Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

The Setting Sun

"O the transporting rapt'rous scene
That rises to my sight;
Sweet fields arrayed in living green
And rivers of delight."

Bound for the Promised Land


As the nation hung its new year 1881 calendars on the wall, the end was near for Billy the Kid. He had seven months to live.

He would go the way of all the others who thought mistakenly that the West would never become civilized. The Clantons, too, eight weeks after Billy died, they would square off with the Earps at the OK Corral and rot thereafter in Boot Hill. Jesse James, the bank robber, would be shot in the back not much later.

The year 1881 was to be a good year, a year of promise and expansion, and dreams fulfilled. The country's population had passed the fifty-million mark and American footprints etched the entire continent "sea to shining sea". Railroads had gone transcontinental with 94,000 miles of track piercing mountains and traversing desert sands. Telephone lines were being spun where the only form of communication five years earlier had been smoke signals. Clara Barton would establish the American Red Cross this year. And, just for the fun of it, P.T, Barnum and J.A. Bailey looped their center rings to conceive "The Greatest Show on Earth".

*****

After his trial, Billy gave interviews to newspaper reporters clamoring for a story on the living legend. Asked for his opinion of the verdict, he replied, "It's wrong that I should be the only one to suffer the extreme penalties of the law," claiming that he had been made a scapegoat for all the other wrongdoers in the Lincoln County War who the government could not catch. The newspapermen loved it and many painted him as the tragic-martyr face-saver of Governor Wallace.

He was eventually returned to Lincoln to await his hanging, and held in an upper room of the two-story whitewash county courthouse. There he was watched over day and night by a pair of Pat Garrett's deputies. One, James Bell, was a kind man who tried his best to make Billy's final weeks comfortable. The other, "Pecos Bob" Ollinger, was a heartless bully. A member of the Murphy faction during the Lincoln County War, he made it his personal and sole business to taunt the Kid, jibing him, jabbing him in the back with the butt of his rifle, shoving him down the steps in his leg chains when he needed to go to the washroom, threatening to shoot him in the back and make it appear an escape attempt.

Garrett had overheard Ollinger one night and ordered him to stop, but the temptation to brutalize the famous Regulator was just too much. "I'm gonna watch you squirm, bastard," he would tell the prisoner, "and I want to listen real close when your body drops, Kid, so I can hear the snap of your neck when you fall."

But, Billy was to have one last moment of bravado. On April 28, 10 days before his scheduled execution, he escaped. While being escorted to the latrine by Deputy Bell, he broke free from his grasp, managed to get ahold of the other's sawed-off shotgun and shot him on the spot. "I'm sorry I had to do that, Jim," he told the dying man, "but I don't want to hang." Ollinger, who had been having lunch in a cantina across the street, heard the blast and ran outdoors. Looking up at the balcony overhead, he gasped to see the Kid, grinning like a Cheshire, aiming the Remington double barrels directly at him from a distance of fifteen feet.

"Well, hello Bob, you old son of a bitch!" Billy laughed. And fired. Both barrels. Ollinger's skull disintegrated, but the rest of him spun back into the mud.

Hobbling, his ankles chained, Billy broke into the hardware store adjacent to the courthouse and forced a frightened clerk at gunpoint to chop the manacle free. He then grabbed a horse from a hitch and rode out of town with a merry, "Adios, amigos!"

Sheriff Garrett had been on the range that afternoon, on business. When he returned to hear that the Kid had once again evaded justice, he saddled up and pursued. For nine weeks he pursued. Bell had been a personal friend and Ollinger, despite his crudity and the fact that Garrett never liked him, had been a licensed deputy. Both were lawmen, and this killing of law officers had to stop. Newspapers almost rejoiced at the latest escape, stuffing their columns with false heroics as if shooting constables was a gentleman's sport at which Billy the Kid excelled. Well...he would give the newspaper hounds something they could really bark at now.

Lincoln County Courthouse (Lincoln County Historical Society)
Lincoln County Courthouse
(Lincoln County Historical Society)

He ate little, he slept little, he rode heavy. He double-backed and he circled, he shortcut and double-backed again. As hot as the summer sun beat down upon him, it never came close to the heat of anger that seared under Patrick Floyd Garrett's Stetson. Throughout the chase, he never wandered too far from Ft. Sumner, positive that that was where his catch would wind up, in the arms of his senorita. He was correct.

*****

There was peace that evening, July 14, 1881. Stars were out in a multitude and a soft breeze whispered in the tiny alcoves of the Maxwell ranch. From down the road, where the tradesmen lived, Billy could hear the strumming of one of their guitars, and a lady's astral voice:

"Carmen Carmela, asiqual mueren, En occidente, los tibios...."

He wondered if Paulita, from whose home he had just left, could hear the woman, too; he hoped so, for she had a beautiful voice. And such a pretty song.

One kerosene lantern lit, barely, the entranceway to the main house; the flame seemed languid through the long-collected soot in the globe and his shadow, as he approached the doorway, swayed and contorted on the arcade wall of the porch. Funny, he realized he could hear his footsteps on the slatted boards below him; he had never taken note of his footsteps before. This night, he thought, was extra quiet.

He opened the door into the darkened parlor of Pedro Maxwell's manor; where he'd been hiding out the last couple of days. His only source of light by which to move was the starlight that twinkled through the open windows, not much to guide him around the heavy Spanish carved furniture, some of which was left there when the garrison was abandoned. Not wanting to awaken Pedro, he groped carefully, past the bureau, past the large potted palm, past the coffin-like leather storage trunk that he knew sat at the opening of the corridor that led to his bedroom.

The hallway was obscure; gossamer light from the windows of connecting rooms provided a tenuous pathway. Billy shuffled lest he trip over one of the loose floor mats. As he passed Pedro's bedroom on the way to his own, he detected a movement within. He paused. Pedro must have stirred in his sleep. But something raced before the square of light that was the window.

Billy startled. "Pedro?"

No answer.

"Pedro? Usted? That you?"

 No answer.

 "Quien esta? Who is that?"

A floorboard groaned in reply. Billy's wired fingers scrambled ineffectively for the hilt of his Bowie knife, his only weapon. And his eyes watched the silhouette materialize from the ebony before that square of light. The figure remained there this time. And Billy recognized it: "GARRETT!"

Somehow his digits found the strength to clutch his knife and yank it from his sash before the boom and the pyrotechnical flash sent him reeling backwards, his chest on fire, then cold, then numb. And all save the twinkle of stars faded from his eyes. The stars...millions of them now as he drifted off...

Garrett stepped from the blackness, dropping the hot barrel of his revolver into its holster. He leaned over and lidded Billy's staring blue eyes.

"Goodbye, Little Casino," he frowned. His job was done, but he felt incomplete.

 

 

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