Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-seven

 

The journey to the entrance of the sacred valley was not really that far, but it was not an easy journey for a horse and cart. The paths were made for men traveling on foot. It was a trail that meandered through the rises and falls in the landscape, around huge boulders and prickly bushes. Not more than an hour's sojourn towards the rocky hills, Blue Feather abandoned the cart and horse. A blanket strung between two strong saplings carried the sick white man that the four natives wielded. It was now a matter of time before they reached the sanctuary.

Not far behind them, a man in black traced the natives' trail, discovering broken twigs and branches, kicked stones - all the signs of the passing of men. It was his goal to see that the Indians reached their hideout and to be of assistance if he could. Not far behind him were two other trackers with a much different intent, and they were making good time as well.

The afternoon was beginning to fade, for the night came early this time of year. Already the chirps of birds began to be replaced by the silence of dusk. It was then that El Zorro found the abandoned cart. Dr. Aguilera's horse had been unfastened at the cart, but the animal remained with it as if afraid to leave it. El Zorro approached the animal momentarily, petting it and calming it. He knew it might be helpful to have the animal later on, but he had a much more important mission while it was still light - to catch up with Juan, his companions and the comandante.

It is much easier for men following a group of fugitives to find them if they do not have to search too carefully for clues. Much harder is the role of the tracker who must use his knowledge to interpret correctly breaks in the natural order of which is not evident to the undiscerning eye. Now that the path moved up into the mountains, itself a stony path. Now it was easier for El Zorro to follow on horseback.

A strong wind hit him as he reached the top of the rise causing the cape behind him to flutter like a sail. Before him lay numerous folds of rocky hills, brush, and trees. The horse’s footsteps took him around a boulder. Suddenly, the trail headed downhill, steeply, before reaching a curve. It was here that El Zorro caught a glimpse of the four Californians with their burden ahead of him. In the face of this tempest, he headed down the trail after them, unheard by them. Within a few minutes, two other men came to the top of the rise and also spotted the four men. They did not see El Zorro because, despite the trail down, it curved, and he was not visible at the moment.

Miguel Cisneros pointed ahead. "There they are!" he said to his companion.

Pablo pulled his rifle out, stood high in the stirrups, took careful aim, and fired at the group of Indians. One of them dropped and the others stopped in alarm and shock, looking behind them. The first thing they saw was a man in black heading toward them with a cape flowing behind them. It was inconceivable that El Zorro would have fired the shot. Then they saw two other men following close behind him at full gallop. They were not sure what to make of the situation, but their mission was the more important.

Blue Feather sank to the side of his brother who had been shot. All four men crouched to be less visible. He quickly examined the man and saw that he had been hit in the upper arm, but he would mend. He could not, however, carry the stretcher. Still, they had to move forward, Blue Feather took both ends in his hands and continued to move among the rocks. They were so close, yet still not quite there.

El Zorro heard the shots fired from behind him. He knew anyone who had followed him must not have seen him and he would take advantage of that. He passed a large boulder and pulled his mount just off the path where he could not be seen. He released the whip he carried with him and waited. In a moment two riders passed him at a gallop. One was taking aim with a pistol as they closed on the group of natives.

Suddenly, a whip lashed out, catching the man by the neck and pulled him from the horse. The pistol went flying.

Miguel Cisneros turned around and saw Pablo fall to the side of the trail. He became furious. He understood at once that Zorro did not intend for him to capture the rebels. He raised his own pistol and fired another shot at the fleeing natives. Another dropped. He pulled another pistol from his waist, aimed and then, fired at the man in black.

El Zorro saw the shot coming and dropped instantly low along the neck of the horse. The shot whizzed by his shoulder as he dropped. It was the closest he had ever come to death from pistol fire. His mount charged on. In a moment, the horse overtook the other rider and a man in black rose up, towering over his opponent as a spirit would over a grave. In his hand was his saber.

Cisneros twisted out of the way and drew his own sword. The clash of steel resounded in the fading light. El Zorro knew there was little time left and he was determined to put a quick end to the contest. The thrusts of his opponent's sword were easily deflected but Cisneros was aggressive and energetic. He was also angry.

"Never let anger determine the path of the blade, Señor," Zorro chided him.

"So, you would aid the rebels and have our comandante die?" shot back the vaquero.

"You understand nothing, Señor," the man in black told him. "The natives will cure him, not kill him. You do not know what they will not do for a white man that they have come to love."

"Those beasts will kill him," Cisneros insisted, jabbing fruitlessly with his blade as the other turned it aside. "What do they know of medicine or taking off a leg?" He grunted in effort. "They will only kill the comandante." He winced as El Zorro's blade cut his arm. "Just as you will kill me to defend those animals."

"I am afraid that you are very much misinformed," the Fox said, "for your hatred blinds you to the fact that they are men as well and have a tradition that dates back as long as they have inhabited these lands." Again his blade found its mark. "And now, Señor, it is time to end this contest."

Within minutes, Miguel Cisneros found himself trussed up, seated on a rock and the man in black bidding him farewell. "So now you leave me here to die," the vaquero spat bitterly, "where any wild animal can find me in this helpless state."

"You will be quite safe here, Señor Cisneros," El Zorrol told him. "And if by chance, any wild beast finds you, you may find that you will have congenial company!" With that, he disappeared among the rocks.

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

 

Don Alejandro and his friends caught up to Cisneros' men who had ridden to the south. The latter had begun to fire upon the fleeing natives when they found themselves fired on from behind. They turned in surprise and caught sight of the figure of the tall, white-bearded don with a saber in one hand, urging his men forward. With a few shots, it was over. Cisneros' men had no desire to be killed fighting their own neighbors. Don Alejandro then rode forward to let the Indians know that he was there and that they could stop fleeing. It was some time before they did so. Alejandro knew that they really had no choice because they were up against steep cliffs, boxed in by the men that pursued them. He waited for them in the open and without a sword or gun. He knew they could see that he was not armed.

There was a slight movement in the tall bushes and dry grasses. One of the Indians came forward. "Don Alejandro," he said. "We are not armed."

"Where is the comandante?" asked Alejandro. "Now that we are here, we wish to escort him to safety. Your people will not be harmed."

"He is not with us," the native Californian explained. "We were sent here to distract the Bad Ones. We have done so."

The white-bearded man was impressed with their cunning. "You did a good job, Ignacio. But we still need to tend to the capitán."

"Do not worry, Don Alejandro," Ignacio replied. "The one you call 'Juan' is helping the capitán."

"How can Juan help? Is he a shaman?" asked the don.

"No," responded the Indian. "But he is taking the capitán to a place where there are powerful spirits and sacred waters. He says the capitán must return to a place like where he sprang from in order to be healed."

The don was puzzled. "What do you mean 'like the place he sprang from?"

The Californian looked patiently at the white man he knew as a good man. "As El Zorro told us, the capitán is also of the sacred waters. It is his name."

Alejandro nodded in understanding, but before he could say anything, there were shots fired from behind his men in the distance. Ignacio pulled him down to the ground in a crouching position. "More Bad Ones have arrived," he said urgently.

The second group of Cisneros men rode up from behind, thinking they had caught up with their own men. When they saw members of Don Alejandro's group with weapons and their own comrades trussed up, they began to fire. Men dived behind rocks to take shelter. The bound men scrambled to take cover as well.

Both sides shouted at the other to disarm and end the fighting. Don Alejandro whispered to Ignacio that his people should remain in hiding until the contest was decided and he left the man, making his way through the rocks. Alejandro badly needed to retrieve his saber and pistol. Even a rifle would be helpful.

Ignacio spoke with his handful of men. They knew if Don Alejandro and his men were defeated, that they themselves would probably be killed by the white racists. They decided to take matters into their own hands. One by one they fanned out among the rocks in order to encircle and pounce on their enemies. One bore the name of Coyote, another of Spotted Hawk, still another of Brown Crow and the one named "Ignacio" by the whites whose name among his people was Little Badger. Like their namesakes they would be at home among the rocks, grasses and trees. Like their namesakes they would be creatures of prey.

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

Sergeant Demetrio García López was not exactly sure what direction he was supposed to go in, but he followed Don Diego's instructions to the letter. It was one thing he was good at doing, besides drinking wine. The trail was not as difficult as he had supposed for there were a good many horse prints to follow. He decided that the trail with the most hoof prints would be the one to follow and it did not take him much time to find a trail that must have been travelled recently by several groups of men, for the dirt and stones revealed the passing of many.

The afternoon had begun to fade and García became a little uneasy. Nights were a time of strange animals, weird sounds, and perhaps even spirits or demons. Most likely, it was just the strangeness of the land, its unfamiliar rock formations, and a strong wind that began to blow. It would be a long time before they could get back to town. The horses were tiring like he himself. Then he heard it - a sound like shots in the distance.

"Rifle shots, pistol shots," Corporal Reyes said, pointing ahead. He gripped the pistol in its saddle holster and looked over at the sergeant he rode abreast with.

García nodded. He turned in the saddle, facing his men behind him. "Lancers!" he shouted. "We ride into battle!" The sergeant spurred his mount forward and his men followed in his wake.

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

Far from the scene of battle, a man in black made his way through the rocks and saw before him a small cavernal entrance. Just a few yards ahead of him, Juan was helping one of his brothers who had been wounded by the vaquero Pablo. Next to them lay the burden they had traveled so far with.

The Fox called out, "Friend Juan, it is I, El Zorro, come to help you."

Juan looked up. "El Zorro. Brother. It is good you are here."

"I see that your brothers have been hurt. May I be of assistance?" the man in black asked.

"I will need your strength to help me with the capitán," answered Juan. "He is the one in need of assistance the most."

El Zorro knelt by the small man that he knew as a comandante, a capitán, a prince, a general, a musician, a man of many talents, and a friend. He was pale, but he opened his eyes and looked about him. He did not recognize anything, but he did recognize the masked man.

"EL Zorro?" asked Francisco de las Fuentes. "Do we meet again?"

"Yes, Comandante, we do indeed," replied the other.

The officer looked about him. "It seems I have dreamed and traveled a great deal in my dreams," he said in a distracted manner. He groped for the gloved hand of the man in black. "I have seen death," he told him. "He follows me at a distance."

"Do not worry, Comandante," El Zorro told him. "I am keeping death at bay - and so are our friends who have brought you to a sacred place."

Francisco wondered what he meant by that but he still felt the affects of the herbal medications he had been administered throughout the long trip. "I am fading once again, my friend," he whispered.

The man in black put his arms under the small man wrapped in a blanket and carried him in his arms. The Indian, Juan, was waiting for him, supporting one of his wounded brothers. Another native, also unwounded, carried the other injured man.

"Come quickly, Brother Zorro," Juan told him, "for the sun is leaving the Earth and soon the Moon shall rise." They made their way into a small cavern. The entrance was so small that the tall masked man had to almost kneel to get in. Once inside, the two Indians paused and released their burdens. El Zorro watched as they moved boulders aside to help block the entrance. No white man would follow them inside.

Juan then gave several shrill whistles into hollows that opened before him. He called again. The call was returned. He smiled in satisfaction. It was a short while before torchlights began to appear. Several native Californian men came forward and helped the two wounded men. Juan spoke with them and they nodded. He gestured for El Zorro to follow him. As they made their way along a narrow tunnel, he whispered. "We are now going to the sacred place, a place no white man has ever seen before. I do not know whether you will be allowed to return."

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

By the time Sergeant García and his men arrived with pistols and lances at the ready, Don Alejandro had already taken control of the situation. With the help of the natives, he had all of Cisneros' men disarmed. Don Alejandro was, once again, impressed with the intelligence and initiative of the Indians who had used stealth to come upon their enemies from behind and leap upon them. One by one, twelve men were disarmed and, even a few disabled. The rest were held prisoner by his men and there had only been one casualty. Lucky for him, Dr. Aguilera had joined Don Alejandro's group and was there to minister to the needs of the wounded.

When things had settled down a bit, the don began to look around for his son. He found the musician, César Rodríguez, talking animatedly with his friends. "César," he began "have you seen my son, Diego?"

César answered, "No, Alejandro, I have not. I thought he was with us earlier, but when I looked about me, he was gone. I thought he had left with the other group of men."

Alejandro took the other's arm and pulled him aside. "I am worried, César, because the men who attacked us are the first group of Cisneros' men. Our men - with Diego - must have met up with them at some point. The fact that they are not here now has me greatly worried."

César nodded. For once his optimism was dampened, but he would not let it show. "I am sure that Diego is fine," he told his friend. "Perhaps our men did not run in to Cisneros at all. It is not easy to track men in such circumstances. I will ask if anyone has seen them."

"Perhaps it is significant that I do not see Señor Cisneros either," added Alejandro. "He is a man of violence. If Diego has tried to defend our Indian friends, I am sure that Cisneros would not be a man to give him much mercy."

César shook his head. "Alejandro," he pointed out, "men like Cisneros are ultimately cowards. They love to hate other men because of the differences they cannot understand or do not want to understand. They talk big, but when it comes to seeing an opponent as a human being, they flee the reality. I find so many things that bring men together, even men of great political or cultural differences. That something is music."

"I have always admired your positive view of life, César," Alejandro told him, "but when men are filled with hate and a lust for vengeance, then it blinds them to all but what consumes them. Only when the passions have passed and they become rational again, is it possible to reflect and ask ourselves was the price worth the misery we visited upon others - and will it come back to haunt us?"

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

Francisco de las Fuentes opened his eyes and found himself in a dark place. He thought he glimpsed stars in the distance and heard strange noises. It was the sound of flowing waters that he heard, first in his dreams, and then now. He thought that he was in a river for he felt the flow of water all around him. But the waters were warm and comforting. He felt mildly euphoric, most certainly safe, at least for the present. He did not sense death close on his trail while in the flowing waters. But death was a fickle companion and did not want to give up its prey.

The dream seemed like it lasted a long time and he was confounded by what the meaning of his dreams were. In the flowing waters, he at first thought he was drowning, but his head was not under water, he breathed air and heard the lapping of gentle waves. He closed his eyes and felt his imagination run wild: he must have been held up, he thought, by dolphins, just like in his dreams. But when he opened his eyes, there were naked women with long black hair holding him in the waters. A young one smiled at him but there was nothing lustful in her eyes, only a kind of curiosity and recognition of the fact that he had opened his eyes. He stared a moment at her body and closed his eyes thinking how strange dreams could be - both frightening as well as pleasant. Later, it seemed, there was a campfire where he was surrounded by Indian men. An old man with long, gray hair, watched him closely and held something up to his lips. It was then he realized his leg was burning. He tried to look for it, but was soon distracted by hands at his temples, moving across his face, down his neck and back to his shoulders. He looked into the dark eyes and thought that the old man could read his thoughts. The world faded again from his view and he slept again.

El Zorro stood in the shadows and listened as Juan explained to him what was happening. He told the masked man that the shaman was very powerful: he could heal the sick and cause the bad spirits to leave the body of the afflicted. The shaman journeyed to the land of the spirits and returned with knowledge to understand many worlds and the world of men.

"How does he travel to the land of the spirits?" asked the man in black. "He must be very brave to do so."

"We are in the land of the spirits," explained Juan. "But the shaman must travel further than we. He must enter the Earth and speak with spirits. Sometimes he only listens, but each time he learns new knowledge. Then he returns."

"Has anyone gone with him?" asked the Fox.

"He enters the Earth alone, sometimes through openings found in the ground, sometimes through holes he must dig deep into the Earth. He may encounter good or bad spirits, but his own courage is what defeats the bad ones and learns from the good ones. Sometimes he will send someone to also enter the land of spirits so they may learn from the spirits as well."

And there was the sound of sing-song chants in the cave. They were the chants of men, for the spirits of men are different from the spirits for women. When a man was sick, then the men sang to their spirits to help the man. Sometimes the chants were spoken words; sometimes they seemed like the humming of bees; sometimes they were accompanied by the beat of drums or the methodical shake of sacred rattles. This went on for many hours. El Zorro watched and slept, then watched again as time moved on.

There was silence. Then he heard a voice. It was clear and El Zorro recognized it at once. It was a deep baritone and it said:

" In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."

Francisco de las Fuentes looked about him in the dark. He saw the flicker of firelight, felt both the hot and cold in his body. He moved his hand to the rough floor beneath him and lifted some dirt in his hand. He looked at it and continued, "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

He did not know where he was or who these people were, but it seemed to him that he had traveled to the beginning of time, a time he only knew as Eden where men and women lived as he saw them before him.

The cave and its dwellers were silent for a moment. Only the crackling of the burning fires was heard. The chants had stopped. Then the old man with long gray hair who had knelt over him and administered herbs moved close to him. In accented Spanish he began to speak and his words seemed an answer to the man who had just spoken:

"In the beginning," the old man intoned, "Coyote began the creation of the Earth, but the Great Eagle completed it. After Coyote had completed making the world, he began to think about creating Man. He called a council of all the animals. The animals sat in a circle, just as the Indians do, with Mountain Lion at the head. The council was held in an open space in the forest. On Mountain Lion's right was Grizzly Bear, then Cinnamon Bear, Black Bear, Deer, Wolf, and finally down in size to mouse. Mouse sat next to Mountain Lion in the completed circle.

Mountain Lion spoke first. He said he wished man to have a terrible voice like himself so he could frighten all the animals. He wanted man to be covered in fur, with fangs, claws and very strong teeth.

Grizzly Bear laughed. He said it was ridiculous for anyone to have a voice like Mountain Lion because if he roared he would frighten away all the animals he would need for food. Then Grizzly Bear said man would have great strength like a bear; that he should move silently, but very swiftly, and he should be able to seize his prey without noise.

Buck deer said Man would look very foolish without antlers. Mountain Sheep said antlers would cause man bother because they would get caught in thickets. If man had rolled horns like a Mountain Sheep, it would give his head great weight to butt very hard.

All the animals argued about what man should look like and his characteristics. Finally, Coyote had his turn. He said that all the animals were very foolish because they each wanted Man to be just like themselves. Coyote was sure he could make Man look better. Man, said Coyote, would have to have four legs with five fingers; Man should have a strong voice, but he need not roar; Man should stand like Grizzly when he need to; Grizzly Bear had no tail and man should not have any. The ears and eyes of Buck Deer and Mountain Sheep were good and perhaps Man should have these. But they should not forget other animals. Fish had no hair and for some animals fur was a burden in the hot summers, so Coyote thought Man should have no fur. Finally, Man should have claws like Eagle, but not as long, so he could hold things in them. But, no animal was as cunning or crafty as Coyote, so man should have the wit of Coyote.

Beaver disagreed. He thought Man should have a long flat tail for hauling mud and sand to build a home. He agreed that Man should not have fur because of fleas. Owl said Man would be useless without wings. Mole said wings were foolish because Man would fly and hit the sky. If he had wings and eyes, the sun would burn them. Man needed to burrow in the soft Earth where it was cool and comfortable. Mouse disagreed. He said that man needed eyes to see what he was eating and who would want to burrow in the Earth all his life. With that, the council broke up in a great quarrel. Finally, each animal decided to create an image of Man out of his own ideas out of a lump of Earth. Most animals modeled Man on themselves.

It was late when all the animals finished their models. They went to sleep. That is, all but Coyote, who was the most clever of them all. Coyote stayed up all the night and worked until he finished his model. As the other animals slept, Coyote poured water over their models and spoiled them. In the morning he showed the animals his model and breathed life into it before they could finish theirs. Thus, Man was made by Coyote."

Francisco de las Fuentes closed his eyes again. He must truly be among peoples who were as far from the world he knew as the Moon was from the Earth. Once again he was overwhelmed by dreams - or were they dreams, he asked himself. The dolphins who became naked women were more comforting to him now and he seemed to have these visions many times. He wondered why they were not mermaids or sirens or witches, but instead, the eternal friends of sailors. His thoughts wandered a while, although he heard everything about him perfectly and smelled the grass mat upon which he lay and the scents of herbs rubbed into human skin of the people who surrounded him.

The nights turned into days and the days into nights. Or so it seemed to him. He lost track of time. The only thing he knew was that as time passed his leg hurt less. But he was still uncertain. Doctors once told him that men who seemed to be getting well often died just when everyone thought they had recovered. The waters flowed over him again and women dolphins held his head above the waves.

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

Don Alejandro had become very concerned. The next day, he and his men returned to the pueblo of Los Angeles, accompanying the soldiers who had placed Miguel Cisneros' men under arrest. Alejandro knew that the sergeant would not keep them in jail long. The only charge they could be held on was disorderly conduct and most of the men were not very inclined to keep their neighbors in jail for long. As a matter of fact, they were all let out the following day. Certainly, the issue of the kidnapped comandante had not been resolved and some of the men felt very bitter towards Don Alejandro and his allies. There was a tension among the people of Los Angeles that had not been felt in a very long time. Some wished intently for the return of Capitán Monastario. Anything would be better, some thought, than the uncertainty and anxiety that came when a community seemed divided against itself.

Sergeant García did his best to make the rounds and talk to people as if there were never any changes in routine, but the people of the pueblo were subdued.

In addition, Diego de la Vega had not returned. His father thought that he was with the group of men that had pursed Cisneros and his group north towards the mountains. It ended up that this group had lost the trail and had not encountered anyone. The furious men on horseback whom Cisneros had rerouted in order to pursue the group of Indians had headed south unopposed. No one seems to have remembered when or where the young man had gone missing. In addition, Miguel Cisneros and a friend, Pablo, had not returned at all. Pablo was a professional tracker. Cisneros and his men were dependent on him for finding the Indians' trail to begin with. It was rumored that the Indians had killed them, and perhaps young De la Vega with them. Alejandro de la Vega hotly disputed this claim, but he could not explain where his son might have disappeared.

Finally, César Rodríguez had to have a talk with Margarita Pérez. He told her that all the men of the pueblo had pursued the Indians who had taken Don Francisco with them. He could not answer her questions as to why they would take the comandante. He could only tell her that he thought that they meant him no harm. He had no evidence for his feelings, only that something told him that the comandante was not in danger from them.

Margarita found herself weeping in the middle of conversations or at the little chores she performed with the girls. Her friends and mother consoled her, but to small avail. She knew Francisco could not be dead because she had not felt it, she told them, but in her heart she feared the worst. She also confessed this to Padre Felipe who visited her and listened quietly as she declared that she would never give up hope; that he would return to her. She refused to see her father when he came to call. She told Ramona Rodríguez that she no longer had a father and therefore, there was no one to meet with. She often kissed the ring on her finger and held that hand close to her heart. It was several days before she finally consented to venture out with her friends, Ismaida and Juanita. By then she was feeling a little better. She began to play the piano and promised herself that she would be at her best when Francisco returned. Her playing could be heard out in the street.

Every time Salvador Muñoz walked by, he heard it and he seethed. The little witch thought she could avoid him by remaining in the Rodríguez household, he thought, but she could not stay there forever. As a matter of fact, when everyone finally realized that the comandante would never return to the pueblo alive, then she would again be vulnerable, and he would spring his trap.

 

 

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