Young Texan picks wrong hero to worship

Billy the Kid rode into Fort Sumner, New Mexico with five fellow fugitives on the night of Dec. 19, 1880, but sensing danger in the darkness, the most wanted outlaw in the Southwest pulled up leaving a young Texan in the lead.

If his parents had not perished in a smallpox epidemic soon after emigrating from Ireland, life might have been very different for Tom O’Folliard. Relatives in Uvalde, Texas took pity on the orphan and tried hard to mold him into a law-abiding adult. But he was immune to their strict teachings and ran off right after his twentieth birthday.

O’Folliard wandered all the way to Lincoln County, New Mexico, scene of the fabled frontier feud that forced everyone, native and newcomer, to pick a side. Always on the lookout for fresh recruits, William “Billy the Kid” Bonney befriended the bewildered Texan, who eagerly joined his growing gang.

As a member of the so-called “McSween faction,” O’Folliard fought in the epic 72-hour battle in the streets of Lincoln in the summer of 1878. He was among the dozen gunmen trapped in a house on the third day by the arrival of hostile regular army troops.

When flames began to envelope the structure shortly after nightfall, the McSween men had no choice but to make a break for a nearby river. O’Folliard was the first out the door and home free until he went back to help a wounded cohort.

A bullet tore through his shoulder as snipers dropped several more friends in their tracks. Realizing it was every man for himself, the Texan sprinted to safety and eluded capture.

While in hiding after the Lincoln shootout, O’Folliard was secretly visited by his uncle Thalis Cook, a Texas Ranger. He urged his wayward nephew to surrender, but the youth stubbornly refused. His addiction to the exciting existence outside the law and misguided loyalty to his mentor kept him on the road to ruin.

A posse led by Pat Garrett almost caught O’Folliard in early December 1880. The Texan traded shots with the lawmen before finally losing them after a long chase in open country.

As the six desperadoes slowly rode single file into Fort Sumner two weeks later, Billy silently slipped to the rear. Alone at the head of the line, O’Folliard was a sitting duck. He reached for his gun the instant Garrett yelled, “Halt!” but a slug slammed into his chest before he could pull the trigger.

Abandoning O’Folliard to his fate, Billy and the rest of the gang raced out of town without firing a shot. The mortally wounded Texan tried in vain to catch up with them before finally reining in his horse.

“Don’t shoot, Garrett,” he pleaded pitifully. “I’m killed.” A deputy, who cautiously approached the outlaw, answered softly, “Take your medicine, old boy. Take your medicine.”

O’Folliard offered no resistance and struggled to stay in the saddle. When Garrett demanded that he raise his hands, he explained that he could not lift his arms above his head. Repeating the prediction of his imminent death, O’Folliard asked to be lowered to the ground. The possemen obliged and carried him indoors to die.

But oblivion did not come as quickly as O’Folliard expected, and he begged the sullen sheriff to end his suffering. Pat Garrett, who would soon murder an old pal in cold blood in the name of justice, ignored the pathetic appeal for mercy.

The deputy again advised O’Folliard to take his medicine, which this time must have meant to go to his reward quietly. He smiled weakly and whispered, “It’s the best medicine I ever took.”

Though blood poured from the gaping gunshot wound beneath his heart, O’Folliard lingered with the living for almost an hour. Delirious toward the end, he cried, “Oh, my God! Is it possible that I must die?”

Evidently angry that O’Folliard had escaped the gallows, Garrett would not let his prisoner depart in peace. “Tom, your time is short,” he loudly announced, as if the dying man required a reminder.

O’Folliard answered with his last words. “The sooner, the better. I will be out of pain.” A few seconds later, he felt nothing at all.

That night they buried Tom O’Folliard in the Fort Sumner cemetery, but he was not alone for long. Seven months later, Billy the Kid joined him in the same graveyard.

That was the way the Texan would have wanted it, to spend eternity alongside his flawed hero.

Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at or P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 and invites you to visit his web site at

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