Billy the Kid is one of America's most famous killers, but the only killing he is really known for is his own. Mark Lee Gardner presents a sober-sided retelling of the life and death of the Kid and of the man who brought him down, Pat Garrett.
"To Hell On A Fast Horse" scores points for sticking to the facts, but loses them for...sticking to the facts. I come away from reading this 2010 history satisfied I know a lot more about Billy and Pat, but as to what made them so important to be worth reading about 130 years later, I can't honestly say. What was it about them that resonates so, now, then, and in all the decades between?
It sure wasn't the vast trove of reliable historical testimony they left behind. Gardner makes clear that available records are scant at best, and often unreliable. Instead of compensating by printing the legend, a la John Ford, he goes to census records and newspaper accounts, synthesizing what is out there with a gimlet eye but not much in the way of a discernable point of view.
Gardner does favor Garrett to Billy, perhaps because there's more data on the lawman, but mostly because he views Billy as a charming thug. "Billy's real and deadly talent was fooling people," he writes. "Billy joked and smiled, but his quick mind was always sizing up the situation, looking for a sign of weakness, a slight mental error, something that would give him an edge."
Garrett stood for something more than using people. Gardner portrays him in the opening chapter, which flash-forwards to Billy in Pat's custody, as a stolid character standing up to a mob to see to it Billy and his other prisoners receive honest justice, not the frontier variety. Later on, after Billy's death, he pursues an investigation with possibly dangerous political repercussions. Even when documenting Garrett's foibles, you get a feeling Gardner is on his side, trying in a non-partisan way to adjust the scales of remembrance which have tipped Billy's way too long.
The legend doesn't get aired out much, except a little in the footnotes. There, Gardner refutes popular misconceptions that Pat and Billy were friends (they knew each other, had mutual pals, but were never buddies) and that Billy was left-handed (the one picture we have of Billy was, like all ferrotypes, a reverse image). Frankly, I wish he had carried over some of this voice to the main text, which is dry as an arroyo at high noon. With such a great title, you expect more.
How many men did Billy really kill? Gardner doesn't really say. He does offer first-hand accounts of a few killings, as well as a shoplifting and a horse theft. Gardner also introduces a lot of characters, even when they don't serve much point in the ultimate scheme of things. He spends a few sentences introducing a co-leader of one of Garrett's posses, then a few pages later, in an aside, notes the guy skipped the country with stolen money, not to be mentioned again.
It's not exciting reading but gives you a sense of what the Wild West was really about, for good or ill. Gardner wants to tell it like it was. In this case, maybe the legend is better.