Thursday, March 8, 2018

New Mexico's Outlaw Caves

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New Mexico's Outlaw Caves
New Mexico's Outlaw Caves

Herman 'Corny' Moncus was a historian of the Old West. He owned the Elkhorn Drug Store and Museum in Tucumcari, N.M. and his brother Claude was sheriff of Quay County.

In the early 1960s when I was a roving journalist, I took a job as sports editor of the Tucumcari Daily News. I remember driving down America's Sweetheart Highway Route 66 and reading the Burma Shave-like signs that Corney had placed along the road.

'Folger's Coffee, fresh and hot, .05 cents per cup...curios, Indian moccasins, serapes, good food...see Billy the Kid's first gun, Elkhorn Drug Store, Tucumcari, N.M.'

Billy the Kid's first gun? That I had to see, I told myself.

When I applied for the job on the Tucumcari Daily News, I spoke to the editor Jess Price. He listened to my pitch and then said I was hired. But he also issued a warning.

'If you don't turn out to be half as good as you claim you are, you'll be back freezing your butt off in that cold country before you know it,' he said tongue-in-cheek.

I left my hometown of Sutersville, PA. in a snowstorm. Somehow my old car made it down the snow-covered highways through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The sun came out in Missouri and the snow vanished. I was heading out West.

As I rolled into Tucumcari, I lowered the window of my car and enjoyed the sun's warmth. It was at least 70 degrees. I admired the New Mexico prairie country and got a good look at Tucumcari Mountain with a big T painted on it. Then I started looking for the Elkhorn Drug Store and my cup of Folger's Coffee.

The drug store and museum were on Tucumcari's Main Street about three blocks from the newspaper. A cute Hispanic girl named Betsy was behind the counter and Moncus, wearing a blue western suit and bolo tie, was reading a newspaper.

He looked up from the paper. He wore glasses and had a quizzical look on his face.

'Where you from, Son?' he said with a western twang.

'Near Pittsburgh, PA., Sir.'

'Damn Yankee, huh?'

'Yes, Sir, I reckon, I am.'

'That's okay. They ain't all bad. What can I do you for?'

'Well, Sir, you advertised Folger's Coffee at five cents a cup. I'd like a cup of coffee and I want to see Billy the Kid's first gun.'

He got up from the counter and motioned for me to follow him. We walked down between the aisles until we came to a display on the wall. Moncus proudly pointed to it. A water pistol framed against a canvas backdrop.

'There it is,' he said proudly. 'Welcome to the Wild West.'

Over the next few months, Moncus and I became good friends. I loved his sense of humor. He was president of the Tucumcari Chamber of Commerce and was involved in all kinds of promotions to build Tucumcari's reputation as a tourist destination. I also found out that one of his rancher friends had a Thursday night poker game at his ranch that attracted players from all over the county. The stakes were modest, but the rancher's wife would always serve us a good meal and there was always something to drink. Even the sheriff dropped in from time to time to play in the game.

Corny had published a book about the Conquistadores and gave me an autographed copy. He also told me about a cave on the side of Tucumcari Mountain.

'William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid, hid in that cave to hide from the posses that were looking for him,' Corny said. 'Sometimes he'd hole up there with Blackjack Ketchum, another outlaw. They were good friends and they shared their loot that they took from robbing stage coaches and banks.

'Rumor has it that they even buried their cash and gold somewhere on that mountain,' he said. He winked.

'Was he armed with his first gun when he did it?,' I wanted to know.

'Could be,' said Moncus. 'I wasn't around then so I don't really know.'

Moncus drew a map to show me where the outlaw cave was located. Then he called his brother Claude who owned a riding stable and reserved a horse for me.

The following morning Claude's daughter Lynn met me at the stable. She had two horses saddled and asked me if she could accompany me to the outlaw cave.

'I haven't been there in a while and I'd like to see it again,' she said.

It was a perfect day for riding. The sun was high in the turquoise sky and the temperature was around 75 degrees. As we rode down the trail, two jackrabbits scurried out of the brush, causing my horse to shy.

It took us about a half hour to get to the foot of the mountain. Lynn led the way up the narrow trail until we were on the back side of the mountain facing toward the Texas border about 20 miles away. You had a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside and could see for miles in every direction.

'This is beautiful country,' I said. 'I can see why Billy used this as a hideout.'

We dismounted from our horses at the entrance to the cave. Then we walked inside. It was a large cave and it was dark. There were large rocks where you could sit. I asked Lynn if anybody had found anything that might have linked Billy the Kid and Blackjack Ketchum to the cave. She shrugged.

'Your guess is as good as mine,' she said. 'All I know is the oldtimers are convinced it really happened. A few of them have even done some digging in the area to try to find the outlaw treasure. Far as I know, they didn't find anything, but they probably wouldn't tell if they did.'

During my year in Tucumcari, I rented one of Moncus' horses and made several trips to Tucumcari Mountain. I took a pistol, a shovel and pick with me and did some digging around the cave. I didn't find anything but it was fun looking.

Before I left Tucumcari to return to Pennsylvania, I attended a Cattlemen's Association meeting at a ranch near San Jon. About 30 ranchers and their wives were at the meeting and we dined on New Mexico Strawberries (pinto beans), calves brains and eggs. Corny and Claude Moncus were there in fine form.

'Did you find Billy the Kid's gold," the sheriff wanted to know.

'Not yet,' I said, sipping my coffee, 'but I know where his first gun is located.'

(Billy the Kid is buried in Ft. Sumner, N.M., about 60 miles from Tucumcari.)


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