Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-three

 

The fire light from dozens of torches reflected off the waters of the small lake near the De la Vega rancho. Almost fifty men volunteered to ride from town out to the lake with the soldiers. Merchants, stable hands, house servants and lawyers found themselves working side by side probing the dark grounds. Between the fork in the road and the forest, between the lake and the Old Shack, they combed the rocks, marsh, meadows, and lake on horseback or in in groups of twos and threes.

The vaqueros from the De la Vega, Torres, Villa and Calderón ranchos as well as the rancheros themselves, Don Alejandro, Don Nacho, Don Leon, and Don Juan joined the men at the lake. Don Alejandro had brought his own carriage to transport the comandante into town if he was discovered to be in distress.

Angel Ledesma found himself probing the reeds and following them towards a thicket of trees. There was a man at his side. When Angel looked up, he was surprised to see the face of the man who joined him. "Tomás!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing out here? Did you escape from jail?"

The tall man at his side holding his own torch straightened up. "No, Angel," he answered. "When the soldiers asked for volunteers to find De las Fuentes, I insisted on coming."

Ledesma was surprised. "That is good of you, Tomás," he told the vaquero. "I thought that you didn't care about anybody except yourself." He looked around and saw that both of them were fairly far away from the other searchers. "Where do you think he might be?"

"He could not have gone too far," answered the lean man. He paused and approached the grove of trees. "Listen, Angel," he said. "You just take my torch when you head back."

"Why?" asked Ledesma. He paused. "You're not thinking of running away?"

"How else am I going to get out of jail?" Robello answered. "It's my only opportunity."

"You can't do that!" Angel insisted. "Sergeant García trusted you to help us find the comandante."

"Listen, stupid," Tomás said in an irritated tone, "I'm never going to be able to pay off the comandante. Fifty pesos! It's a fortune. I'll be in jail for years!"

"Listen, Tomás," the other pointed out. "You are already paying off your debt with all the work you are doing in the cuartel. You won't be in jail for years. Tomás, I will help you."

"Forget it," Robello answered him. "La Señor Ledesma has already made it clear that she will not give you a peso to help me out. And I have no intention of being in jail when Monastario comes back. He'll turn me into a slave, probably send me to a mine. I'd never come back alive." He handed his torch to Ledesma who looked upset at his words. "Sorry, Angel, but I have to do what is good for me. Somebody else will find the comandante. He's not a bad sort, it is true, but I have to think about my future, not his." He turned and began walking towards the groves.

Ledesma debated what to do next. You don't have to insult me, Tomás, when I offer to help you. The short vaquero watched the other man disappear into the darkness. When they catch him again, he thought, he will think that his current punishment was heaven. And it would be Capitán Monastario who would try him, not Capitán de las Fuentes. He began to head back toward the flickering lights along the road and around the lake.

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

"Where could he have gone to?" Alejandro de la Vega asked in an agitated tone of voice. "We have searched the lake, the meadows, the road, the rocks, and the surrounding trails. He is not to be found. Surely he must be somewhere!"

"It is almost two in the morning," commented Don Leon Santos, mopping his brow with a handkerchief. "We have covered much ground."

The group of men surrounding him murmured in assent, shaking their heads and talking in hushed tones to each other. Their torches cast strange moving shadows on the ground. Far above them, thousands of stars twinkled in the cool night air. A brisk breeze began to blow across the lake. It whipped the reeds of the surrounding marsh and caused large ripples across the lake. The gentle lapping of waves against the pebbled shore could now distinctly be heard. From far away came the hoot of night owls seeking their prey. It was an indication to many of the men that the search had not gone well.

"We still have not reached the woods, Father," Diego said coming up behind his father and pointing to the distant trees. "Perhaps the comandante took shelter there."

"It would make more sense for him to come back to the road," his father countered. "Here he would have been found."

"But what if the bear had come back for him?" asked the elderly Martín Domínguez, servant of the Pérez family. He had driven out from the Pérez household after his master, Don Sebastian, had reluctantly given him permission to join the search.

"That's not likely," answered Benito Ávila. "Bears generally avoid people, and even if he had dragged the comandante off, it would have not been far. We would have found the capitán by now."

"If what Sergeant García said is correct," Don Nacho Torres spoke up. "Capitán de las Fuentes could not have walked very far, not on that leg. He would have headed out on the road, back to town if he could walk."

"But a wounded man like that could fall prey to wolves, wild boars, or even a pack of coyotes," Martín insisted, "even if he did take the road back to town."

That comment set off even more conversation. Diego de la Vega grew impatient with what he viewed as the delay in hunting further from the lake. "I suggest that we start searching the woods," he insisted. "That way no such fate will befall Don Francisco."

He was interrupted by the intrusion of Sergeant García into their midst. "Attention, attention!" the big man announced. Everyone turned their eyes on the corpulent figure of the soldier. "Has anyone seen the prisoner, Tomás Robello?"

There was silence. Someone said, "He was with our group for a while, then he went off into the reeds by himself."

"Did you free Señor Robello to help with the search, Sergeant?" asked Diego.

"But, of course, Don Diego," answered García. "You told me to gather all the men who would be willing to help us find the comandante. The prisoner told me that he wanted to help us find the capitán."

"So, now we have two men missing," moaned Don Leon. "Weren't there any soldiers guarding the prisoner?"

"We were all trying to find the comandante," García began defensively as voices began to speak up from all sides.

"Señores, gentlemen," Diego held up his hand. "This is all very well, but even as we talk, Capitán de las Fuentes needs our help and we are wasting time. I suggest that we continue our search."

"With all due respect, Don Diego, it would be far better to do it when it is light" González, the blacksmith, said in a tired voice. "The dawn is only a few hours away and it would give us some time to rest. Besides, our torches burn low and I am losing my voice from shouting so much." He paused. "I want us to find the comandante, too, Don Diego, but we have not found anything to show us that he is still in the area."

"A few hours could mean the difference…" the son of Alejandro argued. He felt his father squeeze his arm.

"Diego, González is right. Many of us are exhausted. We have combed the area over and over. If we have missed him at night, the chances are much better that we will find him by daylight." He turned to the crowd. "If some of you would like to rest here, then we can make a temporary camp. For those of you who may need to return to your families, then go and rest. Please return here as soon as possible when you can."

"I think that is a good idea, Don Alejandro," Sergeant García spoke up. "My men are very tired and need to rest here. As a matter of fact, I am so tired and hungry that I probably would not find the capitán even if I walked on top of him!" He looked down at his feet. "And I might have done that because he is so little."

When Diego began to argue again, his father took him aside. "Listen, my son. I know how you feel about His Excellency. I feel no different than you, but look at the ground we have covered. He will be no worse off in a few hours than he is now and I want you to ride back to the hacienda and get the rest of the vaqueros to come here. That will give us even more men. When they arrive, we will begin to search the woods as you suggest. I want you to do this right away, Diego."

The young don nodded. He mounted his palomino and left. He saw a few men returning to the pueblo while others went to the edge of the lake, kneeling to splash their faces with the cool waters. A few soldiers and townsmen stood by campfires and discussed the situation quietly. He would ride like the wind to get the vaqueros and to bring some provisions for the men still at the lake. The half-moon shone up in the sky far above, soon to be swallowed up by the coming daybreak.

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

Conchita Cortez wiped her damp cloth over the bar for the third time and sighed. The bar was empty of its usual customers and she was bored. She leaned an elbow on the polished surface which had seen many spills and thought about how Señor Pacheco had hurriedly told her about the disappearance of the comandante and how he was joining in the search party. Señor Pacheco was, for once, without his great white apron around his waist. Instead, he had grabbed his hat and rushed out the door. That was the night before and he had not returned yet. The cook had put on the fire and told her to be prepared for any of the men showing up, but it was well into the morning and only a few travelers had made their appearance to eat their meals and depart.

Her eyes traveled over the silent room with its many wooden tables and chairs, to the far stone fireplace and then to the stairs that led to the guests' quarters. She began to imagine the inn full of the vaqueros, rancheros, the guitar players, the soldiers and yes, even to the small officer who was the object of the greatest manhunt the pueblo had ever known. Suddenly Conchita felt sad and hoped that he would be found; that soon the posada would fill up with the smiling faces of the men who would tell all sorts of stories about how they found the comandante, and to reassure her that all would be well.

Conchita was startled out of her daydream when the door to the inn banged shut. She looked up to see two figures looking around at the empty room. Both men looked over and saw her as she pretended to wipe the top of the bar. She recognized the two at once.

"The pueblo is practically deserted," complained one of the men, sitting down at a table. "There are no customers in the general store and almost all of the men at the office did not show up for work. It's outrageous and ridiculous."

The stocky younger man accompanying him nodded. "It's just as well that we are rid of him at last," he commented. "He's been nothing but trouble since he arrived."

The older man held up a hand, cautioning him. "It's not wise to discuss this here," he said. He looked over at the barmaid who seemed to be paying no attention to them and raised his voice. "Bar maid, are we to be ignored? Or are you too busy with all the other customers?"

Conchita hurried over. "Good morning, Señor Pérez. What would you like to order?"

"The same as yesterday," he said in a grouchy voice. The young man nodded as she turned toward him and he ordered the same thing. As Conchita hurried toward the kitchen, Sebastian Pérez turned back to his companion. "I've been deserted," he complained, "first by my wife and now by Martín. That old man left last night on the search party and still is not back yet to perform his duties that I am paying for. That is what I get for being generous and giving him permission to go - ingratitude pure and simple." Pérez took out a gold watch and looked at it. "If he's not back by noon, he's lost a day's wages."

"The nerve of these menials who don't know their place," Salvador Muñoz agreed. "Sergeant García had the audacity to come to our home last night and argue that our family participate in this nocturnal posse. My father jumped up at once to go - just like a slave given an order, but I was more restrained. I told him that the soldiers would either find him or bring back a corpse. Would you believe Father was angry at me for not joining in this farce? I told him to send the servants. The Muñoz family should be at no one's beck and call!"

"Actually this entire affair could end up in our favor again if things turn out the way I hope," Pérez lowered his voice considerably. "I expect Margarita to come back home and admit she was wrong in another day or two. I'll play the generous parent and take her back into the fold. The only stipulation will be that she finally agrees to marry you. That should end our problems once and for all. With De las Fuentes out of the way, there will be no more excuses. Then we can begin to work on Felix regarding a merger of our two family businesses."

Salvador rubbed his hands together in satisfaction and nodded at the words of the other man. He watched Conchita carry a large tray as she walked through the swinging door and approach their table. "…Assuring your future prosperity as well as my own," he added.

Both men raised their steaming cups of coffee in a toast to their coming partnership.

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

Sebastian Pérez and Salvador Muñoz were not the only two residents of Los Angeles who wondered where everyone was. A muscular ranchero, one Rafael Pascual, rode into town expecting to see the pueblo teaming with the usual Indians, merchants, soldiers and peons, only to find very few men out on the street. At the most he saw some women at the general store and a few elderly parishioners outside the church. Los Angeles seemed almost deserted.

Rafael headed to the most obvious place to look for townspeople and that was at the tavern. He halted in amazement after opening the door. He saw no one in the inn except for a single barmaid who was wiping off a table and clearing it of a few plates and mugs. It was already mid-afternoon and, normally, the tavern began to fill with those seeking a mug of wine or enjoying a siesta after a leisurely meal. He was distracted by the sound of horses, carts, and wagons coming from the far side of the cuartel. He closed the door and headed back out to see what the commotion was.

In groups of five or six, men began to arrive on horseback. Others rode on carts pulled by mules. Still others walked in wearily. Pascual wondered what was going on. He put his hands on his hips, a typical pose, and waited to see who would stop and ask him about his prolonged absence, but all the faces he knew seemed to pass him by as if unaware of his presence.

Suddenly a voice called out to him, "Rafael, are you back so soon?"

Pascual turned to face the young man whose voice he recognized and grinned hugely. "Good afternoon, Don Diego," he answered, pleased to be noticed. "I just arrived." He paused. "But, tell me this, what is happening? The town looks deserted. Where has everyone gone?"

The young don had just rode up on his palomino and several rancheros arrived behind him. "Leon, Nacho, Juan," Rafael greeted them. The men dismounted and shook hands. Rafael repeated his question, "What has happened while I have been away? I wasn't sure that I was in the pueblo of Los Angeles when I arrived earlier. It seemed deserted."

"There is much to tell," Diego began.

"Let's do it at the tavern, then," Pascual suggested and all five of them headed across the plaza.

After the men had seated themselves at a table, they began to tell Ramon what had happened while he had been away. As they spoke, more men arrived at the tavern and it was soon full of talking vaqueros, peons and townspeople.

"A tragedy, a real tragedy," began Don Nacho. "Our comandante has disappeared and we have spent almost a day and night searching for him - and to no avail. Hundreds volunteered to help and we have returned empty-handed." He looked very sad.

Rafael grinned crookedly. "I thought all of us would be happy to see the back of Monastario," he remarked, "especially you, Nacho. What makes his disappearance a tragedy?"

"Capitán Monastario was temporarily replaced, Rafael, " Diego explained. "The new comandante, a good and just man, disappeared last night out at the lake near our rancho. He was searching for a fugitive and not even the soldiers or most of the town have been able to find him."

"He was also wounded in the leg," Don Juan added, "which adds gravity to the situation. If his wound is not treated soon, there is a chance that he may die."

Rafael rubbed a hand across his stubbled chin and thought a moment. "What did this comandante look like?" he asked. "Describe his appearance to me."

The four other men looked at each other, then Don Nacho said to young De la Vega, "You explain, Diego, since you have been the most involved with our comandante."

Diego turned to the muscular man. "Don Francisco, our comandante, is a very small man, bearded with pock marks. He might bear a small resemblance to Velasquez's portrait of the Duke of Olivares…"

"But his eyes are kind…" Nacho added

"Well, he looks more like someone in a Rubens or Rembrandt portrait," Don Leon asserted. "Some say he even looks French or Dutch."

"Gentlemen, just a minute," the self-made Rafael interrupted. "I don't know about all these painters, like you learned men, but I did see something odd, now that I think about it, early this morning when I was headed toward Los Angeles." He paused. "It was far beyond your lands, Diego."

"What did you see?" asked Don Juan Villa.

"I was riding southwest when I came upon a group of Indians with a cart. There were so many of them, about a dozen, that I became suspicious, thinking they were neophytes running away from the mission," Pascual explained. "I stopped them and asked them what they were doing and where they were going. They did not answer me only to say that they had a sick man in the cart. Then I saw that there was a man in the cart. There were two Indian women in the cart with him. I did not pay much attention to him because he was dressed like a peon. He was wrapped in a blanket and some furs. I pulled back the blanket to check their story and noticed that he had a saber cut on his leg that looked red. I told them that if he did not get treatment soon, they would have to take off his leg. Because he looked like a peon, I did not bother making any further inquiries, but now that you mention it, his face seems to have been pockmarked and he looked rather old-fashioned - his beard, hair and moustache."

The tavern fell silent as Don Leon leaped to his feet and shouted excitedly, "That's it, then! The Indians have kidnapped our comandante!"

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

Joaquín Enríquez fled further up river at the approach of the soldiers on horseback . He had dragged the comandante out of the marshes earlier and carried him into the drier grasses beyond the grove of trees. The bear had retreated under his aggressive hail of rocks and stones and lumbered off across the meadow and disappeared.

The fugitive examined the capitán and ascertained that he had been unharmed by the bear. He tried to revive the officer, thinking him half-drowned, only to feel the heat of a fever on his forehead. "He's ill," thought Enríquez briefly. "Damn." He looked around. So far, there were no troopers in sight. The man chewed his lower lip at his moral dilemma: if he carried De las Fuentes back to the soldiers, he might be shot on sight or accused of harming the comandante. It would be back to jail or six feet under at worse. On the other hand, if he left the comandante in the dry field, then the officer might not be found at all and that might end with his death. Then he would be accused of killing the officer. Well, it would not be the first time he had the officer at his mercy. And finally, there was his final appearance in Los Angeles, a ritual and action that had to be carried out before he found peace for himself - or to succumb to madness….Enríquez broke off these black thoughts and decided the best thing would be to carry the small man back to the marsh where he could be found. Then he would return to one of his hiding places.

He leaned over and took the small man by the arms in order to carry him over his shoulder. As he rose with his burden, he hesitated anew. Too late, he saw six soldiers with Sergeant García at their head round the bend of the rocks in the distance. He watched as they followed the sandy shore into the shallow lake and nearby marsh. It was too late for him now. The troopers began to search the lake, meadow and rocks. It was getting too dangerous for him to stay in the area any longer. Enríquez made a decision. He lowered the officer back to the ground and lay him on his back. He then unfastened the officer's scabbard and sword from his belt and thrust it into the earth, so that it stood upright. Rays from the sun might gleam off of the shiny hilt and attract any searchers to the place where the comandante lay. He could do no more. Joaquín Enríquez disappeared into the high grasses of the surrounding terrain.

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

Watching all these events unfold from the safety of distant bushes and trees were two pairs of eyes. Two men in white with long black hair and copper-colored skin had been alerted by the sound of distant gunfire. Drawn toward the lake by curiosity, they had watched a man leap into the river and swim across it. Minutes later, they saw the same man take refuge from a bear by climbing the rocks. He looked like a Spanish vaquero. Soon afterwards, they saw a Spanish officer charge down the road on his horse, loose his seat and plunge into the waters of the river after unexpectedly encountering the bear. They witnessed the man on the rocks showering rocks upon the bear, trying to drive it off. And, finally, they saw the man drag the unconscious officer out of the marsh. He then hoisted the officer over his shoulder and make his way through the woods towards their hiding place. As soldiers came galloping down the road and began to search the area, the man left the officer and fled into the surrounding grasslands, rocks and woods, not even seeing the two hidden watchers. The officer moved a little and turned over on his side, then on his stomach, his face hidden from the sun.

The soldiers began hunting among the rocks and in the nearby meadows. They did not even venture near the woods or beyond it. The two strangers would remain undiscovered. One of the watchers pointed at the crumpled figure in blue and white who remained prone just a few yards away and said to the other, "Leave him. Let the Spaniard die. It will just be one less white man to oppress us."

His companion hesitated. "I wish to see the face of this white man." He made his way cautiously through the grasses until he came within a few feet of the Spanish officer. He turned to beckon his friend to join him. Then he knelt down and turned the inert figure over. A look of recognition came over his copper-colored features. He looked up. "We need to help this white man," he said firmly.

"Why?" asked the other curiously.

"Because this is the one who gave me justice."

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

The inn was soon in an uproar caused by the words of Don Leon. One man suggested that the Indians were taking advantage of the situation and were holding the comandante hostage. "You can never trust a savage," shouted a second. Don Diego recognized the speaker as Miguel Cisneros, a man who had instigated the arrest of Indians. Diego looked over at Don Nacho in consternation and knew he had to act before the situation got out of hand. Diego leapt onto a tabletop in order to draw attention to himself, and to calm the angry men, if he could.

"Gentlemen!" he said loudly, holding up a hand, "Gentlemen! Your attention, please."

The room grew quieter. Voices died down and became whispers as they looked up at the tall figure of the son of Don Alejandro de la Vega, one of the most respected subjects of the king in Los Angeles.

"Gentlemen!" the young man spoke in an authoritative voice, "like all of you, I am concerned about the whereabouts and well-being of our comandante, Capitán de las Fuentes. Like you, I spent the night searching for him out at the lake, and like you, I am feeling somewhat discouraged by our lack of fortune in finding him. But we must not let our emotions get the better of our good judgement. We must not leap to conclusions. It is entirely possible that another scenario presents itself. If, some Indians had discovered Don Francisco before we did, is it not possible that they, respecting the justice that two of them received at the hearings just a few days ago, would not try to aid him, rather than apprehend him? Because we do not know the facts, it is not a good idea to speculate the worst possible scenario. Capitán de las Fuentes is not a man who presumes a man is guilty until proven guilty - to the contrary! He believes a man to be innocent before proven guilty. We must conduct ourselves in a way that would make our comandante proud of us. Let us not leap to persecute any Indian that comes our way, but to make inquiries , to ask the Indians to help us find a man who is a benefactor for all of us."

Don Nacho nodded at the wisdom of his young friend's words. He stood up. "I agree with Don Diego. Let us ride forth in peace in search of our capitán, not in hatred or distrust."

There were murmurings as some men nodded. But Miguel Cisneros stepped forward. "The time for reasoning has passed," he said in a voice rising with emotion. "Our comandante's life is in danger, all of us know this! Why would the Indians not tell Don Ramon who the man in the cart was? Why would they not bring Don Francisco here to the pueblo to be treated by Doctor Aguilera? Why did they strip him of his sacred uniform and hide him in the guise of a peon? Do you call that respect? Do you call that love for the man who gave them justice!?" He turned back toward the men who crowded the tavern and whose eyes he held with his own. "Behind the resentful look of every Indian, is a man itching for revenge against Whites! Behind every act of insubordination, is an Indian plotting revolt! And behind every act of mercy that an Indian receives from a White man is a rebel waiting to take advantage of a situation!"

"That is not true!" shouted Don Leon, now horrified by the reaction his claim had aroused. He had not thought about what he said before he opened his mouth and now he bitterly regretted it. "My own servants, Indians all, are loyal men."

Another man began to argue that the Indians were probably in league with the bandit-fugitive Enríquez.

"Enough of this!" shouted Cisneros in return. "Let us mount our horses and ride to the Indian villages and demand that they turn our comandante over to us! Let us burn them out if they refuse. Interrogate every Indian servant and leave no stone untouched in our quest to return our comandante to our pueblo unharmed!" He led a number of men out the door as Diego tried to make one last appeal to reason.

"Señores, do not do this! Capitán de las Fuentes would not wish us to act like this!"

The other men in the inn approached Don Diego as the young man stepped down from the table. They crowded around him looking for an answer. The young ranchero shook his head in dismay. "Gentlemen, just as those men ride forth, so must we. We cannot allow injustice to happen to the very people Don Francisco has given justice to. Warn our Indian friends and tell them that many of us will do what we can to defend them. And, if by accident, you discover the whereabouts of Joaquín Enríquez, remember, too, that our comandante wishes to give him justice as well. He gave all the soldiers orders to take this man alive. We can do no less."

As they left the inn, Don Nacho turned to the young caballero. "Diego, my friend, I fear that a great calamity has hit us. How ironic that a man like Capitán de las Fuentes, who wants nothing more than justice in the world, may find himself at the mercy of those who are the very embodiment of injustice. I pray we can put a halt to this madness."

Diego nodded and halted, waiting until Don Nacho was out of hearing range. He turned to Bernardo. "Never before has the pueblo been in such need of a man like Capitán de las Fuentes," he told the mozo. "And never before has Capitán de las Fuentes needed the assistance of a man called "El Zorro."

 

 

Chapter 24
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