Billy the Kid (1859-1881) was one of the most famous gunmen of the Old West having famously killed a man for every year of his life. He was born William Bonny in New York in 1859. His father died when he was an infant and his mother drifted west, remarried and by 1866 was running a boarding house in Silver City, New Mexico. Young Billy waited at table and helped his mother, but he spent most of his time learning card sharping and how to handle a gun from the rougher guests.
In 1871, when Billy was just 12, he killed a man. The details of this first killing are in dispute, but it seems the victim was a Negro soldier who was either teasing Billy or beating up a friend of his. Whatever the truth, Billy fled and drifted into Arizona, then Mexico, earning money doing odd jobs or gambling. During this time he is thought to have killed between three and seven more men, though he said that Mexicans did not really count. In 1876 he was back in New Mexico leading a gang of rustlers and with a reputation for being “trigger happy”.
When Billy arrived on the scene, the cattle business in New Mexico was split between John Chisum and Jim Murphy. Chisum owned a vast ranch, while Murphy headed a consortium of smaller ranchers. Supporting Chisum was a banker named Alexander McSween, who had business links to some of the smaller rancher among whom was an Englishman named Tunstall. Billy the Kid was taken in by Tunstall who persuaded Billy to give up rustling and become an honest cowboy.
But then Tunstall was shot dead by Murphy, and Billy the Kid went on the rampage. Over the next few months he led a group of Tunstall cowboys on a bloody revenge that saw them ambush, murder and shoot down dozens of men linked to Murphy and the killing of Tunstall. The train of killings came to an end in July 1878, by which time Murphy had died in hospital and most of his men were dead.
In April 1879 Billy the Kid was arrested by Pat Garrett, who had been a fellow cowhand at the Tunstall ranch and knew Billy well. The Kid was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. On 17 April Billy slipped his thin, delicate hands out of the handcuffs that restrained him, grabbed a gun and shot dead the two lawmen who were guarding him. Grabbing a supply of ammunition and stealing a horse, Billy the Kid went on the run.
The gunman went back to his traditional past times of rustling and card sharping, backing up his side of any argument with his gun. He was helped by his undoubted charm and friendly manner which induced many men and women to help him. Among these were the owners of the Maxwell Ranch just outside Fort Sumner.
On 13 July 1881 Pat Garret was in Fort Sumner on other business when he heard that Billy the Kid was in town. Guessing that the outlaw would head for the Maxwell Ranch when he heard that Garrett had arrived, Garrett rode out there. He arrived before dark and went in. He forced the Maxwells to sit with him in darkness and wait. A few hours later the door opened and a figure appeared silhouetted against the star light.
“Quien es?” [Who’s there] called out a voice in Mexican. Garrett recognised the voice and figure as that of Billy the Kid. He fired a single shot that hit the Kid in the heart and killed him instantly. Billy was just 21.
from HEROES, ROGUES AND VILLAINS by Rupert Matthews