To Hell on a Fast Horse; or, Epic Happiness Pursued by Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett

To Hell on a Fast Horse: Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid, and and the Epic to Chase to Justice in the Old West, by Mark Lee Gardner began as a story of two men on opposite sides of the law, and ended as two life stories that compete to this day: Billy the Kid’s self-satisfying romp on the bad side  vs. Pat Garrett’s grim pursuit of happiness.

That Garrett shot the Kid on July 14, 1881, is in every history book, but it’s not so well known that afterward Garrett was plagued by doubters and ill-wishers who vowed he had snuck up on the Kid, or refused to believe he actually killed the desperado (the first example of “lamestream media” tearing into a favored public figure). After shooting the Kid, Garrett’s future was golden–for a time. Then his two-fisted showdown ways and gambling habits–so perfect in 1881, when the Kid met his end–contributed to Garrett’s decline in fortune and influence as the West became a place of political interests and backroom deals.

Author Gardner makes his case that, fake death claims aside, Billy was shot by Garrett’s pistol in the darkened room of a friend’s home. He describes the haunting scene in which Billy, on alert but unwilling to shoot in the dark at what could be a friend, asks in Spanish who is there. That pause of his, that spark of humanity, is what allowed Pat Garrett to shoot first.

To Hell on a Fast Horse highlights more facets of Billy the Kid’s personality than is usual. Billy comes across as a likable young hell-raiser, although a thug is a thug is a thug–he killed to get away from the law, usually without thinking twice. But his charisma is why he became a fabled desperado, and why Garrett became known as the “man who killed Billy the Kid.” It’s why Billy’s grave has scores of highway billboards cajoling family sedans to visit, while Pat Garrett’s death site had to be rescued from oblivion.

Competition is fierce in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where Billy’s bones lie in rest–in two graves. Or in one? Or neither? Wha?

You got your Billy the Kid Museum, with a replica of the grave and some awesome scruffy mannequins, and you got the Old Fort Sumner museum, and its grave with a whopper of a cage around it. Why the cage? Because people keep stealing the gravestone, wanting a part of this guy. Ironic, as his bones might not even rest in Fort Sumner anymore, as flooding took out part of the old cemetery. And why two graves? The West is wack that way, buckos.

Pat Garrett’s resting place? In the Masonic Cemetery in Los Cruces. It’s a sober-looking marker, without all the cheesy hooplah around Billy’s. But where Garrett was shot and killed in 1908, in a tangled tale of loyalties and vengeance and the kind of frontier justice that isn’t so pretty-sunset-perfect, is located in a Las Cruces subdivision with the pretentious name of “The Vistas at Presidio II,” south of U.S. 70. It has a marker, too, created by his son around 1938.

from Friends of Pat Garrett

It’s on the edge of an old road, an almost forgotten site except for Garrett’s son’s sullen resolve to make sure people knew his father had been murdered, shot in the back while pissing. No way what a fabled lawman deserves, so the Friends of Pat Garrett started a campaign to get that murder site on the map, to make sure that a memorial is set aside. Looks like they did it, although I’d love a pic to show their success.

Happiness is elusive–the more you seek it, the faster it backs away out of reach. Maybe Billy the Kid–with his wild ways and hyper-real  afterlife had a better understanding of that than the driven lawman did. After all, how happy would Garrett feel about being a ghost in the midst of McMansions in a mesa? Maybe, like author Mark Lee Gardner portrayed so well, he would just be happy to get what he could.

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