Our Favorite Bandit

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 …

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