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When ‘The Kid’ helped Uncle Rufus

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Capt. Joseph C. Lea’s home, which was across from the present day Chaves County Courthouse. From left, Jack Galbreath, M.L. Pierce, Rufe Dunnahoo, Mary Lea, Judge F.H. Lea, Pearl Lea, Pinkie Camp, George J. Davis, Martha Hood, J.S. Lea (Campbell Fountain’s child), Mallis Moore, Ella Pierce, Earnest Edwards, Oragon Bell, Ada Edwards and Miss White. This photo was taken circa 1887, six years after the death of Billy the Kid. (Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

Roswell’s first blacksmith recalls that Billy the Kid’s quiet, polite demeanor belayed his reputation as a ruthless killer

Following is an article I found in the July 16, 1931, Roswell Daily Record. Rufus Henry Dunnahoo was the first blacksmith in Roswell. He built the first bridge over the Hondo River on South Main Street with the help of Capt. Joseph C. Lea.

From left, Pat Garrett, John W. Poe and James R. Brent, the three sheriffs of Lincoln County during the days of the Old West. (Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

He played the fiddle for dances at the Chisum Ranch, and he was my husband’s great-great-grandfather. Jim Mullins was his nephew and was one of the first teachers here, teaching at the LFD school. He was a reporter for the Santa Fe newspaper, a state legislator, an uncle to Bob Chewning, Virginia Whalen and Charlie Chewning. Following is a true story of the good side of Billy the Kid, as told by Rufe Dunnahoo to his nephew, Jim Mullins.

This is something new in the Billy the Kid stories. Nobody gets hurt and it illustrates the helpful spirit of the Old West, even by those outlawed by such government and order as existed. Uncle Rufe told it on his 87th birthday and admits a tender feeling for the men all banned by law and on the dodge who played Good Samaritan to him and his fellow freighters. But I’ll let him tell it:

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You must remember that this happened 50 years ago last July and a few facts or names may be forgotten or overlooked. A bunch of us, six wagons in all, had been to Las Vegas, New Mexico, to pick up freight for the store here that operated just across from the west front of the court house, that being the mercantile end of Roswell, New Mexico, then, and the court house was a saddle-horse corral. Dan Cosgrove was postmaster and Captain Joseph C. Lea owned the land and most of the houses in town. We had come down on the east side of the Pecos because of high water when we reached Fort Sumner.

John Chisum and Bosque Grande

About 1866, John Chisum had established his headquarters at Bosque Grande, 45 miles north of Roswell, on the Pecos, from where he supplied the 7,000 Indians on the Sumner reservation with beef, the government having given him the contract for this while he was located at Fort Concho, Texas, and he had moved out here. After Chisum moved his Jinglebob base to South Spring River, now the Hagerman ranch and farm, anyone who wished was at liberty to use the buildings and corral that he had built at Bosque Grande, and a man with a small bunch of cattle and some stock horses was then living there and had employed Aleck Bley and his mother, well-known old-time black people, as horse rustler and cook. Chisum had fixed up what in those days was a very fair crossing of the river that is fair crossing for the Pecos, if you know what I mean, and when the river was not up.

We had camped not far from the ranch and I intended to wait for the river to run down. That night Billy and his “gang” came over to camp to talk to us until bedtime and naturally, hear any news from Vegas. He knew several of our party and some of us knew him and his pals. In his bunch, as I recall, were Dave Rudabaugh, Dan Dedrick, Tom O’Phalliard and three others whose names are forgotten.

Ferrying over the river

When they started to leave that night, Billy said to me, “Uncle Rufe, I know how we can get you fellows across the river if you have enough big ropes to reach across. There are some big dead cottonwoods up yonder not far, and we can make a raft and ferry you over. I expect old Don Cosgrove and Captain Lea want that stuff you are hauling. So get up early in the morning and we will come in by sun up and help. There will be a dozen of us and we are out to get it all over in one day.”

Next morning they rode in from the hills, just as promised. We had cut down several big dry cottonwoods and I had found a coil of rope in my cargo. Billy and his men tied on and drug the logs down to the river and soon we had a raft some 25-feet long and six logs almost two-feet lashed together. Billy and one of his men stripped and tried to swim the river with one end of the big rope but it was too heavy and pulled them under.

Finally, one of our freighters found a coil of what was intended for clothes lines and Billy swam over with one end of that, tied to a tree and soon we had a regular ferry cable strung across the flood. We then made slings to the raft, to hold it straight and with ropes to each end to haul it, we had a regular “Tolbert’s ferry.” Before we started ferrying, Billy went out and drove up a fat yearling, killed it and told Aleck and his mother to get busy cooking so we wouldn’t have to lose any time fixing dinner. All day we worked, Billy taking the lead and doing more than anyone else, and Aleck and his mom having plenty of biscuits, fried beef, and coffee at the landing all the time. Many a ducking was enjoyed by all of us that day, slipping back in the river from a glassy surface bank.

After our stuff was all over, Billy made Aleck bring us buckets of bread, beef and coffee, for supper and then said you fellers are too tired to do anymore tonight, so just leave your teams on the other side and in the morning we will drive them down and swim them over to you. We had one man in our party called Parson Henderson, the stingiest man I ever saw, and the most suspicious. He did not want to leave his team on the same side with Billy. Parson was loaded with stuff for Seven Rivers, most of it whiskey and wine for the Rainbolt brothers, I think it was. He refused to let us give Billy and his men a drink of his cargo although we would pay for it, he being afraid they would get on a jamboree. So we told Billy “okay” and they left us.

Uncle Rufe sees Billy for the last time

Next morning before we got up, true to his promise, Billy had our teams at the river, swam them over and ate breakfast with us. All of the men except Parson Henderson wanted to pay them something for helping us over, but Billy said, “Hell no, fellers.” You have got the one thing that I want. I’d like to have enough of that small rope to make Aleck’s mother a clothesline. We told him to fly at what he wanted out of it and he cut off about 50 feet and took it to the cook. Then he shook hands all around, said give his regards to “Granny Garrett,” his name for Pat, and waving his hand as he rode away, he and his men rode off into the waters of the muddy Pecos. I never saw him again. He was killed by Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner about one year after this event.

An amazing thing happened the night after we left Billy. Parson Henderson had some money and was afraid Billy would rob him, so he and his son took his money tied in a buckskin bag and buried it in a dog hole about 100 yards from camp. Next morning, Will Chisum and some Jinglebob boys drove a herd of some 2,500 cattle by our camp just as we were getting up. They tramped the muddy ground until every trace of where Parson had hid the money was obliterated. Our bunch was so disgusted with him then we all refused to help him hunt for it and pulled out, leaving him in his glory. He finally found his money but did not throw in with us anymore. We got in the next day and unloaded.

I have read all the stories about Billy the Kid and only Pat Garrett mentions his extreme politeness to women or his elders. He was a ladies’ man, dressed neat, had a friendly smile, always tipped his hat, Mexican-style, was very quiet and soft-spoken and had nothing about his bearing to indicate that he was a dangerous man.

I have always been strong for law and order, but confess that no tears were shed when I heard the following May that Billy had killed Bob Ollinger and escaped. I felt that Bob had it coming for abusing the Kid while a prisoner. 

Uncle Rufe confesses his ‘soft spot’ for Billy

Pat Garrett and I were very best of friends but if we hadn’t been, and confessing a soft spot in my heart for the Kid, it would have been a public calamity if Billy had killed Pat that July night in 1881, when he walked in Pete Maxwell’s room and asked who were the men outside. They were John Poe and Kip McKinney. The Kid had never seen Mr. Poe. Garrett was the only law then in eastern New Mexico who had the confidence of the people as an officer and the guts to hunt for Billy the Kid. Mr. Poe was then practically unknown and the others had all failed.

With the Kid gone, Pat told the ambushing factions of the Lincoln County War to cut it out and behave and they cut her out and behaved.

Later on in our history, such officers as Charles Perry, Fred Higgins and Captain Dan Roberts would have no doubt captured the Kid, but none of them were here then, and I am glad to pay this tribute to Pat Garrett and say a few kind words for a boy who would maybe have made a good man if he had had a chance.

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at jdhist4@outlook.com.