Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-seven

 

The day was overcast and chilly. Grey and white clouds intermingled and a breeze found its way through the gates of the cuartel, whipping its way around the pile of wood, the hanging laundry, and the iron grates of the jail.

Inside one of the cells, a young man sat with pout on his face and wrapped himself in the coarse blanket from the wooden platform he sat on. He had never been in a jail before and it was not a pleasant experience for him. Not a single one of the soldiers would take his coins when he requested that ‘decent food’ be brought him from the inn. Not one of them would respond to his request for another blanket even though he tossed some coins to them through the bars. One of the soldiers, a corporal, had stopped by the cell, leaned over, picked up the coins in the dirt and returned them to him.

"Here are your coins, Señor Muñoz," the soldier said, handing them back to the prisoner through the bars.

"They’re yours, soldier," Muñoz replied, standing by the bars. "Just let me send a message out to a friend of mine and you can keep them."

"That is not allowed," Corporal Reyes told him. "Keep your coins."

"I’ll double the amount, triple it!" Salvador insisted. "Look at all the coins you’ll have for wine at the tavern."

Reyes looked at the coins in the man’s hands. "No, thank you," he said. "I get all the wine I want at the inn for nothing."

"A message is nothing. I just need someone to talk to me!" Salvador insisted.

"You must ask the permission of the Comandante," Ryes explained.

"I’m not interested in talking with him," the young man said disdainfully.

"If you want anything, you must ask the Comandante," the corporal insisted. He suddenly straightened up and saluted someone outside of the prisoner’s view.

Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes returned the corporal’s salute. "Is the prisoner making a request, Corporal Reyes?"

Reyes saw Muñoz shaking his head at him and holding up a hand, but he was an honest man. "Sí, mi Capitán," he replied. "Señor Muñoz offered me coins to send a message for him."

The officer rounded the corner of the jail and walked up to the bars of the cell where the prisoner stood. "Good morning, Señor Muñoz," he said politely. "All requests must be communicated to me. What kind of message would you like send and to whom would you like to send it?"

"Oh, never mind," Salvador responded. He turned back to the platform and sat down.

Francisco de las Fuentes remained at the cell door. He watched the young man with the pouting lips for a long moment. "I think it would be a good idea for you to talk to me, Señor Muñoz. It might go better for you if you do."

"How can it go better for me?" the young man asked angrily. "It’s your intention to hang me, isn’t it?"

"Your punishment will be determined by the degree to which you cooperate with the authorities as well as to what happens to the young woman you shot," De las Fuentes replied.

Salvador perked up a bit. "She’s not dead, is she?" he asked.

"Is that what you want?" Francisco asked. "Tell me this; if you were so eager to marry her, then why would you shoot her just because she refused you? There is no logic in your actions. Surely there are other young women to court in Los Angeles."

"You don’t understand anything," Muñoz replied. "I probably should have shot you instead. You ruined everything for me - and for her."

"How so?" Francisco inquired. "She had turned you down before we even became acquainted. Surely, you cannot win the hand of any señorita by killing her friends."

"All right, if you really want to know," Salvador said with some venom. "She would have eventually accepted my proposal if you had not interfered. It was for her own good and she is too blind and stupid to know it. She lives in a dream world and the only way to get her out of that world is by force. Force is the only thing that works with devious women like her. Don Sebastian told me himself that a good beating worked with his own wife. Margarita is no different. I would have given her a comfortable life and she could have kept the damned piano!"

There was a long period of silence as the officer contemplated the diatribe he had just heard. Finally, he spoke. "Señor Muñoz, how can you claim to want to marry a woman whom you call ‘devious’? Is not marriage based upon love and affection for someone, someone with whom you pledge to spend the rest of your life? For you to say that you would even beat a lady is to imply that something else, not love, is the compelling reason for your insistence on marrying a woman who does not love you. Why don’t you tell me the real reason you insisted on marrying Señorita Margarita?"

Salvador looked at the officer at the bars with narrowed eyes. He now became cautious, even worried that he had gone too far. But he would not let it show. "I have no intention of telling you anything," he said haughtily. "Maybe it would just be best if she died and that would end it all." When he saw the tightening features of the officer’s face and a frown form, he smirked. Remembering what his lawyer told him, he added, "Was it not you, Capitán, who said the death penalty is a crime?"

Francisco controlled his anger and replied calmly. "Yes, I said that, Señor, and under those circumstances it was true. But there is something that you should know. True, I believe that the law should be applied to all commoners equally. As a matter of fact, I have spent much of my life upholding the law so that the subjects of the king receive justice. But, you, Señor Muñoz, have done something most unusual: you have crossed the barriers of class. When you kill, or attempt to kill, a member of the nobility, it is quite a different thing. The same kind of laws and justice do not apply. It is the tradition of our kingdom and it is something that I can not alter."

Salvador looked startled at this news. "What do you mean, ‘killing or attempting to kill a member of the nobility’?" he stammered. "Margarita is a commoner, like me."

"No longer, Señor Muñoz," Francisco told him. "Margarita is now my wife. We were married yesterday. If anything should happen to her, then the laws that apply to the killing of a member of the nobility will now apply to you." He paused a moment for the fact to sink in before he added, "I pray that in knowing this, you will be less eager to desire her death." He watched the color drain from Salvador’s pudgy features. "I am also here to inform you that your trial begins tomorrow morning." With these words the officer turned away and headed towards the gates of the cuartel.

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

Juan Muñoz heard the arrival of a visitor downstairs and decided to see who it was. If the visitor was the lawyer for his brother, Felix, he wanted to listen to what the man proposed for the defense of his client, Salvador.

He was about to enter the sala when all his instincts told him to listen first before entering. It was an old habit. He halted just outside the room where he heard a voice urging Felix to action.

"Take advantage of me, Felix," a man was saying persuasively. "You have been under a terrible strain – what with the situation with Salvador and your own health. All you have to do is to temporarily sign over to me the running of your business. Many of our clients are the same and our families have known each other a long time."

Juan frowned when he heard his brother’s reply.

"Perhaps that is a good idea, Sebastian," Felix responded. "It is true. I am worn out by all the worry and waiting for word when the trial is to begin."

Juan thought quickly to the night before. He had visited his master at the home of Don César Rodríguez and learned what had happened first hand from the prince. There was a great deal of sorrow in the demeanor of Francisco de las Fuentes y Alarcón, something Juan was not used to hearing, or seeing. He learned what had happened to Margarita Pérez at the hands of her father and Salvador and about the shooting. Juan was appalled by what he heard, feeling a great deal of sympathy for the young lady he had briefly met at Church. He earnestly hoped for her recovery, not only for her sake, but for the prince’s as well. Not only had the man in the captain’s uniform told him of how he had met her and discovered her qualities as a musician, he also learned how he had come to terms with the loss of the Lady Isabel and her deception, as he put it. Finally, the Comandante told his loyal servant of his suspicions regarding why Sebastian and Salvador seemed intent on making a match that would have clearly been a disaster. Juan thought about this intently as he listened to the voices in the sala and he felt alarmed by what he heard. Perhaps now would be a good time to put in an appearance. He rounded the doorframe and entered the sala, stopping and looking surprised. "Ah, Felix," he began, "I did not realize you had a guest." He looked at Pérez directly, then back to his brother. "Would you prefer me to leave?"

Sebastian looked up in alarm at the stranger who entered the room. He was clutching some documents in his hands.

Felix looked up as well and smiled in welcome. "No, Juan, do not leave." He looked at Pérez. "Sebastian, this is my brother, Juan. He is visiting us from Spain."

Sebastian rose politely. "I did not know Felix had a brother visiting," he commented.

"I must apologize for not telling you," Felix began. "He is here to…"

"I just arrived the other day to the pueblo," Juan interrupted, wishing to control the flow of the conversation. "I spent much of my time recovering from the very long journey and have not yet had the opportunity to move about the pueblo. I hope you will forgive me."

Sebastian nodded, then turned to Felix. "Perhaps we can discuss this matter further at my office this afternoon, Felix? The sooner we move on this, the better."

"Certainly," Felix said. "I’ll bring my lawyer and we can discuss it."

Sebastian frowned slightly. "My own lawyer has drawn up the papers and said all is in order. You know him, Felix."

"Very well," the graying merchant replied. "I will see you later today." He saw Sebastian to the door. A few minutes later he returned to the sala where Juan had remained standing.

"I could not help but overhear what Señor Pérez was proposing to you, Felix," the man with the brown ponytail asserted. "I am concerned that you will make a decision that is not in your best interests."

Felix looked troubled and put a hand up to his forehead, brushing it over one eye. He looked tired. "Sebastian has been a friend for many years," he explained. "Surely you do not suspect him of duplicity? This is something that is only temporary. Besides, I was going to tell Sebastian that you are in the service of His Excellency. Not even I knew who the comandante was until you told me. There is nothing to fear from Sebastian. If anything, he should be impressed with whom his daughter has just married!"

"No, Felix," Juan said. "I wish for you to keep this information our secret. It is one of the reasons I had to rudely interrupt you during the conversation with him. Dear Brother, sit here a while. There is something that I must tell you." He heard a quiet footstep outside the door and looked up.

Ines Muñoz entered the room with a smile. "I hope I’m not interrupting anything," she began. "Felix, you look exhausted. Would you two care for some coffee?"

Juan turned back to Felix. "As a matter of fact, I think both of you should hear this."

"Hear what?" the woman inquired. She then looked concerned. "About Salvador?" She sank into a chair next to her husband.

Juan looked at the woman who had become as tense as her husband. "We’ll have coffee later, Ines, thank you." He paused. "There is much I have contemplated since arriving here regarding the situation with your son. In addition, I learned some very interesting information from His Excellency last night."

"Not about the Señorita Margarita, I mean, His Excellency’s wife?" Felix began. "Is she getting better?"

"I’ve been praying for her," Ines spoke in earnest. "Poor little dear."

"No, Juan replied solemnly. "It is about Sebastian."

 

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

 

Don Diego de la Vega rode his palomino into the pueblo of Los Angeles. He wore a brown ranchero outfit, and, because the early morning was quite chilled, there was a brown cape over his shoulders. He dropped by the cuartel to inquire after the comandante, only to be told he had gone to the office of Maximillian Palacios, the Muñoz lawyer. Diego asked when the small man would return.

"He is also going to visit his wife, Doña Margarita," Sergeant García told the young man. "He is very concerned about her health." The big man paused. "Everyone is."

"I trust Doña Margarita is improving, now that she no longer has Salvador Muñoz or her father to fear," Diego replied. "I intend to visit her today as well. I hope to see her much improved."

"I am also worried a little about the comandante," García confided.

"Why is that, Sergeant?" Diego inquired. "Everything in the pueblo seems to be back in order again."

"Well, Don Diego, this morning I heard the comandante tell Salvador Muñoz that his trial is tomorrow morning. Señor Muñoz was very rude to the comandante. He thinks that he will not be hanged because the comandante said, at the trial of Señor Enríquez that, to kill someone is a crime."

"What did our comandante reply to that?" Diego asked.

"The Capitán was very courteous to the prisoner. He did not get angry, even though Salvador insulted the Señora Capitán. He explained to Salvador that there are different kinds of justices. One is for the ordinary people and another is for those who kill or try to kill members of the nobility. Now that the Señorita Pérez is married to him, she is a member of the nobility."

"I see," Diego mused. "This could be very serious. Perhaps Doña Margarita is not doing as well as everyone hoped." He became very concerned. "If you will excuse me, Sergeant, I think I should pay her a visit right away." He turned to leave.

"Oh, Don Diego," García smiled. "I have been practicing the operetta songs you taught me. I go out to the hills and sing. Sometimes, when I walk around the pueblo, I sing. I like these songs very much."

"Oh, fine, that’s good, Sergeant," the young man responded. He was very distracted by the news of the trial and what De las Fuentes had said. "Just keep on practicing."

"Sí, Don Diego," García grinned. He began to sing to himself as he watched the young man cross the plaza and head down the street towards the home of the musician, César Rodríguez.

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

 

Francisco de las Fuentes had stopped by the lawyer’s office to inform Señor Palacios that the trial would begin the next day. The lawyer should gather his witnesses and prepare to make his arguments, he explained. The comandante also spoke to the flower vendor, Señor Gil, to the blacksmith’s son, Pépe, and to the owner of the General Store, Roberto Cárdenas. All of these men had witnessed the shooting or its aftermath. He asked them to appear at the inn in the morning. Señor Pacheco had been advised to set aside the downstairs for the trial. There was too little room in the cuartel to hold such an event and the Alcalde’s office was as small as his own.

The flower vendor immediately told all his customers what was to transpire. He also talked to several men who participated in the posse to hunt down the fugitive and they, in turn, informed others. By the end of the afternoon, the pueblo was buzzing with talk of the impending trial of Salvador Muñoz. The courtroom, many said, would be packed.

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

He opened the door to their room, and saw her sleeping. He stood a moment, contemplating her features, her long, loose, light brown hair that was so soft in his hands and on his face. She wore a pink gown and lay on her back. The blanket was pulled up under her arms. He walked softly to the bed and leaned over to kiss her on the lips, so very softly. He winked as she opened her eyes and looked up at him. She smiled in welcome and stretched a little.

"How are you feeling, darling?" he asked as he sat down on the edge of the bed next to her. He smoothed the strands of hair away from her brow and caressed her cheek. He kissed her again.

"I just feel so tired, Francisco," she told him. "But when you are here, I feel so much better."

"I am here forever," he said and took one of her hands in his, then kissed it. "I have some pleasant news for you. You have a visitor downstairs."

"A visitor?" she asked. "Who?"

"Don Diego," he answered. "He is quite concerned after seeing your fainting spell yesterday. I assured him that you have recovered from this. Would you like to see him?"

She nodded. "Diego is a good friend. I’m glad you like him and his father."

"Señora Montoya is here as well. She is speaking with him about your convalescence."

"Pilar has me walk to the stairs everyday," Margarita explained. "She said I will be going down the stairs this afternoon and, perhaps, back up. She said that she would tell you that I am ready for all these things. She said I have not been doing enough to get well. She said she would tell you to give me some ‘orders.’"

He chuckled at that. "I have done so." Then he grew more serious. "Sweetheart, your wound is almost healed. Why are you still insisting that you are ill? Are you not happy now that we are married?"

Her eyes opened wide and she held up her arms to him. He put one arm behind her back and pulled her up from the pillows. He held her gently in his arms. She put her arms around his neck and cried softly into the high collar of his uniform jacket before answering.

"Oh, Francisco," she wept. "I am so happy now that we are married. I love you dearly. You are so good and kind to me. I never thought I could be so happy. But, it’s almost too good to be true."

"Too good to be true?" he asked.

"Yes," she sniffed. "In a way, my dreams coming true frighten me, too."

He thought a long moment before answering. "You know, Margarita, almost everyone gets married. For most, it is a dream come true because they have found their spiritual counterpart to share their hopes and dreams with. In our case, we are two musicians who have found a perfect harmony. Listen!" He paused so she could hear the birds singing outside her window. "Do you not hear them? They, too, have found the perfect harmony, and soon they will build their nest to share together. We are no different in this, Dearest. God has brought us together and who are we to oppose the will of God?"

"I feel so foolish," she admitted. "I promise to try very hard to make you proud of me."

He reached out a hand and pulled one of the pillows on top of the other before lowering her down again. "Besides, I have a very important project for you to work on while you are lying here." He tucked the blanket around her as he spoke.

"What project is that, Francisco?" she asked, now intrigued.

"I have many debts to repay to the good people of this pueblo – from the Rodríguez family to the De la Vegas; to all the men who joined the hunt to find me; to the Indians and the gypsy who saved my life and yours; and finally, to a most mysterious outlaw named ‘El Zorro.’" He squeezed her hands gently, then rose and headed for the door.

Margarita smiled at him from the pillows. "Oh, Francisco," she reprimanded him gently. "You know he’s not really an outlaw."

The officer turned and smiled in return as he opened the door. "Yes," he said softly. "I know."

 

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

 

 

Angel Ledesma was smiling hugely as he ordered a bottle of wine from the innkeeper, Señor Pacheco. "I am celebrating!" he said exuberantly raising a glass.

"What are you celebrating?" asked the innkeeper.

"I paid off the last of my debts to the comandante today," Angel smiled. "My wife was very pleased to learn that the comandante had reduced my fines because I had been beaten and whipped. She gave me a big kiss when she learned that Benito donated five pesos to help me pay my fine. She told me that Benito is a good man and that it is all right if I buy him some drinks to thank him."

"Congratulations, Angel," Señor Pacheco told him. "The best news is that your wife is so pleased now that you are out of debt."

"That’s not all," Angel confided. "You would not believe how happy she was when she learned that Tomás ran away. ‘Good riddance!’ she said. Then, she told me ‘I hope you have learned your lesson, not to let anyone like Tomás cheat you out of so much wine.’"

Señor Pacheco nodded. "It is most important that your wife is talking to you again. There is nothing like a happy wife." He looked up as the door to the tavern banged open. It was Sergeant García. Speaking of debts, the innkeeper thought.

García sat down at the table. Pacheco approached him cautiously. "What can I do for you, Sergeant García?"

"Well, I was hoping that you might be able to advance me a little credit on a bottle of wine," the fat soldier began, holding up a finger.

"You are in debt to me for almost five pesos," Pacheco told him. "You never pay your bills unless I threaten to tell the comandante. I am just waiting for Capitán Monastario to return in order to complain. Capitán de las Fuentes has too many troubles now to be bothered by this sort of thing."

"Sí, I know," smiled García as the innkeeper rolled his eyes. "Say, what is Angel Ledesma doing there at the bar. I have never seen him so spirited, except for the night we arrested him for brawling with Señor Robello and Benito."

"Oh, that," the burly man in a white apron told him. "Angel is celebrating the fact that he just paid off all his debts to the comandante today."

García plucked at a moustache. "Oh, really?"

A moment later, Angel Ledesma found an arm around his shoulder. He turned and saw the big sergeant at his elbow with a huge smile on his face. "Ah, Señor Ledesma," soldier said with glee. "It looks like you are celebrating something."

Angel’s face lighted up like a candle. "I am celebrating, Sergeant," he said cheerfully. "At last I am debt free, so I celebrate the best way I know how."

"You know, Angel, you should never celebrate by yourself," García told him. "The more people who can share your happiness, the better, no?"

Angel smiled. "You are right, Sergeant. Here," he reached for a mug and poured some wine in, then handed it to the smiling soldier. "Let’s raise our mugs and give a toast to the man who made it possible."

García took a long drink from the mug. Ledesma cheerfully refilled it. García guided him over to an empty table. "Who is that?" he asked as he sat down. "Who made it possible?"

"Why, my old drinking friend, Tomás," explained Angel. "Now that he is not drinking my wine anymore, I have plenty to share."

 

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

 

Diego de la Vega sat in a leather chair next to her bed and smiled. "And how are you doing today, Margarita?" he asked.

"Much better," she answered. "I think I have disappointed many people by my illness, and I need to get better sooner."

"You don’t disappoint us, Margarita," Diego told her. "But, we are worried that perhaps your melancholy from the shooting has remained with you for too long. Now that you are married to Capitán de las Fuentes, you have the life you have always wanted – free from all the anxieties you experienced at home."

She nodded. "I felt better just being with Don César and his family. I’m so happy Mother has been here with me. It’s really been the best for her, as well." Margarita looked down at her wedding bands and smiled. "Francisco is so wonderful, too. I can’t believe that I am more in love with him now than I was before I married him, but it’s true." She blushed at her own words.

Diego smiled. "I am so happy for you, too, Margarita. For years I hoped that you would find the right man. All of your friends did. We were all there at your wedding to see your happiness. We will remember forever the joy on your face when you were at the altar."

Margarita looked down at her hands and found her cheeks burning a little. "Thank you, Diego. I owe everyone a debt of gratitude. Francisco and I talked about this already. We are not sure what we can do."

Diego smiled. "I have a message for you, Margarita, about your debt. It’s from an unusual person."

"Who is that?" asked Margarita.

"Why, from El Zorro," Diego told her.

"From Señor Zorro?" Margarita almost squealed. "Oh, my!" Her eyes were now wide open. "What message did he give you? Was it really for me? How did it happen?"

"It was so strange," Diego told her. "Why, it was late last night. I had gone to sleep when I felt something tapping on my shoulder. It was a blade. When I opened my eyes to demand who could be waking me in the middle of the night, I saw that it was El Zorro!"

"What did he say?" she asked, completely intrigued. She sat up straight in bed.

"He said to me: ‘Diego de la Vega, I have a mission for you. Tomorrow you must visit Doña Margarita, the wife of the comandante. You must tell her that I am expecting her to repay her debt to me for helping to save the life of her husband, Capitán de las Fuentes.’"

Diego then changed his voice from one of command, to one of awe. "Believe me, Margarita, I was almost frightened out of my wits, but, after all, this was a message for you, not for me." He paused. "You know, I was so relieved not to be in trouble with El Zorro myself!"

"But how does he want me to repay the debt?" Margarita insisted, refocusing on the amazing fact. "What can I do?"

"Zorro told me to tell you that he expects you to get well. He expects you to do all the things necessary to take the side of your husband at church next Sunday, walking from this house to the plaza and back. Finally, he expects you to resume your piano playing and to succeed in music and in life far beyond the expectations of your friends and family." Diego paused. "This is what he told me that you must do."

Margarita sat thinking a moment. "It is true, Diego. When Francisco disappeared and everyone was looking for him, El Zorro came to this very house. He spoke with me and told me he would not rest until he found my beloved. He kept his promise. Francisco was returned to me, cured and happy. I am very grateful. If El Zorro requires this of me, then I will do my best to repay him for the life of Francisco." She looked up and saw Señora Montoya at the open door smiling in satisfaction at what she heard.

Diego visibly sighed in relief. "Thank you, Margarita. This makes me feel so much better. If El Zorro were to call on me again, I could tell him what you said. This way, I won’t be in trouble either."

"Oh, Diego," Margarita smiled, taking hold of one of his hands. "I would not want to get you in trouble with El Zorro just because of me. Rest assured I will do everything El Zorro asks."

 

 

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