Back on Kindle, When Billy the Kid Met Ben Hur…

Almost ten years ago, I wrote When Billy the Kid Met Ben Hur, about the real encounter of the Governor of New Mexico, Lew Wallace, meeting the infamous outlaw. My intention then was to write an adventure tale along the lines of Edgar Rice Burroughs, with mysterious lost worlds, archeological mischief, depicting the Bone Rush of the 1880s in the American West. Tied into this would be the inspiring friendship between the Kid and the man who wrote Ben Hur, using his daily experiences to create Judea of 2000 years ago. The result was a novella that has now been reissued by Kindle.

The story actually tied into several other tales, including The Paid Companion of J. Wilkes Booth (a prequel) that was written with Jan Merlin and will soon become a graphic novel from Bluewater Productions. Several tales, including the Billy the Kid story, featured the notorious Mal Tempo who dominates the last segment; he is a character who would grace or disgrace several other books I have written.

The truth about the death of Billy the Kid can be found buried within the papers, notes, diaries, and journals, of Lew Wallace, the territorial governor of New Mexico at the height of the Kid’s career.

By chance, Wallace spent the same years as governor writing his famous novel, Ben Hur.  As a result, he kept a full record of his time in diaries, journals, notes, and documents associated with his tenure. Wallace’s reason’s for this can be deduced from the collected letters and writings that comprise the body of this study.  In fact, heretofore, unknown, Gov. Wallace used himself as a lab specimen, taking on the role of procurator of a desert territory in turmoil on the outskirts of the American empire to inspire his personal writings.  To serve as his foil, the rebel leader and legendary savior, he cast William H. Bonney.  The Kid’s behavior, psychology, and fate, worked as inspiration and basis for Lew Wallace’s fiction.

In 1878, as a newly appointed Governor for the territory of New Mexico, he arrived with his wife in Santa Fe.  An outwardly refined gentleman, he seemed poorly equipped to deal with a range war, corrupt local politics, and the resentment of the territory’s military commander.  However, appearances proved deceiving, for along with his interests in writing and painting, this man had also mastered the art of politics.

By the following year, the Governor’s bold strategy of declaring a cease-fire backed by an amnesty for past crimes had brought a tenuous peace to the Territory.  To cap his achievement, the Governor arranged a pivotal meeting with the most notorious outlaw of them all, none other than W.H. Bonney–better known as Billy the Kid.

At the same time the Governor continued work on his novel.  He saw parallels between his characters’ situations and his own, frequently imagining scenes from Ben Hur as enacted by himself, Billy the Kid, and others.  At a meeting with Billy, a promising rapport occurred between the two men. The Governor envisioned himself as a modern Pontius Pilate, offering Billy Bonney a pardon in return for his cooperation, but the outlaw hesitated.

The delay led to Bonney’s jailing and, then, a desperate confrontation after his escape.  It became a last encounter.  By 1881 the famous author could only surmise that the legendary desperado escaped the fate the newspapers  described–death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett.

Speculation on the Kid’s death, for years, hinted at an elaborate conspiracy to effect a sham assassination.  Of course, such could not be accomplished without cooperation at the highest echelons of government. The personal papers of Wallace reveal the conceivable collusion of the Civil War general.  With Pat Garrett as the assassin, a friend of Bonney, with the body buried in an unknown grave, identified only by close friends of Bonney, such a cover-up could have occurred.

Wallace departed from the territory at the time of the Kid’s “death.” With Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ already published, Lew Wallace’s last official days in office might have been used to clear the path for his friend and pen pal to start a new life.

Wallace’s story will finally put an end the theories and conflicting legends by showing the clear record, the public record, annotated by the personal correspondence of Wallace, the Kid, the Governor’s wife, his aides, his political antagonists, and the supporting friends of the heroes, victims, and their antagonists.  As one of the participants said, the tale is Homeric.

Mal Tempo makes his obligatory appearance here, dogging Lew Wallace again. Tempo is a motif, making himself known in several books, including Mal Tempo & Friends.  I will talk more about him in future reports.