Garrett Yampa Cody was born in a root cellar in Golden, Colorado, and died in an underground bunker in Deming, New Mexico. There were rumors that grew up around him, but what was clear was that his blue eyes were more Cody than Ute, and that he had a taste for gold, being underground, and fire.
Tuberculosis killed more people than silver bullets did in that old west, no matter what you might hear. The trains carried men, women and children, weak and sick, to sanitoriums in the dry desert, down near the Mexican border. That was usually men, women and children with some money or property, but one year, in the town of Golden, a dozen poor locals boarded the train headed south to Deming, where the Army Air Force Base had been recently converted from military quarters to a Catholic sanitorium. Garrett Cody was on that train, 14 years old. He carried a small bag of Indian Head ten dollar gold coins in a leather pouch strapped inside his waistband.
“I can unlock any door, anywhere” he told one person. “I have a bag of gold from my father,” he told another. “My father is Buffalo Bill Cody,” to a third. He swaggered and swayed, coughing and arrogant, through the chuffing train, until his fellow passengers had each heard some version of his history, his adventures, and he’d been established as a liar and a braggart.
“Burnt down the post office in Golden when I was 12,” he said to Ben Fine, who sat next to him on the train. Ben turned away, looking at a newspaper that was no more than a month old. He tried again. “Got the gold from my father. I’m going to stay in the bunkers, he told me.” Ben stood up and walked to the other end of the car.
Down around Farmington, Garrett disappeared, and the train continued south without him. A series of small brush fires and minor catastrophes followed him from town to town. He stopped at every military base from Farmington to Las Cruces, locating and unlocking a cool underground bunker on the perimeter of each base. He slept well in the deep protected darkness.
News travels slow on the Camino Real, even now with the telephone wires and radios and paved roads spreading in all directions. Back then, word still traveled mostly by horseback and stage, and he’d started a dozen or more fires by the time his reputation for lying was replaced by his reputation as an arsonist and a thief. It was Ben Fine who put those pieces together.
New Mexican statehood was still fairly new, the Mexican Revolution was raging, and boundaries were unstable. The people of that time and place were rough and unaware of much outside of their own dry, brittle landscape. Ben was a journalist from Akron, Ohio, unfit for service in the war overseas, assigned to cover news of changes throughout the region. Ben assumed that he would die on assignment, in an iron lung perhaps, or a long row of hospital beds, or by scorpion, snake or lightning. He did not expect to be waylaid by the tiny bastard son of Buffalo Bill Cody.
They met in a trading post in Socorro, NM. By then, Garrett’s reputation for fire was well known, and Ben had been sending stories by wire to the Akron Gazette, and selling fictionalized serial versions of Garrett’s crimes to a small publishing house in Dallas. The trading post in Socorro had the El Paso Times, and in the back of the store, a recent copy of the Wild West Weekly. This was in the hands of Garrett Cody, who was holding a pickle in one hand and the Weekly in the other.
“Good afternoon, Garrett,” Ben said, hands in his pockets. “How’s your father been?”
“Hey, Ben,” said the boy. “You tell me, you got all the stories right here, what I can tell.” He waved the weekly at Ben. He coughed, and coughed again. Ben looked at him, saw that he was sicker now than he’d been a few months back, and he made a decision.
“Come on down to Deming with me, then, we’ll spend some time together, you tell me stories, I’ll write them down.” He nodded at Garrett, paid for the El Paso Times and the pickle. They set out together the next morning.
At the Holy Cross sanitorium, the quiet sister nurse gave them leave to stay in AAFB Bunker #1E. By day, they soaked in the hot springs, rested and smoked, told stories, wrote some down. They watched the young ladies and matrons sicken and die, they read the news of Pancho Villa and the Battle of Columbus. They coughed and bought horses. They rode the horses south, away from the sanitorium and toward Columbus. They stopped for the night, made a fire, smoked a little more, and just as they were falling asleep in the jittering brilliant starlight, the remainders of the Battle of Columbus caught up with them. Ben was killed, and the horses were taken. Garrett, small, quick and savvy, slipped away.
He turned back, toward the Holy Cross, not sure now what else to do. He walked near the road, not on it. He came to a windmill, passed a watering trough. He coughed, and he staggered. He cried for the first time. He came to a house, with a barn and a corral. He set the house on fire. He came to the outskirts of the sanitorium. He found what he wanted, a heavy metal door, planted face-up in the ground, the metal plate labeled “AAFB – Bunker #12S”. He unlocked the door, and went inside. He lit a match. The underground bunker was filled with canned goods, some bibles, water, and fuel. He lit a lamp. He lit the bibles. He bolted the door from the inside.