Tadaa! I'm good, ain't I. Next chapter, already, all for you


He got about an hour of sleep before his father woke him up rather brutally. He, together with a few other rancheros and a few vaqueros working for them would leave soon, Don Alejandro wanted to know if Diego would be coming too.

Diego, tired as he was, had half a mind in saying that he would stay, but then he changed his mind. "Sí, father, I will come too." Don Alejandro left and Diego dressed quickly. "Bernardo, has no message come to the hacienda?"

Bernardo shook his head. Diego had taken the time to explain what had happened before going to bed earlier and had told Bernardo to come and get him as soon as a message arrived from the quartel. Had señor Varela not told the commandante what Zorro had asked him to tell? It seemed unlikely. Perhaps they had not arrived yet, though that seemed unlikely as well.

As soon as he was dressed he went downstairs, followed by Bernardo. Just as he reached the patio where his father had gathered the rancheros and vaqueros someone knocked on the front door. Diego gestured for Bernardo to go open and everyone present turned to see sergeant Garcia enter.

"Ah, sergeant", Diego said, "what are you doing here?"

"I have a message from the commandante for Don Alejandro", the sergeant said with a subdued voice. Diego recognized that tone, the sergeant only ever used it when something bad had happened. It rarely meant something good.

"Tell me", Don Alejandro said with a frown.

"The commandante has already found the answer to what happened. The person responsible for the murders of the couriers and my fellow soldiers … is Zorro." Sergeant Garcia looked uncomfortable and did not seem to know where to leave his hands. It was almost as if he was afraid that he'd be scolded.

Bernardo and Diego exchanged an alarmed glance. "What?" Don Alejandro called out, his disbelief present in his voice. Several of the other rancheros and vaqueros also expressed their doubts with loud protest.

"How does the commandante know that, sergeant?" Diego asked, hoping his voice was level enough.

"Señor Varela told him that, Don Diego", the sergeant said and placed his hands behind his back, "he met Zorro on his way here. They found a sign that said beware and Zorro helped them to the other side of the spot where the soldiers were killed. They were attacked there just seconds after Zorro left."

"What happened to them? Are they alright?" Diego asked, his horror growing with every second.

The sergeant shook his head before hanging it. "No, Don Diego, the only one who survived was señor Varela, the señora and their escorts all died in the same way as the soldiers before them. Apparently the bandidos who lived there are also dead."

Diego remembered the chicken, the little animal had simply been parted, as if someone had chopped it with a butcher's knife. Had the people he had met just a couple of hours ago really been killed in that same fashion? He shuddered.

"But Zorro?" Don Alejandro said, "he would not do something like that!"

"I don't know, Don Alejandro. Señora Varela and their escorts were killed just seconds after Zorro left. And", the sergeant added, "we found the corpses of the soldiers and couriers under a tree with a large Z carved in the trunk. Zorro might just as well have told the commandante that he is responsible. I'm sorry, Don Alejandro."
The sergeant folded his hands, then put them on his stomach, before putting them behind his back again. He was highly uncomfortable and very disappointed. Even though he really wanted to capture Zorro, he still had seen him as something of a hero. This contradicted everything he had ever believed and it left him feeling very odd.

"I think this whole thing seems rather odd", one of the rancheros said, "Zorro has always saved lives, he'd never kill anyone."

The protests did not cease but sergeant Garcia did not reply to them anymore, there wasn't anything he could say. "I just came to tell you that you no longer need to find out the cause of these murders. I just hope we can stop them." With that said the gloomy sergeant left.

"I don't believe it", Don Alejandro said before sitting down on one of the chairs, "Zorro! No, it simply can't be."

"I agree", was all Diego managed to say. He had never imagined something like that to happen. He had been convinced that the danger was only on that particular spot, the chicken had been killed in a matter of seconds. He had been there, he had taken some time to put up the sign and nothing had happened to him, so why had Señora Varela and the escorts been killed past that spot? He had been with them just seconds before their death, was he really that lucky? Had he escaped death so narrowly? The questions were making him dizzy.

And he was accused …

No, not him. Zorro was. Though every person in the pueblo should know that Zorro would never do such a thing. Bernardo discretely expressed his worry for his patron, but Diego waved it of, saying it was okay. Bernardo did not believe him.

"Let's ride into town and find more information", Don Alejandro suggested and Diego latched onto the opportunity at once. It would be vital to know what the people thought of all this, if they believed the commandante then Zorro's work would become a lot harder. Perhaps they could speak to señor Varela, have him tell them his side of the story.

Minutes later they were on their way, the vaqueros returned to their haciendas while most of the rancheros went to the pueblo. Clearly everyone had already heard the news, the town was in uproar. The people who did believe that Zorro was responsible were arguing with those who thought he was falsely accused.

The tavern was no better.
- "I'm telling you, Zorro has saved too many to simply start killing now!"

- "He's been accused falsely before!"

- "The man has done insane things, perhaps he simply went mad!"

- "I always though that Zorro was a weird figure."

Bernardo looked at Diego, his alarm evident on his face. Diego simply nodded, as to say 'I know'. Don Alejandro and the other rancheros quickly mixed themselves in different conversations, trying to find out as much as possible while trying to part fact from fiction. Apparently it had been mere luck that señor Varela survived. A trunk had fallen of the carriage and their escorts had not noticed so señor had told them stop and had for convenience sake stepped out himself to go get it. He had not even been on the road when he saw all the others, his wife and the five couriers, get killed. He had been the only survivor, no horse or human had been as lucky.

When señor Varela arrived here at first no one had believed it had been him. The only reason they had allowed him into the quartel was because he was carrying the king's seal. The commandante had recognized him and had with growing horror listened to the unbelievable story señor Varela had to tell.

The commandante did not really know if he should be joyous or not. The señor blamed Zorro for it all, he had told them that they were safe and just seconds after he had disappeared they had been attacked by an invisible force. Not to mention the pile of corpses with the Z carved above them. This scandal was too good to be true.

At the other hand, if Zorro was able to kill like that, what could they do against him? They'd have to shoot him on sight and hope that he would not kill them while attempting it. The truth was the capitan Monastario himself had doubts that Zorro was responsible, it was not something the fox would do. Nonetheless, he would not hesitate to use it against the outlaw.

With a little luck, Zorro was responsible. To have to deal with something else in addition to Zorro seemed like an impossible task. That commandante sighed. At the other hand, if it wasn't Zorro the outlaw would most likely try to bring this horror to an end himself to prove his innocence before the people. Capitan Monastario did not know what to hope for, he was getting a headache.

Diego, meanwhile, was relieved to find out that even though there was a significant amount of people with doubt, most of them still believed that Zorro was innocent. There were only few who right out believed him to be guilty.

Diego stayed in the tavern for quite a long time, trying to gather as much information as he could. At last the sergeant entered. He sat down at a free table and for once the thing he had always dreamed of happened. The waitress stepped forward and put a bottle of wine on the table. "This is on us", she said.

The smile that normally would have appeared on the face of the sergeant did not show itself. He thanked her silently and did not even bother pouring it into a cup, he drank directly from the bottle. Diego frowned at seeing the mannerism of the sergeant, it wasn't really like him to treat a bottle of wine with such a lack of enthusiasm.

"Tough day, sergeant?" Diego asked and sat down opposite him. Bernardo joined them too.

"Sí, Don Diego, a very tough day. We buried the soldiers. It is truly horrible. I simply cannot believe that Zorro would do something like that." The sergeant shook his head. "It is a sad day."

Diego nodded, there was nothing which he could agree on more. "What does the commandante say?" Diego asked curiously.

"He doesn't say much", the sergeant said, "he was just as shocked as the rest of us when we arrived there. Truth is, I think even he doubts that Zorro is responsible."

Diego was taken aback by that. So this even surpassed the tyrants lust for bloodshed and suffering. Who? Who could have done something like that?

"Nonetheless, the reward on Zorro, dead or alive, will be raised again", the sergeant muttered, "three thousand pesos, I doubt there has ever been a bigger reward on someone's head. I am supposed to go replace all the old posters with these." The sergeant lifted the bag he had been holding when he walked in and revealed many posters, looking pretty much the same as the old ones, only with a different reward written.

"Should I help you, sergeant?" Diego suggested. He was not quite sure why he chose to help offer rewards for his head, he supposed it had to do with guilt.

"No, thank you, Don Diego, some of the privates will help me soon. I am waiting for them to come here, then we will go to work", the sergeant said and looked sadly at the half-filled bottle. "When one cannot even enjoy wine it is a really sad day."

Diego nodded and stood up, he kindly patted the soldier on the shoulder. "Don't worry, sergeant, everything will go back to normal soon."

"You think so, Don Diego?" sergeant Garcia asked with a hint of a smile.

"I certainly hope so. What are the other soldiers doing now?" he asked sergeant Garcia.

"They are keeping watch, searching the mountains. They found a cave with dead bandidos, there was a fire burning so they decided to wait for whoever is still alive to return."

"And you think that that is Zorro", Diego added.

"Sí … or no … I don't know Don Diego, don't ask such hard questions", the sergeant groaned and buried his face in his hands.

"Well, sergeant, do try to enjoy that bottle of wine anyway. Adios."

Diego and Bernardo left the saddened sergeant and joined with Don Alejandro again who was in deep discussion with two of the other Dons. One of them, Don Carlos, believed Zorro to be guilty, the other one and Diego's father did not.

"Ah, Diego", his father said, "what did sergeant Garcia have to say?"

Diego gave a quick recollection of the sergeant's words, leaving out all the nonfactual parts.

"Aha, that is just right!" Don Carlos said, "with such a reward on his head and having done something that horrible not even the peasants will refrain from turning him in! I hope he shows himself soon, have the soldiers shoot him like the coward he is."

Don Carlos had hardly finished his sentence before the door to the tavern was opened with needless force. Everyone fell silent and looked at the vaquero who stood there. He was panting heavily and his expression could only mean one thing; more bad news.

"The soldiers … the soldiers who were keeping watch … they have been killed!"

A collective gasp went through the tavern. "Was it Zorro?" someone shouted.

"I don't know. The survivors didn't see anyone! They said it happened all of a sudden, one moment they were moving towards their comrades to join them and in the next they were being killed in front of their eyes."

"No!" a woman gasped before fainting, a waitress caught her before she hit the ground and carried her off.

"How many survivors?" sergeant Garcia asked and stood up, taking on that determined ad serious expression he only ever wore when the danger required everyone's full attention. It was only when he wore that expression that he could not be tricked or distracted. That expression rarely appeared, but when it did, one was sure that the crisis was out of proportion.

"Three, sergeant", the vaquero said, "they are heavily in shock."

"How many soldiers were there?" Diego asked and came to stand next to the sergeant again.

"Twenty, Don Diego, seventeen spread out in a circle around the cave, three who served to take messages from and to those seventeen."

"Spread out?" Diego said alarmed, more to himself than to the sergeant.

"Sí, there was over a mile of distance between the two soldiers furthest away from each other. Zorro could not have done this", the segeant added. "No human could have done that and although Zorro is a mystery, he is most definitely a man."

"You heard that", someone said loudly, "Zorro couldn't have done it! Not that he ever would!"

A lot of the doubters were now also convinced of Zorro's innocence, among those the sergeant. "Well, Don Diego, I have to go see the commandante. I don't really think I will have need for those posters." The sergeant left the tavern, probably for the first time leaving a bottle not emptied on the table.

"You see, Don Carlos", Don Alejandro said, "Zorro did not kill those men."

"I won't believe that until the commandante confirms it", the proud ranchero said.

About an hour later some soldiers walked into the tavern, having received the news of their dead comrades they were in desperate need to leave the quartel, even if it was just for a little while. The waitress put some bottles on their table and gave them her condolences. "On the house", she added solemnly.

"Well?" Don Carlos asked, feeling no sympathy for the soldiers' situation, "what does the commandante have to say?"

"The commandante is angry because he feels that he cannot blame it on Zorro anymore. The fox might be clever, but he can't make things as these happen. We don't know who it is, but it certainly isn't Zorro." The soldier who had answered returned to his cup of wine and not one of them bothered answering any more questions.

Diego knew that he should be relieved, he stood no longer accused. He did however feel no such emotion. He was horrified, whatever could they do about something that killed like that, with no limits and seemingly without any form of emotion. And then there was that immense feeling of guilt that would not go away, the lives of seventeen soldiers was a price too high to pay to prove his innocence.

I think this story has grown out of proportion, just like the crisis. I'm going to have to spend more time on this than I have to spare. But I just really am on the black horse.