Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-six

 

Bernardo found Sergeant Garcia at the inn. He was seated at a table with Corporal Reyes and there was a bottle of wine on the table. Standing before the sergeant was a man who held his hat in his hand and was looking rather unhappy, Bernardo thought. He waited before going over to the table, wanting to listen first to what was transpiring between the men.

"I am sorry to have to tell you this, Sergeant," the man holding his hat said. "But that is what happened. I thought that you should know."

"Thank you, Angel," the soldier replied with some gusto. "I had wondered where Tomás Robello might have gone and now I know." He saw that Angel Ledesma was still uncertain about what he had just said. "Listen, Angel. I don't blame you for telling me. After all, Tomás was wrong to run away. Our comandante was treating him well and he had nothing to fear." He poured out some wine. "Here, have some wine. This will make you feel better."

Ledesma looked at the wine, put his hat down on the table, inspected the small amount, took the mug from García and drank. When he finished, he gestured with the mug for more. "I feel real bad about telling you, Sergeant," he said.

García sighed and poured him some more wine from the bottle. "It's not your fault. You were right to tell me."

The vaquero polished off the wine fairly quickly and held the mug out again. "There is more to tell," he added.

García looked at the diminishing level of wine in the bottle, glanced at Reyes who was staring at the bottle in dismay, and decided to pour some more anyway. "What is it that you know?" he asked curiously.

"Tomás wanted to help find the comandante, to find Capitán de las Fuentes," Angel continued, "but he was afraid that if Capitán Monastario were to come back soon, his goose would be cooked."

"I see what you mean," García said thoughtfully. "Still, it would have been better to remain in jail. He was working off his fines there."

To Reyes' consternation, the vaquero grabbed the bottle of wine and emptied the last of it into the mug before García could stop him. He took a long drink with his eyes closed, and polished off the contents. He uttered a sigh of contentment, took a kerchief out of his pocket, wiped his mouth, and handed the empty mug back to García who stared at it. "There's more to it," he confided to the sergeant. "Tomás thought that if Monastario came back before he could work off his fines, then he would be sent off as a slave to a mine or something worse. He would never come back alive. Tomás thought it would be better to look after himself first and worry about the consequences later."

"I see," García nodded thoughtfully. "Maybe it was not such a bad idea after all." When Reyes raised his eyebrows at that comment, the fat soldier continued, "but Capitán de las Fuentes would not allow anything bad to happen to Tomás. He makes sure that everyone receives justice, even Tomás."

"Thanks for the wine, Sergeant," Angel Ledesma concluded. "I just thought it would be helpful for you to know. When Capitán de las Fuentes comes back, he will understand what happened after you tell him how the prisoner got away." The vaquero walked away and headed toward the bar where he ordered a bottle for himself. García looked momentarily hopeful at that, but sighed as the vaquero stayed at the counter talking to the barmaid, Conchita Cortéz.

"That was a lot of wine to give him to find out what happened to Tomás," García told the corporal. "Now we don't have any left."

"That's all right, Sergeant," Reyes responded. "When you tell the comandante what happened, he won't be too mad."

"You know, Corporal, I have never seen the comandante get mad before," García mused, "not even when Señor Enríquez escaped. He doesn't seem to get mad. He says that we just have to do the best that we can under the circumstances." The big man looked a bit smug.

"What if the comandante who finds out about the escaped prisoner is not Capitán de las Fuentes," Reyes pressed.

The smug demeanor of the sergeant disappeared at that comment. "I see what you mean," the big man said in concern. "If Capitán Monastario were to return before Tomás were captured, then he would be mad." Anticipating that encounter made the sergeant wish that he had more wine in the bottle.

"Real mad," added the corporal. He looked up noticing someone approach the table. The sergeant did not see who was approaching from behind him and was wondering why the corporal began to smile.

"I can hear him yelling at me already," García began mournfully, "and not even any wine to…" He looked up and then smiled hugely himself. "Ah, Bernardo," he said in a welcoming voice although he knew the man could not hear him.

Standing before him, carrying a newly opened bottle of wine was the mozo. He looked around him as if looking for an empty table. He pointed at a seat at the table with the soldiers. He looked askance.

"Why of course, Little One," García enthused, standing up. He gestured toward the empty chair and encouraged the "deaf" man over. "Here, have a seat."

Bernardo nodded, gave a big smile, and sat down. He gestured García to do the same. He poured himself some wine and seemed to enjoy its flavor, nodding and gesturing at his bottle. He pretended not to notice the soldiers staring at it. He raised his mug in a toast to them and the two soldiers smiled half-heartedly at his gesture, raising their empty mugs. Bernardo turned and raised his mug to the barmaid who smiled and waved with her fingers in greeting. The mozo seemed to be enjoying himself.

García and Reyes looked at each other, looked at their empty mugs and then stared at Bernardo.

Suddenly, the mozo acted as if he understood. He pointed at their bottle and raised his hands in question. García took the empty bottle and turned it upside down. A single red drop came out and hit the table. He turned the bottle back up and returned it to its position. Bernardo drank some more, then smiled. He gestured at their empty mugs. It was hard for him to judge which soldier shoved their mug at him faster. Bernardo filled up each of their mugs about half way. All three men raised their cups in a silent toast.

"Ah, excellent," remarked García as he took a long swig. "I was wondering when he was going to notice."

The corporal sipped his. "I know what you mean, Sergeant."

Bernardo pulled his hat over his head from behind his back and placed it on the table. He reached inside and took out an envelope. He handed it to García.

"A letter, for me?" The big man took it, studying the envelope. "To Sergeant García," he read out loud. "Let's see who it is from." He broke the wax seal on the back and flicked open the folded piece of parchment. He glanced at the signature quickly before reading the contents. "It is from Don Diego," he told the corporal.

"What does it say, Sergeant?" Reyes asked.

"Hmm. Don Diego says that I am to come at once with the soldiers from the cuartel. Miguel Cisneros and his men are in pursuit of the Indians who took the comandante away. He says the Indians want to help cure the Capitán but that Miguel and his men want to kill the Indians. Don Alejandro and his men are giving chase so that there will not be a massacre. Don Diego says that we are to take the eastern trail out of town towards ." The big man looked up in alarm. "….the San Bernardino Mountains?" He saw Bernardo smiling and nodding, raising his mug in another toast. The big man grabbed his hat and lurched to his feet. "Come on Corporal Reyes, there is no time to lose!" He stuffed the letter into his hat and headed for the door..

The corporal was close behind him when he called to the big man hastening towards the gates of the cuartel. "I thought we were going to wait for Zorro to find you, Sergeant."

"There is no time to lose," García replied. "Now we must save the comandante, the Indians and Don Alejandro. By the time Zorro finds out…" He paused. "By the time Zorro finds me and finds out about what is going on, it might be too late for everyone!"

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

 

A gray-haired woman with thick long hair sat back and thought about what had happened that morning. After her son, Benito, and Don Alejandro's son, Diego, left the room, she had returned to grinding the nuts into a paste for cooking later on. She kept herself busy with her tasks, not even pausing when she heard the rush of horses, the voices of men, and their loud departure. Don Alejandro leading a group of rancheros, his own vaqueros and others departed soon afterwards in pursuit of Miguel Cisneros and his men.

The house was quiet except for the gardener tending to the plants and flowers and the maid making the beds, folding the linens or preparing the wash. Those were the comforting sounds of routine, so comforting that she barely noticed the footsteps outside the door. They were the footsteps of a man who walked as softly as a mountain lion, she thought, and looked up at once. She was not expecting to see a white man.

Standing before her, dressed in black, was the figure her people knew well as El Zorro. She straightened up, not fearing him at all, but surprised at his appearance. He assured her that he meant her no harm.

"Señor Ávila, I have been to the village of family of Ignacio who works for Padre Felipe at the Mission San Gabriel," El Zorro explained. "The men there told me that they knew about the comandante and it was their intention to help him. I explained to them the danger they were in from the racists so they could prepare for their defense. They assured me that they were prepared and they would do what they could to help the situation." The tall man in black paused. "Señora, it would be very helpful to me if I were to know which trail to follow in order to render the best assistance to your people who are now being pursued by Cisneros. Would you please give me this information?"

"I will tell you, Señor Zorro," the woman replied, "because you are a friend of the poor and the peoples of the Earth, the people of the valleys, of the rivers, who are my people. But you must know that this is a secret place, a sacred place. No white man has ever been there."

He nodded in understanding. "I will keep this place a secret from all other white men."

"There are paths that will save you many hours journey," she told him, "even from here."

Soon afterwards, the man in black departed from the kitchen as silently as he had appeared. No one saw him enter the sala or disappear through the doors of a large bookcase in the room. From there he made his way down stone stairs to a secret cave below the hacienda. He changed clothes and mounted a dark brown steed. Now he knew where to go. It would be easier catch up with his father's posse and join them unnoticed as if he had followed behind them all along. He would find out what the situation was and, if necessary, appear once again as the masked man in black, El Zorro.

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

Joaquín Enríquez watched the events in town as he hid among the empty crates and hemp bags alongside the general store. The pueblo of Los Angeles was almost deserted of men. It was the best thing that could have happened and it would make his task all the more easy to accomplish, at least this part of it. He had come to town once before and almost encountered El Zorro on the streets at night. But now, circumstances were better. He would make his way to the home of Señor Portillo and retrieve another item to add to his "collection." No one would expect him to just walk in during broad daylight and he knew exactly what he was looking for and where it would be. If he encountered the old man, or anyone else for that matter, he would know how to handle the situation. Finally, the most difficult acquisition would be at the church. It would not be easy to get in and out for the final object, but perhaps events would present themselves as his opportunity - events such as the return of the comandante to Los Angeles, whether alive or dead. The town, including the church, would empty out for that, and he would then make his move.

And there was the matter of his bargain with El Zorro. He had already kept that, and it came about sooner than he expected. He was sending the masked man something the Fox would not expect. In fact, no one would expect it. Most importantly, it would help save the comandante, that is, if anything could. Joaquín Enríquez smiled to himself as he laid his plans and began to take the steps to implement them.

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

"We are being pursued," two men reported to the man the whites called "Juan." His real name among his people was Blue Feather because his mother had collected the feathers of bush jays and when she finished a cloak of them, he was born. But the whites knew nothing of this. Nor could they pronounce his name in his own language. Padre Felipe had given him the name of Juan, telling him it was the name of one of the followers of the son of the white god who resembled somewhat the Great Spirit. The Spaniards gave such names to all the Indians who worked at the mission or for whites.

In the distance, clouds of dust could be seen, one closer and one much further away. It would now be a race to the refuge. After leaving the white doctor near a crossroads, Blue Feather had asked his brothers to make haste. With the horse pulling the cart instead of men, it would be easier to travel more quickly. Nevertheless, the condition of man in the cart had to be taken into consideration. He had reapplied the shaman's dressing and medicine after the white doctor had removed it. He gave the man in the cart a drink made by the shaman who helped the man to sleep and not notice the rough trail that they now had to travel over.

After consulting with the other men, Blue Feather decided on a strategy. Several of the men would leave the group and head off to the south, others to the north into the immediate hills. They would allow themselves to be seen by their pursuers. This would enable Blue Feather and a few remaining men to make their way alone with the Capitán to the secret place. It was imperative that they were not to be followed. The men were willing to give their lives to make sure that this was so.

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

A lone rider trailed the last group. He was a tall young man who rode a dark horse. He had nearly caught up to the riders.

Alejandro de la Vega turned in his saddle and saw a rider emerge from around a group of rocks and looked surprise. He slowed down as the young man drew abreast of him. "Diego, where have you been?" he asked. "I thought we were to leave together."

"I'm sorry, Father," the young ranchero replied. "I sent Bernardo in to town with a letter for Sergeant García explaining the situation and asking him to muster his men and ride in order to help us stop Cisneros."

Alejandro was impressed. "That was good thinking, my son," he responded nodding in approval. Then he pointed ahead. "It looks like Cisneros has made good time, but we have been able to gain ground because his men have had to stop and track the Indians. Some of his men are very professional and have seen through the ruses of using branches to cover the tracks of the cart."

"Where do you think the Indians are headed, Father?" the young man asked.

"It is said that there may be some more powerful tribes in this area, ones we have not encountered before. Others say that there are many hidden valleys and canyons that the Indians could retreat to, lands unexplored and unknown by us." The older man looked contemplative a moment. "We are not sure what we are up against. Perhaps it is a good thing that the army will be following in our wake."

"If Sergeant García comes the right way, Father," Diego pointed out.

Alejandro laughed. "He could hardly miss our trail, my son. At least two dozen men with Cisneros and at least that many on our side."

Don Leon rode alongside the two men. "Look, Alejandro!" he said in an excited voice. "It looks like Cisneros has split his forces."

Don Alejandro pulled up the reins and slowed down his mount. He began to examine the tracks very carefully. In another minute, the men behind him milled about, examining the trails through the sagebrush and rocky terrain. The bearded don rose up in his saddle and addressed the men around him. "It looks like Cisneros has sent his men in two directions. Perhaps in an effort to circle the Indians and cut them off." He was distracted by a figure climbing up a high rock in an outcrop nearby. He recognized Diego by his clothing. The young man had dismounted and taken the initiative to get the best view of the lands ahead from a large outcrop of boulders and rocks.

The young man reached the top of the outcrop and made his way to the highest point. From there he overlooked the valley that stretched before them. He pointed first to the north, towards the mountains, and then further south, towards other rocky hills. The other dons, vaqueros, and men watched him as he scrambled back down the rocks, making his way through the brush and boulders. Finally he jogged towards them. When he arrived, he was almost breathless.

"What did you see, Diego?" asked Don Nacho.

"Cisneros appears to be pursuing two groups of Indians," the young man told them between breaths of air. "One group of neophytes seems to have headed towards the foothills of the mountains, there, to the north. The other group is fleeing towards the south. There are even more hills and trees there."

"So," Alejandro said with clarity. "Cisneros must follow both groups, not knowing which one to pursue, not knowing which one has the comandante." He paused significantly. "And we must follow them, too, not knowing which one will lead us to Capitán de las Fuentes."

It was sometime later that Alejandro noticed that Diego was not with the group of men that he led towards the northern foothills. He assumed that his son had joined the other group headed up by Don Juan Villa that pursued Cisneros' men to the south. Little did he know that from behind a boulder emerged a man in black attire with a flowing cape and black hat.

The man in black mounted a dark brown horse and followed a trail north, towards the mountains, in pursuit of Miguel Cisneros. He knew this would be the correct direction of pursuit based on what Benito’s mother told him. He then noticed something that caught his eye and made him come to a halt. He dismounted and examined his surroundings, the sandy dirt and the tangled underbrush. A looked of respect and admiration spread across his face. He immediately understood what was taking place.

El Zorro put his foot in the stirrup and swung his leg over the saddle as he remounted the horse. He paused a moment before continuing and shook his head. "Señor Juan is a very good strategist," he said out loud. "He sends two groups of his men to divert the forces of his enemies, and leads the third - with the comandante - to the sacred place of the Indians where he hopes to cure the Capitán." The Fox smiled grimly as he urged his horse forward on the nearly invisible trail. "May his ruse last long enough to get them all to safety."

 

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

Sebastián Pérez was becoming impatient. His wife had made the decision to stay, not just one night with the Rodríguez family, but several. A servant had arrived at his home to inform him of the fact. It was outrageous and ridiculous, he told himself. Perhaps he had not thrashed her enough or often enough.

Then there was Margarita. She had made no attempt to contact him or to come home, begging to be allowed back in. It was that notorious troublemaker, Don César, whose fault that was, he fumed. No doubt he and his wife influenced María to stay with Margarita, encouraging her defiance and her disobedient behavior. That's what I get for allowing all those music lessons and putting up with Margarita's rebellious behavior for all these years. He might have brought all these problems under control were it not for a third factor: That was the new comandante, Capitán de las Fuentes, a man Sebastian considered extremely eccentric and opinionated. Not only had the man insulted the monarchy, Spain's illustrious painters and the Court by his stories and gossip, but he openly encouraged Margarita to defy him, her own father! He must be a secret Republican, Sebastian muttered to himself. Fiddling while he burned Rome - and all the family values I hold dear. Sebastian would never forgive the comandante for the humiliation he suffered that night at the Rodríguez party. But he would have his revenge. However, his revenge against De las Fuentes would be only secondary to the surrender of Margarita to his parental authority. She would find herself left in the lurch by the Capitán who discouraged her marriage to Salvador and that would make solving his problem all the easier. Margarita would marry Salvador. It would take some time, but his will would prevail.

In the meanwhile, Señor Pérez decided to take a few steps of his own. He would make an appearance at the Rodríguez household and demand to see María and Margarita. Then he would issue an ultimatum. He might have a few problems with Rodríguez himself who had taken Margarita in, but he would accuse the musician of breaking up a family. That would put that flamboyant popinjay on the defensive.

It was to his dismay that he found himself watching a carriage depart from the Rodríguez household in the opposite direction just as he approached the home on foot. In the carriage were the Rodríguez women, his daughter, Margarita, and wife, María, wearing a veil, but dressed colorfully. Following on horseback were three guitar playing musicians. They were already making a racket! Even if he had shouted, he would not have been heard. He stood in the dirt road and watched the departing carriage. Everyone seemed to be laughing and having a good time. That was not the scene he wanted to see.

Sebastian stopped in his tracks and considered his options. He marched straight up to the Rodríguez household, entered through the patio and pounded on the door. A few minutes later a maid answered his call. No, she said, Doña Ramona did not say when they would be back. I am sorry, Señor Pérez, they only said they were picnicking all day. Maybe they would visit the neighbors. No, Don César was not at home. He was with Don Alejandro and his men. She did not know when he would be back either. Sebastian could only look extremely irritated. He left his card and insisted that he be contacted at everyone's first convenience. He was so preoccupied with his thoughts of what he would do next that he failed to notice a man with an unshaven face, large white teeth, wild black eyes and an amused smile who watched him from the shadows of a nearby wall.

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

There were gunshots fired and the pursuing men, led by Miguel Cisneros, saw the Indians spread out in all directions before him. The tall brush, the numerous rocks made it more difficult to locate the men, but he would flush them out, one by one. They were making their way into the mountains. There, with numerous hiding places, possibly caves, the natives could lose themselves in. And who knows if he and his men would encounter Indian reinforcements. Cisneros had mainly experienced cowed neophytes at the mission and on the lands of the rancheros, but he had seen the pagans in the hills defy their conquerors as well. The pagans were a pitiful lot, he decided, with their primitive spears and arrows. In southern California's warm climate, most of them went naked, both men and women, and they had no more thought for it than animals did. Nevertheless, Indians in general resisted weakly and had been easily subdued, he thought. He was stunned when one of his men, Pablo, rode up to him amidst the firing and told him that there was no sign of the cart or the comandante. "They must have used these men to take us off the scent, Miguel," the man pointed out.

Cisneros sucked in his breath. The treachery of those heathens, he fumed. He never would have imagined that they could trick him. They were, after all, just Indians! He was the lead vaquero of Don Pedro and no heathen would put one over on him! "Then it's back to the south, that's where they are headed!" he exclaimed.

His companion fired a shot in the air with a rifle and the men pursuing the fleeing natives halted and headed back towards Cisneros. "What is going on, Miguel?" they demanded.

"We've been tricked. This was a ruse to split us up. They are headed to the south," the vaquero told them. He pointed in the direction they had come. "Let's get those bastard heathens!" he roared. A dozen men on horses headed at full gallop in the direction they had come, leaving behind a few wounded Indians and those who would tend to them. Afterwards, they would make their way towards safer grounds in the late afternoon and coming evening where it would be impossible for the whites to track them in the dark. It would be another half an hour before Cisneros and his men returned to their point of origin. When they reached a faint trail and the sign of hoof prints, they turned south.

As his men pulled ahead of him and sped along the trail ahead, Pablo came to a halt. He looked down and seemed to be studying the land. Cisneros looked back and saw him. He hesitated and pulled back. He turned around and rode back. He was curious as he rode up to the other vaquero. "What's wrong?" he shouted.

Pablo dismounted and examined the soil. He took quick steps in one direction and then in another. He examined the branches of bushes and stooped down to examine rocks. He looked up at Cisneros. He smiled crookedly. "This is the route they've taken," he announced triumphantly.

"How can you tell?" demanded Miguel.

"The broken branches of the brushes give them away."

"Couldn't some animals have made it?" Miguel asked. "What else have you found?"

"These stones have been kicked out of the way. Look, here!" the man became excited. "Here is part of a cart track! This is where we must follow them!"

Cisneros looked over his shoulder in the direction his men had taken. They had disappeared in a cloud of dust. There would be little chance to catch up with them any time soon and bring them back in force. "What should we do?" he asked.

"Strike while the iron is hot!" Pablo told him. "With just two of us following them, we may have a better chance to discover where they are going. When we do, we could nab them. We have plenty of ammunition, they have none."

Cisneros began to smile. Not only had he split his forces, the Indians, with far less men had also split theirs. With his rifles and Pablo, he would capture the neophytes, rescue the Capitán and met out well-deserved punishment to the rebels who had dared to kidnap the comandante of the pueblo of Los Angeles.

 

 

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