`Dead Eye': a link to town's frontier roots

Woman, 91, hands down pioneer lore in Colorado

October 26, 2003|By Michael Martinez | Michael Martinez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

PARADOX, Colo. - Dead Eye returned home the other day to bury a relative almost 30 years younger than she is.

At 91, Louise Carpenter has seen it all in Paradox, a town so named because some things just don't seem natural. The Dolores River crosscuts Paradox Valley, not parallel with the canyon walls as nature would dictate.

The rugged landscape here is magnificent and secretive. Outlaws especially liked it long ago. On the canyon rim, the pygmy forests of juniper and pinon pine descend to red stone and then a green valley, nourished by springs.

Carpenter is among the last in this town of 250 who can connect its 19th-century frontier roots with its 21st-century present - "from outhouse to modern plumbing," as she put it.

She earned the nickname Dead Eye in the early 1920s when, as a young woman, she entered a turkey shoot in Grand Junction, about 100 miles away. Women participated separately. When Carpenter took her one practice shot, borrowing a friendly stranger's firearm, all the women backed out: Carpenter scored a bull's-eye.

So she entered the men's competition and, using the same man's gun, she won, beating even the friendly gun owner.

Her reputation as a sure shot was secured later when she shot a deer through the eye.

That didn't make Dead Eye squeamish. While a young mother, she and daughter Elaine Mattingley returned to the homestead one day and found a distressed deer entangled in barbed wire, Mattingley recalled. Mom showed her how to free the deer - by slitting its throat. Venison was the next family meal.

Carpenter's ties to the river-hugging canyons here began with her grandparents, who arrived in the first wagon trains of white families in 1883, when Ute Indians occupied the territory. Carpenter was born Carrie Louise Waggoner, named after her grandmother, but she has always gone by her middle name.

Her father, Louis, was the second white child born in Paradox. She can remember living beside the original Ute inhabitants, though their numbers had dwindled sharply. Their only mark today is the occasional arrowhead found in fields, locals said.

Sitting recently on a porch at her sister's home, where family members mourned the loss of her sister's daughter-in-law, Carpenter reminisced about the romanticized West. Smiling and talkative, she was in good spirits, despite poor health the past year. She was flanked by a daughter and a granddaughter, handing down pioneer lore to the family's fourth and fifth generations in the West.

In the yard behind her, chickens pecked at corncobs beside an apple tree, and sister Dorothy Colombo and husband Elmer served chicken with noodles and homemade pies.

In her time, Carpenter forded rivers on horseback, married three times - she was widowed twice - and had two daughters.

She witnessed the legacy of lawlessness depicted in the 1992 book The Hell That Was Paradox by Howard Greager, who portrayed Paradox through the early 1900s as an outlaw trail sanctuary "where nothing came easy - it was fight, dig and claw for everything." Bushwhackers, cattle rustlers and gunslingers used Paradox to dodge the law, and when they were rested and fed, they moved on.

Carpenter recalled how a copper-mine watchman was shot in the head and decapitated about 1920 by two young brothers and their friend, who put the head in a gunnysack and hid it in an irrigation ditch. They then shot up the town as a threat to snitchers.

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