The marble slab is a little cracked and the hand-chiseled lettering is starting to widen with age and erosion. Since the sleepy little plaza has been resurfaced several times, the edges of the marble marker are now encased in concrete, leaving only part of the slab visible.
Looking up, I can see my granddaughter crossing the tree-shaded plaza, curious as to what I have been staring at. Mesilla Plaza is an ideal contemplation place for a historian, since the small plaza has seen the visitation of countless people—both the famous and the infamous in the annals of the Southwest. Over there, where we ate lunch, is where Pancho Villa, John Wesley Hardin, and Kit Carson stayed. That building used to be the jail that held Billy the Kid, while over there was the Pony Express, and the theater around the corner once housed the Confederate Capitol of New Mexico and Arizona. It would be easier to list the famous figures of the Old West who haven’t stood in this old plaza.
Standing next to me, my granddaughter, Alice, looks down and gazes at the marble slab. “Who was Fountain?” she asks.
As he saw the postman approaching, the old man pulled on the reins and stopped the buckboard. The horse immediately began pulling at the sparse grass that grew under the nearby creosote bush.
“What’s the matter, father?” asked the eight year-old boy.
“Nothing, Henry,” the man answered as he pulled his coat collar a little higher to ward off the cold February wind. “Just going to stop and talk to a friend for a second.”
“Hola, Colonel Fountain,” said the mail carrier as he stopped his horse alongside the buckboard. “Are you going to push on to Mesilla tonight?”
“Yes, Saturnino. Mariana is expecting us for dinner. And I think Henry here is coming down with a cold; he needs his mother’s care.”
“Maybe you should ride with me back to La Luz. I have to ride to Mesilla, tomorrow, and we could ride together. I’ve seen some riders following you, said Saturnino Barela as he gestured east towards the dunes of White Sands.
Barela knew that Fountain, a lawyer prominent in territorial politics, had as many enemies as he had friends—Not only because he had defended Billy the Kid for the murder of a local lawman, but also because Fountain was trying to prosecute several powerful local ranch owners for cattle rustling.
Fountain considered the postal carrier’s advice as he looked down at Henry, who was huddled under an Apache blanket, eating the stick candy he had purchased this morning. Fountain had given his son a quarter to buy candy, but the boy had only spent a dime, tying up the change in a corner of his handkerchief.
Fountain regretted bringing the boy along on the trip, but his wife had insisted that no one would attack him while he had his eight-year-old son with him. The 150-mile trip to Lincoln had taken three days and then they had spent two days in court, securing the indictments against the rustlers. The first day of the journey home, they had spent at a friend’s home near the Mescalero Reservation, followed by the second night spent at the small settlement at La Luz, and now Fountain was eager to get home.
Fountain gestured to the Winchester leaning against the seat of the buckboard. “I think we’ll be okay. We’ve been traveling for three days since we left Lincoln, and we’re both anxious to get home.”
After a final wave from Henry, Barela watched the buckboard continue west, before he continued on his way to La Luz.
The next day, as the mail carrier was making his way back to Mesilla, when he passed Chalk Hill, he saw that the tracks from Fountain’s buckboard suddenly departed from the trail and headed into the hills. Ominously, the sand showed the prints of several horses going into the desert on both sides of the buckboard.
Saturnino Barela continued on to Mesilla, telling Fountain’s wife Mariana and his son, Albert Jr., what he had found. When a search party scoured the desert around Chalk Hill, they found the abandoned buckboard near large patches of bloody sand. In their search of the buckboard, they found that the lawyer’s valise had been emptied and all his legal papers were missing, along with his Winchester. On the seat of the buckboard, was a handkerchief with a nickel and a dime tied up with a knot. Alarmingly, the handkerchief and coins were charred with burnt gunpowder.
Of the Fountains—either father or son—there was no trace.
I smile at my granddaughter. “He was one of the people who built this plaza. He and his son vanished and were never found and whatever happened to them is still a mystery.”
Alice looks at the marker then stares back at me. “Did the police look for them?”, she asks.
“Some very famous lawmen looked for them. Pat Garrett and the Pinkerton Detective Agency looked for them, but no one ever found them.”
“Was this a long time ago?” Alice asks. (She has learned that most of my stories are about a time long enough ago that they don’t matter).
“Yes. And no. Depends on how you look at it. It was 123 years ago, but you see that house over there? The woman who told me the story lived there, and the missing eight year-old boy was her uncle. It didn’t seem like a long time ago to her.”
I don’t tell Alice that one of the men who was probably responsible for the murders later became a senator and the first presidential cabinet officer to be convicted of corruption. I also don’t tell her that Colonel Fountain wasn’t the first in his family to vanish. His father, Solomon Jennings, had vanished in China. Nor do I tell her that the violent deaths of Colonel Fountain and his son so horrified the authorities in Washington that they delayed statehood for the territory of New Mexico.
As we leave, I can almost see the wheels turning in Alice’s head. All my history lesson has done is convince her that, like my story, I am really old.