June 09, 2016
By Bart Skelton
Lincoln County, New Mexico, is one of those places that have a mystical feel. When you're there, ghosts seem to be tracking your every move. And those ghosts are in abundance, for Lincoln County, New Mexico, has a fascinating—and bloody—past.
Many who have never visited New Mexico imagine it as a raw, dry, unforgiving desert. This is true for many parts of the state, but not for Lincoln County. Most of it is beautiful, labyrinthine mountains covered in timber.
It was the home of cattlemen, horsemen, famous lawmen, and infamous outlaws. Interestingly, depending on whom you ask, the identities of the outlaws vary. While there's no doubt William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, was a killer, many in Lincoln County didn't consider him an outlaw, but rather a vigilante defending the rights of folks against a gang of rich and greedy Lincoln County businessmen.
I'm referring to the Kid's role in the Lincoln County War, a violent feud that took many lives in the 1870s. Most believe the Lincoln County War ended in the 1800s, but I think otherwise.
When I graduated from the New Mexico State Police Academy (so long ago now), my first assignment was Carrizozo, New Mexico, the seat of Lincoln County. I was thankful to be stationed there because my patrol included most of the county and its panoramic and historical elements.
Just Another Lincoln County Shootout
It didn't take long for me to realize that Lincoln County was almost as wild as it had been more than a hundred years before. Mysterious homicides and random acts of violence were pretty common, and I ran into several interesting characters along the way, many of whom had somewhat pugnacious personalities. Some of the most notorious of these individuals resided in and around White Oaks, an old ghost town about 15 miles northeast of Carrizozo.
White Oaks is one of the more interesting places in Lincoln County. While the town of Lincoln is famous as the epicenter of the Lincoln County War, White Oaks is the place where many of the main players, including Billy the Kid, often hung their hats, generally attempting to hide out from violent pursuers. White Oaks was a mining and ranching town, and at its peak was home to about 2,000 inhabitants. The place was chock full of folks trying to make a buck, including gamblers, prostitutes, bankers, politicians, and worse. The town fathers had counted on the railroad coming through White Oaks, but it wasn't to be. And when the gold tailings dried up, so did the citizenry.
Some of the wildest times I've experienced in my 30-year law enforcement career have been in White Oaks. I became acquainted with a ranching family there who pretty much continued the violent tradition of the Lincoln County War. They hated law of any sort, but surprisingly, I became relatively friendly with them.
I received an emergency call one evening dispatching me to White Oaks for immediate assistance at a shootout. I hightailed it in my black and white to White Oaks. The crime scene I discovered was rather madcap.
A member of that aforementioned ranching family had sold a few acres of land to some folks who built a rather new-age, dome-style home there. This type of dwelling didn't sit well with the ranchers, who took an immediate dislike to their new neighbors. A feud ensued and threats were issued. The new-age bunch took the threats to heart. Their house sat on a forest road leading in and out of White Oaks, and they decided the next time the threatening rancher drove by, they were going to take care of the problem—with a Colt Single Action Army .45. Whether they knew the rancher carried a Ruger Mini-14 with a half-dozen or so spare magazines is unknown.
I never determined for certain who shot first. I do know that the guy with the single-action Colt was a good shot. The rancher was driving an old International Scout, and there was a tight group of five bullet holes in the windshield of the Scout on the driver's side. How the rancher wasn't hit in the head was remarkable. The rancher bailed out with the Mini-14 and, not knowing exactly where his assailant was firing from, began blazing away at the new-age domicile. When he ran out of ammo, he took off on foot. I think he believed he'd hit his adversary and was probably going to jail.
My investigation revealed that all parties emerged unscathed. I picked up about 180 empty .223 casings around the Scout and 60 or so empty .45 Colt casings at the dome house. That was one heck of a shootout.
Lincoln County prosecutors elected not to proceed with any charges in the case. It was just another Lincoln County shootout.