"EARTHQUAKE"

CHAPTER ONE

     The night after Teresa and her cohorts had been escorted back to San Diego, the cattle rustlers struck again.  This time, however, they had stolen fifty animals from the de la Vega herd.

    Predictably, Don Alejandro was furious.  "They have taken nearly two hundred head of cattle altogether, Diego," he said, storming into the dining room that morning.  "Where could they be hiding that much beef on the hoof without anyone noticing?"

     Diego, having no answer, just shrugged his broad shoulders as his father continued his tirade.

     "I have questioned several of the local cattle buyers," the elder de la Vega stated.  "None of them have been approached so far."

     He looked over at Diego and Felipe who were calmly eating their breakfasts.  "Well, come on," he said.  "We have thieves to hunt down."

     "Yes, Father," Diego replied, knowing there was no way to get out of it.  Then using the table to conceal his hand, he made the ‘Z' sign to Felipe, who nodded.

     They rode off with Don Alejandro to join the posse of local men which now formed after every theft.  Diego managed for Felipe and himself to ride in a separate group from his father again.  It made it easier to conveniently ‘get lost', Diego had commented to Felipe.  And so it did.  Within an hour, the pair had broken away from the others in their posse and headed back to the hacienda.

     A short while later, Zorro was examining the fence on the de la Vega property near where the cattle had been stolen.  It showed no signs of tampering.  How odd, thought Zorro.  His father was right about one thing.  Where could one hide two hundred animals undetected?  There would be the question of space, besides the need for food and water for so many.

      Zorro knelt on the ground near the fence, observing it closely.  If he strained his eyes, he could just make out the impression of a hoof print.  A horse's hoof print, he surmised expertly.  He glanced at the dirt to the left and right of the print.  It was very smooth.  Unnaturally so, he thought.  It looked as if something had been deliberately dragged across the dirt to make it appear undisturbed.

    "So that is how they do it," the masked man said aloud.  "They blanket the tracks."

    He stepped carefully over the terrain leading away from the fence.  Every now and again, he could see faint marks and prints left by the thieves.  Zorro turned back to where Toronado stood waiting patiently.

    "Come on, old boy," he said to the horse.  "We have some banditos to round up."

     The Andalusian snorted and bobbed its head, as if to say ‘let's go get them'.  Zorro swung up onto the animal's back and they set off to pursue the almost invisible trail their quarry had left behind them.

    Soon Zorro was standing at the top of a small hill.  Down below him, in a box canyon in the middle of nowhere, were the stolen cattle.

     So that is how one conceals that many animals, he mused.  The surrounding countryside was extremely rough, so the posse probably had just skirted around the perimeter of the canyon.  Which would explain why it had been overlooked.

    Several large logs had been placed in front of the narrow canyon entrance, Zorro noted.  He had also marked the fact that there were three rustlers, who were sound asleep on their dirty bedrolls.

     All worn out from their hard night's work, the masked man thought sarcastically.  He had secreted himself behind some large rocks which he used as cover while he surveyed the scene beneath him.  Stampeding the cattle was one option he had already ruled out.  The possibility someone could get hurt or killed was too great.  Zorro rubbed his chin, deep in thought.  The sleeping men would be easy prey, but it only took one of them to make the others aware of his presence.  A sudden inspiration caused a mischievous grin to slowly spread on the unmasked portion of his face.

     The leader of the banditos rolled over in his sleep.  He waved his hands around, still dreaming, as a small calf started licking his face.  He accidentally hit the calf with one of his flailing hands, causing the baby to bawl loudly in his ear.

     "What?  How?"  The man jumped to his feet, shaking off the last vestiges of sleep.  He glanced around the canyon.  There were about ten calves wandering loose.  He kicked at the feet of his two compadres.

     "Get up, amigos," he summoned them awake.  They both sat up and rubbed their eyes.  They blinked in amazement when they saw  the escaped calves.

      "What is going on here?  How did they get loose?"

     The leader just shook his head.  "Come on.  Help me get them back with the others."

      All three men soon were scrambling over the rocky landscape trying to herd the small animals.  The calves, however, had other ideas.  They led the rustlers on a merry chase all over the arroyo.  Zorro, watching from his hiding place, had to suppress several chuckles.

     Finally one of the calves wandered in his direction followed by one of the men.  Zorro stood up and punched him in the nose before the bandit even saw him.  Zorro tied up the unconscious man, then moved to another viewpoint.

    The second thief was soon dispatched in a similar manner.  That left just the leader of the bandits to apprehend.  He had been more successful in rounding up several of the bawling calves and was leading them back to their mothers in the canyon.  He never reached it though as Zorro jumped down in front of him.

    The leader recognized him immediately.  "Zorro," he muttered, unsure of what to do next.  He made up his mind quickly when Zorro pointed his saber directly at him.

     He unsheathed his own sword.  The two men sized each other up, Zorro with a roguish smile, which infuriated the cattle rustler.  He made a lunge at Zorro, aiming straight at his heart.

     The thrust was not parried until the last moment and with such force it spun the bandito completely around.  He had to steady himself so he would not fall on his rear end.  Zorro chuckled, making his opponent even angrier.  He lunged again wildly, not taking the time to aim.  Again his sword was deflected at the last second.  This happened two more times.  The thief was tired and finally just held his weapon up in the en garde position.

     Zorro circled his sword closely around the rustler's, easily knocking it from his grasp.  It went flying in to some thorny bushes nearby.

     "Zorro, por favor," the rustler pleaded, falling to his knees in defeat.  "Do not kill me."

     "I have no intention of killing you," Zorro replied with a smile.

     The outlaw, thinking Zorro was going to let him go, started to get up.  But Zorro smashed his fist into the man's homely face, rendering him unconscious.

     Zorro glanced over at Toronado, who was busy rounding up the remaining strays.  Zorro put them back into the makeshift corral with their mothers.  Toronado whinnied as Zorro patted his big black neck.

     "Time to pick up the trash, boy," he said, looking at the stunned banditos lying on the ground.
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     It happened that it was market day that day in the pueblo.  The local farmers were having a good harvest that year.  There were plenty of tomatoes, beans, oranges and grapes along with other fruits and vegetables.  People were coming from all over to shop and also to gossip.

     Victoria was among the shoppers, selecting fresh produce for her tavern.  She spread her business around to all the farmers, buying something from each of them.  That was one reason why she was their favorite.  That and her beautiful smile.  It was very much in evidence as she was busy picking out some tomatoes at one of the stalls.

     All of sudden, there was a loud cheer from the people at one end of the pueblo.  The alcalde, Ignacio de Soto, who had been making his way across the plaza, stopped in his tracks about halfway.  He craned his neck, trying to see what was going on.

     Zorro was riding Toronado and was leading three other horses into the pueblo.  Lashed across the saddles of the horses were three men lying face down.  All of them had 'Z's' slashed into the rear ends of their trousers.  Zorro was leading them over toward the garrison.

     The townspeople were pointing and laughing at the banditos, murmuring among themselves speculatively.  The Alcalde pushed his way through them angrily, striding over to the cuartel gate to intercept Zorro and his captives.

     "Zorro, what is going on here?" he demanded of the handsome outlaw.  "Who are these men?"

     "Buenos dias to you too, Alcalde," said Zorro sarcastically.  He turned in his saddle, sweeping a hand over the bound men.  "These are the rustlers who have been stealing cattle from the local ranchers."

     "Do you have proof of that fact?" the Alcalde challenged.  "How do I know you yourself are not the thief?  You could be framing these innocent men to cover up your own misdeeds for all I know."

     "Because, Alcalde, you would not know the truth if it hit you between the eyes," Zorro answered caustically.  "There is more than enough evidence against these men in a canyon about four miles north of here."

     "All right, all right," de Soto gave in reluctantly.  "I believe you.  Lancer." He motioned to one of the several soldiers that were standing near him.  "Put these men in the cuartel."

     The appointed soldier quickly obeyed his orders, going over to untie the men from their horses.  While the attention was diverted in his direction, the Alcalde made an almost imperceptive signal to the remaining lancers.

     Zorro, who was still seated on Toronado's broad back, was suddenly surrounded by those same soldiers who were now aiming their muskets straight at him.  The Alcalde chuckled devilishly.

     "Not so clever now, are you, Zorro?" he taunted.  "Dismount and hand over your weapons.  You are going to finally hang, Señor."

     Zorro saw that he really had no other options.  He shrugged and sighed in defeat.  But before he could comply with the Alcalde's orders, the ground began to tremble violently.

     It lasted for only a few seconds, knocking over baskets of produce and causing very minor damage.  It left everyone in a panic however.  People were running around in confusion.  Some were screaming and some were trying to find shelter.

     The lancers were panicking along with everybody else, forgetting the Alcalde's orders.  Most of them headed for the garrison.  Some had hit the ground as the quake hit and others just ran, not even realizing the quaking had stopped.  The Alcalde shouted at all of them but to no avail.

     Victoria fought her way through the crowd, making her way toward the man she loved, who at that moment was occupied with calming down his high-strung Andalusian.

     "Zorro," Victoria said to him when she reached him.  She placed her hand on his thigh to get his attention, which she did.

     "Hurry, you can make your escape now," she said.  She had watched his near capture from a distance and had felt very helpless.

     Having finally gotten Toronado settled, Zorro looked down at Victoria's beautiful but worried face.  He was extremely conscious of the hand on his leg.  He however smiled benignly at her.

     "I think I will take your advice, mi querida.  Please do not be worried about me."

     He picked up her hand and brought it up to his lips.  Then he urged Toronado forward.  They made their way out of the pueblo quickly despite the confusion that still abounded all around them.

     The Alcalde stared, mouth agape, as he watched Zorro getting away.  Then coming to his senses, as where many of the people in the plaza, he began to rant and rave.

     "After him!" he shouted at his men.  "Just don't stand there. Shoot him!  Shoot him!"

     The soldiers had to scramble hurriedly in an effort to obey. Many of them had drop their weapons and had to retrieve them.  However Zorro was out of their range before the first lancer could get off a shot.  The Alcalde watched in disgust as Zorro rode safely out of sight.  He turned viciously on his troops.

     "You idiots," he hissed angrily.  He was in a tremendous temper.  Once again he had Zorro in his clutches and once again the vile outlaw had escaped.  He took his extreme displeasure out on the soldiers.

     "None of you fools could hit a broadside of a barn if your miserable lives were depending on it," he shouted at them.  "I cannot believe the incompetence, the utter cowardice, the ...."

     He was too angry for words.  He strode off, heading back toward his office.  Victoria watched his retreating back, smiling smugly.  She was secure in the knowledge that Zorro had escaped safely once again.  She started back over to the mercado to finish her marketing.
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"EARTHQUAKE"-CHAPTER TWO