Zorro & the Old Comandante
Eugene H. Craig
Sergeant Garcia made his way to an empty table in the inn. The atmosphere that evening was subdued and the clientele spoke in hushed whispers as if to speak normally would bring a reprimand. Garcia ordered a bottle of wine from a barmaid and contemplated it before pouring a small amount into two mugs. He placed the bottle in the middle of the table and gave a loud sigh. He picked up one of the mugs and offered it to Corporal Reyes whose face wore a very glum expression.
García was silent a long time before he spoke. He rubbed his stubbled chin a moment with a fat hand and took a long drink. He eyed the corporal.
"You know, Corporal Reyes, I have been thinking." The big man paused and drank again.
"What have you been thinking about, Sergeant?" asked the soldier.
"I have been thinking about Capitán de las Fuentes."
"Me, too, Sergeant."
"I wonder where he might have gone," the big man puzzled. "We looked everywhere. The vaqueros, the rancheros, the merchants, the servants, and even the prisoners looked everywhere, but he is nowhere to be found."
"I know," Reyes confirmed. The corporal sipped his wine a while and then asked. "Say Sergeant, if we looked everywhere, and the comandante is nowhere, then he must be lost."
"I hope he is only lost and not something worse," García responded. "If he is not nowhere then he must be somewhere. Comandantes do not just disappear."
"And if he is lost," continued Reyes, "then he is somewhere and not nowhere." The corporal thought a moment. "Say, Sergeant, if the comandante is lost and somewhere, then we need to find him, even though we have looked everywhere."
"Obviously, if he is lost, then we have not looked everywhere," declared García. He looked troubled. "But, I wonder where he could be."
"Say, Sergeant, maybe we could find him if we got lost looking for him. Maybe we can't find him because we looked everywhere and not nowhere."
García began to look exasperated. "If we got lost, baboso, then everyone would be looking for us and the comandante would still not be found. And even if we found the comandante while we were lost, then all of us would be lost and not found. So how would that help the comandante?"
"Well, if we found the comandante while we were…" began the corporal.
"Corporal Reyes!" ordered the big man. "Not another word from you." He raised a finger as the other soldier opened his mouth. "Not another sound. Do not talk about being lost somewhere that is nowhere because it might be anywhere." He took a long drink and watched the corporal sip his wine.
After a long spell of silence, the sergeant looked at the corporal as the last of the bottle emptied out. "All right, what is it that you want to say now?"
Reyes pointed at his mouth and at the sergeant and shook his head.
"Well, why don't you say something?" He paused. "What is the matter with you, Corporal? Speak!"
Reyes looked around and whispered. "Sergeant, you told me not to make another sound."
García rolled his eyes. "Speak, Corporal, speak! What is it that you want to say?"
"Sergeant, if you can't find the comandante and nobody can find the comandante, then who could find the comandante that no one cannot find?"
The big sergeant looked confounded a moment and started to berate the soldier with "Baboso…", but then he paused. "If nobody cannot find anybody, then who the……" García repeated. He suddenly stopped and began to smile. "Oh, now I see what you mean."
"Uh, what do I mean, Sergeant?"
"That is brilliant, Corporal, brilliant! And I am glad that I thought of it myself!" the sergeant exulted.
"What did you think of, Sergeant?"
"Corporal Reyes, if I was lost and no one could find me, who do you think - in all of Los Angeles, in all of California - who do you think could find me?"
Reyes eyes grew wide. "You don't mean….?"
"Yes!" exclaimed García. "The only man who can find Capitán de las Fuentes is El Zorro!" He became excited and downed the last of his wine in a single gulp. He stood up. "Come with me, Corporal!"
Both men hastened out of the tavern. García's stride was confident and he had a big smile on his face. He marched purposefully toward the cuartel.
Behind him, the shorter corporal hurried to keep up. When they neared the cuartel, García suddenly stopped. "Corporal Reyes?"
"Yes, Sergeant," the smaller man replied.
"The only problem is…" he hesitated with a finger raised "…is that now we need to find Señor Zorro!"
Reyes looked puzzled a moment. "And how do we find Zorro?"
"Corporal, that is easy!" declared García.
" Zorro is not easy to find, Sergeant!"
"We don't have to find Zorro, Reyes. When there is danger, he always finds me!"
"And where will he find you, Sergeant? In the cuartel?"
"No, baboso! Of course, not. The easiest place to find me is in the tavern!" The big man spun on his heel. "Corporal Reyes! About face!" He pointed toward the posada. "Back to the inn!"
El Zorro knew that the night would be a long one, but he had to make sure that Miguel Cisneros and his followers would make no more mischief. He thought of riding out to the San Miguel Mission where most of the neophytes lived and worked with Padre Felipe. But the good padre could take them in to sanctuary where they would not be harmed. On the other hand, many of the relatives of the mission Indians lived in and around the local rancheros, if not on their ranchos. The closest village, though, was on the other side of the hills, beyond the lands of Don Leon, lands that stretched into the vast distance and who were claimed by no one other than the coyotes, bears, wolves, deer - and the king of Spain. He urged Tornado towards the hills and along secret pathways. He would arrive at the village before the moon began its descent.
In the mud and stick huts covered with the branches of oak trees and other brush, the Indians lived in a close-knit community. Their cooking pots lay in front of their dwellings and sometimes hung from the branches that served as the walls of their homes. The cooking pots of the people were actually tightly woven baskets that could hold water and meal, acorns, fruits, nuts, and berries. Indeed, basket weaving had reached a high art form and was the pride of the native women. The villages were relatively small, especially by Spanish standards but community bonds were strong. Even at this late hour, a large fire burned and the inhabitants sat around the flickering light and spoke of daily events, of common concerns and of the days when the white man was unknown except in travelers' tales. There were no clocks to demand a strict adherence to a mechanical existence and at times, when the moon was full, the men sat and talked until sleep called them to its shadowy world.
It was into this community that a man in a mask and cape rode that night. His appearance aroused no concerns by the watchers and listeners of the night, for they recognized the strange white man in black who rode to assist the oppressed and the poor.
A dignified man with long gray hair stood as the sound of horses' hooves reached the campfire. Other men had risen as well. "It is a white man's horse," said one, "for it wears sandals of iron." "But it is only one rider," pointed out another. "Who is it?" called another. "It is Friend Zorro," called out a man from the edge of the village.
El Zorro rode up and called out in their language. "I greet you, my friends," he said, hailing the group at the campfire.
"We welcome you, Friend Zorro," said the gray-haired man. In the chill of the night, he and the others wore cloaks of fur and feathers.
"I am sorry to call upon you so late in the night, but your people could be in grave danger. I came to warn you of the danger."
"What is this danger?" asked the elder.
"There are some angry whites who believe that your people or men of other tribes have kidnapped a white man. That white man is a leader of the white warriors. He is a new man in the village of the whites and he has given much justice to both whites and Indians. Because of this, he is much loved. His name is Capitán de las Fuentes," explained the man in black. "Out of our love and respect for him, we hunted for him when he disappeared while attempting to capture a white bandit. Only a little while ago, I discovered that some of your people were attempting to aid him. He is badly wounded and sick. The other whites do not know this. Some bad whites believe the capitán was kidnapped and they seek to persecute any Indian that they can find. I am here to warn you so that you can prepare your people in case they try to come here. Some Spaniards are trying to organize an armed force to oppose the bad whites. They have been defending many of your people."
"Thank you, Friend Zorro. We are prepared," the elder replied. He looked up at masked man. "We know of this white man, the one who has done justice. We have seen him. After a meeting of all the men, we decided to help him. Our people are caring for him."
"My friends," Zorro explained. "I thank you for your help and concern, but may I ask you this: why did you not take the capitán to the doctor in the pueblo, Doctor Aguilera? It is my understanding that his life is in danger."
"Friend Zorro. With all respect to you, we think that the white doctor would kill the capitán. We do not want a man of justice to die because, like you, a just white man is like a white deer - rare and sacred."
"You honor us both with your words," Zorro told him.
"Friend Zorro," another man spoke up. "The Indian you call Ignacio has told us about the bad whites. He said that this very evening, the bad ones went to the villa of Don Alejandro de la Vega and others to try to beat words from of our people there. The vaqueros now carry many fire weapons."
"I did not know this," El Zorro told them, "and I must return there to make sure that these bad men do not hurt more people. I want you to know that, should you require assistance, send a man to the home of Don Alejandro and he will send men to assist you to fight the bad whites. If the bad ones come, tell them that Doctor Aguilera has found the capitán."
"We shall do so, my Friend," said the gray-haired elder solemnly.
The man in black thanked them again and turned his horse back towards the hills in the west. It would take some time and he hoped to arrive home before the dawn. Hopefully, his father had not missed him and he could catch a few hours of sleep before returning to the pueblo in order to check on the condition of the comandante, Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes.
Bernardo fell asleep sitting on the large poster bed, his head resting against one of the posts. This is how Diego de la Vega found his loyal servant when he entered the room through the secret entrance by the fireplace wall. Diego smiled to himself and pushed the knob under the mantle that closed a door only known to him and the mozo.
Although the door closed silently, the mozo opened his eyes and turned his head toward the fireplace. Standing there with a bemused smile on his face was his young master already arrayed in a long dressing gown. He nodded as the Diego remarked, "It’s been a long day, Bernardo."
The servant sprang off the bed and raised his arms, spreading out his hands in an upward stance.
"Where have I been? From the tavern to the Old Trail to the Indian village and back," Diego told him and sat down on the bed himself. "Fortunately, I not only came across Doctor Aguilera on the road back into town, but we found the comandante as well. The Indians were caring for him. I persuaded them to allow Doctor Aguilera to examine him. Before this I encountered Señor Enríquez who was searched for the capitán as well. He told me about the comandante’s encounter with the bear and his sickness." Diego smiled wearily. "I might have taken Enríquez except for one thing: not only did I have the feeling that he was genuinely interested in the capitán’s well-being, but I want to give him the trust that I think is necessary to discover what he is really up to in Los Angeles." He paused a moment. "I have the strangest feeling that there is more to Señor Enríquez than meets to eye and I think the comandante has discovered this as well."
Bernardo nodded but indicated he had something to tell Diego as well. He put his two fingers to the back of his head and drew his hands back if shooting an arrow.
"The Indians," Diego began watching the man use sign language to explain his story.
"The Indians here at the hacienda….are hiding."
The mozo nodded. He began an animated description of many men coming to the hacienda.
"Cisneros came here? With many men?" the young man asked in alarm.
Bernardo shook his head vigorously as Diego concluded, "And my father drove them away….with the help of the vaqueros?"
Again the servant assented with vigorous nodding.
"Tell me this, Bernardo," the young don asked, "have the dons organized to protect the Indian villages from the predations of Cisneros and his men?"
Bernardo could only shrug and shake his head.
Diego thought a moment. "The best thing for me now is to get a little sleep. As soon as the morning comes I will speak with Father about what is being done. I need to find out if Doctor Aguilera made it back to the pueblo with the comandante and if anything has been done to put an end to the attacks upon the Indians. Capitán de las Fuentes may not be in any condition to put a stop to these attacks, and if he cannot, there is one man who can."
Bernardo smiled and made a gesture with his forefinger in the shape of a "Z."
Diego looked grim a moment. "Yes. Zorro." With these words, the young don lay down on the bed and fell into a deep sleep. The full moon slowly crossed the sky until it, like the thousands of stars, faded from view in the growing blue of the morning sky.
Alejandro de la Vega took breakfast on the patio and wondered where his son had disappeared to the night before. Following the confrontation with Miguel Cisneros, Alejandro had sent a vaquero to follow the band of men. The vaquero reported later on that the men had headed back in to town. Cisneros wanted more men, he said, to confront any opposition and for a possible attack upon Indian villages to the east and south. Alejandro sent Benito Àvila to the haciendas of Don Nacho Torres, Juan Villa, and Leon Calderon in order to suggest a meeting and to organize a counterforce. Benito had not yet returned when the white-bearded don looked up and saw his son Diego emerge from his room and head down the stairs towards the patio.
"Good morning, Father," Diego greeted the man at the small table sipping coffee.
Alejandro had been contemplating his tasks for the day. He was a man who preferred direct action and wished to include his son in his plans. He was impatient to begin the day. "Diego," he said rising up out of his chair. "Where have you been? Did you not hear of the visit Cisneros and his men paid to our hacienda last evening?"
"I’m sorry I wasn’t here, Father," Diego apologized. "I was out looking for the comandante at the lake. I found his sword." He watched as his father raised his eyebrows at that. "I decided to head back in to town to see if anyone had heard anything about the comandante. I stopped at the inn and had a few drinks. I must have fallen asleep. I got in pretty late last night."
"Where did you find his sword, Diego?" his father asked. "And did you discover any footprints leading anywhere?"
His son shook his head. "It was in a meadow, beyond the woods. There was no sign of the capitán."
"Because of the vigilantes in town preaching violence and Cisneros' threats, I have thought of a strategy, Diego," began his father. "I have sent word to Don Leon and the others. We need to gather our forces immediately and to patrol the villages to make sure that…" The don was interrupted by the sound of many horses arriving outside the high walls of the hacienda. Father and son looked at each other in alarm and then towards the wooden gate.
Diego rose from his seat along with his father when the gate burst open. In the lead of three men was the vaquero, Miguel Cisneros. When he saw the two men begin to walk toward him, he put up a hand for the men behind him to halt. He strode forward himself. "Don Alejandro," he said in a voice full of triumph, "our fears about the Indian traitors have proven true!"
"What are you talking about?" demanded Alejandro de la Vega.
"Early this morning, Doctor Aguilera was discovered outside of town, his horse stolen!" exclaimed the vaquero. "The Indians stopped him from tending to the comandante, whom Zorro discovered. The Indians stole the doctor's horse and have disappeared!"
"Señor Cisneros," Diego asked. "Where is Doctor Aguilera now?"
"I have just come from him. He said the comandante will die without surgery to remove his leg. He said that when he went to fetch wood for a fire and water for the operation, the Indians stole his horse and disappeared with our comandante!" Cisneros turned on the older don. "You said that we should show mercy to these savages, but they have proved by their actions that they mean for him to die! This, this is the result of your pious pleas! We should have wrung from the lips of those heathens what they plan to do to the comandante before allowing him to die!"
Don Alejandro was angered by these words and his face turned red. Before he could rebut the vaquero, Diego grapsed his arm. As the older man looked at his son, Diego turned back to the vaquero and asked urgently. "And where were the Indians headed with our comandante?"
Cisneros waved his arm. "To the east and that is where I and my men are headed. When we find them, they will be sorry that they ever touched him." As he turned away, he shot back, "If you wish to do what is right, Don Alejandro, you will gather your vaqueros and join us in the hunt." With that he left the patio followed by two of his men.
Diego and his father looked at each other in consternation. "Let us gather our arms, at once, Diego! Juan and Leon, Rafael and Nacho should be here soon. Our first task will be to prevent a massacre!" With that, the white-bearded man headed towards the door of the sala. The servants would be informed to gather arms and prepare the horses.
Diego motioned Bernardo to him and whispered. "There is little time for me to act. Pack my belongings in a saddlebag. I intend to disappear from the crowd should it be necessary. Zorro will have to ride both in disguise as well as out of disguise before this day is up. As for you, my friend, I have an important mission for you in the pueblo."
"She tossed and turned all night long, Mama," Ismaida told her mother in a whisper outside her bedroom door. "At dawn she woke herself up saying his name. It woke me up, too."
"Let's not say anything to her about what is happening," her mother suggested. "We should say nothing to María as well. It will only upset her and she needs rest away from all her worries."
"What is happening, Mama?" the girl asked. "Have they found Don Francisco?"
Ramona bit her lip. She did not want her daughter to hear the latest news because she knew Ismaida might not be able to conceal how she felt for long. "I don't know for sure," she told her daughter. "There are still many men out looking for him. Let's keep Margarita occupied with chores here at the house today. Practice your music and tell her to prepare for a presentation for Don Francisco. Tomorrow all of you can go for a picnic or I can go with you on a ride out to visit Juanita and Josefina."
Ismaida nodded. Then she took her mother's hand. "Mama, I have to tell you something important," she began. She smoothed her long velvet dress and looked down at the floor as if uncertain how to begin.
"About Margarita?" Ramona smiled.
"Well, not exactly," the girl said. "But you have to keep it a secret."
Her mother nodded. "You tell me lots of secrets, daughter."
"But this one is an important one," Ismaida insisted. "Promise not to tell?"
"I promise. What is this secret that is so important?" her mother asked.
Ismaida looked up and down the hall and lowered her voice to a whisper. "Last night, while we were having tea in my room there was a strange knocking at my window. When we looked up, El Zorro stepped right into my room! He had come to speak with Margarita about Don Francisco……"
The cloud of dust could be seen from far away, long before the thunder of hooves could be heard on the road leading out from the pueblo of Los Angeles. At the head of the group rode an excited and eager array of men from various backgrounds, both vaqueros as well as rancheros, coachmen, and small businessmen. They had but one goal: to find a cart surrounded by natives and to rescue a white man on that cart. These men were armed with pistols, rifles, swords and knives. They were prepared to use them.
Not far behind them rode another group of men just as eager to do battle. Among them were the leading rancheros of the district, vaqueros, merchants, servants, and even a musician. Their goal was to overtake the first group and to also rescue a man being transported by the natives. Likewise, they were also armed with firearms, swords, and ropes.
Unknown to the pursuers, a small group of native Californians made their way eastwards towards the rocky hills and scrub brush. This was a land of wiry hares and coyotes, of deer and wolves, of bears and kit foxes. To the European eye it was empty, barren and dry. It was also a land of secrets - secrets known only to those who had called the land home for thousands of years, long before the white man arrived. It was a place of invisible flowing waters under the sands that broke to the surface in an oasis hidden below a rocky valley. The river opened and poured its precious fluid almost from nowhere. There were hidden caves and springs. It was a place with an abundance of life - birds, fish, reeds, trees, moonlight, and the fragrance from thousands of wildflowers. Most importantly, though, it was a place of magic, and of spirits.
Bernardo made his way on horseback into the pueblo of Los Angeles. In his hat he carried an important message that he was to deliver to the cuartel. The mozo, dressed in his usual brown trousers, off-white shirt with brown vest and jacket, dismounted from his horse and tied him to a post. He went to the gates and showed an envelope to the soldier on duty.
The soldier took it from the mozo. "To Sergeant García," the man read out loud. He handed the envelope back to the servant. "He's not here," he told the deaf man.
Bernardo pointed inside the gate with the envelope but the soldier continued to shake his head.
Another soldier appeared. This one had a pencil-mustache. Bernardo recognized him as Hugo, a man who had attempted in the past to communicate with him. The new man asked the other, "What does he want?"
"He has a letter for Sergeant García, but I told him the sergeant is not here," the first soldier told him.
"You can't speak to him, he's deaf. Try explaining it instead."
"You can't explain anything to a deaf mute," the first soldier insisted.
"Of course, you can," the first insisted. "Just try."
"Hugo, you do it," the first said. "I don't want to be bothered."
Hugo thought a moment. He gestured the mozo over to him. "Let's see," he mused. He pointed to the name on the envelope. "Sergeant García," he said. The mozo nodded rapidly with a smile on his face.
"Sergeant García is not here," the soldier shook his head. Then he pointed to the tavern and again pointed to the envelope. "He's at the tavern."
Bernardo pointed at the name on the envelope, then turned around and pointed at the tavern. He smiled and nodded. The soldier smiled and nodded and kept pointing. Bernardo took the envelope, waved and headed toward the tavern.
Hugo turned to the first soldier. "You see, Marcos, it is possible to talk to a deaf man."
"Don Diego," the tall vaquero called out.
Diego de la Vega was coming down the stairs at the hacienda and saw a group of vaqueros on the patio. One of the stepped out of the group and approached him.
"Yes, Benito," the young man responded.
"May I have a word with you, please?" the man with the thick, clipped mustache whispered urgently.
"Of course," the young man replied. The two of them walked towards the front door. There in the shaded entrance the vaquero spoke to him in a hushed tone.
"Don Diego, I have just learned a secret," the vaquero confided in a hushed tone.
"What secret is that, Benito?"
The stocky vaquero looked around, then whispered, "My mother just told me that she knows why her people are taking the comandante and in what direction they are headed."
"Señor Cisneros told my father and I where they are going," the young man explained.
"Yes, I know, Don Diego," the other man nodded, "but they do not know exactly where her people are headed, only in what direction."
This was important news indeed. Diego looked directly into the vaquero's eyes. "Is your mother willing to tell you where they are going?" he asked cautiously.
"She was very reluctant to tell me anything else, only saying that she knows about it and that they will help the comandante."
"Where is your mother now?"
"She is working in the kitchen," Benito responded.
The wooden door to the kitchen opened from the hall. An Indian woman with long, greying hair looked up and saw her son enter the room. His face bore a serious continence and he nodded to her. She put down the pestal on the table next to the mortar and straightened up. Behind her son, came the young master of the house, Don Diego. The woman wiped her hands on her apron. "Good morning, my son. Good morning, Don Diego."
"Mother," began the vaquero, "I had to tell Don Diego what you told me about the comandante and where our people are taking him and why. Please tell him where they are going."
"I asked you to say nothing, my son," she gently upbraided him.
"I am sorry, Mother," the stocky man told her. "I did what I thought was right."
The young ranchero looked apologetic. "I am sorry, Señora Avila," he said, "to ask you about something said in confidence. As you know, all of us are very worried about Capitán de las Fuentes. But we are also very worried about your people and what the bad ones will do if they find them with the capitán."
The woman bowed her head and did not reply.
"If you could only tell us, then we could ride to them directly and help them fight off the bad ones," Diego continued. His explanation illicited no further words from the woman.
"Please, Mother," pleaded Benito. "You know that the De la Vegas are honorable men. You know that they have treated me, your son, as a man, no different from other Spaniards. They have done their best to help our people against the white racists. Is this not a good reason for telling Don Diego what we need to know to save everyone?"
"Let me add my voice to Benito's, Señora Avila," Diego said. "In these times, a few words, only a few words, could help prevent a massacre of your people by the likes of Miguel Cisneros. Surely, you do not want this to happen."
The woman looked up at the two men with tears in her eyes and whispered. "I am sorry, Don Diego, I have said too much already."
"Mother, please…." Began the vaquero again, but Diego took his arm.
"It's all right, Benito," he told the man. "Your mother could be in danger if she told us anything more. We must respect her right to silence." With that he motioned the man out of the room.
When the reached the porch of the hacienda, Diego stopped suddenly. "You know, Benito, I have an idea. I think that your mother will tell where her people are headed to."
"But how, Don Diego?" the man asked. "She said she will say no more."
"Perhaps she needs to tell the right man and I think I know who he might be," the young don smiled. When he saw the question forming on the man's lips, he patted his shoulder. "Do not worry, Benito, I think I have found a solution. Now, it is you who can do me a favor. Gather the vaqueros in front of the hacienda, outside the patio. But do not enter the patio. My father should be here at any time. When he arrives, go with him. I will join you later."
"Even if we must leave without you, Don Diego?"
"Even if you must leave without me. I promise, however, to join you as soon as possible." With these words, the young don spun on heel and re-entered the sala. He turned back at the entrance to the door, however and shot the vaquero a smile.
Benito could only shrug. He had no idea how Don Diego would convince his mother to part with her secret. He returned to the group of vaqueros to give them their orders and to wait for the arrival of Don Alejandro.