Readers, Mark Gardner is the author of To Hell on a Fast Horse: The Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett and Shot All To Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape.
True West magazine named Mark “Best Author” in its annual “Best of the West” issue for 2014.
Moreover, Mark is an award-winning performer of 19th and early 20th-century western music.
Mark’s latest CD is Outlaws: Songs of Robbers, Rustlers, and Rogues,which includes ballads such as “Cole Younger,” “Jesse James,” “Billy the Kid,” and “Sam Bass.”
Question: Mark, when I read To Hell on a Fast Horse I was amazed to find so many facts about Billy that I’ve never seen before, and I thought I knew everything. How did you unearth this much information?
For instance, that Billy had a brother and he visited that brother before he was killed, and that Billy was armed the night he was killed?
Mark Gardner: Mostly it was your traditional “digging” in manuscript archives in various states, from Texas to Utah. I also benefited from amateur and professional historians who have been studying the Kid for decades. Some of these scholars’ vast research collections have ended up in public institutions.
A good example is Leon Metz, who wrote an excellent biography of Pat Garrett in the early 70s. Leon donated all of his papers to the University of Texas at El Paso Library. Making use of his research saved me countless hours of work.
Additionally, I made use of recent technology that has not been previously available to those studying the Kid. I’m referring specifically to the millions of pages of digitized nineteenth-century newspapers that can be accessed online.
Q: Why did you write the book?
Gardner: I wanted to write a book on a western subject that would appeal to a New York publisher. I was fascinated by Pat Garrett’s story and believed I could turn out a fresh biography, but my literary agent suggested I do a dual biography of Garrett and the Kid. It was an excellent suggestion, for the two men are forever linked in history and legend.
Gardner: Because he is the more tragic figure of the two. He was a hero throughout the territory after he killed Billy, but as the Kid’s legend grew, Garrett slowly became the villain of the story, a true travesty.
The controversy surrounding Garrett’s 1908 murder near Las Cruces also fascinated me (he was shot in the back of the head while urinating). No one believes that Wayne Brazel, the man tried for killing Garrett, committed the deed. But as for who did, we’re still debating it.
Q: Most authors have assumed the old legend of Pat and Billy once being close friends (or at least buddies) is true, but you discount that. Why?
Gardner: Primarily because Garrett denied they were friends. And I was suspicious of those who said they were bosom buddies. It seemed that the claim of a friendship might have been an attempt to demonize Garrett, make him more of the bad guy: he had turned on his friend and shot him down in the dark. It does make a good story.
(In another interview, Gardner said James E. Sligh, a White Oaks newspaper editor, who came from the same Louisiana parish as Garrett, claimed Garrett told him that while he knew the Kid well, they were neither friends nor enemies: “He minds his business, and I attend to mine.”)
Q: Many people, including me, have assumed Pat Garrett was a bad man, or at least uncaring and merciless. But you have unearthed a different Pat. He seemed like a good guy. Is that what you think?
Gardner: I do think he was a good guy. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have flaws. He certainly did – we all do. But he deserves tremendous credit for taking on a very dangerous job in becoming sheriff of Lincoln County and hunting down the Kid, something no one else in the territory was willing to do.
I also look at his family life and see a very loving and caring father and husband. His children absolutely adored him.
Q: Robert Utley told me he didn’t believe Billy was a good person. What do you think?
Gardner: I guess I’m more sympathetic toward the Kid than Bob. Billy lived in a very dangerous place and time. It was sometimes kill or be killed.
It should be pointed out, too, that he was well liked by the native New Mexicans, and we know there were several young ladies, including Paulita Maxwell, who were quite fond of him. He must have had some good in him.
Q: I have thought about Billy a lot, and have concluded he was an orphan who had no father to guide him or protect him, so he became rough out of need and vulnerability. What do you think?
Gardner: I think that’s absolutely correct. After his mother’s death, he was on his own and did what he could to get by. If he’d had a stable home life, I don’t believe we’d be talking about a young New Mexico outlaw named Billy the Kid.
Q: Did Billy stay in Lincoln after the Lincoln County War, and after he became a wanted man, because he (unconsciously perhaps) believed it was his home? What do you think? Did his decision make sense?
Gardner: He had at least one sweetheart at Fort Sumner, and he had lots of friends in that area, especially among the Hispanic population. I think Billy felt he was safe there, but I also think that because he had outsmarted New Mexico’s lawmen so many times before, he didn’t believe there was anybody who could get him.
Q: Do you believe the most recent (purported) Billy photo, taken when he and friends were playing croquet, is authentic?
Gardner: It’s indeed a genuine tintype from the nineteenth century, but it’s not Billy and the Regulators.
The February 2016 issue of True West magazine will have a ten-page section devoted to the controversy surrounding the tintype. All the problems historians have with the image are explained in detail. I suggest your readers check it out.
Q: Do you believe Billy actually advised someone (forgotten who) not to begin killing?
Gardner: He told a newspaper reporter for the Mesilla News in 1881, “Advise persons never to engage in killing.”
Q: Did he really do a jig on the courthouse balcony in Lincoln (after he killed Olinger and the deputy) before he galloped out of Lincoln?
Gardner: That’s what Garrett claims in his 1882 biography of Billy.
Q: Why couldn’t Pat Garrett find a steady place for himself? He seemed to go from one career to another.
Gardner: I don’t know that we’ll ever know the answer to that. I think he encountered some hard luck, a lot of which he brought on himself.
Garrett had a nice federal job as collector of customs at El Paso, Texas, an appointment from President Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1905, Roosevelt was visiting San Antonio for a reunion of his Rough Riders. Garrett was there and brought along a buddy of his, Tom Powers, who owned an El Paso saloon and gambling establishment.
Garrett lied to Roosevelt about Powers, telling the president that Powers was a cattleman. A group photograph was taken with the president that included Garrett and Powers.
Roosevelt found out later about Powers’ reputation as a professional gambler and was quite upset that Garrett had deceived him. When Garrett’s four-year term as collector came to an end eight months later, Roosevelt chose not to reappoint him.
Garrett probably should have remained a lawman – he really excelled at it – but there wasn’t a lot of money to be made in that line of work.
Q: I believe Billy was destined to become a legend. I can’t explain that. What do you believe?
Gardner: I guess it’s easy for us to look back now and say that, but I don’t think any of his contemporaries saw that coming. They didn’t have the faintest notion their buddy, William Bonney, would become a legend or folk hero.
Q: Billy has always impressed me as being a person who was a lot brighter than the people around him. What do you think?
Gardner: He was brighter in some ways, and one of those ways was in making the people around him think they were brighter! And it got some of them killed.
Q: What are you working on?
Gardner: I’m just putting the finishing touches on a book on Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders for William Morrow/HarperCollins. It’s scheduled to be released on May 10.
(Featured image is Pat Garrett – The Making of a Legend* by Don Crowley)