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Only the strong survived in days of Old West; Spirit of cowboy toughness still lives on today in modern New Mexico

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Cowboys getting ready for the cattle drive. (Kent Taylor Photo)

The settlers of the Old West were a special breed.

New Mexico has many old-time legends that have been handed down by word-of-mouth from one generation to another. In almost every instance, the stories — with their combination of fact and/or fiction — disclose the type of courage that existed during the pioneer era.

These are stories that warrant our attention. Some of these tales are true, but others are probably a mixture of factual stories and fictional tales were ‘improved upon’ by the telling and retelling of them throughout the years.

One tale to which one might give considerable thought, as it involved real bravery and quite a bit of “horse sense,” probably took place in nearby Lea County.

It seems that a nester had settled on a little plot of land, and went to work to improve his property by first building a shack. Living for a while at the home of a neighbor who had temporarily moved away, the nester walked back and forth daily to work on his own place. As there was a windmill at his neighbor’s place, and plenty of water, the newcomer stored his grub in the neighbor’s house.

Some time later, after completing his own cabin, the nester went to work digging a cistern. He dug and dug until finally the hole got so deep that he could not throw the dirt out, so he had to put it in a basket and carry it up the ladder and dump it. Then he went back down for another load. Finally he figured the hole was deep enough, so he started to smooth it up to plaster it. He must have overloaded the basket, for as he started up the ladder with the heavy load of dirt, the ladder broke and crumbled into pieces.

With no way to repair the ladder, and with the nearest help eight miles away, the settler saw himself in a very precarious situation. He knew if he yelled no one could hear him. With no water nor food, however, he knew his life was in danger. Sometimes it was a week before a range rider or a “plains rat” road through. The riders managed cattle.

The man didn’t panic, though. Knowing that he had no time to lose, he started digging steps up the side of the hole. It looked fairly easy at first, but he had to be extremely careful to keep the sides from caving in as he worked his way up.

Finally after working feverishly for three days without water or food, he managed to crawl out on top. He was so weak however, that he could hardly stand. Using what energy he had left, he gradually staggered to his neighbors abandoned shack where he drank lots of water,and faded away into unconsciousness.

Later on in the day, he came out of it enough to eat some stale sourdough bread and munch on some raw bacon. During the night he was finally able to build a fire and make some coffee, then he whipped up a batch of flapjacks. The next day he felt able to get back on the job, so he went to work making another ladder. In a few days he had smoothed out the hole and had completed the cistern he so desperately needed.

Another event that took place in what is now Quay County showed bravery that few men could have exceeded. A rancher working on his windmill fell off, breaking two legs and an arm, and injured the other arm seriously. Being two miles from his ranch house, he knew he was in a dangerous situation. In some manner, however, he finally managed to drag himself home. For two days he lived on crackers, the only thing he could reach. During this time his injuries were getting worse and worse.

Days later, a neighbor from several miles away rode up and found the rancher about to die with fever and pain. Immediately the neighbor put him in the wagon and took him to Amarillo, where, strange to say, the salty old-timer recovered and lived many years on the ranch. The old man never entirely got all his strength back, but he rode steadily doing regular ranch work. However, he never relished the job of climbing windmills, so he kept a “helper” with him, for that purpose.

He ‘went a little crazy’

One could go on and on, telling stories of those hardy old-timers. Perhaps one of the best stories to come out of the pioneer era, and one that also involved some revenge, has to do with a young Mexican named Pablo. The youth had settled in with his young wife at a spring on the east side of the Capitan Mountains where he started a goat ranch. One night he came in with his flock and found that the Apaches had raided his place, horribly torturing his wife and then finally killing her. They had also stolen his two horses, so he had no way to follow. People still talk about how, in a way, the man “went a little crazy.”

Bent on getting revenge, Pablo sold his goats, roped a wild burro, bought himself a musket, and took off across the eastern slopes of the mountains, supposedly looking for his missing horses. However, every once in a while, cowboys working on the range would find two or three dead Indians in a camp. It appeared that someone had “lined them up” and worked them over, as their bodies were literally riddled with buckshot, nails, and anything else that could be put in an old musket.

Might makes right

Another similar story took place in what is now Guadalupe County at a time in history when “might” was the law. A young man had settled on some land at a “seep” and was gradually getting together a little bunch of cattle and a few horses for his small ranch. One night he came home and found his shack burned to the ground and the charred body of his wife in the ruins. To make matters worse, his horses were gone.

The young nester followed the trail of the culprits east across the Pecos River, but finally lost it because of the heavy rain. He then went back home and went back to punching cows, vowing to keep his eyes and ears open until he could avenge the bloody deed.

More than a year later, the cowboy saw one of his horses on the Bell Ranch running with their remuda. Sleuthing around a little, he eventually found out where the horse had come from. He went to the owner and told him that he better tell him where he got the horse or he was about to “draw his last breath.”

The man told him where he had got the horse and implicated four other thieves. Quite angry, the settler proceeded to do away with the villain, then he set out immediately after the others. It was a long, hard job because rustlers usually kept their distance.

Finally, he ran across one of them in a saloon at Old Tularosa. Minutes later, he “beat the outlaw to the draw,” killing him out right. Later, someone ran across two of the others out on the range. They were dead. The last man was “running scared” by this time and pulled out for Mexico and was never seen again. However, four of the five had paid the price. The man who got his revenge on the murderous crew who had killed his wife and burned his home lived out the rest of his life in the little cowtown of Clayton, New Mexico.

The little dog that saved his life

A story of more recent times comes out of the 1950s. And old rancher friend of my parents, who owned a ranch about 40 miles northeast of Roswell, was getting up in years but refused to give up his ranch and ranching life. He had a little cow dog that went with him everywhere he went around the ranch. The dog was well-trained and helped him in every chore and duty he had. This dog listened to his every command and did exactly as he was told. One day the old rancher got on his horse and, as he did every day, went out to check on us cattle with the little dog trotting along beside him.

They were several miles away from the house when they happened upon a coiled rattlesnake. The horse spooked and jumped and caught the old rancher off guard. When this happened, the rancher fell off the horse breaking several bones. It took him a while to get over the shock of what had happened before he realized he wouldn’t be able to get back on his horse and he didn’t know how he could notify his wife that something was wrong.

There sat his faithful dog right beside him. He suddenly realized that was his answer. He took his bandanna from around his neck and tied it on to the dog’s neck. He then told his little dog to go home to mama. The little dog didn’t want to leave him at first. But being the obedient and faithful dog that he was at his master’s urging, he turned and started running back towards the house. When the dog finally made it to the house, the rancher’s wife was already starting to worry because they weren’t back in time for the supper she had prepared. When the dog showed up with the bandanna around his neck, she knew immediately something was wrong.

She called for help. It was after dark when he was found, but they got him to the hospital and after spending some time there, he survived and was able to go home to his little dog who had saved his life.

Nailed to the wall

Th last story is even more recent ,but still demonstrating the stuff the western ranchers are made of. A middle-aged rancher was working on his barn late one night after his wife had retired to bed for the evening. He was nailing some two-by-fours with his nail gun when one of the nails hit a knot in the wood, sending the nail through his support hand and nailing him to the wall. If he moved that hand, he could do irreparable damage to it. His wife was asleep and too far out of earshot. He did not have his cellphone on him. Looking around, he spotted his hammer a few feet away, but close enough that he could scoot it across the floor with his foot. Maneuvering very carefully, he was able to get it next to him. But then he had to get the claw end of the hammer under his foot to make it stand so he could reach it from a standing position and pick it up. Finally, he was able to do so and he pried the nail loose, finally freeing his hand.

There are lessons to be learned here, but, above all, the grit and stamina of the ones who have gone before us.

The true spirit of the Old West lives on to this day, and it’s pretty amazing!

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at jdunna@hotmail.com.