Joy of the Birds
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"In this extraordinary mixture of fiction and history, Billy the Kid is vividly brought to life with unmatched attention to psychological detail and historical truth. Authentic, convincing and impeccably researched, told with uncanny realism and understanding, here is the story of the boy who danced fearlessly with death every day of his life and became the most lasting legend of his time. Powerfully and relentlessly, Joy of the Birds will transport you into the life and the world of Billy the Kid and make you see it and feel it as you never have before."
    FREDERICK NOLAN, Author of The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History


"The high drama of the Lincoln County War comes to Life in Joy of the Birds. Of course, outlaw and (as author Gale Cooper suggests) charismatic hero Billy Bonney a.k.a. Billy the Kid is central to the skirmish, riling up politicians and lawmen alike. The epic novel unfolds slowly as the Kid confronts his fears and lives to the fullest, including falling in love with Paulita Maxwell, a rich heiress – a love that Cooper believes motivated the Kid to make his foolhardy return to Fort Sumner, where he was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett. The book has been a labor of love for Cooper. On a whim, she picked up a copy of Garrett's famous (though most likely biased) Authentic Life of Billy the Kid and, as she read it, the story for Joy of the Birds emerged. She left her Beverly Hills psychiatric practice, in which she specialized as a consultant in murder investigations, moved to Sandia Park, and spent the next decade writing Joy of the Birds. This expertly researched tale – Cooper provides a 70 page bibliography – is told as only someone with true insight into the complexity of the human mind can."
    ASHLEY BIGGERS, New Mexico Magazine


APRIL 20, 1874 4:08 PM MONDAY
They were dancing. They were laughing, twirling around the table in their log cabin, a small, knobby-jointed, adolescent boy with honey blond hair flying, and a thin woman of forty-five. She was breathless but laughing, saying, "Billy. Oh, Billy. Faster. Come now. Faster." The red clay of their New Mexico Territory floor could not hold them; high stepping, they were airborne dancers.

Suddenly coughing, the handsome woman halted. Dance gesturing, from her sleeve she flourished a handkerchief and coughed again. On its white was a clot: a shocking ruby set in blood. Defiantly, eyes glittering with fever, she said, "Sing, Billy. Sing ‘Turkey in the Straw.'"

His lovely voice whirled them with frothing petticoats of her girlish tartan dress and flickering shoes. He sang, "I came to the river and I couldn't get across / So I paid five dollars for an old blind horse. / Well he wouldn't go ahead, and he wouldn't stand still / So he went up and down like an old saw mill. / Turkey in the straw, haw, haw, haw. / Turkey in the hay, hay, hay, hay, / Roll ‘em up and twist ‘em up/ a high tuck e haw, / And hit ‘em up a tune called / Turkey in the Straw."

Finally, she sank into the wingback chair at the fireplace while he still danced, shouting, "Silver City!" in ecstasy of motion.

In vague delirium, she saw him at five, in their Indianapolis cottage, sitting crosswise on her lap. "Precious," she was saying, "sun's in yer hair; sky's in yer eyes, all fer luv o' you." He snuggled into her nightgowned chest, saying the sun loved her too; her hair was gold. Laughing, tickling in attack, she slipped him to the floor, helpless against her knowing fingers, until, scrambling up all narrow-bodied, he kissed her kissing lips.

Forced back to Silver City by Billy's asking if she was sick, her trilling brogue lied, "Only tirrred. But a glass o' water twould be nice. Josie didn't fill the keg. Almost seventeen, but he's morrre a child than you." Billy left to do it, relishing triumph over his only sibling.

Her daydreaming resumed. November 23, 1859. It was Billy's birth. All she remembered was the bliss. In a New York tenement, a woman splayed wide her legs into a weightless crouch as, abandoned to passion, her perspiration-wet hair snaked out on the bed and her eyes rolled up in ecstasy. "Is there no shame in this woman?" the midwife thought. Distractedly, she was kneading milk-distended breasts, frustrated by their covering smock, as sliding boy parts and stiff cord pressed her, and brilliant light glory filled her skull. Away he slipped into stranger's hands. Behind spasmed orgasmic thighs.

"Tis a Devil's birth," thought the midwife. "Of pleasure, not pain as the Lord ordained." But she said, "Catherine Bonney, yuv a fine son. What will ye call him?"

From rapture came "William Henry . . . McCarty. McCarty is his father's name."

The midwife thought, "Tis a lie of a name without God's union," brushing back dull hair with her forearm, hands damp from washing the baby, now back with his mother. "Damnation from birth," she thought, but said, "He knows what t' do, that's sure, dearie."

Thick pleasure gushed from his sucking. "Billy," Catherine whispered. He looked up with large staring eyes. "Oh, my Billy," she said, drenched with insatiable passion for the beloved.

At the same time, eight hundred ninety-nine miles southwest of that tenement neighborhood, in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, a nine and a half year old, long-legged boy with slick black hair, had loped in his family's cotton plantation, calling imperiously to his playmate while swinging a rifle. The other shouted, "I can't hear you, Pat Garrett."


In New Mexico there is buried treasure, not underground, but of history buried under purposeful obfuscation, corrosion of mythologizing, and even hoaxing - leaving the original forgotten. That history, of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War, nevertheless thrust such intriguing remnants into the present, that names of some participants have become international bywords, and lure, to the state's historic sites, tourists with fantasies compensating for blanks; but pulled by intuition of the spectacular, that justified travel from Germany, Japan, even Croatia, and all around this country.

That history, which inspired my novel Joy of the Birds, has the potential for great literature, because of its magnificent story really lived. That story is New Mexico's buried historical treasure.

That treasure, I believe, was hidden by the corrupt and powerful victors of the lost freedom fight - the Lincoln County War - and by the vanquished, who retreated, as a generation, into frightened and self-protective silence.

It was even obscured by the fodder of historians - but the bewilderment of laymen – mountainous documentation of its original vocal and litigious participants: letters, depositions, court testimonies, presidential investigations, petitions, newspaper articles, Secret Service reports, and personal reminiscences.

As the revolutionary president of Mexico, Benito Juárez, stated: "It is given a man ... to attack the rights of others, seize their goods ... make of their virtues crimes, and one's vices a virtue, but there is one thing beyond that perversity: the tremendous judgment of history." New Mexico delayed that judgment; and hid its treasure.

But people can sense truth. Possibly it is an answer to the historian's question of whether events make the person, or the person makes the events. The Lincoln County War history had a compelling participant. People remembered the self-named youth, William Bonney - called in life, only by his enemies, "Billy the Kid." Was he an outlaw like Jesse James? Not at all. Did he share New Mexico Territory with other gunslinger boys in local uprisings? Yes. But few remember Clay Allison of the Colfax County War – fought against the same opponents, and lost a year before the Lincoln County War was lost, and Billy was thrust into fame.

Billy's charisma made him unforgettable. But in his case, his specialness became separated from almost all his life facts - the history of his time. Ironically, since the myth of his outlawry began before his murder, even he knew his transmogrification.

But his charisma, nevertheless, yielded massive creative stimulation. Ballpark figures on Billy the Kid publications were made in 1997 by a Kathleen Chamberlain for the University of New Mexico's Center for the American West. She found about a 1000 items, including movies, documentaries, books, short stories, plays, and studies of his legend. And she omitted the official period documents, adding thousands of pages more.

Billy's inspiration hit me hard too - unexpectedly in a July several years ago, and near Los Angeles, where I lived as a Harvard-educated, M.D. psychiatrist, specializing in forensic consultation in high-profile murder cases. That month, a little book caught my eye in a bookstore: Pat Garrett's The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. I bought it, learning later that it was ghost-written by Garrett's friend, a journalist named Ash Upson. With dime novel hyperbole, it sought profit from the famous killing.

But my forensic and psychiatric background had me reading between the lines – you could call it the meeting of psyche and story. First, I was struck by a whiff of Garrett's guilt at the shooting. Why would a lawman feel guilt at doing his job?

Then there was the location of the murder. Why was Billy in the mansion bedroom of Peter Maxwell, the owner of Fort Sumner, soon after his jail escape? He had been the same distance - 150 miles - from the Chihuahua border of Mexico, and freedom. But only 21, the most hunted man in the country, he chose a town where everyone knew him; and where punitive death was almost inevitable. My bet was that love, great love, had compelled risk.

My first Internet search located the "Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang." I called one of its presidents, asking if there was a girl involved. She said, "Paulita Maxwell." And Paulita would have been 17. Back then, she said, the Maxwell's were the richest family in the Territory.

It hit me: An ambush of a true-love in a brother's bedroom, a little before midnight, with Billy's young lover awakened by the blast. Soon I learned that Paulita was believed pregnant with his child. How had that homeless drifter gained the love of that heiress? Why had her brother betrayed him? And, again, why had Pat Garrett hinted at guilt? It seemed like a Greek tragedy, with each character bearing fatal secrets and fatal passions in a countdown to doom.

Intrigued, I bought history books. From Frederick Nolan's masterpiece, The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History, I learned about the fight and fighters; and that Billy was on the side that lost. The other side was a political cabal called, in its day, the Santa Fe Ring. I learned about Billy's two bosses: John Henry Tunstall and Alexander McSween - both murdered by that Ring, both on the verge of breaking its stranglehold on the Territory. I wondered: Was that War an unsung freedom fight, a grass roots revolution only a little more than a decade after the Civil War's victory for democracy gave hope?

Nolan described the role of Secret Service Special Operative Azariah Wild, sent to New Mexico ultimately to track down Billy: the last of the uprising not killed or fled - an intolerable gadfly. Was his a murder for political ends? Just how powerful was the Santa Fe Ring?

Then I read a small gem by Jerry Weddle titled Antrim Was My Stepfather's Name, about Billy's early adolescence, first in Silver City; next in Arizona. Originally, Billy was "William Henry McCarty," though illegitimate; then "Antrim," following his mother's marriage when he was 13. Her tuberculosis death the next year left him doing petty jobs and petty theft, until he was jailed. His escape thrust him to Arizona, and back to petty jobs and theft, until his fatal shooting of a blacksmith, "Windy" Cahill, in August of 1877, sent him on a return trajectory to New Mexico Territory and history.

Again, for me, was a tantalizingly missing part. Billy's first work, back in New Mexico, was with Ring enforcer thug, the outlaw, Jessie Evans, and his boys. Billy had entered the lofty criminal sphere of Ring employment. That was September of 1877. But something halted Billy's progress into depravity. He met John Henry Tunstall.

By late 1876, Tunstall, an only son of a British mercantile family, had chosen Lincoln town, in Lincoln County, to advance his family's fortune through a large store plus bank, and cattle ranches. In fact, his love-saturated letters back home inspired Frederick Nolan's interest in the entire history. Those letters are astounding testimony to a faith in humanity so deep, that Tunstall was blind to the evil around him, and to the risk of competing with the Ring.

And I believe that Billy, hired as a ranch hand by Tunstall by October of '77, was seduced by that sheer goodness onto the path of honesty. And I believe that Tunstall's horrific Ring murder, 4½ months later, was the catalyst converting Billy's antisocial tendencies into the anti-Ring fierceness that would make him a rebel with a cause.

I had my saga: an American Romeo and Juliet, with fate sealed by a lost freedom fight. Gripped by fervor, I left my California life and Beverly Hills practice, to move to a New Mexico mountain to write my book.

My story could not be a history. History, like science, requires hard evidence. The canny Ringmen had expurgated incriminating records, and, with victor's option of propaganda, had minimized the War to mere mercantile competition and outlawry. Literature was needed for the revisionist telling, for reclaiming New Mexico's history. To support my premises, I sought to create a virtual world; so real that a reader could make their own conclusions. That took my digesting 40,000 pages of archival documents and books; and using 300 expert consultants in everything from firearms, to territorial law, to geology, to chuck wagon cooking.

While writing, I discovered even more buried treasure in New Mexico, because, as a Land of Enchantment, it seems untouched by time; one can revisit the original sites. So I walked the hilly streets of once flood-ravaged Silver City; and crossed the harsh, wild, 40 miles of the Guadalupe Mountains; which Billy, on return to New Mexico, covered on foot and near death by dehydration. I lay on the cold red clay of Tunstall's remote murder site; walked the mile long street of Lincoln town; went to the remains of Fort Stanton, from which partisan Commander N.A.M. Dudley marched his infantry and cavalry the nine miles to Lincoln to turn the tide of the Lincoln County War; visited Santa Fe's Palace of the Governors, where Lew Wallace wrote Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ while betraying Billy by refusing his promised pardon; visited the Mesilla courthouse building where Ringman judge, Warren Bristol, sentenced Billy to be hanged; climbed up the narrow stairway to the second floor of the old Lincoln Courthouse, where Billy also climbed 23 days before scheduled death; sat on its east window ledge from which Billy shot Deputy Bob Olinger in his great escape; and went to the old Fort Sumner cemetery, and realized Paulita lies just 40 strides from Billy's grave.

History has truth's power. Literature has art's power to create. And that privilege allowed me to fill in the lost parts of the story of Billy and the Lincoln County War to answer questions, without which the events have drifted for 130 years missing meaning. Why did Commander Dudley march into Lincoln that fateful July 19, 1878 in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act? Why didn't Lew Wallace give Billy his promised pardon after the boy fulfilled his bargain of testifying against the murderers of Attorney Huston Chapman? Was President Rutherford B. Hayes involved in the Santa Fe Ring? What secret knowledge made Pat Garrett feel guilt at his killing of Billy? And who was the real William Bonney? Was he a heinous murderer of a man for every year of his life; or a lawman and soldier – as he would have claimed? Could the Lincoln County War have occurred without him?

Here are some facts buried in the old version of that history. Did you know that the Santa Fe Ring was engaged in a massive land-grab scheme, with its head, Thomas Benton Catron, New Mexico's first senator, eventually owning at least 6 million acres; more than any individual in our country's history? Did you know that on July 3, 1878, there was a massacre by Lincoln County Sheriff Peppin, with John Kinney's outlaw band, in San Patricio, close to Lincoln, in which up to 40 Hispanic men, women and children were slaughtered, along with farm animals and rampaging destruction? And it was the men of San Patricio who rode into Lincoln only 11 days later to fight for the McSween side in the War. Did you know that Pat Garrett became a Sheriff and Deputy U.S. Marshall through the intervention of Secret Service Operative Azariah Wild? Did you know that Billy was brilliant, even able to spell "indicted" in his eloquent first letter to Lew Wallace; and that his meticulous testimony in the Dudley Court of Inquiry, about three soldiers firing a volley at him and others in the War – if that court had not been corrupt – could have resulted in that commander's Court Martial? Did you know that Billy killed only 4 men: two (Cahill, Grant) in self defense, and 2 guards during his jail escape (Bell, Olinger) to avoid hanging? Five more were shot in his presence during the war (Morton, Baker, Brady, Hindman, Roberts); and arguably Billy killed none of them. Did you know that from 1879 to 1881, Billy's attorney, Ira Leonard, repeatedly tried to get him the Wallace pardon? Did you know that Billy was so beloved as a freedom fighter in New Mexico that he had to be kept in the Santa Fe jail for months after capture, to await completion of the railroad to Mesilla and court, to prevent his rescue; and that Garrett used a posse of Texans to track him down because New Mexicans refused?

At stake in telling the story, I believe, is granting New Mexicans, their real history and heroes, much more impressive than the residue of shoot-em-ups that remains. It is New Mexican's great freedom fight that culminated on the week of July 14, 1878, when their people, Hispanic and Anglo, took up arms, uniting partly through Billy's anachronistic bi-culturalism, to fight their intractably corrupt government. And at stake is true Old West history: the time when public officials allied against citizens for self-serving gain. At stake also is debunking that grand history's coat-tail riders: pretenders and hoaxers capitalizing on public ignorance of the facts, by inserting themselves with fabrications.

At stake is even more: demonstration of history's ability to immunize against the past's mistakes and injustices. Parallel stories in Joy of the Birds, foreshadow our own ecological perils through the holocaust slaughter of 60 million buffalo, in half a decade, by men like Pat Garrett and John William Poe - ultimately Billy's murderers - and the tracking down and killing of the great rebellious Apache chief, Victorio. As the Frontier ceased at the time of Billy's death, as barbed wire ended the open range which made literal freedom and potential; the Santa Fe Ring was solidifying into a pay-to-play power elite.

In Joy of the Birds, one character says, "Lincoln County is the moral proving ground. It will break you where you're weakest." The story of Billy and the War demonstrates the intensity of evil's pressure to terrify and corrupt; and how the corrupt few can control the majority, who are honest and good.

The title, Joy of the Birds, is the key to resistance; it refers to a statement made to young Billy by a wise old Hispanic woman. She says that the joy of the birds - as bandtail pigeons circle above them - is the knowledge that you can fly and fly without any fear, because there are millions of moments of life, then only one moment of death, before you have forever. Her message is that only fear will keep you from being true to yourself, and only a martyr's self-pity will keep you from following your path with joy.

Did I achieve the great American tragedy for which I strove? Will my revisionist history undo damage of 130 years of misrepresentations? Time will tell.

But one can say Joy of the Birds is also a political exposé. Its Preface, by a fictional old-timer living in today's Lincoln, says, "I do agree with this here book that politicians back then were crooks; but they're the same today. It flustrates me that them big guys get away with so much. In Billy's day, they were called the Santa Fe Ring. You know what a Ring is? It's when government guys, judges, sheriffs, lawyers, and rich fellas are in cahoots to line their own pockets. And they use rough guys to get what they want. And if you try to fight them, everywhichaway you turn, you're blocked by one protecting the other ... Folks in New Mexico today are still scared of the Santa Fe Ring; some saying it never existed. Truth is, now it's called ‘the good ol' boys' (even though some are gals). And people still feel vunreble cause, get on their bad side, and your next visitor might be death."

My old-timer concludes: "So I'll leave you with a warning. When you read this here book, you become a part of it. What I'm meaning is that you'll have to face Billy's question yourself: will I stand up to corruption so's democracy is protected? Like the author told me, ain't many willing to walk that path to the end."

My old timer is really describing the historian's gift to humanity: empowering knowledge of truth. And I got feedback myself. When Joy of the Birds came out, it was read by the London-living grandson of John Henry Tunstall's sister, Minnie Tunstall Behrens. His name is Hilary Tunstall Behrens. Over the phone he thanked me and said: "You set straight the history." That was my hope and goal.