After an icy night huddled against his mule in the lee of a sandstone boulder, it took Peter another two days of slogging up Cimarron Canyon before he reached the valley above.
He had to lead the mule through the most treacherous part of the half-frozen marsh where the river formed up at the valley’s edge. “Come’n now,” he coaxed. “Can’t you smell the cabin smoke?” But she just rolled her eyes at him.
Finally they were through, his water-soaked boots heavy on his feet, the ten inches of snow on the ground making them colder. He turned left, toward home, and the mule’s pace quickened. “Smellin’ home?” Peter asked sardonically. They were close enough now to make out the cabin at the base of the rise. Smoke steamed from the chimney and the figure of a woman showed at the door, one hand to her forehead, gazing in his direction. Peter’s own pace quickened, in spite of the heavy boots.
The three men and two mules stopped and stared up the mountainside. A fall of broken rock blocked their way.
“Well, shit!” Gus said. “How’re we supposed to get to that old mine shaft with this in the way?”
Herbert pulled off his hat and fanned his week-old beard. “Maybe we can go around.”
Alonzo pulled his suspenders away from his rounded belly and looked down and then up the sharply-angled slope. “Mules ain’t gonna like that,” he said.
“Guess we’re done then.” Gus rubbed his jaw. “Hell, I needed that gold.”
Herbert shrugged and began maneuvering the mules to face back down the mountainside.
Alonzo stared across the slope at the fractured stone. “That’s rotten quartz,” he said thoughtfully. He moved out onto the rocks.
“Careful there,” Gus said, but Alonzo only crouched down and stretched to pluck a piece from near the center of the rock fall. He turned it carefully. “Will you look at that,” he said wonderingly.
Gus and Herbert looked at each other, then Alonzo. He grinned back at them. “Might be this is as far’s we need to go,” he said. He lifted the quartz in his hand. “Looks like there’s gold enough right here!”
Alison straightened and put her gloved fists on her hips, pushing her shoulders back. Ten two-hundred foot rows of potato plants stretched before her. She twisted her torso, looking behind her and stretching her muscles at the same time. She had dug up the potatoes from about half a row. Full bushel baskets marked her progress. The yield was good this year, but her back was tired already.
She looked up. There were no clouds at the moment, except for a small gathering over Cimarron Canyon. An east wind was starting up, which meant rain at some point this afternoon or evening. She turned in a slow circle, looking up at the peaks surrounding her high Rocky Mountain valley. Snow dusted the tops of Baldy Mountain to the northeast and Wheeler Peak to the west. She went back to her digging. She didn’t have much time.
On Thursday, September 16, 1875, 142 years ago today, the body of Methodist missionary Franklin J. Tolby was found lying beside the Cimarron Canyon road near the mouth of Clear Creek, shot in the back. He’d been there two days, killed while returning from church services at Elizabethtown. His horse was tethered nearby and none of Tolby’s goods were missing. It was clearly a case of assassination and many people believed they knew why he was killed. But who did it and who’d ordered the killing? Those were the burning questions that some people believe were never answered.
Tolby had begun preaching vehemently against the Maxwell Land Grant & Railway Company almost as soon as he’d arrived in Colfax County in early 1874. The Company had bought the Beaubien-Miranda Grant from Lucien B. Maxwell and his wife four years before. The fact that the Grant boundaries were disputed wasn’t going to stop them from maximizing their profits from every bit of its roughly 1.9 million acres. They would use whatever means necessary to keep anyone they deemed a squatter off the Grant, even people the Maxwells had work/share agreements with prior to the sale.
The 33 year old Reverend Tolby preached that the farmers and ranchers were more in the right than the Grant people. After all, the U.S. Department of the Interior had ordered the grant land to be treated as public, which made it available to homesteaders.
In addition, Tolby advocated that part of the grant be set aside a reservation for the bands of Utes and Arapahoes who traditionally hunted there. And he said so quite strongly.
Tolby became increasingly annoying to the Company, whose board of directors included Dr. Robert Longwill (Colfax County Probate Judge), Stephen B. Elkins (New Mexico Territorial delegate to Congress), and Thomas B. Catron (U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Territory), all members of the Santa Fe Ring and working hard to extract as much money as possible from the Territory in general and the former Maxwell Grant in particular.
Any of these men and their associates, including Cimarron Attorney Melvin W. Mills and its part-time Justice of the Peace (who was Mills’ office clerk) had reason to wish Tolby dead. After all, the Reverend was interfering with their business interests! But consensus among the anti-Grant folks in the County was that none of the Ring men were likely to dirty their hands with the actual deed itself. In fact, many suspected substitute mail carrier Cruz Vega of killing Tolby. After all, Vega’s Tuesday, September 14 mail route took him through the Cimarron Canyon, but he hadn’t reported seeing a body. This seemed mighty suspicious. Clearly, he knew something.
But Vega spoke only Spanish, which was a problem for the primarily English-speaking men who suspected him. They couldn’t find out what he knew. And they weren’t getting much help from the County’s Spanish-speaking population.
But there was another stubborn Methodist minister in Cimarron, and this one would prove to be even more tenacious than his predecessor. Rev. Tolby’s assistant Rev. Oscar P. McMains was now in charge, and he was hell bent on finding out what Vega knew. It would take six weeks before that confrontation occurred, and when it did it would create even more havoc. Stay tuned . . .
Sources: David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, UNM Press, 2014; Moreno Valley Writers Guild, Lure, Lore and Legends of the Moreno Valley, Columbine Books 1997; Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, Portrait of a Shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983; Stephen Zimmer, For Good or Bad, People of the Cimarron Country, Stephen Zimmer, Sunstone Press, 1999.
Exactly 146 years ago today, on Friday, August 4, 1871, three Methodist missionaries en route to Elizabethtown, New Mexico were struck by lightning and almost killed in Cimarron Canyon. Illinois natives Reverend N. S. Buckner and his 19 year old wife Annette had recently been appointed to take over Rev. Thomas Harwood’s responsibilities in Etown. They were travelling with Harwood, the man would go on to become the Methodist Bishop of New Mexico and co-found what is now the Harwood School in Albuquerque. The Buckners had just been assigned to assist him by taking over in Elizabethtown, where Harwood had dedicated a church building the year before.
The sun was beginning to set when Harwood and the Buckners reached the first section of Cimarron Canyon. Rev. Harwood’s buggy provided protection from the rain, so they weren’t uncomfortable. In fact, they were enjoying the thunderstorm and discussing the properties of electricity, when suddenly, thunder crashed, lightning flashed, and the smell of sulfur filled the air. The buggy itself had been struck and its passengers stunned to immobility. The force of the strike tore two large holes in the ground underneath the wheels, broke the crossbar behind the horses, and knocked the animals themselves off their feet.
Once the Buckners and Harwood were able to move again, they left the horses and walked back towards Cimarron “under the blazing lightnings and almost deafening thunder, muddy, wet and barefoot, . . . three miles to the nearest American house, and thence in wagon to Cimarron City” (Harwood, Vol. I, 129).
Although they were all still feeling the effects of their lightning experience, the next morning, the little group of missionaries were back in the canyon, this time on the Saturday stage to Elizabethtown, where the men preached at the morning and evening church services the next day.
It was an inauspicious beginning to the Buckner’s work in New Mexico Territory and things don’t seem to have improved much after that. Elizabethtown was a center of resistance to the Maxwell Land Grant Company’s plan to dispossess the area’s miners, ranchers, and farmers of their land. The town was rife with tension. The Buckners returned to Colorado in 1872. A year and a half later, in January 1874, they were replaced by Rev. Franklin J. Tolby, who lived in Cimarron but held services in Elizabethtown on a regular basis. Tolby himself would not last long. He was gunned down on September 14, 1875 on his way home from the Elizabethtown church, a date that many consider to be the beginning of the Colfax County War.
For fiction based on Reverend Tolby’s life and assassination, and historical information about his death, see my May 24, 2017 post and watch for them throughout September.
Source: Thomas Harwood, History of New Mexico Spanish and English Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Vol. I and II, El Albogado Press, Albuquerque, 1910; Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont, A History of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country, UNM Press, 1972, Albuquerque; ttps://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/?year=1871&country=1 accessed 7/17/2017
He wasn’t a man to pay much attention to girl children, but this one was different. She didn’t seem interested in cooking or clothes. More likely, she’d be in the canyon, fishing the Cimarron River. Her brother was the dreamy one, the one watching the fish swim ’stead of trying to catch ’em.
So the man was surprised when she came around the curve of the path and stopped to watch him cook the wild carrot root. He’d cut off the flowers and was slicing the root into the pot on the fire.
“Good eatin’,” he told her. “Back home, they say these make your eyes strong.”
She frowned. “Not that,” she said, shaking her head.
He was hungry. He lifted the last piece to his mouth.
“No!” she said sharply.
He raised an eyebrow at her and lowered his hand.
“That isn’t carrot,” she said. “It’s poison hemlock.”