As mentioned in I Become a Crawling Thing, for a while I used to be what’s called a freelancer.
Basically, you’re a journalistic tumbleweed. You roll around trying to find an editor to hire you for an assignment at whatever pitiful pay you can get.
Scrounging for dollars back in the day, I rolled into a chamber of commerce office with a big tip for the magazine editor. One of my relatives had other relatives who claimed that one of their kinfolk actually knew Billy the Kid, the legendary western gunslinger.
The best part — their guy was still alive
The magazine editor said he would pay fifty big ones if I got that story. Oh, lordy, did that number give me the tingles.
Several hours of driving took me way out in the country to a white frame house.
While I ease slowly out of the car to avoid stepping in something, the front door of the house opens and the white-haired missus in an apron walks out waving at me.
Right behind her comes my new best friend, Mr. Fifty Dollars, all western in jeans, boots, khaki shirt and cowboy hat.
Oh, wow! This guy looks way older than his wife, all bones and no fat anywhere, but with plenty of sagging facial skin and a lifetime of liver spots.
But I guess if you were around . . .
. . . when Billy the Kid was kicking cow-flop off his boots, you’d be looking like a dried-up stick, too.
After introductions, the wife says her husband still rides and he can show me while she goes in to prepare lunch.
He hasn’t said a word, but takes the cue to lead me around back where a horse is hitched to a fence rail.
Whoa! This thing is huge; it dwarfs us.
He heads for it with no hesitation, but I’m really concerned.
Wouldn’t you be?
I mean, what if this is the day he falls off?
I imagine the magazine editor asking . . .
How was the old guy? And then I would say: Well, if I hadn’t gone, I think he’d still be alive.
I don’t know what you would have done, but I felt it was my duty to preserve ancient history.
As he grabs hold of the saddle and starts pulling himself up with those meatless arms, I scuttle underneath in a half-crouch so I can catch him if he starts to fall.
But just as I look up, he slides back down, smushing his bony butt on my face and knocking me on my ass.
“Whut the hell you doin’, boy?” he quakes
His wife opens the back screen door and asks, “What’s goin’ on with you two?”
“He stuck his nose in my ass. Somethin’ wrong with him.”
“What do you expect?” she said, shaking her head. “He’s a city boy. That’s the kind of thing they do. Just keep your eye on him.”
I scramble up. I see her through the kitchen window reaching for the phone on the wall. Oh, no! Who knows what she’s going to be telling folks around town. I hope she doesn’t call my editor.
Then I find out that the old man wasn’t falling off the horse.
He’s got urgent business
Doesn’t say a word, just unzips his jeans, pulls out his ding-dong schlong and starts taking a 90-whatever-year-old pizzzooorooski.
This must have been the way they did it in the Old West, just flopping it out and whizzing away without asking if it’s okay with you or looking around to see if any dainty womenfolk or young children were in eyeballing range.
Yep, those were the days when men didn’t give a hoot, and you needed to watch out when they were ready to shoot.
And, jumpin’ Jehoshaphat, he really did have to take a leak. This old-timer was pissing like a horse.
I’m just thankful he didn’t get up in the saddle and let it go with me below.
That got me to wondering . . .
. . . if he and Billy the Kid tried to see who could whip it out the fastest. You know, like a quick draw contest. And then see who could shoot the farthest, with points for accuracy. Maybe they even had a just-for-fun showdown.
But we couldn’t horse around anymore because his wife called us in to chow down on her country cooking, which helped everyone mellow out.
Once we got to know each other better, it was time to pull out pen and pad to get the scoop on the greatest name in American outlawry.
I pop the big question, and the old boy confirms that, yes, he knew Billy the Kid.
Hot damn! My mind starts spinning faster than the cylinder on a revolver. This is bigger than a local magazine. This is going national!
I press for intimate details
What was Billy really like? Nice when you didn’t rile him? When you played poker, did he lay his gun on the table or did he keep it cocked underneath and pointed at your belly? What did he say about the shootouts and Western wars with guns a’blazin’? Did you take part?
And let’s not forget what inquiring minds really want to know. Who won the pissing contest?
But all I can get out of the old codger is that, wait for it, here it comes . . .
“Billy stopped by for dinner.”
That’s it. That’s all. The biggest name in the Outlaw Hall of Fame stopped by for dinner.
The old man wouldn’t even spill the beans on whether they ate beans or corn pone or hog jowls or something even grosser. I prod, I plead, I beg, but this ancient cowpoke is as taciturn as they come. After a while, I give up, say my goodbyes and head out on the long, lonesome highway.
But not all is lost. You can’t let a good story go, and I’m already planning it. You just have to think like a National Enquirer reporter to churn out a rootin’, tootin’ yarn using the “it could have happened” technique of writing. In this case it would go something like:
Billy the Kid Came for Vittles — This Codger Lived to Tell About It
Back in them days, after typically chawin’ down and fillin’ their stomachs to gut-bustin’ size on steaming hot possum belly and squirrel innards, Billy and Mr. Whizzer most likely would have mosied out to the steps of the front porch, settled their saddle-callused and crusty hemorrhoids down on the top step, and started picking gristle out of their teeth with pocket knives while jawin’ about what it took to stay ahead of the law and who was the better water shooter.
Once back home, I head to the library to get background on Billy to flesh out the story for all the greenhorn tenderfeet who would have enough guts and gumption to read it.
That’s when I found out the biggest news of all.
Billy the Kid died before Mr. Peeshooter was even born.
How would you take that?
For me, it was like taking a slug from a Colt .45 Peacemaker to the gut.
Not only that, I lost credibility with the magazine editor.
Even worse, no fifty dollars.
So, you’re left wondering.
Why had the old cowboy been telling that whopper to his gullible relatives all those years?
Or maybe he didn’t do it on purpose. Perhaps he was addle-brained from tumbling off a horse too many times with nobody’s face to cushion his fall.
I never knew.
There was only one thing left to do.
I buried my Billy the Kid story in journalism’s Boot Hill.
QUESTION: What great expectations did you have that didn’t pan out?
Writing about real-life experiences is so much and many times cathartic.
After working in journalism for 14 years, and getting my hopes up way too many times, I can completely relate to this story. I can’t think of any big ones that fell apart off the top of my head, but I can think of some big ones I didn’t pursue that I sort of wish I had now that I’m out of the business. For one, I wish I had pushed someone to let me interview the local cop killer, who gunned down two local sheriff’s deputies, but whose lawyers tried to say were killed by his father instead. And I wish I hadn’t written so many stories so maybe I could remember more of the ones I wrote! Sometimes I look back at my folder of stories and think “Did I actually write that one?” What’s sad is I’m only 42! Haha! I can’t imagine what shape I’d be in if I had worked in the business even longer.
Lisa, I know what you mean. I spent 10 years editing stories and designing newspaper pages numbering in the thousands. Of the whole lot, I can only remember a few!
What a great story! At least you had journalistic integrity in those days, not like the “fake news” of today.
Thanks for the compliment, Naomi. I also sadly think that Objective Journalism will someday be regarded as an arcane artifact with its name gracing a tombstone in journalism’s Boot Hill.