The other Billy
Yesterday I happened to listen to a program of cowboy music on the radio. At least they said it was cowboy music. I will grant that the lyrics of the various pieces had cowboy themes. But the music was in many different styles. I really doubt that cowboys, even today's cowboys, had or have keyboards and drums out at the campfire. Well, let it pass.
The show had some talk portions too, and during one of these one learned that the five most visited grave sites in the Wild West are those of Doc Holliday, Wild Bill Hickok (along with wife Calamity Jane), Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp (with Josephine Sarah Marcus, his Jewish actress wife), and Billy the Kid. Holliday's site was first and Billy's fifth; I am not sure of the order of the others.
Billy the Kid came from Silver City, just up the road from Lordsburg where I once lived. The legends and tourist traps make him out to be some kind of hero. But the residents of the area mostly do not, and never did, hold this image. Rather he is thought of as a cowboy version of a thug, a malicious killer, whose own death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett was more celebrated than mourned.
In any case, it was not Billy the Kid, nor the other deceased figures, nor cowboy music, that I wanted to write about today. Rather these just brought to mind a man sometimes called “the other Billy”.
* * *
The Southern Pacific rail grade passes through Lordsburg and on across the Arizona border to Willcox. Roughly aligned with the border are the Peloncillo Mountains. The rail grade goes through a pass where the mountains are low. There is still enough of an ascent that in steam days extra locomotives waited at the ready on either side of the pass to help trains make the grade. Small villages on either side provided shops where the engines were housed and maintained, and housing for the workers. The village on the New Mexico side is Steins, today a ghost town. The village cemetery lies a few hundred yards to the south. Interstate 10 passes between Steins and its cemetery and has exits giving access to them. The graveyard is somewhat notable for having both Hispanics and Anglos all mixed together at a time when segregated cemeteries were usual. It is also notable as the final resting place of Billy Mitchell.
* * *
William N. Mitchell (16 April 1852 to 26 June 1928) was born and raised in Texas. His story is simple. His father had been hanged on the false testimony of a man. Billy swore within himself to avenge his father's death, and did so when the opportunity arose. Perhaps he acted openly, perhaps covertly; either way his deed became known. He fled to the bootheel country of New Mexico and the adjacent corner of Arizona, identified himself as John W. King, and lived peacefully until his death by heart attack in Douglas. Three days later he was buried at Steins.
* * *
The Mitchell family, including Billy's descendants and collaterals, has an unusual kind of family reunion. They bring out their campers and hit the road for several days, traveling in caravan to sites of interest to them. In 2001 their itinerary included a visit to Steins. A notice in the Lordsburg Liberal announced that they would conduct a ceremony at Billy's grave and that locals were invited to attend. I did, and found myself the only local among about fifty family members.
Billy had been buried since 1928. His tombstone, made of cement (not an uncommon practice then), had crumbled. The ceremony consisted in setting a new stone and making some speeches.
I remember only two of the speeches: the first, and the last.
The first was delivered by a short, well built, well voiced middle aged lady who intoned, “We are gathered here today to pay homage to our kinsman Billy Mitchell, a man who, heedless of the cost, took arms and avenged the honor of our family ….”
I could hardly believe my ears. The Wild West was still alive and vigorous in the twenty-first century, right here around me! And the speaker went on in the same vein for some minutes as chills raced up and down my spine! What a family!, and for a day I was part of it.
Other speeches built on this one. But if the first speech was a great crescendo, the last one was indeed a diminuendo. The speaker was a preacher, and in a pleading voice said, “Oh, if only Billy could have forgiven!” No great sustained organ chord, no grand finale on the kettledrums. The music quietly faded away.
Well, what can I say? The West was great, and still is. And it is still wild. But it is perhaps fitting that we let the gentle preacher remind us that the West never was so Wild as the movies of our childhood would have had us believe. And much as I hate to say it, it is quietly fading away.
© 2011 Joseph Mansfield. All rights reserved.
2011.02.07 First draft
2011.02.08 Minor changes