Eric Mottram on Triggernometry (4)


The reality and fantasy of Billy the Kid contain the social issues. Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) needed Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson to attract a public, and in 1974 Dirty Little Billy, starring the radically unheroic Michael J. Pollard, was advertized at the Hiram College, Ohio, cinema Under the rubric: ‘Billy the Kid was a Punk.’ But by this time Hollywood had made twenty-three Kid movies. Blue-eyed Paul Newman plays the right-handed Kid as a hero in Arthur Penn’s The Left Handed Gun (1958), finally dying on a cross of wagon Shafts. In The Law and Billy the Kid (1954), which features Scott Brady as the Kid and James Griffith as Garrett, Billy is shot by one of the sheriff’s men while escaping from a visit to his girl Mend at Maxwell’s house. David Miller’s Billy the Kid (1941) has Robert Taylor in the leading role. A 1961 TV series, entitled Robin Hood of the Southwest, co-starred Garrett and the Kid, with the latter as a Casanova. Walter Noble Burns’ The Saga of Billy the Kid (1926) transfixed the legends into the formaldehyde of a believer’s handbook, and slipped easily into King Vidor’s MGM film of 1930, also called Billy the Kid, which starred Johnny Mack Brown, former AU-American footballer . . . Aaron Copland’s music for Lincoln Kerstein’s American Ballet Caravan production in 1938 was part a larger effort during the Depression to create indigenous forms of dance and music. As Wilfred Mellers observes: ‘By far the nastiest music is given to Society,” “public values” conflict with the fulfillment of private life,’ and the music finally makes the Kid ‘a tragic figure.’46

Facts about the Kid are not easily obtained. The most reliable source is Kent Ladd Steckmesser’s The Western Hero in History and Legend (1965), in which we see the legend as cover for historical fact, and the legendary figure fusing politics and economics as the desire to be freed from their necessity. The western hero emerges at the intersection of the economy and popular media, themselves already permeated with a belief in permissive conquest as laissez-faire in action and lawlessness as natural birthright. John Smith, authoritarian leader of the Jamestown settlement and ruthless manipulator of Indians, becomes the hero of the armchair speculator ‘back East’ in England. Daniel Boone, ’employee of North Carolina land speculators,’ farmer and hunter ejected from his land by lawsuits, becomes the epic founder of Kentucky and the embodiment of man’s natural movement across space and into the White God’s wilderness. Incompetence in law and business drove Boone west. Law, business, and literature turned him into an executor of the natural, with all its attendant permissions. Steckmesser quotes his resentment: ‘Nothing embitters my old age but the circulation of the absurd and ridiculous stories that I retire as civilization advances; that I shun the white man and seek the Indians. . . . You know all this false. Poverty and enterprise excited me to quit my native state, and poverty and despair my native land.’47 The Boones may have been fearless leaders of westward-moving settlers but they were also part of the exploitative conquest that is the economics of epic.

Billy the Kid was part of both the economics and the fantasy, turned into a stereotypical killer through the agency of the revolver. He lived out the type in the middle of that short period of the West’s history exploited by the arts as the Western: V. . from about 1865 to 1890 or so, a brief final instant in the process. This twilight era was a momentous one: within just its span we can count a number of frontiers in the sudden rash of mining camps, the building of the railways, the Indian Wars, the cattle drives, the coming of the farmer. Together with the last days of the Civil War and the exploits of the bad men, here is the raw material of the western.’48

The legendary Kid is a champion shot down in a cowardly •manner; the real Kid has been called ‘a nineteen-year-old, unpreposessing little assassin.’49 The facts lie somewhere in-between. The context includes bad men who went bad ‘by a process which the West regarded as respectfully as it did religious conversion.’ Robbing banks and trains, shooting it out with the law and dying with their boots on, such men were examples of a predatory age quite as much as Jim Fiske and Jay Gould, the financial speculators, ‘but rather more easily sentimentalized.’ In 1863, William C. Quantrill, operating with his guerrillas under a Confederate captaincy, killed a thousand people and burned numerous buildings, yet the folk ballad says:

Oh, Quantrill’s a fighter, a bold-hearted boy, 

A brave man or woman he’ll never annoy, 

He’ll take from the wealthy and give to the poor, 

For brave men there’s never a bolt to his door.50

Billy the Kid, who scared the land-grant potentates of New Mexico, and Jesse James, who robbed the Mid-Western banking and railroad elite, naturally became proletarian heroes. McMurphy undergoes a similar elevation for attacking the combine in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). The Kid’s reputed birth, in New York City on 23 November 1859, is based on a newspaperman’s statement.51 At the age of three, he left the tenement slum, with his parents, for Kansas. He was certainly in Santa Fe when his mother married for the second time in March, 1873. His father was called William H. Bonney and his mother’s maiden name was Catherine McCarty. Catherine’s second husband, William Antrim, was a silver miner with whom she moved from Colorado to Silver City, New Mexico, in about 1868 (a photograph shows him in front of the Confidence Mine, New Mexico, in the 1890s). In the Southwest, Billy picked up the saga of desperadoes like Jesse James, any boy’s folk heroes of the 1870s, and learned to use a Colt and a Winchester. Catherine died in 1874, leaving young William H. Bonney, now also known as Henry McCarthy and Henry Antrim, to fend for himself. The following year he was arrested for theft, and two years later killed a blacksmith in some petty feud (legend says he was twelve and defending his mother against an insult – hence his infantilization into the Kid for the rest of his life). Legend: under siege in a ranch-house he saved his protectress’s piano from flames as she played ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Legend: he killed twenty-one men in his twenty-one years, ‘not counting Indians,’ as Burns writes in his credulous Saga.52 Antrim left Arizona for Mesilla, New Mexico, where in 1877 he was spotted with a gang of rustlers. He escaped to Lincoln County and through his friend George Coe met John Tunstall, who hired him to work on his large ranch. Tunstall also owned a store in Lincoln, and together with his partner, Alexander McSween, a lawyer, was financed by John S. Chisum, cattle baron. In the ‘Lincoln County War’ they were opposed by the Murphy-Dolan-Riley ranching-trading combine, which was itself backed by the ‘Santa Fe Ring,’ a powerful monopoly out to control those traders and small farmers represented by Tunstall and McSween. So the Kid was once justified by his boss: ‘Most of those he did kill deserved what they got.’53

In fact, the gang war obviated justice and justification. As Tunstall remarked in 1877: ‘Everything in New Mexico that pays at all… is worked by a “ring.” … I am at work at present making such a ring and I have succeeded admirably so far.’ Lincoln County in those days had neither railroad nor barbed wire nor any effective law. It was largely a public domain occupied by settlers, gunslingers (who certainly lacked the sentimentality and wit of Edward Dorn’s hero), and feuding cattlemen. The Kid seems to have been hired by both sides in their battle for land rights and economic power. Legend: Billy said of Tunstall, ‘he was the only man that ever trusted me like I was free-born and white.’ Legend: Tunstall said of Billy ‘that’s the finest lad I ever met. He’s a revelation to me every day and would do anything on earth to please me. I’m going to make a man out of that boy yet.’54 Whether the mutual devotion of English gentleman rancher and American farmboy is true or not, the Kid’s need to avenge Tunstall’s murder by the Murphy mob in 1878 seems to be authenticated. At Tunstall’s grave he reportedly said: ‘I’ll get every son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it’s the last thing I do,’ and ‘I never expect to let up until I kill the last man who helped kill Tunstal or die in the act myself.’ His furious, vindictive temper became well-known.

The Murphy-Dolan group were powerful enough to make Governor Axtell obtain US troops to defend their interests. The McSweens turned to assassination, and the Kid was regularly named as a killer in reports of the war. On 15 July 1878 they fried to capture Lincoln township, and were defeated after a major shoot-out in Lincoln Plaza and at the McSween fortress-ranch. The boss died, the war was over, and the Kid escaped to the outlaw trail. In Fort Sumner he first met Pat Garrett, then barman in the Beaver Smith saloon. The Kid stole horses from the Chisums in lieu of wages owed, and reassumed the name of Bonney. The President had heard of the shoot-out, as had the new Governor, Lew Wallace, then writing Ben Hur. The 1879 Lincoln County War amnesty did not apply to the Kid because he was charged with the murder of William Brady, the Murphy-Dolan sheriff, in 1878; so he wrote to the Governor offering to Surrender and gain freedom by testifying against the killers of Huston I. Chapman, Mrs. McSweeney’s one-armed lawyer. At the rendezvous, Billy faced Wallace with a Winchester in his right hand and a revolver in his left. He was about nineteen. He lived well in captivity, betraying numerous badmen and being serenaded by the locals. The legend was under way. But Wallace failed to obtain the pardon, and did not put him on trial. The Kid broke jail. In 1880 he killed Joe Grant and Jim Carlyle. The press wanted his blood and blamed him for leading every gang – and it is clear he could lead.

Pat Garrett had worked as cowhand, buffalo hunter, and horse-wrangler for Peter Maxwell, who had also once employed the Kid. In 1880, when he was twenty-eight, Garrett married Polinaria Guiterrey (they had seven children) and the cattle barons elected him sheriff of Lincoln County. It is said that the Kid befriended Garrett on his arrival in Lincoln – hence the latter’s Judas image. In November 1880 Garrett ambushed the Kid at Fort Sumner, but the Kid got away to shoot it out at a deserted farmhouse in Stinking Springs. There he surrendered, along with three allies, after which Garrett took him to Las Vegas, where the Gazette interviewed him: ‘[H]e looked and acted a mere boy … a frank open countenance, looking like a school boy, with the traditional silky fuzz on his upper lip. . . . He is, in all, quite a handsome looking fellow, the only imperfection being two prominent front teeth slightly protruding like squirrel’s teeth, and he has agreeable and winning ways’.55

From jail he had written appealing to Wallace, but the Governor simply released their correspondence to avoid possible scandal. He was tried for Brady’s murder at Mesilla in March 1881, the only Lincoln War criminal to be tried and sentenced. (The Kid was to be hung.) He escaped by killing his two guards, one of whom, Robert W. Ollinger, was an ex-gunthrower. Apparently he used a six-shooter hidden in the privy by friends and a Winchester nicked from the prison armoury. His reputation as a ruthless killer was sealed, but he did not attempt to escape to Mexico – one reason may have been a love affair (one name mentioned is ‘Dulcinea del Toboso’). To regain any status at all, Garrett had to capture him once and for all. After a three month hunt, he found the Kid at the Maxwell house, half-dressed in the darkness, and shot him down from the head of Maxwell’s bed with Maxwell in it, it is said, as Billy entered the bedroom. Neither Garrett nor his deputies could have been sure it was the Kid until Maxwell whispered it was him. It is not clear whether he had only a knife on him or a six-shooter – some reports say he had both. In his report to Wallace, Garrett said that he had wanted him alive but that the Kid had come onto him suddenly, armed to kill. He shot before being shot.

In the context of frontier life, a daily battle for existence where killing was the common outcome of any quarrel and inter-ranch warfare was standard, the Kid’s possible five murders out of the legendary twenty-one is small.55 Frederick Law Olmstead, an early traveller through Texas, wrote that an inventory of the Colt revolvers owned in the state would approximate in numbers the census of the adult males. When W.W. Mills, brother of Brigadier-General Anson Mills of cartridge-belt fame, came to El Paso in 1858, every male citizen regardless of age or vocation took his six-shooter from beneath his pillow the first thing in the morning, and wore it until he went to bed again.

Garrett lost his badge when the Democrats refused his renomination, and he had to hire a lawyer to get the 500 dollars reward from Wallace. He then went into various ranching concerns, developed a distaste for guns, got a job from President Theodore Roosevelt as customs collector at El Paso, and ended up raising horses. He was killed in a row over property in 1908, and his grave is unmarked: no tombstone and no steel fence to keep off souvenir hunters, unlike the Kid’s grave at Fort Sumner. A year after he had killed the Kid, on 14 July 1881, he brought out his AuthenticLife of Billy the Kid, in order to promote his victory. But by then the legend had thickened. The Philadelphia Times had quickly seen the Kid as a cruel sexy leader of two or three hundred men, dressed in Ruritanian quasi-military gear, born in Ireland, and living in an adobe castle. Two dime novels on his career appeared in 1881.57 In John Woodruff Lewis’s True Life of Billy the Kid, he signs a writ with the blood of two victims and ‘with the laugh of a demon.’ In Edmund Fable’s The New Mexican Outlaw he wears the now customary black buckskin trousers and jewelled hat. In J.C. Cowdrick’s Silver Mask (1884) he wears ‘a rich Mexican suit.’ Curiously enough, it is Garrett’s book (ghosted by Ash Upson) which began the softening of outlaw into victim of family and society, a Clyde Griffiths without the chemistry of cowardice in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925). Upson, an imaginative New Mexico newspaperman and once a boarder at the Antrims’, needed the legend nearly as much as Garrett, who wrote in his introduction: ‘The truth, in the life of young Bonney, needs no pen dipped in blood to thrill the heart and stay its pulsation. This verified history of the Kid’s exploits, with all the exaggerations removed, will exhibit him as the peer of any fabled brigand on record, unequalled in his desperate courage, presence of mind, devotion to his allies, generosity to his foes, gallantry, and all the elements which appeal to the holier emotions Hence the sacred insulted mother and, in Siringo, the opening killing of’a Negro soldier at Fort Union’ (this book was a best-seller until 1926). But the Kid still had to massacre and rob three Apache Indians and various Mexicans in Sonora and Chihuahua, rescue Texans from Apaches with the James gang, take on twenty ‘well-armed savages’ in the Guadelupe Mountains with only his six-gun and a dirk, and so on. Garrett-Upson says he was ‘polite, cordial and gentlemanly’ and cursed in ‘the most elegant phraseology.’ The farm boy had vanished. In Walter Woods’ 1903 play, it is the Kid’s father who is the villain, exonerated by being killed in mistake for his son, who thereupon starts a new life ‘where the sun shines always.’59 In 1925 Harvey Furgusson reinforced the Robin Hood association – ‘he befriended the poor’ – and folklorists ever since have used him to transpose other world myths into American form: Hercules, Faust, Ulysses and other versions of the Clever Hero. He is the little guy in a baron’s war, too; a champion of the nonideological: betrayed, shot down, and resurrected.

It is the stereotypical killer, the unchanging star of myth, which Michael McClure dramatizes in his plays and poems about Billy the Kid. In The Blossom (1967), Billy moves between Tunstall and Susan and Alexander McSween as part of McClure’s involvement in Antonin Artaud and the acte gratuit of liberation, the hallucinatory sensation of free action, and the absolute centre of outlawry in madness, the insanity of utter isolation. The play is reprinted in The Mammals (1972) along with a section of documents including a tintype of Billy and photographs of Tunstall and the McSweens. The Beard (1965) and The Sermons of Jean Harlow and the Curses of Billy the Kid (1968) connect the stereotypical gunman with the fixed star of an exploitative Hollywood as repetitive and sterile expressions of American society: partly pathetic, partly monstrous.60

In an essay written on the occasion of a reprint of Burns’ uncritical biography in 1953, Charles Olson criticizes those who take Billy as ‘mere killer’ and do not overhear in ‘the Kid’s question “Quien es?” (with Pat Garrett sitting at the foot of the bed, in the blackness), why El Chivato asked anything, this once, instead of barking, with his gun.’ Olson believes Burns’ account – ‘The Kid had not fired a shot. He lay with his gun still clutched in his left hand and, in his right, Celsa Gutierrez’s kitchen butcher knife’ – but ambivalently insists that the duty of fiction is to include the ‘totality’ of history if the characters are not to be ‘diminished.’61 Even less interested in ascertaining the Context of the myth is the fifth of Louis Zukofsky’s ‘Songs of Degrees,’ in which the skill of William Carlos Williams provides an analogue for the Kid’s abilities: ‘The kid / shoots / to / kill,’ ‘the kid’s / self sacrifice,’ ‘one / sound: / the kid / ‘s torn, / shot,’ and so on.62 Edward Dorn’s Gunslinger (1968) begins in the historical location:

I met in Mesilla

The Cautious Gunslinger

of impeccable personal smoothness

and slender leather encased hands

folded casually

to make his knock . . .

But then the gunman rapidly undergoes metamorphosis into Theseus, an ‘equilibrium’ whose myth is order itself, and a solar god who is man’s projection of the single winner. Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) is a less sentimentally mythical compilation of poems and prose towards ‘his legend a jungle sleep.’ The vision of killing and loneliness is accurate (although the Kid materials rely on Burns), but Deputy John W. Poe’s 1919 account of Garrett enables Ondaatje to write: ‘Pat Garrett, ideal assassin. Public figure, the mind of a doctor. . . . Ideal assassin for his mind was unwarped. . . . One who has decided what was right and forgot all morals.’

Concerning the Kid, Ondaatje’s Pat Garrett recalls: ‘[H]e never used his left hand for anything except of course to shoot. He wouldn’t even pick up a mug of coffee. I saw the hand, it was virgin white…. He said he did finger exercises subconsciously, On the average 12 hours a day. … I noticed his left hand churning within itself.’63

Robert Warshow’s 1954 essay ‘The Westerner’ begins where mythicization must begin: with the gun held by the man, fantasies of the gun, and the importance in both western and gangster mythology of ‘guns in the fantasy life of Americans.’64 Where the gun is an instrument of self-fulfillment and personal justice on both sides of the law, the willingness to shoot is central. The courage of armed men is like the courage of men under martial law so completely examined in Melville’s White Jacket (1850): the morality is intersected by coercion. The sheriff and the outlaw are united by their mutual willingness to fire. As Warshow points out: ‘What [the gunman] defends, at bottom, is the purity of his own image – in fact his honor. This is what makes him invulnerable.’ Defence of honour within the group described by Webb in 1931 becomes an extreme defence against anonymity, a life of labour, a life without gun-power or indeed power of any kind. Reluctance to use a gun becomes the crux for determining courage and cowardice, power and impotence, and it is in these terms that the stereotype takes over and rigidifies a man into a gunman. (In The Beard, Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid exist in an eternity of rigid cultural roles; they have become myths, partly during their actual lifetimes). The westerner’s values cannot really be extended out of the West. In Warshow’s words: ‘Those values are in the image of a single man who wears a gun on his thigh. The gun tells us that he lives in a world of violence, and even that he “believes in violence.” But the drama is one of self-restraint: the moment of violence must come in its own time and according to its special laws, or else it is valueless.’

As William Burroughs says of his own highly mythical fictions: ‘None of the characters in my mythology are free. If they were free they would not still be in the mythological system, that is, the cycle of conditioned action’.65

Conditioned action, mythicization and addiction enclose a man in a required role that requisitions his liberty. The myth-user varies the stereotypes but can never fail to expose both the historical actuality and his own preoccupations. In Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, at least in the version shown in Britain, the feud with Chisum (the cattle baron who employs sadist henchmen) is largely cut, and what remains is a clear nostalgia for manliness defined through guns and male contact. Two men shooting it out to the death is a wierd image of comradeship, a mythical ritual universalized through movies. Garrett refuses to be hired by Chisum and Billy too has to evade such a grouping. The audience is the product of a hundred years’ exploitation of land and labour through guns, law and lawlessness. Language is reduced to signals of loyalty, contempt or oppression; the silence is filled by mythic ritual. We compose the film for ourselves out of the group memory of the myth.

Garrett reappears in Billy’s life at the point where peace, or rather cold war, has reduced killers to shooting off the heads of chickens. Both Billy and Garrett need the kind of challenge Which enables them to establish their manhood in a region whose thin opportunities make for the extreme situation of the fight, a common condition of enclosed societies unable to envisage any other way out. Glory is the prize; the ascent is simplified and appeals to those who fantasize life as the pressure of a finger on a trigger. Billy and Pat are boys who Share this adoration, and when Garrett says ‘It feels like times have changed,’ what he means is ‘Leave me out of it.’ The interior issue, as usual, is suicide, the death of complex life, the welcoming of a simple absolute. When Billy’s two companions allow themselves to be casually shot up, all that’s said is: ‘Time to take a walk? Hell, yes!’ Billy opens his arms to embrace Garrett, death, and his own self-sacrifice or suicide. His guards, too, accept death, smiling with self-satisfaction because they have achieved the only glory available. Of Garrett’s two deputies, Pickens clasps his wounds and dies by a sunset river with calm acceptance, and Elam is totally unsurprised to discover that Billy had cheated him from the first; the children and the mother watch the ritual of his end in silence, as immobile as the audience and the myth. The film is authentic but your response will be governed by whether you believe Peckinpah’s grotesques retain any value beyond their expert repetition of mythic ritual. The presence of Bob Dylan, a major figure of the American Movement of the 1960s, and the casting of Kris Kristoffersen as Billy suggest that both the sacrifice and the glory may survive into the present. Peckinpah’s previous film, The Getaway (1972), and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid indicate a director hooked on the manliness of gunning. In The Getaway, McQueen does what the advertisements insist is a man’s job in a man’s world: blasting gang rivals and police cars in order to extricate himself with as large a haul as possible. Peckinpah’s fascination ultimately lies in the conjunction of a man with his instruments of manliness, courage and victory – especially the gun.


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