Growing up in a small Missouri town in "the heart of Jesse James country," Mark Lee Gardner and his friends would chase each other through the schoolyard pantomiming holdups, manhunts and violent showdowns.
"We all wanted to be Jesse James," muses the 49-year-old Gardner. "We wanted to be the outlaw."
Now an author and historian living in Cascade, Gardner recognizes that the real heroes were likely the men who captured or killed criminals. But when he and his agent discussed book ideas looking for one with the widest appeal, the lure of the outlaw rose again.
Gardner had suggested a book on Pat Garrett, the sheriff known only as a footnote for ending Billy the Kid's legend. The agent liked the idea, but thought Gardner should make it a dual biography, intertwining both men's tales.
That's when it clicked.
"I realized there would not be a Pat Garrett without Billy the Kid," he says. "And there would not be a Billy the Kid without Pat Garrett. Pat Garrett had to kill Billy on July 14, 1881 to make him a legend. Had he been taken to jail and executed, I don't think he would have become the iconic figure that he is now."
Inspired, Gardner wrote up a proposal. And sure enough, the author soon had big publishers calling. The result is a lively, fact-packed, shoot-'em-up tale called To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West, coming this month from William Morrow.
On the outlaw's trail
Having just opened boxes with 50 finished copies of the book straight from the publisher, Gardner recalls what it took to get to this point. Confessing a tendency to "over-research" he says he compressed six years of work into half that time: "I pulled more all-nighters with this book than I ever did in college."
In the process Gardner crisscrossed the Southwest, visiting most of the locales that appear in the story as well as places that house Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid archives. He pored over treasures like letters written between Garrett and his children, and first-person accounts from old-timers who recalled the exploits of The Kid.
But, ironically, Gardner says, one of his greatest finds was close at hand. He credits an online database of old newspapers with allowing him to discover details that earlier historians had missed.
"I open one chapter with a description of how [New Mexico Territory Governor] Lew Wallace prepared in the event that Billy the Kid might ride into town to fulfill his threat of killing him. And what Wallace did — according to a newspaper story — every day he went out with his pistol behind the Palace of the Governors and practiced shooting targets. Just in case."
Gardner points out that this level of research allowed him to ensure that every line of dialogue in the book is quoted from a primary source, and every incident he described is factual.
"As a writer, I would have loved to have written using the myths like every other writer got to do," says Gardner with a laugh, "but I felt like I should tell the truth. And really, it's just as dramatic a story.
"You have someone with amazing characters of personality — Billy is charismatic, he's charming, he was very well-liked by the native New Mexican population, he's a ladies' man — I mean, women absolutely loved him — and he dies young. You have all these things that come together to make him somewhat of a folk hero."
Truth and justice
Though he enjoyed adding details that enlivened Billy's story, Gardner says that as a historian, he found greater satisfaction in learning more about Garrett's life.
"I'll tell you, one of the things that I did not expect going in to the book, was to come out an admirer of Pat Garrett," he says, explaining that as The Kid's tale has grown into legend — helped by fictionalized films like Young Guns — Garrett has morphed into a villain.
"Now, he had his flaws," admits Gardner. "He was an inveterate gambler in both poker as well as land and cattle ... and he had his problems. But when he was sheriff, he had a high sense of responsibility and duty."
All that hit Gardner even harder when he made a sad discovery in a Minnesota bookstore while on a research trip: "I picked up this book called The Book of Assassins, and I thought, you know, I wonder if Pat Garrett is in here — I was kind of half afraid that he was — and he's in there. He's in that book. He's in with John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald.
"I thought, this is such as travesty. This is a duly elected county sheriff, and he's in a book of assassins with the man who killed Abraham Lincoln."
That incident gave the author even greater reason to appreciate having taken on the icons in his research and writing.
"I really hope this book will give Garrett his due," Gardner says, "and also ... Billy."