BUZZARD BRAINS

BUZZARD BRAINS

“He ain’t got the brains God gave a buzzard,” the old man grumbled. He picked up his mattock and glared at the black-hatted figure retreating down the bottom of Humbug Gulch toward Elizabethtown. Then he looked uphill, toward Baldy Peak. “Idiot can’t even figure out there’s a storm up there and this gully likely t’wash out in another half hour.” He sniffed disdainfully and went back to work, breaking rock on the gully’s southern lip, searching for the gold that was bound to be there if a man worked the stones long enough.

The young man in the black bowler hat chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip as he trudged down the center of the gulch through the gravel and broken rock. He’d offered every dollar he had for the claim, but the miner clearly wasn’t interested in selling. He shook his head. There must be other options.

Halfway down the gulch, he paused to catch his breath and gaze at the mountain above. That dark cloud spoke rain. Given the southeast position of the cloud and the angle of the gulch, it was unlikely that particular cloudburst would wet this particular gully. However, just to be on the safe side, he moved halfway up the gully’s north slope before he continued his downward trek.

The sun was glaringly bright on the dry rocks. The young man sat down on a large sandstone boulder and took off his hat. He brushed at the dust on the black felt and shook his head. He needed to find something lighter weight and less apt to show dust. He’d keep wearing this in the meantime, though. If nothing else, it protected him from sunstroke. He glanced down at the shadowed side of his rocky seat and grinned. Like this boulder was protecting that bit of grass, growing here among the pitiless rocks where no plant had a right to be.

The young man’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward. He shaded the clump of grass with his hat and peered down at it and the rocks around it. Then he straightened abruptly, glanced up the gully where the miner had gone back to work, and slid off the boulder. He crouched beside the big rock and gently pried a piece of broken quartz from the ground. He turned it slowly back and forth, examining every facet and seam.

Five minutes later, the young man sat back on his heels and turned the rock again, just to be certain. Then he picked up a stick and poked around a bit in the ground beside the boulder. He nodded thoughtfully, then stood and looked carefully at the gulch’s rocky slopes for any sign of possession. But this piece of land clearly hadn’t been claimed. Apparently, no one had thought there was gold this far down Humbug Gulch.

The young man chuckled, tucked the piece of quartz into his pocket, clapped his dusty black hat on his head, and headed into Elizabethtown to file the necessary paperwork for his claim.  

from Old One Eye Pete

OBSESSIONS

OBSESSIONS

“Did you know the Maxwell Land Grant Company is evicting people who’ve been farming here for decades?” the Reverend Franklin Tolby demands.

At the other end of the small pine table, Mary Tolby moves a raised biscuit from the chipped ceramic platter to her plate. “That’s terrible,” she says. “These biscuits are quite good this time. I think I’ve finally become used to that stove. Rachel, eat your peas or there’ll be no dessert.”

Her husband picks absently at his food. “It’s a moral outrage,” he says. “The Company has no right.”

Mary looks anxiously at his pale face. Since they arrived in Cimarron, Franklin has been on horseback constantly, west to Elizabethtown, south to Fort Union and beyond, yet his cheeks show no evidence of windburn or sun.

“I’ve made strawberry pie for desert,” she says. “An Indian girl came by selling berries. They’re very sweet. The result should be quite tasty.”

Franklin’s eyes focus on her for a split second, then his head snaps up, as if he’s listening to something outside the house. “And the Indians,” he says. “With this much land, there’s room for them also.” He pauses for a long moment, fork in the air, then says, “Excuse me,” drops his frayed linen napkin onto the table, and hurries from the room.

Mary can hear him scrabbling through the papers on his desk as he prepares to write down whatever has just come to him. She sighs and reaches to cover the food on his half-empty plate with a clean napkin. “Rachel, eat your peas,” she says absently.

~ ~ ~ ~

The tiny Elizabethtown church reeks with the late June stench of unwashed miners, but Dr. Robert Longwill presses through the door anyway. He nods at Old One Eye Pete, who’s standing to one side, his battered hat clasped politely in his hands.

Then the doctor focuses on the front of the room. He can just see the top of Reverend Tolby’s head. On Cimarron’s dusty streets, the little man’s carefully groomed handlebar mustache has often given Longwill the urge to laugh, but here in Etown the miners and old trappers aren’t snickering.

Tolby’s voice fills the room. “The Maxwell Land Grant Company has no right to the land on which your mines and farmlands rest,” he says flatly. “You work the land and bring forth value from it. They sit in their offices and collect the rewards of your God-driven labor. Let us be done with such greed! Let us return to the scriptural truth that a man must work by the sweat of his brow and reap the labor of his hands!”

Dr. Longwill eases out the church door and down the hillside, toward the livery stable where he left his horse. “That preacher’s been here less than six months, and already he’s an expert on the Grant and the miners’ and farmers’ rights,” he mutters bitterly. Which wouldn’t be a problem, if no one were listening to him.

~ ~ ~ ~

Mary Tolby frowns at the potatoes she’s peeling, then out the kitchen window at the dusty Cimarron sky. It seems as if a grit-filled wind has blown every day of the eighteen months since she and Franklin arrived here to begin his Methodist Episcopal mission work. Mary sighs, washes her hands, and lifts the towel that shelters her rising bread dough. It’s taking longer than usual to double its size.

But then, Franklin is taking longer than usual to return from his Sunday services at Elizabethtown. He’s usually back before Tuesday noon, following his meeting with the church board and various other discussions on Monday.

Mary frowns and looks out the window again. There’s so much dust in the air, she can hardly see the sun. Franklin’s undoubtedly talking with someone in Etown or Ute Park about the Maxwell Land Grant Company and its wholesale eviction of the miners and small farmers who were here before the corporation purchased the grant.

She shakes her head and returns to her work. She very much doubts that her husband is speaking with anyone about the state of their soul. Not that many people in Colfax County seem to care about God or religion. Land and water are all that matter. That and gold. How she longs sometimes for Indiana!

~ ~ ~ ~

Two days before, the man had hovered outside Etown’s tiny Protestant church just long enough to confirm that Franklin Tolby was preaching there. He couldn’t stay longer than a few minutes. The air sucked out of his lungs at the thought of Tolby’s teachings, so contrary to Holy Church. But he’d been there long enough to confirm that the heretic minister will be traveling down canyon this Tuesday morning, as he always does after a Sunday in Elizabethtown.

The man waits now, rifle tucked to his chest, in the shadow of the big ponderosa at the mouth of Clear Creek. How pleasant it will be to stop the minister’s preaching.

The men who are paying him to silence Tolby have other reasons for desiring his death, reasons of power and money and land. But the waiting man cares nothing for these things, although the gold they’ve given him will be useful enough. He can leave the grant now, take his family someplace where americanos have not yet stolen the land from those who know how to do something useful with it, those whose fathers tilled it before them.

He turns his head, listening. Someone is coming. A man singing a raucous heretical hymn. Tolby, most certainly. The minister will stop at Clear Creek as usual, to water his horse and drink from the hollowed-out wooden trough placed there for the refreshment of travelers.

His back will be to the big ponderosa that shields the man with the gun. But there is no dishonor in shooting a heretic in the back. A man who will steal one’s very soul if he can, destroy the very fabric of one’s Catholic life. The rider in his clay-brown coat dismounts and the gunman eases into position. He holds his breath as his finger touches the trigger, squeezing so gently and slowly that Tolby drops to the ground before the shooter registers the sound of the bullet’s discharge, sees the neat hole it makes in the shabby brown coat.

from Old One Eye Pete

Maxwell Land Grant = Trouble

Maxwell Land Grant = Trouble

Mid-April 1871 was a busy time for the newly-formed Maxwell Land Grant Company. Lucien and Luz Maxwell had received their cash for the grant, moved out of the house at Cimarron, and were busy spending their money. Lucien had used a good chunk of it to set up the First National Bank in Santa Fe. He’d also bought land at Fort Sumner. While Luz turned the former the officers quarters into a home, he bought racehorses.

However, the Company wasn’t having an easy time establishing their control over the former Beaubien-Miranda Land Grant’s vast acreage. There’d been an initial dust-up in late 1870, when the Elizabethtown miners rioted against the new owners and the Governor had to send soldiers in to squelch them. But that wasn’t the end of it. In early April 1871, the Cimarron Squatters Club organized a mass protest and fundraising meeting in front of the county courthouse. 

The Company apparently decided to demonstrate a little force in response. They sent a group of employees into the Ute Creek placer mines and took over. That strategy didn’t work out too well—the miners disarmed the Company’s men and held them hostage.

Again, the Governor got involved. This time he came himself, forced the miners to free the prisoners, ordered them to abstain from further violence, and then got the Army to station soldiers from Fort Union in the area to enforce the peace.

The soldiers’ presence does seem to have calmed the boiling pot for a little while. But it was bound to boil over again—the Company was enforcing rent payments Maxwell had never bothered to collect and also kicking people off range and farmland Maxwell had allowed them to use.

Maxwell Land Grant Map, circa 1870

Whether the Company was within their rights isn’t clear. Things got even murkier in late January 1873, when the U.S. Department of Interior ordered much of the Grant’s acreage to be treated as public lands. This brought more settlers (the Company called them “squatters”) into the area and, with them, more unrest. 

With the newcomers came Methodist Episcopal missionary Rev. Franklin J. Tolby. Tolby sided with the settlers and miners and didn’t hesitate to speak his mind. In mid-September 1875 he was ambushed and killed on the canyon road between Elizabethtown and Cimarron, and the Colfax County War was on in earnest.

The conflict didn’t end until April 18, 1887, when the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the Company’s right to almost two million acres. Even then, the violence didn’t come to an immediate halt. However, even the most ardent settlers didn’t have any legal arguments left in their arsenal and the Colfax County War gradually faded away.

Once again, money and political power had prevailed in the fight for control of New Mexico’s lands.

Sources: David L. Caffey, Chasing The Santa Fe Ring, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014; Harriet Freiberger, Lucien Maxwell,Villain or Visionary, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1999; Larry Murphy, Out in God’s Country: A History of Colfax County, New Mexico, Springer, NM: 1969; Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont: A history of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972; Moreno Valley Writers Guild, Lure, Lore and Legends of the Moreno Valley, Angel Fire, NM: Columbine Books, 1997; Stephen Zimmer, For Good or Bad, The People of the Cimarron Country, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1999.

THE FOURTH TIME

THE FOURTH TIME

She could be incandescently angry and Gerald’s trip to Santa Fe and back had taken a week longer than he’d told her it would, so he braced himself as he opened the cabin door. But Suzanna barely raised her head from the rocking chair by the fire. She wasn’t rocking. Her shawl was clutched to her chest, her face drawn and gray under the smooth, creamy-brown skin. She glanced at Gerald, then turned her face back to the flames, her cheeks tracked with tears.

Gerald’s stomach clenched. “What is it?” he asked. “The children?”

Suzanna shook her head without looking at him. “The children are fine,” she said dully. She moved a hand from the shawl and placed it on her belly. The tears started again and she looked up at him bleakly. “This is the fourth time,” she said. “There will—” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “There will be no third child,” she choked, and he crossed the room, knelt beside her, and wordlessly took her into his arms.

from Valley of the Eagles

THICKER’N SNOT

“It’s s’posed to be August, dadburn it.” Julius Fairfield looked gloomily out the door of the long, narrow log cabin that served as the Quartz Mill & Lode Mining Company barracks outside of Elizabethtown. “This fog is thicker’n snot.”

In one of the iron beds lining the walls behind him, somebody sneezed. “And there’s the snot for ye,” Edward Kelly, the company’s lone Irishman, chortled as he added more wood to the pot belly stove halfway down the room.

A door opened at the far end and the chief engineer came out. He ignored the men in the beds as he walked down the room to peer over Fairfield’s shoulder. “That fog’ll lift shortly,” he said. He clapped Fairfield on the back. “Be thankful it’s not rain.”

“That was yesterday’s gift to us all,” Fairfield said gloomily. He shook his head. “And here I thought New Mexico Territory’d be drier than New York.” He grinned and glanced at the engineer. “When’d you say payday was?”

Behind them, Kelly began to sing a song praising Ireland and its green hills, and a chorus of voices yowled at him to be still. The engineer chuckled and turned. “That’s enough now!” he said.

from Valley of the Eagles

LEONIDAS AND GEORGE, PART 2 OF 2

George was getting nervous. “Let’s get ourselves off this main track,” he said. “These cattle are making our trail a wee bit too readable.”

Leonidas nodded. “We can head up Ute Creek,” he suggested. “Maybe offer them for sale at Baldy Camp instead of driving them clear to Etown.”

The longhorns moved gladly into the Ute Creek grasslands, but then stalled. The forage was long and green, and they saw no reason to go on. George whooped and waved his hat at them half-heartedly. He was losing enthusiasm for the whole venture. His pony wasn’t really a cowhorse and didn’t care for close proximity to longhorns. And he liked Leonidas, but the big Canadian hadn’t adapted to herding as easily as he’d hoped. He sighed. Etown placer mining, and now this. He should just head on back to Ireland.

Leonidas rode up beside him. “How much farther?” he asked.

~ ~ ~ ~

Tom Stockton pushed back his hat and wiped his forehead with his shirt sleeve. Even the rippling sound of the nearby Cimarron river did nothing to relieve the heat.

Chuck, Finis, and the others reined in on either side of him. They all stared at the hoof marks on the rocky dirt road heading into Cimarron canyon.

“They ain’t even tryin’ to cover their tracks or keep those cattle where it won’t show,” Finis said with disgust. “Looks like only two men who don’t know what in hell they’re doin’.”

“Greenhorns,” Chuck agreed. He spat into the dust. “Feel kinda sorry for ’em.”

“That’s seventy head of my cattle they’re doing such a damn poor job of herding,” Stockton said grimly. “Greenhorns or not, they’re rustlin’.” He resettled his hat. “Let’s get this over with.” He spurred his horse into a steady trot. The others followed briskly behind.

~ ~ ~ ~

The two younger men didn’t stand a chance against Tom Stockton and his five riders. They were covered by guns before they even knew they were surrounded. Leonidas felt his stomach tighten.

“Round ’em up,” Stockton said, his voice icy. He gestured at the cattle with his head as his Colt focused on Van Valser’s chest.

“Aye, that’s just what we’ve been adoin’,” George Cunningham said, his Irish brogue thickening. “We were just rounding them up for you, gatherin’ ’em for a quick swing on down to your Clifton House—”

“Wrong direction, son,” Chuck said. Cunnningham fell silent.

“Get moving,” Stockton ordered.

Leonidas and George obeyed. As the other men spread out around the cattle with them, Leonidas felt a surge of relief at the lack of gunfire. Stockton was a big man in the County. Maybe he’d just turn them over to the Sheriff in Cimarron.

~ ~ ~ ~

As they entered the east end of the canyon, George Cunningham’s hopes revived. Tom Stockton had his longhorns back, and he and his men were paying more attention to the cattle than to Cunningham and Van Valser. There’d been no move to string them up.

The farmlands east of Cimarron Canyon were almost within sight. George began looking carefully at the sandstone and juniper on either side of the road. It might just be possible to make a dash for it. He glanced around. Van Valser was behind him. George slowed his pony a little to angle closer, letting the cattle ease by.

But Stockton had seen him examining the landscape, and suddenly Chuck and Finis were riding toward George and Leonidas. There was a sudden blast of gunfire. Cunningham’s pony reared, Leonidas crumpled in his saddle, and everything went black.

“Trying to escape,” Tom Stockton growled. “The damn fools.”

Copyright ©2015 Loretta Miles Tollefson

LEONIDAS AND GEORGE, PART 1 OF 2

“Where’d you be gettin’ a name like Leonidas?” the young Irishman asked the tall young man next to him at the Etown bar.

The big Canadian looked at him. “My mother had scholarly ambitions beyond her station,” he said. He lifted a fist. “And my father made sure I could defend myself.”

“I’d not be denying you the right to the name.” George Cunningham grinned. “An’ I’m thinking your father trained you good and well.”

“The trouble is, they didn’t have the money for proper scholarship,” Leonidas Van Valser told him. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Get enough gold, you won’t be havin’ to worry ’bout scholarship,” Cunningham observed.

“I intend to pan enough gold to go to school properly,” Van Valser explained. “I’m only twenty-five. There’s still time.”

“You’ve got ambitions,” Cunningham said. “’Tis a good thing in a man.”

The two grinned at each other companionably.

~ ~ ~ ~

George Cunningham was small, even for an Irishman, with a perpetually restless face. His Canadian friend Leonidas Van Valser was the steady one, until Etown’s gold placer mines wore down even his perseverance.  

“There must be an easier way to make a living,” Leonidas said one night in Herberger’s saloon, examining his bandaged hand. He’d had a run-in that morning with some unstable sandstone.

“Somewhere else, is what I’m thinkin’,” Cunningham said. “Anywhere but these water-forsaken rock-bound hillsides.”

Van Valser nodded gloomily. “I think you’ve finally convinced me, George. But I don’t know what to do about it.”

“It’s cattle I’m thinkin’ of.”

“Neither of us have cattle.”

“There’s plenty o’ cattle running through these hills with nary a brand mark t’ be seen.”

“That’s rustling,” Leonidas said.

“Not if you don’t get yourself caught.” Cunningham bent toward him.

Van Valser studied his friend’s face. “I’m listening,” he said.

~ ~ ~ ~

“Do you know anything about cattle?” Leonidas asked as he studied the longhorns in the clearing below.

“Aye, I was in Texas for a while after the war,” Cunningham said. “Though my size was agin me, I do admit.” The little Irishman grinned at his friend. “But you’ve got the leverage to bring those yearlings onto their sides smooth as whisky.” He hefted the rope in his hand. “I rope ’em, you flip ’em, then we brand and sell ’em to the first Etown slaughterhouse we reach.”

“It’s certainly worth a try,” Leonidas agreed. “Beef’s selling at a good price and the slaughterhouses aren’t too careful about ownership, from what I hear.” He looked at the herd. “Who do they actually belong to?”

Cunningham shrugged. “Some Texan turned ’em loose on grass that don’t belong to him. To my mind, we’re just helpin’ the Maxwell Company even the score.”

~ ~ ~ ~

“You git off my property!” The woman was thin as a garter snake, with the eyes of a rattler. She glared at the two dusty young men down the cold steel of a rifle barrel. “And git your hands up!”

Van Valser and Cunningham did as she said, their horses shifting beneath them.

“We do apologize, ma’am,” Cunningham said. “We were hoping for a wee bit of water from your well. Drivin’ cattle is hard work on an uncommonly warm day as it is.”

She studied them. Her mouth twitched as she looked at Van Valser, whose face was streaked with dusty sweat. She lowered her rifle and gestured toward the well. “Help yourself,” she said. “But only to the water. Not my cattle or anythin’ else. Then git on outta here ’for you get caught.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said in unison.

“Godforsaken young idiots,” she muttered, watching them dismount.

. . . . to be continued

ELEGANCE IN ETOWN

The men in Seligman’s Mercantile watched silently as the young woman in the trailing pale blue silk skirts swept out of the store.

“She’s a lardy dardy little thing, isn’t she now?” Charles Idle, the expatriate Englishman, asked. He shook his head and stretched his feet closer to the wood stove. “That dress and hat.”

Joseph Kinsinger spat a stream of tobacco toward the empty lard can by the stove. “Those silks ain’t gonna last long in this mud. And the wind’l take that hat.”

His brother Peter grinned. “You’re just worried Desi’s gonna see her and want a getup just like it,” he said.

“I wonder where’s she’s staying,” Idle said thoughtfully. “Hey Jim, where’d she say to deliver that sterling brush and comb set?”

The clerk hesitated, then shrugged. It would be all over town soon enough anyway. “The Moreno Hotel,” he said.

There was a short silence, then Idle said, “Well, I guess I’d better go see how my mine’s doing this morning,” and rose from his chair.

“I’ll bet,” Peter said sardonically, but Idle only smiled and went out.

from Valley of the Eagles

Book Review: Philmont, A History Of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country

Murphy.Philmont.cover
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1972
ISBN: 9780826302441

The summer staff at the Boy Scouts of America Philmont Scout Ranch outside Cimarron, New Mexico are often working their first “real” job. For Lawrence R Murphy in the 1960s, that job became the springboard to a history degree and a master’s thesis on the Baldy Mountain mining district, part of which lies inside the Scout Ranch boundaries. Murphy’s thesis and other writings became the foundation for Philmont, A History Of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country.

But Philmont is much more than a history of Baldy Mountain or Philmont Scout Ranch. It’s also a history of Colfax County, New Mexico.

And it’s a thorough one. The book begins with the region’s plants and animals, then goes on to discuss the Native Americans who were present when the Spanish moved into the area and the uneasy truce and outright conflict between the two groups. It then moves on to the advent of fur trapping in the southern Rockies, the Santa Fe Trail, the establishment and settling of the Beaubien and Miranda Land Grant, and Lucien Bonapart Maxwell’s acquisition of the grant.

This section also covers construction of Fort Union, Cimarron’s role as an Indian agency, the discovery of gold on Baldy Mountain, the Colfax County War, and subsequent events on into the early 1900s.

For a book titled Philmont, this history provides remarkably little space to the actual acquisition and development of the Boy Scout ranch. As a result, its potential readership is far larger than the many Scouts who gather each year at the Ranch. For those of us interested in the history of New Mexico’s Colfax County, including the Colfax County War, it provides a great overview of events.

As a writer of historical fiction who focuses on Northern New Mexico, I found Philmont fascinating and useful as a springboard for my own research. I highly recommend this well-written history of the Boy Scouts of America Philmont Scout Ranch and its region.

ATTITUDES

“Rues? Your last name is Roo-ess?” The young white man sitting at the Elizabethtown restaurant table looked at the old black man quizzically. “You mean Ruiz? Roo-eez? You got some Spanish in you?”

The cook shook his head. “All I know’s what my mama tol’ me,” he said. “My daddy was a Frenchman visiting ’round in Alabama. He stayed at the Big House for three weeks and took a shine to my mama while he was there. When I was born, she give me his last name.”

“Your master let her do that?”

The black man studied the plate of food in his hands for a long minute. “After the war, we could choose what last name we wanted,” he said quietly. “I chose my daddy’s name.”

“That food sure looks good,” the white man said. He moved his knife and fork farther apart on the bare wooden table.

Louis Rues put the plate down and turned away. He shook his head. People are people, no matter where you go, he thought ruefully as he went back to his stove.

from Valley of the Eagles