By dying from Billy the Kid’s hands on April 28, 1881, Deputy Sheriffs James W. Bell and Robert Olinger stoked Billy’s legend to a white hot flame. Had Billy not murdered the two lawmen during his brazen escape from hanging, it’s doubtful the Kid’s story would be known today.
“It was more than an hour, after he killed Olinger and Bell, before he left,” an eyewitness reported. “He told the people that he did not want to kill Bell but, as he ran, he had to. He said he grabbed Bell’s revolver and told him to hold up his hands and surrender; that Bell decided to run and he had to kill him.”
The Kid got the drop on Bell after they returned from an outhouse visit. Little else is known about the young lawman. No photos of him have been found, and even his gravestone has been missing for some time. (Several historians dispute this, claiming a headstone for Bell was at the site as recently as 1985.)
Although Deputy Bell was not a blood relative of mine, I still feel a connection to him. That’s why I drove 11 hours to be at his gravesite this past July.
As a large crowd converged on the White Oaks Cemetery in New Mexico to commemorate a new headstone for Bell’s grave, I wondered what he would think of all the hoopla. Perhaps he’d feel relief for finally receiving some recognition, or maybe he’d laugh heartily at the absurdity of it all.
Either way, rest in peace Deputy Bell. You’ve earned our respect and thanks.
As I mingled and chatted with the faithful gathered in front of the headstone, I suddenly remembered a line from the first Young Guns movie: “I’ll make you famous,” a giddy Billy says just before plugging another victim.
True, too true.