About 1900 a mysterious stranger showed up in the badlands of New Mexico - a bearded, piano-playing stranger whose identity remains clouded in mystery and legend.
Nobody knew his name, but most folks called him "Walk Along" because he walked everywhere he went, carrying nothing but a canteen, a couple of dog-eared books and a writing tablet and pencils.
Walk Along became a familiar sight at lonely ranches and in small towns. In exchange for room and board, he entertained his hosts by playing piano and teaching their children how to read and write.
He spent a lot of time at the Santa Fe library, but, when winter came, always headed south to warmer regions near Reserve or Silver City.
One thing that struck these hard-scrabble ranchers as peculiar was the fact that Walk Along never touched a gun.
When he died near Lordsburg, N.M., in 1937, some folks rushed forward to say Walk Along was really William Bonney - alias Billy the Kid - the notorious gunslinger supposedly shot down by Sheriff Pat Garrett almost 60 years earlier, on July 14, 1881.
Some ranchers claimed that Walk Along had confided his real identity to them, asking only that the secret not be revealed until after his death.
According to one version of the story, the Kid's much-publicized death during a shootout with Garrett had been part of an elaborate plot concocted by himself, Garrett and Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace.
Western historian Jack Kutz contends that Wallace and Garrett realized that Billy was really a good boy and that he'd been forced into his role as a gunfighter during the vicious Lincoln County War. He had fought and killed only to defend himself, avenge his friends or escape the gallows.
"There's no disputing the fact that Gov. Lew Wallace was a romantic - he was writing Ben Hur at the time," Mr. Kutz said. "Garrett was said to have convinced Wallace that William Bonney deserved another chance at life, that the notorious Billy the Kid might actually have a great potential for doing good."
With that agreement struck, Mr. Kutz says a shootout was staged at the Maxwell Ranch. Two sacks of sand were buried in an unmarked grave.
"Pat Garrett collected the $500 reward from the governor, and Billy was sent off incognito to a prestigious university back east. Twenty years later, the outlaw returned as Walk Along Smith."
Could it be that Wallace and Garrett cared enough about the charismatic young desperado that they illegally arranged for his escape and faked his death?
Some researchers say yes and point to numerous sightings of Billy the Kid long after his supposed death.
To this day, some investigators swear that William Bonney changed his name to John Miller and lived out his life on a remote ranch near Ramah, N.M., in McKinley County. Billy the Kid was also reportedly seen in Duncan, Ariz.; Mora County, N.M.; and once running a restaurant in California.
Perhaps the most famous sighting of "The Kid" was in 1950, when an old cowboy clad in a yellow buckskin jacket, bright-green bandana and 10-gallon hat strolled into a New Mexico courthouse and asked a judge to pardon him for his crimes.
"I'm Billy the Kid," the old man swore. "That's my real name, and I'll die by it."
Author and syndicated columnist Randall Floyd can be reached at Rfloyd2@aol.com.
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