Zorro & the Old Comandante
Eugene H. Craig
Capitán Enrique Monastario paced the office of the Comandante of El Presidio Real de San Francisco. The young goateed officer was very irritated. He had planned an immediate return to Los Angeles following the conference in Monterey. He could never rely on anyone but himself to keep the pueblo and its fickle population in line, he thought. He knew nothing of the officer who temporarily replaced him, but at least Sergeant García was not in charge.
At the end of the conference he was summoned to the office of the Viceroy and told that he was under orders to proceed to the Presidio in San Francisco. The point of the journey was to retrieve some official documents that were coming by special messenger. As a loyal and trusted officer of the Crown, he would at first deliver them to Monterey and then proceed back to his post in Los Angeles.
While he didn’t like the idea of being an "errand boy," both the Governor and Viceroy told him privately that only someone with his rank could be entrusted to procure and deliver some very important Crown directives that were to arrive by ship. Heavy seas had prevented the ship from making landfall at Monterey and so the vessel had proceeded to San Francisco. While his selection had soothed the ego and inflated the self-importance of the Comandante of Los Angeles, this meant traveling to the Presidio and waiting.
It was this waiting that began to annoy Capitán Monastario. He was a man of action whose restless nature would not bode well for too long. He took advantage of the situation to look over the fortress and did some publicity for himself and how well he ran affairs in Los Angeles. Obviously, these people in San Francisco, even in Monterey, had no appreciation of the situation in the south which involved not only rebellious subjects of the king, but that will-o-the-wisp bandit, Zorro. Treason showed its ugly head around almost every rock in Los Angeles.
Monastario was bored by the routine he encountered in San Francisco. He compared the simple fortress with his own – one made of plastered adobe, brush, and wood. He envied the dozen cannon of iron and bronze that had been installed after the building of the fortress by Jose Joaquín Moraga under the command of Capitán Juan Bautista de Anza less than fifty years earlier when the fortress had been established in March of 1776. Nevertheless, he was told by the commander there that the fortress had suffered greatly from numerous earthquakes and heavy rains. Much of his time was spent rebuilding this, Spain’s’ most important northern outpost of Alta California.
In the evenings, Monastario sat and listened to this officer tell him about the epic journey of 193 soldiers, women and children, who traveled from Tubac in the Spanish territory of Arizona to the San Francisco Bay, the setting up of the Mission in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi which was also called Mission Dolores named after the nearby springs and river. The mission had become quite prosperous, he was informed, and encompassed almost 125 acres of grazing cattle and sheep, orchards, and other food producing crops.
Monastario yawned and indicated how boring this routine must be for such an important outpost. Things were much more prosperous and volatile in the south, he postulated. Treason was everywhere and it was personified in the person of the outlaw bandit, El Zorro. Raids, robberies, and rebellions he faced off, almost personally, Monastario boasted.
In response to his rather self-glorifying monologues, the commander of San Francisco made the comment that, how strange it was that Los Angeles would be so subversive, when Californians as a whole were quite loyal to Spain. He noted that there was some debate that, should the colony of Mexico achieve independence, California would break from it and chart its own course as a loyal territory of Spain. In response, Monastario suggested that should such a remote eventuality take place, military officers might – with the guidance of officials in Monterey, of course, - take control and rule the land as a new nation. To Monastario’s disgust, the officer merely smiled and said his duty was to serve Spain and that others would make such decisions.
There was not much of a social milieu that suited Monastario either. There were many pretty girls from several nearby settlements and they often frequented the presidio. Most of them were illiterate, the capitán noted, unlike the ladies of Los Angeles, and many ended up marrying soldiers. A few were shockingly independent and opinionated, but that was due, no doubt, to allowing them to meddle in affairs of business and to disregard the authority of their husbands. Most of them could not afford a dowry for marriage anyway, Monastario learned with disgust. Los Angeles was beginning to look better and better the longer he stayed in San Francisco.
One of his last trips in the bay area was to inspect the fortress Castillo de San Joaquin, the sentry at the entrance of the bay. This fort was armed with an even greater number of cannon if the English or even the lone French pirate, Hipólito Bouchard, attacked the settlement. Bouchard had already attacked Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Juan Capistrano, with limited success and coastal garrisons were on the alert. Monastario asked the commander of this fort if the Indians ever launched attacks. He was told that over a quarter of the Miwok and Olone Indians who inhabited the immediate area had died in a measles epidemic, the worst in all of California, back in 1806. Indians, he explained, were no threat to Spanish rule in northern California, and, he added, never had been.
At last, Capitán Monastario was told that a military ship was to arrive with provisions within a few days. He was eager to return to Monterey and from there begin the long journey back to Los Angeles.
It was late at night when Felix Muñoz returned home. He was met at the door by his brother, Juan, who embraced him and led him to the sala. Juan poured out two glasses of wine and spoke softly to the grey-haired merchant who sat disconsolately in a chair.
"Ines told me what happened with Salvador," Juan began. "I cannot begin to tell you of my dismay. I only hope that my presence here can aid or comfort you in some way."
Felix looked up at his brother. "I cannot begin to tell you of my own bewilderment," he began. "Nothing seems to make any sense. No sense at all." He shook his head.
"What do you mean, Felix?" asked the other.
"My lawyer, Don Palacios, and I went to visit Salvador after obtaining the comandante’s permission," the don explained. "Salvador was hostile and unreceptive to our attempts to find out why he acted the way he did. He seems resentful of me, of Señorita Margarita, and even of the Comandante."
"May I ask who is the comandante?" asked Juan. "Has he mistreated Salvador in any way?"
"No, to the contrary. He is most courteous," the don told him. "His name is Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes. I believe Salvador hates him because Señorita Margarita has made it clear that she is in love with the capitán, not with him. She turned down Salvador’s marriage proposals many times. Several weeks ago, I told Salvador to stop pursuing the señorita because it was obvious that she is in love with this officer."
Juan seemed surprised, almost startled, to hear this news. "Does this officer call himself ‘Francisco de las Fuentes’? And is he in love with her?"
"Why, yes," Felix responded in a puzzled manner. "He has demonstrated this publicly. Actually, Juan, I was going to ask you if he is, perhaps, related to your master, the prince, General Alfonso de las Fuentes y Alarcón. Some people in the pueblo are already whispering that the capitán himself is a prince."
"Why do they think he is a prince?" asked Juan cautiously.
"Of course, it may be a rumor, but you would not believe the justice he has delivered to the pueblo. When he first arrived, there were trials of accused men. How happy Los Angeles has been under this commander! I don’t believe that anyone doubts that he puts the best interest of the pueblo first, even though he himself has suffered a grievous wound and was even kidnapped by Indians!"
Now, it was Juan’s turn to be amazed. "Wounded? Kidnapped by Indians?"
Felix smiled. "It’s a long tale to be told. Undoubtedly, the comandante will have many stories to tell to his children in the coming years. But, tell me this, Juan: what brings you to California? You are a long way from Spain."
Juan looked his brother in the eyes and said soberly, "I have come to California, Felix, to accompany my master home."
The cuartel of the pueblo of Los Angeles, like the town itself, was dark. Only the torches burning outside the gates of the garrison and the two soldiers standing on guard duty before the massive oak entrance revealed that the pulse of life continued.
A figure in a black cloak, hat and mask astride a black stallion approached the cuartel. The stallion carefully made his way with quiet steps alongside a wall of the cuartel. The rider stopped him and looked up at a dark window. The horse shook his head once and waited patiently as a man in black stood up on his back and hoisted himself up to the dark window. Within seconds he landed lightly on his feet inside the room and made his way toward the bed. With the light of the moon shining brightly, he could see the bed was empty. He glanced toward the door and saw the faint flickering of candlelight in the office beyond.
In the Oficina del Comandante, a small, bearded man in a blue and white uniform with red trim sat at a desk with his head in his hands. Every once in a while, he looked up at his surroundings, his eyes passing over the plastered adobe walls. He reached for a glass of wine in a mug and sipped it. Then he rose from the desk for the innumerable number of times and paced the room. Finally he stopped before the window that overlooked the cuartel and uttered the words. "For the first time in my life, I will be executing a man for murder. Salvador Muñoz will hang."
Only silence greeted his words as he gazed out at the high walls of the cuartel. In the quiet of the night, a voice spoke with a stark clarity from behind him, "I think not, Comandante."
Francisco de las Fuentes recognized the voice at once and turned back towards his desk. There, a man in black stood with his legs apart and his hands on his hips. He was slowly shaking his head.
"Señor Zorro," the Comandante acknowledged, "we meet again."
"Yes, Capitán, we meet again."
"If you are here to tell me that I can not hang a man for murder, then I’m afraid we must part in our notion of justice," the officer responded, not defiantly, but with a sad finality.
"Capitán de las Fuentes," the man in black asked, "the señorita, is she still recuperating?"
"She does not seem to have the will to live," Francisco told El Zorro mournfully. "There seems to be nothing that I, her mother, nor her friends can do to convince her that she will recover. She seems resigned to the fact that Señor Muñoz will triumph after all."
"Killing someone does not make a man triumph over anything," the Fox stated unequivocally.
Francisco de las Fuentes was silent for a long moment. He understood the double implication of the man’s words. "I cannot allow that man to live after murdering one of the most innocent and sweetest women in the world," he said with some heat. "He is a useless wastrel." He paused. "I pity his father and mother, for they are not bad people."
El Zorro walked towards the officer just a few steps. "Comandante, I must insist that you not do such a thing. Did you not say, at the hearing of Joaquín Enríquez, ‘Death is the ultimate injustice and to commit it is a crime’?"
"You have a remarkable source of information, Señor," the officer replied, "but I request that you do not threaten me. I have much experience with the blade and I would regret it if we should come to blows over this case."
"I would regret this, too, Comandante," responded El Zorro. "I, too, have a reputation with the blade and I would not wish to use it against a man like you. However, if I must, I will."
Francisco de las Fuentes smiled slightly at the challenge. "I respect your courage, Señor Zorro. However, there is something that I need to tell you. When the current king of Spain was heir to the throne, he was counseled that he needed instruction in the use of the blade as befitted a future monarch. The man chosen as his teacher was none other than myself."
"I am impressed, Capitán," the man in black smiled in return. "However, I understand that his current Majesty neither fences nor engages in any martial skills. How do you explain that?"
"Ah," the officer reflected. "When His Majesty learned that I was to be his instructor, he opted not to be trained. It seems that he took offense at my insistence on excellence, discipline, and obedience. He has no capacity for any of these qualities. I, on the other hand, do. As a gentleman, I think it only fair that I warn you that you will face a formidable opponent - if you seek to challenge me or my authority." He slightly pulled his saber out of the scabbard, just an inch or two, then, slapped it back into place to emphasize his meaning.
El Zorro continued to smile. "Capitán de las Fuentes," he explained. "I do not doubt your ability with the blade or your honor. I am not here to challenge your authority. I am here for two reasons. The first is to remind you that justice is never served by killing someone. The second reason, I am here, however, is personal. Having heard of the Señorita Perez’s distress, I believe that I might have an answer that would help solve the problem of why she feels that she is going to die."
This unexpected statement caused Francisco de las Fuentes to pause a long moment. He stared at the young man almost in surprise. He was expecting a sword fight after the Fox gave his opinion about the trial of Salvador Muñoz. Even if there were a good twenty years or more in their age difference, he was sure he would triumph. But what would such a triumph mean? He knew he would neither kill nor seriously harm the man in black if they came to blows. This second issue was surely a diplomatic means to defuse the first disagreement. "What do you propose in the case of Señorita Margarita?" he asked cautiously.
El Zorro watched the small man approach him and knew that the officer had deliberately moved out of fighting range towards one of disengagement. "Capitán, as I understand it, the young lady feels that she is going to die. She feels that Salvador Muñoz will succeed in killing her before she has the chance to marry you."
"That is essentially correct," Francisco affirmed.
"Comandante, why don’t you just marry her?" the man in
black smiled. "Just marry her, now, right away. That way, she will
know that Salvador has lost; that way she will get better."
Francisco de las Fuentes seemed stunned a moment. "Marry her now?" he exclaimed. "In a hovel? Without my family knowing? Our engagement is barely two weeks old. There is no time to plan for this – who would I invite in this wilderness to attend such an affair – wild boar, coyotes, grizzly bears? Why, Margarita has not had the time to choose a proper wedding dress! I could not possibly attend a wedding dressed like this!" The prince brushed a hand over his own uniform with disdain. "How could I possibly honor her in such a way?"
El Zorro nodded knowingly before replying. "Your Excellency," he asked to the point, "What is most important, all this pomp and circumstance, or saving Margarita’s life?"
The prince paused a long time and considered the words of El Zorro. They were honest and direct, something he respected. He studied the young man opposite him and thought about how pride went before a fall and how he was determined not to lose Margarita, yes, even if it meant no cathedral, no bishop or cardinal presiding, not even a grand procession. Would his vanity cause her death if he did not act? Or was this God’s ultimate test? he wondered. "I will marry her, El Zorro, because if I were to lose her, I would not only have squandered my own happiness and her future, I would lose my soul. I truly deem our love over all these other things."
The knight in black gave a big smile as he stepped back towards the comandante’s quarters. "Padre Felipe, who is a man of high moral quality and courage, could not be a better officiator at such an event, Comandante. You will find that your friends in the pueblo could not be more honored than to attend your wedding, a memory that they will treasure for the rest of their lives." With these words, the Fox disappeared into the darkness behind him.
Francisco de las Fuentes smiled slightly as he slowly followed in the Fox’s wake. He did not walk slowly because of his leg any longer; he walked slowly so that the man in black would depart as silently as he had appeared at the cuartel. Belatedly he uttered the words, "I would wish you there, too, my friend." The comandante sat down on his bed and thought how El Zorro had helped him ever since his arrival to the pueblo. And now, in his most despairing moments, this strange outlaw had given him the hand of friendship plus the answer to the most troubling moments of his life in Los Angeles. Somehow, he would need to repay the masked man, but how?
It was early the next morning when Don Alejandro de la Vega looked up from his cup of coffee and noticed his son nodding off at the breakfast table. This was most unusual, he thought. "Diego," he began. There was no response. He raised his voice a little and reached out a hand to touch his son’s shoulder. "Diego," he repeated.
The young man in a brown ranchero’s outfit opened his eyes at once, looking slightly startled. He saw his father smiling slightly at him. "Father?" he asked and looked around.
"My son, I have never seen you in such a state. Were you out all night in the pueblo?"
Diego straightened up in his chair and managed to look embarrassed. He shook his head. "Not at all, Father. I just could not sleep. I tossed and turned the entire night, trying to think of an answer for the situation with Margarita and Capitán de las Fuentes." He sighed. "I’m afraid that I could come up with no answer."
Alejandro nodded. "I know what you are saying. I myself have given this much thought. The only solution I can arrive at is to propose to the comandante that he do the unthinkable – and that is, to just marry her. I am sure that, despite the fact he is an enlightened man, he is much too traditional for that kind of action. But it is exactly what he needs to do."
"Why, Father," Diego looked surprised. "I can hardly believe that you would make such a suggestion. Capitán de las Fuentes is so old-fashioned that most people think of him as the ‘old Comandante’."
The older man chuckled at that. "Don’t tell me that you are shocked by my proposal, Diego. After all, it is a practical approach. He could always have a second, grander wedding in Spain. Besides, her life is at stake."
His son seemed to ponder those words. "If that is true, then we need to get to the pueblo right away and suggest this course of action to Don Francisco. Every moment we wait could be fatal."
Alejandro rose from his chair. "Let both of us depart, then, but only after you drink some coffee, my son. The least you can do is look awake when we meet with His Excellency. I am going to have to find a way to be as diplomatic with Don Francisco as I can. I hope that my proposal will not offend him."
Diego reached for the coffee pot and poured himself a cup. He grimaced slightly at its taste. "Barely warm," he remarked, but drank the entire contents. He headed toward the stairs. "I will return within fifteen minutes."
Alejandro turned toward a servant and asked that two mounts be prepared. It would take that long to prepare the horses and then they would be off to the pueblo.
When Diego reached his room, he saw Bernardo within, making the bed. The mozo in brown had put the unused bedclothes away. He turned as Diego closed the door. Diego gave a sigh of weariness and the servant smiled in understanding. He placed both of his hands together, tucked them under his left cheek, and closed his eyes.
Diego could not help but laugh a little at that. "Yes, Bernardo, I would like to sleep, but the night was well-spent. After visiting Capitán de las Fuentes and convincing him to get married right away, I then paid a call on Padre Felipe. Never have I had to call upon all my resources to argue with him the merit of abandoning tradition for the sake of the practical. To his great credit, he finally agreed that this was the only course. He said he would never agree with those who would argue that Margarita was fated to die. He has known Margarita for too many years to want such an ending to her life. His only reservation was that His Excellency might be too mired in the past to consider such a thing. I asked him if a man of such insight and desire to do justice for others would not, in turn, do justice to himself, even though it violated his desires to give Margarita the wedding he believes she deserves."
Bernardo raised his eyebrows and hands as if to ask, "Well?"
Diego took the hat the mozo offered him and smiled as he opened the door. "You know, I think that Padre Felipe and the Comandante will surprise each other this morning when both of them find they have come to the same conclusion as my father!"
María Pérez and the gypsy, Pilar Montoya, sat down next to Margarita’s bed. Both of them wore smiles on their faces.
María took one of her daughter’s hands in hers. She watched the young woman open her eyes. "Wake up, Margarita," she said in a teasing tone.
"Good afternoon, Señorita Margarita," crooned Pilar.
"Good afternoon," Margarita replied in a solemn voice. "I feel the same today as yesterday."
"We are going to change all that, Margarita," her mother told her. "Señora Montoya examined your wound this morning and said you can even start walking. We will help you walk."
"What is the point, Mother? I am sick. I am going to die anyway," Margarita said in a forlorn voice. "I just want Francisco to be here with me when I die."
"Stop talking about dying," María admonished her. "You are going to have a visitor any moment and we want to get you ready."
"Who is the visitor?" her daughter asked, "and how can I get ready?"
"This is a surprise," Pilar answered.
A moment later there was a knock at the front door. María heard the servant answer the door and she got up herself to go to the door. There, she greeted an older woman who carried a bulky package. Both women came toward the bed. Margarita was surprised when she saw who it was.
"Good day, Señora Portolá," she greeted the woman. The last time Margarita saw this woman was when she frowned at her in church after she had poked the comandante and it had made such a commotion. Margarita always remembered the woman’s look with embarrassment. But today, Señora Portolá had only smiles for the Pérez girl.
"Oh, Margarita, I am so happy to hear the news. And how fortunate you are," she said turning to María, "for such a son-in-law as the Capitán." She lowered her voice confidentially. "Some say that he is a prince, you know."
"He’s a musician, just like me," Margarita corrected her, "and a very fine one. You wouldn’t believe how he plays music. He is a scholar and very wise. In all these ways he is a prince to me."
All three of the women looked at each other and smiled. "Now we must get you ready for this prince," her mother said.
Señora Portolá unwrapped her package at the end of the bed and folded out the contents. Margarita looked in amazement at a beautiful white dress, the finest she had ever seen. It was a little old and very formal. While she examined it, Señora Portolá handed another object to María. The woman took it and spread out a long white veil.
Margarita looked surprised. "It’s a wedding dress," she exclaimed. She touched the material with outstretched fingers.
"It is now your wedding dress," María told her. "And we are here to help you try it on for size."
"I can’t try it on, Mother. I am wounded and ill. How can I even stand up? By the time Francisco is ready to leave for Spain, I will be in the grave."
The three women approached the young woman in the bed. Pilar pulled the blanket back. "It is now time to get up," she said. So saying, she reached her arm behind the back of the young lady and gently moved her to the side of the bed. Soon Margarita’s feet touched slippers and more arms helped her stand.
It was only a half an hour later that a young woman stood in front of a long mirror and eyed herself in a long white dress with a white veil and long train while her mother and two friends fussed over the fitting and how she looked. The mother knelt down to take the measurements and announced the dress almost a perfect fit. The other details would be worked out the rest of the afternoon. Señora Portolá was ready to work all afternoon and night for any alternations. After barging her way past Sebastian under many false pretenses in order to get the dress and other items belonging to María, sewing would be a small thing to contend with. Pilar Montoya left to attend to the other details.
After the other two women left with the dress, Margarita sat back on the pillows. She watched her mother go through a box of jewelry.
"I know you are trying to make me feel better, Mother," she told María. "But by the time our wedding would be scheduled for next year…oh this is so ridiculous."
"Margarita, there is something that you have to know, right now," her mother told her. "This morning, Padre Felipe and Don Francisco visited me. We had a long talk. It was decided that tomorrow, Sunday, you are going to be married here in the church in Los Angeles to Don Francisco. Padre Felipe is chosen to bless your union. He will be by later this afternoon to speak to you himself."
"Married? Me? Tomorrow?" Margarita responded in astonishment. She was so surprised that she was at a loss for words.
María took advantage of that by slipping out to attend to other chores. She didn’t want to hear any more arguments about dying.
Margarita Pérez sat propped up against the pillows. The house was quiet now except for muffled voices from the kitchen and she was all alone in the sala. Her thoughts flowed like a river. She told herself that she was dying; that she would not live long enough to be married to Francisco; that all her dreams for marrying him were just that – dreams. But, then she started to think about how she looked in the mirror dressed in the wedding dress that had once been her mothers and in her own golden jewelry. Pilar had placed the veil over her head after the train had been tried out. She began to imagine herself holding flowers and she started to smile a little. She looked down at the engagement ring on her finger, a most exquisite ring with a jeweled musical note. Perhaps she could imagine herself walking down the isle and Francisco at her side as they recited their life pledges to each other. Perhaps if she imagined hard enough, it might just come true.