Sunday, November 08, 2015

Showdown at the V Cross T

A century later, looking back at a New Mexico territorial gunfight every bit as lethal as the showdown at that other corral in Tombstone


ADOBE RANCH, N.M. Out here, where the tawny Plains of San Agustin spill over the Continental Divide and slap up against the mountains of the Black Range, spring winds rowdy enough to rattle your teeth, blister your ears and curb your enthusiasm whip it up wild, loud and persistent.

But on this day, a Friday afternoon in early May, the wind has backed off for a bit, gentling down to an earnest breeze that ripples the grass on the Adobe Ranch, which lies 50 miles, as the crow flies, southwest of the old cowtown of Magdalena.

Cooter and Beans, the Adobe Ranch dogs, are prowling among the rusting wire and weathered pine planks of the ranch’s ancient corral, sniffing eagerly at discarded horseshoes and junked truck beds as if they hadn’t seen or smelled these things just about every day of their lives.

The Adobe Ranch, more than 150 years old, is still a working cattle ranch, running stock with the V Cross T, Slash or Rafter I Bar brands. Ginger Whetten, wife of ranch manager Gene Whetten, thinks the corral dates back 100 years or more.

Maybe so. Gapped and sagging in places, the corral fences no longer hold stock. And instead of cowponies, the old stalls shelter used-up ranch equipment and worn-out ranch house appliances.
But if this corral is 100 years old, it has surely got a lot of ghosts penned up in it. On November 17, 1911, these fences might have played a supporting role in the gunfight at the V Cross T corral, one of the bloodiest battles between lawmen and lawbusters in New Mexico history, and a fight every bit as lethal and lead-infused as the 1881 showdown near that other corral over in Tombstone.

When the V Cross T corral gunfight was over, three men—including two peace officers—were dead. It happened right here. But it started 100 miles south, in the Luna County seat of Deming.

On the evening of November 7, 1911, 10 days before the fight at the V Cross T, Luna County Sheriff Dwight B. Stephens was reading the paper in his jail offices in Deming. It was election day, and Stephens, a Republican, was trying to keep a cool head as he waited to see if he had won re-election over his Democratic challenger.

Governor Miguel Otero had appointed Stephens sheriff in 1904 to fill out an unfinished term in this Southwestern county which borders Old Mexico. Stephens was then elected to the office in 1905 and 1909. This election, however, was different from the others because the New Mexico Territory—finally overcoming arguments that it was too corrupt, too Hispanic and too violent—was set to become the nation’s 47th state on January 6, 1912. Officials elected in this November election would be the first to serve the new state government.

Stephens won the election by more than 100 votes. But before he even heard the good news, his evening was spoiled by a masked man who climbed over the nine-foot-high adobe wall surrounding the jail and introduced Stephens and Chief Deputy James Kealy to the business end of his Winchester rifle. The masked man took Stephens’ shoes, guns and ammunition, and forced the release of a prisoner who was being held on a burglary charge, John W. Gates. The masked man and Gates then joined a third man, also masked, who was holding three horses outside the jail. The three mounted, kicked dust and were gone.


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