Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-nine

 

He dreamed of dolphins again and awoke this time in a warm pond. The waters flowed around him, but gently, not in the torrent he had experienced before. He felt himself supported under the arms and expected to see the naked women again. This time, he opened his eyes slowly and saw that his companions were dark-brown men with long, black hair. After a while, the two men hoisted him and carried him over the rocks and back towards the cave. He was wrapped in the furs again because the cave interior was much cooler than the warm waters he experienced. The fur he was encased in reminded him of the bearskin rug in his grandfather's home. When he was a boy, he had once wrapped the warm and comforting skin around him. It had been on a cold winter's day and he sat on the ledge of a high window of the palace and looked out at the snow that fell in the surrounding forests. He watched the tame deer that wandered among the gardens below. The white flakes were large and fell slowly, blanketing the walks, roofs and trees. A great calm overcame him again and he dozed for a while.

The perfume of scented candles reached him and he opened his eyes again. In the flickering of a dozen lighted tapers, he saw a figure move out from the shadows. His blue eyes watched the apparition as it moved close to him. It seemed that he saw the figure of a vaguely Spanish looking woman above him with the rocky cavern walls behind her. He heard the swish of her skirts and knew she was not a native Californian.

The woman knelt next to him. He saw her more clearly now. She was a pleasant looking, graying woman with long earrings. Her head was partly covered by a bandanna. Her skirts were quite colorful, too, he observed. The expression on her face spoke of familiarity although he knew he had never met her before. She put a hand to his forehead, then slowly pulled back the furs and examined him. She spoke to a small group of Indians who squatted down with her to look at the patient of the Shaman. She leaned quite close to hear his whispered words - "Is my leg still there? They say when a limb is removed, it can still be felt as if intact."

"Do not worry, Señor," she told him. "Your leg is healing. Gray Feather and his people have given you powerful herbs and they have been cleansing your leg in the river and warm springs. They had to re-open the wound in order to clean out the infection, but it is healing quite nicely. Medicinal herbs were also put into the wound to fight the infection."

Francisco listened intently, then told her. "I have been very tired and it is hard to be awake for more than a little while."

"I understand," she replied. "I also have some medicine for you, but will speak to you about it tomorrow."

"Who are you, if I may ask?" the deep baritone queried.

"I am Señora Pilar Montoya. I am a curadora," she stated.

Francisco felt a sudden chill seize him and he tried to pull the fur around him tighter as if for protection. "The witch!" he exclaimed. For the second time during his long ordeal, he felt genuinely afraid. The remembrance of the conversation he had with the señoritas Rodríguez and Villa at the party in which they talked about the curadora came back to him. He felt quite vulnerable in his present state.

"I am not going to hurt you," she reassured him in a soft tone. "I am not a witch, but a healer. I do not believe in the Devil and his ways. I am a Gitana, a gypsy. I am from Spain, like you." When he still looked doubtful, she pulled out a cross from on a chain of beads around her neck. "Tell me, could a witch wear this and not be burned?" She watched as he nodded his agreement.

She took one of his hands in hers. Now he did not resist her. "Your hand is very fine," she commented, examining it closely. "I can tell that you are a fine gentleman. No rough calluses or broken fingernails." She moved her fingers across his palm and turned it over. "Oh, a musician's hand, too," she smiled.

"How do you know this?" asked Francisco, impressed as well as still a little uncertain.

"A musician's hands have different muscle development than most," she explained. "I can feel it."

De las Fuentes understood that at once. He had felt it in Margarita's hands as well when they first met. "I know the feel as well," he countered, still doubtful of her intentions.

The gypsy nodded. "It is not just the muscles of your hand," she continued. "I see many things in your palm - from the angle of harmony to the mounts of Neptune, Luna, and Venus. Your hands tell me much about you - about your past and what awaits you in the future."

"You can tell these things from my hands?" he asked with great curiosity. "I heard about gypsy fortune telling with palm reading, crystal balls, and tarot cards. For many at Court, it is a matter of seeing beyond the apparent; for others, it is mere superstition."

"And you think it mere superstition?" she asked.

"I believe there is much in the world that we cannot understand," he answered. "Perhaps those with gifts can see more deeply and provide insights into the unknown."

"Good," she declared, "then you will be receptive to my efforts to undo the harm done you by some curses of those who live in the shadows of power." She released his hand and reached for her pouch. She removed stones of various colors from a special leather bag. There were dried herbs and even incense.

"You know of this?" Francisco asked with astonishment.

"I know much about you and will learn even more - if you are willing for me to help you," Pilar informed him. "But you must be willing."

"I would be more willing if you could tell me more about what you know," he said cautiously. "I hope you will forgive me, but to place one's life in another's hands - one who is unknown - is much to ask."

"I will not ask you for the impossible," the gypsy responded, not stating the obvious that he had already put his life in the hands of the Shaman. She passed her hand over his eyes and touched his face with the tips of her fingers. "The pox caused you much pain, not so much in the malady itself, but what it cost you in someone you lost." She saw the pain in his eyes at her observation. He nodded again and she felt and saw the emotion in the tightening of his neck muscles.

Francisco swallowed with effort. "I have not been able to speak of this to anyone," he confessed. "I have known, deep in my heart, but would not admit it. Isabel turned away from me because of how my looks were ruined, even though I have never been a handsome man. At my darkest moments, I even doubted whether she loved me at all, perhaps just feigning her affections, so that she might marry above her station, even though it did not matter among us. I am sure that I have been punished by God for some sin - in sending the pox to me as punishment."

The gypsy studied him as he spoke and took his hand in hers again. "I do not feel a great sin in you," she told him. "Have you not considered the fact that God sent the pox to you so that you could see the falseness of the woman when you were blind to it because of your own honest sentiments towards her? Has not some good come from this revelation? Is there not another who sees not the outer shell, but the inner soul?"

The small man sighed deeply. "It is true," he whispered. "Tell me something more."

Pilar moved the fur coverlet from over his right leg. His wound was wrapped with leaves and herbs by Gray Feather again after it had dried and aired out. She gently touched the leg and moved her fingers over it as if they were feathers. "Your wound - the one you received far from here. There were men who set upon you with swords," she closed her eyes and intoned.

Francisco was astonished. "You know! How is this possible? Have you been sent to me as well?"

"Yes, I have," Pilar confirmed. "By one who knows you for the justice he received and who wishes to repay you; by a woman who loves you and wishes for your return; and by a third who also wishes to serve the noble sentiments you uphold by his own acts of justice. But, truths, like revelations, come in threes. There is a final truth that must be known: the power of a king was set against you, but is waning like a fire using up the fuel to feed it. You must heal in many ways - in the land of the spirits, know when to swim with the tide. Our bodies and souls need to be considered as one. You cannot heal one and not the other."

"I perceive the wisdom and truth of your words," De las Fuentes said in relief. "There is nothing that you have not told me that I know is not true. I seek the balance - not only in how I see the world and act in it, but within myself as well. I have been in discord, much discord. If you can help me, I will place myself in your hands with no reservations."

"Then let us begin," Pilar told him. She nodded to the gray-haired Shaman who had watched and listened to their exchange from a discreet and respectful distance. "Together the wisdom of Old Spain and that of Old California will release the demons that have haunted you until now."

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

It was a good feeling to be back at the hacienda, Diego thought as he rode up with Bernardo to the gate that led to the inner patio.

"I will now hasten to my father and explain what happened," Diego told the mozo as he dismounted. With Tornado safely back in the secret box canyon, with his clothes appropriately dusty and a few leaves and torns sticking out for good effect, he walked inside to his father's study. There he found the white-bearded don pacing in front of the fireplace in the late afternoon.

"Diego, my son!," Alejandro exclaiming as the tall young man opened the door slowly and peered in as if uncertain of his welcome. The don was across the room in a few long strides and embraced the young man in a bear hug. "I had feared the worst for you, Diego," he explained. "Ah, look at you now," he continued, pulling a thorn out of his own sleeve. "Why don't you go upstairs and refresh yourself? There is nothing like a good, hot bath to restore the spirit and some fresh, clean clothes. You can tell me about what happened and where you have been for the last two days when you are feeling rested."

"That sounds like a wonderful idea, Father," Diego responded in a tired tone of voice. "I long for a hot bath. And food - I think I hallucinated about food - fried eggs, hot chocolate, beef cooked in red wine - not to mention sleeping in my own bed again. You simply won't believe the ordeal I have suffered."

Alejandro guided his son out of the library, down the hall, and out the door of the sala towards the steps that took him to his room. "Don't worry about a thing, son," he told the young man. "By the time you finish your bath and dress, there will be such a meal waiting for you, I promise. Then, we will talk."

After the don returned to the library, he poured himself another glass of wine and stood a moment contemplating it. He looked up to the portrait of himself and his wife that hung over the great stone fireplace and shook his head. "How soft the younger generation has become," he mused. "Even I spent nights out in the untamed meadows, wrapped in a rough wool blanket, building a fire and roasting a lizard or a rabbit I caught with snares. I slept with a rifle on my knees because of the wolves, coyotes or even bears that could menace a lone man in the wilderness." He laughed softly in spite of himself and threw out an extended arm to the books and works of art that surrounded him. "And I did it all in order to have all of you here and to have a son to spoil so he would not have to live like I did!"

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

The aroma of burning incense reached Francisco de las Fuentes as the Shaman passed his hands over his prone form many times. There seemed to be many ceremonies performed, from sucking demons from the area of his stomach, to the endless shaking of rattles. Then, there was a time of great expectation, he felt, in the sing-song chanting of the Indians. He told the gypsy and the Indian healer of his nightmares and of his dreams of the porpoises who held him above the waves; of the naked Indian maidens who seemed to be mermaids or dolphins. The Shaman explained that the porpoises were the personification of Francisco's "power-animal" of the sea. It was a good sign, since the animal was known as friend of men. It was this power animal, the old man insisted, that had protected him from the bear's attack and had guided him across the waters of the lake into the reeds for protection. Finally, the shaman invoked the spirits of healer helpers, danced, and blew the spirit of his guardian animal back into his chest and into the top rear of his head. It was an exhausting ordeal for the Shaman and Francisco felt the intensity of physical and mental powers he had never experienced before. Finally, he was asked to rise and perform a small dance himself, watching the steps of the Shaman and feeling as if he were in some kind of trance.

The days and nights once again seemed to blend into one and he was not sure of the passage of time. Francisco knew that he began to feel stronger and better. He watched more intently as the curadora placed crystal rocks about him, made herbal teas and tasty soups for him, burned candles and incense, uttering prayers both in Spanish as well as in her own language. She invoked the names of saints and angels, called upon the forces of nature to heal him and to rid him of all curses, hurling their black mirrors back upon those who had conjured them from the depths of the dark forces. In his dreams, she burned them out with the light of the sun and the rainbows that appeared in distant skies between dark rain clouds. And he walked with Margarita towards his home in Spain to the strains of Beethoven while dolphins splashed in the fountains of vast gardens with their tame deer.

It was then that the earthquake struck.

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

It had been several days since Don Diego de la Vega returned to his father's home. There was heartfelt relief and general celebrating of the reappearance of Don Alejandro's only son. It took only another day for the routine of life at the hacienda to resume its normal ebb and flow of routine and security. There were important tasks to be carried out, but Diego was careful to let all the pieces to fall back into place before he began to take care of some unresolved business of El Zorro back in town.

It was mid morning again when he and his faithful servant, Bernardo, mounted their horses and headed along the wide, dirt road into the pueblo of Los Angeles. The high, white clouds in the sky above looked like tattered, torn cotton strands and the early dawn was streaked with a carmine pink. The weather would begin to change again, perhaps bringing with it a storm from the Pacific north.

For Diego, it was his second trip into town that morning. The first had been conducted in secret and in the disguise of a man upon a black stallion, wearing a long black cape with a mask that obscured his features. His tasks did not take long, but they were at best incomplete. He needed more time to discover the developments that had occurred since his absence and what better way to discover them than to drop by the cuartel.

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

Margarita Pérez and her friends decided to do some shopping at the general store. There were all sorts of interesting wares to be found every time Señor Cárdenas returned from the port at San Pedro where Spanish ships laid over, bringing items from Spain and the southern colonies. There were new scents, clothing, items of silver or gold, like candlesticks or jewelry, pewter mugs, or even crystal glass for the more affluent. Sugar, grains, and finished leather products, pots and pans, boots and wine, lined the shelves. And, Margarita decided it was time to get out of the house and to at least assume the appearance of normalcy while she waited for word of her beloved Francisco.

Ramona Rodríguez explained that the girls could help out by buying some household goods for her. She presented her daughter, Ismaida, with a woven basket and gave wooden ones to Margarita and Juanita. "Bring me back a surprise," she smiled as she handed Ismaida some coins.

"Yes, Mama," the young woman replied and left with her two friends.

They must have spent a good hour chatting with their neighbors in the store, gazing at the carvings, shawls, and jewelry and wishing they had more than just a few coins to spend.

Margarita filled her basket first and headed out of the door, just ahead of her friends. She was wearing a green dress with short boots with fashionable heels. She smiled, thinking that the heels might make her the same height as Francisco.

Juanita and Ismaida came through the door. They saw their friend waiting for them at the edge of the wooden walkway.

"Let's go," Ismaida said brightly and all three began to walk across the plaza.

Suddenly the storekeeper appeared at the door. "Señorita Rodríguez," he called. "You forgot your change and a bag."

"Oh, my," Ismaida replied in surprise. She looked at her friends. "Will you help me with the bag, Juanita?" she asked. "Margarita has the heaviest load of all."

Juanita nodded amiably. She turned to Margarita. "We'll catch up with you." She indicated the young woman's heavy basket. "It will be less time for you to walk to Doña Ramona's."

Margarita thought nothing of it. "You'll catch up to me before I reach the well," she commented and turned away.

As the other two young women reached the door of the general store, Salvador Muñoz accosted the young woman who made her way across the plaza. He had watched the three young women emerge from the general store and decided to confront Margarita once she had been separated from her friends.

"Isn't it about time you accept reality, Margarita?" he called out to her.

Margarita halted and turned back towards the voice behind her. She saw Salvador approach her. He was wearing a long gray frock coat with his eternal silver waistcoat. On his head was a gray top hat, the latest fashion.

She thought she might ignore him by turning her back, but he was almost upon her now. She stood her ground and gave him a look of disdain. "On the contrary, isn't it about time you accepted reality, Señor Muñoz?" she shot back.

"Still as high and mighty as ever," he replied. "You should know by now that De las Fuentes is never coming back. He's either dead or thrown you over. Anyway you look at it, you will be an old maid. That is, if you continue to play your games."

"Francisco is not dead," she retorted. "If he were, the men of this pueblo would still not be out looking for him."

"They've already returned," Salvador insisted. "If the comandante were alive, he would be here now. But he's not." He almost rushed his next words. "Your father is willing to forgive you and so am I, but you had better do it now while you still have the chance."

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

Dr. José Aguilera looked up in surprise as he came out of his office and turned down the side street. He did a double take. There was his horse tied to a post nearby. The saddle was clean, the horse was clean and she looked as she had never left the pueblo. As he examined the mare, he noticed a piece of paper sticking out from under the saddle blanket. Dr. Aguilera read it carefully and began to smile. The note informed him that Capitán de las Fuentes had been found and would be returning to the pueblo once he was well. The note was signed with a "Z." The doctor decided to report his find to the cuartel. Sergeant García would want to know the news if he did not know it already.

As he walked around the side of the cuartel, he saw Don Diego de la Vega chatting with the stout sergeant. Dr. Aguilera walked up and handed the note to the sergeant while he winked at the young don. "I have some good news for the sergeant," he said as way of inserting himself into their conversation.

"What good news is that?" asked Diego watching the sergeant read the note.

Sergeant García's eyes lighted up as he read the small piece of parchment. "This is excellent news!" he exclaimed. "The note says that Capitán de las Fuentes has been found and will be returning to our pueblo as soon as he is well. The Indians are healing him with the help of Señora Montoya, the curadora. It is signed 'Z'." The big man paused a minute and looked at the signature again "Z!" he repeated. "It is from El Zorro!"

"Apparently," deadpanned the doctor. "El Zorro also returned my mare to me. It must have just been this morning."

"Then you are the recipient of much good news this today," Diego smiled.

"As is your father," the other rejoined. "You cannot imagine how worried all of us were when you did not show up anywhere. What happened to…?" the doctor was distracted by a commotion from the other side of the well and broke off his conversation. Diego likewise listened a moment and began to frown as he overheard the heated words.

Two young people were having an angry exchange.

"Marry the likes of you?" Margarita asked Salvador with scorn. "You obviously don't understand Spanish. I will never marry you. Never. How many times must I repeat this?"

Salvador became angry, as he always did, when she acted the opposite of what he expected. "De las Fuentes is dead, dead, dead, and he's not coming back, ever. I offered you honorable marriage, and what did he do, just lead you on, and give you some sweet kisses to seduce you," he accused.

"That's a lie!" Margarita exclaimed in anger. She began to walk away, but Salvador continued to follow her.

"He's a fraud. He never went to any of those places he claimed. He's a braggart and dishonorable," Salvador continued.

"Go away, leave me alone," she commanded and kept walking. She was nearing a flower stand and began to focus on looking at the winter flowers on display. The merchant had brought chrysanthemum seeds from Mexico and grown the most cheerful colors of yellow, purple, gold, and red. Some were in earthen pots of different sizes. Margarita thought she might buy some because Francisco always gave compliments in terms of bright flowers and rainbows. Just looking at the flowers reminded her of his smile and the times she had sat with him in the churchyard, holding hands and....

Salvador grabbed one of her elbows. "You've been stood up," he told her. "He has a wife in Spain. He's misled you. Just look at how old he is and with all those pockmarks. He's just a cripple. It's a wonder that the Army hasn't retired him yet."

Margarita Pérez exploded at the insults. "Why, you lying scoundrel," she shouted. "Don't you say one more word against my Francisco!"

"'My Francisco'," he mocked her again. "Tell me, Margarita, just what have you done to defend him so? Is he your lover already?"

Margarita grabbed a potted plant and turned on her unsuspecting tormentor. "This is how much I'll defend his honor and mine!" she exclaimed and smashed the flowerpot against his head with all her might.

The flower merchant, who was looking embarrassed at their heated exchange, watched in amazement as the young man fell to the ground under the blow of the flower pot. He actually admired the young woman for standing up for herself and for the man he presumed to be the object of their disagreement, the comandante of the pueblo of Los Angeles. It's true he just lost a pot, but it was worth the price to watch the drama unfold before his eyes, he chuckled to himself.

Salvador was stunned. He sat in the dirt among the clay pot fragments and scattered flower heads as he watched Margarita hand the merchant a coin for the broken pot. She swung herself defiantly away from the scene, carrying her heavy wooden basket. Salvador blazed in anger. He would show that little witch that she could not get away with beating him - and humiliating him again in public. He pulled a pistol from his belt, aimed it at her, and fired.

Margarita turned back just slightly when she heard the sound of a pistol being cocked. The shot caught her as she turned and she fell.

Ismaida and Juanita stepped off the porch of the general store. They were watching their friend's angry exchange with Salvador from a distance. The girls watched with open mouths when the hurled flowerpot knocked him off his feet. Both smiled at each other at first, but their smiles became looks of horror when they saw him draw a pistol from his belt, aim it at her and fire. The young women began to scream as they saw Muñoz lower his pistol. They continued screaming. Their shoes seemed nailed to the ground before they finally began to run toward Margarita's fallen form. Customers poured out of the store along with Señor Cárdenas to see what was wrong. People in the plaza began to look toward the girls and realized that something was wrong, dreadfully wrong.

Salvador Muñoz climbed to his feet, brushed off the seat of his pants and the dirt from his frock coat. He still held the pistol in his hand. He made his way over to the fallen girl. The heavy basket lay fallen at her side, its contents askew. Her left arm stretched out over her head. He seemed oblivious to the commotion around him. Then he noticed something odd. There was something gleaming by her outstretched hand. Salvador knelt by her hand and examined it. On her left finger was a ring of exquisite beauty. Even he was impressed. Then he realized what it was: an engagement ring. Such a ring could only have been given to her by one man - a man he could not yet prove was dead. Salvador began to panic. He looked up quickly and saw that the flower merchant was approaching him with a length of wood. The man was apprehensive but determined. He looked around; more men were running across the plaza towards him. Salvador pointed his now empty pistol at his adversaries and backed up. The way behind him was clear. He began to run.

Diego de la Vega arrived first at the scene of the shooting. He had reacted instantly at the sound of a pistol shot. What had happened took place in only a moment in time. He saw Salvador Muñoz run off. He immediately knelt over the inert form of his friend, Margarita Pérez, turned her over carefully, cradling her head. "Margarita, Margarita," he repeated over and over.

Margarita's eyelids fluttered. She looked around her in a daze. She is in shock, thought Diego.

Ismaida and Juanita fell to their knees next to the girl, crying loudly, "He shot her, he shot her!" Juanita took one of Margarita's limp hands, moaning, "Margarita, oh, Margarita."

Dr. Aguilera gently moved the two girls out of the way. "Let me see where she has been shot," he insisted. He knelt down and with Diego's help began to examine her side.

Roberto Cárdenas, the storekeeper with the thick, brown moustache, helped Ismaida and Juanita to their feet. He put his arms around the two girls. The girls put their heads against his broad chest and cried. "Now girls, you just let Dr. Aguilera take care of Señorita Margarita," he consoled them.

Dr. Aguilera looked up at Diego after probing the torn clothing. "My friend, will you bring Margarita to my office. I will need to examine the wound there, not here." Blood had begun to spread across the young woman's skirt at the waist.

Diego de la Vega gently hoisted the girl in his arms and carried her inside the doctor's office. Ismaida and Juanita followed him almost stumbling in their shock. Several women bystanders from the plaza followed the trio inside in order to offer their help. The door of the doctor's office remained open until finally a passerby closed it.

The flower vender began to gather up Margarita's wooden basket and its spilled contents. A large crowd had gathered.

"What happened?" was the question on many lips as the crowd grew.

"Salvador Muñoz shot Señorita Pérez!" the vender exclaimed. "He was insulting her and the comandante. She bashed him over the head with a flowerpot. Then he pulled out his pistol and shot her. I saw it all," he declared. He pointed across the plaza. "He ran away, there, just now!"

Sergeant García was only steps ahead of the angry crowd that converged on the doorstep of the Muñoz home. He knocked on the door vigorously. When a servant responded and opened the door, the big man announced, "I am here to arrest Salvador Muñoz."

"Arrest him, arrest him!" shouted the crowd behind him.

Don Felix Muñoz arrived at the door with a guest, Sebastian Pérez. "My friends, what is this all about?" he asked in bewilderment.

"Don Felix, I regret to inform you that your son, Salvador, has just shot Señorita Margarita in the plaza of the pueblo," García told the stunned man. "I am here to arrest him."

Felix turned to his guest in horror, putting a hand on the other's arm. "My God, Sebastian! What has he done?"

Pérez's face was wooden. "What did she do to provoke him?" he asked.

Before anyone could respond, a saddled horse turned the corner from behind the house and raced past the crowd on the street. Astride was Salvador Muñoz. Many in the crowd saw him, turned, and shouted. "There he goes! There he goes!"

Felix pushed through the crowd. "Salvador, wait, come back!" he cried out. He reached the street just as his son's horse raced around the far side of the church and took the road out of town, avoiding the cuartel and its armed soldiers.

Sergeant García came up from behind him. He took the man's arm. "I am sorry, Don Felix. My men must now ride and arrest Salvador. Do you know where he might be heading?"

The gray-haired don almost sank to his knees, moaning. It took minutes before he composed himself and addressed the sergeant. "I do not know where he might have gone, Sergeant. I only know that I must find him."

Sebastian Pérez came up behind the merchant. "I will help you find him, Felix," he said. "After all, he is practically my son-in-law."

Sergeant García glared at Pérez. "The Army will find young Muñoz," he told the man with a rare authority he mustered. "Your business is at the side of your daughter. She could be dying." There were murmurs of assent from the crowd behind him.

Pérez reluctantly agreed to go to Dr. Aguilera's. "She's probably all right," he told the crowd that escorted him back to the plaza in disgust. "Dramatics are her specialty."

 

 

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