Billy the Kid was ambidextrous—according to some. His favorite song—according to some—was “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” though once he discovered dancing, for which he had a flair, “Silver Threads” may have been bumped for “Turkey in the Straw.” According to some, his last (and perhaps only true) girlfriend, Paulita Maxwell, was pregnant by him on that fateful night—July 14, 1881—when Sheriff Pat Garrett, of Lincoln County, New Mexico, snuck up on her father’s ranch house and shot Billy dead, firing into darkness at the sound of Billy’s voice.
Some, of course, question both the pregnancy and the death. A number of citizens of the central Texas town of Hico, for example, prefer to believe that the fleet felon Ollie “Brushy Bob” Roberts, who lived out his days in Hico, was really the Kid. Brushy Bob did nothing to discourage this view; the town now holds appropriate festivities from time to time, whenever they can entice a few tourists or Billy the Kid bitter-enders to attend.
The point about Billy’s ambidexterity is to remind the reader that for more than a century the only photographic image of Billy that we had was a scratched-up, spotty tintype*—a reverse image that gave rise to the notion that Billy was left-handed. Gore Vidal, in the late 1950s, wrote a television play about the left-handed gun, which Paul Newman and Arthur Penn, after lots of changes—Vidal himself was “replaced”—made into the method western The Left Handed Gun, which Vidal rather cuttingly says only a French person could enjoy. (Nothing if not tenacious, Gore Vidal finally got his version, Billy the Kid, on television in 1989, with Val Kilmer playing the title role.)
The point, I guess, is that if Billy was truly ambidextrous, his would have been a both-handed gun, which might have given him an edge, a time or two. What I can say is that the Kid’s penmanship was excellent. I can say this because Michael Wallis, the Kid’s most recent biographer and one of the few writers to leave the pleasures of Miami, Florida, for the astringencies of Oklahoma, reproduces one of Billy’s letters to Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur, which Wallace was writing during his rather restful stint as governor of New Mexico (1878–1881). Wallace had survived several gory battles during the Civil War, and was so busy writing his book that he more or less ignored the locally catastrophic convulsion known as the Lincoln County War—and he did not play fair with the Kid, holding out the promise of pardon if Billy would just show up to be formally arrested. Billy did show up but no pardon was forthcoming. Billy kept writing letters to Wallace, but a teenage outlaw could not long distract this soon-to-be-world-famous author from the attractions of his own prose. Billy the Kid was forced to give up on Governor Wallace, who went on, of course, to win great adulation.
Today, though, Billy the Kid will draw a thousand hits on the relevant Web sites for every one for Lew Wallace, who is only remembered now for having shafted Billy the Kid (who used that name only in the final few months of his life after he escaped from jail). The legend was just waiting for the youth to die, which he did with the help of a bullet from Pat Garrett’s Peacemaker Colt.
Twenty-seven years later Pat Garrett himself was assassinated while pissing beside a road in southern New Mexico—well after he had hired the ghostwriter Ash Upton to write The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, The Noted Desperado of the Southwest. The book was anything but authentic, but it did set the pulp mills rolling and they have been rolling ever since.
Though certainly sensational, the Garrett-Upton book paled beside the purple of the obituarist for The Santa Fe Weekly Democrat, who, the moment that it was known that the Kid had fallen, offered this:
No sooner had the floor caught the descending form, which had a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other, than there was a strong odor of brimstone in the air, and a dark figure with the wings of a dragon, claws like a tiger, eyes like balls of fire, and horns like a bison, hovered over the corpse for a moment, and with a fiendish laugh said “Ha! Ha! This is my meat!” and then sailed off through the window. He did not leave his card, but he is a gentleman well known by reputation, and there by hangs a “tail.”
A notable bibliographer once told me that only Napoleon and Jesus had longer bibliographies than Billy the Kid. I doubt this—what about Shakespeare?—but it is true that thousands of pieces, mostly newspaper or magazine stories, have addressed themselves to this rough-raised American youth, who was born Henry McCarty, later became Kid Antrim, then William H. Bonney, then the Kid, and finally, as his horizon darkened, Billy the Kid.
In the last three decades, scholarship about Billy has shaken off its pulp origins and become professional, the three best books, in my view, being Robert M. Utley’s Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life (1989), Frederick Nolan’s The West of Billy the Kid (1998), and now Michael Wallis’s Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride. Nor should one forget the brilliant cartoonist Bob Boze Bell’s Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid, a fine contribution to the vast literature on the Kid.
All these writers, good as they are, start by confessing their despair, knowing, as they do, how hard it is to extract a pebble of fact from this swollen legend. The learned Nora Henn says there are “no absolutes” where Billy is concerned. Then William Nolan: “Few American lives have more successfully resisted research than that of Billy the Kid.” The rightly respected Robert Utley ruefully admits that things one can say for sure about this young man are very few. And Wallis, Billy’s latest biographer, says this:
From early 1878 until his death in the summer of 1881, William Bonney’s activities can be documented week by week and sometimes daily. Nevertheless, little reliable information about the Kid during this time is known.
Well, we do know one thing: he attended his mother’s wedding to her second husband, William Antrim, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on March 1, 1873.
The one dramatic event in the Kid’s whole short life, his escape from the Lincoln County jail on April 28, 1881, was perhaps only possible, Wallis speculates, because Sheriff Pat Garrett was out of town trying to buy lumber for a gallows from which to hang him. Garrett returned to find a deputy and a jailer dead and the young outlaw gone on a borrowed horse.
Billy may have been born in New York—the New York of Gangs of New York—or he may have been born in the peaceful glades of Indiana. His mother claimed to be a widow; his father, Michael McCarty, may (or may not) have been the Michael McCarty who died of a wound to his knee joint after the dreadful Battle of Chickamauga.
The Kid had a brother, Joe, of whom there is also only one shadowy photograph. Catherine McCarty took her young family to Wichita, Kansas, where among other efforts, she operated a laundry. She was probably consumptive by this time: handling damp clothes didn’t help. There she met William Antrim, who had a notion to get rich in the mines of Silver City, New Mexico. They married in Santa Fe and went on west; but it proved to be no-go. William Antrim didn’t get rich and Catherine, despite her visits to the famous hot springs nearby, got worse and died.
Billy, then still Henry, was motherless at fourteen and soon in trouble. He stole several pounds of butter out of the back of a rancher’s wagon. He was so slight that he escaped from one jail by scrambling up a chimney.
A puzzle to me is why he wasn’t hung for stealing horses, horse theft being a crime considered to be worse than murder in those parts. Yet all his life, Billy stole horses whenever he needed them, and somehow got away with it. Sometimes he let the horses return themselves to their owners when he was safely away—but sometimes he neglected this courtesy. Once out of jail in Lincoln, with Deputy Bell (whom he liked) and mean Bob Ollinger (whom he didn’t like) lying dead in the street, Billy requested a horse and one was brought him. It promptly bucked him off, but, in time, he mastered it and rode away. The horse showed back up a day or two later.
After his mother’s death Billy first went west, into Arizona Territory, one of the few places in America more violent than New Mexico. He worked for various ranchers in the Camp Grant area, where he aroused the dislike of a hefty local blacksmith named Windy Cahill, who liked to get the slight youth down and slap him around. One day, while Cahill was engaged in this sport, Billy managed to get his “equalizer” out and shoot Cahill, who died the next day. In this instance Billy might justly have claimed that he acted in self-defense, but Cahill had many friends in the area; had Billy pressed for a trial he would very likely have ended up “decorating a cottonwood tree,” a popular term for lynching, in those days.
Billy chose to flee—soon, like many another dead-end teenager, he joined a gang, which perhaps it’s best just to call the banditti, a loose confederation of cross-border rustlers, who operated under various names and were intolerant of anyone who offered them the least resistance. It was because of his association with the banditti (sometimes called the Boys and, later, the Cowboys) that Billy was said by the pulpers to have killed numerous Mexicans and Indians. This is not likely.
It’s worth remembering that the gunfighter’s West closed with some abruptness. Wild Bill Hickok was killed in 1876. The Earp brothers, with their ally Doc Holliday, marched on the Clantons and other Cowboys at the O.K. Corral only three months after Billy was killed. Jesse James was shot down in 1882. Johnny Ringo probably killed himself. Doc Holliday died of the same disease that took Billy’s mother. The one real mad-dog killer in the region, the half-demented Clay Allison, the so-called “Wolf of the Washita,” bounced out of a wagon and had the misfortune to have it run over his neck in 1887. Clay Allison was much meaner and more deadly than Billy the Kid ever thought of being.
Billy the Kid was not easily scared, but the Arizona of his time—the mid-1870s—was mainly a deathscape. Not only were the white men dangerous, but the Apaches were far from being reliably subdued.
Billy left and ended up in New Mexico in time to fight for both (or even various) sides in the—to my mind—overstudied conflict known as the Lincoln County War. William Keleher, William Nolan, Robert Utley, and lots of others have written about the Lincoln County War, but none of them has succeeded in making it interesting to anyone not a member of the New Mexico Spit and Whittle Club. Lincoln County is, I believe, the largest county in America, twenty million acres, sparsely populated where populated at all, but home to lots of militants of varying stamps. Michael Wallis writes:
It was a war fought in Lincoln County in the late nineteenth century, but it had been spawned long before in Ireland and England, in boardrooms and court chambers, in saloons and places of worship. It was a war of race and religion and class, Protestant and Catholic, Anglo and Hispanic, rich and poor. It was a war fought for years and years, by Texans, soldiers, ranchers, merchants, Indians, Mexicans, politicians, judges, lawyers, and a legion of the unnamed who died hard and with the passage of time were forgotten.
“A war without heroes,” Robert Utley adds.
This seems a little glorified. The Lincoln County War looks, from this distance, like a succession of feuds—much the same kind of feuds ripped apart central Texas at roughly the same time. And the folk hero it produced, possibly America’s greatest, was Billy the Kid. The folk heroes you might put against him—Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox Babe, Pecos Bill—seem pretty tame these days, though the Coen brothers did their best for Paul Bunyan, in their brilliant movie Fargo.
Billy the Kid was one of the six “Regulators” who poured enough rifle fire into Sheriff William Brady to kill him on the spot in downtown Lincoln. This killing was meant as revenge for the murder of John Henry Tunstall, an English rancher for whom Billy had worked.
Otherwise the Kid, for sure, killed four men, and he himself saw all those killings as necessary to his survival. Windy Cahill I have already mentioned. The next victim was Joe “Texas Red” Grant, who hoped to shoot Billy in the back but was foiled by the Kid’s caution—he managed to borrow Texas Red’s gun and made sure that the next time the hammer fell it would fall on an empty chamber. When Billy heard the hammer click he turned and shot Texas Red three times—this event is echoed in Sam Peckinpah’s lovely movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, with Jack Elam playing the unsuccessful cheat.
The Kid’s two other documented killings, of Deputy James Bell and jailer Bob Ollinger, occurred during his escape from the Lincoln County jail, in April of the year of his death. After this jailbreak, the long-legged sheriff Pat Garrett was puzzled by the reports that the Kid had not fled to Mexico, as would have been expected. First he was seen here, then he was seen there. He was in Fort Sumner; then he was in the Guadalupe Mountains. He wasn’t really running. Why not?
There is no sure answer to that question, but it could just be that he was so in love with Paulita Maxwell that he didn’t want to give her up—she may have offered the first real love Billy had known since the death of his mother, six years before. He had danced and flirted with many girls—but what if Paulita was different? Billy may have formed a serious attachment, one serious enough to risk getting hung for.
Billy, after all, had been on his own since he was fourteen. Pete Maxwell was the oldest son of Lucien Maxwell, who with some others once ran the vast Maxwell Land Grant Company, of some two million acres. Pete liked the Kid enough to hire him and Billy’s last words, according to Wallis, were “Pedro, quienes son eso hombres?” Then, sensing that one of the hombres was nearby, he asked again, “Quien es?”; Pat Garrett hit with one bullet of two and Billy fell straight into myth. Paulita Maxwell loved him—perhaps he had merely found it hard to leave a place where he was wanted.
Michael Wallis does a scrupulous and persuasive sifting of the evidence about Billy’s life and activities. He mentions, I think accurately, that Billy had the ability to connect with people. But the legend? How to explain that? Hoping for guidance I went back to my favorite book about the Hero, the one just called The Hero, published by the English anthropologist Lord Raglan in 1936. Once, in the time when there were creatures called myth critics, Lord Raglan’s study was mildly controversial, because he claimed that traditional heroes—Robin Hood, Cúchulain—were survivals of ritual drama.
Our gunfighters didn’t rise from ritual drama, but, quite inadvertently, initiated it, particularly in its most common form, the Hollywood fast-draw shoot-out in the street. Go to Tombstone, Arizona, and you can see a ritual drama reenacted every day, as the Earps and Doc Holliday endlessly bear down on the Clantons and the Cowboys at the famous O.K. Corral. In this dusty, rough-edged company, Billy the Kid still holds pride of place.