Retreat (Robledo Mountain #3)
Copyright© 2020 by Kraken
“What do you mean something funny is going on in the land office, Paul?” Steve asked.
Tom, Steve, and I were in the family dining room going over our land plans one last time, after finishing a large breakfast. Anna, Yolanda, and the boys were with Mrs. Mendoza over in the house writing up the invitations after she agreed to host the meeting tomorrow.
“I’m not sure what, but something just wasn’t right about the map in the land office when we were there the other day. In all the excitement at the time, I didn’t stop to take a closer look at it, and then I forgot all about it until I woke up this morning.” I explained.
It had been Laura’s sweet voice whispering in my ear as I was waking up this morning, as she told me something wasn’t right with the map in the land office. When I’d opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was Anna’s eye’s staring back at me. Her first words were that Great Grandfather Jaime said there was something wrong with the way the land office was selling land.
Anna wasn’t the least bit surprised when I told her that Laura had whispered the same thing to me. We talked for a few minutes and concluded that I would have to do some investigating before Steve and Tom bought any land.
I continued trying to explain my thoughts to Tom and Steve. “Look, guys, I’m not saying we won’t buy any land. I’m just saying I want an hour or two to see if I can figure out what’s going on in that land office before you two go in and start buying land.”
They were both silent for a moment before nodding in agreement. We turned back to reviewing the town maps. That’s how Anna found us when she walked in a half-hour later.
“I’m ready whenever you all are,” she said as she poured a half cup of coffee. “Yolanda will be here in just a minute. Joseph decided his breakfast looked better on her than in his stomach.” She took a sip of coffee, sat down in my lap and with a small giggle said, “Grandmother is getting really curious about tomorrow’s meeting. We finally told her it would ruin the surprise, and she agreed to not ask any more questions.”
I grabbed a quick kiss between her sipping coffee and talking. She beamed me one of her smiles and started to take another sip of coffee when Yolanda came through the door mumbling. She gave Tom a quick kiss, stuck her finger in his face, and started shaking it back and forth.
“You need to teach that boy better manners, and quick, Tom! I’m running out of clothes! Then again, if you don’t teach him, I’ll just have to get more new clothes when we go to Santa Fe. Hmmmm, never mind Tom, the boy’s manners are just fine.”
We were all still laughing at Yolanda and the look on Tom’s face as we mounted up and left the stables. With the Comanchero threat over, our ride to Mesilla was much more pleasant than it had been for a long time.
We decided to stable our horses rather than leave them tied up in front of the Marshal’s office. Anna and I walked arm in arm from the stables to the office, with me carrying our two scabbards. Tom, carrying his and Yolanda ‘s scabbards followed along, arm in arm; while Steve trailed behind trying to get his bearings. Esteban got up from his chair to greet us as soon as we walked in.
“Glad you could make it,” he said after greeting everyone. “Ed has the courtyard set up with coffee, so let’s go back there and talk for a little while before I show you what I wanted you to see.”
We followed Esteban out to the courtyard and sat down at the table where Ed was waiting for us.
Anna looked around the courtyard and said, “This is absolutely lovely, guys. You’ve done a marvelous job adding plants and color, back here.”
I had to agree with her. Everywhere we looked was a small tree, shrub, or flower. Sitting in the courtyard with all the greenery made you forget you were in the middle of Mesilla.
Ed grinned, and Esteban said, “This has all been done in the last couple of weeks; and, in a way, it’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
I swallowed my coffee and told him to go on. Esteban started telling us how the courtyard had come to look so beautiful.
“A couple of weeks ago a man came into the office and asked if we wanted our courtyard landscaped. I asked him how much something like that would cost, and he shrugged telling us it would depend on how big the courtyard was, what kind of shape it was in, and what kind as well as how many trees, shrubs, and flowers we wanted.
“Curious, I brought him out here, and he looked around with pleasure in his eyes as he saw the roses. He told me that we’d made a good start and that he could not only complete it but also maintain it for us. He went on to describe what he thought should be done going on at great length about where he would put different kinds of flowers, shrubs and small trees.
“He named plants I’d never heard of before and to tell you the truth I was lost before he’d finished two sentences. When he was done talking, I said it all sounded very grand, but I just couldn’t see what he was talking about in my mind’s eye.
“He laughed, telling me he sometimes got carried away. Then he asked me to take a walk so I could see what he meant. I was really curious, so I agreed. He took me to a house a few blocks away that’s about three times as large as this one.
“There were pots of flowers, shrubs, and small trees all over everywhere inside the house. I mean it all looked nice, but they were everywhere. Then he took me out to the courtyard, and it was like walking into paradise. He swept his arms around telling me he could make our courtyard look like his courtyard if I wanted, or he could just make it a little more appealing. It all depended on how much I wanted to spend.”
Esteban paused to drink some coffee and Ed picked up the story.
“What you see costs us two dollars a month. The plants belong to Mr. Rivera and we had to pay five dollars for the pots that they’re in. The two dollars covers the cost of his family coming by twice a week to water, feed, prune, and weed them. It’s so pleasant now that we usually take our meals out here if the weather is nice enough.”
“I don’t blame you. We do the same at the Hacienda, as you know, but this is a lot nicer,” Anna said.
“So,” Esteban said. “To make a long story short, for many years the Rivera family provided the landscapers and groundsmen for the Maes family; first in Santa Fe, and then here. When Mrs. Maes, well, um, fell ill? Yes, fell ill, Mr. Maes, closed up the house here, paid the Rivera’s what little wages he owed them, and told them their services were no longer required.
“Anyone in Mesilla who needed landscapers or groundsmen, and there aren’t many who do, already had them, so the Riveras turned to farm work to survive. All the men, which is Mr. Rivera and his seven sons, all work as farmhands when they can find the work and fill in the gaps by finding courtyard work like ours.
“I haven’t mentioned anything to him about the Estancia, and I’m not sure he would want to move, but you may be able to hire some of them or perhaps, the entire family to work the Estancia. I’d like to take you to meet them, see their house and courtyard, and you can decide what you want to do from there.”
The smile on Anna’s face was all I needed to see to know she was very excited by this development and was ready to go visit the Rivera’s. The gleam in her eye and the small nod of her chin confirmed it. Yolanda gave me a very similar smile, gleam and chin nod, while Tom, the always frugal engineer, simply gave me a small shrug.
“Esteban, I really like what I see here and what we’ve heard. I think it’s definitely worth exploring. Please escort Anna and Yolanda to the Riveras and introduce them. The decision is theirs to make, and I will support whatever they decide. If the Riveras want to meet with me then, by all means, invite them to lunch at our favorite cantina.”
Smiling, Esteban said, “It will be a pleasure, Paul.”
I turned to Ed as Anna, Yolanda, and Esteban left the courtyard. “I need you to come with me to the courthouse please, Ed. In all the excitement the other day we forgot to get statements from the two clerks, and I want to get that out of the way so we can get them in the mail. Tom, Steve, I’ll see you back here as soon as I’m done.”
Ed and I were greeted so effusively by the land office clerk it was almost embarrassing. He thanked us over and over again for saving him and returning everything the Deputies had stolen from the safe. When I could finally get a word in edgewise, I told him that we needed a written statement from him about what happened that day so we could send it to Santa Fe.
I walked him through what the statement needed to say, and he sat down to write it out. Ed sat with him and helped him at his request.
While they were busy with that, I went over to the map of the Territory hanging on the wall and examined it. It only took me a few seconds to realize why Laura had directed me to the map. A large part of the northern half of Doña Ana County, including the northern half of Estancia Dos Santos, was cross-hatched with a deep red marker of some kind.
The cross-hatching was centered on the Rio Grande, extending twenty miles on either side from roughly where the Hacienda was all the way to Socorro. There were various parts of the map shaded a light red and a small number of blocks around Las Cruces, Mesilla, the Gila River, and the Organ Mountains shaded the much darker red of the cross-hatching, but they weren’t cross-hatched. I stood staring at the map rubbing my chin thoughtfully for the next fifteen minutes trying to figure what it meant.
I still hadn’t figured it out, when Ed brought me the statement to read. I reviewed it and told the clerk it was well written and covered all the facts. He was still smiling when I turned back to the wall asking him to come over as I had some questions about the map.
When both he and Ed were standing next to me, I asked, “Did the map look like this when it arrived from Santa Fe?” At his look of confusion, I clarified my question for him. “I mean was it all marked up like this?”
The confused look left his face. “No, Sir, Marshal. When it arrived the only marks on it were the light red shading. That indicates land that was sold by the land office in Santa Fe before the land offices opened in each county. The heavy red shading indicates land sold at this office.” He stopped at that point to see if he’d answered my question.
“I see,” I said and then pointed at the cross-hatched area. “What does this mean then?”
“That’s disputed land,” he said and then expanded his answer when he saw the look of confusion on my face. “Uncle Mi ... er, the Mayor has a land grant from the Spanish King giving all that land to his family. The Mayor was ecstatic the day the Probate Judge walked in and gave him the letter from Mexico City with the land grant in it, let me tell you.
“The only problem the Mayor has right now is that no one seems to know who bought the land shaded in light red from the land office in Santa Fe. Those records didn’t come with the map and other stuff we got. I sent off a letter a while back asking Santa Fe for the name of the person who bought it, but we haven’t heard anything back, yet. The Probate Judge has all the legal papers ready to serve on the owner once they know who it is.”
When he started to talk about a land grant dispute, I started to get alarmed. Then I heard Laura’s soft voice whispering in my left ear again.
“Don’t worry, the land grant isn’t valid. You need to learn more about this, though.”
Almost without pause, I turned to the clerk. “So, what happens when they find out who owns the land?” I asked curiously.
“Well, I overheard the Mayor and Judge talking about that, and from what they said the Judge serves the owner the legal papers and tells them nothing can be done with the land until the courts resolve the dispute. That could take years of course, so the Mayor will make the owner an offer to sell him clear title to that part of the land grant for five dollars an acre,” he said innocently.
“That sounds like a fair deal if the grant is valid,” I said. “But why don’t they just ride up there and see if they can find the owner?”
He snorted in derision. “That’s rough land up there and neither the Mayor nor the Judge ride well, so they’d have to take a wagon which is really uncomfortable in rough country, as you know. There’s a lot of land to cover trying to find someone who might not even be there. No, it’s much easier for them to wait for Santa Fe to answer the letter.”
“Well, I wish him luck, then.” I returned my attention to the statement he’d written and held it up saying, “We’re just about done with this, but I need to clarify a few things with you. Now, you say here that the Deputies tied you up after you opened the safe at gunpoint, and then cleaned out the safe putting everything in a carpetbag they’d brought with them is that right?”
The clerk was nodding his head vigorously and said, “Yes, Sir, Marshal, that’s exactly what happened.”
“So, they left absolutely nothing in the safe, and when Deputy Montoya here brought you back the bag you took everything out of it and put it back in the safe. You’re sure everything was returned?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, Sir. I accounted for all the land office material, as well as the items that the Mayor and Judge store in there as well. It was all there, no doubt about it. As a matter of fact, both the Mayor and the Judge came in and looked everything over to make sure it was all there,” he responded.
I looked at Ed and gave the clerk a theatrical sigh. “Looks like we got a little more to do, then. We need to write up an inventory of everything that was stolen, and its value, to attach to your statement. The Judge in Santa Fe will need that to figure out which level of crime was committed. The larger the value of the items stolen the more serious the crime and the more prison time.” After a short pause, I told the clerk, “Open the safe, pull everything out, and set it on the counter here so we can write up the inventory.”
Eager to assist us, the clerk hurried over to the safe and opened it up. He came back with an armload of documents, a small money box, and an obviously heavy burlap bag. Placing everything on the counter he said that was all there was. I asked the clerk to pick things up one at a time and tell us what it was and how much it was worth.
The clerk did as I asked. While Ed wrote down what the clerk said, I examined each item to confirm what it was. The various forms, stamps, and ledgers had no real intrinsic value of their own and were kept in the safe simply to prevent their theft and use in making false titles. I assured the clerk that the Judge in Santa Fe would understand that.
The small money box contained the $100 ‘starting bank’ the clerk used to make change, as well as the money he collected for the land sold during the quarter. As this was near the end of the quarter there was almost $300 total in the money box. Finished counting the money in the money box, the clerk looked up and said that was everything. I looked at the burlap bag and told him we still had that to go through it, item by item, and assign a value.
He fidgeted for a moment before giving me a sheepish look. “Marshal, I was given strict instructions by the Mayor and the Judge to stay out of that bag and never look inside it. I don’t know what’s in there, so I’m not sure I can help you much.”
“Does anyone else have the combination to the safe besides you?” I asked.
He looked around carefully, leaned forward, and whispered, “The land office clerk in Socorro has it. We give each other the combinations, to make sure someone can get into the safe if something happens to one of us.”
“That makes sense. Excellent thinking. But what I’m trying to determine is if anyone could have taken anything out of the bag since you put it back in the safe and the Mayor and Judge verified it was all there.”
“Oh, well, no, Sir. If I’m not here, the safe is locked and no one has put anything in or taken anything out but me,” he said with certainty.
I smiled broadly at the clerk and said, “Good! To keep you out of trouble I will look in the bag and pull out each item one by one and describe it to Ed. You will witness everything and sign the inventory sheet when we’re done.”
The first thing I pulled out of the bag was a large opened envelope addressed to the Judge from a Ramon Gutierrez in Mexico City. I described it to Ed and reached inside pulling out a thick fold of heavy parchment. As I unfolded it a small note fell to the floor. I picked it up, giving it a quick glance, as I stood up.
I couldn’t help smiling to myself as I realized this was proof positive that the land grant was a forgery. I continued unperturbed and simply told Ed to write down that the envelope contained a Royal Land Grant signed by one of the Kings of Spain and a note addressed to the Mayor and Judge regarding its provenance. I opened out the land grant and whistled in surprise.
It was a thing of rare beauty, more a work of art than an official document. We all stared at it for a moment before I asked the clerk for an estimate of how many acres the document covered and how much it was worth at today’s price. Without a thought, he said it covered just over 600,000 acres and was worth just a little under $1 Million. This time it was Ed who whistled as he wrote the numbers down.
The second thing I pulled out of the bag was an accounting ledger. When I opened it, I found pages for each of the positions in the county funded by the Territory. What was interesting was that at the top of each page was either the Mayor or the Judge’s name. I flipped the pages quickly and set the ledger down telling Ed it was a payroll ledger. I knew it was something else entirely but didn’t know exactly what, yet. I could wait until later to figure it out though, so I moved on.
The last items in the bag were two identical rather heavy locked money boxes. At my questioning look, the clerk just shrugged and said the Mayor’s initials were deeply scratched on the top of one box and the Judge’s on the other. He also said that both men had keys to at least one of the boxes because he’d seen them open them and put money in or take money out at least once a month. I told Ed to write down that the contents and value of the money boxes were unknown as I was putting everything back in the bag.
While the clerk was reviewing and signing the inventory I said, “You know, you’re a very lucky man.”
He looked up from the inventory and grinned. “Yes, Sir! Why, I could have been killed!”
I gave him a very serious look. “That would have been the least of your worries if they’d gotten away with the robbery. Because you are a government official the government would have been forced to pay for everything in the safe, including the personal items the Mayor and Judge store in there. They would have paid out the claim, eventually and reluctantly, but they would have paid it. Of course, you would have been fired and put in jail, so it wouldn’t matter to you. Unless you had over $1 Million to pay the government back with.”
The clerk blanched at what I’d just said. “I’m going to take this bag to the Mayor and Judge and remind them what governmental regulations and the law says about storing personal items in government safes. You won’t have to worry about this kind of thing, anymore.”
Picking up the bag from the counter I looked at Ed. “Make sure you have the statement and inventory. We need to find the Mayor and Judge for a little chat before lunch.”
As I walked out into the hallway, I heard Ed tell the clerk that it didn’t pay to bother me when I was in this kind of mood, as he hurriedly picked up the papers and followed me out. Once outside of the courthouse I turned with a huge smile and waited for Ed to catch up.
“Ed go find the Mayor and the Judge. Tell them I want to talk to them in our office immediately, and that I sent you to escort them. If they give you any argument remind them again about the penalty for impeding a federal investigation. If they continue to argue with you, arrest them. Don’t let them talk to that clerk for any reason.”
Ed didn’t really understand what was going on yet since he hadn’t read the note with the land grant, but he smiled broadly and hurried off to the offices across the plaza. I rapidly walked the short distance between the courthouse and the office. The office was empty, and I walked out to the courtyard where Tom and Steve were drinking coffee at the table.
“Gentlemen, I need your help, quickly please, we only have a few minutes.” I reached into the bag and handed Steve the ledger as I passed him on the way to a large potted plant ten feet behind the table and off to the side.
As I sat the bag down, I said, “Steve, take a look at that and tell me what you think it is. Tom, help me move the table and chairs over here next to this plant, please.
As Tom and I were moving the chairs and table over, Steve was flipping through the ledger. He looked up and started to say something when he abruptly stopped himself and reopened the ledger. I passed by him and went back inside the office. I got two sets of manacles from the large cupboard we stored them in and walked back out to the courtyard. After a quick glance at the table from the doorway, I walked over to the corner and laid the manacles on the ground behind another plant.