Billy Kern’s fateful mail trip

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Bonnie and Billy Kern in 1925.

Pagosa Springs was full of interesting characters during its “Cowboy Days.” One of those characters was Billy Kern. Kern was not a character because of his personal weirdness. He was an outstanding citizen who served his community well. In truth, he was interesting because of the life he lived.

For example, a three-line item in the Pagosa Springs News during the 1890s noted matter of factly, “Billy Kern has snowshoed home from Silverton to spend the Christmas holiday with his family.”

Kern was familiar with skis. Early on, he had the contract to carry the mail from Summitville to Pagosa Springs. You know the postal service adage, “Neither snow nor sleet …” For Kern, that meant summer and winter. You should remember, there was no Wolf Creek Pass during the 1880s. And because some of you may not know, Summitville was a gold-mining town situated above 10,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains a few miles above Del Norte and about 40 miles across the Continental Divide by way of Elwood Pass. Depending on the winter, snow could be anywhere from 5 to 20 feet.

The Army had built a road across Elwood Pass to deliver supplies from Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley to Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs. They learned during the first winter that they couldn’t cross the mountains by way of Elwood Pass during much of the winter. Consequently, during the winter, Army supply wagons went down the south side of the San Juans as far as Ojo Caliente, crossed the mountains, and then delivered supplies to Pagosa Springs by going northward through the Chama River Valley.

Now you almost have a picture of the obstacles Kern faced to get the mail from Summitville to Pagosa Springs. One more thing — Kern didn’t have store-bought skis. In those days, folks made skis from a couple of 12-foot-long 1-by-6s strapped on to boots with leather straps.

And so, Kern arrived at Ma Cade’s with the mail. I picture him walking into the kitchen rubbing both hands together in front of his face, blowing as hard as he could.

“You got the coffee pot on?” he called to Ma.

“You know I do,” she answered, “but you know what? I smell something. Let me take a look at your hands.”

She did a little sniffing and probing on both hands, before returning from the bathroom with a straight razor and bottle of alcohol.

“Guess what, big boy? Your trigger finger on your right hand is frozen. I’m gonna take it off. It’s either lose your finger or lose your life.”

I don’t know if she made him bite a bullet between his teeth while she sawed off the finger or if she poured a quart of whiskey down his throat, but she got the job done.

And Sheriff Kern had his pistol altered so he could shoot without a trigger finger by fanning — that is, stroking the hammer with the palm of the other hand. I know that Hollywood likes to have their six-gun heroes mow people down by fanning, but the truth is different. It’s not possible to hold the pistol steady enough to shoot accurately. Few Western gun fighters fanned their weapons. I’ve been told a member of the Kern family still has that pistol.

Next week, we continue with Billy Kern and the Montoya-Howe Sheepmen Cattlmen’s War that took place in 1892.