CHRISTMAS COMES FOR THE SQUAW MAN

By Richard McCord


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The year 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 either culture.

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 with relief.

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 blood.

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 that winter.

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."

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