Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

The church bell had just tolled three in the afternoon when the Comandante entered the office with his typical slow gait. Everyone was waiting inside. He removed his hat and sat at his desk. After an opening statement, he had the three vaqueros brought in to the room. As they were being seated, he examined the paperwork before him a second time.

"There seem to be a number of charges against the following men: Benito Ávila, Tomás Robello, and Angel Ledesma. These charges include tax arrears, insubordination, brawling, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and violation of the curfew. Do the defendants have any response to the charges?"

The three men looked at each other. One of them nodded and stood up. His hat was in his hand. He was a tall, stocky mestizo with a broad, closely clipped moustache. "I am Benito Ávila," he said. "The charges against me are greatly exaggerated. I paid my taxes, so that is not an issue. I just had a few drinks at the bar and we exchanged some jokes, laughing and having a good time. When the trouble started, I tried to put a stop to it. How could there be a curfew violation in the middle of the day?"

"Do you have any witnesses to substantiate your assertions?" asked De las Fuentes, looking at the audience.

Don Alejandro de la Vega rose. "My name is Alejandro de la Vega, Your Excellency. All three of these men are in my employ. I have the tax records of all my men that prove that they paid their taxes."

"Please submit these documents for my inspection," De las Fuentes responded. As the don presented the documents and explained them, the officer compared them to the records he had. "Your records expiate the ones in this office," he remarked to the don’s satisfaction.

One of the prisoners raised his hand. De las Fuentes recognized him. "State your name and make your statement."

"I am Angel Ledesma, Your Excellency." He stood up. "Uh, what does ‘expiate’ mean?"

There were a few laughs from the audience.

De las Fuentes looked at the man benevolently enough. "That is a fair question," he remarked. "I find that your master’s documents contain the same information as those in my possession. Since I see no evidence that your taxes have been raised, I can only assume that you owe none."

"Then why were we falsely charged?" asked the third man in a belligerent voice.

"Will you kindly ask permission to speak before doing so?" asked the captain in a calm voice. "When I recognize you, you can then state your name and ask your question."

The third vaquero was a lean, tall man with deeply suntanned skin. He stood up. He had no jacket. "I am Tomás Robello," he said, "and I demand to know why I was falsely charged in evading taxes. All of the other charges are as false as this one."

"I do not know the reason you were accused other than what has been written," De las Fuentes responded in a reasonable tone of voice. "However, there are other charges to be considered that may or may not be true. The point of this hearing is to determine the nature of all the charges. As for your demands, you are in no position to make any since you are still under arrest. You may, however, request evidence. That is what we are attempting to ascertain. There is no reason for you to impinge upon the dignity of this hearing. I expect you to conduct yourself in a gentlemanly manner. I will only warn you this one time."

The vaquero remained standing.

"Do you have something else to say?" asked the captain.

"I believe you just threatened me," replied Robello in a cold voice. "I want to know what you meant by the statement that you will warn me only one time."

Don Diego stood up at that remark.

"Señor de la Vega," the officer said in recognition.

"Your pardon, Capitán," Diego began, looking first at the officer, and then addressing his comments to the tall man. "I think that Tomás needs to understand that this hearing is not about threats or how to be discourteous to authority." He turned to the vaquero. "I understand your anger at being under arrest, Tomás, but the one who arrested you is not present. Have patience so that all the evidence can be examined. I think you will get more justice at this hearing than you would under other circumstances."

De las Fuentes nodded at the young don, but he stood up to catch the attention of everyone in the room. "Thank you, Señor de la Vega, for your remarks." He turned to the vaquero. "Señor Robello, there is protocol to be followed in all legal proceedings. Protocol is an established method of etiquette, a way in which we conduct ourselves as civilized beings. Procedure, courtesy, and etiquette give dignity and seriousness to our gatherings. Our laws and customs are established so that those in authority are given due respect for the powers bestowed upon them by the Crown and for the knowledge of the law and application of the laws which they garner through many years of experience. I assumed that everyone understands this. If you will reflect upon the behavior of your colleagues, you will no doubt notice that they have given proper deference to the hearing officer. There is no excuse for you to be an exception to these rules. I expect that after this explanation and my previous advice, that you will conduct yourself in a duly respectful manner. Breaches of etiquette are unacceptable regardless of your personal feelings to the contrary. We are a kingdom and each of us has his place. There are consequences for those who violate etiquette and I am reminding you of them, something that should not be necessary. Do you have any further questions or statements?"

Tomás Robello was surprised by the behavior of the captain in confronting his belligerence. He expected to make a noisy scene and be dragged out by soldiers – what would have happened under Capitán Monastario – and clapped into irons. This officer, while he symbolized the hated military authority, was different and Tomás Robello was grudgingly willing to give him his due. "I have no further questions or statements," he said and sat down.

Alejandro and his son, Diego, gave each other a look with raised eyebrows. Both were positively impressed with the way De las Fuentes conducted himself and treated the men under arrest. This was no official whose attitude was "guilty until proven guilty."

"Let us proceed to the other charges," continued De las Fuentes. There was a tap at the door to the office. Corporal Reyes answered it and the innkeeper, Señor Pacheco, was admitted. De las Fuentes noticed a perceptible change in the demeanor of the vaqueros as the innkeeper took his seat.

"The next charges to be considered are those of insubordination, brawling, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and violation of the curfew. According to the record, these acts took place at the tavern, which is owned by Señor ‘Pacheco’ Ríos. It involved fighting with each other, damage to the property of the proprietor, refusal to cease and desist, insubordination and threatening bodily harm to the arresting soldiers and officer," De las Fuentes said, reading from the text. "Is there anyone here who would like to come forth as a witness?"

The room was quiet. All eyes seem to gravitate toward the innkeeper who looked uncomfortable. He rose hesitantly.

"Please state your name and make your statement," the Comandante told him.

"I am the owner of the tavern and inn here in Los Angeles, Francisco ‘Pacheco’ Ríos, Your Excellency," the innkeeper said nervously. His hands held his hat close to his chest and he squeezed the edges. "The three men there are good customers of mine and normally there is no trouble, but yesterday, ah, there was a lot of trouble."

"Explain the nature of the trouble and when it began," De las Fuentes requested.

"Well, Your Excellency, those two gentlemen there," he pointed at Robello and Ledesma, "seem to have been arguing and Señor Ávila attempted to put a stop to it. Señor Robello threw a punch at Señor Ávila and Señor Ledesma joined him." He hesitated.

"Continue," said the officer.

"Well, after subduing Señor Ledesma, Señor Ávila told me to hit Señor Robello on the head with a wine bottle to put a stop to the fighting because Señor Robello was like a wild man."

"And what did you do?"

"Well I picked up a bottle. I saw at once that it was one of our more expensive brands and I put it back. I tried to find a bottle of cheap wine but…"

The audience began to laugh at that and De las Fuentes found he could not suppress a smile. This was beginning to sound like a comedy act.

"Well, it took some time and I finally located a bottle, but by then Señor Robello had picked up a chair and had thrown it at Señor Ávila, who dodged the chair. However, the chair hit the table of two guests who then threatened to join the fight. I begged one of them to go to the cuartel to get the soldiers. He finally did."

"And what did you do then?" asked the captain.

"Well," the innkeeper continued nervously, "I followed Señor Robello around with my bottle trying to find a good opportunity to hit him. Señor Ávila keep yelling at me, saying ‘Hit him now, you old idiot! Hit him now!’ But I could not. It was very difficult to follow the both of them around and around. By then they had knocked over tables and chairs, broken candles and my other customers had their meals ruined. Finally, I aimed at Señor Robello’s head and hit him, just as the soldiers and the comandante, I mean, Capitán Monastario, came through the front door. The soldiers arrested a lot of people, not just the vaqueros. I had to tell Capitán Monastario many times that only these three men were involved and that only two of them started the fight. However, Señor Ávila was also arrested."

"Ah," responded De las Fuentes. "And how much damage was done to your inn, to your property, and possible lost service of your customers?"

Señor Pacheco took out a list. "I wrote down everything, Your Excellency. The chairs can be repaired, but the barmaids had to stay longer to clean up everything that night and…." He handed the list to the comandante who read through it solemnly.

"This is a bit of damage," he commented, setting the list down. "Are there any other witnesses?" he asked.

A young lady began to rise, then sat down. She looked uncertain of herself. The innkeeper looked at her and gestured for her to stand up.

"Señorita, would you care to testify?" De las Fuentes asked her. "All you need to do is to tell us what you saw at the time of the disturbance."

"Oh, I guess so," the young lady began. "My name is Conchita Cortéz. I work for Señor Pacheco at the inn. Tomás and Angel were drinking a lot but they were quiet. Then they started arguing and pushing each other. Tomás demanded more wine but I wouldn’t sell him any more and he told me ‘You little tortilla maker, you had better do what I tell you.’ And I told him that I wasn’t any tortilla maker and that’s when he grabbed my arm. Then Benito came over and told him to let go of me because I was a lady and Tomás wouldn’t and then Benito pulled his hand off me and that’s when Tomás swung his fist at Benito."

"How did Señor Ledesma become involved in this fight?" asked the Comandante.

"Oh, Angel said that nobody starts fights with his best drinking buddy and that’s when he started fighting against Benito, too."

"Did you see Señor Robello or Señor Ledesma throw furniture or assault other customers?" De las Fuentes asked her.

"Oh, that was Tomás. He has a big ego. He thinks he can fight everybody…but only when he gets drunk. Most of the time he behaves himself," she told the officer. She looked over at the vaquero and smiled. "He’s really cute when he’s sober and acts like a gentleman, but when he gets mad or drunk, watch out!"

The vaquero Robello actually appeared abashed at her words and eyed his friend, Ledesma with a smug smile. Angel Ledesma only rolled his eyes in disgust at what he just heard. Robello whispered to him in an angry tone, "What are you rolling your eyes for, stupid?"

"That woman is crazy," Angel retorted, not lowering his voice at all. "You are about as ‘cute’ as a horse’s rear end. Don’t ask me why I ever stand up for you. All it does is get me into trouble."

"Why, you toad! You ungrateful goat! Who do you think was paying for your drinks?" shouted Robello. He jumped to his feet and faced the other vaquero with his fist clenched.

"Señores, enough of this!" interrupted De las Fuentes, raising his voice and slapping his hand on the desktop.

"And who do you think owes me five pesos and thinks he can pay it off by buying me a drink that I could pay for myself," roared Ledesma, ignoring the officer and not the least intimidated by Robello. He rose to his feet as well.

Diego de la Vega covered his face with a hand and began laughing quietly. Most of those assembled were torn between shock and amusement.

There was the sudden and unmistakable sound of a saber being unsheathed. Everyone froze as Conchita Cortéz screamed. The bickering men turned around and saw the officer approaching them with a naked sword in hand. Both of them swallowed hard.

Alejandro de la Vega rose. "Capitán de las Fuentes," he began.

De las Fuentes poked his saber at the leather vest of Ledesma. "Sit down," he commanded. The vaquero plopped into his seat. The officer turned to Robello. "Ten peso fine for violating the dignity of this hearing. If I hear one more word out of either of you, it will be another ten pesos for every word you utter. Do I make myself understood?"

Robello nodded and sat down carefully, eying the still-drawn saber of the comandante.

There was silence in the room as everyone wondered what would happen next.

The captain stood staring at the two vaqueros until they lowered their eyes to the floor. "You men contribute a great deal to an urge I have to abandon the notion of the ‘Philosopher King’," he began. "Are you such undisciplined savages that you stand in contempt of the Law and the King whom God has fashioned to bring reason and recourse to humankind? It is the duty of every prince not only to govern well, but also to conduct himself with tolerance towards those who behave in a manner that bespeaks their right to dignity. However, you two ruffians belie the very precept."

Diego and Alejandro looked at each other again, but this time their look bespoke a definite curiosity and respect for the officer upon whom every eye was fastened.

The captain took a few steps back and forth as he lectured the two prisoners. "Perhaps here on the far frontiers of Spain, men like you forget what it is to be men, men who were fashioned in the likeness of God. Braying asses have more dignity than you have displayed this afternoon, and probably more intelligence. Since your ignorance is more to be pitied than not, it is my duty to remind you of yours, one I trust that you will not soon forget – to your peril."

The officer paused, brought his blade up to eye level, examined it, and dropped it back down to his side again. "Less than one hundred and fifty years ago, Bishop Bossuet spelled out the basis of our civilization in a treatise called Politique tirée des propres paroles de l'Ecriture Sainte. The point of his book was to remind men of what it is that makes us civilized. First, as most of us know, God created the universe and is king over all. God created kings on Earth, princes to rule in his name. Just as God shares power with no one, neither does a king or prince. But princes, like God, do not rule arbitrarily, but with self-imposed laws. Here on Earth we, too, have laws. Like God, kings and princes are bound by laws. These laws are ones that we make, hopefully, with divine guidance, and carry out the same way."

"Now, our jurisprudence has its foundation in the laws of nature, that is to say, in reason and in equity, meaning balance. Without balance there is chaos and with chaos there is an end to reason and an end to civilization. The law of nature is God’s law and balance is at its epicenter. Balance means reason, stability, and order. Our system of monarchy and the King’s law is the best system of government. It is the oldest and most common form of government because it provides the best protection against strife and division. If you men indulge yourself in uncontrolled passions, such as those displayed at this hearing, you are not only violating the foundation of our kingdom, but you are engaging in the worst kind of conduct that can only appeal to the forces of darkness which are the forces of disaster. Although we sometimes appear harsh in our decisions, the subjects of the King must know this – we are here, not just to render judgment in such cases as these, but to protect all subjects from oppression and injustice."

"Finally, what is the consistency of justice and injustice in the case being examined at this hearing? It is our duty as comandante of this pueblo to ensure justice for all parties. Under the law of nature, there must, therefore, ensue a balance of all things. These two men created chaos and strife. They did so voluntarily. Their actions led to disturbances, destruction of property, the heightening of emotions, perhaps even to indigestion. A balance must, therefore, be struck. It is our duty to re-establish a balance. Unfortunately, we cannot restore conditions as if they had never happened. We can only render a verdict in order to give some justice to everyone. The kind of justices rendered, however, will be quite different because one justice is for the perpetrators of imbalance and the other will be for those most adversely affected by it."

De las Fuentes turned back from the audience to the two men who were now looking fairly contrite. "Our judgment is tempered by the fact that neither of these men acted out of maliciousness, but, rather, by impetuosity and undisciplined exuberance."

"First, it is our verdict that Señor Ávila be released without charges since he attempted to defuse the situation and to defend the person and honor of Señorita Cortéz. Second, the other two men, Señores Robello and Ledesma, were in violation of public order. They damaged property – chairs, tables, wine bottles, meals, clothing, and other items. They showed disrespect to their betters and to the arresting authorities, disregarding orders to cease and desist. They also showed a blatant disregard for the dignity of this hearing and the person of the hearing officer. The charge of curfew violation is spurious in regards to these arrests and will therefore be dismissed."

"This verdict awards to the proprietor, Señor Ríos, the damages done to his inn and business. This totals twenty-eight pesos. This includes payment for the meals of three customers who asked for compensation and for wages due his employees. The actions of the two men also resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of Señor Ávila, which will cost them an additional ten pesos to the defendant. On top of this are various fines that will be consolidated under the definition ‘disorderly conduct’ rather than the more serious charges of assaulting the arresting officers of the king, charges that could result in lashes and a longer jail sentence. These fines total fifteen pesos each. Since their past records show only minor infractions of the law of a nonviolent nature, we temper our punishment as well. Señor Robello must pay an additional ten pesos to the administration for disrespectful conduct. Señores Robello and Ledesma will remain in jail a few days in order for them to meditate further on their actions and its repercussions."

The comandante re-sheathed his saber and returned to stand behind his desk. He looked out at the spectators as if addressing them personally." I can only pray that the justice that they receive today will modify, in the future, their behavior towards their fellow subjects and towards His Majesty’s representatives. The case is now closed."

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

 

The crowd began to disperse after the two vaqueros were escorted out of the room and back to jail. There was a respectful silence as the audience left the office. Once outside, their voices rose to an appreciable volume.

Don Alejandro and his son Diego waited until everyone else left. As they began to leave the comandante’s office, the officer approached them. "Don Alejandro, may we have a word with you?"

Both men halted and turned back towards the officer. "Yes, Your Excellency?" Alejandro asked .

"My apologies to you gentlemen," De las Fuentes began. "I regret I was unable to respond to you while engaged in the heat of this case."

"Not at all, Comandante," Diego responded. "I must say that your handling of the situation was masterful. You actually had all of us pretty worried for a moment, but you made your point and re-established control over a very difficult situation."

"Capitán de las Fuentes," Alejandro said with enthusiasm, "I have heard few military officers or even the more erudite servants of the Crown express themselves in such a clear and precise manner, explaining the essence of the law and the responsibilities of all the subjects of the king. Everyone here today learned a valuable lesson that they will not soon forget about the kind of justice that we long for but rarely enjoy. Thank you, Your Excellency!"

"Your words are too generous, Señores," De las Fuentes smiled. "So far, these matters at hand have been clear to us and the application of law and justice not a difficult one to ascertain. However, this final case, a new one, may prove more difficult and I request that you return to this office within fifteen minutes in order to testify, should that be necessary. If you prefer not to, it is your choice, but it may be helpful if you do."

"I am honored by your request," Alejandro replied.

"I hope that I, too, can be of some help," added Diego. "Just who is involved in this final case, if I may ask?"

"A man who claims that he once worked for you, Don Alejandro, and one who now threatens much violence. His name is Joaquín Enríquez."

 

 

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