For Starters, Happy Holidays to you all!
While The Two Valleys Saga series focuses on fictional Jesús Messi and his coming of age story and is framed by the events leading to the Fountain murders in 1896, I’ve found the most popular character in the first book: The Mesilla, was Bronco Sue Dawson.
There are lots of versions of Bronco Sue’s life out there (see some links at the bottom of the page). All that I found were legends, folklore, or simply second-hand tales. Even basic details about her heritage, where she lived with her family and how many biological children she had are in dispute.
Life in the old west was difficult and dangerous for men. For women, it could be worse and often without a soul to tell. It was assumed that with the ‘shortage’ of women in the west, a woman should be able to find a man without much trouble. And so, many men and women seemed to feel that an unattached woman was lazy or worse and a woman that could take care of herself was a threat to the institution of marriage.
We celebrate the independent women of the west today – women like Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley and Belle Star (the back of Belle’s wanted poster is used to sketch a map in The Mesilla), but back in the day, any rumored misdeed by a woman was sufficient reason to spread hatefulness and lies. I suppose men felt challenged and women jealous of the time such a woman might spend with their husbands.
The Fountain family women expressed their disdain for Sue when the Colonel received a telegram from her asking for his representation in her murder trial. It is known that the Colonel’s wife, Mariana, was of the same mind about her that most married women were of the time. When the Colonel decides to take Sue’s case, he is at a loss as to how to let the females in the family know without suffering their wrath. Jesús comes up with the idea of asking the Colonel’s son Larlo to tell a made-up story that evening during the family’s hearth talks about a supposed woman-friend. The story dramatizes how single women were at the mercy of those they came across on the trail and in town, as the fictional friend finally falls prey to a whorehouse pimp. The Colonel stops Larlo just as the story gets a little too horrible and risqué. Mariana, Marianita and Maggie all express their shock and sympathy for the fictional girl and their opinion of Sue is softened when they recognize how difficult Sue’s life might have been.
Sue probably did most of what she was accused of, but there is no account of ‘her back story.’ I decided Sue Dawson deserved to have her ‘own’ voice and a good portion of The Mesilla focuses on that.
The places and events are factual – as factual as can be expected given the multitude of versions of her story out there. The details of the trial are somewhat fictional. At the time we were at the height of the pandemic and the trial records were unavailable to me. I depended on historic newspaper reports with some creative license. The group of battered women was fictional, but most of the fictionalization is in the details about how and why certain things happened. For instance, it is reported by more than one source that Sue toured roundups selling herself in the privacy, if not comfort of a covered wagon she bought for the purpose. Given her reported relationship with John Good, his personality, and his role in the later ambush of Sue’s husband, I thought it possible that Good might have forced her into such an arrangement or at least started a rumor to that effect.
Another detail that I took some license with was the role of her sons in her trial. The newspaper articles said that her biological son was the one that had the key role but given the confusion in other accounts about how many biological sons she had, that seemed implausible to me, so I switched it to the adopted son and added an element of confused identity between the sons.
I enjoyed writing about Bronco Sue Dawson. Her characterization was easy for me because her life – even as awful as it was purported to be – had to result in a woman that in response to the court clerk reading off a list of her married and alias names would say:
“You ladies know what the story is. We have no say about our names. Yes, folks have called me lots of names — some because of who I was with and some because people thought they knew something about me they didn’t like. But let me tell you all, I never changed. My name might have changed, legal or not, but I’ve always been Sue Warfield from the time my mama … well, I ain’t never been nobody else.”
When Jesús reports that she was never heard from again as she rides off to the west, that is true – at least as true as anything is in wild west lore. We can always hope for her to show up again someday in a spin off novel.
Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains By Jan MacKell