Capitán Rodríguez sat back in his chair and contemplated what he had just been reading. He stared thoughtfully at the plain cover of the ledger that lay on his desk. This Monastario had kept a very detailed record of his encounters with Zorro. Unfortunately, his guesses as to the identity of the outlaw seemed no better than anyone else's. Why, Rodríguez thought in disgust, he even tried to say that Diego de la Vega could have been Zorro! What an absurd idea! Well, at least, the ledger was giving him a bit more insight into the outlaw's methods. Perhaps, if he could understand him enough, he would be able to get one step ahead of him and snare him, at long last. However, that still seemed to be far in the future at this stage of the game. He sighed and put the journal into the drawer of his desk.
There were other things to plan for right now...such as his own trap for the Fox and the young acid tongued señorita. A plan was indeed forming but he was beginning to see that he would need someone to help just a bit if he was to set things up as he wished. That was one of the parts to the trap that he was still waiting to have come into his hands...a partner, so to speak. He needed someone who would understand what he wanted to do and not only go along with him on it, but for whatever the reason, actively seek it just as he did. Well, I will think my plans through...when the man comes along that will fit my purpose, I will make my move. Until then, I will just watch and wait, he thought determinedly to himself.
All this waiting around seemed to be an uncomfortable process. The comandante frowned even more as he thought back over the problems he had had during the last few weeks. Since the swordfight with Zorro which disrupted his meeting with Vásquez, the labor contractor, Capitán Rodríguez had not had any direct confrontations with the outlaw. That did not mean that he had not felt the renegade's ire. Even after Zorro's warning that he be careful in his use of the land seized for taxes, Rodríguez had continued acquiring land, which controlled water access. He had finally had just the key lands that controlled the water through some of the ranchos...not the richest to be sure...that would surely tempt fate too much at this point. Rather he had chosen waterways that passed through some of the smaller successful rancheros' lands. If he was successful with these smaller holdings, then he would bring pressure to bear on the larger, richer hacendados.
Almost as soon as he had recovered from the injuries he had received in his battle with Zorro, he had begun using the men in his jail to build his own project...an earthen dam across Arroyo Venado. Within two nights of the gates to the dam being completed, workers returned early in the morning and found the creek flowing as it had always done...the earthworks blown apart during the night. On a boulder beside the remains of the dam was painted a large Z. Not to be outdone, Rodríguez immediately put the men back to work rebuilding the dam and resolved to keep a watch for Zorro in case he returned to destroy it again. Rodríguez's blood began to boil as he thought of the events of a night three days later....
The night had started out well enough. He had ridden out to see that the men were well concealed and as alert as they should be. The dam was once again nearing completion and the capitán thought that Zorro, or others who felt as he did about the dam, would strike again now that the waterflow was blocked to those ranchos downstream. A notice had been sent to the affected rancheros announcing a 200 peso tax for "water usage derived from government lands." This was surely something that Zorro would not ignore.
"Sergeant García!" he had called. "Report at once!" Rodríguez gave a grunt of satisfaction as the sergeant lumbered out of a cluster of boulders not far away. He had been quite well hidden, which had pleasantly surprised his capitán.
"Sí, mi capitán?" García asked.
"Ah...very good, Sergeant! I see no one. Are all the lancers in position?" Rodríguez said with a smile.
"Sí, Capitán," he was assured. "No one can approach that dam without being seen."
"I think I will wait with you. We will have action tonight, I am sure," Rodríguez ventured. "I feel it in my bones!"
"Well, I am sure that Zorro will have heard of the tax by now, at any rate," García agreed.
"Return to your spot, Sergeant García. I will find concealment for myself and wait for the entertainment to begin," Rodríguez said, pleasantly.
Everything got still and darkness began settling over the apparently deserted meadow beside the creek. Although the capitán would not have admitted it, he himself had trouble staying awake. Peace and silence lay over the area like a blanket.
Suddenly, from the picket line behind the meadow where the horses had been hidden, came the challenging neigh of a stallion. The noise of much stomping and the whinnies of the soldiers' horses shattered the peace of the late spring evening. Whirling toward the picket line, Rodríguez could just make out the black clad figure of his enemy. "After him!" he bellowed to the hidden men. Silently, the man in black took the time to jerk the picket line loose and attempted to scatter the horses. Rodríguez smirked at the attempt, for it seemed to be a clumsy failure. The horses were easily recaptured and the men were off in hot pursuit with no more than a minute's delay. Perhaps Zorro is getting careless! If he is, I will be waiting to catch him when he stumbles! he laughed to himself as he mounted his own horse to give chase.
Within minutes, the lancers, with Rodríguez at the front, were riding madly after the outlaw. As they began to go into rougher terrain, it looked as if they were getting closer to him. Then quite suddenly, the black horse and its rider were simply gone.
"He could not have just disappeared!" Rodríguez exclaimed in astonishment. "Look everywhere!" For several minutes, the lancers fanned out and searched behind boulders and bushes for any sign of Zorro, but to no avail.
Sergeant García rode up beside Capitán Rodríguez. "Capitán, it is as if he
vanished into thin air!"
"I can see that, Baboso!" Rodríguez snapped.
"Well, at least, we kept him from doing whatever he came to do," Corporal Reyes commented from behind them.
"Yes, I sup--" the comandante began, but before he could get the rest of 'suppose' out, he suddenly envisioned the meadow beside the dam as it was now... completely devoid of lancers! "NO!" Rodríguez yelled. "Back to the dam quickly!! It is a trick! Hurry!"
Once again in the lead, the capitán took the lancers as quickly as possible back over the rough landscape toward the dam, all the time cursing his own stupidity. How could I have let that scoundrel trick me, of all people, like this? he asked himself. But if we hurry, it will do him no good. There is no way that he will have time enough to double back, do any damage and get away! We will be there in plenty of..." Rodríguez's frantic thoughts were interrupted by a resounding boom from just beyond the meadow ahead! The capitán began recalling every curse word that he had ever known as he realized that, no doubt, that boom had been the dam... again!
Pulling his horse to a stop at the edge of the now raging creek and dismounting, Rodríguez stood with his hands clenched in anger as he watched the surge of the very considerable amount of water that had, until a minute ago, been caught behind the dam.
"Look, Capitán!" Private Rómez cried. He then pointed to a spot on the far side of the creek. There on top of a bank was Zorro, calmly watching the scene from the back of his black steed.
"Shoot him! Shoot that black hearted fiend!" Rodríguez ordered. Not satisfied with the quickness of his men's response, Rodríguez snatched a nearby musket and fired toward the outlaw. He saw his musket ball harmlessly throw a spark as it ricocheted off a rock to the left of Zorro. Had he been calm himself, he would have had to admire the courage of the man in black. It had been less than two months since a musket ball had actually hit Zorro. Yet, he sat now as still as if Rodríguez had no chance at all of hitting him! Exasperated at his own failure to hit the outlaw, Rodríguez snatched up another musket and tried to aim a bit more carefully. As he did, he stepped further out on the overhanging bank of the creek. Undercut by the force of the rushing water, the bank gave way under the capitán's feet and he suddenly found himself tumbling into the rushing water. Clutching desperately at the muddy bank, Rodríguez managed to keep himself from washing away downstream but was unable to pull himself up out of the water. To Rodríguez's embarrassment, several of the lancers found this amusing. Nor were they alone in their amusement, for above them all, the capitán could hear Zorro's irritating laughter.
"Oh-ho, Capitán! I see that you are a dedicated man!" Zorro laughed. "It seems that you are about to let yourself be totally carried away by your work!"
Sergeant García attempted to get a grip on Capitán Rodríguez's hand, but found it a bit slippery with mud. "Capitán, rinse your hand and I will try to reach you again!" he yelled over the noise of the water. "You," he ordered a nearby lancer, "give me your hand so you can anchor me." He reached back to the much smaller man and then leaned down further and took hold of Rodríguez's hand. As Rodríguez's weight was added to García's considerable bulk, the poor lancer struggled to keep his feet from sliding toward the edge and failed!
"Whoa...whoa...whoa!" García gasped out as he leaned too far, and arms flailing, toppled into the water with his capitán. Now added to the force of the water in the creek was a tremendous splash of water that hit Rodríguez solidly in the face as the hefty sergeant landed beside him. The smaller lancer was only saved from a similar fate as Corporal Reyes grabbed the back of his jacket and pulled him back. Both the capitán and García came up sputtering and spitting. Gradually as most of the water escaped from behind the dam, the two men were left struggling in knee-deep mud as the water level dropped in the creek. Despite themselves, several of the lancers chuckled openly at the comedy of errors.
However, sitting atop Tornado, Zorro was having the biggest laugh of all. Finally, he called, "Well, as I see that you and the good sergeant are too busy for a visit tonight, I will come again when you are not so bogged down in the details of your jobs! Buenas noches, muchachos!" With that, he turned the big stallion and disappeared into the night, his laughter still drifting back to them on the breeze.
The lancers rode back to the cuartel that night in a very uncomfortable silence. No one wished to turn their angry capitán's attention toward themselves. They all doubted that he would be very easy to live with the next day either. The only thing the lancers could think of to be happy about was that they were not Sergeant García. Capitán Rodríguez's anger was not easily borne, and right now the capitán was VERY angry at the hapless sergeant!
Nor was Capitán Rodríguez a very happy man even now, three days later! As he sat at his desk remembering the embarrassing incident and how the outlaw had laughed at his expense, he held a wine glass tightly in his hand. Unable to control his anger any longer, the capitán hurled the glass across the room where it shattered against the adobe wall. "Just wait, Zorro!" he growled. "My laughter will be what you hear... the last sound you hear just before the trapdoor opens beneath you on the gallows! I wonder which will hurt you more? Your own death, or the fact that you will have caused an innocent's death in a trap meant for you, as well!" Chillingly, the capitán smiled as he thought of the revenge that he was determined to have...very sweet revenge indeed!
Diego sat looking at Ania in concern. "In what way do you mean for me to be careful, Ania? I fully intend to use care whenever I meet him again...if I do," he stressed the 'whenever', intending that she understand that he meant as either of his personas. "Is he as good with a sword as all that?"
At a movement at her elbow, Ania tensed, but then relaxed as she looked up into Bernardo's concerned face. Having also seen the confrontation that had just taken place, he had come over immediately to find out what had transpired. "Diego, let us not discuss him here. Let us go up to my room and I will tell you everything I am unlucky enough to know about that devil's spawn," she said as she looked back at him, her eyes filled with more fear than he had ever seen in her.
After paying for their meals, he gracefully assisted her with her chair, and taking her arm, escorted her upstairs. Normally, with only Bernardo with them, he would not have entered her room. It often took so little to start the type of gossip he had always tried to shield Ania from. However, there were sometimes things that were more important than appearances. He felt that, whoever this man was, learning about him was one of those things. Seeing Ania this upset could only indicate that the man was, or at least had been a serious danger to her. To protect her from that danger, he had to understand exactly what was going on. Judging by Ania’s reaction, that could not be explained in a public common room.
As they entered the bedchamber, Diego was surprised to see Ania glance around, almost as if she expected the stranger to be hiding in the shadows ready to spring out at them. Hearing Bernardo close the door tightly, he took Ania's hand in his and pulled her toward him. Gently, he brushed his fingers over the hair that curled softly in front of her ears and then tenderly cupped her face with his hands. "It is all right, Ania," he reassured her, "he cannot hurt you now. Just tell me what we are up against. Unless he is truly supernatural, he cannot be invincible." Ania took a deep breath and put her hands over his, taking comfort from his closeness and touch. "That is it, Ania," he said quietly as he felt her slowly stop trembling. "You know I will do whatever I must to keep you safe from anyone."
"Yes," Ania replied in a low voice, "that is one of the things that frightens me."
Diego shook his head and let out an exasperated sigh. "I am afraid you are going to have to explain that comment, Ania. Why do you not start at the beginning? Perhaps then I will understand this apparent lack of confidence in me." He led Ania to the chair at the desk and pulled a chair over to sit beside her.
Her tension still too high to sit for long, Ania was immediately back on her feet as she protested, "It is not truly that I do not have confidence in you... I trust you with my life and beyond. It is just that he...."
Diego gestured for her to stop, "The beginning, Ania!"
Ania stopped for a moment and gathered her thoughts. "Well, I guess the beginning would be with my stepmother. I told you that she took a lover while we were in Spain. This is that man."
"But, Ania," Diego commented, "this man hardly looked old enough to have been involved with your stepmother...."
"Diego, my stepmother was not as old as my father. It was her first marriage...a good catch for her, I am sure." Ania shook her head and frowned. "She was only in her mid-twenties and she had an eye for younger men." She paced for a minute before starting on the narrative again. "His name is Carlos Luis de Irujo."
"There is a Carlos Martínez de Irujo who is Spain's minister to the United States. This is his son?" Diego asked, surprised.
"His nephew," Ania corrected, "the younger son of his brother, Arturo."
"I met his father and mother at court while I was in Madrid. I believe they were from La Mancha," Diego said. "I remember there being some talk of a son and an older woman...." He stopped, not quite sure if Ania would care to know what was said.
Ania apparently already knew all she needed to of the situation. "Yes, I suppose there would have been some talk regarding the two of them. At least, after what I did."
"What was that, Ania, if I dare to ask?" Diego smiled teasingly at her, hoping to ease her tension. "Knowing you, no doubt it was a ninety day wonder, whatever it was."
"Oh, I can assure you it went beyond my usual reaction, Querido!" Ania stopped pacing and looked at him. "For you to understand, you need to know what was going on between my stepmother and me at the time. Leya had listened to Felipe's warning. I was not beaten again...slapped a few times, but nothing like before. She did however begin to find other ways of pressuring me. She made inquiries and found out which servant it had been who went after Felipe the night she had beaten me so badly. There were two servants who were especially attentive to me. The woman, Ana, was a personal maid to me. In a way, she reminded me of Luisa, whom I missed badly. The servant, who had taken it upon himself to go for Felipe was Ana's husband, Pablo. About a month after Felipe had gone back to school, leaving me with Leya again, Pablo disappeared. Ana was beside herself with worry. Finally, another servant came upon Pablo's body in a wooded area not far from the casa. Ana was devastated. I tried to help her, but I am not sure I did. I missed the old man, too. Not long after the body was found, Leya and I had an argument. She warned me that if I did not become more cooperative something might also happen to Ana. She led me to believe that "that sneak, Pablo" as she called him had been punished for running to Felipe about "private affairs of my household"! I was horrified, and for once, terribly frightened of her."
"She truly had Pablo killed?!" Diego gasped.
Ania shook her head, "I do not really know if she did or just used it to scare me when she heard of it. Whichever way it was, it worked. I was terrified that she would hurt Ana and that it would be my fault, as I thought Pablo's death had been."
"What were her demands?"
"Merely that I "look more favorably" on her choices for my future husband," Ania answered. "At this point, I did not see that I had a choice in the matter. It puzzled me for a while, however. She did not push me at the wide number of young men that she had before. Apparently, she had decided that she could kill two birds with one stone. If she could marry me off to Carlos de Irujo, he would remain close to the family...and to her. His family was also well connected at court and could be influential...just what Leya had been wanting all along," Ania explained.
"I am not sure just why they did not arrange for it regardless of my feelings. They could have, but I suppose they must have realized that Papá would not wish me forced into a marriage without his being consulted. Perhaps they did not think he would approve of the match unless it was something I said I wanted.” Ania shook her head, her expression darkening as if she were watching some tragic play before her eyes. “Carlos began what to outward appearances was a courtship. I tolerated him... I hated it, but I cooperated. Still I resisted setting a date for a wedding. Finally, Leya and Carlos hatched a plan. They decided that were things to, shall we say... go a bit too far with the courting one night... that I might be more willing to proceed as they had planned." Ania had walked away from Diego as she spoke. She heard him take a sharp breath as he realized what she was suggesting.
He quickly rose and came to her. Taking her shoulders in his hands, he turned her to face him. A horrified look filled his eyes as he looked down at her. "Ania, did he...he attacked you... forced... He did not touch you, did he?" Ania found that even Diego could be affected enough by something to have trouble putting what he wanted to ask into words.
Ania slowly shook her head and quickly reassured him. "No... Oh, he tried, but he forgot that I had been raised with mostly boys around me and had learned to fight almost as well as my brothers could, at least until they grew bigger than me." Ania smiled wanly. "When he grabbed me, he at first thought I would scream for help. Instead, when he put his hand over my mouth, I bit him as hard as I could. If you see his right hand without his riding glove, you will see quite a scar from that bite. I briefly got loose and ran for the hallway. Ignoring his injury, he made the mistake of coming after me. I brought him down the way my brothers had learned I could bring them down if I wished... the same way I brought down the first man who attacked me the night Zorro and I had our race." She watched Diego closely to see if he remembered. "With the carefully placed use of my knee!"
For a moment, Diego was too relieved to react to the slight triumphant humor in Ania's voice. "If he dares approach you again, I will...."
"No, Diego! Please just avoid him if at all possible!" Ania cried, alarmed again. Diego merely looked at her...waiting for her to continue. At this point he would not promise what he would or would not do.
Ania continued, "Anyway, I did get away with only a torn gown and bruises, but I was afraid that if given enough time he would try again and maybe succeed. I began looking for some way to protect myself from him more permanently. He and Leya had been careless. I had overheard him telling her of how he was managing to get money from a treasurer who thought he was following Carlos' uncle's orders. What was really happening was that Carlos had stolen a personal seal from his uncle and was forging his uncle's handwriting. The letters he wrote ordered the treasurer to pay so much each time to Carlos. While he was recovering from our encounter, I broke into his room and found the seal, some letters he was using as a guide to his uncle's handwriting, and several pages where he had been practicing the forgery."
"He resorted to forgery to get money? Why? His parents are quite rich," Diego asked.
"Apparently both he and Leya had expensive tastes," Ania answered. "What his father sent him was never enough."
"What did you do with the evidence of his crime?
"I took it to my uncle, who took it to the magistrate," Ania continued. "He tried to keep me out of it, but when the case was heard in court, the magistrate required me to testify. Leya and Carlos had no doubt who had turned him in. I was very terrified that Ana would be the one to pay. When I told her what I had done and why, she stayed with me in my room for several nights. I am not sure whether she was trying to protect me, or I was trying to protect her. After Carlos was arrested and taken away, I was sure Leya would do something, but she did not. Perhaps she was too afraid someone would connect her with the scandal at that point. I do not know, but thankfully, she did not follow through on her threats...at least not at first. It was just at that point that my father surprised us by arriving back in Madrid."
"Surely you told him about all that had happened," Diego commented.
"No, for when I returned from a ride the day he returned, I found that Ana was missing. Leya reminded me of what had happened to Pablo. This time, I was sure she had Ana. Ana would be returned to me, if I did not tell everything to Papá. I was afraid to tell Papá anything beyond what my uncle told him. I was able to convince him that I was so affected by the whole affair that if I were forced to wed anyone chosen by my stepmother I would kill either myself or the bridegroom.
Perhaps Papá felt that I was a little unbalanced by the horror of the experience...I do not know why, but he did humor me in this issue. He signed papers saying that Leya did not have the right to arrange any marriage for me...only he could do that. Anyway, shortly after Papá left to return to Florida, Leya announced that she was pregnant. Six months later she died in childbirth and I was free of her! I am sure many people were shocked by how little mourning I seemed to do. I refused to mourn even the infant. I told no one that I did not believe the baby was my father's. I just wanted to get the whole business behind me.”
“Very shortly after that, Papá sent for me... The rebellion had been put down and the Americanos who had taken advantage of the confusion were driven back to the northern border of our colony. I was finally able to go home." Ania paused for a moment as she remembered how good it felt to leave Spain behind and return home to her father's lands. "I thought it was all over then. Three years passed. My father was called to Pensacola for a meeting of government officials. Felipe had returned from Spain and was overseeing Papá's affairs in his absence. While Papá was gone, a man appeared in the pueblo declaring that he had known me in Spain and that I had done immoral things. At this time, I did not know who the man was. Felipe heard of the man's insinuations and immediately challenged him to a duel. The man was Carlos de Irujo. His father had managed to get him released from jail and he wound up in the colonies when his father encouraged him to leave Spain. I am not sure where he was during the intervening three years, just here and there, I suppose."
"De Irujo was able to beat Felipe in the duel?" Diego asked. "He really must be good with a sword to have done that. Your brother was one of the best swordsmen I have ever seen."
"No, Diego. Felipe won the duel. However, he was a man of honor, just as you are. If he could beat a man and achieve satisfaction in the matter, he did not kill. He received an admission of falsehood and an apology from Carlos, witnessed by those around them. Felipe thought the matter was settled. As he walked away, Carlos pulled a holdout pistol from his coat and shot Felipe in the back. The man has no honor, Diego! That is why I want you to promise me that you will not let him provoke you into any duel, no matter what! Carlos was charged with murder, but again his family's influence intervened. He was merely barred from returning to West Florida ever again for his deed. He did not leave as soon as he was released from our jail, however. He stayed long enough to send me a note. Diego, he has sworn vengeance on me and all my family for the disgrace that he seems to think I brought upon him. That is what he meant when he said that he might be seeing both of us again. I am sure that he will try to provoke you into a duel and will try to kill you because of me. If Papá and Juan were still alive he would try the same with them. Please do not fight him, Diego, either as yourself or as Zorro. I do not doubt that he still keeps a holdout pistol concealed somewhere. Diego, you are too honorable. You would have to remember to show him no mercy. Yet mercy is as big a part of you as is your love of justice. It might make you vulnerable!" Ania’s emerald eyes, when she looked up at him, were full of fear...fear that he now realized was as much for him, as of any danger to herself.
Gently, he drew his fingers along her cheek in a caress and raised her hand to his lips. "I will promise you that I will avoid it if I can, but I cannot allow him to hurt you in any way, Ania," Diego said quietly after a moment. "You will just have to trust me on this."
Ania looked at him. Then she slowly nodded. Diego would always do what he felt was right. She knew this. It had been one of the first things she learned about him and truthfully she could ask no less of him. She could only pray that good came of it this time. She exchanged a worried look with Bernardo who was standing by the door. They would both have to trust Diego.
"Try to get some sleep," Diego advised her. "Tomorrow we will return to Los Ángeles. Perhaps he will be going aboard a ship and will not try anything. I will try to find out what I can. While we are gone, do not open your door or window for anything."
"Be careful, Diego," Ania pleaded.
"Sí, Ania. I always am. Try not to worry," he reassured her. "Te amo, Ania," he whispered as he leaned down and kissed her. With a final reassuring smile, he and Bernardo went downstairs. Ania carefully locked the door behind them. For once, she did not feel defiantly brave. Looking over at the small shrine in the corner of the room, she pulled her rosary from her pocket and knelt, praying of protection for all of them.
Diego and Bernardo sat in the tavern for quite some time, asking questions and watching for trouble. By midnight, they had learned that de Irujo had come from a ship now anchored in the habor, but had seen no one. Perhaps he had returned there and would sail with the ship at dawn. They walked out and tried to see if de Irujo was anywhere around. As far as they could tell, he was not. Finally, returning to the inn, they grabbed a few hours sleep before rising to help Ania arrange the loading of the wagons as they returned for the rest of the cargo.
Ania seemed lighthearted again before they left. Diego had encouraged her to believe that Carlos de Irujo had probably left on his ship for other ports. Ania believed it because she truly wanted to believe it...not because she felt in her intuition that he had. Laughing and joking among themselves again, they rode homeward...the future once again bright. They would have been less happy had they known that from a window of the inn, Carlos de Irujo watched them and planned for his own journey inland.
He had just recovered the money, which he had paid for passage to San Francisco. Using part of the money, he purchased a fine horse and tack. He had plenty of money with him... That would be no problem. Besides, he told himself, there will be people willing to gamble just as much in Los Ángeles as in San Francisco and the fringe benefits are much better in Los Ángeles! He laughed as he watched the people and wagons leave. He also had been asking questions last night. He now knew just who the tall man was with Ania Valdéz and had heard that he was no swordsman. Perhaps he should learn! he laughed. That would be a very good idea, Don Diego de la Vega. Not that it will do you any good! Carlos smiled. This was starting to be a very promising stop for him... much more than he had thought when he got off the ship... Very promising, indeed! Still smiling, he turned and went out to begin his own trip to the pueblo of Los Ángeles.
Ring of Fire Introduction
Table of Contents