The Legend of William Bonney

By John McNally


That feller could shoot. He had two real good looking guns. They had seven inch barrels with a medium sized gold-bead front sight and a U rear sight. He said he made his own competition cartridges and that they had sharp shoulders for a light recoil and made a nice clean cut hole when they hit.

He won the shooting competition at our Boulder County Fair again that year. There was all sorts of things going on that day including a rodeo, hog wrestling, cherry pie baking, fetching farm critters, mule racing and the like – in fact just about everything you could want, but the most popular by far was the shooting.

The winning gunman was Walt Plint and he’d won here five years running, the trouble for us locals was he was out of Arapahoe County. He was a decent feller despite that and he tended to put on a show of his own after he won the contest, which we all enjoyed.

Why, I’ve seen him lie on his back and shoot with his gun upside down and break six crackers without missing one shot, although my favourite was him firing two revolvers at two objects at the same time and one of them was swinging on a cord when he did it.

But this year he outdone even himself. The fair was in the fall and the leaves were nearly all off the trees, Plint stood and waited and we all gathered around him and at just that instant a large oak leaf started from the top of the tree. He turned and fired a shot while it was doing a perfect tailspin toward the ground. Hit it of course. Now he said that was the best shot he’d ever made and he couldn’t do it again in a week and that’s when he upped and told everyone he was hanging up his guns.

Now we all tried to persuade him otherwise but he was set on it. He looked around the crowd and picked out William Bonney for no good reason that any of us could see.

William had dark curly hair that collected on his collar, a funny little face with a small mouth and big teeth. I’d seen that kid around for many a year but he always seemed to have worn the same clothes. He was a puny feller and not prone to growing, he wore old crumpled cracked boots with baggy corduroy trousers crammed into the top of them, a vest that he never fastened and a chequered shirt that he buttoned to the neck.

He’d been an orphan since he was 13; I reckon that was 2 or 3 years ago. The owner of our store, Wash Cluxton, gave him a bed in his back room in exchange for him working in the store. That’s just to put you right on how things stood.

So anyway the shooting contest winner Walt Plint said something like ‘I’m through with it,’ and he reversed his competition guns and handed them over to Bonney saying ‘They’re yours now son,’ then I’ll be blowed he unbuckled his belt and holsters and passed that to the kid as well and said ‘I hope one day you can entertain these good folk like I’ve done.’

William Bonney puffed up his chest like he was ready to crow an’ he said, ‘Why I promise I’ll practise every day and win next year’s competition.’ Do you know there was something like a cold wind blew through all of us standing there watching, we felt something special had just happened.

Plint said to the kid Bonney, ‘You just remember when you practise for the first few times, ‘specially with flying objects, it’s as well to leave your friends at home.’

Now William Bonney didn’t have no friends but we all kept our traps shut on that point because it didn’t seem right to bring up all that had happened previous, leastways not in front of strangers.

‘No-one will see me practice, sir,’ he says ‘until I’m ready for next year’s show.’

So that’s how it all started and do you know William, or Billy as we tended to call him day to day, he spent goddam hours learning how to handle Plint’s guns. We all knew it because he sent folk plumb crazy, up in the hills above the St. Vrain creek firing away for at least an hour a day until, come November, Prentice Hinckle collared him in the store and boxed his ears. Prentice told him to get gone further out of town to shoot where we couldn’t hear him because we all thought the goddam Mexican war had started over.

Things quietened down some after that, he moved off up into the high ground above Longmont but you could have set your time piece by him, 6 o’clock every evening he walked off up into the hills and never missed a day of it.

I, for one, thought them revolvers’ proud history was in safe hands and so did a whole passel of us who stood outside the Aces High every night and watched him go by. Wash Cluxton, who owned the store if you recall, must have known something as well because he was supplying Billy with as many cartridges as he needed. Wash knew something alright, he didn’t give his goods away for nothing normally he was as tight as a hair in a biscuit.

A couple of months passed and we all sort of got used to Billy’s comings and goings. We got more curious, which is natural enough, and one or two of us asked him how things were panning out but he kept tight lipped about it.

You could fairly feel the excitement growing in town. About the time we was all near fit to bursting I decided to get some news on how it was all looking from Wash Cluxton over at his store. I went in and told him it was high time he came clean but all he did was shrug his shoulders and say he wouldn’t bet on the kid hitting anything in fact he said he’d eat his hat if he did. I could have sworn though he gave a little sly smile like he was holding back on us and I’m pretty sure he knew I’d seen it.

We talked that over in the Aces High and we figured Wash for a liar, see he’d be taking bets on County Fair day and if we all bet on young Billy it would cost Wash a packet to pay us all out. So we fancied he was keeping his cards close to his chest and just reckoning on that Billy wasn’t doing too good at it.

Oh boy, folk fairly bounced around with anticipation for the next few months. It was the thrill of waiting that built the tension up until we could have snapped. See we all wanted a Boulder County winner of course but a few of us were desperate for the chance of taking a few bucks off Wash for hiding Billy’s skill from us.

Actually one time Billy almost let the cat out of the bag. A whole cluster of us saw him talking and laughing with a bunch of youngsters out back of the store. It looked like he was right popular now despite his previous troubles. So he started off drawing with his right and cocking the gun with his left palm as it cleared the holster, not shooting of course just letting the others see his action. Boy he was smooth and fast, like a striking rattler. Then he took to easing the hammer back, giving a little fancy twirl and slotting the gun back into the holster. Next he got two guns going at once, spinning them in opposite directions, which gives you a headache if you watch for too long.

Hello, we’re all thinking, here we go that boy is hot right enough. Anyways he must have caught on we was peeking, maybe it was all the excited whispering because by then we was making quite a racket, he swung around saw us watching, smiled to himself and disappeared into the back of the store. A minute later Wash pokes his smirking face out then we hear the door slam and the batten clunked home which was as good as telling us to mind our own business.

Time dragged on for us but before I get to the county fair day, there was a couple of other incidents, like the feller who fell out of a tree trying to see Billy shoot, and another time someone shot themselves in the foot, but I won’t go into them now; I don’t want to embarrass myself them.

Fair day then, a fine sunny blue sky streaked with thin cloud, in the distance the soaring range of brown and orange hills and the valley floor cushioned with dry coarse grass. Everything looked fine and dandy and folk was having a high old time. The smell of cooking meat, candy and livestock mixed with the sounds of music, laughter and squealing hogs down by the hog riding pen.

Wash Cluxton stood with a stall full of his dry goods but he was busy taking bets and the odds on William Bonney dropped fast as folk heard the talk and the story from last year.

The shooting contest started and while a lot of people were more interested in the milk churn display and the fetching of farm critters, there was a big crowd packed the shooting field. This was laid out up off to one side looking down across the valley. The targets set up on an old barn door in a fold in the land.

The idea was to hit a swinging tin can that hung on the end of a cord. Five points for a clean hit and three more for those who hit the can as it passed centre rather than wait for the end of the swing as it slowed to come back. From 50 yards with a handgun that would be right smart shooting. There’d been some decent shooters out there already, with one feller out of Decatur, Nebraska with three hits and two of them on the centre swing.

Then a hush fell over a small section of the crowd and folk moved apart as William Bonney walked out. He wore the same old clothes and I own I was a mite disappointed; I thought Wash might have dressed him all in black or all in white or tasselled buckskin.

Billy strode to the centre of the firing range and folk surged forward right up to the ropes that lined the field, the crowd stretched from where he stood down to the barn door.

He waited with his back to the targets and I saw him squint across at Wash and Wash gave a little nod but I’m not sure he noticed. Bonney rolled his shoulders and commenced a bout of gun twirling I ain’t never seen the like of before or since.

First off he did about twenty thumb busts in a minute where he was drawing with his right and cocking the gun with his right thumb as it came out. Damned if he didn’t do the same with his left. Then he started twirling, mesmerising us that watched.

Why he pulled both guns and dropped his arms, flicked the guns backwards so that they went over his elbows and he caught them and slammed them back in his rig. He drew and threw the guns through his legs; he tossed them high up into the air and kept his arms aswirling until folk felt dizzy. I thought the best one was where he drew a gun held it down, raised his leg and cocked back the hammer with his boot heel. He was that fast I wasn’t sure what had happened the first time round.

He had to hold off on the shooting because a whole host of fellers surged across to Wash’s stall to bet on him winning and you couldn’t get evens on him but that didn’t stop no-one going on him, waving greenbacks around and pushing and shoving. I fancy Wash wasn’t none too pleased but his face didn’t show anything. Then the bustle around him thinned out and folk moved back to the shooting.

Billy looked unconcerned by all of the fuss. He turned to the targets rolled his neck, squinted against the sun glare and drew with his right and folk seemed to suck in their breath as the gun came up.

He shot and he missed, a groan went up from the crowd. He didn’t just miss neither he missed by a country mile. The shot clanged into a pile of milk churns and the folk who stood admiring them screamed and ran off madly in all directions.

Billy did not wait, his second shot was just as bad and thumped off a pile of peeled lumber fence posts gouging a big splinter that flew across cut my cheek and embedded itself in Merl who stood behind me. His third shot near parted Prentice’s hair. Now a big part of the crowd streamed away holding their hands over their heads and hugging their kids to them like they were under attack. I heared someone shout the safest place was in front of the target.

Somebody else, and I‘ve a notion it was that smart alec out of Decatur shouted that boy couldn’t hit a barn door, which was the truth of it but hurt us Boulder folk like a kick in the grits.

Now we didn’t know it until later but Billy couldn’t see a dadburned thing. Turns out he needed eyeglasses so without them the only thing that drawn gun of his offered was death or at least having someone’s eye out or worse.

Some joker called out, ‘Kid you couldn’t hit the sky.’

Billy was a decent lad most of the time and he was feeling it, you could see that, so he raised his arm and shot up into the sky. Bam. Bam.

Now when it was all over, and we were back in the Aces High, a feller said he saw a fish hawk or some such high up in the sky like a speck of dust holding on to its catch. Maybe that’s the truth of it and the report from those shots startled the hawk and he dropped his dinner.

Anyway barely a second after Billy shoots upwards a goddam fish dropped out of the sky. Prentice was still nursing his hair but he said ‘my god that boy is a legend, he shot a fish out of the sky,’ and that’s how it all got going.

Everybody started cheering and hollering and clapping Billy on the back, why he was hoisted onto shoulders and paraded around the field like Joe McCoy’s prize bull.

There was a whole host of men moving in on Wash Cluxton ready to haul him over and wring his neck, all you could here was Wash squeaking ‘I done told you he warn’t no good.’ Even them fellers, mad as they were, joined in with the rest of us and we had a procession around the goddam whole fair. Word spread like a summer prairie fire and near everyone rushed across and joined in the fun as the local band struck up ‘Buffalo Gals Won’t you come out tonight.’ What a time we had.

We forgave Wash, well almost all of us did I do recall when I study on it that he was set on one time and had his hat stuffed down his throat.

That kid Billy was a celebrity in these parts from that day on.

Now we heard years later that there was another William Bonney called Billy the Kid over New Mexico way but, believe me, ours was the first and genuine article and this is the tale about the legend of the true William Bonney, or Billy the Fish as Prentice christened him when he heard about the other one.




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