Ring of Fire
Arriving at the inn in Monterey,
hot, tired and thirsty, Rómez dusted himself off and headed for the bar.
He had instructions not to actively seek de Irujo, but to go to the tavern
and wait. Sooner or later, de Irujo would show up, his reddish brown hair
darkened with an herbal rinse. Rómez was content to lean against the bar
and ease his thirst as if he were merely idling away time. After all,
based on what Capitán Rodríguez had told him, this operation was the
work of weeks, not days, anyway.
A group of caballeros came in
presently and took seats around a table toward the back of the room, near
the stairs. Just as a pack of cards was produced and one of the seated men
began shuffling the cards, another tall, thin man entered. As the man was
dressed every bit as ornately as the other obviously affluent men, Rómez
would not, at first, have looked closely at him. However, as he passed,
the man hesitated for an instant and nodded. With that, the man Rómez
then recognized as de Irujo, continued on to join the card game.
Even though de Irujo must have known
that Rómez would not have been here tonight if there had not been an
important message from Capitán Rodríguez, he continued with his game. Rómez
began to see why as he watched de Irujo win hand after hand, losing only
occasionally to make it look honest. Finally, once a large pot was on the
table, de Irujo wiped the other players out and claimed the pot as his
own. One by one, the caballeros each acknowledged defeat, and with a bow,
said their farewells and left de Irujo to his considerable winnings.
Finally, he gathered up his money, tossed enough back on the table to pay
for the bottle of wine he was taking with him, and went upstairs with two
glasses in his hand. As he started to mount the stairs, he casually
glanced at Rómez and caught his eye. Then he pointedly looked up the
stairs toward his room. As de Irujo continued on up, Rómez noticed that
he entered the door at the far end of the portico. Rómez waited five more
minutes before casually going up the stairs himself and quietly knocking
on the door. The door was instantly opened and Rómez drawn inside.
De Irujo wasted little time.
"You have a message for me from Rodríguez?" he demanded with no
"Sí, I think you will be
pleased with the contents of this one," Rómez said.
"Why do you not let me be the
judge of that?" de Irujo commented, as Rómez handed him the sealed
For some minutes, there was silence
in the room as de Irujo read the letter and slowly began to smile.
"For once in your life, mi amigo, you thought rightly. Finally, we
are moving!" he grinned. "Now I get to do a little more and we
will start this landslide on its way to doing what we have planned."
"What are you going to
do?" Rómez asked. He knew de Irujo was a gambler and a slick talker,
but he was not sure exactly where he fit into the plan. Of course, he was
under no illusions as to his own importance here. He realized that Rodríguez
had told him only enough of the plan to secure his help. The money was the
main enticement for him, but he was becoming very interested in the
manipulations of these two. As far as he could tell, they were two of a
kind, clever and as rock hard as they come, with just about as much
feeling as a steel blade had for its victim. Rómez settled down on the
edge of the bed with a glass of wine as he watched de Irujo at a table in
De Irujo merely glanced at the
messenger, without answering, as he quickly assembled paper, quills, ink
and absorbent sand on the tabletop. Then he reached into a drawer and
pulled out two letters with two different handwritings on the front.
Pulling one piece of paper forward, he began writing, glancing at one of
the letters from time to time. When he was finished with the first one, he
quickly sprinkled absorbent sand on it. Tipping it up to remove the sand,
he looked at it closely. He smiled and began whistling a bit under his
breath as he lay the first one aside and pulled the second sheet toward
him. He took time to examine the handwriting on the second letter before
beginning to write again.
Rómez walked over and watched
closely. He was surprised to see that the writing on the two letters was
completely different, as if two different people had written the words.
Not only that, but he had seen notes from de Irujo before. Neither
handwriting was anything like the handwriting in the notes from de Irujo. By
the saints! he gasped to himself. The man is a master forger!
"Where did you learn to do that?" he asked aloud.
"Oh, do not worry about where I
learned it, amigo. You just need to know that I am good at what I
do," de Irujo bragged. He looked up at Rómez with a cocky expression
on his face and then turned his attention back to his messages. From
inside the drawer, he withdrew a couple of seals and a bit of red sealing
wax. In short order, he had the messages folded and sealed. "Now to
get this first note to the comandante here."
"The comandante!" Rómez
gasped. "I do not understand. Why in the world would we need to give
a note to Comandante del Guerro?"
"Well, just how is he suppose
to find this horrible group of traitors unless he knows to look for
them?" de Irujo asked as if that explained everything.
Rómez gaped at him. "You are
selling them out?"
"Of course! I would never have
been here in the first place if they had not been useful in this plan.
They will only be useful if they are discovered," de Irujo explained
as he turned to look at Rómez. "When they arrest the men involved
here, they will find several letters apparently from Ania Valdéz,
complete with the Valdéz seal on them. This will be the beginning of a
trail straight to Los Ángeles and the totally unsuspecting Señorita Valdéz.
The same thing will happen after we get this other letter into Santa
Barbara. They have only a small group of lancers there but we only need
someone at a high enough level to run an investigation from there too.
Sooner or later the two leaders will meet and decide to come to Los Ángeles.
Proof will then begin showing up there."
"But will that not spoil the
chances of Rodríguez being given the lands and hacienda that will be
confiscated? I mean, that will go to whoever uncovers the treason." Rómez
"Oh, they will investigate in
their areas and then inform him of the traitor in your midst. He will lead
the investigation there, find the traitor, and be rewarded for such by
being granted the Valdéz lands."
Rómez was still puzzled.
"Look, would it not be less
suspicious for him to be brought in by others rather than start and finish
it himself? The people are already going to be upset by this. I have only
heard of one other woman ever implicated and hung for treason in
California. Rodríguez is going to have to be very careful! If this is not
totally believable, rock solid, it could blow up in all our faces."
De Irujo sat back in his chair and met Rómez's eyes.
Rómez swallowed hard, suddenly
realizing that what he had gotten himself into was far more serious than
anything else he had ever done. This could get him hung! Rodríguez's gold
didn't gleam so bright at that moment. However, Rómez doubted seriously
that he could back out of the plan now, not without serious consequences
After a moment, de Irujo got up and
began gathering his things together as Rómez watched him. "We are
leaving now?" Rómez asked, disappointed. He had been hoping for at
least one night in a good bed softer than the one in the barracks.
"Oh, of course, Rómez,"
de Irujo replied. "You have already taken six days getting here. It
will take us about that long to return. It will probably take somewhere
around a day for Comandante del Guerro and his men to round everyone up
here and find the notes, and maybe another day to decide to go to Santa
Barbara to discuss this. Then figure in the travel time to Los Ángeles
and a few hours for Capitán Rodríguez to pretend to allow himself to be
convinced of the truth of it all. We have very little time. There is just
over two weeks until the Valdéz woman is to marry. Rodríguez would like
to handle all of this before she becomes a de la Vega. That family has
considerable influence. They will no doubt come strongly to her defense,
as it is. Things will be further complicated if she is legally married.
Now she will stand or fall alone and that is the way Capitán Rodríguez
Nodding his head, Rómez looked
longingly at the bed, but got up and began handing things to de Irujo to
be put in a bag. "What of the note?" he asked the gambler.
"Just leave that to me,"
de Irujo said. "Wait for me here."
"Whatever you say, amigo,"
Rómez agreed as he lay down on the bed with a sigh. "I have already
done my part for now. As you say, I will be right here."
De Irujo frowned at him for a
moment, then shrugged and walked out. He really had no time to waste on
By now, it was the middle of second
watch. Even a larger pueblo, such as Monterey, slowed down by this time of
night. De Irujo watched quietly for a while. Seeing no movement anywhere
near him, he casually walked across the plaza as if merely out for a
stroll. All remained quiet as he walked slowly by the large gate to
Monterey's cuartel. Looking carefully around again, he took out the note
to del Guerro and silently pinned it to the gate with a knife. He then
walked quickly back to a tree across the plaza from the cuartel and sat on
the bench encircling it to watch to see if the note was found. Even in the
dead of night, one could expect the occasional lancer to come out of the
cuartel and go across to the tavern. Surely, the note would be found then.
Time passed. The Devil take them!
de Irujo swore. Are they all asleep in there? I will have to do
something about this myself! For a few minutes he was stymied. He
needed to draw lancers to the gate, but he had to do it in such a way that
he was not connected with the note...but how? A plan quickly formed as he
saw a drunk peon begin to stagger his way across the plaza. He watched the
peon and then started walking across the plaza, timing this action so that
he and the peon would be a few yards in front of the gate when they met.
"Here! What are you
doing?" de Irujo yelled loudly as he deliberately collided with the
drunken man. "You are trying to rob me! You pickpocket!! I will teach
you," he screamed at the confused peon.
pooor favor," the peon slurred, barely able to comprehend what he was
"You think you can get away
with it, just because you are drunk! You peons are forgetting your place.
Well, I will show you!" de Irujo screeched. "Lancers! Lancers!
This man is a thief! Lancers!"
The face of a curious soldier
finally appeared at the observation slot of the gate. "What is going
on out there? What is all this ruckus?" he yelled. Slowly the gate
opened and two lancers stepped out.
"Señores, this man is a
pickpocket and a thief! I demand that you arrest him!" de Irujo
"But, señores, I have taken
nothing. I have nothing. How can I have taken anything from him?" the
peon asked, quickly becoming less drunk as the adrenaline, caused by the
approach of the soldiers, began coursing through his veins.
"Liar!" de Irujo yelled.
"Check his pockets, Private. You will see!"
The peon's mouth fell open as the
private reached over and searched him. There in his own ragged pocket was
a gold pocket watch, just such as a caballero like de Irujo would have
carried. "No! I do not understand! I did nothing!" he cried in
"Does this look like you have
done nothing, hombre?" the first lancer said as he all but picked the
man up by the arm as he pulled him toward the cuartel. "You are under
arrest. Will you please come in and sign complaint papers about this man,
"Sí, I am Federico Andres del
Gato and I will indeed!" de Irujo declared. They all turned to go
back to the gate and into the cuartel.
As they entered, the second lancer
noticed the note tacked to the gate. "Señor del Gato, did you put
De Irujo shook his head.
"Did you see anyone around the
gate?" the guard continued.
"No, there was no one in the
plaza when I came out for a walk. This drunk here just came out of the
tavern and walked into me as I crossed the plaza a few moments ago,"
de Irujo answered.
The soldier thoughtfully took the
letter off the gate and carried it in with him. "Private, put this
man in a cell. I think I need to take this directly to the Capitán. Con
permiso, Señor del Gato." With a slight bow to the caballero, the
lancer turned and went into an office where light still showed under the
quickly as possible without seeming to be in a hurry, de Irujo finished
signing papers accusing the peon of being a pickpocket. That done, he
hurried back to the inn, whistling to himself as he walked. Step two
done! he told himself. The first note was on its way.
Private Lujan snapped to attention
as he stepped up to Capitán del Guerro's desk. The sharply dressed and
polished officer looked up with a frown. "Sí, Private? What is
it?" he asked tiredly.
"Capitán, I found this on the
cuartel gate a few minutes ago," Lujan explained as he handed the
letter to his commanding officer.
Capitán del Guerro broke the seal
and quickly read the letter, the tiredness leaving his face as he did so.
"Private, go wake Sergeant Lomas and the other lancers. Have the
sergeant come to me in here," he ordered as he rose from his desk.
Sergeant Lomas, a short, stocky man
in his late twenties, found Capitán del Guerro leaning against the front
of his desk deep in thought. "Sí, Capitán!" he said, as he
saluted. "You sent for me?"
"Sí," del Guerro said
quietly. "Sergeant, I want you to draw up four groups of men to go to
the houses of the people whose names are in this letter. We have treason
being plotted here in our very own pueblo. Bring the men here and then I
want every inch of their casas searched. If what is in this letter is
true, we will find out that they were not alone in their evil. There will
be links to other areas and even to other colonies. That is IF this is
true. I think we will be able to tell in the next few hours if this
information can be trusted." He glanced again at the letter, before
handing it over to the sergeant. "Have the men ready to ride in
fifteen minutes, Sergeant Lomas."
"Sí, mi capitán!" Lomas
saluted again and hurried to do as he was ordered. Capitán del Guerro
required sharp discipline, whether in polished boots and neat uniforms or
immediate attention to orders. Lomas knew better than to hesitate.
An hour and a half later, Capitán
del Guerro himself stood with four lancers looking down at a man, bound
but still in his nightclothes.
"You have no right to do this!
I have done nothing, Capitán!" Julio Moraga protested.
"Oh? Well, this letter says
that you have, Señor Moraga!" the soldier informed him. "It
says that you have been the leader of a band of traitors for the past
fourteen months. I can give you each of your fellow conspirators' names,
señor, and tell you the part each of you were to play in inciting the
people to revolt. In addition to that, I know just where to look here for
papers that will link you to other groups, even as far away as West
Things grew quiet for a moment as a
lancer tried to open the lock. A woman could be heard crying from the
other room of the casa. Moraga looked toward the door in concern.
"What are you doing with my wife and children?"
"Nothing, señor," del
Guerro answered. "We merely wished to capture you. However, when you
are gone, Señor Moraga, they will have neither lands nor casa. You have
seen to that by your treachery. All this will be the property of the king
whose rule you spurned." Morega hung his head in sorrow then for he
knew that once the chest was opened, there would be no hope for him.
The lock had still not been opened.
Finally, the order was given for the lock to be broken off. A hammer was
found and the job finally done. Inside were nearly a dozen papers of
various sorts. The capitán quickly looked through it, noting names and
dates. Behind a ribbon in the top of the chest were bound two letters
bearing red seals. At first, the capitán merely glanced at the message in
these. However, it suddenly had all his attention when he realized that
the name at the bottom of the page was a feminine one and one that seemed
vaguely familiar for some reason. He would have to think further on it.
There were many questions he wanted
answers to here. Why was a woman involving herself in politics in the
first place? How deeply was she involved? And just who was she? He would
have to look for those answers in Los Ángeles, or at least, someone must.
noticed that there seemed to be some sort of a connection to people in
Santa Barbara. There was a new, young comandante there at a rather small
cuartel. Del Guerro thought for a moment. I can have things squared
away here within the next twenty-four hours. This calls for a visit to
Comandante Contreras. We must not allow a single person in this plot to
escape! This will require us to work together. The day after tomorrow, I
will go there to confer with him. That decided, he gave orders for the
prisoner to be taken to jail. Knowing it would be done as he ordered, he
walked out to the horses to wait for his men. It would be easier to plan
further if he were alone for a few minutes.
Since all of this had come to his
attention, del Guerro had remembered why the name on the letters was so
familiar. He had heard over a year ago of a man by that name who had
brought a son and daughter to this colony from West Florida. That in
itself would not have stuck in his memory, had not the man and the son
been killed within two days of coming there. He had heard nearly a year
later that they had been connected to royalty. He had always wondered what
would possess a man with power and influence in one place to come to
another, and for the only surviving heir to actually hide the royal
connections for almost a year. The oddness of the situation had made it
memorable. This surviving heir's name had now turned up on papers, which
tied her very clearly to treason. This was very serious, indeed.
Both men remembered what upheaval
had taken place in San Francisco more than a year ago, when another woman
had been found to be heavily involved with rebellion. When she had been
hung, the area had nearly come apart at the seams...open defiance of law
in the streets, bloodshed and anarchy. No one wanted to see anything like
that happen elsewhere. This woman, this Ania Cristina Valdéz, being high
born would make things even worse. This whole area of California could
rise up against them if it was not handled correctly.
"Capitán del Guerro, I think
it is time we make sure that Capitán Rodríguez of the cuartel de Los Ángeles
is made aware of this situation,” Contreras stated. “I have met the
man, and he seems bright and capable. This situation must be handled very
carefully and it may take all of us to do it."
Del Guerro shook his head, "I
cannot go further with you. The trial for the traitors in my jail is set
for the day after tomorrow. I must be back there for that. I was tempted
to just hang them. The evidence is clear enough. However, I learned long
ago that every man should have a fair trial." He looked closely at
Contreras, but was relieved to see that he had apparently not heard the
rumor of how he had learned this. Actually, a bandit, the one who called
himself Zorro had taught him this. Del Guerro had felt that he would never
live down the humiliation of being defeated by the outlaw. He was very
careful about the rights of all prisoners to have a fair trial now.
"Very well. I, too, will have
trials as soon as I can. I think the best thing for us to do is to get
this information to Rodríguez and suggest that he involve the comandante
of the prison at San Juan as well. Los Ángeles has only a small cuartel,
much like the one we have here. If there is to be civil unrest, Rodríguez
will need every lancer he can find. The prison is not yet open. Capitán
Cosío should be able to bring enough men to Los Ángeles to almost double
the men there. If I were in Rodríguez's position, it is what I would ask
him to do. Even if the woman is not in this thing deep enough to lose her
life over it, the people here will not agree to what must be done. Rodríguez
will be sitting on a powder keg." Contreras frowned again. "Why,
in the name of all that is holy, would a woman involve herself in
something like this?" Both men shook their heads.
The only person
who could answer that, seemingly, was this Ania Cristina Valdéz. For a
minute, Contreras figured in his head. Well, I guess it will not be
long before the answers can be gotten from her in court. Let us
see...three days from here to Los Ángeles...another day or so for Rodríguez
to get Capitán Cosío’s support into place. Hmmm, yes, by the
sixteenth, or the seventeenth of julio she will most likely have her
chance to answer these charges. It is to be hoped, for her sake and Alta
California's peace, that she can explain very well indeed. Perhaps if she
is not so deeply involved, merely her lands will be required of her. Even
this may set the people off. Unfortunately, if she is more deeply involved
than that... well... considerable more will be required of her.
Contreras shook his head again and turned to a nearby lancer to have a
horse prepared for him. However unpleasant, this must be done at once.