On September 5, 1878, Billy the Kid and his gang—all that was left of the old Regulators posse formed during the Lincoln County War—raided Charles Fritz’s ranch on the Bonito below Lincoln, New Mexico. They drove off 15 horses and 150 head of cattle. The Kid planned to take these animals, and any others he could pick up on the way, to the Texas Panhandle and sell them at Tascosa, a raw new cow town that had recently sprung up.
It was a smart move. Just a few years before, Tascosa had been a raggedy-assed adobe placita near an easy crossing of the Canadian River. Although the hamlet was destined to grow like a mushroom, in the fall of 1878 “It was just a little new frontier town,” former LS Ranch wagon boss Garrett H. “Kid” Dobbs recalled. “Just a few houses there. Not much doing.”
Despite its sleepy appearance, the town had already become the supply center for a huge chunk of the Texas Panhandle. A virgin country was opening up, with vast ranches operated by the likes of Charles Goodnight and George Littlefield, and the Kid was right in figuring Tascosa’s cattlemen were not likely to ask too many questions about the previous ownership of good horseflesh.
John Chisum was also moving his stock to the free grass of the Panhandle. Concerned for the safety of his family and the huge herds they managed in New Mexico, Chisum—who was in the East—had instructed his brother, James, to leave the Pecos Valley where some of the worst border scum had flocked after the Lincoln County War. The Kid and his men caught up with the Chisum outfit along the Canadian River, about 40 miles east of Fort Bascom. “Regulators come up with us at Red River Springs on the 25 Sept 1878,” Sallie Chisum noted in her diary. They were driving a sizable remuda of horses, its numbers no doubt swollen by animals appropriated when they were at Puerto de Luna. The idea of stealing horses from horse thieves probably appealed to the Kid’s sense of humor.
“Jim Chisum had cattle on the Canadian in the summer of 1878,” Kid Dobbs said. “Chisum and his daughter were at the camp which was above Tascosa. Charlie Neebow [Nebow] was Chisum’s wagon boss in the Panhandle and he had with him among others Johnny Newell, Bill Hutch, Tom O’Phillard, Tom Pickett, Henry Brown—The Chisum camp was about thirty miles above Tascosa, right on the river, about five miles from the Alamocitas. They put in a dugout and corrals on the south side below the mouth of Trujillo Creek. [John] Chisum came out there in the winter of 1878.”
Soon after they arrived in the Panhandle, the Kid and his men made a reconnaissance into Tascosa. As they neared their destination, they encountered a young fellow riding alone and questioned him about the location of the various ranches in the vicinity. The rider, Henry Hoyt, was a young doctor “adventuring” in the West, much as the Kid’s young English employer, John Tunstall, had once done. Hoyt and the Kid immediately hit it off. Billy told him they were bringing over a herd of horses to sell, and Hoyt spread the word when he reached town.
When the cowmen heard the Kid and his men were coming in, they sent word that they would like to meet him. Their spokesman, LIT Ranch wagon boss C.S. “Bill” McCarty—one can almost see the Kid’s impish grin when he learned the name of the man he was talking to—asked his business. The Kid answered that cattlemen were always short of horses, so he had brought some over to sell. McCarty told him they wanted no trouble, and Billy gave his word there would not be any.
“Billy stayed in Tascosa and put his horses on the head of Plum or Tascosa Creek,” Dobbs said. “One of Chisum’s men was killed in Salinas Plaza. They had a dance there and there was a saloon north of the dance hall. This fellow got on his horse and started downtown, loping his horse and hollering a time or two. He came around the dance hall and three Mexicans grabbed their Bill Dukes [bill hooks?] or Bowie knives and cut him all to pieces—I think his name was Al Westover. Nine white men were killed at Salinas Plaza before they [the Mexicans] lost a man.”
George Littlefield’s nephew, J. Phelps White, was also in Tascosa at the time. “Billy the Kid—had what he called a race horse with him,” he recalled. “He hadn’t been there an hour when he matched a race with old man Rinehart’s horse–Spider. He was a race horse and we knew it. We didn’t mean to beat him so badly but when we found out it was Billy the Kid[,] we thought that we’d better beat him good so there would be no squabble. They agreed on a short race and we were not to have starter judges. Fred Waite, a Kid man, and I were judges on the finish. So the Kid and [“Bill”] McCarty went down just to see they got off all right. Everybody could see at the finish that the Kid’s horse was badly beat, but Fred Waite claimed a foul. He said his horse came out six or eight feet ahead. I replied—if Spider didn’t beat him fifty feet, then he didn’t beat him fifty inches.—The Kid came loping up about this time and we explained the matter to him, Fred contending for the foul and then saying that their horse was beat only a few feet. But the Kid said—Give it up, Fred, we’re beat.—We had all bet some money as well as some horses on the race. The Kid and his outfit stayed around there about six months but never made any trouble.”
Not everybody was so tolerant of the newcomers. When the Kid and Henry Brown rode to the LX Ranch and tried to sell some horses, William C. Moore, the ranch superintendent who himself had a past that was nothing to boast about, let it be known that he considered the Kid and his men nothing but a bunch of horse thieves who ought to be run out of town. That was a mistake. Kid Dobbs said, “The Kid and some of his men came over to the LX ranch—stayed all night at the LX, ate breakfast and unhobbled their horses, saddled and tied out there [sic] riding horses. Billy called to Moore who was inside the house and said ‘I want to see you outside, Mr. Moore.’ He had his gun in his hand and so did [Henry] Brown.
“‘I want to know what you know about my horse stealing,’ he asked the ranch manager. The yellow showed up in Moore in a hurry and he made a stand that he had not done any talking.
“Billy the Kid said, ‘Mr. Moore, I know you are quite a man in these parts and that what you say goes with a lot of people, but if I hear any more of your talk I’ll shoot you half in two.’”
Clearly the Kid was touchy about his reputation. On another occasion Ellsworth Torrey, who ranched north of Tascosa, is said to have become annoyed after his cook fed the Kid and his men when they stopped by the ranch. Torrey, a former New England (or Old England) sea captain, said the Kid and his band “weren’t fit to associate with decent people or to eat with them.” According to Dobbs, “Billy took four of his men and came to Torey’s house at noon one day. He asked for horse feed for his horses and dinner for his men. The horses were fed and dinner was prepared. Torey tried to feed Billy and his men first, but Billy insisted on the family eating with them.
“After dinner he called Mr. Torey outside and said, ‘Now, Mr. Torey, do you feel disgraced in any way by our having eaten and associated with your family as you have been saying?’ Torey of course vigorously denied saying any such thing. Billy continued, ‘You are quite an old man, Mr. Torey, for this country and you are doing pretty well. You have considerable property about and you can think what you like about me and my men, but don’t talk. If you do, I’ll shoot that blue streak across your belly in pieces.’”
Pretty soon, the Kid and his pals were “part of the town,” Henry Hoyt said, “selling and trading, drinking, gambling, racing horses and shooting at targets.” A number of the locals recalled the Kid taking part in shooting matches at a dollar or sometimes five dollars a shot. On one occasion the Kid and former Dodge City lawman, Bat Masterson, were beaten to the money by a fiery-tongued local lawyer named Temple Houston, son of the Texan hero.
“Targets were set up and each man, in turn, took a shot,” said former Tascosa resident, Mrs. Lige Roberts, in an account written in 1941. “When each of the men—had displayed to the satisfaction of the crowd, his specialty in method and manner as master of the gun with one hand, Bat gave a demonstration of his unique two-gun work. With a gun in each hand he fired one then the other, hitting the target each time. He then fired both pistols at the same instant, hitting the ‘Bull’s eye’ again. The crowd yelled its admiration. Now came Temple and Billy the Kid to each take two shots at the target and Temple stepped back to see Billy the Kid demonstrate his matchless ‘quick finger’ action.
“The size of the target had been reduced in size until Billy the Kid was now shooting at a spot on a cedar post not larger than a quarter of a dollar. So true was his aim that the crowd called for a smaller target. A typical westerner was just in the act of taking a ‘chew’ from a plug of Star Navy tobacco when he noticed the bright tin star not larger than a dime and which trademarked the tobacco. Quickly he pried the device loose and walked down to the post and placed it for a target.
“It happened that Temple was the first man up. He walked out, with his characteristic short steps, and with his back to the sun, without stopping for an instant, he drew and fired. It had all happened with such speed that the report surprised the onlookers. On examination the tin star had been driven out of sight. Temple returned Betsy [his gun] to the holster and walked away. Bedlam broke loose and the place echoed with whoops and wild yells—Money changed hands and hats went up. Billy the Kid pushed through the crowd and—held up his hands for silence and asked in his mild and quiet manner, ‘Quien puede haserio mejor?’”
One suspects this fractured Spanish was the work of Mrs. Roberts rather than the Kid, but the intention is clear: who, he was asking, could do better than that? At the same time he showed what a good loser he was. Whether the story is true is another matter entirely.
Billy wasn’t just a shootist; he was “an expert at most western sports,” Henry Hoyt recorded, “with the exception of drinking.” The Kid was a handsome youth, Hoyt said, with “a smooth face, wavy brown hair, an athletic and symmetrical figure, and clear blue eyes that could look one through and through. Unless angry, he always seemed to have a pleasant expression with a ready smile. . . . He spoke Spanish like a native, and although only a beardless boy, was nevertheless a natural leader of men.”
Beardless boy or not, Billy ruled his gang “with a rod of iron,” Hoyt related, as he went on to tell a hard-to-believe tale of how one day John Middleton was “drinking heavily at the Howard & McMasters store and began to get ugly,” when the Kid came in. In a mild voice he said, “John Middleton, you damned idiot, light out for camp and stay there till I come.”
Wheeling toward him, Middleton said “Billy, you’d never talk that way to me if we were alone. You think you’re showing off.”
“If that’s the way you think just come with me out behind the store, and we will be alone,” Billy replied, as he backed toward the door with his hand on his gun.
Middleton’s face turned ashen, his lower lip dropped and with a sickly grin he stuttered, “Aw, Billy, come off [it], can’t you take a joke?”
“You bet I can,” said Billy, “but this is no joke. You heard me. Git for camp and git quick.” And John shuffled out the door like a whipped dog.
Despite Billy ruling his men with a rod of iron, they “fairly worshiped him,” Hoyt said. One night they all attended the weekly dance at Pedro Romero’s store, apparently observing the unwritten law that all weapons must be left at Howard & McMasters. During the proceedings, Hoyt and the Kid stepped outside for some air, and Hoyt challenged Billy to a foot race back to the dance hall. As they neared the house, Hoyt slowed but Billy burst through the door, tripped, and fell headlong in the center of the dance floor.
“Quicker than a flash,” Hoyt said, “his prostrate body was surrounded by his four pals, back to back, with a Colt’s forty-five in each hand, cocked and ready for business.” How they had concealed the guns, Hoyt said, was a mystery, as was from whom they were defending Billy. As a result of this escapade, they were barred from future dances.
“Another diversion,” Henry Hoyt recalled, “was draw poker which all indulged in. Some time previously I had won a very pretty ladies’ gold watch which Billy admired and wished to purchase. In a previous talk he had told me about his romance with a little New Mexican beauty, none other than Senorita Lolita whom I had met at Fort Sumner on the Pecos River, and suspecting he wanted the watch for her, I made him a present of it, which pleased him very much.”
Hoyt was being unnecessarily coy. The “Senorita Lolita” he had met in Fort Sumner, the lady he claimed the Kid was romancing, was of course Pablita Maxwell. Hoyt had met her during an 1877 visit to the Maxwell family home where he tried unsuccessfully to save the life of William Maxwell, who was dying of malignant smallpox. Hoyt calls him “the eldest son of the family” but William was an adopted half-Cheyenne who was known as Julian. He was only 20 years of age at the time of his death, whereas Pete Maxwell, the true elder son, was then 29. Whether the Kid was sparking Maxwell’s sister as early as the fall of 1878 is open to doubt. Pablita would have been only 14 years old and too young, even by the standards then applying, to be alone with someone as notorious as the Kid.
Late in October 1878, just before Hoyt left Tascosa, the Kid rode into town and made the doctor a present of Dandy Dick, an Arabian sorrel branded BB on the left hip and the best horse in his remuda. At the Howard & McMasters store he scribbled out a bill of sale (in reality, a piece of paper to protect Hoyt from being accused of horse theft) and had it witnessed by the proprietors. Many years later, Hoyt learned Dandy Dick was the horse Sheriff William Brady had ridden into Lincoln on April 1, 1878, the day he was killed. It’s likely Dandy Dick was a descendant of one of the racehorses brought to New Mexico in 1864 by Colonel Emil Fritz. A record by his jockey, Hilario Gallegos, refers to a horse called Dandy raced by Fritz at Tucson. After the Civil War, Gallegos said Fritz took him east, and for five years he traveled to races with the horses, visiting St. Louis and Santa Fe before returning to Tucson.
After wintering in Tascosa, the old Regulator Gang broke up for good. Josiah “Doc” Scurlock announced he intended returning to Fort Sumner and bringing his family to the Panhandle. He returned to Oldham County where he briefly kept a mail station in 1880 and, as far as is known, never again left Texas or raised his hand in anger.
Charlie Bowdre must have seriously considered doing likewise, but once he got back to Fort Sumner, he backslid into the ambivalent relationship he had always had with the law. Henry Brown stayed on in Tascosa for a while, took a job on Littlefield’s LIT Ranch and served as town deputy and then marshal (1881). Later, he moved to Caldwell, Kansas, where he earned a reputation as a fierce but highly respected city marshal. In April 1884, he was one of four men involved in an attempted bank robbery at Medicine Lodge, Kansas, in which the bank president and his cashier were killed. Captured and jailed with his confederates, Brown was shot dead when a mob stormed their jail.
John Middleton and Fred Waite decided not to return to New Mexico and tried to persuade the Kid and Tom O’Folliard to quit the owlhoot trail. But Billy was not interested. He had already decided to go back to New Mexico and take another shot at getting a pardon from Lew Wallace. Eternally loyal, Tom O’Folliard would go wherever the Kid led him. So Middleton and Waite said adios and went their separate ways. Of them all, only Scurlock lived into the 20th Century.
Frederick Nolan has devoted a lifetime of study to the Lincoln County War. His books include The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History.