Opinion » Maxed Out

Murder scene campsite: a Halloween tradition

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It was a dark and stormy night.

Actually, it was a dark and crystal clear night. The moon was new, the sky pitch black, the Milky Way damn near blinding with what seemed like all the stars in the universe littered across the sky like powdered milk spilled out onto black formica.

At 2,743 metres above sea level, the air was crisp, bone chilling and thin, a combination that made the stars dance more, shine brighter and twinkle like Christmas lights. But Christmas was still two months away. This was Halloween and the second best night of the year to be deep in the wilderness of northern New Mexico with a roaring bonfire, a bottle of mescal and all the ghost stories we could remember.

A small group of old friends always tried to be there at Halloween, there being Rancho Nortundo. Nortundo's was the sprawling ruin of what was once a proud homestead, a tourist ranch, the focus of greed and political corruption, the scene of one of New Mexico's most grisly mass murders, and for the past several years, our Halloween retreat.

Twenty four kilometres as the crow flies from Pueblo Chimayo, in the morning shadows of the Truchas Peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, in a broad, meandering valley of the Rio Medio, Nortundo's found us one drizzly, overcast day several years earlier.

We'd been hiking, climbing and, for the last few hours, watching thunderheads develop from the 3,962-metre vantage point of East Truchas peak. With the whole of the Rio Medio's watershed visible below us, we envisioned a slam dunk bushwhacking route back to the trailhead, a route maybe only a third as far as taking the trail back. The approaching storm pressed the urgency of egress while, at the same time, short-circuiting our better judgment.

Anyway, you know the outcome. Rule No. 1: no shortcuts. Nortundo's found us several hours later... We had no idea where we were.

But whatever had found us was an intriguing place. A large, manor house built from arrow-straight Ponderosa pine logs was composting back into the earth near the edge of a clearing made in the forest. There was no glass in what had once been windows and half the roof was either strewn about the floor of the large main room or simply missing. A river rock fireplace still stood in the room's dominant place.

Surrounding the lodge were half a dozen smaller, adobe buildings, a firepit with the broken remnants of a very large spit with a cottonwood stump chopping block nearby. The largest of the buildings had clearly been a stable and tack shed, the others, perhaps living quarters; it was hard to tell in their advanced state of neglect.

We stayed the night, enjoying a raging fire in the massive fireplace and wondering what the devil we'd stumbled upon. Next day, we hiked to a small pueblo and bought a ride from a young Chicano named Jesus back the 80 km by rough dirt road to where we'd left our car. On the ride there, Jesus told us a bit about where we'd been.

Nortundo's story was a common one in northern New Mexico, albeit with an uncommon ending. In the years before the Second World War, outside interests—Anglo interests—squeezed land from the grip of Chicano subsistence farmers who traced their ownership back to the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

A Texas cattle rancher named Dumont was apparently smitten by Nortundo's spread, some 65 hectares of wilderness 16 km from the nearest dirt road, accessible only by pack horse, with no redeeming features except its remote beauty, the trout in the Rio Medio and the good hunting for big game seeking the shelter of the valley each autumn. As was not unknown, Dumont ended up owning Nortundo's land for rigged, unpaid taxes and a sizable bribe to the County Commissioner, consisting of several hundred dollars and a new De Soto coupe.

Dumont built the large house and most of the out buildings and retained Nortundo as a caretaker. He ran a few cattle on the land but mostly operated it as an idyllic retreat for stressed-out wealthy Texans in need of some huntin' and fishin'.

A well-known feature at Dumont's were annual elk hunts. After successful hunts, Nortundo would spend hours turning the large spit outside the main house, a haunch of elk barbecuing slowly over mesquite embers.

Dumont's shut down during the war and Nortundo had the land pretty much to himself again. But with peace and prosperity Dumont came back. Nortundo couldn't stand it. The intervening years had rekindled his longing for his land.

Three years after the war, near Halloween, Nortundo snapped. In the archives of the Santa Fe Times, a series of macabre stories explain what happened next. In a blood rage, Nortundo grabbed an axe and systematically slaughtered seven guests unlucky enough to be staying at Dumont's that weekend.

Dumont himself—or what was left of him—was found beheaded, roasted and partially eaten, still on the spit Nortundo had spent so many hours turning for the guests' table. Nortundo was never seen again.

Since Nortundo's was damn near impossible to find and still abandoned, we decided it would be our spot for annual Halloween camping trips. We'd light up the big fireplace, drink ourselves insensate and tell each other ghost stories.

This particular year, in the middle of a compelling story, we heard a THWACK. We all froze, straining our ears in the silence. Nothing.

A moment later, THWACK again. The sound wasn't a hallucination and was unmistakable—an axe chopping wood.

Grabbing lights, we ran outside. No one there but freshly split wood around the great cottonwood stump.

Back inside, we stoked the fire, hoping light and heat would calm us.

THWACK. Shining a light outside, we thought we saw a dim figure, a man raising an axe high.

THWACK. It was gone.

Then, nothing. We debated; stay or leave. We stared at the fire for enlightenment.

Suddenly outside, WHOOSH. A great, bright ball of fire erupted. We screamed, scrambled, grabbed our buck knives and ran outside.

We were greeted with a roaring fire burning in the pit below the spit. A fire large enough to roast a man-size side of meat.

Before any of us could say, "Maybe we'd better get outta here," a blood-curdling cry, a banshee-like scream came from the dark corner of the building behind us and we could hear footsteps running our direction. We pivoted, knives in hand, only to see our missing friend running at us, axe raised, half-screaming, half-laughing.

"Sorry I'm late guys. Did I miss anything?" he said, just before we killed him.

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