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Authors: Mark Lee Gardner

To Hell on a Fast Horse

BOOK: To Hell on a Fast Horse
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To Hell on a Fast Horse

Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and The Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West

Mark Lee Gardner

For my daughter and son,
Christiana and Vance

Some men find an unaccountable fascination in the danger and outlawry of the frontier far beyond my understanding.

wife of Governor Lew Wallace,
New Mexico Territory

I don’t think history possibly can be true.



Facing Justice

Trails West

War in Lincoln County

A New Sheriff

Outlaws and Lawmen

The Kid Hunted

Facing Death Boldly

The Darkened Room

Both Hero and Villain

Another Manhunt

Unwanted Star

ghosts as you speed down the long, lonely roads of eastern New Mexico. The land is little changed, except for endless strands of wire fence and an occasional traffic sign. Out in the distance, they are there: Billy the Kid and the Regulators, Charlie Bowdre, Tom Folliard, and Pat Garrett. The days may be gone when blood flowed freely along the Pecos and Rio Bonito, but the music of the fandango, and Billy’s dancing, and the lovers’ kisses—all difficult to conjure—are all still there. They are in the wind, the moonlight, in the cacophony of coyotes, and in the silence before the first rays of sunlight spill over the horizon.

And there are the stories, because New Mexico is full of stories. It is through these stories that the ghosts come to haunt us. In the stories, we think we see them, understand them, even somehow know them. But they are still ghosts, and they can conceal the truth like a pirate hides his plunder.

Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett were perhaps the greatest of our Old West legends. By building on the output of previous scholars, and conducting extensive original research in archival and private collections from Texas to Arizona to Utah to Colorado, I have made the ghosts give up a few more of their secrets.

All of the dialogue in quotes on the following pages came from primary sources: contemporary newspapers, letters, oral histories, autobiographies, and the like. Nothing has been made up. Granted, some recollections were written or dictated decades after the fact, and one can legitimately question how accurately someone might remember what somebody else said forty years previous, but even so they are the recollections of eyewitnesses. And in some cases, they are all we have.

I personally explored most of the places that figure in this story: Las Vegas, Anton Chico, Fort Sumner, Puerto de Luna, Roswell, Lincoln, White Sands, White Oaks, Alameda Arroyo, Mesilla, Silver City, and on and on. In some places, crowded Santa Fe, for example, the ghosts had been obliterated by asphalt, noise, and phony adobe facades. In others, such as the stairway of the old Lincoln courthouse, Billy, Pat, Bob Olinger, and James Bell seemed to walk side by side up its creaking wooden steps.

Many of the people connected with this story did not deserve their fate, Billy and Garrett most of all. “They were like lovers, in a way—doomed,” said Rudolph Wurlitzer, the screenwriter for Sam Peckinpah’s classic film,
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
. They lived in a harsh land and time, a time that saw tremendous change while still retaining, in some instances, the cutthroat ways of its recent past. In the end, it was not as much about right versus wrong, lawman versus outlaw as it was about survival. For others to survive, Billy could not, Garrett could not.

These two men perished long ago, and that is the cold truth of history, but their ghosts are still there. Billy forever calls out to us from the darkness of the past:
“¿Quién es?”
Who is it? And like Garrett, sitting, waiting, we are unable to answer, unable to stop what happens next.

Facing Justice

Come and take him!


after Christmas, 1880, at approximately 4:00
., when a mule-drawn wagon accompanied by five armed horsemen rapidly approached the outskirts of Las Vegas in the Territory of New Mexico. The leader of the men on horseback rode stoop shouldered, a natural consequence of his six-foot-four-inch frame. He was as thin as a rail, and even as bundled up as he was, he seemed to be all arms and legs. He had a dark mustache, light gray eyes, and a swarthy face that showed the years he had spent on the open range of Texas and New Mexico.

Seated in the wagon were four dirty, trail-worn men in handcuffs and shackles. They were the lanky man’s prisoners, and one of them was hardly out of his teens. As the wagon bounced along, the young outlaw, his blue eyes dancing about, broke into an occasional smile or burst out in a hearty laugh, exposing two buckteeth, a feature that was unattractive in most people, but for this young man seemed to add to his charm. The boyish prisoner and the tall lawman, although
complete opposites, shared a common destiny. Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett had no way of knowing it, but they were fated to be forever linked in both life and death.

The Las Vegas that spread out before them was really two towns, one old and the other new. The old town had been established on the Santa Fe Trail in 1835 along the Gallinas River (what easterners would call a creek). The settlement got its name from the river’s broad grassy valley:
las vegas
—“the meadows.” The new town sprang up forty-four years later when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad came through a mile away on the east side of the Gallinas. In 1880, Las Vegas, the county seat of San Miguel County, numbered six thousand people, mostly Hispanos. The city’s numerous hell-raisers, mostly Anglos, resided in New Town, where saloons, dance halls, and gambling establishments ran day and night.

Las Vegas Daily Optic
reported: “Yesterday afternoon the town was thrown into a fever of excitement by an announcement that the ‘Kid’ and other members of his gang of outlaws had been captured, and were nearing the city.” Sheriff Garrett’s party had come up the old Santa Fe Trail. Their route to the stone jailhouse on Valencia Street took them across one end of Old Town’s plaza, where most people got their first glimpse of the prisoners.

Billy beamed at the crowd and spotted Dr. John H. Sutfin, owner of the Grand View Hotel. “Hello, Doc!” he called out. “Thought I jes drop in an’ see how you fellers in Vegas air behavin’ yerselves.”

The throng of gawkers, growing by the minute, followed the wagon down the muddy street to the jail, where the prisoners and guards promptly disappeared inside. A reporter for the
Las Vegas Gazette
cornered the thirty-year-old Garrett for a few minutes, hoping he could get the thrilling narrative of the gang’s capture. Garrett almost immediately passed off the excited journalist to a posse member named Manuel Brazil, saying Brazil “knew all the particulars.”

Monday morning’s frigid air did not stop the curious townspeople
from gathering around the jail, hoping to glimpse the desperadoes: Billy the Kid, Billy Wilson, Dave Rudabaugh, and Tom Pickett, the latter being a former Las Vegas policeman. Nearly everyone knew something about Billy—even if it was only that the twenty-one-year-old had sent far too many men to their graves. His most infamous crime was the killing of Sheriff William Brady and his deputy, George Hindman, in an ambush in Lincoln during the Lincoln County War. The Kid was not the only one who fired on the sheriff and his deputies that day, but he had walked away with a murder indictment. And this murder charge was the one he feared most. In the spring of 1879, Governor Lew Wallace met with Billy in order to draw out his eyewitness testimony in another highly charged Lincoln County murder case. In exchange for this testimony, Billy was to be offered a pardon. The Kid did his part, but the pardon never came. Now Billy knew it was only a matter of time before he would face a hangman’s noose.

Michael Cosgrove, the Las Vegas mail contractor, pushed through the crowd carrying four bundles under his arms. They contained new suits of clothes for the prisoners, and the Irish-born Cosgrove remarked that he wanted “to see the boys go away in style.” The town’s two competing newspapers, the
and the
both managed to get reporters into Sheriff Desiderio Romero’s jail that morning, but the
’s man got the best story. The reporter watched as a blacksmith took his hammer and cold chisel and began carefully shearing the rivets of the shackles and bracelets worn by the Kid and Billy Wilson, who were chained together. The irons had to come off before the prisoners could change their clothing. Wilson was glum and quiet, but the Kid was acting “light and chipper…very communicative, laughing, joking and chatting with the bystanders.”

“You appear to take it easy,” the
reporter said to the Kid.

“Yes! What’s the use of looking on the gloomy side of everything,” Billy replied. “The laugh’s on me this time.”

The Kid cast his eyes around and began kicking the toes of his boots
on the stone floor to warm his feet. “Is the jail in Santa Fe any better than this?” he asked. “This is a terrible place to put a fellow in.”

He asked this same question of everyone who came close to him, and they all told him the Santa Fe jail was not any better. Billy then shrugged his shoulders and said he would just have to put up with what he had to. The Kid may not have liked what was happening to him, but he was thrilled at all the attention he was getting. Being a celebrity suited him just fine.

“There was a big crowd gazing at me, wasn’t there,” Billy said, referring to the moment when the doors were opened to let the mail contractor in. “Well,” and here the Kid broke into a smile again, “perhaps some of them will think me half man now; everyone seems to think I was some kind of animal.”

Not surprisingly, the
reporter seemed to like the youthful outlaw, and he wrote the best (and most quoted) description of Billy:

He did look human indeed, but there was nothing very mannish about him in appearance, for he looked and acted a mere boy. He is about five feet eight or nine inches tall, slightly built and lithe, weighing about 140; a frank open countenance, looking like a school boy, with the traditional silky fuzz on his upper lip; clear blue eyes, with a roguish snap about them; light hair and complexion. He is, in all, quite a handsome looking fellow, the only imperfection being two prominent teeth slightly protruding like squirrel’s teeth, and he has agreeable and winning ways.

When the blacksmith popped the last rivet, and the Kid’s cuffs fell to the ground, Billy stretched and rubbed his sore wrists. “I don’t suppose you fellows would believe it but this is the first time I ever had bracelets on,” he said. “But many another better fellow has had them too.” Then, as Billy and Wilson were ushered back into their cell, the Kid said a few words about the man who had tracked him down
and put him in irons. “They say, ‘a fool for luck and a poor man for children’—Garrett takes them all in.”

Garrett had originally planned to take the prisoners to the depot and get them on a train for Santa Fe (all except Tom Pickett, for whom he had no federal warrant), but when he and his deputies arrived at the jail shortly after breakfast, only the Kid and Wilson were led out. Sheriff Romero refused to turn over Dave Rudabaugh, who eight months earlier had shot jailer Lino Valdez while attempting to break out a friend from this very same lockup. Romero, as well as the majority of the townspeople, wanted to see Rudabaugh tried in Las Vegas for this murder.

Garrett had expected this, but he had also promised Rudabaugh he would get him safely to Santa Fe. A heated discussion ensued. Garrett reminded the sheriff that he was a deputy U.S. marshal, and his federal warrant trumped their murder charges. Garrett may have been a soft-spoken man under normal circumstances, but he had no trouble letting it be known that he was going to get his way: “[H]e was my prisoner, I was responsible for him, and intended to have him,” he wrote later. Romero and his men reluctantly released Rudabaugh, but they were not through just yet.

Prisoners and guards squeezed into two or three hacks (an open wagon with three bench seats) for the short trip to the depot in New Town. Garrett’s posse included Deputies Barney Mason, Frank Stewart, Jim East, Tom Emory, U.S. Marshal James W. Bell, and contractor Cosgrove. At the depot, they found the westbound train waiting on the tracks, its passengers completely unaware that the noted desperado Billy the Kid was about to join them.

Seated in the train’s smoking car that day was Benjamin S. Miller, a twenty-nine-year-old native of New York State who had entered the cattle business near Medicine Lodge, Kansas. He had gone out west because he was as interested in playing cowboy and shooting wild game as he was in seeking his fortune (which he eventually found).
While recently visiting Wichita, Miller met a friend who gave him a Santa Fe railroad pass that was expiring in a few days. “Take it, and go while it lasts,” his friend had urged. Miller did just that, intending to travel as far west as possible on the Santa Fe line and return within the allotted time. Because the pass was made out in his friend’s name, though, Miller had to bend the truth with the conductors, but without photo IDs in that era, this was easily done, and Miller experienced not the slightest difficulty, enjoying his trip immensely—until the train stopped at Las Vegas.

Garrett and his deputies hurried their three prisoners down the track siding to the smoking car and quickly ushered them up its narrow steps. Miller and three miners, deeply absorbed in a game of cards, suddenly heard the clanking of chains entering their car. They looked up to see the lawmen and the shackled outlaws. The racket caused by the sheriff’s party was quickly followed by shouts from a crowd gathered just outside the car. Many of them were well armed, and some of these men began taking up positions behind a stack of railroad ties near the tracks. Garrett addressed the passengers in a loud but steady voice:

“Any of you people who don’t want to be in it, had better get out before I lock the car, as we are liable to have a hell of a fight in a few minutes.”

Garrett had hardly finished speaking when Miller saw two men jump out of their seats and dash for the adjoining car, not even stopping for their valises. He then watched in amazement as the three miners he was playing cards with pulled out an assortment of weapons.

“They offered me a big six-shooter,” Miller recalled, “but I declined.”

One of the deputies told the uneasy stockman that the crowd outside, largely Hispanos, wanted Dave Rudabaugh, and they were sure the mob was going to lynch the outlaw as soon as they got their hands on him. Garrett was not about to let that happen, not short of a bloodbath.

Pat Garrett, circa 1881.
Robert G. McCubbin Collection

“It seemed as if the fight would begin any minute,” Miller remembered, “and I expected to see the Mexicans fire into the car right away.” Miller moved to the opposite end of the coach and crouched behind a stove.

A group of men rushed to the front of the train and confronted the locomotive’s twenty-six-year-old engineer and fireman, Dan Daley.

One of them thrust a pistol in Daley’s face and shouted, “My father does not want this train to pull out of here.”

“And who is your father?” Daley asked.

“Sheriff Romero is my father.”

When Daley let some steam escape from the engine, the young man became agitated: “I don’t want to shed any blood, but if you try to pull out you will be a dead man.”

Daley kept the train parked.

Somehow, as ugly as things had gotten around the train, the
’s reporter managed to get next to the smoking car where Billy was leaning out of a window, probably on the side opposite the mob.

“I don’t blame you for writing of me as you have,” he said. “You had to believe others’ stories; but then I don’t know as anyone would believe anything good of me anyway. I wasn’t the leader of any gang—I was for Billy all the time…. I found that there were certain men who wouldn’t let me live in the country and so I was going to leave. We had all our grub in the house when they took us in, and we were going to a place about six miles away in the morning to cook it and then ‘light’ out. I haven’t stolen any stock. I made my living by gambling but that was the only way I could live. They wouldn’t let me settle down; if they had I wouldn’t be here today.”

Billy cursed about the chains on his wrists and ankles and let it be known that he was anxious to take part in the fight that was brewing. “If I only had my Winchester,” he said, “I’d lick the whole crowd.”

Benjamin Miller remembered the great contrast between the noise outside the car and the quiet inside: “Nine men with cocked rifles sturdily standing off a mob of hundreds. Those men never flinched an iota. Such bravery, even to recklessness, was new to me.”

Sheriff Romero and his delegation, their pistols drawn, approached the car platform where Garrett stood and clambered up the steps. They made their blustery demand for Dave Rudabaugh, and Garrett simply replied, “Come and take him.” It was not a bluff, and it must have scared Romero out of his wits.

BOOK: To Hell on a Fast Horse
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