Ring of Fire



Keliana Baker





Chapter 25

De Irujo awoke as he heard Pancho shout a challenge into the darkness surrounding the camp.

"Aw, settle down, will you?" he heard a voice he correctly identified as Rómez say. "Capitán Rodríguez sent us."

Dimly, by the moonlight, de Irujo could see two mounted horsemen urging their horses toward the picket line. As they dismounted, he rose and walked into the circle of firelight around the campfire. "Well?" he growled as Rómez and a peon de Irujo did not recognize walked up to him. "What is going on? Why did Rodríguez send you out here? Do not tell me something has gone wrong."

"Not yet," the peon replied before Rómez could answer.

Indicating his companion, Rómez said, "Iago, here, came into the pueblo to let Rodríguez know that the ambassador is getting better. The doctor actually expects him to wake up at any time." Rómez explained.

"That could mean big trouble. Pancho, you were a fool to leave him alive!" De Irujo frowned as he turned toward the guard. His eyes flashed angrily in the reflected light of the fire.

"How was I to know that the man's head was so hard?" Pancho shrugged. I hit him hard enough to crush his skull. There is no way he should have survived," Pancho insisted, swallowing hard. He had rarely given a second thought to the things the comandante had asked him to do in the past, but this de Irujo had always made him uneasy. That Rodríguez trusted this one made little difference. To the hired killer, it felt more like living with a rattlesnake in his camp.

Rómez spoke up again. "Rodríguez sent us with a message. Pancho, he said to tell you that you are to go back and correct your 'mistake'."

"NO!" Pancho said, shaking his head. "Surely, the house will be watched now. His guards may even be back on duty. If he wants it done, let him do it!"

"There was another part to the message, Pancho. He said to tell you that if you did not do as he said, he would be sure you were the first to hang. He will hang you himself!" Rómez continued.

Pancho seemed to pale, even in the moonlight. After a moment, he bowed his head unhappily and agreed, "All right! All right! I got in there once. I suppose I can get back in." With that, he turned and walked toward his horse.

"Do you suppose he will keep his part of the deal?" one of the other guards asked as he watched Pancho walk reluctantly to his horse.

"He had better!" de Irujo growled, still watching the assassin with narrowed eyes.

Not far away a pair of dark brown eyes were taking it all in from the cover of a leafy bush. From where he was, not only could the watcher hear what had been said, but he could also see three prisoners tied up nearby. One he could tell was Tomás. The others he thought would have to be the vinemaster’s sons. One of the prisoners looked to be about his size and he knew Tomás' son, Roberto, well. So that is why Tomás lied like he did. These hombres have his family.  I had better get help! Pepe began easing back to where he had left Ventura tied. Unexpectedly, a dry stick snapped as he accidentally put his weight on it.

"What was that?" one of the guards asked as he walked away from the fire and looked toward the bushes.

Pepe flattened himself to the ground and did not move a muscle. He held his breath as the man started to walk toward where he was hidden. Suddenly, there was the sound of wings flapping from a tree nearby, followed by the cry of something being caught by a night hunting bird.

"Ha!" de Irujo laughed. "We are all jumping at shadows.  It is just a night hunter, mi amigos." He shook his head as he walked back to his bedroll.

"Sí, I guess you are right," the guard said, sounding somewhat less certain. Finally, he, too, walked back to his post beside the cave entrance.

Pepe lay where he was for several minutes more, while his heartbeat slowed and his limbs stopped trembling. Gradually, he worked his way back away from the campsite and mounted Ventura. He slowly and quietly walked her far enough away from them that he felt safe cueing her into her rapid canter. He had to tell someone what he had seen as soon as possible. He was not sure just who all these men were but he knew one of them.  The man who had just ridden away was the same peon he had seen go up the hacienda steps and come back down, still with his crate, at about the time Don Ramón was hurt. After hearing what had been said, he would bet his last peso that that man had something to do with it! I wonder what they meant about him correcting his mistake? That sounds bad. Maybe Capitán Cosío will understand what he means, or maybe Sergeant García. One of them will know, I hope!


Ania found herself looking directly into Sánchez's eyes for a moment. The gun had fired almost the second her hands had touched it, the barrel going from cool to hot under her fingers. Had she managed to move it enough? Had she moved it at all? She was terrified to even look over her shoulder to where Zorro and Rodríguez were. Almost against her will, she was forced to look when she heard a moan in the sudden silence that followed the report of the musket.

Her eyes darting quickly to where Zorro stood, apparently unhurt, she released a breath she had not been conscious she was holding. Zorro glanced at her in surprise for a second, then turned his attention back to Rodríguez as he stepped back from the capitán. Ania followed the direction of his gaze.

When Rodríguez's eyes met Ania's, an expression of pain and disbelief was growing in their steel gray depths, even as she watched. There was a clatter as his sword dropped from his hand. Only then did she notice the blood staining the blue of his jacket where his left hand clutched the side of his chest. Slowly, Capitán Rodríguez dropped to his knees and then fell heavily to lie still at Zorro's feet.

"You Devil's maid!  You witch!" Sánchez cried as he shoved Ania roughly away from him. Zorro quickly stepped forward and caught her in his arms before she could hit the ground. From that point on, things began moving much too fast for Ania to understand. She merely took in what happened around her and reacted. There was absolutely no time to think about anything.

She saw Zorro look past her, toward the gate, as he pulled her tightly to him. Then, had she had time to think about it, he would have puzzled her, for he spun them both around and against the nearest leg of the scaffold. He wrapped his arms protectively around her and pulled her head snugly to his chest, tucking his head down against hers. She had barely time enough to begin to wonder what was happening when an explosion that sent the gate and most of the front wall of the cuartel flying in all directions split the air behind them. The hideous hangman's scaffold now became a friend as it shielded Ania and Zorro from most of the falling bits and pieces.

Many of the lancers were not so lucky. There were cries from the men standing around, especially from those who had been on the roof closest to the gate as they were thrown to the dust of the parade ground. There was no time to be sure of the number actually injured, but Ania could tell that even those soldiers not injured were dazed and confused by the sudden blast.

"Run!" she heard Zorro say in her ear as he pushed her quickly toward where the gate had been. Almost before all the rubble had ceased falling, he was guiding her, keeping her from tripping as they leaped over larger objects in their way. A few men who had somehow managed to keep their feet attempted to stop them, only to quickly give up the idea as they were met by the blade of a very determined Fox. Most immediately backed out of his way and turned to see to the needs of their comrades.

After the first moment of shock, Ania lifted the hem of Zorro's cape, which she still wore. With it out of the way, she ran with all the speed that the long ago Florida tomboy had learned when racing her brothers. For a heartbeat, Zorro fell behind as he hesitated for an instant while resheathing his sword. Then he caught up with her and boosted her to the front of Tornado's saddle. Ania was surprised to notice that Tornado was actually tied securely to a tree. She did not think she had even seen him more than ground tied, but then her overwhelmed thoughts finally managed to make sense of something. Of course! Zorro planned the explosion, so naturally, Tornado had to be tied. Even Tornado would run from something like that. She lost her train of thought again, however, as she looked back toward the front of the cuartel. There, a half dozen lancers had recovered their composure and discipline enough to form a firing line with their muskets all aimed at them. Ania's heart skipped a beat and she would have cried out in fear, had she been able to get the words out. The gunmen were not so far away that they could not hit what they aimed at!

Then, amid the horror of that moment, Ania was amazed to see two strange accidents take place. First, Sergeant García, who was standing at one end of the line, drew his sword as though to use it to signal the others when to shoot. However, as he did so, he lost his balance and toppled into the men closest to him. Three of the men were nearly knocked from their feet as he fell against them. On the other end of the line of gunmen, the second lucky accident happened. A stack of boxes that had somehow remained atop each other through the explosion now came tumbling down upon the other luckless soldiers, spoiling their aim as well. As Zorro leapt into the saddle and sent Tornado racing away, Ania looked back and noticed Corporal Reyes, standing beside where the stack of boxes had been, looking toward the frustrated gunmen.

Then there was only time for the awareness of the wind in her face and the power of the horse under them. Zorro's strong arm was around her waist. Ania slid her arm over his, lacing her fingers with his gloved ones holding her close. His attention, however, had to remain on the path both ahead and behind them. Could their escape really be this easy from this point on?

As they rounded a curve in the northbound road that question was answered. There ahead of them, they could see Capitán Cosío and three of his lancers, coming back to investigate the explosion they had heard. Zorro immediately wheeled Tornado and urged even more speed from him. These men's horses he remembered. They were very fast and strong. Outrunning them would not be easy, especially if he let them get too close to begin with.

Ania tried to think ahead to what escape route he was trying to reach. She remembered the pathways Bernardo had drawn for her as they had struggled to confuse the injured Zorro's blood trail, now nearly five months ago. Their most direct path had been blocked. There was one other that would be almost as quick and offered plenty of cover to allow Zorro to double back and confuse the lancers. That must be where they were headed now.

She could see that her guess had been correct as the shadowy land flew past. Within minutes, they had reached the area Ania knew had a cut through to the other path. Suddenly, another group of four soldiers appeared ahead of them. These immediately drew their pistols as they realized just who was on the horse ahead of them. Wheeling Tornado again, Zorro tried another direction only to be faced with the first group closing the distance between them. For a second, he stopped the big stallion completely as he tried to figure a way out, and then sent the horse racing off across the countryside where there was no path.

This way was slower, however, even for a horse of Tornado's caliber. It soon became apparent that he was not losing the soldiers this way. Finally, one last obstacle stopped them completely. Zorro had not been this way since the slight earthquake that had occurred a few weeks ago. Before them, a landslide caused by the quake had blocked the small valley that they had been following. He could take one of the two other less desirable paths out of the valley that were nearby. However, neither led back to a solid, easily traveled path. One path did provide more cover, but would lead them in entirely the wrong direction, while the other had its own set of hazards. Surely there was another way. Tornado pranced nervously as Zorro thought furiously about what to do.

Ania gave a sudden frightened gasp as a musket ball buzzed so close to them that they both could feel the air vibrate with the force of its passage. Zorro looked down at her in alarm, then breathed a sigh of relief that she had not been hit. Protectively, he pulled her closer to his chest and turned Tornado so that his body was between his precious lady and the lancers. That settled it. There was no way he was going to let the soldiers get any closer with Ania on the saddle in front of him. He had to put distance between himself and their pursuers quickly. He would follow the portion of the valley which branched to the right and pray that he had made the correct choice. While this way would not be free of danger either, if things went well, it offered a way they might be able to leave these lancers behind and reach the safety of the cave without being followed. Without a word to Ania, he urged Tornado up the valley as fast as the big horse could go.

Ania could feel Zorro's tension as they raced onward. She knew they were still not safe and wished she had time to talk to him to find out what he planned. However, that was not possible now. She must not distract him. She looked ahead and tried to remember where this little valley opened out. For the life of her, she could not remember a clear path cross country here. It was an area full of gullies and washes. There was even a very deep gorge that cut across much of the gradually dropping land somewhere near there. She did not worry about it, however. After all, if he was going this way, then he knew of a way around the rough landscape.

As the valley opened out on either side, Ania tried to discern what lay in front of them, without much luck. The moonlight and shadow on the landscape played tricks with one's vision, hiding some things and creating others out of innocent patches of darkness. She knew the gorge was somewhere near here, but where were they headed?

Zorro also looked ahead, momentarily reining Tornado to a stop. Then he looked down at her. "Ania," he surprised her by asking, "do you trust me?"

Puzzlement filled her eyes as Ania glanced up at him in surprise. "You have already asked me that," she began.

"Do you trust me?" he repeated without giving her a chance to finish.

"Yes, of course! How can you ask that now? What are you pl..." Ania replied.

Zorro interrupted her again. "Then remember that trust and hold on tight." She could see his bright smile by the moonlight as he suddenly kissed her. Then just as quickly, he kicked Tornado into a run again, urging the horse forward even faster, "Hiyaaa!" Tornado did not disappoint him. Leather creaked as the greathearted stallion strained to give his master even more speed.

Inwardly, Zorro was praying that his horse could do what he was going to ask him to do. For before them was no solid path around the gorge. The only way to where he wanted, needed to go now, was OVER the gorge. He had done this a time or so before when need justified the risk. However, never before had Tornado been ridden double when he had asked him to make the leap. He tightened his arm around Ania's waist and felt as much as heard her gasp, as she looked ahead and realized that they were not going to stop at the edge of the gorge.

Ania gripped his arm, hard, and bit back a cry as the gorge rushed at them. She gripped even harder and shut her eyes as the ground under Tornado's hooves dropped away and the stallion literally seemed to take flight. Opening her eyes too soon, Ania got a heart-stopping glimpse of empty air where shadows prevented her from even seeing a bottom. She quickly closed her eyes again, only opening them as she felt the horse's hooves strike the rocks on the far side of the gorge. Dimly, she heard pebbles clattering to the bottom of the hole as Tornado scrambled for purchase at the very edge. Then, miraculously, they were over and on solid ground. About fifty yards past the gorge, Zorro reined Tornado to a stop and looked behind them. On the other side, the lancers could vaguely be seen looking at the gorge in amazement, quite unable or unwilling to follow them.

Zorro's rich laugh rang out as he saw the success of his plan. Then he looked down at a still silent Ania and smiled, gently shaking his left arm. "Ah, Aniasita, I have managed to come through this whole night so far without a mark, until now." He laughed again as Ania suddenly realized what a death grip she had on his arm and quickly eased the pressure of her grasp. He reached up and rubbed the area where her fingers had no doubt left bruises and commented, "I thought you said you trusted me."

For a moment, Ania struggled to find her voice. When she did speak, it sounded far too weak to suit her. She tried again and finally got her comment out in a firm voice that he knew was a part of her "cloak of court". Even now, she did not wish to show her fear. "You asked if I trusted YOU. You did not ask if I trusted TORNADO!" At that, Zorro threw back his head and laughed that full, deep laugh that she so loved, finally tempting a chuckle from her as well. The feeling of love called up in her by the sound of his laughter was so strong at the moment that tears clouded her vision. The kiss that followed was much too brief, but both knew that time was short. Danger continued to haunt the night and Zorro still had much work to do.


Sergeant García walked quickly across the parade ground to meet Dr. Mendoza when he had been summoned. It appeared that most of the injuries were relatively minor, but it was good to have the doctor here anyway. There were probably a few broken bones and one or two concussions. The rest were merely cuts and bruises sustained by the men who had been hit with flying bits and pieces of the wall and gate during the explosion. It even seemed likely that the lancers injured by Zorro or the señorita in the earlier sword fight would live to fight another day. Indeed, there had been only one casualty from all the mayhem that had taken place, Capitán Rodríguez himself. He had lived a scant few minutes after the señorita had been rescued.

García stopped and looked around again as the doctor went into the barracks to tend to the more seriously wounded. What a mess! he thought. As acting comandante once again, it would be his responsibility to see that everything was repaired and put back in order. However, there was one thing he had to do for his own peace of mind before he could do that. He had to go to Don Diego's hacienda and prove to himself that what he had heard the capitán say to Zorro was not the truth. He had heard him call Zorro, de la Vega. Surely, that was not true! He felt torn in two. If Diego was Zorro, then what should he do? He was a wanted criminal and the reward had always tempted Garcia, yet how could he arrest him now? A criminal he might be, but Diego was also a good friend. Sergeant García was not sure just what he would do if, indeed, he got to the hacienda and found Diego gone or, worse yet, found him actually dressed in the black outfit with Señorita Ania somewhere nearby. He would decide that when the time came. He merely felt now that he HAD to know if Don Diego, his friend and a man who he had thought he knew, had been deceiving him all this time.

"Corporal Reyes!" he called loudly, deciding that, given the unrest tonight, it would be best to take a group with him, rather than go alone. He would have to move swiftly if he was to prove anything at all. "Get as many lancers as can ride now and mount up."

"Where are we going, Sergeant? Surely, Zorro is long gone now," Reyes asked.

"We are going to the Hacienda de la Vega," he was answered.

"Why, Sergeant? Oh, you wish to tell Don Diego that Señorita Ania is not to be hung?” Reyes said. “That is a good idea, Sergeant. He will feel better to hear it."

García let the assumption stand unchallenged, "Yes, I am sure he will." I just hope that he does not already know more about it than we do, he thought to himself.

A few minutes later, five relatively healthy lancers rode northward toward the de la Vega lands.


When Zorro at last rode through the vines hiding the entrance to the cave, relief was so intense that Ania was not sure she could stand up. As Zorro dismounted and reached up for her, she did as she had that morning, throwing her leg over the horse's head and sliding down into Diego's arms. The reality that it had actually been less that twenty-four hours since then was like a fairy tale, too bizarre to be believed. As her feet touched the ground, he pulled her to him and held her as if he never wanted to let her go again. She clung to him, unable at that minute to say what was in her heart. She only knew that the loving safety of his strong arms and the intensity of the love they felt for each other formed her whole world. All her lands and gold were as ashes beside this. Diego leaned down to kiss her, but it was not to be, for they were once again interrupted. Now, however, there was no time for inside jokes about timing or their 'luck'.

Bernardo rushed in, visibly worried. Even as he patted Ania's arm to indicate that he was overjoyed to see her safe, he gestured something about García. He pointed frantically back up the tunnel.

"What? Sergeant García is here already?" Diego exclaimed. "He must have heard Rodríguez call me by my name!"

"Oh, no!" Ania cried. She had hoped that she had been the only one to hear that. If the sergeant had heard, would he turn against them even though he had helped them before? If so, then there was every possibility that he had come to arrest Diego. "What are you going to do?" she asked, her voice betraying her fear for him this time.

"I have to prove to him that Rodríguez was wrong!" Diego said as he dashed up the tunnel, shedding the black outfit as he ran. "Bernardo, stay with her. I will change quickly enough. Just keep her safe, whatever happens." With that, he disappeared leaving his two worried companions behind.

Ania stood for a minute looking after him. Bernardo watched her in concern. The same look of brittle control was on her face as had been there just after they had found Zorro here so badly injured, as if it would take very little more to shatter her control into pieces. He reached over and took her hand in his, patting it in an attempt to comfort her. A look of almost desperate determination came onto her face as she looked back at Bernardo and met his eyes.

"Well?" she asked.

Bernardo, puzzled, cast a questioning look at her.

"Are you just going to wait here? He may need help," Ania insisted.

Bernardo indicated that Diego had told him to stay with her.

"Yes, but he did not say that we had to stay HERE," she said.

Bernardo shook his head. He was sure that was what Diego meant. He was surprised when Ania suddenly reached and snatched the pistol that he still had in his banda. For a moment, he wondered if she was going to point it at him, but she merely held it as she pointed up the tunnels.

"Bernardo, you came to the hidden door with this gun, ready to protect me when I was in danger. How can you NOT do the same for him?" Ania challenged.

He looked at her uncertainly for a moment. Then he had to hurry to keep up with her as she quickly slipped past him and attempted to go up the tunnel. He stepped in front of her to stop her.

She looked at him sharply, a look of defiance filling her eyes. "Bernardo, if you want to stay with me and protect me as he said, then you had better be prepared to do one of two things. One, you can go with me far enough that we can help him if he needs it, or two, you can get ready to physically hold me here to prevent me from going." With her lips stubbornly pressed together, Ania once again started around him. Bernardo started to reach for her, then thought better of it as she looked back at him as if daring him to try it. Finally, he threw his hands up in resignation and hurried up the tunnel with her. She did, however, give the gun to him when he reached for it.

As they came up into the part of the tunnel that led behind the walls of the hacienda, they paused for an instant to decide where to go. The sala, of course, that was the place where Sergeant García would come first. Without a word said or gestured, they both turned and hurried to the hidden door behind the cabinet. Already, García was at the hacienda door requesting that he be allowed to see Don Diego immediately.

"Sergeant, surely you realize how hard all this has been on Diego. He is not himself," Don Alejandro was insisting. "Please allow him the privacy to grieve."

"I am sorry, Don Alejandro, but I MUST see Don Diego this instant," García said, for once firm in his demand even in the face of the caballero's resistance.

It was clear to the two watchers that Don Alejandro still had no idea that Diego had returned. "I must refuse, Sergeant. If you must see him you will have to wait until a decent time after all this is over. To see him now or anytime tomorrow will just be salt in the wound. Can you not see that?"

Both men were surprised when a slurred voice spoke up from the doorway at the back of the room. There, leaning against the wall, as if for support, was Diego, looking most unlike his usual self. His shirt was partially open at the neck and was not correctly tucked in. His cuffs were open and his hair hung down upon his forehead as if he had just gotten up. "Whad'yoo wan, Sar'gend?" His statement was so slurred that it was very difficult to understand him for a moment.

"Don Diego!" García cried, looking at his friend in disbelief.

"How ca' yoo dare come here, Sar'gend? Do you thi'k I am so uzless thad I will put up w'th havin' yoo here...you murd'er?" Diego cried. He lunged across the room to the fireplace and picked up a poker. He had deliberately splashed wine on his clothes and the odor wafted through the doorway as he staggered by.

García's eyes softened in sympathy for his friend as he watched him. It was clear that Don Diego could not have been in the cuartel. The poor man had surely been here drowning his sorrow ever since he had been forced to leave Ania in the cuartel awaiting death. The sergeant backed up but was not really alarmed as Diego raised the poker and started unsteadily across the floor as if to attack him. Don Diego could hardly stand up, let alone be a danger to anyone else.

Don Alejandro intercepted Diego and took the poker from his hand. Tenderly, he appeared to support his son as he swayed on his feet. "Sergeant, whatever this is about, as you can see, it will have to wait. The idea that Ania is to be hung has nearly been the death of him as well. Can you not just leave him in peace?" There was no note of pleading in the proud old caballero's voice, but the look in his eyes seemed to pierce the kindly sergeant's heart.

García felt a rush of relief as well as compassion for this man, his best friend. Don Diego could most certainly not be El Zorro. He felt foolish to have ever thought the capitán might really have found out who was behind the mask. "Oh, but, Don Alejandro, I am the bearer of news for you and Don Diego. Señorita Ania is no longer in the cuartel. Zorro came and took her away!" he said as an explanation for his coming here now.

"Zorro?" Don Alejandro gasped. "So Ania is safe?"

"Sí, at least for now. I do not expect that we will find her or Zorro tonight. So you see, Don Diego. I am the bearer of GOOD news, mi amigo!" García insisted with a broad grin.

"Safe...Ania...safe?" Diego repeated quietly as he seemed to sway even more with a combination of relief and wine.

"Thank you for coming to tell us, Sergeant," Don Alejandro said, "but I think it would be better if any other news wait until tomorrow after Diego has slept a bit. Do you not agree?"

García looked at Don Diego with compassion. He had never seen the young caballero so drunk in all the years they had known each other. It must be hard to want to save someone as badly as Don Diego wanted to save Señorita Ania and know that you can do nothing to help her. How will he look at himself in the mirror after doing nothing other than numbing his own pain with drink? Yet perhaps I would do nothing more than that, either, he thought. "Yes, I think you are right, Don Alejandro. What he needs right now is definitely some sleep! Do not worry about the door. I will let myself out. Buenas noches." With that, he turned and walked back out to the horses and his waiting men. Such a silly idea! How both Capitán Monastario and Capitán Rodríguez could even think that Don Diego was Zorro is a mystery to me. Shaking his head, he returned to his duties.

As he heard the lancers ride away, Diego straightened up. Before he released him, however, Don Alejandro threw his arms around his son and hugged him. "Ah, Diego, my son, I am overjoyed to see you!" He stood back and looked at Diego as his son pushed his hair back out of his eyes. "You have Ania?"

"Sí, she is down in the cave." With a quick look over his shoulder to be sure no servant had come into the sala, Diego opened the secret door. "Come, Father. I still have much to do tonight if I am also to clear her name." As the door swung open, he nearly ran into Bernardo and Ania. Throwing an arm around her shoulders, he swept her on down the tunnel to the cave with him. Only after they got there did he take the time to pull her into his arms for a proper kiss, neither of them caring that Don Alejandro was standing there watching them. As soon as the kiss ended, he was on the move again. "Bernardo, bring water so I can wash a bit of this wine off. I would not want to warn anyone of Zorro's presence by the odor of wine. We surely wouldn't want anyone to think that he had picked up some of the good sergeant's bad habits, now would we?" he said with a mischievous laugh.

As he washed, Bernardo got a fresh black outfit for his patrón.

"What are you going to do now?" Ania asked, concerned.

"I am going after the people who helped Rodríguez set this up. I cannot be satisfied to just free you. For us to marry and live as husband and wife, you must not be a wanted criminal. I must clear your name," he explained.

"Tomás!" Ania exclaimed. "Diego, I still do not believe he would lie like that of his own free will."

"I think you are right, Ania. I will just bet your old friend, de Irujo, is somewhere around here and Tomás' casa is as likely a place as any," he continued.

"His family is in danger?" Ania asked.

"More than likely. It would surely explain why he would help them frame you," he said. "Now turn around."

"What?" Ania asked as she blinked in surprise at the sudden command.

Diego looked at her with a smile, "Sí! Mi amor, I must change and I do not think you can help me with that...just yet!"

Ania blushed deep red. Without another word, she turned and faced the wall of the tunnel.

In a few minutes, he gently turned her around and kissed her good-bye. "You did say kisses were for luck, did you not?" he teased.

Teasing seemed beyond Ania at the moment, however. She felt as tight as a guitar string and her nerves were vibrating just about as much. "Please be careful, Diego!"

"Sí! I always am," he assured her as he briefly cupped her face in his hands. "I'll be back as soon as I can." He looked up at his father as he pulled the black riding gloves on. "Take good care of her."

"We will. You need not worry about that, Diego. She will be safe with us," his father assured him. "Vaya con Dios!"

His rapid stride showing his haste, Zorro walked to Tornado. "Sorry, boy," he said quietly as he took time to pat his faithful mount's neck. "No rest yet for you." Mounting, he turned the great horse and was quickly gone into the night once more.

As Ania stood for a moment looking after him, Don Alejandro gently put his arm around her shoulders comfortingly. Ania looked up at him, worry clear in her eyes. "Don Alejandro, how do you do it?"

"Do what, my child?" he asked.

"How do you keep from worrying about him?" Ania asked as she looked back toward the way Zorro had gone.

"Oh, I do some, Ania, much more than you can see," he answered truthfully. "But there is something you must remember." Ania looked at him questioningly. "Surely there is an ángel riding on his shoulder."

"An ángel?" Ania repeated. "Well, if that is so why...."

"Why was he hurt before?" he completed the question for her. "I cannot say exactly why it happened as it did, but there is one thing I know. Perhaps it has not occurred to you, Ania, but even though he was hurt, heaven had already provided for him. There were two people here who were not only determined to help him, but were unselfish enough to put themselves in danger to do it. They each had the skills needed to do what had to be done. One of those friends even had the medical knowledge that was needed." He smiled as he made the reference to Ania herself. "A relatively short time before then, that was not true. Yet when he needed them, they were here for him. Ania, that was no accident." Don Alejandro looked toward the cave entrance thoughtfully. "As long as he is doing what rightly needs to be done, I must believe that that ángel will look out for him."

"An ángel. Yes, maybe that is how he can do all that he can, all that he did," she said under her breath.

Don Alejandro looked at Ania closely. He saw the toll that the last eighteen hours had taken on her. "Come, Ania. We will fix a bed for you, just as you did for Diego when he needed it. You must rest."

"I do not think I can sleep," she objected.

"Then just lay down and rest," he insisted. "You must leave everything else to Zorro and his ángel."

Ania nodded and walked with him back to the second room. She would let them take care of her now. For everything else, she would trust in Zorro and in the goodness of heaven. "Vaya con Dios, mi amor," she whispered. "Vaya con Dios!"




Chapter Twenty-six
Chapter One
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