Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Billy the Kid in fact and fiction 2



From boy to outlaw


After the killing of Windy Cahill, Henry McCarty, aka Kid Antrim, later to be known as Billy the Kid, may have gone to Mexico. He certainly acquired a mastery of Spanish in a short time, which he could have got from vaqueros in New Mexico but more likely developed across the border, where he was safe from pursuit. This fluency in Mexican Spanish made him very popular with the Hispanic community, among whom the younger females found him especially charming. All reports said that he had a winning personality, a ready smile, and a light-hearted approach to life. He was open, cheerful and generous. He was especially fond of cantinas, and though he apparently rarely drank and never smoked, he was an enthusiast for the other attractions the places offered. With him it was not so much wine, women and song as gambling, women and song. He was particularly adept at the game of monte.


Movies do show this aspect of the youthful outlaw’s life. We often see him consorting with Mexican girls, for example. Love interest being pretty well a sine qua non in Westerns, and Billy being (at least notionally) a teenager, winsome señoritas were required casting.


In the late summer or early fall of 1877, Kid Antrim, as he called himself now, turned up in Lincoln County, New Mexico.


Lincoln, NMT in 1880


There he teamed up with the gang of one of the most notorious outlaws of the time and place, Jesse Evans. Evans had worked for John Chisum, then fell in with the equally disreputable John Kinney. The pair, and the roughs they recruited, called themselves ‘The Boys’ and preyed especially on horses and cattle, though Albert Fountain, editor of The Mesilla Valley Independent, called them ‘The Banditti’ and published strident articles condemning them. They did not stop at rustling. For example, on New Year’s Eve 1876 (in other words before the Kid joined them) they got into a fight with some soldiers in Las Cruces, got the worst of it, and came back with guns, killing a soldier and a civilian and gravely wounding three more men, one mortally. There were other shooting incidents too.


It was at this time that Henry McCarty adopted the alias William H Bonney. No one knows the origin of the name but the Scottish bonny meaning handsome or fair gave it a good ring. The bonny lad. People still called him Kid, but the Antrim name was dropped. He wouldn’t become ‘Billy the Kid’ for another three years. Movies, of course, rarely bother with all this nomenclature. He’s Billy the Kid or Billy Bonney, throughout.


In October the Evans gang put up at the ranch of Hugh Beckwith but for unknown reasons Billy Bonney stayed with a neighboring family instead. But it was fortunate because The Boys had stolen some horses and mules that belonged to local rancher John H Tunstall, and Tunstall’s foreman, Dick Brewer, raised a posse led by Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady and caught up with the bandits at Beckwith’s. There was a gunfight and Evans and three other gang members were arrested and locked in Lincoln jail.


Billy joined about thirty of The Boys in a foray to free Evans and the others. On November 17, they broke their fellow gang members out. There is a suspicion that Sheriff Brady turned a blind eye to this.


Sheriff Brady


Brady was in the pocket of the powerful business organization known as The House, founded by LG Murphy and now run by the smart and ruthless Jimmy Dolan.


Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan


Tunstall and his ally, lawyer Alexander McSween, had ambitions of their own to usurp The House’s monopoly and set up a similar organization of their own. To Dolan, Evans and his gang were useful, and if they rustled Tunstall stock, so much the better. Evans and his men returned to the Beckwith ranch.


Englishman John Tunstall


Tunstall’s ally McSween


Billy didn’t go with them. We don’t know why not. Perhaps he was tired of running with the crew or disapproved of their actions, but we simply don’t know. He stayed on the Ruidoso, an area on the edges of the law but not really outside it. The ranchers there were not averse to the occasional rustled cow but more or less lived within the confines of legality. The people, there, many of them Hispanic, were friendly to Billy and for a while he stayed there in the fall of ’77.


The relative peace and quiet wouldn’t last for long, though. The Lincoln County War was about to break out. And that was where the movie Billy the Kids started getting really interested. But that shall be for out next gripping installment. You gotta end on a cliff-hanger.


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