Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

It was very late when two riders showed up at the cuartel. Sergeant García was disturbed to see De las Fuentes in such discomfort. The officer could hardly dismount from his horse. "Your pardon, Señor Comandante," he said, "but you cannot walk to your quarters without assistance." After a few painful steps, the officer began to sink to his knees. García held onto his arm, then gave a big sigh. The soldier then swept the small man up into his arms and carried him into the Oficina del Comandante as if he was a child. "I am sorry, Capitán, but you cannot walk at all," the sergeant apologized. He laid the officer out on the bed very gently and removed his hat. Reyes lit several candles in the room.

De las Fuentes decided not to resist when the soldier carried him in and he whispered something that sounded like "remove my right boot" after he was laid on the bed.

Reyes and García removed the boot carefully. Then they saw the blood and matter that stained the lower leg of the officer’s white trousers. They two men looked at each other in consternation. "I think we need to send for the Doctor Aguilera," whispered Reyes.

"Capitán, your leg is bleeding and looks infected," García told the prone figure.

De las Fuentes was bathed in sweat. It was not the first time it had happened -but it was worse this time. He gestured toward his box. "In the box."

"What’s in the box, Comandante?" asked García uncertainly.

"A small leather bag," he answered. "But first, lift me a little."

García propped the small man up on pillows as Reyes opened the box and found the leather pouch. He brought it to the officer. "What’s in the bag, Capitán?" he asked.

"Moss. River moss," the officer answered. "I need the bath first, then wrap the moss around the wound." He closed his eyes as if speaking had taken all his strength.

It seemed like an eternity before De las Fuentes felt himself undressed to his drawers and lowered gently in the hot bath water. His leg ached and the blood soon turned the water pink. He insisted on being left in the bath a while.

The sergeant and corporal watched the officer a long time and De las Fuentes felt their concern - more than words could convey. He understood that it came from the respect and loyalty the two men felt for him – and their worry.

"It looks like a bad sword cut to the leg, Capitán," García observed. "Begging your pardon, Comandante, but when did this happen?"

"Just before I left Lima," the officer told him. "I thought it was healing, but tonight, it began to trouble me most severely." He looked up at Reyes. "Corporal, could you do me the courtesy of bringing a bucket of well water and some brandy." When Reyes returned with the water, the officer drank most of it as if he had nothing to drink in days. The cool water made him feel a bit more alert and his fever seemed to abate for a spell. He then swallowed the brandy. "The moss seems to absorb the bad spirits in my leg," he explained.

"The moss looks too old, Comandante," observed García. "It is almost dry." He paused. "Capitán, your pardon, but would it not be a good idea to summon Doctor Aguilera? The wound looks very red. It is not a good sign."

"It’s very late," the officer insisted. "Besides, this has worked for me before. Just rinse me off with the rest of the cold water and help me out. By morning this will be much better."

After seeing De las Fuentes to bed, García left with Reyes. Upon closing the door, he shook his head. "This is not good," he muttered.

"I know what you mean, Sergeant," Reyes nodded. "His leg is swollen as well. The moss I wrapped for the wound is too old."

"I hope the Capitán knows what he is doing," García mused. "He is a very smart man."

"Well, maybe," Reyes said in a forlorn voice.

"What do you mean ‘maybe’?" asked García.

"Well, Sergeant, tonight I captured Zorro and…"

García’s eyes bulged out. "You did what?" he asked in astonishment, stopping in mid-stride.

"I captured Zorro," Reyes affirmed.

"So, what happened? Where is Zorro?" demanded the sergeant.

"Well, I captured both Señor Enríquez and Zorro. Señor Enríquez escaped, but I had El Zorro prisoner. The comandante rode up behind me and saw everything. Then the capitán told me that Zorro was not an enemy and told me to lower my rifle."

The huge man was stunned. "The capitán told you that?"

"Sí, Sergeant. I told the capitán that for the capture of El Zorro there is a reward of two thousand pesos. He told me that it is a waste of the taxpayers’ money," Reyes replied with a sigh. "Just think, Sergeant, two thousand pesos and the comandante let him go."

García shook his head. "Capitán de las Fuentes is a smart man, but this bad wound, maybe this is not good for him in many ways."

Reyes hesitated leaving the office. "Listen, Sergeant," he said. "If it’s not against regulations, I’d like to stay here just in case the comandante needs some help."

García looked thoughtful. "I think that’s a good idea, Corporal. The comandante is not well. As a matter of fact, I will keep you company." He looked around and spotted a mug. He took the bottle of brandy from Reyes. "I don’t think the capitán will mind if we have a little of this to help us stay awake." He uncorked the bottle and poured some in the mug. Within an hour, both soldiers had fallen asleep in chairs in the Oficina del Comandante de Los Angeles.

******************

A man in black made his way up a flight of stone stairs back behind the walls of the De la Vega hacienda and emerged into a dimly lit room at the top of the stairs. He unbuckled his sword, removed his mask and cape and slipped into a dressing gown. He pulled a ring in the stone wall, and a wooden panel swung open. He entered into the bedroom of Diego de la Vega. Asleep in a chair by the fireplace was his faithful servant, Bernardo.

Diego de la Vega gently put his hand on the shoulder of the sleeping man and squeezed. The servant woke up at once and raised his eyebrows at the late hour. He rose up out of the chair to offer his young master a glass of wine.

"Well, Bernardo, I had a few strange adventures tonight, including being captured," Diego began taking the glass and sipping its contents.

Bernardo spread his arms and opened his mouth to express astonishment.

"Corporal Reyes came upon me fighting with Señor Enríquez and captured us both. Enríquez diverted the corporal’s attention and escaped into the reeds. Then Capitán de las Fuentes rode up and told Reyes to lower his rifle because, as he said, ‘Señor Zorro is not an enemy.’ Diego paused when he saw the amazement on the mozo’s face. "I know what you are thinking – almost unheard of that a comandante would order such a thing." He paused a moment. "But you know, Capitán de las Fuentes is not your typical comandante."

Bernardo nodded vigorously.

Diego grinned. "Poor Reyes. I bet he really is going to miss that two thousand pesos." Then he sat down on the bed. "But you know what is really strange? This fellow Enríquez: it seems he is only stealing certain objects, when he could have stolen much more. At the Villa hacienda, for example, he just took two objects – candlesticks and a statue."

Bernardo held up his hand to interrupt the man on the bed. He went over to the chest of drawers and removed an object and brought it over for his young master’s inspection.

Diego was surprised. "But this is the snuff box that my father fought Enríquez over," he exclaimed. "And yet, you say, he left it?"

The mozo nodded and indicated that another snuffbox had been taken instead.

Diego frowned, thinking. "My father said that as Enríquez grappled with him and hit him over the head, he apologized. This is puzzling. Perhaps my father convinced him that he really should take something else." The young man shook his head. "I am beginning to think, Bernardo, that I have not been asking enough questions or finding answers in the right places. For example, who is Joaquín Enríquez and what are his ties here to Los Angeles? Why would he be stealing, or as he puts it ‘borrowing,’ these particular objects from those who are residents of the pueblo? And is there anything that ties all of these things together? And finally, Enríquez seems to posture as a man of violence, yet he did not harm the Señorita Villa when he robbed the hacienda tonight. He threatened to shoot the capitán and yet I found that the pistol was not even loaded. He even fought with me, but he is not a very good swordsman, Bernardo. However, he is quick of wit and movement."

Bernardo shook his head as if all these things were beyond him at the moment as well. He pointed to a clock on the mantel to indicate the late hour.

Diego rose from the bed and began to remove the dressing gown to prepare for going to bed. "Ah, yes, another thing or two. Why did Enríquez attempt to kill the comandante just a few nights ago? Was he mad then, and rational now? Will he try to kill when his fits of madness are upon him, and be kind or reasonable in the absence of such fits? And finally, Capitán de las Fuentes seemed very ill tonight, an old wound he said. I would have accompanied him back, but felt I had to search the reeds for Enríquez – of whom I did not find a trace. Enríquez still could be a very real danger to the comandante, despite our good capitán’s best intentions to understand him and what he does."

Bernardo held up a hand and indicated lying down among the reeds to hide.

His young master considered that. "Yes, Enríquez could have been right under my nose, but in the darkness, I would have not known - unless Tornado would have shied out of the way to avoid stepping on him. This did not happen. Señor Enríquez is a very clever adversary, but I have an idea that I will pursue in the morning that might just lead me to him."

*******************

Tomás Robello was lying awake in the cell covered with several blankets against the cool of the night. He had been tired and slept well until the arrival of the comandante and corporal. He watched curiously the unfolding of events as the officer seemed to collapse just inside the cuartel. He observed the sergeant who carried him inside the building and Robello wondered briefly what was going on. But then his thoughts returned to that day’s activities.

Early that morning his cell had been unlocked by a private who handed him what looked like an old blacksmith’s apron and told to put it on. He was then handed a bucket of whitewash and a long handled brush and told to begin. He had, of course, objected. The private told him in no uncertain tones that this was how he was going to work off all the fines he owed and, by the way, wasn’t he lucky to get out of the cell. Robello had to admit later on that keeping busy sure beat the boredom of the jail cell, but he didn’t like the idea of having to do a job he didn’t want to do. When his first efforts did not impress the soldier, he was told that he would paint the same area over until the got it right. After he did a better job, the soldier left him to perform other duties. Robello was only left wondering how much work around the cuartel he would have to do before he was released.

The first night watch had returned and the second had taken off and Robello stayed awake just to watch the different activities taking place. He thought about Angel Ledesma and how he might convince him to loan him some money to get out of jail sooner. But he would wait a few days to see if Angel came to pay off his debts to the comandante. When he shows up, I’ll ask him to help me. He’s never refused before, the vaquero thought.

Robello watched the moon disappear as the fogs rolled in to the town. If I were superstitious, he thought, I’d consider it an omen. But for whom? Soon, the entire town became enveloped in the white mists. Robello clutched the blankets around him tighter and laid back down on the wooden platform that served as a bed in the cell. The sounds of the night no longer interested him and he fell into a deep sleep.

**************

She arrived at the church early that morning in great expectation and began to worry because he had not shown up as soon as she expected. She was about ready to leave for the cuartel when she heard quiet steps behind her and saw him. She rose immediately with a look of expectation on her face, but her smile faded at once, becoming an expression of concern when she saw how drawn and pale he looked.

 

Francisco de las Fuentes smiled at the young woman despite the hurt in his leg and reached out his hands to her. She took them and he drew her to him. "Margarita," he whispered with pleasure, but his voice was unusually soft and the words came with effort. He nodded toward the doors, indicating he would like her to leave with him.

 

As soon as they were a respectable distance from the entrance of the church and from any nearby parishioners, she turned to face him. "Francisco, are you all right? How pale you are."

 

He nodded. "I'll be all right," he responded stoically. "With your permission, dear, could we go to the churchyard? It is quiet there and I have much to tell you."

 

"Of course," she responded, watching him carefully as he limped along. After they reached the courtyard, he took her hand in a courtly manner and helped her sit down. He slid gingerly next to her on the bench and stretched out his right leg as if it were bothering him.

 

"Francisco," she began, "you are in pain and you can't hide it from me. What is happening? Is it your leg? Tell me what is wrong." She took his arm and looked deeply into his light blue eyes. He looked exhausted.

 

"I deeply apologize that I am not at my best for such an important encounter, dear," he replied quietly and in some embarrassment. "Before I left Lima, three scoundrels set upon me in a dark street. I believe it was their intention to assassinate me. It was on that occasion that I received the wound to my leg. The pain has not gone away since that time. I am treating it and today I am better."

 

Margarita continued to be alarmed. "Why would anyone want to hurt you, Francisco?" she pressed. "Were they robbers? Please tell me what happened."

 

The officer was quiet a moment. "I believe they were sent by my enemies to dispatch me," he told her. "It was fortunate for me that they had not been briefed well enough on what kind of man they would encounter and therefore, did not expect that it would take much to complete their mission. I, however, sent all three of them to their Maker sooner than they planned, but not before the last one wounded me grievously in the leg. It is this wound that has continued to plague me, now and then."

 

"How dreadful!" Margarita responded. She took one of his hands in hers and noticed that it was very warm, like someone with a fever. She looked up at him again. "How could you possibly have enemies? You are the most wonderful man I have ever met. Who could not like you?"

 

He smiled gently at her innocence. "This is why I must tell you a story, dearest Margarita, a story that may seem to you like a fairytale, but one that best explains something of my past and why there may be danger for you, too."

 

She was amazed by his words. "Danger for me?" she exclaimed and thought, I don't believe it.

 

He guessed what she was thinking by her expression, but Margarita only nodded as he began to speak. The sunlight shone down through the branches of the trees and she heard the nearby chatter of a Bush Jay in the quiet of the churchyard. The clouds high above cast strange and moving shadows over the courtyard as spirits in a hidden arbor, teasing and cajoling imprisoned blue birds in their gilded cages. The impressions of her surroundings faded as his rich baritone voice reached her ears.

 

"There was once an officer who served on the General Staff during the War of Liberation. He had not planned to be a soldier at all, for his destiny seemed to lie in another world - in a world of art, music and culture. It was then that France invaded. Like all the subjects of the king, he rallied to the cause of Spain and served his kingdom in many capacities since it was both a calling as well as a duty. During the war, he discovered that he had many God-given gifts that he had not known of. He hoped that these talents could best be utilized to serve Spain.

 

" Over a period of years, although he was honored by the king, His Majesty Carlos IV, he made many enemies. At first, he did not understand why this was so, as he never coveted what others had in terms of power or personal influence - nor did he need to. To make a long story short, he discovered that whatever he did was resented by those most ambitious and least capable of serving their king and kingdom. Instead of serving Spain, they bickered and quarreled amongst themselves. They attacked this officer for his appraisal of the kingdom's dilemma and the army's disastrous course on the battlefield; they opposed his analysis of the obsolete tactics and strategies of the armed forces in battle; they distrusted his opposition to their bankrupt policies and procedures. And they resented his support of those who would resist the foreign occupier rather than submit themselves to bribes and comfortable treason."

 

"The fundamental difference between these men and this officer was due to their lack of understanding of the very nature of their own profession and its many requirements that necessitated innovation, imagination, and audacity against a ruthless enemy. It was far easier for them to play politics on the General Staff than to fight the enemy on the battlefield. And so, over time, this officer became the target of their most furious and vindictive efforts to discredit him with the monarchy.

 

"On his part, this officer attempted to remain focused on the war and the defeat of Spain's enemies. He ignored the many personal slights and slanders because he believed that his sole purpose was to serve Spain and his monarch to the best of his ability - and this in spite of the failings of the monarchy in the realm of politics. In fact, the monarchy had always acknowledged and rewarded such services generously. But all this came to an end after the liberation of our kingdom. How joyful we were in restoring our way of life, our monarchy, and our religion again. Little did we know how things would change: instead of the old monarch, Carlos IV, who still lived, his son became king; this son was one who had praised the enemy of Spain, Bonaparte, and been kept in a comfortable exile in France by the same.

 

"The new monarch, inexperienced and self-absorbed, closed his ears to rationality, to good sense and to honor. He surrounded himself with ignorance, stupidity, and those who would grovel to his every wish. He loathed enlightenment, differences of opinion, and honesty. Those who did not submit completely found themselves attacked or dishonored politically. And this was the situation with this officer. Despite his knowledge and experience in serving Spain, despite his refusal to engage in intrigue, he was ignominiously dismissed, his rank greatly diminished, and his personal life infringed upon in a way that broke his heart. To preserve his sanity, he left Spain, but only after the war was long over. He would not leave until his beloved kingdom had been made safe - or so he thought. From that time until the present, he has been plagued by a series of events that seem to stem from the power of his enemies, including their use of assassins and the powers of the supernatural, to prey upon him - even though he lives on foreign shores, far removed from his native land or the centers of power."

 

De las Fuentes gave a sad sigh at the end of his narrative and looked beyond the high wall of the churchyard. He looked down at his hands holding hers and, then, into to her blue eyes. Her expression was one of great concern.

 

"I can't believe anyone would do this to you," she declared. "Did not anyone speak up on your behalf - not even your superiors or others with influence?" she asked indignantly.

 

"My family was, of course, outraged, as were others, but times were difficult for all of Spain. My father traveled to Madrid with me and my eldest brother and met with friends at court. He demanded an audience with the king who could not refuse him. I was denied admittance to this meeting despite the fact it directly concerned me. I later heard that His Majesty trembled before my father but would not agree to make a decision at that time. This is what is called 'delaying tactics,'" Francisco told her wryly.

 

"Your father demanded an audience with the king?" Margarita seemed astonished at the idea. "Can all aristocrats do that?"

 

"Well, Father can be quite formidable at times," Francisco commented thoughtfully, "and with my brother at his side - not to mention our friends at court - the sycophants were in fear for their hides. But never underestimate the deviousness of these fellows. Just because they had been confronted did not mean that they had been defeated. My father saw that he would have to do much more than to demand my reinstatement."

 

Margarita was quiet for a spell, trying to understand everything he had told her. Just the idea that his father had confronted the king was not only astonishing, but almost unheard of.

"What rank did you hold before this happened to you?" she asked carefully.

 

"I was a general, " he told her reluctantly.

 

"A general!" She was amazed and impressed. "I was thinking only yesterday about what you said about seeing His Majesty and the royal family," she explained. "I told Ismaida that you must have been a war hero and very brave to be admitted to Court."

 

He smiled at that. "Not much of a hero, only one whose duties made it necessary for him to be there." He paused, then explained, "I did not become a professional officer until the war. I had trained in weapons, of course, and learned much from my father who also was a general. He taught us so much - even in the course of a dinner conversation." He added, "It is a part of our training and way of life that we are well-versed in, dear. You might say I was well-trained in the arts of war long before there was a war, and yet we were trained in many other things as well."

 

"Francisco," she asked curiously, "are you really anything like your father? From what you've said, he seems like a tiger, yet you are so calm, so dignified."

 

"We are a cultured and proud family," he told her. "Any slight on our honor has to be taken seriously - no matter by whom it is made. And," he added, "part of the situation was my fault. I overlooked many insults and did not tell my family about most of them. Why did I do this? I considered the sources of these actions - men base and mean - men who were not worthy of my consideration. It was a shock to everyone when I was demoted in such a dishonorable way. My father tried to encourage me not to leave Spain while he and my family mobilized to oppose the actions against me, but I was beyond rational thought at the time. I believed that by leaving Spain, I would be doing everyone a favor, including myself. As to your other question - yes, I am like my father in many ways, but I have never been confrontational. I believe we can work through differences as rational, enlightened beings rather than acting like violent barbarians. I would apply these ideals to most people in the hope that basic decency would prevail when applied with justice. I did not count on the fact that one cannot deal on an honorable basis with those who have no honor - not even those with noble blood." He seemed sad for a long moment. "I had to learn the hard way."

 

"But, Francisco," she wondered, "you stood up to my father and to the men at the hearings who made all the trouble. Despite what you say, you are so much like your father!"

 

"Margarita, dear," he told her patiently, "such matters and people are trifling for me. The politics of Spain involve more serious - and dangerous - actors. The sins of California are so small."

 

She still did not seem to grasp everything he was telling her, but she was thinking fast. "I know it must feel very bad for all those things to have happened to you, but I want you to know something, Francisco. You don't have to worry about all that with me. Why, I can sew and even become a governess or a music teacher. Together we can manage. I still have my grandmother's dowry chest - that is mine - and we can make a good life together, even if you were demoted. Besides, I need to tell you that…."

 

He was so moved by her loyalty and not a little surprised by her determination that he impolitely interrupted her. "Margarita, dear, that would not be necessary. I manage on more than just a capitán's stipend." He smiled. "I do have friends, ones I did not know that I had, even here in California."

 

Another thought came to her. "Francisco, why did you come to the Américas?" she asked. "You know Vienna, Rome, Naples, even other places that filled your heart with happiness because of the music, the operas, and all your friends. Why didn't you go back to what you loved best?"

 

"Allow me to blame Alexander von Humboldt," he smiled and watched her mouth drop open again.

 

"Don't tell me you knew him, too!" she gasped.

 

"Well, I saw him at Court and followed his amazing exploits of exploration in South America. I never knew him other than meeting him at a reception," Francisco admitted. "But his writings on the new biology, travel and discovery are the most inspiring and astonishing that one could imagine. I read everything he ever wrote. I needed a new world to come to, Margarita. To have returned to all the old places in my state of mind would have caused me great melancholy, not joy. They were too familiar and reminded me of the tragedy and happiness I left behind. The dangers and challenge of the Américas seemed appropriate because my past life was in chaos and perhaps, just perhaps, I would be beyond the reach of my enemies. Apparently, I was wrong."

 

"Are you sad that you came to the New World, Francisco?" she asked curiously. "Was there no one special that you left behind?" She began to doubt her own worthiness.

 

He gazed at her with great tenderness. "No, dear, I am not sad, for if I had not come, I would have never met you. You may not know this, Margarita, but you are the key that has unlocked the door back to the great joys - and pain - I had almost forgotten and been afraid to forget." He stood up. "If you would not think it too forward of me, I would like to show you something that I have at the cuartel. It is something that I hope will answer your other questions and explain my dilemma."

 

"I will come, Francisco," she said simply and stood. He took her arm in his and both of them slowly made their way across the wind-swept plaza toward the large oak gates of the Los Angeles garrison.

 

**********************

 

Don César Rodríguez stood before the lawyer who was a bit nervous at the musician's abrupt and unceremonious appearance at his office. The musical maestro was dressed in his most flamboyant colors, knowing color as well as sweeping gestures could enhance any display of outrage - and he was outraged.

"Listen, Don César," the man with a double chin explained, "I don't make any moral judgments about these sorts of things. I am just hired to do a job and I do it."

César glowered at the man in indignation. "By doing what you have done, you disgrace your profession. You know what was done is wrong, yet you would persist in following through with this, this act of infamy!"

"Don César, this is perfectly within the law and I have followed the law as carefully and appropriately as possible under the circumstances. Surely, you cannot fault me for doing this. While I myself would have acted differently, I cannot dictate to others how to act. What else would you have me do?"

"You could have refused to engage such a case," the musician lectured him. "Does the money mean so much to you that you would defend the indefensible?"

"My friend, do not condemn me so. If he had not come to me, he would have gone to someone else. I tried to explain that perhaps there were other means by which to accomplish the same thing, but he was most adamant. What could I possibly say or do beyond this? One does not trifle with a man of influence."

"Bah!" responded César. "If every one of you would have refused this case, it would have gone nowhere, but no, you had to take his gold and justify your actions. Can you imagine the indignation of the people of this town by what you have done? Your actions may prove to be more costly than the gold you have taken."

"And just what do you mean by that kind of threat, Señor?" the lawyer responded in indignation.

"You may just find that your business has taken a turn for the worse!" declared the maestro as he turned his back on the man and slammed the door on his way out.

The lawyer sat back and shook his head. Emotional men, he thought, cannot see very far up the road. But I know that nothing will end up like they imagine and life will return to normal after a spell. He turned his thoughts elsewhere. Don Diego de la Vega had been by to see him earlier and made a most curious request. It would require some research into the earlier history of the pueblo and might even be of interest to the comandante. He began to search through some old documents and journals he had removed from their place high on wooden shelves, documents far removed from recent affairs but not from recent events.

 

 

 

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