Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-six

 

It was early afternoon and the plaza in front of the church was packed with the inhabitants of the pueblo of Los Angeles. It had not taken very long for the word to spread about the wedding and it seemed that almost everyone wanted to attend. Don Juan Villa and his family, the Torres, the Santos, and others drove up in their carriages. Men who had been at the hearings, such as Gonzalez, the blacksmith, and his son, Pepe, appeared in their Sunday best. They were joined by Roberto Cárdenas the storekeeper with his wife and son, the carpenter and his assistants, the district vaqueros, and the flower vendor. The vaqueros, the barmaids, the elderly, the young, the midwives, the doctor, and the pueblo’s two lawyers could be seen milling about. Even Don Felix Muñoz and his wife, Ines, came, although they stayed on the periphery of the crowd.

The church was filled with the fragrance of every flower that could be found in the pueblo and even outside of it. Flowers of all colors were everywhere. Candles had been lit and the aroma of incense lingered about the altar.

At the cuartel, Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes fastened the last of his medals and decorations on his army jacket, brushed his hair for the third time, and watched in the mirror at the dresser as Corporal Reyes whisked his uniform off for the final time. He thanked the corporal for his services and headed out into the office.

There was a knock on the door of the Oficina del Comandante and Sergeant García entered. "There is a man requesting to see you, Comandante," the soldier told the officer. "He says it is urgent."

De las Fuentes sighed. There was always something that demanded his attention, even on his wedding day, he thought. Nevertheless, it was one last duty he would perform before departing for the church. "Let him enter," he replied.

García watched as a man of medium height with a brown pony tail stepped into the office. The man was wearing long trousers, a black frock coat and a high top hat which he removed upon entering the room.

Francisco de las Fuentes glanced up at the man, then stared hard at him a long moment. There was a look of genuine amazement on his face. "Muñoz!" he exclaimed and took an immediate step toward the man in greeting.

Juan Muñoz sank to one knee bowing before the officer. "My Prince," he said solemnly yet there was a smile on his face. He tried to take the officer’s hand to kiss.

"Muñoz, how, what are you doing here in Los Angeles?" Francisco asked, putting both hands on the man’s shoulders, then grasping his arms as if to raise him up "I hardly recognized you in such, ah, - modern attire." There was a twinkle in his eyes.

Juan Muñoz rose. "It would seem that I must bow to the trends that I find myself surrounded by." He chuckled a little. "But I am here because his Excellency, your father, sent me and there is news of great change in Spain."

"What is Father’s message?" inquired the captain. "I know he was much displeased with me when I departed Spain."

"No longer, Your Excellency. First is his message that he and his wife, your mother, send you much love. The second is that he wishes you to come home."

"That may still be somewhat difficult," Francisco responded dryly. "The politics still remain and that is what keeps me away. Besides, my own life has changed considerably."

"So I hear," Juan replied. "Is it true, Your Excellency, that you are about to be married - on this very day?" He looked concerned. "I beg your forgiveness upon asking this, but is not this lady a Creole, instead of being Spanish born? And she is not noble?"

"Yes, it is true. She is Creole, not born in Spain, but what does it matter, Muñoz? I have found my better half in a world away…and I am content." He smiled at the man. "And if I am at peace, what is there to forgive?"

"Not I, my Prince. I am only thinking of your family. It is rumored that the Lady Isabel’s husband is dying and that she may seek your forgiveness."

There was a silence in the room for a long moment and Juan became aware of the noise of the soldiers in the cuartel. He looked at the comandante in anticipation of his answer.

Francisco shook his head slowly. "It is too late for all that, my friend. Her ladyship is a part of another world that is, for me, long past, and one that has changed. But, dear friend, I am going to be late if I do not leave at once. True, my fiancée, Margarita, is not noble by blood, but she is, in all things, noble to me. I wish you to meet her and see for yourself. Get to know her as I have. Will you not be a part of my happiness, Muñoz? I wish you to come along to the church and to join me at the altar."

"If Your Excellency wishes it, then it is my pleasure," Juan replied. He looked at the hat that De las Fuentes placed on his head. "Is this a new fashion that the military has adopted, Excellency?"

De las Fuentes smiled as the man opened the door for him and he stepped out onto the porch outside of the Oficina del Comandante. "No, not officially. One of my fiancée’s friends mentioned that she hoped to see me in ‘knightly plumes’ at our wedding. As she and her family have been unstinting in their service to me and to my intended, I found it a request I could not refuse."

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

Joaquín Enríquez was attending to his own ceremony in the church graveyard on this sunny afternoon. He began spreading out the objects of his collection around the grave of Juan Enríquez. Once in a while, he stopped to listen to the sounds of the ceremony going on inside the church. He heard the first psalm sung during the beginning of the Nuptial Mass for what he knew was the comandante’s wedding to Señorita Pérez. He paused and remembered back in time to his uncle, the friar Adrian, who had performed such weddings when he was a boy. Enríquez smiled, remembering those idealic years before the return of his father. He reminded himself what he was there for and continued to place pewter, copper, silver and gold objects on the grave. When he finished, he stood up. He closed his eyes. From the church he also heard the Gloria sung and the thunder of voices reciting ‘Our Father’ during the Eucharist. He imagined that these voices accompanied his own ceremony over the graves of the dead and he mouthed the words.

At a discreet distance, a pair of brown eyes watched him from behind a tree and a gray-haired woman in colorful skirts, necklaces and earrings pulled a dark shawl around her and quietly approached the standing man who seemed quite lost in thought.

Pilar Montoya first knelt before the grave of María Enríquez and laid a white rose on it. She rose quietly and then joined the man at his side. She said nothing and it seemed that the breeze that whipped through the gate and into the graveyard whispered all the words that needed to be uttered. The birds chirped from the trees and bushes around them and the filtered sun beams shone down through the high branches of the great oak that grew near the garden path.

At last Enríquez spoke. He turned to her just slightly. "This is all of them. Everything I created from when I first began to when I finished the gold snuff box."

Pilar but her arm through his. "You became the craftsman he wanted you to be."

He looked at the grass covered ground. "But not through a love of it. I hated him, pitied him. He thought me worthless. I ran away and created these. By the time I returned to show him, it was too late. He was dead. All my labors seemed to have no meaning. Yet, his memory has haunted me all these years."

"And your mother?"

Joaquín sighed. "I only remember her goodness and helplessness."

"When you returned," asked Pilar, "what became of these items you brought to show your father?"

"I left them in the care of a man here in Los Angeles who professed to be my friend while I attempted to find my mother who, I learned, had departed for San Diego. I was unable to find her, or she me. I later learned she had returned here and died."

Pilar was silent a while. Then she nodded towards the grave. "Wherever he is now, he knows you are the son he wanted you to be." She stood with him a long while as the memories flooded over him.

It was mid-afternoon before Enríquez finally knelt and began to gather the items back into a hemp bag. Some of them he wrapped in soft cloth.

"What are you going to do now?" Pilar asked, gesturing to the bag. "You could sell them elsewhere. Many would wish to buy such workmanship and at a fine price."

Enríquez shook his head. "The people who bought them did so on good faith. They could not know that these were stolen from me. Besides, I would be doing the comandante a disfavor if I were ever to reveal the source of these stolen goods."

"The comandante?" asked Pilar in surprise. "Do you mean Capitán de las Fuentes? What could he have to do with this?"

"Nothing," Enríquez declared. "But the thief who stole my creations and made the money to set himself up in a successful business was none other than Sebastian Pérez."

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

 

She had been brought to the church in a carriage with her friends, Ismaida and Juanita. She was dressed in white, with a veil and train that the two girls carried up off the ground. Her mother accompanied her. In the carriage was Don César and his wife, Ramona. The conversation was animated and full of good cheer in the short jaunt to the entrance of the church.

Margarita Pérez was helped down from the carriage and she saw an enormous number of people milling about outside the church. She smiled and carefully entered the doors on the arm of her mother. Just inside she saw a man in a dark blue military coat trimmed with red. On his head was a hat with a large white plume that wrapped half-way around it. His expression under the up-turned moustaches was that of expectation and satisfaction when he saw her. He took her hand delicately in his and kissed it. He then asked her if she felt strong enough to stand a while to greet their guests. She nodded silently, feeling as if this were a dream and she was watching it happen to someone else, not to her.

It seemed as if almost everyone in town had come and their smiles were so encouraging that she felt energized. Only after most of them had passed into the church did she sit down a short while. Then it was time for the ceremony. Francisco introduced her to a quaint-looking man in a ponytail and she noticed the man’s inquisitive eyes appraising her as Don César walked up and smiled down at her.

Padre Felipe approached the couple and greeted them and their guests. Not only did the guests include the stranger, a Señor Muñoz, but her good friend, Diego de la Vega, and his father, Alejandro. There were the Villas and the Rodríguez, and, of course, her mother. Dr. Aguilera, who had brought her into the world, was the last member of the special circle that would join them.

Don César took great pleasure in walking the bride down the isle. He nodded to several acquaintances as they walked slowly but surely past every pew. Margarita saw the many smiles as she passed and looked down momentarily, at the flowers in her arms. When she looked up again, she saw Francisco standing by the altar with the stars shining in his eyes. She saw the stained glass windows high above and the statute of the Virgin Mary where she paused to place the roses before finally joining him.

She had been to all the weddings of her sisters and knew every moment, every hymn, and every phrase: the opening prayer, the Liturgy of the Word, the reading of the psalms, the singing of the Alleluia and the Gospel readings.

Francisco was especially pleased with the old-fashioned wedding dress that fit her so perfectly. He saw her light-brown hair peeking out beneath the veil when she bowed her head, and her shy smile. When Padre Felipe spoke of the love of music which united the couple and how early artists of the church had always depicted the angels playing musical instruments, the comandante remembered El Zorro’s assertion that the priest would have no match when it came to the ceremony. God’s love, Felipe explained, showed itself particularly through music. He spoke of the spiritualism and holiness of marriage. Then, the special moment came for the vows.

Francisco de las Fuentes turned to Margarita and saw that her eyes were shining, her pink lips in a wide smile. He spoke the words softly in his deep baritone, but with great passion and feeling: "I, Francisco, take you, Margarita., to be my wife. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life."

She signed deeply in contentment, savoring the words as he spoke them. It wasn’t until he raised his eyebrows in expectation that she realized how long she had taken to respond. She smiled and intoned "And I, Margarita, take you, Francisco, to be my husband. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life. "

Don Alejandro then gave the bride’s ring to Padre Felipe who blessed it and gave it to the Capitán. Francisco raised the ring to his lips, kissed it, and then slipped it onto Margarita’s finger. "Margarita., take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

Her ring to him was likewise blessed and she slipped it onto his, saying, "Francisco, take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

Both then stepped towards each other and exchanged a loving kiss on the lips before separating again to hear the Prayer of the Faithful. The Liturgy of the Eucharist followed and the honored guests, in this instance Diego de la Vega, Ismaida Rodríguez and Juanita Villa, brought up the wine and bread to the altar. The Nuptial Blessing was made and then Padre Felipe asked everyone in the congregation "Let us give each other a sign of peace." Friends and neighbors, acquaintances and strangers turned to each other and intoned "Peace be with you." Others, especially María and Ramona, Ismaida and Juanita and Josefina, embraced and kissed each other. César, Alejandro, Diego and others, with wide smiles, embraced and shook each others’ hands. Holy Communion followed.

At last the couple stood and turned once again to face the congregation. Padre Felipe wore his most heartfelt smile as he introduced the newly married couple. "I give you, Don Francisco and Doña Margarita de las Fuentes."

There were cries of "Viva!" and applause that began like a wave at the front pew with Don César and rolled toward the back, crested, resounding throughout the church. It followed them as they made their way toward the entrance and the plaza beyond.

As they reached the open doors of the church, Francisco noticed that her steps began to falter. He looked at her in alarm. "Margarita, are you unwell?" he asked.

"I feel a little faint," she said in a soft voice and forced herself to take the last steps through the doors. Then she began to crumple.

Francisco de las Fuentes caught her and swooped her up in his arms. He was immediately surrounded by men and women offering their services.

"It is nothing," he assured them. "Her happiness has overwhelmed her." He continued to hear the congratulations of those surrounding him even as he made his way to the carriage.

Diego de la Vega was at his side in an instant. "Is she all right?" he asked in a concerned tone.

"I believe so," the comandante responded, "but she must be exhausted from the long ceremony."

"May I help you get her into the carriage?" Diego offered. The two men eased the young woman up into the carriage and the officer joined her, cradling the young woman in his arms.

Don César hurried out, followed by María. "What happened? Did she faint?"

"Margarita will be fine," Diego told him. "The comandante thinks she is exhausted."

"My poor darling," María exclaimed. "Perhaps she should go back home."

Francisco nodded. "I concur." He turned to the maestro. "May I take Margarita into your home again, Don César."

"Our home is yours, Your Excellency," the musician responded. "Only, you will have a harder journey to make when you get there."

The captain raised his eyebrows. "A harder journey?"

"I hope I was not premature, Capitán," César told him, "in light of all the good news and events, I had Margarita’s bed moved back up to her old room upstairs and, with it, her belongings. I fear you have a double flight of stairs to climb with your bride."

The officer nodded and the driver turned the horses in the opposite direction, down the dirt road toward the home of the Rodríguez.

Alejandro joined his son as they watched the carriage with two white horses depart. "I heard Margarita fainted," he said. "She began to look pale as they left the church."

Diego tried not to show his concern as the coach rounded a corner and disappeared. "Don César told His Excellency that he would have to carry Margarita upstairs upon arrival," he said lightheartedly.

Alejandro looked thoughtful. "I hope a flight of stairs is the most serious thing Don Francisco has to be concerned about."

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

A man stood just outside the cuartel and argued with the Sergeant, fruitlessly it seemed.

"I am sorry, Señor Pérez," the rotund man told him, "but you will have to get the permission of the comandante before you are allowed to see Salvador Muñoz."

"But the comandante is not here," Sebastian insisted, "and is not likely to be back soon."

"That is true," García mused. "He is at church marrying Señorita….your daughter."

"I know that," the man said in a very displeased tone of voice. "And an action she may soon live to regret."

The big sergeant did not like what he heard and tensed. "You should be at the church, too, at the wedding of your daughter," he declared. "It is only right."

"I stayed just long enough," Sebastian responded defensively. "I have no daughter any longer and I certainly don’t approve of her actions or those of the comandante. She will end up living in this dirty cuartel among a bunch of misfits and an eccentric buffoon…" he stopped himself from going any further. "I insist on seeing Salvador Muñoz."

"You cannot see the prisoner. You are not even related to the prisoner. You do not have permission to the see the prisoner," García repeated. "And if you continue to say bad things about the soldiers of the king, I will have to arrest you."

"You can’t arrest me for giving an accurate assessment of the garrison," Pérez responded arrogantly.

"That is true," García smiled. "But I am now in charge until the return of the comandante. I can arrest you for insulting an officer of the Crown. Who were you talking about when you said the words ‘eccentric buffoon’?"

"Oh, forget it," growled Pérez "This is just absurd and ridiculous." He departed in a huff.

García watched him walk away. Then he noticed someone had walked up next to him. It was Corporal Reyes.

"Isn’t that Señor Pérez, the father of Señorita Margarita?" asked the soldier.

"Yes, it is," the big man answered.

"What did he want, Sergeant?"

"He insisted on seeing Salvador Muñoz, but I told him that he had to have the permission of the comandante."

"Oh," responded Reyes. "What did he say?"

"Would you believe that he then insulted the soldiers of the cuartel. He even insulted you!"

"Me?" Reyes looked surprised. "Why would he want to insult me, Sergeant? What did he say?"

"First of all, he called the cuartel dirty. Then he called the soldiers ‘misfits’; by then he was moving up the chain of command and after the words ‘misfits’ he said ‘an eccentric buffoon.’ I had to stop him before he began to insult me or the comandante!"

Reyes frowned. "You know, Sergeant, I don’t think I like Señor Pérez very much."

García nodded. "You know something, Corporal, I don’t think I like him very much either."

 

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

 

It was later that evening when Don Alejandro returned to the hacienda with his son, Diego. They spent a long time in the sala discussing the wedding and how fine and grand it was.

"Almost everyone in the pueblo was at Church," Alejandro enthused, "including all the people who received justice from the comandante and their families. Most of the vaqueros showed up and so did all those who helped Señorita Pérez." He paused. "A pity more people did not know of it. I am sure that Chief Grey Feather would have been honored just to have been invited."

"His Excellency is not the only one who had to break tradition, Father," Diego mused. "We will have to as well. I have known Margarita for so long as ‘Señorita Pérez,’ I will have to be sure not to slip. At this point the safest form of address will appear to be "Señora Comandante." I bet she’ll like that."

Alejandro chucked. "Wait until she finds out what her title will be when she returns to Spain with him."

Diego was pensive a moment. "I am still concerned about her condition. She looked so pale in Church today before she fainted."

Alejandro looked thoughtful, then he smiled. "You know, my son, I think she was just overwhelmed by finally having her dreams come true. We should not be surprised by this. It is not unknown for women like her to faint, and the more romantic they seem to be inclined, the more likely it is to happen. No, I would not be over-concerned about Margarita. For some women, it is almost a custom."

When his son looked skeptical, he added, "Believe me, in my many years, I have seen this happen."

"Mother didn’t faint, did she, Father?" Diego asked mischievously.

"Your mother was a practical and level-headed woman," Alejandro said resolutely. "It was just one of the many reasons I married her."

"I see," Diego smiled. "But, did she ever faint?"

Alejandro smiled ruefully. "She did," he admitted, "But, only once."

"And when was that, Father?" Diego grinned.

"It was such a foolish thing. I proposed to her and presented her with a ring. After I slipped it on her finger, she examined it, looked up at me, gasped, and fell into a swoon in my arms. I did not know what to do!"

"What did you do?"

Alejandro smiled. "I helped her back onto the love seat and began to call her name. That did not seem to have any effect. I even shook her gently. Finally, I decided that there was only one course to take."

"You ran for the smelling salts," Diego chuckled.

Alejandro shook his head. "There were no smelling salts, my son. I decided that, like the prince in the fairy tale, I would kiss her on the lips to awaken her."

"Did that work?"

"Indeed it did, my son. So, the moral of the story is, when women faint in a romantic situation, do not be too concerned."

"I hope you are right, Father," Diego rejoined. "But now that all the excitement and pleasantness is over, there is still a serious matter at hand – and that is the trial of Salvador Muñoz."

It was Alejandro’s turn to become pensive. "Attempted murder is a very serious charge and the fact that it was the comandante’s fiancée makes it more than just an ordinary attack." He leaned forward in his chair toward his son. "I cannot understand why he would do such a thing. It was obvious to everyone that Margarita disliked him and would not consent to marry him, yet he insisted that he would marry her. What was his motivation? Why would he want to marry a young woman who rejected him?"

"I don’t know either," the young man replied, "but I once asked myself,’ are there questions that we are not yet asking ourselves.’ Why would her father, for example, insist that she marry a man she did not love? Why would he take such matters to extreme by selling her piano to punish her and even beat his own wife when matters did not go the way he wished? That is extreme."

"I agree," the don remarked, "but it is a subject I would like to postpone discussing until tomorrow. It is getting quite late and the both of us need to turn in, especially you. You told me you have not been sleeping well recently." Alejandro and his son rose and bid each other a good night.

It was less than five minutes after Don Alejandro closed his bedroom door, that Diego was startled by a pounding at his door.

"Diego, open the door," called his father.

Diego leaped off the bed and raced for the door. Outside stood his father in his dressing gown.

Diego was alarmed. "What is wrong, Father?" he asked with great concern. "What is going on?"

"Enríquez," Alejandro said. He held up an object in his hand. "My gold snuff box. I found it on the mantel. He must have returned it." He shook his head. "But why would he risk capture to return something he took so much trouble to steal?"

 

 

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