Billy the Kid, Almost Home

   I know why Billy the Kid didn’t leave New Mexico when Pat Garrett was hunting him.

   Because Billy was home; the only home he had ever had.

   Before Lincoln and Fort Sumner, the Kid’s mother, Catherine McCarty, moved the family from New York to Indianapolis, to Wichita and Denver, to Santa Fe and Silver City, New Mexico.

   Consumption killed Catherine in Silver City, when her son was fifteen or sixteen.

   Fatherless, the Kid wandered around Arizona until he killed a man in self-defense.

   Then at sixteen, Billy rode to New Mexico and never left.

   New Mexico casts a spell: Cedar and sage, billows of white clouds reclining on blue mountains, adobe, the Rio Peñasco and the Rio Bonito.

   Spanish rolling off the tongue; amigo, corazón, compadre.

   The Kid spoke Spanish and the Hispanos loved him, especially the girls.

   Billito, they said at the baile, their skirts awhirl, batting their eyes above their fans.

   An attempt to touch up an early tintype distorted Billy the Kid’s official face, so we see him as grotesque.

   His sweetheart, Paulita Maxwell, however, told author Walter Noble Burns the Kid had “A certain sort of boyish good looks,” and in “every placeta in the Pecos some little señorita was proud to be known as his querida.”

   Burns interviewed many people who knew the Kid and recorded those interviews in his 1926 book, The Saga of Billy the Kid.

   Burns also interviewed the Kid’s friend, Sallie Chisum, who vowed when Billy came to see her he looked like he had “just stepped out of a bandbox.

   “In broad-brimmed white hat, dark coat and vest, gray trousers wore over his boots, a gray flannel shirt and black four-in-hand tie, and sometimes–would you believe it?–a flower in his lapel..”

   Sallie said, when the Kid “was an enemy, he was an enemy, but when he was a friend, he was a friend. He was brimming over with light-hearted gaiety and good humor…”

   The Kid was always a gentleman around her, Sallie said, and once, when she showed him trees planted to commemorate love between three brothers, “I remember how touched Billy was..he looked so wistful and woebegone I felt called on to cheer him up.”

   Although many deny it, both Sallie and Paulita said the Kid and Pat Garrett were once close friends.

   Hard to lose a friend. Hard to be hunted by a friend. Hard to be killed by a friend.

   Here’s proof of his feelings about New Mexico.

   When Gov. Lew Wallace suggested the Kid could take care of his problems if he just left the Territory, the Kid said, “No, this is my country and I’m staying here.”

   He stayed and Garrett killed him.

   Burns said the Kid was faster than Garrett, but Garrett was able to kill him in that dark room, at Pete Maxwell’s house at Fort Sumner, because “It was Billy’s time to die.”

   The Kid saw it coming at the last second, in a flash of light which turned out to be gunfire.

   I’ve seen what purports to be his grave in Fort Sumner.

   Maybe he’s there, maybe he’s not.

   It’s said that the next world looks like places we love best.

   In that case, the Kid is finally, really and truly, home.



   The painting is “Almost Home,” by Bob Boze Bell,





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