Zorro & the Old Comandante
Eugene H. Craig
Don Alejandro de la Vega and his son, Diego, stood outside the cuartel, enjoying the sun a bit and watching the parade of carts and walkers in the plaza.
"You know, Diego, this Capitán de las Fuentes is a most unusual fellow. Not too many men could stand in front of an audience and give a concise rendition of the Politique tirée des propres paroles de l’Ecriture Sainte."
"I’m not really sure I remember what that is, Father," Diego replied.
"Ah, probably because it is an older system of belief. Historically, it was the most eloquent treatise ever written defining the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings and defending traditional monarchy as the best form of government. The basis of this belief was the idea of ‘natural law’ and the notion that our lives are predestined."
"Even Capitán Monastario is not enlightened enough to argue justice from this perspective," Diego mused thoughtfully.
"It is even more unusual because those who generally espouse this doctrine, especially after the American and French revolutions, are monarchs or their most ardent supporters in the church or in the hierarchy of the nobility closest to the king. They won’t even consider the idea of a constitutional monarchy let alone a republic. Yet here is a captain who uses, on occasion, the royal ‘we’ and who seems to have an educational level or training well above his station, especially for his age," Alejandro pointed out. "It struck me on a few occasions, but most forcefully in his final speech."
"You know, Father, it might be a very good idea to invite Capitán de las Fuentes out for an early dinner. We may learn much about him through various conversations. And I agree with you on the point you made - for some reason, he does not seem to be what he appears to be - just a capitán."
"Just one more thought, Diego. From somewhere and from some point in time, I seem to remember his name or perhaps a name similar to his. I haven’t been able to pinpoint it yet," Alejandro said thoughtfully. "Perhaps you could do a little ‘research’ yourself."
"I believe that I will," responded his son. "But what about this fellow that the capitán mentioned, Joaquín Enríquez? Who is he? I thought there was a hearing just for seven men."
"Ah, a troubled fellow. I had to let him go. He had a violent temper and started fights all the time," his father explained. "I had the feeling that he was either going to kill someone or be killed. I did not need riffraff like that around."
"Did this happen while I was in Spain?"
"Yes, and fortunately for the both of us, it did. I don’t think you would have sat by for long and endured his insolence or his behavior. I gave him work because he had energy and was strong, but I soon regretted it because after a few weeks he began to neglect his duties and drink. I am curious, however, why he brought up the fact that he worked for me. It was only for about six weeks and it was over two years ago."
Sergeant García appeared at the entrance of the cuartel and looked to the right, then to the left. He spotted the De la Vegas and strode over. "Excuse me, Don Alejandro," he said. "The Comandante will be starting the last hearing in a few minutes and told me to ask you to come in before everyone else, if you would like. After that, I will make my announcement."
"Thank you, Sergeant," replied Diego. "Oh, Sergeant, I have a question for you."
"Sí, Don Diego?" the big man inquired.
Diego took the sergeant’s elbow confidentially. "You know, Sergeant, the new comandante seems to be an exceptional man. Tell me, do you have the same feeling?"
"Oh, sí, Don Diego," responded García amiably. "I have never met anyone like the capitán before. He is not just an ordinary officer of the Crown. He has foresight, even insight, and they come from the most unexpected nuances and spirits. They even come to him in the middle of the night."
"Uh, Sergeant, that is quite an original analysis," remarked Diego with some surprise as he noted the astonished look on his father’s face at the sergeant’s words.
García seemed pleased at the compliment. "Gracías, Don Diego. When I listen to Capitán de las Fuentes, it seems that I hear the words of a prince, not those of a comandante. It is not often that a soldier like me can serve a prince and I am very happy to obey him."
"He must be very impressive to serve under, Sergeant, for you to refer to him as a ‘prince’," Diego replied.
"Oh, but he is a prince, Don Diego" García smiled. He gestured for the two men to hurry inside. "Please Señores, enter the cuartel. I must make my announcement, but only after you go inside the comandante’s office."
"A prince?" Alejandro asked as he walked briskly inside. "I wonder. I just wonder," he mused to himself.
"Wonder what, Father?" asked Diego. "Perhaps the good sergeant did not mean it literally."
"Let’s discuss this later," his father answered and retreated into his own thoughts.
Diego looked thoughtful himself and began to wonder what the final hearing would be like. Well, they would all soon see.
The prisoner was brought struggling from his cell across the grounds of the cuartel. From outside his shouts could be heard – coarse oaths at the soldiers. The dozen or so people who had taken their chairs in the office of the Comandante of the pueblo of Los Angeles heard Sergeant García urging him to calm down, but the man’s vindictive seemed to know no bounds.
"The Devil take the comandante! I curse him! Let him beat me again! Go, ahead, whip me! Lash me! I don’t care, just do your worse!"
All eyes were on the door as the voices came nearer and nearer. There was the sound of scuffling on the porch. De las Fuentes went over to the door and opened it. On the porch outside the Oficina del Comandante were Sergeant García and two soldiers. Between the two soldiers was a third man with wild black eyes and black hair. His large white teeth contrasted to his unshaven stubbled face. He wore brown vaquero trousers, a stripped shirt and short black jacket of light wool decorated with brass studs. He was taller than the officer by a head, leaner, and he wore short black boots. His hands were cuffed together and his feet were chained.
"What is all this commotion about, Sergeant?" De las Fuentes asked calmly in his deep baritone.
The struggling group froze a moment at the officer’s appearance. The black-haired man attempted to throw off the soldiers at his elbows as the soldiers paused looking up at the captain.
"Your pardon, Comandante, but this prisoner is causing too much trouble," García responded. "I have tried to talk reason to him, but he will not listen."
"The Devil take you!" shouted the prisoner. "The Devil take all of you! Unhand me!"
"Are you Señor Enríquez?" asked De las Fuentes in a mild tone.
"I’m not the king of Spain!" retorted Enríquez, still struggling with the two soldiers.
"Are you capable of walking of your own accord without the help of these two gentlemen?" asked the officer.
"Are you stupid? How would you like walking with your feet chained together?" snorted the man.
"Don’t you talk that way to our comandante!" García reprimanded Enríquez. "You mind your manners."
"Mind your manners! Mind your manners!" the prisoner mocked him. "The Devil take all your comandantes and all the stupid sergeants in the world!"
"Sergeant García, why was this man’s legs chained?" asked De las Fuentes.
"Well, Comandante, he was kicking all the soldiers and tried to run off. He even kicked the other prisoners."
"That’s a lie!" snarled Enríquez.
"What part of the sergeant’s statement is a lie?" De las Fuentes asked the man.
Joaquín Enríquez paused a moment at the question, then grinned. "I didn’t kick the other prisoners," he said. He ran his eyes over the officer opposite him. "Where’s Capitán Monastario? I don’t want any Frenchman interfering with my business in Los Angeles."
De las Fuentes looked over one shoulder, then another. He then peered out to the yard of the cuartel and looked over each of the soldiers carefully. "Sergeant García, do you see any Frenchmen here in the cuartel?"
García looked around hesitantly, "Uh, no, Capitán, I do not."
"Are you sure?" De las Fuentes asked. "There are none lurking on the roof or behind the rain barrel or under the plants? You don’t see the monster Bonaparte peering out from among the horses in the stable? Not even one of the Old Guard?"
"No, Comandante, I do not," answered García more firmly.
"Good," replied the officer, "for I see none as well." He turned to Enríquez. "I would like to assure you that your personal safety will not be compromised to the French, Señor. Since you have been reassured of this fact, could you possibly walk into my office unassisted by the soldiers of Spain?"
"It would help if my feet were unchained," the prisoner suggested slyly.
"I assume that you will be honorable and not attempt any undue escapes?" De las Fuentes asked, not really expecting a response. He gestured for García to unlock the leg shackles.
García gave the officer a long look that conveyed his apprehension over obeying such an order. But he removed the shackles, picked them up and held them in his hand.
"Ah, that’s better," commented Enríquez, shaking one leg and then another. "Chains cramp my style." He started to step forward, then punched out his arms to the right and left and bolted for the gates of the cuartel. He tried to dodge the two sentries at the gates of the cuartel but one of them threw himself at the prisoner’s feet and tripped him. Enríquez tumbled to the ground.
A moment later Sergeant García and the two soldiers reached him. García pulled him up by the collar and hauled him back to the porch of the comandante’s office. The sergeant was angry. "You have no honor. You tried to escape after the capitán had your chains released!" he told Enríquez.
Enríquez spat out the dirt in his mouth and only grinned. He looked at De las Fuentes and remarked, "I believe you said that I would not attempt any ‘undue’ escape. However, my escape is long overdue!"
"Take this man inside and put him in the prisoner’s chair," the captain told the two soldiers as if nothing had happened. As they took Enríquez inside, De las Fuentes leaned towards the sergeant and whispered a few words. García nodded, "Sí, Comandante, I will do it."
Diego de la Vega returned to his seat after watching the drama unfold in the cuartel from the window in the office. He looked Enríquez over carefully as the man was seated in a chair to the right of the comandante’s desk. The man’s dark eyes darted around the room as if looking for an escape and his look was crafty. Apparently, he would look for any opportunity to exploit a situation to his advantage.
As De las Fuentes took his place behind his desk and made his opening remarks, the prisoner seemed strangely uninterested in either the charges read or in the figures from the audience who rose and accused him of robbery, extortion and even attempted murder.
He only perked up at the last charge, saying in a loud voice, "If I ‘attempted’ the murder of your son, Señor, it would have not been an attempt, but a success."
Finally, Don Alejandro de la Vega rose and related how one Joaquín Enríquez had worked for him a short while two years before. "The only redeeming characteristic of Señor Enríquez was that when he put his mind to it, he did a good job. Unfortunately his attention to his duties petered out. It is my opinion that he does not have the discipline necessary to hold down a job successfully or for very long. It was why I dismissed him."
The prisoner laughed aloud, ignoring De las Fuentes’ request that he not interrupt the proceedings. "I am not a horse to be broken and tamed, Señor," he retorted. "No one is the master of my fate. I alone am. I submit to no one. I deny nothing and I admit nothing."
"You are a philosophical curiosity, Señor Enríquez, for you deny what is evident to most men," the captain commented. "Horses are, after all, tamed in different manners from their birth. Some are merely gentled, pastured and grow lazy without the discipline of constant riding. Still others are highly trained and become indispensable parts of the lives of men or the plans of men. God above is the master of all our fates and we cannot escape His design on us. Whether you know it or not, you do submit to Him, for it is He who causes our hunger, and we submit by eating; He causes our thirst, and we submit by drinking; He causes us to give mercy or to show none; He causes us to desire sleep and we submit, no matter how hard to try to stay awake; and finally, to deny nothing and to admit nothing leads to only one conclusion – that you are nothing, for you cannot be and not be at the same time."
The prisoner looked over the audience and watched as several silently nodded their heads at the officer’s words. He shook his head and snorted. "And I submit it is you who are the curiosity, Frenchman. Tell me this, does God order a father to beat his son daily, deaf to a child’s cries for mercy? Does God tell a mother to cover her ears to the blows and to blind herself to the bruises and the blood flowing from a nose, mouth or ears? Do you really believe, as you just said, that God ‘causes us to give mercy or show none’ – ‘to show none’? Let’s all show none to our enemies, once we’ve made everyone our enemy – and it’s all divine and blessed – mass slaughter. What does one or two or twenty matter when you can take them all on?"
"You are ignoring the balance that God gives to the world," De las Fuentes replied. "God gave man free will and the ability to make choices based on his reason, on the one hand, and the moral code He gave us, on the other. There are those who chose, freely, to not obey His moral code. They act in defiance through an overindulgence in drink, greed, or even ego, but it is for Man to make the choice between what is right and what is wrong."
"And God gave us the Inquisition, and Bonaparte, and the desire to pillage and plunder. Where is your balance there?" shouted Enríquez. "What causes shooting stars that create terror in men? Why do shiploads of innocents perish at sea in storms? What caused the earthquake in Lisbon? Sin? Nature? Too many buildings put on the land? If you don’t have the answers, then don’t talk to me about ‘balance.’
"Señor Enríquez, we are not deaf. Could you possibly speak in a normal tone of voice?" the captain requested. "Let us proceed to the charges."
"You don’t understand your own philosophy," replied Enríquez in a normal tone of voice and full of deadly intent. "You see, I am the balance that you talk about. In this world there are goody-goodies like little old ladies, priests, puerile schoolteachers, senile military officers, and other buffoons. There has to be a balance the other way – thieves, murderers, smugglers, buccaneers, bishops, bankers, kings, and other con men. You need us because without us there would be no balance." He looked smugly at De las Fuentes.
"Your speech is very clever," the officer responded mildly, "but not entirely accurate. You equate balance with extremism and extremism has nothing to do with the balance of nature or human behavior. It goes far beyond what normal limitations are and is, therefore, considered abnormal. If you recall the scientist Isaac Newton, who pointed out that ‘for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,’ - and it is there you find extremes when men and their actions become extreme. However, centrality is the balance between the two. To maintain balance is the basis of a civilized and prosperous society. To seek to justify actions of theft or murder as somehow balancing honesty and thrift, you distort the very meaning of the word."
"On the contrary, it is you who are very clever with words, mon capitán," laughed Enríquez. "There are ‘extremes’ everywhere. It seems to me that it depends on who is defining ‘normal’ and who is defining ‘extremes.’ A merchant who robs his customers to make a small profit as opposed to a large one, is still a thief. What makes a man any different who just directly pillages money as opposed to one who indirectly steals it? Theft is theft, yet people like you would condemn the highwayman as opposed to the merchant or the tax collector or the king. Who makes the laws that favor one kind of theft over another? Does God? Is hoarding or accumulating gold not also theft? Should the man with too much on his plate be favored over the one who steals so there will be something on his plate or on his children’s plates? Where is the damned balance? What happened to understanding what makes one man bad and the other good? And what is ‘bad’ and what is ‘good’? Who defines what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘abnormal.’ Take a look and judge!"
With that the prisoner jumped up in on the chair next to him and shouted to the spectators. "If I’m raised up off the ground and looking down at you from above, does that make me better than you? Can I dispense justice easier from up here? How about if I put a crown on my head? Yes, your Lordship, No, your Worship. Bark, bark, your Majesty! Moo! Moo! Mon General! If you gag my mouth does that make me normal? Is your equation in balance?"
The officer waved aside the soldiers who approached the prisoner to pull him down. He yawned as if incredibly bored. "I take it, Señor, that you enjoy having an audience for your primitive displays? A lower-ranking primate would do well to learn from your antics. You still have not answered any of the charges to anyone’s satisfaction."
"And I won’t," shouted Enríquez. He jumped off the chair, ran for the door, opened it and collided with García who blocked the door. The smaller man literally bounced off the big man’s stomach back into the office, landing on his back. The two soldiers hauled him up off the floor and dragged him back to the chair near the comandante.
Alejandro de la Vega whispered to his son. "He is eloquent, but he is also mad."
Diego whispered back. "He certainly has issues. He’s a very angry man."
"Señor Enríquez," De las Fuentes resumed in a calm voice. "I think we can agree that this hearing can have a balance. On the one hand, there are several men here who have accused you of certain deeds that are crimes in our society. They have brought with them witnesses. On the other hand, you are also allowed to refute their charges and present your own witnesses. Do you wish to refute them or present your own witnesses?"
"I do not recognize your method of determining what is just and what is not," declared Enríquez. "If you find me guilty in any way, then you are signing your own death warrant."
There was a shocked silence followed by gasps from many of the spectators. Diego frowned heavily as if he could not believe what he was hearing. Did this man want to see how far he could go with the comandante?
"You do not understand, Señor Enríquez," De las Fuentes explained. "This is not a trial. It is merely a hearing. It is my duty to weight the evidence and make a determination of what penalties may be imposed. Since there have been no bodies displayed, you could not be guilty of murder. However, to threaten other subjects of the king or his representatives with death is a punishable offense. You cannot declare that you will take the lives of other men and expect that there will not be repercussions for your statements. As for evidence, let us examine what we found in your possession." He nodded to one of the soldiers who picked up a sack next to the wall and opened it. He began to place the contents on the floor.
Displayed before the assembled townsmen were gold coins, silver teapots, a silver-inlayed pistol, some knives with elaborate carvings, and a gold necklace with jewels on it. There was a gold crucifix, a gold-plated snuffbox, a gold watch, various pieces pewter, silverware, and small portraits of women and children in silver plated frames. Some had been wrapped in cloth or soft leather.
There were exclamations from several members of the audience. "That’s my pistol!" "There is my wife’s crucifix!" "Señor Moreno’s painting of his wife and children!"
Alejandro de la Vega looked surprised. "My old gold snuff box!" He looked at Diego in astonishment. "It’s been missing for almost two years!"
The comandante stood up. "These items were found in the prisoner’s possession. If you gentlemen will step forward and positively identify these objects, then we can ascertain whose charges are pertinent and whose are not."
Alejandro de la Vega stepped forward and examined the gold snuffbox that the soldier handed to him. He nodded and then looked over at Enríquez. "Why did you steal this, Joaquín? You were paid honest wages for the work you did for me."
Enríquez just smiled without embarrassment and shrugged. "You didn’t need it. You had others."
"Unknown to you, of course, was the fact that this was given to me by my late wife," De la Vega retorted in an offended manner. "It wasn’t just any snuff box."
"Tell me, Señor Enríquez," asked Diego, "why did you not get rid of these items at once? Most men would get rid of stolen property fairly quickly."
"It must have been sentimentality," responded the prisoner, but he showed no more interest in speaking to anyone other than to acknowledge the items. "If any of you take the items back, you will just be increasing your risk when I retrieve them."
"Then you not only admit that you stole them, but that you will steal them again," commented De las Fuentes. "You are forging the chains that bind you without anyone’s aid. What is your motive?"
"I’m a Jackdaw, Frenchman. I collect pretty things that take my fancy."
"There is a difference between collecting objects for display that you purchased at your own behest," stated the officer, "and confiscating them from others who parted with them unwillingly. Under our laws, such confiscation is deemed theft and there are penalties under the law for theft."
"If you can prove that my theft is any worse than anyone else’s, then I will accept guilt. If not, then I accept nothing," declared the black-haired man.
"It is not my intention to judge all other men at this hearing, but to judge your deeds and to determine any penalties commensurate with your actions," De las Fuentes replied. "That is the only purpose we are here today." He turned towards the men examining the pile of stolen goods. "Will you gentlemen please return to your seats? These items will be returned to you following the hearing."
The officer turned back to the prisoner. "You forget a number of changes in the balance of our world, Señor Enríquez. In the old days, just over a century ago, thieves had their fingers or hands removed. Before that, ears, noses and other body parts were removed. Thieves were branded on their cheeks or foreheads so that all would know their shame. We no longer do these things because we seek to be enlightened and give punishments commensurate with the crime committed. Even our punishments seek to correct behavior rather than be punitive."
"I suggest that you hang me because, if you don’t, you will wish that you had!" declared Enríquez. "If you don’t like seeing me kick while I dangle, then be more enlightened and shoot me."
"Your desire for death is tantamount to suicide and under our religion, suicide is a forbidden sin. Men are no longer hanged for theft, Señor, but jailed," the captain told him.
"Then I will kill all of you!" shouted Enríquez. "Any man that takes from my collection will die. Any man that attempts to hold me prisoner will die!"
"Then you are not even allowing yourself any justice," commented De las Fuentes. "For you sentence yourself to a penalty that no one else will grant you."
"There is no justice on this Earth," the prisoner screamed. "And you are no better than the other hangman!" He expected De las Fuentes to respond in the shocked manner of the audience, but the officer just regarded him calmly and said nothing. Enríquez gave full sway to his emotions. "All you know is how to beat me and beat me again. Then you send in the priest to pray over the split flesh and tell me to repent when it is you who should repent. And if you can’t beat me, you shut me in a dark cell like an animal and leave me there for weeks, months or even years. This is your justice; these are your prayers; these are your punishments. What makes you think that they are humane or just, simply because they don’t take a life? Taking a life is more humane than not. When I administer justice it will be humane and I will take your life. I will not hesitate to do so!" He looked around at the silent spectators and turned to the comandante. "Aren’t you going to shut me up, gag me, and bind me, just like all the rest do?"
De las Fuentes regarded him without anger. "There is no point adding to injustice by committing other injustices," he said. "Death is the ultimate injustice and to commit it is a crime."
"Everything has become a crime, even to speak the truth," shouted Enríquez, as if not listening to the captain’s words. He was becoming exhausted by his own exuberance and slumped back into the chair.
"Ah, but what is the Truth?" asked De las Fuentes. "For even those who speak the word see only one side of what they perceive as the truth and it is a quality that has many dimensions. Truth for one man is a lie to another, so what can truth be based upon? Truth is not just facts, which it is, but it is an accounting of all the facts, from all sides and must take into account other qualities, which make up the nature of man and his duty to God."
Enríquez looked up at the officer, listening carefully for a change.
"You speak of the Truth," De las Fuentes continued, "but Truth must also include the quality of justice and our notion of justice. How these qualities conflict to those of Satan! The Devil believes that selfishness, a lust for power, or riches, or hedonism should be the human endeavor. How our truth clashes so completely with His! Our endeavor must be that Truth encompasses the qualities of compassion, honor, and a responsibility of each to the other."
"Bah!" replied the prisoner.
"Let me give you an example," the officer explained. "A noble lord may feel that in times of troubles, such as floods, pestilence, or drought that his subjects need to pay him the usual taxes, not taking into account events, deprivations, or catastrophe. He is a lord that wants to buy another carriage or travel to far-off lands, to enjoy what he has always enjoyed while closing his eyes to the people he is responsible for. He is a man who has hardened his heart to all but his own concerns and desires. For this lord, it is his ‘truth’ and he will create laws, regulations, and rules - which he often makes up himself for expediency’s sake - to satisfy his own selfishness. He will commit many injustices against others to put his world in order for his own sake, rather than on terms other than his own."
"Then there is another kind of lord, a man who sees with his eyes and knows that although he is noble, it is his moral duty to not tax men during times of want and need; he is aware that it is his duty to open his granaries and feed the hungry; he feels his honor is slighted if any commoner, serf or slave suffers needlessly. And perhaps more importantly, he understands that an honorable enemy is more worthy of his respect than a dishonorable friend. For this lord, these are other kinds of truths, but they are truths in the broader sense in that they concern not the selfishness of the individual towards humankind, but the generosity and worthiness of man to men in general. It is not my concern that there may be rude or lazy individuals among men in general in this broad view. My concern is that we are all the children of the same Creator and we share that commonality. It is this recognition of our commonality that our notion of justice must spring from."
Enríquez laughed softly when De las Fuentes finished speaking. "I always thought Don Quixote was an idiot," he remarked. "Now I see him in the flesh."
"You know, Father," Diego mused to his Father after Alejandro claimed his snuffbox at the end of the hearing and they were walking towards the gates of the cuartel. "Capitán de las Fuentes is an odd mixture of many philosophies, yet Humanism seems to be at the heart of all of his beliefs."
"I’m a bit concerned that he did not take Señor Enríquez’s threats more seriously," remarked Alejandro. "He has returned him to jail for theft, yet refuses to lash him either for the thefts or for his insolence. Capitán Monastario would certainly have hanged him just for his rudeness. And yet I am convinced that Capitán de las Fuentes is genuine in all his principles."
Diego shook his head. "I have the feeling that Señor Enríquez wanted to be lashed or kept chained because in his own mind he seems to feel that he is a martyr for all the injustices that have been inflicted upon him or upon others by society. He was goading the comandante into sentencing him to death."
"Diego, when I told you that this man is mad, I was not joking. As you know, there are degrees of madness and I am sure that he fits somewhere in its spectrum." Alejandro shook his head. "That is why he is a pitiful as well as a dangerous man. His behavior, as such, is unpredictable and that is where some of the danger lies. That he is angry and violent compounds the problem. God help us all if he escapes confinement."