Zorro & the Old Comandante
Eugene H. Craig
It was a cool morning, and there was still a hint of the early morning fogs that had turned the landscape from a crisp, clear one to a darker, more somber one. It was mid-morning before the sun ventured forth from the gloomy mists that cloaked the hillsides and even the pueblo itself. As the air warmed and the blue sky broadened, the birds re-emerged from their hiding places and began to sing in and around the plaza of the pueblo of Los Angeles.
Sergeant García frowned for the third time that morning as he heard the prisoner, Enríquez, yell out the word "Frenchman." The man shouted out the insult every time he saw the comandante leave or enter the cuartel. The first time it happened, he was walking with the Capitán. While the sergeant stopped to glare at the captive, the officer walked on as if he had heard nothing. García hastened to catch up to the small man. Before he could say anything, De las Fuentes commented: "Ah, Sergeant, it is such a trifling. If you respond to his insults, it only encourages him. So, if we ignore him enough, he will cease."
"Sí, Comandante," replied García. He was quiet a while, but it was obvious that he was troubled. "Begging your pardon, Capitán, but it is not right that he says that to you."
"Thank you for your loyalty, Sergeant García," De las Fuentes said. "There are some things in life that are not worth responding to. One of them is verbal provocation. Señor Enríquez must feel that he has nothing to lose, so he engages in childish behavior. When grown men act like children, it is best to treat them like children."
"But why would he want to insult you, Comandante?" the sergeant persisted. "You have treated him kindly. Capitán Monastario already had him beaten and lashed yesterday for less insults."
By then the two men were standing outside the cuartel. The officer surveyed the plaza and gazed beyond the nearby buildings to the blue mountains to the north that overlooked the valley. "It’s going to be a good day," he said. After a moment he turned to the sergeant. "I am going to church, Sergeant, for a little while. Later, you and I will take a foray into the hills and the surrounding area. I’d like to see the layout of this town and become familiar with the surrounding roads."
"Sí, Capitán," the big man replied. He let out a long sigh.
The officer noted the soldier’s continuing concern. "You know, Sergeant, Señor Enríquez is a man who is greatly troubled by life and the only way he seems to know how to deal with its overwhelming tragedy is by lashing out at others, even if they are kind. Most people who act violently are either those who have been trained in violence or those who have been at its receiving end. Sadly, both end up on the same side of the equation and neither of them any closer to a solution that would solve their problems in a positive way. Too many men do not consider alternatives. It is why we need to meditate or pray. Such things give us time to reflect more carefully on the choices we must make in life rather than act basely or upon our fears. Meditation and prayer do not always give us the answers but, hopefully, they allow us to temper the decisions that we make."
The sergeant nodded. "You know, Capitán de las Fuentes, I believe that you are right. I meditate often myself."
"Do you, Sergeant?" De las Fuentes was interested.
"Sí. I like to meditate every night if I can."
"Do you go to church in the evening for meditation?"
"Well, not exactly, Capitán," García explained. "I go to the tavern. I meditate with wine. It helps me make those important decisions that you talked about."
"Ah," the captain replied with a bemused smile. "I did have a different kind of meditation in mind." He changed the subject. "I will return in a short while. Have two mounts waiting for our departure."
García saluted. "Sí, mi Capitán." He watched the officer walk in a relaxed manner across the cuartel until he disappeared through the massive wooden doors of the church on the far side of the plaza.
Margarita Pérez decided to wear pink. She had not worn the color in a long time, but she was feeling happy. She had played piano for Capitán de las Fuentes over forty-five minutes the night before and he had responded to each piece with quiet enthusiasm. She then questioned him about how he knew the history of the music so well and he, in turn, filled her ears with anecdotes and delightful details on the lives of the composers. She had never met anyone quite like the Capitán. She smiled to herself just thinking about him.
She searched around for some proper jewelry and had to remind herself that she was going to see Padre Felipe, not the debonair officer. She wished that she would see the small man in church today. The captain was so different, so refreshing. And he promised to come by and see her again. She sighed as she chose a golden cross to wear. He would probably like that, she thought.
Now, what kind of shawl should she wear? Maybe the black one with the embroidered flowers all around the edges. It was her own sewing and the flowers were yellow, purple and orange with bright green leaves.
She thought back again to the events of the night before. De las Fuentes was so focused in speaking with her that he did not even notice that her father had returned to the room with the glass of sherry. After waiting impatiently, Señor Pérez had returned to his chair and left the officer’s glass on an empty table. She didn’t notice Sebastian either, until he cleared his throat several times and tapped his foot impatiently on the floor. De las Fuentes turned and apologized in his own unique fashion and she liked the way that her father was absolutely speechless and even powerless before the officer’s flow of knowledge and his courtly mannerisms. The captain had a way with authority, she thought, but it was an innate authority; it just wasn’t a part of the uniform, but an organic part of the man himself. She thought about how he swept his hat off his head when they had met in the plaza the day before. But when he did it, it just wasn’t any man taking off any hat, but a man who knew how to turn the mere act of taking off his hat into, well, something more profound. She didn’t know how otherwise to explain it. Ismaida was right about one thing: all that was missing were knightly plumes.
María Pérez stared in astonishment as she watched her daughter lightly trip down the stairs, dressed in a long pink dress with black shoes, a flowered shawl, and humming to herself. She could only think of one man who might have prompted that behavior and he was a man who left even her husband perplexed.
After the front door closed and Margarita’s shadow passed over the grated windows of the outer wall, María put her fingers up to her chin and thought. She and her husband much preferred the baby-faced Salvador Muñoz, the son of a rich merchant, to a pockmarked army officer. It was apparent to her, though, that this officer’s genuine interest in and knowledge of music had much in his favor as far as Margarita was concerned, for Salvador knew little about music. On the other hand, Salvador was a local boy, a known quantity, while this officer was probably just temporarily at the cuartel. María knew her husband was determined to begin applying the pressure again and she was afraid it might be unpleasant for her daughter, like it had been before. She didn’t want to think about it anymore. She just hoped everything would turn out well for Margarita. She went upstairs to see if she could find any more music sheets in her daughter’s room. Sebastian had given her orders to take all music sheets and lock them away in his desk. It was phase one of his plan to force his daughter’s hand into marriage.
"Hey, you. Yes, I mean you."
Corporal Reyes stopped sweeping with his broom and looked over at the jail where the imprisoned Enríquez was housed. The prisoner had been harassing almost everyone in the cuartel that morning and it looked like Reyes was going to be no exception to the rule. Reyes did not want to be bothered. Normally, a private would be assigned to sweep the yard and porch of the comandante’s office, but Reyes wanted to tend to the officer’s quarters himself. He watered the plants, swept the porch on the outside and had already cleaned the office and officer’s quarters. It was a matter of pride. Not everyone could say that he served a Spanish prince. He continued to sweep.
"Hey, you, Corporal. Yes, I mean you. Come on over here."
If he went over, maybe it would stop the chatter. Reyes picked up his broom and the bucket of fresh water and went over to the jail.
"What do you want, Señor Enríquez?" he asked.
Enríquez smirked. "If you told me your name, I wouldn’t have to say ‘hey, you.’
"I’m Reyes," the corporal replied. "What do you want?"
"Corporal Reyes, yes, Corporal Reyes" the prisoner repeated. He gestured the soldier closer. "Come here, closer."
Reyes reluctantly approached the bars. Enríquez was looking very sly. "Sí?" he asked.
"You want to know something, Corporal?" asked the prisoner confidentially.
"Sí," answered Reyes.
"You are working for a Frenchman, Corporal Reyes, a damned Frenchman. He’s an imposter. He’s masquerading as a Spaniard. But he’s a fraud. And all you do is walk behind him like a puppy dog. Look at you - washing his floor, sweeping his porch, polishing his boots, and doing his laundry. You’re a fool, Corporal, a fool!"
Reyes looked positively indignant. "You are crazy, Señor Enríquez. Our comandante is not a Frenchman! He is not even a typical officer of the Crown!"
"So what is he, then, besides a Frenchman?" the man gloated.
"Our comandante is a prince, a real Spanish prince!" Reyes retorted.
"He’s a Frenchman, a Frenchman," sang out the prisoner. Enríquez opened his mouth to add more insults when he found himself drenched with water. He sputtered in surprise as the corporal walked away from his cell with an empty bucket of water and his broom. "Sergeant García!" he howled as he saw the big man enter the cuartel.
García went over to the cell. "What is the matter now, Señor Enríquez?"
"Did you see what Corporal Reyes did to me?" complained Enríquez.
"Did? Did what?" asked the sergeant in a bland tone of voice. "What did Corporal Reyes do?"
"I’m drenched," shouted Enríquez. "Or are you blind as well as deaf?"
"Everything looks fine to me," García commented. "Just the way it should be." He walked away from the cell while Enríquez continued to fume. When he got up to the comandante’s office he watched Reyes finish sweeping. Reyes turned toward him. "You know, Corporal," the sergeant told him. "I don’t understand what the prisoner is complaining about. You have been very good to him. As a matter of fact, you only give him what he deserves. Hee hee hee."
Reyes grinned. "Thanks, Sergeant."
She passed several people on their way out of the chapel. She wanted to peek in first to see if the captain was there, then she would go around to the side door to the padre’s office. The church was dark and cool inside. After genuflection, her eyes went to where she had seen him yesterday. He was not over there. She looked over to the left and spotted him on the kneeling board. Margarita smiled to herself and headed over to the wall. She could slip into the pew quickly and quietly.
His hands covered his face and his breathing looked regular. Sleeping again, she thought. I wonder why he sleeps in church. She leaned very close to him and whispered, "Wake up, Capitán!"
De las Fuentes was halfway through his prayer when he heard her playfully uttered comment. He smiled to himself, uncovered his face with his hands, crossed himself and turned towards her. He could see that she was not expecting him to be awake at all and that she was blushing once again. He pushed himself back onto the bench, leaned very close to her, and whispered, "I wasn’t sleeping this time, Señorita, only praying that you will have a successful session with Padre Felipe this morning."
She pursed her lips and knew he was somehow teasing her. "I’ll need your prayers," she whispered back. "The only reason I am here is because my parents insist on it. I really dread this."
He took one of her gloved hands into his. "Why do you dread this, dear?"
"My parents want me to marry someone I don’t love and they think that they can enlist the help of Padre Felipe to pressure me," she explained. "I think that is wrong."
"I’ve known Padre Felipe a long time," he told her. "I think that he will be open and fair to you if you tell him what is really in your heart."
"I will," she replied, "for a change. Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong all along."
He patted her hand affectionately. He then looked her over and gave her a nod of appreciation. "You are dressed very elegantly today, Señorita Margarita. Pink is a happy color and it suits you so well."
She looked down at his hand and smiled shyly. "Thank you. You say the nicest things. I am happy today. I think that it is somehow related to your visit last night," she admitted. She looked up at him again gauging the pleasant smile on his face and the slightly raised eyebrows at her compliment. "Would it be too much trouble to ask you to wait here a few minutes? I hope this won’t take too long and I’d like a word with you afterwards."
"I am honored," he responded. "And hopefully I won’t have to take this matter of yours to a Higher Authority." There was a twinkle in his eye.
"Somehow I have the feeling that if you have to, such an Authority would respond very favorably," she teased back. She was reluctant to leave but time was moving on. "I had better go now."
He rose as she did and watched her head out of the church. She gave him a little wave at the door and he bowed in response. Only when she disappeared from his sight did he turn back around and resume his position on the kneeling board.
Tomás Robello was furious at the turn of events. Here he was, behind bars for longer than he had planned and that fool, Angel, was the one freed. He cursed his bad luck. He had the feeling that something wasn’t going right when the comandante asked to speak to Ledesma and not to him.
It was earlier that morning when Capitán de las Fuentes had asked Sergeant García for his opinion of the two vaqueros. The officer learned that Ledesma was constantly paying off Robello’s debts and that he rarely got paid back, if at all. The innkeeper confirmed the fact after acknowledging that, yes, all the bills got paid, but that he wasn’t too concerned how they got paid. Well, yes, Ledesma paid up for everything and did not get into debt himself, but what did it matter, comandante, as long as everyone was happy?
"How do you account for that?" the captain had asked.
"Señor Angel has a good heart," explained the innkeeper, "but he’s not too bright, if you know what I mean."
"Ah," responded De las Fuentes and decided to have a talk with Ledesma before he considered releasing either one.
And so it was that Angel Ledesma stood, hat in hand, before the comandante who sat at his desk and listened to his proposal about exchanging jail time for the debt owed. Angel wanted to give credit where credit was due and did not hesitate to name Tomás when the captain asked him who was the author of such an ingenuous idea.
"Tell me this, Señor. If I were to implement such a plan, what would happen if one of the partners did not turn out to be so honest?’ asked De las Fuentes.
Angel thought a moment. "I’m not sure that I understand," he responded uncertainly.
"Let me give you an example. What if two men got in trouble with the law. One of the men, let’s call him Jesús, always paid his debts. The other man, let’s call him Judas, never did. But Judas always convinced Jesús to pay his debts for him. Ah, it’s true Judas would sometimes buy him a melon to show his generosity, but he never really paid Jesús back at all. Now when they got in trouble with the law, both men went to jail. Judas did not like being in jail, but nobody does. He had no money and could not hope to get out by himself. He convinced Jesús that he should go free and that Jesús should stay in jail, just to keep the straw warm and to stay out of trouble. Judas promised he would work hard and pay off all his debts and help free Jesús. The problem was that Judas never worked hard, never kept his promises and was incapable of paying off his debts without the help of Jesús. So, who do you think stayed in jail for years? Maybe for the rest of his life?"
"Jesús," answered Angel simply.
"You are right," responded De las Fuentes. "Now, what if Jesús had been freed from jail instead of Judas? Jesús would have worked hard to pay off his debts. Then he would have helped out Judas, even though Judas did not deserve it. But something good happened to Judas, even though he stayed in jail. Judas learned a new trade while in jail. His jailer helped him learn how to whitewash walls, to sweep the grounds clean every week, to repair bridles and saddles, and even to enjoy the food of his jailers. Sad to say, there is no free wine in jail, but going so long without wine helped cure Judas of drinking too much. He became more honest with some new job skills. So, who do you think would benefit more from staying in jail - Jesús or Judas?"
"Well, I think that Judas would really benefit more than Jesús," replied Angel. "Judas could even learn a new trade. Maybe when he got out he would be more honest."
"I agree with you," replied the comandante. "You have an excellent idea. The problem is solved and you helped to solve it."
Ledesma beamed at that. Not too many people gave him such a nice compliment and this comandante seemed like a fine man.
"Now, here is how we’ll solve the problem," the officer told him. "I will let Jesús, I mean Angel Ledesma, out of jail. That way, he can start to work right away. I will leave Judas, I mean Tomás Robello, in jail. After all, he has no money to pay his fines."
"Oh, sí, Señor Comandante, you are right," responded Angel. "I even have five pesos I can pay you with now. I have some more money at home. I will get some extra work so I can pay you off as soon as possible. I am very grateful, Comandante." He reached in his jacket and pulled out several coins and found others in various pockets. He looked pleased.
"By the way, you said that Señor Robello claims that you owe forty-two pesos," the comandante remarked while putting the coins in a metal box. "That is not true. You only owe thirty-four. It is he who owes forty-nine, plus five to you. That makes fifty-four pesos."
"Oh," replied Angel. Then he asked timidly, "Would it be possible to subtract a few pesos because I was beaten by the soldiers the day before yesterday? After they beat me, Capitán Monastario had them whip me, too."
"Ah, you did resist arrest, which is why you were beaten," De las Fuentes pointed out, "but perhaps we can reduce your fine to twenty-five pesos to compensate you for having been whipped."
"Oh, thank you so much, Comandante!" Angel exulted. "I won’t resist arrest again, I swear. I will also pray for you."
"Tell me, Señor Ledesma. How is it that you always have plenty of coins and Señor Robello has none? Yet both of you are vaqueros," asked De las Fuentes.
"My wife makes me save money, Señor Comandante," answered Ledesma. "I help people and they always throw me coins even though they don’t need to. Sometimes I sit around and talk with Tomás or Jaime or Marcos. While we are talking, I carve toys or repair bridles. I get work done even when I am not working. Tomás does not have a wife and he drinks more than me. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t have any money."
"That is as good an explanation as any," the officer mused. "Perhaps Señor Robello needs a good wife."
"Everyone does, Señor Comandante," confided Angel. "There is a special lady for everyone, even here in Los Angeles." He observed the officer’s ringless fingers. "Perhaps as well for the Señor Comandante?" He smiled.
"Perhaps there is," De las Fuentes replied mildly. He was not expecting such a personal comment from a simple vaquero. "One can never tell what kind of designs God has in store for us."
She knocked at the wooden door and Padre Felipe opened it from inside. His smile was mild and friendly. "Good morning, Padre," she greeted him.
"Good morning, Señorita. My, you are all dressed up today," he observed. "And what a lovely shawl." He gestured towards a chair. "Please have a seat."
She sat down in a leisurely way and gave him her friendliest smile. The padre wondered what was going on. "Tell me, Margarita, what is the special occasion? When you come to see me you usually wear black."
"Oh, today seems like a very nice day," she replied casually.
Felipe got to the point. "You know, of course, Margarita, that your parents wanted me to speak to you about Salvador’s proposal of marriage. They would like you to reconsider. It may be a good idea for you to obey your parents. They are, after all, looking out for your best interests and, sometimes, parents do know best for their child."
"Father, I understand why you want me to obey my parents on matters of importance, but would you want me to marry someone I didn’t love just to make my parents happy?" she asked.
"Of course, I would not want you to feel pressed to marry someone you do not love," he began.
"Would you really want me to marry Salvador when I am in love with another man?" she continued in a challenging tone. "How could I possibly want to marry him, when another has taken away my heart?" She smiled as if at a secret.
"I had no idea there had been such a development," Felipe responded in great surprise. So that is why her feathers are so gay, he thought. "Your parents did not mention that you had another suitor."
"He’s a wonderful man," Margarita told the priest. "I have never met anyone quite like him. We have so much in common." She looked down at her hands. "He’s very special." She paused, then looked up at him and repeated sincerely, "He’s very special."
Felipe smiled benevolently at her. "Then I’m very happy for you, my child." Now the priest became curious. He leaned over confidentially. "Can you tell me who he is?"
"I would really like to tell you now, but I want to wait a spell," she told him. When she saw a look of doubt cross his face, she added, "This man is the finest man I have ever met. There is really no one like him in the entire world. I don’t think that I want anybody but him." She paused again. "Sometimes we have to wait a very long time, but this man is worth all the years I have waited."
"Does he feel the same way about you, Margarita?" Felipe asked gently.
For the first time, Margarita looked uncertain. "I’m not sure," she admitted. "I’ve got to talk to him about it." Her voice trailed off. She really did not know how to do this. Custom dictated that the man approach the lady. It would be unusual, very unusual, any other way. Oh, my, she thought.
"Margarita, I will advise you this: Only you know your own heart, no one else does. Let this man know your heart as you get to know his." Felipe stood up. "My prayers are with you, my child. If you believe this man is for you and your hearts are one, let no one else come between you."
She nodded and stood up to leave. For the first time, Margarita thought that Felipe was much wiser than she ever gave him credit for. As they stood at the door, Margarita suddenly turned to him again. "If I can’t have him, Padre" she told the priest intensely, "then I don’t want anyone else."
Felipe looked surprised, but nodded. He watched her walk away. Now I wonder who he could be, he mused, to arouse such passion and determination in Margarita. Felipe planned a special prayer for Margarita in view of this latest development. She seemed so full of hope. It would have to be a special prayer, he thought, because the past ones did not seem to have worked. But, perhaps they did not for a very special reason. Felipe smiled and closed the door