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Historically Speaking: Lawmen of Lincoln County

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Pat Garrett, John W. Poe and James Brent, sheriffs of Lincoln County — date unknown.

By Janice Dunnahoe

Special to the Daily

Record

I wonder how many of you remember the 1973 movie “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid?” I don’t remember much about the movie itself, but what I do remember was Bob Dylan and the haunting song he wrote for this movie, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”

Especially when Dylan sings, “Mama, take this badge off of me, I can’t use it anymore. It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see” and after the chorus, “Mama, put my guns in the ground; I can’t shoot them anymore. That long black cloud is comin’ down; I feel I’m knockin’ on Heaven’s door.”

Those lyrics are so descriptive of the harsh reality, the real life drama, the sheriffs, deputies, marshals, all lawmen have faced, both in the days of the Old West, and even now.

In the late 1800s, bank and train robbers, murderers, rustlers and any other lawbreaker with a fast horse stood a reasonable chance of remaining free from arrest in the sparsely settled land of the Old West. Sheriffs, their deputies and rangers were given the task of pursuing the bad men. They were authorized to make arrests “anywhere” in the territory. They could pin on a badge, saddle up and — in the righteous cause of justice and the territorial statutes — ride up into the mountains and across deserts in pursuit of society’s enemies. These lawmen — whether they were riding alone or with a posse — sometimes had to match bullet for bullet. Their very lives were oftentimes given by the “luck of the draw,” literally, or the situation of the moment. Following is the story of one of those men whose family is, and has been, well known to Roswell.

The end of Jasper Corn and Johnny Hurley

 

Being sheriff during early days in Lincoln County was no picnic. In 1878, John Poe — who came to the West for adventure and to hunt buffalo — became town marshal at Fort Griffin, Texas, and was commissioned a deputy U.S. marshal. These positions were good training for him as a peace officer because of the number and variety of crimes at Fort Griffin.

In 1879, Poe became a deputy sheriff at Fort Elliott in Wheeler County, Texas, and continued as a deputy U.S. marshal. In 1881, the Canadian River Cattle Association employed him as a detective to help end the lawless activities of Billy the Kid and his gang. In March of that year, Poe went to White Oaks in Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he met county sheriff Patrick “Pat” Floyd Garrett. Garrett made Poe a deputy sheriff. Aided by his reputation as a law enforcer, Poe was elected sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, in 1882.

Nicolas Aragon and one of his friends had stolen several horses from citizens along the Hondo, and a warrant had been issued for the arrest of the two thieves.

Poe was away at the time, but it didn’t take long for deputy sheriff Jim Brent to get together a posse to go after the two men and soon they were caught and put in jail in Lincoln. However, the jail had a reputation for not holding its occupants very well, and within a few days (after being sentenced to five years as rustler) Aragon had escaped and disappeared down the valley.

When Poe heard what had happened, he sent Jasper Corn of Roswell out to get the thief. Corn headed north, as he had heard that Aragon had gone on up the Pecos to Aragon’s ranch on the Rio Gallinas.

Corn, as some have stated, “was as brave as the bravest,” but knowing Aragon was really a desperate outlaw, he perhaps anticipated having a little trouble.

Corn made the long ride to Aragon’s Ranch where Aragon was rumored to be. Evidently, the outlaw had suspected that Poe’s deputy was after him because as the lawman got near the house, he caught a glimpse of a man running out the back door and jumping the rock fence where a saddled horse was ready.

Since it appeared that he could not head off the outlaw, Corn spurred his horse and rode hard after him, pulling his pistol and opening fire as they rode.

Aragon was not to be taken easily — as Corn was soon to find out. As soon as the outlaw was out of sight from Corn, he hid his horse in a clump of bushes and waited. The outlaw was mean and he knew how to handle the rifle. When Corn came into view, Aragon had him in his sights.

Here is where some stories vary. According to the For Old Times’ Sake column written by Clarence S. Adams in 1980, for the Old Timer’s Review it says:

“Since it appeared that he could not hit off the outlaw, Corn spurred his horse and rode hard after him, pulling his pistol and opening fire as they rode.

“Aragon was not to be taken easily, however — as Corn was soon to find out. The outlaw was mean and he knew how to handle the rifle. As soon as he was out of sight, he hid his horse in a clump of bushes and waited. When Corn came into view, the bushwacker had him in his sights. “The Winchester roared, the fur shop hitting Corn’s horse high in the neck, and it fell, mortally wounded. The deputy was not able to fall free, however, and his leg was caught under the horse, mangled — probably broken.

“Pinned lived down as he was though, Corn kept on fighting, throwing lead until his six-shooter was empty. Aragon was a dead shot with his Winchester however, and in moments a shot struck Corn in the stomach — the worst place. The lawman perhaps knew that he was a goner, as he had no friends and the outlaw haven and no one to care for him. He died some two days later without receiving any form of medical attention.”

In the Golden Era newspaper, Lincoln County, New Mexico, Oct. 30, 1884, the killing of Corn was described in detail and it differs from what Adams wrote.

“Death on the trail

“Deputy Sheriff Jasper Corn Foully Murdered While in Discharge of His Duty.

“… Corn arrived at the springs about 10 days since and had been lying low waiting for an opportunity. Last Thursday night Aragon had some trouble with a couple of women at Coyote springs about two miles distant, and this news was brought to the deputy sheriff by a lady who visited the place to inquire after a friend or relative, and identified Aragon as one of the party. The sheriff then determined to surround the house and make good the capture of his man.

“Corn’s brother-in-law W.I. Hollman, and a man named Jim Lane, accompanied the deputy. Previous to this small party starting out, Martin Salgago left Gallinas Springs for Coyote to inform Aragon that the officers were about to surround him, and Corn noticing this, and riding a horse more fleet of foot than his companions, started out in hot pursuit of the spy, and bade his friends to follow as closely as possible.

“Martin reached the hut in advance of the officer and put the escaped prisoner on his guard. Taking advantage of the situation, Aragon rushed from his place just as Corn was nearing, and made a break down the hill for the river. The officer espied his man and gave hot pursuit, but Aragon had sufficient start to reach the river before he could be overtaken. He jumped over a stone wall and took a defensive position behind it.

“Corn rode on fearlessly, believing the man to be wholly unarmed, at least having nothing more than a six shooter. But as he neared Aragon, the latter fired at him from behind the wall with a Winchester Hitting his horse in the shoulder. The animal fell and slid for fully 20 feet upon his breast and hind legs, and turned over on his side, breaking Corn’s ankle, holding him fast and powerless to act.

“Aragon then fired his second and third shots, the ball of the latter passing just below the short ribs of the sheriff’s right side. At the third shot the horse became frightened and sprang to his feet leaving the deputy free. Aragon then set out on a run for the timber near by, while Corn crawled along the river bank and emptied his six shooter at the thief; but it is thought he escaped unhurt.

“The deputy’s friends then came upon the scene, and one was dispatched to Whitmore’s ranch for a conveyance while the other remained with the wounded officer. In the meantime, the thief was making good his escape and once in the timber, there was no show to capture him. A spring wagon carried the dying man back to the springs where medical aid was called, but all to no purpose, he having passed from earth into the hereafter at 2 o’clock Sunday afternoon. His body was laid in its last resting place yesterday, near the Springs.

“Aragon will undoubtedly be captured either dead or alive, in the course of a few days, as it will be nearly impossible for him to escape from where he was last seen without being observed by some of the ranchmen, and the community is thoroughly aroused. Jasper Corn was a faithful active and efficient officer entirely reckless of danger and unknown to fear, and in his untimely death, the county will lose a vigilant servant, whose place will be hard to fill, and his friends a generous and whole-souled companion.”

Adams continues in his column:

“Aragon, probably realized that Sheriff Poe would never let him rest in peace, was forced to hide out and lie low for awhile. According to report’s however, nothing could keep Aragon away from his woman, so his next visit to Rio Gallinas might have been his undoing. When Sheriff Poe got the tip that Aragon had been seen in the Rio Gallinas area again, he set out immediately for the hamlet, taking Jim Brent, Johnny Hurley, Barney Mason, Billy Bufer and Jim Ambercrombie.

“After hours of hard riding, the posse finally drew near Aragon’s hideout. The night was bitter cold as they rode in the darkness, hoping the outlaw would surrender without bloodshed. When they arrived at the house where Poe suspected Aragon was staying, the sheriff dismounted and knocked on the door, calling out who he was, and that he had a warrant for Aragon’s arrest.

“A woman answered the sheriff, saying that she and another muchacha were the only people in the house.

“‘Then come on out so we can see who you are!’ Poe demanded.

“The women came to the door and showed themselves, acting as if no one else was in the house. Poe wasn’t satisfied though. He told Johnnie Hurley — who understood Spanish — to go into the house and talk to the women and try to get some information about Aragon, while the sheriff and his posse would stay on guard, hoping Aragon would eventually show himself.

“Hurley went in and questioned the women at length. Finally, after much discussion, they admitted that Aragon was indeed in another part of the house and was heavily armed and ready for a fight.

“In his haste to get back to the sheriff with the news, Hurley had to go by an open door of the very room where Aragon was hiding. It proved to be his last mistake. ‘He’s in there, Sheriff, we’ve got ‘im,’ he yelled, not knowing that the outlaw the was at that moment lining him up in his gun’s crosshairs.

“‘Johnny, get out of the light in front of that door!’ called out Poe, ‘he’ll kill you!’

“Poe’s warning came too late. Just as Hurley came into the ray of light that shone through the door, Aragon fired, his bullet finding a vital place in Johnny Hurley’s body.

“‘You hit, Johnny?’ Poe quickly called out to his deputy.

“Hurley pulled back feebly, ‘Yeah, Sheriff – gut shot!’ The deputy had received the most dreaded wound of Old West days — a wound just like Jasper Corn had got — for which there was no remedy, and one which would surely bring much suffering and eventually death. Knowing this, the deputy crawled back to the kitchen and lay down by the fire where he died several hours later.

“Knowing now that he had Aragon trapped, but not wanting to lose anymore men, Poe proceeded with great caution. His men and Aragon traded shots periodically as they caught glimpses of each other. If any of the posse showed themselves in any manner, Aragon promptly let a bullet fly.

“Poe almost got one of them, too. He peeped over the adobe wall where he had taken refuge, and as he did so, Aragon shot the ball hitting the top of the wall, knocking the sheriff’s hat off and filling his eyes with dirt. If Poe’s head had been an inch higher, the shot would have blown his brains out.

“Deputy Jim Brent took sick during the affray and had to leave, going on up to Las Vegas where there was a doctor. A little sidelight to this story was that on his way, he came to a creek that was frozen over but the ice was not thick enough to hold up his horse. Finally the deputy had to break the ice himself, but eventually he made it to Las Vegas — with frozen feet.

“Meanwhile, back at Rio Gallinas, the fight with Aragon was still going on. However, some changes were in effect. The sheriff of San Miguel County had heard about the gunfight from Brent, and he’d decided to take a posse and go down to Rio Gallinas to help Poe.

“When the San Miguel lawman arrived, the fight was in progress. He managed to talk to the killer and persuaded him to come out and give himself up.

“Aragon had not come through the battle unscathed, however. When he came out with his hands up, Poe could see that the outlaw had been hit at least three times, one shot cutting a furrow through his heavy black hair, another grazing his scalp, while another hunk of lead had tore a hole in his leg.

“He took the outlaw to Las Vegas, and saw to it that Aragon receive medical attention, but he also filed charges against him for killing Corn.

Aragon went to trial later but was acquitted. In testifying on the witness stand, he swore that he did not know who Corn was. “Besides,” he said, “Corn fired first.” Since no witness could be found who could testify for Corn, the outlaw was found innocent. However, when he was tried for the killing of Johnny Hurley, he was found guilty and was sentenced to life in the penitentiary.

“Aragon was not to stay in jail long though. After serving time for 10 years, he received a full pardon and was free again.

“Now that his debt to society was paid, Aragon returned to his old stomping-grounds on the Pecos. The former outlaw now seems to be a changed man. Perhaps he had no more desire to pursue the life of a desperado. Ten years behind bars had probably made him want to settle down and live a normal life, and that’s what he did. For many years he lived a somewhat useful life, dying a natural death. However, no amount of remorse, regret, or penitence by the outlaw could bring back the lives of Jasper Corn, and Deputy Johnny Hurley.”

The Lincoln County News, March 25, 1971, in Carrizozo reprinted the article of the capture of Aragon.

“… On January 25, 1885, Sheriff John W. Poe and three deputies, John Hurley, Jim Brent and Barney Mason, reinforced by Abercrombie, then surrounded Aragon’s home at chaperito. Hurley climbed on to the roof of the building and endeavored to break through it. He was shot and instantly killed by Aragon. The murderer finally surrendered when the posse threatened to dynamite his house. Eventually an all-Mexican jury freed him on the charge of killing Hurley. Tried later for the murder of Corn, he was sentenced to life, but was pardoned on Dec. 24, 1896.”

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.