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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  September 2010

Having published a pair of books a few years ago about our area's rough and tumble history as part of the real Old West, we confess to being partial to such sagas. But even readers with only a passing interest in Southwestern outlaws will be riveted by Phyllis Reiche's painstakingly researched article — and tempted to go hunting for Bronco Bill's lost treasure.

A Grin and a Gun : The Saga of Bronco Bill

A true Wild West tale of outlaws, train robbery and buried treasure.

By Phyllis Reiche

On May 24, 1898. at 1:45 a.m., as the Santa Fe's southbound train #21 was being loaded at the station in Belen, NM, two men jumped aboard the engine. They looked young, with smooth, unmasked faces, and were wearing cowboy clothes and canvas jackets. They pulled weapons and pointed them at the engineer and the fireman as they ordered that the train be pulled up the track. The engineer complied at once, leaving the conductor behind. Shocked at being left, the conductor signaled repeatedly, but with no success. Then he tried running to catch up, but gave up when a bullet was fired in his direction from the train.

About two miles south of town, the engine stopped and the armed men unhooked the engine and express car from the rest of the train. They ordered them moved about another mile along the track. Here they demanded that the express car be opened. Once inside, along with a safe, they found a pie brought along for lunch. They took charge of it, cut it in pieces, and shared it with the their prisoners. They then pushed the safe over to the door, threw it out of the car, and blew it open with dynamite. Its contents flew in all directions. After them robbers finished gathering all that they could locate, they threw handfuls of silver coins amounting to more than $500 back to the engineer and fireman.

Moving away from the train, the robbers stumbled into some barbed wire and had to stop and untangle themselves. They then hurried on to where they'd left their horses, mounted, and rode off toward the southwest and the Ladrone Mountains. Wells Fargo officially stated that the men had gotten only about $500, which was the same figure the company usually gave, but the lawmen involved guessed it was more likely around $20,000, perhaps as high as $50,000.

One of the bandits was almost immediately identified as William "Kid" Johnson. The other turned out to be William Walters, better known as "Bronco Bill." They had pulled a few other jobs together, but this was almost certainly their most successful. It was also their last.

Although Kid Johnson's various outlaw activities had been reported in the papers, not a lot seems to have been known about him. He may have had family in the ranching business in the Luna Valley, or he may just have had a similar name. Apparently no one ever found him interesting enough to do a lot of investigating.

Bronco Bill, on the other hand, had a long, colorful reputation. Born in Oklahoma in 1869, he moved to Texas, and then to New Mexico when he was still very young. He always referred to himself as a cowboy and said he had supported himself at that since he was 11. He spent several years working on ranches in the Deming area. His boss at the Diamond A years later described him as having been a slender fellow who was a hard worker, happy-go-lucky, daring, fearless and tough, but not mean. He broke horses, fixed fences, cooked for the roundup, and did whatever else was needed — usually with a crooked grin on his face.

Unfortunately, Bill also enjoyed drinking and carousing, and that created problems. He seems to have first made the papers in 1889, when he was accused of stealing horses in Separ. Shortly after that there was an incident in Deming when his pals dared him to shoot a hole in Alice Parker's skirt. She was the telegraph operator for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and was just walking back to her quarters. Bill couldn't resist. He fired in the air, she began to run, and he fired another bullet through the back of her flaring skirt. Fortunately, he was a crack shot, and only the skirt was damaged.

During the 1890s his escapades became legend throughout the area — Silver City, Lordsburg, Mogollon — wherever he happened to be. He became familiar with all the jails. Bill also had a habit of making friends wherever he went, however, and inmates and jailers were no exception. Not only did he like to joke but he also delighted in music making and dancing for whatever audience he could find. During a stretch in the Silver City jail he seemed so harmless he was made a trusty, managed to escape, and made his way to Mexico. It was said that at Palomas he sent back the stolen horse he was riding with a note of thanks to its owner, as a friendly gesture.

But, a few weeks later, it took only a new acquaintance with a bottle to lure Bill back into the US on the pretext of needing a fiddler for a planned dance. That acquaintance turned out to be US Marshall Cipriano Baca, who arrested him as soon as they crossed the border. Back in Silver City, Bill was tried and sentenced in 1891 to a year in the state prison in Santa Fe. He was described in the records there as being 5-foot-9-inches tall with brown hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion. His crime was listed as drunkenness. It seems he again made friends in prison, and eight months into the sentence he was released after earning time for good behavior.

No doubt happy to be free, Bill returned briefly to his cowboy life, but by early 1896 he was being held in the Socorro jail for some offense. It was apparently a pretty laidback place — the Socorro paper complained frequently about the laxity at the jail. A.B. Baca, nephew of the famous Elfego Baca, remembered how much his mother, who was the jail cook, enjoyed watching Bill entertain anyone interested by singing and dancing for them. A.B.'s father was the jailer who escorted Bill out of jail on Saturday nights to play his harmonica at the local dances.

Near the end of February, though, all the prisoners escaped using a key they'd made from a table knife. A posse pursued and caught most of the men, but not Bronco Bill. A few weeks later he was almost apprehended in Deming while indulging in more mischief. He exchanged shots with two deputies, but managed to ride away with just a slight injury. In June, however, he was captured in El Paso and returned to Socorro. He was sentenced in December to 30 days in jail with a $2 fine for petty theft. Some months later he was tried in Roswell on attempted murder charges for shooting at the Deming deputies, but he was acquitted.

In the meanwhile, there were regular reports of Bill being a suspect in a variety of misdeeds. There was the train robbery involving several outlaws at the town of Rio Puerco in October 1896. That one sounds like a comedy of errors: The robbers boarded the train, then moved it up and down the track several times trying to disconnect the express car. When that failed they decided to blow up the safe, but by then they couldn't find the dynamite they'd hidden earlier. As they searched, a US marshall and some railroad agents who were on the train began shooting at them. After a short exchange of gunfire the outlaws gave up and rode away. One of them who had been struck by a bullet asked to be left behind and died a short time later. Law officers pursued the gang into the Mogollon Mountains, but found only the worn-out horses they'd exchanged as they moved farther into the wilderness.

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