The Comandante of Monterey

and the Challenge of Señorita Anamaría Verdugo

 

by

 Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

It was several weeks later when, on a warm, sunny afternoon, two callers came to pay their respects to the Verdugo household. It was a typical California day with blue skies and the scent of dry grasses was in the air. The chatter of songbirds could be heard for miles as one leisurely cantered on horseback along the dirt roads beyond the pueblo of Monterey, which lay along the coast, nestled in a bay and protected from the most intense Pacific storms. The deep green forests of the hills and the groves of pines and cedar trees along the road out of the coastal town rendered to the rider an almost idyllic sense of well-being and senerity on a warm day. An offshore wind brought the smell of the sea to those following the meandering coastal roads and trails.

But such tranquil thoughts were not in the minds of the two travelers, Captain Luís del Guerro and his assistant, Lieutenant Alonso Morales, who had joined del Guerro on temporary assignment from the presidio in San Francisco. Like del Guerro, Morales was of modest height and sported the fairer hair of northern Spain. He had met del Guerro on the ship from San Pedro that brought them both to northern California. Both men shared an interest in sound and efficient government. Despite the difference in their ranks, they formed a friendship based upon mutual respect for each other’s area of expertise.

They were headed to the rancho of Don Felipe Verdugo. Verdugo and his business partner, Pedro Velásquez made their money organizing the shipping of skins, tallow, and a modest amount of timber out of Monterey. Don Felipe had mentioned briefly that he suspected thefts from the port warehouse of these goods. The comandante’s interest was aroused and he decided to investigate this possibility more thoroughly. He mentioned this to Don Felipe who was pleased at the comandante’s quick response to his concern. Naturally, it was in the interest of the Crown as well, to put an end to any possible crime. Doctored records, stolen property or smuggled goods meant less taxes to run the colonies or support the Spanish government itself. And Captain Luís del Guerro was a loyal member of the Crown’s armed forces and its administrative apparatus.

Del Guerro and Morales entered through the wooden gate that was the sole entrance in a high, thick masonry wall that surrounded the two-storied home. From the rough road and its wild surroundings, they emerged into a cultivated sanctuary of flowers, a fountain, and lush vegetation that gave a feeling of other–worldliness. Under a broad branched shade tree was a table and chairs for the relaxation of the family and guests. A woman servant answered del Guerro’s knock at the door and the two men were ushered into the foyer, where they took two steps down into a sitting room. There they waited for the arrival of the master of the house.

Luís had a good look around the room and it gave him insights into the character of the Verdugo family. Next to the window near the front door were two comfortable chairs arranged for relaxed hospitality. Close by was a desk with the obligatory feather pen and inkwell. Behind it was a fireplace. To one side of the fireplace was a built in bookcase, crammed with books of all sizes, their leather bindings only distinguishable from each other by the extent of exterior design. The paintings that adorned the walls showed Spanish scenes. At least one or two looked as if they had been painted locally, for one was a scene of the coast of Monterey and the other a portrait of Verdugo himself. There was a small table on the far side of the room. Several books sat in a stack on the desk and one had a feather in it as a bookmark. Luís approached the desk, picked up the book with the feather, and opened it to see the title.  When he read it, he smiled and replaced the book. He could not imagine Don Felipe reading romances. He straightened up and took a step back toward the foyer as Don Felipe entered with an easy stride to greet his visitors.

A small, thin man with a swarthy face, who stood at the same height as his daughter, Melana, Felipe Verdugo could be easily mistaken for a typical lean vaquero were it not for the expensiveness of this clothing, his dignified bearing, and a twinkle in his eyes that bespoke a keen wit. His thick mustache, that turned down well over the corners of his mouth, gave him a forbidding appearance at times and it helped create a distance from those who did not know him well. He was observant and keen to pick up on an opportunity that could lead to a creative business enterprise. He had seen the captain’s smile as he had read the title of the book on the desk. As he stretched out his hand in greeting to del Guerro he commented:  “My daughter must read every book she can get her hands on.”

When del Guerro responded that reading was certainly a virtue, the don sighed in mock dismay. “It’s the other books she reads as well that has me concerned – not just poetry, but history, biographies, even military memoirs, Captain. She probably knows more about mathematics than you do. And philosophy –  Greeks, Romans, France, and England - what is it that she does not wish to know about? Where will it all end? Sometimes I wish she would only read the romances.”

When Lieutenant Morales offered his opinion that all her reading must certainly make her a fascinating conversationalist and add to her charm, Verdugo decided then and there that he liked the two military men. “Let’s get down to business, gentlemen. It would be easy to talk about my daughter for hours.” His guests agreed.

It was mid afternoon when their conversation drifted back into easier topics. Morales and del Guerro exchanged views on when and where to begin their investigations. They advised Don Verdugo that he should not even confide in his business partner or daughter what their plans were. This confidentiality from even his own business partner disturbed Verdugo, but he wanted to act on his better instincts to trust del Guerro and Morales for the present. “All right,” he said. “But if a man can’t trust someone who has been a good friend for fifteen years, who can he trust? It will be even harder to say nothing to Melana. Both she and Anamaría seem to like Pedro and trust him as I do.”

“I understand and respect your feelings, Señor,” responded the captain, “but we are dealing with many unknowns. We are not making any accusations, but we must first rule out all possibilities. I am sure that accurate and unbiased inquiries will do their best to pinpoint the source of your problems. We want whoever is doing this is to continue in their practices without any hint of suspicion that there is an investigation going on. This will also protect the innocent.”

“Done,” replied Verdugo. “The sooner this unpleasant business is concluded, the better. I find it a distasteful but necessary solution to a situation that is only getting worse.”

When they rose to leave, Melana and Anamaría came down the stairs, unaware that Felipe had any visitors. Felipe called them into the parlor saying, “Girls, come greet our visitors.”

“It’s so nice to see you again,” Melana said, acknowledging Luís as Morales was introduced. “And you,” replied Luis, bowing. He turned his attention to her cousin and added, “I am also very glad to see you again, Señorita Anamaría. The pueblo has been a poorer place as a result of your recent absence.”

Anamaría smiled at this obvious flattery. “Thank you, Captain, for your gallantry which seems to know no end.” Was she being sarcastic? It was hard to tell. 

“Tell me,” continued Luís pleasantly, “which one of you is the artist behind these paintings? This one,” he stepped up to the wall and indicated the painting of Monterey, “seems to be from a perspective closeby. In addition, the portrait of Don Felipe seems less to dignify than to capture endearing qualities. Those qualities would only be known to someone who knows him well. No offense meant, Señor,” he added, “merely an observation.”

Don Felipe looked pleasantly surprised by del Guerro’s analysis regarding the paintings. The young women looked pleased as well as surprised. 

“Melana did the scenic painting and I did the portrait of Uncle Felipe, “ offered Anamaría in a friendlier tone. “I had no idea you took an interest in art.”

“Captain del Guerro also took note of your reading materials, Melana,” Don Felipe told his daughter with a smile. “I caught him peeking at the titles when I came in.”

Everyone laughed at that comment and Melana suggested refreshments before the men departed.

As they took their seats in the garden under the shade of the tree, Anamaría unexpectedly sat next to Luís. “What brings you so far out of the pueblo this afternoon, Captain?” she asked.

“I regret to say that I have not had the chance to call on your uncle and his family sooner,” responded Luís

“I see,” she replied, looking up at the servant who arrived and began serving sweets and tea. As the rest of the group began to discuss the food, Anamaría leaned very close to Luís so the others would not overhear her. The scent of jasmine reached him. He inclined his head to catch her softly spoken words.

“Uncle Felipe mentioned a while back that someone might be stealing from him or from the warehouse. Melana and I have our suspicions. May we have a word with you about this matter? Sooner would be better. It’s very important.”

“I am at your service at any time, Señorita,” del Guerro replied gravely in a voice as quiet as hers. “When would you like to discuss this matter?”

“I have an idea about that, Captain,” she answered, looking over at her uncle. In a much louder voice she said, “Oh, Uncle Felipe? Captain del Guerro and Lieutenant Morales have not seen our artist’s lookout point. Would you mind if Melana and I showed them? It will not take too long.”

Don Felipe raised his eyebrows at the unexpected – and friendly – gesture his niece was making to the comandante. “Captain? Do you have the time? The girls aren’t just talking you into this, are they?”

“No, Señor, not at all,” responded Luís firmly. “I am most interested.”

“Well, let’s go….” began Felipe, starting to rise out of his chair. Then he saw his niece’s slow shake of the head. He was quick to take a hint. “I will see that the carriage is readied, or do you prefer horseback?”

Luís looked over at Anamaría with a slightly raised eyebrow and a slight smile on his face in anticipation. She smiled in return, but it was a mischievous smile. “A carriage is nice, but I prefer horseback.”

“Anything for my niece, Captain. She has no problem making up her mind and knowing what she wants.”

Melana giggled at that and there was a round of chuckles when del Guerro asked, giving Anamaría a sideways glance, “No doubt a Verdugo trait, Señor?”

 

 

 

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