Pagosa’s Past: The Sheepmens’ Cattlemens’ War, part two

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    Photo courtesy John Motter
    Billy Kern, in his later years, delivered milk in Pueblo using this same horse to pull the milk wagon. Kern and his horse will be the subject of a later story.

    By John M. Motter
    PREVIEW Columnist

    We’ve been writing about the Montoya-Howe Sheepmens’ Cattlemens’ War, a true story from Pagosa’s past. We closed last week with a description of the shootout which left cattleman William Howe dead and sheepman Juan de Dios Montoya wounded.

    When our story picks up, night has fallen. Pagosa Sheriff Billy Kern is riding up the East Fork of the San Juan River in search of the Montoya bunch. Old Joe Mann is riding along with the sheriff, shotgun butt balanced against his saddle on the right side, ready for action. 

    The Montoya bunch has stopped to treat Juan. The bullet wound in his side has been dripping blood, messing up his saddle and jeans. The worried brothers built a campfire and warmed some water, hoping to staunch the bleeding wound.

    Kern could see the shadows from the campfire dancing along the rimrock of the canyon. He expected the Montoyas to have a guard posted and decided to tether the horses so the clip-clop of the horse hooves would not betray their presence. Carefully, they slipped up on the night guard and persuaded him to take them into the camp.

    Kern’s quick thinking prevented a further tragedy when, with a quick swing of his arm, he grabbed the shotgun Old Joe Mann’s itchy trigger finger was about to unload into the Montoya crowd. Kern was no stranger to tragedy. A few years earlier while carrying the mail through this same canyon on a snow-packed winter day, he’d frozen his right hand. When he checked into the Cade Hotel in Pagosa with the mail, Ma Cade gave him a double shot of whiskey, had him clench a bullet between his teeth, slapped him sharply on the arm and removed the already deadened trigger finger from his right hand. The loss didn’t hurt Kern’s effectiveness as a sheriff: He just removed the trigger from his Colt 45 and learned to fan the pistol unbelievable effectiveness.

    When the Montoya brothers appeared to disagree with the sheriff’s plan to take their wounded brother into town and more trouble threatened, he soon convinced them that Juan would get needed medical treatment in town and would also be safer because he and his deputies would provide protection from the lynch mob that was certain to show up.

    Continued next week.