When Editor Cheryl Fallstead and I produced “New Mexico Mile Marker” radio stories a few years ago, little did I know I’d actually be able to stand where this story took place. During my tour of Fort Stanton, Mayor Justin Ingram told me about Billy’s surrender at Stinking Springs, about 15 miles east of town. We had done a Mile Marker about the tale and I just had to find it.
William Bonney, whom we know as Billy the Kid, was dealt a bad hand. By age 12, his mother had died and his step-father had abandoned his brother and him. He was on his own, wandering the Southwest, rustling cattle, playing cards, and often finding himself on the wrong side of the law.
Billy was involved in the Lincoln County War and sought revenge for the death of his friend, John Tunstall, murdered by the notorious Murphy-Dolan gang. He and several other men, presumed deputized and calling themselves The Regulators, ambushed and killed Sheriff William Brady. There was a warrant out of the Kid’s arrest, although Brady was said to have a dozen gunshot wounds made by six different guns.
Sheriff Pat Garrett, who had sometimes befriended Billy, was determined to bring him to justice. He had, of course, done that. He hauled Billy to Mesilla where he was tried and convicted of the murder. Then, on the way back to Lincoln to hang, he escaped. Garrett relentlessly pursued him.
Now, Billy liked to hang around Fort Sumner, perhaps because there were plenty of cows to rustle or maybe because he favored Mexican girls, many of whom lived in the town.
On December 21, 1880, six months before Garrett shot him dead at Pete Maxwell’s Fort Sumner house, Billy, Tom O’Folliard, and Charlie Bowdre were holed up in an abandoned ranch house at Stinking Springs. The house had been abandoned when the railroad had put its line a mile north, nearer to the larger, successful Wilson ranch, where cattle could be more conveniently loaded.
Garrett and his posse were waiting outside in the biting cold. After hours of siege, Garrett sent one of his men to the Wilson ranch for beef to feed his men. As they cooked, the aroma of the meat penetrated the house where Billy and his gang waited. It was just too much for the famished young outlaws.
They called out to Garrett and agreed to surrender if he would share the beef with them. Garrett agreed, and Billy’s gang was captured and put in handcuffs. But that didn’t keep them in custody. All three escaped. Within a short time, Garrett caught up with and shot Bowdre and O’Folliard.
Billy remained at large until he made the mistake of trying to get a piece of a heifer Pete Maxwell had butchered. He walked into trouble without his gun and was shot to death by Garrett. But that’s another story.
Now, here I was, standing at Stinking Springs. In Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia (of John Brown fame) I sat on a rock where Thomas Jefferson once retired to overlook the Shenandoah River. At Colonial Williamsburg in the House of Burgess, I sat in seats held by Patrick Henry and George Washington. And while I couldn’t sit in the seats, I saw where Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, Apollo 11 astronauts, sat on their way to the moon.
None of those illustrious people affected my imagination as much as standing next to a smelly seepage of water — the very place where Billy the Kid petitioned his freedom for a beefsteak.