FORT SUMNER, N.M. -- It's a classic Old West showdown, a ruckus involving righteous sheriffs and brazen outlaws, but with a modern-day twist: The weapons are not six-shooters but DNA samples.
Billy the Kid is being raised from the dead, figuratively and maybe even literally.
A group of lawmen in New Mexico, with the support of the governor, is seeking to exhume long-buried bodies to resolve a running dispute over Billy the Kid, the young-gun outlaw who, most historians and countless books, movies and songs agree, was shot dead here in 1881 by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
Or was he?
"There is reasonable doubt," says Tom Sullivan, who holds Garrett's old job as sheriff of Lincoln County. "We'd just like to know the truth."
That Garrett's successor has joined the skeptics who over the years have questioned the official version of the Billy-and-Pat story has raised hackles in this remote part of the state. Here, the myth and reality of the Old West loom large, and the dueling legends of Billy the Kid, the gunslinger who was said to have killed 21 men, one for each year of his life, and Pat Garrett, his one-time friend turned avenging lawman, continue to inspire periodic re-examination.
Sullivan and two other officials filed a petition last year to exhume the body of Billy's mother, Katherine Antrim. They want to then match her DNA with that of the Kid -- or whoever is buried beneath his gravestone here -- and that of one or more of the men who over the years have claimed to be the real Kid.
Sullivan's petition initially was scheduled to be heard this month, but a state judge granted an extension until August to give the sheriff's forensic expert, George Washington University professor James Starrs, time to study the case and prepare a report on it. Starrs joins a host of interested parties who have jumped into the case.
"Everyone's lawyered up," Sullivan says with a sigh. (Even Billy the Kid has an attorney, appointed by Gov. Bill Richardson -- who, as a former ambassador to the United Nations, knows something about resolving disputes -- to make sure the outlaw has a voice in these postmortem proceedings.)
Here in Fort Sumner, where thousands flock every year to see the Billy the Kid grave, tour the Billy the Kid museum and stay at the Billy the Kid Country Inn, the suggestion that the outlaw survived Garrett's manhunt and lived to old age elsewhere is blasphemy.
"Billy the Kid is ours," says Raymond Lopez, mayor of this town of 1,250 in the tumbleweed-strewn eastern plains of the state. "He belongs to Fort Sumner, and we will fight to keep him."
Lopez says he is motivated in part by money. Without the lure of the local folk hero, there's not much reason to drive to this town on the Pecos River, 150 miles and worlds away from chic Santa Fe.
"To me, it's an industry. It's tourism," Lopez says. "We're not a big metro area; we're a small community in the middle of a rural area."
Fort Sumner struggles to boost its economy. Its World War II-era Army airfield shut down long ago, although it is occasionally used as a launch site for NASA research balloons. Most of the retail trade has moved 60 miles east, to Clovis. "You can't buy a pair of socks in Fort Sumner," Lopez says. "Slowly, we've gone down, but Billy has kept us level."
Fort Sumner and Silver City, a town in southwestern New Mexico where Katherine Antrim is buried, are fighting the efforts to exhume her body in an effort to determine the identity of the real Billy the Kid.
Lopez says he has all the proof he needs: a coroner's report, dated July 15, 1881, in which a jury of six men reported on its inspection of the body of the man killed by Pat Garrett the previous night. They concluded the victim was Billy the Kid and that he died of a bullet wound to the left side of the chest in a justified homicide.
Detractors such as Sullivan say that report is inconclusive. He says some think Garrett wrote it himself and had the men sign it. Among their theories are that Garrett shot someone else or that the sheriff and the outlaw, one-time friends turned nemeses, conspired to make it look as if Garrett finally got his man.
Sullivan is particularly intrigued by one possible motivation for a conspiracy between Garrett and Billy. As is documented in a series of letters, Lew Wallace, the territorial governor of New Mexico, offered Billy the Kid a pardon in exchange for information about a crime. Billy supplied the information, but Wallace, a Union Civil War general who was also the author of Ben Hur, never lived up to his end of the bargain.
"I've had informants," says Sullivan, a 36-year veteran of law enforcement, "and if you tell them to do something and promise them something in return, and they do it, you should say, 'OK, here's what I promised you.' Instead, the governor reneged."
That Billy's demise should be called into question is perhaps to be expected. Much of what is known about Billy the Kid is a mix of fact and legend, the scant record-keeping of the 19th century embellished during his time by the sensationalist journalism practiced in the Old West and burnished over the years by the mystique and romance that surround the era.
Billy was born Henry McCarty in New York City in 1859 and as a boy made his way west with his widowed mother, Katherine. They settled in Indiana, Kansas and, finally, New Mexico, where Katherine, by then remarried to William Antrim, operated a boardinghouse in Silver City.
When Katherine Antrim died of tuberculosis in 1874, Billy was a 15-year-old suddenly adrift in the often lawless frontier. He worked as a cowboy and took up horse rustling and gunfighting. Soon, his reputation began to grow.
He became embroiled in the Lincoln County War, a bloody battle over cattle rights. In 1878, the rancher he worked for and grew to view as a father figure, Englishman John Tunstall, was killed. Billy and other Tunstall loyalists vowed vengeance and ultimately killed Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady and Deputy George Hindman.
As the body count grew on both sides, Billy managed to survive, but with a substantial bounty on his head. Pat Garrett, a buffalo hunter in Texas who had owned a cafe where Billy and he gambled together, became Lincoln County sheriff with the express mission of nabbing his one-time pal.
Garrett and his men killed two of Billy's close friends, then captured the Kid in December 1880. While in jail awaiting hanging, Billy the Kid escaped, setting up the final showdown.
Billy made his way back to Fort Sumner, where he had friends, and on the night of July 14, 1881, Garrett caught up with him. Billy had been hiding out at the home of a friend, Pete Maxwell, and Garrett went there looking for him. In a dark room in the Maxwell home, Garrett shot him dead.
The story continues to fascinate today. People come from around the world to follow the crisscrossing trails of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid through this remote swath of New Mexico, and the current battle over matching DNA samples has brought international news media attention.
Sullivan happened to stop in Hico, Texas, last year on a trip to Houston, to get a look at the town that promotes, with a museum and statue, its one-time resident, Ollie "Brushy Bill" Roberts, as the real Billy the Kid.
Roberts, who died in 1950, claimed to be Billy and traveled at one point to New Mexico seeking that long-ago promised gubernatorial pardon. He didn't receive it and is dismissed by most here as a pretender. Sullivan doesn't believe him either, although he finds another would-be Billy, a man who lived in Arizona, more convincing.
During a horseback ride with his friend and deputy, Steve Sederwall, Sullivan brought up his trip to Hico and the dispute over the identity of Billy the Kid. Sederwall responded that DNA testing had been used to settle other such questions of identity, so why not this one?
One discussion led to another, and they eventually linked up with Gary Graves, the sheriff of DeBaca County, where Fort Sumner is situated, and jointly petitioned for the remains of Katherine Antrim to be exhumed.
Although some have disputed whether her grave can be found -- the cemetery was moved at one point to another part of town -- Sullivan remains confident that maps and other devices can lead them to her remains. Then, he hopes to receive permission to exhume the bodies of Billy the Kid and those who claimed to be the outlaw, and begin matching DNA samples.
Sullivan says he has found furniture from the room where Billy was killed -- owned by someone in New Mexico who doesn't wish to be identified publicly -- that adds to his doubts about the commonly accepted story of Billy's demise. The expected bullet holes were nowhere to be found, he says.
For Sullivan, this has become the ultimate cold case, the unsolved mystery to be solved. Even if it puts him on the side of the outlaw rather than the lawman, even if it upends the image of his predecessor as Lincoln County sheriff.
"When I started this investigation, I thought Billy the Kid was nothing but a glorified cop-killer," Sullivan says. "Now I'm changing my mind. We've got a whole new mystery here. "