Tuesday 25 September 2018

The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid

I was a big Young Guns fan when I was growing up. I think you kind of have to be born in the 80s to understand, what with American Adventure theme park and stuff. I had a collection of model cowboys and Indians, and stole a few more mounts from our edition of The Really Nasty Horse Racing Game. I think that was always the fascination for me - horses. The thought of riding across the open prairie on the fastest horse, pursued by the law, guns blazing - to the the sound of Bon Jovi - it was appealing.

One of my greatest pleasures nowadays is watching a movie, then reading the book to find out what really happened. Most people prefer the book first, but then you can be disappointed by the movie, whereas if you like a movie, the book tends to add to the pleasure afterwards. When I saw this on Kindle, I couldn't resist.

The Noted Desperado of the Southwest, Whose Deeds of Daring and Blood made His Name A Terror in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico - By Pat Garrett - Sheriff of Lincoln Co., N.M., By Whom He Was Finally Hunted Down and Captured By Killing Him.

Pat Garrett, played by William Petersen, is a major character in Young Guns II, but really doesn't go into his association with Billy prior to tracking him down. A little disappointing, but he did publish it the year after he killed the Kid, and, given his position as Sheriff of Lincoln County, that wouldn't have gone down well. Not being a historian, I'm not entirely sure exactly what their relationship was prior to his deputisation, but he does say he knew Billy well and spent time with him.

The book itself is very short, but then so were their lives. Billy was 21 when Garrett shot him, and Garrett was only ten years older. The end of the film says Garrett himself was shot and killed by a 21-year-old, but that still seems to be a point of contention.

The films took material from the book and gave it a bit of gloss, but still, I was surprised how much of it had one foot in reality.

One thing that slightly irritated me was that Garrett kept spouting verse throughout the book, but didn't credit the poet. I spent a bit of time trying to work out whether Garrett actually wrote the verse himself  - turns out it was mostly Sir Walter Scott. This led me to wonder if that's where the quirk in Keifer Southerland's character came from, as Doc keeps reciting other people's poetry and passing it off as his own.

The two films made a sort of mash-up of Doc Scurlock and Charlie Bowdre. Josiah Scurlock only appears to have been referred to as 'Doc' once by Garrett, but was in there. He eventually split from the gang and, unlike Young Guns II, wasn't dragged back from a teaching position to face down mob justice. He appears to have skipped town with a huge amount of flour, later owned a mail station, became a respectable citizen and died aged 80.

Bowdre on the other hand, well, he didn't quite go out in a blaze of glory. The scene in YG2 where Doc is fatally wounded and comes out of the house shooting at the law in one last stand, so that his friends could escape - that was really Charlie's scene. As Garrett explains:
[Wilson] called to me and said that Bowdre was killed and wanted to come out. I told him to come out with his hands up. As he started, the Kid caught hold of [Charlie's] belt, drew his revolver around in front of him and said: "They have murdered you, Charley, but you can get revenge. Kill some of the sonfs-of- before you die."
Unlike fake blood, the real stuff took all the fight out of Charlie and he teetered towards Pat Garrett with his hands up and his pistol hanging in front of him, dying soon after.

So, the real Charlie Bowdre didn't die after being thrown out of a burning house in a clothes chest. However, about that burning house...

It happened. 

They were cornered at McSween's place:
A magnificent piano in one of the front rooms was hit several times by these marksmen in the hill-tops, and at each stroke sent forth discordant sounds. This circumstance elicited from a Lamy, N.M., correspondent of the N. Y. Sun, the following: "During the fight Mrs. McSween encouraged her wild garrison by playing inspiring airs on her piano, and singing rousing battle songs, until the besieged party, getting the range of the piano from the sound, shot it to pieces with their heavy rifles."

The truth is Mrs. McSween and three lady friends, left the house before the fight commenced. It was also true that she requested permission to return for some purpose, the firing ceased - she went bravely in - returned almost immediately, and the firing was resumed.
They then burnt the house to the ground.

A moment's silence for the piano, please.

The outlaws escaped through the back, even Bowdre, but McSween was shot and killed.

The other part that was true was him shooting his guard whilst under arrest. Although no one gave him the gun, he stole it from the munitions cupboard in the jailhouse, which some genius had put next to his cell. He ran up the stairs, took a gun, turned around and shot the guard who was coming up the steps behind him.

I'd always wondered whether that part about him being able to slip handcuffs was true. In the film he says:

Another historical and biological fact is that I had small hands and big wrists and that has saved my life more times than Colonel Colt's Equalizer. 

Garrett confirmed it:

His hand was small and his wrist large.

Apparently, he really could slip off the cuffs pretty easily, and did so on many occasions.

One of my favourite scenes also turned out to be a mash-up of two incidents.  Seems the guy he shot was based on a man called John Longmont, who was a brash bigmouth and insulted Billy and his friend in a bar without realising who he was talking to. But taking the bullets out of the gun was another incident, when he killed a guy called Joe Grant who also insulted him in a bar:

The Kid had his eye on him, and remarking "That's a beauty, Joe," took the pistol from his hand and revolved the chambers. It was his design to extract some of the cartridges, but he found only three in it, and deftly whirling the chambers until the next action would be a failure, he returned it to Grant... turning his pistol full on the Kid, who was smiling sarcastically, he pulled the trigger, but the empty chamber refused to respond; with an oath he again raised the hammer, when a ball from the Kid's revolver crashed through his brains, and he fell behind the counter.

Tom O'Folliard was an interesting portrayal in YG2, as he's made out to be a young, butter-fingered boy whereas in reality he was Billy's best friend and a hard-core outlaw. This picture is widely believed to be Billy, on the left, and Tom, on the right, playing croquet.

Both shot by Pat Garrett
More Here
Although Garrett didn't talk about what became of Dave Rudabaugh, Christian Slater's character, his ending in the film seems to have been drawn from other events in the book. In real life, he was shot and decapitated after a card game five years after Billy was killed, but during Billy's lifetime they were both being escorted to jail by Pat Garrett when a Mexican mob attempted to board the train and take revenge on Rudabaugh, apparently for the killing of Mexicans in the past. They were easily dissuaded and nothing more is really said of him after that.

It was all really interesting stuff. One of the things I love most about reading old literature is the quirks in language. I was surprised to see Garrett use 'programme' in the English spelling, and assume it's the same in the original text? Perhaps it hadn't mutated to 'program' by 1882. 

Some other words I picked up included monomaniac (having a one-track mind for something, in Billy's case killing all those responsible for John Tunstall's murder), Indian Root Pill, mouth-fighters (those 'brave mouth-fighters', derogatory term for people who fight with words instead of fists), buckboard (type of open cart for moving goods, buckboard driver) and moonling (imbecile).

Some things really don't translate through the ages, and gave a good laugh. They refer to bullets and buckshot as 'balls', people are constantly riddled with balls or have balls in them. When they shackle an inmate, they iron them: we ironed the prisoners. Which just brings to mind a whole load of neatly-pressed outlaws. At one point they talk about taking charge of the prisoners, but it's written: with the prisoners in charge. So, now we have a whole load of neatly-pressed prisoners packing balls, in charge of the sheriff's office. Ah, language.

At one point, I was happy to see mention of a Marion. Both a girl's name and a boy's name, this was Marion Turner from Roswell, New Mexico (yay, aliens and cowboys!), deputy to Sheriff Peppin, who later testified against the Kid.

So, I guess one of the main reasons I, and probably many others, read this account is to figure out whether we believe the version of events - did he kill the Kid?

Yeah, I reckon. I find it weird that Garrett and Maxwell were having a conversation in Maxwell's room and there was no light. Strange Maxwell didn't strike a lamp or anything, but the account leaves little room for doubt with Maxwell there and two of Garrett's men who saw the body. Like he says in the movie, even if he wanted to, he couldn't exactly let him go. Someone like Billy the Kid wouldn't stay out of sight for the rest of his life.

It's sad it all ended so suddenly, no great showdown - and all for a cup of coffee and a piece of beef.

It's also a shame it's written so matter-of-fact, and why we need a bit of fiction to bring characters to life. But it's clear Garrett had a lot of respect for the Kid. It seemed it wasn't easy on him to kill him. I think he probably could have said a lot more that he didn't put in the book, again because it was so soon after the event and the people he wrote about were mostly still alive. 

An interesting read, though.

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