Lest We Forget, New Mexico Is Pat Garrett Country as Well as Billy the Kid Country
The Lincoln County sheriff wasn’t perfect, but he rode hard after justice
Mention “Billy the Kid Country” and most of us, thanks to various tourism-minded folks, instantly think of New Mexico—Lincoln (town and county), Fort Sumner, Silver City, Mesilla, Las Vegas, Santa Fe. Pat Garrett, the sheriff who killed the Kid, has connections to those same places, but sometimes it seems he is about as loved in the Land of Enchantment as a Texas sidewinder. Mention “Pat Garrett Country,” and some Americans might think of the country singer-songwriter of that name, whose body of work includes “Moose Shootin’ Mama,” “The Tea Party Song,” “Monica Lewinsky Polka” and “Heartless Man.” It’s true that whenever Billy is mentioned, Pat and his shot in the dark at Fort Sumner in July 1881 isn’t far behind. But let’s face it, the roadrunner is New Mexico’s state bird, and Billy the Kid is the Road Runner to Pat Garrett’s Wile E. Coyote.
There is a catch, if you will. In dusty old New Mexico Territory, Coyote Pat really did catch the Road Runner Kid—twice (at Stinking Spring and then at Fort Sumner). Not that it gained Garrett any respect in certain circles. Yes, the sheriff received adulation for ridding the territory of the Kid, but he was also accused of murder, or at least of not fighting fair. Newspapers and dime novels slandered the sheriff to such an extent that in 1882 he jointed forces with ghostwriter Ash Upton to set the record straight in a book. Mostly due to truth embroiderer Upton, the mission was not accomplished. Just look at the title, The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid: The Noted Desperado of the Southwest, Whose Deeds of Daring and Blood Have Made His Name a Terror…, and the way the author is identified—“By Pat Garrett, Sheriff of Lincoln County, N.M., by Whom He Was Finally Hunted Down and Captured by Killing Him.” Poor Pat, if it doesn’t say so in his own book, has been viewed as a lawman not man enough to best the Kid in a face-to-face daylight showdown.
In his 2007 book Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride, Michael Wallis notes that authors have written hundreds of books about the Kid, and he expects hundreds more in the future. While Leon Metz wrote a fine biography of Pat in 1974, it often gets lost among all those Billy books. Wallis adds that no matter how the Kid is portrayed (“champion of the oppressed” or “satanic psychopath”), “his ride across our popular imagination will never end.” Just three years after Wallis’ book came Mark Lee Gardner’s To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West, which revisits the story as a dual biography. “While Billy continues to get the glory and the empathy, Pat Garrett will never be forgotten,” Gardner reminds us. One message to take from his book and his article in this issue (“Pat Garrett: The Life and Death of a Great Sheriff”) is that while Billy is forever riding along in our popular imagination, we should not ignore Pat close on his heels. “Americans,” he writes, “famously celebrate their outlaw heroes while giving short shrift to the lawmen who risked their lives (and too frequently lost their lives) to bring those outlaws to justice.”
Garrett descendants and others are unhappy with those who “discredit” Pat by saying he didn’t really kill the Kid or by arguing that the Kid deserves to be pardoned for his Lincoln County War crimes (a recent New Mexico governor decided against a posthumous pardon). That’s understandable, since Garrett has been underappreciated for decades. Still, one can regard Garrett as a hero, as Gardner does, without labeling the Kid a monster. Never mind what was said about Billy in the 1882 biography; Garrett at other times called the Kid “game” with “many good traits.” And Gardner reminds us of the words of Sallie Chisum, who knew both men well: “There was good mixed with the bad in Billy the Kid and bad mixed with good in Pat Garrett. Both were distinctly human, both remarkable personalities….Both were worth knowing.”