Gambler - Card Sharp - Pat Garrett
By Bill Kelly
Readers of Western lore no doubt remember Garrett only as the man who killed "Billy the Kid," but his reputation in the Southwest during the late 1800's extended far beyond that celebrated incident.
Southern New Mexico was engulfed in terror, until Pat Garrett restored order by dispensing with or killing any number of desperadoes far more dangerous than the celebrated "Kid." One of those men was an inhuman brute, Eustacio Legada, alias Manuel Ribar, a noted gambler who frequented the gambling dens around Mesquite, New Mexico, just south of Las Cruces, during 1895 and 1896. At this time, the rough-and-ready camp had a population of two thousand five hundred with twelve gambling dens, seven restaurants, four mercantile establishments, a livery stable, one hotel and the usual brothels.
Violence erupted almost daily. The clashes occurred in the streets and saloons where every game of chance imaginable was played: roulette, monte, faro, poker, blackjack, dice and the shell game. Gambling was a lucrative business that operated round-the-clock. Here, the legend of Eustacio Legada was born. He was a restless, eager youth who associated with some of the rougher element of the boom camp, including an assortment of poker players and cattle rustlers.
It was not long before Eustacio was hauled into court at Mesquite, charged with getting "Doc" Burton drunk, then luring him into a poker game with some friends who connived to get his gold dust away from him. Feeling was running high against Eustacio because Burton had a wife and six kids. Eustacio was indicted and he posted a five hundred dollar bond. A search of court records discloses no evidence of a trial, probably because three days after Burton signed an application for one, he was found at the side of the road with his face shot away. The murder case was never solved.
Describing Eustacio as five-feet-ten-inches tall, weighing about one hundred seventy five pounds, Frank Dowler, in his diary, pictured him as of fine physique and manly bearing, "a swaging man who wore his pistol strapped down, and dark eyes peeking from beneath a huge sombrero. Whenever he was sitting in on a poker game, or faro, which he seemed to favor, he was always clean shaven except for a swooping mustache, and neatly dressed," Dowler wrote.
In 1896, a Mexican rancher had won handily at cards from a group of cattlemen who had just blown in from the range. On a lucky streak, he eventually moved over to a table where several other hombres were playing draw poker. Within the hour, he had cleaned them out. One of the heaviest losers at the table was Eustacio Legada. When the Mexican got up to leave, Eustacio insisted that he give him a chance to get even. An agreement was struck whereas Eustacio would accompany the Mexican home to finish the game.
An argument developed at the house as Eustacio continued to lose in a high-stakes poker game that lasted until daylight. Eustacio shot and killed the man in front of his family. Legend has it that he buried the man, using his pistol as a shovel. He went on the dodge, with every lawman in the southwest looking for him.
Eustacio Legada had taken an alias, Manuel Ribar, when he reappeared, in El Paso, Texas, about forty miles south of Las Cruces, two years later. He looked a little different, but his habits hadn't changed. He still frequented gambling establishments, and when he wasn't rolling the dice or playing faro, he was usually seated in some corner, playing draw poker. One day, Detective George Harold walked in and spotted him. He immediately notified Pat Garrett, who traveled by train to El Paso. It wasn't difficult for the New Mexico lawman to arrest his man. Legada was drunk and naked in bed with a prostitute when Garrett barged in and threw down on him. By stage, they returned to Mesquite, the lawman and his shackled prisoner.
Legada confessed to the crime before Judge Topper and subsequently took his captors to the site where he had buried the Mexican rancher’s body. Under heavy guard, Eustacio was taken to Las Cruces and placed in jail to await his trial.
He got his jailer into a card game, each man sitting on opposite sides of the bars. When the time was ripe, he grabbed the jailer's gun, forced him to open the cell door, and placed him inside the cell. Outside, Legada mounted the first horse he saw, and -- he was gone. He remained at large for eleven years.
In March 1908, a drunken man was arrested in a saloon in El Paso for drawing his weapon in public after having accused a man of cheating him in a poker game. Detective Harold walked in, and recognized the drunk as the escaped killer. Legada was arrested and returned to Las Cruces and placed under heavy security watch.
Coincidentally, it was the day of Pat Garrett’s funeral. Pat Garrett was slain by Wayne Brazel near Las Cruces, New Mexico, on the morning of February 29, 1908. The fatal bullet entered the back of Garrett’s head and came out over the left eye; the second projectile entered the lower breast and traveled up some nine inches into the shoulder blade. Garrett died instantly, without uttering a sound.
As there were no prosecuting witnesses, the case against Legada was dismissed. He returned to the gambling saloons of Mesquite. A week later, he shot and killed his cousin, Dolores Legada. Again, he eluded a posse of mantrackers who chased him with ever-quickening tempo across the flats. A posse of one hundred rode all night and returned empty-handed in the morning.
For months after that, Detective Harold haunted every poker game in Mesquite, ever on the alert for the killer. "He’ll be back," Harold said. "Poker is a game he can't live without, and he loves the gambling Mesquite has to offer."
He was right. Legada did return, and when he did, Harold arrested him.
After a patient investigation and trial, one of the most important in New Mexico at the time, the prosecution proved conclusively that Legada was a thief and a cold-blooded killer. As he was being escorted from the courtroom to the jailhouse, he boasted that no jail could hold him. "I will escape," he said, "and I'll kill everyone responsible for my incarceration."
In fear of his life, the judge ordered a quick hanging. Two upright posts and a cross-beam were hastily erected. Less than three days after his sentencing, Legada was taken from his cell and placed on a beam supported by two wooden crates. He was quite particular about the rope and the exact position of the knot. With tears in his eyes, he asked Judge Topper if he could jump off the boxes instead of having them yanked from under him. The judge said yes.
Asked if he had any last words, the prisoner said he didn’t want to hang, but if they were dead set on it, would they make sure his neck was broken, because it bothered him that he might wake up in his grave.
At the very last moment of his life, Legada repeated the passwords into Heaven: "I’m innocent!" And then he counted: "One, two, three," and leaped into the embrace of death.
About The Author Bill Kelly
Note: Pat Garrett, was laid to rest in a tiny graveyard at Las Cruces (The Crosses), which is located in south central New Mexico. The cortege was strewn with floral offerings and followed to the cemetery by a train of friends. He was buried without ceremony.
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