Longform

THE KID IS ALL RIGHT

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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?"

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Dave Walker