Along Interstate 25, on a frontage road about 13 miles SE of Santa Fe, stands a little white stucco church with an orange metal roof. Nuestra Senora de Luz Church, Our Lady of Light. The one story adobe structure has a stone wall around it, and a small cemetery on one side. It’s located at the exit for Canoncito, NM, and was built on the high ground at the mouth of Apache Canyon. The interstate here roughly follows the route of the Santa Fe Trail, and you can see the church clearly from the highway. I’ve passed it numerous times and always vow to stop this or that time and check it out, maybe take a photograph or two of the landmark. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on December 14, 1995.
It was built sometime between 1880 and 1891 according to a “Bulletin of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation” dated March 1997, that I found when I decided to research the little Catholic church, for whatever reason, today. No one really knows who built it, it is clearly not an architectural masterpiece, but the small community of Canoncito, I’m sure, was responsible for its construction. The church appears to slope up the hill because it is built into the hillside allowing the facade to be taller than it would have been. The windows are at floor level. Inside the door, you go up stairs to the main floor and then up more stairs to the sacristy. You can look at photographs of this church from the early 1900s and later, and it looks the same. Unchanged by time. But this isn’t a history lesson about Nuestra Senora de Luz Church, but a vignette of what I imagine took place on one summer afternoon in 1921 on the road from town:
Dark clouds had gathered in the previously cerulean sky, and within minutes, it seemed, the road to the church was engulfed in a torrent of rain. It had been nearly three months since rain had poured nourishment on the parched ground in the canyon. It wasn’t rare for it to rain here in late August though. It was the “monsoon season.” From late July to early September, the area gets most of its rainfall. They say it rains 7 or 8 inches annually but it all happens in 45 minutes. It had taken the residents below, in the small community of Canoncito, completely by surprise, and it was amusing to watch them running to and fro to avoid a drenching. He stood for a moment looking down the hill and then ran for the shelter of a large old Pinon tree on the side of the road.
He was on his way to see Father Martinez at the church. A promise of a paying job, a few pennies from the collection plate, to help Father weed the cemetery. The old priest had been getting very frail and couldn’t accomplish the task himself anymore. Pedro had seen him that morning at the store in town, and had overheard him tell the clerk about the weeds taking over the small cemetery. “You can hardly tell it has markers in it,” he said thickly in Spanish. He was standing behind the priest in line at the store and had offered his services. He told him he had nothing to do this afternoon and would be happy to help. Pedro knew he should be doing it out of charity, but he needed the money, whatever little amount he could get, because he had to leave for Santa Fe that evening. He had to. He had made up his mind to be rid of this place for good.
Pedro knew they would suspect him immediately for Mr. Ortiz, but they wouldn’t find him for a while. He was pretty sure of that. When they did happen upon the corpse, Pedro would be long gone. The Ortiz place was a couple of miles north of town and no one visited him, no one would miss him right away. Automobiles of any type were scarce here, as were serviceable roads. The road out to the Ortiz place and passed was nothing more than a couple of packed ruts. No reason to go down the road unless you were going to the Ortiz place, and he had been the only one he knew of, that did that recently.
Besides, it had been an accident. He hadn’t meant for it to happen. And the old man didn’t have any of that rumored fortune hidden anywhere either, nothing that he could find at least. Pedro had heard the stories in town that Manuel Ortiz had a fortune hidden on his place. He had torn up most of the floor boards of the small three-room adobe house last night and he hadn’t found anything but dirt. Granted, he only took the one night to search, but he knew that Ortiz didn’t have that kind of money. Look at the way he lived. He didn’t even own a mule. Most of the people probably didn’t even know Pedro had been staying there for the last few months either, or even who he was.
Pedro drew himself closer under the tree as the rain increased in intensity. It wasn’t helping that much. He was still getting wet, but certainly less than he would have if he was walking out on the road. Little rivers were forming on the hard caked ground, the rain unable to penetrate it even in its intensity. Maybe he should have buried the old man. They may never have found him then. They would have had no reason to suspect him at all. The town’s people would have believed that Ortiz just left without saying anything. Manny, as his few acquaintances knew him, was like that, they would think. He was peculiar. Just like him to pack up his fortune and disappear without telling a soul. Yeah, he should have buried him instead of wasting time looking for money that didn’t exist.
It slowed to a drizzle now and he figured he should head up the road to the church. At least the rain would make it a little easier to pull the weeds. He might be able to finish up faster and get on his way. It would take him a good part of a day to walk to Santa Fe, and then what? He hadn’t thought that far ahead. He just knew he needed to put miles between himself and the buzzards that were surely circling Mr. Ortiz at this very minute.
The rain stopped almost as suddenly as it had started, and the sun broke through the clouds heating up the ground. A small layer of steam formed on the road as Pedro walked again towards the church. He walked through the wooden gate in the center of the stone wall, and looked up at the bell canopy and the wooden cross on the top of the roof. A feeling of doom came over him abruptly. It was then that he remembered the crucifix hanging on the wall over Manny’s bed. The large, golden, crucifix.
Well, that was fun. Do you think the crucifix could be Manuel Ortiz’s reputed fortune? Are there other objects in the house made from precious metal maybe? How did Pedro Valdez end up in Canoncito and living at the Ortiz place? How was Mr. Ortiz killed? Who will find the corpse and when? Will Pedro go back to the Ortiz place and get the crucifix? Is it really solid gold? Where is Father Martinez?
Help me write more of the story.