BY FREDERICK TURNER
“So,” an editor friend was saying to us, “what’s new about Billy the Kid?” Photographer Jack Parsons and I were at lunch with her, and the question was certainly a natural one:
no figure in New Mexico history or maybe in that of the entire Southwest is so vividly fixed in the popular imagination as the Kid, the lightning-quick killer, killed himself at twenty-one. Days thereafter, when Parsons and I were down in Kid country, I put her question to Gary Cozzens, manager of Lincoln Historic Site.
“Well,” he smiled, “lots of things, really, and they keep coming up. The whole phenomenon just continues to evolve.” As he gave us a deeply informed walking tour of Lincoln it became clearer by the step what he meant: much of what we had thought of as established fact about the Kid and the Lincoln County War, which came to a climax here in July 1878, was no longer regarded as accurate. There is, for instance, a weathered historical signpost on Lincoln’s main street identifying an empty plot as the home site of faction-leader Alexander McSween. Not so, Cozzens said, pointing to a spot fifty yards west as the true site of the house that was burned to the ground in the battle’s last hours and from which the Kid made a miraculous escape.
That night in my room at Lincoln’s Wortley Hotel, I asked myself the ur-question one must always ask when a long-established fact is disproved by subsequent research: what difference does it really make? After all, the burning of the house ended the battle, just as the killing of McSween, trying to escape it, effectively ended the war. The actual site changes none of this. However, had the house been where the marker still proclaims it was, it is likely the Tunstall store adjacent to it would also have burned, thus depriving historians of a crucial trove of evidence, most importantly those street-front shutters with their metal inserts. These strongly suggest that in thinking about the war, the easy oppositions of popular opinion— Murphy-Dolan Santa Fe Ring (evil) versus Tunstall-McSween- Kid (good)—are in fact too easy by half. The Tunstall-McSween faction expected big trouble, was preparing for it, and was hiring on gunmen like the boy from Arizona, Kid Antrim.
I had long been wondering about another crucial site in the Kid’s history, the rock house near Stinking Springs where Pat Garrett and his posse captured the Kid and his gang, killing Charlie Bowdre in the process. It was the turning point in the Kid’s brief career, for with his capture he was now in the iron clutches of the Santa Fe Ring, who saw in him the ideal scapegoat for all the violent mess of the war in which they had played so large a part. Hang the Kid, they reasoned, and folks will forget the massive political corruption that had gone into the war’s making.
Supposing the rock house still existed, what insights would its physical realities provide that might sharpen our understanding of the Kid at that moment when his life changed forever? Gale Cooper said the house still existed in some form. Cooper is a historian, forensic psychiatrist, novelist, and quite probably the most indefatigable researcher this entire phenomenon will ever have. She thought Parsons and I might need a tracker to locate it. “Whatever’s left of it,” she said, “is somewhere below Taiban.” Scot Stinnett, with his wife co-owner of the De Baca County News, had never been there, but knew generally where it was said to have been. In his office at Fort Sumner he drew us a map and held it up so we could read it.
“You go out 60,” he said, “through Taiban, looking for Cedar Post Road, but if you get to the old Pink Pony (formerly a bar), you’ve gone too far. The Grissom family lives on Cedar Post, and if there’s anyone who knows where it was, it’s them.” He gave us a phone number but didn’t know if it was current.
Near sundown we passed through the busted huddle of buildings that was Taiban and saw ahead the Pink Pony, still pink but now a horse-training center. A Hispanic ranch hand busy uncoupling a horse trailer shook his head when I asked about a rock house used by Billy the Kid, but he knew Cedar Post Road and sent us back toward sundown and then over some railroad tracks and onto the dirt road to the Grissom ranch: sheds, barns, horses in a field whipping flies away with their tails; a house, a trailer, and from beneath it an old Irish wolfhound who ambled out to greet us. No greetings from the trailer, though, and standing before it in our expectant silence we realized we were surrounded out there by sound: the roar of late-summer insects in the grasses and the long rumble of freight cars on the tracks a mile north. If we were, as we hoped, on the trail of history, maybe this was the sound of it here. On our way back to town Parsons looked out the window at the tangled vegetation that followed the arroyos, at the alfalfa fields, and the tablelands to the south and said, “We’ll never find it in all that.” Nor would we have had I not made one last call that night to the phone number Scot Stinnett had given us, for here at last was Mrs. Grissom on the line. Yes, she knew where the house was, and, yes, she would point us toward it, though she was somewhat crippled up now at eighty-one and couldn’t take us to the exact spot herself.
Until I heard her strong, clear voice I had been forced to think of what a tiny sliver of human history is known to us and of how much the vast, dark unknowns of it would change our view of ourselves if even some small portion of them should become known, as Chauvet Cave’s paintings (twice as ancient as Lascaux’s) have profoundly enlarged our appreciation of the human capacity for wonder. The rock house wasn’t Chauvet. Still, it might throw some light on the Kid, who, for all his fame, remains a shadowy figure whose appearance is known to us by a single tintype commonly printed in reverse so that he is shown left-handed. That was the hope, anyway, that took us out again to the trailer the next morning to meet Janean Grissom, a lean, white-haired woman in sun-faded clothes, who was waiting for us on her small porch.
We followed her car back down the road towards the railroad tracks, but well short of them she pulled to the side, and we got out into the heat, the whirr and flitterings of grasshoppers, flies, mosquitoes, and the tangle of wild grasses, sage, and alfalfa gone to seed. We chatted a bit about her ranching background over in Texas, and when I wanted to check the spelling of her name, she said her full name was Lena Janean. “My mother learned to play tunes on the piano, listening to the radio,” she recalled, “and she heard one called ‘Jeannine, I Dream of the Lilac Time.’ I guess she spelled it the way it sounded to her.
“Now,” she said, turning to the business at hand, “see that arroya [sic] there?” pointing east-north-east. “Well, you go down into that arroya, but where it goes like this”—a vigorous leftward zig—“don’t go that way. You go like this”—an equally vigorous rightward zag. “You’ll find mud between here and there because this has been our best summer in five years; three cuttings of alfalfa. But when you come up out of that you’ll see an old cow trail. Follow that, and you’ll come to it. Don’t look for anything standing; it’s just stones that mark out the foundation, though it never really had one.” I wondered whether we had to worry about rattlers, and she nodded. “And they tell me now there’s a kind that don’t make a sound.” With that she moved off to her car, and Parsons and I made our gingerly way down across the arroyo, through the mud of a small ditch, then up through chest-high grass. And then, suddenly, we were stepping on the scattered lines of flat, brownish-red stones that trailed off into some low bushes.
We had been warned it wasn’t much, and it wasn’t: just sixty or so flat stones and twenty feet away the arroyo where Pat Garrett and his posse took cover in bitter weather and waited for the Kid and his five partners to come out to their horses in the morning. Garrett had told his men that the Kid wore a Mexican sugarloaf hat with a green band and that when they spotted that man they were to fire on him. But when in the snowbound morning such a man appeared in the doorway with a nosebag for his horse it was Charlie Bowdre instead, who was shot several times before staggering back into the house. Supposedly, the Kid was then heard telling Charlie that the posse men had got him, all right, but that he could still get one of them. Bowdre, clearly all but dead on his feet, lurched back out towards the lawmen, pistol in hand, then pitched into the arroyo and the long arms of Pat Garrett. When Garrett examined the body for wounds, he found the mortal ones and a blood-stained photograph as well. It showed a heavily armed Charlie and his wife, Manuela.
We had found the site of the rock house, and so then there was again the question: what difference did those few staggered stones make to our understanding of the Kid and the Lincoln County War? Just this: standing on the spot and gazing all around, you felt suddenly how lonesome and desolate this hut was and would then have been, how forlorn a destination for the Kid and his remnant band, down to six and having just lost Tom O’Folliard (variously spelled) to Garrett at old Fort Sumner. Outside a blizzard raged. Inside, huddled, desperate men, with no food, no water, no toilet, and even fewer options. They were simply, finally, losers, as they must have known. Here was no romance, no flaming saga of gallant outlawry with the Kid “painting his name in flaming colours . . . across the sky of the Southwest,” as Walter Noble Burns had it in his famous The Saga of Billy the Kid. Instead, this was the end of a battle between rival gangs for turf in what was a police state. Pat Garrett and the powers behind him put the Kid out of business, though not immediately.
They also put him into legend. It is the inherent nature of legend to be static: it resists facts, most especially new ones. The rock house is starkly antilegendary in its bleak isolation, but no matter: the Kid’s ride in legend is endless, as Michael Wallis has it in his recent biography. But the historical search goes on, turning up all manner of facts, some yet to be fully clinched: the Kid’s many girlfriends, his possible descendants, the location of his remains. So, in its own way the search too seems as endless as our collective curiosity, which continues to chase an ever-elusive rider.
Frederick Turner’s many books include Of Chiles, Cacti, & Fighting Cocks. He is at work on an illustrated novel about Lincoln County Wars participant, George Coe.