Springs’ remoteness handy to outlaws

Ruth White Burns: Special to the PNT

Editor’s note: This is the final story in a three-part series of Sunday articles describing the importance of Portales Springs in eastern New Mexico history.

As the ranchers began to come into eastern New Mexico in the 1860s and 1870s, the trail that went by Portales Springs was seldom used. Most cattlemen preferred to cross the Pecos River farther south, and then go up the Pecos River to Fort Sumner.

Consequently, the remoteness of Portales Springs made it a perfect place for illicit activity, and it became a favorite meeting place of the Comancheros with the Indians and a safe hideout for those avoiding the law. Outlaws and cattle thieves used the caves at the springs as a stopping place when they were driving stolen herds to be sold in Texas.

Billy the Kid often used the Portales Springs as a rendezvous with members of his gang.

I quote from “A Texas Cowboy” by Charles Siringo, who was pursuing the Kid to recover cattle stolen in Texas:

“The second day after leaving Stinking Springs (near Taiban), we came to the Kid’s noted castle at Los Potales (sic), on the western edge of the great Llano Estacado.”

He goes on to describe the scene: “Los Potales is a large alkali lake, the water of which is unfit for man or beast.” (Though alkali, the water could be drunk.)

“But on the north side of the lake is two nice cool springs which gurgle forth from a bed of rock near the foot of ‘Kid’s Castle’ — a small cave in the cliff.

“In front of the cave is a stone corral about 50-feet square; and above the cave on the level plain are several hitching posts. Outside of those things mentioned, there is nothing but a level prairie just as far as the eye can reach.”

Billy the Kid would take cattle stolen from New Mexico ranchers, such as John Chisum at Bosque Redondo, and water them at Portales Springs while trail herding them to Tascosa to sell. In his book, “The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid,” Pat Garrett writes of his efforts to apprehend the Kid:

“We returned to Fort Sumner, stayed one night, and … started for the Kid’s stronghold, Los Portales, where he was wont to harbor his stolen livestock.

“The Kid was supposed to have had about 60 head of cattle in the vicinity of Los Portales, all but eight of which were stolen from John Newcomb at Agua Azul. On our visit we found only two cows and calves and a yearling, but we heard afterwards that the Kid had moved his stock to another spring about fifteen miles east.”

Col. Jack Potter writes in a 1942 article in the Union County Leader, of Billy the Kid’s last visit to Portales Springs before he was killed by Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner:

“… he and his men had a clever system worked out whereby members of his gang could communicate with each other by certain hieroglyphics on the walls of rock surrounding Portales Spring. He stated that he had been there three times, but had been disappointed each time. After visiting a few days at his old rendezvous — Portales Spring, and finding no answer to his code message which he had scrolled on the sandy rock at the spring.

“He must have took a scare or else had an ugly vision in his sleep, because on the morning of July 14, 1881, he awakened and saddled his mount and started hurriedly on his last ride over the famous old Portales Road, 80 miles to Fort Sumner.”

As history has recorded, Billy was shot by Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881, bringing to an end Billy’s flamboyant career.

Ruth Burns is a local historian and granddaughter of Roosevelt County pioneers. She writes her articles using research and first person interviews with old timers by her mother, Rose “Mrs. Eddie” White. She may be contacted at: