The Comandante of Monterey

and the Challenge of Señorita Anamaría Verdugo

 

by

 Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

Chapter 7

 

 

Anamaría decided that their first stop would be the cuartel. She was eager to get rid of the documents and was grateful that the puppy gave them the excuse to visit with the comandante. Having accomplished this, they would stop off at the merchant’s store for some thread, and then pay a surprise call on their friend, Elena.

 Melana was concerned about getting the documents back before her father missed them and worried how that would be accomplished. “Let’s ask the captain what would be the best way to meet up with him again,” she suggested. “He’ll know what to do.”

When they arrived in the carriage, Anamaría asked the driver to stop on the far side of the plaza. They would walk casually, she decided, toward the cuartel, chatting, and innocent for any and all to observe. One could never tell.

The soldiers at the gate asked the young women to wait while the availability of the comandante was checked. Within a few minutes they were ushered inside, around the corner, and stood on the porch at the entrance to the building. Outside the wooden door hung a sign that read “La Oficina del Comandante.” A soldier knocked at the door. From within, Anamaría heard the captain’s strong baritone answer “Enter.” The door opened. 

“Las Señoritas Verdugo,” announced the soldier. Luís del Guerro rose from behind his desk with a smile to greet his visitors. “Ladies, a pleasure to see you again. Won’t you please have a seat?” He gave the soldier instructions to request Morales' attendance. 

After the soldier closed the door, he added. “Lieutenant Morales will be informed of your presence and will arrive shortly. After he arrives, we can examine the paperwork.” 

But the two young women remained standing, as if in anticipation. Melana gave Anamaría a conspiratorial glance before she began. “Oh, Captain, before we start, we brought a little present for you.”

“A present?” Luís asked in surprise. He unconsciously smoothed a corner of his moustache with a forefinger.

Anamaría noticed the gesture and stepped forward, still cradling the woven basket in her arms. “We hope you can accept it,” she said, lowering the basket and opening it so he could look in. 

Inside, a little white puppy with speckles and orange-red ears was fast asleep. One little white paw covered its black nose.

Del Guerro’s eyes creased as he smiled in appreciation of their gesture. Then he cleared his throat. “Ah, well, it is probably against regulations…”

Anamaría’s look was positively mischievous when she mockingly rebuked him, “Now, Comandante, you would not insult us by refusing our gift, would you?”

Luís gave her a look that told her that he knew she was teasing him. “My dear Señorita Verdugo, I would never insult you by saying ‘no’. ” With that, he reached into the basket. 

The puppy woke up and was eager to get out. The comandante of Monterey picked him up, took him into his arms, scratched his ears, stuck his finger out as the puppy tried to chew on it playfully, and praised the little dog saying “There’s a fine fellow, just look at you, now. Ah, but you’re a strong one. Look at those paws. So, you want to scamper, eh? Let’s see what you can do.” So saying, he squatted down and let the puppy out of his arms. The puppy squealed with joy, racing around the wooden floor and immediately began to investigate the legs of the chairs and other furniture in the room.

Anamaría watched Luís, feeling somewhat surprised at his absolute affection for the little creature. When he spoke so kindly to the dog, she wondered, how well would he be with children? Would he cuddle a baby like that? She smiled at her cousin as they watched him huddle down with the puppy and watch its antics with such pleasure.

Melana was delighted by his reaction. “You’ll have to keep him now, Captain. Nobody could be a better papa than you.”

There was a step on the porch outside and del Guerro rose to meet the anticipated arrival of Lieutenant Morales. There was a knock. “Enter,” he responded.

 Alonso Morales opened the door and, saluting, greeted the comandante with “I came as soon as I received word, Captain del Guerro.” Upon seeing the Verdugo cousins, he bowed in their direction, and walked over to them with a smile. “Ladies.” Then he saw the puppy scrambling toward him. “Ah, Captain, our new mascot?” He leaned over to pet the animal’s white head. 

Luís replied with a straight face, “It would appear so, Lieutenant. Refusing would have created a diplomatic incident.” The young women tittered at that. “Now, Ladies, please, let us begin. Time is of the essence.”

As the young women began to go through their sewing supplies to fetch the hidden documents, del Guerro walked over to the front door and opened it. “Private Torres,” he said to the soldier stationed outside, “if anyone requests to see me during the next thirty minutes, would you please tell them that I am unavailable. I do not wish to be disturbed.” With that he closed the door. 

Melana retrieved two black booklets and placed them on the comandante’s desk. She indicated which one was her father’s and which one Velásquez’s. Morales asked her to explain her findings and she began.

“Señorita Anamaría,” interrupted Luís, “may I have a word with you while the lieutenant asks the questions?”

“Of course, Comandante,” she replied and rose. 

He guided her over to two chairs under a window further away. He put the chairs at close quarters and sat a moment in quiet contemplation before he began. It was hard for him not to notice her elegance – the ruffled white blouse with a black shawl, the taffy- colored skirt and black shoes. Around her waist was a scarlet sash that matched his own - a splash of color that an artist would think of, he thought. There was no hat to cover her dark hair today and she wore the smallest of gold earrings. And there was that less-than- subtle hint of jasmine - a scent that I know is you. A man might get lost in the depth of her dark eyes and fill his soul with a hint of her smile.

Luís forced himself to re-focus on the matters at hand. “Have there been any developments since our meeting of last night that you need to tell me about?” he asked in a low tone.

“Oh, yes,” she replied, remembering her conversation with her uncle. “Uncle Felipe asked us if we had seen Pedro’s journal which we, of course, had not. In addition, I tried to tell him that I mistrust Señor Velásquez and so does Melana. But, he didn’t want to hear of it.” She looked over at Melana and leaned closer to whisper in his ear, “Then he implied that he would marry Melana off to him for her own good and her future. I was very upset and told him he would break her heart. He then attacked me and said that fathers should make decisions about marriages, not us women.”

“Go on,” said Luís in a neutral tone. She searched his face for a reaction but could not ascertain one. He was still getting the facts, she thought, before making judgements, something I find hard to do. He looked directly into Anamaría’s eyes and she noticed for the first time that they were blue-gray. Why haven't I noticed the color of his eyes before? she thought.

“Uncle Felipe told me that I simply did not understand that he had spent his whole life trying to make a better life for the family, that he wanted Melana to have a secure future before he dies.” She paused. “His talk of death disturbed me.”

“Interesting,” Luís commented. Then, the puppy was there at his booted leg, up on its hind legs, eager again for attention. The captain picked him up and placed him on his lap, stroking his head and scratching the small white chest. “Tell me, why did he attack you in particular, if you don’t mind my asking?” The puppy raised its head, stretching its neck, enjoying the attention, then squirmed mightily and leaped off the officer’s lap, tumbling and regaining his feet.

Anamaría blushed, remembering her uncle’s pointed words about her being a dreamer, not a realist, about her hero, the outlaw Zorro. “I think Uncle Felipe thinks I am a bad influence on Melana regarding what is and what is not an appropriate marriage. Or who or who is not good for a husband,” she replied awkwardly. 

Luís smiled at her sympathetically, leaned forward and patted her hand reassuringly. “Don’t you worry about that, Señorita. I am not here to judge you on these matters. What is more important is why your uncle suddenly feels it is necessary for a marriage to Velásquez and why he is speaking of his own mortality.”

Anamaría shared the same thoughts and suddenly felt a new confidence in the man who sat so close to her. “There is another thing you should know. He said that things did not seem as they appeared to be. Yet he was very sad, almost despairing. I felt as if someone had stabbed my own heart, but I had to stand up for Melana. I said some mean things, but it was for Melana.”

“By the way, does your uncle have any enemies that you know of?” asked del Guerro. “It is important that you let us know. In this business, there is always bound to be conflict, whether it is apparent or not. Do you have any suspicions?”

“That’s a very hard question to answer. I’ll have to think about it. Everyone I know seems to like Uncle Felipe. He is always helping other people solve their problems or settle their differences. The big contradiction seems to be why he is friends with a man like Señor Velásquez.”

From the desk, Lieutenant Alonso Morales looked up at the comandante. “Captain, there is really something here in these documents, just like Señorita Melana says. Would you like to have a look?”

Luís and Anamaría rose from their chairs and went over to the desk. Morales showed them columns of numbers, notations and some odd, consistent marks in the margins. 

Morales explained that annotations on the sides of the pages indicated a kind of double-bookkeeping taking place. “Some of this is not too clever, Captain. It is often the case that codes are employed to indicate where expenses, extra supplies and monies go. The person keeping accounts employs a system of discreet marks such as these which indicate another source is to be referred to for specifics.”

“In other words, this is just one document. Another one will have further information and supply the real facts,” said del Guerro to clarify what Morales had revealed. 

“Yes, Captain. A person seeing this journal would not be too likely to suspect anything amiss if he was innocent of these kind of entries. In this case, though, Señor Velásquez did make some errors in his mathematics and his journal clearly lacks some of the preciseness of Señor Verdugo’s. There are also other entries for the same dates and same transactions that cannot be accounted for in both journals.”

“How do you know about all this, Lieutenant?” asked Anamaría, whose curiosity was definitely aroused.

“A long story, Señorita. But allow me to say that sometimes thieves confess due to a bad conscience and help us catch worse thieves than themselves. It has saved more than one from the gibbet. It is an exchange, so to speak, and I have profited greatly from the knowledge.”

“As has the government,” added Luís. “Lieutenant Morales has been able to operate very effectively and, thanks to the discretion of honest men, he has done so with no suspicions aroused. If there are suspicions aroused, his life could be in danger.”

That comment elicited a gasp of shock from Melana. “Oh, no.”

“It’s all right, Señorita,” reassured Morales. “Only the captain knows why I am here and only the comandante in San Francisco knows of my dual role in government. I am not worried and neither should you be.”

Captain del Guerro suddenly straightened up. “Ladies, our half hour has come to an end. If you do not mind, I would like Lieutenant Morales to study these documents the rest of the afternoon and make his notes. I suggest that we meet again – say, a casual meeting at the Inn, for an early dinner at six o’clock. Would that meet with your approval?” 

Melana looked very pleased at the invitation. “Oh, yes.”  Anamaría nodded as well. 

“That way we can discreetly return the documents to you. If need be, we can make other arrangements in case this does not work out. I ask only that you ladies be flexible in case of the unexpected,” he added. 

The young women stood up to go. The puppy scampered around their feet and tried to hide under their long skirts. “Oh, you little scamp,” said Anamaría as she reached down to whoosh him out of the way. 

There was a sudden commotion outside in the yard of the cuartel. Morales looked out the window and Melana gasped as she recognized a voice, loud and complaining. “Velásquez,” she said in consternation.

Morales picked up the documents. “I’ll deposit these in your quarters, Captain. And I’ll disappear there, too, if you want.”

“No,” said del Guerro, “come right back. This will be out in the open.” The lieutenant disappeared into his quarters. The moments he was gone seemed like hours.

“Can you ladies do some acting?” asked Luís. 

“Don’t worry, Comandante, we don’t' need to act,” answered Anamaría. She looked over at her cousin. “Can you imagine the look on his face when he sees or hears us here, Melana?” 

“I want to laugh. Let’s laugh, Anamaría!” said Melana with some relish. She watched Morales re-enter the room. Then both young women began to laugh loudly as if at a good joke. The commotion in the yard died down a moment and then began again. 

Del Guerro pursued the scampering puppy and scooped him up in his arms. “Ladies, at ease,” he said, seemingly casually, but it was an order. They sat down. Then, the officer opened the door and addressed the lancer. “What is going on here, Private Torres?”

The soldier looked startled to see a little white puppy with orange ears in the arms of the comandante but regained his composure at once. “This man insists on seeing you, Captain, but I told him you are occupied.”

Del Guerro allowed his gaze to casually drift out to the person of Pedro Velásquez who was confronting another soldier. The big man became calmer upon seeing the officer. “I need to see you at once!” he demanded.

The captain nodded to the soldier restraining Velásquez and replied, “Señor, you need to learn some good manners and wait your turn. Nevertheless, if this an urgent matter, I might be able to make an accommodation.”

Velásquez shook himself free. “You seem to have plenty of time, Captain, for dogs.” 

“Shut up and come inside,” retorted Luís in the most threatening tone he had used up to any point in his command. “If you cannot find a civil way to speak to me, I’ll lock you up for insulting an officer of the Crown.”

Velásquez muttered under his breath and entered the office of the comandante. His eyes narrowed as he beheld the Verdugo cousins lounging in chairs and the seemingly ever-present Lieutenant Morales. 

The young women stood up and Morales stepped forward. “Ah, Señor Velásquez. A pleasant day, Señor.”

“What are you doing here?” demanded Velásquez looking directly at Melana and ignoring Morales.

“That’s no way to address these young ladies, as if it is any of your concern,” Luís admonished him sharply, saving Melana from having to answer. “Surely you can see that they have brought by a small present for the comandante.” 

The puppy in his arms regarded Velásquez in silence and seemed to sense the tenseness. When the big man took a step away from Melana and back toward the officer, the puppy growled. “It’s all right, little Fella,” said the captain to the dog. “Señor Velásquez will not bite you.” 

Melana and Anamaría burst out laughing at this unexpected humor. Morales looked at his captain with a raised eyebrow and could not conceal a broad smile. Velásquez did not react at all but his eyes moved from each person to the next, suspicious and foreboding. 

“Ladies, thank you so much for dropping by. I regret that the rest of my afternoon is occupied by appointments. In addition, Señor Velásquez seems to have an emergency. If you would forgive me, I think I should attend to the matter at hand.”

As Lieutenant Morales escorted the young women out the door, he gave a sideways glance to Velásquez who sat down in front of the comandante’s desk. The bigger man leaned forward and Morales found it difficult to concentrate on the parting niceties with the Verdugo cousins. He handed them their sewing bag that he carried and hurriedly bade them goodbye, saying he looked forward to dinner.

Pedro Velásquez looked around the comandante’s office. He briefly noted the green plants, the model cannon on the desk, some books in a stack and the officer’s saber and a pistol in a holster hanging from a wall hook. There were some small paintings, including one of the King, and a map of Alta California with its capital at Monterey. As del Guerro sat behind his desk, Velásquez refocused his attention on the smaller man opposite him who held one of Verdugo’s mutts on his lap and regarded him with a mild curiosity.

“Look, Captain, thanks for seeing me right away. I apologize for the interruption, but what I have to report is important. As you know, Felipe and I are business partners. I am not here regarding our business affairs, but I am here regarding a theft of property and a possible murder.”

Del Guerro sat forward at that, frowning, looking up at Morales who was closing the door. “A possible murder, Señor? Explain yourself.”

“As you may know, I left the Verdugo rancho early this morning for business here in town. The man I was to meet with was not here. I headed back to Felipe’s and found a calamity.” 

Luís thought the man genuinely looked flustered and concerned regarding an unexpected situation. “Go on,” he said.

“Nobody seemed to be at home, not even the two servants. I just walked in. I found the front room a wreck – overturned furniture, books scattered on the floor along with everything else. I called out. There was no answer. Then I went upstairs. I didn’t know if Melana was there or not.” The older man looked over at Morales who had fastened his eyes upon him when he spoke of Melana. “When I went upstairs I found that all the doors were ajar. Two rooms were torn apart like the front room – Felipe’s and Melana’s. There was blood on the floor in Felipe’s room. I went down to the stables. Felipe’s favorite horse was gone, but everything else appeared normal. I walked around to the back of the stables and found no one either. I got on my horse and came here at once.” 

“Why the hostility when you entered the room, then?” asked Morales in a mild tone. 

Velásquez turned in his chair to face Morales. “I don’t like you, Señor,” he said. “I like it even less that Melana seems to have an interest in you. But I want you to understand that I was relieved to see that she and Anamaría were safe, even if it is here. Do you really think that I could act any differently in front of them if something has happened to Felipe?”

Captain del Guerro was already making his way to his quarters. He opened the door, deposited the puppy inside, and then returned to the desk. “All right, “ he said to Velásquez. “We will leave for the Verdugo home immediately.”

The older man stood up, anxious to go. The comandante gestured him toward the front door. Del Guerro turned to Morales. “Lieutenant, I leave you in charge. There are still some duties to be performed this afternoon and I want you to follow our previously arranged schedule even if I do not get back by the end of the day. You can handle the rest of this afternoon’s appointments.”  Del Guerro slipped the scabbard and saber off the wall along with the pistol. Both men left the office and Alonso Morales heard the Captain summoning the sergeant for a small contingent of troops. Within minutes, four soldiers, the comandante, and Velásquez had mounted their horses and left the cuartel.

Lieutenant Alonso Morales stepped back out the front door. He ordered the remaining soldiers in the cuartel to be prepared for further duties and kept Private Torres on duty outside the office of the comandante. There was only one duty to attend to and that was the further examination of the documents, which he retrieved at once. He set himself at the comandante’s desk and began to take careful notes.

 

 

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