|Billy the Kid
(from The Authentic Life of
Billy the Kid. 1882.)
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
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.
The Kid let his finger
do the talking.
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
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
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
“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.
(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
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
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.”