Published on Thursday, October 23, 2014.
The Life and Times of Bill Bonney
An Alternate History
By John A. Vikara
Henry McCarty's widowed mother had moved him and his brother into the area bounded by Broadway and the Bowery when he was twelve years old. This part of New York City was controlled by violent gangs such as the Five Pointers and the Dead Rabbits and was not the best environment to thrive in.
One day in the summer of 1872 while Henry was escorting his mother home from her job at a shirt factory a shabbily dressed youth in his late teens stepped from a doorway, tipped his frayed derby and asked the woman to accompany him to a local saloon.
There was a sudden resounding smack and the flailing distorted image before him went down in a heap. Henry stared in amazement as a well-dressed gentleman kicked at the crumpled figure, landing his polished high-button shoe into the ribs of the bully.
The thug didn't even retrieve his derby as he leaped to his feet and clomped down the street and out of sight. The gentleman took a few steps as to follow, stopped and watched the retreat before turning back to Henry and his mother.
"I don't think he'll be bothering you again," he said. He twisted the ends of his thick auburn mustache, tipped his own derby and bowed politely to Mrs. McCarty. "And you, my boy, be careful who you tangle with." He patted Henry on his shoulder. "You did well in trying to protect your mother – assuming that is your relationship." Mrs. McCarty nodded. "Protecting family and friends is most important."
Before either of them could utter a word, the man was gone; no time to thank him or praise him, as their rescuer hurried on his way.
In the next three weeks Henry began to feel more confident in himself, sporting the thug's derby as a trophy and carrying a pocket knife for protection. He was passing the very saloon that the bully had alluded to when a chorus of shouts above the clanking player piano behind the cafe doors drew his attention. He squatted to see under the doors. Two men, one with his back to Henry, were in front of the bar shouting and gesturing in threatening motions.
There were two other men – laborers by their bibbed overalls and work clothes – observing the action a few feet away. The bartender had taken a stance on his side of the bar, his hands spread wide across the mahogany surface.
The punch glanced off the shoulder of the man facing away and he charged into the aggressor. They both tumbled to the floor and an instant later one of the laborers leaped onto the pair. "You stay out of this," the bartender yelled at the other workman as he passed through the opening at the end of the bar, a Billy club suddenly appearing in his hand. "One more step and I'll scramble your brains." The threat was enough to freeze the man.
The three fighters untangled and tried in each of their ways to stand, slipping and fumbling, avoiding fists and knees. A spittoon clanged and spun out into the middle of the room. The man who had taken the punch on his shoulder had turned as he reached his feet and Henry immediately recognized the auburn mustache and face of his benefactor. Henry rose quickly, stood on tiptoe and peered over the café doors.
While the bartender continued to hold the one workman at bay, the three fighters traded punches. Whacks and thuds echoed out the doorway as their movement brought them closer to the entrance. The outnumbered gentleman was holding his own. Then Henry saw the blade behind the back of one of the pair, pulled from inside his overalls. Henry vaulted through the doors, fumbling for his own knife. He was upon the fight in four strides, opening the jackknife as he charged. He rammed the four inch blade into the side of his target and the man cried out. The wounded man's knife clattered to the floor and he followed, trying to brace himself from complete collapse. Everything was a faint haziness to Henry from the start of his onslaught. He didn't seem to be in control. All he could do was plunge and plunge his arm over and over down into the now still body on the floor.
Henry hurdled into the air like he was a sack of flour being yanked upward. Two arms gripped him around his chest and waist and as the haze began to lift, he found that he was being carried, crashing through the swinging doors and out onto the sidewalk. He was released and he spun to face who had been holding him, his empty knife hand outstretched.
"Come with me," the gentleman shouted. "We've got to get you out of here."
Henry's thoughts were clearer and he realized what he had done. "But my derby." He touched his bare head. "I – "
"Forget it. Come on!"
They hurried off, Henry following direction and feeling an emotion he only experienced with his mother and brother, a sense of trust. Someone new had permanently entered his life. He was sure of it. Henry was eventually led down cement steps to a musty, dimly-lit basement in a tenement building.
"We'll be safe here. It's my gang's stash house. I'm Pat Riley." He held out his hand and Henry shook it, saying, "I'm Henry. Henry McCarty."
"I want to thank you," Pat said. "I saw his knife on the floor and I know it would be sticking in me right now if not for what you did."
"I remembered what you had told me. I knew I had to protect my friend."
"Yes, friend, and now family." Pat's expression turned grim, his mustache sagging. "Henry, the man is dead. The police will be looking for you. His friends will describe you and they'll find you. You can't go home."
"But, my mother, she'll – "
"I'll get word to her and see that she's watched over and cared for."
"But what about you? They'll be looking for you, too."
"No, Henry. Everyone in that bar knows better. No one turns in a Five Pointer and lives to tell of it." Pat tilted his head. "You, on the other hand, have not been initiated into the Five Pointers and they don't know about our relationship. By the time I could do anything, the police would be involved. But I will stand up for you for apprenticeship. You'll live with me and I'll teach you the tricks that you'll need to survive. Time will eventually erase the memories of those who witnessed what happened today."
"I will never forget what you're doing for me."
"First thing is you'll need a new name."
"My real first name is William."
"Okay, William. Bill. Bill... Bonny. A bonny fine lad. But we'll spell it with an 'ey' so's it looks like a family name. You, my boy, are now Bill Bonney." Pat grasped Bill's shoulder. "I'm glad I'll be bringing another Irishman into the fold. The Italians are becoming too strong among the Five Pointers to suit me. We can't allow them to muscle in and take over."
"Whatever you say, I'll back you. I'll lie for you. I'll steal for you. And you already know... I'll kill for you."
Forty- two-year-old Bill Bonney sat in a white caned chair alongside the hospital bed of the woman he had known for a short time but had grown to love.
She was twenty years younger than Bill; thinner, smaller, paler, but not by much. Their age difference had never been discussed. It was like there was no gap, only a mutual admiration and respect.
"My, Bill, what have you done to yourself," Jennie Stevens asked in a rasping voice. "Your hair is black. Are you dying it to hide the gray hairs? And you stopped shaving. Are you growing a beard?"
"Just tryin' to look a little less old than I am," Bill said with a bucktooth smile.
"Certainly not for me. I liked you the way you were."
"I wish we had met when I was younger. You being from out west and me always wantin' to head out that way... even with the bad dreams and all. I was glad that I did meet you and watched over you and -"
Me, too," Jennie agreed. "I never would've been able to do my settlement work without you protecting me on my rounds." A rumble of phlegm moved through her chest and became a wet hacking cough that lasted for almost thirty seconds. "But this doggone consumption hadda overtake me. It's what I get for trying to do good and redeem myself among sick people." Another cough interrupted her before she could catch her breath.
"I still can't believe that a little thing like you rode with the famous Doolin gang. And that you were sent to prison and all."
"I wouldn't lie to you, Bill. Maybe you and me can still find a way to get to
Oklahoma and I'll take you to Pawnee where I know Cattle Annie and maybe some of the old bunch are still living."
"What'd you say they called you - Little Britches?"
Jennie smiled meekly before her expression changed to dismay as another
half-minute cough erupted. Other hacking coughs and rasping wheezes joined in a chorus up and down the open ward.
Bill reached out and grasped her arm, trying to comfort the only woman other than his mother who had ever meant anything significant to him. "I believe you, and we will take that trip. In fact -"
"Bill," she said, catching her breath, "You mentioned the bad dreams. Do you still get them?"
"Yeah, still around but always the same one."
"My goodness. I know you said you're always in a hot and dark adobe room like out west but that's as far as you've ever gotten."
"I just seem to sense there's someone there in the dark and I know his name is Pat. But it couldn't be Pat Riley. Like I said, I sensed things more than saw them. I say 'Quien es?'..."
"That's Spanish. Who is it, you're asking. "
"Yeah. And then I see this badge glistening in the moonlight and I know it's definitely not Pat Riley, and then even more so when the Pat with the badge fires his gun at me. I can feel two bullets hit my chest just before I wake up." He bowed his head for an instant and Jennie squeezed his hand. "I'm okay. I'm glad I final told you the whole dream," Bill said. "I guess I thought it might be an omen or something that was supposed to happen and probably why I never did travel west. I'm older and I know it means nothing and I want to get away from this big city life. And I want you to go with me."
"As soon as I can get out of this bed," Jennie said.
"No! Sooner. Even if I have to carry you." Bill held her hand. "Jennie, I'm in trouble. The cops are after me and so are the Five Pointers – "
"But I thought they were your friends, your gang."
"They were. When Pat Riley was killed three years ago, I vowed I'd find who did it. It took me that long. Three years of seein' the Five Pointers completely change and me become a flunky for Johnny Torrio and his boys. Well, I finally found out it was one of his boys, lookin' to get rid of the last Irish elder and his influence. I tracked the guy down and... and I took care of business. Now they want my head and, somehow, the cops know I did it. It ain't like the old days no more, when nobody knew nothin'. That's why I'm tryin' to look different, so's nobody can spot me on the street. I got a few dollars saved, more than enough to get you and me out of town and stake us to a new life."
"Sounds good, Bill." Jennie's eyes closed and her breathing became heavy. "Just as soon as... you get me outta... this place."
"Imagine if we had met a few years back," Bill said, trying to keep her mind off her ragged breathing. "Little Britches of the Doolin Gang and Bill Bonney – or maybe Billy the Kid, like they called me when I was younger - of the Five Points Gang. We would've been featured in one of Ned Buntline's dime novels. We would've been famous." Bill felt Jennie's arm relax under his grip and his lips parted in a thin smile. His blue eyes twinkled and for a scant second the constantly frozen hardness of his face relaxed. "Sleep, my Little Britches. I have a few things to do so we can get you back out into that dry climate and get you well again."
He left Bellevue Hospital and headed across town and south to West 12th Street. When I return, he thought, I will get her out, whether anyone likes it or not. He wore disheveled clothes instead of his usual finery and had slipped on a pair of dark eyeglasses as an enhancement to his disguise. It was February and the cold wind stung his face but helped clear his thoughts. He had first seen the well-dressed trio frolicking on Broadway and the Theater District while he was in midtown looking for an easy mark. He thought of robbing them, especially when one of the men and the woman had made a purchase at Tiffany's. He had followed them for a few days, found where they lived and observed their habits. He had seen the bulge under the taller gentleman's coat and knew it had to be a pistol, so robbery was out. Their habits, their speech, their carefree attitude convinced him that they were Westerners, but not the ordinary rich cattlemen or ranchers visiting his city. They were definitely in the bandit business. They lived at a boarding house and could probably leave town at any moment so time was of the essence.
The taller handsome one with the full blond mustache, the one who had shopped with the woman and had their pictures taken at De Young's Studio, stood alone outside the boarding house.
"Good afternoon, sir," Bill greeted, removing the dark glasses and touching them in a salute to the brim of his crumpled fedora. "May I have a word with you?"
"Concerning what?" the younger man asked.
"I couldn't help but notice your tooled leather boots and figured you and your friends were from out west somewhere," Bill said, slipping the glasses into his coat pocket.
"So happens we are," the man said, raising an eyebrow, clenching his jaw and folding his arms across his chest. "How'd you know I was in the company of others?"
"Well, I only live a block away," Bill lied, "And I seen all of you together around the neighborhood."
"Oh." The man seemed to relax, dropping his arms to his side. "What can I do for you, Mister..."
"McCarty. Bill McCarty." They shook hands.
"Harry Place. With my partner, Jim Ryan, and my wife, Etta, we're visiting your fine city. We'll be leaving New York tomorrow."
"So soon? Well then, let me get to the point. I would like to travel with your party to wherever you are headed. Actually, me and my girlfriend. We would gladly pay you any expenses you see fit and upon arrival at your destination we would offer our services to you in any capacity you could employ us in."
"And what would prompt such a proposition on your part, Mr. McCarty?"
"Well, sir, I'll be honest with you in sayin' that I am no longer welcome here by certain parties."
"Mr. Place, I know you know what I mean. That there pistol and holster under your coat tells me you may have been in the same position as me more than once in your life."
"What if I were to say I was a lawman, or was just carrying it for protection?"
"I'd say you would of run me in halfway through our conversation or pulled it out to scare me away." Bill reached around and patted the hard surface of his own pistol tucked in the rear of his waistband under his coat. "And then I'd show you mine, but the fact is you want to hear more."
"You've got me there. I am curious about your plight."
"I've always wanted to head out west. My girlfriend is originally from those parts and needs to return for her health." Bill managed a wry smile. "As it turns out, so do I."
Bill hadn't noticed the clop of horse hooves until Harry Place turned his attention to the street. A hansom carriage was just pulling to the curb, the horse's nostrils blowing clouded breathes into the air. The passenger paid the driver and stepped to the sidewalk. Jim Ryan was about the same age as his partner, but shorter, wearing a similar three piece suit under a dark frock coat and a thin mustache on a round face.
As the carriage pulled away Jim Ryan stared suspiciously at Bill, but after a nod of approval from Harry, his ruddy face glowed with a friendly smile.
"Mr. McCarty, here, has a proposition for us," Harry advised. "He's offering to pay his own way and any expenses we might face while helping him and his lady friend to leave town with us as part of our entourage, sort of using us as cover, and afterwards to work for us. Seems he has to get out of New York and wants to start anew back in our parts."
"And why would you think we'd be interested in such an arrangement?" Ryan asked, his thin mustache spread out over a pleasant grin.
"Because I'm in the same business as you fellas," Bill explained. "It takes a thief to know a thief. No offense but, let's be honest, we ain't no saints."
"What if we told you we were nothing more than honest cattlemen here to take in the sights and then just walked away from you?"
"I'd say you were giving up an opportunity of a lifetime to hire someone who is skilled in any means needed to take someone else's money away from them and not afraid to do whatever necessary to accomplish that deed. I am loyal and I will follow your orders to the letter."
Ryan and Harry exchanged questioning stares for a moment. Then Ryan said, "We do seem to be of the same cut, Mr. McCarty. I'm sure you would be a valuable asset to someone but things have changed. We're into a new century and there's too much law out where we come from. We're not going back there."
"Listen," Bill said, "If you think I'm the law or from the Pinkertons trying to set you up, you're sorely wrong."
Ryan, who had started to turn away, stopped and turned back to Bill. "Not at all. Just as you were able to see us for what we are, I can tell you are who you say you are."
"Then why can't I join you?" Bill asked in a voice near pleading.
"Because I was truthful in telling you that we are not going back to Wyoming." Ryan stared at Harry for a long minute, and then said, "I think I can confide in you and I hope I'm right. We are leaving the country, heading for South America to start over." His expression was earnest. "If you have the passage money, you're welcome to join us and... Well, start over with us down there."
Bill puffed out clouds of hot breath into the cold air as he considered, then
extended his hand and sealed the deal with handshakes to both of his new accomplices.
"You'll have to arrange your own passage," Jim Ryan said. "I know for a fact that there are open accommodations on the ship we're on, the S.S. Soldier Prince. It's docked at pier sixteen. We'll see you... and you say, a lady friend?" Bill nodded. "We'll see you two there first thing tomorrow morning. When our carriage pulls up, just come over and blend in with us. Agreed?"
Bill nodded again.
"I trust you have a better suit of clothes than those you're wearing."
"Sir, I have several. You will see a different person before you tomorrow morning."
Bill headed back uptown, stopping at his new week-old apartment. He had rented the Hell's Kitchen walk-up immediately after leaving the Five Points area when he had completed his last mission. His bags were already packed in anticipation of a quick getaway and his stash was hidden under some loose floor boards in a closet. All that was left was for him to buy a dress and shoes for Jennie to wear when he checked her out of Bellevue, get her back here for the night and buy the steamship tickets.
Bill had once accompanied Jennie while she shopped and remembered her likes and sizes, something a man wouldn't admit to, certainly not a man who traveled in his circles. He had the brown paper-wrapped package tucked under his arm as he entered the lobby of the cold brick building at dusk. He stopped at the front desk and inquired about Jennie.
"I'm sorry, sir," the gray-haired woman said as she examined a form, "But Jennie Stevens expired sometime this morning."
Bill's knees buckled and he grasped the railing of the counter to steady himself. The clothing package dropped onto the white tiled floor with a whump. He stared at the woman, unable to speak.
"Are you alright, sir?" she asked. "Were you a relative?"
"I... uhh. Yes. Yes, kind of. I was her... intended."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, sir." The woman paused for reflection, her face fixed in sympathy. "I'm sorry to bring this up, but there's no mention of any other relative and there are forms to be filled out, and –"
"Can I see her?"
"I'm afraid not, sir. No one is allowed in the morgue. Perhaps after arrangements are made for her removal. Now about these forms. You –"
"I'll help him with what has to be done," a woman's voice said softly.
Bill turned slowly to the voice and saw that it belonged to a nurse, her white garb a slight bit dingy but still emitting something of a glow in the drab surroundings. "I worked on Jennie's ward. I'm just getting off my shift but I can help you." She picked up the forms from the counter and the package from the floor and placed her hand on the back of Bill's shoulder, guiding him toward a row of wooden benches. "Let's sit down over here."
"Thank... thank you."
"I'm truly sorry for Jennie's death," the nurse said after they sat. "She was so sweet."
"Yes. We had a dream and we were finally gonna make it come true. Now it's shattered. Gone. There's nothin' – "
"I was with her when it happened. Her last words were spoken to me but they were for you." The nurse patted his folded hands. "She said that when I saw you I should tell you to follow your dream. She will be with you in spirit no matter where you may roam."
Bill fought against becoming teary-eyed. He had experienced that emotion twice before in his life, when his mother died and when his friend and mentor was killed. This will not happen again. He vowed this would be the third and last time anyone would get that close to him. Everything would be strictly business from this point forward.
"I'm not really up to fillin' out forms," Bill said. "Could I interest you in gettin' them to forget about forms and only makin' arrangements with an undertaker for her?" He patted the package sitting next to him on the bench. "Maybe you could give these clothes to someone here, who could dress her for the burial, and..." Bill dug a sheaf of paper money from his inside pocket, glanced at the ten or so twenty dollar bills and handed them to the nurse. "This is for your kindness and for what you can do for me."
"Oh, I couldn't. They would only need a fraction of that to -"
"Then the rest is yours." Bill pressed the money into her hand. "Do you need more? I can..." He reached inside his coat and pulled out a few more bills. "Please help me. This is probably more money than you make in months."
"Yes, it is," she said. "And my family sorely needs it..."
"Then take it." He crumpled the extra bills into the wad in her hand. "Please. I have something to take care of or I'd do whatever it takes."
Her brown eyes locked onto his. They were soft and understanding. "Alright. But you will be back?"
"Yes," he lied. "Just as soon as I take care of some business."
"Thank you." Bill left the woman sitting with the package and the crumpled money and never looked back. What was there for him to do? Why should I have to be here just to help dispose of a disease-ravaged shell that my Jennie once lived in? No, Jennie is still with me. She said so; she told the nurse that her spirit would be with me. That's what counts.
On the voyage to Argentina, the three men finally divulged their real names. Robert Leroy Parker, known as Butch Cassidy, and Harry Longbaugh, the Sundance Kid, and Bill planned their future ventures as would any businessmen. There were no oaths or fraternal involvement or any emotional entanglements. It was strictly business, just how Bill wanted it.
Bill sat daydreaming in the bedroom of his adobe shack as the night slowly closed in. He would never be here in Bolivia if Jennie had been with him. The thin air of the Andes would've hindered her breathing. He would've stayed with her on the Argentine plains where the air was warmer and drier, or maybe left her in Etta's care until he returned with a stake from the mining company holdups. But then what would've he done after Etta returned to the States. Would he have sent Jennie back with Etta? He finally decided that it was good that Jennie had joined him only in spirit.
He heard the gallop of an approaching horse and went to the open window. He recognized the rider as one of the villagers. The rider dismounted.
"Buenos tardes, Senor Guillermo," the villager greeted. "Yo tango un - "
"Por favor, Pedro," Bill said, "En Ingles."
"Si." Pedro hesitated, collecting his thoughts within his English vocabulary.
"Senors Butch and Sundance say after they leave La Paz they have business to do at San Vicente before returning, maybe manana. They say be careful. They have heard of Pink-men."
"Yes, that was it. The Pink-er-tons may be coming this way."
Pedro nodded, remounted and rode off.
Bill pulled his six-shooter from his belt and placed it on the table next to his bed, then stretched out on the straw-filled mattress. He was still a cautious person but dismissed the idea of Pinkertons coming all the way down here. They had better things to do in the States than follow rumors of the Banditos Yanqui.
He thought again of Jennie but, knowing he had to stop living in the past, considered visiting the middle-aged widow he'd been seeing in the village. His gray hair and achy bones had put a crimp in his social life. The thought of the widow was relaxing and he faded off to sleep.
He wasn't sure if the sound of horses' hooves were left over from a dream or if Pedro had returned. The room was dark and there were no sounds. He sat up when he heard the squeak of the front door hinges. He retrieved his pistol from the bedside table in one motion. There wasn't a lantern at hand so he stood and waited in the dark and listened.
Bill swung the six-shooter back and forth while keeping his body perfectly still. A floorboard creaked.
"Quien es?" Bill called out in the darkness.
Two gunshots pierced the silence and Bill was struck in the chest by the bullets. He fell to the floor, dead. A figure moved out of the darkness into a beam of moonlight. The moonbeam glistened off the metal badge on his shirt. He was a former New Mexico sheriff turned Pinkerton detective and his name was Pat. Pat Garrett.
John Vikara was born in New York City and is now retired and living in Pennsylvania. He has self-published a trilogy of novels - The Vandals, Adjuster, and National Defense - and a novella - Auld Lang Syne - as a supplement to complete the series. He has placed third in two short story contests and has had short stories appear in New Realm, eFiction and Romance magazines.