Shoot-out at Stinking Springs Billy the Kid’s Gang Vs Pat Garrett’s Posse

classic-gunfights-pat-garrett_charlie-bowdre_manuelaDecember 23, 1880

Riding at midnight through deep snow, Sheriff-elect Pat Garrett leads a 13-man posse eastward out of Fort Sumner, New Mexico. After questioning several people in Fort Sumner and ascertaining the Kid’s dress (“especially his hat,” which is said to be a Mexican sugarloaf with a green hatband), Garrett decides he won’t take any chances.

When the Kid makes his appearance, Garrett will kill him and hope the rest surrender.

After a 10-mile ride to the Brazil-Wilcox Ranch, where Billy the Kid and his compadres were last seen, Garrett picks up their trail clearly in the snow. “Following this trail a short distance,” he recounts, “I [am] convinced that they had made for Stinking Spring.”

A half mile away from the house, Garrett and his men hold a conference.

Around three a.m., with Juan Roibal left in charge of the horses, Garrett divides his squad and circles the house with half the force. Finding a dry arroyo fairly close to the house, the men dig in. Frank Stewart and the rest of the posse conceal themselves about 200 yards from the other side of the building. They see three horses tied to the vigas (roof beams sticking out of the wall) outside the stone house and conclude that two mounts must be inside with the outlaws.

Garrett sends a message to Stewart of their plan of attack: “stealthily enter the house, cover them with our guns and hold them until daylight.”

Lee Hall favors the suggestion; Stewart does not. Garrett is overruled.

The men shiver and attempt to stay warm until daylight (about a four-hour wait). It’s so cold, posse member Charlie Rudolph gets frostbite on his feet. As the posse members wait, they hear snoring from inside the rock house. The hours drag by and the temperature seems to get colder as the men look for any sign of movement from the “inmates.”

The lanky sheriff commands a direct view of the doorway. While waiting for the Kid’s sombrero to pop into view, Garrett orders his men: “when I bring up my gun, [you] raise and fire.”

As the weak rays of sunlight begin streaking the horizon, the posse hears movement in the house. Shortly, a man appears in the doorway with a nose-bag (feed bag for the horses). The man’s head is down, but Garrett sees a Mexican hat with a green band and brings his Winchester rifle to his shoulder. Seven bullets rip through the pale dawn light.

The man reels into the house, and the horses pull at their tethers. The “inmates” inside are now awake, trying to avoid the trampling hooves of their four-legged bunkmates. Billy Wilson’s voice is heard: “Bowdre is killed and wants to come out.”

Garrett yells for him to come out with his hands up. As Bowdre staggers to the door, the Kid catches hold of his belt, draws his revolver around in front of Bowdre and says, “They have murdered you, Charlie, but you can get revenge. Kill some of the sons-of-bitches before you die.”

Bowdre comes out with his hands barely up. He stumbles toward the posse until he recognizes Garrett, and he goes straight at him. Motioning with his hands at the house and strangling in his own blood, he gasps, “I wish … I wish … I wish….” Then with a whisper, “I’m dying,” as he falls into Garrett’s arms. The lawman gently lays him on his blankets.

As the morning light brightens, Garrett notices the rope ties on one of the outside horses is moving. He quickly surmises that the outlaws are trying to bring the horses inside in order to make a break. Garrett shoots the horse dead, and it drops in the doorway. To stop anymore attempts, Garrett takes careful aim and shoots the ropes of the other horses. The animals “walk away” and are captured by Stewart’s men.

Garrett opens up a conversation with the “inmates,” and the Kid answers as their spokesman. Garrett asks how he is fixed in there.

“Pretty well,” the Kid coolly answers, “but we have no wood to get breakfast.”

“Come out,” Garrett says, “and get some. Be a little sociable.”

“Can’t do it, Pat” the Kid replies, “business is too confining. No time to run around.”

Garrett decides to eat breakfast, so he goes with half the men back three miles to the Brazil-Wilcox Ranch headquarters.

After the meal, Garrett makes arrangements with Thomas Wilcox to deliver food for the men, forage for the horses and wood. As the wagon is being loaded, Garrett returns to Stinking Springs and relieves Stewart, who gathers up his men to go to breakfast. Garrett then invites the Kid out for coffee.

“Go to hell, Pat,” says the Kid, obviously losing a bit of his jolly humor.

Soon, the posse members on the east side begin to hear sounds of picking; evidently the outlaws are trying to break out or at least make firing ports. Garrett sends Tom Emory and James East to stop it. A few well-aimed shots end the picking, but the horses inside “[get] scared and [are] about to run over Billy and his men.” (Billy later tells a reporter, “If it hadn’t been for the dead horse in the doorway I wouldn’t [have been captured]. But I couldn’t ride out over that, for [my horse] would have jumped back and I would have got it in the head.”)

At about three p.m., the Kid turns loose the two horses he’s holding inside, and the posse picks them up.

At four p.m., the Wilcox wagon arrives, and the men build a big fire and “[go] to cooking.” The smell of roasting meat is too much for the outlaws. Dirty Dave Rudabaugh sticks a handkerchief “that had once been white” on the end of a stick and calls out for a surrender. Garrett tells them to come out with their hands up, but only Dirty Dave leaves the house to talk with him. The outlaws want a “guarantee of protection from violence.” Garrett agrees, and Dirty Dave returns to the house.

After a few minutes, all four outlaws come out with their hands raised. The Kid is the last. (According to legend, before the Kid steps out, he urinates on the weapons.) As the “inmates” approach the posse, Barney Mason levels his rifle at the Kid and spits out, “Kill the son-of-a-bitch, he’s slippery and may get away.”

Emory and East are appalled at Mason’s treachery and aim their Winchesters at Garrett’s brother-in-law. One of them says, “If you fire a shot, we’ll kill you.” Mason backs off.

After the Kid and his men are disarmed, the outlaws “[shake] hands with every man” who captured them. The prisoners are then taken to the Brazil-Wilcox Ranch where Mrs. Wilcox feeds the whole lot. Garrett sends a wagon back up to retrieve Bowdre’s body, and everyone stays overnight at the ranch.

Aftermath: Odds & Ends

On Christmas Eve, Billy the Kid said goodbye to Paulita Maxwell under the mistletoe as Paulita’s mother kept posse members James East and Lee Hall at bay (above). Somewhat embarrassed, Dirty Dave Rudabaugh was along for the ride because he was shackled to the Kid.

Saint Nick and the Christmas Tree were already essential parts of the Yuletide holiday, as shown on the cover of the December 25, 1880, Punch magazine (inset).

Sheriff Pat Garrett successfully delivered the Kid to the Santa Fe authorities on December 27. Over a year passed before he could collect the $500 reward.

After the Kid, Rudabaugh and others failed to dig their way out of the Santa Fe jail, Rudabaugh was sent back to Las Vegas, where he did successfully dig his way out and escape the territory. The Kid was sent to Mesilla, where he was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang for the murder of Sheriff William Brady. Billy didn’t meet that appointment.

Recommended: Billy the Kid:?A Short and Violent Life by Robert M. Utley, published by University of Nebraska Press.

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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.