Emilio Estevez, Val Kilmer,
Kris Kristofferson and even Paul Newman have played him in movies, of
which there have been over fifty. Hundreds of books have been written
about him, as well as songs and even a ballet composed in his honor. But
who was Billy the Kid, really? Who was he outside of pop culture,
according to those who knew him, rode with him? What would you make of
him if you were to meet him today?
The first thing you’d likely notice would be his sunny disposition. Even
when he was captured for the final time, with guns trained on him, a
witness said, "There was Billy, cheerful and chattering, excitement
lighting up his face."
Later, during a newspaper interview, the
reporter commented that Billy didn’t seem terribly worked up about his
looming execution. Billy responded, "No sense in looking on the gloomy
side of everything."
When the crowd gathered around the stage
that was transporting him to jail, clamoring to catch a glimpse of the
infamous Kid, Billy placed his hands on the judge who had convicted him,
saying "This is your man, right here."
Frank Coe, who used to ride with him,
said that Billy "found a touch of humor in everything."
One thing that stands out after reading a
lot of firsthand accounts is that Billy seemed to have a high energy
level. He is described as having "dancing eyes" on more than one
occasion. He was always constantly fiddling with his guns. He could
twirl a pistol on both hands, spinning in opposite directions—a talent
fueled, no doubt, by the fact that his was ambidextrous. Lily Klasner
said, "The Kid was as active and graceful as a cat. At Seven Rivers he
practiced continually with pistol or rifle, often riding at a run and
dodging behind the side of his mount to fire, as the Apaches did." After
reading about his high energy levels and constant movement, I have to
wonder if today’s doctors would diagnose him with ADHD.
Billy was also known for being a
gentleman. George Coe said, "He was the center of attention everywhere
he went, and though heavily armed, he seemed as gentlemanly as a
college-bred youth. He quickly became acquainted with everyone and
because of his humorous and pleasing personality grew to be a community
Miguel Otero, who met Billy after his
final capture, reported that he liked Billy very much. "Nothing would
have pleased me more than to have witnessed his escape. He had his share
of good qualities and was very pleasant. He had a reputation for being
considerate of the old, the young and the poor; he was loyal to his
friends and above all, loved his mother devotedly."
Frank Coe reports that Billy was "always
in a good humor and ready to do a kind act for someone."
All this might lead you to think Billy
was popular with the ladies. To that, I say a resounding, "hell yes." He
was known to have a string of queridas (sweethearts) in every little
village in New Mexico. He knew all the dances of the day and always
attended them. Despite loving parties, Billy didn’t drink. When he’d
ride into town, while his friends were getting liquored up, Billy would
hang out at the McSween house. He'd belt out tunes while the local
pastor's wife played the piano. His old friend Frank Coe said, "In fact,
Billy was so popular that there wasn’t enough of him to go around. He
had a beautiful voice and sang like a bird."
Billy was a pretty intelligent guy. He worked out a deal with the
governor of New Mexico and when you
read their correspondence you’ll see his grasp of language is
impressive (to say nothing of the penmanship). Especially when you
consider he was a teenager at the time. As if that weren't enough, he
spoke Spanish as well as a native speaker. Many of his friends were
married to Hispanic women and Billy would step in and translate when
Billy also loved reading. According to
Frank Coe, "Billy got to be quite a reader. He would scarcely have
dishes washed until he would be sprawled out somewhere reading a book."
Billy liked dime novels and one of his
favorites was early science fiction pioneer, Jules Verne. Pat Garrett
had this to say: "Billy always had his eyes to the future. It’s why he
was so good as escaping. He kept one step ahead of you all the time."
I have to wonder what Billy would make of
this future—where he somehow became a household name. I think those
dancing eyes would light up and he’d throw back his head and laugh. But
I’m realistic. I know he’d probably sneak off before we'd really have a
chance to talk.
© Terri Meeker for Legends of America,