“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” —Aristotle
In terms of geologic time, the American west was settled in the blink of an eye, but in terms of the human experience, which involved much suffering, terror, sorrow, and back-breaking work, taming the old west took a very long time. The people of the nineteenth century were a westward moving people, a trend that began almost from the instant Englishmen first set foot on America’s shore. There are literally a million stories in the chronicle of America’s westward migration — each story noticeably different from the others, but the Olinger family may be somewhat typical.
In 1850, William and Rebecca Olinger lived in Indiana. In eight years, they had moved further west three times — from Indiana to Iowa to Kansas. Thirty-seven-year-old William died in 1861. Rebecca remarried a man named Joshua Stafford. They moved from Kansas to Oklahoma to Texas. In 1875, Joshua and Rebecca were living in New Mexico. New Mexico was attractive to many people because, as a federal territory, it was never subject to the trauma of post-civil war reconstruction. Moreover, New Mexico was corrupt and lawless — an opportunity for those who were adept at playing fast and loose with the law.
Robert Ameredith Olinger was one of William and Rebecca’s sons. He may have been born around 1850; we aren’t sure because there were few written records kept of births and deaths in the mid 1800s. Bob’s brother John went into the ranching business in the Seven Rivers area of New Mexico. Whether he was successful in ranching is unknown. What is known is that in New Mexico, small ranchers made a good living by rustling cattle from those with thousands of head of cattle. What is also known is that for whatever reason, Bob grew into a thoroughly despicable person before he was out of his twenties.
Around 1876, Bob was hired to serve the citizens of Seven Rivers as town marshal. The position may have worked out for Bob had he not consorted with local gangsters — notably, the Seven Rivers Warriors Gang and later, the Murphy-Dolan Gang. What made Bob an example of prairie trash was his behavior. He was prolific in drinking whiskey, gambling, and chasing whores. If that wasn’t bad enough, Bob reached adulthood with a mean disposition, a bully of milder men, and no regard for human life. As far as we know, Bob never lived in Reeves County, Texas — so we aren’t sure why he began calling himself Pecos Bob.
Pecos Bob Olinger became a killer when, during a night of drinking and gambling at the Royal Saloon in Seven Rivers, his friend Juan Chavez wondered if perhaps Bob was, in some small way, cheating at cards. Bob stood up from the card table, unholstered his sidearm, and pointed the barrel at Señor Chavez’ head. At the time, Chavez was unarmed, but one of the other gamblers tossed his pistol over to Chavez so that he could defend himself.
Some folks later commented that Juan wasn’t a very bright lad because when the gun smoke cleared, Juan was laying on the floor with a gosh-awful large bullet hole in his throat. A coupe of the witnesses claimed that after Bob killed Chavez, he looked down to the floor where Juan’s body lay, and said, “All’s well that ends well.” Whether Bob actually said that is anyone’s guess, but if he did, then Pecos Bob redefined the concept of friendship.
The folks living in the Seven Rivers area of New Mexico may have constituted the runt of the human litter. A few months later, another gambler named John Hill — who was not a friend of Pecos Bob — made a somewhat similar observation about Bob’s card playing skills. There was no gun play as before, but Mr. Hill’s body was found lying in an alley with a rather large bullet hole in the middle of his back. Most folks figured that Mr. Hill met his end courtesy of Pecos Bob, but inasmuch as there were no witnesses, all’s well that ends well.
The Seven River Warriors Gang was mostly composed of small ranchers who felt victimized by famed New Mexico rancher John Chisum. Chisum’s herd exceeded 100,000 head, and like most Democrats, the New Mexican horde resented anyone’s success, especially if they were registered Republicans. Gang members included Henry (Hugh), John, and Bob Beckwith, Tom Walker, and Bob and Wallace Olinger.
Bob Beckwith and Wallace Olinger signed on as deputies under Sheriff William Brady in Lincoln County. Lincoln was 75-or-so miles northwest of Seven Rivers. There are a few western writers who claim that Pecos Bob was appointed as a Deputy United States Marshal, but I have found no evidence supporting that argument.
When the Lincoln County War broke out in February 1878, Pecos Bob was in the middle of it. Lawrence Murphy went to court alleging that John Tunstall owed him money. Whether this was one of those midnight court sessions, we don’t know, but when Tunstall learned about the court order, he said it was all balderdash. He owed no money to Murphy — and he refused to pay. Murphy went back to court and obtained the court’s authority to confiscate a few head of Tunstall’s horses as payment of the debt. Tunstall refused to give up any horses.
But Sheriff Brady was a law abiding corrupt official, and upon the urging of Lawrence Murphy, formed a posse to collect the horses. Brady’s posse included the hired gun named Pecos Bob Olinger. Ah, but Brady’s posse didn’t go out to the Tunstall Ranch to collect horses — that was only their cover story. They went to Tunstall’s Ranch to kill Tunstall. They accomplished their mission on 18 February — John Tunstall was gunned down in cold blood, which was right down Olinger’s alley. While Bob participated in the murder, he was never charged. The only two men charged were James Dolan and Billy Matthews.
That Bob Olinger was a low-down back shooter there can be no doubt. He was also many other things — but “uniquely bright” didn’t appear on his curricula vitae. His participation in the murder of John Tunstall was a huge mistake because, as it happened, Mr. Tunstall had formed a close friendship with one of his young ranch hands, a fellow who people called by several names: William Bonney, Henry McCarty, William Antrim — and Billy the Kid. When Tunstall was murdered, Bonney vowed, “… to get every son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it’s the last thing I do.”
Pecos Bob was a dangerous man, though. In 1878, there weren’t many local men willing to stand up to Bob, and as a result of this, Bob’s behavior only became worse over time. He became more unpredictable, more dangerous to innocent folks. Some folks might even say that Pecos Bob was a psychopath long before anyone knew what that was.
One afternoon, Bob was playing poker with a man named Robert Jones when another gambling dispute arose. Jones, having heard about Bob’s penchant for shooting people who paid too much attention to the game, wisely avoided a confrontation. Olinger, however, wasn’t willing to put the matter aside.
A few days went by and Olinger learned that Deputy Pierce Jones had been ordered to serve a warrant on Robert (Bob) Jones. It was only a minor affair, a misdemeanor. Pecos Bob tagged along with Deputy Jones. When Olinger and the deputy arrived at the Jones ranch, Bob Jones was working in the yard. His children played not far away, and Mrs. Jones was in the kitchen fixing the evening meal. Offering no resistance, Bob Jones asked the deputy if he could have a moment to explain the warrant to his wife. Deputy Jones said it would be okay and Bob Jones went to the house. En route to the kitchen, he passed by his rifle that was leaning against the outside wall of the house; he made no attempt to pick up the weapon. At the moment Bob Jones passed by the rifle, Pecos Bob pulled out his six-shooter and fired three shots into Bob Jones’ back. Olinger then leveled his pistol at the deputy and said, “Self-defense, right?”
After returning to town with Bob Jones body lying across his horse, Deputy Jones swore out a complaint against Olinger for murder and a Lincoln County judge issued a warrant for his arrest. Sheriff George Kimball arrested Olinger and brought him to Lincoln for trial in October 1879 — but since Olinger was a friend of several criminal gangs operating in the area, including Murphy & Company, and since Lawrence Murphy owned all the judges in Lincoln County, the charges against Olinger were dropped.
Setting the Stage
Rutherford B. Hayes ascended to the presidency at a time when the New Mexico Territory was politically corrupt, when outlaw gangs threatened the territory’s economy, and when hostile Apache terrorized the southern settlements. The territory had become an embarrassment to the federal government — something had to be done. To sort it all out, President Hayes fired Governor Samuel B. Axtell (a Grant appointee) and selected former Union Army Major General Lewis Wallace to replace Axtell as Territorial Governor of New Mexico.
General Wallace wanted a prestigious position in the federal government, but a territorial governorship wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. He much preferred a job where he could earn good money in a stress-free environment and have time to write his book. Besides, Wallace was still smarting from losing two congressional elections. An ambassadorship would be very nice — a territorial governorship, not so much.
Well, maybe, a governorship would work out in the long-term, providing the political winds didn’t shift and the gods of fortune smiled in Wallace’s direction. So, Wallace accepted the position and assumed his post in September 1878.
Politically, New Mexico was totally corrupt; some argue that it still is. But to his credit, Wallace had no interest in joining the Santa Fe Ring — an organization of white collar criminals co-founded by Sam Axtell. According to the US Secretary of the Interior, Axtell was involved in “more corruption, fraud, mismanagement, plots, and murder” than any other governor in the history of the United States. Lew Wallace wanted to put an end to outlaw violence in New Mexico; his first step in achieving this was to offer amnesty to law breakers who were guilty of lesser crimes. New Mexico outlaws who were guilty of serious crimes simply laughed.
The term “lesser charges” excluded the 19-year-old William Bonney — a young man whose purported photograph depicts a rather foolish-looking fellow. Now, while it is true that Bonney had killed men, mostly in either self-defense or as a bona fide lawman, he was not the cut throat some historians have made him out to be. And he certainly wasn’t stupid. After the Lincoln County War, Bonney knew that it was only a matter of time before a sheriff’s posse ran him down even though, aside from the shooting death of Windy Cahill, a man twice Bonney’s size who was in the process of beating Bonney to a pulp when Bonney shot him, Billy the Kid’s only provable crime was in serving in a legally constituted posse.
From that point on, events and persons involved in them become a bit convoluted. I’ll try to make it less so.
William Brady, Sheriff of Lincoln County, was the senior law enforcement official in the county, and because he served as sheriff in a federal territory, he also served as a deputy United States marshal — which made all of Brady’s Lincoln County deputies’ federal officers, as well.
Knowing that county judges were corrupt, witnesses to John Tunstall’s murder went to the County Justice of the Peace, Squire John Wilson. Wilson, having taken the statements of these witnesses, which included that of William Bonney, who witnessed Tunstall’s murder from afar, swore these men in as Constables. Given the attachment of these men to John Tunstall, deputizing them was probably a bad idea. That aside, Wilson ordered these deputies to track down and arrest the murderers of John Tunstall. One must remember that the murderers of John Tunstall were members of Sheriff Brady’s “hired gun posse,” which mainly consisted of the Jesse Evans outlaw gang. At this point, there were two sets of “lawmen” each looking to arrest the other.
Wilson’s constables began calling themselves County Regulators. Deputy US Marshal Robert Widenmann later deputized the Lincoln County Regulators, which technically made them “federal deputies,” as well. Thus, at various stages of the conflict, there were “good” US deputies shooting “bad” US deputies. The regulators became outlaws when Governor Axtell fired Wilson as Justice of the Peace — the effect of which delegitimized his constables and gave gubernatorial support to the illegal activities of Brady, Lawrence Murphy, and James Dolan. Widenmann, though “suspended from duty” was later reinstated. His suspension invalidated his deputizations, as well.
In the battle between the corrupt and overpowering Murphy-Dolan faction and the Lincoln County Regulators, the bad guys won the day, and the regulators were on the run from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s hired guns — Murphy, Dolan, and the Jesse Evans Gang. To William Bonney and his friends, survival meant either coming to an arrangement with Murphy & Company or leaving New Mexico.
Bonney suggested a parley with James Dolan and Jesse Evans. Dolan agreed to meet with the regulators on 18 February 1879 but did so over the objections of Evans and Bob Olinger. Pecos Bob didn’t want much from life, but among the things he did want was to kill William Bonney.
Not long after both sides sat down to work out an arrangement, Evans started an argument that disrupted the peace talks. Once that quieted down, the two sides put together a formal treaty stating that no one on either side would kill, molest, or testify against the other and, if anyone was ever arrested, then the others must aid in their escape. Both sides signed the document (or placed their “X”) and then went to the cantina to celebrate.
While making their rounds, from one saloon to the next, the newly united group came upon Mr. Huston Chapman, an attorney acting against Dolan on behalf of his client, Susan McSween. James Dolan and pal Billy Campbell wasted no time in threatening the man’s life if he continued working for Mrs. McSween.
Bonney, sensing trouble and wanting no part in it, turned to walk away. Jesse Evans blocked him, however. According to witnesses, Evans pulled his gun and made Bonney stand fast. Campbell and Dolan pulled their guns and shot Chapman dead. With Chapman lying dead in the street, the outlaws continued their festivities and Bonney — still under threat from Evans, with no choice in the matter, went along.
While seated inside another Cantina, Dolan euphorically bragged about the killing and then, as a second thought, ordered one of his men to go back to where Chapman’s body lay and make it look like the gunplay might have been in self-defense. Whomever Dolan was speaking to refused to do it; Bonney said he’d do it. But once outside, Bonney and his Texas friend Tom Folliard went directly to their horses and left town. Bonney, who had every intention of clearing himself of criminal charges in the murder of Windy Cahill was now connected to another murder — one he had no part in.
When Governor Wallace heard of the Chapman shooting, he signed warrants for the arrest of everyone involved, including William H. Bonney. I do not know the source of Gov. Wallace’s information, but he ordered military troops and sheriff’s possies to find and arrest those men. William Bonney succeeded in eluding the lawmen at every turn but — in time — Bonney tired of running from the law. With some assistance from Squire John Wilson, Bonney wrote a letter to Governor Wallace asking for relief.
On 13 March 1879, Bonney allegedly wrote, “I have heard that you will give one-thousand dollars, which as I can understand it means alive as a witness, but I have indictments against me for things that happened in the late Lincoln County War and am afraid to give up because my enemies would kill me.” He offered to give himself up if the Governor would drop the charges against him.
Governor Wallace arranged to meet Bonney at the Wilson home on 17 March. Wallace penned, “Come alone and don’t tell a living soul where you are coming or the object. If you could trust Jesse Evans, you can trust me.”
Bonney did meet with Wallace and agreed to submit to a “fake arrest” for his own safety from the Dolan Gang. Bonney also agreed to give testimony against Dolan’s bunch — and Colonel Nathan Dudley for the colonel’s illegal conduct during the Lincoln County War. Wallace told Bonney that if he stuck to his end of the bargain, he would let Bonney go free. The two men allegedly shook hands to close the deal and Bonney departed.
On 20 March 1879, Wallace further instructed Bonney (again, in writing), “to remove all suspicion of understanding, I think it better to put the arresting party in charge of Sheriff Kimbrell who shall be instructed to see that no violence is used.”
On 21 March 1879, William H. Bonney and Tom Folliard surrendered to then Lincoln County Sheriff, George Kimbrell. The sheriff placed them in confinement in the back of Patron’s Store (in Lincoln) and the two men remained in custody there for three months. During his time in Patron’s make-shift jail, Bonney followed through on his part of the deal and was obedient to the wishes of Gov. Wallace by offering testimony against James Dolan, Colonel Dudley, and other participants of the Lincoln County War.
In time, however, Bonney began to suspect that Governor Wallace had been dishonest with him — that he would never grant him amnesty. In this thinking, Bonney was prescient. There are three possible explanations for Wallace’s treachery. The first is that Apache hostiles were creating havoc in the southern section of New Mexico; something had to be done about that. The second explanation is that Governor Wallace’s primary interest in New Mexico was his investments in silver mines. Third, Wallace was writing a book, which took up most of the business day. Among the least of Wallace’s concerns was (a) the widespread corruption of the New Mexico Territory, (b) the crime perpetrated by several outlaw gangs, and (c) his agreement with William Bonney. After Bonney had given his testimony, district attorney, William Rynerson, refused to release him and Lew Wallace washed his hands of the matter.
On 17 June 1879, as his guard at Patron’s Store looked in another direction, Bonney and Folliard walked out of the store, mounted two horses, and rode away. Bonney’s “escape” began a manhunt that lasted 18 months — through late December 1880 — when Bonney was taken into custody by recently elected Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett. While being held in Santa Fe, Bonney wrote four letters to Governor Wallace, but by then, Wallace didn’t know who Bonney was.
Following two days of testimony in a Mesilla court in April 1881, William H. Bonney was found guilty of the murder of Sheriff William Brady. His was the only conviction against any of the regulators of Lincoln County. On 13 April, Bonney was sentenced to hang; his execution was scheduled for 13 May 1881.
Bonney no doubt believed that he was being made the scapegoat for the Lincoln County War. Remember, at the time of Brady’s death, Bonney was part of a duly appointed posse — and it was Brady’s posse that was responsible for the death of John Tunstall. While there is little doubt that the Constable’s posse was more interested in revenge than with justice (a subjective conclusion on my part), it was a stretch of the imagination to convict Bonney of first degree murder.
When the showdown occurred between the Regulators and Sheriff Brady (and others) inside Lincoln, Bonney was one of six constable deputies who fired his weapon during the shootout — and yet, he was the only member of the regulator posse indicted, tried, and convicted. In fact, discounting the court-martial of Colonel Dudley, William Bonney was the only person to stand trial for events occurring during the Lincoln County War.
If it doesn’t yet appear that the deck was stacked against William Bonney, then perhaps this will help clear it up: When deputies loaded Bonney in the wagon for transportation to Lincoln, where the sentence would be carried out, Garrett ordered them to shoot Bonney first if anyone tried to free him along the way. There would have been no hesitance to shoot Bonney either, since the deputies included gang leader John Kinney, killer Bill Matthews, bully lawman “Pecos Bob” Olinger, and a half-dozen other armed men guarding the wagon on horseback.
During the trip to Lincoln, Bob Olinger taunted Bonney — suggesting that he “make a break” so that Olinger could shoot him — like he shot Bonney’s friend, John Tunstall. But the trip was uneventful and upon arrival in Lincoln, Bonney was confined on the second level of the courthouse, in a room next to Pat Garrett’s office. Garrett wasn’t taking any chances, either. Bonney had already demonstrated his ability to escape from jail, so Garrett posted a 24-hour armed guard on Bonney and kept him shackled and handcuffed at all times. Garrett even drew a chalk mark across the room and warned Bonney not to cross it, or he’d be shot.
Garrett assigned Bob Olinger and James Bell as Bonney’s constant guard force. Bell took a liking to Bonney, even despite the fact that Bonney was present when Bell’s friend Jimmy Carlisle was killed. Olinger, on the other hand, pestered Bonney constantly with caustic remarks, dares, and threats. For his part, Bonney ignored him.
Within a week after Bonney’s incarceration, Garrett traveled over to White Oaks to collect taxes. He placed Deputy Olinger in charge of the prisoner. Before his departure, Garrett warned Olinger to keep an eye on Bonney — he was, after all, a dangerous and desperate man. Pecos Bob probably rolled his eyes. The next day, on 28 April 1881, at around 5 p.m., Deputy Olinger delivered Billy’s evening meal to his cell. Bonney was not allowed to leave his “cell” except to use the outhouse, so meals were brought to him. Bob then escorted the other prisoners across the street to the Wortley Hotel dining room to eat. Deputy Bell stayed behind to guard Bonney. After Bonney had eaten his meal, he asked Bell to escort him to the privy.
No one knows exactly what happened next. Either a pistol was hidden in the outhouse by one of Bonney’s friends — or Bonney managed to slip his small hands from the handcuffs and used them against Bell, stunned him, and grabbed Bell’s pistol. Whatever the circumstances, Bonney ordered Bell to put up his hands. Bell panicked and started running. Bonney fired his weapon and Deputy Bell was killed.
Note: This photograph purports to show William Bonney sitting second from left between Richard Brewer (far left) and Fred Waite, with Henry Brown sitting on the far right. According to The Guardian in 2019, this picture was sold at auction for $1-million. The photograph does not portray Bonney as the goofy lout shown in the better known (inverted) photograph. This picture is thought to have been taken sometime in 1877.
At the Wortley, Pecos Bob heard the shot and bolted out the door, ran across the street to a fence, and made his way to the jail house. At the fence, Bob met up with the gardener, a man named Gottfried Gauss, who informed him that Bell was shot. Bob turned away to enter the jail house and it was at that moment Olinger heard a voice from above saying, “Hello Bob.” Looking up, Pecos Bob saw Billy the Kid leaning out of the second story window with a shotgun pointed at him. Bonney fired both barrels into Olinger’s chest and head and the bully with the badge promptly resigned his position as a deputy sheriff of Lincoln County.
Bonney went down the stairs, broke the stock of the shotgun and threw the weapon on the ground next to Olinger’s body. According to witness testimony Bonney yelled, “You damn son-of-a-bitch, you won’t corral me with that thing again!”
William Bonney helped himself to Sheriff Garrett’s armory and proceeded to the stables, where Mr. Gauss was kind enough to help Billy saddle a horse. Billy promptly left town. It would have been both wise and prudent had the fluent Spanish-speaking William Bonney gone to Mexico — but no.
- Alexander, B. Bad Company and Burnt Powder: Justice and Injustice in the Old Southwest. University of North Texas, 2014.
- Bell, B. B. The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid. Tri-Star/Boze Productions, 1996.
- Burns, W. N. The Saga of Billy the Kid. University of New Mexico Press, 1925.
- Fulton, M. G. History of the Lincoln County War: A Classic Account of Billy the Kid. Robert Mullin, ed., University of Arizona Press, 1997.
- Nolan, F. The West of Billy the Kid. University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
- Weddle, J. Antrim is my Stepfather’s Name: The Boyhood of Billy the Kid. Arizona Historical Society, 1993.
- Wiser, K. John Selman — Wicked Lawman and Vicious Outlaw. Legends of America, November 2019.
 It was common practice in the federal Territory of New Mexico for US Marshals to extend deputy commissions to county sheriffs and their deputies. There is no record of Bob Olinger receiving an appointment as deputy US marshal, but he may have been acting (or bragging about) a pocket commission through Sheriff Brady. The US Marshal for New Mexico during at this time was John Sherman, a nephew of William Tecumseh Sherman.
 Axtell was later appointed to serve as the Territorial Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court. He resigned in 1882 after learning that President Grover Cleveland was planning to remove him from office for (gasp) corruption.
 Lawrence Murphy & James Dolan, owners and proprietors of Murphy & Company were the bosses of Lincoln County.
 Sheriff William Brady of Lincoln County, New Mexico, was killed in a gun battle between regulators and the Dolan faction. William Bonney was present that day, but it may not be possible to have claimed, with all the gunfire, that Bonney’s gun that killed him.
 William H. Bonney didn’t drink alcohol; he may have been the only sober one in the group during these festivities.
 Wallace’s caution was odd because if Jesse Evans was anything at all, he was untrustworthy. Perhaps Wallace was suggesting that he, Wallace, was untrustworthy, as well — which ultimately proved to be the case in his agreement with William Bonney, which Justice Wilson witnessed.
 Historical writers insist that Wallace had no intention of pardoning Bonney; he only wanted his testimony to convict Dolan for the Chapman murder. Bonney accepted the arrangement as genuine.
 George Kimbrell is believed to have been appointed Sheriff of Lincoln County upon the resignation of Sheriff Peppin, whose heart couldn’t take the excitement of the post-Lincoln County War. Kimbrell was in turn defeated by Pat Garrett in an election in 1879. George Kimbrell subsequently served as a probate judge in Lincoln County. In his younger days, Kimbrell participated in the Pony Express operation and served under the command of Colonel Kit Carson at Stanton.
 Given the fact that the Indians were an army problem, it must have taken Wallace all of two minutes to deal with the Apaches.
 Wallace was the author of a book titled Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The book was first published in 1880 with mild success but later became a profitable silent film in 1925 and an epic film in 1959, which netted close to $150-million in its initial release.
 William Rynerson was likely part of the Santa Fe Ring, but definitely a friend and ally of James Dolan.
Fascinating essay! You made it clear why the “bully with a badge,” was a despicable, loathsome character. He was a murderer, and a back-shooting cowardly murderer at that. You rightly described him as “prairie trash, … prolific in whiskey drinking, gambling, and chasing whores.” It would seem that these were some of Mr. Olinger’s finer qualities.
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I thought that Bob’s unexpected resignation from law enforcement was rather neat. IMO, historians have not treated Mr. Bonney well, or very accurately, either.
Sure a lot of images in this story !
Well, one might say Pecos Bob was not one to shoot in the arms or legs….
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I agree with your assessment of Bonney’s treatment by historians. It’s not uncommon for villains to be treated too harshly and heroes to be overly glorified.
“with mild success”?
I’m given that it was a best seller, a must read, on every bookshelf.
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