April 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 3
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.
Seeking reasons for the orphaned boy’s precipitous slide into outlawry, his earliest biographers made much of his having been left too much alone at an impressionable age with the Police Gazette . More important, surely, was the fact that in a place where size and strength and bluster were highly prized, he was slender and soft-spoken and undersized—#8220;really girlish looking,” a boyhood friend recalled, with hands so small and supple they slipped easily through handcuffs. His seems to have been an especially deadly instance of overcompensation.
Whatever its causes, he began his life of crime at fifteen by stealing a tub of butter from a rancher. He got caught trying to sell it in town, then stole a bundle of clothes from a Chinese laundryman, got caught again, and managed to make his escape from jail by squirreling his way up the chimney and onto the roof. He graduated to stealing horses and rustling cattle, broke out of two more jails—part of his legend, like that of the bank robber Willie Sutton in this century, had its roots in the extraordinary difficulty the law had just holding on to him—and in 1877 at Camp Grant, Arizona, shot and killed his first man, a blacksmith and bully who, according to an eyewitness, had once too often chosen to “throw [him] to the floor, ruffle his hair, slap his face and humiliate him before the men in the saloon.”
Utley’s research shows that while the Kid did not kill twenty-one men (one for each year of his truncated life, as boys of my generation fervently believed), he did account for four, and he was present and firing enthusiastically when six others died. (That is not to say that he wasn’t good at killing when circumstances required it. “Grant squared off at Billy,” an admiring eyewitness to one of his authenticated killings recalled, “who when he heard the click whirled around and ‘bang, bang, bang.’ Right in the chin—could cover all of them with a half a dollar.”)
The Kid’s side would eventually lose the Lincoln County War. John Tunstall was murdered in the very first serious engagement, but his partners persevered, and the fighting stuttered on for more than two years. There were chases, shoot-outs, and standoffs before the climactic five-day pitched battle along Lincoln’s lone street in July 1878, which ended with the daring escape from a burning building Walter Noble Burns described so lovingly.
In the interest of returning to some semblance of law and order, Gov. Lew Wallace issued a “general pardon” but specifically exempted from it the young man who now called himself Bill Bonney, because he was already under indictment for murdering a sheriff. The peace that followed was only relative, in any case. After a drunken parley in Lincoln, members of both factions, glassy-eyed with whiskey and good fellowship, happened upon an unarmed attorney who unwisely refused to dance for their amusement. He was shot through the heart and left where he fell, his coat still burning from the powder flash, while all hands went off to an oyster supper. “There was really no malice in this shooting,” a bystander later explained. “Life was held lightly down there in those days.”
The Kid happened to have been a sober witness to the lawyer’s shooting (alcohol was not among his vices) and struck with the governor what he thought was an ironclad bargain: In exchange for going through the motions of being arrested, fingering the attorney’s killer, and providing information about other crimes and criminals, all charges against him were to be erased. He duly testified against others, then was told that all bets were off. He would have to stand trial for murder himself. Disgusted, the Kid simply rode away from prison (thanks to a sympathetic lawman) and returned to cattle rustling.
Local stockmen, weary of their losses and with old scores to settle, helped elect a sometime bartender named Pat Garrett sheriff and sent him pounding after the Kid. On the night of July 14, 1881, Garrett shot the Kid dead in the darkened bedroom of a ranch house in which he had taken refuge.
The first book about him was in the stores within a year. It is hard to see just what made his legend loom so large so fast. His youth had something to do with it. So did the eagerness of old allies to spin tales that reflected well on him and on their common cause. But beyond that he seems to have been genuinely amiable when he did not feel threatened. He was “happy go-lucky all the time,” a victim of his rustling admitted. “Nothing bothered him.”
“You appear to take it easy,” a reporter told him once as he smiled for the crowd that had turned out to see him momentarily locked up.
“Yes,” the Kid replied. “What’s the use of looking on the gloomy side of everything. The laugh’s on me this time.”
“He done some things I can’t endorse,” an old friend said. “But Kid certainly had good feelings.”