Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Forty-two

 

It rained during the night, just as it had the day he arrived. It began with a heavy mist that left the leaves of the trees glistening and ended in a downpour. By dawn, the clouds moved eastward towards the inner valleys and the sun rose on a cloudless sky. The sparrows called to each other, flying from branch to branch, chattering in the cool morning air.

At the Posada y Bodega de los Angeles, the Comandante of Los Angeles and his wife took a leisurely breakfast of fruit, eggs, fresh bread and coffee. At their table were several guests including the Alcalde, his daughter, the Rodriguez family, the De la Vegas, and a few others. All of them accompanied the officer over to the cuartel after coffee. Outside the gates, the dons said their goodbyes until later that morning when the carriage would be ready that would take the Comandante to the port of San Pedro. Only Don Alejandro and his son, Diego, accompanied the captain and his wife inside.

The officer stopped half way to his office and looked around the cuartel – from the stables, to the soldier’s quarters with the red terra cotta roofs, to the well and up the high walls and back - before speaking. He turned to the slender woman at his side and remarked, "I have not been here very long, yet I find myself strangely fond of the pueblo of Los Angeles and her people."

"Strangely fond?" Margarita teased him.

Francisco de las Fuentes smiled as he gazed into her eyes. "Yes, strangely. I came here to what I thought was a temporary command – one in a long line of temporary commands. When informed of the fact there was no civil war here, I thought it a pleasant diversion in a quiet backwater of the Empire. I would pass the time leisurely before waiting another transfer. How little I could have imagined that so much could happen in my life in such a place." He turned as Don Alejandro spoke:

"We are very pleased to have shared our quiet little ‘backwater’ with you, Your Excellency, and wish that you could remain," the don declared with a twinkle in his eyes. There was a general nodding of heads.

Sergeant García approached the small group and saluted. "Good morning, Capitán de las Fuentes. There is someone waiting to see you in your office."

"Good morning, Sergeant García. Who is my visitor?" asked De las Fuentes pleasantly.

"It is the bandit, Enríquez, Capitán. He asked to see you before we put him in jail. I told him to wait a few momentos and you would return. Corporal Reyes is in with him to make sure he causes no mischief."

"I am sure that he will cause no mischief," the officer remarked.

"Well, perhaps, Comandante. You see, he is also accompanied by the gypsy, Señora Montoya."

"Perhaps he is turning himself in, Comandante," Diego suggested.

Before De las Fuentes mounted the steps to the Oficina del Comandante, Don Alejandro informed him, "Capitán de las Fuentes, I would like to inform you that Señor Enríquez returned the item that he ‘borrowed’ from me – the gold snuff box. My neighbors, Juan Villa and Don Leon also informed me that the items he stole were all returned to their homes."

De las Fuentes looked thoughtful. "Thank you, Don Alejandro. That is good to know." He paused. "All of you may come in since we are here on business." The door opened from within and a corporal saluted. The group accompanied the officer inside the door. "Good morning, Corporal Reyes," the officer acknowledged.

A man in a long wool serape stood up when the officer and his retinue entered the room. He was wearing black trousers, a striped shirt and was solemn. His tousled hair had been brushed and he had shaved at least two days before. At his side was the gypsy in her colorful skirts. She curtsied.

"Capitán de las Fuentes," Enríquez began in his direct manner and without ceremony. "I am here to see you."

"Señora Montoya, how delightful to see you again so soon," the officer greeted the woman and bowed slightly.

"May Heaven bless you," she smiled. She nodded toward the man at her side.

"Señor Enríquez, good morning," the officer responded. "What can I do for you?"

Enríquez looked surprised at his demeanor. For once he looked uncertain. "But, I am here to turn myself in, Capitán."

"As I understand it, all the items have been returned to their owners," De las Fuentes answered. When Enríquez looked puzzled, he added, "I learned only early this morning from Señora Montoya that these items were originally stolen from you – items you created yourself."

"I am sorry I had to steal them back," the man with the large teeth explained. "It was something I had to do in order to purge the demons of my past. No one would have understood my motivations and so, I offered no explanations. I did not intend to keep them." He paused as the gypsy put her arm through his. "I am prepared to accept whatever punishment you will give me because I know that you are a just man."

Francisco understood what it meant to purge demons. He looked up at the taller man. "Considering the circumstances, and the fact that you have already served time in jail, including being whipped, I see no reason not to free you now."

Joaquín Enríquez looked stunned a moment. He was not certain how to respond. He had prepared himself for the worst, despite Pilar’s encouraging words. "Free?" he asked in amazement. "You won’t even flog me?"

De las Fuentes cleared his throat. "I am not in the habit of behaving like a barbarous man," he said simply. He walked over to the desk, opened the top drawer, and withdrew a piece of folded parchment. He walked back over to the vaquero-craftsman. "I think you will find this of benefit to you. A copy is being forwarded to the government in Monterey."

Enríquez took the document and opened it. He raised his eyebrows as he read. The gypsy moved closer to read it with him and smiled. The man shook his head in disbelief. "This is for me? You would declare me an innocent man, not a bandit, not an outlaw?"

"I would like to ask you to join me, Señor Enríquez. Come, join me in Spain. Become part of my staff. As a man who has suffered much injustice, you would be in a unique position to help others by recognizing injustice when you see it or hear of it."

There was a long silence after the officer spoke. Margarita, Diego, Don Alejandro, and Corporal Reyes all looked at the vaquero and back to the officer several times. De las Fuentes waited courteously and patiently for a reply.

Finally, Joaquín spoke. He was greatly moved and not sure how to respond.

"You really honor me, Capitán de las Fuentes. I had not expected anything like this."

"You would not be just an ordinary servant" De las Fuentes added, hoping to encourage him. "You would be a part of my household. I have physicians who could care for you whenever you suffer from your malady. More importantly, you could be a voice for those who have none in our councils, which reach into the heart of the Spanish government."

Then, with a characteristic look in his eye, Enríquez grinned. He shook his head slightly. "That’s the nicest offer anyone has ever made me, Capitán, and I admit it’s tempting, very tempting. But, you see, I have to say no." He noted the look of surprise on the faces of the men surrounding the officer. "Oh, I’d love being the critic with no fear of retribution, but you see, Your Excellency, it wouldn’t be my style. I wouldn’t want to become a ‘stuffed shirt,’ another sycophant – there are enough of those as it is in government. I don’t think I could stand being around people like that. Here in California," he paused. "Here in California, there are many possibilities. Besides," he added puffing his chest out, "what would become of California if I left her? El Zorro can’t fight injustice all by himself!"

Diego could barely suppress a smile at those words. He glanced at his father. There was a big grin on the face of the white-bearded ranchero. Don Alejandro shook his head and glanced at his son. He saw a pair of raised eyebrows.

Pilar Montoya stepped forward. "And thank you, Comandante, for helping Joaquín. He is really a good man."

"Señora Montoya," replied Francisco de las Fuentes, "you have been a guardian angel for many here in the pueblo and a friend to the native Californians who have needed a friend among the Spanish. I do not believe that the few coins you asked for are adequate enough for all the good you have done."

"Capitán, you gave me a very generous bag of coins this morning – more than enough to pay for all my herbs and stones and a saddle. It is enough."

There was a knock at the door of the Oficina. Reyes opened it. Gonzales, the blacksmith and his son, Pepe, stepped in. "Good morning, Capitán de las Fuentes, Señores," they greeted the group. "Good morning Señora de las Fuentes."

"Good morning," the officer and his lady replied in chorus with the others.

"We have brought the horse and saddle as you requested," Gonzalez said.

"Thank you," De las Fuentes responded. "I believe that this lady here," he indicated the gypsy, "is in need of a mount for herself. You should turn it over to her."

Pilar looked surprised and very pleased. She left Joaquín’s side at once. "A horse, just for me! Now my daughter can have mine. Oh, thank you, Capitán de las Fuentes. May the Saints protect you! May the sprites of happiness follow you forever. May you have one hundred children!" She grabbed his hand and kissed it many times. The González men grinned and followed her out the door, bowing as they left.

"She’s very happy," Margarita smiled. "How generous of you, Francisco!"

"I can thank Don Alejandro for selecting a fine mount for her," her husband told her. "The distances here are vast and to travel far in order to heal others requires a good steed."

"I was only too happy to be of service, Don Francisco," Alejandro told him. "Señora Montoya and her daughter, Marya, have experienced similar injustices due to prejudices against Gypsies and many will not provide them services. What you have done helps in more ways than just the obvious."

Joaquín Enríquez was reading the pardon over and over as if he could not believe what he was reading. He finally folded the paper and approached the officer. "Could I make a final request of you, Capitán de las Fuentes?" he asked.

"Yes, of course," the officer responded. "What would you like?"

"Just to shake your hand," the vaquero responded. "One man to another. To thank you for all that you have done for so many people, especially the Indians and me. There are not too many men like you. I wish there were more."

Francisco stuck out his hand. He gave Joaquín a long, firm handshake. "There are good men," he responded. "They just need to learn how to stand together and fight those who act unjustly and who preach injustice." He turned to the De la Vegas. "These are good, outstanding gentlemen," he added, indicating the don and his son. "They, with many others here in Los Angeles, are the kind of men that you wish for."

"Watch out," Enríquez said with a cheerful grin to Don Alejandro as he walked out the door. "I might just be back. If you ever need someone like me, just call, and I’ll return to join you."

"How will we know where to reach you?" asked Diego.

"Just ask Pilar," the vaquero answered. And he was gone.

When the door closed, Diego turned toward the officer. "I saw Dr. Aguilera this morning. He told me you had paid him a visit as well."

"He helped to save the life of Margarita," Francisco explained, "and I am not one to neglect anyone who worked so diligently to save her life. Doctor Aguilera was very apologetic and did not wish to accept my thanks, saying that he regretted that he had made the decision to take off my leg. If he had done so, he said, I might not be here today. I thanked him for allowing Señora Montoya to aid him, and for his efforts on my behalf. Everything has turned out well. I bear him no ill will, only gratitude."

Margarita squeezed his arm and beamed.

There was another knock on the door.

"It would seem you have many visitors today, Comandante," Diego smiled as Reyes opened the door again.

This time it was De las Fuentes’ turn to look very surprised. "Do come in," he said to his visitor and turned to give the De la Vegas a look of amazement.

The man stepped in and took off his hat. In his hand was a long object wrapped in an old blanket. Tomás Robello looked around a little uncertainly. Behind him stood Sergeant García. "Here is the prisoner who escaped from the search party, mi Capitán," he announced.

"Señor Robello, please come in," Francisco asked courteously. "Are you here to turn yourself in?"

"I probably should not have come back," Robello replied, "but I heard that you had returned – and married the Señorita Pérez. I thought perhaps you might want to get your sword back. I found it in the field near the lake after I escaped. I kept it a long time – I don’t know why. Something told me I should come back, even if you put me in jail again." He handed De las Fuentes the weapon.

The officer unwrapped the coarse blanket and inspected the sword with delight, noting that it had dirt and mud on it, but no damage. It could be cleaned and would soon shine again.

While he was inspecting it, Diego asked him, "Señor Robello, where have you been all this time?"

The vaquero shrugged. "Off to the south, riding some cattle herds to market. I made a little money." He hesitated, "But not enough to pay off the fines."

Francisco looked up at these words. He went over to the desk and placed the sword on top of it. He pulled out a ledger from a desk drawer and walked back over to the vaquero.

"Señor Robello, I must thank you for the return of my sword. It is more valuable than you know. I was given this fine weapon by my father and have carried it with me through the wars and here to the New World. Before my father, it belonged to my grandfather who was a fine musician, diplomat and general. It is worth hundreds of pesos, if not more."

"Oh," Robello responded, playing with the idea that, if he had known the value of such a sword, he might have … He could only shrug his shoulders. "Es la vida – that’s the breaks."

The captain leafed through the ledger. "However, you did do a great deal of work here in the cuartel that included whitewashing the walls, repairing bridles and tack, and cleaning the yard. At decent wages, that would have covered most of your fines since their reassessment."

"Most of the fines?" asked Robello. He could imagine all his recent wages disappearing into the strong box in the comandante’s desk, plus more time in the jail.

"How much money did you earn riding cattle?" Diego asked.

"Fifteen pesos," the vaquero answered reluctantly.

"It appears that after all your work, you still owe fifteen pesos, including the five you owe Señor Ledesma," De las Fuentes informed him.

The vaquero looked unhappy, but pulled the fifteen pesos out of a small bag in his short jacket. "It’s all that I have," he complained.

"I will take five for Señor Ledesma, five for the fines, and leave you with five," the Comandante informed him. He saw the look of surprise on the vaquero’s face. "This is because Señor Benito Ávila returned the ten pesos awarded him from the hearing and asked that it be used towards your fines and those of Señor Ledesma. This means that five are used towards your debt. With these ten pesos, you now owe nothing." He handed the vaquero back the bag.

Tomás Ledesma could not believe his good fortune. He opened the bag and counted the five pesos left in it. He slipped the bag into his inside jacket pocket. There was a big smile on his face. "Thank you, Capitán. I guess returning the sword was a good idea, eh? Nothing like a good reward?" he hinted.

De las Fuentes was solemn. "I expect that is a good idea. I will instruct Señor Pacheco to set aside two bottles of his superior wines…" he saw the vaquero grin hugely, "…for Señor Ledesma and Señor Ávila from you. This will be your thanks to them for all the services they have rendered you over the years."

Robello looked crestfallen. "Sí, Comandante." He turned toward the door. As he opened it, De las Fuentes added, "Do not be downcast, Señor Robello. The bottles of wine are for your friends in your name only. They have already been paid for."

"Señor Robello," added Don Alejandro. "Remember to report tomorrow morning for work at my rancho. Despite your recent absence, you are still in my employ."

Robello left with a cheerful grin. He had not done so badly after all.

"I think you have just made another vaquero happy," Diego mused. "There will be much good will for you long after you leave us."

"I believe in the philosophy of that great Greek, Hippocrates," Francisco responded. "Do the least harm in your life and in how you treat others. If we can add justice to it, then we are moral beings."

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

Capitán Enríque Monastario saw a man in a pony tail crossing the plaza ahead of him toward the cuartel. The officer recognized him from the previous night’s recital at the home of César Rodríguez. "You, there! Say, you, Musician. Halt!"

The man looked back over his shoulder and saw a tall, slender man in uniform approach him from behind. In one hand was a leather bag with a strap. The officer’s other hand was on the hilt of his sword. The man with the ponytail slowed down and turned back. "Are you addressing me, Señor Capitán?"

"Are you deaf?" the officer responded aggressively. "Did I not just address you as ‘Musician’?"

"You may have addressed me as such, Señor, but I am not a musician by profession," answered the man in the ponytail with dignity. "I am Muñoz."

"I have some business with your friend, the violinist," Monastario continued. "Where is he at?"

"I expect he is at the cuartel," Juan Muñoz answered

"Good!" replied the officer. "I can deal directly with him there." He imagined himself shoving the pompous musician into the dirtiest jail cell before preparing to hang him. Trumped up charges were almost second nature to his mode of operation and he took great personal pleasure in their formulation and results.

Juan Muñoz shook his head. No wonder the people of this town are so happy with my master, he thought. May you get what you deserve from El Zorro after we leave.

 

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

 

Sergeant Demetrio García López was smiling in the cool air of the morning. It was very pleasant to see so many people leave the comandante’s office with smiles on their face. He felt an intensity of personal loyalty to the man who dispensed so much justice. How relaxing it was to look around the cuartel - with its new whitewashed look, at the soldiers chatting with each other as they performed their duties, at the two guards who snapped to attention as a man, saluting, strode through the gates with a familiar stride. García suddenly felt an alarm bell sound as if from a church. He was startled out of his complacency by a voice that rang out "García!"

He hurried over to the familiar figure. "Welcome back to the cuartel, Capitán Monastario…" he began.

Monastario’s eyes flicked over what he saw – the order and cleanliness – and he nodded – until his eyes alighted on the empty jail cells. "What is going on here?"

"I do not understand, Capitán…" García responded defensively. "What can be wrong?"

"’What can be wrong?’" the officer mimicked sarcastically. "Where are all the prisoners? There is only one in prison."

"Well, Capitán, they paid all their fines and have been released from jail."

"Oh," Monastario responded, thinking how full the strong box must be. Then he remembered that the Comandante was paying for the room and meals that he and his late escort enjoyed from the night before. So that’s how he used up all my money, he thought. "Where is the officer in charge?"

García sighed. "In the comandante’s office."

"And what is his name?"

"He is Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes. He is a….."

"That’s enough, García. You may accompany me to the office."

 

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

 

The door opened in response to his knock and Enrique Monastario frowned at once to see the room filled with his enemies, the De la Vegas. He looked around for the musician but saw no one else. "Where is Capitán de las Fuentes?" he demanded upon returning Reyes’ salute.

"He is in the comandante’s quarters for just a moment," the corporal replied.

"Good!" Monastario replied. "I shall need his assistance while I arrest that traitorous violinist. Perhaps we can even have a hanging to celebrate his departure from the pueblo of Los Angeles."

Francisco de las Fuentes had left momentarily to double check the room he was vacating. He was distracted by the conversation in the office, and forgot all about what he was currently doing.

Capitán Monastario bowed slightly to the woman. "Ah, Señora." He paused. "Are you here to plead on behalf of your husband?" When she just smiled and did not answer, he turned back to the De la Vegas. "And what are you doing here?" he asked.

Before the men could response, Monastario heard quiet steps descend from his quarters and turned to face the officer he would meet. He did a double take when he stared at the face of the man who approached him. The features – the long hair, the pock-marked face, and the small stature – were unmistakable. For once, Enrique Monastario, was left without words.

García stepped forward. "Your pardon, Comandante. Capitán Enríque Monastario Sánchez just arrived this moment. He is here to…"

Monastario interrupted him, "Silence, idiot!" He was staring at De las Fuentes. "You? You are the Comandante?"

"Good morning, Capitán Monastario," Francisco responded formally and politely. "Yes, I am the Comandante. I welcome you back to Los Angeles."

"But, you are the man I fought last night," Monastario continued in consternation. He could hardly believe the fact. He caught himself. "No wonder you are such a fine swordsman. I did not think that a mere musician could handle the blade so well."

"His Excellency is no ‘mere musician,’" Diego interrupted, much to Monastario’s irritation. Margarita smiled at his words and raised her hand to her mouth.

Monastario threw Diego a warning glance. He turned his attention back to the small man. "I returned from the conference as quickly as possible. My delay was due to the fact that I was entrusted by the Governor and the Viceroy to deliver these important documents into your hands," he proclaimed with much self-importance. "Due to the heavy seas and storms around Monterey, the ship with these documents had to make landfall in San Francisco. I traveled to the cuartel there to await them and have only now just returned." He handed the leather bag to De las Fuentes.

"Thank you for your courtesy," Francisco replied. He went to the desk and opened the bag. Margarita joined him, looking over his shoulder. He took out three documents, appraising each one, and placed them in order of their importance on the desk. He broke the wax seal of the first document, opened the envelope, unfolded the paper and read it carefully. Then he looked up. He addressed the De la Vegas.

"This is a letter from my father. It says that the political situation at home is grave. It seems that a faction of the army led by young officers is in revolt against the king. They wish to proclaim a republic. The king is rallying all monarchists in defense of the throne. He says that the king has decided to rescind all punishments and pardon all monarchists for small infractions."

Diego and Alejandro joined the officer at the desk.

Francisco handed the letter to Margarita. He then picked up the second document. It bore the royal seal of His Majesty Ferdinand VII. He looked up at the De la Vegas a moment before removing the document from the envelope. He opened it and, likewise, read it slowly and carefully. When he finished reading, he handed it to Don Alejandro. "This is the equivalent of a pardon saying there will be no further incidents to divide a king from his loyal subjects." There was more than a hint of irony in his words.

Don Alejandro read it while the officer opened the final document. A knowing smile crossed the officer’s face.

When Alejandro finished, he handed it to his son, Diego. "This is good news, Your Excellency," he said rather diplomatically. He guessed at what De las Fuentes really thought of the king’s proclamation.

The third document caused Francisco much amusement. It was a letter from the Governor of the Viceroyalty of Peru. He turned to Margarita and explained: "This is a letter from the Governor in Lima. He says that he remembers with great affection the musical recitals I organized there. He sends greetings from the priest, Padre Ignacio, who loaned me the use of his pianoforte which I almost wore out with my practicing."

Margarita threw him a surprised look. "Oh, the man who had not practiced in such a long time," she teased.

He smiled mischievously as well. "And, by the way, the three men who attacked me that dark night in Lima turned out to be the most ruthless robbers in the city. Apparently, everyone celebrated their demise, knowing that, now, the subjects of the king could rest securely in their beds with the end of such terror. The governor thanks me for freeing them from the fear of these notorious murderers. He wishes me well and hopes that we will meet again." He smiled and folded the letter. This time he placed it in his ammunition pouch that carried no ammunition. "No more witches or warlocks," he remarked almost to himself thoughtfully.

The De la Vegas grinned. The facts – and reason - triumphed over superstition. The road ahead was clear.

"And now," Francisco de las Fuentes said, picking up his hat and placing it on his head, "it is time to say ‘Good-bye.’" He took Margarita’s arm in his and together they walked toward the door. García snapped to attention and opened it himself.

Capitán Monastario had the impression that he had been left out of everything. As a matter of fact, he had been conspicuously ignored.

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

 

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