By Edgar Beecher Bronson in 1910
Life was never dull in Grant County, New Mexico, in the early 1880s. There was always something doing — usually something the average law-abiding, peace-loving citizen would have been glad enough to dispense with. To say that life then and there was insecure is to describe altogether too feebly a state of society and an environment wherein death, in one violent form or another, was ever abroad, seldom long idle, always alert for victims.
When the San Carlos Apache, under Victoria, Ju, or Geronimo, were not out gunning for the whites, the whites were usually out gunning for one another over some trivial difference. Everybody carried a gun and was more or less handy with it. Indeed, it was a downright bad plan to carry one unless you were handy. For with gunning — the game most played, if not precisely the most popular –, everyone was supposed to be familiar with the rules and to know how to play; and in a game where every hand is sure to be “called,” no one ever suspected another of being out on a sheer “bluff.” Thus the coroner invariably declared it a case of suicide where one man drew a gun on another and failed to use it.
This highly explosive state of society was not due to the fact that there were few peaceable men in the country, for there were many of them, men of character and education, honest, and as law-abiding as their peculiar environment would permit. Moreover, the percentage of professional “bad men “– and this was a profession then — was comparatively small. It was due rather to the fact that everyone, no matter how peaceable his inclinations, was compelled to carry arms habitually for self-defense, for the Apache were constantly raiding outside the towns, and white outlaws inside. And, with any class of men who constantly carry arms, it always falls out that a weapon is the arbiter of even those minor personal differences which in the older civilization of the East are settled with fists or in a petty court.
The prevailing local contempt for any man who was too timid to “put up a gunfight” when the etiquette of a situation demanded it, was expressed locally in the phrase that one “could take a corncob and a lightning bug and make him run himself to death trying to get away.” The few men of this sort did not occupy positions of any particular prominence. Their opinions did not seem to carry as much weight as those of other gentlemen who were known to be notably quick to draw and shoot.
Outside the towns, there were only three occupations in Grant County in those years, cattle ranching, mining, and fighting the Apache, all of a sort to attract and hold none but the sturdiest types of real manhood, men inured to danger and reckless of it. In the early eighties, no faint-heart came to Grant County unless he blundered in — and any such were soon burning the shortest trail out
Within the towns, there were also only three occupations: first, supplying the cowmen and miners whatever they needed, merchandise wet and dry; second, gambling, at Monte, poker, or faro; and, third, figuring how to slip through the next 24 hours without getting a heavier load of lead in one’s system than could be conveniently carried, or, having an active enemy on hand, how best to “get” him.
The subject of this story is a cowboy turned outlaw — Christopher “Kit” Carson Joy. Kit worked on the X Ranch in the Gila Wilderness. He was a youngster little over 20. Certain it is that he was a reckless dare-devil, always foremost in the little amenities cowboys loved to indulge in when they came to town, such as shooting out the lights in saloons and generally “shelling up the settlement,”– which meant taking a friendly shot at about everything that showed up on the streets. Nevertheless, Kit was mainly good-natured and amiable.
Early in his career in Silver City, New Mexico, it was observed that perhaps his most distinguishing trait was curiosity. Ultimately, his curiosity got him into trouble. One of his first displays of curiosity was a very great surprise, even to those who knew him best. It was also a disappointment.
A newly arrived tenderfoot appeared on the streets one day in knickerbockers and stockings. Kit was in town and was observed watching the tenderfoot. To the average cowboy, a silk top hat was like a red flag to a bull, so much like it in fact that the hat was usually lucky to escape with less than half a dozen holes through it. But, here in these knee-breeches and stockings was something much more bizarre and exasperating than a top hat, from a cowboy’s point of view. The effect on Kit was therefore closely watched by the bystanders.
No one fancied for a moment that Kit would do less than undertake to teach the tenderfoot “the cowboy’s hornpipe,” not a particularly graceful but a very quick step, which is danced most artistically when a bystander is shooting at the dancer’s toes. Indeed, the ball was expected to open early. To everyone’s surprise and disappointment, it did not. Instead, Kit dropped in behind the tenderfoot and began to follow him about town — followed him for at least an hour. Everyone thought he was studying up some more unique penalty for the tenderfoot. But they were all wrong.
As a matter of fact, Kit was so far consumed with curiosity that he forgot everything else, forgot even to be angry. At last, when he could stand it no longer, he walked up to the tenderfoot, detained him gently by the sleeve, and asked in a tone of real sympathy and concern: “Say, mistah! To’ God, won’t yo’ mah let yo’ wear long pants?”
Naturally, the tenderfoot’s indignation was aroused and expressed, but Kit’s sympathies for a man condemned to such a juvenile costume were so far stirred that he took no notice of it.
Kit was a typical cowboy, industrious, faithful, uncomplaining, of the good old Southern Texas breed. In the saddle from daylight till dark, it never occurred to him even to growl when a stormy night, with thunder and lightning, prolonged his customary three-hours’ turn at night guard round the herd to an all-night’s vigil. He took it as a matter of course. And his rope and running iron were ever ready, and his weather eye alert for a chance to catch and decorate with the X brand any stray cattle that ventured within his range. This was a peculiar phase of cowboy character. While not himself profiting a penny by these inroads on neighboring herds, he was never quite so happy as when he had added another maverick to the herd bearing his employer’s brand, an increase always obtained at the expense of some of the neighbors.
One night on the spring roundup, the day’s work finished, supper was eaten, the night horses caught and saddled, the herd driven into a close circle and bedded down for the night in a little glade in the hills, Kit was standing first relief.