The Tale of the Empty Chamber

Billy the Kid vs. Joe Grant – An Eyewitness Revelation

January 10, 1880

“William Bonney” shows up on the 1880 census, living next door to Charlie Bowdre and his wife, Manuela, in the abandoned Indian Hospital at Old Fort Sumner.

 

Bob Hargrove’s saloon in Old Fort Sumner, New Mexico, is packed with cowboys, including James Chisum, brother of John, and three of his cowhands. Chisum and his men have been invited to take a drink with Billy the Kid, who enters the saloon with them.

Joe Grant, a newcomer to the area,  notices the cowboys entering and snatches an ivory-handled pistol from Jack Finan’s holster while, at the same time, putting his own pistol in the cowboy’s holster.

The Kid steps up to him and says, “That’s a beauty, Joe.” The Kid takes the pistol from Grant’s hand and spins the cylinder, checking at the same time to see how much ammunition it contains (three cartridges). He purposely moves the cylinder so that the next load will be a failure, then he returns the revolver to Grant.

 

In December 1880, Billy the Kid will write a letter from Fort Sumner to Lew Wallace, the governor of New Mexico, claiming he, the Kid, isn’t the “captain” of any gang. Illustrations by Bob Boze Bell

 

“Pard,” says Grant, as he sneers at the Kid, “I’ll kill a man quicker’n you will for the whiskey.”

“What do you want to kill anybody for?” asks the Kid, flashing his winning smile. “Put up your pistol and let’s drink.”

Grant moves behind the bar and starts viciously knocking about glasses and decanters with his pistol.

“Let me help you break up your housekeeping, Pard,” says the Kid, drawing his own pistol and joining in the glass breaking.

Grant suddenly stops and eyes James Chisum. “I want to kill John Chisum, anyhow, the damned old—”

“You’ve got the wrong pig by the ear, Joe,” says the Kid. “That’s not John Chisum.”

 

On December 19, 1880, Sheriff-elect Pat Garrett and a posse of west Texas cowboys ambush Billy and his gang at the old Indian Hospital, then shoot and kill the Kid’s neighbor, Charlie Bowdre, at Stinking Spring. The posse brings Billy and the rest of his gang back to Sumner, where Billy is allowed to kiss his sweetheart, Paulita Maxwell (below), before being transported by wagon to Las Vegas, New Mexico.

 

“That’s a lie,” shouts Grant. “I know better.” And with that, he turns, points his pistol at the Kid and pulls the trigger. Instead of an explosion, the gun clicks loudly. Cussing, Grant raises the hammer for another shot, but before he can thumb it, a ball from the Kid’s revolver crashes through his brains. He collapses behind the counter.

Emptying his spent shell, the Kid remarks, “Unfortunate fool; I’ve been there too often to let a fellow of your caliber overhaul my baggage. Wonder if he’s a specimen of Texas desperadoes.”

A bystander wonders aloud whether Grant has been killed and warns the Kid to watch out. Billy smiles and says, “No fear, the corpse is there, sure, ready for the undertaker.”

 

While being held at the jail in Las Vegas, the Kid is brought outside so the crowds can gawk at the captured celebrity. Perhaps as amazed as anyone, Billy later remarks to a reporter: “There was a big crowd gazing at me, wasn’t there?”

Billy later dismisses the Joe Grant shooting as “a game of two, and I got there first.”

 

Aftermath Odds & Ends

Some scholars debate whether the Grant fight actually took place. Passed down by Jim Chisum’s son, the details of the shooting became part of the folklore around Fort Sumner and the “facts” in the case are mighty slim. Still, the fight has the ring of truth to many Billy scholars and is generally accepted as being a bona fide event because the Chisums are a trustworthy source; also a Las Vegas Daily Gazette newspaper quote from Billy helps to substantiate the shooting.

Billy the Kid continued rustling cattle (mostly Chisum’s) in the Fort Sumner area and also demanded $500 from John Chisum for services rendered to the Tunstall-McSween cause during the late Lincoln County War. John declined to pay, and Billy vowed he would “steal from your cattle until I get it.” 

A new book by James B. Mills makes a good point:

“Strangely, Paco Anaya’s firsthand recollection of the shooting in Anaya’s I Buried Billy [pp. 77–81], has been routinely disregarded in favor of these secondhand Anglo accounts. Although he recalled the time frame incorrectly by a couple of months (November 1879), unlike both Will Chisum and Charlie Foor, Paco Anaya was both physically present in the saloon and an actual resident in the Fort Sumner region at the time of the shooting. Hence, his vivid recollection of the saloon fight should rightly take precedence, which is why I have used it as my primary source. Paco Anaya was there. Will Chisum, Charlie Foor, Pat Garrett and Ash Upson were not.” 

Recommended: Billy the Kid: El Bandido Simpático (University of North Texas Press, $34.95) by James B. Mills

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