Aspen trees shimmered with a golden brightness, lighting up the East Fork valley of the San Juan River like strings of Christmas lights.
It was October of 1892 and Juan de Dios Montoya knew that the beauty of the autumn colors would soon be followed by snow, deep and cold.
He knew he had to get the 10,000 or so sheep he and his brothers shepherded across 10,000-foot-high Elwood pass before snows slammed shut the trail leading home. Home was in Monte Vista in the San Luis Valley.
He waved his broad-brimmed hat over his head to get the attention of his brothers and the other herders. “Get ’em moving,” he shouted.
The men cheered, climbed on their horses, and began whistling and whirling lariats in the air. Soon the munching muttons started moving down the west bank of the San Juan River. Less than a mile ahead, the East Fork of the San Juan branched eastward where it coiled and splashed through a rocky canyon, the road to Elwood Pass and home.
The men were ecstatic. They were going home to wives and family after spending a good part of the summer grazing the herd through the tall grass of the San Juan Mountains north of Pagosa Springs.
Across the river to the east, across a meadow and below the row of gray-colored cliffs walling the east side of the San Juan West Fork stood a log cabin, smoke curling wistfully from a stone chimney. It was the homestead of William Howe, Archuleta County commissioner and cattleman.
Inside the cabin sat a solemn assemblage of men and women, heaviness burdening their hearts, tears glistening in their eyes. A small wicker basket sat quietly in the middle of the newly-papered room. In the basket was the lifeless body of William’s newborn son. Just a short time earlier, William’s bride and the boy’s mother had passed away.
Joining William in his sorrow was his brother, Abe, San Juan legend Old Joe Mann, and a few sympathetic friends from town.
Abe got up and walked to the front window, staring intently across the meadow and San Juan River at the herd of ba-ahing sheep, moving across William’s property as they grazed gingerly down the river.
Abe scratched his head as he turned to face the other mourners in the room. What happened next depends on which witness we want to believe.
Abe told a court, “I suggested we ride down to that herd and buy a mutton.”
Another witness who was at the wake reported that Abe said, “Let’s go do up those damned Mexicans.”
In any case, as Juan looked across the river and towards the house he, “saw three men riding like the wind coming across the meadow.”
The men split as they crossed the river. Shooting started.
Juan, who was behind a large rock with his rifle, was shot in the shoulder. Juan shot William Howe, the man who had shot him. Howe’s horse turned and walked back to the east side of the river. William slumped to the ground, dead. He’d been shot four times.
What happened in 1892 when the Mexican sheepherder gunned down the Anglo cattleman? We’ll finish the story next week.