Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

Pat Garrett

"When mounted on a milk-white steed,
I thought myself a flash lad indeed,
With my cock'd pistol and broad sword,
'Stand and deliver' was my word."

- Flash Lad


The Kid eluded posses over the next few months, including one rumored to have been led by the audacious Pinkerton detective Charlie Siringo. Feeling that he had finally shaken them, he rode canter rhythm into the quaint village of La Mesilla, festooned with green in the Rio Grande Valley. In the plaza, he chanced to meet an acquaintance from Ft. Sumner who warned him that a reputation-seeking Texan named Joe "Red" Grant had been boasting he'd kill Billy the Kid were they ever to meet. Not only that, but Grant happened to be partaking of a drink in one of La Mesilla's cantinas at that very moment. Billy grinned, doffed his hat and handed the fellow a handful of pesos before riding to the center of town where Grant currently imbibed.

After having a customer point out Grant to him, Billy approached the lout and, feigning interest in his side arm, a gleaming, gilded .45 calibre Schofield revolver, asked if he might see it. Grant, complimented, obliged. He watched as the stranger turned the polished weapon about in his palms, inspecting its beauty. "Thanks," said the boy, handing it back, adding, "By the way, I heard you're looking for me. I'm the Kid."

Grant's eyes bulged as he stepped back from the bar. "You heered right, punk!" And, shoving the barrel into Bully's abdomen, chuckled, "Adios!" He pressed the trigger.

Click. Click. Nothing. Click again. Nothing. Click. Click. Click.

Billy then exposed a pair of six .45 calibre bullets pressed into his palm. "Sleight of hand, amigo," is all he said before he whipped out his own pistol and shot a hole clear through Grant's throat to his collar button.

*****

Pat Garrett was elected sheriff of Lincoln County in 1880, and his overarching order came expediently, directly from Territorial Governor Lew Wallace: GET BILLY THE KID!

Wallace, enraged that the Kid had betrayed his trust, could think of little else than revenge. As new governor of an already chaotic domain that he had publicly vowed to clean up, he couldn't afford being made to look a fool. And Billy the Kid had accomplished that. When the story broke in the papers about the cold-blooded killing of Joe Grant, Wallace promised the press that this would stop. A first reaction was to place a $500 bounty on the Kid's head. A second was to summon the tall, lanky Garrett, who had campaigned for and won the no-thanks position of sheriff of war-scarred Lincoln County, to his office in Santa Fe. From across his desk, Wallace emphasized the importance of putting the knave behind bars.

Had the governor been worried that the sheriff's past friendship with the Kid might sway him from duty, he learned quickly that Garrett's vision of a law-tight New Mexico matched his own.

Patrick Floyd Garrett (Boot Hill Museum, Dodge City, KS)
Patrick Floyd Garrett
(Boot Hill Museum,
Dodge City, KS)

Armchair historians have labeled Pat Garrett a turncoat who used his friendship with Billy the Kid to destroy him, thus to rise to fame. But, Garrett saw Garrett as a man in transition. He had long wanted to be a lawman, had achieved it, and now in duty, nothing more realized he was the only person who could track down the outlaw Billy. He was one of those rare individuals whose nature could separate responsibility from emotion.

He liked the Kid, he made no bones of that, and he hoped he could take the Kid alive. But, that was secondary. As long as the Kid or any other hoodoo who rode to the sound of the guns continued to keep New Mexico primeval, they would have to be removed from the streets. The territory dreamed of statehood, and Garrett was well aware that as long as the territory remained a shoot'em-up barroom moved outdoors it would never realize that dream.

First off, Garrett intended to make the Kid and the other brawlers of Lincoln County aware that his term would be one of no-nonsense and that the Lincoln County War was indeed over and would stay that way. Regulator or Murphyite, it didn't matter, whoever picked up a feuding gun would be slapped, pinched, then tossed bodily into the calaboose. Until he won the election, he had been known chiefly as a handsome proprietor of a gambling casino in Ft. Sumner, an honest one no doubt, but a gambler nonetheless. In fact, the political connections he had wrought through that experience, and the many friends he had made while dealing keno, probably swung the election for him. But, anyone who thought he might merely be another con-man who pinned a badge to his lapel for extra income and there were plenty of them in the milieux of the Wild West soon learned otherwise.

One who tested his sincerity, and his skills, was Mariano Leiva. "Garrett, in December 1880, had just delivered some prisoners to Puerto de Lima, New Mexico, when he encountered the boisterous Leiva in a store," pens Jay Robert Nash in Western Lawmen & Outlaws. "Leiva saw Garrett...and began stomping about the store, snarling, 'No gringo can arrest me!' He then went to the street and shouted for all to hear, particularly the patient, tight-lipped Garrett: 'By God, even that damned Pat Garrett can't take me!' Garrett stepped onto the porch of the store (and) Leiva went for his gun, firing a single bullet that went wild. Garrett drew his six-gun and snapped off two shots, one missing Leiva, the other ploughing into Leiva's left shoulder, smashing the blade. The would-be gunman was thrown over a saddle and led to jail."

But, the Leivas were incidental compared to the big game, Billy the Kid. In essence, Governor Wallace had committed an illegality by verbally giving Garrett license to move beyond the county limits without appointing him territorial marshal, but it was a freedom from convention and law that the sheriff would exercise. To catch a ghost one needed to walk through walls with the speed of light. And Garrett planned something very similar.

He dogged the Kid's trail; from the old days, he knew Billy's pals, his girlfriends, where they lived, where they hung out; he knew the hideouts and he knew the back roads; he knew how Billy thought. On December 18, 1880, Garrett learned from one of his spies, Jose Roibal, that the Kid's gang was riding for Ft. Sumner after an autumn of rustling cattle from Lincoln County to sell to rancheros across the border in Mexico. Fort Sumner provided an outlet for fiesta, and, according to Roibal, the gang planned some roistering. Billy and Tom O'Folliard had girls there, and Charlie Bowdre and his wife, Manuela, had made their home there. Roibal provided the names of other fellas, too, who had joined the Kid's rustler band: Dave Rudabaugh, Barney Mason, Tom Pickett and Billy Wilson. All riding to Ft. Sumner.

Evening had fallen on December 20 when the wild bunch reached the outskirts of town, not suspecting that Sheriff Garrett and a posse of twenty men, loaded for bear, had commandeered Bowdre's hacienda. A rare snowfall had blanketed the Southwest and the promise of a hot fire and warm whiskey aroused the riders' senses as they rode into the front yard. Bowdre may have wondered why his house was unlit, but he may have accounted that as Manuela being asleep or on the town.

"Home at last!" he gleamed.

Just as the gang cleared the fence, a voice called out from inside one of the windows. "Halt! Throw up your hands!"

"What the hell ?" Billy groaned.

Reflexively, he and the rustlers kicked leather and swerved their reins for a turnaround, careening onto the street beyond the property, some of their horses slipping then catching their balance on the unusually frozen ground. They managed a miraculous escape.

"All but Tom O'Folliard," reads the Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang website. "As he wheeled his horse about and jerked out his pistol, either Garrett or (Deputy) Lon Chambers shot him on his left side, wedging a slug just below his heart...Garrett trained his gun on Tom and called for him to drop his firearms. Tom is reported to have said, 'Don't shoot anymore, I'm dying.' (The lawmen) took Tom off his horse and took him into the building and laid him on the floor...Jim East, one of the Texas cowboys in the posse, gave Tom a drink of water, which he drank a little of, shuddered, and was dead."

In his pocket was a half-finished letter addressed to his grandmother, telling her he would soon be coming home.

A few of Garrett's men remained behind with O'Folliard's body, but the rest, including their leader, took off after the Kid in hot pursuit. Their trail was distinguishable on the ground of white and Garrett's posse encountered the rustlers again the following evening, holed up in a crumbling, deserted adobe hut adjacent to the negatively coined Stinking Springs.

Purported photo of Billy the Kid at the height of his fame. (Frederick Nolan)
Purported photo of
Billy the Kid at the
height of his fame.
(Frederick Nolan)

"Come on out, Billy," Garrett called aloud, after dispersing his men around the building. "There's no getting by us." The moonlight shone bright and reflected upward from the satin snow so that the sheriff's form was quite visible against the sky. A shot rang out in answer to his words and Garrett cooly ducked, refusing to run. "Was that you who shot, Billy?"

"Me, the Kid!" came the voice Garrett knew well.

"Too bad," the lawman shook his head.

"That I missed you?"

"No, that you shot in the first place. I was your friend, Billy."

"Yeah, right," the Kid scorned, "so that's why you're wanting to send me to jail!"

"What I want to do and have to do are wide apart, Billy. Acknowledge that. We had some good times together, let's not overlook"

"Don't try your winning nature with me!" barked the other.

"I just want to be your friend, that's all. I don't hate you, Billy."

The Kid didn't respond this time. Garrett waited, then motioned a go-ahead to his crew and, in unison, their score of rifles exploded.

Over the next forty-eight hours the posse's bullets pelted the outlaws' tiny structure, spraying re clay, dismantling it chink by chink. As the hours wore on, the fugitives' answering gunfire turned erratic, indicating their panic. Their one chance at escape was dismal; trying for their horses tied outside, shells chopped the ground around their boots and they withered back behind the walls of their shelter. In that attempt, Charlie Bowdre was struck by a fusillade, but when he fumbled for retreat Billy tossed him back into the yard, screaming, "Coward! You're dead anyway, go take some of'em with you as I would do in your condition!" Bowdre couldn't, wouldn't, didn't. Tripping towards his besiegers, he mumbled, "I wish....I wish..." and plopped face down into the earth.

At last, on the morning of the third day, starving, cold, nearly out of ammunition, the desperados threw their guns into the yard and their hands over their heads, and filed out. Garrett cuffed them, fed them bacon and coffee, and carted them to Santa Fe.

Billy was tried separately for the murder of Sheriff Brady during the Lincoln County War. Having been found guilty by a jury, Judge Bristol condemned him to death.

"You will be hanged by the neck, Billy, until you are dead, dead, dead!"

To which the Kid retorted, "You can go, Judge, to hell, hell, hell!"

 

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