On this day in 1881 Billy the Kid was killed, receiving a fatal shot above the heart from his nemesis, the sheriff and bounty hunter Pat Garrett. This was also the starting shot for a fiction marathon that shows no signs of being over, and without which, says western scholar Jon Tuska, the Kid “would have remained an obscure New Mexican horse thief” and a small player in the Lincoln County cattle-baron war, guilty of perhaps four murders.
One sort of Billy the Kid tale turns him into a Pip or a Huck Finn, an innocent who took a few too many wrong turns on the mean streets of New Mexico; the opposite sort of tale tells of a bad seed destined to face “Judge Colt and the jury of six.” In the first sort of story, the Kid might nurse Mexican families through their diphtheria despite the risk of arrest, and then ride off into not only the sunset but marriage: “Come Nellie,” he says at the end of Walter Woods’s 1903 play Billy the Kid, “we’ll wander down life’s pathway together, where the sun shines always.” In a story from the mean-and-nasty school, the Kid might kill Mexicans “just to see them kick.”
Most often, the Kid’s gun-slinging is tied to his love-making, and sometimes to his regret. The love-making is usually in the frontier romance style, but it can get rough — in Paul Lehman’s Pistols on the Pecos (1953), the Kid is gunned down before he can carry out his plans for rape. The regret is typically tied to the reformation theme: in “Nobody’s All Bad” (1930), Billy longs to give up both the guns and the girls but sees no options: “Always the same old act, over and over! Was that all there was in the world?” In Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, the Kid is a gunman-lover and a poet-at-heart:
She is so brown and lovely, the sun rim blending into lighter colours at her neck and wrists. The edge of the pillow in her mouth, her hip a mountain further down the bed. Beautiful ladies in white rooms in the morning…. I look up. On the nail above the bed the black holster and gun is coiled like a snake, glinting also in the early morning white.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.