"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Elfego Baca


Mexican American gunman of the old West


Much has been written of gunmen of the old West like Jesse James, Billy the Kid or John Wesley Hardin, and they have often appeared on the big and small screen, but much less well known are the Mexican-American gunfighters. Like black, Indian or mixed-race figures, they seem to have been written out of history. In the TV series Justified, Raylan’s boss Art talks of Bass Reeves (1838 – 1910) and says, “Good luck finding a movie about him!” In fact, almost as a response, perhaps, in 2010 the film Bass Reeves came out, made by Ponderosa Productions of San Antonio but that is very unusual. Rich rancher Print Olive had a black gunman named James Kelly, who was known, in the demeaning and today offensive language of the time, as “Print’s Bad Nigger”. In the ‘blaxploitation’ years a few movies featuring heroes of African origin came out and then there was the very bad Van Peebles film Posse. Deets was an enormously sympathetic figure in Lonesome Dove.  But really, the famous outlaws and gunslingers, the ones that appeared in dime novels, TV shows and movies, were of European extraction.

As for Mexicans, Joaquin Murieta (or Murrieta or Murrietta), the ‘Robin Hood’ of California in the 1850s, is so shadowy a figure that little is known about him for sure. We don’t even know for certain when he was born and when he died (perhaps 1829 to 1853). Across the border there were of course many Mexican bandits, as the Texas Rangers knew only too well, and the line dividing bandidos and revolutionaries was also not always distinct. In fiction O Henry’s Cisco Kid reached the screen (in watered-down form) many times. But in terms of classic gunfighters of the old West, there are virtually no Spanish-speaking characters.

Elfego in popular culture

Elfego Baca, however, was one. He is hardly a staple figure of the Hollywood Western, although Robert Loggia played him on TV in ten episodes shown on Walt Disney Presents from 1958 to 1960. There was an accompanying comic, and episodes of the series were later edited into a 1962 movie titled Elfego Baca: Six Gun Law. The title song of the show concentrated on Baca fighting for right with his brains rather than his sixgun: “Elfego was wise, and Elfego was strong. Elfego, El Gato, who made right from wrong. And the legend is that, like El Gato the cat, Nine Lives had Elfego Baca.” Deathless poetry, huh?
 
Robert Loggia as Elfego Baca
 
In fact, though, although Baca did indeed become an attorney, politician and a wily old fox (not quite sure how feline he was), his youth featured a good deal more gunmanship than penmanship.

Early life

Elfego Baca was born in Socorro, NMT in 1865. His mother was an unusual woman: she loved to play baseball and in fact had to interrupt a game to give birth to Elfego on the ballpark. Baca père had a reputation as a hard case. He moved the family to Topeka, Kansas, where Elfego went to school and did well there. When, at fifteen, he went back to Socorro, he spoke better English than Spanish. Elfego’s father became marshal of Belen, a small settlement near Socorro, where he shot and killed two cowboys for hurrahing the town. This was judged excessive and he landed in jail but Elfego cut a hole in the roof and pulled his father out. Baca senior then disappeared, perhaps to Ysleta or San Elizario.

Elfego the ‘lawman’

By the age of nineteen, Elfego was already known to be good with guns. He elected himself a lawman, got hold of a mail-order badge and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps by arresting some cowpunchers who had treed the town of Frisco, NMT (now Reserve, about a hundred miles north-west of Silver City, not far from the Arizona line).
 
A young Elfego
 
His investigations revealed some of the Slaughter crew as the culprits, particularly a puncher named McCarty (not Billy the Kid), who shot up the town at will. Elfego asked the alcade for a warrant but as, despite the star, Baca had no legal authority at all, it was refused. Undeterred, Elfego went in search of the cowboys, whom he found gathered in the street. He grabbed McCarty by the collar, stuck a pistol in his ear and dragged him off to the jail.

The Frisco Shootout

Later that day a group of Slaughter cowhands gathered before the jail and demanded McCarty’s release. Baca’s response was steely and measured: he said that he refused to discuss the matter, he would count to three and unless they dispersed immediately he would start shooting. He then counted quickly to three, pulled his pistol and commenced firing. One shot hit a cowboy in the leg, horses reared, the foreman’s mount threw him and rolled on him, fatally, and there was chaos. The punchers scattered.

The next morning a justice of the peace tried McCarty and fined him five dollars for disturbing the peace. Outside, the released McCarty and his fellow cowboys wanted revenge and one shot at Baca, who ran for it, seeking refuge in the only possible cover, a jacal whose residents Baca expelled. There then followed one of the most extraordinary sieges in Western history (and legend).

The building was of upright posts chinked with mud. It was an unimpressive refuge from a fusillade. But it had a floor dug out about eighteen inches below ground level and that’s what saved Baca. He was able to lie down and be protected from the hail of bullets from perhaps eighty guns that punctured the cabin. The door alone had nearly 400 bullet holes and a broom stick was hit eight times. Baca fired back as far as his meager store of ammunition permitted and killed at least one attacker, a certain Jim Herne.

The cowboys tossed torches on the dirt roof but these did not take. They threw dynamite and it shattered part of the jacal but no one knew if Baca had survived and they were unwilling to rush the place to find out. The next morning they saw smoke rising from the broken chimney as Baca calmly cooked himself some breakfast.

The second day there was sporadic firing. Many cowboys returned to their ranch. Late in the day a deputy named Ross, whom Baca trusted, brokered a deal. Baca was to come out and stand trial. No one would harm him. Elfego agreed as long as he could keep his guns.

He languished in jail in Socorro for four months and then was acquitted in a trial in Albuquerque.
 
Baca shoots back
 
There’s a statue of Baca on the spot of the siege now. He’s the one who has come out of the shootout best.

Lawyer and (real) peace officer

In jail, Baca decided to reform himself.

First, he married. A son and five daughters followed and he became a true family man. He became an official law officer, arresting, among others, the outlaws Jose Chavez y Chavez and, later, Jose Garcia. In 1894 Baca was admitted to the New Mexico bar and practiced successfully as an attorney, especially for the defense. He became an articulate proponent of rights for Mexican Americans. He ran for office and was successively a mayor, county clerk, school superintendent assistant district attorney and DA.
 
Respectable
 
He was interested in the Mexican revolution and was named General Huerta’s representative. When General Jose Salazar crossed into New Mexico to recoup and gather his forces for a possible coup, he was arrested for violation of neutrality laws. It was Elfego Baca who defended him.
 
Jose Salazar (right) with his lawyer Baca
 
He got Salazar transferred to the jurisdiction of a civilian court. Salazar was imprisoned in Albuquerque, whence he escaped, possibly (though there is no proof of this) with the complicity of Baca, and fled into Mexico.

Shooting in El Paso

In El Paso in 1915 Baca got into a confrontation with one Celestino Otero, a supporter of a rival Mexican faction, when he agreed to meet Otero at a café, and as Baca stepped out of his automobile, Otero shot him. The bullet struck him in the groin but it didn’t stop Baca, who was heeled, and he shot Otero twice in the heart. Baca quickly recovered and was acquitted of the murder of Señor Otero.

Sheriff Baca

Now in his fifties, Baca was elected sheriff of Socorro County. He was said to be the best sheriff the county ever had.
 
Said to be Baca's badge
 
Later he was the muscle at the infamous Tivoli saloon in Juarez, until he busted the son of the Juarez police chief…
 
Attorney Baca
 
As an old man he returned to his legal work, being unwilling to retire. All sorts of stories are told about him, such as the one (apocryphal or not) in which received a telegram from a client in El Paso. "Need you at once," it said. "Have just been charged with murder." To which Baca is supposed to have replied with a telegram saying, "Leaving at once with three eyewitnesses”.

Elfego Baca died in 1945, aged eighty. He was one of the most colorful characters of the old West. And it’s time we had a decent movie about him.

Books

There are quite a few books on Baca. In 1928 a sensational biography came out, Law and Order Ltd.: The Rousing Life of Elfego Baca of New Mexico by Kyle Crichton. There’s a facsimile edition available now with a foreword by Stan Sager, who also wrote Viva Elfego! in 2002. Elfego Baca in Life and Legend by Larry D Ball was published in 1992 and two years later Incredible Elfego Baca by Howard Bryan came out. More recently there was Elfego Baca, The Mexican Gunfighter by Alton Pryor, which appeared last year. I haven’t read these, so I don’t know how good they are but in any case there’s no shortage of reading matter if you want to know more.
 
Plenty to read
 
There’s a chapter in Leon Metz’s The Shooters (Berkley, 1976), to which I am indebted for this post.

So long, e-pards.
 
RIP

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