Today Cody and Greg discuss one of the Wild West's most infamous criminals, Billy the Kid. This episode covers Billy's early life and some of the crazy parts of his childhood that turned him into a ruthless fighter and killer. You'll learn about some of his crazy run-ins with the Apache Indians, like when he defended a wagon train from 14 Apache warriors.
The Wild West had no shortage of legends and people on which they were based. Famous men and women like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Annie Oakley have all been interesting and important subjects in American history, all performing seemingly impossible exploits throughout the Wild West of America.
There are almost too many Wild West folk heroes to list, but today we’ll be discussing one of the most famous and infamous men of that era, Billy the Kid. Greg, you probably know very little about Billy, right?
The reason Billy the Kid is such an interesting outlaw is that he was legitimately a kid for most of his criminal life. Billy was an active criminal from the time he was 12 up to his untimely death at age 21. He was known for his ruthless temper and impressive shooting abilities, and these facts made The Kid one of the most feared criminals in the West up to his death. Billy did an incredible amount of amazing things throughout his short life, and we’ll be touching on most of them throughout this series, as this will definitely be a two-parter.
As a quick note, I’m basing most of this research from Sheriff Pat Garrett’s book on Billy the Kid. And he would likely be the one to know about him most since he was the sheriff that hunted the Kid and eventually killed him at 21. This book is free to read on the internet, as it’s now in the public domain. The research is also combined with some articles found on History.com and other sites. I’ll also be playing the part of Billy the Kid in his quotes with my fantastic southern impression.
Not much is known of Billy’s early life. But these are the facts we know: We know he was born in New York in 1859. In 1862, his family uprooted from New York and migrated to Coffeyville, Kansas. Billy’s father passed away soon after the move, so there is no recollection of him. After his death, Billy’s mother Kathleen moved them to Colorado, where she married a man named Antrim (who actually ended up outliving the other 4 members of the family). After the marriage, the family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Around the age of 8, Billy began to show signs of recklessness and anger. He was described as being generous and tender one moment, and then a terror of anger the next. It was also around this time in his life that he became very proficient with cards. The family moved again to Silver City, New Mexico, around this same time. Nothing of real consequence occurred here until Billy was 12. It was here in Silver City that The Kid met Jesse Evans, a slightly older child but just as daring as Billy. At this time he was a friend of Billy’s, but Jesse will come back into the story later.
In his youth, Billy was known to everyone that knew him as a somewhat “defender” of the helpless. The old and frail or young and defenceless all saw him as a protector, and he was always willing to help them if need be. It’s believed that this had come from his mother, Kathleen, who was described as a woman of Irish descent who’s charity and goodness of heart were proverbial. Sheriff Pat Garrett also described her in his book as, “not a beauty, but what the world calls a fine-lookin’ woman.”
Billy’s temper was described as fearful and when angry he was dangerous. Although, he wasn’t loud or boisterous. He would never threaten but he would fight any man in Silver City, even at his young age of 12. The only problem at this time in his life was that he wouldn’t give up in a fight, and anytime he was beaten he would search for a gun of any kind to use against his assailant. This temper, along with his love for his mother, led him to his first act of violence towards another person.
One day while crossing the street with his mother, a man standing nearby make an insulting remark about Kathleen. Billy instantly punched the man in the face and went to grab a rock to crush his skull. The man ran at Billy but was smacked to the ground again by a man named Ed Moulton and Billy was restrained. Once released, Billy went in search of and found a rifle to use against the man who had made the remark, but he was eventually convinced to return it.
However, about three weeks after this scrap, Ed Moulton was involved in a bar fight. Moulton was described as a man that could truly carry himself, and he was fighting two men at once. The man who Moulton had knocked to the ground was a bystander of the fight inside the bar and he decided to use this as an opportunity for revenge. He grabbed a chair and rushed Moulton from behind, but before he could reach him, Billy stepped between them and stabbed the man three times in the neck and chest. He then sprinted from the bar and disappeared, soon making his way to Arizona. He would never see his mother’s face again, as she died from Tuberculosis soon after this occurred.
Once he fled Silver City, Billy spent time in a boarding house and worked as a ranch hand until he was around 16 or 17 when he ended up meeting a companion whose true name was lost to history because he had changed it so many times; Billy knew him only as “Alias”. (I do believe that this person’s name was found to be John R. Mackie, but that’s of no consequence.) They travelled together for a bit after stealing some horses and ended up at the Chiracahua Apache Indian Reservation. Here they met 3 Native Americans and attempted to convince them to hand over a horse and provisions, with them promising to pay later. But, by this time, the Native Americans had become accustomed to the tricks of the white man, so they refused. Billy and Alias felt it was a lost cause and just decided to kill the three men, which truly showed the ruthlessness that Billy was capable of from such a young age. In a quote from Billy, he described the incident a bit vaguely. He didn’t actually say the killed them. But he said:
"It was a groundhog case. Here were twelve good ponies, four or five saddles, a good supply of blankets, and five pony loads of pelts. Here were three blood-thirsty savages, revelling in all this luxury and refusing succor to two free-born, white American citizens, foot sore and hungry. The plunder had to change hands—there was no alternative—and as one live Indian could place a hundred United States troops on our trail in two hours, and as a dead Indian would be likely to take some other route, our resolves were taken. In three minutes there were three "good Injuns" lying around there, careless like, and, with ponies and plunder, we skipped. There was no fight. It was about the softest thing I ever struck."
They rode off with all of the three Native American’s things and sold them for cash. When they returned to the reservation, they were said to have been very well armed with money in their pockets. And, as awful as it sounds, it is described that no one regretted the loss of the Native Americans, so their return to the reservation with so much money was not questioned. However, they soon became bored with the reservation and decided to set off somewhere else with their new horses.
KILLING OF CAHILL
Now, the next few bits of information I tell to give you the listener some context into what type of person Billy the Kid was developing into. The particular events began to mould the Kid into the criminal people both feared and loved. We’re cutting some from the story but through a series of events that included raiding homes and other robbings, Billy and Alias parted ways and Billy ended up at Fort Bowie in Arizona still at the age of 17. It was here during a card game that Billy met the blacksmith Francis P. “Windy” Cahill. Reportedly, Cahill would bully Billy and refused to pay money that he had lost to Billy. He would sometimes call Billy a “Pimp”, though this didn’t mean what it means today. I looked up the meaning for this word and the likely meaning of the slang is close to “little”, so he was calling him something like a little bitch.
One time, Billy responded by calling him a “son of a bitch” which obviously had more oomph in those days. This led to a fight and Billy shot Cahill dead. He was then detained and held in a guardhouse but ended up escaping and fled Arizona. It really seemed that Billy had an issue being bullied for his age, which is unfortunate considering he garnered the name The Kid.
The bullying of Billy the Kid didn’t stop there. After fleeing Arizona, Billy arrived in Sonora, Mexico. Here he joined up with a Mexican gambler named Melquiades Segura. Still, at the age of 17, Billy soon ran into trouble, again due to gambling. He began having issues with a monte dealer by the name of Don Jose Martinez. For a few weeks, Martinez would persistently bully and insult Billy and consistently refuse to pay him money fairly won at his game. Whenever Billy entered the club-room, Martinez, like a little bitch, would pull out a six-shooter, lay it on the table beside him and begin a tirade of abuse towards “Gringos” in general, and Billy in particular.
Eventually, Billy got tired of this. He and Segura saddled up their horses and packed their belongings, planning to leave Senora. But before that, Billy needed to stop by the club-room. He did so and left Segura outside with the horses. Billy walked into the club-room and the insults began as usual from Martinez, while he sat with his hand on his pistol. But Billy interjected and said, “Jose, do you fight as bravely with that pistol as you do with your mouth?” Martinez raised his gun, but Billy was able to unholster his gun with incredible speed and shoot Martinez straight through the eye. He and Segura then said sayonara to Sonora and made their escape.
The pair then found themselves in the city of Chihuahua. At one point Billy, again, had won a sizeable amount of money on a card game, but the dealer told Billy, in a rather sneering tone, that he didn’t have enough money to pay his losses. Although the dealer was at the same time raking doubloons and double doubloons into his sack, which would have been enough to pay Billy a dozen times over, all the while making eye contact with Billy.
Billy made no reply, he just smiled slightly, and he and Segura left the house. But that particular dealer never made it home with his gold, one could assume it found its way to someone else’s pockets. Not so coincidentally, Billy and Segura were not seen again publicly in Chihuahua, but a few more prosperous card dealers were mysteriously held up at night before they could reach home.
RIO GRANDE CITY, TEXAS
Following their time in Chihuahua, Billy and Segura made their way to Rio Grande City, Texas. Billy was STILL at the age of 17. It was here that the two parted ways, but Billy ran into an old friend from his past: Jesse Evans.
Now before we continue the story of what Billy and Jesse got up to, this is a good point to describe Billy physically, as he was pretty much at the same physical stature now as when he was killed. He was 5’7” and 1 half inches tall, and one hundred and thirty-five pounds. He was actually described as taller and bigger than Jesse.
Something interesting about Billy’s appearance is that he never actually had a scowl on his face or anything of the sort. He is described by some people as having a cruel expression on his face, but this is actually false. More likely than not, Billy would actually always be smiling, or laughing. Now, this may sound like a good thing, but this wasn’t only when he was happy or having a good time. Yes, Billy was laughing and smiling when he when ate or drank, but also when he fought and even when he killed, which can very easily be considered quite unsettling. He would rarely show any sign of anger, he would merely pull his lip into a small smile, and would more than likely murder the object of his aggression with no second thought. All at the age of 17.
But, it’s also stated very clearly that his generosity knew no bounds. No matter who you were, friend, stranger, or even an enemy, you were welcome to his money, horse, or clothes. It was almost like if you didn’t trouble him, he wouldn’t trouble you. To me, this sounds very close to bipolar disorder, but obviously I can’t be sure.
TIME WITH JESSE
Billy and Jesse truly found their place in crime for the first few months they were together after being reunited. They completed hundreds of lawless raids and subsequently each gained a bigger name for themselves. There were a number of bounties placed on their heads, but these bounties only ever ended with dead bounty hunters. Billy and Jesse were too talented with their weapons and too fearless to be taken down by any bounty hunter.
Throughout the same area around the Rio Grande, a group of Native Americans referred to as the Mescalero Apache Indians would make frequent raids into Mexico and attack immigrants along the river. On one occasion, an immigrant group from Texas containing 3 men and their families came across Billy and Jesse. The immigrants took pity on these two poor unsophisticated boys and felt terribly sorry for their situation, having to travel through Indian country all alone and unprotected. They proposed that Billy and Jesse should travel with them, for safety. The two boys declined, ate dinner with the group, and the wagon train rolled on.
Later the same day, the boys noticed a group of Native Americans seemingly travelling in the same direction as the wagon train. The boys decided to try to cut the Native American’s trail to get a better look at them, and they succeeded. They caught up to the Apache party and found that there were 14 warriors and they were heading in the direction of the immigrant’s wagon train. It was obvious at this point that these Apache were planning to attack the immigrants, so Billy and Jesse decided to intervene. They would need to ride harder and through rougher terrain to surpass the Native Americans and reach the immigrants first.
Jesse was a bit less confident about the trip and asked Billy if they’d be able to make. And Billy responded, “The question isn't, will we make it? but how soon will we make it? It's a groundhog case. We've got to get there. Think of those white-headed young ones, Jess, and whoop up. When my horse's four legs let up, I've got two of my own."
What a badass thing for an 17-year-old to say.
Just at dusk, the boys rounded a corner to find the immigrant’s camp. They had arrived literally seconds before the Apache’s as they instantly heard the battle cry of the 14 warriors. Billy and Jess jumped from their saddles, grabbed their rifles, and responded with their own terrifying battle cry. The Apache’s were caught off-guard by this, and it gave Billy and Jess time to start picking many of them off. As they were both expert marksmen, it only took one shot each to bring the Apache down. The boys made their way to a trench for a better vantage point, but on the way, Billy’s rifle was caught by an Apache bullet. The wood splintered and caused an injury to Billy’s hand. He then instead returned fire with his revolver until he made it to the trench. From this spot, the boys couldn’t see what was happening inside the camp, but they heard a child scream as if in agony as well as the shriek of a woman.
Billy jumped from the trench and charged the camp with his revolver and a Spanish dagger. It’s stated that Billy fought through half a dozen of the Apache, howling with delight with his signature smile on his face. After he had emptied his revolver, he dodged a blow from one of the attackers by darting under one of the wagons, luckily falling directly next to a prairie axe. He came out the other side of the wagon and found all but two of the immigrants hiding there. The young girl and a woman who had both screamed earlier could both be seen on the ground nearby, seemingly lifeless.
Billy took the axe he had found and charged at the Apaches. With the help of Jesse’s cover fire, he swung on the Apaches for a full three minutes until none were left alive. Billy’s face, hands and clothing, the wagons, the camp furniture, and the grass were all said the be splattered with blood and brains.
The boys discovered after the attack that the little girl had received a skull fracture from one of the Apache attempting to crush her skull, and the mother had fainted. Everyone seemed to have suffered some sort of loss or wound from the battle. All three of the men from the wagon train were somehow wounded, one shot in the stomach. Billy had the heel of his boot broken, his gun was shot to pieces, and he had received a wound to the hand. And Jesse lost his hat. He said he remembered when it was shot off, but he didn’t know where it could be.
After the situation with the immigrants, Billy and Jesse returned to the Rio Grande where they fell in with a group that Jesse knew very well. They were offered a job in a group of cowboys and both agreed. But Billy received word that his old friend Segura was in the area, so he decided to wait for him and catch up with the others in Lincoln County later.
Billy awaited Segura’s arrival for quite some time until he received word from a rider that Segura had actually been imprisoned in Mexico. The jail was 81 miles from Billy, but he made the journey within 6 hours. (Obviously, not as impressive today, but it’s pretty impressive with a horse. Especially considering he had to cross the Rio Grande River on horseback, which actually took a full 30 minutes of constant fighting with the waves. Also, he’s still 17.)
Once at the prison, Billy tricked the guard at the entrance by using his impeccable Spanish and saying, “Turn out, we have two American prisoners here.” The guard opened the door and was met with Billy’s pistol. He unarmed the guard and told him to lead him through the jail to Segura. Once they reached the jailer he was also convinced to disarm and told to release Segura. The men did as they were told, and were then fastened to a post, gagged, and locked inside the prison. The key to the prison and the guards’ weapons were thrown on top of the jail and the two bandits made their escape.
All this happened within the time it took me to say it. This was a TON of trouble to go through for a friend. Greg, I’m not sure if I’d do this for you. I’m not entirely sure they weren’t lovers.
The two boys received word from Jesse Evans to meet them in Rio Pecos. They, however, STRESSED to Billy and Segura to not go through the ordinary more practical route through the Guadalupe Mountains. It was apparently full of Apaches who were never happy when someone entered their domain and would attack any trespassers on sight. Something about Billy, he completely despised Native Americans; he was unbelievably racist against them, as is evident from the first story of Billy killing 3 Native Americans. Also, the call of adventure was a bit too much for Billy, so he decided that he would brave the Guadalupe Mountains. Segura refused to accompany him and tried to convince him to come with him down the safer path. It was no use, so the two parted ways for the final time.
Billy now needed another companion to brave the mountains with. He met another boy of the same age, Tom O’Keefe, and both decided to make the journey. They gathered supplies and saddled up a sturdy mule, and set off on the nearly 200-mile journey through the mountains. This is like they decided to go through the Mines of Moria.
On the second night in the mountains, they found an Apache trail that evidently would lead to water, so they decided to track the Native Americans in hopes of getting some themselves. They decided to keep a safe distance, although, Billy stated he was more than happy to fight for the water if need be. The path led them to a rockface, and to a small entrance into the mountain. Billy decided to enter this pass and told Tom to wait with the horses, and should Billy return running and screaming, then Tom should guide the horses to the trail so that they may be mounted quickly and leave the mule.
He travelled slowly through the path and came out into a clearing completely surrounded by rocks, which contained grass and weeds, as well as a bubbling mountain spring. It was like a hidden oasis inside the mountains. Billy slowly approached the spring. The ground around the spring was wet, meaning the Apaches had been there just recently. The Kid dunked his head into the spring and filled his canteen, then slowly began to exit the clearing. Suddenly, there were numerous gunshots and Apache battle cries coming from all directions. Billy let out his own battle cry, grabbed his revolver and returned fire while he quickly sprinted back through the entrance he had come through.
On the outside of the entrance, Tom had heard the noises from inside and had readied the horses as he was told, but he became too scared and fled down the mountain pass without Billy. He found a cleft in the rocks that would not fit his horse, so he dismounted, gave the horse a slap, and crawled through the chasm on his hands and knees. He climbed up until he reached a high plateau that he believed was the summit of the mountains. He pulled himself to his feet. Exhausted from the climb, he was about to pass out until he saw something on an adjacent peak making its way up the nearly completely flat mountainside. It was Billy who had used the mountainside as his escape from the Apaches. Unable to control himself, Tom sank back down onto the rock and fell into a deep sleep.
The Kid had run from the entrance while being chased by a group of almost 20 Apache. When they reached the opening, they had lost sight of Billy. They found his trail which led to a seemingly inaccessible cliff, but above them, they saw Billy making the climb. They opened fire but missed. So, multiple Apache began to climb towards the Kid. One climbed so quickly that he reached Billy’s concealing ledge. There was a fight between them and Billy shot the Apache, causing him to fall, ricocheting off the cliffs until he landed on the ground, completely broken.
The Apache continued their pursuit, while Billy gave up on his concealment to further his climb. He began to pull ahead in his ascent as he reached parts of the mountain even the Apache wouldn’t risk climbing to. Although they kept firing at him nonetheless. Every few moments, Billy would curse the Apache and return fire, causing an even further barrage of bullets to be sent his way. However, not one bullet hit him, although one bullet did knock a fragment of rock loose which smashed directly into the Kid, severely injuring his face. He continued his climb, sometimes leaping through the air to grab ahold of the next cliff ledge. The climb was such a dangerous and terrifying experience, the Kid later said that the nearest he ever came to having a nightmare, was trying to repeat the same climb in his dreams.
Finally, he reached the peak and he knew that the Apaches had broken off pursuit far below. And it would take them days to detour around to intercept him. Just like O’Keefe had done, The Kid succumbed to his exhaustion and passed out, leaving the two companions separated and completely alone. And that’s where we’ll pick up next week on our story of the life of Billy the Kid. Next week we’ll be discussing the Kid’s involvement with the Lincoln County War, his further criminal exploits, and his eventual murder.
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