Such Men as
Billy the Kid
The Lincoln County War Reconsidered
The Rocky Mountain News recommended Such Men As Billy the Kid: The Lincoln County War Reconsidered "for those who want a genuine grasp of this vastly overwritten yet little understood episode of the Old West." The book tells the story, from start to finish, of the best-known "war" of the Western frontier. Billy the Kid acquired the fame that eventually doomed him during the Lincoln County War.
The preface explains how my interest in the story was first stirred:
When I was eleven or twelve years old, my parents stopped the station wagon at a roadside museum in Fort Sumner, a dusty crossroads town in eastern New Mexico. The museum's prize exhibit was a dilapidated wooden door spotted with traces of a color that might have been dried blood or might just as easily have been brown paint. The holes in the door could have been bullet holes. Billy the Kid was supposed to have been shot against that door.
Studying the door, ignoring my big brother's wise-guy skepticism, I realized for the first time that Billy the Kid wasn't a tall-tale fantasy like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, as I had hazily supposed. He was a real person, who bled real blood (or perhaps brown paint); he was even a New Mexican, like me.
The story of the Lincoln County War is a lot more than a Western movie. In the first place, the storyline is far too complex to be contained within a feature-length film. I found it a struggle to fit the story into a single book without having my narrative crumble into a sequence of essays. I eventually hit on the idea of structuring my (emphatically nonfiction) book as of a serial novel of the era. "Characters" are introduced gradually and each chapter has its own story arc. While academic historians deliberately affect a vanilla-pudding style to avoid any danger of being labeled "popular" -- a kiss of professional death for them -- I tried to make my story as lively as a good novel. But it's fully sourced, with 47 pages of endnotes.
The preface continues:
I believe the story of Lincoln County's troubles is far more interesting than it is historically significant, and it's interesting because it wasn't typical of anything at all. It represents a unique confluence of enduring American themes, such as violence and vigilantism, and more subtle variations on them, such as the establishment of legal and social norms in the newly settled wilderness. Gilded Age capitalism and political corruption were the motors behind elaborate legal (or at least legalistic) machinations. Litigiousness spread like smallpox, as everybody sued or brought charges against everybody else. The press piled on enthusiastically, fanning the flames and creating America's most enduring (so far) instant celebrity, Billy the Kid, whose fifteen minutes of fame have stretched into their second century.
The inescapable American theme of race is present everywhere: Anglos and Hispanics formed alliances based on mutual antipathies but still referred to themselves as Americans and Mexicans, members of different nations; the black troopers of the segregated cavalry were led by white officers; the Mescalero Apaches were robbed by the Interior Department agent given paternalistic charge of their well-being. There's even a strange echo of Ulster in the way Irish Catholic immigrants banded together against an Englishman allied with Celtic-surnamed Presbyterians. The legends of the cowboy, of the cavalry to the rescue, and even (in a cameo appearance) of the Texas Rangers all get a workout, incidentally discrediting the West-as-myth. Even Henry James's theme of the relationship between the old world and the new appears in controversies kicked up by the Londoner John Tunstall.
As for Billy himself, he was no psychopath. People make unflattering comments about his only known photograph, but it captures him in a characteristic pose: he's talking, and we all know how dumb we look when the camera catches us mid-sentence. He stuck around New Mexico because he'd adopted its people and their cause as his own, and they had embraced him. Just a few weeks before his death, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported: "A man who came to Santa Fe yesterday from Lincoln County says that Billy, the Kid has got more friends in that county than anybody." The mystery is not why so many people thought so highly of a killer, but how a person so gregarious, humorous and cheerful -- so likable -- was capable of doing things other people merely approved of.
Such Men as Billy the Kid was published by the University of Nebraska Press and Bison Books. It was a finalist for the Golden Spur Award for best nonfiction from the Western Writers of America. The great historian Richard Maxwell Brown was generous enough to say that it "belongs on the same shelf as the classic works on the Kid and the county". He added that "this is no dense or dull example of the 'tort and retort' mode of legal writing, but a lively, lucid compelling account of complex and confusing events". London's Telegraph praised the "verve and humour" of the prose, a comment I particularly enjoyed because those were the very qualities I worked hardest to instill.