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Elfego Baca

Born in Socorro, N.M. in 1865, Elfego Baca moved to Kansas with his family, where he spent his boyhood. When he was in his teens the family returned to New Mexico. In 1882 Baca's father, Francisco, killed two cowboys in a gunfight and was sentenced to a stiff prison term. Elfego finally found steady employment working in a store in Socorro, but nevertheless harbored visions of becoming a lawman and a man who, like his father, was not afraid to use a gun. To that end he purchased a mail-order lawman's badge and two six-guns which he wore proudly.

In October of 1884, a cowboy named McCarty got drunk in Frisco, N.M., where Baca was working. McCarty began to "hurrah" the town, picking Mexicans as his targets, causing many of these hapless people to "dance" to the music of his bullets. Baca rushed to the scene and, pinning on his badge, the selfstyled lawman arrested McCarty after drawing his two guns. He marched the tipsy cowboy to the town square where he informed citizens that he would take McCarty to Socorro where he would be tried for disturbing the peace.

At that moment, more cowboys led by their foreman, a man named Perham, arrived in the plaza and demanded that McCarty be released. Perham and McCarty, citizens informed Baca, both worked for the largest rancher in the area, Tom Slaughter, a man unused to having his cowboys arrested without his approval. Baca shrugged and then told Perham that he would count to three and if they did not leave the plaza he would start shooting. Without waiting for a response, Baca rapidly counted to three and then opened fire on the cowboys, wounding one in the knee. Another one of Baca's shots struck the horse Perham was riding, causing the animal to crash to earth, mortally injuring Perham.

Citizens led by J.H. Cook then approached Baca and convinced him to turn his prisoner over to a local justice of the peace. McCarty was fined $50 for disturbing the peace and Baca's sense of justice was served. He stated that he intended to leave for Socorro the next day, but when he began to leave town he suddenly faced more than eighty well-armed cowboys under the command of Tom Slaughter. He stood off cowboys for thirty-three hours in what became one of New Mexico's most famous gunfights.

It was never determined who fired the first shot, but suddenly Baca was blazing away with both six-guns at the entire Slaughter band. He turned and darted down an alleyway to a small Mexican hut which was made of poles and mud, ordering the small family inside to escape. Just as they did so, Slaughter's men surrounded the hut and began to fire at it, riddling the walls and door. Baca crouched low and fired through the eighteen-inch opening beneath the door, his bullets smacking into Jim Herne as he rushed the hut with rifle in hand. Herne died in the dusty street outside the hut, his body dragged away by a dozen cowboys pouring a deadly barrage into the hut.

Slaughter's men lay siege to the small building, hour after hour pouring tremendous fusillades into the walls of the hut so that the hail of bullets literally tore away the walls and cut the wooden door to shreds. Baca occasionally returned fire and his aim proved to be deadly accurate. One cowboy after another fell wounded by Baca's pinpoint firing. The Slaughter people finally strung ropes between buildings and placed blankets over these so they could walk about freely without Baca picking them off.

Slaughter's men, using shotguns and buffalo guns, poured several volleys into the roof of the hut at sundown, causing the roof to collapse. It took Baca two hours to dig himself out from under the debris. He continued to fire back at his antagonists. At midnight some of Slaughter's men worked their way close enough to the hut to hurl a lighted stick of dynamite which blew away half of the hut, but Baca remained uninjured, having crouched in an undamaged corner of the building. Again he rose to fire at the cowboys, managing to wound two or three more.

At dawn, Baca was seen to calmly cook his breakfast in the ruins of the hut which brought cheers and applause from the many Mexican spectators viewing the battle from afar. Still, the Slaughter cowboys were determined to ferret out the upstart Baca. Some of their more inventive numbers ripped out some heavy cookstoves from nearby buildings and used these as metal shields, moving them across the open ground around the half-demolished hut, but Baca picked off those behind them, creasing the skull of one cowboy and winging another in the arm. The cowboys gave up the idea of trying to rush the 19-year-old "deputy sheriff."

Before the Slaughter group unleashed another barrage, Cook, a deputy sheriff named Ross and Francisquito Naranjo approached the hut under a flag of truce and persuaded Baca to surrender, promising that he would be delivered safely to the authorities in Socorro. He agreed, but only if he could keep his guns. Amazingly, this was agreed to by the Slaughter band, who apparently had been instilled with a great deal of respect for the sharpshooting Baca. More than thirty cowboys escorted Baca to Socorro but the cowboys rode in front of a buckboard in which Baca sat with Cook and Ross. Throughout the journey to Socorro, Baca kept his guns trained on his captors lest they go back on the promise he had been made.

In Socorro, the evidence was heard. Four men had been killed by Baca and at least ten other cowboys had been wounded by the self-styled lawman. Yet his heroic defense of the hut so impressed the court, along with its belief that Baca was acting in self-defense, that he was acquitted in two hotly-argued murder trials. Following this "miracle of the jacal," Baca capitalized upon his reputation to secure a variety of public offices, including county clerk, deputy sheriff, county sheriff, mayor of Socorro, school superintendent, and district attorney.

In 1888, Baca became a U.S. Marshal. He served for two years and then began studying law. In December 1894, he was admitted to the bar and joined a Socorro law firm. He practiced law on San Antonio Street in El Paso between 1902 and 1904.

From 1913 to 1916, Baca served as the official representative in the U.S. of Victoriano Huerta government during the Mexican Revolution, a post which earned Baca an indictment for criminal conspiracy when Mexican general José Inés Salazar escaped from prison. Successfully defended by the New Mexican lawyer and politician Octaviano Larrazolo, Baca's reputation grew among Southwestern residents.

When New Mexico became a state in 1912, Baca unsuccessfully ran for Congress as a Republican. Nevertheless, he remained a valued political figure because of his ability to turn out the vote among the Hispanic population. Working at times as a private detective, Baca also took a job as a bouncer in a casino across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Baca worked closely with New Mexico's longtime Senator Bronson Cutting as a political investigator and wrote a weekly column in Spanish praising Cutting's work on behalf of local Hispanics. Baca considered running for governor despite his declining health, but he failed to secure the Democratic Party's nomination for district attorney in 1944.

Baca, although he rarely drew his gun as a lawman, was, because of the legendary Frisco fight, the most feared gunman in the territory. At age fifty he was again called upon to draw his six-guns. In 1915, Baca was approached by an old enemy, Celestino Otero, who accosted the aging lawman as he stepped from the Paso del Norte Hotel in El Paso. Otero and some of his henchmen jumped out of a car and Otero pulled a revolver. He fired at Baca but the shot went wild. Baca drew both six-guns and fired a bullet from each, both striking Otero in the chest and killing him immediately. Baca was again tried for murder and acquitted.

In 1919, Baca was again elected sheriff of Socorro County. Upon taking office, he went through all the wanted circulars of his own and neighboring counties and then wrote letters to these wanted felons, demanding that they immediately turn themselves in or he would strap on his six-guns and bring them back head down over a saddle. Such was Baca's fierce reputation that a half dozen of the most deadly outlaws in the area came meekly to Socorro to surrender to the famous sheriff. He died at age eighty in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1945, with his boots off.

In 1958, Walt Disney Studios released a television miniseries titled The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca and starring Robert Loggia in the title role, a total of ten episodes were produced. Episodes of the series were later edited into a movie titled Elfego Baca: Six Gun Law, which was released in 1962. Set in 1880s New Mexico, it tells of the improbable but mostly true adventures of a Mexican American man who earned a reputation for being difficult to kill, became sheriff of a town, and then an underdog-defending lawyer.

Elfego is not the type of individual you'd read about in history books, but he (at least in Walt Disney's version) is principled and brave, like any hero should be. In its first two episodes, Disney's series can easily be labeled a Western, but those whom the genre immediately turns off, will soon discover (should they give it a chance) that in spite of the untamed West setting of just-north-of-Mexico, the series offers quite a bit more than cowboys, Indians, saloons, and gunplay.

All four of those elements do figure in the episodes and you might be surprised by the levels of violence in a 1950s television program bearing Walt Disney's name and introduction, but comedy, drama, adventure, crime, and mystery are also seamlessly weaved in alongside the involving gunplay.

By today's standards, the acting is generally pretty weak with one major exception. That exception is Robert Loggia, a young Italian American man from Staten Island, New York, who in the lead role of Elfego had one of his first professional filmed acting gigs. Loggia has had quite an active career since and, now in his mid-70s, is still performing in films and television.

Here in his late 20s, Loggia oozes with charisma and just the right amount of confidence, which is good because he's in almost every scene. He makes for a surprisingly convincing Latino and assures that Baca is a hero you can stand behind. Elfego is quite the compelling protagonist, one who doesn't take himself too seriously and isn't upstaged by his nemesis or anyone else.

Jay Robert Nash. . Da Capo Press. 1989.


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