Across the Great Divide: The Story of Alick Ratliff

Pony near residence in Grants, NM c. 1915-1920, Palace of the Governors Archive.

The Spanish called it El Malpais, the badlands where the tranquil veneer of the earth’s crust peeled away and lava poured over 100,000 acres of this basin. The most recent lava flow was less than four thousand years ago. There may well have been people here who witnessed the apocolypse. These badlands cover a roughly triangular rorschach pattern south of the town of Grants, NM. Running alongside is The Narrows, a small strip of navigable land running between the Scylla of the El Malpais to the west, and the Charibdis of great sandstone bluffs abutting the east.

La Ventana Arch, above The Narrows, 2015, Creative Commons

In November 1919, Alick Ratliff was hired by rancher Verge V. Laughlin to help drive a herd of horses to the train depot in Grants, NM. Alick set off on the 100-mile journey that took him across the Great Continental Divide and through El Malpais via the Narrows. After arriving to his destination with the horses, Verge gave Alick an eighty-dollar check, and left him to make sure all the horses were loaded onto the box cars. Laughlin returned to his ranch near Quemado, and eventually to his home in Chaves County. Alick wasn’t known for drinking or playing cards, so staying in Grants had little appeal. On his way home, he planned to look around for stray cattle that might be surviving on El Malpais. He stopped at a general store before leaving Grants and cashed his check, and spent about one or two dollars on food and goods.

Grants, NM train station, 1915-1920, Palace of the Governors Archive

Alick was alone on his journey back to the ranch. The solitude of the badlands and the sandstone cliffs offered a welcoming quiet from the busy household nestled deep in the basin and range landscape of western New Mexico. As he traveled the Narrows, he would see occasional stone arches high on the cliffs above him, crowned with tall ponderosa pines. He perhaps saw Anasazi petroglyphs etched into the sandstone, the dry desert preserving their marks for a millenia. The first Europeans to pass through here were Spanish Conquistadors, looking for the legendary Seven Golden Cities of Cibola in the 1540s, now associated with Zuni Pueblo sixty miles north of the Ratliff homestead. In the first decades of the 20th century, the area was populated mostly by Hispanic and Anglo homesteaders like Alick and his family, with their rangeland bounded by the Acoma and Zuni reservations.

Petroglyphs near El Malpais, Bureau of Land Management

The evening before Alick left home to drive the horses to Grants, he and Eliza had another argument. They seemed more frequent since they settled their new homestead just three difficult years prior. At the peak of the argument, she yelled, “I wish I’d married George instead of you!” George was a fellow that she had met while she was working at the Salvation Army in Waco, Texas four years before she met Alick. She had enlisted in the missions organization at the age of nineteen, along with her sister Mary. The words must have haunted Alick as he rode the trail. He was a genuinely Christian man. Eliza wouldn’t have married him if he wasn’t. As the eldest of a preacher in a line of Baptist preachers, his faith seemed a part of his bones. He and the rest of the family never really doubted Eliza’s love and devotion to Alick. Even so, words like those at their parting stung like nothing else.

The wind through the piñon trees picked up. Alick pushed his horse onward as the storm rolled in. Prayers were certainly on his lips that he and his horse had the strength to make the climb home.

His parents called him Alick, and that’s how he signed his name. He was born in Missouri during the Civil War. His father, William, shows up on both Union and Confederate muster rolls, but he likely only participated in a Confederate outfit called Shanks Missouri Cavalry. The “Beauregard” in his name came from General P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate officer credited with starting the Civil War when he attacked Ft. Sumter. William likely participated in the First Battle of Newtonia in 1862. One of the few remembrances of him is how he was retreating on his horse back to the fort (just a barn, really) while being pursued by Indians during the battle. As he galloped toward safety, he spotted an injured fellow soldier on the ground. William dismounted, put the injured man on his horse, and hid in the vegetation from the Cherokee riders. Soon the cavalry arrived: a Confederate Choctaw mounted regiment helped reinforce their position, preventing his unit from being routed by the Unionist Cherokees. Meanwhile, six-month-old Alick and his mother, Mary, awaited word at their home in Butler, Missouri.

Choctaw men, c. 1865, Oklahoma Historical Society

The Ratliffs moved from Missouri to Texas when Alick was a teenager in the 1870s. First settling in Grayson County, north of Dallas, along the Red River. The Ratliffs later moved to Jack County in West Texas. The Salt Creek Massacre that took place not far from their new home was still a recent memory. On May 18, 1871, a wagon train was attacked by Kiowa 180 warriors under Satanta, last of the Kiowa war chiefs. Seven men from the wagon train were killed. The bodies of the dead were mutilated, and a muleskinner from the train was tortured to death with fire and had his tongue cut out.

Sketch made at the scene of the Salt Creek Massacre in 1871.

By 1875, the area was declared open and safe for the families of nascent ranchers, businessmen, and fiery Baptist preachers like William Ratliff.

As a young man, Alick had reddish-brown hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion that burned easily. He had a strong streak of resourcefulness, which as a teenager prompted him to acquire and fix up a couple of broken down wagons. He began hauling goods from location to location in the area around Jacksboro. Whenever he returned from a long trip, he always had a few gifts and treats for his younger siblings. When they saw his wagon rolling up, the littlest ones shouted “Ecce! Ecce!,” a toddler pronunciation of “Alick.” This morphed into “Achy,” and the nickname persisted, especially with the younger kids, even through their future generations.

Alick’s stories were legendary among the kids. He claimed he could ricochet a round off of a rock and hit an Indian hiding behind a hill with his lever-action Winchester. In one story, he told of being alone on the trail with his wagon full of goods. He detected that he was being followed. That night, he composed his bedroll to appear that he was asleep next to the fire, and he slept under the wagon. When the robbers moved in and shot the bedroll, he was able to dispatch them from a hillside above the campsite.

W.A. Ratliff’s homestead application, 1897, Kent County

Alick’s younger brother, Willis, and he became partners and friends. As early as 1893, they were buying and homesteading property in Kent County. Willis homesteaded 133 ⅓ acres along the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River not far from his older brother’s homestead. After a number of years trying their luck in Texas, they expanded their sights to Eastern New Mexico, not far from the old Goodnight-Loving cattle trail.

Alick had built his little ranch up so that he felt he was now ready to also have a wife and family to share it with. On a visit to Jacksboro, he met Eliza Anna Fridley who was living with her mother and step father on the ranch adjoining his parents’ land. He began to court her and she finally agreed to marry him. They were married on September 26, 1899 in Jacksboro. He was 37 years old and she was 23. After the wedding, she packed her belongings and he loaded them on his wagon. They returned to his ranch on the Double Mountain Fork about 170 miles west.

Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River, 2009, Creative Commons

Aside from feed for wintering his animals, The brothers and their families grew cotton, watermelons, and a few other vegetables for market. They drove their cotton wagon about 25 miles to Rotan to have it ginned and shipped. Alick and Willis paid for the removal of the seeds and to have the cotton pressed into bales. They kept the seeds to plant next year’s crop.

One time Alick had sold off 500 head of cattle. As soon as he received the cash, he put the money in the bank. Some of the “riff-raff” thought he would be foolish enough to keep the money on him. They came out to his ranch and stole his horses and fired many shots into the house. Allick hid under the bed, yelling through the walls’ thin wood that he was neither holding the cash, nor willing to come out.

Map of W.A. Ratliff properties near the Double Mountain Fork, 1898, Texas General Land Office
Maggie and WIllis Allen Ratliff

In August 1913, Alick and Willis were doing cowboy work in New Mexico when Willis became critically ill. They took him to the nearest hospital, St. Anthony’s in Amarillo, Texas – hundreds of miles away. Willis died of a liver abcess at St. Anthony’s on August 28, 1913. He left behind a wife, Maggie, and five children: Albert, Chester, Polly, Bill and Walter. Maggie, not being able to manage the affairs of her husband and the children by herself, moved to the home of her youngest brother, Andy Shipp in Kent County. A year later, guardianship of the three youngest children transferred to Alick and Eliza. As teenagers, the two older brothers, Albert and Chester, took up work as cowboys and pursued emancipation as legalized adults. Maggie became ill soon after her husband’s death. Family legend says an insect had crawled into her ear, and she was treated with a home cure of pouring in turpentine to remove the insect. On October 28,1917, she died at the Texas State Epileptic Colony in Abilene.

Entryway for a W.A. Ratliff descendent’s property near the Double Mountain Fork, 2014, Walter Ratliff

In the summer of 1914, Alick and his extended family of his wife, his own six children, along with his brother Willis’ children (Polly, Bill and Walter), moved to a small ranch near Elida, New Mexico that Alick had purchased. Elida is about 20-30 miles east of Portales. At Elida, they had wells and windmills on their 160 acres. All the children, with the exception of the two youngest ones, were enrolled in school. They stayed there for a little more than two years.

Learning of all the land being given over to homesteading in the Quemado area of New Mexico, the decision was made to move once again. In 1916, the United States Congress passed the Stock Raising Homestead Act. This act provided ranchers the ability to homestead a full section (640 acres) of land, rather than the smaller homestead allowances of 160 acres or less common in previous decades. Homesteaders could acquire title to a section of land by paying a filing fee of $34, living on the land for at least seven months a year for three years, building a “habitable” home, making $800 worth of improvements, and paying a “proving-up” fee of $34. The 1916 law also allowed the sale of mineral rights to be separated from surface rights.

In May 1917, the Ratliffs left Elida. (Alick had sold his farm in Kent County, but not Willis’). With more than five thousand dollars in his pocket, 143 head of cattle, 40 horses, three covered wagons, five children of his own and the three younger ones of his brother, they headed west. Eliza’s half-brother, George Buckner, and his new bride, Mary Jane, were also part of the group. Willis’ two older boys, Albert, 19, and Chester, 15 stayed in Texas with their Mother’s brother, Andy, who helped them find work.

Alick drove one wagon (the “calf’ wagon, since the calves would never be able to keep up with the herd). Eliza drove another and Mary Jane drove the third. George and the older children were on horseback, driving the cattle and horses. They arrived in Quemado, New Mexico in September of 1917, and homesteaded one and one half sections of land (960 Acres), just north of Horse Camp Canyon on NM Highway 36, between Quemado and Fence Lake. Alick homesteaded one section and another half-section homestead (320 acres) was in Eliza’s name.

It took them four months to travel from Elida to Quemado. During the move, there was not much water, so they collected it when and where they could. After they left the fertile Pecos valley there was simply no water to be had. On the high plains of New Mexico east of Mountainair, Alick’s oldest son, David, found a Hispanic rancher’s water tank with a fence around it. David took his catch rope and pulled the fence down to allow the livestock to drink from the tank.

Before New Mexico became a state, and after the open range gave way to barbed wire, the territorial assembly reaffirmed the traditional right of travelers to free access to natural waters for themselves and their animals. However, people traveling with migrating herds or large numbers of animals had to obtain permission from the owner of any natural spring or lake, and were required to pay for any damage to fields or private property.

The angry Hispanic rancher went to the town of Belen and had the sheriff arrest David. He was put in jail and soon had a judge trial. David pleaded guilty and the judge sentenced him to a fine of $50 or 50 days in jail. Upon hearing this, Alick stood up, approached the bench, and said,

“Judge, I’m a poor man. Will a dollar do?”

The judge replied, “Give me five dollars and get the hell out of here!”

Alick had never been to the Quemado (literally “burned”) area, so when he and his band of kin arrived at their homestead, he was in for a rude awakening. They tried to remain optimistic, but it was apparent that there was no way they could farm this desolation.

In spite of what they may have been told, this was not farm land, and at first glance it was not fit for man nor beast. There not only was no grass for their cattle and horses, but worse still there was no water. They had to drive their cattle to a lake for water. There were “Cattle Barons” in the area that did not want the land divided up and fenced, so they did not make the Ratliff group welcome. In terms of raising cattle, it seemed like it would take acres upon acres to feed one cow.

The people who hired out to drill wells always acted too busy to drill a well for Alick. So, in desperation, he bought the company and hired a man to drill his well. Alick “witched” for the water and they hit water the first try. That first winter, they lived in their wagons and tents.

Mary Jane Buckner, Eliza’s sister-in-law, was noted as one tough sixteen year old girl whose first child was due that winter. One morning that first December, Mary Jane began experiencing labor pains. When she advised the group that she thought the baby would be born immanently, she was humored and ignored. As everyone went their separate ways, Mary Jane was promised that a midwife would be notified to come to check her out. They left twelve-year-old Polly Ratliff with her to assist. The midwife did not make an appearance, and so it was that Polly helped deliver the baby. They stacked tumbleweeds on one side of the wagon to block the wind from howling through as Mary Jane gave birth. Here in this barren land Mary Jane delivered a little girl, Sally Elizabeth Buckner. The Buckners eventually moved to Oregon, and Sally lived until 2015, passing away at the age of 97.

The winter was bitter and the cattle were dying from the cold and lack of food. Alick’s money was almost depleted by the time spring arrived. It had cost him dearly to get water for his livestock, and feed was expensive (it had to be shipped in). He had only been able to save about forty cows, about a quarter of the herd. He tried to persuade his wife to sell their land and move to Arizona where the whole family could raise cotton. Eliza emphatically said was not about to give up all of her land, as part of the homestead was in her name! He retorted that she would have her land, but she wouldn’t have him. He said it was too cold and difficult for them to survive there.

Around the winter of 1918. A Hispanic rancher was willing to trade his 300-400 head of Angora–Spanish mix goats for Alick’s cattle. The idea was to shear the goats like sheep and sell the mohair, which normally brought a good price. Apparently the goats made it fine through that first winter, but not without his youngest nephew, Walter, suffering a lifelong injury.

USDA promotion of Angora goats “especially adapted to the Southwest,” 1914

During the winter, the goats’ long hair had a tendency to freeze to the ground. Walter’s job was to go around picking them up periodically during the night to prevent this. While taking care of the goats he did not have any decent shoes to wear. He later told the story of how his toes got so cold from walking around in the snow that he could stick a pin in his big toe and water would run out after they warmed up again. One night, Walter fell into a campfire and burned his left hand very badly. There was no medication or medical attention available, so they wrapped his hand in a rag, and left it there until his little and ring finger grew to the palm of his hand.

Now in November 1919, winter was coming to western New Mexico early. The eighty dollars Alick received for driving the horses to Grants would help buy feed and supplies to help the family make it through. As Alick pushed on through the Narrows, the weather was getting worse. He was past the point of finding shelter among the sandstone bluffs. As temperatures dropped, so did Alick’s hope of making it home. His horse continued on even as Alick’s hands froze and his body stiffened in the saddle.

Snow on El Malpais, 2010, Bureau of Land Management

At a small ranch near Lobo Canyon, the Garcia family was staying warm in their home built from the abundant sandstones. They noticed that a horse wandered onto their property. Alick’s mounted figure seemed like an apparition through the blowing snowstorm. They brought Alick, clad in the white snow, into their home to see what they could do. But it was too late, Alick had already crossed the Great Divide.

The Ratliff family guessed what had happened to their patriarch when he did not come home the next day, or that day after that. Eliza refused to let her sons go out to look for him, risking their own lives now that winter had come early and hard. The following February or March, Alick’s eldest son, David, told his mother that he was going to go look for his father. David loved his father deeply and wanted to know his fate with certainty. Eliza went with David in a wagon on his search. They stopped at the Garcia ranch to buy some grain for their horses, and there they learned of Alick’s death, and they visited his grave on the Garcia ranch.

“Heaven is Waiting” written by Rich Mullins, bears the sentiment of Alick Ratliff’s last ride.

Willis’ nine-year-old son, Bill, had gone to work for a lumber company in the White Mountains near Springerville, Arizona, the summer before Alick made the fateful trip into Grants. Polly, 15, and little Walter, age eight were the only remaining children of Alick’s brother WIllis that were still at the Ratliff ranch when Willis’ oldest boys, Albert and Chess, came for them in the Spring of 1920. Walter later recalled, when tragedy struck his own household, that he had missed his brother Bill terribly at the time, and he didn’t even immediately recognize his older brothers when they arrived at the ranch. Because of this, he vowed that he would never let his own family become separated.

David took over as head of the family and through many ingenious ideas over the next few years was able to make sure the family survived. They remained in New Mexico until David died of a heart attack in 1925. By 1930, Eliza and the rest of the family had relocated to California. Years later, Ralph, who had become a bricklayer and stone mason, fashioned a stone for David’s grave.

After Alick’s youngest, Mary, moved back to the town of Quemado, she did not cease until she was assured that she had found the grave of her beloved Father. Mary was very good with building in both wood and stone. She made a huge, beautiful marker of concrete for her Father’s grave, embedding it with many beautiful stones, and had a ceremony when she placed it on Alick’s grave. Mary had accomplished her “mission in life.”

Half-dugout similar to the one the Ratliffs lived in near Quemado, Library of Congress