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  • The Troubling of Hummingbirds(A Letter to Billy the Kid)
  • Joshua Wheeler (bio)

March 17, Roundabouts 9:00 pm, 1879

Dear Mister W. H. Bonney,

I know you will die hungry, Billy boy. You will die with a wet dick but an empty belly. You'll want a steak after a romp with your lover and you'll be in your skivvies and the butcher knife in your hand is only for the side of beef because you aren't expecting a fight. But the sheriff will have found you. So there you'll die, like in a sad way: in your skivvies, saying "Quién es?" near the bed of your lover's brother, you squinting in the dark and belly growling and dick drying and shriveling as Sheriff Pat Garrett's gun lights up the room. I don't mean to be crass. I know she is your lover, like you really do love Paulita and that's why you'll never run from New Mexico, even when there's a price on your head. I'm just trying to point out how undignified the circumstances of your death were. I mean, will be—if you don't heed this letter.

But if you don't die like that—like in a sad way—but die somehow more dignified before this mess gets messier like it's about to, you will not become a legend. So then here is your predicament: dignity or fanfare. You're in a very American situation, Billy boy. Maybe it is hard to fathom because you are just nineteen years young and adrift in a desert territory of the recently reconciled budding empire but within your grasp is infamy and maybe the best thing for your country is to let it pass—though passing on infamy will forever seem the least American course of action.

I'm writing this letter, of course, from the future, but I have dated it for the evening on which I expect to deliver it, which is the Monday evening you're living in 1879. I'm writing from the Lincoln County courthouse where there is a 134-year-old bloodstain on the floorboards beneath my feet. This is the blood of Deputy James Bell whose chest will explode in two years when you loose a Colt into his heart [End Page 147] as part of your final jailbreak while Sheriff Garrett is off hunting wood for your gallows because the governor has finally signed your death warrant. The restaurant where Deputy Bob Olinger will eat as you kill his partner Bell is still just across the road at the Wortley Hotel. The Wortley Hotel is where I sleep alone on a bed that feels as old as the bloodstain. In this world is a woman I love but she will not leave the Big City to sleep with me in a ghost town in a bed that feels as old as the bloodstain. You will kill Deputy Bob too. His blood will spill in the mud but I cannot see it now because mud does not get stained. She will not leave the Big City for me, Billy boy. And I will not leave this desert because the desert will not leave me. I guess you know how that last part feels. When I am done writing this letter I will walk from the courthouse, down the road that leads to Roswell, right through the middle of Lincoln, past the Tunstall store that is now a post office and the Dolan House that is now yet another sad tourists' B&B. Now there is nothing but sagebrush at the foot of the mountain where Squire Wilson's house once stood but 136 years ago you are in that house with a .44 Colt Lightning in your right hand and an 1873 Winchester rifle in your left hand and across the table is the new governor of this territory, Lew Wallace, ready to talk about once and for all and finally ending for good this last of the Wild West spats called the Lincoln County War. Lew wants to arrest you, for show. But he will soon betray...