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Before the days of internet cafes, shopping malls and mocha lattes there was a time that has been romanticized in print and film since it’s conception. The silhouette of a dark rider against an infinite sunset. The sounds of a slightly off-tune piano through the swinging saloon doors. The lone tumbleweed bouncing across a cemetery filled with crude wooden headstones and crosses while the undertaker throws shovelfuls of dirt over his shoulder. The buzzard that sits on the top beam of the gallows, beckoning the next unlucky soul to step forward. It was a time of gunslingers, gamblers, and gold panners. It was a time of bodegas, bonanzas and bootlickers. It was a time of bounty hunters, law-dogs and outlaws. It was the 1800s. It was the Wild West.
Legend says there was a man…
Not much is known about Skinny Dan Esquandoles. Some say he was a rustler. Some say he was a thug. But some say he was something far more egregious. It’s been said that he would travel from town to town posing as a preacher for as long as it took to rob not only the church, but the bank, hardware store, saloon, and finally, the livery to make a getaway on a fresh horse. These stories are no doubt embellished and exaggerated, as much of the stories from that time are, but I believe the roots to be true.
For example, one warm autumn day in Arizona, Skinny Dan was slow betting at a prominent saloon. He wasn’t much of a gambler, but he was an astute observer. He was watching for weaknesses in the way the house stored it’s money. A slender, young narrow faced man, a boy on all accounts, took a seat at the table introducing himself as Henry. Skinny Dan had met him around a poker table in New Mexico before, but he had gone by the name William. After quite a few losing hands, the youngster was starting to get flustered. He looked around the table and noticed Skinny had the same amount of money he started with and accused Skinny Dan of cheating.
“I’m not sure how you play cards where you come from, kid, but around here if you ain’t winning, I reckon you ain’t cheating,” Skinny said.
The other two men at the table chuckled.
“Don’t call me ‘kid’” Henry fired back.
“I didn’t mean any offense, Henry. Or is it William? Can I call you Bill?” Skinny asked, genuinely trying to determine what he should call him.
Dirty Frank Schmidt piped in, “I thought his name was ‘Henry’, what kind of angle are you workin’, you goat-faced little scamp?”
“Calm down, boys. I might have him mixed up with someone else.” Skinny said.
Grant Sloan, a professional gambler and gunman, chimed in “Might as well call him ‘Billy Goat’.”
Henry was clearly getting hot under the collar about the other men teasing him. “Keep it up,” he said softly. He put his cards on the table, and dropped his hand towards the side of his belt.
Dirty Frank saw this and let out a loud guffaw, “I like that! Even better yet, ‘Billy the Kid!’ You like that? You like yer new name Billy Boy?”
Skinny Dan Esquandoles was an astute observer. He saw Henry reaching for his Navy Colt, but he also saw the look in his eye as well. He had seen this look in other’s eyes, and knew it was best to blend into the background, which he did. While Grant and Dirty Frank were poking fun at the boy, Skinny took advantage and stayed silent.
“You best put yer hands back up on that table, kid.” Grant said. “Unless you really think you can outdraw all of us…”
Henry grinned. “There’s many a slip ‘twix the cup and the lip.”
In one smooth motion, Henry drew his six-shooter and fired on Dirty Frank hitting him square in the heart, killing him instantly. Skinny calmly put his cards down, folded his hands and looked directly at Henry. Grant had his hand around the butt of his own Colt, but “The Kid” already had him beat.
“I noticed you have a real shiny cannon in your holster there, mister. It sure looked like a beauty. Are those real pearl grips? Do they make you faster?” Henry asked, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Grant said nothing. His face said everything that needed to be said. He had underestimated the speed and wile of this boy and now his run was over.
Henry cocked his Colt and said, “I don’t reckon yer fancy pistelero makes much of a difference, does it?. Why don’t I relieve you of that burden? It’s the least I can do after you and your partner showed me so much kindness.”
Grant slowly pulled his cannister out of the holster, his eyes locked on Henry’s. He put it on the table, slowly stood up and walked towards the door without saying a word.
After Grant Sloan turned himself into a dust cloud, Henry turned his attention to Skinny Dan. “We still playing cards?” he asked.
“I think I’ve had my fill for the day, Henry.”
Henry stood up and gathered his “winnings” along with Grant Sloan’s glimmering hand cannon. He whistled in approval and said “Well, this is a touch too noticeable for my liking. Why don’t you hold onto it, Skinny?”
“Much obliged,” Dan said as he stood up. He took the Navy and tucked it into his bandolier as his holster already contained iron. “Well, I guess I’ll be seeing ya down the trail, Henry.”
Henry let out a high pitched boy’s laugh and said, “Oh, I reckon I’m sick of that name. Why don’t you just call me Billy. It’s got a nice ring to it.”