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to hell on a fast horse

21 july 2010

As homicidal maniacs go, Billy the Kid was apparently a likeable guy. He was not a bully or a sadist. (In fact, he specialized in murdering bullies and sadists.) He was cheerful and fun to be with. Once, when escaping from prison on a stolen horse after a shootout, Billy stopped to get a rope – and paid for the rope. No wonder he had allies and protectors. On the other hand, he had a tripwire temper, held intense grudges, was obsessed with firearms, and made his living stealing livestock. All in all, not a recipe for longevity, either the Kid's or his neighbors'.

Mark Lee Gardner's excellent book To Hell on a Fast Horse has few weaknesses aside from a total lack of maps and a peculiar subtitle to go with its great title. What does it mean: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West? How do you "chase to justice?" And Garrett was famous for not chasing the Kid, preferring to gather intelligence on Billy's whereabouts and then silently besiege him or simply lie in wait. Finally, there was not much "justice" involved in the Kid's fate. Garrett shot him in cold blood from an ambush. The act was both expedient and forgivable: Billy needed killing pretty bad, and you didn't want to try it and miss. But Garrett's actions became archetypal for the frontier's lack of justice: wanted, dead or alive.

Though at that, the death of Billy the Kid merely points to one of the curious formalities of societies that employ the death penalty. Billy was an escaped convict, under sentence of death for murder anyway. He'd escaped from Garrett's rudimentary death row by killing two of Garrett's deputies. "Justice" would have entailed Garrett carefully leading an unharmed Billy back to the gallows in order to hang him. This makes only technical sense, like putting condemned prisoners on suicide watch, or giving someone medical treatment to keep him alive long enough to lethally inject him.

No matter. Those who live by the gun, as we know, die by the gun. Pat Garrett himself, though he enjoyed nearly another thirty years of life as one of the most celebrated lawmen of the Wild West, was eventually shot down – by killers who were never convicted.

Gratuitous bloodshed was not as large a part of life in the Southwest, 130 years ago, as movies and supermarket Westerns would indicate. But when the characters in a pulp novel suddenly go on indiscriminate killing jags, we can thank Billy the Kid. His exploits read like the gorier reaches of genre fiction.

Gardner's book is in a class with Jeff Guinn's impressive Go Down Together, on Bonnie and Clyde. The parallels, in fact, are many: murky, conflicting memoirs, desperate violence, and peculiar populist admiration. (Clyde Barrow returning stolen money to a poor victim, Billy the Kid buying his getaway rope: these are the icons of the champion of the destitute.) And also, in Billy the Kid's life (and Pat Garrett's, for that matter) as in Bonnie and Clyde's, extreme mobility.

We sometimes hear that a century and more ago, before automobiles and airplanes, folks might never wander more than a few miles from family farms in their whole lives. That might have been true in some regions of the world, but not in the United States. We are distinctly a people that will not stay put. To read the lives of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett is to wonder if their peripatetic nature correlated with their irritable violence. These were men whose feet were as itchy as their trigger fingers. And in their ultimate showdown, it was the one who could sit still longer who survived.

Mark Lee Gardner. To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the epic chase to justice in the old West. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.