Old Times and Old Timers

Barney Mason:
Lincoln County War Figure. 

“Probably [Sheriff Pat] Garrett tired of Mason’s lies, cold-bloodedness, small-time criminal activities, and general lack of dependability.” – Historian Leon Claire Metz

“Mason went out [of prison] a better man than he came.” – Santa Fe Sun, March 1, 1890

At first glance, Barney Mason appears a bit contradictory as a frontier character.

He was a member of several sheriffs’ posses, including Sheriff Pat Garrett’s group which captured Billy the Kid on December 23, 1880 at Stinking Springs, near Fort Sumner. On the other hand, he spent time in the New Mexico Territorial Prison at Santa Fe for “unlawfully stealing and selling a calf.” What made him unique was the fact that he was actually punished for his crime while most men on both sides in the Lincoln County War were not punished for theirs.

Mason was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1848¹ and made his way west by the late 1870s. Sources generally agree that virtually nothing is known of his activities before he arrived in New Mexico.

Soon after his arrival at Fort Sumner in 1879, he was involved in an altercation with an itinerant named John Farris (sometimes spelled Faris). Farris is said to have fired first, two or three times, at an unarmed Mason and missed. Mason quickly secured a pistol with which he shot Farris dead. Other details concerning this affray are scarce although one correspondent suggested the matter resulted from an argument over cards, and that Pat Garrett was one of the card players at the time. The matter apparently generated little attention, and the Grant County (New Mexico) Herald for January 31, 1880, simply included this killing in a list of nearly a dozen other violent deaths in New Mexico for the preceding six weeks.²

It is known that Mason and Pat Garrett became good friends — described as inseparable — about then. Mason married Juana Madril at Anton Chico in early 1880, at the same time and place that Pat Garrett married Apolinaria Gutierrez.³

Mason worked with Garrett in several capacities and with Garrett’s endorsement, he was employed by Azariah F. Wild of the United States Treasury Department to serve in an undercover capacity. He contributed very little to the investigation which had to do with the distribution of counterfeit money in and around the town of Lincoln in early 1880.4

When sheriff-elect — and deputy United States Marshal — Pat Garrett was accosted and threatened by Juanito Maes and Marino Leyba at Grezelachowski’s store in Puerto de Luna in early December 1880, Mason was present. Garrett was able to avoid a fight with a drunken Maes, but Leyba was more arrogant and aggressive. Garrett at last knocked Leyba off of Grezelachowski’s porch with an open handed slap, and Leyba went for his gun. He fired and missed. Garrett returned fire, and missed, too; although he fired again and hit Leyba in the shoulder. Leyba fled and one version of the story holds that Mason fired at him with a rifle as he ran, but he missed, too. Another version of that story is that Mason took aim and prepared to fire, but Garrett stopped him. (Leyba was later captured, tried and convicted of attempted murder for shooting at Garrett. He was fined $80.)

San Miguel County deputy sheriff Francisco Romero attempted to arrest Garrett for shooting Leyba. Mason is said to have pointed his rifle at Romero and asked, “Shall I cut the sonofabitch in two, Pat?” That ended the confrontation as Romero backed away in the face of a cocked rifle.

Mason also rode with Garrett in the short-lived LS Rangers in Texas in 1884 and 1885 and he participated in the search for, and capture of, horse thief and killer Nicolas Aragon in early 1885.5 The flip-side of the coin is that historian Walter Noble Burns goes so far as to suggest that Mason was a coward who hid at the sight of Billy the Kid.

Mason and Garrett reportedly had a falling out over Garrett’s unwillingness to share rewards he collected for killing Billy the Kid and other cases in which Mason participated, including the counterfeiting investigation. Garrett was the complainant and it was one of his calves that Mason was convicted of stealing; which resulted in Mason’s 18-month prison sentence in 1888.6 It is noteworthy that Mason, according to an 1890 newspaper report, was soon made a trusty and never violated a prison rule. Governor Edmund G. Ross reduced his sentence to one year, and Mason was released after serving about six months. The newspaper concluded that “Mason went out a better man than he came.”

Later in life Mason homesteaded near Alamogordo and then ran a saloon in Portales, before he moved on to Arizona and finally to Bakersfield, California, in 1909, where he became a farmer. He must have enjoyed some success after he left prison because, according to a local California newspaper, he was able to purchase a house in Bakersfield, on M Street. When he died in 1916, he resided at 2605 G Street.7

1 Mark Lee Gardner in “To Hell on A Fast Horse,” averred that Barney Mason was 26 years old in 1880, which would make his year of birth 1854: a few years younger that Pat Garrett.

2 This information was reported by Albuquerque Tribune columnist Howard Bryan in “Off the Beaten Path,” April 25, 1975.

3 Historian Will Keleher incorrectly stated that Madril and Gutierrez were sisters.

4 Circulating counterfeit money at the time was referred to as “shoving the queer.”

5 One source reported that Aragon was killed in an attempt to arrest him. Aragon was actually captured and served about ten years in prison, and lived on for some years after that.

6 Historian Fred Nolan reported that Mason was sentenced in May 1887 and pardoned in November of the same year. However, a Santa Fe Sun news item dated March 1, 1890, indicated that Mason was “received by the penitentiary on May 13, 1888….”

7 Historian Leon Metz in Pat Garrett incorrectly reported that “Mason . . . died when the roof of an adobe house caved in on him.” n