One morning in mid-August 1846, in the cool hours before dawn, the New Mexican villagers of Las Vegas slumbered anxiously. The Americanos were coming. In distant Washington, D.C., for reasons murky to the inhabitants of Las Vegas, the president of the United States had declared war on Mexico. Now scouts had brought word that the invading gringo army was only a few days away, marching steadily westward, and the townspeople were deeply fearful. They had heard from their priest that the United States would outlaw Catholicism, that the soldiers would rape the women in the village and burn the letters “U.S.” on their cheeks with branding irons. The villagers even debated among themselves the merits of torching their own church to prevent the Americans from using it as a stable or a barracks.
Las Vegas—“The Meadows” in Spanish—was a hodgepodge of adobe houses, set among rustling cornfields irrigated by a muddy acequia that seeped from the Gallinas River. The town lay at the feet of the Sangre de Cristos—the Blood of Christ Mountains—the magnificent southernmost peaks of the Rockies, which rose more than twelve thousand feet over the prickered plain. Set on the eastern periphery of Spanish settlement, the village was a spore-speck of civilization. Las Vegas was a three-day ride from the capital of the territory, Santa Fe. Its only tie to the larger world was the Santa Fe Trail, which passed along the outskirts of town—the same road the American army would be marching in on. To the east, the prairie seemed to stretch out forever, to the Staked Plains of Texas and the buffalo grasslands beyond—and eventually, if one kept on going, to the land of the American diablos.
Hunters from Las Vegas, the ciboleros, rode out on the plains in search of antelope and buffalo. Often the villagers made trips to Santa Fe to buy supplies or confer with the military and religious authorities there. But mostly the people kept to their homes, and to the pageants of their church. Impoverished in every way except faith, they were pioneers, resolute in their battles with nature yet accepting of what they could not control. Although Las Vegas was a new settlement, founded by a land grant only eleven years earlier, most of the frontier families living here were descended from Spanish colonists who had arrived in New Mexico as early as 1598.
The people of New Mexico, especially in rural outposts like Las Vegas, led a defensive, medieval sort of existence, clinging to Catholic folkways ossified by isolation. They labored in the safety of their coyote fences and mud walls, raising peppers and corn, beans, and squash, and tending sheep as their forefathers had in the shadows of the ancient mountains.
August was always a pleasant month in this part of New Mexico. The nights were cool, the mornings golden. Days were hot and dry, the sleepy afternoons frequently doused by thunderstorms that rumbled in from the west. Gardens swelled with vegetables. Flocks grew fat on the grass that greened in the foothills from the new moisture of the monsoonal rains. By all outward appearances, Las Vegas seemed as it always did in this favored season, and yet the people knew that when the Americans arrived, their world would change utterly.
Early on the morning of August 12 the fitful quiet of Las Vegas was punctured by the sound of hoofbeats. By the time the villagers heard the sound and discerned its menace, it was already too late: The invaders had cut across their fields and penetrated the town margins. To the people’s surprise, however, these weren’t the anticipated American invaders. This was an attack just as dreadful but much more familiar: Navajos.
The raiders came boiling out of the mountains, painted for battle. At the last moment they let out a blood-chilling war-whoop that sounded to the villagers something like an owl—ahuuuuu, ahuuuuuu. The Navajo warriors rode bareback or on saddles made of sheepskin, and guided their mounts with reins of braided horsehair. They wielded clubs and carried shields made of buckskin layers taken from a deer’s hip, where the hide is thickest. They had images of serpents painted on the soles of their moccasins to give them a snakelike sneakiness as they approached their quarry. Their steel-tipped arrowheads were daubed with rattlesnake blood and prickly pear pulp mixed with charcoal taken from a tree that had been struck by lightning. Many of them wore strange, tight-fitting helmets made from the skinned heads of mountain lions.
Before anyone could take up a musket in defense, the Navajos had driven off sheep and goats by the hundreds if not thousands, stolen horses, and killed one adolescent shepherd while kidnapping another.
Then, as fast as they came, the reivers vanished. In the faint light, they drove their herds on networks of tiny trails that spilled into wider trails, and finally into dusty thoroughfares that were permanently worn down by the hooves of driven stock—great trampled highways of theft winding toward the Navajo country far to the west.