Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-one

 

 

A Spanish ship arrived only that morning, docking in the port of San Pedro . Aboard the tall, masted vessel were travelers - merchants, military men, an official, family members, or perhaps just an odd tourist or two, explorers in the exotic lands of the far-flung Spanish empire.

A man of medium height, with brown hair pulled back in a small "tail" at the back of his neck, stood at the thick wooden railing of the craft and watched the bustle of the crew as they unloaded stores and supplies from the deck below. The journey had been a long one up the coast from Mexico, for the ship had to fight against a current that pushed it southward, and winds that blew it to the west at times. The man was particularly anxious to arrive, although nothing could be done about the seas or the winds or the cold that caused him to wear a heavy black cloak over his rather elegant, cream-colored knee britches, white stockings, and well-made black shoes. The captain thought his dress rather old fashioned since many men had begun to wear long trousers rather than the older style "culottes." Even the cut of the man's coat was out-of-date, despite its obvious quality and cost. Nevertheless, the captain offered his table to share for meals and found the man cultivated and well-spoken. Despite their many conversations about the world, philosophy and literature, the captain never learned who the stranger was or what he was employed at. He only knew his name - Juan Muñoz.

The newcomer found, upon arrival at the port, that he would have to either wait for a carriage - they had all been "engaged" by his fellow passengers - or to hire a horse to take him to Los Angeles. After some haggling, he procured a mount in order to set out along the road that would lead him to his destination. However, the mount would not be available until the next day. He would have to return to his cabin.

Unknown to the captain, to his mysterious passenger or to the crew, a white horse with black markings on its side had made its way down through the meadows and hills, avoiding the main roads. The rider wore a dun-colored long coat and his hair was quite mussed from the blowing winds of late fall. The rider's destination was the port of San Pedro .

Not far behind the rider, a man in black astride a young stallion traced his prey through the hills and back down onto roads, across meadows, through trickling arroyos and finally to the stretch of highway that ran to the port of San Pedro.

Early that evening, Salvador Muñoz rode up to the docks. After making hasty inquiries, he persuaded a sailor to allow him to speak with the captain of the only vessel tied up along the wharf. The bearded captain was a little leery of the young man who pushed gold coins at him and insisted on a cabin.

"And what is your name, if I may ask?" the officer inquired. "I am Captain Silva, at your service."

"I'm Muñoz," the young man told him. "My father is an important merchant in the pueblo of Los Angeles. Perhaps you know of him? I'm needed in a hurry on family business in Ciudad México."

The captain was patient but his voice became brusque. "We off-loaded some of our cargo here just today," he told the young man. "Our next port of call is San Francisco. I'll be back in a week or two. You won't be able to head south until our return and we may be delayed by the weather or heavy seas. You can purchase a cabin now or later for that time."

"I also need to make a stop in San Francisco before heading south," Salvador insisted hastily. "Will you rent me a cabin or not?"

The bearded man disliked the young man's rudeness, but took his coins, wrote Salvador’s name in a ledger with a goose quill dipped in ink. He then rose from the table and placed the coins in a strong box. Quite casually he told the young man. "There is a passenger on board whom you may know."

Salvador was suspicious. "How could I know anyone on board?" he asked.

"He has your surname and has been making inquiries about hiring a horse to get to Los Angeles."

"What else do you know about him? Is he here now?" young Muñoz continued.

Captain Silva became irritated at his manner. "He is in the aft cabin - the high-priced one. Why don't you call on him and find out?"

"I think I shall," Salvador responded thoughtfully. He considered the fact that he did not want to make an enemy out of the captain. A plausible lie could always work wonders. He leaned himself toward the other man in a confidential manner and seemed to confess. "I'm sorry if I appear so impatient. Actually, I'm in a little bit of trouble in Los Angeles. A married woman, you see."

The captain nodded in understanding. "Her husband must be quite formidable for you to be in such a rush to make a berth on board," he observed knowingly.

"He's a madman," Salvador responded.

"Let me show you to the cabin," Silva offered courteously. "Perhaps you two are related."

 

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The cabin was empty; nevertheless, Salvador looked around at its comfortable interior. Just what I need, he thought.

Captain Silva pulled the door closed and gestured up the stairs ahead. "He may be up on deck. I'll go with you aloft."

The two men strode the deck, but saw no one. The captain left his side shortly while Salvador paced back and forth. He did not know that two eyes watched him from a short distance away - two eyes covered by a black mask.

A chilly breeze began to blow across the deck and Salvador decided to go below. He went back to the elegant cabin and went inside to wait for its occupant.

On the deck above, a dark shadow made its way up the gangplank and ducked around the stacked crates on deck waiting to be unloaded in the morning. None of the crewmen saw him as they leisurely maintained a watch and spoke to each other, smoking their short sailor's pipes and chatting about the coming trip to the north.

A man in black carefully passed darkened doors which told him the cabins held no occupants. He finally saw one with light under the door. He carefully pulled the door open a crack and looked in.

Salvador Muñoz stood with his back to the cabin door, gazing at some of the paintings on the cabin walls, paintings that depicted ships at sea, saints of the church and one of the current king of Spain, Ferdinand VII. His hands were in his pockets. He did not hear the door open or close, but he did hear someone speak his name.

"Salvador Muñoz - we meet at last."

Salvador swung around and saw a man dressed in black facing him. The face was half hidden by a mask, and a long cape of black hung behind him. In the man's hands was a pistol and the pistol was pointed at him.

Salvador gasped, "Zorro!" in his shock, and then demanded, "What are you doing here?"

"I think you know the answer to that, Señor," the Fox smiled grimly. "You have attempted to take the life of one of Los Angeles ' most beloved musicians - a most cowardly act, Señor - to shoot a woman."

Salvador backed up against the wall, staring at the pistol. "You won't take me back, I won't go. The Comandante will kill me!"

"If you do not come back with me voluntarily, then you might be killed right here in San Pedro," El Zorro told him.

"You, you would kill me?" stammered the young man.

"Not I, Señor," the man in black explained. "There are a large number of men on their way here to get you. I am afraid that if you do not come with me, you will most certainly have to go with them."

"And?"

"And if they get a hold of you, you may be carried back in a box, not on your horse."

Salvador took at step toward the Fox. "Then, let me go. Don't let them catch me!"

"I am afraid not, Señor Muñoz, for I would be most negligent in my duties and it would deprive me of a certain satisfaction."

"And what is that?" asked Muñoz in a hostile tone.

"Seeing you finally take responsibility for your actions. It is something that you have never faced, and now, you must." The masked man gestured with his pistol. "I suggest that we make for our horses and begin the trip back at once before the townsmen find out and apply some of their own justice."

"What if I call out? What if I won't go?" Salvador tried to threaten.

"You won't call out," El Zorro told him. "For if Capitán Silva knew he was harboring a criminal on board, perhaps a murderer of a young girl, he might just hang you himself." He watched Salvador’s pasty face turn pale. "And now, let us go."

A few minutes later, Juan Muñoz returned to his cabin. Odd, he thought, as he entered the room and closed the door. It seemed as if someone had been there. He looked around and nothing looked disturbed. He thought a moment about a young man he had brushed by in the near darkened corridor on his way to the cabin. His outline reminded him more of a dandy than any member of the crew. Another figure had passed him so quickly that he did not have time to notice anything other than the man wore a cape and averted his face. Juan Muñoz shook away these thoughts and began to make his plans for the next day. These plans that would take him on a journey to the pueblo of Los Angeles, the end of a long trip he had begun a few months before in Spain.

 

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Margarita Pérez opened her eyes and looked up. She saw the tear-stained face of her mother watching her closely from a chair by the pillow.

"Margarita, darling," María said softly, stretched out a hand and began to caress her daughter's long brown hair. "How are you feeling, dear?"

"Where is Francisco?" the young woman whispered in reply.

The woman in the white blouse and dark brown skirt held her hand. "He's still with the Indians. They say he is getting stronger every day."

"I need Francisco, Mother," the girl said weakly. "I think I am going to die."

"You're not going to die," María insisted. "Doctor Aguilera says you are doing much better. The bullet passed through your body - a clean wound."

"I need Francisco," Margarita repeated softly and closed her eyes again.

María was alarmed. She placed her daughter's hand gently back on the blanket. She looked at one of the woman volunteers who sat close by and nodded. The woman rose and took her place in the chair. María left the room to look for the doctor.

Doctor Aguilera was out in the front room of his office where his supplies of herbs and botanicals in glass jars lined the shelves of his tiny pharmacy. He was talking with a man that María recognized at once - Sebastian Pérez. Both men turned toward her as she approached.

"Doctor Aguilera, she is asking for him again," María addressed the doctor.

"Asking for whom?" Sebastian asked. "For me?"

"For Capitán de las Fuentes," she replied, not looking at her husband. The doctor nodded and she continued, "Isn't there any way to contact him and bring him here at once? Margarita is convinced that she is going to die. She said she needs him."

Sebastian snorted at the mention of the comandante's name.

Dr. Aguilera smiled kindly and responded. "No one knows how to reach him, Doña María, but I am sure that he will be back soon. Let me speak with Margarita. I will assure her that she is coming along as expected."

María wrung her hands and watched the gray-bearded physician enter the room and close the door gently. She sighed.

Sebastian spoke up. "I'm not going to allow that fellow near Margarita. If it wasn't for him, this would have never have happened. It's all his fault."

María spun on him in anger. "He was not anywhere near the pueblo when this incident occurred! Salvador shot Margarita because she turned him down again and he refuses to accept that."

"Don't you raise your voice to me, María," her husband ordered. "When Margarita is well, she will marry Salvador and do as she is told. All of us have put up with her impudence for long enough." He paused. "And don't tell me that she will refuse."

María straightened her shoulders. "You no longer have any say in the matter!"

Sebastian's mouth dropped open at her words. "What did you say?" he demanded.

"You no longer have any say in this because you disinherited her," María repeated. "And because you said you no longer have a daughter, I have taken matters into my own hands."

"And what do you mean by that?" Sebastian began to rage.

"I have already given my permission for her engagement and marriage!" María responded, balling her hands into fists. "As soon as she is well, she will marry the man she loves."

"Nonsense! Who did you engage her to?"

"Why," María changed her tone to one of utter sweetness. "Why to Capitán de las Fuentes. His engagement ring is on her finger and has been there for several days. Padre Felipe has already blessed their union."

"I won't allow this to take place, then!" fumed Sebastian.

"For once, there is nothing you can do about it. And it's all your fault, Sebastian," María told him. "You went too far, disinheriting your own daughter and making it all legal. As her mother, Don Francisco asked me for permission to marry her and I agreed. And it's all your fault, Sebastian. If you had not done this, it would have been you agreeing to your daughter's marriage to Don Francisco, not me."

With those words, María turned away from her red-faced husband, opened the door to the room where her daughter lay, and closed it behind her without another word.

Sebastian still stood there several minutes later with his mouth agape. He saw all his plans for grabbing Felix Munoz’s business and enriching himself through a marriage crumble before his eyes. There could only be one last desperate effort and that would be to get rid of the comandante, but he was not the man for that. Sebastian was determined to stop the marriage, but how could he? He would consult with the lawyer, he would threaten De las Fuentes, he would….he would…. Sebastian Pérez suddenly realized there was nothing he could do about it. At least, not for now.

 

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It was early morning when a large number of men on horseback decided to head toward the port of San Pedro. They had, at first, followed the soldiers to the Mission San Gabriel in search of the fugitive, only to find that he was not there.

Not satisfied to follow Sergeant García's suggestion that they return to the pueblo of Los Angeles, these men nevertheless took the road back towards the north and debated among themselves what to do. It was then they ran across one of the rancheros on his way to the mission and learned that Salvador had been seen. These men learned from Don Leon Santos that young Muñoz had fled over the hills towards the west, avoiding the main road. The leader of the group suggested that Salvador would try to flee from California. The best way to prevent this was to nab him in San Pedro.

Several hours later, one of the men observed two riders approaching from the far distance. He called to his companions. As the two groups approached each other, the men were surprised to see that one of the riders was Salvador Muñoz. The other was El Zorro. The large group of men slowed as they neared the two riders. Their leader turned to his followers, "Look it is Salvador Muñoz with El Zorro!" His tone was triumphal. "You, Tony, get the rope." He spurred his horse forward to greet the two riders.

El Zorro watched the approach of the large number of men. He recognized his neighbors and men from the town where he grew up. Most importantly, he recognized a lynch mob when he saw one.

Salvador’s face was white. He, too, watched the approach of the townsmen. "They're going to kill me," he moaned. He looked down at his hands that were tied together and felt completely helpless.

"No, they are not," El Zorro said in a firm voice as he watched the leader break away from the group and approach him.

"We see you've caught the killer of Señorita Pérez, El Zorro," the man called out to him. "Now we can give him the justice he deserves." By now he was just a few yards away from the two riders.

"Ah, Señor Miguel Cisneros!" called out the Fox. "I see that you are well and have placed yourself at the head of another lawless group that wishes to take justice into its own hands. Have you not learned anything from your experiences with the natives about judging men without evidence?"

Cisneros was confident with the large group at his back. "There is no doubt to Salvador’s guilt," he shouted. "Half the men with me saw him shoot down Señorita Pérez in the plaza!"

"Is she dead?" asked Salvador in a shaking voice. He momentarily recalled her lying in the dirt after he shot her. He didn't check to see if he had killed her.

"She's dying," Cisneros told him triumphantly. "And De las Fuentes has still not returned. It wouldn't surprise me if he's dead as well."

"Capitán de las Fuentes is not dead," declared Zorro, "for I myself have seen him among the Indians." This declaration caused a stir among the mounted men behind Cisneros. "Señora Montoya was also there and assured me that he is receiving the best care possible. When he returns to Los Angeles it will be his duty, and his duty alone, to see that this young man gets a fair trial."

"He's either going to hang now or hang later," snarled Cisneros. "And it's the verdict of the pueblo that he hangs now!" He turned back toward the men. "Bring the rope!"

El Zorro drew his sword, urged the black stallion forward, and approached Cisneros. "No one is going to take the law into their own hands, Señores! And if anyone tries, he will have to fight me first."

Cisneros tried to urge the group of men on. "Get him! Get him! There are only two of them against all of us!"

"Yes, come, all of you!" shouted the masked man as he charged Cisneros. The clean-shaven man blanched, then drew his sword. The clash of steel resounded as the larger group hesitated, fascinated by the drama unfolding before their eyes. A few of them eyed the frightened Salvador who sat on Don Leon's white horse. Two men started forward.

El Zorro's blade flashed quickly, his wrist rolling and catching the saber of the man opposite him. Cisneros responded with heavy-handed slashes, barely parrying the powerful, swift thrusts that seemed to rain down on him relentlessly. It soon became apparent to him that he was going to lose this contest. Then, in a flash, his sword flew out of his hands. With the flat of his blade, El Zorro smacked the rump of his opponent's mare with the flat of his blade, a startling move that sent the mare fleeing the battle scene with the rider barely in control.

Without even catching his breath, the man in black turned on the two men who were attempting to sneak past him to get to Salvador. Rising up in his saddle and unwhirling a long Spanish bullwhip, he was upon them in a moment. As the whip sang and one of the men tumbled into the dirt, the other, the one Cisneros had called Tony, turned and drew his pistol.

The Fox only grinned at that. "So, you would kill me and face the hangman yourself?"

The other hesitated. "I am not here to do battle with you, Zorro," he declared. "Our fight is not with you." He thrust the pistol back into the saddle holster.

"Good!" the man in black responded. "Now I suggest that all of you form an escort for Señor Muñoz and myself. As you know, Capitán de las Fuentes is a man dedicated to justice and assuring that every man has his day in court. You gentlemen would not wish to fill his jail now, would you?"

The journey back to Los Angeles was a calm one. Only Salvador Muñoz cursed his bad luck and looked forward with great fear to his confrontation with the comandante, Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes.

 

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Chapter 32
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