In Fall 1875, when Rev. Oscar P. McMains took over for the murdered Rev. Franklin J. Tolby, he provided more than ministerial services. He also played detective, and went to work hunting for Tolby’s killer. Colfax County’s collective finger pointed at Cruz Vega, a Civil War veteran who’d run the mail right past the spot in Cimarron Canyon where Tolby had died September 14th. But Vega hadn’t reported seeing Tolby’s body, which many locals deemed mighty suspicious.
Rev. McMains wanted badly to talk with Vega, but he was having trouble locating him. When he did find him, he was going to have another problem: McMains didn’t speak Spanish, the Mexican-born Vega’s native (and apparently only) language.
McMains first attempted to locate Vega through Isaiah Rinehart, the rancher that Territorial Governor Samuel Axtell would appoint Colfax County Sheriff the following spring. While Rinehart believed that Vega knew something about Tolby’s death, he declined to get involved: a logical stance for someone who wanted to stay in good standing with the Santa Fe Ring-enmeshed Governor. After all, the Ring was suspected of ordering Reverend Tolby’s execution.
But Reverend McMains was not a man to bow to the mighty or those connected to them, and he didn’t give up. Sometime in the period between October 21 and October 26, he convinced local miner and rancher William Lowe to help him “find” Cruz Vega in Lowe’s Ponil Creek cornfields north of Cimarron. Lowe agreed to hire Vega to watch his fields over the Halloween weekend and McMains arranged to be there with a translator on Saturday, October 30. What happened that night was a story worthy of Halloween. Stay tuned. . .
Sources: David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, UNM Press, 2014; Las Vegas Gazette, August 25, 1877; Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, Portrait of a Shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983. Will Steinsiek, “O.P. McMains, The Agitator” in New Mexico Conference United Methodist History Journal, Nov. 2011.