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I know it’s a stretch

The whole thing’s a stretch, but what the heck–I’m lovin’ it. 

Sheriff Pat Garrett plugged Billy the Kid, a notorious gunslinger, after hunting him down in Fort Sumner, NM. Billy had been tried and convicted for the murder of a man (his sixth, I think) and was sentenced to hang when he escaped from jail and killed two lawmen on his way out the door. The Kid was just a kid–barely 21.

Billy lugged along the burden of an wretched childhood. That he went bad wouldn’t have been entirely unpredictable. Born and baptized Henry McCarty in New York City in 1859, he was orphaned at 13 and just 16 when arrested for the first time. Ten days later, he robbed a Chinese laundry, got himself tossed in jail, and escaped two days later. 

Only known picture of Billy the Kid

Like a million others, he went west, where he ran with cattle rustlers, killed a blacksmith, and soon enough became a fugitive, a dangerous criminal, the caricature Western bad guy. Then again, we have this penchant to like some bad guys, maybe especially if they’re just kids, like Billy was. 

Here’s part of the stretch I’m talking about. Hold on to your hat. Billy didn’t really die. He went on to live in the Western lore of dime novels. Just exactly how many people today know the Billy the Kid story is a good question, but just about everybody has heard the name. Billy’s yet another Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill, something of an icon. Human beings keel over right quick, but icons don’t die so easily.

What’s more, some of that icon’s fans didn’t really want him to be gone. Reports of his death were, as people say, premature and exaggerated. The day after Garrett shot him, they put his kid body in the ground—right quick, I mean. What’s more, Garrett let him have it before he even had a good look at who’d just then walked through the door. 

The myth lived on, but so did the mythical Billy, two or three or four of them, in fact. Stay with me on this because it’s worth the ride.

One of his postmortem manifestations lived around Zuni, NM, a great place to hide out since hardly anyone other than the Zuni themselves ever visited in the late 19th century. Just down the road was a town name Ramah, home to dozens of Mormon ranchers who stuck to themselves, as Mormons did back then. If you had to go incognito in the earliest years of the 20th century, some place between Zuni and Ramah would have been a dang good choice.

Now just about every good Western’s got a horse, as does this one. Now John Miller, who shoulda’ been dead because he was, once upon a time, Billy the Kid, was, some people say, living incognito down the road from the Zuni pueblo, a man, like any cattleman, loved horses.

The horse in this yarn out there in New Mexico, a thing of beauty and legends, was named John the Flyer, the quickest thing on hooves. John Miller, the outlaw had eyes for John the Flyer and let it be known among the white guys who met at the Zuni pueblo to spin yarns, that someday he’d have it, by hook or by crook, as the saying goes.

The guy who broke and owned John the Flyer bought him and another feisty mount from a missionary a couple days’ ride away, but then lost one of those fine horses when he took off and ran somewhere into eternity–which is an expression the owner wouldn’t have used because he was a preacher, a missionary, although it’s not recorded what he did say when that horse lit out.

Now the parson/missionary had come to New Mexico from Chicago, where he’d tended horses at a track, so he knew good ones when he’d spot ’em, and John the Flyer was just that. This man of the cloth was a rounder as a preacher, a missionary who descended on whoever would listen (and many who wouldn’t) with clear-throated admonitions to quit wicked ways and turn to Jesus. Indefatigable, he was, and no respecter of persons because everybody, red and white, got sermons.

That didn’t mean people listened. When he and his wife, Effy, finally settled across the river from the Zuni pueblo, most Sabbaths the two of them were just about the only living things who’d show up for worship. Empty rooms sucked the life out of him, and he got depressed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

One day right about then, John Miller, alias Billy, stood beside the preacher’s corral, admiring John the Flyer. Now the Parson had got wind of Billy’s designs, and, like Peter the disciple, he wasn’t a man to back away from confrontation, spiritual or otherwise. 

“What you want here, fella?” he might have said, something akin.

Miller probably told him he loved the horse, then looked straight as a razor at the preacher. “I was fixin’ to steal him,” John Miller said, right out front, “but then I realized he belonged to a preacher of the Word and that wouldn’t be a right thing to do to a man of God.” 

Right about then and there, at the corral, the two of them shook hands, and the missionary and the murderer became, well, good buddies, relatively speaking.

There’s more to tell.

Now you may think it’s a stretch to believe a fire-and-brimstone Calvinist on the Zuni pueblo got to be buddies with a rancher who once was a gunslinger none other than Billy the Kid. If you got doubts, quit now because there’s a couple more sharp turns, and one of ’em needs some room. Stay with me.

There’s a Zuni guy named Maricio, who got to liking the Vander Wagons. Once upon a time when a Zuni woman was thought to be demon-possessed, four local medicine men were there when Maricio brought the Vander Wagons to see if they couldn’t do what the locals couldn’t. Effa was a nurse, and therefore something of an angel when the pueblo went to battle with an influenza bug. Think of her as a kind of savior. Some did. 

That night, with four locals looking on, Effa administered some kind of medicine–history doesn’t record what. But that woman thought to be possessed was left behind by whatever ill possessed her. That healing, to Maricio, a was a miracle, so he started hanging around the mission. He knew good medicine when he saw it. Whether or not he became a Christian or even attended worship isn’t a chapter in this saga. Maricio liked the Vander Wagons. A lot.

So one day, John Miller/Billy the Kid asked Maricio why the missionary walked around the pueblo with such a long face. Maricio said it was because fiery Brother Andrew wasn’t seeing much success–the church was empty as a cave, day after day, night after night. 

Miller and the boys, the other ranchers, white guys, decided they’d fill a few seats, so they did. Sundays, ex-Billy the Kid did a long round trip to Zuni pueblo and back to attend worship led by Brimstone Brother Andrew. 

It is not recorded whether old Billy–or whoever he was–turned his heart over to the Lord, only that, at least for a time, he and his wife and son attended church services at the mission on Zuni pueblo–and that the two of them, Miller and the missionary got to be friends.

And that, my friends, is the story, as much as I know, at least.

Just one more thing. Andrew Vander Wagon was born in the Netherlands, where he lost a father. His mother received a letter from her sister in Michigan, advising her to come to America with her two boys. Life would be better, she said.

That sister was my great-grandmother, which means that somewhere on, Andrew Vander Wagon and I are family, which is why I can say today that I’d like to think, way back when, some long distant relative, a pioneer missionary in Zuni, New Mexico, used to preach the gospel to Billy the Kid.

That whole thing is a stretch, I know. But me and Uncle Andrew, and maybe you too—most all of us, I’d say, would like to say that grace too is a stretch, a whole lot of a stretch and a divine one at that.  You got to figure that in.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Why not?

  • mstair says:

    ” … grace too is a stretch, a whole lot of a stretch and a divine one at that. You got to figure that in.”
    Yes, we surely got to.
    Grateful for this morning’s smile and the great yarn…

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    Thanks for making the stretch and giving us a good story to read. My grandfather worked with several Indian Nations as my dad once told me that he knew the grandson of Geronimo. We all like to make connections.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Lies, lies, lies. All truer than truth. Wow, Jim. Someday you’ll pay–or be paid–for all those wonderful truth-filled lies. Blessings, jcd

  • Loren Veldhuizen says:

    I love a good story….and this is one. With a few excellent observations, as well, that make us linger over both the story and the maybes and the place of grace ???

  • Esther Bos says:

    Hey Cousin Jim!
    Thanks for giving me a colorful story for my family history. Andrew’s mother was my mother’s great great aunt! Since Andrew and Effa had 9 children, you may be hearing from a lot more relatives now.

    • James Schaap says:

      Esther, You should know that I discovered I was distantly related by way of the bio that Elaine Thomas wrote. That’s where I found the story that linked the Vander Wagens with Professor Hemkes’s family. I was delighted, since I knew something about the Reverend long before discovering that I might actually be relation.

      • Esther Brink Bos says:

        Knowing that my Dad was related to Rev. L.P. Brink, I was amazed to find the relationship to Andrew Vander Wagen on my mom’s side. So I wound up spending more time than intended on tracking both distant relationships. I had figured out that you were also related to Andrew. Is Elaine Thomas’ bio available somewhere?
        The SW Indian Mission Field has always been interesting to me because my dad spent years on the denominational mission board and visited N.M. several times.

        • Cat says:

          Elaine is my 2nd Aunt and her child, Andrew’s grand child, still runs the grocery store and the bed and breakfast. Her family history books are available for purchase there. It’s still located across from the heart of Zuni (although they opened another store in Black Rock) and the Vanderwagen name is still VERY well known. Some relatives still live around there in the town of, you guessed it, Vanderwagen. I’m related to both the Vanderwagen and to the Brink side. We have gone and served at the school and church Andrew started. I love this story and I love Zuni, this made me happy to see others getting joy out of it

  • Gordon and Ruth Kamps says:

    My wife, Ruth (Yff), and I may be some of a few who remember “Grandpa” and “Grandma” Van since we grew up and went to school with their grandkids. Ruth used to play with some of their children in the Vanderwagen house in Zuni. We could probably “stretch” a few tales. Great memories!

  • Nathan Stevens says:

    My grandmother’s last name (on my Dad’s side) was Mary Vanderwagen. I remember hearing stories about John the Flyer when I was growing up. If I remember correctly the horse got that name because it made an impossible jump over a gorge while Grandpa Vanderwagen was running away from a band of desperate individuals that he stumbled across in the desert.

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