HICO, Texas — He was known by many aliases; we know him as Billy the Kid.
There’s an unsolved mystery centered in Central Texas around the notorious outlaw. Was he gunned down at age 21 in New Mexico, or did “the kid” cheat death and live to age 90 in a quiet corner of Hamilton County?
Many considered it settled that he was shot, killed, and buried in Fort Sumner, New Mexico in 1881 at the hands of Sherriff Pat Garrett. Or was he? Did he in fact end his days as a very old man in Central Texas living under the name of Brushy Bill Roberts?
“It's always been a tourist attraction and we've always been proud of it," said Sue Land, director of the Billy the Kid Museum. "And we don't celebrate the fact that he was an outlaw or a killer."
Land believes Brushy Bill Roberts was Billy the Kid, there is not a body in the grave in Fort Sumner, and that Sheriff Pat Garrett killed the wrong man and claimed it was “the kid” to collect the reward money.
“We believe he was Brushy Bill," said Historian Robert Dean, president and treasurer of the museum.
“This boy walks up on the porch," said Dean. "He was a Vaccaro on the ranch. Well, that's a Mexican cowboy back then. Well, Billy the Kid was called a fair-haired kid, and he sure wasn't a Mexican. But Billy Barlow was and he was riding with the kid at that time. Pat Garrett shot him twice in the back. He fell over. Pat Garrett takes the body before dawn. The next morning hires people, digs a grave, and puts the body in a grave before dawn the next morning. What was the haste to put the body in the grave?”
And the museum has copies of affidavits dated after 1881 showing an ongoing search for Billy the kid.
"It's a no-brainer to me, you know?" said Dean. "They were still looking for Billy the Kid and putting the posters and warrants out in 82 and 83. Now if he's dead in July of 81, why are they were looking for two and a half years and possibly still looking for him? Did you think really anybody back then believed he was dead? And nobody believed he was dead or they wouldn't have been looking for him.”
Dean and Land believe Billy the Kid escaped to Mexico then later returned to Texas in 1883. As an expert horseman, Brushy Bill even trained Teddy Roosevelt's rough riders.
“This is a story nobody wanted to believe until proof was found. He trained the horses for the rough riders," said Land. "He was even with them when they were loading them on the ship to go to Cuba.”
But Brushy Bill Roberts never claimed to be Billy the Kid—until shortly before his death when he wanted to get the pardon that had been promised him back in the 1800s by then governor of New Mexico, Lew Wallace. They even checked the old man’s body for scars from wounds Billy the Kid was known to have suffered.
"And he had them all in the correct places," said Dean. "And why would anybody self-inflict? Why would somebody shoot himself five or six times and stab himself with a knife just to prove something, you know?”
Brushy never received his pardon because New Mexico officials didn’t believe he was really the kid.
Adding to the mystery: DNA confirmation isn’t possible … flooding washed away the graves in new Mexico.
"There is no bodies in those graves out there," said Dean. "In 1908, the Pecos river changed course and took out the cemetery at Fort Sumner, so, they went all down the river. So, any chance for DNA verification? Impossible. They have nothing to do it with there.”
What’s not in dispute? The mystery surrounding Brushy Bill Roberts and Billy the Kid is great for the town of Hico.
Wild West fans visit the museum by the score... many of them hoping "The Kid" did turn from his killing ways and lived a long life to redeem his past.