American Heroes, Myth and Reality

By Marshall W. Fishwick | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Rugged Individualism: Billy the Kid

"Billy the Kid, he met a man
Who was a whole lot badder.
He didn't kid. Now Billy's dead
And we ain't none the sadder."

--Folk ballad

Billy the Kid is the "No" to the great American "Yes."

He was mean as hell, and killed 21 men before he was 21--not. counting Indians and Mexicans. A living legend in his teens, Billy was seldom seen by his pursuers. Those who did catch sight of him told of a gray horse, saddled and bridled, galloping along seemingly riderless except for a leg thrown across the saddle and an a sticking out from beneath the horse's neck. At the end of the arm a gun barrel glinted in the sunlight. And few who saw this ever came to tell of it.

This elusive phantom rider lived a full life before he was old enough to vote, and died just as he should have: with his boots on and his gun roaring.

The saga of Billy the Kid--his real name was William H. Bonney--is the most important desperado tale in our culture. The people of the Southwest sensed its importance even before Billy was caught up by immanent justice. When be took careful aim and shot Billy on July 14, 1881, Sheriff Pat Garrett knew he was performing the most important act of his life. His later descriptions showed awareness that he was serving posterity. The editor of the Santa Fe Weekly Democrat was equally enlightened, closing his account of Billy's death with these words:

"No sooner had the floor caught his descending form which had

-85-

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