There have been dozens of books written about Billy the Kid, so why pick up To Hell on a Fast Horse? Because of Mark Lee Gardner’s meticulous research which, in my opinion, gives far more substance to this subject than so many others written about the famous outlaw and the sheriff who hunted him down. The last 80 or so pages are all source notes because Gardner seems to have combed through every newspaper, journal, personal diary, and interview that ever mentioned William Bonney, Pat Garrett, and anyone in New Mexico who had ever known, set eyes on, or spoken to either of the famous men.
Gardner does not paint The Kid as some kind of romantic hero the way many accounts of the outlaw are written. One doesn’t read this book without understanding that The Kid aka Antrim aka Bonney was a coldblooded killer who stole horses, cattle, and lives. He was charming, lovable, and deadly. And, thanks to Garrett, dead at 21.
Garrett was the most interesting part of Gardner’s book for me. In all the books I’ve read on the subject, few commented on Garrett other than to brand him a killer for the way he killed The Kid. But as Gardner puts it, you can’t have one without the other. Whether he wanted it to or not, Garrett’s killing of the infamous Billy defined him for the rest of his life. Friends of Billy (and the outlaw had plenty) labeled Garrett a murderer and a coward for killing the outlaw without warning. Citizens who’d lived in fear of Bonney’s blazing guns called Garrett a hero. Many awarded him with money for removing a terrible threat from their community. But Garrett was no golden boy either. He had a lifelong addiction to gambling which placed his wife and eight children in a constant cycle of being flush then poor and forced Garrett to spend most of his time separated from his family while trying to earn money through mining schemes, horseracing, and outlaw hunting. His life after killing The Kid was a slow downward slide until he himself was murdered. Unfortunately, there were no Pat Garretts around to hunt down his own killers.
Gardner collects a wealth of information and shares it in a way that is informative and engaging. Just as he did with Shot All to Hell, Gardner takes a popular subject that has been frequently rehashed and makes it fresh and new. A must read for fans of the American West and American history.