Retreat (Robledo Mountain #3)
Copyright© 2020 by Kraken
We found Juan inventorying a large stack of adobe bricks on one side of the yard. His back was to us as we walked up, and we heard him mumbling something under his breath about crazy stupid Anglos. Tom and I grinned at each other. I cleared my throat, watching Juan jump and turn around with a startled look on his face.
“I hope it isn’t us you’re mad at, Juan. I just got back, so it can’t be me.”
He laughed and said, “No, it’s those soldiers at the fort. They can’t make up their minds whether they want stone or adobe bricks. Meanwhile, the adobe bricks I made for their last order are sitting here. If they don’t decide soon, a lot of these will be lost during the rainy season.”
Tom and I looked at Juan with puzzlement clear on our faces, and Juan continued, “Some soldier came up from El Paso and told the fort commander that the army had decided that adobe was a substandard building material, and to delay all contracts until they came up with a replacement. Now they are looking at stone as a replacement, but they don’t like that they’ll have to pay more than triple what adobe costs.”
“Did they say why they thought adobe was a substandard material?” I asked.
Juan snorted before replying, “They said the roofs leak after a couple of years. The damn gringos who designed the buildings in El Paso built flat roofs, with a six-inch-high ledge around the top and didn’t put in any drainage holes. So, every time it rains, the water sits on the roof. After a year or two, the adobe gets saturated, and of course, it starts to leak. The part that makes me so mad is that Jorge and I wrote them a report when we’d finished building the first group of buildings. It specifically talks about how the buildings are to be designed to prevent leaking, as well as how to maintain them so they’ll provide many years of use.”
Tom snorted and said, “Sounds about right for army thinking.”
I ignored Tom’s snort and asked, “Have you tried to talk to the commander about this Juan?”
Juan got so mad he actually stomped his foot as he said, “I’ve been over there at least once a week for the last month, but I always get some excuse about the commander being away from the fort, in a meeting, or out on patrol. I know he’s in his office! He just won’t meet with me.”
That sounded par for the course for a newly assigned eastern bred officer. I glanced over at Tom before telling Juan, “We were going to visit my cousin George at the fort, tomorrow. Do you think if we went with you this afternoon, it would help you see the commander?”
Juan gave me a careful look, “It sure couldn’t hurt. If nothing else, I can tell George what the issue is and how to fix it, as well as tell him about the report that’s in that office somewhere.”
I nodded and told Juan that we’d be ready to go as soon as we got our horses from the stables. Juan told us he kept his horse stabled with Mr. Mendoza also, so we all walked over to the stables.
While Tom and Juan were taking care of getting the horses, I found Mr. Mendoza out back of the stables working on his leather repair tasks. I told him we would be at the fort for the afternoon, and that we’d try to get back in time for supper, but we might be a little late.
Tom groaned as we mounted up for the ride saying, “Another butt bouncing ride. I’m still not recovered from yesterday morning’s ride.”
Juan laughed and told Tom, “The ride will make a man of you, it’ll put hair on your chest. At least that’s what my papa used to say.”
We were all laughing as we rode out of Las Cruces. We pulled up at the fort a quick ninety minutes after leaving the stable, and I was agreeing with Tom. Before going inside the headquarters building, I took my badge out of my pocket, and pinned it to my coat, figuring the nice shiny star in a circle would get us into the commander’s office that much quicker.
As we walked in, we were met by a Sergeant who eyed my badge and asked how he could help us.
I smiled at him replying, “I’m US Marshal Paul McAllister, here to make my manners to the new fort commander. I just returned from a swing through the southern Territory or I’d have been here earlier.”
The Sergeant nodded and said he was sure the commander would be available to see me and turned away to tell the commander I was here. Before he disappeared, I hastily added that I needed to speak with Lieutenant George Pickett as well, if he was available. The Sergeant nodded and dispatched a runner to find George, before disappearing into the commander’s office.
The Sergeant came out less than a minute later, beckoning us into the office while holding the door open. As we walked in, the commander, a portly middle-aged man, was walking around from behind his desk. I introduced myself as we shook hands.
The commander released my hand saying, “I’m Colonel Ezra Watson. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Marshal. I’ve met your Deputies who both appear conscientious and capable.”
“Thank you, Sir. It’s good to hear they made a good impression. This is Tom Murphy, my brother in law, and this is Juan Ortega, a good friend of ours.”
The colonel shook hands with both Tom and Juan before asking, “What brings you all to Fort Fillmore today?”
“Well, Colonel, there are a few reasons we’re here. First, like I told your Sergeant, I just returned from a trip through the southern part of the Territory and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to make my manners. Second, I need to see Lieutenant Pickett on a personal matter. Finally, I understand the army is experiencing some problems with adobe buildings that I may be able to help you with.”
Colonel Watson looked intrigued at my reply and was just about to say something when the Sergeant came back in with coffee for everyone, followed closely by George. George greeted me and Tom in Apache, with a big hug and back slap; before turning to Juan and greeting him almost as effusively, in Spanish. Juan replied in clear English.
I looked at George’s uniform, “Damn, cousin, you’re moving up in the world. Congratulations on the promotion.”
George grinned back, “Just goes to show they’ll promote anybody if they’re in the right place at the right time.” His face went from a grin to a frown as he continued, “We lost Henry Stanton while you were gone, so we were down a Captain. I’m the replacement.”
George and I sat down with the others as I told him, “I’m sorry to hear about Captain Stanton. He was a pretty good sort when he visited us.”
George agreed, saying, “That he was, Paul. The army has decided to name a new fort they’re building up past the Tularosa basin after him.”
I could tell from the twist in his jaw, and the glint in his eye, that he was just being nice while in public. We’d talk more about whatever was on his mind in private, later.
Turning back to the Colonel I said, “As you can tell, my visit with Captain Pickett is purely personal as we are cousins, and he is well acquainted with both Tom and Juan. The other reason I’m here is the problem I mentioned earlier. Is the engineer from Fort Bliss still here, by any chance?”
The Colonel gave me a hard look trying to figure out what I was up to, before reluctantly nodding his head saying, “He is. You think he should be here to discuss this issue?”
“I do, Colonel, as Juan and I can be of some assistance in providing building stone locally, if you should decide to go that route. But more importantly, you may want to reconsider once we have finished with our discussion.”
The Colonel looked over at the Sergeant and asked him to send a runner for Major Long. While we were waiting for the Major to arrive, we chatted with George and asked when we would see him at the Hacienda again.
George responded, “Anytime, Paul. My patrol is due two weeks of recuperation and recovery; but with all the activity lately, we just haven’t been able to spend more than a few days at a time in garrison.”
“I understand, George. On the plus side, the raiding party activity will fall way off in six weeks or so for the rainy season, which will give the entire fort a reprieve. The Comancheros, on the other hand, may not be smart enough to quit raiding during the rainy season; but we’ve had no word about them for more than three weeks now, so they may be working somewhere else or even be in the Comancheria for the rainy season.”
I turned to the Colonel. “Sir, did Colonel Miles give you a report about the buildings here when you took over from him?”
The Colonel thought for a moment and then said, “Yes he did, Marshal. I have it here, somewhere. Why do you ask?”
“Well, Sir, if you have it handy, it will make our explanation go much quicker once the Major gets here. Then we’ll be out of your hair that much faster.”
The Colonel, clearly put out by my request, got up and went over to his desk, looking through the various drawers until he found the thick report Jorge and Juan had prepared shoved in the back of the bottom drawer. He brought it over and handed it to me, and I handed it to Juan who started looking through it.
The Sergeant came back just as Juan finished perusing the document. He walked in followed by a slim and fit Major, who was introduced as Major Robert Long. It was obvious he was full of curiosity at being invited to attend a sit-down meeting with a US Marshal and two civilians, but he held his tongue and simply looked at the Colonel in expectation.
The Colonel gave a brief explanation about our claim we might be able to help him with the adobe problem; and if not, then we could help provide the stone they were looking for. The Major turned to me expectantly.
The entire time this was going on, I was trying to come up with the right way to go about this without making the two officers mad. Finally, after another moment’s hesitation, I plunged in.
“Major, if I may, I’d like to ask you a few questions before we explain, just to make sure my friends and I have a full and accurate understanding. Is that alright with you?”
The Major, now looking perplexed, nodded in agreement and I continued, “Thank you. Now, can you tell me if the problem you’re having with adobe is army-wide or just this district?”
The Major thought for a minute before replying, “As far as I know it’s just this district, Texas and New Mexico Territory. Of course, we don’t use adobe in many other places, as wood or stone are much more available.”
“And who designed the adobe buildings at the various forts in the district? Just for argument’s sake, let’s use Fort Bliss.”
Again, after a moment’s thought, he said, “I’m not sure who designed the original adobe buildings. As far as I can tell the original design work was done in eastern Texas and reused as the army moved west.”
“I see,” I said. “So, the same design was used at all the forts that are having problems?” At his nod, I continued, “Are there any forts in this district that aren’t having the problems the others are having?”
He responded immediately with, “Yes, Fort Fillmore and Fort Thorn are not having that problem. That’s one of the reasons I’m here, to see if I can find out why the roofs here aren’t leaking like everyone else’s. Of course, Fort Thorn is still almost brand new, but the buildings here are over two years old.”
I considered his answer for another moment before saying, “Is it safe to say that the original design was done by someone from back east who was unfamiliar with both the use of adobe as a construction material, as well as the weather of the greater southwest?”
At this the Major hesitated, glancing quickly at the Colonel, before replying, “Yes, that’s probably true.”
Now came the delicate part of the conversation. “Major, there really is a simple explanation for the roofs at the other forts leaking. But before we get to that, I need to preface it with some background, so you’ll understand that what we’ll tell you isn’t drivel.”
Again, a nod, and I continued, “The reason the buildings at this fort aren’t leaking like the others is that Colonel Miles used a different design. A local architect, Jorge Ortega, trained in Mexico City. He specializes in the use of adobe and stone. He designed the buildings in this Fort as well as Fort Thorn, most of Las Cruces, and all of the buildings on my Estancia. None of the buildings he designed and his brother supervised the building of, have issues with leaks as long as appropriate maintenance is conducted.”
I motioned to Juan at this point and said, “Juan Ortega, Jorge’s brother, provided all the building material used in the construction of this fort, and supervised all the construction. Juan why don’t you explain what the problem is with the buildings in the other forts.”
As Juan started to talk, I looked at the two officers. The Major was wearing an expression both curious and hopeful, while the Colonel was barely holding his temper in check.
‘Oh, well,’ I thought to myself, ‘so much for being delicate and diplomatic.’
I listened as Juan explained. “There are really two problems at the other forts. The first problem is in the construction. The corners of the buildings aren’t square. This is a common mistake as most people believe it’s not necessary since they can simply cut the adobe blocks for the roof to make up for the lack of the corners being square. The problem is that each cut compounds and exaggerates the complexity of sealing the roof. This alone will eventually cause leaky roofs.”
Seeing the Major nod his head in agreement, Juan continued, “The second problem is in the design. The original design had a flat roof with no pitch and a six-inch-high ledge around the top of the roof. Quite simply, there is no way for the rainwater that collects on the roof to drain off. Eventually, the water saturates the adobe brick under the stucco. That, combined with the bad seal resulting from the corners not being square, causes the roof to leak. The fix - adding drain holes to the roof ledge, and replacing the roof bricks - is relatively easy, and much cheaper than completely rebuilding from scratch. With minimal annual maintenance and care the buildings will last for many years if not generations.”
The Major sat quietly thinking about everything that Juan had said. The Colonel, on the other hand, had finally lost his temper.
He looked at me with a red face and asked, “You expect us to believe that this man is an expert at building anything?” Before I could answer he turned to Juan asking him with a sneer, “Just how many buildings have you built that makes you the expert you claim to be?”
Juan looked over at me and at my nod responded, “I’ve built around a thousand adobe buildings in the last seven years.”
The colonel snarled, “Just where are these buildings? You claim to have built most of this fort, but that’s only thirty buildings. Where are the rest of the buildings you claim to have built?”
Somehow, Juan remained calm answering in an even voice, “Thirty here, thirty at Fort Thorn; and, as Pablo said, most of Las Cruces and a good part of everything between Las Cruces and Mesilla as well. That includes the Marshal’s office. Oh, and all the adobe buildings on the Estancia as well.”
Before the Colonel could fire back, I said, “Juan is being modest. He’s built over twelve hundred buildings, including all the adobe buildings on the Estancia.”
The Colonel glared at me and asked in a disparaging tone, “How many buildings are on this Estancia of yours? Five, ten, maybe fifteen?”
I looked over at Tom, raising an eyebrow in question, and he answered the Colonel with, “Currently there are over three hundred adobe houses on the Estancia. They are all large three-room houses. There is also the church, which is almost complete and will hold eight hundred people for services. There’s the six thousand square foot Hacienda, the stables and wagon complex for slightly more than five hundred horses and mules, and almost a hundred wagons, as well as the entire ranch operations area. That houses eighty vaqueros and their families.”
Tom’s answer surprised the Colonel into silence. I wasn’t certain what had gotten the Colonel all riled up, but I was certain that something was going on we didn’t know about.
I looked over at the Colonel, “Colonel, we’re not trying to tell the army how to do anything. We simply offer an explanation. The choice of accepting or investigating that explanation is yours. Should you choose to ultimately not accept the explanation, and to pursue rebuilding everything with stone, then Juan can offer all the stone you will need at a fair price. It will be more expensive than adobe of course but it is available locally.”
The Major recovered from his far-off thoughts at that and asked, “What do you mean by local, Marshal? I’ve scoured both Mesilla and Las Cruces and no one knows of any quarries in the vicinity.”
I smiled at the Major and said, “No one knows about it, because it’s my private quarry. All the stone used in the masonry buildings you have on this fort came from my quarry. Juan is the only one outside the Estancia who has access to it. Otherwise, everything from the quarry is used for various building projects on the Estancia.”
The Major’s eyes bulged out at my response. “Good lord, man, what on earth could you possibly be building that would require that much stone?”
I looked over at Tom who responded with a smile and another litany.
“Oh, well, there’s sixteen miles of levees to start with, followed by the six thousand square foot Hacienda, a bridge over the Rio Grande, stables of various sizes for roughly five hundred horses, and mules, various storerooms and seed stores, the ranch operations area where eighty vaqueros and their families live, eight small dams, and of course, eventually, a four-foot-high rock wall around the entire Estancia, not to mention some unknown number of water retention buildings and additional dams.”
Apparently, the Major hadn’t heard it the first time. When Tom was done reciting the activities, he gasped out, “I’d really like to see that!”
“Major, you’re welcome anytime. As a matter of fact, the next time George comes out for a visit, you should come with him.” I looked over at the Colonel, “That offer includes you as well, Colonel.”
The Major grinned excitedly while the Colonel barely nodded his head acknowledging the offer. A moment later the Major turned to Juan saying, “You mentioned annual maintenance, what did you mean?”
Juan replied, “When Jorge and I were done with the initial phase of the construction here at the fort, it was apparent to us that no one here was used to building or maintaining adobe buildings. To help, we put together a booklet with all the blueprints, design specifications, and maintenance requirements.” He handed the book to the Major before adding, “The maintenance information starts on page thirty-five. Luckily, Colonel Miles remembered to give it to Colonel Watson before he left for Fort Thorn; although, if needed, I do have a couple more copies back in Las Cruces.”
The Major shook his head, muttering to himself as he looked through the book.
By this time, I’d figured out two things. First, the Major had more power regarding fort construction than the Colonel, and secondly, there was definitely something off about the Colonel. What that was, I had no idea, yet. I decided to make it one of my goals to find out. I’d just about decided we’d done what we came here to do and was confident that the Major would get things moving one way or another when a thought suddenly hit me.
I looked over at the Colonel. “Colonel, I’ve made my manners, and talked to my cousin, and I’ve given you some information you didn’t have before that broadens the choices you have available to you, regarding the buildings here at the fort as well as other forts in the district. I know you’re a busy man, so we won’t take up much more of your time. I have just one more question for you.”
He had calmed slightly from his previous anger and at least made the attempt to reply in a civil tone.
“I thank you for the information, Marshal. I’m sure it will prove most helpful to the Major when he makes his recommendations back at Fort Bliss. I’ll be happy to answer any other questions you might have.”
“Well, Colonel, I just want to make sure you’re getting all your cattle delivered on time. With all the Comanchero activity in the area the last six or seven months, it’s only a matter of time before they start adding cattle to the list of things they steal.”
The Colonel got another sour look on his face and responded. “Yes, we’re getting the deliveries we contracted for, but the beef we’re getting is overpriced and of the poorest sort, so I’m looking at other providers in the local area or perhaps even driving some up from Mexico where beef is much cheaper.”
I looked over at Tom, who had a puzzled look on his face, and he gave me a brief head shake to let me know we culled the worst cattle out of any group we sold just so we didn’t get a bad reputation.
I noticed as I turned back to the Colonel, that the Major, George, and the Sergeant all had perplexed looks on their faces.
“I’m really sorry to hear that, Colonel. I’ll look into the quality situation and make every effort to correct it when I get back to the Estancia.”
Now it was the Colonel’s turn to look perplexed. “Marshal, why do you care about it, and how would you be able to correct the problem?”
In a very serious tone, I replied, “I care because it’s my reputation on the line. Your cattle deliveries come from my herd on the Estancia. As a matter of fact, the Estancia also supplies the cattle for Forts Thorn, McLane, and Craig and I haven’t heard anything but glowing reports from those commanders. We also supplied 2,000 head each to the Indian Agents at Fort Thorn and Fort McLane and they were happy with the beef as well. I’d hate to lose my closest customer if the problem can be easily solved.”
The Colonel’s face had soured once again, while the Major and Sergeant’s expressions were carefully neutral. Tom, Juan, and George all had smiles on their faces.
I looked at George, “Well, cousin, we’ve done what we came to do. Now, with the Colonel’s permission, why don’t you show us out? We can have a little family talk on the way.”
George and I looked over at the Colonel who gave a brief nod as we stood up. “Colonel, it’s been a pleasure talking to you and your men. Please seriously consider a visit to the Hacienda with Major Long the next time George comes out to see us.”
The Colonel stood up and shook hands with us saying he’d definitely consider it. We all shook hands with the Major and Sergeant and followed George out of the building into the late afternoon sun. We untied our horses from the hitching post and walked with George towards the fort’s gates before stopping in the middle of the parade field, so we could talk without being overheard.
George gave a deep sigh before saying, “Every time that man opens his mouth, I lose more and more respect for him. I may have to respect his rank, and obey his orders, but damned if I can respect the man.”
“I did get the impression that something else was going on here. Tell us about the man, George.”
George rubbed his chin for a minute then said, “I don’t really know all that much about him. He supposedly comes from a very well-connected family back in the northeast somewhere. I can tell you though, he’s like a bull in a china shop.
“I was with Colonel Miles down at Fort Bliss when he was picking up the new troops for Fort Thorn. Colonel Watson barged into a meeting Colonel Miles was having with the district commander, yelling about the sorry state of the buildings at the forts in the district. He’d already negotiated a contract for delivery of stone to replace all the current adobe buildings and demanded the district commander approve and sign it.
“The commander just looked at him and told him that he had an engineer coming from the War Department to review the forts and determine what the best course of action would be. Until he had the engineer’s recommendations, he wasn’t going to sign any contracts.
“Colonel Watson stewed and asked how much longer the men were going to have to live in hovels and be expected to fight Indians as well. The commander threw him out of the office. Colonel Miles told the commander that Fort Fillmore wasn’t having any problems with the buildings, and perhaps the engineer should start his investigation at Fort Fillmore and that’s what happened.
“The engineer showed up about three weeks ago and was getting ready to leave; but decided he needed to stay through the rainy season, to see for himself if the buildings leaked. Anyway, a month after the Fort Bliss meeting, Colonel Watson showed up here as the new Commander. I knew we were in for a hard time.
“The first thing he did was to put Juan’s contracts for adobe on hold, using the excuse that the War Department will probably decide to build with stone instead of adobe. He wasn’t going to waste funds on something that would be torn down four months after it was built. He did this, even though we have twice as many troops stationed here than we did a year ago, and all those new troops are living in tents that are going to be soaked as soon as the rainy season starts.
“The second thing he tried to do, was sign a contract for beef delivery from some ranch south of El Paso at ten dollars a head. When he was told that there was already a contract in place for seven dollars a head, and with a local rancher, he about blew his top. When he calmed down, he tried to find some way to set that contract aside, but the legal officer saw no reason to have it set aside as the deliveries were being met as scheduled.
“Last but not least, the man has us on full patrols, with only forty-eight hours of rest here at the fort before riding back out on two weeks of patrol. The places he has us patrolling make absolutely no sense. Almost two-thirds of all the patrols are out in the Tularosa Basin where very few raiding parties have been reported. Meanwhile, west of here, on the California Trail, he sends a couple of light patrols a month, even though wagon trains and travelers have been lost. Forget about northwest of here where all the raids have been happening. He refuses to send anyone there. I’m not sure anymore if the man is incompetent or working with whoever is leading the raids.”
By the time George was done, Tom was looking at me with some concern. Juan was swearing under his breath in disgust.
“What are you going to do, George?”
My question brought him up short. He stared at me giving me a hard look before asking what I meant.