The Tale of the Empty Chamber Billy the Kid vs Joe Grant

classicgunfightsJanuary 10, 1880

Bob Hargrove’s saloon at 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 enter 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.

“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.”

“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, but Billy smiles and says, “No fear, the corpse is there, sure, ready for the undertaker.”

 

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 the newspaper quote from Billy (see bottom of p. 68) 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 former Fort Sumner resident, Pat Garrett, was elected sheriff in November 1880. He was backed by John Chisum with specific orders to “clean out that squad east of Sumner.” Garrett did just that, killing gang members “Chuck” Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard and capturing the Kid at Stinking Springs, east of Sumner, and delivering him to the authorities in Santa Fe.

The Kid was tried for the killing of Sheriff Brady, convicted and sentenced to hang, but he escaped, killing his two guards. He made his way back to Fort Sumner where he was subsequently shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Pete Maxwell’s bedroom on July 14, 1882.

Recommended: Pat F. Garrett’s The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid annotated by Frederick Nolan, published by the University of Oklahoma Press

What do you think?

Bob Boze Bell

In 1999, Bob Boze Bell and partners bought True West magazine (published since 1953) and moved the editorial offices to Cave Creek, Arizona. Bell has published and illustrated books on Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as well as Classic Gunfights, an Old West gunfight book series. His latest books are The 66 Kid and True West Moments.