The saga of Billy the Kid

He was mean as hell, and killed 21 men before he was 21--not. counting Indians and Mexicans. A living legend in his teens, Billy was seldom seen by his pursuers. Those who did catch sight of him told of a gray horse, saddled and bridled, galloping along seemingly riderless except for a leg thrown across the saddle and an a sticking out from beneath the horse's neck. At the end of the arm a gun barrel glinted in the sunlight. And few who saw this ever came to tell of it.

This elusive phantom rider lived a full life before he was old enough to vote, and died just as he should have: with his boots on and his gun roaring.

The saga of Billy the Kid--his real name was William H. Bonney--is the most important desperado tale in our culture. The people of the Southwest sensed its importance even before Billy was caught up by immanent justice. When be took careful aim and shot Billy on July 14, 1881, Sheriff Pat Garrett knew he was performing the most important act of his life. His later descriptions showed awareness that he was serving posterity. The editor of the Santa Fe Weekly Democrat was equally enlightened, closing his account of Billy's death with these words:

"No sooner had the floor caught his descending form which had a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other, than there was a strong odor of brimstone in the air, and a dark figure with wings of a dragon, claws of a tiger, eyes like balls of fire, and horns like a bison, hovered over the corpse for a moment, and with a fiendish laugh said, 'Ha, ha! This is my meat!' and then sailed off through the window. He did not leave his card, but he is a gentleman well known to us by reputation, and thereby hangs a 'tail'."

Yet Billy was not the type of person you'd look at twice on the street. He was slight, tipping the scales at 140 pounds and standing five feet eight. Like Joseph, Dhruva Karna, and Abe Lincoln, he was an "Unpromising Hero." Unassuming and quiet, he moved like a panther, peering out of gray eyes. His face was long, his hair light brown, his skin colorless, his hands and feet tiny. A good dancer and companion, he got along famously with the women, and assumed the airs of a dandy in town. The most conspicuous thing about him were his protruding front teeth, which led historian Dixon Wecter to classify him as an "adenoidal farm boy with a rifle," the type described by the cliché "dirty little killer." Frank Hall called him "the most desperate and bloody-minded civilized white man that ever cursed the border." Dr. Chesmore Eastlake, upon studying the one bona fide Bonney photograph, went to the length of diagnosing him as an "adenoidal moron and a coward." Nevertheless, he is the most admired bad man in our history.
It is impossible to say just what Billy was or did, because the legendary veneer has hidden the historical truth underneath. Even tabulating all the imposters who claimed to be Billy the Kid is difficult. A story that appeared in the National Police Gazette a month before Bonney's death, claimed the real Kid was actually a Colorado bandit named Billy LeRoy. ( Burton Rascoe later proved a Gazette staff member named Richard K. Fox had dreamed up LeRoy.) In 1881 Thomas F. Daggett issued The Life and Deeds of Billy LeRoy, Alias The Kid, King of American Highwaymen, which was reprinted in 1883. The National Police Gazette for August 13, 1881 claimed the real Billy was a New York City fourth ward rough named Michael McCarthy, who specialized in butcher knife killings. This fostered a thriller called The Lifeof Billy the Kid; A Juvenile Outlaw of Billy the Kid; A Juvenile Outlaw, which reached the 100,000 circulation figure. Francis W. Doughty Old King Brady and Billy the Kid; Or The Great Detective's Chase ( 1890) still had McCarthy as Billy.

Meanwhile, Billy had become enough of a figure to appear on the famous Beadle and Adams dime novel list. Europe discovered him too, via Baron Le de Mandat-Grancey La Breche aux Buffles ( Paris, 1889). In "The Cowboy's Christmas Ball," which appeared in Lawrence Chittenden Ranch Verses, Billy became "Windy Billy;" so he remained in an anthology called Cowboy Life. In 1949 an oldtimer named Joe Chisholm said the real "Billy" was a Texas cowboy named Billy Claiborne, who was killed at Tombstone. These and many others have turned up with a "true" Billy the Kid; in 1950 an old man got in the news by re-stating the claim for himself and asking for a pardon from the Governor of New Mexico. "The Son of Billy the Kid" even showed Billy on the screen as a plump, balding banker; but in most celluloid appearences he is an Adonis dressed for the range.

Despite all these claimants and variations, there is no doubt of Bonney's authenticity and cussedness. The blood he spilled liberally in the Southwest was real blood. Underneath all the legend there was some reality.

William H. Bonney was born in New York City (of all places) on November 23, 1859, the son of William H. and Kathleen Bonney. During the Civil War the family moved to Coffeyville, Kansas, where the father died. The mother went to Colorado, and married a man named Antrim. By 1868 they turned up in Silver City, New Mexico. Here Billy reputedly killed his first man, a blacksmith who insulted his mother. Next Bonney and a partner supposedly killed three Indians for the furs they were carrying. Fleeing to the Pecos Valley, Billy was employed there by an early cattle baron, J. H. Tunstall.

Quickly sucked into the Lincoln County cattle war, he saw Tunstall killed by a posse of the Murphy faction, and Tunstall's partner shot, Bible in hand, before his burning house. Such sights were not designed to tame a man of Bonney's naturally sanguine temperament. He became a savage killer, putting his rare nimbleness to effective use. Tales spread of his incredible speed and accuracy with a gun. It was said that he practiced shooting by picking snowbirds off fenceposts at a gallop. Anyway, he definitely picked off Sheriff James A. Brady and a deputy, and refused to surrender when urged to do so by Governor Lew Wallace, who tried to bring peace to the territory.

When the shooting stopped, Billy concentrated on cattle stealing with such success that leading ranchers persuaded an Irishman named Pat Garrett to become sheriff and track down his gang. Garrett captured Billy and the desperado was condemned to death in 1881. But the Lincoln jail could not hold him; despite handcuffs and leg irons, he killed his guards and escaped. Two and a half months later he was trapped at Pete Maxwell's house in Fort Sumner, ambushed in a pitch black room by Garrett, and killed. Such is the outline of his career as it was written in ink, lead, and blood. Yet the story does not stop there. It goes on endlessly--in books, ballets, and movies, finding in the American imagination a fertile seed bed for enhancement.

Take, for example, his way with women. After his capture Billy was handcuffed and placed on the bare floor of an unheated adobe but. Soon he was shaking from cold and exposure. An Indian girl named Deluvina pulled off her shawl and wrapped it around his shoulders. To her he gave the tintype that is perhaps his only authentic likeness in existence.

Not that Billy confined his activities to the lower end of the social scale. Miss Sally Chisum, chatelaine of her uncle's great mansion on the Pecos, and social arbiter of the county, found Billy as attractive as had the outcast Indian, Deluvina. Eugene Young reports euphemistically that "for many months she enjoyed the companionship of the killer." Sally herself has gone on record thus: "Billy had many admirable qualities. In all his personal relations with me he was the pink of politeness and as courteous a little gentleman as I ever met."

Another time Bonney (at least so the writer of a 1942 movie called Law and Order insisted) learned of an injustice done to a lady whose protector, an army lieutenant, had been shot. He took the place of the murdered man to save the fortune of blind Aunt Mary. After rounding up the lieutenant's slayers, he slipped away to become the hunted once more, his chivalric deed done. Females for miles around swooned with delight.

There are many stories about the lady Billy was visiting when Pat Garrett trapped and killed him. The kindest thing Billy's girl friend said to the sheriff was that he was too cowardly to meet Billy face to face; most of the other things are unprintable. Apparently pumping lead into his enemies was not Billy's only accomplishment. "In every placeta in New Mexico," attests Walter Noble Burns, "girls sing to their guitars songs of Billy the Kid. A halo has been clasped upon his scapegrace brow. The boy who never grew old has become a symbol of frontier knightgallantry, a figure of eternal youth riding forever through a purple glamour of romance."

Popular Culture in the 20th Century

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