“How old is Old Pete, anyhow?” Suzanna asked as she perched herself on a large granite rock and looked down at the valley with its long grass and meandering streams. She glanced at Gerald. “He doesn’t look much older than you.”
Gerald chuckled. “He’s been Old Pete as long as I’ve known him. They say Old Bill Williams started calling him that in ’26 when they were trapping with St. Vrain and his bunch north of the Gila. Pete was kinda harrassing Bill, wanting to know just how old he was. Finally, Old Bill got aggravated and started callin’ Pete ‘Old Pete.’” He grinned, plucked a piece of grass, and looked it over carefully. “And that’s what he’s been ever since.” Gerald put the grass stem in his mouth, bit down appreciatively, and chuckled again as he gazed at the green landscape below.
“Those mountain men are quite something,” Suzanna said.
“No, don’t go out there now,” Maria said. “It is late and there is no moon. El es oscuro como boca de lobo.”
“How d’you know how dark it is inside a wolf’s mouth?” Alvin Little grumbled as he put on his boots. “Leave me be.” He paused again, listening. The sound came again, the rattle of sticks tumbling off the pile of kindling just outside the door. “I spent two hours yesterday cuttin’ that kindling and I’m damned if someone’s gonna go stealin’ it.”
“El noche es más mala que Judas,” she protested. “It is unsafe.”
He reached for the door latch, then turned to look at her. “More evil than who? Judas, you say? Where d’you get this stuff?”
He stopped on the sill and shook his head as he peered into the darkness. A pale sliver of moon and no starlight. Heavy clouds blanketing the sky. He chuckled. So this was what a wolf’s mouth looked like. He leaned forward and peered at the wood piled alongside the cabin. He could just see the once neatly stacked kindling. Sticks lay haphazardly at the foot of the pile, as if someone had tried to climb it. Alvin scowled and stepped into the yard to gather them up.
A slight scratching sound came from the wooden roof, but Alvin didn’t have time to do more than lift his head before the mountain lion was on top of him, or hear more than Maria’s single scream before the big cat’s teeth found his throat.
On Wednesday, November 10, 1875 Manuel Cardenas was shot and killed by an unknown gunman in the short distance between the Colfax County jail and courtroom in Cimarron, New Mexico Territory. Cardenas had been on his way to tell the justice of the peace what he knew about the mid-September death of Methodist missionary Franklin J. Tolby. Because Cardenas died when he did, the mystery of who shot Reverend Tolby, and why, was never solved.
Tolby had been a bur under the Maxwell Land Grant Company’s saddle since he’d arrived in the Territory in early 1874. He pointed out that Congress had thrown the grant land was open to homesteaders and objected strenuously to the Company’s program against the settlers they called “squatters.” Because of Tolby’s status as a minister of the gospel, people listened to him and resisted the Land Gant Company’s enforcers.
When Tolby was killed in the Cimarron canyon in September, many thought Civil War veteran Cruz Vega was responsible. As a result, Vegas was tortured and killed, but before he died, Vega fingered Manuel Cardenas as the man who’d shot Tolby.
Cardenas, in turn, claimed that the now-dead Vega had killed the minister. More importantly, he asserted that three prominent members of the community—men who were believed to be part of the Santa Ring—had ordered the killing. Since members of the Ring had a controlling interest in the Maxwell Land Grant Company, Cardenas’ claim made a lot of sense to many Colfax county residents.
However, Cardenas had yet to make his accusations before the County Court. And he died before he could do so. Since his killer was never identified, questions about Tolby’s killing and its aftermath remain to this day: Who killed Manuel Cardenas and why? Was it a Cruz Vega adherent, revenging the aspersion on his good name? Was it Clay Allison or a member of the vigilante group that killed Cruz Vega, seeking vengeance for Reverend Tolby’s death? Or did the Santa Fe Ring send out a killer to take out their killer before he could officially name names? For that matter, who killed Reverend Tolby? Was it Cruz Vega or Manuel Cardenas? And did members of the Santa Fe Ring really put them up to it? If so, how far did the conspiracy go? The Governor’s office? Unless new evidence shows up now, 142 years later, we’ll never know for sure.
And so the saga of Reverend Tolby’s death ends with more questions raised than answered. This is the stuff that novels are made of!
Sources: Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, portrait of a shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983; David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, UNM Press, 2014.
Cruz Vega didn’t go quietly to his death. He told the Cimarron, New Mexico Territory mob who lynched him that they were killing the wrong man. He hadn’t shot Methodist missionary Franklin J. Tolby in Cimarron Canyon on September 14, 1875. Manuel Cardenas had.
Vega’s accusation didn’t save him from death, but it did turn attention to Elizabethtown in the mountains west of Cimarron, where Cardenas lived. When word of Vega’s accusation reached the mining town on Saturday, November 6, 1875, Cardenas turned himself in rather than face a lynch mob of his own. Then he proceeded to tell Etown’s Justice of the Peace what some county residents had suspected from the beginning: Santa Fe Ring members were responsible for Tolby’s murder.
The Santa Fe Ring controlled the Maxwell Land Grant Company and they’d badly wanted to silence Reverend Tolby. Tolby inveighed regularly against the Company evictions of people they considered squatters as well as the Company’s other efforts to get maximum value from the land they’d purchased from Luz and Lucien Maxwell five years before. According to Tolby, the grant lands were open to homesteading and, if anything, at least part of it should be returned to the Ute and Apache bands who’d used it before the Anglo invasion.
Manuel Cardenas told the Elizabethtown Justice of the Peace that three men associated with the Santa Fe Ring—mail contractor Florencio Donoghue, County probate judge Dr. Robert Longwill, and Attorney Melvin W. Mills—had offered him $500 to kill Tolby. However, according to Cardenas, he turned the job down and the trio hired the now-dead Cruz Vega to shoot Tolby instead.
Cardenas’ charges resulted in a flurry of activity. Robert Longwill fled to Santa Fe pursued by a posse led by anti-Grant Company gunman Clay Allison. Since Allison had bested Santa Fe Ring enforcer Juan Francisco “Pancho” Griego in a shootout at Henri Lambert’s Cimarron saloon earlier that week, Longwill was wise to take him seriously.
Melvin Mills was made of sterner stuff. He’d been in Colorado when the charges were made and he returned to Cimarron, indignantly insisting on his innocence. Mills must have arrived back in town around the same time the cavalry detachment from Fort Union showed up on Monday, November 8. The horse soldiers had been dispatched to Cimarron to maintain civil order, sent out at the request of Territorial Governor Samuel Axtell, who just happened to also be a member of the Santa Fe Ring.
With Longwill safely in Santa Fe, Cardenas and Donaghue in jail, and Mills released for lack of evidence, it seemed reasonable to assume that things had quieted down and would remain so. A hearing date to address Cardenas’ evidence was set for Wednesday, Nov. 10. But there was going to be a least one more death before it was all over. Can you guess who? . . . . Stay tuned.
Sources: David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, UNM Press, 2014; Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, portrait of a shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983
Monday, November 1, 1875 in Cimarron, New Mexico should have been a quiet day after an eventful weekend. Cruz Vega, the man thought to have murdered Methodist missionary Reverend Franklin J. Tolby in September, was dead and buried. Now the County could get back to ranching and mining. But Vega’s confession at his Saturday, October 30 lynching had not put the matter to rest.
Vega confessed merely to being involved in the plot to kill Reverend Tolby. He said Manuel Cardenas was the actual shooter. So there was still that to deal with.
Then there was the matter of how Vega had died. Following the telegraph-pole lynching that produced his accusation against Cardenas, Vega was shot and killed. When his battered body was found the next day, his friends and relatives were upset, to say the least. Their thoughts turned almost immediately to revenge. In fact, before the funeral was over, Civil War veteran Juan Francisco “Pancho” Griego vowed vengeance on the men who’d tortured and killed his friend.
There’s no concrete evidence that gunslinger R. Clay Allison was part of the Vega lynch mob, but the fact that Griego confronted him about it implies that Allison either participated in the lynching or was concerned for the welfare of those who had.
At any rate, Griego and Allison met late Monday, November 1 at Henri Lambert’s saloon in Cimarron (today’s St. James Hotel) and Griego didn’t make it out alive. According to Lambert, who’d been born in France, “Pancho try to pull the pistol. Mr. Allison smarter.” When Pancho fell, Lambert ordered everybody out and closed up shop. It was a smart thing to do. Allison and his friends spent the night “hoorahing” the town and probably would have caused more damage to Lambert’s place besides the blood-stained saloon floor if he hadn’t closed down when he did.
But Tolby’s killer still needed to be dealt with and there were still strong suspicions that the Santa Fe Ring was somehow behind it all. Certainly, the bloodshed hadn’t ended. There would be more in the coming days. Stay tuned . . . .
Sources: Las Vegas Gazette, November 14, 1875. Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, Portrait of a Shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983.
On the night of Saturday, October 30, 1875 New Mexico Territory rancher William Low joined Mexican-born Cruz Vega beside a campfire about a mile and a half north of Cimarron. Low had hired Vega to watch his cornfields that Halloween weekend. But when a group of masked men led by Methodist missionary Oscar P. McMains showed up that night, Low wasn’t surprised. Reverend McMains had asked him to hire Vega to watch that particular cornfield. He wanted him within easy reach of the Poñil River stage road and the telegraph line that ran it.
McMains and his men had a sinister use for those telegraph poles. They suspected Vega of murdering McMain’s fellow missionary, the Reverend Franklin J. Tolby the month before, and they intended to extract a confession from him.
According to William Low, “One of them says, halloo boys, and he walked up toward Cruz with a lariat and put it around his neck, and says, come on, and they took him into the road and we along with him. We went up I judge about 500 yards among the timber, along the telegraph line: there was a party of men. It was pretty dark. These four or five men took him to a telegraph pole of their own accord: none of the parties said a word . . . One of the four or five men climbed the telegraph pole and put the rope over the wire and they raised him up, on their own accord, and after a few seconds let him down again.” After Vega recovered enough to talk, McMains interrogated him.
This process was repeated until McMains got all the information he was looking for. Then the Reverend returned to the Poñil River ranch where he and Low were staying the night and left Vega to the mercy of the now-drunken mob. McMains said later that he thought they were too drunk to do Vega any real damage. But shortly after McMains reached the ranch house, he and Low heard gunshots. “My God!” McMains exclaimed. “I fear these are the shots that kill Cruz Vega.”
And he was right. Vega’s body was found the next morning near the base of the telegraph pole. A clump of hair from his bashed-in head lay nearby and rope burns circled his neck.
Ironically, the information McMains gathered that night acquitted Vega of Tolby’s murder. Although Vega admitted that he’d witnessed the killing, he identified Manual Cardenas of Elizabethtown as the shooter. So the murderer was still at large. The saga of Reverend Tolby’s murder wasn’t quite over, and more deaths would ensue before it was. . . . Stay tuned.
Sources: Las Vegas Gazette, Nov. 14, 1875. Las Vegas Gazette, August 25, 1877.
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.