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The Ghosts of Chalk Hill — Part 2: The Patron Saint of New Mexico

On the fighters and outlaws of New Mexico’s present and past. In this part, we look at Billy the Kid.

April 8, 1881

I would have written before this but could get no paper. My United States case was thrown out of court and I was rushed to trial on my Territorial Charge. Was convicted of murder in the first degree and am to be hanged on the 13th of May. Mr. A.J. Fountain was appointed to defend me and has done the best he could for me. He is willing to carry the case further if I can raise the money to bear his expense. The mare is about all I can depend on at present so hope you will settle the case right away and give him the money you get for her. If you do not settle the matter with Scott Moore and have to go to court about it, either give Fountain the mare or sell her at auction and give him the money. Please do as he wishes in the matter. I know you will do the best you can for me in this. I shall be taken to Lincoln tomorrow. Please write and direct care to Garrett sheriff. Excuse bad writing I have my handcuffs on. I remain as ever.

Yours Respectfully,

W.H. Bonney

He occupied the Mesilla courthouse bench like a corralled alley cat. Locked in metal bracelets, surrounded on all sides by armed guards. He stood trial for the killing of Sheriff William J. Brady, and was not to be uncuffed or left alone until the verdict came down. Twenty-one windblown years old, with little country left to roam.

He sat beside his lawyer, who had a penchant for longshot cases. And unless youth and innocence were ruled synonymous, or beguiling eyes could charm a boy’s way out of a murder charge, Albert Fountain had found his most hopeless client yet.

Outlaw William ‘Billy The Kid’ Bonney Photo by American Stock/Getty Images

Sheriff Brady died during the Lincoln County War, a domestic conflict between two factions of influential landowners which raged on for three bloody years. Brady aligned with the James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy faction, and he deputized a posse of Dolan men who proceeded to gun down the rancher John Tunstall in February of 1878, effectively setting the war in motion.

With the county sheriff deep in their enemies’ pockets, members of Tunstall’s faction formed the infamous Lincoln County Regulators and began to plot their retribution. The gang included a recalcitrant teenager named William Bonney, a hired ranch hand on Tunstall’s estate.

Bonney had grown fond of Tunstall. When they laid the rancher’s corpse out on a table the day after the shooting, the boy soon known as Billy the Kid looked down at his dead boss and said, “I’ll get some of them before I die.”

They ambushed the sheriff in the center of town, in broad daylight, and put twelve bullets in him. In their mad scramble out of Lincoln, the Regulators killed another deputy for good measure.

Blood had been spilled on both sides of this bitter feud, but the assassination of a county lawman meant Billy and the Regulators were now public enemies. They’d anticipated such disrepute and cared little to avoid it. Sworn vengeance was unconditional; had it been heat stroke that got Tunstall, the Kid would’ve shot out the sun.

Billy’s only shot at freedom rested in the hands of Governor Lew Wallace, who had met with the Kid in secret and allegedly promised to grant him amnesty in exchange for testimony in another ongoing murder case. Billy testified, but the pardon never came to fruition.

Fountain lost the case and the judge ordered Billy to be taken back to Lincoln, where he was to be “hung by the neck until his body be dead.”

In his Lincoln jail cell, Billy received a visit from an old friend, Annie Lesnett. Her eyes welled with tears when Bob Olinger, the guard who loved to torment the Kid, invited her to the hanging. But the morbid joke didn’t bother Billy.

“Mrs. Lesnett,” he said, “they can’t hang me if I’m not there, can they?”

Olinger wouldn’t live to see the summer. It was said that Billy was born with large wrists and small hands; if a singular purpose spurred each child’s creation, his was to slip out of a pair of cuffs.

The Patron Saint of New Mexico

Billy the Kid historic marker in Santa Fe, New Mexico Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Billy’s old haunts have become renegade shrines in New Mexico, but they’re real places to Brandon Gibson. He’s been to the courthouse where his ancestor Albert Fountain defended the Kid. He’s been to Blazer’s Mill, where Fountain stopped on his doomed journey home, and where the Regulators staged one of the bloodiest shootouts of the Lincoln County War.

Few New Mexicans can claim familial ties to the mythic figures of the Old West — though many do try.

“You hear a lot of ‘My great-grandma was Billy the Kid’s girlfriend,’ stuff like that,” Gibson says. “I think everybody here wants to have a tie-in to the legends. Sometimes we joke that Billy the Kid is the patron saint of New Mexico.”

William Bonney’s story has endured for over a century, romanticized in dimestore novels, biographies of both accurate and sugarcoated varieties, and Hollywood films. He’s peerless among the luminary outlaws of the era, rivaled only by Jesse James, who outlived Billy by more than a decade. The Kid’s grave in Fort Sumner still draws tens of thousands of visitors each year, not far from the gift shops of the Billy the Kid Museum.

The institutions bent on keeping Billy alive include even the New Mexico government. In 2011, Governor Susana Martinez launched a statewide scavenger hunt to “find” the Kid: the mock manhunt offered a $10,000 prize to the winner who completed a series of frivolous challenges — an overt ploy to attract tourists.

The year prior, then-governor Bill Richardson publicly considered granting the Kid a posthumous pardon, citing Lew Wallace’s unfulfilled (and potentially fictitious) promise of amnesty. Of course, Billy murdered two lawmen long after that supposed amnesty promise…but even those gruesome details can be spun by the staunchest Kid loyalists.

An escape artist until the end, the Kid has slipped loose from the line which tethers American myth to reality. He’s come to symbolize the audacity that fueled each of his shootouts and jailbreaks. It’s a defiance that still resonates with New Mexicans today.

“There are a lot of characteristics of Billy and the Regulators that people relate to,” Gibson says. “Fighting for your friends, fighting against corruption. At the end of the day, he killed three territorial lawmen. But he was caught up in this whirlwind, trying to make the best plays to keep him and his buddies alive. The guys moving the pieces were just at a higher level. Sometimes I feel like Billy was a kid caught up in a bad place, trying to keep his head on.

“He lived this outlaw life that some people saw justice in, and others only saw cold-blooded ruthlessness.”

Gibson’s no stranger to this sort of public divide — New Mexicans have debated the morality of a more modern breed of gunslinger too. There’s a reason he never used to discuss his coaching career at his day job. In the 90s and early 2000s, plenty of locals had nicer words for Billy the Kid than they did for those crazy folks who fought in cages.

“There was a time when I was younger when being associated with MMA didn’t go over so well on the public service side of things.”

Then came November of 2015, when a woman from Albuquerque flew to Australia and changed everything.

UFC 193: Rousey v Holm Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

“After Holly won, the town got behind MMA so much more,” says Gibson, recalling Holly Holm’s stunning knockout of the unbeaten superstar Ronda Rousey. “It became more of a positive affiliation. At the parade after Holly won the title, there were 20-25,000 people that came out to City Hall.”

In the years since Holm’s monumental victory, Gibson has seen his community rally behind fighters with a fervor he would’ve never anticipated in the early, lawless years of MMA.

On a major fight night, like in July of 2019 when Holm and Jon Jones each fought for titles at UFC 239, Albuquerque all but shuts down. Busy storefront streets become galleries of ‘Closed’ signs. The oxygen thins and the volume soars beneath the roof of every sports bar. Blockbuster films screen to vacant rooms; the next theaters over are packed with fans awaiting the main event. All across New Mexico, people crowd around television sets and cheer for one of their own.

“We don’t have pro sports teams in New Mexico,” Gibson says. “People now look at our homegrown fighters as the pro athletes of our community. Especially people like Holly or Diego Sanchez or Carlos Condit, the ones who are native to New Mexico. They’re beloved.

“And the town embraces the people who have come here and made Albuquerque their home, like Donald Cerrone and Michelle Waterson. So many great fighters have made ABQ their home and waved the flag.”

This communal support is why so many fighters who come to JacksonWink for training end up planting lifelong roots in and around Albuquerque. Given the place’s history, it’s no surprise to see New Mexicans cherish outsiders who adopt the land as their own.

After all, the ‘patron saint of New Mexico’ was a transplant from New York, a nomad who came to the southwest and embraced its customs, studied New Mexican culture, and learned the language of the people. Locals called him Billito.

The Kid didn’t hang in Lincoln, his head too slick with devious instincts to wind up in a noose. But he never left New Mexico again, and in a cultural sense he never will.

People will forever debate whether Billy’s slender frame housed a virtuous heart or the black soul of a child born wicked; at least now they have a new breed of fighter to lay claim to. The soccer mom in Whole Foods might’ve fibbed about her grandma courting Billy the Kid, but she just might’ve been telling the truth about running into Jon Jones in the produce section.

Perhaps it’s fitting that this region enthralled by romantic outlaws has found its new heroes in the combat athletes of today. Beneath his callous exterior, the complexities of Billy the Kid — the capacity for brutality and compassion, the kind eyes and the killer instinct, a knack for self-preservation almost primal in its endurance — hold a mirror to the thorny contradictions that live within the men and women who lace up four-ounce gloves, who shed one self for another as they make that lonesome walk to the waiting cage door.

To Be Concluded in Part III: The Outlaw Self

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