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140 years later, questions still remain unanswered about how Sheriff Pat Garrett shot Billy the Kid

Salvador Vargas of Chihuahua, Mexico, looks at a Winchester rifle, reportedly once owned by the Kid, during a stop at the Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner. According to the museum, 25,000 people tour the collections here each year. (Mike Sandoval/For the Albuquerque Journal)

FORT SUMNER – Did Billy have a gun?

July 14 marked the 140th anniversary of the night Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett killed outlaw Billy the Kid in a darkened room of a house in Old Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

That’s a fact. Never mind what you saw in the “Young Guns II” movie, most reputable historians and researchers agree that Garrett shot the Kid to death that night. What some doubt, however, is that the Kid was carrying a gun at the time, as Garrett and others on the scene reported.

“If Billy the Kid had had a gun that night in Fort Sumner, there would have been another dead Lincoln County Sheriff,” said Paul Hutton, distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico. “If he had had a gun, he’d got Garrett.”

A grave situation

On a recent weekday morning, Jody McCulloch was reading information posted on placards and slabs near the Kid’s grave in the Old Fort Sumner Cemetery. McCulloch, 69, of Smyrna, Tennessee, and his sister, Margie, 72, of Nashville, Tennessee, were on a Southwest road trip, heading to Albuquerque, when a highway sign lured them to this quiet place.

“I’ve always been a Western fan,” Jody said.

Jody McCulloch of Smyrna, Tennessee, reads markers near the grave of Billy the Kid in Old Fort Sumner. McCulloch and his sister were driving to Albuquerque when they saw signs for the grave site. (Mike Sandoval/For the Albuquerque Journal)

Billy’s outlaw pals, Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre, both killed by Garrett and his posse in December 1880, are buried next to the Kid. The graves and grave markers of the three are enclosed within bars to protect them from miscreants. Billy’s headstone was stolen in 1950 and again in 1981, but recovered both times.

“Who’d do something like that?” McCulloch asked as he read about the thefts.

A different story

The Kid, convicted and sentenced to hang for his role in the 1878 ambush killing of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady, was on the loose after killing two guards and breaking out of the Lincoln County Courthouse jail on April 28, 1881.

Tim Sweet, who runs the Billy the Kid Museum with his father, Don, and mother, Lula, said business is booming at the museum now that coronavirus restrictions are being relaxed. “People are tired of being cooped up,” he said. (Mike Sandoval/For the Albuquerque Journal)

Hunting for the Kid, Garrett and two deputies rode to the home of Pete Maxwell in Old Fort Sumner, arriving about midnight on July 14, 1881. Billy was supposedly in a romantic relationship with Pete’s young sister, Paulita.

Leaving the deputies on the porch, Garrett went into Maxwell’s dark bedroom to ask if he’d seen the Kid. According to Garrett, this is what happened next.

Billy comes onto the porch with a pistol and a knife, intending to cut some meat off a beef hanging there. Startled to see the deputies, the Kid backs into Maxwell’s room, asking Pete about the strangers. The sheriff recognizes Billy’s voice and draws his gun, firing twice. One bullet hits the Kid squarely in the chest.

This elaborate ashtray, on display at the Bosque Redondo Memorial, is inscribed with a brief account of Billy the Kid’s life. (Mike Sandoval/For the Albuquerque Journal)

“The only eyewitnesses to the event tell that story, and, as a historian, you have to deal with what you have,” Hutton said. But he doesn’t believe it.

“Was the Kid in (Maxwell’s) sister’s bedroom, and did they just kick in the door and shoot him?” Hutton wonders.

Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of True West magazine, thinks Garrett’s story was devised to protect the reputations of Paulita and the Maxwell family – not to mention his own.

A display case at the Bosque Redondo Memorial includes an ashtray, yo-yo, knife, shot glass and bottle opener inspired by Billy the Kid’s life and legend. (Mike Sandoval/For the Albuquerque Journal)

Bell sticks to the Garrett story in the 1992 and 1996 editions of his book “The Illustrated Life & Times of Billy the Kid,” but in a recently published third edition, he gives an account in which Billy is not armed.

“The first two editions, I followed the company line,” Bell said in a phone interview. “Well, this time I needed to tell my version of what I believed happened. I think Billy was in the house with Paulita, heard some commotion and went into Pete’s room to see what was going on and got shot.”

Legends never die

The Maxwell house is gone, the last remnants of it washed away 80 years ago by Pecos River floodwaters. But within walking distance west of the Old Fort Sumner Cemetery, northwest of the Bosque Redondo Memorial, are markers showing where the house had been and the approximate location of Billy’s death.

A corner in the Bosque Redondo Memorial commemorates the Kid’s role in the region’s history and his significance as a pop culture icon. A display case there contains an ash tray, a yo-yo, a knife, a shot glass and a bottle opener inspired by the Kid’s legend.

Visitors to the Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner can get their pictures taken with this replica of the legendary outlaw. (Mike Sandoval/For the Albuquerque Journal)

According to Tim Sweet, about 25,000 people a year visit the Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner, an off -the-beaten-path De Baca County town of just over 1,000 people.

Sweet, 63, the grandson of the late Ed Sweet, the museum’s founder, runs the place with his father, Don, and mother, Lula.

Among the extensive displays of antique firearms, clocks, spurs, saddles, automobiles, typewriters, etc., are museum exhibits directly related to the Kid – a Winchester rifle he once owned, a rock on which he scratched his name and a date, a barber chair in which the Kid is said to have had his hair cut in Mesilla.

Tim said the museum’s business is booming now that coronavirus restrictions are being lifted.

“People are tired of being cooped up, he said. “We are averaging about 130 people a day.”

Folks seem never to get enough of Billy and his story – no matter what that story is.