The Irish Colonel

 

by

 

Eugene Craig

 

 

 

 

DAY THREE

 

Chapter 14

 

The next day dawned bright and sunny without a cloud in the sky. The early morning air was filled with the chatter of songbirds and the bustle of townspeople enjoying a fresh breeze blowing down from the mountains and hills into the pueblo of Los Angeles. The vaqueros had been up since dawn and had already departed on their horses, leaving in a cloud of dust and dirt churned by the horses’ hooves. 

On the second floor of the inn, Patrick O’Leary opened his eyes and thought about how rare it was that he would still be in bed at this hour. He had always been an early riser, but now and again he would alter his routine and not rise until he heard the clatter of breakfast plates in the inn below. Today would be another busy one, filled with chores and new adventures. He was especially interested in getting a horse and starting to scout the countryside, getting to know new acquaintances and finding out more about the mysterious outlaw, Zorro. He would take two of his books out to Diego de la Vega and look over Alejandro’s library. According to Father Felipe, it was reputed to be largest in all of Los Angeles and he liked to see what other men read, for it provided a window into their hearts and into their souls.

It was mid-morning by the time he strolled over to the general store and passed by the half barrels lining the outside porch. The store was quiet and he looked around for the gray-haired matron who had waited on him the day before. He noticed a movement at the curtain in the rear of the store and heard a friendly young voice exclaim, "Good day, Colonel O’Leary!" 

A slim young boy approached him from the back of the store. He recognized the young man from the coach ride from San Pedro to Los Angeles just the day before. "Why, if it isn’t my good friend Pedro. Are you out shopping so early in the day with your mother?"

Pedro Cárdenas looked up at the red-haired man in the brown hat and smiled in return. "Oh, no, Señor Colonel. This is my father’s store and we’ve been helping him run it while he is away on business." 

"Now is that so?" O’Leary looked around. "This is a mighty fine store. There are so many interesting things to look at." The boy smiled proudly at that. "Do you know why I’m here?" 

"To buy something," the boy replied. 

"That’s right. I was here yesterday looking over some clothes and today I’ve returned to buy some." 

There was another movement from the back of the store and Señora Cárdenas emerged.

"Look who’s here, Mother," the boy called.

The woman looked up and smiled. "Isn’t that Colonel O’Leary?" she asked, coming forward. 

The Irishman bowed. "Indeed it is, Señora Cárdenas, and how are you today?" 

"Happy to have you as our first customer today, Señor, " she replied graciously. "Can I help you with anything?" 

"I hope so, Señora," he replied. "I’m afraid I was overwhelmed with the choices in clothing I saw yesterday. I must have driven the other lady here to distraction. Hopefully, she’s not ill as a result." 

Isabel Cárdenas almost laughed at that. "Oh, no, Colonel. That was my sister. She and I have been minding the store while my husband has been away on business. He returned just this morning, and so she is back to helping a neighbor sew a quilt. My husband should be here at any moment, perhaps he could help you better than I can."

"Now, that sounds just fine," he replied. "However, this morning I’m in a wee bit of a hurry and I already decided yesterday what I’d like to get. Could I just pick them up now and come back later to meet your husband? There are several items I would like to purchase in the next day or two, and it would be a good opportunity to stop by and chat a while." 

"Of course, Señor," she replied. "My husband is an old military man himself. I’m sure you two would have much in common. Now what did you see that you liked so much?" 

Ten minutes later, Patrick O’Leary left the store with his new purchases and headed back toward the inn. From the store door, Pedro and his mother waved a goodbye. Back inside the store, she commented about how he had not even asked for credit and had left a centavo for the boy to pay for some sweets. 

"I like Colonel O’Leary, Mother," said Pedro, with shining eyes. "He’s very nice and he tells the best stories I ever heard." 

"He seems to be quite a gentleman," she said, "but I think I could do without all those war stories. I’d like to hear more about his family and his plans for a new life here in Los Angeles." She turned as she heard a noise at the back of the store. "That must be your father," she said. 

The curtain moved aside and a man with a thick brown hair and mustache peered out. He was the height of the colonel, but stocky. He wore a leather apron that covered the front of his clothing. He was frowning. "What is going on here?" he asked. 

"Oh, Roberto, you’re back," she smiled. "We just had our first customer and he bought quite a few things, more than most, I mean." She noticed his frown. "Is everything all right, dear?" 

"Who was that?" he asked suspiciously. "And what were you talking about?" 

Isabel Cárdenas was surprised by his tone. "He arrived on the coach the other day and is going to live here in Los Angeles. He bought some clothing. I..." she began. 

Pedro spoke up. "He’s a customer, Father. We met him on the coach from San Pedro. His name is Colonel O’Leary. He is from Spain. He told us some wonderful stories about the army and all his adventures." 

Roberto Cárdenas tensed. "What have you been telling him?" he demanded. 

"Why, nothing, dear. He was just here buying clothing, you know, trousers, a jacket, some ties and shirts. That’s all," she replied in consternation. "He’s only been here a few minutes." 

"All right- just don’t trust an Irishman, that’s all," he said brusquely. 

"Roberto, what is wrong? He paid in cash. I don’t understand," his wife became upset. She didn’t understand what she might have done wrong. 

The brown-haired man took a big breath and took a step toward his wife. "I’m sorry, dear. I’ve overreacted. It’s just that he reminds me of a scoundrel I once knew. I just want you to be cautious, that’s all. He’s still a stranger, remember." His wife noticed that his hand was trembling. 

The boy spoke up. "I don’t think you have to worry about Colonel O’Leary," he told his father. "He’s very funny and he even bought me some sweets." 

"All right, that's enough for now, son. Why don't you come back here and help me move these packages I brought with me. We can talk about this later." The man handed the boy a small leather apron. "Here, put this on so you don't get your clothes soiled." 

"I'll take care of the customers until you're ready," Mrs. Cárdenas suggested. 

"That will be fine, dear. This should not take too long. I have a few more trips to make to San Pedro, but I wanted to bring this first shipment here and let you know the details….so you would not worry," replied her husband. 

"You're going back again to San Pedro, and so soon?" she asked in surprise. "But, Roberto, you just arrived this morning. Can't you just have them ship the rest of the merchandise here?" 

"There are some unexpected problems that arose with the shipment and I have to re-negotiate some of the prices. I know this has not happened before, but it is something I need to deal with right away. Just ask María to help you out again for a few more days." 

"I will," she replied. "Everything went well while you were gone. There is no reason why that should change." She turned as two women customers entered the shop. When she did, her husband disappeared again behind the curtain with his son. 

When they got to the back door and began to unwrap the packages, Roberto Cárdenas looked at his son. "Why don't you tell me about this Colonel O'Leary," he told the boy. "What did he tell you about the war in Spain?" 

Pedro's eyes lighted up and he became enthusiastic. "You should have heard all his stories, Father, especially the ones about Espoz y Mina and the French," he began.

 

******************************************************************

 

The Irish colonel’s uniform disappeared into his old wooden trunk. The jacket, belt, trousers, hat and sash were carefully brushed, then folded. The top of the trunk closed and there was the click of the lock as it was secured. 

Before the wooden box, a figure rose up slowly and took a deep breath as he turned toward the mirror over the dresser. Patrick O’Leary stood before his reflection in a light brown ranchero’s outfit. The shirt was off-white with a green tie and he wore his long green sash around his waist. He twisted this way and that before the mirror and frowned. Something was still amiss, he thought. Whenever I look at my face, I still see the colonel. I need to change that. With that he picked up his razor and shaved off his thick red moustache. He washed his face again, dried it vigorously, and put down the towel. A small improvement, he thought, but one that will give me a new look. He sighed, picked up the brown hat and put it on his head. Now, let’s see what everybody else thinks. He smiled imagining who might be the most surprised and left the room. 

The church was quiet but there were a few parishioners coming and going when he arrived. He went inside, looked around for Elena and didn’t see her. He thought better of it, and went to a pew close to the altar and muttered a quick prayer for everyone’s good fortune, including his own. When he began to leave the church, an elderly woman in a black mantilla clutched his arm and asked him to help her into a pew. He obliged her cheerfully. "Do you need help in kneeling down, granny?" he asked. 

"No, son, but just stay here a spell and help me get back up when I’m finished," she replied. O’Leary stood a moment and realized she might be there quite a while. He moved into the pew behind her and whispered, "Just let me know when you’re ready."

She nodded and pulled out her prayer beads.

O’Leary sighed and began to ponder how to go about getting a good mount for his day’s activities. Several people passed by and nodded to him on their way out of the church. He returned their silent greetings with a smile of his own. Rich, poor, young, old, they all seem to find a moment for Mother Church, he thought. Then he saw the woman in front turn her head around to look for him. He rose immediately and went to her aid. He helped her up and gave her his arm to take as they headed down the isle to leave. 

When they reached the church doors and stepped outside, she spoke in a surprisingly strong voice. "I can’t kneel for long," she explained. "It’s my knees. They trouble me at times." 

"It’s all right, Mother, " O’Leary assured her, "I put in an extra word for you myself and I’m sure the Lord will forgive your short prayers. He knows who’s sincere." 

"I don’t believe I know you, son. Are you new here to the pueblo?" she asked leaning on her cane. He noticed that she was thin and her hair that showed beneath the mantilla was steel gray. 

"I arrived on the coach just the other day. I’m Colonel Patrick O’Leary, just retired from the Army," he explained. 

"Oh, so you’re the Irishman I heard about," she said. She looked him over. "Well, you look mighty fine and handsome, young man, and you have good manners, too. I am Señora de la Cruz. My husband was the first alcalde of San Diego. My daughter lives here in Los Angeles with her husband. He is a lawyer and a good one. We are related to the Villas of Monterey and are cousins of the Ávilas, the major rancheros of Santa Cruz." She paused. "Are you here with your wife?" 

The red-haired man smiled. "I’ve been too busy with all the wars to marry, Señora, but now that I’m retired, I’ll be looking for a wife." 

"Oh," the woman responded and her eyes lighted up with renewed interest. "Well, there are some very fine young ladies here in Los Angeles, Colonel, and I have three granddaughters coming of age soon." 

The colonel smiled benevolently enough, then spotted Father Felipe heading their way. "Well, speaking of good fortune, here’s the Padre," he said.

Padre Felipe smiled as he saw Señora de la Cruz standing outside the church doors with a man in a ranchero’s outfit escorting her. "Good morning, Señora de la Cruz. Is this your handsome young nephew visiting you from Santa Cruz?" 

"Good morning, Father," she replied. "I don’t think you’ve met this young man yet. This is Colonel O’Leary, the Irish gentleman that Señora Cárdenas told us about." 

"Colonel O’Leary?" asked the priest in astonishment. "Is that really you? What a surprise! I didn’t recognize you at all. My, you look like a distinguished ranchero." 

O’Leary beamed at that. "It’s my transformation. Thanks to the De la Vegas, I’ve joined the ranks of the Californians." 

"And a very handsome one, too," commented Señora le la Cruz. "If I were forty years younger, I’d have my eye on him, mind you. He goes to church and doesn’t mind giving an old woman a helping hand to make sure she gets her prayers done." 

"I’m not sure what Señora de la Cruz is referring to," commented O’Leary easily. "I only helped a handsome woman with a touch of rheumatism. I have met no old women in Los Angeles."

"Now, flattery will get you nowhere, Colonel, " she scolded, but she had a big smile on her face. "If only our own young men had such a way with words, you’d be having weddings every week, Padre."
 

All three of them laughed at that. 

"Oh, Colonel," Felipe remarked, "you won’t forget about Saturday’s charity auction, will you? I know how men can get caught up in their business affairs, but I’m counting on you to be there. It starts at 11:00 in the morning." 

"I’ll be there for sure, Holy Father. It’s at the top of my list of priorities. There’s nothing I enjoy more than helping out with the Church," he replied. 

"Do you have a head for figures?" Señora de la Cruz asked him and then turned to the priest. "Father, Señora Pastora has been ill this week, and will not be able to do the bookkeeping, and we would need someone who would." 

" I’ll be more than delighted to help out with any bookkeeping, paperwork or decorations you can think of, Padre," responded O’Leary with enthusiasm. "I’ve got a wonderful head for numbers and as much education as anybody for miles around. If I can put it to any good use, just give the word." 

"I’d be very grateful, Colonel," smiled the priest. "You are a real asset to the church and all of us should have a fine time Saturday." 

"Until that time then, Señora, Padre," O’Leary took the woman’s gloved hand and kissed it and bowed a courteous retreat. The woman and priest looked at each other and smiled in contentment. 

 

*********************************************************************

   

A clean-shaven and rather bold ranchero in brown walked right past the guards in front of the cuartel and began to enter through the gates without even pausing to get permission. He merely nodded to the guards and began to walk in.

Sergeant García was crossing the plaza toward the cuartel and saw this breech of etiquette at once. He reacted immediately.

"Señor! Stop immediately! You must have permission to enter into the cuartel. Señor!"

O’Leary turned and watched the big man hurry up to him with the corporal in tow. The sergeant had his hand on the hilt of his saber. He meant business. 

"Now, Sergeant, I do believe that we have met before," O’Leary said in an authoritative tone. 

García took another look at the stranger and puzzled over the comment before responding. "I know that voice from somewhere," he mused. His eyes lit up when O’Leary obliged him by removing his hat, which revealed his red hair. "Oh, Señor Colonel, I did not recognize you. A thousand pardons, por favor," he said, saluting. "You really look different without your uniform. And you shaved off your moustache, too." 

"I’m shorn of the past, Sergeant. You are looking at the new Patrick James O’Leary." 

The sergeant nodded agreeably. "You look just like a hacendado, Señor Colonel, a real Californian." Corporal Reyes nodded in agreement. 

O’Leary was pleased by the comment. "My new disguise. Now, Sergeant, may one have a word with the comandante? I wonder if he’ll know me with my new face." 

"I will tell the capitán that an important hacendado is here to see him, but that I do not recognize him," chuckled the sergeant and knocked at the door of the comandante’s office. Once again, García allowed O’Leary to see a subtle side rarely glimpsed within the cuartel. The colonel understood at once that García acted as he did with the view of self-preservation in mind: if he appeared to know nothing, then little would be expected of him from a commanding officer with a penchant for overachievement and its accompanying frustrations. 

O’Leary made a quick detour towards the stables, quickly appraising the horses. His eyes gleamed when he caught sight of the white stallion, which stood several hands in height above the others. He saw García waiting for him and hastened across the cuartel. 

When O’Leary entered the comandante’s office, Capitán Enrique Monastario took a close look at the newcomer. A look of enlightenment crossed his face. "Ah, Señor Colonel, I barely recognized you. I see you have successfully made your transition." 

"There’s no fooling you, Enrique, although the sergeant was not certain at first. It’s my voice, no doubt." 

Monastario shook his head and smiled. "No, Colonel. Your eyes are your betrayer." 

"Ah, I should have known," O’Leary responded. "Beware when Irish eyes are smiling." 

"What can I do for you?" asked Monastario. "I trust you have begun your unofficial duties." 

"They would be done more efficiently if I had access to one of your mounts," replied the Irishman with a smile. "I thought one came with the assignment." 

"Now, Colonel," admonished the captain. "You have been paid a sufficient amount that would enable you to purchase your own mount."

"I’m not asking to be given one, only to have use of one until I find a suitable replacement. I found one, but apparently it’s not for sale," replied the colonel slyly. "It’ll just be for a few days. Besides, you should know that I have come upon some intriguing leads this morning that I want to follow up on very quickly." 

Enrique Monastario did not believe what the colonel just said, but he decided to see if there would be a quick return on his investment in the enterprise. "Just that you understand that supplying you with a steed is not in our agreement, Colonel. I agree to lend you the use of one of our spare mounts for three days, but that is all." 

"You drive a hard bargain, Enrique. You should have been born an Irishman. Then you would come by your tight fist honestly." 

The comandante was amused. "You don’t make a bad Spaniard…for an Irishman." 

O’Leary laughed. "Let’s lend our fencing to more serious matters, old friend. Let me fetch the horse of my choice, then." He made an about face. 

As he opened the door and began to leave the office, he heard Monastario’s offhand remark that followed him out the door. "Oh, Colonel, the white stallion is not at your disposal."

He imagined the captain smiling and watching him from the window. Then he heard the officer call Sergeant García and tell him to assign the colonel one of the spare horses. García hurried to comply with the orders. Within minutes, Patrick O’Leary was headed out of town on the wide dirt road that lead to the De la Vega hacienda.

 

 

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