To Hell on a Fast Horse

A retro review from January 25, 2010 …

Review: To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West, Mark Lee Gardner, 2010.To Hell on a Fast Horse

What do you know about Pat Garrett?

Probably not much more than that he killed Billy the Kid. (Some would even argue that, but Gardner is decidedly not in that camp.) Billy is one of the key foundations of New Mexico tourism. He’s the subject of novels, songs, movies, and a ballet. Every jail break of the Kid’s is commemorated with a plaque, his grave well maintained. Garrett’s grave isn’t. People do DNA tests more than 100 years after the event to prove the Kid didn’t die in 1881. No one much remembers Garrett’s murder, a far more mysterious and interesting death than the Kid’s. The Kid had imposters. Garrett never did.

Part of that may have been the name. If William Bonney aka William Antrim aka the Kid aka Henry McCarty hadn’t been rebranded as Billy the Kid seven months before his death, both men would have ended up as obscure historical figures. The Kid was already famous, but, when Garrett instinctively shot him in that dark room, he was dragged into history’s spotlight with Billy.

Frankly, I almost didn’t read this book. The Kid has never been that interesting to me. However, I thought there might be some coverage of the Lincoln County War. There is – but only in relation to Billy’s role. The subtitle, vaguely hinting at a detailed look of Garrett’s pursuits of Billy, isn’t all that tempting . And, fortunately, it isn’t all that appropriate either. This is, in fact, the first dual biography of both men.

Gardner concisely, clearly, with just a dash of folksy prose and wry humor, presents both lives. Both men killed at early ages – Garrett before he was ever a lawman. Both were attractive to women. And while Billy attended Garrett’s second wedding, the men were not friends – or enemies – before Garrett went after the Kid in an official capacity. And both were, of course, cool under fire.

With a lithe frame better suited to climbing up chimneys than the rigors of punching cows, the Kid comes across as neither a psychopathic killer nor an innocent driven to outlawry by the Lincoln County War. But, as Gardner argues, he developed an increasingly casual attitude toward dealing out violence as time went on. But he was generous – he stopped to pay for some rope after riding out of town in the wake of a double murder he committed breaking out of the Lincoln County jail.

But it was Garrett I found more fascinating, especially his life as a man on the make in the 26 years between shooting the Kid and his own violent death. Besides manhunting, he tried real estate, horse breeding, collecting custom dues, orchard development, and ranching. He was a gambler at heart whether with cards or business speculation. Nothing seemed to work very well though. The bills piled up. The debt collectors, oddly, didn’t – perhaps intimidated by his potential for violence and his law license. He loved his wife and eight children but spent a great deal of time away from them often with a woman only known as Mrs. Brown.

And just as fascinating as Garrett and the Kid are the other lives woven with theirs in a state where theft and killing were a path to high office. New Mexico at this time was a place where complex, shifting alliances waged literal and figurative war on each other with money, lawyers, and often bullets. Men went from assassin to lawmen and back, where the military was corrupted (the Posse Comitatus Act forbidding military enforcement of civilian law comes out of the Lincoln County War), where a governor turned bestselling author reneged on a promised pardon, where an attorney who may have hired out murders ends up as Secretary of Interior, and where a man who knew Billy as a boy ends up ghost writing Garrett’s autobiography.

In short, even if you don’t have any interest in the Kid, Gardner tells a good, fascinating story of a place and its people and the almost forgotten Garrett. If you are interested in the Kid, Gardner lays his life out fairly and with interest.


The Old West page.

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