Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-three

 

A traveler made his way into the pueblo of Los Angeles. He dismounted outside the General Store in order to ask if anyone knew the residence of a Felix Muñoz in town. The storekeeper, Roberto Cárdenas, was helpful. He carefully and politely inquired as to the traveler’s business and was informed that the stranger was a relative visiting a family member. Señor Cárdenas welcomed the newcomer and pointed out the way. He was much too discreet a man to say anything further, knowing that the man would learn of the family tragedy much too soon.

So it was that just a few minutes later, there was a knock at the door of the fine home of Felix Muñoz, the merchant. The servant who answered the door was apprehensive, fearing the return of soldiers or worse. As the door was opened, the servant beheld a man of moderate height in a long cape of blue and a hat of the same color with a dashing white plume that covered half of the brim. The man wore riding boots and light wool black trousers. The fine quality of his clothing and dignified demeanor impressed the serving man. The stranger bowed ceremoniously and said he was inquiring after the master of the house. The servant gestured the man in and asked him to wait after inquiring, "Whom should I say is calling, Señor?"

"Juan Muñoz," the man replied handing his hat to the servant and removing his cloak

The servant bowed in respect and shortly returned with the gray-haired Felix Muñoz. Felix looked exhausted but his expression was one of expectation and surprise. As he entered the sala, he saw a man with his back turned looking out the iron-grated window onto the inner patio. The man’s brown hair was pulled back into an old fashioned "ponytail." "Juan!" exclaimed Felix and rushed forward.

The other man turned with a smile and opened his arms to accept the embrace of the other. "Felix! My brother! How long it has been!"

Felix Muñoz almost wept. He then took the other’s shoulders in his hands and looked him over. "It has been much too long, but then we are separated by an ocean and a continent. How have you been, Juan? What are you doing here in California? Have you left His Excellency’s service?"

"No, Felix, I am still in his service. But what is this? You look ill. Come, have a seat!"

Felix allowed his brother to guide him to a comfortable chair. Juan then took a seat opposite him and pulled it up close. "The ship arrived in San Pedro just yesterday. There were too few conveyances and I had to come on horseback. I have only now arrived," he explained. "I’m afraid that I have appeared long before the mails. And you?"

"Oh, Juan," moaned Felix. "You could not have arrived at a more necessary and more terrible time. It must be Heaven that sent you to me at this, my most heartbreaking time."

"Not your wife, Ines?"

"No. I…." Felix was distracted a moment by a knock at the door. He heard the voice of the servant and held up a hand and listened.

A moment later, the servant entered the room. "An urgent message for you, Don Felix," he said. On the silver tray a note had been deposited.

"This is the message?" Felix asked in an agitated manner. He looked apprehensively at the silver tray that was thrust in his direction. He took a big breath and reached for a card. He gave his brother a glance, broke the wax seal open and read the message. He closed the note and put it back on the tray. He stood up, now with some determination that belied his tired looks. "Please forgive me, Juan, but I must leave right away."

He turned to the servant. "Please take Don Juan to the guest room and tend to all his needs." He turned back to his brother. "Have you eaten at all today?"

"Yes, I have," Juan replied. "Felix, is there anything I can help you with?"

"Not right now. When I return, I will explain everything," the thin man responded. He allowed the servant to help him into his black frock coat and accepted the proffered tall grey hat. In another moment, he was out the door.

Juan went to the window and watched his brother hurry along the street toward the plaza.

He turned back towards the servant. "What is your name, my good man?"

"Manuel, Señor," replied the man.

"I have dined already, Manuel, but the long ride here gave me a great thirst. Would it be convenient at this time for a cup of tea with mint?"

"Of course, Señor, any time is convenient."

"Thank you for your courtesy," Juan replied. He watched the servant place the tray on a nearby table and hurry away to comply with his request. It was just what Juan wanted. He was a man of action. Something serious was happening with his brother and he was determined to find out what he could even in the first minutes of his arrival. As soon as the steps faded away, he walked over to the tray and flicked open the note. On the outside he noted the engraved name – Palacios and Son – Solicitors. On the inside was written: Don Felix - Urgent. Come as soon as you can. Maximillian."

 

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

Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes turned back toward the big sergeant as the man closed the door. "What would you like to report to me here in my inner sanctum?" he inquired in a pleasant tone of voice.

García hemmed and hawed. He decided to speak of official matters first. "Well, Capitán, it is like this. After you disappeared out at the lake when you were chasing Señor Enríquez, there was a big search. All the people from the pueblo, many vaqueros and rancheros came out to join the army to look for you."

"Ah," Francisco nodded. "And did you capture the fugitive?"

"No, Comandante, we did not. And we did not find you either. We looked everywhere, Capitán – in the meadows, all through the rocks. We even rode out into the lake. We called your name for hours. All I found was your hat. Later that disappeared, but it looks like you are wearing it now." García pointed a fat finger at the officer’s black hat with the white band.

"Please continue."

"Well, everyone was looking for you. We came back after dark with torches. Many people volunteered to help look for you, even the prisoner, Señor Robello volunteered." García hesitated when he said that name and De las Fuentes understood at once.

"What you are trying to say, Sergeant, is that Señor Robello took advantage of the situation and escaped."

The fat sergeant raised his eyebrows in surprise, "Why, yes, that is exactly what happened." He looked puzzled. "But, how did you know what I was going to say?" Then he remembered. "Oh, pardon me, Comandante, I forgot. You have foresight and even insight, and sometimes it comes to you, even in the middle of the night - just like you said when you first arrived, mi Capitán."

Francisco chuckled at that. It was almost amazing that the sergeant would remember such a trite exchange. Then he cleared his throat. "Has anyone seen Señor Robello since that time?"

"No, Comandante," answered García. "But afterwards, Señor Angel Ledesma came to visit me at the inn." The sergeant furrowed his brow. "One night, Corporal Reyes and I were having refreshment. Angel walked up to us. He told me that he felt very bad about something he had to tell me. I gave him some wine to ease his pain. Then he told me that Tomás told him that he had to escape because if you, Comandante, did not come back, he would get no justice from Capitán Monastario. Angel said he had more to tell. I gave him more wine. He said that Tomás told him that he had to look out for his own interests because he did not want to die in some mine as a slave somewhere. Then Angel drank all of my wine." García looked downcast remembering the empty wine bottle.

"It sounds as if Señor Robello let his fears get the better of him," Francisco commented. "One does not normally get sentenced to slave labor as punishment for disturbing the peace and fighting in a tavern."

"Of course, you are right, Capitán," García responded, "but sometimes, if Capitán Monastario does not like someone, then perhaps things do not happen so… normally….begging your pardon, Comandante."

"I see," the officer frowned. "It is a fact that Señor Robello would have not remained much longer in jail. He was working off his fines. The vaquero, Señor Ávila, even returned the fine he was awarded to help him and Señor Ledesma meet their obligations."

"Benito did that?" García was impressed. Perhaps he should ask the vaquero sometime to meet him at the inn for wine, he thought. If Benito gave no thought of giving away ten pesos, maybe he would not mind buying a little wine as well.

"Now, what are your other concerns?" asked De las Fuentes interrupting his thoughts. He took off his hat and put it on the wall hook. He turned back toward the nervous soldier.

It was the moment García dreaded most of all. How could he tell the Comandante about the Señorita Margarita? What would the Capitán do?

The sergeant opened his mouth. "Well, I don’t know how to tell you this, Comandante, but…" he began.

There was a sudden knock at the door of the Oficina del Comandante. García looked relieved at the interruption.

"Enter," De las Fuentes raised his deep baritone voice.

A soldier entered and saluted. "There is a man here to see you, Capitán, and there are several others at the entrada asking to see you."

"Let them come," the officer responded. His demeanor became one of benevolence as he watched who came in through the door. It was Angel Ledesma.

"Ah, Señor Ledesma, what can I do for you?" asked the Comandante.

"Capitán, permit me to say welcome back," Angel began. "I heard about your return to the pueblo and hurried here at once. I have something for you." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small leather bag. "Here, Comandante, is all the money I owe you for the fines." He held out the bag to the officer. "It was a good thing you were gone so long because I was able to work hard, just like you said I should."

De las Fuentes took the bag solemnly. "It is good of you to come and I thank you. " He strode over to the desk, opened it, took out a ledger, duly filled in the amount, and noted that the man had paid all his fines. He took out the small wooden chest bound in iron, opened it and deposited only some of the money. He walked back over to the vaquero who held his hat in his hands. "Señor Ledesma, you should know that Señor Ávila returned the ten pesos he was awarded by the hearing officer and wished to apply it toward your fine and that of Señor Robello. As such, I am returning five of the pesos to you. In addition, there has been a review of the level of fines for civil disturbances and they were revised, so an additional ten pesos is being returned to you."

The vaquero could hardly believe his good luck. "Thank you, Comandante," he beamed upon receiving the coins. "My wife will be very happy. She will also pray for you." He immediately dropped the coins back in the bag.

"Will you not count them?" De las Fuentes asked with a twinkle in his eye.

Angel hesitated. Then a slow smile spread over his features. "There is no need, Capitán," he declared. "As long as you are Comandante, no one ever has to count."

There was another knock at the door and García opened it. The men standing outside waited as the vaquero bowed his way out of the office.

"Gentlemen, won’t you come in?" asked De las Fuentes cordially. "It seems that there is

much to catch up on today." The men offered their handshakes and words of welcome as they entered and Francisco acknowledged each one – Don Diego de la Vega, Don César Rodríguez, and …" he was introduced to the lawyer, "Señor Andrés Franco."

Diego de la Vega watched as the lawyer was introduced. He thought briefly how lucky he had been, traveling the road as El Zorro, to discover from a peon that De las Fuentes had returned to the pueblo. It saved him a long and fruitless ride far from the town. He quickly diverted his trip back to the pueblo and arrived at the cuartel the same time as Don César did. He wanted to be present to gage the prince’s reaction to the news of his fiancée and to act, if it became necessary, to prevent more tragedy, for who could know if even the most level-headed of men might crack under such events.

César Rodríguez knew from the capitán’s calm and friendly greeting that he did not yet know the news. He looked pointedly at García with raised eyebrows. The sergeant did not avoid his gaze and shook his head slowly and sadly. Diego did not miss a thing, neither did the lawyer.

"It is good to see you back and so well," Diego began. "All of us have been very worried about you, Capitán, and it is with much relief that we see that you have returned to us."

César nodded in agreement. "We have been thinking that a small celebration would be fitting to welcome you back," he suggested. "Perhaps a music concert? You could be included in our performance as well – a performance in which I, Señor José Escobedo, and other leading talents would join. It would be a grand affair with only our most professional musicians, of course. Everyone could enjoy a night of culture and joy."

Francisco was quiet a moment before responding. "Thank you, gentlemen, for your sincerest best wishes on my behalf." He paused. His next statement would be difficult for him and he did not wish to cause offense to these distinguished men. He knew that only Diego would understand what he had to say. He turned to the respected maestro. He knew César’s proposal had been heartfelt and offered in a manner of friendship and respect, but Francisco was who he was. "I am honored by your sentiments, Don César," he replied, "but, we do not put ourselves on public display."

There was a strange silence in the room at his words. César looked as if he had misunderstood what the comandante said for his expression became one of uncertainty. Only Diego nodded, almost imperceptivity. The lawyer’s jaw dropped. The implication of what the officer said opened his eyes. In an instant, Andrés Franco understood that De las Fuentes was no imposter, but someone much more important. Perhaps there was some truth to the rumors that had gone around the pueblo after all.

Diego reacted immediately. He turned towards Don César as if to reassure him. "I am sure that once Capitán de las Fuentes has set all his affairs in order, that a social event would be an appropriate way for us to celebrate his return." The comandante nodded and smiled in an encouraging way to the stumped musician.

Before César could reply, there was another knock at the door.

"Enter," ordered the officer. To his surprise, Pilar Montoya and Doctor Aguilera stepped through the doorway together. Francisco could have not imagined a more unlikely twosome. He smiled in greeting and held out his hand to the doctor who took it and commented, "I am gratified to see you have recovered the use of your leg, Capitán."

"I must give credit to Gray Feather and to this most remarkable lady for her faith in miracles," Francisco replied, indicating the gypsy. He took her hand and kissed it. "I sincerely regret that I did not have the opportunity to thank you for your selfless dedication to my renewal."

Pilar came to the point. It was her way. "Has anyone told you about Señorita Margarita?" she asked him.

His eyebrows rose slightly. "No, I have no unusual news about her. However, I am intending to visit her shortly and to reassure her of my recovery and good health." He paused. "Is there something I should know? Is she, perhaps, ill from worry? She is a very sensitive young lady."

There was that strange silence again. Everyone looked at the doctor and then at the gypsy. "Could you please come with us, Capitán de las Fuentes?" the doctor requested formally. "There is something that you need to know."

Francisco felt a chill. He looked at the men and woman who faced him with such serious expressions. He, too, could be very direct. Very slowly, he looked each one of them over as if trying to discover a clue. His light-blue eyes flashed in a way they had never seen before. In his deep baritone he asked, "Does this have anything to do with Señor Muñoz’s arrest?"

García began, "Capitán, I was going to…." He did not finish.

Francisco looked grim. He did an about face toward the door. He took his hat off the wall hook and put it on his head. He then turned back towards his guests. "Where is she now?" He steeled himself for the answer that might come but here was a disturbing lack of response in the room. No one seemed to know quite how to answer him. García hastened to open the door for him. Perhaps leaving the room would bring forth the reaction he sought.

His quick steps galvanized his visitors. They, too, followed quickly out the door. Diego was the first. He immediately placed himself next to the comandante in case he headed toward the jail and its prisoner, but De las Fuentes headed toward the gates of the cuartel.

Doctor Aguilera and Pilar Montoya hurried to catch up to the small man. "Don Francisco, she is at my office," the graying physician told him.

Pilar was at his elbow. "We have been caring for her. She asks for you constantly," she added. "I told her that you were healing and would soon join her. The news has brought her much joy."

Francisco felt a sense of relief in her reply; nevertheless he fired off more questions. "What happened and when did it happen?"

Pilar wanted him to see Margarita first before telling him the entire story. It might keep his rage under control and focus his attention on her, not on Salvador. In order to keep the men from replying, she kept up her chatter. "Her mother has been staying at her side. Half of the pueblo turned out to wish her well. You would be proud to know of all the people who love her."

But Diego knew that the prince was a man who valued the truth, no matter how painful it might be. "Your Excellency," he said quietly. "Last week, before the earthquake struck, Señorita Margarita was shot by Señor Muñoz. I was in the plaza with Doctor Aguilera when it happened. He shot her because she refused his marriage proposal again."

They were half-way to the doctor’s office. Francisco stopped in his tracks. "He did what?" he asked in anger and astonishment. He grasped the hilt of his saber and it came out almost half way of the scabbard before he snapped it back in place again. The sliding Toledo steel sang and seemed to reverberate around the plaza. "Margarita and I are betrothed! How dare that useless rascal presume upon our desires!"

"No one knew of your betrothal, Capitán," breathed the doctor from behind them. "I myself only learned of it after treating the señorita."

De las Fuentes shook his head. "Please do me the courtesy of explaining this," he asked in disbelief. "It is true that I was absent immediately after my proposal had been accepted, but would not the situation become general knowledge from the family?" He began to move again across the plaza again if only from the agitation and concern.

"Let me explain, Capitán," César offered, walking next to the comandante. "You see, after the señorita was disinherited by her father, she came to live with me and my family. Her mother, who had been badly beaten by her husband, also came to stay with us." He knew that the officer knew these facts already. "My wife and I felt that both ladies needed rest and diversion away from their, uh, situations. We kept them secluded in my home. It took Señora Pérez many days to recover her health. Of course, the girls and our family knew of your engagement, but we thought it best to wait for your return to make these decisions. Because of these considerations, especially about the ladies, we wished to concentrate on their well-being. Afterwards, we took them out to visit the Villas and to socialize among other friends. We tried to keep them from worrying about you, Comandante, and both of them were very concerned about your disappearance. After many days, my wife sent our daughter, Juanita and Margarita out shopping at the general store. When they were returning home, Margarita was accosted by Señor Muñoz. That is when the shooting occurred."

"I remember your great generosity to these ladies, Don César," Francisco responded in a courteous manner, "and I shall never forget this." He turned to the doctor once again. "Is Margarita still alive?"

Everyone responded to the question in chorus with an emphatic "Sí" and Aguilera added, "She is getting the best possible care, both mine and Señora Montoya’s."

The gypsy smiled at that because up to that point she felt the doctor considered her an adversary. "Capitán, she asks for you constantly, it is why we want you to come to her right away."

The group was now outside the office and De las Fuentes stopped before the door. He turned to face everyone once again before entering. "I want you to tell me the truth," he said quietly and with much intensity. "I want you to tell me if she is dying."

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

 

Padre Felipe came upon him quite suddenly and he looked up startled because it occurred to him that he had been too preoccupied with his thoughts here among the graves. It was so unlike him to be caught off guard.

"Joaquín," the priest sighed. "Was it you that took the candelabra from the chapel the other day?"

The man with the dark tangled hair and white teeth rose to his feet and gave the priest a mild smile. "Sí, Padre. I’m borrowing it. I shall return it quite soon."

"Joaquín, Joaquín," Felipe continued. "I would have gladly given you my consent for your use of candlesticks, but why must you continuously take things without first asking? Even if you agree to return them when you are finished, people quite naturally believe you are stealing. If you asked first, no one would come to the wrong conclusions about you."

It was an old refrain for the ex-vaquero. "You have a greater faith in your flock than I do, Padre. I find that the people here do not want to understand and refuse to give permission no matter what I say. So, I do what I must."

The priest only shook his head at that. "Every man must answer to his conscience, my son. I know you do not steal; at least I believe that you do not steal. Can you not tell me why you are doing these things? Surely, there is a reason. Perhaps something is troubling you? At least I would be able to say to the authorities, should it come up, that yes, I knew you had ‘borrowed’ these items, but I was certain there was no harm intended."

"Speaking of the authorities, did you know that the comandante returned this afternoon?" Joaquín asked, changing the subject. "I am not worried about him, for myself that is, but I think you should be."

"Capitán de las Fuentes is known as a just man," Felipe commented. "He will not persecute you for what you have done."

"I don’t mean me – about what he might do to me," Joaquín insisted. "I mean that you need to be worried about how he will become a man, like any other man, when the cards are all out on the table. He has searched for meaning in his life after so many years of despair, and he found it in the Señorita Pérez . Now, he has returned to Los Angeles only to find that happiness snatched from him by a worthless rich kid who isn’t worth the dirt under his feet. All those fine notions about ‘justice’ and ‘honor’ and ‘forgiveness’ will wash away like the tears he will shed in torrents. When that is all done with, there will be a gibbet and Salvador Muñoz will hang. Los Angeles will cheer his hanging; their cheers will ease his conscience – and everyone else’s too. That is, everyone except old man Muñoz. He’ll have to live in a community that will only remember him as the father of a murderer of a young girl whose only crime was to refuse to marry him."

Felipe listened to the man who stood before him and spoke with such passion. He felt the sincerity, concern, and even despair in the words of Joaquín Enríquez. But he asked the question not merely from curiosity, but to gauge the man himself. "Do you like Don Francisco, Joaquín?"

The thin man looked amused. "Would it really matter if I do or do not?" He paused and thought a moment, then looked into the distance, beyond the walls of the church graveyard. "Yes, I like him, but don’t ask me why. Maybe because he’s the only one who ever bothered to ask me anything about myself; maybe he’s the only one who never condemned me first without trying to find out why; maybe he’s the only person in authority to ever give me some respect. I don’t want respect because people fear me; I want respect because I am a man. He gave me that, so I give him that respect, too." He looked up at the priest with a small smile. "Funny, isn’t it? If anyone ever called him out, I’d volunteer to be his second. I wouldn’t do that for anyone else."

"Don Francisco is like that, Joaquín. I think that deep inside, you realize that the kind of qualities he has are what you want most men to have because they are qualities that you yourself advocate, yet deny yourself in action. As for Salvador Muñoz, I will pray for him." Felipe began to walk toward the gate. He turned back to the fugitive. "By the way, Joaquín, I think you are too pessimistic. There is something else that you have forgotten and that is the power of love. You will find that this pueblo has more of that than you might have realized."

As the gate closed behind the padre, Joaquín Enríquez turned back and sat down on a stone bench. He put his head in his hands. He did not want to think very much about what the padre said. He had to think of what he would do next. His work was almost at an end and then, he would leave Los Angeles forever.

 

 

Chapter 34
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