There's something irresistible about Billy the Kid. Nearly 130 years after Sheriff Pat Garrett gunned down the charismatic young outlaw, we still can't get enough of him. He figures in hundreds of books, from nickel novels to scholarly histories to comic books. No fewer than 60 Hollywood films have been made featuring Billy, and he is celebrated in numerous songs, with modern ballads penned by the likes of Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and Jon Bon Jovi. And in New Mexico, Billy is such an important tourist draw that the state recently developed an elaborate web site all about him and the places his celebrated exploits have turned into popular attractions.
During the research for To Hell on a Fast Horse, I constantly encountered the special reverence given to any artifacts associated with the Kid. And I have to admit I was just as obsessed with some of these pieces of the True Cross. Historically, the obsession for all things Billy began immediately after his 1881 death. Less than two weeks after the Kid's body was laid to rest at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, a Las Vegas newspaper claimed to have the outlaw's trigger finger on display in an alcohol-filled jar. The same newspaper later reported that it had sold the finger for $150 to a buyer in the east. The story was a complete hoax, but it was carried by several gullible newspapers across the country. It caused such a stir that Pat Garrett made a special trip to the Fort Sumner cemetery to confirm that Billy's grave had not been disturbed.