Revising the Revisionists

Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the epic chase to justice in the Old West.

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
Morrow, $26.99, 336 pp.

Some things never change.  The New York Times, for instance, can always show sympathy for a cop killer with an excuse.

In 1926, a Times book reviewer criticized The Saga of Billy the Kid, one of the first books on the Kid and Pat Garrett that relied on actual reporting, for presenting Garrett as a hero.  The critic, who apparently had watched a few too many Tom Mix movies, thought the lawman with eight kids to feed should have given Billy “a chance to fight for his life.”

I didn’t know liberals were so into dueling. The statement is doubly ironic since the Kid’s most famous killing was the straight-up bushwacking ambush of the (admittedly corrupt) sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico.

Nearly a century later, the Times can still find fault with nearly every police shooting, while it romanticizes cold-blooded cop killers for "standing up to the Man"—especially if their politics are radical.

The story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid often has been used as sort of a pseudo-Marxist fable-- though, unlike Jesse James, John Dillinger and other outlaws who attained such status, the Kid didn’t rob banks.

One of the more infamous accounts of the legend is Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a glum disaster of a movie that basically killed what was left of the drunken director’s career (plus nearly snuffed out the Western genre itself in the early '70s).  Peckinpah imagined Garrett as a man who is bitter about being used as a capitalist tool to kill off a young rebel threat who sits around grousing about the greedy businessmen who have destroyed the code of the West.

But the truth comes out in Mark Gardner's Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West. He reports Garrett was an enthusiastic, if not terribly successful, capitalist himself who had invested in and started several large cattle concerns and other enterprises.

And while Billy may have been on the right side in the famed Lincoln County War, it was the only time in his life that the career horse thief and casual killer had any justification for his actions.

To Hell on a Fast Horse may not present a lot of new information, but it is a vividly told, action-packed and thoroughly enjoyable look at the complete lives of two of the Old West’s iconic figures.

Gardner tells the story as parallel biographies. The Kid was not born William Bonney (as usually reported) but probably Henry McCarty, the son of a poor Irish refugee.  A petty thief who gradually drifted West ahead of the law, the Kid graduated to stealing horses and constantly practiced with his pistols.  Personally charming, the Kid attracted a loyal band of cohorts — and women — and his dash and daring earned him admiration among some in the general public.

Garrett, meanwhile, was almost the Kid’s direct opposite.  A tall man of few words, Garrett was born on a prosperous Louisiana plantation but sought his fortune in the West. He worked as a buffalo hunter and cowboy, saving his money until he opened his own saloon in Lincoln County.  Garrett married Juanita Gutierrez, who died within months of the wedding. (The Kid, along with most of the county's folks, probably attended the wedding reception, leading to the myth, central to Peckinpah’s film, that Garrett and the Kid had been good friends.) Garrett then married Juanita’s sister, Apolinaria, who bore him nine children.

Two things would forever shape how the American public would view both men.  First, the irony that the Kid worked his first straight job for John Tunstall, the most sympathetic figure in the Lincoln County War, a smaller entrepreneur looking for fair treatment in the cattle market. After Tunstall was shot down in cold blood, many saw the Kid’s subsequent actions — including shooting a corrupt sheriff from ambush — as honorably seeking vengeance and justice for his dead boss. His real motives, however, were far cloudier than that.

Garrett, on the other hand, would never live down the fact that he ultimately shot the Kid from a position of advantage in the dark, even taking into account the number of deputies Garrett had lost in the pursuit of the Kid, and his belief that the Kid was armed and making a move on him.

Garrett never garnered a reputation like Wyatt Earp, Bill Hickok and other legendary lawmen because of how he shot the Kid in the dark. Ironically, Garrett’s detractors generally ignore that the Kid had shot Lincoln County’s Sheriff Brady from ambush-- and that Garrett had captured the Kid alive once, only to have the outlaw murder one of his deputies and escape.

To Hell on a Fast Horse at times reads like a Louis L’Amour book, especially when Garrett’s posse pursues the Kid and his band and engages in a series of gun battles and hairbreadth escapes.  While such modern Western movies as Open Range have tried to be more “realistic” about the marksmanship in the Old West (if they couldn’t shoot better than that, many would have starved to death), Gardner relates gun battles in vivid detail that reminds us that these people were very familiar with weapons—and some of them could really shoot.

More importantly, Gardner gives a balanced and complete portrait of Garrett, a flawed and fascinating man whose ambition often exceeded his reach in business. He nonetheless remained an effective law enforcement officer who was constantly called back into service to solve particularly troublesome situations.

The legend surrounding Billy the Kid remains fascinating, as it does not quite fit into the usual template of the outlaw who becomes an American folk hero. He may have been charming and had flair to spare, but he also casually gunned down men who had no chance to fight back.

The Kid also was, by trade, a horse thief.  Unlike most other crooks-turned-icons, he didn't rob banks that were regarded as the bad guys for foreclosing on American home and farm owners during hard times. (Though in pre-Federal Reserve times, small investors and farmers could lose their life savings because of such robberies.)  His only virtue was seen as standing up for the little guy against bigger corporate interests in avenging his murdered boss.

Of course, it’s elected officials today who rob the banks blind, call them the bad guys and seem to be hell-bent on killing small businesses …

Maybe moderns shouldn’t feel so superior and sneer so much about the “Wild West.”