This affray did not happen in Texas, but in New Mexico in 1884. It did have all the classic Western elements; rowdy cowboys, a small town fed to the back teeth with their destructive and abusive antics, and a single local lawman determined to uphold the rule of law and order. Here, however, ends any resemblance to High Noon, Tombstone, Stagecoach, Shane or any other classic Western movie. In this case, the single resolute lawman stands out in the annals of Western law enforcement for several reasons; first for sheer, stubborn crazy-brave courage, secondly for being barely 19 years old at the time, a tough little banty-rooster of a guy barely five-seven in boots… and thirdly for being native Hispanic in a time and in a place where anti-Mexican bigotry fell very severely on the non-Anglo population of any class or income.
His name was Elfego Baca – and there was one more difference to him. Although he had been born in Socorro, New Mexico Territory, he had spent most of his early life in Topeka, Kansas, where his parents had sought work and an education for their children. This resulted in Elfego Baca being more fluent in English than Spanish at the time of his returning to Socorro and working as a clerk in a general mercantile owned by his brother-in-law. He had another notable skill; facility with a six-gun. Very much later in life he claimed he had been taught to shoot by Billy the Kid … either William McCarty-Antrim-Bonny or some other adolescent shootist with the same moniker in New Mexico Territory around that time.
In October of 1884, a friend of his from nearby Frisco came to see him; the deputy sheriff of Socorro County, one Pedro Sarracino. Sarracino was furious and frustrated and likely just wanted to vent over the situation in the neighboring town of Frisco. Frisco – properly San Francisco (today the community of Reserve) was really three small hamlets on the bank of the Tularosa River. The residents – mostly Hispanic – were routinely terrorized by rowdy Anglo cowboys who thought nothing of riding through the streets, shooting at chickens and dogs for their own amusement. Worse yet; one man had been mutilated while living, another tied to a post and used for target practice, and a woman kidnapped – likely, in the euphemism of the time – for immoral purposes. Elfego Baca was not sympathetic, and spoke bluntly to his friend about allowing this situation to endure, when he should be stepping in to protect citizens. He was a lawman, wasn’t he? Sarracino retorted that he could do nothing and live, or do something about it and die, adding “My job is available to anyone who wants it!” Young Baca took Sarracino at his word. From that moment, conducted himself as a deputy sheriff and in charge of cleaning up Frisco. He took off his clerk’s apron, pinned on a tin souvenir deputy’s badge, strapped on a pair of revolvers and headed for Frisco in Sarracino’s mule-drawn buckboard buggy.
No, not not the classic ‘tall in the saddle’ entrance, but almost the minute he got there, the savior of Frisco grabbed everyone’s attention. He arrested a young cowpoke named McCarthy, who was amusing himself in Milligan’s Store and Whiskey Bar, drunkenly shooting holes in the ceiling as a break from shooting up the rest of town. The owner of the establishment took exception and Elfego Baca agreed. He hustled McCarthy off to the justice of the peace, where McCarthy paid a fine. But in minutes, he returned to Milligan’s and shooting holes in the ceiling as if there had been no interruption. Elfego Baca arrested him again, confiscated the shooting irons, and locked him in a nearby sturdy adobe house. Likely he was intending to haul McCarthy to Socorro to face charges there. Before he could do anything more, McCarthy’s friends came barreling into town, armed to the teeth and intent on rescue. The angry cowhands pounded at the window shutters, and tried to force the door open. Inside, Elfego Baca demanded that they stop before he counted to three, else he would open fire. They didn’t, he did – and one man’s horse reared in fright at the sudden burst of gunfire and fell back upon him. That cowboy with the panicky horse sustained such injuries that he died of them later.
At this juncture, the owners of several nearby ranches were overtaken by a sudden fit of civic responsibility and respect for law and order. They exercised authority over their employees and negotiated an agreement. McCarthy would be tried at Milligan’s the next morning – and Elfego Baca received a signed promise that he would not be bothered or harmed for upholding the law in this case. Per agreement, he brought his prisoner to Milligans’ the next morning for the promised judgement – where as expected, McCarthy was found guilty and fined five dollars. That would have been the end of the matter, but McCarthy was furious at not having his confiscated revolvers returned – and many of his friends had crammed into Milligans’ armed, willing and able to take his part. Elfego Baca prudently withdrew out through the side door of Milligans’. He took refuge in a nearby ‘jacal’ – a Mexican-style one-room hut, made of cedar timbers set into a trench in the ground, plastered inside and out with adobe clay, and roofed with small branches and another layer of adobe. He urged the residents of the hut to leave for their own safety, and barred the plank door. The fury of the cowboys at being rebuked by the law and having their fun halted knew no bounds – and that fury was about to fall on the only man in town not completely intimidated.
A reckless cowboy attempted to kick in the door of the jacal, screaming threats about how he meant to ‘get’ Elfego Baca. He fell back, gut-shot … and the siege of Frisco was on. Tradition and Elfego Baca’s memoirs have it that nearly eighty cowboys were matched against one nineteen-year old deputy sheriff. Even if there weren’t eighty – Baca was still vastly outnumbered. Constant gunfire shivered the ramshackle jacal all that day. The cowboys hung blankets on lines between adjoining houses to hide their movements as they sniped from behind the shelter of adobe buildings. .Amazingly – Elfego Baca shot back, undeterred by the storm of lead hail. Another cowboy tried to rush the jacal, holding an iron stove-door before him as a kind of shield; he had his scalp creased by a bullet and reconsidered that plan immediately. The siege devolved into a stalemate – but how long could one man last, against eighty?
What the furious cowboys didn’t know was that the inside of the jacal was dug below ground level – about eighteen inches deep. It didn’t matter how badly the walls were shredded; Elfego Baca was sheltered by solid ground, as the day wore on. Towards evening, the attackers soaked rags in kerosene and set them alight. They set the roof of the jacal on fire, and one wall, reduced to so much wooden lacework by constant gunfire, collapsed inwards – but the sun had gone down. No one was keen on rushing Elfego Baca’s redoubt in the dark, though – especially since he had proved to be a cool and excellent shot. They decided to wait until morning. Presumably they left some kind of guard on the remnants of the jacal. Surely, he would be exhausted by then; exhausted, hungry and nearly out of ammunition.
But when the eastern sky lightened the next day, observers were utterly astounded to see Elfego Baca among the ruins – unharmed and unfazed, frying a breakfast tortilla on the remains of a fire in a perforated metal cook-stove. Within short order the fight resumed again, on pretty much the same level of intensity. By most accounts, there were over 4,000 rounds fired and every piece of furniture within the jacal was destroyed in the thirty-six hours of the most one-sided gun-fight of the old west. The door alone had three hundred and sixty-seven bullet holes in it.
By mid-morning, the employers of the various cowboys had probably had enough. And the the cowboys themselves may have begun to wonder if there wasn’t something rather unsporting about the odds, and to grudgingly admit that Elfego Baca was game. Authority intervened, in the form of another ranch owner and Deputy Sherriff Ross of Socorro. They came to an agreement: Elfego Baca would surrender and accompany Sherriff Ross to Socorro in the buckboard – but he would keep his own loaded six-shooters – and the two confiscated from McCarthy. The cowboys would follow along behind, but come no closer than thirty feet from him. And so it was done: Elfego Baca came to trial twice over the next four months, but was acquitted both times. One of the exhibits at his trials was the broomstick from the jacal – with no less than eight bullet-holes in it. Both juries decided that Elfego Baca had acted in self-defense.
Elfego Baca continued as a law officer for many years afterwards. Legend has it that he did not have to hunt down wanted men; instead, he sent letters directing them to surrender; “Please come in on such-and-such-a-date and give yourself up. If you don’t I’ll know you intend to resist arrest, and I will feel justified in shooting you on sight when I come after you. Yours truly, Elfego Baca.” He also served as county clerk, mayor, and school superintendent. He was admitted to the state bar in the 1890s and practiced law – most often as a defense attorney. One legend has a client telegraphing him: “Need you at once. Have just been charged with murder.” Elfego Baca sent a brief and reassuring reply: “Leaving at once with three eyewitnesses.” He lived to the ripe old age of 80 years, and died of natural causes in 1945.
(Cross-posted at my book blog, and at www.ncobrief.com. Just as a note, I have put together a collection of my Texas history posts in a Kindle eBook; The Heart of Texas.)