When Aaron Copland composed Billy the Kid in 1983, he must have known it would be impossible to depict even the salient details of the famous gunslinger’s short and violent life in twenty-odd minutes of music. He wrote instead a vivid, atmospheric piece that established the style he expanded on in his subsequent Americana words, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring. Rather than a history, Copland depicted a vision of the West: the struggle of the settlers’ journey across hundreds of miles of difficult wilderness; the jubilant energy of new-founded communities; the sudden, sweeping violence of the lawless frontier. These ideas, those stereotyped, and sometimes exaggerated, represent the Old West in the minds of many Americans, just as Billy the Kid represents a larger-than-life personality: the ruthless, but somehow gallant outlaw.

Patricia, Dickinson, with Dara Beckley, has created a new Billy the Kid that remains as faithful to the known events of the Kid’s life and death in New Mexico as the constraints of Copland‘s music and certain historical ambiguities allow. They have not only captured the legendary, swaggering and deadly Kid, but have given us a glimpse of a more realistic Billy, a young man who grieved for the untimely death of his mother, who enjoyed flirting with the Mexican girls, who was grateful for the second chance offered him by his friend, John Tunstall, and who wrote literate, clear-headed letters to Governor Lew Wallace, explaining his side of the Lincoln County War, and offering to testify against his powerful enemy, J.J. Dolan.

Born Henry McCarty in 1859, most likely in Missouri or New York, Billy came west to New Mexico with his mother, Catherine McCarty, and his brother Joseph. In silver city in 1874, Billy’s mother died of tuberculosis. He was fifteen. He spent the next couple of years getting into the kind of small-time trouble any unguided use might encounter. It was not until 1877, when he was eighteen, that he killed his first man, Windy Frank Cahill, in a fight in Arizona.

Billy fled back to New Mexico where he was befriended buy an Englishman, John Tunstall, who was hiring help for his ranch. Tunstall also owned a store in Lincoln and was being harassed by a mercantile monopoly, one of whose leaders was J.J. Dolan. Tunstall was competing directly with Dolan not only as a merchant, but as a rancher; in dispute were very lucrative beef contracts to supply Fort Stanton. To defend himself against Dolan’s thugs, Tunstall gathered a crew of young men, including Billy; who name themselves the Regulators. Billy, who had gained a new start on life in Tunstall’s employ, was now on a path that would lead him back to violence as the Lincoln County War escalated.

A sheriff’s posse killed Tunstall in an ambush, sparking revenge from the Regulators who carried the war to Lincoln’s streets. After a fight that left two dead, Billy alone out of all the Regulators present was arrested and sentenced to hang. He escaped twice and was recaptured, escaped again killing two men, and was finally run to earth in Fort Stanton by Sheriff Pat Garrett. One story claims that Billy had been unable to resist coming into town to see a young Hispanic girl who lived there. His presence in Fort Stanton reached Garrett’s ears and the sheriff and his men found out where the Kid was staying. On July 14, 1881, Garrett shot Billy through the heart in the dark as he returned, perhaps from a visit to his inamorata.

Billy the Kid died at the age of twenty-two. Like the number of kills attributed to him (only four are proven, including Frank Cahill), the legend he left behind would continue to grow with every retelling, making him a mythic figure in the history of the Old West.

-P.G. Nagle-