Monday, August 14, 2017

Where Did Billy Get the Gun?

Where Did Billy Get the Gun?

I am often asked many questions about Billy the Kid. There are so many interesting things about his short life and short, fierce notoriety that people to this day, over 130 years later, are still enthralled and riveted by the young outlaw. One of the questions I am asked oh so consistently is: Where did Billy get the gun?

Where Billy got the gun during his last, great escape from the courthouse in Lincoln County, NM, has been the subject of debate for years. Someone leaving it for him in the privy is a myth that has been perpetuated in film as much as in legend. But where did he get that gun? The answer to this question is much more logical and simpler than the romantic folktale that someone left it for him in the crapper.

See, Billy himself said where he got the gun; he got it from Jim Bell, the very deputy he shot and killed while making his grand escape. And common sense tells us that, had someone left a gun for Billy in the privy, then surely they would have come forward eventually, eager to tell the tale of how he (or she) sneaked into the outhouse to leave the piece that would set the Kid free.

Billy, being a notorious firebrand, was shackled to the floor in the Lincoln County Courthouse, sequestered from the other prisoners for being too “dangerous”, making a 24-hour watch period necessary. Billy was wily, see? (He had made quite a few jailed escapes before.) We know these days that Billy, though quite formidable in truth when cornered, was rather affable and well-liked. This, together with his slight build and smooth, youthful face, also made him dangerously disarming. Pat Garrett, the sheriff who brought the Kid to the courthouse after capturing him at Stinking Springs, warned deputies Bob Olinger and Jim Bell not to underestimate the Kid and take him for granted, and to keep their eyes on him at all times before he left Lincoln for White Oaks on business.

While Olinger was a real, well-known nasty case of a man who bullied the Kid, Jim Bell was pleasant and treated Billy kindly. For this reason, Billy had no intention of murdering Jim Bell when he planned his escape. In fact, Billy had no intention of killing anyone. But wisdom tells us that plans do not always go according to, well, plan.

Billy put his plan into action on April 28th, 1881, after waiting for Olinger to take the other prisoners to the Wortley Hotel for lunch. The Wortley resided (and still resides) across the street from the courthouse. Prisoners were held at the courthouse since Lincoln County did not have a decent jail house.

Once Olinger was out of the way and Billy and Bell were alone in the courthouse, Billy said that he needed to use the privy. This was a necessary component to his ruse, of course, since Billy was shackled to the floor. Bell unpinned Billy and escorted him to the outhouse. After waiting a reasonable amount of time (or perhaps Billy actually used the facilities), Billy emerged and both he and Bell headed back to the courthouse and up the narrow staircase towards Billy’s “cell”, the Kid ahead of Bell.

This was Billy’s opportune moment. In those days, handcuffs were made one -size-fits-all. It’s been noted that Billy had smaller hands than his wrists, which is the proposed reason he was able to slip his left hand from the cuff. With his right hand and its added weight from the freed cuff, he brought the iron down on Bell’s head intending to knock him out or render him dazed, probably with the hope that a fall down the staircase would help his cause. It was at this point when he most likely grabbed at Bell's gun. Bell, surely stunned, kept his wits about him, and as he fled to warn Olinger, Billy yelled after him, telling him not to run and to keep quiet. Billy wanted a calm, discreet escape from Lincoln; he wasn’t looking for bloodshed. Not only would that have been unwise as it would raise an alarm, but it also would have been unlike Billy, as he wasn’t the type to shoot a man without reason.  Billy would not have killed Bell, but would have forced him to remove his leg irons at gunpoint so he could make his quick getaway. 

So, as things went awry with Bell refusing to heed him, Billy shot Bell (the original pierced wall in the courthouse from this incident has been plastered over. The “bullet” hole that is there now is a recreation as visitors kept inquiring after it.) We know that Billy regretted killing Bell, his having said, “It wasn’t a matter of wanting to kill Bell, but having to.”

The alarm now equally raised by gunfire and by Bell as he made his way outside of the courthouse where he died, Billy shuffled to the armory, legs still shackled together, and grabbed Olinger’s loaded shotgun as he now expected the lawman to come running any minute. Directly, after hearing the gunfire, run Olinger did! Olinger raced from the Wortley to the courthouse only to find himself face-to-face with his own shotgun as Billy leaned outside of the courthouse window of his soon to be former cell. We all know the infamous, gleefully chilling greeting Billy gave Olinger, “Hello, Bob!”, before blasting him, shredding Olinger’s face and chest. Fatefully, Bob had learned that Billy had killed Bell, too, before he expired, as a Lincoln resident by the name of Godfrey (Gottfried) Gauss yelled to Olinger, “Bob! The Kid has killed Bell!” Olinger then replied, the last words he would ever say: “Yes, and he’s killed me, too.” If Billy was sorry for killing Bell, he had no qualms about executing Olinger.

Before you feel too sorry for Bob Olinger, it’s interesting to note that his own mother knew him as a devil, saying, "Bob was a murderer from the cradle, and if there is a hell hereafter then he is there."

Interesting fact: Godfrey Gauss was John H. Tunstall’s cook. The death of Tunstall would ultimately lead Billy to this moment, and then of course to his own eventual demise.

Billy, ever the charismatic young outlaw, addressed the crowd who had gathered around the courthouse, explaining himself and the reason for the death of Bell. Here is where he first expressed his regret in killing the young deputy, and telling the crowd he now only wanted to leave Lincoln peaceably, beseeching them to allow him to do so lest he must spill more blood.

During an hour or so of joking and chatting regular-like with the residents of Lincoln, Billy’s old friend Godfrey procured a pickaxe and horse for Billy after Billy ordered he do so. Billy was able to pry one ankle free, but the other iron would not give, and so when Billy went to mount the horse, the swinging leg iron spooked the animal, bucking the Kid off. Billy laughed about it, got back onto the mount, then took off into Baca Canyon, now called Salazar Canyon. Salazar Canyon runs through the Capitan Mountain chain.

Billy stayed with his friend Yginio Salazar, where he again recounted the tale of his Great Escape.

In Book III of the Bandita series (when it becomes available), I recount this act. But for a fun taste of Billy’s earlier exploits in accurate, novel form, you may want to consider purchasing the first two books in the series, available in print and eBook through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Bandita Bonita: Romancing Billy the Kid, Book I

Bandita Bonita and Billy the Kid, The Scourge of New Mexico, Book II

Warning: Violence and adult situations included.

If you want to see photos of my visit to Old Lincoln and the inside of the courthouse, you can visit my website: Nicole Maddalo Dixon

*Illustration of Billy (Still Riding High) by Bob Boze Bell, True West Magazine

*Bob Olinger from Legends of America
*James W. Bell head stone from