Ring of Fire
Zorro felt a vague sense of déjà
vu as he stopped in the moonlight looking down on the prison complex. He
stood now in almost exactly the spot from which he had watched the guards
two months before. This time, however, there were considerably more
lancers present and the building looming in the background appeared to be
more complete. He crouched down a bit closer to the boulder beside him as
he saw another squad of guards come out of the barracks. What are they
up to? he wondered. Motionless as the rocks of the hills, he waited. Ah,
they must be changing guards for second watch now.
Six guards to the watch, he decided as he relaxed once again.
He glanced at the night sky, gauging by the position of the moon and a
pair of prominent stars the time of night. Should be around midnight.
That would be about right. Thoughtfully, Zorro watched the men
below until all was still again. It occurred to him that it might be a bit
more difficult to get into the office of the complex this time. However,
that was where he needed to go...there, and to get a peek at the
prisoners' cells, if possible. His mind would be eased, at least
partially, if he could actually see de Irujo in there. Finally, he
silently made his way toward the back of the building. By sticking close
to the scattered boulders, he appeared to be just one shadow among many to
any casual observer.
Choosing his path carefully to avoid
patches of moonlight, Zorro eased into a niche in the wall just as a
sergeant at arms walked by briskly as he made his rounds checking the
position of his men. Zorro pressed himself back against the wall, barely
breathing. The sergeant passed within five feet of where the deep shadows
hid the masked man. As the lancer disappeared around the corner, Zorro
quickly darted to the open door and into the hallway. He paused only long
enough to be sure no one was around before moving on into the office. More
paperwork than before sat on the desk. This slowed Zorro down in his
search, but presently he found the ledger listing recent intakes of
workers. Stepping into a patch of bright moonlight coming through the
window he began to scan through the book, looking for the last list of men
from Los Ángeles. He had just located it when he heard a noise from the
far end of the hallway. Stepping back to the desk, he lay the book down
and placing his arm over the bound edge of the page to silence his action,
he quickly tore it out. Folding the page, he placed it in his banda and
moved toward the door. Peering into the hallway and seeing no one, he
slipped into a still doorless room just across the hall and flattened
himself against the wall. The voices became more distinct.
"Ay-ya-yi! I am tired, mi
amigo!" one voice said.
"Aren't you off watch, Santo?
What are you still doing here?" a second voice asked.
"I had to take care of that
last bunch of workers first," Santo replied with a snort.
"The ones from Los Ángeles?"
Vito, his companion, asked.
Sí," Santo replied tiredly.
"I had to fix more food for them, never mind that it was so late.
After that, I was told that they had to be given prison clothing tonight.
Tonight! No, they couldn't wait until morning. It had to be
tonight. Then, to make things worse, I ran short and had to
ride all the way down to the old seamstress' house to get more. What
a waste of time."
"All of them are dressed in the
prison clothes now?" Vito asked.
Santo held up an armload of clothes.
"No, I have two more. This is their clothing. A Martinez
and someone called de Irujo are the ones who are left. At least that
is the names on the transfer list. Ay! So much trouble for these
worthless ones," Santo shook his head. "Well, let me get
those two into these and then I can finally go to bed."
are right, compadre. Even though we are worth any five of them,
Comandante Cosío thinks nothing of working us to death right along with
them. Ay, a soldier's life is a hard one, es la verdad," Vito
said sympathetically. Totally unaware of the listening visitor, both
men walked on down the hall.
Zorro smiled. Well, it seems that
de Irujo did make it here. The smile faded as his mistrust of Rodríguez
reasserted itself. The words "if it is really him," rose
unbidden in his mind. I am sure I am worrying for nothing, but it would
not hurt to see him with my own eyes, he told himself. Silently, he
began following the two lancers deeper into the prison, being careful to
take note of each turn. It would not do to get confused in here.
The two lancers made a final turn
and stopped before a row of cells. Walking to the last one, Santo shouted,
"Martínez! Wake up, you worthless dog!" A tired looking peon
moaned and rolled over to look at him. Santo opened the cell door and
threw the clothes into the bleary peon's face. "Hurry up and change
your clothes so I can go get a bit of rest myself. I tell you now that I
will be a lot easier for you to get along with when I am on duty if I get
my sleep." The peon growled something but did as he was told. Moving
to the next cell door, Santo again yelled, "Wake up, hombre! Why must
I lose sleep over filth like you, de Irujo!" The prisoner did not
From where he stood, Zorro could see
the top of the man's head but not his face. The prisoner seemed to be tall
and his hair was the color of de Irujo's. Zorro smiled once again. Sí!
He is just where he should be. That is good! He moved closer trying to
see the man's face. As he did so, the tip of his sword sheath bumped
lightly against the rough adobe wall. Zorro froze as both lancers turned
abruptly toward him.
"Zorro!" they both shouted
as they caught sight of the man in black.
Zorro did not wait to see what would
happen next. He turned and sprinted back the way they had come. The halls
here were narrow enough to make it a bit uncomfortable if swordplay was
called for. In addition to that, Zorro saw no reason to hurt the two
guards if he could get away without doing so. They, after all, were merely
doing their jobs.
He heard the men yell for more
lancers as he dashed around a corner several yards ahead of his pursuers.
He frowned. They were making enough noise to wake the dead. As he turned
another corner, he came face to face with three more guards running to
their comrades' aid. For a moment, the new lancers' mouths flew open and
they halted at the sight of the Dark Angel. "Madre de Dios!" one
gasped out. Zorro took advantage of their shock to push them out of his
way and dash around yet another corner.
Having momentarily, outdistanced the
ever-increasing group of lancers, Zorro paused for a minute to try to
reassess his location. The last turn had taken him out of the path that
they had followed on the way in. He could only hope this way led out. He
soon realized this was not to be as he suddenly found himself facing a
hallway that dead-ended only a few feet ahead of him. Grimly, he pulled
his sword from its sheath. He would have to do whatever he must to get
out, even if it meant hacking his way through a squad of the king's
Picking a spot that gave him the
element of surprise, he advanced suddenly upon the group of lancers
immediately behind him. As the lamplight reflected off the legendary blade
of the Fox and they caught sight of his grim smile, the lancers' courage
faltered and he was able to get the upper hand in the swordplay that
followed. When one man boldly tried to engage him in combat, Zorro allowed
his blade to slice a short but effective diagonal cut across the man's
upper arm. The man's courage was commendable and Zorro still had no desire
to kill. The slash effectively took the man out of the fight with no loss
of life. As their colleague fell back against the wall grasping his arm,
the other lancers retreated a few steps. This opened the way to a short
flight of steps just to the right of where Zorro now stood. Making as
broad a slash as possible in the enclosed area and forcing the group back
further, Zorro dashed up the stairs. At the top, he turned back to deal
with them again. Sidestepping a thrust from the closest lancer, Zorro
trapped the man's sword against his own, and pushed the unfortunate guard
back into the others, knocking the whole group back down the stairs.
Reaching the next landing, Zorro
dashed into a hallway with a door at the end of it. As he ran through the
door, he slammed it shut and jammed a chisel, which he found nearby, under
the door to prevent it from being opened. With his pursuers throwing their
shoulders against the jammed door, Zorro turned to take stock of the
situation. His heart sank. He now saw why the chisel had been there.
Across the window behind him was a set of four iron bars. For a second,
Zorro simply stood and stared. Then his hand flew out as if to check the
truth of what his eyes told him. Yes, the bars were really there, but he
began smiling again as he realized that the whole segment of bars shifted
a bit in his hands as he pushed on them. His luck had held. The bars were
only newly plastered in. The plaster was not yet dry and with a great
effort, Zorro was able to pull the whole set from the window and lean it
against the shaking door to seal it more firmly closed. Sheathing his
sword, he leaned out to learn his location. Bueno! he thought as he
looked down upon the clump of bushes where Tornado was hidden. As he
climbed confidently up into the window, he gave a shrill whistle. With an
answering neigh, the black stallion trotted to a point directly under
Zorro. Just as the door creaked and then splintered inward, Zorro stepped
from the windowsill and dropped lightly into Tornado's saddle. Soon they
were cantering rapidly back in the direction of Los Ángeles.
The lancers were far from giving up,
however. Zorro soon found that this group of lancers had managed to get
their hands on some very fast horses. Mile after mile they stayed behind
him. Zorro hoped he could lose them soon. Not far ahead there was a long
open area of the road where a rider could be seen for miles. Just before
arriving at this spot, he located a hiding place for his steed and
himself. From his concealment, he watched as Capitán Cosío sent his men
throughout the hills ahead of him, but none of them came close to where
Zorro actually was. Finally, Zorro heard the capitán give the order to
return to the prison. As he watched them ride away, he let out a tired
sigh. This has been a bit close for comfort tonight. Then he had to
laugh at himself. Well, I wanted to see if security was tighter now. I
think I just proved it to myself! Shaking his head and chuckling, he
remounted Tornado and rode northward. At least, I think we can be
fairly confident that de Irujo will stay where he has been put. Ania will
be safe for now.
Back in the prison, Santo had
returned at long last to stand before the last prisoner's cell. "De
Irujo! Wake up! I am tired from chasing a ghost and you are keeping me up
longer. Get up and put these clothes on, de Irujo!"
The man whom Zorro had seen turned
sleepily to Santo. "Are you talking to me?"
"Sí, de Irujo. Who else would
I be talking to in your cell?" Santo asked.
The prisoner looked up at him with
blue eyes shining in the lamplight. "But that is not my name. I am
not de Irujo," he insisted.
Santo scoffed, "What difference
does it make, peon? One name will do as well as another for the next
peon merely shrugged. He had to admit that Santo was probably right. For
the length of his sentence, they could call him anything they wanted.
Nodding his head sadly, he put the clothes on and lay back down. Tomorrow
would be only the first of many days that he would work for the king, days
that would soon turn him into an old man. He knew he had better rest while
Seven women sat in Ania's room at
her hacienda as the mid-morning sunlight streamed into her window. Spread
around them were the bolts of material which Don Miguel had arranged to
have shipped from West Florida. As Ania draped the different pieces of
cloth over her shoulders, they were all discussing which dress should be
made from each bolt. The six seamstresses accepted most decisions made by
Ania without contention. However, when they began choosing the material
for the wedding dress itself, this changed.
"But, Señorita Ania, there is
a perfectly beautiful length of black brocaded silk here. The most
beautiful wedding dresses I have ever seen were black. There is nothing
wrong with that. It is traditional. Why would you choose anything
"Dela, I agree with you that
the material is beautiful, but it makes me think too much of the dresses I
have that were made for mourning. Do you have any idea just how much of
the last five years I have spent wearing mourning? I feel like I have
spent my life in mourning!" Ania tried to explain.
"I agree with Dela, Señorita
Ania. You would look so beautiful in the black," Amada commented.
"That is not the point,"
Ania insisted. "Were I any happier right now, I would be able to fly!
Why on earth would I wish to marry Diego de la Vega in what might as well
be mourning? I want to look as happy as I feel."
"But if you are not going to
use the traditional black, then just what color DO you wish to use, señorita?"
Rosita asked. She knew her patrona better than anyone else in this room.
When Ania's voice got that determined edge to it, one might as well be
talking to the wall for all the changing she would do. The others might
just as well accept it.
"Hmmmmm, well, let me
think," Ania said as she fell quiet for a minute. All of the material
was beautiful. Her mind went back to similar conversations she had had
with her friend, Antonia, just before her wedding. Antonia had married one
of the young dons from their area whose family had a bit of English blood.
That in itself was not as unusual as it might have seemed, even in light
of Spain's seemingly endless hostilities with England.
Much of the land in their area had
remained in contention for many years. The countries of England, France
and Spain had all had their share of swapping the ownership of West
Florida. Some families, especially those with royal connections, often
pulled back into St. Augustine or Pensacola when danger threatened from
one of the other countries. Other families, however, refused to budge from
their land and merely dealt with the other governments as became
necessary. Affairs of both politics and the heart being what they are,
sometimes bloodlines of different countries became mixed.
Antonia's young suitor was from a
family such as this. Indeed, his father had gotten along very well during
the few years that England attempted to hold the land, so well that he
managed to woo and marry an English lady. He promptly taught her the
customs of the Spanish upper class. As her future mother-in-law loved to
talk about just about anything, Antonia heard of various English customs
related to weddings. One relatively new development was the "white
wedding". The white was symbolic of both purity and joy. Antonia had
decided that since she was both pure and very joyful, she should wear
white. It had been a ninety-day wonder that stirred up much comment with
the busybodies of the pueblo. It had been beautiful though. Ania smiled as
she remembered Juan saying that she had never been afraid to give the
people something to talk about. Well, she would do it again! Walking back
to the open crate, Ania reached in and pulled out two more bolts of
material, one of white brocade satin and another of white lace.
"This," she said dramatically, as she turned back to the
seamstresses, "is what I will wear on my wedding day!"
The older seamstresses were not
pleased. "White? But, señorita, who has ever heard of that?"
"I have," Ania insisted.
"I have been told that the white symbolizes first the joy of the
spirit when there is love in the match, and also, that it stands for
purity. Since I have never
been married before and have never known the physical love of a husband, I
definitely qualify for that purity. And as for the joy, señoras, I ask
you, how can I possible put on the color of mourning for the happiest day
of my life? White it must be! It does not matter to me if any other
Spanish woman anywhere ever wears white for another wedding or not. For
me, it is perfect!"
"Whatever you wish, patrona,"
the oldest seamstress sniffed. The other older ones shrugged. It was,
after all, the young patrona's wedding, not theirs. So it was that each of
the six seamstresses left with orders for two of the dresses, which they
assured her would be finished in eight weeks or so. The youngest
seamstress had shown a spark of excitement as the white dress was
described and Ania drew up the design that she wanted. It was to her that
Ania had entrusted the making of the white wedding dress.
Ania sighed in relief as the
seamstresses left. She loved pretty clothes and had endured all the
measuring and remeasuring with good grace, but as usual found herself
irritated at the slowness of the process.
"It was very exciting watching
you decide on the dresses for your wedding week, Señorita Ania, but is
there some way you would have me help? You have not mentioned it if there
is," Rosita asked with a smile as she watched Ania dreamily rub her
hand over a small piece from the white satin.
"Oh, sí, Rosita. Something
very special," Ania looked up with a sparkle in her eyes. "But
not necessarily one which I want to share with just anyone." She
walked back to the crate and once again brought out some cloth. In her
arms were cream colored satin and silk. From deeper in the crate, she
pulled lengths of the finest, most delicate lace, also of cream.
"It is beautiful, Señorita
Ania!" Rosita cried as she reached out to run her fingers over the
intricate lace and luminous satin. "What do we make of this?"
She looked up and saw that Ania was blushing even though her eyes and
smile were filled with excitement.
"I want you to help me make a
"first night set", Rosita," she said quietly.
"Oh, Señorita Ania! You will
look like an angel. Don Diego will not be able to take his eyes off
you!" Rosita said with a laugh.
Ania laughed and then breathed a
happy sigh. "Well, I would hope not, Rosita!" she finally said.
Then she looked up, her face shining with happiness. "Oh, Rosita, am
I being silly? I mean, sometimes I feel so happy that I am afraid that I
might appear giddy. I do not want to appear like a silly child. I try to
act as I know I should, but sometimes it is all I can do not to dance or
sing for joy!"
"No, you are not silly. It is
very good to see you both so happy. It is about time that Don Diego
settled down and there is no doubt of the joy he finds with you. Crescencia says that Don Diego seems as light hearted as he
was as a youth before he went to Spain. I remember from growing up with
him that he was a bit different then. You have been good for him, patrona."
"Oh, I hope so, Rosita. That is
the most important thing in the world to me right now," Ania said as
she looked at her lady's maid thoughtfully. Then she suddenly clutched the
material in her arms and spun around, finally alighting on the edge of her
bed. As she looked up at Rosita, both women dissolved into laughter.
"Thank you, Rosita," Ania
said after a minute.
"For what?" the lady's
maid asked, somewhat surprised.
"For being a friend as well as
my servant. I have not often had a confidant in my life. I am very lucky
that Don Alejandro asked you to sit with me during those first dark
times," Ania replied.
Rosita realized that she was right.
They had become friends as well. She smiled at Ania. "I think we were
both lucky, Señorita Ania!"
After a while, both women got down
to the business of deciding on a design for the robe and gown. Ania made
several sketches before they were both satisfied with what they had come
up with. Rosita then took the satin to make the robe, while Ania kept the
soft cream silk to make her gown. The lace was divided as well for use on
smiled as they worked. There was definitely a lot to do between now and
the 20 of julio, but every bit of it would be done with loving, joyous
care. Such work was never a burden.
Ania was again walking among the
grape vines when she looked up and saw Diego coming toward her. She did
not know what time he had returned, but she could see that he was tired.
It being only midday, he could not have rested long after he returned.
Whatever he found out must have been important. Quickly she walked to meet
"Diego!" she cried, with a
smile. "I am so glad you are back. Did your business go well?"
She glanced quickly around to see how close Bastián was to them. Ah!
There he is. Hmmmm, now to
see if I can get rid of him for a while, she thought. "Bastián,
why do you not go and enjoy the siesta time. I am sure I will be safe with
Diego here," she said aloud to the bodyguard.
For a moment, Bastián looked
doubtful, but finally the lure of a siesta won out. "As you wish, señorita,
but if you need me just yell out. I will not be that far away. A little
rest would be good, yes?" He rubbed his brow as if trying to relieve
Ania grinned as she remembered that
Bastián and Manuel had held a drinking contest the previous night, one
which Bastián had won. She had been somewhat surprised to see him already
waiting for her as she left the hacienda early this morning. She would
have bet that this would have been one of those rare mornings when she had
to wait for him. Bastián, silent as always, had borne whatever misery he
was in stoically. He had gone about his duties as always, but she bet it
would indeed feel good to him to lie down and sleep for a while.
"That will be fine, Bastián. Thank you," she said.
As the bodyguard walked away, Diego
reached and took her hands. He raised them to his lips and placed a tender
kiss on each. Ania turned her hands so that she could caress his cheek
gently with her fingers. The look that passed between them said everything
that they could not say aloud before others.
"You look tired, Diego. Are you
all right?" she finally asked quietly.
"Sí, it was just a long ride,
and I will admit, a rather exciting night," Diego replied as he
tucked her hand into his arm and began walking with her along the path.
Ania looked at him in concern for a
second. She had heard him use the term in that way before and it
definitely carried a special meaning. With him excitement meant work for
Zorro, often with lots of fighting included. She almost said something
betraying her worry for him, but then thought better of it. His telling
her even this much showed his trust that she would take such things in
stride, without making a fuss. That, too, would be a part of her life from
this point on. Even after what had happened before, she must trust him to
be able to take care of himself at any time. Ania willed herself to do so.
"What were you able to find out?" she asked.
"Well, for one thing, I think
perhaps Bastián will not have to stay quite so close to you for now.
I think perhaps we can probably
move Bastián back to other duties, although I would feel better if he
remained on duty," Diego began.
"So de Irujo was there?"
and the security is sufficiently tight that I do not expect him to
escape," Diego continued. He then told her about the things he had
seen and about de Irujo's name being on the list of workers. It was with a
considerable sense of relief that the two young people walked on toward
the hacienda. It seemed that at least for the next eighteen months, they
had little to worry about from that quarter. They could relax and enjoy
the weeks to come.
That night as they sat at supper,
the conversation turned to Ania's use of the new hacienda.
"Just when are you planning on
moving into that beautiful casa on the plateau?" Don Ramón asked.
"You did say the rest of the furniture was on its way, did you
"Sí, but I have decided that I
shall not be moving into it at all," Ania replied.
"What?" Don Ramón said,
as Diego and Don Alejandro looked at her, wondering just what she had come
up with regarding the matter.
"No, Don Alejandro and Diego
have made me very comfortable here. It has become my home. It has always
been Diego's home and I see no reason for us to have to move elsewhere
just because we marry," Ania stated, not quite sure how her cousin
would react. She shot a quick look at Diego and up the table at Don
Alejando as she attempted to judge their reactions. She had not had time
to discuss her decision with either of them. To tell the truth, she had
only this minute decided about the matter definitely. She hoped Ramón
would not ask too much about it. She was not sure she could be convincing
at this point.
"What are you going to do with
it then?" Ramón asked.
"Oh, I have heard that other
pueblos often have spare casas that are used by important visitors to
these pueblos. Up until now Los Ángeles has not done so because there
have been no vacant haciendas available," Ania attempted to be
logical in her suggestion. She was relieved that Ramón did not seem to
find it absurd, that is until he commented again.
"Oh, so you will be moving over
with me only temporarily then," he said.
"What?" Ania asked,
confused. "I just said that I did not plan to use it at all. I most
certainly will welcome your using it, if you wish to. In fact, I would be
honored that you are my first guest there, but why would I move in there
only to move out later?"
"To have everything continue to
look proper and to prevent too many people from speculating about your
living in such close proximity with your fiancé all this time," Ramón
said in a deceptively quiet way. "I have no doubt that there is
already talk of your living here and not hiring a dueña. That was a grave
mistake, Ania." He might as well have set off blasting powder.
"What?!" Don Alejandro
gasped. "I can assure you there has been no...."
"Are you insinuating that I
would ever do anything to damage Ania's reputation or take advantage of
her?" Diego tensed as he asked this, his voice low and controlled.
However, anger smoldered in his eyes as he looked at Don Ramón.
"Ramón, you go too far,"
Ramón raised his hands as if asking
everyone to stop and consider what he was saying. "No, no! Now do not
get the wrong idea here.” He looked at the two de la Vegas. “I
have seen that you are both very honorable men. I myself have no doubt
that she was as safe here as if she were in her father's own house and
under his watchful eye. However, I also know human nature.” Turning to
look at Ania with Diego, he continued, "Perhaps before everyone
began suspecting how you both felt about each other your own reputations
would have been enough to prevent the gossip from starting, but
now...." He looked away from Diego and turned his full attention
to Ania. "Ania, you of all
people should realize what I am saying here. You know how quickly slander
can arise even under more ordinary circumstances than this."
"Surely you are wrong in this,
Don Ramón," Don Alejandro insisted. "People here know us too
well for that to be true."
"Ah, but they have not known
Ania so very long and knowing my cousin as I do, I would say that she has
not gone out of her way to be conventional in all her actions. Many of the
things for which she was criticized in West Florida I am glad to see are
commonplace here. However, I would wager that her refusal to hire a dueña
is still unusual enough to call attention to itself. You know what I say
is true, Ania. The only place worse about gossip than at court
"You are wrong, señor, and if
they ever did say that and it was heard..." Diego began, still
"...is a small pueblo,"
Ania quietly completed the sentence Ramón had started. Instead of anger,
there was quiet resignation on her face as she reached over and took
Diego's hand. "Diego, I'm afraid Ramón is right, much as I hate to
admit it. I have been somewhat selfish in this affair. I still say that I
do not wish to live in my hacienda after we are married, but while Ramón
is here, it might be best. He is, after all, family and in some people's
eyes he would be the one responsible for me, a mere woman." Ania
frowned at the term. "I would not want talk to get started."
Diego looked at her in surprise and
dismay. "But, Ania, you have always said that the opinion of others
was not important to you."
Ania gave his hand a squeeze and
smiled sadly. "Yes, I said that, but that was when I had only my own
reputation to think of."
Diego expression showed both worry
and resignation. Wordlessly, he looked into her eyes. Ania's face
reflected her own disappointment with the decision that had been forced
Don Alejandro watched them both
closely. While Ania's face probably showed just what she was feeling this
time, he knew that behind Diego's expression there was more. Several
times, his son had discussed with him and Bernardo about how best to watch
over Ania. Foremost was the idea that she could be guarded better with her
staying here. Now she would be out of their sight much of the time. Had
they included her in these discussions, she might have responded to Don
Ramón's argument differently. Diego's concern for her safety could only
serve to make the coming weeks seem almost unbearably long to him.
"Oh, come now!" Don Ramón
cried. "Surely, little more than nine weeks is hardly a tragedy.
Cheer up! It shall pass in no time! Come, tell me of the wonderful
engagement fiesta you are throwing this Saturday night so that we may
announce to the whole pueblo your intentions to marry. That will no doubt
be a much happier topic of discussion."
conversation did turn in that direction, but without the sparkle of
light-heartedness, which had been present earlier.