July 19, 1878
Fire is licking at the last room—Susan McSween’s kitchen. In this final refuge, her husband, Alexander, sits with his head in his hands. His 12 defenders are crowded into this crumbling, tiny space, where the walls are too hot to touch, and the air is heavy with smoke. The men are blackened, tired, thirsty and desperate, but they have decided to wait until dark before attempting to escape.
Housebound for nearly five days, having barricaded themselves the evening of July 14, the 12 Regulators in McSween’s home have been holding their own until around 2 p.m. today, when one member of Lincoln County Sheriff George Peppin’s posse, Andrew Boyle, torched the northwest corner of the house. The posse has warrants to arrest the Regulators, for the April 1 killings of Sheriff William Brady and Deputy George Hindman, and the April 4 murder of Andrew “Buckshot” Roberts. Even more, the posse is joined by Fort Stanton Col. Nathan Dudley and troops, with their howitzer.
At approximately 9 p.m., five defenders, including Billy Kid, run toward a gate in the side yard. (One report states they are not wearing boots or shoes.) Before they reach the gate, four Peppin men along the outside of the back wall spot them and open fire.
Law student Harvey Morris is shot dead at the gate. The remaining four, including the Kid, leap over his body and return fire as they race for the creek. Incredibly, they make it.
McSween and another group of his besieged men make their move. But as they approach the east gate, just outside the shadow of the flames, guns at the back gate explode, driving back McSween and his men. They stay in the corner “about five minutes” before making yet another attempt, which also sends them back into the shadows.
Gunshots and yells are heard from across the creek as the Kid and crew celebrate their hair-raising escape.
Ten grueling minutes pass. All the guns along the back wall are aimed at the darkness. Finally, McSween allegedly says, “I shall surrender.”
Huddled along the back fence at the north gate are four Peppin men: Joseph Nash, Robert Beckwith, John Jones and Andrew Boyle. They are soon joined by a man known as “Dummy.”
“I am a deputy sheriff, and I have a warrant for your arrest,” yells Beckwith, just before he opens the gate and enters the backyard. Leading the quartet into the yard, Beckwith reaches the darkened corner when someone shouts, “I shall never surrender!” and Beckwith is shot in the eye. The men behind Beckwith empty their guns into the darkness.
As fire consumes the last wall, six bodies lie crumpled in the backyard: Alexander McSween, Francisco Zamora, Vicente Romero, Harvey Morris, Yginio Salazar and Robert Beckwith.
The fight is over.
Aftermath: Odds & Ends
Alexander McSween’s servants, Sebrian Bates and George Washington, their eyes overflowing with tears, were forced to play their fiddles as the posse celebrated with whiskey. Andrew Boyle checked the bodies, kicking Yginio Salazar. As Boyle took aim to shoot him, Milo Pierce said, “Don’t waste your shot on that greaser; he’s long gone and dead as a herring.”
McSween’s body had five bullets in it; Harvey Morris was hit once; Vicente Romero had three wounds, in his torso and legs; Francisco Zamora took eight shots in the torso; and Robert Beckwith was felled with a shot in the head and one in the wrist.
The body of Beckwith, the only Peppin man to die, was taken to Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan’s general store. Around midnight, the music and laughing faded as the victors went to bed. While the burning embers of McSween’s former home crackled and popped, one of the bodies began to stir—and then crawl. Suffering from two bullet wounds (one in the back and the other in the shoulder), Salazar inched himself, painfully and slowly, a half mile to Jose Otero’s home, where he was taken in. Miraculously, he lived.
After escaping McSween’s burning house with his backyard ballet, Billy the Kid became one of the most famous men in New Mexico Territory.
Recommended: The Lincoln County War by Frederick Nolan, published by University of Oklahoma Press.