"EARTHQUAKE"

CHAPTER FIVE

     Diego watched as a shadow crossed Ana Maria's face when a thought occurred to her.

     "But what about Felipe?" she questioned worriedly.  "Won't he be terribly upset?  I mean, he does not wish...  He does not want me to see him."

     Diego gave her shoulder a pat and smiled.  "I think you might be just what he needs, Señorita," he said.  "Do not worry, it will be all right.  Now, if you will excuse me, I really must be going."

     "Oh, of course," she said, a bit dazed.  She turned and hurried through the tavern, up to her room to ask her mother.

     Diego watched her for a moment, then continued on his own way.

     About an hour later, Zorro was once again on the trail of the cattle rustlers.  He first made his way to the box canyon where they had holed up the last time.  Dismounting Toronado, he carefully searched the ground for any fresh evidence.

     All Zorro found were the hoof prints of his father and his friends' horses.  If there had been any new marks, they had totally obliterated them, he thought in disgust.

     He went back over to Toronado, who was snorting and pawing at the ground with impatience.  Zorro got back up on to the horse's back and headed out in the opposite direction the posse had taken.

     Back at the de la Vega hacienda, a very nervous Ana Maria stood at the front door.  She reached up to take the brass door knocker into her slender hand.  After holding it for a minute or so, she finally working up enough courage to let it rap on the door.  Ana Maria fidgeted her hands while she waited for a servant to open the door.

     She quickly explained that Don Diego had sent her and why.  The manservant showed her in to Felipe's room.  Maria, the housekeeper, was sitting in a chair by his bed, working on a piece of embroidery.  She glanced up from her stitching when Ana Maria gasped upon entering the room.

     The young woman brought her hand to her mouth to stifle any further cries.  Her heart was nearly breaking as she gazed upon the young man sleeping on the bed.  His hair was matted and uncombed.  The bandage had been removed from his head, leaving the vivid scar and sutures plainly visible.  Even the mustache he had been so proud of was now scraggly and unkempt.

     Maria accepted Ana Maria's explanation of her presence.  The housekeeper got up from the chair, gathering her embroidery.

     "It will be all right then, Señorita," she said.  Maria then left the room.

     As soon as she was alone, Ana Maria gratefully collapsed into the wooden chair by the bed.  Leaning forward, she grasped one of Felipe's hands with her own.  She brought his hand up to her lips and placed a kiss on it.

     "Oh Felipe," she whispered sadly.  "I know you cannot hear me. Or see me either.  But I want you to know that it does not matter to me."

     She kissed his hand again, then laid her cheek upon it.  Felipe moved in his sleep, but did not wake up.
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     Four hours into his search, Zorro was ready to call it a day.  Most of the trails he had been following had been old ones.  Or worse, the posse had gotten there ahead of him, erasing any traces of his quarry.

     He and Toronado were overlooking a small valley from a cliff.  Zorro's steely green eyes scanned the area carefully, looking for something, anything out of the ordinary that would help him capture the thieves.

     Zorro sighed and was about to turn away when he caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye.  He nudged Toronado in that direction and a little closer to the edge of the cliff.

     There was definitely something standing underneath a small juniper tree.  Zorro peered through the gathering darkness and finally made out the shape of a calf.

     Aha, thought Zorro, surveying the surrounding landscape.  He was a good distance from the nearest rancho, so the calf was either a stray or...

     He smiled satisfactorily to himself.  Then clicking his tongue, he urged Toronado around and headed down the cliff toward the calf.

     A little while later, Zorro was crouching in some bushes.  In his left hand he held Toronado's reins.  And in his right, he held a rope whose other end was around the stray calf's neck.  In a clearing just beyond his hiding place, the three cattle rustlers were gathered around a campfire.  Zorro saw no trace of the hundred head of cattle, seeing only their stolen horses.

     They must have stashed the cows somewhere, mused Zorro.  But the question again this time was. . .where?  Zorro glanced back at the small calf contentedly munching on some grass.  If he could use it to get the outlaws to lead him to where the others were hidden.

     He quickly took the rope from the animal's neck.  He slapped it on its rear and it went kicking up its heels into the rustlers' camp.  Zorro waited in the shadows, a smile on his face as his plan worked perfectly.  The banditos, recognizing the brand on the calf as one they had stolen, were in a state of panic, wondering how it had gotten away from the others.

     "Let's take it back," said the leader.  "And check to make sure none of the others have escaped."

     They swiftly rounded up the calf and were on their way, Zorro following them at a discreet distance.

     As he trailed behind the outlaws and the calf, Zorro realized that the terrain was looking more and more familiar to him.  If only it was not so dark, he would be able to recognize it better, he thought.

     Zorro came to a halt as the rustlers in front of him did the same.  Straining through the dusk, he could make out a fence.  The three men were undoing it, moving the logs carefully.  When they were done, they let the calf run off ahead of them.  The thieves got back onto their horses and rode after the prancing calf.  Surreptitiously, Zorro went behind them.

     He stopped when he got to the fence and dismounted, leading Toronado through into the pasture.  Zorro quickly built the fence back up effectively cutting off their means of escape.  He remounted his horse and began his pursuit once more.

     Zorro did not have to travel far.  He could see the stolen cattle ahead, down in a ravine.  He slowed Toronado to a stop as they neared.  The full moon came out from behind a cloud, instantly illuminating the whole field.  At that moment, Zorro knew exactly where he was.

     The de la Vegas owned nearly fifty thousand acres of land.  It stretched from the San Gabriel Mountains to the pueblo de Los Angeles.  It had been quite a while since Zorro had been on this particular parcel.

     It would be the perfect hiding place, he thought.  The victims of these robberies would hardly look for their stolen animals on their own land.  Zorro sat up in his saddle and did a quick check of his weapons.  Then he nudged his heels into Toronado's sides and the mighty black stallion took off into a gallop.

     The three bandits were busy counting their stolen herd when the big horse with its masked caped rider swooped down upon them.  They had gotten off their own horses and now scrambled to get back to them as they saw Zorro heading straight for them.

     Zorro, reading their minds, uncoiled his black braided whip.  He lashed out with it at the nearest rustler, aiming at his ankles.  The man tripped and fell face first as the whip bit into his leg.  The second man had reached his mount.  He was trying to get up into the saddle when Zorro's lethal whip cracked again.  It hit the outlaw in the rear end, causing him to let out a howl.  He covered his stinging butt with both hands.  The horse, bothered by both the sound of the whip and the outlaw's cry, reared, knocking the man backward, right onto his already injured backside.  The horse took off at a gallop as the man yelled and carried on in pain.

     Zorro smiled a bit smugly as he turned his attention to the leader of the rustlers.  The man had make it to his horse and had one foot in the stirrup.  Just as he was about to swing his other leg up over the animal's back and just as Zorro raised his arm in the air to circle the whip above his head, another earthquake rocked the pasture.

     The leader's boot slipped from the stirrup as the horse he was trying to mount reared up into the air.  The horse let out a high pitched whinny as it then bucked.  The bandito was knocked to his back on the ground.  He tried to sit up, beating his hand on the ground as the horse ran away in a panic.

     His mood was made even fouler when he glanced up and saw Zorro standing menacingly above him.

     "No escape this time, amigo," Zorro said.  He pulled the man to his feet and roughly led him to where the other two rustlers laid injured.
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     Ana Maria was shaken out of her pensiveness by the quaking ground. She held onto Felipe's hand even tighter during the short trembler.

     Felipe also was shaken out of his sleep by the quake.  He felt someone holding his hand.  It did not feel like it could be Diego's or Don Alejandro's.  It felt much too small and delicate.  Perhaps it was Victoria or Maria who was sitting with him.  This erroneous thought was soon corrected when the person loosened their grip then softly stroked his forehead with their other hand.  Then the person spoke.

     "Felipe, I know you cannot hear me," started Ana Maria.

     She was startled when Felipe opened his brown eyes, surprised himself.  He tried to pull away from her, but was too weak from spending the last few days in bed.  Ana Maria held his hand tightly again.

     "Felipe, I do not care if you cannot hear or if you cannot see," she continued.  "Because I. . ."  She paused to take a deep breath. "Because I love you."

     As she expected, there was no response from the young man lying on the bed.  But not for the reasons she thought.  Felipe turned his away from her so she could not see the tears streaming down his face.

     He loved her too.  But what kind of a life could he offer her if he was never able to see again.  Without his sight, he could not pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer.  He would become dependent on Don Alejandro and Diego once again.  And that was no way for a beautiful young woman like Ana Maria to spend the rest of her life.

     No, he decided, he had to let her go.  Maybe later, if he ever regained his vision, he would. . .  Forget it, he told himself.  By then no doubt she would be someone else's wife, having someone else's children.  This thought caused Felipe to groan aloud in pain, forgetting the reason for his heartache was in the room.

     "Oh, Felipe, what is wrong?" she asked worriedly.  She leaned over and saw his tears.  She found a handkerchief and began to wipe his face.  He tried to wiggle away from her again, this time almost succeeding.  But Ana Maria held her ground.

     "Felipe, don't," she said as they struggled.

     He grabbed her wrists and tried to push her away.  As he did so, he came up off of the mattress.  Felipe and Ana Maria bumped their heads together.  They broke apart, each rubbing their own foreheads.  Felipe had closed his eyes instinctively during the collision. When he opened them again, he had to blink several times because the light from the oil lamp on the night stand hurt his eyes.

     The light!  Dios mio, he could see again.  He blinked again.  His vision was a bit blurry yet but he could just make out Ana Maria's  face.  He held out his hand to her.

     Ana Maria was still rubbing her head.  She looked up at Felipe when he extended his hand.  She had a perplexed expression on her face as she noticed the big grin on his.

     "Felipe, are you all right?" she said in alarm.  She grasped the offered hand.

     Felipe pointed to his eyes with his free hand, then pointed to her.  He did that several times but Ana Maria still did not understand what he was trying to tell her.

     Finally he reached out and touched his hand to her cheek.  At last, Ana Maria made the connection.

     "Felipe!  You can see?" she shrieked with excitement.

     He nodded, still grinning broadly.  She smiled too, then they both went into each other's arms and kissed.

     Ana Maria pulled back as a thought occurred to her.  "Felipe, how did you know it was me?" she queried.  "I mean before you could see me.  Felipe," she looked him square in the eyes.  "Felipe, you can hear, can't you?"

     Felipe saw the tears forming in her beautiful brown eyes.  Well, he was tired of the charade.  He nodded and hoped Diego would not be too upset with him.

     "Oh, Felipe, this is wonderful," cried Ana Maria.  She smiled shyly.  "What I said before was true.  I love you."

     Felipe decided not to tell her he could speak as well.  He was a bit ashamed of his stutter, plus he did not want to overwhelm her.  He gestured that he loved her as well, bringing a dazzling smile to her face.

     The young couple embraced tightly, reveling in their good fortune.
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      The Alcalde was just sitting down to a late supper at the tavern. He was bringing a spoonful of his enchilada to his mouth when Zorro dropped down from the chandelier.  He landed with his feet on the bench opposite the Alcalde.

     "Buenos noches, Alcalde," he greeted his enemy as he sat down on the bench.  "Enjoying your supper?"

     The Alcalde was too stunned to speak for several minutes.  And when he was capable of speech once more, he stammered and sputtered.

     "Zorro!  What is. . .  How dare. . .  Who do you think you are?"

     Zorro smiled mischievously.  "The escaped cattle rustlers are back in the cuartel," he said calmly.  "Just thought you might be interested to know."

     He reached over and broke off a rather large hunk of the enchilada sitting on de Soto's plate.  He popped it into his mouth.

     "Delicioso," he said after he had chewed and swallowed it.  He got to his feet and with a whirl of his cape, left the tavern through the kitchen.  He stopped and tipped his hat to Victoria, then climbed up the shelves that lead to the second floor of the building.

     "After him!" shouted the Alcalde at the soldiers who were also having their supper at the tavern.

     The soldiers hurried to go after the masked bandit.  But once again he eluded capture.
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     A somewhat breathless Diego emerged a little while later from the secret fireplace panel, buttoning the top button of his shirt as he did so.  He had hurried back to the hacienda before he was missed and also to see if his scheme had worked.

     He needn't have worried about it.  The young couple had had a long talk (via sign language) in which Felipe told her his reasons for not allowing her to visit him.  Ana Maria combed his hair and put a fresh bandage on his head.  They were busy kissing each other when Diego came into the room.

     "Oh, sorry," he apologized as they broke apart.  Ana Maria sprung up and went over to Diego.

     "Oh, Don Diego, he can see," she announced.  "And he can hear as well."

     Diego looked over at Felipe, who was grinning from ear to ear.

     "This is wonderful," Diego said.  "How. . .?  What happened?"

     Ana Maria quickly related the events leading up to Felipe's recovery.  Diego went over to the bed and sat down.  He gave Felipe a big hug.  When he released him, Diego looked at Felipe questioningly, touching his lips.  Felipe shrugged and glanced over at Ana Maria who was still speaking.  Diego nodded.

     Ana Maria stayed just a little longer before returning to the pueblo.  She had agreed to keep Felipe's hearing a secret in case it was only a temporary condition.  After she had left, Diego once again tried to question his son.

     "Can you still speak?" he asked aloud.  "I assume you did not tell Ana Maria?"

     Felipe sat up in his bed.  His lips tried several times to form a word before he finally said, "N-No."

     Diego gave his son another hug.  They were both smiling.  Diego shook his head.

     "I was so afraid if you did regain your eyesight, you would not still be able to speak," he said.  "But now everything will be all  right, I can just feel it."  He embraced his son once again.
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FIN

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