Sunday, September 18, 2016

Killing Billy the Kid

Billy, the Kid
From The Authentic Life of
Billy, the Kid by Pat Garrett - 1892
Billy, the Kid, was nothing but a little squirt. He stood something like five foot, 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 his pistol.

The only picture we have 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 ladies man. They liked him as much as he liked them, so that picture can’t be accurate. It’s more likely the Kid had a boyish smile, that broke into a wide, childlike grin when he was 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.”

And, 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.” As he said the words, Billy raised his hand and pointed at the governor.

“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, and 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 the days 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 some kind of a hero, but one thing is certain—the Kid was no hero. 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.

Billy’s story got its start back in late 1877 when he rode into New Mexico Territory. The Kid was just 17 then. He was a boy, in search of a reputation. And, Lincoln County, was a place to build it—right quick.

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.

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.

Pat Garrett
From The Authentic Life of 
Billy, the Kid by Pat Garrett - 1892
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. In 1876, a young upstart, named John Tunstall, arrived from England, and proceeded to build a rival store in Lincoln. That move started a chain reaction, that turned Lincoln into a right 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 richest 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.

John Tunstall was killed in February of 1878 by Deputy Sheriff William Morton and his posse. 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 9th, the “Regulators” bushwhacked Sheriff William Brady, and his deputy, Fred Waite, on the main streets of Lincoln. More than a dozen men were involved 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 that offered 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, he had a confab with Governor Wallace, at the Governor’s Palace. No one is sure exactly what was said, but it was assumed the Kid cut some kind of deal with the Governor. We do know he kept his nose “relatively” clean for nearly a year after the meeting, and things in Lincoln County seemed to quiet down—for a while. A new governor took Lew Wallace’s place in 1880, and any deal Billy had made was soon off the table. A young upstart named Patsey “Pat” Garrett won 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 hide and seek with Billy and his gang in December of 1880. He surrounded them near Fort Sumner, but the Kid got away by the skin of his teeth, despite the fact his best friend, Tom O’Falliard, was 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 again caught up with the gang. After a brief shootout, the posse took down Charlie Bowdre. Billy and the other two boys soon surrendered.

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

Towards the end of March 1881, the Kid was taken by train to Mesilla, where he was put on 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. The trial for the murder of Sheriff Brady wouldn’t end as well. The judge, the jury, and the defense attorneys were stacked against Billy. The trial started with the judge advising 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 13th, and sentenced to die on May 13th. 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.

Lincoln didn’t have a real jail in 1881 when Billy was brought there. For the longest time, they’d had a pit that prisoners were kept in, but when Garrett took over, he decided the pit wasn’t fit enough for a wolf—let alone a man. Billy was shackled inside the former Murphy-Dolan Store, that now 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 his stay at Lincoln, Billy made his move. Garrett was out of 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.

For Billy—it was now or never.

No one can really 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. This was his chance for payback, and Billy relished the opportunity to extract his revenge. The story is Olinger heard the shots, rushed to the prison…He heard the words, “Hello Bob!” Looked up, and Billy let him have it with both barrels of the shotgun he was holding.

Billy hopped on a waiting horse and rode off.

In July, Garrett received word the Kid was hanging out around old Fort Sumner. He gathered two old friends, John Poe and Kip McKinney, and chased after the Kid.

Depending on who you listen to, Garrett did some fancy tracking and 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 just sort of brought the two men together.

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 any 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 says 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.

And, yet, stories are told. Some say Pat Garrett ambushed the Kid. Others say, the Kid lived into the 1950’s and was known to his friends as “Bushy” Bill. But, most likely—Billy Bonney died that day at Pete Maxwell’s.

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

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Excerpt from my upcoming book. 

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