The Kid

Billy the KidBut irony is nothing new to Roswell. Contrasting its UFO fame, this area of New Mexico was also home to one the West’s most notorious and controversial characters: Henry McCarty, AKA William Antrim, AKA William Bonney, AKA Billy the Kid. It was because of Billy, not UFOs, that I had come here. My purpose was to retrace Billy’s steps across the same country that he rode, to gaze out across the same vistas he saw.

Even though I knew from my brother that there wasn’t much to see in Fort Sumner -- Billy’s home base during the few years he lived in New Mexico territory -- I couldn’t resist going up there. The 84-mile drive began in thick fog, but quickly opened into brightly lit and vast, flat country. Hey, I like sagebrush, but this was desolate to the max. The only place a man on horseback might hide would be down in the one or two shallow, dry washes that creased the prairie. I bet Billy knew all the hiding places. Probably liked to hide in the fog, too.

Mr. Irony smiled again when I discovered that Fort Sumner’s Billy the Kid Museum had no authenticated artifacts of Billy the Kid. It did, though, have many written accounts of his exploits and artifacts from the area, including old cars, stoves, saddles, and toy windmills. What I most enjoyed was chatting with the woman who worked there. A staunch Billy supporter, she spoke as if that scoundrel Pat Garrett had shot the Kid just the night before. I appreciated her feistiness, if not her historical accuracy.

The site of the original Fort Sumner, where Billy and his gang spent most their time, actually lay five miles east and south of the current Fort Sumner. Seems the old fort and surrounding buildings had been completely washed away by a raging flash flood some hundred years back. The site, owned by the state, was pretty sparse, just a few resurrected brick foundations where the old military buildings used to be. Billy’s grave is there, but not necessarily in the right place. There’s a move to have it exhumed, if they can even find it. A map of the grounds shows the location of Pete Maxwell’s store where Billy was gunned down in a shadowy bedroom one humid July evening. I would’ve poked around more, but a ranger chased me down and, gasping for breath, explained that his supervisor insisted that I pay the five bucks entrance fee. Entrance to what? I asked. It’s just an open field with a few bricks. He grinned sheepishly, then told me of the state’s ambitions to rebuild the fort. Come back in a year or two, he said. Sure thing, I replied, then climbed back into the Ranger to continue the second half of my Billy saga. Man, the West definitely ain’t free.

After driving the same 84 desolate miles back to Roswell, then another 55 up into the Capitan Mountains, I finally reached my destination: Lincoln. Unlike Fort Sumner, the town of Lincoln sits picturesquely in New Mexico’s Hondo Valley. Also unlike Fort Sumner, Lincoln has assiduously endeavored to preserve its historic past. The first thing you notice when driving in is that all the houses and businesses are either original to the late 1800’s or renovated to be accurate to the period. Walking down the town’s only street, lined with old and stately cottonwood trees, is wonderfully like stepping back in time. And, man, it was quiet. On this cold and windy November day, I was Lincoln’s only visitor. I didn’t even see any locals. They must have been inside warming themselves by the fire. Smart people.

Old Lincoln courthouseLincoln County Courthouse today
From photos I’ve studied, I recognized the old courthouse where, after his arrest for murder, Billy was kept shackled to the floor as there were no cells. It was here that Billy made his famous escape by killing two deputies: Bell and Olinger. It’s purported that Billy liked Bell and regretted killing him. (You can still see where a second bullet missed and crashed into the wall at the bottom of the stairwell.) But, as apparently did many others, Billy hated Olinger and felt no remorse in blowing him away with a shotgun. Some, including director Sam Peckinpah in his film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, hold that the gun was loaded with dimes, but the state ranger, an articulate woman and well-informed, said not true, it was just good old double-ought buckshot.

Billy and Bob O.Bell stoneAs I was the courthouse’s lone visitor, the ranger was happy to discuss Billy’s story at length with me. Unlike the lady at the museum in Fort Sumner, she had no pro-Billy bias and simply laid out the facts. For instance, no one ever found out how he got the gun that he used in his escape. The movies usually show that it was hidden in the outhouse. But no one really knows. Interestingly, the state of New Mexico has recently reopened the investigation on his escape in hopes of finally unearthing the truth. While the ranger rather suspected it to be a publicity stunt by the DA, it just underscores Billy’s continuing popularity. Indeed, while I was there, she fielded a phone call from The History Channel who was scheduled to come up the following week and film a segment on the Kid. Whatever the case may be, the story of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War continues to resonate in southeast New Mexico, and I, for one, will forever remain fascinated by it.

Since writing the previous paragraph, I have driven from Portland to the Perry Gulch Ranch, located deep in the redwood some 15 miles inland from the Mendocino coast. My father was one of the nine original partners who purchased this one-time redwood tree farm in the Anderson Valley, just west of the town of Philo. He loved this place, and it always hold a special place for the McCarty family. I’ve been coming here off-and-on for thirty years. It’s isolated and quiet. No TV. No phone. Untold amounts of rain in the winter months. But a great place to write.

The sun was just beginning to fade over the Capitan Mountains as I headed west out of Lincoln. Turning south, I passed Fort Stanton, where the Kid gave himself up hoping to receive a pardon from Governor Lew Wallace. But Wallace was fed up with the Kid (as well as busy completing his novel, Ben Hur) so no pardon was forthcoming and Billy ske-daddled. Fort Stanton has been many things in the intervening years, including a German prisoner of war camp and, more recently, a center for troubled women.

Over the mountain from Lincoln lies the resort town of Ruidoso. Known for its skiing (“Ski Apache!”), Indian casinos (“Casino Apache!”) and horse racing, Ruidoso is just a few miles from Lincoln but couldn’t be more different. Teeming with hip little alpine shops, motels and lodges, it represents the “new” New Mexico. Give me Lincoln any day. I didn’t stop.

Billy and BobFrom Ruidoso, the road winds down through the Mescalero Indian Reservation and on past the town of Tularosa. (“Way down in some south Tularosa alley” wails Dylan in his fine soundtrack to Peckinpah’s film.) Finally, after passing the White Sands Missile Range, I was confronted by the bustling metropolis of Las Cruces (The Cross), where I found another motel, another Mexican restaurant, and another welcome night’s rest. Buenos noches, Billy.

Next: Not quite South of the Border…

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