A BONNY BALLAD
By Jan Girand
Once upon a time – well it was more than a century ago –
there was a boy called Billy in the Territory of New Mexico.
Now Billy wasn’t his name back at the beginning of his life;
they say that it was Henry and he was born to one then not a wife.
His mama was called Catherine, and he had a brother named Joe.
His mama’s last name was McCarty, so too was his and Joe’s.
Historians say Henry McCarty was born without a dad
in New York to an Irish lassie and the way they lived was sad.
Our Henry had arrived there on his birthing day
in an Irish slum in 1859, so some historians say.
Still, little is known about him, back in his early years
except “How am I going to feed him?” was his mama’s greatest fear.
They lived a while in Kansas, made a stopover in Denver, too;
why they landed in New Mexico, historians had no clue.
What was it drove them onward? Why did they end up here?
Were they searching for a better life? Or was it plain despair?
Some say their lives got better before arriving here,
‘cause Catherine took a partner to share her load with her.
At any rate, they came here, to live in this wild place,
Catherine, Joe, Henry – and Will, a guy historians trace
to Kansas on the plains, a place called Wichita.
Even then, young Henry called William “Pa.”
So, long before they got here, they’d ambled other places,
frustrating historians by leaving few traces.
Census, courts and archives, even churches cast
Few, if any, clues upon our mysterious Billy’s past.
One thing they know for certain (at least they think they do)
the Santa Fe Book of Marriages holds their first recorded clue.
The widow, Catherine McCarty, in Santa Fe, New Mexico,
stood with Henry and Josie (what they called her boy Joe) –
as she said her wedding vows, the boys stood up with them
at First Presbyterian, with her and William Henry Antrim.
That was the first known record establishing when he –
our Bonney lad – was in New Mexico; that was in 1873.
Like his mom, Henry McCarty just then changed his name
to Antrim. “William or Will like my new dad, if it’s all the same.”
Confusing historians, he was Henry McCarty just the same
but William Henry Antrim right then became his name.
In Santa Fe the Antrims’ days of traveling still weren’t done;
they traveled to Silver City to bask in its arid sun.
It was there the young William Antrim, called “Will,”
took yet another name: “Just call me the Kid or Bill.”
Then his beloved mother died of consumption or T.B.
It broke the heart of Billy, and a boy he’d no longer be
for it was then this childish lad began his criminality;
on a lark he stole some clothes from a Chinaman’s laundry.
It was only for the fun of it, but the sheriff did not laugh.
The Kid was thrown in jail but his lock-up did not last.
Billy vowed a little space with just a cot and pail
was not to be the end of this, our cunning boy’s tale.
He conned the sheriff’s deputy, and knew well how to shimmy
so he made quick his escape right up that red brick chimney.
That proved to him and all the rest his wiles and slippery ways,
and that was just the beginning of his desperado days.
(Now, what could you expect, since Billy’s home-life wasn’t sound?
And his step-dad didn’t care much to have the boy around.)
He was a homely kid, buckteeth and prominent ears,
so he relied upon his ways of charm and lack of boyish fears
to win him loyal friendships, cause girls to think him cute.
Still, his winning way was because … boy could he shoot!
To cause more consternation, some time after that,
To his aliases added he another, and not a simple “Mac.”
As if he hadn‘t then enough, he took a whole new name –
this newest one was Bonney, and his life was changed again.
Have you heard of that one? From whom or where was it taken?
It has to come from somewhere; was his family line forsaken?
He was Irish, they’d said? And Bonnie Prince Charlie was Scot,
So that’s not it … hmmm … and “a bonnie wee lad” he was not.
“It is just a name,” philosophers and poets will tell you;
the name is not the thing, they say, it is the deeds you do.
Well! It’s certainly true that Henry/William/Billy the “Kid”
McCarty/Antrim/Bonney did not out-live the deeds he did.
And daring-do deeds he did, they say, in books, movies and songs.
His multiple lives and legends through mighty tall tales live on.
Twenty-one killings, say they, one for each year of his life;
those “facts” of his shootings aren’t true, perhaps too the years of his life.
His life, especially if shorter, was certainly filled with strife,
but too many killings were credited him, extolling a violent life.
On the 1880 census, said Billy, the year before he died,
he was born in Missouri and his years were twenty-five.
But historian, Herman Weisner, said Billy was nineteen instead
when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot him, and there declared him dead
in Pete Maxwell’s Fort Sumner adobe that July night of ’81.
Billy died in that darkened bedroom, a tragic end for Catherine’s son.
Twenty-one killings intended just wasn’t the way that it was –
Four, maybe five altogether; only a few of those were his.
One was Ollinger in Lincoln who’d bullied the poor lad so
and made false accusations. Our Billy just had to go
for if he hung around there long, a hanging would be his fate.
He had to make fast his getaway before it was too late!
Billy made a run for it, armed Bell and Ollinger stood in his way
so Billy had to shoot them to make good his getaway.
So – who was our Henry McCarty, William H. Bonney, “the Kid?”
Where did he come from, who was his ma, why did he do what he did?
Of his latter years, alas so few, we know his story well
for many, including Pat Garrett, his stories loved to tell.
His antics, shoot-outs, hot pursuits are documented well
in books, in movies and in songs stretched out so they would sell.
And sell they did, even in England, for folks there love a tale
of strife, romance and intrigue as they quaff their brew and ale.
Now, about “the Kid” Billy Bonney too much has already been said;
I had no interest in him, I preferred reading Gothics instead.
Although I live near Lincoln, I never gave him much thought;
intrigue and mystery were my choices, cowboy shoot-em-ups were not.
Now, stories that I really loved were ones my mama would tell
of her intriguing family history. Ah, those tales she told so well!
My mama, born in ’09, had an uncle of whom she spoke,
he had babysat her when he was an aged cowpoke;
the bewhiskered old man would hold her when she began to cry.
Ramon Bonney was his name, and he lived in a cabin nearby.
His place was in a desolate spot on the picturesque canyon rim
overlooking the Yegua, a lonesome place for him.
My mama was a wee child then, her memories were vague, you see.
Ramon, her great-half-uncle, was lonesome for company
so often he rode his donkey to her parents’ ranch for chats
and meals and recognition, and a rub by their sociable cat.
He was nearly blind by then and hungered for more company
than that of his decrepit old mules and his faded memories.
He spoke only in Spanish; English was not his tongue
so his nephew’s wife, his hostess, tried to teach him some.
In exchange he taught her Spanish; she, a German, needed that
for she was in New Mexico now where Español was the format.
My mama’s mama, Emma, smiled and cooked for him huge meals
so Ramon would go home replenished, his spirit and stomach filled.
Back then, the children thought of him as just a silly old guy;
they were bored by his retold tales, scared of his cataract-scarred eyes.
They didn’t listen to his stories, thought they’d better ones of their own,
and they laughed when his donkey hid from him behind the scrawny piñons.
He hated growing older and with odd things dyed his hair
so it blossomed in many colors until Emma pointed there,
gently chiding: “No shame in growing older, no need to despair,
for with age comes greater wisdom.” Thus ended the blooming hair.
“Old Uncle Bonney” they called him, even Emma and Dan.
An old man he was then, but he once was a virile young man
who had fathered many children. Still … he chose not a domestic life.
Husbandry wasn’t for him; he was the nomadic type.
He lit out for adventure, and excitement is what he got
as he roamed the hills and canyons and mountain lions he shot.
He had a wagon caravan, and he took it far and wide,
to St. Louie, Santa Fe, Denver, far beyond the Great Divide.
He peddled pots and pans then, bolts of calico, tatted laces
while he pushed great herds of cattle as he roamed about the places.
Born of James Bonney and Bibiana Martín in 1846,
Ramon was Bibiana’s first-born but – we know – not his.
James Bonney was an Englishman who’d traveled far and wide;
Bibiana was not the first one he had taken for his “bride.”
James had lived in Missouri prior to New Mexico
and before he met Bibiana; that’s something we do know.
In Missouri he had a wife and kids (we know at least of two);
but perhaps that’s a fact that Great-Great-Grandma Bibiana never knew.
After he came to New Mexico (there’s still more to this story),
he had yet another family in the New Mexico Territory.
So when James took young Bibiana and fathered our Ramon,
He had already two other places he’d previously called home.
We think James was a rogue but he was immortalized anyway.
Twitchell, in his history book, said Bonney saved the day
during the American Occupation. With his prime cattle he had fed
Stephen Kearney’s hungry soldiers, that’s what R.E. Twitchell said.
Soon after Ramon was born, his Bonney dad was killed
not far from his La Junta ranch, James’ English blood was spilled.
James was killed by Indians, our family stories say,
while he was tracking his stolen horses one sunny autumn day.
James had been a rich man, with two ranches stocked with cattle,
but now his neighbors took everything, leaving Bibiana just her saddle.
With her man and properties gone, she, by wagon team,
returned to Buena Vista to Bernardo and ‘Polonia Martín.
Since the lovely young Bibiana, along with her babe, Ramon,
lost everything she had then, she returned to her childhood home.
(Later, my Great-Great-Grandma Bibiana had another relationship
with Daniel Eberle, my Great-Great-Granddad, who was a German Swiss.)
Eventually Ramon grew up and his nomadic life began
as a wagoneer, a herdsman, a merchant-suppliers’ man.
On a caravan to Denver, he met a man he’d not known
who claimed to be brother of James, the papa of Ramon.
The uncle was quite wealthy, so the family stories told,
And he wanted to adopt Ramon and share with him his gold.
Ramon declined the offer, the strings to the deal too tight:
he was required to stay in Denver and quit the nomadic life
and never see his mother. He liked the life he chose
so he declined the offer his uncle had proposed.
Ramon never saw him again, that Englishman uncle he had —
brother of James – so he lost all known ties to his dad.
When Ramon was somewhat older, he like all the others,
had heard of bad boy Billy. He wondered if they were brothers.
Since they had the same last name, he thought they might be kin
so when Billy was locked up in ‘Vegas, there Ramon visited him.
Billy and Ramon found no connection, so my family said;
other New Mexico Bonneys say, “Oh yes there is!” now that Billy’s long dead.
An Englishman named James Bonney and a connection with Denver too!
Those caught the attention of an historian who thought they might be clues.
Cousin Karl brought Herman Weisner to see my mama and me.
A southwestern history buff and a published writer was he.
He’d heard of our Ramon Bonney and he just had to come and see
if he could find a Billy connection, and he thought he did, said he.
“I think Billy and the New Mexico Bonneys have a common link –
the odds of it NOT being so are long, Verna, don’t you think?”
He and my mama, Verna, made an intriguing pair,
Their lifelong love of history gave them much to share.
“Especially when I tell you all the things that I now know,”
said Weisner. “It’s true Billy’s life didn’t begin in New Mexico.
His mother was named Catherine, that part is true as well,
but that is where I depart from others when I continue with his tale.
Catherine wasn’t a New Yorker, she came from Missouri instead,
and an Englishman named James Bonney had been Catherine’s dad.
I know as a young boy, Billy had lived in Denver a while
with an aunt, some kin of his, when he was just a child.
Billy was born in Missouri in ’61; he was nineteen when he was shot.
It wasn’t in New York in ’59; a twenty-one-year-old he was not.”
To the historian, Frederick Nolan, I spoke of the theories we had,
that Englishman, James Bonney might have been Billy’s granddad.
Mr. Nolan, an English gentleman, was receptive when we spoke.
Our theory did not surprise him, ‘though he stood by what he wrote.
But what he wrote was not in conflict: Catherine, Henry and Joe
might not have been from New York; historians say they really do not know.
So, my friends, it seems to me, Uncle Ramon Bonney and Billy’s ma
could have had the same Bonney Englishman for their roving roguish pa!