Special Classic Gunfights: Shoot-out at Stinking Springs

-All images courtesy True West Archives unless otherwise noted; Illustrations by Bob Boze Bell-

December 23, 1880

Riding at midnight through deep snow, Sheriff-elect Pat Garrett leads a 13-man posse eastward out of Fort Sumner, New Mexico. After questioning several people in Fort Sumner and ascertaining the Kid’s dress (“especially his hat,” which is said to be a Mexican sugarloaf with a green hatband), Garrett decides he won’t take any chances. When the Kid makes his appearance, Garrett will kill him and hope the rest surrender.

After a 10-mile ride to the Brazil-Wilcox Ranch, where Billy the Kid and his compadres were last seen, Garrett picks up their trail clearly in the snow. “Following this trail a short distance,” he recounts, “I [am] convinced that they had made for Stinking Springs.”

Billy the Kid House True West
The Brazil-Wilcox Ranch headquarters is the rendezvous for the Kid and his cohorts during Garrett’s snowy campaign.

A half mile away from the house, Garrett and his men hold a conference.

Around three a.m., with Juan Roibal left in charge of the horses, Garrett divides his squad and circles the house with half the force. Finding a dry arroyo fairly close to the house, the men dig in. Frank Stewart and the rest of the posse conceal themselves about 200 yards from the other side of the building. They see three horses tied to the vigas (roof beams sticking out of the wall) outside the stone house and conclude that two mounts must be inside with the outlaws.

Garrett sends a message to Stewart of their plan of attack: “Stealthily enter the house, cover them with our guns and hold them until daylight.”

Lee Hall favors the suggestion; Stewart does not. Garrett is overruled.

The men shiver and attempt to stay warm until daylight (about a four-hour wait). It’s so cold, posse member Charlie Rudolph gets frostbite on his feet. As the posse members wait, they hear snoring from inside the rock house.  The hours drag by and the temperature seems to get colder as the men look for any sign of movement from the “inmates.”

Stinking Springs Rock House True West
Shown here is a circa 1900 postcard image of the rock house at Stinking Springs. Only the foundation remains today.
– Courtesy Eddie Taylor –

The lanky sheriff commands a direct view of the doorway. While waiting for the Kid’s sombrero to pop into view, Garrett orders his men: “When I bring up my gun, [you] raise and fire.”

As the weak rays of sunlight begin streaking the horizon, the posse hears movement in the house. Shortly, a man appears in the doorway with a nose bag (feed bag for the horses). The man’s head is down, but Garrett sees a Mexican hat with a green band and brings his Winchester rifle to his shoulder. Seven bullets rip through the pale dawn light.

The man reels into the house, and the horses pull at their tethers. The “inmates” inside are now awake, trying to avoid the trampling hooves of their four-legged bunkmates. Billy Wilson’s voice is heard: “Bowdre is killed and wants to come out.”

Hat of Death True West
Hat of Death – Garrett intends to shoot the Kid on sight and has information as to the style and color of Billy’s headgear. When Garrett recognizes the hat, he gives the signal. Seven bullets meet the wearer at the door.

Garrett yells for him to come out with his hands up. As Charlie Bowdre staggers to the door, the Kid catches hold of his belt, draws his revolver around in front of Bowdre and says, “They have murdered you, Charlie, but you can get revenge. Kill some of the sons-of-bitches before you die.”

Bowdre comes out with his hands barely up. He stumbles toward the posse until he recognizes Garrett, and he goes straight at him. Motioning with his hands at the house and strangling in his own blood, he gasps, “I wish… I wish… I wish….” Then with a whisper, “I’m dying,” he falls into Garrett’s arms. The lawman gently lays him on his blankets.

As the morning light brightens, Garrett notices the rope ties on one of the outside horses is moving. He quickly surmises that the outlaws are trying to bring the horses inside in order to make a break. Garrett shoots the horse dead, and it drops in the doorway. To stop any more attempts, Garrett takes careful aim and shoots the ropes of the other horses. The animals “walk away” and are captured by Stewart’s men.

Lodge Pole True West
The “inmates” horses tied at the door of the house.

Garrett opens up a conversation with the “inmates,” and the Kid answers as their spokesman. Garrett asks how he is fixed in there.

“Pretty well,” the Kid coolly answers, “but we have no wood to get breakfast.”

“Come out,” Garrett says, “and get some. Be a little sociable.”

“Can’t do it, Pat,” the Kid replies, “business is too confining. No time to run around.”

Garrett decides to eat breakfast, so he goes with half the men back three miles to the Brazil-Wilcox Ranch head-quarters.

After the meal, Garrett makes arrangements with Thomas Wilcox to deliver food for the men, forage for the horses and wood. As the wagon is being loaded, Garrett returns to Stinking Springs and relieves Stewart, who gathers up his men to go to breakfast. Garrett then invites the Kid out for coffee.

“Go to hell, Pat,” says the Kid, obviously losing a bit of his jolly humor.

Soon, the posse members on the east side begin to hear sounds of picking; evidently the outlaws are trying to break out or at least make firing ports. Garrett sends Tom Emory and James East to stop it. A few well-aimed shots end the picking, but the horses inside “[get] scared and [are] about to run over Billy and his men.” (Billy later tells a reporter, “If it hadn’t been for the dead horse in the doorway I wouldn’t [have been captured]. But I couldn’t ride out over that, for [my horse] would have jumped back and I would have got it in the head.”)

Pat Garrett
Pat Garrett – After a December 19 ambush that netted outlaw Tom O’Folliard, Pat Garrett is bent on capturing Billy the Kid and gaining the $500 reward. During Garrett’s manhunt, two massive snowstorms bury Fort Sumner, and the posse dresses as warmly as possible to ward off the freezing cold. An 1887 photo of Garrett (sitting second from right) shows him wearing the kind of clothing he is probably wearing when he tracks down the Kid.

At about three p.m., the Kid turns loose the two horses he’s holding inside, and the posse picks them up.

At four p.m., the Wilcox wagon arrives, and the men build a big fire and “[go] to cooking.” The smell of roasting meat is too much for the outlaws. Dirty Dave Rudabaugh sticks a handkerchief “that had once been white” on the end of a stick and calls out for a surrender. Garrett tells them to come out with their hands up, but only Dirty Dave leaves the house to talk with him. The outlaws want a “guarantee of protection from violence.” Garrett agrees, and Dirty Dave returns to the house.

After a few minutes, all four outlaws come out with their hands raised. The Kid is the last. (According to legend, before the Kid steps out, he urinates on the weapons.) As the “inmates” approach the posse, Barney Mason levels his rifle at the Kid and spits out, “Kill the son-of-a-bitch, he’s slippery and may get away.”

Posse members Tom Emory and Jim East are appalled at Mason’s treachery and aim their Winchesters at Garrett’s friend. One of them says, “If you fire a shot, we’ll kill you.” Mason backs off.

After the Kid and his men are disarmed, the outlaws “[shake] hands with every man” who captured them. The prisoners are then taken to the Brazil-Wilcox Ranch where Mrs. Wilcox feeds the whole lot. Garrett sends a wagon back up to retrieve Bowdre’s body, and everyone stays overnight at the ranch.

A Long, Slow Slog

The next day is Christmas Eve and by noon, the lawmen and their prisoners reach Fort Sumner where they headquarter at Beaver Smith’s Saloon and eat lunch while the prisoners are shackled together. In the afternoon Garrett leads his men and a wagon full of prisoners towards Las Vegas, in deep snow. They have Christmas dinner at Padre Polaco’s store in Puerto de Luna, and then after the wagon axle breaks (see at left) the posse travels all night and arrives in Las Vegas by late morning on December 26.

On the Road Again – Pat Garrett procured a wagon to deliver the prisoners to Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory. Even though it is bitter cold, Billy stands in the wagon and entertains the entourage with jokes. North of Puerto de Luna (near the present-day site of Santa Rosa), the wagon breaks down and another wagon has to be procured from a nearby ranch. Often, these items were given begrudgingly by the locals. (A full year after the Kid campaign, Garrett was still corresponding with the authorities in Santa Fe, arguing over the value of certain horses and supplies claimants had filed against the territorial government.)

As Garrett gets ready to leave for Santa Fe on the train, a mob meets them at the station. They want Dirty Dave Rudabaugh. The standoff lasts for a half hour.

Train Interview

A mob met Garrett and his posse and prisoners at the train station. As Garrett successfully stood off the mob, Billy casually talked to a reporter for the Las Vegas Gazette.

“We saw him again at the depot when the crowd presented a really warlike  appearance. Standing by the car, out of one of the windows of which he was leaning, he talked freely with us of the whole affair:

‘I don’t blame you for writing of me as you have. You had to believe other stories; but then I don’t know as any one would believe anything good of me anyway,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t the leader of any gang—I was for Billy all the time. About that Portales business, I owned the rancho with Charlie Bowdre. I took it up and was holding it because I wanted to keep it for a station. But I found that there were certain men who wouldn’t let me live in the country and so I was going to leave. We had all our grub in the house when they took us in, and we were going to a place about six miles away in the morning to cook it and then “light” out. I haven’t stolen any stock. I made my living by gambling but that was the only way I could live. They wouldn’t let me settle down; if they had I wouldn’t be here today,’ and he held up his right arm on which was the bracelet.

Train Interview True West

“‘Chisum got me into all this trouble and then wouldn’t help me out. If it hadn’t been for the dead horse in the doorway [at Stinking Springs] I wouldn’t be here. I would have ridden my bay mare and taken my chances of escaping,’ said he. ‘But I couldn’t ride out over that, for she would have jumped back and I would have got it in the head. We could have staid [sic] in the house but there wouldn’t have been anything gained by that for they would have starved us out. I thought it was better to come out and get a good square meal—don’t you?’

“The prospects of a fight exhilarated him, and he bitterly bemeaned [sic] being chained. ‘If I only had my Winchester, I’d lick the whole crowd,’ was his confident comment on the strength of the attacking party. He sighed and sighed again for a chance to take a hand in the fight and the burden of his desire was to be set free to fight on the side of his captors as soon as he should smell powder.

“As the train rolled out, he lifted his hat and invited us to call and see him in Santa Fe, calling out, ‘Adios.’”

Billy Delivered

December 27, 1880

The mob wants Dirty Dave Rudabaugh. He killed jailer Lino Valdez during an unsuccessful bid to free crony J.J. Webb in April. Garrett promised Dave at Stinking Springs he would take him to Santa Fe. The standoff lasts for half an hour, then an associate of Garrett’s runs up to the engine and opens the throttle. The huge steam engine spins in its tracks for several seconds, then rockets past the platform and leaves the angry mob behind.

Billy the Kid Arrested True West
Basking in the Limelight – Arriving in Las Vegas, Billy and his fellow prisoners are put in the jail without much fanfare. But in the morning a large crowd turns out to see the captured celebrity (left). “There was a big crowd gazing at me, wasn’t there?” Billy says to a reporter.

It is Billy’s first ride on a train. He is as excited as a kid can be.

The possemen have been on the trail for weeks, sleeping in the same clothes, riding in the bitter cold. They look every bit as rough as the men they have captured. To the other passengers, there is no discernable difference between captive and captor.

Santa Fe Jail True West
The Santa Fe Jail – Billy spent almost three months in the Santa Fe jail. The Sanborn Insurance map of 1880-83 clearly shows the jail complex just west of Bridge Street on the south side of Water. Herlow’s Hotel, where Tunstall and McSween met, can also be seen down the street, fronting on San Francisco. The photo at left shows the jail (right of the pole) in 1880. Bridge Street was later changed to Galisteo and today the jail site is a parking lot.
– Photo of John Webb and the Santa Fe Jail Courtesy Museum of New Mexico –

Due to heavy snowfall, the train stalls at Glorieta Pass for several hours. Billy amuses the boys by ordering a piece of apple pie and placing the entire slice in his mouth. He opens his mouth and—ta da!—it’s still in one piece.

As Garrett and his posse yuck it up over this hilarious entertainment, one thing is obvious to the conductor—these boys need to get out more.

Garrett deposits his prisoners with Sheriff Sherman in  Santa Fe. There is a small snafu when Garrett orders food for the prisoners and the jailer eats it all.

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