Tough … that is always the first term that comes to mind whenever I think of Bud Clayton. Even in his later days the man’s stature and demeanor testified of a life lived in a world intolerant of fear or weakness. Bud’s countenance revealed a seasoning gained in the transition from territorial frontier to modern industrial society. His inscrutable expression was at once fierce and pleasant, impermeable as a canyon’s rock face. His piercing stare could end a fight before it started.
He was my great uncle, whose wife Bess was W.O. Culbertson’s sister. Strikingly beautiful, she was Bud’s softening complement. I knew the two of them when I was a child. In those days Bud was a police chief and later a judge in Tucumcari, New Mexico, but he had been a cowboy much of his life, working for some of the major cattle ranches around the turn of the century, including the 3 million acre XIT. A notorious bronc rider, it is said he offered a standing bet that he could put silver dollars in both stirrups under his boots, ride any bucking horse till it quit, and the dollars would still be there. Bud rode in some of the biggest rodeos of the day, like Cheyenne and Pendleton, but he was always more at home on the big outfits, not in the rodeo arenas.
In the days entering the 20th century, New Mexico was, like much of the West, riding the wave of a changing agricultural economy. Demand for more and better beef to nourish the nation’s explosive industrial growth caused capital to roll into the West, establishing vast ranching empires with large herds of improved quality “one iron” cattle. The area below the northeastern New Mexico caprock was choice cow country, sought after by cattlemen and entrepreneurs. Some of the outfits, like the Bell Ranch, were here to stay, creating their own chapters in the history of the state and the business. Others were temporary, filling immediate demand and moving on to other enterprise or oblivion. All were big, and all needed crews of expert men to care for their investments and get the cattle to market.
Part of that cow country is where the Pecos and Gallinas rivers join. Born in the same range of mountains, the two waterways are cousins of sorts, finding their own separate ways out of the Sangre de Cristos, pursuing tortuous pathways to the low country. The two find each other below the great escarpment in a hilly plain of abundant grass and scattered prickly pear, chollas, and junipers. Occasional palmillas, slender-spined cousin of the yucca, stand guard over the slopes and river breaks where the rivers join forces.
Before the speculators and land traders opened the way for cattlemen and their financiers, Spanish settlers had made an uneasy life here in the confluence of Apache and Comanche domains. They called the area “La Junta”. It was destined to become a world of cowboys, tough and adventurous, making their mark over the next century in this region of mesas, creeks, springs, grass and cattle. For a while it was Bud Clayton’s world.
A few miles north and west of the Junta, the thousand foot high Apache Mesa rises, the western anchor of the caprock escarpment reaching across northeastern New Mexico. Near the mouth of a canyon that cuts through the convergence of that high escarpment and the lesser Chupainas Mesa to its south, a little rock ranch house and barn called Chupainas Camp had been built back in the 1870s. Bud Clayton spent the summer of 1912 there alone, breaking horses for the HOW outfit, a Texas based cattle company running on the surrounding ranchland. The way he described it, there was a large round corral where he would rope an untouched bronc, wrestle a saddle onto him, and step aboard. The corral gate was rigged so that when the latch was pulled it would slowly swing out, opening under its own weight. The horse would throw his fit, and when bucking turned to running, and Bud thought he had him kind of handled, he would pull the gate latch as they ran past, making one more circle inside the pen. The gate would creak open and out the hole they would go, breaking into the wide open. By the time horse and rider made it back home, the pony was on his way to becoming an esteemed tool for a cowboy. Bud broke 20 horses that one summer at Chupainas.
Some time previous, the Red River Cattle Company, owner of the famed Bell Ranch, held the lease on a large parcel of the same country. Bud was a Bell cowboy in those days, and the outfit sent him with a number of other Bell hands there to look after the cattle and fend off any rustlers. The cowboys called it the Philippines, because the ranch was so far west from the Bell headquarters. The Gorras Blancas (White Caps), a violent frontier vigilante group, were raising hell in the area, running off cattle and cutting fences in the name of disputed property claims and hatred for these new stewards of the land. Bud spoke only a couple of times of an incident when a Bell cowboy came upon a whitecap cutting the Bell drift fence, and of an ensuing battle that ended with smoke rising from the barrel of a six-gun and a whitecap dead on the ground. He never admitted who the cowboy was.
For a time during that first decade of the century, Bud Clayton was breaking horses upstream from the Junta for the Conchas Ranch, a sizeable operation that lay under the caprock, eastward from the Gallinas River. It was a broken grama grass and cactus country, spotted with areas of dense juniper and pinon covered canyons. One of the Conchas neighbors was Chaperito, a small community land grant anchored on the banks of the Gallinas River, its village perched on a rock bluff at the edge of the passing waters, its farmland and pastures sprawling out around the village.
Bud had a helper, a Spanish youth, helping ride the horses he was starting. Bud would typically start a horse and get a few days on him, and then turn the horse over to the boy and start another. In the doing, he took a liking to the kid and had become something of a mentor, making a pretty good horseman and cowboy out of him. The boy called his taciturn companion “Señor Bud”, even though there weren’t that many years between them. So it was one summer day as Bud and his young sidekick were prowling the river breaks near the Chaperito grant. He and the boy were riding their broncs along a rocky ridge in sight of the village. Bud hadn’t been away from the cow camp for a long time and had a bulge of letters, written over the past few weeks, in his chaps pocket. There was a post office in Chaperito, so Bud handed a dollar to the kid and sent him to the village with the letters. “I’ll ride this rough country out. You lope down to the post office and mail these for me, and then you can ride out the river bottom. We’ll meet back up where the Indio draw comes in.”
The boy reined his horse off the little rock bluff and headed toward Chaperito, a couple of miles away. Approaching the little rock and adobe village from the southeast, he could see the emerald strips of farmland touching the river beyond the one-story houses and steepled church that surrounded a broad dirt street. The only commercial establishment fronted on the street, a stone and plaster building that housed the store, post office and saloon, all in one room. As he entered the village, a few of the citizens gave notice to the kid who was riding a pretty good saddle on a better than usual horse and whose clothes and hat betrayed some influence of the gringo cowboys of the big ranch. Though native to the culture, he felt like a stranger in this village, known for decades as being close-knit and hostile toward outsiders. Forty years earlier the citizens were more likely to choose friendship with the dangerous Comanche than with the gringo ranchers in the area or the soldiers of the fort at nearby Hatch’s Ranch.
He pulled up his horse in front of the post office and dismounted, tentatively stepping onto the porch and entering the store. Across the room from the entry was a cage-fronted counter that served as the post office. On the boy’s left was a counter behind which shelves were stacked with a number of canned foods, bolts of cloth, household items, lamps, and the like. Also there was an open-fronted cabinet with a few bottles of whiskey on display; below that, several bins containing flour, beans, rice, and other foodstuffs. A small square table was near the window on the other side of the room, where three men were quietly slurring some sort of argument. They glared from under their battered hats at this trespasser.
No one was behind the postal teller cage, so the kid asked the room’s only occupants who he could see about buying stamps and depositing the bundle of letters. With sudden curiosity one of the men inquired how he was to buy the stamps. The boy pulled the dollar from his pocket and once again solicited their help. The man took interest. A thin smile cutting his face, the man rose from his chair, grabbing the dollar from the boy’s hand and sitting back down. The boy gestured after him, protesting the seizure. The man stood back up, gripping the boy’s shirt and, with his other fist, knocked him to the floor and started kicking him in the side. As he tried to stand, the man grabbed his belt and shirt, kicked the door open, and pitched the boy out on to the ground at his shying horse’s front feet. He could hear laughter inside as he struggled to his feet, untied his horse, and slowly swung his leg over in the saddle. Jaw pounding and ears ringing, he turned the pony for the edge of the village. He stood up in his stirrups with a painful wince and hit a long trot for the river, one silver dollar lighter and full of dread about what Bud was going to say.
The sun was high as the kid prowled the river, hastily looking through the cattle that had come down to water and shaded up to wait out the afternoon. The movement of the horse helped loosen the stunned muscles in his side. He was in a hurry, hating the burden of undelivered bad news. Whatever trouble he was going to be in with Señor Bud, he wanted to get it over-with and done.
He picked his way past a rugged cut where the creek came through to an open grassy flat. Far ahead, he spotted Bud peering upstream from where the little draw known as the Indio Arroyo joined the Gallinas. He was sitting relaxed in the saddle, his crossed forearms resting on the saddlehorn and his hackamore bronc standing half asleep in the warm noon sun. The colt threw his head up and pricked his ears toward the approaching horse and rider, but Bud had already been watching them a good while. As the boy kicked into a lope across the grassy flat, Bud observed how the agile blood-bay moved and changed leads, dodging the cholla and prickly pear along the way. “That’s gonna make a good pony,” he thought, as the young rider and his mount crouched to a stop next to Bud.
“How’s the river look?” Bud asked. “Pretty good. The cattle are already watered out - en repecho. Señor Bud, I have to tell you something.” The boy’s nervous angst was obvious. So was the bruise on the side of his face. Bud squinted slightly, more curious than alarmed. “I took your letters, but some men were there. One of them knocked me down – cabrones! He took your dollar.” Where’s the letters?” Bud asked. “Here.” The boy pulled the paper bundle from inside his shirt. Eyes squinting, now with resolve, “Well”, said Bud reflectively, “I’ll take care of it.” “ I’m sorry, Señor Bud, I should have fought.” “Its OK. I’ll take care of it. My pony’s spent. Let’s trade and you can go on back to the camp with him. Take it easy with him and let him blow. Do the chores when you get there. I’ll see you by dark.” The two cowboys pulled their saddles off and exchanged ponies. Mounted again, the kid turned toward the cow camp several miles east. Bud hit a long trot back upstream toward the little village.
The hardness on Bud Clayton’s face would have inspired repentance from anyone who laid eyes on him as he entered the village. His little cowhorse hit a slow trotting cadence up the wide dirt street toward the post office. Several yards behind horse and rider, a rocky bluff, some 20 feet high, overlooked the river. The loose dust of the street in front of the post office boiled up around the horse’s black pasterns as he shuffled to a stop. Bud threw the bridle reins over the hitching rail and stepped up on the porch.
He entered the doorway and noticed three men huddled around a table with a half-empty whiskey bottle perched between them. They glared drunkenly at this gringo stranger. He paid no attention to them until he was in the middle of the room, in front of the postal counter. The men had gone back to their whiskey-laden debate when Bud turned around with a cold look in his eye, pulling his .45 Colt from its holster. Pointing it above his head, he pulled the trigger. As the bullet passed through the stamped tin ceiling, the explosion rocked the local drunks back in wide-eyed shock, one falling out of his chair, knocking the whiskey bottle to the floor. Fine dirt fell through gaps between the ceiling and wall onto the store’s proprietor who had jumped behind his counter. “I want the son-of-a-bitch that took that dollar!” Bud declared, bringing his six-shooter around toward the table with slow deliberation.
One of the men scrambled for the door, not even touching the porch as he left the building and ran headlong into the dirt street, the tied horse spooking and jumping aside. Bud stepped out the door and watched the man scamper away, looking over his shoulder like he knew he was about to be shot. His eyes were locked on Bud all the way down the street, the fear on his face almost cartoonish. The last thing Bud saw was the man’s bulging eyes, pumping elbows, and flying knees as he suddenly dropped out of sight.
Curious at the outcome, Bud stepped on his bronc and cantered over to the Gallinas bank below the rocky bluff where the fleeing drunk disappeared. There he was, on the ground, half in and half out of the shallow river water. He wasn’t moving, but he didn’t look dead. Bud dismounted and leaned over the prostrate form at his feet. The former bully groaned and tried to sit up. It looked like he might have a broken arm. Bud figured the care side of this event would need to rest with the locals, so he simply fished around in the man’s pockets until he found the dollar, or at least a dollar to replace the purloined one. He mounted back up and, before turning away, calmly advised the vanquished one, “Don’t take what isn’t yours -- and don’t do that to my friends.”
The little horse wheeled on his cue and started back up the trail around the bluff and onto the street. The thief’s compadres were standing wide-eyed out front of the store poised for an escape from this gringo horseman from hell. As he rode toward the store, they scurried far around him in the direction of the rocky bluff to find their friend. The little horse balked as he approached the building, not sure what next might charge out that door. Bud stepped off and once again entered the post office. He set his wad of letters and the dollar on the counter in front of the terrified postmaster, and politely waited for change. When the transaction was completed he sauntered out the door into the afternoon sunlight. Drawing up the reins to mount his pony, he looked across the village and down the dusty thoroughfare. Nobody was in sight, other than the two local toughs slinking away toward the river. Bud swung his leg over the bronc and pointed him eastward, leaving the village behind, all business for the day completed.
As he rode away Bud’s mind turned to the important things. The incident was put away, unimportant history, as he considered work to be done over the next few days. He still had some horses to get started. If it wasn’t plumb dark when he got back to camp, he would run ‘em in. He and the boy would get an early start in the morning. The warm late afternoon was turning pleasant as their shadow reached out ahead of them onto the trail. He smiled as he noticed the bay bronc hitting a nice little running walk, a gait not many horses can pick up. “Some day,” Bud Clayton mused, “I’ll do other things, maybe … some other day.”