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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Brushy Bill Roberts

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

When the youngster from Gatesville knocked on the door, an old man wearing jeans, Western shirt, bandanna, boots and an un-creased, round-brimmed Stetson answered.

A. J. Gordon told the man that his parents were in Hico visiting some of his mother's relatives and that one of them had suggested that he ought to go see a Mr. Roberts. A kindly seeming man, Brushy Bill Roberts allowed as how that was him and invited the boy inside.

"Mr. Roberts was a dapper elderly gentleman with white thinning hair, sporting a well trimmed white mustache, and was very gracious to me even though I was a stranger and there was a big difference in our ages," Gordon later wrote in his self-published memoir, "The World According to Jake: A Collection of Short Stories Describing the Adventures and Misadventures of a Boy Growing Up in Central Texas."

In recalling his visit with the old-timer, Gordon had first expounded on his kinfolks and the way kids were expected to behave around adults in the 1940s and '50s-a version of the "children should be seen, not heard" dictum. As for family, his was large. His mother, particularly, "Had cousins that I...never saw and don't know to this day, so no matter where you are we might find relatives that you don't know about."

That explains why he happened to be in Hico back in the late '40s-his mother had come to spend a little time with her elderly aunt and uncle. "It took me no time to find all that I needed to know about them," Gordon revealed. Not only that, he quickly "grew tired of all the grown-up talk."

Seeing that the boy was bored and restless, either his aunt or uncle, he didn't say who, said he might enjoy meeting Mr. Roberts, who lived only a few houses from them on West 2nd Street.

"I may have been a poor ol' country boy but I wasn't shy, so down the street I went to Mr. Robert's house," he continued.-

Well, Mr. Roberts was no Mr. Rogers. It may have been a beautiful day in the neighborhood, but Mr. Roberts did something Mr. Rogers never would have done on his television show: He walked Gordon back to his bedroom and showed the wide-eyed grade schooler the shiny Colt .45 six-shooter he kept under his pillow. It was loaded, though the hammer did at least rest on an empty chamber. If Mr. Roberts let Gordon heft the weapon, he didn't mention it in his account of the incident.

Gordon would be long grown before PBS's Mr. Rogers would famously ask his millions of young viewers, "Did you know? Did you know? Did you know it's alright to wonder?" But on that day in Hico, Gordon did wonder why the grandfatherly Mr. Roberts felt the need to have a pistol handy in a small town where most people didn't even lock their doors.

Another thing the old man had intrigued the youngster almost as much as the shooting iron, a set of well-worn leather cuff protectors cowboys favored when roping.

After an enjoyable visit, Gordon walked back to his relative's house and resumed being board. Not until he was older did he learn that the old man he'd spent time with had for years been telling folks in Hamilton County that he had a secret maybe someday he'd talk about. Finally, in 1948, he "confessed" that he was Billy the Kid, not that guy they'd buried at Fort Sumner, NM.

It being well documented that the Kid had been shot and killed by Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881, only Brushy Bill's close friends and some who wished it were so believed his story. Still, Roberts traveled to New Mexico to ask the governor for a pardon. The governor said no.

Back in Hico, Roberts was walking along a sidewalk toward the post office on Dec. 27, 1950 when he dropped dead of a heart attack. Since then, several books have been written on the old man's wild claims and some people still believe that the remains in BTK's grave are not his.

"The debate still goes on between the people of Hico and the people of New Mexico as [to] who had the real Billy the Kid, each claiming to be correct," Gordon wrote. "I don't really care as I remember Brushy Bill Roberts as a man who would take time to talk [to] and befriend a young boy."

Gordon wrote about his meeting with Brushy Bill and told other stories in a manuscript he completed in 1998. Following his death in 2006, his son had it published.

No serious student of Wild West history believes that Brushy Bill Roberts was actually Billy the Kid, but there are some diehards who are quite satisfied that the famed outlaw lived to old age and died in Texas. And while his traditional gray granite tombstone in the Hamilton cemetery identifies him as William Henry Roberts, a large stone spanning two pillars on either side of his grave says in big letters, "Billy the Kid."

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" August 23, 2018

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