When ‘Billy the Kid’ returned in color

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Photo courtesy of William Cox

Diego De Jesus
Staff Writer

Alone with the bus driver, William Cox arrived at his stop in Roswell, New Mexico, as a cool breeze welcomed him to the High Great Plains. 

“The numbers kept getting fewer and fewer,” said Cox about the bus ride. “Because it was so remote where I was going.” 

Roswell reminded Cox of Lakeland, where he came just out of high school. It was once a boomtown built along one street on a high, flat plateau. The movie “Young Guns” inspired Cox to ride a Greyhound to Roswell. Originally, he was to return home in a couple of weeks. 

But Cox felt connected to the desert, it gave him chills. Something was calling him to go out West amidst the many famous names that float across the plains like sand. 

Cox––with everything he had fitting in his book bag––went to the Roswell Museum and learned some of the local history. 

As Cox was looking at pictures of the town’s heroes and villains, Kenneth Hobbs, a ranger, approached him. 

“He took me to a window, and pointed,” said Cox. “‘You see that mountain? That’s where it all started, we gotta get you up there.’” 

In the blurring distance was El Capitan Mountain, behind heat waves, rising from the flat plateau. That was where they were going, and where everything would be changed for Cox. 

Hobbs drove Cox over to Lincoln County, where many rivalries and legends are still bound by the blood that started them, survived by their descendants. 

Lincoln was a block long, like Roswell, with 70 people descended from many famous names of the Lincoln County war. 

They drove past the foothill of the mountain. 

There, he met Chief Ranger Jack Rigney and caught a sharp look with a stiff brow. Cox was confused by Rigney’s astonished reaction, it was strange. 

Cox looked like Billy the Kid according to the locals. He would remain in Lincoln County, and was called either “Billy,” or, “the Kid.”

During that time, he worked odd-jobs as a local celebrity, roaming New Mexico. From tending the land of local ranchers to installing picket fences.

Lincolnians––and at one point news channels such as BBC and NBC––would approach him to take pictures for cash. 

Cox at one point was approached by folks from California to shoot movies with him, but he turned them down. He stayed in New Mexico for two years. 

In New Mexico, Cox was totally free. 

“There was no rules or regulations, just freedom,” Cox said. “I think that’s what it was all about, being free.”

Lincoln County was untouched for 130 years, with memories of old legends being memory. Legends that have made their mark, being the celebrated heroes or the hated villains. 

Around the county were small pueblos who were the descendants of Spanish settlers, who originally inhabited the area, many of whom still carried their names. 

Cox was beginning to be accused of the same crimes that Billy the Kid committed during his time such as stealing cattle. Some accused him of sneaking into the Wortley Hotel where Billy the Kid once stayed. 

It escalated to the point where Cox had to flee north to Fort Sumner, where lawmen killed Billy the Kid. He was invited to Jake West’s ranch, whose family has been in New Mexico for generations until Dec 31. 1991, a date he remembered. 

Before he left the land that recognized his face, Cox planted a white cross in the sand. He disappeared into the sunset, past the towering mesas until he reached palmettos 

Cox told everyone about his desert odyssey when he returned home, where everyone thought he looked like Odysseus.  

“You’re the same Billy, just in color,” said Cox. 

It’s been 30 years since Cox escaped Billy the Kid’s reputation. Since then, he’s visited New Mexico. In 2020, he was mentioned in the “Mulberry Press” for “escaping” to New Mexico as Billy the Kid. 

Many others have recognized Cox’s story, and featured it in a couple of novels. 

Authors John Lemay and Richard McCord have written books–“New Kid in Old Lincoln Town” and “Dead Ranger” respectively–about Billy the Kid, which included Cox’s story. 

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