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Historically Speaking: The night Billy the Kid was killed — an eyewitness account

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Photo Clipping Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico The caption reads, "Pat Garrett, famous sheriff, who killed Billy the Kid, 1881."

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

Well as I sometimes do, I started to write about one subject, but in doing research on that, I ran across an article that I have never seen or heard of. Of course, it has to do with Billy the Kid, which is always an enticement for me, and the fact that it comes from someone who’s account I have never read, it just made it too much for me not to share this week.

Following is an article from The Amarillo Daily News, Texas, dated Friday Morning, Nov. 13, 1936, titled “I Was With Billy the Kid That Night Just Before Pat Garrett Killed ‘im’ Says Man Who Knew Fearless Gunman.”

The story is written based on an interview of Jesus Silva, who lived in Fort Sumner, and was 85 years old at the time this article was written. (1936) For those of you who have read other accounts, this account differs somewhat, in small details, about what happened that day, but truly, it all comes from what different people remembered. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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“I Was With Billy the Kid That Night Just Before Pat Garrett Killed ‘im Says Man Who Knew Fearless Gunman

“Editor’s Note: This is another of a series of interviews with the real pioneers of the tri-state area — the men who knew the vast range before it was fenced.

“By Vance Johnson

“An outlaw who plundered with ruthless abandon and flouted danger by returning to his favorite haunt time and again, but who frankly admitted bullets would end his bloody career — that is the picture of Billy the Kid as painted by Jesus Silva.

“Jesus Silva, at 85, lives in a squatty, whitewashed adobe house in Fort Sumner with his sons. He sat on a bed under a gaily painted picture of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus, smoked a brown paper cigarette, and told me about Billy the Kid.

“‘I was with Billy that night just before Pat Garrett killed ‘im,’ he said.

“They were talking of inconsequentialties then, but there had been a time when Jesus had warned the Kid to stay away from Sumner.

“Expected a Death

“‘I asked Billy why he kept coming back to Fort Sumner,’ Silva said. ‘I said don’t you know you’re goin to get killed?’ — and he said, ‘Yes, I know I’m goin’ to be killed and I know who is goin’ to do it, Pat Garrett. But Billy Wilson and me swore we was goin’ to stay in here ‘till we killed Barney Mason, and I’m stayin’.’

“Mason was once a friend of the Kid’s who later became his enemy and an ally of Garrett’s.

“The Kid had been in Fort Sumner several days before Garrett tracked him down. Also, there was … Butcher, who rode into town with a fine horse.

“Billy said to me, ‘Jesus, I’m going to take that horse away …’ – and he did,’ Silva said. “‘Butcher knew where it went but never said nothin’ because he was afraid of Billy.’

“Put Horse in House

“Most houses in Fort Sumner are one story, one room wide, but several long. Doors from each room lead to the front yard. It was an empty room in a friend’s house to which the Kid took his stolen horse.

“Jesus was sitting in his doorstep one night (it was July 14, 1881, though Silva does not remember the date) enjoying an after dinner cigarette when the Kid came by. He stopped.

“‘Beely! Beely!’ came and almost breathless shout as an old man rounded the corner of Silva’s adobe. ‘There’s somebody in the house with your horse! I’m afraid to go!’

“‘Old Man’ Saval, whose first name Jesus cannot remember, had been sent by the Kid, to water his horse.

“Just a Coward

“‘Oh, you’re just a coward!’ The outlaw barked at Saval, and turned and asked Silva if he would help him water the animal.

“‘We took the horse out to water, then took him back to the house, and there was nobody around,’ Silva recalls.

“Then the Kid and Silva sat down on the edge of an irrigation canal to resume their conversation. The outlaw suggested beer, and Silva went for it.

“‘When I got back, Billy and me sat there and drank and talked for several minutes,’ Silva said. ‘While we sat there, Pat Garrett and the other sheriffs were hiding behind the trees with their guns pointed at us. The other sheriffs wanted to kill Billy, but Pat wouldn’t let them because I was there.’

“Silva pushed his peaked sombrero over one eye, and yawned a little.

“Worked With Garrett

“‘I’d o’ got killed that night if it wasn’t for Pat,’ he said, dreamily. ‘But Pat knew men — we used to work together for Maxwell, at the old Bull Camp.’

“The Kid turned suddenly, asked: ‘You got any fresh beef?’

“‘No, but I killed a calf for Pete Maxwell today,’ said Silva. The outlaw jumped to his feet.

“‘I’ll just go over and make old Pete give me some of that,’ he said, and strolled off in the direction of Maxwell’s rambling old house, which once had been the officers’ quarters in the old army fort.’

“Walter Noble Burns, in his book, ‘The Saga of Billy the Kid,’ says that Celsa Gutierrez, daughter of Saval Gutierrez, told the outlaw about the freshly killed calf at the Maxwell house. He says that the Kid took a butcher knife from the Gutierrez home. It may be that ‘Old Man Saval’ mentioned by Jesus Silva was Salva Gutierrez. Jesus was unable to understand where the Kid got the butcher knife he clutched in his hand when he was killed. It may be that the outlaw stopped at the Gutierrez home and borrowed the knife after he left Silva. At any rate, he moved slowly, because Pat Garrett beat him to the Maxwell’s.

“Ran All the Way

“‘Pat ran all the way and he was sitting on Pete’s bed when Billy came,’ Silva said. It has been said that in entering the Maxwell house, the Kid almost ran over John W. Poe of Roswell, who was sitting on the porch steps. But Silva says no one was on the porch.

Entering the Maxwell house, the outlaw passed through several rooms before he reached the one in which Pete Maxwell lay ill.

“‘Billy stepped into the room and said, ‘Pete?’ — and Pat Garrett shot him,’ Silva said. “Pat knew Billy’s voice and he wasn’t more than this far — (he measured his hands about 2 feet apart) — from him, when he shot. He used a .44 Winchester.’

“The Kid fell to the floor as a second shot was heard, and Garrett and Maxwell ran out of the room.

“Silva said Maxwell sent a servant for him. The man shouted: ‘Jesus, come here! I think Pat has killed Billy.’

“Went Into the House

“‘I ran over there and went in the house,’ Silva said. ‘When I got to the room, I said to Billy: ‘I no’ want to hurt you, Billy. It’s Jesus, and I’m coming in!’

“But the outlaw was dead. He lay face downward, the borrowed butcher knife in one hand, his revolver in the other. He must have drawn the gun even after Garrett had fired.

“‘There was one bullet through him, and another was stuck in the wall,’ Silva said. ‘I don’t know where that one came from, but I think maybe it was from Billy’s gun — it was pointed that way.’

“Silva said ‘there wasn’t even one Mexican cent in the outlaw’s pockets when the officers searched him; Pat Garrett took his gun.’

“The Kid died at 9 o’clock. Silva said he helped move the body to an old carpenter shop near the Maxwell house, but then he went home, at Pete Maxwell’s bidding.

“‘I had been working hard all day, and Pete said I ought to get some sleep,’ he explained.

“Went After Coroner

He said that Vincent Otero, Juan Medina, Juan Pacheco, and ‘Old Man’ Saval sat up with the body that night. The next morning Silva rode 10 miles to get Alejandro Segura, the justice of the peace who conducted the inquest. The Kid was buried ‘about 9 or 10 o’clock’ in the old Fort Sumner graveyard. His remains are still there.

“After the burial, Pat Garrett went to Santa Fe to claim the reward offered by the governor.

“‘I think it was a thousand dollars, but I don’t remember for sure,’ Silva said. ‘That was all Garrett wanted the Kid for — the money. They once were friends.’

“Silva said that after several days, Garrett, who had ridden horseback to Santa Fe, came back driving a fine horse to a new rubber-tired buggy — the gift of the governor.

“Knew Kid Before War

“Jesus looked about his room, accepted a cigarette from Anastacio Trujillo, who sat on the bed beside him, said a few words in Spanish, then resumed in English. ‘I knew Billy when he first came this way from Arizona and went to work for John Chisum,’ he recalled. ‘He was a pretty good boy — just like anybody else. If he ever did any harm, we never did know it.’

“Silva blames Chisum for the Kid’s lawless life in New Mexico. ‘John Chisum hired Billy as a gunman in that Lincoln County War,’ he said. ‘When the war was over, Billy went to Chisum for his money, but Chisum wouldn’t pay ‘im.’

“‘I’ll get my money anyway,’ he said, and started stealing cattle and horses from Chisum. He had to kill somebody some time.’

“‘If Chisum had paid him, Billy would have been all right.’

“The Kid had many loyal friends in Fort Sumner.

“‘I gave him a hat or shirt or somethin’ ever’ time he came,’ Silva said. There were many times when the outlaw was broke, even hungry.

“Helped Kid Hide Out

“It was Silva who helped the Kid hide out after his escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse, when he killed Bob Ollinger.

“‘I was riding down south looking for some Maxwell horses,’ Jesus recalls. ‘It was getting close to dark and I hadn’t eaten all day, so I started looking for a sheep camp. I was 40 miles from home.’

“‘Then I looked up and saw a man afoot on top of the hill, and thinkin’ it was a sheep herder, I made for him. It was Billy. He recognized me first, and shot at me three times, just for fun.

‘He said he had killed a sheriff at Lincoln. ‘Got ‘im all to pieces, Jesus,’ he said. Then he said he rode in front of a saloon where 14 men were standin’ and he said, ‘Good evenin’ gentlemen. If anybody comes along lookin’ for Billy the Kid, tell em he’s gone down the river.’

‘Billy said he rode all day until about midnight, then he tied his horse and went to sleep. After he had been asleep about two hours, somethin’ scared the horse and it broke away, and he was afraid somebody huntin’ him was close, so he put up afoot.

“Put Kid On Horse

“Silva said he put the Kid on his horse and walked most of the way back to the home of Jesus Anaya, 8 miles south of Fort Sumner. The Kid, though hampered by his leg irons, walked part of the way while Jesus rode. Silva left the Kid at the Anaya home, where he stayed for almost a month.

“‘Anaya had three daughters, and when strangers would come, Billy dressed up like a girl and stayed in the kitchen with the Anaya girls,’ Silva said. ‘And he made a good one, too — he was small, his hair was long and he talked Mexican just as good as them.’

“‘After leaving the Anayas, the Kid went to and from Fort Sumner, always on the dodge. But he always behaved himself in Sumner,’ Silva said.

“‘He used to go to dances all the time, and he was a good dancer,’ he said.

“‘The Kid probably took the only beating of his career, in a Fort Sumner dance hall.’

“Got ‘Licked’ Good

“‘At a dance one night, old man Pormacino Garcia started to take his girls home,’ he recalled. ‘Billy blocked the door and said, ‘No, you won’t because if the girls go, the dance will bust up,’ and old man Garcia challenged him to a fight.’

“‘Billy took off his gun and the old man gave him a good lickin’. When they stopped, Billy‘s nose was bloody, and he shook hands with Garcia and said, ‘All right, old man, you’re just a better man than me.’

“Jesus Silva, now 85 years old, has lived in Fort Sumner 60 years. He was born in Bernalillo County, where both his parents and their parents were born. At 15, he left home and went to Colorado, then later worked for a druggist in Las Vegas. He worked first in Fort Sumner for Luciano Maxwell, who bought the old Indian reservation and fort from the government. After Luciano’s death, he worked for Pete. He is proud of his friendship with Billy the Kid.

“‘Poor old Billy,’ he says. ‘Billy was a good boy — he just had to do that way.’”

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.