Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-two

 

The stout Sergeant took small steps as he crossed the plaza with his commanding officer. García watched the small man try not to limp as he headed toward the cuartel. It seemed as if it took a very long time to travel the short distance to the gates of the garrison.

Capitán de las Fuentes looked across the plaza and noted the soldiers standing around Benito Ávila. As he approached, he dismissed them with a wave of his hand. The soldiers resumed their posts at the gates of the cuartel. He walked right up to the stocky vaquero who removed his hat in respect.

"Good afternoon, Señor Ávila," the captain began. "I understand that you wish to see me regarding an urgent matter."

"Sí, Comandante," Benito responded. "There is a personal matter as well as some information I wish to give you regarding the fugitive." He looked at García as if the other was intruding.

"Ah," responded the officer, taking note of the man's hesitation to speak in front of the sergeant. "Would you care to step inside my office to discuss this?"

"Thank you, Capitán," the vaquero nodded. He waited momentarily as the officer turned to the large man next to him.

"Sergeant, would you assemble six lancers and prepare them for departure in ten minutes?" asked De las Fuentes.

García saluted, "At once, Comandante!" He watched both men enter the cuartel and then followed at a discreet distance and began to pick the men who would join them.

Once inside the office, De las Fuentes turned to the vaquero. "How may I help you, Señor Ávila?" he asked.

Benito hesitated a moment. His eyes went past the officer's shoulders and he remembered momentarily the hearing, the room crowded with townspeople, and how different it looked now. The vaquero was surprised to see a vase of bright flowers on the desk of the comandante and he thought briefly how brutally he had been treated by Capitán Monastario once in the same room. "Your pardon, Capitán," he began. "One matter concerns the hearing." He paused, hesitating to continue. It was as if he feared bringing up a topic that might offend the officer. "I received real justice at the hearing, Comandante, and for that I am very grateful, " he insisted. "But there is one thing that troubles me. I hope I cause no offense." His voice trailed off.

Francisco shifted slightly to take the pressure off his right leg, which had begun to throb very uncomfortably. Nevertheless, he looked up at the taller man and encouraged him with a smile. "Please tell me what concerns you. Do speak up."

Emboldened by the mildness of the response, the vaquero came to the point. "Capitán de las Fuentes, ten pesos is a lot of money. I know what Angel and Tomás did was wrong. I understand that they must take responsibility for their actions. But I have known these men for many years and they are not bad men. If it is permitted, I would like to return these ten pesos to you so that they can be used to help Angel and Tomás pay their fines." He paused. "Begging your pardon, Comandante, we vaqueros are not princes. It is hard for vaqueros to pay such large fines. I just want to help them, if I can." His words trailed off again.

De las Fuentes listened solemnly to Benito's words. He was impressed with the man's loyalty and concern for his fellows. He understood the man's hesitation in light of what he had heard about Capitán Monastario's intolerance and he noted the man's respectful demeanor. More important, though, was the not-so-subtle suggestion that perhaps the fines had been a bit too high for men of such humble station in life.

"I am impressed by your concern to do well for your comrades," Francisco told Benito. "It seems to be an admirable trait of all Californians whom I have so far encountered." He smiled again to put the vaquero more at ease. "The money is, of course, yours, to do whatever you please. If you wish to put it towards the fines of Señores Ledesma and Robello, then I shall honor your request."

Benito pulled a small leather bag from his leather jacket and handed it to the officer. "These are the ten pesos." He watched as De las Fuentes took the bag and went to the desk. He opened a drawer, pulled out a small strongbox and opened it. He took out the coins and put them in the box without counting them. He then returned the bag to the vaquero. "Do you not wish to count them?" the stocky man asked in surprise.

"There is no need, Señor Avila," the officer responded. "Your actions speak for themselves."

Benito looked down at the hat in his hands. "Your Excellency," he began. "No one but Don Alejandro and his son, Don Diego, have ever treated me like, well, like a man before. I am grateful." He remembered how Capitán Monastario had called him by his first name, the way one would address a child, a dog, or a lowly servant. This comandante gave him the courtesy of addressing him as a señor, as a man worthy of a title, no matter how humble his station in life.

"Why not?" asked the captain. "Do not all honest subjects of the king deserve no less?"

"I am called a 'half-breed,' Capitán," the vaquero confessed. "My mother is an Indian and my father was Spanish. I am regarded by many as 'inferior.' " Benito still looked down at the floor.

Francisco was quiet for several moments as he considered the pain of the man who stood before him - the pain of injustice and humiliation that such a stigma wrought. He felt that he could empathize with this man due to his own experiences at the hands of the current king. "Señor Avila," he told the man. "A man of honor, no matter what his breed, is one to be cherished for these qualities. Such men strengthen our kingdom. A scoundrel in silk is still a scoundrel."

Benito looked up, nodding at the truth of the officer's words. "Thank you, Your Excellency." He suddenly remembered his other mission. "Oh, I almost forgot. I saw the fugitive just an hour ago. He was at the Old Shack. He must have not heard me approach. I saw him leap into some bushes. At the same time, a horse nickered from the woods. I recognized the sound, Señor Comandante, because it is the mare belonging to Juan Díaz, a vaquero, whose horse was stolen only yesterday. This horse knows me, too, Capitán, because I trained her a long time ago."

"Where is this 'Old Shack?" asked De las Fuentes.

"It is on a back trail between the main road and the De la Vega rancho," answered the vaquero. "It is almost hidden in the trees and near some great rocks and an arroyo that leads to a lake. The soldiers were there two days ago to search the place. He might have not been there at the time."

"Thank you, for sharing this information, Señor Avila," Francisco told him. "We will leave for the area at once. Without loyal men like yourself, our kingdom would not prosper and justice would suffer."

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The pounding of horses’ hooves along the main road leading to the De la Vega rancho raised a cloud of dirt. About half a league past the main road, a troop of seven soldiers and their capitán veered off onto a trail and followed a path that led them past tall trees, small clearings of grasses and rocks, a path about as wide as two head of longhorn cattle. As the troop neared their destination, the captain had the men slow their pace. Within a few hundred yards, the horses walked and, finally, the soldiers dismounted and approached the Old Shack on foot, quietly and with stealth in order to take its occupant unawares.

There were sudden shouts and gunshots sounded in the air. The woods were alive with soldiers charging and Joaquín Enríquez found himself dodging among the bushes and rocks to escape them.

Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes remained in his saddle with the horses and watched the soldiers search the bushes and give chase to the fugitive. He knew he could not dismount without pain and so, preferred to watch the action from horseback. Nearby he heard the rustling of bushes and put his hand on the saddle holster. Then the head of Sergeant García emerged and the big man approached him.

"Capitán, Enríquez is climbing over the rocks to escape. The men are going after him on foot."

"What is on the other side of these rocks?" asked the officer.

"A road runs along a small lake and river," the soldier answered. "The road runs north into the De la Vega lands. It is a small trail, Comandante, very narrow, but it rejoins this trail further up past the river. If we go back up the road from where we first came, the fork in the road leads to the other side of these rocks."

"Ah," replied De las Fuentes. "Sergeant, remount, and follow the road south. Señor Enríquez may try to hide in the many canyons of the De la Vega rancho. If you can intercept him before he gets that chance, it would be good. I will double back to the fork in the road and take the old trail on the other side. With any luck, at least one of us will catch him if the soldiers do not. Fire a shot into the air if you have success."

"Sí, Comandante," García responded and mounted his horse. Both men soon disappeared in opposite directions in a cloud of dust.

Joaquín Enríquez scrambled over the rocks, dodging pistol fire that returned his own shots. He ducked under bushes and crawled around rocks. He knew he could lose the soldiers if he could make it to the lake and swim to the other side. The thorny bushes tore at his clothing and he had lost his hat among the trees and scrub brush. At last he came to the lake and climbed down the rocks. Despite the coolness of the flowing water, he dove in and began swimming across the lake towards the reeds and the river that flowed in to it. There were more boulders and rocks that would block their view. He was half way across before he heard shots being fired. He briefly saw the forms of two soldiers standing on the rocks, now far away, firing at him in vain. The branches and brush in the lake served to obscure and protect him. He headed toward the river and marsh reeds where he would leave the waters. His feet finally touched rock bottom and he began to wade ashore, chest deep. As he looked up he saw something ahead, something that made him hesitate - a large brown form pawing at the waters. It was a bear trying to catch a fish. Enriquez floated to the other side of the river in order not to catch the bear's attention. He then climbed up onto the rocks that overlooked the river. He did not know that Capitán de las Fuentes who was making his way slowly and cautiously along the road had now spotted him.

The comandante followed the narrow trail some distance and forced himself to concentrate on the landscape ahead. He saw the rock formations that overlooked the small lake and he noted the many inlets, surrounded by trees, scrub and marsh reeds as the trail led from higher grounds down to the lake. He had broken out in a sweat again and his lower right leg throbbed. For a few seconds he even felt dizzy. He prayed he would find Enríquez soon and get back to the cuartel quickly. He began to realize he had ignored the leg infection for far too long. Then suddenly, as if in answer to his prayers, he saw the fugitive. The man was faced away from him and seemed to be looking down at something. Francisco urged his horse forward. As he approached the rocks he saw how the land led down to some marshes. He was convinced that Enríquez would try to escape down the rocks and that is where he would intercept him.

Joaquín Enríquez began to climb over the rocks. Across the trail was a meadow of dried grasses and old oak trees. He did not want to take the chance that the soldiers would spot him from across the lake and return to the area to hunt for him. Most importantly, he had to avoid the bear. While such animals tried to avoid humans whenever possible, they were very territorial and one never knew how they would react to the sudden appearance of a human in a river or in a meadow.

As he turned to look away from the sun, he spotted De las Fuentes galloping toward him on the trail. He glanced back and saw the bear begin to lumber its way onto land. It suddenly occurred to him what would happen. He turned toward the officer and began to wave his arms. "Stop, Capitán, stop! There is danger here! Stop!" he shouted. He began to climb downwards through the rocks.

Francisco de las Fuentes did not hear what the fugitive vaquero was shouting over the thunder of hooves. He only saw the man beginning to descend on the other side of the great boulders. As he reached the edge of the rocks, he turned the horse toward the marshes. Then, too late, he saw it. Galloping horse and striding bear almost collided as each rounded the rocks at the same time.

Francisco felt the horse shy, then rear in alarm. The pain in his right leg prevented him from gripping the sides of the saddle effectively. Then, he too, saw the bear. It looked like a huge apparition rising out of the ground. The mare squealed in fear. The bear, also taken by surprise, raised itself up in alarm, then let out a roar of warning. The mare twisted and turned to get out of the way, stumbling over the rocks and into the mud that led to the waters edge.

On the boulders above, Enríquez watched with a kind of horrified fascination as the events unfolded with amazing rapidity. He watched the Spanish officer struggle to maintain his seat as the horse veered into the chilly waters. The bear feinted, then charged at the horse to frighten her. The mare turned and bucked, flashing her hind hooves in the air before fleeing. The bear saw a form on her back tumble into the waters. It distracted him. He saw the mare take flight across the waters, then turn into the nearby meadows, and felt triumphant. Now he went to inspect the creature that flailed in the shallow waters. It did not take him long to smell Man. Man was a threat, but this one looked vulnerable as it splashed away from him. The bear smelled blood and it brought out its aggression. It lumbered after the man in the water. Far above, Enriquez shouted and cursed at the bear. He began to throw stones -every one he could find - in the direction of the great creature.

The shock of the cold water and the roaring of the charging bruin frightened the officer almost out of his wits. He was not a swimmer and had always regretted never having been instructed - a major flaw in his upbringing, he thought. He managed to reach the muddy reeds. From somewhere a voice reached him commanding him to play dead. He was more than willing. He collapsed into the damp reeds, barely moving. He closed his eyes and slowly began to curl up. He almost forgot the pain in his leg, such was his terror. He felt the ground move around him and smelled a beast like none other. He did not move, but felt as if his body was trembling all over, betraying him.

The bear paused over the form of Man. He sniffed it in curiosity. The creature was not moving. But the bear smelled blood and knew it was wounded. The bear pawed at the man to see if it would stir.

Francisco knew he could not move. He tried to think of what had happened earlier in the day - of the ring he gave Margarita and of her joyous tears; of Padre Felipe's blessing and Sergeant García's snappy salute. But now he was freezing cold and a great brown bear stood over him, sniffing at his prone body. He began to lose consciousness, thinking – what a way to die – in the wilderness and alone, far from Spain. He felt the pain in his body and the bruises from the stones. Dear God, he prayed, why did you bring me to California to do justice; to meet Margarita and fall in love with her, if only to have me eaten by a grizzly bear? How far could a prince fall into disfavor? Before he blacked out, his last thoughts were - It must be the curses of witches and warlocks…."

 

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Something must have gone wrong, thought Sergeant García, after waiting almost half an hour for a shot or some sign of the fugitive. He headed back toward the Old Shack and encountered two of the soldiers who reported that they had seen the fugitive on rocks on the other side of the lake. "Did any of you hear a shot from the comandante?" García asked.

The soldiers shook their heads. Private Hugo Ríos spoke up. "He might be too far away for us to have heard him, Sergeant."

García nodded. He called out in a loud voice. "Lancers! Prepare mount up and follow me!" Within a few minutes, the other soldiers returned and all of them set out for the lake. As they approached the fork in the road, they saw a saddled brown horse without a rider cantering far down the road ahead of them.

"That's the comandante's horse!" exclaimed the sergeant. He turned to one of the lancers,"You, Díaz, fetch her at once." It took the soldier some time to catch up to and return with the mare. By then, the rest of the soldiers had ridden down the old trail towards the lake. After several hours of searching the rocks, the only thing they found was the officer's hat floating near the shallows. García shouted himself hoarse the rest of the afternoon as they searched the road and waters. Only when it began to get dark did the troopers return reluctantly to the cuartel in Los Angeles.

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Diego de la Vega mounted his palomino and headed toward the pueblo of Los Angeles with his faithful manservant, Bernardo. Taking the wide road at an easy canter, he hoped to reach the pueblo just before dark. Diego was looking forward to a relaxing evening at the posada. Ever since Francisco de las Fuentes had become comandante of the pueblo, there were few concerns for the well-being of the subjects of the king of that needed to be addressed outside of the capitán's authority. The young don enjoyed the easy gait past the outcrops, meadows and numerous oak trees that covered the hills. He was halfway to his destination when he came upon six troopers and Sergeant García who were headed back to the pueblo. Diego rode up alongside the fat sergeant and noted his forlorn features as well as the downcast expressions of the soldiers.

"Good evening, Sergeant García," the young man in a brown ranchero's outfit greeted him.

"Oh, good evening, Don Diego," the sergeant replied in a distracted way.

"Isn't this Capitán de las Fuentes' mount?" observed Diego, nodding towards the mare with no rider that accompanied García. He became concerned and gave Bernardo a look of alarm. "Where is Capitán de las Fuentes?"

"A very bad thing has happened, Don Diego," García told him, slowing down his horse almost to a halt. "Capitán de las Fuentes drowned in the river."

"What did you say?" responded Diego in astonishment and dismay. "What do you mean he is drowned in the river? Where is the body? What happened?"

"I do not know, Don Diego. We were chasing the fugitive, Enríquez. Shots were exchanged. We chased him over the rocks down to the river. The comandante told me to follow the road south to intercept Enríquez if he attempted to escape along the trail onto your lands. He himself turned to the north and rode to the old trail that runs alongside the lake and river. The soldiers saw Enríquez jump into the river and swim across. Then the bandit disappeared. When I waited a long time to hear from the comandante and he did not return, we went to look for him. All we found was his horse far down the trail. We went to the lake and found bear tracks and signs of struggle. We rode out into the lake and only found this," the sergeant held out De las Fuentes' hat in his hand. "This is all that we found." He looked very sad.

"Why aren't you still looking for him now?" exclaimed Diego in agitation. "If there was a fight between the fugitive and the capitán, Don Francisco, might have been wounded. Did you not search the marshes? Did you not call out to him? Did you not follow the bear tracks, did you not….?"

The big man held up his hand to stop the flow of words from the young man on the golden-colored horse. "Don Diego," he interrupted in a weary voice, "My soldiers and I have shouted ourselves hoarse calling for the comandante. We rode deep into the waters of the lake, we searched the rocks, and we searched the meadow across the road. There is nothing else we can do now. It is getting too dark to see or to find anyone. I have no choice but to head back to the pueblo."

"Sergeant García," Diego replied in the most authoritative voice he could muster. "When you get back to town, gather all the men you can muster together. Get torches and lanterns. Head back to the lake. If Capitán de las Fuentes is there, we must find him. There is a good chance that, even wounded, he would be able to get to the main road."

"Don Diego," García told him. "Capitán de las Fuentes is already wounded and sick. Despite this, he insisted on trying to capture Enríquez. He believes that the bandit will only surrender to him alone. Capitán de las Fuentes wants to give Enríquez justice, not to have him killed."

"Did Enríquez wound the comandante?" asked Diego.

"Oh, no, Don Diego," the soldier explained. "Capitán de las Fuentes is suffering from an old sword wound in his leg. It is badly inflamed. He was to have seen the doctor upon his return. He even had a fever last night."

"Then it is even more imperative that he be found," Diego declared. "Ride, Sergeant! Ride to the pueblo as if the very Devil were chasing you and bring back the town! This may be the only chance we have to save the comandante's life. I will ride back to the hacienda and bring out my father and other rancheros and their servants! We must find the comandante before it is too late."

"Sí, Don Diego," the sergeant responded becoming very animated himself. "We must save the life of our comandante." He turned to the soldiers. "Lancers! Back! Back to the pueblo as fast as we can. We must save our comandante!" With that the troopers rode off at a full gallop.

Diego and Bernardo turned back along the trail they had come. "I know a short cut that will cut our time back almost in half," he told the man who galloped at his side and held onto his hat with one hand. "A shortcut known only to a man called 'El Zorro.'"

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Margarita and her mother sat in the sala at the Rodríguez home. Margarita's friends, Ismaida, Juanita, Josefina, and Señora Ramona Rodríguez surrounded them. María was very proud when her daughter announced that she was now engaged to be married to the comandante, Capitán de las Fuentes. The other girls expressed delight and satisfaction.

"I just knew you two were meant for each other the very first day when we met the capitán on the plaza," declared Juanita.

"Oh," exclaimed Margarita. "Was that why you wanted me to wake up Francisco when he fell asleep in church?"

All the girls burst out laughing, nodding, while the two mothers shook their heads at their daughters' stories, especially about Margarita avoiding Salvador Muñoz. Everyone was awed by the ring the capitán had given Margarita. "Have you ever seen anything like it?" María asked Ramona.

The other woman shook her head. "I'm very impressed," she commented. She heard the arrival of her husband and excused herself a moment.

César Rodríguez arrived with a friend, the other lawyer of the town, a man called Franco. He had consulted with the lawyer that morning over the situation with Margarita Pérez and wanted the man to meet the young woman he had taken under his protection. He did not know of the developments over the last several hours until Ramona informed him in the front hall. He was greatly relieved but still distressed over the situation for María Pérez. "I believe that our next order of business is to have a discussion with her mother," César told his wife.

She nodded. "I would like to extend our hospitality to María as well," she told him. "I talked to Doctor Aguilera and he told me that María has been badly beaten. She wears a veil to cover her bruises." The woman paused and said in indignation, "I am appalled at this situation. María should stay here until she has recovered. She must be in great pain."

Andreas Franco nodded. "If Señora Pérez is willing, it would be good idea, although her husband will be furious that she has left his home. She is the one who will have to decide. Do not be surprised if she fears to do even this."

"I will speak to her in private after a while," Ramona responded. "I will tell her that we wish for her to stay with us a few days or more. I can send a servant to tell her husband that she is our guest and is visiting her daughter - if she agrees."

"I think your idea is a good one," César added. "Now let us go congratulate Margarita. I am very happy for her and for Don Francisco."

As they headed toward the sala, Ramona remembered something she wanted to tell her husband. "César, I want you to look at the ring that Don Francisco gave Margarita today. It is very unusual."

"Of course," he answered casually. Several minutes later he was examining the ring with a jeweler's magnifying glass as Margarita' held out her hand for him to look at it more closely. He found it hard to conceal his astonishment. He called the lawyer over to look at the ring. The lawyer also examined it, but looked disturbed. Whatever he thought, he kept his feelings to himself, merely commenting on its beauty and original design.

The lawyer stayed for supper, consulted with María Pérez, had a nightcap, and was seen to the door by César Rodríguez. At the very last minute, Andrés Franco beckoned César out the front door and asked him to close it behind him.

"What is the matter, Andrés?" asked the maestro. "You seemed quite preoccupied this evening and all through supper."

"My apologies, César," responded the lawyer. "I cannot help but be preoccupied. You see, I find myself in a difficult position of telling you something regarding Señorita Margarita and her ring from Capitán de las Fuentes."

"Is there something wrong with the ring?" asked César. "It is a magnificent object of beauty and its design is quite unique. I am almost envious of the girl. Not too many young women could ever dream to receive an object of such beauty - or value. It must be an heirloom."

"If it is what I think it is," began the lawyer, "then it is either stolen or it is a copy of an original."

"Stolen?" exclaimed the musician in astonishment. "Whatever can you mean? Capitán de las Fuentes is one of the most honorable men that I know. I could not imagine such a thing. Are you positive of what you are saying, Andrés?"

The lawyer sighed. "I knew this was going to be difficult, " he began. "I know for a fact that this particular ring is one in a million. There is only one ring like that that was ever designed - and it was made in Spain for one of the most illustrious families in the history of Spain - that of the De las Fuentes y Alarcón."

The maestro was impressed. "How do you know this?" he asked.

"I knew the jeweler who created it," he replied. "It's design was suggested and given to him as a project by one of the princes of the family, General Alfonso de las Fuentes y Alarcón. It was made for his fiancée, the Countess Isabel."

"Perhaps our comandante is his son," suggested César. "How else could it come into his possession?"

Andrés Franco shook his head. "This occurred within the last ten years or so, just before I left Spain. I heard some rumors that the general had been exiled to the provinces after falling into disfavor with His Majesty. There is no son and there is no one with a rank as humble as that of captitán in their family."

César was quiet, his mind racing. "Are you certain?" he asked. "Perhaps our comandante is a nephew or cousin? Was there ever a case of the ring being stolen?"

"Not to my knowledge," replied the lawyer. "It's just that I doubt that the general would ever part with such a ring, let alone his family. The value of the ring is probably thousands of pesos, possibly even greater."

"This is very troubling news indeed," mused the musician. "I hope that you are not implying that our captitán is a fraud. He is a genuinely cultured man."

"Let me look into this further," Franco told him, wrapping a scarf around his neck and shivering in the chilly night air. "Do not say anything to anyone regarding this as of yet. It is quite possible that Capitán de las Fuentes is a genuinely talented and knowledgeable man, just as you say. But, on the other hand, if he is an imposter, then we would not want Margarita to be misled."

César smiled at that. "Even if our comandante is an imposter, I believe that nothing would stop Margarita from marrying him. Anyone would be better than the Muñoz boy. But please, Andrés, let me know as soon as possible what you can find out. I would rather know the truth, no matter how painful."

The lawyer bowed and bid him a good night. César closed the door thoughtfully and shook his head sadly. He would not spoil anyone's happiness, especially Margarita's or her mother's, on this day.

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