On July 14, 1881, Pat Garrett, the sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, received a tip that a dangerous fugitive was hiding out in the nearby vicinity of Fort Sumner. This particular fugitive had been sentenced to hang only a few months before, when he had escaped from custody and killed two deputies in the process. He was one of the lone holdouts from New Mexico’s infamous Lincoln County War, a regional skirmish between a faction of local cattlemen and a group of merchants in the area over beef markets. The fugitive had been hired as a gunman for protection, but had soon turned into an outlaw and gained a reputation as a notorious killer. His name was William McCarty, alias William Antrim, alias William Bonney, alias Billy the Kid.
Garrett suspected that Billy was holed up in the home of one Pete Maxwell, a resident of Fort Sumner and a well known friend of the Kid’s. It was rumored that Billy had a romantic entanglement with Pete’s sister, Paulita, and that was one of the reasons he was suspected of being there. Whatever the cause, Garrett and two deputies left Lincoln and went to Maxwell’s house to question him. Garrett’s account said while they were there, they saw Billy initially, but did not recognize him:
“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 shirtsleeves. 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, which was but a few steps distant.”
After the Kid left, Garrett took another route to the house, where he stationed his deputies on the porch, and went in to see Pete Maxwell. It was about midnight, and Maxwell was asleep, so Garrett woke him up and questioned him as to the whereabouts of Billy the Kid. Maxwell said he knew the Kid had been there, but didn’t know if he was still there.
As luck would have it, at that moment, The Kid walked through the door, according to Garrett “either barefooted or in his stocking-feet.” He was purportedly still holding the butcher knife but was also holding a revolver. Garrett waited in darkness as Billy questioned who was there and advanced into the room. He got close enough that the Sheriff claimed his right hand almost touched the lawman’s knee. Maxwell positively identified the Kid to Garrett, at which point the outlaw retreated, raising his pistol and calling “Quien es (‘Who is it’)?”
Again, in Garrett’s own words:
“Quickly as possible I drew my revolver and fired, threw my body aside and fired again. The second shot was useless; The Kid fell dead. He never spoke. A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and The Kid was with his many victims.”
An inquest was held the next day, and a coroner’s jury positively identified the body as Billy the Kid. He was buried on July 15, 1881, at the military cemetery in Fort Sumner. For all of his exploits, and his legendary status, Billy was only 21 years, 7 months and 21 days old when his life was ended by a bullet from Pat Garrett’s gun.
We are enamored with Billy the Kid, but not for the good that he accomplished. He certainly possessed a degree of cunning, courage, and intestinal fortitude. He was loyal to his friends, and according to reports, he had a certain boyish charm. He was good with a gun (he was said to favor an 1877 Colt .41 caliber revolver). But while these gifts could have been put to use doing good, that wasn’t the path that he chose. Instead, he took what he was good at and put it to use doing things that were not so good. It’s not a big surprise that his short, violent life was put to an end by the very violence he cultivated.
There’s a lesson to be learned from Billy. It’s doubtful anyone reading this blog will end up as a hired gunman (at least, I hope not!). But all of us have faced the struggle of what to do with the gifts we’ve been given. Are we putting them to use doing good, or are we allowing them to be wasted to the point where we will flame out early, never accomplishing what we intended? 136 years after his death, we ultimately remember the life of Billy the Kid for all the wrong reasons. Let’s make our legacy count for something more.