Today is allegedly Billy the Kid's birthday. We say allegedly because it appears Ash Upson gave the date to the Kid when he co-wrote The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid in 1881. Upson had actually roomed for a short time at the McCarty household in Silver City when the Kid's mama was still alive and taking in boarders to make ends meet. After the Kid's death at the hands of Pat Garrett, Upson either remembered the Kid's birth date because they shared the same birthday, or, Upson gave him his own birth date and called it a day.
The Kid? Oh, he lied about everything. He told a census taker in 1880 that he was 24 or 25 and that he was from New Orleans. The only guy who could have told us is Billy's half-brother and some boneheaded migrant typo didn't think it was important to know and didn't ask.
So suspect, or not, this is the day we give thanks to the Pecos Psychopath (as my wife not so fondly calls him).
How fitting that I just finished reading a new book on Billy titled To Hell On A Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, And the Epic Chase to Justice in The Old West, by Mark Lee Gardner which is coming out any day now.
As I mentioned the other day, there are over 1,000 books on Billy the Kid and as my alma mater, The University of Arizona Press told me when I submitted my Billy book proposal in 1991: "Just what the world needs, another book on Billy the Kid." That was probably a couple dozen Billy books ago and today, even I am suspect of another rehash of the same old stuff.
What started as a trickle of information has ended up a deluge of discovered documents and diaries (Fred Nolan's 1950 discovery of the Tunstall diaries in England for example). From secret government reports to depression era interviews by work project folks, we now know quite a bit about the Lincoln County War and the warriors who fought in it, prosecuted it and benefited from it.
What we still don't know could fill a book, (The Sex Life of Billy the Kid, for example written by a friend of mine) but that's another story.
Gardner opens the story at the Las Vegas, New Mexico train station where Pat Garrett's posse stands off a Vegas mob. Expertly marshaling all the known facts and utilizing quotes from the public record, the author spins out a concise and quick moving tale, bouncing forward and backward as he moves along.
Even though I have been reading and studying this story for almost a half century, I still found things in almost every episode I didn't know. For example, in the train standoff, some of the hispanos gathered around a pile of railroad ties. Didn't know that.
Gardner hits all of the high spots and doesn't dilly dally. Some episodes in the Kid's life zip by in a paragraph, but that paragraph contains everything we know. Gardner also takes the story up through the Brushy Bill fiasco and even includes the Steve Sederwall diggging up Billy controversy.
One episode which I didn't use in my book is the George Curry, Block Ranch memoirs where he talks about a suppertime visitor who talked about Garrett's election, then rides away saying, "You are a good cook and a good fellow, but if you think Pat Garrett is going to carry this precinct for sheriff, you are a damned poor politician." That episode was off limits for many years and without permission, authors were threatened with a lawsuit.
Something happened since I published my own book (I really wanted to use that) in 1992.
Perhaps the best part of the book for me, is the section on the death of Pat Garrett. All of the controversial aspects are covered (Killin' Jim Miller's alleged motive to be there).
I plan on reading it again, just for grins. Gardner really takes you to New Mexico and takes you on a ride, and when you think about it, that's what we want. A Good Ride to Hell On A Fast Horse.
"Well boys you may all do exactly as you please. As for me, I propose to stay right here in this country and steal myself a living."
—Billy the Kid