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 running errands, 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. 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.
That lit up something in me. I hadn’t any romantic 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. Our government had just one representative in California, Mr. Thomas Oliver Larkin, who had been for a few 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 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 was to 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 the packet bound to me 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 package.
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 what 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 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 finally 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 while he 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. This 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 any way 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. All that who, what, where, when, why, and 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 great 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 intently at me; 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 the 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 will 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. 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 my daughter. 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, both Mexican and American. 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, Mr. Larkin and I were on the trail. Soon he 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 those Bear Flaggers are, and they are 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 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 good 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 dozen or so that captured Mariano and put up the bear flag. Since then, Fremont has recruited a few hundred more, 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. And 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 great herds of 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— de la Guerra, Carrillo, Pico, Alvarado, Castro, 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’d 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. 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. Thirty or forty 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 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. Our 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 José 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 José 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 the soldier beside him 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.” Then to José Chavez: “You’re riding with Captain Manuel, aren’t you, José? Someone told me 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 of the 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 señor. 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 led me outside to the horse I’d ridden the day before. 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 against 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 an hour or two 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 out 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. “José, 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, José 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, Lieutenant 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 in 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 Sunday 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, José. 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.”
Then everything got hushed around the circle and I noticed there seemed to be American soldiers 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 belly 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 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, mi amigo, 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 him, 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. 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 was Larkin’s horse. Instantly Chavez’ horse, not hobbled, began struggling fiercely to stand, and nothing we could do could prevent him. Standing at last, he bolted away from us and I was surprised that bullets didn’t get him. My own horse still breathed, but now it was excited and shook 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. 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 americanos 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 Fremont’s horses at the rancho.”
Lieutenant José 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 to answer 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, José. 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, Señor 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 be so cheaply 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 José 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 dead 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, despite his wound, startling the living horse, but still grabbed the reins and held them tightly. I was ecstatic. Chavez gave the reins to me and sank back onto the dirt with a groan. 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 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 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 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 wound.
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. He is the leader of the Men of Monterey, who fight for Californio independence from Mexico”
“And whom you would not exchange for Señor 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, señora. Un americano.”
I lifted my hand to indicate I was that one. I saw her beauty, 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 José 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 without conflict. 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 it would happen. So. The war is back in our faces and we must take part, whether we would or no. So. Señor José 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, Señor?”
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, I see the young ones 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. 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 Mexican officer 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.”
Moments later 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 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 back east, like Larkin’s fine furniture. 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 spoke to me.
“First, on behalf of my brother, I thank you for bringing your message from Señor Larkin. I can’t believe that anything will come of that. He knows what Señor Larkin’s value is to our military. 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 how any of those words related to what was actually happening. 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, Señora, 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 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 bebé.”
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 her mistress. La Doña spoke back and the servant left the room. To me she said, “Remain in that chair, Señor 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, none of them in uniform, with rifles and pistols in their hands. 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 suddenly intensified till it seemed a sovereign’s command. There would be no disputing 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 he 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’d convince 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? ”