When Pat Garrett, sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, gunned down William Bonney in an ambush at Fort Sumner, NM, on 14 July 1881, he inadvertently created a legend. Two months short of his twenty-second birthday at his death, Billy the Kid has always divided commentators. To the pro-Garrett school he was a thug, thief and murderer, responsible for some two dozen slayings. To more sensible historians he comes close to fulfilling all the criteria of Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘primitive rebels’. Called El Chivato by the Mexicans, who lionised him, he was a romantic and courageous leader of a band of outlaws who were fighting for justice. The revisionists emphasise that Billy has been unfairly saddled with the moral responsibility for a generally violent and murderous society, as if the notoriously homicidal New Mexico of the 1870s and 1880s would not have existed but for him.
In sober historical terms Billy the Kid was a mere epiphenomenon in the wider carnage known as the Lincoln County War. A powerful cabal representing big business, known as ‘The House’, controlled New Mexico in the late 1870s, reducing the Mexican population to a kind of peonage and ruthlessly eliminating