FT. SUMNER, N.M. — The ghost of Billy the Kid, the notorious Old West outlaw shot to death by a former friend at age 21, is provoking a feud between two tiny towns over his bones.
Well, it's not the kind of range war and gunfighting that put Sheriff Pat Garrett on the trail of William Bonney in the 1880s, but civic pride is at stake--as well as tourist dollars.
Ft. Sumner for years has advertised that Billy the Kid and a couple of his saddle pals are buried here. Not so, says a faction in the Texas town of Hico, claiming a cover-up by their New Mexico neighbors. The real Kid lived to a ripe old age in their town, they say.
If Hico prevails, Ft. Sumner is likely to lose a lot of money.
"Billy's the big money-maker here," says Jeff Wooten, director of the Ft. Sumner State Monument, an old Army fort which attracts 2,000 to 3,000 tourists a month, most of whom want to see where the Kid is buried.
Don Sweet, who owns the Billy the Kid Museum on the main street in town, agrees.
'Kind of Limited'
"We've made some efforts to do some other things, but that's kind of limited," Sweet says. 'Primarily here in town it's Billy the Kid. Then there's farming and ranching and that'll about do it."
The people of Ft. Sumner befriended Bonney when he was on the run from the law, having killed two guards and escaped from the Lincoln County jail, where he was under a death sentence for killing two lawmen during a bloody range war in the 1870s.
"He was the classic kind of anti-hero," says Bob Parsons, a native and prominent historian of this eastern New Mexico community of about 1,400 people. He explained that many people considered the Kid a kind of Robin Hood of the Wild West.
In later years, the townsfolk of Ft. Sumner took quiet pleasure in the presence of the Kid--William Bonney, or Kid Antrim, or Henry McCarty, or whatever his name really was--in a grave next to the original Army fort south of town.
"After he broke out of jail in Lincoln, he came to Ft. Sumner, which was a place where he was very well acquainted with the people, particularly the Spanish people," says John McMillan, who heads the local chamber of commerce. "He'd kind of drop in and eat. They seemed very open with him, very honest with him."
It mattered little to the locals whether Bonney killed 21 men or just five; whether he was a real-life Robin Hood or a shiftless outlaw who wrangled, gambled and rustled cattle on the Staked Plains, or whether his exploits were being embellished beyond belief.
Born in New York
By most accounts, Billy the Kid was William H. Bonney, who was born in New York City on Nov. 23, 1859, and grew up in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. By 1877, when he became a cowhand in the Pecos Valley of New Mexico, 12 murders had been charged to his account. When the range war erupted in Lincoln County in 1878, he readily accepted leadership of one of the warring factions. Later he led a gang of 12 cattle rustlers.
There have always been nagging questions about the night of July 14, 1881, when the Kid entered rancher Pete Maxwell's bedroom and asked Pete why there were two men outside.
"Quien es?" asked the Kid. "Who is it?"
Lincoln County Sheriff Patrick F. Garrett, who had once worked with Billy on the Maxwell ranch, was hiding in the darkness in Maxwell's bed. He answered the question with a bullet.
Locals still wonder why Billy didn't shoot first and ask questions later. Some Texans say they have the explanation.
Hico, pronounced high-coe, is the home of Bob Hefner, a justice of the peace who has made the claim for Billy the Kid's final resting place a personal crusade. He has published a pamphlet suggesting that Billy the Kid was, in fact, Ollie L. (Brushy Bill) Roberts, who died in 1950 at about the age of 90.
The Hico story is that Garrett did not kill Bonney in Maxwell's home.
"Garrett, to further his own political ambitions, made a trade-out with old Billy," says Hefner. Garrett spared the Kid "in exchange for him leaving the country."
Hefner says Bonney went to Mexico and tried ranching, but his lands were nationalized and he returned to Texas. He rode with some of the Wild West shows then popular, all the time keeping his secret.
In the 1940s, according to the Hico tale, the man then known as Brushy Bill hired an El Paso, Tex., lawyer, W. A. Morrison, to research his claim and present a case for clemency to the governor of New Mexico.
Roberts met with Gov. Thomas Mabry in November, 1950, but his request for clemency was denied. He died a month later, in Hico, of a heart attack.
"Now, then, 40 years later, no one has disproved one thing that old Brushy said," Hefner says. "Not a word has been disproved."
Evidence that could have proved his identity was destroyed by Roberts himself, Hefner says.