Billy the Kid – The Fatal Shot in the Dark

By Pat Garrett

Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid

During the weeks following the Kid’s escape, I was censured by some for my seeming unconcern and inactivity in the matter of his re-arrest. I was egotistical enough to think I knew my own business best, and preferred to accomplish this duty, if possible at all, in my own way. I was constantly, but quietly, at work, seeking sure information and maturing my plans of action. I did not lay about the Kid’s old haunts, nor disclose my intentions and operations to any one. I stayed at home, most of the time, and busied myself about the ranch. If my seeming unconcern deceived the people and gave the Kid confidence in his security, my end was accomplished. It was my belief that the Kid was still in the country and haunted the vicinity of Fort Sumner; yet there was some doubt mingled with my belief. He was never taken for a fool, but was credited with the possession of extraordinary forethought and cool judgment, for one of his age. It seemed incredible that, in his situation, with the extreme penalty of law, the reward of detection, and the way of successful flight and safety open to him — with no known tie to bind him to that dangerous locality — it seemed incredible that he should linger in the Territory. My first task was to solve my doubts.

Early in July, I received a reply from a letter I had written to Mr. Brazel. I was at Lincoln when this letter came to me. Mr. Brazel was dodging and hiding from the Kid.

He feared his vengeance on account of the part which he, Brazel, had taken in his capture. There were many others who “trembled in their boots” at the knowledge of his escape; but most of them talked him out of his resentment, or conciliated him in some manner.

Brazel’s letter gave me no positive information. He said he had not seen the Kid since his escape, but, from many indications, believed he was still in the country. He offered me any assistance in his power to recapture him. I again wrote to Brazel, requesting him to meet me at the mouth of Tayban Arroyo an hour after dark on the night of the 13th day of July.

A gentleman named John W. Poe, who had superseded Frank Stewart, in the employ of the stockmen of the Canadian, was at Lincoln on business, as was one of my deputies, Thomas K. McKinney. I first went to McKinney, and told him I wanted him to accompany me on a business trip to Arizona, that we would go down home and start from there. He consented. I then went to Poe and to him I disclosed my business and all its particulars, showing him my correspondence. He also complied with my request that he should accompany me.

We three went to Roswell and started up the Rio Pecos from there on the night of July 10th. We rode mostly in the night, followed no roads, but taking unfrequented routes, and arrived at the mouth of Tayban Arroyo, five miles south of Fort Sumner one hour after dark on the night of July 13th. Brazel was not there. We waited nearly two hours, but he did not come. We rode off a mile or two, staked our horses, and slept until daylight. Early in the morning we rode up into the hills and prospected awhile with our field glasses.

Poe was a stranger in the county and there was little danger that he would meet any one who knew him at Fort Sumner. So, after an hour or two spent in the hills, he went into Fort Sumner to take observations. I advised him, also, to go on to Sunnyside, seven miles above Fort Sumner, and interview M. Rudolph, Esq., in whose judgment and discretion I had great confidence. I arranged with Poe to meet us that night at moonrise, at La Punta de la Glorieta, four miles north of Fort Sumner. Poe went on to the plaza, and McKinney and myself rode down into the Pecos Valley, where we remained during the day. At night we started out circling around the town and met Poe exactly on time at the trysting place.

Poe’s appearance at Fort Sumner had excited no particular observation, and he had gleaned no news there. Rudolph thought, from all indications, that the Kid was about; and yet, at times, he doubted. His cause for doubt seemed to be based on no evidence except the fact that the Kid was no fool, and no man in his senses, under the circumstances, would brave such danger.

I then concluded to go and have a talk with Peter Maxwell, Esq., in whom I felt sure I could rely. We had ridden to within a short distance of Maxwell’s grounds when we found a man in camp and stopped. To Poe’s great surprise, he recognized in the camper an old friend and former partner, in Texas, named Jacobs.

Peter Maxwell's house at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Peter Maxwell’s house at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

We unsaddled here, got some coffee, and, on foot, entered an orchard which runs from this point down to a row of old buildings, some of them occupied by Mexicans, not more than sixty yards from Maxwell’s house.

We approached these houses cautiously, and when within ear shot, heard the sound of voices conversing in Spanish. We concealed ourselves quickly and listened; but the distance was too great to hear words, or even distinguish voices. Soon a man arose from the ground, in full view, but too far away to recognize. He wore a broad- brimmed hat, a dark vest and pants, and was in his shin sleeves. With a few words, which fell like a murmur on our ears, he went to the fence, jumped it, and walked down towards Maxwell’s house.

Little as we then suspected it, this man was the Kid. We learned, subsequently, that, when he left his companions that night, he went to the house of a Mexican friend, pulled off his hat and boots, threw himself on a bed, and commenced reading a newspaper.

He soon, however, hailed his friend, who was sleeping in the room, told him to get up and make some coffee, adding:  — “Give me a butcher knife and I will go over to Pete’s and get some beef; I’m hungry.” The Mexican arose, handed him the knife, and the Kid, hatless and in his stocking-feet, started to Maxwell’s, which was but a few steps distant.

Fort Sumner, New Mexico

Fort Sumner, New Mexico

When the Kid, by me unrecognized, left the orchard, I motioned to my companions, and we cautiously retreated a short distance, and, to avoid the persons whom we had heard at the houses, took another route, approaching Maxwell’s house from the opposite direction. When we reached the porch in front of the building, I left Poe and McKinney at the end of the porch, about twenty feet from the door of Pete’s room, and went in. It was near midnight and Pete was in bed. I walked to the head of the bed and sat down on it, beside him, near the pillow. I asked him as to the whereabouts of the Kid. He said that the Kid had certainly been about, but he did not know whether he had left or not. At that moment a man sprang quickly into the door, looking back, and called twice in Spanish, “Who conies there?” No one replied and he came on in. He was bareheaded. From his step I could perceive he was either barefooted or in his stocking- feet, and held a revolver in his right hand and a butcher knife in his left.