Monday, June 20, 2022

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid
(from The Authentic Life of
Billy the Kid. 1882.)
Billy, the Kid, wasn’t much more than a little squirt. He stood something like five feet, four inches tall (some say five foot, eight—he must have been wearing stilts when they said that), weighed about 140 pounds, and had a stringy muscular body. His hair was a sandy, brownish blond, and according to friends—he was a bit of a jokester, except when he was holding a pistol.

The only picture of him shows a kid with a lopsided face, holding a shotgun by his side. But that can’t be right. By all accounts, the Kid was a real lady’s man. The girls liked him as much as he liked them, so that picture can’t be accurate. It’s more likely that the Kid had a boyish smile that broke into a wide, childlike grin when spinning a yarn.

And, by all accounts, the Kid laughed a lot. According to Sheriff Pat Garrett, Billy ate “and laughed, drank and laughed, talked and laughed, fought and laughed and killed and laughed.”

That brings us to his real passion—six guns and shooting irons!

When he had his gun out—the Kid was deadly serious and a sure shot.

New Mexico Governor, Lew Wallace, said Billy was “forked lightning with a shooting tool.” The Kid told him he never used a gunsight to take deliberate aim. “I just point my finger at what I shoot at, that’s all.” Billy raised his hand and pointed a finger at the governor as he said the words.

“Bang! Bang!”

The Kid let his finger do the talking.

Wallace continued.  “He simply permitted his forefinger to rest along the barrel of his pistol. Then, instead of attempting to point the pistol at his mark, he pointed his forefinger at the target, pulling the trigger with his middle finger.”

The idea was when a guy points his finger—it’s instinctive. Think back to when you played cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers as a kid. Did your bullet ever miss its mark?

Of course, it didn’t—and neither did Billy’s.

Many stories have grown up around the Kid. Novelists and filmmakers have transformed him into a hero, but one thing is certain—the Kid was no hero. Instead, he was a cold-blooded killer.

Some say he killed a man for each year he was alive—twenty-one. Pat Garrett says he killed nine. Whichever number is true, it’s more lives than any one man should be accountable for.

“The Kid was a holy terror,” said one old-time New Mexico resident. “He was as smooth and pleasant looking a little fellow as you could wish to associate with, but he was like a snake shining in the sun, so slick and shining, but death was in his touch.

“He was slim and light-haired. And blue-eyed, and his upper teeth stuck out in front and made him look more innocent than ever. Then the dust used to fly, just a trifle.”

 Billy’s story started in late 1877 when he rode into New Mexico Territory. The Kid was just seventeen then. He was a boy searching for a reputation, and Lincoln County was a place to build it quickly.

He arrived with a band of cattle rustlers led by Jesse Evans. Evans had been at work in the Territory since 1872. At first, he stole horses from the Mescalero Apaches and sold them to John Chisum. As time went by, Evans found himself running a band of thirty men, murdering, stealing horses, and causing other sorts of disruptions.

Pat Garrett.
(from The Vernon County Censor.

Billy was good with a gun, but once he got to New Mexico, he spent all his time with his pistol and a rifle. If practice makes perfect, the Kid put in the necessary time to become the best at his craft.

Towards the end of 1877, Billy was arrested for stealing a pair of horses that belonged to John Tunstall. He arranged a meeting with Tunstall, one thing led to another, and soon Billy found himself working for Tunstall.

That put him on the opposite end of the opposing factions in Lincoln County.

 As a bit of background, the Murphy-Dolan store, run by James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy, pretty much ran things in Lincoln and had since 1869. Then, in 1876, a young upstart named John Tunstall arrived from England and opened a rival store. That move started a chain reaction that turned Lincoln into a dangerous place to live. Murphy and Dolan ran the town, including the law.

Tunstall aligned himself with lawyer Alex McSween, and cattleman John Chisum, the wealthiest man in the territory. Chisum ran 40,000 head of cattle over a 200-mile area and held a grudge against most of the small ranchers working the area. He said the small ranchers cut cattle out of his herds and sold them at nearby army posts for a quick profit. The small ranchers said just the opposite. They accused Chisum of snatching their cattle and stamping the Chisum brand on them.

By June of 1879, the Territory was up to its arms in dead bodies

Deputy Sheriff William Morton and his posse killed John Tunstall in February 1878. They had been rounding up cattle owned by Tunstall and McSween when they came upon Tunstall riding with his herd. A fight broke out. Tunstall pulled his gun, but Sheriff Morton was quicker. His shot knocked the Englishman off his horse. Tom Hill finished the work. He rode up to Tunstall, placed his gun to his head, and, according to Pat Garrett, “scattered his brains over the ground.”

Several days later, Richard Brewer, Tunstall’s ranch foreman, was sworn in as a special constable and placed at the head of a posse that became known as “the Regulators.” On March 9, the “Regulators” bushwhacked Sheriff William Brady and his deputy, Fred Waite, on Lincoln’s main streets. More than a dozen men took part in that incident, but Billy bore the brunt of the blame for the murders.

More killings followed throughout 1878 and early 1879. Governor Wallace did his best to put a stop to it. He issued a proclamation offering amnesty to any man involved in the Lincoln County War. Billy was one of the men who bit at the offer.

In March of 1879, Billy had a confab with Wallace at the Governor’s Palace. No one is sure exactly what was said, but it was assumed the Kid cut a deal with the Governor. We know he kept his nose “relatively” clean for nearly a year after the meeting. After that, things in Lincoln County seemed to quiet for a while. A new governor took Lew Wallace’s place in 1880, and any deal Billy had made was soon off the table. About that same time, a young upstart named Patsey “Pat” Garrett won the election as sheriff of Lincoln County.

Everyone could tell there was a change in the air, and it wasn’t in Billy’s favor.

Pat Garrett played a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Billy and his gang in December 1880. He surrounded them near Fort Sumner, but the Kid got away by the skin of his teeth, despite his best friend, Tom O’Falliard, getting shot and killed by the posse. Several days later, Garrett and his men tracked Billy to a ranch owned by Tom Wilcox and Manuel Brazil. The Kid escaped just in time and made it as far as Stinking Springs when Garrett caught up with the gang again. After a brief shootout, the posse took down Charlie Bowdre. Billy and the other two boys soon surrendered.

Garrett loaded his prisoners in a wagon and drove them to Las Vegas, where they arrived the day after Christmas in 1880. They were put on a train bound for the territorial prison at Santa Fe the following day.

Towards the end of March 1881, the Kid was taken by train to Mesilla, where he stood trial for the murder of Sheriff Brady and Buckshot Roberts. His attorney got the case for the murder of Buckshot Roberts thrown out on a technicality. However, the trial for the murder of Sheriff Brady wouldn’t go away. The judge, the jury, and the defense attorneys were stacked against Billy. The judge advised the jury that even if Billy didn’t pull the trigger, he was just as guilty if he “was present, inciting, encouraging,” and a dozen other things.

Billy was convicted on April 13 and sentenced to die on May 13. He was to be “hanged by the neck until dead” at Lincoln.

It was one of many appointments with the hangman the Kid wouldn’t keep.

Billy's escape from the Lincoln County Jail.
(from The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. 1882.)

Lincoln didn’t have a real jail in 1881 when Billy was brought there. They’d had a pit they kept prisoners in for the longest time. When Garrett took over, he decided the pit wasn’t fit enough for a wolf—let alone a man. So Billy was shackled inside the former Murphy-Dolan Store that served as a courthouse for Lincoln County. James Bell and Bob Olinger were assigned to guard the kid 24 /7. The last thing Pat Garrett wanted was for the Kid to make another escape.

About a week into Billy’s stay at Lincoln, Pat Garrett left town for a few days to collect taxes. Olinger took the other prisoners across the street to the Wortley Hotel for lunch. That just left Bell and Billy in prison.

Billy didn’t always play fair. “He’d play up to a man and make him think he was his friend. Then, when he got him off guard, he’d kill him.” That’s what he did to Jim Bell and Bob Ollinger. They were already friends, but Billy played up to them the entire time he was locked up.

The guards played with fire as they “laughed at the Kid’s stories, played cards with him, and often removed one of the cuffs from his wrist.”

For Billy—it was now or never.

No one can say what happened. The Kid told a friend he slipped his hand out of the cuffs, grabbed Bell’s gun, and whacked him a good one over the head. The Kid blasted away at him as he raced down the steps.

Next up was Olinger.

Bob Olinger had been threatening to take Billy out since his capture. Billy relished the opportunity to exact his revenge. The story is Olinger heard the shots and rushed to the prison. He heard the words, “Hello Bob!” He looked up, and Billy let him have it with both barrels of a shotgun.

Billy hopped on a waiting horse and rode off.

An old-timer gave a slightly different version of the story a dozen years later. Billy pulled Jim Bell’s “gun from his boot and started pumping lead into him at a great rate. Bob Ollinger jumped from the table where he was eating and said, ‘My God! There’s Billy trying to git, and Jim’s shot him.’ He rushed across the street and skipped up the stairs when he saw Billy standing at the top, pointing a Winchester at him. The next minute, Bob dropped, done up in real good style with a bullet in his head.”

 In July, Garrett received word the Kid was hanging out around old Fort Sumner. So he rounded up John Poe and Kip McKinney and chased after the Kid.

Depending on who you listen to, Garrett did some fancy tracking. He caught up with the Kid at Pete Maxwell’s place at Fort Sumner, or as John Poe later told the story—it was all a matter of luck. Garrett had no idea the Kid was at Pete Maxwell’s place that night. Destiny brought them together.

Death of Billy the Kid.
(from The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. 1882.)

After dark, Garrett crept into Pete Maxwell’s bedroom to see what news he had about the Kid. Poe and McKinney stood guard outside, though how good of guards they were—could stand some debate.

The Kid almost stumbled over the two men as he made his way to Maxwell’s room. Poe later said he didn’t recognize the man as Billy, as he’d never seen him before. Apparently, it didn’t worry him or McKinney that the man held a pistol in one hand and a butcher knife in the other. They let Billy walk into Maxwell’s room without warning Garrett.

Moments later, gunfire erupted in the room, and Billy fell dead in Pete Maxwell’s bedroom.

Garrett said he was sitting on the edge of Maxwell’s bed—in the shadows—when the Kid walked in. When he saw him, the Kid called out, “Who is it?” “Who is it?”

Garrett leaned to the side, hoping that would throw the Kid’s aim off. That was his only hope.

In the end, it didn’t matter.  Billy, the Kid, lay dead in Pete Maxwell’s bedroom. Pat Garrett’s first bullet “took him just a little above the heart,” said John Poe. “Garrett’s next bullet took him plum through the head. He fell with a groan and died in a short time.”

Ever since Billy’s death, stories have been told. Some say Pat Garrett ambushed the Kid. Others say the Kid lived into the 1950s and was known to his friends as “Bushy” Bill. That may be true. But, most likely, Billy Bonney died at Pete Maxwell’s that day.

Pat Garrett, the gentle, soft-spoken giant—had taken down the toughest outlaw in the territory and lived to tell the tale.

One man was overheard saying, “Pat Garrett didn’t give [Billy] a square show for his life. Of course,” continued the man, “he’d been a fool if he had. Billy handled the shooting irons better than any man alive.” Besides, “Billy wasn’t particular” who he shot. “He’d just as soon kill one man as another.”


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