In 1878, Billy the Kid was capturing headlines across the American West. Three years later he was dead, shot down by lawman Pat Garrett. Even before his brief life played out, the Kid had become legendary, as either brutish murderer or daring avenger. To this day, the controversy continues. Was Billy the Kid simply living up to the code of the frontier? Or was he a lethal hot-head embellishing his own legend?
Visitors from all over the world come to New Mexico to follow his trail, and perhaps to search for clues to the truth about the young man turned outlaw.
Billy the Kid was born in the New York City slums, but his mother steadily worked her way west with her small family until they reached Silver City, New Mexico. There, the boy, accused of receiving stolen clothes, was jailed and escaped. Skipping to Arizona, he cowboyed, perhaps ran with rustlers, and committed his first authenticated killing. Billy fled Arizona. In 1876 or 1877, under the name of William H. Bonney, the then 17-or-18-year-old outlaw rode into Lincoln County, New Mexico.
After the Apaches and plains Indians had been subdued, this 17 million-acre county had become the spoils in a violent struggle for economic and political control. Billy the Kid became notorious for his involvement in this conflict, which became known as the Lincoln County War.
Today, at the Lincoln County Courthouse, you might hear a tourist with a French accent say, “I never thought I would be standing in this very place.” And it is the very place. About 60 miles west of Roswell, the small town of Lincoln straddles US Hwy. 380. Although the road is paved, much else remains the same.
The historic Tunstall-McSween store still stands. From beside it, the Kid and four others ambushed and killed the sheriff and a deputy. Some say Billy's actions were justified since the sheriff, who owed his appointment to the stronger side in the Lincoln County War, was not strictly impartial. Billy the Kid and his cohorts were on the losing side.
Eventually Billy was captured and taken about 140 miles southwest to Mesilla, where he was convicted of these killings. The adobe building that served as courtroom and jail stands on the southeast corner of Mesilla Plaza. You can reach the plaza today by taking New Mexico Hwy. 28 south from Las Cruces.
Returned to Lincoln County to hang, the Kid was imprisoned on the second floor of the courthouse. When prison guard, Bob Olinger, took the other prisoners across the road to the Wortley Hotel to eat, the Kid seized his chance to escape. He asked the other guard to take him outside to use the outhouse. On the trip back up the stairs, Billy slipped his very small hands from the handcuffs, over powered the guard, and took his gun.
If you climb the courthouse stairs, look for a hole made by a bullet, either fired in the tussle, or when Billy shot the guard. Then, as you look out the second-floor window onto the quiet tree-lined street, imagine the scene as Billy saw it, still shackled, but now holding Olinger's double-barreled shotgun.
Listen carefully for the echo of Olinger's footsteps running from the metal-roofed Wortley Hotel and the shouts of, “Bob, the Kid has killed Bell.” It was the last thing the unfortunate guard heard before the Kid shot him, too.
Before you leave Lincoln, you might like to try lunch or dinner at the Wortley Hotel, once owned by Pat Garrett. A stay in one of the hotel's eight rooms allows a guest to soak up history.
Legend improbably says that Billy returned to the rightful owner the horse on which he fled from Lincoln. The Kid had many friends among the Hispanic settlers in Lincoln County, and those who sheltered him after his escape laughed that he carelessly tied the horse to a sotol stalk. When the stalk broke, the horse returned to its owner by itself.
Another recuerdo, or memory, of the kind that feeds legend is that Billy was so heavily armed after his escape that he had to lighten his load. He placed two pistols and cartridge belts in the fork of an oak tree, planning to return for them later. He never came back, and, according to the story, somewhere in the Capitan Mountains there grows an old oak tree with his weapons in its heart.
Tourists on the trail of Billy the Kid have yet to find the oak tree. But about 140 miles northeast of Lincoln, they can find Fort Sumner, where Billy the Kid spent his last days.
The fort had been abandoned a few years before Billy's time and sold to one of New Mexico's wealthiest landowners. From the officers' quarters was fashioned a 21-room adobe house. It was in a bedroom of this house, on a warm July night in 1881, that Pat Garrett gunned down Billy the Kid. Garrett later met his own violent death in an ambush. He is buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Las Cruces.
The cemetery at Fort Sumner, in contrast, contains only a few graves. The military dead were disinterred and reburied in Santa Fe when the fort was decommissioned. Billy the Kid's tombstone has been stolen twice and is chained in place now. He and two compatriots are buried in a fenced plot about ten feet square.
Or maybe not. Some think the Kid's body was moved to Santa Fe along with the remains of the dead soldiers. There is even a rumor that his head is missing. Others believe he was not killed by Garrett at all, but lived to an old age under another name.
Today, the places associated with Billy the Kid modestly wear the patina of history, awaiting the many visitors still fascinated by the legendary outlaw.