COMES FOR THE SQUAW MAN
Other Articles by Richard McCord
was 1960 or '61, at Christmas time. A ferocious snowstorm was
blowing into El Morro from the west. The squaw man was sinking
into a murderous rage. The traveling salesman was thinking he
had made a mistake. And Ellen Bradbury, who tells the story, was
a young bride, barely out of her teens.
Today Bradbury heads
Recursos, a Santa Fe company that conducts tours into the area's
remotest regions. She grew up in New Mexico, and knows its ways.
But never before or asince has she seen anything like that fateful
storm at El Morro.
She was newly married,
and her (now former) husband was an archaeologist with the National
Park Service, stationed at El Morro National Monument in far northwestern
New Mexico, where Zuni and Navajo lands come together. The couple
lived in a government log cabin.
The nearby town of El
Morro had just a handful of residents. One of them was an Anglo
"squaw man," who had married a Navajo woman and with her ran the
town's only gas station and bar in town. The few other non-Indians
were mostly Mormon.
The squaw man was moody,
hostile and likely an alcoholic. For some reason he refused to
sell gas on Tuesdays, and when hapless travelers pulled up to
his pump on that day, he chased them away at the point of the
rifle he always kept handy.
He was generally despised,
and not just for his ornery ways. Both the Mormons and the Indians
disapproved of liquor, and resented him for selling it. And because
he was an Anglo with an Indian wife, he was not accepted into
As Christmas drew near
in '60 or '61-Bradbury is now not sure which-grim black clouds
foretold an imminent blizzard. But as snowflakes began to swirl
she was not worried, for like everyone in El Morro, she had emergency
provisions set aside.
A few miles away, however,
a lone salesman traveling in his car was growing alarmed. For
diversion he had left Route 66 on his way to Gallup, unaware that
the only road through El Morro was unpaved. Now he feared being
caught in the storm. When he saw a gas station up ahead, he sighed
But on that day, the
squaw man had snapped. With his rifle he gunned down his wife.
Then he stabbed her again and again with a screwdriver. Finally,
standing at his gasoline pump, he shot himself in the head. As
he fell, his arm became entangled in the hose, which held him
upright. In death he seemed to awaiting the next customer.
The next customer was
the salesman. With horror he saw that the man at the pump was
dead. Then he saw the bleeding squaw, who had crawled outside
and was still alive. Somehow he got her into his car and frantically
went looking for help.
The only other store
in town was run by a Mormon woman, who had closed up early in
the now-furiously-falling snow. The salesman pounded on the door
until she came, but she offered no help. She was leaving to see
her children in a Christmas pageant in the nearby town of Ramah,
where they would wait out the storm. And though Ramah was on the
road to the hospital in Gallup, 55 miles away, she did not want
to get her truck's upholstery stained with the Navajo woman's
Not knowing what else
to do, the salesman set out for Gallup himself, in the face of
the blizzard. Miraculously he made it, but only by following a
big truck all the way. Yet despite his heroic efforts, the woman
died in the hospital.
The highway patrol in
Gallup sent out calls for someone to investigate the crime. But
the Zuni police refused because it did not concern their people,
and the Navajo police refused because they had to get supplies
to Indians stranded in hogans in the storm. Finally Bradbury's
husband was called, but the snow was too deep for him to get through.
Three days later a snowplow
reached the site. The squaw man, frozen solid, was still at his
grisly post. Because the ground was also frozen, he could not
be buried right away. So his body was laid out in an unheated
shed behind the station for weeks, until the earth softened enough
for graves to be blasted out for him and another fellow who died
Bradbury was only peripherally
involved in this drama, which remains a legend in El Morro. But
of course she will never forget it. "It's really a 19th-century
story," she says. "Life the way it used to be. But it happened
in my life."
And though she was amazed
at the time, she now takes a tougher view of why no one but the
out-of-town salesman was willing to get involved. "The squaw man
was dead, his wife was dying. There was no help for either of
them. People saw no reason to put themselves in peril. And there
was no reason."
Articles by Richard McCord