Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-four

 

It was early evening when Margarita Pérez and her friends sat in Ismaida's room, chatting. Margarita was very worried because Francisco had not come to the Rodríguez' home as he had promised and it was getting late. He never broke a promise, she thought.

She clasped her right hand over her left which she held at her heart. The other two girls began to notice her distraction. Ismaida and Juanita glanced at each other. "Don't worry, Margarita," they assured her. "Don Francisco will show up soon. He is probably at the doctor's like he promised."

"But, what if he's very ill?" she persisted. "I just wish someone would come and let me know."

"Let me serve some more tea," Ismaida offered, wanting to change the subject to calm her friend. She lifted the teapot and began to serve the tea. Suddenly, she looked up as she heard a strange sound.

All three young women turned in apprehension as they heard a tapping on the outside of Ismaida's bedroom window.

"Who is out there?" Ismaida called in alarm. Whoever it was would have had to climb up the tree, just like Margarita had done. All three young women were astonished as a dark figure in black with a mask covering half of his face stepped in to the room from up over the windowsill.

"Señor Zorro!" gasped all the young women in unison. Ismaida stood up in her amazement. She didn't know whether to be thrilled or shocked. Her mouth opened in her surprise.

"Your pardon, Señoritas," apologized the man in black. "I hope I did not frighten you by my unorthodox appearance."

"Oh, you are welcome anytime, Señor Zorro," gushed Ismaida. "We are not frightened!"

"Thank you," he grinned. "And good evening, again, Señorita Villa," he bowed to the taller girl who beamed at his acknowledgement.

"Why are you here, Señor Zorro?" Ismaida asked. "What can we do for you?"

"I am here to see Señorita Pérez," the man in black told them. He looked over at the young woman who had risen out of her chair and he smiled. "With your permission, of course."

Margarita looked up at the dashing figure in the long cape and nodded. "Can you tell me anything about Don Francisco, Señor Zorro?" she asked in a trembling voice as if almost anticipating the reason for his presence. "Is he safe? Is he well? I have not seen him at all and he said he would come by this evening." She became distraught and leaned a hand on the arm of the chair.

"Señorita Pérez, in order to help Don Francisco, I need to find out some information from you," he explained.

"Why does he need your help?" she asked. "Is he in danger?"

"Señorita, the Capitán has not come back from his search for the fugitive," he told her.

Margarita grew pale and put a hand to her throat. She sat down slowly. The other girls tensed at the news.

El Zorro could see the effect of his words on the young woman. He knelt on one knee at her side and patted her hand gently with his gloved one. "Señorita, there are a great many men from the pueblo out looking for Don Francisco as I speak," he began, "many men who love and respect him. But in order to get a better idea of where he might have gone, please answer me this if you can - first of all, I must find out when Don Francisco began to be troubled by his bad leg," He paused. "And secondly, did Don Francisco ever mention anything about why he felt he must capture this Señor Enríquez himself?"

It was only a few minutes later that the knight in black kissed the hand of the young woman and congratulated her on her engagement to the comandante. Margarita rose and followed the dashing figure to the window. "Please, Señor Zorro," she begged him, "don't let anything bad happen to my Francisco."

"I swear to you, Señorita, that I will do my best to find him," promised the man in black. "I will not rest until I do so." Then, he was gone as quickly as he appeared.

The room was quiet a moment before Ismaida broke the silence. "Just imagine! El Zorro in our house!" She gave Juanita a look of unmistakable triumph.

"This makes us even," Juanita sighed.

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

The warm day had dissolved into a cool evening. Far below the far mountain reaches, a full moon began its ascent towards the heavens. As the sky darkened, the first twinkling stars made their appearance, hazy and dim to the eye at first until they became sharply distinct twinkling spots of light in the breezy night air.

And far below on the Earth, disparate events began to coalesce and shape life under the dark sky as men road forth in lands of the far-flung Spanish Empire, in a land called California.

A black horse and rider sped forth from among the box canyons and numerous valleys outside the pueblo of Los Angeles. As he passed by a lake and meadow in the vicinity, the dark figure in black took advantage of the full moon to retrace his steps beyond the lake and into a meadow beyond the surrounding woods. He wanted to turn his attention one last time to the area before resuming an adventure that would turn into a race with time.

El Zorro made his way carefully past the woods and searched the ground for a man who would be dressed in white and blue - the wounded comandante. While the woods shaded him from behind, the moon illuminated the grounds ahead as his eyes moved swiftly over the grassy meadow. Suddenly, the masked man saw movement in the high grasses. He paused and watched a man appear, a man hatless and ill-clad, who inspected the lands below his feet. El Zorro recognized the figure at once. He slid off Toronado as silently as an Indian warrior, drew his sword and approached the figure undetected.

A man of medium height was looking through the grasses so intently, that he did not notice the approach of the man in black. He looked up, startled, as a calm voice spoke from the darkness ahead.

"We meet again, Señor Enríquez," said El Zorro.

Joaquín Enríquez straightened up and faced the mask man. "It would seem so," he replied. He could see the moonlight glistening off the other's drawn sword. The fugitive stood his ground and made no attempt to flee.

"Allow me to ask you, Señor, what you are doing here?" asked the man in black.

The vaquero was serious in his reply. "I'm looking for the comandante who is wounded and suffering from a fever," he answered. "Why else would I be here?"

"I do not know, Señor Enríquez," answered El Zorro. "You must know that many others have been looking for him as well. How do you know he is wounded and ill?"

"I know what you are thinking," Enríquez replied, "but you are mistaken. Capitán de las Fuentes fell into the lake after encountering a bear. I was there - being the object of his manhunt. But it was I who drove off the bear and carried him from the marsh. I left him in this field. When the soldiers came, I fled far from here in order not to be found. I came back to find him, to take him to some place where he could be discovered, but saw many others from the town and the soldiers. I thought they would find him, but they did not venture much further than the trees. When they left, I came out of hiding and have tried to find him where I left him. He is nowhere here that I can see."

"And what do you think happened to him? Where could he have gone without someone's help?" El Zorro continued. "Men do not disappear by themselves."

"I don't know," answered Joaquín. "However, I left a marker next to the comandante when I had to leave. It is there." He pointed to something shining a short distance away. He walked toward the glistening object. "This is it."

El Zorro followed him and saw what the fugitive was pointing to. He went up to it and pulled a saber out of the ground. "This belongs to Capitán de las Fuentes," he affirmed. He turned to the fugitive. "I believe you, Señor Enríquez." He replaced the saber in the upright scabbard.

"I did find some deep footprints but they disappeared over there," Enríquez explained, "but they could not have been made by the comandante."

El Zorro thought a moment. "But they could have been made by someone carrying the comandante. Deep prints are made when the weight is heavy," he pointed out. "If anyone, say some Indians, found the comandante, they might have carried him away."

"That is true," the vaquero agreed. "There are some small villages of pagans on the other side of the hills to the east. There is the danger that they would not know about the comandante's goodwill toward their people."

"If a man like Capitán de las Fuentes did justice, I am sure the Indians knew about it the day it happened," the man in black told the vaquero. "But there is something more serious to consider. Some townsmen led by Miguel Cisneros are accusing the Indians of kidnapping the comandante. Cisneros is advocating violence and intimidation against all Indians in order to discover the whereabouts of the capitán."

The vaquero sucked in his breath. "Those fools!" he said in anger. "They don't know what they may unleash. This could put the comandante's life in danger and ruin everything!"

"I agree," the man in black said. "I tell you this - I will make an agreement with you, Señor Enríquez. The comandante is in serious need of everyone's effort to find him before it is too late. If you can help us find him, I will see to it that you come to no harm."

"Men have promised me that before, Señor Zorro," Enríquez declared, but he knew when to concede the point. "However, if you will also pledge not to turn me in, I will do everything in my power to help find the comandante. What do you say?"

"You have an agreement," El Zorro responded. He whistled and Tornado came quickly to his side. As he mounted, the man in black turned back one more time at the sound of the fugitive's voice.

"You know, Señor Zorro, with the comandante in danger and now the Indians as well, you have your work cut out for you." The fugitive grinned cheerfully. "Lucky that you have me to help you!"

Despite the seriousness of it all, El Zorro gave a wide grin of his own. "That is true, Señor Enríquez. What a serious responsibility you yourself have undertaken! However, I am confident you will reach my highest expectations and redeem yourself in the eyes of all of those of Los Angeles!"

With that, El Zorro, turned Toronado towards the eastern hills and departed. He left Joaquín Enríquez standing in the field contemplating the challenge that faced him and his own determination to prove himself worthy to a fellow outlaw, a man who had shown him trust and confidence in keeping his word.

 

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

The landscape that night was illuminated by a full moon and it made the wide dirt road back into town much easier to travel. Dr. Arturo Aguilera rode easily though somewhat wearily. He had spent the last day and a half delivering a baby with the help of midwives and family members. It was a day full of anxiety and joy. He was pleased that all had gone well. As a matter of fact, Dr. Aguilera often reflected on the remarkable fertility rate of Spanish Californians and the lack of deaths from complications of births compared to those of Spain.

The gray-haired physician with a neatly trimmed moustache and beard watched as a pale yellow moon rose gradually above the hill and mountains and began to climb the night sky. He could see dark marks on the moon. Somewhere he read that they were mountains and he marvelled time and again at the seemingly closeness of this luminous ball. Sometimes the orb seemed to sit on a peak of a hill for endless moments before its ascent.

The good doctor was startled out of his thoughts by a man's voice quite near. "Good evening, Doctor Aguilera," a cultivated voice called out.

The doctor halted in the road. There, sitting on a horse under a tree was a dark figure. "Who is there?" he asked in alarm, not expecting to encounter anyone out on the road without first hearing or seeing them first.

The figure urged his horse forward and the traveler saw at once a man in a black cape and mask. "Señor Zorro!" the doctor exclaimed as the masked man neared. "What can I do for you, Señor?" he asked. He knew that if El Zorro approached him, it would be for a good reason.

"Nothing for me, Doctor. But there is a man who desperately needs your help."

"Who is that?" the physician inquired.

"Our comandante, Capitán de las Fuentes, has a bad leg wound he has been treating. Just today it got worse. I fear that should he not receive treatment right away, it might be too late," explained the man in black.

"Let us go at once," agreed the doctor. "I saw the capitán limping only yesterday and was going to inquire of him tomorrow if he needed some assistance." He halted his horse. "But, Señor Zorro, town is in that direction." He pointed ahead of him.

"We are not headed into down," El Zorro explained. "The capitán has taken ill and some Indians were seen with him in their company. I have no doubt that they wish to help him."

The doctor groaned to himself as he turned in the opposite direction. What could Indians do to help a white man? he thought. And why would the comandante seek assistance from Indians instead of waiting for his return to the pueblo? These and other questions were soon answered by the masked man who road at his side.

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

Don Alejandro de la Vega was angry. He and his vaqueros had just driven off a gang of men who had shown up at the very door of his hacienda demanding to interrogate his Indian servants. The gang was led by a vaquero. Alejandro knew the vaquero well as an Indian-baiter. His name was Miguel Cisneros.

Cisneros and a few of the men had pushed their way past Diego's servant, Bernardo, who had answered the pounding at the outer gate. On the patio they accosted an older Indian woman, the mother of his head vaquero, Benito Ávila. Alejandro had watched the scene unfold quickly from the sala. Without hesitation, he grabbed two loaded pistols. When he reached the patio he aimed one up into the air and fired. He tossed it aside and strode determinedly toward the group with the second pistol. The group of men on the patio looked startled as they saw the white-bearded don bear down on them with a loaded pistol followed by a house-servant armed with a sword.

"Release Señora Ávila!" Alejandro demanded. He gestured to the clean-shaven vaquero who had grabbed the frightened woman.

"I am sorry, Don Alejandro," replied Cisneros. "Not until she tells us where her people have taken the comandante."

"You will release her now," the don retorted, pointing the gun at Cisneros. "Then we will talk."

Miguel Cisneros looked back at his men who crowded behind him. "I'm afraid you are outnumbered, Don Alejandro," he grinned in a defiant manner.

"That is true," the don affirmed. "But this pistol is loaded and I only need one target - you! So, do you release her now or do you receive a bullet for having burst into my home like a pack of thieves?"

The smug grin faded from Cisneros' face. "We are not here to rob you, Don Alejandro!" he exclaimed. He released the woman who took refuge behind the tall don. "The Indians have kidnapped our comandante and we are interrogating any of them that we find. We want to rescue him, not to wage war on the rancheros!"

"What is this nonsense about the Indians kidnapping the comandante?" demanded Alejandro. "Capitán de las Fuentes is known far and wide for his commitment to justice for everyone."

"With all due respect, Don Alejandro," spoke up another man from the crowd. "What Señor Cisneros says is true. The ranchero, Rafael Pascual, told us himself that he had seen a man in cart surrounded by Indians. The description of that man exactly fit that of our missing comandante." The other men surrounding him murmured in assent.

"Would it not make more sense to seek out where this cart is going?" the white-bearded man asked impatiently. "Instead, you waste your time going from hacienda to hacienda trying to interrogate and terrorize servants who have worked here all day and could not possibly know what is going on!"

Cisneros became less sure of himself at this retort. "Indians always know what is going on," he insisted. "Their grapevine works faster than a flowing river. Everyone knows that." He glared at the Indian woman behind the ranchero. "Where did your people take the comandante, woman?!" He and his men took a step forward again.

Suddenly the gate burst open behind the group of men. In the lead was Benito Ávila at the head of more than a dozen vaqueros. They were armed. Now it was Cisneros' group that was outnumbered.

"I think it is time for you to leave," Don Alejandro de la Vega said with great dignity. "And if you do not leave peacefully, the next Indian war will begin and end on my patio."

 

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

He ached all over and vaguely remembered being wet and freezing cold, then he remembered the bear. He kicked and tried to flee, but his feet felt as if they were going nowhere. Darkness descended and he must have slept awhile. It was sometime later when he opened his eyes blearily, looked up and saw what looked like the straw roof of a shack, but it was hazy and dark inside. And his leg hurt as if it had been slit open again. It felt like hands were kneading at it, trying to push the pain out. He closed his eyes for what seemed a short time, wanting to sleep, but someone was trying to wake him, forcing him to drink something that he could not remember the taste of. He tried to force his eyes open and saw a dark-skinned woman hovering over him. In her hands was a small container and she put it to his lips. "Drink," she told him in heavily accented Spanish. He understood her intent more than he did the words and swallowed as best he could. Another woman with black hair and copper-colored skin sat on his other side and helped raise his head. He lay back, exhausted.

Where am I? he thought and tried to speak. The woman cradling his head touched his lips with a finger and he realized words were unnecessary. He moved his hand to his side and discovered he had been undressed and was wrapped in a course blanket. His body felt too hot but his leg seemed to stick out into space.

Suddenly, he remembered. "My leg. Don’t let them take off my leg!" He was almost panic-stricken. The two women had to restrain him as he attempted to sit up, but he was too weak to do more than make the attempt.

And there was the dream. Twice he had heard the voices of different men say "take the leg off" and he searched for his sword to keep them at bay thinking that once they had his leg, they would try to take off his arms and, if they did, how was he to play his violin or the viola or flute? How could he sit with Isabel, no, with Margarita at the pianoforte and play duos with her, smiling into her eyes and telling her about Beethoven and the operas and how he wanted to take her to Madrid, Vienna and Venice to see the painters and….

He heard strange sing-song chants. He heard the whispers of other men in a strange tongue that seemed to wander in and out of his dreams. He could not understand what they were saying because they were not speaking in Spanish, Latin, French, German or Italian, but they did seem to be arguing. He closed his eyes again and wondered if he was at the Tower of Babel or perhaps in Purgatory where there would be many men speaking in many tongues. Why can I not wake up from this bad dream?

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

The cart was overtaken at some distance far to the east of the pueblo of Los Angeles as a man dressed all in black hailed a small group of neophytes making their way silently along an almost invisible trail. It seemed a voice spoke to them in their own language, greeting them and they knew it was a stranger speaking their tongue.

A small thin man leading the group recognized the stranger at once as a few of his companions began to flee. "Wait," he commanded. "It is Zorro."

"Señor Juan," began the man in black. "I greet you in friendship. I greet all of your people."

The Indian hailed him, replying "Zorro, friend, brother. Are you here about the capitán?"

"Yes, I am," responded El Zorro. "You see, many of his people are worried about him. They know he is ill and needs medicine. They fear that he has been taken by those who wish him harm."

"We do not wish him harm, Zorro. We wish to help," replied Juan.

"I know you wish to help him and I am grateful. There are other whites who do not understand this," the man in black explained. "At this time, some of them are planning raids on your villages to find him. Will you please allow Dr. Aguilera, a white healer, to examine him? He is with me now. I can then inform the other whites to return home because the capitán is in his hands."

Juan looked at his companions and saw their silent disquiet, but he thought that if his people were in any danger, the best thing to do was to agree to this request. Afterwards, he would make a decision on what to do next. "It is some distance back to the pueblo," he pointed out.

El Zorro smiled. "Dr. Aguilera is coming up on the trail just now. Please allow him to examine the capitán. I will return to the pueblo to reassure the whites there that the capitán is in no danger."

Juan nodded as Dr. Aguilera rode up, dismounted, and approached the cart.

As El Zorro turned Tornado’s head away, Juan called to him. "El Zorro, a question please?"

The man in black turned. "Yes, Señor Juan?"

"The capitán. What is his name?"

"He calls himself De las Fuentes," answered Zorro.

"De las Fuentes" repeated the man. His companions repeated the name phonetically "Delazfuentez."

"What does the name mean?" Juan inquired. "It is important that I know."

The Fox paused. "His name literally means ‘from the fountains.’ Fountains are like sparkling or sacred waters," he explained.

Juan looked impressed. He turned towards his companions and spoke. The other men began to murmur among themselves. "I am grateful, El Zorro," he said with a sense of relief.

With a wave of his hand, El Zorro departed and had disappeared along the dark trail as mysteriously as he had appeared.

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

Dr. Aguilera had built a small fire. It was hard under the circumstances to do much more than examine the patient and then wait until sunrise for the tasks he would have to perform.

At the cart he felt the forehead of the patient and was surprised that it was not as warm as he expected. He then pulled back the blanket that enveloped the officer and examined his leg, feeling the surrounding tissues and questioning the Indians regarding the wrap on the leg. He removed it over their protestations. In the moonlight he saw a raw wound and shook his head.

"What will you do?" asked Juan. "It is not good that you removed the shaman’s medicine."

"I think I know what I am doing," the doctor informed him. "I am sure that we are all grateful for what you have tried to do, but the capitán has let this infection go for much too long. In the morning, we will boil water and see if his leg needs to come off." He looked around. I will need some more wood for the fire," he suggested. None of the neophytes responded to his suggestion. He knew they disagreed. "Very well, I will fetch it myself." He was thinking that he would get some water from a nearby arroyo as well. He would only be gone a few minutes.

Several minutes later, Doctor Aguilera came back to the site with some water in his canteen. He was startled to see that no one was there. He began to think that he had come back the wrong way, when he spotted his medical bag sitting on the trail. Of the Indians, there was no trace. His horse was gone as well. He ran first in one direction, then in another to see if he could hear the sound of the horse or of the cart and the footsteps of men. But he heard nothing. It would be a long walk back to the pueblo.

 

 

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