THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

Total Pageviews

Saturday, April 7, 2018


Image result for to hell on a fast horse

Let’s begin with a movie question. What historical individual has been the subject of more films than any other individual?

Yep, that would be Henry McCarty aka Henry Antrim aka “Kid” Antrim aka Billy Bonney aka “The Kid” aka “Billy the Kid.” Beginning in 1911, more than fifty films have been produced with him as a character – and nearly always as the principal character. It is difficult to pinpoint the best of the lot, but the bottom of the barrel is Billy the Kid vs. Dracula(1966), brought to you that same year by the same folks who made Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Do I need to say that that they were both fictional? But all the movies dealing with these two most famous of all Western outlaws were fictional to some degree or the other.

There was even a B-Western series in the ‘40s, first starring Bob Steele and later Buster Crabbe, in which Billy was the hero. In these films he was a wanted outlaw, but he had been falsely accused, you see, and roamed the frontier doing good deeds, winning over people, and attempting to clear his name. Since he had no visible means of support, I’m not sure how he and his sidekick (they were required in B-Westerns, you know) survived financially, but they did.

There were four stage productions, one written by Gore Vidal, featuring the Kid and one TV series, The Tall Man, starring Barry Sullivan as Pat Garrett and Clu Gulagher as Billy. The series further advanced the myth that the two were best pals. They weren’t.

People as diverse as Woody Guthrie and Billy Joel have written and sung songs about the young outlaw, who died at age twenty-one. Unlike most outlaws, however, he did not die with his boots on; he had removed them shortly before being shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett.

And books? There have been as many books – maybe more – about Billy than there have been movies. Some are no more than purveyors of the myth without regard for the truth; some are works of historical fiction; and a few have been serious works of history and biography.

Mark Lee Gardner’s To Hell on a Fast Horse falls into the last category. The subtitle, The Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West, informs us that it is a dual biography, which to my knowledge no writer has heretofore attempted.

However, I do take issue with the subtitle, at least the “Untold Story” part of it. Personally, I don’t think that I learned anything about Billy from reading the book, if so it would have to be a minor detail or two. What I did learn, however, and it was certainly “Untold” as far as I was concerned, is what Pat Garrett’s life was like after he shot and killed Billy at Fort Sumner, New Mexico in 1881. 

I knew that he continued his career as a respected lawman for a number of years and that he died ignominiously on a lonely road near Las Cruces, New Mexico. 
He was shot from behind while urinating on the side of the road. There has been much speculation about what happened, but the mystery of his murder has never been officially solved.

What I didn’t know is that he was a rotten businessman, who made many poor decisions. Although he was a successful lawman, the job didn’t pay much – and he had a wife and eight children to support. So he dabbled in ranching and other business sidelines without much, if any, success. His efforts were hampered by his penchant for breeding race horses – slow ones, apparently – and placing bets on horses at race tracks – slow ones, apparently.

Gardner’s book is a thorough look at both men’s lives. If you don’t know the details about Billy’s life – and would like to – or if you aren’t familiar with Garrett’s post-Billy years – and would like to be – this is the book for you. Unlike many who write about Western lawmen and outlaws, Gardner has no ax to grind. He doesn’t take sides. His book is a quest for the truth and is probably as close to it as we will ever come. 


“The double-helix relationship between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett is one of the abiding fascinations of the West. No one has come closer than Mark Lee Gardner to capturing their twin destinies, and their inevitable final collision. Gardner’s research is so richly detailed, you can almost smell the gun smoke and the sweat of the saddles.” – Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder


No comments:

Post a Comment