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Lincoln 1Ghosts of Lincoln

The sun was heading over the hills of the narrow valley when we first took a walk down the main street of Lincoln, New Mexico. A hundred plus years ago Billy the Kid had watched this same type sunset, the same grey/blue sky with the thunderclouds still fresh above.

Billy’s mentor, John Henry Tunstall, had seen the same type puddles in the pot holes of the dirt road and felt the water hang in the air. Tunstall's best friend and business partner, Alexander McSween, had walked along the wooded boards in front of the general store, his boots echoing off the roof over his head.

These were the good guys, if any good guys could be proclaimed in the bloody battle known as the Lincoln County Cattle Wars which lasted through 1878 and 1879.

According to Lincoln historian, Tim Hagaman, Englishman Tunstall came to Lincoln, New Mexico, declaring he was going to make a life for himself in the narrow valley. He was going to raise his cattle and open his general store and bring in half of every dollar spent in Lincoln, selling the beef he raised on his nearby ranch. He joined forces with Alexander McSween.

Only competition wasn’t something established rival store owner, Lawrence Murphy, took kindly to. The Irishman had his own partner, J.J. Dolan. They ran their own store and wanted to keep things just as they were.

Murphy hired gunslingers to protect his interest. These ‘Murphy Men’ stood on one side of the war zone. Tunstall followed suit with his ‘Regulators’ and the hills and streets of Lincoln became a battlefield.

Tunstall was murdered in cold blood after surrendering his weapon to Murphy Men. Too far away to help, his own Regulators could only watch. In retaliation, Billy the Kid and Company ambushed Sheriff William Brady, killing him as he walked down the streets.

I’ve heard tell that when you visit a scene of a combat you can feel the death in the soil, as if the energy allotted that one piece of ground was used up in that fierce struggle, that the blood which soaked the ground left the land totally spent.

I’m an old west traveler, having visited many of the infamous sites of outlaws. When I stood at the base of the Red Wall at Hole in the Wall there was a feeling of serenity, as if the smiling Butch Cassidy left his love of life and laughter in land he called home.

In Tombstone, it was the commercialism that ruined the Old West picture. With practically every shred of the shadows gone, save for the Bird Cage Theater where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday played poker and faro. Inside stood the very piano the highly educated Doc might have tinkled on. My fingers itched to ignore the ‘Do Not Touch’ sign and tap out the keys to hear the same notes Doc might have heard. I resisted with a heavy sigh.

Lincoln 2But what you feel in Lincoln, in the air and from the ground, is very different. You walk these streets and shiver. When you want to look over your shoulder, you half expect some young outlaw from long ago to be there waiting for you, giving you the eye and unnerving you into backing down.

If you listen real hard in the stairwell of the Lincoln County Courthouse house where Billy the Kid was held in 1880 for Sheriff William Brady’s 1879 murder, you can almost hear the echo of the gunshots of a hundred years ago when Billy got the upper hand and shot J. W. Bell and Robert Ollinger to death in his escape.

“Hey Bob,” Billy shouted down from the second story window to Ollinger, on the ground below. Billy pulled back on the triggers of both barrels, killing Ollinger instantly.

If you stand real still, you can almost feel the report through the ground before it travels up your spine. Bullet holes still mark the walls in at the base of the stairs.

Twentieth Century Fox’s 1988 movie ‘Young Guns’ brought Lincoln, New Mexico back into the lime light, even if it was filmed at another location. Though residents say they love the film, they do admit that it is only about 10% accurate. Still, that’s higher than any of the other eighty plus film that have been done on the life of Billy the Kid.

Lincoln is not a place you get to on your way to anywhere.

Located roughly thirty miles from Ruidoso, New Mexico and fifty from Roswell of alien fame, it is a one road town, ten miles from historic marker to historic marker with a cemetery at one end. In it, George Peppin, Lincoln sheriff during the Wars. Peppin is the only participant in the Cattle War to make this graveyard his final resting place.

And there was no shortage of casualties.

Sheriff Brady was ambushed by Billy the Kid and company in front of Tunstall’s store. McSween died with others as they tried to escape from McSween’s with Billy. Murphy Men waited for them outside with an army regiment. The house was set ablaze and the men trapped inside ran for the river. McSween didn’t make it. Neither did some of their friends.

Lawrence Murphy died of cancer years later after losing his Lincoln holdings.

No one won in the end. With their leaders gone, both general stores ultimately failed. The battles they fought and the lives they took were all in vain.

Lincoln 3There was a young women sitting out in front of Lincoln's Courthouse the day I was there. She and her little baby were waiting for her husband, the curator of the museum inside. “My great, great, great grand-dad was there that day they escaped from McSween's burning house,” she told me. “He was in there with them but had taken too many bullets to run. He played dead, hiding under the bodies of his friends for days until he could sneak away.”

That’s Lincoln. Where the people and their ancestors still walk side by side. Some are there to talk to you, to show you the sites and tell you their family stories.

Others are there to watch -- silently -- as you pass through their town.

Photos by Jacqui Jacoby

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