The Irish Colonel
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"I arrived on the coach just the other day.
I’m Colonel Patrick O’Leary, just retired from the Army," he
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"You drive a hard bargain, Enrique. You
should have been born an Irishman. Then you would come by your tight fist
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.