The Irish Colonel

 

by

Eugene Craig

 

 

 

DAY FIVE

 

Chapter 23

 

It was early afternoon when Diego de la Vega and his manservant Bernardo rode toward the pueblo of Los Angeles. Diego raced his palomino along the roads and through the narrow passes with Bernardo following in his wake. It was an enjoyable pastime of his and Diego liked to keep up his sword fighting in private as well as his equestrian skills.

As they reached the top of the hills that overlooked the road to the pueblo, Diego saw a carriage with a man and woman in it. Alongside was a vaquero bringing up two stallions from the rear. Diego recognized the carriage and the stallions at once as belonging to Don Carlos. He decided to find out what was going on. 

The horses continued to race along the road until they caught up with the carriage. Diego slowed down and hailed its passengers. "Good afternoon, Señorita, Don Carlos," he greeted them in a friendly manner. 

"Good afternoon, Don Diego," Don Carlos replied in his stern and formal manner. The woman with him smiled, "How nice to see you again, Don Diego." 

"Are you entering your horses in a race today, Don Carlos," asked Diego innocently. "When I last saw you with these two, they came in second place." 

The Don was proud of his animals. "They came in first place in San Diego just this spring. I was hoping your father would bring Diabla to test her against mine, but he could not make it at that time. I will reluctantly part with one of the two today, but as you know, I have some young ones following in their stead which show the same promise in their fleetness and strength." 

"Who is buying, if I may ask?" Diego queried. 

Don Carlos looked a little exasperated. "That character, Colonel O’ Leary, is," he said. "But I’m only doing it as a personal favor to our comandante. If it were not for his request, I would not even consider doing business with that foreigner." The ranchero looked disdainful. "He’s just a vulgar drunk." 

"I thought he was rather charming," his sister spoke up. "All the ladies there seemed to like him very much." 

"Hmmpf," snorted her brother. "As charming as a goat, I suppose. I would think that you would find a sober gentleman with a business frame of mind more suitable than that soldier of fortune." 

"Colonel O'Leary is a decorated war hero, whether we like him or not, Carlos. Besides, he's retired now, not a soldier of fortune," the woman pointed out. "I'm sure that once he's here a while, he will fit right in with the rest of us." 

"That remains to be seen," the don said with conviction. "I don't know why our comandante even puts up with him. He should certainly not let rank stand in his way since the man's retired. I hear that he spends his time drinking with the soldiers in the tavern and flirting with that low-class dancer. Not much of an officer if you ask me." 

"Colonel O’ Leary seems to have the knack of getting to know everyone, no matter what their status in life," Diego commented. "He is also an aristocrat, but one with ‘the common touch.’" 

"Aristocrat or not, he forgets the dignity of his office and rank," Don Carlos continued. "That is something that no Spanish nobleman ever forgets. He might have been a nobleman, but he is contaminated with republicanism. He even spouts like one with peasant proverbs and the like." With that comment, the don gestured to the carriage driver. "If you will excuse us, Don Diego, I have some appointments in town." 

Diego bowed slightly. "Have a pleasant afternoon, Don Carlos, Señorita," he bowed and waved as the carriage took off. He turned to his manservant. "You know, Bernardo, there are some interesting developments afoot." 

Bernardo nodded, easing his mount closer to his master. He pointed to the departing carriage of Don Carlos, made a sign of a man with a mustache and goatee and a military bandoleer, and, finally to a man with a mug taking a drink. He took three of his fingers and put them all together. 

Diego nodded. "It seems like three characters are getting together this afternoon. And after what you overheard Monastario say about planning a trap for el Zorro, I think I am beginning to see what is going on: Don Carlos is going to sell Paddy one of his fastest horses. Paddy tried to track me twice, once the night I met him on the road after his visit at the Torres’, and then, the next morning. Next, the comandante will pull off some stunt to lure Zorro in to town. And finally, something unpleasant is being planned for trapping el Zorro." 

Bernardo nodded and shook his head in consternation. He shrugged his shoulders, then raised his hands and eyebrows to indicate a question of what do do. 

Diego urged his horse forward. "Come, Bernardo, let’s do some scouting around and see what we can come up with. There’s nothing like getting some of the information first hand. After all, if Capitán Monastario can use resources, there is no reason why we can’t do the same." 

 

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The stocky man with the brown hair and thick mustache stood in his closed store and looked around. There would be ample stocks and supplies for some time. He cleaned up and swept the floor, dusted the shelves and arranged his goods to make them as interesting as possible. He kept himself busy, if only to keep his mind off something that had come back to haunt him years after he thought he had escaped it. Arranging things, moving items, was only a device, he knew, that kept him from brooding and anticipating the worst. And the imagination could be a source of fear as well as an escape. 

Roberto Cárdenas picked up a few sweets and put one into his mouth to savor. He put the rest in his pocket. How strange it was that he had only come to take something so simple, like a confection, for granted only recently. He remembered years before when he had been desperately hungry, how his life had been fearful and uncertain. Then, all that changed. He sat down on a barrel and remembered his life. He had managed to get a passage to the new world and had traveled to the port of Havana, Cuba, in the Américas with his little son. 

He remembered the trip along the tropical coast of the island with its shoreline of endless trees, bays and beaches. The ship had passed the entrance of Havana’s harbor with the tall watchtower on the left and the old Spanish fortresses on either side with their cannon bristling out of the gun slits in the masonry. The interior walls of the fortresses were fifteen feet thick to repel the gunfire of the English fleet that had taken the city in 1762, only to be driven out after a year’s occupation. 

Havana looked like any Spanish port city with its cobblestone streets, the Governor General’s mansion and the Plaza de Armas just a stone’s throw from the harbor itself. In the same plaza were buildings of colonial administration and the palaces of noblemen, attractive with their bright colors of yellow and blues, greens and pinks. Soldiers drilled in the plaza and marched through the streets on patrol at night, constantly vigilant for curfew violators who were usually slaves or drunks. The royal government also sent troops to raid the homes of suspected republicans and not a few had been arrested or deported. 

Then there was the fear of slave revolts that was not far from whispered conversations that died down when the black servants approached. The French had fled the revolt of their slaves in Haiti just a few years before and had come to Cuba to replant their coffee trees in the cooler mountains both to the west of Havana in Pinar del Río province as well as in the Sierra Maestra at the eastern end of the island. 

Dependence on troops to suppress the slaves was a strength and weakness, thought Roberto. Then there was the malaria from mosquitoes and the lack of sanitation just outside of the city, a danger for both children and adults. And the Spanish administration was slovenly in its attention to such matters. No, this is not a place where I can find refuge for Pedrito and me. And so, he booked passage to Cartagena, Columbia, then on to Venezuela where he left the boy with a kind and beautiful lady, Isabel, the woman who later became his wife, while he went on to explore the highlands of Peru. 

The American colonies were in a ferment of revolt and had been for years, but who could believe the news from either Madrid or the colonies. Roberto found himself in a chaos greater than that of Spain. He took refuge with a family of republicans, supporters of independence in Peru, but found that Lima was a stronghold of the Loyalists and the dangers to republicans there was greater than just about anywhere he had traveled. Back and forth across mountain trails that descended from their great peaks into steaming jungles he traveled. Many a life was claimed from treacherous rock slides and narrow mountain roads where even sure-footed burros lost their hold and fell plunging into the abysses below. 

And finally, he had made it back to Venezuela where rebel troops under the famous Generals Simón Bolívar and his friend José Antonio de Sucre had succeeded in many battles against the Loyalists. But all was not clear-cut. Massacres by Loyalists were meant to strike fear into the hearts of resistance fighters, their supporters and their families. Outside Caracas, Loyalist guerilla forces harassed republican forces and men who had fought Bonaparte in Spain found themselves on opposite political sides. Isabel's husband had been killed and she herself came close to death. 

Roberto Cárdenas breathed in deeply as he forced himself to abandon his remembrances of the past. Would he ever find peace? California had seemed like a refuge, but here, there was greater danger than he had ever imagined. Could he escape again? He peered out the window of his store and watched the people come and go on Sunday. He saw his friends and he saw his enemies. He began to pace the floor in the darkened room. 

 

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Paddy headed back to town for a change of clothes. He had spent much of the afternoon testing two fine stallions in the hills and on the road outside of Los Angeles. One was a handsome gray and the other a dark brown. Both of the animals were fast and capable, but the Irishman based his decision on the animal’s personality. "Animals are like people," he said as he rubbed the great horse’s chocolate brown neck and whispered in its ear. "You have not only to talk to them, but you have to listen as well." 

Don Carlos, as expected, rolled his eyes. He saw horses only as possessions and for purposes of prestige, but his vaquero smiled with his eyes in appreciation of the Irishman’s sensitivities. The stallion he chose was, admittedly, the plainer of the two, but that was not the point. There was that unspoken quality, an indefinable link between animal and man, an understanding of the one for the other as when two similar spirits met. Paddy spent much of the afternoon riding and conversing with the animal that he named Erin. 

As he walked to the inn, Paddy thought about how the bargaining had gone as well. Although he paid more for Erin than he had wanted, the horse was well worth the cost. Don Carlos expressed disgust to hear that the horse’s name had changed from Royal Splendor to Erin the moment the money had exchanged hands. To the Irishman’s way of thinking, even Erin seemed to like the name change, for like Ireland, it was how the word softly tripped on the tongue, and the inflection of affection and love it conveyed when spoken. 

Then there were the plans for tomorrow and beyond tomorrow which would be more uncertain. He had met Elena and her parents out on the road as they returned home. He showed off Erin and even Don Nacho got out of the carriage and rode the horse up the road and back, complementing the colonel on his new steed and expressing the hope that he would enter the animal into one of the local races. Doña Luisa had invited him to visit them the next afternoon and Elena‘s eyes were full of affection for him. Then she made the comment that she always welcomed his sunny disposition. Ah, the little colleen was finally breaking out of her shell, he thought. And how her face lights up when she smiles and the clouds of worry vanish like the fog. And Paddy wanted to make the clouds disappear for the Torres if he could. 

And speaking of the fogs, there were more serious matters. First, Enrique’s rotten show to entice the confrontation with El Zorro. That should reveal a thing or two about the comandante’s methods and gage the popular reaction, if any. Then there was the visit to the general store to meet with one Roberto Cárdenas. Paddy really hoped that what he had heard thus far about the man was merely a strange coincidence, just another tragic tale that had begun with Bonaparte’s war against Spain and one that had played itself out in the Américas. War had uprooted the lives of many men and driven many abroad under similar circumstances. This is what he told himself. But at the back of his mind were the nagging doubts and an uncomfortable feeling of familiarity that would give him no peace. And these sentiments grew in their intensity and he found it harder to quiet them and even harder to ignore them. 

 

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The evening was a quiet one at the inn. Rosita Flores sat in a brown skirt with a white blouse. Gone were the bright red and gold earrings and bracelets on her arms. Instead, she wore a silver cross around her neck and a silver ring on her right hand. At her side was her grandmother, a thin, white haired woman with a solemn demeanor. Both sat at the table and listened quietly to a man who spoke with enthusiasm about his new horse and the hills and countryside outside Los Angeles. He had gone on almost non-stop during dinner, pausing only long enough to ask them about who they met at evening mass and how the book by Cervantes that they were reading was coming along. 

Finally, the hour grew late and the two ladies retired for the evening. Paddy O’ Leary ordered himself a bottle of wine and began to drink it after they left. He had had nothing but tea for dinner, not to offend the grandmother, that is, and it was time to help the food digest with some spirits. 

Another half an hour passed when Rosita Flores came back down the stairs and rejoined him at the table. The gray-haired innkeeper brought her a glass and Paddy filled it half way. Rosita smiled and proposed a toast to Erin, the horse. 

"What a little darlin’ you are," Paddy commented, raising his glass to hers. She was quick to respond to this enthusiasm on almost any subject, but especially on the subject of Erin.

Rosita smiled. "You have a real feeling for this horse, Paddy. How like you, to love such an animal." She took another sip of wine. "You have love for a great many things. That is why I love you, too, Paddy." 

"Perhaps tonight is a night for love," he suggested and gave her a wink. 

She purred in response and giggled, nodding. 

But then his _expression grew serious. He lowered his voice to an almost inaudible level. She leaned forward to hear his words. 

"Sweetheart, there is something I have to tell you," he began. "And let me get this over with as soon as possible. Then we’ll think about other things, more pleasant things." 

The door to the tavern banged open and Sergeant García marched in. There were two other soldiers with him. O’ Leary had seen the two before at the cuartel, but did not know them. The big sergeant and the two privates sat down at a table. García spotted the Irishman at once. 

Paddy got the feeling that he was going to be encroached upon and he decided to ignore García completely. He reached his hands across the table to Rosita and took her small hands in his, telling her that her eyes reminded him of a love poem that he was going to quote. 

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw García nod towards him. One of the soldiers was shaking his head in disapproval at the sergeant having appraised the situation at the colonel’s table. García got up anyway and headed toward their table. 

Rosita saw everything, too. Without looking at García, she gave a laugh. "Oh, Paddy," she said in a voice just loud enough for García to hear. "Recite the whole love poem, and if anyone interrupts you, I want you to break his face." 

The Irishman gave her an approving look. "I’ll do that, just for you, Love. And while I’m at it, I’ll rearrange it as well." 

The sergeant stopped dead in his tracks, pretended to get an extra chair from an adjoining table and headed back over to where the soldiers relaxed. He looked back over his shoulder and sat down. "That Señorita Flores is a little wildcat," he told the two privates, much to their amusement. "Don’t let her small size and pretty face fool you." He pouted a moment. "Say, Hugo, why don’t you buy a bottle this time?" 

The soldier with a pencil thin mustache took off his hat and laid it on the spare chair. He sighed. "I bought the bottle the last time. Don’t you remember, Sergeant?" 

"Oh," García responded. He turned to the other soldier who shook his head rapidly. "I don’t have a centavo, Sergeant." 

The big man looked back over his shoulder to the colonel’s table. The colonel seemed to be in a long discourse. "How long does it take to recite a poem?" he muttered to himself.

"Come on, Sergeant. Buy the bottle. We don’t have all night," the two soldiers pressed him. 

García stalled around for as long as he could, then reluctantly got up and headed to the bar. He kept glancing over at the colonel’s table and then gave up. Maybe the colonel knew lots of love poems and the dancer was certain to keep him going. She sure had him twisted around her little finger, he thought. He sighed, reached into his pocket and pulled out some coins for a bottle. 

The gray-haired and balding innkeeper did not give him any change. When García protested, Señor Pacheco told him that he was applying it to the bill he had already racked up. García sighed again and took the bottle back to the table. So intent was he on pouring out the wine, he did not see Rosita and the colonel rise and head toward the stairs. 

When the innkeeper looked up and made to bid them a pleasant evening, Rosita put her fingers to her lips. The man nodded in understanding and the colonel gave him a silent salute. They headed up the stairs together. 

"You know," García said to the soldiers, "this idea of Capitán Monastario’s is not very good."

"It makes me sick," said Hugo. "Listen, Sergeant, don’t choose me to do any of the whippings. I know two of those men personally. They’re not criminals. They just get drunk every once in a while." 

"If the capitán assigns you to do it, then there’s nothing I can do about it," García responded. He was about to say something more when one of the soldiers kicked him from under the table. He looked up in alarm. 

"Well, Sergeant, how is everything going this evening?" a familiar voice said and a hand clapped him on the shoulder. 

"Oh, it’s you, Don Diego," said García in a voice filled with relief. 

"I hope I’m not interrupting anything important or personal am I?" the young man asked with concern. 

"No, you are not interrupting anything personal," the big sergeant shook his head. He looked a bit unhappy. "Only something a little sad." He took a long drink of wine. 

"Something sad?" The don's eyebrows were raised questioningly. "Is there anything I can do for you fellows?" 

García felt Hugo nudge him under the table with his foot and looked at the wine bottle.

"Well, sí, Don Diego. Why don't you have a seat here with us? Hugo, get Don Diego a mug." 

Diego sat down at the table and watched García pour him a little wine. "This is a first, Sergeant," he remarked and took a sip. 

"A first? A first what?" asked García in a puzzled voice, as the other two soldiers grinned. 

"Uh, never mind," Diego smiled. "Now what did you say about something sad?" 

García looked around him and motioned Diego closer. The other two soldiers leaned across the table in a conspiratorial manner as well. "It’s like this," he said in a very low voice. "Capitán Monastario is planning some tricks tomorrow." 

"He’s always up to something, Sergeant," responded Diego nonchalantly. "What is he going to do this time?" 

"You must swear that you will not tell a living soul, Don Diego," García said, moving his

eyes from the don back to the soldiers. 

"I promise," said Diego. "Besides I will be going home after a few drinks." 

"Well, Capitán Monastario is going to try to capture Zorro." 

Diego laughed. "Again? Isn’t he always trying to capture Zorro?" 

"Shhh, Don Diego. This is important. The capitán is not going to wait around for Zorro to just show up, he is going to do something bad." 

Diego looked interested. "Do something bad? When is he not doing something bad?" 

García began to look irritated. "Don Diego, will you please be serious. Capitán Monastario is going to whip some of the men in the jail - and for nothing, on purpose. Just so Zorro will ride and try to rescue them. He might even threaten to hang someone. The comandante is determined to do this." 

"I’m sorry to hear that, Sergeant," said Diego. "We’ll have to buy another bottle of wine. Somehow, drinking wine makes the world seem less bad." He got up and went to the bar and returned with two bottles. 

The big man sighed. "That is true, Don Diego." His eyes widened as he counted the two bottles on the table. "As a matter of fact, Hugo and Marcos are going to be stationed right off the plaza on their horses to give chase if Zorro escapes. The capitán even wants Colonel O’ Leary to watch what is going on. With his new horse, maybe he could capture Zorro. The comandante thinks that having men on the inside and outside of the cuartel will do the job. At night, not even Zorro could see all the men in wait for him."

"That sounds like an excellent plan to capture Zorro," Diego responded as if very impressed. He raised his glass and the three soldiers followed suit. "Well, Sergeant, maybe the comandante will have Zorro to hang at last. With that kind of planning, what could go wrong?"

   

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Paddy and Rosita sat propped up on the pillows together on the bed. He had his arm around her. He was quiet for a long time.

"What did you want to tell me, Paddy?" she asked finally, her dark eyes looking up at him with concern. 

Paddy sighed mournfully. "I was hoping that this would not come to what it has, sweetheart. Do you remember when I told you about the storekeeper? I talked with his wife just this morning. I’m convinced more than ever that her husband is the man I’m looking for." 

"Do you really want to go through with this?" The tears began to well up in her eyes.

He squeezed her and pressed his head next to hers. He felt the hot tears on her cheek. "I have to find out if he is the one or I will never have any peace," he told her.

"But how will you know if it is he or not?" she queried. "Could he not have changed after all these years?" 

"Even if he has aged one hundred years, I will know who he is," the Irishman declared. Then he softened his voice. "If this had never happened, and I wish that it never had, well, I would never have met you, now would I?" 

Rosita tried to smile through her tears. She turned her face to kiss him. "Oh, Paddy, I just don’t want anything to happen to you. Not now, not ever." Then she began to cry softly. 

"I know, little darlin," he said and kissed her in return. "Now, don’t you worry about Paddy. He knows how to look out for himself. He always has and he always will." 

Both of them lay there in each other's arms and watched the candle burn until the wick finally extinguished itself and the room was left in darkness.

 

 

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