Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seven


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." 

 "You 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 stir.

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 soldiers.

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 several months."

The 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 he could.

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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 else?"

"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 each garment.

Ania 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.

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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 him.

"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 a headache.

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?" Ania asked.

"Yes, 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.

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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 not?"

"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," Ania objected.

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 is...."

"You are wrong, señor, and if they ever did say that and it was heard..." Diego began, still indignant.

"...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 upon her.

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."

Slowly, the conversation did turn in that direction, but without the sparkle of light-heartedness, which had been present earlier.


 

 

Chapter Eight
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