An apple for Tornado

Chapter 17


Exhausted, Diego straightened his stiff back, and headed to pick up his sword a few feet away. Feeling his legs wobbling as adrenaline slowly abandoned his body, he sat down on the ground, and held the blade in front of his eyes, staring perplexed at the thinly chiseled guard.

By all Saints! How could this sword have ended here in my hands? he wondered as Anna-Maria kneeled next to him, and asked him if he was all right, a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

The young don frowned, uncertain.

"The last time I had this sword in hand, I was six years old," he finally said, a smirk appearing on his lips, "Never saw my father angrier at me than that day. Somehow, he did not appreciate that I used it against an imaginary fox in the henhouse. The poor chickens were running everywhere in panic, trying not to be sliced by a blade that did not care about collateral damages."

Diego stopped, shaking his head, briefly cheered by the memory. But his smile vanished, and his eyes darkened.

"Monastario said it was hung around Tornado's neck?"

"Tornado? Oh, sí. It was. With the bag."

Diego sighed deeply as he tried to make some sense out of this information.

Bernardo had hung the bag with the fox's clothes around the stallion's neck. But not this sword. No. Only his father could have... that meant he knew he was Zorro. But since when? Diego shuddered. His loyal friend must have been so confused and afraid when he had stormed out of the sala. Had he rushed into his father shortly after, and inadvertently let slip his identity in the turmoil of the moment? Or did his father catch him red-handed while he disappeared through the secret passage?

The young don suddenly straightened, and shifted uneasily with a wince of pain when a realization struck him.

"What is it, Diego?"

"Remember the day of the amnesty?"

"How could I forget it?" she replied, sounding slightly insulted.

Diego bit his lips, understanding her vivid reaction that showed how painful the wound still was. Painful, sí, it still was for him too.

The unpleasant knot that had accompanied him in the following days of this dark second, where all his hopes for a normal life had been swept away, clenched his guts again.

To add to the burden, his father, eager to leave for Los Angeles just after his return from the lancers hunting party, had not left him any possibility to say a proper farewell to Anna-Maria. They had dropped at the Verdugo's hacienda on their way out of town, but only the domestics were present by then. Saying that it was maybe better that way, the old don had insisted on leaving without waiting for her return.

The young don clenched his teeth. On the moment, he had not given any thoughts on his father's words, too preoccupied to control a growing sorrow. And indeed, it might have been better to leave without talking to Anna-Maria a last time, sparing his heart. Though it had not helped him in the following months to shift away the sharp grasp of melancholy on his soul.

Often at night, he saw her singing at her balcony, cutting flowers. Their sweet fragrance would rise in his mind, and soothe his tormented sleep.

"You were radiant, Anna-Maria, under the morning sun, a rose in the middle of jasmine... After witnessing such happiness, I truly intended to accept the governor's offer of amnesty."

"Why then did you change your mind?" the young señorita asked, distress sounding in her voice and showing on her face.

Diego winced, and took a deep breath to control his emotions as he dived back into this tormented memory.

"When I returned to my hiding place to change, I was assaulted and knocked down. Upon regaining consciousness, my hands and feet were tied. A man, dressed like Zorro save for his face, completely concealed behind a black hood, handed me a note saying that the people of California counted on me, asking me not to give up on them. Just after the Angelus, he freed Bernardo and left."

Diego paused to swallow a painful lump in his throat. When he spoke again, it was more to himself.

"He must have masqueraded his hand writing, or I was too much in turmoil at that moment to notice..."

"He? Who he?"

"My father."

An awkward silence fell. Not certain of his feelings upon this unexpected deduction, Diego lowered his gaze on the ground.

"So you were going to accept it, had you not been stopped by... by your own father?"

The young don turned a sad glance toward her, and, biting his lips, he nodded yes. It made sense. The previous day in the tavern, the old don had told him that Ricardo was right. That Zorro would not accept the offer. Too many people counted on him. He could not give up on them for selfish reasons. These words had hurt, like only the truth could.

"I'm sorry, Anna-Maria, I know these words are too weak for such pain, but-"

The young señorita raised her hand on his lips to silence him.

"It is me who is sorry, Diego..." she whispered, tears pearling in her eyes, "Never once did I think about the oppressed peones who needed you. I was a selfish little girl to ask you to give up everything for me. Every night since that day, I would stand on my balcony, hoping to catch a glimpse of your shadow in the hills. Some nights, I would wake up from an agitated sleep, certain that the wind carried the neigh of your horse. Then, I would collapse at my window, my heart burning for your unexpected visit... and now, I'm shaking at the only thought that this is but a dream, and that my true ordeal is not finished."

Diego took a deep breath, and held her tight against him.

"Your ordeal is finished, Anna-Maria," he said, stroking her hair and face, kissing her. Tears dropped on his fingers. Delicately, he swept them away from her dark eyes, repeating his words to soothe his own heart as he held her tighter his body, "If your heart still desires my soul, I swear not to ever let you away from me."

How long did they stay, silently hugging each other, the young could not say. But when the intense burning in his belly threatened to cause him to lose control of his honor, he forced his arms to open, and broke their embrace. As he did so, he caught sight of the ominous clouds massing in the sky.

"We'd better not linger at the bottom of the canyon any longer," he said, retreating until his feet touched the water in order to get as good a view as possible on el Serpiente's sinuous path.

To his dismay, he realized that they could not hope to use this way of exit.

As he turned his glance to the cliff on the other side of the river, the young don suddenly gasped, and turned back his eyes on el Serpiente, fear seizing his heart.

Why had his father and Bernardo let Tornado go down alone? Was one of them injured? The memory of his return to the hacienda after his fall was still a bit fuzzy in his mind. However, he recalled that Bernardo was with him when Monastario's brother and accomplice had burst through the sala's door. But who had they met on their path? In his disorientation and ire, he could have easily missed a...

Diego closed his eyes out of dread and swallowed a lump.

Father...

As his glance fell on the ancestral sword again, his heart started to pound faster in his chest.

Keeping his fear silent, he walked toward his caballero's clothes, untying his cape and rolling it.

"Pardon me, Diego," Anna-Maria said, stopping his hand from unbuttoning his shirt, "but I think it would be wiser not to cause people to wonder why Zorro did not come to our rescue."

The young don frowned upon seeing the grave expression on her face. As he grasped the extent of her remark, he turned pale, and his hands clenched on his caballero's clothes. She was right. With a rescue party probably roaming the hills to their search, Diego could not be seen near Zorro's stallion without the outlaw being there too, let alone riding the black horse. And as he could no more split in two than leave Tornado here, he had no choice but to stay in the fox's skin for now.

Will I be forced to play all my life? he wondered, taking a deep breath to control his ire as he put Diego's clothes in the bag.

Feeling Anna-Maria's reassuring hand on his back, he adjusted his hat on his head, and whistled for Tornado.

"Come, mi amigo," he said to the valiant steed who straight away closed on him at a small trot, "We're going back home."

After helping Anna-Maria to mount the bandido's horse, he jumped on his stallion bare back, and silent, he guided them along the river. A mile further, the sandy bank on which they rode narrowed without giving them any access to el Serpiente.

Coming to a halt, Diego cast a glance at the cliff on the other side of the river. Though the bank was larger there, and seemed to continue along the waters as far he could see, they could not hope climbing to the top easily. A shudder ran down his spine. Getting Tornado out of this trap was going to be more difficult than he had imagined. Worried, Diego made them cross the stream to ride on the opposite side, relying on the thin hope that the cliff would lower or become less steep at some point to allow them to escape this trap.

After riding two miles or so on the river's right side, the waters began to rage, and the loud sound of rapids growling reverberated. The bank narrowed and became more uneven, climbing up and down, until the canyon spread opened at their feet in a breath-taking view.

Diego closed his eyes and took a deep breath, though it was not to control a fit of vertigo.

Tornado must have felt his trouble, for he nervously kicked the ground, and moved around.

The young don stroked his steed neck to reassure him. Swallowing a lump, he dismounted and walked to the edge. As he looked down, his jaw slightly relaxed. Though it seemed to dive directly into the canyon's depths, there was in fact a suite of more or less large steps on which the foaming waters cascaded down till the bottom of the canyon, three hundred feet beneath them.

The first landing, merely two feet below them, moved away and turned around the cliff they were following.

"Stay here, Anna-Maria, I'm going to check this path," he said, jumping down on the ground.

Twenty minutes later, Diego came back, relieved to have found a way out, even if it was not going to be easy. After a curve, it narrowed to a barely three-foot wide trail. Just enough for a horse to ride.

Tense, he joined Anna-Maria on the edge of the cascade. "Are you okay?" he asked, worried by her frozen glance.

Jerked out of her thoughts, she turned her eyes toward him and nodded.

Though he could read fear in her eyes, he chose not to press the matter. Sometimes, it was best not to ponder too long in front of a difficult moment, merely clenching one's teeth, and endure, one step at a time.

"We'll walk from here," he said, moving back toward his stallion, "Take the front with Tornado. He's well used to riding close to precipices, and will move on without difficulty."

A few seconds later, he stopped his steed just behind Anna-Maria, saying, "Follow the señorita, mi amigo."

As he jumped back on the platform, the young don paused a second to check on the duo. Satisfied to see Tornado calm, he then moved toward the other horse. Not knowing him, he was worried about how he would react. The slightest panic could be fatal on such a narrow path.

Carefully, they made a slow progress on the trail until they arrived at the bottom of a rocky formation, where centuries of rain and wind had shaped hoodoos. In the deep, winding cracks between the dark, giant figures, Diego made them climb.

Somewhere in the middle of their way to the top of the canyon, thunder roared, echoing longly in the canyon.

The young don raised a worried eye toward the sky. After so many weeks of drought, the clouds would unleash a hard rain. Fearing the muddy torrent their path could become, he pressed Anna-Maria to climb faster. But in a particular tight vein between two long hoodoos, Tornado slid, causing her to fall between his legs. Alarmed, Diego ordered his stallion to stay still. Letting go of the other horse, he climbed above the large rock to move up front, and after extracting her from her predicament, he then helped Anna-Maria to reach the next platform.

Exhausted, she let herself collapse against a rock, and buried her head in her shaking limbs.

Worried to see her strength running low, Diego looked up. The top of the cliff was still a hundred feet overhead.

"We're almost there, Anna-Maria. Take a small rest here. I'm going to bring the horses further up, and I'll come back to help you."

Ignoring his own pains and tiredness, he clenched his teeth, and slid back toward Tornado.

About fifteen minutes later, his stallion was safely on the top, and he was now tugging on the other horse's bridle when a blinding and deafening lightning bolt streaked the canyon. Under his feet, the rocky ground vibrated as if an earthquake had just hit, causing the horse to panic.

As he tried to calm him, Diego suddenly saw in the distance an opaque curtain of rain heading at a fast rate toward them. At once, he let go of the horse, and slid down toward Anna-Maria's position.

"Come!" he said, hauling her up on her feet.

If he was correctly oriented - and he was - they were on the other side of the deep gorge that he now understood was the long fault he had often seen from the highest hills. The closest place to jump was at the Devil's Hoof, a strange, suspended islet in the middle of the void. A difficult jump in ordinary times; an impossible one if the storm was upon them.

Heart beating wildly in his chest, he ignored the burning pain of his wounded arm, and dragged Anna-Maria to the top of the cliff. Without wasting a second by glancing above his shoulder, he lifted her on Tornado's back.

"Cling on the mane as tight as you can!" he warned, mounting behind her and tightening his elbows around her body.

Deciding to beat the tempest to the Devil's Hoof, visible in the distance less than half a mile away, he kicked his steed's sides to prompt him in gallop. "Ya!"

Behind them, the rain struck the cliff with a deafening sound. The wrath of hell closing on their tail like a moving blade, he made Tornado jump the fault a second before a thick veil swallowed the arid landscape around them.

Unbalanced on the steed's bare back, Diego clenched his teeth and contracted all his muscles to keep him and Anna-Maria mounted. But scared by the blinding downpour, the stallion got carried away by his momentum at the reception of his last jump, and started to gallop at a very high speed.

Certain that they were all about to fall, Anna-Maria, him and Tornado along, Diego suddenly pulled on the mane. His stallion slowed down abruptly and rose on his rear legs. Expecting this panicked reaction, the young don jumped from his back, dragging Anna-Maria with him roughly to the ground. Scared that Tornado would kick and break off in gallop again, he stood up straight away, and moved at his side to calm him.

Heart beating wildly in his chest, Diego talked to the stallion, grabbing his nose so he could smell his odor, stroking his neck, until he finally stopped neighing and kicking.

Relieved, the young don briefly leaned his forehead against Tornado's nose, and took a moment to calm his own breath. As he readjusted his hat on his head, he saw Anna-Maria sitting on the submerged ground, huddled up under the fierce rain.

"Are you all right?" he asked, feeling her body shaking from head to toe as he hugged her.

But either the storm that lit up the sky every ten seconds covered her words, or she did not answer; he could not tell.

Worried that she had reached a breaking point, he delicately hauled her in his arms, and helped her to mount back on Tornado. Staying on the ground, he then glanced anxiously at the wild landscape to orient himself. When he was pretty certain in which direction to head, he grasped Tornado's mane, and made him move with caution, clenching his teeth to endure the twenty-five miles to his father's lands.

At some point, the wind weakened, and the rain became thinner. As visibility cleared enough to ride safely at a small trot, he mounted back on Tornado with relief. Shortly after, Anna-Maria's head began to swing with the horse's cadence. Realizing that she had succumbed to exhaustion in his lap, he adjusted her head in the hollow of his shoulder, and eased down his stallion's pace.

He had completely lost track of time when Tornado suddenly came to a halt and slightly raised on his rear.

Feeling a spike of adrenaline waking his senses up, Diego jerked his head straight, and frowned upon seeing three silhouettes at a very short distance. Alarmed to see another one appearing in the veil of rain, he drew his sword, and sighed of relief almost in the same breath. The last apparition was of a very distinguishable shape.

"Señores!" he cried to halt them, putting back his blade in his case.

Upon recognizing the three other men, Diego had to bite his lips not let out a cry of joy, for the shadow of a terrible sorrow disappeared at once.

"Señor Zorro?" his father asked, moving back on his path toward him.

"Sí, Señor de la Vega," Diego replied as he set foot on the ground, careful to catch Anna-Maria's sleeping body in his arms. "She is unhurt, but went through difficult times these last days. Take great care of her, por favor, Señor," he added, clenching his teeth to bear the pain in his arm and stiff limbs as he lifted her on his father's horse.

"And Don Diego, Señor Zorro," suddenly inquired Sergeant Garcia as he mounted back on Tornado, "I don't see him anywhere. Is he not with you?"

"He had to stop while we climbed to the top of the canyon. He insisted that I take Señorita Verdugo to safety first. I'm going back to help him now."

"If he is hurt, then you will certainly need help," Garcia affirmed, his eyes staring far away with worry, "I am coming with you."

"It is all at your honor, Sergeant, and I am certain Don Diego will appreciate your concern. However, he does not require a lot of help, merely a horse to jump the Devil's Hoof."

"The Devil's Hoof?" Garcia repeated, eyes wide with dread and raindrops falling from the edge of his hat.

Zorro nodded, mischief gleaming in his hazel eyes.

"Sergeant," Don Alejandro intervened, "We must take Señorita Verdugo under shelter quickly. I trust Señor Zorro to bring my son back home, safe and sound. We shall not delay him any longer. Señor? My hacienda is not far away, about fifteen miles north-east from this position. When you come back, keep this series of hills to your left until you see the mission bell tower, then fork east completely. A fifteen minute ride will take you to my front gate."

"Gracias for the indications, Señor de la Vega," Zorro replied, raising a perplexed eyebrow. Why did his father feel the need to be so precise about the hacienda's location?

Ah! The amnesia... right.

By all Saints! His mind obviously was still fuzzy. Though he guessed it would be expected, at least for the next few days.

Garcia must have told his father that he was rather confused after his riding accident. Diego sighed, feeling suddenly sheepish. Next time he will have to justify a wound on his head, he will pretend an apple had fallen on his head while he was sleeping below an apple tree. That or a shelf filled with books.

The young don frowned, struck by a curious realization. He did not have to justify himself anymore! At least, not in front of his father. A crooked smile appeared on his face.

"Don't worry, Señor," he said, wishing to reassure his father about his mental health, "I won't lose myself. Our good sergeant here made me ride through your lands many times by the past."

Then, he saluted with his usual wave of the arm, and broke off in a gallop back toward the canyon. Though he did not intend to retrace his steps, merely did he wish to give the impression. When he was far away enough not to be visible anymore – less than a mile thanks to the veil of rain that struck the arid plain – he made Tornado slowly navigate a long ellipse curve in order to join the other extremity of his father's lands.

A lonely figure under the fierce elements, he headed toward the safety of his den, slowly becoming impervious to the rain that saturated his clothes and chilled his flesh to the bone.

When the Fox finally dragged Tornado through the branches, he was walking half-asleep. Pure automatisms guiding his moves, he led his stallion toward his enclosure, removed his gloves, his mask and untied his cape that slid on the ground with a soaked rustling. Then, unable to stay on his feet much longer, he leaned a hand on the granitic wall, and slowly sat down on the ground. Oblivious to the quick steps rushing to his side, he let himself drift toward a much needed sleep.


The light song of a bird carried by a soft breeze slowly yanked back Diego to the world.

Feeling rested, he opened his eyes, and stared absently at the decor of his bedroom, pleasantly bathed in half-shadows.

Slightly disoriented, he rose on his elbows, and saw Bernardo asleep on the chair next to the fireplace. As he leaned back on his pillow, he noticed a bowl on his night table, and craned his neck. There was a thin layer of broth at the bottom. Diego raised a perplexed eyebrow. He did not recall drinking any of the soup. Had he been so sick not to remember? He found it quite difficult to believe for he felt perfectly fine.

Eager to breathe some fresh air, the young don pulled the sheets away, and stood up, casting a quick look on his clock. As it was barely five in the morning, he took his blue dressing-gown on the hook next to his bed, and careful not wake up his friend, he walked toward the door on his tip toes.

But as he passed by the mirror above the dressing table, he frowned and briefly stopped to stare at his reflection. Perplexed, he passed a hand on his unshaven face before leaning on the marble top. A sudden pain in his left arm made him wince. Frowning, he rolled the sleeve above his elbow, and noticed a wide and clean bandage around his biceps. A slight dizziness seized the young don as he suddenly remembered most of his last days.

Was Anna-Maria all right? Since how long was he back?

Worried, he glanced at Bernardo, considering to wake his faithful friend up to have his blanks filled. But upon seeing the dark circles on his face, the young don changed his mind, and without a sound, he stepped out on the mezzanine.

The fresh breeze felt good on his face. Appreciating the quietness, he briefly leaned on the guardrail, and stared at the partially flooded patio. Soon, his glance lost itself on the arid hills surrounding his father's hacienda. The sky was clear of clouds; the storm had raged over, and gone. He was home.

Appeased by the thought and eager to check on Anna-Maria, he silently climbed down the stairs, and strode across the patio. A minute later, he discreetly opened the door of the guest room next to his father's study and cast a quick glimpse in. A faint smile appeared on his lips upon seeing the young señorita sound asleep. Relieved, he closed the door and headed back toward the sala.

Not feeling like sitting, the young don grasped an apple on the table, and opened the sideboard's door to disappear through the secret passageway, deciding to check on another friend.

When he stepped into the humid cavern, a smile appeared on his face. Putting down the lantern on the ground, he walked toward Tornado's enclosure.

Feeling his presence, the stallion turned his head toward him.

"Hola, mi amigo," Diego said, as he leaned on the wooden post.

The steed neighed softly before stretching his neck and seizing the half-eaten apple on his hand. The young don chuckled at the sight of his breakfast escaping him, and patted the stallion's side.

"Come, Tornado," he said, grasping the mane, "You must be eager to stretch your legs after the last rainy days."

In the shady clearing, Diego sat down on a rock, and watched quietly his stallion moving around. Slowly, the sun rose above the line of trees in front of him. Appreciating its heat on his face, he slowly slumped more comfortably on the ground, and without noticing it, dozed off.

A soft neigh and moist nostrils on his face woke him up some time later.

"Tornado..." he growled with a wince, pushing his horse away with a hand.

A chuckle sounded next to him.

Startled, Diego opened his eyes and straightened.

"Father?" he asked, troubled to see the old don sitting on the rock next to him.

"Sorry, my son, I did not wish to wake you up, but your stallion did not seem to agree."

Gently, Diego pushed Tornado who was coming back, and slowly stood up.

"How do you feel, Diego?"

"Better," he replied, sitting down on the rock next to his father.

"Bueno. You had us quite worried this last week."

"Week?" Diego gasped, aghast that so much time had elapsed since he had set off in pursuit of the bandidos. To him, it was merely three, maybe four days ago. Had he been out for as long?

As if guessing his thoughts, his father nodded gravely, before pushing on his knees to stand up.

"Let's go walking in the hills. My old bones always appreciated the quietness of our lands in the morrow."

After ordering Tornado to stay in the clearing, Diego joined his father as he disappeared behind a curtain of trees. Silently, they wandered side by side for a moment.

"I wish to apologize, Diego," the old don said, stopping below a large willow tree.

"Apologize? If one should apologize, Father, it is me. For keeping you out of my life."

"Though I must admit that I often longed for you to share your secret, it does not weaken my offense, Diego. I wanted to apologize for keeping you from accepting the governor's offer of amnesty. Though I am still convinced that you would have regretted it, my heart bled to forbid you the joys of getting married."

"My head hurt in consequence," Diego replied, bitter, before taking a deep breath.

"I understand your anger toward me, Diego, it is justified."

"I'm not angry, Father. Just troubled. How long did you know I was Zorro?"

"About two years now."

The young don's eyes widened again out of surprise. Two years? That was almost... he frowned, trying to remember what had happened so long ago.

"When I defeated the Eagle's plot to take control of the pueblo?"

"A bit before actually. Different incidents piled up together, making me more and more suspicious. You remember the day Monastario accused you in front of the viceroy of being the outlaw?"

"Difficult to forget," Diego replied automatically, before frowning at this answer. Well, not so difficult to forget in fact...

"I had a private conversation with the viceroy the following day," his father continued, unaware of his trouble, "From one father to another, he told me that you needed help to overcome a rather painful experience with the blade, saying it would be a shame to let the winner of the Royal Fencing Cup give up his skills because of a nasty duel."

Diego felt a shudder running down his spine. He never truly thought he had succeeded in convincing Marcos' father that he was not Zorro.

"Then," Don Alejandro continued, "he immediately changed the subject to talk about Zorro, telling me that unofficially, he approved of his actions, though he was deeply annoyed that if the outlaw were to be caught, even he would not be in a position to avoid him the gallows, and that this thought saddened him greatly for he admired the man, whoever he was... Is this the clump of trees where we hid from Monastario and the lancers?" the old don suddenly asked, looking all around him.

"What? Oh, sí, Father, it is," Diego replied absently as he was preoccupied to add the viceroy on his list of people who had unmasked him.

"Er... Father?"

"Sí, Diego?"

"I wondered, when I met you under the rain, I recognized Don Nacho at your side. Does he know about..."

"About you being..."

Diego nodded.

"I am afraid your stallion gave you away when he walked toward Bernardo. But do not fear, my son, for Don Nacho is a man of honor, and was deeply moved to come to your rescue. He will take your secret with him in his grave."

The young don winced. Though he knew his father was right, it was nonetheless disturbing.

"At least, according to his reaction upon seeing Zorro, the sergeant does not know who I am, does he?" he then asked, searching to confirm this point.

"The sergeant still ignores this important detail. However..."

"However?"

"You had a bit of a fever the night of your return. That nasty wound on your arm was infecting. Not taking any chance, I sent Bernardo fetching Fray Felipe."

Diego closed his eyes, guessing the rest of his father's thought.

"Fray Felipe stitched Zorro's arm two months ago. I guess he recognized his work?"

"Indeed."

The young don shook his head, and let out a very long sigh.

"At this rate, I would better avoid hurting my head again, or else the whole pueblo will soon be aware of who is hiding below el Zorro's mask," he muttered, deeply annoyed.

"And the whole pueblo will keep silent," his father replied with a chuckle, patting his shoulder, "Let's go back now, my son. Talking of Fray Felipe, he did warn me that you would tire quickly for a few days and that you needed to rest."

Relieved of the burden of his guilt toward his father, Diego nodded, and in a comfy silence, he walked back toward his den.

"How is Anna-Maria, Father?"

"It is about time you ask after her, Diego," the old don said, stopping just in front of the long branches that hid the cavern entrance.

Diego tilted his head to his side, casting an impatient look.

"She is fine. Just deeply worried about you, like all of us," the old don then said, before frowning, "Her account of what happened in the canyon was dreadful. My hands shake at the mere thought of what you had to live through. Your amnesia; this evil, vengeful dog reappearing; the Indians covered from head to toe by red mud... though she did say that one of them actually saved you from being killed by Monastario?"

"Tokala," Diego nodded, seeing again his friend saluting him on the edge of the gorge.

"Who?"

"You remember the young Indian I played with at the mission?"

"Of course, Diego, you were so difficult to handle after his unfortunate accident."

"There was no accident, Father. Tokala never died down there," he said, staring anxiously at his father as he let drop these words.

Troubled, the old don moved back into the clearing and sat down on a rock.

Not quite proud of himself, Diego began to pace around. Then, he revealed another secret, a very old one.

"Tokala knew a tale about a hidden valley where earth was as red as blood. We went down the canyon, hoping to discover why the river behind the mission had suddenly become red. Unfortunately, we got more than we bargained for. We had just discovered a huge sinkhole in which a red river disappeared then we stumbled upon soldiers. Afraid of being reprimanded, we tried to hide from them-"

"Diego, how could you think you would escape a lecture," his father reacted, aghast, "You had probably not reached the bottom of the canyon that we were already searching for you everywhere."

"I guess time does not flow at the same pace when you are eight years old," Diego winced.

The old don let out a sigh, and waved him to continue.

"As we moved away, Indians suddenly sprung from nowhere and fell on the soldiers. We tried to run away, but well... eight-year-old long legs don't run fast enough."

Diego stopped upon seeing his father turning pale.

"Don't go imagining the worst. They did not try to kill us," he quickly added to relieve the old don's heart, "I guess that the soldiers reacted badly to being surrounded and opened fire, forcing the Indians to shoot back. That's all."

"That's all? Why did Tokala not come back with you, then?"

"Because they did not want to let us go out of the valley either, for they feared that we would reveal their existence."

The old don's eyes widened, and Diego could see his blood boiling in his pupils.

"By all Saints, this has no sense! If you had not come back, we would have sent battalions of soldiers down there. I would have moved heaven and earth, having no rest until I find you!" Don Alejandro claimed, obviously deeply shaken by the mere thought of losing his son.

"I know, Father, I told them just that. Measuring the real extent of my threat, Tokala had then persuaded the Indians to at least let me go. In turn, I tried to convince them to let him go too, but to no avail. Tokala then made me promise not to reveal anything," Diego said, briefly looking for Tornado.

Reassured to see him eating grass half hidden behind a rock, he then lowered his gaze on the ground, and saw himself climbing the cliff above the arch again.

To ensure that he would not be tempted to come back with reinforcements, the natives had filled the sinkhole with rocks. The next instant, the river had flooded back in its original bed, closing completely the access to the hidden valley. Until a new sinkhole would form.

His father's hand clenched on his shoulder, jerking him back to the present.

"Come, my son," the old don said, standing up slowly, "I can see all these emotions have tired you."

Grateful for his father not to voice any reproach, Diego nodded.

"You know, I'm not getting any younger," the old don said, spreading the branches away, "And by a fortunate coincidence, it happens that Don Gregorio also thinks of himself in such a way-"

"Father..." Diego muttered, rolling his eyes as he guessed what was now crossing the old don's mind.

"What? You made us worry about you two, now would be the time for Anna-Maria and you to worry about us in return!"

Shaking his head and smiling, Diego patted his father's shoulder. "You never give up, do you?"

"Never!" the old don replied, proudly holding his head high.

The End


AN: Ahh... Now that I wrote these last two, fateful words, I wish to thank you all for your reviews. It helped me a great deal. I hope you had as much joy to read this story than I had to write it :-)

IcyWaters, how will I ever be able to redeem myself? There is no word big enough to tell you how I enjoyed your presence at my sides while I dived into Zorro's world! And you know it already, your passion is very contagious. I fear I'll never be able to stand down writing adventures for this so strong and fun character now ;-)

I read in one of my favorites novel a line I want to share here. A woman is talking to the author that she loves reading the books, and says something like:

"Your words were the best medicine I could ever get to cheer up my mind after difficult days. Your novels should be prescribed in place of drugs; they would save people."

Like this fictional author, Guy Williams' energy and talent still make us live the magic of Zorro, 55 years later. He gave McCulley's hero blood, flesh, and a very addictive mieschievousness that will never be equaled ;-) May his legend live long, and continue to make generations of kids burst in laughing, and wake up the kid in each of us too :-)