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Billy The Kid: New Novel Separates The Man From The Myth

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's venture back to a legendary moment in the American West - the New Mexico Territory, July 14, 1881. In the dark of night, Sheriff Pat Garrett corners a man who has eluded him for months - a famous gunslinger wanted for murder. Shots ring out, and the outlaw, Billy the Kid - 21 years old, boyishly handsome - falls dead. The legend of Billy the Kid, however, would live on. Biographies were published within months of his death, some of them mostly fictional and even one by Pat Garrett himself. Later, writers spun his story for dime novels and big-screen Hollywood Westerns.

RON HANSEN: I think they latched onto his story because he died young and because he seemed to personify so much about the Wild West.

MONTAGNE: Author Ron Hansen set himself the challenge of separating the man from the myth, like how many people the Kid actually killed. Accounts from the time were notoriously unreliable and offensive by today's standards.

HANSEN: In Pat Garrett's book, it was said that he killed one man for every year of his life, not counting Mexicans and Indians, which is an extraordinary statement. But we only have evidence of him actually killing four people, but mostly they were acts of self-defense.

MONTAGNE: Ron Hansen's new novel, called "The Kid," is steeped in historical research, beginning with how the boy, born William Henry McCarty to an Irish mother - charismatic and a lover of books - became a notorious and wanted man.

HANSEN: He was basically abandoned by his stepfather, and his mother died when he was 14. He was always kind of hero-worshipping older men, and he fell in with a man named Sombrero Jack, who got him to do some of his first stealing. And, of course, he actually needed the money, needed the food that he was stealing or the clothes. And it was - then he was arrested in Silver City at the age of 14 and managed to escape from jail. And his fascination with stealing horses and stealing cattle led him into more criminal pursuits.

MONTAGNE: So one step at a time. And maybe had his mother not died - and she sounds like this loving and very attractive woman - he may have gone in a different direction.

HANSEN: Yeah, I once described him as a captain of all he surveyed, had he been allowed to grow up in a normal way. He was a born leader of men, and he had an incredible charm with the ladies. They liked him for his dancing and his singing. All kinds of images of Billy came up through the historical record that have not often been touched on in films and other books about him.

MONTAGNE: Well, he also was famous in his day for getting away - you know, breaking out of jail. And I'm just wondering if the breakouts were because jails were so sort of lame at the time.

HANSEN: Yeah. When he was 14, as I said, he was put in jail in Silver City. And Billy got permission to walk the hallways with this one jailer. And he turned around, and Billy went up the chimney and scaled up inside until he got out. In fact, he would later escape from three other jails by scurrying up a chimney or climbing out over the walls.

MONTAGNE: And one time, I gather, he doused hot coals before he went up the chimney.

HANSEN: Right, exactly. Nobody expected him to do that, but because of his small size, he was able to do it. And Billy was more motivated to escape than they were to hold him.

MONTAGNE: As to what motivated Sheriff Pat Garrett to put Billy the Kid in his sights as enemy No. 1, that came down to a moment when times were changing. Broadly speaking, after a bloody feud that came to be known as the Lincoln County War between established cattlemen and businessmen versus newcomers, the powerful men of New Mexico wanted to shed their Wild-West ways as the territory became a more civilized American state.

HANSEN: They wanted to have fenced rangelands. Up until then, it was just open range. They wanted to have roads. They wanted to have railroad lines and telegraph lines. So they were looking for what they needed to get rid of. And they decided that Billy the Kid was the epitome of the outlaw that they could no longer support.

And so that's partly why Pat Garrett was elected to be sheriff - because he would be adamant in his pursuit in New Mexico that was impeding its development. And that development would make all these men rich, so he was exactly the person they needed to rub out.

MONTAGNE: And throughout all of this, the newspapers - how much did they cover his exploits as Billy the Kid?

HANSEN: It was constant. He would have friends bringing him newspapers from all over New Mexico, and he would read about his life. In fact, he would - on one occasion, at least, he wrote the editor of the newspaper, saying that this seemed to be figments of somebody's imagination; I didn't do any of those things.

But the newspaper stories caused other newspaper stories. It became - he was one of those famous-for-being-famous people, so he became something of a celebrity. And if you wanted to talk about the Wild West or about the criminals there, they just decided it was kind of easier to talk about Billy the Kid.

MONTAGNE: And is that partly, do you think, why he has endured all of these years? Or is there just something else about him that goes right to the American psyche?

HANSEN: There's that old saying about dying young and with a pretty face and how romantic that is. I think that was happening with Billy, to a certain extent. All the people around him who lived to old age became really ordinary. Billy was cut down at the time when he was still an extraordinary figure, and so the legend could only grow.

America has an attraction to violence that has persisted, of course. I think that we've always made heroes of outlaws. They seem perfectly free as opposed to the rest of us, who are living conventional lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLY 1")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Lawman on your trail. He'd like to catch you.

MONTAGNE: Ron Hansen's new novel is called "The Kid." Thank you very much for speaking with us.

HANSEN: Thank you, Renee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLY 1")

DYLAN: (Singing) Billy, they don't like you to be so free. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.