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Billy the Kid lives on in New Mexico

Billy the Kid is alive and well in New Mexico, or at least it seems that way. He’s doing much better than Sheriff Pat Garrett who shot him in the back and thus violated the Code of the West. Everyone has forgotten Pat. Billy the Kid lives on. And his last words in Spanish? Quien es? Quien es? Who’s there? But the cowardly sheriff never answered.

Many a New Mexico town claims the Kid. Silver City is where the boy William H. Bonney settled with his tubercular Irish mother and where he learned Spanish and how to formally court young señoritas. He always had a smile, kind words, blue eyes, and a distinctive laugh. Though he was young he learned the fandango and other dances as well as how to tip a glass or bottle in any of Silver City’s numerous saloons. When his mother died of tuberculosis and his stepfather, whose last name was Antrim, abandoned the boy, he was on his own, ran with the wrong crowd, and after robbing a Chinese laundry, spent a short night in jail.

The jailer made the mistake of leaving Billy unattended. With his slim frame and quick motions, he shinnied up inside a chimney, popped out on the roof, and was gone. Perhaps he should have stayed for a court hearing, a trial, and a light sentence from a traveling judge, but that could have taken months. Instead he became a fugitive for the rest of his brief life. Did he kill a few men? Yes. He died at 21. Did he kill a man for every year of his life? That’s hard to say, but he certainly earned a reputation as one of the Southwest’s most ingenious outlaws.

After fleeing jail he left Silver City and headed west into Arizona. He tried cowboying but that didn’t work. He was offered a job as a camp cook but running a chuck wagon did not appeal to him. He kept hanging around saloons and brothels. Then in Arizona in a barroom brawl a local bully nicknamed Windy Cahill got Billy down on a wooden floor and was beating him hard. Billy grabbed for the man’s .45, got it, and shot him fatally in the stomach. A gunshot wound in the stomach is a long, painful way to die, but William Bonney, or William Antrim, whatever he called himself at the time, never stayed around for the funeral. He was long gone. That fateful bullet wound, which could easily have been declared self-defense, left him a marked man. He’d stepped over a line from which he could never return.

William Bonney took up horse stealing. He drifted back into New Mexico and the young town of Las Cruces and the old village of Mesilla. Eventually, Billy found his way to Lincoln in Lincoln County, and there his true story begins. After the Civil War, a cast of characters reached New Mexico including Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, desperate Irishmen who’d made it out of the Old Country during the Great Hunger. They knew starvation and want, and they hated what the English had done to the Irish for centuries. They’d found their own place in central New Mexico and had opened a mercantile store, ran thousands of head of cattle, had lucrative government meat contracts, and vowed to control Lincoln County. Their business was known as “The House.” They controlled the grass and the range over 30,000 square miles.

To walk the streets of Lincoln is to go back in time. This is a typical store on Lincoln’s main street which has not changed in the last century and a half. The town sits beautifully in the Rio Bonito River Valley with green rolling hills and small ranches. (Courtesy Andrew Gulliford)

But legally it was all free land, government land. Englishman John Tunstall arrived, wealthy, privileged and with plenty of English pounds backing him. He started a rival ranch. Billy got caught stealing Tunstall’s horses, but rather than pressing charges, the quick-thinking Brit hired him. All his life that’s what Billy was looking for – a chance, just a chance, to be loyal, hardworking, to have a warm bed, a firm saddle, and a place to lay his head.

Murphy & Dolan chose violence and the Lincoln County War would eventually require martial law and intervention by the U.S. Army. It would scatter dead cowboys across the range. Billy was there for every encounter, every skirmish, including the murder April 1, 1878, in broad daylight on main street, of Lincoln County’s crooked sheriff. The sheriff’s boys had shot Tunstall dead as he raised his hand in peace for a talk on the range. Instead, they killed him. Old World rivalry between the Irish and the English would become gang warfare.

Billy rode with the Regulators. Rival cowboys rode for The House. Billy moved in and out of villages, slept in barn lofts and hay mows, and was welcomed by remote Hispanic farmers and ranchers because they despised the iron grip of Murphy & Dolan. William Bonney became a folk hero, a social bandit, robbing from the enemies of the poor Hispanics who had helplessly watched as their country had been stolen from them.

Local headlines became national headlines. The rich, white lawyers and ranchers in New Mexico, known as the Santa Fe Ring, wanted this Bonney gone. “The kid was a consistent rebel. A real thorn in the power structure of New Mexico,” states historian Paul Hutton. Finally, at a young age and only 125 lbs. William Bonney became known as Billy the Kid and he was WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE.

Billy was arrested even after New Mexico governor Lew Wallace had promised him a pardon if he testified against The House. Billy’d been captured in a gunfight, sentenced to hang, and was under guard at the Lincoln County jail. In chains and shackles, he asked to go to the outhouse. On the way back up the second-floor stairs Billy quickly turns, smashes the guard, grabs the guard’s pistol, and kills him.

The other guard Bob Olinger was eating lunch across the street. A bully who had taunted Billy, he’d loaded his double-barreled shotgun with ¼ pound of lead. Billy grabbed the shotgun and aimed it out the 2nd story window. When Olinger came running across the dirt street Billy leaned out, smiled, and said, “Hello, Bob,” giving Olinger a few terrified seconds before Billy squeezed both triggers.

With an ax he breaks his chains, steals a horse, and “in that moment when he leaves that courthouse on horseback, he passes into legend,” notes the late Pulitzer-prize winning author N. Scott Momaday. Billy’s daring escape makes headlines in the New York Times, the London Times and newspapers in Chicago, San Francisco and around the world. Still, he refused to leave the territory. He had eyes for lovely 16-year-old Paulita Maxwell.

The only authenticated photo of Billy, a tintype, sold to Colorado billionaire William Koch for $2.3 million dollars in 2011. Billy’s been in movies, novels, and on display at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces where they’ve had an excellent exhibit titled “Riding Herd with Billy the Kid: The Rise of the Cattle Industry in New Mexico.” Lincoln is one of the best-preserved towns in the Southwest. I’ve been to the historic courthouse, seen where Billy shot Bob Olinger, and I’ve walked across the street to the adobe Tunstall Store. Ironically, from the store you can see the Dolan House. Of course, I had to have a few beers at the Bonito Valley Brewing Company. Researching and writing about Billy is a cottage industry for historians. The documentary film on Billy by PBS is one of their best.

Yes, he was a thief and a murderer, but he was beloved, and still is. As for Pat Garrett, he stayed sheriff. Wrote a book. Became briefly famous. And was mysteriously shot in the back a few years later as he drove a buckboard wagon toward Las Cruces. Garrett had violated the Code of the West. His assailant was never found.

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.