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No, you haven't heard this story before: Mark Lee Gardner on Billy the Kid

February 24, 2010, 12:00 am
By SFR Staff
Colorado-based author Mark Lee Gardner's latest book, To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West isn't your average Billy the Kid book. Gardner, who has made a career out of researching and writing about New Mexican territorial history, tells the story of the young outlaw and his killer in great detail, crafting a narrative that reads like a novel. With evocative character descriptions of many of the men, outlaw or lawman, involved in the rivalry between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Gardner renders a time, place and a people with sincerity and accuracy.

SFR spoke with Gardner about the book. On Thursday, Gardner will perform cowboy songs, some original and some classic, at the Santuario de Guadalupe. On Friday, he reads and speaks on the book at the Palace of the Governors (for full event info, check out the bottom of this post).

SFR: So, Billy the Kid. That story's been told before, huh?

MLG: Obviously there's a gazillion books on the Billy the Kid story, but I never really felt like the dramatic potential of that story—the action, the drama, the backstories—I felt like it hadn't been fully told before. The fear is that people will say, 'Oh, I've already read about Billy the Kid,' and that kind of stuff.



What makes your book different?

It's the first dual biography of Billy the Kid and his killer, Pat Garrett. The subtitle is The Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West, but to me, personally, that has two meanings. It's not just a legal justice. I feel like my book does justice to the legacy of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. Maybe moreso Pat Garrett, because his story's not as well-known. That was my goal, and that's what I hope makes my book a little bit different.

That it gives time to both of them?

Yeah, and I think it was written as a fast-paced narrative. I wanted people to really enjoy it as a good read, as well as learning something about those two important Southwestern characters. It gets you sucked into that time, that place.

Reading it, I totally sided with the Kid.

Oh, really?

Completely.

No matter what I write in that book, Billy the Kid always steals the show. There's just something about him. It happened historically, and it happens today. It's like—if you ever watch a movie about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday steals the show. Val Kilmer or Dennis Quaid, anyone who gets to play Doc Holliday, is going to upstage the guy that plays Wyatt Earp.

Do you side with one or the other?

Not really. I'm sympathetic to Billy the Kid, and as a historian, I wanted to be objective. But a lot of people have this misconception about Billy the Kid today—most people, when I would tell them I'm writing about Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, the first thing they'd say is, 'Wasn't Billy the Kid a psychopath?' or 'Wasn't he a serial killer?'

No, he wasn't. He lived in a violent time and place, and some of his killings were justified to survive. Sometimes, in the gang he was hanging out with, you had to kill to survive. It was a pretty bitter feud that was going on in Lincoln County—a lot of people were dying, and it wasn't just Billy doing the killing. And you can read in the book that he had great charisma, he was beloved by most of the native New Mexican population. So I don't know if I side with one over the other. I try to do both of them justice, and I am sympathetic toward Billy. I don't dislike him.

But I guess I feel a little more sympathy for Pat Garrett in that I feel he hasn't gotten his just due over time. I feel like he lived under the shadow of killing Billy the Kid for 27 years. The tragic thing was that initially, he was lauded in the press as a hero, but within his own lifetime he became transformed into the villain as Billy's legend as the romantic Robin Hood of the Southwest takes off. It's one thing for that to happen after somebody's dead, but for Pat Garrett to have to live with that in his own lifetime I thought was really tragic.

You've worked and written a great deal on 19th-century Southwestern history. What is it about territorial history that interests you?

I was born and raised in Missouri, and it was a complete revelation to me, as I was getting into the local history of Missouri when I was in college, and I discovered that so many Missourans had been involved in the famous Santa Fe trade. I felt a connection to that history in the Santa Fe Trail, so I really got into the history of New Mexico and how New Mexico changed with the opening of the Santa Fe trade. And then I learned how important Missouri troops were when they took new Mexico in 1846, and I thought—man, this is such great history, and it all involves my fellow Missourans. I was hooked on New Mexico history from that point on.

Do you think part of your interest in the West is augmented by the sense of romance out here?

When I start the book, I say New Mexico is full of stories. That's the romance, and that's what's so appealing about New Mexico. It has wonderful, wonderful stories. The thing is, they start from the very beginning—colonial times on up, and if you want to go before that you have American Indian stories and legends. New Mexico is just so rich with its history and the different cultures that were there. And I think New Mexico, unlike a lot of other states, because of the different cultures and because of the conflicts between those cultures, it created an even more dramatic and romantic aspects to its history, and tragedy as well.

I, personally, can't get some of the images of Billy's last night out of my mind. Lots of weird stuff happened that night. Is there one thing that really puzzles you?

Yeah, there's one thing. I thought that was such an unusual chain of events that led to Billy's death that night. And what I thought was very revealing was that John Poe couldn't even make sense of it, and he was there. John Poe—he thinks about this for his entire life. ‘Why didn't Billy shoot me? Why did all these things fall into place like this?'—and Poe just gives up in the end and says ‘Well, I just decided it was fore-ordained.'

I was really struck by the image of Billy in the peach orchard. Is there one moment that affects you?

John Poe said that when Paulita Maxwell came into the room, she showed no emotion and just stared at Billy. And she was supposedly the one that Billy came and stayed at Fort Sumner for. I mean, she was his sweetheart. And she did not show any emotion. And I wonder what was going through her mind when she saw her dead lover there on the floor. That puzzles me and I still wonder about that.

And I don't know, it's those things that make history so exciting. I tell people, history that's not controversial is kind of dead. If there weren't those unanswered questions, we wouldn't be so excited about history. Maybe it's better that some of those things we don't know and can't explain, because that makes it exciting and gets our imagination going. If we know everything, like Washington crossing the Delaware on a certain date, the drama is gone. But to have some of those mysteries out there, that makes the history very interesting and fascinating.

MARK LEE GARDNER PERFORMS COWBOY SONGS

7 pm
Thursday, Feb. 25


Free

Santuario de Guadalupe
100 N. Guadalupe St.
955-6200


MARK LEE GARDNER READS FROM AND SIGNS HIS BOOK

Noon
Friday, Feb. 26


Free

Palace of the Governors
113 Lincoln Ave.
476-5200

 

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