Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter 17

 

Don Felix Munoz and his wife, Ines, were not blind to the fact that Margarita was not interested in their son at all. The thin, graying merchant had watched Pérez's attempts to bring Margarita and Salvador together for dancing fall flat. He motioned his wife over to the door of the patio and for a short while they observed the comandante and Margarita dance and watched them kiss. "We now have all the evidence we need," he remarked to his wife. She nodded. Felix approached his son who had given up dancing with the fleet-footed Juanita who had complained loudly about his stepping on her feet. Salvador had walked away from Juanita in frustration. He turned when he heard the voice of his father say, "Salvador, may I see you a moment?"

The father faced his son and was frank. "Despite Sebastian's good intentions regarding matching Margarita with you, we think this is not a good idea. It is obvious to us that she is in love with someone else," Felix told him in no uncertain terms. "I see no reason to keep on pursuing this."

"She's just infatuated with a musical army officer, that's all. There's more at stake here, Father," the young man sputtered. "After all, I'm the one who proposed!" he argued.

"And she has turned you down twice now," his father reminded him. "You yourself told us that she avoids you like the plague and will only call you 'Señor Muñoz'."

"Oh, that," Salvador responded nonchalantly, "she is just playing hard to get. Lots of women act like that when they are really flattered to get the attention. Besides, a desperate woman like her is almost beyond the marrying stage. She should be grateful I proposed." He watched as Sebastian Pérez made his way out to the patio. A minute later, he returned almost dragging Margarita behind him. At her side was the comandante of Los Angeles who had a rather grim look on his face. He watched the officer say something to Margarita and she nodded.

"Don Sebastian is going to make an announcement," he declared. "I think you will be gratified to hear it, Father." He turned away and strode over to join Pérez and his reluctant daughter.

Most people were still chatting and dancing when Sebastian Pérez raised his voice. On his left was Salvador Muñoz. On his right was his daughter, Margarita, and next to her was the comandante.

"Attention, attention," said Sebastian. "I want to make a very happy announcement." He tone was exuberant. He was at his flamboyant best.

As the guests crowded around, Pérez looked like a strutting peacock. César Rodriguez walked within a few feet of the small group, wanting to be as close as possible to Pérez because he feared trouble. Diego de la Vega came up behind the comandante to support him if necessary, but the officer was totally focused on Margarita. Her hands were trembling.

"I am very happy to announce," Sebastian began, "the betrothal of my daughter, Margarita, to Salvador Muñoz." He looked very pleased with himself and looked out at the crowd in great expectation.

There was a long silence. The silence was so long that he began to get a dismayed look on his face. He did not know that most of the guests had heard that Margarita was in love with the comandante - César Rodriguez had told them so. A few of the guests began to say ‘congratulations,’ but it was half-hearted.

"If you are against this," Francisco whispered in her ear urgently, "then you had better say so now or you are lost forever."

Margarita stepped forward. "I will NOT marry Salvador Muñoz!" she declared in a loud voice. "I have said this before and I will say it again. I will not now or ever marry Salvador Muñoz!"

Sebastian Pérez exploded. "You will marry whom I tell you to," he shouted, turning to face her. His face was red with anger and embarrassment.

"I will never marry him, never," she repeated defiantly.

It happened so quickly that no one was prepared; that is almost no one. In his anger, Sebastian Pérez raised his hand and swept it in a slap across her face. But his slap did not reach its intended target. Francisco de las Fuentes saw what was coming and stepped right in front of Margarita. He took the full force of the blow across the face.

There was a shocked silence from everyone, then gasps of astonishment and dismay. Diego was startled at how quickly the prince had moved - faster than he anticipated. "Your Excellency!" Diego exclaimed in a voice full of concern.

César Rodriguez uttered a reprimand of "Sebastian!" Even Pérez seemed stunned for he lowered his hand quickly. Nonetheless he glowered at the officer for taking the punishment meant for Margarita.

Margarita looked shocked. "Oh, Francisco," she whispered in dismay and her eyes filled with tears.

The comandante's face began to turn red with the force of the blow, but he stoically remained calm. "If you ever attempt to harm Margarita again," he said to Pérez in a quiet but icy tone of voice, "I will meet you on the field of honor. Do I make myself clear?" With his deep baritone, the threat seemed even more ominous than mere words could convey.

"How dare you interfere…" began Sebastian in a fury.

Don Felix Muñoz suddenly appeared out of nowhere. He stepped into the fray. "Sebastian, Sebastian," he said in an urgent tone, taking the man's arm. "Just one moment please." He held up a hand. "I need to say something important." Everyone's attention moved to the graying merchant in black. "Sebastian, old friend, take this well. I know you have the best of intentions in wanting Margarita to marry our son, Salvador. We love Margarita like a daughter. But, it is apparent to me that Margarita's heart lies elsewhere and, as fond as we are of her, it would be much better for her to follow her heart, not someone else's." He turned to his son. "This is our final word on the matter." He shook Pérez' s hand as if bidding him farewell. Pérez looked stunned at this turn of events.

As Felix Muñoz turned to leave, Francisco de las Fuentes caught his arm. "Señor Muñoz," he said in a very sincere manner, "you are a noble gentleman."

"Your Excellency," Muñoz responded, "I know of no greater act of love than for a man like you to take a blow intended for someone else. You have my respect and best wishes."

"What the devil did he mean by that?" Sebastian asked Salvador in an undertone. "You didn't tell me that your father knows De las Fuentes."

Salvador shrugged at the exchange between his father and the comandante. "He does not…. as far as I know," Salvador responded. "They've never spoken to each other before tonight." He was puzzled. Still, he was angry at the turn of events and he looked resentfully at the woman who had quickly left his side.

The crowd began to mill about and the Don César had the musicians start the music again. Some couples began to dance, others formed in circles to discuss what had just happened, and others began to leave, but everyone was talking.

Sebastian looked around. He had been humiliated publicly by his daughter, by the comandante, and by the man he wished to impress the most, Felix Muñoz. Well, this would not be the end of it. Margarita would pay for her insolence regardless of the comandante's threat. De las Fuentes’ "interference" in a family situation further infuriated Sebastian. He turned to take Margarita in hand but found she was in deep conversation with De las Fuentes. Her hand was caressing his face where he had received the blow. He turned around to find another object for his wrath - María. She stood off to the side and had watched everything, not even raising her voice to protest her daughter's public refusal to marry Salvador. "María!" he barked, "come over here. We are going to leave."

She came over at once and her face was expressionless. Sebastian imagined she was pleased by the turn of events. "See what you have done," he accused. "This is all your fault."

"I told you many times, Sebastian, that Margarita would not marry Salvador. But you do not want to listen. I am glad that Felix recognized the truth. You need to do the same," she replied.

"You ungrateful daughter of a nonentity," he retorted with gritted teeth. "You have always tried to thwart my plans and as you sow, so shall you reap!" He expected her to respond with a terrified look, but she was utterly calm as if she had made her peace with death. This angered him further but all he said was, "Go get your daughter and bring her with us. We are leaving!"

"My deepest regrets, Señora," Francisco told María when she informed him that she was reluctantly escorting Margarita back home. "I wish that this did not have to happen the way it did, but I believe, in the end, it will be best for everyone."

"Do not apologize, Capitán," María replied sincerely, "it is I who must apologize for my husband's barbarous behavior. I am only sorry that you suffered for it as well." She hesitated a moment. "Don Francisco, I want you to know that I think you are the most remarkable man I have ever met. I am very proud of Margarita. She is all that I would like to be - true to her convictions and not afraid to stand up for what she believes is right. You have no idea how much I admire her." María had tears in her eyes and Margarita hugged her.

"Doña María," Francisco said with conviction. "Always remember this - that you, in no small way, have contributed to the strength and character of your daughter. I hope you will recognize that in her success lies your own."

"And I, Don Francisco, understand better than I ever have, why Margarita loves you so much," María finished.

"I only hope that I am worthy of such love," he responded. He kissed the hands of both women and added, "I look forward to seeing the both of you again soon."

 

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Diego de la Vega looked troubled as he paced outside on the Rodriguez patio waiting impatiently for the return of his mozo, Bernardo. It must have been two hours since he had been dispatched to the De la Vega hacienda to find out the reason for Don Alejandro’s absence from the party. The moon was high in the sky overhead, providing the studious observer with a clear view of its distant craters and dark mountains. A pale halo of soft light surrounded the luminous orb, but Diego was in no mood to appreciate its strange and compelling beauty.

Capitán de las Fuentes was taking his leave of the Rodriguez family, complementing the girls on their playing and Don César and Doña Ramona on their marvelous displays and the entertainment. He apologized for any embarrassment they may have suffered on account of the unfortunate incident of the evening, but César shook his head. "Not at all, Capitán," he said shaking his head. "I was pleased to intervene any way that I could as well. What you did was right. You know, I admire Margarita a great deal because of her courage to say no at a time like this and under the kind of pressure she has had to endure. Not too many women could act so decisively."

"It is one of her many remarkable qualities," Francisco agreed. He glanced off to the patio. "If you will excuse me, I see that Don Diego is still waiting for his servant to return. I hope you will forgive me if I must depart in order to inquire whether he is in need of some assistance." Everyone took their bows and the officer headed over to the fidgeting young man.

"Thank you, Comandante," Diego responded to the small man’s inquiries. "The hour is late and my mozo has not returned with our carriage. I am concerned because of the amount of time he has been away. But perhaps he is on the road now." He gave a small sigh. "I think your idea for a nightcap at the cuartel is not a bad one."

With these words, the two men headed toward the cuartel. After a small glass of brandy, the officer offered to ride out with Diego to the hacienda.

"You don’t need to come, Comandante," Diego insisted, noting the late hour, but the officer indicated his continuing concern.

"If Señor Enríquez is making good on his threats," De las Fuentes reminded him, "then he may have struck this evening. I will leave Sergeant García in charge of the cuartel and bring Corporal Reyes with me in case there is trouble."

"If there is trouble, Capitán, would it not be best to bring a few more men?" asked Diego. "It may take more than just two soldiers. From what I understand, it took a number of men just to subdue him the first time in jail."

"I am confident that Corporal Reyes and I can handle the situation," De las Fuentes replied. "The other soldiers are out on patrol of the pueblo. It is important that the town be secured by night. Unfortunately, our garrison is a very small one. If I need more men, then I will ask the rancheros for volunteers from among their servants."

"You will certainly have our cooperation in that regard, Comandante," Diego assured him. "Enríquez could be a threat to more than just the men he robbed."

Within a few minutes, three men headed on horseback out of the pueblo of Los Angeles and into the dark, moonlit road that headed south towards the De la Vega hacienda.

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Margarita turned the key in her room door. It was not the first time that she feared her father’s anger. But tonight, she feared for her mother the most. She spent an hour with her ear to the bedroom door, listening to the sounds of curses, weeping, and the crashing of furniture that came from up the hall. Her hands trembled as she finally removed her hands from the door and made her way to her bed.

The single candle burned its way down gradually as she tried to force her mind into more pleasant thoughts – thoughts of her music and how, captured in its magical realm, she removed herself from the painful thoughts of the present and entered another world that few others had gained access to.

And she daydreamed about dancing with Capitán de las Fuentes and looking into his blue eyes that seemed so kind and understanding. If it had not been for her father, she would have worn her most cheerful colors and golden jewelry, but she had dressed in mourning. Thank all the Saints that Francisco never seemed to notice her somber attire, she thought, but only gazed into her eyes and shared that spiritual bond that no one else seemed to understand. Unlike the arrogant Salvador Muñoz who enjoyed contemplating a power over her she would never recognize or accede to, she liked the fact that Francisco never assumed a condescending or superior attitude, something that she had not expected in a military officer. I feel I’ve become a better and stronger person ever since I met Francisco, she thought. Not only that, everything I believe in has been affirmed by our mutual love of music and what it means to us.

And out on a dark, dirt road known as the El Camino Real, three riders hurried toward the Hacienda de la Vega. None of them spoke because each was immersed in his own thoughts. The short corporal was being vigilant, watching the bushes, trees and outcrops while playing the rearguard to the two men who rode slightly ahead of him.

Capitán de las Fuentes found his thoughts drifting to the party and to the enchanting Margarita who played so delightfully. Although Ismaida and Juanita had played well, their performances had been greatly overshadowed by the power and sensitivity of the woman whose clothes were black but whose inner being shone with all the power and passion that she could muster for her performance. I have never been so enchanted by a lady, he thought, since Isabel. Although not a princess of the blood, Margarita is a princess nonetheless, like the fairy tale of Cinderella who, though dressed in rags, was the dream-come-true of another prince in despair. He forced himself to think of what might lie in store for them should they arrive and encounter Joaquín Enríquez.

Diego de la Vega was somber. The carriage had not returned to the pueblo although the soldiers had watched for it while he had his drink with the comandante. Neither had they come across a rider or anyone on the road that led to home. Diego’s restless eyes strained to find any indication that there had been an accident or that his faithful friend had been waylaid by the madman Enríquez.

When the three riders finally rode up to the gate of his home, they saw that the one-horse carriage was still waiting outside the high wall of the hacienda. All three men dismounted. Diego turned to the officer. "I will go to check my father’s room upstairs. Could you please check the sala?" The officer nodded to the corporal who unslung his rifle.

Diego was the first through the gate. As he headed upstairs to his father's room, he saw candlelight coming from the sala windows. But the upstairs was dark. When he reached the top of the stairs, he saw that the door to his father's room on the right was open. "Father? He called. "Father, are you in here?" He entered the room cautiously.

The embers in the fireplace still shone faintly and Diego knelt to fire up the candle that always stood on the hearth. As the glow began to transform the room from darkness into light, he saw the disorder in the room. From the other side of the bed there was a low moan. His father was just sitting up on the floor and rubbing the side of his head. "Diego?" he muttered as if in a daze.

"Father, are you all right?" the young man asked in great concern as he knelt by Alejandro and helped him up to the bed. "What happened? Was it Enríquez?"

"I’ll be all right, son," the white-bearded don answered slowly. He put his hand to his forehead. "I was just about to leave for the fiesta in town, when I came back up here to my room. Enríquez must have been watching for my departure. He was fast, very fast, Diego. I caught him in my room by surprise. He was taking the old snuffbox. Since he was armed and I was not, I made a simple request that he not take that particular one. He did not seem particularly inclined to want to respect my wishes."

"What happened?" Diego asked. "Did he beat you?"

"No, Diego. I grappled with him over your mother's snuffbox, insisting that he take any other one, " Alejandro explained. "I am strong, but he has the strength of a wild man and overpowered me. He hit me on the head with the butt of his pistol." The don paused. "Would you believe that as he did so, he apologized?"

"Apologized?" Diego looked incredulous. "He tore apart your room, he beat you, then hit you over the head, then apologized?" Diego was angry that anyone would harm his father. "Are you certain? Perhaps the blow on your head affected you more than you think."

"I am sure that he did so, Diego," his father insisted, "but I am going to lie down a while. I still feel a little dizzy."

Diego helped his father stretch out on the bed. "Where is Bernardo? Did you see him return earlier? I was worried about you and sent him home about three hours ago."

"No, son, I have been here the entire time. But three hours? I must have been unconscious for a very long time."

There was a movement at the door. Diego looked up. Corporal Reyes stood there. "Don Diego?" he inquired.

"Just a moment, Father," Diego told his father. "This might be about Bernardo. I'll be back to check on you." He hurried over to the door, then closed the door behind him.

"What is it, Corporal?"

"The comandante and I found your servant, Bernardo," the soldier began.

"Bernardo," repeated Diego in great concern. He began heading down the stairs rapidly with the soldier trying to keep up. "Where is he? Is he all right?"

"I think so, Don Diego," Reyes answered. "He was all tied up."

Diego took long strides into the sala and looked around. "Well, where is he?" he asked impatiently.

"In the kitchen," the corporal answered. Both men made their way past the door to the library and down a step into the kitchen. There they found Bernardo sitting in a chair. He had been untied and given a wet cloth. The mozo was patting his face with it. He looked a bit dazed.

De las Fuentes appeared as if he had been trying to speak with the man. He looked up as Diego entered the room. "I'm afraid I have been unable to communicate with him," the officer told the young man. "He seems oblivious to my questions and has not uttered a sound."

"Bernardo neither hears nor speaks, Comandante," Diego told him. "You did not know this."

"Ah," responded De las Fuentes. "Then how do you propose we question him? If he is literate, perhaps he could write down what took place this evening."

"We use sign language to communicate, Capitán," Diego explained. "Bernardo has taught me far more than I have taught him. He will be able to tell me what happened here."

The captain looked thoughtful a moment. "How remarkable," he commented. Then he asked, "Did you find your father? Is he unharmed?"

"My father is going to be all right, Capitán, thank you. He just needs to rest," replied Diego. "Señor Enríquez was here and attacked him, just as he said he would, in order to take back the snuff box. He hit my father on the head and knocked him out." He paused. "You know, if Enríquez is on the move, then would it not be a good idea to see if he has visited Don Leon or the Rodriguez family?"

De las Fuentes nodded. "If you are in no further need of assistance, then Corporal Reyes and I will take our leave of you and proceed to the ranchos of Don Leon and Señor Villa."

"We will be fine, Comandante. Only be very careful. Enríquez knows his way around and he is very fast. My father says he was armed with a pistol."

"Thank you for this information," De las Fuentes responded. "I have been reluctant to consider Señor Enríquez dangerous, but it would seem that this attack would confirm that he may be in a state of possession." When he saw Diego raise his eyebrows at that, he added, "I know of no other term by which to describe this malady."

"Capitán, you are trying to be very humane in regard to Señor Enríquez, but please do not endanger your life unnecessarily," Diego told him. "There is too much at stake now to underestimate what he might do."

"Thank you for your courtesy, Don Diego," Francisco replied. "We are mindful of your advice and shall be vigilant." With that the small man turned to the corporal. "Let us go,

Reyes."

With the departure of the two men, Diego turned to Bernardo, who was looking very eager to explain what had happened.

"All right, Bernardo. But first, are you all right?"

Bernardo nodded vigorously in the affirmative. He pointed to his jaw.

"He punched you out?" Diego asked.

The mozo nodded again vigorously and rubbed his chin. Then he indicated his arms as if they were bound.

"Then he tied you up," his young master concluded.

After his gesturing ended, the mozo showed Diego what else had been stolen in the kitchen – the missing wine and foodstuffs, fruits and vegetables, even candles.

After the young man appraised the situation he shook his head. "You know, Bernardo, all of this seems very strange. I can understand stealing food and drink - I hold that against no man. But to beat my father and take my mother’s gift to him? No, Bernardo, this I cannot permit. Nor can I permit him to do the same to our friends and neighbors." The young man paused. "I want you to go upstairs and be with my father. As for me, it is time, Bernardo. It is time for Zorro to ride."

 

 

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