The story starts in early 1918 in the impoverished village of Chama, New Mexico. Chama is in the southern Rockies, north of Taos. Even today it is remote and many of its residents are Hispanics whose families moved there in the 1700s when it was still Mexico. Until lately, English was a second language around Chama, if you bothered to learn it at all. That’s where Ramon Martinez lived with his young wife and baby girl.
For some reason, and one suspects a signing bonus, Ramon agreed to fight the Germans on the other side of the ocean. He took a train to a camp in Oklahoma where he probably learned for the first time about machine guns, poison gas, artillery barrages, trench warfare, tanks, strafing, etc. (I doubt if his recruiter belabored these points.) Ramon thought better of his decision to enlist, left Oklahoma, returned to his wife and baby in Chama, was arrested and extradited back to Oklahoma, and told if he ran away again he would go to prison.
A few weeks later, Ramon’s father-in-law, Oscar Archuletta, who was tending sheep in the south La Sals, got a letter from Ramon. It told Oscar that Ramon was on the run and was coming to La Sal to hide out until things cooled off. Now, the plot thickens because Oscar didn’t know how to read.
Oscar took Ramon’s letter to the La Sal store where he learned of its contents. Unfortunately for Ramon (and for Rudolf Mellenthin) people at the store told the San Juan County Sheriff about the letter, too. Shortly after Ramon arrived in the La Sals, he and his father-in-law received a visitor at their sheep camp. The sheriff told Ramon he had to turn himself in, but Oscar, it is said, became belligerent, brandished a gun, and told the sheriff to get lost. The sheriff saw Oscar’s point and went back without Ramon.
Rudolf Mellenthin was the U.S. Forest Ranger for the district. As a federal agent he decided it was his duty to extend the long arm of the law into the La Sals and apprehend Ramon. One wonders if, as a German immigrant in wartime America, he felt this duty even more sharply, but we’ll never know.
Rudolf went to the camp with two bilingual “deputies” since, apparently, he had learned that neither Oscar nor Ramon was fluent in English. When the posse got to the camp, Rudolf repeated the government’s decree. Once again, the pronouncement met with belligerence. Rudolf insisted. Tempers flared. The two “deputies” getting the drift, turned and ran. As they ran, they reported hearing the gunfire that killed Rudolf Mellenthin.
The “deputies” said that, when they fled, Ramon was holding a pistol and faced Rudolf. Oscar, to Rudolf’s side, was holding a rifle. When the authorities arrived they found the dead ranger perforated by rifle rounds in his side. But Ramon, who had been holding a pistol, confessed to the killing.
Ramon and Oscar knew, no matter what, Ramon was going to jail as a deserter. And, if Oscar was arrested for killing Rudolf, who would take care of the wife and baby? While Ramon and Oscar waited for the law, they probably decided that Ramon would take the murder rap and Oscar would provide for his daughter and granddaughter. Once I puzzled out this story, I couldn’t help but admire Ramon who shouldered all of the blame and punishment to save his wife and child from utter destitution.
Ramon spent six years in a Utah prison. When he was released some people were upset by this relatively short tenure, but I was glad to hear of it. (Parenthetically, I privately think of that mountain as Mount Ramon, for the man who, after all was said and done, sacrificed himself for the sake of his family.)
—Rory Tyler lives in Castleton.