In late April 1881, Sheriff Pat Garrett was called away from Lincoln to collect taxes in the nearby settlement of White Oaks.
He didn’t want the assignment. Didn’t trust it. He had a notorious outlaw in his jail at the moment, and it wouldn’t do to be out-of-town even for a minute, given this particular criminal’s reputation for violence and trickery. But, unfortunately, the life of an old west sheriff was often more mundane than dime-store novels made it out to be, and Garrett acquiesced to his duty, leaving the prisoner shackled inside the courthouse holding room, under the guard of his two best deputies, Deputy James Bell and Deputy Robert Olinger.
Surely Billy the Kid would be secure under their watch. Right?
As Pat Garrett rode away, he had no idea April 28, 1881 would go down in history and make Billy the Kid a legend among the annals of the New Mexico territory.
The story of Billy Bonney, alias Billy Antrim, alias Billy the Kid, are as wide and wild as the desert southwest itself. There are hundreds of books and websites dedicated to his tale, and every single one of them gives a different account of the events of that late spring day. However, there are a few threads that remain the same no matter who is telling the story.
Billy had been arrested in December of 1880, several years after the Lincoln County War, a skirmish that started out as a rustling battle between two rival cattlemen that elevated into bloodshed. It’s a complicated conflict, with neither side necessarily being the “white hats” in every situation, made even murkier by contradictory badges bestowed by varying authorities. Each side, then, believed themselves to be on the side of the “law” and acting within their jurisdiction at every turn. It’s widely accepted that Billy the Kid did indeed kill several men, including former Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady, though whether or not he was guilty of actual murder depends on who you talk to.
Nevertheless, by late 1880, the tides of politics had turned enough that Billy found himself firmly on the opposite side of the law, arrested, and soon imprisoned under the sentence of death inside the Lincoln County Jail. By all accounts, Deputy Bell was kind to Billy, often playing cards or gambling with him to pass the time. Olinger, on the other hand, was described as harsh and cruel, the two of them being old enemies from the Lincoln County War days; he’d been implicated in several killings before his deputy days, and even his own mother described him as “murderer from the cradle.”
Whatever the case, it was these two men assigned to guard Billy while Garrett was away and what’s known is this: Olinger took several prisoners across the street to the Wortley Hotel for a meal, leaving Bell alone with the Kid. During the ensuing time, Deputy Bell was shot. Some accounts have Billy asking Bell to take him to the outhouse behind the jail, slipping his shackles off during the return (Billy was known for having very small wrists), hitting Bell over the head with them, and then shooting him when he tried to flee down the stairs. Other accounts have Bell and Billy playing a game of monte. When Bell bent to retrieve a card Billy had intentionally knocked onto the ground, Billy used the opportunity to grab his six-shooter and, again, shoot him as he attempted to flee. Still other accounts maintain Billy had liked Bell and hadn’t meant to shoot him at all; his death was the result of a ricochet shot used to scare him into stopping his flight.
Whatever the case, Bell soon lay dead at the bottom of the staircase, his body lying half out the open doorway into the courtyard.
Alerted by the sound of gunfire, Olinger rushed out of the Wortley while Billy moved into Pat Garrett’s office and grabbed the loaded shotgun Olinger had left behind (the one, according to some accounts, Olinger had threatened to use to kill Billy). Waiting in a northeast corner window, Billy watched Olinger cross the street and open the gate. A cook, yelling from the backyard, called out, “Bob, the Kid has killed Bell!” The most dramatic of the accounts has Olinger spying Billy in the window and replying, “Yes, and he’s killed me too,” before Billy unloaded the buckshot into Olinger’s face and chest. (But, again, as with all stories surrounding Billy’s exploits, we can’t be sure the exchange ever really happened.)
What we do know is that Olinger was indeed shot dead and Billy did manage to free himself from his shackles enough to steal a horse and ride out of town without any attempt whatsoever from the townsfolk at re-apprehension. Some say it was because Lincoln revered him; others, because they feared him. Whatever the true sentiment may have been, it remains a historical fact that Billy the Kid lived to ride another day, until he was gunned down in the dark at Fort Sumner by Pat Garrett on the night of July 14, 1881.
Or was he?
Ah, but that particular story, is a rabbit hole for another time…