Zorro & the Old Comandante
Eugene H. Craig
The knocking on the door was incessant. After a long time, it went a way. There was blissful silence for a while and then the drumming began again, this time very forcefully. Once again it stopped. Then there was someone’s voice, almost in his ear, speaking very urgently. He could not block it out.
"He won’t wake up, Sergeant," said a man. "Do you think he died?"
"Here, let me try," replied another. There was a pause. Then a melodious voice began to entreat him, "Capitán? Oh, Capitán, it’s time to get up. It’s getting quite late and there are people beginning to gather outside the cuartel to see you." Another pause. "Capitán? Oh, Capitán?" The voice moved away. "He was all right last night. Maybe you are right, maybe he died during the night."
"How can we tell, Sergeant? The blanket covers up his head. Do you think we ought to shake him or hit him? Maybe we could try punching him. Punching helps wake up the drunks."
"What’s the matter with you, Corporal? Don’t you know you could be arrested for striking an officer?"
"Well, Sergeant, if he’s dead…."
De las Fuentes decided he had better wake himself up. He moaned and began to move his legs and shoulders. He turned on his back and pulled the blanket slowly down so that his eyes peered out into the bright light that filled the room. "I assure you that I am most certainly not dead, Corporal!" he declared. His baritone almost made the words sound like a threat, although he did not mean for it to do so. He struggled to sit up in bed. "How is it that it is morning so soon?" He squinted in the bright light.
"Well, Capitán, it is morning because it is morning. The sun has risen, the rain clouds have gone away, and the sky is quite blue," answered the sergeant cheerfully. "And you will be pleased to know that Corporal Reyes has your uniform all clean and dry. He even cleaned and dried your hat, your drawers, your foot coverings, and your boots."
"Ah," responded De las Fuentes. "Most efficient of you. I remember that my personal servant, Muñoz, was such a man. Let’s see how well you’ve done." He rose out of bed gingerly, examined the clothing that had been draped over a chair and was pleased to see how spotless everything was. "Have you ever been a man servant, Reyes?" he asked.
"No, Comandante," Reyes answered, "but I’ve had a lot of practice in the army."
"Good," replied the captain. "Now Sergeant, why don’t we expedite matters. Send to the inn for a good hearty breakfast for me and have it brought here to the office. Then, I want you to get out all the records of the men under arrest in the jail. I want to see the tax receipts as well. Put all the records on my desk. I will need to study them before meeting with the petitioners outside the gates of the cuartel."
"At once, Comandante!" García saluted him and began to leave. Then it dawned on him. He stopped in his tracks and turned back to the officer. "Begging your pardon, Capitán," he began, "but how did you know about the men under arrest in the jail? No one has had time to brief you."
"Ah," said De las Fuentes. "I am not just an ordinary officer of the Crown, Sergeant García. I am a prince. We princes are not like common men. We know things that we must know and that we should know because it is for this, and sundry other reasons, that we have been appointed by God. Since it is our duty to look into all matters that pertain to my temporary command here in Los Angeles, it is pertinent that I have foresight, even insight, into such affairs. And some things just come to me, even in the middle of the night, from the most unexpected nuances or even spirits. If there are subjects of the king gathering outside the gates of the cuartel seeking an audience with me, then it is most certainly necessary to act expeditiously in order to expedite the matters at hand."
García was very impressed by this extraordinary explanation, saluted again, and left in a hurry. Only Reyes remained in the room. He was staring at the officer in awe.
"Yes, Corporal Reyes?" De las Fuentes inquired.
"Your pardon, Comandante, I mean, Your Excellency. Are you a real prince? I mean, I….I really wasn’t going to punch you, Your Worship…I didn’t know if you were dead or not, Your Highness, I…" Reyes fell on his knees before the officer, took one of his hands and kissed it.
De las Fuentes was actually pleased at this display by a humble subject but he cleared his throat. "Yes, I am, Corporal Reyes. Well, get off your knees and help me into my uniform. I won’t be able to get ready in time if we just stand here and you remain on the floor." He gently pried his hand loose from Reyes’ grasp. "Ah, you don’t need to kiss the hand, Reyes. It’s not a holy relic. A salute will do in His Majesty’s army."
Don Alejandro de la Vega was becoming impatient. He strode up and down outside the gates of the cuartel. Three of his vaqueros had been arrested the day before and he was furious. "What is taking so long? Undoubtedly Monastario is keeping us waiting just to make the situation worse!"
Don Diego de la Vega, who had accompanied his father into Los Angeles, watched his father calmly. "Perhaps there is a good reason for the delay, Father. After all, Capitán Monastario must present proof that these men have been arrested for a good reason."
"Bah!" his father exclaimed. "Capitán Monastario never has any proof for what he does. He is just vindictive and manipulative. But this time, I have the proofs to put in his face. We’ll see just whom…."
At that moment, Sergeant García appeared at the gates. "Attention! Attention!" he called out in a loud voice. "All petitioners to see the comandante please form a line. Our comandante will examine each case, one at a time. The first case to be heard will be that of Juan Valdez. All petitioners here for Juan Valdez may enter the cuartel."
There was a rush of relatives and friends to the gates of the cuartel. García had them form a line and began to take them inside the fortress.
"Valdez? Why is he taking the Valdez case first?" fumed Alejandro. "We were first in line here this morning and we should have gone first!"
Diego looked thoughtful. "Well, Father, it does make sense. After all, Juan was the first arrested, so it would seem appropriate that his case is the first to be heard."
"I’m surprised that Monastario is conducting this farce at all," Alejandro continued. "He would be more practical just to fine those he falsely arrested and get the extortion over and done with."
It was about a half an hour later when a great commotion was heard within the cuartel. Alejandro was conversing with the blacksmith, González, whose son, Pepe, had also been arrested. He held up a hand. "Now what is happening?" He began to approach the gates of the cuartel with his son, Diego, the blacksmith, and others, when a flood of people streamed past them laughing and cheering. In their midst was the vaquero, Juan Valdez, who had a big smile on his face. "God bless the Comandante!" he shouted.
Alejandro de la Vega turned to his son with a look of surprise on his face. "What did he say?" He pulled over one of the men passing by who was waving his hands. "What happened? What was the verdict?"
The man removed his hat. "Don Alejandro," he acknowledged. "Wonderful news! Juan is innocent! He was falsely accused! The comandante awarded him ten pesos for having been wrongfully imprisoned! This is real justice. Oh, excuse me, Don Alejandro. We are going to the tavern to celebrate." With that the man hastened after the rest of the crowd.
"What did he say?" the white-bearded don repeated, looking bewildered.
"He said that Juan was found innocent and was rewarded ten pesos for having been wrongfully imprisoned, Father," Diego explained.
The blacksmith, González, also looked amazed at the news. "What can this mean, Don Alejandro?" he asked.
"Perhaps the comandante has become a new man," Diego suggested with a smile. The young don looked up as Sergeant García suddenly appeared at the gates of the cuartel. Diego gestured towards the soldier. "It’s the next case."
"Attention! Attention!" García called out in a loud voice. "All petitioners to see the comandante please form a line. Our comandante will examine each case, one at a time. The second case to be heard will be that of Pepe González. All petitioners here for Pepe González may enter the cuartel."
"That’s my boy," exclaimed the blacksmith heading toward the sergeant. "Wish us luck!"
The news spread quickly from the tavern as the freed vaquero gave his account of the proceedings. As the bottles began to accumulate on the tables in the tavern, so did various interpretations of the events begin to spread as well. By early afternoon, many residents of Los Angeles began to linger around the plaza just to get a glimpse of those who were freed pouring through the gates of the cuartel with happy tidings.
Father Felipe heard the news as well. He had hurried across the plaza to the gates of the cuartel in order to be called as a character witness for two mission Indians who had been arrested. Outside the garrison’s walls he encountered Don Alejandro de la Vega who was still quite vexed that the case of his three vaqueros had not yet been called.
"Good morning, Padre Felipe," Don Alejandro greeted the priest. "The case of Juan and Ignacio was already called some time ago."
"Good morning, Don Alejandro, Don Diego," replied the priest. "I heard the most extraordinary news about the two men released, Juan Valdez and Pepe González. Is it true that the comandante awarded Juan ten pesos for false imprisonment? How astonishing. I hope that all my prayers for Capitán Monastario have finally born fruit."
"Either that or he has gone mad," smiled the white-bearded man, still shaking his head in disbelief at the turn of events, "but you seem to be in a hurry, Padre."
Felipe sighed, "Knowing Capitán Monastario’s tendency to start trials early and conclude them even faster, I wanted to get here early. But one of my parishioners came with a personal problem and I had to stay with her quite a while. Then her parents showed up and I had to consult with them as well."
"Not Señorita Margarita again?" asked the don.
"Yes," replied the priest. "And the same problem it has been for the last ten years."
"Ah, what problem is that, Father?" asked Diego in a mystified tone. "The last thing I heard was that she walked off a ship at San Pedro and refused to go back to Spain."
Padre Felipe was looking anxiously towards the gates of the cuartel. "Please forgive me if I leave you, but I want to see if I can get inside to provide any support to the men under arrest."
"Of course, Padre," both the De la Vegas responded and bowed to the priest.
Felipe approached one of the soldiers and, surprisingly, was admitted at once.
Don Alejandro shook his head as he watched. "I wonder what Monastario is up to."
"Now, Father," Diego queried. "What is the latest news about Margarita?"
"My son, it is the same story year after year. She has refused yet another marriage proposal. Her parents are in despair. She is now twenty-eight. Her younger sisters are all married. Don Sebastián told me that she refused to go to Spain because she found out that he had arranged for her marriage there. He thinks perhaps she wants to become a nun."
"You know, Father, I don’t think Margarita wants that at all. She has no interest in becoming a nun. What she wants is to be in love with a man before she marries him and, so far, she is not interested in any of the men who have spoken to her father."
The white-bearded man smiled at his son. "You must know something that no one else knows, Diego. But Margarita will find that if she waits too long, then she will no longer have the kind of choice she has now. She is a handsome young woman presently, but it may not last forever."
"You know, Father, I don’t think you are giving Margarita enough credit. She knows that men are attracted to her beauty, but they don’t seem very interested in getting to know her beyond that. I think she finds that offensive."
His father laughed lightly. "A man usually gets to really know his wife after he is married to her, Diego. The same is true for the lady. As for meeting with her and becoming acquainted - that is what the courtship is for. But Margarita won’t even give her suitors the time of day to get to know her and that is why many of them just ask her father and then, hope for the best. She’s almost a hopeless case."
Diego shook his head. "I don’t think anyone is a hopeless case, Father."
"Not even Capitán Monastario?" his father teased him. Then he became serious again. "Sebastián thinks that Margarita does not want to grow up. Her friends are all unmarried girls and she dresses and acts like they do, not like the woman she has become."
"Padre Felipe once told me that in this world there is someone for everyone," Diego said. "I’d like to think that applies to everyone, including Margarita."
"Margarita seems to like you a lot, Diego," Alejandro pointed out. "And I still have my hopes up for you."
Diego chuckled. "Margarita trusts me, Father, because of the fact that I am a good friend. I think that’s what she needs, just someone she can talk to and who will listen. As for me, well, Margarita is beautiful and charming, but she’s not really my type. She also told me that, while she values me as a friend, I am not exactly her type either."
Alejandro just shrugged his shoulders at that. He gestured toward the gates of the cuartel. "This may take a while," he said, changing the subject. "Why don’t we go over to the inn for some lunch? It is almost one and I think that the comandante will probably want to take his lunch as well."
"The rumor is that he said that his office hours are from nine to one today," Diego said. "He might even take a siesta. I will even bet you a bottle of wine on that."
Alejandro smiled. "If you are making a wager against me, Diego, I think that you must know something that I don’t know."
Diego only grinned at that. "It’s just a feeling, Father. Today seems to be full of surprises and maybe this is just another one."
Padre Felipe knocked at the door to the comandante’s office. It was opened immediately by Corporal Reyes who whispered. "Good morning, Padre. The comandante has already started the proceedings."
"I am here as a character witness, Corporal. I am sorry I am late. May I still come in?"
Reyes nodded. "Please sit down in one of the chairs. The comandante will call on you when it is time."
Felipe was surprised at how easily he gained entrance. He heard whispered voices as he made his way to an empty chair and nodded to several of those seated. To the right of the comandante’s desk were chairs for the accused and in them sat two of the mission Indians. One of them had his head down. The other was paying close attention to the army officer. When Felipe sat down he then looked up towards the desk. He was surprised to see a stranger at the desk, not Capitán Monastario. For some reason, the officer seemed familiar, but Felipe forced himself to concentrate on his words.
"You need not fear speaking to me of this matter," the officer was telling the Indian whose head was bowed and who looked down at the floor. "This is merely a hearing, not a trial of any kind. All you have to do is to tell me whether the witness is right or wrong in what he says. You will not be harmed for saying yes or no."
There was a long silence. The man with the bowed head glanced at his companion and shook his head. The long hair swayed with the movement of his head. His companion looked up at the Spanish officer. "He says ‘no,’ Señor Comandante."
"Why, the insolent fool!" shouted a man in the front seat. "How dare he question me, the head vaquero of Don Pedro’s ranch? His insolence and rebellious ways are well known in this district. Capitán Monastario was right to arrest him and beat him into his proper place." Murmurs of protest were heard from other participants seated in the chairs.
"Are there any other witnesses who would like to testify for or against the accused?" the officer asked, holding up a hand to quiet the participants.
"I would like to speak on this man’s behalf," Felipe said, standing up.
"Please state your name and your relationship to the accused," the officer responded very politely. "I am Capitán de las Fuentes and I am reviewing these cases."
"I am Padre Felipe of the Mission of San Gabriel, Capitán," the priest replied. "I have known Juan for many years. He is a faithful worker and diligent in all the tasks he is assigned to do at the Mission. He is a good father to his children and a caring husband to his wife and to her parents who live with them. He has never struck another man or woman in anger or in passion."
"The records and this witness state that this man was arrested and beaten for ‘insubordination’ and ‘rebelliousness’," De las Fuentes stated.
"If to resist injustice is ‘rebelliousness’ and if to speak the truth is ‘insubordination,’ then I, too, would be guilty of the same charges. However, I don’t think that this is the issue at all. Juan was ordered by Señor Cisneros to perform some duties that are unrelated to his tasks for working at the mission and he declined to do so."
"Do Señor Juan’s labors or duties fall primarily under the jurisdiction of the mission or do they extend to local landowners as well?" asked the officer.
"He is a neophyte under the protection and jurisdiction of the church," replied Felipe. "His tasks are primarily at the mission."
"He has also been on road labor," interrupted Cisneros. "When their services are required, they must comply."
"He was only on road labor because he asked to take the place of his brother who was ill. He did not want the family punished because a sick member could not meet his work obligations," Felipe responded calmly. "Should a man be punished for trying to see that a family meets its obligations? He did not have to do this. That he did so shows his feeling of responsibility to his family and to the community."
"I must ask you a question," De las Fuentes said to Felipe. "If the authorities or landlords require tasks to be performed by the neophytes, would it not be prudent to first seek the permission or consent of their master before such labors are commenced? This means," he turned to Cisneros, "that while your desire for this man’s services was not unreasonable in and of itself under our laws, you were negligent in seeking the permission of Padre Felipe for any labors to be performed."
Felipe nodded in agreement with the officer’s formulation of the question. Miguel Cisneros lost his angry look and looked down.
De las Fuentes turned to the seated Indians. "I will now ask Señor Juan a question and I want him to answer for himself." He stood up and took a few steps towards the defendants, keeping a non-threatening distance. He then addressed the man with the bowed head and long black hair. "Señor Juan, I would like you to tell me this: if Señor Cisneros had asked Father Felipe his permission for you to work for him, and Padre Felipe had given it, would you have obeyed your master?"
It was a while before Juan responded. He was not used to any Spanish official asking him his opinion. When he finally answered, he looked up into the face of the Spanish officer. He could see that this man was very different from Capitán Monastario. "Yes. The little Father is a good man. If he asks Juan to work for anyone, Juan will do it."
The room was silent when the Indian finished speaking. De las Fuentes nodded, contemplating the answer he had heard. He then returned to his desk and sat down. "Is there any further testimony to be offered?" he asked. Everyone in the audience looked at each other and no one spoke. "Since no other testimonies are volunteered, the case will now be considered." The officer paused. "It is our judgment that both accused and accuser have responsibilities and obligations under the law and under convention and custom. Based on the law and on the testimony, it is our conclusion that the accused could not be guilty of insubordination because he has no power to say yes or no to any request made by Señor Cisneros at all. It is the responsibility of Señor Cisneros’ master to come to a modus vivendi with Padre Felipe in order to obtain the labor of mission neophytes. Other neophytes are available for such labors and the requisitioning of their labors needs to be acquiesced upon what is customary between labor needs and local jurisprudence. It was imprudent of subordinates to take upon themselves extralimitary sublations in contradiction to ecclesiastic prerogatives in regards to subordinated tasks and obligations. …"
Miguel Cisneros turned to a friend and whispered. "What did he say? I lost him after he said we have to ask permission."
His friend shrugged. "Can’t understand him at all."
Ten minutes later, the audience, that is, all but Padre Felipe, was awakened out of their mental stupor by the words, "Case closed." They glanced at each other uncertainly while the officer wrote out something on the desk. He beckoned Corporal Reyes over to the desk and handed him a scrap of parchment. "Give this to Señor Juan," he told him, "then, clear the room."
When they heard these last words, everyone rose from their chairs and began to file out of the room. Reyes handed the Indian the scrap of paper and the man looked at it uncomprehendingly. When all the participants had filed out, except for Felipe and the corporal, Juan stood up and looked at the priest uncertainly. He approached the officer who was writing in a ledger. "Your pardon, Señor Comandante," he said humbly. "I do not understand this."
De las Fuentes looked up at the Indian and for the first time saw a man’s face, honest and bewildered, beyond the long hair, copper-colored skin, and torn cotton garb. "The army has the right to arrest anyone on any charges," he explained. "But I do not believe that anyone has the right to beat you or to destroy your attire while doing so. This is a voucher for you to present to the town physician for some salve for your bruises and to the general store for the replacing of your clothing that was rented yesterday." He smiled pleasantly. "And Señor Juan, in the future, refer all requests for your labors to Padre Felipe. No one but he can decide your tasks. If the forces in opposition are too strong, however, then do what they ask. This is for your own self-preservation. In the end, God will see to it that justice is done."
"Sometimes I wonder if that is true, Señor Comandante," Juan said barely audibly. "My people have suffered a great deal, not from Padre Felipe, but from the landowners and other whites."
"I am convinced to the contrary. What would I be doing here in this pueblo, far from my own land and from my family, if not to make justice, which ultimately comes from the hand of God? There is a grand design in all things. We are just too small to grasp it," the officer replied.
Juan continued to gaze at De las Fuentes. "Then it must be true, for I have received justice today. You cannot take away the pain of the blows I received, but I see that you are also a good man. Thank you, Your Excellency." With these words he bowed low to the officer. Padre Felipe nodded in approval and the man left the room. Corporal Reyes left the room as well and closed the door.
Felipe walked to the desk. "I was not sure that it was you when I walked in the door, Your Excellency," he said.
"I am not sure what you are referring to, Father Felipe," De las Fuentes responded, looking up at him.
"But you are General de las Fuentes," Felipe insisted. "I met you in Spain many years ago."
"I think you must be confusing me with someone else," the officer suggested. "Perhaps my father? He is a general."
"No, Your Excellency. When you thought you were dying of the pox, I was your confessor. No man on the General Staff ever impressed me more by his honesty than you did."
De las Fuentes smiled quietly and rose from his chair. "And if I remember correctly, you are still the conscience of all men, speaking out of place and not fearing to do so. As for me, my honesty, as you put it, has been my curse. It lost me my rank and favor at Court. Although I am the king’s own cousin, he will not abide me in Spain any longer. And the scoundrels and misfits who bray his praises as he sinks into the mire of taking himself too seriously seem to grow and fatten on the land of our birth. There was no slander that they did not undertake to blacken my name privately although they never dared to do so publicly."
Padre Felipe nodded. "Then the rumors I heard are indeed true. I trust that your misfortune did not follow you here to the Américas?"
De las Fuentes walked around the front of the desk and took the priest’s hands into his own. "Padre, I am no longer a general. I humbly beg you not to let others know of my misfortune by speaking of my past. If humiliation were the bitter wine that my enemies wanted me to drink plenty of, well, they have succeeded. But I can never forget who I am or what I am, or was, even though they have destroyed me." He sighed. "Still, I cannot complain too much. Here in the colonies, few know this shameful history. Yet there are still those in Spain who try to do me small favors whenever they can. I try not to ask them for much in consideration of the political consequences."
"May I ask you of the Lady Isabel?" Felipe asked quietly. "Is she well?"
"I do not know, Father, for after she was taken from me, I have not seen her. The king forbade our marriage and she was forced to wed another on his command. She did not dare refuse, she said. I sent her a secret message advising her to obey the king since she felt she had to. Her maidservant visited me with the message that she would love me to her dying day and beyond the grave. I told her not to because the man she wed is not a bad fellow. I left Spain because to remain there would have killed me."
"My Prince," said Felipe, looking into the other man’s eyes, "let the Américas be a unique beginning for you, where, like a plant cut off from its parent, you can take root in the fresh and vibrant waters of California. Here, there are great hopes and dreams. Become a part of them and make a better life for yourself. New Spain needs its princes as well as its craftsmen and its priests."
De las Fuentes shook his head. "I am too old for that, Padre. Perhaps the New World is a place where the old and disgraced can come and die in peace."
"Nonsense," exclaimed Felipe. "You are not old at all, only your spirit has faltered. I am never one to give up and I will not allow you to give up either. You shall meet the kind of good souls here in Los Angeles who will restore your faith. Even though your assignment here is limited, I want you to leave with restored joy in your heart."
"Very well, Padre," De las Fuentes sighed again. "But let us speak no more of this for the present. Join me at the inn for lunch. Let us sup this evening and you can tell me about the virtues of Los Angeles and your work here."