|Billy the kid as imagined in his white sombrero.
Note—The second of the biographical part of this series.
The wanted man—still a boy of 19 actually —Henry McCarty/Kid Antrim/William H. Bonney/ Billy the Kid made his way back to the relative safety of his old haunts at Fort Sumner, New Mexico in late 1879 where he reunited with one of his most reliable buddies, Charlie Bowdre and another former Regulator, Doc Scurlock. Together they went back into the rustling business, this time hitting the herds of one-time Regulator ally John Chisum, a cattle baron famed in Western lore. The way Bonney figured it, Chisum owed him money for services rendered in the Lincoln County War. The Chisum disagreed. This was probably not the wisest choice that the Kid could have made.
|Cattle baron John Chism, a bad man to cross, went from being an ally to an enemy.
Whatever his new difficulties with Big John might be, Bonney remained on good terms with his brother Jim Chisum and his daughter Sally, one of several comely young women he may have courted or who wished he had. On January 10, 1880 The Kid was passing a friendly evening in a Fort Sumner saloon with Jim and some of his cowboys. Over the course of the evening a stranger—a large, loud man—kept boasting that he was “going to kill someone” that night and was menacing to Billy and his friends who were playing cards. At some point the stranger, identified as Joe Grant, got a hold of one of the cowboy’s fancy ivory handled revolver, and plopped it in his own holster. Since the boys had done some target shooting earlier in the day, Bonney knew that the gun had only three rounds in the cylinder. He deftly plucked the gun from Grant’s holster and pretended to examine in, spinning the cylinder as he did so that the next time the hammer was cocked it would advance to an empty chamber. He then politely handed the gun back to Grant who in a rage squeezed the useless trigger at point blank range. Bonney drew and plugged him fatally before retrieving the pistol for his friend and returning to the game.
It was a trick that became legendary and stoked the Kid’s reputation as a cool and fast hand. Everyone seemed to regard the incident as self defense in a routine saloon fracas. No charges were ever brought against Bill for this killing. But then lawmen seldom ventured into hostile Fort Sumner. Billy allowed himself to be interviewed by the Las Vegas Optic about the event. He simply explained that it was “…a game of two and I got there first.”
|Billy the Kid used a legendary trick in his up close and personal face off with Joe Grant.
In some versions of the Billy the Kid saga Grant is painted as a hired assassin from the Dolan/Murphy faction, but no evidence has ever been found connecting them. And it makes no sense. A hired killer could have found a way to ambush The Kid, not risk a face-to-face confrontation with the reputedly most dangerous man in the Territory. More likely it was the cliché of scores of oaters—an upstart thug trying to make a reputation taking down a famous gunslinger.
That reputation was a problem for Bonney, and not always one of his own making. He seemed to be blamed for every shooting, murder, or cattle theft in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. A big part of the problem was the emergence of a new gang who cleverly dubbed themselves The Rustlers who had no connection to the Lincoln County War—although a few of their riders may have been involved in one side or another. This was a particularly brutal outfit who prayed mostly on smaller ranchers and on Mexicans. They murdered several ranchers and cowhands and executed at least two of their children as well as committing very public gang rapes. Billy was publicly connected to them, although his own rustling activities were completely independent and usually aimed at major outfits like Chisum’s. Governor Lew Wallace was one who suspected his involvement with them and had personally questioned him about it. That would explain why he seemed comfortable about breaking his word to Billy about a pardon.
Meanwhile John Chisum got together with his old enemy James Dolan and other powerful ranchers to find a candidate to put up for Lincoln County Sheriff against George Kimball who had been totally ineffectual in the search from Bonney and other fugitives for more than a year in no small part because he was afraid to pursue them to their safe havens like Fort Sumner. They settled on a rangy small town rancher and former bartender and card dealer in Fort Sumner who had been friendly with the kid and likely rode with him at least occasionally on his cattle raids.
Checkered pasts were not disqualifying for Western lawmen. In fact most of the famous men with stars had played both sides of the law. It was considered proof that the man was skilled with a gun, brave, and knowledgeable about their prey.
|The new Sheriff in town, Pat Garrett knew Billy, his ways, and his refuges.
Pat Garrett accepted the offer, although he claimed in his memoirs that he told his sponsors that he would hunt down Billy and try to bring him in alive for trial. With his powerful backers Garrett easily won the election. The hunt for Billy and his pals was about to get very serious—and deadly.
Bonney had formed a relationship with a rancher named Jim Greathouse who abetted his rustling operation and introduced him to new cohorts Dave Rudabaugh and Billy Wilson. In late November 1880 the trio knocked off a store in White Oaks, a Lincoln county gold boomtown. They were pursued by a large posse led by Deputy Sheriff Jim Carlyle which caught up with them when they made camp for the night. In the confusion of the resulting gun fight the Kid and his men managed to slip away on foot. After steeling new horses, they made their way to the Greathouse ranch for refuge with the posse in pursuit. Four days later on November 29 the posse caught up to them again surrounding the house.
As the posse rode up, The Kid and his pals retreated into the Greathouse home. Deputy Carlyle walked up to the door, knocked, and was admitted alone. After shaking hands with Bonney, he demanded that he surrender peacefully to the posse. Billy asked him if he Carlyle had warrants for their arrests. He did not. In that case, Bonney refused saying surrendering to the posse would be giving himself up to an armed mob with no assurance of safety. When Carlyle attempted to leave he was stopped and told that he would be held until morning when he would lead them all out of the house to assure their safety and order his posse to allow them to saddle up and ride away.
Greathouse inquired if he was also wanted, Carlyle said no, he was considered a respectable citizen. The rancher then offered to turn himself over to the posse as a kind of counter hostage to assure everyone’s mutual safety.
A tense standoff lasted for hours with the now leaderless posse becoming more and more agitated, probably because they were freely pulling from whiskey bottles from their saddlebags. Finally they sent a note to the house saying that if Carlyle was not released and the boys didn’t surrender, Greathouse would be shot.
Shortly thereafter one of the posse members fired a shot at the house. Inside Carlyle assumed that Greathouse had been shot and that he would be killed in retaliation. In a desperate attempt to escape, he crashed through a window. Posse member seeing the man run opened fire on him and the house. Inside, by some accounts Rudabaugh, Wilson, and the Kid also fired at the fleeing man. Some say that Billy fired a coup de grace. Others dispute that. If he did, it was probably unnecessary. Carlyle was perforated by multiple rounds, most or all of them fired by his own posse.
When the posse realized who they had shot, they panicked and scattered leaving the body behind. Bonney and his friends we able to get away.
Although some blamed Billy for Carlyle’s death, and some historians have listed him among as The Kid’s murder victims, contemporary accounts mostly agreed he was killed by his own posse. No pile-on charges were ever filed against Bonney or the others in the case.
Whether or not Billy had killed Carlyle personally, however, one of Pat Garrett’s deputies had been killed during an attempt to capture him. Garrett grew more intent on capturing the Kid. The remarkable luck of Bill and his friends was about to run out.
Instead of chasing fruitlessly across the rugged country, Garrett headed to the refuge to which he was sure Bonney would return—Fort Sumner, a town he knew well and which previous lawmen had shunned as too hostile. Sympathetic locals got word to Billy that Garrett was in town so he and the survivors of the Greathouse siege, now joined by the Kid’s best friend Tom O’Folliard and another former Regulator Tom Picket at a near-by ranch. Garrett had his own sources and soon learned of their whereabouts but instead to pursing them there sent a forged note with a mutual acquaintance telling the gang that the posse had left town and was head to Roswell.
The boys packed up and rode through a snow storm to Fort Sumner hoping to gather supplies for a dash from New Mexico Territory. They entered the town in a thick fog on December 18. Garrett and his men were in and around the old adobe hospital of the abandoned Army post. When they emerged from the fog Garrett exclaimed, “That’s them!” and the posse erupted with fire, most aiming at the lead rider who was assumed to be Bonney. It was not. It was Tom O’Folliard who crumpled from the saddle. The rest turned around and skedaddled into the darkness.
It was too late and conditions were too bad for an immediate chase. Garrett was unconcerned. He knew the gang would now be in a panic and short on food and supplies. And he had a fair idea of Bonney’s haunts and likely hiding places. It took just three days to track them to a stone house at Stinking Springs which the posse surrounded quietly in the dark. His instructions to the posse were to shoot to kill Bonney when he emerged from the house the next morning.
Shortly after dawn a man emerged from the house wearing a large white Mexican sombrero like the Kid had been sporting for over a year since ditching that bashed in black chapeau in which he had been famously photographed. The posse opened fire killing the man. But it was not Billy. It was another old Regulator buddy Charlie Bowdre who had just joined the group, probably having left his home in Fort Sumner just after the posse left.
Once again the situation settled into a standoff and a siege. The stone house was a natural fortress from which the several gunmen inside could level deadly fire at anyone who approached. They could have lasted days in there except that they were totally out of food and short on water. As the day wore on Billy or one of the others threw a lasso around one of the horses they had tied to the hitching posts outside through the door and was trying to real him closer to the building hoping to jump on and make a desperate run for it. Garret realized what was up and shot the horse right door, trapping the men inside.
|The stone house at Stinking Springs where Charlie Bowdre was killed and Billy and the gang captured. Note the dead horse blocking the doorway.
Late in the afternoon Bonney and the others finally surrendered and were taken peacefully. The posse returned to the ranch where the gang had hidden out and then brought the whole crew back to Fort Stanton where Garret delivered Bowdre’s body to his wife who responded with a hysterical assault on the Sheriff. It was Christmas Day.
The next morning the prisoners were loaded into a wagon and driven under heavy guard to Las Vegas.
Tomorrow—The Final Days and after.