Zorro & the Old Comandante
Eugene H. Craig
Ismaida Rodriguez was in her room reading a book when she heard a strange tapping at her half-opened window. "Psst, pssssst. Ismaida."
She looked up, recognizing the voice. She saw a face and was surprised. The book dropped from her lap as she rose and hurried over to the window. She opened it and, to her astonishment, saw one of her best friends. "Margarita!" she exclaimed. "Good heavens, what are you doing up here? Did you climb all the way up in the tree?" She moved aside as Margarita climbed in over the sill. "Why didn’t you come to the front door?"
"Shhh," Margarita whispered. "I didn’t want anyone to see me."
"What is going on? Look, you have leaves on your skirt and in your hair. You might get holes poked in your blouse," the girl responded picking at some leaves in her friend’s hair and from off her long black skirt. "What if you had fallen out of the branches?"
"Oh, that’s all right," Margarita said, brushing off her blouse and skirt. "Ismaida, my father is trying to push Salvador on me again and I just had to escape. Thank all the saints that Don Francisco showed up this afternoon like he promised. He really saved me once again. He’s so wonderful."
"Come, tell me what happened," Ismaida said, taking her hand and leading her toward the settee. "You told me earlier that you met Don Francisco at church after your appointment with Padre Felipe. What did he say? What did you do?" Both young women sat down.
The girl in black turned towards her friend with bright eyes and a happy smile. "Well, after we met in church, we walked to the churchyard and sat on our favorite bench under the oak tree. He was so kind and held my hands. Then he told me that he thinks my piano playing is exceptional. Isn’t that so sweet?" Margarita gushed. "I think he wants to see me again. I asked him if he would tell me all about his travels and he said that he would, but only if I would agree to play for him some more. Of course, I promised!" She sighed. "You know, Ismaida, I just adore him. Did you notice how his moustaches turn up at the ends? He has the nicest smile. When he smiles, his eyes just light up. Did you notice that his eyes are light blue?"
"No, I didn’t notice those things, but I know that you do, Margarita," responded Ismaida with a knowing look. "What else did he say?"
"Did you know he’s a musician, just like we are?" Margarita enthused, watching the other girl's eyebrows rise in surprise. "When Francisco asked Señor Muõz if he plays at all, and of course he doesn’t, Salvador got nasty and asked Francisco if he does. Do you know what Francisco said?"
"No, I don’t," smiled the other. She was enjoying her friend’s delight in telling the story.
"Well, he said he played several instruments. First, violin, then flute, and he said he also plays a little piano. I was amazed and so happy. No wonder he understands me so well."
"All those instruments?" Ismaida looked very impressed.
"And not only that," Margarita confided. "He says that he plays other ones, but very poorly. My father jumped down his throat and said that he couldn’t possibly be so talented, but Francisco had a magnificent reply. He said ‘I had a good upbringing.’ I almost laughed at that. What a delightful response, and you know something? I bet it is true."
"Perhaps his family is musical, just like ours," her friend commented thoughtfully. "What else did you find out about him?"
"I told Juanita that his stories about his travels are amazing. Did you know he talks like he met old king Carlos IV and his family and was there at the royal palaces? I don’t think anyone could talk like that unless he had actually been there. I was thinking about it all afternoon. Perhaps he is a famous war hero and was admitted to the palace where he saw all those things."
"You think about Capitán de las Fuentes a lot, don’t you Margarita?" Ismaida smiled. "I think you’re falling in love with him. When you talk about him you glow like a candle, especially your eyes." She looked askance at her friend for some confirmation.
"Oh, Ismaida, I’m just so mad about him," Margarita exclaimed. "It’s crazy, but all I do is think about him and I can hardly wait to see him again. He’s better than all my dreams." Suddenly she looked very sad. Tears came to her eyes. "Oh, Ismaida, I just don’t want anyone except Don Francisco and now my father is trying to force Salvador on me and I just hate Salvador so much. I want Francisco to take me away and rescue me. But, Ismaida, I don’t know if Francisco feels that way about me." She looked very worried. "Padre Felipe told me that I have to tell the one I love what is in my heart, but I don’t know what he would think if I did."
"Why don’t you just tell him?" Ismaida advised. "After all, if you never tell him, he’ll never know."
"I don’t know if that would do, Ismaida," Margarita responded. "Francisco is so proper, so well-mannered and I wouldn’t want to shock him so soon - after all, we just met. Oh, I’ve tried to let him know in so many ways. I even left my kerchief for him today and he brought it back to me. I asked him if he would like to keep it."
"Oh, Margarita, Capitán de las Fuentes could hardly be shocked by anything like that. After all, he’s a comandante and," she added, wanting to appear very grown-up, "he seems like a very mature and, hmm, sophisticated man. What else did he say?"
Margarita sighed. "He was so gracious. He said that he was honored and would keep my kerchief. I imagined that he looked very pleased about it. Oh, Ismaida, what shall I do? Maybe he thinks I’m just a silly girl and he’s just being nice." A horrible thought then occurred to her. "What if he thinks I’m an old maid? I’m almost twenty-nine!" She felt depressed for a moment, overcome with self-doubt.
"Don’t be silly," Ismaida told her, puttting her arms around her friend and hugging her. "You’re not an old maid, Margarita. You are important and you are special, too, dear. I won’t have you talking this way. There is no reason why you should accept anything less than the man you really love. I know you love him. All you do is talk about him. You can’t find a single fault with him even though - I hope you’ll forgive me - he’s, well, crippled. If anyone were to ever say anything against him, why, you’d grab the closest flower pot and crack him over the head." She smiled. "Now, wouldn’t you?"
Margarita smiled weakly in return, nodded and held her friend close. "How well you know me, Ismaida. Yes, I think that I really would." She gazed at the tiny young woman with the dark hair. "I don’t even notice that he is crippled at all. I don’t see it. I see many other things." She paused again. "Don’t you think Don Francisco cuts a fine figure in his uniform, too? He keeps himself nice and trim. He has real dignity and he cares about other people, not just himself. He’s not too tall for me and he speaks so well, just like a scholar of immense learning. I could listen to him talk for hours." She sighed deeply. "And his voice is so manly and commanding, yet he speaks so mildly, never shouting at anyone. There are so many nice things I could say about him."
"You’ve already said quite a bit," Ismaida teased. "You’ve only known him a few days now and to listen to you, you’ve known him all your life."
"Now that you mention it, it does seem like I’ve known him for much longer," Margarita confessed. "Maybe because I’ve waited for someone like him for so long, I feel like I know him better than I probably do." She sighed, then looked up at the gilt clock on the table next to the settee. "Oh, my, I bet I’ve been here a long time. I had better go now."
"I want to see you happy for our party tomorrow night," Ismaida told her, changing the subject. "Almost everyone will be coming including Don Diego and Don Leon. Have you told Diego about Don Francisco?"
"I haven’t seen Diego at all recently, but I will ask him what he thinks. Francisco went out to Don Alejandro’s for dinner this evening. That is where he is now," Margarita told her. "Oh, I need to ask you a favor, Ismaida. I think my father took all my music. Francisco will be over to listen to my playing. Could I possibly get your music sheets from you? I want the ones we’ve been practicing for several weeks plus the Mozart piece. Oh, I almost forgot. Ismaida, you must have your father invite Capitán de las Fuentes to his party tomorrow night. He has to come. My father is going to invite Salvador and I think I know what they are planning. Please, run quickly and ask him, but don’t let anyone know that I asked for him, all right?"
"I will," promised Ismaida. "Let me see if anyone is downstairs right now. I have the music sheets right over here." She picked some several sheets and handed them to Margarita. "If no one is there, you can go out the front door. I wouldn’t want you to fall climbing back down the tree. I still can’t believe you climbed all the way up to my window." She beckoned Margarita over to the door. "As soon as you are safely out the door, I will ask Father if he has invited the new comandante to our party. I’ll insist that he do so. Don’t you worry, Don Francisco will be here."
Margarita embraced her in thanks, then both girls tiptoed down the stairs. After Margarita made her way out of the door, Ismaida stood thinking about her friend. She wanted Margarita to escape Salvador Muñoz’s clutches and if just inviting the comandante to the party would help, she would see to it that he got the invitation. Her father would never refuse such a small request. As a matter of fact, he would probably like Capitán de las Fuentes very much. She had told her parents all about him and about how Margarita thought he was the finest man she had ever met. She told them that Margarita was in love with him.
Tornado knew that hills and roads well and made his way sure-footed along the paths that led down to the main road. His legs stretched out in long strides as he gathered his speed up. His mane and tail blew behind him in the cool breeze of the hills above the darkened pueblo of Los Angeles. Only a few faint specks of light gave any indication of life in the vast basin that held the town with its few hundred inhabitants. The cape of his rider flowed behind him, like flag holding its own in the breeze.
El Zorro knew that De las Fuentes was not too far ahead of him. Although the road was direct, the officer was not completely familiar with it and the night was dark. Nevertheless the officer had made remarkable speed and was about half way back to the pueblo when the masked man caught sight of his faint outline in the road ahead. He slowed Tornado down in order not reveal his presence to the man he pursued.
The night air was full of mysterious sounds, from the hooting of owls seeking their nocturnal prey to the call of a distant coyote. The late Fall winds whipped through the oak trees that grew in abundance on the hills and along the roadway. The outcrops of rocks on the nearby hills gave the impression of otherworldly beings, huge and imposing, silent watchers of their dark kingdoms. To El Zorro these were familiar rhythms of the night but he wondered if the superstitious prince would view the ride as a journey through the haunts of demons or spirits.
Francisco de las Fuentes felt a certain exhilaration as he rode along the dirt road toward the pueblo of Los Angeles. The De La Vegas were true cavaliers, in his opinion, and he respected their ability to see through his disguise by logic and deductive reasoning. In fact, the officer was somewhat relieved that someone now knew something about him. He was a very private individual and normally would not discuss such personal calamities, but he had kept all the hurts bottled up inside of him for far too long. Only Padre Felipe had known of his misfortune but had sought, instead, to talk about uplifting topics rather than touch upon that grief that had torn his heart so much. He did not even discuss it with Alejandro or Diego beyond mentioning the fact in passing because he might have broken down - and that would never do for a prince of Spain. Out here in the night air and away from other humans he could speak her name and talk with her as if she rode the wind with him and it was always Isabel, my beloved Isabel. Gone from his life and not gone, haunting him most of his nights and always smiling, always loving him, even from the grave, she said.
And as much as he loved her, he knew he had to escape from her memory as well. She was alive, in Spain, married to another man, and, who knows, perhaps the mother of children by now. It must be our spirituality that keeps us linked, he thought, for what other chains could bind a man over six thousand miles and from the other side of the world? He sighed again and felt the cool air against his face like a phantom. I’m very glad to be visiting with Margarita again this evening, he thought, because she is more like Isabel than the Fates should allow, but she is nothing like her in all other regards and that pleases me a great deal, despite all its contradictions.
He felt the mare under him slow and hesitate to continue along the road despite his urging. He heard what sounded like a crashing in the underbrush not too far away. The animal could smell the approach of another and she did not want to be in its path. She reared slightly in protest. Maybe she smells the grizzly bears Sergeant García had warned about. He retreated back up the road to a safe distance and watched with his hand on the grip of his pistol in the saddle holster.
There was the sound of grunting and squealing, and from the distance, De las Fuentes could make out the outline of a herd of wild boar crossing the road up ahead. It was wise to avoid such animals because their fury was so unpredictable. After they passed he continued up the road, thinking about securing the town from Enríquez’s troubling threats, and how he would enjoy listening to Margarita play her piano while ignoring her peevish father. How God worked in such mysterious ways. Here, in a family of weeds, Margarita was a delicate rose - fresh, fragrant, and refreshing - and in danger of being crushed. Was it his destiny to make a difference in her life as well as in the life of Enríquez? Is this why God had sent him to Los Angeles? I do not know yet, and my mind is too tired to even contemplate it for now.
Sergeant Demetrio García López was dreading reporting to the comandante about the escaped prisoner. He knew that Capitán de las Fuentes had conducted himself in a reasonable and calm manner thus far, but this situation was different. The escaped prisoner, Enríquez, had threatened almost everyone with death. That made him dangerous. So it was with some apprehension that he reported to the comandante’s office upon his return from warning Don Leon and Don Juan Villa of the prisoner’s escape.
Capitán de las Fuentes sat in the chair at his desk while García explained what had happened. He nodded from time to time and drank a cup of tea.
"We opened the cells to give the prisoners their dinner. When Hugo, I mean Private Ríos, and I got to Señor Enríquez’s cell, we found him lying on the bench. I said to him ‘Good evening, Señor Enríquez. Look what we brought for you - a tasty dinner.’ He did not move and did not say a word. I said ‘Are you awake, Señor?’ He did not answer. I told Private Ríos, to shake the prisoner. Suddenly, Señor Enríquez jumped from the bench, rolled right through my legs and jumped out into the cuartel. It happened so fast, Comandante, I could hardly believe it. Private Ríos and I called out ‘Stop prisoner!’ but Señor Enríquez ran up the stairs of our barracks and climbed up onto the roof from the balcony. Private Carranza took a shot at him from the gates of the cuartel, but Señor Enríquez disappeared over the roof. I tried to think of what you would do, Comandante. I ordered the soldiers to search the streets outside the cuartel to see where he might have gone, but he vanished. After the soldiers returned, I came to inform you of the escape."
Francisco de las Fuentes said nothing for a few moments and looked a bit lost in thought. There was nothing ominous in the silence but it did raise the curiosity of the soldier waiting opposite him.
"Comandante, are you all right?" asked García.
The captain looked up. "I am fine, Sergeant. What do you think might have prompted Señor Enríquez to wish to escape? Was there any indication that he might do so earlier? Did he say anything at all?"
"Well, I don’t think so, Capitán."
"I want you to think very carefully. You say that Señor Enríquez was very quiet. Did he say anything at all to you or to Corporal Reyes or to anyone else this evening?"
"Oh, sí, Comandante. Now I remember. Corporal Reyes and I were talking about wine. You see, Corporal Reyes found that Señor Pacheco was not charging him for wine. I went to investigate and I found that this is true. Corporal Reyes thinks that there must be some special day - maybe two or three - on which corporals do not have to pay for wine."
De las Fuentes smiled slightly at that remark as the sergeant continued his story.
"Well, when we came back to the cuartel, we were talking about the wine. Then the prisoner, Robello, says that he also wants free wine. We laughed when he said he was going to consult with you about free wine. He said that you, Comandante, talked about justice and he wants his justice with wine." García smiled himself when he saw how amused the officer looked. "I told Señor Robello that if he wanted to talk to you, he should do so soon because nobody knows when Capitán Monastario is going to return. Ah, now I know, Comandante. It was then that Señor Enríquez came up to the bars and asked if Capitán Monastario was coming back soon. I told him that I did not know - perhaps tomorrow or maybe next week. Then I said that would be too bad because things would get worse for everyone."
"Ah," responded De las Fuentes, "It would seem that Señor Enríquez perhaps panicked at the idea that he would be in prison when Capitán Monastario returns and this is what prompted his escape."
"Sí, Comandante." The sergeant paused. "Capitán, do you want me to go warn the other men in town of Señor Enríquez’s escape?"
"I have already seen to that, Sergeant. I set up two patrols for an all night sweep of the town. One unit will cover the north and east, the other the south and west part of town. Each unit will comprise four soldiers and will be on watch for four hours, then another four will come on watch and so on in a continuous rotation until dawn. This will prevent anyone from getting too tired or overwrought. Only one of the men in town, Señor Portillo, asked for an armed guard at his home. He is elderly and could not defend himself. I sent Private Cosio to guard him."
"Capitán," García began hesitantly. "I am very sorry that this occurred. I hope you are not too upset by this."
The officer looked up at the big soldier who looked so uncertain. "Sergeant, when unexpected incidents occur, we just try to respond the best that we can. What you did was right - you sent the soldiers out to hunt for the prisoner; you came and informed me of what occurred; you carried out your orders to warn the rancheros, and you have given me a full report. This is about all that you can do. What we must do is learn from our mistakes and try to insure that such an escape does not happen again by taking more precautions. Everyone will now have to be more vigilant and tomorrow we will begin our search into the countryside to seek out Señor Enríquez. We will need to search in the places that he is known to have lived, worked or visited. I already have this information. I will brief you in the morning. Ah, yes, one further thing. I have given everyone the order that Señor Enríquez is to be taken alive. I do not want him harmed if it can be avoided. Is this clear?"
"Sí, Comandante. We will try to capture Señor Enríquez alive."
"And now, if you will excuse me, I have an evening appointment that I must attend to. Please see to it that the patrols continue their duties. If there is any kind of emergency, you may reach me at the home of Señor Sebastian Pérez. I will return later tonight."
The fat sergeant saluted and watched the small man depart from his office. He felt a great sense of relief on the one hand and a sense of pride on the other. The captain had told him that he had done a good job, and that he had done all that could be done. The officer had been very fair and said that everyone needed to learn from mistakes. The capitán had treated him courteously while telling him that he would need to be more vigilant. García sighed. A soldier could get to love the army with a comandante like him.
El Zorro watched from the shadows on a high rooftop as a small group of four soldiers left the cuartel with torches. They crossed the plaza and took the street heading toward the northern end of the pueblo. Just a few minutes later, another group of four left the cuartel, heading in the opposite direction. They were also armed with torches. The night vigil had begun, thought the masked man. It would be easy to avoid them by traveling on roof tops and dropping into gardens. He would have the advantage of darkness and he knew the town far better than the escaped prisoner, Enríquez, or the soldiers. He had followed De las Fuentes into the pueblo and was satisfied that there were no incidents other than the wild boars on the road. He now watched the capitán walk out of the cuartel and head towards the residence of Margarita Pérez. In a well-to-do neighborhood such as her parent’s, there were lighted torches outside the high walls of such residences. Nevertheless, the masked man followed the comandante quietly on foot in the shadows, ever vigilant for unwitting passersby.
Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes had just closed the door of the patio at the Pérez residence when he heard a strange sound coming from a tree near the wall at the gate. There, someone was calling him by name, very quietly. "Pssst, Don Francisco. Psssst." It was the voice of a young lady.
He looked up and, to his astonishment, he saw Margarita up in a tree whose branches hung over the high wall. She was almost invisible with the black shawl wrapped around her. She allowed it to drop, revealing her white blouse which looked almost ghostlike in the torchlight. He picked it up and draped it on the end of the long stone bench.
"Good heavens," he exclaimed. "Margarita! Is that you? By all the saints, what are you doing up there?" He watched her ease her way down gingerly through the branches. He climbed awkwardly up on the bench along the wall by the tree to help her down the rest of the way, softly cursing his bad leg. He held up his hands as she slid the last few feet into his arms.
She smiled up into his face. "Oh, Don Francisco! Thank you so much. Climbing up is easy. Getting down is much harder." She loved feeling his arms around her. She fluttered her eyes at him and gave him a wide-eyed gaze of utter innocence.
He stepped down onto the patio on his good leg as best he could. Straightening up, he saw that her eyes were only on his face, not even noticing his bad leg. He held up his arms to her and helped her down. "My dear, how is it that you are in a tree?"
She held onto his hands and whispered, "It’s the only place that they don’t think of to look for me and, believe me, they were out looking for me on the patio."
He understood at once. He gave her a look of pure affection. "You know, Margarita, you are a most remarkable woman in more ways than one - imaginative, formidable, something quite rare - and most welcome." He knew she was blushing even though it was hard to tell in the flickering light. He felt her body begin radiating that unmistakable female chemistry that says so much without words and is manifest in its most sincere intent and interest. He was a little surprised by it - and a bit flattered himself.
"You are the sweetest man," she said in a soft voice. "I don’t think I’ve ever met a finer man than you." She squeezed his hand. "Francisco, you are a very special man."
"Thank you, dear," he replied very sincerely. "Your words and sentiments honor me. I do not believe that I deserve them." Then he whispered, "But I am most concerned about your reputation." He looked towards the heavy oak door of the house. "Whatever will your parents think?" He picked up the shawl and carefully draped it around her shoulders.
"Oh, just a moment," she said. She leaned behind the stone bench and lifted up some parchment. "My music." She sighed as they walked arm in arm toward the door. "Francisco, I don’t believe my parents think very much of me at all."
He wanted to tell her that this was not true and that all parents loved their children. But he knew it was not entirely true. He remembered how His late Majesty and the queen had treated their son, Ferdinand, so shamefully and look at the consequences it had wrought -for Spain and for all its subjects. He nodded. "That may be true," he told her, "but where parents can sometimes be blind, friends who love you, are not." He thought only a moment before adding, "And I most certainly am not."
Margarita reached for the door handle and opened it. She gestured him inside, smiling. As they went through the open door and it closed behind them, a man in a black cape and mask eased himself to the top of the wall and looked around. He looked up into the branches of the tree so recently occupied by a very musical and imaginative young lady of his acquaintance. An excellent lookout spot, he thought - a hardy old tree with many branches and plenty of leaves that could hide an observer. The flat top of the wall would provide an easy way to travel from one side of the patio to the other or into a neighboring garden. He settled himself comfortably on a broad limb and prepared to spend his time watching the movements on the road and waiting to catch sight of the ever- elusive Joaquín Enríquez.