Friday, June 12, 2015

Adventure classics -- The girl who loved Billy the Kid

The Ancient Child
by N. Scott Momaday
What is it about dangerous men that women find irresistible? In The Ancient Child, Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday sets an orphaned young woman named Grey on a collision course with two of those dangerous types. One is a member of Momaday’s own Kiowa tribe. But the other, the one Grey is most passionately involved with, is a young outlaw.

Would Grey’s surviving family members, Milo and Jessie Mottledmare, be relieved or only more alarmed if they knew that the love of their young cousin’s life is a man who died before she was born, legendary outlaw Billy the Kid (aka Henry McCarty and William Bonney, among other aliases)?

Grey has been chosen by her recently deceased great-grandmother to be a medicine woman, a woman of great spiritual power. Now just out of her teens, and believing herself destined to aid in the regeneration of another cousin, the artist Locke Setman (Set), “it occurred to her that Billy the Kid, companion, lover, confidant, and hero of her girlhood, who had drawn her into the deepest mythic currents of the Wild West, was deserving of commemoration,” which takes the place of a chapbook to be entitled, “‘The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid’. . . of 21 poems and prose pieces, one for each year of Billy’s life.”

Momaday writes: “she saw more deeply than most into that side of Billy that was kind and gentle, that part of him that secured his legend beyond time. It is, she knew, the admixture of the violent and the benign that seems so central to the American experience and so powerful in the American imagination.”

For those brought up on the tales of the bloodthirsty gunman, Grey’s vision of a gentle Billy seems odd, but is she following a version of the outlaw’s story that made him an Old West folk hero, the Lincoln County War of what was then the New Mexico Territory of the 1870’s.

It starts most unromantically with a feud between the economic monopoly of Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, and wealthy English immigrant John Tunstall, in partnership with a local attorney and rancher. At first it seems only a clash of new against old, enterprise against monopoly, rectitude against corruption. But soon members of the Murphy-Dolan faction ambushed Tunstall and several of his cowboys, including Billy. After Tunstall’s death, his ranch hands and several locals formed a group called the Regulators to avenge his murder.

Both sides have lawmen in their pockets, and order dissolves into chaos. After several months of killings, the Regulators are vanquished. In 1881, New Mexico Territory's governor, Lew Wallace, puts a price on a previously little-noticed young outlaw.

“¿QuiĆ©n es?” Billy asks, isolated and trapped, in a scene Grey witnesses in her visions. But more than Sheriff Patrick Garret is knocking at the door. And Billy the Kid passes into legend.

Sleep, Billy, Billy,
Sleep, Billy, sleep;
May your sleep be dark and deep.

(Next Friday Adventure classics continues a June of writing about the Southwest with a final look at The Ancient Child.)

No comments:

Post a Comment