Well-Written Western

Billy the Kid gets the historical fiction treatment in 'Law of the Land'

Historical novels often provide more real history than much of the stuff in the nonfiction section. Their biggest advantage is that they allow the writer to fill gaps with logical suppositions instead of lengthy discussions about various possibilities. Even more importantly, they're usually better written.

Johnny Boggs has been called a combination of Louis L'amour and John Grisham, and it's a fair description. This, his latest book, is one of a series called "Guns and Gavel" that revolves around trials from the Old West, including that of the Kiowa chiefs in Spark on the Prairie. But Boggs can be best compared to three Tucson authors: Glenn Boyer, Michael Blake and Jane Coleman, who also fictionalize real people. Blake, best known as the author of Dances With Wolves, did with Custer what Boggs does here with Billy. Boyer does it mostly with Wyatt Earp and the cast of characters that come with him, as well as his recent book on Custer and associates. Coleman sticks with Western women like Big Nosed Kate in Doc Holliday's Woman, I, Pearl Hart and Augusta Taber in Matchless.

Some historical purists--often academics--dislike this approach. They're right about great globs of it, which are often totally hokey. But if you want to know more about the Alamo than you'll get from almost any other account (or any of the movies made about it), Stephen Harrigan's magnificent The Gates of the Alamo contains more reality than most nonfiction attempts. Boggs is close to being in Harrigan's league.

You'll learn a lot about the real Billy from Boggs. His famous moniker appears to be a combination of several--William Bonney, William Antrim, Kid Antrim--and the long held belief that he was left-handed came from a cursory glance at the only known photo of him, in which he's wearing a pistol on his left hip. Problem is, he's also holding a Winchester '73 with the loading gate on the wrong side. The negative had been reversed somewhere, and anyone who knew anything about a Winchester should've noticed that long before Paul Newman and others brought us The Left-Handed Gun. Another Western myth shattered.

Boggs is as meticulous with his firearms as he is with the rest of the background of the Billy story. Billy's personal piece was a double action Colt Thunderer in .41. More delicate than the bigger hoglegs, it was faster and the slug was big enough, although Billy, as Boggs points out, preferred a rifle (and--as we know from a certain famous jailbreak--both barrels of a shotgun).

Boggs also does a great job on New Mexico's topography (he lives in Santa Fe), and the cultural differences between "Anglos" and Mexicans. He's done his homework, putting him ahead of many others who flirt with the genre and some who pretend to write nonfiction.

The real trial of Billy left no transcripts and little of anything else, including newspaper reports--which is hard to grasp, as "lawless" New Mexico was a major topic in the national press at the time. Boggs fills in a lot of detail with his own imagination, and does something else both clever and revealing: He has Billy testify on his own behalf. In doing so, the reader--like those on the jury--can see the character of someone with whom they were reasonably sympathetic probed in depth.

Like other famous Western types, the myths about Billy range from hero to thug. In Billy's case, the real answer seems to be sociopath--a delightful and charming sociopath, but still a basically unemotional and self-involved killer.

You get hints along the way: Billy letting another gang member wear his big sombrero, thus making that rider the prime target when the ambush hits; an early scene in which Billy decides to sneak off and leave his companion to the Apaches rather than risk entering the fight.

Boggs also brings out Billy's natural leadership ability and the fact that he started out in the Lincoln County wars on the right side, and performed well enough so that newly appointed Gov. Lew Wallace, of Shiloh and Ben Hur fame, decided he could be used and then pardoned. Whether Billy screws this up or Wallace reneges isn't absolute, and Boggs gives us a Governor Wallace who spends too much of his time looking for mining property and writing what is still the best-selling novel in history. The balance of Wallace's time was used to wait for a better appointment from his old friend and fellow Civil War General, President Rutherford Hayes. Which he got.

Lew Wallace, Pat Garrett, John Chisum and a host of other real folks, familiar and otherwise, all have a role here. If you like historically accurate, well-written Westerns, Johnny Boggs should be added to your list.

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