Atkins’ saloon is a typical crusty den of hard drinking and hard gambling in Arizona territory, where locals belch and grunt away their evenings after a day toiling on ranches or at the nearby military fort of Camp Grant. It’s where young ranch hand and small-time horse-and-saddle thief Henry Antrim – who could be no older than 16 or 17 – often rides with his wages jangling in his pockets in the hopes of getting lucky at poker.
It is a parched and dusty 17 August 1877 when ‘Kid Antrim’ steps inside old George Atkins’ place, but his usually friendly and cheerful mood sours when he spots Frank ‘Windy’ Cahill, the big, burly blacksmith who has taken to picking on him for his youthful, scrawny looks. Windy takes particular pleasure in throwing the Kid to the floor, calling him names and smacking him around in front of everybody.
Trouble erupts when Windy calls Antrim a “pimp”, before he gets violent when called a “son of a bitch” in return. He wrestles his much smaller opponent to the ground, pinning him down with his knees, and gleefully slaps the boy in the face. But the Kid has been humiliated for the last time. He squirms and frees his arm, reaches for his .45 pistol and sticks the barrel into the bully’s gut. Onlookers hear a “deafening roar”, then see Windy slump over as his shirt reddens with blood. The Kid leaps to his feet and bolts, stealing a prized horse to make his escape. It takes a day for Windy to die.
Despite being found guilty of a “criminal and unjustifiable” killing, Antrim hightails it all the way to New Mexico so never faces arrest, jail time and possibly worse. Instead, the shooting of Windy Cahill marks the explosive start of his short but spectacular life as an outlaw – under the moniker Billy the Kid.
RUTHLESS OR RECKLESS
In a time of lawlessness and celebrity criminals, Billy the Kid’s notoriety towers over other train-robbing, pistol-twirling, posse-evading bandits of the Wild West. He appealed to writers of dime novels and editors of newspapers, thanks to his blue-eyed youth and silky sharpshooting skills. He continues to capture our imagination through countless depictions in film and television. Yet – despite his erroneous boast at the age of 21 of killing a man for every year of his life – he can hardly be described as the period’s most merciless and immoral outlaw, particularly when compared to men like Jesse James, Butch Cassidy or John Wesley Hardin.It could be argued that Billy, more reckless than ruthless, was dragged from a law-abiding life by the old staples of falling in with bad crowds and unfortunate circumstances, beginning with his mother’s death.
By all accounts, the strong and independent Catherine McCarty had been a loving mother to her two sons, Joseph and Henry (Billy became known by several names) so her succumbing to tuberculosis in 1874 hit them hard. Very little is known about Henry’s childhood – was he born in 1859 or 1861? In New York or Indiana? Who was his father and what happened to him? – but Catherine offered stability as they moved frequently, probably in the belief that warmer climates would benefit her health.
The family lived in Indiana, Kansas and Colorado, finally ending up in New Mexico, where Catherine died. Orphaned, the boys were all but abandoned by their stepfather, William Antrim, and left with foster families, forcing Henry to work for room and board. With his mother’s supervision gone, he took his first steps into crime by stealing food.
It was another petty wrongdoing that made him a fugitive. After a friend, a drunkard nicknamed ‘Sombrero Jack’, robbed a Chinese laundry, Henry got caught hiding the loot. The local sheriff hoped a short spell in jail would teach the boy a lesson but instead, Henry escaped by shimmying up the chimney and went on the run to Arizona. He managed to eke out enough money as a roving ranch hand, and dabbling in horse rustling, but then came his fateful encounter with Windy Cahill, which secured his place on the wrong side of the law.
Henry – known as Kid Antrim, or just the ‘Kid’, and also William H Bonney – was now a murderer. Facing prison, he fled the territory (making sure to return the prize horse first) and headed back to New Mexico, where he joined a gang of violent rustlers called the Boys, led by outlaw Jesse Evans. Back in familiar Silver City, it wasn’t long before he got recognised and his connection to the gang made the newspapers. The Kid really found fame, however, when he got embroiled in the Lincoln County War.
Two powerful Irish businessmen, Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, had a monopoly in Lincoln County called ‘The House’, with the one dry goods store, a beef contract with Fort Stanton and influence over the law. Yet they were under threat from a wealthy English upstart named John Tunstall. Murphy and Dolan needed hired guns and so the Boyscame to town. It was not a job much liked by the Kid. He even switched sides when Tunstall offered him work, and he took to his new community happily. He made friends and was a well-liked personality (especially with the local women if that part of his reputation is to be believed).
Before the Kid could get comfortable, though, this life was snatched away with the cold-blooded murder of Tunstall on 18 February 1878. Tunstall had confronted a posse – sent by Sheriff William J Brady and including members of the Boys – as they attempted to seize some of his cattle, so they gunned him down. The Kid and his friend Dick Brewer swore affidavits against those in the posse and even managed to be deputised to issue out murder warrants. However, Sheriff Brady was having none of it, and had the Kid arrested.
When released, the Kid had just one thing on his mind – revenge. He joined a posse called the Regulators, with the aim of bringing Tunstall’s killers to justice – not by the courts but by the barrel of a gun.The posse captured two men and executed them, allegedly as they tried to escape. Then six Regulators, the Kid among them, ambushed Brady and his deputy George Hindman, although it’s unclear who fired the fatal bullets.The Kid proved a good shot, constantly practising with either a pistol or his trusty Winchester. He was a courageous fighter (albeit a reckless one, being clipped by a bullet in the leg) and loyal. “One of the best soldiers we had,” said his friend Frank Coe. But though he is by far the most famous name involved in the feud, he never led the Regulators. He was also on the losing side. Murphy and Dolan were always more powerful and eventually finished off the Regulators with a five-day siege of the home of Alex McSween, Tunstall’s partner and lawyer. The Kid and a handful of others barely made it out with their lives when the house was set on fire.
Having survived the Lincoln County War, the Kid did a number of things that belie his reputation as a “vulgar low life cutthroat”, as one newspaper described him. He desired peace with the Murphy and Dolan faction and sought clemency from the new governor, Lew Wallace, which seems to suggest he wanted an end to his lawless days. On both occasions, he was left disappointed, even betrayed.
Along with four other men, the Kid met with Dolan and a small group to discuss a truce on 18 February 1879, a year to the day following Tunstall’s death. Jesse Evans nearly ruined the meeting as he wanted to kill the Kid then and there, but an agreement was eventually reached and the two sides shook hands. They went out to celebrate but bumped into Huston Chapman, a lawyer working with McSween’s widow, who they taunted and shot, before dousing the body with whiskey and burning it. The Kid had been forced to watch.
The Kid wrote to Governor Wallace on 13 March, offering to give information on Chapman’s murder in exchange for amnesty. “I have no wish to fight any more,” he said. The two met in person, where Wallace confirmed that if the Kid testified in court, “I will let you go scot-free with a pardon in your pocket for all your misdeeds”. For it to work, the Kid had to be ‘arrested’ so he could tell everything to the sheriff while staying safe. Yet when the time came for Wallace to hold up his end of the agreement, he backed out, leaving the Kid behind bars. He had no option but escape or face Dolan’s wrath.
The Kid, unable to escape his life of lawlessness, stayed in New Mexico rustling cattle and staying out of sight of the authorities alongside fellow Regulators Charlie Bowdre, Tom O’Folliard and Doc Scurlock. In January 1880, he added another murder to his rap sheet by shooting Joe Grant in a saloon. According to some sources, the Kid discovered that Grant was there to kill him so, in a daring move, approached him and asked to see his revolver. The Kid then skilfully span the cylinder so the next shot would be on an empty chamber. Sure enough, when Grant later took aim, there was a harmless click, giving the Kid time to draw his own pistol and fire. He later described the killing as a “game of two and I got there first”.
By late 1880, the law was closing in. A posse cornered him in November, which resulted in the death of deputy sheriff James Carlyle – pinned on the Kid, although it was unlikely he fired the shot. The places he could hide grew few and far between outside of Fort Sumner, made all the worse by the election of a new Lincoln County sheriff. His name was Pat Garrett and he was bent on capturing the nation’s most wanted outlaw, placing a $500 bounty on his head.
It was on 23 December, after a tense standoff at Stinking Springs, that Garrett got his man, having also killed Bowdre and, earlier at Fort Sumner,O’Folliard. His posse trapped the Kid and a few others in a cabin, blocked the door, and removed the outlaws’ best hope of escaping – they shot the horse tied there. The Kid surrendered and was taken to Santa Fe for trial. Three further letters to Wallace seeking clemency went unanswered, so in April 1881, he was found guilty of murdering Sheriff Brady and sentenced to hang. It was the only conviction to come out of the Lincoln County War.
That seemed to be the end of the Kid, but he had other plans. Having escaped from several jails already, he learned the routines and waited for the ideal opportunity. When there were only two guards watching him, he asked to be taken to the outhouse, slipped his cuffs and swiped Deputy James Bell’s revolver. Bell turned to run so the Kid shot him in the back. There were just a few moments for him to grab a shotgun and position himself at an upstairs window to take aim at the second deputy, Bob Olinger. Before firing, he got his attention by calling out, “Hello Bob!”
The Kid was free once again, but an infuriated Garrett was fast on his tracks. This time, Garrett was more subtle. He didn’t form a posse, knowing the Kid could be warned before they reached him, but quietly pursued the outlaw and questioned anyone who may know his whereabouts. That’s what led him to the home of the Kid’s acquaintance, Pete Maxwell, on 14 July 1881.
Although the details of what happened next are strongly disputed, Garrett claims he was talking to Maxwell at around midnight when the Kid himself stalked into the room. With no boots on, he had been making his way to get something to eat, butcher knife in hand, when he saw two strange men – Garrett’s deputies – on Maxwell’s porch. He backed into the room asking who they were, only to see the silhouette of another man sitting on the bed.
When he called out “Quien es? Quien es?” (‘Who is it?’) Garrett recognised his voice and supposedly saw the Kid raise his pistol (there are some who question whether he was armed at all). He fired two shots, the first piercing the Kid’s heart. “He never spoke,” Garrett later wrote in his controversial account of the events that took place that night.
“A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and the Kid was with his many victims.”
In just four years of being an outlaw, the Kid established his name as one of the most infamous gunslingers of the Wild West, despite being no older than 21 when he died – and that’s without robbing trains, holding up banks or challenging everyone he met to a duel. Despite his fearsome reputation, it’s thought he killed eight men, several in self-defence.
There were far more brutal and terrorising outlaws, but there was something about him and his story that contemporary journalists latched on to, so he got more newspaper ink. The coverage in the popular press was followed by Garrett’s highly sensationalised biography, a key reference for historians in the 20th century.
Yet the enduring image of the Kid they created – an all-shooting, callous killer – is suited to cheap Western fiction. “I don’t blame you for writing of me as you have,” he said in an interview after being caught in 1880. “You had to believe other stories, but then I don’t know as anyone would believe anything good of me anyway. I wasn’t the leader of my gang, I was for Billy all the time.”
Since this article was originally published in April 2017, an American lawyer claims to have discovered a new photograph of Billy the Kid.