William H. Bonney, Billy the Kid, is one of the best-remembered gunfighters of the old west. There are very few confirmed facts known about his life, and authors draw different conclusions from these facts. Movies and books have portrayed him from the shiniest hero to the darkest villain. It is a daunting task to write about him, or any other famous person, and have it ring true. Robert M. Utley has done that in his book, Billy the Kid: A Short Violent Life.
Early in this book Utley cites the Code of the West as a big influence on making Billy the Kid. The code was ambition, alcohol, firearms and don't back down from anything. Bonney didn't drink or smoke, but he did practice with pistols, became proficient in their use, and didn't back down. Billy Bonney came to this conflict as a teen-ager and willingly jumped into the culture of guns and violence.
Ambition was the basis for the Lincoln Count War. The Murphy-Dolan organization controlled the commerce in Lincoln County and the Tunstall-McSween group wanted to replace them. Tunstall and McSween didn't want to provide better or fairer service, they wanted to replace the Murphy- Dolan faction and to make money. Of course, the Murphy-Dolan group didn't want to give up their advantage, and was willing to fight to keep their advantage. It is against this backdrop that the Lincoln County War takes place.
After the murders of Tunstall, Sheriff Brady, McSween and a four day siege,the war is over. To completely stop the war a general amnesty is issued by Governor Wallace, but Bonney didn't get his. He testified in court about the Murphy-Dolan faction, but the Judge invalidated Bonney's testimony. There were several people on both sides of the dispute deserving of punishment. Billy Bonney was the only one who paid when Sheriff Pat Garrett killed him. Up to the time of his capture and death sentence, he was a minor outlaw. After his escape from the Lincoln County jail, he was a legend, Billy the Kid.
The book is a detailed, slow and engrossing read. Utley has well documented it, and provided many footnotes and sources. He is a western historian with several books to his credit. There are undoubtedly mistakes in the book, but overall Utley backs up his material. It is a good book for a person that wants a biography of Billy the Kid, or as an addition to a Billy the Kid library.