[Excerpts of the following story appeared in the Arizona Republic Sunday Newspaper]
Setting up a homestead in the early 1900’s in southeastern Arizona was almost criminally dangerous. Cochise County was a turbulent melting pot of rough characters from all over the west. There were still train and stage robberies, murders and lynching’s, raids from marauding Apaches and even more frequent night raids from thieving Mexican bandidos. (Painting “Ladrones de la Noche – Thieves of the Night“)
My family homesteaded first in Gleeson. They had to protect their livestock and goods while also building corrals, barns and houses. This meant cutting timber in the mountains and hauling it across the valley. They had to put a well down and a windmill up and clear land quickly to get seeds planted if they were to have food that autumn. My grandpa, usually called Rube, was one of 15 children and 10 sons. He was 19 at the time and was only 1 of 4 sons of an age and size to help set up their homestead. They had originally brought a hundred plus horses and mules with them, and had already traded off or sold about half to the cavalry for food while en route.
One of the first chores assigned my grandfather was to protect the herd of horses they’d brought with them. While the rest of the family built corrals and started a house, the horses were herded into a box canyon near Turkey Creek in the Chiricahuas and Rube was left to guard them. His dad told him not to play hero. “Don’t brace any horse thieves alone.” Even though they thought they’d hidden the horses well, early one morning before dawn, Rube was awakened by whinnies of horses. He heard some muffled but strange commotion and climbed out on a big boulder at the entrance to the canyon. He watched about 30 of his horses and 2 sombreroed-bandits disappear through the pass.
At sunrise, as he was making his way down out of the foothills, he met a rider who approached and introduced himself as the owner of the ranch he was crossing. Rube had heard of the tough old character, Winchester Smith, and was glad to tell him about the rustlers. Winchester offered to help and they swiftly followed the herd’s tracks until they could see dust ahead, the herd well on its way to Agua Prieta, Mexico. They formulated a plan. They tied up some brush for Rube to drag behind his horse, and was told, “Now, kid, you just keep coming along. Not too fast and make a lot of dust.” The horse thieves would expect some pursuit and this would reassure them that they had a good lead. It would also give Winchester a chance to catch up with them.
Rube spent an anxious couple hours doing as he was told until he heard some distant gun shots. Then he sped up, saw a dust cloud and then the lost horses headed toward him. Driving them was Winchester, who had added two saddled but rider-less horses. Rube asked him what had happened, and Winchester just said, “I caught them.”
Winchester waved off any reward, saying he’d just keep the two horses and saddles. Grandpa later said, “I sure was curious to hear what happened to them rustlers, but Winchester wasn’t saying. I figured his name about said it all.”
Homesteading Sulphur Springs Valley:
After a few years in Gleeson, Hilary Mercer Wells, ultimately settled northwest of Douglas in what became known as the Wells Settlement. The kids went to school in Six Shooter Flat before the Wells grade school was built. The brothers also built a small house for the school teacher. Rube and his brothers settled throughout the valley. They freighted ore between the mining towns of Gleeson, Courtland, Pearce and Tombstone; caught wild horses and sold them to the army, built roads, operated the Wells Brothers Overland Service, and farmed and ranched the then verdant valley. One became a circuit judge, one married the first single woman to homestead in southern Arizona, one owned a trading post for the Indians for many years and one made the first bar of copper in the state.
Hilary, knew many shady characters on both sides of a badge, from constable/outlaw Billy Stiles to Sheriff John Slaughter, whose ranch wasn’t far from his. Later, my grandpa, Rube, became a deputy sheriff in Tombstone and when I was little, he entertained his grand kids with many wild stories of his own. He and grandma lived in Elfrida in a thick-walled adobe farmhouse with a tin roof and raised, railed porches wrapping three sides of it. We often stomped around on the porch hunting for the rattlesnakes that occasionally sought its cool shade. When we heard the tell-tale rattles, our screams alerted Grandma, who would yell through the screen door, “You kids quit playin’ with them rattlers.”
There’s no trace left of grandpa’s home but one of the old homesteads at the Wells Settlement is still the site of many family get-together’s. Our family’s Cemetery Association spruces up the graves annually for Memorial Day reunions. The ramshackle house still has the hooks in the ceiling where the quilting frame once hung and a few old pickling and jam jars. There’s a tangled riot of weeds where the vegetable gardens once were and the old irrigation tank is still circled with towering cottonwoods and willows and full of water but no longer stocked with catfish. Picnic tables are well shaded under the big mulberry trees but there is little other evidence of the colorful characters and vigorous activity that once was there.
The Pioneer Family Cemetery was started over one hundred years ago, in 1906 with the death of John Wells. It lies about 7 miles from the Mexican border northeast of Douglas, Arizona. While a group of us were cleaning up the family cemetery in the spring of 2005, a cowboy rode by. He’d been out patrolling his property with his dogs and a sidearm. Two dogs found a small patch of shade under a nearby bush but one dog staked out the shade under the horse as if this was its own territory. I asked the cowboy to pose for me. He lives on an adjacent ranch and agreed to keep an eye on the cemetery for us, or as he said, he’d be glad to ‘neighbor’ us. (Painting “Shade on the Mexican Border”.)