The Comandante of Monterey

and the Challenge of Señorita Anamaría Verdugo

 

by

 Eugene H. Craig

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

“Tell me, Captain, did you really just come to pay a social call on my uncle?” she asked as she pulled her white mare up alongside his roan on the dusty trail. Lieutenant Morales and Melana were chatting further behind them as the young woman pointed out the sights to her visitor as their horses began the incline toward the higher trail they followed.

“Why do you ask, Señorita?” del Guerro responded in an even tone, slowing the horse down to a walk. He liked her direct way of dealing with situations despite their differences and inspite of his own evasiveness on the present subject.

“Oh, you can’t fool me,” she said. “I’ve overheard Uncle Felipe in arguments with Señor Velásquez often enough to suspect that something is going on. He’s frustrated. I think he finally made a decision to consult with someone else.”

“And you think that…?”

“Yes, I do. You’ve impressed many people quite favorably lately….”

“Even Señorita Verdugo?”

“Maybe I was wrong about you, Captain. But I’m still mad at you, about……..Ricardo.”

“Quite understandable.”

“You mean….?”

“Your pardon, Señorita. I was wrong. There were better solutions to that situation. But I am a man,” he said sincerely, “who believes he can learn from the lessons of life.”

“I like that,” Anamaría commented thoughtfully. “ Melana told me that, in her opinion, you had every reason to be mad about what Ricardo did to you. Even Diego agreed, but not with what you tried to do in return. Then she told me I should give you another chance. I think everyone deserves a second chance.”

“Thank you,” responded Luís. “This means, of course, that we are now ‘even’.”

Her mouth dropped open in surprise She thought immediately of her former rudeness to him, but then she saw the twinkle in his eye and the quiet smile under his neatly trimmed mustache, and took it in kind.

“I believe the most appropriate response to that is ‘Touché’, Captain!”

 

 

The view of the coast from the top of the hill was spectacular. Every detail of pine, rock, crested wave, circling seagull or wary hawk could be seen from one end of the bay to the other. A fallen tree trunk lay just below the crest of the hill. The old pine was a good three feet in diameter and provided a protected niche to sit up against and to watch the ocean.

Melana and Anamaría unfolded a blanket from a woven bag they brought. With the help of the officers, they spread it out and laid it on the ground, explaining that the most comfortable viewing that they did was sitting with their backs to the tree trunk. All four sat down, the officers removing their sabers and laying them aside.

“I put a piece of smooth bark or leather in my lap and make a charcoal or ink sketch,” explained Melana, “then I take it home and paint from there.”

“Is that not very difficult?” asked Morales. He was very interested in Melana’s attention to detail.

“Oh, no, not at all. We pack it all in a bag. Sometimes we bring rocks, twigs or leaves back with us. Each can provide a memory or become a part of a picture.”

Luís del Guerro had his mind on things other than exploring the intricacies of sketching and painting. “Your pardon, Ladies. Señorita Anamaría mentioned to me that you have concerns regarding some kind of thefts you think are taking place in your Uncle’s business. It might be best to speak of these things for now. Then we can get back to more pleasant subjects.”

“I’ll let Anamaría tell you about it. She’s so much better than I am at explaining these things,” said Melana, smiling shyly first at Morales who sat on her right, and then to her cousin who sat on her left.

“Oh, no, Melana. It was you who discovered the bad math in Señor Velásquez’s account book.”

“Oh, but it was you who told me that Father and he were arguing,” insisted Melana. She looked into Luís’ face as he leaned forward, peering around Anamaria’s shoulder. “Captain, we decided to sneak down the stairs and listen. Father was saying that Señor Velásquez had hired bad men to work for him and that he believed they were being cheated.”

“What was Señor Velásquez’s response?” asked del Guerro.

“He became angry. He said that he didn’t hire cheats to work for him, that Father must be mistaken. Figures could always be off a little, innocent errors. He would check.”

“But, that’s not all Melana,” said Anamaría eagerly. “At first, Señor Velásquez also told Uncle Felipe to keep his nose out of things. ‘As long as you get your share, Felipe, then don’t complain if a little goes astray.’ ”

“And your father’s response to that?” Morales asked Melana.

“Father was quiet a long time. Then he said, ‘Listen, Pedro, you are taking this the wrong way. I’ve always had confidence in your handling of this side of the business, but there is too much going astray lately and that means less for the both of us. Greasing the way a little bit to help business is one thing, but to have the amount of weight listed as one thing on delivery and another on receipt is too much of discrepancy especially when it has become an ongoing problem. We are supposed to be increasing the amount of hides shipped but according to these records, we have decreasing numbers.’ ”

“Go on,” said Luís, thinking that Don Felipe might not be quite the gentleman he thought he was.

“Well, you won’t believe this, but Señor Velásquez then said, ‘Ok, Felipe, you could be right. I’ve over-reacted. I will go and speak to Hernando about his records and double check them against mine.’  Hernando is a man who works at the warehouse. He records what comes in and what leaves.”

“And what is so strange about that, Señorita?” asked Morales. “That is a much more reasonable response and based upon some reflection.”

“No, wait, Melana. Tell them what Señor Velásquez said after that!” Anamaría interrupted. She was almost adamant.

Melana looked down and blushed. “Oh, I don’t think I can, Anamaría.”

Del Guerro looked over at Morales in amusement. What could it be now? Both men looked at Anamaría expectantly. She decided that no introductions were necessary.

“Señor Velásquez then proposed to marry Melana!”

“I couldn’t believe it!” breathed Melana.

“Neither could I!” Anamaría added. Both young women looked indignant. At that point neither the captain nor the lieutenant looked amused any longer.

“And how do you feel about that, Señorita?” asked Morales quietly and without any force in his voice.

“Oh, no! Not even if my father begged me, or threatened me. I used to like him, but I would never marry him. But I wouldn’t know what to do if…” Melana’s voice trailed off.

“Well, what do you think?” Anamaría turned her gaze to Luís.

Everyone looked at del Guerro as he fixed his eyes on the tops of the pines as they rolled down in a carpet of green toward the bay and, then, to the ocean that stretched out before him. Luís drummed his fingers on a bent knee and thought about what he had heard so far. It was so quiet that the breeze coming in from the sea seemed to intrude into their small world. Finally, the comandante of Monterey spoke.

He looked over at Morales. “Lieutenant, I don’t like the sound of this.” Morales nodded.

Then Luís addressed Anamaría. “You said earlier that Señorita Melana had discovered ‘bad math’ in Velásquez’s account book and other discrepancies.” He looked over at Melana. “Do you still have this journal?”

“Oh, yes,” Melana said. “A servant found it under the bed. It must have fallen down when he stayed there last week. She brought it to me because Father was not at home. I got curious because Father had been looking at his own accounts and I do some of the bookkeeping for him at times.”  When the officers looked impressed, she added, “Father likes me to double-check his numbers.”

“Oh, Melana, you are much too modest. You have done so much in organizing his accounts recently that you do practically everything now,” her cousin insisted.

“Well, not really. But I know much more about his business now than before. There are many details to account for. At first, just out of curiosity, I thought that I should just compare what he and father were writing. Señor Velásquez’s accounts were far more detailed….and interesting.”

“Tell me this, Señorita, has Señor Velásquez returned to look for his journal yet?”

“No, not yet,” Melana shook her head. Then an unpleasant thought occurred to her. She looked at del Guerro in a distressed manner. “Oh, Captain, I’m afraid now. After hearing him shout at Father, I don’t know what he’d do to us if he thought we had his journal…”

Morales took hold of her hand and squeezed it reassuringly. “I don’t think you are in any danger as of yet, Señorita Melana.” He looked over to del Guerro who added in a quiet but forceful way, “I swear upon my honor, we will do our utmost to protect both of you and your father, Señorita Melana, have no fear of that.”

Melana’s smile was strained as she took Anamaría’s hand and looked into her cousin’s brown eyes.

“It’s going to be all right, Melana,” Anamaría told her, even though she herself was a little unnerved by her cousin’s spoken fears. The thought had also occurred to her, but she had pushed it away, as if it had been a bad dream best forgotten. Now she felt better that she had decided to confide in a man like Captain del Guerro. Their curiosity about Velásquez’s incongruities may have gotten them in a danger they had not anticipated.

“This aside for now, Señorita, “ continued del Guerro, “Lieutenant Morales and I would like to examine both sets of journals. Is there some way we could do this when we return to the rancho, that is, without arousing any suspicion? Could you distract your father?”

“I don’t know. Anamaría, what do you think?”

Anamaría considered the situation. “It will not be hard to get him out of the house this time of day. Maybe one of you gentlemen could engage his interest. While that is being done, the other could examine the journals. Or, if this is not possible, perhaps we could come into town tomorrow and bring the journals to the cuartel. You would have complete privacy there.”

“Does your father own any fighting cocks or does he take sporting bets?” asked Luís. “I have a small interest in these diversions myself. Lieutenant Morales could then examine the books when we are out of the house. He has much experience in these matters.”

“Oh, yes, Father has two birds and hoped to acquire another today. And then there is a litter of puppies.”

Morales interjected, “Captain, it would not take too long to establish the basis of the discrepancies in both journals. It might also do much to dispel any doubts or suspicions just in case both parties are innocent – and we must take that into consideration as well.”

“That’s true. However, the sooner we act, the better in case the worst of our suspicions is confirmed. I think that Señor Velásquez will not be long in returning to look for his documents. We need to be prepared for this. Now let us return and see what we can determine.”

As they stood up to return to the rancho, Melana went right up to the comandante. “Captain, I’m still worried about Señor Velásquez’s proposal to my father…about me. You still have not said anything ………or do you think I’m just being silly?”

“No, I do not consider this a trivial matter, not at all,” Luís assured her. “You have a right to be concerned. Regardless, a young lady should never be forced into a marriage against her will. Don’t misunderstand us, Ladies. We do have more than just a casual interest in what you have told us. Without jumping to conclusions, perhaps we should wait and see if this request goes beyond just the casual. It might have been a clever tactic to throw your father off the scent of the accounting discrepancies. After all, your father can ignore or reject his proposal. Surely he will consult with you first before making any decision.”

Morales quiet voice intervened into the conversation. “I don’t wish to alarm anyone, but there may be a very sinister reason why Señor Velásquez wishes to marry Señorita Melana.” He turned to Melana. “Would you marry him, Señorita, even if he threatened your father with his life?”

Melana seemed shocked. “With his life?”

Morales added more gently. “It’s not unknown, Señorita, for an unscrupulous man to marry a woman in order to gain control over the wealth of a father once he has been removed from the scene. Pardon me for speaking so bluntly. I am speaking, of course, of the most extreme possibility.”

Del Guerro thought Morales had gone a little far and gave him a warning look. “The lieutenant doesn’t mean to frighten you, just to put you on your guard.” He tugged at the corner of his thick mustache as if a little irritated by the same thought himself.  “If at all possible, you must continue to treat this man the same now as you have in the past. It will be difficult, but you don’t want to arouse any suspicions on his part. Merely find excuses to do what you do not wish to do if he asks you anything you suspect, or act naive. And if you ever feel frightened or threatened, do not hesitate to let us know.”

Melana lowered her eyes. “Once again, thank you so much.”

Morales said, “Listen, ladies, it would be a very good idea not to mention our conversation of this afternoon to anyone else. Do not discuss it among yourselves unless you are completely alone and away from the house. An overheard conversation, even by a servant, could have serious repercussions if it gets back to anyone else. This will ensure your security and allow us to investigate further without restraints. As far as any of us is concerned, we have only discussed the scenery and your interests.” The young women nodded silently.

“Good advice,” del Guerro commented as he swung himself up on his horse. “Now, let us return. We will speak of happier events and hope that our forebodings are for naught.”

 As they turned their horses and began their descent from the high hill, Luís looked back out over the bay. A fog was beginning to appear all along on the distant horizon. He reined his horse in over to Melana’s. “Now, Señorita, would you like to tell me about this book you’ve been reading?”

 

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