Lone Star Sons Logo - Cover(This is the final part of Three Gentlemen Adventurers, wherein Jim and Toby cope with a hidden secret and three gentlemen from three different countries who have come to seek it out. Part One is here, Part two here. Eventually, when I have enough stories about them complete, they’ll be put into a proper book, in both print and eBook versions.)

“Me pregunto ahora, mi señora – ¿dónde está?” The voice was strangely gentle, but the man speaking those words loomed like a threatening shadow in the doorway – Don Esteban Saldivar; both Jim and Albert Biddle started – and Toby struggled to sit up straight, his eyes dark with warning in the shadows by the fireplace. “I perceive that there is more to this gathering than appears,” he added, in accented English. “You have a purpose in coming here, gentlemen – and one which I confess that I share.” Don Esteban stepped into the room, drawing the outside door closed behind him. Before he was halfway across the room, Jim rose to his feet, and stood between Don Esteban and the two women, and Toby, bruised and bloody. Jim had a hand on the butt of his patent Colt revolving pistol, and noted without surprise that Albert Biddle gamely stood at his elbow – although to his certain knowledge, the Yankee was unarmed.
“You will not harm them,” Jim said, through gritted teeth. “Not while I am here to prevent it. Two women and an injured man – and Dona Adeliza is blind and helpless!”
Don Esteban regarded them with an expression of mild exasperation. “Young bravo, I have been about this kind of business since you both were mewling infants in your mother’s arms – and I have not yet discovered within me an urge to abuse the meek and helpless … or to use brutality when a fair and honest question brings me the answers which I desire. So – perdóneme, young gentlemen – may I enquire what business brings you here to this house?”
“The same as you, I expect,” Jim answered. The same instinct which drove him to trust Biddle now urged him to trust Don Esteban – or, if not to trust entirely then at least to give him a fair hearing, for Don Esteban smiled, ruefully. The man had an honesty about him, and also a weariness born of long experience. Jim knew a handful of men who also had that same honesty and weariness in their faces. His brother had been one of them, Captain Hays and General Sam also. “I am a Ranger, my commander is Captain Hays – and I serve the interests of Texas, to the best of my ability. My name is Jim Reade, and this is Albert Biddle, of the United States. There is something in the house of old General Wilkinson which has brought you both to Bexar – and my duty is to see that whatever it is, is found – and that you depart without harm or injury to yourselves or any citizens.”
“An honest answer, young Ranger Reade,” Don Esteban answered. “And I return honesty for honesty. I have been sent and tasked to recover that which is within Generale Wilkinson’s house on behalf of His Most Gracious Majesty, the King of Spain … who was, on the advice of Governor Miro, by way of being a generous patron to Generale Wilkinson.”
“I’ll just bet that he was,” Alfred Biddle muttered. “And more than that, I’d risk a wager on that.”
“A patron,” Don Esteban nodded, with a slight chiding tone to his voice. “Not an intimate, ever – who will trust that a man whose service has been bought by gold will yet sell himself to a higher bidder? A man who betrays one country for gold will certainly not halt at betraying another.”
“So he was blackmailing your people too?” Albert Biddle chuckled with hearty and cynical amusement. “As well as the British … who else might come to Bexar on the same errand? The French, likely enough – although at this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Wilkinson had ensnared the Emperor of China in his net of blackmail …Reade, if you see a little man from the Far East with purposeful look on his countenance, a brocade robe and a long braid down his back in the streets of Bexar, don’t say that you haven’t been warned.”
“In that case, I suggest that we should cut to the chase,” Jim answered. “Dona Adeliza was once housekeeper in the house – and says that she knows where the General’s secret cache is hidden within. She said – and I understand that much Spanish – that there is such a place and that all we had to do was to ask her. But none of us did…”
Albert Biddle sighed, remarking, “Well, when I am trying to unravel a riddle that affects the good repute of my nation – not to mention at least three others – the first person I shall ask for guidance is a house-bound and blind octogenarian who speaks no English at all.”
“Your point is made,” Don Esteban nodded gravely. “And your question is one which I should have asked beforetime … before I wasted a great deal of effort and time. Do not chide yourself, young bravos – I never thought to ask it, myself.” Don Esteban directed his words to Dona Adeliza in very correct and punctilious Spanish – spoken in the gentlemanly accents of Castile, as far as Jim could judge, for his way of speaking was as different to his ears to the Spanish spoken in the streets of Bexar as his own mother-speech was as different from that declaimed by Vibart-Jones. He spoke briefly and Dona Adeliza answered, even more briefly. Don Esteban turned to Jim. “She says the secret hiding place was in the woodwork above the fireplace in the room where the old man had his bed. She will have to show us – she says it has been a long time, and she may be uncertain regarding the exact place.”
“You have, of course – made a way into the old house?” Jim asked, and the older man nodded, answering, “I have … and took some little trouble to ensure no one would have access to the house but myself. Gomez was well paid to ensure discretion – and to repair the wall between his house and the old Casa.”
“Then we had best go into it all together,” Albert Biddle suggested, “As a gesture of trust – you, Mr. Reade and I.”
“Of a certainty,” Don Esteban agreed. “But beg and bring a candle from Senora Gomez – there are lanterns, but no fire to light them that we may see the way.” He spoke again in Spanish to Senora Gomez and Dona Adeliza, before gently gathering the old woman in his arms. Toby made as if to get up from where he sat, with a pottery cup of Senora Gomez’ bark and sage concoction in his hands, but Jim shook his head, saying, “Stay – let the good woman brew you more of her herbs – and keep guard on the door.”
Toby nodded, an expression of determination on his face, even with the pain of his wounds, which he did his best to hide from any who did not know him as well as Jim did. It relieved Jim to know that Toby was at his back, always – as tough as nails and as canny as a wild-cat, his knife and war-hatchet still at his side. Still, he had taken a hard beating. Until he recovered fully from that, he wouldn’t be at his best in a fight. Jim made a mental note to himself – whoever had attacked Toby rightfully ought to pay. When this business was done, he would make it a personal quest to see that they did.
“There is a key in my coat-pocket to the inner room,” Don Esteban remarked. His arms were full of Dona Adeliza – as tiny as a child, even wrapped in her blankets. “If one of you would fetch it out, and open the door… yes, thank you.” Jim took up a candle from the wooden box next to the fireplace, and lit it from the one already burning.
The room which Don Esteban had rented from Gomez was entirely unremarkable, save for one feature. It was a comfortable room and very neat, with one tiny barred window high in the wall which faced Soledad Street, furnished with a bed and some small pieces of furniture in the rough unpainted style of the Mexican quarter – a chair and a chest, a small table and a stand with a modern ewer and bowl on it, a piece of broken mirror-glass hung on the wall above. It appeared several degrees more commodious and comfortable than the room in Captain Hays’ house which usually served as Jim’s own quarters, on those occasions when he had reason to stay in it. The one unusual element was a roughly cut doorway, the rubble and broken bits of mud-brick stacked and swept roughly to one side. Jim couldn’t fathom why Don Esteban had bothered, save that it reflected the same fastidiousness in his dress as in the tidiness of the room otherwise.
Alfred Biddle went first with the candle, which flickered a little as it cast wavering shadows in the next room. Don Esteban, with the old woman in his arms, went next, his elbows and Dona Adeliza’s blanket scraping a little dried mud-mortar from either side of the opening as he passed through. Jim followed, finding himself in a long salon, floored in slightly uneven tiles in which a single set of feet had made many footprints. The faint sounds of music, of voices in the streets, a door opening with a rattle and creak of heavy hinges sounded as if they sifted in from another world. But for the light of that one candle, the room was otherwise as dark as a cave, and empty save for a pair of benches underneath the tall shuttered and a broken chair in front of the tall fireplace. Heavy grey rags of cobwebs hung from the ceiling beams, stirring faintly in an unseen draft. There a carved wooden panel inset into the wall over the fireplace – which also had an elaborately carved mantel.
“I wasted several days searching this room and the hallway,” Don Esteban noted, as he led them into the next room; smaller and with a narrow stairway ascending into darkness above. “I thought that there might be something buried under the floor tiles, or behind the window frames. The room which was the bedchamber is at the back of the house, having a window overlooking a garden.”
“Let’s get to it, then.” Albert Biddle said. “It’s cold – and this place feels like a tomb.” They felt their way slowly up the narrow stair, almost more by touch than by the light of Albert Biddle’s candle, and into another hallway, into which several doors opened.
In the pallid candle-light, Jim could see that the upstairs chamber might have been a most comfortable apartment. Here, like the main salon, the windows were tall, and a pair of them would have afforded a fine view of the garden below and the wooded banks of the river which threaded through Bexar like a gold-green ribbon. This room was also empty of all save dust, which their footsteps stirred up, and the cob-webs veiling the ceiling rafters.
“La chimenea …” Dona Adeliza commanded in her cracked old voice, and Don Esteban carried her over to the fireplace. The hearth yawned like a door into an even darker place, below a wooden mantel carved in the old-fashioned style of the last century in a series of plain panels edged in cove-molding alternating with smaller ones carved in a pattern of acanthus leaves and rosettes. Dona Adeliza reached out with a hand so pale and boney that it appeared already skeletal. She felt along the mantel, caressing the second carving from the end as if she were seeing it with her fingertips. Albert Biddle and Jim watched, with breathless interest as she reached underneath the mantel, an expression of complete absorption on her face. “Ahí está!” She exclaimed, and seemed to press on something underneath. A plain panel slid open like a drawer from the mantel – so carefully carved and fitted that there was no hint that any such thing had been hidden there. Albert Biddle lifted the candle higher and set it upon the mantel, exclaiming, “So it is! The cunning old devil! Look – it’s crammed full.” He sneezed in the rush of dust which rose from the papers. Jim reached into the drawer and took out the first bundle; there were three, all yellowed and cracking with age around the edges, once-black ink faded to a reddish-brown of the hue of dried blood in the light of the single candle. All three bundles were tied with faded silk ribbon; Jim weighed them in his hands, thinking that they were very small, and insubstantial things, to have brought three men from three different countries halfway around the world just on the odd chance of finding them.
“What are we doing with them, now that they are found?” Jim asked. “You know that I have no interest in them – other than seeing that you and the Englishman all leave Bexar without incident…”
“Simple answer, my dear chap,” a new and yet familiar voice answered him, accompanied by the smooth click of a pistol cocking. “You’re going to give them all to me.”
Startled, all three turned towards this interloper – standing in the doorway, calm and impeccably controlled. The candle gleamed briefly on the pistol barrel, and Jim’s heart sank. Vibart-Jones, smiling a wolfish smile, beckoning with his other hand. “Quick-like – hand them all to me.”
“No, I think not,” Jim answered in as level a voice as he could muster, with the end of Vibart-Jones’ pistol looming as big as the mouth of a six-pounder. “They’re not all yours to claim.”
“My dear chap, I have a pistol aimed at your head,” Vibart-Jones chuckled indulgently. “Hand them over, like a good boy.”
“So have I,” Jim answered, rankled by the Englishman’s tone. In a trice, his own Colt was in his other hand, aiming at Vibart-Jones. “A pistol at your head. And it has five bullets in it – whereas your pistol only has one. So, here’s the thing, Mr. Jones – you may shoot your one bullet at me, and presuming that you kill me outright – what is to stop Don Esteban or Mr. Biddle from taking my pistol and shooting you? Suppose you miss, or only wound me – again, you will still face five bullets. Pretty miserable odds for a gambling man, wouldn’t you say?”
“I’m generally very lucky when it comes to the odds,” Vibart-Jones smiled again, quite unfazed, and the barrel of his pistol moved slightly aside from Jim. “Suppose I threaten to shoot one of your friends – the old woman, even. How ungallant of you – trading the life of a helpless old woman for a useless bundle of paper!”
“How ungallant of you, to use her as a hostage,” Jim answered, as he thought that he saw a shadow move in the darker shadows beyond the hulking shape of the actor. Toby! No one else could move so silently, Jim raised his voice a little, to distract Vibart-Jones. “See here, Jones – I have no objection to letting you have whatever evidence the old General held over the English crown. You came here for it, you may take it away to perdition – but as for what he held over Spain, and the United States? In good conscience, I must turn it over to the representatives of those nations – Mr. Biddle and Senor Saldivar, here.”
“You try my patience, lad!” All pleasant indulgence had fled from Vibart-Jones’ countenance. “I already told you – I want it all and to hell with you and your good conscience. Hand them all over.”
“No, I don’t think I will,” Jim answered. “And I would advise that you lower your pistol, very slowly.”
“Very droll,” Vibart-Jones snarled, leveling the long barrel at Jim. “And who is going to make me do that, pray?”
“The man behind you with a knife,” Jim answered, as Toby’s strong hand snaked from behind and gripped the Englishman by the throat. His eyes bulged in their sockets – very obviously, Toby had the end of his long hunting-knife set to slide upwards between Vibart-Jones’ ribs. In that very instant, Albert Biddle leaped forward and snatched the long dragoon pistol out of his hand. “Just like that,” Jim added. “Do you need any more convincing, Mr. Vibart-Jones? No, I didn’t think so.”
“Can’t blame a chap for trying,” Vibart-Jones acquiesced with a show of grace. “Tell your good man to take his knife from my kidneys … I’ll settle for my government’s share of old Wilkinson’s papers in that case.”
“No,” Jim answered. “Since I don’t think that I can trust you at all – I have a better idea. Good timing,” he added towards Toby, who grinned, in spite of the blossoming black eye that he sported. “How did he miss you?”
“When I heard him at the door with Senora Gomez demanding to be allowed in, I put a blanket over my head and sat on Dona Adeliza’s bed,” Toby answered. “He walked right past, not a second glance.”

In the Gomez kitchen, the cookfire had burned down to dark ruby-glowing coals, attended by a few yellow flames. After the chill of the old Casa, the kitchen seemed cozy, warm and full of light. Don Esteban settled Dona Adeliza on her cot, swathed with more blankets by the attentive Senora Gomez. Jim held all three ribbon-wrapped packets, now seeing by the light of the fire that each was labeled; Britain, Spain, United States. Don Esteban met Jim’s eyes, already divining what Jim had intended, and nodded once in grave approval.
Jim laid the first bundle on the coals – Britain. The edges caught, flamed up at once, falling to tinder. At his back, Vibart-Jones started to protest, but Jim said softly, “There’s no reason for you to stay in Bexar after tonight, is there? My government wanted all this to be settled without any incident.”
“I consider that Mr. Reade has dealt very fairly in this matter,” Albert Biddle said. He took the bundle labeled United States and laid it on the fire without hesitation. “I have no complaint, nor wish to know any more of what the old General secreted away, or how and from whom he extorted funds, thirty years ago and more.”
“Nor do I,” Don Esteban took the last bundle and tossed it onto the fire. The rising flames brightened the room briefly, and then sank into shadows. “Let the past bury the past – or burn it.”
Dona Adeliza, who had been silent since being returned to her usual cot, made a brief and drowsy remark, and Don Esteban laughed, quietly. “She said that the room is comfortably warm, now. But still not as warm as where the Old General is spending eternity.”

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    Ooo, quick on the draw. And I like how you’re using Toby. You might want to, somewhere, towards the start, elaborate on the various tribes for we who are uneducated in these matters.