By Billy Smith
Nearly everyone’s graced by a nickname at some point, generally early in life. A few stick; most don’t. They crop up along about elementary school. Most are probably neither kind nor creative.
I heard “Billy Goat” more than once. It was off-putting at first, but the older I get the more I favor the bearded beast. More than once I heard, “Billy Boy.” No boy wants to be called a boy. It’s a reminder of what he’s not; that’s why there used to be paperboys and newsmen.
If you can overlook all of his bad behavior, and I did, there was “Billy the Kid.” That nickname had some gravitas. Some meat. Some allure. Even if he was a kid, he had shown adults a thing or two. This name had staying power.
Thus begun my reading binge of the caustic, unsavory Southwest outlaw—or cowboy, depending on the vantage point of your reading. My voracious history consumption was bolstered by the fact that I grew up not far from where he ranged. He bounced around the sanguine playas in New Mexico, made stops throughout West Texas and then left a bullet hole in the Lincoln County Jail and two dead deputies for his trouble.
As it turned out, his name was more than likely Henry and not Billy, but that didn’t matter. Legend has a way of sticking around longer than fact. Maybe labeling someone Billy the Kid is just a kinder and cuter form of Billy Goat. Or maybe Billy the Kid acquired the label (probably after his death) when, as Henry Hoyt put it, he was “an expert at most Western sports, with the exception of drinking.”
For whatever reason, the bad guys had a corner on nicknames and Billy the Kid was the mildest. Nicknamers seemed to coalesce in the old west along four streams of thought—landmarks, physical features, colors and deeds—or, at least, the tools needed for such deeds.
Here’s how it worked: there was Arkansas Jones and Russian Tattenbaum, a slew of Texas bad guys like Tall Texas Kilpatrick and Texas Mills and the ruthless Bitter Creek Newcomb. Even with maturity and a smattering of couth, they still couldn’t help tagging bad guys for their physical features, like Longhair Jim Courtright, Flatnose Curry and Lame Donahue.
Everybody knows about Black Bart and Black Jack Ketchum, and if you paid attention at all to Lonesome Dove, you know Blue Duck. Of Tombstone lore there was Buckskin Leslie who wore a buckskin jacket (sometimes the obvious is, well, obvious). Buckskin was a tough guy and, let’s say, assertive. He killed two men in Tombstone apparently in self-defense and then married one of their widows eight days later.
A couple of my favorites are Doc Holliday because he was a “doc”—a tooth doc, but a doc nonetheless. Again the obvious. Less obvious is Pancho Villa, which is a handy nickname when you’re birth name is Jose Doroteo Arango Arabula, a mouthful even for a native Spanish speaker.
Then there was Killer Miller who was possibly the most prolific lifetaker in the Old West; he probably murdered his grandparents as a child and kept killing long after. But in perhaps one of the greatest ironies in the old west he also went by Deacon Jim because he often went to church and never smoked or drank. Hypocrisy knows no depths.
Then there were those named for the tools of their less than honorable trades. Shotgun Collins and Pistol Pete Eaton, Diamondfield Jack and the gleeful Plug Fluger.
Then there are just plain old works of creative genius like Pawnee Bill, Pony Diehl and Calamity Jane. More than once I thought about giving the name Calamity to our first born, but I didn’t think I could slip that by Ms. Mindy. You can’t name your child “Calamity,” but it’s fun to admire those who did. The Sundance Kid, is another personal favorite; I consider it a righteous substitution if you were born Harry Alonzo Longabaugh. It’s hard to get through first grade with that handle and harder indeed to look in the mirror at ever graying facial hair and not hear the whisper, “Billy Goat.”