In The Kid and Me Frederick Turner deftly re-creates the Lincoln County War in what was then New Mexico Territory. The 1878 war pitted an established faction led by James Dolan against new arrivals in the county led by John Tunstall and Alexander McSween. When Tunstall and McSween opened a dry-goods store in 1876 in a direct challenge to Dolan’s monopoly on the dry-goods business, trouble was inevitable. Both the Dolan and the Tunstall-McSween factions garnered supporters, including lawmen, criminal gangs, and ranch hands. The ambush and murder of Tunstall by a local sheriff’s posse loyal to Dolan sparked a wave of revenge killings and bloody reprisals in which Billy the Kid—one of Tunstall’s ranch hands—played a prominent role. Narrated by George Coe, an aged veteran of New Mexico’s Lincoln County War but now a devout painter of village churches, The Kid and Me tells what it felt like to ride alongside Billy the Kid, whom Coe both admired and greatly feared. Gang loyalty, extreme violence, political corruption in the highest places, and profound moral ambiguity characterize this tale of what made the American West wild.
|Publisher:||UNP - Bison Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Frederick Turner is the author or editor of several books, including The Go-Between: A Novel of the Kennedy Years and 1929: A Novel of the Jazz Age.
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You say you like this one, eh? No? This one, maybe? It's San Rafael Church at La Cueva. This here is at Guadalupe over to Fort Sumner; it's nine with the frame, seven without. But like I always tell folks, it's worth the extra two when you figure in what it's going to cost you to hunt up a frame and make certain it's the right size. When you figure in your time, the gasoline for your automobile, and what you'll pay another man for his frame, why, hellfire, you're better off paying me the nine and be done with it. I told this to a feller from Uvalde the other day, come through here with his wife on his way to Arizona — so he said — and he says, 'Well, why don't you figure in the flat tire I might get hunting up that other frame, and the patching for the tube, and maybe the tow if I happen to bend the rim and need a new one? That way,' he says, 'you're actually doing me a big favor selling me your picture and frame for nine. Maybe I should give you twelve and count myself ahead.' Then he says to me, 'Say, what hand do you do your pictures with, anyways?' So right then I knew he'd come down here on account of he'd heard about me and my finger and thumb and all. So, I just held my hand up and waggled it this way. I'm used to it, you see, after all these years. I paint with this here hand, I says, and I can still get a good grip even so. 'Is it true you took a bullet for the Kid?' says he. I answer that one of several ways, according on the situation and how I happen to be feeling that day and whether the feller might have along a pretty woman, which it happened this feller did. So I says, Well, now, if you was old Buckshot and five fellers come around a building on you, and you looked at 'em quick-like, and one of them was no more'n a boy by his looks, who would you try for, eh? Then I says, Look here, you buy the picture and this sack of apples for fifteen cents, and I'll take you up to the house and show you the finger — got it preserved in a jar. The bit of thumb wasn't worth saving.
You want to see it, too, do you? Well, come on then, and give me a ride in that smart rig of yours. Hip's giving me some trouble today, but, hellfire, I'm a good deal closer to eighty than I ever thought I'd get back when none of us figured old age into our calculations.
* * *
Often enough I tend to skip the preliminaries and go straight to the Kid and the war because I know goddamn well that's all folks is interested in, and some ain't even interested in the war. What they want is the Kid, the Kid, and I guess you can't blame them with all the stuff that's been put out on him the last fifty years or whatever it may be, and even that ain't really the half of it: there's still folks around here has their own Kid stories never been heard by strangers, ones passed down, some of 'em corkers, too, all about how the Kid and Jesse Evans raced their horses forty miles through broken country at night to spring a pardner from the hoosegow, and what Tom O'Folliard called Garrett after Pat shot him in the chest. The Mex people have their own stories and songs, too, more of them than any white man has heard. I used to hear some of these long ago, but now I don't go amongst them people as I once did. Stick pretty close to home, down to the stand, selling my fruit and my pictures.
Still, a good deal of this Kid stuff was picked up by a feller name of Wally Burns who come down here — oh, in the twenties, I'd say —, and he put it into a book which I understand got him considerable trouble from folks who said it wasn't true. Well, what is true? You really want to walk into a dance hall where some feller is up there singing a song he heard from his own pa, and it goes, 'I'll sing you a true song of Billy the Kid,' and afterwards you go up to him and say, 'Hey, there, what you sung about Billy the Kid — that ain't true.' You really want to do that? There might be better ways of getting a pool stick through your windpipe, but that'll do for me. I say there's different kinds of truth; not any old number of truths, mind you: the Kid got planted by Pat Garrett back in July of eighteen-eighty-one, and he's deader'n hell. That's the truth. But, far as the Kid's life is concerned, what folks thought about him then, what some of the things was he might have done, those are different things.
I know what I thought about him, and I have had many and many a thought about him down the years — way too many, it sometimes seems. But if your path crossed his, you wouldn't forget him, so when a feller like yourself asks about him you don't say, 'The Kid? What Kid?' Unless you got a reason. Also, I know the things I seen him do. There are other things I didn't see but heard about from them that was there — fellers I trust —, like Garrett who was a neighbor here for a spell, over on Eagle Creek. I spent a few days with him once when he was trying to put together an irrigation scheme, and he talked a good deal about the Kid, once I primed him with a good-sized glass of whiskey. My cousin Frank knew him well as I did, from the winter he bunked here — right over there where that low house is — and then when we was holed up a while over to San Patricio during the war. Then, way after the war was over, when the Kid was long dead and had become a hero, you might say, one night when Frank and me had got together to talk some business, why, we ended up talking about the Kid instead. Frank said what he recollected and I done the same. Before that we didn't see no point in raking up old happenings; safer to forget them. But then, all this other stuff comes along in between, including moving pictures and whatnot, and so then you get to wondering, What in hell did happen, anyway? But neither of us and not even the both of us put together knows the whole truth. Nobody does. Not even Garrett, who hunted the Kid down and killed him. So, if you come here for that, pardner, you come to the wrong place. Whatever the whole truth about him is, it's somewheres back there in them murdering days when he was alive.
* * *
I was born in Iowa, Washington County, eighteen-fifty-six. That's a fact, and it's the truth, too. Had four sisters and lots of cousins there but mostly down in Missouri just over the line, around Memphis and Queen City. Us Coes was a sprawl of a family, and for that time I believe there was quite a lot of visiting, but I don't have good recollections of them earliest years on account of the fact my mother died when I was but a tad, and after that we was split up and swapped about all over the place. Queen City was where I got to know my cousin Frank and we become fast friends, close as brothers, and stayed that way till he died three years back, April. He's buried in the family cemetery up the hill back of here. One of these old days I'll join him there.
Frank was six years older than me, but still he took a shine to me, and we did a lot of kid stuff in the fields and woods when we wasn't doing chores. It was him taught me to shoot a rifle and generally how to behave around guns, which later on come in handy. We had a deal of fun popping birds and rabbits and squirrels, and some of them ended up on the supper table. Once, Frank shot a red fox that we skinned out and tacked up on the bedroom wall, and many a night, lying next to one another, we'd look up at it in the lantern light and recollect how he gut-shot it, and it run a good ways straight across the field, but before it got to the woods it teetered over and died. One time, just hellingaround with a rifle, we shot a dominecker rooster and got the peedoodle whipped out of us by Frank's pa, Jasper Coe, who told us to meet him in the barn — took a harness strap to us. Frank went first and got it hardest on account of Jap figured him to have known better, but having to watch was maybe worse, since I had to get it twice, in a manner of speaking.
My own pa had some of the goddamnedest luck of any white man I ever seen — except Tunstall and McSween and that one-armed lawyer, all of 'em gunned down during the war just for being in the wrong spot. Now, you take fighting men such as Hendry Brown and Charlie Bowdre and the like, well, hellfire, you got to figure that one day you're going to get yours. But Tunstall and McSween, and Chapman — that was the one-armed feller —, not a one of them ever carried a sidearm nor fired a shot in the war, and all of them gunned down, senseless-like, especially old Tunstall who, when he seen a bunch of riders fanning down a draw towards him, he took off his hat and waved it at them, thinking they must be neighbors, come to pay him a visit. Oh, they paid him a visit, all right. Never knew what took him. I read a story in the papers once about a feller sitting in his rocker on his gallery somewheres, smoking his pipe, just enjoying the moment, and here come a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky and killed him dead on the spot — pipe dropped out of his hand still smoking. How about that for bad luck, eh?
But, like I said, my pa had hell for luck: had four wives and three of them died on him, starting with my mother. The fourth lived and was mean as a rattler, and was the cause of me leaving home to come out here on account of I couldn't stand her another damn day. Pa seen it coming and had relations was driving cows down to Santa Fe and needed hands. I had no experience in that line of work, though I had been up on a horse before I was house-broke. I knew milk cows, all right, but herding head on a trail is altogether different. I didn't care what it took, though; my mind was set. Pa and me said our goodbyes where the trail forked up above Macon, him standing there holding my horse's bridle and the wind blowing so hard he had to holler up to me. 'Son,' he hollers, 'you got a good horse under you there. You got a good saddle. You got a good rifle. Best of luck to you, and goodbye.' He give old Chunk a whack on his rump and away I went, south to join up with the drive. That was just the way things was them days when so many was going west. You said your goodbyes to your kin, your neighbors and friends, and it was the same as saying, 'See you in Heaven,' or wherever else you judged they might fetch up: you never figured on seeing them again in life or hearing of them, neither, the mails then not being what they become, and most folks wasn't much hand at writing, anyways. I don't know for certain if my pa knew how. Me, I learned to write and figure well before I hit the trail, but if I've wrote ten letters since that day, I've wrote a hundred. Maybe a good half of these I wrote to Cella when I was courting her, and that took more out of me than looking at a gun pointed at me, which I have had done a time or two — just gripping that pencil like anything and licking the lead twenty times a word. You hesitate like that in a gun battle, pardner, you're a gone goose. But it must have worked for me some ways, because she married me after a fair spell, and all these years later, here we are. She's a fine woman, as you'll see when she gets back — she's up the hill visiting with her sister who is doing poorly. She don't hold with my lingo, but she knows I can't help it — just comes out that way, cuss words and all. But I go to church with her almost ever Sunday, except when I wasn't here and was off somewheres, painting my pictures of churches. So, you might say that one way or another I never truly missed a meeting.
* * *
After I caught up with the drive we was on the trail a good three months and ever day the same, except when something bad happened — storms, stampedes, Indians, which we never seen ourselves, though once we come upon some of their handiwork with some burnt-up wagons with just the iron parts left and some human bones scattered about and picked clean. And ever day there was dust. By Godfrey, I had never seen dust like that back in Missouri. Dust from the wind. Dust kicked up by them shit-asses we was trying to keep together. Dust from our horses and the herds of wild horses and buffalo. At the end of the day when Kip Brown — that was Jap Coe's brother-in-law — would call a halt, you'd look at the hand nearest you, and his face would be all streaky brown under his bandanna, and his eyes would be like two tiny sparks of fire. And then you knew just what you looked like.
Kip Brown had it in for me, I don't know why, since we was kin. I wasn't the best hand he had, I know that, and it took me a while before I got the general idea. But I wasn't the worst, neither: that would have been Billy Hersh, who got thrown and hit a big rock down in Kansas, and before dawn of the next day was dead. We buried him right next to the rock that killed him, figuring that if somehow his people back in Fulton was trying to find out what happened to him, we could give them something of a marker. Not likely considering everthing, but sometimes you'll do things just because they make you feel better even though they don't make much sense, which this didn't. Anyhow, as we was digging the grave and trying to straighten Billy out so he would fit in it and look a bit decent, Kip Brown was standing off to the side and kept hauling out that big clock he called a watch and mumbling about the time of day. This was just like him; he was a real shit, and, like I say, rode me like a hired burro, and not long after Billy Hersh got it things between us come to a head.
It was just an ordinary day on the trail, cows kind of quiet and lazing along, when all at once a coyote streaked out of some brush and spooked the leaders, and before I knew it I was a-fogging after that critter and snapping at him with my pistol — damn fool kid thing. But then, I think by that time all of us was a little loco from all them days under that sky that seemed to just stretch on forever and didn't have no mercy to it. Anyways, when I got back, my horse all lathered and my sidearm empty, there was Kip Brown, fat bastard, and he lit into me something terrible, called me everything from a worthless son of a bitch to a pig-fucking sodbuster, and I sat there listening to it go on and on. Finally, I got down real slow. 'What the fuck you doing off your horse,' he says. 'Get back up there and do your job before I take this here rope to you.' I had my back to him, and I reached and pulled my rifle out of the scabbard and turned around and cracked down on him. 'Listen,' I says, 'you've hazed me long enough. You're all the time worrying about the time, but by Godfrey, if you don't let up on me right quick, we're going to have to take more time yet for another funeral.' 'Course, I had no way of knowing what I looked like at that moment, but he must have seen something in my eyes that said I wasn't bluffing because he didn't say nothing, just turned his horse and nudged it into a trot, going away. Safest thing he could have done: I would have shot him, only I couldn't shoot him in the back, not even Kip Brown.
Well sir, that give me plenty to think about that night, wrapped up in my blanket, and other nights to come when I'd be riding night guard and out there all by my lonesome. I'd go back and back to that moment. Before it I had been wondering if I had it in me to kill a man if I had to. You naturally would wonder about it them days what with the Civil War, Quantrill, and the James gang: growing up, you heard that kind of talk all the time from older folks. What would you do if it come down to you or him? But now, with this business with Kip Brown under my belt, seemed like I had been given an answer, and it steadied me considerable, then and after. Meanwhile, I didn't have another ugly word out of old Kip. He cussed everbody, that being his nature, but all he ever said to me was, 'You get on over there and help Felton keep that edge,' and the like. So that part of it sunk in, too — him leaving me be. And all of this was quite shortly to come in handy when I got down to New Mexico Territory on account of down here you didn't have to look for trouble; trouble was always on your trail and a-coming hard. Here you had to know that if it was you or him, by Godfrey, it was going to be him if you could manage it. And even if it turned out you couldn't, at least you wouldn't die on your knees in the dirt, begging for a life that wouldn't be worth nothing to you on account of everbody would know you for a coward, and so wherever you went you wasn't safe, ever man's hand against you, as the Bible has it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Kid and Me"
Copyright © 2018 Frederick W. Turner.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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