Billy the Kid was a juvenile delinquent good with a gun. Those traits made him memorable, and Sheriff Pat Garrett made him unforgettable.
Garrett killed the buck-toothed outlaw in 1881 in a darkened bedroom in Fort Sumner, N.M., an act of frontier hygiene that probably saved numerous lives.
But today, instead of celebrating a brave lawman who did his job, some are suggesting Garrett killed someone other than Billy, and might've conspired to murder two of his own deputies.
And Billy? Well, he's still seen as the irresistible antihero in a Wild West melodrama that could soon result in his receiving an official pardon for his crimes.
To fulfill a promise that New Mexico Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace made to Billy, current Gov. Bill Richardson is considering the move, and will make a decision sometime before leaving office in January.
The Garrett family is steadfastly opposed.
"Not only did Billy kill other people, but he killed four lawmen," says Jarvis Pat Garrett, the sheriff's 51-year-old grandson who goes by J.P. "If someone today killed four policemen, would anyone consider letting him go on a pardon? It sends the wrong message and makes no sense."
So what's new? The Billy story has been divorced from reality for a long time, beginning with Garrett's own 1882 biography of the Kid and continuing with Walter Noble Burns' The Saga of Billy the Kid, published in 1926.
Both were part biography and part fantasy, but they tapped into a public fascination that won't abate. It bubbled up again in 2003, when The New York Times gave Page 1 coverage to the decision by Lincoln County, N.M., to open an official investigation into circumstances surrounding the Kid's last days.
The story drew worldwide interest, and Richardson's backing.
Investigators—Tom Sullivan, then sheriff of Lincoln County and Steve Sederwall, a former federal cop—planned to draw DNA from the remains of Billy's mother, Catherine Antrim, and compare it to DNA taken from a fellow named Ollie "Brushy Bill" Roberts.
Roberts died in 1950, at 90, claiming to his last day that he was the "real" Billy the Kid.
Sullivan and Sederwall believed a DNA match would prove that history has it wrong about what happened in Pete Maxwell's bedroom that July night—and about what happened on April 28, 1881, when the Kid escaped from the Lincoln County Jail, in the process murdering deputies James Bell and Robert Olinger.
But when it became clear that the exhumations of Antrim and Roberts would never happen, the investigators moved to Arizona, where John Miller, another Billy claimant, died at the Arizona Pioneers' Home in 1937.
In 2005, Sullivan and Sederwall exhumed two bodies from the home's cemetery, one of which they believed was Miller. They compared Miller's DNA to that taken from a bloody bench on which Billy's body was supposedly laid.
Four years later, Sullivan and Sederwall still haven't released the DNA results, and now the issue is tied up in a New Mexico court.
"I assume by now, everyone realizes this was all a publicity stunt that has cost Lincoln County a ton of money," says Scot Stinnett, publisher of the De Baca County News, one of the litigants in an open-records lawsuit seeking the results. A judge has ruled that Lincoln County must turn over the DNA results, but Sullivan and Sederwall continue to fight the matter.
True West magazine recently covered all the ins and outs of the seven-year investigation, citing political dealings, personal feuds, death threats and a cast of characters straight out of the Warner Bros. cafeteria.
"The Billy the Kid case has been a travesty for pretty much everybody involved," concludes writer Mark Boardman.
The Garrett family certainly agrees.
When the investigation started, Richardson said his goal was to use modern DNA evidence to prove Brushy Bill and Miller were imposters, and remove the doubts about Garrett's reputation. But Sullivan made the investigation sound like an inquiry into Garrett's integrity.
"If Garrett shot someone other than the Kid," he told the Times, "that makes him a murderer, and he covered it up. He wouldn't be such a role model, then, and we'd have to take the patches off the uniforms.''
Garrett's image still adorns the shoulder patch of Lincoln County Sheriff's Department deputies. There was even a suggestion that Garrett had been an accomplice in Billy's jailbreak, supplying the weapon the Kid used to kill Bell and Olinger.
The Garrett family stayed mostly silent on the matter until July, when the Albuquerque Journal reported that Richardson was considering a pardon.
Fearing that could mean a pardon for Brushy Bill, too, the Garretts started a petition drive, wrote to Richardson and met with him, receiving his assurance that the only pardon he'd consider would be the Kid's. The governor also confirmed his belief that Garrett killed Billy.
Several historians think a pardon for Billy is appropriate, given the evidence that Wallace made the offer, then reneged. But for the Garrett family, doing so now would only put a ribbon on a long charade they say amounts to the "inexcusable defamation of a great man."
"I've had letters from law-enforcement people around the country telling me they grew up with the idea that Sheriff Garrett was a positive influence on them and their kids," says J.P. Garrett. "He brought law and order to New Mexico."
But in the second battle between Garrett and the Kid—the one for history's heart—there's no question who wins.
"I think Garrett's gotten a bad rap," says Lincoln County historian Drew Gomber. "He was tough and dedicated, and he had a tough job to do. He wasn't popular for it, but he did it anyway."
Garrett was also terminally cranky and a big drinker. He once found a writer who'd written unfavorably of him and dragged him into the street for a good pistol-whipping. In 1908, at age 57, while traveling by buckboard to Las Cruces, Garrett got down to urinate and was shot in the back of the head, probably the result of a land dispute. The mourning wasn't widespread.
But the mourning was indeed widespread for the Kid in Lincoln County in 1881. He was popular, especially among Hispanics, who disliked what they considered Garrett's ambush of Billy.
Even then, we can see history making its choice between the two.
"Billy had personality coming out his ears, and that's the key to his legend," says Gomber. "You can't go into a Hispanic household in Lincoln County today without hearing a story about how 'we hid Billy in a barrel, and he left us a $20 gold piece' or some such hogwash."
As the Garretts see it, popularity shouldn't trump the law, and shouldn't justify pardoning a cop killer. "I don't see why you'd give a pardon to a guy who's already dead anyway," says J.P Garrett. "This whole thing is just a joke."