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Willie Boy

The Legend of Willie Boy

by T. C. WEIR

There is something about the California Desert that prompts men on the run to seek her sanctuary. Joaquin Murrieta, a Mexican bandito of an earlier time, used her boulders and ravines to hide from the law for many months. The infamous Manson Family headquartered in the desert, as did At Capone, way back when. Even now, it's a rare year that some desperado does not flee to her anonymous stretches, hoping to dodge lawmen on the hunt with horses and 4WDs and, lately, helicopters. Of all who have sought her refuge, though, none looms more boldly in our desert lore than a young Paiute Indian called Willie Boy.

Bolstered by stolen whiskey and blinded by his love for a young Indian girl named Lolita, Willie Boy, on a hot September night in 1909, shot and killed Lolita's father, and then fled with her into the wilds of the Mojave Desert. There, armed only with a Winchester rifle, plus a keen knowledge of desert survival, Willie Boy eluded capture for nearly three weeks. Unmatched in duress to this day, that sojourn earned for Willie Boy a permanent place in the history of the California Desert.

Had he not run, but surrendered or been captured at the scene, it is doubtful the Indian would have been given more than a mention in the local press. Murders were then, as now, common events and Indians were often afoul of the law. The killing of an Indian by another Indian in 1909 would have hardly raised an eyebrow, let alone gain national attention.

But Willie Boy decided to run and men like to chase after running prey, especially prey that is cunning and dangerous. So when word spread that Old Mike Boniface, a Chemeheuvi Indian, had been shot dead under his own blanket and his daughter taken captive into the desert, men began to saddle up and load up and move out in what was to become one of the biggest manhunts in the history of the Old West,and one of its last.

By 1909 the Old West as we see it today in movies and on television had all but vanished from real life. More and more, people were becoming citified. They moved about in motorcars, dressed like dudes, built houses complete with inside toilets that flushed. Change was in the air, progress ran at full throttle. To try to hold onto the dying past meant only to die with it.

Then the Willie Boy saga exploded and for one brief moment the Old West was born again. Men on horseback, with guns and grit and a sense of law and order, Western Style, arose like phantoms from the past to ride once more across the open range.

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Willie Boy was in the truest sense a desert Indian. Born in Pahrump, Nevada, he migrated with his family to an oasis at Twentynine Palms, California. There he learned to shoot and hunt and ride a horse with amazing skill. He was a runner, too, and one of the best baseball players in Banning, California, an important desert farming region and the scene of his treacherous murder of Old Mike.

As with other Indians of that area, Old Mike and his people were in Banning to work the almond harvest. Willie Boy was working the ranches, too, but his real reason for being in Banning was because Lolita was there. He loved her very much.

Marriage, though, was forbidden. Distantly related, such a union would have been considered heinous among the Indians. Willie Boy knew this, but he either did not agree with it, or felt it unimportant in light of the love he had for the girl.

He thus ignored Old Mike's warning to forget his daughter and leave her alone. Instead, he captured her and took her away. Marriage by capture, an ancient custom among Indians of that area, was rarely practiced in Willie Boy's time. That he used it clearly showed the lengths he was willing to go to possess the girl.

When Old Mike discovered his daughter had been taken by Willie Boy, he quickly tracked them down and recaptured the girl. By custom, he would have had the right to kill Willie Boy, but because of past friendships, he merely upbraided him and returned with Lolita to camp. This was his fatal error. In three months' time, Old Mike himself would be dead and Lolita would be, once again, Willie Boy's captive bride.

The California Desert can be a deadly adversary. Caught beneath her sun without water or proper covering, she can kill you in less than a day. Wander too far from road or house or other landmark, she'll trick you into vertigo, then bake you to death while you dig at her sand for water. Decline to rest in whatever shade she provides, she'll oblige your foolishness with a forced march through her burning hell. Never take the desert for granted, never think to deal with her on any terms but hers.

Willie Boy had respect for the desert, both as friend and as adversary. He had walked her many times, hunted her game, drank from her springs, slept upon her shifting sands. He had been whipped by her windstorms, broiled by her sun. He knew the wrath of her winters and the fierceness of her flash floods, one of which had swept his own parents to their deaths when Willie Boy was but a child. He knew what he could do with her and what he could not, so he trusted her to help him escape.

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The pair were able to gain a good six hours on any one who chose to follow them. Fearing death, too, Old Mike's family had waited that long to report the killing to authorities. Still, Willie Boy took no chances. Keeping well out of sight of the main roads, he made his way with Lolita through the draws and canyons that bordered the high deserts, of Morongo Segundo Chino, an Indian tracker, was a member of the posse and a hero of the ambush. Valley and Yucca. Three days later, they reached an area called The Pipes. There Willie Boy risked a campfire to cook a rabbit he had shot.

Trackers, arriving at The Pipes the next day, found the campfire still warm. Encouraged, those who could pushed on, confident that Willie Boy was just ahead.

He was also in trouble. While his tracks were steady and sure, it was apparent that Lolita's were becoming scuff marks in the sand. She was either resisting or tiring out. Whatever, her reluctant steps were sure to slow Willie Boy down. Taking heart in this knowledge, the men bedded down for the night, certain this matter with the Indian would soon be settled.

Having breakfast before sunup, the men were back on the trail by dawn. Happily, it read the same as yesterday. Lolita was holding Willie Boy back. His quarry had become his snare.

The men grew silent as they gathered at the top of a ridge and looked down. Only the careless squeak of saddlery and the occasional snort of a horse broke the stillness. At the bottom of the ridge, sprawled face down across a boulder, Lolita lay dead, a bullet in her back.

To the men in pursuit, Lolita's murder was further evidence of Willie Boy's savagery. A hindrance to him now because of her fatigue, he had cut her down to save himself. To the Indian, though", her killing was an act of mercy, to save her from being taken by white men. To Willie Boy, Lolita was his wife. If he gave her up to the white man, he would, in effect, be giving up himself.

Regardless of his motive for killing the girl, her death did spread the distance between himself and the posse. Not only could he move more swiftly now, the posse was forced to turn back for the moment to bring Lolita home. Thus Willie Boy gained an extra edge. But had they not returned with the girl, coyotes would surely have devoured her.

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Meanwhile, those hunting Willie Boy grew from a local constable with a handful of men to two sheriffs departments from as many counties, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, dozens of white men, several Indian trackers, Banning Reservation police and wagons loaded with provisions for several days of desert pursuit. Dispersed at different times and to different areas where they thought Willie Boy might be heading, the manhunt grew to monumental proportions. With the murder of Lolita, it also grew into a grim resolve.

Until Lolita's body was brought back to Banning, the newspapers had given the manhunt little attention. With this new outrage, however, black headlines began to emerge, exploiting Willie Boy as a mad killer on the loose. Localized at first, the story was eventually picked up by the wire services and soon the whole nation was following the manhunt. It was as if people everywhere sensed in this final struggle of the past to live, an excitement all wanted to share.

Willie Boy's main concern, though, was not in headlines but in survival and eventual escape. He felt that if he could reach the oasis at Twentynine Palms, his people would provide refuge, or a horse and supplies for further flight.

When he reached the oasis, exactly one week from the night he killed Old Mike, he found it deserted and stripped of everything he could have used to aid his escape. Everyone had fled to the Banning Reservation for safety, fearing that if Willie Boy came to Twentynine Palms, he would kill them all.

Denied their support, Willie Boy's spirit withered. He glanced about him, appalled at the devastation he had caused; remembering, perhaps, happier times when, as a teenager here, he had had some hope of a meaningful life. It was gone now, gone forever. He checked his rifle, counted his rounds, then turned resolutely back toward the desert wastes that had so recently shielded him. Now they were soon to witness his death.

A full four days after his visit to the oasis, Willie Boy reached Ruby Mountain where he decided to make his stand. He found a natural barricade along the mountain which gave him full view of anyone who handcuffs and shattered his hip. He lay in the open, face up, blood pulsing badly from his wound.

The men, now under cover, began firing randomly at the barricade. But only now and then would Willie Boy fire back. When one of the Indian trackers dashed away for help, Willie Boy danced bullets after him, but always off target. It was peculiar response from a man fighting for his life. Peculiar, too, was Willie Boy's decision to kill the horses instead of the men. He could easily have gotten them all, taken one of the horses and what supplies he approached from below. There was only a distant willow thicket behind which his attackers could hide. From this vantage point, Willie Boy waited and rested and considered his plight.

After two weeks and 500 miles of desert torment, he was too tired to run anymore. But even if he had the will and strength to go on, where would he go? And who was there to help him? He had killed the only thing he loved and unleashed upon himself, it seemed, the anger of everyone who knew of his deed. He had no will to move ahead, or even think ahead. It seemed the desert had beaten all of that out of him and left him a mindless form without the power to determine any part of his destiny.

The five men who broke from the willow thicket had but a moment to evaluate the barricade above them before Willie Boy opened fire. Dropping one horse, spooking a second, then dropping three more, Willie Boy had every man unhorsed and running for cover before any of them could draw a gun. It was the fight all of them had been waiting for, but not one had been prepared.

During the fracas only one man, the leader, was shot. The bullet that was meant for his horse had glanced off the tracker's handcuffs and shattered his hip. He lay in the open, face up, blood pulsing badly from his wound.

The men, now under cover, began firing randomly at the barricade. But only now and then would Willie Boy fire back. When one of the Indian trackers dashed away for help, Willie Boy danced bullets after him, but always off target. It was peculiar response from a man fighting for his life.

Peculiar, too, was Willie Boy's decision to kill the horses instead of the men. He could easilyhave gotten them all, taken one of the horses and what supplies he needed and made good his escape. With two murders already against him, why should he balk at further killings?

To the men who crouched below the barricade, such restraint seemed illogical. To Willie Boy, who waited above, it was the only option he had left, seeing that he was already dead.

When a man dies, he dies first in his mind, regardless of how soon or late the physical death follows. So with Willie Boy. All he needed was time to earn' out the physical act. Pinning the posse down would give him that time.

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When darkness came, the men'decided to give up the vigil and take their wounded leader back down the mountain to medical aid. The Indian could wait, they surmised. As they eased the pain-racked man onto the only surviving horse, a rumble of rocks was heard from above, then a single shot cracked through the air.

"He's dead," someone whispered as they descended. "He's shot himself." But the men would not wait to find out.

A week was gone before another posse went back to Ruby Mountain to try to pick up Willie Boy's trail. The trail, though, went no further than the barricade. Willie Boy had, indeed, taken his own life.

So ended the manhunt. So closed an era. Much was made of the matter. A play was written and performed to packed houses. Ruby Mountain was renamed Willie Boy Mountain. Two sheriffs were re-elected on the strength of the hunt, a Reservation superintendent lost her job because of it and a young reporter made a name for himself by his coverage of the struggle.

Fifty years were to pass, though, before any valuable narrative was produced. Harry Lawton's "Willie Boy, A Desert Manhunt" (Paisano Press, Balboa Island, Calif., I960) is a stirring, yet objective account of the event. From this came the movie, "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here," starring Robert Redford with Robert Blake as Willie Boy.

As for Willie Boy himself? Though the desert would not give him the life he bargained for, she did provide him with an immortality that reached beyond the finite survival of the flesh. She found a niche for him in history's walls and placed him there as she had placed him in the crevices and crannies of her trackless landscape.

It was a reward he had not sought, an honor he had not considered the night he ran to her for hiding. But then, no man on. the run wants any more from the desert than a place to run and hide. Fame is just something extra, sometimes thrown in and sometimes not. ~~~

Desert Magazine - 1980


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