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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Billy the Kid's
Texas vacation

by Clay Coppedge

A lot of what we know about Billy the Kid is dead wrong, and that includes stories and information about the time he spent in Texas. Tascosa must have had a population of several thousand if we are to account for all the first-hand stories people of the day (and not of the day) later told about what amounted to a working vacation in Texas for The Kid.

Here are a few true facts, untrue facts, distortions, fictions and outright lies about Billy the Kid in Texas, sorted out as best we can.

He wasn't Billy the Kid in Texas. Billy's enduring and romantic sobriquet came after his stay in Texas. People of the day called every young tough with a gun and willingness to use it Billy. Anybody who called Billy the Kid anything called him Billy, which was handy because he went by a slew of surnames but his first name could always at least be translated to Billy.

Billy the Kid helped form the Panhandle Stock Association. Billy arrived in Tascosa in the fall of 1878 with about 125 stolen horses he intended to sell to several big Panhandle ranches like the LX and XIT. By the time he left Texas he was stealing horses and cattle from those same ranchers. Fed up with the whole mess and more than ready to take matters into their own hands, the ranchers formed the Panhandle Stock Association. Pat Garrett, Billy's (alleged) killer worked for the association.

Old El Paso County jail in the first county seat of San Elizario Texas
Old jail in San Elizario
Photo courtesy Terry Jeanson, December 2005

He once broke into a jail in San Elizario. This comes originally from an 1880 manuscript by a member of Garrett's posse, Charles Frederick Rudolph, who recounted how Billy rode from Las Cruces to San Elizario (just outside of El Paso) after learning that his friend, Melquiades Segura, was in jail there for murder. Billy arrived in San Elizario around 3 a.m. and knocked on the jail door to wake up the Mexican guards. He told the guard who answered the door that he was a Texas Ranger and he had two American prisoners with him. The unsuspecting guard opened the door only to find himself staring at Billy's .44 revolver. Billy relieved the guards of their guns, replaced Segura with the guards and threw away the key. Then he and Segura hightailed it a few miles to Mexico.

That's the kind of story that made Billy the Kid into something more than a horse thief and murderer in the popular imagination. San Elizario celebrates the escapade every summer with the Billy the Kid Festival.

Temple Houston did not best Billy and Bat Masterson in a shooting contest. In Tascosa, Billy mostly sold and traded horses but he took a little time off for horse races and target shooting contests. He liked to bet local blacksmith Henry Kimball a dollar or two a shot. The fabled shooting match featuring Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson and Sam Houston's sharp-shooting lawyer son Temple, with Temple Houston getting the best of the two legendary gunmen, is a favorite Tascosa story.

However, Billy the Kid was already dead (allegedly) and Bat Masterson was in Colorado when Temple Houston first strapped on his six guns in Tascosa. People still tell the story because it's at least compelling fiction, and it could've been true if only it were possible.

Billy was as sober as a judge. One of Billy's best friends in Tascosa was a young doctor, Henry F. Hoyt, who late in his life wrote about his rough-and-tumble pioneer days in the west. Hoyt said Billy was "expert at most Western sports with the exception of drinking." Hoyt didn't drink either, and they bonded mostly over their temperance.

On his way out of Tascosa and Texas, Billy gave Hoyt a horse named Dandy Dick as a token of their friendship. Hoyt mentioned that he would be taking Dandy Dick through New Mexico and, you know, someone might think they recognized it or something, and there might be a messy misunderstanding…Billy scribbled out a bill of sale, recruited a few witnesses and sent Holt on his way.

Years later, Hoyt found out New Mexico sheriff William Brady was riding Dandy Dick on the day he died of gunshot wounds in Lincoln County, Billy's favorite stomping grounds.

Even women who didn't know Billy remembered him. Tascosa belle Frenchy McCormick once said of Billy: "He was the best-natured kid and had the most pleasant smile I ever saw in a young man." Frenchy must've been thinking of some other kid. She didn't arrive in Tascosa until 1880. By then, Billy was long gone, never to return.

Billy The Kid Statue, Hico Texas
Billy The Kid Statue in Hico
Photo courtesy Teri Brown, September 2005

Or maybe he did. The record holds that former running buddy Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, New Mexico in 1881 but some people will tell you that Pat Garrett never got it done, that Billy survived, went straight and ended his life as Brushy Bill Roberts in Hico, Texas.

Brushy Bill Roberts was the main person who said that, but enough people believed him or at least thought it was possible that Hico celebrates Brushy Bill with a Billy the Kid museum.

The Billy the Kid stories just never stop.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" December 3, 2016 column

Related Stories:

  • Was Oliver Partridge ‘Brushy Bill’ Roberts really Billy the Kid? by C. F. Eckhardt

  • Pat Garrett by Clay Coppedge

  • Garrett Murder by C. F. Eckhardt

  • Temple Houston by Clay Coppedge

  • Temple Lee Houston, Son of Sam by John Troesser

  • Temple Houston bested Billy the Kid Cartoon by Roger T. Moore

  • Tascosa, Texas

  • San Elizario, Texas

  • Hico, Texas

  • More

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