THE REMAINS OF Billy the Kid were assembled recently, for purposes of a postmortem. The Kid, a long-dead horse thief, gunman and ladies' man, still can draw a crowd, and the remains, in this case, were not your typical forensic mess of gristle and bone, but the crowd itself, as well as a few surviving artifacts. Three weeks ago, about 60 hard-core Billy the Kid fans came to Billy country--central New Mexico, around Ruidoso and Lincoln--to talk about their hero. "In the Days of Billy the Kid: Violence and the Western Frontier" was the title given to the symposium, the first ever such Billyfest at which hokey gunfight re-creations were not the whole point. Instead of dress-up gunfighters, the participants were a mixture of scholarly academicians, amateur Old West buffs and a few Kid kin. The artifacts included some letters and a tiny brown photograph made on tin. Also much discussed were many works of commercial art, including dozens of books about the Kid and almost 50 Hollywood movies. The groups sponsoring this event were the Lincoln County Heritage Trust, a nonprofit outfit dedicated to preserving the Kid's old stomping grounds in and around Lincoln, New Mexico; and the Recursos de Santa Fe, a group that assembles educational travel packages. A motel in the tourist town of Ruidoso was the site for most of the meetings, but field trips--including one coccyx-rattling 16-hour bus ride--scattered Billy believers far and wide. For five days, Kid scholars from around the world were grilled by semipro Kid buffs in an almost unholy melding of the academic and secular worlds. A handwriting analyst explained the Kid's loops and strokes. College profs chewed on the meaning of the unwritten Code of the West of 1880--and how it relates to the unwritten "wimp factor" of a certain latter-day Texas Ranger. Weekend-warrior geneology researchers dropped bombshells of information culled from dusty books in basements. Participants peered for hours at the only for-sure photograph of Billy, a defiant, cockeyed pose captured in a hurry, likely outside a bar somewhere. News was made by a researcher from North Carolina, who shook the Billy world with the discovery that the Kid had family ties in New Mexico. Until that revelation, noboby knew exactly why the Kid migrated to the Lincoln area back in the 1870s to continue his life of crime and meet his eventual death. Also, results of a high-tech photography project were announced, and holders of all but one of the many photographs purported to be of the young Billy the Kid came away disappointed. In the banquet room, historian and author Robert Utley rose to offer up the symposium's keynote address. The message scrawled on the blackboard behind Utley summed up the weekend quite well. "Billy is alive," it said.

ACTUALLY, THE chalkboard said more. Someone already had edited "Elvis" and "JFK" into the pantheon of legendary gunslingers, pop singers and romantic poets who died too young. Though many of the symposium participants were dead serious about chasing Billy the Kid, there was a wild element to the crowd. After all, the symposium's subject was not a world-class historical figure, such as a Caesar or a Pharaoh or even a prime minister. He was a hell-raising cowboy adolescent, a good kid gone wrong, a screenwriter's dream. A great American archetype, in other words. Around the world today, Billy is America personified, a brazen cowboy who shoots first and asks questions eventually. America's image as a young, reckless country is personified to the world by cowboys, and the personification of "cowboy" is Billy the Kid.

But others see the wild boy we idolize as a juvenile delinquent. Frederick Nolan, a writer, researcher and Billy expert, came to the symposium from his native London. He put our Wild West heritage into the perfect world-view perspective. "In England," he said, "a cowboy is someone who comes to fix your tap and ends up wrecking your car."

But who cares about the world view? A little bit of Billy sleeps within all the citizens of a country whose leaders endorse an Oliver North or who still draw lines in sand. John Wayne is not best remembered for his work in detective movies. Ronald Reagan did not make a transition to politics straight out of the movies he made with chimps, but instead came to his leadership role from a job as host of Death Valley Days, a TV anthology of Old West stories. You still see Billy the Kid all over, in the faces of guitar players, fighter pilots and urban gangsters. Billy the Kid would approve of the current status of American handgun laws. We are all sons and daughters of Billy the Kid. "In the folklore of the nation," said Robert Utley, during his keynote speech, "Billy the Kid is a figure of towering significance."

The Billy the Kid of legend was a rebel, a lifelong opponent of constituted authority, a rugged individualist "who could not or would not conform," Utley said. He was the product of a particularly lawless time in American society, when the corruption of seemingly all public works--from Grant's White House to the bosses of New Mexico's Lincoln County--was endemic. Billy was capable of lethal, mostly remorseless violence, as were most of his fellow citizens. During his lifetime, the Kid's exploits were well known and often celebrated around the New Mexico territory. He was a living folk hero--at least a bit of a hero to the folks who knew him or knew of him, and he was often kept from danger by friends--often friends of Spanish descent. In death he has grown exponentially larger. BILLY ESCAPED from jail several times. His last break came in 1881, in Lincoln. He was hiding out in Fort Sumner, 100 miles away, when he was accidentally discovered by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett, who had been tracking the Kid for months. They met in a dark room at about midnight. Billy never got a shot off.

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