Henry The Kid


For me the worst horror of entering a new school in the fourth grade was show-and-tell. Each morning, just after attendance, we were expected to hone our “communication skills” by giving a little talk on something that interested us. I had no communication skills to hone—terror made me sway alarmingly and caused my voice simply to disappear when I was called upon (no loss, since it also prevented me from summoning up the simplest words)—and I was convinced that nothing that interested me could possibly interest my new classmates.

After several days of this the teacher gently suggested that I might try reading something aloud. I was obsessed with the Old West then and chose Walter Noble Burns’s The Saga of Billy the Kid , published in 1926. Burns was a veteran Chicago newspaperman, weak on research but strong on storytelling, whose protagonist was a genuine hero, modest and misunderstood, an enemy of privilege and a friend to the poor. Best of all, for my purposes, Burns wrote with shameless panache. Here his hero shoots his way out of a burning house: “The Kid’s trigger fingers worked with machine-gun rapidity. Fire poured from the muzzles of his forty-fours in continuous streaks. … On he ran like a darting, elusive shadow as if under mystic protection. He cleared the back wall at a leap. He bounded out of the flare of the conflagration. Darkness swallowed him at a gulp.”

Great stuff for a ten-year-old, and my fellow ten-year-olds agreed; even the girls clapped and cheered and begged for more. For several weeks—until I reached the last gaudy page—I was a smash at show-and-tell.

If I had then been able to read aloud from Robert M. Utley’s new Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life (University of Nebraska Press), my audience’s attention might have wandered some, but they would have learned a lot more about what the Old West was really like. Utley is an old-fashioned scholar in the best sense, stubbornly unwilling to rearrange evidence to fit current historical fashion. His books about the old Indian-fighting army, for example, published in the late sixties and early seventies, when seldom was heard an encouraging word about the westward movement, demonstrated that neither troopers nor tribesmen ever had a monopoly on villainy—or virtue.

Unembellished facts about outlaws are hard to come by, and Utley’s study is necessarily less full-scale biography than biographical sketch, but it nicely conveys the context in which the Kid’s misdeeds can be understood. The Lincoln County War has been fought and refought in more than forty films, but as Utley wrote in his own vivid account of it published three years ago, High Noon in Lincoln: Violence on the Western Frontier (University of New Mexico Press), the actual events failed to follow any of the “formulas favored by screenwriters. The war was not a fight between sheepmen and cowmen, or stockmen and sodbusters, or big cattlemen and little … or enclosers and fence-cutters, or vigilantes and outlaws, or corporate moguls and nesters, or Anglos and Hispanics … or feuding families. …”

It was instead a “war without heroes,” fought strictly for profit by armies of hired guns. Lincoln County sprawled over thirty thousand square miles, but the only real profits to be made in this mostly empty, cashless land were from government contracts for beef and other provisions with which the Mescalero Apaches and the soldiers posted nearby to keep them quiet had to be supplied. “The House,” an establishment run by a hardfisted Lincoln merchant named James J. Dolan, held a monopoly until 1876, its grip fortified by friends at court, a malleable sheriff—and a band of paid enforcers called the Boys.

Then John H. Tunstall arrived. An ambitious Englishman with no illusions about how to get ahead in his adopted country, he wrote home that “ everything in New Mexico, that pays at all , is worked by a ‘ring,’ there is the ‘Indian ring,’ the ‘army ring,’ ‘the political ring,’ the ‘legal ring,’ … the ‘cattle ring,’ the ‘horsethieves ring,’ the ‘land ring’ and half a dozen other rings.” In partnership with the cattle king John Chisum and others, Tunstall determined to form his own ring, wrest power from Dolan and his minions, and thus “get the half of every dollar that is made in the county by anyone .” To back his play, he hired his own gunmen, the Regulators, among them a beardless eighteen-year-old called the Kid by his mostly older companions.

His real name was Henry McCarty (William H. Bonney, the name under which he is still most often indexed, turns out to have been an alias), and he was a product of the New York slums, not the Old Frontier. His widowed mother, Catherine, an Irish laundress, took him west with her at the close of the Civil War, first to Indiana, then to Kansas, then to sunny New Mexico after she was diagnosed as tubercular. It was too late. She died in 1874 at Silver City. She had picked up a second husband, Bill Antrim, along the way, but once she was gone, he seems to have done little for her son other than to lend him the second of the three last names he used interchangeably.