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Historically Speaking: The amigo of ‘Billy the Kid’

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The caption reads, "La Paloma Bar, Lincoln, original bar (frequented by) Billy the Kid. Sign at the top of the building reads “Lincoln Saloon" — date and persons unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

I love to share the old stories about our local history, especially if those old stories are about Billy the Kid, Lincoln, Ft. Stanton, New Mexico or the Lincoln County War. The story I’m sharing today was written almost 88 years ago and published in the New Mexico Magazine, featuring the article, “Billy the Kid died almost 140 years ago.” There were still a few old timers around who remembered, and even ran with Billy the Kid at the time this article was written — April 1933 — one of them being Ygenio Salazar, a close friend of Billy’s. Salazar relates some funny and interesting stories about his times with Billy, and raised a question historians still argue about today. I hope you enjoy.

Shared with permission from the editors of New Mexico Magazine.

New Mexico Magazine, April, 1933

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The Amigo of ‘Billy the Kid’

“The Man Who Fought Side by Side With Lincoln County’s Outlaw Character Tells About the Days of ‘Judge Colt’s Rule’

“By Wilber Smith

“Old Lincoln town has atmosphere. In bygone days it had more color and romance than perhaps any other place in all of New Mexico’s colorful history. It had a certain gusto, a lusty ‘aliveness’ that was charming and dramatic. It was the home of ‘Judge Colt.’ He was the law West of the Pecos. It was peopled by hardy men and women who derived their strength and courage from the soil and hills about them. Those people were the epic makers, the trail blazers, that leveled the barriers of the frontier. Civilization and law and order moved in their wake. They were a necessary part of the old west. And they have not been forgotten. Surely and indelibly their history has been written upon the tablet of time.

“Out of those splendid, yet sometimes sordid, annals emerge a youthful figure about whom books have been written and motion pictures made. I speak of Billy the Kid! He, too, was the creation of the frontier days’ conditions. In his own day he was called an outlaw. He still is classed in that category, but time seems to lend his memory more of the tinge of the semi heroic. There is even a movement on foot to erect a monument at his unmarked grave at old Fort Sumner, where he and 12 more gunfighters who ‘died with their boots on’ are buried in a plot, sometimes called ‘Hell’s Half Acre.’ Billy the Kid is like a character out of a Homeric epic; one does not know just where to separate mythology from fact.

“George Coe and Ygenio Salazar are the two remaining survivors of the Lincoln County War. They were side partners of the Kid. Salazar came from Valencia County to Lincoln.

“‘The trip was an adventure,’ said Ygenio. ‘I expected to find the trail beset with marauding Apaches, but I found the white man more savage and warlike than the Indians.’

“Salazar wiped his long gray mustache and smiled a reminiscent smile. Well up to the three-quarter century mark in age, he still has all the fire and gusto of his people who are descendants of the Conquistadores. He spoke in Spanish. He made little dramatic gestures with his hands.

“’Por Dios! Those were the days! Murphy and McSween were the two fighting factions. And you were either on one side or the other. There was no in between. McSween was a God-fearing man who depended upon his Bible. Billy the Kid who was McSween’s strong man depended upon his six-shooter.’

“‘Billy the Kid is supposed to have killed 21 men, a man for each year of his life,’ I said. ‘Is that true?’

“Salazar nodded.

“‘Muy posible. But I cannot account for them all. There is one that I do not know about!’

“‘He was then an out-and-out killer,’ I said. ‘Something like the gangsters of Chicago?’

“Salazar threw up his hands.

“‘God forbid! Those ladrones are rats! They have machine guns. Fast automobiles. Billy the Kid was not like that. He had a horse. A pair of six guns. He was muy caballero. He fought face to face with his enemies. He gave them a chance to draw.’

“‘There was nothing about him to suggest his steel nerve. He had the face of an angel; the soft voice of a woman; the mild blue eyes of a poet. He had an unfailing sense of humor. He was always ready for some horse-play, to give a joke or to size one. His laughter was as spontaneous as a child’s. He made you ashamed of yourself to lose your temper in his presence. I remember well an incident that makes me laugh even now.’

“‘It was Christmas day and he and I were on our way to Fort Sumner in a horse and buggy. There was a heavy snow on the ground. We were jogging along at a pretty fast clip to get to town for a brace of toddy and perhaps to chuck some pretty señorita under the chin. We knew a merry-making crowd would be there. We turned off from the new road and — bingo! Over we went!’

“‘The caballo, a spirited brute, became frightened and dragged us about 50 feet through the snow. I picked myself up and unhobbled my tongue with a few choice words that must have burnt the cold morning air. But Billy came up laughing. He looked at me like a boy bootblack looking up to a great man. ‘Just a minute mister,’ he said. ‘I’ll brush you off.’ I laughed too then; but only for a second. For what do you think? Madre de Dios! He pulled his guns and with one in each hand he started shooting the snow from my head!’

“‘Por Dios, caballero! Billy was a great fellow.’

“‘His sense of humor never left him, no matter how tense and dangerous the situation. He could’ve killed many more men than he did and he would have been justified in doing so. You know the Kid was notorious and they were always some hard boiled hombre, looking for a chance to down him, so that he would be known as the brave man who had killed the Kid.’

“‘One such hombre strolled into the saloon one day and bragged he was going to send Billy to ‘Boot Hill.’ When Billy came in, the man played as if he were drunk. He insisted upon the Kid’s drinking with him. He wanted to catch Billy as he raised his glass to his mouth and away from his holsters. But the Kid must have sensed the danger. He lifted his glass. He threw the whiskey in the man’s face. The man had already started for his gun.’

“‘Billy laughed. ‘Let’s play the trick over,’ he said. ‘You drink this time. Let’s see whether I can get you!’

“‘The jaw of that hard-boiled hombre fell to the floor. He was one scared man.’

“‘I got to see a man about a paint pony,’ he stammered, terrified; and he dashed out of the saloon as if 10 bobcats were after him. We all bent over and nearly split our sides with laughter at the way the bogus valiente ran.’

“‘The Kid ran to the door and called after him. Better luck next time, fellow! You are not the only one who has failed to get me. Even old Pat Garrett hasn’t got me yet.’

“‘Billy came back into the saloon. The smile was gone from his face. He talked as if he were thinking aloud. ‘Yeah, either I am going to get Pat or he is going to get me.’

“‘And Sheriff Pat Garrett did get him?’ I remarked.

“Salazar gave me a quick glance. He remained silent. I said, ‘Oh I see. You are like many more people around here who think the Kid is still alive? You and George Coe are the only men now living who belonged to the Kid’s faction. And Coe has declared many times that he did not believe the Kid was killed. Many think it was a frame up between those who wanted the reward and the Kid who was willing to clear out. Another thing. There was a big standing reward for the Kid, and Sheriff Pat Garrett did not collect it after he was supposed to have killed the Kid.’

“‘Muy posible,’ commented Salazar, a comment which might mean anything. It was to Salazar’s Rancho in the Sierra Capitan that the Kid came after he had shot Bell and Ollinger, his guards in the Lincoln County Courthouse where he was held a prisoner under a sentence of death. He left Lincoln, never to return. But Leland V. Gardiner of Santa Fe, believes Billy the Kid is still alive, and has thought so for the last 10 years.

“‘I am not certain, but I believe I have seen the Kid,’ said Mr. Gardiner in an interview in the El Paso Herald post. ‘I am told that he is on an isolated ranch within 500 miles of El Paso.’

“‘When strangers come to the ranch, the Kid disappears until the visitors are gone. He was so well-known in history that he can’t take chances on being detected…’

“‘The Kid was not an outlaw by choice. The first killing he committed was forced upon him, and after that he was forced to kill in self-defense.’

“However, Eugenio Salazar knows Billy the Kid better than any other man in Lincoln. Salazar with the Kid and 10 more men and three women defended the McSween home during the historical three days battle with the Murphy faction. Five men were killed and Salazar was left for dead. The story of his playing out his role of a dead man while the Murphy men were drinking and celebrating their victory over McSween, is a story of suspense and hair-bristling adventure.

“After la fiesta de los diablos, Salazar crawled away to safety. And today, 54 years after that famous battle, (July, 1878) he still carries one of the bullets in the flesh of his back.

“His rancho is just a little off the ‘Outlaw Trail.’ It is at Double Crossing on the Fort Stanton — Lincoln road, U. S. Highway 380. Salazar has all the politeness and courtesy of his generation. When he is not up on the range, tending to his rancho, he enjoys nothing better than a good chat about his old amigo, Billy the Kid.

“Old Lincoln town is to the east of Salazar’s and about two miles away. It was once the county seat, which has since been moved to Carrizozo. But the old courthouse is still there and any one of the native is always glad to show a stranger the room from which the Kid shot Bell and Ollinger, his guards, and made his escape. The bullet hole is still there which was made by the slug that ripped through Bell’s body. The McSween home that was burnt has been rebuilt. The old McSween store is still in Lincoln, in back of which lay the unmarked graves of those fighting men who made frontier history.

“It is said that before a famous man once visited China, he read 118 volumes about the country so that he would better understand the place and the people in their customs. I suggest to the prospective tourist to old Lincoln town, which is on the Grand Canyon-Carlsbad Caverns route, to read two books if possible: ‘The Life of Billy the Kid,’ by Sheriff Pat Garrett, edited by Major Fulton of the New Mexico Military Institute; and ‘The Saga of Billy the Kid,’ by Walter Noble Burns, the books from which was made the motion picture.

“Nothing has changed in old Lincoln town. It is as it was 60 and 70 years ago, nestling there among the brown hills in the Rio Bonito Canyon. Only the tempo of life is different. In the old days the strike of the clock was punctuated by the sharp reports of six guns; today the town is a drowsy plaza in a Land of Mañana. Ghosts of bygone days stalk through the plaza and haunt the old historical buildings.

“Billy the Kid might be alive. I for one, living here at Fort Stanton, a few miles from Lincoln, would not be surprised to see Billy the Kid return to his old familiar battle grounds. He would seem in place riding down the plaza with a pair of smoking six shooters in his hands. And perhaps you, too, will get this feeling when you visit old Lincoln town.”

Janice Dunnahoo, Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives, can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.