Friday, August 3, 2012

Distinguished Friends Chapter 29

“Let me see.  Commandant Ortega-Garcia should still be living here.  He retired when the state became an American territory, but his holdings are still extensive.  He may know where Senor Gutierrez is living now.  I think we can walk to his town house.”  She started out walking north and soon came to a wide plaza.  On the eastern side there was a wall with a wide arch opening into a courtyard. 

She walked confidently into the courtyard.  Immediately a uniformed man met them and politely inquired of their business. 

“Please tell the Comandante that Elena Aguilar is here to see him.”

“Of course, if you will follow me.”  In spite of the worn shawl over her simple dress and her escort’s less that tailored appearance, the servant was polite.  He led them into the house and down a short hall to a reception area. “If you will sit here, I’ll tell the Commandante.”

He left them to find their own chairs, but almost before they could sit down a large white haired Spanish gentleman strode quickly into the room.

“Elena!  It is you!  My dear, I thought you were dead!  Hernando will be overjoyed!  He has advertized for information regarding your whereabouts.”  He took both her hands in his and then released them to embrace her!

Ellen was as happy to see her husband’s old friend as he was to see her. She turned to extend her hand to Slade.

Commandante Ortega-Garcia, I would like to introduce you to the man who saved my life.   This is Mr. Eli Slade.  He found me when I was nearly dead in the snow and carried me into his house.  He has provided me with a bed in his loft for the past months until he was able to put his own affairs into such order as to bring me to Santa Fe.

“Mr. Slade, this is Commandante Ortega-Garcia, my husband’s padrino, his godfather, and long time friend to me!”

“Mr. Slade,” the Commandante exclaimed.  “You have my eternal gratitude!  We have searched for Elena.”  He stopped.  “Ellen, you would say.  She has always been Elena to me.  We didn’t worry during the summer because Beatriz thought she was secluding herself in mourning.  But when we heard nothing of her as winter began, Senor Gutierrez sent someone to the Ranch to inquire of her and Margarita, but the buildings were open and emptied of all valuables. The rooms were full of trash and then we began to worry about our Elena.”  He turned to Ellen.

“We found Margarita’s grave.” He turned back to Ellen and said simply. “I’m sorry.

“But come in come in.  Sit down. Tell me what has happened.”  He led them from the hall into his office.  He offered coffee and with it came some rolled confections. 

As they drank their coffee, Ellen related the events preceding her escape in the teeth of the first storm of the season.  “I don’t exaggerate when I tell you that I was near death when my horse took me into Mr. Slade’s yard.  I had tied myself to the saddle horn and when he released me, I would have fallen had he not caught me.  I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.

“Senor, I’ve come for your help.  Someone has been posing as an Aguilar relative and has informed the bank president that I am deceased.  He refused to look at my identification and practically threw me out of the building. 

“And I discovered the Senor Gutierrez is no longer in the offices above the bank itself. I had hoped he could verify my identity.  I need you to come and tell this self-important Anglo who I am!”  Ellen spoke as though she had been born and raised as a Spaniard. 

Oh ho, mi damita!  Never fear.  Hernando will be more than happy to provide you with an identity!  He has no love for the ‘self-important Anglo’ as you call him.  I will send Jorje directly around to let him know his lost dove has returned!

“Now, more coffee?  Can I help you in any other way?  I will need to finish up my paper work, but in about 20 minutes I can meet you at the bank.  And I’m sure Hernando will be there too.  He will enjoy rubbing Ellington’s nose in this!”

Ellen thanked him effusively and started to leave then stopped.  “One more thing, could you have Jorje or one of your other men go by the hotel and request the rooms for the Aguilar widow be prepared.  If I go in this state they will refuse to recognize me, too!”  Ellen laughed.

“But, mi damita. You are welcomed here, of course.  I would be honored to have you here.”  Ortega-Garcia said emphatically.

“I thank you, my dear friend. But we will be coming and going constantly during our short stay here in Santa Fe.  There are many things to be arranged and people to contact. I don’t want to disrupt your peaceful household.”

“Yes, yes, I understand.  You are ever considerate.  I will need to bring Beatriz to visit you as soon as you are able.  So keep that in mind.”  He stood and escorted them to the door.

When they left Ellen was giggling.  “I cannot wait to see Ellington’s face!  I cannot wait! 

“Eli, do you have enough money for us to get something to eat in the café across from the bank.  I’m famished and those cute little sweets with the coffee only fed my appetite. It didn’t satisfy it.

“I promise, I’m a lady of means.  I can always pay you back.”

“Ha.  You can, can you? Perhaps I’ll hold you to that!”  Slade said.  “Of course we can eat.  And then I’ll have to put the horses away. We cannot leave them standing in the street after their long trip. Can I trust the Commandant to take care of you and escort you to the hotel when you are finished with your Mr. Ellington?   

Ellen squeezed his arm as they walked quickly back across the plaza and down a few doors to a little café.  They were able to go in and have a hot filling meal before Ellen had to be at the bank.

In slightly less than twenty minutes they saw the Commandant step down from his small carriage in front of the bank.  Hurriedly, Slade paid their bill in order to go across the street.

“I wish I could see Ellington’s face when you walk in accompanied by both Ortega-Garcia and Gutierrez, but I cannot let the horses stand any longer.”  He escorted Ellen to the Commandant’s side and explained his errand.

“I wish you would take her to the hotel when her business is finished,” Slade requested.  “I will meet her there if your carriage is not still in front of the bank.”

Ortega-Garcia agreed promptly and offered Ellen his arm.  “This should not take long.  I will stay in the hotel until you return, Senor.  I suspect that the imposter Aguilar will not be pleased to find himself supplanted. 

“Do not worry.  She will be safe.”  Ortega-Garcia’s eyes twinkled with suspicion and delight.  Mr. Slade, in his opinion, was a man in love.  And his godson’s dainty widow was much in need of a man by her side.  He watched Slade climb onto the wagon and drive around the corner toward the livery. 

Santa Fe was a diverse blend of Spanish and American frontier.  The old man had learned to live easily with the clash of cultures and had no reservations about Ellen’s possible attachment to the Anglo.

When Ellen entered the bank the second time, the teller’s face blanched.  He didn’t wait for a request or a command but hurried into the president’s office. 

Mr. Ellington came out with much less haughtiness than he had the first time he met Ellen.

“Ah, yes, Senora!  You are back.”  He had no time for further conversation because Commandante Ortega-Garcia broke into his smooth speech.  

“I have been informed of your rudeness to my old friend’s widow.  She tells me she offered to bring you several papers verifying her identity and you refused them on the basis of her supposed death. 

“She has also informed me of your reference to another Senor Aguilar who has a previous claim to the property and finances of Alejandro Aguilar y Garcia.  I will tell you instantly that Alejandro was the only surviving son of his father.  His only brother died in childhood.  Don Francisco had no relatives in this country and indeed I am doubtful that there are any cousins in Spain who might have any claim to the grant.

“Whoever this is who has presumed to present evidence of her death and of his own entitlement to the land is an imposter. 

“But we will be able to discuss that later.

“Now we need to look at the sum of the Aguilar holdings in trust to this bank and whether Senora Aguilar will decide to leave them in your hands…Yes, my dear.”  Ortega-Garcia deferred to Ellen who had begun to speak.

Commandante, if you could send someone to the livery and ask Mr. Slade for the leather packet stored in my box, we will have my father’s final deposit receipts and ledger sheets to compare with the bank records as well as several other documents confirming my identity.  I’m sorry I forgot it.”

“Yes.  Excellent idea.  Felipe,” he spoke to his man who had accompanied him, “you heard the senora. You will recognize Mr. Slade at the livery?  Good. Go then. Quickly” 

“And you sir.  Do you always keep your institution’s foremost patrons standing in the hallway like beggars.”

Ellington was beginning to sweat.  In fact he was far past beginning; he was becoming very nervous indeed.  The Aguilar account composed the major cash reserve of his bank.  He had a very agreeable working arrangement with the presumptive “Senor Aguilar” regarding the distribution of funds.  In all actuality, Ellington was fully aware of the Aguilar claimant’s imposture but their agreement was too lucrative to countermand.  And after all he had presented a few credentials that could be construed to prove his identity acceptably.  Now in the face of a verified and valid heir, Ellington’s decisions regarding the large sum on deposit were being called into question.

Before Felipe was able to return with the leather packet, Hernando Gutierrez came striding into the bank and straight through to Ellington’s private office without any announcement or permission.  The opportunity to best the haughty banker was too great to allow waiting another instant.  He brought with him a fat leather bound portfolio.

Ellington had seated his visitors in chairs facing his ornate desk and then seated himself in stately splendor behind it.  Gutierrez strode up to the desk and tossed the portfolio down on top of the ledger sheets designed to make the banker seem important.  Then he turned to greet Ellen as effusively as Ortega-Garcia had earlier.

He turned to Ellington.  “Now let us end this idiocy once and for all.”   Without invitation he flipped open the packet of files on the big desk, scattering the banker’s papers in all directions.

“I have here the last will and testament of Alejandro Victoro Aguilar y Garcia.  He was very anxious that there should be no question of his wife’s claim to his estate should he die unexpectedly.

“I got the impression he suspected that might be very possible.  As it stood, his signing of the will with several witnesses preceded his death by only a few hours.  He didn’t see fit to explain to me the source of his suspicions, but given the events following in the next several months, it would seem they were well founded.

“And now given the arrival of this impostor and the involvement of this bank, as they say in English, ‘the plot thickens”   Let us put an immediate end to this.”

He turned to the desk where he sorted through the portfolio without any concern for Ellington’s scattered bank documents. 

“Here we have the will of Don Francisco, leaving all his property and money to his only son Alejandro.  There being, as it states clearly here, no other eligible surviving Aguilar relatives of an age to inherit.  As I understand there may be a brother still living in Spain, but he apparently had no interest in migrating to “New Spain,” as Don Francisco was pleased to call us!” 

He laid out the will before Mr. Ellington knowing full well that the man could not hope to read the legalistic Spanish.  “If you would like for Senor Ortega-Garcia to translate it for you I’m sure he would do that for the pertinent passages.”  He cast a questioning eye at the Commandante.

Ortega-Garcia rose to comply but Ellington quickly intervened.  “No, no, no.  That isn’t necessary.  I know you are recognized as a man of the highest ethics.”

Gutierrez did his best to hide his own gratification at that statement.

“To go on then.  Here is the will prepared by Aguilar-Garcia only hours before his death.  As I said he was very anxious that there be no possibility of any one questioning the validity of the will so he required that there be four witnesses.  He wanted to insure that one would still be alive to testify that they had all witnessed Alejandro’s hand regardless of intervening events.  Evidently he had reason to believe any witnesses might disappear and the will be open to dispute.

“There are three of those men living today.  Mr. Woodrow, the former president here, was the fourth witness.  He died in a tragic carriage accident shortly after Christmas. But Mr. Ellington, fortuitously, was visiting family in Espanola and the bank was able to replace managers without any delay.”  

He glanced across the room to meet Ortega-Garcia’s eyes in a solemn gaze. Then his glance returned to the paper in his hand.

“So, the will of Alejandro leaves his entire estate to his wife, Ellen McPherson Aguilar, to do with as she sees fit.”  Here Gutierrez stopped and looked at Ellen.  “And may I say that I would sincerely hope she will see fit to remain in our community and provide employment opportunities for our young men.  But we shall see.”

“Are there any more questions, Senor Ellington? 

“No? I should certainly hope not.”  

Ellington nodded in agreement, already worrying how he would broach this news to his own Aguilar claimant.

“Now,” Ortega-Garcia stood up.  ‘Felipe has returned with the Senora’s packet.  I think we should give it to her to open for us. 

“Hernando, if you would replace your papers in the folder please.”  They waited a short while as Gutierrez neatly collected and stacked the wills.

Ellen stepped to the desk and removed the stack of papers from her leather envelope.  Working precisely she began laying them out across the desk, now gleaming and empty since Ellington had hastily bundled his documents into a drawer.

“These are my marriage lines, signed by the Padre Navario on the day of our wedding.”  She held it out to Gutierrez who confirmed that it was in deed the marriage verification.

“This sizable packet of papers is the original land grant to the Aguilar family signed by the King himself.”  Again she handed them to Gutierrez who looked at the last page for a minute in awe.  There was the signature of King Ferdinand II himself dating back to the 1500’s!

“These are the ledger sheets I removed from the book kept by my father for Don Francisco and Alejandro until his death last spring.  I assume that Senor Gutierrez can verify the handwriting.”  She again passed the papers to Gutierrez, who nodded and looked at the final total. 

“Finally, this is the receipt for the transactions made just before my father’s death. This leather envelope and the receipts were left tossed into the brush at the roadside beside my father’s body.  I assume the bandits were not able to read and so didn’t realize the value of the papers.  Or perhaps my father was able to toss it there as the bandits attacked

“I would guess that the pretender Aguilar has wished many times for something so concrete with which to press his claim.

“I am exceedingly weary of all the wrangling today. I have just made a journey of two days and spent yesterday afternoon in a freezing wind that compelled us to take shelter in a rough canyon windbreak last night.  I will leave the study of these numbers to Senor Gutierrez and Commandant Ortega-Garcia.  And, of course,” she paused with a bit of disdain in her voice, “Mr. Ellington.

“Senor Gutierrez, I am seriously in need of funds for myself.  I have no clothing of my own and I have cost Mr. Slade a great deal of money for my care.  I also need funds to see to the refurbishment of the hacienda and the lands around it.” 

Although Ellen was a very good bookkeeper in her own right, she was very tired and expected that there would be many fewer questions and much less quibbling from Mr. Ellington if the other two men dealt with the sums and balances.  She sat down in the very comfortable high-backed leather arm chair and leaned her head against the curve of the head rest.  She looked so exhausted that Gutierrez pushed the bank president to give a quick justification of the totals on deposit. 

By this time, Ellington was in such a panic that he didn’t dare allow a hint of how loosely he had been administering the Aguilar estate and how much of it had found its way into his own coffers.  He presented the loosely kept, but actual accounts. Fortunately the numbers coincided fairly well with those to be found on the ledger sheets.  No mention was made of interest due or other appreciation to the account.  Ellington hoped he would be able to keep those appreciable sums his own secret.

Ellen was overcome at the size of the balance that was apparently hers to administer.   But for the present she only needed enough for her personal use and to arrange for the repairs of the house and property at Los Llanos.  Later concern could be given to the livestock and crops.  Senor Gutierrez quickly outlined a letter of authorization for her to draw such funds or direct their release to her designated representative. As much as Ellington disliked carrying out his obligation to sign the authorization he was forced to do so in the presence of two such well recognized individuals.

She asked for the release of funds with the understanding that she would very likely be returning for an additional withdrawal for materials when the extent of the damage was known and to name designated representatives who would carry out the repairs.  Ellington would have preferred to tender it in American paper currency and frankly it would have been much easier to carry, but Ellen was suspicious of the quality of the new American money as much as the man’s integrity and refused any but silver or gold coinage in various denominations.  It made several sizable stacks of coins.  Upon consideration, Ellington provided a small leather bound cash box for the heavy coins.

Ortega-Garcia made his carriage available to take her to the hotel. He insured that her leather packet was repacked with all the vital papers and that her heavy money case, compliments of the bank, was placed on the seat beside her.

“Now let’s get you to your rooms before your Mr. Slade becomes anxious.”  The Commandante handed her into the carriage as he would have the loveliest senorita in silks and lace.  He nodded to the driver and they made their way up through the plaza to the other end where the hotel stood in its early Spanish splendor of arches and fountains and paved courtyard.   

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