Fort Sumner, New Mexico doesn’t have a lot going for it. There’s the “It’s My Hair and Other Things” beauty salon where I assume the local ladies gather and gawk over the eccentricities of whatever the “other things” (I think they have tails) are and at least two gas stations. It’s also where Billy the Kid is buried.
The Kid rests in a desolate graveyard several miles off the main road, surrounded by an ancient adobe wall. I don’t know what drove me to visit that place, but for some reason I couldn’t resist it. The sun was beginning to set and that old New Mexico wind blew hard, kicking up silver dust. No one has to mow this cemetery. There’s no grass and not even that many dead people. Billy’s grave is littered with bullets and small change. I tossed him a quarter (big bucks in 1881). His monument probably rakes in more revenue per year than Billy earned in his entire life. I like to think that he grasps the irony.
Billy the Kid was born Henry McCarty. He and his mother, Catherine, traveled all the way from New York City to New Mexico in an attempt to fight Catherine’s consumption. She died in 1874 when Billy was only 14, having lived only a year in Silver City. People there remembered her, though, as a laughing woman who would take any opportunity to burst into song. She and Billy would often hang out in the Mexican section of the city for the music and the company. Within six months Billy spoke fluent Spanish.
After the death of his mother, Billy was left to fend for himself. His first crime was stealing some clothing from a Chinese laundry. He was put in jail, but he escaped and went on the run. He tried to be a cow hand, but his youth and small stature insured that he could only get a job on the chow line. It was a steady paycheck, though, and he used his first $40 to buy a pistol and a gun belt – “the full outfit.” He then joined up with a notorious horse thief named John Mackie and spent the next year stealing horses and getting tough.
In 1877, a bully named Frank “Windy” Cahill attacked Billy in a saloon. After calling Billy a “pimp” Frank sat on the Kid’s shoulders slapping his face. Billy pulled a gun from Frank’s belt and shot him through the gut. “Gut shot is not a good way to die,” said one historian, “It took Frank Cahill all night to expire.” Billy left before they could arrest him. That was the night Henry McCarty the singing, senorita courting, twinkling eyed Irishman became William Bonney. He was 16 years old.
Officially on the run, the Kid briefly joined up with a gang of outlaws called “The Boys.” In 1878, the Kid was caught by the law and charged with rustling horses. He sat in jail, thinking his ticket was punched, when the owner of the stolen horses, John Tunstall, visited him. Tunstall was a 23 year old Englishman who had moved to Lincoln County, New Mexico to become a cattle baron. He was handsome, rich and smart. He also was looking to hire guns to protect his interests against his entrenched competition, “the House.” He offered Billy a job rather than a noose, and (when Billy accepted) immediately gave him a rifle and a good horse.
At Tunstall’s concern, Billy found a home. He fit in easily with Tunstall’s men who remembered him as a community favorite who “stood as straight as an Indian, fine looking lad as ever I met. He was a lady’s man and the Mexican girls were all crazy about him. He spoke their language well. He was a fine dancer, go all their gaits and was one of them. He was a wonder, you would have been proud to know him.” Of the two authenticated photographs of Billy in existence, one is of the Kid playing croquet at Tunstall’s place. It’s a happy picture.
“The House” was run by two Irishmen named Dolan and Murphy. They owned a huge dry goods store, the bank, a saloon, and thousands of head of cattle. They controlled all of the commerce in Lincoln County. If you wanted to buy something back then, you bought it from Dolan and Murphy, or you traveled hundreds of miles through desolate country to shop someplace else. Tunstall had the idea to upset this monopoly. Dolan and Murphy didn’t like that. In 1878, the Kid was helping Tunstall herd some horses into Lincoln when a posse approached. They shouted that they had a warrant for Tunstall’s arrest. Knowing the charges were trumped up, Tunstall started to ride toward the men. Billy tried to warn him of the danger, shouting “For God’s sake follow me” and spurring his horse to reach the shelter of some nearby rocks. Tunstall didn’t turn. The posse shot him off his horse as he approached, and in the head as he lay prone on the ground. Then they killed Tunstall’s horse for good measure. Thus began the Lincoln County war.
Billy and many of Tunstall’s troops vowed revenge and formed a group called the Regulators. The legal system was corrupt – long bought by “The House.” The Regulators felt they had no hope for justice unless they took the law into their own hands, and so spent the next few months hunting down and assassinating everyone they felt was responsible for Tunstall’s death – including the Sheriff William Brady.
The Lincoln County War raged on for almost a year with much bloodshed. There wasn’t much of an alternative. It was locally noted that “every son of a bitch up there wanted to kill someone.” The War was regarded as the perfect opportunity for often petty revenge.
Billy was in every fight of any significance. His best friends were killed. In November of 1878, the new governor Lew Wallace issued a proclamation of amnesty for all parties involved in the Lincoln County wars. Billy, sick of fighting, returned and offered to parlay with his enemies for peace. The negotiations went very well until the men got drunk and “everything broke down.” Attorney Hugh Chapman was harassed and killed. Billy later testified about what happened to Chapman in exchange for a full pardon from Governor Wallace. Wallace eventually went back on his word and refused to grant Billy clemency. Billy the Kid was the only man prosecuted and tried for the assassination of Sheriff William Brady – even though Brady was hit by over 30 different bullets and shot at by 8 men. Ultimately, the Kid was sentenced to hang for it.
Billy wasn’t about to wait around to get his neck stretched. He went rogue and took off out into the desert where he was hidden by Hispanic sheep herders. They regarded Billy as an outlaw hero who was striking a blow against the cattle barons who had displaced them. Pat Garrett was inserted as Sheriff of Lincoln County and vowed to bring Billy to justice. Garrett finally, with the help of six Texas Rangers, cornered the Kid in a small stone house in Stinking Springs. After his friend Charlie Bowdre is shot by mistake, Billy surrendered to Garret saying, “Well hell, Pat, I thought you had 200 Texans out here.” Then everyone ate breakfast.
Billy stood trial and was jailed. He watched his own scaffold being built, and planned his escape. He had to kill two men to do it, but he got out and rode away singing. His friends told him to get out of New Mexico, but Billy felt at home in Fort Sumner and never left it for long. It’s thought that the love of his life, Paulita (sometimes called Lolita) Maxwell lived there, and that he’d never go too far from her. Pete Maxwell, Paulita’s older brother, didn’t approve of her association with the Kid, and leaked information about Billy’s whereabouts to Pat Garrett. Late at night on July 14th, 1881 Billy approached to Maxwell house to cut himself some beef for dinner. He saw Garret’s guards crouched on the long patio of the house and began backing into Pete Maxwell’s bedroom whispering, “Quien es …quien es” (Who is it…who is it). Pat Garrett was sitting on Maxwell’s bed. He saw Billy’s moonlit silhouette, framed by the doorway. Maxwell whispered, “That’s him.” Pat Garrett fired two shots. One went through Billy’s heart. The other hit the wall.
His friend, Jesus Silva carried Billy’s body to an old carpenter’s bench in the woodshed where he and a group of heart broken senoritas surrounded him with candles and watched the corpse through the night. The next morning, Silva built a simple box to serve as a coffin and he and Vincente Ortero buried the kid in the old graveyard with no pomp or circumstance. Billy the Kid was barely 21 years old.
The only object to mark Billy’s passing was a simple wooden cross with his name crudely carved on it. By 1904, that marker had been destroyed, maybe by flooding, but it was also a popular object for target practice. In 1932 someone (quite possibly the Fort Sumner Chamber of Commerce looking for tourist dollars) commissioned a new headstone. Billy is supposedly buried next to Charlie Bowdre and Tom O’Falliard (both friends who were also killed by Pat Garrett), but since the graves were unmarked for 28 years, the people under the concrete sepulchers may not be the Kid and his Pals at all. I think the Kid is there, though. His small granite headstone has escaped three times. Once, it stayed on the lam for 26 years only to be found in Granbury, TX – a town once filled with old outlaws. Now, Billy’s grave is surrounded by an iron cage and the marker is shackled to the ground at his feet. Somehow, I don’t think that will hold him. I believe that he will always come back to Fort Sumner, though. Paulita is there, in that dusty cemetery, and she is waiting.