West of Penance: Book Review

West of Penance cover
by Thomas D. Clagett
ISBN: 9781432831417
Five Star/Cengage, 2016

There were a lot of pieces to the conflict that engulfed New Mexico’s Colfax County in the 1870s–the conflict we know today as the Colfax County War. As far as I know, no one has ever provided a good fictional account of how some of those pieces fit together and just who did what to whom. Until now.

The hero of Thomas D. Clagett’s West of Penance doesn’t get to Colfax County until a little over one-third of the way into the book. But once he does, he’s in the middle of events that actually happened. Events that Clagett lines up nicely and for which he provides explanations that not only make sense, but make for a great story.

Although Father Graintaire and the woman who takes him in are fictional characters, everyone else in this section of the book actually existed. Based on my own Colfax County research, Clagett’s conceptions of them and their actions are right on target. The portraits of Clay Allison and Sheriff Chittenden, and the explanation of why Cruz Vega was in William Lowe’s cornfield the night he was lynched are especially well done. And Clagett’s portrait of Santa Fe Ring attorney Melvin W. Mills gave me new insight into Mills’ character. I wish I’d read West of Penance before I wrote his scenes in The Pain and The Sorrow!

Given how well Clagett handles the Colfax County material in this book, I think it’s safe to assume that the first part of West of Penance  is just as authentic. I certainly feel like I know more now about the French Foreign Legion than I did before I read this book.

So, if you’re interested in the French Foreign Legion at the battle of Camerone and the role they played in acquiring Mexico for France, or in New Mexico’s Colfax County war, I recommend that you read West of Penance!

 

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There was a knothole in the cabin door, in the fourth board from the right. Kenneth stood on tiptoe and peered through it at the men on the horses.

“It’s Clay Allison!” he hissed.

His little sister Elizabeth stood on tiptoe and tried to shoulder Kenneth out the way so she could see for herself. “Are you sure?” she whispered.

Kenneth nodded. “He’s tall and he’s got those black whiskers and he’s ridin’ that big blond horse Papa says is so dangerous.”

Elizabeth bit her lip and shrank back. She hugged herself tightly around her waist. “I’m scared,” she whimpered. “I’ve heard tell that he’s mean.”

“Ah, he’s only mean to those who are mean,” Kenneth scoffed. But he didn’t open the door. His mother had instructed him to stay inside if anyone came while she and his father were gone. As far as Kenneth was concerned, ‘anyone’ included the gunslinger Clay Allison. If that’s who it was. He wasn’t at all certain, now that he thought about it. He’d never seen the man close up. But he sure wasn’t gonna tell Elizabeth that.

The knothole suddenly went black and there was a thud on the wooden door that shook Kenneth in his boots. “What are we going to do?” Elizabeth gasped.

Kenneth put his hand over her mouth. “Hush!” he hissed. “He’ll hear you!”

Boots scuffed on the porch, as if whoever it was had walked away and then come back. “I believe you two young uns ought to open this door,” a man’s deep voice said. “Your Mama says you won’t be wantin’ too, but I’ve got important news for ya’ll.”

The children looked at each other. Kenneth shook his head.

“But he’ll break the door down!” Elizabeth hissed. “And if he has to do that, he’ll be really mad! And then he’ll be extra mean!”

Kenneth’s lower lip jutted out and he shook his head again. Elizabeth had seen that look before and she knew it was no use arguing with him. She sank to the floor in a heap and tried not to cry.

There was a long silence. Booted feet paced the porch. Then they stopped outside the door again. The man coughed. The children looked at each other apprehensively.

“All right,” the man said. “I guess I’ll just have to tell you my news through the door. Your Mama’s been laid up at your Aunt Ginny’s house and she says you’re to stay here until your Pa comes for you. That’ll more than likely not be till tomorrow. She says to have your chores done and your things ready, because your Pa’s gonna be taking you back to Ginny’s house so’s you can meet your new baby brother.” There was a short pause. “Or sister. Your Mama doesn’t  know yet just which it’ll be.”

The children stared at each other, then Kenneth moved to the door and looked through the knothole again. “Really and truly?” he asked.

“Really and truly,” Clay Allison said.

from Old One Eye Pete

Santa Fe Ring Implicated in Reverend Tolby’s Unsolved Murder!!!!

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.

Nov 6 illustration.robert longwill.parsons book
Source: Clay Allison, Portrait of a Shootist, Chuck Parsons

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.

 

Nov 6 illustration.robert longwill.parsons bookSources:  David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, UNM Press, 2014; Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, portrait of a shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983

Clay Allison Kills Pancho Griego in Lambert’s Saloon!!!

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 . . . .

 

Nov 1 illustration.pancho griego.parsons book
Source: Clay Allison, Portrait of a Shootist, Chuck Parsons

Sources: Las Vegas Gazette, November 14, 1875. Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, Portrait of a Shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983.