The fullest portrait we get of Billy Bonney, as he now was, at this time is from his Regulator friend Frank Coe. Coe wrote that Bonney was “one of the best soldiers we had.” He said that Bonney “never pushed in his advice or opinions” but he had “a cool mind and a quick brain.” Bonney was also “a fine horseman and always in the lead.”
In May or June 1878 the Regulators picked up another recruit who was destined to become Billy’s closest friend. A six foot tall redhead, two years younger than Billy, Tom O’Folliard, known as Bigfoot, had come up from Texas. If Audie Murphy was going to be The Kid from Texas in his first Western in 1950 it should have been Tom O’Folliard he played, not William Bonney (who was a New Yorker). Billy taught Tom how to shoot and Tom idolized Billy, following him everywhere he went. He would hold Billy’s horse half the night while he was paying attention to some Mexican girl.
McSween now felt confident enough to return home to Lincoln, though the Reverend Mr Ealy’s wife remembered, “He seemed to think he was doomed. He was Scotch and had some superstitions.” But he had gathered about sixty gunmen about him. These divided and stationed themselves at the McSween house, a spacious, U-shaped adobe, José Montaño’s store, the home of Juan Patron (the Regulators had quite a contingent of Hispanics) and the Isaac Ellis store on the far edge of town, which was where their captain, Scurlock, was. These may have been strategic points but it was a mistake to divide their forces so. Peppin, when he assembled his men, only had forty, but they were a compact body. What’s more he once again had Jesse Evans with him: the disgraceful Judge Bristol had freed him.
The five-day battle for Lincoln opened on July 15. Much of the fighting was desultory. In the first three days one regulator was killed and storekeeper Isaac Ellis’s son was badly wounded, but casualties were limited. It was a kind of stalemate. On July 16, though, the defenders of McSween’s house committed a blunder when they fired on a rider who turned out to be a cavalryman bearing a message to Peppin from Colonel Dudley saying that Peppin could not have the howitzer he asked for. Dudley was furious that his man had been fired upon and now displayed again the bad judgment that had marked his career for twenty years: despite an explicit congressional ban on intervention in civil unrest, he rode into Lincoln with eleven mounted and 24 foot soldiers, as well as a twelve-pounder mountain howitzer and a Gatling gun.
Loudly protesting his neutrality, Dudley nevertheless had his howitzer trained on the door of the Montaño store, and when the Regulators bolted from there into the Ellis store, Dudley ordered the cannon to be aimed at that place. The Regulators inside thus fled across the river but were prevented from joining their compadres at the McSween house for fear of Dudley’s Gatling. Dudley’s ‘neutrality’ cost McSween two thirds of his men.
McSween’s wife Sue, a redoubtable lady, now intervened, exiting the house and getting into a loud argument first with Peppin, then with Dudley. Neither would budge. She returned to the house.
On Peppin’s orders (pretty well his sole contribution that day) his men now managed to set the McSween house alight. It wasn’t easy, with an adobe structure, but the fire slowly gathered and really took hold about 2 pm. Some of the women and children left. Sue later wrote, “The Kid was lively and McSween was sad.” Shortly after 9pm the fire became too strong and some of the men inside the house, including Tom O’Folliard and Billy Bonney, crept out through the back door into the darkness. Heavy fire prevented any further escape. The fire now raged and there was thick smoke. McSween called out, “I shall surrender.” But when Peppin men came close, according to one of them, Andy Boyle, he suddenly shouted, “I shall never surrender.” Both sides started firing at close range. Five bullets hit McSween. Two other men died with him.
In the river bottom, Billy and Tom joined up with George Coe and Henry Brown. Narrowly avoiding Tunstall’s chained bulldog, they scaled a wall and fled. All the surviving Regulators met up at Frank Coe’s ranch on the Hondo.
The battle was not so much mismanaged, as Robert Utley says, as unmanaged. Peppin was detached and inactive, and Dolan, who had broken a leg dismounting from his horse, was also just an observer. Scurlock as commander of the Regulators made significant errors. McSween wasn’t up to it. It was chaos.
Movies always show the Murphy/Dolan party as the bad guys and Tunstall and McSween as the goodies. It wasn’t like that. It was more a case of a plague on both your houses. Tunstall and McSween were no noble spirits trying to free the community from tyranny; they just saw a monopoly and wanted to take it over. Both gangs were more than happy to resort to violence and killing and had gunmen ready to do it. But they were second-rate gangsters with two-bit hoodlums. Those in charge on both sides were largely incompetent. Officials in Lincoln County and in Santa Fe were disgracefully partisan, with corrupt policemen, a shamefully partial judge and DA who were a disgrace to their profession, and an arrogant, foolish and drunken local Army commander who intervened stupidly. The whole ‘Lincoln County War’ was a squalid mess.
Press reports did not mention Billy especially. He had done nothing to gain particular prominence and had yet to earn a public reputation. Still, in a hopeless situation he had kept his head and acted with courage and resource. His further adventures shall be recounted, but you’ll have to come back tomorrow for that…