As so often, Billy now went to Fort Sumner. It was over a hundred miles from the county seat of Las Vegas, which had too many law-enforcement issues (and too corrupt a police force) of its own to bother about any lawlessness so far away. Beaver Smith’s saloon at Sumner was a haunt of every kind of desperado and fugitive, living in relative safety. Billy had many friends there, especially among the Hispanic community. Doc Scurlock had gone to Texas but Charlie and Manuela Bowdre were there, and Billy still had the ever-loyal Tom O’Folliard in tow. Billy seems to have dallied with Pete Maxwell’s sister Paulita, who wrote of him, “He was not handsome but he had a certain sort of boyish good looks. He was always smiling and good-natured and very polite and danced remarkably well.”
Billy also seems to have courted Celsa Gutierrez, whose sister was married to a very tall former buffalo hunter named Garrett.
Among the dubious types hanging around Fort Sumner was Dirty Dave Rudabaugh. We came across him when we were looking at the life of Wyatt Earp, you may remember, because Wyatt pursued him down into Texas when he tried to rob a train in Kansas. He’d also been for a time one of the ‘lawmen’ in Las Vegas. A stocky man of about forty, Rudabaugh was no shrinking violet. In fact he was a tough and violent man who was more than ready to join up with Billy in whatever criminality he indulged in – rustling, mostly. Christian Slater played him in Young Guns and he occasionally popped up in other Westerns – for example, Richard Anderson was Rudabaugh in The (entirely fictional) Gunfight at Dodge City. I might write about Dirty Dave at some point, for his career was, er, colorful, and he came to an unusual (and grisly) end.
Not that Billy was a gang leader. “I was not the leader of any gang,” he later told reporters. Rudabaugh and other rough types such as Thomas Pickett and William Wilson, occasionally joined forces but there was no organized structure or leadership.
Billy killed another man at this time. Billy asked nicely to see the “mighty nice” revolving pistol of a Texas braggart named Joe Grant, and set the cylinder so that if fired, the hammer would fall on an empty chamber. Grant was drunk and mistook Jim Chisum for his brother John and said he would kill him. Bonney said to Grant, “Whoa, you’ve got the wrong sow by the ear.” Jim’s son Will described what happened: “Grant squared off at Billy, who when he heard the click [of Grant’s gun] whirled around and bang, bang, bang, right in the chin – could cover all of them with half a dollar.” Later, Billy flippantly remarked to a local postmaster who asked about it, “Oh, nothing. It was a game of two and I got there first.”
In fact Billy himself had no love lost for John Chisum. He claimed that the rancher owed him wages for fighting for McSween in Lincoln. It was an odd claim. Chisum was vaguely pro-Tunstall/McSween but took no active part in the conflict (John Wayne’s Chisum notwithstanding). For most of the so-called Lincoln County War he was away in the East. Billy accosted Chisum about it and according to Will Chisum Old John replied, “Billy, you know as well as I do that I never hired you to fight in the Lincoln County War. I always pay my honest debts. I don’t owe you anything, and you can kill me but you won’t knock me out of many years. I’m an old man now.” Billy is supposed to have responded, “Aw, you ain’t worth killing.” But Billy felt free to rustle Chisum stock to the value of the wages he was supposedly owed. Unfortunately, though, the only Chisum cows on the Pecos by 1880 belonged to Jim and Pitzer Chisum and not to John at all.
Life got harder for Billy and his fellow rustlers. The cattlemen formed a Stock Association and hired a tough detective, Frank Stewart, to stamp out the stock theft using whatever means necessary. Furthermore, a Secret Service operative, Azariah Wild, was sent to New Mexico to investigate, and he was appalled at what he found. He hired two less than scrupulous ex-Peppin men, John Hurley and Robert Olinger, and had the New Mexico US Marshal John Sherman swear them in as deputy US marshals. Around them, he formed a large posse comitatus, with the assistance of John Chisum. Wild was convinced that County Sheriff Kimball was derelict in his duty, too tolerant of Bonney and similar malefactors, and he and Chisum looked around for a possible replacement at the next election, due in November 1880, a really tough law officer who would hunt the outlaws down.
It is perhaps worth saying at this point that Billy Bonney, whatever his past crimes, was at this time a stock thief, but no more. He did not rob banks or trains or stagecoaches and was not a road agent. Rustling was the crime least condemned by citizens at that time and place, almost a mild misdemeanor. Of course it was anathema to cattlemen like Chisum, who were influential, but would probably have not, alone, been enough to cause a large-scale hunt for Bonney. It was retribution for past crimes that made the pursuit so implacable.
Having said that, there now began to circulate rumors that Billy was “pushing the green”, in other words dealing in counterfeit dollars., and that was what Azariah Wild was principally investigating. There was also a story, true or not, that in October 1880 some men, including Bonney, committed a federal crime by robbing the US mail near Fort Sumner. It’s difficult, if not impossible to verify these accusations but if they are true, Billy Bonney had moved from relatively harmless stock theft to real criminal activity.
In November there was also another killing in which Bonney may have been involved. He found himself again at the Greathouse ranch near White Oaks with a posse outside laying siege to it. A local and well respected blacksmith, Jimmy Carlyle, went in unarmed to negotiate but immediately found himself a prisoner. Eventually the posse demanded his release within five minutes, a shot was fired on the posse side, perhaps accidental, Carlyle came crashing through the window with three bullets in him and died there. A gunfight ensued but the outlaws were too well ensconced and finally the posse, cold and hungry, lost heart and withdrew. Billy and his comrades slipped away, again.
Carlyle’s death lifted Billy, as Robert Utley says, “to the rank of arch-villain”, and even turned the local population, which had been certainly tolerant of him if not downright protective, against him. The press took his story up, and even the New York Sun ran a long story about the “outlaw chief”. The papers now referred to him, for the first time, as Billy the Kid. Governor Wallace now posted a reward of $500 “for the apprehension and delivery to the sheriff of Lincoln County of Bonny, alias the Kid” – not, of course, “dead or alive” as fake modern wanted posters have it. Almost overnight Billy Bonney was a national celebrity. Soon he would enter the ranks of those semi-mythical hero/villains that America (and the world) loved to hear about, the dashing and romantic – yet deadly – figure of the ‘Wild West’.
As we shall learn next time, the new sheriff would have something to say (and do) about that.