Last week we began the story of the Montoya/Howe Sheepmen’s-Cattlemen’s War. As we closed last week, William Howe, his brother Abe Howe and Old Joe Mann were sitting in William Howe’s front room, grieving with friends over William Howe’s recent loss of his 4-month-old son. Someone gazing out the front window noticed the appearance of around 20,000 sheep across the San Juan River a few hundred yards west across a meadow.
Our story continues following a remark by Abe that “We ought to buy some mutton,” as William, Abe and Old Joe Mann cinched on their six shooters and headed out to the hitching post in front of the house. The next thing we see are three horses galloping toward the river.
Across the river, Juan de Dios Montoya and his brothers are driving the family sheep herd toward the Elwood Pass mountain crossing, anxious to reach home at Monte Vista after a long summer of grazing on the lush San Juan Mountain grasses. Juan saw the three cowboys with their three horses stretching out in a ground-eating gallop towards his herd of sheep.
“I looked up and saw three men riding like the wind straight at us,” he later told a Durango jury.
Juan grabbed the old buffalo rifle he carried in a scabbard under his horse’s belly to defend the sheep from hungry bears. With the barrel firmly planted across a large boulder, he squinted through the sights at William Howe, who was already splashing into the river. A pistol shot echoed through the golden aspen leaves as Abe opened the shooting, and then a second shot from William’s pistol added to the noise. The three cowboys had spread out as they approached the San Juan with Mann to the north, Abe in the center and William on the south.
William had fired at Juan just as his horse splashed into the river, but he was too late. Even as his bullet buried itself in Juan’s side, Juan squeezed the trigger and watched his bullet slam into the approaching rider. William’s startled mount spun around, starting for the barn as his lifeless rider slumped to the river bank, blood oozing into the mud.
That’s all the shooting there was on the battlefield. The result? One dead county commissioner cattleman dead in the prime of his life, and one severely wounded Hispanic sheepman bleeding and bandaged as best his shell-shocked brothers could do. The fighting stopped as the two sides gathered up the dead and wounded. William’s body was taken back to the ranch house and somebody sent to Pagosa Springs to get Sheriff Billy Kern.
The Montoya gang urged the family’s herd of sheep up the San Juan East Fork Road, their brother’s body maybe in a travois as was customary in an environment without 911, EMTs or an ambulance. As night approached, they stopped at the first bridge crossing the San Juan. Their they built a fire, boiled water to clean up the bloody bullet wound, cooked la comida and watched anxiously down their back trail, fearful that the gringos would come intent on revenge.
In Pagosa Springs, Kern rounded up a posse and headed for the East Fork. Following a trail made by 20,000 sheep was no difficult task, even in the dark. A pulsating glow from the campfire’s flickering flames danced across the rocky cliff walls in the dark canyon by the bridge, guiding Kern and his posse to where the sheep and their keepers were bedded down. Kern managed to convince the Montoya boy with the rifle that his party meant no harm and led by the sheriff, the party entered the camp.
Kern’s quick thinking prevented further tragedy when a quick swing of his arm knocked the shotgun in the hands of Old Joe Mann into the air, sending a load of buckshot harmlessly into the air. Kern did his sheriff thing by convincing the Montoya brothers that he had to arrest Juan, but he would get him patched up by a doctor in town and would make sure Juan would get a fair trial.
Once back in Pagosa Springs, Kern bedded his prisoner down at Ma Cade’s hotel. He was convinced it was a better place than the flimsy county jail to defend his prisoner from the angry lynch mob gathering outside. The sheriff downed a bowl of Ma Cade’s frijoles, with a hearty “Thank you, ma’am,” but never unbuckled his trigger less gun or took his eyes off the window as all through the night a growing band of Montoya’s family and friends gathered on Roubideaux Hill (now Reservoir Hill) above the hotel; ready to shoot it out with the lynch mob if necessary. More next week.