1806, Santa Fe, Spanish Nuevo Mexico
“Good morning, Captain,” said a thin but relatively compact man with a Spanish imperial cut to his beard. The captain – a pretty man, but otherwise unimpressive – nodded politely. There was no familiarly to his greeting, and no great warmth.
Colonel Don Xavier Carraza y Santisteban was the Spanish military governor of this region of the Rocky Mountain west – roughly from Santa Fe north and west to include the settlements of Durango, Alamosa, Salida and Taos – an area populated by a few Spanish or Mexican settlers and ten times as many (but still very few) Ute and Navajo natives.
“I trust you and your men have been treated well?” Carraza’s voice was direct, and somehow threatening.
Captain Zebulon Pike, and a small expedition of Americans under his command, had been “exploring” the San Luis Valley between Salida and Alamosa when they were found and arrested by a detachment of Spanish soldiers. After some months of being batted around in turf battles between minor officers, the prisoners had been brought to Carraza’s headquarters, in Santa Fe, where it was intimated by their previous captors that they would be hanged. Pike disbelieved this taunting – mostly – but he could not say the same for his younger men, some of whom were frightened out of their wits.
“We have, Colonel. And I thank you,” said Pike. “But I also must protest. There is no reason for you to continue holding me and my men. We were detained illegally, and this has dragged on quite long enough.”
Carraza smiled. “Are we going to play this game, Captain?” Pike feigned confusion. “You were dispatched at General Wilkinson’s orders, no?” Carraza stood and paced toward Pike. “To spy on Spain and her dominions.”
“We were in the process of exploring the territory purchased from France four years ago,” Pike explained. “By treaty, Louisiana Territory encompasses all of the lands which drain into the Mississippi River.”
Carraza stopped, and chuckled. “You were not in the area you describe… a whimsical colonial claim in any case, which by itself is vague enough to include half the continent. But you were most definitely beyond even the remotest part of your purchased territory.”
Pike frowned. “To the best of our knowledge…”
“You were lost?” Carraza suggested with a grin. He continued his pacing, describing a semi-circle around the American officer.
Yes and no, Pike thought. “No,” he said. Yes, most definitely, he admitted to himself. Lost. “We were, to the best of our knowledge, in the lands described by the United States’ treaty with France.”
“Lost. That is always the story they tell…” Having crossed directly behind Pike, Carraza approached his ear suddenly. “You were spying,” he accused, matter-of-factly. “What that cur, Wilkinson, has in mind, I do not know. But I suspect I know what this means.”
They had been spying… On General Wilkinson’s orders. The whole situation was quite obvious, but could never be acknowledged. “Colonel,” Pike began. “I must offer my apologies if you believe…”
“If this is a doublecross,” Carraza warned, “I will have the General’s head, one way or another.”
Pike was struck dumb, in speech and in thought, for a moment. What in Heaven and Earth did he mean by that?
“Enough of this charade,” Carraza stepped off, toward the window. He took a couple of aimless steps, fingering his beard, then turned and addressed Pike with the point of his finger. “You go tell Wilkinson that he will have to rely on the information I provide him, or the deal is off. And perhaps the American Congress will learn of his alternative income, eh? If we cannot trust each other, his plan will never succeed. And he should know that no one else has the power to contribute what I can.”
“I…” Pike stammered, realizing that he would need to play along. “Colonel, I…”
“I will not be cut out!” Carraza said, dangerously.
“I am sure…” Pike was definitely not sure. “Colonel, I am sure that is not what he has in mind.” Little more than a year ago, Pike and his first expedition had returned to the Mississippi River by raft along the Arkansas River. At points, the Arkansas flowed rapidly and turbulently through an intimidating gauntlet of rocks. That is what this felt like, he reflected. Like trying to maneuver through rock-split rapids. But with a blindfold.
“You can explain what you like, but I have no reason to believe you. All I know is what this looks like,” Carraza explained dismissively. He turned to approach his desk. “You and your men are free to go. You will proceed directly from here to the Arkansas River through Taos, and you will leave Spanish territory.” He wheeled, and locked eyes with Pike’s. “You will not return here without my express permission, which I will send back with Burr shortly before your presence will be necessary to implement the plan.”
Pike took note – careful note – of Carraza’s instructions. “Thank you, Colonel, for your kindness. I will deliver your words directly to the General.”