Longform

THE KID IS ALL RIGHT

Alex Macias, at age 19 the youngest buff present, first got interested about two years ago. "I got tired of hearing stories that he was a killer," said Macias. "Then you'd hear other stories about how sensitive he was. I decided to find out for myself."

Macias brought his girlfriend along to the symposium, just to be sure he'd have someone to talk to. "I felt pretty funny walking in," said Macias, a sophomore at the University of Texas-El Paso. "I walked in and saw the gray-haired people and they all just looked at me, like, `Does he have a name tag?'"

Jim Armour is a thirtyish pathologist from the Orlando, Florida, area who's never been to Disney World. He came to Billy through an early interest in the Civil War. Armour, who said he'd read most of the important Billy books, kept careful notes throughout the weekend. "When I look at a slide, I think, `This may be a certain type of cancer. Why do I think it? Do I have enough here to call it that? What else could it be?' Looking at Billy the Kid, you have to think, `Is he a hero? Is he a villain? Is he somewhere in between? Where in between is he?'"

Ann C. Hamilton rode the bus for four days from her home in Massachusetts to be near Billy. "I had Billy the Kid curtains when I was little, in my bedroom," said Hamilton, whose husband stayed home to watch the kids. "Living in Massachusetts, there's nobody to talk to about Billy. That's why I came here. Even my husband, he'll listen, but he doesn't know enough about it to get into a good discussion. "I get a lot of flak from some people. They say, `Ha, ha, you've got a crush on Billy the Kid.' It's not like that. I can't even explain what it's like. To this day I think he needs to be defended."

Dick George, director of public relations for Phoenix Zoo, is an avid semibuff and served as unofficial photographer for symposium events. Bob Boze Bell, KSLX morning deejay and New Times cartoonist, was another member of the small Arizona contingent at the symposium.

"This is so cool," said Bell, giddy even before the first session had begun. "I was talking to a guy over there. `I tried to buy land in Lincoln,' I said. `Me, too,' he said. `My wife hates it,' I said. `Mine too,' he said." Said one lifelong student of the Kid, up from El Paso for the weekend: "I thought I was into it, but shit, compared with these people I'm a short hitter."

AS ONE MIGHT expect, hard evidence of Billy the Kid's presence on Earth is pretty dear stuff to buff and expert alike. A hefty percentage of the symposium was devoted to extended examination of such artifacts. Maureen Owens, a handwriting analyst for the Chicago Police Department, was given some known samples of Billy's handwriting. These included a bill of sale for a horse (long considered the most reliable sample of Billy's hand) and several letters, all signed by William Bonney and thought to be genuine. Owens concluded that not all the letters were written by the same guy, however, causing considerable gab over lunch. Letters written by Bonney from jail cells in Fort Sumner and Santa Fe differed considerably from the penmanship in the other letters and the bill of sale. Who, if not Billy, wrote those jail-house letters? Or was it indeed Billy, writing while shackled? Multiple theories filled the air. The most spectacular presentations of the seminar centered on the only known photograph of Billy. In the months preceding the symposium, the sponsoring Lincoln County Heritage Trust commissioned a Billy the Kid Photographic Research Project. One of the original motivations for calling the symposium was to release findings of the photograph project. Among the experts enlisted in the project were a physicist from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a photograph conservator from the George Eastman House/International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York, and a computer-analysis expert from the University of Illinois-Chicago. The group was headed by Clyde Snow, who has done forensic investigations of the John F. Kennedy assassination, Nazi corpses in South America, General Custer and others. This project's key revelation had to do with the dozens of supposed Kid photographs floating around the Southwest. Some of these show the Kid as a curly-haired child; others purport to show the Kid as a toothless old man (a small but pesky faction of Billy buffs believes he survived Garrett's ambush in Fort Sumner). Computer analysis of the photographs showed none to quite match the face on the tintype, which has long been held to be the legit Billy. So the dominant image of Billy the Kid remains a crude, two- by three-inch photograph, likely taken in the street and developed in a tent. His jaw is slack in the photograph, his mouth open, his shoulders sloped. His clothes are baggy and his hat is a wreck. It is an unlikely icon. Said one female Billy buff: "I hope to God he didn't really look like that."

THE COMBATANTS of the Lincoln County War fought for control of the area's economic future. That future, more than 100 years later, has yet to arrive. Among the hard evidence of Billy the Kid's life are the actual towns of Lincoln and Fort Sumner--Billy country. There, key segments of the Lincoln County War were fought. There, Billy staged a spectacular jailbreak. There, he slept, ate, got shot and was buried. Symposium participants toured Lincoln and Fort Sumner, as well as other locations key to the saga. Rustic Lincoln, located in the green Capitan Mountains, is the true capital of Kid Land. At night, and even during some hours of the day, Lincoln appears unchanged from its 1880s nonsplendor. There are neither gas stations nor fast-food joints in Lincoln. There is no pay telephone. A small furor arose when a shop owner recently erected a small wooden "Eatery" shingle and began to peddle microwave hot dogs. When the eatery closes in mid-afternoon, Lincoln's entire hospitality industry consists of one pop machine.

Fort Sumner, located on the bleak high plains north and east of the Capitans, Lincoln and Ruidoso, is where Billy died. The old fort, built to oversee forcefully relocated Navajos and Apaches, was already obsolete by the time Billy made his last visit. The Kid's gravestone rests beside a museum/curio shop a few hundred feet from the site of his killing, a dwelling long ago washed away by the Pecos River. Some say the river erased the last of Billy, too, when floodwater swamped the Fort Sumner graveyard back before the turn of the century. The Pecos feeds into the Rio Grande. The Rio Grande feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. "So," muses one clear-eyed Billyphile, "there's a good chance that Billy's particles are floating out in the Caribbean."

ONE OF THE STARS of recent Lincoln festivals has been a young man who migrated to the area in the late 1980s. The Billyphiles gathered in Ruidoso swapped stories about him throughout their weekend. He is, they say, a dead ringer for the Kid. They say he cultivates the Billy "look," that he has studied the fabled tintype long and hard. Indeed, he regularly wins look-alike contests and generally startles the pants off anyone even slightly familiar with the real Kid's appearance. Until catching the Billy bug, he was a blond tennis enthusiast residing in Florida. This is not a new act. A small army of men have claimed over the years that they were Billy the Kid. The best publicized of these lived into the middle years of this century. He is buried in Texas, where a mob of advocates attempts to keep his crazy story alive. Two different national television news shows have given credence to these characters in the past couple of years. Worse yet, Young Guns II floats the possibility that Billy survived to become an adult, a twist of fate no doubt motivated by the inevitability of a Young Guns III.

No serious gathering of Billy people could be held without considerable scornful discussion of the boom industry in Kid surrogates. On one hand, any Billy talk--no matter how wacky--sells the serious researchers' books. On the other hand, serious researchers waste a lot of time trying to disprove the various ersatz Billys through history. "You find this in any subject in which the popular culture has imbibed," said Robert Utley. "I think Americans are unusually susceptible or attracted by conspiracy and cover-up. You see these bumper stickers: `Shit happens.' And it's true. Most things just happen, they are not contrived under the table by a conspiracy of people getting together to conceal from the world what they know.

"It's irritating and frustrating at times . . . but this whole business about a surrogate Billy running around, to me, it's just for funzy.

"The surviving evidence is credible and persuasive. Nobody has been able to come up with a shred of creditable evidence that would undermine the version I have written."

THROUGHOUT THE symposium, the published Kid scholars--Utley included--repeatedly called for someone to write a book exploring the Kid's Hispanic connections. Here, they said, is an area in which further creditable evidence might be mined. And in light of Herman Weisner's research, a peek down that shaft begins to make a lot of sense. Many of Billy the Kid's friends in Lincoln and Fort Sumner were Hispanic. He was a renowned ladies' man among the womenfolk of that community. His last words, in fact, were uttered in Spanish. "Quien es?" he said in the dark bedroom in Fort Sumner. "Who is it?"

"A lot of our organizations have been Anglo-oriented," said Bob Hart, director of the Lincoln County Heritage Trust. "The Hispanics are the people Billy the Kid felt safe with. Those families would be ideal subjects for future research. "The Hispanic community probably has watched all these silly Anglos running around, getting excited about all this stuff, when they know all the answers. In their time, at their pace, those answers will come forward."

Joe Salazar came forward for one day of the symposium, primarily to hear Herman Weisner's talk. Salazar's family has been saying for years that Billy had family in the area, and that they were it. Joe's grandpa, Yginio Salazar, was about the same age as Billy the Kid during the time he and Billy were friends (and, now, maybe cousins). Yginio was shot during one particularly hairy episode of the Lincoln County War, as he and Billy escaped from a burning house with guns blazing, but he survived and lived to be an old man.

Born and raised in Lincoln, Joe Salazar took off almost as soon as he could. He served in the Navy for a while, lived in California but moved back to town in 1976. He lives in his grandfather's house, on a ranch a couple of miles outside of Lincoln. There have been times when Joe Salazar has walked into his grandfather's living room to find a search party of Billy buffs making themselves at home. "Maybe they think it's a museum," he said. "Some Billy the Kid fans are at the point of being sick, you know," said Joe, who ranches and performs with a country band in area roadhouses. "It's kind of a problem to screen some of them.

"When I was a kid in school, Billy the Kid was about all I heard. There was a point when I was sick of hearing it. Now it means a lot more to me."

Perhaps someday Salazar will collaborate on a book about Billy's Hispanic roots, and commit to print some of the Salazar family theories. If so, Billy traditionalists are not going to like all of what they read. Salazar, separated from the real Billy the Kid by just one generation (Joe's mom--Yginio's daughter--still lives on the family ranch), isn't all that sure that the Kid is buried at Fort Sumner. Neither is he certain that Pat Garrett killed Billy in Pete Maxwell's house in 1881. He even questions the tintype. The Salazars have said for years that the guy in the photograph might not be Billy the Kid. "The people that really loved Billy, and I think a majority of 'em did, they didn't want him to die in Fort Sumner," said Joe Salazar. "Nobody wants their heroes to die, you know.

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Dave Walker