Updated: Friday, 21 Aug 2009, 11:46 AM MDT
Published : Wednesday, 20 May 2009, 12:47 AM MDT
BELEN, N.M. (KRQE) - It will be 111 years ago this Sunday that gunmen boarded a train in Belen unleashing events that left most of a posse dead and bags of money still buried in the desert of central New Mexico.
In 1898, Belen was a dusty agricultural town with dirt streets although you could get most anything you could afford at the stores. Trains called at the Santa Fe station connecting the village to Albuquerque, El Paso and points beyond.
A little after 1 a.m. on May 24 two unwelcome passengers board Train 21 headed south from Albuquerque.
Guns in hand, William "Bronco Bill" Walters and "Kid" Johnson ordered the engineer to get going.
A couple miles down the track, the train stopped where bandit "Red' Pipkin waited with the horses.
To save the express car from the dynamite about to be lit, the crew begged the gunmen to first throw the safe off the train, and they did.
"And they blew it up," University of New Mexico historian Richard Meltzer told KRQE News 13. "Of course, Bronco Bill said later that money was flying out of the sky like it was snowing."
The take was as much as $50,000 including big bags of silver dollars.
The bandits now faced a very long ride ahead that began with crossing this mesa west of Belen. So some of the heavy bags of coin are quickly buried there.
Then the gunmen set out toward the Sierra Ladrones, desert peaks who name translates to Thieves Mountain.
In Belen Chief Deputy Francisco Vigil was trying to round up a posse.
"My father told me, Francisco Vigil was very brave," Tibo Chavez, a Vigil descendant, said. "No tenia miedo de nada, he wasn't afraid of anyone."
But in Valencia County no one else was brave enough to volunteer for the posse except Vigil's cousin, Belen blacksmith Daniel Bustamante.
"Bustamante's wife didn't want him to go," Melzer said. "She pleaded with him to stay because they had young children."
Still Bustamante saddled up.
"He had to go because of his friendship with Vigil," grandson Leroy Bustamante said. "He had a very close relationship with Vigil."
The robbers rode hard to the west covering 35 miles of desert. At the Puertocito trading post two rough-looking men ride in around lunch time carrying wads of cash and obviously in a big hurry.
"Kid Johnson stayed by the door to watch the horses, which was seen by the people here to be a bit suspicious," Socorro historian Paul Harden said while walking around the ruins of the stone building. "Bronco Bill Walters came into the counter, and he ordered some sardines, some crackers and some wine.
"You can still find old sardine cans at the site. They must have been popular."
Deputy Vigil and Bustamante sped across the desert through Puertocito and on to the Alamo Navajo reservation. There the tribe volunteered trackers, two of them with guns, to help the two-man posse.
"They had worked together and they were good friends and they helped each other," Lee Ganadonegro of the Alamo reservation said.
Finding the robbers camped in a creek bed the posse moved along the hillsides and quietly surrounded them.
Some want to just jump the gang while they slept, but according to Vigil's late nephew, Tibo Chavez Sr., Vigil felt that is not the action of "a man of honor".
During the night the Navajo trackers led away the bandits' horses, and at dawn Vigil stood up in full view to order a surrender
"He felt he could handle it his way and that he knew enough about how to deal with people, he could get them to peaceably surrender," Chavez said.
But the desperados instead grabbed for their rifles to fight off a posse armed only with pistols.
When the smoke cleared Vigil, Bustamante and a tracker are dead. The surviving Navajos rode for help.
During the shootout the posse wounded both Bronco Bill and the Kid who stashed more cash in a rocky crag and then head for Arizona on foot.
Taking offense at the murder of their fellow lawmen two of the toughest peace officers around--Jeff Milton and George Scarborough--made it their personal mission to capture or kill Bronco Bill.
The railroad donated a private car to quickly move the posse wherever the trail might lead.
Two months later they tracked down Bronco in Arizona in a shootout that left him badly wounded and killed Kid Johnson.
Bill was turned over to the United States marshal in Albuquerque.
In a letter recently discovered at the UNM, Marshal C. M. Foraker told the U. S. attorney general, "It is with pleasure that I beg leave to report the arrest of Bronco Bill. Kid Thompson was killed. Bronco Bill was seriously wounded, but I think will come out alive under skilful medical treatment."
Bill did live and was sent to the territorial pen. After his release in 1917 he looked for the hidden loot but never found it.
Riddled with old bullet wounds he could only get a job fixing windmills. He fell off one, broke his neck and died.
Today lawman Vigil rests beneath a well-tended marker in Los Lunas. Forty miles to the west a modest wooden plaque fading in the harsh sun sites the grave of blacksmith Daniel Bustamante, the lone volunteer from Belen.
"It's something they had to do," Leroy Bustamante said. "They did it because they were the lawmen.
"They have to go get the bandits. Whatever they had to do, they had to go get them."
At the Alamo Navajo Reservation fathers still pass to sons silver dollars abandoned by the fleeing gunmen.
Bags of the coins are still missing buried somewhere west of
Belen forever lost to the gunmen who stole far more than money from
the people of Valencia County.