Billy The Kid: The Endless Ride
The truth is, I learned more from this book, Billy The Kid: The Endless Ride, than I can ever delve into in one blog post. This was a fascinating read and I will say from the start, if you are interested in the Old West, then put this on your reading list.
The noted historian Michael Wallis is upfront at the beginning about how little of Billy The Kid's life is documented. Most of what you think you know about him is rooted in folklore, bad movies, and dime novels, starting with his birth name and heritage. Even his monikor 'Billy The Kid' wasn't assigned to him until just a few months before his death. Wallis does a great job of explaining that name and other aspects of one of America's most famous outlaws.
What you come away with from this book is the sense of complexity that surrounded society in The Kid's time. The Lincoln County War, the lawlessness of New Mexico - which would rival a Chicago in its heyday - centered on issues we are grappling with right now: Economic disparity; racial tensions, oligarchs, Republican vs. Democrat, South vs North, gun control, and education. Sound familiar? Forget what you think you know about the role that these issues played in the Old West because Wallis will shatter those perceptions.
In doing so, Wallis brings to life a world in which people literally survived by their own wits. In this context, a persona like The Kid's makes much more sense. He was by no means the worse outlaw in his day, or even in his own saga, but he became the symbol of those societal conflicts and paid the price for it.
Things I learned about The Kid - leaving the details to the book - was he abstained from liquor, was educated, a ladies man, well-liked by people, and apparently was a good gambler. Then of course, he was also a great shot and horse thief. There was that.
I picked up this book for research purposes so I was most grateful that Wallis takes the time and effort to give us a language lesson. People don't realize that the meaning of words change over time. My favorite example is the word 'tight'. We use it imply that two people are close. Initially, it was meant to say a person was drunk as in 'I was tight last night'. Then it evolved to mean angry or mad in an out of control way before it has today's definition.
Well, Wallis gives us at least three dozen terms that would have been in common use in The Kid's day. I know, because I wrote them down as I went along. There are phrases like Brush Popper = Cowboy; Hogfarm= red light district; and Pulling Hemp= Hanging. By doing this, Wallis not only gives us the history of language but brings an authenticity to the story that most histories lack.
It should be noted that this book is meticulously researched. About twenty per cent of the book is actually notes. Interviews of people who knew The Kid are cited. Eyewitnesses are quoted. Newspaper articles of the time are referenced and long lost biographies are brought into play to tell this story. And yet, this book turned out to be a very easy read. The writing style was great. I even learned that tumbleweeds aren't a product of the American terrain. They were brought over from Russia. Like I indicated, this is a timely story.
I didn't come away from this book feeling The Kid was any sort of hero. Didn't really come across as the villain of all villains either. More like the Shaw quote, "There but for the grace of God go I." The Kid had plenty of opportunities to flee New Mexico. Most of those riding with him did just that and ended up living long, productive lives for the most part. But I keep thinking of the fact that he may have stayed because one of the women he loved, one he probably really loved, may have been pregnant. That may in part may have played a role in getting him killed. I keep thinking about that. There is something to be said for a guy who took that risk, for that reason.
I've been to New Mexico, to Fort Sumner where he died and is buried. I've been to what was Lincoln County and places like Roswell (yes, that Roswell). Its beautiful country. I can see where a man's greed and sense for adventure might get the best of him in that environment. Sumner is off the beaten track these days but if you get a chance, you might take a ride there and pay your respects. I'm sure his spirit still roams those hills for as the title suggest, its an endless ride. This book warrants a strong 5 out of 5 on the rating scale.