Historical Commentary: Secrets of the city

By Don McAavy, QCS Correspondent

This town harbors deep secrets.

A railroad had been built from the east to the west in eastern New Mexico prior to Clovis and Texico. Killings were commonplace in this new tent town, which for its first year went by the name of “Six-Shooter Siding.”

Ill feelings between the gandy dancers — railroad construction crew members — and the cowboys from the vast ranches in the area led to the killing of 13 men.

At first, the sunburned cowboys looked on the budding town as the answer to a cowboy’s dream: saloons, whiskey, painted women and Saturday night fun.

They could go from one saloon to the next down the main street: The Last Chance Saloon, The Silver Dollar, The Spur, The Legal Tender, and others. Some of the saloons were just a plank laid across two kegs inside a tent. Others were more elaborate in a jerry-built frame building. The Legal Tender boasted of a wooden floor beneath the sawdust.

The cowboys soon found the saloons and the gambling tables weren’t set up just for their pleasure. The saloons were geared mainly for the railroad workers whose pay checks were considerably heftier than those of the cowpokes.

The boys saw that the best whiskey and the best of everything else went to the gandy dancers. Since cowpunchers had always considered themselves the salt of the earth, their disposition began to sour.

A few months after the roaring railhead town sprang up, tension built up to the explosion point. The blast nearly came on Feb. 10, 1902, when a saddle tramp gunned down a gandy dancer in the middle of the street for no apparent reason. Word spread through the railroad camp. There were a few rumblings and a few knifings that night.

The following month, seven or eight cowboys gathered in the Legal Tender Saloon. All were armed. They began to drink heavily and appeared in a black mood. As the evening wore on, more and more gandy dancers moved into the saloon and at first ignored each other. Soon insults began to cross the room.

By midnight, the original group of cowboys and 13 gandy dancers were well liquored up. The bartender knew there was going to be a fight but he knew he couldn’t stop it. The fight happened suddenly as one of the cowboys cursed a gandy dancer close to him. A knife sparkled in the hand of the gandy dancer and he leaped for the cowboy. That was the signal. A dozen six-shooters boomed out death until they were empty.

The smoke cleared and there was silence. The bartender saw sprawled out at various crazy angles 13 dead gandy dancers, some of them shot as many as six or seven times.

“Let’s get out of here,” yelled one cowboy. “Wait a minute,” a cooler head advised. “We can’t leave them; we’ve got to get them out of here!” It was only a matter of minutes before the bodies were carried out the back door and placed into the bartender’s wagon. They swept the blood out of the saloon and threw new sawdust on the floor.

They headed north, looking for a place to hide the evidence. It was a long, cold ride to find the right burial spot. When they came to a cutback under an earthen bank in a gully they dumped the bodies and saw that several feet of earth covered them.

Luck was with them as it began to snow, covering their tracks and the burial site. They swore themselves to secrecy. The bartender immediately left town.

Many people had heard the shootings, but the next day nobody could find any evidence of a killing. Sheriff Alex Street was at Puerto de Luna and it was several days before rumors of the shooting caught up with him. Most of the cowboys involved had left the country. A few drunks told a little and hinted more.

In 1958 an old-timer, possibly one of the cowboys, died telling listeners “Some things are better left alone.” The guilty ones were never found or arrested.

The town was Tucumcari and the railroad that built through was the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific.

Most of the information for this story came from a 1963 article in Frontier Times magazine, which was written by Jesse Price.

I’ve heard about it from other sources as well.

Don McAlavy is a history buff who lives in Clovis.