Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-nine

 

Capitán de las Fuentes rose from his chair in order to see the newcomer better. He looked surprised at the appearance of the outlaw.

Sergeant García, who had been nearly napping in his chair, was startled out of his daydreams. He jumped to his feet and his eyes grew large as he saw the masked man on the balcony grinning. "Zorro!" gasped the big man. He turned to the two soldiers guarding the prisoner. "Lancers, seize the outlaw Zorro! Capture him!"

El Zorro drew his sword upon hearing these words, but Capitán de las Fuentes moved forward as well, waving the lancers back. "Let El Zorro approach," he ordered.

"Let El Zorro approach," García repeated dumbly as he watched the Fox descend the stairs with light steps.

"I apologize for my unorthodox appearance, Capitán de las Fuentes," the man in black told the officer, sliding his sword back into its scabbard and crossing the wooden floor toward the officer. "But considering the seriousness of this trial, I felt it necessary to intervene with a few more facts. Justice can never be properly rendered without enough facts. With your permission I would like to do so."

"Do you intend to act as a witness for the accused or for the prosecution?" asked the small officer.

"I must answer ‘Yes’ to both of your questions, Capitán," responded El Zorro who watched expressions of uncertainty, expectancy, and curiosity on the faces of the lawyers and their clients. Only the officer seemed unperturbed. Salvador Muñoz looked very uneasy.

Francisco de las Fuentes turned to each lawyer in turn. "Do either of you object to any evidence El Zorro has to offer in this case?"

Palacios and Franco exchanged quiet words for a moment. Palacios could think of no reason why further evidence should not be heard and Franco welcomed it openly. "We have no objections," he declared.

The captain nodded. "The court will allow you to speak, Señor Zorro." He gestured the man in black to approach the two lawyers. He resumed his seat at the desk and folded his hands on top of the table, leaning forward a bit.

El Zorro looked at the witnesses and at the accused. "There must be a balance in all things," the man in black began. "And in order to achieve a balance – for both sides – there is some information that cannot be left out of these proceedings." He turned to the captain. "At times, we must step out of the limitations imposed upon obvious evidence in order to bring in facts that could determine the outcome. If some of these facts cause discomfort, then I apologize, but they are a necessary part in determining whether there will be justice or a lack of it."

"What is your additional evidence?" De las Fuentes asked.

"A number of weeks ago, a man escaped from jail. That was Señor Enríquez who had been on trial for theft and a number of other issues. Because he had threatened violence against members of the community, as well as the Comandante, the pueblo was put under constant patrol after dark, and the curfew more rigorously enforced."

"What does this have to do with this trial?" asked Palacios.

"It has everything to do with this trial, Señor Palacios," the Fox responded. "Because after these patrols were established, it was more difficult for anyone to move around after dark. But I must tell you that, following his break from prison, I came to Los Angeles in search of the escaped prisoner because of my concern for his declarations to harm everyone associated with his arrest, including Capitán de las Fuentes. One evening, I saw the Comandante walking down the street towards the house of Señor Pérez where he visited the señorita. Later that evening, I saw him leave their residence. It was late at night." The man in black looked at the officer who nodded.

"I followed the Comandante back towards the cuartel, thinking that, perhaps, I had been overly concerned for his safety. After all, has he not brought justice to the pueblo? And yet, his life had been threatened. Then, out of the shadows, a man appeared and began to follow the Capitán. I followed closely, unseen by the stranger who wore a long cloak and slouched hat over his head. When we got close to the cuartel, this man pulled a pistol from the folds of his cloak and began to raise it. He took aim at Capitán de las Fuentes. To make a long story short, we struggled and I disarmed him." The man in black paused and looked at the officer again. "Capitán de las Fuentes was not aware of what happened because he was too far away."

Everyone was now looking very interested in the story that was unfolding.

Then the Fox smiled almost apologetically. "At this point, some men who were trying to avoid curfew violation rushed down the street, unaware that I was upon the verge of discovering who the would-be assassin was. Naturally, I was in an awkward situation and as such, my prisoner escaped without my discovering who he was. However, he left behind a piece of evidence that I would like to present to the court."

"May I see this evidence, Señor Zorro?" De las Fuentes requested.

EL Zorro pulled his cloak aside. From out of its folds, he produced a pistol and held it up for everyone to see. Then he turned toward the officer and presented it to him for his inspection. De las Fuentes examined the weapon and handed it back. "To whom does this pistol belong?" he asked.

"May I ask that question of Don Felix Muñoz?" the Fox requested.

"Don Felix?" The room buzzed with expressions of astonishment and concern from the audience.

Felix Muñoz rose from his chair and approached the man in black. He looked bewildered. "May I see the pistol?" he asked. The graying merchant took the weapon from the black gauntlet and examined it carefully. In a sorrowful tone, he faced the Comandante. "This belongs to Salvador," he said quietly. "I gave it to him many years ago." He turned back toward his son. "Salvador, what have you done?"

Salvador Muñoz blanched. His eyes darted and he made a sudden dash for the door of the inn. A dozen men from the audience leaped to their feet to seize him. The soldiers moved forward and dragged the struggling young man back towards the fireplace.

The room was in an uproar again and the officer had to bang the gavel over and over. When the room finally quieted down, the only sound to be heard was the heartfelt weeping of Ines Muñoz. "This is important evidence," De las Fuentes remarked. "Please continue."

"I am sorry to have to proceed in this manner, Don Felix," Zorro explained, directing his remarks to older man who looked shaken and despondent. "The point is that on this evening, Salvador Muñoz attempted to assassinate the Comandante, Capitán de las Fuentes. But we must ask ourselves ‘why?’ Why would any reasonable man attempt to kill a man of justice? Furthermore, why would any reasonable man keep on persisting to marry a young woman he knew despised him? Everyone in this pueblo knows Señorita Pérez turned down his offers of marriage many times, even publicly. Is it not so?"

A murmur of assent filled the room from the spectators.

The Fox turned toward the Comandante and faced him. "Capitán de las Fuentes, it is necessary to ask ourselves even more questions, questions that may be a little uncomfortable. All these seemingly disparate events need to be tied together in one question – who could gain from such a marriage? I repeat, who would gain from such a marriage? Certainly not the señorita - it would have been a miserable arrangement for her. And Señor Salvador? He had no love for her at all. But if there was no love, what was there? Why would Salvador Muñoz try to kill her in anger that day in the plaza - the day he shot her?" He turned toward Salvador. "Tell us, Señor, did you really wish to marry her out of pity or was it for perhaps something else?"

Salvador just stared at the man in black. He said nothing.

"Perhaps, Señor Salvador is tongue-tied," Zorro smiled. "Then, perhaps we need to ask his perspective father-in-law." He turned toward Sebastian Pérez. "Tell us this, Señor Pérez, why did you insist that Señorita Margarita marry a man she despised? Certainly not for love! Perhaps it might have been something more - something that was a greater prize than a gambling son-in-law who is allergic to cats!"

"What do you mean by that?" Sebastian replied in a hostile manner. "Don Felix and our family have been friends for years. It is natural that we would want a marriage to cement the bonds of our friendship."

"Then, perhaps, Señor Pérez, you will explain the meaning of this document?" El Zorro demanded. He pulled some sheaves of parchment out of his shirt. "First I would like to present them to the judge, and then to the lawyers." He approached the small officer at the desk and handed him the papers.

Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes took the documents read through the sheets slowly and carefully. When he finished, he looked up. "I think you will find these of interest, Señor Palacios."

Maximillian Palacios approached the desk and took the documents. Andrés Franco joined him. When Palacios finished reading the first page, he handed it to Franco. He did so with each succeeding page. When the two lawyers finished reading the document, Palacios looked up at the Comandante. "I have never seen this document before, Your Excellency," he began. "I feel as if my integrity has been compromised." He turned to the man in black. "Where did you get this from?"

"I have my resources," El Zorro smiled. "While it is not my habit to break and enter a home or place of business, sometimes a man must do what is necessary to protect a good man. That man is Felix Muñoz."

There were sounds of confusion from the audience as it hummed once again in reaction to the words of the man in black.

"Allow me to interrupt one moment to explain what this document is," Capitán de las Fuentes said. Franco handed the document back to the officer. "But before I do so, I would like to ask Don Felix to approach the court and inspect it."

Felix Muñoz rose and reached the desk. De las Fuentes handed him the document. Felix leafed through it and looked directly at the Comandante.

"Have you seen this document before, Señor?" asked the officer.

"Yes, I have," Felix said slowly. "Just the other evening, Sebastian asked that I sign it. He said that Señor Palacios had written this in order to help me out. Sebastian wanted me to temporarily hand over my banking and leather goods business to him while I handled the case of my son. I thought that this was a good idea at the time."

"Don Felix, what does the document actually say?" asked El Zorro.

"I did not read it carefully," admitted Felix. "I trusted it because I assumed Señor Palacios to be a man of honor and understood that he had written it."

Francisco de las Fuentes turned to the audience. "I will summarize the document, if I may. In its basic formulation, it is the take-over of Señor Muñoz’s businesses, his accounts, and responsibilities by Señor Pérez."

"That’s a lie!" Sebastian Pérez burst out. "Let me see that document!" he demanded. "Are you going to trust the word of a wanted outlaw?"

"I see no reason why not," the Capitán replied. He looked at Palacios who showed the first page to Pérez, then returned it to the officer. "Would you agree that this is what the document says in its essence?"

"Yes," Palacios agreed. "The writing is in the hand of Sebastian Pérez."

"And you, Señor Franco?"

"Yes, Your Excellency," Andrés Franco affirmed. "It is not meant to be a temporary arrangement, but a permanent one. Don Felix would be left with nothing."

The audience buzzed in such indignation that De las Fuentes had to tap the gavel again.

Don Felix stared at Pérez. "Why, Sebastian? Why?" he asked. His wife, Ines, had dried her tears and glowered at the man in indignation.

El Zorro raised his gloved hand and the room grew quiet. He turned toward the officer in blue and white. "I am afraid, Comandante, that this complicates the trial in more ways than one. Since you yourself, no less than Señorita Pérez, was an intended victim of Señor Salvador Muñoz, it would appear there is a conflict of interest in you presiding as judge at this trial."

"I understand your point, Señor Zorro," the officer calmly acknowledged. "I should like to hear what you propose as an alternative to these proceedings."

There was a hush in the room at these words. The man in black gazed around the room. "What this means is that there are a number of possibilities that present themselves. First, that the trial be postponed until the return of Capitán Monastario, who would then determine the sentencing of the defendant."

The room filled with expressions of indignation. Salvador Muñoz swallowed hard. Things were beginning to go from bad to worse for him. He had no doubt what his fate would be at the hands of Capitán Enrique Monastario.

The masked man held up a gloved hand. "There is another possibility: The trial can be turned over to the Alcalde for completion."

At that comment, a small man with a long, white beard stood up in the front row of the spectators. De las Fuentes recognized the Alcalde. "Under other circumstances, this might be a possibility, Señor Zorro," he said. "But now that an attempt to assassinate the Comandante has been revealed and become part of the evidence at this trial, it again reverts to a military court, not a civil one. The only other possibility is that the next-in-command takes over as judge." The Alcalde could not suppress a smile at his own comment, and the audience began to laugh as well.

De las Fuentes did not even look over at the fat sergeant who was totally oblivious to the discussion going on or its implications. He looked up at the masked man. "And a final possibility?"

"A meeting of all of the aggrieved parties – you, Comandante, the lawyers, and Don Felix. That way, all of you can come to a solution that finds justice for everyone and an appropriate punishment for the accused."

The lawyers huddled around the table and spoke in soft tones with the officer. After several minutes, they stood aside and Francisco de las Fuentes stood up. "It is the decision of the court that a recess be called in order to consider these options." He tapped the gavel. Then, he and the two lawyers left the courtroom for an empty room at the top of the stairs of the inn.

Upon the departure of the judge and lawyers, the spectators’ voices rose appreciably in volume. Everyone was discussing the case and not a few were eyeing the black-caped outlaw in awe and respect.

Sergeant García was nonplussed when the man in black approached him. He was itching to arrest the outlaw and collect the reward of two thousand pesos. But Capitán de las Fuentes had said El Zorro was not an enemy. He looked up at the tall caped man.

"Ah, Sergeant García," the Fox smiled. "We meet again, but under more pleasant circumstances."

"More pleasant circumstances?" the soldier asked curiously. "I do not understand."

"Well, Sergeant, it is like this. For once, you and I are on the same side."

"We are?" asked García uncertainly. "On the same side?"

"Yes, Sergeant. Both of us are guarding Salvador Muñoz and Sebastian Pérez so that they do not escape while the Comandante and the lawyers consult with each other."

"But Señor Zorro, Don Sebastian is not under arrest," García pointed out.

"That is true," The Fox explained, "but he is an important material witness whose excuses for the endangerment of the life of Señorita Pérez have been compromised."

"Oh," replied the fat sergeant. He then drew himself up, putting his hand on the hilt of his sword. He turned toward Sebastian Pérez and Salvador Muñoz. "With our unfaltering vigilance," he declared, "no one will escape me!"

El Zorro grinned at that, then turned his attention back to the crowd. He watched his father in earnest conversation with Don Leon and Don Nacho; he saw the head vaquero, Miguel Cisneros, speaking with men of the posse. He drew a line across his throat, then grinned. Peeking out the doorway to the kitchen, he saw Conchita Cortéz gazing at him with unabashed admiration, and the gypsy, Pilar Montoya at the back corner. His eyes swept back to the defendants. He saw Felix and Ines Muñoz in intense conversation.

And in a room up over the bar, three men sat in a room and debated the new evidence that an outlaw had provided. As the officer watched the pacing lawyers, one turned to him suddenly.

"Capitán de las Fuentes," Andrés Franco began. "As Comandante, you need no reason to not now hang Salvador Muñoz. Any man who would attempt to assassinate you, and then shoot the señorita, has no conscience. The law gives you the right, not just as Comandante, but as a nobleman, to execute anyone for treason. How treason is defined is up to you."

Maximillian Palacios objected. "Salvador was acting on behest of another and did not understand the full ramifications of his actions. He has never been in trouble with the law before and should not be given the death penalty. It is a cruel form of punishment. Let us find another means by which to punish him instead."

"You heard Doctor Aguilera testify that she had been shot at almost point-blank range," Franco countered. "That is intent to murder. The very fact he was armed showed his intent was to kill."

"Most men carry side-arms," insisted Palacios, "including you, Andrés."

"There is also the issue of honor, Capitán," Franco continued. "The honor of a much loved and respected young señorita - a señorita who has never done anything harmful to anyone - is also at stake."

"But the señorita has recovered, or almost recovered," Palacios said forcibly. "And the question of honor is not absolute. Capitán Monastario, for example, dishonors justice and oppresses people as comandante, but even El Zorro does not demand his death." He looked pointedly at the small man. "If you do not wish to continue with this trial, Capitán," he suggested, noting the lack of expression on the comandante’s face, "then you could appoint the Alcalde to preside over the trial and declare it a civil matter."

"But, as Comandante, he would have to relinquish his responsibilities to the next ranking soldier at the cuartel," Franco pointed out. "That would be Sergeant García who has no experience in conducting trials and, besides, is not qualified. Capitán de las Fuentes has never relinquished his command to anyone, not even when he was, um, indisposed."

Palacios raised his hand and addressed De las Fuentes. "As a final point, the fact that Salvador Muñoz tried to kill you, Capitán, in addition to the señorita, means a second trial for murder. We must stick to the issue of his attempted murder of Señorita Pérez in this trial."

Andrés Franco insisted that more was at stake. "Salvador Munoz is no youth, no dreamer whose excuse of youthful passion can excuse his actions, Your Excellency. As a matter of fact, he exhibited all the passions of hatred for his victim, not pity or love. He deliberately baited her despite her numerous refusals."

After hearing these and other arguments, Francisco de las Fuentes made a decision. He told Palacios, "I would like you to ask Don Felix Muñoz and El Zorro to now join us."

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

Sergeant García found himself hoping the trial would end soon. The meeting upstairs must have gone on for at least an hour. He longed for the bar to be re-opened so he could have some wine. Reyes would be off duty that evening and perhaps he would be generous in sharing his largess. Recently, their duty hours had been almost the opposite. That made it more difficult for him to meet up with his friend.

The audience in the improvised courtroom continued to buzz in speculation of what the sentence would be. Outside the tavern, a few men began to make bets over the verdict. Only a short mozo in brown with thinning hair on the top of his head shook his head at the gestures of the gamblers and offered a peso against the death penalty. The crowd laughed at him.

Finally, the door above opened and five men headed down the stairs. First, was the Comandante, who walked to the desk and sat down. He was followed by the two lawyers, Don Felix, and finally the masked man.

The audience grew quiet.

The Comandante began to speak. "There are many kinds of justices in our kingdom," he explained, "and often the concept of justice is abused for political reasons or even personal ones." He paused and glanced at the man in black. "The administration of justice in this case cannot and will not be used for reasons of vengeance."

The spectators leaned forward in anticipation and curiosity. No one quite knew what to expect next. The expression on the face of the masked man was solemn. Those looking at him could get no hint as to what was to come.

Francisco de las Fuentes turned toward the defendant. "The sole purpose of this case is to focus on the attempted murder of a young woman by this young man. Whether premeditated or not, it constitutes a crime that cannot go unpunished by society nor by what the law permits."

Miguel Cisneros and a few others smiled in anticipation of what was to follow.

"And yet, we must ask ourselves, what is the purpose of punishment or the kind of punishment that is administered? Some would argue that it should be an example to others and a threat of what consequences would follow should such a similar act be committed by someone else. That is to presume that the same motives and actions would take place by different individuals, which is generally not the case. Each case is unique and different unto itself and should be judged as such. If not, then the stage is set for injustice to occur. No judge should avoid the responsibility of making a moral selection."

The Capitán looked out at the audience and ran his eyes over a few of the men who had expressed hostility to the defendant. "The purpose of the administration of justice is to see that punishments are reasonable and serve a purpose. The purpose should be to teach the defendant that his actions, and his reasons for his actions, are unacceptable to society. They should also be a part of his reeducation in becoming a more responsible member of society."

There was a slight hum in the audience at these words. Cisneros frowned.

De las Fuentes looked directly at Salvador Muñoz. "It should be pointed out, for the sake of the defendant’s enlightenment, that the kind of punishment administered is, in part, based upon the recovery of the victim of his attack. He must understand that the options for punishment might have been vastly different and much more severe should the victim have died or been permanently disabled."

Sebastian Pérez sat back in his chair, his eyes moving between Salvador, the officer, and the masked man who stood fairly close to him. He stared at the lawyer Palacios as the Comandante continued.

"The question of honor has been raised, the question of a señorita’s honor, and how it was infringed upon by this young man’s insulting behavior and act of violence. The court acknowledges this. But I have to add, that the honor of the defendant’s own family, that of his parents, their good name and reputation, has also been grievously impinged upon. How can this be rectified as well? It is no small thing that a child can do, even a grown child, than to disparage the name and honor of his family."

Salvador looked over at his parents in alarm. His father’s expression was unreadable.

The audience now waited in anticipation of the verdict.

"There are many kinds of punishments available, but they should be appropriate to the individual," De las Fuentes concluded. "After due consultation with both lawyers, the defendant’s father, and the judge, the court now renders a verdict." The officer turned towards the young man. "Señor Salvador Muñoz, please rise and face the court."

Salvador got slowly to his feet. His expression was grim.

"The court finds the defendant, Salvador Muñoz, guilty of the attempted murder of Señorita Margarita Pérez," the officer said slowly and clearly in his deep baritone. He paused so that the statement would sink in. "The punishment agreed upon by all parties will seem somewhat ironic but perhaps appropriate in more ways than one. That punishment is as follows: in order to rectify the besmirching of the good name of Muñoz, you are hereby to be disinherited by your family. Lacking any kind of financial support from them will then require you to seek gainful employment. Since you have no job skills, and the sport of gambling does not qualify you for an honest position in business, it has been determined that you will have to seek skills elsewhere which will give you an appreciation of what effort it takes to become worthy of respect. Only when you have achieved this goal and can return in honor to California, will your family welcome you back. You have, Señor, a formidable task before you."

There was a murmuring in the audience and many nodded in agreement while others shook their heads.

The officer continued. "The court wishes to state the fact that the victim, Señorita Pérez, bears the defendant no permanent ill will and specifically asked that the death penalty not be imposed." He gave Salvador a hard look and added, "It was this request that led the court not to take more severe measures in determining your fate, Señor."

De las Fuentes looked at Sebastian Pérez and added. "This quality of mercy, in the face of abuse and acts of violence, can only commend itself more to the victim and be an abject lesson in how we should treat our fellows."

He turned back to Salvador. "Finally, you shall be returned to the jail in the cuartel until arrangements are made to take you to the port of San Pedro. There, you will be apprenticed to a man well-acquainted with your father and known for his vigilance and exactitude – Capitán Aristotle Silva."

"But that’s a sentence worse than death," Salvador moaned. "Silva is a slave driver…"

Capitán de las Fuentes turned back toward the audience and tapped his gavel. "Thus is the verdict of this court."

As the noise in the room rose to an appreciable level, El Zorro grinned at the disconsolate Salvador Muñoz as he was being led from the room. "Ah, Señor Muñoz," he said cheerfully, "do not feel so bad. After all, you will have a first-class escort to San Pedro and I will be following at a distance to make sure there are no undue escapes!"

Francisco de las Fuentes waited until all the witnesses and spectators had left the room. He approached the man in black who began to head toward the stairs. "Señor Zorro, a moment more of your time, please."

The man in black turned back towards the officer. "Yes, Comandante?"

"Señor Zorro," he began in his deep baritone, "I have not yet had the opportunity to thank you for all that you have done for me, and for my wife, Margarita. Without your aid, your vigilance, wisdom and courage, justice would have suffered here in Los Angeles. You saved my life on more than one occasion. How can I possibly repay you for all your kindnesses and loyalty?"

El Zorro saw the open earnestness on the face of the small officer and knew that the time had come. He genuinely liked De las Fuentes and greatly respected the verdict he had just rendered in the case of Salvador Muñoz. Not too many men in power would have tried to find a humane solution rather than take the easier route to death when faced by popular sentiment to do so. The officer had not abused his privilege nor his authority when the temptation to do so was present. But there was one final test he wished to give the prince. "The price I am asking," he replied, "is very high."

De las Fuentes did not even pause. "Money is no object, of course. Whatever you ask, I will gladly pay."

"This is not about money, Your Excellency," the masked man explained. "It is something that requires more of you."

"I’m afraid I do not understand," the officer responded uncertainly.

"My price is this – for me, and for all the men and women of the pueblo who helped you, who rallied to find and to defend you – that you play upon your violin or piano for us. That is my price."

Francisco looked taken aback at his words. His expression became one of great concern. "You must realize, Señor Zorro, that I cannot possibly put myself on display before the pueblo in such a manner." He was very upset. It occurred to him that Señor Zorro could not possibly know who he was and therefore, did not understand the gravity of his request. He was almost tempted to reveal to the bandit who he really was. For the first time, he teetered on the brink of uncertainty. "I am….noble."

"Comandante," El Zorro told him gently, "I am not asking you to perform before the entire pueblo in the market place. I am only asking for you to play before those men and women in a place of culture that will be as dignified a setting as it was for the young ladies who played for you. Now, given this scenario, is this such a difficult wish to fulfill?"

Francisco relaxed, now almost embarrassed at his initial response. "Please forgive me," he requested. "Under these circumstances, I shall indeed meet your price, if that is all that you wish to request of me." He gave the tall man a look of askance. "Would you not wish, in addition, a pardon?"

The man in black gave him an irrepressible grin. "A pardon? No, thank you, Comandante. That would take all the fun out of being an outlaw!"

Francisco nodded knowingly in return. "Then, if you do not object, I will issue you a temporary reprieve, a grant of immunity, to attend my concert."

El Zorro flashed him another wide grin as he ascended the stairs. At the top, at the balcony, he looked down at the officer and two lawyers who remained in the room. "That favor, I will accept!" He gave a wave of his gauntleted hand. "Until the concert, Capitán de las Fuentes!" and he was gone.

Andrés Franco and Maximillian Palacios were shaking their heads when the officer turned back towards them with an amused expression on his face.

"You know, this is not the first time the outlaw, Zorro, has aided justice in this pueblo, Capitán," Franco told him.

The officer only smiled. "You know, he’s not really an outlaw."

"Try telling that to Capitán Monastario, Your Excellency," Palacios remarked dryly.

Francisco de las Fuentes looked up at the now empty balcony and said thoughtfully. "I believe that I shall."

 

 

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