When you know the basic facts and his mother's testimony—no matter that she was drunk and saving herself from the murder charge—and, later, the testimony of the woman from Cheyenne, it's easy to imagine what happened in the beginning and then what happened in Caldwell and after.
A cheap two-room shack by the Ohio river.
By the time he was twelve he knew to stay out until dawn or later if her "company" was still there. He learned to keep quiet long before. For years he hid under a blanket in the corner of the back room, knees drawn up and head tucked down on his chest. The time he had the fever his moaning resulted in several hard kicks to his side. The kicks stopped only when his mother begged and offered the man more whiskey.
The gang he ran with at night rolled drunks in the alleys and busted store windows and grabbed whatever was handy. One night, when he was thirteen, he broke into a pawn shop by a back window and came out with a bag full of watches, several rings, and a pistol. He traded the watches for five cartridges.
The next night he stayed home. He sat in a chair pushed back against the wall, a wall with lath showing through the jagged geometry of missing plaster. He waited with the loaded pistol in his right hand, the hand resting on his thigh. He heard the door of the other room open and voices-his mother's, low and raspy from years of whiskey, and a man's sliding slur. The man bumped into something, cursed, and his mother said, "Don't move. I'll light a lamp."
He saw his mother's face in the sudden flare of the match and the shape of a man in hat and coat standing behind her. He heard her lift the lamp chimney, then the room turned soft yellow and the light leached into the back room to show him sitting there.
The man growled, "Who the hell is that?"
His mother appeared in the doorway. "Tommy? Tommy, that you?"
He stood and walked to his mother. He said to the man behind her: "You, you damn drunk, get going. Get out."
The man pushed the mother aside as he yelled, "What? What? You little piece—"
The kid cocked and fired the pistol, paused because the man had stopped, surprised at a sudden pain in his chest, then the kid cocked and shot again and again and again. The man sank to the floor, collapsing as if he were a balloon slowing deflating.
The gun-smoke started his mother coughing. Tears filled her eyes. "Tommy, Tommy," she said.
The kid said, "I done it. Yes, I done it and I'm glad."
The man groaned and rolled over.
The kid put the pistol to the side of the man's head, cocked, and fired.
"Oh, my God," his mother said. "My God, my God." She walked by the table with the lamp and sat on the cot. She began to cry.
Caldwell, Kansas 1876
Going by the name of Tom Kelly but called Kid by the other drovers because he was young and short, he watched a game of poker in a saloon. There were about six or seven trail-dusted drovers who had spent the late afternoon downing rotgut. Everyone was drunk—except the kid, who never drank anything stronger than beer and little of that. As a bottle was handed around, he passed it along without drinking. Someone said, "What's wrong? You got something against whiskey?"
The kid said nothing.
"You won't drink from the same bottle as us?"
The kid shrugged.
"I take it personal you won't have a drink with us."
Someone else said, "Hey, the Kid don't touch hard liquor."
"Well, about time he did. Time to be a man."
The drover rose from the table, staggered as he came at the kid with the bottle, but stopped when he saw the cocked Colt in the kid's hand. "Huh? What the hell you think you're doing?"
The man was so close that the blast burned his shirt.
Somebody said, "Kid, you better light out before the law shows."
East Las Vegas, New Mexico, late January or early February 1880
What happened in the four years before? No one is certain. Some say he went down to Mexico, took up with a senorita whose father was the head of a gang of rustlers who would cross the border to help themselves to Chisum's and the other cattle barons' cows. Supposedly Estela, the senorita, whose mother was Apache, had a lisp and whenever she said "kiss kiss" to him it became "kith kith" and that became "kit kit," and, finally Tom Kelly went from Kid Kelly to Kit Kelly. But others argue that Kelly changed his name because he didn't want to be confused with Billy the Kid, whom he disliked because Billy once rode for Chisum. They also claim Kelly ran with Rudabaugh and that bunch and robbed a train in Kansas and stagecoaches in the Black Hills. On top of that it was well known that Kelly was part of Wyatt Earp's fake gold brick scheme. Of course, it's possible—even likely—all of that is true.
When he arrived in Las Vegas, the law in town was Justice of the Peace Hoodoo Brown and his Dodge City Gang. Since he knew J. J. Webb, town marshal, and Dave Rudabaugh, both of the Dodge City Gang, he was free to do whatever he wanted.
There he met Harry "Pale-Face" Riley, a tall thin albino gambler and gunfighter suffering from consumption. Riley got into an argument with a man over a saloon girl. When he tried to draw his pistol another man hit him with a bottle. Kelly, leaning against the wall, just watching, drew his Colt and shot both men—one in the head and the other, twice, in the back. The coroner's jury, appointed by Hoodoo Brown, called the shootings justified.
Kelly and Riley decided to partner and form a gang of their own. They were in the Goodlet and Roberts saloon when Webb killed a man and was arrested. Kelly sensed the winds of fortune had changed and it was best to get out of town. Luckily, for him, when he went into his room that night Estela was waiting. Sixty Regulators, working for Chisum and the other cattlemen, had hunted her father into Mexico, had killed many of his band, and now the old man was slowly dying from his wounds in Ascension.
The following morning Kelly and Riley, joined by two Mescalero Apaches who met them out of town (they were Estela's escort), headed south with Estela. By the time they arrived in Ascension, the old man was dead. Estela wanted revenge. "Steal all the cattle, all cows and horses and kill all the Gringos."
"How?" Kelly asked. "Me and Pale-Face?"
He went to the doorway and looked out to see the two Mescaleros sitting cross-legged in the sun and drinking tiswin, home-made brew, from clay cups. He smiled and turned to say: "Who else would like to steal cattle and horses and kill Gringos?"
Arizona, New Mexico, Texas 1880 - 1882
Within three months a band of seventeen renegade Apaches joined Kit Kelly and Pale-Face Riley and three members of Estela's father's gang. Picking up small groups of Apaches here and there who had slipped off the reservation, by the end of the year there were over thirty raiding the territories and Texas. They rustled cattle and horses, burned ranch houses and buildings, derailed trains of the Santa Fe, cleaned out towns of food, supplies, and cash. On a ranch outside of Lordsburg, they slaughtered three steers and had a barbecue feast before lynching the rancher, his two sons, and four hands who couldn't escape in time.
Kelly stopped them from raping and murdering the rancher's wife and daughters. That caused a quarrel, not only with the Apaches but with Pale-Face and Estela too. Pale-Face said he was tired of Apache or Mexican women and Estela wanted to scalp the yellow-hairs. She suspected Kelly preferred the white women to her. He spent a long night sweet-talking her because, to tell the truth, if she went against him he couldn't be sure to control the band.
Then the Apaches became a problem because after several raids they'd leave to see their women and families, either on the Reservation or in a village across the border. So there were times when his gang dwindled to five or six men, and now the U. S. Army was after him. They chased his small bunch south and didn't stop at the Rio Grande. He told Estela their best hope was to hide in the mountains and wait until things cooled down.
She angrily rejected that, saying they had not killed enough, she wanted a river of blood and a land on fire. He said there were hundreds of soldiers after them. She laughed. "Not me. I do not stick out like the swollen thumb. It is you and that one, the walking corpse with white hair."
In the Sierra Madre mountains, Pale-Face Riley's lungs were consumed by tuberculosis. On his last day, wrapped in an Indian blanket, he lay on the ground and looked up at the sky. Either he was unable to speak or didn't want to—why bother? Kit Kelly spent the next several days thinking over his career. He told himself that a man should choose the occupation that he is best suited for. He didn't see himself as a leader of men, nor as a loyal follower. He worked best alone. What were his skills? What was he good at? What came easy? The answer—killing.
For the next years Kelly drifted through Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and as far north as Montana. Changing his name to Jones or Smith, he'd work as a deputy for several months or a mine guard and once riding shotgun on a stage until he decided the strong box contained enough cash for an extended vacation. As a deputy his primary duty was busting drunks over the head and dragging them to jail. Sometimes one would pull a pistol, but Kelly was always quicker and deadly accurate. In Montana he was a successful lone regulator hunting and killing cattle and horse rustlers. By then, along with his Colt and Winchester, he carried an 1874 Sharps .50 caliber, accurate out to 800 yards. He killed men who didn't even know he was around. Then, to eliminate the competition for one rancher, he began shooting cattle and horses along with men.
First, at fifty dollars a dead rustler (that is, anyone with a cow or two and who wasn't connected to a big rancher) he did well, but by 1890 the field began to thin out and the federal marshal began to investigate complaints about his methods. He heard the Wyoming Stock Growers Association needed men of his skill and the pay was reasonable, so he headed there.
He passed several burned homesteads, nothing but black charred logs, with stone fireplace and chimney or twisted stove pipe beside an iron potbelly stove; fences torn down and gardens chewed up by hooves; a chair missing part of a leg resting at the edge of a grave marked with a wood cross. In the white grass on the other side of a creek, a large herd of cattle grazed.
When he came through a stand of trees he hit a road with two deep wagon-wheel-worn ruts leading to a slab-board building with several horses hitched to a post and two buckboards, drawn by single horses, to the side. One buckboard was overflowing with household goods—chairs, a table, mattresses, and pots and a large iron kettle and such—while the other one was empty except for an old trunk. As he got closer he was able to read the sign across the front of the building: "Ferguson General Store & Tavern." There were two doors: the one on the left went to the tavern, the one on the right to the store. Kelly, carrying his Winchester, entered through the one on the right.
Inside were a man with a stout woman and two young girls examining shelves of canned goods, and at the counter a woman with a young boy —maybe four or five, holding on to her skirt—talked to a man in white shirt and apron. Kelly stood behind the woman and waited. He noticed a jar of canned pears and took it.
The woman said, "I'm not sure I can do that, Mr. Ferguson. I can cook and clean, but the other . . . ?"
Ferguson nodded at Kelly to let him know he was noticed, then said to the woman: "I got a Chinamen can cook and clean. I need somebody to entertain Carleton's men and anybody stopping by. I'll pay you for that, only that."
"But the boy . . . "
"I'll give him a pallet and he can sleep in the shed when you're using the back room."
"You see, I never did anything like that. I mean, the only man I ever knew was my Vernon."
"Listen, that's what I can offer. Besides one man's the same as another as far as that goes. If it's yes, then move your stuff into the back room—otherwise, goodbye. Well?"
The woman nodded.
"All right. That's showing good sense. Go into the tavern and get acquainted. I'll be in as soon as I take care of these customers. Harry will introduce you."
"But Tommy . . . "
"Oh? Harry'll give him a sarsaparilla."
The woman hesitated.
"Look, in no time, you'll come to find out you'll like it. Hell, what you don't know I'll teach you."
The woman went through a doorway into the tavern with her son holding on to her skirt. Laughter and shouts came from the tavern.
Ferguson smiled at Kelly. "Can't understand women. She's been married and sure knows what's what and she's not bad looking either. Hell, I'm doing her a favor. How else is she going to eat or feed her kid?" He shook his head. "Her husband was pig-headed just like them other squatters. Can't blame Sam Carleton. This is his range and has been for twenty years. See them over there? At least they know enough to git when the gittin's good. Now what can I do for you?"
Kelly showed the Winchester. "Box of shells and this." He set the jar of pears on the counter.
Ferguson bent down and came up with a box of shells and put them on the counter.
There was laughter and then whistles from the tavern.
Ferguson said, "That'll be—"
Kelly raised his hand. "Hold on." He turned and walked into the tavern.
A drunken cowboy had his arm around the woman and was trying to kiss her as she kept turning her face away. The other two cowboys were laughing and whistling and shouting, "Go for it, Pete, go for it." Harry, the bartender filled shot glasses. The boy still clung to his mother's skirt.
Kelly took several steps in and said, "Let her go."
Pete said, "What?"
The other cowboys turned to Kelly. "Who the hell are you?" One asked.
Pete let the woman loose and said, "Yeah, who the hell are you?"
Kelly took two quick steps and brought the Winchester's butt-end hard into Pete's jaw. The cowboy smacked back against the bar. The other two started at Kelly. He levered a round into the Winchester. The cowboys pulled their pistols.
The bartender shouted, "Hey! Let's have none of that."
Kelly said to the woman: "Take the boy out of here. Now!"
The woman grabbed the boy's arm and dragged him through the doorway.
Ferguson pushed her aside as he came in. "Hey, what the hell's going on?"
A cowboy pointed to the man out on the floor. "He col' cocked Pete."
Ferguson said, "Mister, you better get out of here. I mean right now."
A cowboy said, "You won't leave here alive."
Ferguson went back into the store.
Kelly snapped his carbine to his shoulder and fired. The bartender grabbed at the bar as he slid, passing the cut-off shotgun as he went down. As Kelly levered in another round, the cowboys fired. Kelly was hit but he was well-practiced, fast, and he quickly shot and levered in a fresh round to fire again and again until the cowboys were on the floor and dying.
Suddenly Ferguson came in firing a pistol.
Kelly took two more rounds as he fired at Ferguson. Ferguson dropped the pistol and Kelly shot again. Ferguson groaned, went limp, and fell to the floor.
Kelly stepped over Ferguson and went into the store area. The woman was shaking and holding the boy close. Kelly said, "All right. Don't worry about them no more, those others . . . nor that Ferguson. Hell, nobody needs worry about them. So grab what you want here. Take it all. Nobody will complain."
She didn't move.
He was bleeding badly. His shirt was wet with blood. "Now you better get the hell out of here. Somebody come along, they might think you had something to do with it. Understand?"
"But . . . but you killed those men? All of them?"
"Hell, yes, and I'm glad I done it."
On the way out, he left the box of shells but grabbed the jar of canned pears.
He rode back to the stand of trees, through it, and out into the white grass. He fell off his horse there and his body was found a day later. He lay in the grass with the jar of pears by his left hand.