Last week, BJ Vinson left Albuquerque on his way to the M Lazy M Ranch in New Mexico’s Boot Heel Country (a piece of land acquired by the territory via the Gadsden Purchase signed by Mexico in June 1854). He made it as far as Columbus before I ran out of steam and ended the post. Columbus was actually one of the more interesting places we stopped because of the raid on the town by Pancho Villa’s forces on the morning of March 9, 1916.
Early the next day, our protagonist heads out for the Boot Heel and the ranch, as we’ll see in the scene that follows:
Ranchers, like farmers, generally rise with the sun, so I was on the road early Monday, breezing west along Highway 9 over a landscape dominated by creosote, locoweed, and wildflowers. The bright sky was spotted with scattered clouds. The blue silhouette of the Cedar Mountain Range shadowed the horizon.
The weathercast this morning had predicted a high of ninety-nine degrees, but the temperature had not yet climbed to that point as I drove into the country that had once sheltered the likes of Curly Bill, Old Man Clanton, and Dick Gray, desperados who hid out in the caves and canyons of the Boot Heel. Somewhere ahead of me was a black oak with large knotholes where the outlaws left messages for one another in what is still called Post Office Canyon.
I passed a sign noting I had crossed into Hidalgo County, a landmass of about 3,500 square miles populated by fewer than 6,000 residents; a place known for its large ranches. The Gray Ranch, which was now called by its original name of the Diamond A, was 321,000 acres—a staggering 500 square miles. Alongside that, the M Lazy M was a piker.
I turned south on Highway 81. The ranch was a fair drive from Hachita, the closest town, and as I had a considerable amount of work to do, I phoned Del to let him know I intended to take Bert Kurtz up on his offer to remain overnight. He wanted to clear it with the insurance company to make sure they wouldn’t consider it a conflict of interest should Mud Hen be involved in any sort of scam. He promised to call me back.
The M Lazy M lay hard against the Mexican state of Chihuahua just short of the Hatchet Mountains in the upper reaches of the Boot Heel. A cattle guard, flanked by a tall adobe arch bearing the ranch’s brand—two capital M’s, the second one lying on its side—marked the main gateway to the spread.
I paused to snap a photo of the entrance before heading down a well-graded gravel road toward what I assumed would eventually lead to the ranch house. I stopped several times to take pictures of the road and anything else of interest. Like crime scene investigators, PIs can’t function without loads of photos.
I traveled another ten miles with no sign of habitation; although white-faced cattle grazing in the distance identified this as a working ranch. At the end of the road, I encountered another fence, behind which loomed an odd-looking structure, one that appeared to have grown from a modest home into something of a monstrosity as succeeding generations of Muldrens left their stamp on the edifice, building first with wood, then with fieldstone and brick. The latest addition was in adobe.
The place was reminiscent of Gothic novel cover art, although the graceful cottonwoods and sycamores scattered about the broad yard softened the effect. Even so, their towering presence on this landscape of stunted bushes and twisted piñons was almost as bizarre as the building itself. They had obviously been carefully nurtured by the first M’s, possibly even the Lazy M, until they dwarfed every other living thing within sight.
I parked in the gravel circle before the house between a late model gray Lincoln and a vintage blue and white Corvette. Two big Dobermans trotted up to the car and regarded me solemnly. Just then, the front door opened. Bert stepped over the threshold and greeted me with a wave. I rolled down my car window a couple of inches.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Vinson. Bruno and Hilda won’t bother you unless I put them on guard. Now the ferocious beast in the house, I’m not so sure of.”
“Right.” I cast a wary eye at the large animals and stepped more briskly than usual toward the broad, shaded veranda. I offered Bert a hand. “Most people call me BJ.”
He accepted my shake with a smile, casting an indulgent eye on the dogs. “BJ, I hope you had a pleasant ride. Missed the hottest part of the day, anyway. Welcome to the M Lazy M Ranch, or as most folks call her…the Lazy M.”
That was BJ’s first view of the ranch and will be his first meeting with its owner, Millicent Muldren, called Mud Hen by just about everyone. After a rather contentious meeting, he prepares to take his leave of her and head back to Albuquerque. In the following scene, he learns of the City of Rocks for the first time … both “City of Rocks.”
“Do you have anything else to tell me?”
“No. I have to go now, BJ.” She glanced out of the window. “I see Luis has my gelding saddled. I have something to check out down at the City.”
“Have you been to the City of Rocks State Park north of Deming?” When I shook my head, she continued. “It’s something to see. As the name implies, it’s a city made of stone, complete with streets and alleys.”
At my doubtful look, she explained. “They say that about thirty-five million years ago, a big volcanic eruption called the Kneeling Nun spewed lava and ash and pumice for 150 miles. Over time, wind and rain and freezing and thawing have shaped it into what it is today, something that looks like a big damned city made out of solid rock sitting right out there in the middle of the desert.
“Well, when the Kneeling Nun blew, she threw some of that same stuff over on our patch of ground. It’s not as big as the one at the park, but when my grandpa first laid eyes on it, he said it looked like a damned city made out of rocks. It’s more the size of a village, of course, but Gramps always thought on a bigger scale, so he called it a city. The City of Rocks. When they made that place north of Deming a state park in 1952, my daddy thought about putting up a fuss since his family used the name first, but he never got around to it. So they’ve got their City of Rocks up there, and we’ve got our own down here. You should see it sometime.”
“I will, but right now I need to head back to Albuquerque. I’ve got to wrap this thing up. Good luck to you, Millicent.”
“Tell me something, cowboy. Do you think I had Quacky stolen because of the bet?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think, Millicent, but for whatever it’s worth—I don’t.”
I stood at the window in the cavernous living room and watched as she mounted and rode off toward the southeast. She and the big piebald named Rufus she rode looked as if they were a single unit. Before they passed out of my line of sight, I noticed she had a rifle scabbard strapped to the saddle forward of her right knee. The boss toted iron just like the hands.
I hope these short scenes make for interesting reading. It sure was fun writing them. Best of all, I get to show the reader some of this great State of New Mexico.
Thanks for visiting with me,
Next week: Time will tell.
New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.