Caught With His Pants Down? Billy the Kid vs. Pat Garrett

Billy the Kid vs. Pat Garrett
Billy the Kid vs. Pat Garrett

July 14, 1881

As the lawmen creep toward the buildings, they hear voices.

At about nine p.m. Sheriff Pat Garrett and two deputies, John Poe and Tom “Kip” McKinney, ensconce them-selves within a peach orchard on the northern boundary of Fort Sumner, New Mexico. A full moon looms above.

As the lawmen creep toward the buildings, they hear voices. Stopping, they realize someone else is in the orchard. “Soon a man arose from the ground,” Garrett later remembers, “in full view, but too far away to recognize. He wore a broad-brimmed hat, a dark vest and pants, and was in his shirt sleeves.”

The dark figure says something (indiscernible to the officers), jumps the fence and walks into the compound. (Garrett later learns that this was
Billy the Kid; the inference is that Billy had just finished making love in the green grass.)

By now it is nearly midnight. Garrett and his deputies back out of the orchard and approach Pete Maxwell’s house. The three men slip silently onto  Maxwell’s south porch.

Garrett posts his two deputies at the front gate and goes inside. Poe sits on the edge of the steps in the open gate, and McKinney squats just outside. Both immediately notice a lone figure approaching on the inside of the fence. He is hatless and in his stocking feet. In the moonlight, Poe notices he is buttoning his trousers.

Neither Poe nor McKinney recognize him. Both are from Texas and new to the area. Poe assumes the figure is a Mexican employee of Maxwell’s.

Inside the house, Garrett has awakened Pete and is asking him the whereabouts of the Kid.

As the Kid mounts the porch, he sees the two deputies for the first time. Alarmed, he brandishes a butcher knife and a self-cocking, .41-caliber Colt Thunderer. Springing around like a cat, he demands in Spanish, “¿Quien es?” [“Who is it?”]

Poe rises and tries to calm the agitated stranger.

“¿Quien es?” demands the dark figure again.

Receiving no reply, he backs into Pete’s room through an exterior door and directs his question to Pete, “¿Quien es, Pete?”

Garrett, engulfed in the dark corner, freezes. He recognizes the Kid’s voice immediately. Garrett dares not speak, because his own gun is in his holster, and he is sitting on it!

“He came directly towards me,” Garrett later recounts. “He came close to me, leaned both hands on the bed, his right hand almost touching my knee.

“The Kid must have seen or felt the presence of a third person at the head of the bed. He raised his pistol, a self-cocker, within a foot of my breast.”

The Kid jumps back, but instead of firing, he demands in Spanish one more time, “¿Quien es?”

Big mistake. Garrett draws his revolver and fires twice.

“The Kid fell dead. He never spoke. A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and the Kid was with his many victims.”

Based on the best evidence available in 1991, the Kid backed into Pete Maxwell’s bedroom through an exterior door from the porch (see drawings). Recently, thanks largely to the research efforts of Frederick Nolan, Gregory Smith and Steve Sederwall, a new sequence of events deserves attention. Read on.

A New Scenario?

Below is an extract from an October 20, 1942, interview John L. McCarty conducted with Garrett H. “Kid” Dobbs, who lived in Fort Sumner at the time of the gunfight.

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Billy was hiding out at Pete Maxwell’s house. He would hide out in the daytime and come in to eat and sleep at night. Maxwell learned his sister was planning to elope with Billy the Kid as soon as Billy got in condition.

Maxwell wrote Garrett a letter saying he would turn Billy over to him. Garrett thought it might be a trick to trap him for Billy. Pat had [John] Poe and [Kip McKinney], two deputies with him. He told them he was afraid this was a trap and wasn’t going up there until he talked with Maxwell. “Pete may be leading us into a trap as he’s a good friend of the Kid,” Pat told Poe.

Garrett wrote a note to Maxwell and sent it to him by a Mexican, telling him to meet them at the Mexican Plaza six miles below Fort Sumner. Pete came down and swore it was no trap, and told about his sister being in love with Billy, and he wanted to stop it. Garrett told Pete if it was a trap, he would kill him too. He told Pete he was coming up that night.

They arrived at Maxwell’s early, before Billy came in from his daylight hiding, and [Garrett] told his deputies to bed down in one corner of Maxwell’s yard. Pat went into the house and waited in Maxwell’s bedroom. When Billy came in that night, he saw the men in the yard and asked the cook who they were. The cook said they were some of Pete’s sheepherders who had come in for supplies.

In the meantime Maxwell had told the cook not to save any cold meat and to pour out all the supper so the Kid would have to fix his own supper. Billy asked the cook where the knife was, and the cook said he thought it was in the cupboard. It wasn’t, so he told Billy to look on the table. Garrett could hear every word in the bedroom.

Then Kid asked where the meat was, and the cook said he guessed it was in the meat box. Billy told him it wasn’t. The cook told Billy it must be in Pete’s bedroom then, as Pete had brought some new meat out from town.

The Kid had the knife in his left hand and started to the bedroom to get some meat. There was a broken-rock walkway just large enough for two to pass in the hallway from the kitchen to the bedroom. There was a dining room between the kitchen and the bedroom. Garrett could hear the Kid coming on those rocks. He was sitting on the foot of the bed.

[Here Dobbs explained the hallway ran east and west. Pete’s room was on the west, and the cook’s room, on the east.]

It was warm weather, and the bedroom window was open; not daylight but you could see a sort of light where the window was. The door opened, and Billy saw Pat move off the bed.

Billy said: “¿Como estes?” [“What’s that?”] As he said it he jumped sideways and got in front of the window. That was the only break Garrett got—the Kid being in front of that window.

Garrett never answered. He fired. And as Billy fell, he fired over Pat’s head, and the bullet went in the ceiling and through it. Pat’s shot went under Billy’s heart and through him into the wall. Billy bled a lot, and Pat moved him once from the big pool of blood to another spot on the floor. This caused the two stains on the floor.

I have been in the room lots of times and have slept there. Pat and Pete showed me and told me how it happened many times, as did the deputies.

BBB’s Take

The recently discovered floor plans for the Maxwell house, taken in conjunction with the Dobbs interview, raise a whole series of new questions as to exactly how Billy the Kid was killed.

It now appears likely the Kid never walked outside in his stocking feet (which has always been suspect to anyone who has lived in the Southwest). The motive for saying he had? Perhaps it was a desperate attempt to cover up the scandal of the Kid being in 15-year-old Paulita Maxwell’s bedroom.

This information also gives more credence to Frederick William Grey’s claims that the lawmen “tied and gagged the girl [Paulita],” that Garrett hid behind a sofa and that when Billy showed in the doorway, Garrett shot him down like a dog. As McKinney’s mining partner, Grey claims the deputy confided to him this is how the Kid was really killed.

Sederwall’s Supposition

Retired lawman Steve Sederwall believes the CSI gives evidence that Billy more than likely was in Paulita’s bedroom, across from Pete’s, when he heard two men (Poe and McKinney) talking outside.

“The Kid slipped on his pants but did not pull on his boots,” Sederwall theorizes. “He grabbed his shooter and slipped into Pete’s room.  ‘¿Quien es? Pete, who are those fellows outside?’  Garrett fired, the muzzle blast flash-blinded him.  Garrett made for the door, unable to see; he hit the wall to the left of the door.  He moved down the wall where he stumbled in the doorway leading to the other room. From his knees, with his left hand on the floor, Garrett fired his second shot, which traveled down the wall, striking the washstand.”

Sederwall claims a laser lines up perfectly with the hole in the washstand only from this lower position and across the room.

One Door Closes, Another Door Opens

In 1991, I traveled on a research trip to Fort Sumner to meet Joe Bowlin, owner of Bowlin’s Trading Post in Taiban, not far from Stinking Springs. At that time, Joe was president of the Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang and, along with his wife Maryln, a tireless proponent of all things Billy the Kid. (Joe would pass away in 1993.)

Joe and I spent the day seeing all the sites: Stinking Springs, the Brazil-Wilcox ranch, the Yerby ranch and Sunnyside (really disappointing!). One of my goals for my illustrated book on the Kid (published in 1992) was to accurately illustrate the events leading up to the Kid’s death.

Of course, Old Fort Sumner itself was long gone, but Joe took me to the Abreu house nearby, which local folklore claimed was built to the same specs as the Maxwell house at the fort. I took a series of photos for art reference and had Joe pose in the doorway of the corner room. I was struck by a couple of qualities: the bedroom was very small (20 feet x 20 feet, according to the Army floor plan) and the rooms along the porch had doors. As is often the case when I visit the actual sites where history has happened, the stories I have heard start to make sense. As such, I built my narration based on the Abreu house.

Unfortunately, conventional wisdom is often misinformed, which I found out when Gregory Smith discovered the original 1863 floor plans for the fort buildings in the National Archives. Apparently, windows, not doors, were located alongside those rooms. Lucien did renovate his house, so he might have created doorways when he and his family moved in. Yet if Pete’s room did not have an outside door, historians will certainly be forced to look at the event with new eyes.

Aftermath: Odds & Ends

Billy the Kid’s body was taken from Pete Maxwell’s house and laid out on a bench (see photo, p. 45) in the carpenter shop. He was buried the next day, and his grave site was marked with a wooden marker.

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In 1884 the New England Cattle Co. bought the Fort Sumner property and had the buildings torn down a decade later. A souvenir hunter took the wooden marker (another wooden one replaced it). A local, Charlie Foor, helped tear down the building. He used the flooring from Pete’s room in his house, which still stands.

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A 1904 flood washed away many grave markers in the cemetery. In March of 1906 the army sent Charles W. Dudrow to dig up all the soldiers buried at Fort Sumner and move them to Santa Fe. Dudrow took notes of the rank and identity of each soldier. Some believe the diggers would not have disturbed Billy’s grave, while others think the Kid’s body was  taken to Santa Fe and now resides under the new roadway to Española.

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In 1931, the local chamber erected the “PALS” headstone at the Kid’s grave. Three of Billy’s pallbearers  pointed out three different spots as the original location of O’Folliard, Bowdre and the Kid’s grave. As a result, the chamber placed the marker in the middle of those locations.

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A smaller footstone was placed at the location in 1940. It was stolen in 1950 and found in Granbury, Texas, in 1976. It was stolen again in 1981, but found just days later in California. The stone was reset later that year; Pat Garrett’s son Jarvis was present for that ceremony. In 1982, the footstone was anchored down and a huge cage was put around the entire grave.

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Recommended: No book has yet covered these findings.

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.