the prisoner by coming around and unlocking his shackles.

De Irujo looked at him in disbelief. "You have decided to trust me, Comandante?"

"For now," Rodríguez answered. "Why do you not join me as I eat, señor?" he said as he noticed how hungrily the prisoner was eyeing the food spread before him.

"What?" was the surprised answer he received to the offer.

"Oh, I insist! One can hardly let a kindred spirit starve," Rodríguez said levelly.

For a moment, de Irujo gaped at him. Then, having been fed little lately, by the comandante’s order, he began quickly helping himself to the food. Finally, after a few minutes of filling his empty stomach, he realized the importance of Rodríguez's choice of words. He sat back in his chair looking suspiciously at Rodríguez, while still chewing thoughtfully on a mouthful of beef. "What do you mean 'kindred spirit'?" he finally said after managing to swallow.

"I have decided, my young friend, that you are a man whose life revolves around honor and revenge," Rodríguez replied as he took small bites of his food. "Revenge is a sweet fruit that I hunger for as well."

De Irujo was quiet for a moment watching him. "Revenge against whom, Capitán?"

"Anyone, señor," was the reply. "Anyone who gets in my way, especially if they manage to make me a laughing stock along the way."

"Ah.  Well, I suppose it would not be a smart thing for me to ‘get in your way’.” De Irujo's voice carried uncertainty as he tried to figure out  this new development.

"Oh, you are not the problem, señor. As a matter of fact, we both want the same thing, only for different reasons," Capitán Rodríguez explained.

"Wait a minute! Just whom are you wanting revenge against? I mean, I know who I want revenge on, but surely you can not mean..." De Irujo's mouth fell open as he began to understand to whom the Capitán was referring.

Rodríguez merely looked at him solemnly.

"Ania Valdéz? But, Capitán, what could she have done to you?" was de Irujo's startled question.

"Well, she is not alone. She is merely at the center of a much bigger plan. She is to be the bait for a very elaborate trap...for a fox," Rodríguez revealed.

"A fox? You mean El Zorro?" de Irujo gasped. "You are loco, hombre!"

"Maybe, but he will definitely come if that witch, as you called her, is the bait. He has already come to her assistance three times."

"Well, meeting Zorro is not exactly in my plans, Capitán!" De Irujo shook his head.

"Not even if you have complete and absolute revenge on Ania Valdéz?" Rodríguez asked.

"How will that be? Even if you get Zorro, you will just have to let her go. What can you do to a woman?" was the younger man's question.

"Plenty! I plan to see her, as well as Zorro, hang for treason," Rodríguez declared.

"What?" De Irujo asked in shock. “How?”

"WE...you and I...are going to make sure that the world knows that she is a traitor to the Crown," Rodríguez continued.

De Irujo began to smile. "Just as she dragged my honor through the mud...."

"Sí! For her to be branded a traitor, as well as hung, makes a perfect and equal revenge. Do you not think so, Señor de Irujo...uh...Carlos?" Rodríguez asked with a smile.

"But why do you want revenge on her, Capitán? You did not answer that."

"Well, first she has kept me from something I have wanted for a very long time. Before her family came here I found a silver mine on the Valdéz land. The family got in the way of my keeping it. I almost got rid of them all then." Rodríguez confessed. It was a risk to tell this to de Irujo, but a calculated one. An exchange of secrets often cemented partnerships. "Secondly, and most importantly, she has caused a great deal of ridicule to be turned on me in the last year and a half. This I will not allow without exacting payment, even with a woman."

De Irujo laughed. Standing, he bowed in Rodríguez's direction. "It seems it is you, Capitán, whom I must thank for doing away with Miguel and Juan Valdéz. I really thought I would have to do that myself. Muchas gracias, señor!"

Rodríguez cocked his head and considered de Irujo for a minute. Then he nodded. "I take that to mean that you will help me in this, be my partner, so to speak. I shall need someone to go to Santa Barbara, Monterey and perhaps San Francisco to help set things in motion so that our "evidence" is believable when the time comes. I know this. Beyond that general idea, we will need to plan together so that it is foolproof. Do you agree to this, Señor de Irujo?"

De Irujo began to laugh again, a deep and evil sounding laugh. By way of answering the Capitán, he raised his wine glass in a toast. "To sweet revenge and strong hangman's ropes, Capitán!"

After a moment, Rodríguez joined in the laughter. "Sweet revenge and strong ropes, indeed," he replied as he raised his glass to click against de Irujo's.

 

 

 

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