War breaks out
At the end of 1877 Billy Bonney got to know rancher Tunstall’s foreman Dick Brewer, “a big, handsome man of twenty-six, a fine horseman and accurate shot” as Robert Utley calls him, and this is probably the moment to acknowledge my debt to Robert M Utley, whose excellent 1987 book High Noon in Lincoln: Violence on the Western Frontier is the source for much of my blogging on Billy the Kid.
Probably in early December, Brewer signed Billy onto the payroll of John H Tunstall.
Now Hollywood loved to portray Tunstall, an Englishman, as a paternal figure, sometimes Scottish (no idea why), usually quite old, and a bible-reading man with an aversion to guns, indeed, in fact a pacifist. One thinks of Patric Knowles in Chisum, Colin Keith-Johnston in The Left-Handed Gun, Terence Stamp in Young Guns, and so on. He is a sort of father-figure to the young Billy, teaching him to read, and when the rancher is shot down, unarmed, by the House’s thugs led by a corrupt Sheriff Brady, Billy immediately becomes the implacable avenger.
This was not the case. Tunstall was a young man, 24 at the time of his death, who had no objection to guns – indeed, he hired Billy as one of a number of men good with firearms to protect his interests. He was not a crusader fighting to liberate the local population from the yoke of tyranny imposed on them by the monopoly of the House; rather, he just wanted some of the action, and dreamed of replacing the House. He wrote his parents in London that he aimed “to get half of every dollar that is made in the county by anyone.”
Billy was only on the ranch for ten weeks, and for most of that time Tunstall was not there, so he did not treat the boy particularly well or take a special interest in him. His letters to England never mentioned Billy. Billy was already a good reader and Tunstall did not teach him.
Billy was close not to the rancher but to his fellow ranch hands/gunmen. John Middleton, 23, was a tough guy off the Texas cattle trails, described by Tunstall as “about the most desperate looking man I ever set eyes on.”
Henry Brown, at 19, just a year older than Billy, was already an experienced ex-buffalo hunter and had killed a man on the range; he had worked as a cowhand for LG Murphy before quitting in a dispute over wages and joining Tunstall. And Fred Waite, 25, was part Indian, the most educated of the band, and he and Billy became close. They even planned to leave Tunstall and set up a ranch of their own together. Curiously, Middleton, Brown and Waite never appear in Billy the Kid movies. You’d have thought they would be classic ‘Western’ types.
The actual casus belli in Lincoln was a complex legal case that would have gone over Billy’s head and which I won’t go into here. Suffice to say that Tunstall’s ally, the lawyer McSween, had got into legal difficulties and the House gleefully exploited that by getting the tame district judge to issue a writ of attachment which the house used to seize property of McSween’s; but, led by Sheriff Brady, the House exceeded itself, assuming that the property of McSween’s partner Tunstall was also fair game, including the contents of his store in Lincoln, which Brady occupied, as well as his horses and cattle. To seize the stock, a posse was raised, led by Jimmy Dolan’s cattle boss, the violent Billy Morton, and it was joined by none other than Billy’s former raiding companion, the outlaw Jesse Evans – despite the fact that in a recent shooting incident Evans had received a bullet in the groin, which sounds pretty painful to me. Tunstall was, understandably, outraged at this attempt on his livelihood, and determined to resist. He assembled as many guns as he could.
But at dusk on February 18, 1878 three of the House posse, Morton, Evans and the Evans henchman Tom Hill, came across Tunstall, alone, and murdered him. They claimed that Tunstall had opened fire on them twice and that he was “killed resisting arrest”. A pistol with two empty chambers was found by his body. None of his men believed the story and it was rumored that Hill had fired the two shots after Tunstall’s death.
Contrary to movie versions, Billy did not gallop up and weep over Tunstall’s body then cry vengeance (Paul Newman certainly made the most of this moment in The Left-Handed Gun, giving it his full method-acting/scenery-chewing approach). In fact, though, Billy and the other hands melted away in the night and went back next day to recover the body. In any case, however upset Billy may have been at his boss’s death, he was a witness but not a leader, just one of the hands.
Tunstall’s partner, the lawyer McSween, now assumed the mantle of leadership. He was unsuited to the role because, Hollywood notwithstanding, he was the one who detested firearms and never carried a gun. McSween’s partisans did manage to regain control of the Tunstall store, at least. Both sides gathered men at their respective stores. McSween by-passed the House-loving district judge and the bought-and-paid-for sheriff and got a warrant from the elderly Justice of the Peace, ‘Squire’ Wilson. The local constable, Atanacio Martinez, was engaged to carry it out. Martinez, backed by Billy Bonney and Fred Waite, entered Dolan’s store to serve it. Brady refused to have any truck with it. He let Martinez go but kept Bonney and Waite prisoner, and so it remained for a tense night and into the next day.
February 21 passed in an uneasy calm, with townsfolk gathering for the funeral of Tunstall. Finally, Brady released Bonney and Waite, though without their arms. It was unlikely that either would easily forgive or forget this humiliation.
McSween gave up, fleeing Lincoln. The redoubtable Dick Brewer took over the captaincy. Squire Wilson appointed him a ‘special constable’ and he was armed with a warrant to arrest Tunstall’s murderers. He and his men called themselves the Regulators. Bonney, Waite, Brown and Middleton were determined members, as were two friends Billy had made on the Ruidoso, Charles Bowdre and Josiah Scurlock, known, because he had some medical training, as Doc. The Regulators swore what they called an ‘iron-clad’ oath.
The principal target of the Regulators was Billy Morton, who had led the House posse and who himself had been one of the three who shot Tunstall. The Regulators caught up with him, and another rider, Frank Baker, and arrested them. They stopped overnight at John Chisum’s ranch. Chisum took little active part in the Lincoln County War (contrary to John Wayne’s cattleman in Chisum) but was generally favorable to the McSween/Brewer cause. The next day, however, Morton and Baker were shot dead “trying to escape”. We do not know if Bonney shot them, or was one of the men who shot them, but it does seem possible.
On April 1st, six Regulators – Bonney, Middleton, Waite and Brown, and two others, Frank McNab and Jim French – ambushed Sheriff Brady as he walked down the street in Lincoln with four deputies, heading for the Dolan store. A volley of Winchester shots rang out from behind an adobe wall, at least a dozen bullets ripping through Brady. One of the deputies was also killed and poor old Squire Wilson, hoeing onions in his garden across the street, received a stray bullet in the buttocks. One of the deputies got off a shot which hit Billy in the thigh.
Movies have Billy facing Brady in a one-on-one showdown and shooting him down. It was not like that. He was certainly part of the group of assassins, and thus legally liable to a charge of murder, but he was not the sole perpetrator, or even the leader. McSween was back, staying with John Chisum, and he may have ordered the murder, though we have no proof of this. At any rate, Sheriff Brady was dead and the cat was now really and truly among the pigeons. A major shoot-out loomed.
As we shall see next time…