A few weeks ago, I wrote about Billy the Kid and the controversy concerning whether he was left- or right-handed. Sure enough, my email on the subject was pretty evenly divided on both sides of the controversy. While I have no reason to stir up that hornet’s nest again, I do have a related topic to discuss.
In November of 1880, Pat Garrett was appointed sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico. One of his first jobs was to track down his erstwhile friend, Henry McCarty--alias Billy the Kid--for his murderous role in the famed Lincoln County War. In earlier days, Pat and Billy had been friends who had frequented the gaming tables in saloons scattered around the south half of the state. Standing several inches over six feet, Pat was a tall man, and was known as “Big Casino,” while the diminutive Billy was known as “Little Casino.”
Now, Sheriff Garrett gathered a posse and began to chase Billy’s gang. Within months, the posse had killed two members of the gang and had captured Billy and the rest. Though Billy was convicted, he managed to kill two guards and escape from the jail. In less than three months, Garrett was able to track down and kill The Kid in the town of Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Like everything else involving Billy, there are differing versions as to how the fight took place.
One thing is certain: Pat Garrett became famous as a lawman and a gunman. And the sheriff exploited his fame: he ran for several political offices (usually unsuccessfully), he produced a book about Billy (which was actually ghostwritten by Ash Upson), and he became a rancher. President Theodore Roosevelt gave him the job of Customs Agent. For a while, Garrett was even a captain in the Texas Rangers. Eventually, he returned to his quarter horse ranch on the eastern slopes of the San Andres Mountains.
Garrett was a difficult man to get along with, and eventually he got into a long feud with Wayne Brazel, a tenant who had leased some grazing land from Garrett. Garrett, not realizing the rancher intended to raise goats on the land, was furious. In 1908, while Garrett was riding a buckboard into Las Cruces, Brazel rode up and the two men began to quarrel. According to the goat rancher, Garrett allegedly bent over to reach for a shotgun but Brazel drew and fired first, killing the lawman.
Pardon the interruption, but have you noticed that nearly every fact connected to the Wild West is about as firm as fresh cowpie on a hot summer day? We don't know hardly anything for sure. There is a great story--probably apocryphal, of course--about an old frontier doctor in the wild, rip-roaring town of El Paso, who best came to grips with this problem.
In 1895, the old doc was called out one night to examine the body of John Wesley Hardin, who was a notorious badman. When he was poor, he crossed the border into New Mexico territory, where he was an assassin for hire. At home in El Paso, he was even worse--he was a lawyer!
There is no doubt about it--Hardin was a bad man. He once (and I hope you understand that I am not at all certain about this story inside a story inside the story about Garrett) shot a man in an adjoining hotel room just because he snored too loudly. Hardin was mean enough to have a fight with a rattler and give the snake the first bite.
Well, Hardin and John Selman, the local deputy, had gotten into an argument, and Hardin had promised to kill the deputy when next he saw him. Now, if Hardin had promised to kill you, one more clean white shirt would probably do for you. Selman--wisely--decided to strike first.
Searching the various bars, gambling halls, and assorted playgrounds that made up the seedier side of El Paso, Selman looked into the Acme Saloon and saw Hardin standing at the bar, playing poker dice with a local.
Everyone was certain that Selman had shot Hardin from the doorway, but few agreed on the details. Selman claimed that he had yelled, "Hardin!" and as the famed shootist turned to face the deputy, he had moved to draw his gun, forcing Selman to shoot Hardin.
Hardin's friends however, claimed that Selman had not yelled a warning, but had just shot the gunfighter in the back. The argument was heated, violence was eminent, and so the old doctor was called in to provide the official version of how the famed badman had died. Had Hardin been shot in the front or in the back? This was "CSI", Wild West style.
Well, this put the physician in quite a dilemma. No matter how he ruled, half the town was going to be angry with him. The doctor's official testimony is a masterpiece of diplomacy:
"If he was shot in the front, it was damn fine shooting. And if he was shot in the back, it was damn fine judgment."
And so it is with the various versions of what "really" happened in the Old West. Pick the version you like the best, and ride that horse to the finish line, without looking over your shoulder for stray facts. Now, back to Pat Garrett.
Garrett's children continued to live in New Mexico, with the last of them passing away just a little over twenty years ago. The ranch, however, did not stay with the family. During World War II, 3,200 square miles of desert land east of Las Cruces and north of El Paso suddenly found other military uses, such as for artillery ranges, bomber training areas, missile ranges, and, eventually, as an atomic proving ground.
Some of that land had belonged to ranchers, to miners, and, even to a few homesteaders. The government used the eminent domain law and bought the land from the previous owners, fenced the whole area off, and installed the kind of armed patrols and electronic security that--for some reason--the federal government today says is impossible to duplicate on the Mexican border just a few miles to the south.
The government doesn't lie about what's out there, but it doesn't go out of its way to publicize this land, either. We're not talking about Area 51, but there are enough stories about lost gold mines, hidden graves, and ghost towns inside those fences to make a real problem for the people charged with keeping the curious away from it and safe.
There are occasional guided tours for those with legitimate reasons to journey into this restricted area, and while the area is a no-fly zone, the government once even gave me permission to fly a small Cessna over it.
It might surprise you to learn that Southern New Mexico has a daily traffic report. The broadcast doesn't warn about traffic congestion, and no--it doesn't caution you about "the pass" being blocked by a trail drive. It will, however, tell you how long the interstate will be shut down due to a missile launch.
A former student of mine, Jacob Harrington, now works as a photographer at the range, and he sent me these photographs. I have put them here, with his permission, to show what remains of Pat Garrett's ranch. If you click on the photos, you will get an enlargement.
Finally, here is something we can be sure about. Pat Garret lived in this house, looked down from this mountain. He worked this land.
The land has mountain-fed spring water, and is alive with game. Personally, I like the idea that this land will never be developed and will remain an isolated place of old memories and forgotten ghosts. The last people who lived on and regularly walked this land, didn't read about the Old West: they lived it.