(BILLY the KID – continued)

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LAW and DISORDER (3 of 4)

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The Lincoln County War

In the town of Lincoln, Billy's employer, John Tunstall, with Alexander McSween and backing from John Chisum, challenged the Dolan establishment by opening a store and banking operation just down the street from the Dolan store and headquarters, widely referred to as "the House." Tunstall was looking to be the dominant commercial power in Lincoln country within three years.

Tunstall and McSween were involved in a civil suit filed against them by the House. A local judge favored the House. The sheriff, William Brady, followed the court's writ and confiscated the Tunstall-McSweeny store, and Brady raised a posse to serve a notice of attachment on Tunstall's livestock. On February 18, 1878, Tunstall left his ranch and rode toward Lincoln to challenge the claim against his property. He ran into the sheriff's posse. Tunstall is described as approaching the posse "as if to parley." He was shot in the chest and knocked to the ground. Thrashing about, one of the posse shot him in the head. They shot his horse, and as a joke they left him in a position resembling taking a nap, with Tunstall's hat on the dead horse's head.

Tunstall's employees, including Billy, wanted to retaliate. McSween, a former lawyer, wanted to apply the law. He began a letter-writing campaign to outside authorities requesting an investigation. From a local justice of the peace he obtained warrants for the arrest of Tunstall's killers and warrants for others, including Sheriff Brady, for larceny at Tunstall's store. Billy and others were deputized to serve the warrants, but it didn't work. In Lincoln the deputies were met with drawn guns and briefly put in jail.

Frustrated, Billy and others, including McSween, succumbed to the temptation of revenge on Sheriff Brady, whom they blamed for the death of Tunsdall. This was a crucial turning point in Billy's life. On April 1 they ambushed Brady as he was walking with others down Lincoln's main street. Brady and one of his deputies were shot dead. It accomplished nothing for the Tunstall-McSween group. It turned more townsfolk against them.

The Lincoln County War continued with the Tunstall avengers calling themselves the Regulators, and they picked up new recruits from those hostile to the Dolan power-center. Through April, bullets were flying in skirmishes between the opposing sides. A US Army detachment arrived from Fort Stanton with orders to arrest men on both sides of the conflict, and that came to nothing.

The running battles continued into May. Tunstall having been British, the British Foreign Office filed a complaint with the US government. A commission from Washington was sent to New Mexico to investigate Tunstall's death. Dispositions were taken, including one from Billy, while the periodic shootouts continued unabated.

McSween was killed in a shootout and his house burned down on July 19, 1878. The Dolan force considered itself as having won its war, while Billy and some of his Regulator friends remained on their list of "wanted" men.

Some of the Regulators decided to leave New Mexico and start a new life. They invited Billy to do the same. Billy was left as undisputed leader of the Regulators, which fit with the skill he had demonstrated as an innovator in the heat of battle. Billy stayed in New Mexico. Starting over would have meant leaving his friends, male and female, and another lonely venture like his first run out of state to Arizona a couple of years earlier.

A federal investigator, Frank Angel, criticized New Mexico's governor, Samuel Axtell, and asked President Rutherford B Hayes to take action regarding matters in New Mexico. Hayes replaced Axtell with Lew Wallace, a Civil War general who was pursuing a literary career. Wallace called for a halt to all violence and proclaimed amnesty for all parties who had participated in the Lincoln County War.

On February 18, 1879, Billy with others rode into Lincoln hoping to parley with Dolan and his group. One of the Dolan group wanted to shoot Billy. Instead the two sides gathered on the road to shake hands and sign an agreement not to testify against anyone. It was decided that anyone who broke the agreement "should be killed on sight." note65   The agreement was celebrated by everybody getting drunk except Billy. The drunks demanded that one of those on Billy's side, Houston Chapman, do a jig. When he refused, Dolan and another fired their guns and killed the man. Billy immediately put some distance between himself and Dolan's group.

In March, Governor Wallace removed the incompetent commander of Fort Stanford, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley, and the governor ordered the arrest of any person involved in Houston Chapman's death.

Billy wrote a letter to Wallace describing the events that led to Chapman's death, which Wallace received on March 13. Billy wrote:

I have no wish to fight any more. Indeed I have not raised an arm since your proclamation. As to my character, I refer to any of the citizens, for the majority of them are my friends and have been helping me all they could. I am called Kid Antrim but Antrim is my stepfather's name. Waiting for an answer I remain your obedient servant. note66

On March 17, Billy responded to Wallace's agreement to meet. Wallace proposed that Billy submit to an arrest after which Billy would receive the governor's pardon. A few days later Billy submitted to his arrest by Sheriff Kimbrell and his posse. The governor witnessed Billy in jail in the town of San Patricio. He was to write that he was mystified by Billy's popularity:

I heard singing and music the other night; going to the door I found the minstrels of the village actually serenading the fellow in his prison. note67

In April, Billy was a witness before a grand jury and testified that Dolan and one of his associates, Billy Campbell, had killed Chapman. Dolan and Campbell were indicted for murder. More than 200 criminal indictments were made against 50 men, the killing of McSween included. Many of the indicted took advantage of the governor's amnesty. As Wallis writes, "Only a very few of those indicted ever came close to going to trial." note68  

The district attorney in Santa Fe, William Rynerson, an ally of the Dolan's, didn't want to honor the governor's promise of immunity for Billy. Billy was out of jail and went back to Fort Sumner. He believed Dolan and his group, including Rynerson, wanted him dead. He believed the governor's promises had been empty and meaningless. He was prepared to live in the open by his wits.

Billy the Kid (2 of 4) | Billy the Kid (4 of 4)

Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.