Billy the Kid was, in the eyes of many, a no good desperado. To native New Mexicans he was a local hero and friend, often being referred to affectionately as Billito or Chivato (meaning Kid in Spanish). Pat Garrett moved from being a drifting cowpuncher to Lincoln County sheriff after the infamous Lincoln County War. In just a few short years, he would go from unknown sheriff to the man who killed Billy the Kid. In his book, To Hell on a Fast Horse: the Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, author Mark Lee Gardner paints the picture of the lives of these two men, how they dealt with their struggles, how they lived life till the end, and how each left their own unique mark on history.
This is a very good book. I started reading it with the feeling that it would hold a lot of names, dates, and places with little to bind it together and make it memorable. The book quickly drew me farther into the story. After several pages, this book reads more like a Western novel than a factual account of history. Gardner weaves things like newspaper articles about Billy from the time with journal entries from eye witnesses and a biography Garrett wrote entitled The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid. The point of Gardner’s book is to try to give as factual of an account of how the Kid and Garrett came to the iconic statuses we assign them. It also serves to show that most of what people know about the Kid comes from the Lincoln County War days, and even that is, in most cases, extremely limited knowledge.
I recommend that readers of this work have a true interest in the subject and the time period because Gardner floods you with information. Even though it would seem that this subject should be short (since Billy was killed at about age 21), Gardner proves that there is a back story to everything. He looks extensively into the lives of Garrett, the Kid, and others to illustrate how they all walked down the road to their fateful destinies. People like Bob Olinger, John Tunstall, and John Chisum- among others- begin to step up and become more than just names from a history textbook. The only downside to this is that Billy never gave a single straight answer as to where he was born and what his real name was. He told Garrett, at one time, that he was born Henry McCarty in November in New York, and that’s what Garrett put in his biography of the Kid. The back stories, along with photographs of the people and places mentioned, give this story a new life.
Most of the time when you read a book on a historical subject it is very dry, and you have a hard time imagining the events that took place. In this book, however, Gardner writes it so that the reader can smell the gunpowder, feel the heat of the sun’s rays, and even see the people mentioned. Gardner even makes the notes at the end an interesting read, especially if you want to know from where the information he provides in a certain chapter came.
The book is also unique in that it does not end with Billy’s death, or even that of Pat Garrett. About the time you think that you are done reading, Gardner keeps the story going. For instance, I did not know just how mysterious Garrett’s death was. His killer was never found because all the evidence ever gathered was circumstantial, at best. After Garrett’s documented death, you would think it would be over. Gardner, though, tells of the struggles Garrett’s family faced while trying to keep others from dragging his name through the mud. They were not very successful, but at least they tried. Gardner even introduces a man I had never heard of before reading this: Ollie L. “Brushy Bill” Roberts. He was the best known man, out of the many, who lived out their lives claiming that they were actually Billy the Kid. His view of the people claiming to be the Kid is very biased. He maintains the same mood about it that Florencio Chavez, friend of Billy and fellow Regulator, had when he said, “He is dead, my friend Billy. These stories of another being killed, of the Kid slipping away, they have come with late years. My friend Bill he is dead” (256). I think it is the only place in the book where I, personally, did not fully agree with Gardner.
Mark Lee Gardner is a historian and consultant, writing primarily on the American West. He has written interpretive guides for the National Park Service on such subjects as Geronimo and George Custer. He has also served as a visiting professor in the Southwest Studies department at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. In 2010, about the same time as this book’s publication, New Mexico’s governor decided to revisit Billy’s case for a possible pardon. Gardner was interviewed time and again by several stations for his extensive knowledge on the subject.
In all, this is a good book, and Gardner is well within the capacity to write it. It is a book that would be worth reading over and over. The story of Billy and Garrett is hard to sum up because there are many opinions on the men and their situations. Gardner manages to make a very good one line summary, though. “In the end, it was not as much about right versus wrong, lawman versus outlaw as it was about survival. For others to survive, Billy could not, Garrett could not” (2). Billy and Pat were tough men in a tough land, and that land was changing. For better or worse, Billy and Pat both had to die for that change to take effect.
What do y'all think? Would you read this?