The Collected Works of Billy the Kidby Michael Ondaatje
From the Booker Prize-winning author of The English Patient comes a visionary novel, a virtuoso synthesis of storytelling, history, and myth, about William Bonney, a.k.a. "Billy the Kid, " a bloodthirsty ogre and outlaw saint. "Ondaatje's language is clean and energetic, with the pop of bullets."Annie Dillard.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
Read an Excerpt
These are the killed.(By me)—Morton, Baker, early friends of mine.Joe Bernstein. 3 Indians.A blacksmith when I was twelve, with a knife.5 Indians in self defence (behind a very safe rock).One man who bit me during a robbery.Brady, Hindman, Beckwith, Joe Clark,Deputy Jim Carlyle, Deputy Sheriff J. W. Bell.And Bob Ollinger. A rabid cat,birds during practice,These are the killed.(By them)—Charlie, Tom O'FolliardAngela D's split arm,and Pat Garrettsliced off my head.Blood a necklace on me all my life.Christmas at Fort Sumner, 1880. There were five of us together then. Wilson, Dave Rudabaugh, Charlie Bowdre, Tom O'Folliard, and me. In November we celebrated my 21st birthday, mixing red dirt and alcohol—a public breathing throughout the night. The next day we were told that Pat Garrett had been made sheriff and had accepted it. We were bad for progress in New Mexico and cattle politicians like Chisum wanted the bad name out. They made Garrett sheriff and he sent me a letter saying move out or I will get you Billy. The government sent a Mr. Azariah F. Wild to help him out. Between November and December I killed Jim Carlyle over some mixup, he being a friend.Tom O'Folliard decided to go east then, said he would meet up with us in Sumner for Christmas. Goodbye goodbye. A few days before Christmas we were told that Garrett was in Sumner waiting for us all. Christmas night. Garrett, Mason, Wild, with four or five others. Tom O'Folliard rides into town, leaning his rifle between the horse's ears. He would shoot from the waist now which, with a rifle, was pretty good, and he was always accurate.Garrett had been waiting for us, playing poker with the others, guns on the floor beside them. Told that Tom was riding in alone, he went straight to the window and shot O'Folliard's horse dead. Tom collapsed with the horse still holding the gun and blew out Garrett's window. Garrett already halfway downstairs. Mr. Wild shot at Tom from the other side of the street, rather unnecessarily shooting the horse again. If Tom had used stirrups and didnt swing his legs so much he would probably have been locked under the animal. O'Folliard moved soon. When Garrett had got to ground level, only the horse was there in the open street, good and dead. He couldnt shout to ask Wild where O'Folliard was or he would've got busted. Wild started to yell to tell Garrett though and Tom killed him at once. Garrett fired at O'Folliard's flash and took his shoulder off. Tom O'Folliard screaming out onto the quiet Fort Sumner street, Christmas night, walking over to Garrett, no shoulder left, his jaws tilting up and down like mad bladders going. Too mad to even aim at Garrett. Son of a bitch son of a bitch, as Garrett took clear aim and blew him out.Garrett picked him up, the head broken in two, took him back upstairs into the hotel room. Mason stretched out a blanket neat in the corner. Garrett placed Tom O'Folliard down, broke open Tom's rifle, took the remaining shells and placed them by him. They had to wait till morning now. They continued their poker game till six a.m. Then remembered they hadnt done anything about Wild. So the four of them went out, brought Wild into the room. At eight in the morning Garrett buried Tom O'Folliard. He had known him quite well. Then he went to the train station, put Azariah F. Wild on ice and sent him back to Washington.In Boot Hill there are over 400 graves. It takes the space of 7 acres. There is an elaborate gate but the path keeps to no main route for it tangles like branches of a tree among the gravestones.300 of the dead in Boot Hill died violently200 by guns, over 50 by knivessome were pushed under trains—a popularand overlooked form of murder in the west.Some from brain haemorrhages resulting from bar fightsat least 10 killed in barbed wire.In Boot Hill there are only 2 graves that belong to women and they are the only known suicides in that graveyardThe others, I know, did not see the wounds appearing in the sky, in the air. Sometimes a normal forehead in front of me leaked brain gases. Once a nose clogged right before me, a lock of skin formed over the nostrils, and the shocked face had to start breathing through mouth, but then the moustache bound itself in the lower teeth and he began to gasp loud the hah! hah! going strong—churned onto the floor, collapsed out, seeming in the end to be breathing out of his eye—tiny needle jets of air reaching into the throat. I told no one. If Angela D. had been with me then, not even her; not Sallie, John, Charlie, or Pat. In the end the only thing that never changed, never became deformed, were animals.Mmmmmmmm mm thinkingmoving across the world on horsesbody split at the edge of their necksneck sweat eating at my jeansmoving across the world on horsesso if I had a newsman's brain I'd saywell some morals are physicalmust be clear and openlike diagram of watch or starone must eliminate muchthat is one turns when the bullet leaves youwalk off see none of the thrashingthe very eyes welling up like bad drainsbelieving then the moral of newspapers or gunwhere bodies are mindless as paper flowers you dont feedor give to drinkthat is why I can watch the stomach of clocksshift their wheels and pins into each otherand emerge living, for hoursWhen I caught Charlie Bowdre dyingtossed 3 feet by bang bullets gigglingat me face tossed in a gagglehe pissing into his trouser legs in painface changing like fast sunshine o my godo my god billy I'm pissing watchyour handswhile the eyes grew all over his bodyJesus I never knew that did youthe nerves shot outthe liver running around therelike a headless hen jerkingbrown all over the yardseen that too at my aunt'snever eaten hen since thenBlurred a waist high riverfoam against the horseriding naked clothes and bootsand pistol in the airCrossed a crooked riverloving in my headambled dry on stubbleshot a crooked birdHeld it in my fingersthe eyes were small and farit yelled out like a trumpetdestroyed it of its fearAfter shooting Gregorythis is what happenedI'd shot him well and carefulmade it explode under his heartso it wouldnt last long andwas about to walk awaywhen this chicken paddles out to himand as he was falling hops on his neckdigs the beak into his throatstraightens legs and heavesa red and blue vein outMeanwhile he felland the chicken walked awaystill tugging at the veintill it was 12 yards longas if it held that body like a kiteGregory's last words beingget away from me yer stupid chickenTilts back to fallblack hair swivelling off hershattering the pillowBilly she saysthe tall gawky body spitting electricoff the sheets to my armleans her whole body outso breasts are thinnerstomach is a hollowwhere the bright bush jumpsthis is the first timebite into her side leavea string of teeth marksshe hooks in two and covers memy hand lockedher body nearly breaking off my fingerspivoting like machines in final speedlater my hands cracked in love juicefingers paralysed by it arthriticthese beautiful fingers I couldnt movefaster than a crippled witch nowThe barn I stayed in for a week then was at the edge of a farm and had been deserted it seemed for several years, though built of stone and good wood. The cold dark grey of the place made my eyes become used to soft light and I burned out my fever there. It was twenty yards long, about ten yards wide. Above me was another similar sized room but the floors were unsafe for me to walk on. However I heard birds and the odd animal scrape their feet, the rotten wood magnifying the sound so they entered my dreams and nightmares.But it was the colour and light of the place that made me stay there, not my fever. It became a calm week. It was the colour and the light. The colour a grey with remnants of brown—for instance those rust brown pipes and metal objects that before had held bridles or pails, that slid to machine uses; the thirty or so grey cans in one corner of the room, their ellipses, from where I sat, setting up patterns in the dark.When I had arrived I opened two windows and a door and the sun poured blocks and angles in, lighting up the floor's skin of feathers and dust and old grain. The windows looked out onto fields and plants grew at the door, me killing them gradually with my urine. Wind came in wet and brought in birds who flew to the other end of the room to get their aim to fly out again. An old tap hung from the roof, the same colour as the walls, so once I knocked myself out on it.For that week then I made a bed of the table there and lay out my fever, whatever it was. I began to block my mind of all thought. Just sensed the room and learnt what my body could do, what it could survive, what colours it liked best, what songs I sang best. There were animals who did not move out and accepted me as a larger breed. I ate the old grain with them, drank from a constant puddle about twenty yards away from the barn. I saw no human and heard no human voice, learned to squat the best way when shitting, used leaves for wiping, never ate flesh or touched another animal's flesh, never entered his boundary. We were all aware and allowed each other. The fly who sat on my arm, after his inquiry, just went away, ate his disease and kept it in him. When I walked I avoided the cobwebs who had places to grow to, who had stories to finish. The flies caught in those acrobat nets were the only murder I saw.And in the barn next to us there was another granary, separated by just a thick wood door. In it a hundred or so rats, thick rats, eating and eating the foot deep pile of grain abandoned now and fermenting so that at the end of my week, after a heavy rain storm burst the power in those seeds and brought drunkenness into the minds of those rats, they abandoned the sanity of eating the food before them and turned on each other and grotesque and awkwardly because of their size they went for each other's eyes and ribs so the yellow stomachs slid out and they came through that door and killed a chipmunk—about ten of them onto that one striped thing and the ten eating each other before they realised the chipmunk was long gone so that I, sitting on the open window with its thick sill where they couldnt reach me, filled my gun and fired again and again into their slow wheel across the room at each boommm, and reloaded and fired again and again till I went through the whole bag of bullet suppliesthe noise breaking out the seal of silence in my ears, the smoke sucked out of the window as it emerged from my fist and the long twenty yard space between me and them empty but for the floating bullet lonely as an emissary across and between the wooden posts that never returned, so the rats continued to wheel and stop in the silences and eat each other, some even the bullet. Till my hand was black and the gun was hot and no other animal of any kind remained in that room but for the boy in the blue shirt sitting there coughing at the dust, rubbing the sweat of his upper lip with his left forearm.PAULITA MAXWELL: THE PHOTOGRAPHIn 1880 a travelling photographer came through Fort Sumner. Billy posed standing in the street near old Beaver Smith's saloon. The picture makes him rough and uncouth.The expression of his face was really boyish and pleasant. He may have worn such clothes as appear in the picture out on the range, but in Sumner he was careful of his personal appearance and dressed neatly and in good taste. I never liked the picture. I don't think it does Billy justice.Not a story about me through their eyes then. Find the beginning, the slight silver key to unlock it, to dig it out. Here then is a maze to begin, be in.Two years ago Charlie Bowdre and I criss-crossed the Canadian border. Ten miles north of it ten miles south. Our horses stepped from country to country, across low rivers, through different colours of tree green. The two of us, our criss-cross like a whip in slow motion, the ridge of action rising and falling, getting narrower in radius till it ended and we drifted down to Mexico and old heat. That there is nothing of depth, of significant accuracy, of wealth in the image, I know. It is there for a beginning.She leans against the door, holdsher left hand at the elbowwith her right, looks at the bedon my sheets—orangespeeled half peeledbright as hidden coins against the pillow.she walks slow to the windowlifts the sackclothand jams it horizontal on a nailso the bent oblong of sunhoists itself across the roomframing the bed the white fleshof my armshe is crossing the sunsits on her leg heresweeping off the peelstraces the thin bones on meturns toppling slow back to the pillowBonney BonneyI am very stillI take in all the angles of the roomJanuary at Tivan Arroyo, called Stinking Springs more often. With me, Charlie, Wilson, Dave Rudabaugh. Snow. Charlie took my hat and went out to get wood and feed the horses. The shot burnt the clothes on his stomach off and lifted him right back into the room. Snow on Charlie's left boot. He had taken one step out. In one hand had been an axe, in the other a pail. No guns.Get up Charlie, get up, go and get one. No Billy. I'm tired, please. Jesus watch your hands Billy. Get up Charlie. I prop him to the door, put his gun in his hand. Take off, good luck Charlie.
Meet the Author
Michael Ondaatje is a novelist and poet who lives in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of The English Patient, Divisadero, In the Skin of a Lion, Coming Through Slaughter, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Anil's Ghost; three collections of poems, The Cinnamon Peeler, Secular Love, and There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do; and a memoir, Running in the Family. He received the Booker Prize for The English Patient.
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