BELEN, N.M. (KRQE) - It will be 111 years ago this Sunday that gunmen boarded a trainin Belen unleashing events that left most of a posse dead and bagsof money still buried in the desert of central New Mexico.
In 1898, Belen was a dusty agricultural town with dirt streetsalthough you could get most anything you could afford at thestores. Trains called at the Santa Fe station connecting thevillage to Albuquerque, El Paso and points beyond.
A little after 1 a.m. on May 24 two unwelcome passengers boardTrain 21 headed south from Albuquerque.
Guns in hand, William "Bronco Bill" Walters and "Kid" Johnsonordered 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, thecrew begged the gunmen to first throw the safe off the train, andthey did.
"And they blew it up," University of New Mexico historianRichard Meltzer told KRQE News 13. "Of course, Bronco Bill saidlater that money was flying out of the sky like it wassnowing."
The take was as much as $50,000 including big bags of silverdollars.
The bandits now faced a very long ride ahead that began withcrossing this mesa west of Belen. So some of the heavy bags of coinare quickly buried there.
Then the gunmen set out toward the Sierra Ladrones, desert peakswho name translates to Thieves Mountain.
In Belen Chief Deputy Francisco Vigil was trying to round up aposse.
"My father told me, Francisco Vigil was very brave," TiboChavez, a Vigil descendant, said. "No tenia miedo de nada, hewasn't afraid of anyone."
But in Valencia County no one else was brave enough to volunteerfor the posse except Vigil's cousin, Belen blacksmith DanielBustamante.
"Bustamante's wife didn't want him to go," Melzer said. "Shepleaded with him to stay because they had young children."
Still Bustamante saddled up.
"He had to go because of his friendship with Vigil," grandsonLeroy Bustamante said. "He had a very close relationship withVigil."
The robbers rode hard to the west covering 35 miles of desert.At the Puertocito trading post two rough-looking men ride in aroundlunch time carrying wads of cash and obviously in a big hurry.
"Kid Johnson stayed by the door to watch the horses, which wasseen by the people here to be a bit suspicious," Socorro historianPaul Harden said while walking around the ruins of the stonebuilding. "Bronco Bill Walters came into the counter, and heordered some sardines, some crackers and some wine.
"You can still find old sardine cans at the site. They must havebeen popular."
Deputy Vigil and Bustamante sped across the desert throughPuertocito and on to the Alamo Navajo reservation. There the tribevolunteered trackers, two of them with guns, to help the two-manposse.
"They had worked together and they were good friends and theyhelped each other," Lee Ganadonegro of the Alamo reservationsaid.
Finding the robbers camped in a creek bed the posse moved alongthe hillsides and quietly surrounded them.
Some want to just jump the gang while they slept, but accordingto Vigil's late nephew, Tibo Chavez Sr., Vigil felt that is not theaction 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 asurrender
"He felt he could handle it his way and that he knew enoughabout how to deal with people, he could get them to peaceablysurrender," Chavez said.
But the desperados instead grabbed for their rifles to fight offa 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 theKid who stashed more cash in a rocky crag and then head for Arizonaon foot.
Taking offense at the murder of their fellow lawmen two of thetoughest peace officers around--Jeff Milton and GeorgeScarborough--made it their personal mission to capture or killBronco Bill.
The railroad donated a private car to quickly move the possewherever the trail might lead.
Two months later they tracked down Bronco in Arizona in ashootout that left him badly wounded and killed Kid Johnson.
Bill was turned over to the United States marshal inAlbuquerque.
In a letter recently discovered at the UNM, Marshal C. M.Foraker told the U. S. attorney general, "It is with pleasure thatI beg leave to report the arrest of Bronco Bill. Kid Thompson waskilled. Bronco Bill was seriously wounded, but I think will comeout alive under skilful medical treatment."
Bill did live and was sent to the territorial pen. After hisrelease in 1917 he looked for the hidden loot but never foundit.
Riddled with old bullet wounds he could only get a job fixingwindmills. He fell off one, broke his neck and died.
Today lawman Vigil rests beneath a well-tended marker in LosLunas. Forty miles to the west a modest wooden plaque fading in theharsh sun sites the grave of blacksmith Daniel Bustamante, the lonevolunteer from Belen.
"It's something they had to do," Leroy Bustamante said. "Theydid it because they were the lawmen.
"They have to go get the bandits. Whatever they had to do, theyhad to go get them."
At the Alamo Navajo Reservation fathers still pass to sonssilver dollars abandoned by the fleeing gunmen.
Bags of the coins are still missing buried somewhere west ofBelen forever lost to the gunmen who stole far more than money fromthe people of Valencia County.
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