The Dog Who Solved a Murder Mystery: A True Story
by Joel Jacobsen
Illustrated by Jennifer Swain

When the snow finally let up, someone had to go check on the cattle. It wasn’t a matter of the family getting together and agreeing about it—there was no point in agreeing when there was nothing to disagree about. It just had to be done. Tomás, at 32 the oldest of the Martínez boys, threw the blanket and heavy saddle over the back of his horse, cinching as tight as he could and then waiting for the horse to exhale before pulling it tighter yet.

For many of us, cowboys are doubly old-fashioned: actors of the 1900s pretending to be working men of the 1800s. But in 1895, in Galisteo, New Mexico, outside of Santa Fe, there wasn’t any cowboy myth. Cowboys were no more larger than life than plumbers are today. They were workers. The very word cowboy wasn’t even entirely accepted as a job description—it had originally joined English as an insult, a description of young men with more attitude than sense or skill. But English wasn’t the language Tomás used at home, anyway. It was a latecomer language, sprinkled lightly over a land that had been speaking Spanish for centuries, Navajo and Apache for longer than that, and Tewa and Keres for uncountable ages.

Snow was still lightly falling as Tomás rode out that January morning. His horse would have been loaded down with a bedroll, food, dry wood, and a pot he could suspend over the fire that night, because the family’s ranch was too big to cover in a day even in good weather. In this exceptional snow, which reached almost to a person’s knee, riding the fence would take at least twice as long. He expected to be gone two, three nights, maybe more.

The day-to-day activities of cowboys were so well understood back then that the court records and newspaper accounts didn’t bother recounting what it meant that Tomás went out to check on the cattle. Almost certainly the family stored hay at stations scattered around the ranch, and Tomás planned to ride to each of them, spreading feed over the snow and breaking up ice at the wells and springs. He would also look for cattle that had strayed or otherwise gotten themselves into trouble.

Gallardo, his dog (the name means gallant), went with him that frigid day. In all the sources Gallardo is called a bulldog, but that doesn’t mean he was a bowlegged little doggie with a scrunched-up nose and a slobbery mouth. Nor was he a stripped-down fighting machine like a pit bull. Most of the dog breeds familiar to us are the 20th century inventions of mad-scientist breeders. Gallardo was of a much older line, a dog bred for herding bulls, with a big head and long straight legs. By instinct and training he knew how to keep cattle together, to return stragglers to the herd, and to be alert for skulking predators, confronting all that approached.

After some time—either two or four days, depending on the source—Gallardo returned home. Alone. His head and chest were caked in dark, dried blood. Tomás’s brothers offered him food and water, but Gallardo wasn’t interested. The scalp between his ears was singed in a straight line, as if a red-hot poker had been laid there long enough to burn the fur and the skin beneath it. All the blood had poured from that wound, but he was too impatient to allow anyone to clean it.

Forty years later, in the depths of the Great Depression, the federal government employed out-of-work historians to travel the countryside, collecting old-timers’ memories. In one oral history, a neighbor recalled how Gallardo “began to bark and howl, and taking hold of [a man’s] trousers, would pull at them, then run a little distance towards the same direction from where he came.”

From these recollections, and from contemporary newspaper articles and trial transcripts, we know how Tomás’s younger brother Maximiliano responded: he saddled up and let Gallardo lead him back out into the snow. But the sources don’t tell us how Tomás’s family made sense of the dog’s blood-matted fur. Humans don’t like uncertainty. When we hear of strange events, our minds automatically begin making stories to explain them, filling in the blanks. How did the members of Tomás’s family fill in the missing parts of the tale, the pieces Gallardo was trying so hard to tell them? What discussions did they have before the second son followed the first, setting off alone like Victim 2 in a horror movie?

We know that Tomás had worn a Colt revolver on his hip when he went out the first time, and can feel confident that Maximiliano did the same. He almost certainly carried a rifle or carbine too, likely in a saddle holster. That was standard ranch equipment in the era before wolves were hunted to extinction in the southern Rocky Mountains.

Gallardo, who hadn’t paused to eat or drink, plunged back into the snow. Anyone who’s seen a dog in deep snow knows they move like dolphins, leaping up and plunging down. That’s what Gallardo did, retracing his own trail, leading Maximiliano. One mile, two miles… six, seven… The dog’s endurance was incredible, and so, in a different way, was Maximiliano’s trust. What could have been going through his mind, never knowing what he was going to find, or when he would find it? At any moment he might have to assume the role of doctor, tending an injured brother, or that of gunfighter, defending himself from ambush. How does a person prepare himself for both eventualities at the same time, and then maintain that double-edged mental readiness for hours of riding through the cold and snow?

Finally, on Ojo de la Vaca Mesa, 10 miles from the house, dog, horse, and rider came upon a strange site. The deep snow was entirely melted in a wide circle. In the center of the circle was a gigantic pile of ashes, the last live embers still sending up little wisps of smoke.

Maximiliano knew Ojo de la Vaca Mesa well. This was one of his family’s feeding stations. A corral made of piñon and juniper logs had always stood there. Now the corral was mostly torn down, its logs used as fuel for the bonfire. The carcass of a recently slaughtered, crudely butchered cow was nearby. Some of its ribs were missing, and steaks had been hacked from its hindquarters.

Gallardo, famished as he must have been, ignored the meat. Instead he focused on the pile of ashes, whimpering and barking, looking over his shoulder at Maximiliano as if imploring him to do something. But what?

The snow had stopped falling, but the wind was beginning to rise, sculpting drifts. The massive Sangre de Cristo Mountains rose up to Maximiliano’s north, smaller peaks to his east and south. All around him in the middle distance scrubby pine trees were drooping with snow. The cactus, yucca, and grass were mostly invisible beneath the soft whiteness. The contours of the earth itself had been smoothed out. Except for the occasional call of a raven, there were no sounds that early afternoon but the breathing and movements of human, horse, and dog.

Circling the edge of the melted area, Maximiliano found the tracks of five horses. The tracks, already half-filled with snow, led northeast, away from the Martínez family home. The tracks were not old, but they also weren’t fresh: snow had begun to drift over them, blurring their edges. Whoever had made the bonfire had left many hours before, maybe the previous day.

Gallardo circled the ashes too, but closer in. He, like Maximiliano, was obviously thinking hard, working through exactly what had happened and what he needed to do next. But the dog had additional information to fuel his cogitations, provided by his memory and his nose. Suddenly he plunged right into the ashes. He was digging, kicking gray ashes and live coals between his hind legs. He grabbed something with his teeth and backed out of the ashes onto the bare earth, until Maximiliano could see what he held in his mouth.

A boot.

A charred boot still covered with a cloth overshoe that Maximiliano recognized. Something was hanging out of its opening. Maximiliano took the boot from the dog and made himself look. The burnt ends of a man’s broken leg bones. He packed the boot and its macabre contents into his saddle bag, then raked through the huge pile of ashes with a stick. He found the charred pelvis bones of a human being.

He didn’t need to know any more. He turned back toward the house. Gallardo made the epic trek for the fourth time—and the first traverse, riding the fence line with Tomás, had been even longer than the 10-mile straight shot across the rolling hills that he and Maximiliano retraced now.

Meanwhile, another brother had ridden from the ranch into nearby Santa Fe to alert the sheriff that something seemed to be terribly wrong. The sheriff used the day to organize a posse, a group of men, none of them professional cops, all prepared to ride out into the snow to investigate, should it prove necessary. When an exhausted Maximiliano returned home late in the afternoon, and told—and showed—everything he knew, word was immediately carried into town. At first light the sheriff and his posse assembled at the Martínez family home to follow the trail Gallardo had first made on his own, and which Maximiliano and the horse had widened. By the time the posse arrived at the burnt-out corral, the horse tracks leading away to the northeast were mostly filled in by drifting snow. Mostly, but not completely. The posse was able to follow the trail many miles to where it crossed the railroad tracks at the site of a depot, a small hut erected by the Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad to house the man whose lonely job was to make sure the locomotives had all the wood and water they needed. Steam locomotives had to refuel often as they chugged up the hills of such rugged country, and the depots were dotted along the line every 10 miles or so, each one a little hermitage for the keeper and a haven for travelers in that mostly unpopulated landscape.

The keeper of this particular depot, who often went whole days without seeing or speaking to anyone but train engineers and firemen during hurry-up stops, was able to give the sheriff a detailed description of the four men who had stopped by to warm at his stove just a couple of days earlier. But where had the four men, leading the riderless horse, gone after leaving the depot? While the posse cast about, trying to pick up the trail again, they were approached by a man described in the newspaper only as a “one-armed Arab peddler.” This man reported that he had just been robbed by four armed men! He triumphantly led the posse right to the culprits.

The four men were hauled off to Santa Fe’s jail amid newspaper hosannas that the killers had been caught so swiftly. Except they hadn’t. It was like this: four young men who liked to think of themselves as tough had met a funny-looking foreigner. They had bullied him and stolen from him, and now they faced the very real possibility of hanging for a murder they didn’t commit. One of the four, Orecensio Martínez (not related to Tomás’s family), had some information he was eager to exchange for his freedom—a very modern kind of swap, what we today call plea-bargaining. On the night of the 20th, he told the sheriff, he had seen four men riding through the unappealingly named village of Gusano, which means worm. They were leading a fifth horse. Two of the men, he happened to know, were Jesús Vialpando and Feliciano Chávez.

Young Orecensio’s father traveled to Santa Fe to bail out his son. The corroborating details his father provided satisfied the sheriff that the boy knew what he was talking about. The sheriff was shrewd enough to make a deal: he would let Orecensio go, and even put some money in his pocket, if he and his father promised to telegraph him the moment they learned where Vialpando and Chávez had holed up. They agreed on a coded message, so not even the telegraph operator would be tipped off.

For the next week the sheriff had nothing to do except wonder if he’d maybe misjudged young Orescensio and his father. But then the telegram arrived. Vialpando was at his mother’s house in Las Vegas (the original Las Vegas on the Santa Fe trail, not the better­ known town of the same name established in Nevada a decade after the events in this story). The sheriff set off with another posse, heavily armed, but Vialpando surrendered peacefully. Inside the house the posse found Tomás Martínez’s overcoat, saddle, and bridle. The sheriff had the right man this time.

After Maximiliano and Gallardo had returned home following their gruesome discoveries at the bonfire, the exhausted bulldog finally allowed himself to be tended to. He ate and drank and allowed people to clean the blood from his fur. The groove that ran between his ears had been burned with gunpowder. He had been shot in the head, but at such an angle that the bullet deflected off the skull, running along the hard bone instead of penetrating it. The blow had stunned him. He had dropped like a stone, as we know from Vialpando’s trial testimony. When Gallardo was brought into the courtroom, a living exhibit for the prosecution, Vialpando admitted to shooting him, saying, “I thought he was dead.”

Vialpando had a story to tell his jury, the best he could string together to provide an innocent explanation for all the facts provable by the prosecution. On the fateful day, he and Chávez and their two companions had been crossing the Martínez family ranch, minding their own business, when they got caught by the powerful winter storm. Out of food, alone on that isolated mesa, they knew they couldn’t survive the night without a fire and something to eat. So they tore down some corral posts and burned them. And then they killed a steer, because their only other option was to starve.

Up to this point his story made sense. It could have happened like that. And while killing a steer that belongs to someone else is theft, theft can be excused by necessity, so Vialpando wasn’t even exactly admitting to cattle rustling. Next, he described how Tomás rode up to the bonfire. They recognized him as the steer’s rightful owner and worried that he would be angry at its slaughter. That made sense too. They invited Tomás to join them around the fire, demonstrating their friendly intentions. Tomás accepted their invitation and dismounted.

But as soon as Tomás was on the ground, Vialpando signaled for his comrades to seize him. They moved with practiced efficiency, one man grabbing Tomás in a bear hug and another removing his revolver. Vialpando explained this to the jury as if it were the most innocent thing in the world for a group of men to attack another in coordinated fashion at a subtle sign from their leader. Vialpando, like so many caught murderers in our own day, insisted that his actions were driven by fear rather than aggression—that he and his three companions were scared that Tomás would be angry enough about the steer to start a gunfight despite being outnumbered four to one. So, to save their own skins, what else could they do but disarm their tormentor, the one who had done nothing but accept their offer of hospitality?
In Vialpando’s version of events, the scene around the bonfire presented him with a choice between attacking Tomás now or being attacked by him later. Perhaps he always viewed the world in terms of that choice. It would explain a lot.
Unfortunately, he explained to the jury, even after being disarmed, Tomás remained stubbornly determined to avenge the steer’s death. While Vialpando was lighting a cigarette with a burning stick, Tomás snuck up from behind and tried but failed to snatch his revolver. After that, what could they do? It was, he insisted, a clear­cut case of four armed men killing an unarmed one in self-defense.

The jury didn’t buy it. Vialpando and Chávez were convicted and sentenced to hang. They appealed, but without success, dying just 10 months after Tomás.

Other stories explain the known facts more plausibly than Vialpando’s version. The most likely, I believe, is this: the four men, intent on stealing as many cattle as they could drive away from the Martínez ranch under the cover of the storm, shot Tomás from horseback as soon as he rode within range of their guns. Or maybe they let Tomás approach close enough to hear their sympathetic story about being stranded travelers. Maybe Tomás even believed them; his last thoughts might have been sympathy for his own murderers. They shot the dog too, a single bullet to the head, but took the horse to sell.

While it’s not possible for us to know exactly what happened during Tomás Martínez’s last moments on earth, we can be certain his killers would have escaped but for the wounded Gallardo’s determination and endurance. After just another day or two, the tracks would have been lost to the drifting and then melting snow. And the site of the bonfire might not have been discovered until the spring, well after the coyotes and various desert scavengers, always half-starved in winter, had picked the ashes clean. Gallardo more than lived up to his name. Without him, his master’s murder would have remained a mystery.

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Sources: Court records, newspaper archives, an oral history, and the author’s own experience of dogs and of New Mexico winters.