Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-eight

 

It was late afternoon and the sun shone intermittently between the large white, puffy clouds. The breeze was blowing in from the far eastern mountains and the evening promised to be a cool one. Already the market vendors were packing up their wares and preparing to head home.

Don Alejandro and his son, Diego, sat on the shaded patio of the inn near the street and sipped wine. On occasion, they looked up and watched the townspeople walk by or men on horseback canter through the plaza. On the table between them stood a half-consumed bottle of Madera and it followed a previous red.

"The seriousness of this trial can not be underestimated," Alejandro reiterated. "It is not merely a case of attempted murder; it now involves the question of honor, and in particular, a señorita’s honor. The trial will not go well for Salvador."

"The pueblo is shocked that Señor Pérez did not even react in indignation or anger at the attack on his daughter," Diego remarked. "Many regard this as inexplicable at best and downright callous at worst. Surely, disinheriting her does not absolve him from acting on her behalf as a parent."

"You know," Alejandro says, "in Spain and in all of her empire, it is a tradition that anyone who impinges on another person’s honor must face a reckoning. This often results in forfeiture of a life. How many countless duels or even assassinations have occurred over the issue of honor?"

"True," Diego replied. "But the Church, as well as the monarchy, has opposed dueling and, traditionally, it is the arena of the nobility. No nobleman will duel with a commoner. Usually, he has his servants beat the offender to show his contempt for him."

"Ah," his father pointed out, "you know that dueling has still not been eliminated. From what you told me, even the cadets fight it out over perceived insults, although they do so far from the eyes of the authorities."

"I am sure that many in this pueblo would like to step forward," Diego replied. "The entire pueblo is against Salvador because the target of his wrath was an innocent young lady who merely refused her father’s instructions to marry a man she disliked very much."

"Although this family affair is none of my business," the white-bearded don responded, "I, too, would be more than willing to step forward on behalf of Señorita Pérez." He eyed his son in a challenging sort of way.

"I, too, am moved by this sentiment," Diego nodded. "Yet, I have the feeling that Salvador should not be the only one on trial who endangered Margarita’s life"

Alejandro raised his eyebrows. "Whom do you mean?"

"Señor Pérez pushed the entire issue to an extreme which led to the unfortunate unfolding of events."

"I can’t say that I have ever cared for Sebastian Pérez," Alejandro commented. "I do my business with others. But you cannot try a man for attempting to force his daughter to marry a man she hates."

"So it would seem on the surface," Diego replies. "I probably would like to see him punished for his callous indifference to his daughter’s condition, but, as you point out, there are no laws against being a bad parent."

Alejandro looked thoughtful as he gazed past Diego’s shoulder as if seeing an apparition from the past. "That is an unfortunate lesson I learned many years ago, my son." He paused a moment. "You might have wondered why I have not pursued the case of Joaquín Enríquez any further."

Diego smiled slightly. "I heard that he was seen in town only yesterday."

"Not only was the snuff box returned to me, but Don Juan and Leon informed me this afternoon that the stolen items had been returned to their homes as well. I am not sure what this means. Perhaps there was some truth to what Enríquez said when he claimed he was only ‘borrowing’ them." Don Alejandro poured himself a last glass of wine and filled his son’s mug as well.

There was a long spell of silence before both men finished the wine, left a coin on the table, and rose to leave. As they stepped out into the street, Diego commented, "You know, Father, it seems that, lately, several people in the pueblo have purged the demons from their past, including Capitán de las Fuentes and Señorita Pérez. Perhaps Señor Enríquez is among them."

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

It was after dinner at the home of Felix and Ines Muñoz and the home was silent except for two hushed voices in the sala. Late that afternoon, the lawyer, Maximillian Palacios, had shown up at their door and been ushered inside. He went into great detail regarding the defense of Salvador and the problems of how popular hostility to the young man could greatly influence the outcome of the trial.

Juan Muñoz sat with his brother and sister-in-law and said nothing throughout the discussion. After the lawyer left, he went for a long walk and only returned in time for a late supper. Both Felix and Ines reviewed the issues over and over again.

Finally, Felix turned to Juan. It was obvious that he had much on his mind and he looked almost apologetic, glancing at his wife as if needing encouragement to broach the issue. "I hesitate to involve you in any manner that may be deemed inappropriate in this situation with Salvador," he began.

"What is on your mind?" the man with the ponytail inquired in a quiet manner. He was calm, almost serene.

Ines did not hesitate. "Juan, is there any way you could intervene with His Excellency to help Salvador?"

Felix looked hopeful. "Can you say anything that might influence him, something that would mean that his punishment would not be too, ah, harsh?" He paused and looked at his wife again. "I would not ask this of you, only it is our youngest son and we fear the worst for him. Perhaps….."

Juan looked sad a long moment. Then he spoke in a soft voice. "I have spent my entire life in His Excellency’s service, Felix. The House of De las Fuentes y Alarcón is noble and honorable. Prince Alfonso, rather Don Francisco, is an honest man, a just man, and I would serve no other. Our family is also an honorable one. I could not, and would not, use my relationship with His Excellency to influence the outcome of this trial." He turned to the tearful Ines and took one of her hands in his, patting it. "I am very sorry, Ines. I could not respect myself if I ever took such an action. Knowing His Excellency as I do, the prince would not respect anyone who sought to use such influence either. We know it would not be honorable."

Felix shook his head as if he had anticipated such an answer. "I, too, am very sorry for asking you, Juan, and I apologize. I hope you understand that it is only our deep despair that has brought us to make such an appeal."

"I understand," Juan replied. "I want you to know that His Excellency is troubled by this case as well. I do not tell you this to create any false hopes, only that he will try to find a solution, if he can, that will lead to the least harm. This does, however, involve his wife, and this fact may or may not influence his objectivity. I cannot say for certain what the outcome will be and I do not wish to speculate."

"But will His Excellency invoke the old laws concerning an attack upon the nobility?" Ines pressed him. "When Maximillian came by today, he indicated that Margarita is getting better."

Juan shook his head. "I don’t know. I really don’t know."

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

They kissed and lay in each other’s arms a long time in the large, four-posted bed with hanging green curtains. She laid her head on his chest and he caressed her hair. Finally, she spoke softly. "What is going to happen tomorrow at the trial, Francisco?"

"The unfolding of a tragedy in three acts," he replied. "First, Señor Palacios will attempt to defend the indefensible. After this, Señor Franco will shoot his arguments full of holes and present the case of the victim. He will summon many witnesses. Then, I will be called upon to render a verdict."

There was another long silence after he finished, then she spoke into his ear. "It’s a terrible responsibility to have, to pass judgment on other people. I don’t envy anyone having to do it. I don’t think I could bear the pressure. You are very brave, Francisco."

He smiled slightly in the dark. "It’s not about being brave, Sweetheart; it is something even more challenging: it is about being wise. It is not easy to be wise when the person you love is involved."

"I am glad, in a way, not to have to be there. I don’t think I could face Don Felix and Doña Ines, knowing that it must be the most terrible moments of their lives."

"I will not have you there, Margarita. It is what I spoke to Señor Franco about after he took your deposition this afternoon. He will represent your interests and understands that I will not have you subjected to public display over this."

"Isn’t there anything that I can do, Darling?" she requested. "I feel so useless staying away."

"You can do one thing," Francisco told her. "And it is only between you and me. It must remain our secret."

"What is that?" She was intrigued.

His reply was soft and direct. "I need to know if you think Salvador Muñoz should die for what he did to you. It is a terrible thing to ask of anyone, but I must know all your reasons - for or against this option."

She raised herself up on her elbow and looked down at him. She sighed. It was a deep and soulful expression. "You are right. It is terrible. I wish I did not have to think about such a thing. But, Francisco, even though it is true that I dislike Salvador very much, I do not want to see another person die. I am recovering. As a matter of fact, I am almost well. I think it would be best to put all of this in the past. I would not want Don Felix or Ines to suffer for the rest of their lives, knowing their son had been hanged or shot."

Francisco put an arm around her shoulder. She snuggled closer. "You are the woman I love, for all the reasons that I love you," he told her. "But Margarita, my dear, there is more at stake than just a jealous young man who attempted to kill you because you refused his advances. Attempted murder alone invites the death penalty. This case, more importantly, is about honor. It concerns your reputation. It is about my honor and the honor of my name and yours. These things are not trifling because honor constitutes our personal dignity and whether we regard ourselves worthy of respect or merely no better than chattel. "

"Could you not challenge him to a duel if you feel that strongly, Darling?" she wanted to know.

"I am afraid Señor Muñoz would not stand a chance," he replied. "But I would not duel with a commoner. It is not our way."

"Is there no other way to deal with this other than to execute him?" Margarita asked.

"I will search for an alternative tomorrow," he told her. "But there is something else that all judges have to take into consideration: the pressure to do what most people feel is right, even though their desires may be misplaced or harsh. And the opinion of the people of the pueblo of Los Angeles at this point in time demands a severe punishment."

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

Andrés Franco paused outside the tavern door. Two soldiers guarded the closed entrance. There was a great crowd waiting outside to be allowed in. He saw the heavy-set figure of Maximillian Palacios approach with Felix Muñoz and his wife, Ines. Sebastian Pérez was in tow. Franco stuck out his hand to Palacios and both men greeted each other. "I regret we must meet under these circumstances, Max," Franco told him. "I wish you the best."

"Be prepared for a spirited defense, Andrés," Palacios replied with a smile. The crowd that surrounded them, he knew, was not a friendly one, but he had beaten the odds before.

Finally, the door to the inn was opened and the lawyers walked in. The crowd poured in behind them. Soon the wide room was filled. Every chair and bench was taken. Some of those attending brought their own chairs. The vaqueros hoisted themselves onto the bar and used it as their bench. Their long, thin legs dangled over the edge and their hats were slung behind their necks, suspended by leather chinstraps. From this vantage point, they looked toward the great fireplace where the flag of Spain hung over the wall. A wooden desk and chair stood in front of the fireplace and it is where the Comandante would sit. To the left of the fireplace and in a raised area, the defendant, his lawyer and supporters would sit. To the right, the lawyer and witnesses for the victim would sit. The room buzzed with the loud conversation of all those present.

Alejandro de la Vega, his son, Diego, and their servant, Bernardo, traveled into town in a horse-drawn carriage. Alighting on the far side of the plaza, all three men crossed the plaza toward the crowd that was now surging into the inn. Just as Alejandro crossed the threshold, Diego turned to his manservant and took him aside discreetly. The men exchanged a few signs. Then, Diego entered the room, remaining by the open door and watching as the events unfolded.

There were angry voices from the crowd that still milled outside the inn as Sergeant García and three other soldiers escorted Salvador Muñoz across the plaza from the cuartel.

"Shame! Shame!" shouted several men and women at the young man who walked between the soldiers and looked apprehensive at the hostile stares. His eyes darted from left to right as if seeking an escape. The small group entered the inn and the volume of noise decreased appreciatively, then rose slightly with sounds of disapproval at the prisoner’s appearance.

Diego watched as the young man was seated in a chair, his bound hands in front of him. The two soldiers remained on guard and García made his way back toward the entrance. He spotted the young ranchero in brown immediately and walked up to him. "Good morning, Don Diego," he began.

"Good morning, Sergeant," the tall man replied. "Will the Comandante be here shortly?"

"Sí," the sergeant replied. "I am going to accompany him here from the cuartel." The big soldier looked around the room and then over to the prisoner. "This is a sad day for Los Angeles," he remarked.

"Yes, it is," responded Diego. "Everyone wants justice, but I am not sure what form it will take. What Salvador Muñoz has done is a crime, but to take his life would also be a crime, don’t you think?"

"It is what the Comandante said at the trial of Señor Enríquez," García mused. "But Señor Enríquez did not try to kill a señorita."

"What you say is true," Diego acknowledged. "But surely there are other punishments that can be effective. I hope that, somehow, this will not become a lynching. It would be a sad way to end the term of Capitán de las Fuentes as Comandante of our pueblo."

The big man sighed. "I know what you mean, Don Diego. But, if you will excuse me, please, I must now go to the cuartel."

Within minutes, Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes passed through the tall wooden gates of the cuartel. His stride was firm and there was a saber at his side. He wore his sash of office and on the uniform jacket were three awards from the reign of Carlos IV. The crowd parted in respect and he nodded distractedly to a few who wished him a good morning. The room grew quiet as he stopped in the doorway and surveyed the crowd. He noticed Don Diego de la Vega just inside the door and glanced at him. He made his way toward the fireplace and removed his hat. The two lawyers greeted him and they exchanged a few words. At last he sat at the table and the trial began.

Diego slipped out of the door as it closed and joined his mozo. Bernardo pretended to sign for him to cross the plaza, as if something were urgent. After appearing to inspect something, both men then separated. Diego headed back to the inn. He saw Don Leon Santos heading toward the crowd. Leon hailed him and asked, "Diego, my friend. Has the trial started yet?"

"Just now, Leon," Diego replied. "Let me accompany you inside." Diego opened the door and Leon made his way discreetly over to the right side of the fireplace. He removed his hat and focused on the introduction to the trial by the Comandante who then indicated for Andrés Franco to begin.

Salvador Muñoz stared across the room at the men and women who watched Licenciado Franco state his case. They were people he had known most of his life. They were there to tell about how he shot Margarita Pérez, his escape, and capture. He looked around the room and spotted a few of his gambling partners. They looked right through him.

One by one the witnesses were called. The flower vendor, Señor Gil, spoke of how young Muñoz accosted the young lady; of her insistence to be left alone; of their argument and his insults; and, finally, of the shooting. The señorita was entirely justified in throwing a potted plant at Muñoz, he declared, because not only had Salvador insulted her and made insinuations regarding her friendship with the comandante, he had also insulted the comandante and his honor.

Pepe González, the blacksmith’s son, spoke of how he watched the drama unfold from his father’s shop; how the young man followed the girl across the plaza; their exchanges; seeing the young man fall to the ground when she hit him with the flower pot; When she began to leave Muñoz pulled out the pistol, took aim, and shot her. Pepe insisted the aim was deliberate.

Other men came forward who witnessed the shooting as well and how, it seemed, the accused leaned over the victim to see if she was dead, only to flee when they descended upon him. Most of these men joined the posse that set out to find him and to bring him to justice. It was mentioned that the fugitive was apprehended by el Zorro when he tried to flee California by ship. This comment brought a murmur of surprise and approval by some who did not know the fact.

Another witness came forward to state he and his wife had heard the Señorita Pérez state on more than one occasion that she would never marry Salvador Muñoz.

A key witness, Doctor Aguilera, was called. They grey-bearded doctor came forward to state his findings. "I examined the victim and the nature of the gunshot wound. She was shot at almost point-blank range. If she had not turned at the last moment, the ball would have hit a vital organ." he declared.

After these and other witnesses made their statements, the defense lawyer was invited to speak in favor of the accused.

Maximillian Palacios rose. He said that all the statements heard thus far were merely opinion. The young lady, he said, by the Grace of God, was recovering, and everyone was thankful for that. He emphasized that the incident was the unfortunate outcome of a lovers’ quarrel; that his client had merely over-reacted to being assaulted by a flower pot. Murder was not the intent, he insisted. Salvador Muñoz shot in her direction in his anger, but he did not intend to kill her. No young man wishing the hand of a young lady in marriage would shoot his intended. There was no logic to the assertions that he tried to kill her.

There were murmurs of disapproval from those present in the audience. Palacios pointed out that, in addition, Salvador Muñoz had never been in trouble with the law and this was a first offense. It was his only intention, Palacios claimed, to convince the señorita that her best chances for marriage lay with him and no one else He then called Sebastian Pérez, the victim’s father, as a witness. "Please tell the court your version of these events," Palacios asked him, "and of your daughter and your own relationship to the accused."

Pérez smiled confidently at Salvador, rose and approached the lawyer. He turned toward the audience. "I want to clear the record regarding the behavior of my dear friend, Salvador Muñoz. He reacted as any young man could react to her insulting behavior – by striking out. It is not a crime to defend one’s honor! My daughter deliberately made him miserable on many occasions. She even bought cats to drive him out of our house!" To his surprise, the audience laughed at this, but he continued. "She knew that cats made him ill! This was a deliberate provocation and not Salvador’s fault at all!" He deliberately turned his back on the Comandante who watched all the proceedings in a dispassionate manner. "A father has an obligation to make sure his children do what is right, even if they do not wish to. Margarita has been a rebellious and ungrateful child of whom I am ashamed. She refuses to recognize and respect my responsibility as a parent." He paused, slightly glanced at De las Fuentes, and continued. "I was the one who arranged her marriage with Salvador for her own good. I would never arrange a marriage with someone I did not think worthy of our family. I love Salvador as a son."

The lawyer Franco, with an angry look on his face, interrupted: "And how do you love your daughter, Señor Pérez? By trying to beat her in public! By not standing up for her when someone attempts to murder her!?""

Pérez ignored the lawyer and continued. "Instead, my wishes to arrange her marriage were contravened!" he continued. He turned toward the small man seated at the desk behind him. "They were contravened by the very man who now sits in judgment of these procedures! How can my dear friend receive any justice at all when the ‘judge’ is his enemy? What kind of justice is this?"

This statement caused an immediate uproar in the room. "Shame!" shouted some while others said aloud, "That is an insult to the Comandante!" Maximillian Palacios looked alarmed. This is not what he wanted, to provoke the judge. Franco looked stunned at the attack upon the judge.

Capitán de las Fuentes hit the gavel upon the desk and called the spectators to order. When silence once again descended in the room, he looked Pérez in the eye. "I would like to remind the witness of the focus of this trial," he said in his deep baritone. "The purpose of this trial is the attempted murder of Señorita Pérez by Señor Muñoz."

"Without your interference," Pérez shouted, "this would never have occurred!"

Once again, the spectators were in an uproar, expressing shock at these words.

The Comandante hit the gavel on the desk again. "You, Señor Pérez, are out of order," he stated unequivocally. When Pérez remained glowering at him, the officer stood up and gave the man a withering gaze in return. "Whether you like it or not, Señor, I am the judge at this trial. This trial solely concerns the issue of an attempted murder. I am judge by the authority vested in me by His Majesty, the King of Spain, and as Comandante of the pueblo of Los Angeles. If you wish to continue to act as a witness on behalf the defendant, then merely answer the questions directly. If you continue to make speeches, you will be escorted out of the courtroom. However, if you choose to challenge my authority as Comandante and judge, you will be arrested. Make your choice, Señor."

Andrés Franco stood up immediately. "I would like to say that neither I nor Licenciado Palacios had any objection to His Excellency as judge. His objectivity, impartiality, and dedication to achieving justice for all is well-known – and proven – in our pueblo!"

That comment brought affirmative comments from the audience. The captain tapped the gavel again and the audience quieted. "Do you have any further evidence to present regarding the specific act of Señor Muñoz’s attempt to kill your daughter?" he asked.

Sebastian Pérez replied, "It was her fault, not his."

The officer motioned for Pérez to return to his chair. Then he asked if the defense lawyer would like to proceed.

Palacios nodded in agreement but he was not happy with how the proceedings were going. "I would like to call the accused, Salvador Muñoz, next," he requested. When the young man stood before him, the lawyer encouraged him to speak, saying, "Tell us, Salvador, what were your feelings toward the Señorita Pérez?"

Salvador smiled. He had gotten his cue from Pérez. "I felt sorry for her," he explained, "because of her age and the fact that she was still not married. I proposed– several times, to show her she still had a chance to make something of herself. She was going to give in to me eventually because she saw that no one else would have her. My parents love Margarita. Only interference from outside led to our disagreements."

"Isn’t it true," Andrés Franco asked, "that she turned your proposals down several times? At a party at the home of Don César Rodríguez, she publicly announced she would never marry you. Don’t you think that is evidence enough that she had no interest in marrying you at all? How many times must a young lady say no before you understand this?"

Felix Muñoz was nodding sadly at the exchange. He shook his head at his son’s next words.

"Margarita Pérez loves playing the martyr," Salvador declared. "She loves playing hard to get. She was on the verge of giving in. Besides, after our quarrel in the plaza, it was she who attacked me! She bashed me on the head and might have killed me! If anything, I shot her in self-defense!"

There was a murmur of disbelief from the crowd, but over their dissent, a strong voice rang out from far above the audience: "Pardon me, Señor Muñoz, if I strongly disagree – and I have the evidence to prove there is more at stake here than just the attempted murder of a young girl!"

The room grew silent. Every eye swept upwards toward the balcony where the voice came from. Leaning on the railing high over the bar, stood a man in black, with a black mask and cape. Beneath his thin moustache was a familiar, wide smile. Many in the audience gasped, "El Zorro!"

 

 

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