Desert Outlaws

By Emerson Hough in 1905



The desert regions of the West seemed always to breed truculence and touchiness. Some of the most desperate outlaws have been those of western Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. These have sometimes been Mexicans, sometimes half-breed Indians, very rarely full-blood or half-blood black men. Texas and the great arid regions west of Texas produced rather more than their full quota of bad white men who took naturally to the gun.

By all means the most prominent figure in the general fighting along the Southwestern border, which found climax in the Lincoln County War, was that historic and somewhat romantic character known as Billy the Kid, who had more than a score of killings to his credit at the time of his death at the age of twenty-one. His character may not be chosen as an exemplar for youth, but he affords an instance hardly to be surpassed by the typical bad man.

The true name of Billy the Kid was William H. Bonney, and he was born in New York City, November 23, 1859. His father removed to Coffeyville, on the border of the Indian Nations, in 1862, where soon after he died, leaving a widow and two sons. Mrs. Bonney again moved, this time to Colorado, where she married again, her second husband being named Antrim. All the time clinging to what was the wild border, these two now moved down to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they remained until Billy was eight years of age. In 1868, the family made their home at Silver City, New Mexico, where they lived until 1871 when Billy was twelve years of age. His life until then had been one of shifting about, in poverty or at best rude comfort. His mother seems to have been a wholesome Irishwoman, of no great education, but of good instincts. Of the boy’s father nothing is known; and of his stepfather little more, except that he was abusive to the stepchildren. Antrim survived his wife, who died about 1870. The Kid always said that his stepfather was the cause of his “getting off wrong.”

Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid

The Kid was only twelve years old when, in a saloon row in which a friend of his was being beaten, he killed with a pocket-knife a man who had previously insulted him. Some say that this was an insult offered to his mother; others deny it and say that the man had attempted to horsewhip Billy. The boy turned up with a companion at Fort Bowie, Pima County, Arizona, and was around the reservation for a while.

At last, he and his associate, who appears to have been as well saturated with border doctrine as himself at tender years, stole some horses from a band of Apache, and incidentally killed three of the latter in a night attack. They made their first step at easy living in this enterprise, and, young as they were, got means in this way to travel about over Arizona. They presently turned up at Tucson, where Billy began to employ his precocious skill at cards; and where, presently, in the inevitable gambler’s quarrel, he killed another man.

He fled across the line now into old Mexico, where, in the state of Sonora, he set up as a youthful gambler. Here he killed a gambler, Jose Martinez, over a Monte game, on an “even break,” being the fraction of a second the quicker on the draw. He was already beginning to show his natural fitness as a handler of weapons. He kept up his record by appearing next at Chihuahua and robbing a few Monte dealers there, killing one whom he waylaid with a new companion by the name of Segura.

The Kid was now old enough to be dangerous, and his life had been one of irresponsibility and lawlessness. He was nearly at his physical growth at this time, possibly five feet seven and a half inches in height, and weighing a hundred and thirty-five pounds. He was always slight and lean, a hard rider all his life, and never old enough to begin to take on flesh. His hair was light or light brown, and his eyes blue or blue-gray, with curious red hazel spots in them. His face was rather long, his chin narrow, but long, and his front teeth were a trifle prominent. He was always a pleasant mannered youth, hopeful and buoyant, never glum or grim, and he nearly always smiled when talking.

The Southwestern border at this time offered but few opportunities for making an honest living. There were the mines and there were the cow ranches. It was natural that the half-wild life of the cowpunchers would sooner or later appeal to the Kid. He and Jesse Evans met somewhere along the lower border a party of punchers, among whom were Billy Morton and Frank Baker, as well as James McDaniels; the last-named being the man who gave Billy his name of “The Kid,” which hung to him all his life.

John Chisum

John Chisum

The  Kid arrived in the Seven Rivers country on foot. In his course east over the mountains from Mesilla to the Pecos Valley, he had been mixed up with a companion, Tom O’Keefe, in a fight with some more Apache, of whom the  Kid is reported to have killed one or more. There is no doubt that the Guadalupe Mountains, which he crossed, were at that time a dangerous Indian country. That the Kid worked for a time for John Chisum, on his ranch near Roswell, is well known, as is the fact that he cherished a grudge against Chisum for years, and was more than once upon the point of killing him for a real or fancied grievance. He left Chisum and took service with J. H. Tunstall on his Feliz ranch late in the winter of 1877, animated by what reason we may not know. In doing this, he may have acted from pique or spite or hatred. There was some quarrel between him and his late associates. Tunstall was killed by the Murphy faction on February 18, 1878. From that time, the path of the  Kid is very plain and his acts well known and authenticated. He had by this time killed several men, certainly at least two white men; and how many Mexicans and Indians he had killed by fair means or foul will never be really known. His reputation as a gunfighter was well established.

Dick Brewer, Tunstall’s foreman, was now;’ sworn in as a “special deputy” by McSween, and a war of reprisal was now on. The Kid was I soon in the saddle with Brewer and after his former friends, all Murphy allies. There were ‘ about a dozen in this posse. On March 6, 1878, these men discovered and captured a band of five men, including Frank Baker and Billy Morton, both old friends of the Kid, at the lower crossing of the Rio Penasco, some six miles from the Pecos. The prisoners were kept overnight at Chisum’s ranch, and then the posse started with them for Lincoln, not taking the Hondo-Bonito trail, but one via the Agua Negra, on the east side of the Capitans; proof enough that something bloody was in contemplation, for that was far from any settlements.

Richard "Dick" Brewer

Richard “Dick” Brewer

Apologists of the Kid say that Morton and Baker “tried to escape,” and that the  Kid followed and killed them. The truth in all probability is that the party, sullen and bloody-minded, rode on, waiting until wrath or whiskey should inflame them so as to give resolution for the act they all along intended. The  Kid, youngest but most determined of the band, no doubt did the killing of Billy Morton and Frank Baker; and in all likelihood there is truth in the assertion that they were on their knees and begging for their lives when he shot them. McClosky was killed by McNab, on the principle that dead men tell no tales. This killing was on March 9, 1878. The murder of Sheriff William Brady and George Hindman by the Kid and his half-dozen companions occurred April 1, 1878, and it is another act which can have no palliation whatever.

The Kid was now assuming prominence as a gunfighter and leader, young as he was. After the big fight in Lincoln was over, and the McSween house in flames, the Kid was the leader of the sortie which took him and a few of his companions to safety. The list of killings back of him was now steadily lengthening, and, indeed, one murder followed another so fast all over that country that it was hard to keep track of them all.

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