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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Billy The Kid's First Shooting, August 17, 1877

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William Bonney, known to the world as Billy the Kid, was involved in his first murder today in 1877. As with many famous people from the era of the American Wild West, his legend is much larger than his stature in real life. Although he has been dead for 125 years, Billy the Kid still defines the image of the young, sharp-shooting outlaw.

The man who would one day be called Billy the Kid used several aliases during his short life, including Henry McCarty, Henry Antrim and William Bonney. Since little is known about his youth or his parents, his real name has been lost to the dustbin of the ages. He was short, thin and had blue eyes. Most people who met him described him as friendly, but he could also display a fierce temper at a moment's notice. His abilities with a pistol or rifle were legendary but probably true. He had quick senses, which gave him an almost animal-like ability to sense and escape from danger. His instinct alone saved his life more than once.

Billy's story as a fugitive from justice began in 1875, when he escaped from the Silver City, New Mexico jail while being held on charges of theft. He worked as a ranch hand for the next two years before being hired to drive a team of horses for the Camp Grant Army post. He almost immediately developed a confrontational relationship with Frank Cahill, a civilian blacksmith at the post. On August 17th, 1877, Billy and Cahill exchanged heated words, which resulted in Cahill attacking Billy and throwing him to the ground. Cahill was a large man; Billy was 17 years old and thin as a rail. Probably out of fear, he drew his pistol and shot Cahill. The blacksmith died the next day, resulting in Billy's arrest. A local Marshal was sent for, but Billy was able to make an escape before a trial could be held.

That fall, Billy showed up in Lincoln County, New Mexico, working as a cattle guard. The residents of the county were fighting a sort of mini-civil war, a conflagration that would come to be known as the Lincoln County Cattle War. The details of the war could fill several thick volumes; suffice it to say that Billy ended up riding with a group known as the Regulators, eventually becoming the gang's leader.

As leader of the Regulators, Billy took part in gun battles that resulted in five deaths, most notably Sheriff William Brady. The group was indicted for murder and went on the run for several months. They were finally tracked to a house in Lincoln, where they held out for five days against a posse of deputies and locals. The house was set on fire, forcing the Regulators to face the posse that encircled them. Billy escaped once again. One of the men killed that day was Alexander McSween, a lawyer who was the leader of one side in the county war. With his death, the Lincoln County Cattle War ended.

In the fall of 1878, a general amnesty was proclaimed for anyone involved in the Lincoln County War who was not already under indictment. Billy was living in Texas at this time and was still under indictment for Sheriff William Brady's murder. However, he came forward and offered to testify against other gun fighters if he was granted amnesty. The state agreed to this concession and Billy turned himself in. After testifying, however, he was returned to jail. As he had proven many times in the past, Billy was not fond of the iron bars of a cell. Before any action could be taken against him, he once again freed himself and headed out of town.

Billy became a cattle rustler and gambler for the next 18 months and was involved in several shootings. The activities of his gang drew attention, and not in a good way. The group was hunted by a posse looking for cattle thieves and Billy once again found himself trapped in a house surrounded by armed men. But the posse accidently shot one of their own men, at which point they broke up and allowed Billy and his crew to escape.

Billy's reputation had grown, so much so that newly-elected sheriff Pat Garrett put a $500 bounty on his head. He and his posse were soon surrounded, captured and hauled off the town of Mesilla to wait for trial. He was convicted of murdering Sheriff Brady after a one day proceeding and was sentenced to hang. While being held in the top room of the local courthouse, Billy killed his two guards and escaped. How he managed to do this remains a mystery, but it is believed that he may have slipped out of his handcuffs and grabbed one of the deputies' weapons.

Billy the Kid met his end on July 14, 1881 at Pete Maxwell's house near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Sheriff Garrett came to the house to question Maxwell about Billy's whereabouts, not knowing that the 21-year old was only a room away. The exact events of the evening are shaded by time, but one thing is certain: Pat Garrett shot Billy twice, killing him instantly. He was buried the next day in Fort Sumner's cemetery between two of his Regulator companions.

Much has been made of Billy the Kid's body count. Legend has it that he killed 21 men, one for every year of his life. The truth, however, is much less sensational. Most likely, Billy was involved in 9 murders; 5 in which he was with a gang and four when he was alone. One year after he died, Pat Garrett, the sheriff who killed Billy, published a book entitled 'The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid', which was wildly inaccurate and told many of the fanciful tales that survive to this day. The legend was born.

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