Tracking Billy the Kid

It’s all the girl at the tourist bureau’s fault. Really it is. The plan was simple, easy, and foolproof–spend a few days exploring Carlsbad Caverns and the UFO Museum in Roswell from our base camp in Lakewood, NM, roughly halfway between. Then take a straight shot down to I-10, overnight in Deming, and head for Tombstone, AZ. Couldn’t be simpler, right?

While in Roswell, we had a bit of extra time on our hands. The UFO Museum was fascinating, and definitely worth the drive, but how many hours can you spend scrutinizing old affidavits and photographs? We found out about a mega-museum that combines art, history and science, and just happens to feature an authentic recreation of the lab of Robert Goddard, creator of the liquid-fueled rocket. His wife donated everything to the museum after he passed away. Being science nerds, we had to check it out.

Next door to the museum was the visitor center. I have no idea what made us go inside. It still wasn’t too late to turn around, follow our plan, and remain blissfully ignorant. But we went inside.

A chatty girl whose name escapes me greeted us. She pointed out a couple of other interesting things to see in town, then asked where we were headed next. “Tombstone,” said I, almost absently, as Dad ran around taking photos of the tourist bureau. “Really? Well, let me help you plan your route!”

Before I knew what was happening, the girl had several guidebooks, maps and magazines spread out before me. Dad came over to see what all the commotion was about. It was too late. We were hooked.

“And you’ll want to go down to Ruidoso. It’s a tourist town, but worth a stop. But what’s really important down that way is the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway. You’re familiar with the Lincoln County War, right? That’s where it all took place.”

No kidding! I wouldn’t exactly call myself a Billy the Kid buff, or at least I wasn’t at that time, but I loved Young Guns and Young Guns II, and had always been intrigued by the mystery surrounding his alleged death. Dad and I looked at each other briefly, and we knew we were both goners. “OK,” Dad said with a half-grin, half-smirk. “We’ll go see Billy the Kid.”

We decided to camp at the Valley of Fires, four miles outside Carrizozo. It’s this amazing lava field, covering 125 square miles. The campground is high on a mountainside overlooking the lava. It’s quite windy up there, as we would come to discover when our satellite dish blew down repeatedly. The LNB arm got bent before Dad had the brilliant idea of lashing it to the trailer. But hey, it still works, the elevation is just totally out of whack.

Anyway, the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway encompasses 84 miles of mountainous roadways through the towns of Carrizozo, where we were based; Ruidoso, the tourist town; Capitan, home of Smokey Bear’s grave; Glencoe and San Patricio, historic towns that are now primarily arts communities; Hondo, known for its fruit farms; and the most important of all, Lincoln, epicenter of the Lincoln County War and the place that Billy the Kid developed from scrappy young kid to deputized member of a posse to outlaw.

The entire area was just so scenic, so full of history, and so magnificent that I was blown away. I could feel artistic inspiration coursing through my veins, whether I was sitting at a picnic table overlooking the lava field or jumping out of the car to take photos at yet another scenic overlook.

Then we visited Lincoln. The town is so magnificently preserved, and the locals are so incredibly dedicated to keeping it that way. The Lincoln State Monument encompasses five sites that played a critical role in the Lincoln County War: the Tunstall Store; the old Lincoln County Courthouse (the county seat moved to Carrizozo in 1913); the Torreon; the Montano Store; and the San Juan Mission Church, as well as a detailed museum that traces the history of the Lincoln County War.

If you’re not familiar with the story of Billy the Kid, here’s the Reader’s Digest version: after a somewhat troubled childhood, he showed up in Lincoln in the mid-1870s. John Tunstall, a British businessman, had recently opened a mercantile and cattle ranch in Lincoln. Until Tunstall opened his shop, L.G. Murphy had a monopoly on the city, including lucrative beef contracts to support nearby Fort Stanton. Murphy, backed by a corrupt local government, didn’t take too kindly to the competition. Murphy also had connections to the most known outlaw gangs in the state. So Tunstall rounded up a bunch of troubled, but not totally outlaw, young guys to work for him, and named them the Regulators. He provided living quarters and an education, while they provided labor for the ranch and store as well as protection.

Shortly after Billy the Kid joined the Regulators, Tunstall was murdered by a group of Murphy’s boys. That incident in 1878 sparked the Lincoln County War. The Regulators were deputized and given instructions to bring in the men responsible for the murder as well as some of their backers and supporters. But one thing led to another, and it turned into an all-out bloodbath. At the time, the main road through Lincoln was dubbed “The Most Dangerous Street in America.” Sheriff William Brady was killed in the war, and though he had bullets from at least five guys, the killing was pinned on Billy the Kid. The Regulators lost their deputy status and became outlaws.

Billy and the rest of the Regulators continued to hunt down Murphy’s posse, swearing to avenge John Tunstall’s death. The Regulators were tricked into returning to Lincoln in 1879 and trapped in the home of Alexander McSween, Tunstall’s partner and attorney. After a four-day siege, the house was set on fire by soldiers who had been called in from Fort Stanton to assist Murphy’s side. Though Billy and most of the Regulators escaped, along with McSween’s wife Susan, McSween was killed while trying to surrender.

After the War, Billy and some of his pals continued to live life outside the law. Billy was eventually tried and sentenced to hang for the killing of Sheriff Brady, but made a dramatic escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse. A former pal, Pat Garrett, was appointed sheriff in 1880, and was tasked with tracking down Billy. Officially, Pat Garrett shot and killed Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, New Mexico on July 14, 1881.

But that’s just one version of the story. As it turns out, everything about Billy the Kid is shrouded in a mystery that just gets deeper and deeper. No one knows exactly where he came from, when or where he was born, or what events led directly to his appearance in Lincoln, NM.

There have been endless movies and books both historical and fiction. There is a fair amount of hard evidence demonstrating that Billy the Kid did not, in fact, die in 1881, but not enough to conclusively prove anything one way or the other. There have been talks of exhuming his and his mother’s remains and doing DNA testing to solve the mystery once and for all. But a flood destroyed the cemetery where Billy the Kid allegedly rests, not long after he was supposedly buried. They would have to exhume the entire cemetery to find his remains, assuming of course that they weren’t washed away altogether.

If Billy the Kid did survive, precious little is known about where he might have gone and what he might have done. A few people came forward in the 1940s and 1950s claiming to be Billy, including Brushy Bill Roberts, who sought a pardon that had been promised to Billy the Kid 70 years prior. But none shared much information about what their life was like from 1881 until that time.

So naturally, my writer’s brain went into overdrive. There’s a real-life mystery to be solved in the question of where Billy came from and how old he was during the Lincoln County War. There’s also a speculative mystery to be solved–if he wasn’t killed by Pat Garrett, which I don’t believe he was, then what the heck was he doing for the next 70 or so years?

Enter Danielle. She walked fully formed into my head, just like Harry Potter did to JK Rowling. She actually came in response to an idle question: “What if a woman rode with Billy the Kid?” Dad and I talked about her a little and fleshed her out…it was weird, because he’d say something that I was just thinking or vice versa. She has quite an interesting backstory of her own, and is most definitely not just another sidekick.

So there you have it, boys and girls. I’m still working on my memoir, but I also have a mystery to solve, or at least to speculate about. It’s not often that a historical fiction writer dreams up a story that is set in the place that he or she actually is at the moment. In my case, I was able to go back to Lincoln. I picked the brains of some of the residents. I spent way too much money on extremely well-researched books. I took Dad on lengthy photography missions to canyons and hideouts and ghost towns on dusty trails that have changed little since the 1870s. We’ve turned the local museums upside down and inside out learning all we can about daily life in the 1860s-1950s in this area. It’s quite fun, really, and highly educational. I’ve also made a list of skills I’ll need to acquire to write it accurately, from shooting a gun to stunt riding. I don’t need to be an expert, but I do need to know how it all feels.

Of course, since I’m doing all this historical research anyway, I’m going to try to monetize it in the meantime. So I’m submitting to Arcadia Publishing, which puts out a book series called Images of America. I’m going to try to get a job writing their Lincoln edition. It would be a work-for-hire, so definitely not a get-rich project, but I would make some money and gain a bit of credibility for the historical fiction project.

Amazing how a chance meeting with a random person can entirely change the course of your life. If we had never stepped foot inside that tourist bureau, I wouldn’t be working on these projects now. I have no idea whether this book will ever sell, but it’s a story I feel I need to tell. Wish me luck!!

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