Death of Billy the Kid


Art by J. Thomson.

(At HUNT THE DEVIL, we focus on critiques of political myths. Occasionally, we post versions of foundational American myths that have shaped our culture. The following retells Pat Garrett’s account of the death of Billy the Kid as found in his book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. Tainted by the spirit of Sam Peckinpah’s great western, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and by the fatal airs of Bob Dylan’s musical score, it narrates the story of Youth killed by Old before Old settles into a new station in life. Highlighting this theme, in Peckinpah’s film the law and order officers are played by old actors who frequently appeared in westerns (Coburn, Chill Wills, Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, etc.); young rock stars from the 1960s (Kristofferson, Dylan, Rita Coolidge) play the outlaws.      

The myth considers Billy a hero not because he was an outlaw, but because he was young.)


From Stories of the Conquest of the Kingdom of New Mexico, by Oscar Giner:



A blonde woman dressed in black, red lips and cheeks, sits in a wooden armchair.

The night Billy died, I was sick and had the fever, but I saw him die in a dream.

When Billy escaped from the County Jailhouse, all the proper citizens of Lincoln rose up and cried out for the famous Pat Garrett to go after him.  Pat Garrett had once been Billy’s friend.  Used to call him “the Kid.”  Tall in the saddle, wearing the badge of law on his vest, Garrett rode out of town with his two deputies.

It was rumored that Billy was hiding somewhere in the Bosque, but Garrett and his deputies rode their horses straight on to Fort Sumner.  They waited outside the Fort until sundown.

When night came, Garrett snuck into the Fort.  He left his deputies outside and went into a house owned by a man named Pedro Maxwell.  Maxwell was sleeping in a bed covered by dirty sheets. Garrett sat in a chair next to Maxwell’s bed, in a corner of Maxwell’s bedroom, and woke him up.  He tried to explain what he was doing there at such a late hour.  He sat there and talked for about 15 minutes.  Maxwell didn’t say anything to Garrett.

Meanwhile, Billy was waking up out in the bunkhouse.  He was in a stupor from all the liquor he had been drinking that day.  The cold night air rushed in through the bunkhouse window.  Billy felt cold and hungry.  He sniffled and pulled on his pants.  More out of habit than out of fear of danger, Billy shoved his gun between his pants and his belly.  The metal of that gun felt cold and good against his bare skin.  He grabbed on to his butcher’s knife so he could cut himself some meat.


Billy the Kid (1859–1881). (Credit: Ben Wittick)

Without pulling his boots on, he went out to the veranda and stopped for a moment.  The quiet of the evening always surprised him.  He leaned his right shoulder against one of the wooden pillars of the bunkhouse.  He scraped the boards of the wooden floor with the soles of his feet.  Night reminded him of himself.  He looked up to find the blessing of the moon he loved so much and saw her as usual.  Three-quarter moon in a dark sky.  Starless night because of the clouds.  Quiet and cool.  The night wind stroked his naked chest and blew through him, sending a chill through his heart and up and down his spine.

Billy walked on and his bare feet stepped on rocks and pebbles upturned on the ground.  They scratched him and he giggled–that subdued crazy giggle he reserved for things that amused him privately.  His giggles startled Garrett’s deputies, who were waiting outside Maxwell’s house standing between their horses.  They saw the long shadow of this long-haired, barefoot, skinny boy coming towards them, but they didn’t know who he was.  When Billy saw their shadows in the moonlight he stopped and stepped back.  Held on to his knife a little tighter.  But he wasn’t scared.  It was a long time since shadows of strange men had scared Billy.


Portrait of Sheriff Pat Garrett. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Giggling crazily, like he was laughing at the deputies, Billy walked past them and went into Maxwell’s house.  Through the kitchen and into the bedroom.  Maxwell was still lying in his bed.

“¿Quienes son?” Billy asked Maxwell in Spanish.  Who are they?  Meaning Garrett’s deputies outside.

Maxwell didn’t answer.  Just stared.  Billy saw the black figure of a strange man sitting next to Pedro Maxwell’s bed in a chair in a corner of Maxwell’s bedroom.  Tall man with his gun out of his holster resting on his lap, wearing black pants, black boots, black hat and a black vest.

Billy asked Maxwell “¿Quién es?” meaning Garrett.

Then he saw the star on Garrett’s chest, and before another word was said, Garrett aimed his gun and pulled the trigger.  Shot him twice before Billy could reach for his own gun.

I saw Billy fall. I remember seeing lightning, but I don’t remember hearing any thunder.  When those two gun shots went off, my fever broke.  When they echoed through the house, and through the Fort, and through the Valley, three dogs that were hiding under Maxwell’s bed scurried across the room.

I’ll never forget Billy the Kid.



(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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