Billy the Kid

In November 1880, a posse chased Billy and some friends to a ranch in Anton Chico, near White Oaks. One posse member, James Carliyle, elected to enter the ranch under a white flag to negotiate the gang’s surrender and in return, a gang member, James Greathouse, was sent out as a hostage for the posse.  During the negotiations, a shot was heard from outside and Carlyle concluded that the posse had shot Greathouse. With nothing to lose, he crashed through a window to escape, but was shot and killed. It is thought that the shot came from the posse, who, recognising their mistake, slunk away and allowed the outlaws to escape.

The by now notorious Billy was judged guilty of the killing which he strongly denied. He wrote to Governor Wallace protesting his innocence of it and other crimes attributed to him.

In November 1880, a local barman and former buffalo hunter named Pat Garrett, running on a pledge to put and end to outlawry, was appointed Sherriff of Lincoln County. In December he raised a posse to hunt down Billy, who was by now known universally as “Billy the Kid” and had a reward of $500 on his head.

The posse attempted an ambush on Billy and his gang on the 19th December at Fort Summer, but despite killing a gang member called Tom O’Follard, failed to arrest the others. On the 23rd December, the gang was tracked down to an abandoned building at Stinking Springs, near present day Talban, New Mexico. While the outlaws were sleeping, Garrett surrounded the building and waited for sun up. The next morning, a cattle rustler called Charlie Bowdre came out to feed his horse, but was mistaken for Billy and shot dead. One of the outlaws then reached out over the porch to catch the horse’s halter rope, (probably to attempt an escape) but Garrett shot and killed the horse whose body blocked the only exit.

The lawmen lit a fire and began to make breakfast while Garrett and Billy exchanged banter between them with Garrett inviting Billy out to eat and Billy inviting Garrett to go to Hell. Eventually realising that they had no hope of escape, the outlaws surrendered and came out to share the meal.

Billy was taken to a jail in Las Vegas where he gave an interview to the local paper.  He told them, “I don’t blame you for writing of me as you have, you had to believe other stories, but then I don’t know if anyone would believe anything good of me anyway. I wasn’t the leader of my gang, I was for Billy all the way”. He was next sent to Santa Fe where he wrote letters to Wallace seeking clemency, but Wallace refused to get involved.

Billy was tried in Mesilla on the 9th of April 1881 for the murder of Brady, and was found guilty and sentenced to hang. He gave another interview, this time to the Mesilla News and stated he was not guilty of half of the crimes attributed to him and that some newspapers whipped up feeling against him. He said that Newman (the editor of a Las Cruces newspaper) gave him a rough deal and, “has created prejudice against me and is trying to incite a mob to lynch me. I think it a dirty mean advantage to take of me considering my situation and knowing I could not defend myself by word or act. But I suppose he thought he would give me a kick downhill”.

He was sent back to Lincoln to await his execution where he was held under guard by two of Garrett’s deputies, James Bell and Robert Ollinger on the top floor of the courthouse. On April 28th, while Garrett was out of town, Billy escaped from captivity. It is thought that a gun had been placed by Billy’s friends in a privy that Billy was allowed to use once a day. Escorted by Bell, Billy used the privy and when the pair got back to the courthouse, Billy pulled the gun and shot Bell, who staggered dying, down the stairs. Billy grabbed the 10 gauge shotgun that Ollinger had left in the building while going across the street to collect another prisoner and Billy waited until Ollinger came running in response to the gunshot and called out, “Hello Bob” before blasting him with both barrels.

He used a pickaxe to remove his leg irons and stole a horse, reportedly singing as he fled. The horse returned two days later.

Garrett picked up rumours that Billy was hiding in the vicinity of Fort Summer and on July 14th, he and two deputies, John Pope and Thom McKinney went there to question the locals and interview a known friend of Billy called Pete Maxwell. Close to midnight, as Garrett and Maxwell talked in a darkened room, Billy unexpectedly walked in.

There are a number of versions of Billy’s death, one states that, failing to recognise Garrett in the dim light, called out “Quien es?  Quien es?” – Spanish for “Who is it?”. Garrett, recognising Billy’s voice, drew his pistol and fired twice, the first bullet hitting Billy in the chest killing him instantly and the second hitting the mantle.  Another version has Billy entering the darkened room carrying a knife and evidently heading for the kitchen. He noticed someone in the darkness and called out “Quien es? Quien es?”, at which point he was shot and killed.

Some recent new evidence suggests a third version where Garrett entered the bedroom of Maxwell’s sister Paulita, who was in a relationship with Billy, he bound and gagged her and hid behind the bed. When Billy arrived, Garrett rose and shot him dead.

Garrett published his own account of Billy’s death a year after the event and relates how he left his deputies staking out Maxwell’s house in the dark and watching a group of Mexicans sitting in a nearby orchard talking while he crept into Maxwell’s house and found him in bed. He sat at the head of the bed and questioned Maxwell about Billy’s whereabouts and was told that Billy had been around but he did not know whether he had left.

Unbeknown to Garrett, one of the group in the orchard was Billy who shortly after, got up and went to the house of a friend who lived close to Maxwell. Billy told his friend that he was hungry and, taking a large knife, walked to Maxwell’s to get a cut of beef from a carcass that he knew Maxwell had.

The story goes on in Garrett’s own words. “At that moment a man sprang quickly through the door, looking back and calling twice in Spanish, “Quien es? Quien es?”. Nobody replied and he came in, he was bareheaded. From his walk he was barefooted or in his stockinged feet and held a revolver in his right hand and a butcher knife in his left. He came directly towards me and I whispered, who is it Pete? The intruder walked right up to the bed and asked in a low tone, who are they Pete? (Meaning the deputies hiding outside). At that same instant, Pete whispered to me, It’s him! Simultaneously the Kid must have seen me and raising his revolver, he quickly moved back from the bed and again called out, Quien es? Quickly as possible I drew my revolver and fired, threw myself to one side and fired again. The second shot was useless; the Kid fell dead”.

Garrett would obviously want to paint himself in a good light in the affair and his record must be read with that in mind. Billy the Kid was well liked in the area and had become something of a romantic hero to others.

Garrett allowed Billy’s friends to take his body across the street to a carpenters shop for a wake. The next morning the local Justice of the Peace made out a death certificate which for some reason was rejected by Garrett and another was written to be more in his favour.
Billy’s body was prepared for burial and at noon he was taken to the cemetery at Fort Summer and laid between his two friends Charlie Bowdre and Tom O’Follard.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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