Lieutenant Sherman and La Doña of Monterey

1:    CONFIDENTIAL AGENTS

 

Two years out of law school and I was still sitting behind a desk in my Uncle Tony’s law firm, Rubio and Pratt in New York City, doing research and courier work, and I’d come to see that it was only a secretary’s job no matter how you looked at it, and probably would be for another year or so.  The once a month parties at his mansion didn’t make up for it.  I was bored, disillusioned and desperate for change.  Out of nowhere my old law professor at Columbia sent me a note suggesting I apply to the U.S. Secretary of State’s office for a job he’d just heard about.  Law degree required.  Travel to faraway Alta California, where the law was just beginning to make the rules.  This for me also meant that much of it would be without rules, for a while.  Something in me lit up.  I hadn’t any romance or sentimental family ties to hold me.  I applied.  There were lots of interviews, lots of very personal questions.  My family pulled strings and I got the job.  It was the middle of spring, 1846.  War against Mexico had just been declared.  

So it was I found myself on a six-month sail around Cape Horn on the U.S. Warren to Monterey, Alta California, territory of the Republic of Mexico.  The man in New York who hired me said that our government had just one representative in California, Mr. Thomas Oliver Larkin, who had been for several years the appointed Consul for Alta California.  All was very confidential, but I could at least be told that the sudden war with Mexico had complicated Mr. Larkin’s job considerably, and I was to assist him in whatever way he directed me.  I might later be called upon to help with some of the legal work which would suddenly become necessary, should California fall into the hands of the United States, as the State Department people certainly believed it soon would.

Only when I heard it from Mr. Larkin would I be told all the details of my job.  Those instructions were in fact part of a thick envelope given to me by the State Department.  The packet was triply sealed and I was ordered not to open it under any circumstances.  To carry it with me and give it to no one except Mr. Larkin.  I must guard that triple-sealed letter day and night for all the long, monotonous sail through the last of spring, through all of summer and well into fall rounding all of South America navigating Cape Horn.  I was advised it would be best if the packet were secured to my body during that long voyage, and the State Department suggested a wrap of surgical tape, which secured the packet to my chest like it was a body part.  I unwrapped it at night to sleep, but then I couldn’t sleep for worrying about it, and from then on I wore the wrap and the packet even when I slept.  

The Warren disembarked me at Monterey the fourteenth day of November, 1846.  I got off that ship at last, ready to report for duty, and ready finally to relieve myself of the burden of that miserable sealed packet.
 
Thomas Oliver Larkin greeted me upstairs in the foyer of his large two story adobe home in Monterey, neat and tailored like an east coast business man, which is pre-eminently who he was.   Immediately I felt I would be comfortable working with him.  His skin was darker than I’d imagined and his hair was receding, a definite European look to him.  A little under average height and slight build.  But don’t think fragile, not about Mr. Larkin.  He was Boston wily and tough.  He greeted me warmly and invited me to sit and offered me tea or coffee.

All I wanted was to get rid of that confidential document.  Before leaving the ship that morning I’d unwound the last wrap of the surgical tape and threw it away.  I’d clutched the packet in my hand while I walked from the ship to Consul Larkin’s house, and here at last, and before I had even accepted coffee or tea in his spare sitting room, I handed the document to its intended recipient.  And good riddance to the Top Secret.  

He surprised me by opening the packet there in front of me and reading it, even mumbling some of the words, as if it were meaningless gossip anyone might know.  From time to time, once or so per page, he would shake his head.  Twice he guffawed.  When he finished he looked at me and said, “Virtually the whole damn thing is obsolete.  You are already obsolete, Mr. Wells.”  I stood there, suddenly disconnected from all of it, utterly confused, with not a word to speak.

Consul Larkin went on.  “The war for California is over, Mr. Wells.  For all practical purposes.  It’s true there’s a sudden new resistance in the south, but that will be stopped quickly and our country, yours and mine, will have full control of California hereafter, forever.  Unfortunately your friend and mine, Mr. Buchanan at the State Department, doesn’t know the war here is over yet, and will not find out for another several months.”  He paused, then noticeably smiled, though not at me.    

He went on.  “Mr. Buchanan, no doubt by direction of our good President Polk, has been concerned about the state of Alta California and our American interests here.  No doubt that is why they have sent you, Mr. Wells, to help me in my work as consul, who am supposed to be the eyes and ears, the conscience and the helping hand of all Americans in this land that is ruled by the unfortunate Mexican government.  However, as I said, the war is over.  Mexico is in process of forfeiting her beloved California to the United States.  So California is no longer a foreign country, and therefore she is in no need of a consul to represent her to Mexico.  Do you get me, Mr. Wells?  I am no longer a consul.  The office has been closed and will not reopen.”

Ex-Consul Larkin turned away from me and went to his desk, poured me the cup of black coffee I’d requested and brought it to me.  He then returned to the desk and sipped from a cup of tea he’d left there.  Cupped it with both hands.  Seemed to enjoy it.  Set it back down and turned back to me.  He said, “Sit if you like, please.”  Only then did I notice the red upholstery and the fine wood carving of his sofa.  I shook my head no, mostly expecting him to continue talking, needing that talking suddenly very much.

I waited, still in silence, until he said, “No doubt you are speechless.  I might as well tell you that the end of the war for California and the closure of my office are consequences I have prayed for, and so that has made me very, very happy.  These same consequences, however, will be grim news to you no doubt.”  He laughed.  I was relieved he saw humor in there somewhere, while I, now very much in shock, saw no humor at all.
 
He went on.  “However, there is an apparent afterthought in this memo from Mr. Buchanan.  I am ordered to employ Mr. Sonny Wells in my own work as our government’s Confidential Agent….  Which I have been for a year or so now.  I am to employ you in anyway that seems to me useful and which does not require my own personal attention.  So you see, Mr. Wells, there may be a place here for you after all.  Helping me…keep an eye on things.”

This was already beyond anything I had prepared myself for and while I stumbled for words, he ignored me and kept talking.   “You are now one of only three people in California who know that I have this official capacity.  On the other hand I must also admit that I am suspected of being some kind of government spy by half of the Californios and by all of the Mexicans hereabouts.  So be it.  I am our country’s Confidential Agent.   In plain language, a government spy, just as most of these I spy upon suspect.  However, it is rather congenial spying, I should add.  I am to encourage friendship between the Californios and the Americans, and to persuade the Californios that their true and best allies are the Americans, not the Mexicans.  I am to help them see what good business there is when the Americans make the rules.  So I am more of a propagandist than a spy most of the time.  As a spy I merely watch closely everything that is of  interest to my country.  Which is most everything.  I know a lot of important and unimportant people who tell me many things.  Gossip’s as valuable as any of the information.  All that—who, what, where, when, why, how?”  He paused, made me another of his subtle smiles.  “I’m sure you must have had some very thorough examining in Washington to get the clearance for this job, assisting the government’s man in California, so to speak.”

I assured him that was so.  He continued confiding.  “However, our best spying days are over, I must also tell you, Mr. Wells.  The Mexican government has given it their all, and they have failed, as we all knew they would.  So now it will be our turn to see if we can do justice to the grand dons and their doñas, all these aristocratic families of Californios who own such huge tracts of land round about us and who possess such vast herds of cattle and horses.  Ah yes, how sad, because their traditions and their culture will now vanish from this land as surely as I’m standing here telling you about it.  Henceforth, the Californios will become our brothers, and I say we’re lucky to have them.  Though it is doubtful that they are so lucky to have us.”

He paused, and while he did, a question in my mind seemed to speak by itself.  “Who will there be to spy on then, sir?  That is, in the Confidential Agent business.”

He smiled again, but I knew that also was for his own satisfaction, not mine.  “I may need your help with a few secretarial duties around here.  This office is disordered.  You might help with some of my correspondence.  I have special problems there.  You’ll see soon enough that I have a chronic problem with my writing, which is half of my activity these days.  I am a terrible speller.  You’ll look over all my important letters and correct the spelling.  There will be a lot of it to correct.  It is hard to find anyone around here educated enough to know spelling.  I know, I put an ad in Mr. Semple’s paper The Californian just last month, when I had some immediate needs.  I advertised for a Secretary.  Only two people answered my advertisement, but neither of them could spell.”

Then he looked sharply at me, more confidentially. “But none of that office business will greatly occupy you.  Consequently, Mr. Wells, in due time, when General Kearny arrives and becomes our military Governor, I will be offering your personal services to him.  He will be here in a month or two, after he and Stockton and Fremont put down the uprising in Los Angeles.  Probably they won’t even need Fremont’s help.  

“When General Kearny then comes north to become Governor, he will have no proper accommodations, and I will of course invite him to live in a suite of rooms in my own house, which I don’t need now that my wife and child are away in Yerba Buena.  General Kearny will have an adjutant, and probably little more to help him.  Therefore, I will be generous and allow him to use you, Mr. Wells, in his office, to do whatever it is that he will be doing as governor.  No doubt your legal expertise will be valuable.  I’m sure he’ll find plenty of uses for you.  At least until we have new directives from our government which take into account the obsolescence of these current letters to me.  

“You will be the Governor’s aide; but you must always remember that foremost you are my aide.  As such, you will also keep your eyes and ears alert as they can be for any information that could in any way keep me abreast of what our military government is up to.  That information of course you would pass on to me, discretely of course, as spies do. ”

I was only slowly comprehending this.  I said, “You mean I’d be spying on our own government officials?  On generals?”

Confidential Agent Larkin frowned.  “You must not think of it that way.  I merely want to know what my government is planning for me, as a citizen, as her first citizen in California.  I have made great friendships for our country.  Those must be honored.  These Great Families will be essential allies to our country, and most of them already are.  I cannot be sure that any branch of my government feels responsible for that.  So it falls to me, as Confidential Agent, to take it upon myself to make sure these friendships with these Great Families are maintained, to our honor and to our profit.  Also, Mr. Wells, as Confidential Agent, I must very often do what I do without very clearcut directives from my superiors, who are thousands of miles away and sometimes six months from the latest communication.  It should not be thought that one US agency is spying on another US agency.  That would not be the way to look at it.  I am merely making sure I am as thoroughly informed as possible, making sure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.  We’ll speak no more of this, but I’m sure you get my meaning.”  He stared hard at me, the subtle smile again on his face.

I truly had no idea what all this was about, but I said, “I certainly do, sir.”
Confidential Agent Larkin went back to his table and his teacup and drank more of it, standing, apparently well satisfied, gazing out the window toward the pine trees on a nearby knoll.  After a moment he turned back to me and spoke more seriously.

“Nonetheless, Mr. Wells, for me personally, you arrive at a most fortunate time.  For me personally that is.  A family emergency has arisen.  My daughter Adeline is gravely ill and I must ride to Yerba Buena on the San Francisco Bay tomorrow.   My wife of course is already there with her.  You see, after the little uprising recently in Los Angeles, Monterey has become too dangerous a place for my family.   Soldiers and horses are all around here now, from both sides.  I moved my wife and child to Yerba Buena, and had planned for them to sail to Honolulu next week.  That is, until my daughter became so suddenly ill.  So the first thing you will do in my employ, Mr. Wells, is to accompany me north tomorrow.  I foresee there may be a need for a messenger at some point in this journey, and you will be that one.”

That next morning Larkin’s Indian cook fed me beef steak and eggs and fine coffee.  An hour later, with only a bedroll-sized knapsack tied on behind my saddle, we were on the trail.  Soon Mr. Larkin noticed that I was shifting my weight in the saddle a little more than necessary.  He finally said, “I can see you haven’t ridden horses in some time, Sonny.  So you’ll be glad to know that today we’ll only be traveling twenty miles or so and that we’ll have a good rest at the rancho of my friend Joachim Gomez near San Juan Bautista before we continue on to San Jose and Yerba Buena tomorrow.”

We were probably less than two miles away from Monterey and it had all been as beautiful as pine covered hillsides could be:  but already my butt was hurting, making me realize how little my occasional Sunday rides in Central Park had prepared me for this.  The long distances between places.   All the hours on horseback.  I didn’t like to imagine what my condition would be like after a hundred miles of this bounce in the saddle that was beginning to make me already very uncomfortable.  So I welcomed the conversation, hoping it would divert my attention.  Though I was thinking, my God, twenty more miles!  They’ll have to lift me off the saddle and carry me into the house.

Mr. Larkin continued talking.  “You’ve been at sea for six months so the world has pretty much gone on far ahead of you, Sonny.  When you left New York, Mexico was still in full possession of California, as you no doubt knew before you sailed.  Well, Sonny, times have certainly changed since then.  Our little Bear Flag fiasco started it all.  Last summer.  I should be ashamed to call them countrymen of mine, but most of them were, and they were ruffians.  They captured my very good friend Mariano Vallejo, the highest ranking Californio official in these parts.   He watches over the northern frontier.  Many hostile tribes live in those foothills and mountains, and he keeps a good peace there.  Mariano is not just a fine and honorable man, he is also the best friend our country has or could wish for.  So I call his kidnappers ruffians, for blundering in when they did not know that simple fact about that fine man.

“Anyway, they took Mariano to Sutter’s Fort and there our rude Major Fremont took command.  And in my opinion—though God help you if you’re heard to say a public word against the great John Charles Fremont around here—but in my opinion his conduct towards Vallejo was reprehensible.  Fremont knew the good will of Mariano, and the many generous things he’s done for our countrymen.  Mariano would have been the first to toast our country’s conquest of California.  And he would have done so, if Fremont had not, instead, kept him suffering in a locked room for months with disgraceful provisions.  It is God’s truth that Mariano had lost half his weight by the time they released him, and was a very ill man.  Fremont is a fool, he can’t see the whole thing, the bigger thing.  It’s his terrible flaw.  But I’m afraid that we will not soon be rid of the blundering, arrogant, lucky and always dangerous Major Fremont.  Though I do make business with the man, and I can’t complain on that end.  

“So you see you have arrived at a very dramatic moment, Sonny.  This instant Fremont’s men are within ten or twenty miles of Monterey, gathering horses.  They will be moving the herds south to help Stockton and Kearny battle Flores in Los Angeles.  Fremont has with him perhaps four hundred men for the march.  

“His infamous California Battalion are a ragtag bunch, including most of the same ones that captured Mariano.  Fremont has recruited a few hundred more, lots of newcomers just come in over the Rockies.  They’re all patriotic now.  Fremont has half a dozen mountain trappers with him, one the equal of six braves, if you believe the Indians.  Fremont’s lead scout and right hand is the famous and infamous Kit Carson.  And of course, as always, Fremont rides with his nine Delaware Indians, who are his loyal and personal bodyguard, and who have been with him several years.  Those Delawares are a ferocious group.”

A very dramatic moment indeed.  My scalp tingled listening to all of it.  I’d read about those mountain men, read the first of Fremont’s expeditions, knew about his very capable wife Jessie.  In my mind I looked back and shuddered at all the months I’d spent in New York, caught in that endless round of inconsequential routine.  As I listened to Confidential Agent Thomas Larkin give me my current California briefing, I was an enthralled, utterly fascinated listener, and the ride to Señor Gomez’ rancho passed by much quicker than I’d anticipated. By the time I did finally climb out of the saddle, though it was well after dark, I could do it by myself:  though my backside felt petrified into a block of aching, wracked muscle and tormented bone.

I groaned walking toward the hacienda, and it was slow going.  My attention was irresistibly drawn to the red, rounded clay tiles so picturesquely arranged to cover the roof.  The walls I was sure must be adobe, though also whitewashed, looking clean and solid.  There were corrals nearby.  What I guessed must be a large outdoor cooking pit.  Oak and pine trees were everywhere around the hacienda.  A picture of comfort and leisure.  

Señor Joachim Gomez stood already on the verandah at the entrance, doors wide open. Three dark-skinned Indians in plain cotton shirts and pants stood next to him, all of them smiling to greet us.  

As we approached, Mister Larkin confidentially said to me, “I should tell you that Joachim Gomez, this gentleman I’m about to introduce you to, is head of one of the families who own most of the land in the coastal valleys of California, some of them estates of one hundred thousand acres and more.  And as many cattle and horses.  My estimate is that there are forty or fifty of these very prominent and influential families.  They control the politics here in California, as well as the wealth.  Though that vast wealth is not in bank deposits, of which they have virtually none, but in land and livestock.  You’ll hear these names constantly while you live here—Bandini, Carrillo, Pico, Alvarado, Castro, Osio, Noreiga, de la Guerra, Jimeno and of course Vallejo.  Some of these families are old world Spanish.  The others are of Mexican origin, though they do not truly think of themselves as Mexicans anymore, but only as Californios.”

Mr. Larkin introduced Joachim Gomez, a portly, smiling man with a small moustache, who made his friend Mr. Larkin the warm Mexican hug among men I’d already seen a few times, the abrazo they called it.  Señor Gomez then embraced me the same way, with noticeably less gusto.

We all walked together inside the open doors and into a large entry, followed by the Indians servants, who spoke nothing.  Señor Gomez and Mr. Larkin talked enthusiastically in Spanish, almost none of which I could understand.  That deflated me considerably, since I had practiced daily an hour or two for six months on board the ship with my Spanish vocabulary and grammar book and thought I had prepared myself fairly well.  When we came to the dining room, our host offered us chairs and sent his servants away, I assumed for food and drink.  As I sat at the long wooden table I felt the aches of the riding again and was thinking I would rather be offered a bed to lie in than a meal, hungry as I was.  

The Indians brought two plates of sliced beef in a stew with vegetables in it.  There was already a large decanter of red wine on the table which our host poured out into three glasses.  My first taste of the beef burned my mouth with its intense pepper taste and I barely kept from howling.  Both Larkin and Gomez laughed, probably had expected just that greenhorn reaction.  Stunned, I gulped down nearly the entire glass of wine.  That was another surprise, but this one very pleasant; since, I swear, I had never in my life tasted a red wine so luscious, even at the tables of my uncle Tony’s lawyer friends, who all drank the best imported French.  

I let Mr. Larkin and Señor Gomez laugh about my reaction to the chile colorado, as they called it.  But I complimented them on the wine.  Larkin smiled, responded to my English with English of his own.  “Quite so, Sonny.  And should you have the good fortune to dine with my friend Mariano Vallejo sometime with me in Sonoma, you will drink a vintage that even Señor Gomez here believes is the finest in the world.  Mariano grows a grape he calls Zinfandel in the Valley of the Moon, and no one hereabout has ever tasted anything so fine.”

Their conversation went on without me following it much, since I was feeling again the sudden, severe ache in my backside and legs and I started thinking of a polite way to excuse myself and be shown to my bed.  Eighty miles more tomorrow in the saddle.  God help me.

Observant Mr. Larkin asked if I’d like to go lie down and rest.  Yes I would.  A little tipsied by the wine, I followed two middle-aged male Indios down a long corridor and into a large room where two large beds in large wooden frames rested against opposite walls, right and left of the doorway.

I sat down on the edge of the nearest bed, let my butt ease into the cushioning—ah, that, felt, good.  I rolled onto my back and let my head sink back into a down pillow.  It was the last thing I remember.

Until in the middle of the night I heard yelling at the other end of the corridor.  I jerked awake:  all the lights in the room were out, only a little moonlight making a few things faintly visible in the darkness.  I saw Mr. Larkin sleeping in this bed, ten feet away from me.  Until the yelling then woke him up also:  he sat up stiffly and cocked his ear in that direction.  The yelling came closer and we heard heavy steps in the hall, many heavy steps, big boots on the wooden floor.  

The door burst open!  Señor Joachim Gomez stood foremost, but behind him a short uniformed soldier holding a rifle and a dozen other men crowding into the doorway, all of them with rifles or pistols, peering into the darkness.  One held a flaming torch that grandly illuminated the scene.
 
Señor Gomez seemed frantic to speak ahead of the uniformed soldier.  The host waved his arms for attention and called out, “Señor Larkin, forgive me.  I had no knowledge of this invasion of my home.  Please believe me!  I have protested in the strongest way I can that this disgraceful attack by my old friend Jose Chavez and his soldiers is a barbarous violation of my hospitality to you, Señor, who are always an honored guest and admired and respected friend of our community.  Believe me, Señor Larkin, I did not do this!”

Lieutenant Jose Chavez, hardly more than five feet tall and the shortest man in the room, pushed his friend Joachim Gomez aside and spoke to him rudely, “Shame on you, Joachim.  You are already americano.  There is no hope for you.  Have you no love for your mother country?”

Indignantly, he took from his comrade the flaming torch, and walked into the room with it, illuminating Mr. Larkin, still sitting up in his bed in his nightshirt and holding the ends of the blankets in his hands in his lap.  It also illuminated me just as crudely, who was also sitting in my bed; but I was already outside the blankets, in my winter longjohns, reaching for my pants on the chair beside me.  

Lieutenant Chavez ignored me.  He went straight to Mr. Larkin and stood before him at attention, rifle in one fist, torch in the other.  To the soldier beside him he handed back the torch and then looked at the U.S. Consul to Mexico, now under siege.
 
But before Lieutenant Chavez spoke he suddenly smiled and removed his military hat and bowed slightly to Mr. Larkin; then stood at renewed attention and said courteously, “We have been friends many years, Señor Larkin, and you know how much I respect you.  But I have come to arrest you, Señor Larkin, in the name of my beloved country Mexico, and to take you with me this instant as a prisoner of war.”

Thomas Oliver Larkin was by now buttoning on his own pants, and he was lifting his suspenders over his shoulders when he said, as if to no one in particular.  “I expected this.  You’re riding with Captain Manuel, aren’t you, Jose?  I heard that.  Manuel would not take the initiative and do this himself, so that is why he sent you—eh?”

Chavez smiled wryly, continuing in English, “Captain Manuel was against me taking you.  He wants only to capture Fremont’s horses.  Maybe three hundred are in the corrals at Rancho Natividad.  Fremont and his soldiers are ready to herd all the horses south, to make war on our brave General Flores.  We are his brothers up north, so we make raids, and go after Fremont’s horses.  There are two hundred of us.  We want to cause Fremont’s soldiers trouble.  We must fight them like the Indians that are in our blood.  When we can.  Choose our moment to strike.  Slowing them down.  Making all their three hundred miles to Los Angeles difficult.  General Torre has already moved all his men south and will be in Los Angeles before Fremont.  So Captain Manuel believes I am wasting our time by capturing you, but obviously I don’t believe that.  And so I make you my prisoner.  I will give you five minutes to make yourselves ready.  Then we ride.”

Lieutenant Chavez turned away as if that were all; but then hesitated and turned back to Larkin with the slightest smile.  “I apologize for the inconvenience to yourself, my good senor.  You know that I am not like most of the Californios you know, who want the United States to take control in California and make a great prosperity.  No doubt that will happen.  But, as you know, my heart and life will always be with the mother country Mexico, I will never betray her.  I will always fight for her.  Still, Señor Larkin, know that I remain your friend and will personally see to your safety and comfort at all times.  You will have the first bed and the first food.  But you will also be our prisoner and be always under guard.”  Lieutenant  Chavez then turned to me and studied me severely.  “And who is this?”

Mr. Larkin looked at me and then flipped his head away, as if rejecting me.  He said to Chavez, “He’s no one.  He’s of no importance.  I hired him only two days ago.  He’s a secretary, he writes letters for me.  He knows nothing and has no value.  You should let him go.”

Lieutenant Chavez laughed with great energy.  “Of course not!  What a ridiculous thing to say.  He goes with us.  Manuel and his men are only a few hours’ ride from here.  Without doubt we will find them at the eucalyptus grove nearest Natividad.  Then we’ll all go stampede Fremont’s horses.”

Of course it was a stunning sequence of events.  My heart must have been going double speed, it seemed like, and my stomach was jumping with apprehension.  Things were moving so fast I knew I’d better focus whatever was left of my riled up consciousness on the next events of the moment, because I was in danger of all this getting away from me into a very sudden freefall.  I listened well.  Eyes: wide, wide, open.

It was still the middle of night of course.  A young Mexican in no uniform and a pistol from home led me outside to the horse I’d ridden the day before from Monterey.  I mounted.  Larkin mounted his own horse.  Twelve soldiers were soon mounted up and ready to ride.  Lieutenant Chavez alone stood beside his fine gray stallion till everyone was on his horse; the lieutenant then sprang into the stirrup and into the saddle and sat tall as he grabbed the reins.  “Andale!” he called out, letting the horse feel the bite of his spurs, and all of them yelled it back at him, “Andale!” and we all rode away into the night.  

It was painful, painful riding.  My ass and legs ached worse than ever.  But the excitement and danger of it was overcoming all those feelings and complaints.  We rode faster than I’d ever ridden in my life, and we rode through the rest of the night.  I was wedged in between two soldiers riding alongside me, both pushing in on me with their horses so hard as we rode that I couldn’t have gone in any other direction than the one they were guiding me.
 
So we rode all night and then well into the morning and when it began to seem like we would be riding forever, suddenly we stopped.  They said we were near the grove of Natividad.  Captain Manuel and his hundred soldiers were not there yet, but must be only minutes away.  The unexpected was that the grove was filled with thirty or forty Americans, no doubt part of Fremont’s group.  They still did not know the Californios were so near them.   Lieutenant Chavez ordered a halt so that Captain Manuel could join him with his hundred men, so that the far superior Mexican force might surround the americanos in the grove of trees.  Then, as Lieutenant Chavez said, they would be able to shoot them like the ducks in the barrel joke.

The twelve or so of our party had scattered to make up part of the encirclement.  Larkin, Chavez and I remained together.  Near us, our three horses were tethered by their bridles to a tree no taller than the horses.  Lieutenant Chavez was very active getting the horses to lie down to make them smaller targets.  He settled the three of us behind my own prostrate, hobbled horse for protection.  Chavez said to us, “When the firing starts, keep your heads always near the ground.  Don’t stick your head up to see what is happening.  Not for any reason.”

Suddenly Larkin spoke to Chavez, a salesman’s charm in his voice.  “Jose, you are not making the full value of my capture.  You and Manuel want to take me to Los Angeles.  What would be the value in that?  And what would you be losing?  Ah…perhaps very much.  Listen to me, Jose Chavez, listen well.  You know that Pablo de la Guerra has been locked up because he broke his parole with our government.  We can keep him locked up until there is a peace treaty signed, if we want to.  And longer than that if we want to.  I also know what an important and valuable man and moving spirit Pablo is with the Californios.  So think of it, Señor Chavez, think of it—make a prisoner exchange that will benefit both sides—trade me for Pablo de la Guerra.”

Chavez not only did not smile slightly in sympathy with the idea of this exchange, but he sneered.  “How like you americanos, to offer very little to gain something very large.  You think we do not understand value in the way that you do, and so you can cheat us in our bargaining.  Not me, señor, and not Manuel.  We would not trade you for a hundred Californios, no matter who they were.”

But then, with a bit of melancholy coming into his voice, he said, “I will tell you this, my good friend, that I see what they call the writing on the wall.  All of us see that.  We know the americanos will take and keep all of California, and make their laws here and their governments and businesses, and yes, there will be prosperity and good business.  But I just cannot turn away from my mother country Mexico.  There is all my family, many of them still.  And the old ways.  That is what I love.  Mariachis.  The Novenas.  The plaza Sundays evening.  There is too much dust on my heart to leave her.”

Mr. Larkin listened attentively.  “You could be a good person to have in the new government here in California, Jose.  Many new officials will be Californios.  Your people will be well represented.  Your community will need the strong passion of your commitment to it.”

That seemed to make Lieutenant Chavez reflective; there was a brief silence.  Finally he said, “No, this decision is in my blood.  In fact, I will sell my rancho when I leave, so I will not be tempted to return.”

“You’ll see Gavilan land grant?  It’s forty thousand acres, isn’t it?”
“Fifty,” he said.  “I’ll offer you first chance, before I tell anyone else I’m selling.”
“Rancho Pleyto too?  What’s that?—twenty thousand acres?”
“Yes, mas o menos.  Would you like them both?”
“Of course.  Though I hope you would not charge me more than three thousand for both.”
Chavez said, “When the americanos take over, the first day, the Gavilan will easily be worth four by itself.”
Agreeable, Larkin said, “Perhaps.  We’ll talk about it after this new little war is over.”
“Ojala.”
Then everything got hushed around the circle and I noticed that there seemed to be opposing fighters hiding at the edge of the grove, pointing rifles our way.

I yelled when I heard the first bullet go whizzing overhead.   Nobody heard me because from then on soldiers were yelling and shooting in all direction.  I lay my head to the ground next to the horse’s belly and felt more helpless than ever in my life.  

Close to being terrified, I kept my eyes closed and gave in to the only reassuring sensation available, which was the continual tightening and relaxation of the horse’s breathing.  And his warmth.  Though every time there was a shot, I could feel the horse’s belly tremble with anxiety.  

Then it seemed like a lot of that shooting stopped.  I noticed that Lieutenant Chavez had only fired a few shots with his rifle.  I said, “Why don’t you shoot?”

“It is very hard to see the Americans in the trees.  We have them surrounded, but now I see how hard it will be to get at them.  Without getting ourselves shot to pieces.  And we do not have very many bullets.  We have to take only very good shots.  But even if we only keep these men from rejoining the rest of Fremont’s soldiers at the rancho, even if just for a while, we will have accomplished something.  

“Sometimes, sadly, it is only the symbolic victory that is left for us.  It is something in our culture that seems to curse us this way.  No doubt you heard of our battle with Captain Fremont last summer, when he took some of his men to the top of Gavilan Peak and put up his US flag, making a great insult to my country.  The scoundrel.  But I also tell you that this mountain peak is on my own rancho, which I spoke of moments ago to Señor Larkin, which I will sell, because now it has bad memories for me.  When Fremont put his flag on my mountain, it was not only the insult to my country’s dignity, but the insult to myself personally, because that is my land and my mountain.   I have papers from my government.

“At Gavilan Peak General Castro knew my outrage and allowed me to go first with the flag of truce to confront Fremont and his Kit Carson and his Delaware Indians, to express my country’s demands for their immediate evacuation.  We were three hundred to their thirty.  Of course they insulted me.  And of course I spoke back in anger.  I taunted them.  One of the Delawares swore than he would have my scalp by winter.  Hah!   But it is they who retreated, not the army of the mother country, not General Castro, nor Lieutenant Chavez.  It is Fremont’s men who went away, all the way up to Oregon.  Even if they did return a few weeks later to bother us again.  No, of course that is not a victory on the battlefield.  Those are rare with my poor country.  But at least it was a symbolic victory.  It was something.  A little something for the pride.”

The gun shots continued sporadically.  Word soon came round to Chavez that one Mexican soldier had been killed not far from us.  Another killed much further around the perimeter.  Someone said they were bringing the second body to lie with the first, so they could bury them both after the fighting.  

I heard a loud cry from a horse nearby, and then the animal shrieked, convulsed and died.  It had to be one of our three horses.  Instantly the other of our horses, not hobbled, began struggling fiercely to stand, and nothing we could do could prevent him.  Standing, he bolted away from us and I was surprised that bullets didn’t get him.  My own horse still breathed, but now it was more excited than before and shook all over from fright.  I hoped we could keep him on the ground.

A young Californio soldier came running in a stoop toward us and settled into a low profile against my horse and began talking intensely to Chavez, though I couldn’t understand any of it.  As quickly as he’d come, he moved away, stooped and running and gone from sight.  

Chavez leaned to me.  “We are all retreating.  We have no more bullets.   The Americans have none either.  They are getting away to join Fremont and the horses.  We must get there before them.  You and Larkin will go with us, two more horses are coming round.  Ojala.  There is nothing more that can be done here.  We must go for the horses at the rancho.”
Lieutenant Jose Chavez stood up behind my still prostrate horse and he helped Mr. Larkin to rise.  In the next instant I heard a loud shot and then a cry from Chavez and a scream from Mr. Larkin.  Both of them fell again to the ground beside my horse’s belly.  I quickly saw that Mr. Larkin’s scream was only from surprise at such a close call.  Chavez groaned on the ground and held his right thigh in both hands, writhing side to side slowly, blood coming out between his fingers.
 
Mr. Larkin and I both kneeled beside him and looked closer at the wound.  The bullet had struck him in the meaty part of the thigh, and probably had missed the bone.  Larkin was way ahead of me though.  He pulled a red scarf from around Chavez neck and quickly tied a tourniquet just above Chavez wound.  “That will help.  But you can’t ride by yourself, can you?”

I knew Chavez was shaking his head for pain, but it was also for the answer to that, no, he couldn’t hold the reins, could only sit and hold on.  A moment later tall and confident Captain Manuel was there, also kneeling, seeing the situation quickly.  He said, “You must get to a safe house as soon as possible, Chavez.  You must have a doctor.  I will take the others and we will ride as fast as we can to Los Angeles.  Señor Larkin I take with me.  I will guard him every moment of the way.  I wish you could ride with us, Jose.  You’re the only man I have complete confidence in.  I will miss you, amigo.”  Then Manuel gestured with his head toward me and said, “You keep this other one to help you.  Ride behind the gringo, hold a gun on him.  Then perhaps you may ransom him.  Do with him whatever you like.  Shoot him if you like, when you are safe.  I must leave you, my brave Lieutenant Chavez.  And you were right about capturing Larkin.  If all this ends badly for us, as it always seems to do, we can exchange Mr. Larkin for our clemency.  You will make a good word for us with the americanos, will you not, Senor Larkin?”

The U.S. Consul said, “Yes, of course I will.  But I would speak more for you, Manuel, if you traded me now for Pablo de la Guerra.”

“No, no,” said Manuel, by his smile letting us know that he would not so cheaply be purchased, anymore than his lieutenant.  “That would be too soon.  Our pathetic climax will come in Los Angeles, if it does come, and that is when I will need my ace.”

Manuel rose and vaulted effortlessly onto his horse and he rode quickly away.  His four soldiers directed Mr. Larkin to mount the horse they’d brought for him.  Before he did so, he leaned down to me and said, most confidentially, “When you are free, go to Doña Angustias de la Guerra, in Monterey.  Everyone knows her rancho.  Go tell her I offer myself in exchange for her brother Pablo.  And tell her to help Jose Chavez—the soldiers will come looking for him.  He does not deserve to die.”  Then he climbed onto the new horse provided for him and the four soldiers rode away with Larkin riding securely in the middle of them.

Suddenly the field of battle seemed empty, except for me and Chavez and my horse and the two dead bodies that I imagined were still somewhere over there where they had laid them.  Only at that moment did I realize that my horse, that had been our hiding, was not breathing anymore.  I looked and saw the wound in his neck and the pool of blood accumulating beside him.  I said, “Are there any Americans still in the grove of trees?”

Chavez was looking over the dead horse toward the grove.  “No.  Everyone is hurrying to the rancho for the horses.  You and I will wait a few more minutes until we are sure everyone is gone, because we will be most defenseless I assure you as we escape here.”

I supposed we were only a moment away from mounting up when we heard a scream that made my blood freeze and my heart stop.  Chavez stifled his own scream, but even so, extreme terror showed on his face.  I looked out across my horse’s body.  Two dark figures were running fast away from the trees and they both screamed again as they ran. I could see black straight hair about their faces, fringe leather on arms and leggings, a big knife in the hand of one of them.  Screaming again, they stopped only thirty paces from where Chavez and I hid behind my dead horse, and went down on their knees there.  

“Ayiiiyii,” cried out Chavez as quietly as he dared.  “It is the Delawares!  I have heard them screaming before, on the Gavilan Peak.  That is their scalping cry.  They screamed it after me on that afternoon when I went to their camp to make the ultimatum.  Those same Delawares!  They will easily recognize me.  Ayiiyee!”

I raised up again and I could see the Indians now more clearly than before.  The Indians were crouched and I saw one of them grab the hair of one lifeless Mexican soldier and jerk it upward; then he made three slashing cuts into the man’s skull and then ripped the scalp from the head with a sucking sound I heard from where I watched.  Just as quickly, the other Delaware slashed skillfully round the scalp of the other dead soldier and jerked that hank of hair free all in a few seconds, a hideous sound.  Both Indians held their scalps high in the air, where I could have thrown a stone and hit them.  They screamed a long, most blood chilling cry into the chilly afternoon.  

By then, though he had not once looked to see, Chavez no doubt had imagined everything I had witnessed.  No doubt he had heard their scalping knives at work.  He was weeping quietly, though his lips moved in what had to be prayer.  I myself still watched because I hadn’t dared to move.  The Delawares stood up and looked around, looked also in our direction, saw only the dead horse hiding us, thank God, and not me peering from behind it.  Then they ran off for the grove fifty yards away and disappeared into it, holding their scalps high.  

Terrified, we both stayed concealed beside my horse for fifteen or more minutes, till we were both sure the danger had passed and we were free to escape.  As I realized suddenly that we  had no horse to ride away on, I saw a saddled horse come ambling out of the grove of trees, its bridle dragging in the dirt, and it came directly toward us.  It stopped and sniffed the dead horse.  Chavez rose up suddenly, startling the living horse, but still grabbed the reins and held them tightly.  I was ecstatic.  Chavez gave the reins to me and the horse didn’t try to move away.

I helped Chavez stand on one foot and I helped him on behind the saddle.  Then I swung up on the stirrup and settled into the saddle.  I had ridden two on a horse like this in the park, with a pretty lady sidesaddle, but nothing like this:  a grown man, leaning heavily against me, perhaps ready to faint, to fall, riding into the late afternoon, heading for somewhere that maybe he could guide us to and maybe he couldn’t.

He was silent for the first half mile and I thought maybe he’d passed out.  But suddenly he became agitated, animated, and he yelled at me, “Where did you learn to ride, amigo?  You run this horse like you are an old lady.  Stop, stop!  Right now!  I’m taking over, you sit behind.  You will have me dead before we ever reach our guardian angel, the divine Señora and Doña Maria Angustias Jimeno de la Guerra.”

How fortunate for me I thought:  Chavez and I seemed to be brothers here tonight, tied to the same sister of mercy.  How fortunate.  We halted and I climbed off.  He struggled to move himself up from behind and into the saddle, his head falling forward onto the horse’s mane.  I did as he asked, climbed back up behind the saddle and held my arms around his waist.  From there on Lieutenant Chavez held the reins and rode the saddle, wobbly, weak and nearly unconscious.  Nonetheless, now we rode ahead smoothly, without bouncing and bumping.  I hung on tightly to him, but it seemed like hanging on to a rag doll flopping haphazardly in the saddle.  I could feel the blood soaking into my own pants from his.

Remembering my message from Larkin, I asked my compadre, “Is Pablo de la Guerra her husband?”

He was weak responding.  “No.  Her brother.  The americanos made him prisoner in Monterey jail some weeks ago when the fighting started in Los Angeles.”

“And whom you would not exchange for Senor Larkin.”
“That is right.  Señor Larkin is the golden goose.”

By the time we got to La Doña’s rancho the dark night had completely settled in everywhere around us.  I climbed off the horse and knocked at the front gate.  Quickly, the gate swung open and I said to the Indian there, “La Doña?”
Without answering, he led me inside and down the walk to the verandah and the front door.  Once inside the well-lit entry hall, I saw her hurrying down the hall pulling a shawl around her shoulders.  “Que pasa?  Que pasa,” she called to us.

Her Indian said, “Un americano viene, senora.  Un americano.”
I lifted one hand to indicate I was americano.  She was quite beautiful, even in the half-light of that hallway.  The black sleek hair loose down her back, but the lighter, even white skin, light as any American.  And the dark, quick eyes, darting from one of us to the other so anxiously.  When she stood in front of me and spoke, she surprised me with her perfect English, “Is it my brother?  Have they done something to him?”

I said, “No, it’s not your brother, nothing like that.  I work for Mr. Larkin.  He was captured last night by the Mexican army and they have taken him hostage to Los Angeles.  I have come away with Lieutenant Jose Chavez.  He has been injured in a battle, late afternoon it happened.  Lieutenant Chavez is begging that you may allow him to hide at your rancho.  The americanos are searching everywhere for him.  He believes they will kill him for what he’s done to Larkin.”

She looked puzzled.  “You have taken Chavez prisoner?”
I smiled.  What a war!  “No, Señora, he has taken me prisoner.  But he is in great danger and I am trying to help him.”

It seemed she needed very little time to assimilate all this.  While she paused she spoke a few words to my own Indian and he replied to her rapidly and then kept quiet and watchful of us.
La Doña looked back at me and said, “This taking Mr. Larkin hostage I knew would happen.  So.  The war is back in our faces and we must take part, whether we would or no.  So.  Senor Jose Chavez wants me to hide him?  He makes it sound so simple.”

“Pardon me, Señora,” I said brazenly, feeling my American oats I suppose.  “But I would think that would be easy, fighting for your own country against its enemies.”

La Doña stared so hard at me that I began to feel uneasy.  She said, “What is your name, Senor?”

Sounding deferential and not liking it, I said, “Sonny Wells, Madame.  Recently come from New York.  Newest employee of Consul Thomas O. Larkin.  At your service.”

A budding smile drew a corner of her mouth out of its severity.  Her tone lightened.  She said, “Pues, that is a little better.  Odd how the young Americans have the fine university educations, but they all seem to lack the famial graces.  Fortunately, they are good learners.  So.  The war is back in our faces.  And it is your opinion that our paths should be easy.  But my enemy, as you put it, is also my good friend.  None of us want this war.  We all know the outcome already.  Yet it can happen peacefully or it can happen making war and killing and wounding.  The old way.  The usual way.  And that is the way Captain Fremont chooses as well.  Mr. Larkin, your fine employer, is a different sort of man though.  He knows the change of government can happen without the fighting and killing.  He would do it through diplomacy and good business profits for all concerned.  It is a new way to solve war problems, making diplomacy and good business profits for all concerned.  Even my belligerent brother Pablo is slowly seeing that truth.”  Then she laughed lightly.  “And look at you, Mr. Wells, American patriot, helping an officer of the enemy escape the soldiers of your own army.”  She laughed more loudly.  I couldn’t come up with a thing to say.

But as her laughter ceased, I recalled Larkin’s message.  I repeated it.  “I was with Mr. Larkin just a few hours ago, before they took him away, and he told me to go to you, so this is a very fortunate coincidence for me, Señora, to find you here on Chavez’ business.  I am to tell you that Larkin has offered to the Mexican officers a prisoner exchange, of himself for your brother Pablo.  Unfortunately, the officers turned him down, said Larkin was worth a hundred Californios.”

La Doña smirked.  She said, “I will not let my family pride swear down vengeance on that officer for making that insult to my family and to my countrymen.  I will let that pass, as many things must be passed over in times of war.  Yes, my enemies are also my friends, so I must be cautious.  I do not want to unduly offend friendly enemies or be irresponsible to my mother country’s honor.
 
I said, “Mr. Larkin also asked that you would help save Chavez.”
She laughed, more beautiful than ever.  “Of course he did.  And so I shall.”
One of her Indians helped support Chavez on his right and La Doña herself took his left arm around her shoulders as they walked inside the hacienda slowly.  I followed awkwardly behind.
 
At the far end of a corridor we all entered what was obviously a bedroom, big as any normal living room, with two sumptuous beds at either side of the room, two full sofas side by side against a far wall, and a round oak table with claw feet, surrounded by four tall-backed carved oak chairs that had to have come from Europe, though I could hardly believe that possible.  On the far bed a dark blanket had already been spread over all of it.  To this they led Chavez and he sat there and then lay back with a groan, it seemed of relief.
    
Immediately two more Indians came into the room, one likely a grandfather, who limped, one foot scuffling to keep up with the other.  The old one went to Chavez, acknowledged him by name, and spoke briefly, pointing to the leg.  Chavez leaned forward to greet the old Indian, nodded affirmatively, communicating pain as well, and then fell back and waved his hand, that the healer might do his work as he wished.

While the Indio they called Macedonio cut away the bloody pant leg and exposed the wound, I was across the room, the better to avoid the gore.  I turned gratefully to greet La Doña as she walked from the doorway across the room to me.  She stood beside me, watching the Indio with Chavez, but meanwhile she talked.

“First, on behalf of my brother, I thank you for bringing your message from Senor Larkin.  I can’t believe that anything will come of that.  He knows what Señor Larkin’s value is.  But my brother also believes we should all do what we can in support of our mother country Mexico.  We will defend her honor.  I know he would wish me to protect Lieutenant Chavez with all the resource of our family.  My husband at this moment is several days ride away from here.  I am here alone at the rancho with my two daughters.  Captain Silva and his wife Mariana are also staying here.  These are all I have to count on.  And what about you, Mr. Wells?  Can I count on you?  Or do you count yourselves with your countrymen?”

I had an extreme sizzle go up my spine and crawl across my cranium when she said that.  I wasn’t sure any of this was about loyalty and treason and honor and all the rest of it.  And if it was, I wasn’t sure right that minute what any of those big words meant.  And this regal Spanish lady who was so capable of making me uncomfortable, and so suddenly too.  I liked her immensely, couldn’t have stopped myself.  I was enthusiastically all for her, and for whatever she was for.  It was my old standby, politics of the moment.  I said, “I’m here to help you, Senora, in whatever way you need me.  I am here to help Lieutenant Chavez get out of this too.”

She smiled very brightly then.  “I was right then, wasn’t I?  You young Americans are quick learners.  Well, it’s fortunate.  It may save some of you from disgrace.  But enough of that.  I have far too much to accomplish right now.  The American soldiers will be here very soon, I am sure.  My servant will show you a room at the far end of the corridor.  That will be yours for now, for tonight.  You will be my cousin, visiting from Spain.  He has no English, nor will you.”

She walked away from me and out the door and away.  I watched the Indio Macedonio hover over Chavez, his back to me and thankfully hiding the blood and the cleaning up.  I watched him apply hot cloths and ointments and then dry cloths for bandages and very quickly he was binding up the leg and settling him back in the middle of the bed.

Suddenly La Doña Angustias hurried back into the room.  She spoke as hurriedly, “Quick, the soldiers are at the gates.  Take the lieutenant’s jacket and hat away, put them in the baby’s laundry, and wipe up that blood on the bed post.  Be quick!”  Then she turned and called out toward the doorway, “Mariana, ven!”

Immediately a middle-aged, slender woman, fully dressed, hurried in and seemed already to know the plan:  she went to the bed and set one foot on a footstool there and stepped onto the bed and across the body of Chavez, who in his own half-conscious misery didn’t seem to notice her.  Mariana sat down beside Chavez and then slid herself under the bountiful bedspread.  La Doña Angustias in all her elegance lifted the corner of the counterpane beside her and as deftly slid herself under the bedspread, leaving her shoes on the floor.  Before further settling herself, she set a hand on Chavez’ head and one on his shoulder and pushed him vigorously toward the foot of the bed:  quickly his head disappeared beneath the spread.  As if they’d rehearsed it, La Doña and Mariana fluffed the bedspread and moved each other closer to the other, until it definitely made the appearance of two well-fluffed up ladies in one big fluffy bed:  with no escaped fugitive of war anywhere in sight.  La Doña called out to another servant:  “Ahorita, Bianca.  Mi bebe.”

Instantly through the doorway came a tiny Indian woman carrying a bundled child, size of maybe one year old.  La Doña took the baby in her arms and settled back comfortably.  “Ah, mi Carolina, queridisima.”  La Doña allowed the small baby to rest beside her own head in the place where Chavez’ head would be, could he be allowed his pillow.  Mamma and baby and nanny, such a pretty picture.
 
And just in time; since we could all suddenly hear horses and men outside, probably lots of them.  Another Indian servant came into the bedroom and spoke quickly, urgently to La Doña.  She spoke back and the servant left the room.  To me she said, “Remain in that chair, Senor Wells.  Speak only if spoken to, s’il vous plait, and if you must, only in your best Castilian Spanish.”

The same Indian who’d departed came in again, followed by three men with rifles and pistols in their hands, none of them in uniform.  The foremost of them stopped a few feet inside the doorway and surveyed the room.  Perhaps he relaxed a little.  He took off his dirty hat and spoke to La Doña in English.  “Good evening, Señora.  I am sorry to disturb you.  I am Lieutenant Baldwin, under Major Fremont’s command.  We are hunting for a Mexican soldier.  Chavez I believe his name to be.  A very short man.  Probably in uniform. We have reason to believe he may have come to your rancho to hide himself.  It is my duty to search every room for him.  If I do not find him, I will leave soldiers here to keep watch, to see if he comes later.”
 
La Doña from her pillowed throne said merely, “Very well, gentlemen, have your look.”
Lieutenant Baldwin then turned away and dismissed the other two with a nod of his head and they went back out the door.  The lieutenant then looked under the occupied bed, then under the empty other.  He looked inside both armoires.  He looked behind the drapes covering the large window.  Then he came to me and looked closely at me.  Finally he said to me, “And who are you?  You don’t look Mexican.”  I glanced to La Doña, who was observing every movement and word.  While Baldwin stared so intently at me, I saw La Doña touch a finger to her lips.  Then she spoke, drawing the soldier’s attention to her.

“He is a cousin from Spain, Lieutenant Baldwin, he speaks no English.  He has only just arrived at the rancho and he knows nothing at all.  He is of no consequence about anything.”

Baldwin looked back at me as I allowed myself the smallest of smiles, for him, for the courtesy of our becoming acquainted.  Moments later several more soldiers came into the room and spoke privately to Baldwin.  He frowned and looked back at La Doña.

She spoke first.  “And have you found your Chavez, Lieutenant Baldwin?”
Obviously he hated to admit it. “No, we have not.  And we have searched thoroughly.  However, I am still not convinced that he is not here.  I intend on posting at least one soldier in every room of your hacienda, at least until morning.”

The force in La Doña’s voice rose to an authoritative level.  There would be no way to dispute her.  “Unfortunately, Lieutenant Baldwin, I must restrict your vigilance.  My husband is away from the rancho this night, and only two friends are here with me, Señora Mariana and her husband Captain Silva, whom no doubt you have already spoken with.  She is here as you see to help me with my ill child.  This is my private room, and at my own insistence there will be no one permitted to remain here in this room but family and closest friends.  That order is not open to discussion.  I hope you understand, Lieutenant.  If you wish to waste your time, you and your soldiers may wait in other rooms of our rancho, until you are satisfied that my rancho is not hiding your fugitive.  Do you understand me?”

Lieutenant Baldwin looked back at me, who pretended not to comprehend this, and then glanced again to the second bed, beneath it, beneath the occupied bed, to the closed doors of the armoires, before looking back to her who had so strictly commanded him.  He tried to smile in a way that showed his superiority, but I doubted that he convinced La Doña.  Then he said to her, “I suppose I have to honor your personal privacy, under the circumstances, señora.  But I will post several of my men in the other rooms, and I will reserve the right to return and question you again.”  Then he looked back at me and said, “And question you too, señor.”  I smiled at him agreeably.

After he had gone and the door was closed behind him, La Doña smiled mischievously at me and said, “Now, Mr. Wells, how does that rest with your conscience?  Do you feel like you have betrayed your country?”

I laughed.  “I work for Mr. Larkin in a special capacity.  I have no idea where my loyalty lies.  How could I possibly know?  Who does know?”

 “Yes,” she said, so agreeable, “Quien sabe?  Who does know? ”

2:   COMPANY F ARTILLERY                      

The americanos could not find Jose Chavez and they could not linger many hours to search further.  Baldwin’s men soon rejoined Fremont’s battalion, so that all could ride south in full force the next day with their three hundred horses.  At Rancho Natividad the Mexicans had arrived at the corrals of the americanos, but hours too late to battle these gringos who all had the best pistols and rifles and lots of ammunition.  The Californio guerilla army had their prize in any case, U.S. Consul Larkin, and they rode ahead south faster than Fremont could pursue, who was busy with the horses.
 
I was, I admit, happily left behind at Monterey, where I did not even know if I had a superior to report to.  I knew Captain Montgomery was the highest official in Yerba Buena but I’d had no communication with him or directives about him.  I thought he might not even know I existed.  Anyway, I didn’t try to contact him.

It would have been my devoutest wish to settle into one of those cozy bedrooms down the corridors of that spacious hacienda of Doña Angustias de la Guerra, but she didn’t invite me.  Chavez would stay there a few more days, but I told her that Larkin had given me a room in his own house, and she rode with me in a carriage the next morning from her rancho to Monterey to return me to it.  It was a fabulous landscape, the long green sloping of grass all the way to the ocean, which itself was the biggest part of the landscape.  Anywhere in town you could hear the waves pounding the rocks all day long.  La Doña’s carriage went down the widest, best rutted street in the community.  No more than thirty houses were scattered at random over the long grassy slope to the ocean.  La Doña let me off in front of Mr. Larkin’s door.

“You may call or come over whenever you wish, Mr. Wells.  You will meet my husband, Don Jimeno, when he returns.  Thank you for helping us save Jose Chavez.”  She waved and the carriage pulled away and I was back to earth.

Within a couple of days people in Yerba Buena knew all about Larkin.  It was said that one of Fremont’s Delawares rode one day dawn to dark to bring the news to Captain Montgomery, more than a hundred miles.  There was nothing the captain could do about it.  Captain Manuel’s guerillas had Larkin and they kept him well hidden and well guarded all the way to Los Angeles, though they got no americano horses on the way, nor stampeded any.  Two weeks later a message from Larkin got back to Monterey that he was being extremely well treated, but well guarded too, and moved often.  He expected there’d be a great battle soon at Los Angeles.  A thousand against a thousand.  Winner take California.
 
In Monterey I waited for more news, like everybody else.  I was the only person living in the very large upstairs of Mr. Larkin’s house.  Indian servants from below at the retail store and Indian servants of the upstairs household came and went, but only an old man and his wife, Indios also, stayed at night in the house at all times.  This woman fixed me two meals every day, lots of beef, beans, tortillas, chiles and several times a week fresh fish from the local catch.
 
Otherwise I had to invent my entertainment and I wasn’t good at that.  I went a few times to La Doña’s and she was always very kind to me and introduced me to people, even interesting people, but I was still learning the language and I wasn’t very effective in those conversations.  So I drank a lot and listened to the guitars and wondered where all the excitement had gone.
 
Then another month later there came other news from Larkin by reliable messenger that again he was being treated extremely well and being given more liberties, that his release would come soon.  In Los Angeles, there’d been lots of proclamations and bravado but no actual fighting.  That would likely happen any day.

All through the Christmas holidays we were expecting to hear something good about an end to it and a treaty, but we did not.  Early in January there were new rumors and then suddenly a few weeks later a merchant ship arrived with official reports from Los Angeles that Stockton and Kearny had defeated General Flores at Los Angeles with very few casualties on either side.  During this settlement Mr. Larkin had been released, still unharmed and still in the best of health.  The report said he would return to Monterey in less than a week by the next ship.
 
I did not see ex-Consul but still-Confidential Agent Thomas Larkin again until three days after he debarked a U.S. warship in Monterey harbor.  He immediately withdrew in mourning into his own upstairs apartments, having heard only on the day of his release from captivity in Los Angeles that his daughter Adeline had died a month ago in Yerba Buena.
 
Grim news and a grim homecoming no doubt for the man.  But when his Indio servant called me into Larkin’s office the third day after he’d returned, he was there with his ledger books spread out around him and the big copy book, and he spoke with all the energy I was used to hearing from him, all the same enthusiasm.  He didn’t look like a man who’d been held prisoner for two months and whose only child had just died.
 
I offered my condolences but he ignored that and said only, “You did very well in our crisis that memorable day, Mr. Wells.  But do not expect any more excitement of that magnitude, however, for my heart couldn’t stand it.  Still, there will be plenty for us to do now, plenty.  I’ve been told you delivered to La Doña my message of that first wild day, and I thank you very much for that.   It was well done.  She tells me you have come visiting a time or two since then.  You are fortunate to be invited.  Fremont’s amnesty saves Lieutenant Chavez also, who is now a free man.  You have probably heard that Pablo de la Guerra by the same amnesty is also free and that the new military governor will be here in another week or two.  That will be General Kearny, whom I met in Los Angeles.  He is a good man and just as I suspicioned, he will be needing the rooms you have been using.  Of course I will provide you with other quarters.  I have another little adobe out back, with a door that locks, which you may have.

“In the meantime, there will be big changes once General Kearny arrives.  The ship Lexington will also be docking in the next few days, bringing the U.S. Artillery Company F.  There are reportedly several well respected young officers with them.  The foremost of them will eventually be General Kearny’s adjutant, running the general’s affairs, a Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman.  He is from a very prominent political family in Washington, D.C.  Engaged they say to be married to his foster father’s daughter.  I have already offered your services to General Kearny, and there will be a desk and chair in that office for you.  I am sure you will get along well with Lieutenant Sherman and with the general.  And please never forget, Mr. Wells, keep your eyes and ears open to everything, because even though the war in California is over, our confidential activities will continue.”

From my window on the floor above Larkin’s retail store I had been watching the morning fog evaporate off Monterey Bay in a sunshiny January morning, and I was surprised when at last it did fully lift that I saw the U.S Lexington anchored about a quarter mile from the beach and the custom’s house, a sudden, though expected, overnight arrival.  By dusk the custom officers had finished and boats rowed back and forth with the soldiers and officers and the artillery and supplies they had come with.   That night all these soldiers tented in a grove of pine a half mile up slope from the beach.   The next morning when I came upstairs they were already cutting trees and trimming and shaping them to make walls of a great bunkhouse that would shelter a hundred men.
 
It was General Kearny’s custom to go into his office next to mine early afternoon, and so he did that first day after the Lexington docked.  He smiled and nodded cheerfully, which was not his usual routine.  He addressed me, which often he did not.  “Wells, I don’t want to be bothered with any of the ordinary business today.  I’m expecting a special visitor.  He brings me a much-anticipated message from Los Angeles.”  These days Los Angeles meant troublesome Major John Charles Fremont and his four hundred soldiers.

So I did as I was told and I sat at the big window that framed the grassy slope to the beach and the mighty waves that broke there, and I watched.  The Lexington had docked and today still unloaded cargo in the center of that window frame.    Soldiers, half in uniform, half in civvies, everywhere you looked.
 
I noticed a pair on horseback ambling toward Larkin’s two-story where I sat, though they did not notice me watching them.  Both were officers, one with short reddish hair, the other with longer blond curly hair and a fancy moustache.  They dismounted and tied their reins to the rail in front of Larkin’s store.  Only then did the one with the moustache see me.  He smiled and poked his red-haired companion to look and see.  He too smiled, apparently also liking what he saw.  The one with the moustache waved to me and beckoned me to come down to meet him.

Somehow this didn’t seem like any messenger General Kearny would be expecting.  Yet the two men compelled me.  I went to them.
 
I said, “Are you men off the Lexington?”
The moustachioed man said, “Oh we are, and very perceptive of you to pick us out like that.  And I shall pick you out as wells, for that is your name I believe, Sonny Wells, lawyer for hire.”

That did astonish me.  “And who are you?”
The red-head grinned at his friend and said, “We are both first lieutenants of the United States Army, Company F Artillery, whose names are not so important as the mission we are on.  We have come to deliver a message.  A confidential message.”

“Ah,” I said, finally getting it.  “Yes, General Kearny is expecting you.  I am his first assistant and I can take you to him immediately.”

“But wait,” said the red-head, touching my sleeve.  “No need for that.  This confidential message must be delivered by a confidential agent.  My intelligence informs me that you are not only first assistant to General Kearny, but that you are also confidential agent in league with our country’s esteemed and foremost Confidential Agent, Thomas Oliver Larkin.”

Of course it shocked me that what I thought was known to no one but myself and Larkin was being spilled so freely on the street here.  I sputtered and couldn’t make the words come out.  The moustachioed man laughed and said, “You can be sure this is all among friends, Mr. Wells.  And we know our man, and that man is you.  You are the only living confidential person anywhere abouts, and you are the inevitable person to be delivering this message.”

With that, he withdrew from his officer’s jacket a large envelope, hauntingly reminiscent of the Top Secret document I’d carried on my six-month voyage.  He offered it to me.  “See, Mr. Wells, it’s got your name stamped right there on it.  Who else could be the one that’s meant.”

I wanted to laugh but it didn’t seem possible.  This packet was stamped CONFIDENTIAL.  I didn’t know what else to do but take it.  Couldn’t have been more than a couple of pages inside.

“Very good, Mr. Wells,” said the red-head, “now run along and go deliver this to our good General Kearny.”

Now I didn’t get it.  “Shouldn’t you be the one that delivers this?  Personally?”
“Nonsense,” said the jovial blond moustache, “that is an outdated tradition.  Special Confidential Delivery is the thing nowadays.  And you, Mr. Wells, are the paradigm, Mr. Confidential Agent.  And you don’t worry about us, we’ll be in to see the general as soon as we finish a little business of our own down here.  Maybe take a quick look inside Mr. Larkin’s store, take a look at the produce.  No, don’t worry about us.  You run along up to the general and give it to him.”

I did as I was told.  All the while I kept staring at the CONFIDENTIAL stamp as I went up the stairs.  I knocked softly on the general’s door.  He jerked it open immediately as I jumped back.  He saw the envelope in my hand.  “What’s that?”  But he had no time for my answer and grabbed the envelope and ripped open the end flap.  He pulled out a single page.  Speedily he read it.
 
He cursed it several times as I watched the blood rise from his throat into his face.  He spoke through clenched teeth though he was also shaking with the fury coming over him.  He was not seeing me, not aware of me, but still yelling at me, “Damn you! and damn you all to hell!  I’ll show you can’t decide who’s really Governor…I’ll show you paralyzed by painful indecisions.  You are an errant scoundrel, Major Fremont!  I will have your stripes for this insubordination!”

Then the general turned away from me and let out a bellowing roar that made my head crackle with the ferocity of it.  Suddenly he did notice me again.  He glared at me.  He screamed at me, “What in the god-damned hell are you doing bringing me a rotten message like this?”  His look at me was so severe I became afraid and remembered I’d shut the door of my exit.  Then he screamed his worst—“I HATE THAT GOD-DAMNED MESSAGE!—do you hear me?  I HATE IT!  I HATE FREMONT EVEN MORE!  AND I HATE YOU TOO FOR BRINGING THIS TO ME!”

My heart racing, I took two steps backward; but the general came at me again, this time pulling his sword from its scabbard like he meant to use it on me, raising it over his head.  He swung it round and then lashed out with it into the adobe wall separating his office from mine.  Whitewash and chips of adobe flew off his blade with each one of the three, four blows he made.  While he did so I hurried to the door and opened it and stepped onto the stair landing, ready to descend to the unsuspecting retailers below if need be.  Yet those four blasts to the walls seemed to expend all his fury.  I watched him slump into the chair at my desk, let his sword clatter on the floor, and then he settled his head on his hands as if he might sleep a little.
 
Yet only a moment later he seemed revived, seemed to have regained his poise.  Picking up the fallen sword, he stood again and sheathed his sword, then turned to look at me, who looked back still from the other side of the half-open door.
 
“Come back in, Wells.  I apologize for that terrible display.  Those who know me know how sometimes I go overboard, shall we call it.  I hope I didn’t frighten you.  But the truth is, I expected just this response.  So why am I so upset?”  He paused.  He laughed for what he would speak, which was, “Because I want those damned four hundred soldiers, damnit!  Oh, Lord, how he makes me go on.  But I confess it—Fremont is the bane of my existence, and he brings out all the worst in me.  Now tell me—how did you come by this message?  Who gave it to you?”

“Two officers from the Lexington, Sir.  They didn’t tell me their names.  They said they were both first lieutenants.”

He said, “Then I know their names, and I know them both well.  Now I see the plot.  Even so, they are two of the army’s finest young officers.  First lieutenants indeed, William Tecumseh Sherman and Edward Otho Cresap Ord. They’re a clever pair.  Looks like they already put one over on you, Wells.”

So it would seem.  But then from behind me, after I had stepped back into the room with the now-pacific general, I heard a voice I remembered, the red-head, the Irish resonance in his words, just behind me at the top of the stairs.  He said to all concerned, “Put one over?  Deception?  Ah, my good General Kearny, if I were a magician they would call it merely sleight of hand and applaud me.”

This made the serious, disappointed general laugh, though he quickly went sullen again.  “Sherman, I know you too well, I’ll none of this game.  Now tell me, how did Fremont give this to you?”

But the blond with the moustache interposed, “We stopped over two days in Los Angeles, General.  This message was delivered to me aboard ship.  Not by Major Fremont I must declare.  But by his own right hand man, Mr. Kit Carson.   Carson explained to me that the major was away, keeping the peace with Mexico, but that the letter was a complete response to the general’s request.”

“Complete indeed,” scowled the general.  “But he’ll pay a heavy price for this insolence.”
Sherman said, “We’re also instructed to tell you that Colonel Mason is en route to Monterey as we speak, and should arrive in less than two months.  He has official confirmation of your right to govern and his order places Major Fremont and all his soldiers under your command.”

This seemed to brighten the general a little from his gloom.  “Good to hear, good to hear.  But none of that helps me now.  It’s a nasty pill to swallow, having that rascal sitting down there with all those soldiers for two more months before I can officially blow him out of the water and give him what he deserves.”   Then again he brightened a little to Sherman and said, “But I surely welcome the hundred ten soldiers of Company F Artillery, and their fine officers, and I’m certainly enjoying that you are building that fortress for me, where you can put all those welcome cannons and field pieces you brought me.  I haven’t felt much like the head of an army here with my thirty-two remaining soldiers.  Half of them still can’t sit up on their mules.”

Lieutenant Sherman said, “What about you, Sir?  We heard about San Pascual.  That you took heavy loses, but you were never captured.”

“And lived to tell the tale, I might add, Lieutenant,” the general said, now nostalgic.  “I tell you, I had a near-death experience there, and after all that bloodshed and the fool those Californios made of us with their lances, I had to look at an ultimate truth of modern warfare.  Don’t bet against a Californio and his horse.  I mean it.  Pico and his horsemen lured my ragged troops on a chase and spread them out, then turned back on them and cut them down one by one in close quarters.  Finest horsemanship I’ve ever witnessed.  I’ve never seen anything with cavalry so quickly maneuvered and well-coordinated.  My men were on tired mules, the Californios made fools of us.  We might all have been killed.  I couldn’t even defend myself to be honest about it.  A terrifying experience.  We were lucky to escape so many as we did.”

Edward Otho Ord said, “They told us in Los Angeles they’re not expecting any more trouble from that quarter.”

“No, the hearts of the mejicanos, when the whole truth is known, are not amenable to real warfare.  To the death and dying.  At the last battle at San Gabriel, nearly a thousand on either side, when the Mexican generals saw two of their soldiers killed, they waved the white flag.  The battle did not last the whole day.  Fremont of course missed the battle but arrived in time for the stage show a few days later, when he officially accepted Pico’s surrender.  That day Fremont also did the only good deed of his life when he granted universal amnesty for all Mexicans and Californios.  I agree with that.  You and I saw too much of that punitive thing at first hand, Lieutenant Sherman, when we were in Florida with the Indians.  Anyway, I still believe that the transition in California will be highly beneficial for all concerned.  It already is.”

Then General Kearny smiled just perceptibly, and spoke congenially, “On a lighter note, I am reminded that I am to extend an invitation by the renowned Doña Angustias de la Guerra to all the officers of the Lexington to attend one of the many fiestas at her rancho just outside the pueblo.”  I smiled at that, feeling myself suddenly eligible to be in the inner social circle hereabout.  I could tell them something about their La Doña that would shock all of them.
 
Lieutenant Ord grinned and said, “We’ve heard many tales about the beautiful women of California.  I personally can hardly wait to see if these tales be true.   However, for our dear friend Lieutenant Sherman, this will not be the case.  He is betrothed.  He must be satisfied with the field reports on these beauties, and must make no investigations of his own.  His dearly betrothed is also a dear friend of mine.  She honors me as her future husband’s best friend and best-man-to-be.  You might imagine where my loyalties lie.”

Lieutenant Sherman smiled also at his friend and said, “It’s spying, all the same.  When you both know that I could never be disloyal to that woman.”
 
“Zounds, of course not, ‘Cump.  ’Twould be the scandal of the decade—egad, man!”
Sherman laughed.  We all laughed, including General Kearny.  
               
I never got the privilege of calling him ‘Cump; nonetheless the life of Lieutenant William Sherman became for a while a life that would move in a kind of lock-step with my own so much more humble life.  For the next three years it even seemed to me like he and I were living parallel lives, you might say.  

In the adjoining office where Bill Sherman and I worked, we could hear General Kearny pacing heavily in the mornings for several days more.  We could hear him talking full blast at the outrage of Fremont.  But that only lasted a few days. Kearny eventually resigned himself to be patient and wait for the next ship with Colonel Mason.

Immediately we all settled into the second floor above Larkin’s store.  Sherman directed a few privates to build a stairway up to it from the outside, so we didn’t have to bother the customers in Larkin’s retail store below, where Mr. Larkin’s partner, Talbot Green, ruled.  Our privates punched a hole in the adobe wall there and framed a door on our second floor.  And that was our new office.  The large room was already partitioned.  Lieutenant Sherman and I set ourselves up in the bigger room, three desks, a chair for each, a large table for sorting or stacking anything, and a couple of simple wooden chairs for visitors.
 
Our window looked out on the plaza.  Quiet all the time.  Larkin told me there were maybe a thousand humans within a mile radius, lots of them Indio in bound-servitude to the prosperous Californios.  There were a few of the old school mountain men who came and went around Monterey, stayed a week or two in town, even a winter at a time, before going back up into the mountains.  I spent a few of what would have otherwise been lonely evenings at their campfires out at the edge of town, out by the pine trees, listening to these tough, tough men talk about the old days.  Ashley men, who had wintered in the Rockies with Bridger and Fitzpatrick, had seen compadres killed by Indians, had killed Indians themselves.
 
Soon enough Kearny’s replacement arrived, Colonel Richard Barnes Mason.  He and Kearny were old friends and for the first week Mason stayed upstairs in Larkin’s house in Kearny’s suite of rooms, and we saw the room well lit till late at night all the first week.  No doubt a lot of that talk was about Fremont.  Mason heard everything there was to hear about the trouble between Kearny and Fremont.  For a month Mason got an intimate view of “the Fremont business,” as Colonel Mason was given to call it.  He had no relish for it.
 
While Mason waited to take over the governorship, he prepared himself to continue the confrontation with the difficult and ever-successful Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont, recently and ironically promoted from major.  Mason read even the things only the president should know.  He built up a good head of steam.  He was anxious to confront the rogue officer.

It was by now clear to Colonel Mason that Fremont was indeed a slippery devil, with a bite, and a lot of sass.  The Colonel would have none of that.  He represented the United States Army.  Protestant righteousness was in his blood as well, and all of that propelled him south, determined to bring back John Charles Fremont, one way or another, Mason very much of a mind with Kearny that Fremont deserved the full Court-Martial.  He relished the pleasure of giving testimony.
 
So it was at General Kearny’s instigation that Colonel Richard Barnes Mason, Governor-in-waiting, took ship and sailed south with Captain Turner to Los Angeles.  I also was allowed to accompany them, a vacation reward Mr. Larkin said, for duties well done.
 
U.S. Lexington carried the three of us south along the California coast, downstream on the coastal current, until we harbored in the bay of San Pedro a little less than a week later.  The smoothest sailing I’d ever experienced, but it still upset my stomach.  In my better moments on deck I could only marvel as an easterner would that in February the hills that we sailed past were green with spring growth and yellow acacia trees bloomed in many places.  Otherwise, I slept in my cabin a lot.

Horses were waiting for us in San Pedro and we rode a few desolate miles without much talking before we came into the Pueblo de Los Angeles itself, a thousand Californio citizens.  More true mexicanos here than up north.  We rode beyond the adobe dwellings and shops of the pueblo another few miles till we came to a fine rancho in open country.
 
The entrance gate was heavily vined with scarlet flowers even in February.  Beside the gate were two rugged men, without uniform, who sat in chairs and tossed cards into a hat.  Each man his rifle nearby.  Pistols in the belts.
 
In time these two saw the mistake of their nonchalance, saw that the two approaching uniforms were Official United States Officers, and they stood, hurriedly, and came to attention.  
I heard Mason say to Captain Turner, “This might turn out all right afterall.”

Captain Turner spoke to the two entry guards.  “At ease, gentlemen.  We are here to see Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont.  This is your commanding officer Colonel Richard Barnes Mason.  The Colonel in two months will be your new Governor, replacing the present governor, General Kearny.  It is at the command of General Kearny that we are here.  I am Captain Turner.  This man Mr. Wells is assisting us.”

The two men led us quickly inside the gates and led us a long palm-lined pathway to the hacienda.  Red clay curved roof tiles again.  Whitewashed adobe walls.  Overhung porches and walkways everywhere near the hacienda.  The guards led us beneath a long vine-covered walkway to an isolated casita with its own red tile roof, whitewashed walls and a palm-thatched covered terrace that had a view of the ocean.
 
On that terrace we came upon John Charles Fremont sitting beside a long dining table, all the top of it a glossy dark green tile.  Saddle bags and boxes of cartridges were set upon the further half of the table.  A knife without its sheath, with long curving blade and a heavy handle, was prominent upon one saddlebag.  At the opposite end of the green table sat the man that could only be John Charles Fremont.  Grandee indeed, just as I’d heard, he wore a clean blue sash around his waist his fine linen shirt open at the throat.   A blue U.S. regulation military jacket with the new shoulder insignia for his new rank neatly settled across the arm of a chair.  He wore long black curly hair to his shoulders.  What a picture.  I could see how it made these other West Point officers shudder.  And wish that there be consequences.
 
Fremont had plenty of time to see Official U.S. Officers approaching to be at immediate attention when those officers halted in front of him, as these now did.  However, Fremont still sat in his chair, though he did nod agreeably in their direction as they approached, as if he approved their arrival.
 
Colonel Richard Barnes Mason stood before the seated Lieutenant-Colonel John Charles Fremont and stared severely, not returning Fremont’s generic welcoming smile.  Tension aplenty.  Soon enough perhaps, Fremont was moved to stand and face his superior and his terrible stare.  He did it without deference, however, looking intensely into the colonel’s eyes:  smiling for his own part, not reflecting the colonel’s frown.  A moment later Fremont’s right hand came to his forehead:  palm rigid in salute:  held it there an instant, then took it away to his side smartly.  Colonel Mason as smartly and quickly returned the salute.
 
Fremont then let the formalities drop and he grinned and said, “Good to see you down here, Colonel Mason.  And you too, Captain Turner.  Not since New York, the last time, have I seen either of you.  I see you’ve done well.  And have come west.  Lucky men.  But forgive me for being so slow about that salute.  I suppose we should go through the procedures, even if the procedures are impossibly irregular now and who knows what the procedures are anymore?”

I could feel Mason beside me stiffen.  He said, as severe as ever, “We always know what the procedures are, Lieutenant-Colonel.  There exist none of those variables you’re suggesting.  You may have played that idea with some others about being confused in regard to your allegiance, but don’t play it with me.  I’ve read all the reports.  I spoke with the President.  Kearny is Governor.  And has been all along.”

That was a challenge that Fremont immediately accepted.  His jaw thrust forward.  “You say I play a game?  That I dissemble?  That I lie?  Be careful of your words, Colonel Mason.”

Mason sneered.  “I can already see that this is going to be a brief and to the point interview.  I have come to ask you a few questions, in the name of the Governor of California, and your own Commanding Officer in California, General Stephen Watts Kearny.”

“Questions?” Fremont asked, a little renewed arrogance in my opinion.  “I thought all this would be only Ultimatums.”
 
Mason’s snarl did not give him an inch of quarter.  “It can be Ultimatums if you wish, Lieutentant-Colonel.  But first, it might be Questions, if such terms are agreeable to you.”  Mason paused and glanced about him, then back at Fremont with the slyest smile possible, before saying, “In your high office here.”
 
Fremont stepped forward and almost yelled, “Hold that!  I will not be ridiculed about my official position here, not even by a ranking officer.  There are some things that are answerable to an even higher code that the military’s, Colonel.  I think you know what I mean.”

It was only then, when voices became angry and loud, that I noticed a large man enter the big room at the far end, and seat himself unobtrusively by the door.  I was almost sure it was one of the two Delawares I’d witnessed scalping the dead man.  He saw me look at him but he ignored me.  He was watching the heat brewing between the two officers, measuring every subtlety.

I glanced at Mason, who was shifting his feet on the floor, beginning to fume I thought.  He blurted out, “Are you going to answer the questions, Colonel Fremont?  I order you to answer me.”

Something in that made Fremont smirk.  Then he glanced to me and said to Mason, “And who is this private citizen in your company?”

Mason paused, puzzled.  Then said, “He’s no one, he’s just along to write down things and be a messenger.”

“Or be a witness?” blurted Fremont, bursting with the outrage.

Colonel Mason glared back as much hostility as Fremont gave him. “It is none of your business how I conduct my duties, Lieutenant-Colonel.  It is your duty to obey orders.  You seem to have forgotten that.  You have no argument.  You are under military discipline.”

Fremont’s face showed both anger and disgust at his antagonist.  Coldly he spoke, “You brought a witness to our interview.  By your witness you publically proclaim me not a man of my word, not a man to be trusted.  That is a violation of the code of gentlemen, to which I had assumed you belong.”

Mason’s fuming was about to boil over.  He spoke through clenched teeth.  “All this is horseshit, and you know it.  You will either obey orders and answer questions or you will not.  What will it be?”

Fremont with as much violence threw it back at him, his voice a register higher than Mason’s blast.  “I call you to account by a higher code!  Either you apologize for your rude remarks and insinuations to me or I challenge you to a duel.   On the field of honor.  Are you a gentleman, or are you not?  What will it be?”

No doubt various modes of death and annihilation had already been going through Mason’s mind at that moment as I watched him shriek back at Fremont:  “Duel?”  Enraged but suddenly with all the coldness of steel, Colonel Richard Barnes Mason spoke with amazing calm.  “Yes, then a duel it shall be.  On the field of honor, Mr. Fremont.  You will have no apology from me.  You are an insolent pup and I say it to your face.  I accept your challenge.  Name the time and the place.”

Fremont seemed to relax a little now too, in a more comfortable element.  He spoke with full arrogance.  “You understand, Colonel, that until this is settled, I will not address the military matters that have caused you to come here.  So we will make it quick.  At the Gonzalez rancho, just a few miles from here.  It’s very secluded. The first available day, at dawn.  It is your right to choose the weapons.”

This was a special, anticipated relish to Colonel Mason, who was already cocked and ready.  He fairly spit it at him.  “Double-barrel shotguns!  At twenty paces!”    

The next morning, in the glaring light of day, Colonel Mason saw the impossibility of the situation Fremont had drawn him into.  As officers, there could be no duel without great damage to their military careers.  So it was that Colonel Richard Barnes Mason with his useless witness, Captain Turner, and I, equally useless, rode away at top speed from Los Angeles without the object of our mission, the wayward and slippery Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont.   The Lexington had moved on south to San Diego; no other ships going north were in the harbor.  So we took horses and rode, and in seven days Mason and the Captain and I were back in Monterey, with no prisoner and a highly questionable excuse.  By now, after seven days constantly in the saddle, my backside had been pounded into a leathery hardness shaped by the saddle, and I could ride all day with the best of them.
 
Colonel Mason had to tell Kearny everything, all the worst of it.  How this problem of the duel made it virtually impossible to execute his mission.  Kearny of course saw the mess that Mason had been drawn into.  Personally, Kearny would have loved to see the duel come off.  Mason was considered one of the greatest shotgunners in all the army, probably in all the west.  He was a lightning quick trigger and deadly accurate.  Fremont would probably not have walked away from that duel.

Fremont also soon came to Monterey to rendezvous with the Governor and to explain himself, but he did it his way.  He would not be rushed.  He would take a week or so for his last leisure before he began his ride.  Then he would give them all a ride that would be talked about for the ages.

John Charles Fremont came galloping forth out of his hacienda in Los Angeles with a feat of horsemanship and travel expedition hardly to be believed.  Fremont rode like the very devil himself, rode with mountain man Kit Carson and a Delaware Indian, rode on their thoroughbred horses in one day an impossible one hundred miles from sunrise to bedding down.  Then the next day another hundred miles.  Then yet another hundred.  And the last day the same.  These three heroic riders had come like hell’s fury four hundred miles in four days, a journey that the best of travelers and horsemen required twice that time to travel.  Everyone was talking about it.
 
In Monterey Fremont would not quarter himself with the other military.  He pitched a tent at the edge of a pretty meadow about a mile outside the pueblo, underneath a picturesque weeping willow.  It was quickly rumored that he would take callers, there would be so many to come and congratulate him on his amazing ride, and because he was their governor, or had been, or might be again.
   
Meanwhile, Kearny was fuming in the office he’d taken up in Larkin’s big house.  He’d expected Fremont to walk in the door, announce himself, hat in hand, and then begin to eat of the Feast of Humble Pie.  But hours passed, while everyone knew Fremont was there, holding court all afternoon in the meadow.
 
The next morning a little before noon, when everyone in our office was talking about Fremont and when was he going to show up, General Kearny came stomping up the stairs and shoved open the door.  We were all looking at him, expecting some little explosion.  Nothing like that happened, however, although I thought I could see the tensions in his face as he stood there, just two steps inside the door, looking at the two of us.  When his troubled eyes settled on the face of Lieutenant Bill Sherman, the general was becalmed amidst turbulent seas.  I could see the confidence come back into him.

Out of that fine tranquility, Kearny said to Sherman, “Lieutentant, do you have a mind to speak with Fremont?”

Bill smiled.  Fremont may have ranked Sherman, but Sherman had no use for Fremont.  Of course if you’d lived back east in the mid-forties, you’d heard all about Fremont’s great explorations of the west, and knowing Sherman, he’d probably even read the books about those adventures, like I had.  The Great Pathfinder.   But Sherman had been in the military long enough to have heard all the other bravado stuff about Fremont too, and Sherman had listened plenty to Kearny, who’d found a sympathetic ear in Bill Sherman for his simmering anger.

No, Fremont’s style was all wrong for Sherman.  All the dressing up, the air of grandeur, the eagerness to flaunt the rules, to make himself the biggest fellow on the stage:  all of this was the opposite of Bill Sherman, the good soldier who always obeyed orders, who preferred obscurity, who believed in the value of discipline and honor and commitment to the greater cause.  Whose uniform was all the display he ever wanted, and even that could be thread-worn and grimed with the dust and sweat of a soldier’s day, without Bill Sherman giving a damn about any of it.
 
So, as I said, Sherman smiled to his general and said energetically, “With pleasure, sir.  I’m sure I know just what Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont needs to hear.”

Kearny smiled, well pleased, knowing it would be so.  “Good then.  But remember, he is your ranking superior and you must seem to be deferring to him, that we not offend the great man.  Even though as my messenger you represent me, his superior, and so you may and must be firm.”

Sherman smiled; he needn’t say more:  Kearny saw in his eyes the necessary fire.  Kearny said, “You might as well take Sonny with you.  You’ll need a witness, believe me.”

I have to admit that I was excited about seeing Fremont again.  I don’t mind a little flamboyance.  Probably I’d never take it as far as Fremont did, but there was something in me that lit up when I saw it done right.  And my first impression was that Fremont did it right.  I also have to say that I’m not as particular as Bill Sherman when it comes to the rules.  I allow for a little leeway, allow a little for the uniqueness of the moment, should I say.

Anyway, we rode over there a few minutes later and we found Fremont just where his messenger said he would be, still lounging in his encampment after the long, swift ride that was already being talked into legend.  There were ten or so there, probably all Californios, caballeros and vaqueros.  They asked him questions, and sometimes the same questions, over and over, just to hear the great man speak to them.
 
Fremont lay on the ground outstretched, fully clothed:  fine riding pants and full military coat, his new rank of lieutenant-colonel brazened in gold braid on both shoulders, two gold medals and one silver, all three with ribbon, on his chest, pinned to both sides of his lapels.  He wore expensive leather riding boots that came almost to his knee, his pants a little puffed above the tight, high fit of the boots.  As it had been the last time I saw him, his dark hair was in looping curls nearly to his shoulders.  Ruddy, healthy, handsome face.   His smile that moment, as he talked with his admirers, was fabulous like sunrise.  Who could resist him?

When Sherman and I came beside the little cluster of admirers, Fremont saw us and turned down about half of that sunrise smile for us, since he now had to keep his cold, steady eyes upon us as well.  Yet still he did not rise.   He waited.  Expectantly.  As if we his visitors brought news—who knew?—perhaps a happy surprise.

Finally, he reverted to the character of the generous grandee, and offered us his hospitality.  “Will you have something, gentlemen, after your ride over here to visit me?  We have some persimmons from the south, fresh picked just a few days ago, when we were in Los Angeles.  Nothing like it in this cold north country.  Persimmons anyone?”
 
Lieutenant Sherman spoke in a firm voice indeed, and with the beginnings of that force this man can muster and he spoke as if Fremont had spoken none of this hospitality.  “Sir, I have come with a message from General Kearny.  In respect of your long journey he is allowing you to have a day of rest on your own before you report in to him.  Your appointment time is 7 AM, tomorrow.  The General has also commanded me to say that at that meeting you are to give him a definitive answer to his questions.  I am also commanded to ask you if you have any reasons that would make it difficult or impossible for you to answer questions from the general.”

Fremont seemed to wince.  But he was quick to recover.  “Well, rather blunt and to the point I suppose.  I do hope the general understands how the situation has complicated itself for me in Los Angeles and how confused things have been with all this constant change of governments.  You know, now it’s Mexican, then it’s Californio, or maybe it’s American.  Or the army or the navy is in command—who knows?  What a mess.”

Sherman stared a cold deadly light into Fremont’s increasingly unsteady eyes.  He spoke slowly, firmly, emphasizing each word, like a father might to a slow-learning son.  “I’ll pass that on to the general, Sir, and I’ll be sure to remember it.  It’s a mess, complicated, and confused.  Very well.  But I must insist there be no diversion from the question General Kearny gave me to present to you just now.  That question was whether you had any reasons to believe it would be difficult or impossible to answer the general’s questions tomorrow morning.”

Fremont’s eyes finally settled on me that moment and seemed to sparkle with mischief.  I could see Fremont’s mouth show a little amusement as he said, “And I see you brought our infamous witness along too.”

Lieutenant William T. Sherman hardly seemed to register that comment.  He continued his icy stare into the face of Fremont and said, “Mr. Wells is inconsequential to our discussion, Lieutenant-Colonel.  What is there here to witness, anyway?  You and I are both officers of the U.S. Army, doing our duty, aren’t we, sir?  I follow my orders, and I have no doubt you will be following yours.  There could be no conflict here that would call for a witness—am I right?”

Fremont had to let go that amused smile; had to look finally at the stare of Bill Sherman and say, “When you put it that way, Lieutenant, how can I disagree?”  The rest he spoke very agreeably.  “Well, yes, of course, if you put it so baldly.  I would always have it that I am a true and loyal officer of the U.S. Army, and proud to be.  I’ll be there in the morning.  And answer questions.  Of course I will.”

 I might have seen a little amusement in Bill Sherman’s mouth that moment too.  He said, “The general also directs me to let you know if there is any courtesy that you lack, please inform me, or else send a messenger, and he will personally see to your satisfaction.  He bids me also, as I conclude this business, to leave you with his regards.”

It was really difficult at that moment, as I watched the two of them, to see in Fremont’s face if he thought he’d been reprimanded or not.  I myself wasn’t even sure.  Fremont started to make a light thing of it, as if there might be a funny joke in there somewhere that they could share.  But then he halted, holding the while the half-smile.  Until, in the next instant, the unconquerable hero soon recovered, had the big smile again as he turned away from his stern inquisitor and said to all the others nearby, his caballero admirers, “I am a loyal soldier.  Lieutenant-Colonel in the greatest army in the world, the Army of the United States.  Californios, you know that I have been more than that to you.  I have been your Governor.  You remember me well.  I have always loved the Californios especially.”
 
Then Fremont rose with great energy and took his wide-brimmed Californio hat, and he swooped it out wide and then lifted it into the air.  “California!   The land of the fabulous Golden Gate.”  Everyone cheered again, louder than before.
 
Suddenly he stopped his demonstration and looked soberly at Lieutenant Sherman.  “I will see you there tomorrow too, I trust, Lieutenant.  Yes, I remember you, back in New York.  Nobody knew you back then.  How is it now?”   Then Fremont turned dismissively and started for a creek that we could see fifty or so paces away.  From behind a nearby tree one of the Delawares appeared already walking.  I hadn’t noticed him till then.   He quickly joined Fremont and the two of them walked together toward the creek.  As they did, Fremont spoke back over his shoulder, as if he himself were a messenger, passing along information.  “Say, Lieutenant, does General Kearny ever say if he speaks to Senator Benton these days?  The last time I saw the senator, he asked me about the general.  I didn’t know what to say.”

The next morning, when a rested and wide-eyed Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont came to see General Kearny in our office, I could tell immediately that the arrogance of yesterday had undergone a bit of revision in the mind of the more sensible army officer:  he was congenial and submissive.
 
First he was compelled to mention the duel with Mason, probably thinking this was the first priority. “Forget that stupid duel, Lieutenant-Colonel.  Don’t mention it to me again.  I call that Stupidity Unbecoming an Officer, the both of you, and I let it go at that.  Are you going to obey your commanding officer?  That is all I really care to hear about from you.”

Fremont did it all with a big smile and with believable emotion.  “Yes, sir!  I am obedient to my superior officer, every one of them, of course I am.  I’ve never wavered in that, whatever it might have seemed to others.  I am now, have always been, and will forever be a good, true and loyal soldier.”  Well executed, effusing good will.  Sincere at its most charming.

General Kearny looked hard into Fremont’s face as he was spouting all this, I’m sure trying to detect sarcasm there, or deception of any kind.  But I guess he saw nothing, because pretty soon he relaxed and then sat back down in Sherman’s chair, letting it swivel back and forth just a little, still keeping his eyes on this slippery opponent.
 
When Fremont seemed to come to the end of his repentant speech, Kearny stood abruptly and spoke curtly.  “I want you to ride back to Los Angeles immediately.  I want you to muster out every man of your battalion, and assign every one of them to Colonel Doniphan’s unit in Los Angeles.  Just as I ordered you several weeks ago.  That includes those Delaware Indians.  I want them ready under Doniphan should there be anymore trouble coming out of Mexico.  Then I am ordering you to close down whatever headquarters you have there, and ride back to Monterey and you will report to me.  I expect you to accomplish all of that troop transfer in a matter of days after you arrive back there.  Am I clear, Lieutenant-Colonel?”

Fremont’s smile emerged, he was quick to acquiesce.  “Yes, sir, clear.  Never doubt it, General.”

Fremont recovered from that abasement a half hour later at his camp beneath the weeping willow.  Fremont and the short quiet one, Kit Carson, and the Delaware packed up their gear quickly and compactly.  A large crowd by now had gathered by the willow, the rumor quickly spread among the Californios that their great Governor Senor Fremont had been with the highest americano general.

Kit Carson and the Delaware were already astride their legendary horses, eager to ride.  Fremont hesitated before mounting and looked out grandly at the crowd that had gathered.  He wore the extravagant wide-brimmed sombrero.  As he mounted, he pulled it off with one hand and turned his best face to the crowd.  He called out to them mellifluously, the heart of a lion in his great baritone voice.  “Farewell, my Californios, your former Governor and forever Protector bids you farewell.  I have had a meeting with the great chief here, and we have discussed many important things.  But now—I am off!  I am off again to Los Angeles, where I will be working constantly to make the lives of all Californios prosperous and happy.”  Many cheered.

“And now I must begin my ride home.  And I must tell you that I have been offered a great challenge by the great chief of my people, General Kearny.  The challenge is this—can I, Lieutenant-Colonel John Charles Fremont, do the impossible once again?  Can I ride from here to Los Angeles again in four days?”  Many cheered, and most called out, Yes, yes you can.  But Fremont ignored these cries, for he had a capper.
 
He called out, louder than before.  “No, I said to the General, I will not ride there again in four days.”  He paused.  The effect was amazing, so hushed by incredulity all these became.  What?—he couldn’t do it?  Until suddenly Fremont yelled out to them his loudest, “NO, NO!—I will ride from here to Los Angeles this time in THREE days!”  People screamed.  They shouted.  It was the wildest thing I ever saw.  Then Fremont whooped his hat in the air again, and he sprang up on his horse and gave it the spur instantly, and instantly the three devil riders flashed away in a cloud of dust and very, very quickly disappeared from everyone’s view.
 
Kearny and all the rest of us had to hear about the World’s Greatest Wonder for most of the next month.  That was the talk everywhere you turned it seemed.  But Kearny was hard as steel and could afford to be.  He was waiting for all of us when we arrived at the office that next morning, and it was obvious he was feeling spunky and ready to go after it.  Since Captain Turner had shown so poorly in Los Angeles backing up Colonel Mason, and Fremont had made them both look like fools, Kearny now turned to the man he knew he could trust.  He looked into Lieutenant Sherman’s eyes:  no doubt it was steel saw steel.  Kearny smiled, liking what he saw.
 
The superior to the subordinate said, “I think you’re the man, Lieutenant.  I intend to take ship out of here tomorrow for Los Angeles.  I’ve already sent word to the Lexington.  I want you to go with me.  You seem to have a good effect on our Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont.  We will be seeing to it that he follows orders, and we will be personally escorting him back to Monterey.”

Sherman allowed himself one of his rare on-duty smiles.  He said, “It would give me great pleasure to help you bring him back, Sir.”

“You’ll go with me.  That’s well then.  We’ll take Mr. Wells with us.  He’s useful, and he’ll further annoy Fremont.  I get damn little consolation otherwise.”
        
When the three of us debarked from the Lexington in Los Angeles only a week later, Kearny sent Sherman and me out to Fremont’s hacienda to let him know his escort had arrived.  Fremont couldn’t have expected us.  He was playing a card game with a dark-skinned Californio who didn’t seem like he could be a soldier, dressed as he was in the Californio style with green sash at his waist and the big sombrero.  The Lieutenant-Colonel wore his high boots and no army jacket on a hot spring day in sunny southern California, and a gauzy white shirt, open at the throat, billowed in the cuffs; also a red sash at his waist; not looking much like a soldier himself either, let alone an officer.  He smoked a long cigar and the smoke of it hung in swirls around him and around his laughing partner, who also smoked a cigar and was in that moment taking a trick.

When the partner turned and saw Lieutenant Sherman he quit laughing, however.  Fremont looked and ceased laughing too.  Sherman approached; he was more cordial this time than the last.  He accepted the chair offered.  He accepted the house limonada.  Though he declined to make it a threesome for the next trick.

Even so, he was willing to let Fremont chatter a while about the circumstances of his governance.  Ex-Governor Fremont declared that there would be no more opposition from Mexico.  He had personally seen to that.  It was quiet now at headquarters, with all the troops gone, mustered out as ordered to Colonel Doniphan.  Fremont said he missed them.  Especially the Delaware Indians.  He’d been allowed to keep only one of them.

During a momentary interlude in their conversation, Fremont made a quick but lingering glance in my direction and made again that hint of amused smile.  I could see the wheels of insolence turning in his head, but this time he let that play out without saying anything to me or to Sherman about me, the perpetual witness.  He ignored me.  He said to Sherman, “So you have come all this way with the general himself to escort me back to Monterey?”

Sherman spoke it curtly that this was so.  They would all go immediately back to Monterey, the following day if possible.  Together.  Fremont was surprisingly agreeable it seemed to me, accepting this all as a doom foretold.  But when Sherman told him that we all would be sailing back up to Monterey, Fremont begged for mercy.  “Please no, my constitution cannot bear such a voyage.  From here to Monterey is all uphill, don’t you know, against the current.  It’s a hideous, choppy trip and I would be violently ill for all the days of it.  My doctor will confirm it.”  His voice became pitiful when he saw Sherman still frowning.  “Please, Lieutenant.  Please let me ride north, in the nobility of a horseman, riding the solid earth.  Let me ride north with the only compañeros that are left to me, one last time.  Please.”

Lieutenant Sherman listened to it all, an essentially compassionate soul, and then gave him one of his rare smiles.  “Seasick?  Well—a ride back sounds like just the tonic.  I’m sure you can find me one of those fine horses like you ride, Lieutenant-Colonel, and I’ll ride right along with you, every single mile of the way.  I doubt General Kearny will mind at all.”

No, Kearny didn’t mind.  He and I took ship back to Monterey, and there was no doubt the general enjoyed his return cruise thoroughly, knowing that Sherman on horseback was bringing their man in, on time.  Kearny gave all of us in the office a holiday the day Sherman and Fremont arrived.  This time Kearney insisted that Fremont bed down in military quarters.  Then three weeks later General Kearny rode out of Monterey with John Charles Fremont there at his side, on the last day of May, 1847.  Their little troop of forty-three horseman rode away straight for the foothills, one last stop at Sutter’s Fort, and then their next stop St. Louis, two thousand miles away across the mountains and plains, most of it Indian country.
 
It seemed to everyone that Fremont could only be declared guilty at his court-martial, for the abundance of evidence.  But this afterall was John Charles Fremont.  And he was going home, where Senator Benton would be there, no doubt, to defend him.  And a public voice people listened to, pretty wife Jesse Benton Fremont, to stir up the press for him.  So maybe it was only the beginning of a new Fremont extravaganza.  We would have to wait many months to find out.

Meanwhile we lived there in Monterey a pretty dull life for the rest of the year.  The war was absolutely over.  And now Fremont was gone.  And Sherman was right, all disorder and dissension disappeared.  Of the unmanageable, unpredictable kind that is.  The Fremont kind.
 
The end of that year I remember making a trip to San Francisco with Lieutenant Sherman, to see if the military might buy the old Hudson Bay Company building that Mr. Howard was trying to sell.  While we were there we also looked at the new construction on the sand dunes by the bay, and I was telling him I was pretty sure Mr. Larkin was buying up property in San Francisco.  Bill Sherman doubted that.  He said, “Everyone says that Vallejo and Semple and Larkin are putting all their money into Carquinez, making the town of Benicia, and it will compete with San Francisco.  I think it’s a good bet.  Benicia is where Larkin’s money is going.  Why would he buy in both places at the same time?”
 
Why indeed.  Then I asked Bill Sherman about investing in San Francisco.  That was when I saw another flaw in the remarkable mind of Bill Sherman.  Building lots were going for sixteen dollars apiece.  He laughed in my face.  He said, “Look around you, Sonny.  San Francisco is the most desolate place I have ever seen.  Sand dunes and ugly brush is all it is.  Cold as hell all summer and smothered in fog as well—phew!   I would feel insulted that someone would think me foolish enough to buy in such a horrid place.”  He was so vehement about it that I didn’t go further with it.  Yea, all he said was true, but I already believed in this place. 

Which reminded me of something I’d made myself privy to on Larkin’s desk recently, his rarely-seen accounts journal left momentarily untended.  So I couldn’t resist telling Bill Sherman the very private joke, since it involved everyone’s favorite gossip.  “Our friend Fremont got some bad financial news this week, you might be interested in knowing.  I’ve seen proof that Fremont paid Larkin three thousand dollars a while back, so that Larkin would buy him the huge forty-five thousand acre land grant that the old governor, Alvarado, owns between San Jose and the ocean.  Larkin just recently had to tell him that this prime piece of property was at the last minute not available and that Mr. Larkin has instead bought him forty-five thousand acres in the Sierra foothills from the same ex-governor Alvarado.  Fremont’s very, very unhappy.  He’s demanding his money back.  Three thousand dollars.  Wants it all back.  I read a letter Fremont wrote Larkin just before he left:  It said, ‘That is a horrible piece of ground, I have ridden over it many times, it is a hundred miles from the nearest settlement, impossible to farm or range, that useless Yosemite country right next to it, and the whole damn place is infested with Indians.  The only way that cursed piece of ground would ever have even ten cents of value is if someone discovered ten cents worth of gold there!  I want my money back.’”
 
I laughed, recalling it.  “And Larkin refuses to make a refund.  Fremont says he’ll sue, but that he will not take the land under any circumstances.  But if I know Larkin, Fremont will not beat him in a business deal.  Not even Sam Brannan and Captain Sutter together could beat Mr. Larkin in a business deal.  So it looks like Fremont finally is getting the short end of the situation for a change.”
 
Sherman maybe smiled and maybe didn’t.  He said, “See what I mean, Sonny?  Buying land in California is a very, very risky proposition.  A man could stake a life’s savings and end up with something worthless, like this land Fremont’s bought.  Worthless.  Let that Fremont story be a good lesson to you.  And take my advice too—if you’re going to invest, forget San Francisco, put your money on Benicia with the smart ones.”

The old year had ended and the new one, 1848, had hardly begun and we were expecting the peace to continue.  Settlers would be coming in all spring, like they had for the last six or seven years, likely more of them than last year.  Slowly, happily, peacefully we were going to fill up California and keep law and order until California became a state.  Then gradually it would become like every place else, more and more settled, neat and nice, west coast become like the east coast.  Slowly.  Tranquilly.

But of course that didn’t happen.  Instead we had the first rumblings, the first signs of the volcano that was about to explode in our midst when two trusted friends of John Augustus Sutter showed up that early spring in Monterey, wanting to have a talk with General Mason.  Urgent and private.
 
General Mason brought them into his office next door immediately.  In less than a minute Mason reappeared and motioned for Bill Sherman to join the group.  He did so.

Fifteen minutes later the two visitors re-emerged, along with Lieutenant Sherman, and the two men went outside without looking at me and rode away.  The way everybody kept quiet about it for the next couple of days made me think it was something personal with Sutter.  But finally, three or four days after the event, as Bill Sherman and I came down the stairs after closing the office for the day, he told me all about it.  The two men had shown them maybe a half an ounce of gold in grains and flakes.  Even so, Sherman said, the more he thought about it, it was nothing of importance.
 
Bill Sherman said, “Oh, I went a long with it, why not?  I could see how curious Mason was.  I’d seen gold once in Georgia, been around it a little.  So I took the biggest piece these men had and bit into it.  Yes, it was malleable alright.  Then I got an axe head and pounded the piece until it was flat as a coin.  It was gold alright.  But I couldn’t believe it was any big news.

“Sutter’s men said the gold had come from the tail race where Sutter was building the mill.  He’d already put a lot of time and money into the mill.  He wanted to protect his investment.  He needed a title for that particular area where he’d found the gold.  Ironic here, because Sutter owns half the damn state from the bay to the Sierra, but this little patch, where he found the gold, he doesn’t own.  So he was begging General Mason, just this one more little piece.

“The general said No of course.  No land transactions of any kind could take place till it had been surveyed by the new government.  Sutter’s men left very disappointed.”
 
Then Sherman repeated his evaluation of the whole thing again to me.  “It was nothing of importance.  When I was in San Fernando recently, they’d found gold there a few years ago and some people were even still mining it.  But there was not enough to make any impact on the community.  It was just another basic way to earn a little money.  It didn’t change how anyone did anything.”

I too let it go at that.  Didn’t think another thing about it for a week or two.  Until that most memorable day when I got a private message from Lansford Hastings up in San Francisco, asking me—no, virtually ordering me—to get the hell up there as fast as possible.  And he was right, that changed everything.  And it just went to show:  Bill Sherman may be a formidable, remarkable man, and may have the greatest respect from even the biggest of the big, but some of the most obvious things in the world he didn’t see at all.