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“A Mexican War”

by Captain William French

The author, William French, emigrated from Ireland to the US in 1883 to seek his fortune. He settled in southwestern New Mexico and became a rancher. Below, he describes the famous shootout between Elfego Baca and Texas cattlemen in the “shoot ’em up” town of Reserve in 1884.

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After Thanksgiving we settled down to our usual routine. Things were going along smoothly when one afternoon we were startled by a messenger from our friends at the SU (ranch). This man brought word that there was trouble between the Mexicans and the white settlers. A cowboy from the Spur Ranch had been killed and the Mexicans were holding another in captivity at the plaza. It was feared an attack would be made on some of the outlying ranches, especially the SU, which was nearest to them. He had come for assistance and for an officer of the law. The only white deputy within reach was Dan Bechtol, over at Alma. We told the messenger to go ahead to Alma and we would wait for his return. If the deputy brought a posse along we could all go to the SU together.

To explain this interesting outbreak, locally known as "The Mexican War," it is necessary to enter slightly into history. During the years between 1882 and 1885 a number of cattlemen had moved their herds, and occasionally their neighbors' herds, from Texas to New Mexico. This migration was generally in the way of business, but sometimes its object was to avoid unpleasant consequences of a not too strict observance of the law. A new brand, a new name, and a new country covered a multitude of sins. Amongst those whose absence from Texas was tolerated only on the grounds of saving expense to the State were many cowboys who lost no opportunity of displaying their hatred of Mexicans. To them all Mexicans were "Greasers" and unfit associates for the white man.

Now, 1884 was an election year. The County of Socorro was a Mexican county with a large majority of Mexican voters. It was true that the political offices of the county were generally held by men who were not of Spanish descent, but this was largely due to their superior manipulation. The office of sheriff was the most eagerly sought-for office in the county government, because the sheriff, in addition to his executive power, was ex officio collector and treasurer, and for this his remuneration, in addition to his sheriff's fees, was something like four percent of the amount he collected.

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It was as an emissary of one of the rival parties that a young gentleman named Elfego Baca had come out from Socorro to solicit the votes of settlers at the plazas on the San Francisco River. I never heard directly which side he was supporting, but from the subsequent proceedings gathered he favored Don Pedro.

He had been staying at the plaza for some days when some of the cowboys from the neighboring ranches, having ridden in and sampled some of Mr. Milligan's forty-rod whisky, recollected that they were citizens of the great State of Texas and that the Alamo and other historical events were closely connected with the despised Greaser. Under the influence of patriotism and whisky they proceeded to give vent to their feelings. Mr. Baca carried a deputy's commission and considered that as a peace-officer it was up to him to express his disapproval.

He did this effectually and was able to count the casualties when the fracas was over as one dead, one wounded, and one captive, with the remainder driven off in disorder. The wounded man had ridden off with the disordered party, the dead man was laid out in a shed, but the captive, whose name was Charlie McCarthy, was a real live issue.

According to the gentleman who had come to summon us, Mr. McCarthy was an inoffensive youth incapable of harming an insect. After his departure to Alma to procure legal authority, we started out on our own hook and reached the SU around one o'clock in the morning. Instead of finding the place in flames we found them all asleep. We roused them up, demanding to know where the enemy was, and they said he must be in bed. We had got in and settled down when Mr. Bechtol and the Alma contingent arrived, accompanied by the belated messenger. They were all full of zeal and whisky, and the representative of the law, Dan, was especially ferocious; and although nobody was actually holding him, he expressed a determination that if he was only allowed to get at them not one would be left alive on the following day.

It was almost daylight when they got through telling us their program, so that we got no further rest that night. We prepared breakfast, then waited around for several hours, till nine or ten o'clock, for Dan, who was sleeping it off. We all moved some time before noon and rode twenty miles to pick up a justice of the peace so that McCarthy could get a fair trial without being carried off to Socorro.

We presented quite a formidable appearance as we rode into the plaza. There were some twenty or thirty men, the majority of whom had slept in their clothes for several nights and none of whom had shaved for probably a still longer period. Consequently it was not surprising that when we drew up opposite Mr. Milligan's hospitable portals we found the place almost deserted. But the genial proprietor was in evidence and prepared to attend to the wants of the crowd, which seemed afflicted with a perennial thirst. Most of the boys tumbled into the place, while we, who had as yet taken no active part, made ourselves comfortable on the outside.

After a short interval the justice, Dan, and Mr. Milligan came out, accompanied by a Mexican, and we learned that the entire population had migrated to the middle plaza and taken their prisoner, Mr. McCarthy, with them. The Mexican was dispatched with a note addressed to Mr. Baca and signed by Dan and the justice. This note was a request to bring Mr. McCarthy and they would hold court and deal with him according to the laws of the territory.

About an hour later the messenger returned, accompanied by four or five men, amongst whom was the prisoner McCarthy and I think a Mexican justice of the peace. Mr. Baca, a young man scarce out of his teens, rode at the head of the party, and as they drew up at Mr. Milligan's the latter, accompanied by our justice and the deputy Dan, came out and met them. They all dismounted and went down the street to a house fifty or sixty yards south from Mr. Milligan's emporium. They were followed by the crowd, which had streamed out of the saloon.

Some two or three of us belonging to the foreign contingent, who were not sufficiently interested, remained outside. We sat on the ground, and indulged in the exciting game known as "mumble-de-peg." This consisted in throwing an open-bladed knife so as to stick in the ground and remain upright. The pastime drew an audience of a few stragglers who had been left in the saloon, amongst them being two or three boys belonging to the Spur outfit.

These gentlemen took a supercilious interest in our game, and after watching us for a few moments one of them, whose name was Hem, discharged a Winchester which he held in his hand into the ground within two or three inches of my feet. The bullet tore a great gash in the ground, but, presuming it had been done in order to test the nerves of the tenderfoot from abroad, I took no notice of it. This indifference not seeming to be to their taste the crowd dispersed, and when my attention was again directed to the street they had disappeared into Mr. Milligan’s Hall of Entertainment.

The proceedings in the court-room must have been conducted with due formality, for they were in there fully half an hour. The first to come out was Mr. Baca, who strode hastily through the door, pulling his hat down over his eyes. None of our party took any notice of him, but I happened to be faced in that direction and saw that he went into a cabin farther down the street and on the same side as the court-room. Then came the crowd, who told us that the prisoner had been fined five dollars, which he had paid, and was now at liberty. He came out almost immediately, surrounded by his friends, who were congratulating him, and we were all formally introduced.

This apparently ended the matter. Our party proceeded to get their horses and return to the SU ranch, where we proposed to spend the night. I went along with the rest, but was waylaid by Mr. Milligan and my friend Cox, who proposed that I accompany them to the saloon and have a parting drink. I told the rest of our party that I would catch them up. The drink took only a very short time, and as I came out of the door I noticed that “Old Charlie” (Charlie Moore), who was the last of our party to leave, was just mounting his horse and getting under way.

I shouted to him that I would be right along and crossed the street to my horse. I was getting him loose when I was approached by the gentleman who had shot his gun off so close to my feet, accompanied by three others. They asked me if I had seen where Mr. Baca went when he came out of the court-room. I pointed out the cabin and was preparing to mount when they told me they had authority from the presiding justice to arrest Mr. Baca. The ostensible reason was the shooting of the man at the time of McCarthy's arrest. They said it was only just that he should be made to answer according to law.

This sounded all right, so I said: “Let's go ahead and arrest him.” The four of us walked down to the cabin. Hem, who had taken the lead, walked up to the door, and I followed close behind him. He knocked, asking if there was anyone there. Receiving no reply, he kicked the door violently, demanding admittance. The reply this time was decisive. It came in the form of a bullet through the door, which took him in the abdomen.

He swore a marvelous oath and fell back into my arms. I dragged him as quickly as I could round the corner of the cabin. The others scattered in all directions, but joined me almost immediately, and we laid him out on the ground.

In the meantime Old Charlie, who had heard the shot, came tearing back down the street at full gallop and pulled up short, immediately opposite the door. He was greeted by a regular feu de jolie from inside the cabin, one bullet passing through his tall, peaked hat. Assuming that something was amiss when he heard the shot he had picked up my horse, which I had left standing by the rack, and had led him along with him. Not appreciating his pretty close call, he was endeavoring to get out of the way as quickly as he could, but the led horse was hampering his movements. Seeing this, I left the wounded man and ran to Old Charlie's assistance. In doing so I also came under fire, but the shooting was wild. I took the led horse from him and got back with the loss of my own hat, which lay in the street in front of the house.

The wounded man was now propped up against the wall. He had regained consciousness and was able to speak. While discussing ways of getting him up to the store, he said that he thought he could ride up if we would assist him on to one of the horses and keep him from falling off. So we hoisted him on to Charlie's horse and while two held him on either side led him along to Milligan’s.

There we examined the wound and washed and dressed it as best we knew how. There was little or no blood from it, but it was in a dangerous place and must have penetrated the bowels. His main anxiety was a desire to get even with the man who had shot him, so we promised that we would do all in our power to capture him and deliver him to the authorities.

After this Charlie and I went to look for our deputy, who, with the Alma crowd, had not yet left. We discovered him in a wareroom at the back of the store, where he said he had gone to get a little rest after his strenuous exertions the night before.

Dan agreed with us that Mr. Baca should be arrested and that it should be done at once, but personally he seemed more interested in catching up with lost sleep. After an unsatisfactory interview we left him and I went down to recover my hat. I made a dash for it, but no sooner had I stooped than our friend inside turned loose. I did not waste any time, and when I got back with it to shelter there were bullet holes through the leaf in three places.

Then Old Charlie and I made up our minds that it was up to us to fog him up a little and not to let Mr. Baca think he was the only man in the plaza who possessed ammunition.

We accordingly made our way to the opposite side of the street, where there was an adobe church with buttresses. From behind one of them we amused ourselves by exchanging compliments with him. One of us would stick out his head to draw his fire and the other would fog up the little window or the door, whichever we thought he was using. He returned our fire and kept knocking gobs of mud off our sheltering bastion with tedious regularity, while we in our turn made the splinters fly from his window and door.

We had been at this interesting game for probably fifteen or twenty minutes when the rest of our party, headed by Wilson and Cook, came flying into the plaza. They had gone a mile or so when the echo of the first shots caused them to pause. When these were followed by the fusillade they made up their minds that the ball had opened and came hurrying back. Charlie and I explained the circumstances, and at Cook's suggestion some attempt was made to parley with our intended prisoner, and Mr. Baca was addressed eloquently in Spanish from the shelter of an adobe wall. This, however, did not prove very effective. All we got was more shots.

The chances of taking the place by assault were discussed and rejected. No definite decision was come to, but by way of intimation the crowd moved out and, taking up safe positions on all sides of the unfortunate cabin, fogged it up for about twenty minutes with an incessant fusillade.

When over, we thought that surely Mr. Baca must have been reduced to a sieve, but were much disappointed when one of our boys, Ed Erway, ventured into the street to reconnoiter. He had hardly shown himself when he met with such a bombardment that he was forced to retreat hastily, while by way of diversion we resumed our onslaught on the cabin, searching every nook and cranny where a bullet could possibly penetrate. This had the effect of quieting him, for his demonstrations ceased; but where he sought shelter from our fire, and how he escaped the numerous bullets that must have passed through the building, was a mystery to us.

It was getting late by this time and it became necessary to take precautions in order to prevent his escape during the night, so we posted regular sentries. I then paid a visit to the wounded man, but found him very low, and it was evident that he had only a short time to live. I was unable to visit him again until nearly daylight, when I found that he had petered out.

I took up my sentry-post by the buttress of the church, whence I had a good view of the front and side of the cabin. I stayed there for the rest of the night, with occasional visits to the other sentries, who did not seem to think that sleeping on their posts was in any way detrimental to their duty, and I suppose Mr. Baca must have been asleep too, for otherwise there was nothing to prevent his walking out of the door and going where he pleased.

I made several attempts to see our deputy, Dan, but he was either asleep or too busy to attend. As he expressed it, Milligan’s bar was good enough for him, and when he was tired of it he could retire to the back room and take a rest. Things were at this stage about five a.m. when I woke up my friend Cox. He expressed surprise when I told him I had been up all night, and advised me to find a shakedown.

The advice struck me as being sound, as I had been without sleep for forty-eight hours. I found the door of the Milligan residence ajar, and pushing it gently open thought I might find a resting-place without disturbing the occupants. In this I was disappointed. I had hardly crossed the threshold when I struck my foot against something soft. This was Mr. Milligan himself, lying across the entrance, no doubt surmising that his presence was more effective than a lock.

He sat up and demanded who was there. I explained the reason I had sought his hospitality. He was not in the least disconcerted, but raising his great hand waved towards a back room, saying if I went in there I would find several mattresses on the floor and could lie down with the children.

Greater hospitality could no man show, for the rest of the family, of all sizes, ages, and sexes, were sprawling in the back room. The ladies seemed to be laid out on one side with their heads towards the wall; the gentlemen occupied a similar position towards the opposite wall. By the light of a match it was not very easy to distinguish them, but seeing a vacant spot several inches in width on what appeared to be the gentlemen's side I took a chance, blew out the match, and throwing myself down on the mattress with my hat as an impromptu pillow was soon fast asleep.

I was awakened by the rising sun shining through a little window directly on my face. I found I was now the sole occupant of the mattress, probably because I had lain down in my spurs. The men had rolled away on the floor and were still fast asleep; so were the ladies.

I gathered up my hat and slipped quietly from the house without further disturbing the occupants. I found my friend Cox already up and preparing breakfast. I discussed with him the possibility of Mr. Baca having got away during the night, but Cox seemed quite confident he was still there. To decide the matter I agreed to run across the street at an acute angle, which would give him a glimpse of me if he was still on the watch. The experiment satisfied me that our friend was still at home.

His shots roused the whole camp, and we returned his morning salute with interest. After that we made several more attempts to get in communication with him, but without effect. It only resulted in the expenditure of ammunition.

During the early hours of the day a report came that the Mexicans were approaching in force. A reconnaissance disclosed the fact that a number of them were riding over the hills on both sides of the village, and amongst some of the belligerents there was almost a stampede to get away, but a few shots at long range caused them to diverge. It turned out afterwards that they had no direct hostile intentions, but were on their way to Socorro to seek the intervention of the authorities.

When the excitement quieted down we again tried to induce Mr. Baca to come out and give himself up, assuring from secure shelter that he would incur no personal harm; but the only response we could get from him was by exposing some one or something for him to shoot at. We tried all kinds of devices, even tried to set the house on fire by hurling blazing logs onto the roof; but the darn thing was made of dirt about a foot or more thick and refused to ignite. We could only sit out and wait, hoping eventually to starve him out, while we fogged him up occasionally, fearing that he might be inclined to rest.

This was not a very exciting game, and the sun was getting low and we were all getting grumpy and drowsy when there was an unexpected diversion. This was a buggy containing three men, which drove in rapidly from the direction of Socorro. From it stepped a tall American, who said that he was a deputy sheriff, and he actually possessed a badge to prove it. He had come in response to a report furnished by a Mexican, who was along with him in the buggy. It was evident that Mr. Baca's friends had lost no time in sending an account of the situation to the proper authorities, for Socorro was fully a hundred and sixty miles away by the most direct route.

Our own deputy, Dan, who did not sport a badge, and if he owned one must have left it at home, had up to this time taken no active part in the proceedings. But now he was very much in evidence, reciting what he had not done to enforce respect for the law. Mr. Rose did not pay much heed to him, but turned to others of our party for information in regard to the whole affair. Dan, I think, was a little peeved, but returned to Mr. Milligan’s for consolation. Mr. Rose now took charge, and another attempt was made to communicate with Mr. Baca, through the medium of the Mexican who had come in the buggy.

This time everything was successful. Mr. Baca stipulated that every one else should stand away from the building and Mr. Rose and those who were with him remain in full view, after which he would come out and surrender to them. When this had been complied with he made his appearance, not through the door, from which every one had been expecting him, but through a little window in the gable end of the house.

I had gone to the back of the adjoining house while he was making his exit and thus unexpectedly happened to be close to him as he came out. He was like a wild animal, stripped to his shirt, with a revolver in each hand, looking suspiciously on every side of him, as if fearing treachery. I withdrew behind my shelter as he came in sight, and. after satisfying himself that no one was lying in wait for him he went up to Mr. Rose, who disarmed him.

Our Dan and his party concluded it was time to go home, but before doing so he rode up and formally turned over the prisoner that he had not captured; after which satisfaction to his dignity he and his party rode off and we saw no more of them. Our party had intended going to the SU, but stayed on at the request of Mr. Rose, who was uneasy lest the men belonging to the other outfits, who had gone off to pay the last rites to Hem's body, should return and attempt to take away the prisoner.

Anyway, Mr. Rose turned Mr. Baca over to our custody shortly after his surrender, and we took him over to Milligan’s for a wash and some refreshment. How he had escaped death was a miracle, for the cabin was riddled with bullets. He explained to us it was only by lying on the floor, which was a foot or more below the level of the ground, that he escaped being hit. Everything else in the cabin was reduced to splinters. We turned him over to Mr. Rose the following morning and the two left for Socorro. Thus ended what was known in that section for several years to come as “The Mexican War.” It might seem the honors were with Baca, unless one heard our own deputy, Dan, swell up and relate what he and his posse had done.