'Before Billy the Kid' looks at outlaw before he was famous

A look at the famous New Mexico outlaw before he was known as ‘The Kid’

“Before Billy the Kid” by Melody Groves

Books about the outlaw Billy the Kid keep coming. The latest is “Before Billy the Kid: The Boy Behind the Legendary Outlaw.”

The author is Melody Groves, an award-winning Albuquerque writer of Western fiction and nonfiction.

In an author’s note, Groves writes about her growing curiosity about the youngster William Henry McCarty, branded Billy the Kid late in his short life. That curiosity led her to take a strong interest in what she called the human side of the legend. Billy’s personality, manner, looks, emotions and interests are referenced in this compact biography. Billy is described as “soft-spoken” and as “a likable, easygoing teenager.” There’s a brief description of Billy’s physiognomy at age 16: “Wavy brown hair topped an oval face betraying the down of incipient mustache and beard. Expressive blue eyes caught everyone’s notice. So did slightly protruding front teeth.”

Groves writes that he was a gentleman around women, that Hispanic men, generally, liked him, while many Anglo men thought he was out to steal their cattle.

Melody Groves

In the chapter “The Making of the Kid” there’s a series of unattributed descriptions about Billy’s nature: He “combined good humor with a flaming, hair-trigger temper. When provoked he could explode into deadly rage that carried no warning. However, he was sunny by nature, open and generous. He laughed frequently … He boasted a quick mind and superior intelligence, and he could read and write.”

In the chapter “Catching the ‘Fever,’ ” Groves writes about Billy’s musicality. When his family briefly lived in Santa Fe in the mid-1870s, he played piano in the lobby of Santa Fe’s Exchange Hotel (also known as La Fonda) and he was a busker, taking his “beautiful tenor voice” to the streets to make extra money.

Groves writes that newspaper articles and friends noted Billy’s interest in “song, dance, harmonica playing and acting.”

The family left Santa Fe for a mining camp near Silver City and then moved to the boom town that was Silver City. There Billy continued to demonstrate his artistic talents, Groves writes, acting in school plays, singing in Spanish and dancing to Spanish folksongs.

“I think he’s a boy all the way through,” Groves said in a phone interview. “By the age of 14 he had to be a man when he took off from Silver City for Arizona to find his absent stepfather (William Antrim).”

Another reason Billy fled was a Silver City boarding house owner reported him to authorities for having clothes she suspected were stolen.

“Billy was an orphan kid and she wondered where he got the nice clothes,” Groves said.

The book relates Billy’s time along the New Mexico-Arizona border, where he was a nomadic cowboy, and became an excellent horseman while honing his Spanish language skills.

“In many ways, Billy the Kid is my outlaw and my hero,” she writes.

Groves says that sentiment comes in part from growing up in Las Cruces.

Her family home was in a pecan orchard about a mile from La Mesilla, where Billy had stood trial in early 1881 for the killing of Sheriff William Brady in Lincoln.

Groves remembers she and a neighbor kid walking through cotton fields and past an old adobe house to reach La Mesilla Plaza’s cobblestone streets. They headed for a souvenir shop that had originally been the town jail.

Groves said she imagined Billy pleading his case to a jury – that he hadn’t fired at Brady, but rather at Deputy Billy Mathews against whom he held a grudge. The jury found Billy the Kid guilty of killing Brady.

“There was something that attracted me to him. He fought injustice. He was accused of all sorts of things. … He wasn’t given opportunities he should have had. For example, he wanted to buy a ranch. He wasn’t taken seriously because he looked so young. He was not treated fairly,” Groves argued.

The author’s note also states, “He was a man of his time, a boy who did the best he could under trying circumstances, a boy forced into adulthood before he was ready,” In effect, a man-boy, as many other children in the West no doubt were.

Groves said she tried to clear up misconceptions about facts about Billy as a child. “There’s a lot of conjecture. That’s what I did, (put in) a lot of conjecture. But I did it logically, and from a woman’s point of view,” she said

Because his mother Catherine McCarty did not leave a family Bible, no proof exists of Billy’s birthdate and place of birth, Groves said.

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