Maxwell Ranch on the Santa Fe Trail

To this motley group, always under his feet, as it were, Maxwell was ever passively gracious, although they were battening in idleness on his prodigal bounty from year to year.

His retinue of servants, necessarily large, was made up of a heterogeneous mixture of Indians, Mexicans, and half-breeds. The kitchens were presided over by dusky maidens under the tutelage of experienced old crones, and its precincts were sacred to them; but the dining-rooms were forbidden to women during the hours of meals, which were served by boys.

Maxwell was rarely, as far as my observation extended, without a large amount of money in his possession. He had no safe, however, his only place of temporary deposit for the accumulated cash being the bottom drawer of the old bureau in the large room to which I have referred, which was the most antiquated concern of common pine imaginable. There were only two other drawers in this old-fashioned piece of furniture, and neither of them possessed a lock. The third, or lower, the one that contained the money, did, but it was absolutely worthless, being one of the cheapest pattern and affording not the slightest security; besides, the drawers above it could be pulled out, exposing the treasure immediately beneath to the cupidity of any one.

I have frequently seen as much as $30,000 — gold, silver, greenbacks, and government checks — at one time in that novel depository. Occasionally these large sums remained there for several days, yet there was never any extra precaution taken to prevent its abstraction; doors were always open and the room free of access to every one, as usual.

I once suggested to Maxwell the propriety of purchasing a safe for the better security of his money, but, he only smiled, while a strange, resolute look flashed from his dark eyes, as he said: “God help the man who attempted to rob me and I knew him!”

The sources of his wealth were his cattle, sheep, and the products of his area of cultivated acres — barley, oats, and corn principally — which he disposed of to the quartermaster and commissary departments of the army, in the large military district of New Mexico. His wool-clip must have been enormous, too; but I doubt whether he could have told the number of animals that furnished it or the aggregate of his vast herds. He had a 1,000 horses, 10,000 cattle, and 40,000 sheep at the time I knew him well, according to the best estimates of his Mexican relatives.

He also possessed a large and perfectly appointed gristmill, which was a great source of revenue, for wheat was one of the staple crops of his many farms.

Maxwell was fond of traveling all over the Territory, his equipages comprising everything in the shape of a vehicle, through all their varieties, from the most plainly constructed buckboard to the lumbering, but comfortable and expensive, Concord coach, mounted on thorough braces instead of springs, and drawn by four or six horses. He was perfectly reckless in his driving, dashing through streams, over irrigating ditches, stones, and stumps, regardless of consequences, but, as is usually the fortune of such precipitate horsemen, rarely coming to grief.

The headquarters of the Ute agency were established at Maxwell’s Ranch in early days, and the government detailed a company of cavalry to camp there, more, however, to impress the plains tribes who roamed along the Santa Fe Trail east of the Raton Range, than for any effect on the Ute, whom Maxwell could always control, and who regarded him as a father.

Fort Union, New Mexico wagons

Fort Union, New Mexico wagons

On July 4, 1867, Maxwell, who owned an antiquated and rusty six-pound field howitzer, suggested to the captain of the troop stationed there, the propriety of celebrating the day. So the old piece was dragged from its place under a clump of elms, where it had been hidden in the grass and weeds ever since the Mexican-American War probably, and brought near the house. The captain and Maxwell acted the role of gunners, the former at the muzzle, the latter at the breech; the discharge was premature, blowing out the captain’s eye and taking off his arm, while Maxwell escaped with a shattered thumb. As soon as the accident occurred, a sergeant was dispatched to Fort Union on one of the fastest horses on the ranch, the faithful animal falling dead the moment he stopped in front of the surgeon’s quarters, having made the journey of 55 miles in little more than four hours.

The surgeon left the post immediately, arriving at Maxwell’s late that night, but, in time to save the officer’s life, after which he dressed Maxwell’s apparently inconsiderable wound. In a few days, however, the thumb grew angry-looking; it would not yield to the doctor’s careful treatment, so he reluctantly decided that amputation was necessary.

After an operation was determined upon, I prevailed upon Maxwell to come to the fort and remain with me, inviting Kit Carson at the same time, that he might assist in catering to the amusement of my suffering guest. Maxwell and Carson arrived at my quarters late in the day, after a tedious ride in the big coach, and the surgeon, in order to allow a prolonged rest on account of Maxwell’s feverish condition, postponed the operation until the following evening.

The next night, as soon as it grew dark — we waited for coolness, as the days were excessively hot — the necessary preliminaries were arranged, and when everything was ready the surgeon commenced. Maxwell declined the anesthetic prepared for him, and sitting in a common office chair put out his hand, while Carson and myself stood on opposite sides, each holding an ordinary kerosene lamp. In a few seconds the operation was concluded, and after the silver-wire ligatures were twisted in their places, I offered Maxwell, who had not as yet permitted a single sigh to escape his lips, half a tumblerful of whiskey; but, before I had fairly put it to his mouth, he fell over, having fainted dead away, while great beads of perspiration stood on his forehead, indicative of the pain he had suffered, as the amputation of the thumb, the surgeon told us then, was as bad as that of a leg.

He returned to his ranch as soon as the surgeon pronounced him well, and Carson to his home in Taos. I saw the latter but once more at Maxwell’s; but, he was en route to visit me at Fort Harker, in Kansas, when he was taken ill at Fort Lyon, Colorado where he died.

Kit Carson Drawing

Kit Carson Drawing

How true it now seems to me, as the recollections of my boyish days, when I read of the exploits of Kit Carson, crowd upon my memory! I firmly believed him to be at least ten feet tall, carrying a rifle so heavy that it required two men to lift it. I imagined he drank out of nothing smaller than a river, and picked the carcass of a whole buffalo as easily as a lady does the wing of a quail. Ten years later, I made the acquaintance of the foremost frontiersman, and found him a delicate, reticent, under-sized, wiry man, as perfectly the opposite of the type my childish brain had created as it is possible to conceive.

At Fort Union, New Mexico our mail arrived every morning by coach over the Santa Fe Trail, generally pulling up at the sutler’s store, whose proprietor was also the postmaster, about daylight. While Maxwell and Kit were my guests, I sauntered down after breakfast one morning to get my mail, and while waiting for the letters to be distributed, happened to glance at some papers lying on the counter, among which I saw a new periodical — the Day’s Doings, I think it was — that had a full-page illustration of a scene in a forest. In the foreground stood a gigantic figure dressed in the traditional buckskin; on one arm rested an immense rifle; his other arm was around the waist of the conventional female of such sensational journals, while in front, lying prone upon the ground, were half a dozen Indians, evidently slain by the singular hero in defending the impossibly attired female. The legend related how all this had been effected by the famous Kit Carson. I purchased the paper, returned with it to my room, and after showing it to several officers who had called upon Maxwell, I handed it to Kit. He wiped his spectacles, studied the picture intently for a few seconds, turned round, and said: “Gentlemen, that thar may be true, but I hain’t got no recollection of it.”

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