Melody Groves was not born in the Old West, but it’s fair to say it lives inside her.
The earliest memories of the Las Cruces native are infused with the history, excitement, the color, smell and terrain of the West. She has pursued its past with the passion of a posse hell-bent on justice, or something similar.
“I’d go into the desert and places like Hatch and Rincon with my mom and dad,” she said. “I’d ride horses and visit ghost towns. My dad liked to listen to Western music, and my parents had a friend who would come by on a horse that was 18 hands high. This friend was the neatest guy. I remember he had a big hat. That, to me, was the West.”
It seems only natural that after a career teaching high school and middle school in Albuquerque, Groves would turn to writing about the West. She has 13 books, fiction and nonfiction, to her credit. One of the most recent, “Before Billy the Kid: The Boy Behind the Legendary Outlaw,” has been awarded the Western Writers of America Spur Award for biography.
The book explores the earliest days in the life of a gunhand and horse thief who died young, a youth Groves describes as polite, educated and popular, someone who spoke Spanish fluently and liked to sing and dance.
“Billy was fun,” Groves said. “I would have liked to have known him.”
The WWA, founded in 1953, is a national organization made up of more than 700 professional writers. The organization presents the Spur Awards for excellence in writing about the West in 19 categories. In addition to Groves, New Mexico Spur winners this year include Bob Rosebrough, Gallup, for contemporary nonfiction book; Larry D. Thomas, Las Cruces, for poem; and Randy Huston, Rociada, for song. Several New Mexicans were also Spur finalists. Winners and finalists will be honored during WWA’s convention June 21-24 in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Groves, 70, lives in Albuquerque and continues to explore the West – from Missouri to Nevada, Texas to Saskatchewan and all over New Mexico – with her husband, Myke, 70, a retired filmmaker and a photographer whose photos have appeared in his wife’s books and magazine articles.
She remembers vividly the first time she saw Andrew Grzelachowski’s old mercantile store in Puerto de Luna, New Mexico. That’s where the Kid, then a prisoner on his way to jail in Las Vegas, New Mexico, ate his last Christmas dinner in 1880.
“There was this big, old store and the threshold was all worn down,” Groves recalled during a recent interview in her Northeast Heights home. “There was this old man there, 110 years if he was a day. He said his dad remembered Billy the Kid coming to dances at the store.”
Not far from where Groves is sitting in her living room, there’s a mahogany drum table that once belonged to Pat Garrett, the Lincoln County sheriff who shot and killed Billy on July 14, 1881, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
Groves doesn’t put any stock in stories that the man Garrett killed was not Billy and that the Kid lived on, lying low in Mexico or elsewhere.
“He was so popular, he would have resurfaced (if he were still alive),” she said.
It is likely more has been written about Billy the Kid than any other Old West character. Why was Groves moved to add another book to that massive pile of print?
“I have about 30 books about Billy and they are all by men,” she said. “I’m female and see things from a different point of view.”
One thing she brings to her book are new ideas about what motivated Catherine McCarty, the Kid’s mother.
“I just kind of connected the dots,” she said.
Guns and bruises
Groves is not afraid to go to extremes to experience the more authentic aspects of the West she loves. When she was 48, she went to bullriding school in Denver.
“I was the only woman in the class,” she said. “The rest were men and the oldest of them was 36.”
Her first bull was named Smiley, maybe because he knew how attempts to ride him would turn out.
“I got out of the chute and into the arena before I came off, in about 2 seconds,” she said. “I came off on my back and then my head. I literally saw stars. I got a concussion.”
Two years later, now 50, she returned to the school. Maybe she had forgotten how her first go-round there turned out. That can happen with concussions.
She got on a total of five bulls during her two stints at the school, but did not stay on any of them for the 8 seconds required to score.
“Eight seconds doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but when you are on a back of that bull it feels like forever,” she said. “The last bull I went on, it was my fault I got hurt because I didn’t warm up enough. I ripped my shoulder muscles. I went about 3.5 seconds.”
For 10 years, starting in the ’90s, she was a member of the New Mexico Gunfighters Association, which staged gunfights in Albuquerque’s Old Town and other places around the city and the state.
“We reenacted the shooting of Billy in Fort Sumner, right where the house he was killed in had been,” she said. “Summer storm clouds, purple clouds were building up. Just as Billy got shot, there was this lightning. It was amazing.”
Groves said that even though the bullets were blanks, taking part in those gunfights gave her an adrenalin rush that helped her sense what the real thing might have been like.
“I played a harpy wife, a dumb deputy and the bad guy,” she said of her leather-slapping days. “And I got to shoot a gun.”
Groves’ first book, published in 2006, was “Ropes, Reins, and Rawhide: All About Rodeo,” in which she examines the history of the sport and explains its inner workings.
Since then she has written nonfiction about the Butterfield stage line, historic bars of the Southwest and Western lawmen who were also outlaws. Her fiction includes six novels in the Colton Brothers Saga, about the adventures of four siblings in the West of the 1860s, and two novels about Maud Overstreet, a woman who becomes sheriff in a California community in the 1870s. Now, she is mulling over a new fiction series about a man who wants to be an outlaw.
“I like fiction,” she said. “It’s not quite so frustrating as nonfiction. Just organizing and cataloging sources (for nonfiction) can be a trial.”
But it’s different with fiction. The Colton Brothers books came alive in her head while she was still teaching school.
“The characters would come sit by my shoulder and talk to me,” she said.