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December 10, 2017

Billy the Kid, by Ondaatje, O. Henry...

On this day in 1881 Billy the Kid was killed by his nemesis, the Sheriff and bounty hunter Pat Garrett, at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Near midnight, the Kid returned from an errand of love or hunger to find someone in his hideout; to his hushed "Quien es? Quien es?," Billy received a fatal shot above the heart. This was also the starting shot for a fiction marathon which shows no signs of being over, and without which, says bio-bibliographer Jon Tuska, the Kid "would have remained an obscure New Mexican horse thief," and a small player in the Lincoln County cattle-baron war.

One sort of tale turns the Kid into a Pip or Huck Finn who took a few too many wrong turns on the Mean Streets of New Mexico; the opposite tale tells of a bad seed destined to face "Judge Colt and the jury of six." In the first sort, the Kid nurses Mexican families through their diphtheria despite the risk of arrest; in the other, he kills Mexicans "just to see them kick." In Walter Woods's 1903 play, Billy the Kid, the deserved happy ending is obtained by an Oedipal/Darth Vadar twist, and the Kid and the Good Woman ride off: "Come Nellie -- we'll wander down life's pathway together, where the sun shines always." In Paso Por Aqui (1927), the wise old Mexican will go this far for Billy: "And thees fellow, too, thees redhead, he pass this way, paso por aqui . . . and he mek here good and not weeked. But, before that -- I am not God!" The reformation theme dominates the 1930 story, "Nobody's All Bad," though here the weary Kid longs to give up not just guns but girls: "Always the same old act, over and over! Was that all there was in the world?" In O. Henry's, "The Caballero's Way," the Kid is a danger in and out of bed, warns the two-timing Tonia to her new lawman-lover: "The rattlesnake is not quicker to strike than is 'El Chivato,' as they call him, to send a ball from his pistola." In Pistols on the Pecos (1953), the Kid wants horses, killing, and sex with Susan, who likes his eyes but finds out just in time what they conceal; Garrett guns him down before he can make good his plan to rape and strangle her. Women are often the Kid's biggest problem, if not the real villain. Nika, for instance: "She was a fourflusher from way back," says one narrator, "and I'll give you ten to one that if she's alive she's fourflushing right now. She was the kind of woman who could get hold of a peaceful man and in no time flat make a murderer out of him."

In Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid the women and the killing-life are wondered at, and the Kid is a poet:
    She is so brown and lovely, the sun rim blending into lighter colours at her neck and wrists. The edge of the pillow in her mouth, her hip a mountain further down the bed. Beautiful ladies in white rooms in the morning. . . . I look up. On the nail above the bed the black holster and gun is coiled like a snake, glinting also in the early morning white.
At the end, the Kid just wants out: of "This nightmare by this 7 foot high doorway / waiting for friends to come / mine or theirs," and of the corner into which he has allowed himself to be boxed:
    There is nothing in my hands
    though every move I would make
    getting up slowly and walking
    on the periphery of black to where weapons are
    is planned in my eye...
    I am unable to move with nothing in my hands....

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