Editor’s note: This column about the life of Elbert “Al” Nunn is based on an interview by Anna Florence Robison in March 1934. The first two parts were published the first Friday of April and May. The final part will publish on July 5.Part 3Five men stole Granddad Johnson’s racehorses – Bluebird, Selim, Daylight, a trotting mare, another thoroughbred and an old saddle horse. They stole them out of the pasture at Pine River. Just after that, he rode up to me and said in a friendly way for the first time since the wedding. “They stole my horses last night, and I want you to go with me to help me get ’em.” So Grandad, his son Sam, Chick Porter and I went after the horses.
When we got to Farmington, New Mexico, Port Stockton was there. He and four or five others joined us. As we were coming toward the hilltop where we would get our horses again, Port said to me. “Is you gun loaded, Al?”
“Give it to me and I’ll take the load out,” he suggested.
“I don’t hunt men with empty guns,” I told him. “I might not have time to reload.”
When we got to the top of the hill, we came to a plain trail with sharp tracks in it. We hadn’t ridden 50 yards when Port motioned to me to be still. He slid off his horse and drew his gun. I did the same. Port got off to the left and stopped and threw his gun up to shoot. Two men were in camp, and one shot at Port, but he had to shoot though dead limbs which diverted the ball. It didn’t hit. Port took his time, slid down to the left again and shot the fellow in the camp. The fellow uttered an exclamation, and Port said to me that he thought he had hit him. I thought so too.
Then the other man shot at me where I was down on my knees, and I shot back and hit him through the right shoulder. The fellow Port shot died right there, and Chick Porter buried him in the sand. We got our horses. It was not very far from Farmington. We took all the horses and left the four surviving horse thieves afoot. Jack Hill was the one I shot in the shoulder. Gannon was the one Stockton killed, and another went by the name of Buckshot.
We brought the horses’ home – all except Bluebird. She was crippled, and we had to leave her at Slain’s on the San Juan. She died there. We got home with the rest.
Later on, Granddad Johnson owned Jim Douglas, the fastest running horse in the United States. He was of Kentucky stock and raised in California. His owner had to sell him to get money to care for his son, who had something very serious the matter with his eyes. Dan O’Brien, Granddad Johnson’s manager for his racers, brought him to Granddad for $7,000 and considered he had made a good bargain though Jim Douglas’ hoofs were quarter-cracked and stood in need of long and particular treatment. He was off the turf for four years, having his hoofs cared for and getting as little exercise as he could. But when he did go back on the turf, he made a better record than before, and Granddad refused $15,000 for him. He was a handsome bay horse and was cared for as his worth deserved.
In 1882, I took Granddad Johnson’s cattle to run on shares. He had moved over on the Dolores River by then, and he told me I could take them all to the Blue Mountains. There was a wonderful range out there and he had taken several hundred head out there previously without branding the calves. He had 1,200 head. When I went out there, the Indians were bad. It took many men and 24 saddle horses to care for the cattle. We branded cows with calves at their sides together.
Spud Hudson – so-called because he always had a potato or so in a gunnysack – had bought Co-op (Mormon Corp.) steers and turned them loose in the mountains. They had got too wild to handle. When he saw that he could not handle them, he told me one day, “I’m going to get a lot of experience and go broke.”
“That’s what I’m going to do too,” I told him.
So we decided to drive the cattle out of that country. Hudson had steers, and I had cows and calves. Driving them together would be an accommodation to Hudson because my cows and calves would keep his wild steers from stampeding at night. So we drove the cattle from the Blue Mountains to the Dove Creek country at Cross Canyon. It was called an Indian strip. Bill Graham named Dove Creek because so many doves came to get water in Cross Canyon. He also named Secret Springs, Bug Springs, and Bug Point, Cedar Point, Burnt Cabin and Nancy Patterson Park.
I built the stone house out in Cross Canyon, and lived there 28 miles from anywhere. I had several men there. I was the only man in my position that the Indians didn’t make leave. They liked me because I fed them and treated them well.
Hank Sharp shot an Indian in the jaw and stirred up some trouble in 1884. My son Albert was a tiny baby 4 or 5 days old when the trouble began. A Mr. Anderson who was there saw 11 Indians coming and said to me. “Get your gun, Al, get your gun. Here come some Indians, and we’ll kill every one of them”.
“No, I’ll go talk to them” I told him.
“Must I go?” I asked them when they came up.
“No, no you stay- you stay. We stay too,” they told me. They remained and took care of my horses and brought them in for me in the morning. They were good to me. I gave them some beets, and they washed them. I tried to smoke the pipe of peace, but they didn’t care much for that.
At the time May and Thurman and Smith were killed, the people out where I was wanted to find out what the men over on the Dolores were going to do about protecting the women and children from the Indians. I was at Piute Springs and volunteered to go from there to Billy May’s for that purpose. On my way, I met four Indians. They got off their horses when we met and said “How!”
They wanted to look at my gun. Each looked at it and passed it on to the next until all had looked at it. They gave it back to me. I showed them in pantomime how fast I could shoot with it. Then they rode on west, and I came on to the Dolores River.
My family and I lived at Cross Canyon about three years. In 1886, I divided cattle back with Grandad Johnson. After that, we moved down into Montezuma Valley and lived at what is known as Garrett Ridge, where we ran cattle for several years.
I belonged to the Cattle Pool for a while. The Cattle Pool was an association of cattlemen for the care of their cattle and supposed to be very advantageous. It cost $5 a head to belong and get my calves branded. I couldn’t ride with them, and it cost me too much money to do it their way. I withdrew from the Pool, and the headmen didn’t like that at all. I took to branding mavericks just as the rest were doing. The Pool men rebranded some of my mavericks for the Pool. The Pool’s brand was a cross on the jaw. George and Frank Endricks worked for me, and we went out and crossed the Pool’s brand out on my mavericks and rebranded them again for me. George would brand them, and I would rope them.
We went to camp and said to the cook, Ed Welch, “Ed, we’re hungry as the devil, George and me. And we need to eat dinner before these other fellows eat. It will be handiest to eat first”. He fed us first. The Pool men were very angry when they found out about it.
They had a trial, and I was sent to the penitentiary for seven years for branding mavericks; George Endricks for five years and Frank Endricks for two years. That was in 1892. The trial was held in Cortez. Charles Johnson, the prosecuting attorney from Durango, worked for the Pool.
Sterl Thomas was sheriff then, and he took the three of us to Canon City.
He said to the warden, “Here are three men. These men have no business in this penitentiary.”
They put me out as a trustee right away for that reason. They needed a man on the prison farm to mow the orchard.
“Did you ever mow any, Al?” “I’m an expert” I told them.
June Head is historian for the Montezuma County Historical Society and can be reached for comment or corrections at 970-565-3880.