Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Henry McCarty: The Wild West's "Billy The Kid"

The Lincoln County War

"Inch by inch, time draws the cinch, till the saddle will creak no more, And they who were lords of the cattle hordes have tallied their final score."

Tall Men Riding


After scooting Arizona, Billy returned to the territory of New Mexico where he put in a bid to work as drover and bodyguard for a wealthy rancher named John Tunstall, whose ranch sprawled across the high ground near the adobe village of Lincoln and not far from the Rio Grande. By doing so, he wound up neck-deep in the middle of a gunpowder feud that began not long after his arrival and has gone down in history as the Lincoln County War. Before it ended, this bloody brujaja cost many lives and brought the up-till-then-ignored territory of New Mexico to the attention of lawmakers in Washington.

John H. Tunstall (Nash)
John H. Tunstall
(Nash)

"John Henry Tunstall had just turned 23 when he arrived in Lincoln County," writes Bill Kelly for Southern New Mexico Online! magazine. "(He) aligned himself with Alexander McSween, an attorney, and John Chisum, one of the West's most prosperous cattlemen, who had pushed the Long Rail brand and Jinglebob herds into the Pecos Valley in the early 1870s. Born and raised in England, Tunstall observed that land could be bought cheap in New Mexico, and he could make a sizeable fortune on terra firma and livestock."

But, the enterprising Tunstall experienced trouble at the outset. Born and bred within the gentle circles of London, England, the romanticized tales he had read of America's opening West had not prepared him for the real thing. He understood its promises of milk and honey not to include the finaglers and murderers one had to cope with foremost.

"The chaos that followed on the heels of Tunstall's arrival spawned a gunfighting subspecies that pitted the Tunstall-Chisum-McSween factions against (a politically powerful) businessman named Lawrence Murphy, owner of a huge general store called The House," Kelly explains. "Murphy controlled the law in town, along with everything else."

The "everything else" included grazing and water rights, which he doled out like a king to his serfs, the small, singular ranching families that posed no threat and, in fact, paid tribute to Murphy by patronizing his store in Lincoln. Murphy did not like encroachment from other cattle businessmen on his kingdom, which seems to have included virtually the entire county all 17-million acres of it. Monarchial, selfish and ruthless, Murphy's traits mirrored those of his political backers, the Republican members of the then-corrupt territorial government in Santa Fe. As a body known as the "Santa Fe Ring," the shyster officeholders worked through Murphy to keep the burgeoning land in their own kangaroo pockets. They not only pouched the land rights in Murphy's name, as it were, but also monopolized the provisioning of cattle to all governmental agencies, forts and Indian reservations. Territorial Governor Axtell, while not necessarily a conspirator, turned a deaf ear to all complaints against his administration.

For several years, the Santa Fe Machiavellians and Murphy found Chisum's intrusion a bother, but he not only owned one of the largest ranches in New Mexico (the Jinglebob) but had friends in high places, so the competition felt somewhat stymied. As well, he was backed by sharp lawyer McSween, who knew the dictum of the provisional land grants and territorial laws like his own name.

There were occasional outbursts, such as when Murphy-hired rustlers misdirected Chisum's cattle to the geographically close Mexican border. When Chisum threatened to sue, Murphy told him that he would need more than suspicion to bring him to court. And since the rustlers had been paid well by Murphy for their services, Chisum knew none of them would ever talk. Remaining quiet, Chisum pouted, but watched. He refrained from starting what he feared would be a blood feud.

Tunstall, when he arrived in the region, could not accept the notion of letting one man like Murphy, or a cabal such as the Santa Fe Ring, rule the God-given lives of Americans nor close entrepreunerialism to ambitious others. To him, this vast, infinite frontier meant a growing place for so many races, creeds and colors, a place to share and to promote good will, to serve as an incentive to sweat for solid ground and sweat even harder to maintain it.

Chisum and McSween found the Englishman delightful and inspiring company. Once in their confidence, they helped him set up a general store of his own in Lincoln, not far from his ranch, the Flying H. The new store, selling the same commercial products as The House, would oppose Murphy as a means to enforce the principle of free trade in the county. It offered ranchers competitive prices and, simultaneously, provided meat buyers with a more staple diet of prices often cheaper for cattle.

A rare photo of loading cattle aboard railcars (Montana Historical Society)
A rare photo of loading
cattle aboard railcars
(Montana Historical Society)

Immediate threats of arson and even death from the Murphys made it necessary for the crusading trio to procure bodyguards. They hired out for gunslingers to protect them and their families against the small army of roughriders harassing them at every turn whether during a cattle sale in the open-air Lincoln markets or on a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive with their wives or sweethearts in the valley.

Buying protection was, according to the anthological The Wild West, a common practice among cattle lords. "During the 1870s, pressure on the land from multiplying cattle herds and waves of new settlers provoked growing hostility...When property was at issue, the Code of the West endorsed the use of force. Disputes that festered for years might suddenly erupt in bloody shootouts."

Tunstall hired Billy the Kid and soon discovered that his initial impression of the boy had been correct: The Kid was loyal, and he had savvy. While his wiry frame and boyish smile (bearing the hint of buck teeth) did not fit the standard of a bodyguard, his lightning-quick draw and willingness to use a pair of fists against intruders, all for the boss, made up for his lack of girth.

When not tending to the landowner's personal safety, Billy worked in his fields, or fed the livestock, or cleared irrigation ditches, or drove the cattle to the Bonita River for water. Sometimes he was forced to cut the trail path through barbed wire that the Murphys illegally strung up 'twixt the Flying H and Lincoln. Billy was tireless. While other hired men tired quickly of the backbreaking work, instead disappearing for hours in one of Lincoln's many saloons, Billy kept to his chores. Tunstall noticed.

"That's the finest lad I ever met," the Brit told his partner Chisum, as they both watched Billy the Kid swoop by on horseback on a drive. "He's a revelation to me every day and would do anything to please me, John. He has his immature ways, but, bless me, I'm going to make a man out that boy some day. You wait and see."

Billy was indeed a happy presence in Tunstall's employ. He had never met a man of finer breeding or honesty; because Tunstall was an honest man, he felt that much more gracious under his continual compliments. The Englishman was the father Billy always wanted, but never had. Although much the same age, the Kid regarded Tunstall as a man of wide and useful experience; he wanted to know as much as Tunstall about the cattle business, making money, running a ranch. He would perform his boss's instructions to the letter during work hours and, evenings, lean on Tunstall's every word about his life in England, his ocean voyage and his belief in America as a land of prosperity.

Under this ethical man whom Billy sought to emulate, Billy the Kid may have become a man of value, perhaps one of New Mexico's most prosperous ranchers instead of one of the world's most notorious outlaws. But, Tunstall was killed in cold blood early in 1878 by the competitive faction.

It was the turning point in Billy's life. He flipped crazily with anger.

Murphy had, in the meantime, semi-retired from the business and turned over the day-to-day operation of his business to a pair of hotheads whom he knew had more of the fire of youth to take on the Tunstall-McSween-Chisum combine. They were two earthy puppets of the Santa Fe Ring, Jimmy J. Dolan and John Riley. (Being Irish, it may very well be they had a personal dislike for the English Tunstall, for at that time Anglican Great Britain was still governing Ireland with a religious prejudice.) Dolan and made use of Murphy's governmental connections to put an end to Tunstall's and his friend's competition once and for all. The effect was bloody.

In the first week of February, Lincoln Sheriff William Brady, a House stooge who had procured his job through the crooked politicians, approached Tunstall with a court order to return a certain portion of his cattle that Dolan and Riley asserted had been stolen from their boss, Murphy. Irate, Tunstall demanded that the sheriff inspect his cattle himself as proof that all his steer bore the brand of the Flying H. When the sheriff refused, Tunstall showed the sheriff the door.

Less than two weeks later, on February 18, a Brady-initiated vigilante committee under the direction of deputies Billie Matthews and George Hindman and hired gunsels Billy Morton, Frank Baker, Jim McDaniel and Jess Evans rode through the gates of the Flying H to lasso the claimed cattle. Tunstall, hearing the clatter of their horses, rushed from his home, his rifle seathed in its buckskin sling.

"I don't want any trouble here, but you must get off my property unless you have a warrant!" he said.

"Yeah, we will go to hell, sissy boy!" muttered Evans who fired his Colt into the ranch owner's chest.

Billy, who had been working behind the home, startled at the commotion and darted out in time to see Tunstall flatten on the ground. In horror, he watched as Morton then fired point-blank into the Englishman's head and, with the butt of the victim's own Remington, crush his skull.

In tears, Billy raced for his holster belt, which he had left in the kitchen, but by the time he returned outside, two guns drawn and cocked, the marauders were specks on the horizon. Only what was left of Tunstall lay sprawled in the yard, canopied by a specter of dust and encircled by hoof prints of the killer's animals. The Flying H came to life, the other hands emerging from the barn, the sheds and from the range, drawn forward by the echo of the gun blasts. They now saw Billy, collapsed over the dead boss, shrieking in rage. He had recognized every one of the assassins and vowed to destroy each one for killing the man who "was the only human being to ever treat me like I was free-born and worth something."

Richard Brewer (Nash)
Richard Brewer
(Nash)

What ensued was revenge and counter-revenge as the ranges of southern New Mexico turned into cemeteries and the mesquite grass grew red. When the official county law refused to take action, Richard Brewer, the Flying H's chief herder, sought and won from a justice of the peace friendly to ally McSween a warrant to apprehend the killers. Thus deputized, he formed a group of volunteer "Regulators" staffed by the cream of hired protection from both the Tunstall and Chisum ranches. The first to sign up was Billy the Kid. Others came forward, among them Tom O'Folliard, Charlie Bowdre, Fred Wayte, John Middleton, George Coe, Frank McNab and Jim French.

According to Peter Watts' Dictionary of the Old West, regulators were "men who organized in committees of vigilance when regular law had broken down." For men of a country like New Mexico, which far-off Washington City disregarded for more domestic arenas, taking the law into one's own hand was the quickest means of justice. Illegal, yes, but tell that to a party of men whose friend had just been murdered!

Brewer's deputies set off in March, 1878, armed to the teeth. They wore Bowie knives, dirks and sabers; they carried revolving muskets and repeating rifles and rapid fire Winchesters and Sharps carbines. In their hip holsters or under their vests they sported the .44 caliber Colt "Peacemaker" (Billy's favorite weapon), the Adams or Remington hand gun, or the pint-sized but lethal British Bulldog; in their boots they hid the double-barrel deringer.

The Lincoln County War had begun.

Over ensuing months, parties from both sides fell to bullets or blades; some were lynched; others, if cornered by the enemy, were lucky to have gotten away maimed. Initial bloodshed occurred on March 2 when the Regulators caught up with Billy Morton and Frank Baker near Roswell, New Mexico. At first, they designed to take their captives back to Lincoln for trial. But, tempers prevailed and several of the Regulators probably not the Kid, according to author Jay Robert Nash decided on their own to gun them down. If Billy had not been one of the executioners, he most certainly felt no remorse in riding away, leaving the two bodies in the all-thorn plants.

Andrew "Buckshot" Roberts' turn came next, in April. He had not been one of Tunstall's killers, but that fact no longer mattered. What mattered is that he was a Murphy supporter. His death symbolized how far and how fast the blood-feud had escalated into full-scale warfare: a Chisum-McSween backer would kill a Murphy man on sight, and vice-versa. Of Roberts' demise, Bill Kelly attests, "When the glorifiers of the West get together, the story always gets around to the day the Regulators happened upon Roberts and the gunfight at Blazer's Mill on the Tularossa. (Charlie) Bowdre had an abiding dislike for Roberts, so he shot him in the groin. But Roberts didn't die easy. He killed John Middleton and Dick Brewer and wounded George Coe before he crossed the Great Divide."

As the purge continued, families in the territory found themselves taking sides; little quarrels fussed and fumed over white picket fences, across dirt roads, and across bar counters. The local press compared it to a miniature replay of the Civil War, which had ended a little more than a decade earlier. The Las Vegas (New Mexico) Gazette reflected the professional feeling of the hour when, on June 1, 1878, it cautioned:

"Keep your temper, gentlemen. Exercise charity, practice Christian patience, and don't allow yourself to be drawn into the whirlpool of violent words and still more violent deeds.
A disgraceful, lawless local feud should not be allowed to spread through the whole territory, like the small pox.
Just let it die down..."

For Billy the Kid and his friends, nothing would die down without a bloodbath. This was indeed coming.

 

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