The Irish Colonel

 

by

 

Eugene Craig

 

 

 

DAY FOUR

 

Chapter 18

 

It was just before dawn that Paddy kissed his sleeping companion an early good-bye, dressed quietly, and headed out to explore the hills where he had encountered the mysterious outlaw, El Zorro. He knew the spot exactly because of the outcrops and the hills he had studied before returning to the pueblo. 

As he rode up the hill to where El Zorro had waved a farewell, he noticed that there were many animal trails that passed through the meadow. Herds of deer, wild turkeys, perhaps even wild pigs would have come this way. 

He followed the most recent signs of passage and discovered an almost dry arroyo where the animals came to drink water at night. With the bed of the arroyo still flowing, it would be easy to lose the prints of even a shod animal. He followed a trail that seemed to pitter out among rocks, and then re-appear. There was nothing conclusive. 

 As he rode up through a pass, he saw a narrow canyon and began to make his way cautiously along it. He doubted if El Zorro would be anywhere nearby, but getting to know the land and where the trails went could lead to all sorts of discoveries. Then he saw the hoof marks he sought through the light layer of clay and sandy soil. O'Leary followed it further and then saw why his search would be in vain. Up ahead, grazing in the narrow canyon was a small herd of wild mustangs. Any passage from the night before would have been obliterated by their hooves. But there might be something on the other side. He made his way carefully toward the horses.

A brown stallion lifted his head and neighed a warning to his brood. Like a snap of a whip, the horses lifted their heads up, then bolted, racing their way through the narrow rocks. Brush, small growing trees seemed to grow in profusion as he followed them. Small meadows opened up, then seemed to close in again. He would seek the high ground in order to get a better sense of his surroundings.

It was several hours later that O' Leary headed back toward the road he had set out from. From the high rocks he had overlooked a profusion of canyons and meadows, gorges and hills. In the wider valley he spotted the great herds of cattle that were the fortune of the rancheros. Along trails, wide or narrow, he had come across box canyons and unexpected streams and rock formations that could have caves in them. There's a thousand places this Zorro could hide out, he thought, or use to get back to wherever he goes. 

As he reached the road, he came to a halt. "Of course, that's it," he said aloud. "This is just an escape route, one of many. The man must have several such routes and would most likely chose ones that would mislead anyone trying to track him down." He urged his mount forward. It was mid-morning already and he would barely have time enough to wash up and look his best for Padre Felipe's charity auction. In the meantime, he would do his best to get to know as many people as possible. Obviously, enough people knew of my movements that the word must have gotten out to El Zorro for him to have followed me back from the Torres' place. But I told no one that I was going there. Maybe the fellow had, as Monastario said, the devil's own luck. But he really didn't believe it.

 

 

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"Do you know something, Sergeant?" asked Corporal Reyes as he stood on guard duty in front of the cuartel. 

"Yes, Corporal, I know something. What is it that you want to know?" the Sergeant responded. 

"Well, I’ve been thinking." Reyes paused a long time and looked contemplative. 

García looked impatient with how long the corporal was taking to express himself. "Well, what have you been thinking about, Corporal?" 

"I’ve been thinking about how Colonel O’ Leary made that bottle last so long last night." 

"I know what you mean," responded García thoughtfully. "It lasted a very long time." 

"Do you think it was the toasts he told us, Sergeant? He told us that the toasts he knows make the bottle last a long time. And it did last a long time. It lasted until the end of the story he told us," the soldier said. 

"Colonel O’ Leary has a way of making those things happen. I didn’t believe it either, but when he finished the story, my mug was half full and so was the bottle." 

"Mine was too, Sergeant." 

Both men were silent a moment. They did not know that Capitán Monastario had left his office and was headed towards the gate. Monastario stopped in his tracks when he overheard the conversation going on just outside the cuartel gates. 

Reyes asked, "Say, Sergeant, do you think that the colonel might know some magic himself? I mean, when he told us the story about Jack and the Little People, he said that Jack with the red hair had some fairie blood in him. He said that people with red hair have fairie blood. Do you think that the colonel might have some fairie blood in him, too?" 

García looked confounded a moment. "Fairie blood?" Then he paused a moment. "You may have a point there, Corporal. He’s probably too modest to mention it, being a colonel." The big man then reconsidered the idea." You know, I think you might be right after all. Colonel O’ Leary might even be magical himself. He always has plenty of coins for wine even though his purse never seems to have more than a few pesos in it." 

Monastario rolled his eyes and shook his head in exasperation. He startled the two soldiers, who sprang to attention as he passed. "Idiots! Estupidos!" he exclaimed. "The only thing magical about Colonel O’ Leary is his fingers – he’s the most clever pickpocket in all of Los Angeles!" 

 

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The plaza just opposite the church was teeming with people setting up little wooden stalls or tables to display their wares. Gourds, hanging from twine ropes, were decorated with faces, geometric or scenic designs painted or carved on them. Homemade pottery and handicrafts, shawls, jewelry, wooden toys, hats, flowers, old books, embroidery, leather goods, tallow candles of all sizes and shapes, soaps, scents, and religious mementos all made of items saved or made for the Church's charity auction. Last, but not least, were homemade confections, necklaces made from seeds or shells or even silver and an old musical instrument or two. 

Padre Felipe made his rounds to the tables, greeting the townsfolk, smiling and chatting with the elderly, the children, and Indians who milled about. He noticed that most people seemed to be looking and wandered from table to table. But on the other hand, there was a crowd beginning to gather at one end. Then, he heard the strains of a guitar being tuned and then played. A popular, although somewhat risqué, piece, he thought, for a church auction. With some small consternation, he hurried over. 

 At the center of the crowd, seated in a chair next to the elderly widower Señor Escobedo, was a man dressed in a green ranchero's outfit, black hat and red sash. The sash matched the color of his hair. 

Patrick O' Leary finished the song of only two verses and called to the crowd, "This guitar may be old, but as you can see, it is finely tuned and plays an excellent song or two, even with me help. I've heard someone offer three pesos for this, but you can see that it is obviously worth much more. Who would not want such a fine instrument, an instrument with an even finer history? Now, how many of you know that my friend and yours, the distinguished Señor José Mario Escobedo, played this very guitar at the court of Spain in the days of old King Carlos? This was the very guitar that soothed the ears of this most outstanding of Spanish monarchs, his family and our current most gracious Highness, Ferdinand VII, Heaven bless him. This fine instrument could be handed down from each generation to the next, knowing its unique and proud history. Now, do I hear a bid for twenty pesos?" 

Several rancheros in the crowd were obviously impressed with the history of the guitar, its obvious beauty, and sound quality. They began bidding against each other. By the time Don Leon Santos walked away with a satisfied smile on his face, the price of the guitar had brought an astounding one hundred and fifty pesos. 

The gray-haired musician could hardly contain himself when the padre asked him about his incredible sacrifice of so worthy an instrument. "I don't really remember whether I was there or not, Father, but it must be true. And such a prize for the Church as well." By then, Felipe had forgotten all about the risqué tune that had attracted the crowd to the musician's table to begin with. 

The padre also noticed a group of men sitting in chairs and chatting with each other. Around them were gathering a group of men and women. "Good morning, Padre Felipe," they greeted him as he strode over. 

"Are you tired already from the heat?" he asked them. 

"Oh, no, Señor, " one answered. "We are just waiting for Colonel O' Leary to join our group for the contest." 

"Contest? What contest?" asked Felipe. 

"Jokes," answered the peon, Jesús, with a grin. 

"Jokes?" the priest was puzzled. 

"Each of us tells jokes and the ones that the crowd laughs at the most, wins." 

"Oh," pondered the padre. "How does that contribute to charity?" 

The coach driver, González, standing behind Jesús, answered. "Anybody can tell a joke, Padre. You pay five centavos to contribute a joke. We, of course, encourage anyone in the crowd to show their appreciation of a good joke by also contributing five or ten centavos. It all goes to the Church."

"What a good idea. Who thought of that?"

"Colonel O' Leary," answered Jesús. "I'm too poor to contribute any item for the church charity, but I can contribute some jokes. And five centavos is something I can afford. If I can contribute this way, it makes me very happy." 

"I see," responded Felipe. "Ah-hem, I would just like to remind you that this is a church auction, so please watch your language." 

"Now, Holy Father," said a familiar voice behind him. "I think that you've nothing to worry about."

Padre Felipe turned and beheld the red-haired Irishman who had a twinkle in his eye. "Hmm," responded the priest. "Since you've organized this affair, are you going to be the first to tell a joke?" Felipe thought it would be interesting to catch the colonel off guard, but the Irishman turned to the group of men. 

"Señores, I would like to reassure the Holy Father that our jokes are of the most genteel and honest nature. If nobody minds, I'll be glad to do the first one. Then you gentlemen," he turned to the seated men, "will just take it from there." The padre didn't see him wink at them. 

"All right, Colonel, tell your joke," said Felipe.

O' Leary turned to the crowd. "It's an Irish joke, of course: What's the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish wake?" He paused for effect. "One less drunk at the wake."

Even Felipe laughed at that one, shook his head and continued his inspection. He found a line-up of girls of all ages who recited poetry, their parents proudly looking on, and tables of home baked goods. A few people even offered kittens, puppies and chicks for sale as well. 

Felipe was about to head back over to the ladies selling their confections when he noticed a line of men at a tent. Now, I wonder what this could be. He smiled at the men in line and peeked around the corner of the tent. Inside he saw Rosita Flores seated in an elevated chair. On a small table next to her were two boxes. The one in front was labeled "donated to the church auction." She was putting a peso coin in it. While Padre Felipe actually did not approve of the kind of dancing she did, he was pleased to see her participating. He gave a little wave and she gave him her most charming smile. After he turned his back and left, she said to the man standing in front of her, "Well, it is fifty centavos for one kiss and one peso for three kisses."

 

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The colonel made it his business to go to all the stands and tables. If an object had not been sold, he made it his business to see that it was. If there was still food on the table, he gave away samples and helped to sell the rest. His name was on the tip of many tongues – from the women who sold homemade goods to the seniors relaxing in chairs.

While heading over into the shade he spotted the merchant’s wife. "Good afternoon, Señora Cárdenas," he greeted her. "A lovely day it is."

The plump woman looked up from the table and smiled. "Good afternoon, Colonel O’ Leary. My, isn’t this the largest auction that Padre Felipe has ever had? So many people are here. I don’t think the last auction was nearly so large." 

"And how is the young lad? Is he not here as well?" he asked her. 

She pointed to a table a bit further away. "He must be inspecting Señor Troya’s carved toys. Some of them are very clever." 

"Ah, by-the-by, I should be coming by your shop again on Monday. Perhaps your husband could recommend a gift for a gentleman?" he inquired. 

The woman’s face clouded a bit. She sighed. "I’m the bearer of bad news on that account," she said in a sad voice. "Roberto has to leave. It was unexpected – for me. I think, well, perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I think something is wrong. It might have to do with some merchandise he ordered, but I’m not sure. He’s been acting very strange lately." 

O’ Leary caught her distress at once. His voice became softer and he expressed concern. "I do hope that it is nothing too serious," he responded. "If there is any way I can help you out at the store, please let me know. I’m sure I could sweep the floor or carry something heavy if you need it moved." 

"That’s more than kind of you, Señor. For now, my sister and I can probably manage. I hope Roberto won’t be gone for too long," she said, trying to end on a hopeful note. She paused. "It’s just that this has never happened before and I’m just a little upset by it, that’s all," she confessed. 

"I’m sure everything will work out just fine," he reassured her. "If you and your sister can manage me as a customer, then you have nothing further to worry about." 

She smiled just as he hoped she would. He nodded. "Tell Pedro I said ‘hello.’ I’m sure he’s having a bit of fun over at Señor Troya’s." With that the colonel headed over to Rosita’s tent.

   

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It was mid-afternoon when the charity auction ended. The ladies, the dancer, the men who told jokes, the handicraft sellers, the girls who had memorized all the poetry, the balladeers, and the small merchants who had donated items all descended upon a red-haired man who sat at a table and was adding up all the funds. There was a can of coins here, a pile there, a box next to it, and several people just emptied their pockets out. 

A small crowd gathered and talked while the colonel wrote down items sold and the sums they brought. The colonel embellished the event by announcing the largest sums collected in various categories, such as home-cooked food, jokes, musical instruments, handicrafts, and general donations. Then there were the beverages sold, the animals auctioned off, and produce. 

When he finished he presented the padre with a sack of the collected monies and the ledger he wrote up. The Franciscan’s eyes lit up when he felt the weight of the sack.

He turned to the small crowd. "Never before has there been such a turnout to show our love for our poorer brethren," he announced. "I think that we owe Colonel O’ Leary a big thanks for all his help that contributed to the success of this event." There was a general nodding of heads. 

The red-haired man held up a hand. "Now, Holy Father, I would like to give credit to where it is really due, and that is to all the fine people who showed up this day and donated their time and goods to the cause of Mother Church. We also need to thank all the fine members of the community who showed up and enjoyed this event in the spirit in which it was conducted. The combination of both kind of charities made this event the success it was, not the colonel." He smiled and turned to the crowd. "And a special thanks to the ladies for all their fine cooking and wares and to the children for their grand poetry and songs. I don’t think I’ve had such a fine time in quite a while myself. Now I remember once we stopped at a fair in Madrid, and you wouldn’t believe the sights we saw there – puppet shows, dancing bears and pigs, and a ring from the hand of Merlin the Wizard himself…."

The crowd didn’t depart for another hour.

 

 

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