Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-eight

 

The man in black spoke in hushed tones with the Indian he knew as Juan. The dawn had broken a few hours earlier and light was beginning to fill the cavern. Already the calls of birds filled the air. Then he heard a deep baritone voice near the fire speak his name.

"El Zorro."

The Fox approached the fire as the Shaman rose and moved away. He knelt beside the small bearded man who had spoken his name and who was now wrapped in furs. "Capitán de las Fuentes?" he inquired.

"You are here," Francisco said in a tired voice. "I thought I recognized you or a voice similar to yours. I know that I am among the living - at least for the present."

"You are doing fine," El Zorro insisted. He took off one of his gauntlets and took the officer's hand in his own. "Feel my hand, Capitán. It will tell you are you are among friends." He nodded toward the opening in the cliff. "Look there, Comandante, and you will see that we are under a great ledge in the mountains. Through the mountains runs this natural spring which opens up into a marvel of nature before our eyes. See how we can see the sunlight and that an oasis stretches for miles inside this narrow valley. There are trees and flowers, birds and reeds, a restful and wondrous place."

The small man strained to see the view he heard described to him, but felt too detached to be an observer of such amazing sights for more than a moment. "Your hand is very cool to the touch," Francisco replied wearily, "which means I am burning up. I know I have a fever. It is not as bad as when I experienced the pox, but it has the smell of death nonetheless." He paused. "There are a number of things I have to tell you before I die and I can only tell them to a Christian. I only hope that I am lucid enough to speak for long. I feel so spent."

"You are not going to die, Comandante," the Fox insisted. "You are only experiencing the worst of your affliction right now. You feel tired because of the medicines that you are given. When men are sick, they often think dark thoughts."

Francisco reflected a moment on his words, but he was not convinced. "Will you do me the courtesy of hearing my confession? If I die, then my conscience will be clear. If not, well..."

What else could he say? "I am honored, Your Excellency, that you chose to confide in me. I will listen to your confession, Don Francisco, and just as quickly consign it to where it should go."

There was a long silence. Then the small man with the deep voice spoke softly but earnestly. The man in black knelt close by to hear the whispered words.

"El Zorro, I am not whom I seem to be at all. I am a fraud, a liar, and have misrepresented myself to all the good people I have known since coming to the Américas, especially to those here in California."

"Your Excellency, I do not believe this," El Zorro replied. "You are a truthful and honorable man. Surely, your conduct at the trials and your humanity towards the prisoners and even the fugitive, Enríquez, are proof enough of your credentials."

"Listen to my tale," Francisco told him, "and then decide whether your esteem for me is at all deserved."

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

Pilar Montoya, the gypsy curadora, traveled to the pueblo of Los Angeles on horseback. She heard from her granddaughter, Marya, that the strange man, Joaquín Enríquez, was back in town. It was several hours ride from her cabin in the mountains to the north of Los Angeles down into the valley where the settlement lay, but Pilar felt an unspoken urgency to make the journey. She needed to advise him to leave Los Angeles and never to return - for his own sake as well as for the sake of the dead.

The sky was still light as she reached the outskirts of the pueblo. Not everyone would welcome her appearance, for many regarded the gray-haired gypsy woman as an undesirable reminder of old superstitions and a challenge to traditional authority in the form of the church, the military, and modern medicine. A few had even called her a witch, but not that Pilar minded. She respected the ancient teachers who kept the old knowledge of healing alive and understood the web of life that touched and intertwined all living beings - even those long departed the Earth.

She made camp outside of town and wrapped herself in a wool blanket around the fire. She tied the horse to a tree and drank some tea. She felt his presence long before he arrived at her side. As he made his way toward her, she reached out her hand and said in a calm voice, "Come to me, Joaquín." She heard the snap of a twig and in a few moments he kneeled at her side.

"Your eyes are closed, but still you see me," he said softly. "Just the way you did years ago."

"You are in trouble again?" Pilar asked calmly. "You should not come back to this place, although you know that you must purge your demons. Only then will you find peace."

Joaquín Enríquez was quiet a spell, gazing into the crackling fire. "How did you know I was back?"

She smiled. "How can I not know when Capitán Monastario had you jailed and whipped just a week ago? Some say you have 'borrowed' a few items they obtained through the auction of your possessions many years ago."

"Marya, your daughter, was in town then," the man with the large teeth smiled. "She is your best eyes and ears."

"But what is this news now, that you are trying to find this lost comandante?" Pilar continued. "I feel the air cleared without his presence, even at this distance from the pueblo."

Enríquez pulled a piece of dried grass out of a pocket and began to pick his teeth with it. After a while, he tossed it into the flame and watched as it melted in a small glow of orange. "Monastario left town a week ago," he told her. "There is a new comandante in charge until his return. He's a decent sort." The man with tosseled black hair paused. "He is the one who is missing." Then Joaquín laughed, a short, ironic sound. "He was chasing me after I escaped, but I always managed to give him the slip. This time, though, he needs help, not me."

"Tell me about this comandante," the gypsy requested. "It is not often you lift your hand to help another, especially an official."

Joaquín acknowledged this fact with a nod. "Let me tell you about him and the hearing he conducted when I was a prisoner," he began.

The fire was dying down when he finished his story and Joaquín rose to gather more firewood to keep the hungry flames satiated until dawn. He left the gypsy contemplating his words. When he returned with some old wood, he placed the branches criss-cross on the fire. The fugitive then returned to his place near the woman and listened to her words.

"I am sure that those who call themselves the People of the Valley have taken him to their secret place," Pilar told him. "I know them well. They are peaceful but their numbers are greatly diminished as a result of colonial rule. Many have been embittered by their misfortune. This capitán must be exceptional for them to be so determined to save his life."

Enríquez offered her an apple out of his pocket which she accepted without words. "They also say he's quite musical," he commented. "He's courting Señorita Margarita Pérez and has won her heart."

Pilar raised her eyebrows at that. "The little dear who refuses to marry?" she asked in amusement. "Well, perhaps he is a good man." She gathered the blanket around her and closed her eyes. "I will leave at dawn for the eastern mountains," she told him.

Joaquín Enríquez settled in closer to the fire himself. He watched the glowing embers and listened to the crackling and sizzling of the branches for some time. Then, he too, closed his eyes until the dark skies began to lighten and the sun peeked over the horizon and bathed the fading pink clouds in its golden rays.

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

Don Alejandro de la Vega was more than just concerned about his missing son. He began to question everyone who participated in the expedition to the East, friend and foe alike. At the end of the day he began to feel discouraged by the lack of information. More importantly, he discovered that two other men, men whose actions spoke of violence and intolerance – Pedro Castañeda and Miguel Cisneros - were still missing. Diego could not have fallen into worse company, Alejandro thought.

It seemed that a first course of action would be simply to wait for his son’s return, but that did not suit Alejandro who was more inclined to be a man of action, rather than one who passively submitted to time’s slow passage. Still, Alejandro was not one to panic. He examined all possibilities, all scenarios. He asked the Indians servants if they would inquire among their people as well.

Finally, Alejandro decided that he would send Diego’s faithful servant, Bernardo, back to the area where his son was last seen. Bernardo was given instructions that he should wait no longer than another day, then, return. If within that time, there was no sign of Diego, the don would organize a group of men to search for the young man. There would be no lack of volunteers from among the vaqueros and rancheros. Alejandro would lead the search himself.

And so, Bernardo prepared to ride. The don gave orders that the servants prepare a generous pouch of food and drink. Bernardo would take a spare horse with him in case Diego had been thrown or hurt. He was given two pistols and a sword. In case of an emergency, he was given a small bag of herbs and clean cloths. With these supplies, the mozo departed. Alejandro thought that the mozo did not appear too worried or anxious as he rode away. Perhaps he does not understand the implications of how long Diego had been gone, thought the don.

Bernardo rode away from the two-storied hacienda with its tree-shaded patio early the next morning. Although he appeared calm and composed, the mute man began to feel some anxiety himself. He knew that Diego could be delayed by the journey to the Indian lands and in discovering the condition of the comandante, Capitán de las Fuentes. He had listened intently to the descriptions of Cisneros and Castañeda and had witnessed their behavior himself. He was certain that El Zorro would have no difficulty in dealing with such men.

As the morning wore on and the servant proceeded along the paths whose steps were known only to the Indians, to El Zorro and from his instructions, Bernardo began to wonder if there would be a time when his young master might not be so successful: wounded, held by the Indians in their secret places, or even…..no, he would no think of that. Although Bernardo had his doubts at time, he ultimately had a great deal of confidence in El Zorro’s resilience, ingenuity, and instinct for survival and success. In this case, it would most likely be a matter of time before the Fox appeared, but timing was always critical in being able to maintain his dual identity.

Nightfall would be welcome. He would build a fire that could be seen for leagues. In the day, the smoke could be seen even further. He would use many devices to locate the man in black and, if necessary, allow El Zorro to locate him.

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

In the cavern carved in the side of a mountain, a man in black knelt next to a small, pockmarked man on a grass matt. The man on the matt was wrapped in furs and there were the beads of perspiration on his forehead. He spoke softly, but earnestly, in his deep baritone. It seemed as if the entire world was listening and he felt the shame of his revelations.

With a mournful cast to his features, the comandante of the pueblo of Los Angeles continued: "Further, I did nothing to help the cause of Spain while in Peru. I was spiteful and spoke in riddles and muddled all my knowledge of military matters so I would be of no help to anyone. I did this because it was my form of revenge against His Majesty who had so aggrieved me. I am certain this cost many lives. I consorted with black witches and was punished or cursed by dark spirits who sent three assassins to end my life. I cheated death only temporarily, and now find myself I know not where. There is more."

The Fox understood the prince's dilemma and the weight on his shoulders. "Men have done worse, Your Excellency. What is more important is my question to you. Have you ever lied to the Señorita Pérez, Don Francisco?" he asked.

"No, never," Francisco declared in a voice filled with conviction, belying his weakened state, "for she has brought meaning back into my life. I am convinced that both of us have found the balance we have sought in our lives…that we can share together." His voice became almost inaudible. "I have fallen in love with her…and I fear that I shall never see her dear face again."

El Zorro saw the glistening of tears in the man's eyes and was deeply moved. "Your Excellency, I must now confess something to you," El Zorro told him gently. "Before I came here, I visited the Señorita Margarita. I assured her that I would do my best to find you, which I have done. I also swore that I would grant her wish for you - and that was to make sure that nothing happened to you that would prevent your return to her. I fully intend to keep my promise."

Francisco de las Fuentes nodded. His emotion was too deep for him to express any further words. He closed his eyes again.

The gray-haired shaman moved knelt by him. He had heard everything. "It is time for him to sleep again," he told the man in black. "Soon he shall see the woman he loves and travel with her to the land of skies and dreams."

El Zorro nodded and rose. He rejoined Juan who motioned him to follow along the stones which crossed the stream and lead to a great opening in the cavern. As he stepped into the daylight he saw the immensity of the place within the high mountain walls that surrounded the valley. The small Indian led him along paths, around rocks, past bubbling ponds and into an area of flowing streams, reeds, marshes and trees on firm ground. He turned and looked back at where he had come from and marveled at this wonder of nature.

Cut deep in the side of the mountains was a cavern that must have measured a hundred meters in length. The height of the cavern varied. In its narrow lower depths were passages carved by flowing water. In the upper reaches where men had found refuge from the elements, the ceiling could reach a height of 10 or 15 meters. Within this ancient place flowed a narrow stream warmed by the forces far below the surface of the earth that in earlier times had spit forth fire and molten rock. The stream flowed out of the face of the rocks, widening and tumbling gently into the flowing landscape. Not far from the flowing river were eddies and steams leading to other pools where the temperatures could scald a man. Human ingenuity had led the peoples of this area to create pools where the hot waters joined the cooler ones of the stream to create a kind of spa and these were the sites of many rituals depending on the signs from the spirits.

The eyes of the man in black scanned the high walls of the cliffs, the tumbling rock formations and the landscape that led to lakes of green and blue. He turned to his companion. "I can see why your people consider this such a sacred refuge, Señor Juan. It is a place of rare beauty. You are right to want to keep it a secret."

Juan knelt on his haunches beside the flowing rocky stream and watched the light play upon the surface. Then he looked up at the tall white man dressed in black. "There is a meeting of our people soon, El Zorro," he told the masked man. "At this meeting every man and woman will discuss if we should allow you to return to your people." He paused. "We are not concerned about the capitán. He was asleep with the Shaman's medicines while on the journey here and does not know how to find this place. But with you it is a different matter. You followed us, like Coyote, and found us."

"I hoped to assist you with the capitán and to make sure that the Bad Ones did not kill you before you reached your destination," El Zorro told him. "Like you, I do not want the other whites to know of this place. I will do my best to prevent them from ever knowing."

"These are the words I will speak at our council, for I know them to be true. But my voice is only one voice and all men and women will speak before the morning is out. My people will decide as a whole what will be done with you."

"What about the man, Cisneros, what will you do with him?" asked Zorro.

"When it was dark, my people took him to another place. He was prevented from seeing where he was or knowing how far he traveled," the Indian told him. "Such a man could never enter our sacred place. He was tended to, being bruised and cut from your fight." Juan paused. "It is our way, although we know him to be the leader of the Bad Ones."

"I think your people are very wise and compassionate," the Fox said. "And what of the other man, Señor Castañeda, who tracked you here?"

"When my people approached him, he fled through some bushes in the dark, not knowing his steps led him over a cliff. We only this morning retrieved his body."

The man in black was silent a moment, thinking how he would need to explain this incident back in town. Then he turned to a more immediate matter. "Señor Juan, am I allowed to speak at the council of your people? I would also like to express my gratitude for the care you are giving to the capitán."

"No, my Brother," replied Juan. "No outsiders are allowed to speak or attend." Then he gave a small smile. "Do not fear any decision of my people. We will find a path that is just." With that he left the man in black to contemplate what the next few hours would bring and what he would need to do in order to re-appear in good time at home and in the pueblo of Los Angeles.

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

The Indian Shaman squatted at the side of the sick man. It was important for him to reveal to his people why he thought it would be good to save the life of this white man. He had come upon the revelation in a dream. The dream occurred on his trip to the Land of the Spirits, below the Earth. The Spirits had spoken to him. They told him to question the white man in the presence of all his people and have them hear for themselves why he was like one of them, though very different. The Shaman thought long and carefully about what the spirits had said. He believed that they wanted to know, as he did, the answer the white man would give to a very special question. It would determine his future and theirs, the spirits declared.

Invoking the name of the spirits of the underworld and explaining his trip there, he told the assembled men and women that he had been instructed to ask the white man, the capitán, a special question. The answer itself would be an answer to the decision they would have to make. The Shaman then signaled his assistants.

The slow steady beat of a drum began to resound in the cavern. It was strong, monotonous, and unvaried. Two assistants began to shake sacred rattles. Both drum and rattles created a complementary and powerful mood in the cavern. The beating continued for at least ten minutes as the gray-haired man closed his eyes and swayed trance-like over the white man. When the drums and rattles ceased their beat, the eyes of the old man opened wide. He looked up as if at unseen spirits and then down to his patient.

From the shadows, El Zorro watched the ritual, feeling both the power and the honor done him by being allowed to watch the process. He saw the healer lower himself toward the stone floor.

Kneeling at the side of the man who was no taller than he himself, the Shaman put his hand on the forehead of Francisco de las Fuentes. "Man of the Sacred Waters," he intoned. "Heed my voice and open your eyes." He repeated the instructions until the light-blue eyes of the man wrapped in animal furs opened.

Francisco heard a man's voice in heavily accented Spanish calling to him as if from another reality. He vaguely recognized the Shaman. He became aware that others stood nearby.

"Man of Sacred Waters," repeated the Shaman. "The spirits command you to speak to us. Answer so that all may hear you."

"What is the question?" asked Francisco in a voice barely above a whisper, concentrating on the words as best he could.

"The spirits wish to hear your voice. Tell them what is the most sacred thing in your life - above all else - that guides you and inspires you." The Shaman looked up at his people as he intoned. "So that my people must know, too, why you, an outsider, have been brought here to this sacred place."

Francisco thought a while. He realized in some way that what he said would make a difference and decided to speak from his heart. "God forgive me," he said at last, "but the one thing that has meant more to me than anything else in all this world, that inspires me, that directs my life in all its dimensions, is Music. It…"

The Shaman put a finger to the man's lips to stop the flow of words and looked up the members of the tribe. There was a murmuring among those assembled upon hearing these words, even as others translated the meaning. "Music is a spiritual expression that unites all men as one," commented the old man. "It bring us together with all our brothers who sing - Coyote, Wolf, the birds, the frogs, the bees, the crickets, many brothers. He who loves music and makes music is our brother."

"It is as I said," Blue Feather added. "This is the one who gave me justice and has El Zorro for a friend. He is not hungry for slaves or gold or power over our people. He is like our sacred white deer. He has the spirit of his namesake."

"It is true," said the voices of many in agreement. "He does not speak in the fashion of the White Man. His words speak from another power." Not one voice dissented from the comments of the Shaman or Blue Feather, although all were encouraged to do so. Then came the other matter, one even more important to their security and to the future of the Fox.

Blue Feather escorted the man in black towards the mouth of the cave, the sunlight, and the sounds of the brothers of the people of the Earth who lived beyond the cavern. They stepped over stones across the rushing waters and it was there that Blue Feather left him and returned to his people. Inside, the debate began.

"And should the one named El Zorro be allowed to leave, knowing as he does, the hidden paths here?" asked a woman. "If the whites were to know of this place, they would destroy it or claim it for themselves alone."

There were murmurings of assent to her words.

Others began to argue against El Zorro being allowed to leave at all. A man insisted that other whites would come and search for him. This would endanger them all since the whites might accidentally discover their sacred place. It would be best to trust his silence. Still others wondered what would become of him if he were never allowed to leave. How would he live with them? Would he try to escape?

"How could El Zorro continue to do justice for our people if he were never to return?" argued Blue Feather.

Many other voices were heard and the discussions continued.

"I would like to be allowed to speak," declared a new voice. All in attendance turned to face the speaker. It was a woman with graying hair. "It is my doing that El Zorro came to know this place."

Instantly, the cave became silent. Only the crackling of fire was heard. Men and women looked at each other in surprise and some in shock.

"Did you betray our sacred place?" asked the Shaman sternly.

"No," answered the woman, known to the whites as Señora Ávila. "I know El Zorro to be a man who can be trusted to keep his word. It was important that he know about the capitán so he could stop the Bad Ones from harming our people any further. It is likewise important that he be released so that he may return to his people and let them know the comandante is being cured. The words of El Zorro will stop the Bad Ones from lying to the other whites and gathering them in a force to attack our people."

The Shaman gazed into the fire. Its embers glowed, the flames flickered in different colors. Finally he spoke. "Each one must have their say on this matter before us. Then we shall decide the fate of both. Our decision must be for the good of all, including the strangers."

It was noon before the vote was taken. The Shaman continued to administer his medicines to the Man of the Sacred Waters and Blue Feather walked quietly over stones and mosses in search of the man in black in order to tell him of the decision of the council of his peoples.

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

El Zorro got a surprise as he was escorted out to the entrance of the cave by Blue Feather, the man he knew as Señor Juan. The rocks blocking the entrance had been removed but that was not the cause of the unexpected. Ahead of him and coming toward him from the cavern opening was a dark Spanish woman with gray hair. She wore long earrings and dressed with colorful, multilayered skirts. She was the gypsy curadora who lived in the mountains to the northwest of Los Angeles. She was the only outsider who could have known of this place, he thought, because the Indians revered her and the magic she practiced on their behalf on many occasions. She would be accepted among them.

"Señora Montoya!" he exclaimed.

Pilar Montoya nodded in recognition. "Señor Zorro," she smiled. "I have come as Señor Enríquez promised you."

"I don't think I understand," the young man responded. "Señor Enríquez did not tell me he was sending you to me."

The gypsy woman was pensive a moment. "Hmm," she replied, "Often, Joaquín never explains his motives, but he is sincere." She clutched at a bag she carried.

The tall man in black was still puzzled. "Did Joaquín send you to save the comandante's life?" he asked.

"His life?" she asked in curiosity. "Oh, no, young man. Gray Feather, the Shaman, is a great healer in whom I have the highest confidence. He will make the comandante's leg as good as new. No, the capitán does not need my help in that regard."

"If you will permit me to ask you," El Zorro continued politely, "in what capacity do you come to help Capitán de las Fuentes?"

Pilar looked very wise. "There are illnesses that are not just of the body," she explained. "Joaquín told me that the capitán is convinced that he is cursed by witches." She paused. "I am here to cast off all the evil spells and convince the comandante that he no longer has anything to fear from spirits. His enemies may be strong, but my medicine and that of Gray Feather will put an end to their curses and to his disquiet."

"That sounds like the best kind of medicine he can get, Señora Montoya," replied the Fox. "Before you see him, though, I would like to impart to you some knowledge about him, something that must be held in the strictest confidence. Only by knowing this, will you be able to convince him that the curses are gone forever. You see, Capitán de las Fuentes is not just one of your ordinary patients…"

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

Bernardo was waiting for him at the crossroads. He had come back twice to this spot because it was where the doctor and others had claimed to have seen young Diego last. He was becoming more apprehensive as the day wore on. Don Diego had been missing for almost two days and it was with great relief that he saw a man in black approach him.

El Zorro waved in greeting as he spotted the mozo in brown waiting with Tornado. El Zorro rode the brown horse of Don Diego. Behind him trailed Dr. Aguilera's mount on a tether.

"Thank heaven you waited for me," the Fox told his faithful servant. "I wasn't sure whether you would find the note on my dresser to tell you where to come to meet me. And speaking of home - I am sure that Father is worried because I have 'disappeared' for some time now."

The mozo nodded vigorously and raised his hands in question.

"Where have I been?" the man in black laughed. "It's a long story with much to explain. To tell you the truth, I was not quite sure I was going to be allowed to come back after discovering the secret sacred lands of our Indian friends. It is indeed a special and wondrous place. It is very important that no whites ever discover this refuge."

Bernardo motioned with his hands, describing a small man with a bandoleer, beard, and upturned moustaches.

"The comandante?" El Zorro responded. "Capitán de las Fuentes is in the best hands possible. Between the gypsy healer and old Gray Feather, he will be as good as new in body and spirit. Won't that be a wonderful surprise for Margarita? I can hardly wait to give her the good news - as Zorro, of course!"

As the two men began to gallop along the trail, El Zorro, remarked. "I will tell my father that I was thrown from the horse and it took me many hours to recover her. I became lost in the unexplored terrain, not knowing which way to turn."

Bernardo kept nodding in agreement as he listened to a very plausible tale. He urged his master to keep up the story with a gesture.

The Fox grinned and continued. "Only when I saw the smoke from your fire, did I then realize that I was headed in the right direction." He paused once again. "In the meantime, I had stopped along the way, gathering cactus leaves, pulling the spines from them, then consuming them for food and for the water within." He pointed at a pouch. "Here are the gathered cactus, partially consumed."

Bernardo indicated with many gestures that he wished to know if this were indeed the case.

"No, Bernardo," El Zorro laughed. "For the last twenty-four hours I dined on cooked rabbit and fish from the stream. There were herbs, nuts, and seeds - a very nice banquet."

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

 

 

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