How Colonel Kate Won Her Spurs

by Florence Finch Kelly

Mrs. Harrison Winthrop Coolidge had long been the recognized leader of Santa Fé society. Her husband, who had twice been Governor of New Mexico (this was long before the Territory had put on the garment of Statehood), was the best known and most esteemed man in the Southwest. He was rich, energetic, capable, and popular, and he came of the family of the Massachusetts Coolidges; while his wife, who was just as capable and as popular as he, sprang from the Adams family of the same State. But, notwithstanding all this, to the Unassorted of Santa Fé society she was always "Colonel Kate"; and the Select themselves, in moments of sprightly intimacy, would sometimes refer to her or even address her by that sobriquet.

The occasional new resident and the frequent health-seeker were sure to hear of Colonel Kate before they had spent more than a day or two in the ancient city; and if they had come from the strait-laced East they were likely to be much scandalized when they learned the identity of the lady spoken of thus disrespectfully, and would at once want to know how and why such things could be. Then they would be told that the shocking appellation was only a good-natured and admiring recognition of Mrs. Coolidge's general efficiency. For it was the universal opinion in Santa Fé that Colonel Kate would always accomplish whatever she started out to do, and that nobody ever could guess what she would start out to do next.

All this was quite true, but it was also true that the Governor's wife had won her military title by the especial daring and efficiency which she had once displayed on a particular occasion. The facts in the case are known only to some three or four people who have always kept them very quiet. It happened, however, when I asked for information about Mrs. Coolidge's nickname, that the man with whom I was talking was the very one who had first bestowed it upon her, and he told me the secret truth about it. Mrs. Coolidge had no stancher friend than he, nor any who regarded her with greater respect and admiration, but he rarely spoke of her or addressed her by any other name than "Colonel Kate."

It all happened a good many years ago, when Harrison Winthrop Coolidge, then a comparatively young man and newly married, had just come out from Massachusetts to be Governor of New Mexico. His wife was a young woman of tall and shapely figure, handsome face, and striking presence, and possessed of such vivacity, vigor, health, and strength as few women enjoy. Her superabundant vitality found many emergencies upon which to expend itself, but the man who told me this story declared that she never found one that was too big for her. She probably never found a bigger or more important one than that which she faced on the night when she won her spurs. Governor and Mrs. Coolidge reached New Mexico in the days of the first coming of the railroad, when the sleepy old Territory woke to a brief season of active and hilarious life. And the Governor, fresh from New England reverence for law and legal forms and accepted methods, was inexpressibly shocked by the low opinion in which such things were held in his new bailiwick. Especially was he horrified by the frequent and brief proceedings which left men who had been too free with their guns or with other people's property hanging from trees, projecting beams, and other convenient places. The usual rough justice of the affair did not, in his eyes, mitigate the offensiveness of its irregularity.

The Santa Fé Bugle at once interviewed him about his plans and intentions, and Governor Coolidge talked very strongly on the subject of lynch law. He said that it was entirely wrong, unworthy even of barbarians, and was not to be endorsed or palliated in either principle or practice. He deplored the frequency of its operations in New Mexico, and emphatically declared his intention of stamping it out.

And he took that opportunity to announce that all persons connected with lynching affairs would be treated as murderers or accessories to murder.

The editor of The Bugle, which was the organ of the opposition, published every word the Governor said, and then gleefully waited for something to happen. He did not know what it would be, but he was perfectly sure there would be something, and that it would be interesting.

On the night after the interview was published Mrs. Coolidge awoke, possessed by an uneasy feeling that something unusual was taking place. They were living then in the ancient adobe "Governor's palace," with its four-foot walls and its eventful history ante-dating the landing at Plymouth Rock, and for a half-waking instant she wondered if some unshriven victim of century-gone enmity and revenge still walked those old halls or sought its mortal habiliments among the rotting bones in the placita. She listened and heard whispering voices and cautious movements in the portal that fronted the entire length of the building. Then she arose, wrapped a long, dark cloak about her, and peeped out of the window. Directly in front of their bedroom, in the portal, were three or four men who bore among them some long and heavy burden. She drew her dark hair across her face, that there might be no white gleam to attract their attention, and crouched beside the window to watch.

One of the men, who was apparently a leader, mounted the shoulders of two others and seemed to be feeling for something in the wall above the window. The dim rays of an old moon, which showed that the time must be near morning, did not afford as much light as he needed, and he fumbled for some time before he found the hook in the wall for which he was looking. Over it he passed the end of a rope and then jumped to the ground. They pulled together on the rope, and the long, dark burden, which had been left lying on the ground, was drawn upward until it hung in front of the window beside which Mrs. Coolidge was watching, and she saw that it was a human body. Then they fastened the rope to one of the iron bars across the window and stood for a few moments looking at the swaying body and chuckling together. The one who seemed to be the leader rolled a cigarette and lighted it, and by the glare of the match she recognized him. He was a man of prominence in Santa Fé and the leader of the opposing party, not only locally but for the whole Territory as well.

Mrs. Coolidge's first impulse was to awaken her husband, but a swift intuition warned her that that would not be wise. So she controlled her horror and indignation, and, as she stared at the poor, lifeless thing swaying outside, she did some very rapid thinking. She understood that there had been a lynching and that the corpse had been brought there and hung in front of her husband's bedroom window, where his first waking glance would fall upon it, as a sign of how public opinion regarded his ideas and intentions on the subject of lynch law. She saw that it was intended as a warning and a contemptuous defiance, and her spirit rose high in righteous wrath. She knew well that this event presaged for the Governor trouble and humiliation, and probably, if a conflict were precipitated at once, an early defeat, and she quickly decided that he must not see the body or know what had happened. But what could she do with it?

Then an idea occurred to her and she smiled and said to herself that it was impossible. But it seemed such a good idea, and it pleased her so much, that she kept on thinking about it. Presently she assured herself that her husband was still sleeping quietly; then she put on some clothes, and, laughing softly, went out on the portal.

The man who had been the leader in the affair that night, and whom Mrs. Coolidge had recognized, was awakened early the next morning by the sound of voices in front of his house. It was barely dawn, but already a little group of Mexicans were staring at his door and talking with much excitement. Wondering what it could mean he hastily dressed himself and went out. As he opened the front door he ran into the body of the man, swinging above his own threshold, which he had left a few hours before hanging at the Governor's window.

"My jaw dropped and I shut the door mighty quick, when I saw that," he told me, with a reminiscent, amused chuckle at himself. "I knew in a second that the Governor was onto us, that he must have seen us in front of his window, and that it was up to me to do some lively pullin' of freight. As a matter of fact, I had n't had anything to do with the lynching. That had been done by some cowboys who were in town the day before, and the fellow they 'd done for was an ornery cuss of a half-breed Mexican, who was a whole lot better off dead than alive, anyway. He tried to play some low-down game on 'em at poker, and they just strung him up and rode off. Some of our fellows heard about it, and three or four of us decided it would be a good thing to let Coolidge know what our sentiments were.

"We were in dead earnest, and we meant to get his political scalp and drive him out of the Territory with his tail between his hind legs, before he knew what had happened to him. I won't say," and the man grinned and his eyes twinkled, "I was n't expecting to be appointed Governor myself afterwards. Anyway, I did n't care to be roped into a trial for murder just then. It would have interfered with my plans. And if the Governor had seen us apparently lynching a man right under his eyes, he could cinch us if he wanted to.

"I called the Mexicans up to the door, told them I didn't know how the body got there (I didn't, either), but it must have been put there by some of my enemies. Then I gave them money to take charge of it, say the dead man was a friend of theirs, and do the proper thing. So the poor cuss was in luck by the affair after all, for he got a mass said over him. Then I sent word to my friends who 'd been with me, and we all just quietly skipped, on the minute. At sun-up that morning there was n't one of us in town. I had urgent business in Texas for the next week.

"You see, we 'd all of us thought our new Governor was just a highfalutin' tenderfoot, and it would n't be any job at all to buffalo him. But this move of his gave us a suspicion that maybe we 'd sized him up wrong. It was just the kind of quiet warning that we 'd be likely to give if we had cards up our sleeve that the other fellow did n't know about. It looked as if he really could and would strike back good and plenty if we pushed him too hard. So we sent word to our crowd all over the Territory to keep quiet a while. And let me tell you, life in New Mexico was not nearly so exciting for the next few weeks as some of us had planned it should be.

"Still, I was n't quite satisfied about it. Somehow, the Governor did n't seem to pan out to be just the kind of man who would give that kind of a jolt to his enemies. He was too Eastern. I was still chawin' it over in my mind, when one day I met Mrs. Coolidge, two or three weeks after it happened and the first time I 'd seen her since. She was lively and cordial, as she always was, and is; but as I shook hands with her and looked her in the eyes she suddenly dropped her eyelids, and a queer expression crossed her face. She had hold of herself again in a second and was looking at me and smiling and talking. But that second was enough. It flashed into my mind that she was the one who 'd done it. I reckon I would n't have dared to bone her about it if I 'd waited two minutes. But the impulse took me, and I just asked her bluntly right then and there if it was she who had transferred that Greaser from her husband's window to my door.

"She threw up her head and looked me square in the eyes—you know that straight, frank gaze she has—frowned a little and said, 'Yes, I did it. I thought your doorway was the rightful place for that corpse to be found in.'

"Well, the joke of it and the pluck of her just struck me right where I lived, and I fairly roared. 'Put it there, Mrs. Coolidge,' I said, and stuck out my hand, as soon as I could speak. 'You 're a regular captain! No, you 're bigger than that—you 're a colonel! Shake, and let's be friends!'

"Well, I just thought it would be a shame to drive a woman with as much pluck and sabe as that back East to live. So I passed the word down the line in our party that we 'd give the Governor a show—let him have fair play anyhow, and, if he could make good, all right, the pot should be his. I was so tickled by Mrs. Coolidge's trick and the way she won out on it that I never called her anything but 'Colonel' after that, and, somehow, the title stuck. Anyway, she deserves it."

For a long time after this affair, so I learned from Mrs. Coolidge when I asked her about the story her friend had told me, the Governor thought it was that interview and the stern spirit he displayed in it that had made the change in the opposition's attitude toward him and had seemed to affect the feeling of the whole Territory. For his official path became unexpectedly easy. There were few attempts to balk him in his administration of affairs and there was a general manifestation of tolerance, and even of willingness to see how his ideas would work out.

But the time came when, understanding better the people with whom he had to deal, he knew that that interview ought to have had just the opposite result. One day he said to his wife how surprising it was that it had not landed him in the hottest of hot water, and how puzzled he was to account for what seemed to have been its effect. Then she confessed to him what had happened on that crucial night, how she had taken the body away and hung it in front of the other house, and what she partly knew and partly guessed about the results of the affair. At once he realized that her instant and audacious retaliation was what had made possible his success and his growing popularity. Nevertheless, he was shocked at first, for New England was still but a little way behind him. But amusement soon overcame every other feeling, and he laughed heartily in admiration of her daring, just as his opponent had done. After that, he seemed to take particular pride in her sobriquet, and himself often called her "Colonel Kate."