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Stories From Socorro: Elfego Baca

July 8, 2013
Elfego Baca (watercolor by a. leon miler)

Elfego Baca (watercolor by a. leon miler)

Socorro, in the 1880’s was a boom town.  The railroad came to town, there were silver mines in nearby Magdalena, and smelters in Socorro.  Likewise, there were a lot of ranches opening up in the surrounding areas.  Both professions brought in a lot of new comers seeking their fortunes.  Before this time, Socorro was a quiet farming community in the Rio Grande valley.  This is the environment that Elfego Baca came of age in.

At 19 years of age, Elfego Baca decided he wanted to be a sheriff. Legend and fact on this and many of the things that followed are sometimes difficult to untangle. Whether he was self appointed or legitimately deputized is unclear. He claims to have purchased his badge at a local store.  The Socorro area at the time saw the opening up of many new ranches along with the arrival of ranch hands; mostly cowboys from Texas & many of them not the most upstanding of citizens. It was the behavior of these cowboys towards the Hispanic citizens that caught Elfego’s attention.  Elfego is reported to have asked the sheriff why he didn’t stop the lawlessness, to which the sheriff responded that if Elfego wanted to do something, to go ahead. So, he did.

In October, 1884 Elfego took his new badge and gun to San Francisco, New Mexico (now Reserve) where he arrested a drunken cowboy at the request of the saloon keeper. It did not take long for his friends to come to his aid and demand his release. Elfego refused. This resulted in the Frisco shootout which lasted over 36 hours. 4000 shots were fired by 80 cowboys against the single Elfego Baca. When it was over, there were 4 dead and 8 wounded.

Elfego agreed to “surrender” to the local justice of the peace. He kept his guns, rode in the back of the wagon, and no one was allowed to get closer than 30 feet, while the “guards” were forced to stay 25 feet in front of the wagon..

Elfego was tried for murder and acquitted after the door to the adobe house he had taken refuge in was entered as evidence, showing 400 bullet holes in it.

Elfago Baca later became the legitimate Sheriff of Socorro County, U. S. Marshal, mayor, lawyer, and prosecuting attorney. He died peacefully at the age of 80 in 1945.

There are many differing elements to this story, some of them fostered by Elfego himself. He was a man of his times. He studied law on his own and passed the bar exam to become a lawyer.

The following link goes to a Library of Congress document of an interview of Elfego Baca done as part of a WPA project in the 1930’s.

Next up:  A Catfish story…

Elfego Baca photo restored by a. leon miler for City of Socorro

Elfego Baca photo restored by a. leon miler for City of Socorro

Elfego Baca Memorial in Reserve, NM

Elfego Baca Memorial in Reserve, New Mexico


Stories from Socorro: an Introduction

July 4, 2013

viva yaViva Ya! (oil painting by a. leon miler)

In my town people dance on the plaza. In the afternoon, old men sell watermelons and chillies from the back of old pickups. Travelers stop to take pictures of San Miguel Church started 400 years ago by the Spanish for the local pueblo ( Someone is selling tamales outside the grocery store on California St., visitors to the college go shopping for souveniers, and tonight a band is playing on the plaza.

Socorro is not Santa Fe. It isn’t even Santa Fe lite. It is Socorro, and tonight the band is playing; people will be there dancing on the plaza.

A town is more than buildings, and history is not made by chance events, but rather people build things and do things, and people have lived in Socorro for a very long time indeed. They 1st arrived here a thousand years ago, more or less. I suspect, they too, danced in the plaza as many of their descendants, the Piros of the the Piro-Manso-Tiwa Tribe of Guadalupe Pueblo, in Las Cruces still dance on Our Lady of Guadalupe Fiesta day*.

We have been to weddings on the plaza, memorials on the plaza, luminarias on the plaza, farmer’s market on the plaza, but at night, at closing time, when nothing is happening, the plaza gets exceptionally quiet.

It is my intent to write several Socorro themed pieces, for Socorro is one of the most curious places I have lived.

*Many of the Piro people of the Socorro pueblos retreated south with the Spanish during the pueblo revolt. See also

 See also:

closing timeClosing Time  (oil painting by a. leon miler)

All for a Dream

June 9, 2013

raven spiral 1-8-2012

There’s restlessness in the breeze,

Warm and easy though it is,

Like the smell of springtime, she’s

Already got her mind made.

The pleasure is, while it lasts,

Where sun cast shadows are laid.

Softly, the sun’s love kisses

Tightly in a warm hug.

You know, truly, one misses

These things on a rainy day.

“O, but my love has promised

She will never go away…”

Like an old worn love song,

I don’t know about life, I’ve

Been living asleep too long,-

All for a dream.

There’s restlessness in the breeze,

Without thought the pine trees talk,

Branch on branch, whispers to tease

You with melancholy strains,

Lullabies that will promise

All things in countless refrains,-

All for a dream.

There’s restlessness in the breeze

That prompts me to wander far

Away, though my feet don’t seize

The moment. Gather your strength,

The sun’s glow hobbled, obscured,

Dark shadows, they grow in length,

At world’s edge, to make one grand

Blazing exit, fading sparks….

There’s restlessness in the land,

The owl’s hunting, a dog barks,

All for a dream.

You smile searching for a dream,-

There was a comet passing

Crossing through a starry stream

Just over the horizon.

I never saw its passage,

I’m told fortunes will anon

Change, that the mighty soon shall

Fall. It moves with a sliver

Of moon sliding cold and fell,-

There’s restlessness in the breeze,-

All for a dream.

ravens calligraphic 1-8-2012


May 29, 2013


Freedom is a blackbird

living on the road,

eats what he eats for free,

and the rest he steals.

Freedom is a blackbird,

takes at any moment

only what can be taken,

and does not pursue the rest.

Passive in the face of what

cannot be won,

he sheds no tears for me

engaged in active futility.

What does freedom bring for gifts?

Freedom is perched up high

looking to take.

Freedom shall give nothing

but a wasted & wanton feather.

When freedom flies away

and I remain on the road,

and what remains

washes away in a winter rain

leaving me stranded

like yesterday’s news in a thornbush,

when freedom flies away

what will I say?

Is Freedom a bandit?


Making Rose Petal Whistles: The Despised and Unlovely (final, maybe)

March 11, 2013

I could not find many references to spiders in literature, so I’ll make my own:

A Spider’s Sonnet:

It’s a spider’s walk across the webbing,spider in rosemary a
The warp and weft sway soft before the breeze.
We gaze at nothing through sunlight’s ebbing,
Still thoughtless we gaze, giving us no ease.

Hang on tightly to a gossamer strand,
Yes, we are assured, it will bear the weight,
It’s all we’ve got, so keep it in your hand,
We shall not fall, for that is not our fate.

Induction is reason down a funnel,
And facts are flies trapped in strands stretched tightly,
Thoughtless food trapped in a fragile tunnel
Through which we thrash and trip far too lightly.

Prometheus is pushing uphill yet,
Arachne’s still weaving to win the bet.

Ambush Spider in a Yucca Blossom

Ambush Spider in a Yucca Blossom

Delicate and lovely, light as gossamer before a gentle afternoon breeze, or cobwebs, pure and simple.  I can find no one who will champion the spinners of gossamer.  Other than Arachne, who dared challenge Athena to a spinning and weaving contest, it is hard to find any endearing tales of charming deeds or parables regarding them.  In fact, it seems that most references to them have a dark view: Webs of intrigue, black widows, and such.  We attach high emotion to them and they are totally oblivious to it.  They are certainly no respecter of anyone’s title or position, or anyone’s great abilities at reasoning or not.  They find their way into the houses of the powerful just as easily as the houses of the poor.

If persistence is a virtue, then spiders are virtuous; tear apart their webs, and they will just proceed to rebuild them.

spider8 cactusspider5

Tarantula (pen and ink by A. Leon Miler)

Tarantula (pen and ink by A. Leon Miler)

Making Rose Petal Whistles: The Despised and Unlovely (part 2)

March 1, 2013

Making Rose Petal Whistles: The Despised and Unlovely (part 2)

The first thing I must make perfectly clear is that rattlesnakes are dangerous and not to be trifled with.  A woman who was in a watercolor class I was teaching told her story of growing up on a ranch in Arizona, and how she and her siblings would capture rattlesnakes, get them into a paper bag, vigorously shake the bag, and give it a big toss.  Don’t do this.  Other than the inherent cruelty, there are just too many things that can go wrong.  Fortunately, they lived to tell their tale.

Where we live in New Mexico there are 5 native species of rattlesnakes, with the most common being the western diamondback (Crotalus atrox).  I have encountered 3 of the 5 species in the creosote brush where we live.  One of them, the black tailed rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), I found in my garden placidly resting under squash vines.  The other 3 rattlesnakes native to where we live in Socorro, NM are:  the massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus), the rock rattlesnake (Crotalus lepidus), and the western, or prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis).

The western diamondback is the largest of the western rattlesnakes, sometimes growing t0 7 feet (2.13 meters), although I’ve never met anyone who has seen one that long.  The largest one I have seen is not the longest one.  It was in the neighborhood of 4 feet (1.22 meters) and extremely large around.  It was also the 1st one we saw in New Mexico, and is the subject of the watercolor “Old Man of the Mountain.” (See below.)

Rattlesnakes are usually active from late March through early November.  They will find a rocky place or abandoned animal burrow to den up for the winter, sometimes sharing their dens with other snake species.  They are generally slow moving, (you can walk faster than they move), and not very bright.  Their main purpose in life is to avoid being eaten, eat rodents, squirrels, and rabbits, and to perpetuate their species.  They live alone, they travel alone, and spend a good portion of their life underground looking for food.

For all their fearsome reputation, they are not even close to the top of the food chain.  Bull snakes eat them, coachwhip snakes eat them, owls and hawks eat them, and roadrunners eat any that are small enough for them to tackle.  We usually see 3 or 4 a year passing through our yard, depending on the rodent and rabbit population.  They are not aggressive.  They do not seek people out, nor do they go looking for confrontation.  Being slow moving and dimwitted, the only protection they have is their reputation and their bite.

Diamondback in a classic defensive pose, ready to strike. (photo, A. Leon Miler)

Diamondback in a classic defensive pose, ready to strike. (photo, A. Leon Miler)

I usually will remove rattlesnakes from our yard to a safe place several acres away.  I do this by using a long handled garden rake to herd the snake into a 5 gallon bucket.  I then pick the bucket up, using the garden rake, and carry it of at the end of that rake.  This actually takes less time than killing them and disposing of the remains.

Black Tailed Rattlesnake and Desert Evening Primrose (watercolor)

Black Tailed Rattlesnake and Desert Evening Primrose (watercolor, A. Leon Miler)

Diamondback Rattlesnake (watercolor)

Diamondback Rattlesnake (watercolor, A. Leon Miler)

The Old Man of the Mountain (watercolor)

The Old Man of the Mountain (watercolor, A. Leon Miler)

Making Rose Petal Whistles: The Despised and Unlovely (part 1)

February 21, 2013

Making Rose Petal Whistles:  The Despised and Unlovely (part 1)

Pale Wind Scorpions; genus: Eremobates, Species: pallipes

To begin with, I don’t want to ascribe values or sentiments that these creatures do not have. They are little organic beings that have been created to do what they do, which is to eat arthropods, small lizards, and the like. They are not poisonous, nor do they stalk creatures beyond their capabilities, but should you handle one and treat it roughly, it can give a sharp bite, without apology.

By most people’s account, pale wind scorpions are unlovely, somewhat scary looking, and therefore, unwanted. Living in a dry desert place like we do, we find them outside the front door, and occasionally, inside the front door. They are night hunters, able to run like the wind on 3 of their 4 sets of legs. The smallest upfront pair of legs are used to feel things as they move about in the dark.

Pale wind scorpions are, like spider and scorpions, arachnids, and like spiders, they have leg-looking appendages called pedipalps used to grab and hold their dinner. They also have a disproportionately large set of jaws, or fangs called “chelicerae.” 

My model for this pen and ink had found his way inside the house.  He was just a wee bit defensive about being waylaid while I captured his image.  I hope he fed himself well while inside the house.  He quickly disappeared among the rocks and pebbles that make up the desert pavement.  With his scruffy beard, he reminded me of a fearless warrior not really cognizant of his lack of stature, running into battle shouting “I’ve got you outnumbered one to one!”

Pale Wind Scorpion (pen and ink)

Pale Wind Scorpion (pen and ink)

Read more…

Images of Echoes (words and graphics by a. leon miler)

January 15, 2013
Larkspur from the Gila

Larkspur from the Gila

Images of Echoes

Images of echoes bouncing off the mountain sides, like the facets of a gem, the sounds sparkle and gleam far past the light’s fading moments, and disappear into the vagueness of the night. Time blow no more through these gates. No more cold winds, chill memories blowing stray rumors, like barking dogs at dusk.

She had a voice for singing sad songs and slow lullabies. She said she’d never be leaving as she walked out the door. I guess I could have been mistaken; she could have said she’d never say “goodbye.” I’ve been told nothing’s sung better than a successful hyperbole. I’m growing old wearing blue jeans and t-shirts; a handful of yesterday’s pearls strung between bits of tarnished silver; where the ancient paths cross the freeway going south.

So turn the music off, but the silence won’t do. On the desert floor where the road runners run, the ground is warming, breeding this afternoon’s dust devils.

There are pilgrims on the freeway going south looking for holy places they will not find. To those bound for slavery, to slavery they must go. To those bound for freedom, to the struggle they must go. One road is easy, though it has a bitter end; the other road promises nothing but a path and a hope.

Nothing happens for no reason, sometimes it’s just meant to be, like buying a repo and calling it home. “My sorrow is your joy”; sleep in peace, dream sweet dreams. When the morning comes there will still be time; still be time to finish all that you will finish, still time to stand in the sunshine; there will still be time as long as there is air to breathe.

Images of echoes bouncing off the mountain sides, like the facets of a gem, the sounds sparkle and gleam far past the light’s fading moments, and disappear into the vagueness of the night. Time blow no more through these gates. No more cold winds, chill memories blowing stray rumors, like barking dogs at dusk.

She had a voice for singing that rumbled through the dark like a transient thunder storm passing to leave the stars washed and brilliant, cast across the sky. When she arose, she shook loose her robes and scattered stars across the distant unknown; brilliant sparks, things yet to be seen. We were in the Gila wilderness; there were voices in the wind, whispering and singing, laughing and dreaming out loud; I saw them, the stars scattered abroad, streaking across the sky, and then fading into the night. The big dipper had rotated around, leaving Polaris ever north, telling me morning was not that distant, and then she smiled when she glanced down at me, arms outstretched like the sun’s rays reaching over the horizon, reaching out to embrace the coming day.

Asters were strewn across the meadow forming their own constellations, flirting with bees. By the water, the night blue larkspur and yellow columbine nodded in the morning light. The scrub jays in the pine trees hopped down, checking our breakfast benevolence as we drove away.

She shook loose her robes and scattered stars across the distant unknown...

She shook loose her robes and scattered stars across the distant unknown…

Yellow Columbine

Yellow Columbine

Of Cottontails and Horny Toads (text and graphics by A. Leon Miler)

December 19, 2012
Cottontail, Horny Toad, & Lizard

Cottontail, Horny Toad, & Lizard

A flat sable brush to quickly define the outlines, this is not about animal details; cottontail does not want to stand out.  Horny toad just wants to blend in.The whiptail just wants to be ignored.  So let them be.  They are just part of the design.

There are always ravens wandering about over the desert, looking for an easy meal. The creosote keeps on going down the margin between the Rio Grande valley and the edge of the mountains, all the way into Mexico and west Texas, punctuated by islands of mesquite and prickly pear cactus, cut by arroyos sheltering Mormon tea and saltbush, and providing banks for coyotes and foxes to make homes in.

Over it all flies raven. Road runner stays down in the brush looking for hapless lizards and baby quail. At night coyote goes running about looking for cottontails who are attempting to be invisible while eating prickly pear cactus and whatever grass that might be available.

Cottontail in the Weeds

Cottontail in the Weeds



Calligraphic Ravens

Calligraphic Ravens

And so life goes on.

The Trestle

September 24, 2012

The Trestle pencil drawing by A. Leon Miler

Me and Bobby used to hang out at the railroad trestle that crossed the river between Oak Grove and Lake Oswego. We would climb the metal ladder that was attached to the cement pillar at the edge of the river, and climb off onto the 2 x 12 plank walkways that were on each level of the timber structure over the bank. I don’t know, maybe we were pirates. I don’t think so. Mostly we were just bored.

The bridge was only used a couple of times a day, hauling wood chips and sulfur to the paper mills 10 miles upstream. Sometimes we would cross over to the other side stepping tie to tie with nothing between them but a view of the water below. We always wondered what we would do if a train came while we were half way across. There was not enough room to get out of the way. It never happened though.

Bobby’s dad died when Bobby was 14. His dad was a drunk. He turned yellow and puked himself to death. Some people said he just never got over the war. I used to hull walnuts with him in the fall out on their front porch until my hands were all walnut brown. Then we’d take them up to the attic to dry among all the empty gallon Thunderbird wine bottles. He would always tell me stories about when he was a kid growing up in the hills. He never talked about the war, and no one ever asked. It was like it never happened.

He used to drive out to the potato fields and load the trunk of his car up with cull potatoes. He would always bring us a load. He was one of the nicest people I ever knew.

Everything in Bobby’s house smelled like wood smoke and bacon. It would even get into your clothes if you stayed long enough. Bobby’s Dad smoked Prince Albert pipe tobacco that he rolled up in Zig Zag papers. When his hands were steady, he did a masterful job. When they weren’t, I’d roll the tobacco for him. I wasn’t nearly as good as he was, but they worked.

We used to stay up all night long playing games of chance, a roll of the dice, the luck of the draw, seeing the lady’s face appear, a twist of fate, a wink, a nod,- the waters rippled on down stream over the monsters hidden in the deep; and when morning came, we rode our skateboards down Molalla Avenue in the rain over soggy yellow leaves flattened on the cement, hoping to avoid the pebbles that would lead to disaster. Sometimes we would end up at the library, sometimes we would end up at the river where the paper mills were, where fishermen fished for salmon in front of the waterfalls.

Bobby wanted to be a drummer. He didn’t have any drums but he had drumsticks. I was supposed to get a guitar, and we were going to play together, but after his dad died, his mom took him off to Washington State and I never saw him again. The last I heard, he was waiting tables in Seattle.

Mountain rivers are all roar and rush. In the spring they turn milky white, and turquoise from the melting snow. When the first green starts appearing, the salmon berries with the blooming trilliums and skunk cabbages always being among the first to show themselves. There is a certain perfumed smell to the woods through which the mountain rivers run, the dampness, the dripping rain. I can smell it still, a thousand miles away in the desert. The mountain rivers, they all join hands as they leave the hills behind and become a bigger river that ships from the ocean can sail up. The river where the trestle crossed ran deep, being squeezed in by basalt on either bank. The bank that people fished from was a basalt table that dropped vertically to the river’s bottom. When the tide pushed the river back, it would rise and cover the rocks. When it rained, it would pattern the water’s surface with a myriad of expanding circles. Sometimes, at the top of the tide, the water would turn mirror smooth, and yet the current still kept the floating debris moving on downstream. Just staring out over the water sometimes would do something to you way down deep inside, and you’d shiver even if you weren’t cold.

In the fall we moved away. Dad thought he had a cheap way to get rich. That didn’t really work out too well. He wrecked the trailer house and pickup in a storm in Kansas, and the service station he bought in Missouri burned down before he could take possession, so we went to Texas in a $200 old Ford, and the clothes on our back.

The last time I was at the trestle, it was raining and the water was running high. The seagulls had flown in from the coast ahead of a storm, and were contesting a dead fish with the some local ravens.

Bobby’s dad made me a blue stocking hat when he was in rehab at the Veteran’s Hospital the year before he died. I was wearing it when I got swept off a log into the ocean by a sneaker wave, and lost it.

The Flood at High Tide watercolor by A. Leon Miler

The Flood at High Tide watercolor by A. Leon Miler

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