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Billy the Kid and Jesse James

Did Billy the Kid ever meet Jesse James? Such a notion seems fanciful, sparked by wishful thinking, by the desire to place the Old West's two best-known outlaws together in the same place. It makes for a romantic addition to both fugitives' mythologies: the experienced veteran of guerrilla warfare and virtual inventor of bank robbery sitting with the happy-go-lucky teenager turned nascent killer and theif, dining together, playing cards, overall enjoying one another's company, and neither yet fully aware of their destined places in American history. Truly, it has the ring of some dime novelist's invention, but perhaps the story isn't so far fetched after all, as there is an existing scenario for the fateful meeting...

According to legend, on Sunday, July 26, 1879, Billy the Kid---or rather Billy 'Kid' Bonney as he was known then---was staying at the Old Adobe Hotel in Hot Springs, near Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory. Around dinner time, a friend of Billy's and bartender for the hotel's saloon, Dr. Henry F. Hoyt, entered the dining room to see Billy involved in a card game. Spotting Hoyt, Billy hailed him over to the table. Jovial as ever, Billy seemed to be getting on particularly well with a man to his side, a man who was noticably missing the tip of his right middle finger. When the man made a comment on something Billy said, Billy remembered his manners and introduced the man to Hoyt as "Mr. Howard, from Tennessee." The fellows continued their card game and within the next few days, Mr. Howard left the area, never to be seen in the vicinity again. Once Mr. Howard's departure was assured, Billy confided in Hoyt that Howard was in truth none other than famed Missouri badman Jesse Woodson James, scouting New Mexico Territory as a possible setting for relocating his family. Furthermore, Jesse had even invited Billy to accompany him back East to join the new gang he was intent on forming, though Billy turned the offer down, claiming train robbery wasn't really his game.

A nice story, no doubt, but did it really happen? Oddly enough, there is enough evidence supporting it to negate immediate dismissal of the incident. First off, there is Hoyt's word. A frontier doctor who wrote an autobiography, he was not known for fabrication and his word is held in high esteem by most reputable historians. Backing his claim is Hoyt's rememberance of James being initially identified as Mr. Howard, James's most common alias, as well as recognizing his telltale missing fingertip, a wound James suffered in a gun-cleaning mishap during the Civil War. Secondly, future New Mexico Governor Miguel Otero, another acquaintence of the Kid's, also said he witnessed the two outlaws eat together in the dining room. Thirdly, there is proof that James was at least staying at the Old Adobe Hotel from July 26 through July 29, as it was announced in the Las Vegas Optic a few months later. Furthermore, the owner of the Old Adobe Hotel, W. Scott Moore, was also from Clay County, Missouri and was known as a boyhood friend of James, so if James were to visit New Mexico at all, it seems likely he'd stay at the hotel owned by an old friend. Also, as James was in hiding during this time and had been since late 1876, he and his family were constantly on the move, never settling in one place for more than a few months, so it is surely reasonable for him to have ventured as far west as New Mexico to prospect its potential as a future homestead. From the Billy angle, Las Vegas was known as a favorite haunt of the Kid's, especially in the summer of 1879 when its famed New Town sprung up in the wake of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad's arrival. With numerous saloons and gambling dens opening virtually overnight, all sorts of sundry and nefarious characters were known to frequent the environs, making the scene quite a treat for as adept a gambler as Billy. Billy himself was charged with running an illegal gaming table around this time, concretely documenting his presence in the area.

Of course, there are some unanswered questions, some lingering doubts. For instance, while Hoyt is regarded as truthful, and his remembrance of specific details such as Mr. Howard's name and missing fingertip are pointed to as subtle hints of the incident being genuine, one must remember Hoyt's recollections weren't recorded until decades later. By then, isn't is possible Hoyt had done some reading on James and retroactively inserted his remembering the Howard name, as well as the missing fingertip? Also, the idea that James would offer Billy a place in a gang seems disjointed. To begin with, James was not in a gang at this point in time and was doing his best to live anonymously and honestly. Some have also said an experienced robber like James would not have offered such a position to a youngster as inexperienced in the field of robbery as Billy. But then, all this can too be countered as James did apparently grow desperate enough to eventually organize a new gang, which pulled off its first robbery, that of a train near Glendale, Missouri, on Oct. 8, 1879. And in contrast to the James-Younger Gang of old, this new James Gang's members were a far cry from the guerrilla veterans of old, most of them being petty criminals or desperate farmers. With this in mind, it's not hard to fathom James already had the idea for a new gang by late July 1879, and in considering the standards of James's later recruits, it cannot be certainly said Billy didn't measure up. In fact, Billy had better credentials, at least in terms of loyalty and tenacity, than the craven lot James ended up aligning with.

Back to square one: did the incident happen? Like so much else in the life of the Kid, the truth is in the eye of the beholder, the evidence far from definitive and open to interpretation. Until any new evidence comes to light---an unlikely proposition, for sure---the scenario will have to remain in limbo as yet another oddity in the annals of Western history. Other Notable Western Figures Billy MAY Have Known.

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