Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty

 

Joaquín Enríquez watched the commotion that was unfolding in the plaza from a distance in the loft of the livery stables where he was hiding. It was the pistol shot that had drawn his attention. As swarms of people jammed the street to the Muñoz residence, he hastily made his way across the plaza and ducked inside the church to retrieve one last item, a silver calandera. The church had emptied out when the parishioners heard the uproar in the plaza. Padre Felipe departed in haste as well when he heard about the shooting. Enríquez took the candlestick from near the altar and placed it in a cloth bag. No one saw him enter or leave the chapel.

Enríquez changed his hiding places at night and did so based upon the security of the refuges. For two nights he stayed in the home of a merchant who was away on business. Another day he spent in the stable loft, hidden behind stacks of hay and near a board that he had loosened in nearby wall in case escape became imperative. Another time he slept on a balcony of the posada itself, outside an empty room. The noise from the tavern and chatting customers lounging in the streets in the evening entertained him for many hours. The following morning he made his way to the stable loft and ate some apples he secreted from the general store and munched the last of the bread he had "lifted" from the De la Vega kitchen.

Later that same afternoon he made his way into the home of the elderly Señor Portillo. The soldier that the comandante had assigned to guard the house only came at sundown and no one would expect a daytime entry into the house. The old man had not even noticed the bulge in the window drapes of the sala and had left the room with a book to sit out on the warm patio to read for a while. Enríquez made his way to the upstairs and easily found what he was looking for. He had been as silent as a moth, entering and departing the home as unnoticed as a shadow. With his last acquisition at the church, his collection was now complete except for the gold snuffbox of Don Alejandro de la Vega. Joaquín debated with himself whether it would be worth the trouble to try to retrieve it again. He would decide this on the morrow.

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

The earthquake was felt over the entire area and caused rockslides and sent shudders through stone and clay edifices. Days before the earthquake occurred, horses and domesticated animals seemed nervous and irritable. Dogs and cats shivered and sought the comfort of their masters.

Far away from the pueblo of Los Angeles, a small, bearded man in a cavern felt the quake as he lay on a grass mat and wondered what it all meant. The curadora had given him a tea that had tasted strangely like a pleasant mint which had calmed his nerves.

Earlier that day, she had surrounded him with more burning candles, sprinkled flower petals within the circle. There were fragrant twigs and the scented oils the Shaman and his assistant rubbed into his skin. As they did so, they murmured strange words which Francisco took for prayers to heathen gods or spirits. Within the circle were colored stones, a few of which he thought he recognized. The curadora told him about how she stopped bleeding with rosemary and pulverized oak bark cream made by stirring them into boiling water. After the solution had cooled to body temperature, she strained it and used the liquid for wound cleansing or just applied ground rosemary to wounds. Another time she told him, teasingly, that she was very good at creating an aphrodisiac cream out of jimsonweed. "It will make you cheerful and quite receptive to lovemaking," she smiled.

"Didn't they call that the devil's apple in the days of witch hunts?" asked the capitán with a straight face. "I seem to recall that the religious fanatics of the 17th century objected strenuously to the idea that women could honestly find pleasure in the flesh as men do."

Pilar was surprised that he spoke so calmly about such matters. She was expecting something quite different from a man whom she discovered not only wore the medallion of Saint Francis around his neck, but also an intricately carved cross of wood. Most Catholics wore crosses of precious medals, but the wood was more than symbolic, she thought, and it was another reason she thought him quite different and spiritually closer to her than she thought possible for a Paya - a non-Gypsy. Nevertheless, she assured him that she did not think he needed such potions, knowing he had succeeded where no other man had in winning the hand of the Señorita Margarita.

"It is our love of music," Francisco told her.

"And more," she added in a mischievous tone of voice.

"Ah, hem," De las Fuentes cleared his throat to change the subject. "May I ask you what stones you have here? It seems there must be some symbolism in them."

"These are special crystals," Pilar answered. There are crystals for peace in the home, for love, of course, and for friendship. There are some that help heal the body and others that aid in healing the mind. All of these stones work to benefit people. I have two special ones for you in addition to the others. They involve your rebirth."

"My rebirth?" asked Francisco. "I do not understand."

"This is the Banded Amethyst," she told him, holding up a highly polished brown and white stone with a black band running through it. "With this you will undergo the transformation needed that comes from within. You will transform your old fears into new courage; it will connect you with your own powers and potential. You, Don Francisco, already understand that you are spiritually responsible for your physical actions - a rare moral courage in this day and age. Use your gifts and moral strengths to expose to the light the demons that lurk within you. Work as one with the Earth."

The flames of the fire seemed to leap higher as Pilar placed the stone back in the circle around him. She held up another stone, banded in browns and white. "This is the Banded Agate. It will help you look back into your past and to redress any imbalances with positive deeds and acts. Throw out the old bad thoughts, go back to the things you love best, and learn from the new world that you entered. Take some of it back with you. Use your gifts to help make a better world - for the one you love, too."

Pilar then picked up the two stones and handed them to the small man. "Here. Press them in your palms. Think about what I have said. Soon we will cast them…." She paused and did not finish her instructions.

The cavern had grown mysteriously quiet and it seemed odd that all the birds had stopped their chattering and singing in the bushes, reeds and trees outside the cavern. There was a kind of premonition that silenced all talk. Then, it seemed as if a wave approached at rapid speed from out of nowhere, crested at where he lay and then rolled on past him - invisible, like a mighty wind, but the power was unmistakable and awesome in its intensity.

Some rocks fell outside the cavern, rolling down the face of the mountain, while pebbles quivered across the surface of stones and boulders. Only the flowing waters of the stream by which he lay, seemed unmoved and untouched by the force of nature expressing itself far below the surface of the land. Soon the shaking ceased and the world seemed as it was before. It was several minutes before anyone began to move once the shaking has stopped.

"May God preserve us," the small man said, crossing himself. He watched the curadora as she seemed to be listening intently to something. She looked over at Gray Feather and he nodded almost imperceptibly as if he read her thoughts.

"Señora Montoya, what is it?" asked Francisco, sensing that the earthquake had triggered a change in their circumstances.

The gypsy stared down at him a long moment as if not recognizing him. "Something is wrong," she said to no one in particular. She became a part of a world he did not yet understand. She stood up and the Shaman rose with her. "I must go now," she told him. He nodded and his assistant came forward to escort her back out the way she had first come.

Gray Feather came over to the man who sat up in alarm. "Do not worry, my Brother," he said to Francisco. "She will return to us when her work is done out there," he gestured widely as if to the world at large. "For now, there is more for you to do." He stood up. "Come with me. Come to a place where all the men go to heal."

"Where is this place?" De las Fuentes inquired as the assistant slipped some deerskin moccasins on his naked feet and helped him to his feet. Francisco pulled the furs around himself modestly and walked carefully over the stones. The women in the cave had stopped their quiet chatter, giggled and watched them depart

"It is in the ground. It is where no women are allowed to go," answered the Shaman.

The capitán thought about that a moment. He wanted to be polite, but he was also very curious. "Why are no women allowed to go to this place?" he asked.

The old man turned back to him. "It is our belief that there are different spirits, different gods for the male and female," he explained. "We are different, our needs are different. It would not be wise to force a man to have a female god, or for a female to have a male god. There is a reason for our differences and each god or spirit is appropriate for the needs of each sex." He pointed to a path that all three began to follow. It led past the reeds and up onto drier land, past bushes and grasses.

"In more ancient times," Francisco observed, "our ancestors believed something similar. This was true in old Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Gauls even worshipped animals, trees, and other formations of nature, such as forests, rainbows, and the seas. There were gods for everything. The stars in the sky and even the planets are named after our old gods."

"Do the whites have many tribes as we do in this land?" asked the Shaman, pausing under a willow tree.

The Spaniard was quiet a moment before he answered. It was not a discussion that he expected, but he liked the questions it raised, even if they were disturbing. "Yes," he replied. "And in many ways we remain tribes. Perhaps we have lost some of our wisdom along the way in growing beyond the ways of your people, yet we like to think that we are stronger and better because of it. In terms of our art, our music, our level of understanding of the past, we like to think that we are wiser or create more beauty now. But we seem to fail greatly when it comes to following the teachings of our religion when it involves how to treat other humans - different from ourselves - any better."

By now, they had reached a strange mound. Sands and dirt surrounded a structure built into the earth with heavy logs and stones. From a hole in the roof of the submerged structure, came smoke. De las Fuentes wondered if it was a place of food preparation, but the Indian had said he would show him a place where women were not allowed.

Gray Feather pointed to the hole in the roof. "This is a place of healing and laughter, a place of peace of mind and of brotherhood. It will be a place where you will learn to understand us more." He gestured for Francisco to remove the fur from around his body. Then the old man smiled and said humorously, "You may think that you are descending into what the white priests call "hell," but when you come out, you will know what it is to be in the "heaven" on Earth or emerging once again from the womb."

The men moved toward the smoking hole, and a great wave of moist hot air struck Francisco as he stood looking down into a dark pit. The men with him helped him down into the hole. Once his eyes adjusted he saw a darkened underground chamber of earth, logs and stone. Near the entrance a low fire was burning. The chamber was filled with men of all ages as naked as he himself. The heat from the room was so intense, that they were all bathed in sweat, but they seemed to be enjoying it. The Shaman's assistant found him a space and both sat down in the warm sand against a wall. Gray Feather sat close to the Spaniard. After all the men were settled in, he looked over at his guest and intoned: "Welcome, Man of the Sacred Waters. Welcome to our sweat lodge."

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

Salvador Muñoz pulled up his horse and dismounted in a hurry. The mare was favoring her front left leg and he would be losing precious time. He knelt over and examined the mare's shoe. There was a rock in it that he would need to dislodge. Surely, he thought he was cursed with that infernal Pérez woman's bad luck.

Salvador looked about him. He was not too far from Don Leon's rancho. He could get an exchange of horses there and nobody would ask any questions. Then, he would make his way to the port of San Pedro. With any luck, he could get aboard a ship headed southward toward México and make his escape. He had to do it quickly because if there was any chance that De las Fuentes returned, then he would alert all the comandantes in California for his arrest. In México, he would be out of the jurisdiction of Alta California.

Don Leon Santos was headed out towards the pueblo when he saw the young man in his long dark frock approaching on horseback. He hailed the son of Don Felix Muñoz. "Hello, Salvador," he called. "What brings you out in the campo at this time of day?"

"Hello, Don Leon," the young man greeted him. "Out on a lark today. But, it seems my mare has gone lame in our game of chase."

"Let's take a look," Leon suggested, dismounting. He lifted the right leg and examined the shoe. He didn't find a reason for it, but the mare was still limping. "She must have thrown the stone out," he commented. "Why don't you leave her here and take one of mine. When she's recovered, I'll bring her back in to town."

"Thanks," Salvador replied as calmly as he could.

Leon's wife appeared at the gate and waved at Muñoz. "Hello, Salvador," she called. "Are you out visiting?"

"His mare went lame," Leon told her.

"What a shame," she commented. "Why don't you come inside for some tea and something to eat."

"Well, I..." began Salvador.

"Go ahead," Leon encouraged him. "It will take some time for me to unsaddle this one and get another ready. Relax; your companions won't miss you."

Salvador reluctantly went inside and sat down at the table. He quickly consumed cold cuts, bread and fruit. When he finished and had chatted politely with his hostess, Don Leon entered the house.

"Won't you have a glass of claret?" he asked. "You like the good stuff, don't you?"

Salvador smiled and agreed to a small glass. He controlled his impatience with great effort. "This is fine," he commented. "You and your wife must dine with me soon." He paused. "Say, you wouldn't happen to have a long coat I could borrow, do you? You see my frock is getting quite dusty and it would help to protect it from all the brush?"

Within a few minutes, Don Leon Santos returned with a long coat. "It will even keep you warm at night," he said.

"Thank you," replied Salvador. "You have no idea what a great help you have been. I hope someday to return the favors."

"Don't think anything of it," Leon responded affably. "I'll pick it up later this week." Several minutes later after seeing his guest off, Leon came back into the house. "That's a little odd," he mused.

"What's odd?" his wife asked.

"Salvador," he answered. "He came in along the road, but he left up over the hills. That will take him far from the main road." He shrugged. "He did say he was out on a lark."

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

"There is nothing more you can do," the doctor told Diego. "Best leave her to me for now."

Diego de la Vega left Margarita's side reluctantly. She looked so pale. He had held her hand until several women volunteers appeared and began to help the doctor. One of the women reported that Margarita's mother had fainted at the news. When she recovered, she would come to her daughter's side. Diego's mind raced with plans about what he would do next.

As he left the doctor's office, Diego thought about the fact that he had not had the time to appear to her as El Zorro beforehand and to tell her that Don Francisco was in good hands. He knew that such news might be of the utmost importance because hope was often the magic ingredient that spelled the difference between a person's will to live or to die.

Then, there was the apprehension of Salvador Muñoz. The townsfolk were so outraged by his action that a posse had formed and was now heading out of town. The word of the shooting of the musically gifted young lady shut the pueblo down just as effectively as it had done when the comandante, Capitán de las Fuentes, disappeared. As for the soldiers, Sergeant García and a troop of men had already left about five minutes before. García was headed toward the San Gabriel Mission. He thought Salvador might want to take refuge there in the church in order to save him from the wrath of the townspeople.

Margarita Pérez lay on her back on a bed in the doctor's office. She had been surrounded by a half a dozen ladies from the town who had assisted the doctor in cutting away her clothing from around the wound, soaking up the blood, helping clean the entry and exit entrances of the wound, and murmuring assurances to the girl and to each other. It all seemed like a bad dream, with disjointed voices, odd pains and sensations. She thought she saw blue skies with racing white clouds overhead, and it didn't make much sense because she knew she was in a small room with people in it. She felt a strange presence that she could not explain and her body seemed to shift from the hot to the chilled. It seemed as if all her strength had been drained away the moment she realized that she had been shot. From a corner of her mind, she sought to reach out to her mother, to Francisco, and to….to something else that seemed to be there, but she did not know what it was.

It was probably a mere coincidence, men argued later, that the buildings began to tremble and sway right after she was shot. The women in the room cowered and one placed her body protectively across the girl on the bed, at first, then fled the room in fear. Others made their way, shakily, to the entrance of the building, and then to the street. Dr. Aguilera felt the ground shaking as well, fell on his knees, and crawled to the doorway. He had just left the room to get a mug of coffee and some more herbs from off the shelf to mix for the wound.

Margarita felt the jolt as well and thought that her world had come to an end. She did not know what her condition was but she was very conscious of what had happened. She wondered if she was going to die without ever having seen Francisco again. She wondered what he would think if he showed up and found her like this, or even in the grave; she wondered….

There was a slight movement in the room when the shaking stopped. She heard it rather than saw it. A figure moved quite close to her. It did not feel like the doctor, she thought vaguely. A gloved hand took one of hers and she heard a man's voice repeat her name. The voice seemed familiar and she opened her eyes. Diego? She thought.

Kneeling at her side was a man clothed in black with a mask half concealing his face. Margarita recognized him at once. "Zorro?" she asked weakly.

"Señorita Pérez, I am hear to tell you that I have seen Capitán de las Fuentes. He is alive and being taken care of by the Indians," he told her.

"Francisco, you found my Francisco?" she asked incredulously.

"Sí, Señorita," he confirmed. "I have seen him myself. He will be coming back to you."

She gave a shallow sigh because her side hurt. "Francisco," she murmured.

"Señorita, you must promise me this," the knight in black told her. "You must fight with all your might and your will power to get well for Don Francisco. He will want to know that you will be able to travel with him back to Spain once you are married."

"I will try, Señor Zorro. It hurts so much," she whispered with great effort. Then, he heard her say as if in a dream, "My Francisco is coming back to me."

"And now, Señorita, I am leaving in order to bring to justice the one who has done this great harm to you."

There was silence and she heard nothing for a seemingly long time. When she opened her eyes again, he was gone. A moment later, Dr. Aguilera came in through the door with bowl of yarrow he had ground to make another poultice for the wound. Other herbs would be used as disinfectants, to ease the pain, and for her to swallow as a tea. The women returned uncertainly from the street once the earth had stopped moving. Ahead of them all would be the long vigil over the patient, for now the real battle for her life had begun.

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

On a high hill far above the dirt road, known as the El Camino Real, sat a rider on a black steed. He was dressed from head to foot in black and a cape of the same shade fluttered behind him. The rider watched a troop of soldiers as they headed toward the Mission San Gabriel. The rider shifted his attention from the Spanish soldiers to an even larger group of horsemen coming down the road, but about a league behind the soldiers.

El Zorro had taken the shortcuts across hills and valleys, making his way among the trees and grasses. He had ridden the trail behind both groups and found something most interesting: the sign of a lame horse. He followed the trail of the horse discreetly to the rancho of Don Leon. It would have cost him much precious time but he felt that he must pay close attention to his instincts - that inexplicable quality that had guided him numerous times to safety. The man in black had approached the hacienda cautiously and made his way along the walls into the inner courtyard. Unseen, he ducked under the window where he overheard a conversation between the don and his wife about the visit of Salvador Muñoz. He straightened up, approached the front door and knocked as if he were a regular visitor.

Don Leon opened the door and to his surprise saw the man in black on his doorstep. "Zorro!" he exclaimed.

The Fox bowed to the don and said as a way of introduction. "Forgive me for arriving at your home unannounced, Don Leon, but I was wondering if you might be able to help me find someone who is a fugitive."

The brown-haired, mustachioed don looked puzzled. "How may I help you?" he asked. "I have not seen any fugitives around, unless you mean Enríquez."

"This one is a fugitive that you may not be aware of, Señor. It is Salvador Muñoz," El Zorro explained.

"Salvador!" the don responded in surprise. "What do you mean, a fugitive?"

"I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Don Leon," the Fox responded. "Just an hour ago, Salvador Muñoz shot Señorita Margarita Pérez in the plaza of the pueblo of Los Angeles. The men of the pueblo are looking for him and intend to do their worst."

Leon looked stunned. His wife joined him at the door. "What is this you are saying?" she asked in shock. "Salvador a fugitive? He shot Señorita Margarita?"

"Yes," answered El Zorro. "Her life is in danger." He paused. "I traced the tracks of a lame horse here to your rancho. Can you tell me if it was Salvador's?"

"Why, yes," sputtered the don. "I had no idea that such a thing had happened in the pueblo." He felt defensive, having helped a man he would have never suspected of such a deed. He hesitated before continuing. "Salvador insisted that he was out riding, out on a lark, and that his mare had gone lame."

"He is now fleeing justice," the man in black continued. "I must find him before the men of the pueblo take another kind of justice into their own hands. Tell me, if you can, when he was here and where did he go?"

Leon Santos did not hesitate. "It was within the past hour. I gave him one of my mares, a white one with a black spot on her left side. His is in my stables. I also gave him a long dun coat of mine - at his request."

"Thank you, Don Leon," El Zorro responded. "He is in disguise, but thanks to you, I will find him sooner rather than later." He swung up into the saddle.

"El Zorro," Leon began, pointing to the road, "Salvador did not take the road back there, but headed over the hill by the three oaks. He also supped with us briefly before departing."

"We did not know that this had happened," his wife said, upset and in tears at the news of Margarita's shooting. "If we had known, we would have never have helped Salvador."

"Do not worry yourself over this matter, Señora," the Fox told her before he turned away. "No one could have ever imagined that such a thing would happen in Los Angeles. Besides, both of you have made the difference on who will find Señor Muñoz and what his fate shall be."

With those words, the black stallion and his rider disappeared over the hills and through the meadows in pursuit of the fugitive.

 

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

 

The heat was quite intense inside the Indian sweat lodge. After a while, Francisco felt faint and wished he could leave. The Shaman noticed how the man with pale skin lowered himself to one side and lay down. Gray Feather knelt at his side. "You feel ill," he said.

Francisco sighed. "I feel as if the fever is upon me again."

"It is our intent that this be so," Gray Feather explained. "Our knowledge tells us that a fever is beaten by a fever, by the sweating out of poisons and illness from the body. You will drink water from the sacred springs outside and it will refresh you. You will sweat and sweat, drink and drink. This will help purge you of many demons."

Francisco really began to doubt the wisdom of his having submitted to the "cures" of the native Californians, but he was really in no position to do otherwise. "I shall do as you require," he responded tiredly. He drank long and deep from a gourd that was pressed to his lips. He wished to find some kind of coolness in the sands under his body, but the sands were as warm as the interior.

The men in the lodge began a low chant, a sing-song hymn or prayer. The Spaniard listened, but was not feeling in any condition to appreciate their efforts. Some of the men gathered around him, touching his pale flesh in curiosity. Another began to massage his neck, shoulders and back. At first the kneading fingers hurt, but that soon gave away to relief.

The men came and went during the day, chatting about the hunt, or the earthquake, or the stranger, a Spaniard, who had been welcomed as one of them. They took turns leading him to the refreshing waters that flowed in the stream nearby, then back into the hot interior. Once, as he sat with them on some flat stones by the flowing waters, he heard the tilting sounds of a flute, and looked around. Nearby, seated on a mound, a young man played a reed, imitating the sounds of birds and then playing a mysterious, yet compelling melody. Francisco was delighted by the realistic bird imitations by the player and asked about the instrument. One of the men at his side rose and approached the young man. The older man returned with the flute and Francisco examined its smooth, carved body with mysterious symbols. He lifted the flute to his own lips and amazed everyone by playing back what he had just heard. He attempted a few flute pieces he knew as well and everyone nodded at the sounds that emerged from the dried, hollow, yellow reed. The young man smiled and approached him. Francisco handed the flute back and watched how his new acquaintance then tried to imitate what he had just heard played. There were smiles all around. Then, it was back into the hot house for more sweating.

By the time the day played itself out, he was once again wrapped in furs, slipping off into a deep sleep after eating a kind of soup and mush. He told himself that he had never slept so much in his life, perhaps making up for all the time he had lost since he left Spain. His leg did not hurt now, it only ached. Herbal creams were massaged into the area around the long cut to keep the growing scar soft. The redness had subsided and turned a pale pink. He was amazed at how quickly the process had taken place. He was especially impressed that these people knew so much about healing wounds and tending the sick. Most importantly, though, was the kindness and concern expressed by the community toward one who was sick and needed help. This was not something very different among most white families, he reflected, yet we don't think it applies to others who are different - either in race or religion.

The next morning, he returned to the dark pit where he listened as the Indians discussed numerous topics, speaking sometimes in their broken Spanish for his benefit. He learned that the major purpose of the lodge, besides treating the ill or infirm, was something he did not expect - a talk shop, a social outlet where men could speak of community concerns, plans for hunting, problems with the women folk, and, of course, the games that they played with pebbles, sticks or shells.

There was so much to learn and understand. Francisco saw the poverty of the people and experienced their incredible generosity in sharing the little that they had. He remembered reading, in the library of his father, accounts by the great Bartholomé de las Casas, a priest and later Bishop of Chiapas, who spent much of his life trying to alleviate the suffering of the Indians caused by the white conquerors. Francisco told the men in the lodge that Las Casas took the case on behalf of the natives to the king of Spain, the highest levels of government, in his quest for justice. Las Casas took documentation of the injustices done and the cruelty inflicted upon them by those who were obsessed by gold and making profits by enslaving the natives and stripping them of their liberties and lands. The king, he said, was horrified by the injustices done in his name. But the king was far away and the colonists broke many laws for which they were not held accountable. His companions listened with great interest and, he thought, with some sadness as well.

His new acquaintances began to become discernable individuals - men with names like Lame Eagle, or Lizard Man, Black Hawk, Big Eyes, or Bobcat. They had faces as distinct as Europeans and personalities as diverse and compelling. The woman who cooked his food and brought it to him in a woven basket or wrapped in leaves became more than just an immodest, almost naked female, but a curious, smiling young woman who liked to gaze into his blue eyes and turn away in her shyness.

"She wishes no one else to cook for you," the Shaman told him. "She sees the summer skies in your eyes and would like to share your bearskin."

Francisco told Gray Feather that, while he was honored by her interest, he was engaged to be married to a young lady in Los Angeles. He had to turn down her kind request. The young native only looked confounded when this white man's customs were explained to her.

 

 

Chapter 31
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