Billy the Kid Country Is Wider Than You Think
New Mexico’s poster bad boy also made his presence felt in Texas
Wounded Knee and Deadwood in the Dakotas, Fort Phil Kearny in what is now Wyoming and an avalanche-plagued canyon in Idaho are all featured in this issue. Each is the setting of a memorable frontier tale or two. Remembering Wounded Knee might be more important than remembering the Alamo. The “Deadwood” name is unforgettable, and Boone May, the top shotgun messenger from that rough neck of the woods, should be. Outside Fort Kearny came the often-overlooked Fetterman Fight, the Army’s biggest Western fiasco until Custer’s Last Stand—and, as John Monnett’s article suggests, a clash with Plains Indians that warrants its own share of controversy. Those avalanches in Idaho might be news to most Wild West fans, but they struck as hard and fast as any Indian attack. That said, I must confess my mind keeps wandering south of those events to an enchanted place known by the New Mexico Tourism Department, if not history books, as Billy the Kid Country.
Last July, for the first time in a decade, I returned to New Mexico, where Billy and I attended school (him, the 6th Street Elementary School in Silver City; me, the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque) and where we both held jobs with deadlines (him, mostly out on the range; me, working for various newspapers). The occasion was the third annual Wild West History Association Roundup, held at the spectacular Inn of the Mountain Gods, on the Mescalaro Apache Reservation, just outside Ruidoso. Most of the talks centered on Lincoln County War characters, from Billy the Kid to John Tunstall to Susan McSween, as well as Pat Garrett, who killed the Kid after the “war” and was shot down later himself. A bus tour took in Fort Stanton (now a state monument in surprisingly good shape) and the historic town of Lincoln—two places Billy was detained during his short, violent life. The leading Roundup raconteur was historian Frederick Nolan, a highly energetic little Englishman whose Lincoln County visit in July was akin to Father Christmas (or at least his most trusted elf) dropping in on December 25. A highlight was his introduction of Tunstall’s great-nephew Hillary Tunstall-Behrens, a fellow Englishman. “Hillary had always expressed himself wary of returning to Lincoln County (after a visit 65 years ago) in case he got shot by, for instance, some descendant of the Dolans or the Bradys still carrying a grudge,” Nolan says. “He was absolutely delighted to find out how wrong he had been.”
Much of the talk before and after the WWHA event concerned a possible pardon of Billy the Kid. Yes, 129 years after Garrett shot him in Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory, Billy remains hot news in the Land of Enchantment. What some New Mexico officials might not like to admit is that Billy the Kid Country extends into Texas. “The Kid’s territory was not bounded by the borders of Lincoln County, although that alone—at 30,000 square miles, about the size of Ireland—would have been an impressive bailiwick,” says Nolan. “We know, however, that the Kid’s world included a chunk of Arizona, another of southwestern New Mexico, with regular visits to Tascosa and the Texas Panhandle. I’ve even run across one document that suggests he and his sidekicks had driven a herd to Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Of course, if you cared to, you could say the whole damned world is Billy the Kid Country. Say his name in, for instance, Japan, Germany, Brazil or Australia, and everyone immediately knows who you’re talking about.”
In this very issue, Nolan writes about rough-and-tumble Tascosa, where the Kid was but one bad seed in a place where rustlers and killers sprang up like weeds. Still, I’m betting that any Panhandle cowboy who happened to accidentally brush up against the Kid in a saloon would say as sincerely as possible, “Pardon me, Kid.”