The sun hung high. Its scorching heat beat down on the trail of men and animals that stretched for nearly a quarter mile. The desert sand was thick as molasses and slowed the marchers. Captain Juan Diego de La Vega stopped his horse and looked at the faces of his weary men as they tramped past him. The captain sat tall in his saddle and tried to look undisturbed by the blazing heat for his men. They had been marching for fifty-six days. The expedition had set out from Sinaloa in the spring of 1789 with fifty soldiers; two junior officers, Lieutenant Rodriguez and Lieutenant Alvarez; a cook; a blacksmith; two padres; six mules; thirty head of cattle; a dozen horses; and four pigs. The governor had commissioned Captain de La Vega to take command of the presidio in San Diego. Cholera had ravaged the garrison and mission, claiming the ranking officer, Captain Luis Miguel Cortez, among its victims. The presidio had been without a commanding officer for six months.
Brother Timothy, the younger of the two padres traveling with the group, stopped and stared out at the vast desert that lay before them. “Dios mío.”
Captain de La Vega looked down at the cleric, whose face was burnt from the sun. “Dios, indeed,” the captain chuckled, amusement shining in his brilliant blue eyes. He nodded toward the retreating column. “You better grow some wings, Padre.”
The captain took off at a gallop. The horse was a Madrid-bred black stallion and a present from his father. Juan Diego had named the stallion Tornado. The captain glanced over his shoulder. Brother Timothy rushed to catch up.
The captain had little use for the clergy. He was twenty-eight and a free thinker. His father, Alfredo de La Vega, had sent him to the Sorbonne. Alfredo owned a fleet of merchant ships and traded from Africa and the Orient and back to Europe. He hoped his son would take over the family business. When Juan Diego had expressed a desire to join the army and travel to New Spain, Alfredo had not stood in his way.
Alfredo was unique among the burgeoning Spanish middle class. He eschewed the use of slaves. He felt no man had the right to own another and had instilled that belief in his son. He paid greater shares to his sailors and those who worked in his warehouse. Alfredo believed in the dignity of man. He viewed the church as a plague on the people, keeping the majority in poverty in order to control them through fear.
Captain de La Vega swung the caravan south of the Gila River to avoid possible contact with Apache marauders. So far four men had perished from fever and the heat. They were buried in sandy graves with no markers, and the troops moved on. Three more soldiers suffered from the fever. Too sick to march, they were borne on litters. The captain and his men rested and replenished their water and food supplies at the outpost in Yuma before crossing the Colorado. Lieutenant Alvarez volunteered to remain behind with the sick men. He vowed to continue on as soon as the soldiers were healthy. Once across the Colorado, Captain de La Vega led the contingent north to avoid having to cross the deadly Algodones Dunes that lay just west of Yuma. Once past the region, the captain turned his troops west and marched straight for the coast some two hundred miles beyond.
The ocean beckoned like a siren. When the men finally saw the Pacific, they dropped their swords and lances, shed their uniforms, and raced toward the cool green waters. Captain de La Vega rode Tornado into the foaming surf. The horse whinnied as the waves broke upon his legs. The captain patted the stallion’s neck.
Lieutenant Luis Rodriguez rode up. He was twenty-four and had served under the captain for five years. He was lean with dark brown hair and was an excellent swordsman and scholar. Captain de La Vega had chosen Lieutenant Rodriguez to accompany him on this new command not for his scholarship but rather for his loyalty. Rodriguez would march into the bowels of hell if Captain de La Vega requested it.
“We’ve made it,” Lieutenant Rodriguez said.
“So far,” the captain cautioned. “We don’t know what awaits us.”
The troops camped on the beach that night. The men ate fish they had caught and cooked over an open fire. The following day the column marched up the coast. Within an hour Captain de La Vega was able to see the presidio with his eyeglass. The fort sat high on a promontory with an excellent view of north, south, east, and west. The base of the hill was primarily scrub, but the rise was lush with trees.
The fact that no one from the fort came to greet them did not bode well. The captain had better than three dozen soldiers and plenty of livestock. Even if the fort had been decimated by the epidemic, he had enough men to hold on until Mexico City could send additional troops. Captain de La Vega left four men with the livestock on the beach. He and Lieutenant Rodriguez marched at the head of the troop as they wound their way up the steep road to the presidio.
There was no sentry at the gate. As Captain de La Vega and the troops marched into the courtyard, the few soldiers that remained at the presidio paid them little heed. They were too busy engaged in games of cards and dice and just plain general laziness to give the visitors any real bother at first. All the soldiers were out of uniform, preferring pants or long johns and open tunics. Slowly the soldiers became aware that an officer was present and ceased their activities. They stared silently at Captain de La Vega and his troops as if the contingent were a mirage.
Captain de La Vega got off his horse. He and Lieutenant Rodriguez made a quick reconnaissance of the presidio. The presidio soldiers stood stone still. The barracks were unkempt, the stables needed turning, and the officers’ quarters hadn’t been cleaned. Captain de La Vega and Lieutenant Rodriguez looked out from the presidio’s promontory. The fort had an excellent command of the entire coast. A lush valley lay just below to the north. A river flowed lazily through the valley, finally emptying into the Pacific.
The captain and lieutenant descended the stairs.
“Bugler, sound general quarters,” the captain ordered.
A young, fresh-faced soldier blew the call. The presidio soldiers scrambled to get in formation. Captain de La Vega’s troops stood facing them. The captain walked down the line of presidio soldiers, eyeing the bedraggled bunch. Some of the men nervously attempted to tuck in their tunics and button their jackets.
“I am Captain Juan Diego de La Vega. I am your new commander. Where are the rest of the men assigned to this fort?”
A short soldier whose face was hollowed from hunger raised his arm.
Captain de La Vega set his sights on the man, who looked like a decent wind would knock him over. “Yes, soldier?”
“Sergeant Acuna, Captain. Many have died from the fever. Some went to the beaches where food is more plentiful. Some …” The sergeant shrugged his shoulders. “This is what remains of your command.”
Captain de La Vega nodded. “Who is in command?”
“I am the highest-ranking man left, Captain,” Sergeant Acuna replied. “Father Montoya from the mission has assumed control of the food and water.”
The captain glanced at the two priests who had traveled with the caravan. They both stood silent.
Captain de La Vega looked at the sergeant. “And where is Father Montoya?”
Sergeant Acuna shifted his weight uneasily. “The priest took three men and went to hunt Indians.”
The captain kept a stone countenance. “Why is Father Montoya hunting Indians? I was under the impression most of the local Natives were friendly. Have they suddenly turned hostile?”
“No, Captain. The Indians, they run away from the mission. Father Montoya needs soldiers to recapture them.”
Captain de La Vega fixed the troops with a hard look. “From here on no soldier is to assist Father Montoya. Sergeant, I want a man to take four of my soldiers and find those who have deserted this post. If the men are here and ready for review at sunrise, there will be no reprisals. Any who refuse or fail to return by the prescribed hour will be considered deserters and dealt with as such. The rest of you men will get this fort into shape immediately. As of now, any man out of uniform will be fined a week’s wages and draw sentry duty for a month. Understand?”
“Yes, Captain,” the soldiers answered in unison.
The men scattered in a dozen different directions, all looking to show their new commander they were worthy and able.
“Sergeant Acuna,” the captain said.
“Take two of my men and bring back the soldiers Father Montoya borrowed.”
Sergeant Acuna shifted his gaze. “Yes, Captain. What should I tell him?”
Captain de La Vega smiled. “You can tell Father Montoya that I am now in command of the presidio.”
The sergeant saluted and raced away.
Captain de La Vega looked at Lieutenant Rodriguez. “It appears the good priest fashions himself the pope, Luis.”
Lieutenant Luis Rodriguez noticed the two priests staring at the captain. He leaned close and whispered, “I would be circumspect in your speech, sir.”
Captain de La Vega smiled. “Come, let’s go and find our quarters.”
By sundown the soldiers sent to search for men along the beach had returned. All but five soldiers from the presidio were accounted for. Captain de La Vega now had a command of sixty men, more than enough to run the fort efficiently.
Sergeant Acuna returned with the soldiers Father Montoya had taken. He informed the captain that Father Montoya expected him at the mission for morning mass.
“It is a sixteen-mile ride to the mission,” the captain remarked after Sergeant Acuna exited the officers’ quarters. “I’ll be damned if I’ll make that ride that early.”
Lieutenant Rodriguez nodded and took a drink of wine from his tankard. “Hopefully the padre’s vintage will be better than this swill.”
The two men laughed and toasted each other on a job well done.
The following morning the captain and five of his men, including Sergeant Acuna, rode out of the presidio for the mission.
Lieutenant Rodriguez was now in charge. He immediately set about inspecting the men’s quarters and holding close order drills. The lieutenant was determined to whip the troops into shape in short order. After three hours of drilling the lieutenant had the men gather in a large circle. He selected Corporal Vargas, and they proceeded to fence. Miguel Vargas was a young man of twenty who had crossed the desert with Captain de La Vega. Rodriguez enjoyed fencing with the young man, who was proving to be quite skilled with a sword.
Jorge Escobar, a private who had abandoned the fort for a life on the beach, shuffled through the presidio’s gates. He had been reluctant to return with the rest of the men, but when he didn’t hear the gunfire of an execution squad, he’d decided to return. The other soldiers whispered at the sight of the bedraggled man. His face and arms were dark from the sun, and he wore no boots. The fencing exhibition came to a halt. Lieutenant Rodriguez stepped out of the ring and faced the AWOL soldier. The man stopped and saluted his superior. The lieutenant didn’t return the salute.
“What is your name?” Lieutenant Rodriguez asked.
“Private Escobar, sir.”
“Corporal Vargas, you will place this man under arrest,” the lieutenant ordered.
The private gave the lieutenant a pleading look. “But, sir, the men said if I returned there would be no—”
Lieutenant Rodriguez held up his hand, silencing the soldier. “You were told to return to the fort by sunrise. You failed to do so. You are now a deserter.”
“But, sir, I did return.”
Rodriguez knew the soldiers were waiting to see how he would react. He was faced with a dilemma. Private Escobar was one of the presidio soldiers. He hadn’t crossed the desert with Captain de La Vega. The lieutenant knew that the captain needed all the troops working together. If Rodriguez mishandled this situation, it could split the two factions and prove disastrous for the presidio’s command.
“Corporal Torres, what were the captain’s orders concerning the men absent from the fort?” Lieutenant Rodriguez asked. Torres was one of the soldiers who had left the fort for the beach and returned when informed of the new command.
“The captain’s orders were that any man not accounted for at morning roll call would be considered a deserter, sir,” the corporal replied.
“Is this man in uniform, Corporal Torres?”
“You and Corporal Vargas will escort the prisoner to his cell immediately,” the lieutenant ordered.
The soldiers watched silently as the two corporals placed Private Escobar in the hold.
“Corporal Torres, you and Corporal Vargas are in charge. One more hour of drills.”
Corporal Torres saluted. “Yes, sir.”
Lieutenant Rodriguez marched up the stairs to the officers’ quarters. He made sure the men didn’t see his hands shaking. He poured himself a glass of wine and took a long drink. The wine steadied his nerves. He sat down in a chair. This was the first time he had been in charge of a fort. He had ordered men in the field, but that was different. A hot pit formed in his stomach. He drank more wine. Lieutenant Rodriguez realized he did not enjoy being the man in charge.
The mission sat in a valley surrounded by hills filled with olive trees and brown scrub. A shallow stream ran nearby. Captain de La Vega and the soldiers rode into the mission courtyard. Father Montoya was flogging an Indian whose arms were tied to two posts. Dozens of other Natives stood silently watching. The cleric didn’t bother to stop when the soldiers arrived. He only laid the lash harder on the Indian’s back as a means to impress the captain. This did not achieve the desired effect.
Captain de La Vega slid off his horse, marched over to the priest, and grabbed the whip from the fat man’s hand.
“What is the meaning of this?” the priest demanded.
“I should ask you the same question, Father.”
Father Montoya lowered his arm and smiled. “You must be Captain de La Vega.”
The captain gave a nod. “Might I inquire why you are flogging this man?”
“It is a church matter,” Father Montoya replied.
“Ahhh, so this man sinned?”
“He has,” the priest replied.
The captain pulled a dagger and cut the ropes binding the Indian. The man collapsed to the ground.
“What are you doing?” Father Montoya demanded.
Captain de La Vega ignored the cleric. He motioned to the group of Indians. Two young men stepped forward. They took their bloodied companion and hurriedly carried him away.
“This is the mission. I am in charge here,” Father Montoya said.
The captain turned and faced the priest. “Lucky, that you wear the robes of a priest.”
“That savage deserted the mission. He must be punished.”
Captain de La Vega nodded. “You are indeed in charge of the mission, Father. But I am the presidio’s captain. No man shall be a slave in San Diego as long as I am in command.”
The priest’s cold gray eyes met the captain’s. “These heathens are not men like you and me, Captain.”
Captain de La Vega offered the priest a smile. “All creatures are the children of God, Father, or did you Franciscans forget that when you burned the Jesuits at the stake?”
“Careful, Captain—one might think you a heretic,” Father Montoya replied coldly.
Captain de La Vega chuckled. “The Inquisition is dead, priest.” A cold expression filled his tanned face. “If you whip another Indian, rest assured you will not appreciate the consequences, Father.”
The captain got on his horse.
“The devil rode a black steed,” Father Montoya said.
Captain de La Vega reined the horse and gazed down at the cleric. “Your old wives’ tales are boring, priest.”
The captain clicked his tongue and gave the stallion his way. Tornado raced from the mission. Father Montoya was covered in dust as the troopers galloped off following the captain.
Captain de La Vega created an enemy in Father Montoya that day. The priest was enraged with De La Vega’s interference in the running of the mission. Father Montoya had to be careful and not challenge the captain directly, so he began a letter campaign. He wrote to the viceroy in Spain, to the bishop of Madrid, and even to the pope. He did not write to Mexico City. The governor had appointed De La Vega to the post and would not take kindly to a priest complaining about his choice for command. Father Montoya wrote his letters, and then he waited patiently.
The sentry on the presidio tower called out, “A ship! A ship!” It had been sixteen months since the last Spanish galleon had docked in the harbor. Private Mendez hastened to Lieutenant Rodriguez’s door and informed him of the vessel’s appearance. The lieutenant grabbed his spyglass and dashed from his quarters. He climbed the presidio’s tower, where the sentry stood. There was virtually no wind. The sun beat down on the white walls of the fort. Rodriguez shielded his eyes and looked out at the calm Pacific.
The sentry pointed in the direction of the ship. “South on the horizon, sir.”
The lieutenant peered through his glass. The ship was still too far to make out its colors. With no wind it would take hours for the ship to reach the harbor. Rodriguez closed the glass and climbed down. He walked over to Sergeant Acuna, who stood at the wall, and said, “She won’t make harbor until nightfall.”
“The captain is with the Natives at the river,” the sergeant replied.
Rodriguez nodded. “Get my horse, Sergeant. I will go and find the captain.”
Sergeant Acuna saluted the lieutenant and hurried off. Rodriguez returned to his room, retrieved a canteen, and headed toward the stables. Sergeant Acuna was waiting, holding the lieutenant’s horse. The white stallion snorted as the lieutenant swung up into the saddle.
“You are in charge, Sergeant.”
Sergeant Acuna saluted his superior officer. Lieutenant Rodriguez clicked his tongue, and the stallion galloped out of the gates.
The San Diego presidio was Spain’s primary fort in Alta California. There wasn’t another until Los Angeles, and that was nothing compared to the San Diego presidio. The missions were the primary manner by which Spain established its foothold in the region. The missions grew crops, which were sold in Spain and essential to the Spanish economy, and were involved in commerce. Commerce meant money. The San Diego mission was the largest and most prosperous of Padre Serra’s religious fiefdom. It had nearly eight hundred Natives working under the tutelage of Father Montoya and his monks. Captain de La Vega had upset the paradigm. Many Indians ran off. Father Montoya and his monks were able to coerce some to return with threats of excommunication and eternal damnation.
The Luiseño Natives resisted Father Montoya’s demands to join the other mission Indians. They preferred to utilize the abundant natural resources in the area rather than depend on the mission for their sustenance. Captain de La Vega had exacerbated the issue when he’d outlawed the imprisoning of Indians within the walls of the mission at night. Previously the priests had chained runaways at sunset. If an Indian ran a second time they were flogged. A third escape and the offender’s Achilles tendon was cut. Burdened by a near-useless leg, the offender had little chance of escaping again. This was the will of Father Montoya’s God. He had appeared to the priest in his dreams and instructed him in converting the savages, or so Father Montoya told any who would listen.
Captain de La Vega did not listen. He did not actually free the Indians, but he stood between Father Montoya and the lash. The successful operation of the mission required that the Natives plant and harvest the crops. The presidio received a share of the crops for the upkeep of the soldiers. It would be complete disaster if all the Natives ran away. The captain made sure no Native was flogged and prohibited his soldiers from hunting runaways. Over the year and a half the captain presided as the presidio commander, many Indians abandoned the mission. Many also remained. They knew no other way of life.
The captain took a liking to the Luiseño. Tu-chai-pai was the man De La Vega had saved from flogging. The captain called him Toochi. The Luiseño would occasionally trade fish and game for brass buttons or knives with some of the soldiers outside of the presidio. The Natives were intimidated by the large edifice with its high walls and bell tower. Captain de La Vega believed he and the soldiers could learn from the Luiseño. The Natives had survived for centuries without armor, guns, or horses.
The winters were relatively mild but could be wet, causing the river in the valley below the presidio to rise and overflow. The summers were hot, and water could be scarce when the river shrank to a trickle. The ocean was nearby, but the men were soldiers, not fishermen.
Captain de La Vega would ride to the Native village north of the river. He wanted to show them that the soldiers posed no threat. At first the Luiseño were wary of the captain. He had saved Toochi, but their history with the Spanish was not a positive one. Over time Captain de La Vega built up Toochi’s trust. Still, many Luiseño continued to have no more than minimal contact with the soldiers. Toochi sought the captain’s company, though. Toochi was certain the man who wore an iron chest and rode the four-legged beast had magic. The Luiseño might learn magic from such a man.
De La Vega rode through the scrub. He had traded with the Luiseño and had four ducks slung across his saddle along with a basket of fish. Even with Father Montoya being a thorn in his rear, the captain loved New Spain. He and Lieutenant Rodriguez had gotten the men into shape, and the fort now ran smoothly. Because of the captain’s relationship with the Luiseño, the attacks on patrols had all but ceased.
Lieutenant Alvarez and the men who had stayed behind in Yuma never made it to the presidio. After a month the captain had sent out a patrol in search of Alvarez and the others. Sergeant Acuna and his men returned three weeks later empty-handed. Lieutenant Alvarez and the other soldiers were never found. Captain de La Vega had sent word to Mexico with a request for reinforcements. The governor’s reply was brief and to the point. The captain would have to make do.
The captain saw Lieutenant Rodriguez riding toward him. De La Vega held up the lines of fowl he had traded with the Natives. “We’ll eat well tonight, Luis,” he chuckled.
“There is a ship, Captain.”
“The first in ten months. What is the country of origin?”
“I do not know, sir. She most likely won’t make landing till evening.”
The captain reattached the ducks to his saddle and sighed. “Let us get back then. Pity, it was such a nice day.”
The sun sat high in the clear blue sky. A flock of birds suddenly sailed from a large pepper tree and took flight. The horses snorted as the two officers rode toward the presidio.
The Paloma arrived after sundown as Lieutenant Rodriguez had predicted and spent the night anchored outside the harbor. The ship’s commander, Captain Petro Vasquez, sent a boat ashore with a message for Captain de La Vega. He conveyed his greetings and requested the captain to remain at the presidio and send a carriage to the harbor the following morning. The viceroy’s adjutant was on board and wanted to remain anonymous since his visit regarded matters of state. Corporal Torres, who had delivered the message to Captain de La Vega, asked if he cared to reply.
“Tell them a carriage will be waiting.”
The corporal saluted and exited the captain’s quarters. Lieutenant Rodriguez entered the room a few moments later. De La Vega handed Rodriguez the message penned by the ship’s captain. The lieutenant read the parchment and looked at his commander.
“What do you think this means?” Rodriguez asked.
Captain de La Vega took a cigar from the humidor on the mantel and offered one to the lieutenant, who declined. “Who knows? It’s been ten months since the last ship docked here, and that was a French merchant ship. We haven’t heard anything from Mexico in over a year.”
“It will be nice to get news from Spain,” the lieutenant said.
De La Vega picked up the oil lamp and lit his cigar. “Yes.” The captain gazed out the window and exhaled a cloud of smoke. The stars hung heavy in the sky. A hawk called out to its mate. De La Vega turned back to the junior officer. “Do you ever get the feeling that this might be home?”
“What, here?” Rodriguez replied. “We’re surrounded by Natives, and there isn’t a decent tavern let alone an opera house within a thousand miles.”
“Don’t you ever get the feeling that we’re building something here?”
“We have the fort, and yes, the town has grown … some. But it is a wilderness, a vast wilderness. Don’t you remember the trail we crossed to get here?”
Captain de La Vega smiled. “That was a march.”
“No, Captain, I long for Madrid and home.”
Captain de La Vega puffed on his cigar and gave his friend a pat on the shoulder. “I am glad you have been with me on our little adventure, Luis. Tomorrow we will see the viceroy’s adjutant.”
Lieutenant Rodriguez started out the door, and then turned. “You like it here, don’t you?”
The captain smiled, a cloud of smoke circling his head. “Yes.”
The Paloma slipped into the calm-water harbor at sunrise. A few of the settlement’s residents came down to the beach. The soldiers from the presidio shooed them away. Two rowboats, each carrying a dozen soldiers, were lowered and rowed to shore. A thin, effeminate-looking man with a powdered white face stepped from one of the boats onto land. He was dressed in the grandest fashion that Spanish tailors could design, complete with ruffled cuffs and a bright-red vest. Behind him was a large man with a thick black moustache. The large man was dressed in high boots with a long leather coat and a tricorne hat. A cutlass hung from his side in a shiny brass scabbard held by a dark blue sash.
Sergeant Acuna stepped forward and met the two men. “I am Sergeant Acuna—”
The finely dressed man gave Acuna a look that froze the sergeant’s blood. The dandy and the big man boarded the carriage without a word. The big man slapped his hand on the side of the carriage, signaling the driver to take off. The team jolted, and the carriage took off, barely giving Sergeant Acuna time to get seated in his saddle. He signaled his men to follow. The soldiers from the two longboats remained on shore as the troopers rode off after the carriage.
Captain de La Vega and Lieutenant Rodriguez stood with an honor guard in the presidio courtyard waiting to greet the carriage. The two officers wore their dress uniforms. A sentry called out the vehicle’s progress to the fort as it approached. The carriage came through the gates and stopped. Sergeant Acuna and his troopers dismounted. They were dusty from riding in the carriage’s wake.
The carriage door opened, and the fancily dressed man stepped out and gazed about the presidio. “Quaint.”
The big man followed. He saw the number of soldiers and frowned.
Captain de La Vega stepped forward. “I am Captain de La Vega, commander of the presidio. This is my junior officer, Lieutenant Rodriguez.”
The fop glanced at the two officers. “I do not care to conduct business in the courtyard, Captain.”
The captain gave a nod. “Of course.” He gestured toward his office. “Please.”
Captain de La Vega escorted the two visitors across the courtyard and to his office. He was surprised when the dandy took a seat behind his own desk. Lieutenant Rodriguez gave the captain a look, but De La Vega’s expression told him to hold his tongue. The large man entered last and closed the door behind him.
“Sir, might I ask the purpose of your visit?” Captain de La Vega asked. “I assume you are the viceroy’s adjutant.” He glanced at the man standing by the door. “And you must be Captain Vasquez of the Paloma.”
The adjutant removed a leather packet from his jacket and slid it across the desk. “That should explain everything, Captain.”
De La Vega opened up the packet, removed the parchment inside, and read it. The document was an official edict from the viceroy of Spain to immediately transfer power of command to Alfonso Gabriel De Soto, adjutant to the viceroy, complete with the viceroy’s seal. De La Vega handed the document to Lieutenant Rodriguez.
“What does this mean?” the lieutenant asked after reading the document.
Alfonso sat up in the chair and looked at the two officers. “I know you both have been in New Spain for some time, so let me bring you up to date. The mob has overthrown King Louis in France. At the moment Catholic Spain does not have problems with France.” He shrugged his shoulders. “But who can tell. War with England will be inevitable. Which brings us to our colony of New Spain, whose primary purpose for existing is to bring profit to the mother country. Since taking command of the presidio, Captain de La Vega has allowed Natives to escape from the mission. This has resulted in a twelve percent drop in revenue over the previous year. This type of loss is unacceptable.” Alfonso stopped for a moment. He glanced at the ship’s captain, who remained standing by the door.
Captain de La Vega looked at the short man in the silk suit and lace and smiled. “So Father Montoya has finally gotten somebody’s ear.”
“The Natives have all but ceased their attacks on the settlers since the captain has taken command,” Lieutenant Rodriguez blurted out in defense of his superior.
Captain de La Vega signaled Rodriguez not to protest.
A slight smile slipped across Alfonso’s lips. “Loyalty in the ranks, that is good.” The smile fell, and the adjutant’s expression turned cold. “What this means, Lieutenant Rodriguez, is that Captain de La Vega is no longer the commander of this presidio. I am. When the captain’s father died three years ago and Juan Diego chose to stay in New Spain instead of returning home to manage his father’s affairs, the lawyers and creditors did so. De La Vega Merchants is no more. How can such a man command this presidio?”
Captain de La Vega slowly sank down into a chair. The news was like a punch to the gut. Alfonso had died while Juan Diego had been fighting the Natives in Vera Cruz. He’d never told his son of his failing health. By the time Juan Diego had gotten the news, Alfredo had been buried four months. Juan Diego hadn’t been interested in the family business. He enjoyed being a soldier and had seen no need to return to Spain. Salvadore de Gazi, the family attorney, had assured him he would look after business matters. He had. Three years later he’d owned the company. De Gazi had done what all good lawyers do—steal within the boundaries of the law.
Lieutenant Rodriguez took a step toward Alfonso. A dagger instantly appeared in Captain Vasquez’s hand, and he held it to the lieutenant’s throat. Captain de La Vega jumped to his feet. Alfonso held up his hand.
“Captain Vasquez, I don’t believe that will be necessary,” Alfonso said. “There is no need for an incident. Wouldn’t you agree, Juan Diego?”
The captain knew if he attempted to pull his sword, Vasquez would slice the lieutenant’s throat. He could call for soldiers, but Vasquez would most likely kill Rodriguez anyway. Juan Diego de La Vega was no longer in command of the presidio.
The captain held up his hands. “Please, no violence. I will turn over my command.”
Alfonso smiled. “That is wise.” He gave a look to Vasquez. Reluctantly the captain lowered the weapon but kept it handy.
“You and the lieutenant are to relinquish your positions,” Alfonso said. “You are welcome to—”
Lieutenant Rodriguez went for his sword. Vasquez thrust his dagger into the lieutenant’s heart. Rodriguez was dead before he hit the floor. The helpless De La Vega stared down at his slain friend.
“As I was saying, Captain, before your lieutenant rudely interrupted me, you are welcome to travel back to Madrid on the Paloma, or you may remain in New Spain, but you will not be allowed within fifty miles of the presidio or the mission.”
“Do you think the men will merely step aside and allow you to command this presidio?” De La Vega asked.
“The viceroy’s seal and sixty soldiers on the Paloma say I am now commander of the presidio. Those who refuse to obey my orders will be executed.”
De La Vega hung his head. He knew there was little he could do. Alfonso was correct; the soldiers would follow his orders. Juan Diego knelt next to his friend’s body and brushed back Lieutenant Rodriguez’s hair. “He wanted to return to Spain. I will remain here.”
“He had his chance,” Alfonso replied coldly. “You have one hour to vacate the fort. You may take a horse and two days’ rations.”
De La Vega stood and silently exited the room.
Alfonso smiled at Vasquez. “I told you this would be easy. Signal the ship for the rest of the troops to come ashore.”
Vasquez reached down and pulled his dagger from the dead man. He wiped it off on the lieutenant’s tunic, slipped it in its scabbard, and looked at Alfonso. “I will never understand why the viceroy gave you command, but he did, and he gave me four hundred gold sovereigns to deliver you here safely, which I have done. You may command the presidio, but you do not command me, sodomite. I am returning to my ship and will send the soldiers to the fort. The Paloma sails at first tide. You are on your own then.” The burly man snorted.
Alfonso’s sword appeared in his hand, and in a blur it sliced a two-inch gash on Vasquez’s cheek. “I do prefer the company of men, Petro. Something you’ll never be.” The silver blade flashed through the air, stopping just short of slicing Vasquez’s balls. “It would do you well to remember that.”
Vasquez glanced down at the sword that was centimeters from his manhood. He broke out in a cold sweat, looked up at the small man, and nodded. Alfonso’s sword flashed through the air once more as it returned to its scabbard.
“You are dismissed, Petro.”
Vasquez silently exited the office.
The troops from the ship arrived. Lieutenant Rodriguez’s body was removed, and Alfonso Gabriel De Soto assumed command of the presidio, all before morning tea. Sergeant Acuna and the other soldiers might not have cared for their new commander, but they were soldiers and obeyed orders. Alfonso stood on the parapet and observed Juan Diego leaving the fort. As soon as De La Vega reached the riverbed below, Alfonso sent three of his men to follow the captain with orders to kill him if he attempted to double back.
De La Vega stayed close to the river. He would travel north. He had heard stories of great forests with trees so tall and dense they blocked out the sky. If that was true, there would be plenty of lumber to build a home. Losing his father’s company was not the tragedy most would believe it to be. On the contrary, De La Vega was relieved. Now there was no reason to ever return to Spain. He would make his stand in the New World.
The wind blew a soft breeze. De La Vega no longer wore his armor or helmet. He was dressed in high boots, leather pants, a cotton tunic, and loose-fitting jacket, which he had taken off and tied behind his saddle. He watched the Paloma sail out of the harbor and head north, hugging the coast.
As the captain rode, he got the feeling he was being followed. He and Tornado continued along the Camino Real for a number of miles. Something caught De La Vega’s eye, a glint of belt buckle, and he guided Tornado into an area of tall reeds. The captain patted the horse’s neck and listened. A flock of gulls flew overhead. A horse neighed. De La Vega dismounted and led the horse through the high reeds, then stopped and waited silently. He heard approaching horses.
“Where did he go?” a man asked.
“I’m telling you he went into the reeds,” another man said.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going in there,” a third man said. “The adjutant didn’t pay me enough money to get my throat slit.”
Leading Tornado, De La Vega worked his way around to flank the area from where the voices came. He stopped and crouched low among the reeds and observed three troopers on horseback about thirty yards away. He did not recognize any of the men. All three wore armor and helmets. One was a large man with a thick beard astride a gray steed. He rode over to a shorter, clean-shaven man riding a brown mare. The third man was the youngest. He looked to be no more than sixteen or seventeen and rode a white stallion.
“I’m not about to go in there,” the man with the beard said.
“What will we tell the adjutant?” the man on the brown mare asked.
“Our orders were to make sure De La Vega never returns,” the young man on the white stallion said. “You two can tell the adjutant what you want. I’m going to carry out his orders.”
The young man dug his spurs into the flanks of his horse, and the stallion barreled into the patch of reeds. The two troopers waited for a moment and then reluctantly followed. Juan Diego silently led Tornado out of the reeds. When they were a good distance away, he mounted and rode off. He would have only a few minutes’ lead and wanted to make the most of the opportunity. He rode toward the beach and then doubled back, making sure to travel in the rocky area off the main road.
That evening De La Vega set up a cold camp. He hobbled Tornado and made his way south on foot. It didn’t take him long to see the fire where the troopers made camp. By the size of their campfire, he figured they must be over a mile due south. De La Vega crept back to his camp and bedded down for the night. He was up before sunrise and on his way.
De La Vega had lost one of his canteens in the reeds the day before and needed to make for the river, which lay due east. He made it shortly after sunrise. He crouched by the riverbank and filled his canteen. He took a tortilla from his saddlebag and ate it. He would need to replace the canteen. His food stores would only last him another day or two. He hoped to make the pueblo of Los Angeles that day.
A group of Luiseño was at the river. They paid the captain little heed. He cut a brass button from his jacket and walked over to where the Natives were catching fish. He traded the button for a gourd, which would act as a second canteen, and three fish. He built a small fire and cooked one of the fish. He cleaned the other two and set them out to dry in the sun.
The captain ate his meal and watched as the Native children attempted to catch fish like the elders. He wrapped his remaining fish in palm fronds and put them in the saddlebag. It was nearing midmorning when he mounted Tornado and started north again. He hadn’t gone more than a mile when he heard gunfire and the screams of terrified children. He turned Tornado and started back for the river.
The three troopers who had been pursuing De La Vega had come upon the Natives fishing and opened fire on them. Those they didn’t kill would be taken back and handed over to Father Montoya.
“Get the women,” the young soldier on the white stallion shouted.
The bearded trooper and his companion chased down a group that was attempting to flee. A number of bodies lay floating in the river. The bearded trooper speared a young male with his lance and rode two children down, crushing them under the hooves of his horse.
Juan Diego rode with his sword held high. With a single slash he beheaded the bearded soldier. The large man’s torso slid from the saddle as his horse galloped away. The young trooper fired his pistol. The shot went wild and missed De La Vega. The captain turned and rode toward the young man on the white stallion. Tornado collided into the horse. Juan Diego knocked the trooper from his saddle, and they both fell to the ground. The young trooper scrabbled to his feet, but De La Vega was faster. He spun and sliced the air with his sword. The blade came down on the soldier’s head, splitting his skull. De La Vega turned his sword ready. The clean-shaven trooper was astride his horse, his eyes filled with fear as he looked at De La Vega. He dug his spurs into the mare and raced away. De La Vega checked on Tornado and found the horse unharmed. He looked in the direction of the fleeing trooper. A cloud of dust was all that could be seen as the soldier fled the scene of carnage and death.
Children cried. Women wept. De La Vega helped the Natives gather their dead. He made a litter and placed three of the dead braves upon it. He knew he should have pursued the trooper and killed him, but he hadn’t. The man had seen him kill two soldiers of Spain. Juan Diego was now an outlaw. The Natives marched away from the river heading east toward their camp. De La Vega followed with Tornado, carrying their dead home.