Sunday, August 17, 2014

Fort Sumner, New Mexico and Billy the Kid

Fort Sumner, New Mexico is a tiny agrarian village 160 miles southeast of Albuquerque. It was originally an internment camp for the Navajo and Mescalero Apache. It was called the Bosque Redondo reservation. The Mescalero quietly left on a cold February night in 1865, and the Navajo were starving after catastrophic crop failures in 1865, ’66, and ’67. The camp was closed in 1868, and the Army sold its buildings to Lucien Maxwell in 1870. Eleven years later William H. Bonney—Billy the Kid—was shot dead in the home of Lucien Maxwell’s son Pete, by Pat Garrett, and buried in the old camp cemetery.

Fort Sumner sits in the Pecos River valley and is surprisingly verdant. The Pecos is a ditch of a river. Its muddy water almost stagnant as it ebbs towards Texas and the Rio Grande. Cottonwood trees and alfalfa fields surround the graveyard. There is a worn out historical marker with a caption at the top reading, “Official Scenic Historic Marker” and a privately owned museum at the cemetery’s edge—“Old Fort Sumner Museum—Gravesite of Billy the Kid”.

It is a warm August afternoon 133 years after Billy’s death. A few people wander the graveyard. It is fenced. Billy’s marker is near the center. A rod iron cage surrounds the grave; four sides and top. The Kid is jailed even in death. Nameless tourists have scattered coins across the grave’s surface. A show of respect for a man who is a folk legend. A man who murdered for money.

Fort Sumner is south and east of the shabby Interstate town of Santa Rosa. It sits squarely on I-40 east of the Pecos. Its main street is Historic Route 66. A quiet two lane highway curls south and east from Santa Rosa across surprisingly green desert hill country. The flora is sage in color, but it is desert and the beauty is its variation. It is monochromatic; creosote, pinon, and grass shimmer in the clear morning light. A rare gash of red earth adding contrast. Nothing exists between Santa Rosa and Fort Sumner. No towns. No sites. Nothing but empty road. A handful of ranches marked by dirt trails, and maybe a sign—Juan De Dios Ranch, Pettigrew Ranch.

Fort Sumner proper—the modern town—sits at the junction of U. S. 60 and 84. It hasn’t changed in decades. Its main street is a 1950s Hollywood back lot. Red and brown brick buildings. Flat roofed, attached one to another. Appealing, but faded. A picture of desperate tranquility.

The old cemetery is east of downtown, and south of U. S. 84. It is peaceful. An alfalfa field across the oiled road. The crop cut and drying in rows. The air dry and warm. A deep silence broken only occasionally by a passing truck. The crunch of gravel under tires in the museum parking lot. The few people milling around speak seldom, and when they do it is in hushed whispers. Almost reverentially. It is a cemetery. A place of death. A place of quiet.

I am struck less by the significance of the boy-criminal buried here, and more by its silent past. Everything that once was is gone. The Navajo and Mescalero who toiled in the fields. The soldiers. William Bonney, Pete Maxwell, and Pat Garret. The violence of that July night in 1881. All gone. Dead with nothing but a whisper of what was. Standing outside the cage surrounding William Bonney’s gravesite, the final stanza of T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” kept rattling in my mind—  

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper        

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES. Billy the Kid was born November 23, 1859 in New York City as William Henry McCarty. His life was violent and short. Legend has him killing 21 men, but historians believe it closer to eight. He went by many names—Henry McCarty, Henry Antrim—but he was always known as “The Kid”. He spent his final years in New Mexico and named himself William H. Bonney. He was killed in a dark room of Pete Maxwell’s house in Fort Sumner July 14, 1881.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very very interesting. Sounds like a wonderful place to visit. Thank you for taking us along with you.