About Billy the Kid
by Marcelle Brothers
What is it about this young outlaw named William Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, that has captured our fascination? People either love him or hate him—idolize him or condemn him. Who was Billy the Kid really? Billy the Kid was a man of many faces, sometimes he was a good guy and other times he was a bad guy, but he was never all bad. He had good qualities, a winning personality and was loyal to his beliefs. But how did this good man go so bad? What’s his true story?
We’ll begin with the beginning:
Billy the Kid entered this world as mysteriously as he left it. Tradition has Billy born Henry McCarty on November 23, 1859 in New York City, but nothing proves this to be true. The date and place of his birth, early childhood, and who exactly were his parents remains a mystery. We estimate Billy was born around 1859-1861, possibly in New York, Indiana or Missouri. Who Billy’s father was is not known. We do know his mother was an Irish immigrant named Catherine McCarty and she had another son named Joseph. Whether or not the boys had the same father or if they both born out of wedlock is also not known. Due to recollection by childhood friends, Joseph was husky and large for his size, compared to his small frame brother who looked young for his age, this than could mean they were half brothers. But what about his name? A childhood friend claimed that “Henry” was his middle name and that “Billy” was his first. But his mother’s boyfriend, whom she would later marry, was named Billy Antrim. So as not to get the two confused, she started calling her son by his middle name.
Like I said, Billy’s birth, background and early childhood is an absolute mystery and no convincing records have been found. But Billy does turn up in the pages of history in 1870 in Wichita Kansas. Catherine, her sons, and Billy Antrim took up residence in the busy cow town but only for a short time. Catherine was diagnosed with Tuberculosis and was recommended to seek a better climate. While in living Colorado, the family learned that New Mexico was a perfect climate for consumption sufferers, and not to mention those with silver fever.
On their way to Silver City (which is located in the southwest portion of New Mexico), the couple was married in Santa Fe. By March of 1873, the new family settled in their new home in the busy mining town. Antrim purchased a small cabin by Main Street, but spent most of his time camping out and mining in the hills. To help earn extra money, Catherine took in boarders and sold pies and cakes.
The other residents remembered the Antrim family with fondness. Catherine was described as a “jolly Irishwoman, full of fun and mischief.” Her sons quickly made friends and were no more a problem than the other boys in town. At this time, Billy was about twelve-years old; he had sandy blond hair, clear blue eyes with a light complexion and a baby face. He was average size but lanky, with small hands. Unfortunately, bullies teased the boy due to his physical stature. But looks can be deceiving, Billy was feisty and had a revengeful streak, and if any one did him dirty he would get even. Billy was said to have been a good student in school, artistic and an excellent reader. He loved to sing and dance, and was an eager participant for school plays. He was polite and well mannered, and adored his mother. No doubt his best memories of her was when they would go to the town’s weekly shindigs.
But times with his fun loving mother would be short. The consumption caught up with her and she was bed ridden for several months. Billy Antrim was absent most of the time mining in the hills. Was it because he didn’t want to watch his wife die or was it because he didn’t care? Whatever the case, he was not there when his stepsons needed him the most. On September 16, 1874 forty-five year old Catherine died; her husband was not there nor was he present for the funeral.
When Antrim did return, he placed his stepsons in separate foster families and left Silver City for good. For a time Billy lived with the Truesdell family and earned his keep by washing dishes and waiting on tables for their newly opened restaurant called the “Exchange.” Even though his mother died, abandoned by his stepfather, separated from his brother, and now working for his room and board, Billy still attended school regularly.
Due to domestic problems in the Truesdell family, thirteen-year-old Billy took up lodgings at Sarah Brown’s boarding house. To pay his rent, he did odd jobs and chores for families and merchants in town. But Billy was hitting rock bottom and was getting desperate for money.
Billy’s first criminal offense was stealing several pounds of butter, which he sold to a local merchant. The town’s sheriff let the boy go with a warning, because not only was his sons friends of Billy’s, but he may have understood Billy’s motive to sell stolen goods -he was poor (after all, why would a boy want to steal butter?). After promising to stay out of trouble, Billy fell into bad company when he met George Schaefer, alias Sombrero Jack. A few years older than Billy, Schaefer was a petty thief and a gambler -he wasn’t exactly a proper role model for the youngster- so it was only a matter of time before Billy got in trouble once again.
In September of 1875, Sombrero Jack had stolen some laundry from a Chinaman who ran a laundry cleaning service and gave the bundle to Billy to hide. Landlady Sarah Brown came across the bundle of stolen clothes in Billy’s room and turned him in to the sheriff.
Billy wasn’t the only youngster getting into trouble in Silver City; so the Justice of the Peace decided to teach all the troublemakers a lesson by making an example out of Billy. When the circuit court came to town, almost two months later, Billy would go before a jury and trialed as an adult.
When the sheriff’s family learned about poor Billy’s predicament, the sheriff’s sons and wife protested Billy’s unfair treatment. The sheriff said he would keep Billy locked up for a couple of days to scare him and then he release him.
Billy hated his solitary confinement and the energetic boy was going stir crazy. So the sheriff agreed to allow him free roam of the corridor in the mornings. There was a small fireplace in the corridor, so during his freedom in the corridor, Billy squirmed and climbed his way up to the roof. After finding Billy missing, Sheriff Whitehill would say, “I ran outside around the jail and a Mexican was standing on a ridge at the rear and asked whom was I hunting. I replied in Spanish, ‘a prisoner.’ He came out the chimney, answered the Mexican. I ran back to the jail and looked up into the big, old-fashion chimney and sure enough could see where an effort to obtain a hold, his hands had clawed into the thick layer of black soot.”
Billy’s life had changed from an orphan working for his keep to a runaway fugitive. Not knowing what to do next, he headed to the only family he knew: the Truesdell family. They fed him, gave him new clothes and money. When a stage came by they waved it down and put the boy on it -destination: Arizona.
William Antrim was mining in Clifton, Arizona and he probably forgotten all about his two orphan stepsons back in Silver City. So one wonders what his reaction was when he saw Billy walking up to him. Billy had hoped his stepfather would take him in, but once Antrim learned of the trouble Billy got in, he told him to leave.
Disowned by his stepfather and force to fend for himself, Billy, who was barley fourteen, was completely alone in the hostile country of Arizona. Being alone in the Arizona desert during those times was a death sentences, if Indians didn’t kill or rob him, cutthroat bandits would. Billy had to find security and fast.
For almost two years Billy lived like a tramp, he wandered about and found short-term work on ranches, but due to his youth and small size he was discharged. Needing a horse, Billy stole one in Camp Goodwin and headed to Fort Grant. Billy managed to get a job as a cook for Miles Wood who was the Justice of the Peace and owner the Hotel de Luna, but a couple of days later he was jobless again. If Billy couldn’t find steady work as a cowboy or cook, he would try his hand at gambling. While gambling at the saloons and halls, Billy had met some rough characters; one of those was twenty-seven year old John Mackie. Taking the young boy under his wing, Mackie taught Billy how to make an easy living by horse stealing.
Also about the time Billy turned up in Fort Grant, he ran into trouble with a blacksmith named Frank “Windy” Cahill, a husky and strong man with a nasty disposition. Cahill took great enjoyment on abusing Billy both verbally and physically. “Shortly after the Kid came to Fort Grant, Windy started to abusing him,” said one local cowboy, Gus Gildea, “He would throw Billy to the floor, ruffle his hair, slap his face and humiliate him before the men in the saloon.” Understandability Billy had an immense hatred for Cahill.
When saddles and horses started disappearing and it wasn’t long before the bandits were identified. After being arrested twice by soldiers and both times slipping away (which is something Billy was most famous for, he was a regular Houdini), his close calls may have scared him enough to go straight. Billy returned five horses to the army quartermaster who then let the matter go. But the justice of the peace Miles Wood did not.
Thinking their problems were resolved Billy and Mackie were back in town. Miles Wood saw the duo and arrested them. After only one hour of confinement, Billy asked to use the privy, once outside he made a mad dash to get away. But he was quickly recaptured by nearby soldiers and shackled by none other than Frank Cahill, who probably rubbed in Billy’s misfortunate. Later that evening, Mackie boosted Billy up the wall of their guardhouse, were there was a narrow opening between the roof and the wall, and this time Billy got away –yes, shackles and all.
You would think Billy would have hightailed it out of Arizona and never look back, but that wasn’t the case. For the next several months, Billy worked doing odd chores for H.F. Smith at a hay camp. After being paid, Billy bought himself a new outfit and a revolver.
On August 18, 1877, Billy turned up in Fort Grant and went into Atkins’s Cantina. His motives of being there are a little suspicious. Was he there to gamble and double what was left of his wages? Was he looking for his old friend Mackie? Or was he there to seek revenge on an old enemy? No sooner did Billy arrive that he had a confrontation with Cahill. Hard words were exchange when Cahill called Billy a pimp and Billy called Cahill a son of a bitch. Cahill then jumped on the Kid, threw him down, sat on his chest and smacked him repeatedly in the face. Billy worked one of his hands free, pulled out his revolver and fired. When the smoke cleared Cahill keeled over with a gut wound and Billy got up and ran. Mounting a racehorse named Cashaw, owned by John Murphy, Billy rode off. Much to the owner’s surprise, Billy had the horse returned.
Frank Cahill died and after an inquest, the jurors found the shooting unjustifiable and Billy guilty of murder. Billy wouldn’t have a chance of pleading self-defense. He was a known horse thief who escaped confinement months earlier and the army was no doubt bias against him, not to mention Cahill’s soldier friends who could lynch him. Billy’s only chance to save his neck was to leave Arizona.
Billy returned to New Mexico and dropped in on his old Silver City friends, he even tracked down his brother Joseph. He bid his friends and brother goodbye and left the county, they would never see him again. Billy turned up at Apache Tejoe, an old fort used as a stopping place for travelers. It may have been here that he met up with and joined a gang called “The Boys.” One of the worst gang of rustlers’ southern New Mexico had seen. Their leader was twenty-three year old Jesse Evans, a former John Chisum cowboy. But the mastermind of the organized chain gang of rustlers was John Kinney.
Before Billy joined the gang, the Boys went on a spree of stealing, rustling and terrorizing the inhabitants of Dona Ana County. But Albert Fountain, editor and later attorney in Mesilla, put pressure on the county sheriff to arrest the outlaws and he also exposed the bandits in his newspaper “The Mesilla Valley Independent.” By October the law was coming down on the rustlers and Governor Sam Axtell granted District Attorney William Rynerson’s request for calling out the militia. The Boys decided to leave the area and head to Lincoln County. At this time, the sixteen year old youngster was riding with them, he may have been going by the alias of William H. Bonney, but was commonly known as “Kid.”
The Lincoln County War Tensions were high in Lincoln County. A feud between newcomer John Tunstall and his attorney friend Alex McSween against the monopolizing James Dolan, who was backed by the Santa Fe Ring, was going from bad to worse. The Lincoln County War was over greed and economic power, but was triggered off by a life insurance policy. Years earlier Lawrence G. Murphy and his partner Emil Fritz had established themselves and their cronies in Lincoln; members consisted of politicians, attorneys and the county sheriff. The organized group (similar to a mafia) was known as “the House.” A young man that Murphy took under his wing was James Dolan, who would be his successor. Through the House’s corruption, they controlled the beef contracts for the Military and Indian reservation, bullied and took advantage of the small ranchers who were at their mercy, and rustled cattle from John Chisum. But despite their power, the House was badly indebt and in danger of bankruptcy. With Emil Fritz’s death in 1874 and Murphy dying in Santa Fe with cancer in 1877, Dolan now stepped up as leader, but he had quite a financial mess on his hands.
To help get his way out of debt, Dolan had his eye on Fritz’s life insurance policy and turned to Attorney Alex McSween to collect it. McSween had worked with the House before and was turned off by their crooked schemes and knew what Dolan was up to. After a great deal of trouble and inconvenience, McSween came up with the insurance money. Dolan claimed that Emil Fritz had unpaid debts with the firm and demanded that all of the insurance money be turned over to him. McSween refused and stated he would safeguard the money and see to the interest of all the Fritz heirs including the ones overseas. Dolan then convinced Fritz’s sister in Las Cruces that McSween was keeping the money for himself and had her sign an affidavit to convict him. Dolan took the affidavit to his friend District Attorney William Rynerson to have McSween charged with embezzlement.
At the time Billy was wandering through the Arizona territory homeless and McSween was collecting the insurance money in New York, John Tunstall arrived in Lincoln. McSween and the Englishman met in St. Louis when the attorney was heading to New York. Tunstall wanted to start his own ranch and the prospect of what Lincoln County had to offer attracted him. He was cocky, persistent and a bit of a dreamer. In a year and with his father’s money, he bought a ranch and built a store in Lincoln. This of course, didn’t sit well with Dolan -competition was the last thing he needed.
When Billy arrived with the Boys in the Lincoln County in October of 1877, the feud between Tunstall and Dolan was boiling and McSween was now facing embezzlement charges. Now with the arrival of Jesse Evans and his gang, who were friends of James Dolan, the odds were against Tunstall.
The Boys didn’t waste anytime in rustling Tunstall’s cattle and horses. Tunstall’s foreman Dick Brewer and ranch hands were kept busy trying to guard not only his, but also their own livestock. Billy, it seems, was a periodic member of the gang. Probably uncomfortable with the ruthless outlaws’ activities and being mistreated by some of the members, particular Bill Morton, Billy started to distance himself from the Boys. He became familiar with the locals such as Frank and George Coe and even stayed with Heiskell Jones and his large family. Billy particular struck it off with his son, John and even though they would fight on opposites sides of the Lincoln County War, they would remain good friends.
After a raid on Dick Brewer’s ranch, which resulted in the theft of Tunstall’s prized matching grey buggy horses, Brewer formed his own posse to go after the rustlers. Sheriff William Brady would reluctantly join. Eventually they caught up with a small party of the gang and arrested members that included Jesse Evans, Tom Hill and Frank Baker.
Now that the gang’s leader was in jail (and a crude one at that, it was a hole dug in the ground with a log made covering), Tunstall went to visit them to see if he could find out the whereabouts of his gray horses. The meeting has been a subject of debate. Shortly after their imprisonment the rustlers escaped; file marks were found in their shackles and holes cut in the logs that confined them. Did Tunstall aid in their escape? He knew they would be released and any chance of getting his prize horses back would be lost. So rumor has it that Tunstall helped them escaped in exchange for information on where and who had his horses. Soon after the jailbreak, William Bonney was arrested for stealing Tunstall’s gray horses.
"Well, there the poor boy lay without a friend to go his bond.” Said Lincoln resident Robert Casey, “ Finally, the Kid got tired of staying there and sent for Tunstall to come to some agreement with him. The Kid said he was willing to rectify the wrong and told him just how he come to steal the horses, that the Pecos outfit down there had lulled him into it. He touched Tunstall’s heart. Either the Kid or Tunstall made the proposal that he’d join his side if he’d get him out jail. The Kid jumped to it and then he got on his side then.”
In November of 1877, Tunstall employed Billy.
Even though Billy was an ex-member of the Boys and was recently arrested for stealing Tunstall’s horses, he fell right in with Tunstall’s cowboys and was one of them. He was well liked and the Coe cousins, Frank and George, particular enjoyed his friendship. Frank would remember, “We became staunch friends. I never enjoyed better company. He was humorous and told me many amusing stories. He always found a touch of humor in everything, being naturally full of fun and jollity. Though he was often serious in emergencies, his humor was often apparent even in such situations. His disposition was remarkably kind; he rarely thought of his own comfort first.”
Alex McSween’s embezzlement charges caught up with him and he was arrested. While awaiting his hearing, Tunstall sent an open letter to the editor of the Mesilla Valley Independent pointing the finger at the real embezzlers. He wrote that Sheriff Brady was pocketing tax money for the “House.” Of course this did not sit well with Dolan and the sheriff; John Tunstall was no longer a nuisance, he was now an enemy.
McSween’s hearing on February 4, 1878 did not go over well. He is bounded to go before a Grand jury in April and bail is set at $8,000 dollars. District Attorney Rynerson refused McSween’s bondsmen –Tunstall being one of them. As if that wasn’t enough, Dolan succeeded in filing a $10,000 suit against him and the courts agreed to attach McSween’s property. After the hearing, McSween was sent back to Lincoln to await trial. Sheriff Brady looked forward to having McSween in his custody and bragged about the treatment he had planned for him. Word of this got out and for his protection Sheriff Barrier, who brought McSween in from Mesilla, did not turn him over to Brady, but instead put him under house arrest in McSween’s home under his guard.
Dolan wasted no time in levying McSween’s property; he literally raced back home to Lincoln to beat McSween’s party. Because he looked upon Tunstall as McSween’s business partner, he took charge of Tunstall’s store and had his eye on Tunstall’s cattle and horses.
When Tunstall arrived, February 11th, he was enraged when he heard his store was taken. So backed by a handful of his men, one of them the young William Bonney, who was proving himself a reliable warrior, Tunstall confronted Sheriff Brady who was taking inventory of his merchandise. After a tense standoff, Tunstall realized the lost of his situation and not wanting a shoot out, he backed off. Though, he couldn’t reclaim his store, he did manage to get his horses, that were kept in a corral in the back, exempted from the attachment. Brady would end up taking $30,000 in property for the attachment, compared to the $10,000.
The horses were return to Tunstall’s ranch, but only for a short time. Deputy Matthews with his posse, tried to levy Tunstall’s and Dick Brewer’s cattle, claiming the animals were McSween’s property. After an argument with Brewer over true ownership, Matthews promised to return after getting further instructions from Brady concerning the cattle, but most of all, with reinforcement. Tunstall did not want any of his men killed over cattle, so he decided to allow the sheriff to take them. On February 18th, Tunstall and his men which consisted of Dick Brewer, Rob Widenmann, Henry Brown (who would turn back after his horse threw a shoe), John Middleton, Fred Waite (who was driving a wagon), and of course, Billy Bonney, herded the horses back to Lincoln.
Meanwhile, Dolan, Deputy Matthews and his posse (a mixture of lawmen, Dolan’s henchmen, and members of the Boys) headed out to Tunstall’s ranch to seize the animals. Matthews noticed the horses were missing. The only one left at the ranch was Tunstall’s cook, Godfrey Gauss, but when asked where Tunstall and the horses went, he played dumb. But the posse found fresh tracks and since Tunstall and his men were herding horses, they wouldn’t be moving fast and will be easy to catch up to. Matthews then formed a sub posse, appointing Bill Morton as leader to go after them. Some of those chosen were Frank Baker, Jesse Evans, Tom Hill, Robert Beckwith, Wallace Olinger (Bob Olinger’s older brother), George Hindman, and eight others. Just before the sub posse galloped off, Morton announced, “My knife is sharp and I feeling like scalping someone.”
Meanwhile, as Fred Waite stayed on the main road with the wagon, Tunstall’s party continued to herd the horses across the plains through Parjarito Springs. Brewer and Widenmann saw a flock of wild turkeys and gave chase-leaving Tunstall alone. Billy and Middleton were riding drag pushing the horses forward; when suddenly they heard galloping hooves and saw a group of men coming towards them with guns drawn. Billy rushed forward to warn Brewer and Widenmann, while Middleton rode after Tunstall. The sub posse came barring down on them with guns firing. Billy, Brewer, and Widenman raced for cover behind some boulders to make a stand. But seeing Tunstall the posse turned towards him. Middleton yelled out to Tunstall to follow him, but Tunstall was confused by the sudden commotion and only yelled back “What John? What?” The posse surrounded Tunstall, then in a cold-blooded manner, Morton and Tom Hill shot and killed him. Tunstall’s men who were hiding in the canyon, no doubt, knew what happened to Tunstall. They slipped away and headed to Lincoln and convened in McSween’s house.
The brutal death of John Tunstall triggered off the bloodiest part of the Lincoln County War. Immediately following Tunstall’s death and after hearing the testimonies from Brewer, Bonney, and Middleton, Justice of the Peace George Barber made out warrants against Tunstall’s killers. Constable Atanacio Martinez was appointed to serve the warrants and when he learned the killers were hiding in Dolan’s store, he along with Billy and Fred Waite went there to make the arrest. Once inside the tables turned, Sheriff Brady who was also in the store, refused to allow the arrest, instead he took them prisoners. Brady jerked Billy’s rifle away from him (the very one Tunstall gave him) and the three prisoners were then “cursed and abused.” Constable Martinez was released by nightfall, but Waite and Bonney remained. Unfortunately, Billy would miss Tunstall’s funeral. After three days, Billy and Waite were finally released without their arms. Billy will never forgive or forget the mistreatment, the theft of his rifle and missing his employer’s funeral by Sheriff Brady.
Because Sheriff Brady wouldn’t do his duty to serve the warrants against Tunstall’s assassins, Justice of the Peace John Wilson appointed Dick Brewer constable and gave him the power to serve the warrants. Tunstall’s men and other local supporters, such as the Coe cousins, Doc Scurlock, and Charlie Bowdre, formed the “Regulators” and under the leadership of Dick Brewer, sought out to bring in (or take out) Tunstall’s killers.
Billy was a teenager among men, but was greatly admired and respected due to his feistiness, bravery and marksmanship and wherever the Regulators went, so did he.
Frank Coe would say about Billy: “He stood with us to the end, brave and reliable, one of the best soldiers we had. He never pushed in his advice or opinions, but he had a wonderful presence of mind; the tighter the place the more he showed his cool nerve and quick brain.”
Because McSween was still under the custody of Sheriff Barrier, Dolan went to Mesilla to have the bias Judge Bristol to issue an alias warrant to re-arrest McSween. Now with the proper papers Brady had the power to arrest McSween and have him in his custody and Barrier could do nothing about it.
March 9th, the Regulators arrested Bill Morton and Frank Baker. Billy had a personal grudge against Morton, not only did he shoot Tunstall, but Billy never forgot Morton’s abuse back when he rode with the Boys. While escorting their prisoners back to Lincoln, the Regulators came to the conclusion that Sheriff Brady would release Morton and Baker. What happened next isn’t clear, but most likely, the Regulators decided to take the law in their own hands. Regulator member William McCloskey (who was suspected of playing both ends of the table) had pledged to see Morton and Baker through safely and protested the execution of the prisoners. So Regulator Frank MacNab shot and killed him. Morton and Baker then tried to make a run for it, but were shot down them selves. Billy, no doubt was one of those firing, but he was not the sole killer. Ironically on the same day, while raiding a ranch, Tom Hill (the other man that shot Tunstall) was killed and Jesse Evans wounded.
Sheriff Brady was a major thorn the Regulator’s side; not only was he interfering with the arrest of Tunstall’s assassins, but they felt he was as much responsible for Tunstall’s death as the actual killers. So on April 1, 1878, while in town and staying in Tunstall’s store, several Regulators were getting themselves worked up over Brady, when lo and behold, who should appear? Sheriff Brady and his deputies, George Hindman, Bill Matthews, John Long, and George Peppin were walking right past Tunstall’s store. The Regulators, which consisted of Frank MacNab, Jim French, Fred Waite, John Middleton, Henry Brown and Billy Bonney hid behind an adobe wall at the side of the store and waited for the lawman to walk by. Because of his youth and lower ranking, Billy the Kid may have been shoved in the back while the older men took front position. Billy would later confess to Mrs. McSween that it was Matthews he was aiming at. This may explain why, in his bad position, Billy missed Matthews (this is only a hunch, and should be taken for what it’s worth). Those targeted would be Brady, Hindman and Matthews, for those three had a hand in Tunstall’s death. As the lawman came into view, they were met by a burst of gunfire. Brady and Hindman were hit, while the others ran for cover. Billy saw his rifle by Brady’s body and wanted it back, so he and Jim French jumped over the wall and went out in the street. As Billy reached for his rifle, French may have been covering him or looking for McSween’s alias warrant in Brady’s pocket. But as the two stooped down towards the body, Matthews fired a shot at Billy. The bullet only grazed him in the hip, but went into French’s buttocks. The two then hobbled back behind the wall. The party then hightailed to San Patricio.
The killing of the sheriff and his deputy backfired and did more harm than good. Not only did this turn public opinion away from McSween side, but also Governor Axtell, who was part of the Santa Fe Ring, was getting involved. Justice of the Peace John Wilson was fired and his warrants issued against Tunstall’s murders were revoked; now any chance to bring in the killers in was lost. Now the Regulators were the outlaws.
Four days after Brady’s assassination, the Regulators regrouped and turned up in Blazer’s Mill on the Mescalero Apache Reservation. While eating a meal a Dolan gunman named Buckshot Roberts, whom Brewer had a warrant for, rode in. Frank Coe knew Roberts and went outside to talk to him. As the two sat down, Coe tried to convince Roberts to surrender. Roberts reminded him what happened to Morton and Baker, but Coe promised no harm would come to him. Meanwhile, inside the Regulators were getting impatient, so they all stepped outside. The armed men approached and Charlie Bowdre yelled for Roberts to throw up his hands. Instead Roberts jumped up and at the same time Bowdre and Roberts fired at each other. Roberts' bullet ricocheted off Bowdre’s belt buckle and took off George Coe’s finger. As for Bowdre his bullet torn into Roberts’ gut giving him a fatal gut wound. But that didn’t slow Roberts down, he pumped his Winchester sending lead in all directions hitting Middleton in the chest and grazing both Scurlock and Bonney. Out numbered and outgunned, Roberts gave them a fight none of them would ever forget, even Billy would admit to his friend John Meadows in later years, “Yes sir, he licked out crowd to the finish.”
When Roberts’ Winchester was empty and he quickly ducked inside a building, but before entering Billy rushed him on the porch and pointed his own gun at him. But before he could fire, Roberts used the butt end of his rifle to jab Billy in the ribs, deflecting his aim and knocking him breathless. Roberts disappeared in the building and found a Springfield rifle and prepared for a standoff. As the Regulators surrounded the building, Dick Brewer went around back and hid behind some logs and as he peered over the top, the sharp-eyed Roberts fired. Brewer was hit in the right eye and was killed instantly. With the death of their leader, two of their men badly wounded, and knowing Roberts would die of his own wounds, the Regulators rode out. The next day the residents of Blazer Mill buried Brewer and Roberts side by side.
After one of the greatest gunfights in Lincoln County history, the Regulators laid low as the events in Lincoln took place. Judge Bristol arrived and appointed a new sheriff, John Copeland and the court and jury issued indictments against Jesse Evans, George Davis, John Long, for the murder of Tunstall, and Dolan and Matthews as accessories. As for the killing of Brady, Hindman, and Roberts there were indictments against John Middleton, Fred Waite, Henry Brown, William Bonney, Charlie Bowdre, Doc Scurlock, Steve Stephens, John Scroggins, and George Coe. As for McSween, the jury exonerated him from the embezzlement charges.
But then Governor Axtell stuck his nose in and discharged Sheriff Copeland for failure to collect taxes, but most likely it was because he wasn’t part of the “Ring.” So George Peppin was appointed. Dolan had also summoned John Kinney in for assistances and for the next two months there would be skirmishes and legal battles between both sides. It was only a matter of time before it reached its boiling point.
The two sides finally came to blows in Lincoln on July 15, 1878. The Regulators, which consisted of as many as fifty men, rode into Lincoln and began to take position in town. Guarding the McSween house was Bonney, Scurlock, French, Bowdre, Joe Smith, Tom Cullins, Jose Chavez y Chavez, Yginio Salazar, Florencio Chaves, Vicente Romero, Ignacio Gonzales, Francisco Zamora, Jose Sanchez, and Billy’s new sidekick Tom O. Folliard; along with McSween, his wife Susan, her sister Elizabeth Shield, her five children, and Harvy Morris (who was studying law under McSween). Post outside were almost forty men spread out in varies buildings (Tunstall’s store, Montano’s store, Patron’s building and Ellis’ store). But it wasn’t long until rustler John Kinney and his band of thieves and Peppins’ posse arrived and had the house surrounded. When they tried to serve warrants against Billy and other Regulators, McSween yelled out “We have warrants for you!” The battle had begun.
For the next four days there was on and off firing. Dolan side lost a man Charlie Crawford, who was shot down by Scurlock’s father-in-law Fernando Herrera, and town resident Ben Ellis was badly wounded. The Dolan side was getting frustrated so James Dolan went to the nearby Fort Stanton and persuaded Colonel Dudley to help. The following day on July 19th, the colonel, thirty-five soldiers, armed with a howitzer and a Gatling gun rode into Lincoln.
The army pointed the howitzer at each building where the Regulators hide until they had all fled; now they focused on the McSween house. Understandably the occupants of the house were alarmed. Tired of the standoff, Sheriff Peppin had his men set the house on fire to flush them out, but it was made of adobe and would take all day to burn. In time the women and children trapped in the house were allowed to leave. Susan McSween confronted Colonel Dudley and demanded his protection, instead he order her out of his camp. By nightfall the house was completely a blazed and the men took refuge in the last unburned room. The heat of the flames was overwhelming, Alex McSween was in a daze and the men were getting uneasy. They didn’t want to surrender, but they didn’t want to burn alive either. How were they going to get out of this predicament? The men turned to the only man that was calm and cool despite their desperate situation -Billy Bonney. Billy told them the only chance they had was to make a run for it and head towards the Rio Bonita behind the house. Billy and four others (Chavez, Morris, French, and Folliard) would go first and run towards Tunstall’s store drawing the line of fire towards them, while McSween and the others run straight for the river. With the plan made, Billy and his party made their move and bolted out the door as a volley of bullets came at them. Morris fell dead, while the others ran towards Tunstall’s store but they were met by more bullets and turned towards the river. Meanwhile, McSween’s party didn’t fare any better; as they made a dash for the river gunfire erupted and trapped them in a corner. As the others make one last effort to run towards the back gate, McSween yelled out “I shall surrender!” Dolan gunman Robert Beckwith then approached him, but some one yelled “I won’t surrender!” and a hail of bullets rained on them. McSween, Beckwith, Zamora, and Romero fell dead. Also hit was a youngster not yet sixteen, Yginio Salazar who played dead and would later crawl away unseen to safety.
Billy and the others reached the river and hid out in the hills. They may have even heard the Dolan men celebrating, drinking whiskey and bragging about their bravery while fiddles played as the men ransacked and looted the Tunstall store.
The Lincoln County War was over.
This is the only authenticated picture of Billy the Kid. Originally one of four identical images (the other three have long been lost), this tintype was taken circa 1880 in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Billy gave it to his friend Dan Dedrick and it was passed down through the family until it was sold at auction in 2011.
Billy's mother is buried in Memory Lane Cemetery in Silver City. Unfortunately her name is misspelled on the headstone.
Sheriff Harvey Whitehill
Frank Cahill is buried in the older end of Bonita Cemetery in present day Bonita. Not all of the graves are marked but this is a possible location for his grave.
James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy
John H. Tunstall
Fred Waite and Henry Brown
Tunstall's grave in Lincoln
Josiah "Doc" Scurlock
Sheriff William Brady
J. B. "Billy" Matthews and Wife
George Coe Showing his missing trigger finger
Jose Chavez y Chavez
Alexander McSween's grave in Lincoln
After the ordeal, the weary Regulators headed to San Patricio. There was nothing left to fight for; Tunstall and now McSween were dead and the Dolan side had reclaimed Lincoln. Though James Dolan would still go bankrupt and lose the Murphy store, which would be converted into a courthouse, he still had powerful friends in Santa Fe and would never be convicted of his charges.
On the run from their enemies, a handful of Regulators including Billy, rode to the Mescalero Apache Reservation Agency near Blazer Mill. The Regulators claimed the objective of going there was to water their horses and visit the grave of their fallen leader Dick Brewer, but some say they were there to steal horses. As the men passed a spring, half the men went over to water their horses (Billy being one of them), the other half continued down the road towards the agency. As they approached, Indians coming in from the opposite direction spotted them and opened fire. Upon hearing the gunfire agency clerk, Morris Bernstein foolishly rode towards the shooting. During the chaos Atanacio Martinez shot Bernstein, he would later turn himself in and the charges would be dropped; but even still the newspapers would credit Billy the Kid with Bernstein’s death.
Meanwhile back at the spring, Billy’s party was startled by the shooting and so were their horses. Billy’s horse reared straight up, pulled the reins out of his hands and took off, leaving him on foot. But George Coe hoisted Billy up behind him on his horse and the group ran for cover. The Regulators saw an opportunity to steal the agency’s horses out of the corral while the gun battle was taking place. As guns continued to blaze away, the remaining Regulators with their stolen horses rode out of the agency and headed to Fort Sumner.
Shortly after, the Regulators slowly broke up. The Coe cousins and Charlie Bowdre settled down and laid low to wait for the smoke to clear from the Lincoln County War. While Billy and a handful of other former Regulators raided the Fritz Ranch in Lincoln County and took the stolen animals across the border to Texas.
In the small dusty cattle town of Tascosa, Texas, the former New Mexico warriors made themselves comfortable. The town had strict rules of conduct for outsiders; in order for Billy and his friends to stay in town the men had to promise to be on their best behavior and Billy took it upon himself to oversee that they do. One day John Middleton became drunk at Howard & McMaster’s store and was behaving violently. As the situation was getting ugly, Billy came in and with a mild but stern voice ordered Middleton out of the store and return to their camp outside of town. Oddly enough the ornery and drunk Middleton, know for his dominating personality, obeyed.
If Billy wasn’t busy keeping his men in line, he was making new friends. He struck up a firm and lasting friendship with a young frontier doctor name Henry Hoyt. The two had a lot in common; they both loved to gamble, race horses and dance with pretty girls, but they were also light or non-drinkers, a rare quality in those days. Before his departure for New Mexico Billy presented Hoyt with a fine sorrel Arabian horse named Dandy Dick (formerly owned by the late William Brady) and Hoyt gave Billy a watch.
After leaving Tascosa, the remaining Regulators disbanded for good. While the others would try to distant themselves from Lincoln and start their lives over again, Billy and Tom Folliard would return to Lincoln County.
In Billy’s absent, a ruffian named John Selman led an extremely dangerous gang called “the Rustlers,” some were former members of Peppin’s posse and Jesse Evans gang, including Jesse himself. The gang went on a violent rampage of stealing horses and cattle, but also looting and raiding homes and stores. They also physically abused or killed any man that got in their way, including the deaths of four young boys, for reasons none other than target practice. Women weren’t safe either, any unfortunately woman who was caught in their wrath were gang raped. They even tried to murder Susan McSween in Lincoln, but she was warned of the coming danger and fled to Las Vegas. Ironically, these men and their heinous acts of violence are not commonly known in today’s history, but yet, it is Billy the Kid that is portrayed as the monster of New Mexico?! Why is Billy the Kid forever branded as the Western terrorist and villain, when there were men 100 times worse than he ever was? Still to this day some people who know the name but not the man, has Billy baring the sins of John Selman, Jesse Evans, and John Kinney. Billy even gets blamed for some of the crimes of Jesse James and John Wesley Hardin.
In time the bias Governor Axtell was finally replaced with General Lew Wallace, who wasn’t all to happy about being appointed governor when he had his heart set on being an ambassador. But he took the job hoping it would allow him time to finish his novel Ben Hur. His first job was to put an end to the Rustler’s violence.
By the end of October 1878, Billy and Folliard were back in Lincoln. At lot had changed, the lawmen and army were cracking down on outlaws and there was a new governor. But Dolan still had the upper hand and tensions in Lincoln were still strong.
To put an end to the violence, Governor Wallace offered amnesty to those with lesser charges, but unfortunately, Billy did not qualify. Overwhelmed with having enemies outside and inside the law, Billy knew it would be a matter of time before he was gun down and decided to offer a peace parley to Jesse Evans and James Dolan.
Arrangements were made and the two sides met. After an argument instigated by Evans who wanted to shoot Billy on sight, the two sides calmed down and began their peace talk. A peace treaty was drawn up and it stated that no one on either side could kill, molest or testify against the other and if one is arrested, the others must aid in his escape. The treaty was signed and both parties put away their differences and went to a saloon to celebrate.
After going from one drinking and eating establishment to another, the men were getting drunk and obnoxious. The townspeople hid in their homes and locked their doors. As the group walked down the street they came upon Susan McSween’s attorney Huston Chapman. Dolan and his friend Billy Campbell wasted no time in threatening the man’s life. The sober Billy sensed trouble and wanted no part in this, so he turned to walk away but Jesse Evans blocked him and witnesses say he pulled out his gun and made Billy look on. Campbell pulled out his six-shooter and pointed it in Chapman’s face. Dolan also did the same but his gun went off. Startled by the sound of a gunshot Campbell’s reflects pulled the trigger of his gun. Chapman was shot in the chest and was killed. Unfazed by what happened, Dolan and Campbell suggested an oyster meal at another restaurant. The drunken men continued on down the street as if nothing happened. Billy had no choice but to go along.
While sitting around a table eating oysters and talking boastfully about the killing, Dolan tells one of his men to go back to Chapman’s body and place a gun in his hand, so they could cry self-defense. But the man refused, so Billy volunteered to do it. Once outside and joined by Folliard, the two bypass Chapman’s body, mounted their horses, and skinned out. Billy who had good intentions to clear himself from any more trouble was now involved in yet another murder.
When Governor Wallace heard about the cold-blooded killing of Chapman, he was fed up. After learning the story of what happened by witnesses he put out warrants against all who were involved, including Billy. The army and lawmen were unable to capture Billy who evaded them every time. Tired of running and being hunted like a coyote, Billy wrote a letter to the governor offering himself as a key witness to Chapman’s murder. Billy pointed out that he didn’t qualify for the governor’s amnesty, but if he would give the desired information in exchange to having his charges dropped, he would surrender. Billy also tried to convince the governor of his true feelings of laying down his arms and living an honest life. The governor immediately wrote back and told Billy to meet with him at old Squire Wilson’s house in the late evening: “Come alone. Don’t tell anybody –not a living soul- where you are coming or the object. If you could trust Jesse Evans, you can trust me.”
The meeting took place and Billy agreed to submit to a fake arrest for his own protection and testify against the Dolan bunch and Colonel Dudley for his illegal conduct during the battle at McSween’s house. The governor told Billy that if he stuck to his end of the bargain, “I will let you go scot-free with a pardon in your pocket.” They shook hands to close the deal and Billy left. The governor had no real intention to pardon Billy; he was just using him to convict Chapman’s killers. But Billy was taking the deal seriously, not to mention he was risking his life. By making an honest effort to clear himself, he violated the treaty with Dolan that was punishable by death.
On March 21, 1879 Billy and Tom Folliard surrendered to the Lincoln County Sheriff, George Kimbrell and placed in confined at Patron’s store in Lincoln. Billy would remain in custody for almost three months and during those months Billy followed through on his deal and was obedient to Governor Wallace’s wishes. He testified in court against James Dolan, Colonel Dudley, and other participants of the late Lincoln County War and even went one step further and told Wallace about the rustling trade and outlaw hideouts.
Although Billy, Susan McSween and other former Regulators testified against Colonel Dudley, just as many testified in his favor. Defending counsel, Henry Waldo closed his argument by verbally tearing into Billy’s testimony by calling him a liar and that the court shouldn’t go by the word of a murderous outlaw of the worst type, like William Bonney. It was no surprise that the bias military court found Dudley not guilty.
Billy was now expected to testify against Dolan for Chapman’s murder, but Dolan’s friend, prosecutor Attorney William Rynerson, refused to go along with Wallace’s plan for Billy and instead focused on putting Billy on trial first for the murder of Brady. If Billy was convicted and hung he couldn’t appear as an eyewitness against Dolan. Rynerson succeed in getting a change of venue to Mesilla for Billy’s trial. Mesilla was unfriendly territory for Billy. If Billy had faced a jury in Lincoln he would most likely be acquitted, but in Mesilla, Billy didn’t stand a chance and he knew it. Attorney Ira Leonard, who was in on the “deal” between Billy and the governor, wrote a worrisome note to Wallace, “I tell you Governor, the District Attorney here is no friend to law enforcement. He is bent on going after the Kid. He proposes to destroy his evidence and influence and is bent on pushing him (Billy) to the wall. He is a Dolan man and is defending him (Dolan) in every way possible.” Indeed when his trial took place on July 5, Dolan was acquitted, even though his testimony was very inconsistent.
Billy’s trial in Mesilla was scheduled for July, so Wallace still had plenty of time to come through for him, but would he? Billy saw how things were going in the courtroom and how truly powerful his enemies were. To make matters worse, Wallace had lost interest in him and had return to Santa Fe to concentrate on his novel Ben Hur. Billy wasn’t stupid he saw the writing on the wall and lost his trust in the governor. On June 17, while his partial guard looked the other way, Billy and Folliard walked out of Patron’s store and rode out of Lincoln.
Back on the run and in hiding, Billy felt betrayed and was terribly disappointed that his attempts to clear himself with the law had failed and now his situation was worse. He went back to the only life he knew…outlawry.
For the next couple of months Billy laid low and made his living by gambling and rustling Chisum’s cattle. Billy felt that John Chisum owed him fighting wages during the Lincoln County War, but Chisum denied the debt, so Billy stole from his herd. But Chisum had more cattle than he knew what to do with, so it was more of a nuisance than a lost of profit.
Billy wasn’t involved in anything too exciting (by outlaw standards) until January 10, 1880. While at Bob Hargove’s Saloon in Fort Sumner, Billy was confronted by a drunken bully who stated, “I bet $25 I kill a man today before you do.” Billy replied back, “What do you want to kill a man for?” and shrugged him off. Billy then learned Jim Chisum (John’s brother) and his cowboys were camped outside of the fort recovering stolen livestock, so Billy went out to investigate. When Billy and two Mexican comrades approached the cowboys, they demanded to inspect their stock. Billy saw that his jig was up and couldn’t sucker Jim out of the cattle and instead invited him and his men for a round of drinks. Back at the saloon, as they had their drinks, Joe Grant stirred up trouble by taking one of the Chisum cowboy’s fine ivory-handed revolver and replaced it with his own. In seeing this Billy went up to Grant and innocently commented on his revolver and lifted it out of the hostler. He then secretively spun the barrel so the hammer would hit an empty chamber and then gave it back. But the drunken man wasn’t through causing trouble, he pulled out his gun and pointed it in Jim’s face and threatened to kill him thinking he was John Chisum. But Billy quickly stepped forward and pointed out that he was John’s brother and as Billy turned away, Grant squared off at him and pulled the trigger. When Billy heard the gun click, he whirled around and fired his own gun three times killing Grant before the dead man knew what hit him. Later when Billy was asked about the shooting he nonchalantly replied, “Oh it was nothing, just a game of two and I got there first.”
During the months that passed, rustling was at an all time high, though Billy played an active part in the rustling trade he was not by any means alone. There were other rustlers who kept themselves busy in the New Mexico and Panhandle area, but due to Billy’s growing reputation all rustling thefts were blamed on him. Aside from rustling and gambling, Billy was also dabbling in counterfeiting (thanks to a new gang member named Billy Wilson and other associates). Due to complaints of bogus bills being passed, an investigation was under way.
By mid October of 1880, Billy was once again tired of his outlaw lifestyle and made another attempt to reform. He sent a letter to Attorney Ira Leonard asking him if they could meet and if he would help him straighten things out regarding his pardon. Leonard showed the letter to the counterfeiting investigator, Azariah Wild, and claimed Billy maybe useful in prosecuting the counterfeiters. Wild agreed and both Leonard and the investigator promise Billy that they would use their influences with Governor Wallace to fulfill his promise of the pardon, if he would testify against the counterfeiters. Leonard wrote a note to Billy to come immediately to White Oaks (a neighboring town of Lincoln) to meet with them. This was the same sort of promise Wallace gave Billy, was it another trick? Could he trust them?
But Billy did show up in White Oaks, but a month later. Was it because he sensed another betrayal? Or was it because Wilson and Billy robbed the U.S. mail in route to Fort Sumner with Leonard’s letter aboard and Wilson learned of Billy’s secret rendezvous with the attorney and Billy backed out? Or was it because Wild appointed one of Billy’s worse enemies, Bob Olinger as his US Marshal that Billy would have to surrender to? Whatever the reason for not going to White Oaks right away, Billy’s behavior didn’t make a good impression on Wild and he abandoned the agreement.
Meanwhile, thirty-year old Pat Garret, former buffalo hunter and employee of Pete Maxwell, was elected sheriff of Lincoln County. He won the election because he was familiar with Billy and his gang and knew their hideouts. Could this mean he was a rustler himself? But Garrett wouldn’t become sheriff until January 1, 1881, so Investigator Wild crossed out the name of John Hurley on a commission note sent by U.S. Marshall John Sherman and wrote in Pat Garrett’s name. Illegitimately, Garrett is now a deputy U.S. Marshall and began his hunt for Billy the Kid.
On November 20, 1880 a month late for his appointment and after picking up a new member named Dave Rudabaugh, Billy arrived in White Oaks and learned Leonard was not there, but in Lincoln. After stocking up on supplies, which they did not pay for, the boys headed to Lincoln. But word quickly got out on Billy’s whereabouts and the White Oaks posse led by deputies William Hudgens and James Carlyle went after him and his gang (I hate to use the word “gang,” because it really wasn’t one, but more like a small group of friends that outlawed together. It was not organized and Billy was not the “leader.” But I will reluctantly continue to use the word throughout this biography.)
The posse tracked them down at a camp and opened fire on the outlaws who scattered in different directions. Billy and Wilson’s horses were shot out from under them and the two got away on foot through the deep snow. The gang would then regroup and head to Jim Greathouse’s ranch. The posse did not take chase but instead gather up the stolen supplies.
The gang finally reach Greathouse’s ranch, as the White Oaks posse resumed the pursuit and it wouldn’t be long before they trailed them to the station house. When Billy got up the next morning he found the house surrounded by the posse. Deputy Carlyle bravely went into the house to negotiate with the outlaws, for his safety Greathouse went outside with the posse as a hostage. In a letter to the governor in the days to come, Billy wrote, “I asked for their papers and they had none. So I concluded it amounted to nothing more than a mob and told Carlyle that he would have to stay in the house and lead the way out at night. Soon after a note was brought in stating that if Carlyle did not come out from inside in five minutes they would kill the station keeper (Greathouse) who had left the house and was with them. In a short time a shot was fired on the outside and Carlyle thinking Greathouse was killed jumped through the window breaking the sash as he went and was killed by his own party, they thinking it was me trying to make my escape. The party then withdrew.”
Of course Carlyle’s death was blamed on Billy. The posse claimed Billy shot down Carlyle as he leaped out the window and ran. But logical thinking proves otherwise: First, when Billy’s reply note was carried back to the posse, the messenger heard the sound of broken glass followed by a hail of bullets coming his way. This means the posse did open fire on the figure that jumped through the window. Secondly, the posse had Billy trapped and now (if they believed so) he had just killed their deputy, so why would they suddenly leave and allow Billy to his escape? Because they had just killed one of their own men and panicked. Lastly, although the people of White Oaks blamed Carlyle’s death on Billy, they never officially charged him with the killing; the reason being, was in fear of an investigation revealing what “really” happened.
After the posse left with their tails between their legs, Billy and his gang waited till nightfall and headed for Anton Chico. Billy would soon learn that Garrett was hunting for him and narrowly missed capturing Tom Folliard at Yerby’s ranch (one of Billy’s stopping grounds and also where Charlie Bowdre was employed), he was also not happy to learn Garrett had confiscated a pair mules of his that he had left at the ranch. But Billy was more frustrated when he read in the Las Vegas Gazette that not only was he being blamed for Carlyle’s death, but he was being portrayed as a ring leader of a large organized gang of rustlers that consisted of forty to fifty men and that he was terrorizing the people of Fort Sumner and the surrounding vicinity. Not only did this article turn public opinion against him, but also it made him the most wanted man in New Mexico. Billy was concerned that any chance of going square was lost, so he wrote a desperate letter to the governor pleading his innocence:
“I noticed in the Las Vegas Gazette a piece which stated that Billy “the” Kid, the name by which I am known in the County, was the captain of a band of outlaws who hold forth at the Portales. There is no such organization in existence. So the gentleman must have drawn heavily on his imagination. My business at White Oaks the time I was waylaid and my horse killed was to see Judge Leonard who has my case in hand. He had written me to come up, that he thought he could get everything straightened up. I did not find him at the Oaks and should have gone to Lincoln if I had met with no accident.” This is where Billy tells about the ordeal at the stationhouse and how Carlyle was killed, he also mentions how Garrett confiscated his mules. Billy closes with:
“I have been at Sumner since I left Lincoln making my living gambling. The mules were bought by me the truth of which I can prove by the best citizens around Sumner. J.S. Chisum is the man who got me into trouble and has benefited thousands by it and is now doing all he can against me. There is no doubt but there is a great deal of stealing going on in the territory and a great deal of property is taken across the plains as it is a good outlet. But as far as my being at the head of a band there is nothing of it. Several instances I have recovered stolen property when there was no chance to get an officer to do it. One instance for Hugo Zuber Post office Puerto de Luna, another for Pablo Analla same place. If some impartial party were to investigate this matter they would find it far different from the impression put out by Chisum and his tool. Yours Respect-William Bonney”
Other than a few grammatical errors in the letter, this is proof that Billy was not the uneducated illiterate moron that he has been described as. It also shows Billy’s true feelings about the accusations against him. Unfortunately, it did not have the desired effect on the governor; Wallace’s response was placing a $500 reward for the capture of Billy the Kid.
Finally seeing the hopelessness of his situation and that the law was bent out for his capture, Billy decided to leave New Mexico, by Rudabaugh’s account, their destination was Old Mexico. But with Garrett breathing down their necks and not giving them a chance to get money and supplies, their departure from the territory was being delayed. Garrett wrote in The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, “The Kid had written to Captain Lea at Roswell that if the officers of the law would give a little time and let him alone until he could rest up his horses and get ready, he would leave the country for good.” But Garrett wasn’t about to let the fame and fortune get away, he was determined to capture or kill Billy the Kid.
Winter had set in and the ground was covered in snow and frost, if Billy thought the bad weather would deter his pursuers, he was wrong. Garrett recruited cattle detective Frank Stewart and his men to join him in the hunt for Billy the Kid. The posse then headed to Fort Sumner where word was out that Billy and his gang were there and getting ready to head south for Old Mexico.
On December 19, 1881 Garrett’s posse arrived at Fort Sumner and learned that Billy, aware of his presences, was hiding at a nearby roadhouse owned by Tom Wilcox and Manuel Brazil. Garrett sent a spy to the roadhouse to tell Billy that the coast was clear and that Garrett had left the fort and was heading back to Lincoln. Back in their saddles, Billy the Kid, Tom Folliard, Charlie Bowdre, Dave Rudabaugh, Billy Wilson and Tom Pickett headed to Fort Sumner and into a waiting ambush.
Garrett and his men hid in the darkness of the old military hospital waiting for Billy and his gang to come riding in. Getting cold and impatience the men went inside one of the abandon rooms of the hospital to play cards while one man kept a look out. Suddenly the lookout man came barging in and reported that riders were approaching. Grabbing their guns, Garrett and the others took their places and waited.
Tramping through the snow, cold and tired, Billy and the others rode pass the hospital when (supposedly, by Garrett’s account) the sheriff yelled out “Halt!” Folliard who was riding up front, went for his gun and the posse opened fire. In the commotion of flashing gun power, Billy and the others spun their horses around and ran for their lives, as the wounded Folliard pulled back on his horse and cried out, “Don’t shoot Garrett, I’m killed.” They took him from his horse, carried him into the room where they were playing poker and laid him on a bedroll. Garrett knew it was no use to chase after the outlaws in the snow and darkness and decided to wait till morning to pick up the pursuit. As Garrett and his men resumed their card game, Folliard died.
The surviving outlaws headed back to the Wilcox & Brazil roadhouse. Billy who may have been wondering what happened to his longtime companion, Tom Folliard, sent Brazil to go to the fort and found out what happen and if Garrett was still there. When Brazil got there he found Garrett and told him Billy was back at the house. Garrett told Brazil to go back, keep the boys there as long as possible and he and his men will ride to the ranch in the middle of the night for another ambush. But soon after leaving Brazil quickly returned, before Garrett’s departure from Fort Sumner, and told him that the gang ate supper and left the ranch. But Garrett had a hunch where they could be.
On the morning of December 23, Billy and the others, who had taken refuge in an old rock cabin in Stinking Springs, started to wake up. Bowdre took a feedbag for his horse and stepped outside, only to be met by bullets. During the night, Garrett and his posse had descended on the cabin and waited for morning to ambush the outlaws. On instructions that if Billy was to appear, they were to gun him down. When Bowdre came out of the cabin he was wearing a hat similar to Billy’s, thinking he was the Kid, Garrett signaled his men and they fired. Bowdre then either went back into the cabin but came right Back out to surrender or after being shot he staggered towards the posse and collapsed.
No sooner did the posse laid Bowdre’s body down on the ground, that Garrett spotted the trapped outlaws leading one of the horses into the cabin. The plan was they were going to mount up and make a mad dash out of the cabin and hope for the best. Billy and Rudabaugh hid their horses inside, while Wilson, Pickett and Bowdre had theirs tethered outside. As they started to reel one horse in Garrett shot the animal dead, which then blocked their escape route. Billy would later say, “If it hadn’t been for that dead horse in the doorway, I would have ridden out on my bay mare and taken my chances of escaping. But I couldn’t ride out over that, for she would have jumped back and I would have got it in the head.”
A standoff lasted throughout the day, but by late afternoon the trapped fugitives were getting hungry and when they smelled the lawmen cooking meat over a hot fire the temptation was too great. Waving a dirty white rag, Rudabaugh came out to talk over terms of surrender. When Rudabaugh learned they would be taken to Las Vegas he explained that the Vegas townsmen would lynch him since he killed an officer there not long ago. So Garrett promised to protect them and deliver them safely to Santa Fe. Satisfied Rudabaugh went back inside to talk it over with the others, a few minutes later they came out with their hands up.
After spending the night at Wilcox & Brazil roadhouse, the posse and prisoners headed back to Fort Sumner. As the prisoners were being shackled at the blacksmith shop, Charlie Bowdre’s corpse was taken to his wife. Crazed with grief Manuela attacked the men who dropped the body and made a hasty retreat. Garrett gave her money for Charlie’s funeral clothes and burial. The next morning the prisoners were loaded up in a wagon and the posse headed to Las Vegas. Garrett instructed his deputies that if the prisoners (particular Billy and Rudabaugh who were shackled together) made any attempt to escape to shoot first then ask questions.
Word spread fast about the capture of Billy the Kid and by the time the posse and their quarry arrived in Las Vegas, a huge crowd had gathered to catch a glimpse of the noted outlaw they had read so much about. Expecting to see a brutish looking man, the folks were surprised to see a boyish teenager who was giddy with excitement by the crowd he had drawn. A reporter quoted him saying, “There was a big crowd gazing at me wasn’t there. Well, perhaps some of them will think me half man now; everyone seems to think I was some kind of animal.” There’s no doubt Billy was taking his predicament in stride and with a sense of humor, “What’s the use of looking on the gloomy side of everything. The laugh’s on me this time.” Even the reporter had to admit that Billy had agreeable and winning ways.
After spending the night in the Las Vegas jail, the prisoners were rushed over to the depot to board a train for Santa Fe. As they boarded, another crowd surrounded them but these men weren’t curious onlookers but a mob that wanted to take Rudabaugh. As the lawmen had a standoff with the mob, Billy stuck his head out the window and engaged himself in another interview with a reporter. He would interrupt his interview periodically to shout back at the mob and beg Garrett to arm him and turn him loose in the crowd on the promise of returning to him holding his wrists out for the handcuffs. But the crowd was more bark than bite and Garrett was able to stand them off without incident, but it would be almost an hour before they were able to pull out.
In Santa Fe the prisoners were turned over to authorities and locked up. It didn’t take long until Billy and his pals tried an escape attempt. Their cell had a dirt floor and they began the tedious job of digging underneath the wall. They hid the excess dirt in a mattress and just when they were near liberty, the jailer spoiled their plan by discovering the hole (thanks to a blabber mouth prisoner). Billy was separated from the others, shackled, and thrown in a dark isolated cell where he was chained to the floor. Billy then focused on contacting the governor.
After writing two short notes to the governor to come and see him, Billy received no visitor a reply. Even his attorney Ira Leonard was showing lack of attention. Discourage and frustrated, Billy wrote another desperate letter to the governor.
I wrote you a little note the day before yesterday but have received no answer. I expect you have forgotten what you promised me, this month two years ago, but I have not and I think you had ought to have come and seen me as I requested you to. I have done everything that I promised you I would and you have done nothing that you promised me.
I think when you think the matter over you will come down and see me, and I can then explain everything to you.
Judge Leonard Passed through here on his way East, in January and promised to come and see me on his way back, but he did not fulfill his promise. It looks to me like I am getting left in the cold. I am not treated right by Sherman; he lets every stranger that comes to see me through curiosity in to see me, but will not let a single one of my friends in, not even an attorney.
I guess they mean to send me up without giving me any show but they will have a nice time doing it. I am not intirely without friends.
I shall expect to see you some time today.
I am truly Yours Respect-
Wm. H. Bonney
Just like with the other letters, the governor ignored them. As far as he was concern Billy was a distant memory. In Wallace’s mind he had more important matters to deal with: completing his novel, getting out of this miserable governor’s job and persuading the president to appoint him an ambassador. He would get his wish.
On March 28, 1881 Billy was transported by train to the Mesilla jail and was quickly put on trial. The judge presiding was Warren Bristol and prosecuting for the Buckshot Roberts case was Sidney Barnes and for the Sheriff Brady case was Simon Newcomb (a close friend of William Rynerson). There were also a number of men brought in to testify against Billy including James Dolan and Bill Mathews. All these men were prejudice against Billy and wanted nothing more than to see him hang –no doubt, Billy was a lamb among wolves. Defending him was Ira Leonard, the same attorney that had tried to help Billy during his “witness protection” ordeal.
The Buckshot Roberts case was first and Billy gave a pled of not guilty. But the pled was not necessary; Leonard was able to successfully get the case thrown out on the bases that the shooting was not on Federal land but private. On April 8, Billy was then tried for the murder of Sheriff Brady. Judge Bristol didn’t want to take any chances of Leonard succeeding on getting Billy off for this case, so he dismissed Leonard and appointed John Bail and Albert Fountain. Not only were they unprepared, but neither men were sympathetic towards their client. A matter of fact, Fountain detested rustlers and had set out to prosecute or run them out of the territory, years later his mission would be the result of his demise.
The trial only lasted one day and it’s not surprising -with so much going against him- that Billy was found guilty of first degree murder and sentence to hang. On April 13, Billy went before Judge Bristol to have his sentence passed, when asked if he had anything to say, Billy answered no. Then Judge Bristol directed that the prisoner be transported to Lincoln and confined until May 13 (which would happen to be Friday the 13th) and between the hours of nine and three, he would be hung until his body was dead.
Understandably Billy felt he was made a scapegoat; not only was he one of six who fired at the sheriff and the only one indicted, but out of all the participants on both sides of the Lincoln County War, he was the only one convicted and sentence to death. During an interview before his departure to Lincoln, Billy voiced his feelings by stating, “I think it hard that I should be the only one to suffer the extreme penalties of the law.” Billy had heard threats of being lynched on his way to Lincoln by a mob from White Oaks for the killing of Carlyle. But there were also rumors of a rescue attempt, so the lawmen that were transporting Billy, were instructed to shoot the prisoner first if they met with trouble on the road. In the same interview Billy would say it was a toss up whether or not he was lynched or shot in the wagon.
Billy was shackled, handcuffed and chained inside an ambulance. It was bad enough there was a chance of being mobbed on the journey to Lincoln, but now Billy was being escorted by a rough bunch of deputized men that had their own personal grudges against him. If Billy ever experienced the feeling of being uneasy, it may have been at this time. In the ambulance with him, there was “King of the Rustlers” John Kinney, the murderous bully Bob Olinger, and Bill Matthews; all of them despised the prisoner and wouldn’t think twice about killing him. Escorting the caravan was a number of heavily armed men riding horseback, so any chance of an escape or rescue attempt was impossible.
During the trip, Olinger teased Billy and dared him to escape so he could have the pleasure of blowing him away with his shotgun. Olinger and Billy were bitter enemies. Besides the fact that Olinger was a jerk anyway, he had fought on the Dolan side of the Lincoln County War and had brutally killed Billy’s friend, John Jones, in which Billy vowed to revenge his friend’s death. Olinger, of course, heard word of this and he now taunted Billy to act on his
Billy arrived in Lincoln in one piece and was confined on the second level of the courthouse in a room adjoined to Garrett’s office. Garrett wasn’t taking any chances with Billy escaping, so he posted a 24-hour guard in the room and kept Billy shackled and handcuff at all times. Even a chalk line was drawn on the floor and Billy was warned that if he crossed it he would be shot. For the 24-hour guard, Garrett appointed Olinger and another deputy, James Bell. Due to the fact that Bell was a friend of Carlyle’s and was present when he was killed, one would expect Bell to be prejudice against Billy, but that was not the case. Garrett would say that Billy had taken a “likening” to Bell and a friendly relationship was developing between the two (maybe because Bell knew what “really” happened to Carlyle). But Garrett noticed an entirely different relationship between Billy and Olinger, “Between these two there existed a reciprocal hatred and neither attempted to disguise or conceal his antipathy from the other."
Olinger teased and provoked Billy regularly; on one such occasion, while Olinger was loading his 10-gauge double barrel shotgun, he glared meanly at Billy and said sneeringly, “The man that gets one of these loads will feel it.” But no matter what Olinger did or said, Billy never gave him the satisfaction of getting a rise out of him. He remained calm and either ignored Olinger or would deliver a sarcastic remark right back. But inside Billy was fluming, he would tell his friend John Meadows, a Lincoln resident, that Olinger would get him so worked up he could hardly contain himself.
During Billy’s confinement, Garrett would occasionally sit and chat with him. Garrett recalled one conversation with Billy about him being singled out for punishment, “Billy, I pass no opinion as to whether your sentence is just for the killing of Brady, but had you been acquitted on that charge, you would most surely have been hung for the murder of Jimmie Carlyle, and I would have pronounce that sentence just. That was the most detestable crime ever charged against you (actually Billy was never legally charged–just blamed).” Billy’s reply was “There’s more about that than people know of.”
Within in the week Garrett left for White Oaks to collect taxes, leaving his two guards in charged. Before leaving, he reminded both deputies that Billy was a dangerous and desperate man and not to let their guard down. The next day on April 28, around 5pm it was Olinger’s turn to take the other prisoners that were confined in the courthouse, across the street to the Wortley Hotel for dinner. But Billy was not allowed to leave his room (except to use the outhouse), so his meals were brought to him. Bell stayed in the room to guard Billy and after his meal Billy ask to be taken out back to the privy. On their way back from outside, Billy made his move.
What happened next is a subject for debate, either a gun was hidden in the outhouse by a friend and Billy got the drop on Bell or Billy slipped his small hand out of the cuff and conked Bell across the head with it (later when examining the body, Garrett did find two gashes on Bell’s head), the two then got into a tussle until Billy succeeded in grabbing Bell’s gun. Billy told Bell to hold up his hands, but Bell panicked and ran down the stairs, forcing Billy to pull the trigger. It sounds cold-blooded (and maybe it was), but if Billy had let Bell go, he would’ve given an alarm, he and Olinger would’ve organize a mob to surround the courthouse, and Billy would’ve been riddle with bullets trying to make a break. Billy was fighting for his life and would do any means necessary. The mortally wounded deputy stumbled outside and into the arms of Gottfried Gauss, a resident on the grounds, and died. Gauss would later recall hearing a scuffle inside the building, shots fired and then Bell bursting out the door into his arms.
Over at the Wortley, Olinger heard the shots and bolted out the door. He came up to the fence and started to make his way around the building when Gauss came around on the other side facing him. The shaken gardener said, “The Kid’s shot Bell,” no sooner said, Olinger heard a familiar voice coming from up above, “Hello Bob!” Looking up he saw Billy leaning out the window pointing his own shotgun at him. Olinger than mumbled, “Yes, and he’s killed me too.”
Billy then fired both barrels and the buckshot torn into Olinger’s chest and head. Billy then smashed the stock of the shotgun against the side of the building and threw it down at Olinger’s corpse. Billy yelled down at the body, “You damned son-of-a-bitch, you won’t corral me with that thing again!” He then turned his attention to Gauss, who was probably shaking in his boots, and told him to throw up a pickaxe that was lying out in the yard and to saddle him a horse.
As Billy used the pickaxe to free himself from the shackles, the townspeople slowly began to gather in the streets. Billy managed only to free one leg from the burdensome chains and began rummaging through the armory for revolvers, rifles and ammo. He then noticed the crowd outside and came out on the balcony; he announced that he didn’t wish to harm anyone, but if anyone tried to stop him he would kill him. He also expressed regret for killing Bell, one bystander remembers, “He told the people that he did not want to kill Bell, but as he ran, he had to. He said he grabbed Bell’s revolver and told him to throw up his hands and surrender, but Bell decided to run and he had to kill him (this statement clearly backs up the “Knocking Bell over the head” theory).
After arming himself, Billy made his way downstairs and immediately came across Bell’s body out in the yard. Gauss was stand nearby with a horse and heard Billy said, “I’m sorry I had to kill you, but couldn’t help it.” As they rounded the building from the back and came out towards the street, Billy looked down at Olinger’s bloody body and gave him a kick and said, “You’re not going to round me up again.” Billy mounted the horse, but on the count of his cumbersome chains, it spooked the skittish horse and it bucked him off. The horse was brought back and Billy swung up and rode out of Lincoln for the last time.
Now you would think Billy would’ve hightailed south for the border, but not so. Billy leisurely made his way to his friends’ ranchers outside of Lincoln. First he went to the home of Yginio Salazar where he freed his other leg from the shackles. After staying there for a day or two, he made his way to John Meadows ranch. His friend told him to leave the country but Billy said he was going to Fort Sumner where he would lay low until he got enough money to leave the country. “Sure as you do, Garrett will get you,” Meadows warned.
Billy headed north to Fort Sumner and dropped by on friends, who were shocked and bewildered that Billy didn’t leave New Mexico. Even when his friends warned him that a posse was hunting for him in the vicinity, Billy’s attitude was “Oh, I’ll be alright.” It absolutely boggles the mind, how someone so slippery, when it came to avoiding capture, could also be so careless.
Meanwhile, Garrett who had resumed his hunt for Billy the Kid had heard rumors that Billy was in or around Fort Sumner. But Garrett couldn’t believe it! So he sent a note to Manuel Brazil asking if he had heard anything about Billy in that area, Brazil replied back and informed Garrett that Billy was indeed in the area. The sheriff was joined by two deputies, John Poe and Kip McKinney, and made his way to Fort Sumner.
On July 14, 1881 Garrett slipped into Fort Sumner unseen and hid in the orchards, he was hoping to hear word of Billy’s whereabouts or spot the outlaw himself. But if not, he and his two deputies would give up and head back the next day. By midnight, Garrett decided to talk with Pete Maxwell, in once last effort to get some information. Maxwell may have been one of those that tipped Garrett off that Billy was at the fort and Garrett was waiting until the coast was clear to sneak over and speak with him.
Around midnight Garrett and his deputies approached Maxwell’s house. As Garrett entered Maxwell’s room, his deputies sat themselves down on the porch to wait. Garrett walked over to the bed and woke Maxwell. As the two talked, Billy was making his way to Maxwell’s house. Billy had been hiding out all day at a nearby sheep camp and had now stopped off at a friend (or girlfriend’s) living quarters for the night. Exhausted Billy kicked off his boots and made himself comfortable. But he was also starving, so he was told to help himself to some meat from Pete Maxwell’s house. Grabbing a knife, Billy made his way to Maxwell’s. While strolling through the plaza, he ran into a friend, Jesus Silva and they exchanged greetings and Billy continued on his way. As he approached the Maxwell’s porch he saw two figures sitting down; thinking they were Mexicans he asked in Spanish “¿Quien es?” (Whose there?) The men rose and told Billy not to be startled. Billy realized these men where not Mexican or locals, but gringo strangers. Could they be lawmen? Billy backed away slowly into Pete Maxwell’s room. Here is Garrett’s account of what happened next:
“I walked to the head of the bed and sat down near the pillow and beside Maxwell’s head. I asked him as to the whereabouts of the Kid. He replied that the Kid had certainly been about, be he did not know whether he had left or not. At that moment, a man sprang quickly into the door, and looking back, called out in Spanish “¿Quien es? ¿Quien es? No one replied, and he came on into the room. I could see he was bareheaded and from his tread I could perceive he was either barefoot or in his stocking feet. He held a revolver in his right hand and a butcher knife in his left. He came directly towards where I was sitting at the head of Maxwell’s bed. Before he reached the bed, I whispered, “Who is it, Pete?” but received no reply for a moment. The intruder came close to me, leaned both hands on the bed, his right hand almost touching my knee, and asked in a low tone, “Who are they Pete?” At the same instant Maxwell whispered to me, “That’s him.” Simultaneously the Kid must have seen or felt the presence of a third person at the head of the bed. He raised quickly his pistol –a self-cocker- within a foot of my breast. Retreating rapidly across the room, he cried, “¿Quien es? ¿Quien es?” As quick as possible I drew my revolver and fired, threw my body to one side and fired again. The second shot was useless. The Kid was fell dead at the first one. He never spoke. A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasp for breath and the Kid was with his many victims.”
But did it really happen that way?
Although, Pat Garrett and John Poe had similar accounts on what happened. Kip McKinney gave a different version of what could’ve really happened. He confided to a friend that Garrett knew Billy was going to pay a midnight visit to one of his sweethearts, so they tied and gagged the girl, put out the lights and Garrett hid behind a sofa. When Billy entered, Garrett gunned him down. As for Pete Maxwell’s version of what happened- he refused to talk about it.
Could the death of Billy the Kid been a lot hasher than we believe? Garrett had gunned down Folliard and Bowdre in thinking they were Billy the Kid. Both times he gunned them down from hiding, at night or dawn, and without warning. Garrett had received a tip (or tips) from reliable sources and could very well count on trapping Billy in Fort Sumner. Instead of organizing a posse, he only recruited two deputies. Was it because he didn’t expect to find him or was it because he planned on ambushing and to assassinate Billy the Kid and be rid of him once and for all?
Also, was Billy the Kid really armed? Deluvina Maxwell who was the first to enter the room had stated Billy was unarmed. That could be possible. When Billy arrived at his friend’s house, he kicked off his boots to relax and he may have taken his gun belt off as well, and may not have bothered to put it back on when he left to get the meat. After all, he was only going to be a few minutes, it was late at night and everyone was a sleep or in their houses. Billy always claimed that he was safe in Fort Sumner and probably wasn’t expecting trouble. Garrett stated above that Billy had a gun in hand when he enter the room, but then he said Billy leaned both hands on the bed and his right hand almost touched his knee. But then the gun magically appeared in his hand again when he saw Garrett’s silhouette. John Poe stated that when he saw Billy approaching the porch, he was fastening his trousers –a little awkward to do with a knife and revolver in hand. Also, the Maxwell family retrieved the knife but no gun. What happened to it? This may not be much to go by, but it’s definitely some food for thought.
After firing his shots, Garrett and Maxwell darted out the door and almost ran over the two deputies outside. As the men huddled outside the door, they didn’t know whether Billy was truly dead or just wounded, but then they heard a death rattle as Billy gave one more struggle for breath. Maxwell then got a candle to hold up to the window and the four peered inside and saw Billy lying on the floor dead. Jesus Silva heard the shots and came running to the scene, as well Deluvina Maxwell. Silva and Deluvina entered the room first to see if Billy was dead. Devastated, Deluvina lounged at Garrett and cursed him. She wasn’t the only one, slowly men and women began to gather and several of Billy’s female admirers became hysterical with grief. Even the men shook their fist at Garrett; worried of being mobbed, Garrett and his deputies hid in Maxwell’s house till morning.
Billy’s body was taken from the room and carried to a carpenter’s shop where candles were placed around his body and his friends prayed over him. By morning word reached Sunnyside (a small town a few miles away) that Billy the Kid was shot and killed by Pat Garrett. Justice of the Peace Alejandro Seguro and Milnor Rudulph and his son Charles, arrived in Fort Sumner. The men formed a jury, viewed the body, and documented Garrett’s story. They concluded that the killing was justifiable and Garrett should be rewarded. They then made up a document and got the signatures of the jurors. They signed it, but most if any, knew what they were signing. If they did, they may have had something to say about the verdict.
By afternoon, Billy’s body was ready for burial and it was taken to the Fort Sumner Military Cemetery. Billy was laid to rest near the graves of his two fallen comrades, Charlie Bowdre and Tom Folliard. He was barely twenty-one years old; a life cut short, but even so this young man made a lasting impact in his time and ours.
Bob Boze, Bell The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid Second Edition, Tri Star Boze Productions, Inc. 1996
Fulton, Maurice G. History of the Lincoln County War, A Classic Account of Billy the Kid Edited by Robert Mullin, The University of Arizona Press, Fifth print 1997
Nolan, Frederick The West of Billy the Kid University of Oklahoma Press, Norman 1998
Weddle, Jerry Antrim is My Stepfather’s Name: The Boyhood of Billy the Kid Historical Monograph No. 9 The Arizona Historical Society, 1993
The bill of sale Billy wrote to Henry Hoyt for Dandy Dick
Governor Lew Wallace
The bedroom of the Patron House where Billy and Tom were held
The Guard House at Ft. Stanton where Billy was held while he testified against Dolan
There wasn't a stereotypical wanted poster issued for Billy--but this small ad ran in local newspapers
Charlie and Manuela Bowdre
The courthouse in Mesilla where Billy was tried.
Albert Jennings Fountain
James Dolan and Bob Olinger
Billy shot Bell on this staircase in the Lincoln courthouse
"Billy's Window" - the window from which he shot Olinger
John W. Poe
The Maxwell house was washed away many years ago due to flooding of the Pecos River--this stone marks the site of Billy's death.
Billy's grave in Ft. Sumner