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August 16, 2017

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Legends of the West

On the trail of outlaws and shoot-outs on a tour of Arizona and New Mexico's colourful past

New Mexico and Arizona celebrate 100 years of statehood this year. They were the last states to enter the Union, adding the 47th and 48th stars to the star-spangled banner almost 140 years after the American Revolution.

What took them so long? These were large, almost ungovernable territories with scattered populations of Mexicans, Indians, soldiers, desperados, renegades, rapacious land speculators, wildcat miners, ranchers who were a law unto themselves, no-hopers — and a smattering of others who hoped for a better life than the one they’d left behind.

Drinking, gambling and whoring were the favourite forms of recreation. The Civil War left thousands of traumatized veterans, given to boozing and cut off from their families. Many armed themselves with Colt and Remington .44 pistols — which the Army sold them for next to nothing — and headed West.

In summer, it was a hot, dry land of cactus, snakes and lizards. In the north, where much of the high plain is above 1830 metres, winters were brutal. The soil was thin and alkaline. Arriving farm families dreaming of the gentle green valleys of the East quickly pushed on to California.

The Wild West was born here in the years after the Civil War and died here about the time Titanic sank in the mid-Atlantic. Fortunately for the visitor with a taste for the romance and violence of the times, a few of the most legendary sites remain intact, much as they were when guns, whisky and lives were cheap.

Lawless in Lincoln

The quiet New Mexico town of Lincoln was at the centre of the Lincoln County War. The wide main street is much as it was on April 28, 1880. Had you been there that day around five o’clock in the evening, you would have seen five prisoners accompanied by Bob Olinger, a big, tough guard with a reputation for bullying, come out of the courthouse jail and walk across the street to the hotel for dinner.

William H. Bonney (aka Billy the Kid) was not with them. The 20 year-old was in leg shackles in a separate room upstairs being guarded by easy going James Bell. Sheriff Pat Garrett had driven over to nearby White Oaks earlier that day, some said to buy wood for a gallows.

With Olinger gone, Billy asked Bell to take him out to the privy. On the way back, at the top of the stairs, Billy, turned and clobbered Bell with his heavy handcuffs. Bell tried to run but Billy, who had somehow got hold of a gun (possibly concealed in the outhouse by one of his many friends), shot him. Bell staggered out into the yard and fell dead.

The jail caretaker went screaming over to the hotel to get Olinger while Billy hobbled into Garrett’s empty office and grabbed a shot gun. As Olinger approached the jail, Billy called down from an upstairs window, “Hello, Bob,” and emptied both barrels into the brutal guard. Billy then addressed the crowd that had gathered from the balcony saying he really didn’t want to kill anyone but he would shoot anyone who tried to prevent his escape. A horse was saddled and he rode out of town well armed and, they say, singing.

This was the act, one of many, that cemented Billy the Kid’s place in history and folklore. Billy, who was much admired by the Mexican population as a kind of Robin Hood figure, went on the lam.

Over a year later, he was tracked down by Garrett on a tip. On July 14, 1881, around midnight, Garrett shot and killed Billy while he was visiting his sweetheart, Paulita Maxwell at her house in Ft. Sumner, NM. The Maxwell home is still there and the area around it is little changed. It makes a good visit. Billy may or may not be buried in the cemetery there – some say yes, others no. While you’re in the area, do visit the Billy the Kid Museum (1435 E Sumner Avenue; billythekidmuseumfortsumner.com). It gives a good sense of the period.

Death in Tombstone

Six months later and 650 kilometres southeast of Lincoln, NM another shooting occurred that’s part of the legend of the Wild West.

So frequent were killings at the time, no one much knew or cared about the dust up in Tombstone, AZ (tombstoneweb.com) until it was described in a book titled Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall by Stuart Lake published in 1931.

As a visitor to Tombstone today you need little imagination to visualize what happened on October 26, 1881. The entire town has been kept as it was at the time and every day the famous shootings are recreated. The area has become a kind of Disneyland of the Old West, albeit with a much better feeling of authenticity. It’s a “must visit” for anyone with a hankering for western history.

What really happened at the OK Corral? For starters, the fight didn’t take place at the corral at all but in a space between the buildings six doors down.

Lawmen Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt Earp and their friend “Doc” Holliday confronted three cowboys over a pack of stolen mules and a stagecoach hold up. The shooting began when the men were only two metres apart. Thirty shots were fired. The entire episode lasted 30 seconds.

The outlaw/cowboys — Billy Clanton, Tom and his brother Frank McLaury — were killed. All of the deputies except Wyatt Earp were wounded.

Though a judge exonerated Holliday and the Earps, deeming the killings justified, it didn’t stop there. On December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was maimed by friends of the cowboys, and in March of the following year, brother Morgan was shot dead while playing pool. This led to a wide series of shootings by both sides over the next few years known as the Earp Vendetta Ride.

John Henry “Doc” Holliday — a dentist who fought and gambled in preference to seeing patients — died of TB in bed in a Denver hotel in 1887. Virgil lost the use of his wounded arm but continued to work as a lawman until his death in 1905. Remarkably, Wyatt Earp, a gambler, sometime US marshal and the most famous of the lot, carried on for another 42 years and died quietly in Los Angeles in 1929.

Lincoln, NM and Tombstone, AZ are but the best known of a plethora of places across the two states with stories to tell of lawless years leading up to the centenaries. There are others too that are worth a tour, if you're hankering for a taste of the Old West.

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