- Historic Sites
Billy the Kid Country
The legend of the most famous of all outlaws belongs to the whole world now. But to find the grinning teen-ager who gave rise to it, you must visit the New Mexico landscape where he lived his short life.
April 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 2
Garrett succeeded. In the cold and snowy week before Christmas of 1880, the sheriff and a dozen possemen closed in on the old fort. In one encounter they killed Billy’s faithful sidekick Tom O’Folliard. Then they tracked the Kid, Bowdre, Rudabaugh, Pickett, and Wilson to an abandoned stone house, once a sheepherder’s shelter, sixteen miles east of Fort Sumner. In the chill dawn they opened fire, killing Charley Bowdre. Billy saw the hopelessness of his predicament, and after an all-day stand-off the fugitives surrendered.
The rock house stood at Stinking Springs, a seep at the forks of Taiban Creek. It has long since vanished, but the site has been accurately identified just north of U.S. Highway 60 at Tolar, where a historical marker tells the story. Kid aficionados will want to get the feel of the land, the almost featureless, treeless plains.
While New Mexicans lionized Pat Garrett, the Kid—now, thanks to the newspapers, known as Billy the Kid—languished in the Santa Fe jail. He tried to get legal counsel, he tried to escape, and he even tried to blackmail Governor Wallace into living up to his promises. All to no avail. In April 1881 the Kid’s trail led down the Rio Grande to Judge Bristol’s Mesilla court, then back to Lincoln, where the judge had ordered that he be hanged.
While awaiting execution, Billy was not confined in the cellar jail, which had never been very secure. Since the war the county had acquired the old Murphy-Dolan store, bankrupted by the upheavals, and it now served as a courthouse. The Kid was held under constant guard in an upstairs room of this building.
On April 28, 1881, with Sheriff Pat Garrett out of town, Billy made his move. He stunned his guard, Jim Bell, with a blow from his handcuffs and shot him with his own pistol. The second guard had taken other prisoners across the street to the Wortley Hotel for dinner. He was Bob Olinger, a hulking bully who delighted in tormenting the Kid. Billy rested Olinger’s own shotgun on the windowsill and, as the deputy ran to the yard below, gave him both barrels in the face.
The windowsill, the yard, and the stairway down which the fatally shot Bell plunged are still there. So is the second-floor balcony from which Billy confronted the townspeople while a frightened citizen struggled to saddle a spooked horse. The boy said he was sorry he had to kill Bell, related one of the throng below, but “Bell decided to run and he had to kill him. He declared he was ‘standing pat’ against the world; and, while he did not wish to kill anybody, if anybody interfered with his attempt to escape he would kill him.” No one did, and he calmly mounted the horse and trotted out of Lincoln—and into legend.
While the country waited in suspense, he hid with friendly Hispanic sheepmen on the range around Fort Sumner and even ventured into town for an occasional fandango or more intimate tryst.
Thus it was that Sheriff Garrett and two deputies stole into Fort Sumner on the hot, still night of July 14, 1881. They thought the Kid lurked somewhere nearby, but no one would talk. At midnight Garrett slipped into Pete Maxwell’s bedroom to question him. Entirely by coincidence, Billy came into the same bedroom only seconds later.
From the floor of Pete Maxwell’s bedroom there arose, almost immediately, a myth of global impact.
“¿Quién es? ¿Quién es? [Who is it? Who is it?]” were Billy’s last words. The voice told Garrett who it was. He fired twice. The first bullet hit the shadowy figure in the chest, and Billy the Kid dropped to the floor, dead.
Regrettably, for travelers stirred by the evocative evidences of Billy the Kid’s passage in Lincoln and its mountain environment, Fort Sumner offers disappointingly little. The present town sprang up with the coming of the railroad. The old town, the military post that Lucien Maxwell made the headquarters of his domain, lay five miles down the Pecos River. A complex of adobe buildings, it fell easy prey to floodwaters. Nothing but a few wall stubs and the natural setting remains. A state-monument visitor center stands on the old parade ground, near the site of the big house where Billy died. Exhibits tell the story of the Navajo exile, the fort, and Billy the Kid. Nearby a private museum stands guard on the old fort cemetery. Passing through it, visitors may view the graves of the Kid and his compadres of the Lincoln County War Tom O’Folliard and Charles Bowdre.
From the floor of Pete Maxwell’s bedroom there arose, almost immediately, a powerful myth of global impact. The Billy the Kid of legend bore only remote resemblance to the Billy the Kid of history, but for more than a century he has held people everywhere enthralled. Even today the young outlaw of sunny disposition and deadly trigger finger rides boldly across America’s mental landscape, symbol of an enduring national ambivalence toward violence. For those who would know the reality, New Mexico’s Billy the Kid country offers a graphic introduction.