Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-two

 

Pilar Montoya swept past the men and women who filled the outer office of Dr. Aguilera and entered the only other room in the building, the room where a wounded young woman lay. She knew that a quick entrance would prevent her from being denied seeing the comandante's fiancée.

As she closed the door behind her, Dr. Aguilera turned toward the door. His face registered surprise and dismay. "What are you doing here?"

Before he could object to her presence, she announced, "Capitán de las Fuentes sent me to check up on his beloved Señorita Margarita."

The gray-bearded physician considered her words and grumbled, "Oh, very well." He stood up and allowed the disheveled gypsy woman to take his place by the bed. "Señorita Margarita is coming along as expected," he said.

Pilar got to work at once, feeling the girl's forehead, allowing her fingers to flow down the hair and cheeks of the young woman. She examined her arms and fingers, her stomach and finally pulled back the dressings, very gently, to examine the bullet wound. She frowned. Then she seemed to notice a woman sitting a few feet away. The resemblance was unmistakable.

"You are Señorita Margarita's mother?" asked Pilar.

"Yes, I am," the woman confirmed. She had watched the gypsy's quick hands and saw her frown. María Pérez became concerned. "Is anything wrong?"

"There is still much more to be done for the señorita," the gypsy told her and began to unpack the pouch that she carried slung over the shoulder.

"Now just a moment," Dr. Aguilera interrupted. "I am in charge of this patient and you are hardly in any position to make any hasty judgments regarding my care. What I have done is standard practice among all physicians in the treating of wounds and…"

Pilar waved her hand. "As I understand it, Señor Doctor, you are the one who was going to remove Capitán de las Fuentes' leg just a week ago. Surely you know the survival rate for such amputations?"

"I thought…" he began, but she continued, "As of this moment, Don Francisco's leg is healing well. Soon, he will be walking as well as you. Even as I speak, he is purging the poisons from his body and ridding his body of the fevers and infections."

When the physician began to sputter, María Pérez spoke up. "It's all right, Doctor Aguilera. I am truly grateful for what you have done." She turned to the gypsy. "Señora, the good doctor and Diego de la Vega brought Margarita here. The ladies you saw in the outer room helped greatly in changing my daughter's dressings and giving her medications. What more can be done?"

"Much more," Pilar repeated. "While the wound is clean and this tea," she indicated a mug with a distinct odor, "has been prepared, there are special herbs that go beyond mere cleansing. I have them here. With your permission, I would like to administer them to the señorita."

María looked up at the man. She could see the indignation in his features: the very idea that a gypsy could think that she could cure a patient better than he could! "Doctor Aguilera saved my daughter's life, Señora," she said pointedly, defending him. "How can your medicines be more beneficial than his?"

"It is a combination of herbs and dressing changes that can make a great difference," Pilar explained. "How often are these dressings changed?"

"Twice a day," Aguilera answered.

"Not often enough," Pilar declared. "Change once every three hours along with a new application of these leaves."

"Leaves?" exclaimed the doctor. "Since when do leaves replace good cotton dressings?"

"When they draw out the poison!" exclaimed Pilar in an irritated manner. "And what have you done for her soul?"

"I leave those matters to the padre," Aguilera replied dryly.

Pilar turned toward María. "Señora, all this may seem strange to you, but it is very important to treat both the body and soul as one. Has Señorita Margarita said that she felt as if she were going to die?"

María was startled. "Yes," she admitted, "several times. She asks that Don Francisco return to her. She believes she is going to die."

There was a stirring in the bed. Margarita Pérez opened her eyes and looked up into the dark eyes of a stranger, a woman dressed in a colorful bandanna and skirts; a woman with long earrings. She was not afraid. She seemed to know the reason for her presence.

"Señorita Margarita," Pilar began. "I am here to bring you good tidings."

The young woman's face was trusting. Her blue eyes held the brown ones of the gypsy. "Francisco. Is he coming back to me?"

"Yes, he is," the gypsy declared. She watched the doctor out of the corner of her eye as he shook his head. "Look here," she said, putting a hand at her throat and withdrawing what looked like a gold chain from under her blouse. "I brought with me a sign from y our beloved," she smiled. "Here, the medallion he wears around his neck."

"San Francisco," Margarita whispered. "His saint."

Pilar continued, "Wear it until his return which shall be soon." She fastened the medallion around the young woman's neck and placed its golden head over her heart. "Don Francisco would want you to have this as a sign." The old gypsy knew she had taken it without asking the comandante's permission, but then she did not have the time. She would tell him later what she had done for the señorita.

Margarita smiled, touching her fingers to the warm medal. "He is coming back."

"Yes. His leg is healing very well and the demons which haunted him are gone," Pilar announced. Then she caressed the girl's face gently with a hand. "Don Francisco has spoken much of you," she told the young woman. "You are in his thoughts constantly."

"As mine are of him," Margarita said softly. "Please forgive me if I sleep some more."

Pilar patted the girl's hand and watched her drift off. She began to work at once. As María watched, the gypsy pulled out incense, candles, stones, flower pedals, a pestle and mortar and began to work right away.

Doctor Aguilera cleared his throat, but María held up a hand. "It's all right, Dr. Aguilera. I think that Señora Montoya may have brought an important message from Don Francisco." She gestured for the man to follow her out of the room. When the door closed she whispered, "If there is anything she can do to lift Margarita's spirits, I welcome it. We have done all that we can for now. That is the first time she has spoken all day."

"What if the medallion is not really his or if she stole it?" the doctor argued.

María put her fingers to her lips as if not wanting anyone to overhear their words. "We don't know if it belongs to Don Francisco or not," she told him. "What is important is that Margarita believes it. If that small thing will help her rally, then this is the kind of medicine she needs as well." María looked thoughtful a moment. "Perhaps that is what the gypsy meant by administering to the soul as well as to the body."

The doctor recognized that if the mother was convinced, any further arguing would be of little avail. Instead, he offered her some fresh coffee and they sat down to continue the vigil outside the door.

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

Don Alejandro de la Vega heard the shocking news from one of his servants and rushed to get the horse saddled so he could ride in to town. So that's where Diego has been all night, he thought. He was proud of his son, imagining him at the side of the stricken girl, comforting her and assuring her of the return of the comandante, even though none of them knew when he would be released. He urged his mount into a canter.

It was at the fork in the road that led from the De la Vega hacienda to the El Camino Real, that the white-bearded man on horseback encountered a large group of men. At their head was a man in black astride a dark stallion – the outlaw, El Zorro. At first the don thought the masked man had been captured, but then the Fox hailed him.

"Don Alejandro, may I ask your services?" he asked upon spurring his steed ahead of the group and approaching him.

"What is the meaning of this, El Zorro?" asked Alejandro. "I feel that I must ask ‘How may I be of service to you?’" He was sure the outlaw was at a disadvantage.

"Not of service to me, Don Alejandro," Zorro smiled. "But of service to the people of Los Angeles, to the comandante, and to the Señorita Pérez." The man in black told him that Salvador Muñoz had been apprehended, trying to escape by sea. He and the other men were escorting the young man back into town in order to get a fair trial. Because he needed to get word to the comandante of the situation as soon as possible, he asked that the don take over the escort in to town.

"Do you not fear that these men might take justice in to their own hands and not deliver Salvador to the cuartel?" asked Alejandro. He could see unfriendly faces among several in the crowd.

"They have already tried. What is needed is an honorable man like you keep them in line until Señor Muñoz is delivered safely to the cuartel," the Fox explained.

Alejandro nodded. He understood at once that El Zorro could not be the one to escort the prisoner to the cuartel in the absence of Capitán de las Fuentes. "I heard what happened to Señorita Pérez," he said. "People are already up in arms against the boy."

"Yes, and as you know, Capitán de las Fuentes would want to see to it that even Señor Muñoz receives justice, not mob violence," El Zorro told him.

"I will see to it, then, Señor Zorro," the older man declared in a voice loud enough to be overheard by the men. "For we must insure that nothing we do will bring shame upon ourselves and bring the reprimand of Capitán de las Fuentes!"

The man in black tipped his hat to the smiling don and rode off down the road ahead of the crowd. In a matter of moments, he disappeared from sight.

Don Alejandro gestured the group forward. "To the pueblo of Los Angeles!" he commanded. "Vámanos!"

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

 

Gray Feather heard the news about the capitán’s fiancée as he sat around the fire that evening. A young Indian runner had arrived breathless in the cool of the evening. The old man pondered the actions that would need to be taken. As he conversed with the young man, he watched the white man across the fire telling a group of children about the tame deer in his garden in Spain. Even the Shaman had listened with interest as the capitán described animals in other parts of the world that seemed almost magical – a camel, an elephant, an alligator and a giraffe - as magical as Coyote, Lizard, Eagle, Bear and Mountain Lion.

Unlike most whites he had encountered, this one, the musical one, was very interested in learning about how his people lived, how they made their flutes, drums and rattles, and how they knew about the plants that had cured him. The Shaman told him that it was ancient knowledge - but was careful in his answers. After all, even this man was an outsider, and one did not freely tell everything to outsiders. Instead, he encouraged the capitán to talk about the tribes in the lands of the Europeans, about the wars, the music and dwellings of the Spaniards where he lived. Some of the descriptions he heard seemed so fantastical to his experience that he thought the white man was telling tales merely to impress his listeners. The Man of the Sacred Waters was indeed a good storyteller, Gray Feather, thought, and certainly believed what he said. But whether it was really true or not, he could not say. After listening, he went out into the night and sat on a rock beside the flowing waters to think.

When the campfires began to burn low and the women and children had settled down for the night, the Shaman rose, came in to the cavern and approached the white man who sat wrapped in the bearskin by one of the fires. At first Gray Feather said nothing and gazed into the fire. De las Fuentes, very politely, rose and offered him his place closest to the fire. This man, no matter his dress and unassuming nature, was a still a king of his people, thought the Spaniard.

Gray Feather gestured for him to resume his seat and sat down as well. Finally he spoke.

"It is time for you return to your people," he said. "You will be able to continue healing after you leave us."

Francisco looked sad a moment. He was having an experience and adventure like no other he could have imagined – perhaps even better than the stories he had read by Alexander von Humboldt - and he would reluctantly have to cut it short. "Yes, I cannot forget my duties in the pueblo," he responded.

"Your people need you, Capitán. Your woman needs you. This is why you must return," the old man told him.

"I wish there were some way I could repay you for all you have done for me and all that you have shared with me," Francisco replied very sincerely. "I have experienced a great kindness and hospitality that I shall never forget. I have learned more living among your people than I could garner from dozens of books or the tales from sages."

"When one man walks in the moccasins of another, then he becomes a better man," Gray Feather affirmed.

As the flames began to flicker in the chilly night, the Shaman took his leave. "Sleep again, for tomorrow is a busy day for you. We will escort you back to the pueblo before the sun casts no shadows and when the winds will be at our backs."

 

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

Joaquín Enríquez climbed over the high wall of the hacienda quietly and paused to scout the patio and listen intently for the telltale sound of servants. He had left his mare tethered to a branch of a tree on the outside of the other end of the edifice for a quick escape. Sensing no one nearby, he dropped into a flowerbed along the wall and leaped onto the even stones of the patio like a silent and surefooted cat. Still looking over his shoulder, he made his way cautiously up the stairs of the De la Vega hacienda towards the room of Don Alejandro.

It was Joaquin’s third visit to the hacienda in two years – once as a vaquero, and twice as a secret visitor. He knew what he needed to get and where it would be. He was steps away from the wooden door and opened it carefully, peering inside. He slipped in through the door and closed it. He spotted the object – a gold snuffbox – on the mantel over the fireplace, just where he had seen it before. He reached for the ornate container and smiled. He never understood why men, let alone anyone, liked snuff.

At that moment, Bernardo opened the door to Diego’s room. He had been attending to his numerous duties there – brushing his young master’s clothing off, polishing boots, cleaning the mirrors and replacing candles in their pewter holders. Bernardo was thinking about how young Diego had left the night before in search of Salvador Muñoz. The mozo had no doubt that El Zorro would find the fugitive and Bernardo would have given anything to see the young fop’s face when the Fox confronted him. He made his way towards the stairs and suddenly the servant stopped. It was a strange mood that overcame him, as if something had passed his way unseen or missing. He looked around him – the hanging plants were there; the potted plants had been watered; the walkway swept; and the leaves down below on the broad patio removed. Perhaps it was something else, perhaps just a feeling. He turned toward Don Alejandro’s room.

Bernardo paused outside the door of the master of the hacienda and listened a moment. He knocked politely. When there was no response from within, he opened the door. The light flooded in to the room and the mozo’s eyes swept the room casually. The room was empty and everything seemed normal. He began to close the door. Then he noticed it. His sharp eyes noticed the missing snuffbox from over the fireplace. He blinked. He remembered replacing it just the other day when dusting off the mantel over the fireplace. He entered the room to take a closer look. Perhaps Don Alejandro had put it there, on the table by his reading chair, or perhaps by the bed. No, it was not there. The servant peered around on the floor to see if the box had fallen. Nothing was out of place on the floor. Bernardo had a prickly feeling he was being watched and tried to leave the room as casually as he had entered. He made a show of looking things over and quickly exited the room. When he reached the stairs, he hurried down as fast as he could.

Joaquín Enríquez paused a moment after examining the snuffbox and wrapping it in a cloth he pulled from his jacket. He heard footsteps outside the room door and made a hasty decision to become invisible. The one place that people would be unlikely to look would be under the large, posted bed. From under its rich hangings, he could watch the footsteps of any who entered or left. Unseen, he watched the uncertain steps of the servant walk around the room. As soon as the door closed, Joaquín crawled out and opened the door cautiously, he saw the mozo hurrying across the patio and his instincts told him to get out as quickly as possible. He made his way down the corridor to the next room, stealthily entered it and closed the door. He saw a narrow window beyond the end of the bed. It would allow him to drop down to his horse.

Bernardo and another servant armed with a short club rushed up the stairs to the don’s room. Outside the door, the second man listened carefully and raised his eyes to the mozo. Bernardo made gestures towards his eyes and pointed at his nose, trying to convey the idea he had either seen or smelled something unusual. The second man looked doubtful but pressed against the door, listening. Making a decision, he opened the door suddenly and pounced into the room as if ready to do battle with a bear. He saw nothing. The room was empty. The two men searched the room fruitlessly. Finally the man with the club walked out. Bernardo followed him with a sheepish look on his face and closed the door. The other man snorted and headed back down the stairs, once or twice looking back at the confounded mozo. All Bernardo could do was to shrug apologetically, but he knew that the snuffbox was missing and that it had only recently disappeared. As he made his way back toward Diego’s room he heard the faint sound of the hooves of a horse riding away. By the time he got to the end of the balcony, he saw a rider and horse disappear into the nearby brush.

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

He was back in the saddle again as if the nightmare he had just lived through had never occurred. It was almost like a dream, but a dream like no other. Surely, he would have the most remarkable tales of the New World to tell his family and to Margarita.

Francisco de las Fuentes, now clad in the impeccably clean uniform of a captain of the King’s Royal Lancers, made his way toward the pueblo of Los Angeles. He rode the horse of the dead Pablo Castañado. Behind him walked his honor guard, several members of the tribe of the folk who called themselves "the People of the Valley." For the first several leagues, he had agreed to be blindfolded so he would not know the way to the secret entrance to the cave of his benefactors. After that, he was given his pistol and the blindfold – it had been Margarita’s kerchief.

Across the arid terrain they walked, a terrain almost monotonous in its scrubby vegetation and intermittent cactus patches. Outcrops sprang up around corners or could be seen in the distance. Francisco found himself remembering his final words with the Shaman who had embraced him like a son. "I shall tell all who will listen of the goodwill and kindness of your people and of all Indians," Francisco said with some small enthusiasm. "Spaniards need to know that their stereotypes of Indians are greatly mistaken and that your peoples conduct themselves as great Christians would have them - peaceful and gentle of nature."

The Shaman was silent a moment before replying. "Capitán," he began. "You are a good man. You see much good in others. But you must know this: our people are peaceful, yes. But not all "Indians" are the same. Like your European tribes, there are the peaceful, the warlike, the honest, and the dishonest. All peoples have good and bad. The People of the Earth, the People of the River – our neighbors - they are peaceful and wise, but others are not so good. Beyond the lands of the mountains and far to the southeast, there are others who you also call "Indians." They are known by their fierceness and cruelty. One people are called Apache. It is said that they rip the heart out of a living man captured in battle and consume it in order to pass the courage from an enemy warrior into their own hearts."

"How dreadful!" Francisco exclaimed. Then he asked the Shaman, "Why do you think they are so cruel?"

The Shaman pointed out into the desert. "It is said that they kill Coyote and Snake for food; that their lives are very poor, worse than that of a fish in a pond that is drying up." Then he smiled slightly. "It is said that their women are very ugly and this is what makes the men crazy and cruel."

They had been sobering words and Francisco found himself grateful that he had become wiser in his knowledge. Then there were his plans and duties upon returning to Los Angeles. He had been gone over ten days now and he was apprehensive as to how the affairs in town had played themselves out. He remembered El Zorro carrying him into the cave and later, kneeling by him and assuring him that all was well; he heard the voice of the curadora, Señora Montoya, the gypsy, driving away the evil spirits that had haunted him, of her astonishing knowledge of his past and his love for Margarita; he remembered the long nights in pain and the longer days of healing in the sweat lodge, of the young Indian playing the reed flute and the astonishment and pleasure of the natives for the meeting and blending of their two cultures in musical notes and the songs of birds. He remembered the soft, brown eyes of the Indian maiden who gazed at him with curiosity and desire and the giggles of the women as they washed the acorn meal in the steam and talked about the man whose face bore the scars of the dreaded white man’s disease that had killed or maimed hundreds of their own people, of the ones who survived as he had survived.

Up ahead two Spanish riders saw the approach of a Spanish officer with his retinue of Indians clad in feathers, Mission white clothing, or just breechclouts. They waved their arms, then shouted in greeting and raced towards him, excited smiles on their sun-drenched faces. "Comandante, Comandante!" the men called.

Francisco saluted them, gravely at first, and then smiled at their enthusiasm. Both men rode up and welcomed him back. "It is good to be back," the captain said, but it was only partially true. One of the men departed at full gallop in order to be the first to bring the news that Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes was indeed returning to the pueblo.

As the small party drew nearer to the town, more men on horses joined their group. The procession took on an air of festivity. Vaqueros whirled on their mounts. As the horses entered the pueblo, people poured out of their homes and businesses, lining the streets. When the comandante appeared, cheers burst from the throngs, then applause. Women held up their babies to watch him pass. Small boys waved their hands and jumped up and down. Pretty señoritas flapped kerchiefs at him, for after all, they were all pretty señoritas. The words "Viva! Viva! Viva!" rang in the air. No conquering hero, no Spanish king could have received a more tumultuous welcome, thought Francisco. It was hard for him not to feel overwhelmed by the loyalty of the Californians.

At the cuartel, Sergeant García looked up and listened. "What is going on here?" he asked himself. He hurried out to the gates. Reyes met him running. "Sergeant! Sergeant!" he said breathlessly. "The Comandante is back!"

"Excellent, Corporal, excellent!" García smiled. Then he grabbed Reyes’ arm and whispered nervously, "Uh, which comandante?"

"Our comandante, Capitán de las Fuentes!" Reyes enthused.

García shouted to the soldiers within the cuartel, "Lancers! Fall in!"

As the soldiers hastily assembled, García led them out of the gate and lined them up formally before the garrison walls. The soldiers snapped to attention. The banner of Spain, red and gold with the black emblem of monarchy, flapped in the breeze that whipped up over the cuartel.

As the comandante arrived at the cuartel, García stepped forward and gave him a heartfelt salute. "Welcome back, Comandante. Welcome back to Los Angeles."

De las Fuentes returned his salute and turned in the saddle. After a few words of appreciation of the turnout of the town, he thanked the natives who had accompanied him back to the cuartel and praised their hospitality. Then he rode through the gates of the garrison and dismounted. It was time to get a full report of what had occurred in his absence.

García watched the officer closely as the officer approached him. "Capitán, you are not limping!" he noted.

De las Fuentes smiled. "Yes, my leg is almost as good as new." He patted his right leg in satisfaction thinking what a grand surprise it would be for Margarita and how that now, he certainly would be able to dance with her. After he attended to official matters at hand, he would call on her to reassure her of his good health. But it was time to get down to business. "Why don’t you bring me up to date on what has occurred since my absence."

García hesitated. He dreaded the news he would have to tell the comandante – of the escaped prisoner and worse, of the señorita.

As they headed toward the Oficina del Comandante, the captain stopped and looked at the jail a long moment before proceeding to the porch. He turned casually to the sergeant and asked in an amused tone, "I see that young Señor Muñoz is behind bars, Sergeant. Did he cheat at cards so badly as to end up in the cuartel?"

The large man looked down at his feet and the look on his face was strained. "Comandante, I do not know how to tell you this. It is very difficult for me and I am very sorry to have to tell you…" His voice trailed off.

Francisco halted at the door and looked up at the man who suddenly seemed almost fearful of his reply. He had never seen García so upset, not even the night after Señor Enríquez had escaped. "Don’t tell me he’s killed someone?" he asked, only half jesting.

"Comandante, could we speak of this inside?" asked García. "It might be a little better if, well, if…"

"Certainly, Sergeant," the officer smiled. García opened the door for him and the two men disappeared inside. The door closed quietly.

Across the yard, Salvador Muñoz watched the arrival of Capitán de las Fuentes with dread. He watched the officer dismount and noticed at once that he no longer limped, that his stride was strong and sure. He trembled as the officer gazed at the jail, his eyes passing over him casually. He knew that De las Fuentes had not yet been informed of the shooting. When the door of the comandante’s office closed, he shrank back into the corner of the cell. In the silence, his hearing seemed to have acquired an almost unnatural level of acuteness: all the sounds of the plaza – the soldiers’ footsteps, of the chirping of birds, the rumble of coaches, the neighing of horses - seemed greatly amplified. He seemed to feel his heart racing. He imaged himself before a scaffold or even a firing squad. He did not want to die. He was only thirty years old. He hated Margarita Pérez; he hated Capitán de las Fuentes; and most of all, he hated the Fox, El Zorro, for his predicament.

 

 

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