The Wild West lore of gunfights, horses, outlaws, Buffalo Soldiers and Smokey the Bear comes to life along the Billy the Kid Byway, where legends play against a spectacular backdrop of snowy peaks, rolling rivers, orchards and ranchlands. From the one-horse, one-street town of Lincoln where Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett sparred to the bustling ski-town ruckus of Ruidoso, the byway offers a legendary West both present and bygone.
At the Billy the Kid Interpretive Center in Ruidoso Downs, kids of all ages may straddle a virtual map painted on the gallery floor, complete with 3-D mountains. Next door, the Hubbard Museum of the American West boasts buggies, stagecoaches, antique firearms, Plains Indian beadwork and Pueblo kachinas inside its walls, while outside a herd of life-size bronze horses representing major American breeds gallops through the garden. Ruidoso Downs Racetrack, open mid-May through Labor Day, is home to the world’s richest quarter horse race, the All American Futurity, offering a guaranteed $1 million purse to the winner.
The trail turns north on N.M. 48 through rustic Ruidoso, Spanish for the noisy water rushing in the river along its main drag. Snowy Sierra Blanca at 12,003 feet elevation soars above the false front stores, shops and restaurants clustered in the village below. Dowlin’s Historic Old Mill is remarkable for its still-functioning water mill and once hid outlaw Billy the Kid. Continuing to tiny Alto, travelers may head west to the white-flanked slopes of Ski Apache on N.M. 532 – a road so narrow and knotted that uphill traffic is banned between 3 - 6 p.m.during ski season. The resort is owned by the Mescalero Apache, descendants of rebellious bands whose resistance to unwelcome settlers in their homeland prompted the U.S. Infantry to establish nearby Ft. Stanton in 1855.
Those of a more artistic than athletic bent may head east on N.M. 220 to the sparkling white slab of the Spencer Theater for the Performing Arts. In its cloudlike setting, the crystal and limestone monolith could be a spaceship sidetracked from Roswell rather than a state-of-the-art performance stage. It offers world-class productions year round and glass sculptures by renowned artist Dale Chihuly on permanent exhibit. View their website www.spencertheater.com.
N.M. 220 cuts across the top of the world through a pinon-juniper woodland, offering circular views of windswept peaks beyond before dropping into the Rio Bonito Valley. Here, the monument and white crosses of Ft. Stanton National Cemetery mark the landlocked final resting place of merchant marines far inland from their ocean realm. The marines were treated for tuberculosis at Ft. Stanton a few miles up the road, which metamorphosed through the years as a military post, hospital, internment camp, jail and halfway house for youth. A number of notable and notorious individuals strolled its hallways at one time: Kit Carson; “Black Jack” Pershing; the 9th Cavalry of the Buffalo Soldiers – so named by the Apaches because their wooly hair and fighting spirit reminded them of buffalo; and one William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid. While the fort is not open to the public, Ft. Stanton Museum on site provides limited guided tours and information.
At U.S. 380, travelers may head west toward Capitan, home of Smokey the Bear, or east toward Lincoln. The tiny cub Smokey was discovered clinging to a tree during a human-caused forest fire that raged through Capitan Gap in 1950. The cub, initially nicknamed “Hotfoot” for his badly burned feet and buttocks, was flown to a Santa Fe veterinary hospital by Game and Fish officer Ray Bell. Eventually the bear lived at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. until his death in 1976, when his remains were returned for burial in Capitan. The Smokey Bear Museum and Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan display the story of Smokey the Bear and firefighters of the West.
U.S. 380 heads east through Lincoln, a town whose tranquil lone street belies its unruly past as the stage for one of the last great gunfights in the Old West. The Lincoln County War erupted between warring mercantile factions after a young Englishman, John Tunstall, challenged the monopoly of the J.J. Dolan & Company general store in 1877. Tunstall was murdered within the year and Billy the Kid, a former Tunstall ranch hand, swore to avenge Tunstall’s death. The conflicting stories of Billy the Kid play out in the town landmarks, many of which are preserved to the last brick and shutter as part of Lincoln State Monument.
Continuing eastward, U.S. 380 follows the Rio Bonito and the lush rural orchards and ranches of the Hondo Valley, where it joins the Rio Ruidoso at U.S. 70 near Hondo. The orchards burst into bloom in springtime and in fall with gold and yellow leaves. Before his death, Fiberglass sculptor Luis Jimenez made his studio and workshop in Hondo, while in San Patricio the Hurd-Rinconada Gallery exhibits the work of onetime residents Henrietta Wyeth and Peter Hurd. U.S. 70 finally returns to Ruidoso Downs, where visitors may try a hand of blackjack or play the slots at the Billy the Kid Casino for a last nostalgic take on the Old West before heading home.
The Lincoln County War
Billy the Kid received notoriety in the 1870s as a result of the Lincoln County War, a brief but bloody rivalry that began soon after John H. Tunstall, a wealthy young Englishman and rancher, and his business partner, Alexander A. McSween, attempted to drive out the established trading monopoly. A ruthless gang boss named James J. Dolan controlled all of Lincoln County. Dolan worked under the guise of J.J. Dolan & Company and fixed prices, intimidated ranchers and farmers, and even dealt in stolen cattle.
Tunstall’s motives became clear when he and his partner opened a competing mercantile. Tensions mounted on both sides. A legal dispute between McSween and Dolan of a $10,000 life insurance policy was the last straw. During a wintry night on February 18, 1878, Dolan made sure Tunstall paid with his life.
In retaliation, Tunstall’s foreman formed a posse called the Regulators. Billy the Kid was one of Tunstall’s ranch hands, so he joined the gang. Shortly after their formation, Lincoln’s justice of the peace deputized the Kid and the rest of his gang. On the other side, a territorial government that served a political faction known as the Santa Fe Ring backed Dolan’s hired guns.
Few places during that time saw more blood than Lincoln County. An all out war between the two groups erupted along the Rio Bonito, Rio Ruidoso and down in the Pecos River Valley. It was in these places where Billy the Kid displayed a fearless daring that earned him his name and exaggerated reputation.
On the morning of April 1 in Lincoln, six of the Regulators, including the Kid, ambushed Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady and four of his deputies. Sheriff Brady and a deputy were killed during the firefight. While retrieving the Winchester rifle that Brady had taken from him weeks earlier, the Kid was shot in the thigh, but managed to limp away and evade capture or death.
Only three days later, the Regulators gunned down another one of Dolan’s allies at Blazer’s Mill. Although grazed in the arm, Billy the Kid cleverly counted his enemy’s expended rounds and rushed him once he was out of ammunition.
The war ended five months after it started, on July 19, when Alexander McSween and four supporters were shot and killed. Besieged and burned to the ground by 40 of Dolan’s armed posse, the men had no chance. Not so for Billy the Kid and some of his pals. They famously made their last minute escape from the blaze at dusk amid a barrage of gunfire.