A dead horse, a dead cowboy and 4,000 rounds of ammunition
The tiny hamlet of Reserve, New Mexico is located nestled almost precisely a hundred miles north of Silver City in the state’s hilly Southwest, beside the Gila: the first protected wilderness within this country. While lately identified by its world-class elk hunting and the county’s outspoken level of resistance to federal lands policies, the bucolic Catron Country village of Reserve was once better regard as the site of the fabled “Frisco War.”
Elfego Baca (February 10, 1865 – August 27, 1945) was a gunman, lawman, lawyer, and politician in the closing days of the American wild west. Baca was born in Socorro, New Mexico just before the end of the American Civil War to Francisco and Juana Maria Baca. His family moved to Topeka, Kansas when he was a young child. Upon his mother’s death in 1880, Baca returned with his father to Belen, New Mexico where his father became a marshal.
His goal in life was to be a peace officer. He wanted, he said, “the outlaws to hear my steps a block away.” Southwestern New Mexico at the time was still relatively sparsely settled cattle ranching country. Cowboys roamed the land and did as they pleased. They might come into a town, drink at the saloon, harass the locals, and then shoot up the town out of boredom. Baca meant to put an end to that.
In October of ’84 the nineteen-year-old Elfego may have been approached in Socorro by his friend, the sheriff of Lower Frisco, Pedro Sarracino. The sheriff recounted to him a tale of terror, wherein the Hispanic community was suffering at the hands of a group of drunken cowpokes. Baca claims to have chastised Sarracino for his hesitancy, who supposedly replied that his job was “available to anyone who wanted it” before retiring to the solace of the nearest bar.
In Baca’s memoirs, he claims he next pinned on a phony kid’s badge before beginning the long ride to Frisco, while other participants insisted he was already a legally sworn deputy at the time, campaigning in the area for the current Socorro County Sheriff. Either way, it could be said that Elfego Baca entertained more guts than caution, charging headlong into a situation he knew little about. Strapped to his side was a Colt.45, a coat draping over its characteristic black resin grips.
In 1884 a drunk cowboy named Charlie McCarty ambled down the streets of Reserve, shooting up the town, yelling, hooting, and causing a ruckus. Baca arrested the drunk cowboy, much to the ire of his fellow cowboys. The cowboys tried to jump Baca, but he deftly fended off the attack, wounding one cowboy in the knee and shooting the horse of another, the horse falling on the cowboy and killing him.
William McCarty was taken into custody and later held for trial. A very large gang of cowboys attended the trial, all eyeing up Baca with obvious evil intent. McCarty was fined $5 and released. Immediately Baca hightailed it out of the courtroom, taking refuge in the house Geronimo Armijo.
Around 40 heavily armed cowboys (one unsubstantiated report puts the number at almost 80) surrounded the house and opened fire. Over the next several hours (some claim as many as 33 hours), the cowboys fired over 4,000 rounds, eventually disbursing when they ran out of ammunition. Baca, however, remained unmarked because the house he was taking shelter in had a floor that was lower than ground level, permitting him to take cover.
During the shootout, Baca killed four cowboys and wounded eight others.
After the gunfight, the cowboys turned to the law the get back at Baca, claiming that he had murdered their four fellow comrades in cold blood.
However, the townspeople produced the door of Armijo’s house, riddled with 400 bullet holes, proving Baca’s innocence. Baca would later become sheriff, deputy marshal, and an attorney. He died in 1945 at the age of 80.