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Historically Speaking: Billy the Kid and Pat Garret — who was the villain and who was the hero?

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The caption reads, "Billy the Kid" — date and location unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

There was great controversy over the killing of Billy the Kid. After all, it seems there were many that loved him dearly and considered him a good friend, kind, considerate and always cheerful. Then there were others that made him the symbol of the Lincoln County War, and considered him a hardened killer who killed in the blink of an eye. Which one was he? Is this the reason he became so famous? Those conversations and arguments are still alive and well today among many historians.

On the flip side, there were many who thought Pat Garrett was a brave sheriff who brought peace and justice to the turmoil of those days. However, there were also some who knew Pat Garrett to be a friend to Billy, and they thought that he only killed Billy to get the reward money.

If you had been there and knew them both, how do you think you would have felt? What would you have thought? Today, I would like to share some articles of the day and you can decide for yourself. I will start with one from Frank Coe of Coe Ranch — a very close friend of Billy’s — about his remembrances of his friend Billy the Kid, and the political rhetoric of those Old West days. Decide for yourself.

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Alamogordo News

Nov. 1, 1923

“In Defense of Billy the Kid

“By Frank Coe

“A good many of us fellows had taken up land on the Ruidoso River and were farming and selling hay and corn to the government post at Fort Stanton, where there were a good many soldiers stationed to keep the Apache Indians on the reservation. At any rate, we were all minding our own business, but when Tunstall’s men carried the news to Lincoln, McSween, Tunstall’s partner,  sent runners over the country, and three days later, we met, buried our friend and organized a band of thirteen and a few Mexican farmers to run the gang down and put them out of the country, which we very promptly did. But at that time the Texas Rangers were making it too hot in Texas for such as those, so we hadn’t much more than started our plowing when back comes a bunch of organized thieves who had heard about this trouble.

“Raiding and Stealing

“They came by our ranch and stole our horses except two that we had staked right by our beds. We trailed those horses as far as Fort Sumner. There was one big corn-fed horse in the bunch they rode the whole way. He was pigeon toed, and being behind, his trail was as clear as day. Well, we got into too big a gang up there, so we had to come back without our horses, but we didn’t stop to do any more farming, so for eight months it was continual riding and stealing and killing.

“Billy Fights with Ranchers

“Billy the Kid took sides with the people of the country, to fight for our people and our lives. He stood with us to the end, brave and reliable, one of the best soldiers we had. He never pushed in his advice or opinions, but he had a wonderful presence of mind; the tighter the place, the more he showed his cool nerve and quick brain. He was a fine horseman, quick and always in the lead, at the same time he was kind to his horses and could save them and have them ready when he needed to make a dash.

“Now that we have started the beginning of ‘Billy the Kid’s’ career, have I helped you to see that he was not, at the beginning, the bloodthirsty, hard desperado that history has made him out to be? That he ever killed as many as he is given credit for, or killed for money is absurd. He never seemed to care for money, except to buy cartridges with; then he would much prefer to gamble for them straight. Cartridges were scarce and he always seem to use about ten times as many as anyone else. He would practice shooting at everything he saw from every conceivable angle, on and off his horse. He never drank. He would go to the bar with anyone, but I never saw him drink a drop, and he never used tobacco in any form. Always in a good humor and ready to do a kind act for someone.

“Always Looking Into Future

“Billy never talked much of the past; he was always looking into the future. He often spoke of his mother. Little by little, stressed over the time that we were together, he told me that he was born in New York City and he got his early education there. He was well educated for those times. His family moved west, and then his his father died. His mother then married a man by the name of Antrim. They lived very miserably and Billy left home to make his own way. He was a bright boy, over an average for his age.

“Liked to Meet ‘Bullies’

“When he came to me he weighed about 125 pounds and was 5‘7“ tall, and straight as an arrow. Those eyes so quick and piercing are what saved his life many a time. When he was looking some ‘bad man’ in the eye he seemed to read what the man’s hand was going to do.

“What the Kid liked best was to meet up with some bully that was looking for trouble.

“Three years after the war was over Billy the Kid was arrested for the killing of Major Brady, who was sheriff of this county during the first part of the war. He was tried at Mesilla, in Dona Anna County, and sentenced to be hanged. They gave him three months and brought him back to Lincoln to await the hangman. Billy was one of the seven who did that killing and he was the youngest of the bunch. The rest lived to be old men and were not even tried.

“Sheriff Pat Garrett put Bob Ollinger as jailer over the Kid, a man whom we first met when Tunstall was killed, and fought all the way through the war. Naturally he and the Kid were enemies and having the advantage, Ollinger took great delight in tantalizing the Kid in every way he could. About three mornings before the Kid was to hang, Ollinger took a shotgun and loading it said to the Kid: ‘If you make a break today you will get both of these barrels emptied into you.’

“Seizes Guard’s Gun

“At noon, Ollinger went to dinner at a hotel across the street, leaving the other guard on duty. During the noon hour Billy got the guard interested in something he was doing and grabbed his gun. He told the guard he didn’t have anything in for him and if he would stand still he would let him go in a little while. The guard turned his back to run and Billy told him to stop, but he did not and Billy shot him. Then Billy removed his handcuffs. He had odd shaped hands that tapered from the wrist, and by cupping his hands he could remove any kind of handcuff, and dragging his shackles he hobbled over to where Ollinger had put the shotgun that he had loaded that morning, then went to the window that overlooked the gate through which Ollinger would have to come.

“Shoots Others to Death

“Ollinger, upon hearing the shot, started on a run for the jail. Just as he got directly under the window, Billy called him to look up, and when he did the Kid shot him with both shells of the shotgun square in the chest. The town was full of people, but no one made any attempt to interfere. The Kid sent for a friend to come and file his shackles off, then he sent for a horse and saddle, and after about three hours of getting ready and visiting with his friends armed himself with good guns, mounted his horse and rode up Main Street, bidding everyone ‘goodbye.’

“The next and last time I heard of Billy the Kid he was in Fort Sumner where he had a sweetheart. He had spent about three months in and out of Fort Sumner and was on the verge of marrying and going to Mexico.

“Garrett on His Trail

“Sheriff Pat Garrett had been on his trail since he broke jail, and on hearing that he was around Fort Sumner took two deputies and went to Sumner, lying in the hills in the day time, and guarding the places he frequented at night. The third night, a beautiful moonlit night, they stole into town and went to the home of Pete Maxwell, one of the Kid’s best friends. Garrett stationed his deputies outside the door and went into the room where Pete Maxwell was sleeping to see if he could find out where the Kid was or when he would be coming in. While he was inside talking, the Kid, in his stocking feet, carrying a big butcher knife in his hand, came stealing along the shadows of the house to get a piece of meat. The two deputies were sitting in the shadows by the door and the Kid did not see them, nor did they see him until he was right in front of them. They could not speak, the Kid asking them twice ‘quien es?’ or ‘Who are you?’ Finally, one of the men said, ‘no harm,’ and the Kid passed them by and went on to the head of the bed where he leaned down and asked Maxwell: ‘Who is outside?’ By then his eyes were more used to the dark, and glancing around he saw another form sitting on the foot of the bed. He started back, at the same time reaching for his gun and asking: ‘Who are you?’ As he crossed the patch of moonlight shining in through the open door, Garrett, without a word, fired. The Kid fell back in the shadows, shot through the heart. He could have shot before Garrett did, but he was afraid it was some friend of Maxwell.

Following are excerpts on Pat Garrett and his rewards:

Las Vegas Daily Optic

July 30, 1881

“Excerpt from a Las Vegas, New Mexico newspaper as taken from ‘The Kansas City Journal:’

“In less than three years he dispatched into eternity over twenty of his fellow mortals. Having in that brief space of time made for himself a name that carried terror throughout New Mexico and Colorado, Sir William McCarty, alias ‘Billy the Kid,’ began to presume somewhat on the fear that he had inspired. Then a plain practical sort of fellow named Pat Garrett, who happened to be the sheriff of one of the counties of New Mexico, concluded to go for the rampant ‘Kid’ and laying in wait for him at one of his haunts, he soon put an end to his lamb like sports! On sight he sent a bullet straight through his heart, and the illustrious ‘Kid’ was dead in a minute like the commonest cur that ever fell before a bullet of the municipal dog killer.

Pat Garrett, the sheriff, simply did his duty, and claimed no special honor for it, but the plaudits of a relieved and grateful people are following him, and subscriptions are being taken up all over the territory to reward him.

Here in Missouri is needed just some such men as Pat Garrett. He who will follow the James boys and their companions in crime to their den, and shoot them down without mercy, will be crowned with honor by the good people of this commonwealth, and be richly rewarded in money besides.”

Las Vegas Daily Optic

July 19, 1881

“Pat Garrett, the heroic killer of the great American killer, ‘Billy the Kid,’ went over to Santa Fe this afternoon to confer with the Acting-Governor Rich in regard to the little sum of $500, which is due him from the Territory for the performance of a certain ticklish job.”

Las Vegas Daily Optic

July 18, 1881

“Gritty Garrett’s Gift

“The people of Las Vegas are perhaps as appreciative as any in the world, notwithstanding that they are all meaner than dirt and as barbarous as cannibals. When the news of the killing of the ‘Kid’ was brought to the city it was decided that Garrett should be handsomely remunerated for his trouble, and when ‘The Optic’ urged the same thing last night the matter was as good as settled. Fund was started and has been reached nearly $1,000 already. Here is the way the list was headed:

“First National Bank $100

“A.A. LeRoux $100

“Scott Moore $100

“Houghton, B. & M., G., B. & Co. $200

“After this followed a number of smaller subscriptions and the good work is still going on. Garrett will get the $500 made by the Territory, and it is said that John Chisum, a heavy cattle grower of Lincoln County, will handover a cool $1,000 as a substantial evidence of his interest in the matter. Other citizens of Lincoln County and Fort Sumner are expected to chip in another $1,000, so taking it all in Garrett will have a snug little bank account when his friends get through with him. Then he got away with his life, which is quite an object.”

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