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239 13 DOI: 10.5876/9781607322375.c13 “I Drew His Head Back over a Fallen Tree and Cut It Off” Tom Tobin Ends the Terror Tom Tobin was a man in the mythic mold of his friend Kit Carson, a frontier type even then beginning to pass from the scene. Mountain man, trapper, whiskey trader, and Indian scout, Tobin, like Carson, was a living legend if on a smaller scale than the universally famed and beloved Carson. Few outside northern New Mexico and southern Colorado had ever heard of him, though within that compass he was widely known, respected, feared, and even disliked. An acquaintance wrote that he was “hard and gruff and taciturn and fearless . . . [and] was never too well thought of by his neighbors.”1 In 1863 he even looked the part of a frontiersman of twenty years earlier, often wearing a fringed buckskin coat, a bead-worked waistcoat and moccasins, and a feathered cap of bear fur. He carried a .53-­caliber Hawken rifle—the old-time plainsman’s preferred hunting piece—and wore an 1851 Navy Colt revolver in a holster made from the rump and tail of a buffalo.2 Hanging from his neck was a leather disc edged with pips to which were attached percussion caps for the Hawken, allowing him to load, cap, and fire the single-shot rifle in seconds.3 And he was a dead shot.4 In October 1863 when Colonel Tappan summoned him, the big four-and-a-half-foot-long, sixteen-pound Hawken had ten notches filed into the barrel just in front of the caplock, one for each man—red, white, “i drew his head back over a fallen tree and cut it off” 240 and Hispano—whom Tobin had killed.5 In those days, the notching of a gun to record one’s kills was thought to bespeak a certain vicious indifference to human life, but in Tobin’s case, though he certainly could kill quickly and without evident thought, the practice seems to have been a simple matter of accounting; he was known for his bad memory. Dr. Edgar Hewett, an archaeologist who knew the scout in the late 1890s, wrote, “Tobin gained his great reputation as a trail man by his uncanny ability to detect and follow ‘sign.’ He ‘could track a grasshopper through sagebrush.’ Those who had seen him trailing told me that he always took the most likely starting point, swung round and round in ever widening circles until he ‘cut sign,’ then clung to his ‘sign’ until his quarry was overtaken.”6 It was a technique he had learned from the Indians with whom he had often fought and, in better times, traded. When tracking, he often got down on all fours with his face close to the ground, “following ‘sign’ that was imperceptible to less acute eyes.”7 According to contemporary historian Frank Hall, John M. Francisco, who knew Tobin both as a friend and as a contractor supplying Fort Garland with provisions and horses, said the scout’s “only fault was his recklessness in an Indian fight. While the enemy was in view he seemed to regard the battle as individually his own.”8 It was a paradox that Tobin, by all accounts capable of a cold-blooded ferocity in conflict and in ordinary discourse reticent to the point of rudeness,9 was in fact, in Dr. Hewett’s words, “golden hearted.” A dedicated family man, he sired six living children by his wives and a Navajo mistress, adopted a seventh, an Indian girl, and married again as a widower in his middle sixties. He was remembered as a warm and loving father and grandfather, especially by his grandson, Kit Carson III, whose reminiscences of Tobin are tinged with a deep fondness and admiration. In a domestic setting Tobin was always gentle and expressive, even with animals in a time and place when many men were inclined to thoughtless cruelty to beasts. Among friends he could be gregarious and even enjoyed a good joke and a laugh, and was capable of telling entertaining “stretchers,” or tall tales, often at his own expense. James Perkins, Tobin’s biographer, describes the scout as standing about five feet seven inches tall and weighing 140 pounds—not at all a prepossessing figure even in a period when men tended to be smaller than now—with coalblack hair, blue eyes, and a natural complexion that was rather odd-looking— Tom Tobin (ca. 1893) holding...


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