Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

The Governor

"Green grow the lilacs reminding me of
The ones that I brought you with all of my love,
The gates of my country will open for you
And change the green lilacs to the Red, White and Blue."

Green Grow the Lilacs


President Rutherford B. Hayes, reading about the McSween massacre in The Washington Times, threw a tantrum. For months, enraged that such civil disorder was carrying on unchecked in 1878 America, he had ordered New Mexico Territorial Governor John Axtell to put a stop to it. The latest melee was proof that the governor was either too lax, was afraid of his own money-grabbing legislators or was a villain himself, Hayes determined, and abruptly replaced him with a man known for his iron grip. If anyone could heel the troublemakers in Lincoln County it was Lew Wallace, one of Abraham Lincoln's most ruthless Civil War generals and a jurist of the Advocate General's war crimes commission.

Upon slipping into the state chair, Wallace the Shrewd fought fire with fire by announcing full amnesty for all men and women involved in the county strife except for those who had committed murder. They, he proclaimed, would pay swiftly with the noose they had knotted. His strategy was to take away the aggressors' firepower by leaving the bad eggs without an army. It worked. Considering the rope or a pardon, the vigilantes traded their guns for a cattle prod and plow and the worst of them went into hiding.

For the most part, the Lincoln County War was over.

Tom O'Folliard (Nash)
Tom O'Folliard (Nash)

Billy the Kid, though, was not free. He was still wanted for the murder of lawmen Brady and Hindman, and he topped the list of names on the governor's gallows-tree list. Running from the moment he left McSween's, he continued to run with Tom O'Folliard at his side. The latter had been wounded in the shoulder trying to pull friend Harvey Morris to safety off McSween's property. In turn, Billy yanked O'Folliard through the underbrush until they both hid together across the Bonita River. Thanks to the Kid's good care and the natural healing power of Indian bark, the boys were soon back on their feet and didn't stop until they had reached the Mescalero Indian Reservation. There, they caught up with the last vestiges of the Regulators, Charlie Bowdre, Doc Scurlock, Fred Wayne and Atanacio Martinez..

The fugitives encountered more trouble when caught in the act of stealing horses, According to Bill Kelly from Southern New Mexico Online!, "Reservation Clerk Morris Bernstein spotted them and wanted to know what they were doing. Martinez shot him through the heart. Although everyone knew who killed Bernstein, Billy the Kid was blamed for the murder."

Over subsequent months, the Kid and O'Folliard concealed themselves in various places. First they followed Bowdre and Scurlock and their new wives to the mountains, then double-backed to Ft. Sumner where Billy's flame, Paulita Maxwell, hid them on her brother's ranch. Here is where Billy conceived the brainstorm of his life.

He had read in the newspaper that his old enemy Jimmy Dolan, one of the leaders of the Murphy bunch, was in custody for the back-shooting of Huston Chapman, a Regulator, on the streets of Lincoln. But, sans witnesses, it looked like Dolan was going to go scot-free. Billy had been present that day, had seen Dolan step up behind Chapman and kill him in cold blood. What would the governor say, wondered Billy, to a proposal of his amnesty for Dolan's neck? As he told O'Folliard, he was tired of life on the lam and refused to travel any further. He was wanted, sure, but, hell, he wasn't going to go down without a try. So, he attempted one of the nerviest challenges to the law ever recorded in the annals of Western folklore. He visited Governor Wallace to offer him the bargain in person.

On March 17, 1879, Billy walked into the courtyard of El Palacio, the Governor's Mansion, in Santa Fe. He stopped a moment before tapping its huge metallic knocker, not to admire the Conquistadoran beauty of the three-hundred-year-old edifice whose arches raised in beautiful geometry above him, but to gulp a breath of fresh air. Even he couldn't believe his own gall. When a clerk answered the door, the caller replied, "I'd like to see the man who wants to hang me. This is Billy the Kid."

The man in the administrative frock startled.

"I come peaceably," Billy smiled and handed over his Remington and Colt.

Governor Lee Wallace (Library of Congress)
Governor Lee Wallace
(Library of Congress)

When told who was waiting for him in the foyer, Wallace at first couldn't believe it, and he still wasn't sure this was some idiot's joke when he saw the blonde, blue-eyed youngster who was supposed to be what the newspapers were calling the deadliest shot in the Southwest. "You are the Kid?" Wallace found himself asking, holding out his hand to him. Over Billy's shoulder, he saw that his nervous clerk was posed in a getaway stance close to the door.

"I'm him," the boy answered. He studied the face of the man behind the full but well-cut brown beard. The skin looked chapped and rough from seasons of war, yet the lines weren't criss-crass and cruel; they suggested wisdom and maybe even an understanding of life accrued in his fifty-some years on earth. His gray eyes...well, they were difficult to read. Hard might be the word. Stern, a better word.

"If you came here to shoot me, son, you wont get away with"

"Don't wanna do that, Your Honor," the other chanced. "Dont want my neck stretched. That's why I'm here, hoping to avoid that messy scene."

"Are you surrendering yourself, Kid?" Wallace was direct.

"Maybe...on condition," Billy nodded. "Only on condition."

The governor apprised this comedy a moment before he turned towards his office and rolled a wrist after him, "Come in here, Billy. Let's talk."

Billy followed him into a normally commodious room were it not for a compulsion of bookshelves and protruding pieces of dark furniture, chiefly a desk the size of a gallows stage set flush dead center. On either side of the desk stood a staff-flag, draped, but by their colors an American red-white-and-blue and the territorial flag of New Mexico. Portraits of elegant gentlemen in statesmen's cutaway coats and towering beaver hats decorated the walls. There was Lincoln, and there was General Ulysses S. Grant, and General William Tecumseh Sherman, and President Hayes.

There was one photograph on the wall that sent a chill up Billy's spine. It was of a younger, thinner Wallace in Yankee dress tunic posed with several others of the same ilk around a formally dressed table. On the bottom portion of the turkeywood frame a plaque cited, "Pres't. A. Lincoln Trial Tribunal: 1865." Billy knew this body of men as the ones who sent suspected plotters of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to their death. Among those executed had been a woman, Mrs. Mary Surratt, in whose boarding house John Wilkes Booth, the assassin, and the others had met to plan the deed. Then and everafter Mrs. Surratt's proposed guilt-ignited controversy; her complicity in the case was, indeed, very suspect. She had been a devout churchgoer and had no reason to believe that her lodgers were machinating treason. Because of the strong likelihood of her innocence, the panel of jurists who condemned her were targeted by many, even after fourteen years, as cold, unrelenting, heartless beasts.

Billy gulped, and thought If Wallace sent a woman, a mother, to the gallows on nothing but hearsay evidence, what would he do to a gunslinger who openly killed a pair of lawmen? then turned his gaze back to the man to whom he had, maybe foolishly, entrusted his fate. Wallace had followed his eyes to the portrait on the wall and now read his thoughts.

"Oh, such a dark moment that was," said he. "But justice is justice, Billy. I feel no remorse and truly believe those people all of them had done wrong."

"And...me?"

Wallace turned the table. "Have you?"

"I killed Brady and Hindman, yeah, if that's what you mean," the Kid blurted, but quickly added, " but they had shot Tunstall in cold blood and I was acting under a judge's order."

"The order was to arrest, not shoot them, Billy," Wallace said calmly.

"Look it, sir, I was there and saw what them bastards did to Tunst"

The lawmaker raised a firm hand. "Billy please, it's too hot. Tell me what you want." He noticed the other taken aback with his abruptness. "Understand," he added, "I have much to do and I cannot spend time taking sides with either you what do you call yourselves? Regulators? or with this Murphy crowd. I can't get lost in emotions. I require facts."

Billy nodded, thus prepared. "All right, sir, the facts: I'm here to turn myself in, but not 'cause my conscience is bothering me. Straight-put, I wanna trade my life for that of one of the Murphy big boys. Call it revenge for what they did to Tunstall and," a tear formed in his eye, " and poor McSween." He related the Dolan-Chapman incident and his witnessing of it.

"In other words, you want to turn state's witness for your life," the statesman clarified.

Billy grimaced. "It sounds kind of harsh that way, but, I guess that's it. But, you'll get no testimony from me about my friends, only against my enemies."

Governor Wallace rested in the deep cushion of his chair, fingers drumming the armrest as he weighed the offer. Suddenly, one hand unloosened his stock tie with an almost ferocious gesture while his other hand pounded the blotter atop his desk. "Damn, this New Mexico climate is ungodly warm; it'll melt the best of us. Billy, you're a lad of cunning mettle. You stroll in here and offer yourself up to the gods who you know want to toss you into the volcano as their sacrifice to themselves and you dare to offer a compromise. I like a sharp man and I'll take your wager."

The governor held out an agreeing hand, but the Kid held back. There was still that animal called honor, and Billy didn't want his honor snapped. What would history say about a gunfighter of his status who surrendered to the most authoritative do-gooder of the time? That said, the bet was taken further: Wallace agreed to have Billy "arrested" the next morning in a public house in Santa Fe. History would have its Billy the Kid untarnished by decency.

The cowboy accepted the gentleman's hand.

"Billy," said the Wallace, "I want to thank you for turning yourself in. You made a firm first step."

Billy nodded. "Thanks back for not throwing me to the lions," the Kid returned, chortling. He headed for the door.

"Interesting analogy. Wait, dont leave. What made you say that?"

"What?"

"The lions."

"Oh, that. Well, you know, Governor Wallace, what the Romans used to do to the Christians."

"Then you're a reader?"

"Anything I can get my hands on that is, er, well, when I'm not running from a posse," quipped Billy.

"I see," Wallace remained straight-faced. "Look here " and he brought from one of the many shelves in his office a thick pile of writing paper, hand-scrawled, what appeared to be a manuscript. It thudded when he lay it upon his desk, title page up. "This is a book I have been working on for many, many seasons." Tattered corners, many scratch-outs and finger smudges indicated long, late hours of creativity by candlelight. "I am hoping to get it published when it is done."

The Kid picked up the first several pages. "Ben-Hur A Tale of the Christ," he read. "What's it about?"

"It weaves a story of two friends, one a Jew, the other a Roman patrician. One gives all to God, the other gives all to Caesar. Who do you think is the happiest?"

"The Jew," answered Billy.

"Why?" pushed Wallace.

"Well..." Billy paused, "...like my momma used to say, 'Have trust, and God provides.'"

"Your mother was a smart woman," the governor asserted.

*****

Four days later, Billy sat playing Blackjack with a deputy in the jail's groundskeeper cottage. The deputy, an old-timer (in Western vernacular), doubled as his card partner. The Kid felt nervous today, hemmed in. Governor Wallace didn't want him to share the same block of cells as the prisoner Jim Dolan, the man Billy was about to hang, so he was concealing him there among the rakes and shovels and bags of fertilizer.. Wallace wanted the Kid's appearance in the upcoming court trial to be a complete surprise to Dolan and his defense team.

"I smell your supper fryin' from the kitchens," the deputy whiffed. "Smells like ye're getting' pork and beans tonight."

"Beans again?" Billy complained. "I had them night before last."

"Twenty-one!" proclaimed the Kid's partner, laying his cards across their table, actually an overturned barrel keg.

"Just lucky," Billy snorted. "Say, not that I dont like your company, amigo, but how long does Wallace expect me to be confined here?" It was his turn to shuffle this time. He did so as he grumbled, "Hot days, cold nights. Fertilizer. And beans."

"Well, have heart, young Appaloosa, purty soon ye'll be outta here, the minute yer trial's done."

"You mean Dolan's trial," Billy corrected.

"Well, true, once Dolan's swingin' there'll be no use'a keepin' ye' here. They'll move ye' upstairs to the reg'lar jail to wait yer own trial; I s'pose."

 "My own what?"

"Yer part of the deal, Appaloosa. For the killin'a them two lawmen."

"Whoooa! Where' d you get that nonsense? I'm out of these parts the minute Dolan gets convicted. I'm not standing any court trial."

"Better tell that to the guv. He's livin' under the impression that that was in the bargain ye' made. And he thinks real high of ye', too, for doin' that."

"I think there's a misunderstanding here!" Billy felt panic numbing his toes and fingertips.

The deputy chuckled. "Twenty one again, Appaloosa!" He proudly displayed another winning hand. "My deal. Oh now, come on, young'un, a bargain's a bargain and the guv won't go back on his word. It's common knowledge ye'll be treated fair."

"Fair...how?"

"If the jury finds ye' guilty the guv'll talk to the judge and prob'ly have yer sentence commuted. Cep'n a'course ye' get Judge Meers. He is a friend of the Murphy Gang, one-a what is called the Santa Fe Ring." He dropped two cards on the barrel. "Hit me, Appaloosa!"

And Billy did. With a shovel.

Reaching down to the unconscious deputy, he unbuckled the old man's gun belt and placed it around his own hips. Grabbing his Stetson from the cot, he walked out into the alley and thought how good he'd look on the deputy's horse, galloping out of town.

 

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