To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West by Mark Lee Gardner; William Morrow (332 pages, $27).
Published in 2009, Mark Lee Gardner’s To Hell on a Fast Horse is a deep dive into Sheriff Pat Garrett’s legendary chase and final showdown with one of the wild west’s most notorious criminals: Billy the Kid. Between a thousand word of mouth retellings, the influence of melodramatic Hollywood films, and other criminals proclaiming themselves Billy the Kid to feed off his infamy, it’s a herculean task to cut through all hearsay in order to dig out the raw facts about what exactly happened in the New Mexican desert in 1881. Thankfully, Gardner has proven himself capable of that task within the pages of his book!
Patrick Floyd Jarvis Garrett was the bartender, customs agent, and sheriff who became famous for killing Billy the Kid. He actually became the sheriff of two New Mexican Counties, Lincoln County and Doña Ana County, making Billy the Kid’s crime spree in the region his responsibility.
Billy the Kid (born Henry McCarty), also known by the pseudonym William H. Bonney, was a NYC native who ended up becoming an outlaw and gunfighter in the frontier territories of the late 1800’s Wild West. He earned his infamy by gunning down eight men before ultimately being hunted down by Sheriff Garrett.
After killing a blacksmith during an altercation in August 1877 (inspiring the plot of Back to the Future Part III), McCarty became a wanted man in Arizona and returned to New Mexico, where he joined a group of cattle rustlers. He became well known in the region when he joined the Regulators and took part in the Lincoln County War of 1878. He and two other Regulators were later charged with killing three men, including Lincoln County Sheriff William J. Brady and one of his deputies.
McCarty’s notoriety began to grow in December 1880 when newspapers began to carry stories about his crimes across the nation. Sheriff Pat Garrett captured McCarty later that month. In April 1881, McCarty was tried for and convicted of Brady’s murder, and was sentenced to hang in May of that year. He escaped from jail on the 28th of April, killing two sheriff’s deputies in the process, and evaded capture for more than two months. Garrett shot and killed McCarty, by then aged 21, in Fort Sumner on July 14th, 1881.
Billy the Kid managed to become a wild west legend in part because after being sentenced to death and escaping his imprisonment, the general public had to wonder if this dangerous scoundrel would ever be caught, with newspapers snowballing the speculation and spectacle of it all across the nation. This infamy made him all the easier to track however, with his various names along with a photograph of himself being commonplace in newspapers and wanted posters across the region.
Mark Lee Gardner’s writing talent has painted a wonderfully detailed picture of the wild west’s villains and heroes alike here in the pages of To Hell on a Fast Horse. Even if you’re familiar with the legend of Billy the Kid, this time machine in the shape of a book will give you brand new insights on the characters of that legend and the hardships faced by both parties. Gardner holds a master’s degree in American Studies from the University of Wyoming and a bachelor’s degree in history and journalism from Northwest Missouri State University. He’s married with two kids and lives with his family at the foot of majestic Pikes Peak.
Donavon Anderson is a reference library assistant at May Memorial Library. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.