Elizabeth Foote was a homebody, and her home was on a high-desert mesa in western Colorado. Her house had a wide-angle view of the West Elk Mountains and overlooked a river valley and the raw, ambitious small town of Paonia. The mesa was sun-baked in summer, alternately snowy and muddy in winter, and windy all year round.
Elizabeth's father, George Foote, bought the land in 1907, when Elizabeth was 8 years old. The government had broken its treaty with the Utes a quarter-century earlier, opening most of their Colorado reservation to eager settlers. The choicest parcels of land in the river valley were already claimed, but cheap, promising acreage remained.
George registered a claim to 200 acres and cleared the scrubby juniper trees and sagebrush from the mesa top. He pried a small mountain of rocks from the hard ground, dug irrigation ditches to water his crops, and planted hay. He also championed the local fruit industry -- the valley became known for its cherries and peaches -- and dealt energetically in real estate, earning a reputation as an aggressive businessman. Before long, his homestead became known to its neighbors as Foote Fields.
The valley was remote -- the nearest sizable city was 70 miles away, and in 1910, there were only nine cars in town -- but life was busy. Elizabeth and her three younger sisters could go to sledding and skating parties in the winter, to ice-cream socials and baseball games and the marble-topped soda fountain in summer. The circus came to town, and the Kit Carson Wild West show; the annual chautauqua brought mind-readers and magicians, violinists and organists. But people said that Elizabeth was happiest home on the ranch. With her mother, Mary, and her sisters Barbara, Antoinette and Susan, she helped irrigate the fields and raise the cows. Sometimes, one of the girls would ride a Shetland pony around the mesa, their baby brother Dan propped in front of her on the saddle.
With the rest of the valley, the Footes likely battled measles, bedbugs, spring freezes and hailstorms. Following a run of disastrous fruit crops in the teens, so many people left town for better prospects in California that 30 former neighbors gathered for a picnic in Long Beach. But the Footes stayed on the mesa, perhaps buoyed by canny land deals, hard work, stubbornness, or a dose of each.
Elizabeth had her bold moments; in 1918, her senior year in high school, she played a bit part in a Civil War drama at the local opera house. She and Barbara both graduated later that spring, and their class pictures show girls with light, wide-set eyes and wavy, softly gathered hair. Barbara, a year younger, looks directly at the camera, a half smile on her face. Elizabeth looks slightly away from the lens, her face serious. It was a sad year; dozens of young men in town had volunteered or been drafted for the war in Europe, and the Spanish flu would soon burn through the valley, killing many.
Some graduating seniors left for college, some for teaching positions. Some signed on for the last months of the war. Some got married. But Elizabeth simply went home to the mesa and resumed her chores.
Six years later, on a nearly moonless night in late July, she disappeared.