Previous Chapter | Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest | Next Chapter
Guide to Life and Literature
PLENTY of six-shooter play is to be found in most of the books about old-time cowboys; yet hardly one of the professional bad men was a representative cowboy. Bad men of the West and cowboys alike wore six-shooters and spurs; they drank each other's coffee; they had a fanatical passion for liberty -- for themselves. But the representative cowboy was a reliable hand, hanging through drought, blizzard, and high water to his herd, whereas the bona fide bad man lived on the dodge. Between the killer and the cowboy standing up for his rights or merely shooting out the lights for fun, there was as much difference as between Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill. Of course, the elements were mixed in the worst of the bad men, as they are in the best of all good men. No matter what deductions analysis may lead to, the fact remains that the western bad men of open range days have become a part of the American tradition. They represent six-shooter culture at its zenith -- the wild and woolly side of the West -- a stage between receding bowie knife individualism of the backwoods and blackguard, machine-gun gangsterism of the city.
The songs about Sam Bass, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid reflect popular attitude toward the hard-riding outlaws. Sam Bass, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, the Daltons, Cole Younger, Joaquin Murrieta, John Wesley Hardin, Al Jennings, Belle Starr, and other "long riders" with their guns in their hands have had their biographies written over and over. They were not nearly as immoral as certain newspaper columnists lying under the cloak of piety. As time goes on, they, like antique Robin Hood and the late Pancho Villa, recede from all realistic judgment. If the picture show finds in them models for generosity, gallantry, and fidelity to a code of liberty, and if the public finds them picturesque, then philosophers may well be thankful that they lived, rode, and shot.
"The long-tailed heroes of the revolver," to pick a phrase from Mark Twain's unreverential treatment of them in Roughing It, often did society a service in shooting each other -- aside from providing entertainment to future generations. As "The Old Cattleman" of Alfred Henry Lewis' Wolfville stories says, "A heap of people need a heap of killing." Nor can the bad men be logically segregated from the long-haired killers on the side of the law like Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp. W. H. Hudson once advanced the theory that bloodshed and morality go together. If American civilization proceeds, the rage for collecting books on bad men will probably subside until a copy of Miguel Antonio Otero's The Real Billy the Kid will bring no higher price than a first edition of A. Edward Newton's The Amenities of Book-Collecting.
See "Fighting Texians," "Texas Rangers," "Range Life," "Cowboy Songs and Other Ballads."
BILLY THE KID
Pat F. Garrett, sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, killed the Kid about midnight, July 14, 1881. The next spring his Authentic Life of Billy the Kid was published at Santa Fe, at least partly written, according to good evidence, by a newspaperman named Ash Upton. This biography is one of the rarities in Western Americana. In 1927 it was republished by Macmillan, New York, under title of Pat F. Garrett's Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, edited by Maurice G. Fulton. This is now OP but remains basic. The most widely circulated biography has been The Saga of Billy the Kid by Walter Noble Burns, New York, 1926. It contains a deal of fictional conversation and it has no doubt contributed to the Robin-Hoodizing of the lethal character baptized as William H. Bonney, who was born in New York in 1859 and now lives with undiminished vigor as Billy the Kid. Walter Noble Burns was not so successful with The Robin Hood of El Dorado: The Saga of Joaquin Murrieta (1932), or, despite hogsheads of blood, with Tombstone (1927).
CANTON, FRANK M.
COE, GEORGE W.
FORREST, E. R.
HALEY, J. EVETTS
LANKFORD, N. P.
RAINE, WILLIAM MCLEOD
SABIN, EDWIN L.
WILD BILL HICKOK
Southwest Classics On-Line | Lone Star Junction
Online Edition Copyright © 1997 Lone Star Junction. All rights reserved.