A VISIT TO CHAPERITO
a true story
by Myles Culbertson
The Gallinas River is, by any account, a minor waterway. Heading in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Northern New Mexico, it escapes the mountains through the rugged Gallinas Canyon making its way through the equally minor city of Las Vegas before meandering down a rocky escarpment to the lower country of mesas and cedar breaks, eventually indenturing itself to the long and better known Pecos River. Along its course lie the dead remnants of small communities whose stories are pretty much lost to time. Just the names remain and only then in scant recollections: San Augustin, Lourdes, La Liendre, Los Torres, Aguila, Salitre, others. The last of these was abandoned to history in the late 1950s when the surrounding Chapman Ranch bought out the remaining residents of the tiny Chaperito Land Grant. Chaperito had been, from its beginnings in the 1840's, a rustic collection of farms and grazing lands anchored by a church, one store/post office, and a cluster of rock and adobe homes peering from a rocky bluff over the Gallinas. The residents were Hispanic farmers, descendants of Spaniards who had settled the northern reaches of Spain's American empire in the 1600's. Situated on the ramparts of "civilization" as it was considered by the elites of Northern New Mexico, this area's citizens of Spain, and later Mexico, were unlike the "polite society" of Santa Fe and Taos. They were often the disenfranchised and marginalized orphans and outcast of a harsh colonial domain. In the early days of Chaperito's life, many of its residents were Ciboleros, colorful hunters of the plains buffalo, and later Comancheros - traders who enjoyed a unique relationship with the often entrepreneurial and always dangerous Comanches of the Llano Estacado, aboriginal proprietors of a vast world beyond the eastern horizon.
Violations of the peace of agriculture's seasonal life cycle were few and seldom in this isolated village, but when one did occur, the tale was worth telling. Once, in the mid-1800's, soldiers from the nearby fort known as Hatch's Ranch viciously drew blood at a Chaperito fandango in revenge for the murder of one of their comrades. On another occasion, in a more official action, those soldiers attacked a large band of Comanches that were trading with, or maybe hiding out with, the local villagers.
In later years, after the Comanches had relinquished the plains, much of the region was taken up by new entrepreneurs - gringos who drove large herds of cattle north and launched vast ranching operations. The Gallinas and its tributaries and nearby springs became vital sources of water, defining the size and shape of new emerging cattle outfits. In those days the community occasionally entertained a cowboy or two off the surrounding ranches. Such events were typically peaceful, but not always, like the time in 1884, when sheriff's posse deputy Johnny Hurley, a former member of the Seven Rivers Gang, desperados who had gained notoriety in the Lincoln County War, was gunned down in Chaperito by fugitive horse thief Nicolas Aragon, a resident of the village.
As the decades passed, the citizens of Chaperito contentedly managed their crops and livestock, raised their children, and buried their dead in a natural cycle of agrarian life, resigned to and satisfied with their cyclic, isolated subsistence.
By the second half of the 20th century Chaperito was slipping quietly toward extinction in a world that was passing it by without notice. The area ranches occasionally bought some hay or hired their men, but for the most part Chaperito was left to its own isolation and peace. That is, with the exception of one summer day in 1953.
Three men working for the Park Springs outfit were riding that ranch's upper mesa country. They were pals; all three expert at their trade, diverse in their respective ascents as top hands. Nick LeCompte was a carefree young Texan with disheveled good looks, wild and unpredictable as a brushfire. He was well known for his hardfisted fighting nature toward men, womens' spellbound attraction to him, and his soft, almost magical, touch with young horses. Nick was a loyal friend and reliable comrade in arms, seldom caught without his trademark smile, readiness for a scrap, or a plan for the next adventure.
Harold Martz, slightly the elder of the three, looked a bit more like the hero of a "B-western" movie. His roots in the sagebrush cattle empires of western Colorado and Wyoming were evident in the subtly fancy equipment he wore and rode. In contrast to the pinch-brimmed hats, shotgun leggings, and short-shanked roping spurs of the New Mexico brush-poppers, Harold wore a wide-brimmed hat and silver mounted spurs that sang in a clear ring as he rode or walked. The slit pocket of his big bat-winged chaps usually displayed the butt of a .44 caliber Colt.
Joe Gomez, born Jose Maria Gomez, was the youngest of the trio. He had walked away at age 10 a little over a decade earlier from his home a few miles upstream from Chaperito to find a place of belonging with the great Bar Y Ranch near Santa Rosa. That's where he learned to speak English, acquiring the distinct west-Texas accent of the cowboys, and where he became known simply as 'Joe'. By the time he was a teenager Joe had already become a dead-eyed roper and salty bronc peeler - a real hand in the esteem of the men around him. Now he was a newlywed with a new job at the Park Springs.
These three cowboys, skilled professionals working for the same outfit, had come together on the Park Springs from vastly different backgrounds; but here they were pals sharing a freedom and wildness that defined the unshackled life of a cowboy in those days.
The Park Springs Ranch, part of whose eastern edge joined the Grant, sprawls out on a hundred square miles under the south face of a thousand foot high escarpment that runs across much of northeastern New Mexico. The northern third of the Park Springs, below that caprock, is a broken, juniper and pinon covered, mesa carved by small creeks draining through rugged sandstone-sided canyons and draws. The canyons gape south and east, opening to grama-grass plains dotted with junipers scattered sparsely over low hills.
Joe, Nick, and Harold were prowling parts of the Park Springs mesa country, a typical daily job on the outfit. They would scatter out over the expanse of a pasture to get a good look at the cattle and inspect the condition of the grass, water and fences. The horses they rode were accustomed to this daily "long-trot" routine and were plenty tough enough to carry out their charge. These cowponies were able and reliable partners, but not necessarily averse to an occasional test of their human companions' credentials in a stormy tantrum, just making sure the man was as good as the horse.
The three men had joined back up after riding out the corners and crannies of the "East Mesa" pasture. As they pulled up their ponies on a rocky point, they could see, in the far distance, where the Gallinas River flowed onto the ranch below Chaperito. Upstream from there they could make out the glint of tin rooftops in the village, some six or seven miles away. The sun was high overhead by now, and the three cowboys had planted a lot of horse tracks already. Things looked pretty good in the East Mesa and the work had wrapped up a little earlier in the day than they had planned. Harold pulled a sack of Bull Durham from his vest pocket and rolled a smoke as the three gazed at the expanse below them. A thirst had built up, and that became the important tactical discussion.
There is an uncanny ability among some folks, particularly of the ilk here gathered, to possess vital intelligence, such as where there might be a cold, or at least shade-cool, beer. There was a fellow in Chaperito that made his own home brew and probably would have some on hand. It was not unreasonably out of the way from their course home, and, after all, a little good will between the Park Springs and the Village should be worthy of some neighborly time spent in brotherhood and fellowship. The Boss would surely endorse such a gesture of diplomacy, so, having convinced themselves of the importance of the mission, they turned their cowponies down a rocky descent off the mesa in the direction of Chaperito. Moving through the oak-brush that covered a faint deer trail, the men allowed the horses their heads as they took each cautious downward step. Shards of sandstone slid from under their hooves and rolled away down the steep slope.
Nick chuckled at Little Red, his little hackamore bronc who, bewildered by the descent, seemed to gain some security by keeping his head next to the croup of Harold's lead horse as they picked their way toward level ground at the canyon's mouth. Joe followed on his mount, Trigger, who never seemed bewildered at anything. His attitude was always the same - insulted to have a rider aboard.
Trigger was not one of the ranch company's raising. The big bald-faced bay had been traded to the ranch by a neighbor, Jay Cox. The men on the Park Springs often good-naturedly called the horse "Jay Cox" because they were said to recognize a similar undefeated temperament in both Jay Cox, the man, and Jay Cox the horse; more simply stated, "they were both about as ornery".
Anyway, old Trigger (or Jay Cox, if you choose) could buck and was usually willing to when the situation offered an opportunity, like a quail rising from the grass ahead of him, or a juniper branch brushing by him in the wrong way, or a rope around his leg, or some other offense to his sensibilities. He would usually buck straight, jumping hard and kicking high. Sometimes he would shut his eyes in his temper fit, "bucking blind", as they say. If you were a pretty good hand, he wasn't all that unrideable, except he would simply not quit, wearing his rider down sometimes into defeat. Joe liked the horse, mostly because of his propensity to pitch.
Joe Gomez, whose stocky frame stood little more than 5 1/2 feet, was an unconventional bronc rider. He rode a flat seated saddle with heavy roping stirrups. A small leather belt was laced through the fork of the saddle's front end, and when a horse broke in two with him he would get his hand into that "bucking strap", kick his feet out of the broad stirrups, and spur the horse in the shoulders at every jump, much like a rodeo bareback rider. His radical style created a wild spectacle of flying legs and flailing stirrups, and then, when the half-percheron "Jay Cox" was the dancing partner, it became an almost cartoonish contest between small and huge in a swirling storm.
The three riders reached level ground, watered out their horses at a windmill near the foot of the east mesa, and struck out in a long trot passing juniper groves and negotiating through cholla cactus flats, seeking the prospect of cool repast on the shade-blessed banks of the Gallinas.
They approached the village from the west, their shadows slightly leading as they passed a few scattered outlying rock farmhouses among the green patchwork of alfalfa and corn fields where a few men and boys with shovels walked about, managing irrigation water. The small dark windows of the homes offered occasional red splashes of color from geraniums nested in gallon coffee cans. Some doorways would partially reveal the shy suspicious stares of women in black dresses and scarves, and black button-up shoes. Ahead of the riders, lowset buildings rested on the high bluff across the creek, resignedly staring down the heat and dust of a mid-summer day. The horses splashed across the Gallinas, whose rushing ruddy water betrayed the past several days' rainshowers in the high country. The shod feet of the horses made drenched clopping sounds on a submerged rock shelf, and the cool water scattered on the backs of the two lead riders. In high spirits, the men kicked their horses into a lope out of the creek toward the hill and a non-descript adobe house with a grizzled cottonwood standing guard, shading the bare swept floor of a front yard. Reaching their destination, they slid their ponies to a stop and stepped off to the welcome of the local brewer, always ready for good conversation and a tester for his latest masterpiece.
The beer wasn't cold, and its bitter character wouldn't satisfy many palates, but on that day in that company it was close enough to nectar from heaven. The three cowboys and their benefactor pushed their hats back and reclined under the cottonwood's protective shade, allowing the golden beverage to make their jokes funnier and their conversation more important. Looking toward the other end of the thoroughfare, more a narrow rock-strewn field than a street, with houses on each side, they could see the village's little store and post office directly facing them some 100 yards away.
Some of the homes along the street were close enough together to share common porches made of corrugated tin tops projecting 7 or 8 feet from the eaves, and held up by gnarled cedar posts. They were floored with pine 1X4s nailed together a little above ground level. It was a pleasant afternoon, and a couple of old men were seeking refuge from the sun on one such porch, sitting on small ladder-back chairs, quietly visiting about things only old men know to be important.
The afternoon had been made pleasant by the generous sharing of home brew, but the shadows were lengthening, and it was getting time to head to the ranch. Our three cowboys bid their host adios as they untied the bridle-reins and cheeked up their ponies, catching the near stirrup and swinging into the saddle. Joe was short, and Trigger was tall and powerful, so he took a tight short-rein together with a fistful of mane, hopped as high as he could to catch his stirrup, and rolled up Trigger's side into the saddle.
Starting away from the house, they heard a shout: "Hey Joe!" They looked around and recognized a local that did occasional day-work for the Park Springs. "Does your horse ride double?" "Sure!" says Joe with a big grin. "Where you headed?" "To the post office." "Sure - subete, ..get up!" With that, Joe reached down and locked arms with his passenger, swinging him up behind the cantle of the saddle.
Now old Jay Cox took a different view of this kind of charity. He didn't even like one man up, so two was intolerable by every measure. Joe had a lot of nerve and this horse was going to change things for these men.
Joe fed some slack into the reins and touched his spurs to Trigger, expecting his mount to step out in a trot down toward the little store/post office and, for a few steps, he did. Then, suddenly, Trigger's head disappeared from sight and Joe was looking at nothing in front of him but rocky ground inviting him to swan dive onto it. At the same time, Joe felt the slam of the horse's high explosive jump. Coming down and hitting the ground on his front feet, Jay Cox leaped again and then fell into a jolting, twisting rhythm as he bucked high and hard down the street toward the store, bawling and coughing with each jump. Joe, from the first jump, kept grabbing for his bucking strap and missing while trying to fight off two wildly grappling arms around his face and his throat, and two heavy flying stirrups punishing him on both sides. At the top of every jump the extra 160 pounds of panic behind him pulled hard upward, and then drove his upper body forward over the saddle horn with each crashing blow to the ground. All Joe could see was a swirling confusion of ground, horizon, and buildings framed between groping clawing fingers, while his throat was closing under the grip of an inextricable arm. He was too busy trying to stay aboard Jay Cox to be able to fight off his wrestling companion, so there they went, a crazy mix of 1 horse and 2 humans, descending upon the modest little store and post office at the end of the street.
Trigger bucked straight to the front of the store, hitting the ground and suddenly turning away so hard that Joe and his baggage were launched with perfect aim through the doorway. They crashed, rolling onto the floor in front of the terrified proprietor. As quickly as they stopped rolling, Joe looked up at the post mistress, frozen behind the counter, and said through his broad smile, "we got any mail?"
Meanwhile, Trigger continued his tantrum, bucking blindly on an oblique trajectory away from the store, hitting the side of a rock outbuilding and turning in wild jumps onto the porch of the two joining houses. The two old men dove from their chairs out onto the street. Every time Trigger jumped he lifted the porch roof off the cedar columns, allowing the corrugated tin to fall to the ground, and every time he came down he crashed through the pine porch floor. He tore through the entire length of the 2-house porch, the posts pushing out, the tin falling down, and the floor flying into splinters.
Exploding out from the destroyed porch, Jay Cox broke into a run down the wide street. Nick grabbed the coils of his rope and quickly shook out a loop, spurring his bronc into a hard run, angling toward the big bay. He swung the loop twice and let go. The lariat came to life like an airborne snake, settling deep around Trigger's neck. As he pulled on his bewildered little bronc trying to stop the bay freight-train, Nick's saddle found itself pulled forward of the withers and partway up the horse's neck. When the dust cleared, Little Red was standing spraddle-legged and wide eyed, snorting, ears drawn forward, with an intense surprised look up the rope at the huge equine he had just stopped.
People were peering from windows and beginning to tentatively walk out into the street to get a sense of what had just happened. As the crowd gathered, Joe charged from the post office door while Nick was leading Trigger in a lope toward him. Harold followed, spanking Trigger with his quirt to keep him from balking. Joe hurriedly mounted the big bay, and the three spun their horses away from the store and, letting out a war whoop, left in a run. Harold, hard on the heels of the other two, was inspired to add to the moment, pulling the .44 out of his chaps pocket and firing into the sky until the cylinder was empty.
The sun sank low, casting long shadows across the wreckage, as one of the old men stood in the middle of the road with the back of a broken chair in his hand. He gazed resignedly and a little bit amused at the escaping cowboys as they hit the rushing Gallinas, looking like Billy the Kid's Regulators running from the law. Maybe the old man was seeing more than just the sun setting on the excitement of that day. Chaperito had held stubbornly to its existence for over a century, but the world was moving on, leaving behind this little culture of quiet rural life.
The three compadres were finally headed home, laughing and reliving the afternoon's adventure, but at the same time wondering if the Boss might have to pay for a town. Oh well, they could get along without the next few paychecks. Nick and Harold could pick up the tab for the young newlywed. As it would turn out they didn't need to worry about that. The people of Chaperito had always built and rebuilt on their own, and, besides, the afternoon's event had provided worthy entertainment.
Cowboys are not a dying breed. That is a myth as old as the profession itself. As long as there are ranches to run and cattle to raise, there will be cowboys. Their ways change to meet the reality of the times. In these cowboys' youth, time was measured in the moment and the moment was, they assumed, forever. That is what all cowboys have done. But time doesn't submit to mortal expectations. Change, inevitable and unrelenting, would overtake their wild, free refuge and ultimately bring their kind into a different world with different rules, like it always had. Two of the three would, in a few years, meet disillusionment and tragedy before their time, casualties of the changing world. The third would find his place of belonging in that world as one of the most respected ranch managers of the region. For a brief time the three young wild cowboys were pals, immortal and indestructible, but the ever pursuing thief of time would finally assign them, like the village itself, to history, and only then in a few scant recollections.
The Gallinas, whose mirroring waters fed Chaperito and washed past the fleeting steps of the three cowboys, has hidden much of its history and protected its secrets in an irreversible pilgrimage to the sea, taking into the deep water most of the traces of conquistadors, colonists, Comanche warriors and their allies, soldiers, drovers, outlaws, cowboys, and all others who touched it. But, once in a while, we can dip our cup in the flow and retrieve from it a good story or two to be told before they disappear in the swirl.