All Trails Lead to Calvera
Maximo Chato was only three years old when his parents emigrated from Calabria, Italy in 1850. His family was one of 431 Italians that entered the United States that year. Maximo changed his named to Max and assimilated into the American culture. In 1862 when he turned sixteen years old, Max joined the United States Marine Corps and served in the Civil War. He fought in major land battles at First Bull Run, Fort Wagner, Tulifinny Crossroads and Fort Fisher. Max Chato also served aboard Admiral Farragut’s flagship, USS Hartford and received a commendation for his actions in the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864. Admiral Farragut said, “Corporal Chato fought with gun, skill and courage throughout the furious two-hour battle.”
After General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, Max left the Marine Corps and headed west. He worked as a deputy sheriff in Dodge City, Kansas for three years before being hired as a U.S. Marshal when Americans started settling on government lands in the Indian Territory (which is now Oklahoma) under the Homestead Act. The people referred to themselves as ‘Boomers’. It was a rough and brutal time with ruthless outlaws prowling the prairies and Max Chato came up against the worst of them.
Max’s next stop was the Texas Rangers where he worked with William ‘Bigfoot’ Wallace, Jesse Lee Hall and John B. Jones fighting Comanches, outlaws and Mexican bandits along the Rio Grande. While in Texas, Max crossed paths with Josh Tanner, famous bounty hunter and they decided to team up. Over the next few years, they tracked down a long list of outlaws that included; Deacon ‘Killer’ Miller, John Selman, Emmanuel Clements, Cherokee Bill and Zip Wyatt. Their greatest challenge came when they were asked to bring in Dan’Holiday’ Hammond, a former Confederate major who recruited deserters and ex-military men to form his gang of rustlers and marauders. Ranchers and townspeople offered Max and Josh twenty thousand dollars to bring in Hammond dead or alive.
Cattleman Association President Matthew Brady said, “Ten thousand now and ten thousand when the job is done.”
Max said, “We never take money before the job is done. If we fail then we’ll probably be dead and you’ll need the money to pay someone else. We’ll collect later.”
It was not that difficult to find Hammond who spent most of his time in Del Rio, Texas. He liked being close to the border just in case a posse came looking for him and needed to escape in a hurry. Many of his men lived in Acuna, Mexico which was only six miles away and Hammond made sure that he had lookouts situated along the trails to warn him of intruders. He prepared for a large force, but never expected that only two men would be crazy enough to enter his armed sanctuary.
Max and Josh had two pack horses with them and as they got closer to town and rounded a bend in the trail a man stepped out from behind a rock, pointed a shotgun and demanded, “Where you headed?”
Josh replied, “Lookin’ to join up with Hammond.”
Another man called out from an elevated position, “Where you coming up?”
“Indian Territory,” Max answered.
The man with the shotgun said, “I’ll take them in, you stay here.”
The other man nodded, “Yup.”
The first thing that Max noticed was how many men Hammond had under his command. The two bounty hunters were outnumbered 20 to 1 and getting Hammond out of there would be no easy task. Max and Josh were taken to the White Horse Saloon where Dan Hammond was playing poker. He looked the two men up and down, “So you want to join up?”
“That’s what we’re here for,” Josh replied.
“I need men that can shoot and fight,” Hammond grinned.
“We’re not here for a church social,” Max said.
“I had two men come in yesterday and they want to join up just like you.”
Two hard looking pistoleros (gunfighters) were waiting in the street for Max and Josh to appear. Hammond called out to the crowd of onlookers, “Whoever is still standing when this is over is welcome!”
Max and Josh walked into the dirt street and faced off against the two men. They were twenty feet away from each other when one of gunfighters reached for his handgun. He was shot dead before he cleared leather as Max and Josh drew first and fired simultaneously and hit him in the chest. The second gunfighter knew he had no chance so he turned to run away, but only got a few steps before Hammond shot him in the back, then turned to Max and Josh, “Retreat was not an option.”
Max and Josh didn’t have long to wait before the Hammond Gang went out on their next raid. Their target was the bank in San Antonio, a distance of 156 miles from Del Rio. Max and Josh decided to make their play in Castroville, 26 miles from their target. When the gang of 25 men bedded down for the night, Josh sneaked out in the darkness and opened fire to cause a distraction. In the commotion, Max knocked out Dan Hammond, tied him to a horse and rode out. He met up with Josh at daylight and they headed to Austin, Texas to collect their reward, with the Hammond Gang on their trail. It was 235 miles and there was no way that they were going to outrun them so they set up an ambush. Max and Josh hid their horses and took out their model 1873 Winchester rifles.
“Leave me here and make a run for it. My men are coming and when they catch you, there won’t be enough of you left to feed the vultures,” Hammond warned.
Josh gagged Hammond and dragged him into the rocks and the three men waited for their pursuers. When Max saw them approaching, he turned to Hammond, “Let’s see how much your men really like you.”
Max and Josh opened fire from their elevated position and kept shooting until they had killed twelve men. The others lost their taste for a gunfight and hastily retreated. Josh tapped Hammond on the shoulder, “I guess they don’t like you that much.”
They were twenty miles outside Austin and Josh was riding in front, Hammond was in the middle and Max was in the rear. There was a rattlesnake on the trail and it spooked Josh’s horse and it threw him. He landed on a rock and it broke his back, paralyzing him. To make matters worse, the snake slithered over and bit Josh on the arm before Max shot it.
“I can’t move my legs,” Josh grimaced as Max knelt next to him.
Max knew the seriousness of the situation, but said nothing.
“Your pardner is a dead man,” Hammond laughed.
Max walked over, pulled Hammond off his horse and knocked him out with a crushing right hand to the jaw.
“This is the end of the trail for me,” Josh whispered as he struggled to breathe, “You need to finish me.” When Max turned away, Josh added, “I’d do the same for you.”
Max pulled out his Colt .45 Peacemaker and placed the barrel against his friend’s heart and pulled the trigger, “Vaya con Dios, my friend.”
Max turned Hammond over to the cattlemen and headed to California with his reward money. He never thought that he would settle down, but when he saw the San Luis Rey Valley located just east of Oceanside, he felt that this could be the place that he could call home. He bought two thousand acres, hired a dozen Indian and Mexican workers to help him plant crops and take care of his cattle and sheep herds. He built an adobe brick house on Moonbuck Mesa that offered a panoramic view of the valley to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The daughter of one of his Pauma Indian workers was a beautiful young girl named Betty Fire Thunder. Max felt an immediate and powerful attraction to her and even though he had faced some of the toughest men in the west and never took a backward step, his legs felt weak, his mouth was dry and he was extremely nervous whenever he was around the Indian maiden.
Betty Fire Thunder must have felt the same way because she approached Max one day, “I’m a good cook and can take care of your house and it looks like you need someone.”
What could a dumbfounded Max say except, “Yup.”
Over the next few weeks, Max found every excuse to come back to his home during a normal work day just to see Betty going about her chores. Before long nature took its course and the wandering warrior and the beautiful young girl professed their love for each other.
Three months later, Max and Betty were married at the San Luis Rey Mission and things couldn’t have been better. The ranch was prosperous and Max was a well- respected member of the community. He treated his workers like family and most of them had small homes on the Chato Ranch, but there was a storm brewing on the horizon and it would change everything for Max and Betty.
“I’m going to look at some horses in the Santa Maria Valley. I’ll be back in two days,” Max said as he saddled up his favorite mount, a black stallion named Thunder, kissed Betty and mounted up.
“Stay safe my love,” Betty said.
Max was only gone one day when Chico Calvera and his band of thirty bandits showed up in Oceanside and raided the ranches and farms in the area, taking valuables and killing anyone who resisted them. When they came onto Chato Ranch, they killed four workers and wounded three more. When Calvera saw Betty, he had to have her so he called to his men, “Take her.”
Betty fought with all her strength, but she was no match for several men. She was tied to a horse and the marauders took their wagonloads of loot and hostages and headed back across the border to their hideout in Mexico.
When Max returned from his horse buying trip, he instinctively sensed that something was wrong. He raced up to the house where he was met by Johnny Fire Thunder, Betty’s younger brother, “We were raided.”
“How many men did we lose?” Max asked.
“Three…and my father,” Johnny said softly.
“Where’s Betty?” Max asked.
“They took her,” Johnny answered.
A flood of emotions overwhelmed Max; fear, anger, sadness and even helplessness. “Who?”
“Calvera and his men,” Johnny answered.
“They hit us yesterday morning. I would have come looking for you, but didn’t know where you went,” Johnny explained.
“They’ve got a day’s headstart, saddle me up a fresh horse, I’m leaving right away,” Max said.
“I’m going with you,” Johnny stated without hesitation.
“I aim to do a lot of killing,” Max’s voice was cold and determined, “You’re a good man, Johnny and what I ‘m going to do changes a man forever…and not for the better. I don’t want that to happen to you.”
“Calvera killed my father and took my sister, I’m already changed,” Johnny admitted then added, “The fresh horses are ready to go.”
Max made sure that he had plenty of ammunition for his pistols and rifle and Johnny already had one hundred arrows in his quiver. The two men headed south and Calvera’s trail was easy to follow for he left death and destruction in his wake. Max and Johnny set up camp by a stream even though Johnny was opposed to it, “We need to ride through the night if we’re going to catch up to them.”
“The horses are tired, besides if one of them steps in a hole in the dark, we’ll be in a heap of trouble. Eat something, get some rest and we’ll leave at sunrise,” Max advised.
“For a man that claims to love my sister, you don’t seem to be in too big a hurry to find her,” Johnny retorted.
Max knew that Johnny was dealing with grief and rage so he didn’t push the issue, “I reckon that you can believe what you want.”
Max and Johnny were sitting next to the campfire when they heard a noise in the distance. Both men stepped away from the light with their weapons at the ready. A voice called out, “Alright to come in?”
“Ride in,” Max answered.
Four hard looking men rode in on horses that were completely exhausted and bleeding from spurs being dug into them. These men were either in a big hurry to get somewhere or get away from somewhere, in either case, Max didn’t like or trust the men.
One of the men stepped down from his horse, “Name is Ike, you don’t mind if we share your campsite?” It was more of a statement than a request.
A second man dismounted and walked over to Johnny, “I don’t like Indians,” then spit on the ground.
The other two men were looking at the fresh horses of Max and Johnny and smiled at each other.
In the middle of the night, the four men walked over to Max and Johnny’s bedrolls and fired several bullets into each one. Ike pulled the blankets back to see bullet riddled bodies, but instead saw brush and grass. Max was positioned behind the men and stepped out of the darkness, “Never trust a man who mistreats a horse.”
The four men slowly turned around and decided to make their play. Johnny fired an arrow and it impaled one man’s hand to his leg, the second arrow went deep into his chest. Max shot the second man in the forehead. Johnny fired again and this arrow went through the third man’s throat, leaving Ike as the only man still standing.
Ike pleaded, “It was their idea, not mine.”
Max holstered his Peacemaker, but Ike couldn’t resist the temptation and quickly raised his weapon, but he was not quick enough, Max had his other Colt hidden behind him and he fired all six shots into Ike. “Like I said, never trust a man who mistreats a horse.”
Johnny stared at the four dead men, “Why would they try this?”
“Some men are so evil and so stupid that they just can’t help themselves, it’s just in their nature to take advantage of every situation or die in the attempt,” Max shook his head in resignation and it was obvious that he was speaking from experience.
Max took the four abused horses of the dead men to a livery stable in Lemon Grove and gave the blacksmith a twenty dollar gold piece, “Take care of these for me. If I’m not back in a week, you can sell them.”
Betty was imprisoned in a stone structure with several other women. She knew that Max would be coming for her, but she was conflicted. She wanted to be rescued and had great confidence in her husband, but she didn’t want him to be killed in the attempt. She sat down on the floor, said a prayer and put her faith in God.
Once Max and Johnny crossed the border, it was either kill or be killed from this point on. Max told Johnny, “Once we start fighting,we don’t stop until we have Betty back or we’re both dead.”
Johnny nodded and summoned all his courage, “You can count on me.”
When they reached the compound in Tijuana, men and women were freely entering and leaving the front gate. Calvera mistakenly believed that while he may be pursued in the United States that nobody would have the courage to come into Mexico to get him, so he didn’t feel the need to post sentries. Max intended to use the bandit’s arrogance against him.
The two men waited until nightfall to make their move, “We either kill them on the way in or we have to fight them on the way out,” Max said.
Even though he was carrying his two Colt Peacemakers, Max intended to use them only as a last resort. He would use his knife only because he needed to be silent as well as deadly. As soon as Max entered the compound he wasted little time targeting Calvera’s men. One by one, he’d put his hand over their mouths and drive his knife deep into their backs then set the man down. While he was doing this, Johnny was killing other men with well-placed arrows. Max knew that he didn’t have much time because it wouldn’t be long someone before noticed what was going on.
He saw two buildings at the southeast corner of the compound and inconspicuously made his way in that direction. When he looked into the window, he saw several women, a moment later, he saw Betty in the corner of the room.
Men started yelling and running around, which meant the dead bodies had been discovered. Since there was no reason for secrecy anymore, Max could now use his pistols. When a man ran out of the building and demanded to know what was going on, Max assumed that he was Calvera so he walked over and quickly shot the six men standing before him. When the Mexican bandit reached for his weapon, Max shot the gun out of his hand.
Calvera grimaced as he looked at his bloody hand, “Amigo, you’re one mucho hombre’. You come into my home, you kill my men and you put a hole in my hand. Nobody ever do that before. ”
“Nobody will do it again either,” Max stated.
Two more men rushed in and Max shot them dead, then grabbed Calvera by the collar and dragged him outside. Johnny shot two more men from the roof. Max opened the door to the building where Betty was being held and she rushed into his arms, “I knew that you would come for me.”
“Nothing on this earth including a bandit is ever going to take you away from me,” Max choked on his emotions.
Johnny helped the other women hostages mount up while Max put Calvera on a horse with his hands tied behind his back then slipped a noose over the bandit’s neck. He hit the rump of the horse and left Calvera hanging by his neck. He was still shaking and struggling as they rode out.
They picked up the horses in Lemon Grove on the way home then went west and rode north along the coast trail. It was a clear night with a full moon and a star filled sky so the group decided to keep riding.
When they got to Oceanside, Betty pointed to the horizon where deer were grazing and knew that home was not far away on Moonbuck Mesa.