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Historically Speaking: The story of Billy the Kid — told by his friend John Meadows, part 1

Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives "William H. Bonney also known as Billy the Kid, who was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett, in the old Pete Maxwell house, Fort Sumner, NM" — date 1881. The chain across his shirt front belongs to the watch presented to him by Henry F. Hoyt, who states that fact in his book, "A Frontier Doctor," published 1929.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily


It’s been a while since I have shared a Billy the Kid story. The following story was published in the March 2, 1931 edition of the Roswell Daily Record, told by John P. Meadows when he arrived in New Mexico — without his hat. Billy The Kid helped him and became his friend.

Here is the first part of the story:

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“Reminiscences of

John P. Meadows

“February 26, 1931,

at Roswell, New Mexico

“Darned if I know of a better place to talk about Billy the Kid than here in the Pecos Valley.”

“Cowboy: Did you know the Kid personally?”

“I sure did!”

“Cowboy: Where did you first get acquainted with him?”

“Up here at Fort Sumner.”

“Cowboy: Tell us all about it, about Billy the Kid.”

“The night ain’t long enough to tell all I know about Billy the Kid, but would it do just in given an outline of what I know about him?”

“Cowboy: Sure, tell us what you want to.”

“Well, just an outline is all I can do. Guess I came to Fort Sumner, in 1880, in the spring sometime.”

“I think about March, I had a little bad luck on the plains, I had lost my hat down there, and consequently I was out on the plains nearly three days without a hat. You can imagine what my face looked like when I got in after three days in the sun and wind. My partner’s name was Tom Norris. I knew him a long time and will say this for him, a better man never lived than Tom Norris.

“When we got in to Fort Sumner, Tom went to get me a hat and while he was gone after a hat, I went and ‘throwed’ my bed on the ground under a tree and lay down and pulled a red handkerchief over my face. I was feeling mighty bad and I was sufferin’ there, too, with this face, not much more than I am now with this face, but I lay there sufferin’.

“After a while, some fellow come along and give me a kick on the foot, and I took the handkerchief off my face, and he said, ‘Say partner, looks like you were up against it.’ I said, ‘Yes, that’s the way it feels.’ He said, ‘What’s the matter with your face?; so I told him my troubles about my hat. He said, ‘You can’t lay here in that hot sun and wind in that fix.’ I said, ‘I say so, too.’ He said, ‘Get up and come on, and I’ll give you a room and a cot to lay on.’ I thanked him and said I thought I’d better stay right where I was at. You see, Tom and me had just crossed the plains and I had got plum full of creeping vermin and I didn’t want to go into his room and I told him, and he said, ‘Oh I’ve had a million on me, come on in.’ So he picked up my bed, walked in, and laid it on an old iron cot that was there. I went in and laid down on it. He went and saw old lady Maxwell, she was a good old lady, and he told her what he had there, so she went over and looked at me. The Kid brought over a sponge and washed off my face and she doctored me back to health again. I think I was about five or six days, more or less, laying there with this face.

“That was the first time I met him, I had never heard tell of the Kid, much less saw him before, and finally I begin to get pretty well acquainted with him. Tom come around and said, ‘So help me God, I can’t find no hat here, looks like they don’t even wear ‘em out here.’ The Kid says, ‘I’ll give him one,’ and he did, an old Stetson hat he had. …

“So far, so good. He and the old lady Maxwell kept on feeding me and greasing my face until I got well and healthy and finally I got up and begin to mosey around.

“Now, this day I got to Fort Sumner, the Kid come in from White Oaks. I got there about nine or ten and he got there about eleven, he come from Cedar Canyon up to Sumner, and I went from Sunnyside down to Sumner.

“I got to talking with him and the more I talked to the boy, the better I liked him. I didn’t care how many men he had killed. I didn’t know he had killed any, and I didn’t care either, I liked him and do yet.

“But time went on and there was a big fiesta taking place at Puerto Luna and he said, ‘I have just come over from White Oaks and I want to go to the fiesta and deal monte to them fellows. I been dealing monte in White Oaks and made some money.’

“Well, the time come for him to go to Puerto Luna and he had just forty-two head of cattle, yearlings, calves, cows, and two-year-olds. I don’t know how many of each he had, but whatever it was, he had them forty-two head, and he said, ‘How would it suit you to work for me a little?’ I said, ‘I’d work for anybody, if he would give me something to eat.’ He said he’d give me something to eat and a dollar a day if you’ll help me take them cattle to Las Portales, that was where he wanted to start a ranch. I said, ‘All right, I‘ll go, just as soon as I get something to eat.’

My partner, Tom Norris, got a job driving the buckboard from Fort Sumner to Roswell. Some old-timers here will know the man who give him his place, Pat Boone. He was driving on that line and they changed him from Roswell to Fort Stanton.

“So I helped the Kid take his bunch of cows over there and things didn’t look too good to me, not enough of them some way. Only forty-two head. And we got there, stayed all night and the next day he went back and on up to Puerto Luna. I was still there and I don’t remember just how many days it was, but in a few days, one the of men named Pankey come in. I’ll bet a dollar some fellows here remember old Pankey. He lived on Plaza Largo between Ft. Sumner and old Ft. Bascom. He was the man, and the Kid wrote a note saying, ‘John, I have sold the entire outfit and brand and all to Mr. Pankey, in case he likes it, and if he does count them out, tally it out and collect so much,’ there was a price: one on cows, one on calves, steers, and so on. And I did just what he told me to do. Pankey liked the cattle and I tallied them out and collected so much, what the Kid said. I hadn’t been there long enough to earn money enough to buy a hat yet and I helped Pankey drive them back to Stinking Springs with his boy and we stayed all night there and the next day Pankey pulled out home across what we called … Springs … That was the way he was traveling and I went on in to Fort Sumner and got there between sundown and dark.

“I don’t believe I ever saw a rougher bunch of men than was in Fort Sumner that evening and all playing poker and drinking, and there I was with $120 of the Kid’s money in the saddle pocket. Uncle George Fulgum was running a restaurant there, the boys brought their whiskey in from outside. Anyway, they was having a big time and I got uneasy. I thought I would look awful bad to have this money took away from me, and I asked Uncle George if he didn’t have a cigar box, and he dug around and found one, and I put the money in the cigar box with a slip of paper that told how many cows, how many calves, the tally, and as I went down in the head of the Pecos River, there was a whole lot of stumps, there was one great big one and a big bunch of grass growing around it. I slipped that box in there and got a rock and laid on top of the stump, and went back and told Uncle George all about it. He said, ‘You acted wise, them men are over in the Kid’s room now, drinking whiskey and playing poker, there must have been eight or ten of them, and they have been there two or three days now. They were a rough bunch all right.’

The next morning I got up and by an hour by sun, that bunch of men just evaporated, I don’t know where they went, but they just slipped off and I was awful glad they was gone. The next day, or the next day after that, I don’t want you to think I’m going to be just exact, I might make a mistake in the days, but shortly anyway, the Kid comes in from Puerto Luna. I was sitting on the bench in front of the old man’s little restaurant, and he got off his pony and asked me about that cattle and I told him, ‘Yes, I sold them and have got the money down here in the bend of the river.’ ‘Well,’ he says, ‘What’s it doing there?’ and I told him all about these men, and he said about who they was, Tom Cooper, Charles Bowdrie, O’Folliard, and Billy Wilson and others. I don’t know who all.

“And he says, ‘I don’t think you was in any danger from them.’ But I found my cigar box right where I put it, set it up on the stand and pulled out the paper and said, ‘Here’s how many cattle you had and here’s how much they brought.’ He went over the tally list and said, ‘You have got one two-year-old steer too many.’ ‘Well,’ I says, ‘You’ve got the money and there’s no kick coming.’ ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I don’t have no kick, but I didn’t have but one two-year-old steer.’ Well folks, I run in the long yearling, for the two-year-old steer. He kind of laughed and said, ‘That’s a pretty good stunt and you made a ten dollar bill, and,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you this, you need it and I think you deserve it, if you can make a cowman like Pankey take a long yearling for a two-year-old, you deserve it.’ Well, that brought a warm spot in my heart for that boy and it’s there yet.”

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.


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