The Caldera Verde Incident

By Steven Quan

"Hey honey," Harry called to his wife. "Look at this."

Annette, Harry's wife, was at the other side of the store looking at Indian jewelry. She had prickly heat rash from the hot New Mexico sun, and the rash was in places she couldn't scratch in public. She was thirsty. She hated Indian jewelry. And she was in no mood to look at this.

Harry, like most husbands, was oblivious of his wife's mood. "Hey Annette, you really gotta see this. It's a real life six-gun like Billy the Kid used." Like all wives, Annette ignored him and went on looking at Indian jewelry she had no intention of buying.

Harry and Annette were in a mock trading post just outside of Lincoln, New Mexico. The whole area was built around Billy the Kid and his famous escape from Lincoln. They were playing at being tourists while driving back to Kentucky from Annette's maternal uncle's funeral in Ruidoso, 50 miles away. Harry insisted on taking in the real Old West. Annette didn't try to figure out Harry's thing for cowboys. He had always lived in a city. He never went fishing or camping. He'd never been on a horse. And, as far as she knew, Harry had never owned a gun.

He was such a fool at times. Harry had bought a Stetson hat and wore it even in the car. With his thick eyeglasses and cowboy hat, Harry reminded Annette of the kid in the movie Christmas Story who wanted a Red Ryder BB gun. Now he's talking to the owner of this Old West souvenir junk store. Harry was looking over the six-gun as if he knew what he was doing. The owner was miming how to do a quick-draw just like in the cowboy movies. Encouraging Harry to try. Getting a leather holster-belt off the wall for Harry.

Full of enthusiasm, Harry went over to Annette. "Did you find anything? Some good-looking turquoise? Isn't that lapis lazuli?" She shrugged her shoulders.

"You decided to buy the gun and gun belt?"

"He gave me a big discount because he said he could see I appreciated what the Colt Peacemaker symbolized for the Old West." Harry opened the paper shopping bag with the cactus logo of the trading post on it and pulled out a Western style gun belt with the Colt in the holster.

She sighed impatiently. "I thought there was a waiting period while the store checked you out before you got a gun?"

Harry smiled. "That's what's great. He said he could let me have it since we were from around here. Well, he stretched the point because of your uncle who lives — lived — in Ruidoso and we're staying there for the funeral."

She sighed, again. "Let's go before he sells you Trigger."

Early the next day, Harry and Annette drove to Caldera Verde, 50 miles northeast of Ruidoso. Harry was driving and wearing his Stetson hat. Annette, for her part, was wearing calamine lotion. In the trunk was Harry's gun belt and Colt Peacemaker. The high desert landscape fascinated Harry. Annette wondered what he saw in the scrub brush and the distant brown mountains that made him smile.

They were on their way to Caldera Verde for the annual Old Town celebration. The trading post owner had told Harry about the event. Everyone in town dressed in Old West costumes, even the town Sheriff and the deputies. Tourists were encouraged to dress up too, and the stores and motels were giving discounts to those dressed in Old West costumes. "It's a chance of a life time," Harry told Annette. "I can wear my Stetson and Colt."

They checked into a motel. Harry went out with a points-of-interest map of Caldera Verde to check out the sights. Annette stayed in the A/C with a large glass of cola and ice.

"You'll never guess what I found out," he said on his return. "It seems there was a famous gunfight in town when the Caruthers Gang attempted to rob the Assay Office. Every year the town re-enacts the gunfight during their Old Town celebration days. The next performance is at 2:30."

They agreed to meet at the Assay Office to watch the staged gunfight. Harry left. Later when the sun had dropped down enough for the low buildings to cast long shadows, Annette ventured out.

Old Town of Caldera Verde made its living from tourists. It was door-to-door souvenir shops, cafes, arts and crafts stores. For a few dollars, you could have your picture taken in Old West clothes. For a few dollars more, you could get a set of wallet-size prints. Annette had to dodge around the milling tourists and the racks of T-shirts. Several times she had to leave the sidewalk because of the street performers blocking the way.

Finally she ducked into a store more to get into A/C than to shop. It sold Indian jewelry. She turned to go just when a couple came into the store. The woman wore the most beautiful lapis lazuli necklace and matching earrings Annette had ever seen.

* * *

Harry caught a glimpse of Annette through the crowd gathering in front of the Assay Office waiting for the show. She seemed to be with a couple he didn't recognize. He pushed his way through the crowd and joined Annette who introduced the Houghtons: Helen and Perry. Annette and the Houghtons had been talking after Annette remarked on Helen's necklace and earrings. They thought they would all have dinner together later. That was fine with Harry.

Harry beamed at Annette. "Guess what? I'm going to be in the performance. You know, the Gold Robbery."

Annette's eyes widened in surprise. "Not with a gun?"

"No. No. I'm just going to be one of the townsfolk, like part of the crowd. They asked anyone dressed up Old West style if they would like to take part." He gave her a peck on the cheek. "I have to get going. They are going to tell me what I'm supposed to do. Nice meeting you two." Harry waved at the Houghtons and left.

The Houghtons looked at each other, then at Annette. Embarrassed, Annette explained her "cowboy" husband to Helen and Perry. She ended with a chuckle, "If Harry could, he would wear his Stetson to bed."

Outside in the back of the Assay Office building, the actors and tourists who volunteered to play at being the townsfolk were gathered getting ready for the performance. Sheriff Chet McCabe personally checked each of the pistols and rifles. He partnered up tourists dressed up in Western outfits with actors. When he was finished, he waved for their attention. He said to the tourists, "It's pretty simple, you stay with your partner. Don't get out on the street. That's where we will be doing the gunfight and we don't want you to get hurt. Have fun. Oh, don't be afraid to cover your ears because of the gunfire. One more thing, keep your hat on because you aren't a cowboy without it." All the men laughed at this.

A deputy sheriff dressed in modern day uniform came up the back street looking for Sheriff McCabe. Harry was close enough to overhear.

"Sheriff," the deputy said, "Got an alert from the state police to be on the look out for two men robbing tourists at knife point. They're a real piece of work. Like to hurt their victims pretty bad."

"Get whatever descriptions we have to everyone on duty. Double the walking patrols. Make yourselves very visible. I want to make it plain we are on to them. Pay attention to tourists who stray from the main streets."

The deputy was turning to go. "Wait," the Sheriff said, "I'll walk Old Town myself after the show. Get my gun from the office for me. Thanks."

Sheriff McCabe noticed Harry standing there and said to him, "Outlaws."

"The town of Caldera Verde, New Mexico extends its thanks to you for being here to help us celebrate the history of Old Town." The female narrator's voice came from hidden speakers up and down the street in front of the Assay Office. "During the 1880's the then territory of New Mexico attracted men and women looking for a new start and a quick fortune. The mining fields and ranches were rough and tumble places. Men worked hard, played hard, and drank hard. Fistfights were common and the sound of gunfire in the streets was normal. The law in Old Town was the city Marshal and his deputies. All they had to keep the peace were their courage and their six-shooters. But soon families came to build a law-abiding community."

During the narration, the actors started to stroll up and down the street. Annette turned to the Helen. "Look, there's Harry. You have to admit; with the hat and gun, he fits right in. I should've brought the camera."

Helen and Perry couldn't be bothered about Harry. They were talking about their next real vacation. The trip to the Ruidoso area was a business trip for Perry, Helen only coming along because her trip to Ireland fell through.

The narrator continued. "But there were a few outlaws left who used violence to get rich quick. The last and most famous gunfight in Caldera Verde was the attempted daylight robbery of the Assay Office, the building you see in front of you.

"For your enjoyment, Old Town will re-enact the gunfight of 1883 in front of the Assay Office between the Caruthers Gang and City Marshal Amos McCabe and his two deputies. Frank Caruthers, the gang's leader, is played by Caldera Verde's Mayor Wallace M. Yates. Marshal Amos McCabe is played by our real-life Sheriff of Caldera Verde Sheriff Chet McCabe. And yes, Chet is the great-great grandson of Amos."

People pushed to the front to get a better view. Annette was rudely elbowed and stepped on. The whole gunfight was over in less than a minute. Annette was deafened by the gunfire. The smoke from the guns obscured much of the action. The noise and the smell of smoke upset Helen. She and Perry quickly retreated.

After the echoes of gunshots faded, the female narrator said, "Three of the Caruthers Gang were shot dead, including Frank Caruthers. The three other gang members suffered various wounds. They were convicted and sent to the territorial prison. City Marshal McCabe was shot dead doing his duty. One deputy died later of his wounds. The other was crippled for life. Though outnumbered, Marshal McCabe and his deputies upheld the law laying down their lives in the true spirit of the Old West."

Harry waved at Annette through the crowd.

He spotted the Houghtons, but things didn't look right. A man with a baseball bat was steering the couple towards a nearby alley. Helen and Perry didn't look like they were going willingly.

"Outlaws," Harry whispered.

Harry yelled for Annette, but she was gone.

Annette and the Houghtons were being held at knife point by one of the robbers while the one who held the baseball bat grabbed at Helen's necklace.

Moments later a man wearing a Stetson hat and gun belt entered the alley.

"Drop your weapons!" a booming voice commanded.

The robbers turned but were blinded by the brilliant New Mexico sun at the man's back.

Annette raised her hand to block the sun and said, "Sheriff?" To her shock it was Harry.

Confused, the robbers backed away from Annette and the Houghtons.

"Get behind me," Harry ordered.

Harry's plan might have worked, but Helen was in shock blubbering. Mr. Houghton couldn't get her to move. Annette finally managed to get her moving by throwing herself against the woman.

"Hey, that's not the Sheriff!" the one with the bat shouted.

Without hesitating, Harry moved in front of Annette and the Houghtons to shield them. He drew his six-gun. The robbers hesitated. It was a stand-off.

The one with the knife shouted, "It ain't loaded. Get them."

The next thing Harry knew, his right hand went numb and the Colt fell from his grasp. Even though he was hurt, Harry managed to block the two robbers from passing him. The bat came down on his raised arm. The bat arced down again and again on Harry. The Stetson flew off. His nose and mouth were bloody. Harry was dazed and couldn't see. His eyeglasses had been smashed off his face. He struggled to stay on his feet to block the way long enough to allow Annette to escape. Just before losing consciousness he thought he heard Annette yell for help.

Two days later, Harry was released from the hospital in Ruidoso. No permanent damage, the doctor said. Annette wasn't speaking to Harry much, but he knew she was upset with him and anxious to leave for home.

While Annette checked them out of the motel, Harry joined the Sheriff who was waiting beside their car.

"Thought you'd want to know...the Houghton woman finally calmed down. She's decided not to sue the Sheriff's department, Lincoln County, or the state of New Mexico. You don't have to worry either."

They talked for a bit longer while Annette finished loading the car. As he was leaving, the Sheriff shook Harry's left hand, Harry's right hand still being in bandages.

Annette drove. Harry was lost in thought not really seeing the high desert out the window. Annette looked over at Harry every once in a while. Finally she asked, "What did Sheriff McCabe want to talk about?"

Harry turned to her. "They have to keep the gun as evidence."

"Is that all?"

Harry seemed lost in thought again. "He wanted to know my hat size."

Annette felt her heat rash acting up again and reached over to put the air conditioner on full.

The author enjoys visiting his old Army buddy in Ruidoso.

Copyright 2011 Steven Quan. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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