Murder on the Santa Fe Trail

To this day, I don’t know what to make of the young woman called Madeline.

I saw her one day sitting on a bench in front of a mercantile on the plaza in Santa Fe. She wore a calico dress, faded by the sun and thread-bare from so many washings. That dress had seen better times, and it stood in stark contrast to the rich red of her hair. In her lap was a red-headed baby, not yet a year old. The tyke was dressed in hand-me-downs not much more than rags.

I would have found the woman attractive except for her eyes. She stared as if blind, though I could see nothing indicating a loss of sight. It was as if she alone focused on something the rest of us missed, some inner horror only she seemed to comprehend.

I tickled the baby, who bounced and giggled in her lap. The woman was not only unaware of my presence, I don’t think she even knew the baby was there. I tried to engage her, talk to her. The only time she looked at me was when I asked her name. Other than that, she remained unresponsive. I had no choice but to go on my way, concerned but unable to offer any help, if indeed she needed it.

Some hours later, I found myself in the cantina a block from the store, sitting with a Mexican, named Albino, and Luther, an Anglo wagon guide who’d come off the trail just awhile ago. As we sipped our beer, I told them of my encounter with the strange, young woman.

Luther said he knew her, as did Albino. I began to pester them for details, for I was still concerned about her. Luther agreed, if anyone needed looking after, that woman surely did.

Albino’s English was poor, but he said they’d found the woman on their last trip, wandering alone somewhere west of the North Canadian River. When I asked if he knew how she had come to be there, he nodded toward his partner.

Luther picked up the tale.

“We were nearin’ the end of our haul for the day,” he said, “when we seen this woman staggerin’ along. She looked like she’d been through some kinda trouble. You know, not the usual kind … the kind where a man has used her and left her disgraced. That woulda’ been one thing, but this gal looked like she’d experienced something even worse. She had a strange, ghostly look in her eyes. We offered her a ride. Without as much as a thank’ee, she climbed into the back. Fell asleep nearly at once. Slept all that night and for the best part of the next day.”

“When she woke up, did she tell you what had happened?” I asked.

“Sort of,” Luther said. “She don’t talk much, but she had a need to tell someone, so she sat ‘tween me and Albino … she’s a tiny thing … don’t take up much room on that bench … and she talked about what happened to her. I couldn’t believe my ears. If what she told us was true, I was amazed she was even alive.”

“What did she tell you?” I pressed him, my curiosity gnawing at me like a mouse at a feed bag.

“Seems she come from Illinois with her parents years ago,” Luther began.

“Wait a minute,” I demanded. “Does the woman have a name?”

“Sure. Don’t we all. Told us her name was Madeline.”

* * *

Madeline, Luther explained, had indeed come from Illinois some years earlier with her parents when she was ten. Like lots of families, they came to Texas where the land was open and free, and where they could begin a new life. For a couple years, they built a farm, had a few cows, and good prospects. Their future looked bright. Life seemed good for them. Only … it was short.

Madeline had gone to the creek, about a half mile from their sod house, to pick berries. She saw the Comanche coming toward her and hid among the bullrushes. They sped by on their ponies and made straight for her home. She could hear their war whoops. She heard her father’s rifle fire. Once. Twice. Then silence. When she crept home in the moonlight, she found her mother and father sprawled in the dust of their front yard. They lay on their backs. Eyes vacant. Scalps bloodied. Hair gone. She sat, shivering all night and not just from the chill.

In the cold morning light, Madeline found a shovel and dug a shallow grave. The earth was loamy on their farm and not too rocky, so digging would have been easy but for her fear, grief, and exhaustion. As gently as she could, she dragged her parents into it. She had no coffins for them nor did she even know to wrap them in sheets. She just put them in the ground and covered them. Then cried until she had no more tears in her. Spent, she fell asleep on the new grave.

A week later, a man in a buggy stopped for a drink. Appalled at what he found, he took Madeline to town and put her in the care of a woman who ran a boarding house.

“Can you cook?” Nellie, the owner, asked.

“Some,” Madeline nodded.

“Well enough,” Nellie said. “You’ll cook, and you’ll clean, and you’ll do whatever I ask. That’ll pay for your bed and board as long as you’re here.”

And so it was. 

Madeline had no choice but to work for the woman for four years. In that time, the little girl grew into a red-haired beauty. And though the work was hard and the hours long, Madeline was always seen with a smile on her face. She’d hidden away the horror of her parents’ death deep inside her. It didn’t show, but it was still there.

James Littlepage came to stay at the boarding house for awhile. He was a cowboy, who had ridden horn since he was fourteen. Now, at twenty, he was looking for a new outfit, somewhere he could sleep in a bed at night and not have to eat dust all day and beans nearly every night. He came to town to meet a rancher, who it was said, owned most of east Texas.

What he didn’t reckon on was also meeting Madeline. He fell for her at once and saw an advantage to having a wife. That would give him the look of a man settled for life, more responsible. It would also guarantee that bed … in fact, one warmed by this lovely creature.

Madeline was as smitten with the cowboy as he was with her, and she was ready to cut her ties to the burden of always trying to please Nellie. Madeline and Slim Jim, what his friends called him, were married in a month. They were happy. The preacher was happy. Even Nellie was happy, which wasn’t often.

Littlepage got the job he wanted on the big ranch and life seemed good for the newlyweds. Madeline found work in the main house. In time, she also found a new job, being the mother of twins. The family seemed settled in its life in east Texas, but Littlepage had trouble taking orders and, besides, was more ambitious than a ranch foreman usually was and itched for even bigger things. 

“What say we go to Californee?” he announced one day. “They’s diggin’ good dirt, up from Sutter’s Mill, and we could make our fortune in no time. Be set for life. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Maddie?”

Madeline loved her Slim Jim, especially the part of him that was adventurous. So off they embarked on a steamer from Galveston to New Orleans and then a river boat up the Mississippi to join a wagon train heading to California.

Traversing the Santa Fe Trail was not for the faint of heart or the weak-willed. It demanded stamina and persistence. Madeline had the fortitude to make the trip. Her boys found it an adventure any kid would envy. It also demanded obedience to Isaac Emerson, the wagon master hired because he knew the road better than anyone.

Slim Jim Littlepage had stamina, and he was persistent. He was, however, likely to chafe like a horse with a burr under its blanket, when told what to do, and he argued incessantly with Emerson. It didn’t take long for the two to come to loggerheads.

It was common practice for wagons to rotate, so no one had to eat dust over the entire 500-mile trek. When it was his turn, Littlepage was ordered to take his place at the end of the train.

“Don’t think I’ve a mind to,” he argued. “My Maddie don’t much like the dust and I don’t much like it either.”

“Nobody likes it, Littlepage,” Emerson said. “That’s why we rotate, and it’s your turn. So pull in behind the last wagon.”

“Don’t think I will, and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.”

There was something the wagon master could do. He pulled his long-barrel Colt and whacked Littlepage along side his head. Then he dumped his unconscious body in the wagon bed and told Madeline to get in line. She handled their six mules until her husband recovered his senses … until the next time.

At Cimarron Cutoff along the Arkansas River, Littlepage again argued, “Look. We take this’ere cutoff, and we save a couple hundred miles. We get to Santa Fe sooner, and I can get to Californee that much quicker.”

Emerson concurred. 

“Sure, Slim Jim,” he said. “That’s right. But we stay this course, and we have less chance encounterin’ Comanche. I don’t hanker doin’ business with’em … not if they come to trade, and certainly not if they come lookin’ for my scalp.”

“Them Comanche’re back east,” Littlepage argued.

“Them Comanche live in Palo Duro and that ain’t all that far back east,” the wagon master countered. “They get this way often enough. Besides, even if we don’t meet up with’em, we still have to deal with crossin’ the Llano, and there ain’t that much water out there. We’re goin’ on the Bent’s Fort.”

Littlepage continued to challenge the wagon master until they nearly came to blows again.

In his fit of anger, Littlepage said, “Then, you go on. Take the long way. Me and mine, we’re goin’ to take the cutoff.”

“Only a damn fool would do that … especially with a pregnant wife who’s as far along as she is,” Emerson charged. “There ain’t no protection goin’ single. You need the safety of the train if you’re goin’ to get there at all.”

Littlepage was not dissuaded. He pulled his wagon out of line, and he, Madeline, and the boys headed southwest.

Somewhere between the Cimarron and North Canadian rivers, trouble caught up with the Littlepages. They never saw nor heard the Comanche until the first war cry split the air, which was suddenly filled with the thunder of horses’ hooves. 

Littlepage stood up and shouted, “Indians!” He never had a chance. He leveled his rifle and got off but one shot before the arrows of three warriors pierced his chest.

In the clutch of a powerful man, Madeline watched as the warriors callously fired arrows at point-blank range into her twins. Then they scalped all three and threw their bodies over the wagon tongue, having already cut the mules loose as plunder. Madeline hadn’t been killed because of her red hair. The Comanche argued over who had the right to hang her scalp from their belt. Some of the braves believed her flaming locks, which they never saw among their own people, were magic. She had been spared … for the moment.

All day they drove her before them like a sheep to the slaughter. Every time she turned to look at her captors, she saw the scalps of her husband and sons hanging from the lances of the warriors who’d killed them and earned the right to their hair. And she wondered how long it would be before her hair would be hanging next to theirs.

That night, while the Comanche slept, Madeline found a piece of milky chalcedony. It had a sharp edge, and she hacked off her long tresses. When the warriors found her sheared, they were furious and slapped her nearly senseless, but they didn’t kill her. Instead, they divided her hair among themselves, hoping if it was magic they’d somehow benefit. Then they moved on toward their home.

When they camped that second day, the Comanche were busy talking around their campfire, bragging as they often did of their prowess as warriors. In the darkness, they didn’t see Madeline slip away, down the creek embankment. Scrub cedar and wild plum trees grew along the stream. She needed a place in which to hide until the Comanche, whom she knew would search for her, would give her up as unworthy of their time and effort, leave her, not caring whether she survived … or not. 

Among the trees she saw a hollow log and crept into it. At any moment, she was certain the Comanche would find her missing and come looking. If they found her, they’d kill her. With her hair sheared off, she was of no value to them. They’d only kept her alive and drove her toward their camp because they harbored thoughts of pleasuring themselves with her body.

The old log was rotting away. Wood ants stung her, and she feared being bit by more venomous insects or a snake. She was unbearably cramped. The insect bites burned and itched, but she lay as still as a corpse, miserable and terrified.

At dawn, she crawled out of her hidey-hole and found the Comanche gone. With her hair cut, she was of little value as a war trophy and not worth the effort to find. She gorged on the red plums and drank from the clear water of the creek. Not knowing what to do next, she feared heading east would bring her back to her captors. Instead, she headed west until she once again encountered the Cimarron Cutoff of Santa Fe Trail.

One night more she found shelter. This time under an overhanging bank of a little stream. She would have found some way to commit suicide that night, if the stirring of her unborn child had not reminded her she was soon to bring another baby into the world. Instead, at daybreak she trudged westward.

* * *

“And that’s where we found her,” Luther said. “We fed her and gave her some whiskey to try and calm her. But after being silent so long awhile, she just talked and talked and talked, like she couldn’t ever stop. Then, once she had told her story, she quit talkin’, and she ain’t said a word since, far as I know.”

“What about the baby?” I could not help asking.

“We was ten days from Fort Union, when she went into labor,” Luther continued. “And birthin’ a baby’s not much different than helpin’ a cow birth her calf. So we stopped awhile until the baby come. We cleaned up the little fella, wrapped him in an old shirt, and gave him to Madeline to nurse. She wasn’t much good at takin’ care of that baby at first, but she did what was needed.

“When we got to Santa Fe, she nodded thanks and disappeared. Haven’t heard nothin’ more about her ’til you come in here askin.”

“So what do we do now? Isn’t there anything we can do to help her?” I asked.

“Not us,” Albino said. “We leave mañana for Navajo country to trade.”

“Then,” I said with more bravado than I really felt, “I’ll do something.”

I went back to the bench where I’d seen Madeline, but she was gone. Inside the store, I introduced myself to John Curtin, the storekeeper, and asked if he knew about the woman who’d been out front of his store.

“We’ve seen her around from time to time,” Curtain said. “She walks kind of like she’s in a fog, carrying her son and a bundle I expect are diapers and things for the baby.”

“Did you ever know where she stayed? Where she ate? Or got food for her baby?”

“Nope,” the storekeeper said. “I expect she finds shelter in a shed or barn. Maybe she begs a meal here and there. No one seemed to pay her much attention. She’d be seen wandering around and then no one would see her for awhile. She was sort of like a cool breeze on a summer day, blowing by and then forgotten.”

“She was just outside this store a little while ago,” I said. “I tried to talk to her but she didn’t seem in her right mind. Not crazy raving, understand. Just … well … not conscious of what was going on around her.”

“That’s her,” Curtin said. “She came in here for the first time late today.”

I wanted to know what happened and asked. 

“She kept mumbling to herself,” Curtin continued. Me and Harriet, my missus, could hardly understand her. Then she pushed that child toward Harriet and whispered, ‘Take my baby.’ She mumbled something about she couldn’t keep it. That it would only be killed if she kept it. It was like the woman was possessed.

“Now all our children are grown, but Harriet could see her baby was hungry and didn’t look all that well.

“Mrs. Brewer was in the store at that time. She’s one of Harriet’s best friends. She’s younger and has a few youngsters of her own. Mrs. Brewer said she’d take the baby and told the woman … You called her Madeline? … Told Madeline she’d watch over the child until the woman got herself settled here.

“As soon as Mrs. Brewer had the baby in her arms, Madeline turned and fled out of my store. We fussed over the baby before we realized we knew nothing about the woman. Who she was. Where she was living. We went looking for her. But she was gone. We don’t know where, and no one else seems to either.”

* * *

That was nine months ago. The little boy, Madeline’s third son, has taken his first steps. I’ve seen him with Mrs. Brewer in the store. She called him Arthur and is as proud of the little tyke as if he were her own. They seem happy together and maybe that’s a good thing.

I have often wondered what happened to Madeline. Did she manage to heal her broken mind and deal with the brutal murders of all her kin, living out her life perhaps as another’s wife? Or was she drawn back along the Santa Fe Trail to the place where her beloved Slim Jim and her twins lay on the wide prairie, to bury them and, as she had her parents, to bed down beside them and die there from a broken heart?

This fictionalized story is based on an entry Marian Sloan Russell made in her memoir, Land of Enchantment: Memoirs of Marian Russell Along the Santa Fe Trail.